Excerpt: Murder in a Mill Town
Book 2: Nell Sweeney Mysteries
September 1868: Boston
“We quarreled last March,” said Nell Sweeney in a manfully deep, working class English accent–or her best attempt at one–embellished with just the slightest quaver of lunacy. Reaching up to prevent her colossal papier-mache top hat from sliding off her head, she added, “Just before he went mad, you know. It was at the great–“
“Point! Point!” Gracie Hewitt sprang up from her little gilt chair at the head of the nursery tea table. “You s’posed to point at the March Hare with your spoon.”
“Oh, yes.” How could Nell have forgotten, after the scores of times she’d been obliged to read aloud–and, more recently, perform–Gracie’s favorite scenes from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. She lifted the dainty silver spoon from its place next to her miniature gold-rimmed, bone-china tea cup. “Have a seat, then, like a proper young lady, and I shall continue.”
The little girl sat back down, fluffing up her white pinafore. A copy of that worn by Alice in Mr. Tenniel’s illustrations, it was Gracie’s first sewing project, crafted with Nell’s guidance but entirely by her own plump little four-year-old hands. The stitches were wide-spaced and irregular, the tucking disastrous, the hem puckered. Gracie, bless her heart, wore it with as much unalloyed pleasure as if it were from the House of Worth.
“We quarreled last March–just before he went mad, you know.” Nell aimed her teaspoon across the table at Albert, the lovingly tattered stuffed rabbit who’d been cast as the March Hare in this morning’s production. She stole a glance at the book, wedged open by the teapot, to confirm the wording of the next bit. “It was at the great concert given by the Queen of Hearts, and I had to sing–” she cleared her voice dramatically “‘–Twinkle, twinkle, little bat. How I wonder what you’re at.’ You know the song, perhaps?”
“I’ve heard something like it.” Not only had Gracie committed her lines to memory, but she spoke them with a subtle, and remarkably credible, upper-crust British inflection–a spot-on imitation of her beloved “Nana,” Viola Hewitt. The effect was uncanny, putting Nell in mind not so much of Viola, but of Viola’s eldest son, William. Same inky hair, same watchful eyes and knowing little smile… And when she spoke with that accent–milder than that of Will, who’d been brought up and educated in England, but close enough–it sent shivers up Nell’s spine.
I’ll be seeing you, Nell, he’d told her that day in Mount Auburn Cemetery just before he’d turned and walked away into the cold morning sunshine. That was five months ago–and of course she hadn’t seen him. The circumstances that had thrown them together for those few weeks last winter had been extraordinary. She couldn’t imagine a situation in which their paths were likely to cross again. Dr. William Hewitt, his medical degree notwithstanding, was a professional gambler and dope fiend. For all Nell knew, he’d dissolved like a wisp of opium smoke into the back alleys of Shanghai, never to be seen again.
That prospect filled her with a curious fusion of despair and relief. She should be glad to be quit of him, adept as he was at scratching open her deeply buried past. She should thank God he was gone and pray that he never returned.
“Miseeney!” Little hands slapped impatiently at the damask tablecloth as Gracie bobbed up and down in her seat. “You got to finish the song, so I can say my line.” Her favorite line, she meant. “I said, ‘I’ve heard something like it.’ Now you say–“
“Yes, I know.” Resuming her Mad Hatter voice, Nell said, “It goes on, you know, in this way. ‘Up above the world you fly, Like a tea-tray–‘”
A knock on the nursery door made them both start: two loud raps, bony knuckles striking oak with staccato force–once! twice!–followed by a reverberating silence.
Gracie pulled a face. Even she recognized the distinctive door-knock of Mrs. Mott, the aging housekeeper who governed the Hewitts’ Tremont Street mansion with despotic zeal–although her visits to the third-floor nursery were blessedly few and far between.
Nell reached up to remove her Mad Hatter headgear, hesitated, and merely tilted it to a rakish angle, causing Gracie to gasp in delighted anticipation of Mrs. Mott’s reaction to such deviltry. It was a ridiculously tall hat with a flared crown in the continental style, very similar to that in the Tenniel illustrations, right down to the price tag reading In this Style 10/6. Nell and Gracie had made it together one blissfully rainy afternoon, out of flour paste, rabbit wire, blue and yellow paint, and a torn-up copy of the Daily Advertiser.
Nell opened the door with a flourish, gripping the hat’s brim to keep it from falling off. “Mrs. Mott. What a rare pleasure. Do come in.”
The black-clad housekeeper stood unmoving in the doorway, her mouth as pale and tight as an old knife scar as she took in Nell’s headwear. Looking away with an ostentatious lack of expression, she said, “Your presence is required in the Red Room.” Your presence is required, not Mrs. Hewitt asks if you wouldn’t please join her in the Red Room, which Nell was quite sure was how her employer had worded it.
“I’ll be down shortly.”
“Immediately, if you please.” The wording nettled Nell, implying as it did that Mrs. Mott had the right to issue her orders. As Gracie’s nursery governess–and Viola’s de facto companion–Nell was neither servant nor gentlewoman, but that most rare and singular of creatures, a respectable working woman. She answered not to Mrs. Mott, like the rank and file household staff, but to Viola Hewitt, who accorded her a refreshing autonomy in the exercise of her duties.
Mrs. Mott surveyed the nursery as she did every room she entered, with a mechanically smooth swivel of her head reminiscent of a hawk scanning the terrain in search of something on which to pounce. It was a large room, decorated by Gracie’s indulgent Nana to resemble a sitting room at Versailles, with an ornately carved, cherub-adorned ceiling, etched mirrors in gilt frames, and acres of gleaming floral damask in shades of ivory, shell pink and sea green. Nell knew precisely what the grim old lady was thinking as she took in this frothy opulence: All this for a housemaid’s unwanted bastard.
When Viola Hewitt made the decision four years ago to rear the newborn Gracie as her own, she’d had to fend off disapproval on every front. No one, however, had been more appalled than Evelyn Mott. The third generation of her family to serve the Hewitts, she prostrated herself at the altar of good breeding and its ancillary virtue, proper comportment. She suffered no deviations from propriety on the part of her household staff, and had become, by all accounts, apoplectic upon discovering that the maid Annie McIntyre was with child; for, although Annie was married, her husband had been at war when Gracie was conceived. Viola’s intervention, much resented by Mrs. Mott, had saved Annie’s reputation and livelihood; she worked for the Astors in New York now, as did her husband. More important, it had kept Gracie from ending up in the county poor house, where, as Nell knew all too well, she would have been lucky to survive to her first birthday.
Mrs. Mott concluded her inspection by peering through her diminutive spectacles at the little girl whose existence so tainted her carefully regulated domain. Did she know who had actually fathered Gracie? The child’s resemblance to Will grew stronger day by day–especially now that she was beginning to sprout so; she was as tall as some of the six- and seven-year-olds with whom she played every afternoon in the Common and Public Gardens. Mrs. Mott must at least suspect the truth, that Viola had adopted Gracie in part because the child had been fathered by her own son. Not that this would lessen the housekeeper’s distaste for the little interloper. Quite the opposite, given how Mrs. Mott felt about Will.
“You should instruct the child not to stare at her elders,” said Mrs. Mott. Before Nell could point out, probably unwisely, that Gracie was only staring back, the housekeeper said, “And you might dress her in something presentable if you intend to bring her down. Mrs. Hewitt has callers.”
Gracie, frowning in confusion, inspected her lovingly ill-made pinafore. With any luck, she wouldn’t understand the comment–and wouldn’t make Nell explain.
Nell didn’t bother asking what she was supposed to have done with Gracie other than bring her down, since it was her job to look after her, and she wasn’t about to leave her unattended. Miss Edna Parrish, the octogenarian nursemaid who’d cared for both Viola and her four boys, often helped with Gracie when Nell had other business to attend to, but she preferred to devote her mornings to needlework and her Bible.
“Who are the callers?” Nell asked.
“A male and a female. Common types, rather ill turned out. Irish, from the sound of them. It occurred to me they might be relations of yours–your parents, perhaps.”
“My parents are deceased.” Her mother was, at any rate, and her father may as well be. “I’ve no one else.”
“Don’t you?” Mrs. Mott said knowingly.
That caught Nell off guard. She groped for a response, thinking, Don’t let her know about Duncan. Anything but that.
The housekeeper let a few long seconds pass, as if hoping Nell would fill in the silence with some intriguing disclosure, but Nell had learned that little trick, and kept mum.
“I thought Mrs. Hewitt had mentioned a brother,” Mrs. Mott said. “Or did I mishear?”
Nell let out her pent-up breath as silently as she could. “Yes. I mean, no, you didn’t mishear. I have a brother, Jamie. James. Or had–I haven’t seen him in years. Why would you think the visitors are related to me? There are thousands of Irish in Boston.”
“I daresay.” Mrs. Mott’s nose twitched, as if she’d just caught a whiff of something putrid. “But not many who’d have the cheek to walk right up to the front door of a house like this, instead of round the back. Fewer still who’d manage to get themselves served tea in the Red Room.” Turning, she said, “Don’t dawdle.”
“What does that mean–pwesentable?” Gracie asked after the housekeeper had left. “Does it mean like a pwesent?”
“Something like that,” Nell hedged. “I think she meant you ought to wear a fancier frock. But your pinafore is so very pretty, and Nana loves it. Best you stay as you are, I think.”
That seemed to please Gracie, who stood and let Nell tidy her plaited hair so she’d look pretty for Viola. Buffing her right shoe against her stockinged left leg, the child said, “Doesn’t she know my name?”
“Yes.” Nell licked her fingertips to smooth down the stubborn little stray tendrils.
“Then why does she always call me ‘The Child’?”
For the same reason she called Gabrielle Bouchard, Mrs. Hewitt’s nurse, “The Negress.” To ignore a person’s name was to ignore–or deny–her very humanity. “She’s old,” Nell told Gracie as she retied her blue hair ribbon. “Old people forget things.”
“You’re old, and you don’t forget things.”
“I’m twenty-six. Mrs. Mott is…” Twice as old? Three times? “Much older.”
“No, no!” Gracie protested when Nell started to take off the ridiculous hat. “We not done.”
“Buttercup, Nana is downstairs waiting for–“
“Just till my line,” Gracie pleaded, reseating herself at the table.
“Oh, all right. Let’s see…” Adjusting her hat, she sat down and sang, “Up above the world you fly, like a tea-tray in the sky.”
Gracie lifted the Dormouse, played by a little mouse-shaped cast iron doorstop on the chair next to her, and made it move around a bit while making yawning sounds. In a squeaky mouse voice, she said, “Twinkle, twinkle, twinkle, twinkle…”
“Well, I’d hardly finished the first verse,” Nell continued, “when the Queen jumped up and bawled out, ‘He’s murdering the time! Off with his head!'”
Here came Gracie’s favorite line, delivered with a sniffy dispassion that would have done the most venerable Brahmin matron proud: “How dweadfully savage.”
Viola’s private withdrawing room in the Hewitt home–an imposing mansion on Tremont Street’s “Colonnade Row” section, facing Boston Common–was an Oriental-inspired haven furnished with exotic antiques and silken hangings in shades of vermilion, magenta, and cinnabar. The south wall was dominated by an immense seventeenth-century Japanese screen depicting a hawk in the snow against a sky of brilliantly burnished gold leaf. Before this wall, on the majestically carved Japanese chair that Nell called the “Lion Chair” and Gracie the “Thwone,” sat Viola Lindleigh Hewitt.
A tall, angular lady with lightly silvered black hair, Viola was the kind of female often described as “handsome.” She had on her bronze silk day dress this morning–sans crinoline, as always–ornamented with two armloads of bone and ivory bracelets. From the ease with which she reclined in the regal chair, one would never guess that her legs were all but useless, having withered away following a bout of infantile paralysis ten years ago. The only hint as to her infirmity would be the two ivory-handled folding canes hooked to the back of the chair.
“Nana!” Gracie squealed as Nell led her into the room. She launched herself–and the horde of dolls she’d hauled along to play with–onto Viola’s lap for the warm hug she knew she could always count on.
Across the room sat a middle-aged couple, their humble attire a striking contrast to the lush velvet couch on which they sat. What Nell could see of the woman’s hair beneath her shabby bonnet was like wiry steel that had been left out in the rain to rust. Her nose was ruddy, her eyes red-rimmed. In her hand she clutched a damp lavender handkerchief that Nell recognized as Viola’s.
The woman nudged the man, causing the tea in his cup to slosh onto the saucer. He shot her a look. She glanced at Nell and jerked her chin upward, whereupon he hauled himself to his feet, ducking his head in an unpracticed attempt at a bow. Black Irish he was, with pockmarked cheeks and outsized ears. Nell acknowledged the gesture with a nod and a reassuring smile. He glanced at his wife–there was no mistaking that this was a married couple–who motioned him back down.
“What a darlin’ little girl,” praised the woman. There was just a whisper of Ireland in her voice, an age-softened but unmistakable lilt. “Your granddaughter, ma’am?”
“I adopted her, actually,” Viola replied in her pleasantly sandy, British-accented voice. A deliberately misleading answer, of course, since Gracie really was her granddaughter. “Always did want a little girl–four sons will do that to you–and then, just when I’d accepted that I’d never have one, along came Gracie. One of the happiest days of my life.”
“Ah.” The woman’s uncertain smile betrayed her surprise that a lady of Viola Hewitt’s position would adopt a child; bloodlines meant everything in Boston society.
Easing the child down from her lap and turning her to face her callers, Viola said, “Gracie, this is Mr. and Mrs. Fallon.”
“How do you do?” said the child, who’d only recently overcome her shyness with strangers.
Mrs. Fallon displayed a mouthful of crooked teeth. “Why, ain’t you a regular little doll. Knows her manners, she does.”
“Thanks to Miss Sweeney.” Viola gestured Nell into the armchair next to her. As she took her seat, Nell noticed Mrs. Fallon appraising her over the rim of her teacup. Nell’s wardrobe, chosen and paid for by Viola, tended toward understated refinement, epitomized by today’s fashionably sleek dove gray dress, the sole adornment for which was Nell’s omnipresent gold pendant watch. Her auburn mane had been twisted this morning into a fat chignon secured by a pair of pearl-tipped hair picks–a gift from Viola for her birthday last month.
Mrs. Fallon looked as if she didn’t know quite what to make of a girl with an Irish surname who dressed so elegantly and held a position traditionally held by patrician young women from good families–meaning rich and Protestant–who’d found themselves in reduced circumstances. It was a look Nell was accustomed to; she’d learned to find it amusing.
“Mrs. Fallon,” Viola said as Gracie settled down at her feet, fiddling with her dolls, “why don’t you tell Nell what you’ve just told me.”
The Fallons stared at Nell, clearly as baffled as she as to why Viola had summoned her. “It’s our girl,” Mrs. Fallon said. “Our daughter, Bridie. Well, Bridget, really, but we call her Bridie.”
“Her daughter,” Mr. Fallon interjected, with a nod toward his wife; his brogue was stronger than hers. “My stepdaughter.”
In a low, strained voice, Mrs. Fallon said, “What godly difference does that make, Liam?”
He raised his hands in a placating gesture. “Just settin’ things straight.”
“My daughter, then. She turned up missing three days ago–Sunday it was. The coppers think she run off with her fella, but I know her better than that. She wouldn’t never just up and leave like that–never.”
Her husband cocked a skeptical eyebrow. Nell glanced at Gracie to see how much of this she was absorbing, but she seemed to be intent on trying to force a miniature baby bottle into the mouth of her favorite doll.
Mrs. Fallon slid a hard glance in her husband’s direction before continuing. “The cops, they won’t do nothin’, so we went to Mr. Harry, thinking they’d be sure to help if he told ’em to, but he said it wasn’t none of his concern.”
Harry? Nell aimed a quizzical look at Viola. Harry Hewitt was the second eldest of her three remaining sons. The youngest, Martin, the last to still live at home, was pursuing his Masters in Divinity at Harvard University. Next oldest was the late Robbie, who died four years ago at the notorious Andersonville prison camp in Georgia. Viola’s eldest, Will, the black sheep, had been missing since his own stint at Andersonville, except for those brief weeks last winter when he resurfaced with a murder charge hanging over his head.
That left Harry, the wildly profligate middle son, to help run–if only nominally–his father’s two hugely lucrative businesses: Hewitt Shipping and Hewitt Mills and Dye Works. Harry served as general manager of the latter, an enormous textile factory just across the river to the north in Charlestown. In fact, he was more or less a figurehead; Nell would have been surprised if he knew any more about dying and weaving than she did. His father, August Hewitt, governed the more complex and demanding shipping concern.
“Mr. and Mrs. Fallon live in Charlestown, and Bridie works at the mill,” Viola explained. “That was why they thought Harry might be able to help.”
Able? Probably. Willing? Harry Hewitt cared about Harry Hewitt. By his own admission, there was little in life he deemed worthy of effort aside from the pursuit of simple animal gratification. Once one has absorbed that essential truth, he told her last winter, when they were still on speaking terms, it’s actually quite liberating. The rules that keep others on a short leash don’t exist for you–as they shouldn’t, because they’re arbitrary and suffocating, most of them. Everything becomes possible. Nothing is taboo.
“We went to Mr. Harry’s office at the mill,” Mrs. Fallon said, “but like I said, he didn’t see where it was none of his business. He said if the cops thought she run off with Virgil, she probably did.”
Nell said, “Virgil…?”
“Hines.” Mrs. Fallon grimaced. “A handsome enough brute, but a right bad egg. Got out of prison last May, and by the end of the month, him and my Bridie was stuck together like they’d been glued. Can’t imagine what she seen in him.”
“The state prison in Charlestown?” Nell asked.
Mrs. Fallon nodded. Her husband said, “It’s just down the road from the mill there.”
“Why do you ask?” Viola wanted to know.
Because that’s where Duncan is. Nell smoothed her skirts, hearing Duncan’s most recent letter to her, the one that came last Friday when she was wearing this same dress, crackle in her pocket. “No particular reason.”
“Don’t see how you can call him handsome,” said Mr. Hines, “what with them stars on his forehead.”
“Stars?” Nell asked.
“He was in the Navy during the war,” Mrs. Fallon explained. “Got one of them, what do you call ’em, where they prick a pitcher into your skin.”
“A tattoo,” Viola said. “Seamen like to get them.”
“Yes, I know, on their arms,” Nell said. “But the forehead?”
Mrs. Fallon shrugged. “Like I says, I got no idea what she seen in him.”
“How old is she?” Nell asked.
“And she lives with you?”
Mrs. Fallon said “Yes,” Mr. Fallon “No.”
Nell cocked her head, as if to ask, Which is it?
Darting a look at her husband, Mrs. Fallon said, “She did live in Boston for a while–the North End–but she’s been back home all summer.”
“Because of Mr. Hines?” Nell asked. “To be near him?”
“I reckon,” Mrs. Fallon answered after a short pause.
Nell said, “I assume, Mrs. Fallon, that if the police believe your daughter ran off with Mr. Hines, that he’s gone, too.”
“No one’s seen him round Charlestown the past few days,” Mrs. Fallon replied, “but that don’t mean Bridie run off with him–least, not of her own accord. She’s a good girl, she is. Deep down.”
That met with a dubious little grunt from Liam Fallon. Ignoring it–or too distressed to notice–his wife said, “My Bridie, she’s got the prettiest red hair you ever seen–shines like heaven itself when the sun hits it just right. Big green eyes, pink cheeks… If something’s happened to her…” She lowered her head, dabbing her face with the wadded-up handkerchief, her shoulders shaking.
Her husband plucked a tea sandwich from the stack on the table in front of him and pried it open, critically examining its contents.
Just as Nell was about to rise from her chair to go comfort the poor woman, Gracie said, “Why you cwyin’?” She crossed to Mrs. Fallon, baby doll in tow. “It’s all wight,” she soothed. “Don’t cwy. Here, you want to hold Hortense?”
She offered the doll to the weeping woman, who accepted it in that instinctively maternal way some women had, automatically supporting its little head as she held it to her shoulder. “This is just how my Bridie felt,” she said tremulously, “when she was little like this, all heavy and soft. My other babes, they was all sickly. Wasn’t none of ’em lived very long. But that Bridie, she was as hale and hearty as they come.”
“Good girl,” Nell mouthed to Gracie as the child settled back down with her other dolls.
“When the Fallons realized Harry wasn’t going to help them,” Viola told Nell, “they decided to go to Mr. Hewitt himself.”
“We went down to that building near India Wharf where he has his office,” Mrs. Fallon said as she patted the doll’s back, “but he wouldn’t see us. Sent some fella out to swat us away. Fella said if Mr. Harry didn’t think there was nothin’ to be done, then there was nothin’ to be done. I asked him what Mr. Hewitt would do if it was his child that disappeared, but he said I was bein’…somethin’…”
“Important,” her husband offered through a mouthful of food.
“Impertinent?” Viola ventured.
“That’s it. He walked us out of the building and told us not to come back.”
“How dweadfully savage,” Gracie said.
All eyes turned to her.
“Come here, buttercup.” Gracie climbed onto the lap of her governess, who whispered into her ear, “It is dreadfully savage, but you must remember not to speak when the adults are having a conversation.”
“Mrs. Fallon thought if she came here,” Viola said, “and appealed to me as a mother, that she might find a more sympathetic ear.”
And, clearly, so she had.
“Have you asked your daughter’s friends and associates if they know where she might be?” Nell inquired.
Mrs. Fallon nodded as she stroked the doll’s back. “I musta talked to everyone in Charlestown, or tried to. Some of ’em, like them girls she worked with at the mill, they wouldn’t give me the time of day. Others, they’d talk, but there wasn’t much they could tell me. One day Bridie’s there, the next day she ain’t. She just up and disappeared. Went off to work Saturday mornin’ and just never come home.”
“Saturday?” Nell said. “I thought you said she disappeared Sunday.”
“Ah.” Spots of pink blossomed on Mrs. Fallon’s cheeks. “Fact is, she, uh, well…”
“She didn’t never come home on Saturday nights,” her husband said. “That Virgil, he’d meet her at work and them two would head off somewheres to…well…”
“I see,” Nell said. “But she usually returns the following day?”
“Every Sunday evenin’ by six o’clock,” Mrs. Fallon said, “on account of that’s when Virgil has to have Ollie Fuller’s cart back to him.”
“Ollie’s a coal dealer up in Charlestown,” her husband explained, “but he don’t work on the Sabbath, so he lets Virgil rent his cart from sundown on Saturday to sundown on Sunday.”
“Where do they go in the cart?” Nell asked.
Mrs. Fallon shook her head. “She didn’t like to talk to me about it. She knew how I felt. Father Dunne at Immaculate Conception keeps askin’ why she ain’t in church on Sundays. What am I supposed to tell him?”
“I still say Jimmy might know somethin’ about all this,” Mr. Fallon told his wife. “If you really want to find her, you’ll ask–“
“I said I’d do the talkin’,” she muttered. “Didn’t I say I’d do the talkin’?”
“Jimmy?” Nell asked.
“He isn’t important,” Mrs. Fallon answered quickly.
“He’s Bridie’s husband,” Mr. Fallon said.
Mrs. Fallon glared at her husband, her blush deepening to a livid, blotchy stain.
“Ah,” said Viola.
“Curiouser and curiouser,” Gracie said.