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Madam Sibyl's First Client: A Victorian San Francisco Story, page 1


Madam Sibyl's First Client: A Victorian San Francisco Story

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Madam Sibyl's First Client: A Victorian San Francisco Story

  Madam Sibyl’s First Client

  O’Farrell Street Boarding House

  San Francisco, February 8, 1878

  By M. Louisa Locke

  Copyright 2014 Mary Louisa Locke

  Cover design Copyright 2014 Michelle Huffaker

  Kindle Edition

  This short story is based on characters from the full-length novels in Locke's Victorian San Francisco Mystery series, Maids of Misfortune, Uneasy Spirits, and Bloody Lessons.

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


  Annie Fuller peered into the mirror that hung over the washstand, trying to see if all signs of her own reddish blond hair were safely hidden away under the wig of black curls resting uncomfortably on her head. She’d found the mirror in the attic, but it was so mottled that she felt like she was looking at an image through muddy water. The fact that this small back room had only one lamp, sitting on the desk behind her, didn’t help matters. She walked over to the room’s one window, which faced the hedge separating her home from the neighbors, and opened the curtains. At nearly four in a February afternoon, little light seeped into the room. What did seep in was the cold. She quickly closed the curtains and shivered.

  Pulling a paisley cashmere shawl from the back of the desk chair, she draped it around her shoulders. When she returned to the mirror, she saw that the shawl’s intricate design of scarlet, gray, and gold stood out in sharp relief against her severe black silk. The shawl was one of several she found in a trunk up in the attic, probably brought back from India by the sea-faring grandfather she’d never known. Annie welcomed its warmth since the single layer of silk in the sleeves of her dress exposed her to every draft, and she didn’t want to waste money with a fire in the fireplace. Not when she was about to move through to the small adjoining parlor in a few minutes. Shivering again, she sighed. She was so tired of pinching pennies. But “needs must,” as her mother would say. Turning the San Francisco home she’d inherited from her aunt into a boarding house had eaten up all her capital, and running it was proving more expensive than she’d calculated. For now, she would have to make do with mottled mirrors and cold hearths.

  Annie tugged once more at the wig, which was made of human hair and cost her the outrageous sum of $15. An entire dress at the White House dry goods store cost less, if she had been willing to spend any money at all on clothing. No, as long as the black dresses the Fullers, her former in-laws, paid to have made for her four years ago held up, she was fine. The only reason they’d spent so much money on outfitting her widowhood was that she’d lived with them for the first six months after her husband John’s death. They knew the clothing on her back advertised their own wealth and supposed generosity towards the bereaved and penniless Annie. After they sent her off to live as an unpaid “companion” with a series of other Fuller relatives, their generosity ended. Once upon a time, she wore lovely silks of pastel hues or rich jewel tones that complemented her pale complexion and chestnut brown eyes. Once upon a time, before she’d lost her father, her fortune, and then her husband.

  Annie shook her head in disgust at her self-pity but stopped when she thought she felt the wig slip. This reminded her of one of the relatives she stayed with, the ancient but vain great-aunt Hortense, and she chuckled. The poor old dear insisted on wearing a partial wig of blond curls that were supposed to cluster over her ears in the fashion of the 1840s, but her white hair had gone so thin that the switch kept sliding sideways so that one mass of curls lay at the top of her head and the other under her chin.

  Picking up a hairpin, Annie added it to the others, tethering the wig more snuggly, just to make sure. She was nervous enough about the upcoming interview with her first client, without worrying that her wig was going to fall off. At least the thick white powder and red rouge she’d applied to her skin sufficiently aged her. if her image in the mottled mirror was any indication. What respectable businessman was going to pay to get financial advice from a woman in her mid-twenties? She shook her head again at the absurdity of her own thoughts. Why should she worry that it was her youth that would undermine the success of this mad venture? Why would anyone take her seriously, no matter what her age, as a clairvoyant called Madam Sibyl?


  Downstairs in the basement kitchen of the O’Farrell Street boarding house, Beatrice O’Rourke carefully wiped the flour from her hands with a damp cloth. Draping the cloth over the bowl holding the dough she had just finished kneading, she placed it on the shelf above the cast iron stove. The rising heat would ensure the dough would be ready to be punched down and turned into dinner rolls within the hour. She absently rubbed her aching wrists and then turned to the young housemaid sitting at the scarred wooden table in the center of the room, peeling potatoes to put around the roast.

  “Kathleen, dearie, best get ready to answer the door. The gentleman who is coming to see Mrs. Fuller should be here any minute.”

  Kathleen nodded, her dark curls bouncing, and she rose and went briskly over to wash her hands at the kitchen sink. Looking over her shoulder, she said, “Should I keep him waiting in the hallway while I announce him, do you think? I don’t believe Mrs. Fuller said.”

  Beatrice thought back to the list of instructions her mistress, Annie Fuller, had given Kathleen about how to greet Madam Sibyl’s first client, and she replied, “No, she said that you should take him directly into the small parlor. She’ll have heard the door bell and be sitting at that table near the back of the room. She said it’s terrible important to keep the folks who are coming to see Madam Sibyl from running into the boarders. So you be sure to check that no one is in the hall or on the stairs.”

  “Yes, ma’am. And I’m to take their coats and wraps once they are in the parlor and hang them up there instead of the front hall coat stand. I remember now. Funny thing, Mrs. Fuller said to me that she wanted a chance to see what they looked like in their outdoor things. Wonder why?”

  Beatrice shook her head. “It’s not our place to question the mistress. She has her reasons. Did you get the fire ready to light?”

  “Yes, ma’am, and I put the lamp up on that pedestal behind the table, so’s the light would shine at Mrs. Fuller’s back, and closed the curtains like she asked. Even with the fire going, that parlor room is going to be awful dark. I guess that’s what she wants. She told me she’s kinda nervous about someone recognizing her through her disguise.”

  Kathleen went over and started drying the dishes left over from the mid-afternoon tea.

  Beatrice watched approvingly. When Mrs. Fuller had asked her to find a housemaid to help set up the boarding house, she’d sent word to Kathleen, who she’d heard good things about from a number of her friends among the Irish domestics in the city. Kathleen had been in service since she was orphaned at twelve, and she helped her mother take in laundry in the years before that, so she certainly knew her job. She would only turn sixteen next month, but she had a good head on her shoulders, and she was a steady worker. Some girls in service would use every chance they got to just sit and gossip, but Kathleen always kept busy. Thank goodness. There were only the two of them to handle the seven boarders: the Steins, the older couple who were long time friends of Annie’s aunt and uncle, Miss Pinehurst, who worked in a fancy restaurant, Mr. Harvey and Mr. Chapman, two clerks sharing the smallest room on the second floor, and the Misses Moffet, elderly seamstresses who re
cently moved into the attic. Beatrice herself had a nice tidy room on that attic floor and was glad to have the company up there. They seemed nice enough old ladies, although that Miss Minnie could talk your ear off.

  Not that she had much occasion to run into any of the boarders, since as cook and housekeeper she didn’t get out of the kitchen much from early in the morning until late at night. It was Kathleen who ran up and downstairs, lighting fires, dusting and polishing, serving at table, and helping out in the kitchen. Beatrice held that very same job in this very house nearly thirty years ago when she had moved to San Francisco with Mrs. Fuller’s aunt and uncle, the Waterstones. Back then Annie and her parents had shared the house with the Waterstones, but there’d been a second parlor maid, a lady’s maid, and a cook to share the attic rooms and the work with her. Those days had been grand. Even a decade later when Beatrice returned to work for the Waterstones—after her own husband died—there’d still been a maid and a manservant to help out, and only the two old folks to care for. No, Kathleen didn’t have it easy, neither of them did.

  But it wasn’t Mrs. Fuller’s fault. Six months ago, when Annie arrived at the O’Farrell house, she’d looked like one of the city’s stiff winds could blow her away. Come all the way from Boston on the train, she’d said, and Beatrice doubted she’d had anything to eat the whole way. Poor thing looked like a lost soul. Beatrice didn’t know the whole story of what happened to Annie Fuller back east, but for certain, being widowed when she was only twenty wasn’t the half of it. Thank goodness, with a little of Beatrice’s wholesome food in her, the brave lass had perked right up. Before you knew it, she’d decided to try to make money by taking in boarders, rolling up her sleeves and working right along side Beatrice and Kathleen to get the house ready for people to move in. She even went without to make sure that there was good food, clean linens, and warm fires for her boarders and a decent wage for Beatrice and Kathleen. No, Beatrice was proud of her young mistress. Life had handed her sorrow but she greeted each day with a smile. If only this daft new plan of hers worked and the gentleman would be the first of many willing to pay good money to have their palms read by a fortune-teller called Madam Sibyl.


  Upstairs, on the second floor, Esther Stein frowned over her knitting and said to her husband, “Herman, I just don’t understand how you can be so easy about what Annie is doing…dressing up like a gypsy and pretending to read palms and tell people their futures based on some ridiculous notion that the stars determine your future.”

  Esther, whose love of good food and loose corseting meant that her embroidered burgundy silk was tailored more for comfort than fashion, sat across from her husband in one of the two upholstered arm chairs that were grouped beside the sitting room fireplace. This room with the deep-pile Aubusson carpet, ornately carved wooden mantel, and high ceilings with crown molding and plaster medallions, held some of her favorite pieces of furniture from their former home. Esther thought that her old friend Agatha Waterstone, whose sitting room this had been for over a quarter of a century, would approve. Herman had been named executor of the Waterstone’s estate, and when Agatha died, it was he who had tracked down their widowed niece, Mrs. Annie Fuller, to let her know she was the sole beneficiary of that estate.

  Unfortunately, after the terrible economic troubles of the mid-seventies this inheritance had been reduced to only a small amount of capital and the gracious old home that was, however, no longer located in the most fashionable section of the city. It was Herman who’d recommended that Annie try to support herself by taking in boarders, and it was he who convinced Esther to move from their home into this two-room suite last November to help Annie out. And, much to Esther’s surprise, it was also her husband who’d come up with the outrageous idea that Annie could supplement her income by pretending to be a clairvoyant called Madam Sibyl.

  Herman, a handsome well-fed man in his sixties, put down the copy of the Chronicle he was reading and looked over at her. He had temporarily replaced his coat with a velvet-lapelled brocade smoking jacket that was a birthday present from his wife. However, once it was time to go downstairs to dinner he would show the proper respect due to Mrs. Fuller’s other boarders by shrugging on his formal black frock coat and straightening his cravat. Picking up the cut-glass tumbler filled with whiskey sitting on the table at his elbow, he took a sip, careful not to soak the full mustache and beard that framed his mouth, and then responded, “Esther, we have been over this before. If Annie were a young man, I could fix her up as a junior partner with one of the brokerage houses in town, J. L. Schmitt, for example. He has offices downstairs from me in the Merchants Exchange Building, and he could use someone with our Annie’s talents.”

  “Is she really that good?” She still had trouble understanding how the Waterstone’s lovely niece had come to be some sort of financial savant.

  “My dear, I think she might be even better than her father, who was one of the best stockbrokers on the west coast. Does a lot of research—that’s what she learned from her father. But more importantly, she just seems to know what is going to sell, what isn’t. The past few months, she’s already helped me turn a profit on the stocks I bought under her guidance.”

  “Well, can’t you just share some of those profits with her, maybe pass on her tips to others, for a small fee?” Esther only vaguely understood her husband’s business as a commission merchant, but she knew that it had something to do with charging people money for putting together different financial transactions.

  Herman sighed. “I wish that was feasible, but I am out of town so often that I simply don’t have time to run a stockbrokerage firm on top of my own business. I have passed on a few of her tips, to Porter, for one, but just as a favor. I owed him for steering me away from investing in the Pioneer Bank last year. ”

  Since she was always telling her husband that he needed to slow down, delegate more responsibility, she nodded at the truth of that statement. “But why can’t you set her up in business on her own?”

  “Because she refused me when I offered to! Said she didn’t want to be that beholden to anyone—ever again. And she knows what a risky proposition it would be—with no guarantee anyone would be willing to take their business to a female stockbroker, which is why I couldn’t convince someone like Schmitt to take her on.”

  He stared at the fire for a moment and then chuckled. “Annie also said she didn’t want people thinking I was Cornelius Vanderbilt to her Victoria Woodhull. Said it would ruin both of our reputations. Said Hetty wouldn’t let me hear the end of it!”

  Esther inwardly shuddered. She loved all four of her daughters, but the youngest, Hetty, was becoming too judgmental for her mother’s taste. Esther blamed Hetty’s husband George, a stuffy prig of a man. She could just imagine what George’s opinion was of Victoria Woodhull, a beautiful but notorious young woman who campaigned for women’s rights and even ran for the presidency of the United States. Rumors said it was Vanderbilt, the millionaire railroad tycoon, who’d set up Woodhull and her sister as New York City stockbrokers some years ago. In short, Woodhull was the exact opposite of George’s ideal of respectable womanhood.

  “Well, Herman,” Esther finally responded, “it does Annie credit that she wasn’t willing to risk your money or her reputation. But, speaking of reputations, I don’t see why you aren’t worried about the effect this scheme is going to have on her reputation. I know she says she never wants to remarry, but I would think that making a living as a fortune-teller would be more damaging to her reputation than being a stockbroker. Not that a man like our Hetty’s George would find either occupation acceptable.”

  Her husband just raised his eyebrows at her and took another sip of his whiskey. They did not entirely see eye-to-eye on Hetty’s George, who was a rising star in the Merchant’s Exchange Bank where Herman was one of the directors.

  When he didn’t say anything, she went on. “I know, you have said no one need know that Madam Sibyl and Mrs. Annie Fuller are
one and the same. But that still doesn’t explain to me why you think that she can make money at this endeavor. If no one will take advice from a stockbroker who is a woman, why would they pay money to get the same advice from a female fortune teller?”

  Her husband chuckled again, saying, “Because, my dear, we men are not terribly consistent. And we are an irrational lot. Even your hard-headed father wouldn’t walk between too older women if he met them on the sidewalk—because he said it would bring him bad luck for the rest of the day.”

  “My father wouldn’t walk between two women on the street because it would be terribly rude, Herman. But, you are right about him not being consistent. I know he didn’t make a single important decision, business or otherwise, without consulting my mother, and if she disapproved of something, it just didn’t happen. Yet he told me on my marriage day that I should obey my husband in all things. Not that I listened to him.”

  Her husband snorted, then said, “But the point is, in private your father might take his wife’s advice, but he wouldn’t admit to it publicly. However, in the public’s eye, a man who is getting advice from one of these modern trance mediums or an old-fashioned gypsy fortune-teller is getting that advice from the spirit world or the stars, not from the woman who is communicating the advice. So, when one of my acquaintances asked me where I got the tip I passed on to Porter, I told him from a clairvoyant named Madam Sibyl who rented a room in my boarding house. And that’s how he came to be Madam Sibyl’s first client.”


  The clock on the mantel chimed quarter to four, and Annie made one last circuit around the small parlor, checking to make certain everything was ready. She’d arranged the room the way the clairvoyants she’d visited in Boston arranged theirs. Curtains closed, fire lit, two chairs sitting on either side of a small table covered with a velvet cloth, and a lamp placed to ensure that it would be easy to see the client’s features but difficult for the client to see her face. She’d gone to see these clairvoyants with Lottie Vanderlin, her husband John’s maternal aunt. Lottie’s own husband had died suddenly last winter, and John’s parents had sent Annie to Boston to live with her, with the admonition that Annie keep Lottie out of trouble. She didn’t know what they meant at the time; she was just glad to get some respite from the series of sick rooms where she’d been confined for much of the past few years, attending births, deaths, and every ailment a woman could experience between those two events. She didn’t do the actual nursing, thank heavens, but she’d been the one who spelled the hired nurses, carried out the doctor’s orders, and tried to ease the pain, boredom, and fear that consumed the patients’ waking hours.

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