Victorian San Francisco Stories, page 1
Victorian San Francisco Stories
By M. Louisa Locke
Copyright © 2014 Mary Louisa Locke
Cover © 2014 Michelle Huffaker
Cover Illustration comes with permission from San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library
This stories in this book are a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either 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.
Table of Contents
Madam Sibyl’s First Client
The Misses Moffet Mend a Marriage
Mr. Wong Rights a Wrong
About the Author
Soon after I published the first book in my Victorian San Francisco Mystery series, Maids of Misfortune, I began writing my first short story, “Dandy Detects.” While I had a practical reason for writing this short story––I wanted something I could give away or sell for 99 cents to attract people to my series––I had a more personal reason for writing it. I wanted to spend more time with some of the minor characters I had created, and this has become the most important reason I write my short stories. Annie Fuller, the main protagonist for my series, lives in a boarding house with nine boarders and two servants. This means she is surrounded by other people––people who, in my imagination, have whole, rich, vibrant lives going on, even when they are not on stage with Annie. Yet one of the more frustrating elements of writing cozy historical mysteries (where I must balance the historical detail, the romance, and the mystery plot) is the constant pressure to cut out anything “extraneous,” which often means scenes involving secondary characters. I also discovered that I was reluctant to let go of some of the characters that were only supposed to show up in one of the books and then disappear when the story was over. As a result, I write short stories where these people (and animals) could have their day in the sun. To my delight, fans of the series seem to enjoy spending more time with these characters as much as I do.
In this collection, I have brought together four of these stories (one never published publicly before). As a bonus, I have included an essay at the end of the collection furnishing more detail on the history of Victorian San Francisco as it relates to these particular tales. But first, here is a short background for each story and how each fits into the series as a whole.
Madam Sibyl’s First Client
I wrote this story specifically for this collection. A prequel of sorts, it is set in the spring of 1878, about a year and a half before the events in my first book, Maids of Misfortune. While this story does give some minor characters more speaking roles than usual, it is primarily for those readers who want to see more of Annie Fuller as her alter ego––the pretend clairvoyant Madam Sibyl. For someone new to the series, however, this story also provides an introduction into the personality of Annie Fuller and the reasons why she took up the unusual occupation of fortuneteller. The title of this story is rather self-explanatory, but I do believe that readers who are familiar with Maids of Misfortune will enjoy discovering the identity of Madam Sibyl’s first client.
This short story, a shameless rip-off of Alfred Hitchcock’s movie, Rear Window, was my first short story, and it is set just a month after the events of Maids of Misfortune. This story permitted me to give larger roles to characters who had very minor roles in this first book: Barbara Hewett, a teacher who lives in Annie Fuller’s boarding house, her son Jamie, and his dog, Dandy, who was modeled on my own beloved Boston Terrier.
The Misses Moffet Mend a Marriage
I had a lot of fun writing this short story, which comes shortly after the second book in my series, Uneasy Spirits. In this tale, two characters that were barely mentioned in earlier works have a chance to solve a minor mystery. When I first introduced Miss Minnie and Miss Millie Moffet in Maids of Misfortune, the only thing I knew about them was that they were elderly sisters (one who never said a word and one who talked all the time) who lived in the attic of the boarding house and that they were seamstresses. It turns out they have much more exciting lives than anyone, myself included, had imagined.
Mr. Wong Rights a Wrong
This last story is an example of what happens when I don’t want to let go of a character. Mr. Wong, a Chinese manservant, plays a crucial role in my first book, Maids of Misfortune. I quite fell in love with him and was delighted that many fans of this book seemed to feel the same way. I kept waiting for a reason to reintroduce him, even having Annie Fuller wonder what he was up to during a scene in Uneasy Spirits. After I finished my third book, Bloody Lessons, I was delighted when I came up with a plot for short story where Annie would desperately require his services. I suspect this is not the last we shall hear from Mr. Wong.
Madam Sibyl’s First Client
O’Farrell Street Boarding House
San Francisco, February 8, 1878
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
Picking up a hair pin, 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 recently 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. Beatrice was proud of her young mistress; life had handed her sorrow, but she greeted each day a with 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 Waterstones’ 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 out
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 Waterstones’ 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.
Other author's books:
- Scholarly PursuitsVictorian San Francisco StoriesUneasy Spirits: A Victorian San Francisco MysteryPilfered Promises
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