Mary Shepard

Chapter Two (excerpt, Goshen Cove)

The second floor room at the back of the house held a small iron bed covered by a faded quilt, a plain pine bureau, a wash-stand with a white enamel pitcher sitting in a white enamel bowl, and a straight-backed chair with a cane seat. She would have locked the door, but it had no key.

Three discarded hairpins and a stocking littered the top of the bureau. A sliver of soap and an empty bottle of toilet water sat next to the bowl on the washstand; a crumpled towel lay in a nearby heap on the floor. The whole place smelled musty, and clearly it had not been swept in some time.

She noticed all this, but didn’t mind. Maybe it would bother her in the morning, when she wasn’t so tired and amazed to be where she was. But now it didn’t matter that the room bore the traces of someone else’s life, that she could see and smell and touch the leftover presence of some woman—perhaps an Irish servant girl named Maggie whose loose talk had led her to this place.

Still, she wasn’t too tired to remember how Maggie spoke to her in the New London depot, as if they were somehow equals, or the way Maggie looked at her suspiciously when she asked about the position, as if she were some kind of criminal.

But she was some kind of criminal. That was a truth she must never forget.

It was a cheap trinket, a tortoiseshell comb not as nice as the two in her hair or the four back home on her dressing table. She couldn’t say why, when she held it in her hand, an irresistible urge to slip it in her pocket overcame her. The moment that she did, she heard a gasp. The witness—a young girl, a former classmate—alerted the clerk, and the clerk summoned the constable. Her parents knew the judge, so no charges were filed. Even so, people talked and, for her own good and the honor of the family, they sent her away.

They hadn’t sent her away when the maid found Julia’s brooch under her pillow, or when one of the twins found her father’s pen–but she didn’t have to call him Father anymore, she could call him whatever she liked—when one of the twins found her stepfather’s pen in the top drawer of her bureau, underneath her linens. She understood, of course: it was one thing, bad enough, to steal within the family, a private, hidden disgrace. But it was quite another thing, unforgivable, to steal in public, expose that disgrace to the world.

She lay on her side on the faded quilt with her jacket spread over her shoulders and her legs drawn up under her skirt. Her shoes and stockings sat on the floor beside the bed, but she was too tired to undress. The            woman who took her in—Mrs. Weldin– gave her two clean sheets and a pillowcase, but she had no energy to make the bed. The room was cold, with no stove or fireplace, just a register in the floor for warm air to drift up from the room below. Still, she didn’t want to slip under the quilt and let the bare mattress touch her skin.

Tired as she was, her mind kept spinning. That morning when she lay between her own clean sheets, steeling herself for the journey ahead, she never imagined it would end in a dark room in a dirty house in a place she’d never heard of. When she boarded the train in the morning with only her stepfather to see her off, she had no reason to believe she wouldn’t sleep that night in Boston, in the strangers’ house to which she was exiled.

She had never met Mr. and Mrs. Whitechapel.  Long ago, Mrs. Whitechapel knew her grandmother and, her mother informed her, was a good and respectable woman. She didn’t know if her mother told Mrs. Whitechapel everything—probably not, given the shame of it—but she must have hinted at some transgression and asked the woman to keep a particular eye on her daughter.

As the train rolled on, she imagined life with the Whitechapels, every move scrutinized and reported by a pair of diligent spies. They would be very old, these prospective jailers. She

would have to sit with them and listen to their stories, help them up and down stairs, bring them tea and broth in bed. Their house would be dark and quiet, with heavily carved chairs and horsehair sofas, shelves of ugly china figurines, yellowed lace on the tables, dusty velvet curtains. Mrs. Whitechapel would look at her strangely, count the coins in her purse, keep an eye on her jewelry.

She would never be free from its taint, not even in Boston; she understood that before the train reached Albany. It made her sick to think of the whispers and the looks she had already endured. Such a stupid thing to suffer for, such a cheap thing, not a watch or a ring or anything of value. (And it wasn’t stealing anyway, not this time or the times before, no matter what they said or did, no matter if her mother cried or her stepfather shouted and raised his fist to her. Just a tiny slip, an automatic act, an impulse like sneezing, the weight of a small, hard object in her hand compelling her to hide it away, a secret, a wink between herself and God, slight compensation for all that he had taken from her. She’d felt the impulse once again, that very morning, plucking a vial of toilet water from her mother’s dressing table.)

By the time the train crossed into Massachusetts, she knew the only escape was to slip out of the old life she had destroyed and avoid the new one she dreaded. She would find a different, better, bigger life. The place to find that life, she realized, was New York City.