Pennsylvania, Spring 1873
“Do you want to live with shame all your life?”
Kate Farrell stood rigid in front of the small crackling fire and watched her sisters sink deeper into their damask-covered chairs. She was determined to win the argument this time. “Can’t you see? If we don’t do this, our name will be tarnished forever.”
Virginia looked up from her sewing. “Will you give us no rest, Kate?”
“Do you think it’s easy being the eldest and always having to do the hard things? Do you think I like having to push and goad you?” Didn’t they understand how much she hated being harsh? Especially here, in their cozy back parlor, their sanctuary, where no boarder ever entered unless invited.
“We’ve pleaded with you a dozen times to drop this. Why won’t you?” Virginia pressed.
“Because it’s too important. We need to settle this once and for all.” Kate ignored the moth-like embers that landed on the woolen baize near her feet and walked over to where her sisters sat. “Well! What do you say? Will you do it or not?”
Her sisters avoided her gaze; one studied the fire; the other, the sewing on her lap.
“It won’t bring Father back,” Virginia finally said, placing her mending on top of a small side table. “And Mother has already told you to let it go. Besides, we don’t have the money to hire a detective. You’ve already inquired, remember? Must I remind you that a Pinkerton gets three and a half dollars a day, plus expenses? We just can’t afford it.”
“That’s unworthy of you. You never consider money when it’s one of your causes.” Kate tugged at her bustle, then began pacing. The small heels of her black-laced boots skimmed the floor cloth, nearly snagging a barely discernible lump. “And I won’t even ask how much you spent going to Massachusetts last year to picket with Susan What’s-her-name.” It was low to pretend she didn’t remember Susan’s last name when that’s all Virginia had talked about for months. But Kate was desperate. She needed Virginia on her side. Once she was, Charlotte would surely follow. “You know we can afford to do this if we pool our money.”
“Anthony. Her name is Anthony. Susan B. Anthony.” Virginia’s voice was icy.
“You’re behaving like a vigilante, Kate.” Charlotte finally removed her gaze from the hearth. “You insult us, bully us, in hopes of forcing us to do this, when even Mother doesn’t want you to. You know how I feel, how we both feel. Virginia and I want to get on with our lives while you are only interested in revenge.”
“Get on with your lives? What kind of lives will they be as long as the world thinks our father is a murderer? Surely you understand this shame will follow us wherever we go. It may not worry you, Charlotte, but I guarantee it troubles that stuffy fiancée of yours.”
“You go too far.” Charlotte’s long slender fingers, which had all the while been lying idly on her lap, now moved in nervous jerks along the upholstered arm of her chair. “I know what you think of Benjamin; that he’s unfeeling and shallow, but I assure you he’s quite the opposite, and is, in fact, the very portrait of kindness and profundity.”
“And his mother? Mrs. Gaylord? Is she such a picture?” Kate snapped.
“I suppose you would call one shallow who believes the severest test of a lady is giving a formal dinner party and having to serve bread sliced less than an inch and a half thick.” Charlotte picked her thumb. “Mrs. Gaylord claims thin bread is so plebeian. But Benjamin is not at all like that. Even you, Kate, would have been impressed with him last night. The perfect gentleman in both dress and manners; never once hesitating to introduce me to his most important guests—the visiting Winthrops and Hancocks. He even made sure to include me in a lengthy conversation with Franklin B. Gowen himself.”
“You never did tell us about the party,” Virginia said, appearing eager to keep the conversation from falling back into Kate’s control.
“We’ve been so busy this morning with chores, and . . . well, quite frankly I wasn’t sure you’d care. Both yours and Kate’s interests are so far removed from mine, and sometimes you make me feel silly for liking the things I do, but if you really want me to . . . .” Charlotte paused and looked at Kate.
“Can’t you talk about this later?” Kate turned and walked to the corner desk where she picked up a small, black leather notebook.
“Well . . . .” Charlotte’s face took on a defiant look. “Virginia wants to know, and I’m just dying to tell someone and so I shall. It was oh, so fabulous! The tables, three in all, were covered in long white damask cloths that hung to the floor and shimmered in the candlelight. Oh, they must have taken hours to press! And large Dresden baskets, filled with flowers, sat in the center of each table amid place settings of fine English china and long-stem crystal goblets. And pressed cloth napkins were folded beside each plate. Imagine! A napkin for everyone! And in the room, standing at perfect attention, were two footmen and a butler. I mean real footmen and a real butler, not like that clumsy groom and gardener snooty Mrs. Roach had serving at her dinner party last month. And the food! How can I describe it? There was lobster with Dutch sauce, and oyster pate and lamb cutlets and venison and . . . .”
“Stop! Not another word about damask cloths and butlers and oyster pate! If you’re such a silly creature, Charlotte, that that’s all you care about, then so be it. But I for one am doing this, with or without the two of you. I’ve saved a few dollars and I’ll earn more from my quilt. It would be easier if we pooled our money, but I can do it without you. And I will.”
A sound, like a mouse’s squeak, escaped Charlotte’s lips as she dropped her face into her hands and began to sob.
“Oh, honestly, Kate! Now look what you’ve done. You can be such a brute!”
“I won’t apologize, Virginia. We must face facts, even you, Charlotte. The truth is we are lepers. Social lepers. No one in Sweet Air wants anything to do with us. And Benjamin Gaylord might love you, Charlotte. He may even want to marry you still, but that mother of his would be happy to see him break your engagement. Don’t think she doesn’t talk to him about it either! We can hardly be her idea of a socially acceptable family.”
“Don’t listen to her, Charlotte. I’m sure Mrs. Gaylord has no such thoughts.”
Charlotte dabbed her eyes and said in a near whisper, “I have ten dollars, Kate. I’ve been saving it for my trousseau, but you can have it.”
“You mean you’ll undertake this venture with me?” Kate could hardly believe her ears. She was sure Virginia would be the first to cave.
When Charlotte nodded, Virginia threw up her arms. “I hope you’re satisfied, Kate. After months of my telling her women should stand up for themselves, you have, in a matter of minutes, reduced her to this!”
“Virginia, it’s not that. Truly,” Charlotte stammered. “It’s just, well it’s just . . . .”
“Just what?” Virginia said softly, as she glared at Kate.
“It’s just that Mrs. Gaylord wants to take Benjamin to London this May in time for the Derby, and then Ascot. Of course they’ll stay through July for cricket, especially the contests between Eton and Harrow, as well as Oxford and Cambridge.”
“What does that have to do with anything?” Kate said, trying to stuff her impatience where it wouldn’t do any damage. She could always talk to Virginia. Virginia made sense. Virginia talked about things Kate understood and cared about. But Charlotte lived in a different world, or at least wanted to. A world of finery and polite society. A world they had all known a bit about when Father was alive. But things were different now. In order to avoid financial ruin, they had been forced to turn their large, stately home into a boardinghouse; forced to see to the comfort of strangers while ignoring their own. Everything had changed except Charlotte’s peculiar logic, a logic that often sounded muddled. “Just take your time and tell us what you mean.”
“You know London’s social season begins in May. There’ll be no end of parties and balls and dinners and breakfasts—fifty or sixty at least!”
“Make sense, dear,” Virginia said, now sounding a bit impatient, too.
“Don’t you see! All the debutants will be coming out then. The balls, the dinners, the parties are given so they can meet eligible men. And get married! And that’s just what Mrs. Gaylord is counting on. She’s hoping Benjamin will meet someone more suitable, and when he does he’ll break our engagement.” Charlotte lowered her eyes. “That’s what I was told by an unimpeachable source last night. I’ve tried to convince myself that Benjamin is strong enough to withstand both his mother and temptation, but suppose he . . . . Oh, I think it’s horrid of her to try to break us up! I’m still the same person I was before Father died. Doesn’t she see that?”
Virginia’s lips pursed. “I’ll give you the fifteen dollars I’ve been saving, Kate.”
“I . . . I know you wanted it for your newspaper. And I know how long you’ve been saving. But I think you’re making the right decision.” Kate suddenly felt guilty. Virginia had been planning to return to Massachusetts in order to learn how to start a liberal weekly here in Sweet Air, a newspaper fashioned after The Revolution, a now defunct periodical that Susan Anthony and Elizabeth Stanton once published. She had even hoped that Anthony and Stanton would sponsor her efforts. “I’m . . . sorry. Truly sorry.”
“It can wait.” Virginia tented her fingers. “We’ll do this first. I suppose you’re right. We owe it to Father and ourselves. But bear in mind, Kate, even if we get a Pinkerton agent to take our case, there’s no guarantee he’ll find anything. There’s no guarantee he’ll be able to clear Father’s name.”
Kate waved the small leather notebook in the air. “I’ve scoured Father’s notations a dozen times and still can’t make sense of them. But I believe the answer lies here and that a Pinkerton is just the one to find it.”
“So, it’s settled.” Charlotte’s gaze drifted back to the fire, her beautiful porcelain-like face, glum. “Forgive me, Kate, for being such a goose and giving you so much trouble.”
The sight of both sisters so downcast pricked Kate’s heart. Love is patient, love is kind, love doesn’t seek its own way, she heard her mother’s voice drone in her head. Oh, why was she always trying to get her way? Why was she so headstrong? Her sisters were right, she was a bully. That would explain why it was so easy for her to overlook their feelings: Charlotte’s broken heart and Virginia’s dashed dreams. Oh what a wretch I am. And was Mother right too? In saying Kate had allowed a root of bitterness to take hold? What did bitterness look like, exactly? Did it look like tall gallows, and the bound and hooded body of her father dangling at the end of a rope? She closed her eyes. Was it so wrong to seek justice?
“I’m sorry about Mrs. Gaylord,” Kate said, opening her eyes and looking at Charlotte. “And I’m sorry about your newspaper,” she added, turning to Virginia.
Life had been much simpler when Father was alive.