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Victorian San Francisco Stories (Vol 1) by M. Louisa Locke Book

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Victorian San Francisco Stories (Vol 1) by M. Louisa Locke Read Book Online And Download

Overview: This is a collection of four short stories by USA Today bestselling author, M. Louisa Locke, set in the gas-lit world of Victorian San Francisco. Madam Sibyl's First Client was written specifically for this collection and it finds Annie Fuller, the young widowed boardinghouse keeper, just starting her career as a pretend clairvoyant. In Dandy Detects, the Boston Terrier that lives in Annie Fuller's boardinghouse helps uncover a crime, and in The Misses Moffet Mend a Marriage, Annie's two elderly boarders use their dressmaking skills to avert a domestic tragedy. Finally, in Mr. Wong Rights a Wrong, a Chinese manservant introduced in Maids of Misfortune, the first book in Locke's historical mystery series, makes another appearance and helps Annie Fuller solve a serious problem. As a bonus, there is an essay, Historical Tidbits, which provides insight into the historical research that went into these stories. This collection can be read as an introduction or a companion to the full-length novel in the cozy Victorian San Francisco Mystery series, permitting some of the most beloved minor characters of that series to have some fun by taking center stage.


Victorian San Francisco Stories (Vol 1) by M. Louisa Locke Book Read Online And Download Epub Digital Ebooks Buy Store Website Provide You.
Victorian San Francisco Stories (Vol 1) by M. Louisa Locke Book





Victorian San Francisco Stories (Vol 1) by M. Louisa Locke Book Read Online Chapter One




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 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 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 New York 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 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 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.

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 Vanderbuilt 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 Vanderbuilt, 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 two 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.

Lottie, a healthy woman in her early fifties whose husband had left her very well provided-for, seemed like an easy assignment. In fact, Annie developed a deep affection for the good-natured widow in the six months she lived with her. She soon discovered, however, what John’s parents meant by keeping her out of trouble. Lottie was rapidly throwing her inheritance away on a series of mediums and fortune-tellers who claimed to communicate with her departed husband. It wasn’t the fees she paid these persons that was the main problem. They were certainly no more a drain on Lottie’s substantial income than if her aunt spent her days shopping. No, it was one particular trance medium, who called himself Professor Magnus, who presented the danger. He had convinced Lottie that her departed husband wanted her to invest her capital in a set of very risky investments. Annie feared if the influence of this phony professor wasn’t checked, it would mean financial ruin for Lottie.

Annie initially tried, unsuccessfully, to warn Lottie away from him. Then, out of desperation, she told Lottie that attending all these séances had awakened Annie’s own abilities. She convinced Lottie that she could now communicate with a spirit of her own, Madam Sibyl, who helped her forecast the future. Lottie was delighted. She started hosting small séances in her home, where Annie pretended to communicate with this Madam Sibyl and dispensed advice to Lottie and her friends. Regrettably, Madam Sibyl’s business advice proved so accurate, and Lottie and her friends so pleased, that word reached Annie’s father-in-law. Annie had just been recalled back to New York City by him to “explain herself,” when the letter from Herman Stein reached her, telling her of her inheritance from her Aunt Agatha. Two days later, she was on a transcontinental train to San Francisco, having pawned the last piece of jewelry she owned to pay the fare and baggage costs and leaving her miserable years of dependence on the extended Fuller family behind.

She thought she’d left Madam Sibyl behind as well. In fact, she had forgotten that she’d ever mentioned her brief career in mediumship to the Steins when she first arrived in town. Consequently, she was surprised three weeks ago when Herman Stein suggested resurrecting Madam Sibyl. The idea came up during a meeting with him to go over her accounts for the first three months the boarding house was in operation. Double entry book-keeping was no mystery to Annie, but nothing could make the sums add up. The costs of running the boarding house were barely being met by the income she was generating. Even when the remaining large room in the attic was let, this would only provide a tiny margin of safety. She didn’t know what to do, and she hoped Mr. Stein could offer some suggestion of how to better economize.

The Steins had taken her under their wing from the moment she arrived in San Francisco, and she wasn’t sure she could ever repay them for their support, but the last thing she wanted was to feel economically beholden to them. She felt uncomfortable as it was with their decision to move into her boarding house, knowing that they could afford much grander accommodations in one of the better city hotels. Esther Stein assured her that she was more than ready to leave the home they’d been sharing with their youngest son and his wife and small children. Confiding to Annie that she and her newest daughter-in-law did not rub along well together under the same roof, Esther said, “It wasn’t that I minded handing over the work of running the household, but Myra insisted on asserting her prerogatives as the mistress of the household at every turn. No, it was time for us to move. Our rooms here are just perfect. With Herman off traveling more days than he is home, I would feel so lonely rattling around in some hotel surrounded by strangers. Besides, Mrs. O’Rourke is one of the best cooks in San Francisco.”

Annie smiled, remembering with what relish both Steins enjoyed Beatrice’s pies, and knew that at least in that last statement Esther was telling the truth. But she worried that her motherly friend might be pressuring her husband to loan Annie money, which was why she was nervous about revealing to him the thinness of her profit margin. However, instead of offering to help her, Herman Stein had pulled out a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle and placed his finger smack dab in the middle of the front page. She’d leaned over and seen that he was pointing to the section headed “Special Notices” that listed the numerous advertisements by people professing to be clairvoyants of one stripe or the other.

When she realized that he was suggesting she do something similar, you could have knocked her over with a feather! But Mr. Stein was quite persuasive, and after a good deal of discussion, Annie finally agreed that it was worth giving his idea a try. She was adamant that she would not pretend to be communing with the spirit word but would build on the knowledge she had already gotten when living with Lottie on how to read palms and cast horoscopes. Mr. Stein had evidently given the matter some thought, because he already had crafted a draft of the ad he thought she should put into the paper. He recommended that she charge $2 a session, which was higher than any of the other mediums, arguing that this would winnow out the riffraff. He also suggested she schedule appointments, which would give her time to do the necessary research that went into her financial advice.

Annie thought this was an excellent idea, and it would also make it easier for her to keep her identities as Mrs. Fuller and Madam Sibyl separate. At the last moment, she decided to include wording that implied she would be giving more than business advice. She thought the years she’d spent observing and catering to the complex personalities among the Fuller clan should count for something. The resulting advertisement read: Clairvoyant, specializing in business and domestic advice, consultations by appointment only, fee $2, with the boarding house address listed as the contact.

What followed was a frantic two weeks of preparation. Deciding on a costume, buying the wig, and locating a copy of the English translation of Rothmann’s Chiromantia Theorica Practica and several books on astrology that she had found in a used bookstore off Market Street. Rothmann’s sixteenth-century treatise on palmistry argued that the mounts and lines of the hand were ruled by the planets so that by looking at a person’s hands you could determine their birth chart and vice versa. This conjunction of the two philosophies was useful for her purposes. Not believing in either palmistry or astrology, she didn’t care if his analysis was correct or if contemporary practitioners accepted his argument. All she cared about was getting the terminology that would make her pronouncements sound reasonable to someone who believed in either discipline.

Two days ago, she finally put the advertisement in the Morning Call and the Chronicle. While she hadn’t yet gotten any response from these notices, Mr. Stein had drummed up a few clients for her from among his business associates, and the first was due to arrive any moment.

The loud peal of the front door bell sent Annie’s pulse racing, and she walked quickly to the table and sat down, clasping her hands in front of her to keep them from trembling. After a moment, she heard the sound of voices in the hallway. Kathleen, bless her soul, must have been hovering near the front hallway in anticipation of the client’s arrival. The door to the parlor swung open, and Kathleen entered the room, sketched a curtsy, and announced loudly, “Mr. Matthew Voss, for Madam Sibyl.”



 

  

“I want to assure you that I am not someone you can bamboozle with a lot of hocus-pocus. As far as I’m concerned, Madam, the whole lot of you are just bunch of charlatans, and the men who spend good money on such are fools. And I can promise you, I am not a fool!”

Mathew Voss, a tall stooped man in his sixties, glared at her from across the room, and Annie felt the heat of anger flush her cheeks. Why ever did Mr. Stein think that this man was going to be willing to take advice from Madam Sibyl? Kathleen even had trouble getting him to hand over his top hat, scarf, and gloves, and when Annie had asked him to come and sit at the table in front of her, he’d refused, saying he would prefer to stand. Arrogant old goat. He reminded her unpleasantly of her father-in-law.

“Well it’s a good thing you aren’t a fool, since I have no desire to waste my time or knowledge on a fool,” Annie said, glaring back at him. “Now come sit down, deposit your fee in the bowl, and let me get to work. Or you can ring for the maid to escort you out.”

In the silence that followed, Annie heard the tick, tick of the mantel clock at counterpoint with the blood thumping at her temple.

“Ha!” Voss suddenly barked out. “Good for you.” He moved across the room in a sort of stiff lope and pulled out the chair. As he sat down, he peered at her short-sightedly and said, “Wearing some sort of get-up are you? Well I don’t expect that Madam Sibyl is your real name, either.” Taking a well-worn leather wallet out of his suit coat and holding it cautiously below the table edge, he removed two bills and tossed them into the wooden bowl on the right side of the table, saying, “Well what do we do now, eh?”

“If you please, could you put both of your hands on the table in front of you, palms down to begin with?” Annie said quietly. Lottie and her friends had all been experts at what to expect at a seance, so they required a minimum of explanation. She’d decided to start with reading this first client’s palms because she didn’t know his birth date, a requisite for coming up with a horoscope reading. Given his overt skepticism, even palm reading might not work. Maybe, if she could get him talking, she would think of something that would ease his suspicions.

She leaned forward and asked him why he had come and what he expected from her. He said simply that he’d heard she was the source of Mr. Porter’s recent string of good luck in picking mining stocks, and he wanted in on the secret. While he spoke, she visually examined the tops of his hands. She knew he owned a furniture company, Voss and Samuels, and that the recent depression had hurt his business; Mr. Stein had told her that much. Building construction and factory production was picking up, though. She wondered, did he now have a little extra money he wanted to invest for the long term or did he need something that would give him a quick return, maybe to pay off some outstanding debts? Was he the kind of man who craved the excitement that went along with a gamble on stocks, the riskier the better, or was he more comfortable with a conservative strategy? Her husband John had been one of the former. For some reason he felt putting money into some hair-brained scheme had made him powerful and masculine. At first glance, Mr. Voss did not seem like this sort of man.

The strong beam of light from the lamp behind her showed her some clues to his character. The light tracery of white scars running over the prominent veins and swollen knuckles of his hands suggested that Voss had spent a good deal of his life as a practicing woodworker. And, while his nails were clipped short and were clean as befitted a gentleman, she saw faint brown lines along the cuticles, which she suspected came from wood stain. This, plus a recently healed cut on his index finger, indicated that Voss was the kind of business owner who wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty.

The tell-tale sheen of the wool at the elbow and knees of his black suit suggested they were decades old, but his shirt had one of the modern-styled collars, his cuffs were nicely starched, and his watch chain and cuff links were solid gold. In addition, his thinning grey hair and modest mustache and beard were freshly barbered. Voss was clearly not a man who was about to throw out a suit if it was still serviceable, but he wasn’t poor by any means, and he probably had a manservant who made sure he went out of the house properly groomed, his clothes neatly pressed.

“Please, could you turn your hands over now?” Annie responded after he added that he’d give anything a try once, if it would make him money. He barked out another short laugh and complied, staring at her challengingly.

She’d prepared a whole speech about heart lines and the mount of Saturn, but she knew that this would just sound like some “hocus-pocus” to him. Picking up his right hand and examining the darker vertical and horizontal lines on his palms that intersected with white lines of more old scars, she said, “Mr. Voss, the purpose of our consultation today is for me to assess how your past is going to influence your future. Only then can I adequately advise you.”

Ignoring his sound of derision, she continued. “As a carpenter, when you have a piece of wood in your hands, don’t you examine it? Determine what kind of tree it came from, read its history in the grain, the evidence of foxing, the placement of knotholes? And don’t you use that knowledge to decide how to make the best use of the wood, what its future should be? Should it be turned into the back of a chair, the legs of a sofa, an ornate frame for a mirror?”

Seeing the first glimmer of interest in his slate grey eyes, she went on, using the bits of information she had gotten from the Steins, her knowledge about San Francisco’s history and economy, and her understanding of human nature, to tell Matthew Voss a story that she hoped he would find familiar enough to embrace as his own.

“Your life line tells me there have been three stages to your life so far. The first part of the line shows decades of steady progress, then the line nearly breaks, which represents an abrupt change in your way of life. When you traveled west, perhaps? This was a time of struggle for you, but it was very short. See there, where the life line becomes progressively deeper and darker as it curves towards the base of your thumb? You found your life’s work, I believe. Wait, oh my, Mr. Voss. See where the vertical line of fate connects your heart line to your life line—right there.”

Annie felt Voss’s hand jerk slightly. She paused, looked into his eyes, and said, “Mrs. Voss came into your life at that point, didn’t she? Tell me about her.”

As if she had found a secret lever that opened up a locked box, Mathew Voss’s words tumbled out.

He told Annie about the first time he met his wife, Amelia, who’d been living among the Rincon Hill enclave of wealthy Southerners, and how he was instantly charmed by her gentle beauty. He described the progress of his courtship in detail. “Her mother didn’t think I was good enough.” Voss frowned at the memory. “Didn’t think this Yankee could treat her precious daughter like a lady. Far as I could find out, the two of them had been left penniless by Amelia’s father, some shiftless gambler, and they were living off the charity of a rich cousin. You can bet her mother changed her mind quick enough about me when I let slip how much I was worth.”

He then proudly recounted to Annie how he had made his fortune by taking advantage of the opportunities offered by a city that was growing by over a thousand persons a day in the early fifties. “Every saloon needed a bar and stools, every boarding house a set of tables, chairs, and beds, and every miner that struck it rich wanted a house with all the trimmings. And everything had to be shipped round the Horn in those days, so once my partner and I started producing furniture locally, we could pretty much ask whatever we wanted for our price.”

Voss leaned back with a grin. Annie knew she needed to get him to talk more about the present, so she picked up his hand again and looked for something else she could use. She saw that near the end of the life line, the line split and then came together. She pointed this out to him and said, “Here you ran into trouble, pretty recently.”

“Damned Panic of 1873. Housing construction stopped. People canceled their orders after we had already paid for the wood, and we had to retrench.” Voss stopped and again glared at her. “But doesn’t take much of a clairvoyant to tell a San Francisco businessman he’s recently been in a spot of economic bother. Wasn’t so bad I had to go drown myself like old Ralston.”

Annie had her own private reasons for why she didn’t like to discuss the possible suicide of William Ralston, the prominent banker and owner of the Palace Hotel, who drowned in the Bay. But she couldn’t help but wonder if it was significant that Voss brought up Ralston, since it was the failure of the Bank of California that supposedly prompted this man’s death. The most recent example of a bank failure in town was the Pioneer Land Bank. The failure of this bank and the Pioneer Safety Deposit Company, both run by a local businessman, Joseph C. Duncan, had been all over the news last October, a month after Annie arrived in San Francisco. No one was sure whether these businesses had failed because of bad management or embezzlement. In either case, nearly a million dollars in assets had vanished, as had Duncan. Could some of those assets have been Voss’s?

To test this theory, she pointed to a small patch of fine criss-crossed lines towards the end of the head line that ran across the middle of his palm. “Mr. Voss, this indicates more than regular economic problems. This suggests that recently you faced a serious financial loss, and the fact that the sign is found on your head line indicates that this was because you had put your trust in someone who betrayed you.”

Voss gasped and withdrew his hand from her, clenching both hands into fists. “God damned Duncan. He lives on Geary just a few blocks east of me, and I often rode the horse car with him up from Market. He convinced me to invest a chunk of my profits into the Pioneer Safety Deposit Company. Turns out the certificates aren’t worth the paper they were printed on. Thank goodness I hadn’t invested everything. I like to spread my money around. But I can tell you, between the costs of running the business, the new house I built a few years ago, and my wastrel of a son, I can’t afford to throw any more money away.”

Voss pointed his finger at her and said, “But how did you know? I haven’t told a soul about this.”



 

  

“Oh ma’am, what did you tell him when he said that?” Kathleen stood with the bowl she’d been drying clasped to her chest, her blue eyes round with excitement.

It was late the next evening, and Annie sat at the kitchen table folding napkins while Beatrice and Kathleen were working on finishing the dinner dishes. Esther had joined them since her husband had boarded a steamship that morning bound for Portland, where their oldest son ran the northern branch of the business. She sat knitting in the rocking chair by the stove. This was the first chance Annie had to tell everyone how the consultation with Voss went. She was just at the point in her story where Voss angrily asked her how she could have known that he was one of the hundreds of San Francisco citizens who had lost money to Joseph Duncan.

“I told him that he was the person who had told me. I simply used the signs I saw in his hand to figure out that he had suffered some recent betrayal. He was the one who actually named Duncan as the source of that betrayal.”

“Oh, Annie, you didn’t say that,” Esther exclaimed. “No man wants to think he’s been tricked by a woman.”

“I know. It just popped out. He stared at me for a moment. Then he started to laugh with this sort of wheezy cackle.” Annie smiled. “Finally, he said since I was obviously good at putting two-and-two together, he would give me a chance. Said I had one month to prove I could make him money.”

Beatrice looked over her shoulder, her hands in the soapy water of the dishpan, and said, “Well, to think that the gentleman got mixed up with that awful man Duncan.”

“Herman once told me Joseph Duncan could sell a rare book to a blind man, he was that much of a silver-tongued devil. One of the reasons my husband never invested in any of his schemes,” Esther said.

Annie added, “I remember reading in the paper when the whole scandal erupted that a son-in-law disappeared with him and that the police questioned one of his sons, accusing him of helping his father get out of town.”

“That would be Willie, a son from his first marriage,” replied Esther. “The person I feel sorry for is his current wife and her children. My oldest daughter, Adela, knows Mary Duncan socially. She said the youngest daughter, Isadora, was born just this past May, and there are three other small children at home with her. Adela told me that Mrs. Duncan is practically a prisoner in her own home, between the police and the newspaper reporters. Mrs. Duncan’s father was a state senator back in the fifties, and she has been very prominent in society, on a lot of arts committees. She must be feeling such shame. The papers said that over a million dollars in assets have disappeared.”

“Shame is right,” put in Beatrice. “What I heard was he robbed a good number of poor widows and orphans of their mites. But the police don’t believe he’s gotten out of town yet. Leastways, that’s what my nephew Patrick told me. He’s just joined the police force, taking after my dear departed husband, don’t you know. Patrick says they’ve staked out some ship in the harbor. Heard rumors that Duncan might be planning on slipping on board.”

“Well, I never,” said Kathleen. “You mean he’s been hiding out all this time in the city? Do you think his wife knows where he is? And where is the money?”

“I suspect that most of it has been spent already,” Annie said. “In most cases like this, the men involved live way beyond their means and speculate on the stock market, hoping that they will strike it rich and be able to pay off the people who invested with them. Mr. Voss certainly doesn’t expect to get anything back.”

“A million dollars. All gone!” Kathleen muttered to herself, shaking her head in disbelief as she turned back to drying the dishes.

Four years ago, when Annie finally discovered the full extent of her own husband’s disastrous losses at the gambling tables and the stock market, she’d felt much the same way. Her inheritance from her father, the stock certificates his father had given them as a wedding present, their house…all gone. While she felt sympathy for those widows and orphans who’d lost their savings, she also felt some sympathy for Mrs. Duncan, a woman who may not have known what her husband was up to and was now left, as Annie had been, to deal with the aftermath.

“Well, dear,” Esther’s voice broke into Annie’s thoughts. “Do you think you can come up with something to help Mr. Voss out? One month doesn’t seem like very much time. I don’t think he is being very fair.”

“I know, but I had a few suggestions ready to give him,” Annie replied. “One tip I had already passed on to your husband. I recommended to them both that that they bid for part of a shipment of flax seed that just arrived in port.”

“Good heavens, Annie, whatever will Mr. Voss do with flax?” Esther said. “Herman, I can understand. He buys and sells all sorts of things. Last week, he was quite excited about a shipment of Proctor and Gamble’s soap he’d imported from Cincinnati. He said their soap was as near in quality to a castile soap as could be for half the price. But what’s a furniture manufacturer like Voss going to do with flax?”

“Well, you all know about the flooding that’s been going on up in the Sacramento River Valley the past month? How the levees have all been washed away so that the Delta Islands are completely under water?”

“Yes, terrible news,” responded Esther. “That nice Mr. Harvey who shares the room across the hall from me has family in Sacramento. He told me over breakfast that his wife wrote that you had to take a row boat to get to the store, the streets were so far under water.”

“Well,” Annie said, “I thought of the floods when I saw flax on a list of goods being auctioned off this Monday from a ship newly arrived from New Zealand. I remembered reading an article last month in the California Farmer about imported flax from there. Evidently, New Zealand flax isn’t just good for making things like rope. Because its root system is very dense, it is recommended for planting on the banks of levees to help hold the soil together.”

Esther laughed and said, “So you put two-and-two together and thought anyone who bought up a supply of this flax seed could make a profit selling it to the farmers who are going to have to rebuild their levees when the flooding is over?”

“Right you are! Your husband thought it was a good idea, and Voss did as well. I also recommended that Voss prepare a bid to provide furniture for finishing the newest section of City Hall. From the signs I have read in the papers, I think that there is soon going to be a move to fund the completion of the rest of the building.”

“Really, Annie, do you think so?” Esther put down her knitting. “I thought from what Herman said that nothing more was going to happen until they finished their investigation into the shoddy plumbing in the sections that are already done.”

Annie hesitated for a moment before answering. The construction of the new city hall, plagued from inception with charges of corruption, had come to a grinding halt with the recent depression. The construction was supposed to be funded by selling off city land, but who was going to buy the land with the city’s economy in shambles? However, the persistent high unemployment in the city had recently caused a good deal of labor unrest, including a series of riots in the city and the rise of a new political leader, Dennis Kearney, and his Workingmen’s Party. Annie believed that it was a mutual fear of Kearney and his supporters by Democratic and Republican politicians alike that was behind the move forward on the building of city hall. This initiative would create jobs that would go to Irish workers like Kathleen’s uncles in the building trades and provide contracts that would benefit manufacturers like Matthew Voss. Dare she mention this? Her father always told her to avoid politics and religion as topics of conversation if she wanted to keep friends, so she wasn’t sure she wanted to go into any detail on her reasoning on this issue. The friendship of these three very different women had become precious to her in the past five months, and she didn’t want to do anything to upset them.

After her mother died, her father had really been her best friend, so she’d never become close to the girls at the academy. Then she was married, and her husband discouraged her from making female friends. After he died, and she was shuttled around the various branches of his family, she’d learned very quickly not to confide in anyone, male or female. Her in-laws were a contentious lot, and they saw her as no better than a paid companion who should be seen and not heard. On the other hand, the servants in those households viewed her with suspicion as a possible spy from their employers.

But, from the moment she stepped into the O’Farrell house, everything was different. Beatrice O’Rourke, who could remember Annie’s birth in that very same house, treated her like a long lost child. Kathleen, not more than a child herself, was a cheerful confiding soul who seemed to find it delightful to work with a mistress who was willing to roll up her sleeves and polish the furniture alongside her. Esther simply treated her like a favorite niece, and her willingness to descend to the kitchen in the evenings when her husband was out of town reinforced the lack of barriers between upstairs and downstairs.

No, the last thing Annie wanted to do was set a cat among the pigeons with her speculation on the political motivations behind the funding of city hall, so she said, “Oh, Esther, this is just an impression I got from a number of editorials on the subject. It won’t cost Voss anything but time to get a bid ready, so I felt comfortable making the recommendation. I am more nervous about the suggestions I am going to make on Monday when he comes in for his second consultation.”

“He’s coming back that soon?” asked Kathleen.

“Yes, and I spent all of today combing through the back issues of the local and state newspapers to come up with something that I think will provide substantial proof of the effectiveness of Madam Sibyl’s advice. First, I am going to tell him to buy some shares in a particular silver mining stock that hasn’t been doing very well because I believe it is going to go through a brief boom. However, I am afraid it is going to be difficult to sell him on my last recommendation. Esther, if you think that Voss wouldn’t have any interest in flax, imagine how he is going to react when I tell him he should invest in cement!”



 

  

Only a month had passed since Annie met with her first client as Madam Sibyl, and Mr. Stein’s suggested remedy for her financial difficulties was already a success. Who would have thought that there would be such demand for a new clairvoyant in a city where there were already at least a dozen plying that trade? She suspected that people who believed in such things kept shopping around, hoping to get better results. The same way some people went from doctor to doctor, hoping to get a diagnosis better to their liking. Whatever the reason, every day she got a letter from someone new, wishing to make an appointment for a consultation. Already today she’d consulted with a young woman who wanted to know which of two suitors she should encourage, a notions salesman who wanted to start his own company, and Mr. Porter, Herman Stein’s friend, who wanted to know if she thought the prices of wheat would go up or down because of the severe flooding in the Sacramento Valley.

For each new client, she did a reading of their palms to get some sense of who they were and what they wanted and asked for the time and date of their birth so that she could cast their horoscopes for their next consultations. Thank goodness for the battered copy of James Wilson’s Complete Set of Astrological Tables she’d brought with her from Boston. Stuffing this and the other books on palmistry into her trunk was a last-minute decision. She’d been able to hold onto so little from her life before her husband’s financial ruin and death, she just wasn’t willing to let go of anything more. Wilson made it easy for her to work up a client’s star chart, which evidently was enough to convince most of them of the accuracy of her advice, even though it was all just a bit of “hocus pocus,” as Matthew Voss would say.

This past week, she brought in thirty-five dollars and as a result was able to order enough wood for the next two months. She’d seriously underestimated what it would cost to address the needs for seven boarders for heat in their rooms and hot water for bathing, much less the voracious demand for fuel to cook the food and do the wash for the household. The money she was making was giving her a bit of breathing room, but she knew how quickly that income could dry up. Clients would soon move on if she didn’t give them what they wanted. For many of the women, what they wanted was a sympathetic ear, but women didn’t have a lot of disposable income, and she couldn’t survive on their clientele alone. For Madam Sibyl to be successful, she needed the steady business of the city’s merchants, manufacturers, and professional men. They were the group who could afford to pay her fees, week after week. They were the people who had the resources to best take advantage of the financial advice she gave. Business and professional men, however, wouldn’t pay for regular consultations unless the advice she gave them paid off. And paid off quickly.

Today, she was going to find out if she had been successful with Matthew Voss. He’d challenged her to make him money in a month, and if he had followed her instructions, he should have. However, her father told her that one of the most difficult parts of a broker’s job wasn’t to get a client to buy stock but to follow the brokers’ advice about when to sell the stock. Some sold off too quickly; others, more unfortunately, held on too long. She’d discovered a specific pattern in the price fluctuations in Nevada silver mine stocks in the five months since she arrived in town. The mining report in the Chronicle would mention that a mine was opening up a new shaft and the price would start to go up, probably because the Comstock mine owners—who everyone agreed were artificially manipulating prices—bought up enough shares to push the price up just a bit. They quietly sold off the stock within a day or two, but by that time, the money from eastern speculators would have flooded in and pushed the value of the stock even higher. Then, when no new vein of silver was announced—and nothing had developed for the past eight months—these speculators would start to sell, and the price would drift back down again.

She’d seen signs this process was about to start for the stock of the Best and Belcher mine a few days before her second consultation with Voss. He was, rightfully, nervous about sinking any money on Nevada silver, but she advised him to buy twenty shares of this stock, currently selling at $17 a share (half of what the famous Ophir stock was selling). She told him to sell these shares as soon as they hit $25, or in three weeks, whichever came first. The stock hit that $25 price point on March 1 and then immediately began a steady slide in value. If he followed her instructions, even deducting his broker fees, he would have made around $150. Not a bad return for two dollar’s worth of advice. If he had followed her instructions.

A soft knock at the parlor door was followed immediately by the entrance of Kathleen, carrying some logs in her hands. “Ma’am, I thought I would build the fire back up before Madam Sibyl’s next appointment. It’s raining cats and dogs out there, terrible cold. I thought the older gentleman might appreciate the warmth.”

Annie watched fondly as the girl took the poker and rearranged the embers on the grate before carefully placing three more logs on the fire. Kathleen had quite embraced Annie’s Madam Sibyl enterprise, cheerfully dropping whatever other task she was engaged in to run and answer the door or usher a client out of the house. Annie hoped that if the new income remained steady, she would be able to add a dollar a week onto the girl’s wages to compensate for the extra work.

“Kathleen, that is excellent. Let’s hope that Mr. Voss is willing to let you take his overcoat this time, so it can dry out. Do you remember how you practically had to pry his hat and gloves off of him the first time he came?”

“Oh, ma’am. Do you think he was afraid I was going to steal them?”

The door bell rang and Kathleen dusted her hands on her apron and went out into the hallway to answer it. She left the door to the parlor open, and Annie heard Voss say gruffly, “I can announce myself, girl. No, I don’t need you to take my coat. Skedaddle, I’m sure your mistress has better things for you to do.”

Matthew Voss strode into the room, Kathleen right behind him, her cheeks pink with suppressed irritation, and Annie repressed a laugh. Instead, she said calmly, “That will be fine, Kathleen. I will ring when it is time to let Mr. Voss out.” She watched as Voss stripped off his gloves and pushed them into his overcoat and hung his hat and umbrella on the coat stand. He then shrugged out of his coat, gave it a shake, and hung it up as well. At least it looks like he intends on staying the whole hour. That is a good sign. But he certainly doesn’t sound too pleased. Annie sat up straighter and folded her hands.

Walking towards her, brandishing a rolled-up newspaper, he said, “Well, Madam Sibyl…or what ever your name is…have you determined that the moon and Saturn are directing me to buy up some other outlandish crop? Or do you need to look to see if my palms have sprouted a new line in the past month? Tell me that means I should sink all my savings into some such nonsense as oil wells in the Central Valley?” Voss glared at her, hands on his hips, his mouth compressed to a thin line.

Annie raised her chin up and stared back. He impressed her as someone who wouldn’t respect anyone he could bully. And, if he had taken her advice, he would have made money, so she resisted the impulse to defend herself.

“Hah,” he barked out with his distinctive laugh, “I guess I just might take that advice, no matter how hair-brained it sounded!” A large smile lit up his face, and as he pulled the chair out to sit down, he thumped the newspaper down in front of her. “I picked up the first edition of the evening Chronicle on the way here, and what do you suppose I read?”

Before Annie could open her mouth, he said, “After dragging their heels for the past three years, the idiots in the state capital have finally decided to fund the next extension of the harbor seawall. Came up with $100,000 to fund not only the bulkhead but wharves, piers, and a roadway and sidewalk the length of the sea wall. And they stipulate the money has to be spent within the next year. And that means there is going to be a big demand for what, you may ask?”

“Cement!” Annie crowed.

“Right you are! A whole lot of cement, both the new fangled Portland stuff and the good old fashioned limestone cement.”

“And you invested in both companies? Blochman and Cerf, and Davis and Cowell, as I recommended?”

“Yes, ma’am. I did. I wasn’t going to at first. But, with the tidy profit I made selling the flax and unloading that silver stock when it hit $25 a share, I had enough to buy a stake in both. And you were right They were looking for investors. Davis and Cowell needed quick cash to buy another ship—their business had grown so much. And Blochman and Cerf needed some capital as well. Cerf told me that no one made Portland cement on the west coast, and they had promised the last of their inventory to complete the California Cable Car line up Nob Hill. As a result, they needed to import more so they would be ready in case the City Hall extension went forward. Turns out you were right about that, as well.”

Just a week after Annie advised Voss to get a bid ready to provide furniture for City Hall, the City Hall Commission announced that they had funded the next stage and that all bids had to be submitted March 1, only two weeks later. She asked, “Did you get a bid in for the furniture for the finished section?”

“Certainly did, and the announcement caught my chief competitor napping. Smeckleson didn’t have his figures together and way over priced his bid.”

“Oh, Mr. Voss. You got the contract!”

“Yep, going to be busy as can be at the factory this spring and summer. And, just as you predicted, Blochmann and Cerf were awarded the contract for the foundation work for the new section. With this new seawall and all, you can be sure I will see a good return on my investments for both companies. Cement. Who would have ever thought, after a lifetime casting my lot with wood, I would make money on cement?”

Annie and Madam Sibyl’s first client grinned broadly at each other, in perfect harmony.


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