The Whispering Women

Chapter 1


Louisa perched on the edge of a wooden chair in the outer office of Herbert Markham, Attorney at Law. His secretary, who also happened to be his mother, pecked at a typewriter on her desk and ignored Louisa. The feathers on her black hat bobbed as she typed. She had the wide, tight-lipped face of a New England-bred Yankee, the sort of face prevalent in meetings of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Louisa had never been to the attorney’s office before today. Usually, they received a notice at the end of every year that a deposit of approximately six hundred and fifty dollars had been made to their bank account. This year, instead, she received a letter asking her to come see him.

The door to the inner office opened, and Herbert Markham smiled warmly when he saw her. He had a clean-shaven face with a crease in the middle of his forehead. His graying hair, which had fled the top of his head, curled incongruously above his ears. He’d been overseeing her and her mother’s financial affairs for the dozen years since her father had died and hadn’t charged them a dime. A good thing, since they didn’t have any dimes to spare.

“Come in, Louisa. Aren’t you a vision of young womanhood?” he said, beckoning her inside. “How is your dear mother? Well, I hope.”

His office was tastefully decorated with a claw-footed Chippendale desk, heavy mahogany bookshelves with glass doors, a bust of Marcus Aurelius on top, and a framed colonial American flag between two tall windows looking out onto Wall Street. Outside the window, snow fell in silver drops as round and shiny as coins from the sky.

She sat down in a leather chair and folded her hands to exude an air of calm, but her knee vibrated under her long wool skirt. She felt Aurelius’ stone eyes glaring down at her.

“Mother is fine,” she said, which was not exactly true but she was in no mood for small talk. “Mr. Markham, why did you ask me to come here? Has something happened to our yearly allotment?”

He sighed. He was in his late fifties, about the same age her father would have been if he were still alive.

“I’m afraid it’s all gone, my dear,” he said in a gentle tone that might as well have been a slap across her face.

“But… I don’t understand,” she said, silently cursing herself for not having paid more attention to the accounts. Too busy with work, she had told herself, but the real reason was that she didn’t want to face the truth. She much preferred the illusion that their small well of money would magically refill itself the way it seemed to do in all the wealthy families. She should have been spared from any financial concerns, but there was no getting around the hard kernel of truth — the Delafields were poor now, and their family name meant nothing to the rest of the world.

“We’ve been quite frugal,” she said, clutching her purse.

“Yes, you have been. I wouldn’t have thought that Anna would be a good money manager, but…”

Louisa interrupted him.

“The annuity covers our basic expenses. Now that I’m working, most of my salary goes to clothing and transportation to various events. Writing a society column seems to be the only work for which I’m suited, but unfortunately it doesn’t pay well. We’ve been relying on that yearly allotment,” she said. “How could it be gone already?”

“There wasn’t much to start with,” he said, looking down at his desk and then up at her. “I couldn’t invest it or you wouldn’t have had anything to live on. Besides, your mother absolutely forbade it, and I can’t say I blame her after your father made such regrettable mistakes.” Then he leaned forward with a perplexed expression on his face and said, “Frankly, Louisa, I assumed you’d be married by now.”

“I’m afraid the scandal of my father’s death has tarnished my glow,” she said.

“Certainly, you might have found someone,” he said. “My nephew is coming to visit us in a few weeks. He lives in Cincinnati and isn’t married. Why don’t you come over for dinner and meet him?”

A tremor ran over Louisa’s shoulders but she stilled herself. The very last thing she wanted to do was marry, especially some relation from Cincinnati. She’d seen what could happen when a woman’s livelihood was dependent on marriage. Her once vibrant mother now lived like a hermit, sitting in her invalid chair all day, reminiscing about days long gone.

Louisa cleared her throat and said, “I do not believe marriage is the answer for me.” She paused and then asked, “So, there’s nothing left at all?”

“I stretched it as far and as long as I could. I’m afraid you’ll need to tighten the purse strings. Perhaps you could let go of your servant?”

He might as well ask her to cut off her right arm, she thought. Suzie had stopped even taking a salary, and Suzie was the reason they had survived as well as they had.

“At least the townhouse is paid for,” Louisa said.

“The townhouse is yours free and clear,” Mr. Markham said, “as long as you’ve kept up with the property taxes.”

Louisa froze. Property taxes? They had to pay property taxes?

“I thought you were in charge of doing that…” she said.

“Oh no, my dear. The bill for 1912 should have come to your mother by now,” he said, rising. The meeting was over. “Merry Christmas, Louisa, and please give your dear mother my regards.”

“Merry Christmas,” she said, though her tone of voice was about as merry as a case of typhus. She forced her head high as she strode out the door.

As Louisa got on the elevator, a single tear trickled down her cheek. She brushed it away with an angry swipe of her hand. Property taxes. She didn’t remember a bill for taxes, and Suzie hadn’t mentioned it.

“Are you all right, Miss?” the elevator operator asked.

“I’m fine, thank you,” she answered. “I must have gotten something in my eye. It’s gone now.”

The elevator creaked down to the ground floor, and the operator opened the doors. Louisa stopped short in surprise. An elegant middle-aged woman in a dark-purple velvet dress and a felt hat with a large purple plume looked just as surprised to see her.

“Louisa!” Natasha Bloodgood said. “What a surprise.”

Louisa stepped out of the elevator, and Natasha held her hands and kissed her cheeks.

“I’m on my way up to see Herbert about some property I’m buying,” Natasha said with a smile. “What are you doing here, cherie?”

“Checking on our annual annuity,” Louisa said, unable to keep the squeak out of her voice. The precariousness of her situation gripped her, and she imagined she stood teetering on the edge of a cliff.

“I see,” Natasha said as she stepped onto the elevator. The operator was about to close the doors, but Natasha stopped him. “Louisa, please come by the house soon. I have some lovely day dresses that no longer fit me. I wonder if you’d do me the favor of taking them off my hands.”

“Thank you, Natasha,” Louisa said. If it had been anyone else, she would have been humiliated, but Natasha had looked out for her in so many ways since her father’s death.

The doors began to close, but once again Natasha stopped him.

“I hope you’re covering the Christmas ball this weekend, cherie,” she said with a wink. “There will be so many eligible bachelors.”

The elevator doors closed.

Not you, too, Natasha, Louisa thought. At twenty-four years old, Louisa was past the age of interest to anyone but the desperate old widowers.

She headed out of the building and into the blustery winter day. Snow drifted down and dampened her cheeks. She pulled her coat tight, worried about the property tax and thinking she must find a way to make sure they could keep the house. It wasn’t impossible. Nixola Greeley-Smith wrote for The Evening World and she was doing well. She interviewed the most esteemed people in the world. Then there was Djuna Barnes who was making a name for herself as a writer and illustrator at The Daily Eagle. Unfortunately, The Ledger where Louisa worked was stodgy and set in its ways. Louisa didn’t know about anything other than society, and society writers earned next to nothing.

She turned the corner onto Broadway and nearly bumped into a beggar woman with a large, protruding belly. The beggar was young and dirty in a threadbare coat with a small boy clinging to her. She held out a cup and pleaded to the passersby, “Please, help. Please.”

Louisa was in no position to give money away, but she dug into her coin purse, pulled out a nickel, and dropped it in the cup. She’d intended to buy lunch with that nickel but she no longer had any appetite.

“Thank ye, Miss,” the young woman said, and Louisa made the mistake of glancing into her desperate eyes and seeing her own reflected fear.

She quickly turned away, but the panic which had been a burning ember bloomed into a flame. If they lost the house, would that woman be her, standing on a sidewalk, holding out a tin cup? She grimaced and shook her head. She must extinguish her fear, smother it, and figure out how to keep a roof over her head. She was a Delafield, after all. Her father may have besmirched the name with his ill-conceived investments and his ignoble death, but she would reclaim her place in society. She would restore their respectability. She simply had no idea how.

The snowfall thickened as she hurried along the sidewalk. In the middle of crossing the street to get to the subway station, she slipped on a patch of ice and fell forward, landing hard on her hands and ripping her dress at the knee. A motorcar swerved around her, and a man in a top hat stopped to help her up, but she waved him off, pushed herself up onto her feet, and continued numbly toward the subway.