Excerpt: Murder at The Elms
Updated: Jun 30
I turned in at the service driveway. Approaching the delivery entrance was like venturing into another world entirely from the one the owners, Edward and Herminie Berwind, inhabited. Gone were the statues, the exotic trees, and the carefully designed flowerbeds that graced the rest of the property. Here, it seemed the sun ducked behind thick clouds. That was only an illusion. Dense and tangled vines of wisteria grew like a roof above the circular drive, shielding the delivery carts and wagons from view of anyone gazing down from the first or second-story windows. Likewise, coal deliveries were made at the mouth of a tunnel that opened onto Dixon Street beyond the stone wall on the south side of the house. As far as the family or any of their guests were concerned, The Elms ran as if by magic.
Yet it wasn’t magic that had brought me there that morning. As soon as I passed through the delivery hall and into the cold-preparation kitchen, the tension wrapped like tentacles around me. The house had been open a mere few weeks, but even so, by now the staff should have fallen into a seamless rhythm as they went about their tasks. I felt no such rhythm, no harmony of a well-tuned orchestra.
Footmen, maids, kitchen staff—even the butler and housekeeper, judging by their clothing—stood gathered two and three deep around the long, zinc-covered table used for the preparation of cold dishes. A quick glance through the wide windows looking into the main kitchen—normally the heart of any great house—revealed a stillness I found astonishing, especially at that time of day. Only one man hovered over the cast iron range with its many burners and oven doors. His white tunic and tall hat identified him at the Berwinds’ chef. No assistants chopped food or mixed ingredients at the worktable, no scullery maids collected used pots and pans to scrub at the long sink.
If I hadn’t known better, I’d have ventured to guess that nearly all the servants, over forty of them, were planning to . . .
“That’s it, then,” the butler said with a sigh and a yank at his necktie, “we are going to strike.”
I swallowed a gasp.
“Do you think that’ll get through to ‘em, Mr. Boreman?” someone asked.
“Yeah, what if it doesn’t?” another challenged.
“It has to.” The assertion came from somewhere in the middle of the crush. “Where will they find enough servants to replace us all on such short notice?”
Despite the butler’s assertion that “this was it,” the debate raged on around the table while I watched, listened, and took notes. I tried to be discreet, keeping well to the back of the assembly, but it wasn’t long before a housemaid spotted me.
“You’re Miss Cross from the Messenger, ain’t you, ma’am?” At that, the room fell silent.
“Aren’t,” the housekeeper corrected, then turned her sights on me. “Do you intend running this story in your newspaper?”
“I . . . uh . . .” Suddenly feeling cornered, I took a half step backward. My shoulder blades came up against the cold surface of the rectangular white tiles that lined the walls.
“I certainly hope so,” the butler said with a sniff. “It’s the reason I telephoned your office.
Come closer, Miss Cross. Or . . . did I hear you’d married recently?”
“Miss Cross will do.” The crowd parted and I stepped up to the edge of the table. “You’re truly planning to strike? You know it’s never been done before. Not by house servants here in Newport.”
“We have as much right to air our grievances as any longshoreman or rail worker or coal miner,” a liveried footman said.
I couldn’t help frowning as I remembered the violent results of a miner’s strike only last September. I set my notebook and pencil on the table in front of me. “I was led to understand your wages here are among the highest in Newport. And that many of you enjoy rooms to yourselves, and two full bathrooms with hot and cold running water at your disposal. Forgive me if I inquire what it is you’re asking for.”
“A little time off, is all.” This angry retort shot at me from a young woman in black serge sporting a crisp white pinafore and frilled-edged cap.
“You’re a housemaid?” I took up my writing implements once again.
“Head parlor maid,” she said with an Irish lilt. Her chin lifted proudly.
“And the Berwinds allow you little time off?” I queried.
“Little? How about none?” Fiery color swept her porcelain complexion from chin to hairline.
My pencil went still. Had I understood correctly? “None? As in . . .”
“Never,” the housekeeper clarified. She was a stout woman with severely swept-back hair, round spectacles, and a dignified air. “When we are not sleeping or eating, we are working. Seven days a week, with time off only for meals and church Sunday morning.”
“I worked eighteen hours yesterday,” the head parlor maid supplied. “As I do most days.”
Murmurs of agreement rose in volume, echoing off the tiled walls.
“We’ve had about as much as we can take, Miss Cross,” said a handsome young footman. “A fella needs some time to himself once in a while.”
“And to herself,” the parlor maid added.
“I certainly agree.” I addressed my next question to the butler, “Have you talked to the Berwinds, tried to reason with them?”
“On more than one occasion.” Mr. Boreman shook his head sadly. “I’m afraid my words have fallen on deaf ears.”
“There’s nothing left to be done but walk out.” The parlor maid spoke as if ready to lead the charge out through the service entrance doors. “We’ll see how they get on without us.”
“You do realize that once you leave, there’s no guarantee you’ll ever enter this house again.” While my sympathies lay entirely with them, my hopes for their success were rather less enthusiastic. Call me a realist. I hated to see anyone put out of work.
While they continued their planning, working out exactly when and how they would walk off their jobs, I noticed one young woman backed off into a corner by the electrical circuit box. Her frightened eyes darted from one colleague to the next, and her hands fisted around her cotton apron. I went to stand with her.
“You don’t look particularly confident about this plan.”
She shook her head rapidly and spoke with an accent I recognized as Portuguese; there were many families from Portugal, or of Portuguese descent, living on Aquidneck Island. Her dark hair and eyes spoke of her southern European origins. “Only ill can come of it, ma’am.”
“And you don’t wish to follow their lead,” I guessed.
“No, ma’am. No trouble. I wish only to work.”
“You’re from Portugal?”
“I am, ma’am.”
“You’re far from home. I understand your trepidation. Have you family here?”
“No, ma’am. No family. No one. Only me. I am Ines.”
“I’m Emma Cross.” I almost corrected myself, until I remembered that since I’d come here in a professional capacity, my maiden name would do. “I’m pleased to meet you, Ines. Your English is quite good for someone who hasn’t been here long.” I stopped myself from adding that her language skills would help in securing her another position, should it come to that.
Her eyes grew large with fear, as if I’d accused her of something. She backed up until she came up against the glass case that housed the circuits. “There was a wealthy Englishwoman in my village. My parents worked for her. She taught English to many of the children on the propriedade.” She shook her head again, then translated, “On the estate.”
“I see. That must have made things easier once you arrived in this country.”
“Yes. But now . . .” She shook her head. “Miss Cross, I do not wish to strike. I am afraid. I don’t want trouble,” she repeated. She was shorter than me by several inches. She tipped her oval face up at me, the cheeks wide and smooth, the chin gently pointed, mouth bowed pleasantly. An exotic beauty, by American standards. Behind a thick fringe of lashes, her eyes reddened and she blinked away tears.
I reached for her hand. “You can’t be forced to strike, Ines. They are doing what they believe is right. You must do the same, even if it is to remain behind when the others leave.”
She returned the pressure of my hand, holding on tightly. Almost desperately. “May I truly?”
“Ines, you are free to make your own decisions.”
“What’s this? What are you telling her?”
The cross voice startled us both, and we glanced up to see the parlor maid standing close, her features taut with anger. Inge pressed herself farther into the corner and half behind me. I let her use me as a shield as I stared the housemaid down. “I’m simply confirming that she has choices, just as the rest of you do.”
The maid held up a fist. “It’s all for one and one for all. Everyone must agree to strike. If one of us backs out, the rest of us will fail.” Her Irish accent thickened as she spoke.
“That’s not fair,” I told her calmly but firmly. “Ines has no family in this country and nowhere to go should she lose her position. Are you prepared to help her if you’re all fired from The Elms?”
“We won’t be fired if we stand together.” She half turned and spoke to no one in particular. I noticed that several servants were watching us. “Isn’t that right?”
Heads nodded, but I shook my own. “That’s not how it works. The Berwinds might concede to your requests or they might send you all packing, as they see fit. It won’t matter to them if one or all of you decide to strike.”
Yet, even as I spoke, I again recalled the miners’ strike of last autumn. Those men were quickly replaced by nonunion workers. An easily solution for the mining company—one that ended tragically when the union miners opened fire on their replacements at a terminal of the Illinois Central Railroad.
Was I helping to put Ines in a similar position, with her co-workers so resenting her that they would take out their anger and frustrations on her?
I pointed into the main kitchen. “What about the chef? He doesn’t appear to be interested in striking either.”
“Monsieur Baudelaire is an exception,” the maid informed me in a tone that implied I was something of an idiot. Her lips flattened in disapproval. “He has time off whenever he isn’t cooking, and he’s never considered himself one of us.”
I turned back to the Portuguese woman. “Ines, if you should lose this position, you can come to me for help. You’re to go to Gull Manor on Ocean Avenue and tell whoever answers the door that Miss Cross sent you. Do you understand?”
She nodded vigorously. “Thank you, Miss Cross. But I hope it will not be necessary.”
“I hope so too.”
“Traitor.” Scowling, the housemaid started to move away, but I placed a hand on her shoulder.
“The same goes for you. For any of the women here who might find themselves in need of shelter. They’ll be welcome at Gull Manor.”
The maid pressed her face close to mine. Her complexion turned so red I fancied I could feel the heat wafting off it. “No one here needs your charity. Not them, not me, and not her.” Her finger shot out as if to pin Ines to the wall. “We’re willing to work for our livelihood, and work hard. All we want is a bit o’ respect and working hours that wouldn’t kill a donkey.”
“I’m only saying that you’d be welcome, if you needed,” I tried again, but she cut me off.
“Besides, I’ve a family on the island, and family sticks together. Just as everyone here is a family, or should be.” She aimed another spiteful look at Ines, who cowered with her chin to her chest.
“Bridget,” the handsome footman called over, “leave Ines alone and come over here if you want in on this vote.”
“Did I hear something about a vote?” A man in street clothes pushed his way in through the delivery entrance and stood poised with a notebook and pencil. He wore a brown tweed coat with patches at the elbows and a battered derby, his pale blond hair in such need of cutting it stuck out in tuffs all around the brim.
“Hello, Mr. Brown,” I said with a sinking feeling. Orville Brown owned—and almost single-handedly staffed—the Aquidneck Island Advocate, a newspaper I had found to be of more sensationalism than substance. If Mr. Brown didn’t believe a story had what it took to sell newspapers, he had no qualms when it came to exaggeration, embellishment, and, I had seen with my own eyes, downright fabrication.
“What have we here, hmmm? I hear tell there’s worker discontent here at The Elms.” His weaselly gaze took in the room. “It seems everyone is here. So, who is going to give me tomorrow morning’s frontpage story?”
I wished the little man would go away. Behind him, other reporters filed inside, among them, a journalist from the Newport Daily News, one from the Mercury, and Ed Billings, my former co-worker and, to put it honestly, my nemesis at the Newport Observer. I put Ed Billings in the same category as Orville Brown, but with rather less creativity.
Ed walked in my direction. “Emma,” he said in terse greeting. “Always the first on hand, aren’t you?” He spoke with his typical resentment, prompting me to shrug.
“Sorry, Ed. Can I help it if I got the scoop earlier than you? From what I understand, the staff here called me in specifically. How did you find out about this?”
He looked me up and down. “I see marriage hasn’t improved your manners.” I didn’t rise to the bait but stood waiting for his next comment, a faint smile on my lips. He harrumphed.
“Word always gets around.”
Yes, that was Newport. I couldn’t have expected to keep a story like this all to myself, as nothing stayed confidential for long. Tell one person, and you’ve told everyone. I gestured to the group around the table. “Would you like to listen to them, Ed, or do you want me to fill you in later?”
It was a subtle poke at how he had often taken credit for stories I’d fleshed out when I worked for the Observer. His excuse had always been that he held the Observer’s official news reporter position, while I was merely the society columnist.
He scoffed and moved away. I set my pencil to paper, ready to record what happened next.
The butler held up his hands for silence. “All in favor of going to Mr. Berwind this very day and presenting him with our demands and ultimatum, raise your hands.”
“One moment.” The French chef leaned in from the kitchen, his arms crossed over his chest. In his thickly accented English, he asked in a mocking tone, “Do the women get to vote, too?”
“I say no,” a footman said.
“Oh, you do, do you?” The housekeeper challenged him with a heft of an eyebrow.
“Well . . .” The young man compressed his lips and seemed to deflate. In the next moment, he regained his bravado. “Women aren’t allowed to vote, generally.”
The housemaid, Bridget, raised her fist once again. I didn’t doubt she’d use it if she felt the circumstances warranted it. “We’re in this as much as any of you men.”
Mr. Borman raised his hands again to halt the debate. “That will be quite enough. Mrs. Sherman and I are still in charge here. Everyone will vote.” At the titters of disagreement this roused, his eyes blazed. “Everyone or no one. Is that clear?”
Once again titters filled the air, but these were a slightly more agreeable kind.
“All right, then,” Mr. Borman said loudly. “All in favor of carrying on with our plans today, raise your hands.”
Everyone did. Except Ines, who had remained in her corner, not exactly cowering, but not with conviction, either.
Well, I’d say the ayes have it.” Mr. Boreman sighed deeply and clasped his hands behind him. “There’s no sense in putting it off. I’ll go up now.”
He started for the service staircase, but stopped when a small voice cried out his name. “Mr. Boreman, may I come, too?”
He turned, searching for the source of the voice. His gaze lit on Ines. “You, Ines? Why?”
Her arms hugging her middle, she stepped forward timidly. “I wish to tell the Berwinds that I do not strike, sir.”
“Why, I should . . .” Her fist again curling, Bridget whirled on the Portuguese maid. I stepped between them.
“That’s enough threats from you.” I held out the flat of my hand. Anger rose in several of the faces around me, and I braced for their outbursts. None came. They turned away and gathered among themselves to speculate on what the next minutes would bring.
Mr. Boreman held out a hand to beckon to Ines. “Come along, then, I suppose.” He didn’t sound happy about it, but at least he didn’t forbid her to go.
Ines started toward him looking like a convict walking to the gallows. The chef put his feet in motion as well. “I am going up, too. I must make clear to the Berwinds that I am not a part of this nonsense.”
Mr. Boreman nodded, then faced his coworkers one last time. “Wish me luck.”
He looked as though he believed he would need it.