An Excerpt from Murder at Beechwood

April 14, 2015

Newport, RI, June 29, 1896

I sat up in bed, my heart thumping in my throat, my ears pricked. I’d woken to high-pitched keening, an eerie, unearthly sound that gathered force in the very pit of my stomach. There had been no warning in last night’s starry skies and temperate breezes, but sometime in the ensuing hours a storm must have closed in around tiny Aquidneck Island. I knew I should hurry about the house and secure the storm shutters, yet as I continued to listen, I heard only the patient ease and tug of the ocean against the rocky shoreline, the sighs of the maritime breezes beneath the eaves of my house, and the argumentative squawking of hungry gulls flocking above the waves.

 

With relief I eased back onto my pillows—but no. The sound came again—like the rising howl of a growing tempest. Throwing back the covers I slid from bed and went to the window. With both hands I pushed the curtains aside.

And stared out at a brilliant summer dawn. Long, flat waves, tinted bright copper to the east, mellowed to gold, then green, and then a deep, cool sapphire directly beyond my property.

 

The sky was a still a somber, predawn gray, but clear and wide, with a few stars lingering to the west. Like polished silver arrows, the gulls dove into the water with barely a splash and swooped away to enjoy their quarry.

 

I could only conclude I had been dreaming, even when I’d thought I was awake. Well, I was certainly awake now. I grabbed my robe, slid my feet into my slippers, and quietly made my way downstairs.

 

I needn’t have muffled my footsteps, for as I entered the morning room at the back of the house I found Katie, my maid-of-all work, as well as Nanny, my housekeeper, already setting out breakfast. The inviting scents of warm banana bread and brewing coffee made my stomach rumble.

 

“You’re both up early,” I said.

 

“Mornin’, Miss Emma,” Katie replied in her soft brogue.

 

Nanny’s plump cheeks rounded as she bid me good morning, her half-moon spectacles catching the orange flame of the kerosene lantern. “Something woke me. I’m not quite sure what.”

 

“That’s so odd—me, as well.” I picked up the small stack of dishes and cutlery on the sideboard and carried them to the table, noticing the web of small cracks in the porcelain of the topmost plate. Katie looked at me uncertainly, then half-shrugged and made her way back to the kitchen.

 

She had been in my employ for a year now and had yet to grow accustomed to the informal machinations of my household. At Gull Manor we never stood on ceremony; there was no strict order of things, but rather a daily muddling through of tasks and chores and making ends meet. That was my life—by my choice and by the gift of my aunt Sadie, who had left me the means to lead an independent life.

 

Part of that gift included this house, a large, sprawling structure in what architects called the shingle style, with a gabled roofline, weathered stone and clapboard, mullioned windows framed in timber, and enough rooms to house several families comfortably. Set on a low, rocky promontory on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, Gull Manor was a very New England sort of house, one that seemed almost to rise up from the boulders themselves and have been fashioned by the whim of rain, wind, and sea. Yes, it was drafty, a bit isolated, and required more upkeep than I could afford to maintain it on the proper side of shabby, but it was all mine and I loved it.

 

Katie returned with a sizzling pan of eggs, and I asked her, “What about you, Katie? What brought you down so early?”

 

“Oh, I’m always up before the sun, miss. A leftover habit from being in service.” She placed the frying pan on a trivet on the sideboard and whirled about. “Oh, not that I’m not still in service, mind you...”

 

“It doesn’t always feel like it, though, does it?” I finished for her.

 

“No, miss. And for that I’m grateful. Now... I’ll go and get the fruit...” 

 

Nanny, in a faded housecoat wrapped tight around an equally tired-looking nightgown, heaped eggs and kippers on a plate, placed a slice of banana bread beside them, and went to sit at the table. I did likewise, and when I’d settled in and picked up my fork, I hesitated before taking the first bite. “Have you seen our guest yet this morning?”

 

Nanny shook her head. “That sort doesn’t rise with the sun.”

 

“Nanny! That’s unkind. Please don’t refer to Stella as ‘that sort.’ We agreed—”

 

“We agreed but I still worry that you’re crossing a line, Emma. Out-of-work and disgraced maids are one thing, but...” She pursed her lips together.

 

“Prostitutes are another,” said a voice behind me.

 

Nanny glanced beyond my shoulder and I twisted around to see the figure standing in the doorway. Stella Butler wore my old sateen robe buttoned to her chin. Her ebony hair, tamed in two neat plaits, hung over each shoulder, making her look anything but a jaded woman. The bruises with which she had arrived at Gull Manor had faded, thank goodness. High cheekbones and slanting green eyes marked her a beauty, but today that beauty struggled past obvious fatigue and the downward curve of her mouth. She met our gazes with defiance, but the spark quickly died. She bowed her head and released a sigh.

 

“I’m sorry. I’m grateful to you, Miss Cross. I promise I won’t stay long and I’ll pay you for every scrap of food I eat.”

 

I stood and pulled out the chair beside my own at the round oak table. I gestured to the well-worn seat cushion. “You’ll stay as long as you need, and as for payment, I’m sure we’ll work something out, something mutually beneficial.”

 

Nanny harrumphed. Without another word Stella scooped up a small portion of eggs and a slice of banana bread I deemed too thin, and returned to the table. I was about to admonish her to take more, that she needed to keep up her strength, but thought better of it. Stella obviously had her pride, and if she was going to carve out a better life than the one she’d been living, she would need pride as much as strength.

 

“I’ll be right back,” I told them. “I’m going to see if the newspaper came yet.”

 

“I would think the storm kept the delivery boys from venturing out at their usual time,” Stella said without looking up.

 

“You, too? This has been the strangest morning.” I glanced out the window. The sun had fully risen, gilding our kitchen garden and the yard beyond. A few fair-weather clouds cast playful shadows over the water. With a shrug I headed for the front of the house, my slippers scuffing over the floor runner. Ragged edges and the occasional hole suggested the rug needed replacing, but it would be some time yet before I could justify the expense.

 

It was as I reached the foyer that the wind suddenly picked up again, sending an unnerving shriek crawling up the exterior facade to echo beneath the eaves. I hadn’t been dreaming. What kind of a strange storm was this?

 

Bracing for a blustery onslaught, I opened the front door.

 

“Nanny! Nanny!” I shouted and fell to my knees. Here was no gale battering my property, or any other part of the island on which I lived. The keening and the cries I’d heard, that had yanked me from sleep, were not those of a summer squall.

 

They were those of a baby, tucked into a basket and left on my doorstep.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

 

 

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