Away in a Manger: New Excerpt

Away in a Manger by Rhys Bowen is the 15th installment in the Molly Murphy series set during Christmastime in 1905 New York City (available November 17, 2015).

It's Christmastime in 1905 New York City, and for once, Molly Murphy Sullivan is looking forward to the approaching holidays. She has a family of her own now: she and Daniel have a baby son and twelve-year-old Bridie is living with them as their ward. As Molly and the children listen to carolers in the street, they hear a lovely voice, the voice of an angel, and see a beggar girl huddled in a doorway, singing “Away in a Manger.” Bridie is touched by the girl's ragged clothes and wants to help her out if they can. They give her a quarter, only to watch a bigger boy take it from her. But Molly discovers the boy is the girl's older brother. They've come from England and their mother has disappeared, and they're living with an aunt who mistreats them terribly.

Molly quickly realizes that these children are not the usual city waifs. They are well-spoken and clearly used to better things. So who are they? And what's happened to their mother? As Molly looks for a way to help the children and for the answers to these questions, she gets drawn into an investigation that will take her up to the highest levels of New York society.

New York City, Wednesday, December 13, 1905

Tis the Season to be jolly,” sang the carolers outside Grace Church, while across Broadway the brass band of the Salvation Army thumped out “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” in competition. It seemed as if the whole of New York City was suddenly caught up in the Christmas spirit. I maneuvered Liam’s buggy along the crowded sidewalk, checking to make sure that Bridie was walking close beside me. In such a crowd one couldn’t be too careful. Everyone seemed to be laden with packages and baskets of food items needed for holiday baking. It had been a year of optimism, with President Roosevelt elected for his first full term of office and the Wright brothers showing the world that airplanes really could stay up in the sky for more than a few seconds. We were definitely in the age of progress.

I pulled Bridie back from the edge of the street as an automobile drove past, sending up a spray of slush and mud. So much for the age of progress, I thought, as some of it splashed onto my skirt. It had snowed the night before, the first snow of the season, creating an air of excitement, until the sun had come out and started to melt it, making the sidewalks slippery, dirty, and difficult to navigate. As we reached the corner of Tenth Street the young crossing sweepers were busy at work, clearing a pathway through the slush so that we ladies didn’t get the hems of our skirts dirty.

“Merry Christmas. God bless you, lady,” they called out, holding out raw little hands covered in chilblains. I felt guilty that I hadn’t a penny or two ready for them, but the truth was that there were so many of them. How could I possibly choose one? And it was not only the crossing sweepers with their hands out. There were beggars of various sorts every few yards along Broadway, from hunched old women to pitiful children. Then there were those, like the crossing sweepers, one step up from beggars—the newsboys, the flower sellers with their tiny sprigs of mistletoe and holly. There were just too many of them. It hadn’t been a year of progress for all of New York, that was clear enough. Immigrants were still arriving in their thousands, cramming into the already jam-packed Lower East Side and trying to support their families any way they could—many by selling a few eggs, roasted corn, bootlaces from a pushcart. I passed a baked potato stand with its enticing aroma. Several young boys stood around it, holding out their hands to the glowing charcoal until the owner drove them away.

As we moved away from the choir of carol singers, who were warmly wrapped in scarves and cloaks against the cold, I became aware of another voice—small, high, and beautiful.

“Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,” it sang. “The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.”

Bridie heard it too and tugged at my sleeve. “Look, over there,” she said.

I looked. A small girl was sitting in a doorway of Daniell’s Haberdashery Store, huddled against the cold in a thin coat. She held out a tin cup as she sang, but people passed her without noticing her.

“Do you think she’s an angel, come down for Christmas?” Bridie whispered to me.

She certainly looked like one. She had almost white-blonde hair and big blue eyes in a little heart-shaped face and her voice was so pure and sweet that it brought tears to my eyes.

“We have to give her something,” Bridie said firmly, but I was already reaching into my purse.

“Go and give her that,” I said, handing over a quarter.

She looked at it critically as if she thought it ought to be more, then took it and darted through the crowd to drop it in the girl’s tin mug. The child looked up and gave Bridie an angelic smile. Her gaze fell on me and I had a strange feeling of connection.

Bridie made her way back to hang on to the buggy. “She looks so cold,” she said. “Couldn’t we give her some of my things? I know they’d be too big for her but at least they’d help her stay warm. Perhaps her mommy could make them into the right size for her.”

I looked back. “She probably doesn’t have a mommy,” I said. “No mother would let her little child stay out begging in this weather. She’s almost certainly an orphan.”

“How sad,” Bridie said. “To have nobody in the world to look after her. That’s not fair.”

“I’m afraid life isn’t very fair,” I said. I glanced back at the girl and saw that one of the crossing sweeper boys was now standing beside her. In all likelihood he’d take the money we’d just given her. It was very much a dog-eat-dog world in the lower levels of New York society. Then my gaze turned to Bridie, who had now blossomed into a sturdy eleven-year-old with the promise of becoming a beauty one day, and it occurred to me that she might well be an orphan herself now. I had brought her across the Atlantic from Ireland when her own mother was dying, and then Daniel’s mother had taken her in when her father and brother had gone down to Panama to help dig the new canal. That had been a year ago, and we’d heard nothing from them since. And the news that had come from that hellhole had not been good—men dying like flies of yellow fever and other tropical diseases. So it might well be that we were all the family Bridie had in the world.

Of course she’d been well looked after by Daniel’s mother, who had recently sent her to stay with me in the city, so that she could have a more normal education with girls her own age. It was also suggested that she could help me take care of Liam until I could find a proper hired girl to take the place of Aggie, who had died when our house was bombed. I would have taken Bridie in anyway, as I was now the closest thing she had to a mother, and I was glad when Daniel agreed to the arrangement. It was working very well. She was proving to be a willing little helper and good company.

“We’ll look through your things and see what we can find for the little girl,” I said. “And I’ll buy you some yarn so that you can knit her a scarf. Mrs. Sullivan says you’re a grand little knitter now.”

Bridie beamed with pride. “I like knitting,” she said. “And I like being here with you, taking care of Liam. I hope you don’t find a new mother’s helper too soon.”

“I don’t want you thinking that you’re only here as my helper, Bridie,” I said. “It’s important that you get proper schooling, and my mother-in-law wants to turn you into a young lady.”

She moved closer to my side. “But I like being with you best,” she said. “You’re the only mother I’ve got in the world.”

I felt a lump come into my throat. There was nothing I’d like better than to keep her with me, but I knew that eventually Mrs. Sullivan would want to educate her and then introduce her into society better than I could. Daniel had also been urging me to find a properly trained servant to help me around the house and with Liam. I saw his point. In his position with the NYPD, status mattered. We should be entertaining more, and a husband who could not provide his wife with the luxury of a servant would be frowned upon. Nonetheless I was in no rush—having grown up in a cottage on the West Coast of Ireland, I was used to hard work and found it easy enough to keep our small house clean. And for all Daniel’s urging, I could never see myself giving tea parties.

“The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,” I heard the sweet voice still singing. “But little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.”

I turned to look back, puzzled. There was something about the song, or the way she was singing it, that didn’t seem right, didn’t fit. Something significant. Then I shook my head, not wanting to admit that Bridie had rattled me with her talk of angels. Where I came from in Ireland we were all too ready to believe in the miraculous. But this was New York and things that happened here were all too real.

We crossed Broadway, bumping the buggy over clumps of frozen mud and trolley lines, weaving between brewer’s drays and cabs and watching out for more speeding automobiles. My son, Liam, slept on blissfully the way that only babies can, his long dark eyelashes brushing his cheek. I gazed at him now, thinking how chubby and healthy he looked, in contrast to that little …

“Do you think she really might be an angel?” Bridie asked suddenly. “Perhaps she’s been sent down specially for Christmas to remind people to be good. We ought to give her more money. I’ve got two dollars saved up. She can have those.”

I looked down at her tenderly. “I thought they were to buy Christmas presents with,” I said.

“That girl needs the money more,” she said. “I still have time to make Christmas gifts.”

“You’re a very kind person,” I said, “but I’m afraid the world isn’t quite as simple as you think. If we give the girl more money she probably won’t be allowed to keep it. You saw that bigger boy. He’s probably her minder and the money will end up with an even bigger boy or even an adult in charge of a gang. They put out pretty children to beg because they are more likely to touch people’s heartstrings.”

“That’s terrible.” Bridie was frowning. “That girl looks as if she never gets enough to eat. Let’s at least make her a pie or something next time we come this way. No boy could take that away from her if she eats it quickly.”

“We’ll do that,” I agreed, “and we’ll see if you have any warm clothes that are too small for you now.”

Bridie gave me a satisfied smile, then tugged at my sleeve again. “And one more thing.”

“Yes?” I asked, expecting another charitable thought.

“Could we go and look at Macy’s department store one day? They say their windows are all done up to look like magic.”

“We can certainly do that,” I said. “Liam might be old enough to enjoy seeing them too. So might I.” And I grinned at her.

Copyright © 2015 Rhys Bowen.

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Rhys Bowen is the author of the Anthony and Agatha Award–winning Molly Murphy mysteries, the Edgar Award-nominated Evan Evans series, and the Royal Spyness series. Born in England, she lives in San Rafael, California.