The Two Mrs. Carlyles by Suzanne Rindell: Featured Excerpt
By Suzanne RindellJuly 22, 2020
Before the great earthquake of 1906, I was not haunted, but it would be inaccurate to say my mind was entirely at peace.
From the time I was a small child, I’d suffered from what the sisters called “spells”—strange, trancelike episodes of which I have no memory. I’d be found, say, with a broken toy but no understanding of how I’d broken it. I was raised to see these spells as an undesirable flaw in my person—my curse, really.
In fact, I have always had reason to believe that my spells had something to do with my winding up in an orphanage. Most of the other girls had arrived at St. Hilda’s Home For Girls by the traditional route: that is,, as infants, by way of a basket left outside the main gate. But I was seven when I was brought to St. Hilda’s. I still have memories of a house. Richly colored rugs. A chest full of toys. A fireplace and a room filled with books. I must have been around six when my mother and father died. I suffered a terrible spell around the same time and, in consequence, did not learn the particulars. The most I have been told since was that they took sick and that there was simply nothing for it.
An aunt with three children of her own took me in for a short time, but I’m told that when my spells began to take the form of hysterical, violent crying, her nerves were stretched to the limit. My aunt dealt with me as best she could, mostly by putting a drop or two of laudanum in a glass of milk and ordering me to drink it down.
She kept me in her care for just shy of a year, at which point she had a change of heart about her duty—or so I assume, because she brought me to St. Hilda’s and left me, with stunning detachment, in the care of the nuns who greeted us at the gate. I was confused when we first arrived. My aunt bade me stand a few paces behind her and whispered something to them I couldn’t hear, until her voice rose a little as she went on.
Surely you understand. I can’t have that kind of wickedness in my house. She’s beyond my help!
The nuns bobbed their heads. I was admitted without further interrogation. I never saw my aunt again. It was then that I realized most of life is divided up into a series of “befores” and “afters”:
Before my mother and father died, and after.
Before my aunt brought me to the orphanage, and after.
Before I made friends with Cora and Flossie, and after.
Before the orphanage caught fire and burned to the ground, and after.
Each event marked a sea change and divided my life with a sense of permanence. There was no going back, no reconciling the dichotomy.
Even now, this feels true, for most San Franciscans will tell you there are two cities: the one that existed before the earthquake, and the one that was rebuilt after.
What the ’quake itself did not topple in 1906, the fires razed. Afterwards, the world was hungry for modernization, and eventually, the “new” San Francisco boasted wide streets thronged with automobiles and tourists. The steel-blue waters of the bay began to buzz with pleasure cruises. Modern department stores sprang up in Union Square, their shiny display windows winking in the sun.
But the San Francisco that existed before the earthquake was a piece of the Old West, a place that had been slapped together hastily to cater to the needs of the ’49ers.
Nowhere was this truer than in the infamous neighborhood nicknamed the “Barbary Coast,” where the sidewalks stank of piss and ale. Even as civilization tried to nudge its way in, the neighborhood still hosted the occasional barbaric shoot-out. Horses nickered impatiently, tied up outside the area’s many saloons. Ragtime and sawdust spilled out of every open doorway. The streets were narrow alleyways frequented by sailors and prostitutes. It was a place where a man might still be “shanghai’ed”—kidnapped after falling into a whiskey-induced stupor, only to wake up aboard a ship bound for the Orient and forced into work. Even the fog that rolled into the city during the late afternoons moved as though on the prowl.
During our days at the orphanage, Cora, Flossie, and I had only glimpsed the streets of the Barbary Coast a handful of times. I suppose in our initial impressions we were rather blind to the neighborhood’s more unsavory characteristics. We did not notice the stench; we did not observe the hollow, opium-addled gazes of the men and women who walked the streets. Instead, to us, it felt as though the rebellious spirit of the Wild West was still alive, and to our young, foolish eyes, the Barbary Coast appeared an exciting, merry place.
We observed what naïve girls do: Cora took special note of the colorful, flashy dresses worn by the dancehall girls. Flossie noticed that these girls often jingled with coins. As for me, I noted their laughter, which seemed loud and constant. Surely, people who laughed like that were having a gay time.
When we run away, Cora mused. That’s where we’ll go. We’ll wear bright dresses and dance, and no one will order us about, ever again.
Cora hated life at the orphanage. Like all wrongfully imprisoned heroes, she insisted her presence there was a mistake: she ought have been born to royalty, or, at the very least, a great robber baron. Of course, the way most people reacted to Cora’s scarlet hair and striking beauty did not help to disabuse her of this notion. She took to flouting the sisters’ rules and obsessively plotting her escape. As Flossie and I were her closest friends, she planned for all three of us to run away together.
Cora was full of ambitious dreams, but if there was anyone who might actually see one of Cora’s plans to fruition, it was Flossie; she had a knack for shrewd planning. Flossie was slim, narrow-hipped, and as straight as an arrow. She had lank blonde hair the color of pale straw, a long neck, and very large, very round blue eyes that seemed to take you in one feature at a time, as a bird might. Whenever her eyes lit up in that birdlike way, you could be sure she was making careful calculations.
But, as it turned out, it didn’t take much plotting for us to run away. When St. Hilda’s mysteriously caught fire, we were presented with a natural opportunity. I can still recall those first days roaming the streets of the Barbary Coast; it was then that we first glimpsed the neighborhood’s rougher side. It was like seeing behind the curtain at a magic show. The atmosphere of merriment that had so charmed us before was laced with dark frenzy, and sometime between night and morning the sounds of laughter too often turned to the screams of violent argument. I found myself newly intimidated. Flossie appeared unsurprised but leery. Only Cora remained doggedly optimistic.
“It’s only because we’re on the streets all night,” she insisted. “I’m sure anywhere you go, four o’clock in the morning isn’t bound to be very pretty.”
When we arrived, we hardly knew what to do, but the cheerful plinkety-plonk of the player pianos kept our steps light even as our stomachs growled, and kept us hoping that the answer would come. Later, of course, the irony of this dawned on me: we’d taken heart from music produced by mechanisms with no heart at all. We couldn’t have guessed then, but this was symbolic of the Barbary Coast: merry on the surface, but cold and mercenary underneath.
By then we’d managed to piece together what had happened to our former home. A Terrible Act of Arson, the newspapers all read. St. Hilda’s had been utterly reduced to cinders. A handful of girls had died of smoke inhalation, as had one of the sisters, Sister Edwina. The remainder of the orphanage’s former occupants were scattered upon the winds of charity that carried them in haphazard manner to five other similar establishments—one as far away as Oregon. If we had lingered instead of running away, we surely would have been separated. This would have proved unbearable: the three of us were family, tied together by a bond even stronger than blood.
We wandered aimlessly for a few days, until Flossie set her sharp mind to ensuring our survival. She procured a name—Mr. Horace Tackett—and the address of the boardinghouse he ran.
“I hear not only will he take us in, he’ll help us find employment,” Flossie said. “He owns the dancehall down the lane.”
Cora mulled this over, brightening. I could see she was already imagining herself wearing a colorful dress.
“But what will I do?” I asked.
Cora and Flossie were sixteen then, but I was not quite fourteen and scrawny, with the figure of a boy. I was a mousy little sister with few defining features other than my atypical passion for books, which I very much doubted would help me pass for a dancing girl.
“Hmm.” As Flossie looked me over, it was plain she was wondering the same thing. “I’ll think of something,” she promised.
Copyright © 2020 Suzanne Rindell.