The train from the country had been late, and the progress of the crowded streetcar was maddeningly slow, traffic being busy and the horses decrepit. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals kept special watch on the street railway lines, but the sad pair pulling our car had escaped their vigilance. As we rattled through the press of trolleys, delivery wagons, omnibuses, and dashing pedestrians, I was repeatedly jostled against my neighbor on the overhead strap. He had had garlic for supper.
When, at last, I got off the streetcar, I still had a short distance to walk to reach the Delaware River piers. It was an area of wholesalers — teas, candles and lard oil, spices, wool — but I passed a few shopfronts, too, all closed for the night, their window displays only dimly visible in the light from the street lamps. A dry goods window caught my eye nevertheless and was cunningly enough done to make me stop and study it a moment, late as I was.
A rolling landscape had been made all of fabrics, with folds of green and brown tarlatans for woodlands, hills of tulle, a blue satin river, and pale linens and muslins shirred into fields of spring growth. Mr. Edwin would have appreciated it. When Isabelle and I cleared out his desk, we found a leatherette box of sketches for merchandise displays, though none as fanciful as the fabric landscape.
There was nothing particularly private about those sketches, nor about anything else in Mr. Edwin’s desk, but I didn’t like emptying the drawers. I’d never had anything to do with the desk before, except to dust its surface, and there I was throwing away worn-down gum erasers and pen nibs, and his calendar diary and reading spectacles. It didn’t help that it was all under Isabelle’s supervision. I felt the same when she had me clear away other things that couldn’t be sent to charity, like his shaving brush with its splayed bristles and the half-used bowl of shaving soap, and a dressing gown he so favored that the oft-darned cuffs and shawl collar were fraying again. It’s things like that, ordinary things that show the wear of common use, which bring home to you that someone is really gone.
I sensed the presence of the river before I reached it. Of course, I knew it was there; I had lived quite near it for a year. But it was more than plain familiarity with the river’s existence that informed me. There was a difference to the atmosphere, a coolness apart from the winter evening’s chill, like a bassoon behind violins. There was, too, an opening up of space, a feeling that some large edge was close at hand. Lights were fewer ahead; sounds broke up, spread out, and died thin.
Perhaps, however, it was only my state of mind that made the approach to the river so suggestive. Isabelle Martin awaited me there, and the course our meeting might take was anything but clear. I could have said the “notorious” Isabelle Martin, for she had been called that and more — evil, conniving, immoral. (To be fair, there were those as well that called her better things, like tender and diligent.) It was her house near the river in which I’d lived that year, hers and her husband’s. And more passed there for all three of us than some folks meet in the full of their lives. For though everyone encounters death somewhere along their way, few are acquainted with murder, and fewer still accused of it.
They talk about the pursuit of happiness in the Declaration of Independence, but when was it people really started expecting they ought to be happy? When was it they started thinking it was all right to do whatever it took to get personal happiness? It must have begun some time while I was a child, for I know my parents never had such a notion, nor my grandparents, and yet, when I was grown, there it was, showing its face with greater and greater boldness in more and more places.
Isabelle Martin certainly considered she had a right to be happy. And she was clever enough and sure enough to use whatever came her way, including me. I remember her clearly on that last night in 1887, waiting on the pier at Philadelphia’s waterfront, ready to set sail for a new life. She was going to France to re-visit the places of her childhood, and then someplace else, where I did not want to know. I had asked her not to tell me, and she had agreed to my request without question.
Isabelle’s slight figure seemed even smaller in the shadow of the great ship, yet she stood straight and still, looking calmly out across the harbor as if she were viewing a flower garden on a fine summer’s day. While I shivered despite my thick wool shawl, Isabelle, in her trim silk traveling suit, seemed not to feel the dampness in the fog curling around us carrying with it smells of wet rope, decaying fish, and sewage. Other passengers bustled past us, porters behind them dragging trunks on wheeled carts or hoisting cases on their shoulders. Rough seamen in three’s and four’s strode noisily by on their way south to the ale houses and oyster bars on Water Street. They eyed us openly, made curious by two lone women standing wordlessly and without apparent purpose. But Isabelle ignored the staring sailors and the busy travelers and porters forced to detour around us.
I’d wondered, at first, why she wanted me to see her off. But when I saw her so serene in the misted darkness, I knew. She wanted to show me she believed she had been right, that her conscience was clear. I also knew, as cold water seeped through the soles of my thin shoes, that I had come because I wished to see just that which she desired to show.
I wanted to witness Isabelle Martin on the verge of what she expected to be a happy life at last, if only to observe closely again her fierce impulse toward happiness, for though I was only a servant girl of 24, it seemed to me that this was an impulse which would mark the movements of women and men in society more and more, and that it deserved careful watching.
I came to Isabelle Martin when she needed me most. She had had maids before, but they had always been older women who did their work in crisp silence, Irish or English women who, despite their lower station, looked a bit askance at Isabelle Martin because she was French and had too high an opinion of herself. Honestly, that was one fault I never could find in her. Her long vowels and the soft way her French accent caressed words could make her sound aloof and conceited, but really, she was in many ways a burdened woman, only slightly vain, and very lonely.
Because she was expecting their first child, her husband, Edwin Martin, was feeling indulgent toward her, so he put in at the domestic agency for a servant girl closer to his wife’s age, and one with experience of babies, to ease her confinement. I was 23 then; Isabelle was 27. I came from a family of six living children, of which I was the oldest girl, and I knew not only about babies, but about birthing, as my grandmother had been a midwife and had taken me along as assistant from the age of 11.
I thought at first I had the wrong address, for number 15 Chestnut Street was a grocer’s shop in the commercial district, just west of the trolley turnaround at Market and the dock where the ferries crossing the Delaware to New Jersey put in, but a clerk inside directed me to a red door beside the plate glass front of the shop and told me to ring the bell, as Mr. and Mrs. Martin lived overhead.
The house was red brick, like most of the buildings in the area, with three stories above the shop and a dormer window standing out from the sloped slate roof. There were four tall windows on each story, and lace curtains at all of them except one window on the third floor that had a shade instead and those on the second floor, which I later learned were the offices of Mr. Edwin and his partner, Mr. Cox. The neighboring building on one side housed a dry goods store and on the other side was a ship chandler’s; both appeared to have residences on the floors above.
Mr. Edwin answered the door himself, huffing from the long staircase, though he was a spare man, with no extra weight on him. I learned later it was his manner to breathe excessively whenever he had to deal with household matters, as if it were a great indignity or confusion to have to order a meal or ask about the arrival of the laundry or inquire when his wife was expected home. I had immediate reason to regret this quirk of his, for Mr. Edwin had a most disagreeable mouth odor, and in the narrow, enclosed staircase, his foul breath wafted back to me as he led the way up to the apartment.
Isabelle was sitting on a circular stool at a piano when we entered the parlor. She looked up from an open folio of sheet music on her lap as if we had surprised her, though surely she’d been awaiting us. It was a trick of hers to seem to be discovered absorbed in some task. It afforded, initially, a view of her shining dark hair, which she wore twisted in a thick knot, and then of the pale smoothness of her comely face lifting to encounter her visitor, an engaging smile dancing over her large, wide-set eyes and pursed mouth like sunlight on wind-ruffled water. She had the kind of looks and coloring that at certain angles conveyed a startling and exotic beauty, while at other angles, her features appeared heavy and excessive.
Men liked to come upon Isabelle Martin in a room empty of other people, so they might see that trick of the slowly lifted or turned head, that retrieval of herself from some occupation or private thought. It appealed, perhaps, to the explorer in them. But that first day, I knew none of this. I only knew that the young woman who might soon employ me had, by a simple tilt of her head and a sigh close to relief, made me feel that I was the one person in the world she had been waiting for.
“Well, my dear, here she is,” Mr. Edwin puffed. “I’ll leave you to it.”
Fixing her gaze on the empty air a foot above my head, Isabelle held her cheek towards her husband, who bent and kissed it. Then she turned her attention to packeting the sheet music, and he left the room, backing out as if he were in the presence of royalty.
During the few moments of this scene, I scanned the neat parlor. Besides the upright piano of dark wood, there were a number of chairs, a tall bookcase, a settee piled with fat cushions worked in needlepoint, and an etagere arranged with scores of decorative trifles. Near the windows, which looked out onto the street, stood a row of small tables holding potted ivy, violets, ferns, and other houseplants. Two walls were papered in a floral print and two in a paisley embossed with bronze flecks. On the walls hung pictures of landscapes, and over the fireplace, in a large gilded gesso frame, the portrait of a robust old man I later learned was Mr. Edwin’s father, Sylvester Martin. A dark, polished parquetry floor gleamed around the edges of wool rugs patterned in crimson and indigo.
“My husband’s time is much taken up with business,” Isabelle said, putting aside the music folio. “Your name?”
“Hanna Willer, ma’am.”
“I understand you’ve not held a position before.”
“But you know housework and cooking, I gather. And about…” She laid her hand on her big belly and looked down at it as if it were not a part of her, but a puzzling package someone had mistakenly left on her lap.
“I’ve had a lot to do with babies, ma’am, from their first squalling moments and on,” I said, hoping it was not improper to be so frank.
I had had little direct experience with people like the Martins, who had pianos and owned shops and hired girls like me to keep their homes and their children clean and provisioned. Though my family and my upbringing were respectable, they weren’t refined. My father was a carter; he hauled beer, mostly, from the German breweries between Girard and Columbia Avenues along the Schuylkill River to saloons and stores all over Philadelphia. It was honest work, but coarse.
“Well, I’ve had nothing to do with babies,” Isabelle said, smiling at me and putting me more at ease, “and I have embarked on motherhood like a schoolgirl leaving home on a cloudy day without an umbrella.”
She got up and walked to the plants at the window. Seeing her figure erect, I guessed that her time was no more than two months away. As she passed before me I smelled her scent, roses, and the fanciful thought came to me that a rose might sound as she did if it could speak. She stood a few moments plucking dead leaves from a begonia. I wondered if the interview were over.
“Shall you be my umbrella, then, Willer?” she said so softly I was not sure I had heard her correctly.
“Ma’am?” I ventured. She turned to face me.
“I wish to engage you,” she said, in a more practical voice. “I believe the agency described my needs accurately. I’ll take you through the details day after tomorrow, if you are willing and able to start by then.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said. “I’ve only to gather a few things from my father’s house, out in Montgomery County.”
“Then it’s settled,” she said and came forward to shake my hand, which I hadn’t expected. Her grip was light and fleeting, but the gesture afforded me another whiff of roses, and that, coupled with my youth, stilled the vague questions scratching like cupboard mice at the back of my mind.
The novel, The Shopkeeper’s Wife, was published by St. Martin’s Press in 1998.