Copyright 2011 by Lia Matera. First published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, September/October 2011 (70th Anniversary Issue).
This story may not be reproduced, copied or distributed for commercial or non-commercial use.
Ella awakened face-down on the concrete. She spat out grit that swirled in the night wind, then rolled painfully to her side. The Kingstons' windows were dark but the glare of arc lights on their jack frost hurt her eyes. She dropped her gaze to an iron fence like a line of spears from the Corinthian porch to the next rowhouse. She struggled to free her arm from the sheet wrapped around her, but the effort made her lungs boil with coughs. Earlier, she'd come to with her nose mashed and her mouth covered, struggling to breathe through the filthy linen. She remembered twisting and slithering toward the gate, frantic to expose her face. Now, if she could pull herself through and tumble down the steps to the basement level service entrance, the wagon wouldn't see her when it passed. It wouldn't matter if she blacked out again, the drivers wouldn't mistake her stupor for death. They wouldn't toss her onto a pile of corpses stacked like cordwood. Maybe she could hang on till Cook came out for the milk. None of the servants knew that Charles, Cook's bad-tempered husband, had dragged Ella to the curb like garbage. He'd waited till long past midnight, and if he'd wakened Cook afterward, it would have been to take his vulgar pleasure, not to tell her what he'd done.
Charles had been glad to get rid of Ella tonight, she knew that. When the Kingstons brought home baby Annie, they'd wanted the house kept warmer at night. Charles always slept through extra stokings of the furnace, so Mr. Kingston forced him out of his wife's warm bed and onto a cot in the basement. To keep him from sneaking back to the attic room and passing out there, Mrs. Kingston sent Ella, till then on a feather mattress in the nursery, to take Charles' place, "problem solved." As if the Kingstons knew anything about problems.
Most nights, Charles would slip upstairs after the two o'clock stoking and lie with his wife as if Ella weren't in the bed at all, as if Cook didn't weep with shame into her pillow, knowing Ella merely feigned sleep.
The men in this household were pigs. All but little John, eight years old and a master of silly limericks and botched riddles. Ella hoped he didn't grow up to be like his father, who'd felt no compunction about accepting an "accommodation" from her in lieu of references.
The fact that this had been a good deal for Ella didn't make his part of it right. He'd put his children into a stranger's hands knowing nothing but what she'd told him herself. And she'd have said anything to escape a shirt factory that left women half blind and coughing up cotton dust.
The Kingstons should have let her die inside, no matter their terror (everybody's terror) of the Spanish flu. At first, they'd put her in a corner of the basement, as far as possible from the potato bin and the new wringer washer. She didn't know how long she'd lain on old blankets like a stray dog gasping for breath. She'd overheard Charles, his voice full of false concern, tell the Kingstons they'd best set her out for the wagon soon. She'd be dead before it arrived, and why risk having the sickness seep through the house till then? What if he should nod off and miss the moment? They couldn't put her to the curb in the daytime. It wasn't that sort of neighborhood—cabinet members and senators and a supreme court justice lived within a stone's throw. But if they kept her inside, the stench would waft upstairs all day tomorrow, perhaps to baby Annie's room, or to six year old Muriel's or little John's.
Mr. Kingston, a lawyer, had blown hot air around it. He'd said it was a shame there were no caskets for the dead anymore, nor anyplace to put them, with funeral parlors stacked floor to ceiling. "Cook says the mother's dead and no father, that sort of family, so we'd have to bear the expense ourselves. But there's just no possibility of a burial now." Taking her to the hospital had been ruled out. "The Post says they've run out of everything, beds most of all. The sick are outside on the ground, both sides of the driveway and down the block. They can't do a thing for them. Pity the vaccine was useless." Mrs. Kingston wondered if taking Ella there would at least solve the problem of her disposal. "But how to get her there?" Mr. K was slightly curt, as usual with his wife. "It's no use sending for the Packard, no one at the garage will fetch her. They're not medics, can't expect them to risk contagion." He'd added, "And do we want our hospitals steam shoveling holes out back, piling in thousands of bodies like they do in Philadelphia? Not that you can blame Philly—4600 dead there last week alone. But I think our method's better, let wagons collect them off the streets and take them to rural Virginia." They'd agreed it was a mark of excellent governance that they could toss an afflicted servant to the gutter like trash and think no more about her.
As she walked out, Mrs. Kingston turned to say, "Charles, I'm terrified for the children. Is there someplace you can go for a few days after handling her… her body? I appreciate that you've stayed down here, away from all of us, since moving her. I'll leave some coins for you on the washer, for lodging and food. Please don't take the chance… don't say good-bye to Cook. I'll explain to her tomorrow." Charles had said yes, missus. "And you have no guess how the disease came into the house? We kept you all inside, none of us has been out for days." Charles said nothing. The servants knew Mr. K slipped away once or twice a week, returning just before dawn. He'd been doing it for months. "I'll have Maid put on gloves and a mask and send the rest of Nanny's things down the laundry chute. You'll get them burned before you go?"
Later Ella realized, blearily from her corner, that Charles was feeding something other than coal into the furnace. He was stuffing in her clothes and hats, in case some trace of sickness clung to them. There would be nothing left of her. Her body would melt away in a lye-covered layer of a mass grave. There would no stone with her name on it, there would be no ceremony. Funerals, like all public gatherings, were forbidden, illegal on order of the mayor. Not that any but the very rich could afford coffins—the few that could be found cost as much as Model Ts.
She noticed a darting movement in the shadow between the arc lights. A rat. It approached in tentative sets of steps. She wanted to scream but couldn't get enough air into or out of her lungs. She tried to unroll herself from the constricting linen, desperate to free her arms, to ward off this creature that, like her employers, couldn't even wait till she was dead. The rat turned, its ears angling toward the sound of metal wheels, the clomp of horseshoes on cobbles. Then it dashed back into the shadows.
The death wagon had turned onto her street.
Ella knew, from nights watching through the attic window, that two men in rubber boots would climb from the wagon's benchlike seat. As their horses stomped and fussed, they'd bend over her. From above, she'd look like a rolled carpet or bundle of bedding. Each would pick up one end, then they'd stagger to the open back of the wagon. With a practiced swing or two, they'd hoist her onto the stack. Men had been doing this since the middle ages.
And how was 1918 different than 1318? People were dragged away to prison for speaking against their ruler, thanks to the Sedition Act. Girls were burned alive, not at the stake but in locked shirtwaist factories. Men were tortured and lynched by mobs, not of peasants but of Klansmen. The poor fought wars so the rich could divide the spoils. And again, the streets rattled with wagons full of pestilent corpses.
They had been right, at the Anarchist's Hall. (It was shuttered now, many of her friends deported.) Mamma had taken Ella almost every night—it was where all the immigrants went, it was their social center. They staged plays and songfests, they collected money for strikers and shingle-weavers with cedar lung, they hosted speakers and held rallies. Ella and the other children had rampaged up the halls, jumped down the stairs, played games in the kitchen, and ignored the endless blather. They didn't care if someday humans treated each other as equals and shared their wealth. Things seemed just fine at the Hall. She couldn't imagine why the grown-ups complained all the time.
That's how people like the Kingstons were. They thought all the world was like their happy piece of it. They didn't understand the fuss—the strikes, the Free Speech Actions, the opposition to the draft. Things around them were good. Why should anyone protest?
Nicky used to say, it's not enough to tell people things aren't fine for others. Until trouble's brought home to them, they can't understand it. He was in Mexico now because he wouldn't fight men who'd done him no harm in a war no one could explain. Someday soon he'd come looking for her. The Kingstons wouldn't bother lying that they'd cared for her till the end. They'd simply refuse entry to a tattered-looking man asking after a dead servant.
Her ear on the cold sidewalk made the wagon jarringly loud, the more so because it was different from common street sounds, from the backfires and rumbles of cars, the clatter of trolleys, the staccato of women's boots on cobbles or cement.
It stopped near the Roosevelt house. Too close. It would come for her next.
She struggled with her shroud until panic kicked her senses out from under her. When she drifted back to consciousness, she couldn't remember why she was outdoors at night. Mrs. K was very strict about the servants coming in before dark, she wouldn't like it. Then Ella heard exclamations, swearing, someone's low murmur: "Ten for the both of you."
The sound of horses, their puffing breaths as they stood idle, brought her situation back into focus. Did it cost so much, ten dollars, to have a body hauled away like rubbish?
"And not a word about it," the voice continued.
"We'd shut our mouths, all right," a wagon man said, "for ten each."
After that, for a while Ella listened to the horses shift arrhythmically on shod hooves. Could they smell the dead bodies behind them? Could they smell the disease?
Time passed, maybe only minutes but they seemed like hours. The wind whistled up her nightdress but it didn't make her cold, she was insulated in her fever. She looked through bars (how had they come to be in her sight?) as the wagon men walked past with a bundle in a sheet. It gave a jerk, like a cocoon suddenly straining to deliver a terrible moth. Were Ella's eyes playing tricks on her? Was she was seeing herself from outside her body? She watched as the shrouded body was slung onto the cart.
Next time she became aware, there was no more champing of horses, only the shuffle of dry leaves over a dusting of snow. She hadn't noticed snow falling, or that the sky had grown pale enough for the streetlamps to go off. She saw she'd gotten free of her sheet but didn't recall how or when. She was on the other side of the gate to the service entrance, but she hadn't made it down the stairs. She was lying on them, the corners cutting into her chest and torso, scraping her calves where her nightdress ended. Her hands had lost all feeling, one clinging to the dirty metal of the fence, the other hooked through the bars. And she was shivering with cold now.
A voice cried, "Oh! Oh, my dear— How did you ever? Oh, my sweet Lord."
"Cook?" Ella whispered. What was her name? Ella wished she remembered. But the Kingstons called the female help Cook, Nanny, and Maid, as if there were no more to them.
"Come, Nanny," Cook said. "I don't know how you lived the night out here, and look, with snow falling, too. But try to stand up, dear, and we'll get you inside. Cut this gown off you and put you into the bath. However could they have—? The missus said you were dead. Came just now, at this hour, to tell me. I've had a good cry already. But let me just tie a kerchief over my mouth and nose. Get you in here before the milkman sees you, starts in all in Russian like he does. However could you survive a freezing night like this? I suppose it cut your fever—saved your life, it may be. But oh my savior and Lord, are those bites on your arm? Rat bites? Oh help us, Joseph and Mary. Come now, we'll get you cleaned up and into bed. We'll put you on Charles's cot. The missus sent him away, she said. Forbid him to tell me himself, in case he picked up the sickness when he carried you down from the attic." She made a teary gulping sound. "Heaven knows what she'll say now you're back. Or who'll stoke the furnace while my Charles is gone. Maid, poor girl, already has her back half broke from washing everything in the house, every bit of the children's clothes and bedding yesterday, in case you touched anything. And scrubbing every surface you might have breathed upon. No help from me—missus wouldn't let me near anything till she made sure I wasn't coughing. But here I'm complaining when you've been outside in this weather all night long." Ella saw the white cloth over Cook's nose and mouth soaking with tears where it touched her florid cheeks.
"Someone… gave wagon men money." Ella choked it out, her lungs tight and burning. "Twenty dollars. Take away a man. I think… alive."
"Bad dreams, dear. You should have heard yourself yesterday. Charles says you went on about anarchists. Said if he didn't know better, he'd suppose you were out to bomb the Palmers or the Roosevelts." Cook's voice was full of pity.
Ella didn't remember going inside, but she woke up on Charles' cot near the coal bin. Later still, again with no consciousness of having moved, she found herself in a tub of tepid water in the servants' bathroom. Maid knelt over her with a bar of soap. Like Cook, she'd wishfully relied on a kerchief over her nose and mouth to protect her. The poor woman looked younger with her disappointed down-turned lips hidden.
"Maid," Ella said. "Good… to me." Her relief at having the filth from the street, from her sick body, washed away was immense. She choked back tears of gratitude because they burned her eyes worse than the coarse soap.
Cook came in, waddling as usual as if a stick held her knees apart. She helped Maid wash Ella's hair. "Just look at those bites," Cook said, "and no doctors to help us. To think Mrs. Kingston came to me and said Nanny had passed. Like you might say, 'It's snowing.' With the nerve, on top of it, to complain it's too cold in the schoolroom. I looked right at her: 'Well of course it's cold, you sent my Charles away.' And she says, all accusing, 'Didn't I tell you to wear a mask? I won't have you cooking for the children without one. I can't have them exposed, that's why I sent Charles away, and Mr. Kingston, too. If they're well, they'll be back soon enough, and in the meanwhile, I'll have no drama about it. For the children's sake, we can do without our husbands for now.' Always the children, though you can't blame a mother for that. And we all love them. But then, we're all somebody's children, aren't we? So I said to her, 'Well, it may be just drama to you, to send a husband away.' Not as if mister and missus share a room, is it? He barely even pretends to care for her, now he's got that fancy piece at the Decatur. But I'm newly wed. And I told her, 'You can feel how cold it is, without my Charles. Call it drama if you will, but he's of use to us.' I didn't say, 'Not like Mr. K, who does nothing for nobody.' The Roosevelts' maid says Mr. K's practice is a sham, do you know? That he keeps the office because a man can't be seen to live on his wife's money these days, not if he means to get ahead in politics."
"Oh, Cook." Maid's eyes were wide. "What did the missus say?"
"What could she say? It's true—whatever does Mr. K do for us here?"
"He doesn't really have a woman at the Decatur?"
"He does. I know it because of Mr. Roosevelt, whose little Jimmy and Elliot play with our John. It was one of the nannies who told me. Mrs. R nearly left him, she said. It's why she took the children away last month. Found love letters to her husband… from her very own secretary, who lives at the Decatur. Which is how I know about Mr. K's fancy girl, because Mr. Roosevelt sent roses there when he was in Europe inspecting the fleet. Never mind that he's Assistant Secretary, everyone knows he runs Navy himself, and we'll win the war because of him, I don't doubt. But the boy at the flower shop, when he took the bouquet, he saw Mr. K there, with his woman."
"See if the apartment house doesn't get a bad reputation," Maid said.
"Serves it right. Poor Mrs. R—they say she's very kind to the help. And poor Mrs. K, too, if she knew. Mr. K never could go long without— Well, just say he has an appetite for the young ones. No mystery who broke the quarantine." Cook scowled at Ella, who was shaking in the cooling tub, suddenly self-conscious about being naked under the older women's gaze. Did Cook know what she'd done? But to her relief, Cook's expression softened. "Whatever else I could say about Mr. K, though, I never thought he'd be one to put poor Nanny outside like that. How I'll ever look at him again without spitting on the floor, I don't know."
Ella detested Charles and burned to expose him, to say it was he who'd persuaded the Kingstons to put her on the street, he who'd dragged her up the stairs and rolled her toward the curb like a sack of moldy potatoes. But she couldn't find it in herself to upset Cook. And she certainly felt no urge to defend Mr. K.
"You should have seen the missus's face just now," Cook continued, pausing malevolently, "when I told her I'd brought Nanny back in. She took it very bad, and I stood there not even pretending to be sorry. No, I smiled. I did. I said, 'Praise God Nanny survived, and no thanks to any in this house.'"
"Cook!" Maid sounded shocked but even with her mouth hidden under her apron, it was clear she was grinning.
"Not as if she can fire me," Cook said. "Find a good cook today, with everybody dropping like flies."
While the women finished helping Ella, they listed all the dead from the neighborhood. Ella watched Cook, her bushy brows beetling over small eyes, her nose making a too-wide bump in the kerchief tied over her face. Charles called her a hag, a sow, said he'd married her only because at her age and with her prospects, she'd do things he had to pay extra for if he went whoring. And poor Maid, a skinny woman of thirty, her back hunched from bending over laundry, had as usual failed to achieve an old-fashioned Gibson Girl, her rolled stocking showing beneath lank hair. But to Ella at that moment, both women seemed luminously beautiful.
"Maid, go up to my room and fetch one of my gowns." Cook's eyes filled with tears when she added, "God forgive us, Nanny, but they had Charles burn yours. The missus worried they'd have some sickness in them. But we'll share clothes with you, won't we, Maid? You're such a tiny thing, but maybe with belts and darts? You said you were a seamstress once?"
"Shirt factory," she managed. Since she was thirteen. Her lungs had only begun to feel completely clear of cotton dust after two years here. At first, the children often left her winded and wheezing, and it had been a challenge not to show it.
"Nasty places. Well, you weren't there for long, at your age." When Maid left the bathroom, Cook added, "Don't tell me you didn't lie to get this job. Twenty-five! Why, I doubt you're twenty yet, as womanly are you are."
Cook flushed scarlet then, perhaps remembering nights Charles had come upstairs to Cook's bed while Ella was in it. Ella had a sudden wish to take little John, a boy with a streak of harmless mischief and a grin to melt her heart, away from this house full of men who were no better than beasts.
The next thing Ella was aware of, she was again on Charles's cot near the coal bin. Nearby, Maid was sobbing. Ella struggled onto her side, her limbs twisted up in Cook's huge gown.
"Maid?" Ella coughed, the exertion draining her so she dropped her head back onto her pillow. But the coughs were no longer like hot knives between the ribs, they were barely worse than when she'd worked at the factory.
Maid was in a wingchair that had a loose arm, making it unsuitable for upstairs. The cracked glass shade of a table lamp cast a homey glow that kept the wood pile and coal bin (and Ella) in shadow. It was night time now, it seemed.
"Maid, what's wrong?"
"It's baby Annie," Maid said. "Cook's taking her out."
"To the street. For the wagon." She continued to weep. "The missus has gone half mad. Didn't want us to do it. She said to call for the ice man, ice to keep the baby from— Oh, I can't think of it, it's too horrible. And not a funeral home in a hundred miles that will answer its telephone. We couldn't convince her till she saw Muriel… The little dear's too young to understand, she kept sneaking in to the baby to hold her. When Mrs. K saw that... Oh Nanny, you can't imagine."
Ella could hardly force herself to breathe. "Mr. K? Knows?"
"His club says he's not there. Never arrived at all. I suppose Cook's right, and he's with that woman. But how to tell Mrs. K? We said we left a message at the club, and we did. If only we knew where to find Charles, we'd send him to the Decatur. But it wouldn't be decent, Cook says, for one of us to go. Too much talk. If the mister didn't fire us for it, the missus would."
Ella watched her weep. She felt as if the news were doing to her heart what the flu had done to her lungs. Baby Annie, with her sweet little fingers and toes, her pretty new curls, the way she repeated buh-buh and puh-puh for ten minutes at a time, as serious as a professor delivering a lecture.
"Cook's gone mad with it, too, Nanny. Imagine if you had to wrap up that darling little child and put her— She and the missus both, gone mad. Why look, Nanny, what Cook gave me." Maid dug into the pocket of her apron, then held something between her fingers. "A ten-dollar coin! Says Charles had a pocketful in his pants, left by the washer when he changed clothes to leave. If it's what Mrs. K gave him to get lodging, then how's he paying for it now? I asked Cook, but she got angry, saying, is it so hard to think her husband left it for her? And I said, 'But he wouldn't want you giving his money away.' And she said, 'You'd do the same for me if you had two people's wages to live on, and I had one. And better if there's less for Charles when he gets back.' Meaning he'd take it and get into trouble. They're not supposed to serve liquor down at Murder Bay, now the District passed that law, but he always finds some, doesn't he, if he has the extra coin?"
"If he has more… he'll be out…" She didn't have to say whoring.
"Oh no, he swore off it, Nanny. I heard him myself. Him and Cook one night in the kitchen, didn't see me at the door. She had her knife right through his vest and shirt, clear to his skin. He pushed her back and pulled up his clothes to show the mark she left. Said if ever he had the means to buy it ten times a month, he'd leave her. But as long as he didn't, she was a fool to worry. While he could get it for free, she'd be right to kill him for wasting the money."
"Do you think… could he have stolen from Mrs. K?" They all knew the missus kept a strongbox of coins. She doled them out to Cook and Maid to settle with the chicken man and fish man and the dressmakers, now that they all came here so no one left the house. "When Mrs. K paid Charles to go find lodging? If he saw where she kept them?"
Neither of them said more, but it was easy to envision Charles changing his clothes in a rush, forgetting the few coins in his pocket because he had a boxful under his arm.
"Muriel and John?" Ella asked, finally.
"Asleep, Nanny, and what a chore today, keeping them away from you. It's their instinct to come to you in need. Not that Mrs. K doesn't dote on them, but with you it's not so much fuss. And now, well… poor missus is half out of her mind. I put out their color crayons and said to draw pictures of their daddy, to give him when he comes home. But Mrs. K flew into the schoolroom, screaming at me. It scared the little ones, you can imagine, the state she was in. She said I mustn't go near them now, after nursing you." A flash of fear twisted her face.
Ella wanted to take Maid's hand, squeeze it to show she understood how brave it was to care for her this way.
As if reading her thoughts, Maid said, "The newspaper says it's moving across the country like a grass fire, and no outrunning it. They say men boarding at Union Station are dead before the train reaches Chicago. Why, you went down as fast as anything, and this morning baby Annie was so pink and bright, just a little colicky how she gets. And now… We'll none of us survive it, Nanny. I'll be next, I know it."
"If you are, I'll take care of you," Ella vowed. "Nurse you like you nursed me."
The next time she awakened, Ella found Maid slumped in the broken wingchair, too ill to make it to her tiny attic room. Ella sat up, her head throbbing and her chest on fire, determined to make good on her promise. But it took a long time to help Maid up the dark, narrow servants' stairs. They had to pause every few steps. Ella had no strength, it felt as if her bones were hollow, as if her marrow had died away from fever. And Maid suffered wave after wave of dizziness and nausea. On the third floor landing, she spotted another ten dollar gold piece. She thought it Maid's, fallen from her apron pocket, but when she went to put it back, she saw it was a second coin. It was baffling, something to puzzle over while she got Maid up to her attic cubby. She put her into bed with the last of her strength. But when she staggered toward the room she shared with Cook, she knew she'd get no rest there. She heard Cook's wracking cough.
By midday, Cook and Maid were dead. They had bathed Ella and cared for her, and for their trouble, she had given them the influenza. She had killed them.
She went slowly down the narrow staircase to the third floor. She stood facing the door leading to the children's rooms and Mrs. K's suite. She didn't want to open it. She didn't want to break the news. And what if she learned that she'd infected Muriel or John? No, she couldn't go in there, not yet. She sank to the floor, back against the door. She closed her eyes, never imagining she could sleep, not with this grief, this apprehension, inside her. But when she next opened her eyes, it was dark on the landing. Pushing herself up, her hand encountered a divot in the wood, new and frayed with splinters. As she pulled one from her finger, she saw that it was smeared with something rusty brown. Dried blood?
It was silent in the Kingstons' part of the house. She didn't hear Muriel's piercing voice or John's clamor of bouncing balls and big awkward feet. She didn't hear them pushing or squabbling as they had every day since the mayor closed the schools. She wanted to hope Mrs. K had called the garage to send for the car, that the family had gone to her old uncle in Savannah. But as Ella padded past the empty schoolroom, where she read aloud to the children or made them practice their reading and writing and math, she heard a snuffling mewling sound. Her body tensed and her gait became arrhythmic, almost spastic, as in a nightmare. As she neared John's room, she caught the sharp chamber pot stink of sickness. Muriel, she saw, had crawled into her brother's bed, wrapping her little arms around his neck. He lay motionless and stiff, his chin covered with Muriel's matted strawberry curls. The little girl's body shook as she wept and, much worse, coughed. Pin and needles prickled Ella's spine, raised the hairs on her neck.
The child turned to her, her face streaked with tears that were pink with blood. Ella picked her up, expecting the familiar feel of arms and legs wrapped tight around her, but she was limp as Ella staggered toward Mrs. K's room. She stopped at the door. The missus was in her bed. She was as pale as a wax candle, a thick rind of sweat on her brow and hot rashes on her cheeks. The children's names punctuated her delirious babble.
Ella backed away, pressing Muriel's face to her chest so she wouldn't see. She went down the grand staircase to Mr. K's room. She put Muriel into his bed and then collapsed to her hands and knees. She crawled to the adjoining room, an office with a desk where Mr. K hid his liquor and a couch where he'd taken his "accommodation" instead of her references. One of the household's two telephones was there. She cradled the candlestick, hoping a voice in the earhorn would restore her hope. But the nurse at the hospital said it was no use bringing child or mother. There were hundreds lying outside waiting for beds. Keep them cool, the nurse advised. Give them water or broth.
Ella asked the operator to put her through to the Decatur. After several rings, the operator said, "No answer at the desk. It's nearly midnight, you know."
Ella thought of walking there, maybe with Muriel in her arms, and pounding on the lobby door or ringing buzzers until somehow she found Mr. K. But when she sat on the edge of the bed, she saw that it was already too late. She pulled the sheet over Muriel's pretty little face.
She cried till she went numb from it. She was the only person on Earth who knew the children were dead. The wrongness of that was nearly as overwhelming as the fact. She thought of phoning the old uncle in Savannah but she remembered the sour old man too well. He would arrive with his own servants, and he would insist Mr. K turn Ella out immediately since he had no work for a nanny. There would be gossip if he kept a young girl here when he didn't need her. And what, Ella wondered, would Mr. K want in exchange for a reference?
She noticed his valise sitting in an undisturbed layer of dust in the corner between the wardrobe and the wall. If he'd gone away with just the clothes on his back, it must mean he kept a closetful at the Decatur. If so, who knew when he'd be back. He was an inattentive father and a bored husband. It might be days till unanswered phone calls elevated his worries over his carnal desires.
"I can't just leave them," she said aloud to no one. "I can't leave them for the blowflies and the mice."
She crossed to the window and saw that up the block, a sheet-wrapped body waited on the street for the wagon. She pulled a robe from Mr. K's tallboy, threading it on as she went downstairs. She sat with her back against the front door till she heard the horseshoes and metal wheels outside, then she stepped onto the porch. It didn't even feel strange, in the increasing unreality of these days, to be outside wearing only Mr. K's robe over Cook's nightdress. While someone a few doors down was collected off the curb, Ella admired the starry sky through bare branches. It was a fine tree-lined street, a fine view from this entrance, which she'd been allowed to use only if the children were with her. When the wagon approached, she gestured for the drivers to pull over.
"I have more for you," she said. "I need you to come inside for them."
"Cost you." The nearest wagon man leered down at her full chest, accentuated by unconstraining nightclothes. "You're supposed to put them out on the—"
"I'll pay." She thought of the coin in Maid's apron. "Ten dollars."
When he said, "Ten each," Ella knew she hadn't imagined hearing those words, the other night.
She sat at the bottom of the grand staircase, both hands over her mouth to keep herself from screaming, while the men brought down Maid and Cook, and then (she couldn't watch) John and little Muriel.
When the men returned for their money, she gave them Maid's coin and the one she'd found on the landing.
"Plenty of these here, eh?" one of them said. He looked as if he might push past Ella to look around and help himself. He had the face of a prize-fighter, with a much-broken nose and deformed ears.
She said, "This is the last of them."
"You should pay us more," he said. "More work for us, tonight."
"But no risk."
He chuckled. Acknowledging, it seemed, that two nights ago he'd carried out a thrashing body. Did he feel no apprehension that she knew? Never mind the morals of it--why should he care about wealthy strangers?--he showed no worry about the law.
That was how she knew the sheet-wrapped bundle had been Charles. A rich man could have a servant carted away, dead or living. A rich man could give orders, legal or not, and (for money) be obeyed without question or anxiety. That was how the world worked.
Perhaps Mr. Kingston had come upon Charles stealing from Mrs. Kingston's strongbox. Mr. K might not fight to protect his wife, but her assets were dear to him.
"I see you're all right now?" It was the other man speaking, a small furtive-looking person, his posture a perpetual cringe. But his smile, ugly because of missing teeth, was friendly.
"What?" She shook herself out of her distraction.
"Two, three nights ago, I took away your sheet? Nice bit of embroidered edge. From the mending pile, I guess. Too fine for a servant's bed. I sold it to a half-blind crone makes antimacassars."
"You didn't tell me 'bout that," his partner said.
"Like you never picked a rag and said nothing to me?" He ducked to avoid a slap on the back of the head. "Doesn't hurt to unwrap the package, grab a ring or cuff-link--can't take it with them, can they?"
"Tell 'em that in Chicago," said the other. "Collect them in trolleycars, black cloth over the windows. Rows of passenger corpses--pretty sight, eh? A guard in the trolley and no pickings for nobody."
Ella was glad to shut the door behind them. Soon, it would be daytime, and maybe Mr. K would return.
She wished she could lie down, curl up and try to sleep away the acid edge of her grief. But that wagon man was right. The dead couldn't take it with them. And this might be Ella's only chance, ever in her life, to get away clear. She knew Mr. K wouldn't pay her more than he owed for this month. And what would he demand for his reference?
Maybe he wouldn't miss some of his wife's jewels, not when she had so many.
Ella went upstairs and into Mrs. Kingston's room, pulling the chain on a small lamp near the door. It cast just enough light to show the missus sunk deep into her featherbed, French sheets braided around her fever-wet limbs, her face mottled like bad meat, her red hair a tangle.
Her eyelids fluttered open and, pausing to cough, she managed to say, "The baby? Did I dream…?"
"Yes," Ella said. "Yes, missus, you've been having terrible nightmares."
"My little John… Muriel? All right?"
"Yes." Ella felt her stomach knot. "Everything's fine. Go back to sleep."
She felt a sudden cramp of hatred. She nearly shouted, You put me out onto the street, to die alone and bitten by rats. Why shouldn't your last hours be hell, as you meant mine to be? Why shouldn't I tell you your children are dead?
But she couldn't. She could steal the woman's things—it wasn't as if Mrs. K would ever again have occasion to use them. But the tranquility of her last moments, no.
She walked to Mrs. K's dresser, to her row of jewelry boxes. There was a large one of exotic hardwood, an inlaid music box from Germany, and a replica of her tallboy, painted with the same roses and ribbons. They were so full of jewelry it made Ella want to cry. How could one woman have so much? She picked through them, selecting pieces she thought would sell easily and for good money.
Then she opened the bombé dresser—more roses and ribbons—and slipped out of Cook's old gown. She put on some of Mrs. K's silken underthings. They were lovely but the circumstances made her cringe inside them. Stifling another crying jag, she forced herself to the wardrobe, and she pulled on the first shirt and suit her hands encountered. She slipped on a pair of shoes that were too long and narrow, then returned to the dresser to pocket the jewelry she'd laid out.
She glanced at the bed, soft in the first light of day filtering through window sheers. The sick woman barely made a lump under the tangles and rumples of silk and linen and down.
Mrs. Kingston said, very feebly, "Nanny?"
Ella saw that her face had grown darker, almost purple in the thin light. An instinct of pity made her fill the nightstand basin with water from the jug. She dipped in one of a stack of cloths carefully ironed and folded beside it. As she ran it over Mrs. Kingston's face, she thought of Maid, who'd done all the ironing. Up earlier than this every day to do a mountain of laundry—the children's, Mr. and Mrs. Kingston's, the other servants'. Back-breaking work even with the new wringer washer. Hours of stringing the backyard lines with sheets and towels and garments. Then the ironing, the folding. Charles would be up nearly as early to stoke the furnace, lay the fires, fetch and wash the car if an outing was planned. Cook's list would be done by then, telling Ella what to buy at the market. Then Cook would make and knead the bread dough so it rose while the rest of the house awakened. Ella would return with the food so Cook could start on the first of the day's four meals. Then Ella would go draw baths for the children, give the baby her bottle, comb out Muriel's hair, fetch clean clothes for her and John, take them to the nursery table for milk and bread and fruit, and lay out the day's lessons (if it was a weekend or holiday) while they ate. She never thought she'd want to turn the clock back to those days. She never knew how much the children meant to her. She was comfortable around them, she could almost be herself.
"Too rough… with the cloth," Mrs. Kingston said. "Bring Maid. Charles… is he gone? I didn't want him… near the children. Can Maid… or you… stoke furnace? Children may get… cold."
Ella straightened, dropping the damp rag into the basin. Beside it on the nightstand was a locket with the childrens' picture in it. She couldn't resist it, she slipped it around her neck. For a moment she was lost in memories. Teaching Muriel to ice skate last year. Laughing at John's mangling of jokes.
Mrs. Kingston said, "You're not… not… ill now?" Her voice was barely audible.
"No. It was very cold out on the street. I suppose it broke my fever." In the face of all the subsequent death—even a murder, it seemed—her knot of resentment had loosened a little. She stepped closer to the bed, close enough to see Mrs. Kingston's feverish eyes glitter beneath her liverish blue lids. "Don't worry," she said to the dying woman. "Everything will be fine."
Mrs. K shook her head, gasping with the effort. "Children? Listened for them, but… Can't hear them. Why haven't they…? Tell them… stand… there by the door. Please. Not inside where I could… infect. But please… need to see them." Her tears were pink like Muriel's had been, tinged with blood.
"I'll go do that," Ella said.
"Locket," Mrs. K barked out. Struggling against a coughing fit, she freed her hand from beneath the blankets. It shook with the effort of reaching for the gold and enamel oval.
Ella opened it up. She removed the photograph on the right side, of Mr. Kingston perhaps ten years ago looking slimmer and more agreeable. She pushed Mrs. Kingston's hand down onto the bed to steady it, and she pressed the photo into it. The picture on the left side showed John and Muriel holding baby Annie. It was the reason she'd taken the locket.
Mrs. Kingston's face spasmed.
"Yes, I'm sorry," Ella said. "You can see I'm taking some of your things. I won't deny it. It's because what little I did have, you…" But a voice inside her screamed, No, don't hector her—let the woman die in peace. "In exchange for this locket, I'll cry—" She took a steadying breath. I'll cry for your children long after you can't.
She backed away. She needed to hurry, she needed to get out of here and into the air, into something that felt like freedom, like her own life gotten back.
Mrs. Kingston was gasping, her hand clenched into a fist around the tiny photo of her husband. She shook her head like a person possessed. Like a crazed animal in a net. "Take… take picture away. He brought it. The disease."
Ella was shocked she'd managed to say so much. She didn't look as if she had the strength. She barely looked human anymore, with her bloodstained face and sweat-matted nest of hair.
"No, you mustn't think that about Mr. K," she said. Ella hated the vile pompous man. But he might come back in time to say good-bye to his wife. She imagined their last moments. It wasn't right for them to be spoiled by this suspicion. It wasn't right because it wasn't true. "Mr. K didn't bring in the flu."
Mrs. K was staring in horror at her own fist, still knotted around her husband's picture. She glared as if it were a street rat coming to bite her.
"It wasn't him, missus. There's someone, a man... He's been in Mexico all the time I've been here. I meant no harm but I had to find out if he was all right. You don't know this, but once or twice a month on my half-day I… I go to Union Station, to the pay telephones. It takes all I earn but I have to... I talk to people who get news of him." Mrs. K would never understand what it meant to Ella to hear herself called her by her given name, to be asked how she felt and how she fared, so far from home. But the missus could sympathize with Ella's anxiety for Nicky, surely? What Mrs. K felt about the children, everyone felt about someone, didn't they? Well, even if Mrs. K didn't care about that, fair was fair. Mr. K might come back in time, and Ella couldn't deprive Mrs. K of whatever solace he could offer. "And so I went there—"
"Where are… children?"
"I went to Union Station. A few days ago. I sneaked out. Because I read that the flu had reached Mexico, and I was so afraid for him. My Nicky. You'd have fired me for using the telephone here, but I just had to know. I swear I never meant to..." I never meant to bring death home with me. I never meant to kill the children. Ella felt her spine curve with the weight of it. Her hand went to the locket on her chest and lifted it, as if it were the cause.
Mrs. K said again, "Don't hear… my children." She didn't seem to grasp what Ella was telling her. "Where are… the children?"
Ella looked down at the dying woman, her face smeared pink from bloody tears, her lips nearly black, her eyes sunken and glittering. It was no use. It did no good for Ella to try to unburden herself. She'd never shed this guilt. And Mrs. K wasn't well enough to understand.
All Ella could struggle to achieve, with self-forgiveness far out of reach, was a bit of kindness. Maybe she could lessen the pain of a dying mother.
"Mr. Kingston came and took them," Ella said. It was the only lie she could think of that might ease Mrs. K's mind. "When you got sick, Mr. K came home and took the children. Took them someplace nice. Safe. Mr. K has them now, that's why you don't hear them. So don't worry, they're—"
Mrs. Kingston's cry was piercing. Ella wouldn't have believed the sick woman could manage such a wail, could force so much air from her dying lungs. The room vibrated with her horror and despair. It ratcheted till she was choking, till she sounded like a woman drowning. And she didn't stop, she kept screeching in short bursts, gagging and coughing in between, always in a frenzy of shaking her head.
If Ella had believed in the devil, she'd have supposed he'd entered the missus's body. She backed up and ran to the tallboy, grabbing a coat.
Mrs. Kingston was shrieking, "My children! My children!" in between gargles and wheezes.
Ella wanted to say something, to do something, to restore the woman's peace as she died. To make her stop screaming.
She said again, "Don't worry, don't worry about the children." Backing out of the room, "Mr. Kingston came and took them. You won't infect—"
But as she reached the door, she understood. She'd have given anything not to.
She pitched herself into the hallway and ran, though she knew she didn't need to hurry. She knew now that Mr. Kingston wasn't coming back.
Someone had told Mrs. Kingston that her husband had a girl at the Decatur. Mrs. K assumed, as Cook had, that Mr. K had sneaked out sometime this week to be with her. Mrs. K thought he'd broken the quarantine she'd imposed to protect her children. She thought he'd risked—and brought back—the influenza, the contagion killing more than even a world war. He had risked all the things, the only things, his wife cared about.
And the dying woman's screams told Ella what she'd done about it.
"Where are… the children?" Mrs. K had asked, and she'd replied, "Mr. Kingston came and took them."
Mrs. K knew her husband was dead. What else could her shrieks mean?
Mrs. K had struck what she'd thought was a death blow to him, and then she'd fetched the wagon men, or sent Charles to do it. Ella had thought Mr. K bribed the men to take Charles. She'd thought so because a rich man could buy any service from poor men. But it was the wealth that mattered, not the gender. The wagon men would show as little worry about taking the missus's orders as her husband's, so long as the price was right. Where was the risk in hauling away a body, even one that wasn't completely dead, for a woman whose neighbors were named Roosevelt and Taft and Harding?
Ella nearly stumbled as she raced down the grand staircase.
She remembered the divot on the third floor landing. A strongbox full of coins, dropped so its corner hit first, would cut into wood, some coins spilling out. Cook had found a few, Ella another.
Her skin crawled when she realized the reddish stain in the divot must be Mr. Kingston's blood. Had Mrs. K struck him with the metal box, thrown it at him? Given it to Charles afterward to buy his silence? Charles would have dashed from her third floor suite to the servants' stair. In a hurry to leave with his blood money—enough to buy whores ten nights a month—he must have let the box slip.
Before Ella reached the front door, she caught sight of herself in the entryway mirror. She had never seen herself in an expensive suit before, in a blouse with Belgian lace at the collar. She had never carried a fine wool coat over her arm. But she hated every stitch of it. Every perfect seam and fine designer flourish seemed to cry, "Where are… the children?"
"I sneaked out and brought back the flu," she said to her reflection in the mirror. She looked like any young Italian girl, curly haired and dark-eyed, not like somebody who'd killed nearly everyone in her household. "The children. Cook and Maid. I brought the plague through the gate, and it killed them." She'd killed Mr. K, too, in a way. Mrs. K wouldn't have lost her reason, wouldn't have attacked him, if she'd known the truth. If she'd known it was Ella, not he, who'd brought home the infection.
And now, Ella had compounded this terrible thing. She had let the sick woman know her babies were dead. "Where are… the children?" "Mr. Kingston came and took them."
She heard more wailing upstairs, crazed and tortured. It was the sound of a woman who'd killed someone close to her. It was all Ella could do not to scream, too, and for the same reason.
With shaking hands, she reached up and undid the clasp of the locket that held the children's picture. She had killed John and Muriel and Annie's parents. She didn't deserve to wear their image around her neck.
Ella kissed the locket before leaving it on the table under the mirror.
A sequel to the "The Children," the novella Champawat, was published in the September/October 2012 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. For a short time, Champawat is available to read here.