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Authors: Anna Loan-Wilsey

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BOOK: A Sense of Entitlement
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I don’t think I can go down there,
I thought, my palms sweating as I imagined myself losing my balance and slipping into the turbulent waves below.

I dropped to a sitting position, my heart racing, but I couldn’t keep my eyes off the water. I began to inch my way backward up to the top. But then, as I nearly reached the top, the waves slipped away from the rocks for a moment, revealing several red algae plants, their fronds gently flowing with the current. As the waves crashed again, I heard giggling above me. I glanced up at two young girls, probably maids, waiting at the top of the steps. In my seated position, my skirts were blocking their way. And they were giggling at me.

Rightfully so,
I thought, suddenly feeling ridiculous. I’d been down staircases before. Why was this one so different? I stood up, let the girls pass, and watched as they held on to their straw bonnets while carelessly skipping down the steps. I peered down again to watch the algae beckoning me from below. If young girls could do it, so could I, I thought. Besides, I had to have that plant. I secured my hat against the breeze, took a deep breath, and grabbed the rail once again.

“Let her go!”

I spun my head around at the second shout of the night. Instantly the music stopped and the only sounds were those of the waves crashing below and the clattering cymbals of the monkey, who didn’t know to stop. I followed the stares of the hushed crowd toward the cause of the commotion. I should’ve known. It was Lester Sibley! His hat had fallen off and he held Britta in his arms. She was squirming in his embrace, trying to release herself, but the labor man was reluctant to let her go.

“Can’t you see she was dancing with me, footman?” Sibley said as James hovered nearby.

“She wants to dance with me now,” James said. James tried to pull Britta away, but Sibley would not let go of Britta’s arm. She began to cry. I could see from where I stood the red welt already rising on her arm.

“Let her go now!” James shouted.

“I’m sorry,” Lester Sibley said, releasing Britta, who fumbled into a group of gaping girls. “I didn’t mean—” Without allowing the labor man to finish his apology, James yanked his fist back and swung at the man, landing a hard blow right in Lester Sibley’s face. Sibley staggered back, holding his hand to his nose as blood streamed down his chin and dripped onto his white shirt. James lunged for the man again. Britta and a few other girls nearby screamed. Several men snatched the footman’s raised arm and pulled him in the opposite direction.

“No fair, Chase,” one of the men told James as he resisted the hold on his arms. “You’ve got a foot on the man.”

“Serves him right for preaching about unions and strikes when we’re all trying to have a good time,” someone added.

“He’s only trying to help us,” another said.

The accordion player began a jaunty tune, but no one was listening. Instead voices rose above the song as arguments about Sibley and his cause broke out among the previously merry group.

Our group from Rose Mont had closed ranks around Britta. Sena put her arm around Britta and, followed by the other girls and the groomsman, led her away up Narragansett Avenue. Britta glanced back once, her eyes as red as the welt on her arm, just as James jerked free of the men restraining him and stormed away down the Cliff Walk. He quickly disappeared around the bend.

What was that all about?
Mr. Sibley sure has a knack for stirring up trouble wherever he goes,
I thought, looking about for the cause of the commotion. Mr. Sibley was nowhere to be seen.

C
HAPTER
10

B
oom!

“What was that?” Sena exclaimed. I’d caught up with Britta, Sena, and the others from Rose Mont. We’d just turned onto Bellevue when the explosion went off.

“Look at that!” Britta exclaimed, pointing north toward Touro Park. Over the trees, thick lines of smoke curled up into the night sky, blurring the stars.

With unspoken assent, we picked up our skirts and ran. Others quickly joined us, their eyes captivated by the eerie glow ahead. We were all destined for the site of the explosion, two similarly squat brick buildings, on opposite corners of Green Street.

A grotesque tableau of Dante’s hell,
I thought, watching transfixed by the walls of red flame flashing against the dark sky.

From the relative safety of the sidewalk across the street I could feel the blistering heat press against my skin. Massive columns of black smoke billowed above the buildings, with small tendrils drifting into the street, weaving their way through the crowd. And rising above it all was the cacophony of chaos, pounding in my head. The fire roared like wind during a storm on the Plains. Police and firemen, who had arrived before us, shouted at one another over the clanging of bells. Panes of windows, already partially broken by the blast, shattered to the ground. One large piece landed a few feet away, the gold-stenciled letters
LOAN
still intact. Skittish horses bucked and neighed as carriages arrived on the scene. And then came a rumble and crash as a roof collapsed and the sound of gushing water spraying from the hose carriages onto the flames. I wanted nothing more than to hold my hands over my ears, but instead I shielded my eyes from the blaze with one hand and held a handkerchief over my mouth with the other; the metallic taste and smell of the smoke had begun to fill my mouth and lungs.

And yet I, like everyone else spellbound by the scene, stayed, wondering what caused the fire. Was it a gas leak? Or electric wires that got too hot? Or a faulty furnace with the coals left burning? But what about the explosion? Fires were an all too common occurrence; explosions were not.

With the infusion of water came clouds of blinding smoke and then the signs etched above the doors of the burning buildings gradually became legible: N
EWPORT
S
AVINGS
B
ANK
and A
QUIDNECK
N
ATIONAL
B
ANK.

Thank goodness!
They weren’t homes where the residents had moments ago been peacefully sleeping in their beds or sipping sherry in their parlors as I feared. Most likely the banks were empty and no one was hurt. From the exterior, the savings bank appeared to have suffered the more extensive damage: Part of a wall had collapsed, the windows were all blown out, and the roof had collapsed and was still aflame inside. The national bank had lost some of its windows and had partial damage to its roof. The explosion had obviously originated in the former building and had spread to the latter. A fireman wearing a black rubber coat, tall rubber boots, and a leather fire helmet walked past. He pushed the helmet back from his forehead with his forearm, leaving a long smear of black ash across his brow.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Don’t know yet, but we think it was intentional.” Before I could ask more, he was gone.

Intentional,
I thought. Who would do such a thing? Then I saw Mr. Doubleday, the Pinkerton detective, standing among the crowd several yards away. I couldn’t hear him, but his lips were puckered as if whistling. What was he doing here? He was probably a curious bystander, but something in his stance made me uneasy. And then out of the smoke Lester Sibley, holding a bloody handkerchief to his nose, walked past the detective. Mr. Doubleday grabbed ahold of the labor man’s collar and nearly yanked the smaller man off his feet. Sibley shouted and with his free hand attempted to free himself, but to no avail. The detective was both taller and stronger. I maneuvered closer, careful to keep several people between us but close enough to hear what Sibley and Doubleday were saying.

“I told you it would get ugly if you didn’t shut your mouth and leave Newport,” Doubleday said.

“What are you talking about?” Lester Sibley said.

The bigger man gestured toward the burning buildings with his chin.

“What? I didn’t have anything to do with this!” Sibley proclaimed. “I’m not an anarchist. I simply want fair treatment for workers. Why would I burn down a bank?”

“I don’t know. It seems like something a radical like you would do.”

“I’m telling you I didn’t have anything to do with this!”

“Maybe, maybe not.”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m saying, Mr. Sibley, that if you don’t stop your inflammatory talk and leave Newport on the next boat or train, you may find yourself in a load of trouble.” Doubleday snatched Sibley’s hat off his head and threw it to the ground. With one deliberate stomp of his foot the detective flattened the stiff-crowned hat. “A load of trouble!”

“You can’t threaten me. I know my rights. I was nowhere near this place when the explosion happened.” Suddenly Lester Sibley caught sight of me. “Ask her. She can tell you where I was tonight.” Mortified that both men were looking at me, one with pleading eyes, the other with a suspicious stare, I turned my back on both of them and walked as fast as I could through the crowd and away from the grim scene. I didn’t look back.

 

I couldn’t sleep. I normally didn’t sleep well, but tonight I couldn’t think of anything besides Lester Sibley. My thoughts bounced back and forth between the unanswered questions surrounding the man and self-reprimands for my cowardice toward him. Why did I fail to come to the man’s aid when I could’ve vouched for his whereabouts? Doubleday was threatening Mr. Sibley and I did nothing to help. I was ashamed of myself. I hadn’t even had the guts to write Walter as I’d planned. I was restless, with a growing pang of guilt in the pit of my stomach.
Tomorrow,
I thought. Tomorrow I would track down the labor man as soon as I had a moment free to make amends.

But to get through tonight, I typed up the list of questions in my head:

  1. What had caused the explosion?
  2. Was it intentional? If so, why?
  3. Why did Detective Doubleday think Lester Sibley was responsible?
  4. Why did Detective Doubleday threaten Lester Sibley?
  5. What was Doubleday to gain if the labor man left?
  6. Why had a simple dance resulted in blows between James and Lester Sibley?
  7. What will Walter’s mother tell him about our meeting this afternoon?

Then I laid out my new plant and seed specimens on the desk in my sitting room. I studied their details under my hand lens and using James L. Bennett’s
Plants of Rhode Island,
which I’d borrowed from Mrs. Mayhew’s library, identified the species names for the newest additions to my collection. One by one I preserved my specimens in my plant press. Normally the task filled me with joy and satisfaction, but tonight I felt empty. I’d let someone down. For some reason my thoughts returned to Walter and my meeting with his mother.

Had I let him down as well? His mother didn’t approve of me, but Walter never minded the gap between us. Or did he? Was I blinded by my fondness for him? I’d once explained to Walter that I could never be more than what I was. It didn’t seem to bother him. So why was I suddenly doubting his affections? Because his mother was unimpressed? If Walter no longer had faith in me, would I still have faith in myself? And Sir Arthur? What if he no longer valued me? Was I worthless because someone like Julia Grice said so?

“No,” I said out loud to the empty room. When had I stopped looking to myself for strength and pride? When had I let the opinion of others dictate my worth? I admitted I’d wronged Lester Sibley by not staying and corroborating his story, and tomorrow I would right that wrong. But that was no reason to let my mind spiral out of control, into a state of depression and doubt.

“Buck up, Davish,” I told myself. “You’ve got work to do.”

I settled down in front of my typewriter, slipped in a blank sheet of paper, and, feeling the cool touch of the keys beneath my fingertips, began on another page of Sir Arthur’s manuscript. I hadn’t typed half the page before my eyelids drooped and I staggered off to bed.

I didn’t rise early enough for a hike. And when I did awaken, my courage from the night before was dimmed by sunlight. A sense of loneliness almost overwhelmed me.

“Good morning, Britta,” I said overenthusiastically when she arrived with my breakfast, I was so grateful to see her. She smiled halfheartedly, her normally cheerful countenance clouded, as she placed the tray on the table and sat opposite me.

“Is everything all right?” I asked, pouring us coffee. She sighed but didn’t answer my question.

“You missed a lively discussion downstairs this morning.”

“Was it about the incidence at the Forty Steps?” I asked. She took a quick gulp of her coffee and tugged at her left ear. I knew I’d said the wrong thing. “I’m sorry if I’m prying.”

“No, Hattie. It’s okay. Actually, all the fuss this morning was about the fire last night. Only a few of us saw it and the rest of the staff were jealous. Someone had a comment or question about everything.”

“Like what?”

“Oh, everything, like, ‘Did they say what caused the fire?’ ‘Mrs. Post’s chambermaid said a bomb exploded!’ ‘Was anyone hurt?’ ‘How many buildings burned down?’ ‘I’m glad my money’s not in either one of those banks.’ ‘I can’t believe I went back along the Cliff Walk and missed everything!’ ”

Britta and I both laughed at her imitation of the younger maids.

“Of course, even though we were there, none of us know much about what happened either,” she said, shrugging. I nodded, picturing Detective Doubleday yanking Lester Sibley by the collar. What was that about?

“You’re right,” I said, remembering what the fireman had told me. “We probably don’t know the half of it.”

“I glanced at the papers before Miss Issacson brought them up to Mrs. Mayhew. They didn’t seem to know much more than we do,” she said, piling the dishes of my half-eaten breakfast onto a tray without comment. Britta was already used to my eating habits. I’d finished the broiled tomatoes and brandy peaches but couldn’t face the poached egg on anchovy toast. “Hope it’s not true about bad things happening in threes.”

“What do you mean?” I said.

“Well, first the telegraph operators went on strike and then this fire. Hope nothing else happens.”

I’d never been superstitious and rejected the rule of three outright, but Britta’s comment put me in a pensive mood. Yesterday I would’ve thought that the travel trunk incident was the first in a string of unfortunate events, the strike, the altercation at the Forty Steps, the fire, my meeting with Walter’s mother, my abandonment of Lester Sibley, but I now knew better. And yet?

“I hope so too, Britta. I hope so too.”

BOOK: A Sense of Entitlement
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