Authors: Maggie Osborne
Tags: #General, #Romance, #Fiction, #Contemporary, #Adult, #Irish Americans, #Polish Americans, #Immigrants, #New York (N.Y.)
"Don't drink the milk," said a voice from the shadows near the floor.
Lucie jumped. She had forgotten Mr. Brovnic. "Good evening, Mr. Brovnic. How are you feeling?"
"Don't drink the milk at Mosha's market," he said again, not looking at her. He lay on a floor mattress, as still as death, his twisted hands folded on top of a light blanket. He stared at the ceiling. "Mosha improves his profit by cutting his milk with chalk and water."
Such adulterations were common. Last week Lucie had paid an exorbitant price for a lump of butter only to discover it had been laced with mashed potatoes to increase the bulk. And it wasn't unusual to discover ground dried peas mixed with coffee for the same purpose.
"We're going home," Maria said quietly. A dreamy light entered her eyes. "Home."
Lucie wasn't sure what to say. "If that's what you want, then I'm glad for you." She glanced toward Woicheck Brovnic lying motionless in the shadows. "When will you leave?"
"At the end of the week. Think of itwe're going home!" She lifted glowing eyes to Lucie. "I'm glad you came tonight. I would have come to you if you hadn't. You should apply for my laundry job." When Lucie caught a quick breath, Maria smiled. "I've already told Mrs. Greene about you." She waved a hand. "At least I tried. My English is not so good. But Mrs. Greene said you could come by."
"Oh, Maria! How can I thank you?"
"I don't promise you will be hired, but I hope you will be. You must go tomorrow and speak to the butler, Mr. Grist." Leaning forward, she gave Lucie directions to the Roper mansion on Madison Avenue.
"I don't know what to say. Thank you!" At the door the two women embraced. "I wish you a safe journey and no regrets."
"Miss Kolska?" A timid look came into Maria Brovnic's eyes. "After you and your brother and Miss Laskowski left this afternoon, I found this in the courtyard." Reaching into her apron pocket she carefully removed a drooping rose. "I thought you might like to have it."
Too moved to speak, Lucie cupped the blossom in her palms and blinked down at it. "Thank you," she whispered finally.
"He is very handsome, your Irishman," Maria said softly. "I hope your brother reconsiders." Maria looked over her shoulder at the man lying in the floor shadows. "Sometimes love is all we have. Without it a home is just a place to sleep." She touched Lucie's warm cheek. "I wish you had known Woicheck before the accident." Memory made her eyes glisten. "People said they could hear his laugh for a mile." She passed a hand over her eyes. "He will be as he used to be once as we get home."
"I hope so." Lucie pressed her cheek to Maria's and looked into the shadows over Maria's shoulder. She did not think Woicheck Brovnic would ever again be as he had been.
Outside Maria's door she raised the rose to her cheek and stroked the petals across, her skin, imagining Jamie's fingertips in their place. Then she inhaled the delicate sweet scent, wondering if he had inhaled the fragrance of this very blossom. "Please," she whispered, the word a formless plea.
The Bowery Street station was decorated with ornamental iron painted a delicate green. Between five and seven in the morning, the hours of reduced fares, the station was jammed with those who hurried north to jobs that would have been unmanageable without the speed and convenience of the elevated trains.
Swept along by the crush Lucie was carried inside the station where she paid for her ticket, then deposited it in the chop box and moved with the flow to the platform outside. A whistle screamed as the train appeared, hissing and breathing hot cinders like a long brown dragon. Lucie would have fled in terror except the crowd forced her forward and inside. Before she could catch her breath the train swept out of the station, the lurch toppling her into an upholstered seat.
She sat rigidly, clasping her reticule in both gloved hands, her eyes wide, her heart pounding wildly. When she dared, she glanced out the windows. Second story windows flashed past on both sides. Someone in the station had mentioned the trains averaged twelve miles per hour, a speed so dizzying Lucie forced the frightening thought out of her mind. Instead she focused on the conductor's brass-and-blue flannel uniform, waiting for Forty-second Street, terrified she might not hear him call out.
When the shout came, she popped to her feet and ran to solid ground. Once her heart resumed a normal cadence, she stared up at the tracks and felt a burst of elated pride. Having triumphed over the dragon, how could she fail at the Roper mansion? Surely the laundry job was as good as hers.
But her confidence dimmed when she located and stood in front of Theodore Roper's Madison Avenue mansion. Three stories of brick and iron work towered above and sprawled to both sides. It was a palace. While Lucie stood gaping, a sound behind her caused her to turn toward the street. Immediately, she gasped and flattened herself against the iron gate.
A horseless box, belching smoke and steam, rolled to the curbside and stopped in front of her. After a moment of terrified astonishment, Lucie caught hold of herself enough to guess this was one of the automobiles she had read and heard about. But she had never expected to actually see one. Wide-eyed, she examined the polished black lacquer and shiny brass fittings as the coachman stepped outside, pushed up a pair of smoked goggles, then helped a princess descend to the pavement.
The princess paused and fixed Lucie with a cool look until, flustered, Lucie mumbled an apology and stepped aside so the princess could pass through the gate. Lucie stared after her, awed by the richness of dress and coiffure before she turned back to the amazing contraption at the curb.
"What's your business here, miss?" The coachman eyed her up and down. His expression told her plainly that she did not belong on this street standing before this palace.
"I've come to see about work," she whispered, clasping and unclasping her reticule. "I'm expected."
The coachman jerked his head in the direction she had come, indicating a smaller gate Lucie had failed to notice. "Go 'round back." A smile of pride touched his mouth as he ran a glove over the machine's fender. "It's a Stanley Steamer," he said when he saw she couldn't look away from the vehicle. "Someday everyone will own an automobile. You won't see a horse on the street."
Lucie did not believe this for a minute but she nodded politely, backing along the pavement toward the smaller gate.
Feeling more comfortable than she would have at the front door, Lucie followed a stone path that led around to the kitchen door. Before she lifted a glove to knock, she inhaled deeply with a sigh of pleasure. It didn't smell of garbage here, nor was it dry and barren. Shrubs and flowers framed the door; a spreading elm shaded the stoop. She could smell roses and delphinium and forget-me-nots. The cooking odors escaping from the open windows made her mouth water.
It would be so good to work here. After drawing a deep breath to quell her nerves, she touched the spot where Jamie's rose was pinned to her chemise, then she straightened her shoulders and rapped at the kitchen door.
Following a long pause a man dressed in a gray morning coat and dark trousers opened the door and looked at her expectantly.
"Mr. Roper?" she stammered.
"Mr. Grist, the butler. How may we assist you?"
Lucie wet her lips and felt the heat of embarrassment flare on her cheeks. Viewing the automobile had rattled her so badly she had mistaken the butler for the master of the house. "I've come about the laundry job. Mrs. Brovnic sent me."
"Yes, indeed." The door opened wider, which she interpreted as permission to step inside. "Follow me, please."
The kitchen was enormous, larger than her parent's entire cottage in Wlad. She would have loved to inspect the range and ovens, the shining unfamiliar appliances. Instead she followed Mr. Grist through a bewildering maze of back hallways and finally into a beautifully furnished room that Mr. Grist obligingly identified as his office.
Dozens of questions followed, eliciting her background, how long she had resided in New York City, whom she lived with, what Stefan did for a living.
"Do you have laundry experience, Miss Kolska?"
This question puzzled her. Was there a woman alive who had never done a wash? When Mr. Grist noticed her confusion, a thin smile touched his equally thin lips. "Have you cleaned velvet? Lace? Muslin or gauze? Have you worked with bleach? With a crimping iron?"
She touched her breast above Jamie's rose. "I'm quick witted and eager to learn, sir. I don't require coddling. What I don't know, I can learn quickly, sir." His steady appraisal unnerved her. "I'm strong. I'll give a day's work for a day's pay."
"Come along, then."
She followed behind half believing he was showing her the gate until he opened a door to a huge room fitted for laundry. A range for boiling water sat on the far wall surrounded by large metal tubs. A smaller stove was covered with pressing irons and faced by a half dozen different sized boards. There were tubs for washing, rinsing, bluing and starching. Tables for ironing, folding and stacking. Dozens of drying racks. A wall of shelves holding boxes and bottles of supplies.
But what caught Lucie's attention was a young woman standing before the back tub. She turned a tap and instantly water gushed into the tub. The idea of water inside a house was so wonderful and so utterly sensible that Lucie wondered why no one had thought of it before.
While she stared at this new marvel Mr. Grist called, "Mrs. Greene," and a large boned woman appeared out of the steam boiling up in front of the range.
Mrs. Greene shoved at limp strands of graying dark hair that leaked from her white cap. She narrowed one eye and inspected Lucie in critical silence. "Does she speak English?" she asked Mr. Grist. "Well, thank God for that!" Stepping forward she pinched Lucie's arm below the shoulder. "Strong. That's good. Let me see your hands." Lucie peeled off her gloves and extended her palms. "Clean, that's good, too." Mrs. Greene's eyebrows came together with a snap that Lucie imagined she could hear. "No calluses. That's bad."
"I cream my hands every night"
"How do you wash bed sheets? And don't give me no poppycock about spreading sheep manure on 'em and putting 'em in the sun for three days. We don't do them kind of things here in America."
Her mind raced trying to remember the procedure Maria had described. "I would use soap, soda and quicklime."
"Good." Mrs. Green fired a series of questions. "How do you know if the lime is quick and fresh?" she demanded.
"Fresh lime will bubble when boiling water hits it."
"After you pour off the lime water, then what?"
"Wring out the sheets, which have been soaking overnight. Boil them at least half an hour. A bit longer is better."
"How many rinses?"
"Two. And add bluing to the last." When she saw Mrs. Greene's expression, she thanked heaven she had listened to Maria or' she would not have known about the lime or the bluing.
Mrs. Greene's red face relaxed. "If she can do sheets and linens, I can teach her the rest." A water-wrinkled hand clapped Lucie on the back. "You start at six and finish at six. You get eighty cents a day and your midday chuck. Your first two days' wage goes for your uniform." She indicated the white apron she wore over a dark cotton dress and pointed to her cap.