Authors: Maggie Osborne
Tags: #General, #Romance, #Fiction, #Contemporary, #Adult, #Irish Americans, #Polish Americans, #Immigrants, #New York (N.Y.)
"You've grown up, Luticia," Stefan said softly. "How old are you now, eighteen? Nineteen? And such a beauty. I'll have to guard you from dozens of suitors."
Lucie laughed but she thought of the attractive Irishman and love's elbow and the color in her cheeks deepened to a becoming shade of rose. "I'm almost nineteen, still three years younger than you. What else have you forgotten?" she asked, teasing him. Then the ferry's whistle blasted above and Lucie covered her ears as Stefan accepted her bundle from Petor and guided her up the plank and onto the boat.
They were jammed too tightly aboard the ferry to talk and crowded too near the center to see much of anything. Thankfully the harbor trip was brief and within minutes a sea of people flowed down the plank and onto the wharves.
Lucie's first impression of America, once she put Jamie Kelly firmly out of her mind, was the fishy scent of oysters. Before being jostled forward, she paused to gaze at the piles of oyster shells littering the dock area, higher than a man and stretching along the waterside as far as she could see. Everywhere she looked she saw signs advertising oyster saloons or oyster bars. She wondered if Americans ate anything else. Then her attention was captured by the horse-drawn wagons racing along the street, spilling lumps of coal and, incredibly, bits of ice.
Her eyes rounded in amazement. "Ice?" she asked Stefan, who grinned at her. "In June?" Truly America was a wondrous place.
She could hardly wrench her attention from the thick traffic long enough to murmur goodbye to Petor and his brother. "Thank you for escorting me," she whispered, distracted. She shook Petor's hand and wished him well. "If Minnesota is not too far away, you must come for Sunday supper."
"Thank you," Petor agreed solemnly, gazing wide-eyed at the rush and din of the street traffic. "We will."
Laughing, Stefan swung her bundle over his shoulder and led her past the enormous mounds of oyster shells. "Minnesota is very far away," he said, but Lucie wasn't listening.
She watched the blur of galloping traffic with large astonished eyes. There were drays and beer wagons, tall swaying furniture vans and wagon beds filled with shad and mackerel. There were also vegetable wagons and butcher carts, chandler's vans and flower carts, and here and there a carriage fit for a prince. Even along the wharves the facing buildings rose five and six stories tall and here as everywhere within the city, painted advertisements sprouted over the building walls like brilliantly colored vines.
Later, Lucie couldn't recall how she and Stefan managed to cross the street, dodging spinning wheels and galloping hooves, but when next she remembered to catch her breath, Stefan was paying a horse car conductor two pennies and they were entering a stiflingly hot box, packed as tightly as the ferry. A man spit a stream of tobacco juice into the straw covering the floor then rose and offered Lucie his seat. She hesitated, not certain if she should accept until Stefan nodded.
The scene glimpsed through the dusty window caused her heart to pound with excitement and apprehension. For the most part she could not see much beyond the four lanes of traffic that sped past them so breathtakingly close that her heart lurched in fear of collision. But occasionally she caught sight of the buildings, hundreds and hundreds of buildings, pressed tightly one against the other, block after unbroken block of glass and stone and iron work. And more people than she had ever dared to imagine could inhabit a single place.
Standing above her, swaying with the motion of the ceiling strap, Stefan announced the streets as they passed, lower Broadway, then Canal Street, but the names meant nothing to her. The crush of traffic and people and noise overwhelmed Lucie's senses. She hadn't expected the city to be so busy, so large, so exciting. And nothing had prepared her for the sheer numbers.
Wistfully she recalled the handsome Irishman with the dancing eyes whom she had naively supposed she would meet again. Now she comprehended a second encounter would be akin to a miracle. Love's elbow might have struck them but they were lost to each other. Before she could experience the full weight of regret, she heard Stefan shout to the conductor and beckon her forward. Eagerly, Lucie gathered her skirts and flew down the steps to the street, her spirits lifting in fresh excitement.
She could not have described what she expected to see because she had not known what to expect. But surely this could not be where Stefan lived. Her exuberance faded to dismay as she peered into the narrow filthy street opening in front of her.
The paving stones ended where Elizabeth Street began. A haze of manure-scented dust overhung the street, which seemed even narrower due to the line of broken sagging wagons abandoned along the crumbling curb. Beneath the wagons and between them lay piles of garbage rotting in the afternoon heat, swarming with a dark covering of flies.
Pressing an uncertain hand to her breast, Lucie examined the four and five-story wooden tenements that blocked any sunlight from the street. Between lines of grayish laundry crisscrossing overhead, she glimpsed broken window panes and listless children sitting on sagging metal fire escapes that looked as if they might pull loose at any moment and crash into the street below. The people hurrying past looked exhausted and anxious, some wore disturbing expressions of bewilderment or defeat. The clothing she noticed was unlike the fashionable ensembles she had admired on Broadway. Here the attire was mended and hastily assembled, in need of a good wash and a brushing. The lowered heads and bent backs were as shockingly familiar as the despair and hopelessness she had left behind in Wlad.
"Stefan?" she whispered, swallowing with difficulty.
"This way," he said gruffly, his gaze not meeting hers.
They stepped off the paving stones into the dust and powdered manure overhanging Elizabeth Street, and immediately Lucie realized the same closely packed buildings that blocked the sunlight also trapped the heat. Before they had walked more than a few steps, a trickle of perspiration rolled down her throat, and patches of dampness spread under her arms.
The heat and the stench of raw garbage, horse manure, outhouses and too many unwashed bodies packed into too little space made her feel dizzy. Pausing, she clasped Stefan's arm, recoiling from the sympathy she read in passing glances that swept over her bundle then herself before they turned away.
"Through here," Stefan said, striding toward a dark narrow passageway leading between two buildings.
"Stefan?" she asked again, staring up at him. But Stefan stood silently, her bundle over his broad shoulder, frowning at a beer wagon that lumbered along the street, stirring dust and flies and the odors of hardship and desperation.
She caught her lower lip between her teeth, then lifted her skirts above her boots and drew a breath before she hastened through the dark tunnel that Stefan indicated. At the end of the opening lay a small shadowed courtyard of sorts, hemmed by tall buildings that trapped the stench from a row of tin-roofed latrines. Lucie halted and pressed a handkerchief to her nose, her eyes watering above the edge.
The persistent drip from a rusted pump in the center of the courtyard had created a dark puddle of slowly spreading mud. Broken cobbles littered the ground, along with heaps of refuse as fly blown and malodorous as the piles in the street. A half dozen children played in the gray dirt, three women labored over laundry tubs near the row of outhouses. A tan dog sniffed at a mound of ashes and cinders. There was not a scrap of green in the stifling courtyard, only a few yellowed lines of weeds dying in the heat.
For an instant Stefan met her gaze, then he moved past her, toward a door hanging from its hinges. Inside, a dark littered stairway stinking of urine and cooking odors led up to a hallway cast in permanent night. When Stefan opened one of the doors, Lucie stumbled inside and crossed directly to the window, leaning to inhale a long breath of hot stale air through the broken pane.
Although she was high above the street, on the third floor, higher than she had been before, the din of wheels and harness and an erupting street brawl sounded as if she were standing in their midst. Numbed by what she had seen, she straightened slowly and turned to inspect Stefan's home, now hers.
The smallness impressed her first, the sense of not having enough space to breathe. There was nothing in the bare-floored room but a scarred table, a mismatched set of chairs and a cast-iron stove, cranky from the look of it. Slowly Lucie unpinned her hat and removed her jacket, then hung them on the exposed nails driven into the wall near the door.
Darkness formed her second impression. One of the walls might have been light colored once, now it was dark with smoke and age. Brown wallpaper bubbled and peeled from the other walls, shadowed deeper in spots by oily stains.
A cramp of homesickness tightened Lucie's small shoulders. With all her heart she longed to run home to her parents' snug bright cottage and the sweet green scent of the fields. In a week her mother would clip rosemary and thyme to spread over the new straw in the loft. The cottage would smell of spring and fresh herbs and her mother's lamb stew.
Knowing Stefan watched, not wanting him to recognize her shock and homesickness, Lucie smoothed shaking hands over her quilted skirt and walked to the stove blinking rapidly as she bent to inspect the rust-crusted oven door. When she could control the moisture welling in her eyes, she straightened and focused on a tin coffeepot that had boiled over and splattered the surface of the range.
"Exactly what I was wanting," she lied, thinking of the ice wagon she had seen and the children running behind to catch the chunks that had been jostled into the street. An hour ago she had not known it was possible to have ice in June.
Now she longed for a tiny piece to press over her throat and face. "A good cup of hot coffee. Do we have cups? Yes, here they are." On the wooden shelf in front of her nose.
"There's another room," Stefan said stiffly, watching her. "Many have only one room."
"Then we are fortunate," Lucie said brightly. She followed him into a second minuscule room and waited while he struck a lucifer to light the windowless blackness. Two thin mattresses were rolled and tied and pushed against the wall. When they were opened for the night, there would not be space for anything else.
"I made a private place for you." Stefan pointed to a length of faded cloth strung across one corner.
"Thank you," Lucie whispered, swallowing the lump in her throat. She pressed his hand.
They returned to the kitchen and Lucie poured coffee, noticing the grounds were not fresh and the coffee was pale as tea. She sat across the table from Stefan and lowered her eyes from his painful expression.
"I'm sorry." He ran a hand through his hair and tugged his mustache, a gesture she remembered. "It isn't what you expected."
"We all thought" Pressing her lips together, Lucie bit off what she had been about to say. His pride suffered enough, she could see it in his dark eyes, in the wooden set of his shoulders.
"After two years I had hoped to be able to rent something better." Frowning, Stefan looked into the cup he turned between his hands. "But even a small house rents for eight hundred to a thousand dollars a year. When a man earns a dollar a day"
"What does our home rent for?" Lucie asked, looking at the peeling walls, the broken window pane.
"Three dollars a week."
Barter was the basis of the economy in Wlad. Lucie knew to the feather how many chickens were required to buy enough cloth for skirts for her mother and herself. A half dozen eggs equaled a loaf of good black bread. A pound of autumn honey equaled a bushel of winter apples. American coins confused her.
Using her fingers she counted and figured, then raised a look of concern. "After paying the rent, you have three dollars to live on. Is everything else in America so cheap that three dollars is enough?"
Stefan's laugh was harsh. "Nothing in America is cheap."
"But you saved my passage money"
"Until this morning I rented space to two additional men."
"I see." She could not imagine three people sharing the space around her. But it required little imagination to recognize the hardship Stefan had endured to save the twenty-seven dollars required for her passage to America. "I will make this up to you," she said softly.
He waved the promise aside then leaned forward eagerly. "Lucie, tell me about home. Are the mother and father well? Is the barley out of the ground? Did Ivan Bobich clear his forest land? And my cowhas my cow calved yet?"
After pouring more coffee, Lucie assured him their parents were well, then she spoke of the village and village gossip until darkness gathered outside the window.
"I have news, too," Stefan announced when she finished speaking. A flush of color seemed to rise from his collar and his voice softened to a tone Lucie had not heard before. "I am to be married. As soon as there is money enough."
Surprise rounded Lucie's mouth, then she clapped her hands in delight and rushed to embrace him. "Oh, Stefan! What wonderful news. Tell me everything about her!"
"Her name is Greta Laskowski," Stefan said, smiling broadly. "Her people are from a village outside Warsaw. The family immigrated to America four years ago, but things did not go well for them. The parents died. Two sisters married and returned to Poland. Her brother went west." It seemed as if a cloud passed and Stefan's expression darkened.
"Greta wanted to be here to welcome you, but her health has suffered lately. Already she thinks of you as a sister."
Moisture dampened Lucie's lashes. It would be good to have a sister in this strange confusing land. Reaching across the scarred table, she clasped Stefan's hand. "It is my turn to help you. I'll find work, and in no time at all we'll save your marriage money." She owed him that much.
The softness faded from Stefan's dark eyes. "I wish it were that easy, Lucie," he said, shaking his head. "Work is hard to find; the pay is low. Every day hundreds of immigrants pour into the city, all desperate for work. Any man who demands decent wages will find someone standing behind him willing to do the same job for pennies." Frowning, he looked at the darkness pressing against the window. "It's not like we thought. Yes, there is opportunity here, but a man must look hard to find it. It isn't enough to have two hands and a strong back."