Eleven-year-old Susan O’Neal is sick of always having to look after her two younger sisters. But ever since their father died, her mother depends on her. To make ends meet, she’s just taken a boarder, an Englishwoman named Beatrice Rutherford, into their Chelsea tenement apartment. Susan and Bea become fast friends, but when Susan finds a folded piece of paper with six cryptic words—must be kept secret for now—she wonders what her new friend is hiding.
Is Bea a spy? Is she trying to involve Susan’s mother in something dangerous? Susan’s fear becomes a reality when her mother vanishes on the day five thousand women from every state in the Union come to New York for a suffrage rally. A riot erupts, and Susan knows something truly momentous has happened. Terrified for her mother’s safety, she begins a search that exposes some hard truths about her city—and their new boarder.
This ebook includes a historical afterword.
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Secrets on 26th Street
By Elizabeth McDavid Jones
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1999 Elizabeth McDavid Jones
All rights reserved.
As Susan O'Neal stood on the sidewalk in the drizzle, waiting for Helen, she thought having to be patient was the absolute hardest thing about being a big sister. If it wasn't waiting for little Lucy to painstakingly button her own shoes when Susan could have done it in a flash, then it was waiting for Helen to finish picking at her oatmeal in the morning so Susan could get the dishes washed up and she and Helen could get to school. Susan knew Mum needed her more than ever since Dad died last year, but sometimes it felt like no other eleven-year-old in Chelsea, maybe in all of New York City, had more chores than she did. Sometimes Susan thought it would be nice just to do what she wanted for a change.
Like now. It was cold for September, and all of Chelsea was gray—gray like the granite curbstones, gray like the factory smoke, gray like the Hudson River that formed the neighborhood's western border. The rain fell gray on the sidewalks and gray on the rooftops, gray on the streets and on the umbrellas of hurrying pedestrians.
It was a day for hurrying, Susan thought, not for poking along, waiting for little sisters. What Susan wanted to do was to rush home from school and curl up in front of the stove with the novel her teacher had assigned her to read. Susan couldn't wait to get home and dive in, for just an hour or so, before she had to start chores. There'd be no time to read later, that was for sure. Tonight the new boarder was coming, and Mum had to work late. She was depending on Susan to tidy up the flat and have dinner ready when the boarder arrived at six.
Susan knew if she didn't hurry Helen along now, there wouldn't be a minute to read, much less an hour. It was already a quarter past four, and they'd walked only six blocks, little more than halfway home to their building on 26th Street. Helen was being an absolute snail, and it was all Susan could do to keep from losing her temper.
"Helen, come on," Susan said. "You've stopped to look at posters at every movie house on the avenue." When Dad was alive, he would sometimes give the girls money to see a Saturday matinee. There was no money for shows now, though, and Helen sorely missed them.
Helen acted as if she hadn't even heard Susan. "Oh, Susie, isn't she beautiful?" She was staring dreamily at a poster featuring Mary Pickford. Helen loved the romantic pictures Pickford starred in, where the handsome hero always fell in love with her and they lived happily ever after. Susan preferred exciting westerns or the comedies with Charlie Chaplin.
Susan backed up to look at the poster Helen was mooning over. She wrinkled up her nose in disgust. It looked like the actress was once again playing a damsel in distress. Susan wished that just once Mary Pickford would catch the bank robbers herself instead of depending on the handsome hero to do it.
Susan turned her head sideways to try to see what Helen saw in the willowy, golden-haired Pickford. "I suppose she's pretty enough, but I think Mum is prettier. Mum's eyes have more life in them."
At least they used to, Susan thought. Before Dad died and Mum had so many bills to worry about.
"I'm going to be a star just like Mary Pickford someday." Helen turned from the poster and strode forward with an eight-year-old's confidence that her dreams would come true. "You wait and see."
Susan picked up Helen's book strap from the sidewalk where Helen had dropped it and scrambled after her. "A redheaded, Irish Mary Pickford?" Susan teased. She knew Helen's dream was impossible, though she wouldn't say so to Helen. After all, Susan remembered what it was like to be eight years old, even though it seemed like centuries ago.
"They have wigs, you know," Helen said huffily. "And I could change my name so no one would know I'm Irish."
"What would you change it to?"
Helen glanced at the shop window they were passing. Rutger's and Jefferson's Clothing for Men. Swelling her chest, she said regally, "I'll be Lillian Jefferson."
"It's a grand name," Susan said, "though you've stolen the whole of it. I don't think Mum will mind you using 'Lillian'—even though it's the name she picked out back when she dreamed of acting in vaudeville—but Mr. Jefferson might object. When you become rich and famous, that is."
"I'll be so rich, I'll split it with him."
Susan laughed. She was thinking, though, about her own dream for the future. It wasn't a career in show business she wanted, but it was nearly as impossible. That's why she never spoke of it, not even to Mum. Why, it was just as silly for Susan to dream of going to City College to study literature as it was for Helen to dream of being Mary Pickford, or Mum to dream of performing on the vaudeville stage. Who ever heard of a poor Irish girl from the tenements going to college? Most of the older girls Susan knew had gone straight to work in the factories after finishing grammar school. If she was lucky, Susan thought, she'd end up like her friend Russell Cochran's older sister: a chambermaid in a mansion on Fifth Avenue, wearing an apron and picking up other people's dirty laundry. The thought depressed her immensely.
The sky darkened with Susan's mood; the rain picked up, and the wind changed direction and blew the rain into their faces. Some people scurried to get out of the downpour, hailing cabs or huddling under awnings. Susan and Helen simply hurried faster along their way—past Kelly's Stables and the blacksmith shop beside it, past Kosler's butcher shop, past the secondhand store where Mum bought most of their clothes. In the empty lot next to the store, a pile of rubbish, blown by the wind, swirled into the air, danced gaily for a moment, then dropped back to earth.
The scene sent a wave of restlessness rushing over Susan. I might as well dream of wearing diamonds on my toes, she thought glumly, for my dream'll never happen. She plunged right through a puddle and ignored Helen's scolding. They were almost home now—in front of Murray's Tavern on the corner of 28th and Tenth.
Susan glanced up at two women standing in front of the tavern holding signs. The printing on their signs had faded in the rain, but Susan could still make out the large, bold letters: VOTES FOR WOMEN.
Suffragists. Every now and then, they would show up in the neighborhood with petitions for people to sign. Sometimes they would stand on soapboxes on the sidewalk and talk about things Susan mostly didn't understand, like "enfranchisement of women." Most folks didn't pay them much mind. Susan remembered one suffragist very well, though. Some of the tough boys had pelted her with rotten tomatoes as she was speaking, but she'd stood her ground. With tomato running down her face, she'd shouted them down and dared them to throw another one.
Susan had thought if that woman wasn't Irish, she should be, and for the first time it had made Susan curious about suffrage. Soon afterward, there was a suffrage parade down Fifth Avenue, and Susan had wanted to go. But Mum wouldn't take her; she said she didn't have twenty cents to spend on carfare for such a lost cause.
"Why don't those ladies go in out of the rain like everyone else?" Helen asked.
The yellow chrysanthemums on the suffragists' hats were drooping in the rain. Susan shrugged in answer to Helen's question. "I dunno, Helen. They're suffragists. Too stubborn to give up, I wager. Figure they'll get their way if they keep hounding the men to give them the vote. But whatever they do, it won't change our lives."
Only two more blocks to home, but Susan was feeling so gloomy, it seemed the two blocks stretched forever. At 27th and Eleventh Avenue, a newsboy was screaming out headlines about the war in Europe. Susan knew that England and France were fighting Germany and Austria. The newspapers were always full of war news—battles and troop movements. But the war felt far away to Susan, and she'd gotten so used to the headlines she scarcely noticed them anymore. "Read all about it," the newsboy cried. "German spy caught in Paris!"
This particular headline, though, grabbed Susan's attention for an instant—she had just finished reading an exciting book about Nathan Hale, a Revolutionary War spy. But the smell of D'Attilio's Bakery reminded her that Mum had asked them to stop on their way home from school and buy bread for dinner.
Helen drew in a deep whiff. "Oooh, the bread smells good," she said. "Since Mum didn't tell us what kind to get, does that mean we can choose?"
"I guess it does," said Susan. The thought of choosing among D'Attilio's delicious loaves—rye, wheat, pumpernickel—chased away Susan's gloom. "Depends on what he'll give us for a nickel." A nickel was only enough for day-old bread, but it was all Mum could spare, and she'd told Susan to try to talk D'Attilio into a fresh loaf. "If we can't feed this boarder decently," Mum had said, "we can't hope to keep her, and we have got to keep her. She's our only hope to make this month's rent." Susan couldn't forget how Mum's eyes had burned with intensity. She reached in her pocket and fingered the nickel's cool hardness. She hoped she could live up to Mum's faith in her.
The bell above the door tinkled as the girls pushed their way into the crowded bakery. While Helen wandered around looking at pastries and breads in the display cases, Susan waited in line behind their neighbor Mrs. Flynn. Mum always said Mrs. Flynn, who lived on the fifth floor right above the O'Neals, was better than the Times for giving news of the neighborhood; she seemed to know everything that happened on the block.
At the moment, Mrs. Flynn was trying to hold on to her twin boys while balancing the baby on her hip. "How's your mum holding up, lass? Last time I saw her she was pale as the moon. I'm hoping she's not ailing." Mrs. Flynn's eyes showed concern.
Susan didn't know how to put into words her fears about Mum. Mum was looking so thin lately, and dark circles had appeared under her eyes, no doubt from exhaustion and worry. Even though Mum worked at the shipping office down on the docks twelve hours a day, six days a week, she was four months behind on the rent, and the landlord had been pressing Mum for payment. "Well, she's not exactly ailing," Susan said. "But she hasn't been herself."
"Coming down with something, is she? I wager she's been working herself too hard, coming in after dark every evening. God love her, she never sees the sun, does she? Well, you tell her I'll be by real soon. Tell her I'll be by."
Then Mrs. Flynn's voice took on a serious tone. "You lassies lock your door tonight, y'hear me? There've been break-ins on 27th, right behind us. They're saying it's the Jimmy Curley Gang, fresh out of Sing Sing prison, the lot of 'em. Lock your doors tight."
Susan breathed a little faster. She'd heard stories about Jimmy Curley and his hoodlums shaking down businesses and pushcart peddlers for money, threatening to poison their horses, or worse, if they didn't pay up. Helen was lingering in front of the pastry display, but she was staring straight at Mrs. Flynn, and Susan was sure she'd heard. Grand. Now Helen would have nightmares for a week.
Before Mrs. Flynn could say more, the customer at the counter turned around, and Susan groaned. It was Lester Barrow. He was the powerful district leader of Tammany Hall, the circle of Democratic politicians that ran the city. He also happened to be the O'Neals' landlord. With his beady eyes and pointed chin, Lester reminded Susan of the fat gray rats that swam in the Hudson River. Susan turned away from him, hoping he hadn't seen her, but it was too late.
"Why, Missy O'Neal, 'tis a pleasure to see you."
Susan cringed inside. She always had the feeling that Lester's Irish accent was fake. Dad had sworn Lester made it up to get the Irish people to vote for him. Nothing about the man seemed genuine.
"I trust your mother is well."
How could she be, Susan thought, when she's worried sick about scraping up the monstrous rent you charge? Lester was twice as impatient for his rent as the other landlords in Chelsea. Other landlords tried to be accommodating—they knew their tenants were poor, not dishonest, and they would wait six months, even eight months, before demanding their rent. But all Susan said was, "Mum's as well as you'd expect, Mr. Barrow."
"Good, good. Now I need to talk to you for a minute." He pulled Susan aside. "Thursday after next. 'Tis the end of the month. You know your mother's rent is due." His grip on Susan's arm tightened. "She's four months behind, lassie. I've been more than patient with her, knowing her circumstances. But I must have my money by the end of the month. 'Tis a business I'm operating, not a charity."
Susan tried to push down her rising panic. There was no way Mum could have all the money by then. Lester would put them out on the street; she knew he would. She'd seen him do it to the Laskys, the Polish family who'd lived in the basement flat. Susan stammered, trying to think of something to say to buy Mum more time, even a couple of weeks. Who knows what could happen in a couple of weeks?
"Oh, Mum can get the money, Mr. Barrow. I'm sure she can."
"I'm glad of that. I truly am. I have the highest regard for your mother, understand. The widow of a fine Democrat like your dad. That's why I felt obliged to help your mother get a job." Lester's voice was oily-smooth. "And why I've tried to look after your family since your dad's been gone."
Susan thought bitterly that Lester had done nothing of the sort. In fact, he had worried Mum to death about making the rent.
"But there's only so much a man in my position can do," Lester went on. He shook his head and clucked. "If your mum can't afford my building, 'tis time she thought of moving perhaps. Flats in Five Points go for five dollars a month, I hear."
Five Points was the worst slum in New York, as Lester well knew. This was a threat, and one Lester would make good on. Frantically Susan scoured her brain for a reply. Then she remembered the new boarder. "No, we can afford your building. We can now. Mum advertised for a boarder in the Times. A British woman answered—a Miss Rutherford— and she's arriving today. The rent will be caught up in no time, you'll see."
Lester's eyes narrowed. "A boarder?"
Suddenly Susan was afraid she'd said the wrong thing. What if Lester raised the rent? What if a boarder was against the rules? Her stomach churned as she waited for Lester's response.
All he did was grunt. "Tell your mother I may stop by after my meeting this evening. If it's not too late. I want to meet this boarder."
Lester released his hold on her, turned, and strutted out the door.
Susan put a hand to her cheek. She'd done nothing but make things worse. Now Lester was coming by tonight instead of next week!
Susan shuffled back in line. Instantly Helen was beside her. "What did Mr. Barrow say to you, Susie?" Her eyes were wide with apprehension.
"Nothing." Still shaken, Susan tried hard to hold her voice steady. "Just asking for the rent like he usually does." She couldn't let her little sister know how desperate their situation was.
By the time Susan reached the counter, she was in no mood to bargain with Mr. D'Attilio. She snatched the day-old bread he gave her for her nickel and whisked Helen out of the bakery.
The girls walked in silence the remaining block to their tenement building. Susan wondered how much longer they could stay in this familiar neighborhood. She'd lived in Chelsea all her life. What would it be like living in a place like Five Points?
Suddenly Susan felt tired. She wanted to go home and flop on her bed and sleep for a long time. But she couldn't. There was too much to do. She had to pick up Lucy at the Cochrans', where Lucy stayed while Mum was at work. Then she had to get ready for the boarder, which meant hauling water from the common sink in the hallway, peeling potatoes, and cutting up cabbage. There'd be no time for reading now.
"Susie!" Helen's voice cut into Susan's thoughts. They were in front of their own redbrick building.
"What is it?" Susan asked.
"Our window. I saw someone in there."
Susan looked up at their window on the fourth floor. There was nothing. "Helen, stop imagining things. You turn everything into a scene from a movie. I wish you would—" Then she stopped and stared.
A dark form had passed in front of their window.
Someone was in their flat!
Excerpted from Secrets on 26th Street by Elizabeth McDavid Jones. Copyright © 1999 Elizabeth McDavid Jones. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsChapter 1 Threats,
Chapter 2 A Figure in the Window,
Chapter 3 A Secret,
Chapter 4 Bluffing,
Chapter 5 Inside Hell's Kitchen,
Chapter 6 The Suffrage Problem,
Chapter 7 Caught in the Riot,
Chapter 8 Lester's Visit,
Chapter 9 A Telegram and a Letter,
Chapter 10 Tracking Down Mum,
Chapter 11 Bea's Job,
Chapter 12 Susan's Gamble,
Going Back in Time,
About the Author,