Historical mystery fans, do I have a treat for you today—an excerpt from the lovely Jane Prescott series!
I read the second book last year and thought it was grand and now I am thrilled to be able to share an excerpt from the upcoming third book, DEATH OF AN AMERICAN BEAUTY today on my blog!
This series is set in the Gilded Age New York and I was able to jump into the second book with little problem so if you are looking for a new mystery series to escape into during this strange time, I recommend giving this one a shot!
Death of an American Beauty is the third in Mariah Fredericks’s compelling series, set in Gilded Age New York, featuring Jane Prescott.
Jane Prescott is taking a break from her duties as lady’s maid for a week, and plans to begin it with attending the hottest and most scandalous show in town: the opening of an art exhibition, showcasing the cubists, that is shocking New York City.
1913 is also the fiftieth anniversary of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation speech, and the city’s great and good are determined to celebrate in style. Dolly Rutherford, heiress to the glamorous Rutherford’s department store empire, has gathered her coterie of society ladies to put on a play—with Jane’s employer Louise Tyler in the starring role as Lincoln himself. Jane is torn between helping the ladies with their costumes and enjoying her holiday. But fate decides she will do neither, when a woman is found murdered outside Jane’s childhood home—a refuge for women run by her uncle.
Deeply troubled as her uncle falls under suspicion and haunted by memories of a woman she once knew, Jane—with the help of old friends and new acquaintances, reporter Michael Behan and music hall pianist Leo Hirschfeld—is determined to discover who is making death into their own twisted art form.
The Princess of Wales has had a son.
Beyond that, I’m not sure.
My eyesight is not bad for someone of my age, but by any other mea sure, it is not good. Reading the newspaper has become a challenge. My glasses must be fixed at a precise point, the light sufficient, and the room quiet because I cannot read the words if I cannot hear them in my head. My d aughter says this makes no sense, but they’re my eyes and it’s my head.
Raising the paper, I peer at the print, which I swear t hey’ve made smaller. The young man who shot the president has been found not guilty because he is insane. Apparently the would-be assassin wished to impress a famous young w oman. I think of all the things one might do to impress such a w oman. Killing the president is not one of them.
The same thought occurred to the jury; they found the young man’s reasoning so flawed, they de cided it constituted insanity. They must have felt he was sincere; I might have thought he was lying. That he tried to kill the president not because he wanted a young w oman to think well of him, but because he wanted to think well of himself. If he found it splendid to kill, she would also find it splendid and reward him.
Perhaps if the prosecutor had pointed out this level of self- interest to the jury, they might have told the young man and others like him that you cannot kill because you have come up with stories about w omen that are not true. No matter how alluring those stories might be. Helen of Troy was prob ably an ordinary- looking w oman who had gotten bored with her husband and vice versa. But would we remember the heroes of the Trojan War if the Greeks w ere simply land- hungry? No, much better to say it was the face that launched a thousand ships. A woman’s face.
I won der if this jury would have declared Achilles insane. Or if they might have understood that he had a compulsion to kill and Helen’s face was simply the excuse.
Or maybe the Greeks disliked that she ran away. A w oman at liberty— that could be provocation enough.
I feel a curl of unease, a memory unfolding. A face.
For a moment I can’t breathe. Even after all these years, I can feel the vicious grip of those hands on my neck. There are days when I feel unsteady. I feel it now. A sense of falling, flailing . . .
I hold my head at the correct angle. Try to focus on the newspaper. The princess. The young man. But still I see that other face.
A woman’s face. Taken apart. Put back together.
And the scars, so many years l ater.
“ ‘Four score and seven years ago . . .’ ”
I looked up from the script. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Tyler. That’s the Gettysburg Address. You’re meant to be reciting the Emancipation Proclamation.”
“Am I?” Louise exhaled fretfully. “Oh dear.”
“ ‘That on the first day of January . . . ,’ ” I prompted.
“ ‘. . . first day of January . . .’ ” Remembering the rest of her line, she rattled off, “ ‘In the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty- three . . .’ ”
“ ‘All persons held as slaves . . .’ ”
“ ‘. . . slaves . . .’ ”
“ ‘. . . shall be then, thenceforward, and forever f ree.’ ”
“ ‘Forever f ree,’ ” Louise echoed, and removed her stovepipe hat. “What does thenceforward mean?”
“From now on, I suppose.”
“Well, why d idn’t Lincoln just say so?”
As a lady’s maid, it w asn’t for me to defend the stylistic choices
of the martyred sixteenth president. But while Lincoln had been eloquent in the face of civil war, congressional opposition, and the pistol of John Wilkes Booth, he had prob ably never faced a salon of society ladies, as Louise was preparing to do. In fact, he rarely visited the city, which had twice refused to vote for a Republican seen as insensitive to the commercial benefits of the slave trade.
However, it was the fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and New York had embraced its commemoration with gusto. Which was how Louise found herself balancing a makeshift stovepipe as she strug gled to recite Mr. Lincoln’s g reat speech.
Bored by the traditional dinner parties, the city’s g reat ladies were keen to display their artistry in dif fer ent ways. Tableaux vivants and amateur theatrics were the rage. One might enjoy Mrs. Halsey’s Brutus on Monday, Mrs. Foster Jenkins’s se lections from Die Fledermaus Tuesday, and on Wednesday, Mrs. Fortesque’s torrid attempts at Apache dance. And so, led by Dolly Rutherford of Rutherford’s department store— the newest and most ostentatious of the ladies’ shopping paradises, which billed itself as the place “Where every American Beauty blooms!”— my employer Louise Tyler and others were to perform “Stirring Scenes of the Emancipation” in a week’s time.
Being tall and willowy, Louise had been chosen to play the Great Emancipator himself. This was an honor that one might have thought due the hostess. But Mrs. Rutherford was round of figure and short of stature. At one point, it was suggested she play Harriet Tubman, but in the end, she had accepted the almost equally, if not more, impor tant role of Mary Todd Lincoln. (The part of Harriet Tubman went to Mrs. Edith Van Dormer. Having died earlier that month, Mrs. Tubman would be spared that perfor mance.)
Now Louise sank into an armchair and gazed out the win dow
at the mid- March morning. The calendar might say spring, but the chill air and dull skies showed that winter had not yet loosened its grip. A fire burned nicely, and the remains of Louise’s breakfast tea sat on the t able beside her. The town house in the East Twenties was quiet, as William Tyler, her husband of eight months, was in Washington with Louise’s father, Mr. Benchley. There were rumors that Woodrow Wilson was working on a new sort of revenue system, a tax on a ctual income. The more one earned, the more one paid. Some considered this a monstrous assault, including Mr. Benchley, who had many friends in Washington and had gone to urge them to fight the president’s plan. He had taken his son- in- law and newly minted attorney with him, leaving Louise on her own and at the mercy of Dolly Rutherford.
I blamed myself for Dolly Rutherford. William Tyler’s m other and I had, between us, successfully shepherded Louise through her first six months as a New York matron. The se nior Mrs. Tyler had introduced the ju nior Mrs. Tyler to the ladies she ought to know, warned her off t hose she should not, while I had polished her appearance and bolstered her confidence. When the elder Mrs. Tyler went to visit her daughter Beatrice, now husband hunting in Boston, she said to me, “I leave Louise in your capable hands, Jane.”
Mrs. Tyler had been gone but a day when I came down with gastric flu. With her mother- in- law away and me indisposed, Louise had fallen into the clutches of one of the city’s most limber and exhausting social climbers. Dolly Rutherford let it be known that she refused, just refused, to be idle. “To be idle is to be bored and to be bored is to die.” Her passion was the transcendent, especially in the arts. If it hung in a gallery or danced, sang, or declaimed upon the stage, Dolly Rutherford would lure it into her salon and display it, “flayed, dressed, and pickled,” as one critic put it. She might have been ridicul ous except for two assets: a will worthy of Genghis Khan and her husband’s fortune. Stronger women than Louise Tyler had been pulled into Dolly’s orbit. I felt guilty nonetheless.
As the clock on the mantelpiece chimed nine, I hoped Louise would remember what today was before I had to remind her. But she noticed my glance at the clock and said, “Oh, it’s time, i sn’t it?” Rising, she held out her hand. “What w ill I do without you?”
“You can reach me at the refuge anytime.”
“It’s your holiday, Jane— why d on’t you go somewhere nice?”
“I want to see my u ncle. And I have other plans as well.”
“Oh, and what are t hese plans?”
“I’m afraid some of them are shocking.”
“Jane!” Smiling, Louise put a hand to her chest. “Well, all right. Go and do your shocking t hings. But I’ll miss you at French lessons. And rehearsals. If Dolly Rutherford shouts at that poor seamstress from her husband’s store one more time, I’ll have fits. Still, I suppose it’s something to do.”
With a small sigh, she looked around the sitting room as if hoping distraction would pre sent itself. Or her husband: I knew she was missing William. That much could be said for the Rutherford Pageant: it was a diversion.
With as much speed as was polite, I went upstairs to change. When William and Louise had moved to their new home, I had been given a spacious room on the top floor.
Taking off my daily outfit of plain skirt and shirtwaist, I pulled on a high- necked blouse and a dark skirt of jersey wool I’d made myself. Then I added a long navy jacket that had been left behind by Charlotte when she went to Eu rope. Then I put on my new hat, black felt, turned up at the front with a dark red rose at the side and a handsome velvet band. Fi nally, I put on my new coat, a pre sent from the Tylers this past Christmas. It was also dark wool, but the cut was exquisite, with a hobble skirt, large baggy pockets, a wrap around bodice that buttoned daringly at the bosom, and a high collar. Looking in the mirror, I de cided that while I was not quite Lillian Gish, I needn’t be ashamed to be seen in her com pany should she turn up at the International Exhibition of Modern Art.
For that’s where I was going, to mark the start of my vacation, the scandalous art exhibit known as the Armory Show. The exhibition of twelve hundred works by three hundred American and Eu ro pean artists had descended on New York in a blaze of sensation. It was the talk of the city, so popul ar that people went again and again, just to be seen. On one day, you might see Caruso sketching in a corner. On another, former president Roo sevelt. Cartoonists depicted landmarks from the Statue of Liberty to the Brooklyn Bridge in the shocking new style dubbed Cubism. The artists had been lampooned as “nuttists,” “dope- ists,” “topsyturvists,” and “toodle- doodlists.” Even official critics were uncertain as to the Cubists’ merits, asking, “Is their work a con spic u ous milestone in the pro gress of art? Or is it junk?”
I was fairly sure I wouldn’t be able to decide either. But that wasn’t impor tant. All that mattered to me on that cold March day was that the Armory Show was the most fash ion able place to be in New York City and that I, Jane Prescott, would be there. In ser vice to absolutely no one but myself.
* * *
The 69th Regiment Armory was only a few blocks from the Tyler home in the East Twenties. Designed along elegant, modern lines with curved arches and a French mansard roof of limestone, the Armory welcomed visitors with a banner hung above the entrance: international exhibition of modern art. Limousines were already lining up outside, creating traffic jams as they disgorged their stylish passengers. As I joined the line to get in, I heard a man ask, “How does a minister’s niece come to be at this tawdry spectacle?”
I turned and saw Michael Behan. I had not seen him for several months, and an art exhibit was not where I expected to find him. “What on earth are you d oing here?”
“I am paid to be here,” said the reporter. “Which is the only way you’d get me near the place. Are you g oing in?”
“Well, let the Herald pay your fare. Come on, I’ll give you the guided tour.”
As we sailed inside and past the guards, who seemed to know him well, I said, “ Don’t tell me y ou’re now an art critic.”
He shook his head. “ There are only so many ways to say bunk, garbage, con, and hooey, Miss Prescott. These fellows make P. T. Barnum look like an honest man. No, I’m h ere to cover the local color a ngle. Reactions of the average man and woman, with a bit of gossip about the famous who wander through.”
He handed our coats off at the coat check, then turned to me. “Now then, average w oman. What would you like to see first?”
I gazed at the bustling, well- dressed crowd. I had dreamed of this for weeks, and now I was actually h ere. Thrilled to feel both free and in exactly the right place, I said, “I want to see e very last bit of it, Mr. Behan.”
“ Shall we start at the Chamber of Horrors?” This was the nickname for Gallery I, where the Cubists were displayed.
I had last seen Michael Behan at the time of William and Louise’s wedding. It had been an uncertain time for me. I had not been sure of my place with the Benchleys, and just before the wedding, a young w oman I knew had been murdered. The sudden end of her life had made me look at my own in a dif fer ent light.
In such a mood, seeing Michael Behan, who was both good- looking and married, had been complicated. I realized now, I had let myself get caught up in all sorts of stupid ideas, taking letters he had written to me for something beyond what they w ere. Thankfully, I hadn’t made a fool of myself, and I could now be in his com pany without a trace of confusion. Yes, I was pleased to be seen in smart new clothes. But if women couldn’t take pleasure in having their attractions noted, a lady’s maid’s career would not thrive.
Gallery I was by far the most crowded. Craning to see over shoulders, I asked, “Where is Nude Descending a Staircase?” The painting by a Frenchman named Marcel Duchamp was said to be the most shocking of the entire show, and I was in a mood to be shocked.
“Right over h ere,” said Behan. “And I’ll give you a dollar if you can see anything remotely resembling a h uman being.”
The painting was mobbed, and it was a while before I could get even a glimpse of it. I confess, my first thought was Mud.
“Stunning, isn’t it?” said Behan. “Puts me in mind of a dropped book.”
I peered at the canvas, determined to see that nude. There was a briefest flash of comprehension— Oh, it’s like that, isn’t that astonishing?— before a beefy man elbowed me to one side and I was back to seeing muddy trees.
The re orientation of my eyes held enough that when we moved on to a sculpted head that looked made up of triangles and rectangles, I said truthfully, “That’s beautiful.” But I felt my face go red when we approached a black- and- white image of a nude woman. The strokes w ere rough and unlovely. She was well fleshed, her belly sloping, legs open. Avoiding Mr. Behan’s eye, I went on to Woman with Mustard Pot.
Here, you could see the person clearly: a woman sitting, rather bored, her head leaning on her hand. Her face was all angles, slashing cuts of black, orange, gray, and yellow. I wasn’t sure I liked it; it felt almost cruel to take a face apart like this. But it was also mesmerizing. Nearby a matronly woman declared that if her child ever made art like this, she would smack it.
We wandered through to another room, where Mr. Behan admired a painting of boxers— all muscle and epic strug gle— and we both smiled in recognition of a painting of three young w omen drying their hair on the roof of a city building.
Then I heard a high, excited voice call my name. I turned to see Louise’s young sister- in- law Emily Tyler weaving her way through the crowd, catching the eye of several gentlemen. This was not surprising; she was tall and lively, with the reddish- brown hair of the Tylers and mischievous brown eyes all her own. What was surprising was her presence in the city. She was supposed to be at Vassar College.
As she reached us, she said, “Is Louise here, or are you on your own?”
“On my own,” I informed her. “It’s my holiday.”
“Me as well,” said Emily happily. “Not officially, but yesterday, I just de cided that if I had to read or write one more word, my head would burst. So— here I am.”
Notebook at the ready, Behan inquired, “And what do you make of the exhibition, Miss Tyler?”
“Well, there are an awful lot of naked p eople,” she said, dimpling.
“I like it,” I announced. “It’s a new way to see things.”
Behan took this down; I knew how he’d write it. My views would be given due re spect. But Emily would have the last word.
“Do you cover the arts, Mr. Behan?” Emily asked.
“Just the life of the city, Miss Tyler. Art, crime, the h uman drama . . .”
“Oh, well, you should talk to Jane. Her uncle runs a home for prostitutes on the East Side. That’s just full of human drama.”
Her voice had risen on the word “prostitutes,” and Michael Behan’s brow quirked. He might write about tawdry subjects, but he was conservative in some things, and young women shouting about prostitutes was apparently one of them. Making his excuses, he left me to manage a wayward college girl avid for experience.
I asked, “Does your m other know you’re here, Miss Tyler?”
“She does not,” said Emily, gazing at the black- and- white nude. “And don’t you tell her. Not a word to William or Louise either.”
I was about to say she had one week to enjoy my discretion when we heard “Emily Tyler!” and turned to see Mrs. Dolly Rutherford. She embraced Emily in the manner of an old family friend, even though t hey’d only met once or twice before.
“Have they released you from that purgatory in Poughkeepsie?”
Like most socially ambitious women, Mrs. Rutherford had an excellent memory. Small and blond, she gave the impression of a woman who cannot imagine being unable to charm anyone into anything. She had a beautiful rose complexion and a ready smile. But the ringed fin gers that set themselves on Emily’s arms were white at the knuckles, even as she kept a sharp lookout for anyone more impor tant.
I was certainly not that person. Nor was I a great fan of Mrs. Rutherford’s, so I stepped tactfully away and examined the next painting, three undressed women, painted by someone named Seurat. I wasn’t sure what to make of it, so I listened in as a bearded gentleman lectured a pink- cheeked young man, saying, “See the tiny dots of color? It’s called Divisionism. You don’t mix the paints into one muddy slosh, you let each color stand separate and of itself. But next to it, you put a contrasting color just as bold, and the two side by side give so much more light and life.”
I was thinking that was rather marvelous when I heard Dolly Rutherford reproving Emily for speaking with a reporter.
“Oh,” said Emily, with mock regret, “but he was a very handsome reporter. And anyway, now he’s run off. I d on’t think he cared for what he was seeing. Much preferred the earlier pieces.” She twinkled at me. Had she not been William Tyler’s sister, I would have thrown a glove at her.
Dolly Rutherford adroitly moved the topic back to a point of interest: herself. “Mr. Rutherford can’t abide this sort of thing either. I said, George, this is the most impor tant art event of the year, you must see it. But the poor dear took one look, said he felt ill, and went back to his office.”
“He’s announcing the next Miss Rutherford’s soon, i sn’t he?” said Emily, referring to the annual contest in which young ladies vied to be the face of Rutherford’s department store. “I’m wild with curiosity as to who it w ill be.”
Dolly Rutherford smiled briefly. “Yes, that will be announced at the conclusion of my musicale, ‘Stirring Scenes of the Emancipation.’ Your dear sister- in- law has deigned to take part, and I have a feeling she will amaze us all!”
Well aware of Louise’s shyness, Emily giggled. Mrs. Rutherford then suggested Emily join her at Rutherford’s celebrated tearoom, the Orientale; the store was only a short distance, and they could take the car. In the tradition of students since time immemorial, Emily sensed a f ree meal and accepted on the spot. To me, she gave a wave of the fin gers, which she then drew across her lips, urging silence. And I was f ree to wander the exhibition on my own.
Which I did for a very enjoyable hour. But I was getting tired, my head overfull of images, when I stopped in front of a black- and- white e tching. It was a city scene, a group of buildings at night. In one win dow, a woman, not quite dressed, put her wash on the clothesline to dry. T here was a man behind her; her husband, presumably, but she felt vulnerable, unaware of being watched. In another win dow, a woman stood in just her underdrawers, arms above her head as she pulled her hair into a knot. She seemed to be enjoying her nakedness, taking in the air on a sweltering summer night. But a shadowy figure on a nearby roof was gazing at her. This vision of the city was both jarringly realistic and something out of a story book, and it unnerved me.
“That’s grisly,” said Michael Behan behind me.
I wheeled around. “You deserted me!”
“I certainly did. What is it they’re teaching at ladies’ colleges these days?”
“Oh, that’s just Emily Tyler. She likes to be shocking.”
He said I had the look of a w oman in need of a cup of tea, and I said I was exactly that. The day had started as exhilarating, but now I felt exhausted. I simply could not look at another thing.
I said as much to Michael Behan as he set two mugs of tea and a plate of seed cake on the café t able. I expected him to tease me, but he said, “I d on’t much care for it. Cutting up the face, shoving it this way and that. As if it’s a . . . thing. Not h uman. Hits you in strange ways. I’ll be happy to be done with this assignment, to tell you the truth.”
As he cut the cake in two with a fork, he added, “Although it does get me home in time for dinner.”
In the past, Mr. Behan had worked long hours; this, I sensed, had caused domestic quarrels. “How is Mrs. Behan?” I asked. “She is very well, thank you. Actually, I do thank you, as it’s partly down to you.”
He nodded. “You remember telling me that Mrs. Behan’s mood might improve if I hired a day girl?”
“And you did?”
“Not exactly. But her father died”— I was about to offer condolences, but a quick shake of the head told me Mr. Behan did not mourn his father- in- law— “which left our fortunes somewhat improved. Also, my mother- in- law in permanent residence. Which has its . . . charms. But it’s put us in mind of family, so I’m working a bit less and home a bit more often.” He sipped his tea. “ Those who aspire to posterity must work to achieve it, or some such pablum.”
He was shy as he said it, and I understood that future Behans were now hoped for. Knowing he liked c hildren, I said sincerely,
“I wish you g reat success.”
“Well, thank you.”
For a moment we smiled at each other, and I thought how nice it was to be friends with a gentleman. Michael Behan would have fat, handsome babies, and I would knit something for them. A hat.
“Where is it you’re off to after this? Is all this”—he waved a fin ger at my new jacket— “for your uncle? Or has that milkman fi nally found his nerve?” Behan liked to spin yarns about vari ous suitors who w ere yearning to approach but had yet to find the courage.
“We have a new milkman now, and I never see him. Nor the policeman nor the butcher, baker, or candlestick maker. But I am off to the refuge.”
Apparently, Emily’s impulse to shock had rubbed off, b ecause I added, “ We’re having a dance to night.”
“Yes, it’s an annual event. The Southern Baptist Ladies’ Cotillion.” I sipped my tea. “Or, as some of the w omen prefer to call it, the Whores’ Ball.”
Behan leaned back in his chair. “Now, this I might have to see. How does one get invited to this soiree?”
“You don’t, Mr. Behan. No men are allowed.”
The cups w ere empty, and only crumbs were left of the cake. As we got up to leave, he said, “You’ll be doing their hair, I suppose.”
“Oh, I’ll be dancing, Mr. Behan.”
“ Will you?”
“I happen to dance very well.”
We collected our coats and made our way outside. After the overheated air of the crowded Armory, the chill and damp were refreshing. As we walked out of the tunneled exit, I de cided this was a very satisfactory start to my vacation.
By now the crowds were much larger, and for a moment we were trapped at the gates, buffeted by people e ager to get inside. There was a screech of tires and a wet thud. Then someone screamed. My immediate thought was that a person had been struck by a car, a driver making a sudden dash around the traffic and running into someone. But then I saw p eople gathering by the wall of the Armory, heard cries of “Revolting!” “Who would do such a thing?” The sound of retching.
Drawn by instinct, Behan had pushed his way through the crowd and was trying to get a look over hats and shoulders. I saw his neck go rigid, and he stepped back.
“What is it?” I asked, looking even as I heard him say, “ Don’t.”
A cat— the tail and stiff paws told me that right away. The staring eyes, bulging entrails. The poor head, hanging by a sinew, spoke of deliberate cruelty. And the red, spreading in the gray snow, that wide gaping slash in the belly . . . I swallowed, tasted bitter tea and bile.
“I hope that’s not the Herald critic’s review,” said Michael Behan, guiding me away. “Come on, let’s find you a cab.”
About the Author
Mariah Fredericks was born and raised in New York City, where she still lives with her family. She is the author of several YA novels. Death of an American Beauty is her third novel to feature ladies’ maid Jane Prescott.