Cassandra Stover couldn't put the screams and sight of blood from her mind. The sounds and images had haunted her for the last three days, three days of torment and torture as she remembered the ten-year-old boy whose hand had been torn off by the iron teeth of a machine gear.
It had been Cassie's second day of work at the textile factory, but it also proved to be her last. She couldn't bear that such horrific accidents were seen as commonplace, yet most of the workers had continued with their duties. Only a few went to take charge of the child and whisk him away. Injuries were seen as just one more risk of employment.
"Still, I need a job," she told herself as she left the steps of Christ Church, where she'd just spent the last hour praying for guidance. Her mother and little sister, Elida, were depending on her. Now that Elida was nearly ten, she was old enough to help their mother with the family laundry service and Cassie could venture out to find a job that could offer even more money for their living expenses.
"The only problem is," she whispered to herself, "I'm not qualified for much of anything. My sewing is atrocious and my cooking, only fair."
She sighed and looked across the grassy park. The day was proving to be quite pleasant. Flowers bloomed, offering delicate touches of color against the new grass. The budding trees revealed new life, and the world seemed fresh and renewed.
Cassie strolled for some time before deciding to take a seat on one of the park benches. "Father, I don't understand what I am to do," Cassie said with a sigh. She glanced heavenward at the wispy white clouds and tried to imagine she could hear God answering her with some profound wisdom that would change her life.
She smiled to herself. How silly I can be. She recalled her childhood games of pretend when she would serve tea to Jesus and His disciples. Except, of course, for Judas. Giggling to herself, she recalled explaining to her mother that Judas didn't deserve tea and cookies. After all, he would betray Jesus. Her mother, however, explained that no one deserved to share tea and cookies with Jesus, but that everyone certainly needed to do so. After that, Cassie had set up another cup and saucer away from the other twelve. Judas could have his tea and cookies, but he would do so at another table.
Make-believe had accompanied Cassie most of her life. She had loved to pretend as a girl that she was a princess from a faraway country. She had dreamed of being rich and not merely the daughter of a modest merchant.
"Papa, if you were here, you would surely know what to suggest." Of course, if Papa were still alive, there would be no dilemma regarding their welfare.
Cassie heard noises behind her and fell silent. No sense in letting people believe her teched in the head. She bowed in prayer, pleading with God to see her need and answer her questions.
Her mother's laundry service had provided well enough since Cassie's father's death, now nearly ten years past. They weren't poverty stricken, yet providing for their needs was a constant concern. Everything good came with effort, her mother would often say, but Cassie worried that such effort was aging her mother before her time. Not only that, but from the moment her father had died, Cassie had longed to ease her mother's burden, to take her turn caring for the family. Finding another job would allow Cassie to do just that.
Cassie raised her head and opened her eyes to find an elderly woman leaning heavily against the back of the bench. Stylishly dressed in a dark rose walking-out suit, the woman looked oddly familiar. Cassie immediately got to her feet and offered to help her sit.
"Are you all right?" she asked gently.
"Goodness, I believe I've walked too far today." She pulled a fan from her reticule and attempted to open it.
Cassie took the fan in her hand as recognition dawned. "Here, allow me." She opened it and let the air work to revive the woman before adding, "Aren't you Mrs. Jameston? We attend Christ Church, and I'm certain we've met before."
"Oh yes, you're Cassandra Stover. I know your mother, Dora, quite well. She has often helped with various church affairs."
Smiling, Cassie nodded. "That would be my mother. She loves to help others."
Mrs. Jameston smoothed out her jacket and closed her eyes for a moment. "I feel much revived. You are a good nurse, my dear."
"Well, please sit and rest for a while longer. I'll walk home with you when you are ready, but you mustn't press yourself too hard."
The older woman opened her eyes at this. "It seems I've been pressing too hard all of my seventy years. A habit that is difficult to break, for I come from stubborn stock."
Cassie grinned. "My mother says the same of me. I have a tendency to be opinionated, outspoken, and stubborn."
"Well, those traits can also be used for good," Mrs. Jameston replied. "I know that much firsthand, for they are also my own companions." She shifted and seemed to relax a bit more. "So tell me what you're doing here today. You looked as though you were praying."
"I was," Cassie answered. "I desperately need direction."
"God is the best to seek that from. But, pray tell, what would a young woman like you so desperately need at this juncture in her life?"
"I'm hardly that young anymore. I'm four and twenty, soon to be five and twenty. Since you know my mother, you know also that my father is deceased. We have worked to get by without him these last ten years. Everyone does their part, and that is why I was praying. My sister, Elida, is now old enough to help with the laundry service, and with summer approaching, she'll be out of school and able to help full time. I want to figure yet another way to support our household, but to be frank, I'm not good at anything."
Mrs. Jameston chuckled. "I seriously doubt that to be true."
"Well, I tried my hand at serving tables at one of the local eating establishments, but I was rather clumsy. I think all the noise and people caused me to be nervous. Then I tried working at the textile mill, but ..." She shuddered and tried to block the ugly image from her imagination once again. "A little boy lost his hand. It was horrible."
"Oh, my dear child, I cannot even imagine how terrible that must have been for you." Mrs. Jameston patted Cassie's arm in sympathy.
"I knew I couldn't work there," Cassie said, shaking her head. "Now I'm not sure what to do. You would think that God might have gifted me with more beneficial accomplishments, but perhaps that is my own fault. I never cared much for mending, even though there was always a great deal to do. I can iron well, but there aren't all that many opportunities for such a thing, unless you also make a good cleaning maid." Cassie looked at the woman and smiled. "Have you ever met anyone quite so hopeless?"
"You are hardly hopeless, child. Besides, I believe I might have a solution."
"I doubt it." She clapped her hand to her mouth, then lowered it gingerly. "I'm so sorry. See what I mean? I tend to speak without thinking."
Mrs. Jameston laughed. "I am not in the leastwise offended. My dear, what I have in mind will benefit us both. I am a lonely old lady. I have one living child who rarely gives me more than a moment of his time, and that is only in order to get money from me. He's a scallywag to be sure. Then, of course, there are the servants. They have been with me for years and are dear folks, but I need a companion. I like you, Cassie Stover, and I believe you could easily be that very person."
"But what would I do as your companion?" All sorts of thoughts danced through Cassie's head. Perhaps a companion was simply a nice way of saying maid or nurse. "I'm hardly trained to care for the sick."
"And I am hardly in need of a nurse," Mrs. Jameston said. "I'm talking about a friend-someone to live in my house and keep me company. Can you read and write?"
"Yes. I read all the time. I had to leave school at sixteen, but I've kept up with my reading by visiting the library every week."
"See there-you could read to me and write my letters. My eyes are failing me, and I cannot do close-up work like I once could."
Cassie smiled. "I think such a situation sounds too good to be true," she said. "You hardly would need to hire me to be your friend. I'd be happy to come visit you on occasion."
"That is kind of you," Mrs. Jameston replied, "but I want someone who would live with me. As I get older, my feet are less steady, and as you have just witnessed, I often overdo. As my companion, you could help to keep me in line." She smiled rather conspiratorially and added, "Or at least enjoy the adventure with me."
Cassie laughed. "I think I would like that very much. I hadn't thought of living elsewhere, but I'm certain my mother would understand."
"It's settled, then. Walk home with me, and let me show you around. You can decide for yourself once you see my house." She got up and immediately Cassie rose as well.
"Let me help you," Cassie said, offering her arm. "I wouldn't want you to overdo again."
Mrs. Jameston allowed Cassie to assist her. They strolled slowly in the opposite direction Cassie would take to go home. No doubt Mrs. Jameston lived in a more elegant part of town.
"I love Philadelphia in the springtime," Mrs. Jameston said as they walked. "My husband, Worther Jameston, God rest his soul, loved to walk with me this time of year. I suppose that is what caused me to cast aside the better sense I usually display and set out by myself."
"It's my favorite time too," Cassie told her. "A time of renewal."
"Indeed. I have seen so many springs," Mrs. Jameston admitted. "I'm not sure to see many more, but with each one, I find that I appreciate the colors and scents more than ever. There is a garden at my house; you'll spend plenty of time there if you decide to work for me. There are wonderful rosebushes and lilacs, and a bevy of other flowering plants. My man Wills is quite expert in keeping the yard in bloom. It looks festive and peaceful but also fills the air with sweet smells."
"I shall look forward to seeing it," Cassie said, trying to picture the variety.
"I have benches and chairs out there and frankly spend far more time outdoors than in, when the weather permits. I seldom leave Philadelphia, even during the heat of summer."
"What of the epidemics?" Cassie wondered aloud.
"Sickness is everywhere. We try to take precautions, but I will not give myself over to worry. We often traveled during the summers when Mr. Jameston was with me. Perhaps, if you agree to be my companion, we can take a few trips as well. I've not traveled in years." Mrs. Jameston gazed ahead. "My house is just up the street. The last one on the right."
Cassie caught a glimpse of the impressive four-story brick structure as they drew near. "It's beautiful," she exclaimed. "The homes on this street are so grand."
Mrs. Jameston paused at the drive. "Sadly, it doesn't feel quite as much like a home anymore as it does a museum. As I mentioned before, my son Sebastian is seldom here, but when he is, he gives no thought to others. I find most days, I simply wander the rooms until I grow bored, then take myself outdoors."
Cassie felt sorry for Mrs. Jameston. Here she was with her money and her beautiful home, yet there was no happiness in her voice. She was lonely and idle-and Cassie wondered if she was merely waiting to die.
The drive stretched alongside a beautifully manicured lawn. The grass had greened in the warmth of early spring, and along the walkway were tulips of various colors. The sight was cheery and bright, yet a palpable sorrow seemed cast over the entire place.
Mrs. Jameston smiled as she opened the front door. "I hope you like it."
Cassie stepped inside the house and stared in wonder. Many times in her life she had walked past the houses of the wealthy and wondered what she might find inside. Now here she was.
The foyer was large with a highly polished tile floor. The walls were covered in a gold-patterned paper that gave the room an air of elegance. There wasn't a hint of dust on any of the paintings or furnishings, and everything smelled of wood oil and lemon.
"Ah, here's Brumley," Mrs. Jameston announced.
Cassie noted the man appeared to be in his late fifties. He was dressed in a dark suit that had been tailored to fit him some twenty pounds ago. Still, he carried a look of refinement as he gave the ladies a curt bow. "Madam," he said, acknowledging Mrs. Jameston.
"Brumley, this is Miss Stover. We attend church together, and I have asked her to become my companion and live here with us. She is considering the idea at present."
Cassie couldn't be sure, but it seemed a look of relief passed over the man's features. He straightened his snug coat.
"I'm pleased to meet you, Miss Stover. Please let me know if I might be of assistance."
Cassie nodded. "Thank you. It's very nice to meet you, Mr. Brumley."
"Brumley has been with me for more years than either of us care to own," Mrs. Jameston said with a smile. "Now come, Cassandra. I will show you around."
* * *
Marcus Langford looked up from the paper gripped tightly in his hand and frowned. "If only Richard would have communicated more often. I have his latest letter, but that's nearly a week old."
"Does it offer anything useful?" Nelson Stafford asked as he took a chair opposite Mark's desk. As head of United American Mariner's Insurance, Nelson had been equally grieved to learn of Richard's death while investigating a case of suspected fraud.
"Time and again the same name is mentioned whenever Richard was able to convince someone to talk." Mark slammed his fist on the desk. "I'm certain the man must be involved in his death. I intend to figure it out for myself and see that he pays for what he's done."
"Are you sure you can be objective about this, Mark?"
"I can," he assured, "but I cannot be without feeling. Richard was a good friend."
"To both of us," Nelson said, leaning forward. The three men had worked hard to help make United American Mariner's Insurance a successful company. Nelson's brown eyes seemed to bore into Mark's soul. "I want to catch the person or persons responsible as much as you do."
Mark leaned back, nodding. "I know that, and I didn't mean to imply otherwise. I'm going to leave for Philadelphia in the morning. I will find Rich's killer. I promise you that much."