It's no mystery why readers love Victoria Thompson's Edgar Award- nominated series.
With the help of a charitable lady of means, midwife Sarah Brandt rescues a young woman and her newborn from the brothel where the mother was forced to prostitute herself. But their success comes at a high price when their benefactor is found murdered.
Though the brothel's madam is immediately considered a suspect, Sarah and Sergeant Frank Malloy investigate, uncovering some unpleasant truths about the victim and her charity-and the woman and child Sarah risked her own life to save.
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June 07, 2011
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Excerpt from Murder on Sisters' Row by Victoria Thompson
Sarah and the girls were strolling back from the Gansevoort Market, thoroughly enjoying the crisp fall morning and chatting happily about the purchases piled high in the large baskets Sarah and Maeve carried over their arms.
"Oh, no," Maeve said when they'd turned the corner onto Bank Street and saw the carriage parked in front of Sarah's house. "Looks like you won't be helping us bake any pies this afternoon."
The carriage most likely meant that someone had come to fetch Sarah to deliver a baby.
"I'm sure you and Catherine will do just fine without me," Sarah said, looking down at the small girl who clung to her free hand. Her foster daughter looked up, her eyes full of disappointment.
"I'll miss you," Catherine said in her whispery voice.
When Sarah had first found her at the Prodigal Son Mission, Catherine had been completely mute. She'd only started speaking a few months ago, and she still spoke softly, as if afraid of startling herself with the sound of her own voice.
"I'll miss you, too. You know I'd much rather spend my days with you and Maeve, but I have to help ladies have their babies. That's how I earn the money we need to buy things with."
"I know," Catherine said, but she stuck her lip out in an unmistakable pout.
"We'll ask Mrs. Ellsworth to help us with the pies," Maeve said, naming their next-door neighbor. Mrs. Ellsworth was always available to help the girls do anything at all.
Mention of Mrs. Ellsworth banished Catherine's pout. Maeve knew just how to cheer her up. Sarah thought for at least the thousandth time how fortunate she was to have Maeve as Catherine's nursemaid. The girl had also come from the Mission, and the three of them had formed a real family in the months they'd been together.
A young man stood beside the carriage, and he straightened as they approached. He'd been smoking a cigarette, and he tossed it away. He wore a uniform of some kind, and he looked quite dignified when he put his mind to it, although Sarah noticed that he gave Maeve a very efficient once-over. He managed not to be offensive about it, though.
"Can I help you?" Sarah asked when they were close enough for conversation.
"Are you Mrs. Brandt, the midwife?"
"Yes, I am."
"I been sent to get you. Mrs. Walker, the lady I work for, she said to come quick. If you'd be so kind," he added awkwardly, remembering his manners.
"Is Mrs. Walker having a baby?"
Something about that question amused the young man, although he controlled his expression almost instantly. "No, ma'am. One of her guests is."
Sarah glanced at the carriage and the horses. The horses were well fed and groomed, the carriage clean and in good repair. Not a rented outfit but one owned by someone who had the means to care for it. "I'll be right with you. I just need to get my things. Would you like to wait inside?"
He looked at Maeve again, as if weighing her attractions against his own responsibilities. "I'd better stay with the horses," he decided.
They went into Sarah's house, and a few minutes later, Sarah came out carrying her black bag, the medical bag that had belonged to her husband, Dr. Tom Brandt, dead now for well over four years.
The young man hurried to carry the bag for her, but Sarah didn't release it when he reached for it. "It's usually faster if I walk," she said. "Because of the traffic. Unless it's too far."
"Mrs. Walker said you was to come in the carriage. She's very particular, and I wouldn't want to make her mad."
And Sarah wouldn't want to get him in trouble. "All right, but if we get stuck, I'll get out and walk the rest of the way. Where are we going?"
The question seemed to alarm him, but he recovered quickly. "We won't get stuck. We don't have far to go. Just a few blocks north."
He helped her into the carriage, and she placed the medical bag on the floor at her feet. Then he closed the door and hurried to climb up to the driver's perch. Only when the door was closed did Sarah notice the curtains had all been drawn over the windows. She pulled back the one at the window beside her to let in some light to relieve the gloom. Then she leaned back on the cushioned seat and tried to relax. This would probably be the last time she got a moment's peace for at least twenty-four hours. She closed her eyes, hoping to catch a brief nap before she reached her destination, or at least to rest a bit.
Sarah was surprised to be awakened when the carriage rattled to a stop. She really had dozed off for a little while. Disoriented, she looked out the window she had uncovered and saw she was in an alley behind some large houses. The carriage shifted on its springs as the driver climbed down. A moment later, he opened the door and helped her out, taking her bag from her.
"This way," he said and directed her to precede him down the walkway that bisected the small patch of weedy ground that formed a backyard of sorts for one of the houses. It led to a porch and a kitchen door. A large Negro woman stood in the open doorway. She wore a bright red bandanna tied around her head, and her enormous apron was stained. Her hands were planted firmly on her broad hips, and her expression said she was furious.
"Took you long enough," she said to the young man.
"She was out. I had to wait for her to get back, didn't I?" he said.
The woman made a rude sound and stood back so Sarah could enter the kitchen. It was a large, untidy room. The wooden table in the middle of the floor was covered with flour and mounds of dough, where she had been working on some pastries.
The cook looked Sarah up and down, withholding her approval. "You the midwife?"
"Yes, I am," Sarah said. "Can you show me where to go?"
"Take her upstairs, Jake, and show her Amy's room. Mrs. Walker's up there with her."
"I gotta take care of the horses. Take her up yourself," Jake said. He thrust Sarah's bag at the cook and stomped out again.
Sarah smiled apologetically at the woman. "If you'll just direct me..." she began, but the woman was already marching through the kitchen, muttering to herself.
"Miz Walker'd have my hide if I let you be wandering around by yourself. I don't know what's got into that boy. He knows my rheumatism been bad lately. I can't hardly walk, and now he expects me to go upstairs." The cook pulled open a door on the other side of the kitchen and revealed the narrow back stairs that the servants would use. "Watch yourself on these stairs," she warned. "Miz Walker'll have my hide if you falls down and hurts yourself. Come on now. Miss Amy'll be getting anxious, I expect. Don't know what got into that girl to go and have a baby for anyways. Foolishness, it is, but you can't tell young people anything nowadays."
For all her complaining, the cook made short work of the stairs. Sarah had to hurry to keep up with her. The door at the top opened into a hallway lined with about half a dozen doors, all of them closed.
"Be quiet now," the cook warned. "All the other ladies is still sleeping, though I don't expect they'll be sleeping long once Miss Amy gets started good. I reckon she'll shout the house down, don't you?"
Sarah didn't offer an opinion, although she felt reasonably certain the woman was correct. She had a moment of confusion at the thought of the "other ladies" still being asleep until she recalled that when she'd still lived in her parents' house as a member of one of the wealthiest families in New York City, she'd always slept late, too. It was a natural consequence of late-night social gatherings.
They moved quickly down the hallway to the third door. The cook knocked once and then opened it without waiting for a response. "This here's the midwife," she announced, plunked down Sarah's bag, and stood back for Sarah to enter before making her escape back down the hall.
The curtains were drawn, so Sarah needed a moment to get her bearings in the dimness. She found herself in a lavishly furnished bedroom. An enormous four-poster bed draped with netting, piled high with bedclothes, and skirted with royal blue satin flounces dominated the room. She saw an elaborate dressing table covered with all sorts of bottles and jars, and a wardrobe with one door ajar and a riot of petticoats hanging out of it. At the far end of the room stood a chaise and a pair of upholstered chairs in a grouping, as if for conversation. A woman had been sitting in one of the chairs, and now she was up and walking to greet Sarah.
"Mrs. Brandt?" she said. "I'm Rowena Walker. I'm so grateful you could come." She looked to be about forty, but Sarah couldn't judge accurately in the dim light. Her voice was well modulated and cultured, and she wore a housedress of rose pique, something Sarah's mother might have worn to breakfast except for the excess of lace trimmings at the throat and cuffs.
"I'm glad I was available." Sarah heard a moan and turned toward the bed, where she could now see a woman lay amid the confusion of satin coverlet, pillows, and sheets. "Is this my patient?"
"Yes, young Amy. This is her first."
Sarah went over to the bed and greeted the young woman with a smile. Amy looked as if she might be about twenty and quite attractive under other circumstances. At the moment, she was moaning, her face twisted in pain, and her golden blond hair ratty and tangled. Her nightdress was silk, Sarah saw with surprise, and cut unusually low in the front. It was stretched taut over her rounded belly.
"Help me," the girl begged, grabbing Sarah's hand. "Please, get it out of me!"
"We'll have to wait for the baby to come out on his own, I'm afraid, but I can help you be more comfortable while it's happening."
"Just tell me what you need," Mrs. Walker said, "and I'll have Beulah get it for you."
Sarah requested a rubber undersheet and clean sheets to start. In a few minutes Beulah, the cook, brought them. Sarah got Amy out of bed and helped Beulah change it. Although this took only a few minutes, Amy began complaining almost immediately.
"I have to lay down. I can't stand this pain! Give me some laudanum or something!"
Sarah left Beulah to finish the bed and hurried over to where Amy was reclining on the chaise. "You shouldn't take any laudanum," she cautioned. "It can affect the baby."
"I don't care about the baby," Amy insisted. "I can't stand this any longer!"
"What an awful thing to say, Amy," Mrs. Walker said, glancing at Sarah with an embarrassed shrug. "You don't mean that, and of course you can stand it. Thousands of women before you have stood it, and you will, too."
"I promised I could make you more comfortable," Sarah said. "The first thing we need to do is get you up and walking around."
"Walking around?" Amy fairly screeched. "How can that make me more comfortable?"
"It will make your labor go faster. And do you have a... a plainer nightdress? One that's looser? This one is so pretty, it's a pity to get it stained," Sarah added tactfully.
The young woman looked at Sarah for a long moment, as if she were seeing her for the first time. Then she threw back her head and started laughing hysterically.
Sarah's mind was racing, frantically trying to decide what to do, but before she could, Mrs. Walker drew back her arm and slapped the girl smartly across the face. Sarah cried out in protest, but neither of the other women appeared to notice. Amy's laughter ceased abruptly, and she stared at Mrs. Walker with mingled surprise and... Sarah needed a moment to identify the other emotion she saw in Amy's clear blue eyes: fear.
The girl reached up and cradled her cheek and whispered, "I'm sorry."
"You should be. Now stop acting like a child. Mrs. Brandt will lose patience with you and leave, and then what will you do? You can't have this baby on your own, you know."
Amy turned to Sarah in alarm. "I'm sorry," she repeated, more fervently this time. "Don't leave."
"I'm not going to leave," Sarah assured her. "But you need to do what I tell you. I've delivered hundreds of babies, and you have to trust that I know what I'm doing."
The girl glanced at Mrs. Walker, who was still glaring at her. Amy turned back to Sarah. "I'll do what you say. I don't have another nightdress, though. A plainer one, I mean."
"That's all right. I meant what I said about walking. It will make the baby come faster. Your mother and I can take turns walking with you."
"My mother?" she echoed in surprise, looking at Mrs. Walker.
Mrs. Walker smiled rather stiffly. "I think she means me," she said, an odd expression on her face. "I'm not her mother," she told Sarah, "just her... hostess. She boards here, you see."
"I'm sorry," Sarah said. "I misunderstood." Now she recalled that Jake had said one of Mrs. Walker's guests was having a baby. She should have remembered that.
"That's quite all right," Mrs. Walker said.
"I don't think I've ever seen a boardinghouse this..." Sarah groped for the right word, not certain how to say what she was thinking without giving offense.
"Fancy?" Amy offered, earning a disapproving glare from Mrs. Walker.
"Yes," Sarah agreed.
"Mrs. Walker does run a fancy house," Amy said with mock innocence.
Some silent communication passed between Mrs. Walker and Amy, a warning of sorts, and then Amy clutched her stomach and moaned again.
"Let's get you up and walking," Sarah said when the contraction had passed.
For at least an hour, Sarah and Mrs. Walker took turns holding Amy's arm as she paced around the room. During that time Sarah asked her questions about her health and the progress of the pregnancy and the details of her labor thus far. One thing she didn't learn about was the baby's father. No one had mentioned him at all. Beulah had remarked that the other ladies were still sleeping, indicating the other boarders were all female. Sarah began to wonder if Mrs. Walker was actually running a refuge for other girls like Amy, unmarried girls from good families who had gotten with child and needed a place to have their babies secretly. She'd heard of such places, but she'd never been called to one before. She had always assumed they had arrangements with midwives whom they knew and trusted. She wondered why she'd been chosen today.
Beulah brought them some luncheon, an elegant arrangement of sandwiches and tea cakes. Amy could manage only a few bites, but Sarah ate heartily, not sure when she'd have another chance. Mrs. Walker nibbled a bit, but she seemed preoccupied.
When Beulah came to remove the tray, a young woman appeared in the open doorway. She was about Amy's age, barefoot, and clad only in a silk nightdress like Amy's, her dark hair tied up in rags, the way girls did to make it curl. Her eyes were still heavy with sleep as she peered into the room.
"Is the baby coming?" she asked of no one in particular.
Amy paused in her pacing and groaned, clutching her stomach as another contraction seized her.
"What does it look like?" Mrs. Walker snapped. "Go on and mind your own business, Dolly."
The girl sniffed, offended. "I was just trying to be friendly."
"Be friendly someplace else," Mrs. Walker said.
The girl turned with a toss of her head, but the flopping rags spoiled the effect. Only when she was gone did Sarah realize that she didn't look as if she were with child. Of course, she might not be showing yet. Some women didn't begin to show until late in the pregnancy, especially with their first baby. Perhaps even more curious was Mrs. Walker's rudeness to the girl. Somehow Sarah would have expected a "hostess" to be kinder to the unfortunate girls in her care.
After an hour of walking, Amy wanted to rest for a while. Sarah helped her lie down on the chaise lounge.
"I could brush your hair out for you, if you like," Sarah offered. "We should probably braid it so it's easier to manage."
"I'm not going to braid my hair," Amy snapped. "It'll look like a washboard!"
"Don't be rude," Mrs. Walker warned her. "Mrs. Brandt is only trying to help. It won't matter anyway. No one will see you for a while. Let her braid it."
Once again Amy's gaze glinted with what could have been fear, but only for a moment. Then she turned to Sarah. "All right," she said grudgingly, then grimaced as another contraction claimed her.
Sarah got a brush from the dressing table, and when the contraction was over, she began to brush the tangles out of Amy's hair. Unlike the other girl, Dolly, Amy had natural curls that needed only a little encouragement to appear out of the rat's nest her hair had become. Sarah found some stray hairpins in the mess and set them aside. Amy had obviously not used any care when she took her hair down the last time.
"Oh, that feels so good," Amy said after a few minutes. "My mother always made me cry when she brushed out the rats."
"You have beautiful hair. I can see why you don't want to braid it," Sarah said, remembering her childhood and the way her braided hair would hold the crinkly waves for days after being undone. "If you have a hairnet or something, we can tie it up instead of braiding it."
"I think there's one in the top drawer in the dressing table," Amy said.
Sarah found it jumbled in with the various odds and ends Amy had stuffed into the drawer. She worked it free and found it reasonably intact. In another minute, she'd gathered Amy's fall of hair securely into it and out of the way.
"How much longer is it going to take?" Amy asked as she relaxed again after another contraction.
"Hours yet, I'm afraid."
"Hours?" Amy said, her voice rising until she caught the warning look from Mrs. Walker. She clamped her mouth shut. "I guess I better walk some more then."
She and Sarah began the circuit around the room again. Mrs. Walker sat and observed them, her patience apparently endless. Didn't she have anything better to do than watch over Amy? If Sarah hadn't seen the way Amy reacted to her, she'd think Mrs. Walker genuinely cared for the girl or at least felt a responsibility for her. But no, she gave no indication of any tender emotion at all. She just sat, more like a reluctant chaperone than a concerned friend.
When Amy tired again, Sarah rubbed her feet and legs, using a lavender-scented lotion she found on the dressing table.
"Have you decided on names yet?" Sarah asked as she massaged Amy's swollen ankles.
Oddly, Amy glanced at Mrs. Walker before answering, almost as if she were silently asking approval or perhaps checking to make sure she didn't disapprove. Whatever the reason, her expression was guarded when she looked back at Sarah.
"No, I... I haven't."
"She wants to wait until she sees if it's a boy or a girl," Mrs. Walker said. "Don't you, dear?"
"Yes, that's it," Amy agreed quickly. Too quickly.
Sarah knew she was lying, but she couldn't imagine why she would lie about such an ordinary thing. Unless...
Of course. If Amy was an unwed mother, she wouldn't be able to keep her baby. The whole point of coming to a place like this to give birth in secret was so no one would know about her transgression. Bringing a baby home with her would defeat the whole purpose. Her friends probably thought she was on a trip someplace far away. When she returned, she'd tell stories about the wonderful adventure she'd had, but she couldn't bring a baby back as a souvenir.
No, her family had probably already made some kind of arrangements. Perhaps a distant relative would adopt the child. Then Amy might see it from time to time and know it was all right and loved and cared for properly. Or maybe they intended to send it to a foundling home, where its future was more uncertain. Perhaps a loving couple would adopt the baby and give it a good home. Or maybe it would grow up in an orphanage, unwanted and unloved. Or maybe it wouldn't grow up at all. Abandoned infants sometimes died of disease or neglect.
All these possibilities went through Sarah's mind in a matter of seconds as she finished up the foot massage. A wave of pity for the girl washed over Sarah.
"Why don't you try to get some sleep before the contractions get worse," she suggested.
"Worse! Are you saying they're going to get worse!" Amy cried, tears springing to her eyes.
Mrs. Walker was on her feet in an instant. "Of course they are, you silly girl. Don't you know anything? Now do as Mrs. Brandt said and get some rest. You won't do anybody any good if you wear yourself out."
Amy's full lips tightened into a thin, white line, as if she were biting back words she didn't dare say. She let Sarah help her up from the chaise and lead her over to the bed and tuck her in. Sarah had her roll over onto her side, and Sarah gently rubbed the small of her back until she dozed off.
Sarah went back to the chaise and took this opportunity to get some rest herself. She stretched out, glad to be off her feet for a few minutes. Mrs. Walker still sat perfectly straight in one of the chairs, her gaze wandering to Amy every few minutes, as if to make sure she hadn't disappeared.
"You really don't have to wait here," Sarah said softly, so as not to wake Amy. "You probably have things to do, and the baby won't be here for hours, maybe not until morning. I can send for you when it's getting close."
Mrs. Walker folded her well-tended hands in her lap and gave Sarah a long, steady stare. "I couldn't leave Amy at a time like this. Beulah can take care of things for me."
"Suit yourself, but if you don't mind, I'll try to rest a bit while Amy's asleep."
"Suit yourself," Mrs. Walker echoed sarcastically.
What an odd woman, Sarah thought, but she didn't think about it for long. She closed her eyes and emptied her mind, a trick she'd used many times to force a catnap.
She was at a concert. A musicale at her mother's house. Some of her old friends were there, and someone was playing the piano. She couldn't hear it very well. She needed to get closer so she could hear the music, but every time she tried, someone stopped her and wanted to talk. They wanted to know the name of Amy's baby and where her husband was. Sarah didn't know, but they kept asking her anyway. They seemed angry when she couldn't tell them, but she didn't care. She wanted to hear the music. She could see the piano now and the man playing. His back was to her, but she knew him just the same. She didn't even know he could play the piano. She reached out to touch his shoulder and called his name.
Sarah awoke with a start, disoriented and aware that she'd spoken aloud. She needed a moment to remember where she was. Then she quickly sat up and looked around to get her bearings. Amy was moaning softly. Mrs. Walker was sitting exactly where she'd been, and she was looking at Sarah curiously. She probably wondered who Frank was. Sarah had no intention of enlightening her.
"I should check on Amy." Sarah got up and saw that the girl was awake.
"I think I wet the bed," she said in alarm.
"Don't worry. It's just your water breaking," Sarah said with relief. "That's why we put the rubber sheet on the bed. Things should go faster now."
Mrs. Walker rang for Beulah to change the sheets again, and Sarah helped Amy get up and change her nightdress. The new one was just as impractical as the old one. While they were waiting for Beulah, Sarah realized the piano music from her dream was real. "Who's that playing the piano?" she asked.
"One of the girls," Mrs. Walker said quickly. "They have some guests this evening."
How odd that they'd be entertaining in a place like this. But perhaps family members came to visit the girls. Sarah imagined they would get lonely, being confined here for months.
Beulah arrived and helped Sarah change the sheets again.
"How are things going?" Sarah heard Mrs. Walker ask the cook while she was helping Amy get settled again.
"Just fine. The girls is taking care of everything."
"If there's any trouble, come get me."
"Won't be no trouble. I'll see to that. You want some supper now?"
Mrs. Walker said they did, and a few minutes later, Beulah brought up some roast beef with rich gravy, potatoes baked in their skins, apple dumplings, and coffee. The roast beef was remarkably tender. Her neighbor Mrs. Ellsworth would want to speak to the cook about how she'd managed it.
Sarah encouraged Amy to eat, but she said the smell was making her sick, and she didn't even try.
The piano stopped for a while, then started again. The hours slipped by. Amy walked for a while, then rested and walked some more. Sarah thought she heard voices in the hall, a man and woman laughing, but the sound was probably coming up from downstairs. Sarah thought it odd that the young ladies were permitted to have visitors so late, but Mrs. Walker didn't seem concerned.
Amy paused and grabbed hold of one of the bedposts as a contraction seized her, and Sarah glanced over at Mrs. Walker. The older woman had finally nodded off. Her chin rested on her chest, and she was snoring softly.
As Amy straightened, Sarah nodded at where Mrs. Walker was dozing in the chair. To Sarah's surprise, Amy grabbed her arm.
"You have to get me out of here," she whispered urgently.
"You can't go anywhere right now," Sarah said in surprise. "You're going to have a baby any time."
"No, no, not now!" she said, her fingers digging painfully into Sarah's arm and her blue eyes filled with anguish. "After the baby's born. I have to get out of here! You have to help me."
Sarah couldn't understand her distress. "But won't they let you go home after the baby is born?"
Amy's eyes widened in surprise. "No, they'll never let me leave here, not ever. They'll kill me if I try!"
"What?" This made no sense. Why would they kill her?
Amy's anxious gaze kept darting to Mrs. Walker, checking to make sure she was still asleep. "They're going to take the baby away and then--" Her words twisted into a cry as an especially strong contraction claimed her, and she doubled over with the pain.
The cry woke Mrs. Walker, who snorted in surprise and jumped to her feet. "What is it?"
"Something's wrong!" Amy said, her eyes wild with fear.
"Do you feel like you need to bear down?" Sarah asked.
"Yes, yes, that's it! What's happening?"
Sarah smiled. "Your baby is coming, that's what's happening. It's time to start pushing. Come on, I'll show you just what to do."
Sarah got Amy back into the bed and gave her the necessary instructions. Sarah had fashioned fabric loops attached to the headboard that the girl could hold on to as she bore down. In a few minutes she was laboring in earnest, falling back against the pillows propped against the headboard and gasping between contractions.
"It won't be long now," Sarah said, and lifted Amy's nightdress to check on her progress. "Look, Mrs. Walker, you can see the top of the baby's head."
The unflappable Mrs. Walker looked, and all the color drained from her face. Sarah hurried to grab her in case she fainted, but she turned away, both hands clamped over her mouth.
"Are you all right?" Sarah asked.
"Yes, I... I just... I'll go and get Beulah. She can help you." She hurried to the door and in another second she was gone.
"Close the door, quick, before Beulah comes," Amy whispered. "I have to tell you what to do!"
Sarah hurried to close the door, and Amy was already instructing her before she started back to the bed.
"You have to help me get away from this place. You have to contact Mrs. Van Orner."
The name was familiar, but Sarah couldn't place it. "Is she a relative?"
"No, no!" Amy said desperately. Then a contraction started, and she couldn't talk.
Sarah supported her through it, and as soon as she could speak again, she said, "Mrs. Van Orner helps girls like me. Tell her I want to be rescued. She'll know what to do."
"If you want to leave here, I'll help you," Sarah said. "As soon as the baby is born, I can take you to my house for a few days and--"
"No, no! You can't help me. They'd never let you take me. They'd kill you!"
"Who'd kill me?" Sarah asked in confusion, wondering if Amy had lost her senses.
"Jake will. Mrs. Walker will tell him to. They never let any of us leave, and I hate it here! I hate what I have to do, and after they take the baby, they're going to make me do the most disgusting things!"
"Amy, what are you talking about? What kinds of things do they make you do?"
"With the men," she gasped, going into another contraction. "With the customers!"
Customers? Sarah's head was spinning. Suddenly, all the little things that hadn't made sense before came together. The piano music. The company that stayed very late. The man's voice. The large, fancy house full of young women. The hostess wasn't a hostess at all. She was a madam!
"Is this a brothel?" Sarah asked, feeling incredibly stupid.
"Of course!" Amy panted, falling back against the headboard again. "What did you think?"
"I thought it was a refuge for unwed mothers."
Amy gave a bark of bitter laughter.
The door opened. Beulah came in and looked around. "Miz Walker said you was about to pop that baby out."
"Yes, she is," Sarah said, managing to regain her composure.
"What do you need me to do?"
"You don't have to do anything," Sarah said quickly, wondering if she'd be as weak stomached as Mrs. Walker. "And don't watch if you don't want to."
"Ain't nothing I ain't seen before," she said, stepping to the foot of the bed as Sarah checked Amy's progress again. "Oh, look there. You'll have that baby out in a couple more tries."
"Really?" Amy asked desperately.
"Yes, really," Sarah said. "Push really hard this next time."
Amy did, and just as Beulah had predicted, she pushed out her son just a few minutes later.
Sarah held him upside down by his ankles and cleared his mouth with her finger. She didn't even need to slap him. He started screaming bloody murder all on his own. "Listen to that, Amy," she said. "A healthy boy!" Sarah turned him upright and held him out for his mother to see.
Amy stared at him from where she lay against the headboard. Her hair was matted with sweat, and her face was red from exertion, but her eyes glowed with some inner fire. Not the pride or the joy Sarah usually saw from new mothers, but something primal and raw, something almost angry.
"Cut that cord so I can take care of the baby," Beulah said.
Sarah looked up in alarm. "You're not going to take him away, are you?"
"Lord, no, whatever give you an idea like that?" she asked in genuine surprise. "I just wanna get him cleaned up for his mama."
Sarah turned to Amy, who nodded almost imperceptively. Sarah took care of the cord and placed him in the blanket Beulah held out. The cook took him over and laid him on the chaise, where she started to clean him up. Meanwhile, Sarah helped Amy deliver the afterbirth and got her cleaned up and comfortable again.
"Here now," Beulah said, bringing the swaddled infant back over to the bed. "You wanna put him to the breast right away. We wanna get your milk started real good."
Amy's face looked as if it had been carved in stone. She took the baby, but she didn't look at him. She was glaring at Beulah.
"Don't look at me like that, girl," the cook said. "Ain't my fault you got yourself in trouble. Now you gotta do what you gotta do."
"Why don't you go tell Mrs. Walker that the baby is born?" Sarah suggested, wanting a few more minutes with Amy. "I'm sure she'll want to see for herself."
Beulah sniffed, aware that Sarah was trying to get rid of her, but she left, closing the door behind her.
Sarah turned back to Amy, who still wasn't looking at her baby.
"Do you know how to find Mrs. Van Orner?" the girl asked. "Mrs. Gregory Van Orner. She helps prostitutes get out of the life. The girls all talk about her."
"I told you, I can help you."
"No, you can't. It's too dangerous. Mrs. Van Orner has people who help her, though. She knows how to do it. Can you find her?"
"Yes, I think I can." Sarah had heard about the women who did that kind of work. "But what about the baby? You said they were going to take him away."
"They'll let me keep it for a few days. They want my milk to come in. Some of the customers like that," she said, her lip curling in distaste.
Sarah felt nauseated, but she swallowed it down. "I'll do whatever I can to help you get out of here."