Dark circles shadowed Rose O’Toole’s green eyes. Three worrisome weeks at a boarding house in New York’s notorious Five Points section left Rose with fingernails gnawed down to nubs. On that April morn, she tied her long, auburn hair into a neat bun, bundled her few possessions in a sack and bid farewell to the boarding house, praying never to return. The streets of New York stank of such rot and disease that Rose feared that even if she scrubbed her skin raw with the strongest soap she’d still carry the stink on her. With a note from her cousin clenched in her fist like a charm to ward off evil, she set off. As she walked down the street, she made sure to keep her eyes on the ground, partly to avoid stepping in pig shit or some other kind of filth, partly to avoid meeting the aggressive eyes of the men that lingered in the doorways of Manhattan’s grim saloons and brothels. She learned from previous trips onto the city streets that the sight of a pretty, young girl invited numerous crude advances.
For a young woman such as Rose O’Toole, fresh from the green hills of Ireland and never knowing the touch of a man, New York had been a shock. In the broad light of day, right on Mulberry St., she saw a shameless woman hike her skirt and beckon any man that strolled by to come between her thighs for twenty-five cents. In a wink, a man who shockingly could have passed for Rose’s dear departed Da, accepted the whore’s offer. With the whore pressed against an alley wall, skirts raised, legs splayed wide, the man unbuckled his trousers and with nary a “How do you do,” rammed his cock up into her, grunting like the stray pigs that rooted in the garbage. Mouth agape, Rose watched in disbelief and then moved on when she heard the snickering of dirty-faced children who clearly were not as appalled at the public fucking as Rose was.
A month ago, Rose made the voyage from Ireland because her cousin, Kathleen, promised her a job in the household of the Bordunes, the richest family in America, where Kathleen held the prestigious position of Ladies Maid. Rose arrived in New York in high spirits and went directly to the Bordune’s palatial home, where she met Kathleen at the back servants entrance. To Rose’s surprise, after a brief hug, Kathleen told Rose to leave.
“But what about the maid position?” Rose asked. She’d journeyed too far to leave without an explanation.
Kathleen glanced fearfully over her shoulder and then hissed, “I can’t explain i’tall now. Someone’s coming. You must go. I’ll send word when it'd be a good time to return.”
Rose started to panic. “I don’t know a soul in New York, save for you. Where will I go? How will you find me?”
Kathleen retreated into the servants entrance and whispered, “Go to Mrs. Fitzpatrick’s boarding house on Mott. I’ll write to you there. Hurry now, off with you.”
“Kathleen,” Rose started to protest, but Kathleen shut the door and rushed away.
The next three weeks became the most harrowing time in Rose’s life. She found Mrs. Fitzpatrick’s boarding house in the decayed heart of the Five Points. Mrs. Fitzpatrick, a toothless crone with a face that had not smiled in many a long year, charged Rose six cents a day for the privilege of sleeping in a crowded cellar with up to fifteen other women and their children. Rose’s world became a five-foot by three-foot cot of flea-infested rags. Rose had a lovely shawl of delicate Irish lace made by her Ma to give to Kathleen by way of showing thanks for helping Rose land a position with the Bordunes. Rose guarded it carefully, keeping it close to her at all times. It did not matter. On her second day in Mrs. Fitzpatrick’s, she awoke to find the shawl gone. Asking the other women where it went got her a wall of sullen stares.
Every day that passed, Rose asked if a letter came from Kathleen. With growing desperation, she watched what little money she had disappear. Forced to choose between eating and lodging, she went hungry. She lay awake at night, weak from hunger, worn from worry, trying to ignore her fleabites and the constant rattling cough of a nearby child. The cellar air was sickly; every breath Rose took was already inhaled and exhaled by a score of other people.
With only a few cents remaining, the letter from Kathleen finally came. Rose, Come tomorrow morn to the back entrance. I’ve had a word with the butler, Mr. Burton. Don’t let his gruff ways put you off. He’s a good sort. He’ll give you a job. Kathleen
The sun chased away the early morning damp as Kathleen made her way uptown to the Bordune home. The squalor of the Five Points gave way to busier avenues, the sidewalks thronged with people all walking briskly, everyone with an urgent place to be and too little time to get there. Weak from days without eating, Rose’s uptown trek became a test of will. Her shoulders stooped. Her feet dragged. When she reached a neighborhood of stately homes, her legs buckled. She held onto a wrought iron fence and felt the world tilt at a crazy angle. So odd,
she thought, how the pavement rushes up to me. How could this be?
Unconscious, she hit the sidewalk.
“Miss, do you need a doctor?”
Her eyes fluttered open. A man knelt at her side. His eyes were the darkest brown to match his wavy hair, parted on the side and pushed back from his brow. He had a strong, smoothly shaved jaw, high cheekbones and a trim mustache.
“Yes, yes, I am fine,” Rose accepted his outstretched hand. “I felt a bit dizzy, tis all.”
The man was a head and a half taller than Rose and wore an elegant frockcoat with a herringbone suit, burgundy satin vest, black leather gloves and a white silk cravat. He helped her to her feet, and as he did so, Rose noticed that he leaned on an ebony, silver-tipped cane.
“When was the last time you’ve eaten?”
Dazed, she dusted off her dress. “I…I don’t rightly know.”
“That settles it,” the man donned his beaver pelt top hat. “We’re getting you something to eat.”
“No, thank you, no,” she touched her hand to her forehead, feeling light headed. “I have an appointment.”
“Surely, you can afford a few moments for sustenance.”
“I am afraid I cannot.”
“Then you should at least let me speed you on to your destination,” he guided her to a distinguished black carriage pulled by a black stallion. As the man walked besides Rose, he limped and leaned on his cane. He noticed her observing his stiff leg and his eyes turned sad. “Pardon my lack of physical grace.”
Mortified, she said in a weak voice, “Oh, there’s nothing to pardon. I should not have stared.”
She tried to apologize further, but the coachmen opened the carriage doors and helped her inside.
The gentleman asked, “Where are you going?”
“The Bordune house. I am to be one of their servants.”
The gentleman turned to his coachman, “The Bordune house. Do you know of the place?”
The coachman smiled. “Aye, sir. A grand house.”
“The Bordune house it is, then,” the gentleman said as he took a seat in the richly appointed carriage opposite Rose.
He studied her for a moment and then, seeming to remember something, rummaged in a leather-travelling bag and found a box wrapped in a fancy brown bow. He removed the lid and showed Rose the contents.
“A gift for my mother,” he revealed a box of chocolates, each chocolate a satiny tobacco brown. Rose’s mouth watered at the sight. “They should tide you over until you have a proper meal.”
Every muscle in her body yearned to snatch the box from his hands, but with considerable restraint, Rose managed to say, “But your mother. I couldn’t possibly.”
He waved her concerns aside. “Mother will hardly miss it. Here, you take it.”
He pressed the box into her hands. Rose smiled in gratitude and popped one of the chocolates into her mouth. Never before had she tasted something so rich and sweet. She ate another, and then five more.
She nodded excitedly and then let out a loud hiccup. Red-faced, she covered her mouth. The man gave a hearty laugh, and behind her hands, Rose found herself giggling, too.
When Rose was little, her Da used to put her to bed with fanciful tales of faraway lands, of princesses trapped in towers and valiant princes on white stallions. She drifted to sleep with images of ladies fair and dashing heroes. The man across from her called to mind the valiant princes she used to dream of. Even as they shared a laugh, a part of her was sad for she knew she was a poor serving girl and he was a man of breeding and wealth. Their paths were not likely to cross again. All she would ever have of him was this moment. If that was all it would be, then she had to have his name so that, in the years ahead when she wistfully recalled the memory of this brief encounter, she would have a name to put to the man that inspired it.
“I am Rose O’Toole,” she said.
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. O’Toole. Charles Bordune III.”
She gasped. “Did you say…Bordune?”
“I did.” Seeing her incredulous expression, he laughed once more, flashing brilliant white teeth, and then said, “Forgive me. A bit of fun at your expense, I know. I am sorry. Truly, I am. I rarely have cause to laugh anymore. Please forgive me,” then he glanced out the window. “Ah, we have arrived.”
They pulled in front of a towering mansion of grey stone that resembled a French chateau transported to Fifth Ave complete with blue tile roof and leering stone gargoyles. Rose was so stunned by the identity of the man who came to her aid that she was at a loss for words. The carriage pulled into a paved drive alongside the mansion and stopped at the stables in the back.
With a numb expression, Rose tried to hand the remaining chocolates to Charles, but he patted her hand, saying, “Please keep it as a welcoming gift. You’re here to see Mr. Burton?”
She gave a meek nod.
“Don’t let him frighten you. He’s as gruesome as the gargoyles on the roof, and just as harmless.”
“Thank you, Mr. Bordune.”
“Good luck, Mrs. O’Toole.”
In disbelief, she left the carriage and made her way to the servants entrance while Charles remained behind to confer with the coachmen. Rose rang the bell and waited. Her thoughts were so jumbled by her meeting with Charles that when Kathleen opened the door Rose merely blinked at her in a daze.
“Well, don’t stand there like a dozy cow,” Kathleen hugged her and ushered Rose inside a vast kitchen. Rose hardly had another second to dwell on the bewildering meeting with Charles Bordune III as she took in the scene before her. Two scullery maids and a chef busied themselves preparing a feast. Copper pots hung from the ceiling. The scent of something scrumptious filled the air. Potatoes, beets, and turnips were piled high on a counter. The chef carefully removed a steaming blueberry pie from an oven. A scullery maid brushed melted butter, thyme, and sage on the crackling bronzed skin of a roasting turkey. The chef and maids paused to study the poor bedraggled creature standing beside Kathleen. The chocolates Charles gave Rose hardly calmed her hunger. The sight and smell of the food made Rose lightheaded.
Kathleen must have noticed Rose’s dreamily ravenous expression, for she whispered, “We’ll get you a plate, right quick, but first, Mr. Burton.”
Kathleen led Rose through a large, simply furnished dining hall attached to the kitchen. “This is where the servants eat,” Kathleen explained.
Rose watched her cousin as they walked. Ten years passed since Kathleen left Ireland. Kathleen still had the same wild, fiery hair, icy blue eyes, and plump figure. She wore a black dress and white apron, but unlike the scullery maids, Kathleen did not have to wear the housemaid’s cap required of all the lower rung female servants.
Kathleen took Rose down a hall that ended with a small office. Kathleen knocked on the office door. Rose heard a wooden chair scrape against the tile floor, and then the door opened to a towering old man. Although bald, he more than made up for the hair he lacked on his head with silvery white mutton chop sideburns that gave him an owlish appearance. He wore a black suit and an immaculately white dress shirt and collar. At the sight of Rose, he retrieved a silver pocket watch, opened it, and arched his bushy brows in disdain to indicate Rose was late even though Kathleen’s note specified no exact time to arrive.
“Mr. Burton, this is Rose O’Toole.”
Self-conscious beneath his scornful gaze, Rose curtsied and looked at the floor.
“Rose is nineteen and come for the position of parlor maid.”
Mr. Burton snapped the pocket watch shut. “Where have you performed domestic service prior?”
“Nowhere as of yet, but she can both read and write and is unafraid of hard work,” Kathleen said.
“And can she speak?” Mr. Burton asked.
Rose blushed. “Yes, I can speak quite well.”
Mr. Burton snorted. “My dear girl, the first rule of working in this household is that you give simple answers
when asked a question.
Do not say anything more when “Yes, Sir”
or “No, Madam”
is perfectly sufficient. Do you understand?”
“No, Madam—I mean yes, Sir!” Rose nearly trembled.
Mr. Burton glowered at Kathleen, and then turned to Rose. “We anticipate the arrival of an important guest today, the Comtesse de Montpellier. The Comptesse will remain with us for an undetermined length of time, during which Mrs. Bordune intends to entertain a great many visitors. You are to be as a ghost. Remain in the background. Do not speak unless spoken to. You will share Kathleen’s living quarters on the fourth floor. You will have Sundays to yourself unless Mrs. Bordune requires you. The salary is three dollars a week and you start today.”
“Thank you, Sir,” Rose said with barely disguised joy.
“You do not call me “Sir,
” the butler corrected. “That is how you address the men of the Bordune family should one of them speak to you. Call me Mr. Burton. For the time being, you will report to me. When the Housekeeper, Mrs. Carbury, returns at the end of the week you will report to her. Kathleen will provide your uniform and explain your duties. That is all.”
“Thank you again, Mr. Burton,” Rose said.
Mr. Burton grumbled and waved over his shoulder as he closed the office door behind him.
Kathleen smiled and gave Rose a big hug. “Welcome to your new home.”
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<a href="https://www.lushstories.com/stories/novels/the-bordunes-chapter-2.aspx">The Bordunes Chapter 2</a>