Hell's Kitchen, Manhattan, 1887
"You needn't be having to do this, my girl," her father said, almost pleading. He reached for her with his bad arm and winced.
"Don't be daft," Aoife shook her head, smiling gently that his own body should prove her point for her. She carefully rearranged the sling that held his splinted arm. "I'm the only one who can work now. Of course I have to."
"But, for him..." her father frowned.
Aoife sighed. She wasn't particularly fond of the idea, either. "It's money, Da, and we need it." She couldn't support both of them on what she had been making as a laundress.
"That's the nub o' the matter: everything is money to him, even people." He looked pointedly at his arm, crushed in the mill yesterday. He'd been dismissed and replaced as quickly and thoughtlessly as if the foreman were merely changing his shirt. Workers were easy to replace: there were ten men on the street for every one in a factory, and the wheels of industry didn't slow down to allow injuries to heal.
Her father's erstwhile employer - and her new one - was called Mr. Gold for a reason; perhaps the others of the Big Five – business partners, the closest thing he had to friends, yet not very close at that – knew his real name, but even they referred to him as 'Gold,' instead. Whoever he had been before, that man had been subsumed by this money-making and -craving behemoth. He had a knack for making money just appear at his fingertips, it seemed, and was ruthlessly pragmatic about only devoting that money, as well as his time, to endeavors that would make still more money, though his estate was already vast beyond imagining. People said he could buy a small country, if he were so inclined. He would only be inclined, of course, if he could turn a tidy profit, and it would have little to do with the welfare of those hapless citizens.
"I'll be all right, Da," Aoife assured him with a smile. Maids didn't have to worry about dangerous machinery, after all, and she was a good worker, obedient and deferential to her superiors and friendly with her equals. She would give no one in that grand house any reason to dismiss her; she knew she was just as easy to replace as her father.
She stepped away from him to bustle around his room, setting things to rights and making sure everything would be manageable with his one good arm. Aoife would have been nervous to leave him even at the best of times; it had been just the two of them for so long, since her mother and little brother and what might have been a sister died in a fever on the ship coming here, ten years ago now. They were each the only thing the other had left in the world. Da made noises every now and then about her getting married, but how could she leave him? And yet, here she was doing so. Aoife disliked that element of her new position more than the specter of the notorious Mr. Gold himself.
"Try to rent my room," she said as she worked, keeping her hands and mind busy.
"I will," her father nodded patiently, having heard all this before.
"Mrs. Connolly across the hall says she'll come make a supper for you once a week, and I'll come home on my free day and cook enough that will be lasting you the other days if you're careful about it."
"That'll be grand, love."
"And Cathleen will come to fetch your washing of a Tuesday. And Tam down the hall will bring firewood for the stove..."
He shook his head with an indulgent smile. "Come here to me, miss," he said, holding out his hand and remembering to use his good one this time. She stopped her fussing and stepped over to him, taking his hand in both of hers.
"Máthair said to take care of you," Aoife said, a little defensively.
"And ye've done a grand job," he assured her. "I'm not so laid up as all that: I've two legs and an arm and my wits left to me yet, don't be forgetting. I'll miss you, my girl, but I'll be well enough, you'll see."
"I'll come back, when you're healed," she promised vehemently, "I'll not stay longer than I have to."
He looked like he wanted to say something else, but stopped and shook his head and squeezed her fingers. She knew he thought - maybe hoped - that she would fall in love with her new life, even though it would be living and serving in a stranger's house. It was a remarkable opportunity: escaping these tenements, maybe even moving with the household when Himself decided to switch coasts - as he was wont to do every so often - using the great railroad he'd helped to build. California! It was almost as far away as Ireland. Everyone dreamed of going west, and so few actually managed it. Maybe she and Da would, yet, once he was better. Aoife smiled and squeezed his fingers back as a knock sounded at their door.
"I'll answer that," she said, crossing his little room to the kitchen, which was also the dining room, and also the nearest thing they had to a sitting room, if for no reason other than it was the only room with chairs. She opened the door to find George Buckley standing in the hall, and she could see Mrs. Connolly's curious face peeking out her own door behind his generous shoulder.
"Mr. Buckley, come in." Aoife opened the door wider and stepped back. The neighbors were nosy creatures and prone to gossip; whatever he had come here to say or do, she didn't intend to feed the rumor mill by facilitating their eavesdropping, though his visit itself would have them tittering for at least a week.
"Thank you." He gave her his usual charming smile and stepped inside, taking off his fine hat. Everything about him was always fine, despite the 'man of the people' air he tried to project. His suit was well-cut and carefully just on the humble end of fashionable, probably pressed by a girl just like her, and Aoife wondered if he even knew that girl's name.
"It's a pleasant surprise, this is," she smiled politely as she closed the door behind him. "Shall I put a kettle on?"
"No, please, don't trouble yourself," he replied, "I won't be long, I only wished to ask after Mr. O'Halloran. Ah, there he is," he smiled as her father stepped through his bedroom doorway, "Good day to you, sir."
Her father nodded, "Good day, George, lad." Years ago, he began allowing her father to use his Christian name in private. Aoife knew he wished she would, too. "You'll be forgiving me for not taking your hand." He nodded to his sling.
"No, of course," Mr. Buckley shook his head and flashed another smile. "How are you? Do you have everything you need?" He looked from her father to her.
"We do," Aoife nodded, not for the first time feeling a bit guilty for having unworthy thoughts of him, when he was so helpful most of the time.
"I should have known you'd have everything well in-hand, Miss O'Halloran," he smiled at her. "I'm not accustomed to feeling useless, but you deflect me at every turn with your self-sufficiency."
Aoife smiled despite herself at his praise. "I do what needs doing," she shook her head and made a dismissive little gesture. "Da needs help, and I help him."
"I do wish you'd let me help you more," he said, looking at her intently. She glanced at her father, but if anything he looked pleased. Pleased! She was only surprised he hadn't thrown her at Mr. Buckley already. Everyone else in the neighborhood thought it was as good as done, but Da, of all people, should have known better. "But I understand you've forestalled me yet again and already found a new position?"
"I have," she nodded, glad that she could say so. Helpful he was, but Aoife didn't care to be beholden to him any more than necessary. Even this apartment with its tiny rooms was more than a family of only two should have been able to afford, but Mr. Buckley had been pulling strings for them practically since the day they landed. She couldn't pretend she didn't know why.
"Gold, is it?" he asked, though he knew perfectly well. Half the neighborhood was in his pocket and no one kept secrets from him. "Be careful there, they say he's a heartless devil."
Oh, she'd heard. All day it was all she heard. It almost made her want to go even more and prove them wrong, somehow, because even the infamous Mr. Gold was at least a human being and couldn't be as bad as everyone said.
Her father must have noticed her winding up, and stepped in. "None of us here are needing reminded of that," he said.
Mr. Buckley turned back to her father and nodded at his arm. "No, indeed. Well, I'll do what I can to find you something suitable, so she can come back to us quickly, Mr. O'Halloran." He smiled warmly back at Aoife. "You have a real treasure here."
"That I do," her father nodded, and Aoife found herself wishing that he wouldn't agree so readily. She was also discomfited to hear her own words from earlier now spoken by Mr. Buckley. She didn't want him pulling his strings to get her out of this position she was so proud of having found and obtained on her own. Every little thing she could do outside of his sphere of influence – and there weren't many, the way he had his fingers in practically every pie – felt like a victory. She wished Da would try, too, but he was utterly under the younger man's spell. Sometimes she thought the whole blasted island was. Mr. Buckley would be ridiculously pleased if he knew such a thought ever crossed her mind, so she tried to shake it off immediately any time it did so.
"Is it certain you aren't staying for some tea?" she asked, more out of a habit of hospitality than any genuine desire to prolong his visit.
"No, thank you. I'm afraid I have other calls to make today," he said, and finally turned back toward the door. "If you need anything, please, let me help." He caught Aoife's hand and kissed her fingers like she was some grand lady, bowed to her father, then set his hat back on his head and let himself out.
Aoife sighed in relief when the door closed behind him, until her father spoke up.
"It's fond he is of you, my girl." He watched her with a little grin, and she knew he was probably imagining his grandchildren.
"I know," she mumbled, and looked away because she couldn't bear to see his hope. For a few years now, any time she saw Mr. Buckley, she anticipated a certain question for which she hadn't yet figured out the answer. It would be an advantageous match, there was no denying that; she and Da would want for nothing for the rest of their lives. Aoife knew most girls were meant to dream about such a wealthy and handsome man – and he was handsome, even she could admit that – falling so desperately in love and whisking them away from these filthy rookeries and off to the gleaming Upper Ten Thousands; but for all his good looks and charm, Aoife couldn't fall in love with him in return. She had tried, for a while, back when she had first discovered his particular interest in her; tried to picture herself as his wife, to think about how their children might look, even to imagine his kisses, in her youthful innocence, or his fingers in her hair. Nothing had stirred her heart. She thought – hoped – that the fact he hadn't asked yet, despite everything, meant he possessed some modicum of empathy, and was aware she might not give him the answer he sought. It was, ironically, the only thing that made her think fondly of him at all.
"Your mother didn't mean..." The frown Aoife could hear in her father's voice made her look up at him again. They so rarely spoke of her mother. "She wasn't after wanting you to spend your whole life looking after an old man. She'd be wishing you to be happy, you know. To have a family of your own."
"Oh, Da," Aoife said, sensing where this was going, again. "I am happy. I am. I could never mind being here with you. I love you."
He shook his head. "'Tisn't the kind of love a girl your age should be thinking of. Or, at least, not the only one."
"I have never had any other love," she replied, and it was the simple truth. Mr. Buckley had never moved her heart, but neither had anyone else. Aoife wasn't willfully denying herself; indeed, she thought falling in love would be the very greatest adventure, and she did long for it. She wanted it too much, in fact, to settle for anything less.
Her father looked at the door Mr. Buckley had walked through. "He's a well-favored lad and he fancies you," he said, "He'd take care of you, and be good to you, so he would."
"I know, Da," Aoife nodded, but that wasn't entirely true, so she amended, "I know he would try." That should be enough. For many people, she knew, that was more than enough. As a man – as a husband who had once laid his entire world at the feet of the girl he loved and feared she would find it lacking – Aoife knew her father naturally sympathized with Mr. Buckley. What more could a man give or promise, than a life of companionship, of contentment; a life of comfort, even, when for people like her and Da, 'comfort' was so rare as to seem outright luxurious. Mr. Buckley could give Aoife so much that her father could not, and it broke her heart to confess, even to herself, that there was still more a wife could want. "I don't think we would make each other happy," she said softly, at a loss as to how better to explain what she felt, and also knowing that her father truly did wish for nothing but her happiness.
He sighed, though he smiled fondly at her. "You will be after knowing your own mind, so you will."
"I hope so." She smiled back at him, glad the awkward moment was past. "Now go rest while I collect my things before supper."
He pretended to grumble, but retreated to his room and Aoife turned to hers. It was small, and almost identical to her father's and every other in this building, though her window looked out of the facade onto the street below, instead of the narrow air corridor between their building and the one next to it: lock-by-jaw like hundreds - thousands - throughout the city. Aoife hadn't wanted to take the better room, but Da had insisted, and now she was glad of it because he would get a better price renting this one than his.
She laid out her best dress, dark grey wool with starched collar and cuffs, on her bed. She would change into it after supper, so it could stay clean. Her underthings and petticoat and stockings didn't need changing, and she brought her extras and her nightgown out of the small chest of drawers in the corner and folded them neatly into a stack on her bed. She added the little pouch that held her needles and spools of white and black thread, and wrapped it all carefully in her third dress, the only other one she owned, turning it into a tidy bundle. She only had the one pair of shoes; she'd need to brush them and see if she could work a bit of shine into the overused leather. All that remained was her shawl, her mother's comb and mirror, and the book she was halfway through reading.
The book, she frowned at. It wasn't hers; Aoife had never owned a book, though she'd read dozens. They had all been, as this one was, Mr. Buckley's. Or rather, his late father's. Mr. Buckley allowed her to borrow them, and it was her one hypocrisy: she didn't approve of him socially nor care for him personally, but he had books. Not that he read any of them, himself, and the few times Aoife had tried to spark something between them, to talk to him about what she read and to share with him something she loved so much, he had been utterly uninterested and changed the subject. She sighed and tucked the book into her bundle.
Supper was simple fare, as always, and a little earlier than usual, so she could cross town before dark. Her father – thankfully – didn't try to dissuade her anymore. Perhaps he realized it would only make her dig her heels in deeper. He did offer, however, as she cleared the table, "I should walk with you."
Aoife smiled but shook her head. "It's better I walk alone before sundown than you walk alone after, especially with your arm as it is."
He frowned, plainly frustrated with his own limitations now. She knew he blamed himself for it happening even more than the foreman, who'd really had no other choice but to dismiss him.
"I'll be fine, Da," she assured him with another smile. How many times had she said that in the past two days? She washed up and then went back into her room to clean her shoes and change into her good grey dress. She used the comb and mirror to tidy her hair, then tucked them into her bundle and wrapped her other dress around it, too, securing it with the sleeves to make it easier to carry. She had no bag nor any kind of luggage; the only traveling she had ever done was coming here from Ireland, and everything the entire family had brought fit into the one oak chest sitting at the foot of her father's bed now.
Aoife pinned on her hat – it matched her dress because she wore them both to mass – and wrapped up in her shawl. She picked up the bundle of her few possessions and looked around her room one more time. It wasn't much of anything, but it had been home for nearly half her life, and here she was, leaving with everything she owned tucked under one arm and not leaving any of herself behind. Her father waited by the front door to kiss her forehead and give her his blessing, and they managed it without tears. Mrs. Connolly once again stuck her head out into the hallway as Aoife passed, and wished her well, as did the other neighbors who realized something unusual was happening in their little corner of the world.
She left the tenement building and took a deep breath before heading off in the direction of the good part of town.
Mr. Gold lived, of course, in the most lavish home Aoife had ever seen. Four stories above ground and one below, it took up the space of probably several tenement buildings like hers. It seemed obscene that an unmarried man with no family should have such a place all to himself. What did he do with all that space, anyway? Aoife made her way around the side and back of the house to the kitchen door, as she had done yesterday when she came to apply for the position, and was let in by another servant, whose purpose she couldn't identify by his livery, and who instructed her to wait in the packing room while he fetched the housekeeper.
Aoife remembered her from the brief interview, though if she recognized Aoife's face or name in return, it did nothing to warm her expression. The housekeeper was a dark-haired woman with a haughty air, who eyed Aoife's dress and the bundle under her arm with obvious disdain. If this woman was only a servant in this house, yet behaved so, perhaps the stories about her new employer were true after all. Aoife tried not to swallow audibly under her measuring gaze.
"Well, then. This way," said the housekeeper. Mills, her name was, and titled 'Mrs.' by virtue only of her senior position among the servants. She motioned Aoife to follow her with such an imperious gesture it was obvious there was a hierarchy in this house, and Aoife was at the very bottom of it. Aoife was used to that; she was Irish, after all, but she wondered, as she followed Mrs. Mills - with her dark eyes and high cheekbones - where her people had come from.
"Mr. Gold takes his meals at seven in the morning, noon, and six in the evening, usually in his office," Mrs. Mills explained as they started up the servants' narrow staircase. "The dining room is used only on formal occasions, and you probably won't be involved in those in any way, except to prepare rooms for any guest who might be staying." She rattled off the rooms on each floor they climbed past so quickly and automatically that Aoife had to wonder how often they needed to hire new servants.
"This floor," Mrs. Mills said as they passed another landing, "has Mr. Gold's bedroom, sitting room and personal library..."
"I thought the library was on the last floor," Aoife said, certain she had heard her just say so.
Mrs. Mills stopped, and turned to her with an arched eyebrow for daring to interrupt. "Yes, dear," both her tone and her false smile belied the endearment, "he has two," she replied, and turned back up the stairs, as if that should have been obvious, and made perfect sense. Aoife just stared. Two libraries. How many books must he own, that he needed two libraries?
"Don't touch the books, other than to dust them," Mrs. Mills continued. "Mr. Gold is particular about their arrangement and care." She stopped once more and looked back over her shoulder at Aoife. "Can you read, anyway?" she asked.
"I can," Aoife replied, perhaps too defiantly, but she was gratified by the woman's surprise.
"Well," she huffed, and resumed climbing. "You have more important things to do with your time now. Everyone here is very busy, and shirking is not tolerated. Mr. Gold is an important and demanding man. He makes Wall Street bankers flinch, and there are thousands of girls out there like you; don't think you're anything special and can't be replaced."
At last they came to the top of the stairs and Mrs. Mills led her out into a hallway. "Mr. Gold is very punctual. Learn his routines and don't attempt to clean a room he will want shortly. If you last long enough, you'll develop your own routines, but we'll see if it comes to that." Her tone said plainly that she didn't expect it would. "This one is yours," she said, opening the door to a room into which Aoife's bedroom and the kitchen at home could have easily fit. Aoife tried not to gape and give the contemptuous woman further reason to think her merely some guttersnipe as she stepped closer to the gabled window between two beds. Wooden ones, not metal with rusty springs. "You'll share it with the other maid, Verna. She'll show you around in the morning, but don't slow her down: she's prone to dragging her feet anyway. There are uniforms in the dresser; I suggest you use the rest of this evening to make sure they fit. Try not to make too much of a hash of it, replacements will be deducted from your wages."
She all but slammed the door behind her, and Aoife was surprised not to hear a key turn; it felt so much like she'd just been locked in a tower.