It was late January, and New England wore a fresh coat of snow as I stepped along the gangplank to the shore. The city of New Fiddleham glistened in the fading dusk, lamplight playing across the icy buildings that lined the waterfront, turning their brickwork to twinkling diamonds in the dark. In the inky black of the Atlantic, the reflected glow of the gaslights danced and bobbed. I made my way forward, carrying everything that traveled with me in a single suitcase. The solid ground beneath my feet felt odd after so many weeks at sea, and looming buildings rose up around me on all sides. I would come to know this city well, but in that cold winter of 1892, every glowing window and dark alley was strange, full of untold dangers and enticing mysteries.
It was not an old city—not by the standards of those I had seen along my travels—but it bore itself with all the robust pomp and granite certainty of any European harbor town. I had been to mountain villages in the Ukraine, burgs in Poland and Germany, and estates in my native England, but still I found it hard not to be intimidated by the thrum and pulse of the busy American port. Even as the last of the evening light faded from the sky, the dock was still alive with shadowy figures, hurrying about their business.
A storekeeper was latching the shutters as he closed up shop for the night. Sailors on leave sauntered down the harbor, looking for wild diversions on which to spend their hard-earned money—and women with low necklines looked eager to help them spend it faster. In one man I saw my father, confident and successful, probably strolling home late, once again, having devoted the evening to important work rather than his waiting family.
A young woman across the dock pulled her winter coat tightly around herself and ducked her chin down as the crowd of sailors passed. Her shoulders might have shaken, just a little, but she kept to her path without letting the men’s boisterous laughter keep her from her course. In her I saw myself, a fellow lost girl, headstrong and headed anywhere but home.
A chilly breeze swept over the pier, and crept under the worn hem of my dress and through the seams of my thick coat. I had to throw up a hand to hold the old tweed cap on my head before it blew away. It was a boy’s fashion—my father called it a newsboy—but I had grown comfortable in it in the past months. For once I found myself wishing I had opted for the redundant underskirts my mother always insisted were so important to a lady’s proper dress. The cut of my simple green walking gown was excellent for movement, but the fabric did nothing to hold back the icy chill.
I turned my wooly collar up against the snow and pressed forward. In my pockets jingled a handful of coins left over from my work abroad. They would buy me nothing but sympathy, I knew, and only if I bargained very well. Their foreign faces told a story, though, and I was happy for their tinkling company as I trudged through the crunching powder toward an inn.
A gentleman in a long brown coat with a scarf wound up nearly to his eyebrows held the door for me as I stepped inside. I dusted the fresh flakes from my hair as I hung my hat and coat beside the door, tucking my suitcase beneath them. The place smelled of oak and firewood and beer, and the heat of a healthy fire brought a stinging life to my cheeks. A half-dozen patrons sat scattered about three or four round, plain, wooden tables.
In the far corner stood a box piano, its bench unoccupied. I knew a few melodies by heart, having taken lessons all through grammar school—Mother had insisted that a lady should play an instrument. She would have fainted at the notion that I might someday put her fine culture and training to such vulgar use, especially unescorted in this strange, American tavern. I quickly turned my thoughts away from my mother’s overbearing prudence before I might accidentally see reason in it. I put on my most charming smile, instead, and approached the barman. He raised a bushy eyebrow as I neared, which sent a ripple of wrinkles to the dome of his bald head.
“Good afternoon, sir,” I said, drawing up to the bar. “My name is Abigail Rook. I’m just off a boat, and I find myself a bit short on cash, at present. I wonder if I could just set up a hat on your piano and play a few—”
The bartender interrupted. “It’s out of service. Has been for weeks.”
I must have shown my dismay, because he looked sympathetic as I turned to go. “Hold on, then.” He poured a frothy pint and slid it across the bar to me with a nod and a kindly wink. “Have a seat for a while, miss, and wait out the snow.”
I hid my surprise behind a grateful smile, and took a stool at the bar beside the broken piano. I glanced around at the other patrons, hearing my mother’s voice in my head again, warning me that I must look like “that sort of girl,” and worse, that the drunken degenerates who frequented these places would fix their eyes on me like wolves on a lost sheep. The drunken degenerates did not seem to notice me in the least, actually. Most of them looked quite pleasant, if a bit tired after a long day, and two of them were playing a polite game of chess toward the back of the room. Holding the pint of ale still felt strange, as though I ought to be looking nervously over my shoulder for the headmaster to appear. It was not my first drink, but I was unaccustomed to being treated as an adult.
I peered at my own reflection in a frosty window. It had been scarcely a year since I had put the shores of England behind me, but the rugged young woman looking back from the glass was barely recognizable. The salty sea air had stolen some of the softness from my cheeks, and my complexion was tan—at least tan by English standards. My hair was not braided neatly and tied with ribbons, as my mother had always preferred it, but pinned up in a quick, simple bun that might have been a little too matronly if the wind had not shaken loose a few curving wisps to hang free about my collar. The girl who had fled the dormitories was gone, replaced by this unfamiliar woman.