EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the first chapter from “The Widow Nash,” a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice novel written by Jamie Harrison. The book, which is set in 1904, follows the journey of a young woman named Dulcy Remfrey as she attempts to disappear from the complications of her old life (including a possessive ex-fiance and a financially-plagued father) and create another in rugged Montana. The book was published in June 2017 by Counterpoint Press.
“Almost All Souls Day”
People paid attention when they arrived because Carrie was beautiful and Dulcy had jilted a rich man. Dulcy hadn’t been to the city since, and once she had a glass in her hand, she found she enjoyed the spiky, expectant whispers, the open curiosity. They wore black dresses and masks, because they were in mourning for Martha, but most of the other women were pretending to be Marie Antoinette or Cinderella, and the dust from their powdered hair dropped like dandruff. Dulcy studied the men, skimming over the earnest costumes—kings and knights—for odder types like headhunters, sheiks, and Vikings, but as she often did, she found she liked the idea of people more than the reality. An insurance man at her elbow put aside his bullfighter’s cape and cap and began talking about oysters— their different shapes, their increasing rarity—and for a little while his obsession, his sliver of strangeness, was interesting. But he didn’t bear long study; he dissolved like a bad mint.
“I met your father once, at my club,” he said. “A genius, but such a character. A little all over the place. I gather you are always in the process of traveling.”
The insurance man came from a good family, with bundles of money, but his eyes were evasive, and she could see him work through his memory, try to suss out stories of the lost engagement. As he thought, he pursed his lips and moved them in and out.
All around them, Carrie’s friends were playing divination games, courtship games: people were supposed to drip candle wax in finger bowls, blow out lines of candles and count the years they’d stay unwed, throw peels over a shoulder and guess what letter they formed, and bob for apples. There was no one in this room Dulcy felt like bobbing for, and probably no one who wanted to bob for her, but she allowed herself to be herded toward a dangling, tarnished hand mirror, to look behind her reflection for the man she would marry. For Carrie, who’d left a trail of peels every Halloween since she was three, the man in the mirror was peach- faced, hovering Alfred Lorrimer, who seemed to expand with wine and her attention that night, not so much opening like a flower as swelling like a sponge.
Dulcy stood obediently in line and opened her eyes on cue: she saw her face and a black curtain, and felt a train move below them, not a sound but a shudder. “Of course it was black,” Carrie hissed in her ear, pointing to the drapery that faced the mirror. “I want you to have fun. Can’t you just do that for a bit?”
A line of handsome, placid-faced men in silly costumes, waiting to be picked, found this amusing. “All right,” said Dulcy, finishing a second glass. “How do you say yes in Halloween?”
“As if it were a language?” asked one man.
“As if it were a language,” she said. The whole strange city vibrating around her, and here she was in a puddle of normal.
“We give up,” they said. “Oui,” she said. “And ja.”
“Hohoho,” said the bullfighter. And: “Let me fetch another glass for you.” When he headed off, as Dulcy slid toward the door, she could hear Carrie pipe away: her sister had spent years with their difficult father, months at the farm in Westfield helping their dying grandmother, but she was so happy to see people again, happy to be social. In the front hall, Dulcy put her finger to her lips when she asked a maid for her coat.
Outside, she walked away from the line of waiting hansoms, heading south down Fifth Avenue and Broadway. The champagne had done wonderful things for her brain, now that she was alone. In Madison Square she stopped at a cart for a cheesy Greek pastry and skipped on, giddy, wiping oily fingers on a churchyard’s brick wall. Past the half-lit triangle of the Fuller Building, she turned east at the Rivoli Hotel and waved to the doorman, who was loading a collection of large people into a carriage. A moment later, she heard footsteps and turned to find the doorman hurrying up behind her. “A telephone call,” he said. “We just sent someone to the apartment to find you.”
In the Rivoli lobby the German at the front desk pointed to the telephone, and she tried to think through her panic as she reached for the receiver. If someone was dead, a telegram arrived. Telephones meant someone was still dying—an aunt upstate in Westfield—and there was a point to haste.
But it was Henning Falk, calling from Seattle, and Dulcy’s champagne mood evaporated while the operator finished introductions. “Walton’s dead,” she blurted out. “His ship went down. You’re calling to say he’s drowned.”
The man at the desk flinched.
“No, no,” said Henning. “I met your father this morning at the docks. But things are missing.”
She hadn’t spoken to Henning in almost three years, and never before on the telephone, but he sounded so much like himself— perhaps the voice was a little tighter, maybe there was less of a Swedish lilt at the end of each sentence—it took her a moment to find a new way to worry. “Missing. Documents?”
“Well, yes, those too, but the money,” said Henning. “We need your help; you need to come.”
Dulcy’s face was hot from alcohol and her bolt through the city, and she wiped a last flake of pastry crust from her coat. Jabbering people floated around the lobby, and a little man who looked like death was sneezing ten feet away, each seizure driving him deeper into the soft upholstery of an armchair. This “we” meant Victor Maslingen, her father’s business partner and her former fiancé: a royal summons. “You know that’s not possible. I’m sure Walton’s simply spent it.”
“Nobody could spend that much. Your father is not well.” “Not well in what way?” There were so many possibilities.
“He’s lost his mind,” said Henning. “What little remained. He is having problems with his memory, problems with logic. He is balmy. Barmy.”
“Put him on the train. I can meet him halfway and take him home.”
“No, Dulce. He’s weak and he’s feverish and he unbuttoned in the cab and fiddled himself. And it’s all of the money, entirely, every drop gone. Victor is very upset.”
Every drop, fiddled. She felt Henning pick his way around a second language and an audience. At least six people in the hotel lobby could hear her end of the conversation; only the operator, who kept clearing his throat, could hear Henning’s. She wondered if Henning was standing in Victor’s library, if some of the static crackle was Victor, holding his breath, actually worried enough to have Henning beg her to come to Seattle.
“I don’t want Victor near me. I don’t want to have to talk to him or see him every day.”
“He won’t touch you,” said Henning. “He doesn’t want to see you, either. Please, Dulcy.”
Everything pleasant was over, again. A door slammed a continent away, Victor leaving the room.