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In 1908, sixteen-year-old Bridey runs away from her small town in Ireland with her same-age sweetheart Thom. But when Thom dies suddenly of ship fever on their ocean crossing, Bridey finds herself alone and pregnant in a strange new world.
Forced by circumstance to give up the baby for adoption, Bridey finds work as a maid for the Hollingworth family at a lavish, sprawling estate. It’s the dawn of a new century: innovative technologies are emerging, women’s roles are changing, and Bridey is emboldened by the promise of a fresh start. She cares for the Hollingworth children as if they were her own, until a mysterious death changes Bridey and the household forever. For decades, the terrible secrets of Bridey’s past continue to haunt the family. And in the present day, the youngest Hollingworth makes a connection that finally brings these dark ghost stories into the light.
Told in interweaving timelines and rich with detailed history, romance and dark secrets, Helen Klein Ross’ The Latecomers spans a century of America life and reminds us all that we can never truly leave the past behind.
One tree is black.
One window is yellow as butter.
A woman leans down to catch a child
who has run into her arms
Apples sweeten in the dark.
—Eavan Boland, "This Moment"
Although many of the events that take place in this story are historical occurrences, this novel is a work of imagination. (As Muriel Spark observed, it is a blow to a novelist's pride of invention if readers think otherwise.) But as I live in a small town in Connecticut in a house similar to the one described, perhaps it is necessary to say that the characters and the town they occupy are works of fiction, not disguised biography. While the story isn't fact, I hope it rings true for readers who believe, as I do, that fiction is the conduit of our deepest truths.
Upper East Side, Manhattan
Emma pushed through the door of the ladies' room by reception and turned on a tap and held her palms upward, letting cool water run over the veins in her wrists, the trick Arlette had taught her when she was in pre-K, to calm herself.
When Emma came out—there was her mother. Her mother was usually careful about looking her best when she came uptown to Thatcher, but now her mascara was running, her lipstick was gone, her face was wet with sweat and tears. Her mother hugged her and, for once, Emma hugged back, taking refuge in her arms as if she were a little kid instead of a freshman in high school. Her mother said she was there to take her home.
Suddenly, girls around them were talking, saying that Emma and her mother could come home with one of them, they all lived so close, only blocks away.
But Emma wanted, for once, the same thing her mother wanted, which was to go home. She hoped her father would be there. She knew her mother was hoping this too.
When they got to the street, they saw that many stores had already closed; hastily lettered signs were taped to accordion gates: CLOSED DUE TO TODAY'S CIRCUMSTANCES.
"We'll need money," her mother said, but the ATMs they passed were DOWN UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE. Long lines snaked from banks, and from pay phones.
Later, Emma found it ironic that the parents who had resisted giving their kids cell phones were finally persuaded to change their minds by the events of a day on which cell phones proved useless.
A huge crowd had gathered in front of the electronics store. What was on sale that so many people would take this moment to line up for? Then she saw—they were watching the TVs in the window. Emma and her mother stopped to watch too. News was coming so fast, it had to be reported in what looked like ticker tape running across the bottoms of screens. South Tower Collapsed.
They watched the tower come down again and again. Each time it fell, Emma was flooded with gratitude that her father worked in the other one. But then they showed footage of the North Tower and she felt a stinging at the back of her eyes. Windows in the towers were designed not to open, yet it looked like people were leaning out of them. Dark spots drifted down the sides of the building. Emma guessed it was debris from the fire, but then the cameras zoomed in and she saw—the dark spots were people. People were jumping. Some fell upright; some arched as they descended, doing backward Cs, like victory jumps, and Emma closed her eyes and did what she hadn't done since she was a child: she reached for her mother's hand. Her mother squeezed it and brought the back of Emma's hand to her lips.
Emma felt certain that her father wasn't one of the jumpers. He'd never have jumped, since it would have meant jumping away from them.
When they got to the subway at Eighty-Sixth, a sign at the entrance read NO MORE SERVICE TODAY.
They headed to Third, where going against traffic they saw—an army tank! Had a war started?
Her mother raised her arm to hail a cab. There were no cabs in sight. But after many changes of lights, a slightly battered car stopped in front of them. Car service. Emma's mother opened the back door and Emma slid across several rips in the vinyl, making room for her mother. But she didn't slide in.
"Take this to a Hundred and Twenty-Fifth Street," she said to Emma, fishing a twenty out of her wallet. "Take the train to your grandfather's. Wait at Hollingwood until I come up with Daddy."
At the sound of "Daddy," Emma's eyes filled.
"No!" Emma said, pushing the money away, sliding back across the seat toward her mother. "I'm staying with you. I want to go home!"
"They're not letting anyone south of Fourteenth now. Do this for me, Emma. I can't worry about you too." She shoved the bill into Emma's blazer pocket.
The car pulled away and Emma heard from speakers in the dashboard, "The National Guard on alert…fear of biological hazards."
Alone in the backseat, she started to cry. She imagined her parents breathing in poisoned air, catching some terrible fatal disease. And what about her cat?
She had an appointment with the orthodontist later, but how straight your teeth were didn't matter anymore.
Traffic was terrible. It took a long time for the car to get forty blocks north to the station. The driver and she didn't talk. They just listened to the news.
When Emma pulled the bill from her pocket and handed it across the front seat, the driver didn't take it.
"Keep it, peaches," he said. "I'm not car service. I just stopped at the light. But you take care, you do what your mama says."
"Thanks." She nodded, thinking his kindness would have seemed extraordinary on any day but this.
Were trains still running? Were her grandfather and Arlette safe?
Hollingwood had stood in Wellington, Connecticut, since her great-great-great-grandfather built it in 1853.
Would it still be there?
That morning, hours after the cock crowed but before the town-hall bell chimed eight, Bridey mounted narrow steps leading up from the kitchen, holding tight to the fluted handles of a silver oval on which Mr. Hollingworth's breakfast quivered. Serving gloves weren't insisted upon at Hollingwood as they were in the big houses on Fifth Avenue, where a friend from home worked, but Bridey sometimes wore them anyway—it spared prints on the silver, which saved time in the long run; the trays and pouring pots needn't be polished so often.
Mr. Hollingworth's breakfast was meager fare compared to the morning feasts she and Nettie used to cook up: blood sausages and custards, fruited popovers and muffins, eggs poached and scrambled and over easy or hard, depending on how he and his four children preferred them that day. But that was years ago, when the children were children, and breakfasts were rollicking starts of days in the dining room instead of quiet meals for an invalid who spent most of the time in bed.
A poached egg on toast is what she was carrying now to Mr. Hollingworth, along with a pot of coffee and a pitcher of cream she'd skimmed from the top of a bottle left this morning by the Byfield boys who'd taken over their father's milk route. The bread was rack-toasted, despite the newly acquired electric toaster, which she hid in the pantry so it didn't rebuke her. Sarah, the eldest, had brought it back from a traveling exhibition of housewares in Hartford, but Bridey didn't trust the contraption, convinced that its complicated workings couldn't be depended upon to produce the shade of toast she was after and, even more important, couldn't be depended upon not to electrocute her. She'd racked toast on a fire for almost all of her thirty-four years. What would be the advantage of doing a task differently when it was one she had mastered and could do by hand without thinking? The electric cream separator, from the same exhibition, sat next to the toaster, both shrouded by covers that shielded them not only from dust but from Sarah's notice should she wander into the pantry, an unlikely occurrence.
Bridey appreciated electrification in moderation. The house had been electrified ten years ago, soon after she'd stepped off the boat from the west country of Ireland, where electric lights were unheard of and they got along fine without them, thanks very much. Now, she appreciated being able to sew or read at night, which was hard to do by the flickering light of a candle. She sang the praises of the electric icebox. But Americans believed that if a thing was good, much more of a good thing was even better. Electric irons, electric sewing machines, even electric lighters for men's cigars—Bridey couldn't see the need for any of these, though Mr. Tupper, the electrician, assured her that such laborsaving devices were already proving indispensable to housekeepers.
A bell sounded in the stair corridor. The rear kitchen door. Bother. Bridey stepped backward and, careful to keep the tray in balance, turned and descended the steps. She set the tray on the counter, covered it with the silver dome, removed her gloves, and crossed the kitchen to open the door.
There, on the gray-painted porch, stood Mr. Tupper. It was as if he'd heard her maligning his work in her head.
"Come in, come in." She swung the door wide to welcome him warmly, feeling a need to make up for the offense.
Mr. Tupper took off his cap as he stepped inside and set down his toolbox on the wide pine-board floor. "The Canfields were top of my list today, but they have guests stopping, so I'm here to replace your duals if it suits."
"That would be grand," said Bridey, pulling the door closed behind him. The sparrows were cheeping like chickens today. Yesterday, the door had been left ajar and one of them had flown in and it had taken her a mortal hour to shoo it out of the house.
When Mr. Tupper electrified Hollingwood, Mr. Hollingworth, like most home owners in Wellington, had prevailed upon him to convert existing gas fixtures to duals. Duals were lit by both electric lines and gas so that if electricity had turned out to be a passing fad, the lamps could be reverted to gas without the expense of calling Mr. Tupper again. Now it was clear that the invention had caught on and people were going all electric for safety reasons. Duals were proving to be temperamental. Last month, a leak of gas from a dual had caused a house just off Main Street to burst into flames. Mr. Tupper was so busy, it took months to get an appointment with him.
Today was far preferable to the December date marked on the wall calendar. It was still October. The holidays were a good ways away and whatever mess was about to be created would be certain not to interfere with holiday houseguests and entertaining. What's more, Sarah and Edmund were abroad now, which meant they'd be spared seeing the mess that inevitably resulted from a visit by Mr. Tupper. Sarah became nervous when things in the house had to be changed.
Hollingwood had been built by Sarah's grandfather, a governor of Connecticut who had drawn the plans for the house himself, which accounted for why the house wasn't like any Bridey had seen. It was the biggest house in town, built with stones mined from local quarries that weren't around anymore. The house looked to Bridey like a house in a fairy tale. It rambled this way and that, with long hallways and bow windows and several porches and sunrooms and a four-story octagonal turret. The windows at the top of the turret were arched and color-stained like church windows and whenever Bridey went up there to sweep up dead flies or dust the old telescope that nobody used, she stopped a moment to gaze through the colored panes, taking in the holy beauty of the field and the lake and the evergreens bordering everything, like a backdrop.
Bridey offered Mr. Tupper tea and a scone still warm from the oven and he ate efficiently, standing up at the worktable, careful to keep crumbs from falling onto his beard. As he dunked the scone into the teacup, he apologized for having to cut a hole in the wall. His work would damage the wallpaper, he said, which would have to be replaced. The thought of that made Bridey wonder if she ought to put him off after all. Perhaps she ought to consult Sarah, but Sarah was in Italy with Edmund on an extended lecture tour of the lake towns to celebrate their wedding anniversary. Their sixteenth. They'd married the summer after Bridey came to Hollingwood, and had her coming here really been so many years ago?
Sarah was the only one of the children who lived at home now. She'd returned to Hollingwood with Edmund soon after they married, having discovered that two Mrs. Porters in a house was one too many. Sarah was educated in many things (politics, painting, gardening) but left on her own, Bridey guessed, Sarah wouldn't be able to boil an egg. Sarah was always seeking happiness afar, in every place but home, though that was where she was certain of finding it.
To Bridey's mind, Vincent had suffered mightily because of this. Bridey, always alert to the boy, had spent years trying to relieve his suffering due to his mother's inattention to him and it saddened her to know that she could not relieve it altogether. But now—Vincent wasn't a boy anymore. He would be eighteen next birthday and how lucky for him, for all of them, that the Great War was over so the prospect of his being sacrificed for it needn't be contemplated.
If Bridey turned Mr. Tupper away, it would be weeks before he came back, then it would be Christmas, a season of parties and celebrations, and it wouldn't do for the front hall to be in a state. As Mr. Tupper finished his scone, Bridey went down to the basement and came back with old sheets from the rag bin. She'd learned the hard way about covering the furniture.
She led Mr. Tupper through the butler's pantry and, with an elbow (her arms were full of the sheets), pushed the glass plate on the door panel, swung through the door, and took him left past the linen closet so as not to lead his work boots across the good dining-room rug.
As she turned into the hallway, she saw the scrolled brass arms of the dual to be replaced. Bridey hated to think of harm to the wallpaper beneath it. But there was a good wallpaper man in town now, and the decorator from France who'd hung the paper originally had had the foresight to leave an extra roll in the attic.
Mr. Tupper helped Bridey draw sheets over chairs and tables in the hall, then Bridey returned to the kitchen, touched the silver pot to make sure it was still warm (Mr. Hollingworth didn't take hot coffee, due to sensitive teeth), slipped on the gloves, lifted the tray, and again mounted the stairs.
As she rounded the first landing, the hall shook with a great pounding and Bridey was visited by a terrible vision. Mr. Hollingworth's bedroom was just above the spot where Mr. Tupper was working, and Bridey imagined shifts in the old wall causing the ceiling above it to fall and then Mr. Hollingworth's floor crashing through and there would be Mr. Hollingworth, sliding down to the front door, still in his bed.
To steady herself, Bridey kept her hip against the wooden rails that ran along the top of the landing. It was a habit acquired long ago to keep from falling back down the narrow stairwell. The hallway was dim in the service quarters where only she lived now. When Nettie left to get married, Bridey hadn't taken her room, even though it was larger. She stayed in her little room at the top of the stairs with the low ceiling and a window that looked out on the lake. She liked it there. She liked the light.
Last year, Mr. Hollingworth lived in Nettie's old room, moving temporarily from his bedroom to Nettie's because hers was a north room and the darkest. At times, even the slightest light hurt his eyes. Bridey had run up drapes in the sewing room for him, heavy velvet curtains that Nettie, on a visit from Massachusetts, smiled to see—their formality so out of place in a servant's bedroom.
As Bridey crossed from the service hall to the bedroom wing, the pounding in the front hall became louder, and then came a crunch and the sound of falling plaster, by which she knew that the wall had been breached. Bridey was glad that Sarah—who felt any harm done to the house as a blow to herself—was spared this.
Bridey tapped with the toecap of her shoe, seeking the step up. She would tell Mr. Hollingworth that the egg was newly laid by Thisbe. Thisbe was the best layer in the henhouse, her eggs always firm and delicious. Was it an egg from Thisbe? Bridey couldn't recall. She'd gathered the eggs yesterday, not today. But old men, like small boys, needed reasons to believe what you wanted them to believe. Mr. Hollingworth's appetite—what was left of it—was best in the morning. He'd barely touched his dinner last night. He had to eat to keep up his strength. She wanted to make this meal as appealing as possible to him.
To that end, Bridey had prettied the tray. A picture postal from Sarah had come in the morning's mail, sent from a town with an unpronounceable name. The town was built on a mountain and looked made of toy blocks. She'd propped its painted portrait against the bud vase that held a purple anemone, the last flower the cutting garden gave up.
She hoped Sarah had remembered to send a postal card to Vincent at school.
It was Vincent who had named the hen, a few years ago, the summer before he went to school across the lake. How seriously he'd prepared himself for Trowbridge, lifting barbells and eschewing white bread, adhering to a new eating regimen to build himself up.
His incoming school assignment had been to translate the story of Pyramus and Thisbe from Latin to English, and Vincent, after poring over a book in the porch off the library, had regaled Bridey with the tale of two young lovers kept apart by their families. It was all she could do to hide her brimming eyes by training them on the needle she was using to letter one of his handkerchiefs; she had to bite her tongue to keep from telling him the story it reminded her of.
She sang out as she always did upon approaching Mr. Hollingworth's room.
"Your breakfast, Mr. H. Our Thisbe did her best for you this morning!"
The door was kept ajar and she pushed it gently with her elbow, already drawing in her mind the shape of the coming day. She would get Mr. Hollingworth properly propped on his pillows, taking care to keep his chest upright to avoid the danger of food falling into his windpipe, and while he was eating and reading papers magnified by a hand glass as big as his head, she'd go downstairs to the pantry to finish mixing beeswax and vinegar and then set to polishing the wood in the library. Friday was cleaning day. This schedule—Monday for wash, Tuesday for ironing, and so forth—was the same one she'd learned back in the class on practical housekeeping at St. Ursula's. More and more houses were shaking off this old system in favor of letting housekeepers decide for themselves what to do, but Bridey kept to the old schedule, finding that it allowed her to do the work most efficiently, especially important now that there was only one person left in the house to do it.
The sheets didn't stir. How could he have slept through the noise from below? As she neared the bed, she guessed that the extra sleep would be good for him. He slept little these days; he complained about the sleeplessness almost as much as the pain. Maybe Young Doc had given him a sleeping draft when he'd come to mix his dosages last night. The medicines were a new treatment he'd started giving Mr. Hollingworth after Old Doc died last year. It seemed to be working.
She settled the tray on the bedside table. His head was turned to the wall. Perhaps he'd taken sick in the night. Had he acquired a fever? She stepped forward to feel his forehead and when she touched his skin, she felt a coldness, a lack of charge, and when she bent over his face and saw his staring eyes, she apprehended—first in the hairs on her forearms, then in the hairs on the back of her neck—that Mr. Hollingworth wasn't sleeping. He was dead.
She drew back suddenly, knocking the tray off the table, sending the plate and pot and creamer and vase clattering to the floor.
"You all right, Miss Molloy?" Mr. Tupper called from downstairs.
Bridey didn't answer. She couldn't believe Mr. Hollingworth was gone. The fits of blindness had ceased. Mr. Hollingworth had regained some energy, enough to take a constitutional around the house with her every so often. He'd improved enough for Sarah and Edmund to go on their long-planned anniversary trip. But now—
Bridey sank to her knees, crossed herself, and prayed, gazing at the man he had been. Mr. Hollingworth had been kind to her. He had been a kind man. He had taught her to swim. He had saved her life and the life of her son.
She heard Mr. Tupper's tread on the stairs, then in the hallway. She turned to see him bowing his head. Mr. Tupper was a big man. His head reached almost to the top of the ceiling, but he wasn't bowing his head because of that.
"God rest his soul," he murmured.
Bridey went to the window and drew back the curtains. She lifted the sash, just in case it was true that an open window eased the flight of the soul.
She turned back to the bed and pulled the sheet over Mr. Hollingworth's face. The sheet was splattered with coffee, but that didn't matter. She gathered what had been dropped, returned what she could to the tray, and asked Mr. Tupper to help her make calls. She was afraid of the telephone.
Watching her step as she balanced the tray she carried, she led Mr. Tupper down to the telephone table, a little round pedestal under the stairs, and he lifted the receiver and asked the operator for Young Doc. Doc was at the hospital now, but his office girl would give him the message.
She then told Mr. Tupper to ask for Vincent's school. For Hannah's bridal home in Litchfield. For Benno, who would be at the factory.
Mr. Tupper spoke through perforations in the receiver to the operator, and after he did this, each time, he handed Bridey the receiver, which she held at a distance as she enunciated words carefully, speaking as if to someone almost deaf.
"He's gone!" she shouted. "Come home."
Rachel lived in France. Both she and Sarah would have to be cablegrammed. She asked Mr. Tupper could he go to the post office to send word to Sarah and Rachel. He could. She wrote down numbers for him, from a book.
Bridey had to work on keeping her thoughts together; they were running all over, like headless chickens.
After Mr. Tupper left, she heard Young Doc's Packard come up the drive. She was in the kitchen, at the sink, washing the breakfast things that hadn't broken. When she looked through the window and saw Young Doc getting out of his car, she left the kitchen, wiping her hands on the hem of her apron, but he was already coming through the door, without knocking, which was unusual for him. "When did it happen?" he asked her.
"I found him just now, this morning," she said.
She glanced at the clock on the hall table. It was near nine. Vincent was probably getting the news from the headmaster. He'd be home soon.
Something about the arrangement of Young Doc's features wasn't right. She'd expected compassion. Instead, he looked angry. As if she had done something wrong. Had she done something wrong? She couldn't imagine what it could be. She always followed exactly the routine he'd set out for her, administered the dosage of medicines kept in the fireplace cabinet, mixed fresh every night and left for her in a tiny glass tumbler.
After taking off his hat but not his coat, Young Doc bounded up the spiral stairs. What was his hurry? Perhaps he doubted Bridey's pronouncement. That Mr. Hollingworth might not be dead hadn't occurred to Bridey, but now she supposed she could have made a mistake. And wouldn't a mistake like that be a happiness to discover? But her heart remained heavy. She didn't think she'd made a mistake.
Young Doc had a boyish manner. Old Doc had been the family doctor for years but now Old Doc was gone and Young Doc had taken over. She guessed he'd be Young Doc for the rest of his life.
- "The Latecomers is an excellent blend of equal parts historical fiction and family drama, with just a hint of a mystery thrown in. It is a brilliant examination of friendship, family, and the ties that bind us together—BookBrowse
"Fans of historical fiction will find much to enjoy-a reprise of the well-loved immigrant narrative and a meticulous depiction of early-20th-century life."
- "[A] satisfying blend of historical and familial drama"—Publisher's Weekly
- "A born story-teller, a brilliant writer, a century of American history, and an old house that has witnessed secrets, betrayals, love and death, read the first page and I dare you to stop. With The Latecomers, Helen Klein Ross has outdone herself."—Abigail Thomas, author of A Three Dog Life and What Comes Nextand How to Like It
- "Ross' moving family saga is perfect for fans of Brooklyn and Downton Abbey."—Real Simple, "The BestBooks of 2018"
- "A triumph of storytelling, The Latecomers is a brilliantly researched and masterly told chronicle of the decades and generations in one immigrant's journey-and the deeply guarded alliances and secrets kept along the way. Ross has written a novel brimming with historical resonance, a riveting read infused with subtle wit and great intelligence."—Kate Walbert, author of His Favorites and A Short History of Women
- "Skillfully constructed and rich in detail, Helen Klein Ross's THE LATECOMERS showcases a gallery of vivid characters-Bridey is a particularly sympathetic heroine-and covers a significant span of Irish-American history, unfolding brilliantly from the story of an adoption."—Mary Norris, author of Between You & Me: Confessions of a CommaQueen
- "A pair of devastating secrets twists and turns through this riveting, multigenerational novel of a wealthy east coast family and the Irish maid who served them. The Latecomers is about money, identity, and desire-but above all, it's about the lengths to which people will go to protect the ones they love."—Dawn Raffel,author of The Strange Case of Dr. Couney
- "For me, the best kind of historical fiction so expertly immerses you in the story and characters that you don't realize that you're receiving an education in the time and place. Helen Klein Ross does just this in The Latecomers. Her eye for accurate, interesting detail pertaining to the lives of women both upstairs and down in early twentieth century New York City and Connecticut, and her ear for the nuances of human behavior make for an engrossingly rich, unforgettable read. The breadth of her research in this novel astonishes me. I couldn't put it down."—Lynn Cullen, author of Mrs. Poe and Twain's End
- "Ross gives the novel an epic sweep of history... But the power of the story comes from the interlocking narratives of the family drama."—Minneapolis Star Tribune
- On Sale
- Jul 16, 2019
- Page Count
- 432 pages
- Back Bay Books