Authors: Jill Churchill
Tags: #Mystery, #Historical
Monday, April 17, 1933
ROBERT BREWSTER WAS WAITING
around the train station in Voorburg-on-Hudson for a box of books he'd ordered for his sister Lily's next birthday. A week ago, he'd sneaked away to New York City with a list the comely town librarian had given him. Miss Philomena Exley knew Lily's reading habits and favorite authors. He'd been told that two of the author choices she'd enjoyed had new books coming out the end of the week if he'd care to wait for just one package to be shipped by train to Voorburg.
Since he was doing this much earlier than necessary, which was not the way he normally treated birthdays, Robert didn't mind. Mostly, he frantically picked up some silly trinket at the last minute, and offered to pay Lily's way to a talkie. But getting to speak at length with Miss Exley was a rare treat.
Since there was no longer a post office in Voorburg because it burned down years ago, the incoming mail and packages were in bags at the train station and the residents had to rummage through the bags to fish out what they'd received.
There was a porter who hung around the station, helping with luggage and living on the tips, which must have been meager in these hard times. Edwin McBride had been at the Bonus March and heard Jack Summer, the editor of the
talk about Voorburg. It had sounded like a nice town so he'd settled there. "A box for you, Mr. Brewster," McBride said. "Really heavy.”
Robert tipped him fifty cents, which was probably more than McBride normally made in a week, and set the box down on a bench, to figure out where to hide it from Lily. As he was doing so, a familiar Voorburg resident stepped off the last car, which was for passengers. She was Sara Smithson, a young widow who had inherited a lot of rental property from her husband. She looked exhausted as she gestured for Mr. McBride to help her with her enormous suitcase, then a large trunk. The trunk was followed by an older man, who needed help down the steep steps.
Robert approached her. "May I help you and this gentleman?"
“Oh, Mr. Brewster, how nice of you. It's been such a long hard trip."
“From where?" Robert asked, not that it was any of his business.
She didn't mind telling him. "Clear from Berlin, Germany.”
She pushed back her hair, which was straggling loose from under her hat.
“I went to fetch my grandfather." She put her hand on the old man's arm and glanced at Robert. "This nice man, Mr. Brewster, is going to help us with our belongings.”
The old man took Robert's hand, and introduced himself. "Schneidermeister Kurtz."
“Grandpa, say it in English," Mrs. Smithson said with a hint of irritation. "I've told you not many people here know German.”
He patted his granddaughter's arm and with a smile, said, "Yes, you have, sweeting. I'm Master Tailor Kurtz. My granddaughter came to rescue me from the Nazis." Robert was surprised at how well the old man spoke English. Only the faintest hint of German accent.
“Are you Jewish, then?" Robert asked.
“No, Catholic," he said. "But once I went with a friend to a Communist meeting. We all had to sign our names and addresses in a ledger so we'd get a notice of the time and place of the next meeting. The Nazis hate Communists as much as Jews. I feared someone would turn me in if they found the ledger.”
It took both Robert and McBride to thrust Mr. Kurtz's trunk and Mrs. Smithson's big suitcase into the back of Robert's butter-yellow Duesenberg.
“What a fine car this is," Mr. Kurtz said. "You must be very wealthy to have one."
“Grandpa! That's rude," Mrs. Smithson said.
“I don't mind at all," Robert said. "I inherited it from a great-uncle I didn't even remember. My sister and I are as poor as everyone else in town. Mrs. Smithson, where am I taking you and your grandfather?"
“I live next door to Miss Jurgen. Do you know her house?"
“I do. My sister Lily takes sewing lessons from her."
“I know. I take lessons at the same time she does. But it's not sewing. It's graphing patterns for embroidery and needlepoint. But we need to drop off Grandpa's trunk first."
“That little empty shop across from the courthouse that used to be a bookstore before the tenant and his family took off for California. My late husband owned it.”
Robert pulled up in front of the building and said, "We're going to have to have some help with this trunk. Your grandfather can't endanger his hands or back trying to carry it. It's very heavy. I'll go and
if the newspaper editor, Jack Summer, can help me.”
“I hate putting so many people to all this trouble."
“It's no trouble at all. And you can do me a favor. Hide this box of books in your house until my sister's birthday, if you would."
“Small payment for all you've done," she said, fishing in her handbag for the keys to the building.
Robert and Jack were back in minutes. "How can a trunk be so darned heavy?" Jack asked.
“Mr. Kurtz is a tailor," Robert explained. “A Master Tailor, in fact. He must have his sewing machine and all his shears, scissors, and threads in it. Probably lots of fabrics as well.”
They were both out of breath by the time they'd hoisted it up the two steps to the shop. They could hear voices from the floor above, where there were probably living quarters.
“In English, Grandpa," came Mrs. Smithson's voice. "But you know German, too."
“Not very well, Grandpa, and I don't speak it anymore. You shouldn't either. German speakers aren't very well liked in America these days.”
She came down the stairs and shook hands with both Robert and Jack and thanked them again. "He's an old man and stuck in his ways. I guess he's entitled to be, but it's not wise to speak German in the States today.”
She said to Robert and Jack, "Just leave the trunk here in the middle of the room. Grandpa can sort out where to put his professional objects and take his clothing and personal things upstairs later."
“Mrs. Smithson, could I interview your grandfather when he's settled in?" Jack Summer asked.
“I suppose so. But why?"
“People in town like feeling they know a little about newcomers to town. And it might help him get new customers.”
Mrs. Smithson, who was only in her mid-thirties, was looking very tired, haggard, and much older than her years. "That's a good idea. But give us both a few days rest, please. It's been a long, harrowing trip from Berlin to here."
“When did you leave Germany?" Robert asked as he opened the passenger door of the Duesie
helped get her settled in comfortably.
Mrs. Smithson waited until he was behind the wheel and said, April first."
“Just in time," Robert said and made a relieved whistle. According to Jack Summer, anyone who isn't a native German couldn't leave the country without the permission of the police after April fourth."
“Good Lord! We made it out in the nick of time! We had to take the train to Le Havre, France, then cross the English Ch
nel in a horrible boat in a storm. In England, we went to Portsmouth to get the ship for New York, and then took the train to here. My grandpa has been away from home for seventeen long days. It's hard on an old man to travel that much."
“It would be hard on anyone," Robert agreed. Mrs. Smithson and her grandfather had probably come over second class. Robert and all his family, in the old "rich" days, always went first class, where they were pampered with champagne, heated towels, an excess of excellent food, and luxurious fresh bedding every day.
Those days were long over. If he had to go to Europe these days, he'd be in steerage or hiding in a lifeboat.
“It was awful," Mrs. Smithson said as they approached her house. All I want is a good hot bath and a shampoo, and to sleep for ten or eleven hours in my own bed." She paused for a moment as Robert stopped in front of her house. Then she added, "But it was worth it all to get Grandpa back here."
“What do you mean by 'back here'?”
She smiled. "He was born in St. Louis. His father was a brewer and took the family to Germany when Grandpa was only eight years old. So Grandfather is an American, too. Though he couldn't have told the police that. He had no birth certificate. The family spoke German at work, and English at home. That's why he speaks English, albeit with a slight German accent.”
Robert insisted on carrying her big suitcase into her house and upstairs. And then he went back to the car to take Lily's books in. "I hope my sister isn't at Miss Jurgen's wondering what's in the box."
“If she asks, tell her the box was mine. And this isn't one of the days she gives lessons anyway. Again, I thank you so much. I simply couldn't have stood taking the only taxi in town. We'd probably have to have waited for ages for the driver to turn up, and he wouldn't have helped with the luggage.”
When the birthday books were hidden and Robert was again alone, he checked the deep pocket inside his sport coat for the things he'd bought himself while he was in New York City. The small metal items jingled against each other. He'd have to find somewhere at home to hide them and the little brochure that had come with them. Before he headed home, he went to see Howard Walker, the Voorburg chief of police, at the jail building. Howard spent most of his days working there, but he also had an office in a boardinghouse in town. He had a phone line there and often he took the notes home that he'd made on cases so he could study them in his free time.
Are you busy?" Robert asked Howard.
“Just tidying up the files for storage on that case a month ago. I'll store them at the bank in Fishkill as I usually do."
“I'm just here to ask you a question. I don't expect you to do anything about it except tell me to whom I should talk.”
About what?" Howard rose from his desk and stretched his aching back.
“The Voorburg mail situation. I was expecting a package and went down to the station to wait for the train. There were three old ladies going through the mailbags from the earlier train. The train was a little late and I overheard them saying things like, 'It looks as if Bernice might have a boyfriend.... This envelope is pink and I can feel some beading inside.' Another of them was examining someone else's mail and said, 'Here's something from that no-good man who writes to you-know-who. I'm tempted to take it home and throw it away. That man isn't worth her time.'"
“Nosy old women," Howard remarked with distaste.
“Here's my suggestion. See what you think. Edwin McBride, the porter at the train station, only works when someone's seriously traveling. The ones who are just going to New York City for the day don't carry luggage. He doesn't make many tips. I understand the Harbinger boys fixed up that shed behind your old house near the river. Heat and water. That's where he lives, probably for free.”
Howard sighed. "Robert, get to the point."
“Couldn't whoever controls the public funds kick in just a little money to give the porter a cheap job sorting the mail between trains? I'm sure the Harbinger boys could make up something with a lot of little boxes or drawers. A sorting structure with names at the bottom of each partition. The Harbingers always have a big supply of surplus wood left over from other jobs. It doesn't need to be pretty. They might contribute the wood, but expect to be paid for their time, which is how it should be."
“Okay. You're making sense. It might put a slight crimp in the gossip mill. But the old ladies could still rummage through other people's sections."
“Not if McBride and the stationmaster keep an eye on them and tell them to use only their own sections. How can I go about this?"
“There are five volunteers who have to vote on the city budget. Three of the five, in rotation, are reelected every other year. But there's no pay, except for the permanent treasurer."
“How often do they meet?"
“I'm not sure. Maybe every six months. But you could ask them to consider this sooner, I suppose."
“Who should I start with?"
“Robert, are you sure you want to turn into a do-gooder? Tattling on old ladies?"
“In this case, I do."
“Okay. Here are the names of the town council members. The treasurer's name is underlined. Peter Winchel is a good man and really cares about the welfare of the citizens. I'd suggest you drop a note at each of their houses. Don't name the ladies you heard though. It would get around town like a rabid dog."
“I don't even know who two of them are. And I've only seen another one as I passed the city dump once."
“Good luck," Howard said. He poured himself another cup of coffee and added, as Robert went out the door, And watch out for Arnold Wood. He's a nasty person.
Robert was going to ask more but Howard sat back down to file the reports in chronological order. "Let me know what they say. If you want me to look over your letters before you deliver them, I'd be glad to help.”
Robert sat in the Duesie thinking over what Howard had suggested; then he returned to the jail.
“What about a petition to gather support for my idea?" he asked. "Getting lots of signatures to present at a meeting, if they call one soon?"