Widows Tears (A China Bayles Mystery)

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9781410456571: Widows Tears (A China Bayles Mystery)
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Herbalist ex-lawyer China Bales investigates the murder of a teller at the Pecan Springs bank and follows the clues to a haunted bed and breakfast.

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About the Author:

Susan Wittig Albert grew up on a farm in Illinois and earned her Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley. A former professor of English and a university administrator and vice president, she is the author of the China Bayles Mysteries, the Darling Dahlias Mysteries, and the Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter. She and her husband, Bill, coauthor a series of Victorian-Edwardian mysteries under the name Robin Paige.

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Table of Contents

Note to the Reader

Flo-rig’-ra-phy (fl–o-rig’-ra-f–e), n. [L. flos, floris, flower + -graphy.] The language or symbolism of flowering plants, as expressed in historical literature.

Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language

People often ask me the question “What exactly is an herb?”

I’ve never liked questions that have to be answered “exactly,” because I appreciate a little ambiguity and mystery in my life—it makes things much more interesting. That’s why I like the Herb Society of America’s definition of an herb: “a plant for use and delight.” It’s an impossibly broad definition, yes. But it’s a definition that invites us to explore the widest possible uses of plants to provide taste, scent, medicine, fiber, dye, tools, artifacts, and symbols, from the distant beginnings of human culture to the present time.

Almost all societies have assigned symbolic meanings to plants. In China, for example, bamboo (which provides medicine, food, building materials, paper, and textiles) represents longevity, strength, and grace. In Hindu cultures, jasmine (used as a medicine, a flavoring, and a fragrance) symbolizes love, while once upon a time in the British Isles, green willow symbolized untrue or immature love.

Throughout human history, these symbolic meanings have been elaborated in art, poetry, and literature. During the early Victorian period, for instance, wealthy and leisured ladies and gentlemen frequently exchanged floral gifts in which a fanciful “language of flowers” was encoded. As Kathleen Gips puts it in her introduction to Flora’s Dictionary: The Victorian Language of Herbs and Flowers, “people expressed flowery thoughts by exchanging bouquets composed of carefully chosen plant words.”

The definitions of these encoded “plant words” or floral symbols—collectively, a florigraphy—were published in Europe and America in an enduring and highly popular literary tradition made up of dozens of elaborate manuals that appeared in multiple editions. At their best, these were attractive, leather-bound volumes with gilt-edged pages and engraved illuminations, occasionally hand-colored. At the end of this book, you’ll find some suggestions for further reading that will lead you deeper into the study of florigraphy and its many historical transformations. It’s a subject that many garden and literary study groups might find interesting.

Of course, while herbs and plants are an important thematic and plot element in the books in the series (it’s amazing how many mysteries there are in the lives of plants!), you’re probably even more interested in the characters. China Bayles, of course, has always been front and center, with her herb shop, her lawyerly logic, and her tendency to be drawn into...well, murder. And, of course, Ruby Wilcox has never been far behind, playing the role of an intuitive Dr. Watson to China’s logical Sherlock.

But now it’s Ruby’s turn to play Sherlock. Widow’s Tears is her story—and it’s about time, don’t you think? We’ve already learned about her shop, her family (the daughter she gave up for adoption and who reappeared in Hangman’s Root; the mom who has Alzheimer’s), and her everyday life. We know about her bout with breast cancer (in Mistletoe Man) and her adventures with the Ouija board (Rosemary Remembered and Bleeding Hearts). In Widow’s Tears, Ruby shows us just how good she is at looking deeply into mysteries that are hidden from everyone else—even from China. To help while Ruby is doing this, Dawn Zudel of Columbia, Tennessee, (the winner of Story Circle’s character raffle) has volunteered to tend her shop. Thanks, Dawn!

Widow’s Tears is also the story of the Great Galveston Hurricane, which forms the historical backdrop against which Ruby’s story unfolds. The hurricane—to this day, the deadliest natural disaster to hit the United States—struck Galveston Island on September 8, 1900. It killed some eight to twelve thousand people (nobody really knows how many), wiped out whole families, and changed the destiny of the city of Galveston, which at the time rivaled Houston for the position of the most important city in Texas, indeed, on the entire Gulf Coast. I have created a fictional character, Rachel Blackwood, through whom to tell the story of the hurricane. But Rachel’s story is based on the real stories of hurricane survivors recorded in many documents of the period. I’ve listed my sources in the resource section at the end of this book.

An important reminder: throughout the China Bayles series, you will read many descriptions of the therapeutic uses of plants, both modern and historic. China and I fervently hope that you will seek informed, reliable advice before you decide to use any of these herbs to treat whatever ails you. Medicinal plants are “natural,” yes, but plant chemistry is not always well understood—and the more we understand, the more cautious we are likely to be. Many herbs have potent side effects, especially when combined with over-the-counter and prescription drugs. Do your own careful homework and use all medicines, plant-based or otherwise, with mindful attention. China and I would not like to lose any of our readers—especially you.

Susan Wittig Albert
Bertram, TX


Galveston, Texas: The Oleander City
Saturday, September 8, 1900

The coast of Texas is according to the general laws of the motion of the atmosphere exempt from West India hurricanes and the two which have reached it followed an abnormal path which can only be attributed to causes known in meteorology as accidental.... It would be impossible for any cyclone to create a storm wave which could materially injure the city [of Galveston].

“West India Hurricanes”
by Isaac M. Cline, Chief Meteorologist
Texas Section, U.S. Weather Bureau
Galveston Daily News, July 16, 1891

Rachel Blackwood got up early that morning. She had not slept well: her youngest daughter, three-year-old Angela, was suffering from a sore throat and had cried often for her mother in the night, needing to be soothed.

But it wasn’t just Angela’s whimpers that had disturbed her mother. It was the thunder of the waves on the beach that had kept her awake—and the heat, the unspeakable, unbearable heat. According to the daily newspaper, the Galveston News, sultry weather had smothered almost the whole of the country that summer, from the Rockies east to Pennsylvania, from the Great Lakes south to the Gulf of Mexico. Thirty people in New York City had died one awful August Saturday. Dozens of others had succumbed in Chicago and Memphis, and at the St. Louis zoo, two bears and a leopard had been felled by the heat.

On Galveston Island, summers were usually cooled by ocean breezes, and the miles of shining white-sand beaches, groves of palm trees, and extravagant flower gardens made the city seem a paradise. But this year, summer in paradise had been marred by both sultry heat and unusual rains. During July and August, tropical storms had drenched the city—sixteen inches of rain in one downpour, nine inches in another. Boys sailed the flooded downtown streets in wooden tubs, fish flopped across lawns, mothers despaired of ever getting the laundry dried in the damp air. And there were the morning fogs, and the foghorn in the lighthouse on the Bolivar Peninsula, a forlorn ghost calling, calling, calling through the dim gray mist.

The Blackwood household—Rachel; her husband, Augustus (the newly appointed vice president of the Galveston National Bank); the five Blackwood children and their fifteen-year-old nurse, Patsy; and Mrs. O’Reilly, the family’s longtime cook-housekeeper—seemed to be moving in a languid and stuporous dream that summer, half-asleep under a sweltering blanket of humidity and heat. The thermometer on the back porch had registered 90 on Thursday and 91 on Friday, and when Rachel had taken the children the four blocks to the beach, they had complained that the Gulf was as warm as bathwater.

The morning air was cooler, though, and for the first time in weeks, Rachel could draw a deep breath as she slipped out of bed and dressed. But she had awakened to the strange, unsettled sense that something was different, something was...menacing. She went down to the kitchen to oversee Mrs. O’Reilly’s breakfast preparations and review the plans for Matthew’s birthday supper that evening. Then out to the garden to pick an armful of dewy white roses and rosemary sprigs and the last few pink oleander blooms for the bowl on the table in the morning room. But all the while, she could not shake the feeling of apprehension. And even as she arranged the flowers in a crystal bowl, wondering once again why white roses were supposed to signify sadness when the rich scent of their silvery petals gave her so much pleasure, she was uneasy. Perhaps it was Angela’s worrisome illness, or the rising north wind, unusual for September, that made a peculiar whistling in the eaves. Or the pounding of the surf that seemed much louder now than when she’d gotten up, and the tremors of the wooden floor under her feet.

Rachel had occasionally felt the floor trembling during Gulf storms, although it had never been quite so pronounced as now. The Blackwood house was located on Q Avenue, just off Bath Avenue, only three blocks from the white-sand beach. The highest ground in the island city, on Broadway, rose only 8.7 feet above the Gulf, and some (perhaps remembering that Cabeza de Vaca had named the island Malhado, “misfortune”) had cautioned that a strong storm would flood the entire city. A seawall had been proposed as early as 1874 and several times since, but was considered to be too expensive and unnecessary. Isaac Cline, a noted meteorologist and chief of the Weather Bureau’s Texas Section (and the Blackwoods’ neighbor on Q Avenue), had written in the News that it was “simply an absurd delusion” to believe that Galveston could be seriously damaged by a tropical storm. The city was protected by “the general laws of the motion of the atmosphere.”

Nevertheless, many prudent Galvestonians built their houses on pilings, and Rachel’s husband, Augustus, was one of these. He had ordered his house to be constructed atop wooden piers driven deep into the island’s sandy soil, ensuring that it would stand well above the highest of storm tides, locally called “overflows.” As he explained to Rachel, it was the piers, standing eight feet above the surface, which transmitted the shudder of the waves against the beach to the floors of the house. The trembling, he said with a confident smile, was in fact a token of the strength and security of its anchorage to the earth.

Indeed, it was not just a secure and solid house but a splendid house, as befitted a man of Mr. Blackwood’s rank among Galveston’s men of finance. It was a large, three-story towered and turreted Victorian, with a drawing room where Rachel served tea to the ladies who called every afternoon and a library filled with Augustus’ fine collection of books and a music room fitted out with a Steinway grand piano. There was a magnificent oak staircase, fireplaces with gleaming marble mantels, and glorious stained glass windows in the dining and drawing rooms, commissioned from the Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company. The opulent furnishings and draperies, all in exquisite taste, had been brought from as far away as Paris and New York.

Painted a sober brown with red trim, this fine house was set back from the street behind a wrought iron fence, a border of oleanders and hollies, and a row of date palms, which in the late summer produced an abundance of fruit. The steps up to its wide front gallery were guarded by twin stone lions, each head turned to gaze thoughtfully at the other. The heavy bronze knocker on the oak front door wore the enigmatic face of Neptune, the god of the deep. And the steep slate roof was crowned with a wooden-railed widow’s walk that offered a panoramic view of the island paradise and the vast blue-green Gulf stretching to the eastern horizon.

But while Mr. Blackwood prized his house for its solidity, its splendor, the beauty of its furnishings, and the view from its roof, Rachel prized it for far more. It was the home of her heart. It held all that was dear to her—Augustus and her children: stalwart Matthew, ten years old this very day; sweet in-between Ida; the five-year-old mischievous twins, Peter and Paul; and dear baby Angela. To Rachel’s great delight, the children were all very musical. Just the night before, they had all gathered in the music room. Matthew, a gifted young pianist, played the “Maple Leaf Rag” on the Steinway—Scott Joplin’s song was wildly popular everywhere. Then Rachel accompanied the children in one of the family’s favorite songs, “Sweet and Low,” while Matthew played his flute, Ida played her harp, and Peter and Paul sang sweetly. Baby Angela, in her little red-painted rocking chair, laughed and clapped her hands. On the sofa, Augustus read his newspaper, smoking his favorite cherry tobacco. Rachel thought then that she had never been so happy. She could not know that she would never be happy again.

Since the house had been recently built, it made all sorts of interesting new-house noises, murmurs and sighs and groans as the pilings and joists and beams and rafters settled into place. All five of the children insisted that the house talked to them. Rachel often made an amusing little game of it with them, asking what the house was whispering today, what secrets it had to tell, what stories it wanted to hear. With giggles and great delight, they would tell her what the house had to say—oh, such miraculous tales of intrigue and mystery! And then they would run to whisper their stories into the waiting ears of the stone lions that guarded the steps, for the lions were their dear friends and would keep them safe always, just as the house kept them safe.

At the morning breakfast table, Mr. Blackwood always read aloud items of interest from the Galveston News, believing that the children should know what kind of world they were going to inherit. The front page story concerned the Boxer Rebellion in China, where an eight-nation alliance was fielding an army of twenty thousand men to take Beijing and release the Americans and others held captive there. On page two, the latest census dominated the local news. Since 1890, Galveston’s population had grown by nearly 30 percent, a rate much higher than rival port city Houston. (This news cheered Mr. Blackwood greatly, for he was a Galveston booster.) On page ten, Weather Bureau officials reported that they were monitoring a storm that appeared to be passing the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts, and while they felt it would probably go ashore somewhere in eastern Texas, they did not anticipate a “dangerous disturbance.” On the back page, the Galveston forecast was reassuringly routine: “For eastern Texas: Rain Saturday, with high northerly winds; Sunday rain,...

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