The next morning at breakfast she began to pursue her new objective: find out anything and everything she can about Father’s business. Step one involved getting some sort of confirmation from Mother that her suspicions are correct.
“Mother, what does Father do in his study?”
She had waited until only Mother and herself were the only ones left at the breakfast table. They were having a simple meal of eggs and toast today. Mother didn’t even look up from her plate.
“He is a very important businessman
, I’ve told you this before. Now finish your toast, you have an embroidery square to finish today along with a piano lesson.”
“But what sort of businessman is he? I want to know what kind.”
This was the first time she had ever asked for details about Father’s business. Usually she just accepted the Mother’s initial answer and went back to whatever activity she had been doing but not this time.
Mother had obviously not anticipated this turn of events. Holding a spoonful of eggs to halfway between her plate and her partially open mouth, she gaped slightly, looking at her daughter with a mildly befuddled expression.
“What kind of businessman is he? Why would you want to know something like that?”
The moment’s silence had given Mother a chance to recover her composure and she proceeded to finish her eggs. The hesitation could mean something but more evidence was needed. She needed to push a little harder
“I’m just curious. I know that there are different kinds of businessmen and I just realized the other day that you’ve never told me what Father actually does as a businessman.”
This response also seemed to cause Mother some confusion. It was obvious that she had never thought about what to say if her daughter began asking questions. Maybe she had thought there would be more time before the questions went beyond the simple curiosity of a child.
“Your father deals with other businesses, helping them with their bookkeeping and solving problems.”
She could tell that Mother was going to try to avoid answering with a definite business, not giving it a specific name or description. Unfortunately if Mother’s answers were vague enough it would be hard for her to verify whether it was true or not. She nibbled her toast and thought how best to surprise another reaction out of Mother. A few moments of silence passed, only broken by the clink of Mother’s spoon on her plate as she finished her eggs, and an idea occurred to her.
“How many questions are you going to ask me this morning? Young ladies do not badger adults with questions during mealtimes.”
Mother set her spoon down firmly on her plate, clearly flustered, and dabbed at her mouth with a napkin before levelling a disapproving look at the little girl across the table from her.
“I only have one more then I’m done.”
“Fine, what else do you want to know?”
“What does it mean to ‘shake down
Bingo. Mother’s face lost a noticeable amount of color and her eyes widened slightly. She had definitely taken her mother by surprise this time.
“Wherever did you hear that phrase?”
There was a sharpness to Mother’s voice that indicated trouble if the wrong things were said. It was time to tread carefully.
“I overheard one of the neighbor boys say it when the passed by the house yesterday. I was sitting on the stoop with Nanny
. We were watching the birds at snacktime. So what does it mean?”
This was only partially a lie but the main portion of it was true so Mother could double check this explanation, and she probably would. Nanny wouldn’t have heard what the boys had actually said when they walked by, they were talking about baseball, because she had actually been studying for a college exam instead of watching her like a hawk. Mother couldn’t find out about her sneaking into the study last night.
“Nothing that concerns young ladies. Those boys were obviously some sort of ruffians. Now enough of these questions. Mr. Arens will be here soon for your piano lesson and you need to wash up.”
Mother stood and started to walk out of the dining room, she stopped just before the door and turned to look back.
“And I don’t want to hear about this nonsense
again. This topic is not appropriate for someone who going to be a lady someday.”
And with that Mother left the room.
She sat at the table and chewed on her last few bites of toast and thought about what had occurred this morning.
Mother’s reactions to her questions basically confirmed what she had suspected, Father’s business was not something that could be discussed in polite company. This meant that is was something unrespectable
at best, possibly not even legal. She was on to something with trying to find out what shaking down meant.
Perhaps she could ask one of the maids. The maids didn’t mind telling her things as long as she swore never to tell Mother where she had heard them.
Step two of her plan to learn about Father’s business proved to be more difficult.
She had apparently tripped more alarms in her mother’s head than she had initially anticipated with her questions over that breakfast. Mother had decreed she was no longer allowed to lurk on the stairs near the study. Specific instructions had been given that, in the event she was discovered sitting on the stairs, she was to be taken to directly to Mother where she would be given something to do since she was “obviously unoccupied.”
This most likely meant more embroidery squares. Honestly, she didn’t understand her mother’s obsession with embroidery; no one she knew embroidered, the other girls at school only knew about it because their grandmothers did embroidery in their spare time but that was a problem for later.
The crackdown on her spare time was not quite the setback that it appeared at first because after some careful thought, it occurred to her that there wasn’t really anything to be learned from the comings and goings of Father’s employees and visitors. What she needed was a way to get into the study to poke around.
It took her a week or two before the answer became obvious: she needed to learn how to pick locks.
Oddly enough, Mother’s recent decree about no lurking on the stairs would help with this. She now had a reason to lurk up in the library for long periods of time.
While there weren’t any books on the shelves about actual lockpicking, there were quite a few encyclopedias that showed how locks worked. It was a bit difficult at first but eventually she was able to understand the basic lock systems and formulate a theory on how to pick them.
Getting her hands on tools to actually pick locks with was a bit difficult to say the least. Luckily there were small descriptions of lockpick tools in the books so she knew roughly what she needed to find. Finally, after about a month of scrounging covertly through the garden shed when she could sneak away, she found some scrap bits of metal to fashion into lock picks. She practiced on her own door for awhile before moving to other doors in the house, always being careful not to be seen by Nanny, her parents or the servants.
All she had to do now was wait for an opportunity.
Her chance presented itself about three months after she started her mission.
Father and Mother had another engagement to attend
. This time it was a gala for an art museum, they would be gone for the whole night. They both kissed her on the head, reminded her to mind Nanny and then they were gone.
Waiting for Nanny to inevitably fall asleep in front of the sitting room TV was the most agonizing part of the evening. Once it happened she placed her embroidery on the sofa and went to retrieve her tools from her room.
Picking the lock for the study was surprisingly easy. It was just like the lock on the pantry, she had it picked in about ten minutes.
Finding the papers in Father’s desk was not as difficult as she anticipated. Father obviously didn’t think anyone would get past the locked study doors. Sloppy
There were ledgers detailing various debts, paper ledgers obviously, Father was very vocal of his distrustful of new technology. These most likely detailed the extortion activities that he must engage in; the maids had explained what a shake down was. There were log books listing various activities by Father’s associates, or possibly his rivals. There were letters from other “businessmen” and handwritten notes, some in Father’s handwriting, some in handwriting she has never seen. This was a large amount of information for her to sort through but she wasn’t overwhelmed.
She did have all night after all.