Today's Reading

"Maybe he had an accident. Have you called the police?"

"I did. There hasn't been any accident." Frances had phoned the station around 7:00 A.M., but to avoid any unpleasant notoriety, she didn't specify that Edward was missing.

Louise couldn't help but notice an incessant jingling as she cleared the table. Frances held a set of car keys and rustled them nervously. That went on for most of the day as she paced the floor, rushing over to the window whenever she heard a car slow down outside the house. This antsy behavior did not suit Frances Hall, ordinarily a picture of calm and composure. As Louise would later say, "She had never acted this way before."

That afternoon, Frances summoned her two sisters-in-law. She also consulted with the family attorney, Edwin Florance, a former mayor of New Brunswick and New Jersey state senator. Beyond that, Frances had no other visitors, no telegrams, and certainly no hints as to Edward's whereabouts. However, Louise eavesdropped on an intriguing phone call around 11:00 P.M. Her ears perked up when she heard Frances say, "No, there was nobody else. He was friendly with her. She's in the choir."

Before Frances went to bed that night, the other maid, thirty-eight-year-old Barbara Tough (pronounced too), brought her a glass of water. Barbara saw no tears on Mrs. Hall's cheeks, but she thought her face looked puffy, as if she'd been crying. "Oh, Barbara, where is Mr. Hall?" Frances moaned. "Oh, I hope I will get strength to bear it."

Frances Noel Stevens Hall came from New Jersey royalty on both sides: the Stevenses and the Carpenders. She took immense pride in her noble ancestry, which stretched back to the founding of the republic. Frances's great-grandfather Ebenezer Stevens was the stuff of grade-school history books. He hurled tea into Boston Harbor and joined the Continental Army after the Battle of Lexington, later corresponding with founding fathers such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Another of Ebenezer's many great-grandchildren, descended from his first and second wives, was a prominent New York woman who became a famous author. Her name was Edith Wharton.

Frances's grandfather on her maternal side, Jacob Stout Carpender, was an early member of the New York Stock Exchange, whose wife descended from a man who gave the third public reading of the Declaration of Independence. Frances's uncle Charles J. Carpender accumulated his wealth from a wallpaper company that later leased its headquarters to the founders of Johnson & Johnson. One of her cousins married Louise Johnson, the daughter of James Wood Johnson.

In New Brunswick, Frances's family was akin to the Boston Brahmins. Their tony neighborhood, also home to the newly established women's college of Rutgers University, was a menagerie of Carpender domiciles, including a twenty-one-acre retreat with a Tudor-style manor surrounded by immaculate landscaping and walking trails, a slice of English countryside in the middle of New Jersey. Frances's residence, a three-story Victorian filled with dark wood paneling and heavy mahogany furniture, occupied a leafy plot that took up a full city block. She practically couldn't throw a stone without hitting an aunt, uncle, or cousin. One cousin, a stockbroker named Henry de la Bruyere Carpender, resided with his wife, Mary, in an adjacent lot on Nichol Avenue. Another cousin, Edwin Carpender, lived around the block with his wife, Elovine.

Frances had lived in New Brunswick since she was an infant, but she was born in Aiken, South Carolina. The region was said to be favorable for treating tuberculosis, and her father, a Civil War veteran named Francis Kerby Stevens, had moved the family there in hopes of recovering his health. He succumbed to the disease in February 1874, six weeks after Frances's birth, leaving behind his thirty-four-year-old bride, Mary Noel Carpender Stevens, and three fatherless children: Frances, William, and the oldest of the bunch, four-year-old Henry. After her husband died, Mary took the children north and settled in New Brunswick with the rest of the Carpender clan.

Frances presumably had the same rearing as any member of America's Gilded Age gentry. She attended Miss Anable's School, a private academy where New Brunswick's finer young ladies practiced their reading, writing, arithmetic, and etiquette. Then came the cadence of society life: dinner receptions, weddings, afternoon teas, and, of course, Sunday church.

As a young woman, Frances took up charitable work. During the Spanish-American War, she formed a Red Cross auxiliary, which collected aid items and sundries for wounded soldiers. She was active in her local YMCA, where she helped organize recitals, stage performances, and benefits. She was a devoted fundraiser for New Brunswick's city hospital, which would later become Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, and she organized card games to raise money for ailing infants.

In addition to her philanthropic pursuits, Frances was a lady of leisure. There were sojourns in Europe, jaunts to Atlantic City, summer vacations in Maine, and afternoons at the New Brunswick Country Club. The one thing that seemed to have eluded her was a suitable match. Frances was an outlier in an era when marriage had immense bearing on an upper-class woman's identity, and a bride's average age was twenty-one. She'd been a bridesmaid numerous times, as well as a maid of honor. But by the time she turned thirty-five, in 1909, she'd heard no wedding bells of her own. She remained closest to her mother, and they spent their days reading, dining, and playing cards. For a while, it seemed all but certain that Frances would end up a spinster. Fate had other plans.

This excerpt is from the hardcover edition.

Monday we begin the book SLEEPER AGENT by Ann Hagedorn. 
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