When he cleared out her room after the dreadful event he made some startling discoveries; for Violet Hearne, for all of her saintly activities in her outward life, was a kleptomanic. She only had the one room, and that room was obsessively tidy. It was not the haunt of a hoarder. It was not the dive of an incorrigible thief. It was just the room of a single woman in her thirties, roughly the same age as the century she had been brought up in; neat, clean, drab, livened only by a couple of prints cut from magazines and carefully framed and a picture of her family that she must have brought all the way from England.
In her public life Violet had been astonishing. In fact the local priest was already talking about the possibility of sainthood, maybe in a few hundred years, maybe if her legend stood the test of time. Violet had been a good Catholic, English but of fine Irish descent. She had come out here on a steamship in her twenties in a starry-eyed attempt to avoid the fate of being a lady’s maid or a high class shop assistant, perhaps hoping for marriage after the flower of her country’s male youth had been killed. She was a young filly of a girl, all long legs and big eyes and the desire to do good. She had always tried to help those in her neighbourhood but it was, ironically, the great crash and the loss of jobs for so many others that had provided her with her vocation. She had used her innocence and her great persuasive talent to secure a pitifully low rent on the building that was now the Broome Street Mission. She had done the rounds of local businessmen, elderly ladies of old stock, politicians and community leaders, and she had raised enough in pledges to keep the building going. Before the crash she had always been a bit of a dreamer, aimless, wanting to change the world but not knowing how. Now she could change it one man at a time. Even if she turned one man in twenty from alcohol and hopelessness to a life of honesty and faith, it was enough.
It was the cupboards and drawers that revealed all her secrets, because there was very little personal to show in the room otherwise. In the drawers were her diaries, for a start; dozens of slim grey volumes of cheap paper packed with tiny words in blue ink. When Mr Gormley sat down on the straight-backed chair by her window and opened the first one he had to don his glasses and peer close to read the words. Some of it was mundane details of her day to day life; the price of vegetables, the fact that she needed to darn her stockings, the light bulb that needed replacing in the hall outside. Some of it encompassed that facet she was most known for in the neighbourhood; big dreaming, star-filled ideas of rocket-flight, of ending world hunger, of a lasting peace for our time. Some of it – and Mr Gormley blushed a little but read on nevertheless – detailed her brief and chaste relationship with one Joseph Darlington, an ‘astonishing young man,’ in her words, whom she had met not long before her tragic death. The relationship was no doubt chaste, but her musings and imaginings were not. In her mind, and in her diaries, Violet Hearne did things with Joe that any good Catholic girl would have been mortified to have exposed to anyone’s knowledge.
In her diaries – and she made it quite clear that these were only the imaginings of a startlingly fertile mind – he had unbuttoned her blouse and slipped his hand into her brassiere to caress her breast, the firm untouched fruit of a woman who had never borne children. In reality she had shown him New York at night; he had confessed to her that he was an Iowa boy, farm-bred. They had walked over the Brooklyn Bridge and stood at its centre, gazing out at the glittering lights and dark spaces of the city at night. They had walked down to Coney Island and he had proved surprisingly adept at shooting ducks – his youth hunting down rabbits on the family farm, she supposed – and had won her a glittering bracelet; nothing but paste, but she loved it all the same. They had stood near the foot of that amazing new building, nearly finished, due to be named after the Empire State in which New York sat, and had loitered outside the doors of the brand new Chrysler Building, trying to gain a glimpse of the marbled interior. According to Violet, Joseph had been nervous of police attention for some reason she never found out, so they hadn’t stayed long. Instead they had strolled away wondering at this juxtaposition of enormous and conspicuous wealth with such heart-breaking poverty as she saw every day in the Mission and the streets around. They had spent hours in each other’s company, talking all night, dreaming together. They were soulmates.
The overriding sense from Violet’s diaries was that it was not fair. Not fair that the wealthy lived in their ivory towers while the poor suffered and died. Not fair that she had seen the scythe of death sweep low over her home, losing her own brother, her uncles, two of her cousins, and uncountable fair faced boys of her childhood to the Great War that had ravaged Europe and left America largely untouched. Not fair that a glass plate existed to keep the low classes from the estate of the high, women from the estate of men, negros from the estate of the white man. Not fair that her Joseph, her beautiful Joe, was so clear that marriage was not on the cards, and they could not have what she desperately desired. Her sense of injustice ranged from the incredibly carnal to the brilliantly lofty. None of this was fair, and she dreamed of entering a realm where none of these divisions mattered.
Well, in a way that had come true, when that automobile had barrelled into her and no one had been able to save her.
When Gormley slipped open the top drawer of her dresser he had found those diaries, all caught about and looped with articles which made him blush vividly; stockings, panties, brassieres. She had not had much money but she had paid attention to the details; details which no man before Gormley and the morgue attendants had ever been privy to, he was sure. Entangled in those things was the paste diamond bracelet that her young man had won for her; movie theatre ticket stubs; a withered wild flower wrapped in tissue. In the drawer below it was a whole different world.
Gormley let his fingers mill in the mass of items as if he were feeling for trout in a stream. While the rest of her room had been immaculate, this drawer was a mess, almost as if a reflection of the guilt she must have felt. He had read in her diaries that her gentleman-friend Joseph had stolen the very clothes he stood in, and she had shown a degree of understanding that fit immaculately with her saintly nature. He thought she showed no such forgiveness to herself. She had mentioned none of this minor pilfering in her diaries. It was too shameful to commit to even that private paper.
He drew out an item at a time. A doll’s shoe, too modern to have been from a loved childhood toy. A hairslide with paste gems, one he was sure he had seen in Mrs Henley’s hair as she had entered and left the apartment building. A stapler which belonged to the New York Municipal Library; he knew that because it was labelled as such. A couple of pennies and nickels that she could easily have spent, but perhaps could not allow herself to, because they were part of her magpie’s haul. A handkerchief which smelt of a man’s cologne. A medal from some war campaign of before her time. And there in the soup, placed with no more importance than the fountain pen and the necktie that were on top of it, was Mrs Gormley’s diamond ring, the engagement ring that Mr Gormley’s mother had passed on to him, which had been missing for the last six months, had disappeared right off the windowsill above the sink that time they had invited Violet round for coffee. Mrs Gormley had thought it had fallen down the drain. Mr Gormley had never been so sure.
He slipped the ring into his pocket, glad that it belonged to his wife; that he would not have to spill Violet Hearne’s secret to anyone else. Let her be a saint. She had earned her status. She had even been martyred, if not to her cause, at least in parallel with her cause. Once this drawer was emptied and her diaries carried away, there would be nothing left of Violet Hearne’s secret life. Only the saintly would remain.