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What Girls Are Good For - A Novel Of Nellie Bly

What Girls Are Good For - A Novel Of Nellie Bly

Book excerpt

Chapter One - Unquiet Observer


Pittsburgh, PA

Wednesday, January 14, 1885

“He’s at it again!”

Frying an egg on the stove, Mother’s back was to me. “What’s that?”

I shook the newspaper as if it had rendered me a mortal wrong. “He’s at it again!”

Sarah entered the kitchen, my nephew on her hip. “What’s happening?”

“What’s happening?” I retorted. “I’m going mad, that’s what’s happening.”

Sarah pulled a face. “Why now, Pink?”

Fanning the air with the offending newsprint, I threw it down. “This column in the Dispatch! Oh, he’s driving me crazy!”

Hurling a sigh in my direction, my sister-in-law sat and began knee-bouncing her baby. “Really, Grant, why does Auntie Pink bother to read if it only gets her riled?”

I didn’t like her calling me Pink. I didn’t like anyone calling me Pink. But since Charlie still used the childish name, his wife felt entitled. Rising to help serve breakfast, I was tempted to be smart with her. ‘Better to read and be riled than not read and be ridiculous.’ However, with Mother at the stove, and Albert and Charlie in the house, and Harry, and the baby, and the lodgers, maybe now wasn’t the moment to sharpen my tongue.

Scraping an egg onto a plate, I decided to enlist Sarah in my outrage. “The Quiet Observer has returned to his backward turnings!”

Again addressing her baby, Sarah said in a loud whisper, “I think Auntie Pink is in love with the Quiet Observer.”

I spun so fast I nearly took the whole of the next egg with me. “What?!?”

Sarah murmured in Grant’s tiny ear. “No woman talks about a man that much unless she’s in loooooove.”

I flushed a bright crimson. What gall! Fine, yes, I enjoyed reading the Quiet Observer’s pieces in the Pittsburg Dispatch. His columns were well-written, amusing, and harmlessly avuncular. I’d imagined him as a kindly old bespectacled gentleman in a knit cap, a pipe jutting from the corner of his mouth.

Everything had changed a week earlier, when the Quiet Observer had tackled a popular topic of the day: the working woman. In a piece maddeninly entitled ‘What Girls Are Good For’, the Q.O. had espoused the typical line, railing against ‘those restless dissatisfied females who think they are out of their spheres and go around giving everybody fits for not helping them to find them…on the lookout for gnats and are constantly swallowing camels….she should make her home a little paradise, herself playing the part of angel.’ With her husband as the Lord Almighty, no doubt!

The Quiet Observer had summed up his piece with one utterly damning line: ‘Her sphere is defined and located by a single word – home.’

Instantly the Q.O. transformed in my imagination into a burly, bullying, mustachioed brute in a bowler hat, with a cheroot sticking out of the middle of his face. A man’s man, a bounder, a masher, a monolithic enemy of modernity and maidens everywhere.

The idea that my outrage disguised some sort of girlish admiration was just the kind of nonsense I was decrying. My frustration stemmed from his words, the repulsive – and repulsively common! – ideas he expressed. Did I need a hidden motive? Couldn’t a girl even feel what she feels without being told she’s wrong?

Mother or not, I was on the verge of savaging Sarah when Harry came in, all smiles. At fifteen, my youngest brother was nicer than the rest of us put together. He slipped into his seat, thanking me for giving him breakfast, thanking Mother for making it, and thanking our little nephew “for sharing it.”

Charlie came in right behind Harry, bussing his wife on the cheek and patting his son on the head. As I plunked his plate in front of my middle brother, he grimaced. “What flea is in Pink’s bonnet today?”

Sarah knew a good weapon when she had it. “She’s in loooooove.”

With an heroic effort I ignored her. Instead I lifted the newspaper. “Listen to this tripe. Here’s a man calling himself ‘Anxious Father’ who wants advice about his daughters. ‘I have five of them on hand, and am at a loss how to get them off, or what use to make of them.’”

“Marry them off,” said Charlie simply, digging into his breakfast.

“Not every girl dreams of marriage, Charlie.” My voice dripped with disdain.

Charlie shrugged. “Not every man dreams of being a clerk. But here I am.” That was my middle brother. Plainspoken, dogged, honest. Rarely sweet, but never mean.

Lacking a ready answer, I read the rest of Anxious Father’s letter aloud:


The oldest one is 26. She paints some – I mean she paints pictures and crockery. The next is 23 past. Her taste runs to music, and I must say she isn’t bad at the piano or singing. Then comes Anna just turning 21. She is of a moral and religious turn, spending most of her time going to meetings of one kind and another, and collecting money for the poor and the heathen. The next one is a regular clip. She says she is “18 and don’t you forget it.” She can come as near paralyzing a wash tub or knocking piano out in one round as any one you ever saw: and I do think she can slap up a meal in about as short order as the next one, and when she takes a turn through the house with a feather brush and a dust rag you would think a blizzard had broken loose or there was an explosion of natural gas. When the rumpus is over, however, you will find things in apple pie order.

The other one isn’t of much account no way. When she was little she had fits and didn’t thrive well. Some of the doctors said it was worms and other thought it was her nerves. She sits around and reads stories, drinks hot water, pieces crazy quilts and jaws.

Now what am to do with them? I can make out with Nervie. She is the worker, but the others keep me awake of nights thinking about them. Mother say to marry them off. I would do it in a minute if I had a chance, but they don’t seem to catch on well.

It you will give me a few pointers you will greatly oblige.

“Poor dears,” said Sarah, bouncing Grant on her knee as he groped up at her face. Charlie said nothing, wolfing his egg and drinking down his tea.

“I’m sure they’re pretty enough,” said Harry, eating over his plate so as not to soil his school clothes.

“If their own father doesn’t brag on them, then no,” said a nasty voice from the next room.

My stomach clenched, and my fists. Albert, eavesdropping again. I couldn’t wait for my eldest brother to get married and move out. He wasn’t Charlie, he wouldn’t go on living here after the wedding. I hoped.

As ever, Mother cut to the heart of things. “And what does the Quiet Observer respond?”

“Don’t encourage her, Mother!” called Albert with mock despair.

Too late. I was already heading towards the most incendiary passage. “First he says that if Anxious Father wants advice, he ought to write to Bessie Bramble. Having absolved himself of the necessity of actually giving a sensible response, he launches into his screed.” And I read:


Some people are always in trouble… One woman always has sour bread, another is sure to have the headache on the night of her favorite opera, and another never hears the latest gossip until it is old. This is all bad enough, but it drives the iron deeper into their souls to know other women who get all the gossip while it is fresh and fragrant, are always looking their very best when there is an opera ticket around and who have won fame in breadmaking with the same brands of flour and yeast they use.


“Some people do have all the luck,” said Charlie. “No use crying.”

“Of course not,” I said.

“Then what’s the matter?”

I shook the paper. “These are the problems he thinks we deal with? He thinks this is what keeps women up at night?”

“I know I’m always worrying about what to wear to the opera,” remarked Mother, to general laughter. If she had learned one thing in her life, it was how to diffuse tension.

I was unable to take the hint. “Here’s the best line.”

In China and other of the old countries, they kill girl babies or sell them as slaves, because they can make no good use of them. Who knows but this country may have to resort to this sometime – say a few thousand years hence? Girls say they would sooner die than live to be old maids, and young men claim they cannot afford to marry until they get rich because wives are such expensive luxuries.

I slapped the paper down upon the table. “Luxuries! It’s men who are the luxuries women cannot afford!”

My outburst brought predictable reactions. Poor Harry looked down into his runny egg as if he might miraculously find a steak beneath it. Sarah sent a glance heavenwards and sipped her tea – she didn’t eat breakfast, so as to regain her pre-baby figure. Mother went still, folding in upon herself.

Chewing, Charlie said, “Be sensible, Pink. How would women live without a man to look after them?”

I positively bristled. “Really, Charlie Cochrane? Tell me now, how would you live without a woman to look after you? You have three of us to sew on your buttons and cook your food and clean your boots and raise your son. The rent is paid by Mother, while you save your money. She buys the food, as well as the clothes on your back. So tell me, who is the provider here? You’re quite as beholden to your mother as little Grant there is to his!”

Slamming his hand down onto the table, Charlie stood. “I have to go to work.” He stalked to the door.

Startled by the violent noise, Grant’s lower lip started shaking. With deep reproach Sarah snapped, “Elizabeth!” At least she wasn’t calling me Pink.

I felt that stab you get when you try to make a point and it doesn’t come out the way you mean it. I’d only meant to make Charlie see that his view of the world was cockeyed. Instead I’d shamed him, challenged his manhood. But that’d always been the way with me. The first thing out of my mouth is always sharp. I’m quick with the comeback, always ready with a retort. Unladylike, I was always told. Too quick for my own good, they said.

Shooting me a glance, Mother held out her arms to the baby. “Give him to me.” Passing Grant off, Sarah dashed to placate her husband, navigating past Albert, who now lingered in the doorway.

“Don’t mind Pink, Sarah,” drawled Albert over his shoulder. “She’s just frustrated because she’s not fit for any work, and no man will have her.”

“That’s not true!” cried Harry, coming to my defense. “Lots of boys admire her.”

I appreciated Harry’s intention, but his words put my teeth on edge. Was my worth only measured by the interest men had in me?

“None want to marry her, though, do they?” Albert maneuvered into Charlie’s seat to eat what was left behind. I pulled the plate away and put it in front of Harry. In answer to Albert’s glare I said, “He’s still growing. You’re all you’ll ever be.”

Albert carefully resumed his smirk. “Don’t worry. Once I’m married I’ll make it my job to find a husband for you.” With that, he disappeared behind my cast-off newspaper.

“Does Lizzie need a husband?” asked a voice from the back stairs amid a thunder of footsteps. A moment later Tom Smiley burst into the room, broad-shouldered and pugnacious. “Tony’s a bachelor, and has good breath.”

He was followed by our other lodger, Tony Orr, handsomely boyish with pink cheeks and strawberry blond hair. “I chew mint, that’s the secret.”

Grant still in her arms, Mother started to rise, but Tom waved her away from the skillet. “Don’t trouble, Mrs. Cochrane. I can fry an egg.”

“Burn one, you mean,” said Tony, playfully slapping back and forth with Harry. “And it’s two eggs, numbskull.”

“Language.” Passing little Grant to me, Mother gently interposed her fifty-five year-old frame between our lodger and the stove. Acquiescing, Tom sat down and poured himself some weak tea.

Turning Grant around in my lap, I let him grasp my fingers with his tiny fists. Tony pointed to my shoulder. “Oooh, sorry, Lizzie. Baby gack.” I looked down and his pointing finger flipped up to tap my chin. “Gotcha.” I scowled.

From the stove Mother said, “Are you boys heading out today?” Their packed bags stood at the foot of the stairs.

“Yes, ma’am,” said Tony. “Company’s close to completing the changeover from narrow gauge.”

“Finally!” said Tom.

“Yes, the Baltimore and Ohio Short-Line will soon be ready for use,” concluded Tony.  

“You’ll be in Washington tonight?” asked Mother with some coolness, serving up an egg to Tony.

“Yes, ma’am,” said Tom. “For a week at least.”

Mother was calculating the lost rent. My own depression was more personal. “Wish I could go.”

“Go where?” asked Tom, sitting down to eat.

“Anywhere,” I replied, bouncing Grant in my lap. “Washington, to start.”

“It’s Washington Pennsylvania, not D.C.,” observed Tony drily.

I was undeterred. “I wish there was a job on the railroad for me.”

Both men laughed without saying why. They didn’t have to. What job was there for a woman on a train? I had to bite back several utterances. Mother’s presence was a great deterrent, and Grant a beautiful distraction.

Harry’s head was down. Tony chucked him under the chin. “What vexes the little man?”

“Nothing,” said Harry, determinedly looking down.

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