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The Lions of Fifth Avenue

Chapter One

New York City, 1913

She had to tell Jack.

He wouldn't be pleased.

As Laura Lyons returned from running errands, turning over in her head the various reactions her husband might have to her news, she spotted the beggar perched once again on the first tier of the granite steps that led to her home: seven rooms buried deep inside the palatial New York Public Library. This time, the beggar woman's appearance elicited not pity but a primal fear. It was certainly some kind of ominous sign, one that made Laura's heart beat faster. A woman on the verge of ruin, alone and without any resources. Unloved.

The beggar's black mourning gown was more tattered than it had been last week, fraying at the sleeves and hem, and her face shone with summer sweat. Every few days for the past month, she'd taken up a spot off to one side of the grand entryway under one of the towering stone lions, one of which had been named Leo Astor and the other Leo Lenox, after two of the library's founders, John Jacob Astor and James Lenox. Laura's children had admired them right off, with Harry claiming Lenox as his pet and Pearl doing the same for Astor, neither caring that the sculptures had initially been mocked in the newspapers as a cross between a dachshund and a rabbit. Only last week, Laura had just barely prevented her son from carving his initials into the sinewy rump of Leo Lenox.

The beggar woman shifted, finding what shade she could. The miserable-looking child who typically filled her lap was missing. Laura wondered where he was.

"Money or food, please, miss. Either will do."

Laura reached into her shopping basket and pulled out two apples. One of the library's employees would shoo the beggar away soon enough, and she was glad to have caught her in time, even if the act of offering the poor woman assistance was inspired, at least in part, by a ridiculous, superstitious bargain that existed only in Laura's mind. As if extending a kindness to someone in need would smooth the conversation ahead.

"Thank you, miss." The woman tucked the fruit away in her pockets. "God bless."

Laura hurried up the steps and into Astor Hall, past the dozens of visitors milling about, their voices echoing off the marble steps, the marble floors, the marble walls. Even the decorative bases for the bronze candelabras were made from Carrara stone sliced from the Apuan Alps. The choice kept the building cool on steamy September days like this one, even if in winter it was like walking into an icebox, particularly in the evenings when the library was closed and the furnaces only lightly fed.

She turned left down the grand South-North Gallery, passing under a series of globed pendants of thick, curved glass that broke up the long lines of the coffered ceiling. About halfway down the hallway, she took a right, then another, before climbing up a narrow set of stairs that led to the mezzanine-level apartment where her family had lived for the past two years.

Their seven private rooms formed a right angle that hugged a corner of one of the library's two inner courtyards, the bedrooms and Jack's study along one side, and the kitchen, dining room, and sitting room along the other. The open area that formed the crux of the right angle, and where the stairway emerged, had become the kids' playroom, where Harry laid out his train tracks in one corner and Pearl parked her doll's pram under the door of the dumbwaiter. When they first moved in, Jack had had to give them a stern warning when they were caught poking their heads inside the dark shaft, but soon enough the family had settled in and adjusted to their new surroundings.

The director of the library-Jack's boss-had pointed out during their orientation how the classical architecture of the building followed a progression from hard materials to soft, starting with the stone entrance hall before yielding to the wood paneling of the interior rooms. Laura had done her part to stay true to the continuum, softening the hard floors with a mishmash of Oriental rugs and hanging thick drapes over the giant windows. On the fireplace mantel, she'd framed the newspaper article about their unusual living arrangements, which had been written the year they moved in.

She called out the children's names as she headed to the kitchen, and the sound of their heavy stomping behind her brought a smile to her face.

"Harry lost another tooth." Pearl dashed in first, her eyes flashing with glee from scooping the news out from under her brother.

Laura would have thought living in a library would turn them into a couple of bookworms, but Pearl wanted nothing to do with stories unless they involved ghosts or animals. Harry was different, although he preferred not to read himself but rather to be read to, particularly from his worn copy of Maritime Heroes for Boys. Earlier that summer, when Jack quoted a line from one of Shakespeare's sonnets into Laura's ear in a silly falsetto while she washed the dishes, Harry had demanded to know what it meant. At his bedtime, Laura had taken down the volume from the bookcase and read some of the poems aloud to him. Harry interrupted to ask questions about the more ribald phrases, which Laura dodged as best she could. Later, when she and Jack were lying next to each other in bed, they laughed quietly about their son's natural-and thoroughly innocent-ear for the smuttier bits.

Where Pearl could be bossy, Harry was sweet, if sometimes dim when it came to the vagaries of human nature. When Laura dropped the children off at the school on Forty-Second and Second Avenue for the first time two years ago, Pearl had taken a moment to analyze the groups of schoolgirls arrayed around the playground, figuring out the best approach, while Harry had recklessly stumbled over to some boys playing marbles, accidentally kicking several with his foot in the process, which resulted in a hard shove and a quick rejection.

Harry, at eleven, was older by four years, but Pearl was wiser, faster. Laura and Jack had discarded the original name they'd picked for their daughter-Beatrice-after she showed up with a white frost of fine hair covering her head, more like a little old lady than a baby girl. Her eyes weren't the vivid blue of Laura's but more a gray, and her features and coloring gave her an ethereal appearance. "Pearl," Laura had said, and Jack had agreed, tears in his eyes. "Pearl."

The last school year had been tough for Harry, who, unlike his sister, never brought friends home to play or got invited to birthday parties. Laura hoped this year would be different and he'd gain some confidence, especially since, if everything went according to plan, she wouldn't be around as much.

Pearl ushered her brother into the kitchen. "Show her the tooth, Harry."

He opened his palm, where a baby tooth sat like a rare jewel. Laura took it and held it to the light. "It's a beauty, let's see your gap."

He smiled wide, showing off the space where one of his canines had been. "It didn't hurt at all, I was playing with it with my tongue, and suddenly, pop, it was gone."

"You're lucky you didn't choke on it," said Pearl. "I know a girl who did and she died."

"Pearl, that's not true." Harry looked up at Laura for confirmation.

"You don't have to worry about that." Laura pocketed the tooth in her apron. "Now go get cleaned up before your father comes home."

She cut up the roast beef and potatoes from the other night, glad to not have to turn on the stove in this heat, and was slicing apples for dessert just as Jack came in.

Jack yanked at his tie and looked wildly around the tiny room. "I don't have time for dinner, the payroll still needs to be done."

This wasn't the right time for her news. She gave him a quick kiss, then turned and slid the letter that she'd left out on the worktable back into the pocket of her apron.

"Of course you have time for dinner, it's still early."

But she knew what he meant. He meant that if he skipped dinner, he would have time to do both the payroll and work on his manuscript. The book he'd started several years ago and was so close to finally completing.

"Can I take it into my study?" He shifted the payroll file to his left hand and grabbed a slice of apple. "I can do the numbers for payroll and eat at the same time."

His beseeching eyes reminded her of their son's. She made a plate and carried it into the extra bedroom, where he'd pushed one of the library desks up against the window. It was all out of proportion to the room, like a huge wooden barge squeezed into a tiny boathouse.

He was already working his way down the rows of the ledger, filling in each one with the name, position, and monthly salary of the eighty people under his employ at the New York Public Library. She looked over his shoulder at the list: attendants, porters, elevator runners, carpenters, steamfitters, electricians, stack runners, janitors, coal passers. And at the very top, Jack Lyons, superintendent.

When he'd been offered the job, back when they still lived at the Meadows, Laura had been reluctant to return to the city. Reluctant to give up the sunshine and fresh air that living sixty miles north of New York provided the children, as well as the kind community of fellow workers who lived within the perimeter of the ramshackle estate where Jack oversaw the grounds. The decision to move out to the country in the first place hadn't been her idea, either, but the position had offered them an escape of sorts: a way for Laura to avoid the worst of her father's wrath and disapproval at being an expecting bride. Together, she and Jack had decided to forgo the city lights for a quieter life, where Jack diligently oversaw the estate during the day and wrote at night. Every winter, Harry and Pearl marched out to sled down the big hill behind the owners' mansion after the first snowfall, and every spring, they picked daffodils from their cottage garden and presented them to Laura as if they were made of spun gold.

But then the wealthy old couple who owned the estate died, and their grown children decided to sell off the land, sending the employees packing.

Laura, Jack, and the children had moved into the library just before it opened to the public. Laura's view of the giant oak tree outside the caretaker's cottage window had been replaced with the harsh whiteness of twelve-inch-thick blocks of marble. Not a speck of green to be seen. The walnut paneling in the salon and the modern kitchen had appealed to her at first, as did the idea of living within the walls of the most beautiful building in Manhattan, but the isolation had eventually worn her down. While the library had lived up to its founders' expectations as the largest marble building in the world, an inspired example of classical design that took sixteen years to complete, Laura hadn't realized how remote their lives inside the white fortress would be. There were no neighbors to wave hello to each morning, as there had been at the brownstone where she grew up, nor picnics down by the river with the other families, as at the Meadows. Instead, just an endless parade of anonymous visitors who came in to see if the building lived up to its reputation for grandeur and beauty (the answer was always a resounding yes), or those who simply wanted to pull up a chair in the Main Reading Room.

Jack swaggered about the building as if it were his own castle, which, in some ways, it was. He knew all the secrets, every nook and cranny. He bragged about the place to the children so often that they easily parroted back his statistics: thousands of visitors a day, eighty-eight miles of stacks holding one million books.

And in the very middle of it all, their small family, tucked behind a hidden stairway.

She couldn't wait any longer. Once he started in on his manuscript, her interruption would be even less welcome. She thought of the beggar woman squinting in the harsh sunlight, one bare hand lifted. That would never be her.

Slowly, she withdrew the envelope from her pocket and slid the letter out, the only noise the scratch of Jack's fountain pen.

"I heard back," she finally said.

He placed his pen down on the desk without looking up. "Is that right?"

She waited.


"I've been accepted."

The Main Reading Room on the third floor was the best place for a good late-night cry. Laura had discovered this soon after theyÕd moved in. SheÕd always been easily moved to tears, and the vastness of the space, with its fifty-foot ceilings adorned with puffy clouds, was as close as she could get to the fields behind the upstate cottage where sheÕd retreat when her emotions overcame her. During the day, the roomÕs gleaming tables, punctuated with desk lamps, were flanked by the curved backs of patrons, reading or making notes with the quiet scratch of a pen. Laura often imagined what it would look like if all their thoughts became visible, the enormous cavern above their heads suddenly crammed with words and phrases, floating in the expanse like bubbles.

Tonight, though, the room was the repository for only her own wretched musings.

She cried not for herself, but for how upset Jack had been to not be able to grant her that one wish: to go to Columbia Journalism School. They simply couldn't afford it. He had such a pleasant face-open and quick to smile-that to see him distraught made her twice as disappointed in herself for bringing him pain.

When she'd first brought up the idea with Jack earlier that year, he'd approached it with his usual meticulousness. Together, they'd made a list of advantages and disadvantages, and decided that it would be feasible only if she received a full scholarship. Which she had not. As a matter of fact, she'd hadn't even been accepted, only wait-listed. Until today.

She hadn't considered the idea of going back to school until several months ago, when the assistant director of the library, Dr. Anderson, had heard her joke about her life raising children within the library's walls and suggested she write a piece on the subject for the employees' monthly newsletter. She'd dashed off a silly article about the difficulty of keeping Pearl and Harry quiet during the day, especially in the summer when they weren't in school, and how she'd come up with the idea of a ten-minute "stomp" every evening, after the patrons had drained into the streets and the administrative offices had emptied. At her signal, the three of them would leap about the hallways, dancing and singing, Harry running laps and Pearl practicing her yodel, bringing the night watchman sprinting to the second floor to find out what on earth was going on. He'd stood there, panting, hands on his knees, and Laura had worried he might collapse from the fright. After that first time, though, he'd gotten used to the idea, sometimes even joining in, offering up a yowl that echoed down the stairwells and probably frightened the rats rooting around in the basement.

The Lions of Fifth Avenue
by by Fiona Davis