“I must say she gave a most favorable…” I started to say. The rest of my sentence was cut off by a terrible shriek. “My baby! Someone has taken my baby!”
We spun around to see a young woman, fair-haired and attired in the usual white shirt waist and cotton skirt of the Lower East Side, looking around desperately, her light eyes wide with terror.
“My baby!” She screamed again. “She was here. In her carriage. I left her for a second while I went into the butcher’s and now she’s gone.”
Instantly there was chaos as the crowd closed in around her. We were caught up in them and swept across the street to the young woman.. She was gesturing to a battered baby carriage that was now empty, apart from a crudely made cloth rabbit and one knitted bootie.
Older women had already come to her side to calm her screams. One of the nuns we had seen was first to reach her, patting her shoulder with a comforting meaty hand. “Don’t fret, my dear,” she said in a strong Irish accent. “Perhaps someone from your family picked the baby up. Perhaps she was crying and one of your other children is carrying her around.”
“I don’t have other children. She’s my only child.” Her eyes continued to dart up and down the street. “Who can have done this? Where have they taken her? My baby. Somebody find my baby for me.”
I felt a wave of terror, of almost physical sickness, come over me and as if in response my own baby gave an almighty kick. I clutched at a lamp post to steady myself. Sarah had gone ahead of me, pushing through to the center of the little group. “Somebody go and find the constable,” she said, “And you children—spread out. Go and look on the adjoining streets and see if you can spot anyone carrying a baby in their arms. They can’t have gone too far with her.”
“Does anyone have smelling salts?” The nun demanded. “This poor woman is about to pass out.”
Sarah rummaged in her delicate little purse and produced hers. The nun proceeded to wave them under the woman’s nose. For once I could almost have used them myself. But I got a grip on myself and stepped forward. “Did anybody see a person near the baby carriage? Did anyone see someone carrying a baby away?”
Heads were shaken.
“You see people carrying babies all the time,” a small girl answered. She spoke with a trace of Italian accent and had the black hair and big dark eyes that betrayed her ancestry and the fact that this quarter was known as Little Italy. She looked no older than seven or eight but she herself had a squirming toddler on her hip. “We have to take the babies out and look after them so mother can clean up the apartment. Stop it, Guido,” she added as the toddler wriggled even harder. “You’re not getting down.”
The woman was no longer screaming but sobbing, her thin body shaking with great gulps.
“It’s another of those kidnappings they’re talking about,” a woman next to me muttered.
I turned to ask her what she meant when the crowd parted and two constables pushed their way toward the distraught woman.
“Stand aside please,” one of them bellowed. “Move back now. Go on, about your business, all of you.” The crowd backed up a little as his billy club was brought out. He reached the woman. “Now what’s happened here?”
Fifty people tried to talk at once, shouting in various accents with much hand waving. If the circumstances hadn’t been so terrible, it would have been a comical scene. The constable held up his hands. “Ladies. Quiet. One at a time.”
I glanced at Sarah, then decided it was about time I helped. I stepped forward. “This woman’s baby has been stolen from the baby carriage,” I said.
He looked at me, determining immediately from the way I was dressed that I was not a resident here. “Did you witness it, ma’am?” he asked.
“No. I had just come out of the building across the street when I heard her screams. We have asked, but it seems that nobody actually witnessed it.”
He nodded. “It’s easy enough to lift a baby from a buggy around here without anyone seeing,” he said. He looked across at his fellow constable. “You’d better let them know at HQ. We might be looking at another one.“
The younger policeman nodded, fought his way back through the crowd then disappeared down the street at a great rate. The constable turned back to the young woman, who was visibly shaking, hugging her arms to herself as if she was cold. “Now then, what’s your name, my dear?”
“It’s Martha, sir. Martha Wagner.”
“So tell me exactly what happened, Mrs. Wagner,” he said.
The young woman fought to control her sobs. “I was shopping for my man’s dinner, the way I always do. I went into the butcher’s for sausages and I left the baby outside because there’s no room for a buggy in the shop. I was only in there a moment. Not more than a minute or two and when I came out…” she paused and gulped. “She was gone!” Her voice rose in a hysterical scream again.
“You were alone? No other kids to guard the buggy?”
“She’s my first. We’ve only been married a year,” the woman said. “We just moved here from Pennsylvania. My man has just found a job on a river steamer.”
The nun was patting her arm again. “We’ll pray for you, my dear, and for your dear child that the dear Lord watch over her and deliver her safely back to you.”
The young woman shook her head furiously. “I want her back now,” she said.
“We’ll do what we can,” the constable said, “and these things usually turn out well. So give us a description of the child.”
“They say she talks after me,” she said. “She’s three months old, real dainty like a little china doll with big blue eyes. Just a tiny amount of light hair like mine. Everyone says she’s like a little angel. Her name is Florrie. Florence after my mother who passed away last year.”
The constable duly wrote this down. He shifted uncomfortably as unsure what to do next.
“I heard that there have been other kidnappings,” I said. “Does this fit the pattern?”
He looked at me as if I was speaking a strange tongue. “That’s not my job, ma’am,” he said. “I couldn’t say.”
“But surely the police must have some ideas? Haven’t you been asked to be extra vigilant?”
Sarah tugged at my sleeve. “Molly, we shouldn’t get involved in this. I need the help of these men. I don’t want to antagonize them. I’m sure they’re doing all they can.”
“They don’t seem to be,” I said angrily. “He doesn’t seem overly concerned. If it were my baby…” I stopped short as that awful vision flashed through my mind. My baby.If somebody stole my baby.
“The good sisters here will keep an eye open for your child,” the constable said, nodding to the nuns.
“We will indeed. And we can alert the sisters at the Foundlings Hospital to be on the lookout as well.” She looked at her fellow nun for confirmation.
“But who can have taken her? Why would anyone do this?” The words came out as gulping sobs.
“I’m sure the baby will turn up again safe and sound,” the constable said. “Now why don’t you give us your address and…”
“Here we are, sir.” The young constable had reappeared, red faced from running. “Another kidnapping, so they are saying.” He forced his way through the crowd. “Stand aside ladies and let the captain through.”And to my horror Daniel materialized between the heads of the crowd.