Authors: Elizabeth Bear
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This book is for Karen Memery Bruce, who is not actually a seamstress but who is a librarian and a puppeteer.
You ain’t gonna like what I have to tell you, but I’m gonna tell you anyway. See, my name is Karen Memery, like “memory” only spelt with an
and I’m one of the girls what works in the Hôtel Mon Cherie on Amity Street. “Hôtel” has a little hat over the
like that. It’s French, so Beatrice tells me.
Some call it the Cherry Hotel. But most just say it’s Madame Damnable’s Sewing Circle and have done. So I guess that makes me a seamstress, just like Beatrice and Miss Francina and Pollywog and Effie and all the other girls. I pay my sewing machine tax to the city, which is fifty dollar a week, and they don’t care if your sewing machine’s got a foot treadle, if you take my meaning.
Which ain’t to say we ain’t got a sewing machine. We’ve got two, an old-style one with a black cast-iron body and a shiny chrome wheel, and one of the new steel-geared brass ones that run on water pressure, such that you stand inside of and move with your whole body, and it does the cutting and stitching and steam pressing, too.
Them two machines sit out in a corner of the parlor as kind of a joke.
I can use the old-fashioned one—I learned to sew, I mean really sew—pretty good after Mama died—and Miss Francina is teaching me to use the new one to do fancywork, though it kind of scares me. And it fits her, so it’s big as your grandpa’s trousers on me. But the thing is, nobody in Rapid City sells the kind of dresses we parlor girls need, so it’s make our own patterned after fashion dolls from Paris and London and New York or it’s pay a ladies’ tailor two-thirds your wage for something you don’t like as well.
But as you can imagine, a house full of ladies like this goes through a lot of frocks and a lot of mending. So it pays to know how to sew both ways, so to speak.
Really pays. Miss Francina and me, we charge less than the ladies’ tailors. And it’s easier to do fittings when you live with the girls. And every penny I make goes into the knotted sock in my room for when I get too old for sewing. I have a plan, see.
The richest bit is that the city and the tailors can’t complain, can they, when we’re paying our sewing machine tax and our guild and union dues, too. Sure, fifty dollar’d be a year’s wages back in Hay Camp for a real seamstress and here in Rapid City it’ll barely buy you a dozen of eggs, a shot of whiskey, and a couple pair of those new blue jeans that Mr. Strauss is manufacturing. But here in Rapid City a girl can pay fifty dollar a week and still have enough left over to live on and put a little away besides, even after the house’s cut.
You want to work for a house, if you’re working. I mean … working “sewing.” Because Madam Damnable is a battleship and she runs the Hôtel Mon Cherie tight, but nobody hits her girls, and we’ve got an Ancient and Honorable Guild of Seamstresses and nobody’s going to make us do anything we really don’t want to unless it’s by paying us so much we’ll consider it in spite of. Not like in the cheap cribs down in the mud beside the pier with the locked doors and no fireplaces, where they keep the Chinese and the Indian girls the sailors use. Those girls, if they’re lucky, they work two to a room so they can keep an eye on each other for safety and they got a slicker to throw over the bottom sheet so the tricks’ spurs and mud don’t ruin it.
I’ve never been down there, but I’ve been up along the pier, and you can’t hear the girls except once in a while when one goes crazy, crying and screaming. All you can hear up there is the sailors cursing and the dog teams barking in the kennels like they know they’re going to be loaded on those deep-keel ships and sent up north to Alaska to probably freeze in the snow and die along with some eastern idiot who’s heard there’s gold. Sometimes girls go north, too—there’s supposed to be good money from the men in the gold camps—but I ain’t known but one who made it away again ever.
That was Madame Damnable, and when she came back she had enough to set herself up in business and keep her seamstresses dry and clean. She was also missing half her right foot from gangrene, and five or six teeth from scurvy, so I guess it’s up to you to decide if you think that was worth it to her.
She seems pretty happy, and she walks all right with a cane, but it ain’t half-hard for her to get up and down the ladders to street level.
So anyway, about them ladders. Madame Damnable’s is in the deep part of town, and they ain’t yet finished raising the streets here. What I mean is when they started building up the roads a while back so the sea wouldn’t flood the downtown every spring tide they couldn’t very well close down all the shopping—and all the sewing—so they built these big old masonry walls and started filling in the streets between them up to the top level with just any old thing they had to throw in there. There’s dead horses down there, dead men for all I know. Street signs and old couches and broke-up wagons and such.
They left the sidewalks down here where they had been, and the front doors to the shops and such, so on each block there’s this passage between the walls of the street and the walls of the buildings. And since horses can’t climb ladders and wagons can’t fly, they didn’t connect the blocks. Well, I guess they could of built tunnels, but it’s bad enough down there on the walkways at night as it is now and worth your life to go out without a couple of good big lantern bearers with a stout cudgel apiece.
At Madame Damnable’s, we’ve got Crispin, who’s our doorman and a freed or maybe a runaway slave and about as big as a house. He’s the only man allowed to live in the hotel, as he doesn’t care for humping with women. He hardly talks and he’s real calm and quiet, but you never feel not safe with him standing right behind you, even when you’re strong-arming out a drunk or a deadbeat. Especially if Miss Francina is standing on the other side.
So all over downtown, from one block to the next you’ve got to climb a ladder—in your hoopskirts and corset and bustle that ain’t no small thing even if you’ve got two good feet in your boots to stand on—and in our part of town that’s thirty-two feet from down on the walk up to street level.
When the water table’s high, the walks still flood out, of course. Bet you guessed that without me.
They filled up the streets at the top of town first, because the rich folk live there, Colonel Marsh who owns the lumber mill and Dyer Stone—that’s Obadiah, but nobody call him that—who’s the mayor, and such. And Skid Road they didn’t fill in at all, because they needed it steep on account of the logs, so there’s staircases up from it to the new streets, where the new streets are finished and sometimes where they ain’t. The better neighborhoods got steam lifts, too, all brass and shiny, so the rich ladies ain’t got to show their bloomers to the whole world climbing ladders. Nobody cares if a soiled dove shows off her underthings, I guess, as long as the
Up there some places the fill was only eight feet and they’ve got the new sidewalks finished over top of the old already. What they did there was use deck prisms meant for ships, green and blue from the glass factory up by the river as gives Rapid City its name, set in metal gratings so that when there’s light the light can shine on down.
Down here we’ll get wood plank, I expect, and like it. And then Madame Damnable will just keep those ruby lamps by the front door burning all the time.
The red light looks nice on the gilt, anyway.
* * *
Our business mostly ain’t sailors but gold camp men coming or going to Anchorage, which is about the stupidest thing you ever could get to naming a harbor. I mean, why not just call it Harbor, like it was the only one ever? So we get late nights, sure, but our trade’s more late afternoon to say two or four, more like a saloon than like those poor girls down under the docks who work all night, five dollar a poke, when the neap tide keeps the ships locked in. Which means most nights ’cept Fridays and Saturdays by 3:00 A.M. we’re down in the dining room while Miss Bethel and Connie serves us supper. They’re the barkeep and the cook. They don’t work the parlor, but Connie feeds us better than we’d get at home and Miss Bethel, she keeps a sharp eye on the patrons.
Sundays, we close down for the Sabbath and such girls as like can get their churching in.
So I don’t remember which day it was exactly that Merry Lee and Priya came staggering into the parlor a little before three in the morning, but I can tell you it wasn’t a Friday or Saturday, because all the punters had gone home except one who’d paid Pollywog for an all-night alteration session and was up in the Chinese Room with her getting his seams ripped, if you take my meaning. The Professor—he plays the piano in the parlor for Effie and Pollywog and Beatrice to sing to—had gone home for the night already, it was that slow. The rest of us—just the girls and Crispin, not Madame Damnable—were in our robes and slippers, faces scrubbed and hair down, sitting in the library when it happened. We don’t use the parlor except for working.
Beatrice, who’s the only one at the hotel younger than me, was practicing reading out loud to the rest of us, her slim, dark fingers bent back holding the big ivory-bound book of Grimm’s fairy tales. She’s a tiny bit of a thing, is Bea, and has all the manners I don’t. Her mother was a courtesan—what they call a
—down in New Orleans, and Bea speaks French better than English and has a long, straight nose, a good high forehead, and lips like a bee-stung rose.
We’d just settled in with after-dinner tea and biscuits when there was a crash down the ladder out front and the sound of somebody crying like her leg was broke. Given the loudness of the thump, I reckoned that might not be too far from the truth of it.
Crispin and Miss Francina gave each other The Look, and while Beatrice put the ribbon in her book they both got up and moved toward the front door. Crispin I already said about, and the thing about Miss Francina is that Miss Francina’s got a pecker under her dress. But that ain’t nothing but God’s rude joke. She’s one of us girls every way that matters, and handy for a bouncer besides.
I followed along just behind them, and so did Effie. We’re the sturdiest girls, and Effie can shoot well enough that Madame Damnable lets her keep a gun in her room. Miss Bethel hides a pump shotgun under the bar, too, but she was upstairs in bed already, so while Crispin was unlocking the door I went over and got it, working the breech to make sure it was loaded. Beatrice grabbed Signor, the deaf white cat who lives in the parlor—he’s got one blue eye and one yellow and he’s loud as an Ozark howler when he wants something—and pulled him back into the library with the rest of the girls.