19. May 2015 · Comments Off on From the Latest WIP – Sunset and Steel Rails · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book

Sunset and Steel Rails Mockup Cover Pics with titles(Escaping from a truly dreadful  family situation and under an assumed name, the proper — and yet adventurous young Bostonian lady Sophia Brewer — has landed a job as a Harvey Girl. The year is 1886, and she has landed up in Newton, Kansa, to be trained in the Harvey method. The Newton Harvey house is a refuge for Sophia – and yet, can she do the kind of work which would be seen by kin and friends back in Boston as demeaning?)

Chapter 10 – Chance Met in Newton

Morning – if not precisely dawn – arrived far too early, in Sophia’s groggy estimation. The first harbinger sounded at first like a storm of blows upon the panels of the door to the room in which she and Laura had slept. She swam up out of as deep a state of sleep as she ever had had under the effect of Dr. Cotton’s disgusting potions, and the storm resolved into a polite tapping, and Jenny Maitland’s voice.

“Miss Teague, Miss Nyland? Wake up – there’s a train due into Newton in half an hour – and we must be ready. We’ll have our breakfast in the interval between that and the next, but you must be downstairs and inspection-ready in twenty minutes. Miss Teague…”

“I’m awake,” Sophia found her voice. From the other bed, she could hear Laura grumbling – probably strong oaths, from the level and passion of her voice. “So is Miss Nyland. We’ll be ready directly.”

There was some little starlight seeping into their room through the thin muslin curtains over the window which they had left open for fresh air. The moon was a small mother-of-pearl circle, just hovering over the buildings opposite – it shed just enough pale light to allow Sophia to light the gas fixture, as Laura heaved the bedclothes aside.

“Time to see to the cows,” she said, with remarkable cheer, and Sophia giggled.

“Not cows, Laura,” she replied, searching in her as-yet-unpacked carpet-bag for her cleanest shift. “But hungry travelers on the railway.”

“They wish to be fed, and will eat of what is put in front of them,” Laura replied. “Men … cows. Little difference that I can see.”

“Except that men don’t expect to be milked, as well.” Sophia said, and was disconcerted by Laura’s knowing chuckle.

“They want their service, just as the bull does,” Laura replied, inscrutably. She had found her stockings, and rolled them up around her pale shins as she sat on the bed. Sophia did not know what to say to that. She and Laura dressed in relative silence; combing out their long hair before the single mirror, and pinning it into plain and serviceable buns.

“We look like nuns,” Laura remarked, looking over Sophia’s shoulder as they stood in front of the small square of mirror over the wash-stand. Sophia regarded herself, and Laura – pale rounded faces reflected in the watery glass; Elsie collar buttoned high and close, plain black dress and narrow sleeves, with the white bibbed apron … it did appear positively nun-like. All that they lacked was a coif and a black veil. “I think that may be the idea,” Sophia replied. She had been considering this, ever since Jenny Maitland had outlined the code of appearance and dress, on the previous night. “You know how ordinary people think of a single woman who must work for a living, away from her family and friends … or at least, I know of how they are seen in respectable Boston society – most usually of the servant class and sometimes no better than they ought to be. It’s very hard, Laura, for a woman alone, without friends or family, to have any kind of respectable life … so Mr. Harvey and his strict rules are a defense, a protection, even – against vicious gossip. Like Caesar’s wife – we must be above suspicion.”

“You are likely right about this,” Laura made a brief moue of distaste. “Still – how very dull for us!”

“We may not flirt with customers, and we must not cultivate particular friendships among our fellow employees within the house … but Miss Maitland said that there was nothing in Mr. Harvey’s rules for us forbidding such attachments to gentlemen employed on the railroad. The telegraphists and engineers and such; they are reputed to be daring and clever young men, skilled and prepared to move up in the world. I might like to be courted by an intelligent and ambitious young man of no particular family background … if, that is – I would like to be courted at all…”

Sophia set down the comb with which she had been taming the last rebellious curls of her hair, bidding them forcefully to go along into the modest bun at the back of her head. “The main thing for me, Laura – I think I should like to work in something associated with the railroad – so new and exciting! You have no idea how boring my life in Boston was … there was not a person I knew, or met, save my great-aunt who had never had a thought or said a word that their farthest ancestors had not already said. I suppose that I have never felt quite so …alive. As if I were a new woman.”

“Me, I am tired of chickens and cows and slaving over a wash-tub,” Laura gave one last look at herself in the mirror. Sophia thought that Laura looked like some magnificent ancient Nordic goddess come to life. “Now – we go be new woman, ya?”

“Modern women,” Sophia echoed. They turned off the gaslight as they left their room. Out in the corridor there were already a bevy of girls in black dresses and white aprons, chirping excitedly or yawning. Sophia and Laura followed them down the staircase, through the kitchen – already a hub-bub of activity, redolent with the odor of baking bread and ham, of bacon and apple pies, muffins and sausages and clamorous with the voices of men shouting at each other in several languages besides English, and clanging iron pans on the tops of stoves – a clamor which diminished slightly at the first appearance of the girls in black and white. The girls went around the edge of the kitchen, into that hallway which led to the larders, the ice-room, the locked liquor store, the manager’s office, the telegraphist’s office, and the parlor set aside for the waitresses. This was a comfortable room, if set about with chairs, settees and tables of rather plain and unadorned make, all around the walls.  The parlor was brilliantly and mercilessly lit, the gas-lamps turned up to their highest extent so that it was nearly as bright as daylight. The girls made a circle, as if for a country-dance; Sophia and Laura followed suit – oh, yes, Jenny Maitland had told them the night before that she would inspect them – all of them and in a most stringent manner before they went on duty today.

Now the senior waitress went around the inside of the circle; each woman holding out her hands, first palm-up and then down for inspection. Jenny looked severely at their hands, their aprons and their hair, each in turn. Just as she began this process, a young man appeared in the doorway of the parlor, a piece of paper in his hand.

“Just come over the telegraph from Florence, Miss Maitland,” he said, with the air of someone bearing an important message. “Thirty-five for the lunchroom, twenty-four for the dining room.”

“Thank you, Mr. Boatwright,” Jenny said over her shoulder, “We’ll be ready.” The young man vanished like a mechanical Jack-in-the-box.   “You have a spot on your cuffs,” she said to the girl standing next to Laura. “Run upstairs and change – quick now.” Another girl had a crumpled apron – she also made a swift departure for upstairs, both of them returning, out of breath within a few minutes. Now all of her attention was on Laura and Sophia.  It appeared to Sophia that they both received a particularly exacting examination – for Jenny made them turn around, and to lift the hems of skirt and apron to show that they had on black shoes and stockings, and that their hair was tied with the plain white ribbon. Was this what it might be like to join the Army, she wondered – and found the supposition rather amusing.

“Miss Nyland, Miss Teague? You will start out in the lunchroom – it is sometimes a bit rowdier than the dining room, but the menu and the arrangements are somewhat simpler.”

“And the boys don’t tip like they do in there, either,” remarked one of the girls who had returned at that last minute. She had a gap between her teeth and wildly curly hair, even curlier than Sophia’s, but still firmly contained in a disciplined bun tied with a white ribbon. “But it’s a start. You follow after me, Miss Teague for the first round – watch what I do. I’m Selina Bennett – this’s my sister Frances. New girls always start in the lunchroom. Do you know the cup code yet?”

“Not well enough to be quick about it,” Sophia replied honestly, and Selina Bennett laughed, frank and honest. She and her sister both wore small round pewter brooches on their pinafores, each with an inset numeral 3.

“You’ll learn quick enough – it’s all very tidy and orderly; a systematical method for every motion, a place for everything, and everything in its proper place, just so. It’s like doing counted stitch needlework,” Selena added, as somewhere outside on the station platform, a whistle shrilled over the metallic shriek and clanging of a train coming into the station and applying the steam brakes.   To that symphony of noise was added the ringing notes of a gong.

“Here they come, girls,” Jenny Maitland swiped an invisible soot-fleck from her white apron. “The first train of the day – to work, now.”

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