Story Eighteen – The Girl
This is the continuation of ‘The Writer’, from the perspective of young Elizabeth Gilbert.
It must be him.
I tied my bonnet down and exited the store. Eyes were upon me, as they have been for a while. I sent myself across the street during one of the long lulls of traffic.
My days seemed to roll into strange circumstances during those early years of my womanhood. From the first steps of my body’s steady voyage to maturity, new events were in constant chase. Quite a few were completely expected and to be taken with grace in the context of my age. Boys and men were taking notice and not for the innocent reasons which once drew their eyes. It was with a more primitive intent I could not altogether avoid. It was true that my own mind brought desires similar to theirs’ but I was one where they were many.
My waking hours were spent avoiding places where they congregated. Saloons and work houses had been taken off my map long ago. The reaction from most women in town was in deep contrast to their masculine counterparts. Perhaps their husbands’ attentions, falling on me at all waking and dreaming hours was the reason for the glares and snubbing. I avoided their places of worship as well.
There were few safe havens for me. Where I was once the prize of the town, growth had labeled me a pariah. That was to be foreseen in a town with such a deep chasm down the middle of the inhabitants. It was expected when your last name was Gilbert and you called Gilbert Mines your home.
But the arrival of Mr. Terrence, a man and yes, a very attractive and, as I could tell, attracted prospect, had little actual link to me or the age which I had reached. I fancied an innate knowledge of his mind, a girlish fantasy but his words I knew to a near intimate degree. Though those few exchanged in Mr. Ford’s store had been the first spoken between us, he had reached me more times than anyone alive. I had no evidence of it but I knew that Howard Terrence could be none but the same who penned a collection of books secretly hidden away in my room.
I was jealous for them, afraid they may, at any moment be snatched from my loving care. Books here were less proliferated than those who could enjoy them. Our library contained three documents; the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bible. I knew all the pages of each by heart. The language, different for the two more recent works yet in no way antecedent of the latter, enthralled my imagination. They were entire worlds in words.
When Mr. Ford began selling a few dusty bound books in his shop, I found more and fuller worlds invented for the sole sake of their own existence. Mr. Ford expressed little interest in continuing to stock the poorly selling products. Gilbert Mines was not the venue for the written word. Literacy was rare. It wasn’t necessary to read or write in a town known for its more physical attractions. The people were stuck in a monotony of work, drink and lust, generally in that order. I begged him to continue selling them. I gave him all the allowance my mother would grant me. I was fortunate to have been enticed by the pages before I grew into my figure as I have no doubt Mr. Ford may have tried to extort more than money. His eyes rove along me during my weekly trips to his building more than any others. I shy away from guessing at what my recourse would have been had I taken to reading only a year or two later than I had. I dare say I may have obliged him. My addiction was that far gone.
I would have done anything for the old classics. Even the newer, less flowery prose of manufactured media drew me in. They gave fantastical accounts of scenes and people I had only heard spoken of in far less descriptive manners. But Mr. Terrence, it was his work that gave me a vision of big cities, bright lights and the frights they may hold. He wrote crime from a darker angle than the others. Highway robbery, murders, mysteries, intrigue and sometimes a sprinkling of the supernatural. He was radically varied in his devices but almost always brought the same results, with one glaring exception. ‘The Window’s Glass.’ It was a breathtaking gust of new life, breaking all traditions he had set for himself and the readers attached to the coattails of his menagerie of characters. Sad and wonderful with glimpses of a simultaneous dark and radiant future, the novel, twice as long as any before it, inspired new dreams to employ my nights. After reading it through to the worn paper back I discovered fantasies of far away places and a brooding, darkly gallant hero.
I climbed the stairs in the back, trying to avoid being seen. My mother would ask my motives for entering in this fashion. I would never answer truthfully. She knew I was a reader and had a penchant for the extreme and mysterious. I used my tendencies as an excuse. I would call it my adventure. Honestly, it really was suspenseful. I was a traitorous spy, escaping those I had previously vowed a trustworthy allegiance. I was the infiltrating beast going into town each day. Their attitudes towards me, of possession and derision didn’t only furthered my creations. They saw me for my appearance and my origins. They attacked me with their eyes and so I victimized them in my mind. I took advantage of the men, preempting their desires. I betrayed the women, bastardizing their fears. To them, I was the gruesome murderer.
There was a voice in my mind that scolded when these thoughts came. It was a conscience of sorts, unconscious through the times where I felt fear or pain. It was a priest to my demons but not for the penance, only the punishment. I came to see it as the villainous voice my mother never was.
The back door was always a trouble. It had to be replaced every few months. Visitors fought in the halls over this or that, their various companions screaming for them to stop yet secretly enjoying the show of violence. A body, heavy from the habitual boozing that came so easily here, was inevitably flung through the wooden boards. The carpenters in town had to have had a conspiracy as each new installment was a poorer fit than the last.
After juggling my bag of goods and the effort of pressing against the damnable fortress gates of inept woodworking, I toppled through. There was a half expectant glance from me, searching for the too often appearing man in undergarments, or less. To my dismissed dismay, there was no outlet for me to laugh away my annoyances. My mother’s girls were all I saw. And to laugh at them was a grievous crime in their eyes.
Babette covered her face but her eyes told of the fun she found in my pain. My mother’s top earner seemed more to me like a withered old hag. I could never understand why a man would follow her, come from miles away just to partake of her specific brand of company. It had been explained, so many times, that the average male was interested in one of two things, novelty or experience. I would joke with some of the younger girls, saying that with Babette, they found both the experience of an old witch and the novelty of waking up beside her when they were sober. It hadn’t been funny to Mama. Madam Delaunney was a business woman. Her most trusted worker was respected far greater than her own daughter.
I passed my mother’s room, covering my ears and hoping she wasn’t entertaining a client and if she was, it wouldn’t be too loud to overtake the skin and bone barriers I’d set up. Hearing her on the job and the subsequent witnessing of the acts had given me nightmares. Those weren’t the only noises and sights, though, that caused trauma. They were of lust, not agony. Not murder.
For weeks after the first killings, the girls couldn’t find me. I had escaped the confines of my room, too open and too close to the crimson stains just beyond my window for my own comfort. Against my mother’s wishes, I had left the Inn. I walked to the old, closed mines my father had nurtured in life. I felt safe there, among the undiscovered silver deposits. It was a safe desolation one can find when they can’t get past a feeling of being watched.
Mama allowed me to switch rooms. My new four walls were smaller, converted from a closet I had become well acquainted with in my cleaning duties. It wasn’t unlivable and it surely beat the standing rooms only found above Mr. Ford’s store. There, among the bedding and books that surrounding me in my sleep and most times I wasn’t engaged in my chores, was where I set my bags and took off my bonnet.
I dropped my hair along my shoulders. The bonnet allowed me to avoid preening and kept the curious color from prying eyes. Irish blood wasn’t altogether respected in this county. As far as I knew, beyond the workings of individuals in one on one conversations, the Irish weren’t respected anywhere. The vibrant sunset curls that gave away my lineage stayed hidden, no less to my own working than accident.
Mama wasn’t altogether happy about what she called my denial of heritage. She let her darker auburn tendrils, go wild. She was a site to see, flaring her Celtic temper with fire rising around her practically ageless face. Even when laying into me, I’d have to just watch her. She was proud, of her hair, her past, her marriage, her everything. She’d met my daddy in London. She was visiting a friend of the family, a young woman I heard tell if I’m not mistaken. He was visiting a business partner, laying a deal to expand a mine out beyond the then thriving town of Gilbert Mines, which owed him its life and name. Mama didn’t know what line of work the daring gentleman was in, she only knew she wanted a part of his life. In pure Amber Delaunney fashion, she followed him in her carriage for quite a distance. In her telling, it was half a mile. The one time I heard his side, it was closer to ten.
Tears streamed down my face each time I remember the look in his eyes when he told me the story. He was already lying so much more still than he ever had been. His busy life brought the only extended period of time spent with his only offspring to rest on his deathbed. But it was a time and well worth the wait. By then, the accidents in the mine had caused the riots and no man wanted to work in caverns they felt held specters of begrudging Indians or pirates or whatever ridiculous legend they concocted for their own lack of fastidious observation. He had so much pain in those days, fueled more by the self perceived notion of failure than the mysterious illness no doctor or shaman could divine. Mama couldn’t bare to hear him lament over the mine. She would cry and hush him when he’d muse on what could have been done to keep it operating. I got the feeling she started blaming herself too, near the end. But those darker hours were driven away when he would laugh. Reminiscing, he told me, was one of the greatest joys in live.
“Lizby,” the secret, special name only he could use, “never lose the joys of previous smiles. Never lose the happinesses of yesterday, they are the only lights bright enough to guide you through tomorrow.”
His favorite light, brighter and stronger and hotter than any other, was falling in love with Mama. When his words of self torture became too much for her to bear and she would escape to some menial work that could have very well been put off, he’d call her back and hold her hand and thank her for the days in their youth.
The laughs he would send through the great house, which was at that point, only a house, could fuel a thousand birthday celebrations for a thousand children. He brought her happiness back and the three of us would sit, the two wise and knowing storytellers and their audience of one, and the tale of the union of Gilbert and Delaunney would be retold.
The day he was lowered into the ground, Mama gripped my hand tight. Her tears had stopped the day he left us and she hadn’t cried a drop since. The sadness was still there but it just wasn’t as important to her anymore. She watched the simple wooden coffin meet the bottom of the final resting place and she spoke words to me in a clear and strong voice.
“Elizabeth, yor father let meh kill’em.”
The revelation, carried on the wings of her thick Dublin speech, was one I didn’t understand. He died slowly, not in a feat of swift and violent passion yet the woman who loved him most was confessing murder. Even then, at such a young age, the capacity for metaphor took over. She took me aside and grabbed my shoulders and looked me dead in the face. Her green eyes were frightening, nearing more yellow than the normal peridot, The pupils turned almost to slits.
“Yor Daddeh let a woman drive him ta an arly grave. M’not gonna let a man do tha same ta me and M’not lettin’ none do’t ta you.”
She changed after that day. She became both distant and far more watchful. I wasn’t allowed to play with the boys in town. Most of the chores on my list changed from helping to keep the porch tidy and making trips to the farms and the stores to minding the halls while Mama took my old duties. I became paler than before so the french and cherokee blood of my father didn’t show through anymore. I became solely my mother’s daughter through and through, a fact that I began to detest.
She knew his money wouldn’t last forever. The fortunes had been supplemented by the income of the mines. That source of capital had long since gone and we had been hemorrhaging funds for the better part of my life. Mama took what we had left and sunk it into a business she knew she could run. She started Madam Delaunney’s Inn, refitting the house, separating the large rooms into small lodgings. I had, at first, been ignorant of its true purpose. The title eluded me. An inn was an establishment for weary travelers to find shelter. They found much more than that. My young eyes witnessed things the mind didn’t understand. She was good to try to keep me away from it, ordering me to my room when dusk rose. But, being a child, I didn’t understand the importance of my curfew. I would escape the confines and walk the halls. The girls, half-falsely labeled to me as ‘care takers’, did little to stop me or even pay me a mind. It wasn’t their job. They were busy giving their physical attentions to the patrons, many important men of the town who found it less than thrilling to see my small and innocent form meandering through their desires.
My notions of adult activities didn’t congeal with this new influence. The noises coming from the rooms were odd and slightly amusing. I found one door I was sure to be hiding a wailing horse and a bear, locked in some form of combat. I found combat upon entering the room, yes. Mentally, I was incapable of forming an opinion of carnal relations then. I had no idea of their existence. I stood at the doorway, observing the naked figures caught in their animal struggle. The woman was atop the man, rising up and down by pushing on the bed with her knees. It was a dance to me, one of the many tribal and savage dances performed by the natives in the area with quick thrusts and strange rhythms. The woman leaned back and through her crimson brown hair, gave a moan. Madam Delaunney was seeing a guest.
My mother saw me, from the corner of her eye, the scared curious girl she had held in her arms as a babe. She ignored me, going back to work. The client, the mayor, had paid a great amount to be taken care of by the Madam herself. He was not so ready to pass me off. A thick book, used mainly as decoration, was thrown at me. It clipped my arm, causing a deep welt.
I closed the door and cried in the hall. A girl, not much older than I was the day I met Mr. Terrence, took my hand, grabbed the book and led me back to bed. She was called Yvette. They all chose French names, taking with them the mystique of that land. Yvette wasn’t beautiful in the face and had no figure, she looked far younger than she was. She provided the novelty of a young body and new blood, that’s how she put it later when I asked why she was the only girl to complain of her clients. She told me they were even more lecherous than the others’ patrons. She told me that she was afraid for the young girls of this town if her men were an indication of the types roaming the streets. Of all the girls, she was the one always in bruises. This rag doll was one of my only friends during my time of homestead imprisonment.
She left me to my own devices that night. She left me with the book. Not a narrative, it was my first look into reference, a dictionary. I perused it, unable to sleep. It brought words, new keys to the literary world I was already beginning to enter.
Years had passed yet I still sat on that bed, still held a book in my hands. I had grown in so many ways. My body was new. My mind reached out in all directions a little further each day. I no longer prayed to any god, faith was not an aspect of life I could truly grasp. But life was still such the same. I had little understanding of this new woman my mother was. I still yearned for my father to make the impossible return to this living existence. I still waited for the circumstances of my life to change.
“Cleaning girl, your services are required!”
Babette had no reason to shout. She was at the foot of the steps leading from the parlor to the second floor hall, which began with the door to my room. She enjoyed my title. She reveled in the sound and the status of it, prescribed to someone so close and still so distant to the woman who she saw as a better. I detested the withering bitch.
I grabbed my apron, my supplies, my composure, and took a slow stroll to the room which my mother brought new customers. There weren’t many steps, but the staircase turned halfway. I kept my time to myself, waiting to hear voices, to have a warning at what kind of mess I was up against.
“Poor poof can’ hold his liquor.”
A few ironic ‘hics’ and ‘hucs’ accompanied the annoyingly low and sure voice of Benjamin Trenton, town drunk, bully, theater owner and all around skunk. I immediately thought of dealing with an experienced drinker’s vomit. That wasn’t appealing but nothing of my duties were. The things a house of ill-repute requires of a maid are atrocious.
Turning the corner, I found Madam Delaunney and Benjamin lifting a thin, fragile, shaken Mr. Terrence to his feet. He clasped my mother by the shoulder, shaking his head, staring at the second hand vase he’d sent shattering against the floor.
“I’m… So sorry Ms. Dellllaaunay. I am normally a very affluent gentleman. You’ll have to excuse my crasssnesss.”
Babette moved to reassure him. Mama stopped her with a stare. The Madam, out in full force, rubbed her perfectly garbed body against him. She looked him over, finding his guns of a certain interest. She stepped away with a grace only in her possession, careful to avoid the silvery masterpieces.
“It’s perf’ctly alright, Mr. Terrence. A guest such as yourself need nae worry about any damages, even if they were ta such an antique item as this.”
The mop had gone to cover my face the moment I saw his unmistakable features, perhaps he had not seen mine. It was not so much an internal question as a hope against embarrassment. A man such as he would never look at me the way he had in the store if he discovered I was the servant girl at a whore house. Even worse if he was made aware of my mother.
“Misss Elisabeth! I trust you come here… spurringly.”
I went to my work, fearing a reprisal from my mother. I was strictly forbidden to speak to any man other than Mr. Ford when outside the estate. The material on her shoulders ruffled when she saw the spark of recognition in his eyes. Her smile was, underneath, a seething snarl.
“Mr. Terrence ya know my daughter?”
His simple smile turned to a more complex series of glances from the Madam, to me, to Benjamin and then to the shards of vase I was quickly collecting. He sputtered a laugh halfway between surprised and amused.
“Know her? No. I merely tried to undress her today in Mr. Ford’s shop.”
Mama turned to me, ready to raise her hand to my face. Ben slapped Mr. Terrence hard on the back. It sent him to the floor, to me. Our bodies met. I fell back, avoiding him hitting me any harder than he had. He stared lazily into my eyes before it dawned on him where he was and who was under him. The apologies let loose.
“Oh, Elizabeth, I am so very sorry. Please excuse my clumsiness.”
For a proper man, awkward happenings are better than a good night’s sleep for sobering. He brought himself back to a standing position without as much as a stumble. He extended his hand to aid me but I was never one for help. I could stand on my own. Though the look Mama was giving me spoke volumes to the contrary.
Ben had almost fallen himself. He was howling with laughter. It wasn’t a good natured humor he was releasing. His jollies were gotten from others’ pain. His spite never failed to surprise me.
Mr. Terrence saw the anger on the Madam’s face. He saw the worried blush of mine. He bowed his head a little and began to back out of the room. Ben stopped laughing and grabbed him by the wrist.
“Nah, Nah, little fella. You gonna get a good night here. I already tole ya I was payin’. Theyn’t no reason fuh you to be leavin’”
Trenton hospitality never came without a price. I wondered what Mr. Terrence had done or would be forced into doing for the expense to be taken. The smaller man, in the black vest and chaps, held his hands up as if to defend himself.
“I’ve changed my mind, Mr. Trenton. I’ll get a good night alone, thank you.”
Mama took his other wrist. She had more charm than the entire Trenton clan. With her light touch and delicate words, she brought him further into the room. She flashed her isle eyes and a subdued smile. He melted.
“Mrs. Terrence, please accept our services. I have just the right girl for you. Mr. Trenton has been here before. He can show you to room two-oh-three.”
Benjamin, with a wry smile, nodded and took Mr. Terrence by the shoulder.
“Come on, ya sorry ‘scuse for a cityslicker.”
Mr. Terrence, in the fashion of the characters he wrote, fought a deflated battle at each step.
“No, sir, I really should be going. I have a manuscript in need of edits and a new story needs my attention.”
I looked at my mother.
“Mama, two-oh-three is my room.”
Mama reached out to take me close. When the two men were out of earshot, she whispered with the tone she’d used countless times on the girls.
“You want ta break m’rules, you live like the rest of us.”
The ceramic pieces dropped from my hand. A sharper edge caught her hand and split it open. She began to bleed heavily but barely seemed to notice. She took a cloth from my belt and wrapped it along her palm. My initial repulsion to her order gave way to my worry.
“Oh, Mama, I’m so sorry. Are you alright?”
She tightened the cloth. The blood was soaking through the brown material but it looked to be clotting quick enough. She pointed with a single finger to the steps by which Mr. Terrence had no doubt already been led to my own sanctuary. I took a breath and bent down to pick up the shards again. She caught my wrist in her injury.
“No, you have another job to do. Babette will take care of this.”
There was no outward objection from the wrinkled star of the Inn. The rejection of such an idea was, however, writhing under her dulcet expression. Babette walked forward and tugged the few pieces I had retained from my grasp.
I had no mental faculties to spare on her or anyone else. There was a man, one whose thoughts, ideas and very words crept in my mind even at that moment, in my room. Mr. Terrence was waiting for my submission.
I didn’t have the luxury of taking my time. Mama escorted me to my own door. She watched me turn the knob. She saw me enter and close the door. And if I know anything about my mother, she stood guard the entire night.
Mr. Terrence was standing, stopped over my shelf, running his finger along the books I held so dear. He was touching things few had ever seen. He may as well have been running his fingertip along the very things that the Madam had promised him of me.
He didn’t look up.
“Elizabeth, you have my entire set.”
In a situation such as this, where I had steeled myself for the deed to be done, talking was not expected. Words were not with me.
He turned and smiled. It may have been disarming had he not been in my room, paid in full and expecting a return. It caused my face to flush and my palms to itch. He rubbed his neck, holding my copy of ‘The Window’s Glass’.
“You say you read. Did you enjoy this one?”
I sat on my bed, completely unsure. I had expected to walk in and find a nude writer lying in my bed, waiting to take me in every way. What I found was a sweating, jittery, slightly inebriated man just as nervous as I.
My head nodded softly. He put the book back, finally finished with small talk, and walked to the bed.
“Elizabeth, I have no intention of… being with you… tonight.”
His words triggered something. I began to cry. I didn’t know why the tears came. It may have been for daddy, mama, myself, even for Mr. Terrence. He put his hand on my shoulder. He sat next to me and pulled me to his chest. I wept, unleashing what may have been held back since my father’s funeral.
Hours later I awoke, still in his arms. I felt warm. I felt different than before. His snoring made me smile. His grin made me want to cry again, like my father’s laughter, it fueled a happiness I hadn’t felt in a long time.
I bolted up and he came to with a start when we heard the screaming from down the hall.
It was Babette.
Posted on 05/19/2011, in Madam Delaunney's Inn, Short Stories and tagged books, girl, horror, literaturee, madam, murders, novel, romance, whore, whore house, wild west, write, writer, writing. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.