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September and The Living is Easy

Isabella of Angoulême was a powerful woman and for her time considered quite ruthless. Perhaps she gave back to the world what she had received. Happily in the words of one reader she is also considered intriguing:

Finished Tangled Queen. This is one of the most captivating series I’ve read, Erica! I almost never finish any series book-by-book.  Love the way you maintain the tension and keep Isabella an intriguing character. Thanks for making this Spring and Summer so vibrant!’

This long hot August 2020 means that there was not a piece for the journal in that torrid month, but this is for September. A short story, a character study if you like, about another powerful woman who learnt to be ruthless. Not the Countess of Angoulême but The Duchess.

The Duchess 

She dressed carefully, fastening hooks and eyes with deft fingers, pulling buttons into line, smoothing heavy green silk over her hips. Her dark hair was piled up and sleek, her face impassive with a cake of makeup, which extended down her neck and under her collar.  Lips were rouged, brows were blackened and severe, a spritz of cologne finished the preparation. A tall stately woman, who moved with surprising speed when it proved necessary, who curled her fists in impatience at least three time a day, who swore at the maids but was cool and polite with the clients.

              Betty walked to the window and looked down at the street; people meandered in and out of shadow and sun, enjoying the late spring weather. She watched carefully, there would be customers down there, perhaps not so early in the morning, but by lunchtime the house would creak a little with footsteps on the stairs, doors opening, voices murmuring and raised, giggles and laughter. She sighed; she never knew if that was real or part of their repertoire. It was not part of hers.

              She had arrived with her sister ten years ago, dusty and tired after a long difficult journey from Bodie in the heat of the summer. Emily had cried most of the way and Betty’s patience snapped as they approached San Francisco. She reached across and took her wrist in a tight grip and said

              ‘Listen to me, we are going to work hard in this city and make something of ourselves, we will work together always and you will not cry.’

              Emily did cry again, of course, often, but always with a purpose, with a knowledge that tears helped some men achieve satisfaction without guilt. She would bury her face in the pillow and sob. Pretty, shy and vulnerable and known as the Princess.

              Betty walked down the stairs, remembering when they had bought this sturdy five story house with its verandas and view of the Bay, Emily had cried then too, with the relief and joy of having a place of their own.

IMAGE: Early SF Street  Credit: San Francisco, California: Market Street, showing trams. Photograph, ca. 1880. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

              The decade before, after they arrived and found a room in a modest boarding house, the sisters had walked through the town, Betty noting the districts that had commerce of all kinds. A new store had opened in Union Square and work was to be had here, selling dry goods. The hours were long and the sales staff were not allowed to sit at all, lunch was only half an hour and Emily soon crumpled under this working day. The manager decided that women were not as useful as men and sacked them both but not before he had caught Emily in the stock room and roughly kissed her, pushing at her skirts with urgency. Betty had been pursued too and looked coolly back at the red sweaty face.

              ‘You can have what you want but you will pay me.’

              What he wanted was achieved very quickly and when she held out her hand after he had buttoned his pants he gave her enough money to pay for their board for a week. That was the beginning of a life and a business that allowed her to be in charge of all situations.

Union Square – Credit: Wiki

              Betty sat in the breakfast room and read the Morning Call, a newspaper full of crime stories, theatre reviews and local politics. It was necessary to know what was happening in the city, men liked to talk about these things, discuss the ways that San Francisco was changing. They often talked to her for longer than they engaged in anything physical, and she frequently found that the conversation was resumed very quickly after they had spent themselves.

              She read that there was a debate about women being given the franchise and the editor of the woman’s column had written that each woman should be free to do anything she chooses provided she does not harm another. 

Credit: Open SF History.org

              Betty smiled at this and turned to the advertisement that showed a huge dry goods sale, a gigantic special offering of bargains, a close out sale like no other. She smiled again; Mills and Jones seemed to push a sale once a month these days.  The news from the docks was that the port was very busy, ocean steamships were arriving from Alaska, Honolulu and Liverpool. Her house would be bustling in the next few weeks. And there was time to visit the sale and buy some dress lengths, French cashmere and silk ribbons at half price would give everyone a new outfit, ready to entertain. And maybe they could all have a Sunday excursion to Monterey before the weather became too hot. Her decisions made she wrote a list , pulled on kid gloves and stepped out to deposit yesterday’s takings in the bank, her expression careful and her mind busy as she planned the rest of the day. Her heavy leather purse with its strong clasp was her badge of office and there goes the Duchess the street whispered as she crossed into the shade.

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