August 21st, 2007
The Adventures of Dirty Rachel
Mary Fallon Fleming
“Hey, Rachel, wake up! Wake up!”
Rachel opened her eyes. It was Jamie, shivering in his long underwear. She thought he would never stop shaking her. When she looked beside her, she saw that Althea was no longer sleeping by her side.
“What’s the matter?” she said. “Where’s Althea?”
“Downstairs with the judge,” Jamie said.
“In her nightgown?” she said.
“Yeah,” he said. “That’s the way things work around here.”
“But it must be in the middle of the night,” Rachel said.
“Shh! It’s Judge Ogle. He’s coming up the stairs,” he said.
Rachel could hear heavy footsteps outside the door.
“Quick! We gotta find a place to hide,” Jamie said.
They scooted under the bed where an embroidered dust ruffle hid them. Rachel thought her racing heart would burst as she lay there, hardly daring to breathe. She could see Judge Ogle’s black leather boots and spats. She could hear his heels clicking on the polished wood floor.
Then she saw Althea’s pink satin slippers behind him. Her negligee with the big pink ruffle trailed to the floor.
“I was asleep, you know, and I haven’t been well these past few days,” Althea said. “Couldn’t we make it another night?”
“But, my dear, I don’t have another night. You know how hard it is for me to see you,” Judge Ogle said.
Rachel saw Althea’s pink slippers move backward, away from the judge. “Well, at least let’s not stay here,” she said. “The sheets aren’t fresh. Let’s go to the sunroom.”
“Are you serious? We might be seen,” he said.
What are they talking about? Rachel thought.
There was a pause. Finally Althea answered, “If you won’t go when I ask you to, then
I suppose I’ll have to entertain you.”
“There’s my girl,” the judge said. “You know I’m one of your most fervent admirers.” His heels clicked on the floor as he walked toward Althea. “Now, let me take off my coat and tie, and we can get started.”
Get started doing what? Rachel thought.
The bed springs squeaked. Rachel realized that both of them were sitting on the bed. There was no more conversation, only articles of clothing falling to the floor. Then the bed began to shake and rasp. Rachel didn’t hear Althea at all, but she could hear the judge making a snorting sound. Why, just like a pig,” she thought.
The shaking stopped. Judge Ogle dropped his long legs over the edge of the bed and pulled his boots on. He stood up.
“Now, that was lovely, dear, just like always,” Judge Ogle said. He walked to the door. “Until next time,” he said. The door creaked behind him as he closed it.
There was silence.
“He’s gone,” Jamie said.
They scrambled out from beneath the bed. Althea sat at her red gilt vanity, brushing her long glossy hair. Rachel watched her. She could see Althea’s reflection in the oval vanity mirror. Her face was flushed and her lips were parted. She looked like she felt like Rachel did when Miss Bobbins punished her in front of everybody. Finally she put the brush down and turned around to face Jamie and Rachel.
“So, you were under the bed,” she said. “I’m mortified to death, but I’m so glad he didn’t find you.”
“I wish Joe was here,” Jamie said. “Joe would make everything all right.”
“I wish he were here too,” Althea said.
“Who’s Joe?” Rachel asked.
“He’s my very special beau,” Althea said.
“When’s he coming back?” Jamie asked.
“I don’t know,” Althea said.
“Is Judge Ogle your beau?” Rachel asked.
“No, he’s not,” Althea said. “He’s a horrible, hypocritical man.”
Rachel paused, wondering what hypocritical meant.
“Where’s Joe?” Rachel said.
“He’s out on a river boat, honey, on the Mississippi, a long ways from here,” Althea said.
A river boat sounded exciting to Rachel. “Is he a gambler?” she asked.
Althea smiled. “No, honey, he’s a cook. That’s just how he makes his living,” she said.
“Miss Althea, do you like living at the cat house?” Rachel said.
Althea dropped her gaze to the floor, then she looked up again. “Well, it’s certainly comfortable here, and Miss Margaret takes good care of all the girls. So I guess it’s all right,” she said.
There was a knock at the door. Althea got up and answered it. When the door opened, Rachel saw Miss Margaret in a flowing ruffled white night gown and matching satin slippers.
“Is everything all right? Were the children in the room when—“ she said.
“Yes, they were,” Althea said. “But we weren’t caught, so I guess that’s the most important thing.”
Miss Margaret sighed. “All right then,” she said. “Time to go back to bed. In the morning we’ll make a plan so this doesn’t happen again. And it’s going to be a big day for Rachel. Do you know your letters, dear?”
“Why, yes ma’am, I sure do,” Rachel replied.
“Good,” said Miss Margaret. “Lessons first thing after breakfast in the morning.”
The sunlight streamed in through Althea’s white lace curtains like a herald of spring. The birds were twittering as Rachel opened her eyes. Althea sat at her vanity in her corset, hoops, and pantaloons. Rachel admired Althea’s slender figure and her womanly garb, especially the hoops. Circles of ribbons of deep red velvet where stitched around the graduated circumferences of the garment’s willow rings. The fire had gone out, and the room was chilly.
“Good morning, sugar plum,” Althea said. A two-piece red dress with a bodice and a huge matching petticoat hung over the back of her chair. She stood up and pulled the red skirt deftly over her head. Next came the bodice, and Rachel could hardly believe how quickly Althea buttoned up all her buttons. All the way up to her chin. The high collar was trimmed with some white lace, as were the puffed sleeves. Rachel thought Althea looked like the Fairy Godmother.
Then down the stairs, click-clack on the burnished floor down the hallway and through the kitchen. Just beyond the great mahogany door, and there was the whole household assembled for the morning meal. Rachel scanned the unfamiliar faces. Oh, thank goodness, he’s here, she thought. Jamie sat smiling at her from across the table.
Eight charming young ladies sat at the breakfast table with Miss Margaret, who was clothed all in black taffeta. Enormous platters of food sat on the table, scrambled eggs with country gravy, hot biscuits, bacon, ham, sausage, and creamy grits floating with yellow butter. Jars of homemade marmalade had made the menu too, three different kinds. Rachel had never seen such a feast, let alone been invited to one.
She and Althea took their places across from Jamie. Miss Margaret sat at the head of the table.
“Now, dear, we’ll have introductions before we begin our meal. Althea, could you?” Miss Margaret poured herself a cup of coffee into a bone china teacup.
“Sure, Ma’am,” Althea said. “Here, let’s start on the other side. Say good morning to Sally, Nellie, Priscilla, and Constance.”
Rachel felt shy. The ladies were so grand. Sally had gorgeous blonde hair that shone like silk and was all done up on her head in ringlets. Nellie had a bright dress of pink and dark green with a shawl collar. She wore her dark hair in a tight plaited bun. Priscilla and Constance smiled upon her kindly. Priscilla's wheat brwon hair hung down across her shoulder in a thick glossy braid. Her dress was made of blue cotton with white cotton lace around the sweet-heart neck line and above the hem of the full skirt. Constance dressed in white muslin. Her strawberry blonde hair was piled up on her head and held in place by hair pins.
“Pleased to make your acquaintance,” Rachel said.
“And on our side of the table we have Winifred, Gabriela, Cecelia, and Brigitte,” Althea continued.
All of the ladies smiled and inclined their heads toward Rachel most cordially. Only Gabriela did not smile. Her gown was the fanciest at the table. It was a green and gold brocade with a tiny bodice that made a deep v at her waistline. Her complexion was creamier than all the other girls. She had a dark beauty mark on her cheek, and her jet-black hair was pulled back severely from her oval face, making a striking contrast to her sapphire blue eyes. She was beautiful, but Rachel didn't like her. She seemed proud.
“Pleased to make your acquaintance,” Rachel reiterated.
Then the ladies burst into lively conversation and laughter as the platters of food were passed around. Everyone helped himself, especially Jamie. When the plates came to Rachel, Althea helped her get her portions. Rachel felt starved. It was the most glorious breakfast she had ever had.
But then, after all the dishes had been cleared away by the charming young ladies, it was time for lessons. Miss Margaret ushered the two children into the library. She had pencils and clean white paper. She walked to the mahogany book case and took down the Bible. She turned around and faced them, the massive book case behind her.
“Jamie already knows how to read. His mother taught him,” Miss Margaret said. “He used to come and read to my blind mother for a penny, before she died. Right out of this very bible.” She sat down on the sofa next to them. “Jamie, you begin. Rachel, you follow along.”
They worked like that for two hours, struggling, until Jamie had helped Rachel get thoroughly acquainted with the first four chapters of Genesis. She read it aloud as a grand finale.
“All right, children,” Miss Margaret said. “You’ve done well. Jamie, you’re excused. Go help Winifred and Priscilla in the kitchen.” Then she paused and gave Rachel a look that made her skin prickle. “Young lady, you and I have to talk.” She stared Rachel down. “We must get those clothes off you, and today you are going to have a bath.”
Rachel cringed. She wanted to run back to the lean-to, but she wanted to have breakfast again the next morning. “But Ma’am,” she said. “The water’s so cold, and it’s so cold to take your clothes off, and by the time you’re finished, you’re just an icicle.” She was so distressed she could hardly catch her breath, but she went on. “Please, Ma’am, I hate washing, but I’ll learn to read.”
Miss Margaret smiled. “Then you’ve never had a wonderful bath, the kind we give here,” she said. “We’ll cover you with a warm towel as soon as you get your clothes off, and, naturally, we’ll heat the water. And then we’ll throw in scented soap powder, and you’ll be surrounded by bubbles and perfume.”
Rachel had never heard of anything like this description of a bath. It sounded intriguing. Mostly she was interested in the part about not being cold.
“So, we’ll do it this evening, after supper. I’m going to send Gabriela to Gunther’s General to pick you up something to wear,” Miss Margaret said “Stand up. Let me see how tall you are.” She stood Rachel up next to her chest and measured her with her hand: just above the waist line, midriff. “Well, I think a small should suffice.” She leaned back to look Rachel in the face before she added, “What color would you like?”
Rachel couldn’t believe that she, a lowly orphan, was being considered for store-bought clothes. New store-bought clothes. She swallowed. “Blue,” she said.
“Blue it shall be. Now run along. See if Althea’s busy. Maybe she’ll teach you how to play cards,” Miss Margaret said.
Rachel ran for the stairs. Maybe the bath wouldn’t be so bad after all. Play cards! Just like a river boat gambler. Up the stairs she went, two at a time, to find Althea. Her life as Dirty Rachel had taken an unexpected turn.