Last week I shared Chapter 1 of The Glory Days of Aimée Bonnard in order to give readers a little taste of what this new story is about. This week I added an exciting new backer reward (early paperback copies, anyone?) to the Kickstarter campaign, and decided to share Chapter 2. Check it out!
Chapter 2 – Mrs. Harden Is No Fool
My meeting with Mrs. Harden is precipitated not only by my own desire to advance in my plans and the unavoidability of moving forward if I am to resume my lucrative trade, but also by what I have already set in motion and now can no longer stop. For I have fueled local gossip and created the opportunity to discuss my prospects with the madam, and now it appears that I’m no longer the only one interested in engineering our encounter.
“Your dress will be ready on Friday,” Miss Poole, the dressmaker, says one afternoon, taking the pins out of her mouth and fastening them so close to my skin that I fear being scratched. “Come at five thirty. I will be closed, but I will let you in. And you will meet Mrs. Harden, whom you’ve asked so much about.”
“It’s too tight,” I say, refusing to show gratitude or excitement. If I show myself appreciative of Miss Poole facilitating the meeting, she’ll expect something in return. Besides, it’s political to let everyone believe it’s the madam who stands to gain from meeting me, not vice versa.
“It’s not too tight,” she retorts. “You need a maid to lace up your corset properly and it will fit just fine. Show off your figure while you still have it.”
I ignore the jab. “A girl still needs to breathe,” I say. “And if I have to have it altered…”
At this she relents. It’s good to remind them who’s paying. And to show I don’t feel the least bit indebted to her for her introduction to the madam. My face in the mirror remains impassive, but inside the too tight bodice of the new red dress, my greedy heart is alive with anticipation. I’m so close to reaching my goal, so close to reclaiming my life. I can already envision myself entertaining wealthy clients in this new dress, can already imagine taking it off for them, ever so slowly. My fingers dance on its tiny buttons. “Make it so that I can breathe in it, and it shall do just fine,” I say.
On Friday I make a point of being late, but the madam is later still. By the time she arrives, I’m standing in front of a mirror in my corset and chemise, supposedly to make sure once and for all the dress fits me. But in reality I know that I’m standing here undressed for my body to be evaluated as if I were a heifer brought to market.
The Madam makes no pretense of being interested in a dress herself.
“So you are Miss Bonnard, whom I’ve heard so much about,” she says by means of introduction. She stands a little too close, her perfume sweet, not unpleasant but perhaps too insidious. “Turn around,” she says, assessing me.
“Excuse me?” I ask, feigning outrage. Then I think better of it and start to laugh, do a little pirouette and a curtsey.
“A girl with spirit,” she says. “I like that.”
“Everyone does. But do you like it to the tune of sixty dollars a night?”
“Not one for small talk, are you?”
“Au contraire. I excel at small talk when I’m paid to do so.”
“Good to know. Is sixty then how much you charge? I’d say it’s rather steep.”
“I charge one twenty.” I’m hoping actually for one hundred, even eighty if pressed. “But I figure we’d split it evenly.”
“That’s a bit much for Galveston. I like your optimism, but it’s just not the standard.”
“I’m not your standard girl.”
“I’d say.” She reaches over and touches first my arm, then my breast. Instead of recoiling, I take her hand and guide it, wiggling and purring like a cat, looking into her eyes and smiling as if she were a client. Her face shows pleasure – not sensual pleasure at the touch of my body, but appreciation, from one professional to another.
“How old are you?” she asks.
“Old enough to be an expert of my trade, yet young enough to still perform it.”
“Ha! Still, dear—”
“Will you examine my teeth next?”
“Why do I even bother asking? But your face is fresh and your flesh quite firm. You have a few more good years. I’ll admit you’re a beautiful girl. And you have presence. Where were you before?”
She laughs. “The hell you were.”
“Have you heard of Le Chabanais?” I whisper as if letting her in on a secret. I reach over to my purse, fish out the fake letter of recommendation, and hand it to her.
“You’re a good writer,” she says. “Lovely penmanship too. Shows a certain level of je ne sais quoi… And I do appreciate a girl with imagination.”
“So will your clients,” I say, undeterred by the fact that Mrs. Harden is no fool.
“I can see that while you’ve created a rather unbelievable fiction, the descriptions of your talents are promising. You seem to know a good deal about desire and about some of the other things men want when paying to be entertained. But a hundred and twenty dollars…”
“I might settle for a hundred if I like the house I’m working in, but I will not take less.”
“I’ll need to ask around and see. If men here in Galveston are amenable to paying such an outrageous fee, we might discuss it further.”
“I have a few requirements,” I say.
“Of course you do. Miss Poole intimated you’re fussy. Let’s see first if you have any clients before you start making demands. I need a week or two to make some inquiries. If I succeed in finding clients willing to pay a fortune for an encounter with a high-end kind of girl, one with claims at an exotic past, no less, I will communicate it to Miss Poole and she will let you know. You can then come see me and we’ll negotiate our terms.”
She turns to go, then pauses, looks at me again, and says, “And Miss Bonnard, it’s one thing that you weave a tale of an interesting past to tell your clients – using the appropriate irony, I would hope. But should we enter a business arrangement together, and should there be the slightest evidence of you trying to cheat me or of you being untruthful… Well, I don’t care what you wished to escape in your past life, but it will be a joke compared to what will chase you out of Galveston.”
I look at her with big innocent eyes.
“A jealous man, Mrs. Harden. A man who tried to hurt me. It’s not a secret, just not a pleasant story to tell. I don’t mind you knowing my past, but it will not amuse our clients. And I trust you to protect me from such situations in the future. It’s why I wish to join your house.”
“Smart girl,” she says, her voice now warmer, though I’m not sure she believes any of it. “I can assure you I do not allow violent men. It’s why you’re wise to seek out my protection. I cherry-pick good, decent clients for all my girls, even the less expensive ones. It’s a pure horror what can happen in houses where the madams don’t have such high standards or as many friends in high places. And yes, I agree, clients do not wish to be bored with anything unpleasant.”
That she’s not eager to accept my so carefully imagined past is somewhat disappointing, maybe even alarming. But nothing is ever ideal, and the madam’s intelligence might serve me in the end. A cunning woman is likely to find good clients. She’s also likely to protect me once I prove profitable. And she is not insisting on learning more about me, so I choose to elegantly deflect.
“Nobody does, least of all I,” I say. “In fact, I would much rather talk about my clients then about myself. Men love attention.”
“Everyone does. It’s why the world belongs to women like us, women who’d rather listen.”
“I feel like I could learn a lot from you, Mrs. Harden.”
“Save the flattery for the clients, dear.” But now I’m sure she likes me, and the validation reminds me once more that there is pleasure and power in what I do, pleasure and power of a nature I can’t resist. I’m eager to be back in the game. Yet a small part of me mourns the imminent loss of my simple freedoms, of mornings full of sunshine and evenings in the company of books.