Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.
The day all her pretending died, Polly got up early.
She'd drawn back the curtains before she'd slept, leaving only the lace panels between her room and the dawn. The light woke her, cool and grey and casting no shadows. She stretched, careful to make sure Frank didn't stir, and slipped out of bed. She left Frank sleeping, the way she often left the last man of the night. This was the best time of day and she liked it most when she didn't have to share it.
It was cold outside the warm comforters. A little shiver ran down her back and her skin came up in gooseflesh, making her set her shoulders and reach for the lawn chemise she'd thrown over the ladder-back chair beside the bed. It was an old thing, worn thin and fit only for the rag bag, but it was soft on her bare skin and still pretty with its narrow lace and even-narrower pin tucks. She glanced at the trunk open at the foot of the bed waiting for the last of her things to be packed; she'd take the chemise with her, keep it until it was nothing but threads.
She shrugged into it as she walked softly to the window to watch the sun come up, fastening the tiny horn buttons with fingers that trembled more than she liked. The dawn air had a late-spring nip to it, a reminder that full summer was still lollygagging and dallying. She'd left a petticoat draped over the big armchair beside the window. It did nicely to wrap around her shoulders to keep the chill out.
When she'd first come to the Silver Lady, she'd fussed for a long time to get the armchair into the right place, set to one side of the sash window and hidden from the street by the lace panel. She got it so if she craned her head, she could look both up and down Main Street to watch the folks going about their lives outside. If she looked down the street to her left, not straight across at the saloon but down past the livery and the feed merchant's, she could catch a glimpse of the wide lands outside the town. The road made a big loop there to follow the course of the river southeast, heading from Silver City to Las Cruces and West Texas beyond. She'd worked in Las Cruces for a while before moving west, but she couldn't remember much about it. It had been pretty much like any other town.
The dawn sky was a clear pale green, shading down to rose pink at the eastern horizon. It was real pretty, the green and rose. It always reminded Polly of something, but not all the frowning looks she gave it helped her remember. It couldn't have been anything important, and yet every dawn it tugged at her. She sighed, waited... and yes! There it came. A flash of red gold and there was the sun, flooding over the land like golden water. The green and rose melted away into a pale blue the colour of a robin's egg. Outside of town there would be birds singing and crickets starting to chirp, and flowers opening. She couldn't hear or see any of that, not from here, but still she thought it was going to be a real pretty day.
She turned her head to look when Frank mumbled something and rolled over onto his back, his hair falling over his face. He'd likely want another round if he woke, but all that happened was that his jaw dropped open and he caught his breath on a snort. He was still asleep, eyes closed tight, but his hands came up and rubbed at his nose. Something was itching at him, most likely. Not fleas, though. Miz Ellen would never allow anything so low as fleas. Frank rubbed some more, snorted again and his hand dropped away.
Polly watched him, letting her shoulders loosen where they'd tensed at his grunting, and settling back against her cushion, pulling the petticoat tighter. He had a boy's face when he slept, slack-jawed and relaxed, and smooth skinned above the roughness of new beard. He had a soft look about him, sort of untried and unsalted; a green, shavetail, new-hatched out of the egg kind of look. He acted older and tougher when he was awake, squinting his eyes and scowling, keeping his face in the same sort of menacing glare she'd seen on his older cousin, Corey.
She'd have to cure that in Frank. Train him, maybe, to look to her and not to Corey from now on.
Because Corey now... Corey was a mean one. Mean and cussed and as ready to shoot a man as look at him, and it wouldn't surprise her none if he did the shooting from behind. Corey was the kind of customer who had Miz Ellen on the watch and signalling to the black man, Jim, who was hired to tend bar and toss unruly customers out onto the street. But even Jim wouldn't want to toss out Corey. Corey'd kill him, sure as breathin'. There was something about Corey that was plain wrong, something in him that was small and wizened and made him cruel.
All the girls had seen it, the night Frank and Corey had first come to the Silver Lady. Frank had been real nice, treating the girls to champagne and laughing and dancing while Pete banged out the tunes on the parlour piano against the wall and Eliza sang for them. Miz Ellen prided herself on the table she set and the wines and liqueurs she had freighted in from Las Cruces, and Frank had sampled it all. He didn't stint himself none, and treated the girls while he did it. He and Polly had shared the champagne and finished the bottle in bed.
Corey hadn't shared his champagne with the girls, hadn't talked and flirted and danced. Corey had sat watching them, a queer little smile twisting his mouth that had all the girls jibbing. He'd laughed at them, but not in a nice, friendly way. It wasn't kindly. Grace had taken Corey the first night. She was tight-lipped about it afterwards and Miz Ellen wouldn't let Corey have her for a second time. Hannah got on better than Grace had done.
No. There was nothing kindly about Corey.
But when Frank had started sparking Polly in real earnest, still paying for pokes but taking her out for walks and drives and picnics, too—well away from the townsfolk, of course, but still it was outside the parlour house—Corey had egged Frank on. Sometimes Polly had caught that queer smile on Corey's mouth again, and she didn't like it. Frank had to be blind not to see it for himself. It was a good thing when Corey left to go back to the Foley place and took his sneering and unkindness with him. None of the other girls lamented to see him go and Frank was easier, more boyish with no Corey there to live up to.
She watched Frank sleep for a moment longer. Yes. She'd have to turn him from following along after Corey, like he was the second mule in the string. She'd have to teach him to mind her instead.
She turned back to the sunrise and the brightening day. It was time for Mr Hogan to open up his store on Main Street, up from the saloon. And there was the clerk with the broom in his hand, walking out onto the sidewalk as he did every day, with Mr Hogan behind him taking down the shutters from the big windows. A girl could set her watch by them. Mr Hogan was short and stout and even from her window Polly could see him puffing and blowing as he wrestled with the shutters. The clerk was an older man, sad-faced and stooped-shouldered. His moustache had long grey weepers. They'd tickled when Polly had taken him the time he'd saved up to come to Miz Ellen's to buy some company. What was his name, now? She shook her head, as she did every morning. It didn't matter. He hadn't been much of a poke, that she could remember. Maybe he was a better clerk. He started to brush the dust from the sidewalk back out into the street, flipping the broom and talking over his shoulder to Mr Hogan standing in the shop doorway. Mrs Hogan would be along in a few minutes, the baby over one shoulder and wearin' one of the new skirts with a flattish front and most of the fullness pulled up in ruches and puffs behind. She was a good twenty years younger than her husband and a few inches taller, but she seemed to like him well enough.
Polly leaned forward to watch, smiling at them, keeping the curtain between herself and the street. She saw them every day, doing the same things at the same time. They were part of her. They were old friends.
She'd miss them.
They were going to California.
"Isn't Clara in California?" Miz Ellen looked up from her books and ledgers when Polly told her, looking over the tops of the silver spectacles she would never wear when the house was open for business.
"Last I heard, she was." Polly sipped at the whiskey Miz Ellen gave her.
It was real good stuff, not the red disturbance the saloon across the way served up, so she sipped real delicate, in honour of the occasion and because Miz Ellen was a lady and wanted her girls to be ladylike too. Miz Ellen wouldn't tolerate cat-fights, or crib-women or unpleasantness in the Silver Lady. She ran a quality establishment.
The Silver Lady has no harlots or strumpets. I do not employ painted cats or mabs or wagtails. We have higher standards here. In this establishment there are only ladies of the line, and we will act as ladies when we invite our gentlemen to socialise with us.
They were whores, and good ones too. They knew how to listen and smile. They could pretend so well that the gentlemen went away holding themselves proud and straight shouldered, swaggering a trifle and thinking themselves real dashing dogs, knowing that they'd dang well been the best poke their whore had ever had. Miz Ellen wouldn't hire them otherwise and a girl did what was good for business and got her more tips and presents. But still Miz Ellen wanted more for them. So she taught them manners, and how to present tea, or set a table, or even set embroidery stitches during the long, lazy afternoons when there were no men, and the girls rested. Miz Ellen was real well educated. She read books.
Miz Ellen put down her pen again and took a dainty sip from her own glass. "I didn't think you'd heard from her in a while."
Polly smiled. Nothing much missed Miz Ellen's notice. "No, ma'am. Not for a little while. I know she left the man she met in Santa Fe and went on west. San Diego, or somewhere like that." She let her smile widen. She'd liked Clara. Clara had laughed a lot and she'd smelled sweet. "I fancy she was workin' in some review or other. Maybe I can look her up."
"Perhaps you can. Are the Foleys from California, then?"
Polly nodded. "I think so. They have a place there, I believe."
When Frank had told Polly his plans, he'd said that California was where his Pa was, and the boys, and: "I've bought us a wagon and we'll trek west. It'll take a few weeks, gettin' clear across Arizona. We'll go north first to Santa Fe, find a bunch to go with so's we ain't on our own 'gainst the 'Pache, happen they should range so far north. There's allus folks travellin' west from Santa Fe."
Polly would rather not think about the Apache. None of her pretending had ever been about the Apache, and she sure didn't want to start now.
She huddled into her chair and sipped some more while Miz Ellen talked about the trip she'd taken to San Francisco years before and the sights Polly would see there. Whiskey was a sovereign remedy, folks said. Maybe it'd be a remedy against pretending and injuns.
Later, when the sun was well up and the day getting hot and heavy despite the cool dawn that had birthed it, the girls came to help her get ready.
Frank had gone to the barbershop to get cleaned up. They hadn't slept much all night and he'd worked up a good sweat, what with him being young and full of vim. Polly had feared that only having one man poking at a girl would get real tiresome, but so far Frank hadn't disappointed. He hadn't stopped until just before dawn, keeping her and the bed bouncing and the bed ropes squeaking and she'd been right about him wanting another go when he woke up. Carrie, giving her a little sidelong look, told her she'd heard it all.
"Some of the ladies in this house have no con-sid-er-ation," said Carrie, drawing it out and trying for the la-di-dah accent Miz Ellen used. "My gentleman couldn't get no sleep for the noise. You gave him ideas, Polly. I had to let him have more pokes than I reckon he rightly paid for."
She was helping Polly into her stays as she spoke, and Polly couldn't answer back for a moment, not while Carrie pulled on the laces. She was too short of breath. Carrie put her weight into getting those corsets tight, pulling hard with both hands and with her knee in the small of Polly's back. Polly breathed in and held the breath while Carrie pulled and tightened.
Hannah had her hands around Polly's waist, measuring when it was small enough. She gave Carrie a nod. "That should do it."
Carrie gave one more tug and knotted the strings into place. "Let your breath out slow, Polly, and let's be sure."
Polly had to breathe shallow. The whalebone pressed against her like the bars of a cage, pinching in her waist and pushing up her bosom. Just as well. She wasn't very big up there and the stays helped.
"Yes, that'll do." Hannah laughed and ran her hands lightly up Polly's sides to smooth over her bosom. "Pity it's for Frank and not me." She mock-pouted when Polly, laughing, swatted her hands away and dabbed perfume across the swell of Polly's breasts. She kissed her cheek before stepping back to let the rest of the girls in to do their part.
Polly had one of the new polonaise-skirted dresses too, as fashionable as Mrs Hogan's. It was of a good dark broadcloth for the bodice and overskirt—every lady should have a good dark dress, decreed Miz Ellen—while the under-petticoat had a thin check line woven into it, as pale a green as the dawn sky. The bodice fitted like a glove, fastening with a row of tiny black buttons. Sairy helped her put the skirt on over her stays and the petticoats and the queer wire and horsehair cage sitting over her hips and her backside. The skirt smoothed down over her hips and flared out to just above the toes of her smart new boots.
Eliza pinned a green satin ribbon around Polly's collar to flutter down over her breast—a pale green, nothing showy or gaudy—while Grace and Hannah fussed over the set of the skirt and Melia buttoned it to the bodice and cinched the belt around Polly's little waist to hide the join. Effie was working on pinning up Polly's hair and setting a pretty little hat on it. There was a matching narrow ribbon around the hat, too, and one feather shading from emerald to the same pale green at the tip.
Then it was all done. The girls stood back and looked at her.
"You look beautiful." Maggie rubbed at her eyes and smiled, all the girls nodding along with her. "So stylish, Polly."
She smiled back at them, something in her heart twisting and aching. She was moving on and leaving them behind and she was missing them already.
She'd already given them all little presents, things they'd like and use. And she'd gone through all her things and shared out everything she'd never need again: the rouge for lips and cheek, the feathers, the glass-stoned buckles and bracelets, ells of bright ribbon. A respectable woman didn't wear things like that. Respectable women wore dark dresses and their own faces, clean and wholesome as God had made them.
Polly was about to become respectable. She hoped it wouldn't be too dull.
When she was ready, when she was standing in the middle of her room and scared to move in case she mussed something, Miz Ellen came. Miz Ellen was already in her street clothes and looked as fine and neat as Mrs Hogan. She looked respectable. She looked Polly over and praised the girls for their work before shooing them out to go and get dressed and ready. Then she looked Polly over again.
"You'll do." She reset a curl on the side of Polly's face, twitching it into place, and nodded. "You're a good girl, Polly, and a hard worker. We'll miss you." She smiled. "We'll miss your spirit and imagination, and the stories you tell to keep us all cheerful."
Polly's chin trembled.
"Don't cry. Don't cry and spoil your good looks." Miz Ellen tapped Polly's cheek. "Do you have a nice handkerchief?"
"Well..." And Polly opened her reticule to take out the plain square of linen.
"That won't do." Miz Ellen pressed a little package in her hand. "Here."
It was a pair of pearl earrings wrapped in a cambric square edged with lace. The pearl drops were small but very pretty, gleaming with soft fire. The handkerchief was a tiny scrap of a thing, but very fine and just right, Miz Ellen said, for a bride on her wedding day. She patted Polly's cheeks with it while Polly stared at her new earrings. Polly couldn't speak to tell Miz Ellen her thanks, not even a stammer, and could only look at her and hope she could see it.
"To remember us by." Miz Ellen laughed when Polly's fingers proved to be too trembly to put in the earrings. She did it for her, carefully. "There. Some people say pearls mean that tears will fall, but I don't put any stock in superstition. They're the right jewels for a girl getting married, that's all."
Polly swallowed and found her voice. "Respectable, you mean?"
Miz Ellen nodded. "Exactly. There's nothing tawdry about pearls, child."
Polly's eyes filled again. "I've never had a real present before, not without somebody wantin' somethin' in return."
"Hush. That's past, now." Miz Ellen stepped back and gave her one more looking over. "I'm sorry to lose you, Polly. You were always a favourite with the customers." She looked sad for a moment. "You aren't the first to be wed out of a parlour house, you know. But I wish... sometimes it doesn't seem right to leave for the preacher's from here."
Polly shrugged and looked at her new earrings in the mirror, turning her head this way and that to get the best view. "None of the boarding houses would have let me stay there even if I wanted to. This is home." She had to stand on tip toe to reach, to press her lips against Miz Ellen's cheek. "Thank you. I'll miss you all, so much."
Miz Ellen looked kind of misty, like she needed to dab at her own eyes. "You're a good girl, Polly," she said again, and kissed Polly back. "A real good girl."
Everything was packed away in the trunk. Down at the bottom, hidden under petticoats and plain skirts and cotton or linen blouses that Miz Ellen had helped her choose, was Polly's treasure box. It didn't have much in it: a little parasol, a sandalwood fan, a buckle threaded onto black ribbon, her lace fichu. She'd wanted to wear the fichu with her new dress but Miz Ellen had said the narrow ribbon was better. Less showy, Miz Ellen said; more discreet and elegant.
Her savings were there, too. One hundred and twenty seven dollars, rolled up in an old handkerchief and tucked away in the toe of a shoe, one of the high-heeled pair with black ribbon bows and little silver buckles.
Before she locked the trunk ready for Jim to take it to the livery where Frank had the wagon waiting, she patted the shoe with the hand that would soon wear Frank's ring. She didn't go to him a penniless bride and the money she brought with her had been hard won. She'd earned every cent.
Jim checked the back alley was clear before Miz Ellen led them all out into town.
They walked together in a little bunch, Jim and Pete coming along behind, watching to make sure they weren't bothered. Polly was in the middle with Hannah hanging off one arm and Eliza off the other and the other girls making little pats at her now and again to say their goodbyes, their soft hands touching her arm or shoulder or whatever they could reach. They talked quietly, not wanting to be noticed. They were all dressed in good street clothes, hair smooth and braided away from their clean as-the-good-Lord-made-them faces. They didn't sashay their way along, as they'd do inside the house, making their hips sway to make a man's eyes bug out, but walked every bit like the ladies Miz Ellen wanted them to be.
Polly was so proud of them.
They went around the back of Main Street to the preacher's house. The Reverend Allen wouldn't have them in his church, of course, and Frank had had to tease for days to get him to agree to marry them on his back porch and in the end it had cost Frank a whole ten dollar bill. They were lucky the Reverend wasn't a married man, otherwise he likely wouldn't have been able to marry them at his house, either, and a preacher couldn't be seen going into a parlour house for any reason.
"Doesn't make any sense," murmured Effie as they trooped up the stairs onto the back porch where no casual passer-by could see them. She gave Polly a saucy look. "I mean, you're turnin' respectable, Polly. You'd think a man of God would want to rivet you to Frank real tight, before you change your mind an' fall back into sinnin'."
Polly laughed, but a little something inside her jerked and quivered. She was a mite nervous, maybe. When she'd agreed to go to California with Frank, she'd forgotten it meant leaving everything behind she'd ever known and it rocked her now. She'd been on a boat once, swinging from side to side and drifting on the river. She felt like that now, like she was at the mercy of the water.
She didn't like the feeling. Besides, she liked sinning.
Frank was waiting for her at the top of the stoop steps. He had brought her a rose, its heavy head drooping in the heat. One deep red petal floated down to land at his feet. The Lord alone knew whose garden he'd stolen it from but the Reverend gave it a hard look when he came out onto the porch, shrugging into his dark cloth coat and settling it around his shoulders. The Reverend had red roses in his little garden.
Polly took the rose and smiled. She'd have liked sunflowers and poppies better, the sort that grew all over the mountainsides, but Frank wasn't to know and for ten dollars, the Reverend could spare her a rose. It was sweet of Frank to have brought it. He'd even broken off the thorns.
Reverend Allen had a Bible in his hands. He didn't look pleased to see them, his face the face of a man who'd been eating sour pickles, although he did look surprised. Maybe he'd thought they'd come in satin and lace flounces. He opened his Bible and looked at them, sniffed loudly, and asked Polly and Frank to stand before him. More than one set of eyes over-bright, the girls handed Polly to Frank, passing her from one to the next with a kiss until she and Frank were standing there, hand in hand.
And so they were married.
Later, whenever she looked back on it and thought about it, Polly never knew whether to mourn the moment when the pretending stopped, or be thankful.
Wherever she was—in a saloon in Santa Fe matching Frank drink for drink, grappling with him in hotel and boarding house beds and remembering that he'd be the only man from now on, long weeks of sitting on the wagon seat as he drove across the hot dry lands towards the distant mountains with other wagons, buggies and riders all around them... at all those times, all she had to do was close her eyes and remember.
If she licked her lips, she could taste the ghost of the champagne she drank.
If she heard music, she could tilt her head and remember Eliza's voice, husky and soft as she sang Jerusalem the Golden in a sweet voice more used to bawdy ballads.
When she washed her hands, she could watch the water run over her fingers to drip back into the bowl and turn her hand until her ring glinted in the light. She could remember that the ring had been a fraction too small and he'd had to force it; she could feel again the momentary throb when Frank pushed the ring over her knuckle. He was a hairy man, was Frank, and her mind's eye brought up the memory of the dusting of hair over the backs of his fingers as he held her hand in his, the brightness of the afternoon sun behind him.
When, every morning she heaved and gasped behind a bush and wondered why she hadn't got rid of this one with the tea the Injuns used, the way she'd got rid of all the others over the years, she'd wipe her mouth and remember.
No more pretending. No more.
Frank killed it.
And with Frank's child quickening in her and California over the mountains ahead of them, she thought that maybe she'd have no need for it.