Authors: Kerry Greenwood
Mrs Charlesworth’s eyes were bright with intelligence, hazel eyes full of passion. Phryne wanted to hear more, so she said, ‘Not entirely. Do you mean that the ordinary man on the train will not look across at a shop girl and say, “She is of the same sex as Queen Elizabeth”?’
‘Yes! One can look at a plumber, a labourer, and say without a great sense of irony, “He is a man, capable of the same heroism as Admiral Nelson or Saint Francis of Assissi”. But no one looks at a woman and says, “She is a woman, she is capable of the same heroism as Lady Godiva or Anne Askew”. Our heroines are separated from us. So instead of trying to make Man accept us as daughters of heroism, we must raise all women to the level of heroines. “Not that one woman can do it”—because a woman, like a man, can do anything provided she sacrifices everything, including her life, to that one idea— but that “Every woman can do it”. Every woman can be educated, can have a career, can be the breadwinner for her family, can run a household and go into parliament or medicine or the law, and when there are enough of us as doctors and lawyers and parliamentarians, when there are many women in public life, then Man cannot ignore us. We will take our rightful place.’
‘At the side of Man?’ asked Phryne evenly.
‘At the head,’ said Mrs Charlesworth fervently. ‘Look at the world, Miss Fisher. Does it seem well run to you? Women and children are hungry and ill-used all over the world. Men who played with toy soldiers as children grow up to play soldiers with real lives and create nothing but waste and devastation. But that war, for us, was good. It removed thousands of young men, broke thousands of hearts, and made women find out that they were strong. We could do many things which men had kept as their especial preserve. Fight fires. Drive trains. Mine coal. I remember driving a delivery truck. I only had to work nine hours a day. I got meal breaks and smokos. I had been looking after three children under five on my own on a soldier’s wife’s pension in a cold-water second-floor room in Richmond. On my male wages I could afford to hire two women to look after my children and still have enough left over to buy luxuries like butter. After a year I could afford to move into a house. Of course, after the war my husband came home, and I returned to the house. Such wild fancies as paying women a living wage only happen in wartime. But it was a very important experience, Miss Fisher. That’s when I resolved to start a magazine which would inform women, encourage them, educate them.’
‘But not go too far,’ mused Phryne. ‘To salt your magazine with enough fashion notes and “Hilda and the Fairies” so that you won’t shock your readership and drive them away. But, in fact, you want to seduce them into taking over the world?’
Mrs Charlesworth beamed. It was the innocent, double-chinned beam of a happy baby, belied only by the shrewd eyes.
‘Exactly,’ she said.
‘Ah,’ said Phryne. ‘I wish you every kind of luck,’ she added. ‘Now, perhaps I’d better be getting on? I must go out at noon, but I can come back this afternoon.’
‘Good. Miss Herbert, who should have recovered from her gaffe by now, will show you all the notes Miss Alston left. Nine hundred to a thousand words, room for illustrations. See Mrs McAlpin when she comes back if you require any photographs.’
‘Mrs McAlpin? The … er … elderly lady? She’s your photographer?’
‘Try not to accept the errors of the dominant mythology, Miss Fisher,’ said Mrs Charlesworth tolerantly, showing Phryne out.
Phryne drew up a battered kitchen chair and sat down at Miss Herbert’s desk.
‘Yes, do try,’ said Miss Herbert. ‘Myself, I find the dominant mythology irresistible. I’m so sorry, Miss Fisher. Made a fool of myself.’
‘Understandable reaction,’ said Phryne. ‘This seems to be a very closed little shop indeed, and you can’t take to outsiders just because they’re fashionable.’
‘Oh, we can. I’d kill for your sweet little hat with the darling scarf. But I expect it cost ten quid at a boutique in the Paris end of Collins Street?’
‘Guineas,’ said Phryne. ‘What are we writing about?’
‘Summer clothes,’ said Miss Herbert. ‘Here are the broadsheets, a copy of
, and Miss Alston’s notes. What do you think?’
‘Pretty terrible.’ Phryne skimmed the pencilled notes. ‘I can’t agree that those Fuji prints are smart. They’re vulgar. And they run in the wash. Plain colours wear better and you can wear printed scarves and shawls with them. Those shoes will break more ankles than hearts. And look at this list of rules! Red hair can only wear pale green, never pink, never red, never navy. I have one red-headed friend who looks stunning in burgundy. A pox on all of them. Let’s have a look at the broadsheets.’
‘They aren’t your style of thing,’ said Miss Herbert hesitantly. ‘Not your level of fashion.’
‘“Honest labour wears a lovely face”, Miss Herbert,’ said Phryne.
‘It’s all right for you,’ said Miss Herbert sulkily. ‘You started out beautiful.’
‘No, I started out plain,’ said Phryne. ‘Lanky and pale with two plaits which stuck out like a Dutch doll’s. I just made the best of my points. And if you want some advice, ditch most of your powder—you’ve got lovely skin—display your dark eyes and chestnut hair by wearing copper, bronze, black or dark red, and I’ve got just the hat. I’ll bring it in tomorrow.’ She paused to allow Miss Herbert to take offence, but Miss Herbert just stared, so Phryne continued. ‘Tell you what. Let’s allot ourselves a budget of ten pounds and see what we can get in these ads. Summer frocks or costumes, shoes, bag and hat.’
Miss Herbert, now wholly Phryne’s slave, burrowed with a will into the advertising broadsheets, scribbling totals as she went. At the end of an hour, much refreshed by tea, coconut biscuits and Miss Fisher’s Balkan cigarettes, they compared their sheets.
‘I got two cotton dresses and a Fuji one, a pair of cheap shoes and a cloche,’ said Miss Herbert triumphantly. ‘Sixteen shillings and sixpence for the dresses, the hat was a bit more expensive, but there’s a special on shoes at Clark’s. We can stretch that out all right. Didn’t see any handbag worth having. She’ll have to use last year’s. What have you got?’
‘I spent nearly all my money on a tailored suit from Craig’s. Eight and a half guineas in a lightweight fabric—crepe de Chine, say, in a solid colour like leaf green, lobelia blue or Mediterranean blue. Oatmeal for the faint-hearted. Wine for those with dark hair. Tailored for me, not the average woman who almost fits into size XS.’
‘Nice, but you’ve used up all your money.’
‘Not yet. I will then catch a tram to Chapel Street and go to the grand sale at Colosseum-Treadways. Elbowing through the multitude, I will there purchase a pair of pumps for three shillings and elevenpence (one cannot wear sandals with a costume), and two tunics in pale or contrasting Indian cotton for three and eleven each. I can there also purchase my straw hat, four and eleven. Removing from it all decoration, I can use one of the scarves (elevenpence) to wind around it. I will place all my purchases in a straw basket which will take two remaining shillings and I will bestow the rest on the poor.’
‘Gosh,’ said Miss Herbert.
‘What’s more,’ said Phryne, lighting another gasper, ‘next summer all I need to do to cheer my suit up is buy or make more blouses, get some more scarves and new gloves and stockings. Hemlines aren’t going to rise any higher. No couturière is going to actually expose the knee, the ugliest joint we have. If hemlines drop dramatically, then I can always let mine down, or get a new skirt to match the coat or contrast with it. As long as I choose the suit carefully in a colour I can actually live with, I’ve got summer clothes for ten years, while your poor lady is going to have to demand more money from her long-suffering husband for new clothes next season.’
‘Gosh,’ said Miss Herbert again. ‘That’s amazing.’
‘I learned it all from my companion, Dot. When I asked her what she wanted in a dress, as a present, telling her she could choose absolutely anything she liked, I was rather surprised when she selected a tailored suit rather than something astounding in evening wear. Madame Fleuri, the French seamstress who made it, thoroughly approved. “While you ’ave my suit, ma’moiselle, you can be married in it or buried in it, which God forbid, but you will always ’ave something respectable to wear”.’
‘I’ll remember that. I say, Miss Fisher, what if we publish this? Put both of our shopping lists together. “Ladies! You can buy this list and get new frocks but they’ll only last one summer, or your suit and new blouses each year.” What do you think?’
‘Sounds good. Why don’t we do that? If Mrs Charlesworth approves?’
‘Oh, she couldn’t care less about fashion. That’s why we don’t have a fashion reporter, only Miss Alston part-time. And I don’t know as much about it as I thought I did. What about evening clothes, Miss Fisher? What do you advise on the same lines as your tailored costume?’
‘Get a black dress,’ said Phryne, ‘of the most expensive, durable fabric you can afford. Not cut in any wildly eccentric fashion, hand-tailored or take it to a local seamstress and get it altered to fit you. Then use it as a base. Fling a voluminous Indian shawl over it, or a bit of that gorgeous Chinese silk, brocade for winter, gauze for summer. This has advantages,’ she added, heading for the door. ‘It doesn’t matter what colour your corsage is, you can wear it to a wedding or a funeral with equal propriety, and …’
‘Yes?’ gasped Miss Herbert as Phryne opened the door to the stairs.
‘You can wear a lot of diamonds.’ Miss Fisher grinned, blew her a kiss, and vanished.
The Lin family mansion was enclosed in its walls like a jewel in a lotus. Phryne did not try to enter the main building, but asked one of the blue-shirted men in the silk shop, ‘Will you ask if Madame Lin can see me?’
She waited until the message had been translated and relayed, occupying her time looking through the rows of inferior silks on display. Faded and depressed washing silks lined the counter. No wonder Lin Chung had been sent on a silk-buying trip, if this was the best the Lin family could presently offer.
The little shop was hot. Phryne was counting her time. Ten minutes for a reply was the utmost that could be expected when everyone had to translate the message. Twenty minutes was verging on discourtesy. Half an hour in a stuffy little shop was over the edge and trotting along towards a calculated insult.
Outside, Little Bourke Street went on its way, noisy, prosperous, alien, strangely scented and fascinating. Inside it was tedious and getting hotter. Cantonese voices began to sound metallic in her ears as she strained after the sense of what they were saying. She knew that she would never be able to master the odd, inflected, tonal language.
Well, there was always shopping. Phryne indicated a bolt of reasonable-looking black corded silk and the shop man mounted a ladder and hefted it down, displaying it with a flick of the wrist. It was dull but good. Very good, in fact, thick and faintly lustrous. Phryne rubbed it between thumb and forefinger. At that moment the shop man caught sight of her silver ring, a big entwined dragon and phoenix. It might be true that to Asians all roundeyes look alike, but he had clearly seen the ring before.
He shouted something urgent to someone at the back of the shop, then respectfully withdrew the corded black silk and returned it to its place. Another blue-coated man walked from behind the counter with a half bolt of glossy, fine, sensuous red so liquid that it almost dripped from Phryne’s grasp. He bowed. Both shop men smiled nervously.
Phryne bought seven yards, paying by cheque and leaving her card so that it could be delivered. Madame Fleuri would make nightclothes out of that silk which would be as comfortable to wear as warm air on naked skin. The shop men bowed and smiled again, offering the distinguished customer a wooden chair. Before allowing her to sit, the taller of them dusted it with a fine flourish.
Phryne sat down and composed her features as though she was in church.
Precisely twenty minutes after she had first entered the shop the blue-shirted man received a sharp order in a female voice, lifted up the counter top and bowed. Phryne walked through. Behind the counter was an open door. Beyond was an oasis of coolness and shade.
There was a girl waiting for her under the arch, which was studded with potted azaleas, salmon pink, white and claret. Phryne wondered if the white ones were the azaleas named after her patron, Phryne, the courtesan of ancient Greece.
‘Miss Fisher?’ The girl was anxious. Why was Phryne making the Lin family so edgy? That silk was worth four times what she had paid for it and clearly it was kept for special customers. They had never shown any sign of wishing to mark her out for special favour before. Rather the opposite, in fact. Tolerance was the best she could expect.
The girl was about sixteen, conventionally dressed like a schoolgirl, with a long plait down her back and a clear, high-coloured complexion. She had the Lin family’s delicacy of feature. There was nothing remarkable about her but her self-possession, unusual in so young a woman, and her damaged hands. Rather touched, Phryne noticed that she bit her nails. ‘I am Jane Lin, Lin Chung’s cousin. Do sit down. Can we offer you some tea?’
‘Madame Lin?’ asked Phryne, who had not really expected to see the old woman but was anxious to make the point. Jane Lin looked away.
‘Our grandmother is very old. She is resting. She feels sure that you will forgive her,’ she said.
Phryne was not at all sure, but accepted refreshment and talked about the weather for the requisite time. She sat down on a curved iron garden seat, much more comfortable than one might think from the shape. She ate petits fours. She drank strong golden tea, the Iron Goddess which Lin Chung favoured. The taste reminded her painfully of him. Lin Chung the magician. Lin Chung of the mocking, clever, sensuous mind, the smooth, muscular body, the hands which could make her catch her breath. The dark eyes which remained forever unreadable. Lin Chung who had left long ago and gone into the maelstrom in pursuit of more pretty fabric to drape around female frames.
The cool green scent of the garden was very pleasant, but Phryne was not to be seduced. Finally she asked her question.