Read Pearl Online

Authors: Lauraine Snelling

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Pearl (3 page)

BOOK: Pearl
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‘‘No, miss. I am to do your hair also.’’ Bernadette had a reputation for creating elaborate hairdos, and on Amalia, they always looked lovely.

‘‘I don’t wear my hair—’’ She
oof
ed as the corset drove all the air from her lungs. ‘‘And I don’t go anywhere laced this tight.’’

Bernadette loosened the strings only a hint.

‘‘More, or I will not leave this room.’’

‘‘But, Miss Pearl, you—’’ ‘‘Miss Pearl nothing. If I cannot breathe, I will faint on the stairs, and then what kind of scene would we have?’’

The tsking from behind her clearly stated the maid’s opinion, but she did as requested. Barely.

Pearl sucked in three-quarters of a breath and rolled her eyes. ‘‘I am not a slave or a horse being trotted out for inspection, and I insist on knowing what this is all about.’’ She shook her head at Bernadette’s pointing to the padded bench in front of her dressing table. ‘‘Not until you tell me what you know. And I know you know something, because the two parlormaids were tittering when I came home and hustled out without speaking. Jorge told me there is company for supper.’’

‘‘If I tell you, you’ll let me do your hair and won’t let on you know?’’

‘‘Bernadette, I am far from stupid, and all this extra fussing has to alert me to something. Even Father would understand that. Just tell me so we can get this charade over with.’’

‘‘I don’t know who the guest—’’meeting Pearl’s direct gaze in the mirror, Bernadette backtracked—‘‘er, man is, but Madame Amalia told me what you were to wear and that I was to fix your hair. That is all I know. Cross my heart.’’ She loosed the knot of hair that Pearl had pinned high on her head to keep it out of the water.

‘‘I think a feather here would be nice.’’ She fashioned a mound of hair on top of Pearl’s head.

‘‘It has to cover the scar. You know that.’’

‘‘I will sweep it down on the sides then and up to fall in ringlets down the back.’’

‘‘I despise ringlets.’’

‘‘I could braid a string of pearls . . .’’ As she talked around a mouthful of hairpins, Bernadette’s hands were busy with the hair, roping it one way, twisting another.

‘‘No, that won’t work either. I look like some . . . some debutante or something. You know I like simple things.’’

‘‘Ah, but simple is often plain, and you are anything but plain.’’

‘‘Flattery will get you nowhere. Just finish, or I will be late, and then all your work will be for naught because my head will roll.’’

Within minutes Bernadette held the dress high over Pearl’s head and dropped it into place without stirring a hair, a feat that always elicited Pearl’s amazement. While the maid buttoned all the tiny buttons up the back, Pearl smoothed a hand down the front.

This was a far cry from her everyday wear in the schoolroom, that was for sure.

‘‘Now.’’ Bernadette spritzed one of Amalia’s perfumes at Pearl’s chest and wrists, pressed a lacy handkerchief into her hand, and shooed her out the door. ‘‘I will clean up in here.’’

Her father checked his watch as she entered through the arched doorway, an act that immediately set Pearl’s teeth on edge. She was not late. In fact, she was a few minutes early. She’d checked the ornately carved clock in the hallway to be sure. They always ate at seven.

‘‘Good evening, Father, Amalia.’’ If one was to play a role, one must do it well, including perfect diction and posture. She smiled at the nondescript man standing beside her father and extended her hand, palm down and limp.

‘‘Mr. Longstreet, I would like you to meet my elder daughter, Pearl Hossfuss.’’

‘‘I am pleased to meet you, Miss Hossfuss. Your father has spoken of you most highly.’’

Pearl almost sent her father a look of astonishment but covered with a slight cough behind the handkerchief. A fan would have been a delightful touch. ‘‘Thank you.’’
It’s a shame he has
never mentioned you to any of us
.

‘‘Mr. Longstreet is new to our company and to Chicago. I thought perhaps you would give him a guided tour on Sunday after church.’’

‘‘Really.’’ Her gaze flashed to her stepmother. Amalia shrugged but only with one shoulder and almost imperceptibly.

Amalia might not have had any advance warning either unless Mr. Hossfuss had sent a message home by one of his office runners.

Mr. Longstreet bowed over her hand.

He did know how to do that right. Pearl smiled an acknowledgment, as if she did this every day. Her years of watching and loving every stage play that came to town often paid off in unexpected ways.

‘‘Supper is served, madam,’’ Mr. French, head butler, announced from the doorway.

When her father extended his bent arm to his wife, Mr.

Longstreet did the same for Pearl. She placed her left hand on his sleeve lightly, as she had seen an actress do on stage and read in countless books. Memories of practice lessons at Mrs. Eldridge’s Finishing School for Young Ladies returned. She’d thought such affectations a waste of time even back then. A good book was far more worthy of discussion than the list of topics one was allowed to introduce in polite society during the meal.

She was grateful she’d not had to play this part often, one good thing that had come of the scar on her neck. Her father believed her less than perfect appearance would offend some of the people in the society he would like to have conquered. While he had made a fortune, that alone did not qualify one for the
crème de la crème
of Chicago society.

Pearl allowed herself to be seated by the butler, nodding her thanks over her shoulder and making sure her parents did not see the slightly raised eyebrow.

‘‘You are most welcome, miss.’’

‘‘Tell me about yourself, Mr. Longstreet,’’ Pearl suggested over the cheesy corn chowder, a perfect soup for such a miserable night. She would have preferred a larger bowl of the chowder with crusty Swedish rye bread up in either her own room or the nursery or the kitchen. Anywhere but here, where the strictures around her waist would make taking more than a few mouthfuls of any course impossible.

‘‘I . . . ah . . . work for your father, and I moved to Chicago from Duluth, Minnesota.’’ He took another spoonful of chowder and wiped his mouth with the napkin.

Pearl did not believe she was a snob, but the worn look of the cuff nearest her, the shiny elbows, and the slightly limp collar of his shirt told her no one was looking after his clothing. They were definitely not the sartorial caliber of most of her father’s friends. She wrinkled her nose at the slightly musty odor that emanated from him, as if both he and his clothing needed an airing or a bath.

‘‘Duluth is quite a bit colder than Chicago, is it not?’’ The weather was always a safe topic.

‘‘Not really.’’

She waited for him to say more, but when he returned to his soup, she did likewise.

When their soup plates were replaced by the salads, she caught her father’s glowering look and dug around for another question.

‘‘What kind of books do you like to read?’’

He crumpled his napkin. ‘‘I . . . ah . . . I’m sorry to say I-I haven’t read much.’’

Doesn’t read much. How distressing
. ‘‘Oh.’’
Music, everyone loves
music
. ‘‘Have you been able to attend any concerts since you came here?’’

‘‘Ah . . .’’ He shook his head. ‘‘No.’’

‘‘Have you joined a church?’’ Rule number three of Mrs. Eldridge’s list for polite conversation. Do not discuss religion.

‘‘No, not yet.’’ He turned slightly to see her better. ‘‘You see, I have five children, and between home and my new position in your father’s company, I have little time for anything else.’’

‘‘I see. Well, once you settle in, perhaps you would like to join us at First Lutheran. Your children would love the Sunday school there.’’

‘‘Thank you. I will keep that in mind.’’

They finished the roast pork main course with decidedly desultory conversation among the four of them. While waiting for dessert, Mr. Hossfuss spoke up resolutely.

‘‘I thought that perhaps, if the weather improves, you would show our guest your favorite parts of our city on Sunday afternoon, after he joins us for dinner, of course.’’ His smile notified Pearl that this was more than just a suggestion, and that if he had anything to say about it, the weather would be balmy.

But that’s when I prepare for my week’s lessons
. Pearl bit back a retort and smiled, just barely, but it was a smile. She could feel her cheeks move. ‘‘Why, certainly. If Mr. Longstreet can find the time, that is.’’

‘‘Oh yes, that would be most agreeable.’’

I sincerely doubt that. So far we have absolutely nothing in common,
and I shall have to talk myself hoarse
.

‘‘Good, that is arranged then,’’ her father said. ‘‘Ah, Inga has outdone herself with her dried-peach upside down cake.’’

Even Father can’t keep the conversation going
. Pearl tried to catch Amalia’s gaze, but her stepmother was whispering something to the butler.

What a bizarre evening, what a waste of her best gown. Getting comfortable in her nightdress and reading in her cozy room sounded infinitely better than dragging through dessert. Surely their boring guest would leave right after supper unless, of course, her father invited him for a cigar, and then they’d have coffee again. Could she feign a headache, something she’d never done in her life?

Who was this man, and why was he here?

CHAPTER THREE

He never mentioned his wife, only five children
.

Pearl sat straight up in bed at the thought. Here she’d been almost asleep, and this thought grabbed her like someone reaching from the bushes and snatching her hand.

Surely her father hadn’t—no, of course not. He’d never pushed a suitor on her, in fact he’d seemed content that she helped with the other children and accompanied Amalia on her missions of mercy, as she called them. Amalia took to heart the Bible’s admonition to care for the poor and downtrodden. He’d also seemed pleased—or was it relieved?—when she started teaching at the settlement school.

Or had he ever even cared?

I know he loved me at one time. I can remember him bragging about
his little girl. When I was the only one he had.

‘‘Far, Far!’’ Pearl ran to her father when he came through the door.

‘‘How’s my datter today? Were you a good girl?’’

‘‘Yes.’’ Her blond, near to white, hair haloed around her face. ‘‘I am always good.’’

‘‘And your mor, she would agree?’’

‘‘Yes. Ah . . .’’ She tipped her head to the side and gave her father an extra-wide smile. ‘‘Mostly.’’

‘‘Should I go ask her?’’

With a very brief nod, Pearl ducked her chin, and her forefinger found its way to her lower lip. She no longer sucked her thumb, but the fingertip to the lip sufficed. ‘‘I didn’t want to take my bath after playing in the dirt.’’ The words were spoken into the finger and all run together.

‘‘Ah, I see. And then what happened? You look all shiny clean now.’’

‘‘Mor said she would say I was bad, and . . .’’ Here her blue eyes found his again, and she whispered, ‘‘I don’t ever want to be a bad girl.’’

He picked her up in his arms. ‘‘You will never be a bad girl, naughty sometimes but never bad.’’ He kissed her cheek and stood her back on the floor, taking her hand in his. ‘‘Now let’s go find Mor and have supper. Oh.’’ He stopped and dug in his breast pocket. ‘‘I found this today. Do you think you could take care of it for me?’’ He handed her a lemon drop.

‘‘Mange takk.’’
She popped it in her mouth and skipped beside him, sucking all the while.

‘‘Mr. Hossfuss, you are going to spoil that child.’’ Anna’s smile made her husband laugh.

And that wasn’t just one day, but the pattern for most of the days.

Pearl could still taste the lemon drop when she remembered. All before that one day. The day of the accident. After that . . .

She jerked herself back to the present, finding her fingers tracing the scar.

She plumped her pillow and lay back down. Only at night did the memories trap her, only at night when she had no defenses.

Getting ready for school in the morning, she made a decision. No play this year. Not that it had been an annual thing. Last year had been the first, but still, she’d been seriously considering it. But there just wasn’t time before school was dismissed for the summer, although if she had her way, there would be no summer without regular classes. These children were too far behind already. So what special thing could they do instead? Wishing for Bernadette’s facile fingers to do her hair, she instead pinned the usual sweep in place to cover the scar and bundled the mass into a crocheted snood. She checked her appearance in the mirror, satisfied that nothing was amiss, and picked up her satchel with all her supplies for school. While descending the stairs, her mind worried at the puzzle.

BOOK: Pearl
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