Authors: Kate Alcott
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2012 by Kate Alcott
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
and the portrayal of an anchor with a dolphin are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
Jacket design by Lynn Buckley
Jacket photograph © Ute Klaphake/Trevillion Images
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
The dressmaker : a novel / Kate Alcott.—1st ed.
1. Women dressmakers—Fiction. 2. Titanic (Steamship)—Fiction.
3. Survival after airplane accidents, shipwrecks, etc.—Fiction. 4. English—
United States—Fiction. I. Title.
To Frank, always
Good friends read and read … how many versions? My thanks to you all—Ellen, Irene, Judy, Linda, Margaret, and my sister, Mary.
Esther, you are a stand-out, stand-up friend and agent. And Melissa, your ideas and enthusiasm were just what a writer hopes for from a good editor.
And Frank, you gifted me with my magnificent replica of the
, betting mine wouldn’t sink. Thank you.
APRIL 10, 1912
ess pulled at the corners of the sheets she had taken straight from the line and tried to tuck them tight under the mattress, stepping back to check her work. Still a bit bunchy and wrinkled. The overseer who ran this house was sure to inspect and sniff and scold, but it didn’t matter anymore.
She glanced out the window. A woman was walking by, wearing a splendid hat topped with a rich, deep-green ribbon, twirling a bright-red parasol, her face lively, her demeanor confident and sunny. Tess tried to imagine herself stepping forward so confidently without someone accusing her of behaving above her station. She could almost feel her fingers curling around the smooth, polished handle of that parasol. Where was the woman going?
She gazed back at the half-made bed. No more fantasizing, not one more minute of it.
She walked out into the central hall and stopped, held in place by the sight of her reflection in the full-length gilded mirror at the end of the hall. Her long dark hair, as always, had pulled out of a carelessly pinned bun, even as the upward tilt of her chin, which had so often registered boldness, remained in place. But there was no denying the
shameful crux of what she saw: a skinny young girl wearing a black dress and a white apron and carrying a pile of dirty linens, with a servant’s cap sitting squarely and stupidly on the top of her head. An image of servitude. She yanked the cap off her head and hurled it at the glass. She was not a servant. She was a seamstress, a good one, and she should be paid for her work. She had been tricked into this job.
Tess dumped the soiled linens down the laundry chute and climbed the stairs to her third-floor room, untying her apron as she went. Today, yes. No further hesitation. There were jobs available, the dockworkers had said, on that huge ship sailing for New York today. She scanned the small room. No valise—the mistress would stop her cold at the door if she knew she was leaving. The picture of her mother, yes. The money. Her sketchbook, with all her designs. She took off her uniform, put on her best dress, and stuffed some undergarments, stockings, and her only other dress into a canvas sack. She stared at the half-finished ball gown draped over the sewing machine, at the tiny bows of crushed white velvet she had so painstakingly stitched onto the ballooning blue silk. Someone else would have to finish it, someone who actually got paid. What else? Nothing.
She took a deep breath, trying to resist the echo of her father’s voice in her head: Don’t put on airs, he always scolded. You’re a farm girl, do your job, keep your head down. You get decent enough pay; mind you don’t wreck your life with defiance.
“I won’t wreck it,” she whispered out loud. “I’ll make it better.”
But, even as she turned and left her room for the last time, she could almost hear his voice following her, as raspy and angry as ever: “Watch out, foolish girl.”
The rotting wood planks beneath Lucile’s feet were spongy, catching her boot heels as she made her way through the crowd on the Cherbourg dock. She pulled her silver-fox stole snugly around her neck, luxuriating in the plush softness of the thick fur, and lifted her head high, attracting many glances, some triggered by the sight of her brilliantly red hair, others by the knowledge of who she was.
She glanced at her sister walking quickly toward her, humming some new song, twirling a red parasol as she walked. “You do enjoy playing the blithe spirit, don’t you?” she said.
“I try to be an agreeable person,” her sister murmured.
“I have no need to compete; you may have the attention,” Lucile said in her huskiest, haughtiest voice.
“Oh, stop it, Lucy. Neither of us is impoverished on that score. Really, you are cranky lately.”
“If you were presenting a spring collection in New York in a few weeks, you’d be cranky, too. I have too much to worry about with all this talk of women hiking their skirts and flattening their breasts. All you have to do is write another novel about them.”
The two of them started squeezing past the dozens of valises and trunks, brass hinges glowing in the waning light, their skirts of fine wool picking up layers of damp dust turned to grime.
“It’s true, the tools of my trade are much more portable than yours,” Elinor said airily.
“They certainly are. I’m forced to make this crossing because I don’t have anyone competent enough to be in charge of the show, so I must be there. So please don’t be frivolous.”
Elinor closed her parasol with a snap and stared at her sister, one perfect eyebrow arched. “Lucy, how can you have no sense of humor? I’m only here to wish you bon voyage and cheer you on when the ship departs. Shall I leave now?”
Lucile sighed and took a deep breath, allowing a timed pause. “No, please,” she said. “I only wish you were sailing with me. I will miss you.”
“I would like nothing better than to go with you, but my editor wants those corrected galleys back by the end of the week.” Elinor’s voice turned sunny again. “Anyway, you have Cosmo—such a sweetheart, even if he doesn’t appreciate poetry.”
“A small defect.”
“He’s a dear, and his best gift to you has been a title. Is that too crass? But it is true that he has no literary appreciation.” Elinor sighed. “And he can be boring.”
“You know it as well as I do. Where is he?”
Lucile was scanning the crowd, searching for the tall, angular figure of Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon. “This delay is maddening. If anybody can get things operating efficiently and on time, Cosmo can.”
“Of course. That’s his job.”
Lucile glanced sharply at Elinor, but she was looking elsewhere, an innocent expression on her face.