Authors: M. Louisa Locke
The Misses Moffet Mend a Marriage
A Victorian San Francisco Story
M. Louisa Locke
Copyright 2012 by M. Louisa Locke
Cover design Copyright 2012 Michelle Huffaker
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Millie felt a warm glow of pleasure as her older sister, Minnie, sailed up to the front desk at the Palace, San Francisco’s newest and grandest hotel, and announced, “Miss Minerva and Miss Millicent Moffet, for their appointment with Mrs. Andrew Roberts.”
The desk clerk
snapped his fingers at one of the bellmen, who came running over. He bowed and took the large brown-paper parcel from Minnie and her own carpetbag of sewing materials before leading the way to the nearest elevator. This device, the only one that Millie had ever ridden in, was an imposing wood-paneled room that miraculously ascended up to the fifth floor, with just the slightest hiss and jerk when they reached their destination. Even though they had been coming to work for Mrs. Roberts for nearly a year, riding in this odd conveyance never got old for Millie. Neither did the respectful treatment by the staff. As the bellman guided them solicitously down the corridor to Mrs. Roberts’ suite, his dark skin and soft southern accent made her nostalgic for her Natchez home. She and her sister hadn’t been back in the twenty-five years since they and their younger brother were swept up in the golden rush to San Francisco in the early eighteen-fifties.
While her sister continued a
stream of questions designed to elicit every detail of the bellman’s history, Millie stepped over to the balcony railing that ran around all four sides of the Grand Court of the Palace Hotel. Noticing how motes of dust drifted in the soft shafts of light slanting down from the glass domed ceiling three stories above, she looked up at the seventh floor, which housed the Conservatory. She hadn’t seen so many marble columns and Greek statues since the doors of polite Natchez society had been slammed in her family’s face when her father went bankrupt. This made her remember the gown she’d made for the cotillion where her engagement was to be announced. It was made of light-blue striped satin and had the large puffed sleeves that were so fashionable back then. The engagement, like the cotillion, had never happened for her.
So long ago. I wonder if Percy ever regrets…?
Millicent!” Minnie’s sharp voice interrupted her melancholy reverie.
Millie obediently retu
rned to stand next to the door to the Roberts’s suite of rooms. The door opened, and Juliette, Mrs. Roberts’s maid, ushered them in. Juliette was wearing a severely tailored dark-blue dress with starched white apron, collar, and cuffs and a white lace cap that the Moffets had made. Millie was particularly proud of the cap, made precisely to Mrs. Roberts’s specifications. Her sister had designed the dress itself, and Mrs. Roberts had confided to them one afternoon during a fitting that she believed that the only reason Juliette stayed in her employ was because of how well she looked in her uniform.
She’d said, with her engaging laugh, “She hates living in the hotel
. Our suite is such a long way from the basement where the maids are housed, and Juliette says the matron in charge of the servant dormitory is worse than a prison guard. Of course, I can’t help but wonder what she knows about prison guards.”
Roberts, formerly Jewell Darling, a favorite of the vaudeville circuit, was now married to the respected and wealthy Mr. Andrew Roberts, a partner in the Union Ironworks who was at least thirty years her senior. Minnie disapproved of her, but Millie found her lively sense of humor refreshing. Of course, she didn’t tell Minnie that.
Juliette dismissed the bellman as soon as she had relieved him of his burdens and followed the two sisters into the large, elegantly appointed room that served the Roberts as their parlor. Mrs. Roberts, as usual, hadn’t emerged from the adjoining bedroom, so Minnie switched the flow of her conversation to the maid while carefully unwrapping the parcel and laying the three long pieces of a burnt-orange satin fabric out on the table to the left of the fireplace.
silently went over to the brocade-covered armchair where the maid had deposited her carpetbag and pulled out the red pincushion, making sure that there was a threaded needle stuck into the cushion before strapping it onto her left wrist. She laid out the spool of thread and the slender, sharp scissors on the table, close at hand.
The maid, who had been putting anothe
r log on the fire, broke into Minnie’s description of how the weather reminded her of Fall in Natchez to ask her if they were ready. Minnie nodded, and Juliette knocked lightly on the door to the bedroom and then went in.
“I hope she is willing to stand still long enough for us to get the wa
ist fitted properly,” Minnie said, sighing.
Millie smiled. Every Wednesday morning
, they were scheduled to spend an hour at Mrs. Roberts’s hotel suite for a dress fitting, and almost every Wednesday, they were dismissed after only twenty minutes, the lady professing that she couldn’t remain stationary a single minute more.
Juliette, serve Miss Minnie and Miss Millie their tea, and then you can go.” Mrs. Roberts, a tall, raven-haired beauty, swept into the parlor. “I will probably have a little rest after they leave, so you don’t need to return until four.”
bobbed a curtsy and went over to a table covered in burgundy velvet that was located near the door to pour out two cups of tea. She also removed a thick linen napkin, revealing a plate piled high with slices of ham, Swiss cheese, and soft rolls.
, since she knew that even the tea would remain untouched by either her or her sister as long as they were handling the delicate satin material, but she did appreciate the gesture.
Thank goodness for the excellent breakfast served at Mrs. Fuller’s boarding house, or I might be tempted to break Minnie’s “no food when working” rule.
Roberts went over and began to caress the semi-finished sections of skirt lying spread out on the larger table. “Oh my, that satin is heavenly; the color is just as I imagined. And those pleats!”
launched into the story of the difficulties in getting the thread dyed to match the shade of the satin while Mrs. Roberts took off the pale-lilac wrapper she wore and handed it to Millie. Her sister had designed this dressing gown last summer for Mrs. Roberts, and she had spent every night for a month sewing on the delicate strips of lace that ran down the front of it. She saw that the seam at the neck was torn, and several of the tiny ivory buttons were loose.
Mrs. Roberts was hard on her clothes
Minnie would say it was because she hadn’t been brought up as a lady.
She certainly wasn’t as shy as some of their customers were about standing around in her underthings. Today, she only had on a single petticoat in addition to her chemise and drawers, probably because the dress they were fitting was in the new long cuirass style that went smoothly over the waist and hips. However, the fact that Mrs. Roberts wasn’t wearing her corset was going to make it hard to measure the skirt accurately, which was their task today.
went over and pulled the sturdy footstool over to the fireplace, and Mrs. Roberts went and stood on it. Then she took the front panel, the one with all the pleats, and held it up to Mrs. Roberts, inside out, while Millie securely pinned the side panels to it at the waist. Mrs. Roberts obligingly held the sides of the skirt up while she and her sister tacked on the back panel. While basting the waistband to the skirt, Minnie chattered about the twisted scarf drapery that they were going to fasten to the back of the outfit. Meanwhile, Millie swiftly pinned the four panels together, seams side out. They had made the skirt go straight down from the hips, only beginning a very slight flair at the knees, so that Mrs. Roberts could actually walk in the outfit when it was completed.
Working so closely
to her scantily clothed client, Millie couldn’t help but notice the musky scent that rose from Mrs. Roberts’s warm skin. She wondered if men liked that sort of animal smell. In her youth, she had folded her clothing in lavender, but she had never before considered whether her fiancé would have preferred something stronger. Ladies just didn’t think in those terms fifty years ago.
Then, as Minnie would point out, Mrs. Roberts was no lady.
iss Minnie, weren’t you going to trim the ends of the skirt with the cashmere you are using on the bodice?” Mrs. Roberts asked.
Her sister stopped in the midst of her description of the new princess
-style walking dress she was making for another customer and responded, “Yes, Mrs. Roberts, you are quite correct. Millicent is going to mark where the flounce will attach to the inside of the skirt, and then I will know how deep to make the triangles we talked about. As I always say, ‘Measure twice, cut once.’ I really believe the finished skirt will be very fetching once I have added the cashmere. That was an excellent idea on your part; there won’t be another one like it this season. I wouldn’t be surprised, however, if it catches on and we have requests for it in the future. I promise not to….”
Millie heard the sound of the oute
r door to the adjoining bedroom open and then close, and she looked up at the clock on the mantle. They had come at noon, and it was now nearly twenty-five past the hour. She quickly knelt down to fold and pin the bottom of the skirt up, automatically calculating how much extra material would be needed to ensure that, when Mrs. Roberts was wearing her shoes with their three-inch heels, there wouldn’t be a whisper of space between the end of the dress and the floor. As their client began to fidget, her sister made a valiant effort to buy Millie a little more time by asking Mrs. Roberts a question about the play they knew she had planned to attend last Saturday.
It was of no use. Mrs.
Roberts had evidently heard the door as well, and she said sharply, “Do unpin me! You’ve surely gotten what you need. We can finish fitting the skirt next week.”
Millie rose and quickly re
positioned the pins along one of the seams so that the skirt was now open at the side, permitting Mrs. Roberts to extricate herself. Once, she hadn’t moved quickly enough and Mrs. Roberts had pulled two pieces of material apart in her impatience, damaging the material irreparably.
As her sister would say, ‘Haste makes waste!’
“Oh dear, I had hoped you would have time to partake of the lunch I had brought up for you. You didn’t even drink your tea,” Mrs.
Roberts said, her good humor restored now that she was free. She stretched and pretended to yawn, saying, “I just don’t know what has come over me. I am suddenly so fatigued. You will excuse me, won’t you? I must insist that you gather up your things and go. I really must retire.”
Roberts pulled on the lilac-colored wrapper, not even taking time to button it up, and stood next to the door leading to the hotel hallway.
The habitual smile her sister wore fl
ickered out, and as Minnie hurriedly folded up the skirt, she said, so softly that Millie barely made out the words, “Once again, new dress, new admirer. I wonder who she has gotten into her clutches this time?”
Millie felt sorry for Mrs. Porter, who was obviously finding it difficult to stand while Minnie took her measurements. She knew it was a breach of good manners even to allude to Mrs. Porter’s pregnancy, but she had a strong desire to ask the poor young woman if she was carrying twins. Fortunately, her habit of never saying anything in front of other people protected her from this social solecism.
ph, I am so sorry, Miss Minnie. I know I’m not making this easier on you, but I really must sit again,” the young woman sighed and lowered herself into the straight-backed chair next to the tea table.
Millie’s sister replied, “Oh my dear Mrs.
Porter, that is quite all right. My sister will freshen up your cup of tea if you would like. Are you sure you don’t want to pull that chair nearer to the fire? The fog hasn’t burned off yet, and the air feels so cold. Of course, it is not nearly as dangerous as the damp mists of the Mississippi that Miss Millicent and I experienced growing up in Natchez.”
Porter shook her head and distractedly flapped her hands in front of her cheeks, where angry red splotches had replaced the soft rose color that usually lent a particular sweetness to this young woman’s face. “Oh my, no, I am so hot. Please, Miss Millie, could you pour me a glass of water? I’m parched.”