Adventures of a Madam in San Francisco's Victorian Underworld
Based on a True Story
Joanne Orion Miller
Copyright 2012 Joanne Orion Miller|
Thank you for reading this free web-published selection from the novel Shaketown. Although this is a free collection of chapters from the story, it remains the copyrighted property of the author, and may not be reproduced, copied and distributed for commercial or non-commercial purposes. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to click on this page or download their own copy at Amazon, Barnes & Noble Nook, Smashwords.com, or any popular e-reader site where they can also discover other works by this author. Thank you for your support.
BOOK 1: The Madam and the Chinaman|
“Too proud to beg, too honest to steal, I know what it is to be Shabby Genteel”
--“Shabby Genteel” Harry Clifton, 1878, comic song.
Cayley lifted a cut crystal bowl up into the cupboard as Michael’s dour face appeared around the corner of the butler’s pantry: “He’ll take you along, sister.” He didn’t wait for a reply.
The girl inhaled sharply. She felt as edgy as a child about to be let out from school, knowing that the schoolyard would hold bullies as well as freedom. A small thrill rippled through her; she pushed it back down. It wouldn’t do to think on why the Mister favors me, she thought. It was more than an hour’s walk home from her duties at the Rolifer’s. And she hadn’t saved enough to take the Hyde Street car down the hill. Mr. Rolifer had offered to take her along with him before; an unusual kindness to a day girl. It wouldn’t do to refuse him, either. The first time she was invited to ride in his fancy carriage, she shook out her skirt in a merry mood, picked up her belongings, and smugly congratulated herself on her special treatment. But now she wasn’t so sure of herself.
As she stepped out the service door, the chill she was already feeling doubled in the wet air, and she turned back to the pantry to borrow a shawl from Moira, the housekeeper. “It’s cold as iron in January out there, with the fog on the move,” Cayley said shyly, eyes on the floor. Her roughened hands held tightly to the bundle of cast-offs Mrs. Rolifer had given her.
Moira made her lips thin and shook her head. “You know what the weather’s like here in summer. Tell that husband of yours to buy you a decent coat. Here, you can use my old blanket, but I’ll be needing it, so mind you, bring it back. Get going before ’his lordship’ changes his mind.”
Cayley went out the back and made her way through the narrow service alley to the portico in front of the house. Michael had brought up the Rolifer’s fine black carriage, led by the dappled mare, Stilly. The carriage’s brass fittings glowed bright from the lamps lit on either side. Rolifer himself emerged from the large oak front door, walking quickly while pulling on thin leather gloves; he adjusted the collar of his heavy wool coat around his thick neck. His sideburns extended all the way to his collar. He didn’t look at Cayley as Michael helped him mount the carriage and handed him the reins. Rolifer stared with disgust at Michael’s malformed hand, and the boy quickly jerked it down behind him. He usually wore special gloves that his mother made to cover the stubby fingers grown together like hooves.
Embarrassed, Michael kept his eyes on the ground. “Are you along, girl?” he said gruffly. Cayley felt a stab of pity for him, but quickly turned her face away; she knew that pity was almost as bad as the laughter of the other children when they were small. He helped her up beside Rolifer; she wrapped the blanket close about her shoulders as they lurched forward.
The fog was broken: thick and impenetrable in some parts, sheer as silk organza in others. Cayley liked how the streetlamps glowed in the dark night above her as the wheels of the carriage stuttered down the cobble street. You can smell the sea, she thought, and took a deep breath with her eyes closed.
“What’s your name, girl,” said Rolifer, without much interest. He focused on the horse’s ears.
“It’s Cayley, sir. As I told you before, sir.”
He looked over at her, then swiveled his head forward and snorted. He pulled onto a level street and reined the horse to a stop. “Did you,” he said.
“Yes, sir.” Cayley kept her chin level and looked directly at Mr. Rolifer. She could feel her armpits grow damp inside her tight sleeves.
“You’d think I’d remember, pretty little thing like you,” he said. His teeth peeked out from under his thick upper lip in a fleeting smile. “Never mind,” he said. He shook Stilly into action, and the horse pulled forward again. “You work in the kitchen.”
“And house, yes sir. I’m a housemaid, not just the kitchen, sir.”
“Mmm” he said, looking ahead. His right hand dropped to her thigh. Cayley jumped, though it was more a reaction than a surprise. He had done this before. The first time, it frightened her. If she said anything, she surely would lose her job--Henry would be hard on her for that. Rolifer kneaded her thigh like soft dough. “Pretty little thing,” he said. She gulped for air, and tried to ignore the melting sensation between her legs.
As they reached the main part of town and pulled on to O’Farrell Street, gas lamps illuminated the windows in nearly every building. It was as if they had reached a fairy city; the homes and buildings were glowing inside and out, and the street was filled with other fine carriages. Rolifer had awkwardly worked his hand up under Cayley’s blanket and wrapped it around her forearm, his fingers playing on the underside of her breast. He never took his eyes off the horse, and neither did she. Finally, he withdrew his hand. Cayley continued to look straight ahead, but swallowed hard. As they reached the upper end of Market, Rolifer pulled over and waited for Cayley to get down. He set off without a word. She stood in the middle of the muddy street, clutching her bundle of cast-offs with one hand. She felt soiled. Shaking off like a wet pup, she turned and began to walk up Market, all the while wondering how she had brought the Mister’s attentions on herself and what she should do about it--or could do about it. In minutes, she reached the alley where she was fated to rescue a man in a plaid suit.
Cayley clutched the blanket around her shoulders as she backed away from the light of the street lamp. A man was making pitiful sounds and rolling on the ground twenty feet away in the dark alley. She looked around--the crowd thinned to a few hunched figures in the fog at this end of Market Street. There were no coppers in sight. She took a few hesitant steps around the pool of light. The man on the ground was trying to sit up. He appeared to have blood streaming down his face, black in the half-light. “You there, help me,” he said.
She gingerly made her way over, hitching up her wide grey skirt above the puddles. Against the wall, barrels of rotting fish parts caused her to hold the corner of the blanket over her nose. She kept glancing about, watchful for the return of the hoodlums who beat the man to the ground as she was passing. It could be a trick, after all. Not that she’d have anything to steal except the second-hand clothes Mrs. Rolifer had given her. But after the foolishness with her employer minutes ago, she knew very well that possessions weren’t the only valuables a girl could lose. The man on the ground was well dressed--not a vagrant, as she feared. He wore an old-fashioned derby and a brown plaid suit: showy, but not worn. She took him under one arm and tried to lift him. He was likely twice her size; she staggered under his weight, banging his head against the wall. He groaned and cursed under his breath. Just then, a dark figure hesitated at the entrance to the alley, silhouetted by the light where she had stood a moment before. Cayley froze. Whoever it was appeared to be alone. She called out, “Sir, please come help!” The person at the entrance didn’t move. Her breath caught--what if these men planned to rob her or worse? “Please sir, there’s someone hurt here,” her voice wavered as she called out again. “Please, I can’t do it alone.” He came toward her, keeping his back to the brick wall, edging along and moving slowly. Out of the gloom she was surprised to see it was a Chinaman, dressed in the uniform they all seemed to wear, the dark square jacket and pants, the round cap. Whites and Chinese seldom had dealings together. “Do you understand me?” she said.
“Yes,” he said. “I speak English. What has happened to your friend?” His accent was musical and elegant, a little like that of Mr. Henley, who came from London to visit her employers. “Oh, I don’t know him. I was passing by and saw some men beating him up.”
“If you’re done chatting--,” said the man on the ground.
The Chinaman took one arm and Cayley the other, bringing the man to his feet where he wobbled about. “Can you take me to my place?” he said. “It’s right down the street.” He looked from one to the other of them. “I’ll pay you”.
They each took a side and walked him awkwardly down Market a few blocks to a doorway hung with the painted sign of a Blue Rooster. When they got him in the door, the bartender rushed to take him from their arms. The place was brightly lit with overhead gas chandeliers, hazy with smoke; their entrance barely made a ripple in the conversations and laughter. Cayley’s hunger surged at the smell of roast meat and seafood stew, mixed strangely with sweat, over-heated woolens, and the acid smell of whiskey. She couldn’t see the tables for the smoke and bodies in between.
“Boss! You awright?” said the barman. He had an enormous handlebar mustache that was so stiffly waxed it seemed to have a life of its own when he spoke.
“Jaysus, Riley, of course not. Thick-headed fool! Take me in back. Get Ellen.” Riley shouldered the man’s weight, edging Cayley out of the way.
“Well, sir, if you’ve no more need of me, I’ll be getting on home,” said Cayley to their retreating backs. She could imagine her Henry back at the flat, tapping out minutes with his heavy boot until supper was on the table.
“Wait, you hold up there, girlie,” said the man. “Get rid of the Chinaman, though. They’s bad for business.”
“That’s a fine way to treat someone who helped you,” said Cayley, and immediately regretted her outburst. Henry often told her to hold her tongue.
The man with the bloodied face waved his fingers at the barman, who went and opened the till, took out a few bills, and held them up to the Chinaman’s face. “Now get outta here,” he growled. The Chinese man took the money, held his head up and looked carefully at each of their faces--especially Cayley’s--as if memorizing them; he turned so quickly his queue flew out behind him. Then he was gone.
“Help me get him into the office,” said Riley, and he and Cayley supported the man through a narrow doorway into a dim room. They sat him on a red velvet couch, the impressions of a hundred backs and bottoms worn into the pattern. The polish on the carved wood arms was rubbed thin. The man told Riley to go watch the till before the customers ran off with it. A roll-top desk stood in one corner, with messy piles of papers stacked all around it; some were held down with empty glasses, others with a chunk of brick or some other odd piece of masonry. A flickering gas lamp illuminated the room, and wall sconces further served to light the darker corners. It had a dusty, male smell that made Cayley jumpy and alert.
“I’ll be going too, I guess.” Cayley stood near the door.
“Nay, stay and have a drink with me. I insist.”
“Sir, I’m a married woman and all, I shouldn’t even be here.”
“Ellen!,” he bellowed. A tall, pretty redheaded girl a few years older than Cayley came in from the other room. “See, there’s another woman here--it ain’t what you think.” He turned toward the girl. “Get us a couple of whiskeys, Ellen. One for you, too. Say, this here little girl saved my life!”
“That so,” said Ellen, with a wide-faced grin. “Did she fight off an invadin’ horde, then, Mr. Max?” She went out for a moment and returned with three brim-full drinks in her hands. “Who roughed you up, anyway?”
Mr. Max shrugged. “Lots of people need money these days.” He downed half his whiskey in one gulp. “How about you, girlie--“ he turned toward Cayley. “You must be on your way home from work, one of them big houses on the hill I figure. Am I right?”
“You’re a mind-reader sir, truly.”
“No ’sir’--you can call me Mr. Max like they all do in here. And I can call you...?”
“Cayley--Mrs. Henry Wallace that is.”
“Well, Mrs. Wallace. So you work up the hill?”
“I do. I’m a house servant for Mr. Rolifer, the well-known lawyer, and his Missus.” Cayley raised her chin as she said it.
Max chuckled as he looked into his glass. “Oh, yes, the well-known-lawyer-Mr.-Rolifer. He comes in every once in a while. Do you like your work, Mrs. Wallace?” he took a sip of his whiskey, eyeing Cayley steadily over the rim of the glass. Ellen returned with a bowl of hot water and a rag. She proceeded to dab the cut on his forehead, and he winced and tried to wave her away.
“Worse than a baby,” she said. He winced again. “And twice as ugly.”
“It’s all right. I’m glad to have it.” Cayley looked at the honey-toned liquid in her hand. “My husband, Mr. Wallace, he’s a fireman, you know.” She politely took a sip of the whiskey, and coughed twice as it ripped down her throat.
“A fireman! Now he has plenty of work in this town does he not?” He elevated his hand, indicating that Cayley should drink up. “That’s my good whiskey, you know.”
“Oh, that’s very true, sir, very true. On both counts.”
“Mr. Max, please. No need to ’Sir’ me.”
“Don’t be--I don’t get much respect around here, even though I’m the one rattling the till to feed this crew.” He gave Ellen an exasperated look. “Rolifer, you say?”
“Yes si.., Mr. Max”
“He comes in, working the bar circuit with those other nobs. I’d like to see him in here more often. Here’s what I’m thinking--another whiskey, Mrs. Wallace?”
Cayley felt warm for the first time in days. The tension in her shoulders seemed to drain out her tired feet; she found herself liking this plain-talking man and the gentle red-haired girl that looked at her so open and friendly. The cross around Ellen’s neck glinted in the light. Cayley discovered her glass was half empty. “Don’t mind if I do.”
The bartender, Riley, brought the bottle in and topped off the glasses, then hurried out again, his mustache twitching as if trying to escape.
“I’m thinking that I should have the finest barmaids on the circuit. Now I’ve got my Ellen here, pretty as a copper penny and sharp as broken glass, that one! The men like her well enough.”
Ellen sat on a corner of the desk and crossed her ankles so that a bit of her white leggings showed above her boots. “Well enough, indeed,” she said, bringing the corners of her mouth and one eyebrow up.
“Can’t go letting you get too swell-headed, dearie. Anyway, I get a good look at you in the light Mrs. Wallace, and I say, well, here’s a blond one to be the other bookend! You and Ellen could jolly up the old boys, build us all a hell of a business, and make some money for yourselves, too. What do you say?”
The muscles in Cayley’s jaw worked a little and she was conscious of the heavy smoke filtering in from the main room. “Mr. Max, I’m a married woman. I’m no fancy woman--no insult to you, Miss Ellen--but I can’t be taking on such disrespectable work. Mr. Wallace wouldn’t have it, and who could blame him.”
Ellen laughed, a sound like church bells pealing. “I’d have a lot more to confess to Father Mullin on Saturday if I did half what you think I do!” said Ellen. “No, darlin’, I just serve the drinks and let ’em look at me. If anyone gets too bold, I turn the serving over to Riley, and that’s the end of it. I work for the money, which is good; especially the tips, the little extra bit of money they slip you if they like you--if you give them a little twinkle. It’s fun, without no sin I can think of. Not that I don’t think of it, sometimes...” she laughed again and winked at Mr. Max.
“No fooling around, strictly on the up-and-up, my dear,” he said to Cayley. “What do you make at the Palace of Rolifer?”
Cayley’s face reddened and she suddenly found the sticky rim of her glass very interesting. “I don’t think that’s any business of yours, si.. Mr. Max.”
“That bad, eh?” He looked at Ellen. “We could use you right away. If you want to work here, just come in around 4 p.m., and you’ll work until 11. And I’ll pay you ten dollars a week plus whatever you can get on the side. Ellen will show you what to do. Think about it.”
“And no more calling anybody ’sir’,” said Ellen. “Not unless you want a bigger tip.”
Cayley controlled her face. The money was nearly three times what she made now. Henry and me could put aside some and try for another baby, she thought. Her head whirled with whiskey; she rapidly blinked back tears at the memory of little Daniel. God keep his tiny soul. And I could help my mother, too. “Look here,” said Cayley. “I appreciate the offer, and I’ll put my head to it. The money’s good all right--though twelve a week would be better.” She hoped her face wouldn’t burn an even brighter shade of fiery pink and give her away. She set down her glass and looked into Mr. Max’s eyes, “But what I’d really appreciate is a few dollars out of the till like you give the Chinaman. A bird in the hand, and all that.”
Max laughed and gestured to Ellen. “All right then, Mrs. Wallace. You can think about it on this.”
Cayley made her way unsteadily out of the Blue Rooster, clutching three coins, a gold and two silvers. A fortune! She could do a lot with twelve dollars. But Henry would raise Cain himself if she even mentioned working at a place like the Blue Rooster, though there didn’t seem to be anything going on that shouldn’t. She walked determinedly down Sixth Street, placing one foot in front of the other, firmly holding the blanket around her shoulders to shield her from the icy fog. Working for the Rolifer’s was a good job; she was lucky to have gotten a position at all thanks to her brother Michael being the stable boy. She didn’t have the education or proper manners to be a shop girl. Ahead lay the flat she and Henry shared with another family. The lamps that winked through the windows of the modest wooden houses seemed to shine like happy little stars. Well, Cayley thought, Henry wouldn’t have to know, would he? Oh Lord, no. What am I thinking? Sure the devil has me in his grip thanks to Mr. Max’s fine whiskey.
Wo Sam kept his head down and walked quickly north from the Blue Rooster to the darker streets on the outskirts of Little China. He stepped inside a deserted doorway and crumpled the bills the barman had given him into a pouch he wore under his jacket. No sense tempting fate--and the white devils that roamed the streets looking for trouble. What in the world had made him stop to help those two in the alley? He thanked whatever gods watching over him that he didn’t walk into a beating. It was that woman, he thought. A woman calling out for me. He pushed aside his loneliness and made his way to Dupont Gai, then up a tiny side street to Sacramento Gai. The other men he saw were Chinese who moved purposefully through the narrow alleys or whites with their hats pulled low, there for the opium, gambling, or girls. There were no women on the streets--those few that lived here finished shopping hours ago, and the rest were in the cribs, waiting for customers. He entered an unmarked doorway, and walked slowly to the room provided by his employers, the Yeung Lo Company. The room was shared with Wo Kim, a cousin also from Pearl River Village near the South China Sea. Once inside the doors--even inside the boundary of Chinatown--Sam relaxed a little. At this late hour, the smells of dried fish, ginger and incense, and the multi-toned, guttural pitches of Cantonese coming from dozens of closed and curtained doors reassured him. The room he was assigned was a comfortable one, in spite of the limited space for his books, ink and brushes. He was hardly in a position to complain: most of the rooms were shared by four or more men. His privilege stemmed from the fact he spoke and read excellent English. His father sacrificed to send him to the English school so Wo Sam could come to Gold Mountain as a scholar, teacher, and accountant to serve the governing board of the company. And he wouldn’t be here forever, only a few years. His passage was nearly worked out, and soon he could afford to send even more money home.
Wo Kim sat cross-legged on a rush mat in the neat room, sharing tea with another of the residents, Ling Hai. The older man stroked his thin white beard; his scalp showed under the strands of hair, wound back into a snowy queue. Ling Hai had been with the Company for many years, starting out as a laborer and working his way up to the position of foreman. He took the boys under his wing when they arrived. The mats Sam and Kim used as mattresses were rolled up against the wall; the room was bare of furniture except for four dark seating cushions, an oil lamp, a small chest and low table. They greeted Wo Sam formally, then continued their conversation.
“I don’t see how we can avoid it,” said Kim. He cradled the dark pottery tea bowl in one pale, unblemished hand; two fingers of the other hand supported the bottom.
“The white devils...” agreed Ling Hai. “We can’t rely on lo fan law to protect us. Wo Sam, what does a learned man think?”
“You’re talking about the tongs again?” Sam sat to join them, arranging a small blue pillow on the floor.
“Yes,” Kim said. “I know this is not your favorite topic.”
“Before tonight, I might have continued to discourage you. But I don’t know myself, anymore.”
“Cousin, has something happened? Are you all right?” Kim’s smooth forehead wrinkled in concern.
“Only a minor thing--I helped a white man who had been beaten up. No one is safe anywhere.” Sam decided not to mention the humiliation of being thrown out of the bar like a common cur, though his jaw clenched with anger at the thought.
“But it’s better than it was a few years ago.” Kim looked for confirmation at the older man as he poured tea for the others and then for himself. Ling Hai nodded.
“Yes, it was much worse before we came. It’s still possible to make much money here, and the war at home--I worry about my father and sister all the time.” Sam brought the steaming cup to his lips. “ah, Xi Hu Longjing,” he said. “Most refreshing.” His memory darted back to the walled yard of his family compound, his sister Li’s small plump hands open to capture the pink petals of the plum tree as they floated to earth around her. His mind recalled a line from a poem: Flowers, after their nature, whirl away in the wind.
“Better to worry about yourself these days, cousin” said Kim. “I’m thinking about joining Chee Kong. The leader is very powerful.”
Ling Hai made a deep rumbling sound in his throat, “Lord Low Yet is very impressive. Soldiers, women--everyone in town knows him and the white guards don’t even try to harass them.”
”With respect, Ling Hai; Chee Kong is no longer a political organization as it was in China. Now, they run opium, girls, gambling.” Sam took a delicate sip of tea.
“They would welcome someone like you, who can read and write English as well as the white devils,” said Kim.
“You didn’t hear a word I said, little cousin!” said Sam, a half-smile on his lips.
Footsteps in the hallway signaled the return of another of the house residents. The men paused in their conversation until the house was silent once again.
Sam touched his lips with his free hand. “Tell me, both of you. Do you feel you must join a tong to protect yourselves from other Chinese?”
Kim and his friend looked at each other and nodded. “It’s not the way it used to be, before the Exclusion acts,” said the older man, touching the thin beard on his chin. “We could rely on the Six Companies then. They were respected. But they’ve lost face. No one will go to them with complaints. They’re like a toothless old woman.”
“It’s impossible to go out safely among the whites, but it is possible to live safely here in Little China if we align with a benefactor,” said Kim. “A small handful of rice is better than none, as long as we must stay here.”
They could hear the footsteps of other men crossing in the hallway outside their door. The whale oil lamp in the room guttered and bounced their shadows against the walls.
“Even if the benefactor is little more than a criminal?” said Sam.
“I would make friends with a bear if he would protect me from other bears,” his cousin retorted.
“What if he wants you to be a bear, too?” said Sam. “And rip the flesh of others who are not in your clan?”
“Sam, it’s not that bad. Don’t you ever go to women? Take a pipe now and then to relieve the monotony? Play a little fan-tan to summon your luck? You know these are simple pleasures, only evil when they are misused. That’s all it is.”
Wo Sam’s eyes dropped to the floor in front of his black canvas shoes. He could not admit to his younger cousin that the women in the brothels sickened him, painted like orchids in a hothouse, beckoning him with voices sweet and sticky as opium. There were no other women here, no one to arrange a marriage to--they all were owned, bought and sold like the cattle they were. He shuddered slightly. Maybe there was something wrong with him. No, he did look, he did--he couldn’t bring himself to touch. He wanted to take his money, go home to his village by the river, and have his father speak to the marriage broker about a proper wife for a scholar. And opium…what a waste of time! Time he could spend reading his favorite Tang poets or observing the fine brush strokes of masters. Fan tan, though…luck wheeling in and out of the door. A great, golden wheel, so like life.
“That’s all it is,” agreed Sam. “If you say so.”
“Ling Hai has already spoken for me to the Chee Kong,” said Kim excitedly. “Maybe they’ll let you take the initiation if you read some of the English papers for them--they’ll pay you well, I’m sure. You can make money from the company and the tong, both.”
Sam balanced his teacup on the tips of the fingers of his left hand and twirled the pale porcelain cup with his right, turning a quarter turn with each movement. “If they pay me, we’ll see,” he said. “If it means I can leave this place sooner, and begin my life away from these ignorant while devils, it might be worth it. But I will not take part in the tong’s evil works, and neither should you.”
Ling Hai smiled down into his cup, but kept close the knowledge of how sweetly seductive power could be to an ambitious young man.
Cayley opened the door to a cold, dark flat, and relief flashed through her followed by an equally powerful surge of anger. Henry’s s either out working or working at getting drunk, she thought as she fumbled about for the lamp and matches. At least she would be able to get her sewing done without having to fend off his meanness or his liquored-up lovemaking, or maybe worst of all, to endure his silence. Since the baby died, they’d had little to say to one another. She planned to take in her favorite of the lawn shirtwaists Mrs. Rolifer had given her, but discovered she was low on thread and needles both. She reluctantly gathered her own well-worn shawl about her and went around the block to her mother’s row house on Howard, tucking one of the coins Mr. Max had given her in the little fabric pouch she wore inside her skirt.
Cayley entered the flat without knocking. Though it was late, Lizzie Pearson was still doing close work in the kitchen, using the light from the open stove and a lamp both to see her stitches in the darkened room.
“I knew you’d be up, still,” said Cayley as she emerged from the darkened hall. “I wish you wouldn’t sit so close to that fire, Ma. It’s dangerous.”
“Shhh,” her mother cautioned, and nodded toward the corner, where Cayley’s youngest brother and sister lay entwined in each other’s arms on a makeshift bed on the floor. Cayley reached down and pulled the quilt up to their chins. The pieced-work quilt was so old the stuffing was grainy, and leaked out like dust from the seams when she moved it.
“I’m to be borrowing some thread from you,” whispered Cayley. Mrs. Pearson looked up, and Cayley could see brown circles beneath her dull eyes. “Looks like you’re working late a lot these days, Ma.”
“Somebody has to keep these bellies full,” said her mother. “I’m lucky to have extra mending when the factory closes.” She didn’t look up from her work, pulling the needle through the fabric in a quick, steady pace.
“So I thought Eddie and Mary and them was working.”
“Was. They both got let off when the powers that be found they could hire the Chinee for almost nothing. Damned heathens! Forgive me, Lord, I know they have to eat too, but they make our lives miserable! Now I’m carrying the load. Maybe I can get Mary work down at the factory, with luck. But Eddie, I don’t know. He’s too old to run telegraph messages and not good for much else.” She bit off the end of a thread and wiped her graying hair out of her eyes. “Don’t even ask me about your Da.” She looked up quickly at Cayley. “Don’t say a word.”
“Bad luck,” said the girl. She knew better than to ask if her father had shown his face in the house at all, much less brought home any money from his infrequent bouts of work. The question would bring on her mother’s unhappy wailing over having married “a sodden Mick fresh off the boat instead of a good local lad.” He seemed to show up regular enough to bring another baby into the world, though. It’s our lot in life, ain’t it, she thought. The all-too-familiar kitchen smell of boiled cabbage soup soured her stomach --she could imagine her mother begging the discarded leaves from the greengrocer.
“Well, at least you have Henry, and work in a good house, thanks to your brother,” her mother said. “When them Rolifers took him in, it was a real blessing--a bed in the stable and steady job was more than I prayed for when our Michael was born. He always seemed to cotton to animals more than people anyway.” She reached up and pulled Cayley down to kiss her forehead. Her face was damp against Cayley’s cool skin. “You’re the best of all my own.” Her mother laid the handwork down on the table and rubbed her left hand with her right. “It’s hard times, but we’ll all be all right. The good Lord will see to that.”
“Here, Ma.” Cayley produced the gold coin from her coat pocket. “A present for you, for all your hard work.”
Her mother looked down at the coin in Cayley’s hand for a long time, as though she didn’t recognize what it was. Then she looked up at the girl and squinted. “Where would you be getting a ten-dollar gold piece, daughter?”
Cayley smiled innocently. She had thought this out on the way over. “Mrs. Rolifer gave it to me, as she forgot to pay me last week, and she said I did such a fine job of setting up for her big party two days ago. And I also did some mending for her. And I took over for Moira in the nursery for a few days when she was sick.”
Her mother raised one eyebrow and looked down again at the gold piece, taking it carefully from Cayley’s hand as though it was hot. She set it in her palm and rubbed the raised surface with her other thumb. She nodded, “Well, God be praised. This week we’ll be seeing a pig up close for a change instead of just hearing the squeal.” Her eyes watered. “Sitting too close to that stove, I am. What color thread is it you’re needing, girl?”
When Cayley left her marriage bed before dawn the next morning, she wriggled out from under Henry’s heavy arm, eliciting nothing more than a beer-tinged grunt. I should tell him about the Blue Rooster, she thought, but she knew he wouldn’t be around for hours, seeing as how he came in after she was already abed. Just as well--it might be naught more than a puff of smoke, and no sense causing trouble for nothing. She took the lawn shirtwaist she had worked on with her to the Rolifer’s, along with her best black skirt. Better shoes would have to come later, but the skirt would pretty well cover her feet. She folded the clothing and the blanket she borrowed from the housekeeper the night before into a burlap sack, and walked quickly to Market Street, then up the hill. |
Cayley did her morning chores then rubbed all twenty settings of the table silver until the cloth was black. To distract herself from the mindless work, she let her eyes wander up to the shelves of the cupboard and chose a fancy porcelain soup tureen, covered in pink roses. She imagined Mrs. Rolifer giving it to her as a reward for some heroic deed--saving one of the children from drowning or some such disaster. The harsh voice of Moira, the housekeeper--admonishing one of the other servants--brought her back to her task and the unpleasant truth that she’d see such treasure only if it was broken in twenty pieces. Cayley scrubbed her hands free of the tarnish that clung to them until they were rough and red. “Moira, do you mind if I leave the crystal ’til tomorrow? I’m not feeling at all well, and some extra sleep would do me.”
“The Mister giving you a ride down the hill again?” asked Moira, a nasty smile rising out of her mouth. “Such a kindness to a day girl.”
She don’t miss much, thought Cayley. She probably thinks I’m having a high old time cozying up to the mister.
Moira wiped her hands on a blue cloth hanging from her waistband. “I don’t know whether to scold you or warn you, girl. You’re barely 18 and too pretty for your own good. Be careful of yourself. Don’t think I haven’t noticed the Mister’s eyes following you around the room when Mrs. Rolifer’s own are glued to her embroidery.”
“It’s not like that, Moira.” The thought of Rolifer’s hand creeping up her leg as they silently rode along in the carriage filled her with an odd mix of shame and titillation. “No ride for me today, Ma’am. I’m on my own two feet. And the better for it.” She left by the back door, picked up her skirts and skittered down the slick cobblestones toward Market in the long afternoon light, establishing an even pace. In 40 minutes, she reached the level streets of town. Even though the thickening fog pierced her thin shawl, Cayley stepped up onto the walkway from the street, and paused to look in the shop windows. The latest styles were displayed at the dressmakers, along with a bit of ribbon or gewgaw to buy for a few pennies to mend the skirt Mrs. Rolifer had given her. There was a frill that would pretty up her shirtwaist. The windows were dim, but the streets were beginning to come alive. Carriages, from simple carts to elaborate two-pony landaus passed each other; packed cars of the Market Street Cable Railway clanked past.
On the walkways, prosperous-looking men strolled, dressed in gleaming top hats and closely cut dark suits. Servants and shopgirls, eyes down, scurried homeward; street performers set up their shell games and card tables. She nodded to the man with his tinkling musical box, and hesitated a moment to watch a dancing dog in a clown outfit, then hurried past the fire-eaters and jugglers before they could pass the hat. She turned and quickly dropped her eyes to her shoes when two fancy women passed; she turned after they were well by to stare at them. They always had the most beautiful dresses, shiny satin in blues and greens--and even red--with lace trims. No cloth she could buy could catch the light like that. Cayley crossed over Market, skipping to miss the streetcar that clanged angrily in the middle of the roadway. A few of the saloons were already wide open, and men stood in front, smoking cigars and talking loudly. There were no women, of course. No respectable women, anyway. Cayley now knew what it was like in there: warm as the sun, the banquets loaded with food free for the price of a drink; brightly lit, sparkling mirrors and chandeliers made of the same crystal as the bowls and vases she polished at the Rolifer’s. She drifted toward the Blue Rooster, and shyly passed through the crowd of suited men near the door.
“Say there, Missy,” said one of the men, cigar clenched between his teeth, his thumbs in his waistcoat pockets.
Cayley covered her mouth with her hand and knocked at the door; she asked Riley for Mr. Max or Ellen. “We won’t be opening for another hour,” said Riley. “You’re an eager one.” He smiled, his luxurious upper lip quivering.
“I’m wanting to make sure there’s a real job here,” she said. “Before I quit my old one and I’m out in the street on empty promises.”
Riley told her to sit and wait, and half an hour later, Ellen walked in, and shook out her shawl by the door. “Well, look what the cat dragged in” she said, a big grin on her face.
“I’m here to see if Mr. Max is serious about that job,” said Cayley.
“Oh, he means it all right. Are you here to work tonight?”
“I guess,” Cayley shrugged. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, but I’ll pick it up quick.”
“Come here, then, and I’ll learn you a few of the finer points,” said Ellen, who moved behind the bar and began to explain the different liquors, how to measure a drink, how much you could get away with watering it, and so on. “You can always come and ask me or Riley if you’re confounded,” she said. “We also have to make sure the food gets out proper,” and she took Cayley by the hand and led her to the kitchen, alive with clattering pots, pans, and Italian phrases shouted above the din. All the men were burley, dressed in undershirts. Steaming pots of bubbling food were spiced by the odor of perspiring bodies.
“Are they all Eye-talians?” Cayley asked Ellen.
“Max hired Chinee before the troubles started--now he’s afraid they’ll attract more trouble; you’ve already had a demonstration of that. Besides, the Itals--they cook almost as good as the Chinee--and they’re just as loud.” The women helped the cooks carry out the big platters and arrange them on the table. The kitchen boss spoke little English, but everyone seemed to know what needed to be done, and did it quickly.
“The laundryman at the Rolifer’s is Chinese.” Cayley set down a platter of cold oysters on the half shell, served on a bed of coarse salt. “I don’t know anything about him, really. He worked in the basement, and I didn’t see him much.”
“They’re just people, I guess. But when Kearny started all that yellow peril folderol a few years ago, it gave the bad sort a target for their fun. Did you eat yet?” said Ellen.
Cayley shook her head. “I left the Rolifer’s early, and I don’t usually eat there anyway.”
“Here, have a little now. Get a plate.” She pointed toward the stack. “There won’t be any time to eat later, and there won’t be any left after the hogs are at the trough.” Cayley took a little terrapin soup in a shallow bowl, drank the thin soup without a spoon, and then loaded the bowl with slices of roast beef. She would have kept eating, but when Mr. Max came in, she almost wiped her face on her sleeve in a hurry to get rid of the bowl. Cayley remembered she was wearing her best shirtwaist, and backed into the kitchen, where she hurriedly dabbed at her mouth with one of the kitchen rags. The kitchen man smiled without showing his teeth and winked at her--she scurried out.
“You look like a schoolmarm,” said Mr. Max. “Our patrons will get a good laugh out of that!”
“Be easy on her,” said Ellen. “It’s her first night, and after you pay her the royal sum you’ve offered, she’ll be able to dress like a queen. Won’t you darlin’?” Cayley looked dumbly at Mr. Max and nodded vigorously.
“What’s wrong with the way I look,” Cayley whispered to Ellen. “This shirtwaist belonged to Mrs. Rolifer, herself. It’s very fine lawn, very elegant, and I worked on it so it fits perfect.”
Ellen took a towel from behind the bar and wiped down spills on the buffet counter. “I think that’s what Max has a problem with. He likes his girls to be a little...you know...showier. But I think you look beautiful and proper, and I might get myself one of those outfits, too.”
“You’re mighty sweet,” said Cayley. “I’m lucky to be working with such a nice girl. Were you a housemaid before you came here, too?”
Ellen washed her hands in a bowl of water behind the bar. “No, I didn’t even have skill for that, I’m afraid. I came to the back door looking for clean-up work in the kitchen, and the head cook brought me up to the front. I guess it was his idea that Max hire women to serve at the bar. I didn’t care--I was just glad to find work, and I like it well enough. It’s not like down in the Barbary where they expect you to do more than hand them a drink and a smile.”
Riley opened the doors. The street outside was in twilight, with a faint golden glow coming from the gas lamps that were being lit in succession by the lamplighter. Riley greeted the man as he passed by the door. The fog hadn’t moved in yet, but the damp in the air softened the smell of horse droppings on the street outside. Cayley wiped her hands on her skirt nervously and stood close to Ellen. “My husband doesn’t know I’m here,” she whispered. “I left a note saying I had to serve at a party tonight at the Rolifer’s.”
“Hmmm,” Ellen said, keeping her eyes on the door. “That might be a problem.” She looked over at the tiny blond woman. “Not because anything might happen to you here, of course.” Ellen smiled and touched the side of her upswept hair. “What sort of man is he, your husband?”
Two men in derbies came in the door and headed for the bar, eyeing the food on the table all the while. “Tell me later,” said Ellen. “Watch what I do.” She went up to the men, who had already ordered from Riley. He set down a couple of heavy-bottomed glasses and was pouring from behind the bar. “Gentlemen,” said Ellen, “Why don’t you go over to the buffet and pick something out, and I’ll bring your drinks over. Sit down and make yourselves to home!” Cayley noted how the men looked at Ellen apprehensively, then more boldly, taking in the curves of her body with their eyes. They looked at each other and nodded, slid off their stools and headed for the buffet. As they turned their backs, Riley added a dab of water to each drink. Ellen grabbed a tray from behind the counter, picked up the glasses and followed them to a table where she chatted them up--“Do you live here in town?” she asked one, and patted the other on the shoulder: “You look like you’re in the silver business, and doing mighty well, too,” and so on. Another group of three approached the bar, and Ellen nodded to Cayley, who swallowed nervously and approached the newcomers. “Gentlemen,” she began, and the evening was swept into a blur of new faces, appreciative looks, and flirtation. Some of the men would treat her with a curious politeness; others would put an arm around her waist from which she would quickly twist away, laughing all the while. It’s just being a good hostess, like Mrs. Rolifer does, she thought. As if I were in my own home, but with better food, drink, and company--much better company. Once during the next few hours, Ellen stooped to whisper in her ear, “Remember, if anyone forgets he’s a gentleman, tell Riley.” And they separated to continue their conversations and service of food and drink. Riley would ask Cayley how many rounds, and proceed to make the whiskey more watery with each round. Cayley now went to the door when newcomers came in to greet them, and caught Mr. Max’s smile and finger-waved gesture of approval and encouragement. He came over to her.
“Well, you’re a natural, Missy.” The cut on his head was a grim reminder of the night before.
“It’s hardly like work, except I’m on my feet,” she grinned at him, and winked. “Though I guess I shouldn’t tell you that, should I?” She turned to greet the men at the door.
“Am I paying you too much, ten dollars a week and all?” He said to her back.
She stopped and remained rooted to the floor, not turning around. “Thirteen and I’m worth twice that!” she said, surprised with her own boldness.
“Right,” he said, “twelve,” and coughed. “You have work to do.”
Ellen cut her off before she reached the door. “That one’s mine,” she said, and nodded toward the fair-haired man who had just entered. His suit was the color of doves, and fit him like it grew out of his skin; unlike most of the men, he was completely clean-shaven--and handsome as a theater actor.
“Oh ho,” said Cayley. “A special one, eh?”
”I think so. Say Bill!” Ellen smiled so wide she lit up the room as she swept toward him. He held out his arm and she flew under it as if sheltered from a storm.
Cayley turned back into the crowd, waved, laughed uproariously at jokes she had heard a hundred times, flattered, wheedled, and occasionally patted the cheek of a sodden drunk.
That night, other bar owners on the circuit wondered what happened to their regular influx of customers as a vortex developed around the Blue Rooster. At around 11 p.m., Cayley headed for the door, only to walk into the somewhat unsteady path of Mr. Rolifer and his cohorts. She took breath in, sharply, as he stared at her.
He squinted, opened his eyes, and squinted again. “My wife has a shirtwaist like that,” he said. “But she doesn’t fill it out quite as well.”
“Gentlemen,” Cayley said, and led them to the bar.
The entrance to the Chee Kong meeting hall was a metal door with peeling yellow paint, indistinguishable from several others on Washington Street. Ling Hai pushed the door open and stepped inside, followed by his two friends.
“State your names,” said the man seated next to the door.
“Ling Hai, a member of this organization.”
The group of three men was waved ahead and proceeded to the first archway, where a man armed with a long-barreled revolver swung his body in front of them. Arms crossed, he said, “What is your business here?”
Prepped by Ling Hai, the three said in unison, “ Overthrow the Manchu, restore the Ming.” The man stepped aside, and the initiates and their escort proceeded to the next set of arches. The walls over the arch were painted bright red; golden dragons wound up pillars on either side of the opening. The screen that spanned the arch was of intricate carved wood. A small door between the pillars swung open, and the men stepped through. Two men stood at the opposite end of the room in front of another portal. Sam and the other two men were ordered to remove their blue cotton garments and unplait their queues. They donned gowns of five colors capped with red turbans symbolic of the Ming Dynasty, and were sent through the next door.
Sam leaned over to his cousin and whispered, “I don’t see the wisdom of replacing one greedy Emperor with another”, but he was glared into silence by the guards who stood outside a gauntlet in the next room. The guards crossed their swords at waist height to form a low alley, and, as Ling Hai stepped aside, the two young men dropped to their hands and knees and crawled under the swords. At the end of the gauntlet sat the Ah Mah, Mother--actually Low Yet, Lord of the secret society. He was seated on an elaborately carved rosewood chair, his small plump hands on each arm. The oil on his short English haircut shone in the dim light. Once through the alley of swords, Sam and Kim stood in front of the Ah Mah. A man at his side held out a scroll and read off 21 regulations and declarations of brotherhood and loyalty (“all members must share with each other in times of need”, “all members must never reveal these secret vows”), which the cousins agreed to uphold. They then pricked their thumbs with a knife and squeezed a drop of blood into a glass of wine that contained the blood of other members. Both swore to keep the secrets of the tong to death. Kim wrinkled his nose, and sipped, as Sam had done.
A member of the tong indicated to Sam and Kim that they must crawl under the Ah Mah’s elaborate carved chair, a symbolic act of rebirth as a new tong member. Wo Sam caught his collar on the underside of the chair, and had to tug at his robes, sprawling flat on his face. He felt more foolish by the minute, and wouldn’t have been surprised if everyone in the room burst out laughing at his pratfall. They remained stone-faced, which only added to his discomfort.
“Do you renounce all allegiance to Emperor, family and clan?” asked the Ah Mah. Sam looked at Kim. Both men nodded reluctantly. The two were then led before an altar to light incense and burn gilded paper, and to offer wine and tea to the spirits of the monks who died in the Manchu takeover centuries before. At least in this, Sam felt comfortable.
When they were done, the entire membership entered the great hall, filled with dusty sunlight streaming through massive rafters. In unison, they chanted 36 oaths, most having to do with restoring the Ming Dynasty back to power. A gleaming black bantam was brought in, wings flapping: a gift paid for by the young men to bind them in their oaths. The cock’s brief entry into the hall was cut short; a knife was drawn across his throat on the stone altar.
After, tong members milled about welcoming the two newcomers. Kim flushed, a wide grin decorated his face as men came up and clapped him across the back. Sam merely nodded. The man who read the 21 regulations came up to Sam and leaned slightly toward him while looking away. “Ah Mah wants you to attend him at his home tomorrow morning.” He leaned back and gave Sam directions, to which Sam nodded dumbly.
As the two young men made their way back to the boarding house, Sam walked ahead, keeping a furious pace.
“Slow down, cousin. Enjoy the cool night,” Kim admonished.
Sam stopped and whirled around. “What have you gotten me into?”
Kim looked surprised, and a little puzzled. “Are you worried about all the promises, cousin?” He brought his hand to his mouth, as if to hide a smile.
“We are honor-bound to these people now. Tomorrow, I must go to the Ah Mah’s house! What will he ask of me?”
Kim shook his head. “It’s only a game, Sam. Dress up and shout slogans like school. Think of all the new connections--new opportunities for work and friendship. You always take everything so seriously!”
“And you don’t take it seriously enough. Schoolmates do not carry pistols. They don’t run whorehouses!”
Kim sighed, exasperated. “You’ll see, it’s the right thing. You just have to calm down. It’s an honor to go to the boss’s house. Don’t worry! Besides, I didn’t ’get you into this--you wanted to make more money, remember?”
But Wo Sam had planted a strong seed of doubt in his own garden, and was not happy he had done so.
Buy a PDF version of the 310-page novel using Paypal ($5.99 USD):