Scott’s knuckles rapped on dark wood beside a brass number nine. Betrayal of creaking floorboards could be heard.
“Who is it?” The closeness of Kinsey’s muffled voice signaled she stood on the other side of her hotel fortress gate.
A grin spread across Scott’s face. Not exactly the answer you were expecting, little one?
The door opened far enough for Kinsey to be seen but fell short on offering admittance.
“With raspberry jam.” Scott dangled the cardboard box by the shopkeeper’s neatly tied string.
Suspicious brown eyes initiated The Spanish Inquisition. “This smells like a bribe.”
“It does.” The accused sniffed the air. “A freshly baked one.”
“I’m guessing you want to talk.”
“You said raspberry?”
“Do I have to share?”
Admittance granted. Sweet victory.
As Kinsey returned to her nest of pillows and quilts in the middle of the bed, Scott took his time closing the door and retrieving a small chair to sit, all the while taking note of his little cousin’s battlefield billet she’d withdrawn to since the quagmire at the train station. First demanding his attention: dress shop purchases, some still in their wrappings.
The moment Jupiter left the rails to begin its fiery demise, Scott and Seth had not yet retired, but instead remained dressed for the day, relaxing in the smoking car. Although dirty and torn after their nightmarish ordeal, the gentlemen’s clothing proved acceptable enough to patronize an Auburn haberdashery for new attire bought with the merchant’s good faith and understanding that bills would be paid once the travelers returned home.
Kinsey, on the other hand, had been sleeping at the time of the derailment, forcing her to step off the rescue wagon dressed in her nightgown, Seth’s jacket, and oversized boots from a man she could never thank. Yes, Scott had felt the frustration toward the town folks finger-pointing, but truth be told, his little cousin could have easily passed as a Boston beggar child.
Seeing no other solution to the situation, Scott and Seth accepted the challenging responsibility of selecting a presentable ensemble for Kinsey so she could step out on the streets of Auburn.
“Madame DeMorest's Cosmopolitan Emporium of Fashion.” Seth read with slight skepticism the looping gold leaf calligraphy exquisitely painted on the large storefront window. However, displayed behind the glass, beautiful dresses, hats, gloves and shoes put to rest any doubts this was indeed an establishment offering fashion of utmost quality. “Ever been inside one of these places?”
“Through trial and error, I’ve determined that the consumption of two cool beers at Henry’s coincides precisely with the time needed for Lancer’s young ladies to finalize purchases at the Green River dress shop, thus allowing my continued avoidance of fashion emporiums.”
“Two beers, you say.”
“Two.” Scott’s raised fingers confirmed the answer.
“I’m good with numbers.” An eyebrow raised. “What about you?”
“My mother dragged me into one of these velvet-ribboned lairs when I was nine. I promptly held up a corset and questioned how much for the slingshot. Can’t say I was ever asked back.”
“Can’t say I’m surprised.” Scott stared at the reflection of two grown men, hands on hips, returning the stare with a hint of fear in their eyes. “I believe, sir, we are currently being intimidated by ruffles and lace.”
“Well, if you insist on stating it that way, I do feel rather like a...” Seth rubbed his chin and considered accurate wording. “Ignoramus.”
“Look. How hard can this be?” Scott swept his arm out. “We go in there, state our mission, point at a few female items, bundle them up and then retreat.”
“Followed by two cool beers.”
Upon entering, the delicate tinkling of the bell above the door had the impact of a bugler’s Boots and Saddles, halting all movement as sets of female eyes locked in on the infiltrating strangers. Their camp’s daily routine had just been disrupted.
“Are you gentlemen lost?” The Bustle Brigade’s general showed herself with an inflection of disdain. “The sa-looon is across the street.”
An agreeing battle cry of temperance regarding the evils of alcohol floated on the troop’s low murmurs. Scott surmised behind the hat racks and shoe displays lines were being drawn in the sand. Puffing out his cheeks, he allowed a slow exhale to deflate them while formulating a strategy of truce. Although plausible, waving a pair of white bloomers seemed ill-advised.
Seth turned his back on the enemy for a brief deliberation. "Looks like a bit of a confronting situation quickly developing here. Maybe we should rethink this over those two beers.”
Confrontation. Scott’s theory on handling confrontation in any situation was basic: know the right words to say at the right time to the right person. Of course, there were always exceptions to the rule…a lovely socialite’s angry father, for example. Fortunately at the moment, none were present in Madame DeMorest's Cosmopolitan Emporium of Fashion.
Scott placed hand over heart. “Ma’am, we’re from the Jupiter.”
Was the statement a despicable, low-handed tactic to gain the pity of others?
Was it the right words to say at the right time to the right person?
“Oh, you poor boys!” The Proprietor of Petticoats extended her hands. “How can I help?”
Scott smiled. “Madame DeMorset.”
“Oh no, young man. I’m Mrs. Fitzwalter.” The older woman’s chuckle joined other female titters and twitters filtering about the store. “Madame DeMorest is a well-established name within the New York fashion circles. Our ensembles here possess the high quality reflected in the DeMorset name.” Lowering her voice, the proprietor shared a secret. “Quite frankly, we are the only shop in Auburn that offers such finery. You won’t find shoddy stitching in this establishment.”
“Mrs. Fitzwalter,” Scott bowed slightly. “Our male ignorance of fashion is in your hands.”
“Ma’am, if you don’t mind me saying” - Seth pointed to the storefront window - “Madame Fitzwalter’s Cosmopolitan Emporium of Fashion has a more sophisticated ring to it.”
Above blushing cheeks, crow’s feet couldn’t compete with the sparkle in the woman’s eyes. Enemy flags lowered and two young men received a promotion in rank.
Scott explained, in as few words as possible, his and Seth’s relationship with Kinsey along with her current plight. Even with little to work on, the connection was made that the girl on the front page of The Placer Herald and this man’s cousin were one and the same. Patrons gathered in to hear more.
“Ladies!” Mrs. Fitzwalter clapped her hands. “Allow these men their privacy with a very delicate predicament.” Females scattered as the owner quietly shared yet another secret. “Silk and satin do little to hide improper upbringing.”
With a grin, Seth gladly shared his own thoughts. “My grandfather always says it’s like putting rouge on a sow.”
“Yes. How quaint.” A throat cleared. “Let’s move on.” Reading spectacles on a gold chain were balanced on the bridge of the woman’s nose followed by the retrieval of pencil and paper. “A few measurements will be the first order of business.”
Measurements? A look of uncertainty passed between the business partners.
“The young lady’s height?” The pencil hovered to record an answer.
“Ah, Kinsey’s height” Scott’s brow dipped in concentration. “I’d say about to here.” Perpendicular to his shoulder, a palm marked the spot. “Give or take an inch or two.”
“I see.” A number was recorded. “Waist?”
“Well…” Seth glanced around and snagged two satin pillows from a nearby settee. Encircling them with his hands, he squeezed slightly. “Yeah, that feels fairly accurate.”
A judgmental eyebrow raised as the pencil scratched out a number. “I believe we’ll skip discussing the bodice for now. The young lady’s shoe size?”
Scott held up index fingers, parted at a distance as if describing a small catch at Martin's Lake. “So big.”
Before removing her spectacles, the proprietor paused and pinched the bridge of her nose, causing a subtle smile to brush Scott’s mouth. He recognized the gesture, having done it himself on many occasions when speaking with Kinsey. It appeared the Bustle Brigade general was showing the first signs of battle fatigue. “Gentlemen, perhaps it would be best if I simply gathered a few items for your consideration.”
Stockings, bloomers, chemises, petticoats, corsets, skirts, blouses, nightgowns, evening robes, carriage boots, house boots, riding boots, slippers…the parade of a few gathered items lasted longer than a military review.
Scott crossed his arms and scrutinized the kaleidoscope piles of satins and velvets, blessing it all with a heavy sigh. “Mrs. Fitzwalter, this might be an excellent time to discuss your policy on returns.”
Kinsey’s first bite of scone left globs of sticky raspberry jam claiming the corners of her mouth. Fishing out of his pocket a newly purchased handkerchief, Scott handed it over. A quick nod from his cousin spoke of her gratitude. Seeing the baker had been quite generous with the filling, Scott carefully measured his own plan of attack with the second pastry.
“In the hotel dining room drinking bad coffee.”
“He’s losing patience with me.”
With a humorous observation having little influence, a casual one was called upon. “You’re confusing lack of patience with mounting concern. It’s easy to do. I’ve done it myself on occasion.”
Kinsey’s quiet focus drifted from the scone to the window near her bed. Scott couldn’t be certain if the pedestrians in the streets below had gathered her interest or if her thoughts had traveled out of the room. Taking advantage of their paused conversation, he debated the best way to approach his cousin’s own version of Hide and Seek, hoping he could be as effective as Winnie had been.
“Remember when I began asking about your service to the Union?”
The decision had just been made for him. “I do. We were on our way to meet your grandfather in Philadelphia.”
“I’d asked what it was like to fight in the war. You didn’t want to tell me, but you did. I remember you said there were things you’d like to forget but never would. You said that every day you considered yourself blessed to be here and you had finally come to terms with not feeling guilty about it.”
“Yes, little one. I remember.”
“Tell me. How? How did you come to terms with the guilt?”
Scott reached out and took his cousin’s hand. “The first step is to stop playing Hide and Seek.”
Seth smiled at the little lady entering the hotel dining room for the evening meal.