Monday, May 2, 2022

Read an Excerpt from The Laundress by Mary Hagen

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Phoebe comes from a wealthy background filled with privilege and closeminded views, but everything was lost at the end of the Civil War. Now she lives alone in the mining camp of Gold Dust struggling to survive, working as a laundress, and saving what money she can to get out of Gold Dust. When her funds are stolen her hope of leaving is gone, sending her into a state of despair.

As a young man, James's father, an English Earl, arranged for him to marry the daughter of a neighbor. If James doesn't find a way out, he'll have to go through with it within the coming year. In his job as a remittance man in Gold Dust, he meets Phoebe, one of the few women available in the area. He takes a risk and asks her to marry him with the understanding that the marriage will not be real and will end when he is clear of his other commitment. Then he can be free to find a woman he loves.

Will their best laid plans work out?


Three blue shirts, two pair of red long underwear, one pair of mismatched wool socks – Clarence.  Two gray shirts, one pair of long underwear, two pair of socks – Horace.  One large blue shirt, one long pair of underwear, one pair of worn socks – George.

Wrapping her hands in her apron, Phoebe continued inspecting her day's laundry.  Everything was in order but frozen solid from the frigid air.  She needed wind to shake out the ice crystals. Her inspection completed, she entered the small wash shack and warmed her chapped hands over the stove used to heat water.  Seating herself on a log under the stove pipe, she pulled her shawl around her narrow shoulders and studied the rough skin on her hands. 

Four years ago, slaves had done her bidding, her laundry, her cleaning, and her cooking.  The War was over and now she had nothing.  She was the slave.  Pressing her eyes closed, she sighed.  She did not know how to wash, cook, clean.  The skin on her hands was white, her fingers long and slim, her nails filed.

When the War was over, her mother and brother were dead, and her father, bless his Soul, lost their plantation.  None of their former slaves remained, would not remain even with offered payment for their efforts.  Every day for two years, she had toiled doing laundry in this Godforsaken mountain town. The tears rolled down her cheeks and she swiped them with the back of her hand.  Was this her fate for the remained of her life? No. She saved her money.  When she had enough, she would leave the mining community and move to one of the new towns on the prairie.

Her father had been killed over the rights to his mine leaving her stranded in Gold Dust.  Not that it surprised her. Without his slaves to do his bidding, her father was a failure at every business he tried. The murderer had never been apprehended. She had her suspicion it was his partner. Without a will, she had been left nothing and was forced to work at the laundry shack.  At the end of each day, her meager payments were needed to pay her bills.  It was difficult to save.  And the men who brought her their dirty clothes were married, old, or not a man she wanted to spend her life with.

That was not entirely true.  There had been Charles.  She thought of him as Charles, not Charlie.  He could not hide his fine manners, those of a gentleman who had, like her father, fallen on hard times at the end of the war.  But he said "goodbye" the evening he picked up his laundry. 

Her shoulders sagged and her shawl slipped to the floor.  She ran her tongue over her cracked lips and recalled his words, "Till we meet again under better circumstances."

 For whom?  Not her.  She'd be doing laundry till she died.  No. Her goal was to open a small shop for ladies.

"Stop sitting there like an idiot and put some logs on the fire," Myrtle screamed.  "We jest got another load.  She stomped her feet on the wooden floor and dropped a pile of clothes at Phoebe's feet.

With a soft sigh, Phoebe stood and checked the mud caked shirts and pants. They were so dirty she feared she would need to boil them twice. Hanging her shawl on a nail, she grabbed a bucket of hot water and poured it into her rinse water from her last load.    

  "I need a new cake of soap," she said to Myrtle.

"Yer supposed to supply yer own," Myrtle snapped.  "I can't make ends meet if I got to supply everything and pay ya, too."

"I didn't plan on this extra load."

Myrtle marched to a shelf, unlocked a cupboard, and retrieved a cake of soap made from ashes, lye, and grease.  Myrtle slapped it into Phoebe's outstretched hand.  "Better hurry it up.  Goin' to be dark soon.  I don't want to burn a lamp.  The soap will cost you twenty-five cents."

"I don't want to hang in the dark.  You should refuse such late requests," Phoebe retorted.

"If ya don't like it, ya know what you can do."

With a shrug of her shoulders, Phoebe picked up a smellie shirt and dropped into the boiling water followed by red underwear, filthy pants, and equally dirty socks. With the clothes boiling, she wrapped her shawl around her shoulders, grabbed two buckets, stepped out into the cold, and hurried to the stream for water.  Returning to the shack, she set the buckets on the stove to boil, picked up her washboard, pulled out the shirt, and went to work scrubbing with both hands using the harsh soap. As she suspected, the shirt would need at least two washings to see the color. She rubbed the top of her hand over her nose and counted the items as she scrubbed the clothes, not worn like the others and of a much better quality.  She rinsed, and hung them.  By the time she finished the day had turned to dusk.  The air smelled of snow and cold plummeted the temperature.  The wind had snapped the clothes dry. She removed them from the lines. 

As usual, Myrtle had let the fire die.  Red embers were not enough to keep the board shack warm.  She shivered as she folded the three piles of clothes, tied them with a string, marked who they belonged to, and stacked them on the pick-up table.  

 With her work completed, she wrapped her shawl around her shoulders and stepped onto the muddy track called a street.  Her boots sucked in an out of the mud as she made her way to the tent her father had erected for them.  As she weaved in and out of noisy prospectors returning from their digging for gold, some called out to her to ask her if she was free for the evening.  One stopped her by the arm, grinned, and asked if she cared to spend the evening with him. She twisted away from him, and hurried to the end of the long street to a cluster of tents.  Her father had built the sides of her tent half way up with rough-hewn boards and had laid a floor.  She pushed open the door and entered the cold interior. 

Her first tasks included lighting a candle and starting a fire in the small barrel shaped stove.  As the fire caught, she sat on one of two handmade chairs to remove her boots and slip her feet into leather moccasins lined with rabbit fur.  The moccasins were a gift from her father.  "Keep you warm," he'd said.  The thought filled her with regret.  He was gone.  She would never see him again.  She stifled a sob, stood, opened a small cupboard and removed a can of tomatoes. 

Not the best supper, she thought, as she dumped the tomatoes into a small tin cup and put it on the stove to heat.  Hot water from another can on the stove provided her drink.   She pulled the one table next to the stove and reached for a cloth and towel to wash her face and hands.  One item she had saved from her home was a lovely rose covered wash pitcher and bowl.  She poured cold water into the basin and rubbed her face with a wet cloth.  Her fingernails were clean as were her hands from the day of cleaning clothes. 

She spent little time eating the tomatoes and one piece of two-day old bread.  Finished with rinsing her cups and one spoon, she added two chunks of coal to the stove, pulled back the wool blankets on her narrow bed, blew out her candle, and quickly changed into her flannel nightgown.  No need to show her body outlined against the canvas.  Heaven only knew what attention the action would draw. 

Before crawling under her blankets, she pushed the table against her door to prevent unwanted visitors.  Drunken miners sometimes mistook her tent for their own.  Once in the bed, she fell into a deep sleep never waking until her internal clock told her she needed to get up and get to work.  As she dressed, her shoulders sagged at the thought of more scrubbing. 

The coal had kept the water on the stove hot.  She drank a quick cup of water and ate two slices of break.

At the wash shack, Myrtle had water hot and tubs ready for clothes.  "Use the rinse water from yesterday to start with," she yelled at the five washerwomen.  "You, Phoebe, get those garments off the line.  The gentleman who left them wants them ironed including the socks."  

After scooping the stiff clothes from the line, Phoebe hung her shawl on a nail, and clipped a wooden handle on a sad iron.  At least, her hands would stay warm while she pressed.  She shook out one of the shirts and flattened it on the ironing board.

"Don't take too long," Myrtle said to Phoebe.  "He'll be here early."

"Yes, ma'am," Phoebe snapped. 

With quick strokes and hot irons, she whizzed over the finely woven brown linen shirts, the underwear, the socks, and folded and stacked the garments.   She lifted the stack and carried the clothes to the board counter as a most handsome man entered the tent. Such specimen of the male species in Gold Dust caught her by surprise.

"My clothes," he said.  She placed the items on the board covered with oilcloth and he ran his hands over each item.  "Well done."

Phoebe gulped at a loss for words.  She tried not to stare as she took in his deep blue eyes, his neatly trimmed dark curly hair, his goatee, and his mustache.  He was tall but not so much so as to overpower her.  When he smiled at her, his face lit up, and his eyes crinkled at the edges.  

He took two gold coins out of his well-made wool coat and handed them to her.

"We charge $1.00 for laundry," Phoebe said as she returned one of the coins.

"No.  It's for you and the fine job you did."

Myrtle rushed over to the counter.  "Mr. Thompson, I hope you're satisfied.  Phoebe, yer next job is waiting."  With her hand, Myrtle patted her hair in a flirtatious manner. 

"I'm pleased.  Any clothes I bring in the future, I'd like this lady to do the work."  He nodded his head in Phoebe's direction. 

Myrtle frowned at Phoebe, smiled at Mr. Thompson, "Of course.  She's one of my better workers.  Now stop standin' gawkin', Phoebe, you got work to do."

Phoebe backed away from the counter, still gazing at Mr. Thompson, "Thank you," she managed to say. Even his nose was well-shaped and his teeth were white – not tobacco stained. She turned and hurried to her washtub, grabbed a shirt, and pushed it into the hot water.  With a quick glance at Mr. Thompson, she took a bar of soap, and fished out underwear. 

"I'll see him again," she mouthed the words.

"The best-lookin' man in these parts," Alice, the girl next to her, said.  "Wish he'd asked fer me.  How much extra did he give ya?  I'll wager Myrtle will want part of it."

The words were no more spoken than Myrtle waltzed toward them.  "I'll take the extra money." She held out her hand to Phoebe.

"No.  He left it for me.  I did a good job.  You get paid your twenty-five percent."  Phoebe scrubbed on the underwear, wrung water from it, and plopped it into the rinse water with her back to Myrtle.  

"I'm entitled to any extra ya git.  Ya work here.  Without me ya couldn't buy a bar of soap let alone a tub."  Myrtle shoved her shoulder.

Alice said.  "It's hers fair and square.  It wasn't you who stayed late."

"Yeh," a chorus of voices agreed. 

"You want us to leave?" Alice asked.

"Git back to work, ya lazy coots."  Myrtle flipped her skirt and returned to the counter.  She sat on a tall stool and glared at the women.

Every three days, Mr. Thompson brought a load of laundry to the shack and requested Phoebe to do his washing.  Much to her delight, he left an extra coin when he picked up his clothes, money she hid under the floor of her tent.

The March winds changed into snow.  Prospectors combed the steep hills for minerals sending booming explosions above the settlement.  On warm days, streams of water ran through the one street turning the track to impossible depths of mud.  Phoebe walked barefooted and carried her boots to the shack where she washed her feet in cold water.  In April, winter weather returned with a vengeance dropping three feet of snow in as many days.  To Phoebe, it meant more mud.  Would summer ever arrive?

Mr. Thompson, James she had learned his first name, continued to give her his clothes to wash and an extra coin each time he picked up his laundry.  She had learned to meet him ahead of Myrtle or the coin would never find its way into her pocket.  The savings mounted in her can under her floor.  By August, she hoped she would have enough to leave.

Except for a few, miners were not having the best of luck striking it rich on the steep hillsides.   Mr. James Thompson was the exception, or so she heard.  On a warm April night, he arrived at the shack as she was preparing to leave.  He removed his tall hat and approached her without his usual dirty clothes.

"Miss," he said.  "I don't know your last name."

"It's Marshall.  I'm Miss Phoebe Marshall of late from Stifle, Georgia, Plantation Greenfields."

He acknowledged her with a nod of his head.  "I have a request."

Phoebe shifted her weight from one foot to the other.

"May I have the pleasure of your company tomorrow evening for dinner at Gertrude Brenton's boarding house?  I know from experience she serves the best meals."

Stifling the urge to yell yes, she blinked her eyes before answering. 

"May I pick you up at your home?"

 "I'd prefer to meet you at the boarding house.  What time?"

"Would eight be too early?"

"Not in the least."

"Until tomorrow."

Phoebe's heart pounded against her chest.  Her breath caught in her throat.  Her chest tightened.  An evening with James Thompson was beyond her wildest imagination.  Reality intruded upon her happiness.  What would she wear?  Her dresses she had in her trunk were ten years old, completely out of fashion with hooped skirts of pale blue wool covered with tiny rosebuds or the finest silk.  For the remainder of the day, she planned what she would do with the dress to bring it up to date.  At closing, she glanced at her hands.  She would have to cover them with her one pair of white kid gloves she had brought with her to the settlement and hope her patent leather pumps still fit.

Laundry folded, tied, and ready for pick-up, she grabbed her shawl and left.  






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