Title: A New Life
It was February of 1861, the year the war started, the month I turned sixteen, and the beginning of my demise. My mother, weak from the grief of losing my father four months earlier, had succumbed to the smallpox. An already fragile woman, she lasted but two days before leaving this mortal existence and me, her only child.
The funeral took place three days after her passing; it was my birthday. The sky was overcast and the air chill as though mourning my loss with me. There were only a few of us at the ceremony; I was the only family member there. Mama's family refused to come. They had never forgiven her for marrying my father; they said she had married below her. Thinking on it, I could see how they might disapprove. Father had been the son of a blacksmith and had inherited the business. Mama had grown up on a plantation where slaves fulfilled her every whim. But, socially above him or not, Mama had loved Father truly, deeply, passionately and he had felt the same for her. Any fool could have seen how much in love they had been.
Despite Mama's "fall" from genteel society she had insured that I, her daughter, would be trained to behave as a proper young lady; as though I were the princess of a plantation. I exceeded in her lessons so well that, had we had more money, I'm sure I would have been considered a Southern Belle. Had Mama foreseen what was to become of me in the years following her death I am certain she would found my formal upbringing to be utterly useless.
How stubborn and unforgiving can one be? I asked myself as the small group left the cemetery. The discovery that none of Mama's family had even bothered to send flowers disturbed me deeply.
These thoughts were interrupted by Emily- Mama's best friend- putting a hand on my shoulder and steering me towards her carriage.
"Where are we going?" I questioned, looking up into Emily's kind brown eyes and distractedly admiring the color of her honey blonde hair. Though she had same Christian name as Mama had had, she was the opposite of my mother in almost every way.
"To Mr. Dobson's office," came the abrupt reply. Emily had never been one for drawing out what she had to say; where as Mama had always taken her time visiting and socializing before coming to the point.
"The lawyer's?" I asked.
"Yes, they are going to read your mama's will."
I remained silent throughout the ride to the lawyer's while Emily and her husband chatted about unimportant matters such as the fact that the newly formed Confederacy had just elected Jefferson Davis to be president and wasn't it a shame that North Carolina hadn't seceded, leaving us stuck with that Lincoln fool? Finally, we pulled up to a building with a sign that read: Ramey and Dobson; Law Firm.
We were ushered into the office and took our seats. I allowed my eyes to wander around the room and realized that we were not alone. A woman sat stiffly in a chair across the office. She had long, gray which she wore hair piled atop her head and startling green eyes that matched mine. Her body was covered in a beautiful green silk gown. She looked oddly familiar although I was certain I had never seen her before.
"Mrs. Harrold," Dobson began, "May I introduce you to Miss Constance Briant; your granddaughter."
My jaw dropped and my eyes widened. This woman was my grandmother? The woman who had made Mama cry with her biting letters and threats? It certainly explained the familiarity of her face. She looked like an older version of my recently deceased mama.
"Shut your mouth, Constance," the woman snapped in a hostile voice, "You look as though you are trying to catch a fly. Most unattractive."
Mr. Dobson cleared his throat before I could respond. "If there is no objection, I will proceed . . ."
Fifteen minutes later I was asked to leave the room by Mrs. Harrold (I refused to call her grandmother after the way she had treated Mama). I knew what they were going to discuss . . . me. No doubt the woman had come to the reading with the absurd idea that Mama had left her everything; not that she needed more money. This was not so. Emily had been given a small amount of the money Mama and Father had saved over the years while I, as the only child, was given everything else on the terms that I could not claim my inheritance until I was twenty-five or married, whichever happened first. Mrs. Harrold was given custody of me. It was at this point that I was asked to step out of the room, but they wouldn't get rid of me that easily. The second the door was shut I pressed my ear to it and listened intently.
"I will not take that bratty street rat into my home!" I heard Mrs. Harrold say in a cold, calm voice that made me wince.
"Excuse me!" Emily broke in, "but I'd hardly call her bratty or a street rat. She has more manners than some of the upper class I know," I could just picture the pointed look Emily would be giving Mrs. Harrold. "And she has lived in sufficient comfort for the past sixteen years."
"I will not take her in. She is the daughter of a blacksmith." She said it as though it were a dirty word.
"Well," the nervous voice of Dobson broke in, "Mrs. Briant made it quite clear that, if her mother were to refuse to take the child in, that it was her mother's duty to find a home for the girl."
"Why doesn't she take her then?" I heard my grandmother's voice question.
"I would love to," came Emily's reply, "but I've got three children of my own at home. One not even walking yet."
"Very well, then she will go to an orphanage." The orphanage?! I could not go to one of those places! I had heard nothing but terrible things about them from my best friend.
"She's too old for an orphanage," Emily replied calmly.
I heard Mrs. Harrold sniff in disdain. "Well, then I shall send her to boarding school. There's a marvelously strict school for orphaned girls that I know of. I'm certain she's young enough for that, and if not, I'm sure I can pull a few strings." Judging by the note of relish in her voice as she spoke of the school, I felt certain that I would have preferred an orphanage.
It was at that moment that I realized my life had just come to a crossroads. Hoping I was making the right decision, I turned about and ran out of the lawyer's office. I walked home as quickly as possible while trying not to draw attention to myself. I arrived home a half-hour later tired and dirty. It wouldn't be long before they would discover I was gone and home would be the first place they would look.
I ignored this thought and heated some water for a bath figuring that it would probably be my last for a while. I didn't spend long in the tub; as soon as I was clean I grabbed a towel and wrapped it around myself. Hurrying to my parents' bedroom I grabbed one of Father's old shirts and trousers and slipped them on. I finished the ensemble by stuffing my hair under a hat and donning an old wool coat. I didn't look as much of a boy as I had when I was much younger and Mama would send me out to play in boys' clothing in order to save my few dresses from destruction. I had grown in more ways than one since that happy time of my life. Luckily, Father had been a rather large man and the shirt was large enough to hide the fact that I was a female.
Before leaving the house I went to Father's office and grabbed a daguerreotype of my parents and I in a silver frame. I also opened his desk and found the small amount of money he had always hidden there to be used in an emergency. I stuffed the cash into my pocket. Running to my room, I grabbed the ivory hair clip Mama had given me the day before she died. It was to have been a birthday present. Finally, I ran to the kitchen where I filled a pillowcase with nonperishable food. Wrapping the picture in a napkin, I placed it and the hair clip on top of the food. I had just slung the pillowcase over my shoulder when I heard a carriage pull up. I didn't need to look to know who it was. Without a backward glance, I quietly slipped out the kitchen door as the front one opened.
I stopped in front of the two-story brick building and looked around. It didn't fit with its surroundings. The street wasn't poor, but the houses had definitely seen better days. This brick building stuck out from them. It looked . . . new.
It had been two months since I had run away. I had survived those months by hiding in the small forest behind my home and slipping into the kitchen at night to gather food. Hoping I would return home, the lawyers had left everything as it was, including the food, for two weeks. Managing to sneak in by night, I had eaten whatever was not rotting with time. I had stopped going when the lawyers realized what was going and sent someone to sleep in a cot on the kitchen floor every night. After that I used the money I had taken to buy food until the money was gone.
Fearing the lawyers would look beyond the house and search the forest, I had taken to wandering the streets begging for food and sleeping wherever there was soft ground and a place to hide. I was careful; however, to avoid the poorer part of town where I was likely to find other orphans who would steal from me, possibly hurt me. It was no wonder why they would behave as such. I hadn't gotten anything for my begging in two days and was slowly weakening. It was very tempting to begin stealing.
Raising my fist, I knocked on the door. A few moments later a beautiful woman with curly red hair opened it. She was wearing a lovely blue gown and an emerald dangled from a silver chain around her throat.
"Can I help you?" she asked in a soft, seductive voice. Apparently she had been expecting someone other than a homeless beggar. A soft blush rose up her cheeks.
"I was wondering if you might have any food you'd be willing to share with a hungry soul," I stated, forgetting to make my voice sound like a boy's.
She stared at me for a moment as if trying to decide what to do. Slowly she nodded. "Come in," she held the door open as I entered. I stopped and gaped at the elegantly decorated entryway. The floor was red and cream marble trimmed in a beautiful wood. I hadn't known such lovely flooring existed. The walls were painted an off-white color that matched the marble with red silk drapes hanging along the walls. I had never seen drapes in places without windows, but it looked lovely. The ceiling boasted a medium-sized chandelier.
"You're not a boy are you," the redhead stated, interrupting my staring and gazing at me critically.
I smiled sheepishly. There was really no point in keeping up the charade now. My real voice was much too feminine to convince her that I had only been joking.
"No, I'm not," I replied, taking the hat off my head and letting my long hair tumble around my shoulders.
The woman looked shocked at getting a confession out of me so easily. Her expression changed to one of calculating when my hat no longer covered my face and hair. She nodded to herself, "I think I can do more for you besides feed you. Come with me."
Without waiting for a reply, she grabbed my hand and dragged me down the entryway. Turning right, she pulled me into a beautiful parlor with cream carpet, red drapes that hung from tall windows, and furniture to match. There were also a couple varnished wooden tables. We didn't stop here; however. The woman towed me to a grand staircase and then up it.
"I suppose I should introduce myself," she said, suddenly stopping and causing me to bump into her, "My name is Anna Randolph."
"I'm Constance Briant" Just then a blonde in a white and green striped gown walked past.
"Sarah!" Anna called her. Sarah turned. She didn't seem the least surprised at seeing a complete stranger standing beside Anna. "Will you please draw a warm bath for Miss Briant? And get Susan for me will you?"
"Yes Anna," Sarah walked down the hall, knocked on a door, opened it, and said something to the person inside. Closing the door, she continued down the hall and entered another room. Anna and I remained where we were until the first door Sarah had approached opened and another blonde stepped out. She was dressed differently from the others; and not in a good way. Rather than a modest gown buttoned to the neck, she wore a red satin with a dangerously low neckline and a skirt that was gathered on one side causing her leg to show clear up to her knees when she walked. Her short hair looked like she had been in the middle of styling it and a black collar encircled her neck. I stared at her in shock. Who in their right mind would dress like that? She looked like a . . .
It was in that moment that I realized where I was and nearly fainted. Dear God! I'm in a brothel! I watched in horror as Anna whispered something in Susan's ear. Terror filled my entire being. Were they going to make me a whore as well? I wanted to run, but my feet were stuck to the beautiful blue rug on which I stood. I was shaken from my thoughts by Anna grabbing my hand again and leading me to the room Sarah had entered. The door opened and my eyes were met with a blanket of steam. Judging by the small stove I saw standing a few feet away, it seemed the girls both heated the water and bathed in this room. I gasped as, through the fog, I saw a beautiful, large porcelain tub almost filled to the top with steaming water.
"Go ahead and get in the bath, Miss Briant," Anna said encouragingly, "I'll find you something suitable to wear. You look like you'll fit into one of Mary's dresses." She and Sarah left and I set the pillowcase containing my hair clip a picture down and proceeded to strip off my father's clothes. I didn't care what their motives were; they were giving me a chance to be clean! It took a lot of scrubbing to get two months worth of dirt off me, but by the time Anna returned my skin was back to its original healthy, clean ivory color.
"Here," she said, setting her bundle down and approaching me, "I'll wash your hair." Picking up my golden brown locks she began to scrub with the soap.
"Why is Susan's hair so short?" I found myself asking. Immediately I put a hand to my mouth, realizing that my question may be considered improper. Not that much can be considered inappropriate in a place like this.
Anna merely chuckled and continued to scrub my hair. "She sold it before coming here in order to eat. She decided she liked it better that way and no longer grows it out."
"What are you going to do with me?" I finally got the bravery to ask.
"Nothing you don't want us to," came the vague reply. We said nothing more. A half-hour later I emerged from the bathing room with dry hair and dressed in a cream bodice and lavender skirt. I was ushered to the room Susan had been in earlier. It was now empty. I tried not to think of what she was probably doing at that moment. Anna, Sarah, and another girl – Liza - curled my hair and put it up in an attractive matter. Oh, Lord, they are going to make me a whore.
"Yes, I think you're ready." Anna finally said as Liza pinned the last hair into place.
"Ready for what? Where are we going?" I asked as she grabbed my hand and led me back downstairs. I realized that I had done nothing but ask questions since arriving here. Lord, I must have sounded like a curious child. But then, that's what I felt like.
"You're going to meet Elizabeth Briggs; the owner of this place and mother to us all." Anna replied as she led me down a hall off the parlor.
I gulped and it was all I could do to keep myself from saying, "But I don't want to be a prostitute."
We entered what appeared to be an office. In the center of the room was a large cherry wood desk with a cream marble top. Behind it was one of the prettiest women I had ever seen. Her dark brown hair was down and flowed to the middle of her back. She looked up when we entered and her almond-shaped hazel eyes met mine.
"You must be Miss Briant," she said in a kind voice. I nodded, too frightened to speak. "I'm Elizabeth, but you can call my Ellie." She stopped and looked me over. "Goodness, you can't be older than seventeen!"
"Sixteen," I supplied.
"Well," she said, sitting back in her chair. Apparently, she had been expecting someone older. "I don't suppose you would care to work for me, then? You're so young."
I remained silent. I most certainly did not want to work for her. But how could I tell her that and still be polite?
"I'll take that as a no," she said with a soft smile. She paused for a moment as though considering something. "I've always had a soft spot in my heart for young girls who are on their own," she said slowly and sincerely, "So I have a proposition for you. I'd like to take you in as my ward. I'll feed you, clothe you, and give you a place to sleep. All you need do in return is help the girls get ready for work and anything else I ask of you."
I looked at her suspiciously. Surely there was some sort of catch to this arrangement. Perhaps she expected me to take my place with the others when I had matured?
A slow, somewhat foolish smile crept across her face. "I promise I will do everything in my power to never ask you to do what the other girls do."
I could tell she was sincere and I was in dire need of a place to stay so I agreed. After all, I could always run away if she changed her mind about what kind of job I would be doing.
I spent the next week getting to know the girls better; specifically Anna and Ellie. I had been there two weeks when something happened that I had known deep down was inevitable when I agreed to stay. I was requested.
A/N: Okay, I've never been in a brothel, especially not one from the 1800s! So I really don't know how it would've been or how it would've worked. And the only information I can find is on where to find brothels today. So don't hate me if it's not correct. Anyway, please review!!!