Sample text for The tailor's daughter / Janice Graham.

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Chapter One

We all believed i had passed through the worst. It was late in the summer, and I recall that the room was often stifling hot and the light lingered into the evening. Then the splitting headaches began. I could not tolerate sunlight. I could not bear even the faintest rays without excruciating pain.

People whispered things in my dreams. “It’s Indian Oil, darling. I’ll just rub a little on your forehead. There, that will help.”

“Balsam of Myrrh. It has miraculous healing properties.”

These were the last words I ever heard. Strange words that evoked faraway places with caravans of creatures I thought must be camels, taking me to those places where camels live. My godfather, Colonel von Sacher, was there, and I remember being overjoyed to see him again. I told him he mustn’t pat me on the head the way he did when I was little, because my neck was very stiff and painful. The light always hurt my eyes, and I wanted it to be night. I asked him if we could travel by night.

Then, at some point, night fell, and it grew cool. I remember my first conscious moments and how it was so very quiet, so peacefully quiet. All that heat and turmoil had passed and I was in my bed and I could feel my body again. Everything was so still. I thought how kind they were, how considerate. No lumbering carts in the street, no hawking cries, no clopping hooves. They had quieted the world so I could rest and get well again.

In my exhausted state following the fever, with my sensibilities weakened, I was not alarmed by the silence around me. I felt hands ministering to me, pressing cool cloths to my forehead, coaxing me with a little broth in a bowl. They kept their voices low so as not to disturb me. At some point I awoke to find the headaches had subsided. My room was dark and very still, and I thought it must be the middle of the night. I felt well enough to attempt to get out of bed, and I managed to stand, although my legs were quite weak. As I drew aside the heavy curtains and stood at the window, I recall the eerie silence that accompanied all these familiar gestures, sounding a vague alarm somewhere in the back of my mind. The sky showed signs of first light, and I could barely distinguish the shapes of figures hurrying by on the pavement below. Then a cab passed by, and I realized I could not hear it. I raised the window—absent was the familiar rattle—and leaned against the railing. After a moment, a cart loaded with coal came down the street. The horses’ hooves struck the cobblestones and wheels ground along without a sound.

As I lit a candle and opened the door, I could not immediately bring myself to admit the possibility that I had lost my hearing entirely. I was acutely alert to any sensation that might create noise—the match bursting into flame, my bare feet padding across the cold floor, the swishing of my nightdress as I moved down the hall. At the top of the stairs, a faint dizziness swept over me, but I leaned against the wall and waited for it to pass. I was determined to prove my fears unfounded.

We had taken the lease on our house in Savile Row when I was ten years old and still in the habit of stealing down to the workshop to play when I should have been in bed. I always had to avoid the third step from the bottom. Even the slightest weight caused a protracted and ear-grating squeak, which Mama inevitably heard as she sat at her desk in the drawing room. In six years, the step had never been repaired, and we had all grown quite accustomed to its lament. I set the candle on a table in the hall, lifted my nightdress, and cautiously descended on unsteady legs. I reached the third step and landed on it heavily. Nothing. I rocked back and forth. Not a shred of sound. I continued to the bottom, then turned and climbed back up again, stamping firmly on each step along the way while I steadied myself on the rail. At that moment our housemaid appeared at the top of the stairs in her nightcap and shawl, looking quite rattled and groggy and not knowing what to make of me.

“Oh, Lucy, I’m dreadfully sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to alarm you. It’s the step. They repaired it, didn’t they? It doesn’t squeak anymore.”

I didn’t hear her reply; I was feeling quite faint all of a sudden. I had overexerted myself, and I could feel another headache coming on.

I caught only a glimpse of Lucy’s expression—a raw, unabashed sadness—and then she had her arms around my waist, holding me up, helping me up the stairs. I didn’t want to know why there were no sounds anymore. I wanted to crawl back into my bed and go to sleep and wake up and have everything the way it had been before.

We all believed the loss of my hearing was temporary, that it would return with time—or with the right remedy. I remember everything about the men who came to cure me. They came through my door one after the other, a parade of buffoonery and arrogance, of cold-heartedness and curiosity, of self-serving interest and—on occasion—compassion. Most of them loved their medicine more than they loved humankind. I say this because most of them sought to cure my deafness as though it were not part of me. I scrutinized their faces, hoping to find some sign of genius or of Providence, saying to myself with each new face, Perhaps this is the one. This man has some special knowledge. This is the man who will cure me.

I would ask them questions, but since I was so slow to understand their replies, they pushed me out of the conversations and directed their responses to Papa or Aunt Lavinia. I was never told beforehand what they intended to do to me. They expected me to submit to their ministrations like a dumb animal. They applied leeches to my ears and washed them out with foul-smelling liquids; they gave me herbal remedies to swallow, others to be applied in compresses all throughout the day and night. I was given ointments that made the skin crack and peel off, leaving my ears raw and throbbing. I drank concoctions that disgusted me. One doctor we visited clamped wires to my earlobes and shot electrical currents through them until the skin tingled, then burned. When I cried, he increased the current even more. When one outraged doctor failed to hypnotize me, he blamed my deafness on my unwillingness to hear.

As remedies failed, I waged a daily war with despair. I would walk around the house trying to find things that would make a sound that I could hear—tapping a spoon against a glass, clapping my hands, banging big metal ladles against pots and pans in the kitchen. They thought I’d gone quite mad. Papa would be in the sitting room hiding behind his newspaper, ignoring the noise and the tactful entreaties of our housekeeper, Mrs. Scholfield. Only much later did he confess to me that he was trying to conceal his tears.

It was a bleak and terrifying journey from the world of hearing to the world of silence, and I suppose it was only natural that, in my isolation, my attention was drawn to those things I already understood. Tailoring was our world. It was all I had ever known, and nothing else held any interest for me. I first experienced the magic of our trade toddling around Grenfell’s dusty workroom, clutching precious scraps of velvet or silk in my tiny fists. They assigned me a little stool in a corner, and there I would occupy myself for long hours, diligently sorting and re-sorting remnants of trimmings and cloth. To the apprentices perched on the tables, it was mere child’s play, but Old Crawley used to wink knowingly at me over his spectacles. He was fond of telling Papa how much I resembled him—the way I cocked my head and frowned as I studied my little scraps, debating the velveteen over a sea-green superfine, or perhaps a swatch of white satin and a smidgen of creamy lace. Old Crawley knew my mind.

Ever since I can remember, I have been in thrall to elegance and style. I observed things that slipped by unnoticed to everyone except my father, like a thread hanging from a buttonhole or clumsy shoulder padding. He and I had an eye for perfection, and we could easily be swept to rapture by the suppleness of a doe-skin glove. Even the language of our trade evoked visions of refined elegance. Before I knew what the words meant, I could recite descriptions of garments we were making—Viscount Dupplin’s “blue Witney peacoat bound with braid and lined with check Gambroon,” Lord Cairn’s “Paisley vicuna dressing gown with embossed crow’s-feet olivettes.” In my young mind, tailors worked magic, and I longed to be one of them.

Ours was a proud tradition dating back to the early seventeen hundreds. I never tired of hearing Grandpa’s story—embellished over the years—of how he had come to London from Somerset as a journeyman and set himself up at an inn, bribing noblemen’s valets in exchange for their repairs and alterations. My grandfather was a clever and ambitious man, and before long he was able to take a lease on a shop in the City. When mobilized into a regiment during the Napoleonic Wars, he showed up for duty in a uniform he had made himself. His splendid figure amidst the tattered-coat volunteers so impressed the commanding officer that he pulled Grandpa from the ranks and sent him home with an order for twenty uniforms. By the time Napoleon was defeated, Grenfell & Son had a thriving business in the City.

In the beginning, our lives were no different from other prospering families. We had a comfortable place in the society of wealthy manufacturers and merchants whose lives, like our own, were guided by rules of order that assured us wealth on earth as well as in heaven. Our week consisted of six long days of sober work and Sundays of equally long and sober prayer. We were early to bed and early to rise; we looked forward to boiled beef on Wednesdays and roast mutton on Sundays. Papa’s only excess was the fine brandy he drank in the office at the back of his shop every Sunday evening.

Then, when I was ten years old, our father decided to give up our shop in the City and take a lease on number 19 Savile Row. At last, we were to join the enclave of fashionable tailors clustered around the Burlington Estate in St. James. I shall never forget that day I first laid eyes on Savile Row, for it marked the passage to so many changes in our lives.

It was the start of the Season, a mild morning in April, and Regent Street was crammed with shoppers. We were stalled for the longest time until the driver maneuvered our barouche around a line of carriages parked outside a palatial emporium. We turned off Conduit Street into Savile Row, and I sat forward with my gloved fingers pressed to the windows.

“Which one is it?” I asked.

“It’s at the end,” Mama replied. “We’re not there yet.”

I turned to glance at my brother who sat in the corner with his head buried in a book. At twelve, he fancied himself quite the young man of letters.

“Goodness, Reggie, must you be reading now? Aren’t you the least bit curious?”

“Why should I be? ‘Nothing to see but streets, streets, streets. Nothing to breathe but streets, streets, streets. Nothing to change the brooding mind, or raise it up.’ ” He was forever quoting his books to me.

“That sounds like Mr. Dickens,” I ventured.

“Right you are.”

“Oh, he never has a nice thing to say about London. I don’t like him at all.”

Mama gestured with a nod. “We’re coming up on it now.”

Even Reggie closed his book and peered over our bonnets.

I scrutinized the long row of neat brick and stucco houses. Our lease at number nineteen had once belonged to a Dr. Erhardt, a surgeon who had retired to the country. There were other physicians and lawyers who lived nearby, but there were many fashionable tailors as well. Discreetly lettered signs hung over the front entrances, but there were no window displays. It was quite a change from our old street, a bustling thoroughfare fronted with gloviers, milliners, and drapers.

Just around the corner stood the Burlington Arcade, a sublime esplanade of tiny shops. I had never seen it, and Mama had promised we would make a stop. Reggie declined—preferring to stay in the carriage and finish his book, and our driver deposited my mother and me in the Burlington Gardens with the understanding that they would meet us at the other end in Piccadilly Street.

I was so awestruck that I stalled—my feet absolutely refused to carry me forward—and Mama had to pinch my arm to get me moving again. The Burlington Arcade is sheer heaven. It resembles a little covered village with high windows recessed into a vaulted sky. Nowhere will you see shop windows so dazzlingly clean—not a drop of rain or a mote of dust settles on the panes to dull the eye’s pleasure. Above each glass-fronted shop is a mezzanine where the shopkeeper resides, and above this are very private and very luxurious accommodations for young gentlemen.

Mama was walking much too briskly, as if she were intent on reaching the other end of the arcade before I broke some rule and had us chased out by the menacing-looking beadle. I freed my hand from her tight grip and dashed over to a display window that had caught my fancy. There, spread out on a looking glass, were the most amazing wares I had ever seen. There were snaffle-chain puppy dog collars in rose gold, and silk-braided leads in a rainbow of colors; on the shelf above, a set of silver embossed brushes were displayed on a cambric and lace kitty bed finished with silk tassels. I was dangerously close to smudging the pane with my nose, but caught myself when I saw my breath cloud the glass and pulled back just in the nick of time.

“Veda,” Mama hissed softly, grabbing me by the arm. “Do control yourself.”

She fussed over me for a moment, making a pretense of retying my bonnet, and for some reason she seemed a little more relaxed after that. We took our time, pausing in front of Lord’s where she admired some very fine gloves tinted the most delicate shade of pink I had ever seen, and a milliner’s shop with hats of such extraordinary plumage I thought them better suited for a cock than a lady.

There were two gentlemen lounging outside Lord’s as we paused to view the display. They were ever so courteous to Mama and me, stepping politely aside as we approached and tipping their hats. Both were superbly outfitted in blue-black cut silk velveteen morning coats and cream twill trousers. They were immediately joined by a dashing young captain who strode up with his helmet tucked under his arm and his cape thrown back over one shoulder, tapping a silver knobbed whip against the finest riding boots I had ever seen. I was awestruck, the pink gloves forgotten as I absorbed every tiny detail of their dress: the captain’s tasseled sword knot, the subtle treatment of black braid trim on the morning coat. Papa says that these are the men who dictate fashion. Fashion is not made in the tailor’s cutting room, regardless of what Grandpa likes to believe, but here in the streets of St. James.

My father would have been content to stay in Southampton Row, but Grandpa understood that the opportunity for expansion lay with the wealthy, and the wealthy had moved West. Then there was the prickly matter of Old Pauley, Grandpa’s friend and nemesis, who had left the Old City of London years ago and settled in St. James. Old Pauley had become an institution by then; the back room of his shop had evolved over the years into a discreet club. Pauley’s Palace it was affectionately called by the elite and titled who gathered there in the afternoon for hock and claret, lounging and smoking cigars in his leather chairs beneath a crystal chandelier he had imported from Venice.

We grew up under Old Pauley’s cloud, and my father was always struggling to live up to his standard. Certainly, this is why he decided to transform Dr. Erhardt’s surgery at the back of the shop into a private room for lounging, hoping to encourage our clients to casually drop by Grenfell’s just as they did Old Pauley’s. I liked the room very much. I liked the scent of cigar and leather, and the way Papa displayed a very nice crystal decanter and port glasses on a captain’s table beneath a rather badly executed portrait of a race horse given to us by a sporting client in settlement of his bill. There was even a gaming table against the wall, but it was only for show, since Mama forbade cards. I had heard that Fife & Sons provided guest bedrooms on the top floor to accommodate customers visiting from their country estates—and the ladies who sometimes accompanied them. But Mama would never tolerate such impropriety. She felt Papa’s little club room was more than adequate for the social whims of his clients.

Grandpa’s old friend and client, Colonel von Sacher, was particularly delighted by our new situation and the opportunity to drop by without notice, which he did frequently. Whenever he settled his bulk into a chair following an afternoon riding up and down Rotten Row, he brought into our closed domestic world the swagger and glory of the Empire. Breathing heavily, he would stretch his mud-streaked legs before him, take out a pocket handkerchief to mop his flushed forehead, and proceed to disclose the horrendous sums of money he had lost on disappointing horseflesh. The Colonel loved his horses and his dogs and never had anything good to say about women, but since he was the one who gave me my name, I have always kept a soft spot in my heart for him.

He claimed to have spent his best years in India where he had been a student of the Vedas—the sacred Hindu scriptures in which true knowledge is revealed. I was christened Mary Ann, a good Christian name, but the Colonel was my godfather, and his overbearing insistence on calling me Veda was for many years a matter of serious contention in our family. It wasn’t until I grew old enough to talk and emphatically expressed my preference for the name that the matter was settled of its own accord—although I cannot recall why, at the age of four, I was so disposed to like the name.

There was indeed some inexplicable bond between the two of us, and he favored me with privileges little girls rarely enjoy. Whenever he dropped by, he always asked to see me, but he had not the slightest idea how to talk to children. I would sit on the floor beside his chair like a pet, bored by the conversation yet thrilled at being admitted to this exalted masculine sanctum. Most of the time I was ignored. I know my father felt uncomfortable having me in the room, but the Colonel rambled on as if I were not there, and I listened like an invisible spy. He was prone to maudlin discontent, and there were times when he churned himself into a bilious sea of spite. Generally, it was about women.

I recall one particularly dull winter afternoon after we had settled into Savile Row, when the sooty drizzle had confined us indoors, depriving us of our habitual outing to the Burlington Gardens. Colonel von Sacher’s arrival was ever so welcome, as I had been pent up in the sitting room since lunch with Aunt Lavinia, stitching letters of the alphabet into a horrid old sampler. Summoned by Papa’s apprentice, I slipped into the club room and took my post beside the Colonel who sat with a cigar in his hand and a port on his knee. Papa was with a client; only Grandpa and the Colonel were present.

“I dare say, Edward, I admire a well-turned shoulder as much as the next man, indeed, I do,” the Colonel was saying. He paused to allow a coil of grey smoke to roll off his tongue. “Deuce knows, the weaker sex parades itself wonderfully—wonderfully. But the mind—now, then, that’s another thing altogether.” He stared at the tip of his cigar in severe consternation and then briskly flicked an ash into the plate at his elbow.

“Indeed, sir, God intended man to have the superior mind, no doubt about it,” Grandpa replied from his armchair. “Excessive knowledge in a woman is most unbecoming.” He leaned forward, took up the decanter, and with a palsied hand began to refill the Colonel’s glass.

“Unbecoming? Unbecoming, did you say?” the Colonel barked, causing Grandpa to spill the port.

“Ah, sir, it appears I have missed your meaning as well as your glass,” Grandpa answered dryly.

“Confound it, Edward, you should know better,” said the Colonel, blotting his damp knee with the handkerchief Grandpa offered.

“Indeed, my friend. I have never known your ideas along these lines to be conventional.” Grandpa settled back into his chair, scratching his white mutton chop whiskers and glancing at me with an uncomfortable look.

“The mind is not made for prettiness. It’s made for thought,” the Colonel said. “And a woman’s mind can—mark my words, I say can—be as trenchant as a man’s, if she’s given the proper instruments.” He carefully circled his lips around the cigar and played with it a moment before he continued. “Oh, there are exceptions to our perfect little specimens of blond loveliness, you know. Although you won’t find many here in England, Lord knows. In America, perhaps. Certainly there are in India, among the upper classes of course.”

There was silence. Grandpa knew that these occasional swings into nostalgia were best left without comment.

“Veda,” the Colonel said, turning to where I slumped with my head in my hands, staring at his rain-splattered boots. He always smelled of boot wax and horses.

“Yes?” I replied, sitting up straight. He rarely spoke to me directly.

“You will live up to your name, won’t you, girl?” He threw a warning glance at Grandpa. “I say, Edward, you don’t allow her those ladies magazines, do you? I should forbid it, if I were you. Damn sentimental slop. Weakens the mind. Histories are the best antidote for that. Give her histories to read.” Then, turning his watery eyes back on me, “And read the newspapers, my dear. Read The Times. You may be a mere tailor’s daughter, but don’t let that taint your mind, child.”

I have always wondered if it was perhaps my dark corkscrew curls that convinced him I was to be an exception to his rule of “perfect blond loveliness.” Now, looking back with an outlook shaped by my own sorrows, I think he had been terribly disappointed in love, and that he still carried a smoldering passion for a foreign woman of great intelligence.

After we moved to Savile Row, we were always striving to distinguish ourselves as more than just tailors. From the first night we slept in the new house, it seemed that a division had been drawn between east and west, between past and present. Although I still had an attic room, it was all mine as I was now old enough to leave the nursery and sleep on my own, and Nanny Mulgrove found employment with another family. A new four-poster bed had been ordered for me and wedged under the eaves, along with a small writing desk and chair, a washstand and basin, and a new chest of drawers. I missed Nanny terribly, but I found my new independence to be exhilarating.

Mama decided we should have new servants to reflect our new status, and she replaced everyone except Cook with persons who had been in service to more fashionable West End families—although several maids she interviewed declined employment when they learned we were a tailoring family. Since livery had long been a Grenfell specialty, Papa designed splendid new bottle-green uniforms for our coachman and footman, and our new housekeeping staff were kitted out in fine black wool dresses with silk velvet collars and lace-trimmed white aprons and caps. The first time I saw them attired and assembled in the drawing room, they all looked so smart and proud that for a moment I almost believed us to be a family of rank.

At once, Mama began to discourage visits from our old friends from the City. At the same time, we were clearly not suitable company for our new patrician neighbors. We soon learned that the two briskly stepping young ladies residing at 14 Savile Row were Admiral Lord Seymour’s great-nieces, and the old dowager with the ear horn was the author of a series of fashionable silver-spoon novels, which were very popular with the upper classes. Several times a week on our morning excursions to Piccadilly or Regent Street, we would pass the two nieces, one of whom appeared barely older than I, and neither of them ever so much as graced us with a nod. Sometimes from my window I would see them set off together at a rapid pace with quick, mincing steps, chattering away to each other beneath their bonnets, their brown taffeta billowing around them and their ribbons flapping in the autumn breeze, and I thought they looked very much like two smug little squirrels on a daily raid. Their great-uncle came to Papa to be outfitted for court, and Papa dressed him so sublimely that the Admiral sent his coachman to fetch a photographer. Papa graciously endured him for nearly an hour as he strutted around the shop resplendent in black silk velvet tailcoat and breeches with patent leather shoes and a cocked beaver hat while they waited for the photographer to arrive. Even after that, the nieces never once gave a hint of even the slightest association with us.

Copyright © 2006 by Janice Graham. All rights reserved.

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Deaf women -- Fiction.
Women tailors -- Fiction.
Single mothers -- Fiction.
Social classes -- Fiction.
London (England) -- Fiction.
Aristocracy (Social class) -- Fiction.