Letters in the Attic

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Chapter 10: The Dressmaker

Elise: -April 1861-

Camille pulled Elise’s hair from her neck as she hurled near the trees, drawing in the unwanted attention of passersby. She hacked up air, unable to expel anymore from her frail body. She was uncomfortable and frustrated and didn’t know what was happening to her.

“I can’t do this, Camille. I’ve got to go back home,” Elise cried, wiping her face on her dirty sleeve. She was wearing the same dress she’d woken up in three days prior.

“Elise, you can’t. Please,” Camille politely argued, patting her dress down. Elise felt the burning tears sting her eyes again. She looked out into the street and heard the pounding hooves on the pavement and endless chatter of those walking by. The North, she thought. It was gray and dull compared to her green and lively Southern city. It was cold and she shivered despite the promise of Spring. She should’ve been home by now.

She felt comfortable, snuggled closely to Camille, and was forever grateful for her constant companionship since her separation from René. Though mere days had passed since their disunion, she still did not see him despite her pleas to those walking by and her appeals to law enforcement. Dirty and exhausted, the two women looked homeless on the street and they both feared that they’d be arrested. For days they’d slept on the streets or under trees and bridges. Despite Camille’s offer to help, she had nothing to offer but her company. Neither of them had money or a place to stay. Elise found herself dazed, with every ounce of joy she’d felt drained from her eyes. Light droplets of rain began to fall on them, and Elise cried more at her situation when only days ago she was safe in her husband’s arms.

“Come with me.” Camille pulled herself up. She held out a hand and Elise reached out with what little strength she had. She regained her balance when Camille yanked her up and she afraid she would vomit again when a wave of nausea crept up through her throat again. The thought made her shiver. Elise held onto her diaries and photographs closely now, protecting them as she would a child, fearful that she’d never see her loved ones again.

She blindly followed Camille through the street, avoiding the judgmental glances of those around her, diligently clutching her bag. As the frigid rain fell harder they took shelter under the extended roof of a small shop. Elise looked at Camille through bloodshot, tear-filled eyes. Camille’s face was dirty and her hair was matted but she showed no emotion, no anxiety, or worry. Elise admired her courage and envied her resolve. She had never been the strongest of women, but she had also had a safe, healthy life with minimal problems and no danger. She scolded herself for being so weak and crying so much when her companion was so strong. She couldn’t have done this alone and squeezed Camille’s hand in silent thanks.

“None of the guards have any notion of René’s whereabouts,” Elise said through a cracked voice.

Camille squeezed her hand. “It’s only been three days yet. The entire city is in chaos. We are not the only ones,” she said reassuringly. Although the words were true, Elise feared the worst. Every detail of René’s capture was fresh in her mind, and the multitude of scenarios that ran through her mind would not stop. Were they making him fight? Or were they torturing him? Scariest of all, did they kill him?

“You’re so strong-willed.” Elise hollered over the thunder and rain, “I don’t know what I would have done if you had not come to me in the hospital. Camille, I am so afraid.”

As the rain’s force increased they were pushed to the edge of the shop and the filthy fabric of their dresses left marks against the drenched windows. Right as their dresses risked complete saturation the shop door opened, and an older gentleman stepped out. Without saying a word he eyed the two women and with a sympathetic look, generously led them inside. Without protest, they followed him into the shop remaining silent and thanking him with their eyes. He looked at them as a parent looks at a child.

He handed them dry towels. “Outside is no place for two young ladies.”

He moved across the shop to the kitchen and motioned for them to follow. They did, and Elise observed his tiny shop. The front door he’d taken them through was angled slightly, welcoming any visitor into the heart of the shop where they were surrounded by an array of delicate and ornate fabrics, buttons, and other materials. She felt herself reaching for one, entranced. A Dressmaker, she thought. Traveling further into the small building it was clear that it served a dual purpose as his workshop and his home. A cramped kitchen was connected only by a doorway, and the table inside served as the dinner table.

“My name is Peter Dubois,” he said, setting a fire on the stove. He pulled a teapot from the cupboard and filled it with water as the two women remained silent. Elise watched in a stupor as the flames engulfed the bottom of the pot. She hadn’t realized how cold she was.

“Thank you kindly, sir. My name is Camille Byrne, and this is my dear friend Elise Pellerin,” she responded, brushing the towel against her dripping hair. The bright blonde color was dulled to a grayed brown and the cloth rapidly soaked up the water.

He turned around quickly at the sound of her accent. “Now, I don’t want to make any assumptions miss but by the look of you I’d say you’re living in hard times.” As he said it he took fresh tea leaves from a clear jar. Camille and Elise shifted uncomfortably and he sensed it immediately.

“Please, I meant no offense. If you are indeed on hard times and need assistance I must assure you that I have no intent on putting you back outside in the rain.” Camille let out a breath of relief in unison with the crackling thunder outside. Before either could respond to his gratifying declaration he was walking out of the kitchen and back into the shop, filling his hands with fabric.

“You’re quite slender, Miss. I do hope that you find these fitting,” he said, showing Elise the fabric in his hands. He handed them both plain dresses. Camille gaped at them, surprised at his generous hospitality.

Camille tried to thank him but he held up a gentle hand to stop her from continuing.

“Please, do get dried. The tea will soon be ready and there is no need for you to both be sitting at my table with your dresses dripping. As you can see, I’ve got plenty of fabric and several dresses already made. I also believe that I have the necessary materials to mend that dress, miss,” he informed Elise. “It needs to dry first. Please, hang them on the hook there once you’ve changed.”

“The dressing room is just this way,” he said, urging them to follow. Elise and Camille shared an unsure glance at one another before following him. He led them to the dressing room, only steps away from the table, and shut the door. They stripped and struggled to remove the wet garments from their bodies. Camille walked to Elise and untied her corset. Elise cringed and covered herself.

“Your dress is much nicer than mine. I’m sorry it’s been ruined.”

Elise shrugged as she shivered. “Thank you.”

Camille continued helping Elise with her heavy clothes until they were both dressed in warmth. Elise released her long hair out of its coiled braid and rung out as much water as she could before applying the towel to it. Camille did the same, though the amount of hair she possessed was significantly less. Dirty but dry, the women carried themselves as eloquently as possible through the door.

Peter poured them both a cup of steaming tea. “Please, be seated.”

Sitting next to them he quietly sipped his tea and offered fresh honey to the both of them. He eyed Camille, smiling as he took another sip. Elise noticed her face change a light shade of pink and glanced back at Peter.

“I’m afraid this may seem very forward, and I do apologize for any offense I may give or have given. But I saw two young ladies in need of assistance and could not turn away.”

He set his cup down. His auburn beard was long and clean and he crossed his legs as he spoke, revealing a long chain in his pants pocket. He was dressed eloquently and moved with grace which implied that his small shop was a successful one.

Camille set her eyes on him and spoke in a calculating tone. “If you want an explanation I will give it honestly, sir.”

She tapped her fingers on the small table. By the size of the table, it was clear that he lived alone. He nodded in response to her question before she began explaining their situation to him Peter nodded and acknowledged their story with genuine curiosity and sympathy. Elise, distracted by her thoughts and worry did not hesitate when Peter’s question came.

“And where are you from, miss…?

“Mrs. Elise Pellerin, and I am from New Orleans.”

She felt her hand reach to her mouth as it came out, and noticed Camille set her cup on the table slowly. Camille and Peter’s eyebrows rose in unison. Elise felt her heart sink and feared their immediate rejection.

“You’re from the South?” Camille asked, seemingly disgusted.

“Born and raised in New Orleans. What you weren’t aware of, Camille is that my husband and I were on our honeymoon. I’d always wanted to visit New York and my dear husband René obliged my wishes. I regret that decision more every day. Though I cannot blame New York for the catastrophic events of the past few days,” she boldly said. It was the most she’d spoken in front of Peter since their introduction.

“Your dress there on the wall is quite nice Mrs. Pellerin. You must come from wealth,” Peter said, with Camille still eyeing her suspiciously.

“I cannot claim wealth, Mr. Dubois. My father is a banker, as is my husband’s father. I’ve lived comfortably my entire life, but to answer the question lingering in your mind we are not planters,” Elise said, eager to defend her home and lifestyle.

“Did you have slaves in your household, Elise?” Camille asked, pressing the cup to her lips, her eyes filled with newfound suspicion.

“Only one. Our cook, Lydia, was purchased by my father when I was a girl. She’s been with our family for years. To answer the other question also lingering, I do not know what will happen to her now that there is a war among us,” Elise said, fiercely defending herself before their words attacked her. Speaking of her parents and Lydia made her feel more alone than ever before. Camille set the cup down and her expression softened.

She sighed. “Please, accept my apology, Elise. I should not make such assumptions and I am allowing my prejudice to blind me. You have been a dear friend to me these last few days. I should not allow the turmoil of this country to cloud my judgment of you,” she declared, accepting Elise’s words as truth. Peter rose from the table and took the pot from the stovetop.

“More tea, Mrs. Pellerin?”

Elise smiled and held her cup to him. Though the few moments of conversing about her past were intense, they passed quickly. Elise, unintentionally holding in a breath, released it in comfort upon realizing she was still safe and among friends. Hours passed as they got lost in conversation with Peter, enjoying his company and feeling safe in his shop. The storm outside eventually grew to a halt, and the specks of ice stuck to the roads and roofs of the buildings. Elise was not accustomed to such cold weather and the snow and ice that fascinated her only days ago now inflicted discomfort. As the tea grew cold and the pot emptied, Peter stood from his chair and walked to the dressing room. Camille apologized again for her assumptions and Elise was touched by her sincerity.

“I’m grateful to be among friends in a place that is foreign to me,” Elise said, taking Camille’s hand, and as she did she thought of Caroline. They did not expect their stay with Peter to last long and they were grateful that the storm was finally dying. Her thoughts were disrupted when Peter quickly walked into the room holding Elise’s ribbons.

“I’m so sorry for my rudeness, Mrs. Pellerin, but I noticed these beautiful ribbons on your dress. Though discolored by the moisture they are exquisite. As a dressmaker, I must ask, were these made by your own hand?” Elise felt the heat rush to her cheeks.

“Yes, of course. I make most of my own clothes.”

Camille gaped at the ribbons in unison with Peter.

“You made the dress too?”

“Yes, I make much of Lydia’s clothes as well. I also do occasional favors for my neighbors in the city. I made a pair of leather gloves for my best friend just a few months ago. I even made my wedding dress,” she proudly stated, though her voice cracked. Peter took a slow seat at the table with the mass of ribbons spilling from his arms.

“You may both lodge here tonight if you will it. I am happy and more than capable of providing you with food and shelter. I have a small studio apartment above the shop.”

He gathered the ribbons and took them back to the dressing room. Amid their continuous thanking, he led them to the room up the narrow stairs. It was small but it was the most luxurious sight they’d both seen in days. The room contained only a bed and a small desk with an armoire in the corner. The small square window was without curtains, and the setting sun shone into the room, illuminating the many dust particles that saturated the room. Elise and Camille looked out into the sunset, grateful to be indoors and protected, anticipating a night surrounded by the warmth of a bed.

***


Elise awoke to the smell of coffee and forced herself out of bed, letting the scent fill her senses. For a moment she forgot that she wasn’t safe in her parents’ house, or snuggled in the arms of René. Her ignorance was blissful and the moment she remembered that they’d not even shared a night together in their own home her stomach knotted with despair. She tried to shake it off by focusing on the smell of coffee. The bright sun was glistening through the droplets on the window and she was once again grateful for Peter’s hospitality. Elise was relieved to find that she did not have the urge to vomit, as she often did in the mornings since her separation with René. As Camille slept, Elise crept downstairs to find Peter brewing the coffee and humming quietly to himself. She announced herself and Peter spun around dramatically, flashing her a smile.

“Ah, Mrs. Pellerin! How wonderful to see you awake. And hopefully well-rested. I do hope the room was satisfactory for both you and Miss Byrne. I know it isn’t much, but it’s vacant and I stay down here in the shop,” he said, taking cups and saucers out of the dark mahogany cabinets. The cozy kitchen was halved in size when he was in it. He was such a cheery fellow, particularly for his elegant, and almost intimidating appearance.

“I slept very well, thank you. Camille is still asleep.”

She took a seat at the small table and saw a smile form at the corner of his mouth at the mention of Camille.

“I’ve assembled your ribbons and they’ve been cleaned individually, as has your dress,” Peter told her, handing her a cup of hot, steaming coffee. She wondered how long he’d been awake.

“Sir,” Elise said, but Peter cut her off mid-sentence.

“I am happy to help,” he said, putting the cup to his lips. He set the cup down and rose from the table.

“Follow me,” he said, walking to the dressing room. Elise set her cup down and followed him diligently. He took the dress and her ribbons from the wall and marveled at their clean, dry appearance.

“It’s even more beautiful when it’s not wet and slathered in mud. It’s damaged here,” he said as he pointed to a large tear near the bottom. “And the ribbons need to be reassembled, of course, and your corset is still wet.” He held out the dress then set it on his work table.

“You may repair it here. I would myself, but I’ve got orders to complete. I have closed the shop while you and Miss Byrne are here, but I cannot stop my work.” He moved to the other side of the room and began his work immediately. Elise was impressed by his speed and skill with a needle and thread and wondered if that was how people back home viewed her work too. Minutes passed, possibly hours before she was finished, though it couldn’t have been too long as Camille was still asleep. She eyed her work proudly and ran her hand along the fabric. It was then that she felt eyes on her.

“Your work is most impressive Mrs. Pellerin. How long will you and Miss Byrne be in New York?” His eyes shifted to his work.

“It is too dangerous for me to travel alone. While I am here I want to stay in the city in case I am reunited with my husband René. As you are aware, we were on our honeymoon when he was taken by three men. I remember their faces clearly. If he is released, I must be here as I believe he will look for me. I do not know where he is.”

Peter let out a small hum before responding. “If it pleases you, I would be happy to offer you work and lodging until you return home. I am not concerned with the amount of time. My studio above us is empty as you know, and I require help. Your skills have impressed me, Mrs. Pellerin. And, if I may be so bold in her absence, I am interested in getting to know Miss Byrne better,” he said, another smile forming at his mouth. Elise stared at him in surprise.

“Work? Do you mean it, Mr. Dubois?” She rose from her chair and walked to him.

“Please, I insist that you both call me Peter. And yes. Your work is exquisite and I am envious of those in New Orleans who have enjoyed the sight of your work longer than I. As you must remain in New York at present I am happy to offer my hospitality and provide you with honest work.”

She excitedly accepted his kind offer but the eagerness was promptly snuffed out when the memories of her purpose in New York resurfaced. It was almost too good to be true.

“Miss Byrne is more than welcome to stay with you in the studio if she wishes it. Though I am yet unaware of which skills she possesses. She may be required to find work elsewhere, but she is offered the same lodging as you,” he said with a kind smile. Elise yelped with joy and quickly bounced up the stairs to wake Camille. For the first time in days, she felt happy, and could hardly believe that she’d found stability while she waited for the war to pass. When she entered the room, Camille was sleeping peacefully. Instead of waking her, she quietly glanced through the window to see the street below and saw a small child with his parents. It was then that she thought of her parents again. She quickly searched the room for a pen and paper and wrote. In her chaotic letter, she informed her parents of her whereabouts and the events that led her to Peter’s shop. She finished the letter asking them to inform her of René’s return, should he arrive in New Orleans. She prayed that the letter would reach them in time, but she was not as confident as she wished. Once the letter was sealed and written, she crept back downstairs and walked to the post office.

***


Five weeks passed since Elise and Camille arrived at Peter’s. As Elise drank her morning coffee and assisted him, she noticed his distracted eyes follow Camille when she entered the room. In a short time, she’d come to see Peter as a supportive and providing older brother who’d assisted them in the most generous way possible. It was unusual for a young woman to not have any siblings, but her parents considered themselves lucky to have her and considered her a miracle. She thought of their faces and wondered why they had not responded to her letter. Had it not arrived? she anxiously worried. A giggle from beside her distracted her desolate thoughts. Elise watched as her two friends conversed with each other, their invisible connection reminding her of René. Her heart ached for him. She missed his silly banter. Five weeks was a long time to be without the one you love.

As Camille began cooking breakfast the smell of it filled Elise’s senses. Instead of enjoying the delightful smell, Elise felt nausea creep up her throat, giving her the urge to vomit again. She ran to the small enclosed space behind the shop and vomited on the pavement, aware of lingering eyes. She walked back in and shrunk as Peter and Camille’s eyes rested on her. Camille whispered to Peter, and with a nod, he walked to the stove to continue their breakfast. Camille took Elise’s hand and led her upstairs to their shared room.

“Elise, I’ve been quiet about this for some time now but I can no longer hide my concern. I looked at the calendar. We have been here nearly five weeks. You were unconscious and bedridden for nearly a week before that. I must ask. When was your last menstrual cycle?” Her tone was hard. Elise stiffened at the question. During the traumatic events of the last month and a half, she’d not noticed the absence of her monthly visitor. It was then that she looked at Camille with fearful eyes that were welling with tears.

“Please, no.” She wrapped her arms around her stomach and it was then that she noticed the subtle swelling in her abdomen. It was hardly there. She always wanted a child of her own, and she recalled the many long talks she’d had with René before their marriage. Being a mother was God’s greatest gift to them, but at this moment...She was growing bitter, and the news did nothing but terrify her. Camille took her in her arms and held her as she cried but the only thoughts she had were for those of her husband.

“Peter will force me to leave, I know it,” she said, choking on the words. Camille released her.

“Peter is one of the kindest gentlemen I’ve ever known,” she defended him. “He will not. You’re married, Elise. You’ve done nothing wrong. And with this war brewing around us, I am sure you are not the only woman in this situation.” Elise looked at the golden band on her finger as Camille’s eyes hardened on her. Why did this happen now?

“We need to tell him.”

Elise’s breathing increased as she filled with panic. As they walked downstairs to Peter, Elise struggled to walk under the weight of her worry.

“Ah, ladies, I was wondering where you’d gone. Elise, are you feeling well?” he asked, examining her fragile appearance. He eyed Camille with a worried expression as the woman he’d grown to care for looked as though she’d collapse in front of him.

“We need to speak with you Peter if you please.” She held his gaze. Camille was always better at Elise with discussing serious matters. She was completely calm and collected and her voice never faltered. It was as if the woman lived without fear. Elise was the opposite. She scared easily and struggled to find the words when discussing important matters. They went to the table and Peter listened intently, merely closing his eyes after they told him. Elise felt knots in her stomach.

“You’re safe here, Elise,” Peter said as he took her hand in his. Surprised by his touch, she winced and was not sure if she was surprised by his kindness or not. He’d done nothing to warrant her fear. Camille set her hand on theirs and smiled at Peter. He ran his thumb along Camille’s fingers and Elise saw her blush at his subtle touch. The light feeling in the room eased her mind and comforted her despite René’s absence. She did not want to raise a child alone.

“I pray every day that your husband will be returned to you. I will take you to the doctor as soon as possible.” He said it with such sincerity in his voice, and she knew that she was with friends. Though much to her dismay there was no news on René. She feared he was taken hostage, kept as a prisoner of war, or fought to fight. Worst of all, she feared that he was dead.

“I can’t express my gratitude to you enough Peter,” she said, touching her stomach instinctively. Peter squeezed her hand and looked at her, his eyes intense.

“If it pleases everyone I might lie down and rest. I’ve written my parents to no avail and I fear that they’ve fled, or moved.” Her eyes closed in emotional defeat. Everything that she feared the moment she’d woken up in the hospital had come true thus far, and she did not want to bring a child into the world without a father or grandparents, but there was nothing she could do. If she never saw her dear René again, she found comfort in the notion that their child would be the one part of him that remained with her. As Elise excused herself, her two friends stayed together at the table. Peter stood and poured Camille another cup of coffee and took out biscuits for them to share.

“Your favorite,” he said, passing her one. She smiled, and the tops of her cheeks stained pink.

“You are too kind to us, Peter. When I found Elise…the poor girl.” She paused. He placed his hand on hers gently. When she didn’t back away he continued.

“I know.”

From the stairs, Elise grinned as she watched them, though she could not suppress her envy. As she entered her room she found herself touching her stomach and wanted nothing more than to tell René. She took a seat at her desk and holding back tears, wrote to Caroline. She prayed that she would receive the letter.

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