Lee Ann Setzer


The Iron Bodkin

          Chapter 1

Lorna leaned over the scrap of fabric in her hands. “Seven hundred nineteen,” she murmured, blinking in the dim light as she tied off the buttonhole she’d just finished. Seven fat bundles of perfectly square scraps, tied neatly with string, sat next to her chair. She added the buttonholed scrap to an eighth, much shorter pile, opened and shut her hands twice, then picked up her threaded needle and another square scrap.

Miss Fay’s high heels clicked into the room, a little less briskly and evenly than usual. Lorna heard a thud beside her, and a shadow fell over the buttonhole she’d just begun. Sidelong, she saw a woman’s enormous hip, decked in black velvet ribbon, black fringe, and nearly endless yards of dark green silk. As she looked up, the hips gave way to an equally enormous bust in green and black, with no head above it.

“Hems,” came a sharp voice behind the effigy. A slender finger poked a pleated ruffle at the peplum. “Here. And here, here, and here.” The finger indicated sleeves, shoulders, and the skirt’s hem. “One inch wide, bound in horsehair.” A spool of black silk thread came sailing over the muslin model’s shoulder. The high heels clicked back toward the fitting room, more evenly and speedily this time.

Lorna watched the thread roll under her sewing basket. “Seven hundred twenty,” she promised the square in her hand as she set it aside. She retrieved the spool and was just threading a silver needle in black when the bell on the door jingled. For a moment, a whoosh of the noisy street and the cool, sooty air outside filled the shop. Then the door jingled and closed again, and a woman’s heels—wider and lower than Miss Fay’s—walked across the small shop.

Lorna did not look up. Miss Fay did not allow her to speak to customers, even if she had wanted to. Lorna always listened, though if anyone had asked, she could not have said whether she liked to listen. She listened, and she remembered. But no one ever asked what she remembered.

The shoes stepped deliberately around the room, pausing at the mannequin in the pink walking dress that Miss Fay said must be completely made over before spring was one week older. The shoes lingered for a long time in front of the green and black dress that Lorna was about to hem. Lorna held her breath as fingers brushed the rough, banded muslin model of Mrs. Chidester. Finally, the shoes moved on. They walked slowly back and forth in front of the calf-colored gabardine visiting dress, sidled in next to the new flat-front hoop skirt that had arrived only last week to take up most of that side of the room, and scuffed softly in place in front of the case full of ladies’ and gentlemen’s gloves. Fingers drummed on the case, ending in a single loud tap. Then a woman’s voice called, “Hello!”

Miss Fay clicked back into the room, her footsteps sounding sharp and stiff, like they did when Lorna had interrupted her. She would probably shout at Lorna later, though Lorna had not interrupted this time. Lorna seldom interrupted. She never asked questions just to hear the answers, and she never bothered Miss Fay to tell her she had finished a task. She and Miss Fay got along very well—unless someone besides Lorna annoyed Miss Fay.

“Yes? What is it?” Miss Fay would definitely be shouting at Lorna later in the day.

There was a long pause, and Lorna could hear Miss Fay’s toe tapping softly and swiftly. Finally, the strange woman’s voice asked, “Is that tone of voice how you drum up business, or how you keep your customers?” Lorna quietly drew out an arm’s span of horsehair binding tape and, without cutting it, started binding the edge of Mrs. Chidester’s peplum.

Miss Fay’s reply sounded tight, as though it were trying to squeeze through an impossibly narrow alley. “My business is my business. I do not believe you have an appointment?”

“No. I have a commission. My husband has been invited to the governor’s reception in Springfield in three weeks. I require a traveling dress, two visiting dresses, and a ball gown.”

“In three weeks. You are mad.”

“How very kind of you to say so! I intend, of course, to pay half again your usual rate for the hurry and inconvenience.”

Miss Fay took one firm step toward the workroom, then turned on her heel. “I intend to wish you good day.” Two more steps followed the first.

Lorna heard a soft rustling of crumpled paper on the glass case. “I understand, Miss Fay, that you, in addition to being Chicago’s finest seamstress, are a collector of sewing curiosities.”

Miss Fay slowly pivoted on one foot. “Far too many sewing curiosities. I have neither room for nor interest in one more.” The three previous steps retraced themselves, and another joined them, until the chatelaine at Miss Fay’s waist tinkled against the case.

Something thunked lightly on the glass, then thunked again as the woman picked it up. Lorna heard a tiny snick. “This is my great-great grandmother’s sewing kit. Ivory, as you can see. Sadly, the thimble is gone, so it is not worth much as a curiosity. See the needle case?” There was a metallic pop. “Gold, like the lost thimble.”

Miss Fay’s buttons clinked against the glass case. “Oh!” said the strange woman’s voice. “I must ask you not to touch it! I will hold it while you look. I’ll turn it, so you can see the intricate designs all the way around the edge. It is exquisite, is it not?”

Even Lorna could hear nothing but her own needle swishing during the long pause that followed. Finally, the stranger asked, “Will you accept the offered price plus this needle case?”

Miss Fay’s voice, pointed down toward the glass display case, murmured, “I will.”

“Then let us begin at once.” Lorna heard a slightly different pop as the needle case returned to the sewing kit, then the same snick as before, followed by the rustling paper again. The strange woman’s shoes walked to the end of the display case, toward the workroom. Then they slowed, stopped and pivoted.

“Miss Fay?”

Miss Fay had not moved. “You put it away.” Lorna had never heard Miss Fay sound like that before. Whenever someone displeased Miss Fay, she always told the person right away. But in a snappish, hurried-up voice—not this far-off, unhappy one.

“Of course I did, dear.” The strange lady sounded much kinder now. “You haven’t earned it yet.”

Miss Fay’s shoes scuffled, and her buttons rattled away from the display case. “Oh. Yes. Of course. Payment upon delivery. Three weeks, you said?”

“I did.”

“Very well, Mrs.....”

“Croft. Amelia Croft. My husband Paul and I recently moved in on Jefferson Street.” Lorna’s mother called the whole neighborhood west of the river “new money,” so that meant that Mrs. Croft was also “new money.” “He has taken a position with the First National Bank.” Both pairs of shoes scuffed a little closer together. Miss Fay would be shaking hands now with the stranger.

“Very well, Mrs. Croft. I can wait three weeks. Lorna!” Lorna knew that last voice very well. She bundled up her work on her stool then scooted out from behind it.

“Oh!” The strange lady—Mrs. Croft, Lorna corrected herself—wore a grey walking dress and carried a folded-up, cream-colored parasol. Lorna glanced at her face. She had enough lines under her eyes and around her lips that no one would call her a “dear young thing”...but not enough to qualify as one of Miss Fay’s “old battleships.” She almost met Lorna’s glance, but Lorna quickly looked down at the lady’s hem instead. “I didn’t realize anyone was there!” Mrs. Croft’s shoes turned in Lorna’s direction.

“This is my apprentice, Lorna,” said Miss Fay.

“An apprentice. You have an apprentice,” she breathed, looking right at Lorna and keeping her pinned in that sharp glance. Lorna longed to squirm, or flee to the workroom, but she held herself still.

“Was it...inappropriate for her to hear your offer?”

Lorna ventured a glance up, at a daring chignon that bared Mrs. Croft’s ears, with a little grey bonnet balanced atop the hairstyle. “No, no, of course not,” said Mrs. Croft quickly. “Lorna, you are just exceptionally quiet. You...surprised me.” Still she did not look away. “Have you been working for Miss Fay for a long time, dear?”

A customer had asked a direct question, but Miss Fay rescued her. “Lorna will help me take your measurements,” she said. “Please come this way.” She gestured at the workroom while her other hand felt for the measuring tape in its filigreed silver case on the chatelaine.

“Oh, that won’t be necessary.” Mrs. Croft fished inside a beaded reticule and produced a small piece of paper. I have all the measurements right here.”

Miss Fay’s mouth hung open. Finally, it snapped shut again, then her lips pressed tightly together. “I am afraid that, if you want me to sew for you, you must allow me to measure you.” Her hand found and squeezed the measuring tape at her waist.

Mrs. Croft gave the piece of paper a tiny shake. “You will find that every measurement you need is right here.”

Miss Fay snatched the paper and squinted at it, muttering. “Waist, chest, high hip, low hip, cross back...” She frowned up at Mrs. Croft. “If I haven’t taken these measurements myself, how can I know they are accurate? Ladies are forever underestimating their waists and overestimating their busts. And measurements are just the first step toward making a muslin dress form that exactly mimics you. I should be ashamed to let you out in society wearing a dress that was not fitted to your own shape.”

“Hmm,” responded Mrs. Croft, pressing her own lips together. “How quickly could it be done? Perhaps I need to go elsewhere, after all...” She turned halfway toward the door.

“Oh, my, no!” cried Miss Fay. “It could be done today! And we have just received a large shipment of silks and fine cottons from the East. You would have no need to wait at all.” Miss Fay was now squeezing the measuring tape so tightly that her knuckles were turning white. Lorna shifted her weight from side to side to take the pressure off knees that had begun to tire of standing still so long.

Miss Fay darted just inside the workroom door and emerged with a huge roll of wine-colored satin. She laid it on the glass case and unrolled it to the length of the case. “Clear, bright colors suit your fair skin and dark hair much better than that grey you’re wearing.”

Mrs. Croft’s eyebrows rose, and she stroked the soft fabric, watching Miss Fay as she talked.

“I have velvet ribbon, fringe, or beaded fringe.” Miss Fay retrieved these items, all in black, from the case and set them on top of the satin. “And the new flat-front crinoline hoop in the corner arrived only last week. I am the only dressmaker in Chicago to have it.” She sniffed. “The others are hoping it stays in Paris for a year or two more.” She frowned and walked behind Mrs. Croft, peering at her dress. Then she slipped back behind the cabinet. “But those hoops wouldn’t suit. They will be considered daring—shocking, even—for six months or so. You seek, I believe, to impress, but not to shock.”

Mrs. Croft’s eyes widened further. “Why, that is exactly how I feel! And none of these plunging necklines, either! If it’s indecent in the daytime, it should be considered doubly so at night. Don’t you think so, too, Lorna?”

Lorna’s jaw dropped, but not to give any coherent answer. Why did the woman keep speaking to her?

Miss Fay pursed her lips. “And yet, you wear your ears exposed, out on the street.”

Mrs. Croft straightened her back. “Excuse me, Miss Fay? What are you implying?”

Miss Fay blinked. “You defend decency, yet you arrange your hair as suits you, and never mind what the world sees of you. The dress must reflect your dual nature.”

“My dual nature? Why would I want my dress to tell the world so much about me?” Mrs. Croft cleared her throat. “...That is, if I had a dual nature.” 

Miss Fay was pinching a length of the fabric and watching it fall into different drapes and folds. “Oh, most humans do,” she said, without looking up. “And I find the ones who don’t very tiresome. I could scarcely be expected to create a gown for someone whose nature I had not grasped.” The fabric between her fingers obediently fell into soft folds. “I think we would drape a ruffle like...so. One might think that the beaded fringe would also seem too extreme, but, given the duality of certain things...” She held each trim up to the edge of the fabric, disappeared behind the case to produce more, and finally said, “Yes! This is it.” Mrs. Croft leaned over to look at the beaded velvet trim Miss Fay was holding against the satin. “I have this in three different widths, so it could be echoed all through the dress.” She squinted at Mrs. Croft. “We will have a shawl-shaped collar, to draw the eye to your lovely neck—and ears. Pagoda sleeves are the rage this year, with lace engageantes to look like undersleeves. Will you have those?”

Lorna recognized the look on Mrs. Croft’s face. Miss Fay called it “falling in love,” and she worked hard to bring each customer to the moment that the dress—really, just the idea of the dress—was perfect. Lorna always stayed very quiet during this moment and calculated the price for each dress only in her head.

“Yes! That is perfect!” Mrs. Croft did not clap her hands, as some ladies did.

“And two visiting dresses, and a traveling dress. We have some calf-colored twill...”

Lorna hurried to fetch roll after roll of fabric until only a narrow path remained between the shop and the workroom. As she fetched and carried, she kept a running tally in her head, until Mrs. Croft’s four dresses totaled more than $1000, if she really did intend to pay half again the usual amount. Mrs. Croft must have a great deal of new money. Lorna paused mid-step. She’d been adding half again as much to the entire amount, but Mrs. Croft had said, “for the hurry and inconvenience.” So maybe she should add half again only to the amount for the labor, and not for the fabric and trims.

“Lorna!” said Miss Fay sharply. “I asked for the green! Do stop dawdling!”

Lorna jumped guiltily. “I am sorry, Miss Fay.” She scurried back into the workroom.

When she came back, Miss Fay was scribbling a list of the agreed-upon shapes, materials, and trims for all four dresses. “We must not waste a moment if you are to have all four of these in three weeks.”

Mrs. Croft nodded sharply, and all the animation quickly drained from her face. “You are right, Miss Fay. We should start at once.” Miss Fay’s hand strayed to the measuring tape again, but Mrs. Croft quickly found her slip of paper under the grey fabric. “These measurements.”

Miss Fay straightened her back, and her knuckles turned white on the measuring tape again. “Very well,” she said through stiff lips. “You will permit us to cast your figure?”

“Yes,” replied Mrs. Croft slowly. “I believe that will be acceptable.”

“Very well. You must wear your corset, of course, and older undergarments. It’s a rather messy process.”

Mrs. Croft sniffed. “So I understand, from the ladies who recommended your work.

Miss Fay looked at the clock over the workroom door. “Can you return at 1:00, having eaten, but not too much, and visited the water closet? The process also requires standing still for a very long time.”

“Yes, I can.” Mrs. Croft gathered together her and parasol and the reticule, which rustled softly. Lorna noticed that Miss Fay was staring at the purse rather than the customer.

“Miss Fay!”

Miss Fay jumped.

“Payment upon delivery.” She turned, and suddenly she was facing Lorna again. “And Lorna, it was very nice to meet you today. We shall have to talk at greater length sometime soon!”

Miss Fay scowled at Mrs. Croft’s back as the door jingled again.