Rachel Buys a Dress


If you’ve been reading along as I have posted sections from the book, you’ll recognize most of what follows.  This passage has been re-worked and expanded to make it a little more vivid and believable and to reveal more about the house and its new mistress, Rachel Thompson.  Thanks for reading.  Ed.





It was not finished.  Though she had dismissed Brad Dawson and all the work that would be done had been done, three of the upstairs bedrooms had not been touched.  She would scrub the walls and floors herself and then close and lock the cherry doors to each of them and be satisfied with the elegance of what had been done.  The bathrooms, all five of them, were all replumbed and refitted. The fireplaces, all eight of them, had been put back into working order. She had tested them all.  The kitchen had been reworked with full ventilation for the eight-burner gas Thermador and the Aga.

The formal dining room with its west-facing windows and walnut cabinets and counters now shone.  She thought of her conversation with a very excited Sam Dawson on the day he began the work there.  She had come by the house in the afternoon. When she stepped inside she heard the sizzle and hum of the power sanders.  Sam saw her enter and stepped out of the doorway of the dining room and into the foyer and motioned her in. As she entered, the sanding stopped and the room rang with the new silence.  She sensed the whiskey scent of the oak just burnished by the crew to rid the woodwork of the time-dulled varnish. Sawdust, or rather dust from the sanding, covered the tarpaulins on the floor so deep that it bore the bootprints of the workers.

“Come over here.  I want you to see something.”

Rachel stepped to the far wall, where Sam Dawson was crouching beside a newly-stripped low cabinet that ran nearly the length of the wall.

“Here.”  He gestured with his hand.  “Get down here and look at these corners.  You won’t believe it.”

She knelt and looked down the edge of the cabinet.  “It is very nice. Beautiful wood under all that old finish.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about.  Look right here. Right at this corner.  Notice anything unusual?”

She looked closer.  “I can’t see the joint.  Must have been really good carpentry back then.”

“There isn’t any joint, Rachel.  This cabinet – it must be seven feet long – is all one piece of wood.  This thing has been carved out of one enormous oak trunk. Must’ve been over a hundred years old.  I can’t imagine how they ever got the thing in here. Must’ve brought it in before they finished the walls.  It wouldn’t have fit through any of the doors. Never seen anything like it.”

Hill Grove was not finished, but her money, almost all of it, was gone.  How often, she thought, had this been the case in her life? Where the goal is not completely achieved, but time or resources have been exhausted and all effort must cease.  The last corner, it seemed, was never turned.

This was not the end she had imagined or hoped for, but it was, she knew, the end.  The three untouched rooms would stay as they were, probably as long as she lived. Nonetheless, she felt like this ship ought to be christened.  Something should be done to mark the closing of the project. She had six hundred dollars left in the house account, not enough for a single day more of the contractor, but enough for something.

She drove to Charleston and to the street there where the clothing merchants catered to the carriage trade of the folks in the better parts of town: the oldest, brick neighborhoods in the hills to the south and the grand new constructions a few miles east of the city.  She had never been inside the stores there before, but on this day she found the dress that would mark her entry into her new life as mistress of Hill Grove. It was simple, with definite lines; off of the shoulders and hemmed at the knees. The perfect, little black dress.

She was the first customer in the store that Monday morning and when she entered the sales clerk, who was at the register and engaged with yesterday’s accounting, did not look up.  Rachel looked about the store for a long time before the clerk approached.

“That one there would be perfect on your frame.  You’ve got a great set of shoulders, honey. This will show them off.  You’ve got to try it on. The changing room is right over there.”

She asked about shoes to match the dress and the sales lady asked her if she would be dancing in them.  When Rachel dismissed the idea the clerk brought her three pairs from the back, but the first was all Rachel needed to see.  They fit perfectly. On the way to the register, they passed a table full of scarves and the clerk stopped and picked through them and pulled out a silk, spangled with orange and gold and red.  “Here,” she said as she handed the scarf to Rachel, “Use this as a belt. Tie a nice bow and shift it to the back. You’ll look like the best Christmas present he’s ever seen.”

With the bright boxes in her car, she drove not to her present residence, but to Hill Grove where she hung the dress and scarf and set the shoes in that long, empty closet that would soon be her dressing place.

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