VIRGIN ENCHANTMENT

"So, you agree to do it," said Mabel, blocking my path.

"Nothing of the kind." Sidestepping had failed. Now I stood my ground, prepared to do battle with the insistent whore. "Wherever did you come by that idea?"

"From you, Phoebe Hall. From you. That was who I heard it from."

I shook my head. "You are mistaken. You made me a proposition, to which I politely listened before refusing. Now, if you would be so kind as to excuse me? I must go on about my day..."

"Nothin' doin', dearie." Mabel gripped my upper arm and held on like a tenacious bulldog, one who might possibly be rabid. "You ain't leaving til I say you can leave."

Disbelieving the whore's temerity, I looked at her askance. "Not leave? I do beg your pardon. Explain yourself please."

"You gotta do this with us. Hear? Ain't no one near classy enough to pull off this operation, 'cepting you, Phoebe, you being a Brit and all."

"That notion is patently absurd!" I scoffed.

"Ain't neither. I see how you work the streets. That accent of yours gets 'em every time. You have customers eating out of your hand. This jilt works the same way."

Granted, I was still a relative stranger on these American shores. Though Mabel and I spoke essentially the same mother tongue, certain quaint idiomatic expressions of hers escaped me. The word jilt was one of these. As I understood the difficult to define colloquialism, a jilt unfolded in a carefully orchestrated, two-part harmony:

First step. In the course of employment, a pretty dancehall girl or buxom barmaid or desirable tavern wench...or a prostitute like Mabel... would act as bait to catch the roaming eye of a male customer. Once this was accomplished, the bait would then use her female attributes to lure her catch to some private out-of-the-way corner. Preferably, a dark alley with ready access to a quick getaway. There, the bait would excite her unsuspecting victim into a frenzied state of inattention - sloppy kisses and lap fondles and such - under the pretext of offering him untold erotic bliss. In actuality, the bait had no intention of ever following through on her implied carnal promise. The jilt was about robbery, not romance.

Step two. The bait's accomplice - waiting in the wings - would then steal the poor bugger blind, pick his pocket or whatnot, before clobbering him over the head and disappearing into the night with the loot, I believed was the correct American terminology for the spoils.

At any rate, regardless of how the illegality was laid out, the scheme was not to my liking, and I had already informed Mabel of this. Politely.

To no avail. A courteous decline had failed to get through to her. Sound reasoning, the same. No choice left me, I forcibly extracted myself from her death grip. Her restraining hand now dislodged, I stared her down.

No huffy retreat for me. Worse yet, an obviously apprehensive one. Mabel and I walked these same Red-light District streets. In the course of our respective careers, we would often bump into one another, sometimes exchanging pleasantries as we passed. Remarks from her about the clime... Lousy shit for weather, ain't it, dearie?... constituting the basis of our acquaintance.

Which was to say - our association was shallow at best.

Temperamentally, Mabel was a harridan and a shrew. Furthermore, she was a prostitute of the most common variety. Due her proclivity for argumentativeness and light-fingeredness, no brothel in Boston would take her. For those reasons and more, Mabel was on a first-name basis with the police, chumminess with the authorities I sought to avoid.

To put it mildly, I was not looking for trouble.

Backing down from her now might lead to repercussions for me later. It was my understanding - information garnered from several reliable sources - that Mabel could be vindictive at times. As an illegal peddler, I was in no position to put those rumors about her to the test. Should she notify the authorities about me, I would most assuredly be taken downtown to Boston Police Headquarters. From there, it would be the rat-infested poorhouse for me. I was, after all, a vagrant with no legitimate means of support.

With all that hanging over my head, I nevertheless maintained my poise. A show of manners cost nothing, and so I could afford to be generous.

At any rate, I held an indisputable advantage here. This neighborhood had not descended to a complete level of barbarism. Apart from that consideration, darkness, a dangerous time of day in any crime-riddled area, was two-hours off yet. Respectable folk were still out and about, shopping or visiting local eateries or doing whatever it was that respectable folk did, that indeed I had once done, in my all-too-brief respectable days. Mabel could hardly slam my face into the bricks while eyewitnesses circled us on the sidewalk.

And should the whore try, she would live to regret it.

An easily intimidated patsy was how I might appear on the outside, but no one manipulated me. That shoe was decidedly on the other foot. Despite my ladylike bearing and educated speech, I did not grow up as I had and remain an innocent in the ways of the world.

And if she carried a weapon on her person?

Well... so did I. More than one in fact. The knives and gouges were neatly stored in my reticule, the bag slung over my arm and tightly knotted for safekeeping. I kept the blades with me at all times. And I knew how to use them. Not for any nefarious purpose, of course... unless I was pressed. If blood were spilled here this day, it would not be mine.

My shabby skirts were slightly askew. With a brisk shake, I straightened them with a care toward keeping my ankles properly covered. Regardless that every illegal vice under the sun - from bare-knuckle boxing to cockfighting to gambling to every variety of pandering - might be had for a price on these streets, I refused to allow those activities to sully me. I kept myself above the fray, well beyond reproach.

Despite childhood malnourishment, I was unaccountably tall. From my superior height, I apprised the whore: "Now, as I already explained - I am no candidate for the performance of a jilt. Nor will I ever resort to thievery to get by. I shan't be your accomplice in this or in any future unlawful acts. Do move on before I lose patience with you, Mabel."

"Stop calling me that! The name ain't Mabel, not no more."

Contrite, I sighed. We all had our illusions of grandeur to pretend to. Bringing down hers would not elevate mine. "Forgive me. Tell me - what was your pseudonym again?"

"I know nothing about no soo... soodoo... whatever the hell you just said. You and your big words, hard to wrap a tongue around any of 'em. But, I suppose, if you spoke American, like the rest of us, I would not be here chatting with you now."

"I meant your alias," I translated.

"Shoulda just spat it out. Now alias is something I know a little something about."

Considering her in-depth familiarity with criminality, I doubted it not.

The whore took a shallow breath. "Howsomever, my professional stage name is L'amour Bidet. That there first name means love."

And the second name was in the toilet.

Scratch! When under duress, out came my cat claws.

"Both are Frenchie. Posh, huh?" Tossing her henna-enhanced orange hair, Miss Bidet snapped her Beeman's chewing gum at me for emphasis.

"Posh, indeed," I agreed with nary a smirk. "And how very fitting."

Miss Bidet was quite fond of kohl, a liberal application around the lashes. On windy days like today, when eyes tended to water, twin streams of the black cosmetic would ooze down her sunken cheeks like chewed tobacco plugs spat into a rouged spittoon.

Miss Bidet pointed a blood-red painted fingernail at me, the lacquer chipped and pitted with disrepair. "Poke fun at me all you want. Go ahead. See if I care. Hoity-toity, Phoebe Hall! Too good for the likes of us North Street riffraff."

"I never said that." Though, I had thought it plenty of times.

"You ain't gotta put a sentiment in words for me to understand its meaning. I ain't stupid, you know. You think yourself everyone's better. Above all of us involved in the nasty business of trying to stay alive on these here city streets. Listen up, Miss Prissy Drawers - that nasty business keeps me and Johnnie fed and clothed, with two fingers of whiskey thrown in from time-to-time to chase off winter's chill. You would do well to do the same. You got no man, got no real money. What you got, anyway, huh?"

Pride. And it was becoming as thin as the flesh on my bones.

Miss Bidet snorted. "Just look at you! Rummaging through restaurant slop pails for food meant for hogs. Curled up in cold doorways most nights. Mark my words, you keep that up and these streets will finish you off quicker than a half-a-dollar whore blows a trick. And why, when a virgin like yourself could make real money."

I took umbrage with her "virgin" characterization of me. "Why conclude I lack for experience?"

My question produced a knowing snicker from Miss Bidet. "Because you wear your maidenhead like a damn suit of armor. A straitlaced female like you could earn fifty your first time out the gate."

"Fifty?" I gasped, wholly impressed. "Fifty whole dollars?"

"Yep."

Good Lord! I might project a high station in life but the truth was - I was penniless, and Miss Bidet had just waved a fortune before my nose. Proceeds from peddling my merchandize totaled half that amount in a fortnight. And she spoke of twice that amount, just for selling myself?

Her offer tempted. Still... my values, my honor, my very view of myself, tarnished through carnal commerce?

No! I would not allow myself to be corrupted, not for any dollar amount!

Well... perhaps for a thousand. I was virtuous, not the town idiot.

"Look at it this way, dearie, the mark is fair game. Unlike you and me, owning not even a pail to piss in, that bastard owns two taverns and more property in Back Bay as well. Filthy rich, is what he is. A few greenbacks gone missing from his night's haul will go unnoticed by him."

Obviously, Miss Bidet had decided to try a different approach with me. Not subtlety - hardly her strong suit as evidenced by the be-feathered violet boa draped around her neck - but a wheedling appeal to my sense of fair play.

A poor choice of strategies. I had left my former, "them-against-us" class distinctions back in England. The "haves" pitted against the "have-nots' was gone from my social consciousness. This was America, where one might pull oneself up by the bootstraps, through hard work and ambition and... illegality.

Still - who was I to condemn Miss Bidet's choice of occupations when my own occupation was also subject to criminal prosecution? The difference between us was only in degree.

Why, I would rather sup on moldy leftovers from a swill bucket than follow in her wiggling footsteps!

"Furthermore, dearie... "

"Cease, do," I interrupted from my high horse. "Any further arguments you make will only fall on deaf ears. I refuse to traffic in ill-gotten gains. No persuasion will convince me to stray from the course of righteousness."

"Do tell. And what the hell does that even mean?"

"It means n-o."

Miss Bidet folded her arms around her middle, below withered bosoms and above the wasted rest of her. "As it so happens, I know the Harbormaster down on the pier. A personal acquaintance, you might say."

I understood full well what she intimated. However, swapping body fluids for money was hardly personal in my point of view.

"My friend the Harbormaster," Miss Bidet continued, "knows all the ship captains coming and going from the pier. Notice how the Anna Marie got a new wood figurehead installed?"

Notice?

Ha! I visited that figurehead on the ship's prow, located to the left of the schooner's ratlines, at least twice a day.

Lest the whore try to exploit my keen interest in the woodcarving, I examined the hole in my mismatched woolen gloves.

Not moths. Me. I had done the damage. After buying the gloves secondhand and repairing the fingertips, I had then taken to plucking the darning. The yarn loosened all over again and caused the gape to open anew. Granted, a foolish thing to have done, for now I courted frostbite on digits I could ill-afford to disable.

Oh, my. That figurehead, though! How utterly gorgeous it was.

"I may have glanced at the wooden piece in passing, Miss Bidet. Your point?"

"The carver works out of the shipyard."

My mouth flapped open, then snapped shut. I could feel my eyes bug. "He does?"

"Only a few people are privy to that information. He likes to keep his identity to himself. He goes by the name David Brent. Ever hear tell of him?"

How was it that a whore knew the carver's name and I, who had a personal interest in the artist - indeed, who carved, herself - did not?

Clearly, I did not run in the right circles in this town.

I swallowed my jealousy. "No, Miss Bidet. I know nothing about the artist."

"I could get you an introduction to him. That was my point, dearie, and I think I just made it."

I bit my lip. My mouth watered. I squealed, "An introduction? You would do that for... for... me?"

Miss Bidet nodded. "And, as one hand washes the other, you would naturally want to return the favor."

I was mere seconds removed from lathering her up. Hands. Feet. The whole grimy lot in-between. The whore had just offered me the whole world tied up in a rosy ribbon. How could I possibly refuse?

I asked with bated breath, "What would I need to do?"

"Quit the fucking innocent routine, missy. You know damn well what you would have to do in exchange for the introduction."

My shoulders sagged under the weight of that comprehension. "Oh. I see."

"Hear tell, that there woodcarver is looking for help at his shop." The whore swished the filthy hem of her gown across the street's equally filthy cobblestones, then stuck a finger under her gaudy bonnet and viciously scratched behind an ear.

Fleas? Lice?

Fretting over vermin infestation, I took a swift backward step.

I regularly stripped off and washed my person before laundering my extra gown at a public hygienic facility established outside police headquarters. Little better than an outhouse, the temporary building contained a hole in the ground for a commode and a rusted sink with intermittent cold water running from a faulty faucet. Paupers and vagabonds and railroad tramps... and itinerant wood artists, such as myself... lined up for hours for the privilege of using it. Though proven more cost effective than burying the frozen corpses of homeless during winter months, officials claimed financial distress when it came to providing a permanent shelter for the destitute in the city. And private alms stretched only so far.

"Is there a Help Wanted sign hanging in the carver's shop window?" I asked the whore.

"No, dearie."

"Why ever not?" I demanded to know.

"A question of trust. Word is, the carver is fussy about new hires. Hear tell, a past employee stole a tool chest from his workshop. Ever since, interviewees must present a formal letter of introduction."

"Oh." My shoulders rounded in disappointment.

"My friend the Harbormaster might just put in a good word for you, speak to your sound character and lack of laziness, and all that. You got the talent. Your signs are some rarified whittling."

"Not whittling," I automatically corrected. "Carving."

"There you go again, Phoebe, all high and mighty, your nose stuck up in the air, insisting what you do differs from shaving a stick, like sailors do to wile away the empty hours at sea til they can get back to port and fuck the likes of me."

"Mine is no American hobby to escape boredom, Miss Bidet. To wit," I said, trying to educate her as I did while peddling my work on the street, "I use more than one fixed blade to turn wood into art. Indeed, what I do is more akin to sculpting than what sailors do out at sea. An assortment of tools - gouges, files, specialized knives - are necessary to create something beautiful. Plus, my method is European in origin."

"European in origin, my rosy arse. Think being born in England makes you Queen Victoria or something?" the whore asked, then hacked a cough that hinted of consumption.

Self-reproach swamped me. How did I know what it was like to walk in her worn-down, purple shoes? Who was I to think her appearance frightful when I must look equally as frightful? Where was my common decency toward a fellow human being?

"Please forgive me, Miss Bidet. I become so frustrated, you see. Few understand that woodcarving is part skill, part artistic expression."

"Flipping up my skirts for strange men is a fucking skill. Fucking artistic expression too. Ain't fucking everyone can do what I do."

Me. I could not do what she did. But how much longer could I hold out?

After years of doing without, my parents had finally scraped together enough funds to send me, the oldest child, here to this country to work as a domestic. Their sacrifice was done with the understanding that I would send home my wages to repay them for the ocean voyage, plus to help support my eight brothers and sisters back in Liverpool. And I had gladly done so... until the master of the house where I worked was sentenced to ten years imprisonment for bank fraud. Unable to obtain a credible reference from a jailed criminal, I joined the vast ranks of the unemployed.

My family had depended on me, and I let them down badly.

The consumptive whore hacked again. "I must be doing something right, eh? I got plenty of repeat customers."

"Yes, indeed, Miss Bidet, how special you must feel. Now about that cough. Perhaps a doctor might help... "

She waved my recommendation aside. "My Johnnie is the best pimp in these here parts. He sees to it that I only service monied whoremongers. Ain't got no scars or nothing to show for the tricks neither, only the odd black eye and occasional bruise."

And hacking cough, I added to myself.

I nodded sympathetically. "You must be extremely gratified to have a caring protector in your corner." I searched her face. "If this Johnnie is indeed caring. Is he?"

"Damn tootin'."

She could toot all she liked, but I questioned the wisdom of her faith in him. But - alienating her would accomplish nothing. There were no city shelters where downtrodden women might go to escape an abusive pimp, if she were, as I suspected, being either mistreated or bullied into criminal activities against her will.

What to do?

Falling back on the familiar, I did what I always did in difficult situations:

I bargained.

"Now about seeing someone about that cough, Miss Bidet. If your Johnnie is unavailable... "

And he would be. Pimps were always scarce when a whore in their stable needed help.

"... I could go with you, for moral support, to see the doctor," I volunteered.

A legitimate doctor, not the Red-light District drunkard who accepted 'favors' in lieu of a fee.

Miss Bidet waved a hand at me. "Never mind about all that. Johnnie says spitting up blood ain't no call for concern. He talks real sweet, does my Johnnie," the whore rhapsodized. "As for you, Miss Prissy Drawers - this jilt would earn you greenbacks, not the pennies you make selling your wares on street corners."

The whore was baiting me just as she proposed I bait a jilt victim. I knew this to my very core. Still, she had my sympathy. We might have come from two different places, but we had both landed in the same sinking boat, trying not to go down with the ship.

"Do this for us, Phoebe, and you could rent a room in a boarding house with a tick so clean, the straw crunched every time you rolled over. No bedbugs, neither, to madden you with scratching the welts. Imagine - a bath in a real WC with real soap!"

I sighed wistfully.

"You got the looks to catch the jilt's attention, refined beauty I would do anything to own. Then there is your haughty manner. And your regal deportment, with your chin and the little you have for tits held high, and your waist all tiny-like, even without cinching, and your legs long as broomsticks, only shapely instead of bony. If you wanted to, an uncommon beauty like yourself could make some serious money doing jilts."

Unfortunately, I aspired to more: well-lit streets lined with elegant carriages and uniformed footmen, and absolutely no mud. Polite laughter, not drunken shrieks. Freedom to create as I would, with customers anxious not only to buy my woodcarvings, but treasure them."My thanks, Miss Bidet, but no thank you."

"Fuck's sake, Phoebe. Wake up, would you? You will not be young forever. Looks fade. Use what you got right now, your high-class appearance, to advance yourself! You must need good tools for carving... "

And good tools were expensive.

Mine were not good tools. Mine were barely adequate tools. And I carried them around with me like the Crown Jewels lest someone stole them and I was left without a way to make even the few pennies I did manage to earn.

Miss Bidet offered me a chance not only to meet the gifted artist responsible for carving the figurehead on the Anna Marie but present him with a formal letter of introduction from the Harbormaster. Not that I was the correct gender to carve ship figureheads, but I could perhaps do other, smaller work, on commission. Shopkeeper signs were my specialty. I fancied myself fairly decent there. Training would only advance my existing talent.

I had ambitions!

Hungry and wretched from lack of sleep, fired up by this magical opportunity to advance myself, I felt my resolve to remain above reproach weaken.

Holding back shamed tears, I looked over at Miss Bidet. "You implied I need not become intimate with the tavern owner, merely delay him?"

The whore nodded. "Alls ya gotta do is stall the tavern owner long enough for us to lift the cash from his money box. Then you leave, plain and simple."

"No lock on the box?"

"I have it from reliable sources that he never locks up the night's proceeds."

A filthy glove, dotted with the dark scarlet of a consumptive's disease, stretched toward me. "Do we got us a deal, dearie?"

"Will you allow me to accompany you to the doctor, Miss Bidet?"

"Of course!"

Nicked and scarred under its knitted wool glove, my hand trembled during our shake.

BACK