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Still Life


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Mature Content: Some disturbing literary imagery.

Author: Arabella Sumter Mudd

With: Caroline Mundee.
Location: Stardust Saloon.
When: Mid May 1876
Time of Day: 10.45 AM.

 

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It was a bright May morning when the door of the funeral parlor cracked open and out darted a black wraith, no, a sparse woman in elegant widow’s weeds: sable dress, gloves, shiny black pointed toes peeping out from under her skirts as she ran, black poke bonnet hiding her face. Widows should walk at a stately funereal pace, but this mourner fair flew across the street and down the boardwalk to the Stardust Saloon, where she disappeared around the rear.

 

Up the back stairs this angel of death zoomed with an unearthly silent tread and burst into Miss Caroline Mundee’s bedroom where, of course, at this time in the morning, the sultry singer was still abed.  “Quick! Help me out o’ this dress before Mr. Ralph or Miss Matild or Cookie see me!!” Arabella hissed at the sleepy headed Caroline as she pulled off a pair of exquisite black point lace gloves and then wrestled with the ribbon bow of her bonnet under her chin. “Undo me at the back!” she yelped sotto voce. To be honest, these were the finest, most beautifully made clothes she had ever worn in her life, but she needed to get them off and hidden away as soon as possible!

 

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Caroline woke up with all the sudden commotion in her room. For just an instant she was startled by this black clad stranger until she saw the face. Arabella? She might have known. Sitting up she watched for a moment as the girl whipped off gloves and tossed a hat.

 

  “Quick! Help me out o’ this dress before Mr. Ralph or Miss Matilda or Cookie see me!!”

 

"Loudest and liveliest dead person I ever saw," Caroline smirked.

 

“Undo me at the back!”

 

"Shouldn't you go back to your coffin?" the saloon girl quipped but threw off her cover and then moved to sit sideways on the bed.

 

"Here!" she waved the girl closer and then began on the stays.

 

"Why on earth are you dressed like a dead person?" she really wanted to know.

 

 

 

 

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"Loudest and liveliest dead person I ever saw," Caroline smirked.

 

“I won’t be alive long if they catch me like this, I been helpin’ Mr Crabbe out!” cried Arabella, still panting from the run.

 

“Undo me at the back!”

 

"Shouldn't you go back to your coffin?" the saloon girl quipped but threw off her cover and then moved to sit sideways on the bed.

 

“Don’t talk t’ me about coffins! I’m an expert on ‘em now. Oh darn this thing!” Arabella snatched and grabbed at the whalebone corset that was fair near breaking her lower ribs and was done up in some kind of gordian knot round the back. “I don’t know why Bridget ‘sisted on trussin’ me up in this contraption, I ain’t got nuthin to hold in, in the first place!”

 

"Here!" she waved the girl closer and then began on the stays.

 

"Why on earth are you dressed like a dead person?" she really wanted to know.

 

“I ain’t dressed as a dead person...” Arabella corrected, twisting her head around to examine Caroline in her nightie, “... you are, in that shroud! I’m dressed as a mourner. I been helpin’ Crabby out with his dead people photy-graphs. You know, that little Mortimer girl, Olivia, as died Tuesday of the quinces.” (she meant the Quinsy)  “All o’ Six years old, prettiest little darlin’ thing you ever did see. I had to help her Mama get her all dressed up again like when she was alive, in her best party frock an’ little shoes and we did her hair up, all pretty like. You never saw anything quite so affectin’ Caro’.” Arabella explained as the stays finally sprang off, and she got to work on the boots.

 

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“I ain’t dressed as a dead person...” Arabella corrected, twisting her head around to examine Caroline in her nightie, “... you are, in that shroud! I’m dressed as a mourner. I been helpin’ Crabby out with his dead people photy-graphs. You know, that little Mortimer girl, Olivia, as died Tuesday of the quinces.”

 

"Oh right, mourner. Yeah, I get it now," Caroline nodded, "Think it's quinsy though."

 

   “All o’ Six years old, prettiest little darlin’ thing you ever did see. I had to help her Mama get her all dressed up again like when she was alive, in her best party frock an’ little shoes and we did her hair up, all pretty like. You never saw anything quite so affectin’ Caro’.”

 

"Awww, that is sad. Kid never got a fair chance in life," the saloon girl sighed," That's the thing though, never know when any of us are gonna meet our maker. Treasure the time we got, I say."

 

 

 

 

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"Awww, that is sad. Kid never got a fair chance in life," the saloon girl sighed," That's the thing though, never know when any of us are gonna meet our maker. Treasure the time we got, I say."

 

“Ain’t that the truth! This time next week it could be me or you old Crabby’s takin’ a picture of, propped up in front of that camera thing he’s got.” She shuddered in agreement. Boots finally off, she started to stow the whole outfit in Caroline’s wardrobe. “Don’t mind me hidin’ this all in here do you?” she asked a little rhetorically. It was no use ‘hiding' anything in her wardrobe, she only had two dresses.

 

Now that she was reduced to a tatty chemise and a pair of patched and worn pantalettes, along with a pair of black woollen stockings that were more darning than original material, with her hair mussed up where she’d pulled off the bonnet, she looked more like the same old Arabella. She jumped, uninvited, into Caroline’s bed and proceeded to tell her more about her morning’s adventures.

 

“Oh Caroline, that poor child’s mother, when she came in, you ain’t never seen anything so pitiful the way she was wailin’ and cryin’ over her little girl. And you know me, weren’t too long before I was crying buckets too, and then we gave each other a hug and then I said let’s say a little prayer together and then I started to ask her all about little Olivia and she was tellin’ me such funny stories about little things she’d done and said in life, and we was laughin’ and then we started to cryin’ agin,  and all this time old Crabby’s getting madder and madder sayin’ he was ‘losin’ the light’ or something.” She recalled, burrowing herself into the warmth of Caroline’s blankets.

 

She jumped up in bed suddenly, remembering something else of vast importance to relate, at least to her mind. “Oh, and when we was actually taking the family snap, I had to stick my hand through a curtain at the back to hold the little girl’s head up, it did loll so, and Mr Crabbe got hoppin’ mad again because he realised you could see my hand and he had to use up another glass plate to take another picture. But later on he said it would actually look pretty good, like a ghostly hand of a angel touching the child’s face. An’ next time he wants me to wear a di-aff-a-nus white nightie to pretend to be a angel for real and he says he can make it look like I’m all see-through and ghostly with a…” what had he called it “… a ‘double exposure’. An’ I said ‘Mr Crabbe’ by the sound o’ that there di-aff-a-nus nightie, I reckon I might be given ya the wrong kind of exposure’!”

 

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"You can hide that stuff in there, nobody is gonna go thru my wardrobe, not if they know what's good for 'em," Caroline smiled.

 

She admired the kid's gumption plus she just wanted to earn some more money, Caroline could understand ambition.

 

Once mostly undressed the girl hopped onto Caroline's bed then began to chatter away. Well, she knew Arabella enough by now to know this might take awhile. So Caroline sat down next to her and let her talk. Though she had never been a mother the saloon girl's heart went out to that poor mother losing a sweet young child like that. And the photography session sounded downright creepy in her opinion. She'd have to talk to Crabbe someday about all this.

 

Arabella did lose her though on whatever sort of nightie she was supposed to wear? She never heard of that word but the girl didn't seem too excited over the concept.

 

"Just tell him 'no'. Actually, child, yer gonna have to explain what yer talking about now. I never went to school and there are a lot of words I don't understand ya know," Caroline admitted.

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"Just tell him 'no'. Actually, child, yer gonna have to explain what yer talking about now. I never went to school and there are a lot of words I don't understand ya know," Caroline admitted.

 

“What, Di-Aff-A-Nuss?” asked Arabella “Oh, that’s easy. See, I was round playin’ at Bridget’s onct, and Mr Crabbe says ‘Oh dear, I want to take some Tablows’ and I says ‘What’s Tablows?’ and he says ‘Thems scenes of historical times, recreated for the camera’ and I say ‘Well how bout Joan of Arc bein’ crisped at the stake?’, because that’s my friend Clara Redmond’s very favorite and he says ‘Good idea Arabella, but who can star as Saint Joan in this picture?’ and I says ‘Well, why not me?”

 

She looked at Caroline and asked “You followin’ this?” what with her never having been to school.

 

“Anyhow, I got all dressed up to be old Joan tied to a stake, and Mr Fa had painted up some pretend flames and everything, and Mr Crabbe give me this nightie to wear, but I was standin’ there at the stake all ready to be tomartyred, and I says ‘Hey Mr Crabbe, this night dress is near enough see-through, surely that ain’t right!’ and he says ‘It ain’t see-through, it’s just di-aph-a-nuss!’ and I says ‘what’s that mean?’ and he says ‘di-aph-a-nuss means it just looks see-through, but really it ain’t!’ and I says ‘oh!’.”

 

She lay in bed and gave a low chuckle.

 

“He he, old Carbby’s gonna be hoppin’ mad if'n he develops them there pictures and it turns out that old nightie was see-through after all! Them pictures’ll be no use to him at all, and he’ll have to throw the whole lot of ‘em away!”

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Once Caroline asked, Arabella was happy enough to try and clear up the confusion over the word but her roundabout beginning was a bit hard to follow, try as Caroline might.  Tablow? Least she had heard of Joan of Arc, some Frenchie who got burned at the stake for being a witch. Not that she believed that load of tripe.

 

She looked at Caroline and asked “You followin’ this?”

 

"Yeah, you wanted to be Joan gettin' burnt up, got it," Caroline only mostly got it but Arabella charged on.

 

Finally it became clear. The gown the kid was wearing might well have been giving viewers a look at her female parts. Though Caroline thought a person would have to have good eyes to see much of the girl's breasts such as they were. Obviously she was not about to say it aloud though.

 

"Ohh, I get it," Caroline nodded, it was all clear - finally.

 

“He he, old Carbby’s gonna be hoppin’ mad if'n he develops them there pictures and it turns out that old nightie was see-through after all! Them pictures’ll be no use to him at all, and he’ll have to throw the whole lot of ‘em away!”  

 

Arabella was quite amused. Caroline did have to point something out though.

 

"I ain't so sure, kid. I can tell you for a fact that there are men out there who would be more than happy to pay money for them kind of pictures and worse. There was a parlor in Chicago that sold photographs of topless whores. Maybe even people who weren't whores."

 

"But enough of that, this ain't a fit subject for us to be talkin' about, hon," she smiled.

 

 

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"I ain't so sure, kid. I can tell you for a fact that there are men out there who would be more than happy to pay money for them kind of pictures and worse. There was a parlor in Chicago that sold photographs of topless whores. Maybe even people who weren't whores."

 

“REALLY?!” asked Arabella wide eyed, shocked, but more in an interested than horrified sort of way.

 

“Well, Mr. Crabe’s pictures ain’t for givin’ folks tawdry thrills, they’re more for ‘artistic connoisseurs’ and ‘historical interest’ he says. Or ‘Instructive’. He had this one good idea about teachin’ Red Indian squaws how to dress up properly like white women by getting a lady to model takin’ off all her different bits of clothes one by one. And he’d take a picture of each time a item came off. Then he’d print ‘em in backwards order and that’d show them squaws how to get dressed. Good idea, huh?” she asked, impressed by the notion herself.

 

“I offered to be the model for that, it seemed like such a good and kind thing to do fer them poor heathens, but after seein’ me in that there Di-aff-in-uss see-through nightie, he said he was lookin’ for a lady with more of a ‘womanly’ figure. I suggested Miss Bowen, the School Mistress. You know,  she’s got some pretty big…” but Caroline cut her off.

 

"But enough of that, this ain't a fit subject for us to be talkin' about, hon," she smiled.

 

Why ain’t it?” pouted Arabella, sitting up in bed. “Oh Caroline, you treat me like I’m a baby, but I ain’t as green as I’m cabbage lookin’. I’m experienced. You know a couple of nights ago, a boy kissed me …” she whispered the last bit “… down there! … under the stairs!”

 

She flopped back onto the pillow and nodded knowingly, waiting to see la Mundee’s reaction to this amazing piece of news.

 

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"REALLY?!” asked Arabella wide eyed, shocked, but more in an interested than horrified sort of way.

 

"Yes, really," Caroline was not certain about how the girl had just reacted though. Was she intrigued?

 

“Well, Mr. Crabe’s pictures ain’t for givin’ folks tawdry thrills, they’re more for ‘artistic connoisseurs’ and ‘historical interest’ he says. Or ‘Instructive’. He had this one good idea about teachin’ Red Indian squaws how to dress up properly like white women by getting a lady to model takin’ off all her different bits of clothes one by one. And he’d take a picture of each time a item came off. Then he’d print ‘em in backwards order and that’d show them squaws how to get dressed. Good idea, huh?”

 

"Ummm, not sure I believe him on all of this. Arabella, now me and Crabbe are friends, we been friends for a good time now but I say this in all honesty - do not always trust that man."

 

Arabella went on though until finally Caroline forced a change of subjects.

 

"But enough of that, this ain't a fit subject for us to be talkin' about, hon."

 

“Why ain’t it?” pouted Arabella, sitting up in bed.

 

"Yer too young still, give it more time," Caroline doubted a girl like Arabella would listen to her in the end but she would have at least tried.

 

“Oh Caroline, you treat me like I’m a baby, but I ain’t as green as I’m cabbage lookin’. I’m experienced. You know a couple of nights ago, a boy kissed me …” she whispered the last bit “… down there! … under the stairs!”

 

Caroline blinked, well it wasn't that surprising, the older Arabella got the more the menfolk and boys would be all over her. And it could be a terrible thing too, like what had happened to her. She was younger than Arabella when she herself had been attacked.

 

"I don't think yer a baby. I think yer a friend and I'm always gonna say what I think friends can say to each other. Friends don't always just agree on everything. But................a boy huh?" she had to smile.

 

"As in a real boy? Not a thirty year old cow - boy?" she wanted to make sure.

 

"Was he handsome? And ....nice to you?"

 

 

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