This story is a mix of western, boarding school, and medieval. Three very different genres, but I hope to make it work.
This is from my old draft. The first one. Somewhere along the way, Piper has changed drastically. Her story, I realized, is a "Man Who Learned Better." So, because I wanted her to change for the better, I had to change her for the worse first. So, she's not nearly as nice in the later drafts than she is here in the original.
But, the other characters are the same. Essentially. There might be a few small changes for them, but at their core, they're the same as you find them here.
On Friday, August eleventh, one-hundred-and-seven girls arrived at Mrs. Malcolm’s School for Aspiring Housewives. Here they would spend four years of their lives learning to keep a proper household and to assist an upper middle-class husband in running a business. A sort of college for those seeking to pursue a “useful education” as most folks saw it.
When Mrs. Malcolm sent Delmar Slade- the school’s odd jobs boy- down to the gate at five-thirty to open up, he found someone was already there; a girl, sitting against the gate post on a worn carpet bag.
Her clothes were a tad too shabby for an Aspiring Housewife, her ginger hair a tad too wild, and her air not quite affluent enough. And, her shoes were in too sorry a state, as worn and scoffed as they were. Del figured she was a wanderer who needed a rest and decided to take it in front of the school.
“Get along with you,” he said, trying to sound tough and failing. He was small for his age- which was sixteen- and had never been very intimidating.
“I will,” the girl said amiably. “Just as soon as you open the gate.”
“And what do you need me to open the gate for?” he asked.
She stood up then and faced him, a hand on her hip, and eyebrow cocked. This impressed him; he’d never seen a girl cock just one eyebrow before. He’d seen boys do it plenty of times, but, never a girl.
“How do you expect me to get in if the gate’s locked?” she replied, a hint of amusement in her voice. Del wondered what she found so funny.
“I’m only supposed to let in students,” he told her.
She reached into her pocket and pulled out a rather wrinkled and slightly grubby piece of paper and handed it to him through the bars.
She grinned wryly. “If you read it, you’ll find out.”
So, he did just that. And found it was an acceptance letter, signed by Mrs. Malcolm, herself.
“Guess this means I can let you in,” he said, unlocking the gate and returning the letter to her. She stuffed it back in her pocket.
“I reckon so,” she said, picking up her carpet bag and stepping inside. “Am I the first one here?”
Del nodded. “Except for a few returning students who arrived early.”
They started up the walk to the front door. He thought he should offer to carry her bag but, somehow, it didn’t seem right. Besides, she was busy taking in her surroundings and he didn’t want to interrupt.
When they reached the door, he opened and held it for her. “Mrs. Malcolm’s office is the first door on the left. You register there and she’ll assign you a room and get you settled in.”
She smiled and her green eyes shone with excitement. “Thanks-” She paused. “I don’t believe you dropped your name.”
“Del,” he said. “I’m the odd jobs boy ‘round here, so, if you need anything, just holler.”
“Will do,” she said. “I’m Piper Maxwell, by the way,” she added, offering her hand.
Del wasn’t quite sure what to do with it, as a student had never offered him her hand before. But suspended in the air like that, he figured he ought to do something with it. So, he shook it, which was the first thing he thought of. Apparently, that was what she intended because her smiled widened.
“See you around,” she said and went inside. He closed the door behind her and headed around the back to see if Cook had enough wood for the breakfast fire.
Two to a bed Piper thought as she put her bag on one of the room’s two beds. It was more of an observation than a thought as she was used to sharing a bed- first with her siblings and then with the other girls at the orphanage. She wondered if the other girls had ever shared before. Somehow, she doubted it.
Mrs. Malcolm had made it very clear that she hadn’t known Piper was an orphan. And, if she had, Piper never would have been accepted. Piper had expected as much, which was why she’d been careful to keep it a secret. And, the only reason she’d come clean was because Mrs. Malcolm had been most probing with her questions.
Apparently, most girls didn’t arrive alone, first thing in the morning.
Oh, well, I’m in now, so what’s it matter? she thought as she opened her bag and began putting things into a dresser drawer. It was a large drawer and it looked rather empty, even after she had finished unpacking. She tried to remind herself of something her mother had always said: It’s not belongings a girl needs to her name, it’s character.
You obviously never attended Mrs. Malcolm’s, Mama. I don’t think they care a bit about character. It’s all about money and knowing the right people. She sighed. Classes haven’t even started and already I’m getting lessons in middle-class politics.
The carpet bag was into another drawer and Piper stretched out on top of the bed. She’d been told the other students probably wouldn’t arrive for a while yet and it was possible that her roommates might not get in ‘til late. Besides, she felt just plain exhausted.
Pushing aside all her troubled thoughts, she made mind go blank and focused on her breathing.
In. Out. In. Out. In. Out. In.
In no time at all, she was fast asleep.
The door flew open and Piper woke with a start. “I’m sorry, Mrs.-”
She cut herself off as it all came back to her. She wasn’t at the orphanage; she was at Mrs. Malcolm’s School for Aspiring Housewives. It wasn’t Mrs. White; it was her new roommate.
“I’m sorry t’ frighten you, Sugar,” the girl said in a thick southern accent. She was a curly-headed blonde, with large, hazel eyes and rosy, white skin. She wore a cream-colored blouse and a little jacket with belled sleeves. Piper guessed she had a least five petticoats on under her skirt.
Piper hoped the other girls weren’t quite as dressy. Two more of her won’t fit in here.
“I’m Abbie- Lee Cutler,” she said.
“Piper Maxwell,” she volunteered.
“Well, Piper, honey, it’s a pleasure t’ meet you.”
“Likewise, I’m sure.”
Standing behind her, in the doorway, was a rather disgruntled looking Del. He was holding a trunk and, judging by the look on his face, Piper guessed it was heavy.
“Where should I put this?” he asked through gritted teeth.
Abbie-Lee laughed. “Oh, honey, I’m so sorry. Just put it over there. And, just put the others next t’ it.”
“There’s more?” Piper asked, alarmed.
Abbie-Lee looked surprised. “Why, o’ course, Piper, honey. I’m gonna be here four years.”
It was Piper’s turn to laugh. This girl is crazy. “You go home for breaks. And you get the summer off.”
Abbie-Lee smiled, but didn’t say anything. Del returned with the second trunk and set it on top of the first. Piper began to wonder how everyone was going to fit in the room. Too much stuff was never a problem she’d had to deal with before.
Abbie-Lee opened the first trunk and began piling dresses onto the bed. “Piper, honey, be a dear and give me a hand?”
With a sigh, Piper climbed from the bed and began hanging dresses in the wardrobe. It’s not like you haven’t got two hands of your own.
They were such pretty dresses. Piper had never touched such fine things before. Normally, girls who wore clothes like that shrunk away from a grubby little orphan like Piper. Not that Piper really was grubby; ‘cause she wasn’t. In fact, she always paid the utmost care to her appearance. But, when you’re an orphan, people don’t pay much attention to your appearance.
She ran her hand over the rich fabric. “It’s beautiful,” she breathed, forgetting momentarily that Abbie-Lee was still in the room.
Abbie-Lee laughed. “That ol’ thing? Why, that’s just something I-” Her gaze fell on Piper’s dress and she cut herself off. “Thank you, Sugar. That’s sweet of you t’ say.”
Piper smiled feeling completely embarrassed. She hurried to hang up another dress.
“So, Piper, honey,” Abbie-Lee said, braking the awkward silence. “Which class are you most looking forward t’ takin’?”
Piper shrugged. “None of them, really. I already know how to do a lot of the stuff we’re supposed to learn. The only reason I’m here it ‘cause it’ll increase the chances of me finding a more well-to-do husband.”
Abbie-Lee nodded. “My uncle thinks my bein’ here will increase my chances of makin’ a good match too. He says it’ll do me good to be away from home too.”
Piper didn’t reply. No, you don’t understand. Any husband you find’ll be rich enough to keep you in diamonds and silk. I’ll be lucky if I don’t get stuck with some dirt-poor farmer.
Abbie-Lee laughed and Piper began to think she did that a lot. At least it was a pretty sound and not one of those annoying, grating laughs. “Of course, Sugar, if you want a boy to look at you, you’re gonna have t’ do better than you are now.”
Piper turned from the wardrobe and looked at her with one eyebrow cocked. “How do you mean?”
She looked Piper up and down. “Well, for starters, that dress,” she said. Piper opened her mouth to tell her that not every girl could afford the prettiest things when she added, “The color doesn’t suit you a’tall.” She shook her head. “Sugar, yellow just isn’t your color.”
Rummaging through her trunk, she pulled out an airy green dress with tiny print flowers. She held it against Piper. “See, this is more your style. It matches the color of your eyes and compliments that ginger hair of yours.”
Her grin was so wide that Piper couldn’t get mad. So, maybe she had insulted her dress, but, Piper guessed that it never crossed her mind that she couldn’t afford anything better.
“Go ahead, try, it on,” Abbie-Lee coaxed. Piper shook her head. “You know you want t’.”
Del came in just then, his arms loaded down with traveling bags. He dumped them on the floor next to the trunks. “That’s the last of it.”
“Thank you dear,” she said. “Now, do tell Piper here just how cute she’d look in this dress.”
Piper felt her face grow hot as Del looked at her. He shrugged. “Sure, you’d look great. I got work t’ do.” He left.
Abbie-Lee sighed. “See what I mean? If you were actually wearin’ the dress he’d’ve noticed you.”
Piper shook her head. “I’m plain,” she said. “And I have freckles. Boys don’t like girls with freckles.”
“Those lil’ ol’ thing?” Abbie-Lee said. “Why, I bet he didn’t even notice ‘em.”
“Miss Cutler, I appreciate the gesture,” Piper began.
Abbie-Lee cut her off with a laugh. “Miss Cutler? Piper, honey, if we’re gonna be sharin’ a room for the next four years, we might as well call me Abbie-Lee.”
Piper smiled. “All right, Abbie-Lee. Look, I appreciate what your trying to do, but I know I’m not gonna catch a man with my looks and I’m fine with it.”
Abbie-Lee rolled her eyes. “Piper, honey, this school is gonna guarantee you get a man with money. This dress will help see that he’s a good lookin’ man with money.”
Piper laughed. “When you put it that way, I can’t refuse. Shut the door and I’ll try it on.”
With a grin, Abbie-Lee handed Piper the dress and moved to shut the door.
Piper pulled off her dress and shoes and slipped into Abbie-Lee’s dress. The fabric felt soft and cool against her skin and made her feel distinctly more proper. She giggled with delight.
Her roommate grinned. “Why, Piper, honey, you’re simply stunnin’! Let me put up your hair?”
Piper shrugged, feeling quite pleased with herself. Abbie-Lee rustled through one of her bags and pulled out a brush. “You just set yourself down here,” she said, motioning to the room’s dressing table.
Piper did as she was bid and Abbie-Lee set to work. In no time at all, the ginger curls shone. “Well, there you are,” Abbie-Lee said. “You’ll be the belle of the ball, Miss Piper Maxwell.”
Piper smiled as she admired herself in the mirror.
“You have a gorgeous smile, honey,” she added. “You ought t’ try smilin’ more often.”
Piper’s smile widened.
“There now, if that don’t get that handsome young handy man t’ notice you, nothin’ will.”
“I thought I was after handsome young men with money?” Piper teased.
Abbie-Lee frowned. “Oh, yeah, that’s right. Oh, well, you’ll have t’ break his heart then. When Piper looked at her, her eyes wide with horror, the girl giggled. “I’m teasin’, Sugar.”
Piper burst into laughter. The door opened then and a young, dark-haired woman entered the room. Something in her air made the girls suddenly stop giggling. She looked so serious they couldn’t help feeling a tad serious themselves.
“Hello,” Abbie-Lee said. “Are you another of our roommates?”
The girl nodded. “I am Millicent Paige. And you are?”
“I’m Abbie-Lee,” the girl said. “And, this is Piper.”
Millicent nodded gracefully. “It is a pleasure to meet both of you.” She didn’t exactly sound like she meant it but rather like she was saying it because it was the thing to say.
Piper smiled, feeling a tad embarrassed to be wearing a borrowed dress and looking so different than she normally did. Del came in carrying the girl’s trunk.
“Where do you want-” He stopped as his gaze fell on Piper. He stared at her for a minute and once again she felt her face grow hot. He finally gained enough composure to say, “Ah, w-where do you want this?”
Millicent surveyed the room. “Over there would be best, thank you.”
Del did as she instructed. “Is that all you’ll be needin’?”
She winced. “Yes, thank you; that is all that the assistance I require.”
Piper giggled to herself, wondering how this girl was going to survive with Abbie-Lee and herself for roommates if she couldn’t stand a bit of an accent. Poor girl. It’s going to be a long year.
Del turned his eyes back to her. She blushed again. Abbie-Lee giggled and Millicent tsked disapprovingly. His face reddened and he made a quick escape from the room.
Millicent tsked again. “I wonder if Mrs. Malcolm realizes that she has a boy in her employ who makes lovesick eyes at her students.”
“Oh, not at all her students,” Abbie-Lee chimed in. “Just Piper.”
Piper’s face grew even redder. Millicent gasped. “Well!” She turned to Piper. “And, you do not have any problem with that? A hired boy making such obvious love to a girl like yourself?”
“What do you mean, ‘a girl such as myself?’” Piper asked.
Millicent was obviously taken back by the question. “Well- well, I mean, a girl such as yourself.”
“So you said,” Piper replied, keeping her expression as deadpan as possible. She found a little pleasure in the way it seemed to unnerve the girl.
“I mean a girl with your social background,” she finally settled on.
Piper tried not to laugh. Honey, if you only knew. “Naw, it doesn’t really bother me. Sure it’s a little embarrassin’, but, he doesn’t mean any offense by it.”
“Are you sure?” she said quietly, almost to herself. Piper decided to ignore it.
Del appeared in the doorway again, a large trunk in his hands. “One last girl and then y’all’ll be rid of me.”
He set the trunk down and turned around. He sighed. “There’s no need t’ be afraid, Miss Dorn. You can come on in.”
A small, pale face, topped with pale- almost white- blonde hair, peeked around the doorway. Her pale blue eyes were filled with a timidity that cut into Piper’s heart. She reminded her of shy little Meg Fletcher from the orphanage. That same hollow expression, making her look so lost. That expression that somehow made her look so little and yet a whole lot older than she really was. Piper couldn’t have cared if she was the crown princess herself, she still wanted to take her in her arms and hug her ‘til she knew everything was all right.
She gave the girl a big smile. “Hello, I’m Piper Maxwell.”
The girl gave a shy smile and stepped cautiously into the room. “I-I’m Annie Dorn.”
“Hello, Annie,” Piper said. “I’m Piper and this is Abbie-Lee and Millicent.”
Del dropped her trunk on the floor and lit out of the room as fast as he could. Annie watched him, her eyes wide and frightened.
“Don’t mind him,” Piper said. “He’s just a bit jumpy today.”
“And, he’s embarrassed because he thinks Piper is pretty,” Abbie-Lee added.
Annie smiled at her. “You are very pretty.”
Piper blushed even redder and got up from the dressing table to cross to the trunk. “Why don’t you start unpacking?”
Annie opened the trunk’s clasps. “Where do I put my things?”
“Well, since Piper and I are sharin’ a wardrobe, you an’ Millicent here can share the other one,” Abbie-Lee put in, motioning to the other wardrobe with a dainty wave of her hand.
“We’re… sharing…?” Piper said.
Abbie-Lee smiled. “Yeah, and that reminds me, I think you ought t’ put on another petticoat. The way you are now is close to indecent.”
She opened the wardrobe, pulled out one of her own, and held it out to her. Piper shook her head. “Abbie-Lee, I can’t-”
“Oh, you might as well get used t’ changin’ in front of all of us. Otherwise, it’s gonna be a long four years.”
Piper was at a loss. This girl sure had a way of being oblivious to the real issue that it got her what she wanted. She wondered if she really was that naïve or if she was just acting to get her way. Either way, she’s very effective.
She took the petticoat and slipped it on under her dress. Abbie-Lee nodded approvingly. “Very nice.”
Annie smiled and nodded in agreement and Millicent frowned disapprovingly. “That is a good amount of fuss over a dress when there is work to be done.”
Piper blushed. “You’re right. I already put all my things away, so can I help one of you with your unpackin’?”
Millicent shook her head. “No, thank you. I do not require any assistance.”
“I’m good, thanks,” Abbie-Lee said, grinning.
Annie looked down at her feet. “I-I’ve never put my own things away before.”
“Then I can show you how,” Piper offered. “It’s really very simple.”
Annie smiled a little. “Thank you. I’d like that.”
They set to work unpacking her things and hanging them in the closet while the other girls did the same with their own luggage. When the bell rang for supper they set the unpacking aside and went down to face the other girls.
Now the lessons really begin Piper thought. I hope I survive.