Chapter One Excerpt:
Senta didn’t need to stop work to notice all the people going here and there. She had spent so much time in the plaza, that it just came naturally for her to notice the people. It was one of the best things about working there. The horse drawn trolleys passed every three minutes, and they were all full of commuters. A few people still passed in old-fashioned carriages— in one of them, a woman in a brilliant blue dress looked like she might have been a princess. And the street was thick with steam powered carriages, spewing smoke, hissing steam, and constantly honking. Pedestrians either dodged the dizzying array of motorized and non-motorized vehicles on the street, or fought their way down the crowded sidewalks. Three women, two of them quite old, and the other very young, but wearing matching yellow dresses and matching floppy hats passed by Senta, carrying on an animated conversation about the “short men”.
Senta had seen the woman in the white pin-striped dress many times before. Sometimes she saw her visiting the telegraph office across the avenue. Sometimes she saw her visiting the alchemist next door to the telegraph office. Senta supposed that the woman must be purchasing beauty potions or happiness potions, though why she would need either, the girl couldn’t understand. Often, the woman would visit Café Carlo, where Senta worked each afternoon, sweeping the sidewalks, cleaning the wrought iron railing, and polishing the brass dragon by the door. The woman didn’t always wear the white, pin-striped dress. Senta had only seen it once before. But the woman always had the finest clothing, and that clothing was always a perfect match for her form, her posture, and her grace. Today it seemed as if the woman in the white, pin-striped dress was going to have lunch at the café, because at this moment she was walking directly toward Senta, who pushed an enormous broom across the sidewalk. The woman stepped lightly across the damp cobblestone street, heedless of the horse drawn trolley, or the honking steam carriages, or the old-fashioned carriage with the brilliantly blue clad princess, or even of the old man pulling the little donkey laden with crates of carrots.
Senta looked up at that perfect face, almost a foot above her own, as the woman in the white, pin-striped dress passed, never looking down at the child engaged in manual labor, nor indeed looking at anyone else on the street. She didn’t even look at Carlo, when he rushed out of the entrance of the café, his starched white shirt, stained with sweat under the armpits and with a dribble of morning coffee just below the collar, and stretched to the limit by his corpulent middle. He ran to greet her with a bow. She didn’t look at him, but she acknowledged him with an ever-so-slight nod of her head.
“Would you like your usual table, Miss?” said Carlo.
His fawning, almost whining tone, as he spoke to her, was nothing like the booming voice he used when calling for one of his waitresses to get back to work, or when he ordered Senta to clean the brass dragon. It was nothing like the grunting noise he made when he paid Senta the fourteen copper pfennigs she received from him each week. It was the tone of a small child who wanted to be noticed by an adult, but who was seldom if ever noticed, and it would have surprised Senta to hear it come from Carlo’s great form, if she had not heard it from him when the woman had previously visited the café.
“No. We have a party of three today.”
The woman’s voice was a clear and melodic soprano. Senta thought that she must be a singer in the opera, though having never been to the opera, she really didn’t know what the voice of a singer might be like. The woman’s voice was authoritative without being harsh. It commanded respect. But it was lovely.
Carlo led the woman to a table near the wrought iron railing, which marked the boundary between the café and the sidewalk. He carefully pulled out a chair and dusted it with his dishtowel. Senta thought the woman would be angry. This wasn’t the seat that she would have chosen if she were the woman; if she could have demanded anything and expected to get it. This seat was too near the street. A passing steam carriage could conceivably blow smoke right on her. The woman didn’t complain, however, but spread her white, pin-striped dress with her hands, and delicately, so as not to damage her bustle, sat on the chair. Her chin remained high in the air, and her back remained ever so straight, a good eight inches from the chair back.
Continuing to sweep the walkway, Senta only occasionally looked over to see what the woman in the white, pin-striped dress was doing. Carlo brought the woman tea. He brought her fancy cucumber sandwiches on white bread with the crusts carefully removed. His waitresses saw to the needs of the other patrons of the café—there must have been nearly two dozen, mostly people stopping while on their way to the train station, wearing wool traveling cloaks or business attire, but Carlo himself returned again and again to the woman. He even came back once to do nothing more than make sure that the white linen tablecloth was hanging down the same length on all sides of the table. By then, Senta had finished sweeping the sidewalk along the entire breadth of the café, so she took the enormous broom around the building to the janitorial closet in the back of the building—the one which could only be reached from the outside, exchanged it for a bucket of warm soapy water and a bristle brush, and then walked back around to the front of the café.
Having swept the dust and dirt and mud from the sidewalk, it was now time to clean the wrought iron railing. It was covered in soot. It was always covered in soot. Of course, everything in the entire city was covered in soot. The soot came from the smoke stacks of the factories that lined the waterfront. It came from the trains that rolled through the city to the great station four blocks north of the plaza. It came from almost all of the steam powered carriages that drove about the wide streets of the city. Fortunately, there were plenty of children looking for work, so that at least the beautiful places, and the important places, and the places where beautiful and important people were likely to congregate could be cleaned of the soot on a daily basis. Senta started scrubbing the wrought iron railing on the right hand side of the café. She might have been better able to watch the woman in the white, pin-striped dress drink her tea and eat her fancy cucumber sandwiches, if she had started cleaning on the left side of the café, but she had started cleaning on the left side the day before. She always alternated. One day, she cleaned from the left to the right. The next day, she cleaned from the right to the left. It wouldn’t be right to clean from the left to the right, when she had cleaned from the left to the right the day before. So by the time that she had finished cleaning all the wrought iron railing to the right of the entrance, had crossed over and begun cleaning the wrought iron on the left of the entrance, and could now see the woman drink her tea and eat her cucumber sandwiches, the woman had been joined by two men—two soldiers.