Outside was war. I could hear the pop-pop-pop of the cannons.
Inside was the sewing room. Gray cloth forms of Mama’s clients stood along one wall, reminding me of the soldiers we saw on the streets outside, but without their spiked helmets, of course, or their splendid blue tunics with the gold trim.
War! How exciting it was. Our own German soldiers from the Fifth Infantry Regiment had swarmed into our sleepy little town, determined to take on the French who lived just on the other side of the Rhine River.
And that sparkling river flowed so close to our front door I could have tossed a stone from my window and seen the ripples it made in the water.
I didn’t care two pins about our Otto von Bismarck and his determination to unite all of Germany in this war. What difference could it possibly make to me?
But I did love to think about those soldiers, who looked so fierce and elegant . . . and who wandered up and down the street so close to the sewing room that I was tempted to tap on the window with my thimble and wave to them.
Mama would have had a fit!
Being a soldier would certainly be better than sitting here in this room sewing buttons on Frau Ottlinger’s winter bodice–ten brass buttons from collar to waist–running the thread through the tallow to give it strength.
Frau Ottlinger, Mama’s most important client, thought she was going to be a fashion plate this Christmas, dressed in the style of those infantrymen. She was more likely to look like a breakfast bun studded with raisins.
“Dina!” Mama said. Even with her back turned she knew my mind was wandering. And I knew exactly what she was going to say next: “Christmas is almost upon us, and we have dozens of orders still to fill!” As she spoke, she rubbed the already spotless sewing machine wheel with a soft cloth.
That sewing machine! It was like a cranky member of the family that had to be cleaned, and polished, and fed with oil whenever I turned around. And every two minutes it seemed we had to put a new piece of felt underneath to save the rose rug from being worn away.
Jst added 10 min to #ProjectReadathon w. @PenguinRandom by reading to support @SavetheChildren #ReadWell
Today there was a fire in the grate, and smoky lanterns for light–smoky because I had forgotten to wash them. Mama had swished the curtains closed in anger at the first burst of gunfire. “These dresses must be finished tonight,” she had said to my sister, Katharina, and me. “Pay no attention to those ruffians out there.”
Anyone who disturbed Mama was a ruffian.
Luckily the curtains were opened the width of one of Mama’s business cards: Frau Kirk and Daughters–Tailors. I could see part of our little southern German town of Breisach nestled between the mountains and the river, and once in a while a cannon flash as our soldiers fired across that river at the French.
France would be defeated, we knew that. Someone had told Mama the French had no harnesses for their horses, no bullets, and, worse, they were fighting smallpox, a disease so terrible it made me shiver to think about it.
Poor Elise, my French friend for so many years. She lived on the other side of the river, and we had met at a fall festival in happier times, when we were less than ten years old. How often on early sunny mornings we rowed back and forth across the river to trade patterns, and cookies, and gossip.
Mama leaned over me now. “Those buttonholes look like cabbage heads.”
I looked down guiltily.
Mama took the bodice and my needle. Carefully she made invisible blanket stitches around the edges of the top hole, filling in the space to make it smaller. “You know how to do this as well as I do.” She patted my shoulder. “You are thirteen years old. Stop dreaming. We have no time for it.”
Stop dreaming. Stop thinking. I stretched my cramped fingers. I remembered the first buttonholes I had made at the age of four, practicing on a piece of toweling, first Mama, then Katharina showing me patiently. How many buttonholes had I made since then? A thousand?
Mama was sympathetic. “I know it takes forever to do all those buttons when you’d rather be–”
Reading the letter that’s propped up on the fabric table was what I wanted to say. “Having morning muffins,” I said instead so that I wouldn’t be accused of having more curiosity than Ksnig, our cat.
My eyes kept going to the letter that had arrived this morning: a tissue-thin envelope covered with stamps from America. Mama had said, “I’m too busy adding the braid to Frau Ottlinger’s skirt to open it. It has nothing to do with you anyway, Dina.” But she smiled to take the sting out of her words.
And my older sister, Katharina! She didn’t have as much curiosity as the piece of tailor’s chalk on the table. With barely a glance at the letter, she had picked up a package of flannel sheets, neatly hemmed, and gone out the back door to deliver them to a family on Mettau Street.
I was on the fifth button, holes newly drawn in, when at last Mama stood up, arching her back and running her hands over her waist as she left the sewing room for the kitchen. I’d have about three minutes alone while she stirred the soup and added the marrow balls she had prepared an hour ago.
Out of my chair in an instant, I picked up the letter, which crackled in my hand, and tried to read the words through the envelope.
In my mind was a picture of the uncle who had sent it: Mama’s rich older brother, who lived in luxury. No wonder! Everyone who lived in Brooklyn, New York, probably did. After his first wife died, he had married again and sailed immediately for America. How romantic it was. I hadn’t seen him since I was a little girl, but I imagined him handsome and funny, and the young second wife, Barbara, slim and lovely.
I held the letter up, turning it one way and then another. The name Katharina jumped out at me. “Katharina,” I said aloud. “What is he saying about Katharina?”
And I was caught, of course.
Mama plucked the letter from my hand.
“Well, what do you think it says?” I asked.
“I know what it’s about,” Mama said, “and Katharina does, too.”
“Why don’t I know? Why is it that everything is kept from me?”
Mama shook her head impatiently. “Nothing can be kept from you for very long.” She sighed. “My brother is offering Katharina a place with him and his wife.”
I sank down on the chair, my heart thumping in my chest. “And I? Will I go with her?”
Mama shook her head. I could see she felt a little sorry for me. “Only Katharina.”
Katharina to go to America! I loved my older sister; she was my best friend. Katharina to go, and not me?
From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from A House of Tailors by Patricia Reilly Giff. Copyright © 2004 by Patricia Reilly Giff. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.