The Fallen Women of San Francisco
By Jesse Knight
Scene: Train station of a small town in Northern California
Time: Turn of the century
Martha, his wife
Emily, 19-year old daughter of Martha and Chester
Louisa, Martha's younger sister
Henry, a railway employee
CHESTER is stage center.
EMILY (running in): Is she here yet? I can hardly wait!
CHESTER: There, there. Simmer down, young lady.
EMILY: Aren't you excited, Father?
CHESTER: What is there to be excited about? Louisa is just another person. Just like your mother, only--
EMILY: Only what?
CHESTER: Only different.
EMILY: Different? How?
CHESTER: Different. That's all.
MARTHA (coming in): Henry says the train is on time.
CHESTER: For Louisa, the train is always on time.
EMILY: How long has it been, Mother?
MARTHA: Landsakes, child. How long has it been since what?
EMILY: Since you saw her, of course!
MARTHA: Well, let's see. I would have been 19; I had just married your father. Louisa wasn't even eighteen, or perhaps just barely. That would have been 22 years ago now. My, how time flies!
EMILY: And she just picked up and left. Just like that.
CHESTER: Darn fool notion if you ask me.
MARTHA: Said she wanted more than Santa Theresa had to offer.
CHESTER: Louisa wants more than the whole world has to offer.
MARTHA (warningly): Now, Chester.
EMILY: She has been everywhere and travelled in far off lands.
CHESTER: I wouldn't call San Francisco exactly a far off land.
EMILY: It is to me. It might as well be a thousand miles away.
MARTHA: We are quite content here. We have everything we need.
EMILY: Everything you need, you mean. Aunt Louisa lives in a different world from us.
CHESTER: Louisa lives in a different world from everyone.
EMILY: I saved every letter she wrote me.
MARTHA: In the music box on your dresser.
EMILY: And the ribbons from birthday presents, I saved those too. And every postcard she sent me from Rome and Paris and London. I could actually smell her perfume on them. And clippings from newspapers where her name was mentioned--I cut them all out. All of it I have carefully saved.
CHESTER: I can't imagine why she would think of you so often.
EMILY: Do you really find it so strange, Father?
FATHER: Welllll . . . . Well, I can imagine that Edward thinks of you often.
EMILY: Oh, poo, on Edward. Who cares what he thinks?
MARTHA: You shouldn't talk that way, Emily. After all, you're practically engaged.
EMILY: He's dry as dust and as boring as a Saturday night in Santa Theresa, and you know it, Mother.
MARTHA: I know nothing of the kind. He is a very nice young man.
EMILY: I agree--he's a very nice young man, and that is the worst thing I could say about him.
CHESTER: And stable too. And he has a good job at the bank. Why, Mr. Gilbertson says that in five or ten years he might even work his way up to head cashier. Who knows . . . .
EMILY: If you like him so much, you go ahead and marry him!
MARTHA: Emily, that is no way to talk to your father.
EMILY: Of course, you are right. I'm sorry, Father.
MARTHA: That's better. Edward is a fine young man. I can tell you that there are many young ladies in this town who wouldn't mind having him for a beau. And after all . . . .
MARTHA and EMILY (together): You aren't getting any younger.
EMILY: I know you mean well, Mother, but-
MOTHER: But what, dear?
EMILY: It is such an awfully big world out there, and I don't want to miss any of it. All those wonderful photos she sent me of the Eiffel Tower and the Spanish Steppes and the Houses of Parliament. Pictures of her in huge hats with long feathers, lifting glasses of champagne that sparkle with the lights from candelabras.
CHESTER: There is more to life than glasses of champagne, Emily.
EMILY: Oh, I know that, Father. But Aunt Louisa is so full of life, so gay. She is what life should be like, not what it is like. I want to be--
MARTHA: Why don't you go and check your hair, dear. You want to look your very best when Louisa arrives.
EMILY: I'll be right back.
CHESTER: Someone's going to have to tell her.
MARTHA: Tell her what?
CHESTER: The truth.
MARTHA: And what, pray tell, exactly is the truth, Chester?
CHESTER: You know, the truth about Louisa.
MARTHA: That Louisa ran away from home?
CHESTER: There's that.
MARTHA: That she is her own woman?
CHESTER: True enough.
MARTHA: That she is a woman of independent means?
CHESTER: And how did she get those means, I'd like to know?
MARTHA: By investing in the Comstock.
CHESTER: By tips from shady characters, don't you mean?
MARTHA: I notice you're quite willing to take tips on the stock market, and how much good has that done you, I'd like to know.
CHESTER: Hmmmpph! You know that isn't what worries me.
MARTHA: Then what is it? Why don't you be honest?
CHESTER: And say what she is?
MARTHA: At least get it out in the open.
CHESTER: You want me to call her (leans towards Martha, glances around, and whispers) a fallen woman?
MARTHA: I suspect you think more like dropped than fallen.
CHESTER: I have to be honest with you, Martha, and say I do think more dropped than fallen. Maybe plummeted would be a better word. Or dived or jumped head long into or--
MARTHA: Just because she never married.
CHESTER: It is more than that. Spinsters are . . . well, spinsters and to be pitied, if not honored.
MARTHA: How charitable of you.
CHESTER: But Louisa is more-or less, if you want to look at it the other way--than a spinster.
MARTHA: What you mean is, she has had lovers.
CHESTER: Several of them. (Rolls his eyes)
MARTHA: All right, many of them. But what is that to us? She has lived her life her own way.
CHESTER: Martha, far be it from me to judge her.
MARTHA (sighs): Not very far, I'm afraid.
CHESTER: It is Emily I am thinking of.
MARTHA: So am I.
MARTHA and CHESTER talk at the same time here, each alone in his/her world, turned away from each other, as couples sometimes do.
CHESTER: Oh, why did that woman insist on coming back?
MARTHA: Emily adores her.
CHESTER: Why couldn't she have just stayed away?
MARTHA: What will Emily do if she finds out? She is so innocent.
CHESTER: So na´ve.
MARTHA and CHESTER together: What if Emily ends up like Louisa?
HENRY: The 11:15 from Sacramento is arriving.
Sounds of the train pulling into station. There is movement on the side of the stage. Passengers disembark.
LOUISA wanders in, looking around. She is dressed in the height of fashion, colorful and flamboyant. The obvious cost of her clothes are in sharp contrast to the plain, sensible garments of CHESTER and MARTHA.
LOUISA (sees the couple): There you are!
MARTHA (as they embrace): Dear Louisa! How very good to see you!
LOUISA: Sweet, long suffering Martha. (then with a nod) Chester.
CHESTER (coldly): Louisa.
LOUISA (looking around): The place is as stuffy and dull and unforgiving as ever, I see.
CHESTER: It is all in how you look at things.
LOUISA: How true.
MARTHA (quickly): How was Sacramento?
LOUISA: Hot. Dusty. A lot of money was lost at the races . . . at the horse races, I mean. And a lot of money was won. Not at the horse races. We toasted the new Governor. He--
MARTHA: You actually met the Governor?
LOUISA: Oh, good gracious, no.
MARTHA (disappointed): Oh.
LOUISA: I didn't meet him. He is a longtime friend. From San Francisco.
MARTHA: You are actually a friend of the Governor's?
LOUISA: Oh, yes! Of course, I have to keep him in his place. Sometimes he can be very naughty, especially when he has had a drop or two too much of champagne, which I'm afraid is frequently.
MARTHA: You must tell me all about him.
LOUISA: Well, he--
CHESTER: Ladies, ladies. Is it seemly to be gossiping out here in public?
LOUISA: He's right. Let's wait till we get home.
MARTHA: Yes, we can wait.
LOUISA: Where is Emily?
MARTHA: She'll be here in a moment. She is so eager to see you.
LOUISA: I'm looking forward to seeing her too. How she must have grown. She wrote me often, you know.
CHESTER: Emily wrote you?
MARTHA (quickly) : She's grown more than you can imagine, Louisa. But . . . (lifts a hand, hesitates)
LOUISA: Yes, dear?
MARTHA: We are very worried about Emily.
LOUISA: What are you worried about?
CHESTER: Emily is at a very impressionable age.
LOUISA: My goodness, I thought she was a young woman by now, quite capable of making her own decisions.
MARTHA: She's only nineteen.
CHESTER: She has a beau, a fine young man by the name of Edward.
LOUISA: A bit . . . staid, I suppose.
CHESTER: Stable is the word I would use to describe him.
LOUISA: I imagine you would, Chester.
MARTHA: We were hoping . . .
LOUISA: You can tell me, Martha.
MARTHA: We don't want you to take her from us.
LOUISA: I'm shocked. I can assure you I have no plans to take her anyplace.
MARTHA: We're curious why you've come back after all these years.
LOUISA: Did the thought ever occur to you that I was just interested in seeing the place of my childhood? And it seemed like a convenient stopping off point on my way back to San Francisco. I wanted to see what the old town looked like. To see if anything had changed. (sighs) But I can see that it hasn't.
CHESTER: We're concerned that your sophistication, your flamboyance will influence our Emily.
LOUISA: She is hardly yours any more, Chester. If she ever was.
MARTHA: She will always be our little girl.
LOUISA: I understand, Martha.
CHESTER: It is more than that, Louisa. You are an exciting, alluring woman.
LOUISA: Well, thank you, Chester. I hardly expected--
CHESTER (clears his throat): You can't help but be . . . enticing.
MARTHA: Chester! What are you saying?
CHESTER: If you could just be . . . you know
LOUISA: I'm afraid I don't know, Chester.
CHESTER: You can't help being a bad influence.
LOUISA: Just by the way I look?
LOUISA: You don't think very much of your daughter, do you? If you think that can sway her.
CHESTER: I think quite a lot of her. But I also realize the temptations the world has to offer.
LOUISA: I'm still not quite sure I know what you want me to do. I can hardly stop the world.
CHESTER: Could you be a little less attractive?
MARTHA: That's it!
CHESTER: Not quite so colorful.
LOUISA: I scarcely know how I could possibly do that.
MARTHA: Just a little homelier.
CHESTER: A bit more plain.
MARTHA: Couldn't you be somewhat . . . dowdy?
LOUISA: I suppose so, if you think it will make all that much difference.
MARTHA: Oh, I'm sure it would help, Louisa.
LOUISA: All right, if you say so. (LOUISA grabs a woman walking by.) Here, give me that! (Takes her shawl, hands the woman her colorful and flamboyant hat with the feathers.)
LOUISA ducks behind a nearby wagon. The audience can see her head, shoulders and hands. In a whirlwind, the audience glimpses her transformation. She takes her skirt and turns it inside out. She is entirely in dark colors now. She rubs some soot on her cheeks, pulls the shawl over her head, and emerges, stooped over.
LOUISA: Will this do?
EMILY comes running on stage.
EMILY: Am I late? Oh, I'm so sorry. Has she made her grand entrance yet?
CHESTER: No, you're not late at all. You're right on time.
EMILY (seeing LOUISA, stares, circling): Aunt Louisa . . . is that you?
LOUISA (changing her voice to that of an old woman's): Greetings, child.
EMILY: You, don't look at all like your photographs.
LOUISA: Oh, you know how skillful photographers are nowadays. They're much better liars than painters.
EMILY: But what has happened to you, Aunt Louisa?
LOUISA: Life, child. Life.
EMILY: I didn't realize life could be so hard on you.
LOUISA: Only if you are hard on it and have unreasonable expectations. It comes from all the wild living I did when I was your age. Grasping for every adventure, every beautiful object, every fragment of happiness and joy I could, afraid that something grand and glorious might pass me by. And now you see me, a ruin, a shipwreck on the sea of life.
EMILY: I suppose that is the price you have to pay.
LOUISA: And a sorrowful coin it is. Look at me, a decrepit old woman at the age of . . . at the age of . . . at the age of . . . 29 . . . at least.
EMILY: Still, I imagine there must have been some compensations.
LOUISA (suddenly out of character): Oh, yes. There was that nice young man from Philadelphia. And then there was that oh, so charming Italian Count. And there was that stage star who must go nameless, to maintain a blameless image. (Realizes her mistake, reverts back to character) Compensations? Few and pale. None at all, really. It was a life filled with unspeakable depravity and shame, that is all.
EMILY: Speaking of depravity, you must tell me all about Sacramento. I imagine it was terribly thrilling. What politicians did you meet? Were there theater people there?
LOUISA: Just lobbyists.
EMILY: Any wealthy industrialists? Mining magnates? Railroad barons? Were there horse races? I adore horse races! And gay outings on the river? Did you get to visit the mansions of the mighty? Tell me, all about the Inaugural Ball. Your name was in the newspaper. I clipped out the article. "The illustrious Miss Morton was seen on the arm of the well-known . . . ."
LOUISA: It was . . . dry.
EMILY: Dry? That is all you can say? It was dry?
LOUISA: And windy. Very windy.
EMILY: Just dry and windy.
LOUISA: Well, what do you expect? After all, we are talking about the state capital.
EMILY: But you must have had some gay times.
LOUISA: Oh, there was a waltz or two--you know how I love waltzes--but that was it. You know how it is when you get a gaggle of politicians together. They talk so much about themselves that a woman can hardly get a word about herself in edgewise. And when they aren't talking, they spend so much time looking at themselves in mirrors that a woman has a frightful time squeezing in. Frightful! And if all that weren't enough, I suffer, my dear.
EMILY: Suffer? From what?
LOUISA: Sheer boredom. Sometimes, it drives me to distraction.
EMILY: I'm familiar with that, myself.
LOUISA: The constant whirlwind of senseless pleasure, the chasing after experiences and sensations--new places, new faces. It has all grown so dreadfully boring, dull, and tiresome, I'm afraid.
EMILY: I pictured your life so very different, Aunt Louisa.
LOUISA: Strange, so did I.
EMILY: Where is all the glamour? All the excitement?
LOUISA: I wish I knew myself, my dear.
EMILY: This is awful. Just awful. (sobbing on her father's shoulder.)
CHESTER: There, there, my dear. (Over Emily's shoulder as he comforts his daughter, he signals his approval to Louisa.) I know how it is to see your dreams crumble about you.
EMILY (almost in tears): I better see if Edward has brought the horse and buggy.
MARTHA: You do that, dear.
MARTHA: How can I thank you, Louisa? I'm not sure how to express my gratitude.
LOUISA: No need. Who knows, maybe someday I myself might need someone to be less than they are.
Sounds of the train preparing to leave.
HENRY: All aboard!
LOUISA: I think I'd better go before Emily returns.
CHESTER: I think that would be for the best.
MARTHA: What should we tell Emily?
LOUISA: Tell her I was suddenly called back to San Francisco. Tell her it was a telegram. Tell her I met some fascinating character on the train. Tell her . . . oh you will think of something suitably debauched. You can't be entirely bereft of imagination.
After hurried good-byes, LOUISA hurries off stage. Sounds of the train as it builds up steam and chugs. On the side of the stage the train car starts to move. MARTHA and CHESTER wave vigorously with big smiles until they see LOUISA in the train. Along with her is EMILY, smiling, laughing, and waving back.
The Fallen Women of San Francisco © 2004 by Jesse Knight
JESSE F. KNIGHT has had short stories in a variety of magazines and e-zines, including Of Ages Past, Twilight Times, and ART and of course our own Bygone Days. He has stories scheduled for future issues of All Hallows and Doppleganger. In addition, he has written a number of historical plays. A Crown of Wildflowers, a play about a Swedish composer, was performed in Stockholm.
Knight writes regularly for the magazine Firsts. He is finishing an article on the historical mystery novelist Kate Ross, which will appear in the April issue.
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