The feeling of his grasp on her – whether on her wrist, or her arm, or her elbow, as it was there now – was becoming a bit too familiar. His grip was firm as he led her outside, though he released her once they were away from the door. She was glad to be free of his hold. But as she looked at him, she knew she wasn’t free of him entirely. She had rejected him, outright. And no man could be expected to easily accept such a wound to his pride. It surprised her, then, when he spoke in a very calm way.
“I’m not sure what to think about what just happened.”
She sat down in a chair. “I’m not so sure either,” she said, clenching the folds of her skirt, not knowing just what to do or say. She watched him as he took to walking back and forth. He rubbed his hands on the sides of his trousers, his agitation evident.
“Maybe I was wrong,” he said. “Maybe I was a fool to do that in front of everyone. I’m sorry.”
A small, naïve part of her felt a sense of relief. He will see reason. That voice assured her. He was just being hasty. She tried to cling to that irrational moment of hope, speaking calmly to him.
“You’re not a fool, Charlie.”
He seemed not to hear her. He seemed to be speaking more to himself at that moment than to her, continuing to move back and forth. Pausing for a moment, he brought his hand up to his mouth, partially covering his lips – muffling his words slightly.
“Maybe what I need to do is get it right. Do this the way it should be done.”
Whether the words had been intentionally muffled or not, she couldn’t say. But she heard them all the same. And her heart began a mad and fearful beat as she watched him come to her. He knelt down on one knee, taking her hands in his.
“Marry me, Grace Langdon. Let me make you happy.”
Good God, she thought. He means it. He really means it. That first proposal hadn’t been a mere impulse. He really did want to marry her. And she really could not accept him.
“I can’t, Charlie.”
He smiled at her in a teasing way – a strange gesture, considering what she had just said. He was making light of the whole thing, perhaps to convince himself that she didn’t mean to refuse him.
“You have so many other offers, is that it?”
She shook her head. “No, Charlie. It’s just that…”
Oh, I am the devil, she thought. The very devil. Guilt was nagging her, for it was undeniably cruel to turn down such a heartfelt proposal. But to yield was out of the question. What she felt for him was not what he felt for her. She had never known real love before, but somehow she knew that it was supposed to be more than this. It should have been all-encompassing. Powerful. And absolute. She shouldn’t have been feeling this overwhelming sense of doubt.
Taking in a deep breath, she said the words with what courage she could manage.
“I don’t love you.”
Hardly missing a beat, and with scarcely the blink of an eye, he smiled in response.
“But I love you, Gracie. I’ve loved you since we were kids. Remember how things were back in those days? We were like two peas in a pod.”
“That was a long time ago.”
“I know. But that doesn’t mean we can’t start over where we left off.”
Her head fell into her hands. Why was he doing this to himself? She was trying so hard to let him down easily, and yet it seemed he was pushing her harder and harder towards brutality.
There was such desperation in his voice. She could tell how hard he was clinging to hope – and fighting against the thought that he would lose.
“I know, we’ve been apart for a long time. But sometimes, even when two people are like strangers when they first get together, they learn to get on. Love grows with time.”
Her voice grew stronger. She needed to get through to him, and she knew that it couldn’t be done kindly.
“I won’t marry you, Charlie! Why can’t you get it through your head?”
The slow change in his expression pained her – the light of hope in his eyes, in his whole being, fading entirely.
“Why, Gracie? Tell me why you don’t want me.”
There was such a look of disbelief and hurt on his face – a look that was far more difficult to resist than his gentle pleading. But she knew that only a fool would have given in now. With a sigh, she made an attempt at protecting him from further harm, hoping he would take the hint.
“We shouldn’t do this, Charlie…”
His response was firm. “I want to know.”
She felt as if she was drowning at that moment. There were so many reasons to give him, but none seemed strong enough to cling to. None would appease him – of that, she was certain. But she had to try. And her deep sense of loyalty came to her aid.
“Well, for one thing,” she said, “There’s Ollie.”
“What has she got to do with it?”
“She loves you. If I took her man, she would never forgive me.”
Looking at him, she saw a glimmer of distaste in his eyes, and she wondered about it. Was it distaste with her, or with Ollie? Judging from the sound of his response, it was the latter. He said his words with a note of contempt that goaded her.
“I am not her man.”
“But you’re the first man she’s ever had feelings for. And I won’t betray her like that.”
“Good Lord, Gracie! What does it matter what she feels? I don’t love her. And I don’t want her. You are the one I want to marry!”
His sudden burst of fury shocked her – and his disregard for Ollie ignited her own sense of anger.
“I can’t do it, Charlie. My answer is no.”
There. It was done now. The entire matter was laid out, and she was glad of it. Her sense of guilt, so strong before, began to ebb now that she knew the truth. Whatever his feelings for her, however genuine, it didn’t matter. His coldness about Ollie had been the deciding factor. She turned away from him, ready to go back in the house and leave him to deal with the finality of the matter.
But at the doorway, she paused at the sound of his voice.
“So that’s it? You won’t even think about it?”
“I’m sorry,” she replied, hoping that her words would be the last ones between them. She reached for the door handle.
A wave of furious tension swept the air – like the hot air gusting before a storm. Suddenly she was spun around and seized by the arms, his hands shaking her with the force of his hold. He growled at her through clenched teeth – his eyes burning with anger.
“You’re gonna be sorry, Grace Langdon. Because I’m the best you’ll ever get.”
His hold was painful, and she struggled to get out it.
“Let go of me!”
He would not relent, strengthening his grip.
“They said you were a shrew. They said you were the most pig-headed female that ever walked the earth. I told them they were all wrong, but now I know they were completely right.”
Fear began rising within her – the way it did when he father shook her in this way. Afraid of what he would do, his crushing hold on her becoming nigh unbearable, she cried out in fear and pain.
“You’re hurting me!”
He seemed deaf to her cries, and blind to what he was doing. He seemed only to know his rage, blasting her with the intensity of it.
“Maybe I should just go ahead and marry that twit cousin of yours. At least if I take her, I’ll get what’s coming to me from my father’s will. I’ll be a well-to-do man when all that property is mine. You’ll really be sorry then, won’t you? And every time she spits out one of my kids, you’ll wish it was you who had the pleasure of being in my bed.”
Her fearful desperation turned to fury at that moment. He had meant to hurt her – to insult and wound her deeply. Instead, he had given her the very weapon she needed. She brought her heel down on his foot, smashing his toes. Yelping in pain, he released her, staggering backwards to lean against the porch railing. Seething now, free of his hold both mentally and physically, she cursed him.
“Get the hell out of my sight, Charlie Hillard! And never come back!”
He snorted in bitterness. “Gladly! You and your family can go to hell!”
Oh, how she despised him at that moment! Without thinking, she picked up the nearby watering can and launched it at him, narrowly missing his head as he ducked. With a spit of disgust, he turned and stormed away, and she watched him until he had faded into the dark. She never wanted to see him again or be reminded of him.
But he had imprinted a memory on her that she would not soon forget.
Her arms hurt – the numbness that had briefly been a relief now being gone. Pulling up one of her sleeves, she saw the redness there. Even in the soft light of the porch lantern, she could see that he had marked her badly. In the morning, the redness would change to black and blue, and it would be many days before the branding was gone.
But in her wounds, she felt a sense of victory. She had endured such bruises before, and she had no doubt she would endure them again. But she would survive, as she had always done. She thought of something that Jack had once said - something she often thought of in times like this.
Pain is weakness leaving the body.
Pulling down her sleeve, she took in a deep and cleansing breath.
That’s damn right, she thought. Damn right.
She turned towards the door…and came face-to-face with her father. The suddenness of his advance caught her off-guard, and she struggled to maintain her balance as he pushed her backwards with each step.
“What’s wrong with you? Huh? What the hell is wrong with you?”
Falling backwards into a chair, she smelled the rot of his breath as he hovered over her. From the corner of her eye, she could see her brothers clustered around the window.
They have been listening all along. They have heard everything.
John turned on them in a rage.
"Get to bed before I knock the fire out of every one of you!"
They scattered fast, and John turned back to her.
“A good man asks for your hand, and this is what you do? You run him off? What kind of ignorant, ungrateful, thick-headed fool are you?”
Her voice was small as she answered. She was trembling, preparing for a strike she was certain to come.
"It wasn't my fault. You should have heard some of the ugly things he said to me."
He turned away from her in disgust. “Oh, good God almighty!”
As he stalked back and forth, she caught sight of her mother emerging from within the house. She stood in the shadows, out of the way – as she always was where matters of trouble or issues of punishment were concerned. Her voice was soft – but unmistakably cold.
"Did you know he could have had his pick of any girl in this county?"
John stopped to look at her. “Any girl would be grateful to have him. But you…” Shaking his head, he snorted in disgust. “You gave it all up, damned fool girl that you are. The big house in the valley - the two-hundred acres of good bottom land that goes with it. All of that, gone!"
Rachel sighed, a sound of absolute disappointment. “That was selfish, Gracie. Downright selfish.”
Hanging her head, she said nothing. With her shoulders slightly hunched, she mentally wrapped herself in a cocoon of self-defense – not allowing their words to wound her. Not yet. As it had so many times before, that would come later, when she was all alone in the dark of her room. To endure this cruelty, she knew she could not allow them to see her vulnerability. While in their presence, she had to be like stone – cold and unmoved, even as her father hovered over her.
“You could have done right by your family, but all you thought about was yourself. I can’t even stand to look at you right now.”
He withdrew then, skulking away, with Rachel following behind in obedient fashion. She was alone then, huddled in a heap of misery.
I can’t go in there, she thought. I can’t.
There would be no forgiveness for this. They would be watching her more closely than ever now – judging her more harshly.
Now that they had a sinner in their midst.
Oh, how they would revel in it! In their eyes, she was guilty of the sin of pride, and it would be their honorable duty as members of the church to see her punished for her wrong-doing. And their fellow parishioners and neighbors would be glad to help with the “Redeeming” of a wayward soul. How could she bear to face it all?
Aunt Em, she thought. Ollie. The girls. And Uncle Robert.
They had always been so good to her. She didn’t see Robert that often. He worked in the mines during the day and spent the rest of his time working his land. But he was one of the few men she had no fear of – one of the few who was genuinely kind and sweet. And Ollie…
Oh Ollie, she lamented. How can I tell you all of this?
So many scenarios went through her head as she journeyed along the hills and through the woods that led to their house. How would Ollie react when she heard about Charlie’s proposal? Surely, she would understand when she heard the entire story. She would probably be upset at first when she learned that Charlie had chosen someone else – that from the start, he had never wanted her. How could a woman not be upset to learn of such a thing? Ollie would cry, most likely. And they would comfort one another. And then they could forget about Charlie entirely.
But what if she wasn’t understanding?
Jealousy was a powerful thing. It could turn the best of friends into the worst of enemies. But would Ollie succumb to it? Would she blame her for Charlie’s decision – accuse her of tempting him and stealing him away? The idea of it tore at her, making her hesitate as she reached the door to the house.
No, she thought. Ollie wouldn’t do that to me.
They had been best friends for too long. They would overcome this, and they would both be stronger because of it…
Mr. and Mrs. John Langdon
5739 Lincoln Avenue
Lincoln Park, IL
* * * * *
The coal oil light burned on the side table – the only light in the room, but it was a comforting glow that broke the blackness of the night. Emily had made hot tea, as well as a poultice for Grace’s swollen arms. And while they sipped their drinks and tended wounds, they talked of the night’s matters.
Emily was instantly put off, her eyes glittering with anger.
“I knew I smelled a rat.”
Iris put an arm around Grace’s shoulder, comforting her. “I’m glad you run him off. You don’t need no man like that.”
Grace nodded. She had known they would be this way – supportive and nurturing. Understanding. When she had come to the door, they hadn’t been angered by the oddness of such an untimely visit. It was Robert who had answered the door, and Emily had followed just behind him, and instantly they had ushered her in. Concerned by the way she was trembling so badly, they had hovered over her and urged her to rest. Soon the girls all came awake at the sound of a visitor, and while they gathered around, Robert bid her good night and departed – leaving her in the capable hands of the ladies. When she told them her story, they were all a flutter with their opinions, weighing in on the matter with a similar manner of displeasure and protectivenss. Grace smiled at the strength of their love and loyalty – until it occurred to her that one of them had been too quiet.
Ollie had been herself at first – so glad to see her, and free with her usual expressions of affection. Like her mother and sister, she had been worried over her cousin’s sudden appearance and frazzled condition. But as the details of the story unfolded, she became strangely subdued, sitting the furthest away from the group – and Grace worried that her worst fears had been confirmed. Looking at Ollie, who kept shifting her eyes away, she asked her in a soft voice.
“Ollie, are you all right?”
Slowly, she pushed herself up from the sofa and went to the window, looking out.
“Can y’all leave Gracie and me alone for a few minutes?”
Alone, Grace thought, feeling a pit open up somewhere inside her. The request for a private word between two people, especially two friends who were as close as they were, almost never resulted in something good. She feared what was to come – what she had known might have been coming for some time now.
Emily stood and urged her daughters to do the same.
“Course we’ll leave you two to talk. Come on, girls.”
As they went, each of them gave her a kiss on the cheek or a word of comfort. When they had left the room, Grace took a deep breath, preparing herself for the worst.
“Ollie, I’m sorry. I knew there was something wrong, but I never thought it would be something like this. I hope you’re not mad at me.”
There was a pause – a nerve wracking thing, to be sure.
“I’m not mad at you for that. If Charlie likes you and not me, that’s not your fault.”
There was something about her tone – something about her words that was incomplete. Fearful, but needing to know, Grace urged her to say it all.
Ollie turned to her then. Her eyes were shining with tears. But there was an angriness in her manner that Grace had never seen before – and a bitterness in her voice that cut her to the quick.
“How could you turn him down?”
Staring at Ollie with a stunned expression, she grasped for understanding.
“What are you saying, Ollie?”
“You should’ve said yes, Gracie! Why didn’t you say yes?”
Why didn’t you say yes? The words swirled around in her head, bouncing in a confused jumble in her mind. She had hoped for sympathy, but had prepared herself for jealousy. Instead, she found herself trying to comprehend the notion that Ollie would turn against her in this way – the way her mother and father had. Surely, she didn’t mean what she was saying. Standing up, approaching her, she extended her arm to show one of the marks that Charlie had left.
“You think I should have said yes? After what he said? After what he did?”
For a moment, Ollie stared at the bruise. A look of sympathy crossed her expression for a moment – but just as quickly it was gone, and she lifted eyes to give a look of deep displeasure.
“He’s a man, Gracie. Sometimes they’re nice, and sometimes they’re not, and that’s just how they are! There’s no prince out there waiting for us - no knight on a white horse coming to save us from the tower. But Charlie was the closest you could ever get, and you let him get away!”
Numbness. It was all she could feel as she made her way back to the sofa, dropping down to sit before her legs gave out from the shock.
“Ollie…” she said, barely able to speak. What was happening? How had it happened? How and why had her dearest friend turned this way? Had she been this way all along? When Ollie came to sit beside her, she felt the desire to bolt – to be away from her entirely. It was difficult to even look at her, or listen to the way her voice went back to its usual gentleness.
“I’m sorry, Gracie. I didn’t mean to be harsh.”
There were no words between them for several moments, and Grace was glad of it. What could be said now that wasn’t said in anger or bitterness? But in her mind, words came.
She is no longer to me what she once was. She might never be that again. My heart is broken – and burned.
“You know you’ll have to go home in the morning,” said Ollie. “They’ll come looking for you if you don’t.”
Grace answered with a bitterness she could not disguise.
“I can’t go home. I can’t ever go back there.”
A feeling of animosity suddenly rose up between them. It was in both of their voices – no longer hidden, but brought out and fully expressed.
“You don’t have a choice, Gracie.”
“There’s always a choice.”
“Oh for heaven’s sake! You’ve always had your head in the clouds, but it’s time you put your feet on the ground. It’s time to grow up, whether you want to or not!”
She left the room, and Grace felt the desire to put her head in her hands and weep. But she fought against it, looking at the wrapping on her arms. In them, she found a strange source of strength.
There is always a choice, she said again, this time to herself. Always.
In the corner of the girls’ bedroom, Grace lay on a pile of blankets. The makeshift bed was neither strange nor uncomfortable. In this tiny box of a bedchamber, there was just enough room for a chest of drawers and one large bed, which Iris and Ollie shared. The three other girls had once shared a room next door, but now that they were gone, it served as a sewing room for their mother. On her occasional overnight visits, Grace had always slept in this way, and Ollie had sometimes joined her.
A tear spilled down her cheek.
How many times had they lain close together, whispering and giggling over all manner of silly things? Childish things, mostly – girly matters. Sharing secrets, telling one another of their hopes and dreams. Confessing their worries and fears. How had it all changed so suddenly? Did the bond between them no longer exist? Perhaps it had been inevitable. The tie that had linked them together since childhood had been fraying slowly for quite some time, though neither had wanted to acknowledge it. Here and there, moments of tension or minor disagreements had come between them, but they had always pushed such unpleasant things aside for the sake of their friendship. But now…
The happenings of this night had made clear to her how she and Ollie had become two different women entirely. One of them had settled into this way of life – had let themselves become comfortable with the servitude and the suffering of an impoverished existence. Perhaps she was afraid to know something more than this. And who could blame her, really? To move outside of the circle was to step into the unknown – a place that only the brave dared to venture. And girls of their kind weren’t bred to be courageous.
Quietly and cautiously, she rose from her bed.
Meek. Humble. Obedient. Good Lord, I’m so tired of such words!
If Ollie seemed so content with her role, then so be it. But Grace found herself bristling at the thought of such a settlement – and her mind conjured up a Bronte passage…
It is vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility. They must have action, and they will make it if they cannot find it.
Ah, so true that! For herself, to be sure. As for others, like Ollie…well, they were most likely just as eager as anyone to “Have action,” as Bronte put it. But they were too afraid of what would come after – too cowardly to take a chance.
Not me, Grace said to herself. I must do something. I WILL do something.
Very quietly, she slipped out of the house. Despite it being a summer night, it was a cool one – typical of this part of the mountains. Her thin dress was hardly enough to keep her warm as she moved through the darkness, crossing the valley and the fields that she had only traveled a few hours before. Only now, all had changed about her.
What to do? Where to go? The two answers came to her almost instantly.
At home, hidden carefully under the floorboards, was an old tin candy box. And in that box was a ticket. A train ticket, to be exact – one that Jack had sent her some time ago. So many times, she had held it in her hand, dreaming of the moment when she would find the courage to use it.
Was this that moment?
The house came into view, barely visible in the darkness. No light had been left on for her, neither outside nor in. She dreaded the thought of returning – knowing that no mercy would be granted for her defiance. But she couldn’t remain outside, roaming like a lost animal. And the night had taken its toll on her. She felt the weariness in her very bones, and the thought of a warm bed beckoned. But she couldn’t get there through the front door. Despite the darkness of the night and the house, it was a real possibility that one or both of her parents was lying in wait with a belt in hand.
No, she thought. Not that. I won’t have that. Not tonight. Not ever again.
Slipping around to her bedroom window, opening it with ease – there was no locking of doors or windows here – she crawled in and eased herself down to the bed. She wanted to sleep, but the moment her head fell on the pillow, a barrage of thoughts came to her mind.
The clouds in the night sky parted, and a beam of moonlight came shining in, falling across the floor. She looked down at those boards, thinking of the secret resting beneath them. Her mind came alive with thoughts of her brother and sister-in-law.
And they wanted her to be a part of it. She could hear Jack’s voice in her ear.
Baby sister, come and stay with us.
Silently, she answered him. Dear brother, I will…
An uneventful week followed after that night. Not a word was spoken of it, not even from her mother and father. Charlie’s name had not been mentioned, and she was glad of it – although she was certain the entire matter between them was being whispered about by the neighbors. But at home, it was as if the whole things had never been.
And yet, there was a tension in the air that would not ease. It was still evident when Sunday morning came again, and they were all seated around the table for breakfast. It was mostly a silent occasion, with her brothers being very quiet around the table. That was not surprising, considering their father’s sour expression. And it was Sunday morning. There was to be no levity – no unnecessary conversation. No rebelliousness of any kind.
Rebellion, rebellion, she thought. It terrified her to imagine what he would do if he discovered her plans. Already, she had an old suitcase filled with her meager possessions – the few dresses she had, a nightgown, some underthings. Her books, of course. And that train ticket. It was there, just waiting to be used. She had only to find the right moment.
But when? How?
The sound of her father’s chair, scraping the floor as he stood, gave her a start. She’d never felt such nervous tension before.
“Y’all get ready. It’s time to go.”
Time to go, she said to herself, closing her eyes for a moment. Lord above, help me find the way…
The church was full as usual, and the air was stifling hot. The open windows made no difference. Fans were waved in front of faces, but it hardly made a difference.
Grace hardly noticed it.
Nightfall is best, she thought. Daytime is too risky. Yes, during the night is best. Or early morning, before dawn? Maybe that will be better.
As she silently debated it, her heart hammering in her chest, she took no notice of the pastor summoning her father – of him walking to the pulpit. When she looked up, she saw him standing there, holding his hat in his hands. He seemed intent on saying something to the crowd. He just looked at them for a moment, and then he muttered something to the preacher, who clapped him on the back and smiled.
“Folks, we have some happy news here, and brother Langdon would like to share it with us all.”
Grace thought her heart would escape from her chest. A lump formed in her throat.
Oh no, she cried in silence. God, no…
“Looks like Miss Grace Langdon will soon be Mrs. Charlie Hillard, and we would like to give their union our blessing. Come on up here, Miss Gracie.”
The applause seemed like a dull roar – the words spoken around her moving in slow motion. Suddenly she couldn’t breathe. Rushing forward from the pew, she flew to the first door she found – the entrance to the choir room, and she slammed it shut. She felt herself reeling from the shock of what had happened. Her head was spinning. But she hardly had time to recover before the door flew open and slammed again.
Her father stood before her, a pillar of rage. He was on her in an instant, shaking her, gripping her arms in a painful hold.
“What is in your fool head, girl? What do you mean embarrassing me like that? Answer me!”
The too familiar terror she felt was there – gripping her in every way, making her voice shake. She leaned back against a small table, holding to it for support. She felt her hands shaking. But she dared to say what she knew she must.
“I won’t marry Charlie! I won’t do it and you can’t make me!”
Never – not ever in her life – had she thought herself capable of defying him in such a way. It stunned them both. She could see the brief look of shock in his bright blue eyes – and following instantly behind it, the lighted spark of rage.
"What did you just say to me?"
She felt the burn of tears – and a rising madness within her, the shell of submission that had held her captive now splintering apart.
"I said no!" she cried again, her heart racing in fear. But her soul burned with anger too long suppressed. Even as he advanced, she felt her body tensing for what was to come. He was toe to toe with her now, his dark and angular face twisted with hatred as she looked down at her.
"You'll do whatever the hell I tell you to!"
She heard her own voice, shouting like one possessed.
"No I won't!"
She was knocked to the floor in an instant – his callused hand slapping her hard across the face. She lay there for a moment, immobilized and stunned by the blow – white specks of light flashing in front of her eyes as her mind absorbed the shock. And from somewhere in her hazy mind, words came to her…
...I was conscious that a moment's mutiny had already rendered me liable to strange penalties, and like any other rebel slave, I felt resolved to go all lengths.
She glanced up, seeing what he intended. His hand was at his belt, unfastening it quickly. In a split-second he had it in his hand, and he raised the strap high and brought it down. But she rolled out of the way before it made contact, knocking over a book stand. He reached for her with one hand, the belt clenched in the other, ready to strike her hard – but she kicked out at him, knocking him backwards. She had only moments to escape – scrambling on her hands and knees, trying to get to the door. He was a second behind her.
“No count, devilish girl! I’m about to put welts on you like you never saw in your life!”
Yanking her by the hair, he pulled her back, and she screamed in pain even as she clawed at him like a madwoman, wishing she could gouge out his hateful eyes. But he threw her to the floor and pinned her there, his knees on both sides of her hips. He looked above her, the strap in his hand held tight and ready. With that hand occupied, his other struggled to catch her flailing arms. He caught one wrist, gripping it tight. But her other hand was still free, and her fingertips brushed something cold and solid. A heavy candlestick holder had fallen to the floor during the struggle, and she hit him hard across the face with it, sending him tumbling to one side of the room. He lay crumpled in a heap, holding his face, and she tripped and stumbled in a mad rush for the door.
The entire congregation was staring but she ran past them, out the front door of the church and across the yard…fleeing for her life.
The front door of the house flew open, and Grace leaned against the frame, struggling to catch her breath. But there was little time for that. Everyone would be back soon – they could be coming at any moment. Rushing to her room, she went to the bed and reached under it to find her suitcase. Everything she owned was in that bag. She had nothing else in the world. Except...
Turning her head to look at the floorboards, she went down on her knees and pulled up the beam to reveal the hiding place. Brushing off the thick coat of dust, she opened it to find the precious train ticket waiting there – and a surge of excitement and terror ran through her body.
God help me, she gasped.
This was no daydream. No imagining. This was really happening, and she clung to the ticket with a tight grip, terrified to let it go. But there was no time for fears and doubts. She stuffed the ticket into her pocket, fastened the suitcase, and ran out the door with it. As she rushed to the barn, her mind was racing with thoughts of what to do.
The depot in town? No. Someone will know me there. Someone will see me, and they will send daddy or the boys after me.
With trembling fingers she managed the saddle. She tied her suitcase to the mare’s back and mounted up. Giving her horse the heel, she galloped away, refusing to look back or to think about the enormity of what she was leaving behind. All that she knew - an entire life.
Fort Chiswell, she thought. It’s miles away. Practically in another world entirely. Yes, that will do.
As she flew down the road, all that was familiar melted away. The farms, the mines – even landscapes that she had known all of her life. All became strange and foreign, and she began to feel the genuine terror of the unknown. A tiny part of her was tempted to return to all that was well-known. All that was safe.
But then she thought of her father - the look of madness in his eyes when she had defied him. That look would not fade. At this very moment, she knew he was plotting the retribution he would have for what she had done. And her sense of rebellion rose up inside her, giving her courage. Words flooded her mind…
Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation. They are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigor.
Leaning forward in the saddle, she urged her horse to move faster, flying on…
Looking down at her hands, which rested on top of her suitcase, she saw them trembling. They were folded together on the case which now sat in her lap. Getting on the train had been easy enough. She had let her horse go, giving it a slap on the rump and feeling content in the knowledge that the mare would find her own way home. The attendant at the depot had given her no trouble, taking her ticket and wishing her a pleasant journey. Everything seemed to have gone so smoothly.
But now what?
The journey had hardly begun. She had come this far, but what if her father suddenly appeared? What if he came at the very last moment? She imagined herself being dragged away, literally kicking and screaming…
“Can I take that, miss?”
She jumped at the sound of the porter’s voice, clinging tighter to her suitcase, and she shook her head. He seemed like a nice gentleman. He looked so dapper in his white shirt and black vest, and his black cap was handsome – the gold of the insignia shining brightly. He made the request again, but again she shook her head, and he just smiled politely – moving on without further question. All that she owned was in this little suitcase, and she could not let go of it. Not now. Not so soon.
There was a loud whistle that startled her. Then a great jolt that lurched everything, including the passengers. Then there came the sound of the wheels churning, and slowly but smoothly, the train moved.
This is it she said to herself, taking in a calming breath. This is really happening.
The tension was almost too much to bear. She needed a distraction.
Opening her case, she rifled through it and found a bundle of letter tied with string. She smiled, touching the faded writing with her fingers as she read…
Mr. and Mrs. John Langdon
5739 Lincoln Avenue
Lincoln Park, IL
She had no real idea where Lincoln Park was or just how to get there. She had seen it on a map many times before. She'd pointed it out to herself, so she knew it was within the city limits of Chicago. Her imagination had gone wild thinking of what it must be like to go there. But now she wondered...how on earth she was going to find it out there in the real world?
Details, she thought. So many details. Forget them for now, and think of more pleasant things.
Looking out the window, she thought of Jack and Alice. What would they think when she suddenly showed up at their front door? She smiled now, thinking of how their faces would look when she arrived. Suddenly, a different kind of anxiety came over her. One of excitement, wonder…and for the first time in her life, hope.
* * * * *
An indoor outhouse, she thought. She had never been a passenger on a train before. Who knew there was such a thing as a “Lavatory,” as the porter called it. She had felt terribly embarrassed for asking where to go, but the porter had been kind and respectful. She was starting to like him, and to trust him. Seeing her back in her seat, he came to her side, smiling in a way that was already becoming familiar to her.
“Can I get you anything, miss? Are you hungry?”
She opened her mouth to deny it, but closed it just as quickly. How could she answer him? She had no means to buy anything, even something as simple as food. She'd heard of dining cars, and she was sure there was one on this train, but she was completely ignorant of the cost or even how to get there. Besides, there would probably be ladies and gentleman travelers there, and they would not want to see a poor little person like her. In her shame, she found she could not answer. But he just held up his hand to her.
“I’ll be right back,” he said.
She watched him go, wondering where he was going and what he was doing. Turning back in her seat, she leaned her head back and closed her eyes.
Outside, the daylight had faded away. Above the doorway of the car, a single light was shining, leaving the space in a comfortable dimness. She leaned against the window and tried to rest, for now she found herself getting sleepy. But just as she was dozing off, the porter returned. And he came bearing gifts. She looked up at him as he reached out to her, handing her a blanket and two apples. Smiling at him, she felt a slight sting in her eyes.
"God bless you, sir.”
He nodded, smiling back.
"It's just part of my job, miss. If you need anything else, just let me know."
He moved quietly away, leaving her alone, and she devoured the two apples quickly - savoring the sweetness of her little meal. Pulling the blanket over herself, she felt her eyes growing heavy as she leaned her head against the window. The faint clickity-clack of the rails was a soothing rhythm – the gentle swaying back and forth of the train car a sort of lullaby, easing her fears - sending her into a deep sleep.