After the meal was cleared away and the dishes were washed, she slipped quietly out the front door, moving towards the barn. Her mother was tending her rose garden. From the back of the house, there was a hum of male voices and laughter - the sound of metal clanging against metal, and the occasional thud of something heavy hitting the ground. They were all wrapped up in a game of horseshoes, so even if the house had caught fire, chances were they wouldn't have noticed. Safe from fear of discovery, she got on her roan mare and rode off toward the house in the hills.
After the death of his wife, Charlie’s father had abandoned civil society entirely. Charlie had only been ten years old then, and Walter Hilliard had sent his son to live with relatives – the burden of being a single parent too much for him to manage. He had made his home deep in the woods, in a shack that was rumored to be haunted. Grace had only been to the house once, and that had been by accident, when she and her brothers had been out hunting and had come across it.
Who could blame them for thinking it the dwelling of ghosts? It sat so far back in the woods and was kept in such a neglected state. As she dismounted and tied her horse to a tree, she stood rooted to one spot, looking at the little house. A thought came instantly to her mind.
It reminded her of that place - the hidden home of Mr. Rochester in his reclusive state. Standing there, she half expected to see a man emerge from within, dark and brooding, to stand broken and silent in the yard.
She walked up to the door, giving a brief knock – to which there was no answer. She waited, and tried again. But still nothing. If this had been the door of another house, she might have given up and left. But there was something about this place that held her in its grip. She had been nervous before, but now that she was here, curiosity worked its way through her. She looked around for a moment. Walking along the front porch, she looked in one window and then another. As she looked through one of the glass panes, she noticed a movement from within. Wiping the window and cupping her hands around her eyes to block the sunlight, she looked again.
There was Charlie, sitting in a chair at a little table. Going to the door, she knocked, calling out to him.
"Charlie, it's me. Grace."
She waited. When still he did not answer or open the door, she took hold of the handle and, slowly, opened it herself. The table sat just inside the room, and sitting silently at it was Charlie. He didn't even turn to look at her when she came in, nor even as she slowly approached him. When she came close to the table, she noticed the jug of whiskey sitting in front of him. Seeing it, she felt a quake of fear run over her nerves. Still, she spoke to him with what courage she could manage.
She hoped he would at least look at her. Then again, maybe it was better if he didn't. But maybe he would at least talk to her. Her eyes moved from him to the jug, and then to the half-empty Mason jar he held in his hand. She did not have to ask what the clear liquid in that jar was. It suddenly bothered her that he would be drinking, even under these circumstances, and she sighed heavily.
"What are you doing, Charlie?"
His speech was loud, bold...a little slurred from the drink. "What does it look like I'm doing? I'm working up the courage for the funeral tomorrow. I saw one parent buried when I was a kid. Now that I'm a grown man, I get to see the other one buried. That's logic, ain't it?"
Her heart was breaking for him. She reached out to take the glass from his hand. But he jerked it away from her reach.
"Don't touch that!" He grabbed the jug from the table, dropping it safe and secure at his feet. "My father drank himself into the grave. And you know what they say about fathers and sons."
Lord, what a sad sight it was to see him this way! Men were supposed to be pillars of strength, but when it came right down to it, they were just little boys who had to be told what to do. Or they had to find their courage in a bottle, of all places. Her hands clenched, itching to strangle him for being so stupid.
No, I won’t strangle him, she thought. There are better ways to handle a fool…
Reaching out, she snatched the jar from his hand, and opening the front door, she pitched the jar out in the front yard.
She saw the murderous look in his eyes – the look of an addict denied his crutch. And he came stumbling towards her.
"Who the hell do you think you are? Barging in here and trying to tell me what to do. I'm a grown man. I don't need no WOMAN telling me how to behave!"
She took a step back from his approach, suddenly afraid of what he might do. What had she gotten herself into? She prepared herself to run. But just as he neared her, he suddenly stumbled, falling to the floor with a flailing of limbs. He lay unmoving where he fell, and for several long moments she just stood there, looking down at him.
Seeing him there, in a state of helplessness and stupor, her feelings of disgust and anger dissipated. He was disgraceful, yes. But she couldn’t leave him like this. She went to him and knelt on the floor beside him. She tried to help him up, but he pushed her hands away, as she had thought he would. But there was no anger in him now. Only shame and embarrassment, which showed in his voice when he spoke to her.
"I can get up myself," he said, his voice low. He managed to rise, but didn't get to his feet. He sat on the floor, hanging his head and muttering to her. "He didn't even know who I was. He forgot about me, just like he did before." He looked at her for the first time, and his eyes were hollow and sunk.
It broke her heart to look at him, but she managed to hold back her tears. He didn't need her sorrow, when he was so deeply buried in his own. Her attention was all she could give.
"For ten years I was away. And all that time, I never heard a word from him. No letters. No visits. Nothing." His voice shook, with pain and anger all at once. "But I got through everything just fine without him. Aunt Mary and Uncle Robert took me in and raised me. Do you know how hard they worked to bring me up right? When I got into trouble at school, Uncle Robert would take me home and put the fear of God in me...to teach me to do right. My father never did that. But I never needed him anyway. I finished school without his help. I served my two years in the military just like every good man. I ran a whole company of men on my own. I didn't need him for any of that, did I?"
She shook her head, unable to speak for the lump in her throat.
"I hope he burns in hell," he said.
She saw a tear roll down his cheek. Then, before she had time to react, he put his arms around her and buried his head in her shoulder. He began to cry like a little boy lost, and she didn't know what to do. All she could do was sit there, holding him gently in her arms.
* * * * *
His tears had ceased. But now, his head was a heavy weight on her shoulder. She tried to stir him, but he only mumbled incoherently. He was still conscious...but she was sure that wouldn't last for much longer. She took his arm, draping it around her shoulders, and after much coaxing on her part, she managed to get them both to their feet.
It's like dragging the dead weight of a carcass, she thought, as she moved with him to the little bed in the other room. Once she had him on the bed and let go, he fell into a heavy heap, out cold. She tended to him as she would tend a child, adjusting his head on the pillow, pulling the blanket over him. And then, for quite some time, she just sat on the edge of the bed, looking at him.
Her mind was a jumble of confusion. He had spoken of his father with such bitterness - almost with pure hatred. Why, then, had he come back to take care of him?
A knock came at the door, startling her out of her thoughts. At the threshold stood a man and a woman – an older couple, but not elderly. The gentleman tipped his hat to her.
"I'm Robert Brown. This here's my wife Mary. We're looking for our nephew, Charles. We left him here a little while ago so we could see to his father’s arrangements."
Grace's expression brightened a little. There was a comfort in knowing that she wasn’t alone in this.
"Oh, the Aunt Mary and Uncle Robert that Charlie was talking about. I'm so glad you’re here. Come in, will you?" She stepped back and let them pass into the dimly lit house. "I'm an old friend of his. I'm Grace Langdon. I just came up here to give condolences." She led them into the little room where Charlie slept. "I found him in a real sorry state. He's sleeping it off now, thank goodness."
Mary sat on the bed beside him, reaching over to feel his forehead.
"Poor boy," she said. "I just hope he's in decent shape for the service tomorrow morning."
Robert scoffed, and as Grace looked at him, she saw him shaking his head.
"After all the trouble we've gone through for that boy...all the Sunday learnin' we've tried to put in him, and he turns out just like his daddy. Drinking, whoring, and carousing his way through life.”
Grace looked between the two of them, her voice soft with sadness.
“Is he really so bad?”
Robert grumbled. “Dang fool nearly got killed in a wreck last year cause he was driving drunk. Flipped his car into a ditch, he did. Lucky for him all he came out with was a broken leg.”
Mary, looking so much more concerned than her husband, reached out and swept the hair back from Charlie’s forehead.
"Are you going to stay here with him?" Grace asked her.
Robert spoke for Mary, giving a snort.
"Lord, no. We're taking him out of this den of evil. We're staying over at the boarding house until after the service. And it's better for him if we just get him on out of this place."
Grace didn't have to ask why. One could almost feel the haunting in the house, for it had spooked her from the moment she'd arrived. And now that the sun was sinking quickly, the eeriness was even stronger. She looked out the window at the fading of the day, and suddenly it occurred to her that she ought to be getting on her way quickly. She could do that now, and feel secure, knowing that Charlie would be taken care of.
"I best be on my way home," she said. "Thanks for tending to him. God knows, he'll need it. We'll all be praying for him."
Robert just nodded his head. Mary was pulling Charlie to a sitting position, and as Robert went to assist her, Grace quietly made her way out the door. She crossed the yard to her horse.
It would be dark by the time she got home. Chances were pretty good that her mother and father would be waiting up for her - maybe with a switch in one of their hands. They wouldn't have taken kindly to one of their youngsters running off and not saying where they went, especially when they came home so late. But what of it? She'd been in trouble before. Not often, but enough to know what came with it. And right then, she didn't care what they did to her. She would take it as it came.
As she rode up to the house, she noticed quickly that only one light was burning - the lamp on the porch. That seemed strange to her. If they were waiting to punish her, there would be lights burning bright in the living room, for that was where they would be sitting up. Had they actually gone to bed, and left the light burning for her? No, that seemed too far-fetched. Too kind, at least where she was concerned. Then she heard a familiar sound far off in the distance - the sound of coon hounds bawling, and she realized with relief that the men and boys were off on a hunt. She breathed a sigh of relief at her good luck, and quickly she put her horse in the stall and made her way to the house.
As she got near the porch, she saw in the dim light that her mother was sitting in the rocking chair. Rachel looked at her as she came near.
"You went up to see Charlie, didn't you?"
Grace lowered her head, her voice low. "Yes."
"He was in a bad way, wasn't he?" said Rachel.
Grace nodded. "His aunt and uncle came to look after him. But I don't know if that'll be enough."
Rachel sighed. "With the Lord's guidance, he'll be just fine."
Now it was Grace who sighed. “I don’t know, Mama. I think Charlie is headed to someplace…” Shaking her head, she fought for the right word. Rachel prodded her.
The right word found her then. “Somewhere dark, mama. Dreadful dark.”
Grace wished it wasn’t true. But after what she'd seen and heard, she wasn't so sure. Suddenly, she sat up straight - a troubling thought coming to her.
Ollie has no idea.
Ollie hadn’t seen the darker side of Charlie. She thought she had found a prince. But she had no idea what a troubled man he was. It broke her heart to think of it, but Grace knew what she had to do.
Ollie has to know. And I must be the one to tell her.
* * * * *
There was something especially morbid about Walter Hillard's funeral, or so it seemed to Grace. All of these people, who had hardly seen or spoken to the man in ten years, were suddenly mourning his death as if he were one of their own. It made her upset just thinking about it. But such a though passed through her mind only briefly. Seeing Charlie, her mind became entirely occupied with him.
How different he seemed this morning. Gone was the raging and disheveled thing of yesterday. And gone, too, was the broken little boy who had cried on her shoulder. What a puzzlement he was. She looked at him, standing silent and stoic by the grave. Even from the distance where she stood, she could see no tears in his eyes, no pained expression, no gestures of any kind.
How he must be holding it all inside, she thought sadly. Both his pain – and his anger.
At last the service ended, and the crowd began to thin out. The service was over, but the ritual was not done. The townsfolk would be converging on the boarding house where Charlie and his family were staying. The women of town would be bringing enough food to feed an army. And poor Charlie would have to endure it all.
She walked over to stand near him, and when she came to his side, he turned to her.
"Thank you for being there last night." There was a small pause, as if he didn't know what to say next, and he seemed flushed with shame. "I must have looked like such a fool."
She was tense...her nerves quite on edge. It caused a reply to bubble forth that she had not wanted to say out loud... but it escaped her lips before she could quite catch it.
"You scared me last night.”
He sighed deeply. “Did I?” He sighed again, still looking at the grave in front of him. "I’m sorry, Gracie. So sorry.” Looking up at the sky, his eyes danced coldly. “But I meant what I said. I hope he’s burning in damnation right now. It’s just what he deserves.”
Such bitterness, such loathing. It was in his every movement, despite his calm tone of voice. She sighed, feeling the sting of tears in her eyes as she watched him walk away.
As she watched him go, she saw Ollie and her father coming from a distance. Frank was riding his horse – Ollie was riding hers, and sliding down quickly, she approached Charlie as he was just about to leave. There was clear distress on Ollie’s face and tears in her eyes as she and Charlie exchanged words. Grace reached them just as the two parted, with Charlie going away with his aunt and uncle. Embracing her, Ollie kissed her cheek.
“The buggy wheel broke,” she explained. “That’s why we’re late.”
Grace nodded, both of them looking towards the road where Charlie had gone. “I’m sure he understands.”
“I should go and stay with him for a while.”
Grace felt a sudden tension in her chest. “I wouldn’t do that, Ollie.”
Ollie looked at her, eyes widened. “Why not?”
“I just don’t think it’s a good idea right now.”
“Right now is the best time, Gracie.”
“No, it’s not. Charlie is…”
“Charlie is what?”
How do I say it? She thought. Truly, how was she to explain the nagging feeling she had about Charlie?
Ollie seemed so taken with him, and the last thing she wanted to do was to hurt her. But she couldn’t remain entirely silent.
Ollie seemed so taken with him, and the last thing she wanted to do was to hurt her. But she couldn’t remain entirely silent.
“He’s not right in the head, Ollie. Not right at all.”
They looked at one another for a long moment. Grace’s eyes were full of tenderness and concern – Ollie’s were all wariness and confusion.
“Gracie, you’re not makin’ any sense.”
It was becoming clear to her that Ollie was going to react with denial. Gently but firmly, she tried to make her understand.
“I saw him last night, Ollie. And it was a frightful sight to see. He was awful drunk, and he charged at me.”
Ollie eyes grew wide. “You saw him last night? Where?”
“At the house in the hills. And I talked to his aunt and uncle. They told me some things about him.”
It was hard – so very hard to tell her these things. She loved her cousin so very much. But she went on.
“They weren’t good, Ollie.”
She searched her expression, uncertain of what the reaction would be. In Ollie’s eyes, she saw a change forming – a change from trust to something else. Was it suspicion? Her heart began beating anxiously.
“You think I should stay away from him?”
There was such hurt in her eyes. It pained her to see it, and suddenly she felt a sense of doubt coming over her. And yet, she couldn’t go back entirely on what she had said. Perhaps if she tempered it, the matter would be easier for Ollie to take.
“I don’t know,” she said, taking Ollie’s hand. She tried to talk calmly and kindly. “I just think you should be careful, that’s all. Don’t rush into anything.”
An entirely different expression came to Ollie’s face then. A defensive look – wariness slowly growing in her eyes.
“You don’t know him, Gracie. Don’t pass judgement on him.”
Grace shook her head, a feeling of dread coming over her.
“I’m not passing judgement…”
“Yes you are!”
Tears sprang to Grace’s eyes. Ollie had never spoken in such a way before. Her words had always been soft, even when she was in a serious mood. That softness came back. But it was different somehow. Firm. Resolute.
“I’m sorry, Gracie. I didn’t mean to raise my voice. But I care about Charlie, and one of these days he might be my husband. I won’t let anyone talk bad about him.”
Hoping for Charlie’s romantic interest was one thing. But to believe so strongly in it, and so hurriedly? It was absurd. She had to make her see reason.
“Ollie, just listen to me…”
The sweet voice rose up again – this time stronger, and her eyes were filled with bitter tears.
“Stop it, Gracie! Just stop it! I won’t hear another word!”
She ran away, and Gracie rushed several steps after her, calling her name.
But Ollie mounted her horse and rode away, not turning to look back.
* * * * *
She felt miserable. The sway of the buggy, jostling everyone back and forth, only made her more so. The progress home was always slow. Her father never rushed the horse, for anyone or anything. Under normal circumstances, the trip wouldn't have bothered her. But today, she just wanted to jump out of the buggy and run home. She didn't feel like crying, which never did any good. She just wanted to be alone, to think and breathe. She would have done anything to find solitude, especially at that moment, when everything around her seemed like a terrible annoyance. Robert, being only six and lacking a long attention span, was restless. When he tried to hang over the back of the buggy, Rachel gripped him by the shirt collar and forced him into his seat, scolding him.
"We just come from a funeral, boy. Sit down there and have a lick of respect." To emphasize her point she whacked him on the back of the head, making him cry.
The sound grated on Grace's nerves like nails on a chalk board. If she had been a little more daring, she might have reached over and slapped him herself.
Up in the driver's seat, John turned his head and glared, his voice calm but deadly serious.
"Boy, you better quit that sissy crying or I'll give you something to cry about."
Suddenly, Grace's loathing shifted from her brother to her father. John Langdon didn't give second warnings, and when he said quit crying he meant it. The next thing to come from him would be a vicious switching, sure to silence anyone into submission. And the thought of it made her furious.
Robert may have been a terror at times, but he was just being a boy. Why did the man have to always be a tyrant?
When they got home, Rachel had hardly stepped down from the buggy before she started barking out orders.
"I've got to get supper started," she said. Her eye caught sight of fourteen-year old Thomas. "Get on down to the barn and do the milking."
Then she turned to her daughter, who had barely made it half way across the yard.
"Gracie, don't forget to feed the chickens."
Grace felt a fire of rage shoot up her back, radiate through her arms, and travel down to her fingers, which she clenched into tight fists. It burned its way into the muscles of her face as well, and she clenched her jaw tightly, fighting back the urge to scream. How long had she been doing that same stupid chore, along with all the others? Since she was about six, if she remembered right. Had she ever not fed those devilish birds? Why did she have to be reminded, every day, of every month, of every year? It was enough to drive her out of her mind.
Good God, why can’t they all just disappear? For just a few blessed hours, at least.
Inside the coop, she grumbled to herself as she reached for the bucket. She filled it with seed and lugged it outside, and the chickens came flocking around her feet in anticipation. When she had scattered it all, she did what she had done so many times before - she turned the bucket upside down and sat on it, while the birds clucked and pecked around her. Sitting there, it was quiet for the moment - and she was alone, if only briefly, so she dropped her head in her hands and rested.
She thought of Jack at that moment, the lucky devil. He worked for eight hours a day, five days a week, managing a railroad station. He was home by six each night, and he and Alice relished every moment of their free time - a life free of worries. In their lives, there was no scraping for every meal - no working in conditions that made a man or woman old before their time. There was no sense of desperation - in life, or in love.
"Gracie Ellen?" called a voice.
It was her father's voice, deep and commanding, and it was enough to make her jump up in fright and knock the bucket over. She stammered for an excuse, but to her surprise, he held up his hand to silence her. His voice was calm and soothing. A rare thing, but genuinely welcome when the occasion rose, and after the day she'd had, it seemed a true blessing indeed.
"Supper's almost ready," he said. "You'd better get on in the house and help your mama."
She nodded obediently, and he walked away. She reached down and picked up the bucket, and as she did, she wondered at the fickle nature of life and fate. One minute cruel, the next minute kind. A person could only hope there would be more of one than the other
Chocolate cake, apple pie. Boiled potatoes, green beans, ham. And fried chicken – a dish usually served only on Sundays or special occasions. It seemed like more of a friendly neighborhood gathering than a day of mourning. But Grace had no appetite.
Walking through the house, looking among the faces she knew so well, she could not find Charlie. No one seemed to know where he was. His aunt had said that after the burial, he had left without a word. Where could he be now? Surely he hadn’t been drinking again. He wouldn’t take to the bottle so quickly. Or would he?
On the back porch, her aunt and female cousins were sitting together. They greeted her warmly and bid her to sit. Emily, or Aunt Em as Grace called her, was small in stature but enormous of heart. Despite the streaks of grey in her dark hair, there was a great deal of spirit still left in her. For a woman who had raised nine children, it wasn’t surprising. Grace smiled at her, kissing her cheek.
“Good to see you, Auntie Em. Where’s Ollie? I’ve been looking for her.”
Emily’s smile lessened. “She’s off somewhere, trying to find that Charlie. I told her to let him be, but she said she had to go.”
What was that look? It was a strange thing to see an expression of displeasure on her face. She was usually so kindly to everyone. Grace reached out to touch her hand.
“You don’t look too happy about that,” she said.
Emily shrugged. “I don’t know about that boy. He’s acts like a fine fella, but there’s something about him…”
Grace sat down beside her, touching her hand.
“I thought you liked him? Ollie said you all had a fine visit.”
“I thought I liked him at first. Now I ain’t so sure.”
Letting out a breath, Emily answered with a shake of her head.
“When a man’s mourin’ the loss of his kin, it ain’t fit to talk ill about him.”
She stood up, her plate and glass in hand. “Y’all visit for a while. I’m goin’ in the kitchen to see what I can help with.”
Iris, Ethel, Cathleen, and Daisy were Ollie’s older sisters – each of them born a little more than a year apart. Iris was seventeen, and easily the most talkative and most mischievous. An impish smile came to her lips as she looked between all the girls.
“I know a secret about Charlie.”
Ethel and Cathleen – identical twins – were eighteen, and both had recently been married. They were considerably calmer than Iris, but found it hard to resist the temptation that came from a bit of gossip. They leaned towards her with wide-eyed interest.
“What secret? Tell us, sissy!”
Daisy looked uncomfortable with the entire matter. At nineteen, she was the eldest girl and the mother of two small boys. In her view of things, there was no good reason to indulge in gossip.
“Mama said it wasn’t fittin’ to talk about him.”
Ethel snorted. “Oh Daisy, don’t be such a stick in the mud.”
Grace watched as Daisy responded by silently departing. In truth, she agreed with her soft-spoken and morally righteous cousin. This kind of chit-chat was petty and disagreeable. Rising to her feet, she fought against the desire to hear what would be said about Charlie. She made an excuse to go.
“I’m off to see if I can find Ollie. Talk to you later, cousins.”
They didn’t answer as she moved away. They were too engaged in their conversation – and despite her efforts to ignore them, Grace couldn’t help hearing what they said. Iris had a voice that fell distinctly on the ear.
“I heard that last night, after they brought him home from that old house in the hills, he went over and spent the night with Wanda McDonnel.”
Ethel, all silliness despite her age, whispered with a hand against her face – as if the gesture would disguise her words.
“Mama says she’s a jezebel.”
Grace walked away entirely then. Everyone whispered about Wanda McDonnel, saying that she entertained many a man – some of them married. There were other things whispered, but it didn’t mean the rumors were true – and it certainly didn’t mean that Charlie had spent the night with her.
She felt her cheeks flushing at such a naughty thought. She shook her head, trying to rid her mind of such sinful possibilities.
A walk, she said to herself. I need air.
The boarding house was on a hill not far from the railroad tracks, which made for a pleasant walk along the border of town. It passed the mines, and the post office, and the livery. Her eyes fastened on that big red barn, for it was there that she saw Charlie and Ollie – and it looked like they were having a heated discussion. An argument, perhaps? It went on for several minutes, until finally Charlie turned away and departed, walking fast in the opposite direction of Ollie. Grace watched her cousin, who was standing still in one spot, watching Charlie leave.
Grace could be still no longer.
Walking to where Ollie stood, saying her name, she reached out and placed a hand on her shoulder.
“Ollie,” she said. “Are you all right?”
She was surprised when Ollie turned around and gave her a little smile. But it wasn’t a true smile. How could it be? There was a tear in her eye, which she quickly brushed away.
“What happened, cousin?”
Ollie shook her head. “It’s nothing.”
“It’s something, Ollie. Tell me. What’s wrong?”
The false smile crumbled, and Grace felt the weight of her cousin’s head against her shoulder.
“He’s not who I thought he was, Gracie. I can’t marry him.”
Grace was stunned. “Why not?”
Ollie sniffled, but didn’t lift her head. “I went lookin’ for him this morning. I searched all over, and just now, I found him in the livery. So I started talkin’ to him. I asked him if he was all right, and it was like he didn’t want to talk to me.”
“His father just died, Ollie. Maybe he wasn’t in the mood for talk.”
“I know,” she said, sniffling again. Pulling back, she took a handkerchief from her pocket and dabbed her eyes. “I thought about that. I asked him if he wanted to come for supper in a few days, and he said no.”
“And then what?”
“I asked him if he wanted to come next week, and he said…”
There were tears flowing freely down her face now. Grace held her hand, gently coaxing her to talk.
“What did he say, Ollie?”
“He told me he was sorry, but I was just a little girl, and he didn’t think it was right for him to visit me again.”
The devil, Grace thought, furious. Rotten devil.
“Oh, Ollie. I’m sorry he hurt your feelings like that.” She embraced her again, rubbing her back. “But maybe it’s for the best.”
“How can that be?”
Grace sighed. “I’ve heard some not so nice things about him. Maybe he’s not the prince you thought he was.”
“You’re talkin’ about Wanda McDonnel?”
She stepped back, putting Ollie at arm’s length.
“You heard about that too?”
Ollie looked up, and Grace saw that her cheeks were pink with embarrassment. There was a tiny, sad smile on her face.
“It’s a small town, Gracie. You know that.”
“Did you ask him about it?”
A soft sigh came with her answer. “I couldn’t ask him about a thing like that. But he had a sweet smell on him. Like perfume. And the way he was fidgetin’ about. Like he was guilty of somethin’ sinful. I kinda figured it was true.”
Putting her arm around Ollie’s shoulders, Grace walked back towards the house with her. They talked quietly. Ollie grew calmer, but continued to dab her eyes with her handkerchief.
“Why do men visit whores anyhow?”
Grace’s mouth fell slightly open. What a question to be asked by someone like Ollie! Just to say the word “whore” was audacious and unladylike – neither traits ever used to describe her. Grace smiled, finding amusement in the moment of boldness.
“Why, Olivia Louise Langdon! You’re not supposed to know about such things.”
Ollie replied with a shrug. “I know. It’s downright shameful even to think about it. And Lord knows, I would never talk to anybody but you like this.”
A teasing grin came to Grace’s lips. “So I’m a bad influence, am I?”
Ollie gently swatted her on the arm. “Of course not. But you’re smart, Gracie. Smarter than me.”
“I don’t know about that. To tell you the truth, my heart went all aflutter when I first saw Charlie. I was fooled too.”
A moment of silence passed between them. It was broken by Ollie’s sad sigh. There was such regret in that sound.
“He’s such a pretty fella. And he was raised by good Christians, in a big house, with plenty of food and nice things. Why would he want to be with a woman of ill repute? He needs a good woman. A good wife.”
Grace could sense the conflict in her. Her heart was in pain. And yet, she was grasping desperately for an understanding. Knowing Ollie as she did, she knew she would not hold a grudge. Charlie only had to ask for her forgiveness and she would give it in an instant. Still, she was a woman – and her pride had been hurt. She would forgive, but not without some show of defiance, however slight.
As they came to stand before the gate, Ollie turned away from it.
“I don’t want to go back in there now. I don’t want to see him.”
Grace gave her hand a gentle squeeze. “I have a feelin’ he won’t be back until everybody’s gone. But we should go in anyhow. They’ll be lookin’ for us.”
Ollie let out a long breath, nodding. “What is it Alice says? Never bend your head. Hold it high…”
“And look the world straight in the face.”
They looked at one another, sharing a smile. Ollie seemed less mournful as they walked up the path.
“Maybe you’re right after all, Gracie. Maybe being married ain’t such a good thing.”
Hearing that, she felt a pain of guilt. Ollie had such faith in her own principles. Despite her own doubts about them, she didn’t want to turn her dear friend and cousin away from the beliefs she held dear.
“Oh, Ollie,” she said. “Don’t say that. Maybe it’s me that’s wrong. Or maybe the right one just ain’t come around yet. He could be right around the corner. You never know.”
A little smile came to Ollie’s face. “Maybe.”
“Maybe,” Grace said, reflecting the grin with one of her own.
“And maybe,” said Ollie, “We should settle for ugly husbands. Maybe the whores won’t be so keen to take em’ from us.”
They both burst into laughter – endless waves of girlish giggling, not bothering to hide it. Not caring who was watching.