NARRATTED BY NELL
After a morning visiting patients far less exciting than the one last night, (thank heaven for that! By noon I am daydreaming wistfully about pillows and wondering if Mrs. Whitfield would think me very unprofessional if I listened to the history of her bowel movements curled up on her sofa with my eyes shut.) I go back to see how Mister Jones is doing.
I tap on his door, open it. “Mister Smith. It’s only me, Doctor Mered…Ann! You’re here! You’ve arrived!”
“She’s brilliant, isn’t she?” smiles Ann, “All she needs to work with is the tiniest clue…”
Though his face is still tense with anxiety for his friend, Joshua Smith laughs. Clearly those two are getting along fine.
Ann is arranging a bunch of wildflowers in the patient’s line of sight. That was kind. On the dresser I see a tidy pile of underwear, socks, pants, shirts. The sheriff must have told her Mister Smith was robbed and about the same build as Charles – Ann’s brought a change of clothes. That was kind, too. Bless her.
I go lay a hand on Mister Jones’ forehead. Hmm. Not bad. “Has he come round at all?”
“Kinda,” nods his friend. “He didn’t make much sense. I gave him the powder, like you said, in plenty of water. He went back to sleep.”
“Yes. Whenever he wakes, both of you get him to drink as much as you can. Basically, I want him watered until it comes out the same colour as it goes in.”
Mister Smith blinks.
“Nell!” protests Ann.
Well, tough. Sometimes ‘ladylike’ has to take a back seat to making myself crystal clear (pun intended).
By now I am taking a pulse. Hmm. Good.
I fold back the sheet from the cage arrangement Mister Smith and I contrived over the pelvic and upper leg area, take a look. Nothing seeping through. I sniff. Mostly carbolic. Good – but it does mask other smells. Sweat. Another sniff. Nothing to make me fearful of infection. Too soon to relax – but…
“What do you think, ma’am?”
“I think, you can let Mrs. Buchanan and me hold the fort, while you… No offence, Mister Smith, but I think you should go take a bath and have a shave. The bathroom’s upstairs – first door you come to. There’ll be plenty of hot water. There’s toothpowder on the shelf. Don’t forget,” I nod at the pile of clean clothes on the dresser. “…Those.”
I lower the sheet. “It’s early days but – so far, he’s been lucky.”
Mister Smith’s voice is gruffer than usual as he says, “I reckon luckiest of all in finding a good doctor, ma’am.”
“Hey, ma’am…” A weak protest from Mister Jones.
“Try not be embarrassed, Mister Jones.”
I can see I had better get used to this phrase. I will be using it a lot. While I am pleased Jones is back with us, semi-conscious patients have SO many advantages.
“I don’t mind waitin’ for your boss to get back, ma’am. I’m fine.”
“You’ll have to wait a while,” puts in Mister Smith, who is holding things where and when I tell him just as competently as he did the two nights ago. “The doc got a telegram sayin’ he busted his foot…”
“**! Sorry ma… **! Sorry. That really hurts.”
“Feel free to use any language you like, Mister Jones. And – try some deep breaths. This won’t take long.”
“My senior partner,” it sounds so much better than ‘boss’, “caught his foot while taking a trip on a pleasure steamer, he has two broken metatarsals …”
“Toes,” translates Joshua Smith for his friend.
Uh huh. **! – I mean – Dang it ma’am!
“He’s going to delay his return …”
“This ain’t right for a lady – DANG it!”
“Nearly over,” I promise.
Mister Smith realises I am talking partly to distract his friend while I peel away the old dressing. “Oh, it’s not that bad, Thaddeus. If this fella – whatsisname – is so clumsy he falls flat on his face just taking a stroll on deck, do you really want HIM handling your…”
“HEY!” Mister Jones is actually blushing. Awww.
“…Your treatment,” finishes Mister Smith, smoothly.
“That looks really clean,” I pronounce, happily. “Now Mister Jones, all this swelling looks and, I daresay, feels worse than it really is…”
“Just as well,” puts in Joshua Smith. “If it WAS as bad as it looks…” Breath is sucked in dramatically.
“It’s just oedema – the area is so rich in blood vessels that the… ”
“She’s trying to say…” Deeply, but possibly not entirely sincerely, sympathising, tone from my right-hand man. “Down there you’ve bruised like a peach, Thaddeus…”
The patient scowls hard at his friend. The scowl is met with a wide, bland smile. “And swollen like a…”
“Hey!” protests Thaddeus Jones.
“Try and relax, Mister Jones. This preparation will both draw out the bruising and help numb the area – then I’ll apply a fresh dressing, make you comfortable. Well, as close to comfortable as you’re going to get.”
“I don’t need that, ma’am…” he objects as I start to apply the thick gloop I have prepared.
“Try not to be embarrassed, Mister Jones,” I repeat. “I have seen worse sights.”
“Sheesh, WHERE?” chips in Mister Smith.
“Oh – mostly laying on butcher’s slabs marked ‘not fit for human consumption’.”
“Or living under rocks…” That was Mister Smith’s turn.
“Or being dragged in by the cat…”
“Now wait a min…!”
“Do you usually make fun of the sick, ma’am?”
“Only the ones I like. There. All done. It wasn’t so bad, was it? Let’s get you covered up.”
Mister Jones glowers from me to his friend.
“Talk about ungrateful,” sighs Mister Smith. “Yesterday you thanked the doc so prettily – didn’t he ma’am?”
He did. Actually he said, “Thank you, Ma.” AND, if I am not mistaken, Mister Smith misted up.
“You did this yesterday?”
“And the day before. And the day before that. Morning and evening. So all the modest protests are too late.”
The forehead under the blond curls furrows.
“You were pretty much out of it, Thaddeus,” says his friend.
He and I exchange a glance. Neither of us has said anything, but I guess we both know how scared he has been at times during the last few days.
“You’ve been in your haze,” I smile, putting the final fastening on the fresh dressing and folding the sheet back over.
He reacts to the word, shoots an enquiry at Joshua Smith.
“Yeah. Haze, haze, haze. You’ve told us all us how fuzzy it is, Thaddeus.”
“Oh,” subdued voice. “Sorry, Joshua.”
“S’orright. All over now. Now all you gotta do is lie there, eat the doc outta house and home as you get well and stop whinin’ like a girl every time someone touches your …”
I hide my smile. Joshua Smith certainly has perfect comic timing.
“NOW, gentlemen,” I say. “You have a visitor waiting. The sheriff has called…”
A look is exchanged. Wariness.
“…And I’ll let him know, Mister Jones is well enough to see him now.”
“Oh, no ma’am,” protests Mister Smith. “Thaddeus is tired.”
“Just for ten minutes or so. Then I’ll give you something to help you sleep, Mister Jones.”
“I don’t feel like seeing no one, ma’am…”
“The sheriff – that’s Sheriff Bill Fraser…” An infinitesimal pause from Smith. And – was that a tiny shake of the head from Jones? “Wants to ask if you can describe the fellas who bushwhacked us.”
“Nah. I don’t remember nothin’. ”
“Can’t you tell the sheriff that, ma’am? AND tell him Thaddeus is still not well enough?”
I smile. But…
He MEANS it!
My smile fades.
“You mean lie?” I give Mister Smith a very straight look. “I could, but I won’t.”
For a moment I think he is going to argue. He holds my gaze, than the brown eyes drop.
“So neither of you can describe anything about the fellas who jumped you?”
“No, Sheriff . That’s about the size of it,” says Smith.
I have stayed to keep an eye on Mister Jones. ‘On the mend’ is still a long way from ‘better’.
“And – you’ve no idea who it mighta been?”
“No, sir.” This from Jones.
“Couldn’t have been someone with a grudge?”
Pursed lips and considering look from Smith as if wracking his brains. Slow shake of the head.
The sheriff leans back in his chair.
“Now that surprises me. ‘Cos – if I’D been accused of cheating at poker that very evening by a fella with a couple of real mean-looking friends…” He is staring at Joshua Smith. “AFTER winning a whole heap of money from ’em, like a real pro. OR,” He turns to Thaddeus Jones. “If I’D stood up and drawn – had the whole saloon gasping how they’d never seen no one that fast – If I’D had me an evening like that, then found myself bushwhacked a few hours later – I’d wonder if it might be the same fellas. See what I mean?”
“You see, I had two deputies ride the trail over to Teme Valley – to check out where this happened. To see if there was any sign of your bushwhackers. When they reached the town, they asked around. Seems the sheriff there remembers Friday evening well enough, even if it’s slipped both your minds.”
“That’s very conscientious of you, Sheriff,” says Mister Jones.
Bill Fraser is very conscientious.
He waits. The clock ticks. I crack first.
“Why didn’t you tell the sheriff any of this at the time, Mister Smith? It could have helped catch the men.”
Then Joshua Smith looks at me. “Well, ma’am. I don’t KNOW it was the same fellas. Me and Jones wouldn’t want to be throwing false accusations around. We like to give folk the benefit of the doubt.” His smile is an echo of the one he wore when suggesting I lie for him. I do not smile back. Once again, his eyes drop.
“Not a bad answer,” nods the sheriff. “I don’t reckon it’s why you kept quiet though. Wanna know what I think?”
Wary nods from the two friends.
“I think you kept quiet because there’s two things no good sheriff likes to see stirring up trouble in his town.” The grey eyes fix on Smith. “One’s a professional card sharp.” His gaze moves to my patient. “The other is a professional gunslinger.”
Smith’s tone is defensive. “He’s NOT a…” The sheriff raises a hand signalling ‘shut up’. Joshua Smith shuts up.
“You were right to keep quiet. I don’t like sharpies. I don’t like gunnies.” Pause. “HOWEVER, Sheriff Hagman over at Teme Valley told my men something else too. You probably didn’t know it, but one of HIS deputies was in that game. He reckons you, Smith, are one first-class poker player, possibly make your livin’ that way – but you weren’t cheatin’. AND, he reckons you, Jones, were the fastest thing he’s ever seen, but no way were you the one pickin’ a fight. He says you bent over backwards to keep things civil – and the only thing you hurt, apart from the other fella’s pride, was his holster.”
“My niece Ann, she’s been here days now and hasn’t a bad word to say about you, Smith. She’s no fool.”
“So – what you were sayin’ back there, about giving folk the benefit of the doubt. Okay. Jones is sick and you’re nursing him – fair enough. When he’s well – so long as I don’t see him with a gun in his hand, or you playin’ poker – you keep the benefit of the doubt. Do we understand each other?”
“I reckon so, Sheriff.”
“Good. We think your fellas headed north. I’ve telegraphed descriptions to Twin Forks and Lonville, but – don’t hold your breath.”
“Sounds like you’ve done all you can, Sheriff. Thanks.”
“I reckon I’ve said all I came to say. I’m gonna follow doctor’s orders now and leave Jones to get some rest.” He gives a long look at the boyish face, pale and clammy against the white pillow. His grey eyes soften. “You just worry about getting well, son.” He leaves.
I mix a mild sedative for Mister Jones. I make him drink, despite his protests, a pint of water before I let him have it. “That’s what the bell is for – for you to wake your friend every time you need to go.”
Half an hour ago Joshua Smith would have used that as a feed line. Now, nothing.
“I’ll be in the parlour with Ann. Come join us once Mister Jones feels drowsy.”
“Yes, Mister Jones?”
“Joshua’s not a card sharp…”
“And Thaddeus sure isn’t a gunslinger…”
“The sheriff just has the wrong idea about us.”
Maybe. Not wholly wrong though. I think of those guns, I think how they were worn – low on the hip and tied down.
“Joshua’s just dang good at poker.”
“Mister Jones, the sheriff gave you some good advice. All you should worry about is getting well. Go to sleep.”
In the parlour, I do not refer to what I have just heard. Unless Mister Smith brings it up, I would not dream of doing so in front of Ann. I was there as a doctor, I will treat it as confidential.
Ann and he have a game of chess underway. We chat. He checks on Jones. I read aloud another chapter of ‘Far From The Madding Crowd’. Is Bathsheba going to fall for a handsome rogue? Ann knits. I check on Jones. Pretty much like last night.
Except – not. The atmosphere between Mister Smith and me has changed.
Like last night Ann goes up to bed first. She says she is sleeping for two now.
When she closes the door behind her there is a brief silence.
Then he repeats the things said before. He is NOT a card sharp. Jones never hires out his gun – neither of them do. I am surprised he evidently cares so much whether or not I have a good opinion of him. Pleased too, if I am honest. But, I am NOT so pleased at what I hear.
“…Can’t think why, but it sometimes seems we can’t get through a month without someone getting all riled up. Always someone who don’t know the odds on helping two pair and turns into a sore loser…”
“And you can’t think why?” I interrupt. I meet his eyes and hold them. Silence. “Well, here’s a few ideas. Gambling means winners and losers. The losers find it hard to walk away – that’s why it’s called a gambling HABIT. They lose money they can’t afford to. They resent the winners. In a saloon, those resentful losers have almost certainly been drinking too much. Mix alcohol and gambling and you get – what do you know? – drunken, resentful losers. Toss guns into the mix and …hmmm? I wonder if that covers the ‘why’? Here’s some advice – if every time you hammer, you hit your thumb – stop hammering!'”
Silence. Joshua Smith’s eyes darken. They have a hard look.
“So, we’ve only ourselves to blame for what happened to Thaddeus? That what you’re saying?”
“No. You don’t have ONLY yourselves to blame. The men who decided to jump you in the dark when they couldn’t beat you ‘fair and square’ are MOSTLY to blame. You have PARTLY yourselves to blame.”
His hands go to his hips. “Well, I guess that dang well told me, didn’t it?”
“What is making YOU scowl like a thundercloud, Mister Smith and DON’T try and shut me up with that, oh so impressive – NOT! – dark and dangerous look, is that YOU are far too intelligent not to see the logic in what I said. You don’t want to see it – but you do! THAT is what is making you angry. Not what I’m saying, but knowing I’m right.”
“I’ve only been here a couple of days, ma’am – but I’m beginning to think you’re ALWAYS right, huh? Must be quite a strain – knowing everything.”
I stand up, pick up my book. “Goodnight Mister Smith. Call me if Mister Jones needs anything.”
I have my hand on the doorknob before I hear, “Doctor Meredith.”
“I’m sorry I raised my voice. And – yeah – I’m mad ‘cos there was a lotta truth in what you said. If I had stood up from that poker table earlier – or never sat down – Jones wouldn’t have taken a bullet. But…”
Pause. “Nothing,” he decides.
“But, things aren’t always so black and white as a comfortable, conceited and far too opinionated young woman – who never has to move from town to town to look for work and never has to wonder where the next meal is coming from – thinks they are?” I hazard.
A rueful grin dimples his cheeks. “Hey! You really ARE always right, huh?”
CHAPTER FOUR – NARRATTED BY NELL
Next morning I wake up extra early.
I worry that…
I do not know.
I suppose I worry Joshua Smith will resent my speaking my mind – oh, alright snapping my mind – last night.
Whether he gambles or not, whether or not he and his friend habitually walk around armed – one could argue these things are none of my business.
(Well, so long as they do not walk around armed in the house. Mrs. Tammett would have kittens! The last thing I want is the Coopers to arrive home to find their daily housekeeper has given notice. But, the moment I made the request, Mister Smith unbuckled his gun belt and left it tucked inside the bedroll he folds tidily into the corner of their room each morning.)
Anyhow, it seems foolish to lay fretting so, despite it not even being what is traditionally known as ‘the crack of dawn’, I get up and pull on my dressing gown. I have a pamphlet and letter which arrived yesterday and at which I have not yet had a chance to glance tucked under my arm. It was hardly bedtime reading, but I must catch up sometime. AND it is more constructive than re-running ‘Should I have said that? Suppose I had said…?’ conversations in my head.
In the kitchen, a lonely, leftover slice of apple pie catches my eye. I will make myself a pot of tea and tidy that away by the oral ingestion method. This will not only be good housekeeping, it will give me energy to make a few notes.
I light a lamp and start to read;
“We found among a hundred patients, thirteen had slit cervixes and fifteen had other serious internal deformations. I would estimate in the poorer districts at least one in ten women is permanently disabled by childbirth…”
I am thoroughly absorbed amongst statistics, opinions and suggestions, when the door opens. It is him, Joshua Smith, not fully dressed yet. He starts at the sight of me and quickly buttons the open pants pulled on over his long johns.
“You’re early, ma’am.”
“I couldn’t sleep, so I thought I’d make a cup of tea. I’m waiting for the kettle to boil.”
“Me too. I mean – I thought I’d make coffee. Thaddeus woke, but I helped him with the bottle, gave him one of the powders, bathed his face. He’s sleeping like a baby, now.”
We are both ill at ease, though how much of it is due to what was said last night, I am not quite sure. Because, on my side…
No, I will not say. It is silly.
Though, I suppose NOT saying is even more foolish.
All right. It is this; all at once I am very aware we are a man and a woman alone together in a dimly lit room, that I have my hair down, am wrapped in a flannel dressing gown, have slippers on my feet, that some folk would describe the time as ‘middle of the night’, and the other two people in the house are settled between the sheets. It is not the first time this has been the case, but something is different. HE seems to feel it too.
He moves to the stove. “This water musta been boiling for ages, ma’am.”
“Oh!” I jump up, go over. “I always do that if I start reading! I put it on, lose track of the time and…”
“You wanna watch that – you’ll burn the bottom out.”
We have leaned for the padded pot holders for hot handles at the same time. My – my, well one of my bosoms squishes up flat against his arm. We both spring back. My cheeks burn and even his glow. A pause. Then, as one, we reach out for the cloth. This time our hands meet.
Another try – we withdraw before our hands get close.
“Let me, ma’am.”
He lifts the kettle. Now I reach for the tea caddy, he reaches for the coffee canister. This means he bends left, I stretch right and our bodies cross. I can feel us both sucking in our stomachs and curving to avoid touching again.
“Tell you what, ma’am. Why don’t you sit down. Let me make my coffee AND your tea.”
Awkward as a schoolgirl, I nod and go back to my seat. My ankles twist around the chair legs until I realise what I am doing, how utterly self-conscious it makes me look, and sit up straight.
“Two spoonfuls? Is that right?”
“Er…” I am STILL blushing. I meet his eye, go even redder, look away, “It’s one for each person and one for the pot.”
“I wouldn’t set my math against yours, ma’am – but, since I’m sticking with coffee, I make that two.”
“Er…” Of course it is two! Brace up, Helen. “Yes, two.”
“Milk in first, or milk in second?”
“Or, is that a question that needs more time than we have?”
He twinkles at me. I see the funny side of all this embarrassment suddenly swirling in the atmosphere and laugh out loud.
“I think THAT debate had something to do with starting the Boston Tea Party! Let’s leave it for the folk on the other side of the Atlantic to settle!”
“There you are, ma’am.”
A cup of tea is set before me.
“Thank you, Mister Smith.”
“Is it okay?”
I take a sip. “It’s really, really…” Another sip, searching for the right word. “Mediocre.”
“Better than my coffee then?”
“Oh, yes! No contest.”
We smile at each other. I flush yet again as the dark eyes crinkle at me. Come ON, woman! Stop being so silly!
He takes pity on me and breaks what is about to become an awkward pause. “What are you reading, ma’am?”
“Oh, it’s a pamphlet from the New York section of the Women’s Suffrage Association. You do know Ann and I are members? Well, she’s not in the New York section, obviously.”
“I reckon it came up once or twice.” He lifts an eyebrow, teasingly, at me. “Or maybe three or four times.”
“Maybe we do talk about womens’ suffrage frequently, Mister Smith, but until women can vote we are dependant on the whim of an entirely male legislature for action in ANY of our causes. Divorce reform, sweated labour, property rights, prostitution…” I tail off. “Have I said all that before?”
“It IS important!”
“Am I arguing?” The eyebrow lifts again. “Would I dare?”
This is clearly meant to refer to the reprimand I delivered last night, but in a gently teasing way. He is certainly indicating ‘no hard feelings’ on his side. Good! The four of us are all getting along so well, it would be a shame if it were spoilt.
He nods again at the pamphlet. “What is it about? ” A grin. “Outta the list I’m kinda hoping it’s NOT property rights. Though – I guess that could be the best for reading ourselves back to sleep, huh?”
I toy with taking him to task for flippancy, but the fact I have already given a loud snirt would spoil the effect.
“It is a pamphlet about the inexcusable legal restrictions on birth control information.”
His face looks frozen. Perhaps he is not familiar with the term.
“Planned parenthood. Restriction of progeny. Malthusian methods,” I translate.
“Yeah. Yeah – I got that, ma’am.”
“You see, as a doctor AND a campaigner for women’s rights I have a special interest in…”
I give him a succinct summary of the toll of repeated childbirth on the female anatomy and on family finances, of benefits of freeing ourselves from the constraints of female biology, on the rewards of mutually satisfying companionate physical love without fear of pregnancy – within a monogamous marriage of course – and on the ideal of every child being a wanted child. I am faultlessly fluent, because it is not original. I have delivered all this before. Often to a crowd. Occasionally to a heckling crowd.
His eyes widen a touch over his coffee mug as I hit my stride on the iniquity of the Comstock Act, which about ten years ago sent us spinning in the wrong direction.
“Comstock is not only targeting pornography – we’d have no issue with that – he has succeeded in making Malthusian equipment and written descriptions of preventative methods illegal… Means in effect rich men have access to anything and poor women have access to nothing! The middle classes limit their families and the poor are left to… Women worn out by endless pregnancies and thrown into ever greater poverty with each …”
On I go. He sips his coffee and occasionally shifts, uncomfortably, in his seat.
“Four times as dangerous to bear a child as to work in a mine… Women are literally dying for lack of information… Galvanisation of rubber in the late 1830s was a boon to the manufacture of simple and effective Malthusian devices… These can take the form of…”
I run through the most common options. He stands up to go pour himself another coffee. The back of his ears look sort of – pink.
“…And I always tell my patients, there’s a special word for couples who rely on rhythm or withdrawal! They’re called ‘parents’!”
The tips of the ears glow brighter.
I stop. “I’m sorry. I climbed onto my soapbox there. Was I boring you? I suppose women’s reproductive health is not, necessarily, a topic of great interest to a man.” Blushing again, I add, “…I mean to a never-married man.” That was supposed to be a prompt. Nothing. Very casually, raising my cup to cover part of my face, I go on, “Assuming you are – er – ”
“Even bachelors,” just the trace of a smile as he pours more tea for me and answers my unasked question, “like me – even we can care about other folks’ health and some of those other folks be women…”
“Oh, no! I wasn’t suggesting otherwise…” I did not mean to. Honestly.
“Not many folk have never lost anyone in childbirth – a friend, a neighbour…” He looks down at his mug. “Someone in the family.”
He did lose someone that way. The catch in his voice tells me that. Sister? Neice?
“How long have you been,” the eyes are still sad, but he manages a dimple, “…On this particular soapbox?”
“Over five years. Since the first birth I ever attended. It happened during a training visit to an East Side tenement.” My hands tighten around the cup they hold. “I delivered a woman’s tenth child on a pile of newspapers – all the bedding had been pawned – she begged and pleaded with me for a way to prevent future pregnancies. She begged ME because I was a woman too. I had no idea! None! I only knew how babies were MADE in Latin terms and pen and ink line drawings! As for preventing them – she may as well have asked the cat! Three months later she was admitted to the ward on which I was placed – pregnant again and dying of sepsis brought on by the efforts she’d made to…”
I had utterly failed that woman.
“I made very sure the next time anyone asked for that sort of advice, I had something useful to say.”
And I soon found there would be a next time, because hundreds of women were in the same position. No, not hundreds, thousands.
“A good long something to say if that sample you gave me was a typical example!” The smile he gives me over the rim of his mug tells me this is the gentlest of teasing. He is certainly not making fun of the topic.
“Yes, Mister Smith?”
“If all this stuff is so important to you – and I can see it is – what are you doing out here in a backwater like Arcadia? Why aren’t you still in New York doing – well, doing whatever it is campaigning ladies do?”
I give him a rueful grin.
“Because I need to earn a living. My sex, gave me no chance of the hospital post I wanted in the city. My Aunt’s influence in this town got me through the door with Doctor Cooper.”
He gives a sympathetic shrug. “Would it help if I said, ‘their loss!’? It’s true enough!”
“Too right it’s their loss!” I add a shrug of my own. “To be fair, my age – especially as I appear younger – probably doesn’t help. I’ll get a few years experience under my belt, hope by that time I no longer look so baby-faced – try again.”
In a city hospital, I can maybe do the work I truly feel needs doing. It will be a better base for campaigning too. If I cannot bring enough people round to my point of view on the staff, I can save hard, raise funds and open a clinic to be run by like-minded Doctors in our free time.
But – post first. And saving!
I spent all the money my father left me finishing my training.
(The REAL money, the family money, all reverted back to his closest male relative. Typical, but not worth grumbling over. I have hardly been left to starve in the gutter.)
He glances at the clock. “I guess I’d better go check on Jones, ma’am. Shall I rinse your cup?” That finely formed, tanned hand reaches out to take it. I feel myself blushing AGAIN as I pass it over and our fingers touch. He laughs and shakes his head at me.
“What? What’s funny?”
“You are! How can you talk about – about all THAT stuff,” he nods at the pamphlet, “…Without turning so much as a hair, then flush up like a rose over a tea-cup?”
A rose! He compared me to – a rose!
I deepen several shades. “I must go get dressed, Mister Smith. I have a busy day. Thank you for the tea.” When I pass the glass in the hall, I see he has a problem picking apt similes. He SAID ‘rose’, but he clearly MEANT ‘over-ripe tomato’!
Never mind. At breakfast, both fully dressed and with Ann there, we get back to normal. We both make fun of his coffee as fit only for mice to trot across. He wonders if I can ever manage toast which is neither burnt, nor so pale the adjective ‘toasted’ needs to be exchanged for ‘briefly shown a flame from a safe distance’.
When I plod home that same day, weary from a morning of calls and an afternoon toiling among the croupy coughs, colic crying, green-apple runs, pink eye, bumps, bruises and ‘malingering unwritten composition-itis’ of the local salt mine – sorry, orphanage, (joking!), I find my Aunt’s carriage outside.
As I enter the hall, the sound of voices. Ann calls out, “Nell? Is that you? We’re all in here with Mister Jones.”
I pause before opening the bedroom door, tuck a few strands of loosened hair – the toddlers do TUG so! – back into my bun; ram home a stray pin, straighten my skirt, scrub at the remains of a jam handprint on my blouse with my handkerchief, take a deep breath and go in.
All this makes Aunt Miriam sound far more of an ordeal than she really is. She has a kind heart and genuine loving affection for me. I know that.
I know also she can no longer actually DO anything to me.
Knowing it does not stop her ability to return me to my gawky adolescent self; being escorted to that fearful dancing class on West 35th Street, hearing her frequent reminders to hold my shoulders back, carry my hands gracefully and never, never, never glance at my feet. Or being allowed to join her dinner party to be judged afterwards on how successfully I had engaged in conversation equally with the guests on my left and right, without ever asking a personal question, without ever talking about myself, or allowing a silence to develop. Or being smiled at firmly, in front of a crowded room and asked if I would prefer to give them a German or an Italian song, (the ‘neither’ option was never offered).
“DO take another of these cookies, Mister Jones. They have extra fruit. I had Cook bake them especially for you – you need to keep your strength up.”
“That’s real kind of you, ma’am,” says the patient, reaching out an eager hand. He DOES look better. Even from this morning he has more colour back.
“…You see Mister Jones, Helen has ALWAYS been such a clever girl. Always had her nose buried in a book from when she was so high. Her father encouraged her. I said all I could to dissuade him, but he wouldn’t listen. He let her have her own way and …”
I feel my cheeks glow at hearing myself the topic of conversation. Oh, Aunt Miriam. Don’t. I also feel my throat tighten, the way it still always does when my father is mentioned.
I click the door behind me.
Four faces look around. Mister Smith stands, indicates I should have the comfortable chair he has vacated, pulls up a high-back wooden seat for himself.
“Good afternoon, Aunt Miriam,” I say.
“Oh, Helen,” she replies, sadly. “Just look at you.” Slow shake of the head. Big blue eyes reproach me. A tongue clicks.
“You do look exhausted, Nell,” chimes in Ann, sympathetically.
Oh! Thanks, EX-best friend.
“Have some tea. It’s hot,” Ann soothes, pouring out the proverbial brew that refreshes but does not inebriate. “…And I’m sure Mister Jones will share his booty from Mrs. Hartleman. Cherry or spiced apple?” I re-instate Ann to her previous position at the top of my ‘favoured acquaintance’ list, take the tea gratefully, but shake my head at the plate of cookies.
Aunt Miriam is still looking at me. I catch her eye fleetingly. She knows what has – not upset me – I am not exactly upset…
Her gaze softens and she leans forward to push back a straggling curl. “I was telling Mister Smith and Mister Jones how very, very proud your father was, Helen, when you were accepted into medical school.”
I smile and give her hand a quick squeeze. Like I said before, however much Aunt Miriam and I rub each other the wrong way, I have never doubted she loves me. I hope she knows it is mutual.
“Now, take a cookie, Helen. We don’t want you fading away from overwork, do we?”
Fat chance! (Pun intended.) I do take a cookie though. To be strictly accurate I take one of each. Yum! As I lick my lips to capture a stray crumb, Aunt Miriam returns to critical mode.
“I hope you intend to change that soiled blouse before dinn… DO try not to allow your forehead to pucker like that, Helen. I’ve told you before – you’ll get worry lines before your time. Won’t she, Mister Smith, won’t she, Mister Jones?”
Joshua Smith tactfully answers this only with a smile which both of us can interpret however we like. Thaddeus Jones buries his face in a mug of warm milk (I have prohibited tea and coffee for a few more days – the more he sleeps the better.) and applies himself to another cookie – presumably to build his strength a little further.
“I do worry so about Helen, Mister Smith. I mean, working so hard. It is not natural for a lady. And going out quite alone. She was not brought up to it. I feel I must take care of her interests. I am, you understand, in the place of her mother…”
“I’m sure folk would find it easier to take you for sisters, ma’am.”
I blink at him. I also shut my mouth. I had opened it to protest I am NOT a child – have not been for years! – and am perfectly capable of taking care of my own interests. I decide to leave him to handle Aunt Miriam.
“Oh, Mister Smith,” flutes Aunt Miriam. “You flatter me!”
He assumes an expression of exaggerated – and dimpled – disagreement.
“I know Helen likes to think she no longer needs my guidance…”
Nope. Oh, sorry. I have been out West too long, obviously! I mean, ‘No, I don’t’.
“But, feeling as I do – almost in the place of a mother…” she pauses. This is not quite like the usual Aunt Miriam. What on earth is she trying to say?
“It is a sad thing to lose your folks,” says Joshua Smith.
The tone is different. I believe he meant it to come out as a simple comment – but – it is not simple. Something in his eyes makes me want to reach over and squeeze HIS hand, the way I did Aunt Miriam’s. I do not, of course.
Anyhow, I only really deserve half this empathy. I ‘lost’ my mother so long ago I do not even remember her. Just a vague image of Nanny holding me up to say ‘Have a lovely time, Mama’ to someone very beautiful – rather like Aunt Miriam only more so – in a shimmering ball gown and this princess figure blowing me a casual kiss as she headed for the carriage. I remember her scent – but that is because it clung to her things and I recall once creeping into her room and rummaging through a draw full of silk and lace and gauze.
“…Helen takes after our side of the family in colouring – but she is so much her father’s daughter – Such a pity she wasted her chances on her come-out – Several MOST eligible offers – Not to compare with her mother perhaps – We Lawrence girls – that was our maiden name, Mister Smith – we were never – I hope you will forgive me – we were never short of eligible suitors… ”
“I’m sure it’s easy to see why, ma’am.”
Oh, he IS smooth. I smother a snirt and, for his and Ann’s benefit only, make a soft ‘sucking up’ noise on my next sip of tea.
“Of course it would have broken mother’s heart if we had ever wanted to marry anyone who was not ‘quite quite’…”
How well I remember the many warnings I had as I grew up against becoming too fond of anyone who was not – ‘quite, quite’. Meaning: well-off, privately educated, able to trace his ancestry back to a point when America was still untroubled by incomers from across the Atlantic.
“And that is what I have always told Helen. I mean…”
Good heavens! She is not warning him off, is she? Maybe. Just a hint. It is a touch premature, as well as presumptuous, surely? It is being gently done if that IS what she is intimating. She clearly likes Mister Smith – likes his charm I mean. As for Mister Jones – who has no idea he is now sporting an endearing milk moustache – she is positively maternal to him. She is chatting away ten to the dozen.
“…Nothing but silly ideas about women’s rights and… As if any woman with a brain could not make at least one man vote the way she intended him to! – Brought up in the best society – Then such odd spinster types she mixed with at college – Poor souls, I suppose one has to feel sorry for…”
“Aunt Miriam,” I protest. “It is possible for a woman to stay single by choice!”
“Certainly is,” agrees Joshua Smith. Perfectly timed pause. “‘Course, it don’t have to be their OWN choice. It could be that men take a good look, choose not to ask and there they are – single by choice.”
This should not tickle me – but it does. I give an involuntary crack of laughter. Unfortunately this coincides with a sip of tea which snorts out of my nose.
“You were telling us what a refined lady your niece is, ma’am,” he provokes, raising his own cup with a daintily extended little finger. It does not look funny written down, but it is enough to interrupt my mopping up with another nasal spray of the warm wet stuff.
“Helen, really!” I am frowned at. She turns to the men, “You’ve let me talk on and on. Now it’s your turn. Mister Smith, Mister Jones – what do you do?”
A glance is exchanged. No, make that two glances. One between Joshua Smith and Thaddeus Jones. One between Ann and myself. The one between Ann and me signifies ‘Good Luck!’ We have not had much success with ‘tell us something about yourself’ questions. We have been treated to one or two tall tales – obvious tall tales – catching eagles to pluck feathers for Sitting Bull’s headdress; being the real life Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn on their way to sue Mark Twain for copyright infringement – I mean, not lies.
“Jones and I like to think we can turn our hands to most things, ma’am.”
“So long as it’s not too hard on the back.”
She is waiting for more. Nothing. “What was your last job?”
“Our last job?” repeats Mister Jones. He mulls. “You could call it – security work, ma’am.” Another exchange of looks.
A smile starts on Joshua Smith’s face. “Last year we had a real interesting job, ma’am.”
He waits, lets us make ‘go on’ sounds.
“Tracking mountain lions for bounty!”
The words ‘mountain lions’ are relished as if they were ‘man-eating sabre-toothed tigers’.
Aunt Miriam’s reaction is most satisfactory.
“Oh, Mister Smith! That sounds so dangerous! Weren’t you frightened?”
“Most folk might have been, ma’am, but you see Jones and me – we don’t know the meaning of the word ‘fear’…”
“Would you like to borrow a dictionary?” I offer.
A twitch of his mouth indicates he appreciated this, but he presses on. “The only time I felt a qualm – just a qualm – was when a cougar had me pinned to the ground…”
“Its fangs inches from my throat…its claws sinking into my shoulders…its hot breath searing my skin…”
“Made me shudder just watching it!” chips in Thaddeus Jones. “I levelled my rifle…”
“Did you shoot it, Mister Jones? Weren’t you afraid of hitting your friend?”
“You forget, Mrs. Harlteman – ‘fear’ is not in Mister Jones’ vocabulary,” puts in Ann.
“Along with so many other words,” caps Joshua Smith.
“I levelled my rifle, ma’am… HEY!” A scowl is delivered to his partner as the penny drops.
“When he noticed a family of tiny cubs, whiskers trembling with terror, watching from the trees. He couldn’t kill their Ma and leave them to starve. Jones is far too tender-hearted for that ma’am…”
“Guess I’m just a big softy, ma’am,” accepts Mister Jones, leaving the tale to the master raconteur.
“Jones remembered something he’d read about tackling mad dogs…there he was, his hand down the lion’s throat…gripping her tongue…”
On the story goes. Of course Aunt Miriam has realised by now her leg is being gently pulled.
Once it is done – maybe before she can ask more questions – Mister Jones says, “If you don’t mind me enquirin’, ma’am – what brought you out West?”
“Oh, that’s easy Mister Jones – my husband. Mister Hartleman – he was my third – he came visiting New York City on business. We met and – Does it sound foolish for middle-aged people to have a whirlwind romance? If it is – so be it. But maybe as we get older we realise just how short life is and to seize the day…”
“In delay there lies no plenty, huh?” agrees Mister Smith. Genuinely agrees, I think. I blink at the phrase, then remember I walked in on him yesterday to find his nose buried in my Complete Works – I’d brought it out to settle a quotation argument with Ann. Though it would not surprise me to learn he had been dipping into every book I keep here in my room at the Coopers’ place.
“Mister Hartleman managed to persuade me that although Arcadia was by no means a large town – his house would give me every, EVERY modern convenience. But, when I realised how far West it was…” Aunt Miriam lowers her lashes, flutters them. “Oh, Mister Smith, Mister Jones you will think me foolish…”
“I can’t imagine that, ma’am,” reassures Joshua Smith. He leans over to relieve her of her empty teacup and refill it. A flutter of thanks.
“Having lived in New York all my life, I thought the West would be…”
“Wild?” he supplies, with a twinkle and a dimple. “Was the tame reality a disappointment, ma’am?”
Good heavens, his charm is working overtime. Mind you, Aunt Miriam may be approaching fifty, but I realise well enough if it came to a ‘winding men around little fingers’ contest, she could beat me hollow with both little fingers tied firmly behind her back.
Not that I WANT to wind men round my little finger, you understand!
“How can it be tame, Mister Smith? Not with men like you and Mister Jones wrestling cougars right, left and centre! I thought I might miss the city – and so I do in some ways, however…” She smiles. “I love it here. When Mister Hartleman passed last year…”
“…I thought about returning home. But, this IS home now. And Helen was here…”
I told you my Aunt’s influence helped me get this job. I am confident Doctor Cooper has never regretted it – but, yes, she got me through the door.
Like her, I love it here. I love the space. I love the smell of the air. I love the routine of the town. I suppose I am a big fish in this little pond. I am honest enough to admit I love that.
I love feeling – needed.
I brush my hair in front of the mirror. Though I know it serves no purpose, I cannot break the one hundred strokes habit I was drilled into as a girl.
Ann is already asleep. I have the lamp turned low so as not to disturb her.
I am glad Aunt Miriam liked Joshua and Thaddeus. She may have reservations – so do I – but she likes them.
It should not matter so much whether she likes them or not, but…
We are all getting along so well, I do not want anything to spoil it. Not even waves of disapproval from home.
No. It is more than ‘getting along’.
Joshua Smith is…
You know how it is sometimes when you meet someone you know could be a proper friend – not just a pleasant, cheerful acquaintance – a PROPER friend? The way the conversation rushes along? Everything YOU say as well as everything THEY say seems more interesting than usual? Wittier than usual?
It was like that when I first met Ann.
It is like that with him.
Are you smiling at me?
Oh, all right.
It is not quite the same as when I met Ann.
I hope I am well brought up enough not to let the fact that Joshua Smith is an attractive – extremely attractive – young man, alter my behaviour one iota.
All the same – it does add a nuance.
I wonder if he feels the same? I twist a curl around my hand, let it catch the lamplight. I lift up my chin and smile – try a different angle.
For heavens sake! How old am I? Too old for this adolescent mooning around. I suppose the only excuse is everyone – however sensible – is allowed a few foolish daydreams as they get ready for bed. Enough now, though! I plait my hair quickly and reach for the cold cream.
Obviously we could never be…
I have a career. It would not be easy to combine that with… Though Ann and Charles seem to manage to have the kind of marria…
NOT that I am thinking about THAT. That would be just silly.
But, I would NOT like the main reason it is silly to be that Joshua Smith does not even think I am attractive. I pat a little extra cream onto my forehead, lean forward to see if the warnings about wrinkles are coming true.
Even if there was not my career to think about, we could still never…
Well, our backgrounds are too different. Are they not? Not that background is the only thing that matters. Compatibility of intellect and temperament can cut across… I would be the first to argue merit can be found in the humblest… Although I never pictured myself with a man who was not ‘quite, quite’… A lady – a real lady – would never be truly happy with a man who was not ‘quite, quite’…
I blink at myself in the mirror as I screw the top back onto the jar. Despite all my good intentions through the years, the thing I swore would NEVER happen HAS happened.
I have turned into my Aunt.
NOTES TO CHAPTER FOUR
· Any gynaecological facts Nell refers to have been taken from either: “Out of the Dolls’ House” by Angela Holdsworth, or “Devices and Desires” by Andrea Tone
· The Women’s Suffrage Association is not real. I wanted Nell to be in the National Woman Suffrage Association as it was a more radical and actively campaigning group than the American Woman Suffrage Association, but I did not want to get into the debate over the reasons for the split. Consider the WSA to be ‘best of both’.
· Comstock Laws:
The Comstock Act, (ch. 258 17 Stat. 598 enacted March 3, 1873) was a United States federal law which made it illegal to send any “obscene, lewd, and/or lascivious” materials through the mail, including contraceptive devices and information. Twenty-four states passed similar prohibitions on materials distributed within the states.
The ban on contraceptives was declared unconstitutional by the courts in 1936, when a federal appeals court ruled that the federal government could not interfere with doctors providing contraception to their patients.