Title: The Indian Queen
Type: historical fiction/fantasy novel
~a novel of manners~
Near evening, a crew of fishermen worked on a sternwheeler several miles from shore, shouting over the roar of machinery as the net-wheels creaked and groaned. The sea was bright and flat and the wheeler cast a long black shadow on the water. Slowly, the bulging net emerged from the water, ropes dripping. Steam-powered machinery moved it over the deck, where it obscured the reddening sun for a moment, and then the operator loosened the claw, the net dropped and swung in the air and the catch slithered into the hold. Miles away across the water, thunder rumbled. No one looked up.
Beyond the stretch of calm, a towering mass of clouds hung above the water. It extended from north to south as far as could be wheeled, from where the sea was solid ice down to where, from the older maps, the Europers knew a vast continent diminished to a point. Nearest the water there was rain. Sheets of water whipped and billowed out like sails over the ocean, gray and then suddenly white-gold, too bright to look at as the sun penetrated some unknown grove deep in the storm. The wind dragged the water, shrieking and howling, into whorls and icy ribbons that tore up and down the Atlantic. Higher up, lightening snapped and flickered. Bolts of electricity left caverns in the air and the air rolled booming back into the hollows.
At sunset the thunderheads stretched tendrils of vapor creeper-like out over the empty air. Descending light slanted beneath them, sparkling on the water and turning the edges of the storm red and gold. This is what the fishermen on the sternwheeler saw, what they and others had seen every evening for nearly two hundred years.
The last crossings had been made in 1687. On those ships came the last of the New English governors, the entire Mather family, the gentleman planters of Virginia and most of the House of Burgesses, sixteen families of free Africans from Carolina, Dutch merchants from New Amsterdam and Fort Orange, and a phalanx of shame-faced Jesuits from New France who had failed to find martyrdom in the new world and decided, after all, that they did not want their bones to rest in Amerigan soil. Those who made the last crossings brought letters, some of them, from the greater number of colonists who had been forced by poverty and distance to remain behind. Some, particularly in New England, had refused to leave.
Now, on a mild September evening in 1875, the master of the fishing vessel glanced out at the storm as his crew prepared to turn homeward. He squinted, shaded his eyes, and then lifted his spyglass. He had not been mistaken. There was a rent in the clouds, a narrow tear, wide enough for perhaps a single wheeler, and even then, even the slightest breath of wind would blow rain across the deck. Yet it did appear to be a real passage, not merely a trick of the light. Such openings were rare, and most led back into nothing but a howling, yellowish twilight of rain and sleet, strong enough to tear apart the bulkheads of a cross-ocean Indiaman. Nevertheless, an opening must be reported to the Meteorological Commission. They would decide what, if anything, was to be done about it.
On a rainy night some four months after the master of the fishing vessel had sent his telegram, Mr. Thomas Hutchinson, a high-ranking employee of the Meteorological Commission's Board of Plantations, entered Vachier's Theater from the rear alley and made his way through the backstage darkness, past water stained cardboard cartons and discarded scenery, toward the wings. He had been ending his evenings here for some time, and his face, if not his name, was well known. The costumer's daughter, who did stage-makeup and the odd bit of mending, was sitting at a little table with a whale-oil lamp, stitching a patch onto a coat. She looked up when Hutchinson passed by her table, and he raised his hat.
Other pairs of eyes belonging to stage-hands with yellow palms and dirty fingernails, errand boys and boilers of tea, actresses still in make-up and assistants to the director, marked Hutchinson's progress but looked away with a wink or a little smirk as he came near. He was not an inconspicuous figure. A tall, neatly-made man of about thirty-five, his bearing and, more than this, his black, gold-trimmed tri-corner hat and the style of his shirt collar, marked him as an off-duty official of the Commission. He wore spectacles, very thin ones with gold frames – this mild, almost playful myopia was really the only physical defect he could boast of – and his long legs were enshrined in a particular style of close-fitting white trousers and tall, highly polished black boots that were the style that winter. The shoulders of his coat were damp from the rain. Had one stood close enough to him one might have noted a soft aroma of expensive scent mingling with the less pleasant smells of boot oil and wet wool.
Nearby, a young man sat smoking meditatively under a rack of pulleys mounted on the wall. The pulleys and ropes were a peculiar feature of Vachier's. One saw them, sometimes with ropes run through them, sometimes not, but it was never clear where all those ropes went, or what the other ends of them were attached to. Certainly there were far too many for the scenery alone to account for them. "Evening, sir."
"Good evening." They kept their voices low so as not to disturb the business on stage. "Where are we?"
The young man, whose person seemed to exude the smell of mold, dry-rot and dust-hardened velvet that pervaded the theater, peered out onto the stage, squinting a little as he listened, and then nodded. "Act three, sir. Nearly there."
The production in rehearsal on the stage was Dryden and Howard's The Indian Queen, with music by Henry and Daniel Purcell. The magician Ismeron, smeared with brownish grease-paint and wearing nothing but sandals, an embroidered skirt and a great deal of faux gold jewelry, stood at center stage singing to the gods:
" . . . ye powe'rs that dwell with fates below
and see what men are doom'd to do,
where elements in discord dwell:
thou god of sleep arise and tell
great Zempoalla what strange fate
must on her dismal vision wait . . . "
The blonde, round-faced young woman cast as the Aztec queen Zempoalla was wrapped in long robe of threadbare red velour, edged with little copper buttons, and Mrs. Bowler who did the costuming had pinned feathers, dyed red to match the robe, into her hair. Zempoalla listened with an appropriate amount of attention to Ismeron's song, while offstage on the side opposite Hutchinson the God of Dreams awaited his cue. The harpsichord was out of tune (it was really a miserable object, that harpsichord) and it seemed that Abigail had lost her battle with Lightwick, the musical director. She and the other five violinists, invisible in the pit, played with heavy vibrato – this, as she had been at pains to explain to the stubbornly fashionable Lightwick, was in contrast to Baroque practice. Hutchinson had not said so, but he preferred the music as they styled it now to the flatter, if more authentic sound of the 1690's. There was, after all, such a thing as progress in the world.
It was nearly six o'clock, and Hutchinson's watch had not quite touched the hour when Lightwick cut off the orchestra. The music halted, there was a clatter of wood on wood as something in the pit fell the floor, and, on the stage, Zempoalla began plucking loose the hairpins that held her feathers in place.
With the orchestra silent, Hutchinson heard the rain drumming on the roof high above. The theater was dark, but in the gaslight he could see the faded blue sky painted on the ceiling, a false dome ringed with cherubim modestly wound in red ribbons. Stoop-shouldered Lightwick emerged from the pit with his score in a cracked leather folder under his arm. He nodded to Hutchinson as he passed him, leaving in the air a lingering smell of cabbage and old paper that slowly dissipated among the curtains. More voices were now raised in conversation. A woman laughed, and the alley door opened and closed again with a bang. "No, it's lovely. I've always liked it. But Le Domino Noir is absolute rubbish." Abigail's voice was soft, but her accent, far too polished for the orchestra pit of a cross-river music hall, had a way of making itself noticed through the noise. She and her stand partner, Gustaf Mysliveček, reached the top of the narrow wooden steps that led from the orchestra pit to the edge of the stage. Abigail caught sight of Hutchinson then and smiled, but turned back as Gustaf touched her elbow to regain her attention. The young violinist pushed his black hair out of his eyes as he asked some question Hutchinson didn't catch. Gustaf was from Bohemia, and tended to speak very softly, bent close toward his interlocutors – no doubt, Hutchinson thought, to ensure that the smallest possible number of people heard the mincemeat he made of English.
"Tomorrow afternoon," Hutchinson heard Abigail say. The two violinists shook hands goodnight, and Gustaf set his violin case down to straighten his greasy felt cap and tuck the ends of his muffler into his coat. He had pale, oddly thick hands that one did not all imagine as being suited for the violin. But suited they were, it seemed. Abigail rated him a gifted musician, and Hutchinson did not doubt her judgment on this matter.
Abigail Bridgewater was the oldest daughter of Henry Bridgewater, Sr., corpulent mandarin of the Bridgewater Canal and Transport Company. Most of her theater acquaintance, if they had heard of the Canal and Transport Bridgewaters at all, assumed that the name was a coincidence, and none had been corrected on this point. Abigail had learned to adjust her manner to suit her circumstances and either was or had become (Hutchinson preferred to think of this skill as a recent acquisition) quite handy at telling harmless lies and brushing away questions about the origin of her beautiful violin, her well-tailored dresses, her velvet cap, her Etruscan bracelets and strings of amber beads. She was suspected in some quarters of thievery and in others of darker crimes still, but as no one had any evidence of her supposed criminal exploits she was either given the benefit of the doubt or accorded a certain amount of grudging respect for her skill. Like any good creation of the theater, Abigail Bridgewater was quite clever at coaxing a willing suspension of disbelief from her audience.
And a thief at her boarding house had inadvertently done her a good turn with regard to this matter of credibility by stealing most of her old winter things. The boots she wore now were missing a few buttons and her black overcoat had been made over from a man's. The lapels were threadbare, the elbows patched, and a full three inches of her dress showed beneath the ragged hem. This was evidence enough of poverty to clinch the matter, and poor Gustaf had not the dimmest notion that he shared a music stand with the Miss Bridgewater who had once danced with the Prime Minister's son at the Meteorological Commission's annual ball, and more importantly, who had nearly married Andrew Ridley, the oldest son of the Earl of Huntingdon.
At the time, Hutchinson had wondered, in a passing sort of way, how Abigail had managed her Ridley conquest. She had a glow of health about her and a certain broad-hipped showiness of figure (one expected as much from the Bridgewaters, someone had once said to Hutchinson at a party) but her face was no more than ordinary, and acne had left a scattering of pockmarks across her cheeks. It had seemed to him at the time that Ridley might have settled on one of any number of better looking and equally rich young ladies. "It would have sounded far more authentic without the vibrato," he said, taking her violin case and satchel as she buttoned her coat.
"I told Mr. Lightwick as much." She tugged on her gloves and did up the tiny mother-of-pearl buttons. "But what can one do. Poor Mr. Purcell." Abigail adjusted her hat and reclaimed her violin and bag as they made their way to the alley door, where she stopped and retrieved her umbrella from a tangle of them in a cardboard box.
Hutchinson opened the door as Abigail snapped her umbrella open and they stepped out into the alley. Water rushed past their boots and pounded on the umbrella as they walked, arm in arm, toward the street. Hutchinson waved down a cab and the driver, bundled up in a creased and cracked coat of waxed canvas, opened the door for them. Hutchinson stood aside as Abigail climbed in. Water dripped from the sodden hem of her dress. Hutchinson closed the umbrella and followed her, and the driver closed the door.
"Did Mr. Schlegel's friend have any news about the telegram?" she asked as he brushed the rain from his hat. The accent in which she spoke to him was a less self-conscious version of the one Gustaf or Lightwick heard in the orchestra pit. It was the natural version, learned from childhood, of the speech her grandparents had worked very hard to acquire, an accent that hinted at pianoforte lessons and solid silver tea services but – unfortunately, inadvertently – at the same time it whispered of money rather than rank. Every now and then one detected in it the color-reversed afterimage of a counting house. Nevertheless, all the marks of good breeding were there. The dropped ‘r', the heavy drawl attached to the vowels, all were present and accounted for. A trained observer might have noticed that there were a number of discrepancies between Hutchinson's accent and Abigail's – a trained observer might have wondered if the commissioner's parents hadn't been working folk, or his father a low-level clerk in some sort of holding company – but had the trained observer been polite, he would not have mentioned it.
"Just this morning," Hutchinson said. "The Lyon got back last night, and it seems to be genuine. I hardly believe it myself, but they've taken daguerreotypes, and one of the boats went in. Nearly three miles."
Abigail had been watching the wet streets through the window of the cab. Lamplight from outside flashed for an instant across her neck and the lower half of her face. "Does it lead all the way through?"
"It appears to." Hutchinson reached out and steadied the umbrella, which had been about to fall to the floor. "And it's in our waters. Although one doesn't necessarily trust Farnsworth's judgment about these things after that business with France last spring."
"That wasn't his fault, I don't think."
She smiled, and pushed a stray curl back behind her ear. Abigail's hair, a particular shade of dark brown
that reminded many people of scuffed mahogany, was rather too heavy to be properly disciplined, and often worked its way out of the pins. She had developed a habit of not washing it so as to keep it in order, which made it quite dark and glossy. This was said to be very romantic and vaguely Spanish. "But it's marvelous news. Who are you sending through?"
"No one as of yet. But of course we're considering our options. As a matter of fact – "
"Not you, Tom." Abigail's good humor vanished. Outside, the rain was turning to sleet. "Not you. You can't possibly."
"I requested it. Took a fair amount of doing, in fact."
Abigail was familiar with Hutchinson's penchant for ‘doing', as he put it, and forbore to comment on it.
"Wouldn't you, if you were in my position? Think of it – an entire continent, empty – " Hutchinson shook his head. "It boggles the mind."
"I would wait until someone else had gone through and seen that it was safe."
"We'll be armed, dear heart. I hardly imagine the Indians will be much of a threat."
"I believe that was precisely what Mr. Cortes said, once upon a time."
"But we know much more about the terrain than the Spanish did. And certainly our equipment is far superior." Hutchinson smiled. "I hardly imagine that a band of naked savages in quilted armor is going to turn us out of the New World."
The carriage jolted over the railroad tracks and Hutchinson lunged for the umbrella again, setting it point-down against the seat by his legs. "Well, if you must, I suppose," Abigail said. Probably she was thinking that he was, after all, not really her responsibility. She smiled. "Do bring me a scalp, if you can manage it."
"You can use it as a prop for your play."
"In that case, you might bring back an Indian or two. Our chorus is a bit thin since that last bout of 'fluenza. I wonder if any of them can dance."
* * *
During the night the sleet turned to snow and the wind began to howl around the chimneys and smokestacks, flinging scraps of dirty newsprint against the corners of buildings and winding rubbish in and out of the wheels of cabs. The snow-filled air glowed greasy yellow near streetlamps and windows. By the time it began to grow light, several inches of snow, already gray with soot, had fallen on the streets and the frozen mud in the gutters.
Abigail woke as she always did when the long low whistle of the 7:15 hummed in the window-panes. Only a block of warehouses and a weed-threaded fence separated her row of buildings from the railyards. She lay still for a few minutes, watching her breath condense in the chilly air above her pillow. The walls of her boarding-house were thin, and in the next room she could hear one of the other girls singing as she pinned up her hair. From downstairs came a clatter of dishes and the smell of sausages and strong black tea.
She pushed aside the quilts, which exuded a faint aroma of bacon grease, and sat up, drawing a long creak from the bed. Her feet were numb and the tips of her toes looked slightly bluish, but that always went away as soon as she had walked a little. She stood up slowly, to avoid the moment of dizziness she often felt if she got to her feet too quickly, and then dragged the chamber pot out from under the bed, hitched up her nightgown and squatted down to empty her bladder.
Today was Tuesday. She would teach four hour-long violin lessons in the morning, return to Vachier's at one to help Mr. Lightwick re-tune the harpsichord, stop for a brief plate of cabbage soup and some rye bread and tea with Gustaf in the cafe near his rooms, and then rehearsal until six. Perhaps a quick smoke and a cup of coffee, and then afterwards several hours of Mozart's The Magic Flute, which had been running for several weeks now.
Abigail washed her face, neck and ears, dressed, and stood for several minutes in front of her small, chipped oval mirror pinning her hair in place. Someone had stolen the heavy silver-backed brush her sister had given her, and for the last several weeks she had had to make do with a stiff-bristled wooden one with someone else's initials, V. M., painted in white on the back. The letters were surrounded by a little spray of pink flowers and green leaves, very pretty of course, but it did not make for the loss of her original brush. Abigail suspected Annie Trumbull, her nearest neighbor along the corridor, but she had had as yet no opportunity to investigate. Annie worked at a florist's shop – she always smelled of damp leaves and hothouse rot, and there was usually potting soil under her fingernails – and got every second Saturday afternoon off. This Saturday, Abigail knew, was one such holiday. She would go to Mrs. Stephens and tell her Miss Trumbull had borrowed a book of hers and she needed it back this afternoon, might she borrow the key? No need to come up with her, she'd only be a moment. Mrs. Stephens was a pleasant enough woman and rather stupid, no doubt she would imagine Abigail was no more devious than herself.
Suitably coiffed, Abigail stood for a long moment by the window and smoked a cannibulus, breathing smoke against the glass and watching people in frayed coats and faded dresses pick their way down the muddy street. The cigarette was in fact only a very small part cannabis; the rest was a mixture of various dried herbs that in burning gave off a sharp, crushed-flower smell and provided the little cigarettes' addictive power. It was an unladylike habit, she was well aware of this, but it didn't seem to cause any ill effects, other than a slight buzz between her ears if she smoked three or four at a stretch. It calmed her nerves, in any case, and she found she slept better at night after a nib or two.
She found a letter from her younger sister on her plate when she went down to the dining room for breakfast. The girl across the table, a Miss Etherington, watched nervously as Abigail once again forgot the proper procedure and put the tea in her cup before the milk. Without comment, she handed her the heavy white jug of milk (Miss Etherington, if the truth must be known, was rather afraid of Miss Bridgewater, and often handed her things spontaneously so as to avoid being asked for them). Abigail, eyes on Madgie's gossamer letter-paper, which undulated gently in the warm currents of breath from nine assembled boarders, poured some tea onto her saucer to cool and stabbed at her plate with her fork until she connected with a piece of sausage. Madgie regarded her sister's situation as entirely of Abigail's own making and refused to discuss any of the events that had led to it because she regarded these happenings – perhaps rightly, Abigail admitted – as things she was supposed to know nothing about. She had, however, finally consented some months before, after a great deal of silence and delay, to send her sister a few lines every now and then.
He lost St. Throgbellow's to the fellow from Hull. Papa is very upset. Henry is how you would expect. What's the use of Papa being Papa at all if Henry can't get a living? I hope you are well.
Abigail folded the letter and tucked it back into the large square envelope. Madgie always had the very latest in stationary; this particular envelope was made of a heavy, stiff paper that felt as smooth as butter under her fingertips. It surprised her that Henry had been turned down for the St. Throgbellow's position. It was a small and fairly unimportant parish church, and she had been sure the presentations committee would not be overly choosy. Nothing to fear though. There were other livings in the world, and Henry was rather young to be ordained. She picked up her saucer of tea, which was now rather cold, and tasted it. Far too strong, and of course here there was no jam to sweeten it. African sugar was murderously expensive.
The day wore on. Abigail wrapped her scarf around her nose and mouth, so that the whole world smelled of damp wool, and turned up the collar of her coat. Snowflakes clung to her eyelashes and spots of coal-soot, intermixed with the snow, smudged her coat. She had several small coins tucked into her left glove, but not enough for a cab, so she walked, head down, gripping the handle of her violin case in one hand and hugging her satchel close to her body with the other arm.
The snow lightened, then ceased and there were a few minutes of watery sunlight, just enough that the ice clinging to window-moldings and iron rails began to drip. It was impossible to look at the rooftops, the glare was so bright. Then, the light faded, and the wind picked up. Even through her scarf, Abigail could smell burning coal. She stopped in an alleyway a few blocks from the Slaters' and had a smoke. Her fingertips were numb before she had finished but she stuck it out, counting the bricks in the opposite wall as the smoke from her lungs joined the smog that brushed the roof-tops three stories above her head. Finally, she dropped the cannibulus to the pavement, ground it out with her boot-heel, and pulled her gloves back on.
At the Slater house, Mrs. Slater drew her aside and said, hesitating, glancing many times over Abigail's left shoulder into the dim and slightly shabby parlor, where young Annabelle sat picking at the embroidery on a cushion, that she had decided violin lessons were after all not the thing. She was concerned – well, she was concerned that the violin required too much moving about, especially with the arms raised like that. It wasn't ladylike. She thought she would try Annabelle on the pianoforte, where she could at least keep her elbows down.
Abigail chose not to mention that one did not normally play the piano with one's elbows tucked in like a plucked chicken. "Of course, Mrs. Slater." Mrs. Slater counted out a small pile of stiff blue-and-gold banknotes, folded them, and handed them to her daughter's music teacher. The thick paper crackled. "I've paid you for next month as well, Miss Bridgewater," she said. "I know we agreed earlier that Annabelle would continue through February, so it's only fair."
Abigail tucked the notes into the beaded purse that she kept in her inside coat-pocket and snapped it closed. "Thank you very much, Mrs. Slater. You're too kind. And I'm sure Miss Annabelle will enjoy the pianoforte," she added as she buttoned her coat. "She has a wonderful skill for phrasing. And if you ever need it tuned, please don't hesitate to send for me; I'll be happy to take care of it."
"You can tune a piano, Miss Bridgewater?" Mrs. Slater peered at her over her pince-nez. "Do you give lessons at all?"
"No, Mrs. Slater. I can play well enough to tune it, but I shouldn't call myself qualified to teach."
"Ah – well, a real pity, Miss Bridgewater. Annabelle did seem to take to you so. But I shall certainly remember about the tuning. I should feel much more secure if it were you than if I had to call some young man." She leaned a bit to peer into the parlor again, and lowered her voice. "Annabelle is getting to that silly age, after all."
"I would be happy to come whenever you need me," Abigail said, with what she hoped was a deferent and pleasant smile.
"Thank you very much, Miss Bridgewater," Mrs. Slater said as they shook hands. "You've been wonderful with our Annabelle – you have such lovely manners."
"Thank you, Mrs. Slater. Good morning."
Back on the street, Abigail tugged her coat collar a little more tightly around her neck. She would have to stop back at the boarding house and add the bank notes to the little stash wrapped up in her spare stockings; it was not safe to carry so much money in her pocket. It amused her that Mrs. Slater admired her manners, though. Most of her employers tended to remark on this, or something closely related, often her accent or her unexpected fluency in French. Abigail had a pet theory about this, which a number of kind remarks or overheard conversations in the homes of her students tended to confirm. "Her jewelry is precisely what one wants in a music teacher," Mrs. Russell had mentioned to her sister-in-law one afternoon as Abigail was listening to little Tobias Russell blunder through the meditation from Massenet's Thaïs; "I absolutely adore her hat," one of the Misses Ashby said to the other; "And her nails are quite clean," Mrs. Townsend told her husband. "Quite," said Mr. Townsend. "Lovely girl." Abigail had managed, half unintentionally, to be precisely what one wanted in a young female music teacher. She was clearly poor, but it was a well-washed and picturesque sort of poverty, and her shabbiness did not extend to dirty nails or a dirty face or the tiredness that is often the result of an inadequate diet. Her strings of coral beads and her velvet hat were exotic enough to be charming and go rather nicely with the shawl draped over the Towensends' piano, but one noted that her dresses were neither too tight nor low cut, she did not wear makeup of any sort, her teeth were excellent, and there seemed little danger that she would steal anything.
* * *
Hutchinson was late that night. Abigail sat down on a wooden crate near the alley door and buttoned her coat; with the candles and gas-lights out and the audience departed, it was cold. After a few minutes she drew from her sleeve the ivory cannibulus case she wore on a chain around her wrist and took out a nib. The draft from the door extinguished two matches before she was able to light it.
"Is he not coming today?"
She looked up. Gustaf was standing there, all bundled up as if to leave. He had probably seen her just before he reached the door.
"Just a bit late, I think."
"I should keep you company, maybe?"
Abigail smiled. "Certainly. Nib?" Gustaf drew one out and lit it with the match she offered. The crate she had taken as a seat was two narrow for both of them, so he remained standing.
"How was your teaching today?"
"Mrs. Slater sacked me this morning. She no longer needs me," she added, when she saw he didn't know the phrase.
He nodded, and drew in a lungful of smoke. "Very difficult, teaching. They do not like the accent, they do not like the coat, the child will not practice."
"But what can one do."
"And how is Magdalena?"
Magdalena was Gustaf's sister; she and her small son shared his rooms. Gustaf slept on a mattress in the larger one, and Magdalena and the boy shared the creaky iron bed in the smaller, which doubled as a kitchen. "She has a letter from her husband. We think he will come soon."
Magdalena's husband was always on the verge of appearing, but never materialized. Abigail had begun to suspect that he did not exist.
"Your friend would be angry if you go without him, no?"
She flicked a few ashes to the floor. "He wouldn't be – well, I doubt he would angry as such, but he would wonder if something had happened to me."
"I thought he might be your brother."
"No, my poor brother's not nearly so responsible. No one could ever count on Henry to arrive at the same place at the same time more than once."
Gustaf tugged at a loose thread at the cuff of his overcoat. "But you are not his – " he could not think of the appropriate phrase. "There is not an arrangement."
A patch of snow slid off the roof and landed with a muffled splut in the alley outside. "No."
"If he is rich – "
"No." Abigail opened her nib case, counted the cigarettes, and then closed it again and began to run her thumb back and forth across the ivory. The corners were smoothed, not sharp and hard as when she'd first bought it. They had used to scrape the insides of her wrist. "He is a friend of my family," she said. "He worries that I won't be safe, walking home alone after rehearsals."
"You wish he would not?"
"He thinks that I'm a person who needs to be protected."
"Protection is not protection, sometimes, I think."
"It's not that, Gustaf, really."
Gustaf did not argue. "Perhaps I might walk home with you."
"It is getting late, isn't it."
They were out in the alley, which was black and shining with melting snow, when a cab pulled up at the far end.
* * *
"You oughtn't to have been so rude to poor Gustaf." Abigail set her satchel on her lap and folded her hands. The leather was cold; she could feel it through her gloves.
"Poor Gustaf ought to have a care who he walks home with."
"You mean I ought to have a care."
"When we patch up this business with your father, it would help if you hadn't exposed yourself to any more disagreeable insinuations."
Abigail looked out the window and said nothing.
"Do you intend to grow old in a boarding house? You may consider poverty charming now, but twenty years would change your mind, I think."
"I'll grow old where I please."
Hutchinson glanced out the opposite window, but could see nothing but his own reflection, wan and a little ghostly in the thick glass. "You might think of your sister, you know. I suspect the scandal affected her prospects as much as yours. Or Henry, for that matter. It isn't his fault he can't find a living."
"Leave me alone, Tom."
"Not entirely, in any case."
They had crossed the railroad line and the streets here were narrower and darker. The globes of many of the streetlamps were cracked or broken. "I want to ask you something."
"You'll do as I asked about Gustaf?"
"No, I won't. But I wanted to ask you something about Henry."
Hutchinson lifted his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. The frames had left little pink ovals on either side. "What about him."
"I want you to take him with you when you go through the storms."
"Take him with us? Whatever for?"
"He needs employment, Tom. I thought of it the other morning, after you mentioned the passage again. Surely you need a chaplain. Would you?"
Hutchinson turned from the window. "It sounds a bit far-fetched to me."
"At least consider it."
"I thought you were worried about it's being safe."
"But it is, isn't it? You said so yourself."
"And it wouldn't do in the long term."
"But think of it – if he could tell people that he'd been there, that you'd wanted him to go because, oh, I don't know – to preach to the Indians? They'd snap him up in a moment. He'd never want work again."
"I'd have to speak with your father."
"Then speak with him."
"Shall I tell him it was your idea?"
"Don't be ridiculous."
Ridiculous, Hutchinson thought, was the idea of Henry Bridgewater, Jr., preaching Sunday sermons to a Commission reconnaissance expedition. Or ministering to a horde of whooping savages. They'd boil and eat him in a moment. "How is his handwriting?"
"Madgie and I can read it."
"And he has a good constitution."
"He's the very picture of health."
This, while not entirely accurate, was close enough to the truth to avoid comment. "I'll speak to Farnsworth about it, but I'd like something from you in return. I want you to promise that in the future you'll wait for me at the theater. Even if I am a bit late. And I don't want you to visit Gustaf in his rooms."
"I can take care of myself, Tom."
"You can guard your person, I'm sure, but there's far more to it than that. As we both know."
"No one knows who I am."
"Not now, perhaps, but once we get that other matter cleared up, your theater friends are going to put two and two together."
"Is there anything else?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact. After I speak with your father – I think I can bring him around – and a suitable
amount of time has passed, I want you to be my wife."
Abigail was silent for several minutes. "You can't possibly be serious."
"I'm quite serious."
Through the smudges from their mingled breath on the windows, both could catch glimpses of a lighted window, an iron stair-railing, or the wheels of another cab. "No one at the Commission would ever speak to
you again. Their wives certainly wouldn't ever speak to me."
"I think you underestimate the power of your father's connections. And his ballroom."
Abigail took out her nib case and lit a cigarette, cupping her hand around the flare of the match. She turned the little crank to open the window of the cab, letting in a rush of cold, wet air and the hard clatter of the wheels on the cobblestones.
"You'll have to give that up, of course."
She inhaled slowly, and then blew a long, slow stream of smoke into the shadows. "Shall I order some dresses from my old dressmaker in Paris? I'm sure they still have my measurements. I'll have to get some of my jewelry re-set, of course and order my trousseau. And I'll have Mrs. Tanner measure me for a new corset and perhaps a chemise or two and some drawers; I'm sure mine are frightfully out of date. What color would you like? White? Pink?"
"I would prefer it if we could avoid vulgarities, Abigail."
"I ask you for a favor, on behalf of my brother, and all you can think of is yourself. I call that vulgar, don't you?"
They reached her building, which was the same dingy brick as the one on either side. The cab driver opened the door and pulled down the step. "Good night, Tom." Abigail got out and a moment later the door of the boarding house had closed behind her.
Submitted by Shaker baltimoreandme
About the Author and work:
Says baltimoreandme: "A novel written in graduate school. Exploring ideas about empire, racism, class boundaries, music, anti-catholicism, and - oh, right, I'm having fun . . . ."
Find the rest of this novel at baltimoreandme's home journal.