Barbara Fleming

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author, historian, coloradan
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Barbara Fleming: Journeying Excerpt

Copyright © 2009 by Barbara Fleming
All rights reserved.

This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination, or, if real, used fictitiously.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by an electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the express written permission of the publisher, except where permitted by law.

 

1872

April 13

I boarded the train early this morning, with no one to see me off.

I left Mama and Karl a note saying that I was going to visit Cousin Carrie in Kentucky. I am of legal age; they cannot prevent me. But I told a lie, and I took something which did not belong to me. I should be burning up with guilt, but I find that I am, rather, full of excitement and joy.
In truth, I am heading west on this bouncing, noisy train. I sold Grandmother Evans’s brooch, which I spirited out of Mama’s room last night, to get the money for my ticket. We have agreed that Lucas will meet me in St. Louis, where we will try to find a wagon train. Then we must ferry to Council Bluffs. He is coming on the afternoon train. We will marry at the end of our journey.
Why should it be that two people who love each other cannot marry as they choose? Why must society be so blind?

Lucas is an honorable man. He has promised that we will not consummate our union until we are legally wed. We can claim 160 acres for our own if we can stay five years on them. Not many do, I am told. That seems such a vast expanse of land. I do not even know how much an acre is. It’s not an easy life, they say. But we will succeed! We will!

We must farm the land so as to have a home, but it is my fond hope that we will then be able to move somewhere that will allow Lucas to practice his profession and me to teach music, as I have always dreamed of doing.

Once we join the wagon train he must take the role of my servant. I am to be a widowed woman who is fulfilling her dead husband’s dream of settling in the West. In a wagon we can take provisions and bring livestock with us, ready to set up housekeeping when we find the right place. I think he has a bit of the romantic in him, for he seemed quite excited about our adventure. Are we at the edge of a precipice, about to fall off into the abyss, or at the entrance to Paradise, about to find our happiness at last?

* * * * *

April 15

At the end of this interminable journey, I got off the train and went to the hotel to wait for Lucas. But the train has come today—and Lucas did not get off! I scoured and scoured the platform, looking up and down, and could not see him anywhere. Oh, if only we’d been able to leave in a more orderly fashion! Where is he? Was I wrong to embark on this mad adventure?
We would not have left so suddenly had not Karl announced at dinner last night that he had found me a husband.

“Karl,” Mama said in her quiet, serious voice, the one I remember from my childhood, “Hannah has reached her majority. You cannot force her to marry.” I was amazed to hear Mama defy Karl, for she had not done so in my presence before.

My stepfather kept on as if there were only a gnat in the room, not my mother. “His name is Wilhelm Hessler,” he said. “He’s an elder in the church, widowed, with three children who need a mother. He’s had his eye on Hannah for some time, and last night he offered for her. She should be grateful!” he roared.

Mama tried once more. “Hannah is not a piece of merchandise like those at your store. You cannot just give her away.”

He glared at her. “She will do as I say,” he shouted, thumping his hand on the table and turning to leave the kitchen. As he walked out he said, “Wilhelm will be here tomorrow night for dinner, Hannah will welcome him, and the arrangements can be made. We will have her married by the end of the month.”

Mama sighed, a gesture I recognized all too well as her capitulation, once again, to my stepfather. Her brief, daring spark of defiance had burned out.

But I remained defiant. “Mama, I will not marry this man or any man Karl chooses for me.”
“How can you not do as he says?” she replied. “He provides for us. He saved your father’s store. Some day it will be yours. All we have to do is wait and be patient.”

I put my hand on her arm. My poor, weak mother, who cannot imagine herself, her life, without a man in charge of it. . . . “Mama, I will not marry Wilhelm Hessler, not to save the store, not to please you, not for any reason whatsoever.”

She slumped down in her chair and began to weep. In the past, her tears had often succeeded in my surrender, but not this time. Marriage to that man—his image had come to me by then, a dark, small, brooding fellow with unkempt, sniveling children—was impossible.

I left the kitchen and went to my room, hastening to pack my portmanteau. I slipped into Mama’s room and took the brooch. Then I sat up at the window until dawn, when I hurried out of the house—while Mama and Karl still slept—and went to find Lucas.

It was only a short walk to where I knew he would be at that hour—at the small café across the street from his rooming house, eating breakfast and preparing for his day. And indeed he was there, but of course I could not talk to him or sit with him then. Instead, I found a small boy outside of the café and promised him a five-cent piece if he would deliver a note for me. I watched from the window as he took the note to Lucas. I watched Lucas read it and get up, hastily, to leave the café. As soon as he stood, I quickly walked away.

We met at our usual spot in the hospital, the linen closet, where we knew we would not be disturbed. When I told him of the dire situation, he agreed that we must leave Cincinnati at once. We made our plans—I would take the train that left later that morning, and he would follow the next day. As both of us are painfully aware of the difficulties that lie ahead because of his dark skin, we fixed on the plan for him to play my servant. We would seek a wagon train, or go west alone in a wagon if none was to be had. There are not so many these days, what with the railroad stretching clear across the continent.

* * * * *

I was thankful to arrive in St. Louis. The train was hot and dusty, and there was no refreshment offered. Luckily, I had thought to bring food with me. It fit nicely into my portmanteau, and I had brought a vessel of water, but the journey lasted longer than the food and drink. There was no opportunity to relieve myself until we stopped at a station along the way. I became very weary of the men who kept trying to occupy the empty seat next to mine. They all seemed to think that I, a woman alone, could not manage without their “protection.” I had to tell the last one, who was very persistent, that I was on my way to a convent in California (a very Catholic state, I am told) to begin my life as a nun, and that I wished to pray in peace, before he moved away from me.
But Lucas is not here! There is nothing to do but return to the hotel and wait, hoping and praying that I was not wrong. I love him, and he loves me. I cannot be wrong. I cannot.

Now I have sat in this dingy hotel room for hours, writing in this journal, waiting. What if Karl finds out where I have gone and comes after me before Lucas arrives? I will not go with him. I will scream for help and get away, somehow.

My Lucas—what an extraordinary man he is. He has told me something of his history (though no one else knows the truth). He was born in New Orleans to a house slave who had been forced by the young master. Only a short while after his birth, his mother, known to me only as Roxie, and he were spirited away from the plantation and put on a ship bound for France. Who saved them? Lucas believes it was his grandfather, the patriarch.

Roxie must have been a remarkable woman indeed. Not long after they arrived in Paris she found a benefactor, and she and Lucas lived well thanks to him. Lucas attended the best schools, learned several languages, and had ambitions to become a diplomat, until his mother died when he was but sixteen. He decided then to become a physician, in hopes of finding a cure for the consumption that killed his mother. Young as he was, he apprenticed with a famous Paris man and had struck out on his own by the time he was twenty. Is that not amazing and wonderful?

How blessed for me that he came to our country just before the war, at the behest of an American surgeon he met in Greece when he was studying there, invited here to share his knowledge and skill with the man’s colleagues in Cincinnati. And further blessed that he did not return to France when the war started. Had we not met, he tells me, he would have returned, but I held him here. I am so grateful that I had decided, during the war, to give the poor soldiers what comfort and cheer I could. I went to the hospital twice a week, sometimes more often, to write letters, to help with other chores, and once in a while to play for them. Had I not chosen that path, Lucas and I would never have met. And now he has come with me to create a new life together.

* * * * *


April 16

My darling has arrived at last. The desk clerk at the hotel sent someone up to my room at ten o’clock this morning to announce that my servant had arrived. I went down to the lobby to see him. There he was—dirty, unshaven, looking exhausted.

We had to be very cautious in our greetings. He merely said, “Sorry to be late, Miz Hannah,” and was careful to avert his eyes. I know how it hurts him to be perceived in this way, humble and ignorant, but we both know that it is necessary.

Shall I ever not thrill at the sight of him? He is not an excessively tall man but is sturdily built, with broad shoulders and long arms. But it is his hands and his face that I love the most. He has long, slender fingers, and his palm is broad and quite pink, in contrast to the back of his hand. The veins are fine and blue. Had he not become a surgeon, his hands would have been perfect for a concert pianist.

The outstanding feature of his face is his deep black eyes, ringed by impossibly long lashes. With his high cheekbones, narrow nose and dimpled chin, he has an exotic look, as if he were from Arabia or far-off India. In fact, the surgeons at the Cincinnati hospital supposed him to be from Turkey. He has an unusual accent that is hard to place, ensuring that people do not take him for a mulatto. When he smiles, which he does not often do, his eyes light up like candles. In his embrace, I feel safe and secure.

Still, he does have dark skin, and as such is not considered my equal, at least not in this place. Will he ever be? Anywhere? We must proceed with great care now.

The clerk at the hotel said that Lucas could sleep in the back of the hotel with the other servants. I do not like this, but what can I do? After he had deposited his bags, he went to the waterfront to find out about a wagon train.

He learned that there was one heading out in two days. We have to buy provisions. He will arrange for a wagon and horses on my behalf, but he left the provisioning to me.

To me! What do I know about staples and supplies for a wagon journey west? I must consult with someone, perhaps one of the other women who are going. I will go down to the waterfront and see what I can discover. In my new life I need to be bold and courageous, never my habit at home.

First Edition
First Printing: August 2009

Published in 2009 in conjunction with Tekno Books.

Set in 11 pt. Plantin.

Printed in the United States on permanent paper.

 

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