"Mary, are you sure--are you really sure this is the best thing to do?"
Mary Travis turned from supervising the man who was loading the little "Army" printing press, only a foot across, into her wagon, and faced her next-door neighbor and very dear friend, Eleanor Pruitt. "Are you so sure it isn't, Elly?" she responded, turning the younger woman's question back on her.
Eleanor gestured helplessly, hands playing with her green plaid taffeta day dress, stylishly a-froth with flounces edged with green velvet ribbon and fragrant with lavender. Her hoopskirt was fully ten yards around the hem, and practicality be damned, where Mary's, barred by the conventions of bereavement from being too full, was barely half that. "Oh, if I knew, do you think I'd ask? It's just that-- that Fort Sedgwick is so far, and what they say about Jamesburg--and after what happened to Steven--"
" What happened to Steven,' " Mary interrupted, "is exactly the reason I have to go. I can't expect Billy to recover if he has to live his life surrounded by the very same scene where he watched his father die. He's only barely starting to come out of it now, and it's been almost nine months."
"But further west?" Eleanor insisted. "Why not go back East? That would be a change of scene too, and surely you have family--you've spoken of your sisters--"
"Oh, yes." Mary's lips compressed briefly. "Yes, I have family." Bitter memory swept her back to the days when she was Mary Randall, the oldest in a family of five girls and a constant disappointment to her mother and sisters, so dark and calm and beautiful, who seemed to find it so easy to be clean and good. Mary had stood out among them like a white wolf in a pack of gray ones, with her almost white- blonde hair, her blue-gray eyes and unfashionably tall, slender, straight-shouldered frame. And, like that wolf, she had had to fight with everything in her to survive. It wasn't that her family had ever been cruel or neglectful; indeed she had had everything a well-to-do Philadelphia merchant's daughter could need or want, including an excellent education. It was simply that they were determined she must be forced to fit into their mold, into the picture they had of where a girl belonged, and she had ideas of her own about what her life should be.
She'd been no more than six years old when she began displaying the rebelliousness of her character. She was out with her governess, who despite the fact that Mary was at that time her sole charge--Varina was three, Jessie two, and Elizabeth and Ruth weren't even born till Mary was seven and nine respectively--found her to be quite a handful, and as they came even with the three steps up to the double- doored Gothic portal of the Episcopal church Mary dashed all the way up them and down again. "Mary!" Miss Elsie rebuked her. "Young ladies don't behave like that! If I told your mamma how you run and scuff your shoes she'd take you to the shoemaker and have brass toes and heels put on!"
"I wish she would!" cried Mary defiantly, for she much admired the shoes of the Wilson boys next door. She was already walking atop the retaining wall that reared above the sidewalk. She executed the corner post, gained the other angle, and almost fell, and Miss Elsie gasped. "Mary, you're showing your drawers! Now I shall tell!" She broke into a brisk walk. "I will not be seen with you!"
Mary followed at her own pace, cut across the corner of the rear lawn of the church, caught up with the governess as she came around, and, scorning the gate, leaped clear over the iron railing, nearly knocking over a couple that was slowly sauntering past. She was always doing things like that, it seemed: driving her hoop from her own gate to the foot of Mullins's Hill, more than a mile, and without stopping turning and racing home again; sliding down the hall near her father's study, zealously trying for a new distance record with each swoop; ladling a heaping spoonful of strawberry conserve onto a steaming scone at breakfast or tea, stuffing it whole into her mouth, and brushing the crumbs roughly away with a lace-trimmed sleeve before taking off down the stairs at a most unladylike gallop. At eight she was tall, thin, narrow-chested, with bright eyes under a broad brow and a fearless manner. She took thorough joy in skating and pony-riding, and on her swing she pumped higher and harder than any of her friends, flying so high that for a heart-stopping moment at the top of each arc she could see the tops of all the blossoming fruit trees in the yard, over the house roof and even into the swallows' nests along the barn eaves, and then back and down again with thrilling speed. This is the way birds feel, she would think, or maybe fish in the river. Yes, and horses too, galloping over level turf as fast as they can go. And she would shut her eyes, imagining herself a soaring bird, a fish, or a horse with mane streaming in the wind--any creature that was free to live its life according to the dictates of its instincts and needs rather than those imposed from without by a society of which it felt no part.
Only her father truly understood and helped her. Perhaps it was because she was his oldest, whom he had hoped and expected would turn out to be a boy, or perhaps it was simply that by the time she was nine he had lost hope of ever having a son: Ruth's was a difficult birth, and his wife's doctor gravely informed him that she would have no more children. He always said Mary's character was much like his, and when he was away from home he would write of how he missed his Mary, with "her quick and ready services, her agile limbs and boundless curiosity, her penetrating mind and tear-shedding heart, alive to all moving, breathing things." He taught her to admire the kingly virtues--honor, truth, valor--over the polite arts and graces, so timid and attenuated, that had transformed the pioneer woman of his father's and grandfather's day into a hothouse flower, and the ideal of delicacy, in its physical sense of weakness, that had come to be seen as an essential element of beauty. He taught her to favor "moderation in all things"--including "woe, want, waste, poverty, excessive riches, murder, arson, slander, fever, contagion, lust, covetousness, drunkenness, gluttony, lying, robbery, cruelty, theft, and above all injustice." It was he who introduced her to Latin: she must have been no more than five or six when one evening, after her visiting boy-cousins had been talking of what they had seen and done that day in the woods, he brought out one of his books and said he was going to read "a poem about woods like ours." And he began reading the rich vibrating verses of Horace in the original. Mary could catch only a word here and there (she was delighted and fascinated to learn, later, that Latin was one of the roots from which her own English sprang), but she loved the music of the sound, like wind in the pines or water against rocks. When she was ten he began taking her quail hunting with him in the early autumn, letting her carry the game bag until she got too tired, then sitting down to read aloud from a pocket edition of the Odyssey while they ate their sandwiches; and when she begged and pleaded to be taught both languages, he put her to studying with a neighbor who was a clergyman, and who gave her a good grounding in mathematics as well. Her governess taught her to memorize poetry and to paint on fine china, and gave her lessons in music, singing, elocution, fine embroidery, history, and literature; her mother taught her fine sewing--how to roll and whip raw edging, hemstitch with tiny, delicate needles, make tatting and hairpin lace, and embroider; but it was her father who insisted that she go, not to a fashionable finishing school where her studies would be confined to conversational French, piano, singing, drawing, embroidery, waxwork, needlework, painting, and only those items of "literature" thought suitable for a young lady's eyes, but to a Quaker finishing school (the Quakers espoused total equality of the sexes, believing in the presence of God within human beings regardless of whether male or female) where she was offered courses in, among other things, English, Greek, algebra and trigonometry, logic, orthography, geography with the use of maps and globes, the elements of astronomy, natural philosophy, chemistry, botany, geology, zoology, natural theology, rhetoric, and history. When she first began browsing through his bookshelves, he asked her not to read Gibbon's Decline and Fall, or Tom Jones, but there were plenty of books there that he hadn't mentioned, so she read Tom Paine, Voltaire, Hume, Rousseau, and Mary Wollstonecraft, all of whom fed her hungry young mind with dangerously new and exhilerating ideas. He sent her to a riding master who taught her to go over a full steeplechase course--two water barriers, two fences, a high privet hedge in a foot-wide trough, an Irish barricade (which was a high mound of brushwood with a ditch just beyond, invisible to the horse until he made his leap) in the bend of the hairpin-shaped course, a water jump, a fence, a hedge, a wider and deeper water jump, and last, passable only if you cleared the previous barrier perfectly and your horse kept stride, a high plank fence.
Once when she went riding with some friends, she somehow got aboard a handsome black with the disconcerting habit of never permitting another horse to pass him: he must always be well out in front. Expected to trot decorously along with a group, he became excited by the competition, took the bit in his teeth and bolted. Mary was powerless to check him, owing in part to the fact that she was riding sidesaddle, which was a nearly impossible position for mounting a horse and expecting to control it, and the other girls saw only a black streak disappearing over the hill. When at last they overtook the pair, a mile further along, they found the black standing dejectedly by the roadside, but Mary was still in the saddle; she had forced him into the fence on his right, which, since her feet were on the left, had saved them from a crushing, and he had reared and hit it so hard that she, typically, was less worried about herself than him--"I'm afraid he's hurt," she said, though later he proved not to be. She admitted that she had been a little frightened, but mostly busy trying to stay on. The other girls agreed that she was a perfectly splendid horsewoman, and just too brave for words!
She walked with a lithe, swinging stride--almost marching down the street in a way that marked her as unusual in a day when most girls walked with the mincing gait that was considered refined and decorous. She read all sorts of questionable things--not only Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott, whom she greatly admired, and the thoroughly acceptable Dickens, but Madame de Stael, who made no distinction between the sexes, treated men in the same manner as women, and knew that genius had no sex, and the diabolical, fascinating Byron, with his heroes of stormy passions, often victims of profound melancholy, possibly tainted with madness, that goaded them into depravity. She devoured Almqvist's Sara Videbeck, which exposed boldly feminist ideas that shocked its readers, and Jane Eyre, although some critics accused it of indecency, because Jane, in her "unwomanly" way, admitted to Rochester that she loved him. She loved the wild rustic drama of Wuthering Heights, with its self-destructive hero Heathcliff, and read Miss Fuller's Woman in the Nineteenth Century, a plea for the economic and intellectual emancipation of her sex. She was constantly seeking out information about notable women, living or dead, whom she could admire, and found, much to her amazement and gratification, that there were a great many of them--from Semiramis, the celebrated queen of Babylon, to Ida Reyer Pfeiffer, a Viennese widow who, at the age of forty- five, commenced a decade and a half of noteworthy travel from Iceland to China to South America. One of her friends told her, "Your feelings are always so strong, Mary. I wish they weren't. They'll be the ruination of you." But Papa proudly declared, "She's as impulsive and generous as they come, and also as imaginitive. She builds a picture in her mind of a person or a situation, and she won't change it, no matter what. She's as stubborn as she is sensitive. And when she sets out to do something, or have it done--watch out!"
He died when she was going on seventeen. The family was left in comfortable circumstances, but Mary had lost her staunchest ally. Her mother thought she should set her sights on nothing higher than catching a good husband. Mary loved to play chess, and saw no reason why she shouldn't play to win. "Men don't feel comfortable with a girl who seems too clever," Mamma said. "You must let them beat you if you don't want to frighten them away." To which Mary replied airily: "Any young man who can be frightened away so easily doesn't deserve me." What she didn't say was that she had increasingly grave doubts about whether she would ever want to get married at all.
It wasn't until she was twenty-four and a half--seven and a half years ago now-- that she did. Mamma sent her to New York to visit an aunt over the Christmas season, telling her as they packed, "We both think it's finally time for you to be considering your own future. Do you want to be like that Miss Grayson from Baltimore?"
Miss Grayson was a ridiculous, faded little sparrow of a woman who had visited them recently. She had corkscrew curls, wore finger mittens, and repeated skittish tales of the many men she had chosen to reject. "Strange as it seems," Mamma continued, "I've been told she could have been married once. But she waited too long."
"I don't know what this has to do with me," Mary said.
"Child, child. Don't let any--any impossible ideas and regrets keep you from seeing what's close to you, and possible. After you reach a certain age, men won't come around."
Mary pretended to be concerned about that, but later she confided to her fifteen-year- old sister Ruth, "I'm afraid Mamma's always going to be disappointed with me. I'm plain, I'm dependable, I'm sensible. I'm a machine that's always in working order, and that's about it. No young man will ever find me attractive, and if one did, I wouldn't be attracted to him. I'm too discriminating. They're all lame-brained or outright stupid, simpering or self-centered, unstable, unsettled-- or else, if they have minds, they think such a thing is wasted on a woman, whose language is generally supposed to be a kind of childish twaddle. They're either flippant, or sentimental, or both. If I were a man, I'd go out and get drunk."
All Ruth--dear, supportive Ruth--could find to say was, "But you're not plain, Mary. Your hair is so beautiful, and you have lovely features, so clear and fine."
Mary would have snorted if she didn't know it would hurt the younger girl's feelings. She knew exactly what Mamma thought. Varina and Jessie were already married and had children, and Elizabeth was the constant center of a swarm of "nice boys." And then there was herself, like a giraffe in a flock of sheep and just about as likely to find another of her kind. At that, even giraffes had other giraffes. Where was there a male human who was her own opposite number? Mary had come to the conclusion that he didn't exist.
New York from mid- December into January was a whirl of social activity. Mary's aunt got her invited to a succession of balls and suppers, including a climactic one on New Year's Eve. "You'll have a good time while you're there," she declared as she helped the girl get dressed. "You always do, Mary; you can talk to anyone. But I want you to make use of your time. You know you could have been married a dozen times in the past few years, if you'd only taken a little trouble. One or two of the men who'll be there tonight would make a good husband for somebody."
"You mean they haven't been spoken for already?"
"Don't be flippant," Aunt Caroline said, though not with anger. "If you'd only make the--"
"Well, suppose I don't want to make the effort? I'm satisfied with things as they are, and if you and Mamma would only relax and see what happens--"
"Mary, you don't get a husband by relaxing. Not these days."
"How are these days different from others?"
At this unreasonable inquiry Aunt Caroline sighed. "Everybody's busier today, more pressed, and I suppose there must be more women and fewer men around, what with all the westering, gold rushes and such. Anyway, this is almost 1853, and men are warier than they used to be." She became earnest: "You'll try to show some interest, now, won't you? But don't be too eager or you'll lose the advantage."
Mary smothered a sigh. What a tightrope one was expected to walk! "All right," she agreed, just to make the older woman happy, because she did care for Aunt Caroline, and knew that she was only trying to advise what she thought was best. "I won't shame you; I won't be- -what do you call it?--impulsive."
Aunt Caroline's nose lifted, and her stare had a hint of dismay. "That isn't enough, Mary; please make the effort. Why, Charles Beckett, whose uncle will be your host, is just thirty-five, and already he's been a General of volunteers in the war. He may even get to be President. It's something to think about."
"If he's so fine, should I do the proposing?"
Aunt Caroline's eyes took on a hurt look. "We're only thinking of your own good."
"I know," said Mary, immediately regretful. But privately she reflected that people always said that when they wanted you to do something unappetizing. At the mirror she considered her aunt's words. She wasn't a belle; she had never deceived herself. Her nose was too strong, her mouth too wide, her forehead aggressively high. Then, furiously, she told herself that in any case she had won her share of glances; and there had even been several proposals. Each time it was a boy of whom her family approved, a "nice" boy, but that was all. Each time Mary had said no, and nobody's feelings were hurt, except perhaps her mother's. "You should smile more," Mamma had once said earnestly, "it changes your whole face." For the better, were the unspoken words; and still, Mary wondered, was she expected to go around grinning all the time? Nevertheless, certain of the young men, tiring of vapid prettiness, often returned to her. If only they would be willing to accept her as she really was.
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