Death Be Not Proud
Myra DePrentice sat at her husband’s substantial walnut desk in his study. She could have done this at her own little cherry wood secretary downstairs, but this was more expedient and closer to him. She dipped the blown glass stylus into the cut crystal inkwell. But when she brought it back it only hovered over the sheet of parchment stationary embossed with his family’s crest. How many times had she teasingly chastised him for the sorry state of his desktop, which clutter extended into the room? She snickered and pushed a soft honey-colored tendril back from her oval face. Enough of this, she thought, and put the nib of the writing instrument to paper. It scratched across the page and leant a restless sadness to the sullen quiet that permeated the entire house. This was the third and final such letter she had written this night, and she needed to get it finished so that she could get them delivered as soon as possible. The sand would soon run through life’s hourglass, and there wasn’t time for tears and reminiscences.
Adam Cartwright poked up the fire in the immense stone fireplace in the large parlor of the big log dwelling he and his family now called home. When the other house had burned, it had been a golden opportunity for change. And superstition made it imperative that he built on a different site. It wouldn’t do to live over the same ground of such tragedy and near tragedy. Would it be inviting further misfortune to do so? He hadn’t cared to find out.
A large, brown, wiry-haired dog reclined beside him, languishing in the warmth of the flames that flickered among the logs. Though it seemed to be little concerned with anything but its own comfort, its round, chocolate eyes stayed on its master’s face.
Angelica Cartwright sat on the wine velvet upholstered settee, one of their newest furniture acquisitions, her dark brown head bowed over her crochet. As the wooden hook worked through the fine thread, her deep violet eyes would flit to him. The way he stood now, staring down into the fire with his broad back to her, made her think of the first time she had ever seen him. Only then he hadn’t been wearing a shirt. A quick breath ran through her as her mind toted out the stored away image. What a prize of inestimable value she had in Adam Stoddard Cartwright.
“It is hard to believe that spring is in this month,” she said, offhandedly. “It resembles December or January more than it does March.”
He grunted and mumbled something but didn’t turn around.
Her hands clenched on the piece that hung from the hook as they dropped into her lap. “What is wrong? I always know when something is disturbing you even when you don’t talk about it.” Her eyes narrowed then she returned to her work. “Does it have something to do with that man that came by right after breakfast?”
He turned half way and peered at her around his shoulder. “Why do you think that?”
Her eyes didn’t come up as the stitches continued to accumulate. “I didn’t hear what he said to you, but I watched you become sullen as he spoke. Then you took the envelope he handed to you and closed yourself off in the study with it.”
“Is there anything you don’t notice?”
“Not much.” And one side of her mouth crooked, but she kept right on working, her eyes still locked on it.
He stood there for a few seconds then sat on the narrow, low table before the settee. He concentrated more on his hands. “Did Pa or either of my brothers ever say anything to you about my time away at college?”
“No, and you have seemed reluctant to talk about it.”
“Not reluctant precisely, but I didn’t wish to…”
Her sharp eyes snapped onto him, and the motion of the hook stopped. “If you dare say bore me, Adam Cartwright, I will get right up and slap you.” She laid her work aside then went to sit on the table next to him. “There is nothing about you that I could ever find boring. I want to know every aspect of your life before we met.” She picked up one of his hands, so much browner, rougher and larger than hers. “You’re more than just my husband. You’re the man I love with all my soul and the father of our sons. And you’re the only thing that truly anchors me to this land. As much as I love it here, without you I couldn’t and wouldn’t stay. Now…, this that is disturbing you so, does it have something to do with your college days?” When still he didn’t look at her, she cupped his chin in her free hand and turned his face to her. She would have had to be blind not to see the anguish lurking behind the dark hazel eyes that she adored so. What could be causing such angst she had no idea, but she fully intended to find out. “Maggie won’t be in to announce supper for a little while yet, so you have plenty of time to tell me about this.” She leaned forward and lightly kissed him on the lips. “Go ahead.”
“When I first arrived at college, being a wild westerner, I wasn’t exactly received with open arms. The staff and faculty were great, but… the other students weren’t that receptive.” He snickered. “But there were four who were willing to get to know me before they passed judgment, and we became a tight circle of friends…. Jurian was like a younger brother, and in those four years we got to know each other very well….. When he was born, his parents were told by the doctor that he probably wouldn’t live to be five. Then they were told that it would be a miracle if the made it to fifteen. And nobody really expected him to graduate, but he was so determined that it didn’t surprise me at all.” He shook his head. “He’s been surprising everybody since he was born…. Well, he’s not surprising anybody any more. That letter…,” his head dropped for a second, “it was from his wife…. He’s on his deathbed and not expected to see the end of the month.”
“Could they be wrong again?”
“Not this time. According to her, he hasn’t been out of their bedchamber in close to a year. And since last month, he’s gotten so weak that he does very little without help.”
“How old is he?”
“Two years younger than me…. Over the years people drift apart, and don’t communicate or see each other like they should. I haven’t written to him in probably ten or so years. But that doesn’t change the fact that he’s still my friend.” His eyes welled, and his chin quivered. “I’m losing an important part of my life…. He’s dying, Angel. He’s dying and I…” But the words choked off. He closed his eyes and the tears broke free of the thick, black lashes to run down his face unimpeded.
Angelica rarely saw him like this, but when she did, it nearly broke her heart. Gently, she pulled his head to her and rested it against her breast. His arms went around her, as she leaned the side of her face against the top of his head and ran her fingers through his hair. She thought about shushing him, but he needed to do this.
His sobs picked up, and he shook in her arms, and she wished she could take this pain away from him. Her hold squeezed around him, and her tears mingled with his heavy, raven hair. In time, she knew that the good memories would crowd out the pain, but for now it was fresh and new. And now he needed her, maybe like he never had.
Angelica sat on the side of the bed and watched as he finished with his packing. Telling him to go to his friend had been the easy part. Telling him to go without her had been like a knife that cut into her.
“Are you sure you won’t come with me?” he said, as he stuffed a shirt into his valise. “I would love for Jurian to meet you and the boys.”
“I’m sure, though maybe not as much as I was last night.”
He turned to her and took her hands in his. “Then come with me.”
“No. What was between you and him was a part of your life long before I was. And this is your time to be with him.” She smiled and touched his cheek. “And when you come home it will be our time, and you can tell me more about him and those days so long ago…. If you want to.”
“I would love to.”
He returned to his packing, and it elicited a frown from her. “You should have let me do that.”
“I have done this before.” He pulled down the latch and closed it with a click. “All finished. Now I need to get going before I miss the stage.”
She went out into the parlor with him, and he pulled the bedroom door closed. Maggie O’Shea was with the boys when their parents came out.
“Are they being good for you, Maggie?” Adam asked, as he put the valise on the low table and got down to the level of his sons.
“Good as gold,” Maggie said, in her hearty Irish brogue.
Adam hated to let go of them, in fact, he hated to leave. But this would be his last chance to see Jurian. He knew that, and so did Angelica. He kissed them and received three open mouthed kisses in return then he reluctantly released the boys and went outside with Angelica.
Adam pulled her into one of the dark recesses of the deep porch. They stood, concealed, behind one of the thick pillars of the three front arches. With gentle hands, he brought her face to him. His head lowered and the taste of her succulent lips made leaving even more difficult. He whispered into her ear then broke free of her and they walked to the waiting sleigh.
“I’ll send you a wire as soon as I get there to let you know I’ve arrived safely.” His dark eyes probed her face as if taking a picture for his mind. “I’ll be home as soon as I can.”
“I know you will. But you just concentrate on enjoying your time with your friend.”
“I will, but you and the boys will still be with me.” Adam patted his front coat pocket then gave her cheek a tender caress and got onto the seat next to the driver. “All right, Juva, let’s go.”
With a jerk of the reins, the horse started off toward the barn. Angelica waved, and he returned it until they disappeared around the now completed structure. She stood there until she could no longer hear the shush of the runners or the horse’s feet as they crunched in the snow, then, with a heavy breath, she turned and went back inside.
Angelica, after a long struggle, had finally gotten the boys to sleep. But now she had to go to bed alone, and the mere thought of it filled her with melancholy. She and Adam had been parted before, and she hated it. But she knew why he had to go, and she hadn’t fought against it.
She had just started to undo the front of her blouse when there came a light tapping at the door.
“Maggie,” she whispered, as she opened it. Then her gaze lowered to the small wooden box in the woman’s hands.
“Mr. Adam told me to give this to you before you turned in tonight.”
Angelica took it from her. “What is it?”
“He didn’t say. Just that you were to have it, and you would know what to do when you opened it.”
“All right, Maggie. Thank you. Why don’t you go on to bed?”
“Thank you, mum, I think I will. Goodnight, mum.”
Maggie left, and Angelica quietly closed the door. The light in the room fell over the intricately carved box in her hands. It was the one that always sat on the end of Adam’s desk, and held letters he had received. Curiosity tickled at the back of her head. She was so tired and thought about waiting until morning to open it. But her curiosity and the fact that it was from Adam made that impossible.
With childlike excitement, she took it to the bed and sat down. She placed it on the mattress before her and raised the lid. Inside was what looked to be a stack of envelopes. On top of them lay a folded sheet of paper. Written on it in his bold script were the words, Open this before you go to bed. Follow the instructions exactly.
“What in the world are you up to now?”
She unfolded the sheet and held it closer to the lamp.
“To my dearest Angel,” she read, softly aloud. “It rends great tears in my heart for us to be parted. But know that for however long we are, you will never be far from my thoughts. And so you will not feel so alone, every night I want you to take me to bed with you. There are twenty-seven envelopes in this box, each containing a letter, sonnet or some other form to tell you of my adoration and how much I miss you. Each night…” her voice lodged in her throat for a second then she continued, “before you turn in, I want you to take one out and read it, then put out the light and feel me by your side, as I have always been. Now goodnight, my beloved. Faithfully and for always your love, Adam.”
“So this is why you were so late in coming to bed last night.”
No one in her life had ever been able to make her feel the way her Adam did. To his men he was the strong, firm, driving force behind the success of the ranch, but to her he was the gentle, devoted, at times, amorous husband and always doting father.
She refolded the note and laid it aside and picked up the top envelope. On it he had written: The First Night.
Her fingers trembled as they pulled out the treasure inside, another folded piece of paper. She opened it up and on it he had sketched a rough portrait of himself. Her eyes traced over the elegant features and the dark eyes that looked back at her. He had captured himself well. Then her gaze went to the words written beneath the image, and they read: This is so our bed will not be so cold.
“Oh, my sweet,” she sobbed, and clutched the rendering close then flopped sideways onto the bed.
Her soft weeping rose to the ceiling and touched the walls but didn’t disturb the boys as they slept nearby in their new cradle. She knew she was behaving like a ridiculous child, but she didn’t care. She missed him so much, and it would only get worse as time passed.
Exhausted, Adam drug himself up the steps of the red brick three-story house. This looked like the kind of place Jurian would live in, and he had no doubt that the senior DePrentice had had it built especially for his son. Topiary trees – in copper urns that had taken on a charming green patina – sat on either side of the heavy ornate front door. He eased his weary body onto the rectangular portico – from which the snow had been meticulously swept away – with its Grecian pillars. He stood there for a few seconds, the valise dangling from his left hand.
For a moment he turned and looked back out into the approaching night. It had been so long since he had been in Boston that time and the majestic country he lived in had clouded his remembrances. And he had forgotten what an altogether beautiful city it was.
The sound of the brass knocker reverberated through the immense vestibule, more a room of its own. A tall, stately man with dark auburn hair – silvering at the temples – and elegant carriage entered from a doorway at the back. His shoes clicked on the highly polished pink marble floor as he crossed to the front door.
Adam had raised his hand to knock again when the door opened.
“Yes, sir, may I help you?”
“I’m here to see Mr. DePrentice.”
“I am afraid that Mr. DePrentice is not receiving guests.”
“I’m Adam Cartwright. We went to college together.”
The man’s face became less severe. “Yes, of course. Mrs. DePrentice told me to expect you. Please do come in.”
The door opened back, and Adam stepped inside. The light of the room dazzled after the gathering darkness from outside.
“I will take your things to your room, and tell Mrs. DePrentice that you are here. Do you wish for me to unpack for you?”
“No, that won’t be necessary. I’ll take care of it.”
“Very well, sir. Please be seated.”
Adam thanked him then the man took his hat, coat and valise and went upstairs.
Adam whistled through his teeth as he began to wander. “These are some digs. But it isn’t surprising for a Boston DePrentice.” Then his expression grew sullen, and the single eyebrow rose. “But money can’t buy everything.”
Portraits of people in 17th and 18th century clothing in fancy gilt frames – which Adam guessed to be relatives – hung about the room. Antique furniture lined the walls papered in golden fleur de lies to the wainscoting, and a curving staircase lead to the second floor.
Adam turned from the scowling man with ruffled sleeves and tri-corn hat. The lady coming toward him was impeccably dressed in the latest fashion – he guessed probably from Paris or London – that flattered her petite figure. She wore a bright smile that bore an edge of sadness, and her clear turquoise eyes sparkled in the light from the crystal chandelier. One side of his mouth crooked clandestinely. He apparently wasn’t the only one with an eye for a beautiful woman.
“Mr. Cartwright,” she reached out and graciously took his hands, “I am so glad you came. We received your telegram that said you were just leaving. But we didn’t expect you this soon.”
“We made good time, in spite of the snow. There were a few hang-ups along the way, but nothing that ate up too much time.”
“You should have let us know you had arrived so that someone could have been sent for you.”
“It’s all right. It was a pleasant walk from the train station.”
“In this weather?” She grinned knowingly. “But then being from Nevada, you are probably used to a lot worse, I dare say. I am Myra DePrentice.”
“I figured as much. Your letter said that you had also written to Sumner Brooks and Haskell Jennings. Have they gotten here yet?”
“Yes, they both arrived a some days ago and are in their rooms awaiting supper.”
“It’ll be good to see them both after so long.” His face became somber, and his eyes seemed to darken. “How’s Jurian?”
He couldn’t miss the brightness leave her face, but she carried on.
“Please come with me. I told Chambers that I would see you to your room, and I will tell you on the way.”
Her dress rustled as he went up the wide staircase alongside her, both in no great hurry.
“The doctors say that Jurian will not be with us much longer.”
“They could be wrong – they have been many times before.”
“I am afraid that they aren’t this time. I even had Dr. Ledeux of Quebec, one of the best in his field, come to see my Jurian.” A profound breath swelled her bosom. “But he said the same thing as all the others…. His will is still strong, but his body has gone on as long as it can…, and the end could come at any time…. I was afraid that you wouldn’t make it.”
“Well, I’m here…. When can I see him?”
“After your long journey, I think you will feel better if you freshen up in your room first. And he was sleeping when I came downstairs.”
They left the stairs, and he followed her down the dimly lit hall.
Adam was impressed by the room that would be his during his stay, and it took a lot to do that. But then, maybe the simple fact it was in Jurian’s house had something to do with that. His valise had been placed on the foot of the bed, and the lamp already lit. “This is very nice. In fact, you have a beautiful home.”
“It was a gift from my father and Jurian’s. They combined finances to build it…. And we have been happy here for ten all too short years.”
“I got the wedding invitation, and I’m still sorry I wasn’t able to make it. So I sent the nicest gift I could think of.”
“Yes, I remember. It was a lovely silver service, and it has been used much. And it is so good to finally meet you. Jurian has told me so much about you. Now, I don’t mean to be rude, but I do need to check on him. Supper will be shortly. Do you wish to come to table or would you prefer if I had a tray sent up to you?”
“I think I would like to take it in my room. It has been such a long day.”
“I will tell Chambers.” Then she politely dismissed herself and left him to his unpacking and to get settled in.
Adam stood there for several seconds then went to the window and looked out past the heavy sapphire draperies. It had darkened quite a bit since he had come inside. Across from the house a man had just finished lighting a street lamp. Its orange glow held back the encroaching shadows, and warmed its area of night.
He riffled through the memories of his college days as if they were pages in a book. Then his friends had been a large part of his life, and they had shared good times together, as well as bad. But then he had returned to Nevada and his father and brothers and a lot had occurred since that day. And it had all very nearly culminated when his path had crossed with one brutal, sadistic man on the road leading from Bantree. Yet, even that – in a round about way – had led him to the most wonderful woman in the world. And another chapter in the life of Adam Cartwright had begun.
Now he had come full circle since he had entered the hallowed halls of that edifice of learning. He had returned to Boston to be reunited with that small clique of friends, with one glaring absence. But not to reminisce about younger and better days but to stand vigil while one of those lives passed out of existence.
His fingers gnarled in the dark blue fabric, and he wanted to cry. But what would that accomplish? It certainly wouldn’t stop the inevitable, or he would bawl like a spanked child. And besides that, Angelica wasn’t here to hold him while he gave vent to his emotions.
Beyond the windows the light had begun to fade into grayness. The streaks
of color that hued the evening sky had lost some of their brilliance as
night pulled down its dark mantle. And off somewhere behind the house, a
wolf howled as if its very life depended on it.
Angelica picked at her meal like a tiny bird pecking at the ground. Her interest in her food lay solely in biding her time until she could turn in and once again delve into Adam’s box. So far she had opened five of the envelopes and savored their contents. The promise of each one at the end of the day lessened her loneliness. Or did it actually heighten it? No matter. They were from him, and they brought his presence to her to keep her warm through the black hours before dawn.
For a moment, the passage of a thought flitted over her face and tugged at the corners of her eyes. Her vacant gaze turned to the window, and her mind reached out to him. Even with so much distance between them she could almost feel him at her side. She absently put her hand to the side of her neck and began to rub.
“Make it soon, my love. Make it soon that you will be with me once again.”
Then guilt saturated her for her selfishness. How soon he came home to her depended on the advent of a man’s death. Her eyes squeezed together, and in the void behind them an odd sensation tickled her brain. Somehow, she knew that Jurian DePrentice – someone which she had never met and never would – would understand. And she didn’t know why.
Adam had just swabbed the remains of tomato soup from the bottom of his bowl with the last morsel of crusty bread and stuffed it into his mouth when someone knocked. Since he didn’t want to be chewing in anyone’s face his jaws worked furiously. He put the empty bowl onto the tray as they rapped again. He tried to answer and nearly succeeded in strangling himself. He spluttered and hacked but managed to wash it down with his final swig of milk.
“Mr. Cartwright,” came from the other side of the door.
Adam’s long legs took him briskly across the expansive room, and he swallowed hard before he opened the door. “Yes, Chambers, what is it?”
“Master Jurian is awake and asking to see you.”
“Great.” He stepped out into the hall, and pulled the door together behind him.
“Did you enjoy your meal, sir?”
“Yes, I did. I hadn’t eaten much today, and it really hit the spot. You can give my compliments to the cook.”
“Very good, sir. I will come back and take your tray down to the kitchen.”
Adam thought to object but decided not to. The man was, after all, only doing his job.
They went across and down the hall to the room on the end. In silence, Chambers courteously opened the door and Adam stepped inside.
A gulp of air filled his lungs as his sight came to rest on the wan figure propped up in the bed. The pale green eyes that he remembered from his youth were focused on his wife’s face. As Adam drew closer, he could see the tiredness in them, and maybe a hint of relief that the long battle would soon end. The wavy sandy red hair, that had always seemed to be a perpetual target of the wind, seemed paler than it had once been.
Adam,” Jurian DePrentice said, cheerily, and the voice wavered slightly. “Come over here so I can get a better look at you.”
Adam went to the bedside, and Jurian reached out to him. Without hesitation, he clasped the hand in both of his, and the clamminess of the skin pressed against his made Adam’s heart turn.
“Oh, you look so good,” Jurian went on. “Though maybe a few more wrinkles since I last saw you.” He laughed and it turned into a spate of coughing.
Adam hung onto the dear hand, and his gaze stayed riveted to the drawn face as it contorted in the spasm. It forced Jurian to pull free from his friend’s grasp, and he sunk back into the pillows. Myra raised from the side of the bed to fill a glass with water then sat right back down, and put it to her husband’s lips. A few small sips quelled the seizure, and his breathing came in heavy, hoarse rasps.
“Sorry,” Jurian gasped, “I should have… known better than to… laugh…. That always happens.”
Adam wanted to come up with some bright, witty comeback, but he only stood there at a loss for words.
Jurian’s breathing had evened out some. “Myra says you have been… well fed and… like your room.”
“Absolutely, on both counts. And it was an enjoyable respite from the long, cold travel.”
“I’m glad…. Have you seen Sumner and Hask?”
“Not yet. There were in their rooms, and I hated to disturb them. But if I know the both of them, at the first opportunity, they’ll seek me out and regale me with their exploits of the last twelve years.”
Jurian blinked lethargically and reached out to take his wife’s hand. “It’s hard to believe that it will soon be thirteen years since the day we graduated…. Do you remember?”
“I remember. It rained right in the middle of everything.” He snickered. “I didn’t think I would ever be that soggy again, but I have. Soggier, in fact.”
A poignant light flickered in Jurian’s weary eyes, and his lids drooped leadenly. “I haven’t been out in the rain for so long…. Sometimes, when I hear it pelting the window…, I close my eyes…” the sides of his mouth quirked infinitesimally, “and pretend I can feel it on my face.” He brushed his other hand lightly over a colorless cheek.
Myra looked around, and Adam could tell that she thought he should go.
“Well, we can talk some more in the morning when we’re both more rested,” Adam said, as cheerfully as he could muster. “We have a lot to catch up on. And I have a surprise for you.”
“A surprise?” Jurian said, drowsily.
“Yes, but you’re gonna havta wait.” He gave Jurian – who seemed to be on the verge of dozing – a gentle pat on the shoulder. “See you in the morning, buddy.”
Myra’s eyes eloquently said ‘thank you’. Adam nodded his understanding then left the room. Once in the hall, he felt his composure finally give way to the cracks as an arduous sigh wracked his long frame. From an early age, he had seen the many facets of death, and his life on the trail, hardships in a rugged country, and his father had all worked in concert to prepare him for it. But some things one could never truly be prepared for, and the death of someone close was one. There had been many in the past, and he knew that there would be more as he continued his journey toward that inevitable end for himself.
His head dropped into his hand, and he suddenly felt so tired and so old. And his urge to see his wife and sons engulfed him. Behind his eyelids he could see those splendid faces, and it smoothed the sharp edge from his sadness. He would take them to bed with him to get him through this night, and the ones that followed, and tomorrow he would get to know his friend again, in what time he had left.
Angelica closed the bedroom door to seal her and the boys into their sanctuary for the night. They sat up in their cradle watching her with shimmering, watchful eyes as she hastily dressed for bed. Little black-capped heads followed her every movement as she flitted like a dragonfly about the room. Garments were haphazardly draped over the back of the chair to be hung up in the morning. Right now she just wanted to get settled and delve into Adam’s box.
“There,” she said, triumphantly, as the gown’s tail dropped around her ankles. “Now we’re ready.”
She put each baby on the big bed and sat him against the pillows. Then she got the wooden box from the dresser and joined her sons.
“Let’s see what Daddy has left us for tonight.”
She opened back the lid then – with eager fingers – picked up the top envelope. On this one Adam had written The Sixth Night. She pulled back the flap and paper crinkled as she removed the sheet and unfolded it.
“First Love by John Clare,” she read, into the room’s stillness.
Her glittering gaze darted to the boys then she continued.
“I ne’er was struck before that hour
With love so sudden and so sweet.
Her face it bloomed like a sweet flower
And stole my heart away complete.”
A quick breath ran through her.
“My face turned pale, a deadly pale.
My legs refused to walk away,
And when she looked what could I ail
My life and all seemed turned to clay.
And then my blood rushed into my face
And took my eyesight quite away.
The trees and bushes around the place
Seemed midnight at noonday.”
She stopped long enough to wipe the tears away with the back of her hand so that she could see to finish.
“I could not see a single thing,
Words from my eyes did start.
They spoke as chords do from the string,
And blood burnt round my heart.
Are flowers the winter’s choice
Is love’s bed always snow
She seemed to hear my silent voice
Not love appeals to know.”
A small whimper left her, and her teeth clamped onto her lower lip.
“I never saw so sweet a face
As that I stood before.
My heart has left its dwelling place
And can return no more.”
Angelica’s hands tightened on the paper and tears once again flooded her vision. Her dearest one – so far away from her this night – had just told her that he loved her. She blinked and rivulets traced down her cheeks to drip from her chin. Her eyes lowered to the bottom of the page, and she read with quivering voice.
“My heart has left its dwelling place
And can return no more.”
With a ragged sniffle, she refolded the paper and put back into its envelope. Tenderly, she placed it on the bottom of the stack then gently closed the lid. She had to fight the impulse to read the rest of them. But his instructions had been one each night while he was away.
She returned the box to its place on the dresser then came and climbed into bed with her sons.
Adam’s portrait that he had drawn for her had been leaned against the lamp on the bed table. She picked it up, kissed the palm of her hand then placed it against the beloved visage. “Goodnight, sweetheart. Stay safe.”
She put it back, then blew out the lamp and settled down. She raised the covers, and the boys snuggled close to their mother. Small arms went around her as she held them close. In the darkness, she could hear the whisper of their breathing and it relieved some of her ache.
As they lay there, a petite hand brushed the moisture on her cheek then a tiny voice spoke. “Muhmuh.”
Angelica’s heart took off like a wild horse being chased by the wind. She wanted to jump up and light the lamp to see which one had said his first word. But it didn’t matter. He had said ‘mother’. She pulled his hand down and pressed it to her lips. “Yes, dear, Mother.”
She could feel his thick hair against her throat as he nestled close. Then his brothers fought to get closer, and she thought she would be crowded out of the bed, but that didn’t matter either. Her babies were here with her, and within them lived their father. And the night didn’t seem so lonely after all.
The sun was on the verge of rising when Adam came down for breakfast. He had bathed, shaved and put on fresh clothes, and he felt like a new man. He was eager to go in and see Jurian, but it was early yet. And, besides that, he had to take care of his inner self. His stomach gurgled as a reminder that it had been neglected for far too long and needed sustenance.
He inhaled as he walked briskly toward the most wonderful smells. Unfamiliar with the layout of the house, he let his nose lead him straight to the dining room.
Just inside the doorway, sat a large buffet loaded with everything a starving man could desire. He picked up a plate from the stack and started to mound it with scrambled eggs from the silver tureen and didn’t bother to take heed of anything else in the room.
“You know, Hask, I think we’re being snubbed. Why he didn’t even come up to see us last night when he got in.”
“It sure does look that way. And after all these years.”
“If I had known of the kind of company I had to keep just to get something to eat around here, I would’ve gone out,” Adam said, as he laid several strips of bacon next to the eggs and didn’t turn around.
“Tisk, tisk, the grudges that some people do bear.”
Adam finished filling his plate then poured some coffee and took the whole thing to the table.
Sumner Brooks had changed very little. He was still slim as a beanpole, though gray had begun to stripe his thick chestnut brown hair. Haskell Jennings, on the other hand, had packed on thirty or so pounds, which made him look shorter, and his thin ash blond hair had receded considerably. But Adam still recognized a dear friend.
Adam pulled out a chair and sat down across from them. As he poked the first bite into his mouth he couldn’t help but be aware of two sets of hawkish eyes fixed on him. He washed it down with a sip of hot coffee then looked through his eyebrows and a smile formed on his finely sculpted mouth. “It has been a long time, way too long. You’re both looking well.” His gaze zeroed in on Haskell. “You especially.”
“I can’t help it that my landlady is an excellent cook, particularly when it comes to her cakes and pies,” Haskell said, with a lopsided frown.
“You always did have a weakness for sweets,” Adam said, as his knife sawed through his ham. “I told you it would catch up with you some day.”
“I’m not complaining.” Haskell leaned back in his chair and patted his round belly with both hands.
“You will in a few years,” Sumner said, and took a drink of his coffee. “We were beginning to wonder if you were going to make it in time. I’ve been here for six days, and Hask for five. But then Philadelphia and Concord are both closer to Boston than Nevada.”
Adam swallowed. “I would say.” He split his biscuit and loaded it with soft butter and honey.
Sumner’s nose wrinkled. “Are you actually going to eat that?”
“I thought I would.” Adam took a man-sized bite as if flaunting it and honey ran from the corner of his mouth. He wiped it away with his napkin, and didn’t look at his friends.
“That’s what you get for showing off.” Sumner leaned his elbow on the table and rested his chin in his hand. Then his bronze eyes lowered to Adam’s left hand, and his forehead furrowed. “Well, I’ll be. When did that happen?”
“When did what happen?” Adam asked, nonchalantly, as he kept at his food.
Sumner reached out and tapped Adam’s wedding band. “That. Don’t tell me you found a woman that would actually have the likes of you. What’s she like, and how long have you been married?”
“You mean, is she pretty and does she have sisters. And the answer is yes and yes, but they’re all married.”
Sumner’s brow creased, and he snapped his fingers. “That’s always been the story of my life. Now let’s hear all about this woman and how you came to meet her. And I want all the sordid details.”
“You’ll have ‘em.” Some of the brightness left Adam’s face. “And some aren’t so pretty.”
Sumner and Haskell settled back into breakfast while Adam filled them in on what led up to his meeting Angelica.
“I almost died out there on that road,” Adam said, and his interest in his food waned for the moment, “and for no other reason than a complete stranger wanted it that way.” He could see the darkness seep into his friends’ faces. “If I hadn’t been found as quickly as I was I for certain would’ve done just that.” He turned his attention back to his plate and began to stab his fork mindlessly into his ham. “Then there was the amnesia that hung on for close to a month.” He snickered. “It was my kid brother that finally brought me out of it.”
“Little Joe,” Haskell spoke up.
Adam looked up at him and love glittered in his dark hazel eyes. “You remembered.”
Haskell smiled. “Why not? You talked about him and your father and other brother often enough. And your cook’s name was Hop Sing.” He threw out his thick chest. “See, I still remember.”
By this time the slice of ham had become quite perforated. “Joe refused to give up on me even when I almost slugged him.” Adam shook his head. “When he wants to be – which is a goodly part of the time – he can be like a hornet in a bottle, and his buzzing can drive you crazy…. But he means well, and I guess he thought his brother was worth it.”
“I guess he wasn’t the only one.”
Adam could see the sincerity in Sumner’s bronze eyes, not that he would have ever doubted its presence.
“Now,” Sumner said, robustly, and gave the back of Adam’s hand a sharp smack, “let’s hear about this wife of yours. I think we’ve dangled from your line long enough. What’s her name?”
Sumner groaned. “Is she as angelic as her name?”
“I think she is.”
Someone cleared their throat from the doorway, and the men’s attention changed its focus.
“Yes, Chambers, what is it?” Sumner asked.
“Gentlemen, I regret to interrupt your breakfast, but Master Jurian has eaten and is asking to see the three of you as soon as you are finished.”
“Very well, Chambers,” Sumner dabbed his napkin at his mouth, “you can tell him that we’ll be there as soon as Adam is done eating.”
“Very good, sir.” Then Chambers turned and left.
Adam stopped playing with his food and got down to serious business.
“Are you going to tell us about your Angelica?” Sumner asked.
“I’ll do that when we get upstairs. Right now I just want to finish so we can go see Jurian. And I suggest you both do the same.”
“Then I think I’ll have some more hotcakes with plenty of that thick maple syrup and butter,” Haskell said, and got up with his plate.
“I’ll just have my coffee while you two completely gorge yourselves.”
“Sounds good to me,” Adam said, and gave Sumner one of his famous winks.
Sumner sipped and watched him over the rim of his cup. He knew he would never be able to work from his mind the horrid images that Adam’s telling of his ghastly ordeal had placed there, not that he should even try. He and Haskell and Jurian had kept in better touch through the years by virtue of living closer to one another. But, as he recalled, Adam had been the strongest in the group, and for that he sighted his friend’s upbringing and natural proclivity to care for others. He took a sip and used it to muffle a chuckle. It was good to have Adam back in his life, and after Jurian was gone he intended to keep in contact with this one. His friends had begun to thin out, and he needed to hang tenaciously onto the ones he had left.
“Oh, stop it, will you?” Jurian said, gruffly, and leaned back into the pillows. “You know what happens when I laugh.”
“Well, it’s the truth,” Haskell said, in his own defense, from the chair near the window. “She was the ugliest woman I had ever seen in my life. And to this day, if I find out who told her I was interested in her, I’ll probably wind up in prison for murder.”
Adam’s eyes darted up clandestinely and connected with Sumner’s equally puckish ones.
“Although,” Haskell continued, “I would consider it justifiable. I don’t think there’s a jury in the world that would convict me.”
The door opened and Chambers came in with a tray that held a squat green bottle, a spoon and a small blue bowl of sugar cubes. “Excuse me, gentlemen. It is time for Mr. Jurian’s nerve tonic.”
Jurian’s face twisted into a grimace. “This is one thing I won’t miss.” He eyed the bottle dubiously as Chambers poured some of its thick, milky contents into the bowl of the spoon.
“Do I need to move?” Adam asked, from where he sat on the side of the bed.
“No, sir,” Chambers said, with a slight grin, “you are fine where you are. And this won’t take long.”
“Couldn’t I just skip it today?” Jurian asked. “I don’t think it really does any good anyway.”
“Now, Master Jurian, you know that this is for your own good.”
“Yes, I know, but I think it’s just a perfect waste of time. At this point, I don’t think it is going to alter anything. I will die when I am going to and nothing that comes out of that bottle, or any bottle, for that matter, is going to change that.”
It jarred Adam to hear Jurian talk so casually about it, as if he did this sort of thing everyday.
“Now please, Chambers, couldn’t we dispense with it just this once?”
“Do you wish for me to go back downstairs and tell Mistress Myra that you
refused to take it?”
Jurian took a deep, laborious breath, and it threatened to make his cough, but he kept it under control. “All right, you tyrant.” His pale green eyes drifted to his friends. “I don’t know what he is going to do when he doesn’t have me around to bully any more.”
Chambers leaned down and extended the spoon out, careful not to spill it. Jurian opened his mouth and in it went. He tried to keep his composure, but his expression still told how badly it tasted. Chambers handed him a sugar cube, and Jurian popped it into his mouth and began to suck on it. “I don’t see how anything that tastes so bad can make you feel good.”
Chambers gathered up the things onto the tray and turned to go. “Would anyone like a sugar cube?”
Three hands went into the bowl, and Chambers was thanked then he went out and closed the door.
“I feel like a little boy again,” Haskell said, around his cube. “My mother used to always give me sugar when I got too big for my britches.”
“That explains a lot,” Sumner said, and put his sweet tidbit into his mouth.
Haskell gave him a dirty look then settled back into the chair.
“Now that we have that out of the way, I vaguely remember that last night, Adam, you said that you had a surprise for me.”
Adam’s lone eyebrow rose. “That I certainly did.”
“And if it’s what I think it is, you just wait,” Sumner said, and parked his thin frame on the corner of the dresser.”
“I got married year before last.”
Jurian’s eyes went wide. “You? We always figured you were too much the restless and independent kind for that. She must be pretty special.”
Adam puffed his chest out. “More special than simple words can tell.”
Jurian sighed. “I wish I could see her. I know she has to be beautiful.”
“I don’t see why you can’t.” Adam reached into his shirt pocket and took out a small photograph and handed it to Jurian. “I had that taken last November so I could always have my family with me.”
“I knew she had to be. And such fine looking babies, you have.”
“Babies?” Sumner said, as he shot off the dresser. “You didn’t say anything about babies.”
Adam gave him a sly glance. “You didn’t ask me.”
“Ha, ha, ha-ha, ha.”
Sumner and Haskell came to the bed and peered over Jurian’s shoulder at the sepia photograph he held.
Sumner whistled. “How did you ever manage to land something like that? That has to be maybe the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. What color are those eyes?”
Sumner’s face pinched as if the mere thought of them caused him pain.
“Are those girls or boys?” Haskell asked.
“Boys, of course. Adam, after his father, Benjamin, after mine and Hiram, after Angelica’s. We call them Addy and Benjy and Hi. And I call her Angel.”
“Angel,” Sumner said, as his eyes returned to the picture. “It fits.”
Some of the lightness seemed to drain from Jurian’s face. “I’m sorry that I could never give Myra any children. I know she has always wanted them.”
“You’ve been happy together, haven’t you?” Adam asked.
Jurian smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “Yes, we have, as much as my frail health would allow.”
Adam reached out and patted the back of his hand. “Then you’ve given her plenty.”
Jurian’s darkness only deepened to the point of depression. “But soon I’ll be gone and then what will she have? All my money, this house, possessions? And what good will that do her on a lonely night?”
Adam, Sumner and Haskell exchanged quick looks.
“She’ll have memories,” Adam spoke up. “And a person can build a lot in ten years.” He gave Jurian’s hand another pat. “As long as she has those she’ll never truly be parted from you.”
“Adam’s right.” Sumner gave him a broad, heartening grin. “She won’t be alone. No one ever truly is. Or weren’t you paying attention in church?”
Adam’s eyes rose to his friend’s face. Sumner still had the ability to amaze him.
“You’re both right, of course.” Jurian let his head sink into the fluffy pillow. “It’s just that I sometimes find myself worrying about her when I won’t be here to look after her.” He sniggered faintly. “Not that I would have ever been that good in a knife fight.”
“There are far more ways to look after those we care for than being able to wield a sword or a sidearm,” Haskell said, and rested a reassuring hand on Jurian’s shoulder. “And I think I speak for all three of us when I say that we will when you can’t.”
“You do,” Adam and Sumner said, in unison.
“Well, that puts to rest something that has been troubling my mind for some time,” Jurian said, as he handed the photo back to Adam. “And I couldn’t ask for better guardians than the three best friends I have ever had.”
Adam slid the picture into his shirt pocket. He then reached out and put his hand over Jurian’s, then Sumner put his over Adam’s, and Haskell put his over Sumner’s. “All for one, and one for all,” they intoned.
The door opened, and Myra brushed blithely into the room with a tray like a pale lavender fairy. “And do I even want to know what you four are conspiring?”
The men’s hands immediately pulled apart as if they had never been so close.
“That is not a thing for a lady to know or even inquire about,” Jurian said, and tilted his head teasingly to one side.
“I dare say,” she said, as she placed the tray on Jurian’s lap. “But I did not come in here to delve into the secrets of a man’s world. It is time for your Scotch Broth.”
Jurian sneered in distaste. “Everyday at this time for the past year it’s the same thing, Scotch Broth.”
“You know what the doctor said,” she said, as she placed the napkin over her husband’s chest.
“Yes, yes, I’m well aware of what he said. You know, someday I would like to have a large lobster with drawn butter and a chilled bottle of Chardonnay just so I could watch him turn pale down to his boots.”
“I believe you would.” Adam patted Jurian’s leg then came to his feet. “Now we should go and let you eat.”
“You will come back later, won’t you?”
“A steam locomotive couldn’t keep us away,” Sumner said, as he started out after Adam and Haskell. “You just let us know when you’re ready.”
Once out in the hall with the door closed behind them the brightness that Adam, Sumner and Haskell had presented quickly evaporated.
“Have you noticed that since yesterday Jurian looks more tired?” Sumner said, as he glanced back at the door.
“That’s nothing new,” Haskell said, with a grin that looked more false than sincere. “He’s always looked a bit washed out.”
“I agree with Sumner. When I got here he at least had a little sparkle to his eyes, but even that’s gone. And he seems to be forcing himself to just be able to talk.” Adam shook his head. “I’m afraid that this is the beginning of what will be the end.”
The men stood in silence, the import of Adam’s statement driving home what they had tried so hard to avoid since the letters had arrived. But now that the thought had been voiced, denial was no longer an option. They had no way of knowing when death would come, only the inevitability of it and that it would be fairly soon now.
Since the second day of Adam’s absence, Angelica had buzzed about the house like an agitated bee with more flowers than time. And being still for long periods – unless it was spent with the boys – seemed to only aggravate her restlessness.
Maggie stood just outside the kitchen door, a dishtowel dangling from one hand. Her nutmeg eyes followed her mistress as she moved about the parlor with a dust cloth. She had known Angelica all her life, and she knew her as well as she would her own daughter. Independent, levelheaded, and not one prone to copious amounts of tears, she had always been a match for any problem that presented itself. But since she had become the wife of Adam Cartwright; much had changed. Spates of deep silence became the rule and crying occurred frequently when they were parted for long periods, almost as if separation was physically painful. Maggie had seen people desperately in love before, and she knew that it now consumed her girl. That it could take a perfectly sensible person, and turn them into a weepy facsimile she had never experienced personally, and it boggled her mind.
“That’s enough,” she said, to herself, as she stuffed the towel into her apron pocket.
Angelica went into Adam’s study, and hadn’t even noticed Maggie coming toward her. This had become the most special room in the house, since just being in it brought him closer to her. In here she found herself surrounded by the things that were decidedly his: books, a guitar, his collection of writing implements, and the big mahogany desk imported all the way from San Francisco.
Angelica began to go over the floor-to-ceiling bookcases along one wall with her dust cloth.
“Didn’t you dust in here yesterday?”
“Yes,” Angelica didn’t stop or look around, “but you know how notorious books are for collecting dust.”
“You have been so busy all morning. Why don’t you take a rest, and go play with the boys?”
“They’re asleep.” Angelica climbed up the ladder that ran along a metal rod at the top of the bookcases then continued with her dusting. “And I had such a time getting them to sleep that I don’t dare disturb them.”
Maggie’s hands clenched and she winced as she watched Angelica lean out to the side to clean the next shelf of books. The ladder gave a shudder and so did her stomach. She rushed forward and grabbed it with both hands to steady it.
“I have the perfect idea. Why don’t you come into the kitchen, and I’ll brew us a nice pot o’ tea. Now doesn’t that a lot better than workin’?”
Angelica glanced down at her and smiled. “All right, Maggie. You win.”
Maggie’s heartbeat slowed, and she felt a sense of relief when Angelica’s feet were once again on solid ground.
“We can get out our prettiest tea things and that tin o’ Swedish cookies Mr. Adam bought in Bantree last month.”
“That would be splendid, Maggie.”
Angelica gave her a gentle pat and went out. Maggie turned her eyes to the ladder and felt her pulse increase again. This was the third time since moving into the house that she had caught her girl doing this, and she didn’t know how many had gotten past her. She took a deep breath and pushed away a black thought then went out and closed the door.
Angelica sipped at her tea while Maggie put her pie into the oven. She knew this had simply been a ruse. Maggie’s subtleties were rarely lost on her, though once in a while one did slip past unobserved. She sipped again and let her eyes do the smiling.
“I thought you were the one that was all agog to have tea, but ever since we came in here you haven’t been still long enough. Now if you don’t sit right now I’ll find something else to do.”
Maggie glanced dubiously back at the stove. “All right, Miss Angelica, but I’m afraid it can only be for as long as it takes the pie to bake.” Maggie came to the small table and seated herself. “I certainly don’t want to burn it.”
“That will be satisfactory.” Angelica poured then handed her the cup. “I’m afraid I don’t have any Irish whiskey to put in it.”
Maggie’s eyes shot to her mistress’ face, and her pupils nearly engulfed the nutmeg.
“Yes, I know, and have for some time.”
“I learned it from me father when I was but a girl. Himself did so like his tea sweetened with it.”
“And Daddy liked absinthe in his.”
“Absinthe.” Maggie’s face scrunched, and she shivered. “I never could understand how such a sensible man as your sainted father could drink that vile potion. I tipped me tongue to it once and thought I would go blind.” She shivered again.
Angelica laughed, the first time she had allowed herself that small pleasure in days. “I never cared for it either. Fortunately, he only put in a small amount. And Mother didn’t like it, especially after what happened to poor Mr. Perkins.”
“Ah, yes. Maggie shook her head. “A pity that, and to such a dear man. But then he did drink a sight more than your father. I’ve heard he even took the bottle to bed with him.”
“Yes, and it drove him insane, or, at least, so people were saying, including the doctors and the coroner.” She huffed and took a sip.
“It must’ve been so, for no sane person would ever step out in front of an omnibus and rant like a madman until he was run down. To be crushed under the feet of those huge horses as he was.” She crossed herself and took a good slug of her tea.
“And what with omnibus drivers being notoriously reckless.”
“Yes, and that bull ox Fergus McCarthy was the worst of the bad lot. He could o’ run down his own mother and not known it ‘til three days hence. Not that he would o’ cared even if he had.”
For the fourth time, Maggie saw her girl’s gaze flick to the window over the sink. And she knew that those deep eyes were looking far away. They could not see into the heart of Boston, try as they would, but they could see into the heart of her beloved Adam, no matter the distance between them.
“It’s sinful to wish for the death of another.”
“I don’t, though I think it will be a blessing to end the poor man’s suffering.” Angelica raised her cup and it hovered near her lips before it clinked back onto the saucer. “Adam told me a little about him when we went to bed the night before he left. One who has lived their life in robust good health or even moderately can’t possibly begin to understand what it has been for him. To live every day of your life and wonder if each one will be your last. He was never allowed to run and play like other children, and he had no friends his age. And his parents were so frightened that it would happen again they never had another one. So he spent his time with books.” She smiled. “Adam said his favorite authors were James Fenimore Cooper, Alexander Dumas and, would you believe, the Bronte sisters. And he hung on every word of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Her eyes lowered to her hands. “I find myself wishing I could have met him…. And when I think of his wife, and what she must be going through…,” her voice broke on the last word. Her eyes squeezed shut. “If I were to…”
Maggie reached out and patted her hand. “I wouldn’t worry too much. Mr. Adam is a fine, strapping man with the heart of an elephant.”
Angelica’s eyelids raised, and the look that met Maggie made her breath shudder.
“But accidents happen and even healthy, strong people can and do get sick…. Maggie, I couldn’t… I can’t…” Her eyes closed again, and her head fell as her hands clamped around the cup.
Maggie knew she saw a tear drip into Angelica’s cup. Yes, love had indeed transformed her girl. And she couldn’t say she didn’t like the change.
“From You Have I Been Absent by William Shakespeare,” Angelica read, softly aloud, so that she wouldn’t disturb her sleeping sons. Then she hunched closer to the low lamplight so that she could see every precious word
“From you I have been absent in the spring,
When proud-pied April, dress’d in all his trim,
Hath put a spirit of youth in everything,
That heavy Saturn laugh’d and leap’d with him.
Yet nor the lays of birds, nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in odour and in hue,
Could make me any summer’s story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew;
Nor did I wonder at the Lily’s white,
Not praise the deep vermillion in the Rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight,
Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.
Yet seem’d it winter still, and, you away,
As with your shadow I with these did play.”
A ponderous breath shuddered through her. Then, gently, she folded the paper, put it into its envelope and returned it to the box at the bottom of the stack. She replaced the small chest on the dresser and checked on her sons to make sure were still well covered then blew out the lamp. She slipped beneath the covers and turned to face Adam’s side of the bed. Her hand found the sheet of paper that held his sketched likeness, which had been placed on his pillow. “Goodnight, my sweet.”
The room once again settled into its nighttime silence. The moonlight brought forth shadows that lurked in corners and around furniture as it glided in and out of the clouds. And, as sleep finally gave her peace and dreams of one she missed so dreadfully, Angelica’s eyes sealed against the heartache. And her hand still lay on the portrait.
For the past three days, no one had been able to ignore, though some tried, that Jurian DePrentice and grown weaker. Food had lost its appeal to him and the tonic had been altogether shunned. “It is a wasteful exercise,” he had snapped at Chambers, “and I want no further part of it. So take it away.” And then he had apologized to his faithful retainer.
Adam – in an effort to escape what he, like everyone else, knew would soon be upon them – had taken to spending much time in the library. Books allowed a respite, however brief.
“I thought I’d find you in here.”
Adam looked up as Sumner closed the door behind him.
“But then I always have,” Sumner continued, “when something has disturbed you. And things are about as disturbing as they’ll ever be right now.” Sumner sat in the overstuffed, tufted brown leather wingchair on the other side of the window from Adam’s. “In pages is escape.” He frowned. “You used to say that all the time whenever something drove you into a book.”
“I learned it from my father.” Adam closed the book and marked his place with a finger then rested it in his lap. “Have you seen Jurian?”
“Not since yesterday, just like you and Haskell.”
“Speaking of Haskell, where is he? I haven’t seen him since breakfast.”
“Oh, you know Hask. He’s probably in the kitchen seeing if he can find something to eat. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him when he didn’t want to, especially when it comes to sweets.”
Adam laughed halfheartedly. “Remember how he used to always carry around a sack of molasses taffy?”
Sumner’s nose wrinkled. “I got so I hated the smell of the stuff.”
They sat for several seconds in silence, and Adam tried to return to his book.
“Do you realize that since we’ve been here that not one of us has mentioned Bill Masters?”
Adam froze and his hands gripped the book tighter. “I know.” He finally looked up. “Almost thirteen years, and I still have trouble talking about it.”
“In that, you’re not alone, my friend. And these days I find myself thinking about it more than I have since it happened…. To have so much promise just snuffed out like a candle.”
Adam’s jaw knotted. “Of all the senseless things…. To simply walk out in front of a beer wagon…, and only four days before graduation.”
“I guess he had a lot on his mind.”
“I’ll never forget Dean Williams’ expression when he came to tell the class….. Before he even spoke, I knew it was bad. There wasn’t a drop of blood in his face, and his eyes were black as coal.”
“When he first said it I felt like I had fallen down a bottomless well, and would never stop falling.”
“I think we all did. But I believe it hit you, me, Haskell and Jurian the hardest. We were such a tight circle, the five of us, and when a piece of that circle was removed…”
Chambers’ entrance interrupted them. “Gentlemen, I am sorry to disturb you, but Master Jurian desires to see you, Mr. Cartwright.”
“Alone?” Adam asked, as his eyes flicked to Sumner.
“I think I know what this is about,” Sumner said, and took the book from Adam, “so you go ahead. I’ll still be here when you’re finished.”
Sumner watched them as they left then turned his attention to the book and idly thumbed through the pages.
Myra sat on the side of the bed when Adam was shown into the room by Chambers. She thanked Chambers and had him wait. “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather I stayed?”
“I think you can trust me to Adam’s care.” An impish gleam shone in Jurian’s tired eyes as they flicked to his friend. “Now we need to talk about what you and I have discussed before.”
“All right.” She stood and pulled the covers up around his chest then lovingly brushed his hair back with her fingertips. “I’ll be right across the hall when you are ready for me to return.”
Myra held her head up as she started out. But Adam could still see her anguish as she passed him.
“That’s a fine lady you have there,” Adam said, as he stepped to the foot of the bed.
Adam didn’t agree, but he kept his thoughts to himself.
Jurian patted the mattress next to his legs. “Come sit by me.”
Adam’s eyes narrowed. “I know you Jurian Arland Cummings DePrentice, and something is simmering in that fertile brain…. And I’m not sure I want to know what it is.”
“Please.” He patted the soft covers again.
The corners of Adam’s finely sculpted mouth deepened, and he did as his friend asked.
“Adam…, I know that what’s coming won’t be long now.” He took a heavy breath and it seemed such an effort. “And it makes a man think about his own mortality….. I’ve lived under this sword of Damocles all my life, and now it looks as if the hair is finally going to break.” A faint smile failed in its attempt to light his wan face. “And I can’t say I’m not entirely glad.”
He patted the back of Adam’s hand. “No, it’s all right. It has been a burden to live with such a thing. And the worst part of it has been to see what it has done to others. Mother and Father watched over me as if every breath I took would be the last…. I’ll never forget what a fit they pitched when I told them I wanted to attend college.”
“You can’t really blame them.”
“I don’t…. They were so sure that they would both outlive their only child. And in a way I wish they had, but in another I’m glad they didn’t. I don’t think they could have born up under this…. And then there’s my dear, sweet Myra. She’s what has kept my going in these last years since I left school.” He shook his head. “I don’t think she completely understood what she was entering into when she accepted my proposal. But I underestimated her for her twenty-one years.”
“And I have no doubt that – even knowing the outcome – she wouldn’t do any differently if she had it to do over.”
“She’s told me as much.” Jurian sighed and let his head sink into the pillow. “It’s good to know that I’m leaving her well taken care of, and she, of course, has her own family.” He tittered lightly. “Who never thought much of her marriage to a dying man. And for that reason, we never got to know each other all that well.”
“Which is their loss. And I’m sure she would gladly give up all the wealth and material things just to keep you with her a bit longer.”
“And I her.” His eyelids drifted down then slowly rose. “But I’m wasting valuable time…. I have a very special request to make of you.”
“Anything, you know that.”
“I would like for you to read John Donne’s poem, ‘Death Be Not Proud’, at the ceremony…. Do you mind awfully?”
“Of course, I don’t mind. But why me? Why not Sumner or Haskell? Have you even talked to them about this?”
“At length, and they both agreed with me that you were the best for it. You have such a love of poetry that comes through in your voice. You have brought me to tears more than once.”
Adam sat still and quiet for a few seconds then his gaze rose to Jurian’s face. One side of his mouth crooked. “I would be honored.”
“I knew you wouldn’t let me down. It’s simply not in you.”
“I’ll do my best.”
“If I know you, you’ll do better than that.” Jurian took a deep breath
and something akin to pain tracked through his features. “Would you please
send Myra in now?”
“Are you in pain?”
“A little, but I’ve had worse…. It should pass before long…. We’ll talk again tomorrow.”
“Of course, we will.”
Adam quickly went to the door, and looked back as he took hold of the knob. He tried not to think that this could be the thing they all dreaded, but he couldn’t keep himself from it. He tried to control the racing of his heart and went out into the hall.”
Adam, Sumner and Haskell stood in a small knot outside the bedroom. Their muffled voices filled the empty space with a soft, masculine murmur. The door opened and Chambers stepped out.
“How is he?” Adam asked.
“He is sleeping now and Mistress Myra will stay with him. And Dr. Blodgett will stay the night so he can see how he is come morning.”
“Then he’s better?” Haskell asked, with hope.
“No, sir. He is alive.”
“Mr. Cartwright…. Mr. Cartwright.”
Adam didn’t like to be shaken awake, and he grunted and tried to turn away
“Mr. Cartwright, please wake up.”
Adam blinked and forced himself to look up into a fuzzy face surrounded by an aura of light. He blinked again. “Chambers?”
“You need to come now.”
Adam’s eyes darted toward the open doorway as realization fired into his brain. “Jurian?”
Chambers nodded. “It’s time.”
Instantly alert, Adam flung the covers back and swung his legs around. His feet splattered against the soft rug as he jerked himself from the bed’s warmth. Chambers held his robe for him while he slid his arms into the sleeves then slipped on his house shoes. He followed the man out to where Sumner and Haskell, both in a disheveled state much like his own, waited.
They crossed the hall to the room that Adam had spent much time in since his arrival. The household staff – some of the women sniffling into handkerchiefs – stood in a mute cluster. Adam knew what they were waiting for, and it chilled his blood.
The large, well appointed bedroom, which had always born the clammy feel of impending death, was well lit by lamps placed about. Jurian lay as if the Grim Reaper’s scythe had already touched him. Myra, as always loyal and loving, sat next to him with his hand clutched in hers. Dr. Blodgett, a rotund man of short stature, had his stubby fingers placed on the patient’s other wrist, and his watery blue eyes were fixed to his pocket watch.
Chambers moved closer to the foot of the bed and spoke gently. “They are here, Master Jurian.”
Jurian’s eyelids drug as if made of lead and set on Chambers’ face then turned to the doctor.
Dr. Blodgett nodded then patted him gently on the shoulder. He returned his watch to the pocket in his vest and walked with lifeless steps to the three men behind Chamber’s.
“It won’t be more than a few minutes now,” the doctor said, quietly, as he removed his pince-nez spectacles and pinched the bridge of his rounded nose. “So whatever you want to say, make it quickly.”
Adam took the lead – as he always had – and they moved to the side of the deathbed. “Jurian.”
Jurian’s eyes – life gradually ebbing from them – went to each of them. “Three of the best friends… a man could be blessed with.” He held his hand out, and Adam came forward and took it. “Adam, the studious, thoughtful one… with a bit of a wild streak…. Sumner, the lover of all beautiful women.” He snickered feebly. “And Haskell, the lover of all food.”
Adam’s voice cracked, “And Jurian, without whose friendship our lives would have been the emptier.”
“Is there anything we can do?” Sumner asked, as he and Haskell came to stand on either side of Adam.
“You are doing it… by letting me say good-bye… in my own way…. I have been building toward this day… all my life…. It was my destiny…, and a man cannot escape destiny…. But there are two things I would ask.”
“Name them,” Adam said, and his grip tightened on Jurian’s hand.
“First,” Jurian’s eyes went to his wife, “that you would watch after my Myra. Chambers, whom I trust implicitly…, will be her constant guardian…, but I would feel better if I knew…”
“Ask no more,” Haskell said, and his eyelids batted fiercely.
“And second?” Sumner asked.
Jurian’s attention returned to them. “That you don’t feel bad for me…. I have lived a good life…. It has been hard many times…, but I’m not complaining…. The journey will soon be at an end…, and I can finally rest…. I will be with my mother and father once again…,” he managed wan smile, “and I’ll say hello to Bill for you.” He looked back to his wife. “Myra…, my joyous light.”
A soft breath rattled into the stillness, and Adam felt Jurian’s arm go slack.
“Dr. Blodgett!” Myra cried.
Adam placed the dear hand gently on the bed, and he, Sumner and Haskell stepped back out of the way as the doctor came to his patient. Blodgett took his stethoscope from the night table and put the tips in his ears. Everyone watched with anxious anticipation as he placed the bell-shaped end of the instrument over Jurian’s heart. For what felt like an eternity, all motion seemed frozen in ancient amber.
With a laborious sigh, the doctor raised and pulled the stethoscope from his ears and consulted his watch. “Three-forty-seven.”
Chambers opened the door and spoke low to those waiting just outside then he closed it and went to the dresser. He turned the mirror so that it faced the wall then stopped the delicate anniversary clock. He turned toward the bed, clasped his hands, and his eyes filmed with tears.
“Is there anything we can do for you, Myra?” the doctor asked.
“I would like some time alone with my husband.”
“Of course,” Blodgett said, and gave her a gentle pat on the shoulder.
Everyone except Chambers – who kept to his post before the dresser – left her to her grief. And as the door pulled together, Myra’s soft weeping filled their ears.
To anyone who saw the DePrentice mansion that blustery March day, this was plainly a house in mourning. All blinds were drawn and black crepe hung over the windows and a black wreath hung on the door. Ribbons of the same oppressive color were tied to the crepe and fluttered in the winter breeze. As men passed, hats were removed out of deference to the departed, and women bowed their heads.
Inside, a tomb could not have been any more somber. Voices were kept low out of respect, and the atmosphere calm. All morning Jurian’s body was prepared and the east parlor readied to receive him and the ensuing mourners, per the widow’s instructions. Nothing was too good for her darling, and everything had to be just so.
Adam, Sumner and Haskell were pressed into service, and they did so freely and willingly. One of their own had been called beyond Earth’s mortal bounds, and they wanted to do all they could to see him properly on his way.
The coffin was placed at one side of the wide room. Extra chairs were brought in, and vase after vase of fresh cut flowers from the conservatory behind the mansion. Black candles were placed about the room in sliver candelabras, with one at each end of the coffin. And a servant was assigned the task of replacing them as they would burn down.
In the kitchen, all sort of delicacies were in preparation. Jurian had been well liked by those who had known him well, and even by chance acquaintances and many would come to pay their final respects. And, while under the roof of his house, no one must be found wanting. Jurian would have wished it that way, and Myra and Chambers saw it as their duty to see that this was carried out.
Adam, Sumner and Haskell had just come down the stairs into the foyer when Chambers ushered a man in from the back of the house. The slim, bewhiskered stranger carried a wooden case in his left hand, and over his right shoulder he lugged a camera.
The photographer had come to take Jurian’s final photograph.
A chill grasped at Adam as he and the others watched them go up then disappear from view. A door opened and closed and silence once again took over.
“A carte de visite will be small comfort,” Haskell said, and his eyes lowered from upstairs.
“Maybe, but it’s better than no comfort.”
Adam got between them and rested a hand on their shoulders. “And it’ll remind Myra, as it will all of us, that Jurian is at peace. The weakness and suffering he endured through his entire life is finally at an end, and that will comfort her.”
Chambers appeared at the head of the stairs. “Gentlemen, Mistress Myra desires that you please come up.”
”Is anything wrong?” Adam asked.
“No, sir. She simply feels that Master Jurian would want you present at this time.”
The friends looked at each other and unspoken words conveyed their meaning in three sets of eyes. Adam gave a nod then they went up and followed after Chambers.
A knot rose into Adam’s throat as they stopped before the bedroom door. Then he felt a hand on his back, and he looked around into Sumner’s sympathetic face. His raven head ducked once then they went in behind Chambers. And so began the process of their last farewell.
By late afternoon, the east parlor had become an overpoweringly fragrant oasis of death. The cloying perfume of the flowers hung like an invisible vapor that seeped into every crack and pore. But Jurian didn’t mind. He lay in his mahogany coffin, his arms crossed and hands clasped. He simply seemed to be in a deep, serene and well deserved sleep, if one didn’t bother to look too closely. His closed eyes and cheeks were sunken, and his coloring had become even more pallid and ashy than in his last days. His hair had been combed neatly into place, and his fine black suit – the finest money could buy – hung loose on his ravaged body.
Adam wanted to reach out and touch one of the still hands, but the knowledge that warm flesh wouldn’t great him held him back. At the moment, he was alone with his friend, and he took the opportunity for a private goodbye.
“Well,” his voice broke, “you finally made it. After scaring everybody plenty of times, you’ve made good on all those fits and starts.” He tittered. “I guess you just got tired of making the doctors look foolish.” A heavy breath swelled his broad chest. “I wish I had kept closer since we left college. I could make excuses that work and family and distance had something to do with it. But there is no excuse for not keeping in touch with somebody as important in their life as you were mine. And I may never be able to forgive myself for the lost opportunity of seeing you get married. You found a real gem in that one. If the doctor hadn’t given her a sleeping powder, she never would’ve left your side…. I wish you could have met my Angel. I tried to get her to come with me, but she said this was our time, yours and mine…, and she was right.” He tittered again. “As women have a tendency to be, more that us men will ever admit.” He then reached into the breast pocket of his black coat and took out a small wooden token. “Do you remember that wild night at Duffy’s Tavern? I should’ve shot Sumner for talking us into it and me for letting him. He wanted to get in on that raffle for that cask of rum.” He shook his head. “And I havta admit that I kinda wanted it myself. But the winner didn’t get a chance to enjoy it when word started about the whole thing being crooked. Then the fact that the lucky man was the owner’s son only added credence to that suspicion.” He snickered. “If we hadn’t gotten outta there before the police came we for sure would’ve spent the night in jail for breaking up the place. And wouldn’t Dean William’s have loved us for that…. Anyway, I thought you’d like to have this.” He put the token in the pocket of Jurian’s coat. “Until we meet again.”
The entrance of someone behind him brought Adam to complete and abrupt silence. He held his hands in front of him to conceal what he had done. He didn’t look around and the doctor soon came to stand next to him. For several seconds neither said a word and kept their attention focused on Jurian.
“How’s Mrs. DePrentice?” Adam asked, just above a whisper.
“She’s still sleeping. She couldn’t argue with my secret potion, and she may never forgive me for it, but she needed the rest. Jurian never would have wanted her to do herself harm on his account.”
“No, he certainly wouldn’t have. He was a very caring person, and I could see how much he loved her.” Adam finally turned to him and held out a hand. “I’m afraid that in all that has been going on, we haven’t been properly introduced. I’m Adam Cartwright.”
The doctor took the proffered hand. “Jobiah Blodgett. And I always enjoy meeting any of Jurian’s friends. I like the kind of people that have always been drawn to him.”
“Did you know him long?”
“My mother was a midwife; she delivered Jurian. I was thirteen at the time, and I always went with her to help out from the time I was nine. As I recall, his mother had such a hard time of it. My mother confided in me that she wouldn’t have been surprised had the baby been born dead. And my father, who was also a doctor, took care of the DePrentice family.” He turned back to the coffin. “Jurian was always such a sickly child, even from the beginning. But he had the heart of a lion, and such strong will and determination. If he hadn’t, I doubt he would have lived beyond the first week.”
“I know. That was one of the things that drew me to him.”
“I think it was what drew everyone to him.” The doctor shook his head. “Oh, how Lawrence and Cecilia fought against sending their son off to college. They feared he would go and not return to them, but you know how Jurian was when he got a thing into his head.”
“That I most definitely do.”
“But when they came to realize how much he wanted it, his father moved Heaven and Earth to see that his son got it. And oh how proud of him they were when he graduated. I thought that Lawrence DePrentice would pop every button he owned.”
“I know he had always wished for Jurian to come into the family business.”
“And he very much did. He worked from home where his parents and Chambers could keep an eye on him. And there the strain was more relaxed. Then he married and Myra took over.”
“I remember Jurian talking about Chambers.”
“He helped to raise the boy and always thought very highly of him. His wedding gift to Jurian and his new bride was to come into his employ, much with Lawrence’s blessing. Chambers has always been more a member of the family than a servant.” He took a deep breath. “And he’s going to be just as lost as the rest of us without Jurian’s gentle presence.”
“I know I certainly will. I let so much slip away from me. I haven’t seen him since we parted after graduation, and the letters were too few and far between. Oh, I was an avid writer in the first seven or eight months after I returned home, but then they slowed to a trickle until they stopped altogether.”
“Well, you had your own life, and Jurian always understood that. And the way he talked about you made me always wish to meet you…,” he sighed, “though not under these circumstances. Now, I want to go check on Myra. I don’t want to be remiss in my duties to her. Jurian would not be at all pleased with me.” He took Adam’s hand and pumped it. “Maybe later we can share a libation in Jurian’s name and drink a toast to his memory.”
“I’d like that very much.”
The doctor gave him a sympathetic smile then left the parlor. Adam turned back to the coffin, and, not for the first time, he wished that his family was there. Angelica and his boys would feel so good in his arms. And his father and brothers he could lean on for support, as he always had, and they with them. He raised a clenched fist to his mouth, and felt the burn of unshed tears. Then strong, supportive hands were placed on each of his shoulders, and Sumner and Haskell came to stand on either side of him.
The looks that were exchanged said that they were there for one another. The smiles that turned their lips spoke of sorrow, and without saying a word they said so much. Then the three of them turned their attention back to the coffin’s lone occupant. And still, no one noticed the tall young man sitting in his dark corner, a box of black candles at his elbow.
After she awoke, Myra drifted into the parlor to sit with her husband. The cutting glares that she gave the doctor whenever he was within her sphere told plainly of her displeasure with him and what he had done. For Jurian’s sake, she didn’t say anything to him, but simply sat in the chair at the head of the coffin and spread the skirt of her black crepe dress about her. Her hands she gathered in her lap, a black lace edged handkerchief clasped in them.
The doctor parted from Adam and Sumner, filled a plate, and approached her with it. “You should eat something. You haven’t had enough today to keep a bird alive.”
Her eyes dropped for less than a second to the food then came back to his face. “Would I be safe in doing so?”
“I’m not ashamed of what I did, and if I’m ever put in that position again, I’ll do the very same. And I think Jurian would commend me for it.” The sides of his mouth turned, and the candle light flickered in his eyes. “And I promise there are no sleeping powders in it.”
Her expression softened, and she graciously took the plate and thanked him.
He went back to stand with Adam and Sumner and they watched her as she took a demure bite.
“All is forgiven?” Adam asked.
“All is forgiven,” Blodgett said, and his gaze traced over her. “I think.”
The night had passed quietly, and many had come to say goodbye to Jurian. And many had set up with him and shared stories and the solace of each other’s company. But now the day had come and the final act of the play that had been Jurian DePrentice’s life lay before them.
The services were conducted in the east parlor of the DePrentice mansion. It had been thought to do it at the church, but the less Jurian was bounced around, the better. Reverend Fordham – who had known both Jurian and Myra since they were children – spoke eloquently of their departed brother and read Jurian’s favorite psalm. And then, in closing, Adam was to do what his friend had asked of him.
As Adam rose from his seat, many eyes were upon him as he went forward to stand before the coffin. He took a sheet of paper from his coat pocket and unfolded it. He knew the lines of the poem by heart, but in his present state of mind, he didn’t trust to his memory, and his recitation had to be as perfect as he could make it. It had to be for Jurian.
His voice faltered on the first word then he cleared his throat and started again.
“Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me,
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell’st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.”
Adam refolded the piece of paper and put back into his pocket. Jurian hadn’t asked him to do anything other than read the poem, but he felt the need to share a few words with those who felt as he did.
“Jurian DePrentice was a special man, which anybody who knew him doesn’t need me to tell them. His whole life was a battle, a battle he fought bravely, nobly,” the corners of his mouth curved, “and maybe with a little bit of arrogance, as he met death. And who could blame him that third indulgence. He won out over death many times and accomplished much in his all too short life. He had many devoted friends,” his eyes went to Myra, “a beautiful and loving wife, and, as Dr. Blodgett put it to me last night, the heart of a lion.”
Myra looked to Jobiah Blodgett, who sat to one side of her, and took his hand and squeezed it.
“Jurian enriched all our lives,” Adam went on, “and his passing will leave a hole that can never be filled. But gone is not forgotten, and somebody like Jurian we can never forget, even should we try. He gave so much of himself, and that we will always carry with us. And, as much as we may not want to, we must say goodbye, but we can rest in the consolation that it will be for only a short time until we are reunited with him.” Adam turned around and looked upon the dead face. “Goodbye, my dear, dear friend.” He reached into the coffin and placed a hand over one of the cold, lifeless ones. “Wait for us, we will be along.”
Adam turned back to the multitude, and his eyes went to Myra, who gave a slight nod. Then he looked to Sumner and Haskell and received the same. He returned to his seat between them and folded his hands in his lap.
“Jurian would have liked that,” Haskell whispered.
The room returned to silence as two servants came forward to fasten down the lid of the coffin. Myra discreetly daubed at her eyes, hidden beneath her mourning veil. When the men had left, Adam, Sumner, Haskell and Chambers went forward and lifted the coffin from its bier. Solemnly, they carried their burden from the room, followed by the mourners. Myra held to the doctor’s arm to steady herself, and to look at her one would think she bore up well.
The hearse – drawn by two black horses in black harness and with black plumes upon their heads – waited in the drive. The four men came out onto the portico. As they did, they were careful to make sure that Jurian left his home feet first lest he beckon the mourners to follow him into death.
The rear doors of the sleek black vehicle were opened by the hearse’s driver who wore a long frock coat and tall hat of matching color. The coffin was loaded into the back onto a brass framework and black velvet drapery hung on either side.
The pall bearers then stepped back as the doors were closed and the driver returned to his seat. The mourners got into awaiting broughams and Myra – who could have stayed at home – rode with the doctor behind the hearse. The one in which Adam, Sumner, Haskell and Chambers rode came next, followed by the rest.
What little bit of sunshine there had been early that morning had vanished into overcast as heavy, dark snow clouds crowded it from the sky. A stiff wind had picked up by the time the procession made it to the cemetery and the leafless trees twisted and clawed toward the heavens like restless skeletons.
The graveside ceremony was brief, as those gathered huddled inside coats and cloaks in somber silence. Myra’s lace veil fluttered in the wind and allowed the occasional glimpse of her desolate face. She clung to the doctor’s arm as her husband’s coffin was lowered into the ground, but her composure never wavered.
“We consign the mortal remains of our dearly departed brother, Jurian DePrentice, to the soil. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in the sure and certain resurrection to come unto eternal life.”
As Reverend Fordham finished, delicate white flakes began to drift lazily to the ground. Myra was given a handful of dirt, and she stepped to the edge of the grave and threw it in. The clods thumped on the top of the coffin as if in accompaniment to the rising wind. As a woman, it wasn’t necessary for her to participate in the ceremony, in fact, some men frowned upon it. But she wasn’t about to send her Jurian off without her being present.
“Goodbye, my love,” she whispered, then rejoined the doctor.
The reverend gave a few parting words as others did as she had just done, then the assemblage broke and made their way back to the awaiting broughams.
Adam – the last to climb into their conveyance – closed the door and took his seat next to Chambers.
“It’s done,” Sumner said, solemnly. “At least that part of it.”
“Master Jurian would have been so proud of his mistress.”
“She held up like a real lady,” Haskell said, and leaned back against the seat beside Sumner.
“She did what was expected of her,” Adam said, and removed his hat. “But after she gets into the seclusion of their room, she’ll simply be a grieving wife…. She’ll have plenty to fill a tear bottle.”
As they lapsed into silence again, the brougham gave a lurch, and they were on their way.
The east parlor was once again filled with people, with the exception of Jurian. To one end of the room had been placed a long table and over it an expensive Irish linen cloth. On top of it were plates, platters and dishes of seven different kinds of sandwiches, pickled eggs, an assortment of fine cheeses and fresh baked crackers, three funeral pies, a tiered stand with sugar-dusted funeral cakes, pitchers of ice cold milk and several bottles of sherry. The DePrentice household had never been stodgy or pretentious, in spite of their vast wealth, and the guests were allowed to serve themselves at their leisure.
Knots of people stood about, chatting in muted tones. Several of the women sat protectively on either side of Myra off in a corner. They talked, but Myra only spoke when spoken to, and appeared hard pressed to even do that.
Adam stood at the Italian marble fireplace where flames crackled and snapped with a plate of food in one hand. The fire had been laid and built while everyone was gone to begin to warm the room. It had been left cold while Jurian lay in his coffin so as not to hasten his inevitable decomposition.
Haskell dug into a plate of food that Adam and Sumner simply couldn’t keep their eyes from.
“If you’re storing up for the winter,” Adam said, as he took his glass of sherry from the mantelpiece, “you’re a little late. Tomorrow is the first day of spring.” He took a sip.
“I haven’t eaten since breakfast, and I’m starved,” Haskell said, and took a bite from a sandwich of thinly sliced cold goose.
“The first day of spring.” Sumner shook his head and picked up an egg. “In all that has been going on, I had completely forgotten.” He clicked his teeth. “Jurian always liked the spring. Do you remember what he used to say about it?”
“That it always renewed his spirit,” Adam said, and put his glass back, “and it was easier to fight when things were coming to life after the near death of winter.”
“Jurian always did have a poetic soul.”
Sumner flicked a glance in Adam’s direction. “That’s why he chose you to read that poem. He knew you would do it justice.” He bit into his pickled egg.
“I never was one much for poetry,” Haskell said, and took another bite.
Sumner swallowed. “Neither one of us were.”
“Do you mind if I interpose?” the doctor asked, as he joined them with his own plate and glass of sherry.
“Not at all,” Sumner said, crisply. “We were just talking about Adam’s reading of Donne’s poem.”
“And beautifully done it was, too, sir,” Blodgett said, and moved closer to the fire. “And Myra was well pleased. She told me in the carriage that just the sound of your voice was soothing to her. She had heard Jurian read it many times, and it brought her closer to him to hear your recitation. I’m glad he was able to talk you into it.”
Adam’s lone eyebrow rose. “He didn’t havta to talk much. I felt it an honor and privilege, and the least I could do for the gift of his friendship.”
The doctor put his plate on the mantle then turned back to them and raised his glass. “Then let’s drink a memorial toast to Jurian DePrentice, one of the finest men the Good Lord ever created. He will be sorely missed.”
The others put aside their plates and raised their glasses to the doctor’s. “To Jurian,” they said, together.
The four drank deeply of the amber liquid. And the firelight glittered with fond remembrance in their eyes.
Then Sumner’s face took on a mischievous cast. “Doctor, did Jurian ever tell you about how Adam and I set Haskell here up with what had to be the ugliest woman in the whole city of Boston?”
Haskell’s hard eyes shot first to Sumner then Adam. Now he knew.
It had been decided that the three friends would stay on for a few days after the funeral. They wanted to make sure that Jurian’s widow was doing all right, though with Chambers around, they knew she was in good hands. And they wanted to just visit with one another before they went their separate ways again.
It was now the third day after the funeral, and they had unanimously agreed the night before that today would be as good as any to get started. Sumner and Haskell had business concerns they needed to return to, and Adam was champing at the bit to get back to his family.
Adam stuffed his white dress shirt into his valise then snapped the catch together. He looked about the room that had been his home away from home for the past two and a half weeks. It had afforded him a comfortable haven. But now it was time to return to the big log house nestled snuggly inside a wreath of pines. A fleeting thought of Jurian brought a smile then he went out into the hall. The door he closed behind him.
As he came down the stairs, Sumner and Haskell waited with Myra and Chambers, who held Adam’s coat and hat.
“I’m sorry I kept everybody waiting,” he said, as he left the last step, and his boots clipped the marble floor. “I was thinking of Jurian.”
“That’s no problem,” Sumner said, cheerily. “We were talking about him and hardly noticed.”
Chambers held out the coat, and Adam slid his arms into the sleeves then took his hat from the manservant. “Thank you, Chambers.”
“Now that I have all of you together, I have something for you.” Myra took three parchment envelopes from a hidden pocket in the skirt of her dress. She handed them out then primly held her hands in front of her. “They are special remembrances.”
Adam, always the ringleader, took his out first, then the other two followed suit. It was a carte de visite with a black border. The ghostly image of Jurian lying in death on the bed – Sumner, Haskell and himself gathered beside him – gave him a jolt. He glanced at his friends, who had both taken on a slight pallor, then turned his attention to Myra. “Thank you, Myra. I will always keep this in a special and safe place.”
Sumner and Haskell both agreed that they would do the same.
“I know you will. Jurian was a light and an inspiration in all our lives. And I had the wonderful privilege to be married to him. My only regret is that we never had any children, a son that would be the very image of his father.”
“Jurian talked to us about that,” Adam said, with a glance back at the others. “He worried about your being alone and who would watch out for you. Well, you have Chambers…, and you have us. And if you ever need us, you know how to get in touch with us, and so does Chambers.”
Myra took a handkerchief from the lace cuff of her sleeve and modestly daubed it at her eyes. “Now you have gone and made me cry again.” She sniffled. “I wish I had my tear bottle with me. But I suppose I will have plenty enough later to fill it.”
Adam reached out and took one of her hands, and he made special notice of Chambers, who seemed to approve. “My mother used to tell me that tears help to wash away sorrow. Aide de larmes pour la douleur.”
Adam quickly became aware of Sumner and Haskell looking at him as if he had suddenly sprouted a second head.
“You never said you spoke French,” Haskell said, with a skewed expression.
Adam crooked a mirthless grin. “Because you never asked.”
“I think it’s a beautiful sentiment that sounds even more beautiful in the French.” She took a heavy breath. “And it will make the crying maybe a little less painful. Thank you, Adam.”
“For you, Myra, always.”
“And that goes for us, too,” Sumner said, and picked up his valise from the floor.
“I know. Friends are so appreciated in times like this.”
Chambers checked his pocket watch. “Excuse me, madam, but it is nearly eight o’clock.”
Adam hastily put on his hat. “Then we’d better get going before we miss our trains.” He took her hand and graciously kissed the back of it. “It has been wonderful getting to know you. I only wish it could have been under a happier circumstance.”
“So do I.”
“If you’re ever out my way, just look me up. We’ve got plenty of room, and I know Angelica would love to have the company.”
“I would like that very much. I will certainly give it some thought.”
Sumner and Haskell said goodbye to her then she stood back as they went outside with Chambers. Alone again, she thought. The handkerchief was put back into use, but she held onto her self-control. The days to come would be long an empty. She would have the memory of her dear one to wrap herself in, but memories could only go so far and accomplish so much. And the nights especially would test her strength. She heaved an onerous and ragged sigh. Only time would tell if she could endure without her Jurian.
“Adam, let’s not allow so much time to pass before we see each other again,” Sumner said, at their parting. “And let’s try to make the reason a bit more enjoyable.”
“I think that can be managed,” Adam said, enthusiastically. “I would like for the both of you to meet my family.”
“I would like that,” Haskell said, and his face lit up. “And I’ve never met an Irish cook that couldn’t put up a fine spread.”
“And I would like to get a good look at those violet eyes,” Sumner said, with a furtive grin. “You lose so much in a photograph.”
“As long as you remember that she’s my wife. I would certainly hate to havta shoot you.”
Sumner’s face scrunched with distaste. “I wouldn’t care for it either.”
“All aboard!” the conductor called. “All aboard!”
“I guess that’s me.” Adam shook his friends’ hands then picked up his valise
and climbed aboard the train as Sumner and Haskell waved from the platform
as it pulled from the station.
Adam made his way though the car until he came to an empty seat that appealed to him. He sat down and put the valise between his feet as the west bound train clacked over the rails. He was finally on his way home to his Angelica and his sons and the thought of holding them to him made his arms ache in anticipation. He pushed his hat back and looked out the window at the fleeting landscape. And he couldn’t help but to wonder if he would ever see Massachusetts again. But he didn’t care if he did or not, what with everything he had in Nevada. He took out the photograph, and his gaze roved over the images of his wife and sons. “It won’t be long now,” he said, to himself. He ran his fingers over it then put it back into his pocket.
Then his thoughts turned to Jurian, and the half smile faded. The day that he and so many had dreaded for so long had come. But now it was behind them, and it was time to move on with their lives. Jurian would never want them to linger in their grief and mope over his passing. Adam knew that he could work his way through it, and he knew that Sumner and Haskell could, too. And he suspected as much from Chambers. But Myra had him worried. She had so loved Jurian, and Adam knew, she still did, and always would. And he couldn’t help but be alarmed at the thought of what path her grief might lead her down. He didn’t know the woman all that well and maybe he was overreacting. But she was, after all, Jurian’s widow, and he had promised his dying friend to watch after her. And one thing that was firm about Adam Cartwright – he took his responsibilities seriously, very seriously.
Angelica had just come from the bedroom when someone knocked at the front door. She had gotten the boys down for their nap, and she didn’t want them disturbed. She rushed across the room in the hope that she could prevent another knock. She didn’t. She jerked the front door open. “Mr. McCutcheon.”
He nervously fingered the brim of his grimy hat. “I’m sorry to bother you, ma’am. But Jake Stokes just rode in with a telegram for you, and I said I’d give it to you.”
“A telegram?” Her eyes glittered as they dropped to the envelope in his hand. “Did he tell you who it’s from?”
“Yes, ma’am. It’s from the Boss, I mean, Mr. Cartwright.”
Angelica felt her heart leap into her throat, and she wanted to snap it away from him and read every precious word. But, as the lady she had always tried to present to others, she held herself in check. Oh, why doesn’t he hurry and just give it to me, she thought.
“Here ya go, ma’am.”
She took it from him and thanked him. But he continued to just stand there as if he didn’t know what to do next. “Is there anything else?”
“Oh, no, ma’am. I’ll just get back to work. Afternoon, ma’am.”
“Good afternoon, Mr. McCutcheon.”
With a polite duck of his head he turned and started across the deep porch. Unable to hold back any longer, she closed the door and rushed to Adam’s tall-backed blue chair near the fireplace. She sat down in a fluff of pink satin and white ruffles and took the piece of paper from its envelope.
Buddy – who laid full length before the roaring fire – raised his head enough to look at her. After a languid stretch, he came to his feet and ambled over to sit next to her and rested his chin on her knee.
Angelica, however, didn’t seem to notice him, as her eyes floated over the page. As each word sank into her brain and their meaning became apparent, her heart rate quickened. “He’s coming home.” She lowered the paper and looked at the dog and took his face in her hand. “Buddy, he’s coming home.” She ruffled his wiry fur and kissed the top of his scruffy head then bounded from the chair. She ran toward the kitchen with Buddy trotting right behind her. “Maggie, he’s coming home! Adam’s coming home!”
Adam’s return trip had taken longer than the one to Boston. Different things, such as snow on the track and a washed out trestle that caused a detour, had conspired against him. But at last he was almost home. He had rented a sleigh in Bantree, and now he was on the other side of the clearing where the big log house sat.
The cold air whistled through his teeth as his breathing quickened. With a flick of the reins, the horse picked up the pace and they entered the dense stand of pines. His wife and sons lay on the other side and it made haste imperative.
As the sleigh left the trees, the immense two-story log house came into view, and he gulped the frigid air. Home. He was finally home. It would still take another twenty minutes or so to reach it, but the final leg of his long journey was at hand. “I’m almost there, Angel…. I’m almost home.”
Since Adam’s telegram had come, Angelica had felt like a prickly cactus and gotten pricklier everyday, and today was the prickliest by far. The boys must have felt something as well, for this day they were absolutely unruly little beasts. Maggie had taken them into the kitchen for some fresh baked cookies. The boys were on solid food now, though Angelica did still nurse them, and sweets were a particular favorite of theirs.
Angelica had taken respite in Adam’s chair. Buddy lay curled up near her feet, and a fire blazed in the hearth. It all painted a pretty picture, but the most important element was missing.
With a woof, Buddy’s head came up, and his chocolate brown eyes went toward the front of the house.
“What is it, Buddy?” But she sensed the answer before the last words of the question had left her mouth. Her fingers dug into the soft arms of the chair, and her violet eyes followed the dog’s gaze. Her pulse raced, and she could hardly sit still. Then she heard the thump of boots across the long porch floor. Excitement ran through her like currents of electricity and it charged her entire body.
The front door opened, and she had never seen a more beautiful sight in her life. He stood tall and handsome. The pine doorframe surrounded him like a picture frame, and his hand still rested on the hammered iron handle. “I’m home.”
“Yes, you are.”
She left the chair as if propelled by a huge spring and flew to him as he stepped inside. The valise hit the floor as he took her in his arms. Had anything ever felt this good? He pushed the door closed with his foot, and his impatient lips found hers.
She leaned her head back and looked into that wonderful face. Her fingers lightly brushed his weathered cheek. “Are you all right?”
He nodded. “And it’ll get better with time.”
His eyes began to probe about the room, but before he could say anything, Maggie came out of the kitchen with the children. Addy and Benjy held onto her hands, and Hiram clung to his oldest brother’s.
“Welcome home, Mister Adam.”
“It’s grand to be home, Maggie.” Adam got down on his knees and spread his arms to receive his sons. “My boys.”
The little boys toddled to him the last few steps without any help, and were swallowed up by their father’s embrace. He kissed the small, black-capped heads, and his heart swelled near to bursting.
“Dahdee,” Addy said, in a soft voice.
Adam’s eyes went perfectly round then ran to Angelica. “Did he just call me daddy?”
“He did,” Angelica said, and smiled.
“He called me mother not long after you left, and added daddy to his vocabulary a few days later. Maggie and I have been wondering when he would talk for you. And I don’t think he could have chosen a better time.”
“Have Benjy and Hiram…?”
“Not yet, but they will.”
Angelica got down into the floor beside him, and he brought her into his circle of love. He was home, his son had called him ‘daddy’ for the first time, and he held his world in his arms. What more could any man ask for? But a transient thought of Jurian added a touch of sorrow, and maybe a little guilt. But Jurian would never want that. Warmth wrapped around him like a comforting blanket. His younger life had been graced by a special friend, who had passed the baton to his family. He had no doubt that he would see Jurian again, but for now, he had the memories, and they would see him through the waiting.
AUTHOR’S NOTES: There was such a thing as a tear bottle, a small glass container with a stopper, for the widow’s tears. It is said that at the end of a year, when the tears had evaporated, the period of mourning would be at an end. I also read that at the end of a year, the tears would be sprinkled over the grave to signify the end of mourning.
The stopping of the clock at time of death and turning the mirror to the wall were actually done. I don’t know why the clock was stopped, but it was started up again after the funeral. It was believed that if a mourner saw their reflection in a mirror they would be the next to die. So all mirrors in the house were turned to the wall or covered with black cloth.
It was also believed that if the deceased was carried from the house head first, they would compel the mourners who came out behind, to follow after them. So they were very careful that the dearly departed left feet first.
The description of the house, inside and out, is as true as I could get it. I did put as a black wreath on the front door, though I’m not sure if they did that at the time.
Victorians were very superstitious, as this depicts, and it is a fascinating part of their culture. And I enjoy putting it into my stories when I can.
Absinthe is a highly alcoholic, aniseed flavored liqueur made from wormwood and herbs. Because of its high toxicity, it is now banned in many countries.