In Need of a Good Wife
Richly detailed, vivid, and unforgettable, this is an extraordinary novel about three women challenging the American West—and unpredictable fate—for a future only the most daring can secure…
For Clara Bixby, brokering mail-order brides is a golden business opportunity—and a desperately needed chance to start again. If she can help New York women find husbands in a far-off Nebraska town, she can build an independent new life away from her own loss and grief.
Clara’s ambitions are shared by two other women, who are also willing to take any risk. Quiet immigrant Elsa hopes to escape her life of servitude and at last shape her own destiny. And Rowena, the willful, impoverished heiress, jumps at the chance to marry a humble stranger and repay a heartbreaking debt. All three struggle to find their true place in the world, leaving behind who they were in order to lay claim to the person they want to be. Along the way, each must face unexpected obstacles and dangerous choices, but they also help to forge a nation unlike any that came before.
The oak planks in the floor of Rathbone’s basement tavern, Clara knew, were lined with invisible cracks. The men who drank at the tavern brought the filth of Manhattan City in on their boots, manure from the street and muck from the floor of the omnibus, and the men’s careless steps ground the dirt into the floor. If Clara didn’t whisk it out quickly enough with her broom it would lodge in the cracks, and the planks would split down the middle. Mr. Rathbone would have to replace them—an expense that might make him think twice about how badly he needed a barmaid on his payroll.
The thought straightened Clara’s back and she stretched it, the long fingers of her right hand clenched around the handle of her broom, before resuming her chore. It worried Clara, the possibility of losing the job, and, in losing that, losing everything—the money she made only just paid for her room and board upstairs at Mrs. Ferguson’s with scarcely enough left over to keep body and soul together. Of course, if her father were still alive, things would be different. But he wasn’t—he had died in debt back when the tavern was known by his name, as Wilson’s, and Mr. Rathbone had bought it for a song.
Clara supposed she should be glad for it. It wasn’t easy making a go of it in these times. Rathbone had already lost what meager business they could muster to the new place across the street, the Eagle Tavern, which sold ale at half price for the first hour of the evening rush each night. The roughs lined up around the block, the very same roughs who had previously done their drinking at Rathbone’s long walnut bar. Clara had no love for any of them—in fact, she detested drinking in a man, thought it made him weak and womanish—but what did fate hold for Rathbone’s without them? Here it was, the middle of the noon meal and there wasn’t a soul in the place. Each morning, as Clara polished that bar, its burled grain like marks left in the sand by the waves on Long Island Sound, she prayed that come evening, Rathbone’s would be full of men either too happy or too full of dread to go home. She didn’t care which it was, as long as the men kept sliding coins toward the till. Of course, Clara indulged in using a little too much wax from time to time, buoyed by the thought that she could make the surface slick enough to yank the men’s hands out from under their sorry jawbones, send their chins crashing down onto the hard wood.
Clara’s survival depended on the loyalty of fool drunks, and she did not take kindly to this fact. But the drunks didn’t scare her either. She had stood up to plenty of them in her time, once separating a pair of scuffling men by clobbering the bigger one in the back of the head with her rolling pin.
At half past one, two men dressed in black came in and took a small table by the window. One was lanky and tight-lipped and the other was fat, with a wide face like a camel’s. His smile seemed to stretch all the way from one ear to the other. He rubbed his hands together as if to warm them, but it was, Clara had noticed when she descended the stairs from her room at Mrs. Ferguson’s that morning, a perfectly pleasant October day.
“Miss?” said the heavy man, waving Clara over with his hand. She took her time leaning the broom up against the wall and making her way across the room to them. As she walked, she recognized something in her own slow amble and realized it was a memory of her mother, who had walked this way, seven balky children underfoot and a husband with a temper like a festering sore. Mrs. Wilson lived long enough to see three of her children make it to adulthood, Clara and two sisters. Maura had run off with a prospector six years back and hadn’t been heard from since. Frances was hit by a streetcar the following year. Once there had been nine Wilsons, but now there was just Clara.
“If there is any justice in this world our Creator made, Reverend Potter, they will be serving a chicken pie,” the fat man said. “I’ve heard it’s the best in the city.” Well, there you have it, Clara thought. I pray for customers and the Lord sends me a couple of holy rollers. I’ll be lucky if they order coffee. Truth be told, Clara was a bit flattered to hear them talking up her pie. She had been the one to suggest to Mr. Rathbone that the tavern should serve a proper meal at midday. Their competitors served only hard-boiled eggs and pickled herring on crackers—a pauper’s meal.
Reverend Potter, his fine hair precisely combed and oiled, glanced skeptically at the small, grease-clouded window that looked up to William Street. Pigeons shuddered by, and the broad hems of pedestrians’ skirts passed like great gray ships on the sea. “I’m not convinced anything good can come,” he said, “from a kitchen with a rat’s-eye view of the world.”
Clara cleared her throat to ensure that this Reverend Potter knew she had overheard his remark. “Afternoon, gentlemen. What may I bring you?”
“Good afternoon,” the heavy man said. His gaze lingered on her face a moment. “What handsome eyes you have, miss.”
Clara pressed her lips into a line and raised an eyebrow. She knew very well that she had plain eyes, deep-set, with stubby lashes. She was tall, for a woman, and slender, with a neck that could be, on its best days, swanlike, provided she was in a well-shadowed room. Clara prided herself on that neck, her uncomplaining disposition, the pie. These were her good features—not her eyes.
The fat minister’s spirits were not dampened by her poor reception of his compliment. “And what are you serving for dinner today?”
“You’re late for dinner, but as luck or the Lord allows, we have a few chicken pies left,” Clara lied. Behind the door to the kitchen, a dozen pies sat lukewarm in their tins, still lined up where she had left them when they came out of the oven at eleven. The food would be long lost to the mice by now if it weren’t for the tavern cat, on patrol around the perimeter of the stove. He was an ornery tom, orange and slinking and just about full up of scathe for this plagued world.
“Thank you. We’ll have those.” Clara turned to go. “And an ale for me. Reverend?” He looked at his companion.
“Milk,” Reverend Potter said. “Cold.”
Clara nodded. In the kitchen she asked Bessie, the only person in this world taking orders from Clara, to warm the pies, and the girl slid them into the range on her flat wooden paddle. Behind the bar Clara drew the ale slowly, careful to keep the foam from rising over the rim of the glass. The Right Reverend ought to have his ale drawn properly, even if his friend took his God-fearing a little too seriously. Clara sighed when she heard the words echo in her mind. The Right Reverend. That was just the sort of thing George was fond of saying, in his signature tone of false deference. Without fail, his cheek earned him a laugh from his friends: the feather in his cap. And, as for Clara, well. She feigned exasperation, but to be the girl George had set his sights on—to be on his arm, walking up Broadway past a bevy of laundresses standing in an alley, their cheeks pink from the steam, even in January, their ravaged arms red up to the elbows—was a marvel. Those girls were sucking on so much jealousy and longing Clara liked to think it made their teeth ache.
Clara was George’s girl. She would have settled for being George’s hat. And when he used his poker winnings to buy her a ruby ring, and took her down to the Trinity Church to rattle off those vows, he never once broke into a smile—not even when the minister uttered the word chastity in the presence of her swelling belly. Clara thought of what they had done in the gallery of the Bowery Theater, behind the peach velvet drapery with gold braid fringe that skimmed the floor in time with their exertions; Clara had imagined the drapery was the most exquisite bed curtain in the finest mansion in town. That three nearby couples heaved in their own syncopated rhythm mattered not a whit to Clara. They were flies buzzing against a window pane. She had believed, for once in her miserable life, that with George the profit outweighed the loss.
But if George could float you on the air in the palm of his hand, he could tie you to an anchor and turn his back while you plummeted to the depths. New girls came through Mrs. Ferguson’s parlor in flocks, looking fresh and pink, without a care in the world for such a thing as hanging on to a husband. The word was still new on Clara’s tongue, tart like a berry. It wasn’t long before George took up with this one and that one, parading them around just to hurt Clara, it seemed, for there was no one else to notice. She knew all about the roving and insatiable longings of men and would have been willing to tolerate a great deal, if only George had allowed her to retain at least some dignity.
He had his reasons, of course, to seek solace outside the walls of their room five months ago, when they had been forced to bear the unbearable. For the baby had not survived. In times of sorrow, Clara had come to understand, women turn inside themselves. Men inch away, like worms. If that doesn’t get them far enough, they stand up on their legs and run. And so it was that George was gone, poof, in the night, with a little dark-haired garlic-eater named Lucia. People said he had taken a job at a brickworks in Buffalo.
“Miss Bixby,” Bessie called from the kitchen. “Them pies is up.”
“All right,” Clara called. “Thank you, Bessie.” Miss, everyone had started calling her again, but Bixby was George’s name. Clara supposed it was a well-intentioned attempt to offer her a clean slate. She was no longer George’s wife, but neither could she go back to the young woman she had been before, Miss Clara Wilson. She was something new altogether: Miss Bixby. As if she were merely George’s spinster sister instead of the woman he had once vowed before God to care for all of his days.
Clara carried the pies on a tray from the kitchen to the bar and lifted them onto the plates. At the table, both ministers were reading newspapers. Reverend Potter, nearly blind it seemed, held his about an inch away from his right eye and moved the page back and forth, keeping his head still.
“Reverend Arthur,” he said. “Did you read this story about—let’s see now . . . where is it?—this town of Destination, Nebraska?”
Reverend Arthur folded his paper and laid it on the table. “No. What an odd name for a town.”
“Indeed, it is.” Reverend Potter read.
Two men died Saturday after their destructive rampage claimed their lives, as well as the lives of two reliable workhorses—and caused thousands of dollars of damage. Samuel and Terrance Young, brothers and veteran inebriates employed at Drake’s Brewery in Destination, population now down to 105 from 107 including the town and its outskirts, managed to set fire to their own shoes, and, in attempting to outrun the flames, spread them across a dry field and inside a barn that contained two tethered horses and a cow. The building was quickly consumed with the men and horses inside, though the cow made an ambling escape. This is the third such incident in this beset frontier town in as many months. While a handful of the original settlers brought wives and sisters with them, all those women died or returned to eastern cities long ago and the town is now populated almost entirely by bachelors. The only fair faces to be found are those, besmirched with rouge and sin, belonging to the fallen women who live together in a house of mirth at the edge of town. Said Destination’s mayor Randall Cartwright, regarding the debauchery of Destination and the death of its citizens, “I mourn the loss of those men only in as much as I didn’t have the chance to hang them myself from the only tree in town.”
Reverend Arthur shook his head. “My word.”
“It’s true what the reporter says,” Reverend Potter told him. “This town has been in the news before. I recall it distinctly. Do you notice they don’t even mention a church—probably haven’t gotten around to building one yet.”
Clara brought the plates to the table and the ministers put their newspapers under their chairs. “Enjoy your dinner, gentlemen,” she said, setting the pies down.
“We thank you, miss.” Reverend Arthur unfolded the white napkin and draped it across his knees. “For two confirmed bachelors such as ourselves, a tavern pie is the closest we come to a home-cooked meal.” He pierced the pie’s crust with the tines of his fork and a cloud of steam rushed out. “Now, Reverend Potter, this is divinity.”
The ministers bowed their heads and Arthur said an impassioned grace. Potter gave Arthur’s Amen a disdainful glance and set about what was for him, a man dubious of all human pleasures, the grim task of eating. Clara returned to her broom, glancing occasionally at the tavern door, attempting to will another customer or two into existence. What would her father say if he could see his tavern and her in this lowly state? Clara felt she had sunk as low as it was possible to go—the only job left was laundress, but she vowed she would die first. One had to preserve a little dignity, no matter what the cost.
At the table, the men continued their conversation. “This is what I try to impress upon my congregation, though they are deaf and dumb to it,” Potter said. “A godless man has no compass. A town of godless men is bound for destruction. This Destination is obviously well on its way.” He was getting excited, his voice beginning to squeak like a hinge.
Clara glanced at the door once more and saw the portly Reverend Arthur nod in response to his companion’s comment. But his eyes were on Clara. She turned sideways to avoid his gaze, but it asserted itself as if it were a physical thing, a lurid hand tracing the outline of her figure. The longer he leered at her, the harder she clenched her jaw. Dr. Calumet had told her to keep a calm disposition, that agitation could bring on the crippling headaches that had plagued her since the baby died. Of course, Dr. Calumet didn’t have to work in Rathbone’s tavern.
Potter creaked on. “Destination, Nebraska, is like so many places in this land. What that town needs is religion. Don’t you agree, Reverend Arthur?”
“What that town needs,” Arthur said, scraping the last of the chicken gravy from his plate and licking it off the fork with considerable relish, “is some women.”
When the men finished their meal, they placed a stack of coins and a pamphlet about redemption on the table.
“May the Lord continue to bless you,” Reverend Arthur called to Clara.
She waved from the far side of the tavern. “If he does, he’ll keep you out of my sight,” she muttered as they climbed the stairs to the street.
Not another soul came in after them, so Clara sent Bessie home and straightened up behind the bar. The newspapers under the chairs caught her eye—she had not seen them when she cleared the men’s dishes. Clara crouched down to sweep them up and, standing, struck her head on the underside of the table so hard the room went white for a moment. So much for protecting her head. She sighed as she rubbed the rising knot with her fingertips and remained there on the floor, resting her brow on her knees, then willed herself up and into the chair where Reverend Potter had sat.
His newspaper was still folded open to the story on Destination and Clara skimmed it. She had seen the newspaper ads and brochures: “Cheap farms! Free homes!” and “Great inducements to settlers with limited means!” She had heard the talk—many people who had very little here in New York wanted to make a go of it out west. After all, they had practically nothing to lose. But Clara was skeptical. Could it really be as easy as all that? At one time, she had almost gone herself, but there was always something keeping her in New York; first her parents’ care before they died, and then George. She supposed both of the ministers were right in their assessment of the town’s needs. God was an essential tool in keeping men from behaving like animals, it was true. Clara felt that the Lord had done very little for her personally, but she didn’t begrudge him that; instead she took it as a kind of compliment. She was weathering her own storms all right. She didn’t need or expect his intervention.
But Reverend Arthur was on to something when he said that the town needed women. For how else did men come to God if not through the influence of their mothers first and then their wives? Men needed women—that was a fact. This rooting around in a public tavern for a hot meal was a shame, and Clara truly believed it hobbled a man to have to concern himself with these mundane tasks. A man with a wife could be and do anything if he knew his hearth and home were in order, with a strong-shouldered woman at the ready. When she had first met George he was doing just fine on his own, but under her care he became his better self, more vigorous, cleverer, full of ideas. And all because she believed in hot food, cold baths, thick wool socks, feather beds, fresh air, and church twice a week, and every night after dinner she asked George to read novels to her as they sat together in front of their tiny hearth in their room at Mrs. Ferguson’s. And Clara hung on his every word, full of love for the way he stumbled along, flubbing the pronunciations but selling his flub as if the makers of the dictionary were wrong not to have consulted him beforehand. There was no doubt in Clara’s mind that she had been a devoted wife. She hadn’t driven George away, the way some people said. They didn’t know everything, didn’t know that he was trying to outrun the sorrow that nipped at his heels, a son born and buried in the same week.
She glanced again at the article. It was a funny sort of thing to try to conceive of, a town with no women. Imagine being the first one to go! Who would want to do it? She had heard about some of the things men had tried to entice women to the west. The “heart in hand” catalogs made a sad little stack of hopes and dreams on a wire rack in the post office, pages and pages of three-sentence advertisements by marriageable men and women. But did lasting matches actually result from these connections? The system seemed fraught with potential problems. For one thing, how could a woman know if a man was telling the truth about himself? No man was going to pay a penny a word to announce to the world of eligible ladies that he was a Weak-willed man of 40. Will drink too much and treat you poorly, while you break your back working in my hovel. Clara chuckled at the thought of this ad drawing a response from a beleaguered woman who respected that, at the very least, this prospective husband was honest. How low their sights were set, the women who had endured the long and terrible war of rebellion.
And yet any place that wasn’t Manhattan City, wasn’t teeming with drunks and piles of garbage and endless noise, held quite an appeal. Lately, Clara had caught herself daydreaming of a small white cottage where she might live alone, taking in sewing. She must have seen a picture of it somewhere, in a magazine or an old book, and it wasn’t located anywhere in particular, just somewhere far from William Street and the room at Mrs. Ferguson’s still haunted by everything that had happened there. The cottage was a place apart. A family of birds lived in a tree nearby and she imagined that she could leave a pail of water out for them to splash in. She would scatter stale bread in the grass for them too. The roof of the cottage sagged slightly and the trim around the windows needed paint, but it was quiet and tranquil and plain, and for that it was beautiful.
Clara shook off the vision and pushed herself out of her chair, setting the folded newspapers on the table by the door in case someone else wanted to read them this evening. The last thing she needed was Mr. Rathbone catching her sitting down when she was supposed to be working. Just as she was coming around the bar she heard his steps creaking down the stairs outside and the bell over the door jingle as he pushed it open. Mr. Rathbone was a barrel-chested man with a beard so dense and sleek it seemed at times like a mink stole wrapped across the lower half of his face. His smile was a surprise of pink in that mass of darkness.
“Afternoon, Clara,” he said. “Have we done a good business today?”
Her breath caught as she remembered the pies lined up on the butcher block in the kitchen, all that flour and lard and good chicken squandered. She had forgotten to wrap them up, to send some home with Bessie, a few others to Bill—the lunatic who sat on the corner bench all day long, one good leg and one stump wrapped in wool, singing the “Battle Hymn”—anything to get those pies out of the tavern. Mr. Rathbone would know when he did the books that they were losing money on food, but he didn’t have to see the waste laid bare like this in his kitchen. Blast those ministers, Clara thought, for distracting me. For making me think about George.
She didn’t have time to stop Mr. Rathbone from stepping into the kitchen, and when he did he stopped short. She came in behind him and for a moment the only sound was the door flapping on its hinges, like a hand, already waving her good-bye.
“Ah, my girl,” Mr. Rathbone said as he swiped his hand over the back of his neck and massaged the fold of skin at his hairline.
“Yes, sir—I know it,” Clara said, anxious to take the burden of what he had to do off his hands. She didn’t begrudge him the need to make his living.
He looked at her and sighed, the corners of his eyes bending like twin frowns. “Mrs. Rathbone has a niece outside Albany. She is just fourteen but has been working her father’s farm since she was knee-high. Tavern work will be nothing for her.”
“You know I want to keep you on, but this child will live with us. She’ll work for nothing.”
“I understand, sir.”
“I hate to do it,” he said. She followed him back out of the kitchen and behind the bar. He opened the till and counted out two weeks’ pay.
“I can’t take any more than what you owe me, sir.”
“Yes, you can. Now, come on.” Mr. Rathbone pressed the money into her hand.
“No, sir.” Clara shook her head. “I couldn’t.”
“Don’t be stupid, girl.” His voice was sharp and he worked to soften it. “Think of what your father would say. Please take it. I feel bad enough as it is.”
Clara hesitated a moment longer. “All right,” she said, putting the money in her pocket.
“If you need anything, anything at all, you come to me—you hear?”
She nodded. Mr. Rathbone knew all about George. Everyone did. Clara could see the guilt digging a line across his forehead. He was as good as turning a widow out into the street. Right before the start of winter. Clara felt the pain begin to thrum at her temples, but she shook it away. This was the way life had been for a long time now: The world shoved her off her course and she pushed back against it, too angry or foolish to give up. She’d find another way to get by, though at the moment she wasn’t sure how.
He shook her hand. “You’ll find another position. I know you will.”
“Yes, sir,” Clara said, and she meant it. She turned toward the door.
“Wait—you should take a few of these pies.”
Her hand was already on the knob. “No, thank you, sir,” she said. God help the next blasted chicken pie that came into her sight. Her eyes grazed the room one last time and rested on the newspaper. She plucked it up and tucked it in her apron pocket as she stepped up into the daylight.
It had been years since Clara had been out in the middle of the day with nothing to do. She didn’t want to climb the stairs to her empty room just yet, didn’t want the truth of what had just happened to penetrate her mind. So instead she started walking.
William Street was crowded with carriages and market carts. Men with broad shoulders hoisted wooden crates and shouted to each other as they carried them down the stairs to the cellars below the shops. In front of Libby’s a bevy of dancing girls gossiped and pointed at a man across the street who tipped his hat low and scurried around the corner, hoping no one would see him. All the girls wore long red feathers in their hair that wavered in the breeze, and their makeup was thick and garish on their pocked skin. Clara walked a few blocks farther north than she usually did—she realized just how small the scope of her everyday life had become over the last few years. She turned left and walked up a quieter block toward the park. The few trees were red and gold, their leaves not yet ready to fall. The chill in the air made her rub her hands together, and she longed for something hot to drink.
“Clara Wilson, is it you?”
A woman in an expansive dove-gray dress put her hand on Clara’s elbow. Clara peered at her.
“It’s Bitty Lathrop. From Sunday school. Don’t tell me you don’t remember!”
“Bitty!” Clara exclaimed, a little embarrassed. “Of course I remember you! You caught me lost in thought.” But Clara wouldn’t have known this woman from Eve. Bitty had once been, well, a great deal smaller than she was now.
“How are you?”
“I’m well, thank you,” Clara said. A group of children shoved past them, chasing a hoop as it rolled down the street. They stopped to steal some apples from a tree, its heavy boughs drooping over the fence around a yard at the end of the block. “And you?”
“Oh, just lovely,” Bitty said. “I’m married now, with four children. My Charles works at City Hall.”
“Oh, that’s marvelous,” Clara said. She recognized Bitty’s smile now, and it made her think of her sisters, gone so long. They all had played together, whispered and giggled in their pew at service.
“And you must be a schoolteacher now,” Bitty said, glancing at Clara’s plain dress. “I always knew you would be.”
“What do you mean?”
Bitty slapped Clara playfully on the arm. “You don’t remember the way we used to line up our dolls on the bench after class and play pretend lessons? You took it awfully seriously, Clara. I can still see the way you held that ruler, like a weapon!”
Clara laughed. She felt a little pang remembering the cold room at the church, the minister’s wife who taught them about Noah’s ark and Lazarus raised from the dead like some kind of magic trick. The woman had a tiny whisper of a voice that made every Bible story feel like a secret. “That was such a long time ago.”
“So I have it wrong, then?” Bitty asked. “You aren’t a schoolteacher?”
Clara shook her head. “I’ve been working in my father’s tavern for the last few years.” She didn’t see any reason to tell Bitty that it didn’t belong to her father anymore.
“Oh,” Bitty said, trying to cover her disappointment. “Well, isn’t that nice of you to help him.”
“I suppose,” Clara said. “Though lately I have been thinking it might be time to find something new to occupy my time.”
Bitty smiled. “Well, I have no doubt you will find something interesting to do. Of all the little girls in that class, you always were the smartest one.”
“I was?” Clara felt shocked. “I can’t imagine that’s true.”
Bitty nodded solemnly. “But it is! We all thought that, if anyone did, you would be the one who would . . . do something special.” Clara could see that Bitty felt awkward finishing the sentence, which sounded a little like an admonishment.
Clara had loved school. She remembered that now, though it had been a very long time since she’d allowed herself to think about the things she once loved. “It’s very nice of you to say that, Bitty,” Clara said. “And perhaps you’re right—perhaps it isn’t too late to make good on my potential.”
“We were all so proud to know you, Clara.” Bitty took her hand. “Still proud. You just never know what might happen. Look at me. Would you ever have thought I’d have a husband?”
Clara smiled. “Well, of course, Bitty.” But the truth was, Bitty had been a homely girl, with a sallow complexion and teeth like a jackrabbit.
Bitty shook her head and winked at Clara. “You’re just being kind. But it’s all right. A matchmaker found him for me, if you want to know the truth. My daddy paid her a pretty penny too.”
Clara stared at her a moment. The sudden idea Bitty’s story gave her—a way to leave Manhattan City for good, a way to claim that little white cottage from her daydream—seemed to hang in the air right before Clara’s eyes, like one of those apples on the tree at the end of the street. She had no right to it, to the promise it held. And yet it bobbed there, red and full, waiting to be plucked.
Rowena rose early, determined to respond to the invitations and have it over with. She dressed in her room, stepping into her lavender gown, and lifted one sleeve at a time high enough to push her arm through. Between the steel crinoline and the layers of cotton petticoat and satin flounces, the ensemble was almost too heavy to lift. Life had been easier when Hattie was here to help dress her, but that was back before the war.
She passed into the dark upstairs hallway and descended the stairs, her hand trailing along the banister. Though she felt her fingertips grow grainy with dust, she willed her mind to ignore it. The morning sun shone through the long narrow windows that flanked the front door of the row house. The promise of a new day, brisk and bright at the height of autumn, should have filled her with hope, but all Rowena could see was how threadbare the carpet in the front hall looked in the unyielding sunshine.
The invitations sat in a neat pile on her writing desk in the study. The lacy calligraphy on one urged her to join Celia Birch and Eliza Rourke for a tea given in honor of the new Mrs. Lindley, Eliza’s sister-in-law. Mr. Lindley owned three homes in Manhattan alone, not to mention his country house in Riverdale, where the stabled horses probably ate finer food than anything Rowena had seen lately. The second square of fine cream-laid stock promised dinner and dancing at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Channing of Madison Square. Louise Channing had lately made something of a project of Rowena. Along with the invitation, she had slipped a personal note in the envelope, promising that her nephew Donald was willing to escort Rowena, if she had no one else in mind.
Rowena got angry all over again at the thought of it. Donald Channing! Who spoke with a lisp and had what Rowena could only conclude was some kind of fungus growing out of his ear. She had spent one interminable evening with him and Mr. and Mrs. Channing a month back, after Mrs. Channing had told Rowena at a luncheon that it had been long enough since Richard’s death.
That was how the woman said it: long enough. As if Rowena were a child wrung out from a tantrum who needed the stern hand of a disciplinarian to set things right. The wisest, noblest man Rowena had ever known, the man who carried her very own heart in his haversack, walked out on the battlefield at Cold Harbor and got shot by a Spencer repeating rifle belonging to a man from his own company. All the blood drained out of his chest and down into the dark Virginia soil, where, in digging their trench, the men had found the decomposed remains of soldiers who had died there three years before. But never mind all that. It was high time, according to this old cow, for Rowena to start looking for someone to replace Richard. Mrs. Channing nattered on about overhearing women spreading rumors at the draper’s: Rowena Moore, left with nothing after Richard chose to go to war when he could have hired someone to fight in his place.
“My dear,” she had begun, her withered hand clutching Rowena’s wrist. Her voice dripped with such exaggerated sympathy, Rowena could have choked. “I know it’s difficult to hear the words of these cruel gossips, words which can’t possibly be true, but I am only thinking of you. A widow, however grieved, must think about her future.”
And so Rowena had agreed to the dinner out of sheer weariness. But after two stultifying hours of conversation about Donald’s button factory and his collection of antique candlesticks, she had nearly leapt from her chair when a member of the Channings’ army of maids whisked her empty ice cream dish away. Rowena muttered her good evening and scandalized all three of them by insisting that she would find a carriage home, alone. Outside it was pouring rain, and water gushed in rivulets through the mud in the street. Rowena tried to open her umbrella, but the ribs were stuck—it had been ages since she’d actually needed to use it—so she tucked it under her arm and hurried on, the sides of her soggy bonnet sinking against her cheekbones. She imagined that with each sure footstep, each clack of her heel on the cobblestone, she was breaking one piece of Mrs. Channing’s limitless bone china, until the woman would have to suck her soup out of her nephew’s sweaty hat.
Rowena’s anger kept frothing up inside her as she passed through the square onto Broadway. Suddenly, her heel caught a rough stone and she slid and fell, landing hard on her backside with a splash. The world halted for a long moment. She felt a roiling then in her lungs like nothing she had ever known, and she took a breath, then stood and screeched like a banshee. All the couples who were hurrying home from the theater scattered like a horde of mice. Rowena hauled back with her umbrella and pummeled it against the lamppost with all her might. “I will sell my body to the sailors at South Street,” she shrieked at everyone and no one, whacking the base of the streetlamp over and over until the glass lantern swung dangerously from one side to the other, “before I marry that dull, yellow-bellied . . .” she whacked and whacked and tried to think of what else he was . . . “festering-eared Donald Channing!”
“Miss,” a man said, approaching her carefully. “Do you need help?”
She looked at him, her big doe eyes wide and wild. The things she knew she should say—No, thank you, sir, I’m fine or Yes, sir, I need a whole lot of help indeed—flashed through her mind like the words painted on the banners soldiers carried into battle. But instead she opened her mouth and let out a twisted wail so beastly it seemed to curl the hair at his temples. His mouth dropped open and he stood staring stupidly at her. She lifted her umbrella straight up in the air as if she intended to clobber him over the head with it, a near impossibility, since Rowena was barely five feet tall, and he shrank away and turned a corner, his eyes on the ground as he ran. Seeing how easy it was to get rid of him coaxed a rippling laugh from her chest. But the laugh turned down on the end, into a sob, and she sank down in the gutter and cried for a full ten minutes before scraping herself up and walking the rest of the way home.
Rowena now understood that there were particular sorrows one would never get over. She no longer saw her existence as an ascending march toward happiness; instead, it was a stasis to be endured, a clanging and sputtering machine that produced nothing.
Miraculously, as far as Rowena could tell, the Channings had not heard about her outburst just a block away from their home. Rowena shook her head, wondering if this was providence or a curse, since, if Mrs. Channing had seen the incident with the umbrella, Rowena would be saved from worry about being invited to anything ever again. She picked up her pen and pulled a leaf of paper from the desk drawer.
Dear Mrs. Channing, she wrote. Thank you for your kind invitation. Since our last visit I have longed many times for the opportunity to spend time with you and Mr. Channing, as well as your . . . Rowena paused, inhaling a steadying breath through her nostrils . . . charming nephew, so it is with great disappointment that I must decline, due to a prior commitment. You will be in my thoughts and I hope you will enjoy a jubilant evening. Rowena signed the letter and folded it carefully, as if neatly matched corners could disguise her disdain. Next she declined the tea, for she did not have a single afternoon dress she would dare to be seen in, and the draper had refused to extend her credit until she settled last month’s bill.
Even if she had found something to wear, Rowena had lost her taste for parties. Before each one came to a close, the guests always started chattering about who would host the next one, and eventually, Rowena knew, she would have to take her turn. Wouldn’t it be something, she thought, to see their faces when I rose from the head of my own table to bring a tray in from the kitchen and serve them myself? A fine menu of buttered bread and the carrots Hattie put up last summer, before Rowena had had to let her go. Butter was her one luxury, and if there was a single thing on this earth those shrill and contemptible women could be sure of, it was that Rowena wasn’t going to waste one speck of it on them.
She pushed back her chair from the writing desk and placed both letters on the table next to the door, then opened it. A cold gust of wind swept the front hall and lifted the edges of the paper. Slamming the heavy door shut, she turned to the wardrobe in the front hall. Fall really was here and she’d need her wool cloak. She took it off the hook in the back and shook it out, debating over whether it needed to be brushed. Rowena shook her head. She knew she was stalling for time, putting off the task she dreaded a thousand times more than responding to Mrs. Channing’s invitation: Saturday was the day she visited her father at the asylum on Wards Island.
“Let’s get on with it,” she said aloud, her words echoing in the hall. She tied her bonnet strings and plucked up the letters she planned to post on her way. On the corner, a rough-faced Irishman stood smoking a pipe in a patched jacket. The neighborhood wasn’t what it had been.
Rowena’s father, Randolph Blair, had to her knowledge never once in his life raised his voice until the year 1863. He had a sheaf of wiry white hair that stood straight up on his head, and the same lively, round eyes as his daughter, but his voice was a soothing baritone, more vibration than sound. Mr. Blair was one of Manhattan’s finest attorneys and made a name for himself in business law. He was not by any means a wealthy man, even at the height of his career, but favors and goodwill helped him build the row house near Bond Street. He was well respected enough to have brokered a marriage between his daughter and the equally upstanding and underfunded Richard Moore, whom, to his great satisfaction, his daughter seemed genuinely to love. Mr. Blair lived life in a kind of hushed caution, carefully considering his every word and choice, no matter how small, looking for chinks in the armor. His own father had crossed the gulf to insanity in his sixties and Mr. Blair knew chances were fairly good that the same fate awaited him. He would often tell Rowena that if he lived to fifty-five with his mind intact he would count himself fortunate to be sure, and then lie down in front of the Bowery streetcar.
But he didn’t make it nearly that long. Shortly after Rowena and Richard were married, Rowena’s mother came down with the fever and died, leaving her widowed husband alone in the house. Rowena went over to check on him each day, her nerves tight as a fiddle string as she observed him for signs of mental distress. She needn’t have feared missing anything. There was no subtlety to the Blair family brand of insanity. The pans, he told Rowena, were clanking together in the cupboards all night long. So he threw them out in the snow in the front yard. Marguerite, the housekeeper who had practically raised Rowena, got on the first ferry up the Hudson on her way back to Montreal when Mr. Blair had dumped his full chamber pot on her head while screaming that her hair was on fire.
Hattie had assessed the situation in the kindest way possible when Rowena asked her to come over to see with her own eyes what was going on, to help Rowena decide what she should do. “Miz Moore,” Hattie said, putting her rough hand over Rowena’s and patting it like a small child’s head. “Your father’s still sewing, but his needle don’t got no thread.”
Rowena had no idea of the extent of her father’s financial troubles until the bank stated its intention to take back the Blair family home. She had believed her parents owned it outright, but it seemed her father had borrowed a great sum of money against it, which he proceeded to burn in a bonfire.
“Why?” Rowena screamed at him as she hurried around the side of the house and slapped his hands away from the flames. “Why are you doing this?”
“My dear, that money was filthy, filthy, filthy. You should be thanking me.”
“What do you mean, ‘filthy’?”
“Infested. Diseased. That money could have made all of us sick.”
She knew then, knew what she would have to do with him, and she felt her heart crack open and slide down the back of her sternum like an egg.
“Papa,” she’d said. “Oh, Papa.”
Clarity flashed briefly across his face as he recognized Rowena’s expression—the very same expression he had directed toward his own father many years ago—and that was when he bellowed for the first time in his life, long and low. “Nooooo.” He repeated the word three times, like a tugboat’s plaintive warning in a fog.
He was blessed, in a way, Rowena thought. A new hospital had just opened on Wards Island, a place for people like him, with nurses who combed his hair and comfortable clean beds. There was even a little stretch of beach where he could sit on a bench and watch the ocean steamers coming into the harbor, full of immigrants hoping to start anew in America.
Rowena felt something sour rising in the back of her throat. Blessed. That was a word she had used to make herself feel better. What a terrible lie. No man was blessed who couldn’t be left alone in a room without the risk that he might use his wife’s sewing shears to cut holes in all the drapery. The hospital’s existence made Rowena the fortunate one, she knew, for now she could rest easy, knowing her lunatic father was hidden safely away from the eyes of Mrs. Channing and her friends, whose little black hearts pumped liquid gossip instead of blood.
There was only one problem: Rowena had spent nearly every penny Richard had left her when he died, and there hadn’t been so very many pennies as she would have expected. She owed the draper money, along with the grocer and the carpenter who had fixed her front steps. But, worst of all, she owed the asylum money, a good deal of money, and she didn’t have a clue how she was going to continue to pay for her father’s care.
She was almost to the ferry dock when she saw the poster, nailed to the trunk of a tree.
Weary of the Miasmas of Manhattan City?
Miss Bixby seeks spinsters or widows with no children, of attractive appearance and good character, to consider travel and potential marriage to men of good standing in Destination, Nebraska, God’s own country. No cost to you—all travel expenses paid. Find out more at our community meeting, Friday, November 2, 6:30 p.m. in the sitting room above Rathbone’s Tavern.
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