“I know—exactly—what you are.”
Mrs. Drummond, housekeeper of the Eternal Life Seminary, my place of employment for the last twenty-four hours, stood ramrod-stiff beside the large fireplace in the seminary’s ornate library. The ring of keys attached to the belt at her waist, a symbol of her authority, caught a stray beam of sunlight as the clouds scudding across the prairie parted for a few seconds.
Two people flanked her: Dr. Adema, the seminary’s president, and a Mrs. Calderwood. I wasn’t quite sure what Mrs. Calderwood’s role was, but she seemed to think herself important.
“We all know Mrs. Lillington’s history, Mrs. Drummond.” Dr. Adema’s tone was gentle, and perhaps a touch ironic. “We were all involved in the decision to employ her, on Mrs. Lombardi’s recommendation.” The tremor in his hands, curled around a walking stick, betrayed his age despite the upright posture of his tall, gaunt frame.
I lifted my chin and laced my fingers together, determined not to show how weary I was. The five days’ journey to Kansas had seemed like such an exciting adventure when Tess, Sarah, and I had left the small town of Victory. But bad food, little sleep, and an increasingly fretful baby had taken their toll on all three of us. The jolting of the cart along the rutted track to the seminary had been the final straw for Sarah, who had vomited on Mrs. Drummond’s skirts as I was shaking her hand.
“Yes, yes.” Mrs. Calderwood sounded impatient, an irritated gleam in her beady black eyes. She was a small, round woman, dwarfed by the two tall figures on either side. And this despite her efforts to increase her height by piling up her grizzled black hair in a style so tall that it wobbled as she spoke. “It is true that we were well aware that Mrs. Lillington”—she gave a small, sardonic smile as she emphasized my fictitious married state—“came from Catherine Lombardi’s Poor Farm and is an unfortunate.” She narrowed her eyes at me. “But I concede—”
Dr. Adema cleared his throat, cutting off the flow of words. “We were given to understand that Mrs. Lillington’s, ah, predicament was the result of a single lapse of moral judgment,” he said mildly. “It’s hardly fair to label her an unfortunate. She was not walking the streets.”
I felt my cheeks flame. At that moment, I would have almost preferred to be an unfortunate, as Mrs. Calderwood termed it. At least I could have faced them all down with the experience borne of being a woman of the world. To have them all staring at me and knowing that Sarah was the result of my own stupidity and ignorance—well! What about my cousin, Jack Venton, who had taken advantage of that ignorance? But of course, the only way I could have avoided the blame society inevitably laid on me would have been to marry Jack. I preferred keeping him in ignorance to entering into a marriage neither of us wanted. And I was not prepared to give up Sarah either.
“I concede,” said Mrs. Calderwood, speaking a little louder, “that Mrs. Drummond has a point.” She waved a small hand, tipped with little pointed nails, in my direction. “Not only is this young woman a person of demonstrably poor moral judgment, she is undeniably handsome. And she is a very young woman. In a seminary full of young men.”
Three pairs of eyes considered my face and figure. I wasn’t feeling particularly handsome, although I had done my best to make myself as smart and neat as possible. I was the picture of sober respectability in an unadorned black skirt and shirtwaist. My only ornament was the brooch of silver, jet, and pearl that Martin Rutherford had given me.
“So if I were plain or missing a few teeth, I would be more suited to my post?” I knew I was being impertinent, but I couldn’t help myself. “I can assure you, Mrs. Calderwood, that having made a mistake once—and only once—and having suffered the consequences, I’m not likely to try the experiment again.”
I also could have married Martin, I reminded myself. He’d almost offered, and he was my oldest friend, perhaps the only man I could ever have put up with day in and day out. But he had ambitions of his own and was even now building his dreamed-of store in a Chicago that was rising from the ashes of its great fire. And he had just as great an aversion to matrimony as I did.
“I promise you, Dr. Adema, that I have no intention of causing trouble with any male person in this establishment.” I fixed my gaze on Dr. Adema’s kind eyes. “I’m here to make a living for myself and those who depend on me. The deaths of my mother and stepfather have left me with few financial resources, but I’m a hard worker and skilled with my needle. You won’t regret hiring me.”
And if they sent me away, where would I go? To the Lombardis’ mission? I’d thought it would be close by and I would be able to visit with Mrs. Lombardi, who had been so kind to me at the Poor Farm. But it was an entire day’s journey away from this isolated place. My dream of an independent future was fast crumbling in the face of reality.
I stared at my interlocutors, refusing to be defensive about my past.
“I should have thought the matter out more thoroughly,” Mrs. Calderwood mused. She linked her little fingers together under her chin and gazed at me, her head tilted to one side. “What will the boys’ parents think if they knew that their sons’ clothing—and, heavens, their bed linens!—are stitched and repaired by one whose hands are tainted with,” her voice dropped to a hoarse whisper, “fornication? We have the reputation of this school to think of after all.”
Mrs. Drummond nodded in emphatic agreement. A tremor ran over Dr. Adema’s face that just might have been a suppressed smile. “I rather think the reputation of this school is my concern, Mrs. Calderwood.”
I had heard of people bristling, but I’d never seen it done quite so unequivocally. I could have sworn Mrs. Calderwood’s piled-up hair actually stiffened. “If my dear father could hear your cavalier dismissal of his generosity—”
“I am doing nothing of the sort, Mrs. Calderwood. Your family’s money provided the land and the building, for which our denomination is most grateful. Gratitude, I may suggest, has been sufficiently shown by the role it has accorded your husband in the running of this school. Even so, I am its president, and the funds for the daily operation of the school come from the denomination, from our donors, and from the fees paid by the boys’ parents.” There was a hard edge to his voice that I hadn’t heard before. “I assure you, I considered all sides of the question before agreeing to employ Mrs. Lillington.”
“But look at her,” Mrs. Drummond burst out. She was a good-looking woman, tall and well built with a head of glossy light brown hair, clean and neatly arranged. Her eyes, large and green-gray in hue, fixed me with an expression of outraged anger. “How does she belong in a menial position in a seminary? She’s all too clearly a lady. Look at her; hear her speak. Mrs. Lombardi completely misled me. I was expecting a humble penitent, suitable for a humble post. She is not suitable. Not suitable at all.”
“I can sew the clothing and linens you need, order the necessary supplies, and keep good accounts of what I do. How much more suitable do I need to be?” I turned to Dr. Adema again since it was plain he was my best ally. “Please give me a chance; I have nowhere else to go.”
And that was the nub of the matter, I thought ruefully, unless I were to throw myself on the charity of the Lombardis—for whom I would be a burden. Or return to Martin, and what on earth would a single man do with an unwed mother, a baby, and Tess, whom the world was pleased to call an “imbecile”?
“Furthermore,” Mrs. Drummond continued, “she has not been brought up in a properly regulated household. Church attendance irregular, daily private prayer quite absent, Bible reading very irregular, strong liquor and tobacco in the house.”
I opened my mouth to reply, and then shut it again. Mrs. Drummond had fired a series of questions at me while I’d still been trying to get my bearings the day before. I’d had to admit that I’d grown up in a household where God was respected, but which hadn’t been an overly religious one.
Mrs. Calderwood joined in the attack, her eyes shining gleefully. “We explained to Mrs. Lillington that this establishment is run in strict conformity to the rules of our denomination, which exhort us to a godly life and forbid the consumption of liquor.”
“And I signed your pledge of commitment in good faith,” I replied. “I don’t drink or smoke, and I’m perfectly happy to attend chapel and observe the Sabbath. Our church attendance wasn’t really irregular—I simply told you the truth, that we occasionally missed church because of illness and so forth.”
“And then again—”
Mrs. Drummond and Mrs. Calderwood spoke together, and Dr. Adema raised a trembling hand to enjoin them to silence.
“Jesus numbered a woman of ill repute among his followers—not that I’m saying you are such, Mrs. Lillington—and Scripture gives no indication that she ever erred again. If we turn this young lady away after bringing her all the way to Kansas, where is our charity? If we cannot forgive, how can we accept the Lord’s forgiveness? Do unto others, ladies.” His tone held a slight note of reproach. “We all have our weaknesses.”
A faint pinkness tinged Mrs. Drummond’s high cheekbones; Mrs. Calderwood merely looked truculent.
“Don’t forget that we have the extra trouble and expense of three mouths to feed, not just one. That child will grow, and then there’s Miss O’Dugan. Her capacities are not great—”
“Miss O’Dugan appears to be of excellent character.” Mrs. Drummond interrupted with an alacrity that surprised me. “She is most fond of Scripture and shows great interest in the seminary. She’s been asking me about my methods of keeping accounts.” She feigned not to see my tentative smile of gratitude, but her face softened a little.
“Tess is helpful to me in many ways, and she’s more astute than people give her credit for.” At last, I felt I was starting to gain the upper hand. “You’re getting two good workers for the price of one, you know.”
“You will keep the child out of sight of the students,” Mrs. Drummond said. I nodded.
“And you will remember that you only speak to the young men on matters that directly concern your employment,” Mrs. Calderwood added. I nodded again, biting my lip against the retort that formed in my mind.
Dr. Adema smiled. “It seems we have reached some kind of agreement.”
It was a relief to reach the workroom allocated to us, even though it was cold and empty. The wood laid ready for a fire in the grate would not be lit, Mrs. Drummond had explained, unless it was really necessary. Wood was at a premium out on the plains. The lamps in the overhead chandelier had not been lit either, though the day was waning—but I didn’t care. I hadn’t come here to work, but to brood alone while Tess and Sarah slept in our room far above.
I leaned my head against the window frame and looked out over the dimming landscape. The clouds had gathered, and a soft rain had begun to fall, glistening on the blades of green pushing up through last winter’s browns and tans. The prairie looked vast and empty. I knew we were some three miles from the little town of Springwood, but all I could see was the bare horizon beyond a straggling row of young trees that marked the perimeter of the seminary’s land.
It was a new beginning, but not the one I’d imagined. I had pictured our emigration to Kansas as a momentous escape into a new life of possibilities, perhaps of great success. At the very least, I had thought Sarah would be safe from the gossip and contempt she would encounter back home as she grew. Here, nobody would look into her jade-green eyes and think of my cousin Jack’s visit. Mrs. Lombardi could perhaps introduce me to ladies who would appreciate my dressmaking skills, and we could make friends in the surrounding community—
Except that there was no Mrs. Lombardi nearby and apparently no surrounding community either. I would be far more isolated than I had been at the Poor Farm. I would be infinitely more friendless than I’d been in Victory. There, the love people had had for my mother led them to accept my invention of a hasty marriage and unfortunate widowhood. On the surface, at least.
And in Victory, I’d had Martin’s steady affection, which had more value to me now than ever before.
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