1— April Fools
Two men rode down the crushed-stone pike that promised to be dusty in the summer, but now, in the early spring, after so much rain and with the rain falling yet again, the road was very nearly swamped. They were obliged to pick their way through the numerous depressions and scored rivulets that testified to the unusually wet weather the area had been experiencing. Without even raising their eyes to the sky, they were sure of continued wet weather, slowing them and making a long ride even longer. They both wore long heavy cloaks against the rain and the chill, so that all that could be seen of the manner of dress were the boots in the stirrups, and if these were any indication, they were fairly well dressed beneath their cloaks. One of the men was slightly taller in the saddle, with a heavier build, and thick curling black hair showing under the rim of his hat. Though both men were clean-shaven, it was the taller of the two who continually stroked an imaginary mustache. The other man appeared to be of a slight build, but this was a trick of the eye – he merely seemed slight by comparison to his riding partner. He wore his hat far back on his head – the weak and watery morning sun nearly straight ahead did not compel him to shade his eyes – completely covering the color of his hair. The bigger man was, coincidentally, the older by several years, though this didn’t establish any hierarchy between them. The older man, in fact, often deferred to the younger man, in defiance of natural order.
The men rode the best horses the town behind them could provide, their own horses still stabled in Cincinnati, horses brought to that town at some inconvenience, and now temporarily abandoned as they pursued their current business down river and on the southern bank. Their primary business had been in Cincinnati, and it was that proximity to Louisville that had been the final factor which drew for them this other, dubious assignment. They could have crossed the river at Cincinnati, then continued down the south side of the Ohio on the new Short Line railroad, but they were tired of trains, and there was some concern as to whether the ramp leading to the great bridge to Covington could even be accessed after the torrents of rain that left the lower Cincinnati wharves flooded. (They had been privileged to see the very unusual sight of boats tied to the doors of stores along the swollen riverfront.) They had been spending a good deal of time lately on trains, traveling in the last month alone several times between Cincinnati and Washington City. The prospect of one more train with its numerous stations at every hamlet across the river, from Covington to Louisville, depressed their spirits almost as much as the continual rain of the last few days. And with all the rain of the past month, there were sure to be tracks washed out, not to mention muddy and damp passengers, all squeezed into a little box. Their business in Cincinnati had tired them, yet they did not favor waiting for the flood to recede to begin their next assignment, dull as that promised to be. The silly idea took hold of them to ride a riverboat downstream to Louisville, the excursion to be a sort of buffer, a small and deserved vacation, between assignments. Some of these new Cincinnati boats, they had heard, were veritable floating palaces, sporting every possible comfort and luxury. It just seemed more practical, in view of all the water lying about, to take a boat.
They had met, in the saloon of their Cincinnati hotel, the captain of a steamer, idling somewhere along Cincinnati’s riverside. Like all ship’s captains, John Elliott spoke with pride of his ship. He also told them of the independent packet line he operated with his two brothers, working the Memphis-White River trade in their small but growing fleet of ships. And he spoke with true fatherly affection of his daughter Emma, after whom he intended to name a ship soon to be building downriver at Jeffersonville. He assured the gentlemen it would be far more comfortable on his ship than on a train car crowded with wet and steamy passengers, and, worse, with no bar to patronize.
They were already leaning heavily towards taking passage on Captain Elliott’s steamer, but what really convinced the younger man was the promise of the company of two lovely female passengers who had just stopped at their table – they didn’t wish to interrupt, only to speak with the captain and to promise him they would be ready on time; what really convinced the older of the two men was the name of Captain Elliott’s steamer – Legal Tender. As employés of the Department of the Treasury, it seemed only right that they should patronize a ship so named.
It was a pleasant idea — a leisurely float down the Ohio in the company of two young ladies (shockingly without chaperones) on a handsome boat with an auspicious name and offering all the amenities. The idea may have been pleasant, but the weather definitely was not. The two men joined the captain and a few other early passengers the next afternoon. It was a day ahead of the scheduled departure, but they had seen enough of Cincinnati and were tired of both it and their hotel room. They determined to spend the night on the boat and while away the hours watching the river traffic and indulging in the steamer’s amenities.
It was cloudy and cool all that next day, and more than ever, there seemed no reason to remain at the hotel. Despite the chill and the clouds, they passed a very pleasant afternoon on the boiler deck of Legal Tender, giving passing attention to Captain Elliott’s tour of his great side-wheeler, but giving a good deal of attention to the ladies who had also decided to board a day early. A moderate but steady flow of liquor kept the chill away, and by evening, they were slightly drunk. They were ashamed to admit the next day to having been greatly amused by an attempted suicide just off their port side. The silly fellow had walked the entire length of the bridge from Covington merely to throw himself from the bridge on the Cincinnati side and within rescue reach of Legal Tender. He was plucked from the river by better and soberer people on the boat than themselves, and then commended to the care of his friends, who succeeded in taking the man back across the bridge, only to have him attempt a second suicide at the Covington end of the bridge. It was uncharitably suggested, later in the evening in the boat’s saloon, that the fellow was only half-heartedly interested in drowning himself, else he would have made a better and more successful attempt in the middle of the bridge, where the drop was longer and the water was deeper and more treacherous, and where there was no hope of rescue. Instead, he made these cowardly attempts at either end of the bridge where rescue was far more probable. It was concluded that he was probably an immigrant – they were notoriously slack in their work ethic, and it was no stretch to think they would be equally slack in other efforts as well.
The next morning broke clear and fine, one of only a handful of days in the past month to be clear and fine, and one of only three days that could charitably be called warm. A great deal of the month had been spent in rain and snow and chilly (even wintery) temperatures. Yet despite the relatively pleasant weather, the river continued to rise, as it had done for nearly a week. But now she was rising rapidly – gaining eight feet in the last 24 hours alone, thanks, they were told, to the flooded Little Miami gushing out of its own banks on its way to dump into the Ohio. Like the Lord, the Ohio was slow to wrath but great in power, and once it was aroused to its power it would not be denied its release. Nevertheless, Captain Elliott expected to depart on time at five p.m. The departure time came and went and so did the evening and the next morning and the next afternoon. Now they were told to expect the Ohio to rise yet another three feet. They would be departing the next day, positively, at five p.m., once Captain Elliott’s other passengers and freight could be brought aboard.
They spent another night aboard ship and woke to yet another cloudy and damp day, a constant light drizzle of rain falling. The captain had been generous in his meals for these, his captive fares, and, of course, they had enjoyed the pleasure of the ladies’ company and some fine wine. The river had indeed risen another three feet, and a rise of several more feet was expected. The cloudy and damp morning developed into a wet afternoon and evening, the drizzle becoming heavier until it became a real rain that drummed on the pilot house and the hurricane deck all night. Captain Elliott assured them they would depart, positively, the next day at five p.m.
The rain continued to gain during the night and it rained all the next day, the last miserable day of a miserable March. The river was up another two feet; at least three more feet was expected. Captain Elliott informed them at breakfast that water now stood four feet deep in the buildings at the foot of Main Street. Captain Elliott was looking a little haggard – he had been day and night rowing back and forth between his ship and the wharf to consult with the river watch of the town and to assure his waiting fares and freight. He promised them they would be leaving, positively, this evening at five p.m. But positively was becoming a relative word; the ship would leave positively only as soon as she was able.
It mattered little to the two men. They were enjoying themselves in the delightful company of the two young ladies. They were enjoying a little time spent away from their work and the hotel and the trains, and who could fault them? The weather was not of their doing, and no one could blame them for taking passage on a ship that seemed fated, by virtue of its very name, to take them to their next assignment. But, perhaps, they should have asked Captain Elliott to send a telegram for them during one of his many excursions into town. Chief Whitley could be unforgiving of tardiness and unprofitable idleness.
They did not see Captain Elliott the rest of the day, but they did not really look for him. As long as his supply of food and drink kept pace with them, he need not be present. Legal Tender did not leave as promised at five p.m., but she did leave, finally, late that night. All the passengers — the veterans of the past few days and the neophytes just joining the ship on the day of departure — celebrated far into the night their long overdue retreat from Cincinnati. As a result, the two men found it rather objectionable to be roused in the early hours of Friday morning and told curtly that it was time to leave, if Louisville was their destination. Captain Elliott intended to stay in Louisville but a few short hours before heading back to his home port of Memphis, and then on to his regular routes on the White River in Arkansas. He had seen quite enough of the Ohio River for the time being.
A few of the passengers grumbled at being so unceremoniously and early turned out of their accommodations; after all, for three days, the ship had promised to depart at five p.m.; why should she not stay until five this day as well? One passenger, a frequent fare on Captain Elliott’s boat, explained the captain’s great hurry to be gone. His ship had already spent weeks out of commission — first run aground for nearly two weeks at Fletcher’s near Cairo on the Mississippi, where she almost broke her back as the river (incredibly, at that time) was receding. Then, for more than a week, she was on the docks at Memphis being repaired. This, then, was Legal Tender’s first trip since her near total destruction, only to find herself trapped, much as the passengers were, at Cincinnati, idling and making money for nobody.
And so the two men had been forced to leave Legal Tender a little earlier than planned, and with no valid reason to delay further their objective, they retired to the first hotel at which they were assured a bath and quick attention to their now rumpled clothes. Within very reasonable time, they were clean, newly shaven, and properly attired. They had only to arrange for travel to the place of their next assignment.
The duty that lay before them had always seemed tedious, but now it loomed before them as positively onerous. Despite all the delays, they had enjoyed their time on the steamer — there had been plenty to drink and some delightful female passengers had helped to ease their passage (they must be getting old, they admitted, as they commented once again on the lack of chaperones among some of the youngest ladies). But it was these two very things that initially had made the short voyage bearable that now also made the long ride from Louisville to the Warner farm very nearly unbearable. They had drunk too much and slept too little, and now their heads were fuzzy and their eyes were heavy. The roads in town had been miserable and sloppy, and the roads that led south and east out of town were not much better. Like Cincinnati, Louisville and its environs had received several inches of rain in just the last week.
This little side venture promised to be vexatious and trying. Escorting young women over long distances always carried with it both tedium and delight, but escorting old widows promised only tedium. Images of brutal afternoon teas and stultifying conversations made all the more cumbersome by the certainty of long and frequent stops, loomed heavy in the older man’s mind. A simple two- or three-day trip could become a protracted odyssey of unnecessary overnight stays and constant adjustments to travel arrangements and ticket fares. And if the weather persisted in this dismal pattern — they had stepped from the boat into another cloudy, damp, and cool day — the old woman may balk at making a start at all, until conditions improved.
If the directions they had received in town were correct, they should be coming upon the farmhouse around the curve in the road up ahead. They had ridden for the most part in silence, each privately nursing his crapulous condition and resentment, but now the taller man spoke.
“I’m sure it won’t be as bad as Grant insinuated. Perhaps he exaggerated.”
The other man did not reply, but continued on with his lids half-closed, his body given up to the sway of his plodding horse.
“I mean, all this talk of Kentuckians and their independence and shooting the eye out of a squirrel in flight and being weaned on whiskey is all just nonsense, some myth they’ve devised for themselves. I never saw any of that in town, did you?” Shifting in his saddle to face his friend, the man begged to know, “Just how stubborn and intractable can any one old lady be?”
Without turning to look at his friend, without even raising his lids, the other man answered, “Grant never exaggerates. And I know how stubborn and intractable my grandmother was when she had to move out west with us.” After a further moment’s silence, he added ominously, “It won’t be pretty.”
The taller man briefly considered his friend before turning back in his saddle. He knew his younger friend’s dark mood had as much to do with where they were not as with where they now found themselves. Until they had been requested for this assignment, they were to have left Cincinnati and its rains and cold behind for hopefully better and warmer weather in New Orleans. Captain Bradley of the police force there had done invaluable work investigating the sugar frauds in the New Orleans Custom House, but those cases were well – and successfully – underway in the courts. It wasn’t certain what more Bradley could tell them, but whatever it was would have to wait a week or two. As would their hopes for better weather – so far, Louisville’s weather had been little better than Cincinnati’s.
They had passed and counted the houses along the pike, some of them quite grand, not at all what one thought of in the semi-wilds of Kentucky, and at the appropriate place described for them (“Look for the two-story stone springhouse”), they took a rough road to their right and continued on until they found themselves at the bottom of a fairly steep rise in the land.
At the top, maybe a quarter of a mile away, they saw the farmhouse. Unlike the other houses, both large and small, glorious and humble, that they had passed on the turnpikes out of Louisville, this house did not face the main road, or even its own drive, but looked south down the steeper slope of the hill, overlooking a creek below and the woods beyond. Regardless of which way it faced, the house gave the appearance of stability and a simple pride. It was not the glorified shack that they had both, independently, imagined they would find, and a twinge of guilt passed through them both.
This early in the year, the house was visible, but in another month it would be hidden by the leaves of the large shade trees that surrounded it. It was a two-story house, neatly clapboarded and painted white, with a long and deep porch that ran the length of the front of the house. The land in front wavered in gold – a huge massing of jonquils in full bloom, swaying in some breeze active at the top of the rise that the men did not feel on the road below. In their guilty reflections and reassessments, the men had unknowingly allowed the horses to stop, but now they kicked them into something of a more dignified stride to climb up the muddy, sloppy drive to the house.
As they drew nearer to the house, the land leveled out and the horses labored less, falling back into the lazy walk they had adopted from the beginning. The shorter man, who was also the younger man, began to suspect that these horses were in fact of the career carriage variety. They worked at one pace only, regardless of the commands of the rider. Apparently, despite their reputation for patriotic nobility and fearlessness in battle, Kentuckians were not above fleecing a stranger for profit. The fault was as much his own: he was a better judge of horseflesh than this – when he wasn’t indisposed.
They stopped directly in front of the porch and tied their horses to the newels at the bottom of the steps. They took one last breath before wearily mounting the five or six wide steps that evenly divided the length of the porch. A slow, rhythmic creaking sound that had been slowly dawning on them now revealed its source – a long, oversized swing hung at the far end of the porch to their left. On it, a man was stretched out, with one hand flung over the eyes, one muddy, booted foot raised and resting on the chain, and the other foot, equally booted and muddy, rested on the floor, keeping the swing slowly – barely – rocking back and forth. On the floor, next to the muddy boot was a book, opened but placed print-down as a means of keeping the reader’s place. The older man rebelled at such shoddy treatment of a book but relented a little when he read the title on the cover – De Docta Ignorantia. Though he was not familiar with this particular book, he had never known a book in Latin to be anything other than learned, despite the rather contradictory title. A man’s choice in books was a clear indicator of his character, and this book indicated a man of some intellectual standing. What was sure to be a momentary lapse in book care could be forgiven in such a mind.
The swinger appeared to be sleeping, retaining only just enough consciousness to direct the foot. Certainly, this person was far enough into sleep to be unaware of the presence of the two men on the porch. The two men looked at each other. The younger man had a habit of rolling his eyes by way of rolling his head, and this he did now by way of mockery and irritation. Clearly, he had not noticed the book or did not appreciate what it indicated about the reader. He announced their presence by loudly clearing his throat.
The swing abruptly stopped and the arm that had lain across the eyes now slid slowly up and over the forehead as the head turned equally slowly to gaze at the strangers on the porch. The foot slid down the chain and the person slowly sat up. It was apparent now that this was a young woman – perhaps in the early to middle years of her third decade – wearing a man’s old and worn work coat over an old white shirt and dark blue trousers, rolled up above the high mud mark on the boots. A long thick hank of brown hair hung in a simple queue down her neck and beyond. She blinked slowly, once, twice, trying to bring focus to her sight and mind. She had indeed been very nearly asleep.
It occurred to both men that this was not how they themselves would have reacted to having been woken to the presence of strangers, much less the reaction one would expect a woman, alone, to have in such circumstances. Perhaps she was not yet quite enough awake to appreciate the delicacy of her situation.
“Yes?” she asked again, this time with a slight hint of impatience. She was, in fact, quite awake and, far from being alarmed at this surprising presence of men or ashamed at her state of dress, she was irritated.
The taller, older man (yet not so much taller or older) stood paralyzed with the confusion of novelty (a woman in pants, alone, unperturbed at this intrusion). If he continued in this state much longer, he would be guilty of staring. The other man broke the trance by clearing his throat again, this time less dramatically.
“Um, my name is Mr. Merritt,” placing his right hand upon his chest, as if he were taking an oath, “and this is my colleague, Mr. Argent.” At his name, Mr. Argent obligingly nodded his head, in case the woman should mistake him for someone else, possibly also standing there on the porch. Merritt waited for her to respond, but she only remained seated on the swing, both knees now demurely pressed together. But her hands gripping the bench of the swing on either side of her knees suggested that being demure was an unintended side effect. She sat, hunched forward, leaning on her hands, expectantly. She continued to gaze steadily at Merritt, with a look of lazy boredom that also managed to convey some latent warning. There was something that was at once mature and childish about her. When it was obvious that her own name was not forthcoming, Merritt continued.
“We were hoping to find Mrs. Warner. Is this the home of Mrs. Warner?”
A new look came into her eyes: wicked amusement. “No, there is no Mrs. Warner here. This is not her home.” Her voice was low, confident. It occurred to Argent that this woman may be older than he first thought; this was not the high, nervous voice of a young woman, but the voice of a more mature woman. Why was she dressed like that?
Then Merritt said something that visibly disturbed and angered her, and instantly the air felt as if lightning had struck nearby. “Is your father or husband at home? We’d like to confirm directions with him.”
The young woman on the swing rose slowly and threateningly; the change in her demeanor was so sudden and drastic that it startled both men into a small step backward. She was taller than most women and broader in the shoulder than most, and this must have given her some deluded belief that she was physically equal to the men. Without knowing who these strange men were, beyond their names, she seemed actually prepared to fight them. Merritt had to admire the confidence and courage that allowed her to challenge opponents so obviously overmatched to herself. Her eyes were half-closed in insolent disdain for these men, and she drew a deep breath to speak. But whatever speech it was that she intended to hurl at them was preempted by a shout heard coming from beyond the other side of the porch.
Merritt and Argent moved across the porch to look out over the railing behind them. A small, thin, colored woman in a faded red cotton blouse and a white apron covering a worn-out gray skirt was running breathlessly up the hill just back of the house. A shawl had been hastily thrown over her shoulders, the corners tucked into the waistband of her apron. With her left hand she was holding up her skirts to keep from tripping as she ran, while her right hand she held up, waving wildly as she shouted between heaving breaths, “Wait! Wait!”
The men indeed waited, watching the woman finish the last few yards of her run until she reached the porch. There was a large hydrangea bush flanking this side of the porch, so that she had to stop a few feet away. She bent over at the waist, breathing heavily, her right arm still outstretched, as if in supplication. Every so often she looked up to make sure the men were still there.
While the black woman recovered, the men turned in unspoken unison to look back at the woman standing before the swing. Another change had washed over her. The anger and defiance were gone, receded, and in their place was a mild dread.
“Now look what you’ve done!” She was hissing at them across the porch. “Miss Carrie’s seen you and now she’s all riled up and hell-bent on having things her way.”
Both men were astonished. They looked back at the smaller colored woman, still catching her breath in the drizzling rain, and then to the taller young woman, who had only moments before appeared to be ready to offer combat to two grown men, but who now appeared nearly terrified of the hornet’s nest this other woman apparently presented. A desperate and truly ridiculous plea was issued by the young woman: “I’ll pay you each $10 for your trouble, if you tell her you made a mistake and you go away right now.”
“Are you trying to bribe us?” Merritt spoke with equal mixture of incredulity and amusement. All this time, Argent remained in confused silence, but no longer paralyzed. In fact, he was almost dizzy from turning to look at first one woman and then the other.
Miss Carrie had recovered enough to reach the stairs in the front, still holding her skirts, now to facilitate mounting the steps, her right arm still outstretched, now to reach for the railing at the top of the stairs. Before the young woman could respond to Merritt’s allegation, Miss Carrie scolded her. “Miss Mary, don’t leave your guests standing on the porch in this damp and chill. Invite them in.”
Before there was any further discussion of guests or invitations, Mary quickly retorted, “They are not guests. They were just leaving.”
Mr. Argent casually remarked, “Well, there was just now some mention of compensation for the long ride. I’d be pleased to have a drink of water.” A decidedly wicked man.
“Water! We can do better than that.” Carrie was at the front door with her hand about to turn the knob, when Merritt addressed her, hoping for a better answer than Miss Mary had given.
“Yes, ma’am, I’m sure.” The thought of any drink other than water, however, was causing some disquiet in his person. “But we were hoping to find Mrs. Warner. Is this her home?”
Miss Carrie stopped turning the knob and twisted back to her right to look up at Merritt with a curious look on her face.
“Mrs. Warner!?! No, sir, she doesn’t live here anymore. She’s gone to her rewards. Nearly four years now.”
Merritt turned slowly and deliberately to face Miss Mary, and looked at her with open appraisal and challenge. Still watching Miss Mary, he asked — no, stated — “But there is a Mary Warner living here.”
“Why, yes, sir. You’re looking right at her.” Twisting in the other direction, but still for some reason retaining hold on the doorknob, she scolded Mary. “Fifteen minutes that I know of, these gentleman been kept at the threshold and you ain’t even told them your name?” Carrie’s grammar always lapsed when she was in high dudgeon. “Shame on you! Your mother and I both taught you better than that. And what would your father think of you? You know how he felt about the way you treat eligibles.”
The smirk that had been growing on Merritt’s face and the bemused enjoyment that Argent had been indulging at Miss Mary’s expense as she was publicly reprimanded on her own porch quickly faded from both men as the portent of the word ‘eligibles’ sank in.
Mary enjoyed watching the table turned on these two interlopers on her morning nap. The whole morning, now that she thought of it, ruined because of these two, with the very real probability that the rest of the day would be spent in ridding herself of them. It could have been handled quickly, if Carrie had kept to her own business. Just how was it that Carrie seemed to know every time one of these land-miners came up the lane? Carrie’s house was out of sight of the lane; she couldn’t see the comings and goings on it. In a flash the answer came to her: Thea. Betrayal, that’s what it was, pure and simple. And on today of all days. Thea knew it was Randy’s birthday, and that Mary wanted to be alone, more so, today. Mary would make sure Thea felt the full weight of her disappointment and anger.
Argent’s words broke in on her revelation, and her anger at Thea was tagged and filed away for later. Mary returned to her enjoyment of the situation. Argent was awkwardly explaining something, while Merritt alternately nodded or shook his head in agreement with Argent’s statements.
“I think there has been a misunderstanding.” Merritt nodded solemnly, casting a glance at Miss Warner. There may be hope yet of an early ejection of these two. “We aren’t here for any . . .” – Argent was desperately casting about for the proper word, the dignified word – “. . . sort of . . .”
“Fishing expedition,” Merritt suggested.
Mary slowly closed her eyes; Can anyone really be that clumsy and course? She opened her eyes to find Merritt smiling broadly at her, teasing her – the way Randy used to do. A small lurch in her heart at the thought of Randy was swiftly followed by a hard, cold anger at this man who had triggered the memory.
Argent spared Merritt a brief glance of irritation before continuing with renewed effort, “Any sort of social activity.” Merritt emphatically shook his head.
It was beginning to dawn on Carrie that she had run herself to near collapse up that slippery, wet hill in the hopes that two fresh eligible bachelors were interested in Miss Mary. She had promised Mr. Warner that she would take care of his daughter, but, really, a husband was what was needed for Mary. A strong hand, a man’s hand, any hand but hers. Now Carrie’s hand left the doorknob and placed itself on her hip. It seemed the offer of a drink was being withdrawn.
“What other kind of activity is there when gentlemen come to call at a lady’s house, so far from town?” A challenging and warning edge had entered Carrie’s voice. “And what gentleman,” it suddenly occurred to her, “comes calling at a lady’s house, unannounced and without having made sure of a chaperone?” Now it was Mary’s turn to smile broadly. She raised her eyebrows in a saucy approval of Carrie’s questioning.
“This is an official call.” Argent was smiling confidently, now that he had entered familiar territory. People usually responded with all due respect to this type of pronouncement. For added gravity, and to truly lay to rest any idea of marital prospecting, he added, “We have come at the request of President Grant.”
Merritt and Argent were both smiling, anticipating the flurry of gasps and excitement and professions of received honor that are the usual reactions of women when they are visited by the representatives of the highest office in the land. It was because of the eminence of their patron that they had paid such particular attention to the manner of their apparel this morning. Argent pulled from his best coat the letters of introduction and other papers proper to assuring the people they called on of their respectability and validity. The papers and letters, however, remained in his outstretched hand, neither woman moving to accept them.
The dead silence that followed caused their smiles to fade rapidly. Once again, the balance of power on the porch had shifted. Carrie now looked fearfully, truly fearfully, at Miss Warner. Merritt and Argent followed her gaze to see Miss Warner standing stiff and white with small patches of red beginning to blossom and spread over her whole face. For a moment, Argent feared that she had suffered some kind of attack. He realized, however, that she wasn’t ill, but furious.
With a visible effort to contain herself, Miss Warner said with deadly calm, “Leave.”
Carrie – brave woman – spoke equally softly. “Mary, no matter who sent these gentlemen, they don’t deserve such treatment after such a long and miserable ride. We’ll feed them and tend to their horses, then send them on their way.” She said this with more hope than with any real conviction that this is what would happen. She quickly opened the door and frantically motioned the gentlemen inside, giving each in turn a look that said, ‘Say nothing.’ She continued to hold the door open for Mary and asked probingly, “Mary, honey, aren’t you coming in?”
“I’ll see to the horses.”
Carrie breathed a sigh of relief and walked through the door, shutting it quietly behind her. She took the men’s cloaks and disappeared behind the broad, plain staircase in the middle of the hall, then returned to show the gentleman to the front room on the left of the wide central hallway. She absently asked them to sit and also if they would like anything in particular to drink. But she was lost in thought, and didn’t hear the gentlemen tell her, twice, that water would truly be enough.
“Miss Carrie?” Carrie realized she had been directly addressed, and acknowledged, for the first time in some minutes, the gentlemen’s presence. “Miss Carrie, are you unwell?” It was Mr. Argent speaking to her with some amount of concern in his voice.
“Oh, no, sir. I’m just trying to remember where all the guns are kept. I don’t think there’s one in the barn. I’ll be sure and check her before she comes into the house.
Merritt mouthed the word, Guns. Argent took Carrie’s hand and guided her to sit on one of the two short sofas in the room. The upholstery on all the seats was a little worn, but it was still a handsome room in all. Perching himself next to her on the couch, he said, “Maybe you had better tell us what just happened.”
“Maybe you had better tell me what the General wants with Miss Mary.”
Argent started to correct her as regards to Grant’s title, but Merritt cut in before Argent could do so. “President Grant has sent us to escort Miss Warner to Washington. To meet with him.”
“Oh, well” – and here she gave a little laugh – “that won’t happen.” She patted Argent’s hand that still held hers and said appeasingly, and with a little pity, “I’ll be as quick as I can with some food for you boys, so you’ll be able to get back to town as soon as possible.” She moved to get up, the matter obviously closed to her, but Argent would not let go of her hand. She sat again, looking at him quizzically. She felt a little naughty at letting a white man hold her hand for so long and with such politeness. What would her Henry think if he saw her right now?
Even though it was Argent who held her in place and pinned her with his gaze, it was Merritt again who spoke. “We won’t be leaving without her. The President insisted. In fact, he gave instructions that we were not to take ‘no’ for an answer and to use any means possible – including throwing her over our shoulders and carrying her, bound, to Washington.”
Argent was watching Carrie’s face, and was a little surprised to find no alarm or indignation at the thought of Miss Warner’s casual abduction. “Oh, Lord, do not tell her any such thing, or she’ll dig in her heels and then it may just come down to gunplay. Tell her anything else you need to convince her, but do not mention the General again.”
This time Argent did correct her. “He’s the President now, Miss Carrie.”
“And for heaven’s sake do not correct her on that. Not unless you want an earful and then some of how he isn’t her president since she was denied the opportunity to vote for him or anyone else. The thought of her rights denied will sour her mood for days. You mention the President, especially this one, and it’s on your own heads what follows.”
“Miss Carrie, can you tell us, why is she so angry with the Presi, – with the General?”
She looked at Argent, clearly wanting to tell him, but some strange code of honor she apparently shared with Miss Warner held her tongue. “It isn’t my place to say. But you should know — if you’re to spend any time with her — that she is an angry child, in an ailing woman’s body, hobbled by a crippled soul. Surely the General told you of the tragedies that have befallen and smothered this house?”
“Only that Miss Warner is the last of her family.” Here Argent looked truly regretful at the sad situation. Then his regret gave way to vexation. “But we were allowed to believe that Miss Warner was Mrs. Warner, the mother, a widow.”
Carrie laughed heartily but covered her mouth with her apron at such unseemly conduct. “Oh, the General was wicked to leave you with that idea. But, how would you have thought to treat her if you had known how young she is? No, the General knew what he was doing. If you had come in here giving commands and expecting obedience because she is young and unattached, she would have shredded you on the spot. It’s a vicious and quick tongue she has. Or worse,” Carrie laughed anew at the emerging picture in her mind, “speaking softly and cajoling-like to her, as if she were an addled old woman, why you’d be just an oily spot on the porch wall. It’s hard to know which she hates more – being told what to do, or being molly-coddled.” Carrie was still shaking with laughter at the thought of innocent gentlemen being flayed alive by Miss Mary’s acid tongue. Merritt and Argent looked at each other in high disapproval of such blood sport among the ladies. “No. No, it was better the way it happened, that she thought you were just two more men come to try their luck with her hand.”
Now Carrie did rise, wiping her eyes with her apron, Argent finally letting go of her hand. Carrie sighed. “Her father died six months ago, leaving her alone in this big house that used to have so many in it. She spends too much time alone, and she’s becoming peculiar . . . more so than usual. I don’t know how you can manage it, but the General is right: don’t you take ‘no’ for an answer. I’ll help you as much as I can, but she must go and face the General. She must get out of this house, away from this farm and all the ghosts that walk it. She needs to be among the living.”