Heart of the West
HE WASN’T COMING. OH, God, he wasn’t coming after all!
Clementine Kennicutt paced back and forth across the shell-patterned carpet, kicking at her skirts with the patent leather toes of her walking boots so that the stiffened muslin whispered in the too silent night.
She paced her dark and quiet bedroom. Down to the black walnut wardrobe. Over to the four-poster bed, all swaddled in white chintz and eyelet lace. Across to the fireplace. A lyre clock sat on the green marble mantel, its pendulum silently swinging. She had to lean close to its porcelain face to see the time. Ten minutes past midnight, ten minutes late. He wasn’t coming, wasn’t coming . . .
Back to the window, where faint light spilled in from outside. She pushed aside the voile undercurtains to peer down at the street. The glass was smeared with rain, and moist air made halos around the streetlamps. Moonlight lanced through melting storm clouds. The iron fence around Louisburg Square cast spiky shadows onto cobblestones that were slick with water and deserted.
There—surely that was a coach light flickering through the elm trees across the square. She pressed her face against the pane, trying to see better, but her breath fogged the glass. She flipped up the latch and pulled open the window.
The hinges squealed and she froze, her heart thudding in her throat. She eased the window open more slowly then. She could hear the wind now and the harshness of her own breathing.
A gust ruffled the green velvet drapes, slapping them against the casement. Behind her the crystal lusters on the mantel lamps tinkled. She leaned out the window, feeling the wind cool on her face. It smelled of the rain and of coal smoke. The street, shining with the wet, was empty still. He wasn’t coming.
“What are you doing?”
She whirled, almost stumbling. Light from the silver chamber stick in her mother’s hand threw huge shadows on the cream silk-covered walls. Clementine’s heart beat hard against the clenched fist she had pressed to her breast. “Mama, you frightened me.”
The flame flared and jumped as Julia Kennicutt lifted the chamber stick. Her gaze traveled the length of her daughter, assessing the steamer cloak that covered a plain maroon walking dress, the kid gloves and black beaver bonnet, the bulging carpetbag at the girl’s feet. “You are running away,” she said. Her gaze went to the unlit candle waiting on the window seat and the china safe filled with matches. “With someone. You’re running off with someone.”
“Mama, don’t . . .” Clementine shot a glance to the open doorway, expecting to see her father looming there. He always seemed to swell when he was angry, and the air around him would quiver. “I’ll put everything away and go to bed, and no one but you and I need ever know. Only don’t tell—”
Her mother left, shutting the door and taking the candle with her, plunging the room once again into darkness.
Clementine sank onto the chintz-skirted stool before her dressing table. The fear she so despised within herself clogged her throat, thick and sour like old grease. She heard a scraping noise outside, and her head whipped around. But it was only the wind slapping a tree branch against the corner lamppost. She stared with hopeless yearning at the window. If he came now, it would be too late. He wasn’t coming anyway.
The door opened. She stood, squaring her shoulders as she began to draw deep within herself, away from the hurt. So battened down was she against the gale of her father’s fury that it took Clementine a moment to realize her mother had come back without him.
Julia Kennicutt set the chamber stick among the glass bottles and enameled boxes on the dressing table. The beveled mirror reflected fractured light onto the two women. In her white nightdress and with her pale, unbound hair, Julia almost seemed the younger. “Clementine . . .” She lifted a hand as if to touch her daughter’s cheek, then didn’t. “You must take this with you.”
She gripped Clementine’s wrist, pressing something into her palm. The weight of the object surprised the girl, and she almost dropped it. It was a heart-shaped sachet embroidered with silk flowers and decorated with lace. The smell of roses clung to it, but it was too heavy and lumpy to be filled with sweet-scented powder or herbs. Clementine hefted it in her hand and heard the clink of coins.
“It’s not a lot,” her mother was saying in a strained whisper. “Not more than a hundred dollars. But it would be a good start for you, should you ever need to run away someday from this man you are running off with now.”
Clementine looked down at the small bag in her hand. She had a wisp of memory, of having seen it once years ago among her mother’s underthings—a place where her father was unlikely to go snooping, where a heart-shaped sachet smelling of roses would never seem out of place.
She looked back up to her mother’s white face. “You were going to use it yourself,” she said. “All these years you’ve just been waiting for a chance—”
“No, no.” Julia gave a sharp shake of her head, and her hair swung free, slapping against her cheek. “I won’t leave this house. I haven’t the courage.”
Clementine tried to thrust the sachet back into her mother’s hands. “But you can come with us. We’re going to the Montana Territory—”
Julia made a soft, strangled sound. “Montana . . . oh, my. What a whimsical, fey child you’ve always been. What would your young man think of a girl who dragged her mother along on their elopement? And to such a wilderness, no less. Can you imagine me among those horrid buffalo and Indians? Oh, child . . .” She lifted her hand, and this time she did touch her daughter’s cheek. “You are so very young. You think you’ll have such grand adventures, and you will—though not, I expect, the sort you’re dreaming of.”
“Hush now, and listen for once. There is something to be said for safety and security, for staying close to the life you’ve always known. So at least take the money, since you’ll probably need every bit of it on the day your grand adventures cease to be so grand.” Her fingers slid off her daughter’s cheek, and she sighed. “I have only this one thing to give you, and even it was stolen from him.”
Clementine felt the hardness of the coins through the thin silk, felt their weight. And the weight of all the words that had always remained unspoken between them. She imagined pulling the hoarded words out of her heart, holding them out to this woman, her mother. This one thing I have to give you. Like coins in a silk cachet smelling of roses.
“Clementine, this man you are running off with . . .”
“He is nothing like Father.” She put the sachet into the pocket of her cloak, and put away those other words she didn’t know how to speak. “He’s a kind man, a laughing, gentle man. I am sure of it.” But she wasn’t sure of it, for she barely knew him; indeed, she knew him not at all. And she had this sinking feeling, like a weight of soggy dough in her belly, that he wasn’t coming for her anyway. She squinted, trying to read the lyre clock. “You won’t believe this, Mama—but he’s a cowboy, a real cowboy.”
“Oh, heavens . . . I think you had better spare me the details.” Her mother tried a smile, but the hand she laid on Clementine’s arm trembled. “No matter what sort of man you believe him to be, promise me you’ll keep the money
as your own secret from him. Otherwise he will think it his by right and—”
The rattle of carriage wheels on cobblestones sent Clementine flying to the window. “Quick, Mama, douse your light.”
A small black gig rolled down the street, wavering in and out of the shadows and pools of lamplight. It was tattered and mud-splattered and missing its hood, yet to Clementine’s eyes it looked as magical as would a gilded coach pulled by white unicorns. She dropped one match and broke another before she managed to light her candle. She waved it twice across the window, then blew it out.
She snatched up the carpetbag, its weight dragging against her arm. She had crammed as much as she possibly could into it, for she couldn’t begin to envision all the things she would come to need in a wilderness like Montana. She almost laughed aloud. He had come. Her cowboy had come for her after all.
She turned away from the window. Shadows obscured her mother’s face. Yet she heard Julia’s sharp intake of breath as if she were choking back her own unspeakable words. “Go with joy, child,” Julia said. She gripped the sides of her daughter’s head, squeezing hard. “Go with joy.”
They stayed in this awkward embrace a moment before Clementine pulled away. But at the door she turned. “Good-bye, Mama,” she said softly to this woman, her mother, who stood in silence. A shadow among shadows.
Clementine’s feet made no sound on the hall’s thick runner, and she gripped the heavy bag against her chest to keep it from banging against the wainscoted walls. But the servants’ stairs were narrow and twisting, and she caught her toe in the hem of her skirt and tripped, dropping the valise. The bag thumped and clattered its way into the kitchen, spilling open. Trinket boxes, balls of cambric stockings, and a fluting iron rolled beneath the big block table and behind the icebox, getting lost among the coal scuttle and lard buckets.
Clementine’s breath left her in a gasp. She had made
enough noise to rouse all of Beacon Hill, to awaken her father surely. Her father . . . She stuffed what she could find back inside the bag, managing to refasten only one clasp.
A row of copper pan bottoms reflected her white face as she ran to the door that led to the mews out back, where her cowboy was to go after he had seen her signal. Her bootheels clicked on the brick floor. The sachet of coins in her pocket bounced heavily against her thigh.
The bolt stuck, and she bruised her knuckles trying to force it. The door scraped like a rusty chain as she yanked it open. She spilled out onto the stoop and came to a stumbling and breathless stop in front of a tall man, made taller by the deep crown of his wide-brimmed hat.
“Mr. McQueen . . .” She had to stop to suck in a deep breath. “I am here.”
His laugh was young and carefree, and his teeth flashed white beneath the long drooping curve of his mustache. “I heard you coming, Miss Kennicutt. Me and all the rest of Boston.” He took her valise, trailing a petticoat and corset laces, and tossed it into the gig. He stretched out his hand to take hers.
“Wait, there is another,” she said, pointing. “Over there behind the dustbin, beneath that pile of old gunnysacks.” The rotting sacks hid a calfskin trunk fitted with brass hardware and banded with copper. A piece at a time she had smuggled its contents through the house and out to the mews.
“What’ve you got in here”—he grunted as he wrestled with the trunk, trying to wedge it into the narrow space between the small gig’s leather seat and the splashboard—”bricks and cobblestones?”
“It’s just a camera,” she said quickly, afraid that he would ask her to leave it behind, that she would have to choose between her new life and the only part of her old life that mattered. “And glass plates and chemicals and such things. There’ll be room for it, won’t there? It’s not too heavy, is it? I can manage—”
He turned and gripped her face the way her mother had. Only he kissed her. A man’s kiss that was hard and fierce and left her feeling excited and breathless. “I knew you’d come with me, girl. I just knew it.”
His strong hands spanned her waist and lifted her into the cart. He leaped onto the seat beside her, spanked the reins against the horse’s rump, and they clattered out of the alley, turning toward the river.
Clementine Kennicutt looked back to the house, to the window of the room that had been hers for all of her life. A flickering light flashed once and was gone—her mother lifting a candle in a brief and lonely farewell.
She watched the dark window until the house was swallowed by the shadows of the elms. She turned and there ahead of her, floating above the mansard roofs of Beacon Hill, was the moon, round and plump as a Christmas orange.
Her head fell back and she laughed softly into the night sky.
“What?” said the young man beside her. He tugged at the reins, and the horse high-stepped around the corner. Louisburg Square and her father’s house disappeared forever, but the moon stayed with her.
She laughed again, stretching out her hand to the moon, her fingers spread wide. But it remained just out of reach.
If one’s life, Clementine Kennicutt had often thought, could be written out like a tale in a yellowback novel, then in her story she was fated to end up married to a cowboy.
Actually whenever she’d done her imagining, it was she who had chased wild mustangs across the range, taken a bead on a stampeding buffalo, and whooped it up at the end of the trail in Dodge City. Still, one had to be practical. Even in daydreams little girls did not grow up to be cowboys. But they did grow up to be wives, and if . . . well, just
suppose . . . But even that, she knew in her most practical moments, was stretching things for a girl whose father was minister to Tremont Temple in Boston, Massachusetts. A girl whose way of life was as different from a cowboy’s as was cheese from the moon.
The union of her parents had been a marriage of convenience and money. Julia Patterson had brought with her to the altar an inheritance of fifty thousand dollars and a house on Beacon Hill. The Reverend Theodore Kennicutt brought his fine old Boston name, along with his godly self. Clementine was their only child, and the Reverend Mr. Kennicutt did know his duty as a parent and a servant of God. Daughters were weak vessels, prey to vanity and instability. A pretty face didn’t mirror a pure soul. No one was allowed to coddle or pet or make a fuss over little Clementine.
Sometimes, when she was supposed to be contemplating her sins, she would follow her thoughts back as far as they would go, back even before she knew about the cowboys. She thought she must have been four that summer her grandfather took her to the bleachery and she discovered what life could be.
Grandfather Patterson had a smiling face, ruddy as an overripe apple, and a great booming laugh that jiggled his big belly. He owned numerous textile finishing plants, and on that day he took Clementine and her mother on an outing into the country where he had his bleachery. It was an enormous brick building with a belching smokestack. Inside, great bubbling vats emitted billowing clouds of steam. Hundreds of pipes crisscrossed like netting over the ceiling and dripped onto her head. Fumes pinched her nose and made her eyes water. Mama said the bleachery put her in mind of the cauldrons of hell, and Clementine loved it. The clattering noise, the fearsome stink, the hustle and bustle of it, the life of it. Even now when she thought of the fullness of what life could be, she was put in mind of that noisy, smelly bleachery. She had loved that place and
she’d waited with barely controlled excitement to go back, but they never did.
Yet that summer held its magic anyway, for Mama smiled a lot and began to get a big belly like Grandfather Patterson’s. Cook said her mother was growing a baby, but Clementine didn’t believe it until the day Mama took her hand and let her feel the baby’s foot kicking against the tautly stretched yellow dimity of her mother’s morning dress.
She laughed at the wonder of it. “But how could a baby get inside you?”
“Hush,” her mother scolded. “Never ask such naughty questions.” Yet they laughed together when the baby kicked again.
She always smiled when she remembered how she and Mama had laughed together. But thoughts have a way of flowing one into the other, and the laughter could become screams and footsteps pounding down the hall in the middle of the night, and a pair of servants whispering outside her nursery door, that the Mrs. Reverend was surely dying and little Clementine would be a poor motherless child come morning.
Clementine had lain stiff in her bed that night, listening to her mother’s screams. She watched the shadows melt and sunshine filter through the sawtoothed leaves of the elms in the park. She heard the chirp of sparrows and the rattle and clatter of the milk wagon.
And then she heard the screaming stop.
By morning, the whispers had said. By morning her mother would be dead and she would be a motherless child.
The sun had been up for hours before the Reverend Mr. Kennicutt came to her. Although he frightened her at times, Clementine loved the way her father looked. He was so tall it seemed his head must surely touch the top of the sky. His beard was long and thick, parting and curling up on the ends like a pair of milk jug handles. It was the same color as his hair—the shiny black of spilled ink. His eyes shone, too, especially on the evenings he came to pray with
her. He made words with his deep voice that were like the songs the wind made in the trees. She didn’t understand all the words, but she loved the sound of them. He told her how God judged the righteous and was angry with the wicked every day, and she thought he must be God, for he was so large and so splendid, and she longed to please him.
“Please, Father,” she’d said that day, careful to keep her eyes humbly downcast, although her chest felt pinched for air. She wasn’t sure what dying meant. “Am I a poor motherless child?”
“Your mother lies near death,” he said, “and all you can think of is yourself. There is a sinfulness in you, daughter. Such a wildness and a willfulness that at times I do fear for your immortal soul. ‘If thy eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness.’ ”
Clementine flung her head up and clenched her fists. “But I’ve been good. I have been good!” Her chest hitched as she stared up into his face. “And my eyes have been good, too, Father. Truly they have.”
He heaved a deep, sad sigh. “You must remember our Lord sees everything, Clementine. Not only all we do, but what is in our thoughts and in our hearts. Come now, we must pray.” He led her into the middle of the room and pressed her onto her knees. He lifted his big, heavy hand and laid it on her head, on the plain rough cotton cap that always covered her hair to keep her from vanity. “Dear Lord, when in thine infinite mercy, thou . . .” His voice trailed off. His daughter’s head was not bent in prayer. His fingers tightened their grip, but he said gently, “Your baby sister has passed on, Clementine. She has gone to the glory of heaven.”
She cocked her head beneath his hand as she considered the meaning of his words. She had never been able to picture heaven very well, but she thought of what Mama had said about the bleachery and the cauldrons of hell, and she smiled. “Oh, I do hope not, Father. I hope she went to hell instead.”
The reverend’s hand jerked off his daughter’s head. “What manner of child are you?”
“I am Clementine,” she had said.
Clementine was forbidden to leave the nursery that day. In the hour before bed, her father came again and read to her from the Bible about a lake of fire and brimstone, and a righteous anger that would show no mercy when she died. Even the angels who had sinned had not been spared, the reverend told her, but had been cast down into hell to suffer for all eternity.
Her father came again and again over the next two days, morning, noon, and evening, to read more to her of hell. But it was the upstairs maid who told her that her mother would live.
On the morning of the funeral all the mirrors and windows of the house were draped in black crepe, and flowers filled the hall, choking the air with their smell. A hearse pulled by horses sporting curling black plumes carried the tiny casket to the Old Granary Burying Ground. The wind stung cold on Clementine’s face and slapped dead leaves against the gravestones. She knew all about hell now, and it was nothing like her grandfather’s bleachery.
Sometimes the thoughts would flow on to that Easter when Aunt Etta and the twins came for a visit. These boy cousins, who were seven years older than Clementine, had just returned from a trip to Paris, where they had acquired a miniature guillotine. Clementine was excited to see this marvel, for she was allowed few toys of her own to distract her from her lessons and prayers.
The boys had offered to show her how the guillotine worked. And she, so pleased with the attention they were paying her, had smiled at the wonder of it. And was smiling still . . . until they set it up on the table where she took her morning porridge and milk, and they cut off the head of her only doll.
“Please, stop,” she said, careful to be polite and careful not to cry as she watched the porcelain head bouncing bloodless across the white painted surface. “You’re hurting her.” But her cousins only laughed, the tin blade fell with a shriek, and a pink dimpled arm went rolling onto the floor.
Clementine didn’t hurry, for she was forbidden to run. She didn’t cry. Stiff in her starched pinafore and cap, she walked soundlessly through the big house in search of someone to stop the slaughter, while her little chest shuddered, and her eyes stared wide and unblinking.
Lilting laughter floated out the open doors of the morning room. She stopped at the threshold, so enthralled she forgot about the murder of her doll. Mama and Aunt Etta sat knee to knee in white rattan chairs, heads bent over teacups. Aunt Etta had brought Easter lilies, and their thick sweet smell mixed with the melody of laughter and chatter. Sunlight poured through the tall windows, gilding her mother’s hair.
Julia leaned forward and gripped her sister’s arm. “Then Dr. Osgood said in that gruff-kind voice of his, ‘If you want to go on living, madam, you are not to try to have any more babies. I’ve told Mr. Kennicutt that if he cannot reconcile his conscience to birth control, then he must reconcile himself to abstinence. To behave otherwise is tantamount to murder, and I have told him that as well.’ Oh, Etta, the good doctor broke this news as if it were a tragedy. How could he know the utter, utter relief I felt?” Julia laughed, then her shoulders hunched. Aunt Etta gathered her into her arms. “The utter relief,” she sobbed into Aunt Etta’s plump bosom. “The utter, utter relief.”
“Hush, Jule, hush. At least from now on, you’ll be spared his bed.”
Clementine hadn’t understood the words they spoke, but she so had wished she could be Aunt Etta. She wanted fiercely to be able to wrap her arms around her mother and make her smile. But she wanted to be Mama, too, to be stroked and held and comforted, to feel safe and loved.
She wanted, wanted, wanted . . . Yet she had no words to describe the things she wanted.
That was the first time she could remember feeling them, those yearnings that were to come to her more often as she grew older. She felt and wanted things, but she didn’t know what they were. At times she would be almost choked with a tumult of feelings, of wantings, she couldn’t name.
She was nine when she first learned about the cowboys.
It came about when Cook hired a new scullery maid. Shona MacDonald was her name, and she had hair the bright red of a fire wagon and a smile that beamed from her face like the summer sun.
The first time they met, Shona knelt and pulled Clementine to her breast in a crushing hug. The smell of lavender water filled Clementine’s nose almost making her sneeze, and rough, work-chapped hands rubbed circles on her shoulders. Then Shona gripped her arms and leaned back, smiling. “My, what a bonnie lassie ye be,” she said. “Never have I seen such eyes. Like a loch at dusk, they are. All stormy green and brooding, and filled with secrets and mysteries.”
Clementine stared at her, mesmerized by the lilting words and the brightness of her smile. No one had ever hugged her before; she wished the girl would do it again. She tried a smile of her own. “What is a loch?”
“Why, a loch is a . . . a gret big puddle of water, ye ken?”
Shona laughed. The sound was like rose petals, sweet and soft. Clementine studied the shiny black toes of her shoes, afraid to look, almost afraid to ask. “Do you think you could be my friend?” she said.
Shona’s strong, bony arms enveloped her again. “Och, ye puir wee thing. Of course I’ll be yer friend.” And Clementine was almost giddy from the happiness that came from these words.
Sunday afternoon was Cook’s time off. It was a quiet time in the house, between church services, and Clementine was supposed to spend the hours at prayer. Instead she spent them in the kitchen with her friend. My friend. How she loved the sound of those words. She would say them to herself as she crept down the servants’ stairs: My friend, my friend . . . I am going to visit my friend.
Shona had a passion for yellowback novels, and she spent most of her meager salary on weekly editions of the Five Cent Wide Awake Library’s Wild West series. The books were a treasure trove of dreams, and she didn’t mind sharing them on those secret Sunday afternoons.
Clementine would sit on top the flour bin, swinging her legs, reading aloud these tales filled with gun-toting cowboys and wild mustangs, wicked cattle rustlers and scalping Indians. Shona would scrub the copper pans with a paste of lemon juice and salt, stopping to peer at the pictures and interject comments in her Scottish burr. “And who cares whether that cowboy was caught red-handed thievin’ them horses? The man is too bonnie to hang. A guid woman is what he needs. A wife to love him and turn him away from the pathways of sin.”
“I think I should like to marry a cowboy when I grow up,” Clementine said, almost shivering with the wonder of the idea.
“Och, wouldna we all, Miss Clementine? But cowboys, they’re like wild horses, them mustangs. They love their roamin’ ways too much. There’s no harm in dreamin’ about lassoin’ such a man, though, no harm t’all.”
The odor of the lemon paste would mix with the other kitchen smells, of yeast and coffee beans and salted cod. But Clementine’s nose wouldn’t be in Boston. It would be on the prairie and filled with the smell of sagebrush and buffalo hides and woodsmoke carried on the western wind.
One Sunday Shona was given the day off to be with her family, who lived a ferry ride across the Charles River. Clementine spent the precious hours that they normally
shared by herself in the kitchen. She sat at the block table, her elbows on the knife-scarred wood, her cheeks on her fists, poring over Shona’s collection of souvenir cards of famous bandits and cowboys. And dreaming.
She didn’t know her father had come into the room until his shadow fell across the table. She tried to hide the cards beneath a pile of freshly laundered towels. He said nothing, simply snapped his fingers and held out his hand until she put the cards into it.
She stared at the tabletop while her father slowly assessed her crime, shuffling through the souvenir cards one by one.
“I trusted you to be at your prayers, and instead I find you here, looking at this . . . this . . .” His fists crushed the cards, and the stiff pasteboard cracked and popped. “Where did you get these? Who dared to give you this lurid filth?”
She lifted her head. “Nobody. I found them.”
The air began to shiver as if a wind had stolen into the sun-bright kitchen. “Recite Proverbs Twelve: Thirteen, daughter.”
“ ‘The wicked is snared by the transgression of his lips.’ ”
“Proverbs Twelve: Twenty-two.”
“ ‘Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord.’ But I found them, Father. Truly I did. On the back stoop. Maybe the ragman left them there. He’s always looking at lurid filth.”
He said nothing more, only pointed up the back stairs. She walked past his outstretched arm. “I found them,” she said, not caring if the lie would damn her soul forever to the lake of fire and brimstone.
In her room Clementine knelt on the seat before her window and watched the gulls dip and soar among the elms and over the gray slate rooftops. Slowly the sunshine was washed from the day. A lamplighter walked down the street with his long pole, and small points of light began to appear behind him one after the other, like a string of
dancing fireflies. She heard the sound of a door opening and closing below and heels clicking on the granite steps of the servants’ entrance. The frayed crown of a straw hat topped the wrought-iron railing below, followed by a fat red braid bouncing against the back of a faded Indian shawl. A cheap straw suitcase dangled from a work-chapped hand.
“Shona!” Clementine threw open the window, shouting at the green and blue plaid shawl as it disappeared into the dusk. “Shona!” She leaned so far out that the edge of the wooden sill bit into her stomach. “I didn’t tell him. Shona, wait—I didn’t tell!”
Shona picked up her pace, almost running, and the straw suitcase bounced against her legs. Although Clementine continued to scream her name, she didn’t once look back.
She spun around, almost falling off the window seat. Her father stood over her and he had his cane with him. “Stand up and hold out your hands, daughter.”
It was the punishment he meted out for the direst transgressions. Three lashes across the palms of her hands with his malacca cane. It hurt terribly, but she had borne it before and she thought that this time she would not cry. She wouldn’t cry because this time she wasn’t sorry.
She held out her hands, palms up, and they only trembled a little.
The cane rose and fell, cutting through the air with a hiss, lashing her flesh. Clementine swayed and she nearly bit through her lip. But she didn’t cry out. The whiplike rattan left a red and fiery welt.
My friend, she said to herself with each blow, my friend, my friend. The words came like an incantation. Or a prayer.
When he was done, he blew the air out of his chest in a great gust and tossed the hair back from his eyes. “Onto your knees now and beg forgiveness of the Lord.”
Her hands burned. She stared up at him, mute, her eyes wide open and unblinking.
“Clementine, daughter . . . The face of the Almighty turns against you when you give in to the wildness in your heart.”
“But I am not sorry! I would do it again and again and again. I am not sorry.”
His fingers gripped the cane so tightly it trembled. “Put out your hands, then, for I am not done.”
She held out her hands.
The fifth stroke, two more than she’d ever been given before, broke the skin. Her whole body shuddered. But she didn’t utter a sound. Again and again the cane slashed across her lacerated hands. She knew that all she had to do was scream or plead that she was sorry, but she wasn’t going to give in to him, never would she give in to him, and so the cane rose and fell, again and again and again.
“Theo, stop! Oh, God, stop, stop!”
“I cannot stop. For her soul’s sake I must not stop!”
“But she’s only a child. Look what you’ve done . . . She’s only a child.”
Clementine heard the shouting voices through a thick rushing in her ears. Shudder after shudder racked her thin body. The flesh of her palms gaped open in long cuts. Blood welled up, splashing onto the shell-patterned carpet. She thought she could taste the blood in the back of her throat, strong and hot.
Her mother’s arms, the smell of roses . . . She wanted to press her face to that rose-scented breast, but she couldn’t seem to make any part of her body move. Her father still held the cane gripped tightly in both hands, but tears ran from his eyes into his beard. His voice trembled. “ ‘Thou shalt beat thy child with the rod, and thou shalt deliver a soul from hell.’ What kind of father would I be if I allowed her to take these paths of wickedness? She is wild and full of sin—”
“But, Theo, you go too far.”
A sob tore out his throat. The cane clattered to the floor, and he fell to his knees. His hands groped the air. “Come, daughter, we must pray. Hell is a lake of fire that
can never be quenched, but I will show you the way to the Lord—”
“But I’m not sorry! I’m not sorry!” She screamed the words. But she didn’t cry.
“I don’t want to pray.” To pray was to admit that she was sorry.
The mattress sighed, and her father’s frock coat rustled as he shifted his weight. He sat beside her on the bed. She lay on her back with her hands outside the covers. Her mother had smoothed ointment on the cuts and bandaged them, but even her mother’s tears hadn’t stopped them from hurting. She hadn’t cried, though. She had set her will to the thought that she would never cry again.
He shifted again and sighed himself. “Child, child . . .” He rarely touched her, but now he cupped her cheek with his big hand. “What I have done, what I do, is for love of you. So that you may grow up pure in the eyes of the Lord.”
Clementine stared up at her father’s face. She didn’t believe him, for how could he truly love her when she remained wicked and full of wildness? And she wasn’t even sorry for it.
“I don’t want to pray,” she said again.
He bowed his head. He was silent for so long she thought he must be praying to himself. But then he said, “Kiss me good night, then, daughter.”
He leaned over her, bringing his face so close she could smell the spice of his shaving soap and the starch in his shirt. She lifted her head and brushed her lips across the soft black whiskers on his cheek. She lay back on the pillows and held herself still until he left the room, and then she rubbed her mouth with the back of her hand, over and over until her lips burned.
She slid a cracked and bent souvenir card from beneath her pillow. Again and again she tried to smooth it with her fingertips, which were swaddled in bandages. A
cowboy’s smiling face looked back at her. A cowboy in a fringed shirt and a ten-gallon hat, swinging a lariat with a loop as big as a haystack over his head.
She stared at him so long and hard that it seemed with just a little more effort she ought to be able to conjure him into full-blooded, laughing life.
“You are a woman grown.”
So her mother said on the day Clementine turned sixteen. That morning she was allowed to pin up her hair in a thick roll at the back of her neck. A woman grown. She peered at her face in the beveled mirror of her dressing table, but she saw only herself.
But no more caps! she thought with a sudden smile. Wrinkling her nose, she picked up the one she had worn only yesterday and flung it into the fire. No more caps and a woman grown. She spun around on her toes and laughed.
It was her birthday and the day before Christmas, and they were going to a photographic gallery to have their portraits taken. They made a family outing of it, her father doing the driving himself in his new black brougham. The roofs and treetops all wore white bonnets. The winter air pinched her nose and chaffed her cheeks and smelled of the holidays—of wood fires and roasting chestnuts and evergreen boughs.
They passed the Common, where children raced their sleds down ice-crusted paths. One, a girl, must have struck a root, for her sled stopped but she kept going, tumbling head over heels, turning into a squall of blue skirts, red stockings, and flying snow. Her shrieking laughter bounced against the flat winter sky, and, oh, how Clementine yearned to be that girl. She longed for it with a fierce ache that pressed onto her heart like a pile of stones. She had never ridden a sled, never ice-skated on Jamaica Pond or thrown snowballs, and now she was too old, a woman grown. It made her think of all the things she had already missed in her life. All the things she was missing now.
Her father stopped the surrey to let a beer wagon cross in front of them. In the corner house, a boy and a woman stood in a big bow window pooled in yellow gaslight. The woman’s hands rested on the boy’s shoulders as they watched the snow fall. A man came up behind them, and the woman lifted her head and turned her face around, and Clementine held her breath, for she thought the man was going to kiss the woman, there in the window for all the world to see.
“Clementine, you are gawking,” her mother said. “Ladies do not gawk.”
Clementine leaned back against the leather squabs and sighed. Her soul felt chaffed raw with a restless longing. Something was missing from her life, missing, missing, missing . . . She thought she would almost rather feel dead inside, wooden and dry like winter branches that would never grow leaves, than have this constant, changeless longing for things unknown, unnamed. The missing things.
Stanley Addison’s Photographic Gallery was in the top flat of a brownstone on Milk Street. Mr. Addison was not a genteel man. He wore a striped waistcoat of a garish lime color and a paper collar. He sported a mustache so thin it looked inked onto the flesh beneath his nose. But Clementine barely noticed the man. She was mesmerized by the samples of his art, photographs and tintypes, that hung on the dull maroon gallery walls.
She circled the room, studying each portrait. Men of serious demeanor and pompous poses, actresses and opera singers in fanciful costumes, families of mother and father and stepping blocks of children . . . She stopped, a little hum of delight escaping through her lips.
Here was a cowboy. But a real one, not a made-up man on a souvenir card. He was decked out in silver-studded chaparejos and a fringed vest, with a scarf knotted flamboyantly around his neck. He sat on a hay bale, his booted legs rigid and braced apart as if he was more used to straddling a horse. A coiled lariat hung over one knee and a shotgun
rode across his lap. He must have had a taste for violence, for a pair of pearl-handled six-shooters was strapped around his waist as well. His mustache grew thick and long, falling over the corners of his mouth and hiding the shape of it, just as the low-brimmed hat shadowed his eyes. He looked wild and young and fierce and noble, as untamed as the land he roamed.
Clementine swung around to the hovering Mr. Addison. She sent a barrage of questions at the man. She wanted to know how a photograph was made. She wanted to make one herself. She ignored her father’s scowls, nor did she notice how Mr. Addison flushed and stammered as he led them to what he called his camera room, where he proposed to take their portrait.
To Clementine this place was even more fascinating than the gallery. An enormous window had been cut into the roof so that the room was washed in light. Painted screens lined the walls depicting trellised gardens and colonnaded porches; there was even one of the Egyptian pyramids. Among the screens stood several mirrors of various sizes and an enormous sheet of foiled tin on rollers.
The camera, a large wooden box with an accordion-like bellows, sat on a wheeled dolly. Clementine circled the thing, trying to puzzle out how it worked. She gave Mr. Addison a shy, tentative smile and asked him if she might view the world through the big unblinking eye of his camera.
He blushed and nearly tripped over his own feet as he showed her where to look. Clementine pressed her eye to a hole in the top of the box and saw the Reverend Mr. Kennicutt and his wife.
A canvas backdrop, painted to resemble a cozy sitting room, was stretched on a screen behind them. Her father sat on a fringed red velvet chair; Julia stood behind him. Her hand rested on his shoulder and he held it in place with his own hand, as if he feared she would bolt from the room if he didn’t restrain her. A potted palm balanced the
grouping, its fronds sheltering their heads like a big green umbrella.
Seeing them through the camera lens was to Clementine like looking at them from a great distance, as if they were not of this world. Or, no—as if they were still of the world but she had gone to a place beyond. Her father shifted his feet, uncomfortable in his ruffled dignity. The palm fronds cast small bars of shadow across her mother’s face.
Clementine knew she looked like her mother. They had the same ash-fair hair and shadow-green eyes, the same air of porcelain fragility. A woman growing, a woman grown. She tried to see in the face of her mother the woman she was becoming. There were so many questions she wanted to ask of that woman. Why did you laugh when the doctor said you could have no more children? Have you ever wanted to stand at the window and lift your face to a man’s to be kissed? Are there empty places inside you, yearnings you cannot name? She wanted to make photographs of her mother’s face and study them for the answers.
“Miss Kennicutt, I believe your father grows impatient.”
She left the camera to join her parents next to the potted palm. Aware now of the camera’s eye, she kept herself apart from them. Even when Mr. Addison asked her to move in closer, she took care that no part of her person, not even her sleeve or the hem of her skirt, touched the man and woman who had given her life.
Mr. Addison fixed iron clamps behind their heads to assist them in holding still. He disappeared into a small closet, and a sharp, stinging smell like rubbing alcohol permeated the room. He emerged moments later, his movements rushed and jerky like a rabbit’s. He carried a rectangular wooden box, which he slid into a slot in the camera. “Raise your chin, please, Mrs. Kennicutt. Er, Reverend, if you could give your vest a tug. Now, each of you draw in a deep breath and hold it, hold it, hold it . . . Miss Kennicutt, if I could coax from you a smile.”
Clementine didn’t smile. She wanted to memorize all that he was doing, to understand. Her deep, wide-spaced gaze went from the wondrous wooden box to the papier-mâché props and painted screens. A growing excitement filled her until she felt that she was humming and crackling inside, like the new telephones that graced the lobby of the Tremont House hotel.
She was beginning to grasp, to know, what of life she wanted. And so it was that on that day over a year later when a cowboy from Montana knocked her down with his big-wheeled bicycle, Clementine Kennicutt was ready for him.
It would never have happened at all if a wheel hadn’t come loose on her father’s black brougham. It began to wobble when they turned onto Tremont Street, and soon the whole carriage was shuddering. Her father pulled over to let Clementine out. As they were only two blocks from the Tremont House, where she was to meet her mother and Aunt Etta for tea, Clementine was allowed to go on without him.
She walked slowly, savoring the glorious day. Shop awnings shielded the street from an unusually strong February sun, but the warmth of it was in the breeze and felt like milk against her skin. The strains of a waltz tinkled through the open doors of a pianoforte salesroom. She had to stiffen her back against a wild urge to go dancing down the sidewalk.
She paused before a milliner’s window to stare with longing at a spring bonnet of white rice straw. A thick crimson plume flowed over the crown and was fastened onto one side with a plate buckle. A lady, Clementine knew, would have labeled the hat vulgar, but she loved it. It was like a peacock, flashy and gaudy, and it shouted to the world: “Look at me. I am beautiful!”
A delicious smell of chocolate and marshmallow wafted from the shop next door. She drifted down the street, following the smell, until she came face to face with
a pyramid of candy. Sighing, she pressed her nose to the window glass. She was never given any money to spend on herself; otherwise she would have entered the shop and bought a dozen of the treats. She would have eaten each one slowly, licking the chocolate coating off first before biting into the gooey white center.
The frantic clatter of a trolley bell jangled through the air, followed by a scream and angry bellows. A silver flash caught her eye—the spokes of an enormous wheel weaving through the jam of traffic in the street.
She had seen a drawing once of such a machine in the newspaper. It was an ordinary, or a bicycle, as they were coming to be called. The advertisement had claimed it could distance the best horse in a clay’s run, although seeing one now, Clementine wondered how a person even managed to stay astraddle of it.
The monstrous front wheel of this ordinary was nose-high to a man. Connected to it by a curved pipelike rod was a small trailer wheel the size of a plate. The wheelman perched on a tiny leather saddle atop the big wheel, his feet pedaling madly. His mustached mouth was open in a scream of terror or laughter, Clementine couldn’t tell which over the noise he was leaving in his wake. Vehicles and pedestrians all scattered before him like frightened quail.
He bounced across the tracks directly in the path of a trolley. The horses reared in their traces, and the driver’s arm pumped hard as he rang the warning bell. The bicycle narrowly avoided slamming into an elegant lady in an osier wood phaeton and struck a street-cleaning wagon instead, sending the wagon up onto the sidewalk with its sprinkler spinning in a wild arc and raining water onto the shoppers in front of Harrison’s Dry Goods.
Miraculously the bicycle was still upright, although wobbling now like a drunken sailor. It hit an awry cobblestone and leaped the curb onto the sidewalk, narrowly missed a whip peddler’s stand, clipped the back end of a chestnut cart, and headed for Clementine Kennicutt.
She told her legs to move, but they wouldn’t obey. It never occurred to her to scream, for she had been taught to retain her dignity regardless of the provocation. Instead she simply stood there and watched the giant wheel come straight at her as if someone had aimed and shot it.
At last the man noticed her in his path and tried to swerve by yanking the wheel crosswise. The ordinary balked at this rough treatment. The tire shrieked as it skidded on the granite sidewalk, and Clementine got a whiff of hot rubber before the wheelman sailed over the handlebars and slammed into her hard, knocking her flat on her back and driving the air from her lungs.
Her chest strained as she wheezed, and her eyes opened wide onto the candy shop’s awning. The green-and-white-striped canvas billowed and blurred.
“Well, hell.” A man’s face hovered above her, blocking out the light and the awning. It was a nice face with strong bones and a wide mouth framed by a mustache that was thick and long and the golden brown of maple syrup.
“Well, hell,” he said again. He pushed a big soft gray hat off his forehead, uncovering a hank of sun-tipped light brown hair. He wore a strange, bemused look, like a little boy who’s suddenly awakened from a nap and doesn’t know where he is. Clementine had the strangest impulse to pat him on the cheek as if she would comfort him. Yet he was the one at fault, sailing cat-in-the-pan over the big front wheel of his ordinary and into her.
She pushed herself up onto her elbows, and he grabbed her arm. “Take it slow and easy, now,” he said. In the next instant he lifted her to her feet with one hand and a hard strength that she felt all the way to the bone.
“Thank you for assisting me, sir.” Her plain black straw hat was tilted askew over one eye, and he helped her to straighten it. She started to thank him for that as well and then lost her thought as she stared into eyes the color of a summer sky and filled with laughter.
“I’m sorry I stampeded over you like that,” he said.
“What? Oh, no, please . . . No harm was done.”
His mouth broke into a smile that blazed across his face like the explosion of light from a photographer’s flash. “Not to you, maybe. And not to me. But just look at my poor bicycle.”
The big wheel’s spokes were bent, and the red India rubber tire lay in the gutter. But she barely gave the ordinary a glance. I must be dreaming this, she thought. Surely she must be dreaming; otherwise how would a cowboy have found his way into Boston, Massachusetts?
His pants of rough and riveted canvas were tucked into tooled leather boots with elevated heels. His blue flannel shirt gaped open at the collar and a loosely knotted red handkerchief sagged from a throat that was strong and sun-browned. He needed silver spurs on his boots and a pair of pearl-handled six-shooters, and he could have stepped straight off one of Shona’s souvenir cards.
He kicked at the loose tire with the pointed toe of one of those boots and shook his head, although the bright laughter never left his face. “These things have got more pitch to them than a Montana cayuse.”
“Montana . . .” The wonder of him stole her breath. His talk was all drawl and it resounded through her blood like the pipe organ in her father’s church. “What is a Montana cayuse?”
“A cow pony that can run all day and turn on a nickel, and is all wild.”
He had a way of smiling, she thought, that was just with his eyes. She stared into his smiling eyes as his long brown fingers tugged loose the knot in the kerchief around his neck. He pulled it off, then leaned toward her. He took one corner of the soft cotton and rubbed it along the side of her mouth. He did it gently, like the brush of a feather across silk. “Grease,” he said.
“Oh.” She swallowed so hard her throat made a funny clicking noise. “Are you real?”
“Last time I pinched myself I yelped, so I guess I must be real.”
“I meant are you a real cowboy?” she said, and she smiled.
Clementine had no idea what her mouth did when she smiled. The man stared at her, not moving, not breathing, looking as if he’d been hit between the eyes with his own ordinary. “I, uh . . . I’m . . . well, hell.”
“And if you are a cowboy, then where are your silver spurs and your chaparejos and your fringed vest and your pearl-handled six-shooters? And why are you riding an ordinary instead of a cayuse?” she said, and then she smiled again so that he would know she was teasing.
His head fell back and he laughed, a wild, joyous sound. “I made a bet with my cousin that an old bronco-busting cowpuncher like me could break in a Boston bicycle and look the part while he’s doing it. But if I’d’ve put on all those duds you mentioned, I’d be looking like a greenhorn on his first roundup.”
“You make me smile, the way you talk,” she said, only she wasn’t smiling this time. She was looking at him, lost in looking at him.
The laughter left his face and he stared back at her for the space of three slow, thunderous heartbeats. She was surprised he couldn’t hear it, the beating of her heart.
He reached up and rubbed the place alongside her mouth where the grease had been. “This cousin of mine, he’s got a whole factory full of these bicycles. He’s putting on a demonstration race tomorrow, and somehow I’ve let myself get talked into riding in it. Why don’t you come along with me and watch me make a fool of myself some more?”
She had never seen a race of any kind, but she thought they must be wonderful things. Of course her father would never allow her to attend such a vulgar event, let alone in the company of a man who was a stranger to the Kennicutt family. “We haven’t been properly introduced.”
“Gus McQueen, ma’am.” He swept off his big western hat with a flourish and performed a sweeping bow that was self-mocking and yet oddly graceful for such a large man. “I own a ranch in the middle of the RainDance country, where I run a few hundred head of scraggly cows. I also got me twenty percent interest in a silver mine, which so far as I know has produced nothing but muck and gumbo. So I guess you could say my prospects are of the promising sort, and my antecedents are . . . well, if not strictly respectable, at least there’s none in jail that I know of.”
His gaze dropped to the hat he held in his hands. He pulled the soft brim around and around through his fingers. “As for myself, the man—I don’t lay claim to being a saint, but I don’t lie or cheat at cards or drink whiskey or chase after loose women. I’ve never put my brand on another man’s calf, and when I give my word, I keep it. And I . . .” His fingers tightened on his hat, as if he struggled for the words to impress upon her that there was more to him than the cowboy she saw. He couldn’t know that what she saw she thought was wonderful.
But when he looked back up at her, his eyes were laughing. “And I’m not usually one of those mannerless rascals that cusses in front of a lady, even if you did manage to pull three hells out of my mouth in the space of as many minutes.”
She tried to act indignant, but inside she wanted to clap her hands and spin around on her toes and laugh over the delight of him. “You are unfair, sir, to lay the blame for your sins at my feet.”
“Oh, but it is all your fault, ma’am, every bit of it. For I’ve never in all of my life come across a girl prettier than you. And when you smile . . . when you smile, my, but you are truly something wonderful to see.”
He was the wonder. The way he talked and the brightness of his laughter that was like a glow on his face. And the way he simply was: built tall and broad-shouldered and strong, as a cowboy was meant to be.
“Now that I’ve given you my name,” he said, “why don’t we make it a fair swap?”
“What? Oh, it’s Clementine . . . Clementine Kennicutt.”
“And will you come with me and watch me race tomorrow, Miss Clementine Kennicutt?”
“Oh, no, no . . . I could never.”
“Of course you can.”
A strange, tingly excitement bubbled inside her. She didn’t smile at him again; she only wanted to.
“What time do you race, Mr. McQueen?” she heard herself ask.
“Straight up noon.”
“Do you know where the Park Street Church is, just down the block from here?” The daring of what she was doing left her light-headed, making all of her feel lighter than air, making her fly. “I’ll meet you beneath the elms in front of the Park Street Church tomorrow at eleven.”
He put his hat back on and he looked at her from beneath the shadowed brim of it, so that she couldn’t see the expression in his eyes. “Well, I don’t know if I feel right about that,” he said. “Not meeting your father and getting his permission to court you proper.”
“He would never give his permission, Mr. McQueen.” She punctuated the words with sharp shakes of her head, while her throat grew so tight with wrenching disappointment that she could barely breathe. “Never. Never.”
He looked down at her, stroking his mustache with the pad of one thumb. She waited, staring back up at him with her still, wide-open gaze. She wanted to see that race, and she wanted other things, too, things having to do with him that made her stomach clench with excitement. She wanted to see him again, to talk with him and make him laugh.
“I suppose,” he finally said, “that we’ll have to do it your way.”
He held out his hand, and she placed hers within it.
His hand was large and rough, and it swallowed hers. He rubbed his thumb over her palm, as if he knew of the scars hidden by her glove and was trying to erase them. “Just one more thing . . . Will you marry me, Miss Clementine Kennicutt?”
She stiffened and pulled her hand from his. Something caught at her chest, something that tore through her and hurt and left her feeling empty. “You are ridiculing me.”
“Oh, no, never that. Not that I don’t enjoy a good joke—there’s too much pain and sadness in living not to crack wise about it every now and then. But when things get real bad . . .” He flashed a sudden smile. “Say I’m trailing cows through a blue norther and the snow is stinging my face and the wind is howling like a lost soul in hell, it’s the dreams I make up in my head that see me through it. Dreams like having someone waiting at home for me, with a fire going and a pot of some good-smelling thing cooking on the stove. A gal, say, with wheat-colored hair and big green eyes . . .” His words trailed off as he stared at her face, and though she blushed, she could not look away.
He shook his head, his eyes still smiling at her. “Nope, when it comes to my dreams, Miss Clementine Kennicutt, you’ll always find me a dead serious man.”
“Dreams . . .” she echoed.
He raised his hat. “Tomorrow, Miss Kennicutt.”
He lifted the battered ordinary out of the gutter as if it weighed no more than a stocking stuffed with feathers. She watched him walk away from her, watched the people in his path part before his wide shoulders, watched his gray western hat bobbing among black silk top hats and beaver bowlers, watched until there was nothing left of him to see.
She climbed the broad granite steps and passed through the columned entrance of the Tremont House in a daze. A gentleman does not ask a girl he scarcely knows, knows not at all, to be his wife. A gentleman is one who has known you forever, whose parents have known your parents forever. A gentleman wears a frock coat and a top
hat, and he does not ride an ordinary pell-mell through the streets. A gentleman—
Her mother’s voice, though never loud, still managed to reach her over the refined whispers and rustling silk in the hotel lobby. “Clementine, what on earth has happened to you? Your bonnet is askew and you’ve dirt on your face, and look, there’s a rip in the sleeve of your new jersey.”
Clementine blinked and saw her mother and Aunt Etta standing beside her. “I was struck by an ordinary,” she said.
“Gracious.” Julia Kennicutt expelled a sharp breath, and Aunt Etta echoed her gasp. “Those devil-driven wheels will be the death of us all,” Julia said and her sister clucked her agreement. “They shouldn’t be allowed on the streets. Only a hooligan would even think of driving such a . . . a boneshaker.”
To hear slang on her mother’s lips nearly shocked a smile out of Clementine. “He’s not a hooligan,” she said, and then a laugh did roll up and out of her throat, a laugh that was loud and rather unseemly. And quite shocking, coming as it did from a girl who rarely laughed. “He’s a cowboy.”
The clock on the square white tower of the Park Street Church showed that it lacked five minutes to eleven. Clementine pulled her cloak close around her neck. It was more seasonably cold than yesterday. The big elms cast deep shadows onto the sidewalk, and a stiff breeze blew in off the bay.
She paced the length of the wrought-iron fence that separated the street from the tombstones of the Old Granary Burial Ground. She looked again at the clock on the tower. A long, agonizing minute had passed.
She decided to play a little game with herself. She would walk along the fence to the Egyptian-style gateway that led into the cemetery, and when she turned around, he would be there—
A black rattletrap gig pulled up beside her with a protesting creak of its wheels, and she looked up into a man’s sun-browned, smiling face that was shaded by the broad brim of a big gray hat.
“You’re here,” he said. “I wasn’t sure you would be.”