Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Chapter One: Double Crossing by Meg Mims

Chapter One

Evanston, Illinois: 1869

I burst into the house. Keeping the flimsy telegram envelope, I dumped half a dozen packages into the maid’s waiting arms. “Where’s Father? I need to speak to him.”
“He’s in the library, Miss Lily. With Mr. Todaro.”
Oh, bother. I didn’t have time to deal with Emil Todaro, my father’s lawyer. He was the last person I wanted to see—but that couldn’t be helped. Thanking Etta, I raced down the hall. Father turned from his roll-top desk, spectacles perched on his thin nose and hands full of rustling papers. Todaro rose from an armchair with a courteous bow. His silver waistcoat buttons strained over his belly and his balding head shone in the sunlight. I forced myself to nod in his direction and then planted a quick kiss on Father’s leathery cheek. The familiar scents of pipe tobacco and bay rum soothed my nervous energy.
“I didn’t expect you back so early, Lily. What is it?”
With an uneasy glance at Todaro, I slipped him the envelope. “The telegraph messenger boy caught me on my way home.” My voice dropped. “It’s from Uncle Harrison.”
Father poked up his wire rims while he pored over the brief message. His shoulders slumped. “I’ll speak plainly, Lily, because Mr. Todaro and I were discussing this earlier. My brother sent word that George Hearst intends to claim the Early Bird mine in a Sacramento court. Harrison believes his business partner never filed the deed. He needs to prove our ownership.”
“Hearst holds an interest in the Comstock Lode, Colonel.” Todaro had perked up, his long knobby fingers forming a steeple. The lawyer resembled an amphibian, along with his deep croak of a voice. “His lawyers are just as ambitious and ruthless in court.”
Father peered over his spectacles. “Yes, but I have the original deed. I didn’t plan to visit California until next month, so we’ll have to move up our trip.”
           “Oh!” I clasped my hands, a thrill racing through me. “I’m dying to visit all the shops out there, especially in San Francisco. When do we leave?”
           “We? I meant myself and Mr. Todaro.”
           I stared at the lawyer, who didn’t conceal a sly smirk. “You cannot leave me behind, Father. I promised to visit Uncle Harrison, and what if I decide to go to China?”
          “Lily, I refuse to discuss the matter. This trip is anything but a lark.”
          “It’s a grueling two thousand miles on the railroad, Miss Granville. Conditions out west are far too dangerous for a young lady,” Todaro said. “Even with an escort.”
         “The new transcontinental line has been operating all summer. Plenty of women have traveled to California. I’ve read the newspaper reports.”
        “I’m afraid the Union and Central Pacific cars are not as luxurious as the reports say. You have no idea. The way stations are abominable, for one thing.”
         I flashed a smile at him. “I’m ready for adventure. That’s why I’ve considered joining the missionary team with Mr. Mason.”
        Father scowled. “You are not leaving Evanston until I give my approval.”
        “You mean until you dissuade me from ‘such a ridiculous notion.’”
        “Need I remind you of the fourth commandment, Lily?”
        “No, Father. We’ll discuss this later.”
        My face flushed hot. Annoyed by being reprimanded in front of Todaro, I ignored the rest of the conversation. I’d always wanted to see the open prairie and perhaps a buffalo herd chased by Indians, the majestic Rocky Mountains and California. California, with its mining camps, lush green meadows and warm sunshine, the cities of Sacramento and San Francisco that had to be as exhilarating as downtown Chicago. I’d pored over the grainy pen-and-ink drawings in the Chicago Times. Uncle Harrison, who’d gone west several years ago to make a fortune and succeeded, for the most part, would welcome me with open arms. I plopped down on an armchair and fingered the ridges of the brass floor lamp beside me. Somehow I needed to persuade Father to allow me to tag along on this trip.
         When Mr. Todaro’s bulky form disappeared out the door, Father glanced at me. “All right, my dear. Let’s discuss this business about California.”
         Heart thudding, I stood up. “Why do you need Mr. Todaro, Father? I don’t trust him one bit. Uncle Harrison has a good lawyer in Sacramento.”
        “He insisted on accompanying me. Emil has a quick mind in court.”
        “Maybe so, but—”
        “I wouldn’t be alive if not for his help. He pulled me out of a heap of bodies at Shiloh, remember. I know you don’t like him, Lily, but I will keep him as my lawyer.”
Frowning, I swallowed further protest. True enough, I disliked him. Something about the bulbous-nosed, oily man sent shivers up my spine. I crossed to the window, remembering the time I’d seen Todaro aim a kick at my pet lizard in the garden. Telling Father about the incident now would make me sound childish and petty.
        Etta carried in a silver tray of refreshments and set them on the table between the desk and the leather sofa. I sank into the soft cushion with a whoosh. My feet still hurt from my downtown shopping venture and several hours of errands.
        “I bought the handkerchiefs you wanted, Father, and that brass letter opener. I found a pearl brooch at Marshall Field. The silver setting looked inferior, though.” I plucked up a golden-crusted pastry filled with creamed chicken and dill. “My seamstress had no open appointments today, and I couldn’t find one straw hat that I liked at any of the millinery shops.”
        “If you’re serious about China, you’ll have to give up your notions of fashion.”
        “I suppose,” I said, licking a spot of gravy from my thumb.
        “That young man has filled your head with nonsense, in my opinion.”
        “Charles is dedicated to God. The China Inland Mission has accepted him, did I tell you? Now he’s raising funds for his passage.”
         “You’ve never been dedicated to working in Chicago among the poor. Charity begins at home,” Father said. “Your mother was devoted to the Ladies’ Society at church.”
         “Her charity circle sewed clothing and quilts. I can’t even thread a needle.”
         “So we agree.” Father snagged a handful of candied almonds. “You need to gain valuable skills here in Evanston, or at a finishing school, before you run off to China.”
         “I’m too old for school! I’ll be twenty in a month—”
         “Ripe for marriage, then, and giving me grandchildren. I’d rather dandle a baby on my knee than read letters about you starving in a foreign country. I’m not going to allow you to wed Charles Mason, either. He might be full of the Spirit, but he’s more interested in using your inheritance for his own purposes. I never detected any love in him for you.”
          His final words stung. I couldn’t protest much, either. Charles was a decent man, a hard worker, dedicated to his calling, but admiration wasn’t the best foundation for a love match or a lasting marriage. Father might be right about Charles’ interest in my inheritance, too, which nettled me. I changed the subject.
        “Tell me about the Early Bird mine, Father. Is it like the Comstock Lode?”
        “Quicksilver. Your uncle is set on new technology, hydraulic mining. It uses high pressure jets of water and is quite expensive. He knows more about it than I do.”
I chose a toasted point topped with cheese, tomato and spinach. “Then I’d better travel with you to California so I can ask him myself.”
         “You need to stay here where it’s safe.”
         “But you cannot protect me from the world forever, Father. I must choose a path—”
         “Keep praying, Lily. The Lord will show you the way.” Father bit into an apple cinnamon tart. “If you truly loved Charles, you’d have accepted his marriage proposal right away.”
         After gulping some chilled lemonade, I set down the glass. I’d prayed on my knees every night and morning, waiting for some sign, but nothing changed. I didn’t love him, and didn’t share his missionary dream. If I rejected him, I might be stuck in a loveless marriage to someone else. If I married Charles, perhaps my inheritance money would come to good use once I turned twenty-one. But I’d be thousands of miles away from home, among foreigners, and might never see Father again. Neither choice led to happiness.
          Tiny dust motes danced in a ray of late sunshine beaming through the window’s lace curtain. Cicadas droned outside among the trees. The mournful sound, buzzing low and then high, sent a shiver down my spine.
           Waiting for an answer to prayer led to frustration, but perhaps that was best. For now. “My pet lizard lost another clutch of eggs a week ago to a badger. I shot the creature—”
            “With what?”
            “Your Army revolver.”
“Good heavens, child. That weapon has a nasty kickback,” Father said grimly. “It might blow your hand clear off. Promise me you won’t handle it.”
I didn’t want to admit that I had lost my grip on the revolver, and gagged on the rank smell of gunpowder. I’d also been shocked by the tremendous bang that deafened me for several days. Still, I was reluctant to promise anything in case of any future predators harming Lucretia or her eggs. Rising to my feet, I rocked back and forth on my heels.
“Did you forget about my early birthday present?”
“No, but don’t think you’re going to distract me about that revolver.”
“I will promise not to touch it, but only if you hire a different lawyer.”
Father coughed hard, his mouth full of tart, and swallowed. “No, Lily! I will not bargain with you. This notion you have about Mr. Todaro is foolish. Don’t worry your pretty little head about the Early Bird mine any further.”
My chest tightened. We’d never quarreled over anything this serious before, not even Charles. Father had often given in to my whims. Something about Emil Todaro soured my stomach. Perhaps that was the Spirit at work in me. I decided to stand firm.
“I’m sorry, Father, but even Uncle Harrison said Mr. Todaro is not trustworthy—”
“I refuse to hear another word on the matter.”
Scowling, he returned to his desk and barricaded himself behind a flimsy newspaper. His stubbornness matched my own. I paced the library, slowly perusing the crammed bookshelves, and traced a finger over the globe’s continents and oceans. The sphere spun on its stand with a low hum. I stole a glance at Father. He rustled the thin pages, as if awaiting my apology. No doubt he was unhappy with me, but my feelings intensified about Todaro. I could not shake my conviction despite the commandment to honor and obey a parent.
Tired of counting the sofa’s brass tacks, I toyed with some wilting flowers in a vase. Silence reigned. I breathed out a deep sigh and moved to the window again. Twilight made it easier to study Father’s reflection. At forty-six, he was too young to be widowed. Mother’s unexpected death had stunned him so soon after his return from serving the Union in the War. A sore hip bothered him on occasion, brought on by bone-chilling winter nights, damp or soaked tents, marches over difficult terrain or long horseback rides. Deep worry lines tracked his face, iron gray streaks in his hair and beard made him look years older. We shared the same pride, loyalty and tolerance of faults in others.
Emil Todaro was an exception.
Drumming my fingers on the window, I heard the parlor clock strike half past six. “When are you and Uncle Harrison due in court in Sacramento?”
“He didn’t mention an exact day or time in that telegram.”
“How long will you be gone?”
“A week or two, I suppose. We leave in three days.” As if sensing a truce, Father pulled a desk drawer open. “Here is your birthday present, Lily.”
I kissed his cheek again and accepted the package. Slipping aside the silky ribbon, I tore the wrinkled rose-scented tissue to reveal a beautiful red leather-bound sketchbook. The cover had stamped golden scrollwork. Each creamy watermarked page begged for sketches or soft watercolors. Remorse filled me. I shouldn’t have caused him so much heartache.
“Thank you, Father. What’s this?”
A brief inscription filled the inside cover. I read in silence, my throat constricting with more guilt. Presented to Lily Rose Delano Granville. Treasure all that is precious to you, and you will have treasure for years to come. From your Dudley.
“Why did you sign it that way? I haven’t called you Dudley in years.”
“You scrawled it on all the sketches your mother sent.” His voice gruff, he tugged at a loose strand of my curly blonde hair when I leaned to kiss his cheek. “You remind me of her so much. She sent your drawings with her letters. They cheered up the men in my regiment, too, whenever I shared them. Forgive an old man his memories.”
“You’re far from old age. Perhaps I’ll go sketch in the garden. I’m expecting Charles to call today or tomorrow.”
“He hasn’t come to ask my advice, or for my blessing.”
“I think he’s afraid of you—”
“How can he face heathens then, in a foreign country? You ought to meet other men in the world. Better men, who have a fortune of their own.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Perhaps you’ll meet better lawyers in California.”
“Don’t be impertinent.” Clenching his pipe in his teeth, Father picked up his newspaper once more. “That won’t serve you if you’re serious about becoming a missionary.”
“Would you rather I follow Aunt Sylvia on stage?”
“Harrison and I disowned her, in case you forgot!” Father knocked pipe ash over his papers and spluttered with anger. “I would lock you in a nunnery if you ever disgraced yourself that way—don’t you dare say we are not Catholic, either.”
Heat flared in my cheeks. He knew me too well, since I’d almost lobbed that volley. Guilt seared me again when he picked up his paper with shaking hands. I hadn’t meant to upset him like this. We both needed some time to recover, so I fled to the garden. The French doors rattled shut behind me. Crossing the flagstones, I clenched my fists around my new sketchbook. Father would recover his good humor before bedtime. I tiptoed past the kitchen window. The clink of china and flatware drifted to my ears along with their low voices while Etta and Cook prepared the evening’s meal. My heels sunk into the soft grass. I passed the rose-covered trellis and then perched on an ironwork bench, the metal warm under my fingers. Lucretia scurried out from a hedge’s thick foliage, eyes blinking. She froze, staring at me, when I opened the book to the first page and slid a pencil stub from my pocket.
I needed something to make me forget the argument with Father. Capturing the lizard’s familiar form, I filled it in with dark cross-hatching and smudges. What a beautiful creature. My friends kept Persian cats or lapdogs, but lizards held a special fascination for me. Exotic, alluring with their patterned skin texture and independence from humans. Lucretia flicked her tongue and scuttled away, alarmed by some noise in the distance. The setting sun glowed dull red and orange past the shadowy trees, casting golden beams over the garden. The aroma of roast chicken, thyme and sage reminded me of dinner.
Rising to my feet, I groped for my mother’s necklace which held the tiny watch that Charles had given me. I must have left it upstairs on the dressing table. Tinkling water spilled from a cherub’s pitcher into the fountain. I sat down on the bench again and added ferns and shadows to my sketch.
Minutes later, a loud crack echoed in the air. The odd sound lingered. It reminded me of the revolver’s shot when I’d killed the badger. Had it come from the house? Closing my book, I hurried through the garden. Two shadowy figures slipped off the side porch and fled toward the street. The taller one wore dark clothing. I recognized the shorter man as Emil Todaro by his frog-like gait. Rushing after them, I witnessed their mad scramble into a waiting buggy. The team shot forward under a whip’s cruel lash.
Why had the lawyer returned? What did they want?
I climbed the steps to the side door and found it locked. Scurrying around to the back of the house, I tried the library’s French doors but they didn’t budge. My heart jumped in my throat. I picked up my skirts, raced around to the front door and flung it wide.
“Etta! Etta, where’s Father?”
The maid poked her head out of the dining room. “In the library.”
“I saw Mr. Todaro leaving with another man. Did you let them in?”
“No, Miss Lily. I did hear the Colonel talking to someone, though.”
“Didn’t you hear a loud bang?”
“I did, but I thought it was Cook with her pots. I was in the cellar fetching more coal.” Etta trailed me through the hall. “Is something wrong?”
“I’m not sure.” The library’s doorknob rattled beneath my fingers when I twisted it open. I peeked inside the dim room. “Are you all right, Father?”
An odd smell tickled my nose—gunpowder. I swallowed hard, my throat constricting, staring at how Father was sprawled over his desk, head down, one arm dangling over the edge. My head and ears thrummed when I saw papers littering the floor. The safe door stood ajar, the drawers yanked open every which way. I took a step, and another, toward the pipe that lay on the plush Persian carpet. His crushed spectacles lay beside it. Father’s hand cradled the small derringer he’d always kept in his desk drawer. Its pearl handle gleamed above a stack of papers, stained dark crimson.
A fly crawled over Father’s cheek. Etta clawed the air, one hand clamped over her mouth. I saw a tiny blackened bullet hole marking his temple, and wet blood trickling downward. Frozen in place, I heard a shrill scream—my own, since pain raked my throat.
Everything swirled and a dark void swallowed me whole.

No comments:

Post a Comment