I wrote this short story about ten years ago for a historical fiction class. I’ve written 30+ short stories for various MFA writing classes and for Clarion West Writer’s Workshop in 2002. Usually blogs are non-fiction, but I’ve been thinking about writing fiction again, so I thought I’d put this story up and see what people think. I’m open to any kind of helpful critical advice. Think of this as marketing research to see if I have any fiction writing talent. By the way, I have no idea how well copying a word document to my WordPress editor will work. I won’t know until after I hit the publish button. I’ll clean up things as fast as I can.
JWH – 9/9/11
Mama was sitting at the servant’s table reading the Boston Evening Transcript in dim yellow oil light and I was working at the shelf rolling dough to make apple pies. I don’t mean to mislead, we do not have servants, not while Poppa has the two of us, but our cozy little clapboard house was built long ago to provide for them. As usual for the cold weather months, Mama and I stayed in the kitchen, warmed by the burning logs in the cook stove. Most days we lived in this little room, away from the men, from five in the morning until after eight at night. So you can see why I crave an occasional adventure. Our usual thrill involved Mrs. Copeland and Bess coming over to sew. We’d sit in the servant’s bedroom, next to the kitchen, in old worn-out parlor chairs and chat.
That’s my usual world. This Friday evening was like every other evening. My little life was a small circle of women. Indeed, Mama would read the paper, but only to glean those tiny bits that would affect us, like a death notice or a sale on men’s undergarments. Real news came by the gossip telegraph; well, except for my secret life of reading before bed.
This female society is my destiny, except for the minor detour of attracting an eligible bachelor. Then, that lucky man will build a new lady’s lair for me and our daughters. At twenty-one, I am late in my duties to acquire such a husband, and my problem is often the subject of our discourse.
My hands were kneading warm dough and my thoughts were barely moving. Cold air currents circulated from the windows and mixed with hot air currents from the stove and stirred the smells of burning wood, stewing apples and roasting chicken. Everything was still and quiet when Mama said something to shake up my domestic sphere.
“Anna, look at this, it’s a message just for you.” Mama was obsessed with spiritualism and assumed the world was full of messages.
I wiped my hands on my apron, walked over and took the newspaper she was holding out for me. She jabbed her finger at a box advertisement. I read while whispering the words, “Special Notices. Mr. Charles Dickens will read in the Tremont Temple, Boston. On Monday Evening, December 2d, 1867…”
“Oh Mama, I never dreamed this could happen.” I didn’t tell her that I often conversed with Mr. Dickens late at night.
“Read more,” she urged. She pulled a chair out so we could sit next to each other. I sat down and the two of us huddled over the paper. Mr. Dickens wasn’t reading for just one night, but for four, and he would read a total of eight different stories. My heart raced. Mr. Dickens has been my literary hero for as long as I can remember. At the bottom of the notice words slapped me with the daunting news that each reserved seat would cost two dollars. Today was the fifteenth of November, and the tickets could go on sale Monday morning, the eighteenth. I had little time to act.
“Where am I going to get eight dollars?” I asked Mama, as well as myself. It has been two years since I’ve had any money of my own, when I worked during the war at the post office and later at the soldier’s hospital.
“I’m sure Poppa will pay for the four of us to go one evening.”
I was abruptly faced with my own selfishness. She was thinking eight dollars was for four people to go one night, and I was thinking one person going four nights. “Do you think so? Then I’d just need to find $6 for me to go to the other three nights.”
“You don’t need to go all four nights,” she said in a motherly scolding way.
“Yes, I do, Mama. You know how much I love Mr. Dickens. Each night’s reading is different. See…” and I pointed to the paper. But then I remembered that no, she and Poppa would have no idea about my secret life. They would think I loved Dickens just like everyone else, because everyone read his stories.
“I don’t know Anna. Poppa will never let you go out by yourself. That just isn’t proper for a young lady your age.”
“Then, you, Poppa or Marcus could take me.”
“I’d love to dear, but I don’t love Mr. Dickens that much, and besides I could only go on Monday, because I always have appointments with spiritualists on the other nights.” If the Fox sisters were giving lectures, she’d go every night. She patted my back, “But I’m sure you can work out something. If only you had a young man to call on you.”
I wished I had a young man too. I wished I was already married, because it would have solved so many of my problems and relieved the huge weight put upon me by every female I met. Poppa had made some half-hearted attempts to introduce me to some of the young men at his office or sons of his friends, but I knew he secretly wanted me to stay home and take care of him and Mama.
“But I don’t have any gallant escorts, so what will I do?” I asked her, feeling annoyed at the world.
“I’m sure Poppa will help you decide tonight at dinner.”
I went back to my rolling pin where my thoughts now raced. Eloise, my older sister would love to hear Mr. Dickens, but she now had three children and it’s doubtful she could get away. I wondered if I could borrow her husband Albert for an evening. Maybe Marcus could take me on Tuesday instead of going with me and Mama and Poppa on Monday. But that would interfere with his drinking. He probably wouldn’t want to go at all, but I hoped he would cover Tuesday evening. That left Thursday and Friday. And instead of six dollars I needed to earn, it was now twelve.
Poppa and Marcus got home around six and Mama and I had the dining room table ready by seven. Poppa and Marcus still wore their business suits. Marcus propped his crutches against the china cabinet and hopped over to take his chair. When he first came home after the war I could barely make myself look at him. Even after months of working at the soldier’s hospital and all the horrors I saw there, I could not look upon Marcus without discomfort. His left leg ended mid-thigh. Over time I learned the missing leg was the least of his war wounds.
Poppa said grace. Instead of bowing my head I watched him. He had turned old so quickly in the last four years. He was now in his early fifties, his hair gray and thin, and his mutton chops wild and long. He reminded me of Mr. Sturgis, our pastor. Unfortunately, Poppa also reminded me of Mr. Scrooge too. After Thomas had died at Gettysburg in 63, Poppa turned to work for solace. Growing up Thomas and Marcus knew Merewether’s and Sons waited for them. Marcus grew up dreaming of going to sea, but Thomas always was happy to live up to Poppa’s expectations. I grew up listening to Poppa and Thomas talking about spreading the business across the country. Now that Thomas was dead, and Marcus couldn’t go to sea, he worked for Poppa.
I let Poppa eat in peace and waited until the men brought out their pipes before bringing up my problem. We all praised Mama for her chicken, and the others praised me for my pie. I wished the men had cigars, because they always seemed most content with the world when they could afford to smoke cigars. But we sat and chatted and drank our wine, and even Mama got out her pipe to smoke, an indulgence that Poppa allowed her at home.
“Poppy dearest, I have a problem.” I said coyly patting his arm.
“What is it Pug?” Mama calls me Anna, but Poppa calls me Pug, even though they agreed to name me Annaclara. Every since I was a little girl he would say I was as cute as a pug dog. Until I was grown, this little endearment would puff me up with pride, but when it came time for me to want young men to look kindly on my face, it became an embarrassment. I am short, a fat finger shy of making five feet, and my face is rather flat, and when I look at my dark eyes in the mirror, I am reminded of a pug dog too.
“Mr. Dickens is coming to town and is going to read for four nights, and I want to attend each reading.” I blurted it out all at once and waited to hear his reaction. I pulled out the notice I had torn from the paper and handed it to him. “Mama said she was sure you would take all of us the Monday night she was free.”
“Hold on, hold on, let a man read.” He got out his spectacles and studied the paper. I looked over to Marcus who was smoking his pipe, but I knew he was in pain and wanted to go off to one of his taverns. Strong drink was the only cure for his many ailments.
“Pug, I’d love to take the family the first night. You know how much I love it when you read A Christmas Carol every year, but I don’t see why you need to go all four nights.”
“Poppa, Mr. Dickens is my hero. You must know I can’t miss this opportunity.”
“I guess, not,” he said reluctantly, reading my face and knowing it was no use going through a long argument, “but who will take you each evening?”
“Why can’t I go alone?”
“That’s unthinkable!” he said so sternly that I knew not to argue, but I did.
“But mother goes out at night by herself,” I said trying to lower my voice liked I’d often seen Mama do when she wanted something from him.
“That’s different, she’s a mature woman,” he said pushing his chair back and giving me his look of immovability.
“Why?” I droned out in a tiny girlish voice, changing tactics.
“Come daughter, you know it’s a time in your life when your reputation is important,” said Poppa, the weight of his words felt so heavy. Poppa’s complete acceptance of convention cost him nothing and me everything.
“But Poppa, I’m invisible to men, I’m destined to be a spinster like Aunt Ellen. And she goes everywhere alone.” Of course I knew she didn’t when she was my age.
“Anna dear, there will be men who look on you favorably,” interrupted Mama. “You just need to be patient. You won’t be a spinster, I assure you.” I knew she had to believe that because her compass showed her no other heading.
“Annaclara, I’ve known many a man who has asked about you,” said Marcus weighing in on the subject too. I thought I saw wetness in his eyes, was that his own pain, or was he touched by my pain of not being a pretty woman? I knew he felt he would never find a wife himself and was tortured by the thought.
“Then why haven’t you introduced them to me?” I ask. It charmed me to think I had admirers, but then I remembered that some men were not choosy about their women.
He paused and was reflective for a moment, and then said quietly, “I’ve never known a man who was good enough for you.”
Maybe he was telling the truth, or maybe he was protecting my feelings, but my heart quivered at his show of brotherly love.
“Pug, I don’t expect you to find a fiancé to take you to the readings,” Poppa said turning the tide of the conversation, which satisfied my whims. “All you need is a proper escort. But where will you get the money? I think affairs such as these are more suitable for people with incomes.”
“I have a suggestion,” said Marcus. “Instead of all of us going one night together, we should take Annaclara one night each, and one of us will take her an extra evening. And I’ll pay for all the tickets.”
I knew Marcus had a tidy sum hidden in his room, but he was saving for an artificial leg. “Marcus, I can’t let you delay your plans, so I accept your offer, but only as a loan. I’ll find work and pay you back.”
“You don’t have to. Consider it a Christmas present,” said Marcus. I was surprised to see him coming out of his shell. I had not expected him to be a factor in my battle.
“No, let her work, I think it’s a commendable intention on her part,” said Poppa appropriately to his philosophy.
I’ve wanted to work. I liked working during the war. After Marcus came home and I saw his condition, I felt duty bound to work at the soldier’s hospital. It was pleasant to receive the small pay they issued me, but when the war ended I felt my duty was to Mama. “Really, Poppa, how can I leave Mama with all the chores?”
“I don’t mind,” said Mama, “I’ve often thought you’d have a better chance of meeting your husband if you were out of the house more.”
I knew Mama’s main quest was to marry me off. I knew she wasn’t anxious to get rid of me, but her duty as a mother required it.
“Then, let’s say,” I turned to Poppa, “you and Mama will take me Monday night and pay our way, and Tuesday Marcus can take me for an early Christmas present, and then I’ll find two appropriate chaperons for Thursday and Friday and borrow the eight dollars from Marcus to pay our way.”
“I think we have a contract, Pug,” said Poppa and held out his hand for me to shake. I gladly took it. That’s what I liked about men; they’d make a decision, shake on it, and then stick with it.
“Yes, we have a good deal,” I replied thankful he had not put his foot down. That’s what I didn’t like about men, they have the power to veto.
“And, Annaclara, if you can’t find suitable guardians, I’ll be happy to watch over your virtue any evening,” said Marcus as he got up and gathered his crutches. I was touched by this offer, for he had mostly ignored Mama and I since his returned. He said little and followed Poppa’s commands.
“Thanks dear brother, but I’d hate to take you way from your comrades and appointments,” I said and walked around the table to give him a little hug. We had not touched in a long time. “I’m sure I can find two people who love Dickens. Boston is a city of two hundred thousand people.”
“That may work against you. I was going to surprise you with the news about Mr. Dickens tonight, but you beat me to it. Today I heard men talking about how there will be a rush for tickets at Ticknor & Fields on Monday. The talk around town says men will start queuing up on Sunday.
It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t get tickets. The idea made my stomach burn.
“Don’t worry now, I’ll get Henry and we’ll camp out in line for you.” Marcus obviously read the panic in my face.
Poppa was helping Mama consolidate the dishes into piles but must have been listening to our conversation. “I doubt your health would hold up to sleeping out in the cold night air,” he said.
“But you think I’m healthy enough to travel to Kansas?” Marcus said to Poppa with a sharp tone that surprised me. Then he winced, and I could see in his eyes that he had let a secret fall. “During the war I spent most of my nights outside, so I’m well trained for such conditions,” he said quickly to cover up.
“What’s this,” Mama asked with a crackle in her voice. I could tell the news scared her and knew it would bring her no end of worry, much like the war years.
Poppa looked around at all of us with a pinched expression. “We weren’t going to bring this up until after Christmas, but I want Marcus to start an office in Kansas. Since the war has been over, we’ve lost a lot of business, and the only way to get ahead is to expand westward.”
“Can I go with him?” I asked instantly without censoring my thoughts. What an adventure that would be.
“Pug!” Poppa whipped his head around to face me, “Don’t go dreaming such things. That’s the problem with letting children and women read fiction. They get such wild ideas.”
I’d overheard men at church discuss this silly notion too, but I didn’t know that Poppa also felt that way.
Marcus and Poppa told us women their plans and we discussed them until Poppa announced he was tired and wanted to go to bed. Marcus headed off into the night, and I told Mama I’d do the dishes and put away the food.
I was happy with the way the evening went, but I was upset at the thought of Marcus leaving the family. I’d be the last child at home, and I’d be leaving soon if Mama succeeded with her plans.
Just as I was finishing up the kitchen, I heard Boz scratch at the door. “Rrrrrrooowww,” he complained about the cold as I let him in. He waited for me as I blew out the kitchen lanterns and lighted my oil lamp. Poppa had given me Boz as a kitten for Christmas when I was twelve, and now at nine, he was an old worn out cat. His yellow fur was matted, scarred and rough, but I loved Boz dearly. He was my confidant.
Holding my lamp carefully, we walked into the parlor which was dark. Mama and Poppa had already gone to bed and no flickering light showed under their door. As we climbed the stairs I said to Boz, “Don’t you miss the old days when I was a girl and you were a kitten? Remember when everyone stayed up till nine, ten and even eleven, playing games and taking turns reading aloud?”
“Much has changed,” I had Boz say in a deep stoical voice. He scratched at the boy’s door at the top of the stairs, as was his nightly routine. He’d always played with the boys before coming to bed with me. The war had changed all of us, but not Boz.
I wondered what Boz thought about Thomas. Did he have little memories of Thomas stored in his head? Or was it a case of out of sight, out of mind, when Thomas marched off to war? “Poor Boz, not even Marcus plays with you anymore.” I have always despised men who drank, but I forgave Marcus. Ever since they sawed off his leg he has lived in constant pain. An old yellow cat didn’t mean anything to him. I didn’t think anything else did either, until tonight when he stood up for me.
A wave of sadness swept over me. I know one evening Boz won’t come scratching at the kitchen door and I know one day Marcus will unpack that Navy revolver he hides in his room and use that last bullet packed with it.
We go into the girl’s room and close the door. I cry as I build up a little fire and Boz watches me, seated on his haunches next to my rattan reading chair. “You shouldn’t dwell on sad thoughts,” he said with the inflection of paternal care.
“I know,” I sob while squatting on my tiny footstool by the fireplace. I pulled out my handkerchief and wiped the tears off my cheeks. “I guess I’m being punished for spying.”
“I’ve always told you snooping would lead to unhappiness,” Boz said, his eyes following my every move. Some people live by lessons learned from reading the Bible. Boz teaches me from the books of Dickens.
“You know it’s Eloise’s fault,” I lied to him. “If she hadn’t always tried to keep secrets from me, I wouldn’t have learned the skills of espionage.” You can learn so much about a person by going through their belongings. But sometimes you discover too much. Finding that single bullet haunts me.
Once, I was almost cured of spying when I found Marcus’s little wooden box. He hadn’t brought much home from the war. He’d showed up one day with the clothes on his back, standing in the door on one leg and two crutches, with a small black valise dangling from the fingers of his left hand. It was weeks before I got a chance to go though his room, and by then the valise was empty. I found the revolver wrapped in an oil cloth under his mattress. The wooden box I found in the boy’s old secret hidey-hole in the attic. That box contained things no woman should see. Marcus was only twenty-three, just two years older than I, but canon ball, musket shot and battlefield diseases had carved up his body. His long dark hair and beard were already streaked with gray. Horrors he refused to tell anyone tormented his mind, and clues in that box told me his heart beat in constant unfulfilled longing.
“You’re right Boz, I shouldn’t spy.” I said going over to my chair, picking him up and sitting down again to hold him in my lap. I stroked his rough fur. His body was hard and worn, like Marcus’s, and I knew Boz had been in many feline battles. “But I’m the baby of the family, and no one will tell me anything. I have to spy.”
“Mmmrrrrr,” he replied and settled on my lap to sleep while I read. My cozy room had several mirrors hanging from the walls to reflect light, and between my lamp and fire in the hearth, I had enough illumination to read. I had to be up at five to prepare Poppa’s breakfast and I’d work all day until after supper. So it was just these late evening hours I had to explore the world with words and pictures.
“Boz, this has been a great day. I found out your namesake, Mr. Dickens is coming to Boston, and to top that great news, Bess gave me a new Frank Leslie’s Monthly Magazine for us to read. I flipped the pages and found a beautiful engraving of far off Egypt for the two of us to admire. Boz loved to hear about foreign lands.
I collected magazines, and saved every issue since I started reading children’s magazines at six. I had hundreds and before the war Marcus had built shelves that lined the walls of this room. I could not afford to buy many books, but magazines were cheap, and people often gave me their old copies. I have a vast store of knowledge in my little library. And most issues contained stories and poems, and many included engravings and photographs.
This was my secret world that no one understood.
That night as I was drifting off into slumber land, a new obstacle startled me awake. I only had one good dress for going out, and I couldn’t wear it all four nights, someone might notice! Even though it wasn’t the latest fashion, I wouldn’t be ashamed to wear my last year’s Christmas dress. But my second best dress was out of fashion, and I’d hate to be seen in it. I went to sleep thinking I’ll go see Eloise in Babyland tomorrow.
Saturday morning, the sixteenth, I took the train out to visit my sister. Eloise made a great match by marrying Albert, an up and coming engineer who graduated from MIT. They had moved to the suburbs which the ladies there called Babyland. Every house had a young family with small children.
“I have a friend, Mrs. Marshall, who is about your size – we’ll call on her after lunch.” Eloise said excitedly, overjoyed to work on my fashion problem. Eloise was four inches taller than I and now thirty pounds heavier. Before she left home we could hem her dresses to fit me, but no more. Luckily we could still share hats and gloves.
“That’s two, maybe three if I have to wear my old dress,” I said appreciatively. I was good through Tuesday. All I could think of was that first week of December. For the next two weeks all my plans were devoted to making those four nights perfect.
Now that I was committed I was getting more anxious. I had never gone to any event this elegant before, and especially to any social occasion with so many people. I’d had heard the Tremont Temple was cavernous.
“I’m so excited for you, Annaclara,” said Eloise, “I wish I was going. I’m terribly jealous.” Did she regret her life as a mother?
“Are you sure you can’t go?” I pleaded.
“Who would watch the children?” she said. “Even if we had no kids, Albert would never let me go.”
“Men are such strange creatures, what do they think will happen to us if we go out without them?”
“Only the Lord knows their simple minds,” she said. But I thought of Marcus’s hidden box. Half of its contents were two dozen small photographs of women in various states of undress. A few even had nude men with the women, but it was the women that had shocked me. The photos had so disturbed me the first time I found them that I put them back immediately and stopped spying for weeks. But eventually I went back to look at them again and again. They mesmerized me until I have memorized them all. I have never told anyone about the photos, but it occurred to me now that they were a clue to the mind of men and how they thought about women.
Did Albert and Poppa think Eloise and I would behave like the women in the photographs? There was one photograph that disturbed me more than all the others. I knew about loose women, but I had always figured they were dirty and wore rags, but this woman was clean, beautiful and wore the latest crinoline dress. I wanted to ask Eloise about the photo, but I couldn’t.
Even as I chatted with my sister about my lovely nieces and nephew and my exciting adventure, I could see that photo of the woman in my mind, bending over to pick up something unseen, but I saw her crinoline skirt swung up like a bell revealing her bare legs and hind quarters. It reminded me of the south end of a cow, but at least a poor Bessie had a tail to help hide her immodest parts. Nothing protected this woman’s modesty.
Was this some silly game my future husband would want me to play with him? Did Eloise model her dresses for Albert like the women in the pictures? If I could only ask, maybe mysteries that have confused my mind would be cleared up. One day Albert and Eloise will ask me to be their governess for a few days, and I will search their house for clues to their secrets.
At least I went home that day with a dress in a box that relieved one of my worries.
The next day, Sunday, a day of rest for men, but not women, because I emptied just as many slop jars and cooked just as many meals, and made just as many beds. Yet, my work flew by because as my hands were busy with one task, my mind was busy watching the next few weeks performed as little plays in my head.
Around four that afternoon Marcus took off for downtown. He carried a number of blankets tied up in a roll, and we filled his pockets with bread and cold pork chops wrapped in paper.
Then Monday, Mama and I were up even earlier than normal so we could cook and pack Marcus and Henry a good breakfast. We caught the horse car to go find him downtown at Tichnor & Fields. Well before we got to our destination, we saw the streets lined with men. Some even slept on mattresses, and others had rocking chairs. There were hundreds of them, and it scared me to think that Marcus would not be close enough to the front of the line to get our tickets. We got off early and walk along the opposite side of the street looking for Marcus. Even this side was filled with people gawking at the queue of men. We saw two men with photographic equipment making pictures of the non-moving parade.
I got nervous and my stomach churned as we approached the beginning of the line, but just in time we heard Marcus call us. He was no more than twentieth in line. What a hero my brother was to me that day.
We dashed across the street and I ran to embrace him. “Do you have any idea how long this line stretches back?”
“I’ve heard many say a half-mile,” said Marcus’s friend Henry. Henry was a veteran too, but he had no job, nor could he keep one, and I knew Marcus kept him going in life. They had befriended each other in battle, a bond that I would never understand.
The two men happily received our gifts and began eating hungrily. I was tormented that we couldn’t feed all of the masses, but it appeared that many in the group had come prepared. Bottles were passed back and forth and the cold morning air was blue with tobacco smoke.
As I looked around I felt something was amiss. “Many of these men don’t look like book lovers,” I said trying to be charitable.
“They ain’t,” said Marcus while still chewing and swallowing his biscuit. “Most of these men were paid by the swells of the city to wait in line. You wouldn’t believe the stories we’ve heard out here.”
“Like what,” I asked eagerly.
“Those dandies ahead of us are from New York, and they are ticket speculators.” Markus pointed ahead, “That man there with the green overcoat bragged he met with Mr. Dickens’s secretary and pleaded he needed to procure tickets for invalids ahead of time. Evidently he knows four hundred men and women that are too sick to stand in line.”
“Are they swindlers?” Mama asked.
“I don’t know about that, but they are greedy. They believe they can resale every two dollar ticket for ten or more dollars. Annaclara, I could buy you extra tickets and you could hawk them to make a tidy profit.”
“It doesn’t seem decent,” I said.
“I don’t think so either,” said Marcus. “Tichner’s men have come up and down the line, warning us that Dickens wants to give everyone the best possible chance of buying a seat, so they say they will only sell tickets in small lots.”
“A number of men have tried to get me to buy tickets for them,” interrupted Henry shyly, “but those slimy gents rubbed me the wrong way.”
I felt guilty for wanting to go every night. If I went only one night three other people would have the pleasure of seeing Mr. Dickens. But I quickly put that thought out of my mind by rationalizing that if Mr. Dickens didn’t want people coming more than one night, he would have read the same pieces each evening.
“The strangest story we’ve heard told,” said Henry softly, “is three women were among the men staying in line over night.”
Mama rattled on about what a horrible affront to society that was, while I stood there looking down the line. I would give anything to find those women and ask about their circumstances. “We’re they together,” I asked.
“We don’t know,” replied Marcus. “I think the story isn’t true.”
Two hours later we had my tickets and Marcus went off to work, and Henry went wherever he spent his days, and Mama and I went home. On the ride back I thought about those women and how I had some new unseen heroes to wonder about.
The next two weeks were torture as I awaited the arrival of Mr. Dickens. By Monday, December 2, my nerves were shot. I’ve never been so excited in all my life. My heart fluttered several times during the day, but was finally steady as we got on the horse car that night. Even though we lived less than two miles from the Tremont Temple and could have walked, I worried all day we wouldn’t catch a horse car with room for us, but we did, and I was able to relax. The ride into the city through the labyrinth of huge buildings was eerie in the early dark of evening. The closer we got to our destination, the more people we saw. After we left the horse car we walk the last bit through thousands of people lining the streets.
As Mama, Poppa and I threaded our way through the crowds and up the steps to the auditorium, we marveled at the mass of humanity. Many people stood around in clusters watching us or other groups stream towards the entrance.
Poppa asked one of the many guards about the throng of people. He told us crowds had been waiting for hours just to see the event. Many had wanted to get tickets but couldn’t. All the speculated tickets had been sold. So the groups gathered just to watch the historic evening. I wondered if every night was going to be like this. I also imagined what it would be like for Mr. Dickens right now. I had been hearing and reading stories all week about how he had been hiding from his admirers, and that his secretary had even arranged for a special custom’s boat to meet his ship at sea and sneak him into the city while his boat docked. But they failed and an army of reporters and onlookers had converged at his secret harbor. It was told he couldn’t even dine in peace without hotel staff gathering to watch his every move. He’d even declined private audiences with personal friends because he felt they would get out of hand.
We were all dressed in our Sunday best and I was proud enough of our family, but I felt intimidated by the wealthy folk around me. We got to our seats almost an hour early. I had read many times Mr. Dickens hated late comers. The paper stated all should be in their seats by ten till eight, and to take no more than ten minutes at intermission.
While waiting for Mr. Dickens to come onstage, Mama and I gawked at the ladies and their fashions. We were certain that many women there had gowns from the continent that were worth hundreds if not thousands of dollars. Their beauty was beyond anything I had ever imagined and I felt like a little brown pug dog.
I was seated next to a handsome young gentleman. I imagined a fantasy about him being a young school teacher of literature and his desperate longing to meet a woman interested in great fiction. Unfortunately, there was no one there who knew the two of us to introduce us.
At ten minutes till eight everyone was seated and the crowd began to quiet. It was almost like being in a huge church. The stage was lit with many lanterns, and precisely at the top of the hour, Mr. Dickens, my literary idol, strode upon the stage. He was dressed quite nattily himself, and began a one way conversation with the audience that captivated us all instantly. He was obviously a man used to the stage because his voice was loud and clear, but to my disappointment it was thick with English accent. But after a bit of flattery to us about being such wonderful company he pulled out his copy of A Christmas Carol and began to read.
What a dramatic reading! Scrooge sounded old and miserly; the ghosts sounded mighty and terrifying, and even the women’s parts he read were conveyed in feminine tones. His story came alive like never before. I wanted everything I saw and heard burned into my mind so I could relish and enjoy it for the rest of my years. My heart fluttered again. When we laughed, it was like a huge beast roaring. When the story turned sad, I knew there were a thousand people wringing their hands for the pain in their hearts.
The first reading flew by and I was crushed by Mr. Dickens leaving us for the intermission. I had drunk little water that day because I feared finding a privy in that crowd. And I was glad that my body was not going to bother me. I had so many petticoats on that night I doubt if I could have found a privy and discovered a way to safely maneuver over a hole without fouling myself and still meet the ten minute deadline. Few people even got up.
During the intermission I kept a close eye on Poppa. I hope he was inspired by A Christmas Carol. He was too consumed by his work and too much a slave to the earning of money. For the first time the story made me think that there was a division between being young and old, and that Mr. Scrooge was being taught to be young again. I had thought for years that the troubles of my parents were due to the war, but now I wondered if they would have suffered the same erosion of positive energy if the war had not happened at all. This was frightening to think about because it meant I too must face similar wears and tears of life even if our country is peaceful and prosperous.
When Mr. Dickens returned he acted out the trial of Pickwick. I was so dazed by the evening I didn’t even notice our ride back home.
That night when I was tucked away under my bedcovers and Boz was nestled at my side, I told him all about my adventure.
“You left me out in the cold three extra hours this evening,” he complained. “I hope your amusement was worth my suffering?” Boz was right. I felt terrible that I had forgotten him.
“Well, tomorrow I’ll make Mama and Poppa promise to let you in on time, and you can wait up here for me.”
“I appreciate such kindness,” he purred. “And you might also remind them to save me some nice table scraps.”
I hugged him tight, “Old Boz, I should write a story about you. You’re a wonderful character.”
“Yes, you could make me famous to children everywhere.”
That gave me an idea. Boz is such a smart cat. Maybe Merry’s Museum, my favorite children’s magazine, would like a story about my adventures going to see Mr. Dickens. I wonder if they would pay me for a little essay about how inspirational I have found Mr. Dickens to be in my life.
Tuesday morning, after the men had left, and we’d had cleaned up after the morning meal; I told Mama I wanted to go down to the Merry’s Museum’s offices and see if I could find work there. She seemed surprised at the idea but happy for me to try it out. She gave me thirty cents for the horse car and lunch and I bundled up and left the house.
I seldom went downtown during the day. Most of my business and shopping kept me right in our neighborhood. I don’t know why I didn’t think of working for a magazine before. Boston was full of newspaper, magazine and journal publishers. I know I’ll never be a successful writer, but maybe I could find a little job around where writers worked, something that would be of help to them. What a great thought that was. And I could read stories before anyone else. I was quite excited until I got inside building and then turned timid.
I wasn’t sure who to talk to. I pretended to read the directory of offices while I decided what to do. After about five minutes I noticed a tall woman, with black hair and a dark high-neck dress, coming down the stairs.
“Pardon me, but may I talk with you a moment?” I couldn’t believe my bravery.
She smiled at me and stopped. I guessed she was about thirty-five.
“My name is Miss Annaclara Merewether and I came to this building looking for a job, but I don’t know who to ask.”
At this, the woman laughed and took my hand. “My dear, I’m new here myself, and was just given a job.”
“Oh, so they do hire women?” I asked anxiously.
“It’s not uncommon,” she said looking me over. “I’m Miss Louisa Alcott, and I’m going to be one of the editors here. What experience do you have?”
“That’s just it, Miss Alcott, I don’t have any experience at all.” Then I remembered Dickens. “But I am attending all of Mr. Dickens readings this week and thought I could write up my impressions.”
“That’s an excellent idea Miss Merewether, but I’m afraid we already have writers working alone those lines. Do you do much writing?”
“A little, but mostly for my cat, Boz.” Miss Alcott seemed most amused at that image. “When I worked at the soldier’s hospital I wrote hundreds and hundreds of letters. Some I composed myself and others I helped write from the men dictating their stories.”
She gave me an odd look, and put her arm around my shoulder, “Annaclara, lets go upstairs and let me introduce you to some people.” As she guided me along, she said, “I worked in a solder’s hospital for awhile too, and I wrote a little book about the experience.”
“Are you a writer too?”
“Yes, but not a famous one.”
“Are you going to see Mr. Dickens read?”
“No, not this time, but I’ve seen him read in Europe and got to meet him.”
We stopped to talk at the top of the stairs. The building was old, but clean and well kept.
“What was he like?”
She laughed again. “When I grew up he was my favorite writer too. I often read and performed his stories for my family.”
“Was he fabulous to meet?”
“I shouldn’t say, I don’t want to spoil any of your expectations.”
“You mean he wasn’t as big as you imagined?”
“That’s the problem with meeting writers. If some of my readers met me they would be shocked to discover I’m the wrong gender.”
“So what was the very worst you saw in him.”
She paused. I could tell she was hesitant to say anything. “Okay, but I warned you. He wore diamonds. He had diamond cufflinks, tie pin and ring, and his clothes were very fancy and his hair was coiffed.”
“I saw him last night and noticed those things but thought nothing of it.” I didn’t admit I thought he brushed his hair comically.
“My mental image of him was of a plain and humble man, a man of the common people.”
I thought about that for a moment. The rich and fancy was often the target of Mr. Dickens’s humor and I could see where Miss Alcott could have been surprised. “Maybe you were expecting, a Mr. Copperfield.”
“At least not a Mr. Veneering.”
“Is this why you aren’t attending his readings?”
“Not at all, I’m just back in Boston and I don’t want to spend any money. I try to save all the money I make to send home to my family. I’d love to see Mr. Dickens every night if I was rich.”
“I have a problem,” I started to say, but paused wondering about my boldness. “One you could solve and benefit yourself. I have an extra ticket to Thursday and Friday night’s readings, but I need a chaperone.” I went on to explain my whole story.
Miss Alcott was most amused by my proposal and agreed to escort me Thursday evening with Poppa’s approval. But my luck did not end there. She took me around the offices of the magazine and introduced me to publishers and editors. I was not offered a job, but they took my name and address and offered to consider me for any future openings. I wondered how many wide-eyed young people applied here every day.
Before we left the building, I whispered to Miss Alcott that I had a nagging call of nature. She led me out back of the building, to a privy facing the alley and she stood guard for me. Normally, I wouldn’t mention such a private moment, but sitting in that dirty three-holer brought me an amazing revelation. Maybe women stayed home because the world of work involved such indignities as what I was experiencing. And the thought of sharing this rat infested shack with two other women was enough to make me want to move to Babyland and never leave.
After that Louisa, as she now wanted me to call her, took me to lunch and we talked for hours.
She also said she knew many people going to the readings and was sure she could get us a carriage ride to the Tremont Temple. She said she would select a man with a reputation sure to meet Poppa’s needs and pick me up at my house Thursday evening at 6:30 and again on Friday. Everything was falling into place.
I got home in time to rush the preparation of dinner. Mama wanted to leave early for her spiritualist meeting. Ever since Thomas had died, Mama had pursued every possible means to keep in touch with Thomas. It was her obsession. Poppa was a staunch Protestant and held no brook with talking with the dead, but he was too sympathetic with Mama’s grief to argue. For the last few years, Mama had contacted many of our dead kinfolk, and it kept her busy.
Poppa was anxious to work on his plans for a Kansas office.
Marcus had trimmed his beard, and was wearing his best suit when he came down to supper, which we ate so fast that I couldn’t swear if I ate anything at all because I chattered like a magpie telling everyone about meeting Miss Alcott. I didn’t slow down until we were in the horse car.
After we got out and began our walk to the auditorium, Marcus took a quick swig from a pocket flask. “I hope you don’t mind that I brought my medicine along.”
To relieve his embarrassment, I asked, “How about giving a girl a drink then?”
He stopped crutch hopping and gave me a stern squint, “You’re too good a lady for this cheap whiskey, but I’ll be glad to share a glass of port with you some evening, Annaclara, but only at home.”
I felt rather worldly standing on the streets of Boston, the walls of the huge buildings flickering with lamp lights, and people hustling and bustling down the cold winter street. “Are there ladies who you do drink with in the evenings?”
“None that I’d want you to meet or talk to,” Marcus said.
“Then I shouldn’t expect to meet a sister-in-law any time soon?” I couldn’t believe how pressing I was being. I knew such a life was almost impossible for him, but I wanted him to be honest with me and tell the truth. I wondered if he had even revealed his secret to Poppa.
“Sorry to disappoint you sister, but I’m afraid I’m not the marrying kind of man.”
“And I wonder if I’m not the kind of woman men want to marry, so we might have things in common and secrets to share?”
He stood in the cold, frozen in time, staring at me, while I stared back trying to read his mind. In all my life I don’t believe I have been closer to anyone’s thoughts. Did he know I knew?
“It’s not that I don’t want to marry, but I can’t.”
He waited for me to answer; I knew he was struggling to read my thoughts too. “Is that why you are running off to Kansas?” I wasn’t going to let him know what I knew.
“It wouldn’t be right to haul a woman off to such a wilderness and lack of civilization.” He turned and took a hop on his crutches expecting me to follow.
I knew he wanted to evade the issue.
“I think father was wrong in thinking I couldn’t go to Kansas,” I said loudly to his back. He stopped and hobbled around to look at me. “I could help you out there and have an adventure, one maybe I could even write about. There are things I fear about leading a normal life.”
He took out his flask again and took a quick nip and then handed the flask to me. I tipped back a slow swallow thinking damn to anyone who looks on us now with judging eyes. I felt free as a man. I handed back his flask.
“C’mon on, or we’ll be late.” He gave two turning hops and headed down the street expecting me to catch up. That drink warmed my stomach, but our touching of minds had fired my thoughts.
We chatted gaily for the rest of evening. Marcus was overwhelmed by the beauty of the women and we discussed fashion together. I wanted to ask him about his secret photos and yearned to quiz him about how a man sees a woman. If I was patient enough I thought someday he might tell me. Except for finding a husband, Marcus was my best chance in learning those secrets. I knew death sat on his shoulder and whispered thoughts to him. I had read enough in fiction to know that it was the bitter man who was willing to challenge the conventions of our Christian life.
At intermission we snuck out and drained the rest of his flask. I came back to my seat and listened to Mr. Dickens talk about Bob Sawyer’s party and never laughed so hard in all my life. Even Marcus seemed free of his pain.
We got home and I was glad that Poppa wasn’t waiting up for us. I assumed he thought Marcus was the proper escort.
“Mr. Boz, I am woozy tonight.”
“I am shocked,” admonished my yellow furred friend with piercing green eyes.
I fell back on my bed looking up at the ceiling, which twirled and I wondered if my chamber pot was where I always left it. Some nights I discovered too late that I had left it drying on the back porch.
Boz butted his head against mine. “Get undressed and under the covers so we can settle in for a night’s sleep.”
I jumped up to obey, and my head twirled faster and I fell down on the floor with a thump. I glanced around for Boz, horrified that I might have sat on him.
“Rrrrrrrpttt,” he said curtly, coming to the edge of the bed to peer down at me. “Young lady, you can’t handle your catnip.”
“I’m beginning to think that too,” I said. “Evidently, learning bad manners is just as hard as learning good manners.”
“Get in bed, you have to get up tomorrow and find another dress to wear.”
He was right. He always was. Cats are very wise.
Next morning was Wednesday, and Mr. Dickens was giving me the day off and I would follow my standard routine. I was in for another shock. Poppa didn’t leave for work right after breakfast, but instead asked me to come into the parlor with Mama. My guilt and head told me they knew something. Maybe Marcus’s guilt told him to warn Poppa of my fall from grace.
Yet, both of them had happy red faces, flushed with excitement as if they had both been laughing together all morning. In the parlor was a large box.
“We’re giving you your Christmas present early this year.” They sat down on the sofa and waited for me.
I gingerly approach the large box feeling regretful for last night. The box wasn’t wrapped, so I just lifted off the lid and was surprised to see deep maroon fabric. It was a new winter dress, the fanciest one I’ve ever owned.
“Mama and Poppa, this is wonderful,” I shouted and quickly pulled the dress from the box and held it up to my shoulders. I knew I looked like a skinny twelve year old but this dress was going to make me look like woman. “This is gorgeous. I won’t be a pug dog now.” My eyes were welling with tears, and I knew for sure that Mr. Dickens had inspired Poppa on Monday night. I stopped to look at him and I could sense a younger self beaming out of his old face. How could I ever run off to Kansas and leave the two of them alone?
I turned to see Marcus smiling at me in the dining room doorway. Had he known about this last night?
I spent the rest of the day quickly doing all my chores and ignoring anything I could put off until Saturday. Poppa and Marcus rushed off to work to make up for being late, and Mama eventually went off with her church chums and I was left alone.
Mama came home mid-afternoon, while there was still light, and we made a few alterations to the dress until it fit perfect. It had a full skirt and I’d have to wear every petticoat I owned to fill it out. The dress had excess fabric gathered at the back that imitated a bustle, the new scandalous fashion that women were talking about. Gliding about the room I felt huge in the dress. It wasn’t as large as many of the dresses I had seen with long trains, but my new one sure felt like it had a caboose.
If by providence or fate, I charmed the right man, I could marry into riches and spend my days wearing elaborate dresses and waste my time in idle social gatherings. It was a tempting fantasy, but not one I’d cry myself to sleep at night if I didn’t achieve.
Of course if I followed the advice from all the current ladies magazines, I’d spend my day beautifying my house and yard, and making sure that me and my husband and all our kiddies were well dressed, well fed, giving lots of fresh air, and last, but not least, made sure our bowels were well irrigated. By their standards, the only choice for any woman was to work constantly to keep everything clean and orderly. I knew Eloise followed this philosophy and worked twice as many hours as Albert. She was exceedingly proud of her accomplishments, but I’d guess she was much too busy to be happy.
Thursday evening, I think Miss Alcott overwhelmed Poppa. She arrived in the carriage of James T. Fields and his wife Anna, who would escort us to the theater. Miss Alcott said Mr. Fields owed her a favor since he had lost one of her manuscripts. When Poppa came to understand that Mr. Fields was the Fields of Tichnor & Fields, he was more than assured I was in good hands for the evening.
During our ride, Mrs. Fields entertained us with stories of Mr. Dickens, who was a close friend. She said she’d love to introduce me to Boz, as she called Mr. Dickens, but he told all of his American friends he wanted to meet no new people. Mr. Fields patted me on the knee in a fatherly way, and said, “If his health was better I’m sure he would be most happy to meet you – he loves to meet young women.”
Louisa winked at me. What where they saying about Mr. Dickens?
After we got to the theater, Mrs. Fields took us around and introduced us to many of the ladies in the fabulous dresses, and to my surprise, many were kind enough to compliment my new dress. I was also introduced to a number of young men, two of which appeared to be more than contented to be in my presence. I was reminded of Mama’s prediction that I’d eventually meet men whose eyes would be entertained by the vision of a short woman. I felt their eyes admire me tonight, and it was quite a thrill. I was greatly disappointed when Louisa and I had to go to our seats.
By now I had grown accustomed to Mr. Dickens’s performances and he gave another brilliant reading, one from Nicholas Nickleby. During intermission, Louisa introduced me to a Mr. Jonathan Carter.
“Mr. Carter has offices in the same building I work at. He’s starting a new magazine.”
My attention quickly focused on his eyes and I held out my hand, “I’m please to meet you Mr. Carter.” The whole crowd around us, a thousand noisy souls, vanished from my consciousness.
“Do not be too impressed, because I’ve yet to publish a single issue.” I wanted to touch his suit, it was so beautiful.
“What kind of magazine will it be?” I asked instead.
“My plan is to create a literary magazine for young people, something I can sell to high schools around the country.” He paused to gauge my interest and seeing I was fascinated, continued. “There are many magazines for children and many for mature intellectuals, but not any for those young people desiring their chance to apprentice at the writing trade.”
“How admirable,” I said.
“Louisa told me you are looking for a position,” he said while being jostled by the crowd, forcing him to stand at the edge of my skirt. I was close enough that we could have held out our arms and danced. He wasn’t tall, so I didn’t feel small. “I’m looking for a secretary to help me read manuscripts and answer letters, and to be honest I can’t afford a man.”
“Then your misfortune is my good luck,” I replied. I hope I was clever enough to impress him.
“Mr. Carter has a test for you,” Louisa’s voice startled me, because I had forgotten her completely.
“Yes, Louisa actually suggested it. I’m trying to transcribe Mr. Dickens speeches between readings, but my ability to write is slower than his ability to speak. Would you like to take my extra pad of paper and try to transcribe his words?”
“I’m ready to try,” I said, but worried about Mr. Dickens’s accent. “But what if I let you down?”
“I’m hoping between the two of us we can catch everything. I’ve gotten other friends to help me on other nights and it works quite well. I’ve been told that’s how the journalists do it. They share notes.”
We returned to our seats and I was surprised that I could capture so many of Mr. Dickens’s words. He spoke about five minutes before reading “Boots at the Holly Tree Inn,” and another five minutes in closing.
I was sorry Mr. Fields gathered us so quickly because I was hoping to talk with Mr. Carter again. I just had time to hand back his pad. I assumed, but didn’t ask, that Mr. and Mrs. Fields were attending a dinner party and were anxious to fulfill their debt to Louisa. Our consolation prize was more funny stories about Mr. Dickens.
Poppa had waited up for me. The warmth of the house embraced me as I stepped in from the cold night air. A small fire smoldered in the hearth and the clock on the mantle showed it was just before eleven. I told Poppa about my possible job offer. I was hoping Mr. Carter approved of my work and would offer me employment tomorrow night. Boz had been sleeping in Poppa’s lap and now he waited for me on the stairs giving us a couple of meows.
I grabbed him up and hugged him to my chest and ran up the stairs. I wasn’t tired. I wanted to flip through my stacks of magazines and study them hoping to discern how they were put together and written. I lighted both of my oil lamps and made a stack of reading on the small table beside my chair. Boz watched me closely. He was just as happy to sleep in my lap as I read as to sleep curled up in the crook of my arm in the bed.
Friday afternoon, Louisa arrived for tea to wait for our ride at six thirty. That gave us a couple hours to talk alone, which I was grateful. She had told me she was returning to Concord for a few days to nurse her father and I was going to miss her.
“Mr. Carter was impressed with your notes,” said Louisa, seated on our sofa, with her teacup and plate on her knee. “And he told me to offer you the position at $12 a month. He’d like you to start Monday. And he wants you to take notes again tonight.”
I could hardly contain my joy. “How can I ever thank you, Louisa. You have been a miracle in my life.” I paced to and fro along the parlor carpet. Louisa settled back on the sofa to watch me with amusement. I gathered she was proud of her good deed.
“It’s hardly a living wage, but Jonathan assured me he’d keep your hours short, say ten till three, so you can take care of your family still.”
I wondered if Louisa had called in another favor to get me this job and customized it for my particular needs. “How can I ever thank you.”
“I should warn you that jobs in the publishing world come and go quickly. There are opportunities for women, but that’s only because they pay so very little. They gave me the important title of editor, but only pay me $40 a month.”
Many men at my father’s warehouse were paid less, but those were the young clerks, or common laborers. I was impressed that she could live equal to a man, renting a room, and walking the streets alone if she wanted, independent and free to make her own choices.
“You are an inspiration to me, Louisa.”
She laughed. “My life is no marvel. I struggle to make money any way I can just to take care of my family. I’ve never married, so I will have no children to comfort me. My health is poor, and I am troubled by constant pains caused by long hours holding a pen. From your eyes you see a woman living a glamorous life, but from my eyes, my life is just as tedious as any other woman’s.” She fixed herself another cup of tea from our old shaky teacart.
I was taken aback by her honesty. She was as tall as many a man, and strong looking. I sat down, my slight body dwarfed by the wingback chair. I felt tiny compared to her, and yet I wanted to stand up to the same foes she fought.
“Louisa, may I be open and express some inner thoughts, that society and proper decorum tell me to hide?”
She sat her cup and saucer on the lamp table and leaned back on the couch. Her black dress was plain, and if I didn’t know about her colorful life, she’d look like any ordinary spinster, which she was.
“I am willing to listen to anyone, but I must warn you everything I hear is grist for the mill for my stories.” She snuggled into the corner of the sofa and put her left arm along the back, not a ladylike pose, but one that conveyed she was ready to talk. “I should further warn you that I am not a conventional person and any advice I give may lead to unhappiness.”
I got up and went and sat on the other end of the sofa facing her. I stretched my right arm along the back and patted her hand. “I have so many choices in my life.”
“And they would be?”
“I could be like you and work at something I like and take care of my parents. Or I could be like my sister and find a husband who would take care of me. And finally, I could go west with my brother and start a new life out in the wilderness.” I didn’t want to mention that I thought Mr. Carter could be part of the second plan.
“Does your brother need your care, or do you seek the adventure of the west?”
“Both. Being a one legged man he feels he will not find a wife.” I wanted to tell her about his two secrets in his box. “Can I trust your confidence?”
“I’ve warned you that I use anything I hear in stories, but I always fashion them so any incident is not specific to any real person.”
“When I worked at the soldier’s hospital, one of my jobs was to ship the belongings of the deceased back to their love ones. Every so often I would find photographs that I was told to destroy…”
“I know the kind,” she interrupted. “Intimate pictures of women, were they not?”
“Yes, that’s true. I had first seen those kinds of images when I pried into my brother’s possessions. I have long tried to understand what they meant to him. I think it more than just lust.”
“Why do you say that?” She leaned forward rapt in attention. “I’ve often thought about those photos too.”
“I think he keeps those little pictures because he believes he will never have a woman of his own to look at in that way.”
“But many women have married men who have lost a limb?”
“There was something else in the box.”
“There were tinctures and salves for the treatment of a disease that no one speaks of, one I often heard about at the hospital.”
“You don’t have to mention its name, many a soldier returned home wounded by that disease.” Louisa was not a beautiful woman, but when she frowned, like she did now, she looked older and homely. I could see she understood my worry.
“I assume that awful ailment will keep him from marrying. It might even lead to an early and horrible death by madness.” I said. It sickened me to even think about Marcus’s future.
“Some men live a long while. But the honest ones would never seek out intimate relations with a woman again,” she said.
“I know this is silly of me, but sometimes I wondered if he could not marry a whore who had the disease herself.”
“That would require that he move down many stations in life, and live at the lowest rung of society.”
“Yes, but if he moves to the wild and wooly west, where life is brutal and wolfish, might not such a couple hide their past?”
“That is an idea,” she replied. “But why would you need to go with him? Would your presence not keep him from looking and finding happiness with such a woman?”
“I had not thought of that,” I said. “I thought instead, that my presence would keep him from getting depressed and harming himself.”
“You think he is that kind of man?”
“He keeps a gun with only one bullet, so what am I am to think?”
She was quiet.
“This is one area where Mr. Dickens fails me,” I continued. “He is such a genius for cataloging all types of men and women, catching every nuance of individuality, but he doesn’t reveal the deepest inner thoughts that men and women hide from each other.”
She nodded and said, “I know what you mean, because I too, often wonder what people think.”
“I think my life in Boston will lead to a life of isolation. I think if I went west with my brother I could lead an unconventional life. I know this is silly for a girl like me, but I would like to live like the fiction I read.” Did I believe this? Why was I so bold to think this? I’m such a timid creature that the knowledge that the trip west might require sleeping out of doors or going without a privy was enough to scare me into living in Boston the rest of my life.
“What a devious plan,” she said. “And as a woman who loves to write about pirates and cut-throats, I can understand your quest for adventure, but I have never been brave enough to seek it.”
“Am I being silly?”
“I shouldn’t say this, for God will look down on me and say I am corrupting the innocent, but Annaclara, you may set me on a pedestal for being a scribbler, but your bravery inspires me, but I could never tell you one way or the other how to live your life.”
It was time for me to dress. Louisa was wearing the same black dress from last night. For some reason I no longer cared what people thought about my dress. I went upstairs and put my second best dress on. It was my favorite and most comfortable. And I put on just enough petticoats to stay warm.
That night as I listened to Mr. Dickens for the last time I saw his stories with new eyes. They were clever and amusing tales that were caricatures of people which he manipulated like a master puppeteer. I had always loved or hated his fictional people as if they were real. Now I saw Mr. Dickens as a new kind of genius, one who spoke in complex symbols to be decoded. It was a revelation to me, because Mr. Dickens was speaking about his inner life.
In the rush of the evening, I spent more time with Mr. Carter. There was no telling when Marcus would head west, so I accepted the job. I knew too that Mr. Carter could tempt me away from my new quest.
We went home and I said good-bye to Louisa. I would never see her again. The demands of her family became too great and she had to return to Concord, but before she left she had sequestered herself away in her rooms and wrote her famous book.
I came in and found only Boz waiting for me. I guess Poppa trusted me enough to come home safe. I wondered if he would come to understand and trust all the decisions I would make.
I had read Charles Dickens all my life, but at a childish level not knowing how much was invisible to my innocent mind. I now needed to reread all of his books.
“Boz,” I asked holding his face close to mine, “how would you like to travel.” I was not sure if it would be across the country or just across town.
“Do they have rats where we’re going?”
“Yes indeed, the tastiest rats you’ll ever catch.”
“Then, let’s be off.”