I couldn't imagine more shocking news.
I sat at Widow Maude O'Neill's dining room table and stared at my father as the overcooked mutton on my plate grew cold. I would have cried out in protest and begged him to reconsider, but as a recent graduate of Madame Beauchamps' School for Young Ladies, I'd learned that a proper young lady never caused a scene at the supper table, especially if she was a guest.
Father looked immensely pleased with himself. He leaned back in his chair, his hand thrust inside his suit coat as he played with his watch chain. Maude, dressed in widow's black for the last time, wore the phony smile that she reserved for my father and did her best to blush like a maiden. She had won a valuable prize in my father, John Jacob Hayes, and she knew it.
I glanced at her unpleasant children, Horace and Harriet, and knew by their smug expressions that my father's marriage proposal wasn't news to them. Maude had scrubbed their piggy pink faces so thoroughly it looked as though she had boiled them. I wished she had.
My father's smile faded as my silence lengthened. "Well, say something, Violet. Have you forgotten your manners?"
I looked down at my hands, folded primly in my lap. "No, Father. I haven't forgotten." Good manners prevented me from telling my father that he was a fool. Or from smacking the smile off Maude's pinched face.
"Congratulations, Father," I said in my sweetest voice. "And best wishes to you, Widow O'Neill." I had learned the proper responses from Madame Beauchamps: "Never congratulate the bride; offer her your best wishes."
"Thank you, Violet," Maude replied. If her narrow rat face had whiskers, she would have preened them.
"We hope to be wed this coming fall," my father continued. "It will be a small, private affair at home with only a few relatives and guests in attendance."
"Excuse me, Father," I said politely, "but aren't you forgetting something?"
"You already have a wife—my mother."
He cleared his throat. "Yes ... well, perhaps I neglected to explain it to you, but the fact is, I've been free to marry for some time." He sawed off another rubbery morsel of mutton and chewed it vigorously, as if unaware that this second piece of news had shocked me even more than the first.
"Free to marry?" I echoed, careful to keep my tone mild. Young ladies never burst into tears in public.
"Yes. You were away at school, and I didn't want to upset you with the news."
I quietly wadded Maude's damask napkin into a ball as I pondered his words. Why did people always tiptoe around me as if I reclined on a bed of violets that might be crushed beneath their feet? "Poor, pitiful Violet. Her mother became ill, you know, when she was only nine. She's an only child, always daydreaming...."
"When did Mother die?" I had to struggle against the lump in my throat.
"We'll talk about it later, Violet."
"Excuse me once again, Father, but I believe I should have been informed of her passing. You might have—"
He cleared his throat, interrupting me. "This is hardly the proper time to discuss the matter." He nodded discreetly toward Horace and Harriet, who had stopped gnawing their mutton to gaze at me with their round piggy eyes. "I realize, now, that I should have explained everything to you ahead of time, and I apologize for that. But let's not spoil Maude's wonderful supper or this momentous occasion with details that can wait until we're home, shall we?"
Evidently, my mother's demise was a detail. I would have excused myself from the table in order to allow my tears to fall, but I was a guest in Widow O'Neill's home. Leaving midmeal would be unspeakably rude.Weeping at the supper table would be rude as well. Besides, my tears were more for myself than for a mother I barely remembered. Even so, Father might have mentioned her death.
Maude lifted the platter of meat and offered it to my father. "Would you care for more, John?"
Maude had poisoned her first husband—I was certain of it. I had read about women like her in my favorite dime novels and pulp fiction magazines. My best friend, Ruth Schultz, smuggled copies of True Crime Stories, The Illustrated Police News, and True Romance Stories into our dormitory at Madame Beauchamps' School for Young Ladies along with dime novels in bright orange jackets. We hid them beneath our mattresses so we could read them after lights-out. Of course, proper young ladies never read such trash—but Ruth and I did.
What would become of me after Maude poisoned my father the same way she had poisoned her first husband? Would she drive me from my home to beg for alms in the gutter? I pictured myself on a street corner as snow swirled around me, a tattered shawl clutched around my shivering shoulders, my gaunt hand outstretched in supplication. Then the image faded as I realized that I was much too old to beg for alms. As a pretty young woman of twenty years, a much worse fate awaited me: I would have to become a woman of the night! A warm blush spread across my cheeks at the prospect.
While it may sound vain to call myself pretty, I had heard enough people use that adjective when describing me to convince myself that it must be true. My thick, curly hair was the color of strong coffee, my eyes just as dark. And even though Madame Beauchamps had referred to my complexion as a bit swarthy and had cautioned me to stay out of the sun lest I resemble une paysanne, she had also described me as très jolie. A careful examination of my face in a hand mirror confirmed to me that I was, indeed, quite pretty.
"Would you like some more meat, Violet?" Maude offered the platter to me next, her teeth bared in a grin. What if she planned to poison me along with my father, so that Horace and Harriet could inherit our entire estate? I declined politely, then pushed away my dinner plate, my appetite suddenly gone. For all I knew, Maude may have begun the slow, poisonous process this very evening.
"I believe our news has upset you, Violet," Maude said, her head tilted to one side in sympathy. "We were so hoping that you would be happy for your father and me. And that we would all become one big family." Horace and Harriet had laid down their forks as if waiting for me to graft them into the family tree with my butter knife. They would have a very long wait. I felt a greater kinship with the poor dead sheep on the serving platter than I did with them.
In the long silence that followed I heard a horse trotting up the street. If only it were a young, fair-haired lieutenant, newly arrived from the western Indian wars, riding to my rescue ... He had been gravely wounded by a native's savage arrow, his uniform in bloody tat ters, but his undying love for me had kept him alive, and now we would be reunited at last, and ...
The horse cantered past the house, followed by the unmistakable rumble of carriage wheels over the rutted street. Maybe it was a sign from Providence. Perhaps the passing carriage had been sent to tell me that I must run away from home at the first opportunity.
Did twenty-year-old women run away from home? And if so, how did they accomplish it? Did they tie their belongings in a shawl and sling the bundle over their shoulder? A steamer trunk would be much more convenient, considering how many belongings I possessed. The trunk I had taken to school with me would suffice, although I doubted if proper young ladies pushed their own steamer trunks through the streets. Madame Beauchamps had never specifically addressed the subject of proper etiquette when running away from home, but I was quite certain she would consider pushing one's own trunk through the streets of Lockport, Illinois, unacceptable.
"Violet ... Violet... ?" I looked up when I heard Father addressing me. "Daydreaming again," he muttered. "Kindly pay attention, Violet. Mrs. O'Neill has asked you a question."
"Oh, pardon me. Would you be kind enough to repeat it, Mrs. O'Neill?"
Maude's smile may have appeared innocent to the untrained eye, but I thought I detected the proverbial "gleam of malice" as she said, "I understand that Herman Beckett has been courting you. He is such a fine young man, isn't he?"
"Yes, ma'am. Mr. Beckett is certainly above reproach. But I would hardly regard our two Sunday afternoon outings to Dellwood Park as a courtship."
I searched for a way to change the subject. It seemed obscene to discuss my own courtship so soon after hearing the shocking news about Maude and my father. Old people had no business courting, much less getting married. But Maude seemed determined to engage me in a verbal tennis match. I knew the rules of polite conversation, but I lacked the will to play.
"I happen to know that young Mr. Beckett is quite serious about your courtship," Maude said, leaning closer. "I know his mother very well, and it seems that he is absolutely smitten by you."
She had lobbed the ball into my court, but I let it lay there. If Herman Beckett was truly smitten with me, he hid the evidence well. I longed for a suitor who would gaze deeply into my eyes the way the heroes in Ruth's romance stories always did. Someone who would kiss my ivory fingertips and whisper endearing words in my ear. The beau in one story had even nibbled on his beloved's earlobe. That didn't strike me as romantic at all, but perhaps my imagination had been tainted by an adventure story I had read the same week that had featured cannibals.
"Herman comes from such a fine family," Maude insisted.
"You would be wise to encourage him before some other girl snatches him up."
I had no idea what else to say. I wished Madame Beauchamps had spent less time teaching me the proper way to consume a dinner roll—"Delicately tear off one small morsel at a time, girls, and apply butter to each individual piece with your butter knife"—and more time teaching me how to rid my life of scheming widows with romantic designs on my father. I had no heart for meaningless conversation after Father's absurd news. I wished I were a child of nine or ten, like Horace and Harriet, who were expected to be seen and not heard.
After supper, good manners required me to play the piano for everyone's enjoyment. Maude's piano sounded as out of tune as a hurdy-gurdy, but I poured all of my sentiment into the music—and I had a great deal of sentiment that evening. If only a world-famous impresario would chance to walk down the street on his evening constitutional and hear my earnest performance and pound on Maude's door, declaring that my song had touched his very soul!
"Let her come with me," he would beg. "Let me nourish her budding talent until it blooms and flowers!" We would travel the world together, and I would perform before the crowned heads of Europe. Later we would be married, and—
"It's time to go home, Violet." My father stood beside the piano, holding my wrap.
"Thank you for a lovely evening," I said dutifully as I rose from the piano stool. I scurried through the door as Maude lunged to embrace me.
"I would like to know where Mother is buried," I said as soon as Father and I started walking up the hill toward our home. "I would like to visit her grave."
"I know that everyone considers me fragile and frail, someone who must be protected from every unpleasantness in life. But I'm no longer a schoolgirl, Father. I'm a woman."
"Yes, I'm well aware of that." His voice sounded flat and emotionless. The village streets were too dark for me to see his face and discern if he was grieving for my lost childhood or if I had angered him with my demands. I plowed forward.
"And you had no right to hide the news about Mother from me. I have every right to grieve and mourn her death, even if I haven't seen her in years—"
"She isn't dead, Violet."
"I should have attended her funeral, at the very least, and ... w-what did you say?"
"Your mother isn't dead." He stopped, winded from the uphill climb.
I stared at him, stupefied. "Then how can you possibly marry Mrs. O'Neill?"
Father exhaled a long, slow sigh like a train releasing steam at the end of a weary journey. "Our marriage has been dissolved by the courts. Your mother and I are divorced."
"But that's so heartless! Marriage vows promise 'in sickness and in health until death do you part.' How could you even dream of abandoning Mother when she's ill? That's so cold and ... and cruel ... and—"
He gripped my shoulders and gave them a gentle shake. "Stop the theatrics, Violet, and listen to me. Your mother was never ill. She left home of her own free will."
"Never ill? Of course she was ill! She—"
He shook his head. "She hated her life with me, hated living in a small town like Lockport, hated being tied down. So I let her go."
"That means ... That means you lied to me?"
"You were a child. I thought at the time that it would be kinder to lie than to tell you the truth. But the fact of the matter is, she abandoned us."
"I don't believe you," I said in a whisper. Then my voice grew louder and louder as my shock turned to anger. "If you admit that you lied eleven years ago, why should I believe anything you tell me now?"
"I'm sorry, Violet. I'll show you the divorce papers when we get home, if you'd like, but I'm telling you the truth."
I demanded to see them. We went straight into Father's study the moment we arrived home, still wearing our cloaks. Father removed a sheaf of papers from his desk drawer. The top one bore the official seal of the State of Illinois, and I saw several sentences that all began with Whereas. Then I saw my mother's name: Angeline Cepak Hayes. Beneath the printed type was her signature—bold, flamboyant.
I remembered her then—the woman she had been long ago when I was very young, not the tired, sad woman who had gone away. Her dark, untamed hair, so like my own, had been a wild tangle of curls. I'd inherited my dark eyes from her as well. She had worn bright, silky clothing that had blazed with color, and I remembered how she had danced with me, lifting me into her arms and laughing as we whirled breathlessly around the parlor. She smelled like roses.
"I'm sorry, Violet," Father said again. "I should have told you the truth years ago."
I glimpsed a Chicago address beneath Mother's name before Father whisked away the papers and stuffed them into the drawer. I stared at my father as if at a stranger as I struggled to grasp the truth.
"Why didn't you tell me?" I murmured.
He took a moment to reply, silently fingering his watch chain. When he spoke, his voice sounded hushed. "I'm sorry.... I think ... I think I always hoped she would come home to us again."
A Proper Pursuit by Lynn Austin
Copyright © 2007; ISBN 9780764228919
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.