Wednesday, March 19, 2014

How About a Sneak Peek?

The Springtime Mail Order Bride


 New York, March 20, 1858

 “The poor little miss, who’s going to tell her?”
 “Let the doctor, I haven’t the heart or stomach for it myself.”
 “Oh, Percy, since when did you become squeamish?”
 “I am not squeamish, I am sentimental. To think of our darling Samijo’s face when she finds out her papa’s dead and gone, why it turns my stomach it does!”
 Mr. and Mrs. Percy Porter had been under the employ of lumber baron Beauford Carter for almost two decades. Beauford’s only child Samantha was like the daughter they never had, and the butler and maid duo had become more than a little attached to the young heiress over the years.  Delivering the news of her father’s recent death was not going to be easy.
 “It needs to be done now, before that no-good brother in-law of Mr. Carter’s shows up.  You know he’ll come running quick as lightning once there’s money to be had.”
 Percy shook his head. “Won’t do the money grubber a bit of good. Mr. Carter has left everything to our Samijo.”
 “Why Percy Porter! How did you come by such a thing?” his plump little wife asked in an accusing tone.
 Percy shrugged. “I am a butler. It’s my sworn duty to eavesdrop on important matters.”
 She gasped in exasperation, threw her hands in the air, and then quickly sobered. “What else did you hear?” she asked in a low voice as her eyes darted up and down the hall.
 Percy glanced about as well.  They stood outside Mr. Carter’s bedchamber and watched as several other servants hurried about their duties, the news of their master’s passing not yet known to them. “I heard Mr. Carter tell his solicitor, that the young miss isn’t to get a penny until she’s of age and married.”
 Mrs. Porter gasped again. “What’s our Samijo to do in the meantime? You know that worthless uncle of hers is going to get guardianship!”
 “She’ll be given an allowance, plenty to live off of until she’s ready to marry, then she gets it all!”
 “Oh dear!” Mrs. Porter said as she began to pace the hall.
 “Stop that!” her husband demanded. “You’ll worry away the carpet!”
 “But what are we to do? And what of the other servants?”
 “I’m sure we’re to go with the young miss, as to the others, I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. He opened his arms wide, and she ran into his steady embrace. “Don’t worry, everything will turn out, you’ll see.”
 “I hope you’re right,” she said choking on a sob. “I don’t trust the uncle, I never did. Why does he have to be the only one to take her in?”
 “Because he’s the only relative left.” He set her away from him and straightened his jacket. “Now, I think I’m over being squeamish. Let’s go tell her.”
 “I thought you weren’t sentimental?”
 “I’m that too, but  … oh blast it all! It’s better if it comes from us, not the doctor!”
 His wife nodded her agreement, and the two of them went to tell young Samantha Jo Carter, she was now an orphan.

* * *
New Orleans, February 1871

 “When you’re done with the floors, be a good girl and pick up my laundry from Mrs. Daggert will you? The old bat hurt her ankle and can’t deliver this week. What a sorry excuse, next thing you know I’ll be fetching my own meals.”
 “Yes, Uncle,” Samantha said as she wiped her brow with the back of her hand. 
 He looked down at her and grimaced. “See that you wash your face before going out in public. I’ll not have the neighbors accusing me of abuse again. What business is it of theirs how I run my household?”
 “None, Uncle,” she said, her body aching like it hadn’t in ages.  He’d worked her to the bone these last two weeks, and gave no indication of letting up.  She wanted to do more than wash her face before she went out. She wanted a hot bath in the worse possible way.  
 “I’m off to work. Be sure my dinner is ready on time. If it’s not, I won’ t be pleased. You don’t’ want to spend another night in the attic again, do you?”
 She shuddered. “No, Uncle.” Locking her in the cold, dusty attic without food or water was one of his favorite things to do. The neighbors were right to complain. Or were all servants treated this way?  She’d been a servant to her uncle ever since he took her in thirteen years ago. He insisted that if he had to support her, she needed to earn her keep.
 “Besides, you ought to fatten up, you’re too skinny. If I’m to see you wed, I want you decent looking for your … nuptials.”
 Samantha swallowed and tried not to smile. “Yes, Uncle. I understand.” In less than a month she would turn eighteen and be free of her mad uncle and his lecherous ways. They were growing worse, and she knew if she didn’t escape him soon, she could well become a victim of his less than moral behavior. He’d been his usual grumpy self ever since he took her in, but it wasn’t until a few years ago he began to look at her the way a hungry wolf looks at a lamb chop.
 The thought made her shiver and she turned away as he wrapped his cloak about his shoulders and put on his hat. “If anyone comes by, tell the scoundrels I’m out,” he drawled. “Especially that Mr. Slade. I’m in no mood to deal with him.”
 “He came by again yesterday,” she informed him. She forgot to tell him earlier, and hoped he wouldn’t be upset she was telling him now.
 He looked down his nose at her. “Don’t answer the door at all then. He’ll get what’s coming to him, as will the others. In less than a month, I’ll have no more worries, and neither will you.”
 She studied him. When the subject of her eighteenth birthday came up, he became relaxed and reasonable.  He obviously couldn’t wait to marry her off and be rid of her.  In fact, the more she thought on it, the more sense it made. 
 She was an inconvenience to have around, to feed and to clothe. Not that he gave her much in the way of either.  He allotted her one dress and one pair of shoes a year, and if she couldn’t make do with those, too bad.  Needless to say, she went barefoot a lot while growing up.  Her uncle on the other hand, wore the best he could afford, and told her he needed to look the part of a wealthy gentleman to obtain the type of “business deals” he wanted.
 However, the neighbors didn’t just gossip about Uncle Burr’s antics concerning her upbringing, they told Samantha his so-called business deals were often done at gambling houses, and informed her they’d seen him come and go from establishments much less reputable. They soon stopped when she in turn, asked how they could know he’d been to such places unless they’d been there themselves to see him …
 Samantha never did like the neighbors anyway.
 Uncle Burr left with his usual flourish.  A sweep of his cloak and the slam of the front door meant he’d be gone awhile, and that gave Samantha some time to herself.  Oh, except for the laundry.  Drat. Best fetch it now, hurry back, and then think about a hot tub of water.
 Samantha grabbed her shawl, glanced at herself in the mirror hanging in the foyer, and sighed. “Eighteen. You can make it, yes you can.” The words tumbled off her tongue in a rush.  Just a few more weeks, and she’d be free! The thought bolstered her courage, and she left the house.
 She went straight to Mrs. Daggert’s and gave a loud knock on the door. No answer. “Oh, no.”  She knocked harder.  Still no answer.
 “You’ll not find Mrs. Daggert working at home today,” came a voice from behind.
 Samantha turned, a young boy stood looking up at her. “Where is she? I have laundry to pick up.”
 “Her sister come fetched her this morning to work at her house on account of Mrs. Daggert’s ankle.  She lives on South Liberty.”
 Samantha stared at the boy. “South Liberty?” she said and swallowed hard. “Oh dear.”
 South Liberty was on the edge of a section of New Orleans that a young girl simply did not go.  But, go she must if she was to get Uncle Burr’s laundry.  It was a chore he didn’t allow her to do for some reason, but considering all the other work he heaped upon her, she was glad. “Very well, do you know which house?”
 “It’s right next to the bride store.”
 “The bride store? You mean a dressmaker’s shop?”
 “No, ma’am. I mean an actual bride store. Ladies go in there, and come out married.”
 Samantha stared at him, her mouth half-open.
  The boy rolled his eyes and sighed. “They go through the mail?”
  “The mail?” What in Heaven’s name was the child talking about?
 “Uh-huh, the mail. You’ll see it, there’s a big sign.”
 She nodded. “Alright, I’ll look for it, thank you.”  She left him there and hurried along. Uncle Burr might be gone a few hours, but it didn’t mean she had time to waste, not if she wanted a hot bath.  She just hoped and prayed she didn’t run into him considering the amount of gambling houses and brothels in the area.
 Luck was with her, and she saw no sign of her uncle as she searched for Mrs. Daggert’s sister’s house, and sure enough, the boy was right.  There really was a bride store. A sign graced the front of a two-story building that listed the various business inside, including one that read: ‘The Ridgley Mail Order Bride Service’.
  “Brides through the mail …” she said to herself. “Who would have thought?” She stepped to the door, studied it and wondered; what kind of woman sends herself through the mail to get married? Would Uncle Burr send her?  Maybe that’s how he planned on getting rid of her when she turned eighteen.
 Samantha stumbled back just as a well-dressed woman came out of the building.  She was beautiful and wore a stunning green day dress, shawl and matching bonnet.  Her golden blonde curls framed her face perfectly and Samantha thought she looked like an angel.  “Excuse me,” she said as she started after the woman. “But, are you going to be a mail order bride?”
 The woman turned to her, took in her thread-bare dress, worn-out shoes, and rumpled appearance, and to Samantha’s astonishment, gave her a warm smile and, “Yes, I am.”
 Samantha looked her up and down. To be a mail order bride must cost a tremendous amount of money if the woman’s clothes were an indicator. Was she the only type of customer to frequent the place? “May I ask, where are you being mailed to?”
 The woman raised an amused brow and laughed. “I’m not being sent through the mail, exactly. I’m going by train and stage coach.”
 “Oh,” Samantha said, embarrassed. “I’ve never heard of such a thing before.”
 “It’s all right,” the woman told her. “I’m going to Oregon City.”
 “Oregon City? It sounds far away.”
 “It is,” she said, her eyes taking on look of trepidation. “But I’m sure everything will work out fine. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go home and get organized. Good day.” She turned and went on her way. Samantha noticed a man watched the woman from the shadows between two buildings across the street. She almost ran after the girl to warn her, when he turned his attention on her.  Samantha’s eyes widened as she recognized the face and form of Mr. Slade. The man to whom Uncle Burr owed a lot of money, but for what she did no know, and at this point, didn’t want to.
 She spun to face the buildings in front of her, and made for the door of a building to the right of the Ridgley Mail Order Bride Service.  She knocked, it opened, and she heard the familiar voice of Mrs. Daggert. Samantha sighed in relief, and went inside.
* * *
  “You look exceptionally beautiful tonight, my dear,” Uncle Burr drawled later that evening. “I’m inclined not to wait until you’re eighteen to marry you.”
 Samantha froze, the wine she’d been pouring into the glass he held still flowed, but she paid no mind. His words paralyzed all thought. She must not have heard him right.
 “You stupid girl! Now look what you’ve done!” he spat.
 She jumped at the harshness of his voice, and yanked the bottle away to send the contents sloshing elsewhere. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to make a mess!”
 “Didn’t you?” he said as he stood. He brushed at his coat and pants with a napkin. “Look at me! You’ve ruined my one good suit!”
 Samantha swallowed hard. “I’ll take it to Mrs. Daggert’s right away, she’ll fix it!”
 “Not at this hour, you’ll do no such thing!  I’ll not have that Slade stealing you out from under my nose to pay … oh never mind! Get me some hot water!”
 She set the bottle on the table and hurried to the kitchen.  There was still water in the tea- kettle if she remembered right and grabbed a washrag from a ring near the sink and took the kettle from the stove. She turned to head back to the dining parlor and stopped up short. What was that he said about Mr. Slade stealing her away? And what did he mean, pay?   Samantha’s heart beat hard in her chest as she entered the room and set the kettle on the table.  “If there’s nothing else you need tonight uncle, I’d like to … to go to bed now.”
 He stopped fussing with his shirtfront and looked at her. “You’ll do no such thing, girl. You’re going to stay and fix this.” For emphasis, he shoved the napkin he’d been using in her face. “Clean me.”
 Samantha swallowed hard, and complied. She took the napkin, poured some hot water onto it, and began to scrub at the wine stains on his shirt. “This isn’t going to be enough to get it out,” she said.
 He rested his hands on his hips and stared down at her. “No? We’ll see about that,” he said in an amused tone. “After we’re married, perhaps I’ll have you wash all my shirts this way.”
 She froze as a sick feeling sunk into the pit of her stomach. “What?” barely escaped.
 “You heard me. As soon as you turn eighteen, you’re going to marry me.”
 She stumbled away from him, her face locked in shock. “I can’t marry you!”
 “Why not? Besides, who else would marry you?  After all, you’re dirty most of the time, skinny, have no manners, and haven’t a brain in your head. The only hope of marriage you have is with me. I’m doing you a huge favor!”
 Samantha backed into a chair and fell onto it. “No …”
 He took a few steps toward her. “Oh, yes … ” he said as he reached out, took a lock of her long brown hair, and rubbed it between two fingers. “And once we’re married,” he added as he bent his face to hers. “I’ll own you, and everything else.”
 Samantha shook her head, her eyes shut tight against his words. How could this be happening? She’d dreamt of being out of her uncle’s house for years, and now this?  The thought of a life of servitude, and Heaven only knew what else at the hands of this brute, was too much.  Samantha opened her eyes and stared him in the face. “No, you won’t. Because I will never marry you!”
 He stood straight and smiled down at her. “Won’t you? Well, we’ll see about that.”  He grabbed her by the hair and started to drag her from the room. She fought against him but it was no use.  He dragged her up the stairs to the second floor, then up another set of stairs to the attic.  He opened the door and flung her into the sparse room. “Spend the night with the spiders, my dear, and in the morning, you may wash my shirt.”
 Samantha stood stock-still as the attic door slammed behind her. She hated the dark, but she hated what crawled through out the attic more.  She’d learned to stay away from corners, rafters and anywhere else the eight-legged beasts made their home.  And so, as on so many other nights her uncle doled out the same punishment, Samantha sat huddled in the middle of the room until morning. 

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