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The Stars for a Light
By Lynn Morris
Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, LLC Copyright © 1994 Lynn Morris and Gilbert Morris
All rights reserved.
The Steamship Continental
"Whoa, there, ye good-for-nothin' flibbertigibbet—"
The affectionate tone of Jack Gaines' voice softened his gruff words as the small, leathery Irishman led the skittering, nervous team pulling the luxurious black carriage around to the street in front of the Duvall home.
"Crazy beasts," he groused as the black Arabians shied and pranced in harness. He laid a calming hand to a glossy arched neck. "But then maybe yer in the right household for it."
He shook his head toward the house, which sat dignified and stately on a slight rise, far back from the street. The massive Doric columns gleamed white and pristine on the portico of the imposing two-story mansion.
"You'd sure never guess all the goin's on, what with young ladies becomin' doctors and gallivantin' off to who knows where...."
At that moment the great oak door opened and Cheney Duvall, M.D., walked across the spacious porch, hurried down the steps, and strode briskly toward the carriage at the end of the white brick walk. "Uh-oh," Mr. Jack muttered to the horses, watching Cheney's thoroughbred's pace. "She's lookin' right sassy this mornin', of which I know we're gonna do some sashayin' today!"
The young woman coming toward the carriage was an unfashionable five feet ten inches tall, and walked in long, determined strides instead of the tiny, mincing steps affected by proper Victorian women. A slender, lithe figure, twenty-four years old, she wore a crisp blue-and-green plaid taffeta dress and a small green bonnet. A matching parasol and reticule hung from her left wrist, and in her right hand was a somber black leather doctor's bag that seemed incongruous with her stylish appearance.
It was neither her clothes nor the trim figure that first drew the eye, however, but the thick, curly auburn hair shining with fiery red glints in the early afternoon sun. Tendrils and wisps of it escaped from the bonnet to frame her oval face in glowing color. She held her head high; dark, heavy brows arched above sparkling sea-green eyes; clear, smooth cheeks flushed with new excitement. She had a small nose and a wide, generous mouth and had inherited her mother's beauty mark, a small mole high on her left cheekbone, almost under the eye. Although her face was too strong to be called beautiful, her carriage and countenance emanated energy and vitality.
But to Mr. Jack she just looked sassy, and he eyed her warily as she reached the carriage and jumped in. "Mr. Jack," she ordered, "take me to Lower Manhattan, to the docks. We have to find the S.S. Continental." She pulled her voluminous skirts in after her, pushing them down impatiently.
Helping her shove her skirts in, folding up the steps, tucking in more rustling taffeta so he could close the door, Mr. Jack muttered, "Yessiree, Miss Cheney. I do see as how yer dressed to go down an' visit with them dock rats this mornin', an' I'm sure an' certain that there silly leetle bag has the makin's of a tea party...."
Cheney paid no attention; she was accustomed to Mr. Jack's dire monologue. Settling back in the black velvet seat, she drew a deep breath and blew it out with a most unladylike "Whew!" as the carriage started with a jerk. The last two days had been a blur of frantic activity and sleepless nights, topped by a frustrating morning wait. What if she doesn't get here? Cheney leaned her head back and closed her eyes to collect her thoughts.
The elegant carriage, though well-sprung, jounced and joggled slowly down the cobbled streets. It was two o'clock in the afternoon of April 29, 1865. The specter of war had dissipated three weeks earlier at Appomattox, only to be replaced by the black days of Abraham Lincoln's assassination. But New York's heartbeat did not falter for distant wars and dead presidents; the city streets still resounded with strong and raucous rhythm.
A delicious smell wafted into the carriage and Cheney lifted her head, sniffing appreciatively. A young boy shouted, "Bread! Fresh bread right here!" Calls rang out all up and down the streets, a chorus matched with the percussion of carriages and wagons and horses clattering on the cobblestones. Mixed voices, loud and muffled, singing and cursing, English, German, Irish, female, male, filled Cheney's ears. Once, Mr. Jack yelped sharply, "Here now, boy! Get outter the way 'fore ye get kilt, or worse!"
What's worse than getting "kilt"? Cheney thought with amusement. Mr. Jack had been with her father as long as she could remember, taking care of Richard Duvall's beloved Arabians. Neither Jack nor anyone else knew his date of birth or parentage. Cheney surmised his age to be about sixty. Although small, he was wiry and strong, with shrewd blue eyes that belied his simple speech and manner. Either he didn't grasp the fact that Cheney was now a doctor or, more likely, he chose to ignore it—but he still treated her like the wayward child she had been years ago.
The weak sunlight suddenly disappeared. Cheney craned her neck out the window to scan the sky. Tattered, soot-colored clouds were scudding across the sun. A wisp of cool wind smelling of sea salt and fish touched her upturned face. They were close to the docks.
Leaning back in the seat again, Cheney reviewed the turn her life had taken. It seemed almost impossible that her interview with Asa Mercer had been held only two days before. She had desperately replied to a small, insignificant ad in the New York Herald: "Physician needed for extended sea voyage. Average pay, excellent chance for travel. Apply: Asa Mercer, Belvedere Hotel, Manhattan." But her time with Asa Mercer had turned out to be highly satisfactory for both of them.
For Cheney, it had been exciting and gratifying to actually be offered a position. After the last two months of applying and interviewing for seven different positions, then being summarily rejected because she was a woman, she had almost given up hope. But now, in just two days, she would be on her way to Seattle with Mercer's Belles!
When Cheney had graduated from the Women's Medical College of the prestigious University of Pennsylvania and become a full-fledged, documented, accredited physician, she had just assumed that she would immediately find a suitable position. Instead, she had faced a series of rejections ranging from subtle to outright rude, and she had been crushed by them. For all her obvious talent and advantages, Cheney was very insecure about being a physician, so Mr. Mercer's offer to her felt like a cool drink of water in the desert. He was actually glad she was a female doctor!
Asa Mercer had indeed been excited with the idea of hiring a woman physician for his voyage from New York to Washington Territory—and with very good reason. For the second time Mr. Mercer had contracted with northern women—war widows, poor women, and a few older, unmarried women—to travel to Washington, where the ratio of men to women was nine to one. He was a respectable, earnest young man who had successfully completed one voyage such as this in 1864 with eleven women, and all had been married within a year. This time more than two hundred women had responded to his territory's call, and Asa Mercer had conscientiously decided to provide a physician for the three-month voyage.
He had not even thought of a woman doctor, however, until Cheney came for her interview, but he was extremely delighted. After questioning Cheney and scanning her credentials, he had told her enthusiastically, "Of course! You're the perfect woman's doctor, and obviously you are a lady of intelligence and good breeding—the perfect chaperone!"
The horses had slowed to a cautious walk. These streets weren't fashionably cobbled or bricked, but plain mud—and they stayed mired because of the vast amount of traffic going back and forth to the crowded confusion at the port. The carriage passed a stalled wagon, piled high and covered with a dirty canvas. The horse—a huge Clydesdale—had slipped down, tangling his harness, and now was crouched in the mud with all fours under him. Two shabby young men were yanking on his bridle and yelling. The horse just looked bored.
As Cheney peered ahead, she could see the long, wide wooden dock, the pier of the S.S. Continental. The steamer sat majestically, unmoved in a choppy gray sea. Long and sleek and painted black, the vessel seemed immense to Cheney, although Mr. Mercer had described the ship as a mid-sized side-wheeler. Two towering masts loomed fore and aft, with a fat red smokestack in the middle. The side paddles looked crude—two huge wheels stuck in the exact middle of the hull on each side and covered with black canvas.
Mr. Jack pulled the carriage up smartly, close to the huge gangplank. Immediately Asa Mercer's head popped into Cheney's window. His brown hair was mussed, with a stubborn cowlick in back, and his slender, earnest face wore a harried expression. "Dr. Duvall! It is so good to see you again!" He opened the door and pulled down the carriage steps, adding breathlessly, "But I was surprised when I got your message that you'd be here today. There's still two days before we sail, you know."
Cheney descended from the carriage and opened her tiny blue-and-green-striped parasol, glancing around the docks with frank curiosity. "Yes, I know, Mr. Mercer, but I want to make sure the infirmary is well-stocked and sea-ready before we leave New York, so I thought I'd better take care of that today."
Asa Mercer blinked. "Yes, yes, of course, Miss—I mean, Dr.—" His eyes focused on a point beyond her shoulder; abruptly he shouted, "No! No! Not that one—!" and dashed off to two burly dock workers who were slowly trudging up the gangplank with an enormous dome-topped trunk between them.
"Nervous feller, ain't he?" Mr. Jack remarked. Cheney turned to the small man. He was planted firmly behind her with her black bag in his left hand and her tiny, gold-tasseled reticule clutched gingerly between two gnarled brown ringers in his extended right hand. He was holding the drawstring bag out to her as if it were a tiny little snapping turtle. She took the tiny purse and reached for the valise, but like a grownup withholding candy from a child, he hid the case behind his back, a stubborn look on his face.
He opened his mouth to speak, but Cheney said hurriedly, "Now, Mr. Jack, I told you that I have a lot of work to do here today. Thank you for your help, but I want you to go on home and come back later tonight."
Still hiding the valise from her, he said grimly, "Nope, Miss Cheney. Ye ain't got no business flittin' around these wormy docks by yerself, and I ain't got no business leavin' ye here."
Cheney snapped impatiently, "Nonsense! I have no intention of flitting anywhere—and if I do, Mr. Mercer is here!"
Mr. Jack snorted with derision and looked meaningfully at Asa Mercer, who was talking loudly to the burly dock workers and waving his arms vigorously.
"And besides, Mr. Jack," she went on with a note of pleading in her voice, "I need you to go home in case my nurse gets there. She's on her way right now, and she's going to come to the house. When she gets there, I'd like you to bring her down here right away."
Mr. Jack's face lost some of its severity, but he still remained reluctant and suspicious. A low grumble of thunder rolled through the air above them and Cheney added slyly, "Besides, it's going to storm, and I know you don't want to get Mr. Richard's carriage and horses mired up to the seats down here in Lower Manhattan, do you?"
Mr. Jack glanced up at the gray sky; the clouds overhead were light and not really menacing. Then he looked out to sea, where a well-defined, ominous black mass sat low on the horizon. "You sure are right about that, Miss Cheney," he agreed, though hesitant. She had hit his one vulnerable spot: his high-strung Arabian horses.
"All right," he relented, with one final dark glance at Asa Mercer. "But don't ye be out here a-prancin' about with Mr. Flibbertigibbet. I'll come to yer cabin, you hear? I'll come find you!"
Patting his arm affectionately, Cheney laughed and took her valise. "Yes, sir, Mr. Jack. Come back about nine o'clock, please." She turned and hurried toward the gangplank.
Mr. Jack scrambled nimbly back up to the driver's seat, muttering, "Sure, and there she goes a-runnin' again, like she don't know ladies don't be a-runnin' in public, like that idjit parysol's gonna help a person what ain't got sense enough to get outter the rain...." He snapped the reins smartly and made a clacking sound. The jittery horses reared a little, then started off down the big wooden pier.
I really do wish Mr. Jack could have stayed! Cheney thought nervously. He's always been there for me, never failed me.... Then, with a shake of her head she set her jaw and started up the gangplank, only to be halted by the sight of Asa Mercer running down toward her. He was twenty-five years old, slender and tanned and rumpled. Cheney had known as soon as she met him that he was dutiful and conscientious. He was also boundless energy in perpetual motion, and that, combined with his ever-present cowlick, made him seem very young, but she liked him.
He was still about ten feet from her when he started talking, his voice raised a few octaves. "The infirmary is stateroom 12 on B Deck, and your stateroom adjoins it on one side, number 10, and the nurse's is on the other. Is she here yet? And we're not going to get any blue mass." He stopped short in front of her, looking over her shoulder. "You didn't let your carriage go, did you?"
Cheney shook her head to clear it after this confusing flow of information and questions. "One thing at a time, please. Which stateroom did you say? And why didn't we get any blue mass?" Blue mass, a bitter concoction of quinine sulfate, licorice, myrrh, and oil of sassafras, was essential for the treatment of malaria.
"Staterooms 10, 12, and 15," he repeated, his eyes darting up and down the dock, then explained, "The rest of the infirmary supplies got here early this morning, but the apothecary sent a note that he didn't get the quinine he'd ordered and can't get any more until next week."
"Oh, for heaven's sake!" Cheney exclaimed in frustration; "we have to have quinine." She stared into the distance, obviously deep in thought. Medical supplies had been funneled to the armies as fast as they could be manufactured—or, as with quinine, imported—for the last four years. Cheney had counted herself extremely lucky to find one apothecary to fill her order completely, and the fact that he hadn't received quinine as ordered didn't really surprise her. But she knew she couldn't waste any time trying to find some; it might take all of the next two days to gather enough for two hundred women. The fact that part of their journey would be through Panama made quinine an absolute essential.
"All right, Mr. Mercer," Cheney said decisively. "I'll go right now to the apothecaries that are close by the docks. If a shipment has come in recently, the shops might still have some."
Asa exclaimed with frustration, "Yes, but that's the problem! I can't leave right now! Some of the ladies' luggage has arrived, and it's piled every which way on the dock." He gestured to a huge clutter of trunks, cases, and boxes off to the left of the gangplank. "I've been working with the captain and gotten the stateroom assignments straight. Oh yes! Here's a diagram of the staterooms; this way, you'll know where everyone is in case of an emergency—heaven forbid." He handed Cheney several sheets of paper showing layouts of the various decks. She leafed through them and located her stateroom, filing the location away in her mind with the confidence of one accustomed to memorizing long lists of symptoms and treatments. She wanted to peruse the skillfully drawn diagrams more closely, but Asa Mercer was still busily telling her things, so she folded the plans and put them in her tiny reticule.
"But this luggage must be loaded before it storms," he went on in a harried voice, "and right now the shore gangs are busy with this shipment from Duvall's."
A smile flitted across Cheney's face. She had already noticed the cargo being loaded from her father's factory, Duvall's Tools and Implements. Almost all the ships going west carried shipments of the shovels, pickaxes, hammers, and plows from Duvall's. Asa Mercer, however, hadn't connected the name, and he continued. "So as soon as they finish with this, I'll have to be here to direct the loading, and I imagine I'll be doing some loading myself."
Excerpted from The Stars for a Light by Lynn Morris. Copyright © 1994 Lynn Morris and Gilbert Morris. Excerpted by permission of Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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