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1885MassachusettsLarge Hill Place
Oh, Galen, please don't die," Corinn McCauley said, hovering over the still form of her husband, wiping his brow with a wet cloth. He had lain under their red plaid wedding coverlet for eleven days now, never stirring, her hoping and praying the whole time that he would open his twinkling blue eyes and say, as he'd said many a time, "Corinn, my Scottish lass, all will be well. You'll see. Things will go better for us."
She sat down by the bed and took his limp hand in hers, caressing his wrist, trailing her finger across his palm. "Those calluses, Galen," she choked out, "all for our future. You worked so hard since we came to America. We were going to start a new life ... a prosperous one."
She had worked, too, toiling from daybreak to dark, taking in washing and ironing and sewing, baking pies and cakes, recaning chair bottomsanything that would put dollars in the jar at the back of the drawer. But, between the company boardinghouse and the company mercantile, the level of dollars was always low.
She pleated, then unpleated the edge of the wedding coverlet that lay over her husband, staring at the dingy wall. "Granny Jen, you never dreamed the wedding coverlet you so lovingly made two years ago would one day be a ... a death blanket."
Tears streamed down her face, but she ignored them and reached, once again, for the damp cloth on her husband's forehead. She dipped it in a basin of water, squeezed it, and lovingly laid the cloth on his feveredbrow. If only she could do something more. Anything to help him. But there was nothing she, or anyone, could do.
When the men from the foundry brought her injured husband home to her, announcing that he would be dead within hours, she refused to believe them. Even when one of the soot-blackened men said, "This happened to Albert Rowe and he died before daybreak," Corinn made a quiet resolve that the same plight would not befall her husband.
She took the hem of her apron and wiped away her blinding tears. Then, with fresh resolve to nurse Galen back to health, she fluffed the small pillows that were wedged on either side of his head. Taking a spoonful of water from the cup on the nightstand, she forced a drop of water between his parched lips.
Dr. Robbins would come soon, as he had each day, to change her husband's bandages and offer his grim prognosis. But, Corinn refused to give in to despair.
Throughout each long, worry-filled day ... and night, she had stubbornly held onto her optimism. Until now.
"No," she shrieked, slumping to her knees, pounding the hard wooden chair with her fists, not caring if anyone heard through the thin walls. "I won't let you leave me, Galen McCauley. We've loved each other too long. We have plans, remember? We are going to live in a fine home one day, and our sons and daughters are going to be upstanding American citizens. One of our grandsons shall surely be the president of this mighty nation. Oh, Galen, my heart is breaking in two."
She heard him stir and looked over at him, her soul soaring with joy. "Praise be, you've come back to me." Fresh tearsjoy tearssprang to her eyes. She jumped up, smiling, then laughing.
She leaned over him.
And went cold with fear.
It was the death rattle.
* * *
At dusk, ten days after her husband's burial, Corinn stood on the doctor's doorstep, wondering why he had summoned her. He already had a housekeeper, the position she was seeking.
After Mrs. Mullins showed her to the parlor and excused herself, Corinn settled in a chair and timidly thrust her feet toward the hearth, enjoying the warmth. Nearly every night, she went to bed with cold feeta phenomenon that had greatly amused Galen.
Tuck them beneath my legs and get them warm, my Scottish lass, he had whispered as he pulled her close each night.
A sob caught in her chest and a tear threatened to spill over. Oh, Galen, my bonnie prince ...
The door creaked open, and the elderly doctor shuffled toward her. For the first time, she noticed how stiff were his movements, how slow was his gait.
"Good evening, Mrs. McCauley."
"A pleasant evening to you, sir." She made a movement to stand in respect, but he waved her down.
"No need to get up." He shook her hand and sank into the chair opposite hers, pulling an envelope from his coat pocket. "I've an important matter to discuss with you."
He pulled several pages from the envelope and studied them for a moment, then looked up. "I'm concerned about you, Mrs. McCauley. I know what becomes of some women who find themselves in your circumstance. You're an immigrant and a widow. You've no income and no prospects of a job. Soon, you'll be without a roof over your head"
"How did you know?"
"I made a point of finding out."
She swallowed hard. Why does this kind man care what happens to me?
"Women in dire straits sometimes wind up as women ofwell, to phrase this as delicately as possiblewomen of ill repute." He lowered his eyes and stared at the flames. "Or kept women."
Corinn felt her cheeks growing hot as she, too, stared into the fire.
"I don't want you to suffer such a fate." He looked directly into her eyes with fatherly concern. "You are a good woman, one of the kindest and ... and most industrious I've ever met."
She fidgeted in her chair. She was not accustomed to receiving compliments. Everybody worked hard, didn't they? That was what one was supposed to do.
"I've been impressed with your loyalty to your husband, your diligence ..."
She fidgeted again.
"Your fortitude, your courage ..."
She shrugged. "All Scots are brave. It's legendary."
"I've no openings in my household." He hit a sturdy side table with his fist, producing a loud thwacking sound. "If I were a rich man, I'd help you. But, that will never be. I'm tired and old. Soon ..."
"I'd never ask you for charity." She thrust her shoulders back stiffly. "Even if you were wealthy."
"Yes, I know." His faded gray eyes lit up as he waved the letter he held in his hand, its thin pages rustling. "I have a solution for youin these pages. The matter is a simple one, really. This letter is from a young man who needs a wife. You are a young woman who needs a husband."
She grasped the arms of the chair, willing herself not to cry out against this travesty, then scolding herself for being outraged. Dr. Robbins was only doing this out of concern.
She stared at the framed landscape above the mantel, not focusing on the details, barely hearing the doctor's words.
He talked on and on, something about how his nephew had gone to Florida, how his mate had recently died from pneumonia, how there were few unattached females in that part of the raw, young state, how he needed a wife. Did his uncle know of a worthy woman who could meet this challenge? In return, he would offer the woman a homeand affection besides. Could the doctor find him such a woman?
"As I said, here is a young man who needs a wife." Dr. Robbins thumped the pages. "And you, my dear, are a young woman who needs a husband. This is the solution to your plight."
"No, Dr. Robbins," she finally said, thoughts of her beloved Galen filling her head and heart.
"Please take time to think about this before you refuse. My nephew is Philadelphia-born and bred and well educated. He's hobnobbed with high society since he was a suckling. Whatever he puts his mind to, he succeeds. Now, it appears he's put his mind to acquiring land in Florida. One day, he'll be an elected official. Mark my words."
She looked down at her worn skirts, at her patched high-top shoes, at her threadbare shawl made of red plaid with a wide band of green. The plaid was her clan's tartan for generations and said by them to be John Knox's tartanthe Great Reformer of Scotland.
What man would want her, especially one with the social standing of which Dr. Robbins spoke? If she looked in a mirror right now, she knew what she would seenot an elegant lady of high society garbed in silks and satinsbut a small-statured female with uneven features, thin brown hair, and speckles across her nose.
CORINN, CORINN, SMALL AND THIN, SINGS LIKE A ROBIN BUT LOOKS LIKE A WREN.
The familiar taunt of her schoolmates filled her head, hammering, hammering, hammering. Galen had fallen in love with her when she was a wee sparkly lass, before she had reached womanhood. Even after she had passed the bloom of childhood, Galen had loved her still, despite her plainness.
"Won't you give some serious thought to what I'm offeringwhat my nephew is offeringMrs. McCauley? I have no doubt that you could fill the role admirably."
She rubbed her temples in circles, staring at the flames. What had Dr. Robbins called it? A role? Yes, that's what it would be, a role and nothing more, if she were to marry a stranger.
She rose to her feet. "Earlier, I said I could never ask for charity. Something else I could never do is marry a man I don't know, let alone a man I don't love. I may be poor and I may be uncomely, but I still have my wits. Besides, I'm young and strong and ... and ... hopeful."
She faced him squarely. "All will be well. As my husband often said, things will go better."
* * *
Two months after Galen's death, Corinn made her way down a busy street. All was not well. Things had not gone better. She knew what she must do.
She passed a woman wearing bold face paint, dressed in a gown of flimsy fabric that revealed bare arms and a brazen décolletage. A woman of ill repute.
Corinn felt herself blushing, and she rapidly fanned herself with a handkerchief. What was the other type of woman Dr. Robbins had referred to? A kept woman? Last evening, when her laird, no, landlord, they called them here ... when her landlord had evicted her, he had made her an offer. She fanned more furiously, remembering his abominable words.
Another woman of ill repute passed her on the sidewalk. Yes, she knew what she must do.
Woodenly, she plodded down the street, her empty stomach making a thunderous noise. She trudged up the steep steps and grasped the door knocker on Dr. Robbins's front door.
A strange man in Florida didn't seem nearly as frightening as the prospects here in Massachusetts.