THE PROMISE BRIDE
© Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Saturday, April 2, 1887
Fortune favored the persistent.
Emilia Stanek smiled, climbed into the cable car, and found her usual spot on the second bench on the left. As she adjusted her father’s old leather army haversack from her side onto her lap, she noticed a brass button on the blue woolen coat she wore over her Spiegel uniform was, literally, hanging by a thread. She tugged it off. Rolled the tarnished metal with her fingers. The balls of her feet throbbed from so many hours managing the customer-service counter, and her fingers ached from filling out complaint forms and bill-paid receipts. She’d lost too much sleep, spent too little time with her siblings during the last nine months. And her cheeks were cold from the wind. Still . . .
The extra dollar a day she’d earned from volunteering for a Saturday shift made the inconveniences all worth it.
The cable car bumped up and down as people continued to load.
Emilia lifted the haversack’s top flap and dropped the button inside, where it came to rest against her week’s wages. She settled against the seat. With what she’d saved since she’d begun corresponding with Finn, in three short months more, she would have the rest of the funds needed to purchase train fare for Roch, Luci, and Da to move with her to Montana. Montana. Her heart warmed at the thought of the heavenly word. Once they were settled, her dear Finn would spend a month courting her properly before he proposed. His last letter had mentioned how perfectly he believed they were suited. Oh, she agreed.
Mrs. Phineas Collins.
Emilia Stanek Collins.
She closed her eyes. How perfect her name sounded with his. Finn’s soon-to-be proposal would be more than she’d ever dreamed. More than a mail-order bride could ever hope for. She adored him. She relished knowing God had answered her prayer for a good man. She loved the future they’d have together on his ranch. Luci needed time to enjoy the remaining years of her childhood. Roch needed to escape the gang he was running with. Da’s lungs needed fresh, healing air, the kind found out west.
Montana Territory was the land of many opportunities.
Her upper lip curled. Chicago wasn’t the land of any opportunity, despite the buildings rising along the streets. The noisy city smelled of industry, sewage, and slaughtered pigs. If only they could leave now, before the summer heat blanketed the area with the stench that gave her headaches, made her nauseated, and interfered with her sleep. No sense bemoaning her circumstances, though. Finances and Da’s health dictated they wait until the dry air of July to leave. She could endure three and a half more months in Chicago.
Mrs. Phineas Collins.
The cable car bell rang.
“Hold the car!” two familiar voices called out.
Emilia looked to her left. Jonny and Harv, two of Spiegel’s weekend stockmen and her self-appointed guardians, shoved their way through the pedestrian traffic, waving their newsboy caps. They jumped onto the car next to her. As they did every Saturday. Harv scrambled over Emilia’s legs to take a spot to her left, while Jonny sat on her right. The pair smelled of bratwurst, beer, and sweat. The packed cable car gathered speed, leaving the State Street stop and heading west toward the gold-and-pink sunset.
West. She sighed. Thank you, God, thank you for bringing Finn into my life.
With each bump and turn, the wooden slats of the bench pressed into Emilia’s back. Jonny and Harv squashed her shoulders. The chilly, late-afternoon breeze caused by the car’s twelve-mile-per-hour speed blew wisps of hair onto Emilia’s face, despite the black bonnet she wore. She shivered yet continued to smile. Hope warmed her soul. Joy flooded her heart.
Someday soon . . .
“Anything exciting arrive today?” Emilia asked after giving Jonny and Harv time to catch their breath.
Harv shifted to face her. “Teak tables from Burma.”
Now that was interesting. Emilia scrambled through her haversack for a pencil and her historical research journal. She’d already investigated Venice, but Burma was an unknown. “Burma”—she printed the letters—“as in B-u-r-m-a?”
Harv nodded. “It was what were stamped on the crates.”
The car stopped, and passengers unloaded and loaded.
Emilia swayed her shoulders, nudging the male bookends to give her space. Just because she barely weighed a hundred pounds, was a good twelve inches shorter than they were, and looked more fifteen than twenty-one, it didn’t mean she had less of a right to equal space on the bench.
Jonny bumped her shoulder. “What’d ya learn about the fifth King Henry?”
“One of these days,” she warned, “I won’t be around to do the studying for you.”
Harv eased up the tip of his cap. “You don’t look like yer dying.” For all the disbelief in his tone, concern flickered in his blue eyes.
Emilia patted his arm. “I’m not dying.” And because she couldn’t contain the joy she felt, she grinned. “I’m moving to Montana this summer.”
The cable car’s bell rang.
Harv’s laughter began a split-second before Jonny’s.
Emilia pursed her lips to hold back a retort. Whether they believed her or not, she was leaving Chicago on July 16, once the public school’s summer term ended. She and her family were moving to a cattle ranch on the magnificent grasslands of Montana. Where the air smelled of wildflowers and sunshine, where she could sing at the top of her lungs. Where Roch would learn to smile again. Responding to Finn’s mail-order bride advertisement had been the best decision of her life.
As their laughter mellowed, and because she had sunlight, she flipped several pages back in her history journal. “Henry of Monmouth became king of England in 1413 . . .”
By the time the cable car reached the tenement stop, she’d given them a decent lecture on the young medieval monarch and his nine-year reign. They debarked the cable car and continued to talk as they headed down the uneven sidewalk, passing decrepit two- and three-story wood-frame and brick buildings that lined the unpaved streets. Clothes hung from windows. Dogs barked incessantly. Family fights were neighborhood fodder. Compliments of the factories within walking distance and the slaughterhouses farther south, not even the smells of roasted pork and fresh-baked bread could cover the stench of the neighborhood sewage.
Soon, though, this would all be a distant memory.
Emilia refocused on her notes. “In 1599 William Shakespeare wrote his play about King Henry’s—”
“Ah, Miss Stanek,” a craggy voice called out.
Emilia looked ahead. Her stride slowed; Jonny and Harv matched pace. Her landlord descended the outside steps to the wooden tenement’s second floor, where her family lived. For all Mr. Deegan’s three-piece suits and oiled mustache, the man who owned the entire block was as grimy as Chicago. The only times he visited were when he came to collect the rent, which wasn’t due for another month. But he’d clearly been upstairs. In the last year, from the moment Da returned home from the cotton mill on Friday, he never left the house, save for attending Sunday worship. Deegan had to know Da’s pattern. This could only mean the two had talked. For how long?
Emilia shoved her journal inside the haversack. Her grip tightened on the bag’s strap across her chest. Her pulse skittered.
Mr. Deegan’s chestnut mare, tied at the post, looked fairly rested. Thirty minutes? An hour?
Heartbeat pounding, Emilia met Mr. Deegan at the bottom of the stairs. “Can I help you with something?”
Jonny and Harv towered behind her like the archangels they weren’t.
Mr. Deegan’s narrowed gaze shifted from her to Jonny and Harv, then back to her. “I expect you can.” He withdrew a folded sheet of paper from inside his suit coat and held it out to her.
Jonny and Harv didn’t move.
Emilia nodded to the four-story brownstone across the street, where Mr. Bello, standing on a ladder, had begun his round of lighting the tenement streetlamps. “Go on,” she ordered. “Please. Mama Bello has dinner waiting for you two.” She paused until her erstwhile guardians crossed the street to their boardinghouse before she turned back to Mr. Deegan’s beady gaze. She took the paper he offered. “What’s this?”
“List of repairs needed.”
Emilia scanned the words from the Health Department compiled after their latest—and humiliating—round of inspections of heating, lighting, ventilation, plumbing, and drainage. How can you live in this? had been the inspector’s silent question each time he’d glanced her way. It wasn’t as if anyone in the tenements had a choice . . . as long as they stayed in Chicago. Both hands on the letter, she crumpled the sides, her mouth sour over the inspector’s findings.
Disease is not a moral but a sanitary problem.
Not something she needed any health inspector to tell her. Diphtheria, typhoid, cholera, smallpox, yellow fever—most of the tenement deaths in the last decade had been from one of those diseases. Including her mother’s. Showing her the official letter from the Health Department made no sense. Mr. Deegan was as literate as she. If anything, this was for show. To remind those in the tenements of his power and control.
“According to this, you”—she fixed him with a pointed look—“have been issued citations for multiple offenses.”
“Offenses for which I am not at fault.”
Did he think she was stupid? Despite their repeated requests for repairs, not a shingle had been replaced or window resealed. One of the walls of the privy they shared with the Jaegers still had bullet holes from the last street fight.
She glanced around to see a growing crowd on the street despite the chill in the air. “Sir, our monthly rent, which has been doubled from three years ago, is sufficient to cover the cost for repairs.”
“Au contraire, my dear.” He whisked the paper from her hand and read, “‛Remedies for violations include repairing defective plumbing, construction of new sewers and drains, ventilation applied to waste and soil pipes, cleaning privy vaults, and lime-washing rooms. Thirty dollars will do.’” Mr. Deegan refolded the paper. “To be fair, I’ve divided the cost of repairs equally among each tenement. You have until this time Monday.”
“You expect me to come up with thirty dollars in two days?”
He nodded. “I’m a generous man. Considering this is the fourth notification in the last two months, I could evict you instead.”
Emilia flinched. Fourth? Her heart pounded against her rib cage. For all Deegan’s sleaziness, he didn’t look to be lying. Da had to know about the inspection report and extortion demand and had kept the truth from her. But why? She had the travel money from Finn, plus what she’d saved by working an extra shift. They needed every penny for train fare. She couldn’t leave her family. She wouldn’t.
She swallowed to ease her tight throat. “We don’t have the money.”
“How strange.” His left eye twitched; the corner of his mouth curved. “I know that wealthy rancher of yours wired train fare for you to come to Montana. Thirty dollars, I hear. Enough to buy his mail-order bride a first-class ticket in the ladies’ car. He must think highly of you.”
Emilia gritted her teeth.
At her silence, he smirked. “Miss Stanek, unlike you, your sister is quite the hostess. Cordial, inviting, talkative.” He stepped closer, close enough for her to smell the bitter coffee on his breath. “You’d be wise to stop thinking you’re better than everyone else in these parts. You ain’t going nowhere. This, dearie, is your lot in life.” He tipped his hat to her—“Until this time Monday”—and then to the crowd, which began to disperse with mumbles and backward glances.
Without another word, Mr. Deegan mounted his horse and rode off.
Emilia gasped for air. She dashed up the stairs to their two-room tenement and jerked the door open; the smell of coffee and stew hit her. “Da!” She closed the door hard. He exited the bedroom Emilia and Roch shared with their twelve-year-old younger sister, Luci, who followed. Before either could speak, Emilia pulled the haversack’s strap over her head. “Were you watching through the window? Did you hear everything? When were you going to tell me Deegan’s extortion attempt?”
Da and Luci exchanged glances, their dark eyes wide.
“I’ll set the table,” Luci muttered. As she went to work, Da stroked his salt-and-pepper beard as he always did when pondering what to say.
Emilia hung her bag and coat on an empty wall hook next to the door. Roch’s coat was missing. If he wasn’t home soon, he’d break the curfew she’d insisted Da give him. Someday he wouldn’t need a curfew. Someday Roch would have his own room and not have to sleep on the floor. Da would have one, too. No more sleeping on the couch for him. No more living in cramped spaces with grimy, paper-thin walls and sharing a privy with another family. This was not their lot in life. Once she married Finn, they would have privacy. Their lives would be better. Once they moved to Montana.
If they moved to Montana.
She clasped her hands together to contain the shaking. Took several deep breaths. She had to regain control. She had to be calm. She had to find a way to solve this problem. She would find a way. She always found a way. If she—
“Emilia, I know what you are doing.” Da’s Polish accent sounded like he’d immigrated to America recently instead of twenty-six years ago.
She stared at him. What was he talking about?
“You think you will find way to solve this.” He frowned. “Stop! We are doing it my way this time.” Da motioned to the table, where Luci was placing bowls of stew. “We eat.”
His way? Emilia found her seat next to Luci. Something odd had come over her father. His face held more color than she’d seen in months, and his shoulders seemed straighter. And he wasn’t coughing. Though his clothes hung on his lithe frame, Da looked like he had renewed purpose, determination. A plan. How could this be? Da believed in living in the here and now, not dreaming of the future—an odd belief considering the years he’d fought in the War Between the States to prove his loyalty to his new country.
They bowed their heads.
Emilia stared absently at her lap as her father asked for the blessing. If Da were well enough to travel, they could leave for Montana sooner. All they needed was—
“Amen,” Emilia blurted the moment the prayer ended. “I will write to Finn, explain the situation, and—”
Da groaned, then looked up. “This I did already.”
“Keep your voice down.” His voice lowered. “The walls have ears.”
Emilia fingered her spoon but didn’t pick it up. “When did you do this?”
“Two months ago, after Deegan made the first demand.” He took a bite of stew and then another. “Eat.” The moment she obeyed, he spoke barely loud enough for her to hear. “Finn has agreed to marry you by proxy.”
She collapsed against the back of her chair. “What?”
Luci grabbed the loaf of rye bread. “It means he marries a girl who is pretending to be you, and then, when you arrive in Helena, you’ll already be his wife. He must really love you to agree to a proxy.” She tore off a chunk, then handed the loaf to Da. “Right?”
“My girl listens well.” He broke off a section of bread, then gave the remainder to Emilia, his brown eyes narrowing on her. “Listening is as much a virtue as persistence.”
Emilia straightened. She listened quite well, despite what he thought. She ate several bites of the bland, meatless stew and the hard bread to keep from blurting out the myriad questions flooding her mind. Once she had all the information Da was withholding, she’d be able to figure out what to do next. No one could make a plan like she could. No one could solve a problem like she could.
His bowl empty, Da left the table. He slid a box out from under the couch. He withdrew a buff-colored, paper-sized envelope, then walked back to the table.
Da sat next to Emilia, in Roch’s empty chair. He spoke in a hushed tone. “This is a power of attorney granting a woman named Yancey Palmer permission to stand in for you as Finn’s proxy bride. Monday morning you will take it to a notary, who will watch you sign.” He handed her the envelope. “Keep it safe because you must file it once you reach Helena to make the marriage official. Usually, it must be in the judge’s hands before he will agree to perform the proxy, but we don’t have time to mail it, and Finn has arranged for the judge to act based on our word that it has been signed.”
Emilia stared at her father, overwhelmed at the news.
“After it is notarized,” Da continued, “you will then meet us at Dearborn Station. Once the judge in Helena telegrams that the marriage has taken place, you, Roch, and Luci will buy train fare to St. Paul, and then on to Helena. I will move into the Old Soldiers’ Home. I will take odd jobs over the next three months to earn my train fare.”
“No, our plan has always been—”
“Listen!” Da barked in a tone he usually reserved for Roch. “The plan has to change.”
Emilia squirmed as she sat under his chilling gaze. She didn’t like this change. Da needed to trust her to do what she did best: find a solution and make it work. She had found Finn’s mail-order bride advertisement. She had convinced Da to move to Montana. She had taken the extra job. She had even figured out a timeline for leaving that accounted for Da’s health and Roch and Luci’s school schedule. Changing plans based on a frantic response to a crisis wasn’t wise.
Luci moved around the small table and crawled onto Da’s lap, laying her head against his chest. By the look on her face, Emilia knew her sister was close to tears.
Da kissed the top of Luci’s head. “We have to be practical, Emme. You don’t have enough to pay my fare, too.”
“I’ll buy tickets for the emigrant car.” Better to have her father with them, even if it meant the unpleasant prospect of riding in an open train car for three days.
“You know my lungs can’t—”
“But ours can! You can stay in second class.”
“There isn’t enough money for us all. You need money for food. You have to pay the lawyer for the power of attorney.”
Luci broke into tears. Da held her tight.
“Please, Da,” Emilia leaned forward, stretching her hands out to grip his arm. This wasn’t happening. It couldn’t be. “We have to stay together. I can find a way to buy us all tickets. Give me time.”
He shook his head. “There’s no time left.”
The front door opened. Roch, his face red and chest heaving, dark hair tussled by the wind, stepped inside. He closed the door. “I returned her books.”
Emilia straightened in her chair. Why were they making plans and not including her in decisions? She glanced between her father and brother. “What books?”
Roch shrugged off his woolen coat. “The library ones.”
“I wasn’t finished researching—”
“Shh,” said Da and Luci in unison.
“Someone had to,” Roch groused, “so you have nothing to keep you here.”
“And I bet you happily volunteered to take them,” Emilia snapped.
“If it gets you outta here quicker . . .” He shrugged. “Good riddance, I say.”
His hateful words ripped into Emilia’s heart. She held his gaze, waiting for a flicker of remorse, waiting for some sign he didn’t mean what he’d said. Something in the last year had caused him to hate her, but once they were all in Montana and life was good again, he would appreciate what she’d sacrificed for him to have a better life. He would remember he loved her.
Roch tossed his coat onto a wall hook, then headed to the stove. “I’m starving.”
Emilia stared at her brother. His words—if it gets you outta here quicker—resonated in her mind.
She gave Da a questioning look. “Doesn’t he know he’s—”
Da shook his head, cutting off the rest of her question. “You have to trust me, even with what doesn’t make sense.”
Luci managed a smile. Weak though it was, it seemed to say, it will all work out, Emilia; just trust Da.
Emilia clenched her hands together, lips pursed tight. Too much of his plan didn’t make sense. Roch would not get on the train without Da. She knew it. Da knew it. This new plan was destined to fail, at Dearborn Station to be precise, and then where would they be? Stuck in Chicago for another year, maybe longer? Or, worse, their family divided and living three states apart? Da’s lungs couldn’t take another year of working in the cotton mill. The family was stronger when they stayed together. She had to find another solution.
Roch filled a bowl with the last of the stew. He sat in Da’s usual seat and began eating.
Da patted Roch’s back. Then his knowing gaze settled on Emilia. “Emme, if you can’t trust your father, whom you can see, to do what’s best for you, how can you trust God, whom you can’t see?”
How dare he—!
Emilia snatched the envelope and walked to her bedroom without another word. Da’s question was a slap in the face. This had nothing to do with God or her faith or even trust; it was about doing whatever was necessary to keep their family together.
She’d lost Mama.
She wasn’t about to lose another person she loved.