LOUDER THAN WORDS
© Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Tuesday afternoon, May 15, 1866
EVERY EDITOR WANTED THE SAME thing: tragedy, triumph, bring our readers to tears. None could—or would—define what they were looking for beyond the usual we-know-it-when-we-see-it.
With a growl of frustration, J.R. Lockhart tossed the letter from the editor of the Daily Alta California onto the basket of responses from the San Francisco Morning Call, San Francisco Chronicle, Sacramento Daily Union, and Marysville Daily Appeal. To name a few. To name the rejections that pained him the most. None of his accounts of soldier life during the war, abolitionist pamphlets, or exposés of post-war reconstruction, nor any of his ballads, essays, or short stories published in the last year at Godey’s Lady’s Book engaged the West Coast editors enough to prompt an offer of employment, or even a simple request he come to California for an interview.
J.R. looked to the continental map tacked on the wall, over the spot where a portrait used to hang of George Washington crossing the Delaware. An inky line stretched from Philadelphia to Cleveland, Chicago, and Omaha. By the end of this year, the Pacific Railroad between Omaha and North Platte would be completed, putting the East Coast—putting him—one state closer to California.
Twenty-eight hundred miles separated him from his future.
A future as bleak as his gray suit.
“I’m never going to leave,” he muttered.
A soft rap-a-tap-tap-tap drew his attention to the opened door.
J.R. stood and forced a smile. “Ma’am.”
Sarah Josepha Hale, in her usual black gown that made her silver hair more striking, stood there bearing a mug and a luncheon plate. “Do you have time to talk?”
He tipped his head in acknowledgment.
Mrs. Hale stepped inside his office and, to his shock, closed the door. J.R. tensed. Not once in the eleven months he’d worked here had she closed the door, or asked him to when he’d visited her office. Why did she feel the need for privacy?
She rested the plate with two buttered slices of bread and the mug of coffee in the center of his desk and then sat in a chair across from him as if she were an interviewee instead of the editress of the most popular publication in the country. “Your mother was a dear friend,” she began, “and one of the finest poets I have ever been blessed to work with.”
J.R. settled back against his leather chair’s high back. Mrs. Hale had known him since his birth. In the twenty-seven years since, he’d learned never to interrupt her until she’d had her say, especially when she began a discussion with mention of a dear friend. The woman had more dear friends than anyone in all of creation.
“The artistry of Ann Maria’s ballads—” Mrs. Hale rested her hands in her lap and sighed. “My dear boy, she is greatly missed. Your father, too. The college will never be the same without his leadership.” Based on the tears in her eyes, one would think his parents had passed away last week, not over two years ago. Then again, this was the same woman who mourned her husband’s death every day. . .for the past forty-four years!
Now that was devotion.
J.R. sipped his coffee as he waited for her to speak.
She stared absently at his wall of books, a frown growing. “War is hell, as much to a man who fought it with a pen as the one who used a sword.” She looked back at him. “Those of my sex also know, for a young man, war is dangerous and exciting.”
He tapped his fingers on the chair’s armrests. “I didn’t join the war because I thought it would be exciting. I went to tell of the horrors—”
She held up a hand, and he fell silent. “A man’s nature is to attack something. To conquer. This is why we have war. It is why we have rifles, boxing, and even cricket. It is why my great-grandson last night felt compelled to thrash a tree in my yard with a stick.” Her troubled gaze flickered to the letters in the basket. “A man’s nature also calls him to adventure, not to sit behind a desk and write stories that appeal to women.” She looked at him. “I’ve written numerous letters of recommendation on your behalf, and you have yet to tell me what you are seeking in California.”
“It’s more of what isn’t there.”
She nodded for him to explain.
“War. Half a million Philadelphians bear scars from it, and yet”—J.R. grabbed a copy of this month’s Lady’s Book atop the stack on his desk—“we print recipes, sentimental songs, household tips, and the latest fashion plates in hopes of keeping war from permeating our daily conversations.”
“Do you want us to publish stories about the war?”
Shaking his head, he laid the magazine on the other eleven containing his writings. “When I was fifteen, I started writing abolitionist pamphlets to end slavery. This morning I finished a three-page ballad about a butterfly. ‘She was happy and fair, graceful and gay, sporting the summer of bright youth away—’ ” J.R. groaned, unable to continue reciting the words he’d forced himself to pen. “I’m tired of writing about butterflies in hopes of temporarily distracting readers from the horrors none of us can forget.”
“I see.” The longer Mrs. Hale studied him, the sadder she looked. “I have not reached the age of six-and-seventy years without learning that deep in a man’s heart are fundamental questions which cannot—simply cannot—be answered at a lady’s magazine. Who is J.R. Lockhart? A writer? A crusader? A Quaker who must have a good reason why he has yet to set foot inside a church since returning from war?”
J.R. chose to presume her questions were rhetorical.
Her gaze shifted to the neatly stacked piles of papers and magazines on his desk. “Or is he simply a tamed man content to be confined to a chair. . .in an office. . .with a lone window overlooking a busy street?”
He took a gulp of coffee to ease his taut throat.
“Life here bores you. Worse, it has turned you into a boring man. I miss the carefree, charming rapscallion that you were.” Mrs. Hale eased forward in the chair. “Do you think by moving to California you will find out what are you made of and what you are destined for?”
He returned the mug to his desktop. “I need change, ma’am, not self- enlightenment.”
“Then change is my gift to you.” Her lips tipped up at the corners. “Before you leave for the day, stop by the clerk’s office and pick up your final pay.”
J.R. sat up straight. “You’re sacking me?”
“Indeed I am.”
“You have no family in Philadelphia.”
Her reasoning made no sense. “Thus I should lose my employment?”
“You are independently wealthy, thus I can only conclude limited finances are not the cause for you becoming a stick-in-the-mud who gave up even the mildest flirtation. Gloom is not effective bait to hook a lady.” She gave him a don’t-argue-with-myassessment-of-you smile, and then said, “Therefore, the only conclusion is. . .you won’t seek your change in California until you have nothing to cleave to here.”
“You’re tossing me out of the boat and hoping I will swim.”
“Or I am hoping you won’t drown.”
“There’s a difference?”
Her brows rose as if to say that’s your question to answer. She withdrew a folded slip of paper, tucked in the wristband of her sleeve. “A dear friend of mine in Memphis thought this might interest me.”
J.R. leaned across his desk to take the narrow, rectangular slip of paper. He unfolded what clearly had been cut from a newspaper’s advertisement section.
Men to Audition as Husbands. Turtle Springs, Kansas.
Auditions Held May 25. Only Godly, Upstanding Men
Need Apply. Check in at Mayor’s Office.
He met her guileless gaze. “Godey’s Lady’s Book has never mentioned the war. Not even a vague reference. I suspect these desperate women are war widows. Any story about them cannot be written without mentioning why their husbands died.”
“This story isn’t for me,” she said primly. “Since Godey’s owns the copyright on the work you’ve written for us, I advise you to pen something new to sell to other editors. Something filled with pathos and joy.”
“These women may not want their stories told.” Not that he expected the men would either.
Sensationalism was not his cup of journalistic tea.
She seemed to think on that for a moment. “If the ladies of Turtle Springs don’t want their names published, then turn their stories into fiction. And write it in installments. Since the serial success of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the best American writers first publish their work in serial form. I expect the best from you.” She stood.
He stood, too.
“Take care, J.R. I’ll send Norville Owens to help you pack your”—she glanced about the room and clearly realized his belongings were limited to—“books.” At the pitying sound of her tone, he could feel the muscles in his face tightening.
“Why are you doing this?”
“You need permission.”
“To go to Kansas?”
“To go west, young man. Manifest destiny and all.”
He coughed a breath.
She smiled, the expression on her face more patient than placating. “Young men need more than adventures. They need beauties to rescue. You may find what you are looking for in Turtle Springs.” She paused. “Find the man you once were, J.R. Find your heart.” As Mrs. Hale strolled out of his office, she left the door open. He could see into the sitting room where a handful of writers and businessmen sat while waiting for an audience with the formidable woman who had swayed, at the time, the most powerful man in the world into proclaiming Thanksgiving a national holiday. The same woman who took away J.R.’s job because she thought he needed permission to leave Philadelphia.
He shook his head. He never needed permission. And yet—
With each twist, with each turn, the iron snake consumes its prey. Land ho!
He looked to the map, a smile growing, a poem forming. He could go west. Nothing held him back now. Thanks to Mrs. Hale. A mere twenty-eight hundred miles, and a short stop in Kansas, separated him and his future. A beauty to rescue?
He was a writer, not a warrior.
The only thing he needed to find in Turtle Springs was a story to hook an editor. He’d look for a dark-eyed beauty once he was settled in California.