THE HEIRESS'S COURTSHIP
© Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Hillsdale, Michigan ~ February 1856
The Reverend Scott didn't even know he had ruined her life.
He would, after Liberty Judd confronted him. In the meantime, she patiently listened to the engine's brakes screech to a halt at the Hillsdale station.Her parents would be horrified to learn she'd sat on a burlap sack in a pitch-black railcar instead of on a seat in a private coach. The mail train's passenger car had been full. To return to Hillsdale tonight, her only option had been a seat in the baggage car—given only because she'd begged repeatedly and offered a more than generous price. She'd even been in too much of a hurry to take the time to change out of the olive-green ballgown she'd sewn specifically for her stepmother's fortieth birthday extravaganza. The same ball she should be enjoying instead of fleeing Chicago on the Southern Michigan Railroad's last eastbound train.
Not only did she likely smell of the smoke seeping through the car's wood-planked walls, but her gown and winter cloak were filthy, her pocketbook empty and her life miserable. At least she'd wisely exchanged her dancing slippers for woolen socks and sturdy winter boots before her preball escape.
The baggage car's center doors slid open with a harsh squeak, paining her already noise-weary ears, sending in an onslaught of wintry wind and snow flurries to bite at her face.
"Miss Judd," said the gravelly-voiced engineer, "you ready?"
"Yes, sir," Liberty said over the engine's clamor.
She stood and drew her fur-lined cloak's hood over her head, then stepped to the open doors. Steam from the churning engine billowed about. Under the glow of the gas lamps, she noticed the redness of the engineer's nose and cheeks, and she imagined she looked the same. Her face certainly felt cold.
"I am much obliged for the assistance." Like Cinderella returning home from the ball at midnight, she placed her leather-gloved hands in those of the engineer and the baggage-master. As they helped her down from the baggage car to the depot's snow-covered wooden platform, she added, "I'm sorry I put you even further behind schedule."
"The blizzard is the sole blame." The engineer's frown deepened. He touched the brim of his hat, muttered, "Evening," and walked toward the engine.
A heavy gust of snow blew across the platform. Her crinoline belled. Liberty shivered and drew her fur-lined cloak tighter across her chest. After hurrying into the stove-warmed telegraph office, she rested against the closed door. If she weren't still so angry at her parents and at the Reverend Scott, she'd fall to the ground and give in to the tears she'd fought during the slower-than-normal train ride. Only she wouldn't cry, because doing so would validate her parents' view that, fitting for her twenty-two years, she was "selfish and immature." She felt her upper lip curl.
She'd spent too many years as their doormat. Time to pick herself up and walk—no, flee—away.
"Uhh, Miss Judd, why are you here at this hour?"
Liberty drew back her hood, sending snowflakes fluttering to the ground. Almost midnight!
"Charlie, I must send an immediate telegram," she said to the rotund telegrapher standing behind the counter. "Could I impose upon you to loan me the money until later?" She held up her beaded pocketbook. "I would leave this as collateral."
"Keep it, Miss Judd. Paying for your telegram is the least I can do considering you altered my suit again without charge."
"I insist upon a loan. The alteration was a gift."
"But I—" Clearly convinced by her I-insist look, his words broke off, and he picked up his pencil in preparation to write her message. Then he eyed her strangely. "Why are you wearing a tiara?"
She touched the diamond-and-emerald circlet her stepmother had inserted in her strawberry-blond hair, before Father informed her that she would not be returning to Hillsdale to finish the semester. Instead, the youngest member of his advisory board, Mr. Xavier Peabody, Esq., would propose to her at the ball, and she would accept.
Liberty lowered her hand and sighed."It's a wretched and tedious story." No one at the school or in the village, save for a select few, knew of her parents' wealth. She'd prefer to keep it that way. "The telegram needs to say, 'Back in Hillsdale. Will return in June per original agreement.'" Unless I've figured out a way to live on my own without your interference.
After giving her parents' names and address, she glanced at the frost-covered window. If she were staying in the ladies' dormitory instead of Bentzes' Boarding-house, she would have three times the distance to walk. Although, thinking of school—
She focused on Charlie and maintained as much calmness as she could despite the sinking feeling in her stomach. "Could you not tell Lady Principal Whipple of my midnight arrival?"
"Ahh, those dastardly deportment rules."
Seeing his grin, she smiled, too. "I have succeeded thus far in not breaking any. I would rather not begin tonight." Or do anything to risk being expelled.
The locomotive's whistle blew—a deep, guttural sound. A forlorn call in the night.
Liberty stepped to the window to watch the train ease out of the station. The vibrations under her feet increased along with the compounded chugging sound. She grabbed the window frame to hold steady.
One . . . two . . . three . . .
She continued to count as each boxcar slowly passed. From what she could tell, everyone in the lone passenger car was asleep. Not that she blamed them. The normal four-hour ride from Chicago to Hillsdale had taken almost twice as long tonight with nothing to watch sail by except snow.
Charlie then focused on a paper in his left hand while his right was poised over the iron telegraph. He started tapping. Likely he would first contact the Adrian depot, the next stop before Toledo, before sending her message.
Not wanting to disturb him, Liberty exited the telegraph office and released an immediate groan at the crisp wind. She hurried past the Freed family's carriage parked next to the depot, with their driver, Jonas, likely keeping warm inside. Was Dalton Freed finally returning home? Less concerned with gossip than with getting to a comforting fire, she dashed down the street. Her boots crunched on the snow, sinking several inches into what had accumulated throughout the evening, soaking the bottom flounce of her gown.
One more block and around the corner and she'd be at the boardinghouse.No matter how dreadful she felt at the moment, life would have been worse had she never left Chicago four months ago. She didn't care about impressing everyone with the latest innovations from New York and London, or attending parties for the sole purpose of being seen, or pretending to enjoy the opera. Always smile. Sit up straight. Eat the snails even if you don't like them.
Artifice and pretense.
Thank the Lord she had never married Gerrett Divine. Life as his perfect society wife would have been suffocating. Not that he'd ever asked her to marry him. Not that he'd even cared that she'd loved him. She had, though. Faithfully. Desperately. Miserably. Wastedly.
With a sad chuckle, she turned the corner on the last block to the boardinghouse. Love should never make a person feel less. That's why she wasn't going back to Chicago and agreeing to her parents' demand. She'd find a way to support herself, to stay in college. After all, this was 1856, not 1756. The world was evolving, despite her parents' wishes, and like her roommate, Katie, she was joining that change.Maybe she would open a sewing shop like Katie kept suggesting.
BOOM. At the sound of the explosion, Liberty jolted to a stop. Time seemed to stand still. A sliver of smoke snaked from the boardinghouse's chimney. Despite the placidness of the immediate view, Liberty looked beyond the boardinghouse. In the distance, in the direction of the sound, a section of the charcoal night sky grew pink and brighter. Almost aflame.
That would be about where the railroad track curves—
She gasped, then darted across the street and into the boardinghouse.
She slammed the door. "Ursula! Josef! Oh, Katie, there you are! Why are you still up?"
Dr. Katie Clark stood from her seat at one of the four dining hall tables. The anatomy students she was tutoring stood, too. Doors throughout the boardinghouse opened and slammed closed; stomping across the floor overhead increased.
"Why are you back?" Katie asked with a what-have-you-done-this-time gleam in her eyes. "You aren't supposed to return from Chicago until Sunday."
"Doesn't matter. Train wreck!"
Liberty and Katie arrived at the crash not long after the explosion. Ash mixed with the falling snow and spreading smoke. Eastbound and westbound passengers were exiting the upright cars, some carrying children. Liberty forced down her tears and wished her train had only tipped over, instead of slamming into another engine.
She stayed in the six-passenger sleigh while Katie and her study group climbed out. Until she had train wreck victims to transport back to Hillsdale, she had nothing to do but watch and pray.
Myriad sleighs and wagons pulled up next to them.
Katie, holding a lantern high, commanded the attention of those around her. "Spread out along the tracks. We don't want to miss any victims who might have been thrown free of the wreckage."
With a collective nod, the students fanned out.