And if you come to see us all … I will tell you where the best BBQ in Boerne is to be found ….
“You should be very glad,” I told my daughter a couple of weeks ago, “That I used to help my brothers assemble airplane models.” I did, too – JP was quite fond of putting together detailed 1/48 and 1/72 scale model aircraft, which he bought with his allowance money. He paid great attention to detail, fitting the parts together so that only a hairline crack showed – and often filling in those with plastic putty and sanding the piece so it that the join was invisible after being painted. He was just as careful in painting the models and their visible component parts, even to painting a miniscule silver zipper down the front of the pilot’s flight suit. At a later date he went to the extent of fabricating battle damage with fine wire and bits of tin-foil. So that was my introduction to following instructions and identifying the bits and pieces involved. Eventually my brother put away childish things like Airfix models, and moved on to tinkering with real automobiles, to the horror of his first wife, whose family was wealthy and in their world, one just didn’t pop up the hood in the driveway and investigate the mysteries within.
Myself, I moved on to another form of kit-building – that of miniature furniture, and then of full-sized functional furniture. Dad’s facility with, and collection of a wide assortment of hand-tools meant that I had a fair grasp of their various uses, and a tendency to have a bash at fixing whatever might need fixing. And following Dad’s many examples – once I became a home owner, there I was, replacing light fixtures, re-wiring table lamps, applying a finish to unfinished furniture, painting the house (inside and out), putting in new faucets in the kitchen and bathrooms… Piece of cake. Just follow the instructions.
What brought on the recent round of assembly was a jaunt through the Ikea store in Round Rock two weeks ago to collect some shelving units for my daughter’s work area/office. She has a corner of the living room for her computer desk, the various office items and storage for the materials for her origami art. Much of this was previously stored in plastic tubs and a couple of plastic drawer units which had been cheap to begin with and now looked even worse. So – a pair of shelf units, with some cupboard door, drawer and basket options were in order, all of which came packed with fiendish ingenuity in an assortment of flat cartons. I do have to say the assembly instructions were quite logical, and the language hurdle was gotten over by being completely pictorial. Still – all the side and shelving panels had to be sorted out, and the various connectors identified. It wasn’t a patch for thoroughness on the last bit of office furniture I had put together; a pair of wooden filing cabinets from Amazon, which had every single panel and piece identified with a little sticker, and the hardware packed in a blister pack with everything labeled. With Ikea and the usual kind of flat-packed items it’s more often a process of having to sort everything out of a bag, and identify by measuring, counting and matching descriptions.
This weekend’s assembly was a pair of bi-fold closet doors, to sequester the den from the cats. I was able to have some furniture reupholstered; two chairs and an enormous tuffet, and the last thing I wanted after having gone to the trouble and expense was to see the cats sharpening their claws on it all … as they had shredded them before. (The den used to be closed off with a pair of louvered doors, but I repurposed them in the last remodel and used them for my bathroom and closet, and used a long pair of curtains in the opening.) So – I was off to the Home Depot website, to order a pair of wooden bi-fold doors to fit – and with generous free home delivery, instead of having to pick them up in the nearest store, too. The doors were delivered Friday, we stained and finished them on Saturday, and installed them today – again, carefully following every instruction. They fit perfectly, met in the center and matched up exactly – and now I may rest assured that the chairs and tuffet will be safe, once they are delivered on Wednesday. And that’s my weekend …
Yes, I have tweaked my website and blog … just a little. I didn’t want it to get stale, and I had begun to think that the previous template was rather … fussy. So, just as I am redecorating and simplifying the interior of my house in some small ways – like getting some long-owned pieces of furniture reupholstered, contemplating new kitchen cabinets, and trying to keep up with general housekeeping (like putting stuff AWAY) so I am doing with my book website. This template is cleaner-looking, and offers the option of rotating headers, which I will take fuller advantage of, as I tweak it some more. I have so many lovely pictures of Texas scenery and places that I have taken over the last few years, I’d like to give them more exposure, rather than once attached to a post and then buried in the archives forever.
I pointed out to my daughter this morning, as we were talking the doggles – that it is twenty years this spring that I rotated back to the States from my last overseas in Korea, and packed up my then-car, my daughter and Dad, and drove to Texas. I didn’t want to essay the whole two-day drive alone, and I didn’t want to buy a house without Dad’s expert advice – so he came with us, and lurked meaningfully in the background of the mercifully brief house hunt … I mean – this was my DAD, the shade-tree auto mechanic par excellence, who had also maintained every house that Mom and Dad had ever lived in, who had bought two houses and built most of their retirement house himself. So Dad came out to Texas with me, and traveled home as soon as I closed on this house, and his advice and support was worth every cent. Of all the houses I looked at, this was the smallest, but in the best location, and the best quality. (Even with telling the realtor that I didn’t even want to set foot on the mat of those houses which had been built by a certain builder whose bad reputation was a legend, nationally.
So – appreciate the renewed website – and in a couple of days, I will have a new chapter … either of The Golden Road, or Sunset and Steel Rails. Depends on which one I feel motivated to work on first, now that the chore of sorting out my income taxes is done.
Yes – I do my income tax early. My accountant loves me for this.
All righty – everyone still interested? This is the rest of the story, of Fred Harvey and his hospitality empire, which not only is given popular credit for ‘civilizing’ the Wild West, but also for supplying that stretch of the Southwest between the Mississippi-Missouri and the Sacramento with excellent food and drink, splendid service, and a constant stream of wives – for many of the women recruited as waitresses in the track-side station restaurants married right and left; to railroad men, co-workers in the Harvey establishments, and to customers they met in the course of their duties. A comparison between Harvey Girls and stewardesses in the glamorous days of commercial flight has been made now and again; both groups were composed of relatively young, independent and adventurous women, carefully selected and trained, and working in a setting where their attractive qualities were shown at an advantage.
But the restaurants and lunchrooms, as appealing and as well-organized as they were – were only part of the Harvey brand. In many locations along the AT&SF, the trackside restaurants and lunchrooms metamorphosed naturally into hotel to succor the weary traveler. Making the journey substantially more comfortable, and bringing high standards of cookery, service and organization to the trans-Mississippi west was just the first step. Fred Harvey thought big and to the benefit of the ST&SF in attracting a bigger share of the footloose public – by making the West a destination for the pleasure traveler in the last decade of the 19th century and the first two of the next. Come and explore the scenic and fascinating west – now that such an exploration could be done in perfect safety and luxury. Essentially, almost a hundred years before Disneyland and Disney World, Fred Harvey created the destination resort. One of the first was a grand and luxurious edifice in Las Vegas, New Mexico, built to take advantage of scenic mountain landscapes and a cluster of hot springs nearby: the Montezuma Castle. It was the first building in New Mexico to have electric lighting. Guests were pampered with the usual Fred Harvey level of expert service and excellent food, served with a lavish and incredibly valuable silver service. Other in-house amenities featured bowling alleys and billiard tables. The grounds around the hotel were beautifully landscaped and adorned with fountains. Guests of the Montezuma included presidents, kings, war heroes and the merely prominent. The building itself burnt twice – and was rebuilt. (A number of Fred Harvey establishments fell to fire – the Harvey House in Barstow, California burned at least three times. Wood construction and injudicious use of cook-fires in a dry desert area will create that kind of hazard.)
Fred Harvey’s health declined precipitously in the late 1890s – he would die of complications of intestinal cancer in 1901– but he had trained up his sons Ford and Byron in every aspect of the business, and they carried on without any discernible change in focus or standards. The Fred Harvey name was a brand, and a solid one. The company renovated and expanded their existing locations and added new ones. One of their distinctive features was a careful attention to local architectural styles, as well as artistic traditions. The Harvey hotels were a great popularizer of what we now know as ‘Southwest style’ – lots of adobe, rounded arches and arcades, local stone and rough-hewn wood, folk-art tile and pottery, ‘vigas’ ceilings of poles and exposed rafters, Navaho rugs and blankets. The in-house architect and designer was Mary Jane Colter, who was first offered a job to decorate the interior of the Alvarado hotel in Albuquerque in 1901. Over the next thirty years she worked full-out in designing hotels, lodges and concession buildings, including the complex at the El Tovar (for which she had done the interior decorating) and the Bright Angel lodge, located at the very rim of the Grand Canyon. La Posada, in Winslow, Arizona, is considered one of Colter’s finest. She designed everything for that establishment, from the building itself, down through the furniture, fittings and china, the gardens and the staff uniforms.
At least as well-known, and with the good fortune to be in the heart of a town with a centuries-long history, is La Fonda (which means ‘the inn), in Santa Fe. The present spectacular building was put up by the Fred Harvey company in 1922, but the site – at the terminus of the old Santa Fe Trail – had been the location of an inn since the earliest days of Santa Fe, three centuries previous. It is still popular, not least for the number of specialty shops selling local art, pottery and jewelry … for that was another aspect of Fred Harvey’s refinement of the Wild West experience; encouraging the purchase of southwest Indian art and artifacts to tourists – and yes, even to hiring craftsmen and women from the various tribes to demonstrate their arts. A number of the Harvey hotels, starting with the Alvarado in Albuquerque, included a kind of private museum, and a craft demonstration and sales area, where visitors could purchase reproductions. Yes, Fred Harvey (the company) may also have invented the museum shop.
And the company likely inspired the Southwest fashion style for women, with another female-driven inspiration based in the new La Fonda. This was called Southwest Indian Detours – one –two- or three-day bus and automobile tours of significant Indian pueblos and ruins, artist’s studios and spectacular scenic vistas – conducted by young women called ‘couriers’ – or tour guides. They dressed in outfits designed after traditional Navaho women’s dress: full dark cloth skirt over boots, a jewel-colored velveteen blouse ornamented with a concho belt and a silver squash-blossom necklace. The heyday of the Detours was relatively brief, owing to the Depression.
The company had one last fling during WWII, when La Fonda was the chosen hang-out for scientists working on the atom bomb, and the Harvey Girls worked overtime feeding troop-trains passing through. On any number of occasions, there was no time for the soldiers to de-train and eat, the Girls just passed sandwiches in through the windows. The Judy Garland movie, The Harvey Girls brought the awareness of all things Harvey to anyone who just might have escaped knowing about them … but the sixty-year run was already nearly over. Increasingly, people preferred traveling by automobile, or by airplane. The houses that Fred built, all along the tracks of the AT&SF were repurposed, or torn down. Some serve as museums, or city offices, or stand derelict and crumbling. A handful, like La Fonda, El Tovar and El Posada are still hotels, although not operated by Fred Harvey.
Weirdly, I am being inspired by the newest idea for a book – the story of the Fred Harvey hospitality empire, which came about in those years when the Wild West was passing from the real world into legend. I’m posting about half a chapter here, as I write them. As soon as I get a little farther on some other book projects, I’ll write and post some more of The Golden Road. But for now – I’m bubbling over with ideas for character and plot. I’ve always done best, working on two books at a time… Previously posted half-chapters to Sunset and Steel Rails are here, and here…
Chapter 3 – Potions and Portents
It was not – as she half-feared it would be – Richard who came to her room door, and tapped on it, hesitantly requesting admittance. It was Phoebe, tearful and apologetic. Sophia wondered, somewhat cynically, how much of that was due to Phoebe having to take charge of her sons herself, and to bear the brunt of Richard’s cold displeasure at the workings of the household not going quite as smoothly as he had become accustomed in the last few years.
“Richard is quite unhappy,” Fee announced, as she closed the door behind her. She shuffled into the room, the weight of the child within her body rendering her ungainly. She settled her awkward self into the bedside chair, and reached for Sophia’s hand. “He … he is so very fond of you, dear. We all are … and so worried about your condition.” Sophia bit back her initial waspish response – I had no condition until everyone began insisting that I had one! Instead, she answered,
“Fee, I am perfectly fit. It is only that everyone insists that I am not, which puts me out of all good temper. I was fond of Lucius Armitage – I do not think I really loved him to any great degree, although I believe I might have come to love him, in time. Just as you came to love Richard …”
Now, that was a startling thing, the fleeting expression in Fee’s eyes and countenance – was that … could it be stark terror? Again, that cold trickle of fear ran down Sophia’s spine. She looked at Fee – this time with cold analysis. Sophia had been a girl of ten years when Richard married his bride; all white dress and misty veil, on her father’s arm, advancing in stately tread down the aisle of the ancient Christ Church. Sophia had been one of her attendants, and not particularly happy about it, because this was Richard! Fee was, as the ten-year-old Sophia saw it – an interloper: A silly and unwelcome trespasser on a happy family; Mama, Richard and herself, living a contented life in the Brewer mansion. A ten-year-old’s impatience, and a touch of jealousy had given away to … well, still impatience, mixed with exasperation, and to this present day, with a heavier helping of exasperation and even a degree of contempt. Recalling how Richard seemed most cold and even horrible just now, Sophia wondered if she had misjudged Fee all these years. What would Fee have seen, be subjected to, in the privacy of a marital relationship? And what was Richard? Loving husband and brother, responsible head of a family and fortune … or something else? Sophia shook off the thought, although the question continued to haunt.
“Of course – he is a most loving husband and brother,” Fee insisted, breathlessly. “How could I not? Richard, my dear husband, he is unwearied in his care and concern for us all …”
“As he was from the day that Papa fell,” Sophia said. Truly, she wished that she could recall Papa – see him in flesh and life. Instead, all she had was an image from the daguerreotype that was always at Mama’s bedside; a handsome man in a dark Union uniform, one hand thrust into the front of his coat, the other resting on the sword at his side. Fee continued, “I know that you are being brave and very stoic about … Mr. Armitage and everything … but we cannot help but see that you are unhappy, and short of temper. And we think that you might benefit from a period of quiet and rest … in the countryside, under Dr. Cotton’s care…”
“I do not care for Dr. Cotton,” Sophia answered, with an edge in her voice that she didn’t bother to hide. “Nor his potions, or his advice, nor any else of his recommendations. I was perfectly content – a little disappointed in Lucius, for I thought he might have had enough character and spine in him to defy his father … this is the 19th century, Fee – what business do fathers have in absolutely forbidding a marriage when everything to do with those promised to each other has otherwise met with approval? Lucius’ father now finds me an abhorrent connection to his family merely because of those losses sustained in the failure of the Marine Bank! Tell me, Fee – does money now rule all? Over character, affection and long-established connection?”
Phoebe regarded Sophia with bafflement in her eyes – large, cow-like eyes, Sophia thought, viciously – and every bit as stupid as a cow which her sister-in-law resembled. “I suppose it does,” Phoebe admitted, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, and Sophia could not conceal her contempt.
“You had a generous dowry settled upon you when you married Richard … a very enormous dowry, indeed. Was it the dowry which appealed most to my brother, or the charms of your own person and intellect?”
Phoebe colored as red as if she had been slapped, and tears started in her eyes. She sprang up from the chair, crying, “So what if there was! Richard does so love me, and we were happily wed – and you have always been cruel and sarcastic – anything but a true sister, for all that I have tried to be kind and affectionate …”
“Fee, I didn’t mean …” Sophia levered herself from the bed by her elbow, but was struck with a sudden fit of dizziness as she did so, and by the time she had pulled the right words of apology out of her mind, Phoebe had turned around at the doorway and launched her parting remark.
“Lucius Armitage has decided to marry after all – to your friend, Miss Chase! I imagine generous dowries do have some recommendation, after all!” Then Fee slammed the door behind her and it was too late. Sophia lay back down on the coverlet, staring up at the ceiling of her room. This had the effect of a bodily blow – that Lucius would have chosen Emma Chase, and within weeks of breaking their engagement. Truth to tell, she was more disappointed in Emma than she was in Lucius Armitage. Lucius was only a poor silly boy-man, still commanded by his irascible father … but Emma was her bosom-friend. She had not expected anything such as this. Was Emma so desperate for suitors, so eager for marriage at any cost? It appeared so.
The following afternoon was Pheobe’s ‘at home’ – the day when she and Sophia put on their afternoon best and received calls from friends and acquaintances. Sophia had always rather looked forward to their ‘at home’ afternoons; a few brief hours not exhaustingly engaged in housekeeping and errands, when she could sit in the parlor with her needlework and converse with those friends and kin whose company she enjoyed.
Aunt Minnie and Phelpsie appeared almost at once, shown into the parlor by Agnes.
“My dear child – have you heard? Lucius Armitage …”
“I have,” Sophia answered, curt and cold. “Fee told me last night.” She darted a sideways look at her sister-in-law, who appeared to have completely forgotten how bitter their exchange the previous evening had been. “It matters only a little to me, Aunt Minnie. They are both my friends and I wish them well …”
Great-aunt Minnie patted Sophia’s hands, visibly relieved. “None the less … water under the bridge, my dear, water under the bridge. You have been spared what I would say is a disappointment inevitable, given his weak and easily-influenced character. And our holiday in Newport … that will be a welcome change of scenery, my dear. Would you not agree?”
“I would … and with my whole heart,” Sophia answered. “Auntie … would you take it amiss … would it inconvenience you, if I were to come and stay with you and Phelpsie awhile? Even before then? My birthday is in two weeks … and I think that I would like to make some decisions for myself, as I will then be of age.”
“But … what would we do without you?” Fee interjected. “This is your home, Sophie, why would you …”
“No, this house is yours,” Sophia returned, not without a little malice. “And it should be your duty and pleasure to have the ordering and management of it, as my brothers’ wife. Being of age, and a confirmed spinster – why should I not set the direction of my own life and pleasures?”
“But that is … unseemly!” Fee bleated, and Great-Aunt Minnie snorted.
“Unseemly fiddlesticks, my girl. I am not keeping a low boarding-house, and there comes a time when a woman might be expected to know her own mind and desires. Sophia shall come and live with me as she pleases, being of age and there’s an end to all discussion.”
“Richard won’t like that,” Phoebe’s voice quavered. “He will be angry.”
“The venting of splenetic energy will be good for him,” Great-Aunt Minnie retorted, crisply. Sophia marveled at how little the thought of Richard’s anger dismayed Great-Aunt Minnie, even as it cowed Fee. Well, she thought, as she bent to her embroidery – Richard’s anger wouldn’t cow her either. She would go and live in the old Vining mansion, cramped and dark and old-fashioned as it was, and now in a neighborhood definitely decayed, and help Phelpsie look after Minnie, and listen to her great-aunt’s reminiscences about the old days, about Minnie’s brothers, and the various dramatic or mundane adventures of the various ancestors … which surely would prove more amusing than everyone groaning on at her about how badly she must feel about her broken engagement.
These pleasant thoughts were interrupted by Agnes, in the doorway with the silver card tray in her hand.
“Oh, Marm,” she said, her voice barely above a tremulous whisper. “’Tis Mrs. and Miss Chase presenting their cards …”
“The nerve!” Great-Aunt Minnie snapped and Sophia set her embroidery aside.
“I don’t care for what the rest of you do, but I am not at home for Miss Chase at this moment. Tell her,” and Sophie took a little enjoyment in saying so, since it was only what everyone had been telling her for weeks, “That I am indisposed. I shall be upstairs in my room … Agnes, if Mrs. Brewer decides to receive their cards, wait a little, until I have gone up the stairs, before you admit the Chase ladies.”
“Yes, Marm,” Agnes breathed. Sophia had no doubt that Agnes would be vociferously in sympathy with her, when next the two of them were folding laundry. As she reached the second landing, she heard the front door open and close, and Emma’s familiar voice exclaiming,
“Oh, what a shame! We had sworn to be bridesmaids to each other, for the first to marry…”
Sophia bit her tongue and hurried up the next flight of stairs to the refuge of her own room. How long would these humiliations be delivered upon her, as long as she lived in her brother’s household?
I would never say that I am as house-proud as Granny Dodie – whose home was always immaculate, scrubbed clean, everything polished to an inch of its life, all bits and bobs put away in a proper place, and whose garden was a marvel – groomed of every stray leaf, the gravel raked and the shrubs trimmed. If there is such a thing as reincarnation, likely Granny Dodie has been brought back as a USMC drill sergeant with particularly stringent housekeeping standards. Me, I never had the time for that degree of Better Homes & Gardens/Martha Stewart perfection. Full-time work and single parenting will do that to you. You couldn’t eat off my kitchen floor, but I could almost guarantee that nothing would bite you on the ankle as you walked through.
However, things did descend perilously close to slum-hood a couple of years ago, inside and out. A very bitter winter and temporarily sheltering a pair of particularly destructive half-grown dogs did for the garden. But slowly, slowly, I began to make it work again, and some of the plants which had gone dormant either recovered or re-seeded. Planting vegetables helped as well. It’s mid-winter here, so the garden is not currently at its best, and all the delicate plants are crammed into the back porch – which is hung with plastic on two sides, so as to make a temporary greenhouse.
As for the inside of the house; the territory of cats and dogs. One of the now-deceased dogs was
insensately fond of piddling on rugs and she was sneaky about it; eventually the rugs were cleaned, rolled up and banished to the garage. Two of the geriatric and now-deceased cats were also very fond of making deposits in unexpected and hard to find places, and making them faster than they could be discovered and cleaned up. Eventually, we despaired of ever banishing the smells of such accidents from Blondie’s barracks-inherited armchair and one of the household sofas – a cheap find anyway, and the last bulk trash day out they went.
Between profits from the Tiny Publishing Bidness, sales of my own books, and the sale of the California land – I could afford to do some serious and long over-due repair and replacement of household stuff. Totally renovating the HVAC system was just the start. Having the shed built out in back provided a storage space for garden and kitchen things, as well as the items needed for participating in the gypsy markets. Over last winter, the curtains in all windows but the sliding glass door were replaced as I could afford them, with wooden blinds, which gave the place a whole new look. Daringly, I replaced the every-day china with an extensive set found at a flea market, giving mealtimes another whole new look. A new dining area table (new to us – a vintage number from my daughter’s favorite thrift shop) helped reclaim that corner. The original table was a pedestal style, and one of the legs loose beyond repair, and the resulting sudden tilt pitched the cats regularly onto the floor, in their own version of the sinking Titanic. Replacing various rush chair seats last month with cowhide was another step towards reclaiming a livable and attractive space – and also one which is a little more pet-proof.
This month we advanced another big step: getting the love-seat/sleeper sofa, two chairs and a tuffet all reupholstered – in heavy leather-look vinyl, replacing the original fabric – and making them all look as if they are in a set. This is an aesthetic improvement, and offers a higher level of pet-proofing, in that accidents can be readily sponged away. The upholstery shop will have the first piece done by next weekend, and the rest completed two weeks later. Two rugs returned from exile in the garage; so far, so good; the surviving cats don’t seem inclined to make messes anywhere but in the small area around their litter-boxes. The cat-tree has a couple of sisal-wrapped columns which they seem to prefer sharpening their claws upon, so there is hope for the furniture to escape unscathed. So far the cowhide seats have done so. The final element in renewing the house involved accommodating oddments from Mom and Dad’s house; a few pieces in silver and crystal, a framed stained glass panel, and some kitchen things which no one else wanted … so, some things had to be put away, others Goodwilled, and some of them just plain thrown away in the interests of space. But the den and the main room look quite good now – better than they have in a while, if not quite as spic-and-span as Granny Dodie would have had them.
(I was inspired by reading a recent post about how Fred Harvey brought fine dining to the far wild west, as essentially, the food and hospitality concessionaire with the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway. What better method of bringing a venturesome heroine face to face with her destiny in the far West!)
Chapter 2 – In Doctor Cotton’s Care
Freed at last from the worried and fond concern of friends and relations, Sophia leaned her head back against the high chair and let her mind wander. She was rendered uneasy by uncertainty which had overtaken her life. As a Vining and a Brewer of Beacon Hill, she had always had her future set out for her, in short and decorous steps; the same path that her mother, her grandmother, Phoebe even – had paced in their turn. All but Great-aunt Minnie had gone on that path. Girlhood, some kind of education, then matrimony, motherhood, the rule of a home, good works, a constellation of children and grandchildren … but now all that was cast into doubt, uncertainty. There was no room in that path for deviations, or even for uncertainty, but without any fault of her own that she could see – she had strayed from that path, and had no idea of how to return to it.
At half-past the hour of two o’clock, she put on her every-day bonnet and mantle, and walked to the school on Bedford Street where Richard’s older son, the pride of his life attended school. No one in the house took any apparent note of her departure – not that she had expected any. This was one of her regular duties about the house – to walk Richie home from school, and attend to any small errands required by her brother and Phoebe along the way.
Richie attended the Boston Latin – nothing less than the very best would do for a Brewer than the oldest and finest Latin school in Boston, housed in a fine stone building in the old-fashioned classical style, with four tall windows on every one of four floors and some archaic adornment on the shallow gable-end facing Bedford Street. She waited by the railings what marked off the school grounds, until the flood of pupils – boys and girls alike – had emerged from every doorway and scattered like a burst milkweed pod sending threads of silk and seeds in every direction.
Richie stood out among the dispersing students for the fair hair which he had inherited from Phoebe, and the height inherited from Richard. He was very well-grown for a seven-year old. Fortunately, he appeared also to have inherited Richard’s features and temper; a good thing, as Sophia had often reflected. Phoebe’s like translated into small-boy form would have been bullied endlessly, even among his fellow students, who numbered among them the scions of the very best Boston families.
“Hey! Auntie Soph!” Richie now shouted, and Sophia winced.
“Hay is for horses,” she reproved her nephew, when he was close enough to her that she could speak without raising her voice. “You should raise your voice like that in the street. And my proper name is Sophia.”
“Yes, Auntie Soooophia,” he answered, with exaggerated meekness. Sophia laughed. She was rather fond of Richie, for all of his small-boy bumptiousness. There were times when she thought she had more of the mothering of him than Phoebe. Now he skipped along at her side, swinging his book-bundle without a care and chattering away nine to the dozen at her – telling of daily woes and penalties imposed by teachers, of small yet ferocious encounters and battles of wits with them and with other students; classroom triumphs and schoolyard tragedies. Sophia listened without listening, a skill she had long ago learned and practiced – the art of seeming to pay attention with part of her mind, but with much of the rest given over to her own thoughts. Finally even Richie noticed her distance from his conversation, and said impatiently,
“Auntie Sophia, aren’t you even listening to me? I just said that the State House dome looked as if it had all crashed in, and you said, ‘Yes, Richie; that’s altogether possible.’”
“I did?” Sophia looked around – they had walked halfway through the Public Gardens, and she had never even noticed they had gotten to hers and Richie’s favorite part of the walk home. And this was her favorite time of year in the Public Garden, too – with all the massed plantings of bulbs in bloom, scenting the air with delicate perfume, and all the young trees putting out pale green leaves – for the Garden was still so new that most of the trees were young and lately-planted. For Sophia, this was one of her reasons to love Great-Aunt Minnie’s residence in the old Vining mansion on Beacon Street – the front windows overlooked the Gardens and the Common.
“You did.” Richie affirmed, and Sophia sighed and confessed, “I am sorry, Richie. My mind was intent on other things.”
“What things?” Now he had to run, in order to keep up with her.
Caught up in her own distress, Sophia had begun walking faster and faster. “It seems that I am not to marry Mr. Armitage,” she answered at last. “He came and told me today that his – our promise to marry is broken. He will not marry me, as his father has forbidden it.”
“Why is that, Aunt Sophia? I thought he was a … a nice chap. And that you were in love, or something goopy like that.” Richie’s sunny countenance looked as if a cloud had suddenly floated in and darkened it.
“I suppose it is because we are too poor now for the high-and-mighty Armitages,” Sophia answered, feeling a wholly unexpected bitterness. Richie flung his arms around her waist in an exuberant hug.
“Well, I love you, Auntie Sophia! If you can’t get a beau to marry you by the time I’m grown-up, than I will marry you myself!”
“Thank you, Richie,” Sophia returned the embrace. “For that is a kindly thought and I love you, too – but you can’t marry your aunt, and I will be too old for you by then, anyway.”
“Well, then I will just have to find you a beau in the meantime,” Richie said, with an expression of great determination. “My quest for my lady fair will be to find her a proper knight and love…” He suggested the name of an older brother of one of his schoolmates, in all seriousness.
“You have been reading too much Walter Scott,” Sophia laughed, her good humor restored somewhat. “That gentleman is a confirmed bachelor. He has spots on his complexion – at the age of thirty, no less – and has never had a good word to say to, or of a woman. Burden me not with the name of another elder brother, or uncle, Richie. I know them all, by family connection or by repute. And none of them will suit. Of that I am certain.”
“I will think of someone,” Richie answered, his countenance expressing determination. “Someone brave and handsome, with deeds of derring-do on his ess—escrutchon…”
“Escutcheon,” Sophia laughed, fondly. “Do you even know what an escutcheon is, Richie? It’s a family banner, a shield – it means the good name or repute of the family which has one as a patent of nobility …”
“And rich,” her nephew added, as if he had not heard. “Rich enough not to care.” They walked on, in good humor, Sophie reflecting that of her family, only Richie and Great-aunt Minnie restored her soul with faith in herself; one a child and the other an octogenarian.
There was an unfamiliar carriage drawn up before the Brewer townhouse, with a clearly-bored coachman sitting on the box. Sophia usually recognized the carriages and horses of those of their regular callers and friends; perhaps this was one of Richard’s business associates.
“Is that one of Mama’s friends?” Richie asked, as they went up the steps, pausing in the grandly-pillared portico, while Sophia opened the door.
“No – she received callers earlier … and they have been gone for hours.”
As soon as Sophie stepped inside the hallway, Richard called from his study.
“Sophia, my dear – is that you and the lad? Come into the parlor. Dr. Cotton took the time to make a call on us, at my request. Fee has told me of what happened – I knew you would be distraught, so I sent for Dr. Cotton at once. He is in the parlor, with Phoebe, waiting for you.”
Richard emerged from his study, and Sophia’s heart warmed at the sight of him; a tall and handsome man in his early middle years. Richard Brewer was at least a decade past being in the full bloom of youth and beauty, but those years had only refined his features with an attractive burnishing of age and experience, transforming youth into sober maturity. To Sophia, he had been a father at least as much as a brother; the head of their family in all things. Mama had leaned on him and the child Sophia adored him – the central sun of the constellation of family – just as did Phoebe. Sophia had been ten years old when Richard and Phoebe married. She supposed that she had been jealous at first – Fee was so silly! – but nothing had really changed in the family, until Mama’s protracted and final illness. This occurred almost at the same time as the failure of the Marine National, which spelled an end to Brewer prosperity. Agnes occasionally talked of something called a geas … a curse upon the house. Sophia often wondered if Agnes were right in that. They had all been happy, life had been pleasant … and then Mama died, and happiness fled from the Brewer house.
“I am not distraught in the least,” Sophia insisted. “More disappointed in Mr. Armitage than anything.”
“That’s our brave little Sophie,” Richard averred fondly. “Making a brave show of concealing a broken heart … I know that Mama had intended from childhood that you two ought to marry.”
“I do not have a broken heart,” Sophia insisted again. Really, this was becoming an annoyance, how everyone seemed so certain of her feelings on the broken engagement. “I grieve at the loss of a friendship! If anything, I am angry at being cast aside after all this time, merely because Mr. Armitage thinks we are poor…”
Richard took her hands, pleading in earnest, “Dear little sister – we are not poor. We have lost some of our investments, which is quite another thing. We have this house, our affection for each other as a family, an affection which bids me consider your health and happiness with every care. Allow Dr. Cotton to examine you in his capacity as a physician, and relieve my mind of a burden of worry.”
“Of course I will, “Sophia yielded, still reluctant, but of course – Richard bore so many cares on his shoulders. It would not be fair for her to contribute to them by continuing to argue. Instead, she went to the parlor, where Fee sat, occasionally jabbing an inexpert needle into her Berlin wool-work and chattering to Dr. Cotton. The good doctor himself stood before the fire, with his hands behind his back. Sophia rather suspected that he was doing as she had with Richie earlier, listening to Fee without really listening, absorbed in his own thoughts while delivering an occasional noncommittal response. He was a lean and saturnine man, a contemporary and a friend of Richard’s. Sophia did not particularly care for him, although he seemed competent enough as a doctor. It was old Doctor Hubbell, whose practice Dr. Cotton had inherited, who had seen to all her childish ailments, and who had attended Mama in her final illness, who had her confidence and trust.
While Fee attended, still ignoring her embroidery, Dr. Cotton inquired into Sophia’s state of mind and general health. Sophia repeated the same answers she had made to everyone else this day, feeling somewhat as if she were a parrot. Dr. Cotton looked into her eyes, listened to her pulse with his little patent ivory and patent-rubber listening horn, and finally delivered himself of his judgement.
“You are anemic, my dear Miss Brewer. I shall prescribe a tonic, which you must take every morning without fail, in order to build up your blood and your strength. I will compound it myself, and send over the first bottle. I shall visit next week to assess your condition, and adjust the dosage accordingly.”
“We shall take every care, Dr. Cotton,” Fee promised, with enthusiasm. Sophia repressed a small sigh; Fee was hopelessly enamored of potions, tonics, powders, and pills – cures for every ailment which she had fancied afflicted her. Sophia had most often refused those doses which Fee urged regularly upon her; now Fee was backed by Dr. Cotton’s authority. Unless Sophia missed her guess, Fee would redouble her efforts.
When Dr. Cotton had finally taken his leave, Sophia climbed the two flights of stairs, feeling as if she were as old and tired as Great-Aunt Minnie.
“I am not heartbroken,” She asserted to her reflection in her dressing table mirror. “And I am not distraught.”
In all this long afternoon, her reflection was the only being which did not argue with her.
He was the entrepreneur who came up with the bright idea to bring fine cooking and peerless customer service to the rowdy far West, and do so on a grand scale … and as a sidebar to that feat, also supplied thousands of wives to settlers in an otherwise female-deficient part of the country. He was a Scots-English immigrant from Liverpool named Fred Harvey. He arrived in New York at the age of 17, early in the 1850s. He took up employment washing pots and dishes at a popular restaurant of the day, and within a short time had worked up the kitchen ranks to waiter and then line cook. He only remained there for a year and a half – but in those months he had learned the restaurant business very, very well. He gravitated west, but only as far as St. Louis, where he managed a retail store, married and survived a bout of yellow fever. The restaurant business called to him, though. On the eve of the Civil War, he and a business partner opened a café. Which was successful, right up until the minute that his business partner, whose sympathies were with the Confederacy, took all the profits from the café and went South.
Nothing deterred, Fred Harvey went to work for the Hannibal & St. Joseph railroad, which eventually was absorbed by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy. He rose as swiftly in the corporate structure of that railroad as it existed in those freewheeling days as he had in that New York restaurant. His work necessitated more or less constant travel; he was in a way of speaking, an early ‘road warrior’. As such, he couldn’t help but notice that customer service in station restaurants was almost non-existent and the food available usually explored those limits between completely inedible and totally vile. The Western road food experience had not appreciably improved in the fifteen years since Mark Twain had so memorably described it in Roughing It.
“The table was a greasy board on stilts, and the table- cloth and napkins had not come—and they were not looking for them, either. A battered tin platter, a knife and fork, and a tin pint cup, were at each man’s place, and the driver had a queens-ware saucer that had seen better days … The station-keeper upended a disk of last week’s bread, of the shape and size of an old-time cheese, and carved some slabs from it which were as good as Nicholson pavement, and tenderer. He sliced off a piece of bacon for each man, but only the experienced old hands made out to eat it, for it was condemned army bacon which the United States would not feed to its soldiers in the forts, and the stage company had bought it cheap for the sustenance of their passengers and employees … Then he poured for us a beverage which he called “Slum gullion,” and it is hard to think he was not inspired when he named it. It really pretended to be tea, but there was too much dish-rag, and sand, and old bacon-rind in it to deceive the intelligent traveler.”
Fred Harvey suffered along with every other traveler – but as it turned out, he was the right man, with the right background, in the right place, and with the right friends to be able to do something about it. In the Centennial year of 1876, he struck a handshake deal with the superintendent of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe railroad to open and manage restaurants and lunch counters at AT&SF stations. The AT&SF would not charge Fred Harvey rent, or haulage for necessary supplies. Originally chartered to connect Santa Fe, New Mexico Territory, to the settlements in Kansas, the AT&SF cleaned up in hauling Texas cattle to the stock yards of Chicago. They would eventually connect reach the Texas gulf coast, reach into Mexico to the port of Guaymas on the Gulf of Carpentaria, connect up Albuquerque and El Paso, and service Los Angeles over the route which had been favored by the ante-bellum South when the prospect of a transcontinental railroad was first suggested.
And Fred Harvey’s restaurant establishments were everywhere that the AT&SF ran. There would eventually be nearly 50 Harvey House restaurants, fifteen resort hotels and thirty dining cars, attending to the needs of the traveling public. Harvey establishments were spotlessly clean, the food expertly prepared and served by staff trained to the highest standard … or else. Fred Harvey was a hands-on manager; he was noted for whipping out the tablecloth of a badly-set table, sending the plates and silverware crashing to the floor and leaving the chastened wait-staff to re-set the table correctly. But he was also passionately interested in hiring and training the very best personnel available, promoting the able and the loyal, and in providing for their welfare.
Another Fred Harvey innovation – and likely the best-remembered in the 20th century – was the wait-staff force itself; all-female, generously-remunerated, and strictly chaperoned. The Harvey organization was a respectable institution, and wanted no breath of local scandal attaching to female employees, many of whom worked in towns geographically-distant from their families. It was a sad reality that quite often in Western boom towns, those single women who came to work in eating establishments and dance halls were suspected (often with good cause) of being prostitutes or just promiscuous with their favors. Fred Harvey wanted none of that. He was going to run respectable, middle-class places. It was one of his site supervisors who first suggested hiring young women. It seemed that many of the waiters at his location were black – and too many customers who were white and Southern males were picking fights with the staff, absconding without paying for their meals and otherwise wreaking havoc. This would not do; it was bad for staff morale, hell on the profit side of the ledger and hard on the furniture.
So Fred Harvey opened an office in Chicago to interview potential employees, and advertised widely in the eastern and mid-western newspapers: young unmarried women between the ages of 18 and thirty, who would sign a contract to work for a set period of time (usually a year). They would have to be literate, well-spoken and accustomed to hard work – and willing to go west, to wherever they were needed. Some estimates have it that over the next thirty years, 5,000 women worked as Harvey Girls, everywhere from Kansas to California. Their working uniforms were plain black dresses with narrow white collars, black shoes and stockings, with white aprons, and their hair tied with a white ribbon. They were not allowed to wear makeup – which likely only became a real trial in the 1920s. Fred Harvey paid wages of $17 monthly; generous indeed at a time when laborers were lucky to earn $11 a month. The Harvey Girls lived in company-provided dormitories, their uniforms were often provided to them, and they were entitled to perks like free transportation on the AT&SF, and after a period with the company could request a specific location. Seniority in the Harvey organization could be accrued – unless a Harvey Girl chose to marry, as many did – she could work her way up to senior waitress or even manager.
(to be continued.)
Yes, it’s the start of another adventure … and yes, I am still working away on The Golden Road … but for some reason, I am temporarily stranded on a metaphorical sand-bar in shallow water. So what do I do, when I am stuck on one plot … why, write on another, until the feeling passes. Honestly, I was writing Quivera Trail and Daughter of Texas in alternate chapters, in the early stages.
The spark for this new adventure came about, upon reading a post by another western-romance author, who inadvertently suggested a means for how a properly-brought young woman of respectable family could go west … without having to be a schoolteacher. Since I was locked into the ‘properly-brought up young woman of respectable family … the more I thought about it, the more fun it seemed. And so here we go again…
Behold – a new adventure and a new heroine. The tentative title for his is Sunset and Steel Rails, but that may change. Or not. And as a sort of literary Easter egg for those who have read Daughter of Texas – the heroine will be Race Vining’s granddaughter by his wife in Boston
Chapter 1 – The Ending of a Life, Unobserved
Under the dour painted gaze of her great-grandfather, Lycurgus Saltinstall Vining, Sophia Brewer’s life ended on on a mild and sunny spring afternoon, on a day when the tulips were already in bloom in the Public Gardens, down the hill from Richard Brewer’s fine new Beacon Street mansion. The tall windows of the study stood open to the fresh spring breeze, barely stirring the curtains, and the bouquets of yellow tulips and blue hyacinths, which filled the tall blue and white Chinese export vases placed just so on the parlor mantel, and on the table.
“What did you say?” Sophia demanded, utterly startled out of all manners and countenance, but her upbringing and schooling was such that she quickly added, “I am sorry, Lucius – Mr. Armitage – did I hear you correctly? That you wish to break our engagement … at this moment?” Sophia gazed upon Lucius Armitage with an expression which briefly mingled disbelief with horror. How could this be happening? She was a Brewer, and even if her family had lately come on hard times – they were of an old and highly-respected lineage in Massachusetts. She and her affianced had pledged to each other long before the passing of Sophia’s mother. When required period of mourning for the widowed Sophia Vining Brewer’s mortal passing was ended, it had been understood and acceptied that her daughter would marry Robert Armitage with all proper ceremony. With a year and more passed, the younger Sophia had gradually put off mourning black and donned garments of grey and lavender, as much as the sparse allowance from her brother had allowed. The anniversary had passed – and yet no wedding date had been suggested. And now this … With an effort, Sophia disguised her shock and disappointment; a marriage to Lucius Armitage was her only escape from her older brother’s household and rule. She was not quite 21 and no reigning beauty, being slender and small in stature, with hazel-grey eyes set in a fine-boned face, and light-brown hair so tightly-curling that her childhood nurse had claimed that combing it was like carding wool – but she possessed every particle of that fierce intelligence so notable in senior ladies of her family, sharpened and refined by as an education at least the equal of any young Bostonian of means, female and male alike.
Lucius Armitage, lanky and awkward, with a brief mustache and an ambition towards fashionable whiskers which nature had not favored him to fulfill with any grace, regarded Sophia with alarm. “My father has forbidden our marriage,” he answered, in tones of misery. “Absolutely. He says that … I cannot be allowed to marry for love, not unless there is a generous inheritance attached to the settlement.”
“I have a small bequest from Mother,” Sophia replied, although behind the tight-laced corset and grey merino bodice, her heart was already breaking. She had expected so much better from Robert. “In her will … I had thought that sufficient for a marriage portion, small as it is. We are both of age … we can still wed…”
“My father forbids it,” Lucius answered, his countenance a landscape of pure misery. “He will cast me off, if I go through with an elopement without his blessing. I am sorry. Your inheritance is insufficient for me – for us – to live on in any kind of respectability. I won’t ask for return of the ring with which I pledged to you, Soph. You may keep it – a gift.”
He sketched an awkward bow and blundered towards the half-opened study door. Not fifteen minutes ago, he had presented his calling-card to the Brewer’s maid-of-all-work. Tuesday was at-home day for the Brewer ladies – Sophia and her sister-in-law Phoebe received calls in the parlor. But on this morning, Lucius had appeared, made limping conversation for some with Phoebe and Great-Aunt Minnie Vining, Minnie’s companion Miss Phelps, with Sophia’s old school friend Emma Chase and Mrs. Chase her step-mother, before asking if he might have a word in private with Sophia.
How the parlor of women had all beamed on Lucius! Sophia’s mouth tasted of ashes and gall, recollecting that Emma had whispered behind her hand, “Now he will set a date, dear Sophia – remember how we promised to be bridesmaids for each other!” and that Emma had quickly squeezed her hand. Out in the hallway, Sophia heard the heavy front door open and the treble voice of Agnes Teague – the household maid of all work – bidding him a good morning and closing the heavy door after him. Then there was naught but his quick-fading footsteps outside in Beacon Street, and the brief pause of feminine conversation in the parlor.
Sophia’s vision briefly hazed, her brother’s study – the walls of books, the tall windows, the fireplace with the Chinese vases and the portrait of Great-Grandfather Vining all blurred as if obscured by a veil of fog. She reached out with a shaking hand, found the back of one of the tall chairs set before the fireplace, and sat in it until the fog cleared – hands folded demurely in her lap and back as straight a posture as had ever been encouraged by the deportment mistress at Miss Phillips’ Academy for Young Ladies. She sat and breathed deeply until her vision cleared. The sweet scent of hyacinths hung in the room, barely overlaying the odor of her brother Richard’s pipe tobacco.
“Miss Sophia?” That was Agnes Teague’s voice. Sophia lifted her head and forced a smile upon her face, more to reassure Agnes. Such a child, Agnes – and an impoverished childhood in a famine-stricken land made her appear even more childlike, for all that she was fifteen or so. The hand-me-down black maid’s dress that Agnes wore when tending the parlor in the afternoon was too large for her, and made her appear even more childish, even swathed in a starched white apron which hitched in the too-wide waist. Sophia was very fond of Agnes, all things considered – her only intimate in the household, and certainly her only ally. “Are ye all right, noo? The gentleman left in such a rush…”
“I am,” Sophia breathed deeply, and once again. The last of the grey mist cleared. “Mr. Armitage has seen fit to tell me that his father has forbidden our marriage on account of my impoverished situation. Our engagement has ended … just now.”
“Ohhh…” Agnes Teague’s eyes rounded in her peaked countenance, increasing her resemblance to a small pale owl. “Miss … what shall ye do, now?”
“I don’t know, Agnes.” Sophia made herself to stand. “Make my excuses to the other ladies – but I think I shall go up to my room just now. This has been a … a horrible disappointment to me. I think that I need to lie down for a while.” To her secret relief, she no longer felt wobbly in her lower limbs, although she did feel slightly sick in the pit of her stomach. She had been counting on Lucius for so long, seeing in him an end to a little-rewarded place in her brother’s household.
“Yes, miss.” Agnes bobbed a brief and proper curtsey – a gesture entirely ruined by her owl-eyes overflowing with tears. “Oh, miss – I am that sorry. ‘Tis like that awful Captain George throwing over Miss Amelia Sedley when her own Da went bust! Oh, miss!” the tears began spilling down Agnes’ cheeks in earnest. “Tell me … they won’t have to sell all of the household goods to settle with Mr. Brewer’s creditors, will they? And you and Mrs. Phoebe come to live in a boarding house on Beacon Hill…”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Agnes,” Sophia answered, at once touched and braced by Agnes’s sympathy – and also diverted at how swiftly Agnes identified her own lamentable situation with the novel which Sophia was reading aloud to her, in an attempt to remedy the girl’s sad lack of any kind of education save in Papist pieties. “You live in a boarding house … and Miss Minnie and Miss Phelps live on Beacon Street.”
“Aye so – but we are poor, Da and Seamus and Declan and my sister Siobhan. We have two small rooms, wretched as they are … and Miss Minnie may live two streets away so we are neighbors in no small way – but she has the entire house, which was your Great-grand-da’s, in the day … By your counting, Miss Minnie might no’ have any great estate, but compared to us … we are poor indade. Ye may have no money, Miss Sophia, but you will never be poor.”
“You may be correct in that, Agnes,” Sophia replied, touched and yet amused at the comparison. “For I do have that bequest in my dear Mother’s will, small as it may be … and our family includes many kin and friends of some influence.” She sighed a little. Perhaps she had not been quite so much in love with Lucius Armitage as custom seemed to expect. It was … extraordinary how calmly she seemed accept withdrawal of his formal affections once the original shock had passed. From everything Sophia observed as a girl and young woman, if she were deep in love with Robert, she should have been almost incapacitated with grief, weeping helplessly and prone on the hearthrug by now. Possibly it was the prospect of freedom in a small household of her own, upon which she had set her hopes; not the charms and marital attraction of Robert himself. Certainly she was tired of dancing attendance on Phoebe, and on hers and Richards’s grotesquely-indulged small sons. The fact that she had overheard Richard and Phoebe in private conversation only the other evening only increased her general dissatisfaction with her situation. Richard expiated at length over the fact that he had been spared the cost of a governess; by taking his sister into their household had only increased their household budget by the cost of her keep and a tiny allowance. He had sounded most revoltingly smug about this. Sophia had stolen up the staircase to her own little room, wondering if there was a way for her to set aside the expectations of everyone in their circle of acquaintances. She would rather live in Great-aunt Minnie’s aging mansion, in the poor side of Beacon Hill, than here in the house which her father had purchased, back when the Brewers were well-to-do. It appeared that if she was going to be one of those grim old bluestocking spinsters, she might as well get it over and be done with it. Father had died in the War, an officer in a Massachusetts regiment, Sophia could barely remember him at all. Her brother, some fifteen years her senior had been the man of the house for as long as she could recall.
“I’ll make you some ginger-tea,” Agnes promised in a whisper as Sophia moved towards the hall door. “And I know that Mrs. Garrett kept back some of those seed-cakes she made for the ladies’ tea. I’ll bring some to your room, if ye have an appetite at all.”
“Thank you, Agnes,” Sophia replied with honest gratitude. Mrs. Garrett and Agnes were their only servants these days, the two women and sometimes Agnes’s crippled oldest brother Declan, on those few days when some task which demanded manly strength was called for. Declan might have had a wooden foot, to replace the one of flesh and bone lost to gangrene, but he was fit enough otherwise. Declan worked as a night-watchman at a shipping warehouse near the river, and was not adverse to occasional work during the day
Sophia climbed the stairs to her own room, resolutely ignoring the sounds of excited chatter in the parlor – which hushed and then broke out again, redoubled. Obviously Agnes has delivered her message. She closed the door behind her, regarding her bedroom with a feeling of bleak despair totally at odds with the pretty room – papered with flower-sprigged wallpaper, and furnished with old-fashioned furniture in pale-wood finishes. A fresh spring breeze ruffled the muslin curtains on either side of the tall window which faced out into the garden behind the Brewer mansion. Dear and familiar a refuge, it might well be a prison, she thought, savagely. What was she going to do now that Robert had broken their engagement? They had known each other from earliest childhood, frequent playmates, since their mothers were the dearest of friends.
She looked into the mirror over the washstand, seeing again her own familiar countenance; no, she was not unpleasing to the eye, or disinclined to male flirtation or to society in general; just that in the present day, what with the Brewer family’s straitened circumstances, her opportunities to meet an eligible and acceptable suitor might well be fatally limited.
If ever there were a 19th Century journalist more deeply wedded to the old mission statement of comforting (and avenging) the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable with energy and fierce enthusiasm, that person would have to be one William Cowper Brann. In the last decade of the 19th Century, he possessed a small but widely-read newspaper called the Iconoclast, a reservoir of spleen the size of Lake Michigan, and a vocabulary of erudite vituperation which would be the envy of many a political blogger today. Born in 1855, in Coles County, Illinois, he was the son of a Presbyterian minister. Upon losing his mother when barely out of diapers, he was placed with a foster family. At the age of thirteen, he ran away from the foster home and made his own way in the world, armored with a bare three years of formal education. He worked as a hotel bellboy, an apprentice house painter, and as a printer’s devil, from which he graduated into cub reporting. He and his family – for he did manage to marry – gravitated into Texas, settling first in Houston, followed by stints in Galveston and in Austin, working for local newspapers as reporter, editor and editorialist, and attempting to launch his own publication – the first iteration of the Iconoclast – terming it “a journal of personal protest.” For William Cowper Brann had opinions – sulfurous, vituperative and always entertaining, even for a day when public discourse not excluding journalism was conducted metaphorically with brass knuckles – and he despised cant, hypocrisy and what he termed ‘humbuggery’ with a passion burning white-hot and fierce.
The first launch of the Iconoclast failed, but nothing discouraged, Brann sold the name and the press to another writer – William Sidney Porter, who much later became well-known under the nom-de-plume of O. Henry. Brann knocked around between big-city Texas for another couple of years, which makes one wonder if a) his wife ever entirely unpacked the Brann household goods, and b) what she said in private to her peripatetic spouse at hearing of yet another move. At the start of 1895, Brann – now working as chief editorialist for the Waco Daily News – re-launched The Iconoclast as a monthly periodical. Eventually, he had a subscription list for it of over 100,000, a fair portion of it national and even international. Which is quite understandable, given his talent with a well-turned phrase and a savagely telling choice in description; in this century he would have been a blogger, and a very well-read one at that. A selection of his pieces (linked here) are readable and highly entertaining, very much on par with luminaries like Mark Twain, in my opinion. (He had written a couple of plays, and at the abrupt end of his life was working on a novel.)
Brann had his list of favored targets – and in what his near-contemporary Mark Twain termed ‘The Gilded Age’ (and Twain did not mean that as a compliment, but rather as something cheap and nasty, all tarted up to look rich) he was rather spoiled for choice in the targets of his broadsides. His remarks on one of the signature social events of the decade – the notorious Bradley-Martin masquerade ball are one of the most savagely-slashing preserved.
Mrs. Bradley-Martin’s sartorial kings and pseudo-queens, her dukes and DuBarrys, princes and Pompadours, have strutted their brief hour upon the mimic stage, disappearing at daybreak like foul night-birds or an unclean dream—have come and gone like the rank eructation of some crapulous Sodom, a malodor from the cloacae of ancient capitals, a breath blown from the festering lips of half-forgotten harlots, a stench from the sepulcher of centuries devoid of shame. Uncle Sam may now proceed to fumigate himself after his enforced association with royal bummers and brazen bawds; may comb the Bradley-Martin itch bacteria out of his beard, and consider, for the ten-thousandth time, the probable result of his strange commingling of royalty- worshiping millionaire and sansculottic mendicant—how best to put a ring in the nose of the golden calf ere it become a Phalaris bull and relegate him to its belly.
In a word, he detested Europeans, particularly British, the new rich of America, vulgar excess, excess of every sort, the deviousness of cows, cant and hypocrisy of every stripe, and Baptists – of which last he opined, “I have nothing against the Baptists. I just believe they were not held under long enough.” (It has to be admitted here that he detested blacks and didn’t think much of women, either.)
Since he was living and working in Waco – the home of Baylor University, which Brann described as “that great storm-center of misinformation” – and thus a kind of Vatican of Southern Baptists, these openly expressed and published remarks regarding Baptists did excite considerable local comment and resentment. Brann paid a price, personally – in being occasional apprehended and assaulted by partisans. His popularity, locally and elsewhere, soared, however. Local anger became especially marked when he published accusations that college administrators and their family members had imported orphaned female child converts from missions in South America … and not only exploited them as domestic help, but sexually as well. I am given to wonder if this didn’t hit Brann in several personal ways, having been given up by his own father, the Presbyterian minister, into the care of people who cared so little for him that he ran from their tender care the minute he was able to do so. But Brann was just getting warmed up. Next, he alleged that male faculty members were pursuing female students sexually. Any father contemplating sending his daughter to Baylor as a student was putting her at hazard of being raped; the university was nothing but – in his words, “A factory for the manufacture of ministers and magdalenes,” – magdalenes at that time being the socially acceptable term for ‘whores’.
A Baylor supporter – the father of a female student there, one Tom Davis who dealt in real estate in Waco and the surrounding country – took personal insult from Brann’s choice of words, simmered over it … and rather than writing a fiery letter to the fiery editor, took his own gun, emerged from his office on downtown Fourth Street, and ambushed Brann as he walked past with a friend in the late afternoon of April 1, 1898. Davis shot Brann in the back, mortally wounding him. The sound of bullets sent newspaper vendors, passing innocent citizens, street musicians and trolley-car motormen, policemen and simple citizens going about their business on a busy Friday evening darting for cover. First escorted to the local police station and then carried home by his friends, Brann died the next morning. He was buried in Waco’s Oakwood Cemetery; the monument marking his grave is a square dark stone pedestal with his profile in white stone and the word “Truth” engraved on it, topped with a Brobdingnag-sized stone lantern … which since appears to have been stolen, if the comments on Find a Grave are anything to go by. The publication of the Iconoclast itself was in the hands of Brann’s long-suffering wife, who subsequently sold it … again. The new owners removed the publication to Chicago; likely it sank shortly thereafter, since it was Brann himself whose corrosive genius in print carried it all on his back.
And what of Tom Davis, who chose to ambush and shoot his bete noir in the back? He didn’t last any longer than William Cowper Brann … who in the best tradition of the Wild West – upon being shot in the back and holed through his left lung, drew his own personal Colt revolver and emptied all six shots into Davis … who fell into the doorway of a tobacconist’s establishment. Back in the day, the city fathers insisted that Waco was the Athens of the West … but the locals all called it Six Shooter Junction, for the disagreement between the newspaper editor and the real estate man was only one of many.