(Released officially 10 November, 2015.)
On a mild spring morning in 1884, just short of her 21st birthday, the ordered and respectable life of Sophia Brewer fell apart, without any warning. The orphaned daughter of a well-established old Boston family fallen on difficult times, she thought herself cherished by her older brother, and loved for herself by the fiancée who abruptly broke their engagement. But worse was yet to come. Within the space of weeks, Sophia – abandoned by fiancée, friends and family, threatened by unwilling confinement to the insane asylum – had only one chance at escape and survival. That was to travel the steel rails towards the sunset; a journey into the newly-tamed Wild West, working for the Fred Harvey Company as a waitress in a railroad restaurant concession on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe. Finding freedom and independence as a Harvey Girl comes at a cost for Sophia; she must break with her background of privilege. But even out in the West, there are still decades-old scandalous family secrets … secrets and events which might still threaten Sophia Brewer and the man who means to court her, and give her the life that she had once expected.
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Chapter 8 – Away Into the West
Now the train moved more slowly, climbing up into mountains; the Adirondacks which she knew from her schooldays edged the mighty Hudson River along the west. The sun dropped more slowly still, veiled by smoke from the tall and bulging smokestack, and taller trees pressing in first from one side and then the other.
If Heaven were not as comfortable as a soft berth made up with crisp white sheets, Sophia thought as she slid between those sheets, then she would prefer spending eternity in a Pullman berth, rather than the glorious hereafter. She ached with weariness in every limb which did not ache with barely healed bruises. To lie down in comfort was such bliss she wept with gratitude all over again. The noise of the express train clattering over the rails, the sound of the engine was muffled to a considerable degree, and the motion rocked her gently, as in a cradle. Other passengers in the Pullman car had retired, a few still awake, moving in the corridor between heavy curtains drawn for the night, but the small noise of their footsteps, conversation or snoring did not perturb Sophia in the least, or disturb her own slumber, into which she fell into at the moment she rested her head on the pillow. If she wakened during the night, startled by the motion of the train stopping, or starting again, she returned to sleep at once.
“I shall always be grateful for the invention of the steam engine,” she told herself, oddly cheerful during one of those brief wakeful moments. “And to the men who built the railways … make them run … all of them. The trains make an escape from Richard possible, and to get as far away from him as I can go.”
Awakening the following morning was nearly as blissful. The avuncular porter, George, tactfully guided her over those few steps towards the tiny ladies’ sitting room compartment, where she was able to wash thoroughly as was possible and change into fresh clothes, as he had produced her carpetbag from the baggage car. Rested and refreshed, she was restored to her own real self; the proper and confident Miss Brewer of Beacon Street once again. When she emerged from the sitting room, it was to find the curtains drawn back, the upper berths tidily folded away, the lower transformed back into the comfortable settees which they were for the day of travel. Two ladies and a small boy dressed in a rumpled Knickerbocker suit shared the seats: cheerily introducing themselves as a Mrs. Murray, her son Bertie and her mother, Mrs. Kempton. Obviously they saw her as an agreeable companion for the remainder of the journey. Mrs. Murray was journeying out to Kansas, to join her husband at an Army post there.
“I am Sophie Teague; on my way to Kansas City,” She vouchsafed nothing more than that, always recalling Declan’s warning to not make herself memorable. To her relief, Mrs. Murray and her mother were most incurious regarding her reasons for traveling, and more inclined to tell her of themselves, and of Colonel Albert Murray’s letters regarding what they might find at Fort Leavenworth.
“We will – if the train runs to schedule – be in Chicago tomorrow morning,” the elder lady assured her. “Then another long day and night to Kansas. Tell me, dear, will you be traveling on from there?”
“I might,” Sophia answered. “It depends.”
Conductor Burton beamed on her with particular satisfaction, when he passed through on his rounds in mid-morning, and inquired of there were anything he could do for them. “Better traveling with the other ladies than by your lonesome,” he murmured to her, when she thanked him again. “You never know what might happen, and I’d never forgive myself if it happened on my train, or to you, Miss Teague.” It occurred to her that anyone observing her with Mrs. Murray and Mrs. Kempton would assume they were of one party. Late that day Mrs. Kempton remarked on Sophia’s fading bruises; Sophia explained it as the results of falling on the stairs.
Another day – this day not weighted with fear and misery – and another night passed, as the train steamed inexorably west, every minute and mile carrying her farther and farther from Boston. She dined with Mrs. Murray and Mrs. Kempton in the railway dining car, as they insisted that she share their table. She felt obliged to repay them by amusing Alfred, six and bored with the limited amusements afforded for long stretches of the journey. He reminded her of Richie; frank, fearless and affectionate. Amusing him was a pleasure rather than a duty.
“The countryside is so lovely!” exclaimed Mrs. Murray, as a long vista of lake and meadow opened before them. “A perfect picture! Mama, doesn’t it remind you of those panoramic paintings displayed at the Philadelphia Exposition?”
“Store it up in your memory, dear,” Mrs. Kempton advised. “I fear that Kansas will be nothing like this.”
“What is Kansas like?” Sophia’s ears pricked up. If she were hired by Mr. Harvey she would be going farther west than Kansas. Working in some capacity for a railway concessionaire was looking more and more appealing by the moment.
“Flat and full of dust and flies, to hear dear Albert tell it,” Mrs. Kempton replied. “Or that is what he complains of in his letters.”
Still, flat and full of dust and flies though it might be, Kansas was a long way from Boston and a vengeful Richard, who surely would never search for her on the wild frontier, even if he suspected that she were still alive. The farther from Boston, the safer she would be.
“My dear Miss Teague, have you ever seen such a city?” Mrs. Murray exclaimed in awe, the following morning, as they passed through Chicago, where their train was supposed to change engine and crew, and add on more passenger cars. The conductor assured them, on his most recent perambulation through the car they would arrive shortly, and there would be a wait of half an hour before proceeding. “And it was burned to the ground not … how many years ago, Mama? And look – how splendid the buildings! Such a marvelous hive of industry and commerce! If Albert’s duties kept him here, I would be content, save for the smells of the stockyard!” They coughed as a sudden throat-closing miasma made itself known on the spring breeze. Mrs. Kempton raised a handkerchief to her nose, and continued, somewhat muffled. “Oh, dear; they say millions of western cattle are brought here daily to the slaughterhouses of Chicago.”
“Albert wrote of seeing such droves of cattle, being brought north from Texas, so many that the hills are darkened. And the drovers who brought them! They are as wild as their cattle; just boys, most of them, without soldierly discipline.”
“They seem such romantic figures,” Sophia murmured. Young Seamus Teague’s exploration of the Wild West contained many such personages within the pages of his dime novels.
“Those are books!” Mrs. Murray tittered. “And many such accounts of soldiers, too! Those tales are just as exaggerated. The realities of life out West are often romanticized beyond all recognition.”
“I expect that I will see for myself, soon,” Sophia ventured.
Another night, another day – the country unfolding before them, like the marvelous panorama paintings that Mrs. Murray described. Only this was real, and not than a painted simulacrum; meadows blowing with spring wildflowers, the trees adorned with fresh green. The land appeared flatter than what she had been familiar with for so long as if a giant had pulled the wrinkles out of a counterpane so it lay smooth. On the third day since leaving Boston, the train rumbled across a very long iron bridge. The river lay, smooth as silk and as wide as an ocean.
“That is the Missouri River down there,” Mrs. Kempton observed. “We can now say we are in the west. We’ll be arriving soon now. Dear Miss Teague; are you being met by friends? You have been such a boon companion; you should not be so alone and adrift, so far away from home.”
“I have an appointment,” Sophia assured her. “It was for such that I came to Kansas City; an offer of employment.”
“Oh?” It seemed to Sophia that Mrs. Murray’s attitude towards her had chilled a degree or two. She hastened to reply, feeling a sense of regret. “I was housekeeper and governess to a distant relation; a situation which did not please me. My relatives took liberties, presuming on family loyalty when asking of me what they would not have dared require of a hired employee. I preferred to seek a paid position in a similar capacity. At least, such an exchange is more honest in the exchange of work for pay, then no pay and a tenuous position as an object of charity.”
“Quite right, my dear,” Mrs. Kempton assured her, unexpectedly. “Being the object of charity is never comfortable for a young woman of spirit. It Everyone thought it most scandalous, when I was a girl, but times have changed. I am assured it is often quite respectable to expect a wage. Women have talents – interests and abilities outside of marriage – that condition which most assume is all we have the capability for. I believe that a woman ought to have more … choices in the world and thereby turn to our most natural role as wife and mother with a most willing heart. Have you read the writings of Mrs. Elizabeth Stanton? She is a most particularly outspoken champion of the natural rights of women.”
“Mama!” Mrs. Murray exclaimed, with a touch of exasperated embarrassment.
“I know of Mrs. Stanton,” Sophia answered, as if she had come upon a spring of fresh water in a barren land. “She was a particular friend of my great-aunt Minnie Vining – who lectured on the cause of abolition.”
“Minnie Vining! Of course, I know her through correspondence; which reminds me; I should write to her soon. It has never ceased to amaze me,” Mrs. Kempton swept over her daughter’s rebuke with a magnificent display of indifference, which reminded Sophia most piercingly of Great-aunt Minnie, “How the full rights of citizens could be invested upon Negro males of suitable years, and yet be withheld from those females of every color and station, who campaigned tirelessly for those same rights. It is as if the labor of females of every station is regarded as worthy when it is expended in the cause of every other than our own. To the advantage of men, naturally.”
“Mama!” Mrs. Murray protested once again, but there was no time for further discussion, for the train was slowing as it approached the station; here the reverse of departing from Boston, in a tangle of shining steel rails which reminded Sophia of strands of hair, arranged by the strokes of a comb. The came the metallic shriek of the engine wheels sliding against the rails as the brakes took hold, steam escaping everywhere.
There was a tall man in Army blue waiting on the platform; small Bertie shouted, “Papa!” as he ran ahead of his mother and grandmother. Just as the elder lady was about to follow, Sophia detained her with a touch on her arm. “If you should happen to write to Miss Vining, pray make mention of me; when next I write to her, I shall tell her you were the most amiable travel companions,”
“Of course, my dear Miss Teague,” Mrs. Kempton promised, but her eyes were following her daughter and grandson. In a moment, Sophia stood by herself, with her carpetbag in her hand, watching the joyous reunion with wistful eyes. She turned, hearing a respectful cough at her side, to see George, the porter. “I never get tired of watching folk,” he confessed. “Happy, or sad, eager to travel on, grateful to be home: Is there anyone meeting you today, Miss Teague?”
“No,” Sophia replied. “But I have an appointment, at the office of Mr. Fred Harvey. Can you direct me to it?”
“Mr. Harvey? I don’t know that Mr. Fred Harvey is in town at this moment; he’s been feeling poorly of late. Mr. Benjamin most certainly is. The office is in the Annex. I’ll have one of the newsboys show you.” George shook his head, sadly. “This Union Depot is the largest train station outside of New York, they say, and one of the most confusing. They call it the Insane Asylum … here, did I say something wrong?” he added, for Sophia flinched. “They call it that, for the big pile it is; towers on towers and domes on domes, and ornament stuck on every which way. But it’s in the West Bottoms – right handy for freight, but not such a genteel neighborhood, especially not after dark.”
“It is enormous,” Sophie recovered sufficiently to admire the station itself. “And very modern.” What was even more entrancing to her was the sheer purposeful energy of the place, a kind of lightening which never stopped; constant motion, the near to incessant noise of trains, of barrows of luggage shouldered past by large sweating men in rough clothing, while the newsboys shouted their wares. Steam whistles, the rumble of wheels, half-heard conversations, the practiced shouting of conductors calling “All abooooord!” merged into a cacophonous symphony.
“It’s the busiest station on this stretch of the river.” George explained with considerable pride. “They say that if you sat in the main hall watching long enough, you’d see everyone of renown in this whole United States. Here now, Miss Teague; if you go out this door, and along to the telegraph office, you’ll see the sign for the Harvey offices at the bottom of the stairs. Are you interviewing to work in one of Mr. Harvey’s places?”
“I am,” Sophia nodded. To her vague surprise, George looked as though he approved. “I hope …”
“Oh, you’ll be taken on, Miss Teague,” he assured her. “I seen a lot of those Harvey girls at work, and even more who come to interview with Mr. Benjamin and Mr. Harvey. You be just the kind they hire; proper ladies, but willing to work. You’ll do fine. It’s a good job; bed and board, passes to travel for free on the railway, and fine folk to work for, if a mite persnickety. But so’s working for Mr. Pullman. You work for them. That’s something to take pride in; you know you are somebody!”
“Thank you, George,” Sophia shifted her carpetbag to her other hand. “For your encouragement and looking out for me on this journey; now I see where the telegraph office is.”
“You take care now, Miss Teague,” A broad and merry grin split his face. “See you out on the railway sometime, you hear?”
Sophia climbed the flight of stairs to the Harvey office, wondering in her heart if this wasn’t something like joining the Army. She had brushed and sponged her best walking dress in the ladies’ parlor this morning and George had taken away her shoes for a good polish during the night. There was not much that she could do with Siobhan Teague’s hat, though, but she had brushed out and re-dressed her hair. The Teague shawl was rolled up and strapped to the side of the carpet-bag as though it were a travel-rug. A deep breath, a pause before she knocked on the door; timidly at first, and then because there was no answer from within, a trifle less timidly. The door opened as she were about to knock again; a small foyer, with several half-open doors leading to other rooms. A young man stood inside, his hand on the door, and looking at her, quite startled.
“Can I help you, Miss?” he said, just as Sophia said,
“Is this the office of Mr. Harvey? I am Sophie Teague. I have a letter from him concerning possible employment.”
“It is,” the young man replied taking the letter that Sophia took from her reticule, as another voice asked, from farther inside, “Who is it, Ford?”
“A Miss Teague,” Ford answered over his shoulder, as an older man appeared, saying, “Show her into Benjamin’s office, lad. We’ll be with her in a moment. ,”
Sophia obediently followed young Ford into the nearest office. Against her expectations, it was a faultlessly neat place, ledgers arrayed, and folders of correspondence stacked as if lined up with a carpenter’s rule. There was a pedestal table in the middle of the room, flanked with four side chairs. The surface of the table gleamed with polish and there was a small crocus-pot filled with fresh flowers. The only disarray was a faint smell of cigar tobacco, the only noticeable noise the distant sound of trains, rumbling across the iron bridge over the Missouri River.
“Miss Teague,” The door opened, admitting two men. The older of the two was tall, with a pleasant and narrow face made narrower by a receding hair-line and a beard elegantly trimmed to a point. “So pleased to make your acquaintance; I am Fred Harvey; this is my colleague, Mr. David Benjamin. So you have come all the way from Boston in answer to our advertisement; most extraordinary! Most usually, the girls who come to interview have not made so long a journey. They are most often farmer’s daughters, from the locality. Do sit down, Miss Teague, sit down. Indulge my curiosity – why?”
“I have indeed come from a long distance.” Sophia looked at him with honest curiosity in return. Mr. Benjamin pulled out a chair for her. Both he and Mr. Harvey sat down also, looking at her in friendly expectation. Mr. Benjamin was younger by about fifteen years, with solid square-jawed features adorned by a flowing mustache. “I am an orphan, sir, twenty-one years of age without any living close kin or income, and the prospect of being a poor relation did not appeal. I wished to travel and see more of the world than I had previously been allowed.”
“You are not married?” That was Mr. Benjamin.
Sophia shook her head. “No and not entertaining any intention of being so at this time.” Both men stifled smiles, but it was Mr. Benjamin who answered, “You might change your mind eventually. You are an educated woman, I presume – you speak well and pleasingly.”
“I was educated in the finest school in Boston,” Sophia replied.
Mr. Benjamin carefully held no expression on his countenance. “How do you regard hard work?” he asked. “It will be hard work, and that I can guarantee; nothing which a woman of superior social station would be accustomed to. It will also be among members of the public – also not anything a woman with station would aspire to.”
“I am accustomed to work,” Sophia replied, nettled. “I was retained as a housekeeper and governess in the household of a distant relative, for several years upon the death of my mother. The work was intricate and responsible, the duties most varied, and many of them on a menial level. The hours were long and compensation for them negligible; in reality, for nothing more than that of being accepted in society as worthy. I have since concluded that I would prefer to be open and transparent regarding such matters. Work is worship,” she added, recollecting the words of Agnes. “Work well done is an offering to our Lord. It does not matter the work – only that it is well-done and with all your heart.”
“Exactly, Miss Teague!” Mr. Harvey exclaimed. He thumped the table, in enthused agreement. “The worship of perfection as well as the Lord; I like that, Dave! Make a note of it, hey? Now, what you say regarding working in a railroad establishment, catering to … well, whoever comes through the door with the price of a meal in their hand? What then, Miss Teague?”
“I would be agreeable,” Sophia replied, earnestly. “I have been so … so well-treated on my journey, which was by railroad, all but the very first mile. I like railways – there is such energy about them. Those people so employed whom I have met along the way have been so able and courteous. I would welcome an opportunity to be a part of a similar enterprise. And it would be so exciting!”
“If you contracted to work with us,” Mr. Benjamin ventured, after a look at his associate. “It is a guarantee you would go west to work in a location very far from friends and family; indeed, for you, considerably farther. Many such towns where we have our establishments are primitive places; raw frontier, occasionally dangerous, and with a scarcity of female company save for fellow-employees. Will you have an objection to living in such a place for a year as per a signed contract with the company?”
“None,” Sophia answered, firmly. “Far away from Boston and my previous connections suit me extraordinarily well.”
“We have high and very strict standards,” Mr. Harvey ventured, after exchanging a brief nod and a meaningful look with Mr. Benjamin. “Of service and personal conduct while under contract; one of them for our female staff is that no jewelry or personal adornments be worn while on duty.” He looked significantly at her and Sophia realized that he was looking at her earrings, those small things which had been a gift from Great-aunt Minnie. With suddenly unsteady hands, she reached up and removed them from her ears, meeting Mr. Harvey’s gaze with a level one of her own.
“When do I start?” she said and Mr. Benjamin barked a short laugh.
Mr. Harvey chuckled and slapped the table. “If possible, yesterday!” he exclaimed. “I like your spirit, Miss Teague! Ford!” he commanded over his shoulder. “Bring in two copies of the company contract. When you’ve done that, go send a telegram to the Newton house, tell them to expect Miss Teague and Miss Nyland by the next train. You can leave today, Miss Teague, I hope?”
“Yes,” Sophia answered, giddy with relief. “I came directly here from the Chicago train. I have not even unpacked my bag.”
“Excellent,” Mr. Harvey rose from the table. “Dave will explain everything else to you … oh, good.” He took a sheaf of papers from Ford, and spread them out on the table, as Mr. Benjamin took an inkwell and a steel-nibbed pen from his desk.
Mr. Harvey filled in the date at the top, signed his name with a flourish on both copies, and passed the pen to Sophia for her own signature. She was just mindful enough to sign herself as Sophia B. Teague. “Welcome to the company, Miss Teague,” He shook her hand with a firm, but mercifully brief grip. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to renew the contract in a year! Work is worship – remember that – you too, Dave. I shall see you in a few weeks, Miss Teague.” And he was away, leaving Mr. Benjamin to go over the details of the contract and of her employment. Sophia could hardly bring her attention to bear: Mr. Benjamin was telling her that her clothing; dresses and aprons would be provided, the pay would be $17 a month, but forfeit the balance if she chose to leave employment before the year was up, and that she would train for a month without pay. To all of this she indicated she understood, and at the last Mr. Benjamin filled out her name and date on the other pieces of paper and handed them to her.
“This is your pass for travel without charge on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe,” he said. “And vouchers for meals at our Harvey houses along the way. Do you have any further questions, Miss Teague?”
“Just one,” Sophia collected up her papers and her thoughts. “Where exactly is Newton?”