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The Quivera Trail is intended as a sequel to the Adelsverein Trilogy, as picks up in 1875, with Dolph Becker courting and marrying a young Englishwoman, Isobel Lindsay-Groves. Isobel has several problems, the first of them being a domineering and cruelly judgemental mother, and the second, that she has made a dreadful hash of her debut year and failed to marry – marry well, or marry anyone at all. She is plump, socially inept, loves dogs and horses, and wishes wistfully for a quiet and modest country life. Dolph Becker is the answer to a prayer, for he offers all that … but the price for escape from a gilded world of privilege and the casual malice of her mother and Society … is to marry a man she barely knows, and follow him to Texas.
Accompanying Isobel on the journey to her new home in Texas is Jane Goodacre, her personal maid and confidant. Jane, the daughter of a small country shop-keeper, also has ambitions – and talents that she hardly suspects. The limitations and expectations for a young working-class woman in Victorian England weigh very heavily on Jane, although she does not realize that … until she and her lady mistress arrive in Texas.
A note about the title – since many have asked. Quivera was one of the seven semi-mythical cities of gold, which the conquistador Francisco de Coronado searched for, in his great exploring journey into the southern Great Plains in the 1500s. It was supposed to be fantastically wealthy, where the chiefs drank from cups of gold, which hung from a tree. Of course, the Spanish wished to conquer such a kingdom – after all, they had also conquered the similarly wealthy Aztecs and Incas. But Quivera turned out to be an illusion, a tale told by various Indians hoping to lure him farther into the wilderness. Coronado eventually did find Quivera – although it was not of gold as had been described to him. It was a large and reasonably prosperous town at the center of a well-settled district of grass-thatched villages in central Kansas, where the Quiverans – likely the ancestors of the present-day Wichita tribe – farmed corn, beans and squash. The land was rich, likely the best that Coronado had ever seen, well-watered, and the inhabitants tall and healthy. But there was no gold. It turned out that the journey itself was the important thing – not the end of the trail.
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Chapter 4 – Come a’ Courting
Keenly aware of Lady Isobel’s moods, Jane did not at first notice any particular amendment to her mistresses’ temperament, after the day-long excursion visiting Sir Robert’s tenants, and she was not yet so bold as to ask about the young American, Mr. Becker. Jane sensed that Lady Isobel would unburden herself in her own good time. Jane had laid out her gown for dinner, and was waiting with concealed impatience, her eye on the mantel clock, when Lady Isobel at last appeared, a whiff of tobacco-smoke smell attending on her clothes. Jane sighed; the walking-costume would have to be brushed and then aired for many days, and laid away with lavender-sachets in the folds, to eradicate the odor of Sir Robert’s pipe-smoke. Lady Isobel smiled at Jane in the mirror, as Jane made adjustments to her hair, quickly tucking in stray wisps of pale brown hair back into the ornate braided knot that she had constructed that morning, and smoothing with a bit of scented pomade on her palms. She had concocted a hair-ornament of tiny hothouse flowers, some lace and a ribbon-bow which exactly matched the color of Lady Isobel’s ice-blue gown.
“Oh, how lovely, Jane,” Lady Isobel exclaimed, as Jane carefully pinned it into the arrangement of her hair, and the mantel clock chimed the quarter-hour. “However careful you are, of me! I would have never thought of that … I am late…”
“Your gloves,” Jane handed them to her. “And I thought the aquamarine and diamond choker. Nothing more.”
“Elegant and simple,” Lady Isobel drew on her long gloves, while Jane swiftly rummaged through Lady Isobel’s jewel-case. “Fasten the clasp swiftly, Jane – Mama will be in a hasty temper with me, otherwise.” She sprang up from the dressing-table stool, while Jane thought that her lady really did not seem so nervous at the thought of Lady Caroline’s displeasure this evening. That must have been a good talk, with Sir Robert, and Jane thought wistfully of how pleasant it must be to have a fond and lovingly protective father. Her own father had been such, and she missed him still. It was a mystery to Jane, how her mother had married again as soon as it was decent. A widow needed a man to be the head of the house, and to keep the store, but to choose so recklessly! Jane shivered inwardly, at the thought of her stepfather, of him leering at her, from behind her mother’s back, the murmured remarks that only her ears could hear, the unwanted touch, the caresses that sent her shuddering from the room. Aunt Lydia rescued her that, for which Jane said a prayer of thanks every day, and especially whenever she looked at herself, reflected in the mirror over Lady Isobel’s shoulder.
Now she was sixteen and pretty enough to be unwilling prey for any man the ilk of her stepfather. She would have appeared even prettier, if she permitted it, dressed in the finer garments of a proper ladies’ maid. Wisps of dark hair curling around her face, escaping the confines of a cap with more elaborate lace on it than she had ever before; no, that must not be allowed. There was still pomade on her hands; she captured the rebellious strands and smoothed them back. It would not do, to give any gentleman or upper servant improper ideas. Young Somers the groom, he looked today as if he would have liked to flirt with her, but Jane knew that must never be allowed. She must seem older than she was, severe and prim like Miss Havers. Jane often felt worldlier and so much wiser – paradoxically like an older sister, though she was three years Lady Isobel’s junior. Jane stood now as Lady Isobel’s confidant, and even chaperone, her guardian and protector in all things. Jane sighed again; it was a very great burden, but there were rewards for bearing it, and being of a trustworthy and upright character. Auntie Lydia had it in mind that Jane might someday be the housekeeper in Lady Isobel’s establishment – in whatever establishment an advantageous marriage took her to. Of course I will go with Lady Isobel – who else will take care of her, who shall she trust, otherwise?
Christmas at the Hall passed, in lavish scenes of merriment and hospitality over the two weeks after the tenant-visitation day and the meeting in the lane by Farmer Lattimore’s cow-pasture. Jane had never seen the like, from the tall pine-tree in the Great Hall, hung with marvelously delicate blown-glass ornaments, colored garlands of multi-colored tinsel-paper, and hundreds of tiny candles, the light of which cast the Great Hall in a mellow golden light, down to the gaily-wrapped parcels piled underneath. In the breath of air moving in the Great Hall, from the various drafts creeping under the doors, and from the corridors, the ornaments and candles shimmered like a vision seen from afar. The children all clapped their hands with glee; Young Sir Robert and Lady Eleanor’s little boys, the young Stanley’s son and the little daughter, brought down from the Nursery in Nanny Porter’s capable arms. There was a chorus of carolers at the door – local folk, carrying lanterns and all wrapped in coats and mufflers, singing on the doorstep of the Hall, while Auntie Lydia – Mrs. Kittredge sent to the kitchen for hot cider and cakes for the footmen to take around to the carolers.
The day before Christmas Eve, there was a grand ball, with all of the gentry the county around invited, besides the houseguests. Below-stairs was as crammed as upstairs, for many of the guests were attended by their own servants. Jane saw little of the procession of the first guests arriving. She was dressing Lady Isobel for it, in a primrose-colored ball gown of delicate muslin and tulle made in the newest fashion, with the overskirt looped up over the fullness in back, cascading in a froth of lace and ruching into a short train. They both could hear carriage-wheels crunching on the gravel forecourt, and see the carriage-lamps bobbing and swaying all the way along the drive.
“If I can only keep from tripping over it,” Lady Isobel lamented, “or my dance partner from treading on it. There is so very much of it at the back, Jane. I shall be afraid to sit down, lest I crush all the ruffles.” Her cheeks were flushed; Jane supposed that she was looking forward to this ball. Much of what she had said to Jane before about such things had been mild complaint about the exhaustion of dancing, the tediousness of conversing with young men as they attempted not to step on her toes – shod in kid leather, dyed primrose to match her dress – and the agonies of embarrassment at having no dances at all.
“There is a loop, here … to lift up the train,” Jane answered, “If you must, contrive to sit a little sideways. Don’t worry, m’lady, if you have an accident with your gown, send for me. I will come with a needle and thread or whatever is necessary.”
There was a brief tap on the door. Before Jane or Lady Isobel could bid anyone enter, the door opened. Lady Caroline advanced, attended by Havers carrying her jewel-case. Lady Caroline was splendidly arrayed in a deep-green satin trimmed with gold, emeralds and pearls set in gold at her throat, her wrists and in her hair.
“I am nearly ready, Mama,” Lady Isobel protested, as her mother summed up the state of her dress in one swift glance, a glance as keen and cutting as a surgeon’s knife.
“I can see that, Isobel,” Lady Caroline replied, “And I do confess it is such a pleasant change.” She favored Jane with another one of those piercing looks; Jane thought it must have been the first time that Lady Caroline really looked at her, noticed her as she truly was – more than just another girl in a black maid’s dress with a neat white cap, one of dozens or hundreds which had served her over the years, brought messages or the tea-tray, built a fire in the fireplace of a morning or made the bed. “I can see now that the chit of a maid has done well for you. She learns swiftly; a rough jewel among the mire of the commonality, Isobel. Make sure that she never learns ideas above her place, else you will be put to the bother of having to find another of equal skill.”
“Mama…” Lady Isobel’s voice had a tone of hopeless, helpless pleading in it. She already looked diminished, an over-plump and awkward, uncertain girl dressed in clothes too fine for her. The contrast with her daughter was cruel.
Lady Caroline would look queenly in rags; now she commanded, “Stand up straight, Isobel. Don’t mumble – it’s very missish and I had so hoped you had outgrown that. I have decided that you should wear my wedding pearls tonight.” At a nod from Lady Caroline, Havers set the jewel case on the dressing table and opened it. Lady Isobel stammered,
“Thank you, Mama. I thought Victoria …”
“Don’t think, Isobel – you can’t and the effort does not become you. Victoria is wearing the Stanley sapphire choker tonight. You should have the pearls. Your father tells me that he has given his permission to that young American, to bring a suit of marriage to you. He is present tonight,” Lady Caroline added, with a touch of exasperation. “Most unexpectedly, it seems. Do try not to bore him out of countenance, Isobel. As unprepossessing as he is, he possesses sufficient property that your father has been brought to consider him seriously as a suitor.”
“Mr. Becker is here tonight? But he told me … he told Fa that he was to spend Christmas in Italy with his family … and that Russian Princess…” Lady Isobel’s voice died away, as her mother shrugged indifferently.
You were misinformed – or you did not hear truly. Which does not surprise me in the least. Did Miss Barnwell beat every last shred of sense out of you? Don’t goggle at me like a moon-calf, Isobel, of course he is here tonight.” Lady Caroline clapped her gloved hands together sharply. “Havers … the pearls. You too, girl, whatever your name is – assist her. I must lead the first dance very shortly. Hurry or I shall be late! Isobel, I presume that you wish to have the first dance with your rough cavalier?”
Jane went to help the acid-tongued Miss Havers with the jewel-case, setting the delicate and gleaming earrings into her ladyship’s ears. Lady Isobel mutely held up her gloved arms, so Jane and Miss Havers could close the clasps of the bracelets on her wrists, with such an expression of apprehension and resignation mixed that it felt to Jane like fastening manacles on the wrists of a prisoner or a slave. And yet her lady seemed to have such a look in her dark-lashed hazel eyes – which if one looked at her with a cold and assessing judgment – were her only claim to beauty, an expression of simmering rebellion and hope all mixed together.
“Thank you for loan of your pearls, Mama,” she said, steadily. “Mr. Becker is a very pleasing gentleman to me. I shall be able to hold his attention, for we have many interests in common.”
“See that you do,” Lady Caroline looked her up and down, quite severely. “As … odd as he is, he appears to be about the best that you can get, since your season has been so very much a failure. Don’t appear to be too eager. That is even more poisonous to gentlemanly affections as a display of complete disinterest would be.”
“Mama, I … I am sure of Mr. Becker’s interests,” Lady Isobel replied steadily, as Lady Caroline turned and sailed towards the door, Havers trailing after, as obedient as a shadow. Jane hurried to close it after them. As she did, she heard Lady Caroline speak to Miss Havers, in a voice careless of being overheard in the long hallway, “I certainly hope that my daughter is certain of those affections, Havers. What a waste of my pearls – Isobel looks like a cow adorned with Christmas garlands. With luck, she will marry this rough Cousin Jonathon and be off my hands entirely. What a chore this has been and what tedious efforts one must take regarding one’s children! All this year, I despaired of success attending on my endeavors with her. How fitting to be rewarded, at the very last and at Christmas!”
Jane shut the door very firmly on Lady Caroline’s spiteful voice. “So, he will be here, m’lady,” she said bravely. “That is good news, I would say. He seems like a very suitable gentleman. Do you wish to marry him?”
“Fa said that he had asked for permission,” Lady Isobel answered distantly. She looked at herself in the mirror, but her eyes were far away, remote. “Permission to seek my hand in marriage. I don’t know why his choice would settle on me, Jane. He is handsome and amiable and possessed of a fortune – all of those qualities most attractive to females. I have been wondering why such a paragon has not already been engaged to marry.”
“Perhaps he has been disappointed in love,” Jane ventured. “His love died tragically, or he did not feel that he could support a wife until now.”
“He could be a fortune hunter,” Lady Isobel said, fiddling with one of the earrings, dripping down from her ears. “But I expect that Fa would have already considered that.”
“What will you do, m’lady?” Jane began gathering up Lady Isobel’s discarded garments, and the detritus from the effort to dress her fittingly for the evening, while Lady Isobel stared unseeingly into the mirror. “About Mr. Becker.”
“This evening, I expect I will dance with him, now and again. And perhaps a few moments of conversation, as we nibble at the cold collation in the dining room. Fa says that he would wish me to accompany him to America in April, so I expect that he will propose without delay.”
“And what will you say then?” Jane held her breath, with anticipation.
“I will consider his proposal carefully,” Lady Isobel answered. “Such a tangle, Jane – I barely know him, I cannot even claim that I love him… but I must marry him. Continuing as I am is unendurable. I dread the alternative that my mother insists that I accept, otherwise. But,” she added with an air of someone desperately hoping that it might be so, “I might very well come to love him. They say most husbands and wives do, even if they have not married for love to begin with. Would you wish well for me tonight Jane? Wish me well, and for me to be steadfast in purpose.”
“I will, m’lady,” Jane answered. Her heart felt as if it would overflow with pity and fear for Lady Isobel, bravely accepting the lesser evil of the unfortunate options set before her. Perhaps Mr. Becker would prove to be the best choice – after all, the dogs liked him. Maybe he would come to see and appreciate Lady Isobel’s good heart, her courage and sense of obligation. “Here is your fan, and the program of dances. I will bring another pair of gloves in the interval after the second set. If you have need of another pair, I will bring them as soon as you send for them. Do you want me to accompany you downstairs?”
Lady Isobel straightened her shoulders, looking away from the mirror. “Dear Jane – no, I don’t think it necessary. I will send Horgan or one of the other footmen, should I need assistance during the evening.”
“Good fortune, m’lady,” Jane said as Lady Isobel embraced her suddenly, with fierce affection. The fabulous pearls pressed against Jane’s cheek and neck, as hard and unforgiving as pebbles. “I think he might come to love you, m’lady – he seems a kind and considerate gentleman.”
“Thank you, Jane.” Lady Isobel straightened her shoulders, holding her head as high as if she had a book balanced on it. She had a look of determination on her face, a look of ‘do or die.’ The door opened and closed with a soft click of the latch, leaving Jane to finish sorting out the littered dressing table, and putting away the garments rejected – a task which Jane found oddly comforting, as she liked to see things tidy and neat.
Isobel felt as if she were floating, as if she moved in a surreal dream, detached from her own flesh. She marveled at how her customary nervous dread seemed to have vanished, dissolved as morning sunlight dissolved the frost. She moved down the main staircase in a rustle of muslin, as detached as if she were watching herself from inside her own head. She wondered if Martyn felt this extraordinary calm, preparing for some skirmish in the borderlands of India. The chatter of voices, the music floating in from the ballroom reminded her of the sea, the rhythmic rattle of pebbles in the wave-wash. She moved like an automaton through the crush of guests arriving in the main hall, each announced in a puff of frigid air from the front door opening and closing and Horgan’s practiced bellow.
So many guests, so many people … again, she was reminded of how most of the public rooms of the Hall didn’t not feel truly inhabited unless they were as crowded as a railway station in the City. How wonderful it would be to spend an evening at the fireside of a cozy little cottage or a small house; just enough room for a handful of friends, children and a husband. To sit before the fire of an evening, without the agony of being forced to be charming to hostile strangers. Courage, Isobel Lindsay-Groves, she whispered to herself. Courage – endure this evening, these next few weeks. . . . She nodded mechanically, barely aware of those who spoke to her; friends and remote strangers. They passed in a dream; gentlemen in evening-dress, punctuated by colorful regimentals and gold braid, young ladies clad in dresses the color of spring flowers, of older ladies in more dramatic colors, sparkling in jewels, an Aladdin’s cave of gold and gems. She was distantly aware of those who looked at her with derision and scorn, the cruel amusement in their eyes, derision so artfully veiled in honeyed malice that one could not show a reaction without being made the object of even more pointed malice! She hated that – It’s not fair! What did I ever do to you? Why do I deserve this cruel scorn!
There was an escape; from across the ballroom she saw him. Mr. Becker – so very tall, pale hair the color of ripe wheat. The orchestra had already begun the music for the first dance, the grand promenade. Isobel moved around the edge of the ballroom and the graceful procession of dancers, intensely aware of his eyes upon her. He stood next to Martyn, resplendent in scarlet regimentals, both of them by a range of chairs lined up against the ballroom wall. She felt a rush of confidence, when his eyes met hers and he smiled very slightly. Mama would have found nothing to criticize in his evening dress. It was impeccably tailored, nor would she have found a fault in the way that he bowed very over her hand.
She could think of nothing to say, but he spared her the trouble and agony. “Miss Isobel,” he ventured, the corners of his eyes crinkling slightly with amusement, “I have been told wrong. Cap’n Lindsay-Groves says that you are always late. He said I might have to dance with another lady while I waited for you. I didn’t think it right proper.”
“Thank you for your patience, Mr. Becker,” Isobel answered, and that detached part of her was gratified that she wasn’t stammering. “I was just told you were among the guests. I came downstairs straightaway. You had said you were traveling to Italy within days; his is most unexpected.”
“My uncle’s plans changed,” Mr. Becker answered. “He and my aunt, and the rest of our kin are returning to Texas as soon as it can be arranged – I will stay on to finish up Uncle Hansi’s errands.”
“There has not been some awful tragedy,” Isobel ventured, with some apprehension, and Mr. Becker gravely shook his head, answering, “No. It has been quite the opposite. Unexpected – but my aunt wanted to return home at once,” just as Martyn observed, “A bit of good luck for you then, Izzy – I’ll take the quadrille. Fa would like to see that your dance card is full. But remember,” he sounded as if he were half-warning, half-joking, “Never two dances in a row, with a lady, y’know – even the lady one is courting.”
“I do know what custom demands,” Mr. Becker answered, mildly, “Though, sometimes I might not want to pay much mind. Ma’am,” he took her hand again, “May I have the pleasure of the very next dance with you?”
“The pleasure is mine,” Isobel answered. He held out his elbow for her hand, and led her onto the dance floor as carefully as if she were something delicate made of glass. As the quadrille began, Isobel set her mind on endurance, but discovered to her astonishment that Mr. Becker was an excellent dancer, confident and sure-footed. The only awkwardness came from the difference in their height. She must tilt her head back so very much to see his face to converse with him as they whirled through the quadrille. That small discomfort was overshadowed by the wholly-unaccustomed assurance and grace, which she discovered with much delight as they moved together; dancing with him was like riding Thistle. They moved together easily, sensing the shift and balance of each others’ bodies as if they were twinned creatures, two halves sliding together to make one whole being.
“I… must compliment you, Mr. Becker,” Isobel stammered, at last. “You dance very well. My mother will be astonished to learn that Texas must have a sufficiency of dancing-masters.”
“No, not that you’d notice,” he replied agreeably, and Isobel saw that he was smiling, “But like most things, Miss Isobel – if you do something a lot, you’ll get good at it, after a while.”
“Do you often attend balls and dances?” Isobel was honestly intrigued; his smile widened, as he looked over her head at the ballroom, decorated with swags of holly and garlands of sweet-smelling pine, the golden chandeliers, glittering with crystal drops and lights, which bathed the vast room in mellow golden candlelight. “Not in so grand a hall as this. I reckon the biggest room that I ever danced with a lady in was a dance-hall in Abilene … a right nice place it was, too,” he added, seemingly in response to her look of momentary bafflement. “Noisier, though. The boys was all dancing in their boots. And the ladies weren’t near so pretty or as handsome-dressed.”
“Thank you,” Isobel accepted the compliment with as demure an expression as her mother had ever urged upon her. Mr. Becker’s smile widened. “Truth to tell,” he continued, as Isobel listened avidly, with one corner of her mind astounded at how comfortably she felt, dancing with a man. Always before, she had been nervous, counting the steps and turns, miserably aware of her own awkwardness and inability at the flirtatious conversation which seemed to come so easily to other girls. “It was a right enjoyable fandango, until a drover from the Millett outfit took it into his head to ride his pony onto the dance floor.” At Isobel’s expression of disbelief, he added, with a humorously solemn expression, “I swear to you, Miss Isobel – it did really happen. He insisted that his cow-pony had a neater foot than any of the ladies, and was better able to turn and bow.”
“I believe you are telling wild stories,” Isobel answered. “And trying over-much to impress, with such improbable tales…”
“Do you?” Mr. Becker’s smile broadened to an outright grin. “I have an acquaintance present who can attest to the truth; he was there. Trying to play a quiet game of whist in a far corner, but he was indeed there.”
“I believe you are exaggerating, Mr. Becker.” Isobel answered, “Surely this was a flight of fancy. Who among this company tonight was present in a … what do you call it … a dance-hall in Abilene?”
“We called him English Jack,” Mr. Becker answered, “Jack Sutcliffe was his proper moniker, but we never called him anything but English Jack, when he rode up the trail with us from Texas ten years ago.” As they dipped and turned, he added, “He is standing next to your brother.”
“Major Sutcliffe?” Isobel would have missed a step in her surprise, but for Mr. Becker’s relative strength. She looked past her partner – yes, another man in brilliant red regimentals and gold braid stood next to her brother. “He is a very distant connection. I used to think he was ever so gallant and handsome; I had a school-girl passion which I confess that I have long outgrown! Fa has always liked him, although I should say that my mother does not approve. She says that he is a rake and a wastrel. I suppose he is Martyn’s guest tonight.” “
“He may be all that,” Mr. Becker answered agreeably. “The fellows back home thought he was a good sort, even if they thought he talked a little funny.”
“I suppose it is a very different sort of life,” Isobel mused. “With men leading a different sort of life, apart from the ladies; I would not be surprised if you and Major Sutcliff find Society rather boring.”
“Not so far, Miss Isobel,” he answered, as the quadrille ended. He bowed as Isobel sank into a curtsey, and offered his arm to escort her back to the chairs. As they approached, Jack Sutcliffe straightened up from his usual languid posture, n expression of lively interest brightening his face.
“Lady Isobel,” he drawled. “Martyn said you had been presented – so help me, I don’t know where the time goes. Here I was thinking you were still in the schoolroom. You must do me the honor of the next dance.”
“Of course you may.” Isobel marveled at herself, feeling so very composed and worldly, writing Jack Sutcliffe’s name in her program with the tiny silver pencil, as Jack Sutcliffe’s regard turned toward her escort.
“Ah, Becker – a long way from the trail, isn’t it?” he said with a broad grin, echoed by Mr. Becker’s own expression. “I see that dear old Uncle Hansi’s venture in cattle went well for you all!”
“It did, Jack,” Mr. Becker answered with honest pleasure. “It did . . . and I took your advice. I came to look at a white horse and got distracted by a promising young filly.”
“I see that,” Jack Sutcliffe’s smile got even broader; Isobel wondered if he referred to herself. Martyn looked very dour, as he said,“I’ll have the waltz, Izzy. That’ll leave the varsovienne for you, then, Becker.”
“If that is Miss Isobel’s wish,” Mr. Becker answered and bowed sedately over her hand. “Shall I bring you some little refreshment, before they begin the next dance?”
“No, thank you,” Isobel answered. “But it is kind of you to offer.”
“You should ask some other lady for a dance, Becker,” Jack Sutcliffe drawled. “Give them a bit of a flutter, a turn around the ballroom with a wild American frontiersman. Ever consider painting yourself like a savage Indian?”
“I don’t think Lady Caroline would be real amused,” Mr. Becker answered, sounding equally unruffled, but Isobel saw that he silently formed a rude word with his lips, directed at Jack Sutcliffe as he straightened from another bow over Isobel’s gloved hand. “I shall return for the var-varso-dance, whatever that is, Miss Isobel.”
“Thank you, sir – it will be my pleasure to look forward to your company again,” Isobel curtsied once more. As he sauntered away, Martyn asked, with no little impatience, “The range of your friends and acquaintances never ceases to amaze me, Jack! However did you fetch up with Becker and his lot?”
“Ah,” Jack Sutcliffe answered, with perfect assurance, “Officially, it was a spot of leave, and travel to exotic lands, don’t you know. Unofficially – let’s just not say. I was temporarily embarrassed with regard to funds and desirous of traveling north. An opportunity presented itself, with Becker and his uncle and some other stout fellows with a large quantity of beef cattle.”
“How extraordinary,” Isobel could think of nothing else say.
“I recall that experience with considerable relish, whenever I sit down to an excellent roast-beef dinner,” Jack assured them. “The journey proved rather tedious in the main, but the company was quite jolly, if rather rough-hewn. Stout fellows, those chaps of Beckers’. Cousin Isobel, I believe it is time to take to the dance floor.”
“It is my pleasure, sir.” Isobel took the arm that he proffered, as Martyn said, “Stay a moment, Jack; there is a question I would have an answer to. Is he . . . is Mr. Becker a gentleman? Fa has given his permission for him to court Isobel. I like to think that Fa has made his own estimation of his worth, but I should like to know for myself of what manner of man he is.”
Jack half-turned with Isobel on his arm to answer; Isobel thought that his reply was as much for her as for Martyn. “I would say that he is,” Jack Sutcliffe’s expression, usually one of cynical good cheer, seemed somehow softened with thought. “Something of a rough diamond . . . but a gentleman, nonetheless.”
“And of his family?” Martyn persisted, as the orchestra in the ballroom struck up the first notes of the next dance, “What of his family?”
“Among the very finest, in that part of the world,” Jack answered, “Well-thought of and received in every parlor, up to the highest. Which,” he added with something of his customary tone to Isobel, as they stepped onto the dancing floor and took their places, “Is only as high as a provincial governor – but still . . . the backbone of the country. Salt of the earth, as they say. You look very smart tonight, Cousin Isobel. Is that true, what Martyn says?”
“It is,” Isobel admitted, honestly. “Mama insists that I have made a terrible botch of my Season. And she simply insists that I marry well.”
“Marry well, or marry to please Mama?” Jack asked, shrewdly, and Isobel was just enough vexed that she answered, “Marry to please myself,” just as the orchestra leader lifted his little baton for attention from the musicians.
“Rather than gamble a throw with the fishing fleet?” Jack had his customary cynical expression back. So he knew about that; Isobel’s heart felt as if it sank down to the toes of her primrose-kid slippers. “Oh, little cousin – life is one long game of chance. Toss the dice and be done – chin up and accept the results. I presume that if you marry that worthy young Jonathon, he would take you back to Texas with him.”
“I am certain of that, yes,” Isobel answered. “Fa has said as much.” Dancing with Jack was not as comfortable as it was with Mr. Becker, although Jack was accomplished and masterful. There was not the feeling of being tuned perfectly to another, moving as one and yet separate, like two birds soaring together. “I dread the thought of India – all the stories that I have heard from Fa and Martyn, of the heat and the dust and the strange ways of the natives. . .”
“I will admit,” Jack grinned, broadly. “The heat and dust of Texas, and the strange ways of the natives there have not a patch on those of India; though some are passing curious.”
“You have been to both places,” Isobel ventured. “What do you think?”
“Of India and Texas? Oh, different from here, little cousin; and very different from each other, although honestly compels me to admit they are both very hot and dusty, with strange religions and violence sometimes simmering in odd corners. One’s full of dusky-skinned natives, and the other of Jonathans – pretty dusky-skinned themselves after long months on the cattle-trail. At least most of them speak some kind of English, barbarous thought it might sound at times. One needn’t study half a dozen languages – one or two will do – or send for an interpreter . . . now and again, though – when it comes to the aboriginal natives. Another kettle entirely, little cousin.”
“Do you think that I could make a home there?” Isobel was nearly breathless from the exertions of the waltz – how vexing, when it had felt so effortless, dancing far more energetically in Mr. Becker’s arms!
“You are entirely serious, little cousin?” For the long breath of several measures of the waltz, Jack Sutcliffe remained silent. At last he continued. “The sky is such a clear blue – it appears endless, all the way around, to every horizon. No scrap of smoke, no haze upon the horizon – the very clouds float in it and vanish, save those occasions when they gather. Flat grey at the bottom, towering up and up into pure white mounds, lit from within like a paper lantern from the lightening. And the land . . . also endless, little cousin; nothing but rolling waves of grass, like to the sea or the deserts of Arabia – nothing like what we have on our little safe island. Now and again, the crumbling skull of a buffalo crunches under the hoofs of your horse. There is nothing, as far as you can see, the sky and the waves of grass. I rather liked it,” Jack continued with a half-laugh. “It would drive some mad, out in the middle of all that emptiness, unless you had something in your soul that would answer to it.”
“It sounds . . . quite delightful,” Isobel gasped. In the midst of the waltz, Jack Sutcliffe seemed half a world away, his expression distant, and absorbed in his recollections.
“Would your soul answer to it, little cousin? To an empty prairie, half the size of England? No village, no church spire to be seen, no fences and crumbled towers, as you travel for days and days? The immensity drives men mad sometimes, especially those who come from our little islands and face that emptiness all alone. At night there is nothing but one’s own pitiful campfire, and an ocean of stars overhead. Ah, the stars in the prairie sky, little cousin Isobel!”
“Are they a pretty sight?” Isobel asked breathlessly and Jack laughed. “Pretty? My dear, they are magnificent! Imagine, as you prepare to sleep on a pallet laid out on the ground, you look up to see thousands of diamonds, all lit from within, and strewn by handfuls as if they were grain, on dark-blue velvet and seeming to be as close overhead that you could reach up and touch them . . . but it is a rare traveler, new come to that country who arrives with a soul fully open to such wonders.”
“Have I such a soul, do you think?” Isobel ventured, as Jack Sutcliffe spun her in the waltz so that her primrose skirts flared gracefully.
“I would not venture to say, little cousin – but of you, I do know this for a certainly; that you have no fear of the highest fence or the deepest ditch that the Hunt ever crosses . . . and that bodes exceedingly well. Alas . . . “Jack swept her in one last whirl, as the music ended, “I do not think they hunt to hounds, in America, yet. But I think you will find enough other amusements, should you choose to marry young Becker.”
In the dark twilight hour of the morning, after the ball had ended, Isobel sat in the window embrasure of her room, having danced for most of the night – and for nearly the first time in a year, without complaint. She had breakfasted with Mr. Becker, attended by Jack and Martyn, making polite conversation. She had not danced every dance with him, but more often throughout the Christmas ball than with any other man who requested the pleasure of her company. Each time, she went to his arms with a sense of joyous relief. They had not conversed much, but his silences were restful, even comforting. Finally, she had been undressed by Jane, sleepy-eyed and smothering yawns all the while. Gratefully, she dismissed Jane to her own bed, but went to sit a little while, looking out at the winter-blasted park down below, and the sky just beginning to pale. In her hand, she held the little dance program, the little silver pencil dangling from it, but she saw neither the pages of it, scribbled with names, or the eastern sky, now pink with sunrise. In her mind, she was seeing stars, glittering stars on a velvet sky, or an endless grassy prairie, unrolling like ocean waves, as far as could be seen – and thinking how it had been, dancing wordlessly with a man, how they moved like birds in the sky, together and yet separate.
If he asks me, Isobel thought, I think I will say yes. I am almost certain that I will say yes.