Overhead the vast arch of tiled ceiling supported crystal and brass chandeliers. The floor was of Vermont marble, as fine as what Michelangelo employed. The oil paintings that hung along the walls were all of great men: Washington, Lincoln, Grant. Always on entering the great hall, Edith felt she should take off her hat or kneel for a moment in silent reverence to the power of the United States Post Office.
As usual, however, she simply paused as she came through the open brass doors. The coolness breathed out by the marble and highly polished woods fanned her overheated face. St. Louis in August was hot enough to melt bone even without the layers upon layers of clothing a properly dressed lady must wear. Slowly, lingering in the peace and quiet, Edith walked to her own postbox and twisted the small brass knob in the center of the wooden door.
The square hole was empty. Though she knew no other box would open to her combination, she pushed the miniature door half-closed so she could glance at the number. 1563. The space was still empty. No letters at all.
Suddenly the serenity of the post office could no longer reach her. Edith's gloved hands trembled as she closed the postbox door. There had to be letters, there must be letters. Moving as though in a bad dream, she took her place in the line to reach the service window.
"Excuse me," she said to the bored, mustachioed face behind the grill. "There are no letters in my post box. Number Fifteen-Sixty-Three. Could you see if they haven't been delivered yet?"
"It's nine-thirty, miss. All the mail's been delivered."
Aware of the press of the line behind her, Edith put one hand out to tremulously touch the gleaming grill. "Please, could you check for me? The name's Miss Edith Parker. Farmer and Maid Matrimonial Service."
The bored civil servant blinked at the name. Edith met his eyes, knowing her desperation must be written on her face. After thoughtfully sucking his teeth, he shouted over his shoulder, "Hey, Charlie! C'mere."
But the answer was as hollow as the empty box. "Nuthin'," Charlie said, slouching back. "Nuthin' nowhere."
"Maybe later. There's another delivery at four."
"Thank you," Edith said. "I shall certainly come back at four o'clock." Lowering her veil to hide her frightened face, she turned abruptly, tripping over the festooned chain-links that kept the public in its place.
"Whoa, there," a masculine voice said as a hand shot out to take her arm. Edith saw a flash of tan summer suiting, a brown face surmounted by fair hair, and a pair of warm brown eyes looking back at her with pleased attention.
"Pardon me!" she said, jerking away. Her large hat slipped over her eyes. Shoving at it in embarrassed agitation, she dropped her bag.
The man swooped down to get it. His face was dark from the sun and his eyes crinkled at the corners as though he were used to smiling. Mistrusting his charm on sight, Edith was barely able to thank him civilly as she took her bag back. Men, as her late aunt had frequently told her, could only be trusted at a considerable distance.
"You're Edith Parker, aren't you?" he asked.
Knowing he'd heard her tell the clerk the name and was now taking advantage, she instantly denied it. "No, you've made a mistake. Good day."
She left the post office without glancing behind her. But she knew the man was following her. Stiffening her back and walking faster, Edith purposely robbed her walk of any swing or seductiveness that might have inadvertently escaped her rigid training. She'd been told all about mashers and white slavers--how they approached innocent girls in public places and led them into lives of infamy. Of course, her aunt had always stopped before describing such a life.
Edith slowed as she entered the mysteries of the seraglio. Beautiful maidens dressed only in filmy veils reclined on dangerously soft couches. Strange, sweet incense filled the air as husky men lifted huge feather fans in hypnotic rhythm. And she, her Western clothes torn and tattered by the rough treatment of the heathens who were her captors . . .
"Miss Parker, I'm Jefferson Dane. I wonder if we might go somewhere and . . ."
"Kindly leave me alone," she said, her daydream breaking like a soap bubble, "Or I shall call a police officer."
Leaving the man behind, baffled in his pursuit, Edith continued on her way, head held high. She crossed the paved street, certain he would not trouble her again. The last thing she needed to add to her day was a common masher. She'd shown him that she was not receptive to the liberties his sort took!
Outside Chicksaw's Tobacco Shop, she caught Tommy's eye. With the tiniest lift of her hand, she summoned the boy to her side. Though she could ill afford it, she felt she must purchase The Horse and Stockmen's Quarterly Bulletin. It would never do for a lady to enter a tobacco shop, however.
"That's okay, Miss Parker," Tommy said cheerfully, when she offered him a nickel. "Pa says I can give you a copy, seeing as you're an advertiser."
"That wouldn't be right. It's defrauding your father."
But Tommy impudently stuck his hands behind his back when she tried again to hand the coin to him. "Take it, at least, and buy yourself some licorice."
Though she saw temptation and virtue war on the boy's imperfectly washed face, he still refused the money. "My pa says that if gentlemen can't help a poor fe. . . I mean, he says poor folks should stick. . ." The dirt was drowned in a vivid blush.
Edith accepted the Bulletin without further quibbling. As she continued to walk on, she straightened her back until it ached. Burning with mortification, she wondered how many of the tradesmen were looking at her as she went by, pity in their eyes, charity in their hearts. What was it that Tommy would have said? That gentlemen of business must help the less fortunate. That a poor, solitary female can't hope to survive in business. That every woman should have a husband.
She tried to fight it, the urge to glance back to see who was staring at her. Like an itch that must be scratched, the urge grew worse with each passing second. Edith glanced as casually as possible over her shoulder, glad that her spotted veil hid her features so well.
The tall man in the tan suit stood talking to Tommy on the steps of his father's store. She saw the man laugh, reaching out to ruffle the boy's black hair. Something that flashed in the sunlight was passed from large hand to small. Then the man continued to follow her.
Edith faced front with an almost audible snap of her spine. Her walk military in its correctness, she approached her boardinghouse. Looking up at the squalid building, she sighed, her steps dragging, her pride deserting her. There had been no letters. No letters meant no clients. No clients meant, inevitably, no money. And no money meant another confrontation with Mr. Maginn, her landlord.
The building seemed to lean toward its near neighbor, its respectability peeling away like the old paint. Edith knew she was giving way to sentimentality in continuing to live here, instead of closer toward the center of town. This, however, had been the last home she had shared with her aunt, the late Edith Susan Parker, founder of the Farmer and Maid Matrimonial Service.
Also, in order to move she would have to come up with capital. And of capital she had thirty-five cents in an old tin box under her bed. It was enough to feed her for a day or two, upon eggs and weak tea, but not enough to pay her rent. Rent already three days overdue.
She thought longingly of the hundred-dollar bill that also reposed in the tin box. Firmly, she suppressed all such weakness. That money had been her aunt's nest egg since her own mother's death, and she had impressed upon Edith from childhood that the bill was inviolate, to be used only in the direst emergency. A temporary embarrassment of funds couldn't really be call dire--not yet.
With infinite care, Edith turned the handle of the front door and crept over the threshold. "Miss Parker!" called the stranger's voice from behind her.
"Miss Parker . . ." drawled a new male voice, slurred by excessive alcohol.
She closed the door firmly, right in the tall man's face. He'd taken his hat off and the last sight she had was of his blond hair shining in an errant beam of light piercing the gloom of the dingy street. Though she knew it was unreasonable, she felt as if she'd closed the door on the last free breath of fresh air in St. Louis.
Whatever the reverse of fresh air was, it stood before her. Mr. Maginn, in a filthy union suit and torn checked trousers, waited between her and the stairs, ogling her. His eyes were bleary, the whites yellow where they were not bloodshot.
"You got my rent, sweetheart?"
"I regret to say, Mr. Maginn, that I do not. However . . ."
"Yeah, it's been 'however' for a while now. You can't say I been giving you a rough time about it."
"No, and I appreciate your forbearance. In a few days, no doubt, my financial situation will right itself and you will receive your rent, with the extra added, of course."
Mr. Maginn missed the newel-post the first two times he tried to rest his elbow on it. He succeeded the third time and said, "You sure use your mouth pretty when you talk. I bet you can use it mighty pretty in other ways."
If it were not for his drinking, his untidiness, and the sour odor that surrounded him, Mr. Maginn might have been an attractive specimen. His dark hair had a wave in it and, before he'd become so fat, he'd undoubtedly had a striking physique.
Not even her imagination could stretch to consider him as anything but repellent.
Licking his cracked lips, Mr. Maginn leaned forward. "What about havin' a li'l drink with me? We can, er, talk about your rent. Wouldn't you like a free room, huh? I'm willing to be reasonable, if you'd be ... willing."
He continued to lean forward, forgetting how precariously he was placed. As he toppled, Edith passed him, sweeping her skirts behind her to avoid touching him. By the time he picked himself up, cursing, from the floor, she'd escaped to the first-floor landing. She could hear him roaring a bawdy drinking song up the stairwell as she reached her own landing, the fifth.
A pathetic whisper reached her as she opened her door. "Can't you keep that bird quiet? I have such a headache, . . ."
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Webb. I'll cover Orpheus at once."
Her neighbor's door softly closed.
The bird sang even more brightly at the sight of Edith. She knew keeping a pet was a fruitless extravagance, but his yellow feathers and lively eyes were the only cheerful things she saw on most days. Knowing Mrs. Webb must be wincing at each trill, Edith picked up the cover and apologized to her canary.
"It's Mrs. Webb, Orpheus. She has another headache. They never last very long, so I'm sure you won't mind."
Reluctantly, she placed the twill cover over the cage. After a single protesting chirp, the canary went to sleep. Edith hoped Mrs. Webb would do the same.
Sitting on the bed had been an unpardonable sin when her aunt was alive. After her death, however, the armchairs had been sold at the same time Edith had moved out of the three rooms they'd shared on the second floor up to this single room. Mr. Maginn's mother had owned the boardinghouse then. She had gotten married and moved back East around the same time that Aunt Edith had been struck in the street by a brewer's wagon.
Even before removing her hat or gloves---another sin-- Edith lay the Bulletin out on her pillow. The masthead of the magazine was boldly patriotic. Red, white, and blue banners billowed across the top, with Old Glory stuck in at various corners of the first page. The name of the publication was so ornate as to be almost unreadable. The motto proclaimed, For Home, For Family, For Freedom. The rest of the front cover was occupied by an engraving of a bull, as aristocratic in bearing as any duke or earl.
It was a thick publication, a special edition for the approaching breeding season, full of valuable advice and helpful advertising. But Edith passed by the notices for better breeding stock, for Jersey stock at cost, for Studebaker buggies. Not even a serious discussion of inbreeding kept her from paging on.
Usually her advertisement appeared toward the back. A small picture of her late aunt staring sternly yet benevolently through her steel-rimmed spectacles, a modest headline asking "Are you lonely?" and the text describing the service. At the bottom, in bolder type, "Write detailing your requirements with a photograph, if possible. Kindly send one dollar earnest money."
Edith searched hastily, then slowly, then with painstaking care, studying each page. Finally, she put the pages aside. The unthinkable had happened. The advertisement had not run.
"It must be there," she muttered. "I've just missed it, that's all."
Once more Edith paged through the magazine. Not once in all her twenty-three years had the Farmer and Maid Matrimonial Service advertisement failed to make its appearance in The Horse and Stockmen's Bulletin. She felt as though Matthew or Second Kings had suddenly gone missing from her Bible.
A tiny skittering sound made her glance toward the shrouded cage. She had hardly looked down at the Bulletin again, when she heard a soft brushing against the panels of her door. "Who is it?"
"Look under the door," a muffled voice replied.
On the bare wooden floor, half under her door, lay a sheet of speckled paper. Edith picked it up. On one side it was a laundry list--three shirts, a coat, and several unmentionable items belonging to the male sex. On the other side, written in smooth black ink, was a letter.
To Whom it May Concern:
Jefferson Dane is a decent, hard-working man. He has no vices, other than a drink on social occasions. A widower, he has two daughters, a fair-sized cattle ranch, and lives with his father, a war veteran. He has never, to my certain knowledge, murdered, assaulted, or spoken roughly to any woman, regardless of provocation. Sincerely . . .
The signature at the bottom of the sheet was as plain as washday cake. Jefferson Dane, Richey, Missouri.
Edith couldn't help smiling at the novelty of this reassurance. Before she opened the door, however, she hastily assumed her usual solemn expression. She must still be on her guard. A white slaver must have some charm, she reasoned, or no woman would ever go with him.
"You can't come in," she said before he had a chance to speak. "It's against the rules of the house."
"But we can't talk in the hall. I have personal matters to discuss with you and . . ."
The door opened a crack. "Please, Miss Parker! My headache," Mrs. Webb said. The single eye at the opening, all that could be seen of Mrs. Webb, looked Mr. Dane over thoroughly.
"Best thing for a headache is fresh air," he said. His grin was so impudent that Edith was shocked. That was no way to treat an invalid. But Mrs. Webb had almost smiled in answer, a thing that had never happened before.
Edith said, "I'm sorry, Mrs. Webb. Please come in, Mr. Dane. We shall just leave the door open for propriety."
Jeff halted as soon as he stepped in. If he'd stretched out his arms, he would have touched both stained walls before his hands were at the level of his shoulders. The odor of a thousand years of cooked cabbage lingered in the hot, stale air. He could feel sweat starting to prickle his skin.
Though there was a window at the end of the room, it did not appear to have ever been opened, for thick paint held it fast. It was so grimy on the outside that little light could penetrate.
Nevertheless, he saw that the little bits of furniture were threadbare and could never have been plush.
Loosening his collar with one tugging finger, Jeff said, "I'll get right to the point, Miss Parker. I'm in a fix, and I'm hoping you can get me out of it."
"What is the difficulty? You're not a former client of mine . . . you're not dissatisfied . . . ? But no, your note said you are a widower. I cannot be held responsible for anyone's . . ."
"No, I've never used your services, Miss Parker. It's really my father's idea that I'm here at all. When he saw I was having trouble deciding . . . well, he pointed out your little ad and wondered if you'd make a house-call."
He heard the suspicion reawaken in her voice. Though her veil had obscured her face in the sunny streets, and the light was bad here, he knew she must be near forty, if not more. The sort of scrawny, unappetizing bird who no doubt considered her long existence on the shelf a tribute to her choosiness, rather than admit that no man had ever wanted to catch her.
"You see, Miss Parker, I'm thinking of marrying again. And there are three women in Richey who would make good mothers for my two girls. But I can't make up my mind which one to take."
Well, he didn't think too highly of himself, Edith fumed. Which one to take, indeed! As though the objects of his matrimonial plans had nothing better to do than to wait until he deigned to decide. Why didn't he just marry each one in turn? Other men had. Bluebeard, and Henry VIII for example.
"No!" brave Lady Jessica said to the fat, leering king. "I shall never wed a man whose hands reek with the blood of his murdered queens."
Henry rubbed his ringed hands. "Marriage or the block. Lady Jessica! I'll leave the choice to you. "
"I'm sorry?" Edith said with a clearing shake of her head. The oak-beamed baronial hall faded, his majesty's voice changing from a bass rumble to a medium baritone, with no trace of an English accent.
"I said, I have no problem in leaving the choice up to you. They're all nice women, good with the girls."
"Yes, you mentioned daughters."
"I've got two of 'em. Maribel, she's six, and Louise." He gave a rueful smile. "She's eight and a real handful. To tell you the truth, Miss Parker, it's because of Louise that I'm taking this step. She's growing up wild as a flag iris and I think she's going to be just as pretty. What's she going to do without a mother to tell her what's what when the boys start coming around?"
"Surely if she's only eight, you have time. You needn't leap into matrimony. It's a very serious measure."
He nodded. "I know it. But I want the girls to have time to get to know their new mama. If I bring in somebody when she's sixteen or so, there's no way Louise is ever going to listen to her or trust her."
For the first time, Edith put aside her bias against Mr. Dane. She looked at him, looked deeply. She saw a man who'd loved one woman profoundly. Her death must have beaten him in a way no living person could have done. He'd probably been so confused and hurt that he'd been unable to give his daughters the attention and affection they deserved. Now he was trying to make amends.
Edith also saw a good-looking man. Most likely still under thirty. His hair was bleached from the sun that had tanned his face. The broad shoulders under the new suit were the kind a woman could lean on and find comfort. His voice had a calming note. She thought he must be good with animals. Anything that had been hurt would turn naturally to him, knowing it would find in him the strength to do what must be done and cherishing after.
"I don't think I can help you," she said slowly. "I usually only work with letters."
"You have my letter."
"Yes, but the ladies haven't written ... I need both in order to make a match. You see," she gestured toward the cabinets that filled one corner of the tiny room. "Someone sends me a letter. Perhaps they are ... Well, take the last couple for whom I arranged an introduction."
Seeing interest on his face, Edith went on, only vaguely noticing that she'd suddenly become very comfortable with Mr. Dane. "He wrote to me, asking for a nicely bred girl, used to farm work. That's a fairly typical request. But Mr. Hansen wanted her to like cows. Really like them--their characters, their fondness for the people who care for them--not merely tolerate them because they are a useful animal."
"I have to admit most cows are likeable. You found someone for him?"
"Oh, yes. I'd received a letter some weeks ago from a girl, a regular churchgoer. Miss Fiske asked me to help her find a respectable husband. She was living not far from here but what she really wanted to do was get to the country. She'd lived for a time in Pennsylvania and she said her favorite part of farm life had been working with the dairy cows. She wrote so beautifully about them, I knew she would do for Mr. Hansen."
"So you work by happenstance."
"Sometimes I am very lucky."
It was more than luck, though no one ever believed the truth. Not even Aunt Edith, though at times Edith could have sworn she saw the same strong intuition at work in the older woman. Aunt Edith always claimed to have an extra-good memory, her explanation for the nearly magical way she had of matching two people exactly.
"They were married two weeks ago," Edith said. "I think they'll be very happy."
"For the first two weeks, anyway."
"Please don't be cynical. That's a very bad way to start."
Her tone was so serious that Jeff had to respect her for it. "I'm sorry," he said. "I believe in marriage. It's the happiest way to live. People weren't meant to live alone."
He glanced once more around the appalling little room. There wasn't even a carpet on the floor, or a decent picture, nothing like the gew-gaws most women collected. No luxury or ease, only a bird cage hanging from a hook. What must it be like to live in such a bleak emptiness? He hated to think how cold it must be in the winter, for he saw no way of heating it.
"By the way," he said, "we haven't talked about your compensation. I realize you probably have a lot of calls on your time, Miss Parker . . ." Jeff hesitated for a moment, then boldly doubled the price he'd meant to pay her. "So what do you say I give you fifty dollars for the week, to make up for the other clients you'll lose. Oh, and room and board's included, of course. My dad's a heck of a fine cook."
Fifty a week? That would pay her rent in a far better boardinghouse for five months, four if she wanted to eat well. She could get away from Maginn and from being stripped naked by his eyes. At the same time, however, a warning bell sounded in her mind. "If a thing is too good to be true," her aunt had often said, "it undoubtedly isn't true."
Fifty a week was an unheard-of sum. Edith doubted the governor made that much. It was fairy-tale money, a pot of gold, and as likely to vanish with the dawn. A man determined to carry a girl into infamy might hold out such golden promises.
All her suspicions returning, Edith let her common sense override her intuition about his decency. "I'm sorry, Mr. Dane. I cannot help you. You will have to decide by yourself." Orpheus twittered as if in protest.
Mr. Dane accepted her refusal with an understanding nod. "I guess it was a lame idea, anyway. Nobody could expect a nice lady like you to travel off with a stranger. I didn't even think about a chaperone . . ." he gestured faintly toward her.
'Thank you for asking me." She put out her hand, a proper businesswomen concluding a candid discussion. Mr. Dane's handshake was firm, his fingers warm through her cotton glove.
Edith tottered when she felt the surge of energy ran up her arm. Nothing in her experience could compare to it. It was like a flash racing through her body, as though lightning had struck her. She tingled down to her toes. The excitement burned brightest in her breasts and beneath her skirts. She jerked her hand free of his engulfing one.
"Are you all right?" Mr. Dane asked.
A slow tide of color came and went in her cheeks, as though she had been swallowed and released by a wave. "Perfectly fine."
He seemed unchanged, untouched by any strange emotional experience. She watched him go out. In the hall, he stopped and turned back. "Listen, I'm staying at the St. Simeon. If you change your mind, you can get in touch with me there. I hope you will come, Miss Parker. I need somebody on my side."
"Everybody else . . . those that know about it ... everybody's got their favorite horse running in the Dane stakes. I can't get an honest opinion from anybody, not even Dad. If I got an impartial judge, maybe I could start wooing wholeheartedly."
"I'm sorry," she said mechanically. "It's not possible."
After he was gone, Edith tried to busy herself with little tasks, sewing on buttons, filing, writing notes of reminder. She knew she would have to go down to the Bulletin and face Mr. Steadman, to confront him on why the advertisement she relied on was missing from this quarter's edition.
Her heart failed at the very idea of going all the way down to Grand Boulevard instead of dealing with the problem by mail. There wasn't time to use the mail, though. If Mr. Steadman was fair, he might refund part of what she'd paid. If he wasn't, she could always sit on his doorstep and waste away.
Edith straightened her hat to a nicety in the crooked mirror. Trying to wear her aunt's sternest expression, she went down the stairs. Stepping as quietly as a cat, she edged past Mr. Maginn's open door. The landlord sprawled in a soiled armchair, his head back and mouth open. A few flies hung over him as they would hover over refuse in the street.
A board creaked beneath Edith's foot. Maginn's snuffling snore broke and she heard him grunt. As quietly and as quickly as she could, Edith escaped before he awoke from his stupor.
To take the omnibus meant paying the fare. If she walked to the Bulletin's office she would save two precious nickels, but she'd surely use a quarter's worth of shoe leather. Her lips tight, Edith chose the cash.
Despite her concentration on surface matters, Edith knew that deep down her mind was busy with something else. What had been that strange connection she'd felt to Mr. Dane? Her hands still felt sparkly, like the Fourth of July. He was in her mind during the entire walk to the business district, more vivid than any champion her imagination had ever created.