11.01.2008

Tearful Goodbyes

It was such a sad farewell today, to all I had ever known and loved, but a necessary one.

The moment I woke up, I began to cry, quietly, in my little bed, one in a row of many. All the girls but Maggie were still asleep, and the little dear crept over to my bed to do her best to soothe me. A sweet, kind-hearted girl of twelve, Maggie has long been my friend and, if I may say it, admirer. She does her best to imitate my way of speaking and dressing and everything else since she arrived here six years ago--indeed, her blonde curls were wrangled into two braided tails, just as I keep my own brown tresses while sleeping. She crawled beneath the blankets with me and lay with her hands up by her mouth. "Must you go, Bernice?" she asked in a whisper.

I nodded, for all young ladies, upon reaching the age of eighteen, must leave Saint Anne's Home for Impecunious and Orphaned Girls and make their way on their own, aided at first by the modest stipend Saint Anne's is able to provide to them through the generous donations of our few wealthy benefactors.

"Perhaps you could stay on and teach here," Maggie said, not for the first time.

"I would make a horrid teacher," I managed to say through my tears, a little smile on my lips, having told her this before. "I would let my girls do nothing but dance and sing and eat sweets all day."

"I think that would be lovely," said Maggie, but of course we both knew it was impossible, for many reasons.

"No, darling. I must go. I must search out the relations I know I have somewhere, and find a useful occupation thereafter."

"Will you ever come back?"

"I shall do my best to try," I murmured, stroking a few stray strands back from her forehead. My tears were drying on my cheeks, and the wet spot where they'd fallen on my pillow was cooling. "Perhaps I shall return with my... rich aunt. Or a kind older cousin."

"Or perhaps a handsome husband," Maggie giggled.

"I embark today on a quest to find existing relations," I smiled, "not to make new ones."

"But you are sure to have many adventures, traveling all alone for who knows how long on your quest," she said, wide-eyed. "You could meet any number of dashing young gentlemen."

"I could," I replied, my eyes twinkling. "But if any one of them proposes marriage to me, I shall make him wait until I have tracked down my family. I shall begin by heading east." I had told her my plans many times, though she had the same spell-bound look every time I related it, and would not mind hearing it once more. And in a way, it was soothing to me, to go over my intentions again and again, making them fact in my mind before they had ever become reality.

"East to where?" she asked, as always.

"To Reliance, in Madison. That's where my parents came from, and there is a professor at a school there, named Greenwater."

"And you think he is your relation?"

"I don't know. But if he is not, perhaps he can help me in my search. He may know of other Greenwaters. Or the great library there may be of use to me as well."

"How?"

"There I may find records and the like. Birth and death and marriage announcements. Perhaps my own parents' marriage announcement, and then I might know my mother's family name and her family."

“Do you think your parents were from Reliance?” asked Maggie.

“They flew from there to come here, though they did not live to see their new home,” I said quietly, my eyes downcast. “That is all I know. Perhaps they lived there, perhaps not.”

A few moments passed in near-silence, with only the comfortable sound of girls sleeping, breathing, and turning over in their beds around us. “Are you scared?” Maggie whispered.

I thought about it before answering. “Yes,” I whispered back. “But excited also. Anything may happen after today, anything at all.” I shifted to rest my head on my arm, still on my side facing her. “Up until today my life has been the same. I wake, I dress, I eat and go to lessons. At night I lie down in this little bed, the same one I have occupied since I was big enough to climb in and out without assistance. I have known nothing but this orphanage and this town all my eighteen years.” It occurred me then that this was my birthday; until that moment, I had been thinking of this day only as the day when I would leave one life and begin the next. “But once my train leaves the station and I pass into the next county... why, I’ll be the furthest I’ve ever been from home--this place that has become my home--in all my life, but for the few months when I was an infant and my parents still lived, and we dwelled someplace far from here.”

To return to my quest, Maggie asked eagerly, “And you will take that train all the way to Reliance?”

“I shan’t have to change once,” I told her.

“What is your train called?”

“The Arabella Something or Other,” I replied. “The other name wasn’t as pretty, so I don’t remember it.”

“I’ve never been on a train before.”

“Nor have I.”

“What will it be like?”

This was another part Maggie liked to hear about. “There are different cars for different things,” I told her for at least the sixth or seventh time. “The car I’ll be in just has seats. People with more money than me--which is everyone,” I added, and she giggled, “have nicer seats with more room, and cushions and things. Some people even have private little compartments so they can shut the door on everyone else.”

“Don’t people have to walk through to get to the next car, though?” asked Maggie, being familiar with at least that much.

“I don’t think so.”

“How do they get through, then?”

“They probably... go over the top, or something,” I said, making up what I didn’t know.

“On top of the train? While it’s moving?” she asked, her eyes going wide.

“No no, I’m sure not. I’m sure it’s all... enclosed.”

This seemed to satisfy her, for next she asked, “And what about the dining car?”

“That’s where they have tables and chairs set up, and they serve meals. The silverware rattles as the train goes along the tracks, and you have to hold onto your glass when you turn corners.”

“I can’t imagine eating while moving,” Maggie said. “I think I should get sick, and--”

“Oh, will you shut it already!” came a moan from the next bed.

“Hush, Violet,” I snapped back. “The bell will ring in ten minutes or so, anyway.”

“I could’ve been asleep for those ten minutes,” she whined.

“Thanks, now I’m awake, too,” said Emma from the other side. All around the room, other girls were stirring, yawning and stretching as they drifted into wakefulness.

“She’ll be gone after today,” Violet told Emma, presumably speaking of me, “and then we can all rest in peace.”

“That’s what it will say on your tombstone if you don’t lay off,” Maggie cried, sitting up suddenly in her eagerness to defend me. More groans sounded from around the room, as her cry had awakened others.

“Hush, sweetheart,” I murmured, pulling her back down. “Let them fuss. We’ve ten more minutes of quiet all to ourselves.”

“Our last ten minutes of quiet,” she said, her eyes filling with tears. “I’ll never see you agaaaain!” The last word turned into a wail, and then she was sobbing, her tears dampening the shoulder of my nightgown as she pressed close against me.

“Shh, I said I’ll come back. I promise I will, Maggie.”

“No you won’t,” she sniveled. “You’ll forget all about me, and all of us, with your lovely family.”

“On the contrary, it shall make me remember you all the more,” I protested, stroking her back. “I shall wish you--all of you girls here--to have such happy endings as mine. And do you know what I’ve decided?” I whispered right in her ear. “You mustn’t tell anyone else.”

“What?” she asked, sniffing and doing her best to stop crying. Maggie loved secrets; I knew this to be a weakness of hers.

“Do you promise?”

She pulled back a little, though her arms were still around my neck. “Promise,” she whispered, nodding. She kissed her first finger and held it out; I did the same with mine and we pressed our fingertips together, making the usual childhood solemn vow of secrecy.

I drew her a little nearer, and spoke softly. I could hear the bedsprings creak behind me as Violet, no doubt, shifted to crane her neck, trying to hear. Little sneak. I emphasized my S’s to torment her further, knowing she would be able to hear just enough not to know what I was speaking about. “When I am able,” I told Maggie, “I shall come back for you. You shall help me in my shop, if I set one up, or if I am married, I shall adopt you and bring you home with me.”

“You would be my mother?” she asked wonderingly.

“It is the only way they would allow me to take you, if I were unable to offer you employment.”

“Like Lottie went to be a maid for that old woman that came for her?”

“Like Lottie,” I said. She was fourteen when an elderly lady came to the orphanage last winter, looking to hire a girl to wheel her around in her chair and do the cooking and cleaning up, which she could no longer handle after taking a bad fall down her icy front steps. It was good, honest work, and, as Miss P___ said, “would provide her with three meals a day, a roof over her head, and a good reference when the old lady croaked.” She didn’t know I was listening as she told this to the reverend over tea one afternoon, but it was only good sense, though the matter-of-fact way she said it made me hold both hands over my mouth to keep from laughing.

“Shall I have to be your maid?” asked Maggie, a bit of a fearful whine in her voice.

“Not at all,” I whispered back. “You shall be... like my sister. Even if I am legally your mother or your employer.”

“I should like that very much,” she said, putting as much emphasis into her words as she could while still being quiet.

“As would I,” I smiled, and hugged her tightly. I had watched several friends leave the orphanage over the years when they turned eighteen, and had seen none of them since. A few had written, both to me, personally, and to the group at large, but none had made appearances. But just because they had not returned did not mean that I could not.

The bell rang then, in the tower atop the building, powered by clockwork and on the dot of seven-thirty. Some of the girls groaned or sighed, but twenty-two pairs of feet hit the floor a moment after; Miss P___ was very strict about our schedule. True to form, the door opened and in she stepped, calling out her usual cheery, “Good morning, girls!” Her boots clicked a few steps further into the room. “And a very special good morning to you, Bernice, on this most auspicious day.”

Though she smiled at me, I could not help bursting into tears again, and she came over to embrace me, muttering good-naturedly about my “usual dramatics” as she stroked my hair.

Eventually I calmed and was able to dress, trying not to think that in less than three hours, I would be on Arabella “Something or Other” traveling quickly far away from this place.

Thankfully, all my things were nearly packed, though after breakfast I rushed around madly checking every nook and cranny to make sure I had not missed anything. My trunk was stuffed full, perhaps due in part to my hasty packing, but there had been so many other things to do the previous week that I could hardly devote much time to folding my clothes neatly. That’s what irons were for.

At last I thought I had found everything, and it was really and truly time to go. Father D___ heaved my trunk onto the top of a short cabriolet, ordered the day before to come and take me to the train station. My arms were full of little gifts many of the girls had given me: bracelets or necklaces they had made from what scraps they could find, hand-written cards and letters, several nosegays hurriedly plucked from the sparse flowers which grew around the perimeter of the building.

Dear Maggie had apparently been working on her present for some time. It was a little booklet of all her favourite memories of us written out (and some of them illustrated!), from her first day at the orphanage when she was six years old and singed by the tenement fire that had killed all the rest of her family, to the time just a month ago when she and I had accidentally locked ourselves in the attic because I was convinced the orphanage was being raided by burglars in the middle of the night. (It was actually a particularly noisy tomcat throwing himself against the back door in an attempt to get to Missy, our shameless hussy of a cat, but how was I to know that?) I tucked the booklet into the inner pocket of my coat, next to my heart, and merely waved and smiled through my tears as the cabriolet drove off, having already said my goodbyes. I could not even muster up much excitement at my first ride in a cabriolet all by myself, and driven by a Drudge, no less.

It was terribly dirty and noisy at the train station, and the ticket master was grumpy, so I shall not bore you, Dear Reader, with a description of those awful thirty minutes. So here I sit on the train (called Arabella Genevieve, it turns out) in the late afternoon sunshine, the nosegays wilting in my lap, Maggie’s book already well-thumbed, and two handkerchiefs used up and crumpled in the bottom of my coat pocket. I shall be on the train for several more days; I cannot remember exactly, and do not want to hunt for the little pamphlet containing the schedule right now.

Supper shall consist of the second half of the sandwich Cook packed for me this morning, and then I think I shall fall asleep here in my thinly-padded seat, between the window and an old gentleman who has done little but sleep since I arrived.

2 comments:

miss donna said...

A wonderful beginning to your story. I have a true sense of who Bernice is up to this point in her life, kind, imaginative, articulate. I can't wait to see what happens to her next!

Ash said...

A delightful beginning. I love your style and choice of vocabulary; it seems very time-period appropriate. I shall continue reading!

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