Sweetbriar Updated and Illustrated: Chap 1
Louisa tried to pray, but the words came hard. She wasn’t accustomed to kneeling at her bed fully clothed, and thoughts of her plans kept interrupting. It felt even stranger to be lying in bed with her shoes on, the blankets piled high. But she couldn’t run the risk of Ma coming in and finding her dressed. The blankets would have to stay.
Time passed slowly in the dark. This was her last night in Illinois; tomorrow they were leaving for The Oregon—or the Promised Land as most people called it. She listened to the creaks and groans of John Denny’s farmhouse settling into the gathering cold. In the distance she heard the neighbor’s dog bark, heard Jonah whine to be let out. “There you go, mutt,” Ma said. Everyone was going, minus the Latimers, her mother’s family, and her oldest Denny stepbrothers; they had families and weren’t ready to make the plunge.
Louisa sighed and rolled over to stare absently at the armoire along the wall and found that her heart raced just thinking of all that had to be done. Would she get away with it? she wondered. Carefully she went through her plans, step by step, all the while picturing her mirror hanging on the wall downstairs at the foot of the stairs. First thing in the morning the mirror was to go to Pamelia’s.
Or so the family had decreed.
The mirror was really her father’s, her real father’s, and Louisa loved it for that reason; but also because the mirror was so lovely to look at, framed in black walnut, its beveled glass ground and polished to perfection. Its only fault was its weight, much too heavy to go West. But it would go. It had to; the beautiful mirror was the only piece she had of her own Pa, the only tangible thing of lost memory. He’d died before she could learn to walk.
The stairs complained under the weight as the rest of the family came up to bed. Louisa strained to catch the sound of David’s footsteps, but they were lost in the shuffle. She did hear his door shut across the hall from her, and then the easy, quiet banter of his voice as he exchanged good nights with three of his brothers—her stepbrothers James, Sam, and Wiley.
David, of course, was the only reason she was going to The Oregon, the only reason she was giving up her teaching and saying goodbye to Pamelia, her dearest friend on earth. And of course her beloved grandparents and army of Latimer cousins. Is it worth it, she wondered. Three years she’d been waiting for David to notice her—ever since his Pa, one of Illinois’ prominent state legislators, had married her own Ma. But even after all this time David still treated her with predictably polite, at times helpful, courtesy. Never anything more. Was she a fool? Still, there was no other choice. She’d go. David was.
A baby fussed in the stillness—Loretta, Ma’s new baby. Who would have thought that at forty-five years old, Sarah Latimer Boren Denny would be nursing a two-month-old infant? Surprise, surprise, and not once had Louisa heard her Ma complain about having to leave her elderly parents and nine siblings, and her three dozen or more nieces and nephews, and a perfectly good home to trek across the wilderness to an unknown land with a baby at her age. But then why should Ma complain? A widow for twenty-two years—and having raised three children and run her own farm—she now had a fine husband in John Denny, a respected state legislator. Thirteen years older than her, a “weathered old horse” as he often described himself, he’d been over the moon with Loretta’s birth, his only daughter after eight sons. Ma and “Pa” had much to be happy about.
Louisa rolled onto her back to stare forlornly up at the low attic ceiling. Ma had Pa; and she wanted David. An ambitious dream, she realized, given their age difference. Last month on Saint Patrick’s Day he’d turned nineteen. Come June, she’d be twenty-four. Twenty-four! Five whole years ahead of him! And this, she knew, was a really big reason why he never looked her way. Who wanted an old spinster schoolmarm?
How terribly depressing.
Quite suddenly she was aware of time passing. This was it! Everyone was in bed! She pushed back the covers and again knelt, this time to slip her hand beneath the feathered mattress. “Ah, good...” she whispered unintentionally, startling herself. A deep breath, and she pulled out from under the mattress several seed packets and stuffed them into her dress pockets—surprises for her sister Mary Ann when they got to the Oregon. Sweet Williams, sweet peas, heliotrope, marigolds, violets, alyssum, impatiens, carnations, sunflowers, hollyhocks. Yes, hollyhocks.
The next thing to be done was pull the heavy armoire away from the wall. The monstrous but empty cupboard gave way easily enough, and Louisa reached in behind, groping the dust balls for two small seashell jewelry boxes she’d hidden several months before—they were to be next year’s Christmas gifts for her sister’s little girls. Katy (six) and Nora (3) had expressed worry last Christmas that Santa Claus might not know about The Oregon and there’d be nothing in their stockings. There they were, just as she was about to give up and go round to the other side of the armoire and reach in from there. She scooted both toward her, fingers closing around first one, then the other. Standing, wincing a little from a dizzy rush, she pushed the armoire back to the wall, no one the wiser.
She looked both ways before stepping into the narrow hallway. The coast was clear! Tiptoeing, she made her way to the stairs and began the dicey descent—pausing, heart thumping with each creak. A slow go. But she made it down without raising attention, mirror glimmering in the moonlight in front of her, right next to the front door. But first her coat. It hung in the hall along the stairwell, and with shaking fingers she dropped into its pockets the jewelry boxes. Now the mirror, she thought, shrugging into her coat.
For a moment she stood before the precious relic, gazing thoughtfully at her reflection, the dim halo of her raven-black hair and shadowed eyes, which were brown. Moonlight splintering through the leaded glass kiddy-corner to the front door caught the glimmer of her silver combs. A Christmas gift from David.
So pleased she’d been, elated in fact, but he’d spoiled it all by telling her Grandma had picked them out. For a while she hadn’t even worn them, she was that disappointed. Yet he’d paid for them. That was something. And they were beautiful.
A noise overhead. Heart kicking her ribs, she darted back to the coats and slid in under Pa’s heavy work coat. Silence. Furtively, she glanced up the stairs. Nothing. No one. Time to act! She took hold of the mirror and was about to lift it free when way back in her head somewhere she heard Ma’s voice. “You’ll take that mirror over to Pamelia’s first thing in the morning and no arguing. It’s too heavy. You can’t expect the men to go to the extra trouble. No, Liza, it’s been decided. Not another word.”
“Arthur gets to take his roll top desk!” she’d argued.
Like that argument was going to get her anywhere.
Well, it is going, she resolved, watching her ghostly reflection slant off as she pulled the mirror from the nail. Whether you likes it or not. It’s a wedding present for David. Of this, however, she wasn’t at all certain. Still, it could never be a present if she didn’t take it.
Jonah barked when she stepped onto the porch. “Shh, it’s only me,” she cautioned. The air stung with a chill and the dog padded toward her in the stiff grass. She shrugged the mirror tighter to her chest, then curled around it to help with the weight. “Want to come along?”
The old sheep dog wagged his tail and together they took the beaten trail to the covered wagons on the other side of the cherry trees that lined the driveway into the farm—four distant white canopies ablaze in the moonlight. Pa’s was the first, and she hefted with some trouble the mirror up into the feed box Pa had nailed to the backboard and began climbing in herself.
“May I help you?”
Startled out of her wits, Louisa gasped, lost her balance, and the ground spun around and up. But David was quick and managed to catch her before she landed unceremoniously on her backside.
“David!” she sputtered—surprised and stunned to find herself on her own two feet, caught in David’s tight embrace. His arms felt like hot bands of steel around her, strong and tight, and she stood embarrassingly conscious of his strength and closeness. Dizziness swept over her even as she fought to clear her senses and the putty in her knees. She’d heard people say that time could stop in moments like these, but she’d dismissed the expression as a very silly exaggeration. Yet time had stopped, David’s eyes boring into hers. Would she faint after all? But then David blinked and the spell was broken.
“What on earth— What— What are you doing here?” she finally stammered, finding her tongue at last.
“I might ask the same thing of you,” he said, hiding a smile. He stepped back even as the corners of his mouth began to turn up the way she loved and had admired from afar. He couldn’t help himself, and gave her an easy, mirthful grin. “You’re up to something,” he teased.
“I am not.”
“I am not!”
“You naughty girl,” he chided, giving a deliberate nod to the feed box and mirror glimmering in the moonlight. “Dear dearie me, what will Ma say?”
She gasped in real alarm. Defiantly, she crossed her arms. “You know nothing of this,” she said sternly in a tone not unlike Ma’s. David surprised her by setting his hands squarely on her shoulders the way Pa often did when Ma was upset, and the unexpected and supportive gesture sent a thrill down her spine. When he learned in to whisper “I won’t breathe a word” she thought for a second she’d faint. Never could she have imagined that the intimacy of his voice in her ear could create such a dizzy spell, and she froze, caught off guard, not knowing what to do. But then he was gone, and she watched him duck between the cherry trees back toward the house. Dumfounded, she watched the long stride of his legs carry him all too quickly away.
“David!” she called, his absence a sudden and lonely thing. “Wait for me?”
He came back.
“I think I can do this myself, though,” she told him.
“I expect you can.”
Suddenly shy and self-conscious, and feeling the color rise in her cheeks when the scramble over the feed box proved to be a clumsy and undignified maneuver, she said, “Of course I can.”
So dark! Inside, all she could see of the wagon, a box no bigger than four feet wide and about nine feet long, was the shadowed jumble of boxes and crates, a barrel, gunnysacks, a bag of something that smelled like suspiciously like potatoes. She waded in and through the muddle, losing her balance from time to time, her arms cradling the mirror. Here it was, her trunk! She set aside the mirror to verify the nick on the brass lock. Yes, this was hers. She lifted the lid and stared down into the contents. Everything would have to come out—her dresses, her schoolbooks, three sunbonnets already squashed. She piled them onto the floor beside her in an untidy and teetering disarray.
Breathing a prayer of forgiveness for such willful disobedience—and not the least bit sorry—she wrapped the mirror between layers of an old comforter she’d made as a child and set it in, on edge, along the back wall of the trunk where it was less likely to break. Her books went in next—and copies of Godey’s Lady’s Magazine. Mary Ann had packed some along as well, for they hoped to decorate the walls of their new homes with the beautiful illustrations. One she particularly liked was one of a woman sitting on the moon. Others included the lovely floral ads for Pear’s Soap. The clothes she refolded and set back in, tucking in her brass candlesticks. David, she noticed, had turned to gaze at the stubbled wheat fields. What was he thinking? She could see the back of his head as she worked, as well as his shoulders, broad and muscular, and his toque—the one she’d knit him for Christmas with its array of colors. His brown hair was long and curling, sticking out from under the ribbed band. She disconnected the bag from her arm and brought out the seed packets and the two lovely boxes and slipped them down into the clothing. The last thing to add was her white mull dress. A wedding dress? Again she glanced at David. Then shut the lid. Fait accompli, she thought to herself.
Neither of them spoke until they crossed under the cherry trees. David said, “Sooner or later, you’re going to get caught with that mirror.”
“By then it’ll be too late.”
“You’re always so pragmatic.”
Jonah trotted alongside them, his tail swinging back and forth, though it dropped when David let the door shut in his face. He whined and clawed at the door.
“Sorry, old boy,” said David, letting him in.
Louisa hung up her coat and headed for the stairwell. “Don’t tell anyone.”
“I said I wouldn’t.”
She realized she had nothing to say. She’d just wanted to hold onto him a little while longer. “Never mind. Good night.” Halfway up the stairs she realized he wasn’t following. “Aren’t you coming up?”
“In a bit.”
But David took his time. He waited until he knew she was in bed and then felt along the empty wall. When he found the bare nail, he grinned, closed his fist around the spike. What spunk, he thought, from the pretty Miss Louisa Boren. It would be a sorry thing if the mirror surfaced and Pa—or Arthur—made her throw it out. The Oregon Trail, he’d heard, was littered with such things.