21. May 2013 · Comments Off on From The WIP – The Quivera Trail · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book

Chapter 26 – News of a Distressing Nature

The fatal telegram arrived two days before Christmas, at Cousin Peter’s sprawling house in Austin. Isobel had begun to fret guiltily, because her husband had not yet arrived – while she and the whole Richter ménage had come safely and comfortably by train, some ten days before Christmas. They had traveled in the luxury of Uncle Richter’s parlor car; this year Aunt Richter came willingly with them.
“Her nerves,” Lottie whispered, as they entrained at the Austin Street main station. “She has been better of late – there were days, months even – when she could not be coaxed to set foot outside, or even come from her room. But she does love your daughters – I think she has consented to come with us because of the girls. She does love children…”
“Children are small, adoring and biddable,” Isobel answered. “But you are correct – she is marvelous with children; she spoils them with affection … she would never consider a harsh punishment, no matter what they did.”

It comforted Isobel, wrapping herself in Aunt Richter’s unquestioning affection, after her talk with Mrs. Becker on the morning that Dolph had taken himself off. At least there was someone in the world, not judging her harshly, or telling her of matters that she had no idea of how to reckon with. When Anna Vining tapped on the door of her room that morning, Isobel thought first that it was because there was a message from Dolph.
“You should come downstairs to the parlor,” Anna’s face was unnaturally grave. “There is a telegram come for you. From England. I think it is bad news.”
“It would be, if it’s a telegram,” Isobel gasped. She gathered her skirts in one one hand, and fairly ran down the stairs, heedless of ladylike dignity. In the Vining’s comfortable, elegant parlor, her mother-in-law waited for her, with Aunt and Uncle Richter hovering protectively.
“This was just been delivered to the house,” Uncle Richter’s voice was heavy, as if he already knew the contents of the little brown telegraph office’s envelope. Aunt Richters’ eyes were already welling up with tears. “You had best sit down.” He guided her to the divan where Aunt Richter already sat, and put the envelope into her hand; it was not sealed. She opened it with shaking fingers and read the few words printed neatly on the slip of paper within.


Isobel had been steeling herself against such news for weeks. Having it incontrovertibly in her hand came as a hard blow. She handed the paper silently to her mother-in-law.
“I could not have journeyed there in time,” she said; her voice sounding flat and dull in her own ears. “Even if I had gone when I wished to.”
“No,” Mrs. Becker agreed. “I am sorry, Daughter Isobel. I know your presence there would have meant much to you and a comfort to your father. But it would not have been possible.”

“No,” Isobel agreed; she was numb at the thought of Fa, no longer in this world but passed to glory eternal. It didn’t seem right, somehow. She could still hear his voice in her ears, close her eyes and see him in his scruffy, smoke-aged study, or out and about on horseback, trailed by his favorite wolfhounds. She wrung her hands together. “I wish now that my husband would be here … he said that his business would not permit us to travel to England at this time, and…” Suddenly, she was aware of Uncle Richter and Mrs. Becker exchanging a look – and that Uncle Richter looked perfectly thunderous. “What is the matter? Has something happened to him?” She demanded in sudden alarm. Uncle Richter made an effort to banish the dark expression from his countenance. “No, nothing has happened to Dolphchen … but that scamp, young Samuel, has decided that the cattle business is not good enough for him – he has written us, saying that he wishes to be an artist! Such ideas as he got for himself now, I wish that we had never consented to his studying in Paris. Now he fancies that he can make a living at it.”

“I think he can,” Isobel moved to defend Sam, in spite of Uncle Richter’s scowl – and the quick warning shake-of-the-head from Mrs. Becker. “He is a very talented painter…”
“Talent doesn’t put food on the table,” Uncle Richter rumbled, at his most magisterial. “I knew some of those artistic fellows, back before the war in Live Oak. Poor chaps – couldn’t make a living at anything. Finally had to go back to trade. I thought your son had more sense,” he added to the senior Mrs. Becker. “More fool him. But this leaves Dolphchen with much more responsibilities … he may not be able to join us here for another week or so. He writes that thinks of going to Galveston to meet Sam, and try and talk him out of this nonsense.”
Isobel opened her mouth – no, Sam likely wouldn’t be talked out of it, but it was useless to try and convince Uncle Richter of this. Instead she said, “I would that my husband were here now.”
“I am sure that he thinks of you often,” Uncle Richter answered, “And wishes to be at your side – but it cannot be helped. Cows, weather and hired men take no care for what a wife may say.”
“I thought he had married me, not the cows and hired men,” Isobel’s tears spilled over, and Aunt Richter put an arm around her and snapped something in angry German to her husband. “I said some horrible things to him,” Isobel added, between sobs. “Things that I am sorry for saying now … I don’t blame him for staying away from us!”

“Then you should write to him,” Mrs. Becker advised, and Isobel thought again with remorse of how she had spoken to Dolph and turned coldly away from. How terribly childish of her; it would serve her right, if he had decided to end any kind of intimacy and to be married to her in name only, like any number of Society couples in England that she had heard rumors about. But he loves Maggie and Caro, she thought – Surely he would not stay away for long! How long could Dolph spin out the excuse of business matters?
“I will do that,” she said at last, wishing wretchedly that it could all have been again as it was in summer at the Becker ranch. What an idyll that had been! She made her excuses to Aunt Richter and Mrs. Becker, and went upstairs to write that letter.

Austin, Texas
December 22, 1878

My dear husband … I have begun this letter several times over, so please excuse any blots or crossed out words and lines. First I must tell you that we received a telegram this morning from my brother Martyn, informing me that my most dear father has entered that eternal sleep, so there is now no need of a long journey to be at his side and receive his final blessing. My brother promised a letter to follow, containing all the particulars. I presume that according to custom, the final rites will be held at the church in Upton, which you may well remember from the celebration of our nuptials. I do not feel any particular need to travel Home, knowing that all will be done as custom dictates long before we would ever arrive. For now, I would sooner keep my memories of Acton simple and unaltered, with dearest Fa a living presence within its walls.

I must also apologize from the bottom of my heart for those thoughtless words spoken to you in hasty inconsideration. I was in such distress at the news received from my brother and Major Sutcliffe that I could give no thought to your feelings, or indeed to your fears for myself and for our children, and so spoke so rashly. I was often chided for speaking so impetuously as a child, and I fear that the years have made no improvement to my tongue. I would give nearly anything to have unsaid them, for your sake and for the sake of our children.

Caro and Maggie long for your return; they will need your presence as their father far more than I had reason to be with my dear Fa in his last hours. Please say that you forgive me,


* * *

Isobel labored over that letter and mailed it the following day, wondering when and where it would finally reach her husband, and if it would have any effect in the least upon him. When her feelings of remorse became too heavy to bear in silence, she sought reassurance from Lottie and Mrs. Becker, some days after a rather somber Christmas celebration.
“He has not answered my letter, or came to Austin as he promised he would,” she confessed, wretchedly. “I don’t know what to think. Might he still be so angry with me that he will not consider any apology at all?”
“Dolph – oh, never!” Lottie answered in perfect confidence. “He is the kindest of brothers – he would never carry a grudge, not for hasty words, anyway.” But her mother frowned, deep in consideration.
“I do not like to think that he would,” she ventured. “He is my son, after all. But as I said before – he does not speak of those matters closest to his heart, or even set them to paper. All the time that he was with Colonel Ford, I think we had three letters. Although to be fair,” she added, “He might have written – just that everything was so unsettled by then, and letters were few for lack of paper.”
“I never had more than a brief note, several times, when we were courting,” Isobel admitted, and Lottie giggled.
“That would be my brother! Now Seb wrote to me once a week, sometimes more – although there isn’t anything new in most of his letters. ‘Three strayed cows found today,’ ‘weather most threatening,’ and ‘burgoo again for supper, not quite as vile as usual.’”
“Dolphchen does not waste paper with trivialities,” Mrs. Becker said, as if in austere disapproval. “No, Daughter Isobel – I think there may be more to bother my son than a grudge held over hasty words. It was in the paper some days ago. Lottie, this may be of concern to Sebastian, so I share this news with you … there was an escape from the prison in Fort Smith some weeks ago. They were all convicted of crimes – and one man eluded capture for a long time. There was a body found later, much decayed in the river which they thought might be his … Randall Whitmire. But they could not be certain.”
“The old man?” Isobel gasped; she still shivered to recall the grey-haired man she and Seb had met by chance, riding along the road to the Palo Duro ranch. She had been right to sense menace in him. Mrs. Becker nodded, while Lottie looked grave.
“Seb mentioned a rustler gang in one of his letters, and that there might be a danger from them to Dolph and Cuz, while they were still at large.”
“Yes, that was the Whitmire gang,” Isobel answered, with another shiver, remembering the warning brought to them by the mysterious Mr. Swain. “The old man was a criminal with a reputation of darkest hue. I don’t think there was a law of Gods’ or mans’ which he had not broken. Is there a chance he might be alive?”
“He is only one man, and old,” Lottie said, much relieved. “How much can one man do, alone?”
“You would not want to know what a single man full of malice is capable of doing.” Mrs. Becker looked as bleak as she had on the day when she told Isobel what had really happened to Dolph’s father. “Dolphchen, Cousin Peter, even your Seb … they may need to guard themselves and walk warily … If Randall Whitmire is still alive – he will need to walk warily also. Hansi has sent out inquiries to Fort Smith, in an effort to find an answer. If you have no letter from your husband, or from Seb,” she nodded at each of them, “It may be they have matters of more immediate concern to deal with.”
“I hope so,” Isobel answered. She still felt wretchedly ashamed of her coldness towards her husband, and hoped for any sign, or word of forgiveness from him. “I suppose then that I shall return to San Antonio with you and Aunt Richter. This is such a wretched tangle, I hardly know what to think.”
“Then that is your proper welcome to Texas,” Mrs. Becker replied dryly, and Lottie exclaimed, “Oh, Mama – you should not say such things!”
“Why not – since they are the truth?” Mrs. Becker reposted. Isobel wondered if she were correct. What would Fa have thought of all this?

Not having received any word from Dolph, she returned with the Richters to San Antonio after Christmas. She hoped that he might be waiting for here there – but instead there was a thick letter with English stamps and postmarks, addressed to her in handwriting that was familiar to her, but not Fa’s or Martyn’s. After a moment, she decided that it must be Mr. Aubrey’s hand – Fa’s estate agent and man of business. She opened it carefully, wishing that it had been from Fa – which it was, in a way.

December 19th, 1877
Acton Hall, Oxfordshire

Dear madam; I have taken down this communication from Lord Robert, as he was too enfeebled by illness to write to you himself. His final decline came with little warning, and he knew before any of us attending on him that his mortal end was near. He regretted very much that he could not take pen in hand himself, or live to witness your eventual happy return to Acton with your children, as he had hoped upon your marriage. Receipt of your letters and daguerreotypes of your infant daughters provided him with much pleasure during his final months, a circumstance which he remarked upon frequently. Let me take this opportunity to convey to you my own deepest condolences. Sir Robert was not only a generous patron and employer; I flatter myself that he was a friend as well. The following was dictated to me on the afternoon of the 19th instant, while I visited at his request.

Darling Pet; Martyn and Jack arrived this morning, bearing news of their call on you at Richter’s abode in San Antonio, whilst on their way home to England to attend on this old and decrepit builder of bridges and roads. Do not regret for a moment that you were unable to accompany them; your duty is to your children, to all of them – little Caro and Margaret, and the one whose name is yet unknown to me. My prayer is that you have the pleasure of seeing them grow to a womanly estate; women of spirit, accomplished and beloved by all – the very same pleasure which I have derived as your father from watching you. It cannot be denied, though – that your mother took very little of that pleasure, for which I feel more regret than I can ever express. Your mother possesses many fine qualities, and never failed to bring honor to my name and title, in every sphere save one in particular. She took less and less joy in children, suffering increasingly during every confinement. She was most particularly afflicted following your birth, and so wretched was her condition that doctors advised that you be given over entirely to the care of wet-nurses, while your mother recovered her health. To this day I believe was the reason for her oft-demonstrated coldness towards you, which I did my best to alleviate. Pet, my sole regret is that I did not do more to repair the misery which I know this lack of proper motherly affection caused for you. I am content to know that at least I managed to secure you some portion of happiness in permitting you to marry, when all others expressed doubts of Mr. Becker’s fitness and sincerity. Indeed, I thought it fortunate that this marriage would remove you from England, and afford a means of escaping the cruel demands which our family’s station pressed upon you. Each of your many letters confirmed to me that you had attained such happiness and content as I had hoped that you would on your wedding day.
Darling Pet, farewell for now. Do not torment yourself with regrets.
Your loving

Through her tears, Isobel could barely make out Sir Robert’s barely legible scrawl of a signature. Mr. Aubrey had appended a brief note.

Sir Robert also directed me to witness his final will and testament, which included a behest to you in the form of the freehold of a small residence near Upton, with grounds and outbuildings, etc., so that in the event that you wish a return to England, you will have the means of maintaining an independent establishment for yourself, your husband and the children. There are tenants in it at present, so under the terms of his will, the rents for that property will accrue to you. Until you desire to take up residence yourself, or I am in receipt of other instructions I am most happy to continuing as your agent with regard to this property. Again, my own deepest condolences, etc, etc,
Thomas Aubrey, Esq.

Isobel wiped her streaming eyes and read it over several times more, with a taste like ashes in her mouth. A little residence of her own, near Upton … well, she had it, but she couldn’t really say that she wanted it. This would give her a place to go with the children, if she chose to leave Texas entirely – but doing so would feel like defeat.

The wagon dray dispatched from Comfort by Mrs. Becker arrived in Houston Street on a mid-week in January; Jane hurried from the Lockhart’s little house on Pecan Street, where she had been staying with Bill and Ellen, on receipt of a message from the driver. The upstairs rooms over the furniture shop had been scoured and swept clean, made ready for those small items of furniture and Sam’s own possessions. Jane could not yet move into those rooms – it was a busy and commercial part of town, and she had already been warned that respectable woman could not live there alone without harm to reputation. Jane was sensitive to those opinions, having skated so close to danger, posing for Sam to paint and earning Mrs. Amelia’s spiteful gossip thereby. She waited on Sam’s return, and in lieu of rent had accepted some tables and chairs, a dresser and a bedstead from the tenant; items which he had readily admitted had been either slow to sell, or bespoke and subsequently refused or refused payment for. The upstairs rooms so sparsely furnished, still appeared airy and open to Jane, long accustomed to servant’s quarters and the tiny rooms over the shop in Didcot. I must not have been so long in America, that this place would seem grand to me, she thought to herself.
The drayman grumbled when she told him that all the contents of the wagon must be carried upstairs to count as truly delivered. There was space in the back to unload the crates, to open them, and to take out the smaller things. The downstairs tenant detailed several of his men to assist in this; Jane decided that it must have been from courtesy, and not that he was expecting another deduction from the rent.
The drayman brought several boxes of books, and a trunk of clothes. Jane took particular pleasure in sorting them out and putting them away in the dresser, for they smelled faintly of verbena, camphor and lavender, and now and gain of the bay balm that she particularly associated with Sam. By the time she finished, afternoon sunlight sent long golden fingers across the city. In the room that would be Sam’s studio, Jane sat before the wide un-curtained windows that looked to the back of the city lot; and the stand of rushes and cottonwood saplings which marked the river-edge. There would be plenty of light in this room, all the day long, for Sam to paint. She hoped he would like the building, and the situation. His latest letter crackled in the pocket of her apron. He had written it from Cherbourg, waiting for the weekly steam packet; by now he would be nearly to New York. Another week would see him in Galveston, where his Richter cousins would meet him on the dock. Jane felt quite overwhelmed; their long separation was nearly over. Sam did not plan to linger there, but come straight away on the train. Jane already planned what she would wear to meet him. The only fly in the ointment was that upon arrival, Sam must make clear his intention of independence from the family business, and Jane dreaded the fireworks which would erupt from the Baron and Sam’s brother.
At last, she took off her apron, hanging it in the kitchen with a feeling of proud possession. She took down her hat and settled it on her head for the walk back across town towards Pecan Street. She locked the outside door, and stayed for a moment, looking down at the busy, dusty street outside; wagons, men on horseback passing up and down. The bustle pleased her very much. She started down the stairway to the sidewalk, when someone called out to her from the street.
“Oi! Miss G!” Jane looked around, confused – that could be no one else’s’ voice but Alf Trotter’s, no one there on the street looked in the least like him. But one of the horsemen took off his hat, waving at her. “Over ‘ere, Miss G!”
Jane was rendered speechless with disbelief – could that wiry, sun-burnt cowhand possibly be the skinny and feral street urchin that Mr. Becker had brought from London, two years ago? He was dressed in the rough working clothes of a wrangler or a drover, with the customary open-collared shirt and bright handkerchief tied around his throat … also the customary adornment of a pair of revolvers on his belt. Now he slid down from the saddle of his horse with the grace of a water vole sliding down a creek bank, an ear-to-ear grin lighting up his face. “I thought it was you, Miss G! Put ‘er here!” He bowed over her hand, plainly happy beyond all measuring to see her. “I didn’ think to se yer in Santone – thought you was school-teachering in Austin.”
“I was,” Jane answered, “but I got married …”
“O-er!” he exclaimed. “No surprise, Miss G – oo’s the lucky chap?” Jane hesitated for a brief moment; well, may as well reveal it now. “Mr. Samuel Becker.”
Alf’s eyes rounded, for once rendered quite speechless. “Sir’s brother – oh, Miss G, that’s a turn-up an’ no mistake.”
Jane thought she might as well give away the rest of it. “He’s going to set up as an artist, as soon as he returns – this is where we’re going to live.” Now Alf whistled, in wordless astonishment. “I heard summat … Sir ain’t happy.”
“No, I don’t suppose that he is,” Jane agreed. “But this is something that my husband and I have planned and agreed upon to do together.”
Alf squinted at her; Jane realized that he had grown somewhat taller since departing from England with her on the Wieland; healthier and filled out from eating better food and hard work in the open air. But he still looked young for his age; likely he would always remain rather undersized.
“Serious, Miss G? Good fortune you came wi’ ‘er ladyship, innit?”
“Yes it was, Alf,” she answered, and Alf frowned.
“I don’t go by that now, Miss G. Them as are my friends, they call me Tom – I were baptized Thomas Alfred. A bit ago, I ast Sir would he mind if I called myself Becker, too. Everyone said I was like a shadow to Sir – all roun’ the RB, they call me Becker’s boy, ‘r that Becker kid, an’ all.”
“What did he say to that?” Jane thought it sounded dreadfully presumptuous of Alf, but apparently Americans took a more indulgent view towards those who wished to cast off the rags of their old selves. Alf – no, Tom – appeared as worshipful as he always did at the mention of the ‘Sir.’ “He smiled a bit – an’ then he said I might as well, but that name did have enemies on that account, an’ I might want to think again. But I said, any enemy of theirs’ was mine as well, an’ Trotter weren’t nuffink to be proud of, any roads. That’s why I came wi’ Sir to Santone. There’s maybe a man ‘scaped from prison in Fort Smith, with a grudge ‘gainst Sir. I been Sir’s Pinkerton all this while.”
“You certainly seem prepared for anything.” Jane remarked, and Alf – no, Tom – proudly squared his narrow shoulders. “I am, Miss G – I am. Wash Charpentier, ‘e taught me to shoot – said I had a dead-eye. They taught me some other prime tricks, too. I could be a champeen buckeroo, iff’n I wanted to practice it regular. I might at that, Miss G – Miz Becker! They were right – them as said the streets were paved w’ gold! ”
“It’s been your good fortune too,” Jane said, and the boy clapped his hat on his head again, and grinned. “Adios, Miz Becker – time t’ mosey ‘long.”
“Adios, Mr. Becker,” Jane returned with equal formality. “Tell … your ‘Sir’ that we shall be at home and receiving calls sometime early in March.” He nodded an acknowledgement, then swung up onto his horse and rode away down Houston Street towards the plaza of the old citadel with an outlandish whoop and at a fast trot. Jane looked after him until he was lost in the crowd.

Isobel put the letter from Mr. Aubrey with Fa’s dictation away in her jewel-case, along with the papers concerning the freehold which Mr. Aubrey enclosed. She was not entirely certain in her mind what she ought to do now, although Aunt Richter was blissfully incurious and un-judgmental about Isobel and her daughters remaining with them. Little Helene Elizabeth was a love of a baby; rosy, placid and plumb. Her sisters were loudly disappointed in her, as they wanted another ready playmate and missed the company of their cousin Rose, Peter and Anna’s youngest.
“She is only a baby, yet,” Isobel explained one morning, which dawned fair and pleasant, not a bit like February in England. Maggie’s expression reflected crushing disappointment. “But we want to play now!” Maggie said, and Isobel sighed.
“Darling, then I will show you how to play at hoops on the lawn.” Maggie’s expression brightened instantly, and Isobel fetched out the bent ash-wood hoops and sticks from among the tangle of children’s toys left here and there on the verandah overlooking the lawn between the mansion and the play-house wooden gingerbread of the cottage by the river-bank. She left Helene Elizabeth sleeping in her pram, in the shade of the rose arbor that was the centerpiece of Aunt Richter’s garden, and began showing the girls how to trundle the hoop, urging it along with deft use of the stick. They shrieked happily, romping up and down the lawn, trying to keep the hoops rolling. Isobel ran with them, until she was breathless, feeling unaccountably happy. She loved watching Caro and Maggie run, their neatly-shod feet in high-buttoned shoes twinkling through the grass, their sashes coming undone and trailing after them. They soon lost their hats, and Maggie’s pale straight locks and Caro’s light brown curls escaped their hair ribbons. No matter what clouded Isobel’s thoughts, none of that shadow fell on the girls. This realization gratified Isobel enormously. Children ought to be happy, kept safe from every peril, far from distressful imaginings and hurtful people … people like their grandmother, Lady Caroline. That was what Fa had tried to do, Isobel realized, but he had come about it too late. What would her life had been if Mama had been affectionate, loving – everything that Aunt Richter was – Isobel wondered. No, she concluded almost at once. It didn’t matter any more; the past was past, and she cared not a jot. It gave her an enormous sense of relief, of having set down something too heavy for her to carry.
She collected up Caro’s abandoned hat from where it lay on the grass; she and Maggie had gotten their hoops to roll straight, almost to the border of rose bushes that lined the gravel drive. She shaded her eyes against the sun – there was a man standing there watching them all, a man in a dark town suit and wide-brimmed hat, watching the girls. Caro shrieked joyously, “Papa!” and immediately abandoned her hoop. She and Maggie raced towards their father, holding up their arms to him. Maggie reached him first, and he swung her up to his shoulder, laughing, while Caro launched herself at his knees. Isobel followed more sedately, but her heart was in her throat. The girls were ecstatic; with an effort, Isobel kept her own expression serene. Over her daughter’s small fair heads, she met his level gaze. She didn’t know what to say, but he spared her the effort.
“So you stayed,” he remarked with mild surprise.
“Of course,” she answered. “Shouldn’t I have? This is our home.” She took Caro from him, and balanced the child on her hip. “Well, not here, exactly – I meant the ranch.”
“I did wonder,” he observed, and kissed her very gently on the cheek. Inside, Isobel went limp with relief.
“I sent you a letter to explain,” she said, and he looked puzzled.
“I never got it. Guess I was moving around too much.”
“I wrote that I was sorry …” Isobel began, but he smiled again, lifting Maggie to his shoulder, while she squealed with excitement at being up so high.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I spoke to hasty myself, Bell.”

From inside Hansi Richter’s office, unseen from outside, Hansi and Magda Becker silently observed the familial reunion. Magda blew out her breath, hardly aware that she had been holding it.
“That’s a relief,” she observed, and Hansi nodded agreement. “Lise was beside herself with worry. Every day she was afraid that little Isobel would pack herself and the children back to England. Dolphchen would have let them go without a murmur, too. Stubborn lad!”
“The problem is, they did it all backwards,” Magda said. Her brother-in-law looked at her with an eyebrow raised in puzzlement.
“They married,” Magda answered. “The usual thing is – a young lady and young gentleman meet, and over time become interested in each other. Like your lads, like Anna and Marie – as you and Liesel did. Then they fall in love, and begin to court and think of marriage. Then, poof! They marry, and all follows after that. But my son and his wife, they married first. I think my Dolphchen felt sorry for her at first, poor girl; a sad little songbird in a jeweled cage. And she was desperate to escape. A pity that among the Firsts, marriage is the only way to do it. Then they came to know each other, and finally to fall in love, I think – I hope!”
“They’d better,” Hansi observed. “There’s the little ones to think of. But they look happy enough.

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