Across the Fields of Love Preview
New York City, Winter of 1880
The warm rays of the early morning sun filtered through the curtains into Caroline Frazer’s bedroom. The night had been unbearably cold, and Caroline had had to bury herself beneath three layers of heavy wool blankets. The crisp air flushed her cheeks, and she snugged the blankets over her body, begrudging the thick winter air. Winters out here in New York were extremely harsh and unappealing. This was one reason of many why she wanted to leave this city.
It was still early January, and that meant that the nights were longest. Caroline turned over in her bed and with a groan, buried her head in her pillow. After a couple minutes, the sun had fully risen above the horizon and the light coming through the windows cast an ethereal glow on the room as it filtered through the semi-thick curtains.
Slowly, the sound of birds chirping echoed around the entire Manor. The horses in the stables pierced the cool morning air with their cries for breakfast, and the chickens in the back cluck–clucked away as they ate their morning meal. Not two minutes had passed since Caroline had waved off the traces of sleep, then she heard the sound of the train carrying passengers from the rural parts of Queens and Staten Island to the commercial centers in other boroughs like Manhattan and the Bronx. Caroline heard sounds of people rustling about in the house—in the living room and especially the kitchen—as it reverberated through the entire home. She laid there reluctantly. Even though she didn’t want to get up, Caroline knew that was something she absolutely had to do. It was a big day at the Frazer Manor, after all.
Caroline summoned all the strength she could and lifted herself off the bed. Her cold feet were met by the even colder floor, and she recoiled in shock, quickly scanning the room for her slippers.
There! She saw them under her table on the other end of the room. Her eyes drifted to the items on top of the table: two books. One was opened about halfway with a pencil wedged in the middle, and the other rested unopened and looking brand new.
A smile dragged itself slowly across Caroline’s face and a yawn followed suit. She remembered that she’d spent the better part of the night reading Emma by Jane Austen and had only turned in for the night when it got too cold.
No wonder I’m this tired, she thought as she stifled another yawn.
She finally got up, made her way to the other end of the room, and slipped on her footwear immediately. She caught a glance of her reflection in the mirror hanging over her dresser, and she moved toward it examine her face better.
The eyes that stared back at her were tired and a bit sunken with the faintest hint of bags under them. She tried rubbing out the bags, but they didn’t budge. She felt another yawn coming and her hand rushed to her mouth. For as long as she could remember, her mother had always described her eyes as “piercing-blue with a lot of soul.” She remembered that phrase now and let out a chuckle. Pierced with exhaustion, maybe, she laughed to herself.
She had just picked up a wooden comb and was ready to run it through her tangled blonde hair when her door burst open. She didn’t flinch. She was used to it. Her mother not only forbade her from locking her doors but also took it upon herself to stifle every ounce of independence that Caroline had shown growing up.
No late nights, she had said: “I will not have any one of my daughters become a woman about town.” Caroline had only stayed out late one time because the library had offered her special privileges and she had a comfortable spot in the building where she usually took her books to read.
No horseback riding, at least not too much of it anyway: “It might do wonders for your body, but no man wants a woman who is too forward!” Her mother’s reason for that one was laughable. Caroline didn’t want a man who thought she was “too forward” either… whatever that meant. Caroline suspected that the real reason her mother forbade her from learning how to ride a horse was because she was terrified of the possibility that Caroline would put this newfound avenue for freedom to good use and ride off into the night, never to be seen again. Caroline laughed at the thought. Her mother knew her well.
Caroline definitely had dreams of seeing the world beyond the Manor, or New York for that matter. But she wouldn’t run away from home and never return. That was outrageous. Still, there was no telling what she’d have done as a teenager with the way she’d felt: that the world was hers for the taking.
Caroline kept on running her comb through her hair and noticed through the mirror that she couldn’t see anyone standing in the doorway. She hadn’t heard any voice, either. She paused, putting down the comb. Still looking into the mirror, she said, “Mother? Is that you?” Nothing.
“Mother?” she called again. “Who’s there?”
After a couple more seconds that felt like an eternity, she was getting really concerned and was about to make her way to the half-opened door when she saw who it was.
“Marie! Good morning,” she finally said.
“Good morning, madam,” Marie said, a little too quietly.
Caroline felt that something was off and after a moment or two, she was able to put it all together. The maid had been sent to call her and tell her that she was needed downstairs but had opened her door without knocking first, then had refused to enter when she realized what she had done.
“Marie, it’s fine. You can come in. What’s the matter?”
“Madam said I should call on you, ma’am. Your sister will be around soon, and your mother wanted you to get ready.”
Marie had migrated to New York from France about six years earlier, but her words still dropped with an accent. Caroline’s mother had found her sitting on a park bench with her luggage drenched. She had offered her a hot meal and a bed for the night which had turned to a permanent residence and employment in the weeks that followed. Caroline had been twenty years old at the time.
“That’s perfectly fine, Marie. Tell her I’ll be down in a minute.”
Marie nodded and went through the doorway, closing the door behind her. Caroline resumed her combing, this time with haste. As she stared at her face in the mirror, she thought about Marie. She loved the poor girl to death, but her life seemed set in stone just like the lives of her older sisters, and this was the direct opposite of the kind of life that Caroline desired for herself. She earnestly craved adventure and new opportunities: new frontiers and places to explore. The very thought of settling for less made her shudder. She really hoped and prayed for a way out. The reason she hadn’t gotten married yet was because, even in the face of her mother’s incessant protests, she was still not ready.
“But honey, you’re twenty-six years old already. I don’t want any spinsters living here with me, you hear?” her mother had chided.
“I hear you, Mama,” Caroline always said. And then added under her breath, but what would Jane Austen say?
She put down the comb and stared at her reflection for a few seconds. She tried to rub out the eye bags to no avail, so she let out an exasperated gasp and made her way out of the room.
* * *
Downstairs, the entire house was a flurry of activity. Everyone was moving in a frenzy. Caroline checked the huge grandfather clock in the living room.
Goodness gracious! She really had overslept.
Working at a semi-sluggish pace, she returned the greetings of every servant that passed by her offering a barrage of, “Good morning, miss”, to last her a whole month.
She stopped speaking after a while and only offered a nod in reply. When she got to the kitchen, her mother was standing in the center of the large space shouting order after order across the room. The workers in the kitchen only nodded when Caroline entered; they were apparently too busy to offer her any verbal greetings.
Her mother spread her arms wide when she saw her, and Caroline crossed the room in four long strides to embrace her.
“Good morning, Mama,” Caroline said, holding back another yawn.
“Good morning Caroline,” her mother said softly into her ear. “How did you sleep?”
Caroline thought about replying to her mother with the truth. She was initially going to say that in fact, she hadn’t gotten quite enough sleep and had spent a large part of the night devouring Jane Austen’s prose by candlelight. Her mother would have had a fit if she’d said that, which would have been undesirable for everyone. Caroline sighed softly, opting to spare the workers in the kitchen from shouldering the burden of her mother’s rage which would normally have to fall on Caroline as she had been the one sacrificing her night rest in favor of reading.
What she said instead was, “Oh, wonderful, Mother.”
Her mother let go of the embrace and touched her face saying, “That’s great, dear.”
And then she added as an afterthought, “Go and take a bath and get ready for the prom. Your sisters and our guests would be here soon.”
There was a party that would be held at the Frazer Manor that day. It was being organized for Caroline’s sister, and it had been the talk of the Manor for weeks. News had even made its way to the local paper. But Caroline wasn’t looking forward to it at all.
“I’ll do that, Mam,” she said, and was about to turn and go up the stairs when there was a noise at the door. The servants rushed to open it and Caroline’s sisters stood in the huge doorway with their husbands behind them. Caroline laughed when she saw them and hurried to meet them immediately.
The first person she embraced was her oldest sister, Maria. Maria was married to the Mayor’s son, George, and there was nothing else that gave her more joy. Her face was a tempest of smiles on the day of the wedding and Caroline had been able to tell that she was genuinely happy. Even right now, her smiles seemed to make the room to shine a lot brighter. Maria was a beautiful woman herself no doubt. Her hair was brown like her eyes and she seemed to have the body of an athlete.
Maria was perfectly content with the exact kind of life that Caroline wanted to get away from by any means necessary. She loved her expensive gowns and even more expensive jewels. She didn’t seem to understand when Caroline had asked her about being in a shallow and empty marriage.
“Empty marriage?” she’d said. “I don’t know what you mean, sister. I’m perfectly happy.”
Maria seemed to have not only followed her mother’s beliefs that love mattered little, as long as there was a lot in the way of financial wealth, but also built an entire life around them. And if it worked for her, who was Caroline to say any differently.
Maria kissed her sister on the cheek and went on to meet her mother in the kitchen. George passed by Caroline and mumbled something that could have either been “Good morning” or “Good night”, or “Goodness gracious”, Caroline really couldn’t say. Caroline simply nodded in reply and let him pass. She had always regarded George as rather boring, and they had never quite gotten along.
She turned her gaze to the other person who had just come in through the doorway: Adela, the second out of the three girls, who also older than Caroline, but younger than Maria. She was thin, tall, and blonde like Caroline with green eyes and a somewhat frail physique. Adela despised her marriage and thought nothing good of her husband. The last time she and Caroline had spoken, she had described him as, “a rotten and fake and no-good man whose ideas of pleasure and romance are highly questionable and leave a lot to be desired.”
His name was Thomas, and he was the son of a merchant whom he had inherited all his wealth. He was extremely arrogant and spoilt and no original thought in his head. The only thing he knew how to do was eat and as a result, he was particularly rotund—obese, even. All these features didn’t seem to bother their mother who had described him as, “sweet and lovable and everything you would want in a man and more”, the first time she met him.
Caroline looked from her sister to Thomas and shuddered.
Even a blind person can see that there’s something terribly wrong with this picture, and it had nothing to do with the man’s physique, she thought. She really felt for Adela and wished she could have another go at marriage and indeed life. She couldn’t imagine being shackled to a man like that for the rest of her existence.
The thought alone made her embrace Adela more tightly than she would normally have. “Welcome,” he chimed.
“Let’s go to my room,” she added after she had let go of her sister.
“No, I need to go see Mama first,” Adela said.
“Oh, she can wait,” Caroline replied. “Maria is going to keep her busy with stories for a while.”
“All right, then. Lead the way!” Adela said, smiling. And Caroline did. Maria was still in the kitchen along with George; they were talking to her mother. Thomas also made his way to the kitchen presumably to indulge in whatever pastries the cooks had been able to whip up this morning. Caroline had her sister to herself. When they got to her room, Adela walked to the table immediately and picked up the copy of Emma. After running her hands through the pages for a few moments, she let out a sigh of anything but relief.
“Don’t tell me he doesn’t allow you to read?” Caroline asked, baffled.
“Honey, he doesn’t care what I do at all. And that’s the problem. I want to be with someone who lights my soul on fire. Not a man who has absolutely no culture. I’d give up all these riches for that.”
“But it’s not too late, is it? What’s to say you won’t still find someone like that?”
“It is too late, Caroline. That ship has left the harbor and sailed off into the horizon.” Her words were punctuated by a deep sadness.
“But what if there’s still a chance for you?” Her voice sounded like it was going to break.
“Come now,” Adela said, beckoning to her, completely ignoring her last statement. That was her way of saying that was the end of the discussion for now.
“Come, Caroline. We must get you cleaned up and ready for the prom at once. Mother will not take it too lightly if she finds out that you are still in your sleeping clothes.”
The sounds of more and more guests arriving at the Manor echoed throughout the house but especially in Caroline’s room upstairs.
“Fine,” she finally gave in. “Lead the way. But we’re going to continue talking about this later.”
“Aye aye, cap’n,” Adela said and they both laughed.
Farmbluff, Texas, Winter of 1880
Gregory Novak sat in the saddle of one of the finest, well-bred quarter horses in Farmbluff, Texas. He looked out as far as his eyes could see to the large expanse of land both on his ranch and beyond. The hills dotted the horizon here and there and their highest points reached upwards to caress the clouds—a beautiful sight indeed. It was still much early in the morning and birdsong rolled out throughout the ranch. Every morning he had the same routine: get up before the crack of dawn to inspect his ranch and reinforce the barriers meant to keep out bandits. However, his favorite part about the morning was just looking off into the distance and hearing the birds sing all around him.
Just what are they saying? he always thought. What are they so excited about?
He was thinking the same this morning as the sun rose slowly in the horizon but now, he felt he had an answer.
Of course, the birds are excited, he thought. Life is beautiful here, after all.
The horse he was riding lurched around a bit, spooked by a squirrel or some other animal.
“Easy boy,” he called out, patting him a bit and pulling on the reins slightly. “Easy.”
When the horse finally settled down, Gregory sat and recounted his family. His ancestors had migrated from England hundreds of years ago to seek out their fame and fortune in the new world. The cities didn’t hold as much promise as the lands out West did, and his grandfather had relocated to Texas to build a brand-new life for his family from the ground up. He tried his hands at different endeavors but owning a ranch was very important to him. He didn’t just focus on getting enough money to help his family survive; he also wanted to build the kind of wealth that would outlive him and continue to provide economic sustenance for his family for generations to come. And he had succeeded. The ranch had been a blessing, inherited first by Gregory’s father and then later by Gregory himself.
Gregory’s father had expanded the ranch left behind by his own father. He also understood how hard and tough times could get and he wanted to provide his son with everything he needed to be comfortable and build his future.
Gregory remembered his parents now and held back the tears. They had passed on when he was only nineteen. They had been involved in an accident when they were returning from the market and their carriage had crashed into a deep ravine where they got seriously injured and bled to death. Apparently, Gregory’s father had been trying to get away from bandits who were hot on their heels.
Even after all this time—ten years later—it saddened Gregory to no end. But he had always maintained a positive outlook towards life his father taught him. The most important thing was to keep moving forward and cherish every moment. He looked out across the land again and sighed deeply. He loved the land and all; he just wished he had someone special to share all this with, for better or worse, come rain, come shine.
Throughout the years, though especially after his parents’ death, he had developed a strong work ethic. Waking up early to inspect the land and take care of the animals was his duty and he enjoyed every second of it. It was his father’s legacy to him and one day too, he hoped to not only share it with someone else but also leave it to a child of his own.
This was the land that had generously fed him, and he felt indebted, like it was his responsibility to take care of it. America and pretty much the rest of the developed world was getting industrialized every day and Gregory was happy about that but for him, there was nothing more noble than being a rancher. He thoroughly believed that the seeds which he sowed would be the ones which he reaped, both literally and as far as his attitude to work was concerned.
As he sat pondering on the tallest hill of his ranch overlooking everything that was his, he realized what he needed to do. He needed to place an ad in the paper for a bride. He didn’t want to continue to live alone. Looking out into the horizon, he saw smoke rising in the distance.
Bandits, he thought, feeling a wave of unease creep over him.
The “Wild West”, as it was popularly called, had a lot of challenges and living here hadn’t exactly been easy. Even though Gregory would pick Texas over say, New York, any day, he still had to admit that the West had its own special problems. There were a lot more poisonous animals here, from frogs to scorpions to snakes. The heat was especially intense, and the weather was generally harsh. Some residents even had serious arguments with the Native Americans sometimes. But none of those things frightened Gregory as much as bandits did. Not only had they been responsible for his parents’ death, but he also had almost lost his life at their hands after some other bandits turned up in his ranch one uneventful evening with a plan to rob him of everything he had.
Thank God for his best friend, Nick, who had held the bandits back until the sheriff had come to their rescue and promptly arrested the three men. Gregory remembered that incident like it was yesterday.
It had happened about a year ago, not long after the doctor had moved to a small, humble farmhouse next to his ranch. That night had been especially quiet. Gregory sat on a rocking chair on the porch of his farmhouse sipping some beer that he’d brewed himself. The evening breeze was colder than usual, and it blew vigorously through the house causing the enter structure to shiver and creak loudly. The peacefulness of the entire scenery had lulled Gregory to sleep. Just as he was about to close his eyes finally, he heard a sound and saw a light flicker out on his ranch somewhere.
“Who goes there?” he said, jumping to his feet immediately. “Hello?” he called out again and got nothing but silence and darkness in response.
Just when he thought it was only a figment of his imagination and was about to retire for the night, he heard footsteps again. This time they were much clearer and from the direction they were coming from, Gregory could tell that the person, whoever it was, was running around in the cornfield in between the rows.
He reacted quickly. Moving swiftly on his feet like a cat, he stepped inside the house and grabbed his shotgun from where it was stationed behind the door. He cocked it quietly and went out into the fields. He thought about calling out to the person again, but he decided against it. All he would be doing was giving out his location making him exposed and vulnerable. He decided to simply go in the direction of the sound he had heard.
After about what must have been ten minutes, he began to smell smoke. He lifted his eyes and saw that hot yellow flames were making their way through his corn, devouring everything in their path. Someone had set fire to his corn.
He was sweating and at loss for what to do. He was about to run into the fields, but he didn’t have anything to put out the fire with on him. He was just thinking about going back to the house when he heard gunshots coming from that direction. He ran with all his might and soon he could hear his friend, Nick, yelling obscenities at some people—three of them, and firing his shotgun at them while they ran away. He ran towards them to try and tackle at least one of them to the ground, but he lost his footing and he stumbled just as he was about to grab one of the men. The man had a knife and as he freed himself from Gregory’s grip, he stabbed Gregory in the arm twice, left the knife in there and scurried off.
The last things Gregory heard before he passed out was Nick’s voice as he ran toward him.
He came to, finding himself in his bedroom. Nick was on the bed beside him cleaning his arm and trying to stitch the wound. The sheriff was in his room, too.
“Welcome back, Mr. Novak,” the sheriff said in his gruff voice. It took a while for Gregory to respond.
“Sheriff, please…call me Gregory.”
The sheriff smiled. “Still on about that, are we?”
“He’s never going to let it go.” Nick offered when Gregory took too long to respond again.
“Right,” the sheriff said, clearing his throat. “Well Gregory, we thank the Good Lord that you’re alive. If it weren’t for your friend the doctor here, those suckers would have carted away with your money and as many of your goods as they could carry between them.”
Gregory only winced in pain and grits his teeth in response.
“Careful there, son,” the sheriff said.
“Thank you, Sheriff,” Gregory said between gritted teeth, looking and sounding a lot like a ventriloquist’s dummy.
“Well, no need to thank me now. It’s an honor to serve and protect the people of this town. The bandits intended to draw you out of the house by setting fire to your corn, but it’s died out now. You’re going to be all right.”
The silence that followed was more than a little awkward and the sheriff broke it when he spoke.
“Well, I must be on my way now, sirs. The men have been apprehended and are already in custody. Goodnight, gentlemen. Excuse me.”
“Goodnight, Sheriff,” the doctor said, looking up momentarily from his work.
Gregory gave a muffled response that passed for “goodnight” and the sheriff put on his hat and made his exit, his boots echoing throughout the house.
Immediately after the sheriff left, Gregory winced again.
“I’ll be extra careful,” Nick said.
“Is it bad?” Gregory asked.
“Not to worry, Gregory,” the doctor replied. “I’ll make you good as new. You’ll be all right.”
“I lost a lot of blood, didn’t I?”
“It will all be fine, I promise.” The doctor’s voice echoed in the old room, and try as he might, Gregory could not trace a single lie in his words. He liked to think the blood loss was not smothering his senses, yet he highly doubted it.
“Why do you doctors never speak the truth? You seem to be specially trained in the art of evading questions and beating around the bush,” Gregory said, letting out a little chuckle.
Nick’s reply was a throaty laugh.
“At least if I die, I’ll have you here to mourn me and remember me from time to time and take care of my ranch.”
“You will not die, man. Why would you say such a thing?”
Gregory began to ponder and get lost in thought about the occurrences of that evening. Life really was beautiful, but it was also fickle. If his parents could lose their lives just like that all those years go and if he had almost lost his life that evening because of a couple of nefarious bandits, then life really was fickle, especially out here in the West. He had to start making plans for his future and the generations that would come after him, just like his parents and his grandfather had done.
He quickly realized that those future generations he was planning for, would not even exist except he first got himself a companion. But that posed a little problem as the only women that were here out West were already married, old and widowed, or were women of easy means. He needed a beautiful, young, virtuous bride. He needed someone to love him and take care of him. He needed someone he could love and take care of, too.
“I need to find a woman for myself, Nick.” Gregory had uttered amidst short breaths, breaking the silence again.
“Is that what you’ve been thinking about now to keep your mind occupied while I tend to the wound?”
“After tonight, I’ve been thinking, what is my legacy going to be? Life out here is fickle and that was one thing my parents, God rest their souls, understood.”
Nick had told him that he would find a woman for sure.
“What woman would not want to get married to you?” he asked.
Gregory only sighed.
“Not to worry, man, even if you don’t find a woman, just know that you’ve always got a great friend in me,” the doctor promised.
Nick was a true friend in Gregory’s eyes, but he knew he needed good wife, as well. He had told Nick that again and the doctor had responded with a nod this time. However, Gregory had noticed a change in Nick’s demeanor when he had finally responded. It was as if a shadow had been spread across his face. It really had been unnerving but Gregory had dismissed it, attributing it to games that his blurry eyes were playing. He could have been making it up. He was in a lot of pain, after all.
Gregory recovered from his wounds after many, many visits from the doctor. But the incidents of that night lingered in his mind. Blinking away the memory, Gregory pulled himself back to the present.
His horse seemed distracted by an animal again, and this caused Gregory to snap out of his reverie for good. He made his way back to the farmhouse. When he got there, he sat down at the table, took a pen and paper, and began to write.
* * *
By the next morning, he was done with his writing and he head straight into town to place an ad in the paper for a mail-order bride. When he got into town, he was greeted by almost every single person he passed. He was aware he was loved in the town because he regularly helped people with their problems. Sometimes he would sell his farm products for a cheap price in order to help the community. Gregory really loved the love and sense of community that came from living in a small town where everybody knew almost everybody else.
He got to the post office and the postmaster, an old man who had been a close friend of his parents, hugged him tight. The man, going by the name Mr. Watson, also owned the only general store and newspaper in town. The post office was located right beside the general store and the newspaper office where Gregory had worked for a bit.
Gregory’s education had provided him with an opportunity to work for the newspaper a while back and he’d even learned how to send messages for the postmaster. This had happened back when he was a teenager and the postmaster had taken a special liking to him. He always gave him special assignments that enabled him to hone his skills and get better at his job.
Because of all this training, Gregory was able to secretly place an ad in the paper without anyone knowing about it. It wasn’t that he particularly cared whether people knew or not, he just preferred to keep his private life as private as he could.
One week after the prom held at the Frazer Manor for Maria’s wedding, the faintest aroma of a couple of the dishes that had been served that day still lingered in the air. The prom had been an even bigger deal than Caroline thought. Not long after she had gone to her bedroom with her sister, Adela, their guests had begun to arrive. Her mother, and by extension the rest of the family, maintained a social circle of a particular caliber: wealthy merchants, high-ranking military officers, distinguished government officials, and so on. Ever since their father had passed, their mother had felt it was her responsibility to give her children the best future she could afford. She had made an effort to get close and stay close to all their family friends; this was also why she wanted her children to marry from within this circle.
Throughout the prom, Caroline had stayed either glued to her sister’s side or in a corner by herself except for the periods when her mother came to drag her by the hand to introduce her to as many eligible suitors as possible. That experience had been Caroline’s own personal hell. She’d had to smile and laugh and curtsy and shake so many people that by the end of the whole thing, her entire body felt sore from all the exertion.
“This is Robert Harris,” her mother had said. “He’s the nephew of the famous General B.H. Harris, do you remember him? He was here only a few months ago.”
Caroline had in fact remembered him. She had a photographic memory. Sometimes, she’d catch herself reciting whole paragraphs of Jane Austen or Charles Dickens to herself whenever she was out in the town or roaming about the house. One day, her sister Maria had caught her in such a state, and she’d had to lie that she was trying to commit some passages from the Bible to memory. Maria had given her a big hug and scurried out of the room to leave her to her religious exercise. She had remembered Robert Harris alright; she just hadn’t wanted to give him or her mother the satisfaction. It was her way of rebelling against the entire idea of planned marriages.
“No, not quite,” she had said in reply, squinting her eyes as she took his hand. “Forgive me, I usually don’t forget names or faces.” Her mother had left them alone once they shook each other’s hand. It was an annoying thing she always did. As she used to say she did so in order to, “Let you fine young people get to know each other better.”
“It’s perfectly fine, miss. Glad to make your acquaintance again,” he’d said in a smooth baritone.
“The pleasure is all mine Mr. Harris, again.” She’d been smiling so hard her face had begun to feel numb. “I guess I’ll see you around then.”
And with that, she’d left to the other end of the room where she watched as people socialized. After a while, the aroma of cake coming from the kitchen had assaulted her nostrils, causing her stomach to rumble mildly in response. She got a hold of her sweet spot and made a beeline for the kitchen. The only thing on her mind at that point was the cake and how it would taste in her mouth, so she hadn’t seen Robert Harris in time. He was walking in the opposite direction and she had walked straight into him.
“I’m so sorry, sir,” she’d said, completely embarrassed.
“Nothing to worry about, miss,” he replied. “You’re not very fond of these types of things, are you?” he asked, gesturing around them.
“Not really, no.”
And with that, they’d gone to the kitchen together where they shared a piece and cake and told each other stories about themselves. Apparently, Robert had someone he loved; his family knew this but they didn’t approve because she wasn’t from a rich or noble background.
“She’s a schoolteacher, you see,” he’d said, in between mouthfuls of cake. Caroline wasted but a moment to wonder why would this man want to open up to her about his beloved, only to smile faintly at herself. If she had a man she loved, she was certain she would be eager to speak of him to anyone who would listen. Likely, she had Adela. This man however, seemed to have no one to turn to. Caroline blinked, offering him solace and her full attention.
As it would seem, Robert’s sweetheart loved him very much and they’d made a plan to elope to France the very next day. Caroline had wished him the best of luck. She’d been overjoyed to hear that there were people that weren’t particularly fond of the current system that their society operated under when it came to matters of the heart. Jane Austen would be proud.
Two days had passed since the prom and Caroline was seated at a table having dinner with her family: her brother, mother and two sisters. She remembered Robert all of a sudden and hoped his plan had succeeded.
Her brother, Paul, had arrived late to the Prom two days ago. Caroline wasn’t particularly fond of him. He was loud and loquacious where she was mostly reserved and of few words. Right now, at the dinner table, he was talking loudly and laughing, and his voice echoed through the house. Caroline missed the days when she didn’t have to hear it.
“You haven’t touched your food much, my dear,” her mother said. However, Caroline was in deep thought and hadn’t heard her. She only felt someone tap her arm gently a few seconds later. She snapped out of her reverie immediately looking a bit startled.
“Are you all right?” her mother asked again. The entire table was quiet by now. Even Paul had his glass of wine to his lips and was peering at her over the edge.
“I’m fine, Mama,” Caroline replied, clearing her throat. “Just thinking about a couple of things, that’s all.”
“Well, you’ve hardly touched your food, my dear. That’s why I asked.”
“I’m fine, Mama,” Caroline repeated and began digging into her meal. They ate on in silence for a while which Caroline absolutely enjoyed. She was afraid Paul was going to ruin the peace with his loud voice when her mother spoke.
“What’s on your mind, my dear? I do hope it’s one of the suitors who were present at the Prom the other day. Has one of them caught your fancy?” Her mother punctuated the question with a smile.
“Oh, it’s nothing of the sort,” Caroline responded without looking up.
“Are you sure?” her mother pressed. “What about George? The son of the wealthy gold trader? Or is it Isaac, whose father owns the newspaper company? Or Joseph…”
“It’s none of them, Mother,” she said, already beginning to feel uncomfortable.
After an awkward silence, her mother said, “I do hope it’s not that Robert Harris…”
Caroline’s ears perked up at that. “What about him?” she said.
“Nothing, actually. He’s a perfectly fine young man. It’s just that I heard from his father that he eloped to France with a schoolteacher only yesterday,” her mother said, frowning.
“Thank God,” Caroline said, a little too loudly. As a matter of fact, she thought she had said it in her head.
“What?” her mother said.
“Nothing,” Caroline said, going back to her food.
“I sure hope you’re not getting any ideas, Caroline,” her mother chided, half-serious.
The only reply her mother got was silence.
“Caroline? Did you hear what I just said?” Her tone this time said that she was taking things a little more seriously. Caroline dropped her fork and it landed on the plate with a clang that pierced the night and echoed through the house.
“There’s something I have to tell you,” Caroline began. She could already see her sister, Adela, shaking her head ever so slightly. She knew what Caroline wanted to say and this was her way of advising against it. Her mother simply stared at her with a blank expression on her face. Her other sister Maria simply kept on eating while Paul picked up a bottle to pour himself another cup.
“Well? Go on then,” her mother said. Caroline saw Adela shake her head, a little more vigorously this time but her mind was made up. She closed her eyes and said, “I intend to be a mail-order bride.”
After she said it, a pregnant silence hung in the air. Immediately she opened her eyes, her brother started to laugh. “That was a good joke,” he said. “That was a really good joke.”
Her mother stared at her for a moment, smiled, and went back to her food.
“Paul is right,” she said. “That was a good joke.” Caroline saw Maria hold back a laugh and Adela simply hung her head presumably in shame.
“But, I’m serious,” she said. “What’s wrong with being a mail-order bride, anyway?”
Maria was the first to speak. “It’s dehumanizing, Caroline. That is what makes it so wrong. Letters can come in the mail. Parcels can come in the mail. Other things can be ordered by mail. But not people…”
“I disagree. Isn’t it more dehumanizing for people to be forced or coerced into a marriage that they do not want all for the sake of riches or status or maintaining and fostering the relationship between two families? Is it not more liberating, more human, to decide who you want to get married to and whether or not you are ready to commit to them?”
“I see you’ve been reading those books of yours, about women empowerment again,” Paul said, smirking.
“And what exactly is wrong with that?” Adela butted in, coming to her rescue.
“Nothing. Just…” He trailed off and turned to Caroline again. “Don’t deceive yourself. Men don’t want mail-order brides anyway.” And then he added as an afterthought, “I should know. I’m a man.”
“Are you?” Adela asked, smiling.
Paul completely ignored her, refusing to so much as glance in her direction. He kept on talking to Caroline.
“The whole mail-order bride business exists because the men in their neighborhood don’t want them, because they’re borderline hideous, so they have to be married off sight unseen,” Paul said as Maria, and their mother giggled like schoolgirls.
Caroline knew that her mother had always been cold and indifferent toward her and Adela. Caroline was certain that soon enough, she would simply marry her off to whomever she chose, just like she had done for Adela. Caroline also knew that there was little she or Adela could do to change her mother’s mind.
“So, are you trying to call me ugly?” Caroline asked, peeved. It was all she could do to not stomp her foot at her brother right there at the dinner table.
“I haven’t said anything of the sort,” Paul retorted. “However, if you are considering bringing this Mail-order bride affliction upon yourself, then yes, I guess you could say this makes you ugly.”
“What a very insensitive thing to say,” said Adela.
Paul ignored her again. “At the very least Caroline, this mail-order bride thing, that is if you are really serious about it, makes you come off as desperate,” he said.
“I agree,” her mother responded. “The brides may be ugly, or they may be truly beautiful—you have no way of knowing. I personally haven’t encountered any woman who did such a thing. But you have to agree that leaving your friends and your town and family to shack up with a stranger on the other side of the country seems a bit wrong, no?”
Maria replied in between mouthfuls of dinner, “It sends the wrong message and frankly says a lot about the character of someone who would do something like that.”
As Caroline sat there and listened to her family completely shut down her dreams of being a mail-order bride, she remembered the time she was still a little girl and had first begun to be interested in being a mail-order bride. Rumors of adventures and fiery loves charmed her back then just as much as they did now. She smiled as she felt the nostalgia wash over her. Her mother’s voice soon brought her back to reality.
“Don’t be silly, my dear,” her mother said, scoffing. “I fully intend to find you a rich man of stature to wed.”
Caroline shook her head ever so slightly. This was not the kind of life she wanted to have. For as long as she could remember, it had been her utmost desire to and experience the wild untamed West and meet a man she’s never seen before. She decided right there and then to become a mail-order bride, yearning to board a train and cross half the country to reach a strange land she knew little about, whether her mother and siblings wanted to accept it or not. She refused to be married only to become a means to an end, and more importantly, she didn’t want to sacrifice all her desires and dreams all so her mother could collect yet another wealthy son-in-law.
* * *
Later that night, not so long after dinner was over with, Adela came to Caroline’s room to encourage her to run away before their mother subjects her to the same fate she forced upon Adela.
“You’re right,” Caroline said in response. “I fear who our mother will find for me to marry. I fear that it will be someone I completely despise, someone I have no interest in whatsoever.”
Adela walked up to Caroline and embraced her. “You’ll be out of here long before that happens. Trust me.”
Late one night, after dinner when everyone had retired for the night, Adela and Caroline secretly studied ads that men have placed in the newspaper expressing their interest in mail-order brides.
The two of them were sitting on Caroline’s bed, long after supper and they studied the newspaper under candlelight. Moonlight filtered in through the window, casting a blue glow on the room, which contrasted sharply with the flickering yellow of the candlelight. There was a strange thrill in the air, like an electric buzz.
After an eternity of perusing through the ad section, they decided on an ad placed by a man by the name of Gregory Novak.
As they read the ad he placed in the paper, they decided that he looked like a good simple man as he wanted children and owned quite a large ranch.
But more than that, he was looking for a “lady of the house” type of woman to keep him company. Caroline felt this made her education a plus because she would be able to carry on a conversation and she wanted children as well. To them, Gregory seemed like her best match.
Caroline brought out her stationery and began to craft a response to Gregory’s ad, stating that she is from an educated family. She purposely left out the fact that they were wealthy just in case she’s denied her dowry. The two sisters thought best to burn the newspaper ad for fear that their mother or someone else would find it.
They also come to the conclusion that, in order for their daring plan to succeed, Adela would be the one who will carry the letter to the post-office, under the excuse that she wished to go to town to buy a present for her husband.
The next day, when this happened, Caroline could do little else but sit in her room and run a brush through her hair. In her mind’s eye, she could already imagine the figure of a tall, masculine man on a horse inspecting the ranch as the sun sets in the distant horizon bathing him and everything in sight in a beautiful orange glow.
It had been two weeks since Gregory put the ad for a mail-order bride in the newspaper and while he had tried to concentrate on his work like taking care of his ranch and feeding the animals, it had become especially difficult. His mind had been on his ad and the woman who would respond to it.
What if she’s not a particularly good person? he thought as he inspected the stables.
What if she doesn’t love me? What if we’re not compatible? What if she’s only after my money?
The questions plagued Gregory continuously; in the morning when he did a few chores around the farmhouse and at night while he tossed and turned on his bed. He even mentioned it once to his friend, Nick, when they were out drinking in a bar in the town.
“You’re still on about this, are you?” Nick said. “There’s no sense stressing over it. If any fine, respectable young woman sees the ad and decides to come out West, with all its challenges, I’m sure she must really be committed to you. Relax.”
Gregory had merely sighed and taken a gulp of his beer.
“And if not, I still think it’s fine. We’ve got each other,” Nick said, while giving Gregory a pat on the back. Gregory noticed that whenever he brought up the topic of getting a bride, Nick always found a way to offer him advice which was always encouraging on one hand and the exact opposite of that on the other.
He’s probably just looking out for me, he thought.
The night had ended with the two men more than slightly drunk and getting home had been courtesy of the bright moon and the helpful townspeople. Still, they laughed, and Gregory knew it in his heart, he had a life-long friend in Nick. One to whom he owned his life.
Gregory was currently sitting in his farmhouse, reading a novel by Charles Dickens. His mother had been a prolific reader and she left behind scores of books that Gregory read in his spare time when he wasn’t attending to any duties on the ranch. The time was ten minutes past eleven and the light and warmth of the late morning sun permeated through the entire house. The farmhouse was as still as a graveyard. Gregory loved to read in a calm and tranquil environment and save for the birds outside in the trees, piercing the perfect stillness with their songs, the house was currently in such a state.
Gregory was at the table in his study; it used to belong to his mother but ever since she passed on and he had begun making use of it, he hadn’t changed anything. It was exactly as she had left it. Gregory could just picture her sitting here poring over the latest books she’d just gotten from the mail, smiling, and running her hands through book after book as if she wanted to memorize their exact shape.
“Reading is its own kind of adventure, Greg,” his mother had said that to him once she’d asked him to join her in her study when he wanted to go out and play.
“People who read are a lot more rational and wiser beyond their years.”
Gregory had never really understood what she meant by that. But now, many years later, he had a pretty good idea. He had seen the wonders that reading could work in a person. This was one the reasons Gregory had been reading a lot more in the two weeks since he put that ad for a bride in the paper. He decided that if he really wanted a cultured and well-read woman for a wife, he also had to be willing to put in the work to become a lot more cultured himself.
He had just finished the second chapter of the book, Great Expectations, when he heard a knock at the door. He got up to answer it, thinking it was Nick who had come to spend some time with him, being that he usually had not so much to do at this hour of the day.
“Nick? Is that you?” he asked as he opened the door. Standing in the doorway, however, was not the kind doctor, but a mailman who was rummaging in his bag for something.
“You’re not Nick,” he said mostly to himself, a bit confused.
“Good morning, sir,” the mailman said. “My name is Nick, although I doubt it’s the Nick you were expecting. I have a letter for you, Mr. …Novak? Gregory Novak?”
“Yes,” Gregory said, after taking a while to collect himself. “You said you have a letter?”
“Yes, sir. Indeed, I do.” The mailman handed him the letter with a “Have a nice day, sir,” and began to walk down the steps.
“Thank you,” Gregory said, waving. When he got inside and closed the door after him, he smiled a wide sheepish smile. Someone had finally responded to his ad in the paper. He couldn’t believe it. He had really thought he would fail to get a reply and would have to write another ad. He looked at the letter in his hand. Had he really been interesting enough that someone wanted to move out West to come be with him? Was the letter even from an eligible bride? It could also be from his old uncle who lived out in Philadelphia. Or it could be from someone who had responded to his ad. Well, there was only one way to find out.
He walked briskly to the study. The door was still open. He got in and closed it behind him. Immediately, he took his seat, he checked the letter for a return address, and he saw that it was from New York City. He couldn’t imagine that someone would write to him from halfway across the country.
She must be very adventurous, he thought.
After heaving a deep sigh in anticipation, he opened the letter and read it.
The lady had written a long and exquisite response compared to his short ad, which had read:
GENTLEMAN, 29 years old, good appearance, tall, brown hair, hazel eyes, ranch owner, wishes to make acquaintance of young, cultured woman; object matrimony. Box 342. Call office.
He opened the letter.
“Caroline Frazer,” Gregory said, letting the name roll off his tongue over and over again as if he was tasting it, assessing it. All the while, his heart was pounding in his chest, almost leaping into his throat and his stomach was doing dangerous calisthenics—he thought he was going to pass out.
“Caroline Frazer…Caroline Frazer…that’s such a beautiful name,” he said after a minute or two, after his heart and his stomach had calmed down. “And she seems so interesting, too. I can’t wait to meet her.”
As he read on, learning about Caroline and her impetus for writing, he found that he loved her use of language, especially her wit. She was well-read, adventurous, and there was an earnestness about her enthusiasm that he found charming. A wholesome woman that he would like to get to know. She seemed like an exceptional person to be around. Her handwriting was also incredibly beautiful to look at. She was well-read, indeed.
He turned his attention back to the letter and he continued to read from where he had stopped. By the time he got to the last paragraph of the letter, he couldn’t explain the excitement that had filled his soul.
“Caroline Frazer,” he said, wearing his wide, sheepish smile. “I really can’t wait to meet you!”
Gregory still could not believe his luck. A cultured young woman from New York City had responded to his proposal. His mind was immediately flooded with thoughts about her: what she looked like, what her hobbies were, how she smiled, what her favorite food was, the sound of her voice.
She seemed really quick-witted, well-educated, and adventurous. She definitely had to be adventurous to decide to brave the cross-country trip in a train to come to a place she’d never been in her life.
Gregory decided to write a response to her letter and send it at once. He didn’t want to waste any time at all in letting her know that he was very pleased with her decision to accept his mail-order bride proposal. In the letter, he wrote:
Dear Miss Frazer,
I admire your wit and your intellect. My mother raised me to develop that trait and appreciate it whenever I encountered it in people. It seems like your parents did the same for you.
And then he asked her if she wished to write more letters so that they could get to know each other better. Still, he felt like he had detected an uncanny sense of urgency from the woman’s letter and so, he offered her the choice to come over soon if she wanted to do so.
If you do decide to come soon, when can I expect you?
Gregory noticed that on the white paper that she used to write the letter, there are a few stains of melted candle on it. That could only mean that she wrote the letter during the night by candlelight. She must have been really desperate. Gregory finished the letter, signed and addressed it, and was about to seal it in the envelope and head for the post office when he stopped in his tracks. He was already standing in the doorway of the study when he turned back, brought out the letter and put it on the table. Smiling, he added another line to the letter:
PS: Do you read Charles Dickens?
And then another:
PPS: Reading is its own kind of adventure, wouldn’t you say?
And with one swift motion, he sealed the envelope and headed to the post office to mail it to his bride-to-be from New York City.
“Caroline Frazer,” he repeated her name before he closed the door behind him. Yes, the name still left a beautiful aftertaste in his mouth.
On his way to the post office, he began to think about what kind of things he would need or what kind of thing he should do to prepare for her arrival. He should probably do a thorough cleaning of his ranch. He should also scrub the house clean. The farmhouse was neat on a good day, but he had to take into account that someone else was going to come and live with him and he had to seriously increase his standards.
By the time he got to the post office, he didn’t realize he had walked all the way into town without even bothering to ride there instead. He had been thinking deeply about Caroline.
The old postmaster, Mr. Watson, beckoned to him after he had mailed the letter.
“Son,” he said, “you seem in extremely high spirits today. What’s the good news? Come on, share now. An old man like myself around these parts could do with some good news every now and then.”
“Oh, it’s nothing, sir,” Gregory said. He realized that he had not stopped smiling since he got to the post office.
“Are you sure?” Mr. Watson asked again.
“Yes, sir,” he said.
Now, it was Mr. Watson’s turn to smile.
“You have a good time now, Gregory,” he said and went on his way to the general store.
After he was done at the store, he went to meet his good friend, Dr. Nick Elton. Nick was just finishing up with a patient and he was washing his hands.
“Ah, please come in Gregory,” Nick said smiling.
Gregory took his seat and after a few moments, Nick took a seat opposite him.
“I got a response today. From the ad I placed in the paper.”
“That’s splendid,” Nick said flatly, but even then, Gregory could detect a hint of insincerity in his voice. “That’s so wonderful. I’m so happy for you.”
“Thank you,” Gregory said, smiling again. “Her name is Caroline Frazer. She is witty, educated, and loves reading. I just wrote and sent my response to her.”
“Like I said, I’m very happy for you,” Nick said again, forcing a smile on his weary face. “Pardon me, I am somewhat tired.” The doctor chuckled, clearing his throat.” So, what’s next?”
“Well, I need to prepare for her arrival. I need to do a thorough cleaning of the entire ranch and house.”
“All right, are you sure you can do that by yourself?”
“No, actually. I would need to hire a handmaid. Do you know anyone who would want the job?”
“I’ll keep you posted,” Nick said.
Gregory began to tell Nick about what he had been doing and reminded him about the conversation they had after he had been shot and Nick was there to save him.
“Yes? What about it?” Nick said.
“Well, remember that I had wished for a wife? I feel the time has come now.”
“I understand that you feel that way right now, but I honestly don’t think you can marry from a couple of letters.”
“And I get where you’re coming from, but I feel that this woman is the right one for me. And I want to do everything within my power to provide for her.”
Nick eventually relented and after a while where he seemed deep in thought, he advised Gregory that his cousin, Agatha, would serve him well as a wife.
“She’s really great, Greg,” he said. “You’ll love her.”
Gregory simply smiled. His mind was already made up.