by Eve Fisher
The funeral was at nine in the morning on that June day of 1885, and by the time everyone got back to the house, the hot prairie air had a smell like baking bread. Nell was stifling in her black bombazine, her bodice drenched with sweat. She looked over at her two boys, Bill and John, stiff in their black suits, their blond hair so wet it looked as dark as their father’s. Bill was seven, but John, Patrick’s spitting image, was only three, and something twisted in her, knowing how soon he would forget.
She got up and went into the kitchen, where Martha, her mother-in-law, and Pearl, her sister-in-law, were busy getting the dinner dished up.
“Sure, and you should go rest yourself,” Pearl urged.
Martha nodded. “Yah sure. We got everything going good here.”
“I feel better if I keep busy,” Nell replied. And it was true, or it would be if she could just get out of this black: but the shock if she changed on the very day of her husband’s burial would be too much for the neighbors.
Martha shrugged. “You want to take up the biscuits?” Nell pulled out the big black baking tin. “We put them on that platter. The one with the wheat on it.”
Nell dished up the biscuits. When your husband died, and you were left with two boys, and you yourself were an orphan, with no relatives, it was Providential to have in-laws willing to take you in. She had to show her gratitude. She had to be willing and helpful. She had to begin as she meant to go on. “What else can I do?”
“Them pies need slicing.”
Nell took a knife to the apple pies. Better here than in that crowd of people, all whispering things that made her cheeks sting with shame. Patrick Stark, healthy and strong as an ox, dying so sudden? Heart failure? Never. An overdose of laudanum. For why? What was the real story behind that? The real story, she told herself determinedly, as she’d told herself over and over again since last Tuesday, is that he’d strained himself hoisting bales of hay. He’d come in tired and sore, too tired to eat, too sore to sleep, and he had dosed himself with laudanum, despite her worries and protests. Once, twice, three times… and then he had lain himself down and never got up again. Leaving her with the children. Leaving her without a home save that of her father-in-law. Leaving her alone.
She stood up straight. “Is there anything else I can do?”
“Nah. Now we go in and eat.”
James Stark owned one of the two general stores in Laskin, South Dakota, and three quarter-sections of land out in the county. The land he’d divided among his oldest sons, William, Harold, and Patrick, who lived on and worked the land. Now Patrick’s land was to be farmed by William and Harold, the profits split and a good share held in trust for Patrick’s children. The youngest of James’ sons, Graham, Pearl’s husband, ran the shop under James’ supervision. James Stark was in his fifties, still fit and strong, despite his white hair and beard. Martha, a Norwegian immigrant, was his third wife: he never spoke of either of his first two, and rarely of her.
It was a very quiet house. Martha, old before her time, worked like a carthorse and never spoke of anything but work, and that usually not beyond the kitchen and lean-to. Graham slid through life like a shadow, speaking only when forced to in a burdened voice. James, silent in the morning over breakfast and dinner, walled himself behind the newspaper between the two. After dinner he went out, returning late to release Pearl to help with housework. After supper, James took over the shop entirely. As the evening progressed, loud shouts of laughter from below rang upwards like echoes from a foreign land.
Nell quickly became friends with Pearl. You couldn’t help but love Pearl, for her lively Irish spirits, her loving heart, her lovely face. Pearl and Graham had one son, Arthur, the dead spit of his father. The boy was barely three, and named for Tennyson’s poems. Nell took charge of Arthur while Pearl worked in the shop, for it was she who really kept it going, offering advice and help and promises, while her husband stood in the back and looked dully over the goods.
“Well, and it’s not really a job for a man, is it?” Pearl made apology over her mending. “Selling things. And all those calicos and threads. He does get that bored with the ladies running in for a bit of ribbon or a choice bit of trim. Small blame to him, says I. And it’s no trouble to me at all, not at all.” Her wonderful smile flashed. “I’ve always been too fond of dress, that’s what my mother would say. And now here I am, having the run of a shop. What is the world coming to when wickedness is it’s own reward, that’s what she’d say.”
She giggled like a schoolgirl, and Nell thought once more that if it weren’t for Pearl, she would go distracted in this silent house. But where could she go? What else could she do? Laskin already had two dressmakers, and the only other job of work open to a woman with two small children was washing: heavy, backbreaking, disreputable.
The boys seemed happy enough, though Bill missed the farm terribly. His great joy was to be taken out to the land and allowed to follow Uncle William or Uncle Harold as he had once followed his father. But it was rare that they came to town, and never did they bring their wives. They were all busy on the land, and Nell could well understand that. She had been once. And while then there had been days when she had hated it, the endless work, the loneliness, the isolation, now she missed it terribly. When she had felt closed in, she had only to step outside. How she had loved the sweep of it, up to the greater sweep of the sky! The space of it. The air and the color of it. Sometimes the sheer interiority of her life now – walls upon walls, in the house and in the town - seemed suffocating.
But it was not only the silence and the town life that bothered her. There was a growing unease about her father-in-law. He moved as little as a rock, and that rock seemed to be always the breaker against which she must crash. When she served food, his body made no room for her laden arm, but required it to reach across him. When she cleaned, he always needed something that required him to stretch himself above and across her bent back. And in church, one Sunday, he had slumped in their pew until his arm rested hotly against hers. And his eyes…
She could barely think it to herself, much less whisper it to anyone: all she could do was avoid him. She waited to work, or sit, or go outside, until she was quite clear where James Stark would be. One day, as she performed her little minuet, she glanced up and saw Graham looking at her, and the slight movement of his knife-colored eyes made her heart thud. He knew. But the next moment, it was gone.
The daily round continued. Autumn brought the rush of gathering, preserving, pickling and salting what came from the garden and the pig. It was a shame, with a feast first of spare-ribs, then of fresh meat, that Pearl – who had to be called in from the shop to help - had entirely lost her appetite for any of it. Nell suspected it wasn’t the headcheese so much as that Pearl might be again what she’d confessed she’d longed to be, with child, and Nell cheerfully took over the rest of the distasteful work. After two hard weeks of harvest labor, cellar and attic were stored to bursting and the kitchen scoured clean. The three women could get on with the usual Saturday baking.
Nell put a second batch of bread to rise in greased pans as Pearl picked up bits of raw dough from the table and nibbled them.
“Yah, you get worms from that!” Martha called from the cook stove. She was frying doughnuts in a seething vat of the recently tried lard, and her face was crimson from the heat. “That’s but an old wives tale,” Pearl said. “And it tastes so good.” Martha shrugged. Nell covered her bread and said, in a low voice, “It’s a sure sign. When are you going to tell Graham?”
Pearl’s blue eyes looked sidelong through their long golden lashes. “When it quickens, when else? It’s just foxfire before then.”
Martha turned, a platter of doughnuts in her right hand. “When what –” Her left hand flashed her wedding ring to her heart.
“Martha?” Nell leaped forward.
Martha thrust the platter at Nell and tried to step forward. “Ach! What –” Her face crimsoned more as she fell to her knees. Her corsets held her straight the rest of the way to the floor. It was as cold a funeral as Patrick’s had been hot. The ground was iron-hard. Snow fell over the black hats and veils as the minister read the service. The wind scudded little drifts of snow across the road as they walked back, pricked out tears of cold, if not of sorrow, from every face. Indoors, Nell headed straight to the kitchen, her black bombazine comfortingly warm. Pearl, blotchy from crying (the one thing she could not do gracefully, Nell noted), came in to help her. It was the same menu as before. Funeral food: scalloped potatoes and ham, biscuits, pie, and coffee. Afterwards, they cleaned up, with help from other townswomen, while the men smoked cigars in the parlor and rumbled about the news. “What a mercy it was quick!” Mrs. Mortensen said only what everyone had said for the last three days, and all the women nodded. “And at least Mr. Stark isn’t left with any young children.” Someone tittered, not Mrs. Mortensen.
“What do you think Mr. Stark will do now?” Mrs. Torvaldson, the banker’s wife, asked Nell. “I… I don’t know,” Nell replied, startled at being asked her opinion. Mourning a husband meant a year without society, and she did not yet know the townsfolk very well. Graham’s dull voice came from the door. “Maybe he’ll get married again.” “Graham!” Pearl cried. “And Martha not yet cold.” Graham shrugged and walked away.
Late that night, Nell lay in her cold bed, listening to the wind howling outside. What she had barely been able to think to herself had suddenly made itself plain. If James Stark desired her, what was now to stop him? What if he wanted to marry her? Her whole body shuddered. It could not be. She would rather die. Surely there were laws against something as horrible, as unnatural as that. A man would… No, it was impossible. She had to have mistaken his behavior. And if she had not, she vowed, she would move to a shanty on the edge of town and take in washing before she would become involved with her husband’s father. Patrick! Patrick! She whipped herself over into a ball under the covers, and cried her heart out.
Winter days were short. The shop shut early now, and James Stark showed a surprising talent for reading aloud in the evenings: newspaper articles, novels, poetry. Graham seemed indifferent as he whittled in his corner, but all the rest, even Nell, were rapt by that fine voice rising and falling in the gathering dark. And then, by eight o’clock, nine at the latest, everyone was in bed. Coal and kerosene were too precious, even for a shopkeeper, when everything had to be imported from the East.
Rising at four-thirty, Nell worked doggedly to light the kitchen fire, heat water, and get breakfast served by six-thirty, usually by herself, for Pearl’s condition was one of almost constant sickness. Often all Pearl could do was sit by the lean-to door in case she needed to rush out quickly. Nell did not mind: anything she could do to help Pearl was a satisfaction. But James Stark was a very early riser, and instead of heading straight to the barn to tend the cow, he now lingered in the kitchen, starting the fire, fetching water, leaning against her as she tried – it was so cold! – to get warm over the kindling flame. He said nothing but common words of work, of courtesy, to them both. But he had never done so for poor Martha, and Nell – “Nellie,” he called her now – felt embarrassed, ashamed, fearful, and… flattered?
And then, one morning, Graham was there, before the women. Nell and Pearl lingered on the steps, hearing the two male voices, James’ low like thunder, Graham’s surprisingly sharp. They stepped into the kitchen. James glanced once at her and Pearl, who shakily sat down by the door, and went out to the barn. The fire was kindled.
“I’ll fetch water,” Graham told Nell. “And then I’ll go help Father.”
He was protecting her, Nell realized. And wondered why.
Pearl’s light, active body was now heavy with child, and while she was no longer sick, she sat most days, all day. Nell wished they could both have fresh air, but they were shut up in the rooms of this house, battened and ceiled as it was against the wind, with the odor of cooking and coal, sweat and manure thick in their nostrils no matter how much Nell scrubbed and washed. And the diet, bread, fried potatoes, beans, meat, with a dollop of preserves or canned fruit, was heavy as lead. Nell knew that fresh greens were what Pearl needed, and fresh milk, but the cow was almost dry, and there was no hope for anything but what they had until spring. Winter stretched out forever in a whirl of wind and snow and dark long nights.
The two women spent the scant afternoon light sewing and mending, looking after the three boys, although Bill spent most of his time in the shop. James Stark had given him a pennywhistle, a map, and a promise to take him to the Huron State Fair come summer. Every night, James and Bill, John, and Arthur lingered at table, the boys mesmerized by James Stark’s stories of Dakota Territory as it had been when he arrived thirty years ago. As Nell washed the dishes and scrubbed the pots, she heard him talk of buffalo herds that had stretched like a dark cloud across a sea of grass, a cloud that made its own thunder. Of the great hunts that left piles of buffalo rotting under the sun, and had provided them with the buffalo hides that kept them warm this long, cold winter. Of the sod house he had built, when he decided to stay and not follow the buffalo across the Jim. It was the warmest house he’d ever known, he claimed. But no mention of the dirt of it, Nell noted, nor of the first wife who’d lived in it but a year and died giving birth to the twins, William and Harold. Or the second, who’d given him his other two sons.
But the stories were thrilling. She would glance over at her boys, open-mouthed, and find his eyes upon her.
“See?” they said. “See how I’ve won their hearts?”
In church, Nell stood between James and Graham, her boys beside James. They loved him. Nell shared a hymnal with him. He sang well, just as he read well. He was devout in manner, sober in conduct and habits, clean in person. His courtesy, exquisite, polished, courtly, to her and to her sons drew the attention of their fellow parishioners. She knew what they were thinking. In June, her mourning would be over, and James Stark was vigorous enough for a fourth wife. She blushed, but did not shudder.
On a cold, snowy morning at the end of March, Pearl’s time came. Nell threw her shawl over her head and went racing to the doctor’s, so quickly that she was back before the breakfast potatoes had time to burn. Nell ran up and downstairs with hot water, towels, and whatever else Dr. Peterson required. Soon the cries were loud enough to distress the boys in the kitchen, who dropped their forks. James Stark, who had sat like a ramrod through it all, now got up and herded the boys – with their plates – into the shop, where they joined Graham for the rest of the day.
Pearl’s little girl was born by suppertime.
“I want to call her Violet.” Pearl’s white face smiled tremulously down upon her baby. A dark-haired crown was all that could be seen above the swaddling. “Where in God’s name did you get that idea?” Graham asked from the door, his tone surprisingly hostile. “It’s a lovely name,” Nell said, trying desperately to scrub away the smell of childbirth that filled the air. “From a book by Charlotte Yonge,” Pearl replied. “Mrs. Mortenson lent it me.” “Oh.” He shrugged. “I’ll sleep in the store tonight.” And he went downstairs. Later, as Nell, with an aching back, cleaned the last of the pots and pans in the kitchen, James Stark stood in the doorway and asked about the baby.
“She’s a beautiful little girl,” Nell said, without looking up from her pots. “Dark hair and violet eyes.” She turned, to find his eyes fixed on her. “Pearl is going to name her Violet.”
He nodded, and went into the parlor. He returned with the family Bible. Carefully he sat down, thawed the ink at the stove, and wrote down the name and date of this new member of the family.
“’Children’s children are the crown of old men,’” he quoted, “’and the glory of children are their fathers.’”
As he rose and took the Bible back to the parlor, Nell thought that he was not yet an old man.
Graham slept in the store for the next two weeks, and fell ill with a bad cold that quickly turned ragged. The coughs nearly tore him in two. James Stark had his son moved into the parlor, and kept the stove alight, water steaming away on it, no matter the cost in coal. Pearl was not allowed near her husband, nor were the boys, for fear of infection. Nell nursed him diligently for Pearl, bedding herself down in the sitting room where she could hear him in the night. But Graham got worse, despite rubbing with kerosene and dosing with camphor. Dr. Peterson feared pleurisy. He bled Graham lightly, and left a small brown bottle of laudanum to ease his cough and help him sleep.
“You’ll need to be careful of the dose,” Dr. Peterson said.
Nell flushed. James Stark, standing by the bedside, came to her rescue, assuring the doctor that “Nellie” would be very careful of her, sorry, his son and Pearl’s husband. Nellie flushed even more. Every four hours, Nell went into the parlor to give Graham his medicine. He would wake, briefly, swallow, and return to sleep, until awakened by another wracking cough. At suppertime she went in to feed him broth and found him trying to get up.
She pushed him back down: he was weak as a child. “Lie back down, Graham. Do you need the honey pot?”
“Pain,” he gasped. “Medicine… I need to sleep… Forever.”
Her heart cramped. “No, no, no. You need but a little more to sleep.”
He clutched her wrist. “I need… enough to sleep… forever,” he repeated.
“No, you don’t. Why, in less than a month it will be May, and the sun will bake the sickness out of you. All will be well.”
“Will it?” Graham asked without eagerness. “And how… will it be… for you? May… June… No more mourning… A short time.”
“It’s seemed very long to me.” “I won’t know you… if you’re not… in black.” “I don’t like black.” “My father… He… He…” “Hush,” Nell interrupted. She did not want to discuss James Stark with Graham. “Here. Take this now, and you’ll sleep like a lamb.” Graham supped his half teaspoon eagerly. “Leave it by me.” “No!” she cried. She put the bottle in her apron pocket, then put more coal on the parlor fire. “Now rest yourself. Sleep.”
Afterwards, she took her apron off, setting the bottle high in the kitchen cupboard, and sat with Pearl and Bill at the kitchen table. Arthur and John were already in bed, and Violet was in Pearl’s lap. “Oh, Nell. You look so tired,” Pearl said, concerned. Nell shrugged. “It’s nothing that a good night’s sleep won’t cure. Did I hear someone come in earlier?” “Mrs. Mortenson called. ‘Twas very kind of her, I’m sure, but she is a talker. All sorts of nonsense out of her today. Mr. Stark shooed her out at last, saying I needed my rest.” Bill looked up, with his clear blue eyes. “She said that you were to be married, Mam, come summer. Is that true?”
Nell flushed, and Pearl gave the child a sidelong glance through those golden lashes. “You see what I mean?” “But she said everyone –” Pearl interrupted the boy. “Bill, it’s time to take Mr. Stark his evening coffee in the shop.” Bill leaped up. His greatest treat was to spend the last hour of the evening with his grandfather. Once the boy was gone, Pearl asked, anxiously, “How is Graham? Truly?” “He will be fine, I promise you,” Nell assured her. Pearl was still so white from childbirth, and her wide blue eyes were apprehensive. “I have told you before, Pearl, I would never let your husband die. I love you too well. I will do all I can to save him for you.” Pearl nodded, her mouth fixed.
Nell lay in her pallet on the sitting room floor. Above her was the master bedroom. She heard the floorboards creaking as James Stark put himself to bed. She tried not to pay attention. Everyone expected it. Graham, Mrs. Mortenson, even little Bill. She had come to expect it herself. She had come to… She shook herself. Were those footsteps she heard? She lifted herself up and listened. Light… No, not his footsteps. No footsteps at all. She was imagining things. She closed her weary eyes and fell into a well of darkness.
Sounds from the kitchen. The stove lid, ashes being raked, paper crumpled, wood, coal, lid back, ice breaking on the bucket… Nell sat up in a rush. It was morning. She did her hair and other essentials before going into the kitchen. James Stark stood by the stove, warming his hands over the fire. The boys came thundering down the stairs, followed by Pearl, holding Violet. “I must see to Graham,” Nell said. “He’s not coughing yet, that may be a good sign.” “Let me,” Pearl said. “Sure and I haven’t seen my own husband for a fortnight. Surely it will be safe enough just for the look.”
Nell took the baby, and Pearl went running into the parlor. A moment later, Pearl gave a demon’s shriek, and they all ran in. Graham was lying on his sofa bed, head thrown back, his lint-blond hair and bony face looking the sickly mirror of his father. “He’s dead!” Pearl screamed. “He’s dead!” Arthur and John began to howl, but Bill simply stared. “The children,” Nell began, but Pearl interrupted. “And this!” Pearl snatched the little brown bottle from Graham’s bedside and held it up. She turned on Nell like an avenging angel. “How could you have left this with him?” “I… I didn’t!” Nell cried. “I took it with me… You saw me put it up in the kitchen cupboard…” “How much did you give him?” Pearl hissed. “As much as you gave Patrick?” Nell felt as if only her corsets were holding her up. The attack horrified her. “I never –” “Everyone speaks of it. They all say that you quarreled. That he –” “Pearl.” James Stark said the one word, and she was quiet. “Bill, run and fetch Doc Peterson. Right away.” “Yes, sir.” Bill was off like a shot. “We will go into the kitchen.” James Stark marched the boys out of the room. Pearl’s eyes blazed on Nell as she swept past. Nell stood where she was. What had happened? How had the bottle gotten from the kitchen to the parlor? Had Graham gotten up and managed to get past her, lying on the sitting room floor? Had she been so exhausted she did not awaken?
“Nell.” James Stark’s voice called her. “Come and have coffee.” She walked woodenly into the kitchen. “Where are the boys?” “Upstairs, with Pearl.” James Stark looked hard as iron, and Nell’s legs gave way as she sat down. He poured her coffee. Dr. Peterson came in. “If you will follow me, Doctor.” The silent house seemed to engulf Nell. She tried to drink her coffee, but her hand shook, her stomach revolted. They would all believe that she had given him an overdose. That she had killed him. They believed she had killed Patrick, and if they had not before, they would now. Patrick, whom she’d loved. Oh, they had had terrible quarrels. But she had loved him. That was why they fought, because she loved him, and he was turning himself into a beast with drink… And then he had tried to stop. He threw himself into his work, but his hands shook, and his body ached, and his mind… And it only got worse. Just a small dose, that was all. Just a small dose she had given him and then another, for he was shaking all over by then, and crying with pain. And another, when the shrieking came, scaring the life out of the boys. And another, when the shaking rocked the whole bed. And another… And… And he had stopped shaking. And he had never moved again… She looked up as the two men returned.
“Heart failure,” Dr. Peterson said. “From fluid on the lungs.” He shook his head. “I’m sorry for your loss, James. I’ll stop in at Walworth’s, if you’d like.”
“I would appreciate that,” James Stark replied, and escorted him out.
When he returned, Nell looked up at him, beseechingly. “It was heart failure?”
“No. But that is what he’ll say, to spare us. It was laudanum.” He leaned against the counter and stared down at it. “I am bitterly ashamed.”
“No! I did not do it!”
“I know that.” He looked out the window, at the brown street. “Oh, Nellie. You have found in this house a sorry refuge. A house of deceit and lust and lies. My grandchild is my child, Nell. Graham knew. He… colluded to spare Martha, and then to spare you. Or perhaps to spare himself?” He shook his head. “But whether he killed himself, in despair, or she killed him, I will never know.”
“She got up in the middle of the night.” Nell gasped, suddenly seeing Pearl’s little white foot slipping out of James Stark’s bed… Something twisted deep inside of her. It was all true, and she had never known… “’A pearl of great price.’ Too great. It has cost me everything: my self-respect, my honor, my son…” He turned from the counter, his eyes wet. “I must go up and speak with her. I have placed a notice on the door of the shop. Would you shutter the windows, and then look after the boys?”
All that day, in the dark of shuttered windows and the silence bought by the notice “Death in the family”, Nell watched the children, prepared food, received condolences, and thought furiously. What was she to do now? She could never marry James Stark now, and who was to say that he still wanted to marry her? Or ever had wanted to marry her? Her face was grim as she considered that he had tried to deflect attention from the truth of his liaison with one daughter-in-law by creating the illusion of desire for another daughter-in-law. And both of them murderesses, in desire, in act, in will, in result. Something he would never know, not for certain. Until, perhaps, sweet Pearl would find a need to be rid of him…
William and Patrick, with their wives, came by nightfall. Sitting at supper, everyone played their roles of grief: widow, father, brothers, sisters-in-law. Nell could barely eat. After supper, Nell retreated to her room, pleading exhaustion, but truly because if she stayed, she might scream the truth out: and no one would believe her. Instead, she packed her trunk, and the day after the funeral she and the boys went to Sioux Falls. She took in washing, she saved her pennies, she declined all help from James Stark. When she read in the newspaper that Pearl had died of blood poisoning two years later, she trembled for fear that James Stark would come for her. But he did not. She never heard from him again. She never went near Laskin again. Years later, when her sons came into their inheritance and farmed up there, she learned that James Stark had found a fourth wife, a young German woman who bore him three daughters: the first he had named Nell.