Leading the Blind
"Thank you so much, Mrs. Barkley," Owen's cousin, Judy Tomlinson, gave Victoria a quick hug. "There's no way we can ever repay you."
Victoria looked from Judy to her husband, Dr. Jonathan Tomlinson, seated in his wheelchair. "You know you can call me Victoria," she said. "And it was all my pleasure. What does the doctor say? When may you go home?"
Judy moved to Jonathan's side and took his hand. "Not for a couple of months yet," Jonathan said, smiling up at his wife. "Fortunately, I've regained feeling in my legs, but it's still a long hard climb back to where I was before."
Victoria looked at their shining faces and felt the warmth of satisfaction. It had seemed touch and go in the first week after Jonathan's spinal surgery, and she knew Judy had nearly panicked when he had lost all sensation in his lower limbs, but the doctors now held out hope for a full, if slow, recovery. "Perhaps you would consider coming to Stockton when they let you out of here," she looked around the well-appointed sanitarium where Jonathan now resided. "We'd be happy to have you until you fully recover - and you certainly shouldn't leave all the necessary nursing to Judy."
"Oh, but I want to." Judy smiled warmly down at her husband. "I'd love nothing better."
Victoria felt a twinge of envy, but quickly stamped it down. "Well then, consider coming as our guest. Audra and Owen will be home in a week - I know they'd love to see both of you."
Judy blushed. "I’m not sure I can face them, not after the way I tried to wreck their wedding. I've never been so ashamed in my life."
"No one holds that against you," Victoria assured her. "There's not one of us who wouldn't have been tempted to do the same thing in your shoes. And it's not as though you actually tried to hurt anyone - you hardly did more than prank."
"Perhaps we should, sweetheart," Jonathan said. "I hate to think of you being afraid to face Owen."
Judy shook her head. "Think about it," Victoria said. "We really would love to have you."
"All right," Judy said, "we'll think about it." She took Victoria's hand. "Do give Owen and Audra my love when you see them - I know they'll be very happy together."
Victoria gave her hand a squeeze. "I will. Now I must go or I'll miss my train."
"We'll miss you," Judy said, "but I know you want to get home to your family. It was sweet of you to stay with us as long as you have."
"I didn't want to leave until we were sure Jonathan would recover," Victoria said. She kissed Judy's cheek and took Jonathan's hand before saying her farewells.
It was a hot summer day in Baltimore as Victoria took her seat on the train. It had been some time since she had traveled such a long distance without the family railcar, but Audra and Owen had taken that on their honeymoon trip, so she braced herself for a long, uncomfortable journey. She chuckled to herself as she lowered the window by her seat - she must be getting old, to find herself complaining, even if only to herself, about a few discomforts. She settled down with her knitting as the train pulled out of the station.
The first-class car was barely half-full, so Victoria had her section all to herself. She looked around - she seemed to be the only one in her car traveling alone, and although she did not mind a little solitude, she knew that an entire week's worth would give her no pleasure. She gave a little sigh, but reminded herself that she would be traveling for an entire week - she was bound to meet someone interesting to talk to.
She had packed a sandwich for lunch but made her way to the dining car as suppertime approached. The car was crowded, and she had a short wait before being led to a small table in the corner of the car. She perused the menu and was waiting to place her order when the waiter approached her. "Pardon me, Mrs. Barkley," he said, "but would you mind sharing your table tonight? I have a gentleman I would prefer not to keep waiting, if at all possible."
"Not at all," Victoria said, waving a hand graciously. The waiter returned to the head of the car and ushered back a dignified elder gentleman with dark spectacles and a cane. Not so elder, Victoria thought. Not any older than I am. The man brushed his hand lightly along the tables and the backs of chairs as he approached, and the waiter eagerly pulled out a chair for him.
"Mrs. Barkley," the waiter said, "allow me to introduce Mr. Johnson."
"I'm pleased to meet you, Mr. Johnson." Victoria held out her hand.
"As am I, Mrs. Barkley," Mr. Johnson said, holding out his own. He did not grasp her hand, and it took her a moment to realize why - the man was blind. Recovering swiftly, she slipped her hand into his.
Mr. Johnson clasped her hand briefly, then found his napkin and placed it in his lap. "How's that new baby of yours, Edward?" he asked the waiter.
Edward looked startled for a moment, then smiled proudly. "Now how did you know I had a new baby?"
Mr. Johnson tapped his spectacles. "Second sight," he said solemnly, in a soft Southern accent.
Edward nodded. "She's fine, Mr. Johnson - a beautiful little girl, like her mother."
Victoria gave her order to the waiter, as did Mr. Johnson without consulting the menu. As Edward walked away, Victoria asked, "How did you know, really? Did someone tell you?"
Mr. Johnson chuckled. "No, but he smelled faintly of talcum."
"Perhaps he uses it himself?"
Mr. Johnson shook his head. "Then he'd smell strongly of talcum. No, only a new father smells like that."
"That's far more impressive than Second Sight," Victoria said.
"Thank you." Mr. Johnson tilted his head. "Your first name wouldn't be Victoria, by any chance?"
Victoria raised her eyebrows. "Why, yes. Now I am impressed."
Mr. Johnson waved his hand. "A mere guess, really." He reached into the inside pocket of his coat and pulled out a piece of paper, which he ran his fingers gently over. "You're on the Committee for the Relief of the Indigent Blind in California?"
"I am," she said curiously.
"This is quite a coincidence. I'm on my way to San Francisco to meet with your Committee. Your name is on my list."
"Is that Braille, that writing?" Victoria asked.
"Yes. You're familiar with it?" This time it was Mr. Johnson who raised an eyebrow.
"I've heard of it. I've never seen it. May I?"
"Of course." Mr. Johnson offered the paper and she took it from his hand.
"It's just a bunch of dots," Victoria said.
"And writing is just a bunch of squiggles until you understand it," Mr. Johnson said.
"True," Victoria conceded. She put the paper back into his hand. "Ah, here's our dinner."
The waiter brought their plates and placed them on the table. "Meat is at six o'clock, beans at three o'clock, and I had the cook mix your peas and potatoes together - they're at nine o'clock," Edward said to Mr. Johnson.
"Thank you, Edward," Mr. Johnson said.
"Six o'clock?" Victoria said as Edward scurried away.
"He's telling me where my food is," Mr. Johnson explained.
"Oh, I see, like on the face of a clock. How clever. You must take this train a lot, to get such service."
"Yes, I travel to Boston quite frequently to consult with the Perkins Institute for the Blind."
"Consult about what?" Victoria asked.
"About education. I was a teacher before I was blinded - I kind of got in the habit." He smiled and began to cut his meat.
Victoria wondered if it was rude to watch him, but since he couldn't see if she was or not, decided no ill could be taken. He ate with a care and an elegance that belied his sightless state. "So you teach at Perkins?" she asked.
"No, at the Kentucky School for the Blind in Louisville. Some of the time. Most of the time I travel around and try to convince well-meaning people that education and training for the blind should not be confined to children, important as that is."
"Is that what you'll be talking to our Committee about?"
Mr. Johnson nodded. "Mr. Roger Holden - you know him?"
Victoria nodded. "He's the Chairman of our Committee."
"I was referred to Mr. Holden by Dr. Wilson at Perkins. I understand that your Asylum for the Blind and Deaf is about to finish its rebuilding project. I'd like to convince all of you that building a training center for newly-blinded adults is the obvious next step."
"You were blinded as an adult?" Victoria asked. It wasn't prying, she told herself - in this case it was business. Charitable business, but business, nonetheless.
Mr. Johnson nodded. "During the War. I was too close to an exploding powder keg, so they tell me." He adjusted his spectacles. "I don't really remember the accident myself. Just the months of despair afterwards, until I met someone who could teach me what I needed to know. Which is why I do this - it's important to give as we are given to, isn't it?"
"Yes," Victoria said thoughtfully. "I wish someone like you had been around when my son was blinded."
Mr. Johnson sat up straight in his chair. "You have a blind son?"
Victoria shook her head, then realized he couldn't see the gesture. "Not anymore," she explained, "he recovered his sight, but only after many weeks of despair, as you said. He did learn to cope with it, but it was a hard road."
"I know that road," Mr. Johnson said. "I know it well. It's my duty to show others the way."
He spoke with such conviction, Victoria could not help but realize that here was a man to be reckoned with. "You're very convincing, Mr. Johnson," she said, "but you realize I can't offer you my support until I've checked your background."
Mr. Johnson nodded. "Yes, these trains are full of con artists, I'm well aware. I fully understand, and would desire nothing else. But I ask nothing for myself - only that citizens invest in the future of their own communities. I'm usually compensated for my travel, but even that is not necessary."
Victoria assessed him - he certainly seemed sincere, but she knew from her daughter-in-law Samantha that when someone seemed the most sincere was the time to be most on one's guard. Still, his story was easy enough to check and she intended to do so at the earliest convenience - which would not be until the express train they were on arrived in Cincinnati the day after tomorrow. Until then, she would have to rely on her own judgment. And everything she knew about human beings told her he was genuine - time would tell if she were right or not. They finished their meal and stood to leave.
He started to move toward the rear of the train. "You're traveling second class?" Victoria asked.
He shrugged. "Yes."
"Perhaps we may discuss this further later?" she said.
He smiled. "I should like nothing better, Mrs. Barkley."
Victoria made her way to the first-class car and sought out the conductor. "Do you know Mr. Johnson? The blind gentleman in second class?" she asked him.
"Everyone on this train knows Mr. Johnson," the conductor said warmly. "Quite the gentleman. Always has a kind word for everyone."
Victoria smiled. "I wonder if it would be possible to transfer him to first class? I'd be happy to pay the difference."
The conductor smiled, then frowned. "I'm not supposed to do that, I'm afraid. Only the ticket agents are allowed to assign passengers." He brightened. "But I'll see what I can do - in special circumstances." He gave her a wink. "As we say on the railroad, rules were made to be bent."
Victoria sat down and began composing her telegrams, and the conductor returned a few minutes later, Mr. Johnson in tow. The conductor stowed Mr. Johnson's carpetbag beneath the seat, then tipped his hat to Victoria before departing.
"This is most kind of you, Mrs. Barkley," Mr. Johnson said, sitting across from her, "but hardly necessary. My accommodations were quite satisfactory."
"For a day perhaps," Victoria said, "but you'd hardly be at your best after a week of it. Consider it part of your travel compensation."
Mr. Johnson smiled. "As you wish. But I fear you shall tire of my company long before then."
"I doubt that," Victoria said, and realized she was not just being polite. She could not remember when she had last met a more interesting person, and began to look forward to the long journey home.
She put away her telegrams and took up her needles. "What are you knitting?" Mr. Johnson enquired.
"Don't tell me you can hear the needles over the sound of the train," Victoria said.
"Not over it exactly," Mr. Johnson said. "But it is a distinctive sound in itself."
"I have two grandchildren on the way," Victoria explained.
"Ah, you are fortunate," Mr. Johnson said. "How many grandchildren do you have?"
"Six, plus the two on the way," she said. "And my daughter, my youngest, just got married, so there is almost certain to be more." She grinned in satisfaction.
"And how many children do you have?"
"Four, three sons and a daughter. And you? Any children?"
Mr. Johnson shook his head. "None, I'm sorry to say. I lost my wife during the War, and we had not been so blessed."
"I'm sorry," Victoria said. "You never married again?"
"No, but that is a matter I prefer not to speak on, if you don't mind." His jaw twitched, and Victoria was sorry to see that she had pained him.
"Of course. Excuse my rudeness," she said.
"Not at all, Mrs. Barkley," he said stiffly.
"Since we're to be traveling companions, you may call me Victoria," she said, casting her mind about for a change of subject.
"And I am called Henry," he said, the tension easing itself from his posture.
"How do you amuse yourself during these long journeys?" she asked. "I admit if I couldn't read or knit I'd probably go insane."
"I do miss reading," he admitted. "Braille books are cumbersome, and difficult to come by. But I talk to people, which gives me great pleasure, and if I can find someone to play chess with, that also serves to pass the time."
Victoria's ears perked up. "You play chess? How?"
"I picture the board in my mind," he said. "It certainly helps that I played a good deal when I could see. Why? Do you play?"
"Yes, I do."
"Capital!" Henry said.
"I have a book, too, if you'd like me to read to you later."
"You are too kind, Mrs. - I mean, Victoria." Henry smiled warmly.
"Not at all," Victoria said. She put away her knitting. "Do you have a chess set? I must admit I'm curious to see how you do that."
"I have a portable one in my bag," Henry said, reaching down beneath the seat. He felt around until he found his carpetbag then opened it and removed a folding chess board with miniature pieces. "Do you have something to put it on?"
"This table folds out from the wall," Victoria said, lowering it.
"Does it? How convenient." He put the chessboard on the table. "If you would set it up, please."
"Black or white?" Victoria asked him.
"Lady's choice," he replied.
"Black for me then," she said.
"Now Mrs. - Victoria," he chided, "you're not trying to give me the advantage because I'm blind, are you?"
"You're not trying to give me the advantage because I'm a woman, are you?" she countered.
Henry chuckled. "Touché. Very well then, we play as equals."
And so they did. The night grew dark and the porter lit the lamps long before they were finished. Victoria was impressed - she had seldom had such a well-matched opponent. It was almost with sadness that she finally proclaimed, "Checkmate."
"Admirable," Henry congratulated her.
"I still don't see how you do it," Victoria said. "I've played for years and I couldn't do that."
"I didn't know I could either until I had to," Henry said. "But every good chess player does it, really. You think several moves ahead, don't you?"
"Well then, you're seeing the board in your mind, how you want it to look? It's not that big a jump."
Victoria shook her head. "If you say so."
"I sometimes use this as a demonstration of a blind person's abilities, although it's cheating, in a way. More smoke and mirrors than actuality."
"I don't think so," Victoria said. "Although I must say that you yourself - the way you conduct yourself, the way you move through life - is a far greater demonstration of the possibilities than any show you might put on."
Henry ducked his head shyly, but said, "Thank you. That is rather the point of what I do."
The porter was going round the car, pulling down the berths. "Ah, curfew," Henry said. He offered his hand. "It's been a most pleasant evening, Victoria. I look forward to the rest of our journey."
"As do I, Henry," she said. "As do I."
"You haven't told me what you're doing so far from home," Henry observed, as they dawdled over coffee in the dining car the next morning. Both early risers, they had the car almost entirely to themselves as they waited for the rest of the passengers to arise and porters to stow the berths.
"My daughter married our local doctor - his cousin's husband was in need of surgery at Johns Hopkins. I came to render whatever aid I could."
"That's a rather tenuous connection," Henry observed.
Victoria shrugged. "They're people we care about - that's connection enough."
"And he's doing well?" Henry enquired, thoughtfully.
"He has a long recovery in front of him, but yes, all things considered, he's doing very well." Victoria smiled.
"He couldn't have had it done closer to home?"
Victoria shook her head, then smiled. It was hard to give up the needless gestures. "No. He had a tumor on his spine - it was very specialized surgery. Only two or three surgeons in the country could have done it."
"He's fortunate to have known you then," Henry said pointedly.
"If you're tiptoeing around asking if I paid for it," Victoria said heatedly, "the answer is no. Jonathan's a doctor, and it was done as a professional courtesy. I am paying for the sanitarium where he's recovering, though."
"I meant no offense," Henry protested.
"My husband and I did very well when we went to California," she continued. "Most of our endeavors met with great success. Yes, I have money, but I do try to use it well. Giving as we've been given to, right?"
Henry held up a hand. "Truly, I'm sorry. You are a most kind and generous lady. I merely think of all those yet to be helped."
"As do I," she said.
Henry's face softened. "I'm sure you do." He stood and offered her his hand. "Come then - let us be friends, shall we?"
She took it and stood, the fire gone out of her. "I'm sorry I snapped at you. It's just that - having money - it's not always easy to find the best use for it. So much of it seems to cycle down the drain, doing no one any good, no matter how hard one tries to invest it well."
"That's true of many things," Henry said, tucking her hand under his arm and strolling back to their car. "One spends one's time trying to do good, only to see little come of it."
Victoria stopped in the aisle. "How many training programs have you managed to establish?" she asked.
"All together? As of today?" Henry asked. Victoria nodded. "Why - none," Henry said. "People listen very attentively, say, 'What a grand idea. We'll discuss it and get in touch with you,' then send a lovely letter saying they've decided to spend their money elsewhere." He sighed.
Victoria bit her lip. "How frustrating. Yet you keep doing it."
"What choice do I have?" Henry escorted her to her seat and sat down by her. "Nothing gets done unless someone is willing to do it."
"Such persistence," Victoria said.
Henry shrugged. "It's what I believe in - what I feel called to do. What else would I do?"
"I don't know," Victoria said, considering him solemnly. She had never met anyone like him. Tom - Tom had burned with a bright flame, rushing headlong into every venture, with a confidence and charm that had quelled all comers. Until his battle with the railroad, he had never lost a fight. She wondered how he would have dealt with defeat after defeat, as this man had, but she simply could not picture it. She found her bag and pulled out her book. "Shall I read to you now?"
"That would be delightful," Henry agreed, "if you wish to. What is the book?"
"Our Mutual Friend," she said.
"Ah, Dickens. And I am not familiar with that one. Charming." He nestled down in his seat as Victoria began to read.
Hours later he took the book from her hand. "Enough," he said. "You are quite losing your voice. We should go get you some tea."
"The porter can bring us some," she croaked, then cleared her throat. She had been so engrossed in the book that she had not realized the strain she had been putting on it. She signaled the porter who brought two cups and a teapot in short order.
"Now drink that," Henry said, "then knit or nap for awhile, but I forbid you to talk for at least an hour."
"What will you do?" Victoria asked.
Henry shook a finger at her. "Don't mind me - I'm used to traveling alone. Please don't feel you have to entertain me constantly for the next six days. I should have to separate myself from you for your own good, and that would pain me."
"All right." She laughed at his stern look. "No more talking." She took up her knitting, but studied him as she worked. His stillness was calming - he had a knack for silence, she thought: not awkward silence, but a deep, companionable silence that was almost conversation in itself.
They had lunch in the dining car, then talked quietly until dinner, after which they played chess again until the porter once again came around to lower the berths. Henry won this time, much to Victoria's secret satisfaction, and they once again took leave of each other for the night. Victoria settled herself down, then remembered that they would be in Cincinnati early the next morning, where she must send her telegrams and check Henry's story. She deeply regretted the necessity - it almost seemed a betrayal of the friendship that was building between them, but she could not shirk the responsibility.
The train pulled into the station with a loud blast upon the whistle, and Victoria asked Henry for his ticket so that she could have it upgraded after she sent her telegrams. "I'm going to go stroll about the platform for a bit," Henry said. "I could use some fresh air."
"Will you be all right?" Victoria said, then bit her lip. Of course he'll be all right. She felt like kicking herself.
"I know this station well," Henry said. "It's where I would normally change trains if I were going home. I'll meet you back here before the train leaves, never worry."
She sent her telegrams, one to Dr. Wilson at the Perkins Institute, one to the Kentucky School for the Blind, with a request for reply to be sent to the station in Omaha, where they would arrive the next day. As she already had them written, this took almost no time at all. She found the ticket window with the shortest line, and had not too long to wait for an agent.
"I'd like to upgrade this ticket to first class," she said, handing Henry's ticket to the agent. "My friend moved into first class with me just outside of Baltimore, so I'll need to pay the difference for that portion of his trip as well."
"You're not supposed to do that," the agent said sternly.
"The conductor said it was all right," Victoria said, somewhat sternly herself.
The agent began to fill out a new ticket, read the old one and stopped. "You're traveling with Mr. Johnson?" she asked.
"I am," Victoria said.
The agent quickly filled out the ticket, then stamped it firmly and handed it to Victoria. "No charge," she said. "Next!"
"Wait," Victoria said. "I can pay."
"You know that man?" the agent said. "He goes all over, trying t'help those who're worse off 'n he is, and him blind as he is. I ain't taking your money, ma'am. Next!"
Victoria was shoved aside from the window, and stood a moment on the platform, stunned. She shook her head as the train whistled a warning, then quickly boarded and made her way to the first class car. Henry was already seated, and she stood in the doorway a moment, contemplating him. He aroused such - what? admiration? devotion? - in all who knew him. Waiters and ticket agents, anyway. Why not the rich and powerful who could most aid him in his cause? In his most worthwhile cause. She sat herself down across from him.
"You sent your telegrams?" he asked.
"Yes, and here's your ticket." He held out his hand and she put the ticket into it.
"Thank you again, Victoria," he said.
"Don't thank me. The agent wouldn't let me pay for it."
"Whyever not?" Henry asked, puzzled.
"Because it was for you," she said.
"Really?" He wrinkled his brow. "I can't imagine why."
Victoria shrugged. She sat down and took up her knitting. "How do you manage all this travel?" she asked. "I understand how you can navigate someplace familiar, but going from city to city - it must be quite difficult. You're the only blind person I've ever known who traveled without a companion."
"Rail cars are all much the same," Henry said, "so there's not much difficulty there, and I usually have someone waiting to greet me at my destination who will help me get oriented."
"Who's meeting you in San Francisco?"
"Mr. Holden. And you'll be there, of course." Henry smiled.
Victoria shook her head. "No, I'm going to Stockton. This train doesn't stop there, but I'll be getting right back on a train as soon as we arrive. I'll be in San Francisco for the meeting, but I don't live there."
"And where is Stockton?" Henry asked.
"About two hours from San Francisco by train," Victoria said. "We're often there, though - myself and my family."
"Ah, I am disappointed. I had thought to see more of you once we arrived."
Victoria said. "You may be quite tired of me by then, anyway."
"That could never happen," Henry said warmly.
"I would like you to meet my family," Victoria said. "Perhaps you would come for a visit while you're there? I live on a ranch, but we could certainly make you comfortable."
Henry's face lit up. "A real ranch? With cows, and everything?"
Victoria laughed. "Well, cattle, not cows. And horses. Can you ride?"
Henry sighed. "If someone leads. That sounds lovely, Victoria. I would certainly like to, if time permits."
Victoria took out her book again. "Shall I read some more?"
"Please," Henry said, "but not so much as yesterday - I don't want you to hurt yourself on my account."
The train made a few stops that day - Indianapolis and then Chicago around midday, and St. Louis late in the evening. Victoria and Henry both took the opportunity to stroll around the platform at each stop, well aware that the next few days would present little opportunity for exercise. As the train pulled out of St. Louis, Henry said, "This is now the furthest west I have ever been."
Victoria raised her eyebrows. "You've never been west of St. Louis?"
Henry shook his head. "No. I've been all up and down the East Coast, and down the Mississippi and up the Ohio, but never westward before." He smiled broadly. "So this is quite an adventure for me."
Victoria smiled back, then wondered what it was that could allow him to brave the unknown - all alone and in the dark as he was. Was it courage, faith, or something else? Some might call it foolishness, she supposed, but she wished more people could be that foolish. The telegrams nagged at her conscience - but she would be in Omaha tomorrow where she would have her answer and she could finally put that behind her. She was glad that she had invited him to her home before she had her answer. Such faith as his deserved her own faith in return, and she was proud she had offered it, no matter what answer might be awaiting her tomorrow.
"Teach me Braille," Victoria asked the next morning.
"I can't imagine what possible use you could have for it," Henry said. "It's rather cumbersome."
"I like to learn new things," Victoria said. "And who knows? I might want to write you a letter someday."
Henry chuckled. "That's a charming suggestion, but I don't believe it for a minute. But very well, if you wish - it will serve to pass the time." He reached under his seat and found his bag, pulled out a strange device and a stylus. The strange device consisted of two pieces of wood joined by a hinge. Henry opened it and showed it to Victoria. The top piece had a series of rectangular openings, the bottom a series of small depressions - six depressions arranged to fit within the rectangles on the top piece.
"Each Braille character is formed from a possible six dots," Henry said, "three dots long and two wide. These depressions serve as a guide. Do you have sheet of paper? The heavier the better."
Victoria looked in her bag, took out her stationery and handed a sheet to Henry. "Yes," he said as he felt it, "that will do nicely." He put the paper in the device, lining it up carefully and closed it, securing it with a clasp. "Now we use the stylus to make depressions in the paper. The tricky thing is that you're writing backwards, because it's the raised dots that a blind person reads."
"I see," Victoria said, watching him closely.
"I'll make you an alphabet," Henry said, "so you can see how it's done."
Henry worked quickly, and released the paper and turned it over before handing it to Victoria. "It's like a cryptogram," Victoria said. "My sister and I used to play with those when we were children." She wrote the letters of the alphabet under their Braille symbols.
"What about punctuation?" she asked.
"There are symbols for punctuation, but you might want to learn the letters first," Henry said, smiling.
"All right. May I try it, with the - what is it called?"
"It's a slate," Henry said, handing it to her.
Victoria took another sheet of paper and carefully aligned it as she had seen Henry do. She took the stylus and began pressing it into the paper as she had been shown. After a while, working slowly, she released the paper, turned it over and handed it to him. Henry ran is fingers over the paper and laughed.
"What's funny?" Victoria said.
"I'm sorry, I shouldn't laugh," Henry said. "It's a bad thing for a teacher to do. You got a few of the letters backward - it's a common beginner mistake."
"I was trying to write, Shall I compare thee to a Summer's day."
"You wrote Sjall I compare thii to a summers fay. Sort of."
Victoria laughed, too. "Let me try again." She looked at her 'key' for a moment, then smiled and turned it over. Writing from right to left, she wrote the alphabet under the reverse of its Braille counterpart. "Ah ha!" she said.
Henry quirked an eyebrow. "Ah ha?" he asked.
"I turned the paper over so I'm looking at the reverse of each letter."
"Ah, that will help you learn to write it, but not to read it."
"But I have my key for that," she said. She wrote again, more quickly this time, then gave the paper to Henry for perusal.
"Ah, that's better," he said. "You're an excellent pupil."
"Where can I get one of these?" she asked. "This slate?"
"You're really serious, aren't you?"
"You never know when a new skill might come in handy."
"I can send you one when I return home, if you really want," Henry said.
"That would be sweet of you," she said, inserting another sheet of paper and writing with the stylus. She took it out and handed it to him. "Here's my address."
Henry chuckled and put the paper in his jacket pocket. Victoria happily practiced for the next hour, then surrendered the slate and continued the reading of Our Mutual Friend until noon when the train pulled into the station in Omaha.
"Do you mind if I accompany you to the telegraph office?" Henry asked. "I need the exercise and I promise not to read over your shoulder."
Victoria looked startled at him for a moment, then laughed. "Of course you may. There's not another station until Ogden the day after tomorrow. Let's enjoy this while we may."
Victoria took Henry's arm as they walked along the platform to the telegraph office, where two messages were waiting for her as she hoped. She read the first one and smiled to herself. Satisfied, she read the second one, which, while not so glowing as the first, did confirm Henry's bona fides. "Satisfied?" Henry asked.
"Yes," she said. "Dr. Wilson gives you a glowing recommendation, although your director at the Kentucky School complains that you should teach more."
Henry sighed. "That's an ongoing argument."
"Have you considered it?" Victoria gazed up at him.
"I've considered it," he said, but did not elaborate. "Describe the station for me, if you would be so kind. What can you see? What kind of people are here?"
"Oh, the usual kind," she said.
"That's no help," Henry grumbled.
"All right." Victoria looked around. "There's a family huddled together about ten yards down - mother, father, two boys and a girl. They all look rather frightened, as though they've never been near a train before. There's a young couple holding hands next to them. They keep staring at each other as though they're surprised the other still exists - I think they might be on their honeymoon."
"That's more like it," Henry said, smiling. "What else?"
"Let's see - there are some Indians selling jewelry. . ."
"Indians?" Henry said. "Real Indians?"
Victoria smiled - it really was his first time in the West. "Yes, real Indians. Would you like to go?"
"Yes, if we have time," Henry said eagerly.
Victoria consulted the station clock. "We have a few minutes." She led him over to where the Indians had a small table stocked with silver and turquoise jewelry. They were speaking among themselves in their own language, but stopped when Victoria and Henry approached the table. Victoria examined the jewelry, but was not impressed with the quality. She looked up at Henry, who stood there transfixed for a moment before the train gave a warning whistle.
"What is it?" she asked as they boarded. "You had an odd look there for a moment."
"It was hearing them speak in their own tongue," Henry said. "On the train, everything's the same, but there, I finally felt it. I'm in the West. I don't know how to describe it."
Victoria smiled. "I think I understand. This really is an adventure for you. And there's more to come - this is just the prairie. Wait until we get to the mountains."
"I wish I could see them," Henry said. "I don't often wish that anymore. Will you describe them for me, when we get there? Be my eyes?"
"Of course I will." She reached out and clasped his hand. "It will be my pleasure."
But she found herself describing the landscape long before they approached the mountains. Although there was not much to see in the prairies of Nebraska, she discovered that Wyoming offered panorama after panorama of delights - the red rock of the badlands, forests, lakes and farms. She realized that if she had not been "Henry's eyes," she would barely have noticed the wonders racing by her window.
"You have a talent for description," he told her as they began the climb into the mountains. "I can almost see everything you describe."
"I never knew I could," she said. "I never had to before."
Henry smiled. "It's amazing what abilities one can find when necessary."
"As you did."
"As anyone can, given the opportunity."
"You don't have to sell me, Henry," she said. "I'll be backing your proposal to the Committee, never fear."
Henry gave a small frown. "Victoria. I know we're becoming friends. . . ."
"Yes, we are," she agreed.
". . .But I hope you aren't backing me because of that. I'd rather you did because you believe in it - not in me."
"I believed in it the moment you told me about it," Victoria said. "Long before I had confirmation of what kind of man you were."
"Ah, good," Henry said, leaning back in his seat with a sigh.
Victoria smiled and contemplated him - not for the first or, she supposed, the last time. Scrupulous to a fault, apparently; serious, yet with a lively sense of humor and an openness to the world that would be rare in a man half his age. Yes, she wanted to be this man's friend. She had seldom met anyone she desired to befriend more. She sat back with a satisfied sigh herself.
They strolled about the platform at Ogden before beginning the final leg of their journey. "Feel the air," Henry said. "It doesn't just smell different," he inhaled deeply, "it has a different texture to it. How high up are we?"
"About forty-three hundred feet," Victoria said.
"Almost a mile," Henry said in wonder.
"We're west of the Divide now," Victoria said. "It's almost all downhill from here - in two days we'll be in San Francisco, all the way down to sea level."
"May I say how grateful I am that you're with me, Victoria?" Henry said. "It wouldn't have been half the experience it is without you as a guide."
"That cuts both ways, Henry. I wouldn't have noticed so much myself without you to guide. I feel. . .enriched."
Henry smiled. "I'm glad. I'll almost be sorry when it's over."
"Me, too." The train whistled, and they re-boarded. Two more days, Victoria thought, and although she fully intended to remain friends with this man, she knew that soon this pleasure would be over forever. She pulled out her book. "Shall I read?"
"Yes, although I don't think we're going to finish it before the journey ends," Henry said.
"Let's try," she said, smiling.
And then the train was pulling into the station in San Francisco. Journey's end. "I see Roger on the platform," Victoria said, looking out the window. They gathered their belongings and disembarked.
"It's going to feel strange being on terra firma," Henry remarked.
"I know, it always takes me a while to readjust after a long train ride." She waved her arm. "Roger!"
Roger Holden had been scanning the crowd but stopped and made his way over to them. "Victoria!" he exclaimed, kissing her cheek. "I didn't expect to see you here."
"I just got back from Baltimore," she said. "May I introduce Mr. Henry Johnson? I believe he's the one you're here to meet."
"Pleased to meet you, Mr. Holden," Henry said, holding out his hand.
Roger shook it. "Likewise, Mr. Johnson. I didn't realize you two knew each other."
"We met on the train," Victoria explained. "Henry has told me all about why he's here, and I want you to know I support it. It's a marvelous idea."
"Well, that makes two of us," Roger said. Victoria took Henry's arm as the walked over to claim their luggage. "It's convincing the others that will be a difficult task," Roger continued.
"It always is," Henry agreed.
"If you've been out of town, then you didn't get my message," Roger said. "We're meeting day after tomorrow, two o'clock at my house."
"On Sunday?" Victoria asked.
"It's the only time. Penelope and Herb are leaving town for a month on Monday. You can make it, can't you? I know it will be difficult after your long journey, but I need you, Victoria."
"I'll be there, never fear," Victoria assured him. "I was thinking about bringing Jarrod, too, if he's able to come. He's had a relevant experience - it might help to have the testimony of someone they know."
"Capital!" Roger said. "That might just tip things in our favor."
Henry and Victoria claimed their luggage, and then it was time to part. "Farewell, Victoria," Henry said. "I look forward to seeing you again."
Victoria reached up and kissed his cheek, much to his evident surprise. "As do I, Henry," she said. As Roger led Henry away, her eyes followed them until they were out of sight. She breathed a heavy sigh, gave her bags to the porter and boarded the train. Time to go home.
There was quite a crowd of Barkleys on the platform in Stockton - Victoria's four children, their spouses and all six of her grandchildren. She sometimes forgot how large her clan had become, they were all in one place so seldom now. She descended the train into many welcoming arms and many cries of, "Hello, Mother!" Everyone seemed to want to be kissed at once, hugged at once.
"I thought I'd be here to welcome you," she said to Audra.
"Our train only got in about twenty minutes ago," Audra said. "We haven't even claimed our luggage yet."
"Everyone's coming out to the ranch," Nick exclaimed. "Silas has laid on the champagne - we're going to have one devil of a party."
"After everyone has had a chance to freshen up," Jarrod said. "I'm sure the first thing Mother and Audra want is a bath. Apiece." He grinned.
"Actually, what I most want is a good long ride," Victoria said. "I am aching for exercise."
"Whatever you want, Mother," Jarrod said, putting an arm around her and leading her to the buggy. He planted a kiss on her cheek. "It's good to have you home." He smiled at his sister and new brother-in-law. "Good to have everyone home."
"You were right about me," Audra said. "I'm going to go home and take a bath. We'll meet you all at the ranch in a little while."
Home. Victoria thought. Not the ranch for her daughter anymore. Still, she was grateful that Audra had found someone to settle down with right here in Stockton - it had looked for awhile that she might not, that she might end up in Denver or the middle of the Amazon. Count your blessings. Easy enough to do - all she had to do was look around her.
"That must have been some train ride," Jarrod said, climbing up into the buggy next to her and flicking the reins. The rest of the family followed in several conveyances - the surrey, a couple of buggies, and Nick and Heath on horseback.
"What do you mean?" Victoria asked, puzzled.
"You're positively glowing, Mother. You almost outshine Audra, and she just got back from her honeymoon."
She put her hands to her face. "Must be the heat," she said.
"I'm sure it is," Jarrod said, grinning.
"If you're implying what I think you're implying, you're not too old for me to spank," Victoria said heatedly.
"Whoa there, Mother," Jarrod said. "Since when can I not tease you a little?"
"I've always been faithful to your father's memory, you know that," she said, eyes flashing.
"A little flirtation during a long journey is hardly being unfaithful, Mother," Jarrod said. He leaned over and whispered, "But it is nice seeing you with some roses in your cheeks."
"It was nothing of the kind," she snapped.
"Oh, what was it then?" he asked, eyes twinkling.
"I did meet someone, yes - but it was business. Charitable business. He was on his way to San Francisco to talk to our Committee about starting a training program for newly-blinded adults. Since we were both traveling alone, we decided to travel together. That's all."
Jarrod put his hands up. "If you say so, Mother. I meant no offense."
"The Committee is meeting the day after tomorrow - I was hoping you would go with me. Since you've had some experience in that matter."
"I'd be happy to," Jarrod said. He turned thoughtful. "That would have been a good thing to have - much better than having to find my own way in the dark. Without Nick and Heath I might never have found it. I'll certainly lend my aid to anything that spares someone else the despair I went through."
"I thought you might. It's the same way Henry feels - why he's doing what he's doing." Victoria felt herself cooling down, her anger draining away as they began to discuss practicalities.
"He's blind?" Jarrod asked. "And he was traveling alone? No wonder you took him under your wing, then."
"It wasn't like that, either," Victoria said, more mildly this time. "He's quite capable of getting around on his own. Has been since he lost his sight in the War. Believe me, the man didn't need any help from me."
"Very impressive," Jarrod said. "It would be good to be able to teach that kind of capability."
"I'm sorry I snapped at you," Victoria said, "but you did have quite the wrong idea. Yes, I like Henry very much - he's a kind, intelligent man. One who's willing to endure great sacrifice to leave the world better than he found it. He has my respect and admiration, nothing more."
"All right, Mother," Jarrod said, "but, not to raise your ire again, there would be nothing wrong if you were attracted to him. Father's been gone a long time - you can't be unfaithful to a dead man."
"There's only ever been one man for me," Victoria said sternly.
"All right, Mother," Jarrod said again. "I believe you." He kissed her cheek. "And I'll behave myself. But I am anxious to meet this friend of yours. What did you say his name was?"
"Henry. Henry Johnson."
Jarrod jerked as though from an electric shock. "What's wrong?" Victoria said.
"Sorry," Jarrod said, "just taken by surprise, is all. Henry Johnson was also the name of Molly's first husband."
"Oh, yes, it was, wasn't it? I'd forgotten." Victoria shrugged. "A coincidence. This Henry is old enough to be Molly's father."
"So was Molly's Henry," Jarrod said. "He was quite twenty years older than she was."
"Was he?" Victoria wrinkled her brow. "I don't think I ever knew that."
"Where's he from?" Jarrod asked.
"I'm not sure," Victoria said. "He has a Southern accent, though, and he teaches at the Kentucky School for the Blind."
"Molly's from Kentucky," Jarrod said.
"A lot of people are from Kentucky," Victoria said. "A lot of people are named Henry Johnson."
"Molly once told me that Henry was a visionary - that he saw the world the way it should be, and worked to make it so. And that sounds very much like the man you just described."
"But Molly's Henry is dead. Killed in the War," Victoria argued.
"And Molly has a death certificate to prove it," Jarrod agreed.
"Besides, Henry told me that his wife died during the War, so it can't possibly be the same person."
"It does argue against it," Jarrod said.
"But you still think it might be," Victoria accused.
"It's a question of character, Mother," Jarrod said. "I can believe that there might be two Henry Johnsons crossing our path, I can even believe that there might be two Henry Johnsons from Kentucky, but not two Henry Johnsons like you and Molly describe."
"You're taking this awfully calmly," Victoria said. "If Molly's husband is alive. . ."
"I'm Molly's husband," Jarrod said. "Nothing can change that. Well, Molly could change it, but she won't."
"You're not if her first husband is still alive," Victoria said.
"Well, that's where you're wrong. This isn't a dime novel, Mother. In real life, once a person is legally dead, their spouse is free to marry. Even if the 'dead' person reappears, it doesn't invalidate the subsequent marriage."
"Are you sure about that?" Victoria asked.
"I am a judge," Jarrod pointed out. "Yes, I'm sure."
"Then leave well enough alone, Jarrod," Victoria said. "Don't pursue it - there's nothing to be gained, just a lot of heartache."
"And what will you do, Mother?" Jarrod asked. "You've already befriended this man. I'll bet you've already invited him to dinner, haven't you?"
Victoria bit her lip. "No, I invited him to visit. But I could un-invite him."
"On what grounds? If he's just a kind stranger, as you say, then there's nothing to fear. If he's not - then I want to disarm that mine before Molly steps on it. San Francisco is too close to trust to chance on that."
"I hope you're wrong," Victoria said vehemently.
"I hope I'm wrong, too," Jarrod said. "But Molly's not a child - she can handle the truth, whatever that might be."
"I hope Henry can, if you're right."
"I hope so, too," Jarrod agreed, "but - not to sound heartless - that's not my concern. Molly is my concern."
"And you can't just keep this to yourself?" Victoria asked.
"Could you have kept a secret from Father?" Jarrod asked. "Especially one as large as this one?"
Victoria deflated. "No. I couldn't."
Jarrod reached over and took her hand. "I'm not going to just charge in, Mother. I'll soften the blow as much as possible - if there is a blow to soften."
She squeezed it. "Can you at least wait until after the Committee meets? This training center is important to Henry - I don't want him distracted, and this would certainly distract him."
"Of course, Mother. I had no other intention. But don't worry - you're probably right."
"You're not a good liar, Jarrod. You don't really believe that," she chided.
"Perhaps," he conceded. "But have a little faith, Mother. If he is Molly's Henry, and he's come all this way, then trust that there's a reason for it. Can you do that?"
"I can try," she said.
They arrived at the ranch and Victoria leapt down from the buggy without aid. "I'll go put on my riding clothes," she said.
"You're really going riding?" Nick asked, riding up and pulling his horse to a halt.
"I've been cooped up on a train for an entire week, Nick," she said. "I need air - I need freedom and a good horse."
"I'll saddle one up for you then," Nick said, dismounting. "You need company, too?"
"That's all right, one horse will do." The rest of the family arrived and piled into the house in a horde. Victoria climbed the stairs to her room and changed hurriedly. "I won't be long," she said, coming back down. "I'll be home in time for dinner, anyway."
"You'd better be, Mother," Heath said. "Or Nick'll have your hide. He's been planning this party for days."
"All right." She kissed Heath's cheek then went to the corral and mounted the horse Nick had saddled for her, spurring it into a gallop as soon as she was through the gate.
She galloped until her horse was in a lather, then got down and walked it. She watered it at a stream, her thoughts in no coherent form. She mounted her horse and rode him home, changed for dinner, all in a fog. She was uncertain what she ate, what she drank. As soon as dinner was over she pleaded fatigue and went upstairs to prepare for bed.
She was sitting at the vanity brushing her hair when Audra tapped at the door. "Is something bothering you, Mother?" she asked, perching on the edge of the vanity.
"Why do you ask?" Victoria said, brushing her hair furiously.
"You seemed so happy when you got off the train, but since we got to the ranch you're like a thundercloud. And you haven't said a word about Jonathan, even though you must know that Owen is dying to know, and it's not like you to forget something like that."
Victoria dropped her brush in her lap. "He's doing well - he's regained the feeling in his legs and the doctors think there's a good chance he'll make a full recovery, eventually. In a few months."
"Thank you, Mother, I'll be sure to tell Owen. Now what is bothering you?" Audra looked down on her mother with concern.
Victoria smiled a little smile. How many times had they had this conversation in reverse? "I wish I could say nothing was bothering me, but I won't lie to you, dear. But I can't tell you, either. It's an uncomfortable confidence."
"Ah," Audra said, "one of those." She stooped down and kissed her mother. "You know you can call on me for anything, don't you, Mother? Just because I'm not here at the ranch doesn't mean I'm not here for you. Even if you can't tell me what's bothering you."
"Thank you, dear," Victoria said. "I realize I also neglected to ask you how you enjoyed your honeymoon."
Audra blushed. "It was wonderful, Mother."
Victoria chuckled. "I'm sure it was." She stood and kissed Audra's cheek. "I'll call on you tomorrow and you can tell me all the details, all right?"
"Not all the details, Mother," Audra said, grinning.
"All the ones you wish to, dear," Victoria said.
"All right, Mother. Sleep well." Audra left and Victoria climbed into bed, her thoughts still whirling around her head. Thundercloud, indeed. What would that storm bring, once the cloud finally burst? She tried to summon up her faith, no easy task. She sighed and pulled up the covers, endeavoring to sleep, but it was a long, dark night.
"I do wish you'd reconsider," Victoria said on the train on the way to San Francisco on Sunday.
"I have, Mother, believe me, I have," Jarrod said. "But the truth matters, of itself. And I do believe this is best for Molly's sake." He looked over at her. "It does bother me that you seem to set Henry's interests higher than Molly's. You've known him a week, and Molly's been like a daughter to you."
"Molly has you, and the children, and the rest of us to look after her. Henry has no one. Whatever burden you put on him, he has to bear it all alone."
"I'll be as kind to him as I can, Mother. Trust me, please."
She scrutinized him, as she had never scrutinized him before. Yes, she had always trusted his judgment, and she knew he would always follow his conscience, but the hurt they might be about to inflict on a good man made her quail. She did not want to be a party to it, but it seemed she had no choice. "Let's concentrate on the meeting right now," she said.
"Of course, Mother," Jarrod said. "It's worth doing, and you know I'm behind you."
They got off the train and hailed a cab for Roger's house. Roger met them at the door. "Victoria, Jarrod, you're the first to arrive. You already know Mr. Johnson."
"Henry, allow me to introduce my son, Jarrod," Victoria said.
Henry held out his hand. "I'm pleased to meet you, Mr. Barkley."
Jarrod shook his hand. "Jarrod, please. I've heard a lot about you - the pleasure is mine, for certain."
"That's very kind of you to say," Henry said. Victoria looked from one to the other of them. They were really very much alike - in temperament, in outlook, in conscience. It was not at all unlikely that Molly could have loved them both.
"The others will be here in a moment," Roger said. "Ah, here they are now." He answered the door and ushered the three remaining Committee members into the parlor. "Mr. Henry Johnson, I'd like you to meet Mr. Herbert Childers and his wife, Penelope, and Mr. Lon Prentiss. Mr. Johnson comes very highly recommended by Dr. Wilson at the Perkins Institute for the Blind, and has a very interesting proposal for us today."
"I'm very pleased to meet you, Mr. Johnson," Penelope Childers offered her hand. Then, making the same realization that Victoria had made on first meeting Henry, slipped her hand into his.
"The pleasure is all mine, Mrs. Childers," Henry said.
"Let's all sit down and have some tea to begin," Roger said.
"Why is Jarrod here?" Lon Prentiss asked. "You're welcome for sure, Jarrod, but you're not on this Committee."
"Jarrod has an interest in Mr. Johnson's proposal," Roger explained.
"And what is this proposal?" Lon asked.
"Tea first, please, if you'll all be seated. Mr. Johnson, will you serve?" Roger gave Victoria a wink as he sat down at the tea table.
"But. . . ," Penelope began. "He's blind."
"So I am, Mrs. Childers," Henry said, carefully pouring a cup and offering it to her. "Cream? Sugar?"
"Two sugars," Penelope said. Henry took the sugar tongs and added two lumps to Penelope's cup. She took it from his hand wonderingly.
"Mrs. Barkley?" Henry asked, smiling.
"Just tea, thank you," Victoria said, with a grin.
Henry served her, then the rest of the party. "How do you to that? You didn't spill a drop," Penelope asked.
"I arranged the tray myself before you arrived, so I knew where everything was," Henry explained. "I knew where each of you were sitting by your voices."
"These are some of the skills we teach at the Asylum," Roger pointed out.
"And I'm here to ask you to consider teaching them to newly-blinded adults," Henry said. "After all, far more people are blinded as adults than are born blind, yet under the current system, they are left to fend for themselves."
"Were you blinded as an adult?" Herb asked.
"I was," Henry said. "During the War."
"Yet you taught yourself these skills," Herb said.
"No, I did not," Henry explained. "I had the good fortune to meet a young man a few months after I was blinded. Dr. Wilson's son Leonard, as a matter of fact. He was familiar with the techniques that are taught at Perkins, and he took it upon himself to teach them to me. I would not be here today had he not done me so great a kindness."
"How touching," Penelope said. "I didn't know Dr. Wilson had a son."
"He was killed in the War a few months later," Henry said.
"That terrible War," Penelope said. "It took so much from us, didn't it?"
Victoria glanced over at Henry. More than you know, Penny, she thought.
"So I'm here today because of Leonard. And because I understand the despair and also the possibilities. A blind man or woman does not need to be helpless - much can be taught, much can be learned."
"Mr. Johnson also teaches at the Kentucky School for the Blind," Victoria said, "so he has experience teaching the blind, as well as living as one."
"And consider this," Henry said, "If a man is stricken blind - through accident or disease - without training, he becomes a drain on all around him. Unable to provide for himself or his family, his wife must turn her energies to caring for him and providing what sustenance she can. She can no longer care for her children or her home as she should, and the entire family suffers. The same is true if a woman is stricken - she can no longer care for herself and her children, and her husband must turn his energies to her care and theirs. How much better if they can be taught to care for themselves, and to be retrained in productive work?"
"It's also good business," Roger pointed out. "If a man can continue to be productive instead of becoming a case for charity, he contributes to Society instead of taking from it."
"That's all well and good," Lon said, "but it's not in our charter. This committee was formed for the care of blind children. I fear we dilute our resources if we try to extend them to adults."
"Who better than us?" Victoria said. "We already have the Asylum for the children - it would be easier to extend that than to expect someone else to begin from scratch."
"Mr. Johnson?" Roger said. "It seems we have now entered into debate. Would you excuse us, please?"
"Of course," Henry said, rising. "I shall adjourn to my room."
Victoria's eyes followed him out. She looked around at her fellow committee members. Lon, she felt, was dead set against it, and Penelope and Herb always voted together. Her heart sank - this was going to be difficult, but then, she had known it would be. "Jarrod," Roger said, "I believe you have something to contribute."
"Yes, I do," Jarrod said. "I believe all of you know that I was blinded myself several years ago."
"That's right," Penelope said. "I had forgotten. But you did recover."
"Only after spending several weeks blind, not knowing whether I would get my sight back," Jarrod said. "I don't think I can express the despair I felt, how useless I felt. I couldn't even feed myself properly, dress myself properly. I did learn a few skills with the help of my family, but it was difficult beyond measure. We need something like what Mr. Johnson proposes. I've walked down that road, I know what it's like."
"I agree it would be a good thing," Lon said, "but not for us, here and now. We haven't finished rebuilding from the fire that wiped out the Asylum, and that was more than ten years ago."
"We're almost finished," Victoria said, "and we've done far more than rebuild, you know that. We've built new dormitories, a new president's home, and a new education building. People have supported us all down the line. I don't know what you're worried about."
"It's easy to raise money for little blind kids," Herb said. "Not so easy to raise money for adults. They don't arouse the same sentiment. It's not right, but there it is."
"It's an investment," Victoria said. "An investment in the future. An investment in people, and in hope."
"Not many people see charity that way," Lon said. "They give to make themselves feel good, and that's why children's charities will always have the money."
"I'll pledge ten thousand dollars, right here and now," Victoria said. "It's a start."
"That's very generous of you, Victoria," Herb said, "but there's nothing to donate to yet."
Victoria could see where the lines were drawn, and her heart sank. She and Roger on one side, Lon and Herb on the other.
"I move we vote on it," Lon said.
"Any objections?" Roger asked, looking at Victoria. She shook her head - all her arguments were spent.
"All in favor?" Roger and Victoria said, "Aye."
"All opposed?" Lon and Herb said, "Nay," just as Victoria had expected.
"Three to two," Herb said, "I'm sorry, but now is just not the time."
Victoria's head snapped up. "I didn't hear Penelope vote."
"She always votes with me," Herb pointed out.
"Nevertheless," Victoria said, "she is a member of this Committee and has a right to be heard. What do you say, Penelope?"
Penelope bit her lip. "Well, I do agree that the children must come first." Victoria's heart sank again. "And that's why I have to vote 'yes'," Penelope finished.
"Penny!" her husband said, "that doesn't make any sense. Explain yourself."
"It's like Mr. Johnson said - for every man or woman we can train, we save a whole family. It's always bothered me that the children at the Asylum have to leave their families to come here - it would be so much better if they could stay in their homes. But this - for every man we save, we can keep two or four or even more children off the charity rolls! And Roger says it's good for Business, so everyone wins."
"Are you sure about this, Penny?" her husband said sternly.
"Yes, dear," Penelope said calmly. "It's the right thing to do."
"Well, then," Herb said, "There's only one thing for me to do. I shall have to vote 'yes,' too."
Victoria held back a whoop with great difficulty, but she could feel her own eyes shining.
Herb leaned over and whispered in his wife's ear. Penelope nodded eagerly. "And we want to match Victoria's ten thousand for seed money," he said.
"Apiece," Penelope added. She looked at her husband. "Well, we are both on the Committee."
"As you wish, dear," Herb said mildly.
The Committee turned its eyes on Lon. "Would you like to make it unanimous, Lon?" Roger asked.
"You're all really going to do this?" Lon asked.
"Yes, we are, Lon," Herb said.
"Well, then, I'll do what I can to help you," Lon said, "but I won't change my vote. I still think we're endangering the Asylum, but I won't stand in the way. And I'll pledge ten thousand, as well, but for the Asylum, not for the training program."
"Fair enough," Victoria said.
Roger looked uncomfortable. "I'm sorry, but I just don't have that kind of money to throw around," he said.
"That's all right," Victoria said. "Your leadership is far more valuable. With Penny and Herb gone for a month, and me in Stockton, most of the work is going to fall on you. I will do what I can."
"I think we should hire Mr. Johnson to run it," Penelope said.
"Dear, he's blind," her husband pointed out.
"Who better to understand what needs to be done, then?" Penelope responded. "Oh, we'll have teachers who can see, too, but I think the head should be someone who knows what it's like."
"He would serve as a good example for the people we're trying to help," Jarrod pointed out. Victoria gave him a puzzled stare - if he believed his own logic regarding Henry, why would he want him close by?
"I don't think that's ever been done before," Roger said. "The blind truly leading the blind."
"Perhaps it should be," Herb said thoughtfully.
"Now I really do think you're out of your minds," Lon said. "Unless. . .you're thinking he'd make a good figurehead. I do admit it might be good for publicity."
"He's no figurehead," Victoria said. "I never met a more capable man."
"I didn't realize you knew him," Herb said.
"I met him on the train as I was coming back from Baltimore," Victoria said. "He even beat me at chess. Some of the time."
"I've played chess with you," Roger said, "and I've never beaten you."
"Shall we vote on it, then?" Herb asked.
Herb and Penelope split their vote this time. "Sorry, dear," Herb said, "but I really do think we should hire someone who can see." Roger voted for, and Lon voted against, so the decision came down to Victoria. And she hesitated. If Jarrod was right, should she vote to keep Henry so close by? But then, he should have the opportunity to decide for himself. She cast her vote for, and the matter was settled.
"Do you want to tell him the news, Victoria?" Roger asked as the meeting began to break up. "I know you two have become good friends."
"No, you tell him, Roger," Victoria said. "You are the Chairman, after all." She and Jarrod lingered in the parlor as the others left and Roger went to inform Henry. "You have one last chance to reconsider, Jarrod," she warned when they were alone together.
"I'm sorry you're worried, Mother," Jarrod said, looking down on her tenderly. He kissed her head. "But I have to know - for Molly's sake."
Victoria nodded grimly and sat down as Roger and Henry came in, beaming. "Oh, good, you're still here," Roger said. He clasped Victoria's hands. "We did it, Victoria."
"I can't thank all of you enough," Henry said. "Thank the rest of the Committee for me, will you?"
"Will you take the job, Henry?" Victoria asked.
Henry cocked his head. "You sound like you don't want me to, Victoria," he said, frowning.
Victoria felt like kicking herself - something in her voice had evidently betrayed her. "No, of course I do, if that's what you want," she said.
"I have a few loose ends to tie up back in Kentucky," Henry said, "but yes, of course I'll take it. This is what I've spent years working for."
"I know this is quite impolite in your own home, Roger," Jarrod said. "But would you mind excusing us? We have something we need to discuss with Mr. Johnson - in private, if you'd be so kind."
Henry tilted his head quizzically, but Roger said, "Actually, I was needing to leave to go pick up my wife at her mother's. I'll be gone about an hour - I was thinking to take Henry with me, but if you need to speak with him, that would suit me."
"Thank you, Roger," Jarrod said.
Roger shook hands all around. "We'll rest tonight, but tomorrow I'd like to take you, Henry, on a tour of the Asylum and we can begin making plans, if that's all right with you."
"That would be capital," Henry said. He turned to Victoria, grinning, as Roger left. "What did you need to speak to me about, Victoria?"
"Actually, it was I who wanted to speak with you, Mr. Johnson," Jarrod said. "I think we may have a mutual friend."
Victoria sat and stared into the empty fireplace. Henry seated himself beside her. "You're from Kentucky, aren't you?" Jarrod continued.
"Yes, I am," Henry said.
"Have you ever been to a little town in the western part of the state, called Paducah?"
Henry's ears perked up. "Why, yes, that's where I lived before the War. Who do you know from Paducah?"
Victoria buried her face in her hands as Jarrod continued. "Did you know a man named George Holt and his family? He had four sons and a daughter named Mary."
Henry leapt to his feet. "Molly," he said. "We called her Molly. What do you know of her? You must tell me."
"Please sit down, Henry," Victoria said, knowing it was in vain. "You mustn't distress yourself."
"If you know something of my wife, you must tell me," Henry said, and Victoria felt a numbness wash over her.
"You told me your wife died during the War," she said.
"No, I told you I lost her." Henry slumped down on the sofa. "She left me - I haven't seen her in more than twenty years. It's all my fault - I should have written her, but I was in such despair, you can't imagine. I couldn't burden her with myself. By the time I was better, it was too late - she was gone."
"I can imagine," Jarrod said softly. "But - you don't know, do you?"
"Know what?" Henry said.
"That the Army told her you were dead. Sent her a death certificate and everything," Jarrod said.
"But, but," Henry said, "I'm not dead. I was in an Army hospital, under my own name. How could that have happened?"
"We may never know," Jarrod said. "Perhaps someone else named Henry Johnson was killed and they sent the notice to the wrong family. Perhaps someone else was killed in the explosion that blinded you. All we know is that there was an error."
"If you know all this, you must know Molly. Where is she? Is she all right?"
"She's perfectly well," Victoria said. She turned her head away because she did not want to see his face while he heard what she knew was coming, but Henry turned to face her.
"She's married again, hasn't she?" Henry said. "That's what you don't want to tell me - I can hear it in your voice."
"Yes," Jarrod said. "She married me."
Henry bent forward, covering his face with his hands. "You have children," he said.
"Yes," Jarrod said. "Four."
Henry flinched as though he had been struck. Victoria longed to reach out, offer some comfort, but she knew there was none. Henry shuddered, then straightened. "What do we do now? How do we untangle this mess?"
"There's no mess," Jarrod said. "You're legally dead - Molly was free to remarry. Your reappearance does not alter that fact." He looked on Henry with pity. "She's my wife, not yours."
Henry's head snapped up. "You don't mind if I get a second opinion on that, do you?" he said tersely.
"Henry," Victoria said, "Jarrod's a judge. He knows what he's talking about."
"Nevertheless, you should consult an attorney," Jarrod said. "Your own legal status is somewhat dubious."
"Dubious, indeed," Henry said bitterly. "Neither husband, widower nor divorcé, according to you. So - what? - I lose my wife through a clerical error?"
"It's not fair, and it's not just," Jarrod agreed, "but there's no help for it now. You should at least be compensated for your house that Molly disposed of."
"I don't care about the damned house!" Henry shouted. "I want my wife back!"
"That I cannot give you," Jarrod said, pain in his own voice, "or compensate you for, either." He pulled up an armchair and sat so that he was almost knee-to-knee with Henry. "For what it's worth, we only married six years ago. She had been drifting about the country until we met, mourning you, mourning her brothers, mourning all she had lost in the War."
"Is that supposed to comfort me?" Henry retorted.
"I don't know," Jarrod said. "The truth is all I have. Do you want to see her?"
"I can't see her," Henry said, "or haven't you noticed I'm blind?"
"Meet with her, then," Jarrod said. "Tell her your story, let her tell you hers."
"You wish that?" Henry asked doubtfully.
"It's the only way for the two of you to come to grips with this thing," Jarrod said.
"Does she know?" Henry asked.
Jarrod shook his head. "Not yet. I wanted to be sure before I sprang this on her."
"Then don't tell her," Henry said. "What can't be mended were better left alone."
"I can't do that," Jarrod said. "I don't keep secrets from my wife. We won't force ourselves on you, but I know she'll want to see you."
Henry stared off into the distance a long while, if a blind man can be said to stare, but finally whispered, "Yes, I'd like to see her."
"All right." Jarrod stood. "I'll go home and break the news to her. We'll call on you tomorrow, all right?" He held out his hand to Victoria. "Mother?"
She took his hand and stood, still numb, and followed him out the door. She stopped on the doorstep. "No, wait, Jarrod," she said. "Let me have the key to your lodgings."
"Ah," Jarrod said. "All right." He took out his key ring and removed a key. "I'll let Nick know you're staying over a few more days then."
"He needs a friend," Victoria explained.
"And he has one." Jarrod kissed her cheek. "Better bring him to the lodgings tomorrow then - more privacy for him and Molly. I must say I'm not looking forward to telling her." He put on his hat and walked down the street.
Victoria opened the door and reentered Roger's house, closing the door behind her and leaning on it. "I don't need you to stay with me, Victoria," Henry said. "I'll be quite all right by myself."
"How did you know it was me?" she asked, walking into the parlor. "It could have been Roger."
"I know your footfall," Henry said. "And Roger would be with his wife." He stood up. "Did you know?" he asked angrily. "All that time on the train, did you know?"
"No, Henry, I had no idea. I knew that Molly's first husband had been named Henry Johnson, but it was such a distant memory I never made any connection to you. It was Jarrod who put two and two together. Imagine what might have happened if she had seen you when you came to the ranch, as I invited you." She sat on the sofa. "I begged Jarrod not to do this, but I guess he was right." She stared into the fireplace. "After all."
"I'd long given up hope," Henry said, "but I'd never stopped wishing that someday I'd find her." He smacked the back of the sofa. "I never dreamed it would be like this - it's almost worse than never finding her at all. Now you know why I never remarried."
"You've been faithful to her all these years, even though you believed she was unfaithful to you."
"I'd have forgiven her," Henry said. "I'd have forgiven her anything if only I could have had her again. But now - " he shook his head. "Now there's nothing for me to do but go back to Kentucky and try to forget any of this happened."
Victoria found herself on her feet, fists clenched. "How dare you!" she heard herself shout. "After all you've been through, after all your efforts are finally coming to fruition, you would turn your back on it all because your heart is broken? Think of all the people who need you to show them down that road, remember? How dare you turn your back on them! How dare you!"
Henry tilted his head in her direction. "You are a fiery little woman, aren't you?" he said mildly.
"Not so little," she said, nails digging into her palms.
"Not in mind or heart, no," Henry said. He sighed. "And damn you for being right. But, Victoria, I don't know how I can."
She relaxed her balled fists. "Give yourself some time, Henry."
The front door opened and Roger entered with his wife. He looked from one to the other of them. "Is something the matter?" he asked. "Where's Jarrod?"
"Gone home," Victoria said. "Roger, Henry needs to find a lawyer - preferably one who doesn't know Jarrod. Could you help him with that?"
"What is going on?" Roger asked.
"It's a private matter," Victoria said. "Please don't ask questions - not just yet."
"All right, Victoria," Roger said, frowning. "If that's what you want. But you know if there's anything you need - you, too, Mr. Johnson - you only have to ask."
"Thank you, Roger," Victoria said. "Now you'd better introduce Sarah."
"I was wondering when you were going to get around to that," Sarah said. She held out her hand. "Pleased to meet you, Mr. Johnson. And congratulations - Roger is so excited about this training center."
"My pleasure, Mrs. Holden," Henry said, holding out his hand.
"I'd better go," Victoria said. "I'll call for you in the morning, Henry."
"We're touring the Asylum in the morning," Roger said.
"Oh, that's right," Victoria said. "After, then. What time do you think you'll be through?"
"Why don't you come with us?" Roger said. "It's been awhile since you've been out there, and there's been much done. You should see it, since it looks like you're staying in town."
"If Henry doesn't object," Victoria said.
"No, I don't object," Henry said.
Roger looked from one to the other of them. "That's settled then. Is nine o'clock all right, Victoria?"
"Nine is fine," she said, taking her leave of them.
Jarrod hesitated at the gate in front of his house before pushing it open and climbing the steps to the porch. He found his oldest son in the parlor reading a large book. "What do you have there, Lucas?" he asked.
Lucas looked up. "Gray's Anatomy, Father."
"Surely Dr. Merar is not having you study anatomy already? You're not assisting in surgery or anything like that?"
"No, but I thought it might come in handy."
"Thinking you might want to become a doctor after all?" Jarrod said, trying not to sound disappointed.
Lucas shook his head. "No, but I think the world going the way it is, a lawyer ought to know something about medicine and science. That's why I took this job this summer."
Jarrod patted his shoulder. "You're probably right, Son," he said. "Your mother home?"
"She's in the kitchen cleaning up," Lucas said. "You missed dinner."
"I know. I hate to interrupt your studies, Son, but would you ride out to the ranch and tell Uncle Nick that your grandmother is staying over in San Francisco a few days? And tell him we'll be sending you children out there to stay for a few days, as well. Your mother and I will be joining your grandmother."
"Is it all right if I stay in town while you're gone?" Lucas asked. "It's a long ride from the ranch to Dr. Merar's every day."
Jarrod looked down at his son. The boy was fifteen, and had long shouldered adult responsibilities, yet still Jarrod hesitated.
"I promise not to burn down the house while you're gone," Lucas said.
Jarrod chuckled. "I know you won't, Son. All right, but go to Aunt Audra's if you need anything, all right?"
Lucas put his book away. "All right, Father, I will. Thank you." He grabbed his jacket and headed out the door.
Jarrod took a deep breath and went into the kitchen. "Hello, dearest," Molly said. "I heard you come in. Shall I fix you some dinner?"
"That's all right, Feather," Jarrod said, taking her hand. "Let's take a walk in the garden."
"All right, just let me finish these dishes."
"Leave it," Jarrod said. "This is important."
Molly looked up into his face. She frowned worriedly. "All right, if you wish." She took off her apron. "What is it, Jarrod?"
Jarrod led her out into the garden, and sat her down under an arbor. He sat next to her and took her hand. "I don't know how to tell you this, dearest," he began.
"Has something happened to Mother?" Molly asked.
"No, nothing like that," Jarrod said. "I guess the best thing is to come right out and tell you. Henry's alive."
"Henry?" Molly said. She sat puzzled for a moment, then put her hands to her face. "Not my Henry! Are you sure?"
Jarrod nodded. "I've seen him, I've spoken with him. He's in San Francisco."
Molly buried her face in Jarrod's chest and sobbed. Sobbed for many minutes. Jarrod stroked her back until she finally straightened, wiping her eyes. "Why am I crying?" she said. "Henry alive is good news, isn't it?"
"Perhaps you're crying for all those lost years," he said.
"Jarrod!" she grabbed his lapels. "Where does that leave us?"
"Just where we are, Feather," he said, growing tired of explaining. "He's legally dead - you're still my wife, nothing can change that."
She slumped against him. "What happened, Jarrod? Did he tell you? Why, if he was alive, I never heard from him all those months afterward?"
"I think he should tell you that himself, dearest," Jarrod said. "I'm sending the children to the ranch so we can go to San Francisco. So you two can talk this out. Mother's there with him."
"Mother? What does she have to do with this?"
So Jarrod told her how Victoria had met Henry on the train, and what he had come to do. "One thing I should tell you, dear, so it won't come as a shock - he's blind. Was blinded in the War."
"And he's trying to help other blind people?" Molly shook her head. "That's my Henry, all right." She sat up straight. "Jarrod, I still love him. I've never stopped loving him."
"I know, dearest," he said.
"Does it bother you? Now that we know he's alive, I mean."
"Yes," Jarrod admitted, "I wouldn't be a man if it didn't, but that's my problem to deal with, not yours." He held her tightly. "I trust you, Feather. I know you have a heart big enough for both of us - just don't forget that you're my wife."
"I wouldn't. I couldn't." She snuggled up against him. "But don't be silly - whatever happens, we're in this together. Your problems are my problems. I could never do anything to hurt you, even for Henry's sake."
He kissed her then. "I know," he said, "but I'm still glad to hear you say it."
Victoria took Henry's arm as they set down from the cab in front of Jarrod's townhouse. She felt him hesitate. "You don't have to do this if you don't want to, Henry," she said. "No one would make you."
"I know," he said. "But it has to be done - best to get on with it. Lead on."
She guided him up the steps and opened the door with her key. Before she had time to close it, Molly was there. "Henry, it really is you," Molly cried, throwing her arms around Henry and sobbing into his chest.
Jarrod took Victoria's elbow and ushered her out the door. "We're leaving them alone?" she asked.
Jarrod nodded. "They don't need us hovering over them. What is that you have there, Mother?"
"It's a Braille slate," she answered, showing it to him. "Henry taught me, and Roger says they need people to transcribe books for the students."
"By hand?" Jarrod asked. "That's a hefty task."
"Something to do in my spare time," she said.
"Of which you have little, Mother." He kissed her head.
"I have some," she said. "Better to put it to good use. Are you sure we should leave them alone?" She looked back at the house.
"I trust Molly," Jarrod said. "Come, lovely lady, let me buy you a very good lunch."
It really is Molly, Henry thought. Her hair, that wiry mass he could never get his hands through, her scent. She was older, that was apparent, and stouter. Not fatter, but more solid - muscular and full of energy. He tried to set her away from him but she clung all the tighter. "Molly, lass, don't," he said, "or you'll have me crying, too."
She looked up at him, put a hand to his cheek, which nearly unmanned him. He turned his head away, but she grasped his chin and turned it back. "Tell me what happened to you," she said.
"All right," he said, "but not here in the hall. Let's sit down somewhere."
She started to lead him into the parlor, but he stopped her. "I'm sorry, lass," he said, "but I need to orient myself first. I have no idea where anything is."
"Of course," she said, "I'm sorry. The parlor is to the right - to the back of the house are the bedrooms and the bathroom, if you need to use it. The front door is behind you." She led him into the parlor. "The sofa is in front of you, there's a tea table in front of it. I prepared us some sandwiches and tea if you're hungry."
He shook his head. "Just lead me to the sofa for now." She hooked her arm through his, seated him on the sofa and sat down beside him, her head on his shoulder, holding his hand. She always had been such a sweet, affectionate girl, but now that sweetness was breaking his heart even more than it was already. Still, he did not push her away, nor pull away from her. If this was all there was, or could be, he could not spurn it.
"Tell me what happened to you, Henry," she repeated. "Why I never heard from you again, after they told me you were - that you were dead?" He could hear the tears in her voice, and they nearly choked him.
"Surely he told you some of it," he said.
"No," she said, "Jarrod thought I should hear it from you. All he told me was how he and Mother found you, and that you'd been blinded. Is that why? Surely you knew that if you needed me I would have come to you."
"That's not why, Molly-lass," he said. "But - I don't think I can express the despair I felt. There wasn't a day that went by that I didn't think, 'Is this the day I take my own life?'" He shuddered. He had never shared that part with anyone, not even Leonard, but he found he could withhold nothing from her.
"Poor Henry." She stroked his cheek.
"I couldn't write, Molly - I couldn't see to do it, and I couldn't give those words to another to put down on paper. Every day I thought I would die, and every day I thought I should write to you, and every day I did neither. When I finally did write, my letter came back unopened. I went to Paducah, but the house was empty. You were gone."
"Did you think I'd deserted you?" she asked.
"Yes," he said. "I did."
She buried her face in his chest, weeping. "I would never have left you, Henry. I wouldn't have cared if you came home in a basket, as long as you came home." She looked up at him. Took his lapels and shook him. "I was so angry at you for dying," she said. "It took me years and years to forgive you for that. I almost spurned Jarrod because of it - he's so much like you, you know. Always putting his principles ahead of his safety. He has put himself at risk so many times since we were married, I'm quite gray because of it."
He stroked her hair. "Are you, lass? It's hard for me to picture that."
"Well, a little gray," she admitted.
"I still see you as you were on our wedding day," he said. "So bright, so young."
"That was almost thirty years ago, Henry. Another lifetime. Another life."
They were silent together for several moments. "Why did you leave then?" he asked. "It was your home - the house you grew up in."
"That's why," she said. "Everyone I had ever loved was dead - Mother, Father, you, all my brothers. So many ghosts in that house. Once I got the word that Charlie died, a few months after you, I couldn't bear to stay there anymore, knowing that none of you were ever coming home." She put her head on his shoulder again. "So I started drifting - down the Mississippi, over to the West, never in one place for long. A feather on the wind."
Henry flinched. "I'm so sorry, lass. I didn't know about Charlie - I know he was more like a son to you than a brother. That must have been like a knife to your heart."
"I had so many knives in my heart by then," she sighed.
He stroked her arm. "Are you happy now?"
"Immensely," she said. He winced, then felt shame at it.
"You have children," he said. "He told me."
She nodded. "Four, two boys and two girls."
"That's one of the things I most regret," he said, "that I could never give that to you."
"I was only twenty when you went off to war," she said. "We might have, if we hadn't been separated."
He shook his head. "We were married for three years before that, lass. And since you seem to have had no trouble getting with child with him, it must have been I who was at fault. Four children in six years?"
"Well, two are adopted," she said, "so we haven't been quite that fecund. Jarrod rescued seven orphans from a gold mine. We ended up keeping two of them. We already had Vicky then, and Georgie was born soon after. That one made my hair turn gray - I was certain that when he went to confront the mine manager he was going to come back on a plank. Instead, he came back with our children."
"Tell me about them - maybe it will help me reconcile myself to all this," Henry said.
"All right. Lucas is fifteen and wants to be a lawyer like his father. He's working for one of the local doctors this summer. We're very proud of him - he is so responsible, and so capable, he's already a fine man. Emma is nine. She was completely wild when Jarrod found her - didn't speak, wouldn't let herself be touched. She gave me much cause for worry."
"Yet you chose to keep her?" Henry asked. "But of course, lass, you would."
"She needed us," Molly shrugged. "She's still a very quiet girl, but that may just be her nature. She's the sweetest natured of our children - not as outgoing as Vicky or Lucas, but once she trusts you is like to smother you with affection. She's also quite horse-crazy. She'd much rather be at the ranch than at home." Molly smiled.
"And your other two? Vicky and Georgie - after his mother and your father?"
"Yes. Vicky makes up for Emma - she never stops chattering, even in her sleep. We're trying to teach her manners, but it's a fine line to walk between silencing her and stifling her. And she's only five - I'm hoping when she learns to read and write that she'll find another channel for all those words."
Henry chuckled, rather to his own surprise.
"And Georgie, who's not quite three, is into everything, and I mean everything. I thought he'd be through this stage by now, but he wants to see everything, do everything, and never has a thought about danger, even though he's old enough to. He'll probably be an explorer, or maybe a pirate - it wouldn't surprise me."
Henry wished he could see her, could look into her eyes and see if she was as happy as she sounded. And he did not know what he wished for - that she was miserable and would leave her husband for him? And yet, he, Henry, was her husband, had been for decades, even through all the lost years. It was impossible to stop thinking of himself that way in only a day. As though she knew what he was thinking, she turned and took his face between her hands. "You have to understand, Henry," she said, "I love my husband. I love our children. I love our life together. But I never stopped loving you. I can't be your wife anymore, but I still want you to be happy. It's not too late for you to be happy."
"Not today, lass," he said. "That's too much to ask of me today."
She nodded. "I understand. Jarrod and I have everything and you're left out in the cold, and it's not fair and it's not right and there's nothing to be done about it. You deserve better than this, and there's nothing I can do or say to make it any better."
"Just one kiss, Molly," he said. "Can I have just one kiss before I let you go?"
She hesitated for a moment, before kissing his lips, tenderly, sweetly. He sighed. "That's how you used to kiss me when you were just a girl."
"I'm another man's wife, Henry. There's no other way now." She let go of his face, put her head back on his shoulder. "What will you do?"
"I have a job to do here, in San Francisco. I'll do it, because I've already set my hand to the plow. Victoria had the decency to remind me of my duty."
"Don't do it for duty," Molly said. "Do it because it's what you want. Dry duty has no joy in it."
Henry sighed. "I'm afraid that is all there is for me now, lass."
"No, that's not true. This has hit us all very hard and very fast, but this pain is not all there is for us." She held his hand tighter. "I've loved you all my life, from the time I knew what love is - I'm not about to stop now. My love has to change, and it will. We can't cling to the past, but that doesn't mean there's no future."
"How did you get like this, Molly-lass?" he asked. "How did you become wiser than I?"
"I had help," she said, smiling. She sat up and took both his hands in hers. "We'll help each other. We must be friends, Henry. I can't bear to lose you twice."
"What about him? I can't believe that he would allow it."
"Jarrod and I share everything. He'll allow it, if it's for my good, and I believe it is. He's a better man than you think he is."
He held her hands for long moments, torn. How could he bear to let her go again? How could he bear to hold onto her, things being as they were? His Molly, the wife of another? He shook his head and felt the hot tears he had been holding back begin to stream from his sightless eyes. He let her hands go. "No, lass," he choked. "You may be right, but I can't give you what you want. I can't be your friend - I can't be the friend of the man who keeps you from me. I'm sorry."
She moved away from him then, the space between them a gulf he could no longer cross. "Not now," she said. "I see that. Not now." She turned her head away. "Perhaps later."
Henry shook his head, but said nothing. They sat thus in silence until Jarrod and Victoria returned.
Molly went to Jarrod and put her arms around him. Victoria looked from Molly to Henry and went and took him by the elbow. "Come, Henry," she said. "I'll see you back to Roger's."
Henry went unresisting, sat silent on the way, debarked from the cab and stood on the sidewalk. "Well, Victoria," he said at last, "this is good-bye. Thank you for all your kindnesses."
"Good-bye?" she said.
He shook his head. "It's no fault of yours, but your son has my wife. I'm sorry, I just cannot be friends with you. We'll see each other from time to time, I suppose, but it must be strictly business."
"It's no fault of Jarrod's, either," Victoria said. "You may feel you have to blame someone, but no one's to blame."
"Nevertheless," Henry said, "I've only ever loved one woman in my life, and she's been taken from me. Do you understand that?"
"Yes," she said. "I do. Can you find your way in?"
Henry nodded and she climbed back into the cab. As it pulled away from the curb, she covered her face with her hands and wept.
The conductor escorted Henry off the train and hailed a porter for him. "This gentleman," the conductor said, "needs assistance. Would you please hail a cab for him?"
"I'd be happy to," the porter said. "Where do you need to go?"
"The Barkley Ranch," Henry said. "I don't know how far it is, I've never been there before."
"Oh, you won't find a cab to take you all the way out there. You'd best go to the livery and see if you can hire a horse or a buggy."
Henry frowned. "That won't be possible," he said. "I can't drive a buggy."
He heard a young voice speak up from behind him. "Perhaps I can help," the voice said. "Are you Mr. Johnson?"
"Why, yes," Henry said. "You know me?"
"I'm Lucas Barkley," the young man said. "My mother and father told me about you. If you're looking for them, they don't live at the ranch. We live in town."
"Eventually," Henry said, "but I was hoping to speak to your grandmother first. If I can get there."
"I'm picking up a delivery of medicine for Dr. Merar," Lucas said, "but after I drop that off I'd be happy to drive you out there."
"That would be most kind of you," Henry said.
"Wait here a moment," Lucas said. "Let me load my medicines into the buggy and claim your luggage."
Henry had not too long to wait before Lucas returned for him. "This way, Mr. Johnson," he said, taking Henry by the elbow. "About twenty feet along, then down three steps to the street, and here we are." He helped Henry into the buggy, then climbed in and took up the reins.
"I'm surprised your parents told you about me," Henry said.
"They told me and my sister Emma," Lucas said. "My younger brother and sister are too young to understand."
"And do you?"
"That you were married to my mother and she thought you were killed? Yes, that's easy," Lucas said. "My sister thought it was the saddest thing she'd ever heard, though. She said you were like the prince in Rapunzel. She reads a lot of fairy stories - if there's not a prince or a princess in it, she doesn't like it."
Youth, Henry thought. Everything's black or white, everything's simple. Would it were that easy. No princess's tears will restore my blind eyes. Lucas reined the buggy to a halt and jumped out. "I'll only be a minute here, Mr. Johnson." Henry waited patiently until Lucas returned and flicked the reins. "Why do you want to speak to my grandmother?" Lucas asked.
"I'm afraid I need to ask her forgiveness," Henry said. "I was rather cruel to her when we parted, I think."
"She forgives easy, my grandmother does," Lucas said. "All you have to do is ask."
"That's comforting to know," Henry said. "How is it that you knew so well how to guide a blind man?"
"I used to work in a mine," Lucas said. "I worked in the dark and learned to memorize the way. It was easy to put myself in your place."
I can see why Molly is so proud of this young man. He felt a twinge of envy, mixed with respect, and regret. He shrugged to himself - all his feelings were mixed these days, it seemed.
Victoria was pruning the roses that grew on the columns in front of the ranch house. She turned when she heard the buggy, threw down her shears. "Lucas? Henry?" She stopped, frozen. "What are you doing here? And with my grandson?"
"I met Mr. Johnson at the train station when I was picking up a shipment for Dr. Merar, Grandmother," Lucas explained. "He needed a ride, so I gave him one. What shall I do with this luggage?"
"Are you staying?" Victoria asked.
"If you'll have me," Henry said shyly. "You did invite me once. Not that I would presume on that, but there are things I need to do here. Apologize to you, for one."
"Lucas, put Mr. Johnson's luggage in Audra's old room, would you, please?"
"All right, Grandmother," Lucas said, kissing her cheek and hastening to do as he was bidden.
"Apologize for what, Henry?" Victoria said, taking his arm and leading him into the garden.
Henry took a deep breath of the flower-laden air. He stopped and turned to her. "For spurning your friendship, for cheapening all your kindness. A lot has happened in the month since we last met - I've been to Kentucky and sold my belongings, I've been before a judge and declared alive again. I want to start that new life with a clean slate. I was cruel to you, and I'm sorry."
"No one blames you, Henry," Victoria said. "You suffered a great blow - it was more than you should have had to bear."
Henry shook his head. "That's only an excuse. I've done a lot of thinking, too. Two things particularly stuck in my mind - one thing Molly said, one that you did."
"And they were?"
"Molly said that trying to forget would not work, that she had tried. And that we can't cling to the past, but must hold to the future." He took the hand that she laid on his arm. "And you said it was unfair to blame your son. You were right - no one is to blame."
"Not yourself, either, Henry," she said.
"And I realized," he continued, "that I was in danger of becoming a bitter old man. And I loathe bitter old men." He smiled softly. "So that's why I'm here. To try to mend fences with you, to find rapprochement with Molly - and with your son, if possible. To find peace."
"It's a peaceful place," Victoria said. She smiled. "Most of the time." They walked back toward the house.
"I've stowed Mr. Johnson's luggage, Grandmother," Lucas said.
"Thank you, Young Man," Henry said. "You've been most kind."
"Think nothing of it, Sir," Lucas said. "Please call me Lucas - you're family, in a way. Sort of like a stepfather."
Henry was touched. "Thank you, Lucas, then."
"Lucas, please tell your mother and father that Mr. Johnson is here," Victoria said. She looked up at Henry. "Would you like to see them today, or do you want to wait a while?"
"Today, if possible," Henry said. "We've wasted so much time as it is."
"Then tell them to come for dinner, if they're able," Victoria said. "All of you."
"I will, Grandmother." Lucas kissed her cheek again, then mounted the buggy and drove away.
"What a fine young man," Henry said. "And how accepting."
"Lucas was an orphan - his definition of 'family' is a bit more elastic than most people's."
Henry smiled. "He's not alone - I remember why you were on that train. What was it? Your daughter's husband's cousin?"
"Daughter's husband's cousin's husband," Victoria corrected, smiling.
Henry smiled back. "So it was."
"Let me show you to your room and help you get oriented," Victoria said. "Three steps up to the verandah, then a step down once we're inside."
"This house was certainly not built for a blind man," Henry observed.
"My husband had it built - it's a bit ostentatious for my liking," Victoria said, "but we do manage to keep it filled." They counted the steps to the second floor and Victoria led him to his room.
"How many people live here with you?" Henry asked.
"My two younger sons run the ranch, and they each have a wife and a daughter. Both their wives are expecting. Would you like to freshen up? I'll show you where the bathroom is."
"In a moment." Henry stopped. "Am I in the way, Victoria? Please tell me if I am - I don't mean to impose myself on you."
"No, of course not," she said. "I wouldn't have invited you if you were. I won't pretend it's not a bit awkward, but I'm glad you're here. Jarrod's right - it's only by confronting this that we're going to come to grips with it."
"Thank you, Victoria," Henry said.
"Come," Victoria said, taking him by the arm, "it's a large house - it's going to take a while for you to learn your way around."
Victoria showed Henry the bathroom and stepped outside while he familiarized himself with it. "Would you like to meet my daughters-in-law?" she asked when he came out.
"Of course," Henry said as she led him down the hall to the nursery.
Samantha was sitting on the floor playing with Lizzie. She stood hastily as Victoria entered. "I'm sorry," she said, "I didn't realize we had a guest."
"Samantha, this is Henry Johnson. He's come to stay with us for a little while," Victoria said.
"Molly's. . ?" Samantha began, then recovered herself. "I'm sorry. Pleased to meet you, Mr. Johnson." She held out her hand.
"Do all of you know about this?" Henry asked, flustered.
"The Barkleys don't keep secrets from one another," Samantha explained. She dropped her hand. "Don't worry, we're all in sympathy with you. Well, most of us."
"I don't want to be pitied," Henry said.
"No, not pity," Samantha said. "Mother has been quite lavish in her praise of your abilities. . . ."
Henry tilted his head toward Victoria. "Has she?"
". . .and anyway," Samantha continued, "I'm the expert when it comes to awkward."
"Are you?" Henry asked.
"That's a story for another time," Victoria said. "Samantha is the wife of my son Nick."
Henry felt a tug on his trousers somewhere below knee level. He reached down and felt a curly head. "And who do we have here?"
"That is my daughter Lizzie," Samantha explained. She reached down and scooped her daughter up. "She's sixteen months old and quite the explorer."
"That's what Molly said about her son Georgie," Henry said.
"Ah, Georgie. I'm afraid he's a bad influence," Samantha said, and Henry could not tell if she were joking or not.
"I shall have to be careful not to step on her," Henry said. "I have trouble with obstacles below the knee. I should hate to do her an injury."
"We keep a pretty sharp eye on her," Samantha said. "I shouldn't worry if I were you."
"Where are Alice and Lena?" Victoria asked. "I should like Henry to meet them, too."
"Alice said she was going to go cut some flowers," Samantha said. "I'm not sure about Lena."
Victoria led Henry back downstairs. As they were going through the front door, a buggy pulled up and Molly leapt down agilely from it. "Henry!" she said. "It is you! I knew you'd come." Henry felt her throw her arms around him, but he set her gently away from him.
"Did you, lass?" he said. "I wasn't so sure about that myself. I don't know where we're going to end up, but I know we can't go back, and I can't stay where I am."
Molly put a hand to his cheek. "We'll work it out." She dropped her hand and stepped away from him. "Lucas, would you take Georgie to the nursery and keep an eye on him for me?"
"All right, Mother," Lucas said. "Hello again, Mr. Johnson."
Henry felt a pair of small arms thrown around him. "Who is this?" he asked.
"I'm Emma," a young girl's voice said.
"The shy one?" Henry asked.
"Usually," Molly said dryly. "Better let go of Mr. Johnson, Sweetie."
"Prince Henry," Emma said firmly.
Henry shook his head and crouched down to her level. "No, dear," he said. "Not a prince, just a man."
"We probably should think of something else to call him, though, Mother," Lucas said. "'Mr. Johnson' doesn't really do."
"Grandpa!" an even younger girl's voice said.
"He's not your grandpa, Vicky," Molly said.
"I want a grandpa," Vicky said petulantly. "Everyone else has a grandpa."
Henry wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry - he felt a bit overwhelmed, unsure of his feelings, but that was, again, not an unusual state with him right now. He chuckled as a compromise.
"How about 'Uncle Henry'?" Lucas suggested.
"Does that meet with your approval, Henry?" Molly asked.
I would prefer 'Daddy,' Henry thought, then swiftly smacked the thought down. No sense wishing for what could never be. "Uncle Henry will do nicely," he said instead. He felt tears burning the back of his eyes, but he did not know why - whether regret or grace, he could not be sure.
"Down! Down! Down! Down!" another very young voice exclaimed.
"That would be Georgie, I'm sure," Henry said, standing up.
"Taking him to the nursery, Mother," Lucas said. Henry heard Lucas's footsteps enter the house, the young man murmuring soothingly to his younger brother.
"Emma!" yet another young voice cried. So many children, Henry thought, hoping he would be able to keep them all straight.
"Lena, my son Heath's daughter," Victoria supplied. "Why don't you three girls go play in the garden?" she suggested.
The three swooped into the garden, whooping, and Henry inclined his head toward Molly. "He didn't come with you?"
"Jarrod? He's in court. He'll come later, but I couldn't wait," Molly said.
"You mustn't do that again, lass," Henry chided. "Please don't come see me without him."
"Jarrod trusts me," Molly said.
"And I'm sure you've never given him cause to regret it," Henry said, "but, for my sake, please don't come alone again. How am I to come to terms with his existence if he's always absent?"
"If that's what you want, Henry," Molly said, and he could hear the hurt in her voice. "I'll go tend to Georgie, then, until Jarrod comes." She stamped off into the house.
"Now I've hurt her," Henry said.
"She'll get over it," Victoria said mildly. "That shows wisdom on your part, Henry."
"Does it?" Henry shook his head. "I do it for my self-protection. I shall be less tempted to pretend - well, that things are not the way they are."
Victoria slipped her arm through his. "Let's go meet Alice, and then finish touring the house, shall we?"
They found Alice in the garden, a very young woman, no more than twenty-five, Henry thought, with an air of sweetness that was almost palpable. Victoria led him back into the house for the rest of the tour. "This is too much to remember all at once," Henry said. "I'm good, but this house is immense."
"Let's go over the important ones again, then," Victoria suggested. "The front hall, your room, the bathroom, parlor and dining room. The rest I'll help you with until they're familiar."
So they went over it again, until Jarrod arrived. Henry could not tell if Jarrod were glad he was there or not. He seemed gracious enough, but there was an edge to his manner. Perhaps he had hoped that Henry's exit from their lives had been permanent. Henry could not blame him if that were so. It was difficult, but he had known it would be before he decided to come.
Dinner went well enough - he liked Victoria's other sons, for all that they were so different. He appreciated Heath's quiet acceptance and Nick's energy, even though the older of the two seemed not entirely happy with Henry's presence either. Still, all in all, he was amazed at the level of generosity that these people offered him. Grace, indeed.
After dinner, he did allow Molly to speak with him alone in the study. They talked of her children, they talked of the training center and his experiences since the end of the War. They did not speak of their own past - that was done with. Time to move on.
Victoria strolled with Jarrod in the garden. "You're not entirely happy with this turn of events, I can tell," she said.
Jarrod sighed. "Lesser of two evils, Mother," he said, lighting a cigar.
"And what's the other evil?" she asked.
"Listening to my wife cry in her sleep every night," Jarrod said.
Victoria winced. "Has she?"
Jarrod nodded. "I know she loves me, I have no fear of that, but she loves him, too, and this was tearing her apart. Maybe now there can be an end to it."
"That's why he came," Victoria said. "And he did insist that Molly not come see him without you. He's an honorable man, Jarrod. You have nothing to fear."
"Jealousy is not rational, Mother," Jarrod said. "Oh, I can keep it bottled up, but it's still there. He was her first love, her lost love. Now he's back, and although I know she loves me, that's a hard thing to get over. For all of us. And him being blind - it's certain to appeal to her tender heart."
"Do you want me to send him away? I will if you insist on it - I think you'd be wrong, but I don't want anything to jeopardize your marriage."
Jarrod hesitated a long moment, then kissed her cheek. "Thank you, Mother, but no. I asked you to have a little faith, now I suppose it's my turn. He can stay."
Victoria gave his arm a squeeze. "Good, Jarrod. It will all come right, you'll see."
"That's what I'm hoping for," Jarrod said.
Henry readied himself for bed, and there came a tap at the door. "Come in, Victoria," he said.
Victoria laughed and entered. "That is still rather disconcerting," she said. "Can I get you anything before you turn in? Are you quite comfortable?" She didn't bother to turn on the light - the moonlight through the window was light enough.
"No, I don't need anything, and yes, I'm quite comfortable. Physically," he said.
She plumped a pillow. "Yes, it's an uncomfortable situation, but you did right to come. It took real courage, Henry, and I admire you for it."
"I must admit I'm still not right in my conscience about you, Victoria," Henry said.
"Me?" she asked, surprised. "Whatever for?"
"I feel that I'm using you, abusing your hospitality for my own ends."
"Don't be silly, Henry," she chided. "This is for the benefit of my entire family. I'm happy to give you a place."
"Thank you," he said, holding out his hand. "I'm grateful."
She took his hand, gave it a squeeze. "No need to be. But you'll always be welcome here, I want you to know."
He kissed her hand. "You are a very gracious lady, and a truer friend I can't imagine."
She held his for a moment. "Good night, Henry. Sleep well."
Henry crawled into bed, pulled up the covers with a sigh. His heart still ached, but he began to feel the first real sprout of hope he had felt for quite some time.
"You want me to saddle a horse for a blind man?" Nick asked incredulously, looking from his mother to her guest.
"I'll be holding the reins," Victoria said. "I want to show him the ranch."
"What if he gets thrown?" Nick asked.
"Then he gets thrown," Victoria said. "He's not delicate, and it's impolite to speak of him as though he's not here, Nicholas."
Nick raised his eyebrows at the uncharacteristic use of his first name. "All right, Mother," he said, "if you insist. I'll get your horse, Mr. Johnson." He stomped off into the barn to saddle the horses, muttering.
"I don't think he cares for me much," Henry observed.
"Nick? He's a mite overprotective where family is concerned. Pay him no mind - he'll come around."
Henry adjusted his spectacles. "I should be flattered that he considers me a threat, I guess." He sighed. "Not that he has anything to worry about, that's clear."
Nick brought out the horses and helped Henry mount up. Victoria stowed a blanket and saddle bags behind the saddle before mounting her own horse, took the reins of Henry's horse in her free hand and led him out of the paddock. They rode along in silence for awhile - that deep, companionable silence she had so enjoyed during their journey by rail - with occasional conversation as Victoria described their route and their surroundings. They rode to the water hole and dismounted. Victoria spread out the blanket and helped Henry seat himself on it. He took a deep breath and leaned back, turning his face up to the warm sunshine.
"It's a little early for lunch," she said, "but it's a good place to rest."
"I'm not tired," Henry protested.
"No, just wound up," Victoria said. "Relax - there's nothing expected of you here."
Henry took a deep breath, and she could see the tension begin to drain out of him. "You are a very restful person to be with, Victoria," he said.
"I doubt most people would say that," she said, smiling, "but thank you, anyway."
"Ah well, you can be a bit challenging," Henry said with a laugh. "I've seen that side of you, too. A woman of many parts."
He lay back then, closed his eyes and took off his spectacles. He listened to the sounds around him - the gurgle of the water, the blowing of the horses, insects buzzing, Victoria's breathing. He supposed he dozed off, for he could smell the lunch Victoria had laid out without his being aware of it. He sat up with an apology.
"No need," Victoria said. "You have quite nice eyes, Henry. Why do you cover them up?"
"Most people find a blind man's gaze rather disconcerting," Henry said.
"I was expecting something far worse," Victoria said. "They look undamaged."
"The flash destroyed my retinas."
"I'm afraid I don't know what that means," Victoria said.
"That it rendered my eyes useless," Henry said. "I do get tired of wearing them, if you don't mind me leaving them off."
"Not at all." Victoria set a plate in front of him. "Fried chicken at six o'clock, potato salad at ten o'clock and bread at two o'clock. See, I remembered."
"Thank you," Henry said, finding his fork. "How did you carry potato salad in a saddle bag?"
"I can pack just about anything in anything," Victoria said. "A survival skill I learned early in my marriage. Believe me, we didn't always have it easy, Tom and I."
"A sturdy pioneer woman," Henry said, "and a rugged pioneer husband."
"Yes," she said. "A far cry from how I live now."
"Yet the resourcefulness and strength remains," Henry said. "And without the need to fight for survival, you're able to turn all that energy to better uses."
"I try," she said. They finished eating and Victoria tidied the picnic away. "Now that you're nice and unwound," she began.
"Uh oh," Henry said. "Why do I feel that I'm about to be challenged again?"
Victoria smiled. "A bit, but I think it will help you with what you're trying to accomplish here."
"All right. What now?"
"Do you realize you never call Jarrod by his name? It's always him, he, his. And you never refer to him as Molly's husband, either. It's as though you can't quite acknowledge his existence. Or you still blame him." He could hear the strain in her voice.
He sighed. "Maybe. Knowing something in one's mind and feeling it in one's heart are two different things, Victoria. I know he's not to blame, I know he's not the author of all this, merely the beneficiary - it's much harder to push that knowledge further down, into my heart."
"I know," she said, "but since that's why you came, and while we're here all alone, I thought you might want to practice."
"Practice? Practice what?"
"Saying his name. Calling him Molly's husband. The sooner you can acknowledge that, the better for everyone. Words have power."
"All right." He sat up, straightened his clothing. He opened his mouth to speak, but all that came out was a croak. He frowned. "Why is that so hard?"
"I don't know," she said. Now her voice was harsh with strain. "Are you still hoping to win her back?"
Henry was honest enough with himself to realize that the question deserved consideration. He paused a long moment. He could hear her breathing, her body poised like a cat about to spring. "I can't win her back," he said finally. "Honestly, if it were just the three of us involved, I would try. But I can't even consider taking her away from her children, or taking her and them away from their father. It doesn't bear thinking about."
"All right then," she said, sighing heavily. "Repeat after me: Jarrod."
"Jarrod," he said, with difficulty, but he got the word out.
"Now - Molly's husband."
He hesitated. "Molly's husband," she repeated, sternly.
"Molly's husband," he said, feeling something inside him break off, float away, like an iceberg from a glacier. He wanted it back, but there was no keeping it - it was gone forever. So much was gone forever. He sighed and repeated, "Jarrod. Molly's husband."
Victoria touched his hand. "Good, Henry." She stood up. "I'll go get the horses, you keep practicing."
As she walked off, he allowed one tear to trickle down his cheek, then wiped it hastily away. No more of that.
He repeated the phrase to himself on the ride back to the ranch. "Jarrod. Molly's husband. Jarrod is Molly's husband." Each time he felt something break off, the pieces smaller and smaller with each repetition, until he could think it with something like equanimity.
Jarrod was on the verandah when they arrived back at the ranch, pacing up and down. Victoria sprang down from her horse, kissed his cheek. "Why are you here, dear, in the middle of the afternoon?" she asked. "And where's Molly?"
"Not coming," Jarrod said tersely. Henry could hear the heat in his voice, practically feel it rise in waves off the man, even from where he still sat on his horse. He began to feel like a cowboy in a dime novel, getting ready for the showdown.
Victoria helped Henry down, looked from one to the other. She hesitated, then said calmly, "You can use the study." She led the horses to the barn, leaving the two men alone.
Henry followed Jarrod - Molly's husband - to the study. He closed the door behind them, then turned to the younger man. "You wished to speak with me?"
Jarrod paced up and down, stopped and gazed into the fireplace. "I want to know what you're doing here. The real reason, not the claptrap you've been feeding my wife," he said heatedly.
"Have I done something, has Molly said something, to make you doubt my intentions?" Henry asked.
"Just answer the question," Jarrod snapped.
Henry cocked his head. He could fairly hear the air crackle about this man, and, to his surprise, found himself glad. The man - Molly's husband - had been far too self-effacing up until now. Whatever had set him off, Henry found he was glad for the chance to clear the air.
"If you've never lost someone, it will be difficult to explain," Henry began.
"I have," Jarrod said. "I was widowed a couple of years before I met Molly. So go on."
"Have you forgotten her?" Henry asked, more gently.
"She died in my arms, so of course not," Jarrod said. "But what does that have to do with this?"
"I'm sorry," Henry said. "Then you should realize that sorrows have to be sorrowed over, griefs grieved over. Otherwise, one gets stuck, unable to move on. It happened to Molly already, by your own admission. Perhaps she had finished grieving over me by the time she met you - "
"No," Jarrod admitted, "she hadn't."
"Well, then, neither had I. There's no cure for not-knowing. Molly needs to know, I need to know, that we can both move on." He swallowed the lump that was forming in his throat. "That's all."
"I wish I could believe you," Jarrod said.
Henry shrugged. "I can't make you," he agreed. "You never answered my question - what happened to make you come here like this?"
"That's between me and my wife," Jarrod said.
"Have you talked to her about whatever's troubling you? It's her job to console you, not mine."
Jarrod ran his hands through his hair. "I'm sorry," he said. "I'm not usually like this."
"Eaten up with jealousy?" Henry said. "It's only to be expected in the circumstances. You've been far too tolerant, if you want my opinion on the matter."
"Have I? What are you suggesting?" Jarrod asked.
"That you go to your wife," Henry flinched inside, but kept on, "and tell her. Not me."
"She still loves you, you know," Jarrod admitted. "I can't lose her - not to you, not to anyone. I don't care whether it's fair or not."
"And I still love her, I won't lie," Henry said. "Which is why I told her not to come without you - I want to trust myself, but I can't yet, not entirely. But more than what I want for me, I want her to be happy - and it's obvious that you offer a better life for her than I can."
"That wouldn't matter to her if she loved you more," Jarrod pointed out.
"It matters to me," Henry said. "I want what's best for her."
Jarrod stared at him a long moment. "Well, Mr. Johnson," he said at last. "Perhaps I need to apologize."
"Henry, please," Henry said. "Jarrod." He held out his hand.
Jarrod hesitated a moment before taking it. "All right, Henry," he said. "I'm still not sure I should trust you, but I'm willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. I know I wouldn't give her up so easily."
Henry heard him leave and sat on the sofa, chin propped on his fists. Who said it was easy? He sat thinking for several minutes before he heard Victoria's step and felt her hand on his shoulder. "You knew this was about to happen, didn't you?" he said. "Hence the exercises."
"My son's a reasonable man, who always follows his conscience, but he's not made of stone," Victoria said. "He was wound up pretty tightly last night - I didn't expect this quite so soon, but yes, I did think he was about to break. Are you all right?"
Henry nodded. "Yes, and thank you for preparing me - I don't think I could have done this without your challenge."
"You're welcome." She gave his shoulder a squeeze, then let go. "They won't be here for dinner tonight - I'm a bit disappointed because my daughter and her husband are coming, and I did want the entire family together, but it can't be helped."
"That's right, I haven't met your daughter yet," Henry said, standing. "And I wanted to before I left."
"You're leaving?" Victoria said. "Not because of this, I hope. It's a breakthrough, you should see it through."
"That's not why I'm leaving," Henry said, "I'm sorry I gave that impression. Roger is arranging meetings with builders and I need to be back in San Francisco for that. But not for a couple of days, Victoria. I intend to stay until then, if that's all right with you."
"All right then, Henry."
"And I need to find a place to live," he continued. "I can't stay with the Holdens indefinitely."
"Perhaps I can help you with that," Victoria said.
"I've presumed on your kindness too much already."
"Don't be silly," Victoria said. "I've gotten back as much as I've given. And looking for a house can be a daunting task even if you can see. I'd be glad to help, if you'd like."
"Yes, I would like," Henry said. "Thank you, Victoria."
Jarrod hesitated outside his gate, then smiled ruefully. I seem to be doing that a lot, lately. He pushed it open and went inside, surprised to smell the odor of cooking coming from the kitchen. "Molly?" he said, entering the kitchen, "you're cooking dinner?"
Molly looked up and gave him a kiss. "You're home early, dearest," she said. She brushed her hair back from her face. "I thought - I didn't want to go to the ranch tonight. I hope you don't mind."
"No, I don't mind," he said. "Where are the children?"
"Lucas is playing with Georgie in the nursery - the girls are out in the garden."
Jarrod looked into her eyes. "You look troubled, Feather. Is everything all right?"
"I thought we might talk after dinner, when we can be alone," she said.
"We're alone now, dear," he said. "Talk now - I don't want you suffering until then. Not if I can help you." He took her hand.
She looked around the kitchen. "All right - the roast is in the oven, I can leave it alone for awhile. Let's go upstairs then."
They went into the bedroom and sat on the bed still holding hands. "Now, Feather, what's wrong?" Jarrod asked.
"I had a dream last night," she said, "one of those that sticks with you all day. About Henry."
Jarrod grimaced. "I know."
She looked up at him. "You do? How?"
"You talk in your sleep, dear," Jarrod said. "But do go on."
She frowned, but continued. "All right. I dreamed it was right after the War, only I had stayed in Paducah and Henry came home. And I was so happy, I waited on him hand and foot, pampered his every whim, and was glad to do it. The only thing was, the more I coddled him, the smaller he became until one day he turned into a baby."
"That's an odd dream," Jarrod had to agree.
"But don't you see what it means, Jarrod?" she asked. Jarrod shook his head. "Well, I've been thinking about it all day," she continued, "and I think it means that if I had stayed home, if everything had gone the way I thought it should have, it would have been very bad for Henry."
"How can you say that, Feather? You are a most excellent wife," Jarrod said.
She shook her head. "The dream was true - if he had come home blinded, I would have done everything for him. He would never have become the man he is now. I would have rendered him helpless and thought I was doing good. So maybe all this was God's Will." She leaned her head on his chest. "Do you think so?"
"Ah, Feather," he said, stroking her hair. "I don't think I'm the right person to ask. I've only benefited from your and Henry's tragedy. I'm hardly objective."
"No, but you always tell the truth, Jarrod." She wiped her eyes. "Anyway, that's why I want to stay home tonight. I need time to digest this. We should send word to Mother so she doesn't expect us."
"She doesn't," Jarrod said sheepishly. "I've already been to the ranch today. Now it's my turn to confess - I think I rather made a fool of myself, Feather."
She looked up at him. "Jarrod. Dearest. What did you do?"
"Acted like a jealous husband, I'm afraid," he said.
"Oh no," she put her hand to her mouth. "Tell me."
"Oh, I demanded Henry reveal his true intentions, like the hero in some melodrama," Jarrod said, hanging his head. "Blew out a lot of smoke and steam and accomplished nothing."
She buried her face in his chest, shoulders shaking. He tried to comfort her, then realized she was laughing. "Don't, Feather, it's not funny. I feel like such a fool. But it was hearing you call his name in your sleep, and laughing with joy. I couldn't bear it. Please stop laughing at me."
She sat up and wiped her eyes. "I’m sorry, dearest. I know I shouldn't, but I can just picture it." She stroked his cheek. "But you have nothing to be jealous of."
"Don't I?" he said. "You still love each other, don't deny it."
"I don't deny it," she said, "but I've chosen you. In my head, in my heart, you're my husband and always will be, if I have any say in the matter."
He took her hand. "Tell me true, Feather. If we didn't have children, would you choose me over him?"
"The choice would be harder, I admit," she said. "Henry blind - I might be tempted more, but it would only be through a sense of obligation. And my heart is telling me that he doesn't need me, Jarrod. Has been much better off without me. As to who I love more - why, that's easy. You, dearest, always you." She put her arms around him. "Henry's the past, and though I think that in some way I will always care for him, you're my future, and my present. You're the one I would choose if it came to a choice. Please don't doubt that."
"All right, Feather," he said, holding her tightly. "I won't doubt you. Forgive me for doubting you in the first place?"
"It's all right. It's rather flattering, that you would go fight for me." She giggled. "Wish I had been there." She sat up, suddenly serious. "You didn't hurt him, did you?"
"No, he came off far better than I did," Jarrod said. "I think I came away respecting him a lot more."
"Well, that's done with," she said. "Much as it hurts to realize the truth about myself, I feel better. Enlightened. More at peace with the situation."
"Oddly enough, so do I," Jarrod said. "Perhaps we should invite Henry to dinner - just the three of us. We haven't all sat down together and discussed this - I think we should."
"I'm not sure there's much left to discuss," Molly said, "but yes, I think we should invite him. It would be good for all of us, I believe. Now I'd better get back to the kitchen before our dinner burns up."
"I'll help you," Jarrod said, kissing her hair. "Wife."
She smiled, kissed him, and they went downstairs - together.
"I want to sit by Prince Henry," Emma Barkley said, helping her brother and sister set the table.
"He's not a prince, he already told you," Lucas said, setting out the plates.
"He's in disguise," Emma insisted. She carefully placed knife, fork and spoon by each plate.
"Well, if he's in disguise," Lucas said, "then he probably doesn't want you to go about telling everyone he's a prince, does he?"
Emma put her hand to her mouth. "Oh! You mean he might be hiding from the Witch?"
"Something like that," Lucas said. "We agreed to call him Uncle, remember?"
"He's a grandpa," Vicky said, sitting at the table and folding napkins.
"You have to be a 'Pa' before you can be a grandpa," Lucas pointed out. Much as he loved his sisters, they could be rather silly at times. "And what are you doing to those napkins, Vicky? You're getting them all wrinkled."
Vicky waved one in the air. "I'm trying to make a flower."
"Well, give me that one, and just fold the other ones, all right? Father will be back with him any minute now."
Vicky pouted. "It's not pretty."
"We'll figure out how to make a flower tomorrow," Lucas said. "We don't have time now."
Lucas crossed his heart. "Promise."
"I find that I do have to apologize to you, Henry," Jarrod said, driving the buggy to town from the ranch. "I should have had more confidence."
"In me?" Henry said. "You hardly have grounds for that. You don't know me."
"In Molly's judgment, in my mother's." Jarrod flicked the reins. "They both believe you to be honorable."
Henry waved a hand. "Don't apologize. I'm glad it happened. You seem much more at ease now."
"Well, I took your advice," Jarrod smiled, "and talked to my wife. We both seem to have had some sort of epiphany."
Henry smiled ruefully. "So did I, thanks to your mother."
Jarrod quirked an eyebrow. "And what did Mother have to do with it?"
"She's a very challenging woman, Victoria," Henry said. "She doesn't let one get by with much. One of the many reasons I value her friendship."
"She let me get by with acting like a fool," Jarrod said.
"But you didn't," Henry said. "You acted like a husband. I rather wonder why you'd been so self-effacing to begin with."
"Ah well, I was so concerned with proving that I trusted Molly, I didn't realize she needed more from me than that. And then there were my own feelings of guilt."
"You have nothing to feel guilty for. You're not responsible for any of this."
"I said guilt, not responsibility," Jarrod said. "I have benefited from your misfortune - there's no way around that. I know it's not my fault - it's no one's fault - but that doesn’t stop me from feeling bad about it."
"Well, I won't criticize," Henry said. "It's been a difficult situation to navigate, for all of us. Almost unprecedented - it's no wonder none of us have known how to behave. I think we're doing rather well, all things considered."
"We could certainly do worse," Jarrod said with a shudder.
"Indeed," Henry agreed. "Although I am wondering what's on the agenda for this dinner tonight."
"Nothing," Jarrod said. "I thought we should all sit down and discuss this, but Molly pointed out that there was very little left to be said."
"No," Henry said. "Not a thing."
"So I thought we could at least try to be on friendly terms - I don't know if actual friendship is possible, under the circumstances, but I'd at least like us to exist without rancor. So, just a pleasant dinner." Jarrod smiled. "My children are very excited you're coming. They all seem to have taken quite a shine to you."
"And I to them," Henry said. "They're lovely children - you should be proud." He tamped down the rising regret and envy - there was no place for that now, or ever. "I'm certain I shall enjoy myself."
He was surrounded almost before he could get through the door by what seemed a whirlwind of little girls. "Come sit by me, Uncle Henry," Emma said, taking one hand and tugging on it.
"Me, too," Vicky chimed, taking the other, bouncing up and down.
"Now girls," Molly said, "let's give Uncle Henry a moment to orient himself. Remember, he's never been here before - he needs to learn where everything is." There was a smile in her voice, but something was gone - need? There was less pain there, for which Henry was glad, and still the same Molly sweetness, but it was obvious that Jarrod was right and that something had happened in the last few days. This is not the girl I married, Henry thought. She's grown up, found her own way.
Molly took his coat, led him to the parlor, described his surroundings and stood aside as he familiarized himself. "Would you like a drink before dinner, Henry?" she asked. "We have some excellent wine from the Barkley vineyard."
"That would be lovely, lass," Henry said, sitting on the sofa. Emma plopped herself down on one side of him, Vicky on the other.
He heard Jarrod and Lucas enter as Molly handed him his glass. "We're glad you could come, Uncle Henry," Lucas said.
"Thank you. This is excellent wine," he said, taking a sip. He tilted his head. "Who's the painter in this family?"
"Mother is," Lucas said. "How did you know?"
"I smell oils," he said, turning to Molly. "How long have you been painting?"
"Five or six years," Molly said. "You've met Silas, of course?"
"Charming man," Henry said.
"His daughter-in-law painted our wedding portrait - it was she who encouraged me to start."
"Molly's quite accomplished," Jarrod said, his voice filled with pride. "There's a gallery in San Francisco that's been after her for a year to do an exhibit."
"But you know I don't have time for that," Molly said. "At least not now, while the children are small."
"We're missing one, aren't we?" Henry said. "Where's Georgie?"
"Having his dinner in the nursery with our housemaid," Molly said. "I'm afraid he's not ready for civilized company."
"May he join us later?" Henry asked. "I would certainly like to know him, too."
"For a little while," Molly said, "but be prepared. Leave him alone for a minute and he climbs the bookcases or goes up the chimney."
"Sounds like he has a lot of undirected energy," Henry said.
"That he does," Molly said. "He quite wears me out, just trying to see that he doesn't get hurt."
"A treehouse," Henry said.
"I beg your pardon?" Molly said.
"My brothers and I had a treehouse - we sailed to the moon and explored the seven seas in it."
"I want to sail to the moon," Vicky said.
"He'll fall," Molly said worriedly.
"Well, perhaps not a treehouse then," Henry said, "but it seems he needs someplace he can explore and climb on his own, instead of being confined to the nursery all the time. That must be quite frustrating for both of you. Forgive me if I speak out of turn - he's your child."
"Actually," Jarrod said, "I think that's a fine idea."
"You do?" Molly said. "What if he gets hurt?" She took a sharp intake of breath. "Oh dear, I'm doing it again, aren't I? Coddling him too much?"
"Perhaps a little," Jarrod said. "What do you say, Lucas? Shall we build your brother a treehouse - low to the ground, to begin with."
"I'd enjoy that, Father," Lucas said.
"Mine, too," Vicky pouted.
"It will be for everyone, Sugar," Jarrod said.
"Then yay!" Vicky clapped her hands and bounced up and down.
During dinner, the girls were much fascinated with how Henry ate, Vicky even going so far as to attempt eating with her eyes closed until Molly admonished her. "And please stop pestering him with questions," Molly said. "It's not polite, girls."
"It's all right, Molly," Henry said. "I enjoy answering questions - it's what I do."
And there were many questions, once the floodgate was opened. "How do you not bump into things? How do you eat? How do you get dressed? Can you read?" Henry answered them all patiently, with a smile.
"You always were a good teacher, Henry," Molly said, taking his arm and leading him back into the parlor. He sat on the sofa and Vicky crawled up into his lap, Emma next to him. "I know you must be quite excited about the training center."
"It's what I've worked for all these years - I'm very fortunate to have finally found such forward-thinking people to help me achieve it. So much remains to be done - I'll be leaving tomorrow to go back to work on it."
Emma pouted. "You'll come back, won't you?"
Henry hesitated, unsure how to reply. "Of course, he will, Sweetie," Jarrod said, rescuing him. "He's not going far."
"Thank you," Henry said, voice hoarse. "Your mother's going with me for a little while, Jarrod - she's offered to help me find a house."
Jarrod quirked an eyebrow. "Has she? Well, you couldn't ask for better."
"No, I couldn't," Henry said. "I'm most appreciative."
Molly brought Georgie down for a quick visit. As Molly had predicted, he made straight for the fireplace and nearly disappeared inside it before Lucas snatched him back. Molly took him by the hand with an exasperated sigh. "All right, girls," she said. "It's getting late - time to go get ready for bed."
"I think this one's already asleep," Henry said, offering Vicky to her mother.
Molly scooped her up. "Emma, if you'd bring Georgie, please."
"All right, Mommy," Emma said reluctantly. She reached up and kissed Henry's cheek, whispering in his ear. "I know you're a prince, but I won't tell." She looked back as she led her brother off.
"What did she say?" Jarrod asked.
"She thinks he's a prince," Lucas said. "That was it, wasn't it?"
Henry nodded. "Quite a flight of fancy." He laughed softly.
They spoke of general things - the training center, Lucas's job - until Molly returned. "It has been a lovely evening," Henry said, rising, "but it's time I must be going."
Lucas went to hitch up the buggy as Molly kissed Henry's cheek. "Good-bye, Henry. You will keep in touch, won't you? I know it's awkward, but we still want to know how you're doing. We'll be quite upset if you just disappear."
"No, I won't disappear, if you don't want me to," Henry said. He turned to Jarrod. "And if you don't want me to."
Jarrod shook his hand. "I'm not sure we will all ever be comfortable with this, but I don't think we'll gain anything by avoiding it. So, yes, keep in touch. Come see us, and we'll come see you when we're in San Francisco."
"Thank you, Jarrod. You, your family, have been most gracious in difficult circumstances. I know I leave Molly in good hands."
Lucas returned with the buggy. "I'll take him back, Father," he said.
"All right, Son," Jarrod said, "but be careful."
Lucas grinned. "You know I will. Come with me, Uncle Henry."
Jarrod watched them go, arm around Molly's waist. She stroked his back. "Are you all right with all this, Husband?" she asked.
Jarrod sighed. "As well as I can be, I think. And if I start feeling overly jealous, I'll tell you and you can put me right. I do believe he's a good man, and means to do right by us."
She stood on tiptoe and kissed his cheek. "Something's still bothering you, though," she said as they climbed the stairs.
"You can always tell, can't you?" Jarrod said.
"Yes," she grinned, "and don't you forget it."
"Not about you and Henry," Jarrod said, opening the bedroom door and sitting on the bed. "That is what it is and I'll have to cope with it. About Mother, actually."
"Mother?" Molly asked, sitting down next to him. "What's wrong with Mother?"
"Surely you've noticed that she's sweet on him - has been ever since that rail journey they took together? I was even teasing her about it before we figured out who he really was."
"Are you sure, Jarrod?" Molly bit her lip. "That would be - untenable."
"Would it, Feather?" he asked. "Two unattached people, of an age and with interests and intellect in common? How would you feel about it, if I'm right?"
"I don't know," Molly said. "Do you think it's reciprocated?"
"I think it might have been, before all this happened. After all, he'd been without you for twenty years - you could hardly expect him to carry that torch forever. When he came back, he did go to her first."
"And she stayed behind with him when you came to tell me. Now she's going back with him." Molly shook her head. "And yet, I still find it hard to believe they're more than friends."
"I'm sure they're not, at least, not yet," Jarrod said. "But the way he spoke of her on the way here - well, I'm not sure things are going to remain that way."
"I feel - jealous, Jarrod. Am I a horrible person?" She looked up into his face, horror on her own.
"No, Feather, he was your husband - you've only just begun to let go of that." Jarrod wrapped an arm around her. "It's all still a bit of a muddle, isn't it? But I did want you to be forewarned, in case something does come of it."
"How would you feel about it, Jarrod? Your mother, my former husband? Surely you'd be uncomfortable with that." She sat up. "I can't believe Mother would move forward with it, even if she did have feelings for him."
"What's fair, Feather?" Jarrod said. "Can we let our discomfort stand in the way of their happiness? Should they avoid what seems to be a mutually fulfilling friendship to spare us - what? We're the winners here, Feather. We have each other. I've learned a lesson about bottling up my feelings, but I still want to do what's right."
"It isn't really up to us, is it, dearest?" she said. She put her head on his chest. "But I'm glad you told me - at least we won't be caught off-guard by whatever happens."
"If anything happens," Jarrod said.
Henry sat across from Victoria on the train as it left the station, heading for San Francisco. "Here we are," he said, "back where we started." He smiled ruefully. "I'd almost forgotten those days, for all it was only a few weeks ago."
"A lot has happened since then," Victoria agreed, "but I'm glad we're still friends. It seemed for most of the interim that we wouldn't be."
"My fault," Henry admitted. "I, too, am glad that things have turned out otherwise."
"No one's fault," Victoria corrected. She opened her bag and pulled out a flat square package. "I brought you something for the journey." She took his hand and put the object in it.
Henry breathed sharply. "A book, Victoria? A Braille book? Where did you - you did this yourself, didn't you?"
"Yes," she said, smiling. "I had intended it for the children at the Asylum, but I thought you might want it since you said you missed reading so much."
Henry ran his fingers over the pages. "The Light Princess, by George MacDonald. Sounds like something Emma would like."
"She does - it's one of her favorites, which is why I picked it. And I wanted my first one to be something short while I learned what I was doing."
"I'm sure I shall enjoy it," Henry said. "I've always had a fondness for children's literature myself - although you might call it a weakness."
Victoria shrugged. "A good story is a good story, no matter who it's written for."
"Very well, then. Do you mind if I donate it to the Asylum when I'm done with it? I don't think all your good work should stop with me - even though it might seem an ungrateful way to treat so thoughtful a gift."
"Do with it what you like," Victoria said. "I'm not one of those who demands an accounting."
"I didn't think you were," Henry smiled, "but as we only have a couple of hours until we arrive, I would rather put it aside to read later."
"As you wish," Victoria said.
"How are you doing with all this, Victoria?" Henry asked. "You've been everyone's rock through it all, yet it must have been nearly as trying for you as for anyone."
"I'm all right," she said. "Everyone has behaved honestly and honorably, which is as much as I could wish for. I'm glad you came back to settle it, instead of leaving it hanging. The hurt would have been much harder to get past if you hadn't."
Henry turned his face toward the window. "Even at the time, and many times since, I've wondered whether I should have married her at all. She was so young - less than half my age when we married."
"Why did you?" Victoria asked gently.
"Well, she would keep asking me," Henry said, a smile playing about his lips. "The first time was at her fifteenth birthday party, and I told her she was too young. Then again at her sixteenth, when I told her the same thing. When she asked me again at seventeen, I could no longer refuse her. Her father had passed away that year, and she and her older brother were struggling to bring up the three younger boys all alone." He turned his head back towards her. "Make no mistake - I did love her, had for some time. I had intended to wait until she was twenty, then if she still wanted to - well, I wouldn't keep saying 'no' forever. If I had waited longer, though, we'd have had only a few months together before the War instead of the three years we did have. I don't regret the choice, no matter what the outcome."
"I sometimes think that if we could see the future, we'd make worse choices. We'd spend so much time trying to avoid future pain that we'd never get anything done. It's probably a good thing we can see only one step ahead."
"I think you're right," he said. "But, aside from all the pain we've endured the past few weeks, I'm no worse off than I was before - in some ways better."
"At least I know now that she didn't abandon me - that's a weight I've carried around for twenty-odd years. I'm glad to see it gone."
Victoria was thoughtful a moment. "I hadn't considered that - what a long, slow agony that must have been."
"It was." He turned his head toward the window again, then heaved a sigh and turned back. "But enough of that. I have a new life, a clean slate. Let's look forward, not backward."
"Agreed," Victoria said, taking out her knitting. "So tell me, what do you look for in a house?"
Henry smiled. "As few stairs as possible. Something modest - bedroom, sitting room, kitchen - I don't need much more than that."
"Stairs may be a problem," Victoria said. "Houses in San Francisco tend to be tall and narrow."
"I can navigate stairs, but I would prefer not to. Still, that's merely an inconvenience. I'll also need to buy furniture - I sold what I had, as shipping costs were prohibitive."
"All right then," Victoria said. "A new home, new furniture -"
"Second hand," Henry corrected. "I'm afraid a teacher's salary did not allow me to accrue any great savings."
"Second hand, then," Victoria said easily. "I believe there are some good shops around Union Square." She looked up from her knitting. "This should be a good time for you, Henry - everything you've worked for finally coming to pass. I hope your recent troubles will not detract from that."
"I hope so, too," Henry said. "I think San Francisco is a good distance - close enough that I can't pretend nothing has happened, far enough away that it's not a constant distraction. I know it will take some time for the strong sentiments to ameliorate, but I don't wish to be thinking of it every moment."
"Nor should you," she said.
"Just from curiosity, and if it's not prying," Henry said, "what did your daughter-in-law mean that she was the expert in awkward?"
"Ah, that," Victoria said. "When we first met her she had just gotten out of prison for fraud."
"My goodness," Henry said, brows raised. "I would never have guessed that."
"She's not shy about it - I'm sure she'll be willing to tell you the entire story when next you visit. She's also the sister of Jarrod's first wife, which brought other discomforts."
"Awkward is putting it mildly," Henry said. "And yet she and your son seem such a happy couple."
"They are," Victoria said. "She is not what I would have chosen for Nick, but they were like two sticks of dynamite when they met - I'm not sure who set off whom. He gave her the motivation to change, and she certainly has - which goes to show that nothing is impossible."
"I'm beginning to see why you've handled all this so well - you've had practice."
"Oh, you don't know the half of it," Victoria smiled.
"Victoria, good to see you," Roger Holden greeted her when they arrived. He looked from one to the other of them. "After all the drama the last time you were here, I wasn't certain I'd be seeing you again so soon. Is everything all right now?"
"Much better, Roger," Victoria said. "I'll be here a little while helping Henry find a place to live, and I thought I'd do some fundraising while you're busy with the builders."
"That would be much appreciated, Victoria," Roger said. "We can certainly always use more money. And much as we hate to lose Henry as a houseguest, I'm sure he wishes to have a place of his own."
"I'll go pay a few calls, then," Victoria said, "and see a few estate agents. What time do you think you'll be finished?"
"Around four o'clock," Roger said. "You will stay for dinner, won't you, Victoria?"
"I'd love to, Roger," Victoria said.
"Remember, you're here to help, Victoria," Henry said, "not to do everything yourself."
Victoria laughed. "I'll remember. I'll be back this evening."
"So," Roger said, "are the two of you ever going to tell me what all the drama was about?" He passed the serving dish to Victoria who served Henry before passing it to Sarah.
Victoria looked at Henry quizzically. "That's entirely up to Henry," she said.
Henry tilted his head. "I don't wish this to be the subject of gossip."
"Anything you want to keep private is just between us," Sarah said.
Henry adjusted his spectacles. "Well then, you know I was blinded in the War, but what you don't know is that the Army informed my wife that I was deceased."
Sarah gasped. "How horrible!"
"By the time I made it home, all her brothers had also been killed in the War and she had left. I didn't know were she'd gone or what she was doing until I met Victoria."
Sarah turn to Victoria. "You know his wife?"
"Yes. She's Molly."
"Molly? Not Jarrod's Molly?" Sarah said, horrified.
"By God!" Roger said. "No wonder there was so much drama!"
"How terrible!" Sarah said. "But Jarrod and Molly have children. Whatever will you do?"
"Nothing," Henry said. "Molly is Jarrod's wife now. Legally and in every other way. We spent the past few weeks wrestling with that, but now we must move on. We all hope to be on friendly terms, but only time will tell."
"I must say you seem to be taking this rather well," Sarah said.
Henry grimaced. "I didn't. It's the worst blow I've suffered in many years, but there's no point in wallowing in it. No one's to blame - I must submit to Fate."
Sarah dabbed a tear. "You poor man."
"None of that," Henry said. "Everyone has behaved as honorably and graciously as possible. I desire no pity."
"But you're staying, I hope?" asked Roger. "There's still a lot of work to be done on the training center."
Henry nodded. "Yes, of course I'm staying. I can't turn my back on all this now. Nothing has changed except for some painful knowledge gained. But now, at least I know, and it's time to move on."
"Well, you're showing more fortitude than I would," said Sarah. "I know I wouldn't be able to live with it if it were Roger."
"We never know what we're capable of until were called upon to do it," Victoria said. She turn to Henry. "I may have found a place for you to live, Henry. One of the estate agents has a cottage over in Berkeley - it's not far from the Asylum, and it sounds as though it would meet your needs, although it's somewhat off the beaten path."
"Off the beaten path is fine," Henry said, "if it meets my needs. Shall we go look at it together? Tomorrow?"
"I believe tomorrow will do quite nicely," Victoria said. "How did the meeting go with the builders? What are your plans?"
"The education building is large enough to share for the time being," Roger said. "We'll begin by building adult living quarters - as the program grows, then we'll expand. How did the fundraising go?"
"Oh, I didn't do too badly." She grinned. "About five thousand dollars."
Henry raised his eyebrows. "In one day? That's extraordinary."
Victoria smiled. "Well, don't expect that every day. I chatted up my best prospects first."
Roger chuckled. "You need to come to San Francisco more often, Victoria."
"Perhaps I shall, at that," Victoria said.
They took the train to Berkeley, and then a cab to the cottage where they met the estate agent. "It could use a little work," Victoria said, giving it a critical eye.
"It's been empty for a while," the estate agent said, fumbling for his keys, "nothing a good airing and some paint shouldn't fix."
"It needs rather more than that," Victoria said, "but we'll take that into consideration."
Henry felt his way about, tapping floors with his cane, feeling for light fixtures, checking doorways and windows, while Victoria gave it a thorough visual inspection. "What are you asking?" Henry asked.
The agent quoted a price that caused Henry to gasp. "That's rather more than I'm prepared to pay," he said.
"If you and your wife are not satisfied, I have several other properties I'd be happy to show you," the estate agent said.
"Mrs. Barkley is a friend who's kind enough to assist me," Henry said, "but I would be residing here myself."
The estate agent stared at him. "A blind man living by himself?"
"I have done so for many years," Henry said. "I am quite capable."
"Mr. Johnson will be establishing a training program for blind adults at the Asylum," Victoria explained. "He's had many years of experience both teaching and living as a blind man."
"Has he, now?" the estate agent asked. He considered a moment, then made an offer that was considerably lower than the original.
"That's more like it," Henry said. "But why the sudden change?"
"I have a daughter at the Asylum," the estate agent explained. "I'd be only too happy to have you living here, Sir."
"It's a reasonable offer," Victoria said, "after certain repairs are made."
The estate agent smiled. "Of course, Mrs. Barkley."
"Does it suit you, Henry?" Victoria asked.
"It does," Henry agreed. "How soon before all the repairs are made?"
"I can have workmen begin this afternoon. It should be ready in three or four days," the estate agent said.
"Time enough to shop for furniture," Victoria said.
Victoria had located several secondhand shops, which they spent the next few days perusing. She was somewhat amused by Henry's taste, but then realized that a blind man could have no eye for color. While she shared his distaste for clutter, she gently corrected some of his more garish choices. In one shop, she made a most pleasant discovery.
"Oh, Henry," she called him over, "come touch this. It's quite lovely."
Henry ran his fingers over it. "A chess table? Why, of course. Are all the pieces there?"
She opened the drawer where the chess pieces were stored and made a quick count. "No, I'm afraid not. But no matter, we can have them replaced."
"Very well. We'll take this one, too."
So, in just a few days, Henry found himself moved into his new home. Victoria joined him for dinner, filled with a mixture of satisfaction and curiosity. As Henry lit the candles on the table, she said, "That's not at all necessary, Henry."
Henry flicked the match out. "I like candles," he explained. "I find both the warmth and the fragrance rather pleasant."
Henry served her and she contemplated the gray goo on her plate. Ever gracious, she said nothing but delicately took a bite. "My, this is quite good," she exclaimed.
"You sound surprised," Henry said, amused.
"Well, to be quite frank, it doesn't look that appetizing."
Henry chuckled. "I'm sorry about that, but I can't really help it."
"No matter," she said. She reached out and took his hand. "I've thoroughly enjoyed the past few days, Henry."
"That means you're leaving, doesn't it?" Henry said.
She nodded and squeezed his hand. "Yes. I have no more reason to stay."
"Victoria," he said, "are we good enough friends to be perfectly honest with each other?"
She wrinkled her brow. "Of course we are. Why do you ask?"
"Because I don't want to risk our friendship." He took off his spectacles and laid them on the table.
"If our friendship could survive the past few weeks, I don't see what could harm it now." She smiled.
"Before all this happened - before I knew Molly was still alive, before I knew where she was - I was more or less cut off from feminine companionship. I couldn't consider myself free, but then, I didn't really mind it. Until I met you."
"Henry, don't," she protested.
"You said I could be honest," he said.
"It won't work. I've always been faithful to my husband's memory, and then there's my son and Molly to consider. I can't pretend I wasn't attracted to you during that week on the train, but I never intended for us to be anything more than friends." She held his hand a little tighter, then let it go.
"Is it because I'm blind?"
"You know it's not."
He smiled ruefully. "I know. But I still had to ask." He sighed. "And I had to ask about the other, too. I was fairly certain what the answer would be, but I couldn't let you go without knowing for sure."
"I'm surprised you would even consider it, after what we've been through the past few weeks."
"I promised myself I would look forward, not back. And this began before I knew the truth about Molly, so I felt I owed it to myself to explore the possibility." He held out his hand. "Still friends?"
She took it. "Of course we are. And I'm sorry. I wouldn't hurt you for the world, you do know that, don't you?"
"You haven't." He lightly kissed her fingers, then released her hand. "It's no more than I expected. But I still had to take the chance."
They adjourned to the parlor, where Victoria proceeded to set up the chess table. They played to a draw, then Victoria stood to leave. "When will I see you again?" Henry asked.
"Whenever you like," she replied.
"I can't just be dropping in on you again," he said chidingly.
She smiled and opened her purse. She took out a packet and pressed it into his hand.
"What's this?" he asked.
"It's a booklet of roundtrip tickets to Stockton," she explained. "It contains five tickets. I wanted to be sure you knew you were welcome. Please come, whenever you wish."
"You still wish this, even after I. . .?"
"I wouldn't have given them to you if I didn't." She clasped his hand. "Please come."
"All right." He squeezed her hand and released it. "I'll come. I promise."
A few days before Christmas, Audra paid a call on Jarrod. "I need to speak with you, Big Brother."
"Whatever you need, Honey," Jarrod offered Audra his arm and led her into the parlor. "Have a seat." He lit a cigar and flicked the match into the fireplace. "What's on your mind?"
"It's Mother," Audra flopped gracefully into a chair. "She's been spending a lot of time in San Francisco the past few months. Less now since Tommy was born, but she's still running down there every two or three weeks."
"So have you been. Owen must wonder if he has a wife," Jarrod said teasingly.
Audra frowned. "I'm working on a book. And I'm almost always home when Owen is," she said defensively. "You know why Mother's going. And he's at the ranch every couple of weeks, as well."
"You mean Henry," Jarrod said.
"Of course I mean Henry. Who else did you think I was talking about?"
"I fail to see what business that is of ours," Jarrod said sternly.
"It's the way they look at each other," Audra said. "Or rather, the way she looks at him, and the way his face lights up whenever he hears her voice. There's more there than meets the eye, and I want to know what you're going to do about it."
"Are you asking me to thwart or facilitate?" Jarrod said.
"Facilitate, of course," Audra said peevishly. "It's obvious they're holding back because of you and Molly, and frankly, I don't think that's fair. The two of you have each other. Why can't they have each other, if that's what they want?"
Jarrod leaned over and took her hand. "While I agree with you in spirit, Little Sister, that's not my call to make. It's up to Molly how to deal with Henry, and Mother can take care of herself. Does she seem unhappy to you?"
"Oh, you know Mother. A bomb could go off under her feet and she'd just run around checking to see if everyone else was all right. If she were unhappy, she wouldn't let anyone know it."
Jarrod pulled her to her feet and kissed her forehead. "I'll see what I can do, Little Sister. What does Owen think?"
"He thinks I should leave well enough alone, but it's Mother. I can't just sit by if there's anything I can do about it."
"I'll talk to Molly," he said. "Would you like to stay for dinner?"
"No, I'd better be getting home. Owen would dine on bread and butter if I'm not there to feed him." She kissed his cheek. "Oh, Henry's coming for Christmas, did you know?"
"Yes, I know. Mother told us last week." He returned her kiss. "Don't worry, Audra. Everything will come out right."
Jarrod found Molly and his three younger children out in the garden. The children were playing some spirited game in the treehouse, and Molly was putting away her paints and canvas. "I just had a talk with Audra," he said to Molly.
"Oh? What about?"
"About Mother and Henry. So now everyone has put in their two cents. Four in favor and one against, with one abstention."
Molly sighed. "Well, I know Nick is the one against, and I'm guessing that Owen is the abstention, so Audra must be in favor, along with Heath and the other sisters-in-law."
He sat on the bench next to her. "Everyone's unanimous that something is going on, but your opinion is the only one that matters to me. How do you feel about it, Feather?"
"We've already talked about this, Jarrod. It would be terribly mean and selfish to want to stand in their way."
He took her hand. "It would only be natural to feel uncomfortable, Feather. I know there's not a mean or selfish bone in your body."
She gripped his hand. "You always have faith in me, don't you?" She smiled and played with his fingers. "We have to give them our blessing, dearest. I'll talk to Henry - will you talk to Mother?"
He kissed her fingers. "Are you sure about this, Molly? You must be certain, or I'll have none of it."
She nodded. "Yes, I'm sure. We're happy. They should be happy. That's all that matters."
Henry stepped off the train and was markedly surprised when Molly greeted him. "What are you doing here, lass? I thought Audra was supposed to be picking me up. And without your husband?"
"This was Jarrod's idea." She directed the porter to stow Henry's luggage. "And Audra will be meeting us at the ranch." She helped him into the buggy. "There's something I needed to talk to you about, Henry."
"And what might that be? As if I couldn't guess." He sounded defensive and Molly was quick to reassure him.
"Well, it is about Mother, but it's not what you apparently think. Everyone's noticed - I wanted to tell you that, if you're holding back because of me, that it's not necessary. I have no claim on you anymore, Henry, and I'm not so churlish us to try to stand in your way."
"Ah, Molly." Henry adjusted his spectacles. "You're quite mistaken. Victoria and I are good friends - that's all."
"Are you?" Molly raised her eyebrows.
"So she tells me. Repeatedly. Not that it's any of your business."
"I see." Molly wrinkled her forehead. "But - the way she looks at you."
"Does she? I'm sure I wouldn't know about that."
Molly turned to look at him, but found his face unreadable. "Henry. I know I'm not your wife anymore, but I'm still the closest thing to family you have. You're welcome to confide in me, if you wish to."
"Why would I wish to, lass? My troubles are none of yours."
"I love you both, Henry. If you can be happier together than you are apart, why would I want to prevent you?"
"I'm trying to tell you, Molly, there's nothing for you to prevent. We're just good friends." Molly could hear the barely concealed strain in his voice.
She wanted to take his hand, but refrained. "Well, if that's so, and you evidently want more, why do you keep coming to Stockton? Perhaps you should look elsewhere."
He turned his head toward her. "You know her. Can anyone hold a candle to her?" He shook his head. "But she's not going to do anything to hurt her son, or you."
"Well, while I'm talking to you, Jarrod's talking to her. Maybe she'll change her mind after that."
Henry turned his head away. "I wish you wouldn't interfere, lass. Just leave us be, to figure this out on our own."
"We thought -" Molly shook her head, "we, I want you to be happy, Henry."
He turned back to her then. "I know, lass," he smiled. "And I am, for the most part. Don't try to make things be more than they are."
"As you wish, Henry. I hear that the training center's going great guns," she said, changing the subject. "That you're talking about expanding already."
"Yes, it's doing very well," Henry said, and proceeded to tell her all about it.
Jarrod pulled up in front of the ranch house. His children leaped out of the buggy and ran into the garden, Lucas following, Gray's Anatomy in hand. Jarrod took a deep breath and went into the house. His mother greeted him in the foyer, kissing his cheek. "Welcome, dear. But where's Molly?"
"She's picking up Henry at the station." Jarrod put his arm around Victoria's shoulders, leading her into the study. "Come, Mother, I have something to discuss with you."
"Why is Molly picking Henry up? I thought Audra was."
Jarrod seated Victoria on the sofa and sat down next to her. "Because - " he hesitated, shook his head, then leapt in. "In the last couple of weeks, Mother, the entire family has asked me to talk to you about Henry."
"Henry and I? Talk to me about what? We're friends - that's all." She stood and began to pace in front of the fireplace.
Jarrod stood and put his hands on her shoulders. "And what I came to tell you is, if you wanted to be more, Molly and I have no objection. That's all." He planted a kiss on her forehead.
"I told you before, Jarrod, I'm faithful to your father's memory," she said, fists balled.
"Mother," Jarrod said, "it's been seventeen years. If you want to be more than friends with Henry, or with anyone, I'm sure Father wouldn't mind."
Victoria frowned and looked up at the portrait of Tom hanging over the mantelpiece. "I would mind."
"Then there's no more to be said." Jarrod released her arms. "I'm not trying to push you into anything - just giving you permission, if you needed it."
"And Molly's picking up Henry for the same reason? To 'give him permission'?"
Jarrod nodded. Victoria fumed. "I wish you two had let it alone."
"Well, if you are just friends, then there's no harm done."
Audra arrived at the ranch only a couple of minutes before Molly and Henry. "I think Mother and Jarrod are in the study," she said, taking Henry's arm. "Molly, why don't you go tell them you're here and I'll show Henry in."
"There's a few things different," Audra said, as Molly left them. She led him toward the parlor, stopping underneath the arch. "There's mistletoe above your head," she said, kissing his cheek to demonstrate, "and we've rearranged the furniture a little to accommodate the Christmas tree." She allowed him a moment to reacquaint himself with the room, then, " I'll go see what's keeping Mother."
Molly enter the study and looked from Jarrod to Victoria. "Oh, dear," she said, taking in their expressions. "It looks like we've offended both of you. I'm sorry, Mother, we didn't mean any harm."
"You should have let it be," Victoria said. "I don't know why you felt you had to interfere."
"That's what Henry said, too." Molly took Victoria's hand, held it to her cheek. "The whole family asked us to, Mother. They thought we were standing in the way, and we wanted to make it clear that we aren't."
Victoria patted Molly's cheek. "All right, dear," she said, mollified. "As Jarrod said, no harm done."
Audra entered the study then. "I left Henry in the parlor, Mother."
"I'll go see to him then," Victoria said. She left, shutting the study door firmly behind her. She leaned against it for a moment, catching her breath, then straightened and went into the parlor.
"Victoria," Henry said, hearing her footfall.
She paused and looked at him. Sighed. "I'm sorry Molly's been at you," she said, "it was none of my doing."
"I know," Henry said.
"We're friends," Victoria said. "I value your friendship. They have no right to try to change that."
"I know that, too."
"This won't ruin Christmas for us, will it?" She reached out and touched his shoulder. "I've told them to keep their noses out of it, and I'm sure they will. Let's put this behind us, all right?"
"All right." He stood and offered her his arm. "I place a high value on your friendship, too, Victoria." They walked towards the stairs and he paused under the arch. "Audra tells me this is where the mistletoe is. Perhaps we could seal that bargain with a friendly Christmas kiss."
She paused a long moment, and he began to walk on, but she tugged him back. "Very well," she said, "it is customary." He bent down and as their lips met, she soon realized this was no mistletoe kiss. It began that way, yes, but instead of ending quickly began to gather momentum. Her lips began to warm, her cheeks to flush, and soon heat was spreading downward to encompass her entire body. She felt Henry's arms go around her and she was reaching up to put her arms around him when, instead, her hand connected with his cheek with a resounding thwack! that echoed through the foyer. Henry's spectacles went flying, he stumbled backward with his hand to his cheek. The noise brought Barkleys from every corner of the house.
Victoria was surrounded by cries of, "Oh my goodness!" and "What the devil!"
"Henry, are you all right?" Molly said, fetching his broken spectacles, while
"What the devil did you do to my mother?" Nick yelled, while
"Mother? What happened?" Audra asked, putting her arm around Victoria.
Victoria stood breathing heavily. What did happen? "Henry, I'm sorry," was all she could say.
"I don't believe I should stay here," Henry said. "If someone will fetch my luggage, I'll be going."
"You can't go," Victoria protested. "It's Christmas Eve."
"He most certainly can go," Nick said firmly. "He'd better."
"You can stay with us, Henry," Molly said. "The children will be most disappointed if you leave now. I don't know how I would explain it to them."
"Let's give everyone a chance to cool off," Jarrod said. "Then we can discuss this calmly." He took Henry's arm. "Heath, if you would put his luggage in the buggy."
"It's still in the buggy," Audra said. "We hadn't had a chance to bring it in yet."
"All right then," Jarrod said. "Come along, Henry. Molly, if you'll stay here with the children I'll see that Henry's made comfortable."
Jarrod took Henry out to the buggy and drove him home. He asked no questions, and Henry offered no answers. He took Henry inside, showed him the guest room, and left him alone for a few minutes to freshen up. When he came back, Henry was sitting in the dark, thinking. "I'm sorry, Henry," Jarrod said at last. "I can't help thinking that this is mine and Molly's fault."
"Partly, probably," Henry agreed. "But not entirely." He sighed wearily. "I'm sorry to have ruined your family's Christmas."
"I've done worse," Jarrod said. "Besides, Christmas isn't over. I'm sure this can all be worked out."
"Don't let me keep you. It is Christmas Eve, I'm sure you'd rather be with your family."
"Molly would hang me if I left you alone," Jarrod said. "I'm sure she'll be back with the children before too long. And I'll bet you twenty dollars my mother will be here to apologize any minute."
"She has nothing to apologize for," Henry said. "I was out of line. She had every right to behave as she did."
Jarrod regarded him for a long moment. "Well," he said at last, "I'm sure it's nothing that can't be worked out."
"Come, mother," Audra said, leading Victoria upstairs. "Let's go to your room." She took the water jug and went to fetch water while Victoria plopped herself face down on the bed. Audra returned in a moment and poured water into the basin. She waited while Victoria splashed water on her face and dried it with a towel. "Now, Mother, what happened?"
"He kissed me. I slapped him."
"That's all?" Audra asked, puzzled.
"What more could there be?" Victoria said peevishly.
"Well, you were under the mistletoe. It is customary to kiss there. I don't think that's cause for slapping the poor man."
"Especially with the entire family egging him on," Victoria said grimly.
Audra put her hand to her cheek. "Oh! You know about that."
"Yes, I know," Victoria said. "And you're right. I should go apologize. Especially since it's Christmas Eve - I don't want to let the sun go down on this."
She quickly changed into a riding skirt, bounded down the stairs and out to the barn where she saddled a horse and rode away at a gallop. She arrived shortly at Jarrod's house, bounded from the saddle and up the stairs.
"Well, Mother," Jarrod said, "I see I win my bet."
"Where is he?"
"Why don't you go into the parlor and I'll bring him in," Jarrod said, taking her by the shoulders and kissing her head.
She paced in front of the fireplace, flicking her whip against her leg until Jarrod returned with Henry. Jarrod left them alone, and she stood silent for a long moment.
"You don't have to apologize, Victoria," Henry said.
"But I do Henry," she said. "That was a rotten thing to do to you." She could see the marks of her fingers on his cheek and feared he would probably have a bruise in the morning.
"Just what are you sorry for?" Henry asked. "For slapping me, or for kissing me?"
"You kissed me," she retorted.
"Kissed me back, then. Don't deny that, we were both there."
She stared at him a long moment, stomach churning. He listened to her silence, then, "Just what are you afraid of, Victoria?"
"I'm not afraid of anything." She held her chin up in the air. "My family tried to push us together. Things got out of hand. I'm sorry I hit you. I don't want this to affect our friendship."
"You're not afraid? Then kiss me again," he dared her.
"If all you feel is friendship, if I leave you cold, then there's no danger." He stood up, facing her. "Just a friendly little kiss."
"No," she said, "we already tried that once."
"Then don't come to San Francisco again," he said. "Don't come see me until you know what you're afraid of."
She gasped, stunned. "Henry? You're turning your back on me?"
"Never." He held out his hand. "But we're not 'just friends', Victoria. You know my feelings run much deeper, and now I know that yours do, too. Come to me when you know exactly what it is you want."
She looked at his hand but did not take it. He waited a moment, and then dropped it. He turned to go.
"You will come to the ranch tomorrow? It's Christmas - you shouldn't spend it alone."
He turned back. "It won't be the first, and probably not the last. I can bear it."
She wanted to throw her arms around him, but did not dare. She wanted his arms around her, but did not dare that, either. "The children will be sadly disappointed."
"It's not possible, Victoria, children or no children."
She put her hand to his bruised cheek then. "No matter how many times I say I'm sorry?"
He held her hand, then dropped it. "That's not what this is about, Victoria. Come to me when you're ready. I'll be waiting." He smiled reassuringly, then turned and left the parlor, closing the door behind him. She paced up and down a moment, then went to her horse, shivered, mounted and galloped away.
"Wake up, Uncle Henry! It's Christmas!" Henry woke to find himself nearly smothered by small Barkleys. Emma hugged him from one side, Vicki from the other, and Georgie in the middle. He wrapped his arms around them, or what of them he could reach. He could not help but smile as they let go and began bouncing up and down on his bed.
"You've got a boo boo, Uncle Henry," Emma said.
"I had a little accident yesterday, Sweetie," Henry explained.
"I'll kiss it and make it better," she said, suiting the action to the word.
"Me too!" Vicki said, shoving Emma aside and kissing Henry soundly.
"Too!" Georgie said, trying to kiss and missing, catching Henry somewhere on the chin.
Henry laughed. He felt surrounded, overwhelmed, and yet loved every moment of it.
"Come now, girls, Georgie," Lucas said. "Mother and Father are cooking breakfast - go get dressed and let Uncle Henry get dressed, too." Henry heard him pour water into the basin. "There's hot water and a towel to the left. Let me know if you need anything else."
"Thank you, Lucas," Henry said, as the young Barkleys climbed down from his bed reluctantly. "Merry Christmas."
"Merry Christmas to you, too Uncle Henry." Henry could hear the smile in the young man's voice, and couldn't help but smile back. He washed and shaved carefully after Lucas left, then dressed and went downstairs.
He followed the smell of cooking to the kitchen, and found Jarrod preparing bacon and eggs, while Molly whipped up pancakes. They didn't hear him come in, and he stood in the door for a moment listening. Jarrod was softly singing a Christmas carol in a pleasant baritone, accompanied by the sizzle of bacon. Jarrod turned and noticed Henry standing there. "Come on in, Henry. Are you hungry?"
"Famished," Henry confessed, "but I thought you'd be going out to the ranch first thing this morning."
Molly said, "We thought we'd have our Christmas here first, and go out to the ranch for dinner."
"Not on my account," Henry said.
"Of course on your account," Molly said. "We're not going to abandon you on Christmas, Henry."
Henry felt his eyes well up, and wished for his broken spectacles so that they couldn't see. Molly stopped whisking pancake batter for a moment and took his arm. "Come sit down." She led him to the kitchen table. "Breakfast will be ready in just a moment."
The children swarmed into the kitchen. "I get to sit by Uncle Henry!" Emma exclaimed.
"Me too!" Vicky said.
"Too!" Georgie said.
"You can't all sit next to him," Lucas said, patiently.
"How about if the girls sit next to him at breakfast," Jarrod said, "and the boys sit next to him when we open presents?"
This suggestion met with approval and, after grace, they all dug into a hearty breakfast. 'Jolly' was the word that came to Henry's mind. It was by far the jolliest breakfast he had had for some time. "Where are your spectacles, Uncle Henry?" Emma asked.
"They got broken in the accident," Henry said. "But I don't really need them. I can wait to get new ones when I get home."
"I like you better without them," Emma said.
They adjourned to the parlor and gathered around the fireplace. There was no tree, as they had not expected to spend Christmas at home, but Molly had arranged the presents around the hearth. Georgie, not content to sit next to Henry, crawled up into his lap until he got his present, a set of toy soldiers, when he scrambled down to play with them. The girls got new china dolls, as well as new dresses, and both boys got new suits and a set of books for Lucas. Henry was touched to receive a new silk waistcoat from Molly and a knitted wool scarf from Emma. "I made it myself," Emma explained, "it's my first scarf."
That was evident, even to touch - the stitches were uneven and it had several holes, but Henry said it was quite the nicest scarf he had ever had. "What color is it?" he asked.
"Red," Emma said. "It's my favorite color."
"Mine, too," Henry agreed solemnly, wrapping the scarf around his neck.
Molly handed him a square flat package. "This one's from Mother - she asked me to bring it to you when I left the ranch yesterday."
"I'm not sure I should accept it," Henry said quietly.
"Please," Molly said. "She wanted you to have it. She worked very hard on it."
Henry nodded and opened it. "A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens," he ran his fingers across the letters and read.
Emma peeped over his shoulder. "You read with your fingers, Uncle?" she said. "How do you do that?"
Henry showed her the raised dots, but refrained from reading such a frightening tale to so young a girl. "I want to do that," she said.
"I don't have time to teach you today, dear," Henry said. "But ask your grandmother - I taught her. She can teach you if you really want."
"You teach me, next time you come," Emma pouted.
Henry hesitated, as he had on his first visit here, unsure how to answer, and he was once again rescued. "Of course he will, Sweetie," Jarrod said. "He'll be back real soon. Now you go run upstairs and play with your new toys. We'll be leaving for the ranch in a little while."
"Is Uncle Henry coming with us?" Emma asked.
"No, dear, I have to go back to Berkeley today," Henry said. "But I hope," he swallowed, "hope to be back soon. Now run along and play."
Emma pouted, but did as she was told, racing her brother and sister upstairs. "I don't like lying to her," Henry said, when their footsteps had died away.
"You're not," Molly said. "Whatever happens between you and Mother, you're always welcome here, Henry. I don't quite know what we'd do if you didn't come back."
"All right, lass," Henry said. "I'll come. I don't quite know what I'd do, either."
Jarrod turned to Lucas. "Do you mind, Son? The three of us need to talk."
"All right, Father," Lucas said, smiling. "I'll be in the library."
"I do wish you'd stay a while longer, Henry," Jarrod said after Lucas had gone. "Give Mother a chance to think things through."
"She knows where to find me," Henry said. "I think it's better that I not hang around here waiting. Better to be about my own business."
Jarrod nodded. "I can't argue with that," he said. He reached out and shook Henry's hand. "Just so you know that you're welcome here anytime you want to come."
"Thank you," Henry said. "And all-in-all, this really has been one of the best Christmases I've enjoyed in a long time, so thank you for that, too."
"No thanks necessary," Molly said. "It's our pleasure. Let's hope next year will be better."
The clock chimed. "I'd better go pack," Henry said, "if I'm going to make my train."
"I'll drive you to the station," Molly said, "although I wish you weren't going."
"I know," Henry said. "But you're welcome to come see me, too. Both of you, and the children."
"Perhaps we shall," Molly said. "I'd love to see the Asylum and the training center, and I'm sure Emma and Lucas, at least, would be fascinated."
He was almost smothered in hugs again as he left. "I like it when you stay with us, Uncle Henry," Emma said. "Please come back soon."
"I will," he promised, teary-eyed. He gave Molly a small package and a note written in Braille. "Would you see that Victoria gets this?"
Molly nodded, then drove him to the station. On the platform, she put her arms around him and hugged him, the first hug in many months. "Do you know what I've been thinking about today, lass?" Henry asked.
"No, what, Henry?"
"George. Your father. He'd be proud of you, and your children. I almost felt like he was with us today."
Molly wiped away a tear. "I think he was, Henry. You and he were so close, more like brothers than friends. I hope he'd be proud of me - but I know he'd love his grandchildren." She looked up at him. "You're the only one I know now who remembers him, and my mother, and my brothers. My last link to all of them - I'm glad you came back, no matter what else happens."
"Me, too, lass," he said. "And I'm glad we can be friends - I didn't think we could be, at first."
"I did," she smiled, "or at least I hoped." The train whistled a warning. "You'd better go, if you want to catch this train."
"I don't, but I must," he said. He held out his hand and she gave it a squeeze and guided him to the train. She stood and waved it out of sight.
The sky was tinged with pre-dawn light as Victoria moved silently down the stairs and out the front door. She was surprised to find Nick on the verandah, smoking a cigar. "I didn't expect to find you up so early," she said.
"I'm often up before dawn, Mother," he said. "What are you doing up so early?"
"I'm going for a ride - I thought I could use a good gallop to clear my head."
"Good idea." Nick stubbed out his cigar. "Want some company?"
She thought a moment - Nick was unlikely to press her about Henry. "All right, if you like."
They saddled up and rode out, galloping along the north ridge and ending up at the water hole. They dismounted to water the horses, the sky now fully light. Victoria sat on the grass while the horses drank and cropped grass. Nick leaned up against a tree.
"You remember Miranda, Mother?" he asked.
"That Mexican revolutionary you were so taken with? Of course. Why do you bring her up? That was a long time ago."
"I wanted that woman, more than I wanted any woman before, or since," he continued.
"More than Samantha?" Victoria asked, surprised.
Nick grinned. "Now Samantha was a different proposition altogether. But to get back to what I was saying - I was about eaten up with wanting, but when it came to a choice, I chose to do without her."
"And why is that, Nick?" And why are you telling me all this?
"Because I'd have had to give up too much. I'd have had to give up everything. Now with Sam, I got to keep everything I had, and gain a lovely wife, to boot. And what she gave up for me wasn't worth keeping, anyway, so we both came out on top."
Victoria sprang to her feet. "If this is about Henry -" she said angrily.
Nick held up a hand. "I'm just saying, if you're getting more than you're giving up, then grab it. If it's the other way around, then drop it. I got no other opinion about it."
"Don't you? You were pretty quick to side against him yesterday."
Nick shrugged. "I figured he had it coming." He grinned again. "But whatever you say about me, I do draw the line at hitting a blind man."
Victoria winced. "I don't think of him as a blind man."
"I know you don't," Nick said. "I admit I didn't like him hanging about, and I told Jarrod so, but it ain't up to me. You do what you need to do, Mother. I'll help you any way I can."
"Since when did you talk such sense, Nick?" she asked.
"Do I? I'll have to be careful it don't become a habit." He smiled. "C'mon. We'd better be getting back. They'll wonder what's become of us."
Audra and Owen had arrived by the time they got back to the ranch. Nick went to put up the horses. "I thought Jarrod and Molly would be here by now, too," Victoria said.
"Lucas came to tell us this morning that they'll be coming later. They want to have Christmas with Henry before they come out here," Audra said. She took in Victoria's crestfallen face and put her arm around her. "I have a surprise for you, though." She whispered in Victoria's ear and Victoria's face lit up. "So by next Christmas, you'll have two new grandchildren, mine and Samantha's."
"An embarrassment of riches," Victoria said, hugging her daughter. "You don't know how happy that makes me, Audra." She reached up and kissed her son-in-law. "And Owen."
"If it's half as happy as we are," Owen said, grinning foolishly, "then you're delirious with joy."
"I can't imagine a nicer Christmas present," Victoria said. She took each of them by the arm and ushered them into the house.
"I'll have to work doubly hard on the book," Audra said, "to get it finished before I'm unable to travel, but I finally talked Owen into helping me."
"How so?" Victoria asked. "I wouldn't think he'd have time - he's too busy as it is."
"But he has journals full of bird observations that he did before we met. I've finally convinced him to let me use them for my book, so now we're collaborators." Audra grinned.
The rest of the family took the news with great gusto. Lena was disappointed that they were not going to open presents yet, however. "You can, darlin'," Heath assured her. "If you want. The rest of us will wait, but you don't have to."
"No," Lena said on consideration. "It's hard, but I'll wait. We should all do it together."
Victoria looked around her - she certainly had plenty to be grateful for: her home, her large and growing family. At her age, she had surprisingly few regrets, and yet - why did she feel so regretful? Not just shame that she had struck out at someone who had never, and would never, harm her - although certainly that - but there was something more, something she could not name. She shoved the thought away and went to play with her newest grandchild, Heath's infant son Tommy. She composed herself to be grateful for the very many blessings she did have.
When Molly and Jarrod arrived with the children, she was saddened but not surprised that Henry was not with them. "He went back to Berkeley," Molly said, "but he sent you this." She handed Victoria the package and the note. Victoria excused herself and went into the study to open them. The note first, hands trembling. She was so used to writing Braille instead of reading it that that she had to turn it over and read it from the back:
I thank you heartily for the lovely gift - I value both your hard work and the gift itself. You cannot know what pleasure you have restored to me by it. My gift quite pales by comparison. I know you will have a Merry Christmas in the bosom of your fine family. Enjoy yourself, and come to me when you are ready.
She ran her fingers over the letters, trying to sort out her emotions. Dearest. It had been a long time since anyone had called her that. It made her feel desired, it made her feel angry that he would take the liberty, it made her feel lonely that he was not there, it made her feel safe that he would wait for her, it incensed her that he thought he knew what she felt when she did not know herself. Why is this so hard? She had had no trouble knowing how she felt about Tom, that was certain. She stared up at his portrait, wondering. Would he really care, after all this time? Jarrod had remarried after Beth's death, Molly had remarried after Henry's 'death' - and although tragic, no one blamed her, blamed either of them. Was she really being faithful, or was she using Tom's memory to shield herself? From what? She shuddered as she finally realized that Henry was right - she was afraid, and she had better figure out why before all came to ruin.
She opened the package then, to find delicately carved chess pieces of a dark fine grained wood, unpainted. She took them out and counted them. Only half a set. Why only half a set? They were lovely, but incomplete. As she sat contemplating them, Molly entered. Victoria shoved the note into her pocket. "I hate to disturb you, Mother," Molly said, "but the children want to open presents and we can't start without you." She looked at the pieces Victoria was holding in her hand. "My, those are lovely. Henry used to be quite the whittler, but I didn't know he could still do work like that."
"He made these?" Victoria regarded them with a new appreciation. She smiled softly. "Sometimes I think there's nothing that man can't do."
Molly put a hand on her shoulder. "Are you quite all right, Mother?"
Victoria shook her head, then nodded. "Let's not disappoint the children." Molly frowned worriedly, but followed her mother-in-law out to the parlor. There both women lost themselves in the joy and laughter that Christmas brought to their family. There were squeals of pleasure as the children tore into their gifts, despite the half-hearted efforts of their mothers to maintain decorum. After the gift-giving, there was a lovely dinner, followed by eggnog and Christmas carols. The merry-making continued until the younger children's bedtime. Jarrod and Molly took their leave, piling their brood into the buggy. Alice and Samantha went upstairs to put their children to bed, while the rest of the Barkleys gathered in the parlor.
"We'd better go, too," Audra said reluctantly. "I have to catch the early train to San Francisco tomorrow."
"Must you, dear?" Victoria asked.
"If this book is ever going to get finished, I do," Audra said. "I may be gone all week, depending on the weather and how much work I can get done, but I'll be back for New Year's, never fear."
"All right, dear," Victoria said, kissing her and Owen's cheek. "Merry Christmas."
They sang a few more Christmas carols, Alice and Samantha returning, and then made their way to their beds. As Victoria pulled the covers over herself, she felt how empty her bed was. It had not felt that empty since Tom had died. She shoved the thought away impatiently. That was a channel she did not want her mind to run in, for certain. She pulled out the note, ran her fingers over the letters. It had been a good Christmas, if only. . .
She fell asleep, the note clutched in her hand.
It was midmorning the next day when the telegram came. She was in the nursery, playing with Lizzie, Tommy asleep in his crib, when Silas brought her the yellow envelope. She ripped it open. Her heart clutched in her chest as she read.
Henry Johnson collapsed on rail platform yesterday. Doctor says heart attack. In Asylum infirmary. Emergency meeting 3:00 PM today my house. Please reply. Signed Roger Holden.
Victoria summoned Alice and Samantha, showed them the telegram. "I must go right away," she told them. "Please tell Nick and Heath - I'll send word when I know how long I'll be gone."
"I hope he'll be all right," Alice said. "At least he's not - at least he's in the infirmary."
"I have a few things at the townhouse - I won't bother to pack," Victoria said.
"Molly should know," Samantha pointed out.
"Yes, of course," Victoria said. "I'll stop and tell her on my way to the train." She went to her room and changed into a riding skirt, went to the barn and saddled a horse and rode into town.
Molly gasped when Victoria told her. "I'm going now," Victoria said. "Do you want to come with me?"
"Of course I do," Molly said, "but I can't - Jarrod's in court, Lucas is on rounds with Dr. Merar. Maybe Audra. . ."
"Audra went to San Francisco this morning," Victoria said. "Maybe you could send the children to the ranch?"
"Send them with whom?" Molly said. "If it were just the girls I might take them, but Alice and Samantha have their hands full enough without taking on Georgie - he's still too much of a handful." Molly sighed, holding back tears. "I'll have to wait until Jarrod gets home." She gave Victoria a fierce hug. "Tell Henry I love him, and I'll be there this evening at the latest. And tell him he'd better get well or he'll have to answer to me."
"I will," Victoria said. "Meet me at the townhouse tonight."
Molly nodded and Victoria rode to the train station, where she sent a telegram to Roger and boarded the next train for Berkeley. The slowest train she had ever been on, it seemed. Usually the trip to San Francisco was over almost before she knew it had begun, but this train seemed to take days. Yet, it was just past noon when she disembarked and caught a cab to the Asylum.
She found the doctor coming out of the infirmary. "Doctor? How is Mr. Johnson?" she asked, heart pounding.
The doctor peered at her over his spectacles. "And who might you be?"
"Victoria Barkley. I'm on the Committee that runs this place."
"Ah, Mrs. Barkley. I've already spoken to Mr. Holden - I understand you are meeting this afternoon. I'm sure he'll inform you fully at that time."
"True enough, Doctor," Victoria said. "However Mr. Johnson is also -" what? "- a friend of my family. I have more than a charitable interest. How is he? Will he be all right? May I see him?"
"He's well enough, considering," the doctor said, removing his spectacles and putting them in his pocket. "The attack was fairly mild - he'll need complete rest for a week or two, after which he would be able to go home, if he had anyone to care for him there. Otherwise, Mr. Holden assures me he may recover here."
Victoria breathed a sigh of relief. "How long before he's fully recovered?"
"I'd say he should be able to go back to work in a month or so, depending on his condition before the attack. A man of his age, it might take longer. Or less, if he has a strong will."
Thank God. "May I see him?"
Something in her demeanor made him soften. "All right, Mrs. Barkley. Perhaps you may do him good." He opened the door to the infirmary. "You have a visitor, Mr. Johnson."
"Victoria?" Henry said as she entered the room.
"Yes, Henry, I'm here," she said.
"How did he know?" the doctor asked. "You didn't even speak."
"He knows me," she said, taking Henry's hand.
"I suppose so," the doctor said curiously. "All right, only fifteen minutes. We don't want to tire him."
She studied Henry after the doctor had gone. He looked weak, pale, but not ashen. She gripped his hand tighter. "You gave me quite a scare, Henry," she said.
"Myself, too," Henry said. "Why did you come, Victoria?"
"What do you mean? Of course I would come if you're ill. You need someone to care for you."
"Do you have some romantic notion of nursing me back to health, perhaps? Does seeing me weak and helpless give you the excuse you need to give way to your feelings?"
She was taken aback. "How can you say such things to me?"
"This isn't what I need from you, Victoria," he said. "I don't need your help, I don't need your money, and I absolutely do not need your pity."
She felt as though she'd been slapped, which would only be fair, she supposed, gazing at the bruise that was blossoming on his cheek, but this was far from what she had expected. "What do you need, then?" she said stiffly.
Henry's voice grew soft. "I need you to let me love you, Victoria - without you having to gain the upper hand first."
Tenderness warred with anger in her heart. "I'm not trying to gain -" she stopped. Sighed deeply. "Am I?"
"That's how it appears to me," Henry said.
She pulled up a stool then, sat next to his bed, held his hand in both hers. "I honestly don't know what I feel, Henry," she confessed. "Except that you were right - I am afraid, but I have no idea of what."
"It sounds like we both need time," Henry said. "Time for me to heal, time for you to know your own heart." He squeezed her hand. "Will you do this for me? Don't come see me again until I'm well? I think it's not good for us for you to see me this way. Let me get strong again."
She bowed her head, held his hand to her cheek. "Are you sure that's what you want? To not see me for a month, maybe longer?"
"It's not what I want - it's what I think is best," he said, wiping the tear he could feel slide down her cheek. "Do you not agree?"
"I want to take care of you," she said.
"You want to take care of everyone, Victoria," Henry said. "I'm hardly special in that regard." He caressed her cheek. "You're not responsible for everyone, for everything. I'll be well taken care of here, have no fear."
"If that's how you'll have it," she said, "how can I say otherwise?" She stood, but still kept hold of his hand. "Molly will be here this evening. She told me to tell you - to tell you she loves you, and you'd better get well or you'll answer to her."
"Ah," Henry said. "Is that still the problem? You can't get over my former marriage?" He squeezed her hand. "It was long over before I met you, Victoria. I just didn't know it. Molly and I have managed to move past it - can't you?"
"That's only part of it, I think," she said. "I don't know what the rest of it is."
"Time for you to go, Mrs. Barkley." The doctor had come in without her being aware of it.
Henry kissed Victoria's hand. "Good-bye, Victoria," he said. "I'll let you know when I'm well enough."
She stooped and kissed his lips, quickly, not giving him time to respond. "All right, Henry. May I write you, at least?"
Henry's face lit up. "Yes, I should like that, very much."
She left then, took the train to San Francisco, bought lunch at a cafe - which she did not eat - before taking a cab to Roger's house for the meeting. Roger informed the other Committee members of Henry's condition, and contingencies were discussed. Lon was quite vocal that they should find a replacement, but he found no support. Herb and Roger agreed to split the administrative duties until Henry could get back on his feet, but the plans for the expansion of the training center were put on hold until Henry could recover.
After the meeting, Victoria bought groceries and went to the townhouse. "Audra?" She called upon entering.
Audra came out of the office. "Mother? Whatever are you doing here?"
"I came down on the noon train," Victoria said, carrying her bags into the kitchen. "Henry had a heart attack yesterday."
Audra's hand flew to her mouth. "Oh no! Mother, how terrible! How is he?"
"The doctor says he should recover in a month or so," Victoria said.
"Oh, thank God!" Audra said. "So I guess you'll be staying on for awhile."
Victoria shook her head. "No, I'll be going home in the morning." She began washing vegetables in the sink. "Molly will be here this evening - she's probably at the Asylum with him now."
"And you're not?" Audra asked. "Mother, what's happening?"
"Nothing I care to talk about, Audra," Victoria said.
Audra took her wrist. "Mother, how many times have I poured out my troubles to you? I would think you could do the same to me." Victoria shook her head again, and Audra put her hand to Victoria's cheek. "You're wound up like a spring about to break - at least let me get you some brandy, or Jarrod's got some very good wine put by, I've discovered."
"Wine, then," Victoria said. "I admit I could use a drink."
Audra fetched two glasses and a bottle, which she swiftly opened and poured. Victoria stopped her preparations long enough to down a few sips. Audra took a knife and began chopping vegetables, and the two worked on in relative silence until Molly arrived. Audra hugged her and poured her out a glass of wine, topping Victoria's glass off at the same time. Audra shooed them both out of the kitchen. "Audra," Victoria protested. "I'd rather cook."
"You've been under quite a strain the past couple of days, Mother," Audra said. "Go relax - you need it."
"I'm fine," Victoria insisted.
"Are you?" Audra said, putting her hands on her hips. "Then tell me why you hit Henry."
Victoria pressed her lips together tightly. "Audra," she said, warningly.
"Go relax, Mother," Audra said. "Drink your wine, sit in the parlor and talk to Molly." She handed Molly the bottle. "Both of you." Her voice softened. "I know the two of you must be worried half to death. Go. I'll cook dinner."
Victoria relented and followed Molly into the parlor. The fire was laid in the fireplace and Victoria knelt down to light it. Molly sat on the sofa, wine glasses and bottle on the tea table in front of her. Victoria joined her, nursing her glass. "Henry told me he asked you not to come until he's better," Molly said.
"Did he tell you why?" Victoria asked.
Molly nodded. "He doesn't need to be coddled - by me or by you." She sipped her wine. "Actually, it was realizing that that allowed me to let go of him - I'm not the sort of wife he needed, under the circumstances." She took Victoria's hand. "Mother, when Jarrod and I decided to speak to the two of you, we wanted to make things better between you, not worse."
"I was happy the way it was, Molly," Victoria said. "As friends. Good friends."
"Were you?" Molly said. "That's not how you looked at him."
"How did I look at him?" Victoria asked.
"Like he was bread and you were hungry," Audra said, coming in and sitting in the chair across from them.
"I'm sure I did no such thing," Victoria huffed.
Audra refilled everyone's glasses. "You did, Mother. We all noticed it - that's why we asked Jarrod to step in."
"And it was hardly fair to Henry," Molly said. "He obviously wanted more."
"You make me sound like a vixen," Victoria said, "letting men dangle after me."
"Of course not, Mother," Audra said. "But you're obviously possessed by some strong emotions. Why not let them out? It's just the three of us - do you not trust us enough?"
"Of course I do," Victoria said, draining her glass. "But I hardly know what I feel myself."
Audra refilled Victoria's glass and examined the empty bottle. "Better get another."
"We drank it all already?" Victoria said. "Better not, then."
"It's just us, Mother," Audra said. "When have the three of us ever done something like this? We're always surrounded, aren't we?" She left to fetch another bottle.
"It might be a good idea to have a 'girls' night' every once in awhile," Molly said. "The men have their weekly poker game."
"Capital idea," Audra said, returning with a fresh bottle. "Although I'm not sure how we'd work around the babies."
"It's worth a try, anyway," Victoria said. "How's dinner coming?"
Audra looked at the clock. "Should be done in another half hour or so. No rush."
"Have you heard from Judy?" Victoria asked. "How's Jonathan doing?"
"Trying to change the subject?" Audra sipped her wine. She shrugged. "Very well, according to Judy's last letter. We were hoping they'd come for Christmas, but Judy said they couldn't get away."
"You may have to go to them," Victoria said. "Judy may still be too embarrassed."
"About the wedding? That's silly. I'd have been much more ruthless in her place. She hardly did anything at all," Audra said.
"Would you?" Molly asked. "It's hard to imagine you being ruthless, Audra."
"If Owen were dying and it was the only way to save him? Darn tootin'."
Molly shuddered. "I don't even like to think about it. I don't know what I'd do in that situation, but I hope I'd stop short of hurting someone."
"Well, I probably would, too," Audra said, "but I can't guarantee it. Anyway, Judy has nothing to be ashamed of. Maybe when the baby comes, that will be enticement enough to get them here. She is Owen's only living relative - I'd hate for them to be estranged over something like that."
They discussed inconsequentials until dinner was ready. Audra opened a third bottle to accompany it. Victoria was aware of having drunk too much, but as Audra said, it was just the three of them, and she certainly did feel the need of it. While Molly and Audra did the dishes after dinner, she sat in the parlor, gazing into the fire, rather enjoying the feeling of detachment that the wine had given her.
Audra and Molly returned, and Audra put more logs on the fire until it was a bright blaze. "Neither of you has told me how Henry's doing - only that he had an attack," she said. "Will he be all right?"
Molly nodded. "The doctor thinks so, in a few weeks. I have to go home tomorrow - will you check in on him while you're here? It would soothe my mind, and Mother's."
"Of course I will," Audra said, "but I don't understand why Mother's not staying."
"He doesn't want me to," Victoria said. "Didn't want me pitying him - said I was trying to gain the upper hand."
"He didn't," Audra said.
Victoria nodded dreamily. "Yes, he did. Said I should just let him love me."
"Why can't you?" Audra said quietly. "He's a good man - we all love him. What's so difficult, Mother?"
"Everyone loves Henry," Victoria said, hiccuping. "Porters, waiters, ticket agents. Molly."
"Mother," Molly said, "that's over. He hasn't been my husband for more than twenty years."
"You're my daughter-in-law, he was your husband. It feels like miscege - mescegue - you know what it feels like," Victoria said impatiently.
"He's not related to you, Victoria," Molly explained patiently. "He's not related to me, either. I know you have a great tendency to consider even the most distant connections as family, and I love you for it, but it's certainly getting in the way here."
"I don't want to get married," Victoria said.
Audra's head snapped up. "You don't? Why not, Mother?"
Victoria crinkled her brow. "I don't know. That just popped out."
"In vino veritas," Audra said. "Sounds like we found the real reason you're so resistant to Henry's charms. But what's the reason for the reason?"
"I don't know," Victoria repeated. "I liked being married, when I was married."
"Henry is awfully unlike Father," Audra said. "Henry's so quiet, unassuming. Father was the irresistible force."
"Don't underestimate Henry," Molly said. "He spent the first two-thirds of his life working for two things: the equal education of females, and the abolition of slavery. And guess what? Women's education is now much more commonplace, and there's no slavery anymore."
"We had to fight a war for that second one," Audra pointed out.
Molly nodded. "It broke his heart - he hated John Brown and his ilk, agitating for armed uprisings. He wanted a peaceful and reasonable freedom, but it was not to be. So much sacrificed," she said sadly.
"And now he's working for the benefit of the blind," Victoria said thoughtfully.
"I see a theme," Audra said. "That no one be held down, that everyone has the means to be whatever they can be."
"That's Henry," Molly said.
"More like a mule than a race horse," Audra said. "Not fast, but persistent."
"But prettier," Molly said, giggling.
Victoria snorted, then laughed. "Yes, much prettier," she agreed.
"It's getting late," Audra said, "and I have to be out early to catch the tide. Why don't you take the spare room, Mother, and Molly and I will share the other."
Victoria got ready for bed, still fuzzy-headed. She lay down and pulled the covers up, the room spinning lazily around her. She took stock of the last few days, and she had to admit to herself that two things were true: she loved Henry Johnson, and she did not want to marry again. No wonder she felt torn. She would have to find a resolution before she was torn in two. She hoped and she prayed that there was a resolution to be found.
Audra had already gone when Victoria and Molly arose, and an hour and two pots of coffee later found them on the train back to Stockton. Victoria squinted against the bright sunlight and closed the curtain on the window. "Now I remember why I seldom do this," she said.
Molly chuckled. "It wasn't so bad," she said. "You seem much more yourself this morning, headache notwithstanding."
"Do I?" Victoria asked. "I feel all sixes and sevens."
"You've been holding everything in so long, I think it'll do you good to let it out. Last night was a good start, I think."
"Do I really try to have the upper hand all the time?" Victoria asked worriedly.
Molly patted Victoria's hand. "Not 'try to' so much as 'do'," she said. "I know Jarrod is the nominal head of the family, but you're our center, Mother. We all look to you, depend on you - and with good reason. Not being in control is quite an unnatural state for you - of course you're uncomfortable."
Victoria looked thoughtful. "Thank you, Molly. That makes a great deal of sense." She looked down at her hands. "I have to say, I'm rather proud of Henry for refusing my help, for all it stunned me at the time. It would have been so easy to play that scene out - me nursing him back to health, us falling into each other's arms afterward. He showed a lot of wisdom not to take what he wants the easy way."
"He loves you," Molly said. "He wouldn't cheapen you or try to manipulate you that way. That's not who he is."
Victoria blinked back tears. "I still find it hard to believe that doesn't bother you."
Molly sighed. "The truth? It does. A little. I think all of us have a romantic desire to believe we can't be gotten over. It's natural, but it's wrong. I got over Henry when I met Jarrod. If Henry's gotten over me, then that's all to the good. I do care about him, I would hate to see him suffer."
"I don't know if I can prevent that," Victoria said.
"I meant suffer over me," Molly said. "The two of you need to decide what's going to be between you. All I want is not to be the stumbling block."
"I don't think you are, anymore," Victoria said. "Maybe I've been using that as a shield from whatever it is I'm really afraid of."
"Marriage?" Molly wrinkled her brow. "I've been puzzling over that - if your first marriage was a good one, why you'd be afraid to do it again. And being afraid of Henry, who's never hurt a soul, who is as upstanding and honorable a man as you'd ever hope to find."
Victoria sighed. "Well, that's the problem, isn't it? If I don't want to marry again, then finding someone like Henry would have me running for the trees."
"Just be honest, Mother," Molly said, "with Henry and with yourself. I'm sure the two of you can find a path that makes you both happy."
"I hope so," Victoria said.
"I know you won't be going back to visit him," Molly said, "but do you mind if I do? I'd like to take the children, too, at least Lucas and Emma. She was almost frantic when I told her he was ill - I'd like her to see that he's going to be all right."
Victoria felt a twinge, but said, "Of course. I'm sure she - all of you - will do him good."
"And don't fret about it, Mother. Think it through, but don't worry. You'll find the right way - I have every faith in you."
Victoria smiled. "I'm glad you do." I wish I did.
So the weeks passed. It did seem that a logjam had broken in her during that evening in the townhouse. She found herself able to examine her feelings, follow them down to their source. The last week in January, Henry's message reached her.
I am strong enough now. Come when you are ready.
She made no hesitation - she was on his doorstep as quickly as steam and horse and will could get her there.
"Victoria," Henry smiled, ushering her into his cottage, "you came quickly."
"I know now what I have to say," she said, "although I'm still uncertain what to do."
Henry took her arm and led her to the sofa. "We shall discuss it then. Can I get you anything?"
"No," she shook her head. She took his hand and pulled him down next to her. "I do love you, Henry, I can't deny it any longer, but I don't want to get married again. I don't want to hurt you, but that's how I feel."
"I don't recall asking you to marry me," he said, with an ironic lilt to his voice.
"Not you in particular, Henry," she said, "I don't want to marry at all."
"Why is that,Victoria? Was your prior marriage so unbearable? I rather had the feeling that you and Tom were happy together."
"We were," she said. "We had a good marriage - not perfect, but good. Strong. We built a good life together." She bowed her head. "I'm not sure I can make you understand."
"Try," he said gently.
She took a deep breath. "Don't get me wrong - if I could have Tom back by giving up everything I have, I would do it, but I can't, and the truth is - being a widow is, well, wonderful. I have money, I have freedom, I can do whatever I like. I don't have to answer to anyone, ask permission or even consult anyone if I don't wish to. If I married, I'd have to give all that up. Nothing would be mine - even with a permissive husband, the law would take all that away from me."
"Ah," Henry said. "Yes, that is quite reasonable."
Her head snapped up. She gazed at him, surprised. "You think so?"
"Victoria, I spent more than half my life working against slavery and for the rights of women to an education. Surely Molly has told you that."
Victoria nodded. "Yes, she did."
"It incenses me that we fought a war to end slavery, and yet half the people in this country are still considered property. It's an abomination - just as black slavery was. And perhaps one day that will end, just as black slavery did. Although I sincerely hope we do not have to fight another war over it."
She squeezed his hand. "Thank you for understanding. I didn't think you would."
"There's something else, though, isn't there?"
She shook her head. "No, I don't think so."
"Something in your voice, when you said your marriage wasn't perfect. What did you mean?"
She dropped his hand, turned away from him slightly, gazed into the fire. "I thought you knew - it's no secret. Heath is not really my son - he's Tom's son."
"Oh, my," Henry said, "no, I didn't know. So your husband was unfaithful to you. Yet you still speak of him with love, so your marriage survived it."
"I didn't know," she said. "Not until Heath showed up six years after Tom's death."
He found her shoulder and rested his hand on it. "And being you, with your large heart, you love him as your own. And yet - there's an unforgiven betrayal at the heart of your memories now, because Tom didn't have the courage to tell you while he was still alive."
"He was not lacking in courage," she said fiercely. "Tom Barkley was the bravest man I ever knew."
"He sought to spare you pain, then," Henry said. "He treated you like a child, instead of the strong, forgiving woman you are."
She found herself weeping. Henry put his arms around her, and she turned, put her face against his chest and cried as she had not cried for many years. She pulled herself together finally, sat upright and Henry offered her his handkerchief. She took it and wiped her eyes. "I'm sorry," she said. "I don't usually do that."
"I'm glad you could trust me enough to let yourself," Henry said, "and sorry if I caused you pain. But it seemed to be at the heart of your confusion, and I know you're not a child. There's nothing you can't face, dearest."
She almost wept again, but held herself in check. "I didn't realize until now, but I think you're right. I trusted Tom as I've never trusted anyone, and he betrayed me. And he's not here for me to confront - well, I thought I had forgiven him."
"For the infidelity, it seems, or you couldn't have loved Heath as you do, but perhaps you haven't forgiven him for his lack of faith in you. Which is a far worse betrayal, in my mind."
"Perhaps you're right." She took a deep breath. "But that is for me to cope with. It's not really your concern, although I do thank you for your insight."
"It's my concern if it keeps you from trusting me," he said. He rubbed his cheek, although the bruise was apparently long gone. "No wonder you slapped me - you must have felt profoundly threatened."
"Not by you, but by my feelings for you," she said. "They frightened me, and I'm only just beginning to understand why."
He touched her shoulder, moved his hand along it and up to her cheek. "Love is always an act of faith. One can never know if it's safe beforehand. The reward can be great, but so is the risk. I'm willing to risk it for you, even though all the signs are that you will break my heart, because no one can hold a candle to you. Are you willing to risk it for me?"
She stared into his face, into those sightless eyes that still saw so much. She stood upon the brink - did she dare? Risk everything - her heart, her freedom, her trust? This could be no casual love affair, she was certain. It was all or nothing with this man - just as it had been with Tom. She was no romantic - did not believe in perfection, knew that all broken hearts mended eventually - and yet still she hesitated. Her life was good the way it was - she had her family, her home, and yes, her money, to do with as she pleased. Did she really need anything else? And looking into his face, she realized that yes, she did. It was her heart that was telling her true, and not her fear. She put her hand to his cheek, reached up and kissed him. "Yes," she murmured. "I'll risk it."
He hesitated in surprise, then wrapped his arms around her and kissed her back. Months of pent-up emotions surged through his lips into hers like an electric current. She had not realized that so quiet a man could feel such passion. Still waters run deep. He broke off the kiss, ran his fingers over her face - cheeks, nose, brow, lips. "You are so beautiful, Victoria," he said.
"Am I? I'm old, my hair is silver - not the girl I once was."
He caressed her cheek, traced the line of her cheekbone. "No, not a girl, a fine, strong woman." He kissed her tenderly. "Just what I need and never hoped to find."
She put her arms around him and kissed him, long and heartily. His hands caressed her, exploring her body as they had explored her face, and she began to tremble. "No, Henry," she whispered. "Not yet - it's too soon."
"I'm sorry," he said, pulling back. "It's the only way I have of knowing what you look like."
"There'll be plenty of time for that, I promise." She rested her head on his chest. "So. What do we do now? Where are we? I never expected this - I made no plans for it."
"I believe it's customary to find out where one is going by courting," Henry said, smiling. "Even if we were ready, I couldn't ask you to marry me yet. I wouldn't ask you to leave your family to live with me, and I have to stay with the training progam until it can stand on its own. This attack has been a warning, I think, that it will soon be time to hand the reins over to someone younger, but I need another year, maybe two, before I can feel right about letting it go."
"Well, that's reasonable," she sighed. "Part of me is sorry, part of me is relieved. But of course it would be silly for you to give up your life's work just when it's reaching fruition. Not to mention unnecessary. I can wait."
"You don't have to just wait," he said, kissing her again. Waves of heat washed over her, and when his hands began to wander again, she did not stop him, but returned his caresses.
"So this is courting," she said at last, rearranging her disheveled clothing.
"Have things changed so much since you were young?" he asked, laughing.
"No," she smiled. "Tom was quite as eager. I guess I thought. . .you're so different. I expected the wooing to be different."
"We're both men. We both love you." He took her hand and kissed it. "I'm sure I'll be quoting poetry to you before long, but I've wanted this for months. Forgive me if I'm unable to completely contain myself."
"Nothing to forgive, dearest," she said. She clasped his hand and played with his fingers. "One thing's been bothering me, though."
"What is that?" he asked.
"Why only half a chess set?"
Henry threw back his head and laughed. "No reason," he said. "That's all I had time for. I'll give you the rest when I finish them."
She snuggled down next to him. "Oh good. I was afraid there was some sort of symbolism there. What sort of poetry?"
Henry smiled. "How about this?
"Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee."
Victoria sighed contentedly. "I think I know what my next Braille book will be," she smiled.