They climbed the gangplank to the steamboat, the three Charter sisters. As the eldest, Vernelia led them, followed by Amy, and finally Kate, the youngest at sixteen. The plank was wet but someone had thrown a layer of grist onto it so that feet could find purchase in the climb.
In the middle, halfway between land and lake and part of neither, Kate stopped and turned for a final look at the town of Geneva.
The wharf and streets teemed with people, more than the girls had ever seen gathered in a single place, even on the commons in Boston on the Fourth of July. Certainly all of the people below had not come down the Cayuga & Seneca Canal with the girls, their father and stepmother: No canal boat could have held so many. Even the steamboat that would carry them to the southern tip of Seneca Lake could not have held this many.
Spencer coats and shawl collars bumped up against buckskins, carriage dresses, cloaks, and bustles; polished beaver and stovepipe hats, gipsys, capotes, and lace cornettes flowed around bales and boxes, wagons and valises. The girls’s journey across the wharf had been a clumsy, dodging stumble behind their father and stepmother; yet from the higher vantage there was a liquidity of purpose, as pockets of activity swirled like eddies in the bend of some greater human river. They had spent but a day in this town, knew nothing of its secrets, but Kate was compelled to unriddle the place in a final glance, and she might have done if Amy hadn’t grabbed hold of her from above and hissed, “Kate, you’re holding everyone up!”
Indeed, below her everyone was staring, and reluctantly she continued her climb.
Vern had already stepped off. Amy reached the top, then clumsily descended as if she might topple; but a hand caught her elbow and steadied her.
A young gentleman in a sharp blue coat stood on deck and, taking Kate’s hand, helped her climb down on three boxes. “Mademoiselle,” he said. “Welcome aboard the Fidelio, the finest steamboat in New York State.” He couldn’t have been much older than Vern—nineteen or twenty perhaps, and his French accent was not very believable. He had a little strip of a mustache on his lip that looked more like a line of ash than hair, but Kate was too polite to let her opinion show. She smiled demurely and thanked him for his assistance, calling him “Monsieur.”
He bowed, the gallant knight, and answered, “Charity never faileth.” Amy stood tugging at her green wool pelisse, but she looked up from beneath her bonnet and blushed as he spoke, as if the comment had been directed at her. Then she said, “Come now, sister,” and took Kate by the elbow. The young man had already returned to his duty at the head of the gangplank.
It was the early spring of 1843, and much of New England was on the move. People headed west in droves, into new territories, some running to keep ahead of civilization, others intending to drag civilization into the wilderness. Still others had been swept up in one or more of the religious frenzies that had burned across New York State, one upon the other, for over half a century—one of which had dislocated the lives of the Charter sisters.
The two girls meandered across the deck, past bales of cotton and wool, and trunks and bags toted by servants, and families gathered around their belongings, and even at one point three men kneeling in an open passage and playing at dice. Amy averted her eyes but Kate watched shamelessly until she was pulled away. “It’s not ladylike to stare that way,” Amy instructed.
“Just wait till I tell Vern.”
By then they had spotted their elder sister. She stood beside their father and stepmother just ahead, at the rail. Mr. Charter stared out across the lake at the crisp blue sky.
Vern saw her sisters and called out, “I swear I cannot turn my back a moment. If you two should ever get lost, what would I do?”
Lavinia, their stepmother, pushed forward like some blackgarbed ghoul, blocked Vern with her body, and spoke over the girl’s words: “Young ladies do not mill about! How is it that from dockside to ship you could not keep up with your own kin?”
Vern stared daggers at the back of Lavinia’s head but said nothing, leaving it to Amy to account for herself; but the middle sister had never been able to express what she felt to her stepmother, and barely to her older sister, who had acted as mother to the two younger girls for most of the past six years.
In the silence into which no one could insert a response, their father turned finally from the rail. His heavy-lidded eyes expressed a rooted weariness until his gaze settled upon his three girls, and then his face composed a smile, though the eyes somehow did not participate—eyes that had borne such iniquities, such calamities, as the girls had no appreciation for.
Mr. Charter had lost his savings in the financial panic of ’37, and it was Lavinia’s money which now, six years later, kept the family afloat. Lavinia was paying for their relocation to Jekyll’s Glen from Boston. Lavinia had secured Mr. Charter’s new position. When the girls married, it would be up to Lavinia to provide them with a dowry. They didn’t believe she ever would, just as they had come to accept, in traveling here, that they were probably never going to marry. Nevertheless, the girls maintained a polite if chilly truce with this stepmother none of them had ever desired.
If Lavinia had made their father happy, they might have rejoiced, or at least accepted her. Instead, she had stolen him from them as surely as if she’d replaced him with a changeling. It was Lavinia who had led Mr. Charter to the tent of Elias Fitcher, where his brain began to burn with the twin lights of judgment and salvation. It was she who had brought the end of the world into their house. And it was she who, by manipulating their father, now brought their household to the end of the world.
* * *
The three girls leaned on the rail and watched the blue waters of the lake slide swiftly by. The shoreline moved slower at a distance. The smell of pine rode the blustery wind across Seneca Lake from the trees that hemmed it in all around. The hills above had been cleared for farming, and even now tiny figures were visible there, though the ground couldn’t be much past spring thaw.
Beneath their feet the deck thrummed with the chugging engine, vibrating up their legs. Behind them various people strolled the boards, and snippets of conversations flitted by.
“A sick philosopher is incurable—”
“I hear’ed news of a gold strike a’way out west in Ohio.”
“And will you be goin’ there yourself?”
“He is among us even now, I tell you. Cast about you…”
“Landed gentry? Why, how can we be when we’re on water here.”
Sometimes they glanced back, if the voice was pleasant and sounded young enough that a handsome man might be at the end of it. Often they played a game of imagining who they would marry, how life would be, how many perfect children they would bear. “It has to be a tall man,” Amy would say. “He must be clean, too, well groomed,” Kate would throw in. Then they’d both look at Vern until she put in something of her own: “And we’ll have six children, all girls.” From there they would refine the description, change the number of children or detail the color of the phantom husband’s hair, or else pick a city to live in and describe the house they would manage. They had played the game back home in Boston and to pass the time on the slow canal boats that had brought them across the state to Geneva, and the lake, and their advancing destination. Their fancies flew in the face of the very reason for their journey, which made the need to pretend all the more poignant.
Then abruptly as the Fidelio crossed the middle of the lake, the breeze blew colder, as if they had passed into some deep moist cavern of air. The two oldest girls stood in the partial shadow of the pilothouse and stack, and they drew their cloaks and shawls tighter around their shoulders. All three trembled for a moment, glanced at each other to see if the sensation was shared, and discovering that it was, traded their uneasiness. Then, as if each had heard her name called, they turned slowly about.
A man stood a few feet away, considering them. The girls squinted and shielded their eyes to see him, but he’d chosen to stand so that the morning sun seemed to ride upon his shoulder. Its rays flared across him, blinding them to all but his general shape.
He wore a long gray coat, and a white cravat. He was tall and rail-thin, and his hands at his sides curled and uncurled slowly. Beyond that the girls couldn’t make out more than the shadows of his features.
While she shaded her eyes, Vern said, “Sir, is there something you wish of us?”
Vern’s stance spoke more defiance than her tone, while Amy, true to her nature, blushed and glanced down at her feet. The two of them held hands in mutual support. The wind blew Kate’s fair hair into her eyes. She tucked it back under her silk bonnet and continued to squint at the interloper.
“Oh, no, young miss, not the slightest.” His voice was dark and smooth as syrup, delicious, as if Kate could taste it. “But you are all such beautiful creatures, aren’t you, that one has to stop and take you in. I simply cannot help myself, as what man could? You must pardon me.” He bowed, and this afforded Kate a momentary glimpse below the dazzle of the sun, of a long, severe face and blue eyes as cold as stars. He continued. “Pardon me as I have beheld the fruit of the garden and found it delectable. But is it wise for three such as yourselves to travel into this undiscovered country unchaperoned?”
“Our…father,” Vern began, “is just across there.”
The stranger did not turn his head to where she pointed, but asked, “You are none of you married, then? Are the men of this world so blind?”
Now Vern blushed.
“I will see you again, I hope. In this life surely before the next.” He bowed slightly again, then turned and walked off.
They watched him weave through the crowd, and it wasn’t until he was out of sight around the far side of the pilothouse that they found the sense to react. Amy pleaded, “Kate, let us move down so that we’re in the sunlight with you. We’re freezing.” They shuffled along toward the nose of the boat, clinging to the rail as if they couldn’t stand without it. The sunlight was reinvigorating.
“Who was he?” Kate asked.
“He was dreadfully forward,” replied Amy, “whoever he was.”
“I think I’ve never met anyone like that in my life,” said Vern, and the tone of her comment—as if made in private—caused her sisters to glance her way in alarm, for she sounded as if she had enjoyed him. She laughed when she saw their looks. “You don’t know, my dears, but you will one day, what it is that we women need in men.”
Amy stood dumb, uncomprehending.
Kate shook her head, dismissing the avowal in a gesture. She focused her attention across the deck, after the stranger.
She had acted her eldest sister’s confidante many times—a role that Amy was ill-equipped to handle—and she was fully informed of Vern’s notions of womanhood, of sundry insubstantial claims, but mostly of Vern’s one great indiscretion, after which the pretense of sagacity had given way to blind panic until, after some delay, Vern’s monthly flow had arrived. She loved her eldest sister dearly, but found the wisdom dispensed on the strength of one hasty and ill-chosen congress most absurd. Who was she acting the queen for then—Amy? Still, there had been about the stranger something beguiling, Kate admitted. His voice had shaken her as well.
She determined that she wanted a better look at him. She excused herself then and headed for the pilothouse. Vern called after her but Kate didn’t acknowledge that she heard. She pushed past men and women in their travel clothes, saw her stepmother look up and nearly catch her eye, and ducked her head and drove quickly through the crush, into pockets of odor, of bodies that had traveled long in the same clothes, of cigars, of pine tar, of water-soaked wood, past the moist spray and hiss of the turning wheel. She came up for air far enough away that Lavinia would not see her, then strolled ahead with purpose. She could not find him. Then, as she approached the back of the pilothouse and stepped through a gap between two crates, she brushed up against the young man who had helped her onto the boat deck.
He regarded her with shy amusement, head turned slightly down as if he knew he’d been forward earlier and now must account for himself. But Kate didn’t care about that. “You—why, you helped everyone on board today, did you not?”
It certainly wasn’t the question he’d expected, or perhaps hoped for, and he hesitated a moment before answering almost in defense, “It’s my job.”
“No, I mean—there’s a man on board here who has accosted my sisters and myself, but now I can’t find him.”
“Oh, well,” he said, and puffed up, “I am the person you need. I know ’em all.”
“You’ve lost your French,” she replied, a small tease, then went on to describe the man in gray.
She’d hardly begun when the young steward said, “Why, I know him, sure. He’s over this a’way.” He led her through the throng. “There you go,” he said, and pointed.
The man stood with one foot up on the lower rail, at the stern of the boat, the tail of his coat hanging straight to his knee, and as if sensing their interest glanced over his shoulder at them. He was not so tall nor as thin, and sported a short red beard.
“Ma’am?” he asked, and the voice was one she’d never heard.
“No,” she told her guide, “that isn’t he. This man was much taller, thin as a sapling, and his eyes…” She could not find words to describe them. “He’d a wide white cravat at his throat, like a preacher might.”
“Oh.” He scratched his head, then pushed back his cap. “No, I surely don’t recollect such a gentleman, and the way you set him, I think I surely would.”
“I’m sorry. But, that is, I might not have seen everyone who boarded?” He smiled sheepishly. “I did sort of concentrate my efforts on you ladies.”
She couldn’t help but laugh. He was very sweet. “Thank you for your kindness, sir,” she told him, and he tipped his cap and returned, fairly glowing, to his work.
Kate circled the rest of the way around the pilothouse. She scanned this way and that but saw no one resembling her stranger, and by the time she reached her sisters again she had concluded in some ineffable way that the man in gray had never been among them at all.
Copyright © 2002 by Gregory Frost