My soul is weary of my life;
I will leave my complaint upon myself;
I will speak in the bitterness of my soul.
They were lowering her husband's casket into the grave, and the only emotion Charlotte Bishop could manage was relief; relief diluted with just the slightest tincture of guilt perhaps, but relief nonetheless. She had protested at first when her mother-in-law insisted on the old-fashioned mourning garb, but now Charlotte was grateful for the long black veil covering her face. If she kept her eyes lowered and refused to meet anyone's gaze, perhaps she would be able to maintain the facade and earn her Widow Who is Still in Shock moniker. Thankfully, everyone seemed to think her lack of emotion since Emory's sudden death was evidence of a vast sea of grief.
The fall breeze wafted the scent of roses her way. Charlotte closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. The boy at her side reached up and took her hand. He squeezed. She squeezed back, turning her head just enough to be able to see the dark curls cascading from beneath his wool cap and over the collar of his dark suit. Her mother-in-law cleared her throat, and Charlotte looked down again, this time noticing the shoes. Will's were impossibly old-fashioned, as were the knickers he despised.
She continued looking around the circle of shoes ringing the grave and thought about how much could be revealed about a person just by their shoes. The Colonel's two ancient uncles had donned full dress for the occasion. Their military boots shone with new polish, but still looked dated beside Major Peyton Riley's. The proximity of Riley's dress boots to Mother Bishop rankled. Charlotte suspected he would come calling under the guise of comforting the grieving widow. Probably in less than a week. She had caught him leering at her from behind the hymnal in church. At the Colonel's funeral. How dare he.
Aunt Daisy's shoes weren't visible, but picturing them necessitated suppressing a smile. Charlotte had heard the shouts of agony earlier that morning as one of the servants helped Daisy cram her size-ten feet into the size-eight shoes she'd always worn to funerals "because I'm too old to be paying for special-occasion shoes." Aunt Daisy walked with a cane, so hobbling around in too-tight shoes fit the image.
Mother Bishop cleared her throat again. Charlotte started at the sound and realized the casket had landed and everyone was waiting. Taking a deep breath, she squeezed Will's hand. He squeezed back again and held out his rose, reminding her of what came next. Together, Charlotte and her son stepped forward. Together, they dropped their roses into the grave. Together, they stepped back. Charlotte bowed her head.
Good-bye, Colonel. I am supposed to be praying for your soul. Perhaps someday I shall. But not today. Today I can't seem to stop thinking you deserve a little time in hell for the things you've done.
* * *
"All I'm saying is" --- Aunt Daisy gestured with her butter knife --- "in my day children showed more respect for their elders." Charlotte's eyes followed the clump of butter on Daisy's knife as it plopped into a bowl of fresh blackberries, splattering dark juice onto the white linen breakfast cloth. In an effort to recover the butter, the elderly woman tipped her overfull teacup. Amber stains joined the deep blue ones around Daisy's place at the table.
"Please, Daisy," Ella Bishop snapped. "Between Will's pranks and your clumsiness, Edgar has just about had his fill. With all that has happened, we don't need him giving notice, too."
"Let him give notice," Daisy blustered. "In my day, people didn't allow themselves to be ruled by the help."
Mother Bishop sighed. "I'm doing my best to reestablish a peaceful home." Her voice trembled. She dabbed at the corner of each eye with her napkin. "Although heaven knows without Emory it's going to be a difficult task."
Charlotte shoved her napkin off her lap. She bent down to retrieve it instead of meeting Mother Bishop's gaze.
"I apologize if I sound harsh, Daisy. It's just that Edgar's been with us for years, and we don't want to lose him." She looked pointedly at the empty seat beside Charlotte. "I see we are once again off to a disorganized beginning to our day." She looked down her nose at Charlotte. "May I remind you, dear, that we agreed that Master Will would cease dawdling in the morning and join us for breakfast precisely at seven?"
Charlotte twisted the napkin in her lap while she formulated a reply.
"You do recall that conversation?" Mother Bishop intoned.
"Of course I do," Charlotte snapped. Mother Bishop's left eyebrow arched. Charlotte felt goose bumps rising on her arms. She touched the scar on her left wrist where the surgeon had operated to repair a broken bone. Just before Charlotte had "fallen," her husband had arched his left eyebrow exactly that way. Forcing herself to look into her mother-in-law's eyes, she replied, "I do remember, Mother Bishop. But Will had a headache when he woke this morning, and I told him to stay in bed."
A shriek from the kitchen caught everyone's attention. Will bolted like lightning from the butler's pantry, followed by the cook in hot pursuit, her cap askew, a rolling pin wielded like a sword.
Charlotte jumped up, but not before Garnet Irvin came to the top of the stairs, glided down to the landing, and intercepted Will. Small in stature but strong as a horse, Garnet wrapped one hand around the boy's shoulders. Charlotte saw her whisper something in his ear just before she let go. The cook paused to catch her breath. Will skittered up the stairs and escaped to his room at the far end of the expansive upper hall, slamming the door shut behind him.
Charlotte instinctively started to follow after him, but she sensed Mother Bishop's approach and turned around, grateful she was almost halfway up the stairs so the woman couldn't loom over her, as was her habit. Even so, her heart thumped when she saw the tightly pressed lips, the tilt of the head, the way the older woman's left hand clenched her walking stick. No one had ever been able to tell Charlotte why Mother Bishop required a walking stick, but she had an impressive collection of them. This morning, she was using the ebony one with the brass dragon head at the top. If it was going to be what Will called a "dragon-lady day," Charlotte was in for it. She backed up one step and put her hand on the railing, grateful when Garnet descended from the upstairs landing and stood behind her, close enough for Charlotte to feel her comforting presence.
"In my day, Charlotte," Mother Bishop said, her voice terrible in its studied self-control, "children were taught to be seen and not heard. My son would be appalled by the demonstration we've just witnessed. But even more disturbing would be the realization that the behavior was enabled by a lie told by the child's own mother." The gray hair piled atop Mother Bishop's head trembled as she punctuated the chastisement with a tap of the walking stick on the inlaid wood floor.
Charlotte looked down at the hem of Mother Bishop's black silk dress. Across the hall in the dining room, china clinked as Aunt Daisy continued her breakfast. Good old Aunt Daisy. Nothing ever came between her and a good meal. The doorbell rang. Cook retreated to her kitchen, muttering unhappily. Mother Bishop glared at the door and waited for Edgar.
Edgar opened the door, bowed, and announced the caller. With a warning glance up the stairs to where Charlotte stood gripping the handrail and trying to suppress a sense of overwhelming dread, Mother Bishop advanced toward the entryway, her hand extended, her genteel-lady-of-the-manor expression easing into her version of a welcoming smile.
"Major Riley," she purred, "what a delightful surprise."
November 3, 1889
Detroit City, Michigan
I received a letter from Dinah only yesterday, and she seems to be thriving in Philadelphia. It doesn't seem so long ago that I heard you lament the fact that the family tradition in medicine was destined to end with your generation and the birth of two girls. And now we have Dinah planning to seek admission to medical school as soon as she is old enough. Who would have thought that my little sister the tomboy would brave a world only recently opened to women. I, for one, am proud of her, and I hope you share that sentiment. Miss James says Dinah is applying herself well in all her studies. Aunt Hazel seems pleased with Dinah as a houseguest. Our little girl certainly has a bright future ahead.
Will and I have not been quite so fortunate in our adjustment to life without the Colonel. Of course his death was a shock. The jump was low, and how he came unseated I will never understand. It is even harder to comprehend that such a minor spill could kill a man. There are days when I wake and almost convince myself it was all a dream, and a silly one at that. But then I look around at my little room and I am forced to accept reality. Moving into the manse permanently has proven to be very different from when we used to stay here for holidays or when the Colonel was on leave. There is little more to say appropriate for my pen.
Papa dearest, I well remember what a challenge I was to you in the past. In the summer of 1879 when you said good-bye to Mama and Dinah and me, I know you were relieved to have me away from Fort Robinson. Since then I have done my best to learn from my mistakes and to become someone of whom you might be proud.
Charlotte's hand trembled. She raised the pen from the paper, but not before leaving a smudge. "Blast," she muttered. Looking up from her writing desk, she was struck once again by the recent change in the view from her bedroom window. The Colonel and she had once occupied nearly an entire wing of the house whenever they came to stay. From their sitting room, they had enjoyed a view of the distant hills forested with oak and pine trees through which ran a stream that shone like a silver ribbon at daybreak. The day after the Colonel's funeral, Mother Bishop had instructed the servants to close off that wing of the house and move Charlotte's things into the small room next to Will's.
"It will be better for the boy's adjustment to have you nearby, don't you think," Mother had asked, in the tone of voice that was not a question.
Seated at the tiny desk she had positioned in front of the only window in her new room, Charlotte looked out on the stone courtyard between the back of the house and the stables. On a clear day, she could still see the hills in the distance if she leaned far enough out the window. Today, a gray mist obscured the view of anything beyond the stables and the groundkeeper's residence. For the first time, Charlotte realized the groundkeeper probably had more space of his own than both she and Will combined. She leaned her head on her hand, thinking back to the days when she used to complain about having to share a room with Dinah.
"Why do we always have to share?"
"Will we ever get to live in a real house?"
"Nothing ever happens here."
"When I grow up, I'm leaving Fort Robinson and I'm never coming back!"
Watching the rain wash over the stone courtyard at the back of Bishop House, Charlotte sighed. Fort Robinson was certainly a far cry from this. Built on a broad valley between the White River and a ridge of high bluffs way out in western Nebraska, the fort had been little more than a collection of canvas tents that first winter when Charlotte's father reported for duty. Even when the family finally joined him the next year, Fort Robinson hadn't been much. But it grew. It had been named regimental headquarters for the Ninth Cavalry with hundreds of soldiers stationed there now --- most of them the black troops called "buffalo soldiers." Father had explained the moniker, which had evidently come via the Cheyenne and had something to do with the men's thick, curly hair and what the Indians thought was its resemblance to the fur between a buffalo's horns.
Father practiced medicine in a brick hospital now. He even had his own house. And they were building a new set of officers' quarters and more barracks around a larger parade ground to the west of the one Charlotte remembered. The railroad had arrived, and a town had sprouted up nearby.
Papa was alone now. Charlotte's mother had died only last year. Colonel Bishop hadn't allowed her and Will to travel west to the funeral. Charlotte pictured the Fort Robinson cemetery. Papa said it was fenced now and had neat rows of gravestones. He assured her that he had ordered a fine one for Mama.
Winter lay ahead, bleak and frigid in Nebraska until spring when the vast prairie would be alive with wild flowers, bursting with color. Charlotte remembered how she and Dinah had delighted in gathering them by the armfuls, adorning the dining table at home and even the men's mess hall tables, making bracelets and garlands, once even scattering petals across the front steps when Sergeant Nathan Boone came to dinner. Nathan Boone. Charlotte's cheeks still colored with embarrassment when she thought about her adolescent flirtations with the handsome widower. He'd been gone from Fort Robinson for years now. Papa had written news of him once, saying Sergeant Boone had been promoted to lieutenant.
Looking out through the raindrops clattering against her window, Charlotte also remembered the seas of mud that were part of every spring at Fort Robinson. Battles with mud usually subsided just in time for the hot summer wind to layer every flat surface with dust. When the wind died down, the air grew heavy with the oppressive odor of stable manure and outhouses. In spring everyone rushed to get gardens planted and then spent the summer hauling water to coax life into seedlings and transplanted trees, longing for shade in a land where a person could see the heat rising from the earth come July. "Fort Robinson," Charlotte's mother used to say, "is not the end of the earth, but you can see it from there."
Charlotte picked up her pen, wiped off the nib, and dipping it back in the inkpot, she brought her letter to a close.
Please, Papa, I am begging you. Please may I come home?
Always your devoted and loving daughter,
Charlotte Mae Valentine Bishop
Excerpted from WATCHERS ON THE HILL © Copyright 2004 by Stephanie Grace Whitson. Reprinted with permission by Bethany House. All rights reserved.