The entire first floor of the large stone house had become a hive of swarming bodies. With glasses of pink lemonade in hand and dressed to the nines in long gowns, beaded shifts, and formal tuxedos, the guests bumbled out from the formal drawing room onto the wide veranda in clusters of three or four, buzzing with fresh gossip as they went. As Beth pushed through the crowd it seemed that everyone who was anyone in Toronto society had arrived in high energy, boisterous greetings, arms reaching for polite hugs, and hands presenting unnecessary going away gifts. Father’s more-than-ample home was quickly becoming stifling, though every window was thrown wide. But there was not a whisper of a breeze to lift the overpowering scent of Mother’s lavish floral bouquets on this late-summer night.
For one with a gentle spirit and acute sensitivity, it was overwhelming. Beth felt she would smother if she were not allowed some space—some quiet, some fresh air—if only for a few minutes, until she was able to calm her heartbeat and ease the pulsing in her temples. If only she could slip away.
Then opportunity presented itself. Mr. Woodworth, a leading light in Canada’s railroad industry, captured the crowd’s attention. One hand on the grand piano as though to introduce an upcoming performance, the other waving in dramatic flourish, he began to spin one of his legendary tales. And with the crowd’s eyes fastened on him, Beth was able to duck into the hallway unnoticed and find a place to catch her breath before she must face them all again.
Mother, in her enthusiasm, must have invited everyone they knew from the past and the present. But Mother had always taken advantage of any excuse for a party, and she was known among her peers as excelling in the art of the hostess. At least she hasn’t insisted on chaperoning party games on the veranda tonight. Beth’s habit of counting small blessings couldn’t help but bring a smile to her lips. She was glad that even in her current agitation, she was able to see some humor. As her father reminded her on occasion, “A sense of humor is a requisite to surviving in our demanding world.”
Beth took the final steps through a narrow door into her little haven of safety and solitude between the servants’ stairway and the door into the yard. Leaning close to a small open window, she noted the scent of fresh-mown grass and the peaceful chirping of crickets under the porch steps, and gazed up at the moon climbing its way over the trees. This was exactly what she needed. If her absence could go undetected for a short while, she would survive.
“She means well,” Father murmured behind her shoulder.
Before turning to face him, Beth’s response was a disheartened sigh. “Yes, I suppose she does.”
Beth was not surprised that her father had noticed her slip out from the crowd of well-wishers. He knew Mother’s social events often stretched Beth beyond her personal sense of ease. The number of guests, the elegant attire, the fussy refreshments, and the endless and overly loud conversations seemed to Beth to be shallow, superficial.
“It’s just that I’d told her I wanted afamily dinner on my last night at home.”
“Yes, I know, my dear.”
In the sweet, close silence, Beth leaned her head against her father’s shoulder and attempted to sort through her thoughts aloud. “I’m not afraid of going away. I’ll just miss you all so much.” She thought of her sister’s baby, asleep upstairs. “And JW—how much will he have grown by the time I see him again?”
She could hear the smile in her father’s voice when he said, “Babies do grow up, Beth. It’s usually considered a marvelous thing.”
She raised her gaze to his. “Not when you’re the auntie who isn’t around to see it.” The pouty tone in her voice did not make Beth proud, but since only Father could hear, she gave in to the emotions of the moment. Her throat began to tighten and tears welled in her eyes.
Footsteps in the short hall brought Beth upright and quickly wiping her eyes. Father stepped aside in order to allow Emma to pass, but the young domestic paused at the bottom of the stairs, the basket she was carrying balanced on her hip.
“They’re looking for you, Miss Beth,” Emma cautioned under her breath.
“Thank you, Emma.” Beth drew herself up and did a quick check of her appearance, smoothing the lace collar of her dress, adjusting the wide silk band around her hips, and pinching her cheeks just a little for some color. She noticed Father smiling down at her and reached up to straighten his black bow tie.
His grin widened. “Do I pass inspection?”
“Always.” Beth pulled her shoulders back, gave him an appreciative smile, and forced herself back toward the laughter and voices in the crowded drawing room. The moment she appeared in the doorway she knew she had been spotted.
“There she is! The woman of the hour! Our daring adventurer . . .” And on and on the voices filled the air around her.
“Come here, Beth dear. Miss Thompson would like to hear about the town in which you plan to teach.”
“Yes, darling. Tell us all about your new school.”
Beth could not prevent her deep sigh. She hoped no one noticed. The truth was, she knew so little—well, practically nothing—about the new town or new school. That very fact caused much of the unsettled feeling in the pit of her stomach. The interrogation by those who crowded close, begging for details, pushed her distress even higher. In spite of it all, Beth knew she must respond in some way to the avalanche of questions she had grown painfully tired of hearing. Perhaps it wasn’t the repetitious answers that she had come to dread. More likely it was the familiar comments and quips that were sure to follow, particularly from the younger crowd with whom Beth had shared her growing-up years.
“But, Beth, you do know they haven’t any servant girls in the western wilds, don’t you?”
“Can you even cook for yourself?”
“Or boil water for tea?” More titters.
“And who will do your laundry?” This was always followed by a ripple of laughter. But she attempted to join in with the gaiety, hoping to deflect further jibes.
Edward Montclair, poised and impeccably garbed in full evening attire, pushed a wayward mop of dark hair from his eyes and grinned. “Better get yourself a pair of those Levi work pants, Elizabeth—you know you can’t wear your fancy dresses among those mountain miners.”
Beth tried to hold on to her smile. Edward had been inserting himself into her conversations for all the years they had grown up together. She wished his whole family would just move away so she would never see him again, even if it damaged Father’s business dealings with Mr. Montclair. And then a new thought emerged. She was leavingEdward behind! The revelation brought a genuine smile, but the conversation had continued on around her.
“I heard they don’t even bother to learn English! How can you possibly be expected to teach their children?”
Another young man, conveying a self-proclaimed knowledge of any subject at hand, sagely added, “That’s true. Most of the men who work in the mining towns are foreigners. You know, just here to make money off our land for their families back home. Sometimes they leave a wife behind and take another here in Canada.”
Gasps followed his pronouncement.
Not everyone in the group was as quick to pass judgment, but it seemed to Beth that those who were the most disparaging had the most to say. Mercifully, Father extended a teacup to her, and Beth accepted it gratefully.
Truth be told, Beth had little interest in either the tea or Mother’s fancy sandwiches and pastries, but it did give her an excuse to gradually pull away from the circle around her and, with nods and smiles, work her way toward the laden tables. She purposefully gave the spread her full attention as she carefully chose from the fruit and vegetable trays, taking also two small crackers with her favorite cheese and a rosemary-cucumber garnish.
She had not been nibbling at her selections long when, as if on cue, her sister Julie stepped to the center of the room, waved an arm high, and called for everyone’s attention. “Dear friends, a moment of your time, please.” The conversations around them quickly faded. Julie turned dramatically, the pale green beaded fringe on her skirt whirling around her as she called out, “I know all of you are enjoying the refreshments that Mother has provided this evening.” She waited just long enough to allow a respectful patter of applause. Then another graceful turn and a sweeping arm in Beth’s direction. “And I hope you’ve all had a chance to converse with our guest of honor—dear Bethie—who shall be leaving us tomorrow on a train for the West.”
Beth tried not to squirm, and instead smiled around the room. It was already getting late, with no end in sight for the festivities. Her train was scheduled to leave at ten o’clock the next morning, and she still had some final things to pack.
Julie continued, “I’ve been asked to explain that my sister has a great need for a good night’s rest before embarking on such a journey. Reverend Collins has graciously offered to bless her travels with prayer, and then Beth will be retiring for the night.” There was a collective murmur, then scattered nods of understanding. “But,” Julie added, “you’re all welcome to stay as long as you wish. There’s so much more to eat. We need your help with that.” This was met with laughter and nods, particularly from the row of young men toward whom Julie bestowed one of her coquettish smiles.
Reverend Collins stepped forward. Feet shuffled and all heads bowed.
Beth heard little of his prayer. She was occupied with one of her own. Thank you, thank you, God was all she could think of, and then added, And bless Father for managing it, overwhelmed by her unexpected emancipation earlier than expected, which she was certain he had engineered.
Even with her sister’s announcement, it took almost half an hour for Beth to extract herself gracefully from all the well-wishers. When she finally slipped up the stairs, the list of last-minute things to do was spinning round and round in her mind. She pulled off the uncomfortable shoes—“to go with your lovely frock,” her mother had insisted—and relished the feel of thick carpet under her tired feet. But as she hurried down the long hall, she could not resist a last visit into the nursery and a peek at JW.
As she tiptoed in, to her surprise she discovered the sweet-tempered baby was not asleep. He was lying quietly in the same crib that she and sisters Margret and Julie had used as babies. “Just for the times he will visit,” Mother explained as she created a new nursery for this grandson. And, of course, for all of the brothers, sisters, and cousins she hoped would eventually follow.
In the moonlight Beth watched the baby’s face light up in a smile of pleasure at seeing a beloved auntie appear above him. “Hi, darling.” Casting a guilty glance over her shoulder, she scooped him up and moved to the rocking chair, ignoring the tears that started to slide down her cheeks. “And how is the nicest baby in the whole world tonight?” she crooned with a catch in her voice, settling back to rock with him for a while.
The sounds of guests were still drifting up from below when at last she pulled the door closed on the nursery and moved on to her own room, leaving the sleeping baby tucked among the soft blankets of his crib. Her mind was quiet enough now to sort through the remaining few items to fold and place in her suitcase. She tucked her Bible in last and checked to see that the suitcase would still shut.
How will I ever be able to carry it? she wondered, marveling that it could be so heavy when there were two additional trunks already packed and strapped to the back of Father’s Rolls-Royce. She got ready for bed, took down her hair, and brushed it out. So many of the young ladies she knew were cutting their hair short in the modern style, but she and Julie had not been allowed to do so. Mother was distrustful of the current fashion trends. Even their dresses were always a few inches longer than most of their friends. That was fine with Beth, but Julie found it nearly impossible to bear. So much so that Beth suspected when she returned she would find her younger sister had won the battle, bobbing her hair and shortening her skirts. The thought brought a small grin. How often had Julie been stifled with Mother’s answer, “But Beth doesn’t have any trouble with our rules.”
And Julie would always retort, “Oh, yes she does! She just doesn’t say so!”
As if knowing that Beth’s thoughts had wandered in her direction, a quiet knock was followed by Julie’s whisper at the door. “Bethie, you awake?”
“Come in, darling.”
Julie entered, already in nightgown and robe. “Can I sleep in here—one last time?”
“Yes, but it’s not the last time, silly. This trip won’t last forever. You know the position they offered is only for one year.”
Julie drew off her robe and threw herself into the thick feather bed and under the blankets. “I hope you’re right,” she mused. “But what if you meet some fine young man—a shopkeeper, perhaps?” She sat up, eyes wide. “Surely there are businessmen even in the West. And then you’ll marry and settle down. You’ll never come back if that happens.”
“The trains travel in both directions, dear. It’s not so isolated as it used to be. Please, don’t be so dramatic.”
“Hmph,” Julie answered, throwing herself back onto the pillow.
“I’m surprised at you, Julie.” There was a wink in Beth’s voice, and she turned to look over her shoulder at her sister. “You haven’t once suggested what I thought you would.”
Julie’s head popped up above the covers. “What’s that?”
Beth laid aside her hairbrush and rose to switch off the electric light.
“What do you mean?” Julie coaxed as Beth slid into the bed.
“Well . . . I would have thought—because you’re such a daring adventurer yourself—that you already would have asked Father to be allowed to—’’
“Come visit you!” Julie scrambled upright again and clasped her hands together in delight.
“He might say yes.”
“Not Mother. She would never allow it.”
Beth moved closer, fluffing her pillow beneath her head and snuggling down into the warmth. “She might. After all, I would already be there—and she knows I’m able to restrain most of your foolish notions.”
“Hmph” was Julie’s answer once again, but she joined in with Beth’s chuckle and cozied down among the blankets. “You might be right. And anyway, it’s worth a try.”
As the grandfather clock in the hall called out periodic warnings of how quickly the night was slipping away, Beth and Julie whispered on in the darkness, forging plans and making promises.
Beth slid out of bed so as not to awaken Julie, then scrambled for her list, written in careful hand and laid beside her brush the night before. She skimmed it quickly, bathed, dressed, and pinned up her long tresses with Emma’s assistance, then hastened downstairs for breakfast. Margret and John had spent the night at the family home but would not be driving with the rest of them to the train station. So Beth held on to baby JW, her elder sister’s little John William, until the last possible moment before releasing him into his father’s arms and hugging Margret good-bye.
“Be careful, Beth.” Then Margret forced a rather strained smile, cupped Beth’s face in her hands so she could look deeply into her eyes, and corrected herself softly. “No, I already know you will be careful. So, little sister, I’ll tell you to bebrave instead.”
Beth’s tears spilled out, and she circled her sister’s shoulders in a long embrace. “I love you, Margret,” she whispered. “Take good care of baby JW for me,” she added with a wobbly smile.
Father was propelling them all out the door before Beth felt she truly was ready. She waved back toward her home and the little group watching from the open doorway, then ducked into the sleek automobile. Julie slipped in beside her, followed by her mother, and then her father settled into the jump seat. He nodded toward their driver, and the car rolled forward. Beth strained around for a last look out the back window.
This would not be the first time she had traveled on the train. Grandmama and Grandpapa lived in a neighboring city, so she had been on several short family excursions for visits with them. And sometimes there were concerts or operas or lectures in nearby towns that Father felt merited a train ride.
But for the most part Beth had done little in the way of travel—and never unchaperoned. Even at a time when long summer vacations in the United States or even Europe were commonplace for many of those in their social circle, her family had remained at home. Now Beth wished she were more familiar with the larger world—beyond the bits and pieces of knowledge she had gained from books.
But Father, whose business it was to travel—who had spent a great deal of Beth’s childhood away at sea building a notable import company—had taken care of everything. Nothing was left for Beth to manage but the cumbersome suitcase and the heartrending good-byes. With Mother’s careful planning, there was even time to sit in the station café to share a cup of tea before the first whistle announced Beth’s approaching departure.
On the platform, Father was the first to draw Beth aside and pull her close. He said, his voice low, “I won’t say much. I won’t be able.” He cleared his throat. “But I do want to give you this.” Drawing something from his overcoat pocket, Father produced a small brass piece.
Beth gasped. “Oh, I can’t, Father,” she said, her hand over her mouth.
“Please,” he insisted. “I want you to have it. I know you’ve always loved it.” That was true. Father’s compass had been special to Beth since she was a little girl, enamored by anything that had to do with her father’s work at sea—but this object more than any other was her delight. And it had been a symbol to them both of his love and guidance to his daughter.
Then her father added huskily, “So you will always be able to find your way home.”
Beth couldn’t breathe.
He cleared his throat again. “I wrote a Bible verse on a slip of paper inside. Don’t forget its words, Beth. They are absolutely true, and especially for you as you begin this . . .” But he couldn’t finish.
She threw her arms around his neck and struggled not to weep. When she felt a hand touch her back, Beth turned toward her mother and another painful good-bye.
“It’s so hard to let you go, darling,” her mother said, obviously doing her best to keep her voice steady. “Do try to get your rest, dear. And remember to take your Scott’s Emulsion daily. I worry so about your constitution being strong enough for this endeavor. And I shall be praying each day—you know that.”
How fully Beth knew that to be true. “I love you, Mother,” she told her, embracing her tightly.
“Yes, dear. I love you too.” Beth leaned back and saw rare tears forming in her mother’s eyes.
“Don’t forget, my darling, I shall want to know all about everything, and I will watch rather impatiently for each of your letters,” her mother added.
“I’m sorry, Priscilla, but it’s time,” Father prompted solemnly. “We need to let Beth get on her way.”
Mother’s expression betrayed a pitiful sorrow. “It’s just for a year, I know. Yet that seems ever so long just now.” She dabbed at her eyes with a lace hankie, kissing Beth’s cheek one last time.
Then Julie pushed forward and flung her arms around Beth. “I’ll miss you! I’ll miss you so much!”
Emotions were threatening to overwhelm Beth now. She buried her face against Julie’s shoulder.
After a moment Father interrupted. “Come, Beth. The train is just about to pull out.”
Then everything happened at once. A porter took Beth’s case, and she turned to follow as directed. She climbed the steps into the train’s vestibule and, stopping to wave just once more to her beloved family, she turned the corner and entered the confining hallway. The porter had already disappeared around a bend not far ahead, and Beth hurried to catch up.
The man ushered her to a private sleeping compartment, and motioning toward each of its amenities, he explained their use. However, Beth was not in a state to understand a word of what he was saying, staring around her blankly. She finally moved to the window and drew back the thick velvet curtain, only to find she was looking out on the wrong side of the train to catch one more glimpse of her family, finding instead the looming windows of another motionless train.
Dutifully, Beth turned back to the porter and pulled out the coins Father had given her for a tip. The man doffed his funny little hat and pulled the door closed behind him.
She had never felt so alone.
The many stops at towns large and small along the way would have provided some diversion, but Beth dared not disembark even for a short walk for fear of not being safely on board again before the iron beast, spitting steam in a most forceful manner, glided away.
The dining car was an elegant restaurant on wheels, though she wondered what she could possibly eat without further upsetting her fluttering stomach. The constant clatter of the wheels on the tracks, along with the motion from side to side, left her feeling slightly queasy much of the time. Surveying the menu, Beth quickly ruled out trying to spoon soup to her mouth without a disaster on her clothing or the tablecloth. Instead, she chose some tea along with a pastry roll and tore off little bites as she half listened to the amiable chatter of two women at a table directly behind her. Their cheerful voices served only to increase her loneliness. If only she were sharing the table with her own family.
Forlorn, Beth allowed her gaze to take in the rest of the passengers. What type of fellow travelers would journey so far? Clearly this car would cater only to the wealthy heading west. Others who were less affluent would eat sack lunches while sitting in the humbler seats of their passenger cars. Beth frowned at the familiar guilt of being surrounded by luxury when she knew others were not given such privileges.
To her left was a table where one lone, suited gentleman dined. Beth noted his rumpled jacket and dusty shoes, a clear contrast to the refined air of the man himself. Beth suspected that he might have been having a difficult time traveling too—that he was out of his familiar element. It made her wonder if others around could perceive as clearly that she felt entirely out of place and alone.
At the table in front of her was a young woman with two children. One little boy was sitting quietly, though he appeared rather sullen. The second was a bundle of energy, driving his mother to distraction. Just as she would reprimand him for one action, he would think of something equally mischievous to take up. In just the few moments that Beth observed their table, he had knocked over the crystal salt shaker, dipped his linen napkin into his water glass, and kicked at the wall repeatedly, leaving several scuff marks on the paneled wood. Edward was just like that when he was the same age, mused Beth, then found herself blushing for such a judgmental attitude.
Earlier in the summer she had heard a rumor that Edward Montclair’s father had given him an ultimatum in hopes of encouraging him to take life more seriously and to assume some responsibility for his own livelihood—join the Mounted Police or sign on to one of the many ships owned by his father’s company—and not in a position of importance either, but as a regular lowly sailor. Beth was not surprised to hear that Edward had chosen the force, though she had rolled her eyes and gossiped to Julie, “I’m amazed they were willing to take him.” She blushed now, remembering the less-than-gracious words, and silently wished him well wherever he might find himself employed.
Her thoughts returned to the young mother and her tired face. She does have her hands full. For a moment Beth considered asking if she could be of assistance in any way, but quickly convinced herself that her offer would be more embarrassing than helpful.
The couple seated across from the little family listened to the ruckus with rather stern faces. Beth could tell by their stiff postures and grim expressions that they did not approve of such a display. They were older and probably had already raised their own children. Periodically the husband would clear his throat and his wife would answer with an ever so slight shake of her head to express her shared perturbation. But they neither spoke to one another nor made eye contact. Instead the rhythm of fork to mouth never ceased, almost keeping time with the swaying of the train.
The sound of laughter came again from the ladies dining together, and then their voices from behind Beth carried forward. “My mother would never have allowed me to behave so atrociously,” one whispered.
“I wouldn’t have stayed in my seat long if I had tried. My daddy would have marched me right outside for a ‘chat’—if you know what I mean.”
Beth hoped their exchange had not been overheard by the young mother.
“Your father?” came the retort. “I don’t believe it. Charlie always said you were your daddy’s favorite—the apple of his eye. To hear him talk, I can’t imagine that your daddy ever spoke to you harshly. Believe me, your brother says he got more than his share of your daddy’s wrath.”
“Don’t be fooled. Charlie remembers things the way he wants to remember them. I suppose we all do.” The woman laughed. “And then we spend the rest of our lives basing the way we think about our families on what we thought happened—instead of what really did.”
What a provocative thought. Beth turned it round and round in her mind, musing silently as she stirred at her tea. Could it be true of my childhood too? And if so, how would I ever realize the error in order to correct it? All at once memories of home came rushing back to Beth so quickly she could almost forget everything around her. The faces she had left behind at the train station were safely fastened in place in her memory. Father, one arm pulling Mother close against him, the other waving slowly as she boarded. And Julie’s tears flowing unchecked over her cheeks.
Then more memories followed. Father in the parlor behind his newspaper, Julie in the sunroom sketching some new image, even Margret during their frequent visits—up in the nursery rocking JW to sleep while husband John leaned over her shoulder to smile at his son. And of course Mother moving deftly through the house, presiding competently over all. Beth pictured the attic where she and Julie had found such lovely isolation as schoolgirls, whispering and planning the great adventures they were certain to share. Even the long-ago nursery, with favorite toys and special books lining its tidy shelves.
A slow tear escaped Beth’s clouded eyes. She hurried to dab it away with the corner of her napkin. But nostalgia had already taken hold, and she found herself reveling in the images. Her earliest memory came easily to mind, washing over her with a warm sense of safety and pleasure.
She recalled with vivid clarity the feeling of cuddling on Father’s lap when he retreated in the evening with a book to his overstuffed chair, Beth having come fresh from a bath ready to say good-night, hoping that Mother would not rush her too quickly off to bed. Father would pull one side of his silk lounging jacket around Beth’s small shoulders and she would tuck her bare feet deep inside the folds on the other, pressing her tiny ear against his broad chest and listening to his deep voice reverberate as he shared aloud with her from whatever he had been reading.
Pausing a moment to contemplate, Beth was certain she could have been no more than three at the time. That old chair, she thought, smiling to herself. How Mother despised it. There were relatively few times when Father had put his foot down, particularly in regard to home furnishings in their fine Victorian residence. Mother had filled it with beautiful objects small hands were not allowed to touch. But because of Father’s insistence, the chair remained. And in Beth’s mind it belonged to the two of them only. Whenever he was home from his travels, it was their little haven in Mother’s perfectly ordered world where even the nursery was arranged just so, and Polly the nurse was instructed to keep toys picked up as soon as Beth or big sister Margret had laid them aside.
With fondness Beth recalled too the precious brass compass, perched on the table beside Father’s chair. Sometimes he would allow her to hold it—smooth and cold, heavy and mysterious, its tiny needle spinning and bobbing at will.
When she had been a bit older, Father had told her the story of how the simple yet vital little instrument had brought his ship’s crew safely home during a frightening and dangerous storm at sea. Father had demonstrated that the pointer always turned toward magnetic north—no matter which way the box was held. “The compass needle tells the truth, Beth, even in a storm. And then one must adjust the rest of one’s circumstances in accordance—even though sometimes it feels amiss. It reminds me that the Bible is like that too. It tells us the truth, and then we must adjust our thinking, our actions, to match.” The deep significance of the compass made Beth even more determined to keep careful watch over such a family treasure on this year-long adventure.
A riot of noise drew Beth’s attention. The mother was gathering her boys to leave the dining car and having much difficulty now in coaxing the troublesome one from his chair. With terse commands interspersed with hushed begging from his mother, a slow smile crept across the boy’s face when at last he slid slowly from the seat. It was readily apparent that he enjoyed the attention his behavior was drawing. He tossed his napkin to the floor and eyed his frazzled mother as if daring her to make a scene.
Suddenly the youngster became aware of the maître d’ towering over him. The smirking eyes grew wide at such an imposing form. But the man smiled kindly to the mother, then placed a hand firmly on the boy’s shoulder and reached far down to the floor beside him to lift the discarded napkin, calmly placing it on the table, where it belonged. Stiffly, the lad fell in line behind his mother while the maître d’ called after them cheerfully, “Have a good evening, madam. We’ll see you in the morning for breakfast.” It was an unexpected kindness. The beleaguered mother managed a feeble thank-you in return.
Beth pushed back her plate, deciding to abandon the remains of her meager supper. By the time she returned to her sleeper, the porter had prepared her bed, and she anticipated settling into it and passing the time with a good night’s sleep. But the rumble of the wheels and the rocking motion made it almost impossible for her to remain asleep. She rose several times for a drink of water or just to stretch restless limbs, returning to her bed only to struggle further for a comfortable position that might elicit sleep.
All at once Beth’s eyes opened wide in fright, a flash of flickering light filled the cabin, and then—only darkness. For several hazy moments she struggled to grasp where she was. There was only a suffocating fear pressing down on her until, at last, her mind cleared enough to recall and understand. It had been a nightmare. In reality she was still on the train and headed west.
She threw aside the blankets and rose to a seated position, wiping the perspiration from her forehead with the sleeve of her nightgown. Outside in the passageway, Beth could hear footsteps and then became aware of the heavy drone of rain on the roof.
It was a familiar enough dream—one that had haunted her since childhood. Perhaps she should not be surprised at its reappearance at a time when she was so unsettled and anxious—and when her thoughts had been reveling in childhood memories.
It began as always with a vision of the snow-white bassinet. Slowly the tiny childish version of herself would make her way across the room to peer inside at baby William, her precious infant brother. But as her gaze lifted over the side expectantly, she found the bed empty, and the horror of those tragic days descended anew. Immediately in the nightmare, a bout of uncontrollable coughing overcame Beth, leaving her desperately laboring to breathe, crying out silently for her absent father, hearing nearby the sound of Mother weeping. And in that state she would awake, gasping even now to draw a satisfying breath.
Whooping cough—it had stolen away Mother’s baby, her little Sweet William. And it had forever altered Beth’s world, leaving her own small body frail and sickly, and causing Mother to hover and brood and stifle. From that moment on Beth had suffered under the limitations that the illness had effected. Now she tried to shake away the terrible emotion of it all—to remember where she was and why. How troubling that as she took this momentous step toward independence and accomplishment, the nightmare had returned with its suffocating fears. Beth found it even more difficult to sleep again.
When morning finally arrived the rain had stopped, but daylight revealed another dismal, cloudy day. There were few choices for an engaging pastime. Beth set herself to read until even she—an ardent reader—had lost interest. She wandered a little and sat frequently in the dining car. But she could not escape the gloomy shadow that hung over her nor the agitated, turbulent thoughts about where she was going . . . about the enormous unknown ahead.
By her third day on the train, Beth felt thoroughly miserable and desperately bored. The clouds had burst open again, and strong winds drove sheets of rain against her window, blocking out any scenery there might have been to help the passage of time.
Then came Winnipeg, and it was in the worst of the weather that Beth faced a train change. She looked at the water streaming down the outside of her window and drew an umbrella from the crammed suitcase. It was foolish, she knew, to expect much protection from such a small, frilly contraption designed for fashion more than function.
She gathered her belongings and found herself swept along with the crowd of passengers, down the narrow steps and across the train platform. Even the covered loading area, meant to keep passengers out of the elements, was not able to protect them from the rain driven crossways by the winds.
Other travelers, their heads ducked beneath umbrellas, hats, and newspapers, were heading toward a second train. Beth fell in step and arrived at the end of the huddled line, awaiting a turn to climb aboard the next long row of cars. There too was the mother with her two boys, grasping at their hands and dragging them along behind a porter who carried their luggage.
Even with her umbrella clutched tightly above her, Beth could feel the rain coursing down the back of her neck and soaking through her traveling suit all the way to her skin. The wind pulled wildly in one direction and then the other, almost whipping the ineffective umbrella from her hands. It was no use. There was nothing she could do but let the torrent soak in and endure the shivering. She folded the useless accessory and tucked it under one arm. Beth’s past experience with these late-summer rains often had included the threat of another round of illness.
If Mother were here, what on earth would she say? “Elizabeth, you’ll be sick. For pity’s sake, ask for assistance at the train station. There are people whose job it is to carry your bags and see that you arrive safely. A girl like you should take full advantage of their services. There is no earthly reason to suffer difficulties. And”—she could almost hear aloud her mother’s repeated warning—“if you expect to endure life in the West, you shall need much assistance.”
The very memory of such belittling words caused Beth to hoist the suitcase higher and step in closer to the others ready to board. Her eyes strained through the mist to read the numbers painted on the side of the train.
She stared in shock—205? That is not right. She put her suitcase down and hurriedly reached into her jacket sleeve for the ticket Father had purchased. It says 308. Panic gripped her as she cast a look around. There were other waiting trains at the station.
“Please, sir,” she called to a porter standing nearby. “Excuse me, please! I think I must find number 308.”
The man took quick steps toward her and reached for her ticket. “Well, miss, that one leaves from the far end of the station.”
Beth choked out a thank-you and grasped the handle of the suitcase. Just then she heard the man shout, “Darby! Help this young lady with her bag; see that she gets to the right train.” A young porter was by her side in an instant with a much larger umbrella. He took the ticket, lifted her suitcase effortlessly, and tipped his elbow out for her to grasp. Beth breathed a sigh of gratitude and clutched his offered arm as he held the umbrella over her. Perhaps Mother is right. It’s easier to allow others to assist. Yet it was disheartening to admit she was already failing at the capability she had hoped to demonstrate during her adventure west.
“We’ll have to step it up, miss. Your train’s about ready to leave.”
They hastened toward a second waiting train—the farthest away. It was a struggle for Beth to keep up with the porter’s long stride as he fairly pulled her along through the crowds. Her fitted tweed skirt allowed for only tiny, quick steps. The hurried clicking of Beth’s heels was swallowed up in all the confusion, noise, and rain.
The man delivered her to the steps leading onto the proper train, and Beth reached for the next offered hand that easily drew her small frame up into the vestibule. She made a vain attempt to shake off the rain and pushed a stray strand of hair from her eyes, sure that the new hat purchased specifically for this trip must be ruined beyond repair. She could feel the left side of the velvet brim, now soaked through, resting on her ear. She knew she must look an absolute fright, but Mother had taught her to always be dignified, even in difficult circumstances. So she drew in a deep breath, lifted her chin, and moved into the passageway. A third porter was standing ready to carry her suitcase and see that she found the right sleeping compartment.
“Oh,” she exclaimed, “I didn’t tip the other porter—”
“Not to worry, miss, we’re just doing our jobs,” the current attendant assured her, but she wished she had been more aware and had thought to express her gratitude properly.
At last she was able to close a door between herself and the rest of the world. She collapsed against it for a moment, not certain how to proceed. Just then the train lurched forward and only her hand grabbing for support from the nearby door handle kept her on her feet.
Beth knew she had come perilously close to being left on the station platform. She squeezed her eyes shut. “Thank you, God,” she whispered. “I have no idea what I would have done had I missed this train!”
In short order she had locked the passageway door, pulled the curtains closed, slipped out of her wet garments, dried herself as best she could with a small linen hand towel she found hanging at the washstand, wrestled her suitcase open, and donned dry clothing. Even then Beth could not stop shivering. She dug through the case once again and found a sweater to add to her outfit. The pieces did not work together, but there was no one near enough to criticize.
Next she had to determine what to do with the sopping clothing she had removed. But there seemed to be no ready answer. The washbowl was far too small to contain it all, and there was no other receptacle of any kind. So, holding each piece well away to avoid soaking wet patches into her dry clothes, she folded them neatly, tucking personal garments discreetly in the middle of the pile, and laid the bundle on newspaper pages that she’d spread over one corner of the floor. She had tried to imagine what her mother would do, but had concluded that Mother would never be found in such an out-of-control situation. Beth could only hope the train had some type of laundry service.
Reminded of her mother, Beth rummaged again in the suitcase to bring out the familiar bottle of Scott’s Emulsion. Had Mother been present, she would certainly have insisted Beth take a draught now of the dreadful fluid. Mother had long ago concluded that Beth’s bout with whooping cough had rendered her lungs unable to properly supply oxygen to her body and that this was causing her many ailments—even her small stature. It wasn’t as if any doctor had pronounced such a conclusive diagnosis, but no one doubted Mother’s veracity. And armed with that verdict she had set out to find the right medicines and tonics and elixirs to bring Beth to a state of perfect health. Beth could remember the dreaded spoon being held to her mouth each night, carrying some new smelly, ill-tasting concoction. It made this current adventure all the more unexpected that Beth, then, would be the one of the three sisters to brave a journey alone so far from home. But even here she surrendered to Mother’s prescribed treatment.
Tucking the bottle away, she dropped to the seat and looked around for something to pass the time and help her relax. Reading came first to mind. But she had already finished the books she had packed in her suitcase. With a glance toward the corner, she bemoaned the fact that she had rendered the courtesy newspaper useless. All her other books except her Bible had been packed in the trunks that had been checked—
The trunks! Would they have been sent to the wrong train? Beth’s mind whirled in panic. She took a deep breath to calm herself and sort through what she knew. Father had placed her trunks together on a cart at the platform in Toronto, and they had been wheeled away by a porter. Father had told her they were “checked through.” So they should have been transferred to the proper train, probably before she herself had managed to arrive there. She blew out a long breath of relief.
She considered spending some time reading her Bible. But she was sure she lacked the proper frame of mind right then, so she settled herself onto the padded velvet seat and tucked her feet up beside her. Drawing the window curtain back, she cast a glance outside, finding only the river of rain still streaming down the glass panes.
No diversion there, she concluded. She felt rather tired after her chase across the station, so she leaned back against the seat and let her mind wander. She much preferred to be alone with her thoughts just now and focused her mind back toward her childhood memories—hoping to overshadow the recent nightmare with happier recollections.
It was a simple matter of remembering Julie. It seemed to Beth that no one could deny the charms of the new baby sister who’d arrived about a year after William’s death. The chubby cherub burst into the world smiling and laughing. Every chance Beth was given she asked to hold the new baby in her bundle of blankets, though sometimes she was only allowed to sit very close to Mother and offer one finger to the plump curling fist of her tiny sister as she nursed.
However, Mother often let Beth stand beside the crib and sing lullabies until Julie drifted off to sleep. Beth recalled with fondness how she had also been permitted to place a toy or dolly next to Julie, where she could look at it and smile. But Mother would chide Beth whenever she discovered all the toys lined up inside the walls of the crib like soldiers keeping watch over their sleeping baby. The thought brought a tightness to Beth’s throat even now. She remembered how closely they had all guarded Julie.
In time Julie began to walk and talk. From that moment on there seemed for Beth to be no memory in which the two of them were not together. They played together in the nursery and almost always shared nicely. When Julie demanded a toy that Beth had already claimed, it was not so very difficult to give it up for the sake of her young sibling, particularly because doing so always made Mother smile approvingly.
Even while they were very young, Beth, Julie, and big sister Margret enjoyed most the pleasure of being read to. Together with Mother, or with Father whenever he was present, they shared tales of all the talking animals in Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories and imagined the chaotic world of Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. They read too from a book of Bible stories illustrated for children, growing familiar with the lives of Father Abraham, and brave Daniel, and kind Jesus. And after just a few sessions spent with Father, Beth had quickly learned to decipher the letters of the alphabet and was soon reading on her own.
A change in the train’s speed brought Beth back to her present surroundings. Familiar now with the train’s motion, Beth could sense the gradual slowing of the chugging engine while the effort of the brakes rippled from car to car in jerking fashion. Even though she would have loved to get out on firm ground for a short walk, she determined to ignore another stop.
She closed her eyes instead to shut out the present and drew upon a favorite event from childhood. With a deep, longing breath, Beth summoned the feelings once more.
She had been seven and Julie was three. They had been allowed to accompany their parents for the first time to the expansive home of the Montclairs, who were hosting a concert. Holding hands and sitting close together, the sisters were still and solemn with full-moon eyes at the display of bright brass instruments so near at hand trumpeting out their songs above the quivering of the strings. The loud boom of drums and sudden clash of cymbals always made the sisters tremble just a little. But in spite of the moments of startling crescendo, Beth was so enthralled by the music she could hardly breathe. She could almost hear it echoing now despite the thrum of the train’s engine.
The very next day young Auntie Elizabeth had arrived at their home with a gift for Beth—a child-size violin she herself had used for lessons years before. The little girl’s rapture at the concert had not gone unnoticed, and soon Beth was struggling with every ounce of determination in her soul to coax out the same sounds that had come from the strings that night, lifting her eyes to watch her instructor as he bobbed his chin in rhythm with her labored efforts. Over time, his face seemed to grimace less and less while Beth played. She became quite proficient at an early age. So with her dual loves of music and books, it was as if for Beth that reading brought the whole world closer while music filled it with color and joy.
She thought of her concert violin—the full-size version that Father had given her when she turned thirteen—and the discussion with him about bringing it along. It was packed away safely now in one of the trunks. Beth was glad to know that it was close, but couldn’t help but be concerned that it might be damaged on the trip. She chose to trust that Father had wrapped it well.
Thinking back with fondness, Beth stirred on the confining train seat as she remembered again how very fascinating it was that she would now be following in Auntie’s footsteps, traveling to the West to teach. And even though Beth had later come to discover that her namesake Elizabeth was not truly an aunt—being the daughter of Father’s eldest brother Ephraim and thus an older cousin whom Mother insisted be addressed respectfully—Beth and her sisters chose to continue the term of endearment. She had rarely seen Aunt Elizabeth, who had moved west not long after the concert and rarely returned to visit, but Beth nurtured a delightful sense of pleasure at their similarities, particularly as she was offered the position out west.
Beth contemplated again the remark she had overheard in the dining car. Perhaps childhood memories were actually fickle things, she thought now. That what one comes to understand about a particular person or event sometimes beguiles the mind, fashioning simple, unadorned truth into something slightly askew from reality. She wondered how many small alterations she had woven into her own memories over the years.
Beth gave a long sigh and leaned forward for another look out the window. Still raining . . . From the hallway she heard the porter’s voice calling the dinner hour and prepared to make her way to the dining car. Maybe she would work up the nerve to invite someone to join her.
She reached eagerly for her Bible and carried it along with her to the table. A beloved psalm assured her once again that her heavenly Father was with her even when her dearest earthly father could not be. She prayed for her family and settled in for more hours of travel, spending time between the dining car and her cabin.
Another emotionally exhausting afternoon dragged on, and she was not close yet to her destination. The tight compartment in which she had already spent dreary hours offered small comfort. After supper Beth stood in the center of it and shook her head wearily. Too early to dress for bed and too late to spend any more time in aimless strolls, she chose to surrender the day and struggled to pull her high-heeled shoes from her aching feet.
Just then there came a firm knock on the door.
“Yes, one moment,” she called, turning the latch.
But instead of the porter’s black coat, the doorway was filled with a bright red jacket. She stepped back and quickly realized it was that of an officer of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
“How nice to see you again, Elizabeth.” The familiar voice came just as Beth’s eyes lifted to see a face she knew all too well. The wavy brown hair hung over dark green eyes eagerly fastened on hers.
He bowed slightly. “Yes, ma’am, it is I.”
“But what—what are you doing here?” She was so astounded—and mortified—she could hardly speak.
Edward cleared his throat. “May I?” He gestured into the compartment.
She would have rather denied his request, but her mother’s training forbade it. Beth heard her voice answer, “Yes, of course.”
She drew back as Edward stepped across the threshold, leaving the door wide behind him. His manners weren’t always what Beth would have desired, but in this case he was acting appropriately. “Your father requested that I accompany you during your travels—see you safely through to Coal Valley,” he explained.
His explanation only left Beth more bewildered. “My father? He asked you to accompany me? Whatever for?”
“I also have been posted in the West,” he hurried to explain, “and was traveling at this time. As a favor to your family, I agreed to see to your needs and safety.”
Beth’s thoughts rushed back over the day—the thorough soaking while she struggled with her own suitcase and nearly missed her connection. “But—” she labored to find expression for her dismay—“then where have you been?” Immediately she wished she could take back the question. That was not the point. She did not want nor need his help.
Sounding aloof and defensive, Edward replied, “I boarded this train at the last stop. My company already had other travel arrangements. But at the suggestion of your father, I received special permission to travel with you instead. I have gone to considerable trouble to be of assistance, I assure you.”
Beth refused to soften her tone. “And I assure you, Mr. Montclair, that it was entirely unnecessary. I have been managing just fine.” Beth knew her words sounded weak and pathetic and, worst of all, were far from the truth. Just at that moment she remembered the soggy pile of discarded clothing still stacked in the far corner of the cabin. She shifted slightly to shield the sorry mess from Edward.
Her conscience brought to mind the two helpful porters. What would she have done without them? Butthis?—this was too much. How could her father—
“Nevertheless,” Edward was saying, “I intend to keep my word to your father.” He cleared his throat again. “I shall return in the morning at eight o’clock to escort you to breakfast. Is that acceptable to you?”
“I need a police escort for breakfast?” she shot back, further incensed at his callous presumption.
He didn’t budge. “So should I come at eight?” Then Beth could see his eyes actually crinkle ever so slightly at the corners. “Of course,” he said, “I would be more than happy to come at six—or at five. As you wish, Elizabeth.”
Beth knew the impudent expression well enough to know he would be very pleased to awaken her far earlier than she was ready to rise. She had been bested—and by him, of all people. She could feel her face burning with anger. “Fine. Fine. But not before eight. Or I shall call the porter and . . .” She let the threat hang. What could she do? How could she complain to a porter about the conduct of a police officer? One who had been sent by her father? Edward had won.
Bowing once more, he retreated and closed the door behind him. Beth stood in the center of the room, trembling. Aloud she muttered, “Only the devil at the door would be worse than Edward Montclair!” Immediately she rebuked herself for such a dreadful pronouncement. But the truth was, she wanted to hide from him—to lock herself away or . . . or jump from the train. And even as she knew she was being childish and nonsensical, she could only pace out her frustrations during the short steps between door and window. This is absolutely unacceptable—that he has found a way to intrude on my plans even here.I thought . . . I thought I was well rid of him!
Edward had been a nuisance back as long as Beth could remember. And because his family was intrinsically connected with Father’s shipping business, there had been far more obligations requiring her to cross paths with him than she would have preferred.
The Montclairs had their roots in old England, and Beth had often heard that nobility was included in Mrs. Montclair’s family line, though specifics were left conspicuous by their absence. Edward frequently found a way to work his “stately lineage” into conversation. But his obvious pride was the least of Beth’s issues against him.
She had concluded even as a little girl that he was a troublemaker and a good-for-nothing. Just because the Montclairs had considerable wealth and resources, she didn’t believe it gave Edward the social advantages that he seemed to so boldly claim. And wield about.
Edward’s father must have similar impressions about his son, she concluded a bit smugly.No doubt this is the reason Edward is now with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, with the hope that discipline and order will knock some sense of a worthwhile, productive gentleman into him!
Rather more vigorously than necessary, Beth pulled the pins from her hair, shaking it loose and brushing it out, all the while casting further criticisms of her unwanted chaperone at her reflection in the mirror. “He thinks he’s superior to everyone else!” she muttered.
She couldn’t help remembering her first encounter with Edward Montclair, sitting in church with his parents. Beth had watched him from across the aisle trying to provoke an answering smile from Margret, who had not responded to his attempts at flirting. After service the sisters had turned their backs on him when he approached, giggling together about how foolish he was to try to elicit a smile from an older girl. “He should know better,” they’d agreed with the great assurance of the young.
Beth banged the brush down on the washstand and shook herself in an effort to regain some composure. But she went back to her list of accusations. He’d also chased her—just her—with a dead lizard he found behind the church. Her Sunday school classmates had insisted that he was sweet on her, of all things.Her trembling fingers fumbled with the buttons of her shirtwaist as she prepared for bed.
Oh, how Beth had spurned him back in those days. She had abandoned conversations with others if Edward joined the group. Had refused to even acknowledge him when he called out her name. And on one occasion at a church social when she was quite young, she had dared stamp her foot at her mother’s instructions to sit next to the infuriating youngster. Inexplicably, Mother had acquiesced, and a triumphant Beth was allowed to scoot into a chair safely away from her tormenter.
Beth paused as she hung the shirtwaist in the tiny closet and studied the memory further. For the first time, it struck her as odd that Mother had given in. She certainly could not recall other times when a flash of willfulness had caused Mother to concede. Had Mother known? Could she possibly have understood a young girl’s feelings about the matter? Yet Edward was here, thrust back into Beth’s life at a most inopportune time.
Surely this can’t be Mother’s doing, can it? Beth had sometimes suspected that her mother and Mrs. Montclair secretly played matchmaker between Edward and her—hoping to tie their families together even further through matrimony. And no doubt Mother is intrigued by the “nobility” of the family, Beth acknowledged ruefully. It certainly didn’t matter to her.
But Edward had said Father was the instigator of these unfortunate circumstances. Perhaps blaming Mother is unfair. Beth determined to push the conflicted feelings out of her mind for the time being. She pulled her nightgown over her head and . . . Oh my! It was far too early to retire for the night. The sun was still rather high in the sky, and the porter had not yet arrived. And here she stood, mindlessly ready for bed. In utter frustration, Beth reached for her clothing and hurried to replace her attire before a second knock at the door.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” she mumbled to no one, “if he calls me Elizabeth the Great just once more, I shall not speak to him again—even if it means I don’t speak to him for the entire remainder of the trip!”
When the porter arrived to make up Beth’s bed, she was seated comfortably in her cabin, the picture of serenity. She was even able to pose a question about laundry service in a dignified manner and was pleased that the porter seemed perfectly able to be of assistance. To her relief, the evidence of her rain mishap was whisked away. And for the second time in one evening, Beth prepared herself for bed.
Before putting out her light, she drew a long breath and picked up her Bible from the suitcase. She tucked her feet down under the covers, plumped both pillows behind her back, and opened to where she had been reading last—the book of Ephesians. Words about anger, about ministering grace to others, being kind and tenderhearted, seemed to leap off the page. She couldn’t help but compare her own childish behavior toward Edward to God’s desire for her and how she should treat others.
“I’m sorry, Father God,” she finally sighed. “I should not have behaved that way.” And then she quickly followed with, “Please help me to be respectful tomorrow. Even if I don’t desire his company, I don’t want to dishonor You.”
Just at that moment Beth remembered her father’s words as they parted. She was shocked that she could have so quickly forgotten about the verse he had written on paper and tucked inside the compass. Tossing aside the covers and scrambling to retrieve the brass instrument from where she had wrapped it carefully and packed it away, she flipped up the lid and a little slip of paper tumbled out.
Written in Father’s careful cursive was, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me. Philippians 4:13.”
Beth drew in a long, slow breath. Thoughts and emotions tumbled around inside her as she pondered the words and her father’s intentions. She wondered what might have been different if she’d had that Scripture in mind during her meeting with Edward. She wondered what her father would say if he had seen her during the appalling episode. Her cheeks flushed. Even though she knew Father would be gracious and forgiving, she felt ashamed for not better representing his family . . . better representing the Lord.
Kneeling beside her open suitcase on the shuddering floor of the passenger train, Beth whispered aloud, “I’m already failing, God—I’ve embarrassed myself and treated another person badly.” Then another verse came to her mind and she added with a trembling little smile, “But You promised that Your mercies are new every morning. Thank You for that. I need those mercies tonight. And tomorrow.”
Beth returned the compass to its place, slid the suitcase back under the bed, and settled in again for the night. She had positioned the little slip of paper on the windowsill nearby and repeated it over and over until she had drifted off to sleep.