Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Sheriff Charley Brown: Chapter XIV

It was nearly 7:00 p.m. when Paul arrived at the Grant home. He was in a jubilant mood, for he had made his decision that afternoon. Since his college days he had been a thorough thinker, never jumping into any proposition without checking every detail. He had known women intimately during his school years, yet he had never desired a permanent relationship. Now he realized he was deeply in love with Marguerite. This evening, when the proper moment came, he would ask her to marry him. He sensed she had been involved in some manner with the sheriff, still he felt that attachment had gone nowhere. He was confident he could win her love and acceptance.

Drawing up in front of the house, he stepped from the cutter to snap the lead of the iron weight to the horse's bridle. As he walked through the gate, now shy of the warm buffalo robe in the sleigh, he realized the unrelenting cold. His boots made crunching sounds on the path to the door, a path faintly illuminated by moonlight and rays escaping from nearby windows.

His brief knock resulted in the door opening to disclose an attractive woman. Although she was a bit shorter than her daughter, the resemblance was unmistakable; she had to be Marguerite's mother.

She stepped aside to say, "You must be Paul Evans, please come in! Marguerite is nearly ready, she'll only be a few moments." Closing the door as he entered, she added, "I'm Marguerite's mother. Please call me Annette."

Her figure was trim and her face uniquely attractive. Her cheekbones were high and a bit plumpish, her eyes piercingly obsidian, her lips full, but not overly large; her chin was small but firm, complimenting her oval-shaped face.

"I hope I'm not too late. It's about seven and I know Marguerite wanted to be in time for the grand march at the ball."

She smiled, "Oh, it's only a half hour ride to Emerson; you'll be there in plenty of time. Pass me your coat and we'll have a cup of coffee. It's so very cold outside." She looked up at him mischievously, "After all, since you are escorting my daughter to the ball, I have the right to get to know you." Placing his coat across a chair, she beckoned, "Come, we might as well sit in the kitchen until Marguerite comes down."

Leading the way she casually reached to the middle of the kitchen table to turn up the wick roller on the kerosene lamp. While she tended the stove he glanced around the room to note the smooth log walls of the cabin and the carefully cut trim around the window nearest him. The high ceiling of the room was finished with tongue and grooved unvarnished white pine boards. From above he could hear faint sounds of movement, no doubt Marguerite's footsteps as she made preparations for the dance.

"Unfortunately, my husband is not here. I'm sure he would like to meet you." Annette placed a cup and saucer before him. "He left to visit neighbors this afternoon and hasn't returned." She smiled wanly, "He's no doubt having sport and has forgotten the time. Marguerite tells me you are engaged in selling farm machinery. Are you on the road a lot?"

"Yes, much of the time, but I hope to settle down in the near future. I've been traveling a good deal these past three years and although it's been a learning experience, I realize that it's time to quit the road." Suddenly aware of the over-warm room, he thrust a finger under his tight fitting collar in an effort to loosen it. The odor of fresh baking hung in the air, as did the pungent odor of burning kerosene oil from the lamp.

Sitting opposite him, she daintily sipped at the hot coffee. "I understand you've met my daughter Susan and her husband, Ian. Marguerite mentioned that you were at the Christmas party at the hotel."

"Yes, I was. You have two lovely girls; both are exceptionally beautiful. To be very frank with you, Annette, I want to pursue a closer relationship with Marguerite. In fact, I plan on asking her to marry me."

Annette's face froze at the intemperate announcement; it had come as a complete surprise. Then she relaxed, realizing this man was blunt and honest. Still, she knew that her daughter's choice, either this Paul, or Charley, was Marguerite's decision and hers alone.

"You must realize that this is between you and Marguerite. I'll not attempt to influence her in any way. She is a country girl, raised without the niceties of a big city. To be perfectly frank, I don't know how well she would adapt to city life."

Their conversation was interrupted when they heard Marguerite's steps as she came down the stairs to the living room. "I heard you arrive, Paul. Has Mom been pumping you?" She smiled, "She's been anxious to meet you."

Paul stood as she approached, his eyes taking in her narrow waist and lithe figure. Her long, yellow silk dress seemed to swirl around her legs. It was apparent he was captivated at the sight of her, his delight obvious.

"You look gorgeous!"

Smiling, he turned to Annette, "I'll be fighting off ardent swains all evening."

Annette said nothing, but smiled. Finally she arose from her chair to say to her daughter. "I'll get your coat." Then she turned to Paul, "I hope you have blankets or warm robes in the sleigh. It's so very cold outside; fortunately there is not much wind."

Paul nodded, "I brought two robes and a heavy wool blanket. We can sit on the one robe and cover ourselves with the other. We should be plenty warm."

Annette helped Marguerite with her long overcoat, tucking her daughter's scarf snugly as Paul donned his coat. Marguerite briefly hugged her mother as they reached the door. "Don't wait up for me, Mom. We'll probably be quite late."

Annette looked at the couple shrewdly, "Have a good time. At my age I have no intention of waiting up for you. I just hope Joseph comes home soon."

Finally outdoors, Paul helped Marguerite into the cutter, solicitously tucking the robes firmly around her. Detaching the iron weight from the horse's bridle, he placed it on the cutter floor. Then, stepping up, he rearranged the blanket and robe with Marguerite's help. Untying the reins from the whip socket he urged the horse to a trot. The small sleigh rode lightly on the hard packed snow, sometimes sliding sideways over the irregular icy surface with hissing, scraping sounds. Shifting the reins to his left hand, Paul reached under the robe to slip his arm around Marguerite's waist. Pulling her gently but snugly toward him, he looked down into her eyes. "It's much more comfortable this way, don't you think."

Once on the north road to Emerson the horse trotted rhythmically, requiring only an occasional encouragement. As the animal slowed briefly, the acrid odor of horse apples hung momentarily in the air.

"Where is the dance to be held?" Paul asked.

"Oh, Paul, you've bought tickets and don't even know where the dance is to take place. It's at the Masonic hall of course. There's a large room with plenty of space for dancing. We can go directly there -- people won't bother checking into the customs port tonight." His closeness brought a feeling of warmth and security, nearly lulling her into a lethargic state.

He could feel her warm breath on his face as she spoke and turning his head he nuzzled his face into her hair. The faint odor of scented soap came to him -- Lilac, he thought.

Long moments of silence followed, broken only by an occasional slap of the reins to encourage the horse to maintain a steady pace. Finally the outskirts of Emerson appeared and windows emitting faint light began to drift by.

"Turn right at the next street, the lodge is in the next block."

Rounding the corner Paul exclaimed in surprise; both sides of the street were lined with sleighs. "Gosh, everyone in town must have come to the ball. I'll drop you off in front of the door, then find a place to tie up."

"Tennant's stable is just ahead, only a half block. He's a friend of ours. You can leave the rig there, they keep a night man."

Stopping in front of the lodge, Paul helped Marguerite from the sleigh. She was smiling, "Don't be long. They should start shortly."

"Don't worry, I'll be back as soon as I care for the horse."

When Marguerite entered the hall she was surprised at the huge crowd and the volume of noise. The practice tuning of orchestra instruments added to the seeming confusion. A roguish group of men were gathered around the punchbowl. Studying them, she suspected that several were already well into their cups. Mrs. Traynor, the owner of the local millinery shop approached her.

"Oh, Marguerite! I'm so glad to see you here tonight. Where is Charley?"

Marguerite felt embarrassed, but forced a smile. "I'm not with Charley this evening. My escort is Paul Evans, a recent visitor to Pembina."

"Well, where is this young man?"

"He'll be in soon. He's putting our horse away."

At that moment a woman called to Mrs. Traynor, "Come, Emily! We've got to find seats before all are taken." As Mrs. Traynor hastily waved goodbye, Marguerite turned to the room set aside for the ladies; a private room designated for the storage of coats and other final preparations. Hurried greetings were exchanged in the crowded room as she hung up her coat and hat, then she sat to remove her over-boots. Briefly she stood to gaze into a mirror, checking her hair. Then she entered the ballroom just as Paul came in the front door.

"I'll just be a moment, Marguerite. I'll be with you as soon as I find a place to hang my coat."

Smiling, she took his arm, "I'll show you the cloak room reserved for the men. It's also reserved for the many bottles they hide there too." Impishly, she added, "Don't you dare allow anyone to entice you into partaking."

He squeezed her hand. "I'm already drunk with the sight of you. I sure don't need anything more." As he hung up his coat, he asked. "What's next, when does the ball begin?"

The orchestra was still tuning up in a rear corner as Paul and Marguerite moved toward the hors d'oeuvre table. Men standing nearby moved aside to allow them access to the punch bowl and tidbits. George Newcombe, the Dominion Land Titles agent, greeted Marguerite with a bow. "Miss Grant, it's good to see you again -- and who is this gentleman escorting you?"

"George, this is Paul Evans. He has been visiting in Pembina for a few days." As the two men shook hands she introduced Paul to other acquaintances nearby. Newcombe looked at Paul jokingly, "Evans, if I were 30 years younger and single, you wouldn't have a chance with this lovely lady."

Jerry Robinson, another merchant, spoke up. "George, if we were all younger, you'd have to stand in line."

From they’re jocular but attentive manner; Paul could see Marguerite was well respected. He could barely conceal the sudden feeling of pride that came. Filling two cups with punch from the bowl, he handed one to Marguerite, then touched his glass to hers. Boldly, in front of the other gentlemen he proposed a toast, "Here's to our future, may it be grand and glorious!"

Although she smiled back at him, a feeling of disquietude clouded her mind. Apprehension set in, and she knew instinctively that this evening Paul was going to propose. What should I do? How should I respond? I like and admire him, but I'm not in love with him. And what about my feelings toward Charley? I Love him! She knew the turmoil of emotions she felt would remain with her the entire evening, perhaps even for days. She felt totally at a loss to cope with her problem.

A skirl of pipes was heard as a Scottish piper appeared; couples began forming for the grand march. The founders of the town of Emerson, Messrs. Carney and Fairbanks, together with their ladies had been honored to lead the march. Pairs hastily formed immediately behind them. Several of the men near the head of the column wore military uniforms, complete with colorful decorations. Others wore Scottish and Irish tweeds of their clan, a few even wore regalia of wars long past.

Paul and Marguerite quickly joined the end of the line as the piper began to play MacCrimmon's Sweetheart on his bagpipe. Formally striding down the center of the long room, the couples solemnly split apart at the end, men going to one side and ladies to the other, to rejoin together at the next circuit of the room when finally the piping suddenly ceased. At that moment the orchestra swung into the haunting strains of Strauss's Blue Danube Waltz.

Snug in Paul's arms Marguerite murmured, "I forgot to pick up a dance card at the table."

"Then you have to dance every dance with me."

"It would be nice, but I don't think it's going to work that way."

As the first dance ended, men clamored for her attention; several men instantly surrounding her. Smiling agreeably she filled in a hastily obtained card, reserving several dances with Paul.

When they began their second waltz of the evening, Marguerite said, "I'm going to introduce you to some of my friends when this set is over. Perhaps you'll find one of them interesting."

"No chance! I'll dance with them dutifully, but I won't flirt with them. I'm a one-woman man." He drew her snugly to him.

She almost groaned in frustration. He was holding her so close it was almost embarrassing. Thrusting back, she whispered, "Paul, I like you very much, but you're holding me far too intimately. Everyone is watching."

"Let them, I've nothing to hide. I'm in love with you and I don't mind what other folks think."

"There are proprieties even in Emerson. This isn't Chicago."

He began to smile, then held her away at arm's length. "Fine, do you prefer this?"

She moved a bit closer, smiling nervously. "Well, I'll meet you halfway."

When the dance ended Marguerite steered Paul aside, introducing him to Annie and Julia Jasper. They were conversing when Marguerite's new partner claimed her for the next dance. Paul was left to fend for himself. Marguerite was never alone after that -- she whirled, swung and swayed to the gay music with occasional laughter, facing a hubbub of excited talk.

By the time midnight arrived, Paul felt stymied. He realized the crowded dance floor and the jovial atmosphere was not furthering his cause. Marguerite seemed content to match his movements in a dream-like state, which discouraged all meaningful conversation. He felt his frustration building, knowing there was little chance to propose until the dance was over and they were on their way home. The groundwork he had planned to discuss; a future home in Chicago, and his parents approval, all would have to be reviewed on the short trip back to her home.

Because of the large crowd in the hall the temperature had risen and people were perspiring freely. He rued the heavy wool suit he wore, finally realizing relief when someone opened a rear door allowing a cold draft to circulate into the room. Running a hand through his damp hair he realized he must rouse himself out of this sullen disposition into which he was drifting. He must bide his time, then attempt to get Marguerite into an intimate conversation while on the way homeward.

Marguerite enjoyed the affair, dancing every dance until it seemed she would drop. Slow waltz steps changed to reels, then to square dancing, some steps slower, others vigorous and athletic.

Nearly each dance with Paul was a waltz and she eagerly accepted his arms in a languid, romantic fashion. Often she danced with men who smelled of questionable breath, holding them at arms length. The roving hands she slapped off laughingly, but with a warning glance. The Scottish piper who claimed his dance swung her clear off the floor during the square dancing while the crowd smiled at his antics. For a small orchestra they were innovative, for they played many old-country ballads. The three violins carried dreamy melodies, sometimes almost melancholy, and at other times gay and daring. When a reel was called the entire building seemed to shake from the wild antics of the revelers.

Lunch was served at midnight, a crowd-pleasing buffet that again gave Paul no opportunity for serious conversation. It was nearing three a.m. when the orchestra finally broke into Auld Lang Syne. Paul reached to tilt Marguerite's chin up for a kiss. At first the kiss was gentle, but a growing passion grew that found both of them clinging tightly. Sensations arose in Paul and he felt tenderness, yet a surging desire to fully possess this woman. For long seconds the kiss was held, then the magical moment passed, for Marguerite suddenly attempted to draw back -- afraid of the hurt that could come, of not knowing Charley's love and arms again, a feeling that was still lacking for Paul.

He could feel the sudden coolness of her ardor and released his hold, finishing the dance in total silence. People began scurrying for coats at the finale, but Paul held back. "Let the crowd thin out a bit, then I'll get the sleigh and pick you up at the door."

"That's not necessary. I'll get my coat and boots and go along with you to the stable."

He looked at her questioningly, "If that's what you want, so be it."

While Paul entered the barn to get the horse, Marguerite rearranged the robes in the sleigh. It took only moments to hitch up the animal, and bundled snugly they turned back down the street. As they left the outskirts of town Paul brought the trotting horse to a walk and turned to Marguerite.

"I've serious things on my mind. It may not sound very romantic since it's so darned cold, but I've got to say them. I love you and want you to marry me. If you say yes, I'll stay a few more days to settle matters." He pleaded, "I've tried all evening to tell you my feelings but there was no opportunity."

"Paul, I hardly know how to say this, but you've only known me a few days. I like and admire you, but a week is hardly sufficient time upon which to build a solid relationship. I know so little about you, your desires, your thoughts and ambitions; why, I don't even know your parents."

"What have my parents got to do with it?"

"I'm part Indian, you must know that by now. I'm scorned by many of the people both in St. Vincent and Pembina because of my mixed heritage. If I married you, you would probably be jeered as an Indian lover, or even worse, called a squaw man."

"That has nothing to do with it; I know my Father and Mother will love you, regardless."

Marguerite remained silent for long seconds, and then she said, "Paul, we may have a life together, but it's not in the immediate future. We've both got a lot of thinking and soul-searching to do. I'm Catholic and I'm sure you're not since you haven't once mentioned going to church." She shook her head slowly, "The difficulties we would face could be tremendous."

"Yes, but I'm willing to take the chance. Why aren’t you?"

They were entering St. Vincent when she finally answered. "It's too risky now. I've got to have more time." She peered up at him, "We can correspond regularly can't we? Let's see if you still want to marry me after a few months pass. Truthfully, I don't know my own feelings. I don't know if I really love you. Give us both some time and we'll see."

Arriving in front of her home he escorted her to the door. "Since I'll be leaving on the train early tomorrow morning I won't see you, but I'll write every few days. My feelings won't change, darling."

Their final kiss was tender and long, but when Marguerite entered the house she felt a curious sense of relief. While undressing in her room she puzzled, have I done the right thing? Have I extended a false hope to him? Have I thrown away a chance at happiness? Attempting to sleep, her thoughts turned to Charley. Why hasn't he called on me this past week? Has he lost all interest in me? I certainly hope not.

The sense of relief Marguerite felt after Paul returned to Chicago soon changed to a nagging worry when Charley failed to contact her during the first two weeks of January.

Although Paul's glowing letters began to arrive in the mail, her frustration over Charley's apparent lack of interest in her was almost overwhelming. Gathering courage she entered Charley's saloon in the early morning hours of mid-January, early enough to hopefully avoid any early drinkers.

John was surprised to see her, but broke into a smile. "This is a welcome surprise! It must be the first time a woman has crossed this threshold since we opened."

"John, I'm looking for Charley. I haven't seen him since Christmas. I'm concerned, where is he?"

"Well now, there's a problem. He took that horse thief, Jackson, to Detroit just after the New Year. Three or four days later I received a telegram saying he had become sick. Honest, Marguerite, I haven't had a word from him since. I'm just as puzzled and concerned as you."

"Isn't there somewhere we could telegraph to find out where he's staying?"

"Detroit is a big city. It's hard to tell where he is, or if he's still there. He could be anywhere, even on his way home by now. Hold on, I'll get you the telegram he sent, it's in the back office." Returning momentarily with the wrinkled copy he handed it to her. "Doesn't say much, Charley was never very loquacious, evidently he's not much of a letter writer either." Looking at her suspiciously, he asked, "Say, did you two have a falling out?"

"Not really. I haven't done anything wrong. We were to go to the New Years ball at the fort together. Then things fell apart and he avoided me, so I went to the Emerson Ball with Paul Evans."

John looked at her accusingly, "Yes, and you went riding with that same gentleman on Christmas day too. White, from Huron City, blabbed to Charley, said he saw the two of you drive past his place -- said you didn't come back either. That's probably what set him off."

Marguerite became defensive, "Yes, we drove to Emerson and had a brief lunch, and then he took me home on the east side of the river. That's all there was to it."

It was obvious to Marguerite that John didn't want to become involved in her problem, for he said, "Well, I'll keep you posted if he contacts me again. Hopefully he's not in any serious trouble."

Turning to leave, Marguerite said, "I'd appreciate it if you would, John. I'm worried, it's not like him to leave us both in limbo."