As expected, Creighton and Sadie partook of the same seat. This meant Mae was doomed to once more suffer Owen’s company, who was stirring and blinking with the perplexity of a baby owl.
“Hello, goober. Make some room.”
The baby owl looked ready to eviscerate her. “I don’t wanna sit beside you.”
“Like it or lump it.” She jabbed a ticklish finger into his ribs.
“Uncle Creighton!” he squawked, spiraling across the bench with a riled flurry of wings. “The mean lady done pinched me on the leg!”
But Creighton only had eyes for the diaphanous miss who delicately wrung a lawn handkerchief between her quivering hands, though upon closer inspection, it wasn’t exactly euphoria on display, not on either of their parts. Sadie looked remorseful. A separate battle waged across Creighton’s face, hinting that his attraction to Sadie was greatly tempered by the distrust she’d incurred through some mysterious past behavior.
Arriving at a sudden resolution, Creighton decisively turned to Mae and said, “Give Sadie and me some privacy, would you? Take in a bit of scenery with Owen at one of the windows.”
“I’ll do you one better. Pretend like we’re not even here.” Mae reached inside the burlap sack stowed beneath the bench and withdrew the pièce de résistance: a slender children’s book emblazoned with the rather lackluster title Stories for Children, though the sight of it thoroughly accomplished her goal. With a hoot of excitement, Owen scrambled close as planned, anchoring himself to her side and making the notion of moving improbable. “We’ll occupy ourselves with this,” she assured Creighton, doing her utmost to look innocuous. “You’ll have privacy aplenty to have your little chat.”
“That book doesn’t belong to Owen. Where did you get it?” he demanded, making it very clear that he assumed she’d stolen it from some small helpless toddler.
Before she could answer, Owen made an impatient swipe for the paperbound volume. “Is that for me? Is that mine?” he enthused, quivering with delight as Mae thwarted him by tightening her grasp. She divided her attention between child and man. “Fiend, let go! I plan on teaching you your letters. You’re overdue in learnin’ to read,” she gravely admonished. And then, “I bartered for this before leavin’ Marietta. The mother said her children had outgrown it. It’s a bit damaged, but none of the pages are missing. I traded some of my hair ribbons for it, mind, so wipe off that suspicious look.”
The suspicious look remained. “You traded your personal possessions for a children’s book? Why would you do such a thing?”
“To pass the time. Why else? And they were just hair ribbons.”
“And you just now thought to bring it out?” he marveled with a healthy dollop of skepticism. “After hours on a train with little to occupy a boy’s energetic mind, you decided this is the perfect time to remember you had a book, and that you’re going to start Owen on his letters, at the exact moment I ask you to take him aside so I can have a private conversation?”
“Coincidence,” Mae stated, firmly cracking open the cover. “And don’t go makin’ it sound like Owen’s been bored to tears hours upon hours when he’s mostly been asleep this whole time. Now go on, have your little chat. Pretend we’re not even here, like I already said.”
An unconvinced noise tore through his throat, but he turned and faced Sadie all the same, his annoyance shuttered away to present a genteel front. “Sadie,” he welcomed, the flat tones of his voice thickly battered in conviviality. “I admit you’ve been on my mind lately, but I never expected to see you here, on a train bound for prison, of all the places. How did you find yourself in this predicament? You were never a mill employee.”
Mae’s explanation about acquiring the book for tutorial purposes had been truthful. It had been an impulsive acquisition on her part, but she’d intended to wait and utilize its useful pages during the long weeks or months of their incarceration. She regretted not saving it as a surprise to ward off the prison doldrums, but she’d had to orchestrate an excuse to stay and eavesdrop and the book was the only card she’d held.
Ironically, she now found herself blocking out the ensuing exchange as Sadie smiled ruefully at Creighton, heads bent close in quiet conversation. Mae was no longer inclined to eavesdrop; his effusive cordiality toward Sadie was much too stomach-turning to witness.
“Are you really an’ truly gonna teach me to read?”
Mae’s heart produced an unexpected, sentimental squeeze as she glimpsed Owen’s hopeful expression. “It’ll spoil your uncle’s fondness for spellin’ out words when he don’t want you to know something, but yes, I’ll teach you to read. See how each set of pages describes a letter of the alphabet? First there’s a drawin’ that relates to a particular letter and a short poem, and then the next page tells a little story. I’ll show you—”
“I already know my alphabet,” he boasted and promptly rattled off proof. “Mama taught me my letters afore she…” His happy expression tottered.
“Good,” she briskly interjected. “The less I gotta teach you, the better. What about your name? Do you know how to spell that?”
“I ain’t stupid. ’Course I know somethin’ as easy as that.” Proudly, he caroled, “O-w-e-n, that there spells Owen!”
“Well, I’ll be. You’re smarter than you look. Let’s turn to the pages that describe the letter O,” she invited, mimicking the elucidating tones of a schoolmarm, “to learn what other things begin with this letter.” She tapped her finger against the illustration of a little girl clutching a bough of oranges and standing, in Mae’s starchy opinion, somewhat naughtily on a chair, a basket of the fruits close by. “‘Now here are some oranges, / Just from the tree; / Perhaps Mary is waiting / To give them to me,’” she dramatically recited.
“Ug. That there was one awful poem. Sounded like one of yourn.”
“Hush and listen,” she admonished. “‘What a beautiful basket of Oranges! And I suppose all little boys and girls would like a chance to help themselves. But when you are eating a nice sweet orange, do you ever think where it came from? Do you ever see oranges growing here as our apples, and pears, and peaches grow? No. You may, perhaps, have seen a small tree in someone’s warm parlor—’”
“This is borin’. Where’s the story? I wanna hear about heroic adventures! Like shipwrecks an’ pirates an’ excitin’ things like that. Ronald Oakley an’ me had us a tree fort in the woods by the creek and always played at buried treasure, and it was lotsa fun! Once we even buried real treasure and—oops! I promised not to tell anyone ’bout that, so forget you heard me say that, all right? You got any buried treasure books?” he demanded, barely taking a breath. “Because that’s what I wanna hear ’bout, not stupid oranges in parlors.”
“I apologize for not findin’ a book about rotten little boys and their ornery escapades,” she snapped, impatiently closing the book and tossing it beneath the seat. “Thankless, that’s what you are. See if I ever again try and help you better yourself. You can grow up ignorant for all I care.”
With a loud huff of bad temper, Owen detached from her side and spectacularly flung himself across the seat.
“Would you, Mae?”
She was slow to notice Creighton’s angry flush. “I wasn’t listening. I promised to mind my own business, remember? Would I do what?”
Distracted from his request, Creighton noticed Owen’s petulant pose and the clear absence of reading material. “I thought you were teaching him to read.”
“Yes, well, your nephew is provin’ to be an undisciplined pupil. I’ll try again later, when he’s in a more appreciative mood.”
He shook his head, clearly exasperated, but whether she was the cause or Owen remained a mystery. “Would you explain to Sadie what I’m saying? She can’t understand me without my slate.”
“’Course I will.” Mae experienced an unholy burst of satisfaction upon learning Creighton’s long lost love hadn’t the intellectual wherewithal to learn his speech patterns, despite their apparently meaningful association. It was an enlightening detail that made her smile beatifically. “What would you like me to tell her?”
“Tell her…simply tell her she looks exactly as I remember,” he muttered, noticeably peeved at having to express such private sentiments through Mae and censuring whatever flowery accolades he originally intended to impart.
“It would be my pleasure.” Creighton’s gaze remained broodingly on the fair Miss Sadie, and so Mae didn’t have to mumble from the side of her mouth when she announced, “Creighton says you look green in that dress. You look exactly as he remembers.”
“I beg your pardon?” Miss Levine’s eyes widened anxiously as she gazed down at her gray frock. “I suppose the color is a bit somber but…green? I look peaked? I’ve always had a delicate constitution but…tell him I’m grateful for his concern.”
“Tell him yourself. He reads lips.”
“I’m quite aware of that.” Irritation flavored Miss Sadie’s normally docile voice, surprising Mae. “It’s kind of you to notice my colorin’, Mr. Branagan.”
Mae saw the puzzled drag at the corners of his mouth and quickly intervened. “How do you know Creighton, Miss Levine? Did you two grow up together in New Manchester?”
“What? No.” An annoyed glance was cast her way. “We’re merely acquaintances.”
“Merely acquaintances? So you didn’t have a grand love affair, woefully cut short by the war?”
“How is that any of your business?” she sharply chided.
“I meant no offense, truly.” Mae sighed with false dreaminess. “It’s only that all the great love affairs in the epic poems are cut short by wars.”
“I’m surprised a rude creature like yourself is even familiar with the rudiments of reading.” Addressing Creighton, she demanded, “Why is your nephew’s nanny so insolent? Moreover, why do you allow her to address you by your given name? It’s vulgar.”
“She ain’t my nanny!” Owen belted out in timely fashion. “If she were, I’d smother her with a pillow while she slept.”
“Why, you little monster. That’s mean, even for you. If anyone’s gettin’ smothered with a pillow, it’s you, brat. And to think I let you slobber on my arm like a rabid wolf pup.”
“Mae,” Creighton warned. “I’d appreciate it if you’d act older than my six-year-old nephew and ask Sadie what happened to the mill in New Manchester. I want to know if it was burned like ours.”
“Creighton wants to know what happened to the mole on your chin,” she sweetly intoned. “He said it was the size of New Manchester.”
Owen giggled into his hand, the motion drawing his uncle’s furious eye. “She’s makin’ stuff up!” He pointed an incriminating finger at Mae. “She’s changin’ your words, Uncle Creighton.”
“That’s a barefaced lie! Grown-ups ain’t s’posed to lie!”
“Owen doesn’t like me, you know that,” she defended, glimpsing Creighton’s livid expression and doing her best to appease him. “He’ll say anything to turn you against me.”
The clearing of a delicate throat perforated the emergent tension. “Perhaps I should return to my seat,” Miss Levine daintily excused.
“Perhaps you should—”
“Apologize to her,” Creighton demanded. “I don’t care what excuse you give. Say the heat makes you irritable. The particulars don’t matter, but apologize.”
Mae sat in tight-lipped silence, furious with his dictatorial demand of an apology.
“Do it, Mae. I won’t let your churlish behavior cost me this second chance with Sadie.”
She only had herself to blame. She’d engineered this reunion in order to satisfy her own obstinate curiosity.
“Creighton wants to know what happened to the mill in New Manchester,” she relented, refusing to apologize but summoning enough poise to continue translating, and this time honestly. That she repressed the urge to lean over and rip out Sadie’s pretty silver hair was enough of an act of contrition, and Creighton would have to be happy with that.
“Burned.” A tear leaked from her eye as her forlorn gaze settled on Creighton. “It was burned! Such a horrible sight, and to think I’d only been workin’ there for two months. It was a hideous job, Mr. Branagan. I’ve too delicate a constitution to work like a common Negro, but with Grady off fighting in the Unpleasantness, I had little choice. We decided to wait and be married as soon as he returned from the war, but I haven’t received a letter from him in over six months, and I’m beginnin’ to think…”
Mae’s eyes narrowed with utter contempt. Why did men always find such useless fluffs of women attractive? She might be plain-faced in comparison to Sadie’s beauty, but she was healthy and strong and would have been a valuable helpmate, whereas women of Sadie’s ilk lounged abed all day and complained about everything while their men toiled.
“…I recall our walks in the woods with no small amount of fondness, Mr. Branagan. I love Grady, truly I do, but I can’t help but feel he’s lost to me, and with you so near, our walks from that spring are vivid in my mind. I can still remember how gallant you were! Such a gentleman, and it didn’t even matter that you couldn’t hear. Perhaps you could ask me again, Mr. Branagan? I was inconsiderate of your feelings when you asked permission to court me, but there was Grady…I had to stay truthful to Grady, don’t you see? But Grady’s gone now and there’s really no point in waitin’ for him. So ask me again and I’ll say yes!”
CONTINUE PART III ON 8/22