From Chapter 5: San Francisco 1861
After tossing and turning to the accompaniment of nature’s crescendo one January night, I am awakened by a kiss on my forehead, his luxurious mustache tickling by skin. Still dreaming, I murmur, “Jacob.”
A sharp exclamation replaces the soft warmth of the kiss.
I force my eyes open and my brain to awareness. Henry paces the room, fully dressed. He checks his pocket watch without looking at me. “Ellen, I must go to the mill.”
I wipe sleep remnants from my eyes and nod. He is desperate to assess the damage form the storm that has kept him home since before the New Year. Stiff and tired from a night disrupted by storms, I listen. The wind still howls outside our snug home, but the rain doesn’t slam against the windows.
Henry stops before me, places his watch back in its pocket and puts his hands on his hips. The clock in the parlor strikes, but my husband’s stern face captures my attention so I can’t count the tolling bells.
“How many children must we have before you stop calling his name in your sleep?”
“I’m sorry.” Normally I would rise and walk him to the door, but I am so tired. When I close my eyes for a moment, the room tilts. “I think I’ll sleep a little longer,” I tell him without opening my eyes.
“Pleasant dreams,” he snarls.
I hear the creak of the third stair, then the front door clicking shut. Now that I’m awake, guilt prevents me from falling back to sleep. Henry is a good man. He deserves my heart, but I gave it away long ago. I rise from bed and don a gown. I move slowly although I do not think I am ill.
Later I retire to the parlor, where I remove my knitting from a basket kept by the fire. I can knit and think about how to cheer Henry tonight. Maybe the cook can make his favorite vanilla almond cake for tonight’s dessert. My guilt stabs me. It’ll mean more if I make it. My knitting falls to my lap.
Our daughters play on the floor, quarreling quietly, moods matched to the weather. Moisture is in the air; the window panes are sweating. Another storm moves closer. Fresh rain pelts the windows as a sharp rap at the door draws me from my thoughts.
I rise and answer. On the stoop a mill worker has removed his hat and is shaking droplets to the boards below. Something about his expression… Dread descends on me and I feel the blood leave my face. Visions of a telegram ten years old haunt me. Jacob killed in mining accident. My deepest condolences.
“Mrs. VanValkenburgh?” the mill worker says, twisting the sodden bowler in his hands. He has trouble keeping his eyes to mine. Swallowing, he barrels on, “The mill sent me ma’am. There’s been an accident—I’m so sorry.”
“What are you saying!” I shout at him. If I have the courage to hear it, he should have the courage to say it.
“I’m so sorry. We was cuttin’ a tree ma’am. It fell wrong … A branch hit Mr. VanValkenburgh … He’s dead, ma’am…”
I am unable to respond, and he slinks away into the storm. For several minutes, I listen as the rain patters on the porch roof. Then I shut the door and lean my head against the painted wood.
Jacob and I were married a year—two months of bliss and ten months of waiting. Then the telegram. With Henry I had eight years and two daughters. In the eyes of some, the second marriage was more successful. To me, it makes no difference. I am once again widowed.