Under the Almond Trees

Here is a new first chapter. I decided to put the handful of chapters I have completed into a different order. By starting with this one, they will be in chronological order. What do you think? Is this a compelling enough beginning?

Chapter One: New York 1849—Ellen

My first act of rebellion occurs when I insist to my parents that I must marry my cousin, Jacob Perkins. I’ve loved him my entire life. They try to interest me in other young men, but I hold firm. I want only Jacob. We marry when I am twenty-one.

After a few blissful months together, the world intrudes. Word reaches New York of gold discovered in California. Cholera rages through the city. Everyone seems to be rushing about in a dither, either panicking or packing. People predict 1849 will change the face of the country forever. Maybe I am selfish to care only about my beloved and our life together.

On a frigid January day, sweat beads my forehead. The stove has been burning all day, and the oxtail soup smells delicious. I look over the rest of the meal. The boiled leg of mutton is almost done, and the caper sauce and mashed turnips ready. My mother’s cook sent over a mince pie and almond pudding. It is a lot of food for the two of us, but I strive to make a decent home.

I know Jacob isn’t terribly happy working for my Uncle Moses at his newspaper, but the New York Sun is becoming quite popular and I know Jacob will find an aspect of the business he enjoys.

Just before five o’clock, my husband arrives home from the office. He shuts the door behind him, closing out the howling wind that rattles the windowpanes in our small flat, closing out the world of New York’s Lower East Side, where increasing numbers of immigrants are sharing cholera with us all.

Wiping my hands on my apron, I untie it and smooth my skirt.  In the hall, I pause by the mirror to smooth a few strands of light brown hair back into place. I go into the front room to greet him properly, with a smile and a kiss, but his expression halts me. He stands with his back against the closed front door, face filled with dread. His ill-fitting suit speaks of his newness to the business world, but his slicked dark brown hair is neat and his moustache combed. He puts his hat on the rack, but his expression stays grim. Why would he fear coming home?

“Jacob?”

“Ellen.” He says my name softly, his eyes warm with love even as his mouth tightens into a line. He walks to his big chair, perching on the red velvet cushion as if it were hard bench. “Come, sit. We must talk.”

Suddenly fearful myself, I sit in one of the carved Victorian chairs my mother presented to us upon our marriage. The ornate table clock strikes five, its stentorian tones echoing importantly before fading to silence. My husband speaks.

“I have come across an amazing opportunity, my love,” he says without directly looking at me. “The Apollo leaves New York for California in two weeks, and Lucian and I plan to be aboard her.”

“Lucian? He’s talked you into this?” My sister must be having a similar conversation with her husband at this very moment, for if she had possessed prior knowledge she would surely have told me.

“Cousin Joseph’s going, too. He set up the whole thing.”

Joseph Perkins Beach, my cousin on my mother’s side, has a taste for adventure. That’s what Mother says, anyway. I always think of him as reckless. His father, my Uncle Moses, has the money and the ship to make this adventure happen. But why will I be left behind?

“Jacob, why?”

He finally looks at me, face etched with misery. “Ellen, I want to give you everything, but I want to earn it. This is my chance to make a future for us, independent of our family. I would bring you with me, my love, but California is a wild place. Let us go first and I shall send for you later.”

I nod, but my mind whirls. Whatever will I do without him? Jacob has been part of my world since we were small. My sister, Coelia, has her four children to keep her busy, but I will be alone.

“It’s not so bad,” he says. “Mother Perkins will relish your company as well as your help with L’Amie. I can see you settled with her before I leave if you wish. Or with Coelia if you prefer. I’m sure she’d appreciate your help with the children.”

He looks worried, as if he isn’t sure he’ll have time to keep that promise to see me settled. I shudder at the idea of living with Coelia and my four small nieces and nephews. No, moving in with Mother and my younger sister, L’Amie, is the better choice. They have lived with my Uncle Benjamin since the death of my father seven years prior. My brother Joey, recently turned eighteen, is away at school and safe from this mad venture. Uncle Benjamin’s household with his wife and three children will absorb me back as if I had never left to get married.

“Jacob, must you?” I ask, trying to keep the pleading tone out of my voice. “I will miss you so!”

I love him even more when he doesn’t remind me that his word is law, like Lucian does to my sister. Instead, he folds me in his arms. I cling to him, memorizing the smell of his cologne and the feel of his wool coat against my cheek. He murmurs in my ear, “As will I, my love. I will send for you the moment we have secured appropriate lodging in San Francisco.”

In the next two weeks I object quietly, then vociferously, then with tears. But come sailing day Jacob walks up the plank to board the Apollo, my cousin Joseph and brother-in-law Lucian striding with him, handsome and confident. The three brash young men turn more than one head in the crowd with their smiles and obvious friendship. The wind teases their coat flaps and hair, and I want to run to Jacob and button his coat and smooth his hair. I resist. Coelia can’t bear to watch the sailing, and has stayed home with the children, but Mother and I watch the tugboat pull the Apollo away from the dock, and wave madly, hoping our menfolk can see. The bitter bite of January drives us indoors before the ship is out of sight, but the image stays with me of Apollo’s belching stacks as she works up speed and diminishes with distance.

For the rest of January I mope. I sit with my embroidery near a window in Uncle Benjamin’s parlor but never pick up the needle, instead staring at raindrops smattering the glass. A small one quivers until another small drop joins it, then it slowly moves down the pane. As it gathers drops it moves faster until its final hurtling takes it rushing down the outside wall. And my gaze returns to the top of the window to find another drop to watch.

A raucous clatter drags my attention away from the window. With a sigh, I prepare for the imminent intrusion of Ben and Clarence, my two young cousins. My children will never be so wild, running through their house as if it were a gymnasium! But it is Uncle Benjamin’s house, and his sons. Ben, at eleven, is really not a bad sort. It’s five-year-old Clarence that brings out the trouble and multiplies it. They run into the parlor, shirts awry and suspenders trailing, screeching as if being pursued by a demon. Today the demon is my sister, L’Amie. At fifteen she should know better, but she is Mother’s baby.

“L’Amie!” Irritated at being disturbed, I am sharp with her. “They are wild enough without your encouragement!”

“Oh, Ellen, you are so stuffy,” she complains. She scrunches up her pretty face, graced with a nose rather than my own hawked beak, and emits one more horrible roar that sends the boys scampering from the room. She doesn’t follow. Turning to me, she says, “I shan’t be an old stuffy married lady at twenty-one.”

I tighten my lips into a disapproving line.

“I will be a doctor,” she declares. She throws back her head, her dark hair falling to the middle of her back. The ribbon that pulls it back, off her face, has come untied and straggles amidst the glossy waves. Her back straightens and her chin juts out in an unattractive manner.

I allow my laugh to be loud and unladylike, caused no doubt by her earlier insult. “A lady physician? I don’t think women will come that far in our lifetime, sister.”

 Rather than make her angry, my words seem to inspire her. Eyes alight with passion, she grabs my arm and says, “Oh, but we can make it happen! Did I tell you I met a girl the other day whose mother was at last summer’s convention in Seneca Falls?”

“The women’s convention?” My interest was piqued.

“It was fabulous, Ellen! Women from everywhere were there, and some men, too. They talked about women in professional careers, and even voting. A women’s rights group meets at my friend’s house. Come with me tomorrow night?”

My sister may be young and impetuous, but she is intelligent. She knows the immigrant women moving into the Lower East Side do not have the advantages our family connections give us. Women like our serving girl, Maureen, work long hours for our family then go home to toil for their own families. Besides, how long can I pine for word from Jacob? The Apollo will take months to get to San Francisco.

“Yes, I will,” I tell my sister.

She beams, gives me a fierce hug, then runs from the room roaring. Giggles and running feet tell me the boys have been waiting for her in the hall. At least she is taking their noise away from me.

By the time a weak spring sun spreads across the New York skyline, L’Amie and I have attended a handful of meetings and openly declared our support for women’s rights. Mother remains silent on the matter, only giving us an occasional pained smile.

When the first heat of summer begins to bake the city, Mother’s pained smiles turn to frowns as she realizes this is no passing fancy. It is a family dinner that brings the matter to open discussion.

Uncle Benjamin sits at the head of the long cherrywood table with Aunt Eveline at the foot. Mother’s place is on one side, flanked by L’Amie and me. Ben and Clarence usually sit on the opposite side, but tonight Joey and Cousin Henry are visiting from school, and Coelia and her four are here, too. Ben, Clarence, and Coelia’s children have been banished to the kitchen. I face Cousin Henry across the bowl of turnips. Coelia is in the middle, and our brother, Joey, across from L’Amie.

    At eighteen and nineteen, Henry and Joey think they are old enough to bestow their opinions upon us, and have been doing so throughout the first few courses. The conversation slows for a moment when Aunt Eveline rings for the sixth course and Maureen brings in a platter of fish. That’s when L’Amie speaks.

“Ellen and I have been attending meetings for women’s rights,” she begins.

Mother shifts in her seat, clearly distressed. “We are working with a temperance union.”

“Temperance!” laughs my brother. “You’ll find no supporters at our school!”

Henry laughs too, but has the grace to stifle it. “Not many men at that meeting, I’ll wager,” he says to L’Amie.

“There are some,” she insists.

“Men who value their partnership with a woman do not need to drink to gain power over them,” I say.

Mother gasps. “Girls,” she protests.

Uncle Benjamin leans forward and pins me with the steely eyes that make him a good businessman. “Are you saying, Ellen, that a man should never take a drink?”

“Some men cannot hold their liquor, Uncle,” L’Amie says. Even to me she sounds too prim.

“Times are difficult for women,” I say, warming to the topic. I intend a scholarly discussion that will end with the men in my family staunchly behind the issue of women’s rights, but I forget who I am dealing with.

“I am sorry, Benjamin,” my mother says, interrupting me. “I thought this would pass, so I allowed it.”

“How long have they been going to meetings?” Coelia asks. I wonder where her alliance lies. Her face is carefully neutral.

“I cannot have a household full of rebellious women, Mary,” he warns, his stern gaze now focused on my mother.

Her fork clatters to her plate, and I can see her hand shake. She puts both hands in her lap, where I can see her tormenting a linen napkin between them. “I will speak with them after dinner,” she murmurs.

The men speak among themselves for the remainder of the meal, discussing politics, prospects for gold in California, the cholera epidemic, anything that does not involve a woman.

When Maureen clears the last plate, Uncle Benjamin rises and leads his son and his nephew into his den, a world without womanly influence. There they will smoke cigars, sip cursed brandy, and discuss their flighty women.

My sisters and I follow Mother into the parlor. I settle into the seat by the window, where my embroidery has lain, largely forgotten, since January. Coelia sits near me, arranging her skirts neatly and accepting a tiny cup of tea when Mother pours. I sip mine, but L’Amie leaves hers to get cold. She paces the room, waiting for Mother to speak. It’s Coelia who speaks first, however.

“What were you thinking, L’Amie, to bring that up at dinner?” she demands.

“You don’t support our cause, sister?” she asks.

Coelia shakes her head, as if talking to little Clarence. “I am busy with my household and my family, and worrying for my husband every day. I have no time for lost causes.”

I bristle at her insinuation that I am not worried for Jacob. “And does your worrying help, then?” I ask in as snotty a tone as I can manage.

“What will Jacob think when he hears of your activities, Ellen?” Mother asks in a low tone. One of the grey strands in her hair has come loose from its knot and strays along her cheek. Her eyes are sad as they contemplate me.

“He loves me,” I begin.

“Jacob is of our generation, Mother,” my sister interrupts. “He will support his wife to build a better future for women.”

I appreciate her effort to support me, but I am tired of being interrupted. “I believe it is time to stand up for better conditions for women. Jacob and I will discuss this when we are reunited. Then, as now, it is our affair and no other’s.”

“May I ask you not to offend your uncle’s hospitality by creating hostility at dinner?” Mother asks.

I nod, but L’Amie speaks first. “It is not worth my time to discuss reform with him.”

“Coelia, do you stand with us?” I ask, curious.

“In spirit, I do. In actuality, my life is too busy to be running around attending meetings.”

I am content with this. She has her children, after all, to fill the lonely days. I have only vivid terrors of storm swept ships lost at sea.

Summer fades to autumn, and as the days cool and the leaves turn I spend more time watching for a letter or telegram than attending meetings. The Apollo is sailing around the Horn of Africa, and Cousin Joseph is charged with setting her up in San Francisco as a floating store. Jacob and Lucian, of course, will head into the hills to look for gold. I hope they remember to send word, first.

When it comes, late in October, I am both relieved and disappointed. The telegram reads, Have arrived. All well. Four words after eight months?

I fret daily, waiting for the long letter with proclamations of undying love that I know will surely follow. Instead, in the middle of November I get a telegram from Lucian. Jacob killed in mining accident. My deepest condolences.

9 thoughts on “Under the Almond Trees

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    1. Okay, Athena, I’ll put up a new chapter this weekend. I don’t know whether to start the book with the chapter that’s here already, or start with Ellen. I’ll put up the Ellen chapter and you tell me what you think, okay?

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