The story of a morphine-addicted Civil War veteran and his redemption continues . . .
The next day came and went…and the next. Weldon stayed in his room at the new yet shabby Englewood Hotel only a short walk up Spring Lane to the Palisades along the Hudson. A big city bustled just across the water but even this small town unnerved him. Weldon’s ungainly step and homespun clothes set him apart. His uniform wouldn’t mask his inferiority forever—not here in the newly built and wealthy little New Jersey town where there were committees formed for every conceivable purpose—new lanterns and shade trees, churches and theaters and a library. Weldon imagined that if his father had lived he’d still be cutting and burning huge stumps from his property and listening to the wolves in the moon’s eerie light. And John would probably be beside him, never having seen the light of day.
On the third day in the evening Weldon made up his mind to leave, but this town had something he needed. The pus at his side had come on strong again. Weldon wasn’t sure anymore if the pain was real or an excuse and who cared? He had done everything right. He followed orders. Took care of his men and read the God-damned Bible but what for?
On the day it happened, on the day Weldon fell, after the initial shock of the war actually hitting him, a peace quieted him as he stared up into the spring sky. It could have been a noble ending.
But nothing ended. The war had been the embarkation point for the prison ship he had no business being on. Weldon had not momentarily lost his will. It had been seized from him the moment the assistant surgeon gave him his first dose of morphine on the field.
The druggist might still be open. Wrapping his side tightly, Weldon pulled his jacket close and walked out through the crowded lobby and into light rain. “Oh, a hop…” Weldon said to himself as he scanned the young crowd pushing its way into the hotel. He spotted the McCulloughs. They appeared to have gotten the worst of the rain.
“I can’t go in like this. My slippers are soaked and look at all the girls in those pretty, dry silks!” Katherine cried.
“It was a stupid choice to walk, Katie.” Simon smiled at a girl.
“I want to go home.”
“Mother will be huffed if I let you leave early again and I want a dance…”
Weldon hadn’t meant to walk up. It just happened. Katherine turned toward the sound of the evening train whistle, “Father’s train’s come in. Maybe I’ll go and meet him. Oh, Mr. Weldon.”
“You beat all, Weldon,” Simon laughed. “We’d given you up for gone.”
“Not for the first time…” Weldon said.
“Nothing, sir. I see you’re off to the dancing.” Weldon glanced at Katherine.
“Come along, Weldon,” Simon said with a hint of discomfort in his voice. “A man in uniform always gets a full night of country girls.”
Katherine slipped through the crowd and into the gas lit hotel.
“Well, I must go to mind my sister. Will you come?”
Weldon followed. He always followed Simon McCullough. The scene was warm with music and the candles. Weldon half listened to Simon impressing young farm boys about the war. Across the room under an enormous mirror stood two distinct groups, accentuated by the color and quality of their gowns. Katherine’s frosted peach silk should have placed her squarely into the more elite of the two parties, where the girls quietly gossiped and turned inward, but Weldon did not see her. The farm girls called attention to themselves. Their squeals of raucous laughter reminded Weldon of home.
“I have to go…” he muttered.
“Don’t be a humbug, Weldon.” Simon pulled him. “Oh, shit, here she comes. She’s spotted us.”
“No. Margaret Brown.”
A tree trunk of a girl with a deliberate step and thick coarse hair, which she never managed fully to tame, charged over. Margaret’s full lips parted and her large teeth glistened. Margaret Brown always got noticed. She intimidated men. Her well made clothes accentuated her broad shoulders. Some might mistake her for a farmer’s daughter, but she never worked a day in her life.
“Simon! There you are,” she said, pointing her finger into Simon’s chest. “Well, while you enjoy yourself, I’m stuck with your sad little sister.”
“Your best friend.”
“Yes, she is indeed, but not good company here. And no one will dance with her as wet and saggy as she is. A gentleman would have brought an umbrella—but you’re no gent!”
“Margaret, you’re very humorous.” Simon looked past her.
“Captain McCullough, how could you break young Kitty Lamont’s heart the other day at the picnic? It’s scandalous!” Margaret boomed over the fiddle.
“Miss Brown, I didn’t know that you were acquainted with her. Where do you get your information?” Simon asked.
“Simon dear, I have a host of friends and acquaintances who tell all.”
“What a claim to fame—I bet they wear their gossip like a badge of honor, but tell me, Margaret, who are these friends of yours? I’ve yet to see them,” Simon replied, flicking his cigar.
Margaret turned her attention to John Weldon. “Now who is this Private So and So?”
“This is Sergeant Weldon, Margaret,” Simon stated, pointing to the chevron on his jacket.
“Oh, so he’s practically a real officer then? I thought the war department made everybody at least a captain. All I hear is Brevet this and Brevet that . . . were you brevetted something at least, sir? But brevet is a phony promotion anyhow is it not?”
“No.” Weldon bristled.
“Oh, don’t feel bad. Probably half of the boys lie and maybe you’ll make something of yourself as a civilian. Are you staying at the McCullough house?”
“Sergeant Weldon’s got a room here at the hotel—didn’t want to burden my mother,” Simon said.
“It’s such a sleepy little town, Mr. Weldon, you must be bored to tears here…and the hotel must be mighty hard on a soldier’s pay or did you get into the army on a bounty? I’ve read there was quite a bit of money made that way.”
“I’ve b-been a soldier for years! I never took a bounty!” Weldon shook now.
Simon grabbed his arm to steady him, but Weldon slipped loose and pulled his jacket straight.
“Margaret, you need to stop talking,” Simon said. “Don’t listen to her, Weldon. She’s ignorant.” He nervously puffed his cigar. “There’s Dottie Taylor,” he said. “She’s some pumpkins. Weldon, do me the favor of dancing with Katie. Just one dance…”
Margaret and Weldon watched Simon go.
“Well? Are you going to dance with her or not?” Margaret asked. “You understand I don’t like soldiers at all. I don’t care if they freed every darkie on the planet.”
“There she is…leaving…”
“Come on then!” Margaret grabbed Weldon. “Katherine! Wait!”
Katherine wiped her teary eyes. Weldon’s feet stuck in place now, but Margaret shoved him closer.
“M-miss, w-would you like a d-dance?”
“That’s fine,” Weldon replied, stepping backward, “my leg aches and I’ll just go…”
“I’m wet, and my hair and, oh, I hate these things with the girls…” Katherine sobbed. “Mr. Weldon, will you please take me home?”
“No, I couldn’t possibly, I agreed to a dance…”
“You agreed? Were you paid? Then I’ll pay you to take me home!”
“Miss, I didn’t mean to upset you…I d-don’t know why I came. I’d love a dance with you…your brother suggested it, but I wanted to…”
“I’m all wet…”
“Oh, I don’t mind. I have a headache…”
Katherine laughed. Her mouth seemed too small for a full smile. Her eyes were soft, and she had an upturned nose with delicate freckles across the bridge.
Weldon took her hand in his and limped onto the floor. A German dance was called. “I don’t know it. I should go…”
“Will I show you the dance?” Katherine asked.
The fiddler broke his string, so the couples were at loose ends. Margaret came up as another full-figured girl introduced herself to Weldon. “Sir, I’m Louisa Van Brunt. What frolic this is! I never thought you’d find a partner, Katie—they’d all be afraid of what Simon might do to them.”
Weldon jumped in. “Simon McCullough is a friend.”
“Oh, that explains it. Trust Simon to find a way. He’s been working at getting Katherine someone, anyone, but this town is so judgmental. It’s a shame. Mr. Weldon, I admire your courage getting involved with the McCulloughs—they’re always up to such mischief.”
“Louisa Van Brunt, hold your tongue,” Margaret huffed. “I see you’re not engaged and you have no brothers to blame for scaring off the boys.”
“For your information, I have a few boys interested in me, but I’m patient and considerate. I want them to know everything about me so there are no surprises later. Don’t you agree that’s a good plan, Katherine?”
Katherine stood perfectly still.
“Miss Van Brunt, the truth is a man can tell a person’s character very quickly,” Weldon said. “You don’t need every detail of a person to get an impression of them. If they’re cruel and ignorant an expensive dress can’t hide it.”
Louisa took a step back and smiled. “Rustic wisdom; how very charming.”
“Don’t you dare talk down to Mr. Weldon!” Katherine cried.
“The mouse speaks! Are you madly in love like the Undercliff boy?”
“Louisa!” Margaret shouted.
Katherine pushed past them all for the lobby and into the street.
“Miss McCullough!” Weldon tried to keep up. “Wait!”
“I’m not madly in love!” she cried.
Weldon was a little disappointed. “Miss, you shouldn’t walk out in the rain on your own…thank you for defending me…” He laughed. “If you wait I’ll get an umbrella and walk you.”
“No, everyone talks.” Katherine cried again. “I’m sorry. I’m not always like this…”
“I mean I’m always like this—wet or messy or awkward. And I’m so…trapped. Everything ends here on the Palisades for me…I’m sorry…you must think…”
“I think you’re pretty.”
Katherine pulled her wet hair off her face and rolled her eyes, but she smiled a little. “My mother told me I looked just like a spinster.”
Simon ran out. “Katherine, just like you to make a show of yourself! Let’s go.”
“Sir, the girls weren’t very nice,” Weldon said.
“Weldon, you don’t understand the first thing about girls.” Simon jerked Katherine’s arm. “I never should have let you…oh, never mind.”
“Don’t pull her like that.” Weldon stood five inches taller than Simon. “I want to see your sister tomorrow.”
“Who do you think you are, Weldon? You have no right to lecture me.”
“I’d like to see Miss Katherine.”
“Well, I don’t care a bit. It’s my father.”
“Tomorrow then…if m-miss, if you approve…”
Katherine nodded but set her sights on Simon. He worked his jaw as Weldon walked off.
“I’m sorry, Simon. I didn’t mean to spoil your night,” Katherine said.
“Really? You always find a way to make a show of yourself,” he said, pulling a flask from his jacket. “I can’t wait to leave here.”
“Take me with you,” Katherine begged.
Simon rolled his eyes and took a swig.
“I wish…I wish you wouldn’t drink so much,” Katherine said, timidly trying to tuck her arm under his.
Simon resisted at first. “Damn, you’re cold as ice. Here, take my coat.”
“No, I couldn’t. You’re always too good to me at your own expense. I never wanted that.” Her chin quivered.
“Now stop it. My helping you got me out of this town in the first place. I’m eternally grateful.”
“Didn’t you ever miss us, Simon? I missed you more than anything. I thought when you came home it would all go back to the way it was. Remember our resting place by the brook under that tree with all the moss? We could tell each other everything.”
Simon gave her a squeeze as they headed home. “You know why I didn’t come home that Christmas when I could have? Well, I was sick. Gonorrhea.”
“You get it from bad women. I tried it on with a darkie—wanted to see if they were different. Weldon brought me to the soldier’s hospital. Lots of us got it—a southern conspiracy. But I’m cured.”
“Does Sergeant Weldon have it?” Katherine asked, blushing.
“You like him, don’t you?” Simon shook his head. “Weldon is religious or something. I don’t know, but I doubt he’s got anything. Never saw him with a girl…he’s awkward, don’t you think? Self-taught and all. Be nice to him.”
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Because Father will have none of it.”
Katherine stood quietly for a moment. “So you’re better now? Cured. Are they…different…the darkie girls?”
“Katie,” he laughed, “do you really want to know?”
“No, not really.”
“Well, the doctor said it was because it was her monthlies that I got it. They used syringes of mercury to cure me. Really awful. I couldn’t ride for a month—Weldon chuckled at that—and they said I shouldn’t dance or eat asparagus,” he laughed. “Where would I get asparagus in the army?”
“I just want you to be like you always were.”
“Some of us have to grow up, sis,” Simon said with a sigh and another sip of his flask. He winked at her and forced a grin. They walked the rest of the way in their own thoughts.
The clocks in the house struck three in the morning at nearly the same time in different tones and textures. The sky and low hanging moon cast an ancient glow over the room as Katherine’s mind drifted.
She rose from her bed to hear Simon whistling an old war song out of tune. From her window she could see his rumpled figure, hands in pockets and stooped forward like a used up old farmer. This sad glow and aged light brought Simon, her best friend, back to her—rosy-cheeked and full-lipped calling out in the snow making teams with his mates. Organizing, always organizing them.
The glare from the late afternoon sun in winter blinded her to the others. She was on Simon’s team. The dull white landscape of noon had turned to fire with glowing trees and burning bushes, long shadows and the thick smell of wood burning. Soon they would all go home. Her throat was raw when she swallowed the frosty air, but she didn’t care about the cold.
Katherine raced through the tunnels and over the ruined forts they had been at work on for days and threw herself into a dugout cave of snow, out of the wind and hidden from the marauding snowball armies. The pale blue sky in the east soothed her as she stared up at it, mulling over a phenomenon she had learned about in school, “aurora borealis, aurora borealis,” she repeated just above a whisper. The voices of her brother and his mates had faded away but the calling of a jay, blue in the highest tree, took her fancy.
A boy from Undercliff, a stranger, pounced on her then. He straddled her waist and crushed her elbows beneath his knees. Before she could scream, the boy shoved her mouth full of dirty snow. Katherine spit it out, choking, but he smacked her hard and covered her mouth with his foul smelling wool glove. Kicking, she only managed to lose her boot—her mother had bought them two sizes too large for economy. The boy was a nobody. She remembered his teeth were already rotten when he smiled.
“You think you’re somethin’ little miss—all fancy,” he whispered in her face. She kicked and tried to free her arms, but he weighed too much. He ripped at her coat—a smart sailor coat with brass buttons—they flew like sparks into the snow and he shoved his hand beneath her wintry layers. He looked past her like a strange doctor, feeling around for something uncommon. “Boy, you’re just a little thing; nothin’ to get too excited over. Whatcha cryin’ for? I ain’t gonna hurt you unless you make me,” he warned and grabbed her face to kiss it. She bit his nose and he leveled a punch aimed at her face, but got her ear. Katherine never told anyone when the ringing stopped that she could no longer hear on that side.
He wrestled her skirt up and threw himself between her legs. Now Katherine could claw him, but it made no difference. She thought she could scream, but she couldn’t hear herself. The fiery glare from the sun blinded her. She felt a jolt and waited for another blow, but the weight lifted from her. One of Simon’s friends sat her up and wrapped his scarf around her while pulling her skirts back down. He shouted to someone and kneeled and spoke to her, but she couldn’t hear him with the ringing. She would have laughed if she could, watching him struggle to get her stocking back on her blue foot, but she wanted her brother to stop it—what she now saw that he was doing—it scared her.
Simon had lost his hat somehow and she remembered his red ears and his straw-colored hair tousled with sweat and he had the nobody by the throat and the boy bled. His body hung naked—he hadn’t the chance to fasten his trousers back on—and it shocked her—his motives; what he had done to her became clear and awful and humiliating. The boy’s nose and mouth bled and his skin flapped under his eye and she wished that she had not let her mouth touch any part of him. Simon had got hold of her boot with the big heavy heel. He wasn’t speaking or shouting as his mates were, as they stood there in a casual semi-circle. His mouth was a grim line of rage and he threw the nobody to the ground and set upon him with blunt blows of the heel, kicking the boy’s face in like a pumpkin being smashed.
No one stopped Simon, although one friend did turn away. Simon stood up, his nose dripping onto the lifeless form beneath him. He kicked snow over the face and the others joined in. One by one they came to gather around Simon’s little sister, who remained in shock sitting in the snow.
They bundled her up with their coats and hats and put her on their little bobsled.
They were just boys, who wanted to help. The men of the town visited the McCullough home later. Both children refused to speak for days, but the story came out through the others. The Village Protection Society formed soon afterwards—Simon a sort of mascot.
Scott sent Simon off to a military prep school to study for West Point. For Katherine there were no more carefree wanderings (they were from then on forbidden by Scott), no more school (the other girls whispered things she couldn’t quite hear and her grades were slipping) and no more dreams. The lines had been drawn. The world had been cut in half like her hearing. Her mother examined her—there were no signs of damage. There was just the one thing that crept into her mind—without Simon she was nobody.