FICTION SERIAL (part four): An Awkward Proposal

JW Waterhouse
JW Waterhouse

When Scott McCullough catches morphine-addicted veteran John Weldon in a compromising position with his daughter Katherine in the barn Scott runs Weldon off his property, but the smitten young man returns.

Even the heavy lion’s head knocker on the front door intimidated Weldon. He watched Scott McCullough through the entrance way windows lighting the hallway lamp in his slippers and smoking jacket. The old man wore an ornate cap with gold tassels Sarah had made for him. The dogs caused an uproar at the sound of the knock. Sarah and Simon shooed them into the kitchen before Scott opened the door a crack.

“I made myself clear earlier tonight, Mr. Weldon. You are not welcome here.”

Weldon pushed his way through as he spoke. “Mr. McCullough, I’ve come to apologize to you, sir.”

“There’s no need to apologize. The army is no training ground for manners.”

“I d-disagree, sir. It is because I acted so common and not the gentleman I have been trained to be that I landed myself and your daughter, Miss Katherine, I mean, into trouble.”

Scott cleared his throat, “Well, we can forget the whole affair, but I think it wise for you to put an end to this little romantic interlude. Katherine is not fit for the army.”

“Miss McCullough seems a strong girl, even if smallish.” Weldon looked past Scott for any sign of Katherine.

Scott eyed Weldon as if he had said something truly insane. “I traveled with the Sanitary Commission during the war and witnessed the debauchery the soldiers got up to. Katherine behaved foolishly—or worse today. I don’t want you thinking you have a camp follower to use here and then desert. And she WILL NOT live in a hovel fit for a pack animal.”

“Sir! I never . . . I don’t consider Miss Katherine in any low way at all! If you allow us to marry I will do anything to gain promotion. I would never have her come out unless I could keep her comfortable and safe.” What was he saying?

“Are you asking for permission to marry my daughter after only a few days of knowing her?”

“Sir . . . I . . . well . . . it’s just that . . . your daughter, I mean Miss Katherine. . . .”

“Son, I know who you are referring to . . .”

“Yes, well, I think I could love her . . . I mean, I know that I am—in love. At least what I imagined it to feel like—though I hardly imagined it at all…” Weldon took a few steps back.

Scott said nothing. The kitchen door creaked. Scott shot his wife and son a menacing glance before the door closed again.

Simon and Sarah whispered and muffled their laughter.

“Mr. Weldon, I don’t know about you. I don’t even like you, but I have to think of my Katherine.” He called up the stairs, “Katherine you may stop hiding up there and come down if you are decent.”

Katherine came into the light in her paisley wrapper. Her hair hung in a long braid with a blue bow tied at the end. Weldon smiled at her tiny blue slippers peeking out on each step.

“Katherine, did you hear what Mr. Weldon has just said?” Scott asked.
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“Father, I could never be happier than if you gave me permission to marry Mr. Weldon!”

“How did we raise such foolish children, Sarah?” Scott called.

Sarah pushed a small dog snout back as she squeezed through the door in a hurry.
“We’ve spoiled them, I’m afraid,” Sarah said with wide eyes and an excited grin.

“And how would this marriage work?” Scott said. The dogs were running riot in the kitchen. Simon kicked a few back and joined the group. “Mr. Weldon would be stationed where?”

“I don’t know, Father. . . .”Katherine looked to Weldon.

Simon stepped in. “Father, only commissioned officers bring along wives…well, sergeants marry laundresses but not Katie…”

Sarah looked appalled.

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“But, that’s okay,” Simon went on, “Weldon will make a fine lieutenant one day if I have anything to say about it. Father, Colonel Langellier likes me quite a bit and I’ll have his ear. I wish I could bring Katie along with me…but then how would that look for Katherine to attend affairs Weldon would be excluded from?”

“I intend to take Miss McCullough with me, Simon,” Weldon said. “Someday I will take her. I’m gonna work hard myself. I won’t depend on you or anyone, sir.”

“I didn’t mean …” Simon grew quiet.

Weldon shook. Not even his legs were steady and secure. He waited for a shipwreck, taking a deep breath.

The family stood in silent contemplation.

“And how would it be, dear?” Sarah spoke up. “A marriage this week and a child the next?”

“I don’t know. . . .”

“The girl knows nothing, Sarah! It’s astonishing. And don’t think that I will support you financially so that your soldier can gamble the money away.”

“I don’t gamble, sir.”

“Father, I wish you’d stop talking of money. It’s embarrassing and beneath you,” Simon said.

“What I say about my money is my business. When and if you ever earn any, son, then you will have the same right,” Scott lectured. He took a magnanimous breath and crossed his arms in thought. “Well, the truth is that Katherine has few options left to her now. She’s put off most gentlemen who would have her. You’ve had your way with her. I dare say Katie has no wits to be left alone for five minutes. She hasn’t a proper education. I don’t know what will become of her, but I despair at the thought of supporting a bitter old spinster when I retire. I guess maybe Mr. Weldon is the best she can do. No offense.”

The color rose in Katherine’s face.

“Father, why are you so cruel?” Simon asked.

“Cruel? I’m simply stating facts. We mustn’t all have our head in the sand.”

“Why couldn’t you let her head be in the clouds just this once?” Simon replied.

“You, of all people, Simon, who loves to defend your sister…I thought you would see that Katie is not fit for an army wife!”

“What is Katie fit for then, Father?” Simon said, “Staying locked up here with you? Books are fine, but she has to experience some life, too and you and Mother are young enough yet. You don’t need her help.”

Weldon inched away from the gaslight and into the shadows near the door.

Simon grabbed his arm and continued speaking. “John Weldon comes off awkward and dull, but he’s steady and smarter than you think…and I’ve never seen him look at any girl the way he does Katie… they’re sweet.”

“How romantic, Simon. It’s what lands you in trouble with the girls. You’re far too hopeful,” Scott said, softening, “but maybe I’m too judgmental. I only want Katie to be happy and well cared for by a fellow of high caliber.” He gave Weldon a withering glance.

“Father, I wonder at you. I have my prejudices, but you…I imagined that you actually believed all that humbug you spouted before the war. What burns me is that you have such contempt for Weldon who fought your war but such abiding respect for Negroes.”

“Simon, I hope you are not under any allusions about your intelligence. This has nothing to do with Weldon’s mixed race; it has to do with his position. And if Katherine thinks it will be easy to live on thirteen dollars a month…” Scott huffed. “And I have no room for Mr. Weldon in my business.”

Simon laughed bitterly. “You have nothing to fear on that account. Weldon is set on remaining in the military like I am. Don’t trouble yourself about our presence.”

Sarah cried and grabbed Simon and Weldon by the arm. “Oh, pooh. You’re welcome here always. You must visit ME often! I couldn’t bear the thought of not seeing my children!”

Scott softened. “Mr. Weldon, I apologize for my son’s behavior. He tends to make things awkward when he speaks.”

Sarah glared at Scott, and he relented.

“I’m ashamed of my own behavior also. But, this is such a big surprise and a father has a right to want the best for his daughter. I hope my son is right about you.”

Sarah rushed up. She kissed Weldon on the cheek which signaled to all but Weldon that the storm was over.

“Katherine,” Sarah gushed, “I’ll take care of the wedding arrangements—no rushing—we must have a dress made and of course I’ll cook and bake, but we don’t want the weather too cold. October is best. That will allow you and Mr. Weldon to be husband and wife before he leaves.”

Scott went in search of a nice bottle for a toast (at Sarah’s suggestion).

“Sakes alive, Weldon,” Simon said with a chuckle. “My father gave in so easily.”

Weldon tried to smile.

They listened to Scott cursing in the root cellar over some mess not cleaned up, and Katherine and Simon rushed to settle him.

Weldon stood nervously with his eyes to the ground.

“You’re surprised and scared at your luck,” Sarah observed.

“Yes, a bit, Mrs. McCullough.”

Sarah took Weldon by the arm and led him to the kitchen. They sat by the fire and Sarah poured tea. “It’s not luck, dear. Katherine is a bright and good-hearted person and she recognizes that you are just the same. You’ll see. Love makes its own luck. It gives you the strength to make things happen in life—like tonight.”

“I guess.”

“And, Mr. Weldon, I’m sure you will try your best, but . . . I worry you don’t realize the responsibility that you are taking on . . . financially. Katherine is used to nice things. She doesn’t realize what she will miss of the comforts of home when she no longer has them. And, this hurts me to say about my own daughter, but Katie has been ill-used by a boy—you understand that you will not be her first.”

“I have money saved. I can buy her things. . . .” Weldon’s chest tightened.

“Mr. Weldon, I know a soldier’s salary—remember I have a soldier in the family and he is forever borrowing from us. . . .”

“Well, that’s because Simon’s wasteful and careless!”

“You see what I mean?” Sarah said, stirring her tea. “To you coming from, well,  less affluent circumstances . . . to you Simon’s needs seem wasteful and foolish. Katherine will be the same. . . .”

“No, Simon is truly wasteful!”

“Please don’t take this so emotionally. I just want my daughter—and you of course—to think a little about the realities of this marriage,” Sarah said, handing him a cup. “This is very quick indeed.”

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“I have thought . . .” Weldon spilled his tea a little. His eyes wandered around the cluttered kitchen and for the first time he tried to put a price to everything he saw. The ornate oven, the upholstered wing chairs, so solid and substantial, by the great stone fireplace—how much did they cost? There were china dishes of blue and white drying on their rack and a handsome clock elaborately carved of wood. Even the large table covered with the day’s baking no longer looked inviting, but expensive.

Katherine skipped into the room and on closer inspection Weldon noticed the fine fabric of her dress and shoes. For his entire life Weldon had lived in homes or shelters half the size of this kitchen. He hadn’t thought. Katherine had no idea about army quarters even for officers. Everything—the crystal for the toast, the champagne—was an expense Weldon had never considered.

“I have to go,” Weldon announced.

They hadn’t even made a toast.

“Weldon?” Simon said. “Are you well? Do you need to lie down?”

“No, I just . . . I need to go.”

Sarah crossed her arms, shaking her head.

Katherine walked him out. “Mr. Weldon, what’s the matter?”

“Nothing.”

“Will I see you tomorrow?”

“I don’t know . . . I have some errands . . . maybe not tomorrow,” Weldon answered unable to look at Katherine. His eyes were on the road.

“Mr. Weldon, what’s happened? Did my mother say something?”

“Don’t depend on me, miss.”

Weldon turned and walked back to his bleak hotel room, lit by the smallest of gas lamps. Flies buzzed, attracted to the rotting flesh at his side wrapped from even his own view. The doctors told Weldon he was dead. How was he still here? He rummaged through his things. His side pained him; it had not stopped oozing the foul smelling pus. Sprinkling the tiny jar of powder—not much—less than he was used to—over his unwrapped side a relief came–a dream when he rubbed it into his wound.

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READ PART ONE HERE

READ PART TWO HERE

READ PART THREE HERE

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