ith his top hat, tailored suit, well-trimmed mustache, and teeth sparkling in the midday sun, Walter was as handsome as I'd ever seen him. It took my breath away to see how his blue eyes tracked my every movement and how his smile never left his face from the moment he caught sight of me waiting in the crowd.
“Hattie!” he shouted as he leaned out of the window.
I waved and he pulled back from the window, disappearing into the shadow of the carriage. Within moments he was standing in the open doorway, before the train had come to a complete stop. He didn't wait. Even when the brakes hissed and the steam screamed as the train came to a halt, Walter was leaping down the steps and off the train. We each wound our way through the waiting crowd on the platform and into each other's arms.
“Hattie,” he whispered in my ear, sending chills tingling throughout my whole body.
I clung to him for a moment before propriety brought me to my senses. He gently kissed my cheek before letting me step back. He still held my hand in his. We were jostled by the arriving passengers, porters pushing trunks and luggage.
When a man's case thumped Walter in the back, so hard in the man's desire to be free of the crowd that Walter's hat almost fell off, he said, “Let's get out of here!”
I wrapped my arm tightly around his, he placed his hand on top of mine, and we scurried past the rush and ramble until we found a quiet spot behind a tower of stacked luggage. Walter pulled me to him again.
“Oh, how I've missed you. It's been too long.” I couldn't agree more.
Walter and I had spent the previous summer together in Newport, parting not long after I'd returned from a short visit to my hometown of St. Joseph, Missouri; he back to Eureka Springs where he was one of the prominent town doctors and me to Richmond with Sir Arthur and his wife, Lady Phillippa. Although we had written on a regular basis, this was our first meeting since. The year had been filled with predictable work as I helped Sir Arthur on his latest research project and consequent manuscript. I couldn't count how many days I'd spent typing and taking dictation while I waited patiently for Walter's next letter.
Walter took a deep breath and sighed. “Let's walk,” he said, suddenly uncharacteristically solemn.
I nodded, afraid my voice would betray the sudden anxiety that clutched at my heart. Something was wrong.
“I've heard there's a lovely botanical garden not far from here,” he said, trying in vain to sound calm. “I know you would like that. Let's go there.”
Normally so easygoing, why was Walter suddenly tense? Bones in his jaw protruded slightly as he clamped down on his teeth, his skin was pallid, and beads of perspiration glistened on his brow. I looked about me, trying to distract myself from Walter's uncharacteristic mood. A brougham, with an elaborate monogram of
painted in gold leaf on the door, was parked nearby. A man, pulling off his gloves, stood waiting for the driver to open the door. I stared at him for a moment, struck by his resemblance to our host, Senator Smith. And then, as the driver reached to open the door, the man jabbed the poor driver in the back with his black umbrella, fuming for having to wait. Embarrassed to have witnessed such boorish behavior, I looked back at Walter, hoping to find a change. It was a mistake. His face was drawn, and when he noticed me looking at him, he struggled to offer me a limp smile.
Oh, Walter, what has happened?
I walked beside him, wordlessly guiding him toward one of my favorite places in all of the city, while my stomach clenched and breathing became a chore. Walter, an exceptional physician, a compliment I never thought I'd give any doctor, didn't take long to notice I was struggling to keep my composure.
“Is there something wrong? Are you ill?”
“I could ask you the same thing,” I said, my laugh sounding feeble even to my own ears.
Walter's smile was as feeble as my laugh, not at all like the grin he'd given me moments ago from the train. What had happened in those few moments? Had he recovered from his joy of seeing me and sobered to the reality of our situation? Had he received bad news and hesitated to tell me? Was he due to leave for a tour of Europe and wished not to go? Had his mother changed her mind?
Walter took a deep breath, and I feared the worst. “You like the watch pin I sent you then?” He pointed to the gift pinned to my dress.
“You know I do.” He was doing everything to avoid saying what must be said. “Please tell me. I can't take the anticipation anymore.”
I put my hand to my chest, nearly gasping for breath. My corset suddenly felt too tight. I'd been so excited to see him and now, if he didn't speak soon, I feared I would run away and not come back.
“Indulge me a few more minutes? Is the garden far?”
“No, look.” Unable to say more, I pointed toward the towering circular conservatory, the sun glinting off the hundreds of glass panels on its dome, a few blocks away. He patted my hand and we strode in silence until we passed a police station with a sign on the door that read F
THE BLOOD OF A
“What's that all about?” Walter said. My heart beating too hard to answer, I led him quickly past. The last thing I needed to worry about was the threat of Coxey's Army.
When we arrived, he began scouring the outdoor gardens, looking about him nervously, until he spied the spot where he was to tell me the crushing news. He took my hands in his and led me to the marble wall that encircled the famous Bartholdi Fountain, in the shadow of the ornate, thirty-foot-tall cast-iron sculpture including reptiles, seashells, tritons, and three classical female figures holding a large basin encircled with a dozen lamps. The mist from the cascading water cooled my flushed face. He sat. I didn't. A flash of concern passed over his face. He patted the spot next to him.
“Please, Hattie, don't make this harder than it has to be.” And there it was. Confirmation that he'd traveled all this way to tell me face-to-face that he'd bent to the wishes of his mother and was engaged to someone else, that he was dying, that . . . that for whatever reason, I'd never see him again. “Will you sit?”
The smell of the water mixed with the scent of the nearby rose garden filled the air as a brilliant red cardinal alighted and then disappeared into an arborvitae hedge nearby. At any other time, I would have inhaled the sweet scents deeply. Now I could barely breathe.
“No, I'll stand.”
“Very well,” he said, the words forced from his lips. “After what you've been through, it's only fitting I should do this properly.” He inched to the edge of the wall and took my hands in his. With his soft skin against mine, I had to look away. “At least I won't have to get my knees dirty.” He chuckled.
Knees dirty? Was he planning to beg my forgiveness for leading me astray? For elevating my hopes, only to dash them when I had so gallantly fought against such a bitter end?
“Just say what you have to say.” I could taste the bitterness in my mouth.
“Dearest Hattie, will you not even look at me?”
“No.” Tears welling in my eyes slowly dripped down my face. With both of my hands in his, I had no way of brushing them aside as I wanted to.
Suddenly Walter was on his feet, his hands cradling my face, staring into my eyes. “This isn't at all what I wanted. Oh, Hattie, my God, why are you crying? Please, if I've been wrong . . . Oh God. How could I be so wrong?” He took several steps away and turned from me. We stood in silence for a moment as I drew my courage to speak.
“I'm sorry, Walter. I didn't mean to break down.” Not taking the time to find my handkerchief in my bag, I wiped my tears with the back of my hand. “Please, say what you came to say. I'll be fine.”
He swiveled around to stare at me and then the smile I so adored widened across his face. He took one step, and I was wrapped in his arms as he kissed my eyes and my cheeks where my tears mingled with his kisses.
“And here I thought for a moment . . . oh, how could I have ever doubted you?”
“Doubted me? Oh, Walter, what are you talking about?”
With his face mere inches from mine he said, “I love you, Miss Hattie Davish. Will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?”
Waves of shock and disbelief rippled through my body so that I couldn't feel my feet or hands and as quickly were replaced by overwhelming relief, happiness, and joy. My head swam and tears blurred my vision. How could I have misread his nervousness for rejection, his hesitation for having to relay tragic news? Walter loved me. I knew he did. Why was I so quick to believe he'd given up?
It didn't matter now, I realized, as he stared at me in anticipation of my answer.
“Well? Will you have me, Hattie?”
What else could I say? “Yes, my dearest Walter. Yes!”
He swept me into his arms, and swung me in a circle like a whirligig. We both laughed in relief and joy. The disapproving stares of a middle-aged couple strolling by brought me back to myself, and Walter put me back on my feet. Still clutching each other's hands, we sat simultaneously on the fountain wall and leaned in, neither wanting to be farther apart than we must.
“So your mother gave you her blessing after all?”
“Yes, though I won't go into the details of our last meeting. Suffice to say, she will not stand in our way and will welcome you into her home.” That was as much as I could expect from the woman who was disappointed in her aspirations to find her son a wealthy, socially suitable wife.
“I know both Father and Mother would've adored you.” I only wished I'd had the chance to introduce them to this wonderful man. “Though Mother, having raised me to be a âgood Catholic girl,' wanted me to marry a ânice Catholic boy.' So despite having married a Protestant herself, she would've tried to convert you.”
“She wouldn't need to.”
“What do you mean?”
“I spent our time away wisely, dearest Hattie. I know how much your faith means to you, and I know you would never ask it of me, so I did it for you.”
“Yes, now I too believe in One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.”
“Oh, Walter.” I was so full of joy that I couldn't say more.
“But what about Sir Arthur?” Walter said. “Will he give us his blessing, despite losing you as his secretary?”
“Oh!” I gasped, my hand flying to cover my mouth.
“You did mention this inevitability to him, didn't you?”
I was mortified to have to admit I had never mentioned the possibility, let alone the inevitability, to Sir Arthur that I might marry and leave his employ. I loved Walter, but I had never committed to the idea that we would someday marry. After his mother's rejection of me in Newport, it seemed too much of a dream, like I was setting myself up for a terrible disappointment. And yet when Walter had written to tell me he was coming to Washington and had news he wanted to discuss, I'd immediately hoped for a proposal. So why hadn't I broached the subject with Sir Arthur? He'd been so good to me, I couldn't imagine marrying and leaving him without his well wishes. Was that why? Did I doubt he would wish me well? Would he concern himself only with the loss of a trusted servant? Or had the appropriate moment simply not presented itself? I hoped it was the latter but feared it was the former.
“I haven't spoken to him about it.”
“Not at all?” Walter's eyes widened in surprise.
I wanted to tell him I'd done it, that I hadn't feared what Sir Arthur would say, that I hadn't doubted there would ever be a need to discuss it. I'd found avoiding the truth and sometimes outright lying had come easier and easier to me, ever since I'd gotten caught up in crime and murder, but I couldn't, wouldn't lie to this man.
“Not at all.” Walter silently contemplated this revelation.
“Then we must speak to him as soon as possible, mustn't we?”
“Yes.” I was relieved not to be chastised for my lapse. “In fact, I have to meet him at the Capitol in an hour. Maybe I can speak with him then.”
“Oh, no, I've arranged to have a late luncheon with my sister. As one of my biggest allies in this world, she has a right to know the happy news first. She lives in Dupont Circle. Do you have time to at least come and meet Sarah?”
Walter's sister, Sarah, Mrs. Daniel Clayworth, was several years old than her brother but, unlike Walter, had made her mother proud in her choice of a spouse. Sarah had married a wealthy banker from the state of Missouri who was now serving his third term as a United States congressman, and the couple was entrenched in Washington's high society. Walter adored his sister, writing of her often in his letters, but with Sarah having lived first in St. Louis and then in Washington, they saw each other rarely. Needless to say, I hadn't yet met her.
“I'm so sorry, Walter.” I glanced at the watch pinned to my dress, his gift to me. “You'll have to go without me. Sir Arthur wants me to cover the Senate's session this afternoon. Dupont Circle is a bit far, and I can't risk being late. You know how Sir Arthur is about punctuality.” I tried to keep the relief from my voice. After the fiasco of meeting Walter's mother, I was none too eager to meet the sister. “I am sorry.”
“Don't be. Of course, I'm disappointed, but you have to do what you need to do.”
“Can we see each other tonight?”