If I Wait For You, page 1
If I Wait For You
Copyright 2011 by Jane Goodger
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New Bedford, Massachusetts 1856
In the evening, when the western skies held just a hint of sunlight, Julia would sometimes stand on the balcony above the grand entranceway and listen to the sounds of her house. She could stand there in the shadows, unobserved, undisturbed and allow herself some peace. She would place her hands on the smooth, polished rail and stand, quite still, so that she might miss nothing—not the muffled sounds of seagulls coming from the harbor, not the clatter of pans being washed in the kitchen, nor the endless ticking of the hall clock.
It was that clock, she realized long ago, that drew her to this spot more than anything. In her younger years, it was a reminder of time, a quiet marking of the years of having her husband blessedly at sea, the pendulum swinging its joyous reminder: a million times will you hear this sound before he returns.
Now, it was a reminder that her son would soon be home. West’s ship had arrived earlier that day and she knew he would come home as soon as he could get away from his duties as captain. She’d kept his arrival a secret from the other members of the household, holding it close to her heart, waiting with the anticipation of a child at Christmas for the moment her son would walk through the door. She wanted to be here, at her spot on the balcony, when he strode through the door, when he took his first look around his childhood home. The house once filled with gloom was now a place of happiness. She smiled at the sound of Gardner’s chuckle and the answering music of Sara’s laughter coming from the parlor below and prayed West would return home before the two of them went off together.
Sara and Gardner. One could scarcely say one name without saying the other, so often were the two paired. They enjoyed each other’s company immensely, two young people filled with the joy of life and celebrating the discovery of another soul so much like their own. Julia had no doubt, not a single one, that when Gardner joyfully headed out to sea after the Julia was outfitted, Sara would be on board as his wife. Her heart was filled with contentment at the thought that at least one of her sons would be finally happy.
Jared, dear, dear Jared. She feared her oldest son would never be happy again, having lost the essence of his life when his lovely wife and baby died at sea. He’d been gone for four years, now. Four years with scarcely a letter. West, as prolific a letter-writer as a captain can be, had written that he had met up with Jared in the Arctic. “He is not the same man, mother,” he’d written. No, he wouldn’t be, for he blamed himself for the death of his wife and child.
Of all her sons, West was the one she’d worried about the most. He was not meant for the life as a whaler. As big and strapping as he’d become, she’d always thought West would be far more content using his brain in the counting house than using his brawn on a ship. He was the only of her sons to seek a more traditional path, for he was engaged to marry a wonderful girl from an influential family.
Thank goodness his days as a whaler were over. She had a special place in her heart for West and her heart would weep every time she saw him, so strong, so stern. So very much alone. She would never forget his expression looking down at her from the deck of the long-lost Bedford when his father had forced him to sea. He’d been twelve years old and so dreading leaving his mother and his home that he’d vomited for a week prior to sailing. Never had he said a word, not to her, and certainly not to his father. He bore it silently, only his expressive eyes telling her, pleading with her: I want to stay home.
She’d watched the seamen ready the ship, willing herself not to run to the deck to drag West down the gang plank, and she’d smiled encouragement. It was West’s valiant attempt at a smile that tore at her heart the most, that little chin coming up, those hands clutching the davit fiercely. He was trying to comfort her with that smile, her brave little boy.
And now he was coming home for good.
She stood there on the balcony, knowing he would appear any minute, and was soon rewarded for her patience. The door opened and he stepped in. She did not rush down to see him, but stood silently, watching as his eyes swept around, drinking in the sight of his home. It had been more than three years since she’d seen him, and still she found herself amazed that this man, this grand, handsome man, had come from her womb.
A shriek startled her from her perusal.
“West!” Sara ran to the door, a blur of mint-green silk, and threw herself against West, her arms wrapping around his waist in the guileless way that surprised Julia. West looked stunned to find himself enveloped by this girl, and his arms were held out to his sides, as if he were unsure exactly what had attacked him. And then the oddest thing happened. He pushed his cheek against her hair and brought one large hand to the back of her head, fingers moving almost convulsively, as if they moved against his will.
Sara pushed away, but kept her hands at his waist as she looked up at West.
“West, good to have you home, brother,” Gardner said heartily. Only then did Sara move away and only then did Julia see her ward’s face—it glowed with happiness. Never had Sara look so beautiful as she did at that moment, turning toward Gardner, one hand still touching West at his waist. Julia’s instinct told her to remain a silent observer, and she watched with interest as the two brothers met, Sara standing between them, treating both men with a beaming smile.
“Oh, I wish we did not have to go,” Sara said to Gardner. “But you’re home for good, now, and we’ll have forever to talk.”
West had yet to utter a word, had yet, even, to smile a welcome.
Gardner seemed undecided, torn about whether to stay or go. “Hell, Baxter would choose tonight for his damned prenuptial party. I’m the best man and haven’t got a choice of whether to go. Damnation.”
Julia fought the urge to chastise her youngest son for his colorful language.
“Go on,” West said. “I’ll see you tomorrow. I’m hellishly tired as it is.”
Sara turned to West as they were about to depart. “It’s good to have you home, Mr. Mitchell,” she said, again the proper young woman Julia knew so well. West nodded and closed the door behind the pair.
Julia was about to announce her presence, when West slammed his back against the paneled wall, his face ravaged with some strong emotion Julia didn’t immediately recognize. His fists were clenched by his sides, his eyes closed as he ground the back of his head against the smooth oak paneling. He pushed the heels of his hands against his eyes, letting out a sound that Julia would have thought was a sob if it had come from any other man.
West rubbed his eyes, and Julia’s gaze became even more intense. He was weeping. Her son, whom she hadn’t seen shed a tear since he’d been a child, was crying. She looked away, unable to bear seeing her son this way. My God, she thought, it must be Jared. Jared must be dead. She wanted to scream a denial, she wanted to run down the stairs and beg West to tell her Jared was well.
“Thank you.” She heard his ragged whisper, and her gaze again snapped to her son’s face. “Thank you, God.”
It was then she realized it was not despair she saw on her son’s face, but fierce joy. At being home? Her finely arched brows came together in thought, then smoothed as she recalled West’s hand clutching the back of Sara’s head, his cheek rubbing agains
Three years earlier, 1853
They thought her a murderess. Neighbors she’d known since she was a baby crawling about her stoop, thought she had murdered her parents in their sleep and watched as flames engulfed her house.
Sara Dawes couldn’t stop shaking, even with the oppressive heat of the ship’s small cabin suffocating her. She squeezed her eyes shut, still seeing the two shrouded shapes of her parents’ bodies lying in the alley, glowing wickedly in the light of the fire. The stench of smoke coated her skin, hair, and clothes, making it impossible to drive the horror of the previous night from her weary mind. She had run to the only place she could think of where she would be safe, to her brother, third mate on the whaling ship Julia.
She’d spent an agonizing two hours hiding from a mob who thought they searched for a murderess, cowering in thick brambles and waiting for the eastern sky to lighten. Throughout the long night, she tried to gain the courage to go to the police, to explain why she had not been in her own house even though it was long past midnight, a time when all good girls were fast asleep. But each time she thought she could, she remembered their faces, the anger, the hate when they spied her in the crowd and began shouting, “Murderer. She murdered her parents.” Shaking her head in disbelief, she’d backed away, stunned and more frightened than she’d ever been. She ran when one man shouted, “Get her.”
With dawn, she skirted her own street making a long and nerve-rattling detour around New Bedford’s bustling center, her heart jumping with every sound she’d heard. In her terrorized mind, each person she saw was a hunter, each sound she heard, evidence of their pursuit.
When she finally reached the Julia’s berth, it was full day and the wharves were already busy with workers. Sara had boldly stepped aboard the ship, thankful it was only the cabin boy who saw and led her to her brother. It took only a single look at his sister for Zachary to know something was horribly wrong. His usually fastidious sister looked dirty and ragged. He’d nearly not recognized her.
“Sara. What’s happened?” he asked, pulling her deeper into his tiny cabin.
“Last night,” she choked out. “Mother and Papa were killed in a fire. The house is gone, everything is gone. And, oh, Zachary, they think I set the fire, that I killed them.” Sara collapsed onto his bunk and covered her face with her hands before managing to tell Zachary what had happened.
It all started two days before when their quiet neighborhood had been disturbed by the gruesome death of a young man no one knew. A milkman had discovered the body in their alley, blood pooled around him. The constable had visited and questioned them, but no one in her house knew the young man or had heard a thing the night before. How odd, the constable remarked, that the young man had been murdered on their property. He’d given her a searching look, one that Sara found distinctly odd at the time. Surely, he didn’t think she could have killed the young man?
“Do you see? The police already suspected I murdered that boy, and now they think I’ve killed mother and father.” Her tears left clean streaks in her sooty face as she twisted her skirts in her hands.
“Sara, girl, you’ve got to calm down. Why would anyone think you killed mother and father? I think it best we go to the authorities. You can tell them what you told me. Surely they will believe you.”
Sara shook her head wildly. “They won’t,” she said through chattering teeth. “You didn’t hear those people. They are convinced I am the one who set the fire and they half believe I killed that young man. When I ran away, I sealed my fate,” she said, clenching her fists upon her lap, fresh tears coursing down her face. “I know it was stupid, but I was frightened. They way they looked at me, it was as if they wanted to kill me then and there.”
“Sara, calm yourself. Our neighbors know you. Certainly they don’t believe you killed our parents,” he swallowed past his own grief, “…and another man. It’s ridiculous. Anyone who knows you knows you are not capable of such a deed.”
“But they do. The crowd was mad. If they had caught me…” She shuddered. “I don’t know what they would have done,” she finished on an agonized whisper.
Zachary was clearly skeptical of the seriousness of his sister’s position. “Sara, would it make you feel better if I found out whether you are seriously suspected of the crimes? I’m certain that calmer minds have taken over and that you are no longer in danger of arrest.”
“Perhaps you are right. Last night seems like a nightmare. It doesn’t seem possible they are dead. But I saw them, Zachary. I saw their bodies.” Sara buried her face against his neck. Zachary sat next to her for a long moment, one arm about her shaking shoulders, giving and taking comfort.
When her tears subsided, she spoke, measuring her words carefully. “Someone may be able to help. Last night, I saw a man who looked like Nathan Wright walk by our house. I called out his name, but he pretended not to see me though I’m certain he did. He was with two other men. Something about the way they were walking and looking around made me think they were up to no good. I suppose I stupidly thought they had something to do with that man’s murder, so I followed them.”
She nodded. “I did. I couldn’t understand why Nathan would pretend not to know me, and you know how Papa always fueled my imagination with those gory stories of his. I thought I could follow them and tell the police corps my suspicions. I lost them, though. And when I got back to our street, I saw the fire. You know the rest. What am I going to do?”
“I’m going into town. You’ll see, Sara. Our neighbors are good people. By now, they are worried about you and have captured whoever did set that fire.”
But Zachary instead found just the opposite. Warrants had been issued for the arrest of Sara Dawes on charges that she killed not only her parents but the young man murdered near their home. In a small tavern, the murders were all anyone could talk of—that and the five hundred dollar reward for her capture. It was an outrageous sum and it seemed as if everyone in town were hungry to get it. One look in her brother’s eyes when he returned, and Sara knew the situation was far worse than even she’d suspected.
“You’re wanted for murder,” he said, his voice tinged with disbelief. “My God, Sara. This seems impossible. There’s even a bounty on your head.”
Sara’s eyes grew wide and she placed loosely balled fists against her mouth. “What am I going to do?” she repeated for what seemed like the hundredth time.
“First, we shall find Nathan Wright and question him. Are you certain it was him you saw walking by our house last night?”
Sara reluctantly shook her head. “I cannot swear it, but I am fairly certain. Do you really think he could have done such a thing? I like Nathan. He’s always been kind to me.”
“I don’t know. If he didn’t do it, perhaps he saw something last night that can help. I’ll be back,” Zachary said, and left again.
Sara’s eyes burned from exhaustion and the unrelenting tears that continued to fall. She tried to drive the image of the fire, of those sheet-shrouded bodies from her mind, but sitting alone in Zachary’s barren little cabin with nothing to look at but his tiny writing desk and bunk, she could not still her thoughts. She lay down, curling into a ball, and closed her eyes praying for the oblivion of sleep. It came, wonderful nothingness, heavy and deep. She awoke, dragged from a fathomless sleep, by her brother’s insistent prodding.
“Nathan Wright is gone,” he said, as she rubbed the sleep from her swollen eyes. “He sailed this morning on the Fortune. There’s only one thing left to do.”
Sara sat up feeling slightly disoriented. “I’ll not turn myself in, Zachary,” she said, her hand clutching his arm. “Do not ask it of me.”
“No, Sara. I fear you would not be treated fairly, not given what I’m seeing in town. I will ask Captain Mitchell
Sara’s eyes grew wide, her grasp on his arm tightening, her panic growing at the thought of Zachary telling the Julia’s captain anything. “No, Zachary. He will turn me in. He will feel bound to do so.”
“He will not. He knows he has a good and loyal mate in me, and he would never betray me. I am certain of it.” He grabbed the hand that clutched his arm and dragged her toward the door.
“Zachary, no. What can he do that you have not done?”
“He can let you come with us, Sara. We leave in three days and will be gone for at least three years, and when we return, this frenzy for your blood will have gone. Then we can find the real killers. I’ve thought this out, Sara. It is the only thing to do. Trust me.”
Sara shook her head, her tangled hair falling into her face. “Surely if I leave everyone will think me guilty.”
“Let them think what they will, Sara,” he said heatedly. “At least you will be safe.” He put a hand on each of her shoulders. “It is dangerous out there for you, Sara. If you are found, I fear you will not be treated fairly.”
Sara searched her brother’s brown eyes and saw the truth of what he said. She hung her head in defeat, no longer willing to fight the urge to run away. Her brother was right. She must sail on the Julia when it departed in three days.
“Bring me to him,” Sara whispered.
As her brother led her down the narrow passage, she was painfully aware of her disheveled state. Her hair was a tangled mess, her feet dirty and bare, her dress wrinkled and smudged. The thought of being presented before West Mitchell in her present state was humiliating. Captain Mitchell was one of the most respected men in New Bedford, and the object of many a girl’s dreams—including hers.
She was tall for a woman, off-putting for many men who liked to feel strong and protective over their wife, or so her mother had told her. Sara would be lucky to find a man—any man. Certainly her dreams of marriage could not include someone as grand as Captain Mitchell. It was absurd. Her mother had caught her staring dreamily at the good captain not two years before and had quickly set her straight about how completely undesirable she would be to a paragon like the good captain. Over the years, she’d driven thoughts of Captain Mitchell from her mind when she’d read about his engagement, telling herself she was not disappointed. Surely a man such as he would want someone more like her mother, someone pretty and delicate, like the girl he would marry, Elizabeth Smithers. The fact she’d harbored such thoughts about a man as unattainable as West Mitchell was mortifying—even if no one now knew but her.
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