This is an excerpt from a novel-in-progress set in Arizona Territory in the early 1870s.
Caroline steps cautiously up the front porch, careful not to trip on her skirts, and raps on the doorknob three times with the gold knocker. She’s met with silence. She knocks again and gets no response. Just when she’s about to turn away, she hears the clanking of a lock being turned. The door opens just a crack. A girl, white as moonlight with her pale blue eyes and near-colorless hair, peeks out. She says nothing.
‘Hello,’ Caroline says. ‘I’m here to speak to Mr. Abraham Chambers about the physician position at Canaan Mine.’
‘I’ve come a long way. As he asked. If you could just tell him I’ve arrived—’
‘Bess!’ A thunderous voice from inside the house calls. ‘That Jesse at the door? Let him in.’
‘No, sir,’ she calls back. ‘It’s just some woman.’
The girl looks at Caroline for the answer. ‘Dr. Caroline Hawthorne. From Hermosa.’
The girl give her a suspicious glare. She shouts into the house, ‘Says she’s a doctor from Hermosa!’
Uneven steps approach from deep in the house. The door swings back further to reveal a tall man with a trimmed gray beard that lines his jaw and a neat mustache. Just the hint of stubble swaths his cheeks. He wears a stately stovepipe hat and leans on a dark wood cane.
‘Why, you must be Caroline Hawthorne,’ he says. He has a low, rumbling voice, lightly accented with the cadence of a genteel southerner. The man surveys her for a moment, examining her dress, her hair, her demeanor. She stands up straighter. After a moment he gives her a small that shows his white, sharp teeth. ‘What a pleasant surprise. Please—come on in, my dear.’
Caroline follows him into a splendid hall papered in candy stripes of pale pink and green. A staircase with polished mahogany bannister sweeps down from the second story, curving gently to end at a gleaming floor of white diamond-shaped tiles. Something moving catches her eye—she turns to see herself reflected in a towering gilded mirror. Her best dress is not fine enough for these surroundings. Her face looks rough, sunburnt, haggard. Vestigial shame from her upbringing reddens the tips of her ears. She half-expects her mother to come down the stairs to chide her for her untidy appearance.
Mr. Chambers leads her to a study off the main hallway. The study is all rich, dark leather and mahogany bookcases, lit by a tall window paned with clear, un-warped glass. The view from the window is imposing: a stark granite cliff shot through with sparkling quartz. A blade of white light cuts through the window, falling on the auburn feathers of an enormous taxidermied eagle, which rests on a perch on the corner of the ornate desk. The creature’s lifeless wings are spread, its beak slightly open. The sun ricochets off its glassy black eye, making it seem as though the eagle is alive, watching her. The creature is twinned by the design carved into the wooden front of the writing desk: a second eagle etched in the mahogany, this one in flight.
The man gestures to a chair that sits facing the desk and the eagle. ‘What a surprise,’ he repeats. ‘What a pleasant surprise. Let me introduce myself properly. I am Abraham Ezekiel Chambers, founding father and mayor of the fine city of Canaan Gulch.’
‘How do you do,’ she says. ‘Dr. Caroline Hawthorne, originally of Oswego, New York.’
‘Such a pleasure to finally make your acquaintance, my dear. Such a pleasure. Please, have a seat. I apologize, my dear, I didn’t expect you quite so soon. When did you arrive?’
‘Just this afternoon, in fact.’
‘Well, now! Then let me be the first to welcome you to our fine city. You’ve come from Hermosa, is that right?’
‘And did you practice medicine in Hermosa, my dear?’
‘Yes,’ she lies, unblinking.
‘Well that surely is something. It surely is. It’s not every day you meet such a rare thing as a woman doctor. But my goodness, where have my manners gone to? Let me offer you a refreshment. Would you like some tea, my dear? Some coffee?’
The question comes as a surprise. How long since she’s been offered such fineries? ‘Tea. Please. If you have it.’
‘Of course. Bess—bring tea for our guest.’
The girl is in the hallway, framed by the mahogany doorway. She vanishes so quickly it’s though she wasn’t there at all.
Mr. Chambers picks up an elegant pipe resting on a carved ivory holder. He places it between his teeth and sets a match to the tobacco inside. Blue-ish smoke unfurls into the band of light like cursive script.
‘It’s quite a long journey from Hermosa. I hope you encountered no difficulties.’
‘No—it was quite pleasant in fact. I rode with Mr. John Le Blanc on his stagecoach.’
‘Ah. Le Blanc. Now there’s a man with something of a reputation here in this town.’
‘Yes. Not a pleasant one, I’m afraid, no. There was an altercation, some time back, between him and some of the men in town. Some called for him to be hanged, but this is a town of peace and mercy. I wouldn’t have it.’
‘Oh yes. It was a nasty business, nasty indeed. Left a man blind. But what can you expect, given his bloodline? Once the railroad reaches these parts, our new residents will be spared from such unpleasantness. I do hope there is a Mr. Hawthorne who looked after you on your on your travels, my dear.’
‘No,’ she says. ‘I am a widow. I was married in New York, when I was young. But Mr. Hawthorne passed.’
‘Ah. My deepest condolences for your loss.’
‘Thank you. It was some years ago. Before I began my studies.’
‘Ah but alas, the pain of loss never leaves us, does it?’
Her heart gives a familiar twinge. The guilt again—an old familiar feeling, as constant as her breath. ‘No.’
The door creaks open and the girl comes in carrying a tray laden with a heavy silver tea pot and two delicate china cups. Her pale braid swings in front of her face as she sets it gently on the desk. The mayor’s eyes land on his daughter and something in his face shifts. Hardens. Like his smile was a curtain that’s been lifted away. Caroline follows his gaze and notices for the first time the dark mud splattered across the front of the girl’s gray dress.
‘I apologize for my daughter,’ Mr. Chambers says, looking pointedly at the girl. ‘I have tried to instruct her how to mind her manners and appearance, but she is disobedient.’
The girl’s face flushes. Caroline purses her lips. ‘Well. It’s not easy to keep the dirt at bay, out here.’
‘Which is why it’s so essential that we do. Cleanliness is next to Godliness, after all. Even in the wilderness we must remain civilized.’
‘Yes. Of course.’ She catches the girl’s eye to give her a kind smile, but the girl seems to flinch away from it, as though from too-bright light.
‘Now,’ the mayor says once his daughter is gone. ‘Let’s get to business, shall we? You’ve come to inquire about the physician position.’
‘That’s right. My qualifications, as you requested.’ She reaches into her handbag to produce her most precious possession: a sheaf of paper writ with leaf-gold letters conferring upon her the title of Doctor of Medicine. She hands it to Mr. Chambers.
He puffs impassively at his pipe as he examines it. ‘University of Michigan. I wasn’t aware they taught medicine to women.’
‘They accepted their first woman student several years ago. I graduated with the highest honors, as you can see.’
‘Summa Cum Laude. Indeed. Are you a Christian woman, my dear?’
Caroline blinks. ‘I was raised Lutheran.’
‘Ah ha. Well then you must be familiar with the scriptures—“Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies.”’ He smiles at her. ‘Proverbs, my dear. “Favor is deceitful, and beauty is vain: but a woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised.”’
‘Yes. Of course.’
‘I will admit to you, when I first received your letter, I was uneasy about the notion of a woman physician. A woman’s role is by her husband’s side.’ He looks at her over the rim of his pipe. His gray eyes are glimmering and inscrutable.
‘I assure you, I’m as qualified as any other candidate you may meet. More so.’
‘I don’t doubt it, my dear. “With the Lord, all things are possible”—Matthew 19:26. And it is true, our need is great. The Lord tests us. There have been injuries. Our previous doctor was a scoundrel. He abandoned us last spring, just when our need was greatest. The esteemed women of our parish volunteer as nurses, but what we really need is a surgeon.’
‘My skills will serve you well, then.’
He puffs on his pipe. Delicate threads of smoke spiral into the air. After a moment he says, ‘Yes. Perhaps they will. I’ll tell you what—why don’t you stay with us a while, see how you like the town. Three years is a long time, after all.’
‘That’s how long you’ll serve us, once you sign the contract.’
‘I see. I assume there are—penalties—for early termination of such a contract?’
He smiles, showing his pointed teeth. ‘You seem to be a woman of your word, my dear. I hardly think you need worry about that.’
She tries to keep her smile easy. ‘I’m sure I’ll feel right at home.’
‘I’m sure you will. This is a special town, after all—as you’ll see. There’s no place like it this side of Jerusalem,’ he says. He retrieves a heavy gold watch from his pocket. ‘Look at the time. I’m terribly sorry but I’m afraid I must cut our meeting short. A mayor’s work is never done, I’m sure you understand. Why don’t we meet again in three days’ time to further discuss the particulars, if you choose to stay with us.’
‘That’s fine,’ she says.
‘Splendid. I’m throwing a little gathering tonight. A special treat for the town. I hope you’ll come along. We have such nice folks here.’
‘Thank you, Mr. Chambers. I’m quite tired from my journey, but I’ll be sure to attend for a little while.’
‘That’s Mayor Chambers,’ he corrects her with a smile. He winks. ‘But you can just call me Mr. Mayor.’
‘Well then, Mr. Mayor,’ she says, unsure whether he’s joking or if that’s really how he wants to be addressed.‘Thank you very much for your time. I suppose I’ll see you this evening.’
‘I look forward to it. Bess!’ he shouts. His low voice seems to fill the study like a torrent of water. ‘Show this good lady to the door.’
Outside, Caroline lingers in the street a moment, letting her eyes adjust to the bright sunlight. A breeze flutters the hem of her skirt. There’s the barest hint of winter in it—the fine hairs on her arms and the back of her neck prickle. Across the thoroughfare, Mr. Le Blanc’s stagecoach is parked outside the post office. He lugs a sack of mail onto the sidewalk, which the postman accepts with his arms crossed protectively across his chest. Mr. Le Blanc tips his hat to the man, but the postman does not return the gesture. What did the mayor mean by altercation? A fist fight? A shooting? She’s spent three days in this man’s company and can hardly imagine him moved to any violence. He pauses to adjust the reins of his four great horses, tall palominos with flowing manes and tails. They look fed and watered, ready for another trip down the mountain. Caroline starts toward him—she’ll just need to ask him what happened, surely he’ll set this story to right—and then stops. The street is filled with women running their errands, shopkeepers sweeping the sidewalks in front of their shops. There’s suspicion in their eyes when they look her way. She needs this town to accept her. To like her. And it’s plain that they don’t like Mr. Le Blanc.
He catches sight of Caroline. She’s still standing stock-still in the street like a lunatic. He tips his hat. She gives him a wave—a weak, limp one, a shameful way to greet a man she so recently considered something of a friend. He springs into the stagecoach seat and cracks his whip to get the horses moving. The coach turns all the way around in the wide street and begins its journey back down the mountain. Soon it’ll pass the tents, the mine, the river, descending into the blazing desert she grew so accustomed to in her shotgun seat on the stagecoach. She watches until they’re out of sight, hidden by the bend in the road.
When the stagecoach doesn’t turn back—of course not, why would it?—she gathers her skirts high over the mud and picks her way across the horse-dung strewn street. Her hotel room seems even narrower than before, even dustier. The bed, when she sits on it, makes a sorrowful noise. Like the whimper of a foolish woman who does not want to be left alone.
Sam C. Allen was published in this year’s UEA Creative Writing MA Anthology: Prose and Non-Fiction