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A Lonesome Two-Step (JaOctGoHoNo 2020)

October 31, 2020 01:10PM
A Lonesome Two-Step

Summary: During the summer of the Spanish-American War, Clementine Morse fears the worst when letters to her loved ones go unanswered.

Author’s Note: Partly inspired by an American folk song (see if you can spot all the references sprinkled throughout this one-shot), and an actual turn-of-the-century book scare, perfect for Northanger Abbey. Special thanks to NNS for beta reading.

That Texas summer scorched the shallow run by the Missionary Baptist Church down to a puddled gully. Between drought, mosquitoes, and Yellow Fever, everyone gathered on Sunday to pray for deliverance. Even a prosperous undertaker like Mr. Allen begged for relief same as his friend Mr. Morse, whose forty nine years were more enriched by his children than the time spent excavating parcels and post for his neighbors.

The Morse family save one took up an entire pew: the eldest, Jack, was off to war with Spain. His younger sister Clementine's own sense of duty was similarly grown. Banished were petitions for new shoes beyond Mrs. Allen's wide-as-catfish castoffs. Instead she asked Heaven to keep her dear brother safe, and another young man who was thankfully not bound for foreign shores. Let the Turleys risk their firstborn in Manilla; her heart was bound to the happier fate of their younger son. But her hand remained unclaimed as this paragon traveled to ensure the smooth operation of the military's mail, delaying his settlement into domestic arrangements more conducive to their shared happiness. She faithfully sent letters to the two beloved souls, and as gratefully read their replies.

Then came a week when she received no correspondence at all. She put off worrying until another equally barren week passed. Her parents advised her not to fret and though she continued writing, Clementine's anxiety increased with reports of sick soldiers and pestilent camps, poisoned meat and malevolent marauders.

Her brother wrote back first: fortunately, his tardiness was not owed to any fever but the heart's. All previous affections were forgot in his admiration of a Cuban damsel.

"If her skin was a bit darker, or mine a shade lighter, how easy might we court. But it is difficult to imagine her family ever accepting me, when they once owned men black as I. We will leave this place soon enough, so I will content myself with enjoying her smiles rather than hope for more. At least I am capable of feeling again: that is pleasure enough for now. But you must let me know when your happy day is to come: or should I instead have addressed this letter to Mrs. Turley?"

This question almost prompted tears in his still unwed sister: yet another week had gone by with no word, spurring previously unsuspected alarms. If Jack, who left as faithful to his former love as man could be, had learned to admire anew, might another forget her attractions with time and distance? Last month's telegram hinted at more travel, promising to forward any new address. He could be anywhere, with girls rich or pretty enough to tempt the most stalwart heart.

But she refused to doubt, putting her faith in higher proofs of affection than mere postage.

Every morning, after seeing her brood of brothers and sisters to the schoolhouse, she next visited the post office. Her father might be gone on his route, but there was always a clerk willing to check for any letters. "Nothing today," was the reply she had come to expect.

Her disappointment prompted a fellow to offer up a recent copy of The Christian Recorder, and she promised to return it by the end of the day.

But instead of delighting in the latest chapters of an ongoing novel, Clementine found herself engrossed with an article that must explain all. There it was in black and white, the dour expression in a doctor's photograph lending credence to his warning that borrowed books might be a source of contagion, with reports of tuberculosis spread and librarians stricken.

Had she only known, she would never have asked Mrs. Allen to loan out any of her books to the poor wandering heart. What if some trace of infection had crept into the pages and laid her heart's love low? How would she ever raise her head again with such a heedless crime laid upon her soul?

By the close of another week her guilt was confirmed. Any healthy man would have written by now, if only to bid farewell: he was lost and gone forever. Not even that morning's letter from Jack, hopeful of a Thanksgiving reunion, could cheer her. The blustery day heightened her loneliness, dust stinging her eyes and leaves catching on her hat as she shambled home.

Suddenly the awful wind blew the paper from her hand. She chased it through the church gate, past the myrtles and graves, and on toward the ditch. Shucking her boots and stockings without a second thought, and holding her skirts above the mud, she waded down to fetch her brother's note. But even as she grasped it she tripped forward, catching on brambles and falling in the stagnant grime. A disturbed coot cackled with the same displeasure Clementine's mother would vent upon seeing her soaked garments.

She climbed up and found a tombstone to perch on, pulling stickers from her feet as she cried, the outpouring of her eyes and nose bubbling on her flushed lips. "I'll probably be poisoned by something in the water. And why not: I may as well pine away."

"But alas, I am no doctor," sang a familiar baritone, and turning she beheld Hiram Turley leaning against the fence, shaking his ebony curls. "Now tell me, what's the matter?"

She ran over, heedless of the posies trampled underfoot. "I was so worried! What happened to you?"

"Too much, and nearly an ocean of trouble in returning: I was sent to Hawaii to help setup an entirely new office, and none of our own things could get through at first. Even when I finally escaped the island, both myself and my mail were subject to quarantine. I've several weeks worth of letters in my pockets, all telling how I've missed you."

"And are you back at last?" When he nodded, she flung herself into his arms, so that she could feel the rumble of his laughter between them.

"Now that's my darling, Clementine."

A Lonesome Two-Step (JaOctGoHoNo 2020)

MichelleRWOctober 31, 2020 01:10PM

Re: A Lonesome Two-Step (JaOctGoHoNo 2020)

Shannon KOctober 31, 2020 11:37PM

Re: A Lonesome Two-Step (JaOctGoHoNo 2020)

NN SNovember 01, 2020 12:33AM

Re: A Lonesome Two-Step (JaOctGoHoNo 2020)

EvelynJeanOctober 31, 2020 08:18PM

Re: A Lonesome Two-Step (JaOctGoHoNo 2020)

MichelleRWOctober 31, 2020 08:24PM


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