Chapter One of Cress on the Bay

I’ve been workin’ on the sequel…all the live-long day…

A few posts ago, I put up the opening pages of Cress on the Bay, my sequel to Cress in Waterbee. While I plug away on the rest of the book, please enjoy the rest of Chapter 1, ‘Lily Jansen’:

Beneath the smoke of steam and burning coal, the Calistoga Chief headed north. Mothers and grandmothers cooked on small stoves, knowing the ‘pledged to comfort’ rail company would provide no such thing in the emigrant car. It was a place for everyone the rail company considered un-American—Indians, Mexicans, Chinese and colored. This, among other subjects, livened conversations while the scent of roast chicken filled the air.

A colored woman and her daughter searched for their seats. Both wore starched traveling clothes, hats just so, with white kid gloves. A porter offered his assistance, escorting them to their seat. After thanking the porter, they sat across from another woman and young girl, also colored.

The first woman forced herself to smile at the lady across from her. “Quite a gathering, isn’t it?”

The lady, about to bite into a biscuit, put down her food and smiled back. “They love to pack us in, don’t they? The good ship Amistad.”

The woman removed her gloves. “And where might you be heading?”

“North of San Francisco. And you?”

“Sacramento. My husband bought a farm and has sent for us.” The woman now noticed the girl beside the lady, one who hadn’t bothered to turn from the window as they spoke. “What about you and your daughter?”

The lady guffawed. “Does she look like my daughter? I was paid to see her to Frimond Bay.” She tapped the girl and the girl flinched. “Don’t be rude now. Greet our new companions.”

With a turn from the window, Cress Steward looked on mother and daughter. “Hello. I didn’t mean to be rude.”

The mother and daughter sat back some. They sized up Cress’s beige skin, her mahogany red hair and blue-gray eyes.

“Why,” the mother tried to smile “what striking features you have.”

Cress’s chin, nudged upward by nature, turned even more. “Thank you.”

The daughter gazed at Cress’s braids. “I suppose you’re an orphan?”

Cress frowned, her heavy eyebrows in a scrunch. “If you’d like.” Why were some folks ornery as soon as you met them?

The lady next to Cress laughed again, resting pudgy elbows on her armrests. “Don’t mind the girl. She’s a moody thing. Hardly said two words since Wichita. I’m Mrs. Parkson, and this little storm cloud is Missy. I called her Miss Anne at first, and now I’ve whittled it down to Missy.”

The woman held out her hand. “How do, Missy?”

Cress shook her hand. Nothing annoyed her more than when adults spoke as if she couldn’t hear them. “How do.”

The girl shook Cress’s hand as well. “So your name is Anne?”

Cress looked up at Mrs. Parkson. Neither of them could go into the business of her name, for Mrs. Parkson herself did not know it. She was told to call the girl in her charge Miss Steward, and only because she was being sent to a man of that name. It was much like tagging luggage, Cress being the parcel.

Mrs. Parkson smiled. “I call her Missy and so can you.”

Hint taken, the woman folded her hands. “Hasn’t this been a dreadful day? We had ideal weather all the way from Des Moines to Tahoe City, and now this leg is ugly and wet.”

They fell into conversation about farm equipment and food recipes. The mother and daughter were not unusual, but Cress found it fascinating that the girl traveled with her mother. Only in the past few weeks had Cress thought much about mothers. She knew there were women who smacked their children and said ‘Mind your tongue. I’m your mother’, or ‘Don’t you cry, darling. Mother’s here.’

For a very brief time Cress had had a mother, one who died just after she was born. Her mother had been a maid, but Guardian Romah never told her more. In her ten years of life, Cress decided that Guardian Romah was the most mother-like person she would know.

Now entire territories stood between them. Through cornfield, mountain and mining town lay the railroad, boasting cross-country travel in seven days or less. In seven days, Cress had gone from Vermont to California, her eyes fixed on the changing, endless land. In Chicago, porters handed out pamphlets about segregated rail cars. Cress’s first train was not segregated, but she got such looks from the white folk that she wished it were. Several times Mrs. DuBlanche had to prove that she and Cress held first-class tickets. Cress was glad to be in an emigrant car, however crowded and smoky.

Through Michigan she overheard men talk about the railroads—Transcontinental, they were called. Covered wagons still rode through the Plains, but why take such an unpleasant journey when there were locomotives? Some train engines could go up to sixty miles an hour, to which no team of horses compared.

In Kansas, the conversation changed to stagecoaches robbed by men with kerchiefs about their faces. Some folks laughed that colored families didn’t have to worry about getting robbed, as everyone knew coloreds were poor.

By Colorado, the topic was silver and gold, Sioux and Shoshone. By order of the government, over three thousand Hopi had to leave for a reservation in New Mexico. Cress had seen a few at one station, men with glowing, earth-colored skin and women with hair black as pitch. Cress thought they would dress in feathers, but they wore trousers and skirts like everyone else. They had the darkest eyes Cress had ever seen, shining with fear. Cress asked Mrs. Parkson why they had to leave, and Mrs. Parkson shook her head.

“Whites can’t abide the sight of them. They’ve got us to pick their cotton, the Chinese for their railroads, and Mexicans to mind their cattle. No place for Indians in that picture.”

Cress wondered if that’s why there weren’t any Indians in Waterbee; why folks didn’t like Cress going to school and wanting to be something other than a chore girl. Guardian Romah was Irish and Italian, and couldn’t keep Cress if she refused be a servant. Cress didn’t like going through Colorado. It made her think of Waterbee and all the mean folks in it, made her remember that Guardian Romah didn’t want her anymore.

A letter from Mr. Jake Steward lay in Cress’s handbag, inviting her to spend a year in Frimond Bay. When it arrived in Waterbee, Guardian Romah had informed Cress that she would not be going. But Cress had informed Mr. Steward that she would. From the slap her guardian gave her, Cress knew firsthand that hardwood floors were just that. Hard.

The train pulled in to Sacramento. Cress waved good-bye to the mother and daughter, who gave her a slight nod in return. Mrs. Parkson said that Sacramento was the capital of California, although it wasn’t much of a capital to Cress. But it did bring something grand. After miles of gray and rain came brilliant, golden sunshine. Bags of it, barrels of it warming Cress to the middle of her bones. The sun never shone like this in Waterbee. Then came a tug on her conscience, for storms had seen Cress through all sorts of troubles. Waterbee and Guardian Romah might have broken another girl’s heart, but Cress had the rain for company. Thunder never sounded like the end of the world to her, but the steps of a friendly giant. To spare the storm any hurt feelings, Cress pulled down her window shade.

About two hours later, Mrs. Parkson woke herself from a nap. “Won’t be long before we make Frimond Bay. It’s been quite a trip for you, hasn’t it Missy?”

Cress nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Well I can’t be more glad it’s over. I’ve never been so handsomely compensated, but neither have I had a stranger time. I don’t know a thing about you or this Mr. Steward, nor do I get a lick of conversation from you. How on earth do you stay quiet for so long? In my experience, a quiet child is not to be trusted.”

Cress glanced at her feet as they dangled above the floor. “I was taught that children are to be seen and not heard, ma’am.” How grand it would have been to ride the train by herself, instead of accompanied like some baby. Mrs. DuBlanche, her first companion, had said how watchful the porters were of lady travelers, and it proved to be so. They didn’t mind if she frowned either.

“Mm-hm,” said Mrs. Parkson “and what child abides by that? I know my children don’t. I’ll give you some advice, Miss Steward. Don’t do exactly what you’re told all the time. It scares people.”

Cress laughed. “Then I’m going to be naughty from now on and tell folks Mrs. Parkson allowed it.”

Mrs. Parkson smiled, a shimmer on her brown cheeks. “Don’t be fresh, girl.”

They laughed together, and Mrs. Parkson went back to her nap, knowing as little about the girl in her charge as before.

A porter entered the car. “Five minutes to Frimond Bay!         Approaching Gemena Station, Frimond Bay, in five minutes! Have all parcels ready and thank you kindly for your custom.”

Cress leapt from her seat. “My muff’s in my hatbox. I have to put it on. It’s in my hatbox!”

Mrs. Parkson, mostly awake, pulled down the box. “Good gracious, what’s with the outburst?”

Cress opened the hatbox, and from lavender-scented tissue paper she took out her muff. She pulled up the window shade, and the muff’s fur gleamed white in the sunlight. The storms would understand.

Mrs. Parkson drew her breath. “Well if that isn’t the prettiest thing. Was it a gift from Mr. Steward?”

Cress nodded, grinning. “Yes ma’am. I’m going to stay a year with his family and have special lessons. He does it for a lot of children.”

Mrs. Parkson raised her eyebrow. “And he gives them muffs worth more than all the clothes I’ll ever wear? He’s mighty generous, doing so much for a girl like you. Doesn’t his family object?”

Cress thought a moment. Mr. Steward was a white man, one that Cress had always known as Mister Jake. Not long after Cress went to live with Guardian Romah, she found out that Mister Jake was her father. But Cress knew better than to think of him as family. And she knew better than to say more to Mrs. Parkson than she already had. “Mr. Steward’s family is all right with it.”

Mister Jake had a wife, but Cress wasn’t sure beyond that. It seemed strange to think of Mister Jake having children. The thought gave Cress a shiver as she left the train. She imagined Mister Jake with his children, all of them eating supper while she served them. Yet as she laid her hands in her muff, thoughts of other children fell away. Whether they were there or not, the muff and letter were proof that Mister Jake thought well of her. Every Steward that Cress knew of agreed with the arrangement—herself included. Herself especially.

Standing with Mrs. Parkson on the platform, Cress kept her hands in the white of her muff. A crisp wind blew a flush into her cheeks. The sun followed them from Sacramento and made for a pearl of an afternoon. Rainwater fell in glittery drips from the station roof to the street.

Mrs. Parkson took a breath. “Looks to be a fine day, doesn’t it?”

Cress smiled. “Very.”

Men and women with children and babies shook out umbrellas and waved to friends. The wind scooped up a sea mist and presented it to Cress. She had never smelled the ocean before, but there was something about it that she knew. And once the train had gone, hissing its way out of Gemena Station, Cress could hear the crash of the cold Pacific. From the platform she could see it, a dark blue jug with streaks of white as steamboats hauled across. The Pacific Ocean, bluer than the January sky overhead, became a living map without lines or arrows pointing north.

Mrs. Parkson sighed. “So where’s this Mr. Steward? We’ve been waiting five minutes already. Slow as we moved through Tahoe City, you’d expect him to be waiting for us.”

Cress didn’t mind that Mister Jake was late. There was so much to see from the platform; so many people from lands Cress knew nothing of. She wondered if it were the same on Ellis Island—jumbles of folks speaking different languages; men with slanted eyes and long braids down their back; women with nose rings and veils; boys in black hats with curls at their temples. Up until then, Cress had only seen folks in pressed suits and drawn corsets. Yet here, everyone looked a little wrinkled. Cress supposed crossing thousands of miles by ship and train wasn’t good for clothes. The people were loaded down with trunks and furniture—did a piano just go by?—but nearly all of them looked happy. They were folks who finally made it, who saw that the fuss of the journey paid off.

The more she thought of it, Cress felt pretty tired herself. Mrs. Parkson had already sat down, covering her mouth as she yawned. Cress was about to join her when a white man, the tallest in the crowd, came rushing to meet them. With a bound of her heart Cress stepped forward.

Mrs. Parkson squinted. “Is that him? Well isn’t he dashing, just the sort of man I’d expect to head such an undertaking.”

After excusing himself through a German-speaking family, edging past a flock of women who wished him good afternoon, missing a runaway apple cart, and ten years of avoiding her existence, Jake Steward came up to his daughter.

“I must speak with you in private.” He took Cress by the shoulder and guided her away from the crowd. “I won’t be a moment.” he called to Mrs. Parkson, whose neck craned as he walked out of earshot.

Cress held her muff to her chest. No ‘how are you after such a long trip’? No ‘I’m glad you decided to come’? No, only a hand the length of her shoulder turning her to the left and right—and none too gently either. There was something about Mister Jake’s overcoat that nipped at Cress’s spine.

He stopped her near the ticket office. “I’m afraid there has been a mistake. Rather terrible.” He looked down at her. “You see, I received word of your arrival only an hour ago. It seems that someone has falsely assumed my name and invited you here.”

Cress dropped her head, eyes on the pure white of her muff. All at once she knew it; things were going too well, were too good to be intended for her. Of course Mister Jake hadn’t sent for her—why would he when he never wrote? Cress hunched as tears blotted out the platform and the Pacific.

“Now now,” Jake offered his kerchief “no need for that. You’ve done nothing wrong. This only needs correcting.” He glanced in Mrs. Parkson’s direction. “What does your companion know of you?”

Cress swallowed, blinking out her tears. “Nothing.”

Jake folded his hands. “You are certain? Nothing of you or of—”

“Nothing.” scowled Cress. The day shattered like a window. Cress could smell sweaty horses, half-drunk men with cigars, wet wool coats, gutted fish that hung from a vendor’s stand. She saw beggars, heard the swearing of lumberjacks as they plowed through folks who didn’t speak English and couldn’t get out of the way fast enough. Never mind the needles of cold, the air that chilled her bones as she breathed it.

Jake tucked his unused kerchief in his pocket. “You may stay for a week to rest up, and then you will go back. Can this companion of yours accompany you on your return?”

Cress curled her toes, as a certain wish now had a chance of coming true. Mrs. Parkson would only go to Wichita, but Cress could go the rest of the way by herself. The porters would keep an eye on her, which meant she would have companions. So . . . “Yes, she can accompany me.”

“Good. I will explain the mishap to her and next week you will be on your way.” Jake’s eyes landed on Cress’s muff. He swallowed, then stiffened. “How long were you meant to visit?”

Cress felt her jaw tighten. “A year.”

“A year?” Jake nearly laughed, but caught himself. He looked out to the cliffs a moment, then to the sea. Cress watched as grayness filled him, drove lines into his face. “While you are here your name is Lily Jansen. You are an orphan from New York. My wife and I sponsor children of various talents, so your presence is not out of the ordinary. However, your being colored may cause remark. Should anyone ask, tell them your father and I knew each other as children. I shall send a telegram with my apologies, and your people can expect you in two weeks or so. It is vital that you remember your name and where you are from. And you will not inquire of my staff on any matter related to me. Am I understood?”

“I could stay at an inn.” Cress met Jake’s eye, although she hadn’t meant to. “Just overnight. And then I could be on the train tomorrow. I’m not that tired and I won’t tell anything to anybody.”

Jake looked about, but no one paid attention to them. “I thought of that, but it wouldn’t be the most proper thing. Idle tongues shall wag as it is. A week from now you can forget this happened. Now let’s get your trunks and head home.” Jake looked behind him, where a young man hurried to join them. In a flash he was smiling again. “Carlo! Meet Miss Lily Jansen, all the way from the great state of New York. She is the unfortunate victim of the miscommunication betwixt her father and Mrs. Steward. She and her companion will stay a week with us, just so the journey wasn’t all in vain, and we must make their visit as pleasant as possible.”

Carlo shook Cress’s hand. “Sí señor, this we will do.” He smiled, and tiny lines showed near his round, black eyes. His hair, the bit that showed from under his cap, was wavy and dark, while his skin was tan from working outdoors. He spoke with an accent that trilled the r’s and left some words in a whisper. Right away Cress thought of Dimitrios, Guardian Romah’s fiancé. Yet there was a comfortable-shoes look to Carlo, as if he might be Dimitrios’s not as princely cousin. A shepherd, maybe.

Jake led them to Cress’s trunks. “Lily, this is my driver, Carlo Bandieri. Hales from Argentina, where the real cowboys come from, eh Carlo? He’s been with me three years tomorrow. Not a better driver in town. He once got me to the office—four miles from the house, mind you—in eleven minutes. On a Friday afternoon. During a parade!” He and Carlo laughed over the memory.

“Yes,” smiled Carlo “I used to drive stages from San Francisco to Los Angeles, so it was only a little challenge.”

Jake narrowed an eye. “I thought you played piano in the St. Clair Hotel before you came here.”

Carlo laughed a bit. “I repaired shotguns as well, señor. It took three jobs to fill one stomach.”

They stopped at Mrs. Parkson, who had kept a steady fix upon them. She stood up and gave a nod. “Mrs. Parkson, sirs. I gather the tall fellow is Mr. Steward?”

Jake tipped his hat. “Mr. Steward I am, at your service. As I was explaining to young Miss Jansen, a most unfortunate mistake has occurred and I blame my secretary entirely.” He allowed her to laugh at the joke. “You see, my wife and I have long since decided not to sponsor children. Certain developments have arisen which require my undivided attention. But since I’ve fallen into the habit of opening my home to strangers, two more won’t make a difference.” His eyes landed again on Cress’s muff. “You shall stay a week, see the sights and be on your way. Fair enough?” He leaned near Cress. “Fair enough.” he mimicked in a high voice.

Mrs. Parkson’s smile faded. “I’m afraid I can’t do that, sir.”

Jake lifted an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“My train ticket is for two days from today, and I promised Mr. Parkson and the children I’d be home by next week. Much as I wouldn’t mind the longer stay, I’ll be heading back to Kansas as scheduled.”

Jake looked from Cress to Mrs. Parkson. “I see. And we would have to see about chaperones for Lily once you reached your stop, wouldn’t we? This grows more dire by the minute.” He thought a moment. “It appears we have no choice but to send Lily off with you. I will see what can be done about Kansas to New York. Lily, who looked after you on that leg of your trip?”

Cress squeezed her muff. “A lady named Iris DuBlanche.”

Jake’s face drained to white. He grew still, his eyes burning into Cress’s. “I take it she was colored?”

Cress felt her neck strain from looking up at him. “Yes, sir.”

Jake swallowed. The fire in his eyes simmered, and he let out a laugh. “Well she would be, wouldn’t she? I shall have my secretary arrange for your return, Lily, if he has to take you himself. I hate to shorten your already shortened stay, but let us all grin and bear it.”

Carlo and Mrs. Parkson smiled, neither willing to look at Cress. She trudged behind them, and with a whistle on his lips, Jake led them to his carriage.

*           *           *

After climbing into the wood-carved magnificence of the Steward carriage, Cress and Mrs. Parkson rode through downtown. The main street of Frimond Bay was Depot Road, and cuts of stone paved its three miles. Carlo drove in something of a hurry, each bump rattling Cress to her bones. Her shoulder hurt and her stockings were hot. Mr. Steward sat across from her and Mrs. Parkson, asking what they might like to do in the coming week.

“Well,” Mrs. Parkson spoke right up “I’d like a tour of this town, first off. It’s sort of a hideaway, this place.” She looked out to the street. “How exactly do you fit into it, Mr. Steward?”

He smiled. “Not too well, considering my height.”

Mrs. Parkson laughed. “I’m sure you have to duck under many a doorway, sir. But I mean socially. You must be of some importance to sport a buggy like this.”

Jake relaxed in his seat. “I am a partner in a maritime shipping firm. Folks said the money was in lumber, but in the immortal words of the woman who mended miners’ trousers, ‘Where will they put it all?’ Lumber does make a man comfortable, but he can’t drag it from here to wherever home is without a little help from yours truly. This evening I am to meet with a gentleman who represents Hawaiian interests. We may get ourselves a second port if all goes well.”

Mrs. Parkson sighed. “Then the girl and I must be quite an inconvenience. I am sorry for the misunderstanding,” she looked at Cress’s muff “especially for the girl here. May I ask a question, Mr. Steward?”

“Certainly.” he boomed.

“Well,” Mrs. Parkson looked at Cress, who kept her full back to them “it did seem strange that the ladies and I had to refer to the youngster as Miss Steward. I didn’t see a need for such” she looked sideways at him “secrecy, you might call it.”

Jake shook his head, continuing to smile. “I’m afraid we are in the mystery together, Mrs. Parkson.” He nudged Cress. “You’ve no prison record, I hope. Not avoiding the law?”

Cress forced herself to laugh, but it sounded forced and Mrs. Parkson looked again at her. “No prison record.” She turned back to the street.

A group of white men stood on a corner and sang in harmony. Signposts were stapled over with wanted bulletins and advertisements for medicine. A wired streetcar carried folks by the dozen, the whites seated while others stood on its edges. It made Cress’s cheeks burn to see an elderly colored woman clinging to a handle while a white man sat. Reading his newspaper, no less.

Jake followed Cress’s line of sight. “I’m afraid the west isn’t so wild anymore. At least, not around here. For all of our loving to be left alone, we Frimond Bay folk are fond of modernity, the streetcar being an example. Gets you anywhere in the time it takes to request a stop. I must own to a regard for advancement.” He looked to the left and right, then leaned forward. “I’ve installed telephones in my home, which give signals from room to room. I fear it encourages laziness, but such is the price of progress.”

Mrs. Parkson tittered. “I suppose it depends on the size of your home, sir.”

Jake lifted a brow, then looked at Cress. “Lily, this must be quite trying for you. I can only imagine your disappointment after coming so far.”

The nerve—the absolute nerve! Well if she had to pretend, she’d pretend to the hilt. Cress turned to him. “Sir, I don’t think you could.”

Jake shook his head. “Ah Lily, you needn’t waste your time with curmudgeons like Mrs. Steward and me. Two weeks in and you would beg to be rescued from that horrid Mr. Steward. Well, home is just out of town. I’m afraid there won’t be time for tea once we arrive, as I do have guests coming. You two will keep out mischief until tomorrow, won’t you?”

Oh and Mrs. Parkson just had to laugh, didn’t she? It was all Cress could do to keep from throwing her muff out of the carriage, and herself to boot. There wasn’t even a storm to comfort her, for the discourteous sun insisted on shining. Just then a pain awakened in Cress, from a deep-down place she didn’t know could hurt.

 

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