Louisville, Kentucky, January 1826
gThere is no place more unforgiving or colder than a Louisville church on the first Sunday after Christmas, I thought as I navigated my way to our family pew. Despite the clutter of bodies, the air was glacial perfection, and with each passing moment, my hands and feet became more blockish and icy. Surely this was what was meant by mortification of the flesh. I grimaced at the Reverend Shaw, who said there was no contradiction to be found in the biblical entreaty to render unto Caesar. I could have cared less what Caesar was or was not owed, because the winter sun through the window burned a nick upon the back of my neck.
My neck was on fire and my feet were numb with cold. They would find me dead in my place after service, with a scalded neck and blue, frostbitten feet. I slumped in the pew, away from the light, and poked the leather cover of my psalmbook with a gloved finger. That winter, I was twenty-two and discomfited at having been forced to attend service. Mama rapped me sharply with her Bible. I gasped and bent over, complaining of a fainting spell. The odor of wood oil filled my nostrils. I peered around Ma and caught the gaze of a brigadier general grinning from the pew directly across the aisle. He leaned over his knees with his hands upon his white breeches, mocking my discomfort.
I stared at the General in a way that I hoped made him feel much reduced in rank. I quirked a brow, which he mistook for encouragement, because he tickled the air with his fingers. I lifted my chin to let him know I disapproved, but he seemed pleased by my lofty pretense. He looked pointedly at the door and then at me. Forty, I estimated, about the same age as my pa, and he died of the afflictions of age in the spring of last year. This General was dark haired; he had a proud and stern countenance and remarkable blue eyes.
I was intrigued by his bad behavior and felt an odd prickling on the surface of my forearms when he regarded me as if determining my worth. My seventeen-year-old sister, the precocious Eloise, a child prone to homely outbursts about the mischief in her heart, squirmed about as the General smiled at her. At the tap of Eloise's fingers upon my skirt, I tipped my ear to catch her whispers.
"He is as proud as a prince and he's staring so lasciviously. What kind of a man stares so in church?"
I wiggled my fingers and blew upon them. "Glance away, Eloise, do not meet his gaze; you should elevate your thoughts and disregard that gentleman. And you hush up. Mama's going to beat me like a stray dog if I let you whisper at me through service."
"Mary, I was wrong. That is no stare; that rises to a leer. He is at least as old as Papa, and military men are poor, even the generals."
"Eloise, look at my neck. Am I getting a blister on my neck from sunburn?"
She wrinkled her nose and examined me. "No, but you have farmer wrinkles there. Looks to me as if you've passed summers tethered to the hemp-break wheels at Oxmoor. Mary! Will you focus on the matter at hand? I was talking to you about that general over there who wants you. Listen to me!" Eloise rubbed her hands over mine. "I was at General Cadwallader's last evening for the musicale, and by the bye, Lizzie Griffin played the harp so ploddingly you would have thought her loaded up to her ears with laudanum. All Lizzie could talk about last night was your admirer, that ruddy-faced general across the aisle. She said he's come from St. Louis, and though he spends his days at the Western Department headquarters, he spends his nights searching for a bride. The General has declared himself ready for sons. Now he goes in search of their mother. The rumor is, several belles have set their caps for him."
"I hope he finds a respectable old widow. They could spoon castor oil into one another and commiserate about the gout."
"Lizzie says you're in view of his sparking." I ignored that comment. It was too dreadful to contemplate. Eloise blathered on: "It was Uncle William Clark who is guilty of arranging this. He thinks you're hopeless, Mary. He told me so, over supper yesterday. Just you watch, that general will force an introduction to Ma after service. Indeed, I'll wager Mama expects such a thing. Surely Uncle William has talked to her. It's a conspiracy to deprive you of your freedom. They're going to toss the yoke of subjugation about your shoulders and force you to give birth to furry little babies that look just like that general."
Mama swooped over me in a rustle of organdy, sending her anise-scented breath my way. She put her lips to my ear and whispered, "Mary, take one peek over the aisle at the handsome general and smile fetchingly."
I puckered my chin and rubbed my cold fingers upon it, because it pleasantly resembled a peach pit. "Fetchingly, Mama? What's your idea of 'fetchingly'?"
"Like this," Eloise simpered, rattling her eyelashes and rounding her lips into a coo.
I squinted at the General. By this time, he was brashly ignoring the sermon altogether and had turned sideways on the bench to stare boldly at me with an amused expression. The General had a disconcerting manner of looking at a woman. In the dark confines of my black satin slippers, I curled my toes.
Eloise leaned back and looked around behind my head. "It's not as though the General's hands are bluish and shaky. He's not drooling, and I don't see a walking stick. He appears vigorous. Maybe you could get one baby out of him before he dies."
Mama lifted the flat of her hand and walloped me.
"Mama, I did not come to church to harvest bruises!"
"I told you to smile once at that general, Mary, not babble to Eloise all through service. Now, you girls be reverent, mind your prayers and your manners. And don't look at that general anymore. One glance is enough, or you'll appear too eager. Honestly, sometimes I feel I've failed utterly. I'm raising up a litter of Hottentots."
Of course, lingering in the air at all times was Mama's disappointment in me. Mama was a Gwathmey, one of the Grand English Gwathmeys of the Virginia tidewater. She was all sangfroid, stepping elegantly through her days as if expecting courtiers to assemble and pay homage. I suppose I am more like my father.
Pa's family, the Louisville Bullitts, were originally the French Huguenot Bouilits, a name that meant to seethe or boil, a fairly apt description of my temperament. He raged through his years, accumulating land, cash and human beings, then died of an apoplectic fit with his face swimming in a bowl of two o'clock burgoo. When I was seventeen, Pa spent a summer's income upon my coming-out ball. He had a garden of white flowers shipped from Louisiana, hired an orchestra and imported a gown of Flemish lace from Antwerp, then hosted a grand dinner for two hundred people.
"Why not just tether me and expose my bosom like a mulatto slave on the auction block?" I railed as I was pulled from my room. "Why not strip me down to my stays and let the boys see the goods?"
"Some might not like the look of your ass, and then where would you be?" Pa snorted as he arm-yanked me down the staircase.
The year I met the General, I had just celebrated my birthday and was a very naïve twenty-two-year-old, gone socially stale by Louisville's courtship standards. You see, I was widely perceived as being difficult. Mama had told me to select a man in my youth when I was freshest and allow him to guide me as nature had directed.
"You are a ripe and fruitful olive, Mary. You must learn to accept your vocation."
I waited for Mama to tell me what my vocation must be, but the wretched truth was that my belly was my future, and what future is that? She told me that my highest aspiration must be to bear children. To ensure my obedience, my parents sent me away to the Ursuline Convent in New Orleans on my fifteenth birthday. How I loathed the scorch of that city. Why, I felt as if I had been espaliered like a peach tree, forced to bloom in a climate where I could never flourish unless restrained. The Ursulines made an expert button polisher of me. I was forever getting into trouble for refusing to do as I was told. My punishment was to launder the chemises and polish the buttons of the whole convent with Spanish whiting until my fingers cracked and bled. In my third year, when I was eighteen, I was sent home midterm with a letter pinned to my frock-apron.
Dear Monsieur Bullitt,
Mary inspires the other girls to heresy and temporal revelry. We would rather she inflicted her obstinacy elsewhere.
Sincerely, Mother Froissart.
P.S. A generous donation will not work this time.
Mama had sobbed distressingly for a fortnight.
"If even the Romanists can't tame our girl, no one will; she is lost, O Lord, she is lost forever to the Kingdom. Maybe we could try giving her to the Baptists. I understand they are much less convivial than we Episcopalians."
Pa's jowls flapped as he paced the floor. "Pah! She's rotted clean through. Jaysus would get back up on his cross if he were married to her, so you may as well begin your search now for some sucker who is more patient than the Almighty."
Apparently, the patient sucker charged with my redemption was sitting across the aisle from me in the blue uniform of the United States Army. When the service ended, I rose stiffly from the pew and found my dress clinging immodestly to my legs. As I fluffed my petticoats, I peered up to see the General reveling in my discomfort. His eyes were full of wicked sparkle that I did not appreciate one little bit. And after service, my family shivered together upon the limestone steps while we waited for our carriage to be brought around. I huddled with Eloise, bouncing from one foot to another and hissing at our driver, "Hurry, hurry." Mama conversed with the reverend. While the children giggled and tumbled like marbles in the snow, Eloise pointed frantically at the vestry, warning me that the General was coming in our direction.
The Reverend Shaw gently steered Mama around to greet the General.
"Mrs. Bullitt, may I present General Henry Atkinson, recently arrived from St. Louis, and working temporarily at the Western Department headquarters here in Louisville."
"Oh, yes. I understand you are a good friend of Uncle William's?"
"Yes, we consult one another several times a week as he manages Indian affairs for Missouri, and I am required to keep the peace along the frontier."
"That's rather a large job, I'd imagine," Ma said as she hooked a strand of hair into the ruched lining of her bonnet.
"Aye, but requiring more patience than anything else."
"General, you must come to visit. On the morrow, perhaps?" Ma smiled pointedly at me.
As Ma and the reverend talked, the General lit his pipe and stared a proprietary stare at me. And though I hated to admit it, I found him handsome. His white trousers were tucked into his shiny black boots. Despite the cold, he wore no cape, and he unbuttoned his blue uniform coat and summed me up. I let my eyes wander and found myself looking at his hands. He had removed his gloves, and I stared at his broad palms and the fine, dark hair on his long fingers. What was it Lizzie Griffin said about a man's fingers? My eyes drifted to the General's white breeches.
Mama coughed, then pinched me on the upper arm.
The General narrowed his gaze with a small, secretive grin at me. Fearing he could read my mind, I quickly averted my glance to the snow under my slippers.
"Tomorrow, then, Miss Bullitt?" the General asked.
I shrugged my response, and he smiled once again.
Ma bowed her head as if the Holy Ghost had anointed her. The drivers pulled the two barouches to the curb, and all thirteen of us shuffled in, sat atop one another, poking and knobbing until we were situated to bear the short ride home. I tried to calm the shrews running wild through my belly as I took a last look at the General.
"He is a bit insouciant, but this is to be expected." Ma gave me a blithe pat upon the hand, then pulled the shade.
On the morning the General came to call, he tied his horse to the iron hitching post by the stone steps. The General strolled through the house with his hands clasped firmly behind his back, looking directly ahead as if the walls were invisible and he was keeping watch over something on a distant horizon. He made no comment on the furnishings or frippery. I admired this about him; it raised him in my estimation.
The General found the great hall crowded with my little brothers and sisters, who thundered up the stairs, slid down the balustrade, then started over again, hollering all the while. They glared at him as if he were something vile that had slithered up from the falls. He glared back, and they were duly cowed. Mama danced down the stairs with a regal swishing noise, one hand lifting the skirts of her aubergine gown, the other waving a welcome to the General. But her greeting was interrupted by footfalls upon the threshold of the front entrance, followed by Uncle William Clark's voice sounding sharply and urgently.
Eloise clutched at me with a worried look. "What do you suppose they're about?"
"Miss Eloise, we must investigate," I whispered.
It was easy to dash about undetected in our house. Pa had built the limestone thing as a monument to himself. I called it "the old sepulcher," which infuriated Mama. Visitors wandered through the rooms, gaping at the black walnut floors so polished they appeared as dark water underfoot, at the lofty ceilings, the tiger-maple and rosewood marquetry, the sixteenth-century Italian furniture, Flemish tapestries and hand-painted wallpapers. There were portraits of dead Bullitts, Gwathmeys and Clarks in every hall.
But Eloise and I were still in dressing robes with our hair floating behind us. To be seen in sleeping clothes and naked feet by men, worse yet, by a man who had come to court, was an act of unpardonable lewdness, punishable by a whipping. Thrilled by the promise of intrigue and our own brashness, we crept hand in hand toward the library, listening to the General and Uncle William Clark bark at one another. Having had his hopes for the governorship of Missouri dashed, Uncle served as the Superintendent of Indian Affairs, and the General enforced federal regulations pertaining to the Indians on the frontier. That was all I understood of their lives. Mama said Uncle and the General were fast friends.
Eloise squared her shoulders against the wall as if someone were pressing a musket to her heart. She lifted her chin and stared at the ceiling. I thought her posture rather too dramatic. I crouched low, hugging my knees as I strained to hear what they were saying.
Uncle was agitated. He paced back and forth, popping his fist into his palm to emphasize his points: "I shall thrust a wedge into the heart of that tribe, that's what. Split 'em in two. I will make it clear to the Sauk Nation that I will not negotiate with that scrawny little bastard Black Hawk."
I peeked round the pilaster to see Uncle making throttling motions with his hands.
The General lit his pipe and spoke calmly. "Who will you negotiate with? Certainly, Keokuk can not be trusted. I will not put my faith in a man who steals annuities from his own people, keeps a harem and dresses like a dandy."
Fishing his snuff box from his pocket, Uncle William Clark said, "I'll pay him enough that he can be trusted. And incidentally, old friend, half of all of my troubles I attribute to you. What the hell did you do to Black Hawk to make him want to kill you and every white soul on the frontier? He hates both your innards and your out-ards."
The General clenched the silver stem of his pipe between his teeth and tented his fingers. "That's a small matter, greatly exaggerated."
"Don't scoop that fuggin' balderdash at me, Henry. Speak the truth, damn you."
When the General maintained his silence, flicking an ash away from his sleeve, Uncle William raged, "I have a right to know, don't I? What the fug did you do to him? Sleep with his wife? Gig the family dog? Or did you gig his wife and sleep with his dog?"
The General smirked. Uncle pointed a warning finger at him. "Tell me, you sonofabitch."
"Well, if you're going to get into a dudgeon about it. It began in the winter of 1814, on the shores of Lake Champlain, when I was a young captain leading a company of men through the woods in a snowfall. We knew the British lines were somewhere to the north of us, and we feared stumbling into them. As twilight descended, we were too far from the barracks and had to make camp, but we could not build fires for fear of alerting the British to our position. My men glanced fearfully about at each snap of twig and birdcall. We could always see the British coming because of their garish costume. We could hear them coming because they announced themselves with bagpipes. It was the Sauk we feared. They were invisible warriors in the woods. And the light was so gray...well...I had picked where we were going to bivouac, and the men had begun to settle when the air was cut by eerie war whoops. My men slipped their bayonets onto their muskets, poured powder and balls and affixed their flints with clumsy fingers. And we waited. The outlines of the trees were blurred by the snow, and the growing darkness, yet we sensed movement toward us. My men held their fire until the first of the Sauk were clearly visible, creeping through the underbrush. We fired; the woods lit up with powder blast. Because of the smoke, I could not see anything. The Sauk came out of the darkness, running with their axes held high.
"A slight-made young warrior, bald except for his vermilion roach, came at me with his knife in one hand, an axe in the other. He was no more than seventeen. He cut the outside of my thigh, and we struggled in the snow and the muck. I was much taller and heavier than he, but when I rolled atop him, he tried to drub me with his axe. I cut him. With his own knife. I cut the vein on the side of his throat.
"All around me, I heard men go down, bludgeoned, stabbed...when the Sauk took scalps, it sounded like the rending of fabric. In the distance, I could hear the British setting up their artillery. They must have intended to blow the forest into slivers with their six-pound guns, because this was a dense wood and they were long yards away from us. There was a moment when I paused and squinted through the snow and darkness, looking about for ways to help my men. I heard a cry of anguish. A Sauk warrior leapt before me. Despite the cold, he wore only a breechclout and moccasins, his thin and narrow body bore not a bit of fat. He crouched, staring at the dead boy behind me.
"The gash on my leg flowed blood like a creek after the spring thaw, and I felt weak. I held my pistol before me, but my hands were clumsy from the cold and they slipped all over the butt. I couldn't get a grip on it. I dropped it behind me and yanked my saber from its scabbard. We circled for a few minutes, then the Sauk leapt upon me the way a cougar jumps an elk on a game trail. I couldn't believe his speed. He was going to kill me very quickly. With every bit of strength I could muster, I got to my feet, but he was right on me again. He had the advantage over me.
"But then something happened that saved my life; I am convinced of it. The British opened fire with their big guns. The concussive blast was so great that the Sauk warrior was thrown off of me, and in the smoke and confusion, I saw my men running. I looked up and there had to have been a whole regiment of British coming across the creek. I took advantage of the smoke cover, grabbed my pistol out of the snow and joined my men. I glanced back at the Sauk warrior, and he was crouched over the dead boy, howling out his pain and despair. I tell you, that was bad to see. But the second time I looked back, the Sauk was staring at me, and seeing me look at him, he raised his hand and made a slicing motion across his throat, then across his own scalp to let me know what he thought of me."
"That was Black Hawk?" Uncle William asked, pouring himself a dram of bourbon.
"That was Black Hawk." The General studied the ceiling of the library as if it were a map to the promised land. Uncle pinched, then snorted the snuff from an onyx vial. From my vantage point, his snuff box looked like a black plum in his hand. He said, "Black Hawk is a pompous little scaramouche with aspirations to be the next Tecumseh. But he is too fuggin' shortsighted ever to unite the Lake Nations."
"Agh, Clark, but if he ever does...if Black Hawk ever unites the Lake tribes...my men will be outnumbered six to one. Say good-bye to every white soul on the frontier. And I don't think he's stupid or shortsighted."
"General, you seem awfully generously disposed toward the little savage, given he wants to slit you nose to nuts. What is it that grips you? Guilt?"
The General's boots pressed dents into the leather of the ottoman.
Uncle ran his hands through his long gray hair with its few coppery strands and blurted, "I don't care a shat about that little momma-sucker. I'll starve him out. Starve him!" The General squinted up at Uncle through a blue cloud of pipe smoke.
"MARY BULLITT! You are en déshabillé!"
I flinched, squeezed my eyes shut and then rose up to accept my punishment. It was Mama. Her pretty face was mottled red with fury as she yanked me and Eloise by our collars and shook us hard. Uncle and the General stepped into the hallway, but I had been struck all of a heap by the General's bloody story of Black Hawk. I mulled over the idea of Black Hawk's vengeance, told in half measures, while everyone chattered around me. If I had the wisdom of a few more years, I would have known that the General had omitted whole chapters from his account. But at the time, I goggled at him, as stunned as a duck in a thunderstorm.
The General shook his head as if we had offended his delicate sensibilities. "Sir," I began, meeting his eye because I wanted to quiz him, but Uncle William interrupted, teasing me as if I were a child. It was his custom, after all.
"You, Miss Mary, do I see your feet?"
I tucked my bare feet under my robe as best as I was able. "Uncle, I can see your feet too."
"Yes, Miss Mary, but I'm wearing shoes."
"Yes, Uncle, but they're ugly shoes."
The General knit his brow and looked at my mama, who dipped a little, apologizing, "General, ordinarily Mary is the embodiment of piety, purity, submissiveness and -- "
Uncle William clapped a hand over his mouth, laughing at Mama's bald lie. Eloise hawed like an old mule suffering the lung rot, and Mama triggered a wallop upside the back of her head that left her tingly for weeks.
I called out over the banister as Mama dragged me up the stairs, "After all these years passing, Black Hawk doesn't remember who you are, does he, General?" When I peeked back over my shoulder, a smile played over the General's lips, and right there, before everyone, before Mama and Uncle William, he winked at me!
Eloise gasped at his audacity, "Mama, that general winked at Mary!"
"Dahlia, put Mary in her rose gown of India mull, it makes her appear demure. No woman, even Mary, can look rebellious in pink."
"He winked at me, Mama. I think he's dissipated. Miss Mary Wollstonecraft says only corrupt men wink."
Dahlia tied my waist tapers, as Mama violently jerked my hair up atop my head, and with her teeth clenched, growled at me, "Do not mention that woman's name in my house. She is immoral and she is dangerous." Mama continued her hopeful preparations. She turned me in rough circles, lifted my top lip with her small finger and rubbed at the space between my teeth with her fingernail, muttering, "At least your front teeth are still fine and white." She gripped my wrist and pointed a warning finger at Eloise. "You stay right there, young lady, don't you interfere. Mary, repeat after me -- piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity."
"Piety..." I sighed, as Mama hauled me down the staircase, depositing me before the library entrance. I drifted sullenly through the door and glanced around for Uncle William, but apparently he had left us. The General bowed, then pressed the knuckles of my hand to his lips and held it there. I rolled my eyes at the ceiling and let him nibble at me as long as it pleased him.
"Tasty, isn't it, General?" I said.
He laughed and gave my arm a playful jiggle before releasing it. "Tasty like a stewed ham hock, Miss Bullitt."
"Not a very auspicious beginning, sir -- likening me to a pig, that is."
"Mary Bullitt!" Mama exclaimed, shoving me down onto a chaise. The General postured upon Pa's favorite chair as the high-yellow kitchen maid brought a tray of tea and gâteaux. I wondered which of the General's legs had been cut by the Sauk warrior's knife while Mama engaged him in breathless conversation. He watched her red silk handkerchief flutter against her breast. She confessed her relief at having a Southern gentleman in her parlor as opposed to that vicious freshet of Yankees who'd crowded the house of late.
"It is one thing to have Yankee officers coming to court, it is quite another to consider that your grandchild might be one of them," Ma said.
"Yes, yes indeed, Mrs. Bullitt." The General glanced pointedly at my hips as if to assess my breeding capability.
I cringed. The man just arrived and Mama had him filling my belly with children. The window admitted a wan breeze and I turned to welcome it. Dahlia, my waiting maid, sat upon the rug before the door. The General and I shared a skeptical look as Dahlia touched her fingers to her head scarf and loosed a small cough to let Mama know she had arrived.
"Oh, General," Mama said, "that is Dahlia. She will matron the two of you, for today is my receiving day, and I must take calls from the ladies of Louisville. You will, I hope, understand?"
The General bid her good day. Mama banged the latch into the jamb with the finality of the undertaker pulling shut the doors of a family mausoleum. Dahlia cast a sleepy glance at us, waved a little wave, yawned, then slumped over in a deep sleep on the rug.
We scrutinized one another for as long as it pleased us. The General had a fan of lines at the corners of his blue eyes and a sprinkle of gray in his hair. I thought he was a stark representation of prime on the cusp of decay. I could hear all of Louisville gossiping now: Have you heard about Mary Ann Bullitt and her dignified old General? Ugh. I made fists and pressed my knuckles into the chaise's brocade until a red imprint bloomed on my skin.
It was time someone said something.
"Are you enjoying your visit to Louisville, General?"
"Yes. Are you looking forward to the spring cotillion season, Miss Bullitt?"
"No. I despise cotillions."
"I understand entirely."
"How nice to be understood."
He rubbed a hand over his face to steady his expression. "I must go now," he said, rising with great dignity from his chair as if he expected me to salute him. His dismay was obvious when I jumped up gleefully, with a clap of my hands.
"General, may I give you directions to Lizzie Griffin's house? I've heard she finds you quite interesting."
"I do not reciprocate that sentiment, Miss Bullitt."
"That's unfortunate for me, isn't it?" I muttered, putting a hand to the globe and giving it a spin. The General paused a moment, then looked at the ceiling as if contemplating his next action.
I said hopefully, "Now that we're alone, you should know I'm rotted clean through. You can leave and I'll tell Mama I was horrible to you and she'll believe me. You've lingered longer than most of my suitors."
"Sit down, Miss Bullitt, right here."
He pointed at the ottoman and waited for me to obey him.
"Why? Because that's a lower position than you have? So I can gaze up admiringly at you? No, General, I think I'll sit on the table. Then I'll be higher up than you."
"Suit yourself, young lady."
"And so I shall." I tossed the books off the drum table beside his chair, planted myself and held the globe as if it were an infant.
"Miss Bullitt, I want you to share with me your opinion of the world and how you see your place in it."
I blinked at him. No grown man had ever asked me such a question before. It gave me reason to consider that the General might not be so decrepit after all. He waited patiently for my response, cupping his chin in one hand, focusing on my face an unblinking gaze that wandered now and again from my throat to my knees. Oh, he was brash. I paused dramatically, looked about for something clever to say, and finding nothing inspirational in the cavernous emptiness of my head, said, "I think the world in general and Louisville in particular is being ruined by civilization. Why, they're paving the streets of this city with cobbles -- "
"No!" He interrupted with mock incredulity and slapped a hand to his jaw.
I began to recount the depredations of encroaching civilization for him. "I hear tell there's an ordinance being bandied to stop the boys from fighting before the grog houses; what, I ask you, will they do to occupy their time now? There are too many churches being built in Louisville and too many ministers moving in to fill the pulpits. There are rules everywhere governing everyone, as if we wanted rules at all. The city and all of the Kentucky people in it are going to be ruined by gentility, and I'll be destroyed right along with them."
The General circled around behind me where I sat and leaned over me. His hand closed over mine and he lifted my forefinger, then laid it on the globe over the township of St. Louis. A darkling sensation went all through me. I had never before experienced such an intimate connection with the body of a grown man. I could feel the rough wool of his coat against my bare arms as he pressed against me, and when he leaned forward so that I could feel his breath upon my neck, I nearly went limp against him. Though convention told me to be outraged by his breach of decorum, I was paralyzed with enjoyment. Indeed, I rehearsed womanly outrage in my mind, but I didn't feel it and feared a display would ring false.
He returned to his chair.
"Miss Bullitt, you ever been to the Indian country?"
"Why would I go to the Indian country? Who's there besides Black Hawk? And you'd better kill him before he kills you. To my way of thinking, you've got to turn the Old Testament upside down. None of this eye for an eye business. You've got to steal away the other fellow's eyes before he takes yours. What do you think of that?"
He took my hand once again, I felt the corners of my mouth lifting in a traitorous smile. His breath smelled like almonds. "Black Hawk poses no danger; he's an old man. He must be nearing fifty winters now."
I narrowed my eyes and yanked free of him.
"You've got to be nearing fifty winters too, so you're not a danger to me."
The General cast a sly look at me, then put his hands on the toes of my slippers. I could feel the heat of his hands through the silk, and I leaned over him. The color rose on his cheeks when I came very close and whispered, "You're not telling the truth about that Indian who wants to kill you. I can sniff out fibbing, and you're fibbing to me now, General. You often fib to women, don't you?"
"I only fib to the wicked ones." His eyes twinkled at me.
I nudged at his shoulder, ruffling the fringe of his epaulet, and said, "Tell me about the frontier. What does St. Louis look like? I hear they call it Little Rome because it's crowded with the popish French. Is that true?"
As he was unduly proud of himself, I expected the hearty budget of bragging tales customary to military men. But when the General began to talk in his North Carolina drawl of what it meant to live in a place where there were no cities, in a place beyond the telling of rules, where the most reckless desires of men were manifest, I closed my eyes and allowed him to lull me across time and space to places I had never seen. He talked and talked for nearly two hours, but he said nothing more of Black Hawk.
When I asked him once again about Black Hawk, he demurred, "Not yet, Miss Bullitt. You are far too accustomed to receiving whatever you wish."
"General, you are far too accustomed to giving out what no one wants."
The General smiled at me and rose from the chair. With a quick motion, he gripped my wrist, then brought my fingertips to his lips. I resisted the urge to rub them back and forth to feel the texture of his mouth.
"Then it's decided. You'll do fine," he said, his look sweeping me from head to toe.
"Mind what I say."
A derisive glottal noise erupted out of me, and he dropped my hand as if I had the scrofula.
"What was that noise that just came out of you, Miss Bullitt?"
"A stomach disturbance."
He regarded me doubtfully, then stepped around Dahlia, who still slept on the floor. I trotted along after him like an amiable puppy.
"Now, Mary, I must go play brag with General Gaines," he said, turning to face me. "Shall I see you tomorrow, then?" He winked and touched his fingertips to his brow in a sort of casual salute.
Before I could give my answer, Mama scrambled down the steps and, with a conciliatory smile to the General, yanked me by the pelerine, back into the house, all the while scolding me for running out-of-doors after a suitor as if I were some overeager hill cracker in heat.
On the second day the General laid siege to our household, a steady rain warped the wood floors until opening doors traced perfect arcs through the beeswax finish. I lay abed and watched a dreary light filter through the window as a servant brought my breakfast of biscuits and milk. By eight, I'd been corseted, at half past I accompanied Ma to the storeroom. Ma did not release the keys to her stores to anyone as our family's livelihood depended upon her careful management of the preserves, dry goods and medicines.
"Mama? About this General...I think you should know, he vexes me terribly."
Ma reviewed her list and squinted at the low state of copper polish, then muttered something about all of us being about to die from verdigris poisoning.
"What don't you like about him, Mary?"
Ma removed a barlow knife from her pocket, peeled away the brown wrapper from the nine-pound loaf of sugar and took a chunk out of the white brick for Dahlia.
"He's too old."
"The General is the perfect age for marrying. You aren't suited to marry a boy. What else?"
"He has a rotten temperament, Mama. He's obdurate. He bosses me around."
When Ma finally began to speak, her voice sounded, as always, like a low hymn with distinct rhythms. "Mary, I observed the two of you together for a few moments. It struck me that between your mulishness and his pride flourishes paradise."
Mama sighed. "Yes, well to the devil, an inferno is paradise. See here, Mary, the two of you relish this sparking and circling. After you marry, and this man will offer marriage, you'll take turns dethroning one another. He'll lord it over you for a time until you tire of it, then you'll usurp him in a brief but thrilling revolution until he hobbles you once again. And so on. When the General talks to you, does his conversation interest you?"
"He told me an Indian wants to kill him."
Mama ignored this. "Is the General kind?"
"No, I fear he is the sort who will apply stripes to me before bedtime."
Mama scrutinized her candle inventory.
"Now you're being silly. I happen to know he is a gentleman of the highest order, stern perhaps, accustomed to deference from all living things, but still and all, truly gentle in his manner and desirous of pleasing you. No, I can guess a man's proclivities at the outset and this one is kindhearted. And for some reason, he is the only man come a-courting who doesn't think you're a harpy. Dahlia and Hannah, you may go."
Mama waited until they were down the stairs before she spoke.
"Let us have an understanding between us, Mary, and I say this with all solemnity -- I would never force you into marriage."
"No, I wouldn't. And if I truly believed you'd be happy to live out your days in this house as a maiden lady, then I would tell you so now. I would love your company forever. But, Mary, I am asking you to consider, for the first time in your life, that you have a very difficult nature. You would be miserable if you were married to some bird-hearted crumpet of a boy. The General is a good match for you; he could show you so much of the world, and in a way you'd like to see it."
"Why can't I see the world by myself, Ma? Why do I need him?"
"You don't need him. But neither are you suited to...to a life of celibacy, Mary."
"Oh my God, I can't believe you just said that."
"Do not blaspheme in my presence! Part of your dislike of the General is prompted by the stew of emotions he boils up in you. There is a very heady current between the two of you when you are together; I sense it and you need to recognize that he understands it. You're misinterpreting what your heart tells you. He's the first man you've met who won't grovel for you. Virtue in a woman is a good thing except when it's...well, antique, my dear. Then it changes into something, ah, something much less appealing. For once in your life, think about your actions before you turn him away for good. You consider my words before he comes to call today and try to behave. The last thing you want is to regret sending away the one man who could make you happy."
I took my leave of Ma to greet Mister Rammey, who had come to give me lessons in Italian song. At ten I played the harp for an hour, all the while considering Ma's words. I dined on turkey galantine at two with my lady cousins, Louisiana, Octavia and Celeste, but the memory of my last encounter with the General scratched around in my head like a caged squirrel. At three, I reviewed the calling cards we'd received that day, taking them from the gold-plated receiver, a shallow bowl uplifted by a full-breasted goddess who appeared blissful in her duties as she stood on her pediment. For a long while, I sat miserably on the staircase, stared up at the clerestory windows above the doors and grumped about my future. What if nothing ever changed for me? My days were something like living inside a field glass, it seemed each was a view to the last, one telescoping upon the other, the same narrow view recurring over and again with maddening clarity.
That night, a bath was drawn for me in my bedroom. I immersed myself into the tepid water and examined the red marks left on my breasts and ribs by the whale-bone corset stays. As I bathed, I traced each angry indentation with a wet finger, hoping to translate the secret cursive of the lines, the code of duty and obligation written into my skin by the Louisville society that had governed me since birth. Maybe Mama was just plain wrong about me. Maybe I was meant to make a life for myself. I would read all of the books I'd hesitated starting, I would ride out and explore reaches of Kentucky I had not seen. A lifetime of self-indulgent spinsterly pursuits awaited me -- such was the future I yearned for, wasn't it? The fulsome and independent life of an aged maiden lady. Mary Ann Bullitt: spinster. I liked the sound of it. And it made me perfectly miserable because I wanted my journey. I wanted to see the gold and russet prairies of autumn, and I wanted to cross the same mountains Uncle William Clark and his Corps of Discovery had crossed in the winters after I was born.
When I was young, Uncle William would tell me how he had planned the arrival of the Corps of Discovery at the Pacific Ocean to coincide with my birthday. For the men of the corps arrived on the western shore in December of 1805, and my uncle was so joyous, that he carved his name and mine into an alder tree overlooking the great waters. He would say to me, "Mary, on that day, despite my jubilance at what we had discovered, I was troubled by the idea that you and everyone I loved back home were celebrating your second birthday. I could not bring you a gift, so I carved your name into a tree in the wilderness."
And then Uncle William would sigh and say, "I apologize, Niece."
And knowing how the story ended, I would pretend concern and touch my hands to his cheeks and plead, "Why do you apologize, Uncle?"
"Without your knowledge or permission, Mary, I gave you then, to the West. You were married to the West when you were only two years old."
I stepped from the tub and pulled the pins from my hair. I watched the dark length of it fall to the white curve of my calves, then stared at myself in the mirror. With arms outstretched, I turned barefoot circles upon the old Turkish carpet until my hair lifted and splayed like wings searching for loft over the windy savanna and the spreading dark rivers of the West.
Copyright © 2001 by Micaela Gilchrist