The Wedding Bed
  The Marriage Bed
Fiction by Elaine Ford
 
  A Sense of Morality
  Wasps in a Bottle
  Rita Lafferty’s Lucky Summer
•  Birthing    
  Ship Street
  Nerve-Wrackin Christmas
  Original Brasses, Fine Patina
 
About the Author   |   Family-Based Historical Fiction  |   echapbook.com  
November 2015 fiction issue 

Ship Street

I. A Diamond Setter by Trade

In January of 1853, at the age of twenty-four, Edward Boynton arrived in Providence by train. From the depot he went directly to the new Richardson and Hicks building and applied for work with the jewelers who kept stalls there. That evening Edward walked the nearby streets, snow crusted on cobblestone, until he spotted a card in the window of a frame building on Ship Street. Rooms to Let. Inquire Within.

The proprietress showed him a dark and cheerless room at the rear of the second floor. He’d seen worse. Though supper was over Mrs. Hopkins insisted he have a bite to eat. After he’d unpacked his valise, the daughter of the house served him at the oilcloth-clad long table in the dining room. A bowl of reheated chowder, thick with chunks of fish, a heel of bread. As he ate, she sat across from him, asked his name, something of his history. She was almost as tall as he, calm of bearing.

Edward’s father had been, he told her, a manufacturer of sewing silk. Edward’s memory was of an ill-tempered autocrat who in 1840 died of liver complaint, bankrupt. Hurting for money, with daughters to raise and marry off, the widow apprenticed her younger son to a diamond-setter. At the age of twelve Edward left school and home and learned the trade. However, when the time came to strike out on his own, work in Boston was scarce. He obtained a position as an engraver but felt somehow dissatisfied.

“So that’s why you’ve come to Providence,” she said.

“Yes, and I hope that Providence will treat me kindly.”

She smiled and carried his empty dishes to the kitchen.

That night, he was awakened by the sound of strangled coughing on the far side of the wall. Another boarder, he assumed.

A jeweler in the Richardson-Hicks building agreed to take Edward on, and he settled into a routine. He spent his days stamping shapes out of metal, setting stones, hammering, polishing. In the evenings he became a regular in Mrs. Hopkins’s parlor. During his years living in boardinghouses he’d picked up a skill at cards, often won pocket change at euchre or whist. He’d learned to play the piano by ear and could sing the popular tunes. Do they miss me at home, do they miss me? ‘Twould be an assurance most dear, To know that this moment some loved one, Were saying, “I wish he were here.”

The girl boarders, spinners and weavers in the steam mill, told him he had a lovely voice. Miss Hopkins didn’t join those who gathered around the upright to hear him perform. She sat by the coal stove, sewing. He heard from another boarder that she worked for a milliner in the Arcade and sold her items of fancywork there.

In an ell behind the house lived Mrs. Hopkins’s son and his family. Thence came the coughing in the night. The daughter-in-law made a living as a dressmaker, he was told, and once he caught sight of her hurrying away from the house, a parcel under her arm. The son, Edward had never laid eyes on. Consumption, the boarder whispered.

One afternoon in March, at loose ends and looking to take some exercise, Edward walked down to the end of Ship Street. Above the canal hulked the five-story steam mill, silent on a Sunday. Beyond, the river flowed southward, fouled along its way by mills, foundries, the contents of chamber pots. Boats choked its waters.

He saw that he wasn’t alone on the dock: Miss Hopkins had lugged a pail of slops from the boardinghouse. Gallantly he took the bucket and emptied it into the murky water.

“Do you ever wish you were on one of those boats?” she asked.

“Going where?”

“Anywhere. You could be a seaman.”

“Oh, no. I see no future in that sort of life.” On their way back to the boardinghouse, she took his arm.

He’d grown fond of the boardinghouse. It was more like a family than anywhere he’d lived, including his own childhood home. He relished the chowder or fritters or johnnycake Mrs. Hopkins cooked, and he enjoyed being served by her daughter. No coarse ne’er-do-wells among the boarders, in spite of the poor neighborhood. Mrs. Hopkins took pains to maintain a respectable residence, and her little granddaughter, Emogene, with her snub nose and shy curiosity, made him smile.

He took to walking out with Laura on Sunday afternoons. She wasn’t frivolous like the mill girls. He guessed she was ten or eleven years older than he, but that made no difference to him. Surprising himself, he asked Laura whether she’d consider a proposal of marriage, and after a week’s interval, she replied that she would. On the 3rd of May, with her mother’s blessing, they were wed at City Hall. On Laura’s finger he placed a narrow gold band that he’d wrought with his own hands.

An engraver in his building mentioned that high prices could be obtained for jewelry in New Orleans. Edward was a forward-looking man, unlike his father, whose pinched ways had brought his business to ruin, in Edward’s opinion. He purchased some gold, silver, and onyx, as well as a few precious stones, and in his spare time he worked at creating suites of quality pieces. He aimed for the Christmas trade in New Orleans. In December Laura gave him fifty-six dollars that she’d saved over the years. With part of the money he bought railroad tickets and a new frockcoat.

“When I return, you’ll have a brooch set with a diamonds,” he promised his wife.

Early in January he wrote Laura that he’d sold a necklace. That wasn’t true, nor was it true that he still resided in the hotel on Carondelet Street. Each of the grand emporia on Canal Street had scorned his work. “Trinkets,” the managers said dismissively. Ladies, they said, insisted upon jewels crafted in New York or imported from Europe.

In some of the more modest shops, on the side streets and in the less fashionable quarters of the city, the female clerks fondled the pieces and cast glances his way that he interpreted as hopeful signs. He’d sit for hours in a drafty vestibule, his jewel case and hat on his knees, waiting for an owner to deliver a verdict. The eventual answer was always a shake of the head, sometimes regretful, sometimes not. In February he wrote his wife that he was seeking temporary work as an engraver or printer, while continuing to make his rounds. However, no one would hire him. Apparently an applicant needed some kind of connection or introduction, which he lacked, or perhaps the men in charge were put off by his Boston accent. His new frockcoat began to look shabby to him. Gradually his stake dissipated, and he left his boardinghouse for a rougher lodging. He stopped writing to Laura, because it distressed him to lie to her, and one by one he pawned the jewels or sold them for a pittance. He went to the levee to sign on as a steamboat hand. The captains laughed.

Each week at the post office he read, with wistful longing, the letters that Laura faithfully sent. In May he went to the railroad station to buy tickets home. He had only a few dollars remaining.

The line was long, and by the time he reached the ticket window, Edward knew he lacked the courage to return to Providence. He’d wasted his wife’s money, betrayed her trust. She would be better off without him. Instead, he questioned the agent about the cheapest route to Texas. There he could change his name, vanish. He’d heard that out West saloons hired piano players, no skill required, anyone at all would do.

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II. Respectability

Central Texian, Grimes County, Texas

Notice

Any one who can give any information of the abode of Edward A. Boynton will confer a lasting favor on his relatives. He is a native of Boston, Mass. Was last heard from in New Orleans, in 1854. He is tall and spare built, black hair and eyes, thin beard, and regular features. He is an engraver and printer, has been employed in printing as far as heard from South.

L.M. BOYNTON
Providence R. I. 1856 —Nov. 5

Madame C. Amy, the celebrated Independent Clairvoyant and Botanic Doctress, promises in her newspaper advertisements that “to such as desire it, she will Reveal Secrets Worth Knowing.” On a windy day in October, 1856, Laura found herself seated in the clairvoyant’s parlor. After a period of deep contemplation, Madame Amy advised her client that the person she sought was out west somewhere. Texas, in fact. Haltingly, various intimations regarding Edward emerged from the ether and were made manifest to Madame Amy, who reported them to Laura. The consultation cost fifty cents.

On a cold foggy evening in January of 1853, nearly four years ago, Edward A. Boynton had knocked on their door at 16 Ship Street. Of the numerous boardinghouses in the vicinity of the steam mill, Number 16 is said to have the best reputation. In the Providence City Directory Laura’s mother is listed as Abigail Hopkins “widow of Halsey,” although Laura’s father is not yet among the dead. He farms the homestead in Coventry, southwest of Providence. For a woman running a respectable boardinghouse, widowhood is more seemly than being a wife who’s gone her own way. After looking Edward over, Mrs. Hopkins decided to let him the windowless room on the second floor, which had been vacated by a mill-hand who’d crushed his fingers in the spinning mule and gone to live with a sister in Pawtucket.

A well-favored fellow, Edward Boynton. He smiled at Laura in such a genuine way when she served him, and he thanked her so civilly. He liked to play cards of an evening in the parlor and generally came out ahead, but was modest about his talents as he pocketed his winnings. He could play the piano and possessed a sweet tenor voice. Why has thy merry face Gone from my side, Leaving each cherished place Cheerless and void? Why has the happy dream, Blended with thee, Passed like a flitting dream, Sweet Laura Lee?

All the female boarders were wild about him, envious of the attentions he began, quite unexpectedly, to pay to Laura. Her mother took little trouble to conceal her pleasure. Edward as suitor was a deliverance sent by God. Her mother would never utter such a sentiment, perhaps not even think it. However, a spinster daughter cannot help but be a burden.

Only Laura’s brothers didn’t care for Edward and warned her to keep her distance. “He’s nowhere near thirty,” Stephen said. “A pup.” And George asked, “What’s he want with an old maid like you?” But they lived elsewhere in town and had met Edward only once or twice. Laura shut her ears.

On the 3rd of May, 1853, the day before her birthday, Laura married Edward A. Boynton—although not in the Pine Street Baptist Church, of which she and her family were congregants. He wasn’t much of a man for religion, Edward explained. They wed on a Tuesday morning, a bright spring day, and she wore a bonnet she’d made herself. Their witnesses were two girls from the boardinghouse. The four of them dined at a nice restaurant near City Hall, the bill paid by Edward with a gentleman’s flourish.

All summer he worked long hours at the Richardson-Hicks building. She scarcely saw him. However, there was always plenty of company in the boardinghouse if one wished to seek it out, or even if one didn’t.

In the fall her brother Stanton died of consumption. Laura viewed Stan’s release from pain as a blessing. Not long after the funeral, Edward began to speak about venturing to New Orleans to sell his wares. If he went soon he could take advantage of the Christmas trade, but he’d need money to pay for his railroad ticket, his hotel, a fashionable suit of clothes to impress prospective customers. Both understood that he’d go alone; the expenses for two would be so much greater than for one. On the 5th of December Laura gave him the fifty-six dollars she’d saved from her earnings as a milliner in the five years since leaving Coventry. Her investment was sound, he assured her. She wouldn’t regret it. He packed his case of brooches, rings, bracelets, and necklaces and left on the cars, heading south.

From New Orleans, on the 6th of January, Edward reported that he’d sold a necklace or two and had every expectation of selling more. She replied to him at the hotel whose exotic name and address graced the envelope, but more than a month passed before she received another letter from him. On the 13th of February he wrote that his prospects in New Orleans continued to look promising, but in the meantime, he was seeking temporary employment as a printer.

That was the last she heard from him. Nevertheless, each Sunday afternoon she sat down at the dining table and wrote to her husband, at first recounting and later inventing amusing anecdotes about life in the boardinghouse. Perhaps, to save money, he’d moved to a cheaper hotel and never thought to inquire at the post office whether undelivered correspondence awaited him. To her mother’s anxious speculations Laura paid no mind. In time she stopped affixing stamps to her letters, but wrote and mailed them just the same.

Nearly three years passed in this way. Then Laura bowed to her mother’s insistence that she pay a visit to Madame C. Amy.

Thus far, no one has responded to the notice placed in Texas newspapers. Laura is not particularly surprised. During her consultation in October, Madame C. Amy revealed to her that Edward A. Boynton is fated to die suddenly in Texas. Possibly robbed and murdered while traveling on business, possibly stuffed down a well.

Laura Boynton, widow, will carry his name the rest of her long life. No one will again be able to dismiss her as an old maid. On her ring finger she wears a narrow gold band. She deems fifty-six dollars a price well worth paying.

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III. The Boardinghouse Keeper

In the light of an oil lamp she took in his appearance: tall and spare-built, black hair and eyes, thin beard. His frockcoat wasn’t new, but respectable. Age twenty-five or so.

“I understand you have a room to let,” he said.

“Come in.”

Abigail asked for the week’s rent in advance and led him upstairs. It wasn’t so much a room as a closet, with a narrow bed and a bureau. At least he wouldn’t have the nuisance of a bedmate. “Supper’s done,” she said, “but we’ll find you something in the kitchen.” She’d have Laura see to it.

In the morning, after he’d taken himself out of the house, Abigail asked her daughter about him. “From Boston,” Laura said. “A diamond-setter.”

“And?”

“His father manufactured sewing silk.”

“Money there, I reckon.”

“He passed in 1840, bankrupt.”

But there’d been money once and could be again.

Each evening Mr. Boynton joined the other boarders assembled in the parlor. A presentable young man, popular in spite of his shyness. Abigail insisted that Laura join the company, too, though that hadn’t been her habit. She wouldn’t stand at the piano and sing with the others, but sat beside the parlor stove, stitching her fancywork.

Abigail had her trials. For one, her son Stanton’s illness. The sounds of his incessant coughing penetrated the wall between the ell where he lived with his family and the rear of the boardinghouse. It’s not as though Abigail were hiding them back there. The boarders made a pet of three-year-old Emogene, who had the run of the place, and baby Edna was often parked in the kitchen, for the warmth. Unwell herself, Stanton’s wife Harriet carried on as a dressmaker. Sometimes Stan took short walks in the yard. Now embarked on Nuttall’s Syriacum treatment, he might yet recover.

Abigail’s real millstone was Laura. Past thirty, balky, absent-minded, uninterested in encouraging a suitor’s attentions. Too much like Halsey Hopkins, the stubborn old man tilling worn-out soil that yielded more rocks than potatoes. Like as not, going to end up in the poor-farm. No talent for bending life to one’s will, either father or daughter. Laura wasn’t good for much but plunking dishes down on the table and carrying them to the kitchen. She made a sloppy bed, hardly knew which end of a broom to apply to the floor. Burnt anything she tried to cook. What would become of Laura when Abigail wasn’t here to care for her?

All her life Abigail has taken care of her own, and so many others, impossible to count or remember.

One day in March Abigail saw Edward Boynton descend the stairs, dressed for a stroll. Through the parlor window she watched him turn toward the canal. She hurried to the kitchen and seized the pail of slops. “Follow him” she ordered Laura. “Don’t dally.”

The scheme worked. Graciously Edward emptied the pail for her and escorted her home. They began to walk out together on Sunday afternoons. Evidently he didn’t notice Laura’s age. In her vague inexperience, she did seem younger than her years. Abigail cooked his favorite meals, and she made sure his bed linen was clean and laundry done to his satisfaction.

In private she said to him, “I trust your intentions are honorable.”

“Why, yes.”

“If you like, I’ll make the arrangements with the pastor at Pine Street Baptist.”

“I’m afraid I’m not a church-going man.”

Never mind. City Hall would be perfectly respectable.

They married in May, the day before Laura’s thirty-fifth birthday, and he moved his belongings into her room. The following month, darling baby Edna succumbed to scarlatina. Edward, a member of the family now, accompanied them to Swan Point Cemetery and bowed his head for the prayers. A dutiful young man.

One day at dinner Edward spoke about the high prices jewelry was fetching in New Orleans, or so he’d heard. “Fine jewelry. Not the common sort we make in the shop.” As it happened, Abigail’s son Stephen had left the steam mill and was working in the trade himself. When Abigail inquired, he opined that Edward might be able to fashion such pieces and sell them in New Orleans, but would need money to purchase the materials, which did not come cheap. Stephen deemed it unlikely that Edward had that much cash to spare.

Next day, Abigail said to her daughter, “You have a bit of money stowed in that tin candy box on your bureau. It’s doing no one any good just sitting there. Don’t forget the parable of the silver talents.”

In October Stan hemorrhaged blood into the bedding. The doctor said one lung was gone. Abigail went to Pine Tree Baptist Church and prayed on her knees, as earnestly as she’d ever prayed for anything in her life. But on the 12th her youngest child breathed his last.

Well. You wear mourning clothes and hang a funeral wreath on the door. You grieve. But if you keep a boardinghouse, you cut up potatoes and fish for the chowder. You affably greet the tenants and each morning empty their chamber pots, the same as always. Boarders are not paying you for gloom.

It’s a terrible thing to outlive your son. Yes, Abigail feels some blame. At the graveside Pastor said Stan’s death was the will of God. Yet it was she who’d been bound and determined to leave the failing farm, who abandoned her husband and took her children to Warwick, who put her sons in the mills. She didn’t know it would be so hard on their lungs. She believed Providence would be better for them than Warwick, the steam mill paying higher wages, but now only George is still in the mill. Stephen’s struggling to learn the jewelry trade—because that’s what you do in Providence if you haven’t the strength for the foundries or the mills. And Stan, her youngest, is in the cold earth. Leaving little Emogene in Abigail’s care, his widow has gone to Warwick to stay with her parents. After a brief rest she’ll return, she told Abigail. But she won’t. Not until she’s at Swan Point next to Stan.

A week ago Laura gave her husband the fifty-six dollars she’d saved in the five years since they came to Providence. This morning he departed for New Orleans on the cars, jewel case tucked under his arm of his elegant new frockcoat.

After the boarders have finished their supper, Abigail, Laura, and Emogene gather at the table to eat their chowder. Just the three of them. Sitting there, spoon in hand, Abigail feels a sudden heart-stopping intimation that from now on, this is the way it’s going to be.

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  © Elaine Ford, 2015
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