Excerpt: Hand-Me-Down Bride
Sophie is far from her German city home, newly married and even more newly widowed. She is left virtually penniless and adrift in post Civil-War Pennsylvania, where she is resented by her dead husband’s family. The last thing she expects is to be is attracted to another member of the scornful Wildbach tribe.
Karl Joseph is still trying to forget the war, as well as the painful relationship he had with his father. He’s the first member of his proud family to want to “just be an American.” The last thing he wants is a German wife!
Sophie studied her toes. She sat on the double bed in which she’d spent the night, knees drawn up beneath her white lawn nightgown. Only her toes stuck out. Lifting her dark head, she gazed through a nearby window at a May morning that shone upon a blooming—but sternly regi-mented—rose garden. In spite of the warm breeze,she shi-vered.
Then, hoping it wasn’t true, for the hundredth time, she looked at the other narrow bed, the one next to hers. Upon it lay her new husband, the rich grandfatherly man who’d paid her way from Germany, a man she’d married only yesterday.
Theodore Wildbach was quite dead. Proper, in death as in life, he was flat on his back, hands folded on his chest. He looked like the stone knights lying in the cathedral in her hometown. That was how Theodore habitually slept, and how he’d died. Pale lips gaped inside a ring of neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard.
She’d discovered him upon awakening. She’d come close, staring, unable to believe her eyes. It was a terrible surprise, nowhere among the thousand twists of fate she’d imagined as she’d journeyed across sea and land to German Mills, Pennsylvania.
That was when the shivering began. Stumbling, teeth chattering, Sophie beat a hasty retreat to her bed.
She’d been sitting there ever since. She kept thinking she ought to feel something, sorrow for Mr. Wildbach, panic at the black abyss of unknowns into which she was plunged, but all she could do was sit, study her toes, and shake.
At last she heard footsteps ascending the stairs. Sophie jumped out of bed, dashed across the room, tore open the door and ran into the long hallway. She didn’t know which member of the family she’d meet, but she didn’t care. She couldn’t sit with a corpse—even such a proper one—for another minute.
There was her dead husband’s youngest son, dressed in one of those outfits of denim that all the young men around here seemed to wear. He was tall, muscular and blonde. He was also shocked by her sudden and indecorous appearance in nothing more than a summer nightgown.
“Herr Karl Joseph!” She noted how his clear gray eyes widened, then began to roll, trying to look anywhere but at her. “Ihr Vater ist Tot!”
Your father is dead?
The shock of seeing that poor girl race into the hallway, shaking, terrified, in an embarrassing state of undress, made him stumble over the German. Karl had been born and raised here in Pennsylvania, but, unlike his father, he strove to be, in every way, an American. When, at the age of fourteen, he’d run away, he’d told everyone his name was “Joe Wildbrook.”
Only yesterday Karl had come from the mill to at-tend the wedding. He’d arrived in a terrible mood, still hardly able to believe his father was enough of an old goat to have gone through with it. The feeling grew after he’d seen the young, pretty Fraulein Papa had ordered from The Old Country. Karl had come home from the great Civil War with a notion to get married himself, but the local German girls his father kept parading under his nose aroused no interest.
“Handsome enough, eh?” His father had taken Karl by the elbow, nodded in the direction of the bride. Sophie sat on the other side of the room, gravely sipping from a flowered teacup, one that had belonged to the first Mrs. Wildbach. Karl’s mother had been a plump, fair lady from an “English” family. Her placid manner had given Theodore no warning of the strength of will she’d possessed.
“We could send for one of her sisters for you.”
“No thanks, Papa. I can find a wife on my own.” Karl pointedly disengaged his father’s hand. His insistence upon his marrying a German girl grated. Brother George had been given no such orders, but George, like Papa before him, had found himself a well-heeled bride.
“Ah, but not a Schone Jungfrau like that.” His father had sent a proud, possessive look at the poor girl.
To Karl, Sophie appeared solemn and edgy. There was not so much as a glint of happiness to animate her beauty. She seemed like the girls who eyed him hopefully at the church socials in nearby Palatine or New Bremen, the ones from whom he ran as if they were agents of the devil.
Sophie nodded whenever his father spoke, those dark, long-lashed eyes apparently engaged in a careful study of her lap. Born and raised to be a Hausfrau, Karl thought, with not a thing in her lovely head but “kuchen, kirche und kinder—cooking, church and babies . . .
It was a genuine surprise to learn she could play the piano. When her Aunt insisted, Sophie executed a classical piece, showing far more animation than she had in conversation. Karl didn’t know much about music, but it was a treat, the performance poised and polished. It was clearly no beginner’s effort.
Papa had been cross when Karl, after one too many glasses of the spiked punch, had made a joke about it.
As the celebration went on, Karl began to have second thoughts about the girl. When she thought no one was looking, she surveyed the goings-on with intelligent, wary eyes. When she caught him watching, however, that numb mask quickly took control again.
Maybe she was the sly opportunist his sister-in-law Sally suspected. That would, Karl thought, serve Sally right. After all, it took one to know one.
Now, this morning, here the object of all his speculation stood! Dark braids trailed over high unsupported breasts. Ample curves showed to advantage beneath a sheer lawn nightgown. She was distraught, disturbingly disheveled.
Sophie, seeing the shock and embarrassment in Karl Joseph’s gray eyes, thought he might run away. To prevent this, she seized his wrist and repeated what she’d said.
“Entschuldigen bitte, Herr Karl. Excuse, please, Herr Karl.” Somehow she managed to translate between chattering teeth. “Dein Vater ist Tod.” Then, hoping that use of both languages would aid the son’s tardy understanding, she added, “Herr Teo-dore—iss—dead.”
“Good God!” Karl tore his wrist from her grasp and ran straight into the spacious paternal suite.
After months of traveling, Sophie stepped out of the coach that had come from Philadelphia, PA, to German’s Mill. It had been the goal of a journey that had taken her across the ocean, to the port of New York where she’d been met by Aunt Ilga, her mother’s sister.
They had traveled by train to Philadelphia where they’d spent two weeks resting in her Aunt and Uncle’s fine home.
“We want to you to be calm and pretty when Herr Wildbach sees you, Schone Nichte. First impressions are so important.” Her aunt had anxiously pinched Sophie’s travel-pale cheeks.
In a week, she and her aunt were away again, this time in company with her coarse, rich American Uncle Ralph. They’d taken a short train trip to Lancaster, where Herr Wilbach’s coach awaited them. Dapper Theodore, beard neat and elegant, had stepped out to greet them. He’d worn a new three-piece black suit, waistcoat crossed by a heavy golden watch chain. He was old enough to be Sophie’s grandfather, but still a fine looking man. He carried a bouquet of fresh cut roses that he’d presented to Sophie.
He was formal, but Sophie knew he was looking her over, from the top of her brown head to her brand new high-button shoes. Seeming to approve of what he saw, he smiled gravely, gave her his arm, and escorted her to a shiny carriage that boasted a uniformed black driver. Ilga and Ralph joined them.
Her aunt beamed. She had made the match, successfully sparking Theodore’s interest.
Sophie knew that Uncle Ralph and Herr Theodore were business partners, and that her husband-to-be visited Philadelphia several times a year. It was during one of those business trips Aunt Ilga had found the opening for her proposal.
The next part of their journey took them through red dirt fields to a busy little town with rutted streets and many tall, graceful elms and maples. Graciously speaking to Sophie in German, Theodore pointed out “sights of interest” in this, her “new home.”
From the carriage, she saw a schoolhouse, a smithy, a harness maker, and a cooper’s shop. A modern brick general store had the porch sitters Sophie had noticed at every general store in America, but there were shoppers, too.
The mill itself was on one end of the town, set adjacent to a rushing creek. In the middle distance, Sophie could see a white cataract. Theodore explained that water was diverted along a race to power the mill.
Making an expansive gesture, Theodore explained, “My great-grandfather immigrated from Brandenberg to Manheim, Pennsylvania. My father moved up here and built this mill, the cornerstone of this village.” It seemed Theodore had gone his father one better, setting up the general store and coining money as the population grew.
Wagons drawn by red oxen waited at the mill. Farmers with straw hats, brown faces and baggy, dusty work clothes stood at the loading area doing what farmers everywhere do, discuss the weather.
They paused to solemnly tip their hats to Theodore. He returned their salute, but did not ask the driver to stop. Over the sound of rapidly falling water, the thump and groan of a working mill was audible.
“Where is Karl Joseph?” Aunt Ilga had been studying the men busily loading sacks into wagons.
“Out looking at buckwheat,” Theodore replied. “He’s gauging the harvest. My dear, you will meet my youngest, Karl Joseph, tomorrow.” Taking Sophie’s hand in his, he’d added, “My second son manages my mill for me. It is an excellent place for a young man to acquire a thorough knowledge of business.”
Sophie, who had spent her life in cramped, dark city apartments, had never imagined she would live in such a place. It sat in the midst of a park-like space, with tall trees surrounding it. A rose garden in full bloom surrounded it.
It would be like a fairy tale, she thought, except for the woman’s price I shall soon pay—my body given to that chilly old man!
Sternly, she pushed self-pity away. Her father had been an educated man, a civil servant. Since his death, her mother had worked constantly to support the family.
As Sophie had done time and again on the voyage, she told herself, “I am unbelievably fortunate to have this opportunity to help my family to a better life. Perhaps, in time, if I please this gentleman, and if he is as generous as Aunt Ilga says, he will let me bring my mother and all my sisters to this wonderful country where there is more than enough for everyone.”
In spite of the often-repeated internal lecture, fear churned in the pit of her stomach as the carriage ascended the drive.
Theodore handed Sophie down, and escorted her through a great dark door into an impressive but gloomy parlor. It was paneled in walnut, full of massive furniture nd Turkish carpets. Dresden figurines crowded every small table. Lace-edged antimacassar lay across the chair backs. China plates lined the rails just below the ceiling.
Here Sophie met Herr Wildbach’s oldest son, George, and his wife, Sally. Both were distinctly cold, but Aunt Ilga had warned her about them.
“George Wildbach thought he had the inheritance sewed up. When you have children—and,” she paused to send Sophie a solicitous glance, “I am convinced you will most certainly have that happiness, George and Sally’s plans will be out the window.”
Theodore, in a lord-of-the-manor fashion, introduced Sophie to two housemaids and to the German cook. When Sophie saw how nicely the servants were dressed, she was glad Aunt Ilga had bought her these high-button shoes.
It wouldn’t have done at all to arrive in German’s Mill with those wooden ones she’d worn across the ocean. She’d had leather shoes at home, but her mother had been told that it wouldn’t be safe for Sophie to look as if she had anything to steal, so she’d gone on board dressed like a servant.
The New York shoes were breaking in nicely, although they still rubbed a little. She’d had to resort to sticking plasters at the heels, but Sophie was thrilled with them anyway. It had only been during Papa’s lifetime that she’d owned anything so handsome.
That very evening, she and Herr Wildbach, he, starched and upright, were married in the oppressive downstairs parlor. A local dignitary, called a “District Justice,” performed the service. Only servants and immediate family were present.
Sally Wildbach was tearful, but clearly not with happiness. Her husband, George, a stooped younger copy of his elegant father, appeared preoccupied. Karl had arrived late, just after Theodore had opened his pocket watch and declared he “would not wait one second more to convenience that impertinent puppy.”
“Puppy,” Sophie saw, did not really describe Karl Joseph. He was taller than either father or brother, muscular and fair, out of a different mold. His handsome face was pale and shadowed, like a man who has spent the night awake. Sophie felt ill-at-ease, for she had an intuition Karl was sorrowfully remembering his mother. When Aunt Ilga had talked about the Wildbachs, she’d explained that Karl Joseph had been deeply attached to his mother, that he’d run away and joined the army just after she died. It didn’t take much imagination to guess what he must be feeling.
After a brief ceremony, there had been a hearty German supper of roast pork, filling, gravy, kraut, and poppy-seeded noodles. The dessert was a fabulously tender and moist Dampfnudeln—raised dumplings—swimming in a delicious cherry sauce. Sophie’s stomach was a knot, so she couldn’t eat much, no matter how good the food was and how blessedly familiar.
Theodore and her Aunt and Uncle were cheerful, but the other family members were taciturn, particularly Karl. He passed dishes wordlessly and consumed quantities
that would have made him champion at an eating contest. He was a polite diner, but the way he kept staring from across the table at her was almost unbearable. His cold gray eyes seemed full of reproof. Under such relentless scrutiny, she wielded her fork with great care.
What was the big square-jawed oaf staring at? Was he waiting for her to spill cherry sauce down the front of her new frock?
Worse still, how much he looked like Captain Frederick, that wolf in sheep’s clothing whom she’d so foolishly loved! Remembering him, remembering everything that
had happened, a chill ran down her spine.
Sophie swallowed her last bite with difficulty, set the fork precisely down. Once and for all, she told herself sternly, I must put the folly of the past behind me.
After a couple of agonizingly slow turns around the rose garden, Theodore announced they intended to retire. This sent Sally into another fit of weeping. The surly younger son, after a mumbled “thank-you” and “good-bye,” sentiments more suitable for a Sunday dinner than a wedding feast, had hurried to the front hitching post. Throwing himself upon his big chestnut horse, he’d galloped away as if pursued by the devil.
Sophie’s heart had been pounding, her palms sweating, when, at last, the bedroom door closed behind them. In German, in a tone more like a sergeant than a husband, Theodore directed her to get undressed and put on the lovely nightgown Aunt Ilga had laid out. Obediently, Sophie went to the bed by the window and lifted the fine material between trembling fingers. Her husband instantly retreated into an adjacent dressing room.
Her Aunt had explained: “Herr Wildbach believes that sleep is more profound and healthful when a husband and wife occupy separate beds.”
Nervously hurrying to obey, Sophie heard the sound of pouring water. Next came the opening and closing of a cupboard door and the tinkle of a stirring spoon. After a few moments of silence in which Theodore was presumably drinking whatever mixture he’d made, he began to move about again. A wardrobe door opened and closed.
What would her ruined friend, Lisel, now left forever behind in Osnabruck, say about the kind of man who takes the time to hang up his pants on his wedding night? Especially a man of fifty-seven, about to possess a twenty-two year old bride?
Sophie began to shiver in earnest.
When Theodore reappeared, he wore a perfectly ironed ankle-length nightshirt, leather slippers and an alarmingly warm expression. He took her hands, and, formally, one at a time, lifted and kissed them.
Beneath that knowing older man’s gaze, Sophie lowered her eyes. She felt a flush bathe her, bosom to brow. Theodore bent and kissed Sophie upon the lips. His lips felt cold and dry.
“Now, Frau Wildbach, into your bed.”
She could hardly see, but somehow she managed it. When she faced him, clutching the sheet in a death grip, he said in his precise, clipped German, “Don’t worry about your marital duties tonight, Frau Wildbach. We’ll perform them soon, but I think we should be more at ease with each other first. You will know when the time has come,” he instructed, “because I shall join you in bed.”
Sophie tried not to look as relieved as she felt, but the reprieve brought her to the brink of tears.
“Mind, my dear girl, don’t confide this to anyone, particularly Sally. It is none of her business, though she will try to make it so. She is a typical pushy American.” He shook his head disapprovingly. “I’ve told George many times that leisure spoils a wife. It only gives them time to meddle where they shouldn’t.”
Sophie nodded. The dangerous sister-in-law Aunt Ilga had warned her about was maybe not such a threat after all.
“I would not do that, Herr Wildbach,” she replied. “Meine Mutter says that words between husband and wife are private.”
“Prudent advice,” Theodore observed dryly, “but not always easily followed. At least until you have more English, you won’t . . . ” He paused again, left the sentence trailing. Sophie could not tell if it was discretion he was requesting, or a better command of her new language.
“I am sorry, Herr Wildbach, I do not have better English.”
“English is a confusing language. If you want to know something, ask Grete in the kitchen, or me. Divine, the schwarze cook who works for Karl, knows some German, too. She was born in Palatine.”
This caused Sophie to raise her eyes in wonder. Herr Wildbach chuckled. “I mean to say that Divine was born in Palatine, Pennsylvania.”
Theodore gave her a last long look in which fatherliness and lusty regret uneasily combined. Then he turned on his heel, crossed the room, blew out the lamp and got into his bed, the one close to his dressing chamber.
It took her some time to stop trembling and settle back into the clean, fine linen where she smothered tears of weary gratitude in the pillow. What a kind, kind man, Sophie thought. Surely, after this, when Herr Theodore came to her bed, she could do what she must without so much fear. Perhaps, even, with a feeling of—if not love—at least gratitude for tonight’s supreme charity.
“And you woke up and that was how he was?” Karl kept asking. Sophie had followed him back into the room and stood at the bed’s foot. Seeing the body, her teeth began chattering again.
“Ya. Ich kenn nicht maken! I did not know what to do.”
Soon the house was in turmoil. People wept, even the servants. Men flocked up from the town below to stand, hats in hand, in the yard. Sophie shed some tears, too, at last, though she’d only known Theodore Wildbach for a brief two days.
She was truly sorry. Theodore had seemed fastidious in every way, a man of his word, and one who had been supremely careful of her feelings. His kindness last night had convinced her that he was—or rather, had been—a good man.
The Will was read in a Judge’s parlor. Here, from a seat beside her tight-lipped Aunt, Sophie learned that it had not been altered to include her. A codicil had been drawn, the Judge apologetically explained, but not yet signed. This left George and Sally possession of the great house on the hill, the general store, some railway stock, and undisclosed sums lodged in Philadelphia banks.The judge read on: “I bequeath the sum of $600 and title to the mill, commonly known as German’s Mill, as well as the attached house, barn and 3 acres, to my son Karl Joseph Wildbach on condition he forswear continued use of the English alias “Joe Wildbrook.” Shame concerning his family’s origin is an attitude that has inflicted great pain upon his father. Although, during his youth, Karl Joseph displayed a disobedient and reckless disposition, experience of life has, I trust, worked a transformation that will render him worthy of his inheritance.”
Sophie saw Karl Joseph blanch. His big muscular hands gripped his hat as if he intended to punch strong fingertips through the brim.
Juliet Waldron was born in a small Ohio farm town. Her family moved to New York State, into an 18th Century house with a resident ghost. Later, she traveled with her mother overseas on a shoestring, with school years in Cornwall and Barbados.
Returning to the States, she took a B.A., got married and raised sons. She worked in offices, ending as a Merrill Lynch “girl.” At mid-life, she went off the deep end and began to write. Juliet enjoys putting what she has learned about people, places and relationships into her stories. She has a husband, granddaughters, and cats, and writes historical novels. Mozart’s Wife won the 1st Independent e-book award, and Genesee won EPIC best historical in 2003. Hand-me-Down Bride was recently published by Second Wind Publishing.
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