Monday, July 28, 2008

Blood is Thicker than Water: Father Stewart

Our journey west to the Mississippi River was more or less uneventful. Abigail’s behavior ranged in extremes. She brooded over her parents’ unfair treatment of her; her tongue lashed acidly when she spoke of them. She had several headaches and I spent much of the trip trying to succor her. On the other hand, Abigail occasionally acted as though this adventure west were of her conception. She was as giddy and flippant as any eighteen-year-old girl about the prospect of going to a romantic and mysterious big city. Chatting about parties, running away with riverboat gamblers, and having dashing Creoles fight duels to the death over her were just a few of the topics that helped her pass the time. I constantly reminded her that the Creoles left since the war had ended were not as passionate as those of old, and I did my duty as a chaperone should regarding such girlish fantasies, interjecting occasionally to voice my disapproval. I secretly enjoyed Abby’s ability to create romantic fantasy, but decorum would not allow any such informality as my admitting that.

When we left our train in St. Louis and stepped onto our riverboat, Abby’s mood did not much change. My mood changed dramatically. I had been on a boat only once before and the motion of one made me violently ill. The seasickness that overtook me our first day on the river made me oblivious to any complaints or fantasies Abigail had. She abandoned me the first day of the trip in our cabin wallowing in my misery. The second day I had no food in me left to heave. I also managed to struggle upstairs for some sun. I tucked myself in a lounge chair with a blanket and tried to move as little as possible. Abby, because she was the definitive social butterfly, had already made the acquaintance of several people on the steamer. She was playing shuffleboard with a blond woman and two white-suited gentlemen. I failed in my chaperoning duties that day I was much too ill to care what Abby did and did not do. Everything around me appeared hazy and not quite of this world.

As I lay on the deck, wishing to be anywhere dry and solid, someone broke through the haze. An older man dressed in a priest’s cassock took the deck chair by me. He looked at me thoughtfully and benevolently, light reflecting off his balding pate. “Are you not feeling well, ma’am?” he said. I believe his accent betrayed him to be Irish.

I squinted to bring him into focus. “I do not enjoy the water.”

“Indeed.” He smiled lopsidedly. “You are the color of split pea soup. You’ll get used to it. When I was a boy, I remember my passage. I spent two days below. You may not believe it now, but you will get used to it, much sooner than you’ll get used to this heat.” He mopped his forehead with a handkerchief. We were in September, but the weather in these regions was abominably hot all year around, at least that’s what Laura had told me. The priest extended his hand. “Father Andrew Stewart.”

I touched his hand limply. “Scottish, not Irish?”

“Indeed,” he repeated.

“A pleasure,” I said, with what little enthusiasm seasickness had to offer. “Pauline Raintree, of the Abernathie Raintrees.”

The father puzzled for a moment, then placed the name. “The mail order family?”

“Not that branch, but the same tree.”

“Delighted. What brings you south, Mrs. Raintree?”

“That’s Miss Raintree,” I corrected. I have always felt that there should be some way for the spinster to identify herself to someone in society who does not notice jewelry. Perhaps a ribbon with an elaborate S embroidered on it, or something akin to Hester Prynn’s scarlet letter.

“My regrets,” he said.

“Mine too.”

“I meant for the mistake.” He laughed.

“No offense,” I lied. I indicated Abigail across the deck playing with her new friends. “My niece Abigail is the young brunette playing shuffleboard.”

“My compliments, ma’am. She is very pretty.”

“Thank you. She is beginning school in New Orleans.”

“She should meet better acquaintances there, I hope.”

Had the whole world heard of Abigail’s misdeeds? “I do not see how that is any of your concern.”

“No offense meant to your niece,” Father Stewart inserted. “The blond woman is of whom I speak. She’s not a very good influence.”

I laughed. “I wouldn’t worry about Abigail. I’m sure she’s beyond anyone’s corruption.”

“Naivety will not save your niece.”

“No,” I said, sobering, “Naivety will not save Abigail, that’s for sure. I can assure you of that.” I was going to explain this further to the man of God when two events occurred simultaneously. The first was that Abigail and her new friend approached us, fresh from their triumph of shuffleboard victory. Abigail asked permission for me to allow her new friend, Dalia Saunders, to join us for lunch. I had no plans to eat ever again and I felt Abby could use the company, so I approved. Miss Saunders smiled warmly at me, dazzlingly at the priest, and they headed for the stateroom.

The second was that Father Stewart startled as a dark skinned woman neared us. Laura had tutored me somewhat in what I might be seeing should I visit her part of the country. A great many of the people in New Orleans were shockingly of mixed color, though the city often tried to deny this to the world. The woman was obviously a mulatto. Her skin was grayer than any other color. She had a straight long nose, sparkling dark eyes and thick long hair pulled into ringlets. Her looks astonished me.
The father addressed her. “Good God, Marie.” I was somewhat offended that a man of the cloth had taken the Lord’s name in vain, but my curiosity made me hold my tongue.

“There is no God in this,” said the woman to him. “You must hurry. They have found me, and there is little I can do to fend them off.”

“Be strong, Marie. I am very close.”

“Do not let them find you!” The woman’s face contorted with fear. “They’re here! I must go!” And go she did. She completely vanished. I gasped. Perhaps I had been hallucinating because of the seasickness. Or, perhaps this was the supernatural occurrence I had been waiting for all my life. If that was the case, I wasn’t sure that now was the time for it.

Father Stewart’s bushy eyebrows rose inquisitively, as though he hadn’t expected me to see her too. “Are you ill again, Miss Raintree?”

“Oh no, Father. I just wondered to whom you were talking.”

“No one,” he said, shaken. “No one. Pray, excuse me.”

I couldn’t pretend in good consciousness. I am many things, but I am not a deceiver. “I saw her too,” I said softly. “This Marie.”

He placed his arm on mine firmly. “Would you mind explaining to me how you saw her?”

I extricated my arm. “Would you mind explaining to me why you have an apparition for an acquaintance?”

“She was no apparition,” he said.

“Well, I don’t know of anything that would disappear so readily as an apparition.”

He smiled lopsidedly again. “Miss Raintree, I’m astounded. I think that this is a matter with which I cannot in good conscience involve you. I believe you will have your hands full looking after your niece. Guard her well, and good day to you.” He wandered away. I confess I would have followed him, had not my illness gotten the better of my curiosity. I remained on deck until Abigail came and found me after her luncheon and tucked me away downstairs. As Father Stewart predicted, before the trip was over, I managed to gain my sea limbs. The rest of our trip passed without incident, although I did not see Father Stewart or his apparition on board the riverboat again, although I did often think of them.

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