The following story is a change of pace from my usual flash fiction. I wrote it for the photo prompt below. It’s part of the Writers Unite! Monthly Write the Story. To find out how to participate CLICK HERE.
Genre: Historical Fiction
WITH THIS RING
Laura Gwynn cradled her month-old son in her arms. Lulled by the steady rhythm of the train taking her from familiar Pennsylvania to unknown Missouri, she shut her eyes. How had it come to this?
She longed to confide in Mama or cry on Papa’s shoulder. This was never to be. Mama died of consumption and Papa couldn’t live with his broken heart. Laura had no siblings. Left alone at fifteen with nothing but a rundown farmhouse and a barren field, she sold the property and moved to the city. When she went to deposit the money from the sales at the bank the teller’s deep brown eyes and dazzling smile captivated her. It didn’t take long for her to fall in love with Thomas Gwynn.
Not long afterward, she accepted his proposal making her a bride at sixteen.
Thomas had a bright future with the bank. He promised her jewels and servants. Instead, he managed to get himself arrested for cheating at cards. The night before his scheduled trial, the men he had cheated lynched him, leaving Laura a widow at seventeen.
Filled with pity for her, Mr. Willoughby, the bank president, loaned her the money to cover Thomas’ gambling debts. He provided her with room and board and a position as a maid to pay off the loan.
Afraid she would lose her job, she kept her condition a secret. However, her small build and short stature made it impossible to hide for very long.
Mary and Charles Willoughby, who desperately wanted children, offered to adopt Laura’s baby.
“He’ll be heir to the Willoughby fortune. Surely, you see the wisdom in this.” Charles, an imposing presence with bushy white eyebrows and balding pate handed her a contract. “If you sign this, the child will never have to work a day in his life.”
Laura pressed her palms against her belly. The baby kicked against them. She remembered Thomas’ words when they wed. “You are now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.”
The child moved again. Laura refused to sign and uttered a feeble whisper. “I—I can’t.”
“You can,” Charles thundered and waved the paper under her nose, “and you will!”
“Oh my dear, consider your little one.” Mary grasped Laura’s hands, her faded eyes awash with longing. “Why you’re a wee child yourself.”
So certain Laura would relent, Mary put a full layette together. She made sure Laura ate well and didn’t do any heavy lifting. While Laura didn’t mind being pampered she had no doubt as soon as Mary Willoughby had the baby in her clutches, she would cast Laura out on the street.
During her seventh month Laura noticed an advertisement in the newspaper for mail order brides. Pictures of potential husbands accompanied mailing addresses. Laura scanned the blurry photographs.
A young man with a pleasant face caught her attention. Alfred Cromwell. He listed himself as a truck farmer in Harrisonville, Missouri. She winced. More than she hated farm life, she hated being servant to a pair of vultures with designs on her child—bone of her bone, flesh of Thomas’ flesh.
She had a photograph taken and enclosed it in a letter.
A month later Mr. Cromwell replied in scrawling longhand.
“5 May 1890
“Dear Mrs. Gwynn,
“I’d be right proud if you’d be my bride. I ain’t got much to offer but I got a sturdy cabin that could use a lady’s gentle touch. I promise to do my best to make you happy. If you accept, I’ll be sending you a train ticket.”
“Alfred C. Cromwell”
How could she refuse? The baby would be here any day.
The promised ticket arrived a week after Jason’s birth. One night, as soon as she felt strong enough, Laura packed her suitcase with her few belongings and Mary’s layette. She swaddled the baby, tucked him into a large wicker basket and laid a light blanket over it. Without so much as a note of explanation, Laura stepped out into the night and made her way to the depot.
By now, the Willoughby’s had discovered her treachery. Did they send someone after her? The countryside zipped by. Jason opened his brown eyes and squinted at the early morning sunlight. Laura’s heart thudded against her ribs. She hadn’t told Alfred about the baby. What would he say—or do?
Clutching a bouquet of roses, Alfred studied Laura’s photograph. “She claims she’s almost eighteen and widow woman, but she don’t look much older than fourteen, does she, Bert?”
“That’s a fact, Alf.” His brother Bert let out a long slow whistle. “Didja happen to tell her you’re nigh onto thirty-seven? You was a might younger when that picture you put in the paper was took.”
Alfred’s face warmed. “I mighta forgot to mention it.”
Bert’s wife Ginny adjusted Alfred’s necktie. “Don’t you worry none. You’re still a fine specimen. Any gal would be proud to have you. As for her being a widow, it don’t matter how old a woman is. If her husband dies, she’s a widow. Plain and simple.”
The train pulled up to the platform, its whistle heralding its arrival. Alfred tightened his grip on the flowers. He surveyed the passengers exiting the train. “She says she’s not very tall.”
Ginny shielded her eyes with her hand and craned her neck. She pointed. “Wonder if she could be that little girl with the big basket slung over her arm.”
Alfred inched closer for a better look. The girl in question was clad in black from her bonnet to her shoes. She stood on tiptoe as if she were searching for someone.
“Mrs. Gwynn?” He stepped toward her. She couldn’t be more than five feet tall, if that. “Laura?”
She raised her head to reveal surprised blue eyes and freckled cheeks framed by sleek amber locks. “Mr. Cromwell? I thought—”
“—I’d be younger?” He took her suitcase and handed her the bouquet. “I can explain that.”
A tear made a trail through her freckles. His heart sank. He reached for the basket. “Lemme carry that for you.”
“No.” She blushed and shrank back. “I’ll carry—it.”
She laid the bouquet on top of the basket and slipped her hand through the crook of his offered arm.
“I hope the ring I bought ain’t too big.” He pointed to Bert and Ginny who waited in the carriage. “There’s our best man and maid of honor.”
“I figured we’d go straight to the courthouse while we’re in town.”
Laura bit her lip.
“Unless you’re a-changing your mind. I’ll understand. On account I lied about my age and all.”
She flashed a quivering smile. “No. I gave you my word. My mama used to say it’s bad luck to get married in black.”
“Hogwash!” He helped her into the carriage’s back seat and climbed in beside her. “Let’s get ourselves hitched.”
A noise came from Laura’s basket. “That ain’t what I think it is, is it?” He leaned over and pushed the blanket aside. “You never said nothing about no baby.
Ginny turned in her seat, her gray eyes sparkling. “Now ain’t that something, Alfie? I guess you ain’t the only one keeping secrets.”
A week later, Laura cuddled Jason and drank in his sweet scent. Alfred’s snores came from the front room where he slept on a palette on the floor. On their wedding night, he had gathered his blankets and left the bed to her and the baby. “I don’t expect you to be beholding to your wifely duty until you’re ready.”
Although Alfred couldn’t hold a candle to Thomas when it came to looks, he had nice enough features. She liked his sky-blue eyes and dimpled smile. The honest face of a simple man.
She held her left hand up to the lamp on the roughhewn night table and studied her new wedding ring. Unlike the cheap band Thomas gave her, Alfred had taken great care to choose one with style. She admired the way the intricate filigree shimmered in the light.
A hollow sense of desolation and shame flooded her as she reflected on her wedding day.
The tight-lipped justice of the peace droned the marriage ceremony as it was written in his book. Ginny held Jason who howled from “Dearly beloved” to “I now pronounce you man and wife.” Laura clung to her slightly wilted bouquet to keep her hands from shaking. Alfred promised to “love, honor and cherish.” All the while he glowered at the baby.
Alfred leaned against the doorjamb and watched Laura sleep. Her son curled up in the crook of her arm. Morning sunlight illuminated her flaxen hair which splayed across her pillow. Her long eyelashes fringed her translucent cheeks. He ached with longing, but he’d vowed not to push her.
She opened her eyes. “Good morning, Mr. Cromwell.”
A month had passed since the wedding. She still refused to call him by his first name and continued to wear black. Ginny assured him his young bride would warm up to him. She just needed time. How much time? His back hurt from sleeping on the unforgiving floor.
“Good morning, Mrs. Cromwell.”
Laura decided it was high time she repay Bert and Ginny’s kindness with a home cooked meal—fried chicken, mashed potatoes and green beans from the garden.
The older woman provided good company and made Laura feel welcomed and appreciated. More than that, she made Laura feel like family.
While Bert and Alfred worked the fields, Ginny helped Laura put the finishing touches on gingham curtains. As her needle flashed in and out of the cloth, she chattered, regaling Laura with amusing stories about Alfred.
“He’s always been kind of awkward and tongue-tied around women. I’m the one who suggested he send away for a bride. Honey, you could be exactly what the doctor ordered.”
Laura put down her sewing. “Could be?”
Ginny leveled her gaze on Laura. “You ain’t man and wife yet are you?”
Laura’s cheeks blazed. “I said ‘I do.’”
“‘I do’ don’t amount to a hill of beans when you’re dressing like a widow and dragging your chin on the ground. Alfie deserves better and so do you.”
Hours later, fingering the pink polka-dotted fabric of her new dress, Laura grinned. “Ginny’s right.” She dropped the green beans in salted water and stirred them.
“Why don’t you look purty, Mrs. Cromwell?” Alfred circled his hands around her shoulders. “Smell nice, too.”
She whipped about and gently poked his shoulder with her spoon. “Please, Mr. Cromwell. Don’t disturb the cook.”
He dropped open his mouth. “Are you flirting with me, Mrs. Cromwell?”
The baby in his basket whimpered. Soon the whimper grew into a squall. Laura heaved an exasperated sigh. “He can’t be hungry. Would you mind holding him while I fry the chicken, Mr. Cromwell?”
Alfred knelt and gathered Jason in his arms. “You shore is growing, son. Come to Papa.”
Laura’s pulse raced. “What did you say?”
“I—I know I ain’t his pa. It jest slipped out.” Alfred held the baby tighter. “I ain’t no fool, Laura. You didn’t marry me for love. You married me to get out of a bad situation. Fact is I do love you and this here young’un. Would ya consider allowing me to give him my name?”
She sank down on his lap and wreathed her arms around his neck. “My darling Alfie. Cromwell is a wonderful name.”
Jason’s indignant cries rousted Laura from Alfred’s deep and lingering kiss. She looked up to see Ginny and Bert.
Bert chuckled. “Time for dinner yet?”
“Come to Aunt Ginny before you suffocate.” Ginny lifted Jason from Alfred’s shoulder. “Looks to me like dinner’s gonna be a bit late tonight. Your ma and pa got some serious business to attend to.”