by Susan Thomas
Elizabeth was getting dressed for church. Going to church was something she disliked and even the prospect of teaching in the Sunday school did not assuage her dislike. She was popular with the children and even the rumbustious boys gave her no trouble. Other teachers became very tense at the thought of taking the boys but not Elizabeth; she was still seventeen but the boys adored her and her classes, while lively, were orderly and productive. No, it was not the Sunday school that was the problem: she disliked going to church because it troubled her conscience. The Good Book made it very clear (Exodus 20:12) that children should honor their father and mother. Elizabeth found it very hard even to like her parents and being in church reminded her of that failure. On the wall of the Sunday school that very text was written in large letters and drove a sharp knife into her conscience every time she saw it.
"Elizabeth Franklyn Jones," came the cold harsh voice of her mother, "you are not ready. Must the whole household wait on you?"
"Sorry mother, I'm coming now."
The ride to church was, to begin with, much the same as always. Elizabeth's mother criticized her posture, her choice of clothing and once again her tardiness in getting ready for church. Her father made no comment but looked at her as if he was thoroughly tired of her presence. When her mother finally stopped her catalog of criticism her father cleared his voice.
"Elizabeth, you will be eighteen next week. I shall use your birthday to announce your engagement to Mr. Rankin Blake. It will not be a long engagement."
Her father reacted sharply. "Enough, Elizabeth. I will tolerate no further delay or disobedience. Blake has waited four long years for you to become his bride."
Elizabeth tried hard to disguise the acid tone of her voice. "He didn't wait very long after the death of his first wife, and I was only fourteen."
"I shall not tolerate any more impertinence. Blake is a respectable, wealthy and influential man. It will be an excellent match for you."
Elizabeth said no more. She said nothing about the way that Rankin Blake had stared at her even when his poor wife was alive ... a look that made her flesh crawl and which had grown worse with every year. She said nothing about how cowed and frightened his first wife had looked or how quiet and timid his nine-year-old son Arthur was in his presence. Furthermore, she made no mention of the talk among the servants about his conduct at home. His servants talked to the Jones' servants and Elizabeth had picked up that talk. At home, Rankin Blake was a cruel man who had physically tormented his first wife. The whisper among the servants was that Blake had treated his wife with such cruelty that she had gone into an early labor and died. Worse still, poor Arthur was subject to beatings that no child should ever be made to endure.
Elizabeth was in conflict between her duty to honor her parents' wishes and her fear of being married to such a man. She wanted to be married of course, as all her friends did, but to a man she loved and who would love her in return. She wanted children... lots of children and she would love them, giving them the warmth of family she saw everywhere but her own home. Rankin Blake did not love her but he had some sort of obsessive desire for her. The only solace in that marriage would be Arthur. A child treated so cruelly was in grave danger of becoming a cruel bully himself, but Arthur had clearly been attached to his mother. While alive she must have protected him from his father so the boy was very different from the man, and Arthur was very attached to Elizabeth.
Today's Sunday school lesson was on David and Goliath. Elizabeth had spent some time drawing pictures and had persuaded an older boy to make her a slingshot. She had borrowed a toy shield and sword from a neighbor's son and using these aids had developed the story in such a way that had all the children, girls as well as boys, totally engrossed. She finished with a question which only Arthur had managed to answer.
"Why did this champion Goliath, an experienced soldier, not use his shield and helmet to defend himself from David's sling shot? It makes no sense that such a warrior could be so easily brought down."
"Pride!" Arthur was excited. "He was too proud and I bet he was frightened his comrades would tease him if he did, because David was just a boy and he was a champion."
The class understood that very well. None of them liked to do anything unusual for fear of being teased by the others. Being 'yeller' was a stigma even the girls liked to avoid. Once the class was dismissed Arthur stayed to help Elizabeth pack everything away.
"Arthur, my father will announce next week, on my birthday, that I am engaged to your father. Will you mind me being your stepmother?"
Arthur turned to look at her with a very worried face. "I would like you to be my stepmother but I don't want you to marry my father."
Elizabeth was sure she understood his meaning, and why he said it, but she had to ask. "Well, I can't be your stepmother unless I do marry Mr. Blake so why don't you want me to marry him?"
Arthur replied with a simple statement, "Because he will be cruel to you like he was to my mother."
Elizabeth had been given a thorough and expensive education. She had never been deprived of clothing or food. Her bedroom had everything the daughter of a man of her father's wealth and position in life would be expected to have. However, she had been deprived of love and affection; her parents, especially her mother, were cold, critical and made her feel constantly as if she was a burden to them. Her love had all come from the nurse or nanny they had employed. Martha Craig had been a mere sixteen when she was given care of Elizabeth. From a large family, and used to babies and small children, she had been an excellent mother figure and Elizabeth was deeply attached to her. On Elizabeth's twelfth birthday Martha had been dismissed as her parents considered their daughter too old to be treated as a child.
Martha had married. Her husband was comfortable, but not wealthy, owning a carrier's business with several carts and wagons servicing the area. Martha herself was now mother to three children of her own but always welcomed Elizabeth whenever she came to visit. The former nurse was deeply troubled at the news of Elizabeth's forthcoming engagement.
"So, it has come to that point at last. He is evil although he is considered a respectable man. You cannot marry him Beth, really you can't."
Elizabeth tried to remain calm. "I know. I've been avoiding it for a good long time in the hope he'd find someone else, some wealthy beauty who would take his fancy... but now I am not sure what to do."
"You cannot avoid the engagement but you must leave before the wedding. You're good with children. Even the naughty boys listen to you, and you are very well educated, so why don't you apply to teach in a school out west. I've heard there is a great shortage of teachers, and many of the ones they do have aren't well educated, but you are and you'd be an asset to any town anxious to educate its young ones."
"Aren't those pioneer areas very dangerous for women?"
"There are more settled parts. Look, in this newspaper there is an advertisement by an agency that finds teachers for small towns. The pay is not wonderful but anything is better than marriage to Mr. Blake. I'd have you here but your parents and Blake would soon find you. You could use this address but best use another name."
Elizabeth borrowed pen, ink and paper and soon a letter was ready offering her services as a teacher and outlining her educational achievements. It was written under the name of Beth Franklin. By the time a reply arrived she was engaged to Rankin Blake. At a very stiff and formal birthday dinner her father announced her engagement and there was applause. Rankin Blake smiled graciously as men shook his hand. He was wealthy and very well connected... it was always best to be on good terms with him.
The letter from the agency suggested two positions and instructed her to write her own formal letters of application and enclose one of the covering letters of recommendation. It seemed a clumsy procedure to her but, under the pretext of reading books on household management in preparation for her marriage, she went to the public library, and surrounded by a large pile of books, she prepared to apply. One town was offering more money than the other but try as she might to reply to that school her hand would just not compose the letter. She kept returning to the other school in a small town called Kirkham... it seemed to call to her and with a sigh of resignation she applied only for that post. She began to draft a careful application. Finally satisfied, she threw the drafts in the wastepaper bin and wrote out a fair copy using Martha's address. When she left she didn't see the figure that stepped out from behind a bookcase. The figure reached down into the waste bin and pulled out the draft letters. Smoothing them out, the figure read them and then carefully ripped them up before throwing them back.
Elizabeth was very careful to appear compliant with the marriage arrangements being made on her behalf. Her mother, reassured by her unexpected compliance, allowed her more latitude than usual in visiting friends. Elizabeth was able to visit Martha every day to check her mail but not once did she notice the figure following her every move. When a reply finally came from the small town of Kirkham she sat on Martha's porch and read her the friendly and pleasant letter from the mayor. He was pleased with her qualifications and offered her the post. The school house was new, with new equipment, following a huge fund raising effort by the town. The children to attend were all quite young, the eldest only twelve years, and they were all looking forward to her arrival. Initial accommodation would be provided. Neither Elizabeth nor Martha noticed the figure lurking in the bushes nearby who overheard every word.
Elizabeth wrote accepting the post and laid her plans carefully. She did have some money. Her parents' position in life meant that their daughter had to be seen to have some money of her own. She asked permission of her mother to spend a few days staying with a friend who was to be a bridesmaid. This was quite normal for a bride-to-be and her mother agreed. With limited luggage Elizabeth left, not for her friend's house, but Martha's. Early the next morning, with a tearful farewell, she caught a very early train. She had bought a ticket, not to her ultimate destination, but New York. She planned to change trains before she got to that city but the deception would confuse the search. At no point did she see the figure following her.
Elizabeth Franklin Jones was no more. Now she was the simpler Beth Franklin. Martha's husband, a generous man, had given her the large sum of $100 as a parting gift. She changed trains early in her journey, claiming no refund on her first ticket, but buying a new one in the hope that any pursuit would be led astray to New York.
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