Grand Island


"Wonderful indeed," Bill said. "But tell me...oh, that isn't fair. Never mind."

"Never mind what?" Mary asked. "Now you must tell me!"

"I suppose I must," Bill admitted. "While you were off the train, Ben confided in me that he has been out of work and they're broke. They don't even have jobs waiting for them!"

"That explains a lot," Mary said. "I did notice Marlene eyed all the snacks hungrily but when I asked what she'd like to buy, she insisted she didn't care for any of them. I could see it wasn't true, but...oh, heavens, how on earth can she offer me a dress if..."

"I know!" Bill said. They had arrived at Mary's car, and stood quietly just beyond the vestibule. "But I have an idea. To help them, I mean."

"Can I help?" Mary asked. "They've been so very kind to me, and you know how no one else has lately -- except you of course!"

Bill chuckled. "I might have insisted you help, if only so we can spend tomorrow together!"

"We shouldn't," Mary said. "You know we'll be in Grand Island by tomorrow night, and then..."

"And then I could buy you a ticket onwards if you find you can't face life on the farm." Bill had not planned to say it just yet, but the words tumbled out before he could stop them.

"Oh, Bill, you know I could never accept that!" Mary gave every indication that she longed to do just that, however.

"Promise me you'll think it over tonight," Bill said. "And please don't deprive me of one more day with you if you do decide to get off the train tomorrow."

"I couldn't..." Mary's voice trailed away, and Bill took advantage of the silence and swept her up in his arms. He had expected at least token resistance, but there was none as he embraced her fiercely against the draft and the frigid night howling past outside. He kissed her chastely, and to his pleasant surprise her lips responded in polite kind. He made to let go, and was once again surprised when she was more hesitant to do so.

"Tomorrow?" he whispered when at last they had pulled back from one another.

"Yes please," Mary said, and turned to make her way past the sleeping travelers.

The walk back to first class was thick with the most hopeful Christmas spirit Bill had felt in years, though it was also muted with a sense of melancholy at the unpleasant surprise that likely awaited the Brockway children in San Francisco. But by then a beautiful idea was already growing in his mind, and despair gave way to determination as Bill tiptoed past the mostly-sleeping passengers.

As usual, his mother's dire warnings of earlier proved empty, as the carriage door opened at his touch. It sounded as though Mother and father had long since retired, so Bill turned to his tiny private bunk. He took of his coat and vest and slipped his shoes off, but left the remainder of his clothes on. With a bit of effort, he soon had his trunk out from under the bunk and, careful to do so as quietly as possible, he unlocked and opened it. Buried in one corner underneath his clothes and the contraband medical books he never left unguarded, his well-traveled treasure sack from prep school remained in its resting place.

Bill didn't think he had moved the little cloth sack, much less opened it, in five or six years. But he had carried it with him everywhere he had traveled, always glad to know it was there, a sort of masculine rag doll for the boy who had been riding the rails every few months since age fourteen. He had envisioned taking the treasures out to admire periodically at Yale whenever he got lonesome for his youth; but he had found himself too busy for all that most of the time. Since graduation, of course, he had had precious little reason for looking back on the happy childhood that mostly just existed in his imagination anyhow.

And so, he reasoned wistfully now as he poured the contents of the bag on his bed, he wouldn't be terribly sorry to part with some or even most of the treasures. He found that hard to believe now as he admired his well-worn baseball glove from prep-school, the ball still clutched in it...little Billy would find it easy to make friends in his new neighborhood with that! And his favorite book of adventure stories, some of which he still had memorized -- but Candy and Billy and little Henry hadn't, and maybe their mother would enjoy reading them aloud as well. And the cast-iron locomotive and the three colorful miniature horses on wheels; Bill wasn't sure if Candy liked trains, but didn't all girls love horses?

Bill set aside the gifts he had chosen, and returned his remaining keepsakes to their resting place in the trunk -- most of it was teenage boy stuff that wouldn't have been appropriate for any of the Brockways, to his regret. While getting the trunk back in order, he stumbled across a book of paintings of old San Francisco that someone had given him at the sendoff party last week. He hadn't meant to pack it at all, having already leafed through the lovely images of the city he had no real desire to visit, but it had been mixed up with his medical books. A perfect gift for Ben and Marlene, he reasoned, and he set it aside with the toys.

With his good deed set to be done, Bill was at last ready for bed. He peeled the last of his clothes off and stuffed them in the designated dirty-clothes corner of his trunk, and then pulled out his nightshirt. But before he pulled it on, the memory of his tender moment with Mary came flooding back. Reasoning that the train was moving too fast for him to be spotted, Bill turned and looked out the window, aware of his arousal and amused at the idea that it just might be visible to some hobo who looked at the right window at just the right angle. The idea made him laugh through the tension and desire he now realized had been building up all evening.

Mary -- defeated by life in her prime and cast out due to one mistake that hadn't even been hers alone, and the boy who got her in trouble was probably enjoying Mary's beloved Christmastime in New York at that very moment -- the unfairness of it all made his blood boil. And yet, in spite of her hard lot in life, Bill knew he had detected a certain resilience. He'd sensed it throughout the evening, from that very uncomfortable beginning to the lovely ending. It wasn't only that she was beautiful, although she was -- no, once he'd gotten through to her and especially after the Brockways had stepped in, anyone could have seen she wasn't going to give up on life without a fight. It had, he now realized, been a true joy to behold.

And she had felt as beautiful as she had looked in that long last moment. The memory of her body so close against his, her breasts pressing delightfully up against him, the worldly knowledge she possessed that he knew only clinically and the joy she should by rights have been able to draw from it all...simply beautiful. Bill took himself in his right hand and allowed his imagination to take over, what she looked like under that dress, what awaited her on her marital bed a day or two in the future, and the knowledge that it would only ever be a fleeting image for him...

Bill knelt down and opened the trunk again to retrieve a soiled handkerchief. Certain things required his attention before he would ever be able to sleep.

The cold gray light of dawn had Bill lazily awake shortly before the train stopped in Omaha, and thanks to his anticipation of one more day with Mary, he was up and shaved and dressed in plenty of time to meet her. He was not, however, quick enough to evade his angry parents, nor did he think ahead when he opened his chamber door. There they sat looking disgustedly at him, and as usual Bill found himself caught flat-footed and speechless.

"Horace, you will have your man to man talk with him outside," Mother said in an uncomfortably calm growl. "I have no patience to hear what you must say."

"Indeed," Father said, standing up. "You heard her, son. Outside, now."

For once, Bill opted to confront his father directly rather than take his lumps. He launched into his defense as soon as they were alone in the narrow carriage hallway. "Father, I was only following Mother's directive. She told me not to come back, and I didn't! Not until you were asleep in any event."

"Yes, for once you did as you were told, but that is not the problem and you know it!" Father snapped. "Spending the entire evening with a whore in a public room! Did you think we wouldn't hear of it from the porters?"

"Did you think I would care?" Bill managed to keep his powder dry despite the nasty characterization of his beloved Mary. "She's a wonderful young woman, and all we did was eat a meal together."

"A wonderful young woman! Has your mother taught you nothing?!"

"She has taught me far too much about being a judgmental snob!" Bill retorted. "You too, but her especially! I mean, Father, even you sometimes, she criticizes you for being uncouth, and weren't you born with a silver spoon in your mouth just like I was! How can you support her looking down on others when she looks down on you too?!"

"Never mind that." Suddenly Father looked as uncomfortable and put-upon as Bill was feeling. "Whatever your mother's shortcomings, she knows the way of the world and she knows it is not our place to be associating with trash like that girl! All have their place, and this is ours!"

"Ours, or yours?" Bill demanded.

"Do not try to deny your rightful place, Bill. We must never forget our roots."

"One can remember one's roots and still wish to make the world a more reasonable place," Bill said. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have some friends I wish to meet for breakfast."

"You know they serve breakfast in our carriage here," Father called desperately as Bill strode to the vestibule.

"I also know I have some new friends I'd rather spend our precious little time with," Bill said, and he didn't look back as he exited the carriage. He smiled with relief as he realized Father was not going to follow him. It was a low blow, attacking Father on his own upper-crust credentials like that; but for some reason that had always put him on the defensive in a way it never did with Mother. Bill supposed Father simply had some shame about his snobbery whereas Mother had none.

The train ground to a halt moments before Bill reached Mary's carriage, and they had little trouble finding one another. He had not crossed paths with the Brockways, but that could wait. Mary couldn't. "Good morning!" he said with real pleasure as they met just inside the exit door. "Join me for breakfast?"

"In the station?" Mary asked, but she didn't show any sign of declining the offer, instead taking his hand as he offered it to help her off the train. She was still wearing yesterday's dress, but of course Bill said nothing about that.

"I understand most train stations out here have restaurants attached. Special quick service so you can get back on your train in time." He did not let go of her hand as they made their way along the platform; sure enough, a sign directed them to a café up ahead. The air on the platform was chilly but refreshing, and the enclosed restaurant promised a warm greeting.

It did not disappoint, and neither did the friendly waitress who had no way of knowing about Mary's scarlet letter. In a matter of minutes they were enjoying fresh coffee, biscuits and gravy and eggs. "Heavens, what a heavy breakfast!" Mary remarked. "But I suppose you eat like this all the time?

"If I did I'd be big as a house," Bill corrected her. "But it is a pleasure to eat out now and again. I only wish there were places like this on the way home from college."

"Didn't you eat at places like this all the time at Yale, being so posh and all?"

"Not as often as you'd think," Bill said. "It wasn't so different from New York." Mary winced at the mention of her beloved hometown, and Bill quickly apologized. "I'm very sorry," he said. "But you know, my offer stands."

"I thought about it all night," Mary confessed. "Couldn't sleep a wink, but there's nothing new about that, and the thought of starting again on my own out in California...I've heard a girl can do that out there."

Bill hoped she might offer up an answer then and there, but the waitress stopped by with an offer to refill their coffee cups -- graciously accepted by both. As she walked away, Mary's face broke into a wistful smile. "Certainly is nice to be treated like a human being again," she said. "At least I'll have that to look forward to if I stay here."

"That and a lifetime of big breakfasts like this if you want them," Bill agreed. "But Mary, it would be such a pleasure to have you join me in San Francisco!"

"Your parents would never approve," Mary pointed out.

"They never approve of anything anyway!" Bill laughed and Mary joined him.

"Then just how do you intend to keep me on the train against their wishes?"

"Leave that to me," Bill said. "I've been worming around my mother's rules for a long time."

Back on the train, Bill left Mary in her car with a shameless embrace that further piqued the disgust of some of her fellow passengers, and went off in search of the conductor. Finding him in the dining car, he proffered an introduction that was unnecessary; all the train's staff knew who the Billingstons were. "How may I help you, Mr. Billingston?" the conductor asked.

"I am afraid I need a somewhat unusual favor," Bill said. "It appears the suite next to my family's is vacant for this trip."

"Indeed," the conductor confirmed. "We never sell out first class this time of year; too many people traveling in private carriages now."

"Yes, well, I'd like to know if I can purchase a ticket for the remainder of the trip."

The conductor coughed uncomfortably. "Mr. Billingston, I understand you have made a new friend, but I am sure you can appreciate she is not the type of person your fellow first-class travelers would appreciate in their midst."

"Then they don't need to talk to her, do they?" Bill said, pulling out his billfold. "Now, what's the price of a ticket from Omaha to San Francisco?"

"It is against policy for me to sell tickets after the journey has begun."

"Perhaps I can make up for that by paying a bit extra," Bill said, handing the conductor a five dollar bill.

A few minutes later, Bill returned to Mary's carriage with a ticket in his hand. He held it triumphantly out at her as she looked up from her book. "Bill, are you sure about this?" she asked, looking at the coveted slip of paper.

"I had better be, now that it's done, hadn't I?" Bill said. He held out his arm, and she arose and took it.

"This all seems absolutely surreal," Mary said.

"After all you've been through, it seems only fair to me," Bill countered. "Where are your bags?"

Mary pointed to a single pale blue suitcase directly above her seat, and Bill took it down. As the other passengers realized what was happening, a scandalous whisper pervaded the entire car and soon grew to a light applause from some corners. Mary ignored it, having become well-accustomed to such shaming by then. Bill was not so inoculated: just before they exited the car, he turned around to address the passengers. "I am ever so glad my dear friend here will not have to endure such horrible behavior for the rest of her trip. Merry Christmas to you all, and may your own friends and loved ones be less judgmental than you!"

Mary looked awestruck as he clicked the door shut on the outraged passengers. "Bill, where on earth did you learn to be so noble?"

"In the slums of New Haven," Bill said. "Trust me, you don't want to know more than that. Although given what you've been through, you probably already do."

Bill hoped against hope that he could get Mary squared away in her new chamber without his parents discovering what he had done; but of course it wasn't to be. Perhaps another five dollars would have kept the conductor's mouth shut, Bill mused now as he guided Mary into the first class carriage and found his father waiting in the hallway. Scrupulously avoiding any acknowledgment of Mary, Father said, "A word, Bill?"

"No, Father. There is nothing to discuss at the moment, and you know it."

"You ungrateful little --"

The final word of Father's epithet was muffled by Bill's slamming of the chamber door behind him, and Bill and Mary burst into peals of laughter and embraced again. "Heavens, this is lovely," Mary said, looking around her without letting go of Bill. "But I do hope this does no permanent damage with your parents."

"The more I think about them and where we are going and why, the less I care!" Bill said. He set Mary's suitcase on the rack above the window, which once again showed a rural snowy wonderland racing by. "Speaking of which, if you do still decide to get off at Grand Island --"

"Never!" Mary declared. "I'll go with you to San Francisco, and then I hope you have the sense to go your own way from your parents as well when we get there."

Bill turned and looked at the wretched yet beautiful young woman, cast out on her own, and his heart nearly burst with pride. He said nothing, but nodded.

The suite was equipped with a state-of-the-art wash stand, complete with a water-heater that at least raised the temperature of the clean water from icy to lukewarm. Bill demonstrated its use to Mary. "Please don't take this the wrong way, but you probably ought to wash up," he said. "We might even be able to launder your dress a bit, if you have another one."

"I do have two more," Mary said, nodding at the suitcase. "There simply hasn't been an opportunity to change."

"Well then, allow me to give you some privacy," Bill said, and he turned to the suite door.

"Your father will be out there waiting for you," Mary said.

"I'll have to face him at some point. Besides, surely you don't want an audience when you wash."

"You would hardly be an audience," Mary said with a knowing grin. "And shouldn't a female doctor be well acquainted with the female body?"

"I see you had thoughts much like mine last night," Bill said, slipping his hand off the doorknob. His heart was thundering and his pants were once again feeling too tight.

"And little else," Mary confessed. Still fully clothed, she sat on the seat by the window. "Bill, I do hope I don't seem too forward here. It is only that you know what I have done and you do not judge me for it, and that is ever so refreshing! And you obviously like me a great deal, and as for what I did to get in so much trouble in the first place...heaven help me, Bill, but I liked it! A lot!"

"Most of us do, or so I'm told," Bill said.

"Then you never have?"

"I've never had an opportunity that I was aware of, besides I have seen far too much of the unintended consequences."

"I understand," Mary said. "But you know we don't have to go all the way, and it would be ever so perfect for us to have our bit of fun while we've got some privacy." She stood up and turned around and, twisting back to look at him, she held her hair up out of the way to reveal the clasp and buttons of her dress. "I'm yours if you'd like," she said with an inviting grin.

Of all the things Bill had anticipated in the night, this had not been among them; he hadn't dared hope Mary would want anything to do with intimacy with anyone, much less him. But he saw no reason to spurn her offer, and gently he undid the string and the buttons. She seemed as relieved to get out of the smelly old dress as he was thrilled to see her out of it, and expressed no embarrassment as she removed her undergarments. Standing nude in the doorway to watch him follow suit and remove his clothes, Mary was the very picture of sadder-but-wiser feminine beauty: her body showed the aftereffects of pregnancy and birth to a trained eye like Bill's almost was, but those imperfections only made her more beautiful to him. All those clinical illustrations in his books and the unpleasantness he had confronted at the clinic -- and here, for the first time, was a look at the body he so admired in its most natural state!

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