Bent Willows: Ⅳ
Joan of Baltimore
Baltimore — January 22, 1863
I hope the perils of service to our great Union army have not also exhausted your reserves of patience for me. Knowing full well how you fear for my safety, I intend you no further worry nor do I wish to add to your many burdens. Please trust that I have and continue to practice utmost caution in my conduct.
Despite my continued efforts, the situation in Baltimore grows increasingly delicate. Should fortune smile, however, these troubles will soon be far removed. I have sent letters of application to an advertisement (enclosed herewith) in search of a Schoolteacher for the town of Bent Willows.
Oh, the glorious anticipation and racing of my heart when first I spied this, the possibility for a change in my situation!
By the time my letter reaches you, touch wood, your sweet sister shall be en route to the cloudless Arizona territories. You well know how I love the graceful sway of willow branches upon the breeze, and the joy I feel engaged in tutelage. Despite our shared contempt for all things superstitious, I choose to view this opportunity as an omen I am fated to heed. My enduring desire is that you should be pleased for me rather than brood.
I have composed a letter from Emanuel to be delivered to Mr. Stockton, our adjoining neighbor, upon my departure. Entrusting him, we can be sure of the apartment’s safekeeping until either your return or that of your brother.
Oh dear Nathan, I do hope this letter finds you still quick and hale, for often am I overcome with grief at the mere thought you could be lost to me. Should you survive the violence of this war — and you must! Oh, you must! — I fear losing the comfort of your brotherly love. Though I may be counted among the near-faithless, yet I pray that your heart not turn against me. I fear either the horrors of War or its misanthropic agents abounding may twist your vision unto its own — a creed adjudging my atypical form as un-natural. Thus my nightmare: to be left alone in this world, friendless and hounded without compassion.
Moreso than our beloved mother and father, you have cherished me unvarnished. Different though I am, you alone have loved me precisely thus, unencumbered, not as the world would have me be. Vigilantly and without shame have you kept my sacred secret — you are the rock to which I cling. Should I lose this loving footing, surely would I plummet into a sorrowful, colorless abyss.
I shall keep my promise, maintaining our regular correspondence at your regiment and to our Baltimore address as well. I shall write without delay from my new station, whether it be deep within the Arizona frontier or some other locale by the Fates decreed.
Keep safe, I beg you! and guard your heart against dark whispers.
Your affectionate sister,
Emma Grace Baily
The man leaned in hard, forcing the door closed. A wintry bluster threatened to burst inside but lost its contest against his corpulent frame. He glanced down and verified the bundle of letters remained secure under his arm.
Stomping the snow off his boots, he stepped left into the dimly lit office. There stood the poplar secretary, its nestle of cubbyholes and drawers across the back, all neatly stuffed with articles. Sundry records of intrigue and of fiduciary responsibility, there secured against the turmoil of life, beckoned new paper friends to join the safety of their number. He set down the bundle, leaning his Malacca cane against the the ink-stained desk.
The manner in which the topmost envelope was addressed caught his attention straight away:
Bent Willows was no place for the timid, situated far west of this relative Eden, in the treacherous Arizona territories. He estimated the town’s odds of enticing a qualified schoolmarm, one willing to accept its terms, as rather slim indeed. Any person willing to venture into such an unforgiving place, he reckoned, would exceed in desperation above all qualifications.
Mere weeks had passed since he posted the adverts; truth be told, he did not expect to receive any response at all. Certainly none so soon.
He shrugged off his Inverness coat and plucked loose the fingers of his kid leather gloves.
Larold rustled anxiously in his cage.
“Sore pressed! Sore pressed!” he squawked, “Sore pressed!” Each verse elicited a soft chortle from the man as he removed his hat. The Mynah bird’s choice of phrases never seemed entirely arbitrary. He had a knack for repeating utterances at moments most inappropriate, often to comical effect. At other times, the bird appeared to read his very thoughts.
“Sorely pressed indeed, Larold!” the man answered. “I wager we shall have this conversation again a year hence.”
He unfolded a packet of paper and slipped it between the bars of the cage, pouring a bounty of cracked corn onto a small tin lid. He enjoyed the rapping of beak on metal as the bird’s yellow-orange wattles jostled into a blur against the iridescent night of its feathers.
“In your company I had best guard my loose tongue. Unfortunate phrases might find posterity locked away, then loosed from that bird brain!”
He hung his coats on the hook, and lay his gloves upon the shelf above. Taking up the missive from Baltimore, he simultaneously gauged its density alongside his own considerable heft, easing gingerly into his chair. By weight alone, he swiftly concluded it likely enclosed the required testimonials. Conclusions regarding his own mass he postponed for another day.
Quentin slid his blade beneath the seal. His pudgy digits flicked with the nimble dexterity of a bird flitting in a thorny hedge. Folded inside were several sheets of paper, each decorated in a different variety of handwriting, the whole tightly fashioned into a booklet. From the outermost layer he plucked the principal page and held it at arms-length, admiring its tasteful and elegant script:
Baltimore Maryland January 22, 1863
Dear Honored Sir and Agent of Bent Willows,
I must apologize for the condition of the paper upon which I post my letter. The extant scarcity of fine quality stationary delayed my endeavors. I write in reply to your advertisement for the position of schoolteacher at the town of Bent Willows, observed in the Baltimore Sun the 2nd inst.
I am pleased to share with you my qualifications, and I surmise you will find them satisfactory. After completion of grammar school in Baltimore, I studied at The High School also in Baltimore. There I excelled in studies of language, specifically Latin and Greek.
You may wonder how and why a girl could be granted permission to attend secondary school esp. at such a lofty institution. My mother and father saw fit to send me to school appearing in all ways a boy. With excellent marks, I progressed in my scholarship from childhood; Father considered it a waste that my education should end with me focused only on the feminine arts. Despite my strong objections in those earliest of days, obstinance gave way to obedience.
At full twenty years of age, I am well-prepared to instruct your scholars in diction, spelling, arithmetic, geography, history, and other subjects. I am proficient at the piano keyboard, and young scholars enjoy listening to me play my 5-key clarinet.
I have considerable experience with children, having remained at The High School upon graduation, apprenticed to my greatly admired mentor, Mr. Graves. By observing his teaching methods, I learned how to command the respect of young pupils. They defer to my authority and heed well my guidance. Children of a mind to misbehave shall find my will stronger than their own.
Enclosed you will find my references, addressed as such to “Emanuel Baily”. I have enclosed a letter from my dear brother Nathan (notarized by an officer in the regiment in which he serves) attesting to the truth of my identity as well his own. With our mother and father having passed-on six long years now, he alone knows the true nature and identity of “Emanuel”.
As I submit my application with all due respect, be assured I find the terms as advertised acceptable, and most appreciate your kind consideration. I await your reply with great anticipation. Your discretion in the matter regarding “Emanuel” places me within your debt.
Miss Emma Grace Baily
Quentin leaned back and tapped his chin with the scrimshaw handle of the letter knife, contemplating for some time Miss Baily’s correspondence.
“Hmmm,” he mused. “A girl, sent to school as a boy.”
While far removed from the 15th Century Maid of Orléans, he was intrigued by this young lady’s circumstances.
He had heard tales of women posing as men, joining the cause to fight alongside them. By most accounts they proved just as brave — perhaps even more so, given their extraordinary circumstances. If female soldiers could distinguish themselves thus, how much more plausible this tale of a girl having taken up to study as a boy?
Four reference letters were enclosed, all authored by individuals with impeccable credentials, each giving more than adequate commendation in support of Emanuel Baily.
Mr. Graves, in particular, was effusive in his praise, rendered in tidy, efficient penmanship.
…I submit to you my appreciation of the attention to detail and works submitted in all areas of study by Mr. Emanuel Baily. He has completed his studies under my stern tutelage with great aplomb, receiving full marks on all exams during testing….
Alongside the others was an additional testimonial from First Sergeant Nathan Baily. His words were carefully penned in tiny script on a tattered army pass. The same was further endorsed by one Captain Fairbanks, dated the summer previous. Though the scrawl was smudged and the paper dirty, it remained legible:
June 4 1862
Miss Emma Baily is my sister, known in childhood only as a boy named Emanuel Baily as per our father’s demand. These are the words of an honorable soldier.
After he scrutinized Sgt. Baily’s words, the great man rose and lifted them high in triumph proclaiming, “We have ourselves a Joan of Baltimore! Yes indeed, by Jove!”
Pausing momentarily to scratch a whiskered jowl, he gracefully bowed, dipping his enormous head and torso level with the birdcage. He peered into the depths of an inky avian eye, and queried, “Larold, how long has it been since we last sent a telegraph?”
Having completed the tapping-up of his supper, Larold hopped about a moment or two, then tilted his head and replied, “Oi! What a mess! What a mess!”
Quentin A. Thomas, Esquire was not the type to be drawn in by myth or flights of fancy, yet now he hoped clever Larold spoke as jester instead of prophet.
With a wink of his eye, he resolved to meet this singular young woman.
This is the fourth chapter in a collaborative storytelling effort with e-friends, James Finn, Saoirse, and Chloe Cuthbert. I’ll update with a link to the next chapter, when we publish it. Here’s the previous chapter:
To read from the very beginning: