Mail Order Isabella – Jo Grafford

I sabella Hill gouged the rest of the frayed navy threads from the button she was replacing on a local farmer’s plaid shirt, imagining it was one of her older sister’s eyeballs. Then an immediate stab of remorse made her bow her head in a silent plea of forgiveness. Give me pure thoughts, Lord God. As for her quick detour into less pure thoughts, surely He understood that her sister could try the patience of a saint. Henrietta was selfserving, overly critical, and snobbish. However, Isabella knew it didn’t give her the license to start rearranging body parts. As tempting as it sounds some days! Er, right now. She cringed as her sister’s shrill voice echoed up the stairs to the loft apartment over the General Store. “Izzy! Izzy, can you hear me up there?” Of course I can hear you! Half of Atlanta can hear you. “Yes, I can hear you,” she shouted back a little louder than necessary. It was possible half of Atlanta heard her response through the window she’d thrown open. It was a warm and balmy afternoon, following a night of rain. Without the light breeze that was blowing through the window, the temperature in the loft would have been unbearable. Isabella couldn’t wait for the cooler weather of autumn that was just around the corner. It was always her favorite time of year.

She was sitting on the edge of her cot, which also served as her workbench. Her neck and shoulders were aching, and her fingers were cramped from more than three straight hours of sewing and mending. She would have much preferred to spend her Saturday afternoon reading in the courtyard or taking a stroll through one of the nearby parks. “My lands, Izzy!” Her sister sounded taken aback as her footballs mounted the stairs. “There’s no need to shriek like a hyena every time you open your mouth. I can hear you just fine when you talk in a normal tone of voice.” So can I, though you never do. Isabella was so irritated by the unfairness of the accusation that she jammed her needle into her finger instead of the eye of the button. Giving a small yelp of pain, she stuck the smarting appendage in her mouth. She knew it looked silly for a grown woman to be sucking on her finger like a small child, but it was either that or drip red all over poor Farmer Mike’s shirt.

Henrietta flung the door open to her loft apartment and stood there staring. “What in Heaven’s name is going on here?” Her hands rested on the hips of her pale green cotton gown, which was swimming with tiny pink rosebuds. The fact that it was new made Isabella angry all over again. She’d spent days sewing the lovely garment from dawn until dusk and hadn’t received so much as a single penny of payment for her trouble. “I pricked my finger,” Isabella muttered. Her voice sounded a bit garbled, since she was speaking around the injured digit, which was still in her mouth. “Oh, for crying out loud!” her sister muttered, stepping farther into the room. “How far did you get on our mending before acquiring such a heinous battle wound?” Her sarcasm filled the room like an angry cloud. “Our mending?” Isabella dropped her finger from her mouth at last. Our? “I don’t believe you’ve sewn a single item of clothing since we started taking in mending.

” And that had been over six months ago. Her sister adopted a superior smile as she stared down her nose. She tossed her head of strawberry blonde hair that was piled high. “It was my idea to extend the services of the General Store to take in mending. So, yes, it is our mending. I cannot believe how ungrateful you continue to behave after all my husband and I have done for you.” “Grateful?” Scowling in disbelief, Isabella allowed the plaid shirt to fall to her lap. “You expect me to be grateful about working from sunup ’til sundown in a small attic room seven days per week?” “Six,” her sister corrected stiffly. “We attend church on Sunday morning and you’re allowed the afternoon off.” “Allowed, eh?” Isabella’s chin came up.

“Except for that teensy little detail where you pile on so much work every Saturday that I am forced to work on Sunday. Otherwise, I would never get it all done.” Henrietta gave a knowing smirk. “However you choose to spend your Sunday afternoons is no concern of mine. I happen to think it is wise of you to work ahead on your chores. But, again, it is entirely your choice and always will be.” Always will be. The cloud of negativity in the room seemed to close in on Isabella, threatening to suffocate her, as the future stretched before her — a long and tedious march of drudgery with no end in sight. “What about my paycheck?” she pleaded softly, trying a different tactic. “You promised you would start paying me after we secured a steady stream of customers, which we have.

” She’d worked diligently to spread the word about their new line of business around town, cleverly enlisting the help of a few busybodies from the Ladies Auxiliary. Their constant line of gossip was like free advertising. “It has been over six months, Henrietta.” Even you cannot deny I’ve been patient. “And you will be paid, my dear, all in good time,” her older sister returned in a singsong voice, as if soothing a child. “When?” “Soon.” Her sister bustled around the room, straightening the already tidy wash basin and brushing at an imaginary speck of dust on the single picture frame on the wall. It was a sketch of their father and two brothers that Isabella had drawn while they were still alive. Before the war. Before the hard times had hit, destroying most of the city and nearly everyone in it.

“I asked when,” Isabella repeated in a firmer voice. Henrietta spun around. “Since you insist on knowing, I’ll be paying you as soon as I can prove to Justin that we’ve raised enough money to cover your upkeep, and not a moment sooner.” “My upkeep?” Isabella squeaked, insides turning cold as she glanced around her sparsely furnished chamber. Good gracious! Back when Father was alive, their servants had lived in more luxury than this! “Don’t tell me you and Justin are keeping track of every bite of food that goes in my mouth,” she cried bitterly. Her sister’s husband was a bit of a cold fish, but even he could not be that miserly with his wife’s own family, could he? Her sister’s deadpan expression said otherwise. “The sooner you accept the fact that things have changed, Izzy, the better for us all.” Izzy waved a hand. “I’m living in a loft over your store. One can safely assume I’ve noticed a few changes in my life lately.

” When her sister had first married Justin Hines more than three years ago, Isabella had lived with them in their town home a few streets over. However, the arrival of two small daughters had changed that. Her sister glanced away. “I’m referring to the fact that you’re the age I was when I married.” She sighed. “Except you don’t have so much as a single suitor.” Isabella was aghast. “You had a coming out party, new dresses, dancing lessons, tea parties…” She lifted her pale pink calico skirts, which were growing threadbare around the hem in a few places. “In comparison, I’ve had work, work, and more work. There’s been no time or chance for me to socialize, and you know it.

” Her older sister sighed again. “You can’t exactly blame me for the war, Izzy, or what happened afterward.” Their family had lost everything — their menfolk, their land, their home, and most of their possessions. “My marriage to Justin is the only thing that kept us out of the poorhouse. That has to count for something with you.” Isabella nodded, not knowing what else to say without sounding wretchedly ungrateful. “So I’m to work to cover my upkeep,” she mused. With the hope of a paycheck that might not ever come. “Yes, my dear.” Henrietta’s petulant expression cleared.

“Just be patient, and things will get better, I promise.” In this century or the next? “And Mama?” Isabella asked softly. “She understands her new role.” “Which is?” “Oh, for pity’s sake, Izzy! Don’t be obtuse. Her willingness to help out with the girls saves us a whole slew of money.” Meaning she was content to wear out her own mother instead of hiring a proper nanny for her two spirited offspring. Isabella blinked away the sting of tears at her sister’s callousness. “I reckon I better get back to my sewing,” she mumbled. “Was there anything else you needed?” They’d spent so much time arguing that she couldn’t recall if her sister had gotten around to stating her reasons for flying up the stairs in the first place. “As a matter of fact…” Henrietta’s expression turned sly.

“A customer just this afternoon asked Justin if we happen to take in washing in addition to mending, and he said…” She paused dramatically. Mercy! A wave of dizziness made Isabella wave at her face. “Yes!” Her sister clapped her hands excitedly. “We’re going to add laundry services to the General Store just as soon as our order of galvanized steel tubs arrives.” Isabella was unable to find her voice, so she simply nodded. Looking enormously pleased with herself, Henrietta finally made her exit. Isabella stared after her, almost too numb to think. I’m going to die if I stay here much longer. She was going to wish she was dead, at any rate. Too depressed to continue working, she laid down her mending and dragged her feet to the window to look outside.

She felt like a prisoner. Every bird and flying insect had more freedom than she did. Leaning her elbows on the sill, she stared drearily across the street at the post office. Sometimes, she liked to imagine all the wonderful letters that passed through the hands of the postmaster. Business letters, letters to distant friends and family members, scented love letters… Drawing in a wistful breath, she watched as a young woman holding a lacy parasol entered the post office. A letter was clutched in her gloved hand. An older gentleman, who was exiting the facility, held open the door for her, tipping his hat as she passed by him. Then he hurried off down the sidewalk. Before he disappeared from sight, something slipped from the wad of papers he was holding beneath his arm and fell to the ground. Hold up, mister! You dropped something.

Perceiving that nobody around him had noticed the item he dropped, Isabella pushed away from the window. Hurrying across her loft room, she crept down the stairs, careful to walk on the side where the nails were to make as little noise as possible. She paused on the last rung and peeked around the doorway leading inside the General Store. Her brother-in-law was working at the cash register, his sandy hair slicked back and a pencil riding behind his ear. She waited until he turned his back to reach for a bag of dry beans, then she tiptoed past the doorway to the rear exit of the building. Stepping outside into the alleyway, she glanced both ways again to ensure her sister wasn’t loitering nearby. Seeing no one but strangers, she dashed across the street to the post office. The item the hapless gentleman had dropped was still lying on the wooden planks of the porch. It was a rolled up newspaper. Stooping to snatch it up, Isabella hungrily read today’s date.

Current news, no less. What a luxury! Isabella could hardly remember the last time she’d indulged in an interrupted hour of reading. Since the owner of the paper was nowhere in sight, and since she did not know his identity, it seemed a shame to let a perfectly good newspaper go to waste. Sure, she could have delivered it to the postmaster in the hopes that the man would return for it, but she could just as easily do so after reading it. Stifling the guilty pangs of her conscience with the excuse that she was only borrowing it, she carried the newspaper to the nearest park and found a bench to perch on. Unrolling the precious paper, she devoured it from start to finish. She soon discovered a new wing was being constructed at the local library. How wonderful! And that the town was planning a special unveiling ceremony in a few weeks for the statue of a local war hero. How depressing! Though Isabella was a staunch patriot, she had no wish to be reminded of her family’s enormous losses. For once, she was glad that her sister and brother-in-law tended to overwork her.

At least, she’d have a good excuse for skipping that particular ceremony. On the last page of the paper were the adverts. Once upon a time, Isabella would have skipped the entire page, deeming it too boring to read, but not today. She was so starved for information about the world outside her loft that even the adverts looked appealing. There were help wanted listings as well as homes and property for sale. And right smack in the middle of the page was a most curious advert. She smiled as she read it. Mail-order bride wanted by the 21 st of September. Must be unwed or widowed, no more than twenty-three years of age, skilled in maintaining a household, and willing to relocate to Wyoming. Applicants will be interviewed at six o’clock on Saturday at the train depot.

Isabella glanced up from the newspaper. According to the clock tower on the St. Peters Cathedral a half a block away, it was a quarter ’til six. That is, if she was crazy enough to consider doing something so outlandish — which she wasn’t. It was tempting, though. Very tempting. The more she thought about it, the more the temptation grew and gnawed at her. It wasn’t as if she had anything to lose. If she applied for the mail-order position and wasn’t selected, she’d be in the same position she was now — a workaday girl returning to a loft room to continue working without pay. However, if by some miracle she was chosen… Oh, my! For a few glorious seconds, she allowed herself to imagine traveling across the country on a glossy black train to meet and marry the man of her dreams.

Or a perfect stranger, in this case. She drew a deep, bracing breath, hard put to find anything romantic about the reality of the advert. Though it suddenly felt like it couldn’t be any worse than spending the rest of her days slaving over an endless pile of laundry and mending… I’m going. She shook her head, knowing how crazy it sounded even inside her head. I’m going on that interview. Before she lost her nerve, she hopped to her feet and started walking. The train depot was a few blocks away, but she could make it in five to seven minutes if she hurried. The sides of the city streets were bustling with pedestrians. A lot of folks were scurrying towards home with packages from the General Store, butcher, and baker, because it was dinner time. Her stomach rumbled with hunger at the thought, making her press her hand to her slender middle.

It wasn’t as if she would’ve been welcome at the Hines’ dinner table, anyway. To an extent, it was her own fault that she was no longer welcome. She’d been so upset with her older sister lately for her hoity-toity attitude that she’d purposefully been tardy to meal times to avoid having to sit across from her. As a result, she’d ended up eating leftovers, more often than not, in the kitchen as the cook was cleaning up. A few days ago, they’d stopped setting out a plate for Isabella at meal times, altogether. If I leave town, they won’t have to be burdened with my presence any longer, and I won’t have to be burdened by theirs. Buoyed by that thought, Isabella increased her pace.

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