... memory is like a box where a man
should mingle his jewels with his old shoes.
Murdoch keeps the miniature of Catherine in the top left-hand drawer of his desk.
She gave it to him on their wedding day after the minister had joined their hands and hearts until death did them part, and after Murdoch had kissed his bride. Harlan Garrett had stood behind her, sour-faced and looking bilious. He didn't glare at Murdoch, not with Catherine there, but his glance was as cold and dismissive as it had been when Murdoch had the temerity to aspire to Harlan's only daughter and had the Garrett mansion door slammed in his face.
She'd wrapped it in a square of pale blue silk tied with a length of cream lace. She said nothing when he opened it, but looked pointedly at the wrapping before raising a eyebrow. The challenge was in her eyes. Do you remember?
Even now, his mouth quirks up, just as it had then. Had she really thought he would have forgotten? Would ever forget?
No. Not forgotten then, and not forgotten now.
He met Miss Catherine Helen Garrett on a damp night in March. Saturday, March 14th 1840, to be precise, at the annual Spring Ball at the Lowell mansion on Louisburg Square. Good Lord, thirty years ago! He can't believe it's been so long. On the face of it, it didn't seem likely that she'd notice him. He was new to Boston and still finding his way, just off the boat and the burr still thick in his voice. Catherine, though, was an acknowledged society belle; in her own place, poised and elegant.
Murdoch was only at the Ball because he'd struck up an acquaintance with Will Lowell at a public lecture. He wasn't sure of the man at first. Lowell was of a species alien to a hard-working Scot: an idle dilettante, irreligious and profligate. But Lowell was also sociable, charming and large-hearted. Not a big man, mind. Lowell had stared up at Murdoch, tilted his head to one side, and asked if the Highlands were missing a mountain. Had he taken it as an insult, Murdoch could have flattened the man with one blow. But he was surprised into laughter instead, cementing a friendship that lasted until buried with Lowell in an unmarked grave in a bloody field at Bull Run. Ben Lancer, Lowell called him after that meeting, first cousin to the more famous Nevis.
The Lowells were fashionable and High Society, and all of Boston was there. Murdoch wore his new evening clothes. He was a little regretful about the expense, but his old suit wouldn't have done for something this grand. Certainly not for the elegant ballroom glittering with a thousand wax candles and filled with elegant women glittering with a thousand diamonds. There was even a small orchestra tuning up in a gallery overhead.
Even for the son of a wealthy factor and the niece of the local Laird, used to the society of educated men, these were exalted circles. Murdoch was a little uncertain, clamming up like a defensive Scottish oyster winkled out of its native loch. It wasn't home and he felt conspicuous, as if he were wearing a large notice: Immigrant Scot seeking his fortune. Treat with kindness.
"I'm no' the kind of man for these affairs, Lowell." Murdoch grimaced, conscious of yet another sidelong glance. A woman near him covered her smile by spreading her fan and retiring behind it.
"Nonsense," said Lowell, approving the new clothes. Since he'd dragged Murdoch to his own tailor, he was taking all the credit for what he called Murdoch's gentlemanly appearance. "In that suit, you blend in perfectly."
Murdoch grimaced again.
"Blend in perfectly," repeated Lowell. Which, he added, was all to the good, given that first, he'd seen Murdoch's tweed suit and second, Murdoch was half a head taller than any other man in the city and was standing out from the crowd quite enough already without dressing as if he'd been hewn from his native granite and clothed in peat and heather.
"You're all for making a man feel at his ease, I see." Murdoch pulled at his collar. "They're looking at me."
"Leave it be. You'll ruin your cravat." Lowell shrugged, pushing him towards a rather intimidating woman with feathers in her hair. "Of course they're looking at you. Until now, they've always thought Mohammad must go to the Mountain. Mama! Mama dearest, allow me present to you Murdoch Lancer, who arrived in Boston recently from Scotland. You'll recall I've spoken of him. Lancer, my mother."
Murdoch made his bow, greeting Madam Lowell with his best company manners. His own mother would have been proud of him and Madam Lowell condescended to be pleased, taking him under her wing and introducing him to the other Boston matrons gathered there to play duenna to their daughters. He was under scrutiny, and he knew it: a possible husband or a possible threat? There was nothing more relentless than a society matron on the hunt for a son-in-law. He had to pass muster. So he bowed over more lace-mittened hands than he could remember and kissed more be-ringed fingers than he could keep account of, murmuring all the polite nothings his mother had dinned into his thick head back home. An old-fashioned custom, the kissing of hands, but really quite charming.
Lowell bounced back to his side and, with a smile and a charm that Murdoch could only envy, extracted him from the clutches of Mrs James Cabot. He propelled Murdoch towards some new arrivals. "Stop flirting with the old 'uns and come and meet my sort-of-cousin Catherine. Her mother and mine were bosom friends, like sisters, and I've a brotherly desire to marry her off before the old Boston biddies cast me in the role of the bridegroom. She's a darling girl and deserves a man of your stature."
And to the pale girl in the pale blue silk dress, who had diamonds at her ears and throat, and lustrous pearls in her pale gold hair: "I have the honour to present Mister Murdoch Lancer, Miss Garrett, lately arrived from Scotland. Lancer, this is Miss Catherine—oh this formality's absurd. Catherine, this great galumphing Scot is just off the boat and all ready to worship at your feet. Do what you will with him, but do find room on your carnet de bal and make him dance." A glance up and down. "With his long legs, it should be a sight to see."
Miss Garrett smiled, and Murdoch almost gasped in surprise at the jab it gave him. What a wee beauty, she was! She flashed into life with the smile, her grey-blue eyes kindling with laughter, until she wasn't the colourless, whey-faced dab of a thing he'd first thought but a Venus as lustrous as her pearls. He'd never seen a bonnier girl. He fumbled his bow, but since Catherine was sweeping him a graceful curtsey at the time, her silk skirts billowing around her, Murdoch hoped she hadn't noticed. If she did, she was the model of tact. She only smiled again and offered him her hand to kiss. Murdoch engulfed it in his own to carry it to his lips.
He'll never forget the first time his lips touched her; not until Death softly closes the door on all memory.
"Will always thinks he's so amusing," she said, dismissing Lowell with a shrug. "Do you care to waltz, Mister Lancer? I have the supper dance free."
He stammered out something, anything, half drowned in her smile and stupid with it. He was lost. All his purpose, all his opportunities, all his search for direction sharpened down to not wanting this pale gold girl to think he was a complete dunderheid who couldn't even manage a decent bow on introduction. What he did want was for her to notice him, admire him, like him; to be pleased with his company and be sorry to see him go. Please the Lord, it would never be Murdoch Lancer she dismissed with a shrug.
He was completely lost.
He can't remember much about that waltz beyond the brightness of her eyes and the fall of lace over the hand he had lightly touching her waist. They must have talked as they danced. He thinks he told her about Scotland, about Edinburgh where he'd gone to the University and the Highlands that were home. He can't be sure, but that seems likely. He does know that at first his mouth was so dry his tongue cleaved to the roof, but she was smiling and looked pleased, and he soon grew more confident. He knows he made her laugh, often, and they laughed together when she tried to mimic his way of speaking. All he remembers about supper is escorting her to the buffet table, her hand on the fine new cloth of his sleeve and her laughter sounding in his ears. He could have been eating grass and nettles for all he cared, and he's only sure there were ices at it because, well, there are always ices at that sort of supper. Instead he drank in how she looked when she turned that regal little head, or how she smiled at his clumsy attempts to make elegant compliments.
He was rueful that he was no Will Lowell. "You'll notice I'm no' an elegant man."
He lost what little of himself he'd managed to preserve when she put her hand on his. "An honest man is worth more than elegance, Mister Lancer." She smiled. "So, do you like Boston?"
"I do now," he said. "I'm fair taken wi' it now. It's a braw place this night."
She smiled. She had dimples. Oh, that was not playing fair, using such weapons on a susceptible man. She took the carnet de bal that swung from her bracelet and scored her pencil through a name. "It's only a duty dance with Will," she explained. "He won't mind. And now, Mister Lancer, I would be very pleased if we danced some more."
And dance they did; both then and later. They danced their way across the summer of '40, attending the same parties and routs and picnics, concerts and plays. Careful as Murdoch was to avoid scandalising the matrons, or Catherine to avoid being thought fast or brassy, all of Boston knew this was a courtship in all but name. Most of Boston was neutral on it. Only Catherine's father was outraged.
Harlan Garrett's only daughter cared nothing for his prohibitions. And any young person reasonably sound in wind and limb could find breath enough to talk and plot and plan as they danced, while their parent can only look on from the sidelines and glower.
"If I were a more dutiful daughter, I'd obey him without question, fall into a decline and die, coughing into a lace handkerchief." Catherine's eyes shone. "All the best heroines do."
"Aye, but since you're no' a dutiful daughter, mo chridhe?"
"Why, then, I'll marry you and go to California, and poor Papa will be the one to repine."
Poor Garrett. He had no more chance against her than Murdoch had. Catherine was a fine dancer, but an even finer tune-caller. Murdoch danced at her whim until Christmas, when Harlan conceded defeat and she stood before the preacher, one hand in Murdoch's and the other holding out her silk-wrapped bundle. She had a smile on her face and a soft light in her eyes.
Catherine Lancer, at last. His Kate.
Murdoch promised that as soon as they'd made their fortune in California, he'd have a proper portrait painted—providing he could find a decent-enough artist to do it, of course. There was no money to spare at first. They'd sunk everything they had into buying the land and hacienda from old Don de la Cal Fernández Velásquez. "Such a musical name!" Catherine said, while she charmed the old man into giving them a price that, bargain though it was, still made Murdoch's eyes water. It took every penny he'd scrimped and saved from his inheritance and what he'd earned since, and even that wasn't enough. Harlan Garrett had tied up Catherine's fortune in trust for her children and Murdoch couldn't and wouldn't touch that, so she dug into her trunk, upended a pair of satin shoes and shook her jewellery from its hiding place in the toes. It went to Murdoch's heart to sell the baubles, but she insisted, cheerful and pragmatic. It had to be done if they were to secure the ranch.
Nothing was left over for portrait painting and if it hadn't been for the vegetable gardens at the back of the hacienda and Catherine discovering that she was a dab hand with chickens, the first few years would have gone hard with them. Ranching was a gruelling business.
Well, those days are long behind him now. By most standards, Murdoch is a wealthy man, but he still can't look a boiled egg in the face without a wry grin.
The gold rush made all the difference. All those miners and prospectors pouring into California were a gold mine themselves. They made the ranch profitable beyond his wildest dreams; with a booming new state to feed, hungry for Lancer beef, riches grew like the fine green grass his cattle grazed.
Too late for Catherine, though. She hadn't been there to share it. She didn't live long enough to see the ranch break even, much less reap the reward of her hard work.
When they were just starting out, all he had were a few coins to jingle in his pocket to make what Catherine, in her terrible attempt at a Scots burr, called a braw noise at nae cost. And now he has as much money as one man could want, all he has of Catherine is the miniature. Everything else of her has been taken from him, by death or thievery.
He closes his eyes against the sudden stinging. Dust, maybe, although Maria Morales and Teresa would be indignant at such a claim. They've been cleaning and scouring ever since the telegram came. But better blaming the dust than having to acknowledge that grief still has the power to close bony fingers around his throat.
The left-hand drawer of his desk is locked and private. He keeps the key on him always.
When his vision clears and the stinging stops, he unlocks the drawer and reaches in. The miniature is still wrapped in its silk, the way she'd given it to him. It's a pretty thing, a scrap of painted ivory in a gold frame set with old-mine-cut diamonds and pearls. Another echo of that first night at the Lowells, with the diamonds at her throat and the strings of pearls wound through her hair.
It's a good likeness, the only image he has of her outside the ones in his memory. Her face is turned slightly down and her head tilts a little to one side, the way it did so often when she was teasing him. She looks out at him from the amongst the gold and diamonds and pearls, her eyes shining and her mouth curved into a smile so knowing and so sweet that it threatens to stop Murdoch's heart every time he sees it. She's beautiful. She will always be beautiful. She didn’t have time to grow old and tired with hard work or child-bearing.
She only bore the one.
Murdoch glances to the clock. The stage was due in Morro Coyo more than an hour ago. Catherine's son will arrive at any moment.
Murdoch hasn't seen him for twenty years. He might be forgiven a little excitement. Indeed, as he lifts the little portrait from the silk, his hands shake and he has to take a moment to clench his fists to steady the trembling in his fingers.
"He's coming home, Kate. He's coming home."
He traces a finger around the rounded pearls, one after the other. "I wonder what he remembers of my visit on his birthday, all those years ago. D'you think he remembers it at all? He was such a little boy, and so polite. Harlan wouldn't let me see him again after that. I couldn't go back to Boston anyway, not with Maria and Johnny gone—" He stops, sighs, and shakes his head. "Well, we won't go there. There's no point."
The clock whirs, ready to strike the quarter-hour. "I wonder if he looks like you, mo cridthe? I couldn't tell for certain when he was five. He had to grow into his nose back then... he has the Garrett nose, all right. And your hands. But he had the look of you, I think. I hope he still does."
He listens to the familiar chime. "You think I'm a fool to be so on edge. It's nerves, you know. Just like when I asked you to marry me and come out here with me. I had to think about it and plan, and talk myself up to it. I had to prepare for it. That's what I'm doing now. Difference is that I knew you, love. I don't know him."
She looks back at him, fixed and unmoved.
"I'm nervous, Kate."
She smiles still.
"He's coming home, Kate. He's coming home today."
He's roused by shouting outside. He looks up as a shadow crosses the French windows behind him, and a moment later Jose is at the door, sombrero in hand. He's grinning so hard that it's a miracle his face doesn't split in half, spilling out a mix of English and Spanish that Murdoch takes a moment to understand.
"Los dos chicos, Patrón! Los dos! Señorita Teresa, she has them both with her! Both, Patrón! Both!" And Jose waves his sombrero and cheers, before blushing at his temerity. He ducks his head and backs out of the room, still grinning.
Both of them.
Murdoch stops breathing for an instant. His chest hurts. Both of them? Both? He pushes back his chair and scrambles to his feet, turning to the window. He can't see clearly. Fernando and the others are crowded around the cart blocking the way into the yard. Then Fernando moves and Teresa flicks the reins, and as the wagon turns towards the house, Murdoch sees them.
That has to be Catherine's boy up there beside Teresa in the wagon seat. That's an eastern suit he's wearing and Murdoch has the telegram in his desk, the one that says that Scott Garrett Lancer of Boston will be arriving today. There's no telegram from the dark-haired boy lounging in the back of the wagon. No. He wasn't expecting that one, not today.
He could never predict what Maria was going to do. Looks like the boy's inherited that from her, at least.
Murdoch pulls in a shaky breath. He drops back into his chair and lets it swivel around so his back will be at the window when they drive past to the door. He daren't look longer in case he can't stop himself from running to meet them. That won't do. That can't happen. He hasn't had time to prepare for both of them arriving at once. He needs a moment to catch his breath.
He reaches into the drawer for the second precious thing he keeps there, opening the shagreen case and letting the cabinet portrait slip out into his hands. The photographer in San Francisco had been a novelty back then and Maria had been delighted that she was the first of all their friends to have her photograph taken. He keeps it in the case to keep it from fading away.
Pity he couldn't keep her from fading away and taking Johnny with her.
The door handle rattles and then they're there. Both of them. Right there in front of him, looking at him. One tall and blond with Catherine's eyes; one quick and fiery, like Maria's dark flame.
No time now. It's too late to remember Maria or prepare himself. He doesn't know what to say to them. What he thought he'd say to Scott flies out of his head.
He lays the photograph of Maria beside the miniature, and stands up, grasping his cane, and goes to meet the two strangers who are his sons. Scott looks curious, questioning. Johnny's gaze is a challenge.
He swallows. His mouth is dry. He could do with a—
"Drink?" he says.
3,408 words (excl title and quote)
Interesting little factoids:
Ben Nevis, for those of you who are geographically challenged, is the highest mountain in Scotland and, indeed, the British Isles. At the time of this story Murdoch is about 24. I'd say he was a tall lanky lad and just starting to bulk out a bit, but hardly the size of a mountain. Murdoch thinks Lowell was just jealous.
The miniature of Catherine and Maria's photograph are here: