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“These are the very finest facial creams, Mrs. Carter, I assure you.” Samuel Hodgeson, sole proprietor of Hodgeson’s Emporium, extended two bright blue bottles for inspection. “There is no finer manufacturer of quality beauty products than Maison Riviere”--he pronounced it Maysawn Riveeairee--“and these have just come in direct from New York.”
As Delphi Carter leaned across the wide store counter to study the bottles’ labels, Sophronia Carter shifted her laden market basket from her right hand to her left and sighed. Her feet hurt, her corset pinched, at least five hairpins were sticking into her scalp, and the day was unseasonably warm, but none of these arguments would be sufficient to persuade her mother to abandon her absorbing discussion of health and beauty products once it was well launched.
Delphi Carter had begun a quarter of an hour ago with an animated debate on the relative merits of Peruvian Wine of Coca versus a Nutritive Beef, Iron and Wine Tonic as a remedy for the physical exhaustion brought on by stress and overwork. Since her mother was the picture of robust good health, and the most strenuous activity in
which she regularly engaged was sticking her nose into her neighbors’ business, Sophie couldn’t quite see the need for either restorative, but there was no dissuading Delphi Carter. The tall amber bottle of Nutritive Tonic now stood at one side of the counter along with a roll of Jaynes’ Sugar-Coated Cathartic Pills and a blue-paper-wrapped can of Bromo-Vichy, which Mr. Hodgeson had assured them was an excellent cure for Nervous Headaches, Neuralgia, Sleeplessness, and Over Brain Work.
From patent remedies, the discussion had moved on to the even more absorbing topic of beauty aids.
“This Creme Incomparable is a marvelous addition to Maison Riviere’s Eau de la Jennesse,” Mr. Hodgeson said, delicately waving first one blue bottle, then the other, under Delphi Carter’s nose. “Of course, you don’t really need such aids, Mrs. Carter. Why, just the other day Mrs. Hodgeson was saying to me that she didn’t know how you managed to keep your complexion like you do, considering our dry western climate.”
Sophie’s mother beamed and shoved back her shoulders, which made her stays creak and her impressive bosom thrust out even farther than it already did.
“It is a trial, Mr. Hodgeson, I assure you,” she said with a heartfelt sigh. Her fingers fluttered at her breast, delicately hinting at just how much a trial it was. “Although I do flatter myself I’ve managed better than most. Mr. Carter, may heaven rest his soul, always said my complexion was a great blessing and that I should take care to protect it. ‘Delphi, my love,’ he’d say to me, ‘you be sure to take care of yourself. A beautiful woman is a joy for a man’s eyes and you’re a true wonder.’ That’s what he’d say.”
“I don’t doubt it, Mrs. Carter. Indeed I don’t.” Mr. Hodgeson’s heavy eyelids drooped in soulful appreciation of Mr. Carter’s perspicacity.
Delphi Carter was clearly fighting against the urge to preen. She settled for lightly brushing her fingertips across her smooth pink cheek. “I’ve found, however, that a judicious use of Dr. Rose’s French Arsenic Complexion Wafers is a great preventative against whatever damage our weather might cause. You might suggest them to Mrs. Hodgeson, if she is concerned.”
Her smile turned to a ladylike frown as a new and less pleasant thought occurred to her. She glanced at Sophie. “Some people are wise enough to take a well-meant suggestion.”
Sophie pressed her lips tight together and turned to scowl at a poster advertising Geyserite Medicated Soaps, patented February 3, 1885 and manufactured only in Denver, Colorado. The central design, which looked more like an exploding volcano than a geyser, roused a certain sympathy in her. She’d been fighting against the urge to let off steam all morning, herself.
Against her mother’s wishes, Sophie had ordered her new summer suit to be made in a practical brown broadcloth. Worse, she’d chosen unfashionably narrow lapels and none of the decorative trim and braid that so appealed to her parent. As if that weren’t transgression enough, her four new shirtwaists were similarly neat and practical, and completely lacked any of the heavy pleating or ruffling that might have helped disguise her hopelessly flat chest.
The plain brown straw hat she’d chosen had been, literally, the last straw for her mother’s already abused and overburdened sensibilities. At sight of it, Delphi Carter had launched into yet another diatribe on Sophie’s deplorable inattention to the finer points of feminine dress and beauty, and she hadn’t calmed down yet.
It wasn’t her fault she hadn’t been blessed with her mother’s womanly charms, Sophie reminded herself rebelliously. If she could have, she would happily have traded a few excess inches out of her five feet ten inches for a corresponding increase in her bust measurement. But that wasn’t possible and she saw no sense in trying to pretend she was anything except what she really was, a tall, thin, rather plain spinster of twenty-six who looked even taller, thinner, and plainer when compared to her buxom and eminently feminine mother.
The silence might have stretched uncomfortably, but Mr. Hodgeson was too experienced a salesman to let the sudden tension between his best customer and her daughter divert him from a profitable sale.
“Well, I’ll be sure and tell Mrs. Hodgeson about those arsenic wafers, Mrs. Carter,” he said with respectful enthusiasm. “I thank you for the suggestion. Your comments on such matters are always so very helpful and informative, you know. That’s why I thought you would be an excellent judge of the quality of these new products here. Just in from New York, as I do believe I mentioned.”
Diverted, Delphi turned back to the more immediate concern of just how much benefit might be obtained by trying the proffered beauty creams. Ever since her daughter had grown into a rather lank and unpromising womanhood, she’d found it increasingly difficult to ignore the unwelcome hints that her own youthful beauty was fading. Patent medicines, expensive beauty creams, and the surreptitious use of face powder and rouge had all come to occupy a central spot in her limited range of interests, second only to her preoccupation with her daughter’s worrisome unwed state.
“Well, Mr. Hodgeson, since you ask.” She sighed delicately, as if in recognition of her responsibility to the less well-informed women who might come after her. “I suppose we could try one or two of them. Sophronia is occasionally troubled by the dryness, you know, and with my delicate skin, I am peculiarly sensitive to the sun.”
Rather than explode like the soap poster, Sophie bit her tongue, spun about on her heel, and, head high, marched down the aisle toward her favorite spot in town--the small glass case at the back of the store where Mr. Hodgeson’s collection of books was displayed. A few minutes spent in the presence of books never failed to calm her too-quick temper; although the way she felt right now, she might well have to spend an hour or two buried in the store’s shadowy depths before it would be safe for her to reappear.
She rounded the display of farm tools that occupied the center of the floor only to discover, to her dismay, that she was not alone.
A thin, grimy boy of about ten, dirty hands pressed flat against the glass, stared hungrily at the clothbound books primly arrayed before him, just out of reach.
Sophie stopped short. She’d seen the boy around town before. From a distance, he’d appeared to be in need of a bath and clean clothes.
Closer inspection revealed that one bath wouldn’t be near enough to remove the dirt ground into his hide, and his clothes didn’t have a chance of surviving a washing, even if they hadn’t been too small and too full of holes to be worth saving. Bony elbows poked out of tattered shirt-sleeves. Scrawny ankles showed three inches below the ragged edge of his pants. He was barefoot and the soles of his feet were so thick with calluses that Sophie doubted he could wear a regular pair of shoes, even assuming he had them, which she doubted.
He hadn’t heard her approach. He was too intent on the books to be aware of anything else.
There wasn’t much for him to see, really. Just the titles on the spines of the three or four dozen cloth and cheap paperbound books lined up side by side along the shelf.
From her own frequent investigations of the case, Sophie knew it contained books by novelists as diverse as Mark Twain and Edward Bellamy, as well as some of her favorite romantic novels like the ones penned by Mrs. Southworth. There were stories by Harry Castlemon and Horatio Alger for boys, and some of the Fireside Series for girls. What puzzled her was that the boy didn’t seem to be concentrating on the novels, but on the manuals and handbooks at one end.
Sophie edged forward, curious to see more clearly. A floorboard creaked beneath her, startling the boy. He jumped away from the case and whirled to confront her, eyes wild beneath a broom-corn thatch of dirty yellow hair.
“I wasn’t doin’ nuthin’.”
Sophie smiled encouragingly and set her basket on the floor out of the way. “I didn’t think you were.” She glanced at the books, then back at him. “I like to look at them, too. My favorites are Sir Walter Scott and Mrs. Southworth. What about you?”
She asked out of politeness and because she couldn’t think of anything else to say. Tatterdemalion boys like this one seldom spent enough time in school to learn to read, let alone read anything as difficult as a novel.
The boy hesitated, eyeing her uncertainly, but the case with its precious cache of books was stronger than his doubts. He edged closer and peered through the glass.
“That one,” he said, pointing. “An’ that one.”
Sophie leaned closer, trying to make out the titles. “A. B. C. of Electricity?” She frowned. Surely she was mistaken.
“An’ Electricity Simplified. I saw ’em in Mr. Sobeck’s office when he let me come in one night when Ma was busy and it come on to storm real sudden.”
“Wouldn’t your mother let you into the house in a storm?” Shock at his casual statement temporarily drove out Sophie’s surprise at both his choice of reading material and the fact that he’d found shelter with the town’s irascible telegraph operator, who lived for his telegraph and the electrial gizmos he was always experimenting with.
The boy shrugged. “She had company. You know. An’ I don’t like to stay around when she does.”
Sophronia stiffened, suddenly uncomfortable. She knew who the boy’s mother was now, though she’d never gone near the tumbledown house at the far edge of town where “Mrs.” Peabody conducted her sordid “business.” Even the most redoubtable members of the Ladies Missionary Society had refused to have anything to do with her after she’d driven them away by swearing and flinging empty whiskey bottles at them.
If the boy noticed her reaction, he gave no sign of it. Sophie hated to think he might have learned to take such reactions for granted.
“Mr. Conner, the stationmaster, he don’t much like me hangin’ around,” he said confidingly, “but the station was closed and it was snowin’. Mr. Sobeck, he showed me how his telegraph worked, and this light he’s got rigged to a battery, and stuff like that. Didja know you don’t need oil for a lamp? There’s a newfangled kinda thing called a ‘lectric light bulb. You heard about that?”
He waited just long enough for Sophie to nod encouragingly before plunging onward. “Bright as day, purty near. An’ you don’t hafta scrub no chimneys! Well, that’s when I decided I wanted t’be an engineer an’ put ‘lectric lights in everybody’s houses, an’ maybe have ‘lectric trolleys and cars like Mr. Sobeck said they got in Pueblo an’ Denver. An’ telephones! I could build telephones, too!”
Excitement shown in the boy’s blue eyes, bright as the electric lights that had caught his young imagination.
Sophie smiled, inexplicably touched by his eagerness. “That sounds like a wonderful plan to me.”
He looked as if he hadn’t eaten a decent meal in weeks. He certainly hadn’t seen a bath in all that time. Yet even dirty and halfstarved, he’d been lured into Samuel Hodgeson’s store by books he probably couldn’t read even if he’d had the money to buy them.
No, she corrected herself a moment later when he turned back to study the contents of the glass-fronted case. It wasn’t the books that had drawn him here, it was a dream. An impossible dream.
And if there was one thing Sophie Carter understood, it was impossible dreams.
Her mother’s voice, raised in a peremptory command, jerked her out of her thoughts. “Sophronia, come here. I want you.”
Startled out of his reverie, the boy shrank back against the edge of the case, suddenly wary.
“It’s my mother,” Sophie reassured him. Her odd feeling of kinship with the boy grew stronger. Delphi Carter often had the same effect on her.
“I’ll be back,” she told him, and surprised herself in saying it.
Without stopping to see if he’d wait, she turned on her heel and headed back to her mother, who wasn’t at all fond of waiting.
“I’ve made my selection, Sophronia,” Delphi informed her grandly. “Mr. Hodgeson and I decided it would be best if I tried all of them. Except, of course, for the hair tonics and the freckle remover. It would be impossible for me to judge such things since my hair is naturally luxuriant and I have never had a freckle in my life.”
Delphi’s right eyebrow arched in a silent reminder that her daughter, regrettably, had been known to display a freckle or two whenever she heedlessly exposed herself to the sun.
Sophie refrained from rising to the unspoken challenge, but it wasn’t easy.
Mr. Hodgeson, wise in the ways of his customers, kept his attention firmly fixed on the column of numbers he was toting up. The effort might not have been so notable if he weren’t perfectly capable of adding the figures in his head faster than most people could manage with paper and pencil.
When Sophie remained silent, Delphi reluctantly continued, “I’ve told Mr. Hodgeson that you will settle the bill. I have decided to drop in on dear Mrs. Bassett. There are a few matters I wish to discuss with her regarding the Ladies Missionary Society.”
“You may feel free to go on home when you are done here. I don’t know when I shall return.”
Sophie just managed to keep from balling her hands into fists. “Of course, Mother.”
Rather than risk losing her temper in public, she looked away. Anywhere, just so long as she wouldn’t be forced to see the all too familiar disappointment and frustration--disappointment and frustration with her--that glittered, as it so often did, in her mother’s eyes. Her gaze swung to the front of the store...and stopped.
Standing in the open doorway, head and shoulders haloed in sunshine, was the hero of all the romances she had read so avidly, over and over and over, then tucked away at the very top of her closet, where her mother would never find them. His perfectly sculpted features, half hidden in shadow, highlighted by sun, were those of a man destined to dare great things and suffer untold agonies for the sake of the woman who claimed his heart. His broad shoulders were wide enough and strong enough to bear the burdens of the world, yet he would, Sophie knew instantly, be gentle and infinitely loving when he at last drew his love into his arms and bent that perfect head to kiss her. He was Ivanhoe and Ben Hur and Rochester and every other tormented and wildly romantic man of legend who had ever driven a heroine to despair, then opened her soul to a passionate, spiritual love that transcended time and space and....
And he was gone.
Sophie blinked, then swallowed uncomfortably. Her cheeks flushed.
Fool. Silly, romantic, unrealistic fool. She’d let her mother upset her and now she was seeing fantasies, right there in the open door of Hodgeson’s Emporium.
She reluctantly turned her attention back to her mother, but dropped her gaze to the wide plank floor so no one could see her confusion...or her shame. It wasn’t until her mother was out the door that she realized she’d been holding her breath, fighting against the sting of tears.
Ever discreet, Mr. Hodgeson waited until Delphi Carter sailed past the front window and out of sight before announcing the results of his calculations. “That will be five and a quarter, Miss Sophronia. That is, if you don’t want anything else.”
“I don’t think so, thank you,” Sophie said, then remembered the boy by the bookcase and her abandoned market basket with her day’s purchases of meat and vegetables.
With a quick apology, she retreated to the shadowy depths of the store, grateful for a moment alone to regain her composure. She had more time than that. It only took an instant to determine that both boy and basket had disappeared.
The corner of Sophie’s mouth twitched upward, in spite of her. Her mother liked to be of use, and she’d clearly provided the distraction the boy had needed to slip away without Mr. Hodgeson spotting him. Sophie tried to imagine her mother’s expression if she ever learned that her little speech had cost her her shopping basket and her dinner. The mind boggled.
She glanced at the row of books. They were all still there, the romantic novels at one end, the electric handbooks the boy had yearned for at the other.
Sophie’s heart skipped a beat.
She’d been right earlier. It wasn’t books, but dreams, that were locked away behind that glass. All it took was a dollar or so to bring them out. But no matter how much she wished it were otherwise, hers would always remain nothing more than wishful fantasies. The boy, on the other hand, still had a chance of turning his into reality.
After a moment’s foot-tapping deliberation, Sophie returned to the front counter. “Actually, Mr. Hodgeson, there are a couple of items I’d forgotten.”
The shopkeeper beamed. “That’s not a problem. What can I get for you?”
“I need a market basket”--Sophie pointed to a woven basket with a hinged lid that hung from a hook overhead--“and the copy of A. B. C. Of Electricity that’s in your case.”
Mr. Hodgeson’s eyes widened, despite their drooping lids. Then he blinked. “Miss Sophronia?”
“I’ve decided to take up science, Mr. Hodgeson. Who knows? If I find it promising, I might be back for more.”