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We slipped inside the last car as the locomotive put on even more speed, Paris disappearing in our wake. Sounds of quiet morning conversation drifted through the car's hall, and I was a bit bemused to see so many passengers cheery at this hour. Not a single compartment remained empty. We had desired a bit of privacy after our evening ordeal. Nonetheless, we walked the length of the passenger cars to no avail.
During all this, we also introduced ourselves to the ticket-master. Blushing, we explained how we were late for the train and needed to be aboard. In our haste we had neglected to purchase the required ticket. The fellow didn't need to know the actual story. The man, an older gentleman with a bushy white beard, laughed and offered two tickets to us at the normal price.
"And your luggage?" he asked.
I smiled as Logan shrugged. "We travel light," said my friend and turned, wandering back down the passage. I thanked the older man once more and followed Logan.
We passed the filled compartments again and cursed our bad luck. I peered into one and slid the door open. Inside was a solitary man, asleep against the window. He rocked back and forth with the train's movement and seemed oblivious to the surroundings in his exhaustion. It seemed as private a compartment as any, so Logan followed.
"So much for a coincidence," I whispered, settling into the seat opposite the sleeping man.
"Yes. Unless my sight was very much mistaken, that was Fuchs' second."
I nodded in agreement. "That man next to him was quite a sight too. He'd certainly be distinguishable in a crowd."
"And hopefully that'll be the last we see of any of them."
"Do you really believe that?"
"Well, why not?" he said with a grin. "We're on our way out of the country, and whoever these fanatics are, they likely have lives in Paris. They can't simply take off on some half-brained vendetta against us. Besides, it was a fair duel. It's not like I murdered the dog."
"They followed us to our lodgings. As far as we know, they broke into our rooms. They rifled through our possessions. They tracked us down at the train station. It seems plausible that they might follow us further." I ticked each item off on my fingertips, and my companion's face grew longer with each passing word.
Finally, he acceded. "Alright, alright. However possible it is, there's very little chance they'll find us again. We're hours ahead of any of them, we've no luggage to slow us down, and we can certainly disappear into Rome in a hurry. It's large enough." I must have looked skeptical because he went on. "Nathaniel, there's no way they'll find us again. Believe me, it'd take a miracle."
"Then let's pray to God they don't receive one."
At that moment, a harsh, humorless chuckle filled the compartment. My friend's eyes furrowed, and I could feel my irritation growing as well. As one, we turned and regarded our apparently sleeping companion within the room. Appearances can be deceptive it seemed. At our glances, his eyes opened wider, and he sat up in his seat. A guilty smirk crossed his face.
"Well, good morning sir," I said.
Our mysterious stranger guffawed. Then he leapt up, bowed genteelly, and stuck out his palm towards us. He had a way of talking that spoke of extensive learning; his words were, at times, antiquated and poetic. "Excuse me, I should not have eavesdropped, but there was no available way to alert you that I'd been woken without appearing rude. Again, my apologies. May I offer my name? It's Jacob Douglas. And yours?"
We shook the proffered hand, offered our own introductions, and took another look at the man. Staring up at him from my seat, it was clear that he was tall. He was young, broad-shouldered, and meticulously dressed in a pale, tailored suit. Without seeming to notice, he even adjusted his cravat back into perfect alignment as he sat down again. His piercing grey eyes possessed a sadness that belied his years, which were quite close to our own. Perhaps he was even on Tour. Something was out of place, but Logan caught it first.
"Your accent, is it . . . American?"
He smiled, perhaps sadly, and nodded. "Oh yes. Southern to be more specific, and South Carolinian to be exact. My family has raised cotton there for generations . . . Of course, my 'family' is a relative term all things considered."
The last phrase seemed odd. "And what does that mean?" I questioned.
"I don't mean to distract you from your conversation. You don't need to hear some dandy drabble on about his own woes. It seems you've some of your own."
"No, no. Go on," Logan urged, his curiosity apparently piqued.
Douglas laughed. "Well then. Perhaps you can offer some advice to me, and I'll see if I can do the same for your case." Again, the look of deepest loss clouded his eyes, and it startled me. How could this youth know such agony? Settling back and letting the locomotive rock us, our new companion tried to answer that very question.
The American spoke simply and gently, his tone washing over us like a spring drizzle. "I mentioned my home. I was born in that great country a little over twenty two years ago, and most of my short time on this earth has been merry. But not all. My father, . . ." He paused here, but gathered his nerve and quickly continued. "My father is a cruel beast of a man. Don't mistake me — he is the epitome of Southern gentility. He would never dream of hitting a woman, least of all my mother. But when it comes to family honor, nothing, I mean nothing, will stop him from getting his own way . . . But we'll come to that eventually."
Logan and I glanced at each other, and an almost nonexistent smile creased my friend's lips. This American had a charming way about him, despite his sad words. We flicked our gaze back to the speaker as he continued.
"If you know anything about the South, I'm sure it has to do with two things: slavery and cotton. Not surprisingly, my family is involved in both. My father inherited a bit of land from my grandfather and about a dozen slaves. Since then, through intricate planning, risky investments, and a damnably fierce work ethic, my father has since increased our holdings to hundreds of acres with hundreds of slaves to work them. Reprehensible or not, the slave trade has made my family prosperous."
He shrugged self-consciously. "I don't tell you this to brag . . . Although I can see by your dress that wealth isn't foreign to you. But I mention our wealth to frame my story. So, I was raised knowing my upper social standing and instilled with some sense of honor for what my father accomplished. You should also know that I'm the second son. My older brother is an athlete the like of which hasn't been seen since antiquity. He is always performing some feat or another for my family, and my father cannot love him more. On the other hand, I am, well, rather bookish." His face fell a bit at this. The poor man must have been ridiculed for his academia. While he discredited his own athletic prowess, his body certainly appeared capable of sporting; he was tall, broad across the chest, and muscular in the arms. His eyes though, betrayed a quiet nature that could have indeed been prone to studying.
"My studies have always been the joke of the family, especially my father. He continually nags about the need to actually accomplish something with my life. While my brother is lauded for his fencing and riding, my novels go unread and collect dust. Besides, my father always reminds me that I'm the second son. My brother will inherent the plantation. I must do something to make up for that. I must make something of myself. As to what he expected, I am at a loss.
"Regardless, I took his chiding hard. I used to slink about the house, avoiding contact with the man and his harsh words. Then, I decided I would do something. What are sports but simple parlor tricks done in coordination? Anyone could do those, but it took something special to gain fame in the literary world. So, I would be a famous author, and my stories would be read and respected by people. Pledging this, I left home, and told my family very little. My return would be accompanied by fame and fortune. I resolved. I'd show them all!
"I gathered up my manuscripts and climbed aboard a train. My path wound through the fields and lonely hills until it reached New Orleans. That raucous city would give me my fame." His chest
swelled, and his eyes took on, for the first time, a pleased look.
"And I was right. People did enjoy my work. 'Enjoyed' may be too weak a word. I was mobbed with praise. I attempted to remain impervious to all the acclaim. I am only human after all. But one particular admirer got the best of me." The ghost of happiness that flashed through his face was gone in an instant, replaced once more by the melancholy weight we had seen earlier.
"Her name was Lilly. Lilly Porter. We met after I read my latest story to a crowded salon. She approached me hesitantly, almost afraid. Quietly, she murmured her praise for my tale, but paused, collecting her courage once more. 'But I don't like the woman. Women don't act like that,' she said nervously but firmly. The character in the story was not terribly important, but I asked her to elaborate. After that, we talked for five hours as the moon wandered the sky like a racing doe.
"I fell in love with Lilly Porter. I fell incredibly, madly, hotly, passionately in love with her. We moved beyond literary talk. I learned everything I could about this quiet, unassuming woman. Long hours I spent questioning her every fancy and taste, studying her passions, and finding the right moment to declare my affections. The time came, and she offered her love back! I cannot express the elation, the pure bliss of that moment! Gentlemen, my life culminated with three simple words from her lips: 'I love you.' The next step was obvious. Her parents had died early, and she lived with a spinster grandmother. Her fate was her own, and she was overjoyed to marry me. Of course, I couldn't do this without my own family's approval, so, filled with wonder, I once more boarded a train. But this time, I was not alone, and literary fame was the least of my accomplishments."
A single tear dripped down our newfound friend's cheek. He seemed not to notice, so we did our best to ignore it as well. I, for one, could see where the man's story headed. I ached for him as he cleared his throat and pressed onward.
"We interrupted them at dinner. I remember a maelstrom of activity. My sisters rushed me, clinging to my frame while my mother smiled. My father lingered, behind the mass, a grave, ever-disapproving glare upon his brow. My Lilly waited behind me, and after only a moment, the shock registered on my family's face as I led her forward.
"Her face was pale and taunt, her eyes downcast, even as a small smile shone upon her sweet lips. My lady was shyness embodied once again. But I didn't care! I told the family our intentions, and nearly all of them clapped with expectant joy! . . . All except the man I once called father." Here, bitter, unspeakable pain clouded Douglas' eyes.
"The bastard just sat there. He said not a word to Lilly, even when I asked for his approval, his blessing. He just sat there as the family waited around us. He didn't ask a single question of my new love. He did not even acknowledge that sweet angel I loved so dearly. His gaze had found her already, and the worn, simple garment she wore was proof enough of my folly.
"'Get her out,' was all he muttered. In horror, I looked at him to see if I had misheard. Behind me, a delicate sniffle rent the air and tore my heart. Swinging back, I saw my little Lilly wipe a crystal tear from her golden eyes. She was trying so hard, but her frame was beginning to shake. I rushed to her, and clasped her in my arms. '"Get that out of my home,' I heard again.
"'Damn you! I see no father here,' was my only reply. I could feel seething anger, unquenchable rage building within me like an ember prodded into flame. I know within my soul that I'd have shot him had I the chance. Lacking my pistol though, we simply left. We returned to our new home, the bustling New Orleans. At night, we lay awake, our hearts melded as one, our bodies entwined in love. I could trace my finger through her wispy locks and whisper gentle words into those mistreated ears. I spoke nothing more of my family, and another year passed."
He spread his arms wide, indicating the empty seats near him. "But you have eyes. You see no wife here. There's no one left to whisper to my soul in the darkness . . . It was cholera. The doctor told me the rash of cases sprung from a Caribbean ship docked in the harbor. I barely heard.
"She gripped my hand in those last minutes. Sweat dripped through her black tresses, and her face was flushed beyond recognition. Still she held on, the throbbing of her veins a mirror of my sorrow. Moment by moment, she dropped away as I watched. The doctor had left long before. So, I turned to God. The beads of sweat dropped from her forehead as prayers fell from my lips." More, unnoticed tears were pooling in the man's haunted face.
"And were they answered? Did God heal the woman I loved? Did God dispel her sickness? You know the answer just as I do. Lilly Porter died in my arms that night, and I died too. Either of you two could shoot me right now, and I wouldn't be offended. Rather, I'd welcome it. But Death, thus far, has been elusive. I cannot find him, much as I'd like to throw myself into his arms. Lilly's waiting, but I cannot bring myself to take my own life. She wouldn't want that. So, I've taken to other things." He laughed lightly."'I am more an antique Roman than a Dane.' Or American at any rate. In these few, unbearably long years since her death, I've hunted jaguars in Brazil and wandered the expanses of India. The great waves of the Pacific will not swallow me, and the bandits of Europe's alleyways deny me the swift demise I seek. Death seems impossible. I go to Rome, hoping that the city of abandon will help my morbid quest or rekindle my desire in life.
"The sales from my books have left me the fortune I wanted. Maybe one day, one day soon, I will meet Lilly again. Or maybe not. You spoke of miracles, and I laughed. My outburst was for your pitiful beliefs." While these words might have been hurtful, even offensive from another's lips, I couldn't find it within my heart to deny this poor man his rage, his hate. The God I loved had let his only joy slip from his grasp, and I could not answer for that crime. So I said nothing. Logan and I only dropped our heads.
Douglas leaned back, his tale completed. He exhaled deeply, almost therapeutically. I wondered how many men had gained his confidence with the sad story and why he'd trusted us with it so readily.
"Now," he spoke, a tiny grin crossing his lips at last, "You've heard my story, such as it is. Perhaps you'll be willing to share yours? I've gleaned a bit already. I feel dreadfully sorry for abusing your confidences." He leaned forward.
Meeting Logan's eyes and nodding in response to his unspoken question, I took a quick breath and launched into our own narrative.
Back to The Faith: Book I of the Uprising Trilogy book
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