Sophie studied her toes. She sat on the double bed in which she’d spent the night, knees drawn up beneath her white lawn nightgown. Only her toes stuck out. Lifting her dark head, she gazed through a nearby window at a June morning that shone upon a blooming–but sternly regimented–rose garden. In spite of the warm breeze, she shivered.
Then, hoping it wasn’t true, for the hundredth time, she looked at the other narrow bed, the one next to hers. Upon it lay her new husband, the rich grandfatherly man who’d paid her way from Germany, a man she’d married only yesterday.
Theodore Wildbach was quite dead. Proper, in death as in life, he was flat on his back, hands folded on his chest. He looked a bit like the stone knights lying in the cathedral in her home town. That was how Theodore habitually slept, and how he’d died. Pale lips gaped inside a ring of neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard.
She’d discovered him upon awakening. She’d arisen and come up close, staring, unable to believe her eyes. It was a terrible surprise, nowhere among the thousand twists of fate she’d imagined as she’d journeyed across sea and land to German Mills, Pennsylvania.
That was when the shivering began. Stumbling, teeth chattering, Sophie beat a hasty retreat to her bed.
She’d been sitting there ever since. She kept thinking she ought to feel something, sorrow for Mr. Wildbach, panic at the black abyss of unknowns into which she was plunged, but all she could do was sit, study her toes, and shake.
At last she heard footsteps ascending the stairs. Sophie jumped out of bed, dashed across the room, tore open the door and ran into the long hallway. She didn’t know which member of the family she’d meet, but she didn’t care. She couldn’t sit with a corpse–even such a proper one–for another minute.
There was her dead husband’s youngest son, dressed in one of those outfits of denim and leather that all the young men around here seemed to wear. He was tall, muscular and blonde. He was also shocked by her sudden and indecorous appearance in nothing more than a summer nightgown.
“Herr Karl Joseph!” She how noted his clear gray eyes widened, then began to roll, trying to look anywhere but at her. “Dein Vater ist Tod!”
Your father is dead?
The shock of seeing that poor girl race into the hallway, shaking, terrified, in an embarrassing state of undress, made him stumble over the German. Karl had been born and raised here in Pennsylvania, but, unlike his father, he strove to be, in every way, an American. When, at the age of thirteen, he’d run away, he’d told everyone his name was “Joe Wildbrook.” He’d stuck with the American moniker even after joining the army.
Only yesterday Karl had come from the mill to attend the wedding. He’d arrived in a terrible mood, still hardly able to believe his father was enough of an old goat to have gone through with it. The feeling grew after he’d seen the young, pretty Fraulein Papa had ordered from The Old Country. Karl had come home from the great Civil War with a notion to get married himself, but the local German girls his father kept parading under his nose aroused no interest.
“Handsome enough, eh?” His father had taken Karl by the elbow, nodded in the direction of the bride. Sophie sat on the other side of the room, gravely sipping from a flowered teacup, one that had belonged to the first Mrs. Wildbach. Karl’s mother had been a plump, fair lady from an “English” family. Her placid manner had given Theodore no warning of the strength of will she’d possessed.
“We could send for one of her sisters for you.”
“No thanks, Papa. I can find a wife on my own.” Karl pointedly disengaged his father’s hand. His insistence upon his marrying a German girl grated. Brother George had been given no such orders, but George, like Papa before him, had quickly found himself a well-heeled bride.
“Ah, but not a Schone Jungfrau like that.” His father had sent a proud, possessive look at the poor girl.
To Karl, Sophie appeared solemn and edgy. There was not so much as a glint of happiness to animate her beauty. She seemed like the girls who eyed him hopefully at the dances in nearby Palatine or New Bremen, the ones from whom he ran as if they were agents of the devil.
Sophie nodded whenever his father spoke, those dark, long-lashed eyes apparently engaged in a careful study of her lap. Born and raised to be a Hausfrau, Karl thought, with not a thing in her lovely head but “kuchen, kirche und kinder–cooking, church and babies . . .
It was a genuine surprise to learn she could play the piano. When her Aunt insisted, Sophie executed an intricate classical piece, showing far more animation than she had in conversation. Karl didn’t know much about music, but it was a treat, the performance poised and polished. It was clearly no beginner’s effort.
Papa had been cross when Karl, after one too many glasses of the spiked punch, had made a joke about it.
“You think I would marry a peasant? If I wanted one of those, I could have had a barefoot Dunker off any farm from here to New Bremen, with none of the trouble–or expense–I’ve just gone to.”
As the celebration went on, Karl began to have second thoughts about the girl. When she thought no one was looking, she surveyed the goings-on with intelligent, wary eyes. When she caught him watching, however, that numb mask he’d mistaken for her real face quickly took control again.
Maybe she was the sly opportunist Aunt Sally suspected. Which would, Karl thought, serve Sally right. After all, it took one to know one!
Now, this morning, here the object of all his speculation stood. Dark braids trailed over high unsupported breasts. Ample curves showed to advantage beneath a sheer lawn night gown. She was distraught–and disturbingly disheveled.
Sophie, seeing the shock and embarrassment in Karl Joseph’s gray eyes, thought he might run away. To prevent this, she seized his wrist and repeated what she’d said.
“Entschuldigen bitte, Herr Karl. Excuse, please, Herr Karl.” Somehow she managed to translate between chattering teeth. “Dein Vater ist Tod.“ Then, hoping that use of both languages would aid the son’s tardy understanding, she added, “Herr Teo-dore–iss–dead.”
“Good God!” Karl tore his wrist from her grasp and ran straight into the spacious paternal suite.
After three months of traveling, Sophie stepped out of the coach that had come from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to German’s Mill. It had been the goal of a journey that had taken her across the ocean, to the port of New York where she’d met her Aunt Ilga, her mother’s sister.
They had traveled by train until they’d arrived in Philadelphia. A week had been spent resting in her Aunt and Uncle’s luxurious home, which sat on the heights above the river.
“We want you to be calm and pretty when Herr Wildbach sees you, Schone Nichte. First impressions are so important.” Her aunt had anxiously pinched Sophie’s travel-pale cheeks.
In a week, she and her aunt were away again, this time in company with her coarse, rich American Uncle Ralph. In German’s Mill, dapper Theodore, beard neat and elegant, greeted them. He’d worn a new three-piece black suit, waistcoat crossed by a heavy golden watch chain. Herr Wildbach was old enough to be Sophie’s grandfather, but still a fine looking man. He carried a bouquet of fresh cut roses that he’d presented to Sophie.
He was formal, but Sophie knew he was looking her over, from the top of her brown head to her brand new high-button shoes. Seeming to approve of what he saw, he smiled gravely, gave her his arm, and escorted her to a shiny carriage which boasted a uniformed black driver. Ilga and Ralph joined them.
Her aunt beamed. She had made the match, successfully sparking Theodore’s interest.
Sophie knew that Uncle Ralph and Herr Theodore were business partners, and that her husband-to-be frequently visited Philadelphia. It was during one of those business trips Aunt Ilga had found the opening for her proposal.
The drive took them through a busy little town with rutted dirt streets and many tall, graceful elms and maples. Graciously speaking to Sophie in German, Theodore pointed out “sights of interest” in this, her “new home.”
From the carriage, she saw a school house, a smithy, a harness maker, a doctor’s office and a cooper’s shop. A modern brick general store had the porch‑sitters Sophie had noticed at every general store in America, but there were shoppers, too. Mill and store belonged to her husband-to-be.
The mill itself was on one end of the town, set against a little river. In the middle distance, Sophie could see a white cataract. Theodore explained that water was diverted along a race to power the mill.
Making an expansive gesture, Theodore explained, “My grandfather immigrated from Brandenberg to Manheim, Pennsylvania. His son, my father, came here and built this mill, the cornerstone of this village.” It seemed Theodore had gone his father one better, setting up the general store and coining money as the population grew.
Wagons drawn by red and white oxen waited at the mill. Farmers with straw hats, brown faces and baggy, dusty work clothes stood at the loading area doing what farmers everywhere do–discuss the weather.
They paused to solemnly tip their hats to Theodore. He returned their salute, but did not ask the driver to stop. Over the sound of rapidly falling water, the thump and groan of a working mill was audible.
“Where is Karl Joseph?” Aunt Ilga asked. She’d been studying the men busily loading sacks into wagons.
“Out checking on the buckwheat,” Theodore replied. “He’s gauging the time of harvest,” he explained to Sophie. “You will meet my youngest, Karl Joseph, tomorrow.” Taking Sophie’s hand in his, he’d added, “My second son manages my mill for me. It is an excellent place for a young man to acquire a thorough knowledge of business.”
Then, he pointed up the hill toward a two-story brick house with tall windows and announced, “There is your new home, Miss Neimann.”
Sophie, who had spent her life in cramped, dark city apartments, had never imagined she would live in such a place. It sat in the midst of a park‑like space, with tall trees surrounding it. A rose garden in full bloom surrounded it.
It would be like a fairy tale, she thought, except for the woman’s price I shall soon pay–my body given to that chilly old man!
Sternly, she pushed self-pity away. Her father had been an educated man, a civil servant. Since his death, her mother had worked herself nearly to exhaustion to support the family.
As Sophie had done time and again on the voyage, she told herself, “I am unbelievably fortunate to have this opportunity to help my family to a better life. Perhaps, in time, if I please this gentleman, and if he is as generous as Aunt Ilga says, he will let me bring my mother and all my sisters to this wonderful country where there is more than enough for everyone.
In spite of the often-repeated lecture, however, fear churned in the pit of her stomach as the carriage ascended a curving drive.
Theodore handed Sophie down, and escorted her through a great dark door into an impressive but gloomy parlor. It was paneled in walnut, full of massive furniture and Turkish carpets. Dresden figurines crowded every small table. Lace-edged antimacassar lay across the chair backs. China plates lined the rails just below the ceiling.
Here Sophie met Herr Wildbach’s oldest son, George, and his wife, Sally. Both were distinctly cold, but Aunt Ilga had warned her about them.
“George Wildbach thought he had the inheritance sewed up,” she’d explained. “When you have children—and,” she paused to send Sophie a solicitous glance, “I am convinced you will most certainly have that happiness, George and Sally’s plans will be out the window.”
Theodore, in a lord-of-the-manor fashion, introduced Sophie to the housemaids and to the German cook. When Sophie saw how nicely the servants were dressed, she was glad Aunt Ilga had bought her new high-button shoes.
It wouldn’t have done at all to arrive in German’s Mill with those wooden ones she’d worn across the ocean. She’d had leather shoes at home, but her mother had been told that it wouldn’t be safe for Sophie to look as if she had anything to steal, so she’d gone on board dressed like a servant.
The new, Baltimore shoes were breaking in nicely, although they still rubbed a little. She’d had to resort to sticking plasters at the heels, but Sophie was thrilled with them anyway. It had only been during Papa’s lifetime that she’d owned anything so handsome.
That very evening, she and Herr Wildbach–he, starched and upright–were married in the oppressive downstairs parlor. A local dignitary, called a “District Justice,” performed the service. Only servants and immediate family were present.
Sally Wildbach was tearful, clearly not with happiness. Her husband, George, a stooped younger copy of his elegant father, appeared preoccupied. The youngest son arrived late, just after Theodore had opened his pocket watch and declared he “would not wait one second more to convenience that impertinent puppy.”
“Puppy,” Sophie saw, did not really describe Karl Joseph. He was taller than either father or brother, muscular and fair, out of an entirely different mold. His handsome face was pale and shadowed, like a man who has spent the night awake. Sophie instantly felt ill at ease, for she had an intuition Karl was sorrowfully remembering his dead mother. When Aunt Ilga had talked about the Wildbachs, she’d explained that Karl Joseph had been deeply attached to his mother, that he’d run away and joined the army just after she died. It didn’t take much imagination to know what he must be feeling.
After a brief ceremony, there had been a hearty German supper of roast pork, filling, gravy, kraut, and poppy-seeded noodles. The dessert was a fabulously tender and moist Dampfnudeln‑‑raised dumplings‑‑swimming in a delicious cherry sauce. Sophie’s stomach was a knot, so she couldn’t eat much, no matter how good the food looked and how blessedly familiar it was.
Theodore and her Aunt and Uncle were cheerful, but the other family members were taciturn, particularly Karl. He passed dishes wordlessly and consumed quantities that would have made him champion at an eating contest. He was a polite diner, but the way he kept staring from across the table at her was almost unbearable. His cold gray eyes bored straight into her.
Under such relentless scrutiny, she wielded her fork with great care.
What was the big square jawed American staring at? Was he waiting for her to spill cherry sauce down the front of her new frock?
Worse, how much he looked like Captain Frederick, that wolf in sheep’s clothing whom she’d so unwisely loved! Remembering him, remembering everything that had happened, a chill ran down her spine.
Sophie swallowed her last bite with difficulty, set the fork precisely down. Once and for all, her mind screamed, I must put the folly of my past behind me.
After a couple of agonizingly slow turns around the rose garden, Theodore announced they intended to retire. This sent Sally into another fit of weeping. The surly younger son, after a mumbled “thank-you” and “good-bye,” sentiments more suitable for a Sunday dinner than a wedding feast, had hurried to the front hitching post. Throwing himself upon his big chestnut horse, he’d galloped away as if pursued by the devil.
Sophie’s heart had been pounding, her palms sweating, when, at last, the bedroom door closed behind them. In German, in a tone more like a sergeant than a husband, Theodore directed her to get undressed and put on the lovely nightgown Aunt Ilga laid out. Obediently, Sophie went to the bed by the window and lifted the fine material between trembling fingers. Her husband instantly retreated into an adjacent dressing room.
“Herr Wildbach,” her aunt had explained, “believes that sleep is more profound and healthful when a husband and wife occupy separate beds.”
Nervously hurrying to do as he’d said, Sophie heard the sound of pouring water. Next came the opening and closing of a cupboard door and the tinkle of a stirring spoon. After a few moments of silence in which Theodore was presumably drinking whatever mixture he’d made, he began to move about again. A wardrobe door opened and closed.
What would her wicked friend, Lisel, now left forever behind in Osnabruck, say about the kind of man who takes the time to hang up his pants on his wedding night? Especially a man of fifty-seven, about to possess a twenty‑four year old bride?
Sophie began to shiver in earnest.
When Theodore reappeared, he wore a perfectly ironed ankle-length nightshirt, leather slippers and an alarmingly warm expression. He took her hands, and, formally, one at a time, lifted and kissed them.
Beneath that knowing older man’s gaze, Sophie lowered her eyes. She felt a flush bathe her, bosom to brow.
Theodore bent and kissed Sophie upon the lips. His lips felt cold and dry.
“Now, Frau Wildbach, get into your bed.”
She could hardly see, but somehow she managed it. When she faced him, clutching the sheet in a death grip, he said in his precise, clipped German, “Don’t worry about your marital duties tonight, Frau Wildbach. We’ll perform them soon, but I think we should be more at ease with each other first. You will know when that time arrives,” he instructed, “because I shall join you in bed.”
Sophie tried not to look as relieved as she felt, but this unexpected turn of events brought her to the brink of tears.
“Mind, my dear girl, don’t confide this to anyone, particularly Sally. It is none of her business, though she will try to make it so. She is a typical pushy American woman.” He shook his head disapprovingly. “I’ve told George many times that leisure spoils a wife. It only gives them time to meddle where they shouldn’t.”
Sophie nodded. The dangerous sister‑in‑law Aunt Ilga had warned her about was maybe not such a threat after all.
“I would not do that, Herr Wildbach. Mother says words between husband and wife are private.”
“Prudent advice,” Theodore observed dryly, “but not always easily followed. At least until you have more English, you won’t . . . “
He paused, left the sentence trailing. Sophie could not tell if it was discretion he was requesting, or a better command of her new language.
“I am sorry, Mr. Wildbach, I do not have better English.”
“English is a confusing language, needlessly difficult. If you want to know something, ask Grete in the kitchen, or me. Divine, the Schwarze cook who works for Karl, knows some German, too. She was born in Palatine.”
This caused Sophie to raise her eyes in wonder. Herr Wildbach chuckled. “I mean to say that Divine was born in Palatine, Pennsylvania,” he explained, “which is inhabited almost exclusively by Germans.”
Theodore gave her a last long look in which fatherliness and lusty regret uneasily combined. Then he turned on his heel, crossed the room, blew out the lamp and got into his bed, the one closest to his dressing chamber.
It took her awhile to stop trembling and settle back into the clean, fine linen where she smothered tears of weary gratitude in the pillow. What a kind, kind man, Sophie thought. Surely, after this, when Herr Theodore came to her bed, she could do what she must without so much fear. Perhaps, even, with a feeling of–if not love–at least gratitude for tonight’s supreme charity.
“And you woke up and that was how he was?” Karl kept asking it. Sophie had followed him back into the room and stood at the bed’s foot. Seeing the body, her teeth began chattering again.
“Ya. Ich kenn nicht maken! I did not know what to do.”
Soon the house was in turmoil. People wept, even the servants. Men flocked up from the town below to stand, hats in hand, in the yard. Sophie shed some tears, too, at last, though she’d only known Theodore Wildbach for a brief two days.
She was truly sorry. Theodore had seemed fastidious in every way, a man of his word, and one who had been supremely careful of her feelings. His kindness last night had convinced her that he was–rather, had been–a very, very good man.
The Will was read in a Judge’s parlor. Here, from a seat beside her tight-lipped Aunt, Sophie learned that it had not been altered to include her. A codicil had been drawn, the Judge apologetically explained, but not yet been signed. This left George and Sally possession of the great house on the hill, the general store, some railway stock, and undisclosed sums lodged in Cincinnati banks.
The judge read on: “I bequeath the sum of $600 and title to the mill, commonly known as German’s Mill, as well as the attached house, barn and 3 acres, to my son Karl Joseph Wildbach on condition he forswear continued use of the English alias “Joe Wildbrook.” Shame concerning his family’s origin is an attitude which has inflicted great pain upon his father. Although, during his youth, Karl Joseph displayed a disobedient and reckless disposition, experience of life has, I trust, worked a transformation that will render him worthy of his inheritance.”
Sophie saw Karl Joseph blanch. His big muscular hands gripped his hat as if he intended to punch fingertips through the brim.
This is what I get, Karl thought, for feeling the least bit of sorrow for Papa. Even from the grave he knows where I’m vulnerable, how to humiliate me, control me.
That he, Joe Wildbrook, a decorated Veteran of the War Between the States, still could feel like a bullied child must be hidden at all costs. He had already proved he could survive beyond the protective wing of his rich father. As a soldier, he’d proved he was a man‑‑if killing made you one‑‑many times over.
Karl glared at the elaborate parquet which floored Judge Markham’s dim lair. He would not give George or that malicious Sally the pleasure of witnessing his pain.
He had been feeling sorry that he hadn’t loved his father more or pleased him more, remembering the affection his father had given–of a distant kind, to be sure, but a portion of what a father ought to give his son. Now here was Papa as ever, ruining the warm moment, still tearing him down, now from beyond the grave!
While fighting the Great War, a teen surviving among rough and desperate men, Karl had learned some of life’s hardest lessons. When he’d fallen seriously ill just as the war ended, his father had taken him from a crowded military hospital, and brought him home.
Karl had been grateful. After hearing from army friends that postwar service mainly consisted of killing Indians, he wanted no more of the army. He’d done enough killing, witnessed enough death and dying. So, after getting his health back, instead of resuming military life, he’d resigned. He ended as a Captain, no small feat for one who’d gone in as a friendless, penniless boy.
He had accepted his father’s offer to manage the mill. It was noisy and dirty there, nothing that either Papa or George wanted to deal with. Karl had been thankful to keep life simple while he got well and sorted out his mind about what he had seen–and done–during the long agony of that terrible war.
While recovering, he developed a vague notion of earning a stake, and heading west. He had heard inspiring stories about Oregon, and thought he might like to go there.
Now, only eighteen months out of a sick bed, Karl Joseph could neither bear himself nor German Mills. He was at his father’s beck and call, his nose rubbed in the same dreck that had driven him away in the first place.
Judge Markham, watery eyes twinkling over his spectacles as he read, was very much enjoying his role as Theodore’s earthly surrogate. As a matter of fact, the antagonism Karl felt for Markham went way back, to the days when Markham had tried to teach him Latin. The task was finally abandoned, but only after being loudly and repeatedly declared “as impossible as teaching speech to a donkey.”
As a boy, Karl would much rather ride, fish and hunt with the wild McNally boys and chase after their pretty sister, Dawnie. His childhood had been spent rebelling, getting whipped, and then rebelling again. Meanwhile, George was groomed to do what Karl saw as the easy job‑‑inherit.
“George is obedient. George is hard working. George is serious and studious.” Finally, it boiled down to a formula: “George is good. Karl is bad.”
The truth, as far as Karl was concerned, was that George was a sneak and a bully. His brother was also many years older, and so was able to enforce his will with words and blows. Blows which George, (being George), was careful his father never saw.
It had been something of a shock to meet his brother after a decade of absence. The tyrant was now balding, and he remained at the beck and call of an overbearing father. George was chained until all hours to “Wildbach’s Hardware & Grocery.”
No longer did it seem enviable to be oldest. Nowadays, George did all the work while Papa played in his rose garden, stopping in at the store every afternoon to “criticize and upset everything,” –Sally’s exact words. Karl often thanked God that Papa had mostly lost interest in the mill, with the vagaries of weather and farmers.
As Judge Markham plodded through an apparently endless list of small bequests, Karl’s attention shifted to Sophie. Her glossy dark brunette was now hidden under an old-country black bonnet. She was covered, neck to ankle, in a black dress, but this did not disguise the curve of her waist or the swell of her breasts, the proud rise he’d glimpsed through the delicate nightgown. Even the shock of finding his father stretched out so still and cold had not been great enough to obliterate his memory of that high firmness.
In the hallway, trying to find words, her cheeks flooded with rose. Karl found himself wondering what she’d look like with her long dark hair loose, lying back upon pillows, the curtains blowing in a warm summer wind, the scent of her skin, of roses and fresh linen mingling …
Good God! Swiftly, he reined himself in. Just that much of a fantasy was enough to make the heart of a man far younger than Papa’s race almost to bursting. Prudently, Karl looked away.
It was hard to be warm-blooded and in his twenties and stuck in German’s Mill! During the war there had been free women, women who had appreciated Karl’s happy‑go‑lucky smile and muscular self.
Lately, however, he’d begun to believe he knew what life was like inside a monastery. There was a brothel just south of Lima, but he feared that someone from German Mills would find out if he so much as put a foot over that legendary doorsill.
Perhaps this was why the widowed bride looked so good, in spite of knowing that she must be either avaricious, numb as a stump, a born martyr, or some combination of all three. There could be no other reason she would have agreed to an arranged marriage with a man old enough to be her father.
Karl comforted himself with the idea that every time she opened her mouth and German came out, all his-below-the-belt agitation would end.
About as exciting as dairy cows, German girls, even if Papa probably died on top of this one.
The last thought made Karl shift uncomfortably. Still, he mused, stealing another look at Sophie, he’d seen plenty worse ways–and places–to die!
Meanwhile, Markham droned on, reading that long list of small bequests. Along with each gift came a lecture: for each grandchild, for servants, even a lecture for one of the aged grocery clerks.
Theodore had made sure he would have the last word.
“Will you be staying?” George asked. It was, Karl thought, one of his few virtues. His brother rarely beat around the bush.
“For a while, but I will start looking for a mill master. There’s nothing to stop me going West now.”
“You can’t go anywhere until the harvest’s over.” Sally spoke up immediately. She was a thin woman and her once white-blonde hair had faded. She had been pretty in a sharp way, but it seemed to Karl that as years passed, her abiding passions, greed and meddling, had left a mark. In his mind’s eye, Sally was a ferret, sharp nose and bright eyes, poking into everything, always looking for something–or someone–to devour.
“Didn’t say anything about leaving right away, Ma’am. However, don’t count on me after next year.”
Maybe they couldn’t imagine it, but Karl knew he could survive outside German Mills. He’d sell out for whatever George or someone else offered, collect his $600, and go west. After all, he’d landed on his feet when he’d run away with only the coat on his back.
“Perhaps you’d have preferred the store.” Sally glared and then pinched her thin nose with her handkerchief, as if a bug had just crawled up it.
The store was far more profitable than the mill. George, for all his drawbacks as a human being, was an excellent manager, a close student of every modern method. They had the local post office, too, and that was a sure fire method for getting the entire population through the door regularly.
“I have faith, dear sister, that with or without me, you and George will soon acquire most of Greene County.”
His brother began, but Karl cut him off. “Papa didn’t own me, and you and Sally sure as hell don’t.”
Without a by-your-leave or goodbye, he strode out of the heavily curtained chamber. “Damn this place and everybody in it!” At the door he paused to grab his hat and clap it on his head before tramping out to the porch and away down the stairs.
Judge Markham sat at his desk. George Wildbach faced him across the mahogany surface. A bottle stood between them. It was the finest Kentucky bourbon, meant for sipping.
The Judge poured. Then, ceremoniously, the two men raised their glasses.
“A good day’s work, son.” It was not just a figure of speech. George’s wife had been born Sally Markham. The union had made kin of the two sharpest dealers in the county.
“I don’t know how I can thank you, sir.”
“Just doing the right thing, m’boy.” The Judge’s spectacles were misty with emotion. “You’ve been a fine husband to my little Sally, and now there’s Teddy and the girls. They come first.”
“To think! Just because Papa died so sudden, Ilga Bullmaster and her niece would have waltzed off with $5,000 next week, skimmed right off the top.”
“Well, with both wills in my file and the witnesses in my pocket, it was easy enough.”
“A damned handsome girl,” George remarked after a meditative sip. Oddly, he felt a little sorry for Sophie. She seemed quite innocent, although Heaven knew that conniving Ilga was not.
“Forgive me for being candid, George, but nothing less but than handsome would have suited your father. He was a man of the most informed and demanding taste. Ilga had the good sense to offer him a rose as perfect as any in his garden.”
The Judge paused to splash more whiskey into George’s glass. “It’s just good business,” he declared, “not to let money get away from the family. Real family, that is.”
George drank the second shot neat and then shook his head in an attempt to clear it. He wasn’t accustomed to drinking so early in the day, nor was he accustomed to downright felony. Theft which could be performed under cover of law, like foreclosing a couple of years back on that shiftless Washington McNally, was one thing. To “lose” a signed and witnessed codicil was something else.
The Judge held up his glass, admiring the way light filtered through the amber whiskey. He had a vested interest in George, but had decided not to share Theodore’s last little whim with his son-in-law. At least, not until he’d had a chance to have a nice private chat with young Karl Joseph.
Judge Markham had been genuinely fond of Theodore Wildbach, an excellent businessman and poker player, one whose company he and his cronies would miss. For old times’ sake, he’d give one last, discreet lecture to that bullheaded Karl.
To turn up his nose at the mill, just because it had a few unusual strings attached, would be a prime piece of foolery, a mistake George would never make! Nevertheless, once he’d told Karl about the other conditions Theodore had laid upon his inheritance, Markham was certain he would run. That would leave the entire fortune to the malleable George and his very own Sally, just in time for next year’s federal elections. With Wildbach money behind him, too, he was certain to take the seat left vacant by the death of Congressman Cox.
Yes, keeping it a secret was for the best!
Markham knew his target well. Back Karl backed into a corner, and he ran. You could count on it.
“And so you see, Karl Joseph, I thought it best to show you this part of the Will in private.” The following day, Karl and Markham sat together on a bench in the Lutheran cemetery, the place where the Judge had chosen to drop his bombshell.
“You can’t expect me to believe that you haven’t shown this to George.” Karl’s thoughts cycled in restless fury, but so far he’d kept himself under control.
“Well, maybe that’s a stretch for you, Karl, but it’s the truth.”
“Why? What’s in it for you?”
He watched as Markham folded the pages and returned them to a vest pocket. In the distance, his father’s grave could be seen, a mound of raw tan dirt covered with summer flowers. The headstone, a tall obelisk inscribed with all of Theodore’s many accomplishments, would not be placed for some time. The stone cutter was already hard at work.
“He just wanted the best for you, Karl.”
“Oh, always, just like he did for Mama and Hannelore.” The forbidden name fell from his lips, the name of his older sister, disowned so many years ago. He asked, without much hope, “Or did Papa relent and leave her something?”
“Absolutely not!” Distaste flared through the Judge’s spectacles.
Papa had cut Hanni off in life, and now, finally, in death. But that was Papa. If you needed him, he was not there, except with a lecture about how “people of genuine character have inner resources.”
The Judge had just explained that Karl’s inheritance was subject to several conditions. If he were not married at the time of his father’s death, in the space of one year he must be. Not just any woman would do, either. Karl’s wife must be “of pure German blood.”
It did not end there. He was then to live with his German wife in German’s Mill for two years. Only after exactly 730 days, would Karl have a free and clear title to the mill. If he did not comply, the mill reverted to George. Six hundred dollars would be his entire inheritance.
The concluding words of the codicil were: “This will seem like a stern and dictatorial measure, however, I assure my dear son Karl that I have his best interest at heart. My fatherly intent is to settle him in his patrimony, to secure for him a life of regularity and virtue.”
“I think your father was right,” the Judge observed. “Marriage is a stabilizing institution. You’re a man now, surely you understand that.”
“I’m angry because I am a man–not a capon–like‑‑Georgie.”
“Your parents’ was an arranged marriage.”
“I know, and I also know they made each other miserable every hour they were together. And why am I the only one who must take a German wife? Why could he marry Mama? She was English as they come. What about George and Sally?”
“Son, do you really have to ask? Your Grandfather Greene owned the best part of Clark County. As for my humble self . . .”
“If I have one small thing to thank God for, it’s that I am no son of yours.” Karl did not let him finish.
Markham continued, as equitably as if Karl hadn’t spoken. “You and George are entirely different. You know how that “Joe Wildbrook” thing upset your father. He told me he imagined hearing German spoken in the bedroom would be sure to give you more—interest–in your heritage.”
Karl stared, amazed at the ease with which the Judge dished out this dreck, as if his father’s wishes were kind or rational. Time hadn’t changed much between him and Markham, except the stick the bastard was using was one of property instead of hickory.
“Are you sure you haven’t got a few other codicils lying around? One that just disinherits me and saves me years of hanging around here, watching you and George steal my friends’ farms?”
“Karl, I don’t think you know much about the law.”
“Enough to know that you and Papa swindled half the folks around here and that you and George are now fixing to swindle the other half. Why should I be any exception?”
“There is no need to be disrespectful of your father.”
“I–disrespect–both of you.”
“That does not escape me, Karl.”
“Well, George might as well take the mill right now, because I’m damned if I’m going to marry to please a corpse.”
“Which will suit you and George perfectly.”
The Judge didn’t bother to contradict. Instead, he asked “What would you have done, if the mill had been yours, free and clear?”
“Sold it and got the hell out. Gone to Oregon, or California, maybe.”
“Listen to me, Karl, for once in your life. I just happen to have heard the railroad is coming through. Selling out now is folly.”
“Aren’t you always bragging that your family bought your land for a song after the Revolution? With a thousand dollars, I could get my hands on a good parcel in Oregon.”
“Oregon’s a risk. German’s Mill is a sure thing.”
“You think I don’t know about risk?”
“Of course you do, but your father wanted you—I believe “domesticated” is the word he used. Besides, between us, Theodore was worried about grandsons.”
“What?” In his most resentful moments, Karl never could have imagined this conversation. It grew like some intrusive vine, like the fever dreams he’d endured in hospital. Just barely he resisted the urge to pinch himself.
“There is only one grandson.”
“What? You mean the sacred Wildbach name hangs by the slender thread of Teddy?” His nephew, a sneaky, pampered brat, had been deathly ill two winters ago.
“Something along those lines. I’ve had to get over that particular peccadillo myself, having only Sally, but Theodore was hell-bent that there would eternally be a good supply of Wildbach’s.”
“Well, there might be a few more if I could marry who I damn well please.”
“Don’t throw your fortune away, Karl. I repeat: I haven’t told your brother or Sally anything about this. Cool down and think it over. It’s really not so bad.” He tried to slap Karl on the back, but Karl pointedly stood up.
“Why don’t you hitch up that fine horse of yours and get to some Lutheran church socials?” The Judge, using his cane, got up as well. “You might find something over in Palatine or New Bremen that pleases you, and your father.”
Shaking his head, Karl looked away. In the middle distance he could see a woman with a lovely figure in somber black, wearing an ugly German bonnet, making her way between the headstones and overblown, drooping peonies.
With a shock, he recognized his father’s widow. She gracefully bent to set a knot of roses among the other offerings on the fresh grave. Afterward she paused, head inclined, as if in prayer.
“What in holy hell is she doing?” The sight of her, on such a pious mission and dressed so drearily, filled him with rage.
“Putting flowers on the grave of a deceased husband is not an unusual gesture for a widow.”
“Why should she care? She was bought and sold like a heifer.”
“It seems to me that she understands duty to family, hers and yours, far better than you do.”
“You canting–” Karl began.
His big fists balled, but the appearance of Sophie inspired Judge Markham with a marvelous idea.
“Karl,” he interrupted, using a gentle, patient tone, “It’s almost too simple to say, but there is a young woman of pure German blood. If you were to marry her, it would help your family out of the awkward situation caused by your father’s sad inability to foresee his own death. It would solve your problem, too.”
While he’d been speaking, Karl’s fair skin changed color, from red to white and back again. Judge Markham knew what came next was balanced on a knife’s edge. Karl Joseph was either about to run–or choke the life out of him!
In the next instant, his one-time pupil pivoted, took a few quick steps and then used his hands to vault over the stone fence.
Like a big cat, thought Markham, all muscle and emotion, and not a whit of common sense. Theodore had good reason to doubt that boy!
The Judge rocked on his heels and smiled, apparently at nothing. In the distance, across the churchyard, the woman in black was now gazing uncertainly in their direction. Karl’s unconventional method of departure had attracted her attention.
Slowly, formally, Markham raised his hat. The widow made an anxious bob. Then, turning, she walked toward the gray stone church.
The Judge’s eyes followed her to the corner. She moved with what seemed to him a very agreeable little sway beneath the arching graveyard elms. He congratulated himself upon his splendid management of the interview with Karl Joseph.
Of course, George would have had a fit if he’d witnessed the scene. His son-in-law would have done it all wrong, made fun of the girl or something, which, naturally, would only have piqued Karl’s interest, his lifelong insistence upon going contrary to what everyone else thought was a good idea.
No, the way to play it was exactly as he had, to pretend that marrying Sophie was what the family wanted Karl to do. Then, guaranteed, he’d run like hell. Moreover, thought the Judge, that was–literally–what had happened.
With studied good cheer, he swung his cane as he sauntered in the direction of his waiting carriage. As far as Judge Markham was concerned, it had been a most productive day.
“You could go into service,” Sally suggested. “Judge Markham could place you. He’s done it for other respectable girls just off the boat.”
Sally Wildbach, her daughter‑in‑law for perhaps twenty hours, was telling Sophie in no uncertain terms that she wasn’t welcome to stay any longer. Now that Theodore was dead, she had no claim upon any of them.
“You can trot back to Philadelphia with Mrs. Bullmaster,” Sally continued, her nasty smile growing. “I’m certain she can find another elderly gentleman in need of the consolation of youth.”
The cruel dismissal sank in. Sophie’s command of English was good in the sense that she understood, but she was often frustrated when she tried to frame a reply.
“I have come a long way to do as my mother and Mr. Theodore Wildbach wished,” Sophie replied. “I am a stranger in your land.”
She wanted to give this cold-hearted woman a lecture about hospitality, but her English wasn’t up to it. She seethed helplessly as words eluded her.
Her anger grew when Sally briskly handed her an unsealed envelope. Sophie saw it held money, five bills which astonishingly represented two hundred and fifty American dollars.
With great dignity, she put it down on the table, turned and left the room. Her head spun. As much as her family needed her help, she wouldn’t take anything from that terrible woman!
I won’t tell Aunt Ilga. She couldn’t endure the lecture which would surely follow, about how “beggars can’t be choosers.”
“What am I to do?” Sophie gazed hopelessly at her aunt. Home was so terribly far away! Ilga listened while her niece, very close to tears, explained what had happened. Ilga had been turning events over in her mind ever since the reading of the Will, and she smelled a rat.
The principals had been far too much at ease. Besides, she knew Theodore Wildbach better than the others suspected. It was unlike him not to have planned for every eventuality, even his own death.
No, the Will had been tampered with, but there was nothing they, a poor German immigrant girl and her out-of-town relatives, could do. The Judge and the oldest son had probably fixed it.
Still, something might be salvaged. At supper last night, Ilga had heard the younger son speak of needing a housekeeper there. Karl was a handsome young man who had just inherited, if not the house, at least a good living! Karl was ein Wilde Bube–a wild boy–but, personally, Ilga liked such men.
What, after all, did a woman want with a man who’d lost his balls?
Sophie seemed a practical creature. Her mother said she was strong, and knew how to iron, cook and sew. She might be just the wife for an unsteady, emotional fellow like Karl Joseph. Ilga had a powerful notion that Theodore, looking down–or, more likely, up–from hell’s fire, might even approve.
“I’ll tell you what.” Ilga was brisk. “Since Sally and George won’t be decent, this is what we’ll do.”
Hand-me-Down-Bride @ Second Wind Publishing