The fifth time. This is the fifth time I’ll have had this talk. You’d think when a body gets to be my age, you wouldn’t have to repeat yourself so often.
Madam Wigg, the founder and head of the orphan school, walked down the deserted hallway. She kept to a steady, if somewhat slow, pace, holding herself with the regal posture that often accompanied wealth woven into a life with a purpose. And she had found hers the day she’d established an orphanage and school dedicated to educating any and every child. Madam Wigg firmly believed that all children deserved an equal opportunity at success in life.
She patted a wayward strand of silver hair back into place, then let out a sigh while her feet automatically took her along the familiar length of hallway. Her sturdy walking boots made a sharp clacking noise against the old wooden floors. She smiled at the sound. How often had she made it, at all hours of the day and night? And these floors might be old, and more than a little worn and tired, but they were spotlessly clean, thanks to the collective efforts of her “girls.”
The head of the orphanage sighed. The truth was that her girls weren’t youngsters scampering about anymore. They were grown now, and although most of them had called the school “home” their entire lives, that time was about to come to an end. They all needed to go out and build a life of their own, doing the same thing they were doing now.
Every one of her girls was an excellent teacher. All they needed was a place to go, along with a little help in starting out. But with twenty-six of them, Madam Wigg couldn’t just toss them out willy-nilly, armed with only the knowledge she’d given them and a few of the more practical skills, even if she was more than willing to give each one a monetary grant to start their own school. No. That would never have worked. She’d needed another plan.
And, of course, she had devised one.
Which was why she was about to give the same talk, for the fifth time, to the next group of four. She stopped in front of a plain door that was simply constructed with a few wide planks and a large, metal handle. After taking a deep breath, she carefully arranged her features into a serious expression. Not dawdling another second when there was a task that needed to be done, the founder of the school raised her hand and gave two short raps before pushing the door open.
* * *
“Can you hear her? Is it Madam Wigg coming this way or not?” Quinlan’s hair was the color of dark honey. It slid over her shoulders to hang down in front of her as she leaned closer to the door, a hand cupped around her ear.
“Shh. It’s hard to hear.” Phebe was standing in front of the pretty blond, one side of her face pressed right up against the closed portal. “I’m sure it’s her, and she’s definitely coming this way.”
“Do you think it’s our turn to be told about her illness and this whole mail-order bride thing?” Olivia’s slender frame was crowded up next to Quinlan. A worried look had crept into her brown eyes.
Nellie, the fourth occupant of the room, clasped her hands together as her lips began to tremble. “I hope not. I don’t like the idea at all. It’s . . . well, it’s . . .”
Phebe glanced over her shoulder when Nellie’s voice trailed off. She wasn’t sure if the whispered rumors that had been flying up and down the hallways for the last few weeks were true or not, but suddenly having to acquire a husband was a daunting thought.
At twenty-five, Phebe was well aware of the fact that she was more than old enough to get married, but she certainly hadn’t planned on picking a spouse out of a paper filled with advertisements from men looking for wives, sight unseen. She couldn’t blame her friend for being frightened at the prospect of taking a husband she’d never met. Very little scared Phebe—she was far too practical for that—but even she had lain awake at night worrying about it.
Giving Nellie a sympathetic smile, Phebe suddenly realized that the sound of the footsteps had stopped. Quickly stepping back, she bumped right into Quinlan. She waved a hand and shooed the other three women toward the other side of the room. “We need to sit on our beds. I think Madam Wigg is right outside.”
A sharp double rap against wood confirmed Phebe’s words as the four friends scrambled away. Olivia, Nellie, and Quinlan made it to the bed just a moment before the door opened, leaving Phebe alone in the middle of the room. The woman who had raised them stood in the doorway, shaking her head.
Madam Wigg looked over at Phebe and lifted an eyebrow at the slender, serious-eyed woman who was standing just a few feet away. “I’m surprised to catch you eavesdropping, Phebe. It doesn’t suit you at all.”
Feeling the heat bloom on her cheeks, Phebe automatically retreated into the behavior she knew best and put on a calm face. “I apologize, Madam, but it does have its uses at times.”
The older woman chuckled. “Yes, it does.” She looked over at the other three and nodded. “I’ve come to talk to all of you about a grave matter.”
“You aren’t really sick, are you?” Olivia blurted out, then clamped her lips together when Madam Wigg rolled her eyes to the ceiling.
Shifting her gaze to Olivia, the imposing matron of the school gave the younger woman a skeptical look. “I know you girls talk among yourselves, so I’m sure you’ve already heard the whispers about my illness. Which means there’s no need to dwell on that.” She pointed at Phebe. “Now, you go join the others and have a seat. Then I’ll explain what we’re going to do about this little problem.”
“It isn’t a little problem, Madam,” Phebe interrupted quietly. She moved away and took a seat on the bed next to Nellie. Her mouth pulled down at the corners as she frowned at her mentor. “If you’re sick, we need to stay and take care of you, not go flitting off to secure new positions as if you didn’t mean anything to us.”
Nellie took one of Phebe’s hands in her own and held on tight. “That’s right.” Nellie’s dark eyes glistened with a sheen of moisture as she stared back at Madam Wigg. “We should be here to take care of you.”
The other women chimed in their agreement then went silent when their headmistress held up a hand, her palm facing outward.
“I appreciate your concern, I really do. But I am still head of this school, and I say it isn’t for you to worry about. Right now, it’s time you all started a plan to make your own way in this world.” She pulled out a bundle of papers tied with a string that she’d been holding behind her back and walked across the cozy room. Without hesitation, she plopped them down on top of the small table next to the bed holding her wide-eyed audience.
“The Bride’s Bulletin is filled with advertisements of men looking for wives. Any one of them can give you a home and help you get started teaching. If you pick wisely.” She paused and peered at the four women, who were staring at the stack of papers as if it were a coiled-up snake.
“You girls haven’t had a chance to do much choosing in your lives.” Madam Wigg’s voice softened as she looked from one attentive face to another. “You had no choice in coming here, or in the work you were given to do. The only choice you’ve all made for yourselves was to stay and learn to be teachers. Now it’s time for you to make another choice, this time to select a husband, so you can go out and give something back to other children who need a teacher. Every child deserves to be educated and have an opportunity to do well when they grow up.”
She pointed at the papers. “Look those prospects over carefully, but don’t select a gentleman with a mark by his notice. He’s already been spoken for by one of the other girls. And once you’ve settled on a likely prospect, don’t forget to put your mark down too. I don’t want to hear about any squabbles going on over some poor man no one here has even met.”
Phebe glanced at the papers, looking so commonplace on top of the small table. She wasn’t sure how she felt about it. What if there wasn’t anyone in there from California? To keep her promise to her mama in heaven, she would need to go to California. Someplace close to the gold and silver mines there.
Madam Wigg turned and made her way back to the door where she paused. “Phebe?”
“Help your friends look over the notices and then come to my sitting room. I need to speak with you privately. I’ve received an urgent telegram that we need to discuss.”
Without another word, the older woman sailed out the door, leaving a puzzled Phebe staring after her. Until Quinlan’s amused voice broke into her thoughts.
“Phebe, come over here. You have to read these.”
The papers were open on the table, and all three women were crowded around them, pointing at the advertisements covering every page.
“Oh heavens.” Olivia blinked as she leaned closer, squinting at the small print. “This gentleman specifically mentions that he’s looking for a woman with a strong back and good constitution.”
Quinlan laughed. “It sounds like he’s mixed up a wife with a plow horse.”
Nellie clasped her hands together and gave Phebe an uncertain look. “I don’t know about this. However are we supposed to choose?”
Olivia shrugged at Nellie before putting an arm around Phebe’s shoulders and drawing her over to stand right next to the table. “Well, Phebe’s only going to be looking for a gentleman from California.” She gave her friend a questioning glance. “Unless you’ve changed your mind about that promise to your mama in heaven that you’d find out what happened to your father and brother in those gold mines?”
She hadn’t, but then with the reality of making it come true staring her in the face, Phebe was suddenly having her own case of nerves. Drawing in a deep breath, she straightened her spine and sternly told herself to stop being such a ninny. She could do this. She would do this.
Fixing a calm smile on her lips for the other three women, Phebe leaned over the paper and ran a slim finger down the first page.
“Now. Let’s see what we have here.”