Summary: Clementine Hawkins’ story – how an English artist came to settle down in Virginia City. And what is it with her and Ben Cartwright? Number six in the “Art” universe, but definitely a stand alone.
Word Count: 1800 words
Virginia City, May 1850
Clementine Hawkins sat down on the faded blue settee with a cup of Lapsang Souchong tea in her hands. The tea was steaming hot, strong and, with just a dash of milk, had the colour of caramel. It was the only trace of familiarity she had at the moment, and she took her time to really enjoy it.
It was well past midnight, but sleep was eluding her in her new, lonely home.
Home. She snorted into her tea. This wasn’t a home, or at least not her home. Not yet.
She looked around the big, shabby room. There was much work to do, much to clean and to redecorate to make this house a home, her home. Much work, but it would keep her from pondering the all-consuming ‘Why?’ that had occupied her mind ever since Harry had made that fatal misstep on the tight rope.
She couldn’t get the images out of her head: Harry’s surprised face when he realised his foot was slipping, his flailing arms after he had let go of the balancing pole, his body falling like a rock, his limp form on the sawdust in the circus ring, the blood slowly seeping into the ground, her husband’s lifeless eyes….
She shook her head. No, it was no use, those images led her back, not forth, and she’d come to Virginia City to look forward, to have a future, to move ahead.
The boarding house was a miracle. Soon after Harry’s death she had decided to leave the circus, to leave that kind of life. Harry and she had always wanted to settle down one day, have a nice little kip somewhere in Worthing, or if they could afford it in Brighton. But now Harry was gone there was nothing that lured her back to England: she’d be just as lonesome there as she was here. So when she had seen Millicent Hanson’s advert for this vacant boarding house in Nevada in the San Francisco Morning Call the day after Harry’s funeral, she had taken that as a sign of providence and made her bid.
Clementine took another sip of tea and indulged in its rich aroma and the warm steam.
She had been delighted when she was informed her bid had brought her the deal, and as quickly as possible she had dissolved her tiny caravan-household and booked the next stagecoach to her new domicile.
What she hadn’t expected was the desolation inside the house. She would have to redecorate the walls, renew the flooring, varnish doors and window frames, and buy new furniture. The best piece in the place was the settee she was occupying at the moment, and she was going to keep it. But the rest…
She looked around again, trying to picture what kind of room this could be. She’d be using pale colours for the walls, and then decorate lavishly with brightly patterned fabrics, rich reds and dark greens and flowers, flowers.
She’d add reminders of her former life, too. In front of that narrow wall beside the stairs she’d put a small table with Harry’s weights. Everyone should see she had been married to the Strongest Man On Earth; maybe she’d even hang Harry’s tights on the wall above. Surely she’d hang one of the posters advertising him there.
Oh, yes, she had a lot of beautiful posters that would keep Harry’s memory alive. She could picture them easily on the walls, they’d add a certain atmosphere to this room, make it special.
Her gaze went to the ceiling. Perhaps she could even hang a trapeze there? No, that would be a bit over the top. Or not? Hmm, she should ask—
Clementine put her teacup down and buried her face in her hands. There was no one she could ask, no one she could consult. She was on her own. Far away from her accustomed habitat, far away from people who cared for her, far away from her friends, from—
She had to stop that. True, she had abandoned her friends when she left the circus, but that didn’t mean there couldn’t be new friends.
That charming Mr. Cartwright, for instance, with whom she had shared the stage coach on her trip from San Francisco. At first she had been too shy to speak to him, but soon she had realised what a friendly, compassionate man Mr. Cartwright was, and she had entrusted herself to him, told him about her life, about her grief. At one point, and to her utmost embarrassment, she had even cried, but Mr. Cartwright had spoken to her with that dark soothing voice, had patted her hand and offered her any help she needed while settling down in Virginia City.
She knew she shouldn’t have occupied his attention that much, and she shouldn’t have talked about herself in so many words, but her pain was still so raw, her loss still so fresh, and she had felt so forlorn.
Mr. Cartwright had not only been a good listener, he had also provided the closest thing to comfort anyone had since Harry’s accident: he had told her how he had learned to cope with the deaths of his three wives.
Three wives, three devastating losses. Clementine couldn’t imagine how one person could go through this three times and still be as amiable as Ben Cartwright.
She stared at the wall next to the stairs. Well, at least Mr. Cartwright had three sons, one from each of his wives, and he hadn’t held back how much they had helped him to get over the greatest pain.
Sons. Children. Clementine heaved a deep breath. Children. They would make things easier, most certainly. She always had wanted children. Dozens. Harry, too. She still remembered his roar of triumph when she had come home from the doctor telling him he had confirmed she was in the family way. Harry had told everyone he was going to be a father, had distributed cigars to the men and kisses to the girls, and made a fuss over her as if she’d been the first woman ever to carry a child. It had lasted a few weeks only, and then their joy had turned to grief. She hadn’t done anything wrong, the doctor confirmed; miscarriages happened, and she just should try again.
Harry had gone on a three days binge, and then he had come home, freshly shaved and bathed, in a new suit and with a bunch of roses for her, and a tiny silver rattle in the shape of a duck. For the next baby, he had said. For the little girl they were going to have one day.
There had never been a next baby.
She dragged her gaze from the wall where she was going to hang Harry’s tights to her clenched hands. There had never been a next baby; and even though she knew it must have been as hard on Harry as on her, he’d never complained, never blamed her.
She knew there were people who thought men didn’t care as deeply for children as women did. She also knew those people were wrong. Harry was evidence for the opposite. Mr. Cartwright was evidence; even the coach driver was evidence.
Oh, the coach driver. She had travelled by coach before, but never in her life had a coach driver urged on his horses so recklessly. Mr. Cartwright had seemed concerned, too, and eventually spoken to the driver and persuaded him to go easier on the horses. Even so, they had made the trip to Virginia City in record time anyway.
As things had turned out, Mr. Banks, the driver, had been in a hurry to get home because his wife was about to give birth to their first child. He hadn’t wanted to miss welcoming the newborn, and as much as he trusted the town’s doctor, he’d wanted to be there should anything go wrong. Both she and Mr. Cartwright could easily relate to that, and so they hadn’t complained about the rough ride anymore.
And then, when they had reached the stage coach station at Virginia City, there had been waiting for the coach that tall, distinguished man Mr. Cartwright had identified as Dr. Paul Martin. The doctor had looked exhausted but cheerful, and he had congratulated Mr. Banks on the birth of a healthy son his wife had named Josiah, not an hour ago.
Clementine smiled when she thought of the three men, Mr. Cartwright, Mr. Banks and Dr. Martin, standing there together, laughing and clapping each other on the shoulders, and how eventually the doctor and Mr. Cartwright had sent the driver home to his wife and his son, assuring him they’d take care of the luggage and the horses.
That had been the moment Clementine had known she had chosen the right place to settle. This quite obviously was a town where people cared for each other, and that was what she would need in the coming years.
She stood and went to open one of the cardboard boxes that contained her former life. It didn’t take her long to find what she was looking for: the tiny silver rattle.
She traced the finely chiseled form of the duck. This rattle was a beautiful piece of craftsmanship, a precious gift for an anxiously awaited precious child. Clementine polished the tarnished silver with the cloth it had been packed in, then wrapped it in a silken handkerchief.
Tomorrow. First thing tomorrow morning, she would take this to the coach driver’s family and give it to little Josiah.
And then she’d start transforming this barracks into the best boarding house Nevada had ever seen.
When it is dark enough, you can see the stars. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
A/N: With my heartfelt thanks to my betas extraordinaire, Sklamb and Sandspur.