The Four Winds Page 2

Now, she thought. She had to do it. She couldn’t lose her nerve again.

“Papa.” At first she said it too softly to be heard, so she tried again, actually raising her voice. “Papa.”

He looked at her.

“I will be twenty-five tomorrow,” Elsa said.

Her mother appeared to be irritated by the reminder. “We know that, Elsa.”

“Yes, of course. I merely want to say that I’ve come to a decision.”

That quieted the family.

“I . . . There’s a college in Chicago that teaches literature and accepts women. I want to take classes—”

“Elsinore,” her father said. “What need is there for you to be educated? You were too ill to finish school as it was. It’s a ridiculous idea.”

It was difficult to stand there, seeing her failings reflected in so many eyes. Fight for yourself. Be brave.

“But, Papa, I am a grown woman. I haven’t been sick since I was fourteen. I believe the doctor was . . . hasty in his diagnosis. I’m fine now. Truly. I could become a teacher. Or a writer . . .”

“A writer?” Papa said. “Have you some hidden talent of which we are all unaware?”

His stare cut her down.

“It’s possible,” she said weakly.

Papa turned to Elsa’s mother. “Mrs. Wolcott, give her something to calm her down.”

“I’m hardly hysterical, Papa.”

Elsa knew it was over. This was not a battle she could win. She was to stay quiet and out of sight, not to go out into the world. “I’m fine. I’ll go upstairs.”

She turned away from her family, none of whom was looking at her now that the moment had passed. She had vanished from the room somehow, in that way she had of dissolving in place.

She wished she’d never read The Age of Innocence. What good came from all this unexpressed longing? She would never fall in love, never have a child of her own.

As she climbed the stairs, she heard music coming from below. They were listening to the new Victrola.

She paused.

Go down, pull up a chair.

She closed her bedroom door sharply, shutting out the sounds from below. She wouldn’t be welcomed down there.

In the mirror above her washstand, she saw her own reflection. Her pale face looked as if it had been stretched by unkind hands into a sharp chin point. Her long, corn-silk blond hair was flyaway thin and straight in a time when waves were all the rage. Her mother hadn’t allowed her to cut it in the fashion of the day, saying it would look even worse short. Everything about Elsa was colorless, washed out, except for her blue eyes.

She lit her bedside lamp and withdrew one of her most treasured novels from her nightstand.

Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure.

Elsa climbed into bed and lost herself in the scandalous story, felt a frightening, sinful need to touch herself, and almost gave in. The ache that came with the words was almost unbearable; a physical pain of yearning.

She closed the book, feeling more outcast now than when she’d begun. Restless. Unsatisfied.

If she didn’t do something soon, something drastic, her future would look no different from her present. She would stay in this house for all her life, defined day and night by an illness she’d had a decade ago and an unattractiveness that couldn’t be changed. She would never know the thrill of a man’s touch or the comfort of sharing a bed. She would never hold her own child. Never have a home of her own.

THAT NIGHT, ELSA WAS plagued by longing. By the next morning, she knew she had to do something to change her life.

But what?

Not every woman was beautiful, or even pretty. Others had suffered childhood fevers and gone on to live full lives. The damage done to her heart was all medical conjecture as far as she could tell. Not once had it failed to beat or given her cause for real alarm. She had to believe there was grit in her, even if it had never been tested or revealed. How could anyone know for sure? She had never been allowed to run or play or dance. She’d been forced to quit school at fourteen, so she’d never had a beau. She’d spent the bulk of her life in her own room, reading fictional adventures, making up stories, finishing her education on her own.

There had to be opportunities out there, but where would she find them?

The library. Books held the answer to every question.

She made her bed and went to the washstand and combed her waist-length blond hair into a deep side part and braided it, then dressed in a plain navy-blue crepe dress, silk stockings, and black heels. A cloche, kid gloves, and a handbag completed her outfit.

She went down the stairs, grateful that her mother was still asleep at this early morning hour. Mama didn’t like Elsa exerting herself except for Sunday church services, at which Mama always asked the congregation to pray for Elsa’s health. Elsa drank a cup of coffee and headed out into the sunshine of a mid-May morning.

The Texas Panhandle town of Dalhart stretched out in front of her, wakening beneath a bright sun. Up and down the wooden boardwalks, doors opened, CLOSED signs were turned around. Beyond town, beneath an immense blue sky, the flat Great Plains stretched forever, a sea of prosperous farmland.

Dalhart was the county seat, and these were booming economic times. Ever since the train had been routed through here on its way from Kansas to New Mexico, Dalhart had expanded. A new water tower dominated the skyline. The Great War had turned these acres into a gold mine of wheat and corn. Wheat will win the war! was a phrase that still filled the farmers with pride. They had done their part.

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