The man from Iowa sat down with the ease of a panther. Her father had introduced him as Randolph Matheson. The name suited him, austere and dignified.
“Shaelene,” her father started the conversation, “how are you faring today?”
Shae looked at her father as her mother handed Mr. Matheson his tea, trying to read her father’s face. Nothing was revealed, but she wasn’t surprised, as he was generally as tightly shuttered as she. She was her father’s daughter in many ways. The plain looks, the high intelligence, and steadfast practicality were the cornerstones of who they both were. She had gotten nothing from her mother, except training from her on how to be a well-mannered woman.
“I am well, Father,” she replied, although it was far from the truth.
“She has been sitting in here all afternoon doing her newest sampler,” her mother said to their company, as she handed her father his tea.
“Is that so?” her father asked, innanely.
“Yes,” Shae replied, taking her own tea from her mother’s hands.
As she talked and sipped her tea, she could feel Mr. Matheson’s scrutinous gaze upon her. She decided to not meet his eyes. Let him search out the many physical imperfections that she had and return soon to Iowa bride-less.
“What have you been reading lately, Shae?” her father asked.
Shae knew what her father was doing. He was letting Mr. Matheson know exactly what type of woman she was. Now her prospective suitor would know that she was not a ninny, enthralled with the latest fripperies and womanly small talk. She was well educated, and well-mannered. The education part was much to her mother’s consternation. Local society had a similar opinion. No one in Blackwell wanted to marry her because of it, and her looks. Her father had brought up the same thing to her first caller, the one who smelled of mothballs. He had looked at her with horror when she began discussing her thoughts on the first transcontinental trip across the United States by train.
She took a long sip of tea. Then putting the cup and saucer on the table, she placed her hands together on her lap. Her mother looked frightened and desperate, as if she knew what her father was about also. He was hitting Mr. Matheson with the full force of Shae’s intelligence.
“Oevres completes de Niels Henrick Abel,” she stated, steeling herself, as she waited for Mr. Matheson’s reaction.
“It is a tragedy that he died so young,” Mr. Matheson spoke up after only a few seconds, “he did much in the few short years he worked in the world of mathematics.”
It was then that Shae finally looked at him again. She hoped that her incredulity didn’t show on her face. From his demeanor, it didn’t seem that he minded her level of intelligence. He looked at her with his cool, steady eyes, seemingly interested in what she had to say about the subject.
“Yes, he was brilliant. I can’t begin to imagine what it was like solving a 250-year old mathematical puzzle as he did. His work changed the world of mathematics, as well as physics.”
“Quite so,” Mr. Matheson stated slowly, and after a short pause, “and you read his work in French?”
“Yes,” Shae replied.
“Shae is fluent in French, as well as Latin and German. She has also studied some Italian and Russian,” her father interjected.
Shae straightened in her seat, just as her mother off to her right seemed to deflate in hers. There were no doubts now about the capacity of her mind.
“I’m assuming that you have also studied in other areas,” Mr. Matheson asked of her.
“I have studied many of the sciences, as well as history.”
“She exhausted the knowledge of the tutor I hired from Chicago by the time she was 17,” her father added. “Once that happened, I’d order her whatever books she wanted. She has kept studying everything she could since then.”
Aside from a gasp that sounded like a small hiccup from her mother, there was a long silence as Mr. Matheson absorbed this information. He sat back in his chair, slowly stirring his tea with a spoon as he thought. Her father grabbed a tart, took a large bite and waited the silence out. Shae picked up her tea again, sipping slowly, and waiting. Her mother shifted around, her hands fluttering nervously, from her teacup on the table to smoothing her skirts.
“She- she also has studied piano extensively,” her mother blurted out, obviously desperate to insert some femininity into this masculine conversation. “And painting…”
She was wringing her hands. Her father looked over at her and clumsily patted her shoulder. It was quite a show of compassion from him. Shea glanced at Mr. Matheson, who was now holding eye contact with her father. A slight nod from their guest to her father, and both men stood. Shea blinked quickly a few times, wondering about the nod. Her and her mother joined the men in coming to their feet. Her mother was looking confusedly between the men. Shae merely waited, choosing to look out the window.
“Mr. Matheson, if you would stay here in the parlor, my wife and I would like to talk to our daughter. We’ll send her back in here, if…” he requested of his guest, not finishing his sentence.
“Very well,” Matheson acquiesced.
Her father held out his arm for her mother and they left the parlor. Shae followed them to the library. Her father seated her mother in a chair across from his desk, and gestured her to sit at the pair of it. He sat down at his desk chair and looked steadily at her for a minute. He looked as if he was composing himself. His eyes looked moist.
He hadn’t called her by his old pet name for her, since she was 10 years old. Swallowing his emotion, he spoke slowly and deliberately.
“Mr. Matheson, has asked permission to marry you.”
The nod, thought Shea.
“When, Gerald?” her mother was mystified. “When did he?”
Shae was mystified too, but for a different reason than her mother. His willingness to marry her raised a strong, but simple question in her mind.
“Why?” she asked her father.
“Mr. Matheson is in great need of a wife, “ her father answered, ignoring her mother’s question.
Shae pondered on this for a bit.
“Surely he can find any woman willing to marry him…” she trailed off, leaving out the obvious truths of his good looks and the horde of women that no doubt pandered about after him. “Is he in debt?”
“No, he has a thriving law business in Davies.”
Shea was befuddled. There had to be an answer to this mystery. No man of such stature and wealth would want her, when he could have the cream of society’s belles at the snap of his fingers.
“I will let him explain his reasons to you, but he wanted me to discuss one of the contingencies to the marriage. One of a delicate nature—“ her father paused, “Shaelene, Mr. Matheson, wants… well, he wants an unconventional marriage.”
Her mother looked at her.
“Unconventional?” Shae ventured asking.
Her father was uncomfortable, trying to loosen his cravat. He cleared his throat and then looked at his wife.
“He doesn’t, expect… or want certain—wifely duties from you.”
Her mother gasped. Shae was slightly less mystified, yet even more confused. That explained him not caring about her looks, but also compounded the reasoning as to why he would want her at all.
“That means no children for Shae, “ her mother cried.
“She will have a step-daughter.”
“And no grandchildren for us!” her mother also cried out.
“A step-daughter?” Shae interjected.
“I will leave the rest for him to explain,” her father said, standing up.
Shae stood slowly. Her mother stayed seated. She looked as if she might faint. She was fanning herself with her hankie.
“Do what will make you happy, Shaelene,” her father said softly, the mist returning to his eyes. “I- I only want you happy.”
“Father, what do you think of him?”
“I think that he is a steady man. He is not prone to drunkenness. He is an upstanding member in his community, and financially stable. Quite well-off, actually. He had heard of your intelligence from a mutual acquaintance, so there will be no issue there with him there. He seemed to seek it out. That is why I brought up your education at tea. I would not shame you or hurt your chances of a marriage by bringing up your education, otherwise.”
Shae merely nodded in response. She looked at her father for a moment, reflecting on what a good man he was. He was not an emotional man, but it was obvious that he cared about her. He wouldn’t send her into a marriage that would harm her. He knew as well as she, that the prospects of finding a decent match for her in their own community were next to nothing. She looked at her mother, who still looked shaken.
“Mother? What do you think?”
“Oh, Shae. I had always hoped that you would find love, if not with your husband, then in a different way with the children you would bear. A lifetime without love will be very long. Impossibly so.”
“It seems, Mother, that my destiny is to be unloved, marriage or not.”
“But we love you!” she cried.
“I know, but it isn’t the same. You know that. I have been feeling stifled here lately, as if I needed a change that I couldn’t provide for myself. This might be the answer. I don’t know for certain, as I need to hear his reasons for wanting to marry me.”
“I could tell you were unhappy. But Shae, I’m afraid you will grow to love him without that being returned,” her mother reiterated.
“It isn’t the case. I’m not infatuated with him, regardless of his fine features. I’m well aware of my own lack of beauty. I wouldn’t deign to believe that he would ever love me. I’m much too practical for that.”
“Shae,” her father interjected, “You have much to offer him. Don’t self-deprecate, forgetting all of your good qualities. At the same time, please hear him out. He has had a difficult time these past few years.”
“I fully intend to hear him out, Father. Shall I go meet with him now?”
“Yes, please do.”
As Shae left, she heard her father go over to her mother and hug her. Her mother’s weeping was muffled in his embrace. Sadly, Shae knew would never have that deep of a love, but she could hope for a friendship, at least. She paused right before the door of the parlor where Mr. Matheson was waiting. Taking a deep breath, she squared her shoulders.
Show nothing, she thought to herself, opening the door.
As she entered the parlor, she found Mr. Matheson in the largest chair in the room. Even though he was sitting elegantly, he still miniaturized it. When he saw her, he came to his feet.
Two stoic individuals stared each other down, grasping for any sort of emotion that they each could grab onto about the other’s feelings. Both came up empty-handed.
Mr. Matheson gestured to the love seat situated in front of the window that Shae had been looking out of right before tea.
“Would you like to sit?” he asked her.
“No, I think that I’ll stand,” she said, staying near the fireplace.
“As will I,” he said, “I will cut to the heart of the matter. There is no use pandering about and trying to woo you into this.”
That panged her chest a bit, knowing that she wasn’t going to ever be wooed, but she nodded at him. She fully understood this wasn’t a love match.
“I wish to marry again, but not for love. I lost the only woman that I’ll ever love in a terrible accident. I don’t wish to speak of it- ever.”
He stopped and for a fleeting instance his eyes showed great bereavement. He quickly steeled himself back into his former composure.
“I have a daughter. Her name is Lucy. She is 10. She is the spitting image of her mother, both in looks and temperament. She also is very intelligent. I am not of the same mind concerning women as most of the men of our day. I believe that women have a great capacity for intelligence. Unfortunately, unlike your father, I wasn’t able to convince any man to come live in Iowa and tutor my daughter. I thought about a governess, but I believe that my daughter is more intelligent than most of the ones I’ve tried to hire. She also hasn’t taken the death of my wife very well. Lucy also has a weak heart. She was born with it. Most governesses want a long-standing assignment, and that is not a guarantee for my daughter.”
He stopped a moment to look at her for a moment. He had an air of desperation about him, but one couldn’t see it in his face. It was something felt more than seen.
“The death of my wife has made it difficult for me. I’m trying to put myself into a position where I can eventually run for mayor of Davies. The young ladies of our community have made their interest in me clear by their incessant flirtations. Despite my ignoring their advances, it has made their fathers wary of me. I need them to trust me. This is why I am here trying to procure a marriage to you.”
Shae let that sink in a moment before replying.
“Why me? Surely you have other women who would be glad to marry you. Women that are more…”
“Beautiful?” he offered for her.
“Yes,” she replied quietly.
“I could. There are a few reasons why I don’t want to marry a beautiful woman, as well as a few why I would want to marry you. You are not without beneficial qualities.”
Before she could respond to that he walked slowly to the window, hands clasped behind his back, and looked out the window. There was little remaining of the day. He took a deep breath, as he released it, he turned to her.
“I’m sorry if I seem callous in my dealing with this situation. I just don’t want there to be any illusions on your part as to what this marriage will be about. I’m I will never love you. There will be times that I will seem to have no heart. I loved my Clara with every part of me.”
He had said his wife’s name like a prayer. Her heart hurt for him, but she remained by the fireplace. He turned about quickly to look at her and spoke with his calm authority again.
“The reasons I do not want a beautiful wife are many. Mainly, a beautiful woman would expect everything from me in a marriage. She would require my time, my attention, and my duty. I cannot give any of those. I am busy with business, and soon to be even busier working in politics. Secondly, I need a wife who knows how to keep secrets. Most beautiful women are social butterflies, flitting about from one tea to another, spreading gossip and defaming their husbands, putting them in ill light. Obviously I can’t have that happening with my wife. The social gatherings would be a necessity, but without the whispered gossip. Thirdly, I don’t believe that a beautiful woman would teach Lucy what I would like her to learn. The manners would be there, I’m sure, but not the practical nature. It seems to be missing in most of the women of my acquaintance. I see this practicality in you, and think it is useful.”
He walked to her then. He stood a little more than arm’s length away. Shae noticed that he didn’t smell like mothballs. He smelled of cedar and bay leaves. She could live with this smell much easier. It was a comfortable smell.
“I had all, but given up and was very distraught concerning my daughter’s future,” he said. “Then a mutual acquaintance mentioned you in a conversation, a Mr. Alkire. You know of whom I speak?”
“Yes, he’s a friend of Father’s. He comes to buy barrels from father a couple of times a year for his store in Davies. That is where you are from, correct?”
“Yes, exactly. He owns the store. It’s quite large and where I go to get supplies. I asked after his trip, as he came a few months before. He told me of the shrew business mind of your father, Gerald. And he spoke of you, Miss Findlay, of your great intelligence and composure. He said that he didn’t understand why some man wasn’t wise enough to marry you, and that if he had a son, he would be pushing him to marry you. You were a practical one, he had said. I asked a few more questions, discreetly asked about Gerald’s business, and wrote to your father the next day concerning you. At first, your father was wary, as I would be if a stranger were to ask about Lucy. I wrote back and asked him to talk to Alkire for a reference to my character. I’m supposing that he did, as the next letter was much more congenial. We wrote back and forth for a couple of months, before arranging our meeting over tea. How much did he tell you of this?”
“Only that there was a man interested in a possible marriage match.”
“I see,” he stated, “I had hoped you would be more informed of the situation, but perhaps it is for the better. Do you want to know the reasons why I think you would be a good match?”
Shae finally looked up at his face. He was a good foot taller than her, maybe a little more. He should intimidate her, with his good looks, stoic demeanor, blunt conversation style, and intimidating size, but he didn’t. She knew that she would probably never hear from him why he wanted to marry her again, if she didn’t find out now. He didn’t seem the type that shared much in a personal way. She was curious.
“Yes,” she said, simply.
“Very well. Miss Findlay, while you are not beautiful, you have some traits that I find desirous in a wife. I want someone with a strong will, as well as being able to keep their emotions hidden from those they wish to hide them from. You seem to possess a great talent for this. I’ve alluded to you being not beautiful a few times and yet you don’t even flinch or take in a deep breath or seem offended. My daughter is going to need someone like this.
“I also need someone of great intelligence who can teach Lucy. Your father claims that you are well educated, and from what little conversation I’ve had with you, I can see that he has been honest with me. Your mother claims that you can play the piano, and paint. Is this true?”
“Yes, one I love and the other I hate. However, I can teach both, if that is what you are wondering.”
“That is useful information. Can you also dance? I will have society functions where I will need you to, at balls and such.”
“I was taught to dance, yes.”
“Hmm,” was all he responded to that, in a flat tone. “Your practicality will also be needed at all social functions. I don’t want the public to know too much of our comings and goings. I value privacy at the utmost. You seem to also possess this quality. I find this admirable. You also seem to be practical enough to not carry delusions about this ever being a love match. Our marriage will never be so. We will never be intimate. Your father presented this stipulation to you?”
“Yes, he did. I lost all hope of having a love match when I turned 20 without even having a caller. My mind and my plainness have scared too many off.”
“I see,” he paused. “Would you be interested in such a nonconventional match between us?”
“Before I give you my answer, would you mind if I made one request of you? My own stipulation, as it is?”
He straightened, obviously not expecting this of her. He put his hands behind his back, and his eyebrows furrowed ever so slightly.
“Might I retract my offer, if I find it displeasing to me?” he asked, gruffly.
“Of course. It isn’t much, but it would mean something to me.”
This time Shae turned slightly away from him and faced the fireplace. Fingering the doily on the mantle, she took a deep breath.
“I have been alone here in my parents’ home all of my life. I’ve had a few friends, but they don’t understand my love for reading and knowledge. They’ve remained more acquaintances than anything. Besides, my talks were too deep for their normally shallow conversations. My father on occasion will take time to talk with me, and I cherish those moments. However, if we marry, I will be living in Iowa with you, so I can’t visit him to talk. I’m sure that I’ll have tea with the people of your community, but once again, idle chatter doesn’t satisfy me.”
She turned to him again, looking him straight in the eyes.
“I cannot abide any more years of loneliness. I don’t wish for love, but I do wish for friendship. And if we cannot have a friendship, then friendly discussion.”
“How do you want to go about doing this?” he asked, standing stiffly in front of her.
“I wish to talk every evening after the evening meal, once Lucy is put to bed. I don’t want much of your time, only 20 minutes.”
“This is all?” he asked, cautiously.
“What do you wish to talk of?”
“Deeper things. Science, current events, and even politics, if you wish.”
“I see,” he stated, relaxing some. “That would be something I can agree to.”
“Then I can say yes.”
They looked at each other for a few moments. Finally, he took her hand, bowed over it and kissed the back of it.
“Thank you,” was all he said.
Shae only nodded. More moments passed, as he dropped her hand and watched her again. She watched him back. Neither gave anything away. Finally he spoke.
“I have business in Chicago. I’ll be back in one week. Can we be married then? It is fast, I know.”
“I see no reason to wait.”
“Very well. Before I leave town, I will get the proper papers at the courthouse ready. I will arrive in the morning a week from today. We’ll be married as soon as I arrive, then we’ll head immediately to my property. You will meet Lucy then.”
“Alright,” she responded.
Another moment of silence, and then he bowed slightly and left the room. As her mother rushed in to talk about it all, Shae could hear her father conversing with Mr. Matheson as he headed out the door. Then he was gone.