By Lori Hahnel
January 3, 1903
Lately I’ve been moving more slowly than I used to. I’ve been feeling tired. The doctor laughed last month when I told him that. “Mrs. Wiley, you’re seventy-three years old,” he said. Funny, but until then, it hadn’t occurred to me that I was getting elderly. Now that I think about it, though, I’ve worked my whole life. Not just for the Pennsylvania Railroad, either: I’ve taken care of two husbands, my daughter and my two grandchildren, my mother, my sister, and her five children. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at feeling tired. Then my granddaughter Jessie got it into her head to throw a grand party for forty guests here on New Year’s Eve. I believe I’m still tired out from that.
And it’s so cold this morning. I decide to sit down beside the hearth in the kitchen, pull the rocking chair closer to the fire. Soon my eyes close, my head begins to nod.
Stephen’s chin bobs in triplets, in time with the rhythm of the rails, rests sometimes on his chest, cushioned by the brown silk cravat that holds together the collar of the too-large shirt his brother Morrison sent him. Marion curls in the crook of her father’s arm. Beautiful dreamers. They are so much alike; the same dark hair, the same gentle brown eyes, the same love of music. They nod together in three-quarter time, a nodding duet, and I have no wish to wake them. They are all I have in this world, and I suppose I am all they have, besides each other. Lord knows we have nothing else.
Rain splatters the window beside me and I pull my shawl tighter around my shoulders. We are leaving Pennsylvania for New York, again. Stephen has talked me into it. I believe I never will know how it is he can talk me into things.
After we had been married three years, I took Marion, who was two, and went back to mother, and he moved to New York. I told him I had had enough, we could not live on what he made writing songs. But I could not stay away from him for long, not even a year. I missed him too much. He haunted my dreams every night, and Marion kept asking for her Papa. So six years ago, the two of us made this same train trip to join him. We lived in New York for a few months. I hated the boarding house we lived in; crowded, noisy, smelling at all times of cooked cabbage and slop buckets. And Marion and I missed Pittsburgh, missed our family, the McDowells and the Fosters both, and our friends. All the times we needed a hand, at home they were right there for us. I didn’t realize until we moved how much we’d come to rely on our dear ones, for so many things; for a meal, to look after Marion sometimes, for comfort and sympathy. In New York, we were strangers. Strangers in a big city full of strangers, people from all corners of the world speaking all kinds of languages, and so many much worse off than we.
When I protested this latest move, he said, “My dear, if anything the music publishers are even more centered in New York now than they were six years ago.”
“Last time we moved to New York you said you’d make a go of it there. You said you’d be able to make a real living.”
“We didn’t stay long enough. That was the mistake. I wasn’t there long enough to establish myself with the music publishing houses. I can’t guarantee you an easy life from the beginning. But give me a chance”
“How many chances must I give you? We can’t live on melodies, Stephen.”
“You have my love for always, and so does Marion. Stay with me, let us be a family together. And the hard times will pass, you’ll see. Besides, I’m done with blackface songs. My new pieces are in a far more genteel mode. They’ll find a wider audience. You’ll see, my love.”
Marion opens her eyes, looks around for a moment as though she isn’t sure where she is.
“Mama, is it time to eat yet?”
I smile at her and yet my jaw tightens a little. It’s past noon and we have been on this train since early morning, we last had a bowl of oatmeal when it was still dark. How can I tell her that I have three boiled eggs and three slices of rye bread and butter, and that will have to tide us over until we get to New York late this afternoon?
“What does my little miss want to eat?” asks Stephen, opening his eyes. “Would you like to go the dining car?”
“Oh, yes, Papa.”
I give him a look as we make our way to the dining car. “Tut, tut. Don’t worry yourself,” he whispers.
One of Stephen’s surprises. He has borrowed money from someone at home, or sold the last suit Morrison gave him. Or perhaps he still has a bit of the $200 from Firth, Pond & Company. Last month he sold them all rights to the songs published under his prior contract with them for $1,600. But he owed them almost $1,400 in advances. He has a head for music, not for business.
I sigh, not too loudly. He’s right, why worry? For now, we will eat. Though part of me wonders if Stephen is more interested in the drinks he can get in the dining car than in eating.
Marion and I don’t last long in New York this time. Our boarding house is possibly worse than the one we had before. Stephen is writing fewer songs, and the ones he does write don’t sell like the old ones did. Maybe he should have stuck to writing the blackface songs. The new ones are all about dead children, and dead lovers and dead dogs. So maudlin. True, “Gentle Annie” was very successful, but it was published seven years ago. At least “Oh, Susanna!” was lively. And it brought in some money. And while I suspect Mr. Christy and his Minstrels made far more money from “Old Folks at Home” than Stephen ever did, it continues to sell. His latest effort is called, “Why Have My Loved Ones Gone?”
Why, indeed? We are gone, my love, because we need to eat. We are gone because we need to have a home to live in, not a room we’ve rented in a building with people coming and going at all hours, not a fit place to raise a daughter at all. It does not mean we don’t love you. We do, with all our hearts. But we cannot stay.
He stood in the doorway of the bedroom and tried to stop me as I packed a trunk. “I’ll sell more songs this year, Jane. Don’t leave again.”
“If you want to sell more songs, you need to write them first. And if you want to be able to keep writing songs, you need to stay away from liquor.”
“That’s an awful thing to say.” He hung his head and for just a moment I was ready to take my words back, to say I was sorry. Only for a brief moment, though.
“It is not an awful thing to say. It’s just the awful truth. I have lost you to liquor. Marion has lost you, all of us who love you have lost you. You spend the little money you make on rum. We can’t live this way. I’ve told you that before. I’ve given you chances. Too many chances. Now I have to think of Marion.”
“If you were thinking of Marion you wouldn’t take her away from me.”
“I’m taking her away from you because you can’t support us. Your drinking is tearing this family apart.”
This was the conversation we’d had how many times? Hundreds, I’m sure. I would confront him about his drinking; he would blame my impatience for driving him to drink. I would realize that there was no winning this argument, that the only reasonable thing to do was to leave him, to give Marion and myself a chance at a decent life.
And now, back in Pittsburgh, I have a real chance to support us. Mr. Andrew Carnegie, head of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Pittsburgh Division, has hired me as the Railroad’s telegraph operator. He says that young women operators are more to be relied upon than young men. I am so excited and honoured to be given this position of responsibility. Maybe I can even help Stephen back up onto his feet with the money I make. Perhaps we can be together again.
I think frequently about the night Stephen asked me to marry him. Eleven years ago, though it seems like a lifetime. He and my other suitor, Richard Cowan, the attorney, had both come to call on me. Mr. Cowan left at 10:30, the customary time for such visits to end. But Stephen lingered.
We stood together near the hearth. The logs crackled and popped as Stephen took my hand and held it fast with both of his.
“Jane. I see that I am not alone in my pursuit of you. And I don’t wish to waste my time, so I must have your answer now. Will you have me or no?”
Sometimes I have wondered exactly what made me say yes so quickly and decisively. Perhaps his gentle way. But more, it was his eyes. I saw his brown eyes spark and flicker as they moved over my face, my auburn hair, and down my neckline. I felt myself drawn to the light in his eyes like a moth.
Another cool and rainy fall day and I return from another visit with my husband in New York. He was working on a new song called “Why, No One to Love?” when I left. The man will yet drive me mad. Stephen, we all love you. I love you too much for my own good. And yet you can barely keep body and soul together. Morrison had paid my train fare and given me money and more clothes for his indigent brother, my beloved husband.
When I arrived at his boarding house in the Bowery, I was greeted by his landlady, a square, serious Irishwoman. “Are you Mrs. Foster?”
“Mrs. Connelly. Your husband is behind almost three months in his board.”
I paid her what Stephen owed, and paid for the next three months in advance. Then I climbed the stairs to his third floor room. My knock was not answered, so I let myself in. Stephen was in bed, burning with fever.
“Hello, Jane. It’s good to see you.”
I got him some cool water to drink, a cool cloth for his head. He told me he wasn’t hungry, but I went out to buy food and some coal for the small heater in his room. He didn’t say so, but it looked as though there had been no fire in it for a long time.
Within two weeks, with a little care and a little wholesome food, my husband had recovered. He had regained his health, I had paid his debts. He felt so well, indeed, that he suggested we go and dine together to celebrate, in the restaurant in the St. Nicholas Hotel, a short walk away on Broadway.
“It’s the beginning of a new era for me. I know it.”
“Dinner will be so expensive there, Stephen.”
“Then we’ll have lunch. Surely we can afford that.”
It wasn’t the money that concerned me. I still had a fair sum left from what Morrison had given me. I was worried about his drinking.
“You won’t drink too much, will you, and lose all the ground you’ve gained over the last two weeks?”
“Of course not. It’s a new era, I told you.”
He talked me into it against my better judgement. He was fine while we ate, sipping only red wine, and I thought maybe he had really changed. But after lunch he insisted on ordering a series of large brandies. Finally, over his protests, I paid the bill and as we careened back toward the boarding house, his arm flung around my neck for support, snow began to fall. I wondered how he would survive the winter, a man who would allow his circumstances to dwindle to the point where he had no money to buy coal.
Soon he was back in his bed, sound asleep. I pulled the thin curtain across the window and sat on the chair beside the bed. As I brushed an unruly strand of his hair out of his closed eyes, I thought of their light. Other people don’t see the light in his eyes; it must be a spectrum of light visible only to the heart. I saw it again at lunch today when he took my hand and thanked me for taking care of him. For a little while then I thought that we might once again love one another as man and wife. Perhaps I could convince him to move home and I could keep working while he wrote his songs. Marion could have her father back. But after the second brandy, I knew none of this could happen, no matter how much I wanted it to.
They sometimes say of a man lost to drink that he is drowning his sorrows. But Stephen has managed to drown all his joys, all that was good in his life. And long ago, he drowned the spark of love. The fire between us has been snuffed out, for good, I fear.
January 16, 1864
Henry, Stephen’s other brother, has come to meet Morrison and me at the St. Nicholas Hotel. George Cooper, with whom Stephen had lately been collaborating, had sent Morrison a telegram last week saying his brother was very sick in hospital, wished to see him, and, as always, needed money.
Morrison asked me to accompany him to New York, and of course I was glad to. As I finished packing a small, worn leather valise, he came to my door, a telegram in his hand. He said nothing at first.
“What is it?” I finally asked, dreading to know what I already felt to be true.
“Ah, Jane. It’s too late. Stephen’s died.”
That was two days ago and I have not yet cried. I’m not sure why. None of us are surprised at the news; this was the road Stephen had been heading down at least the last ten years, and quite possibly longer. Perhaps all his life. I have not cried, but I have felt like an automaton. I have gone about silently, doing what I must. Maybe it’s Marion that’s kept me from crying. Telling her was so hard. She loved her father so. She has been inconsolable, and perhaps I felt that if I broke down, too, there would be no coming back. We could not both fall apart.
And now Morrison takes me by the arm and the three of us walk down Broome Street, into the undertaker’s. I hear pounding in my ears as the gentleman speaks to Henry. I let Henry and Morrison do the talking. I cannot say anything. We go down a short hallway and through an open door and there is an iron casket. I look up at Morrison and he nods. I approach the casket, put my hand on it for a moment, and then without thinking, I fall to my knees. Stephen.
I stay there a long time. I do not pray, I do not weep. I know his body is within this box, but I know that his spirit,his spark, has departed.
Once I get up, the gentleman takes us into an office. There are papers to be signed, the hospital bill, which Morrison again takes care of. Inside a manila envelope are Stephen’s belongings from the hospital: a small, worn leather purse; thirty-eight cents in pennies and scrip; and a scrap of paper, with the words, “dear friends and gentle hearts,” written on it in his hand.
I cannot hold the tears back any longer.
January 5, 1903
As Matthew Welsh sat down to a large brandy after dinner, a messenger came to the door with a telegram. He thought of his grandmother, who had worked as a telegraph operator, as he opened the envelope.
Western Union Telegram
TO: Mr. Matthew Wiley Welsh, Boston, Mass.
Very regretfully must inform you that our grandmother, Mrs. Jane McDowell Foster Wiley, perished in hospital Sat. night due to burns suffered in a fire that morning. Her clothing caught fire as she sat near the hearth and though I put the flames out, her injuries were too grave. Funeral is set for this Fri., Jan. 9th.
Mrs. Jessie Rose
Lori Hahnel is the author of two novels, Love Minus Zero (Oberon, 2008) and After You’ve Gone (Thistledown, 2014), as well as a story collection, Nothing Sacred (Thistledown, 2009), which shortlisted for an Alberta Literary Award. Her work has been nominated for the Journey Prize three times and published in over thirty journals across North America and in the U.K.; her credits include CBC Radio, The Fiddlehead, Prairie Fire and Joyland.