Dutiful Dread

A cluster of black garbed girls clustered like jabbering ravens around the Merion common room fireplace. Though their dresses were primly bustled, touches of white lace peeped out from their not quite buttoned cuffs. Relaxing away from class, the girls were thoroughly involved in gossip. Sitting slightly to the side, a young woman bent over her embroidery. Unlike her charges, the young woman wore her unremitting black properly fastened. She didn't participate in the girls' chattering, but nor did she shush them for careless talk.

The door swung open and a figure in workman's shirt and trousers stood for a moment out in the hall. The girls leapt up with a chorus of small shrieks, before one short girl in a less well-made dress said, "Oh, that's a lady!" The screams died down, but the girls stayed on their feet, gawking at the strange figure. They'd heard of women like George Sands who'd worn men's clothes, but they dressed like intellectuals and businessmen. The young ladies of Bryn Mawr College weren't even used to seeing men dressed in workman's garb; Dean Thomas, worried about appearances, kept them away from the construction site where Radnor dormitory was being constructed, and they certainly didn't see workingmen in their exclusive Philadelphia neighborhoods.

"Beg pardon," said the apparition. "I'm looking for Pen, Dutiful Penitence Casket. Feller down the station told me I'd find her here." At her words, the embroidering woman looked up sharply, then dropped her piecework and leapt to her feet.

"Dido Twite?" she cried, even while the short shabby girl said "What do you want with House Mother Casket, please, ma'am?"

"Croopus," said Dido. "House mother, Pen? That's a right queer rig."

Dido looked askance at the gaggle of students who pretended not to be listening to her conversation with Pen.

"It's so lovely to see you, Dido" Pen said, holding Dido's hands. "How did you come to be here?"

"My friend Simon helped me buy passage so I came over on The Thrush to see you. But when I got to Nantucket, yer Auntie told me you were off in Philadelphia teaching or summat. What are you doing here, Pen? I thought you were a-going to marry Nate?"

Pen burst into tears.

"My Oliphant, Pen," Dido said, putting her arms around her weeping friend. "Don't cry! What's wrong? Is Nate hurt? Are you? What the pize is going on?"

Pen threw herself into Dido's arms and the onlooking girls gasped. "Oh, Dido, I can't bear it. I miss him so much." She must have noticed Dido's growing fear, because she stopped sobbing long enough to say "He's not hurt. But, oh, I haven't seen him in so long and I don't know if we can ever marry."

Dido was worried. Pen had always been prone to fretfulness, ever since she locked herself in a cabin on the Sarah Casket and ate nothing but beach-plum jelly and sassafras because she was so frightened of the sea. Whatever was wrong now, Dutiful Penitence might work herself into a fit if she didn't calm down.

"Now, Pen. Wipe your face. You must have a hanky in all that fancy get-up. That's right, stop your blubbering. Don't try to talk until you ain't so blue-deviled." She patted Pen awkwardly until the young woman's sobs died down to hiccups. "That's right, jist relax. You wanta drink? A bit o' grub? Some of your gals over there have a packet of biscuits, and they're too busy gawking to et 'em. Want me to nabble some?"

Pen shook her head. "Oh, dear, all the girls are watching." She scrubbed at her face with a plain square of linen. "This is terrible! I'm supposed to be stern and now they all seen me cry--"

"Hush, Pen! You'll work yourself into another fit if you ain't careful. You can't be allus fretting about what people think. Now hang on for one rabbit," Dido said. Casting nervous glances at Pen over her shoulder she approached the students. Most of them immediately began talking amongst themselves too loudly, but the short girl came up to Dido with a plate of sponge cake and a mug of tea.

"Here, bring these to Mother Casket," she said.

"Thankee," said Dido. 'What's your name, cully?"

"Martha Gummere."

"Ta, then. Pen'll be grateful." Dido brought the cake and tea back to Pen. "Have some prog, you'll feel better." Dido looked attentively at Pen's tear-stained face as she ate a few bites of cake. "Tell us what's wrong," she said, after Pen had taken a few gulps from the mug. "But don't get your knickers in a fizzle this time."

Pen took another fortifying sip of tea. "You'll think me a right fool for being so miserable, but it hurts so. We're both healthy, and I love Nate and he loves me. But it doesn't look like we'll ever be able to get married."

"Why the pize not?" Dido liked Nate Pardon, and thought he was perfect for Pen. For one thing, he wouldn't let her get fimble-fambled all the time like she was doing now.

"Money," said Pen, in a tone of utter despair. "We have none."

"Eh?" Dido was confused. "Didn't your pa have money? He was a captain, and a real prime one, too!"

Pen had regained control and was putting herself to rights. She dabbed her handkerchief in her cup of tea and wiped her face clean with it. "He must have had some money put aside, because after he stopped sailing we never spent much. But Nate and I can't find any of it. He died without a will. People on Nantucket were saying he spent it all on gifts for the pink whale, but I know he didn't -- they just liked to spend time together. She didn't need gifts." Pen straightened her skirts. "People started hearing horrible rumors about Nate: that he'd stolen from his last captain, or killed a man on board ship or, oh, horrible stories. They were all different, and none of them were true. But he couldn't get a berth out of Nantucket once they started.

Dido was shocked. "That makes no sense atall! Bezants to breadcrumbs it's some kind of mistake. Who could have it in for Nate?"

Pen shook her head. "We tried to figure out where the rumors were coming from -- why would anyone say such terrible things? -- but there was nary a hint. So Nate took a job on the railway, and I haven't had a letter from him in over a year." Her face scrunched up like she was going to sob again, but she only fell silent.

"So what are you doing here? Is there a chance he's here in Pennysylvania?"

"No," Pen said. "I had no money after Papa died, and Aunt Topsy couldn't afford to keep me. I don't know how to do anything, so I didn't know how to earn my keep. When Bryn Mawr College started up, they advertised for educated Quaker women of good family. So I came here, to be a house mother. I didn't know what else to do. But one Dido," she said, clutching at Dido's calloused hand. "I miss him so. And I'm so lonely all the time."

With her mouth full from a piece of cake she'd eaten from Pen's abandoned plate, Dido tried to be reassuring. "Don't you worrit none. Us'll figure summat out." Her tone was confident, though she had no idea what she could do to help.

The next morning, Dido went for ramble around the campus. In her men's clothes, she stood out. Best I find someplace to blend in, she thought. Around the gardeners or summat like that. Pen had offered to lend her a dress, but Dido had taken one look at the prim black gowns in her friend's trunk before she nixed that plan. "Sakes, Pen, I'd look a right addlepate in that rig. I'll just stick to my boy's clothes. I may look odd, but I'd be a scraggly sort o' ninnyhammer in that get-up."

She ducked behind a hedge when two students walked by. She didn't recognize either of them from the night before, though she hadn't been paying much attention and they'd all looked like a passel of jabbering crows to her.

"I heard from Elizabeth Shipley that she's a highwayman who knows a terrible secret about Mother Casket and is blackmailing her," said one, a skinny girl with a sharp nose.

"Well, I had it from Sarah Thomas who had it from the chambermaid who had it from Prudence Hall that she's the ward of the king of England. Or his mistress, or maybe both," said the other.

The sharp-nosed girl laughed, an unpleasant sound. "Don't be stupid, Faith. Why would the king of England's mistress look so much like a beggarman? No, I vote highwayman."

With a start, Dido realized they were talking about her. "Mistress! I'll mistress you --"

The girls jumped and backed away. Dido realized her error, but it was too late. A large man in a flowing black gowns and strange flat hat came rushing down the path toward her.

"Thou there, fellow," he said. "Thee must be the lad who was sent to work on the Deanery? Get thee there at once, if thee pleases. Dean Thomas and Miss Gwinn have a leak in their bedroom ceiling, and the other lad can't do it all himself!" With that, he grabbed her arm and rushed her down the path to a small cottage. A wispy-looking woman was wringing her hands in the garden.

"Oh, Alfred, it's such a mess!" she cried. "Dear Carey will be ever so annoyed if she gets home from Baltimore and we need to sleep in the dormitories."

The man gave Dido a non ungentle shove toward the building -- "Go on, lad," -- and took the wispy woman's hands in his own. "There, there, Maisie dear. It will be all right."

Shaking her head, Dido wandered down the hall until she saw a room with an enormous bed under a massive tarpaulin. A young man in a scraggly coverall was standing on a chair peering into a hole in the ceiling. When he heard her footsteps, he turned around. "There you are," he said. "Hand me that screwdriver, will you?"

"Nate?" cried Dido.

"Nate who?" said Nate.