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The Gift of the Spanish Lady

Marcia Calhoun Forecki

The last words Mrs. Sommers said to her husband were: “And don’t let that girl have the run of the house.”  What proceeded the “and” was a long and detailed oration of how the household was to be governed in Mrs. Sommers’ absence. It was September 10, 1918, and the Ozark summer lingered like an inconsiderate houseguest.

Mr. Sommers sat beside the battered walnut camp desk his grandfather had received from the hand of Missouri’s Confederate General Shelby. He preferred the worn warmth of the old camp desk to the gilded mahogany table and velvet upholstered chair with which his wife had outfitted his sitting room. To Mrs. Sommers’ mind, her husband’s insistence on hunching over the camp desk, when the elegant plateau of the mahogany desk was available to him, was an indulgence in self-deprivation. Still, from Mr. Sommers’ labors at the camp desk came the profits for the mahogany, so both seemed satisfied and domestic equilibrium was achieved.

Little Alice Antoinette ran into her father’s study. The rows of flounces on her dress bounced as she ran. She threw her arms around her father’s knees. Mr. Sommers lifted Alice easily over his head and then drew her down slowly until his face nestled in the curls around her neck. Alice’s father lifted and lowered her above his head as she squealed in delight.

Following Alice into the study, came Betsy Ord. Betsy was fifteen and thin, but solid as a hardwood sapling. Her hair was confined in two braids tied together at the nape of her neck. Her skin was the color of her Aunt Sophia’s dark molasses cake. It was Betsy whom Mrs. Sommers feared might come to run the house in her absence. Betsy was to be Alice’s minder while her mother was away. She was a niece among many of the Sommers’ housekeeper, Aunt Sophia.

Mr. Sommers carried Alice through to the parlor and set her on her mother’s lap.

“Now Betsy is to look after you while Mama’s away in Kansas City,” Mrs. Sommers said.

“I want to go to Kansas City, too,” Alice pouted.

“This is not a trip for little girls. Your Mama must look after her aunt who is sick.”

Alice Antoinette scooted down from her mother’s lap and circled the mahogany desk. With her finger, she traced the inlay around the edge. Alice’s attention remained focused on the beautiful table as her mother repeated the details of her trip from the peaceful rolling hills of Missouri’s Ozark Mountains to the comparatively frenzied Kansas City.

Mrs. Sommers spoke in a thoughtful whisper, more to herself than to her daughter. “The train trip is very long from Eulalia to Kansas City. Your mama will be very uncomfortable on the journey and more so at her poor auntie’s house. This is one of the warmest Septembers I remember.” She looked at Alice. “Aunt Emily lives in a city, not surrounded by the lovely shade trees and cool breezes we enjoy here. But your mama must go. You must stay with your papa and Aunt Sophia and Betsy.”

“You won’t forget my new dress?” Alice asked from behind the desk. Only the bow on the top of her curls was visible.

“As I promised, I will bring you a lovely new dress from Kansas City, if you behave yourself and cause no trouble for your father.”

“What will you bring Betsy?” Alice asked.

“Betsy has the opportunity to live in our lovely home and partake of its advantages while she is here.” Mrs. Sommers sighed impatiently. “She will sleep in your pretty bedroom and eat the very same meals you enjoy. I’ve instructed Aunt Sophia to treat you both the same, so Betsy will have her treat every day. But, she is not to have the run of the house. You will both be under the watchful eye of your papa.”

The answer seemed to suit Alice. In the hallway, Betsy took a step back from the sitting room door and swiped the Sommers’ stairway banister with her apron. She was thinking that Mrs. Sommer’s trip to Kansas City would hardly be the treat the mistress believed it to be.

Betsy had hoped for one more year of school before entering the Sommers’ household service.  There was no denying that minding Miss Alice was a saving to Betsy’s family, and so was taking her meals from the Sommers’ table. She knew Aunt Sophia was glad of the prospect of help with the kitchen garden and the thorough cleaning Mrs. Sommers expected the house to receive while she was away.

Betsy longed to read and spell, sing and gossip with her friends at school. Another year and she might go to the normal school at Lincoln University for Negro students in Jefferson City. She dreamed of becoming a teacher. But fifteen was the age girls like Betsy began their working lives; cleaning the houses of Eulalia’s well-to-do if they had a relative to recommend them. Cleaning their husband’s home if they had no recommendation. In the dairy, or a factory, or the veteran’s hospital in Springfield, if they had no husband’s home to clean.

Her family couldn’t afford tuition at the Normal School, so Betsy could only hope to find work good enough, and avoid marrying long enough, so that she could save money for the cost of tuition. That was her dream. Now she would miss the start of a school term, minding a child, for room and board only. This work brought Betsy no closer to her dream.

“At least while Mrs. Sommers is gone, Aunt Sophia and I will have the run of the house,” Betsy thought. And she would have the chance to read some of the Mr. Sommers’ books.

What had Aunt Sophia told her last week? “Minding a child ain’t work at all.”

“But I can’t get into Lincoln University unless I finish my last year in Eulalia,” Betsy had answered.

“What’s up there in Jefferson City for a girl like you, Miss Betsy?”

“I aim to be a teacher,” she said proudly.

“Well, here’s a child for you to teach. . . I got other nieces I could have give this job to, and more grateful ones.”

Miss Alice was an easy child, Betsy discovered. The girl sat quietly for a few minutes at a time, while Betsy showed her the alphabet letters or strung buttons on a string and sang “Ring Around the Roses.”  Betsy felt like a teacher when she was with Alice. She counted aloud the strokes as she brushed Alice’s hair.  Every chore, every game was a chance to teach the child a new word. And at night, sitting on a pallet on the floor next to Alice’s bedroom, Betsy read story after story, more than Alice could stay awake to hear.

Every afternoon, Alice napped in her bedroom. Betsy sat beside her in a worn rocker, humming gently until the little girl drifted to sleep. The September breeze blew the sheer curtains at the open bedroom window. Betsy watched the curtains billow and empty until she nearly drifted to sleep herself. But remembering the treasures below, she crept down the stairs to Mr. Sommers’ library and retrieved a volume of law or geography or poetry.

One morning in the second week of Mrs. Sommers’ absence, Mr. Sommers knocked gently at the nursery door. Betsy was startled to see him, still at home so long after breakfast. Mr. Sommers’ custom was to rise early, when Aunt Sophia arrived to prepare his breakfast. He worked at his camp desk with as many cups of her strong coffee as he could hold before he left for the office. Betsy was always washing Alice’s face or helping her dress, when she heard Mr. Sommers leaving the house, his footsteps loud on the porch stairs.   Now it was half-past nine and here was Mr. Sommers asking for his daughter. The tall man looked flushed and leaned heavily on the door jamb.

“Look who’s come to visit us, Miss Alice,” Betsy said. “Say good morning to your papa.”

Alice ran to clasp her father’s leg. It was one of their favorite games. Alice would cling to his knee as he clomped around the room. This morning, however, Alice’s papa pulled her off his leg and lurched backward as he stood up.

“Not today, little gal.” Mr. Sommers spoke in a whisper. “Papa’s very sore and tired this morning.”  He turned to Betsy and said, “I wonder if you’d be so kind as to run down to Dr. Howe’s office and ask him to drop by at his convenience.”

“Why yes, Sir. Shall I take Alice with me?”

“No. Aunt Sophia can mind her. Go quick, now.”

Dr. Thomas Howe stripped off his black frock coat as he entered the Sommers’s house. The sleeves of his shirt were already rolled to his elbows. He was bald and fleshy. But for bushy side-whiskers, the doctor’s jaw line could only be guessed. Dr. Howe carried an old carpetbag as worn and stuffed as his trousers.

He insisted all the windows must be shut and that Miss Alice play inside. Mr. Sommers stayed in his bedroom, admitting only Dr. Howe and Aunt Sophia. Alice fretted and fussed at being confined to the nursery. She barely napped, and rose cross and stubborn.

The night was cooler. A breeze coming in through the open front door would have eased the suffocating closeness of the house. But Dr. Howe had forbidden so much as a cracked window. He had said to Betsy and Aunt Sophia that he needed their cooperation. He was confident, he explained, that the sickness could be contained by wooden doors and glass windows.

Mr. Sommers faded so quickly. The slight weakness that kept him in that morning was a fever past measuring by dinnertime. With Dr. Howe’s permission, Betsy fed Alice her dinner on a table set up outside, behind the kitchen porch. It was still not far enough to escape the screams and curses Mr. Sommers howled at invisible phantoms that tormented his fevered brain. That stifling night, no lullaby Betsy sang could mute the sound of Alice’s papa gulping and gasping for breath. Aunt Sophia sat with him and fanned him, trying to coax enough oxygen into his flooded lungs to keep him alive a few more minutes.

Mr. Sommers was dead before one day turned over to the next. He was the first in Eulalia to be snuffed out by the influenza. One by one, men and women from nearly every street in town became ill. The news of a death was often the first word of a victim’s illness. By the third week of September, the battle against the influenza had so engaged every resource, every scrap of energy and hope in the town, that the dead were considered the fortunate ones by those resigned to wait their turn to die.

One day, a telegram came to the Sommers house from Kansas City. “No trains stopping Eulalia. Town quarantined. Take care of Alice. Home soonest possible.”

The message was sent to Mr. Sommers. By the time it arrived, Betsy was the only one in the Sommers household alive to read it. Alice Antoinette excepted, of course. The gardener died less than a week after Mr. Sommers. Old Aunt Sophia followed that same evening. She had been the second Ord to die; her brother, Betsy’s father, went first.

Betsy stayed with her charge in the house. She brought food, drink, and books into the nursery. She told Alice they were playing a game called Princess in the Tower. “The handsome prince is coming to rescue us, so we must wait and watch for him.”

In the quiet, when Alice slept, Betsy wept or prayed. She yearned to be home with her mother and her sisters. She envied their being able to mourn together, while she cried for her aunt and father here, alone with a little girl whose fear could overtake them both. At night, Betsy opened the window to let in a breath of air. The curtains billowed. She imagined they were her Aunt Sophia’s chest heaving over a hot stove or washing caldron.

When Alice stirred in her bed, Betsy closed the window. She sat in the cane rocker and listened, strained to remember her father’s voice: “This is our oldest, Betsy. She aims to make a teacher. She’s smarter than the rest of us together.”

Dr. Howe visited the house. He telegrammed Mrs. Sommers regularly. The last of  September was mercifully cooler than previous days. One morning, Dr. Howe talked to Betsy at the front door.

“Will she come for Miss Alice?” Betsy asked.

“No travel allowed yet. Mrs. Sommers expects you to stay with the child.”

Betsy had not considered leaving, but suddenly she wanted nothing else.

Dr. Howe instructed her, “You must stay in the house; allow no admittance of anyone except myself. I can’t come often, but I’ll send someone to check on you every morning. He’ll just ride past. Hang a white handkerchief in the window if you get sick. If Alice gets sick, run for me.  God keep us all.”

“How bad is it?” Betsy asked him. She craved the conversation.

“Bad as I’ve ever seen. They go so quick. I can hardly get there before they’re beyond what I can do.”

“Where did it come from?”

“Papers call it the ‘Spanish Lady.’ Damned precious name for a killer, if you ask me. Soldiers brought the influenza back from the war. So they say.”

As Dr. Howe walked away from the Sommers’ door, Betsy heard him mutter, “Bad as I’ve ever seen.”

How many were left in Eulalia? she wondered. Were they all hidden behind closed doors like she and Miss Alice Antoinette? What if Dr. Howe became sick and died?

Betsy read while Alice slept, day or night. She wanted to be awake, to know the instant Miss Alice moaned or felt hot. Also, in the depth of her fear, the words from books comforted her. Straining to understand the difficult passages was a respite from thinking of the sickness that might be only hours away from either one of them.

The children began arriving at the door the first week of October. Betsy admitted them into the house in spite of Dr. Howe’s warnings, and her own fears about the terrible influenza.

The children were Alice’s schoolmates and neighbors. They were sent by surviving parents or siblings, too worn out, Betsy supposed, from caring for the sick and dying to entertain the young ones. Some simply wandered in on their own. Patients who survived the fever were often overcome with depression and guilt, Dr. Howe had said, too despairing to pay attention to an open back door or a missing child. Neither the children nor their families, if they had any, seemed troubled by putting them in the care of a Negress on her own.

Betsy and Alice welcomed the children. They arrived in various states of cleanliness but shared a bewildered expression. Even Alice seemed to understand that any visit could be a child’s last. They sat quietly at first, their hearts too heavy to invent games or mischief.

“We’ll have school,” Betsy announced one day. “Who wants to sit next to the teacher’s big desk?”

The children ran to Betsy and circled her like June bugs fluttering around a lantern.

Betsy moved every small table she could wrestle from Mrs. Sommers’s room and the nursery, and carried them into the study. She brought a lamp table from the front hall and the butcher block that held the pie cabinet in her Aunt’s kitchen. One morning, a set of twin boys appeared at the door for instruction. They had been traveling through the county with their folks’ tent revival meeting when their parents succumbed to the Spanish Lady. Paul and Silas were tall for six years, with flushed and freckled cheeks.

Betsy moved the washtub off an old walnut commode on the porch of the summer kitchen, and dragged it into the study. She scrubbed it up the best she could, but laughed at the sight of such a utility in Mr. Sommers’s lovely room. General Shelby’s camp desk sat in front of the mahogany desk; it was saved exclusively for teacher’s favorite, Alice Antoinette.

The children sang “Jesus Loves Me” and “Ten Little Indians,” and practiced printing their names on Mr. Sommer’s stationery paper. They drew masks and acted out fables from a book Betsy found by a Mr. Aesop. Both twins insisted on being lions when they acted out Androcles and the Lion. Betsy accommodated them, and then created a little sister for Androcles named Antoinette.

Laughter rose in the Sommers’s house. Betsy played Mrs. Noah’s Ark with the children every morning. They lined up before her, seeking admittance to the Ark. Each child brayed or crowed or cackled his or her request to come aboard. “I’ll have to check you first,” Betsy told each child. Then she challenged the child: “Are you really a little nanny goat? Let me hear you talk like a nanny goat.” She checked the child’s temperature, eyes, and throat while she pretended to determine the veracity of their animal imitation.

The Ark was the top of Mr. Sommers’s enormous mahogany desk. Mrs. Noah sailed her animals around the world many times before a dove in the form of a fluttering handkerchief signaled the voyage’s end.

Dr. Howe recommended cups of sweet milk with a few drops of vanilla syrup for strengthening the young systems. Betsy served this to the children. The dairyman still delivered. He left the bottles of milk in a wooden box at the end of the street. The Sommers’s pantry and cellar stored enough food for Betsy and the children. Still, some children brought onions or onion sandwiches for lunch. For a time, people empowered the lowly onion with preventive powers against the influenza. That belief blew through homes as quickly as the disease.

“Don’t seem right me being so happy in the middle of such misery,” Betsy told Dr. Howe when he came to check on the children.

“How do you mean?” the doctor asked, sitting in the Sommers’s kitchen.

“I mean my little school.” Betsy smiled.

“You’ve found a calling with these children.”

“I get pleasure from their faces. They look at me with such expectation. They’re trying so hard to be children in this travail.”

“That’s just fine.” He sighed, with what seemed like exhaustion. “What I came to tell you is that Mrs. Sommers is not coming back. She intends to send for Alice. She thinks it will be safer in Kansas City. With Mr. Sommers gone, I imagine she’ll want to stay with her family. Has a brother there, I believe.”

Betsy felt tears filling her eyes. Without Alice Antoinette, she could not stay in the house. Without the house, there would be no children. No school.

“Come to the parlor and let me bring you a cup of beef broth, doctor,” she said, pushing back the tears. “I brew it with plenty of onions.”

The doctor sputtered a fatigued laugh.

“No time, Betsy. Just came to deliver the news about Mrs. Sommers.

“Miss Alice ought to be with her mama.”

Dr. Howe put his palms on the kitchen table and pushed with all his strength to lift himself from the chair. His upper arms trembled at the effort.

“I almost forgot,” he said. “There was another…” He shook his head. “I’m county coroner, you know. We’ve got disposal problems. No coffins to be had in the county. Bodies piled like cordwood in the basement of Baylor’s Funeral Parlor. Baylor sick himself…” The doctor’s words trailed off into his thoughts.

Betsy was not sure if he was addressing her. He stopped mumbling for a moment and then spun around to face her. “Sheets,” he said. “I’ll need any extra linens you can spare. We’ll have to sew shrouds and get people under the ground as quick as we can. I’d burn the bodies but the families wouldn’t stand for it. Hurry along, and gather up what linen you can find here. I’ll tell Mrs. Sommers I told you to do it, if you’re worried about her.”

“Who is going to sew those shrouds?” Betsy asked.

“Got to find someone.”

“Is there pay?”

“Of course.” He paused. “Well, let’s see. Two dollars a piece, I’d say. Maybe three. Some of the bodies had been there a while. Worth more than that. How about your Aunt? She can help.”

“Remember, Dr. Howe, she passed the same evening as the old gardener.”

“Oh yes,” he said quietly. “So many good people gone.”

“What about me?” Betsy said.

“Are you sick?”

“No. What about hiring me to take care of the bodies?”

“I’ll find someone. If Baylor pulls through…”

“I need the money to go to school. Lincoln University; to make a teacher.”

Dr. Howe looked at Betsy as if he had just noticed her in the room. “We’ll see,” he said. Then he turned and shuffled out the back door.

Mrs. Sommers’ brother-in-law arrived the next day to fetch Alice Antoinette. Poor child, Betsy thought, she had to leave her pretty dresses and favorite dolls behind. She was to take nothing from the house except the clothes she wore.

“Mrs. Sommers thanks you for looking after the child,” Alice’s uncle, a tall, thin man, said. “She asked that you give the house a thorough cleaning before you go. I expect she’ll get nothing for the house, but she won’t have it sitting empty and dirty. You’ll see to that, won’t you? Out of respect for your aunt and what she meant to this family.”

That night, Betsy heard the whistle of the midnight train through open windows. She had worked cleaning the house the whole day, without a bite to eat. She wiped the banister with her apron and walked into what she still considered her aunt’s kitchen. In another hour, it was spotless.

Then she smoothed the stack of folded linens on the kitchen table. This was not the time to rest, nor the place. Her servant days had burned up with the fever; she had risen to become a teacher. Like Mrs. Noah’s dove, Betsy had seen her landfall. She stepped to the pantry. She found two large tablecloths on the bottom shelf. They were frayed beyond Mrs. Sommers’s liking.

I don’t expect the dead will mind a few stray threads, Betsy thought. She picked up her linens and left the Sommers house through the back door, for the last time.

The cold and damp of the Baylor Funeral Parlor cellar rushed into Betsy’s nose with every quick breath. She tried to quiet her breathing, but Dr. Howe seemed to understand her shallow gasps.

“It would be worse if we didn’t keep it cold down here, he said. “I’ve had ice brought down and the windows propped open, but time is catching up to us. Some of these poor souls have been down here for days.”

Betsy squinted, so the horror of the sight before her might enter her brain in small, more tolerable amounts. The full brunt of seeing more than a dozen of her dead neighbors lying on tables, on doors that were propped between chairs, and on a dirt floor, some covered, some not, was too overwhelming. The first two corpses she had seen just weeks before were Mr. Sommers and Aunt Sophia.

“They aren’t here,” Dr. Howe whispered.

Betsy jumped at the sound of a live voice. “Who?”

“Your aunt and your father. I took care of them myself.”

“Thank you,” she said.

Betsy took one tentative step, then another. She walked between the bodies, laying a set of linens beside each one. She might as well get started.

“I can have one of the boys help you roll them onto the sheets,” said Dr. Howe.

“No,” said Betsy. She didn’t want to share her two dollars with anyone.

“Just as well,” he said. “They haven’t finished preparing the grave. Hard to estimate the size. No time to measure and calculate. We need to save room anyway. I’m off to see more patients north of town. Pneumonia has begun now.” He seemed distracted, as if he were talking to himself.

“It’s two dollars each, then?” she said.

“I wish it were more, but the county’s strapped.”

“I see more than twenty-four dollars in this room.”

“You’re a smart girl. Your future students will never appreciate this.”

“It’s for me to appreciate them,” said Betsy.

“Ambition can be unattractive in a woman. I’ve seen what happens in the world. Perilous to a colored woman.”

“But you saw me with the children,” she said softly.

“I saw.” He nodded.

“When the children look at me, I feel important. I want to feel that way again. Valuable.”

“She’d touch the dead to make a teacher,” Dr. Howe whispered. He brushed his hand across his forehead. “Out of this pestilence we gain a teacher. The gift of the Spanish Lady.”

Betsy wanted the doctor to leave so she could begin. Moving the bodies would be hard, disgusting and depressing work, and she did not care to be observed.

“I’ll write a letter to the Dean at Lincoln University, when the time comes,” said Dr. Howe.

He finally climbed the cellar stairs, and Betsy was left alone with the bodies. She started with a dead man on a table. He was fully dressed, cut down so quickly he hadn’t the strength or time to undress. She spread a sheet beside him and rolled him away from her onto the sheet. Like rolling a tree trunk. Betsy folded the sheet over the man quickly, to avoid looking at his bluish face. Her hands trembled as she threaded a large needle and doubled the thread before securing a knot. She sewed quickly, using large blanket stitches to close the shroud.

The second body was a young woman. Betsy folded the lifeless hands as neatly as she could. She pulled a corner of the sheet over the face and stitched small pleats under the chin, so the face did not poke its features through the cloth. Pleased with this innovation, she secured the shroud around the body.

She had earned four dollars, she thought. Train fare to Jefferson City was one dollar and twenty cents.

Betsy worked more efficiently with each corpse. Some were already wrapped in a sheet, loosely. Wads of cotton filled the holes in their chest cavities. Those were the first victims. Dr. Howe had opened their chests for an autopsy. Eventually, he stopped. There was no point, he had told Betsy. The blood-filled lungs were all the same.

Betsy rubbed her cold hands together. She gazed at the row of finished work. Ten dollars. Twelve dollars. Sixteen.

What time was it? Her feet were numb. She walked without bending her toes. A fire was out of the question. Some of her neighbors were already nearly putrid. Any heat would make them unbearable.

Eighteen dollars. A month’s tuition and Board at Lincoln University was ten dollars. If she could get to Jefferson City, Betsy knew she could find a way to stay. She had cared for the living and tended the dead. No more and no worse could ever be demanded of her.

When she could no longer bear the cold of the cellar, she ran upstairs into the night. The October air was crisp but clean. She breathed deeply. From her apron pocket, she pulled six buttons of different sizes and colors and two torn corners from lace nightgowns. Betsy clipped a button from every clothed body and a swatch from those without buttons. She would show them to Dr. Howe, her statement for payment.

With a sigh, she climbed down to the cellar again. When she walked into the room, she bowed her head. She closed her eyes and remembered the faces of Alice Antoinette’s friends looking up from their desks in Mr. Sommers’s library. Best to think of them and not the unfortunates actually before her.

Then Betsy spoke in a whisper. “Let’s begin with the multiplication tables today, students. Two times four is eight. Two times five is ten. Two times twelve is twenty-four. Very good. Now, if you are very quiet and still, I will tell you all a story. Once, long ago, there was a boy named Androcles.”

Through the night, she recited all the fables she could remember from Mr. Aesop’s book. By dawn, the shrouds were sewn.