Her customary walk across the college quadrangle had become an executioner’s march.
Kate’s heeled shoes clunked over the flagstones. Her full skirt and horsehair crinoline dragged from her waist, too warm even for this mild May morning.
She climbed the stone steps of the whitewashed college building and laid hold of the black iron door handle with a clammy palm. The dim foyer led to the lecture hall. Her breath came faster and her corset squeezed her lungs. It had not felt so tight when the maid laced it an hour ago. Up ahead loomed the dark rectangle of the hall’s oaken door, which stood ajar.
She paused on the threshhold. Inside the hall, a baritone voice lifted in clear, well-balanced phrases. The speaker’s persuasive power carried even here. Ben Hanby. He was the best orator in the class. She laid a hand to her midsection to quell the pulsing nausea there. If she did not go in now, she would not go at all.
At her push, the door swung open to reveal rows of masculine shoulders in dark coats, all heads turned toward the speaker. Each gentleman’s neat coattails fell open over his knees, black against the polished wood floor. Each white collar rose to the sweep of hair worn according to the current vogue, longer than a Roman’s but never past the collar.
On the raised platform beyond them, Ben Hanby stood, as natural and poised as if he were alone in the room, his dark hair thick over his brow. His eyes were intent, his face alive with interest in his subject, but his words floated past Kate in a wash of sounds her jumping nerves could not interpret. Of course speaking came easily for him—his father was a minister.
He finished with a question to the audience, and even her disrupted attention caught the subtle humor in the lift of his eyebrow as he delivered his line straight-faced. A chuckle rose from the young men, echoed in the lighter laughter of the small party of young lady scholars seated with their chaperone on the end of the front row.
Ben Hanby descended the stairs, the barest smile appearing as he exchanged glances with his friends.
“Miss Winter.” Professor Hayworth’s bass rumbled across the hall.
Heads turned toward her. Her skin tingled in waves of heat, her heart kicked in an uneven cadence. Could it stop from such fright?—the thought made it worsen, like a stutter in her chest that could not move on to the next beat.
“I am glad you choose to join us today.” Professor Hayworth spoke to her from the dais, beside the podium, full bearded in his formal black robe. “You have arrived just in time to give the first of our ladies’ speeches.”
She avoided their curious stares as her pulse quickened and her mouth dried.
“Please proceed to the podium,” he said.
She produced a bare nod and started down the aisle. Her skirt swept an arc so wide she had to brush against the wall to ensure it would clear the chairs.
The chairs scraped as the young men stood up. They always rose to acknowledge the entrance of young ladies into the hall. But to have them do it for Kate alone, to be the sole object of their interest—she had to fix her gaze on the far wall and its carved paneling as a chill rippled over her shoulders and spread, bringing a layer of cold perspiration after it. She must have blanched even whiter than her usual paleness, and moisture had settled on her upper lip, on her forehead. How ghastly she must look. They would all see her fear. A pain cramped her chest.
It seemed something terrible would happen if she stepped on that stage—the pain in her chest might spread into a full, searing arrest.
She turned the corner to the platform. Ben Hanby looked at her and gave an encouraging nod. The compassion in his brown eyes made it worse. Did he know that she was ill, that her tortured breathing threatened to close off to nothing?
One foot at a time, only three yards to the podium. She held her hands locked in front of her until she stepped behind its flimsy refuge. She gripped the raised lip of the stand with both shaking hands.
The room was silent—a horrible, waiting hush like the moment before a cat seizes a rodent. Into the silence came the pounding in her ears. The whole room pulsed to its beat—with her mouth so dry, she was choking.
A score of faces turned toward her, expectant. Kate braced against the podium and pulled in one tremulous breath.
She looked over the students’ heads, past their neat rows of coats and ties to the small cluster of women off to one side with their chaperone. Help me, help me, please. But the women could not hear her—did they not see that something awful was happening?
The thrumming in her ears rose to a rushing like water.
The first words were “On the Purpose of Friendship: An Argument Drawn from Aristotle and Cicero.” She would say the title, now, by opening her mouth.
A quiet rasp escaped her throat before it closed off with a gulping sound.
Kate inhaled again and forced it out. “On the Pur—” Her throat clutched once more.
Professor Hayworth was only a dim figure in her peripheral vision. Now her lips and tongue would not work at all. Her will had brought her this far, but her voice would not obey her.
Kate released the podium and stepped back on wobbly legs.
She turned and fled, down the steps of the platform, past the blur of young men, out the door of the recital hall, through the hallway, out to the free air where no one was watching. She paused on the light green lawn. Where should she go, so no one could find her?
She hurried around the white-planked corner of the building. She must hide herself behind the bulge of the chimney, for someone might come in pursuit, and she did not wish to speak. Too late for words to be of any use.
In the safety of the corner where chimney met wood, she leaned against the cool brick, heaving for breath against her closed throat, wheezing as barely any air came through. She had not died, but her heart still beat erratically, a pain with every skipped beat. She must slow down her panicked breathing; she was lightheaded. The sides of her bodice were soaked through.
Now they would send her away. No one could remain at university without giving orations. She had failed herself, and disgraced the small band of young women who had been permitted to enroll at Otterbein.
More cramps seized her chest and abdomen, burning, pinching.
Her dream of graduating from college and leaving Westerville was over.
When a young man had seven younger siblings, it was only natural that one of them would be a pox on his very existence. Ben supposed he should count his blessings that the other six brought him such joy. But none of the joys had come to the general store today—only Cyrus, the pox himself.
“Do you suppose the college will ask Miss Winter to leave?” Cyrus said. He picked up a new hat from its box and adjusted it with care over his wild mass of light brown curls. “Rather a scene she made in class yesterday.”
“A gentleman would not speculate on her situation.” Ben picked up a sheet of music and did his best to ignore Cyrus. As his eyes followed the black lines of notes across the staff, he hummed the melody under his breath.
“It would be a shame to lose such a beauty from the college,” Cyrus murmured. “With hair and eyes such as hers, who needs a voice?” Cyrus adjusted the hat to a sharp angle over his brow and gave himself a burning stare in the small looking glass on the wall.
The effect of his seventeen-year-old playacting was not as impressive as he imagined. Ben suppressed his dry comment.
Their father was holding a list of supplies up to the light. “And cinnamon, and ten pounds of flour,” he read aloud to Mr. Bogler, the store owner.
“How’s your trade in harnesses been, Mr. Hanby?” Mr. Bogler lifted a flour sack to the counter.
“Brisk of late,” Ben’s father said. The gray streaks in his dark hair did not detract from his still-vigorous appearance—in his mid-forties, he could keep pace with men a decade younger. “The railroad has helped. What’s good for Columbus is good for Westerville.”
He folded the shopping list and glanced at Ben. “Are you finished, son?”
“Yes sir.” Ben kept hold of the sheet music and walked to the front, fishing in his pocket for coins. He would pay for it himself—his father had enough mouths to feed, and Ben’s seasonal work as a schoolmaster paid for his Otterbein tuition and any small luxuries like music.
A man shouted outside, then another. His father stiffened, and Ben followed his gaze outside through the checkered panes of the wide store window.
A small group of black men shuffled down the street, their shoulders hunched. Chains linked their ankles through iron cuffs so heavy they would grind away flesh within a mile’s walk. And from the mud-streaked, bare feet of the slaves, it was clear they had come more than a mile. Behind them strode four white men in broad-brimmed, dusty hats and travel-worn clothing. One propped a long whip over his shoulder as if it were a fishing pole while two others dogged the heels of the slaves. One yelled for them to hurry it up, and the other laughed and shoved the hindmost prisoner forward. He stumbled into the slave ahead, weaved and staggered, then tripped on the chain and fell prone in the dirt. The bounty hunter kicked the fallen man in the belly, hard, again, and he doubled up in pain. Ben’s gut clenched in sympathy.
With three swift steps, he made it to the door and grasped the handle.
“Ben.” His father’s call carried a command.
Ben paused, struggled to unknot his clenched fingers—it was too much, he could not tolerate it. He turned his head. “Must we stand here and do nothing?”
“Yes. I’m sorry, son. We’ve spoken about this before.” His father’s deep-set eyes said more, reminded him that they could not discuss such things in public.
The smug expression on the bounty hunter’s face made Ben want to slam his fist against the door. “But they’re taking them right down State Street. Throwing it in our faces.”
“It’s the law, Ben. That’s enough.” Beneath his words lay a warning.
Ben gritted his teeth and walked back to the counter. He grasped the flour sack in one hand, stuffed the sheet music under his arm, and snatched his hat from the courtesy peg on the wall. He jerked the door open and stormed out, gaze averted from the spectacle in the street. Cyrus would have to help his father carry the rest. If Ben saw any more, he could not answer for his actions, law or no law.