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A Woman of the College

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Elizabeth Swanwick lay on her bed and listened to the mournful sound of the midnight train's whistle as it drifted along Main Street, up the hill to the college, and through her window. Her peers would be perplexed if they knew this. To them, trains didn't come through towns this size at midnight. Yet, Elizabeth knew that cargo—that fuel of capitalism, the bounty of industry—came in and out of Springfield, some ten miles south. The midnight cargo train went straight to Albany, and its sound, to Elizabeth, was the epitome of night, captured in aural form.

She stared at the single candle that kept her from falling asleep. Lights went out in the Hubbard house at ten o'clock, as they did in all of the residence houses on campus, but Elizabeth had never been one to fall asleep immediately. This candle reminded her that she was keeping a vigil of sorts; a weather eye for Jack Byrd, who went to sentencing tomorrow.

Lizzie turned over onto her back, out of the unladylike position she'd been in, and shivered slightly. Standing up, she moved towards the window, closing it down to a crack. She didn't hold with that 'night air is bad for you' nonsense. Air was air. They'd learned that much in primary school; the worst thing that could happen with night air was that you could catch a chill. It looks like that may be happening, Lizzie thought, raising a handkerchief to her brow to wipe away some cold sweat, but she knew that it wasn't the late April wind that made her bowels twist into knots. It was the fact that Jack Byrd was in trouble, and that Will Turnbull would not meet her eyes.

Nonsense, she thought, tossing the handkerchief down onto the bed and not-quite stomping to the mirror. As she looked into the glass, she imagined that she could see the soot and dust from the road that had been there a week or so before.
Then it was gone.

 

Elizabeth still maintained a trace of the English accent she'd had, despite that she had made the crossing nine years earlier with her father's associate, Jim Knowles. Jim had been at Amherst College then, instead of with the government, and had seemed inescapably old. Now, he was apparently young enough for her to marry without anyone thinking twice about it, except for Lizzie herself. She had, however, known exactly what she was worth, and used it.

For despite the fact that they could determine the acidity of a chemical compound and translate the Iliad into three different tongues, Elizabeth Swanwick and the rest of her fellows at Smith College were women. Not only that, but they were women of the women's colleges, and that fact made them intensely and utterly strange. This was not without its benefits, but it primarily resulted in drawbacks—becoming overly critical, uppity, and controlling, traits which few husbands of anything less than a certain caliber could bear.

Yet both men and women find each other to be worth as much as they are willing to pay, whether this be a small sacrifice or an entire lifestyle gone in the name of love, and Jim Knowles was willing to pay nearly anything for Elizabeth Swanwick's hand in marriage. He loved her desperately, though not without a certain amount of amused exasperation. It was a pity for him that Elizabeth didn't love him back, and had essentially put a down payment not on him, but William Turnbull, the assistant foreman at the foundry on Green Street.

And the price she had paid was giving her hand to Jim Knowles.

 

"Damn."

Elizabeth stared at her reflection. It was not polite to say things like that, but at the moment, she didn't particularly care.

"Damn," she said again, with some emphasis and spirit.

When Lizzie had last seen Jack Byrd, that night on the railroad car, she had known that she was in trouble deeper than any she could imagine. His eyes had drilled into hers as she had told him she planned to marry Jim. As he looked at her (he shouldn't have been looking at her that way!), he'd said softly, "What about our dear Mr. Turnbull?"

"The daughter of the mayor of Northampton couldn't be expected to marry the boy her father found on the street, Mister Byrd," Elizabeth had said, trying to hide the pain with a crisply bitter tone like biting into a spring apple. She had anticipated seeing hatred (oh, the things he could hate! Her attitude, her schooling, her money) in Jack's eyes, but all she saw was sadness, sadness the color of the chocolate bars that one got at the ice cream parlor for ten cents. It was almost…no, it was definitely…beautiful, like Will's, but not like his. Will's eyes were brown, too, but lighter, beautiful in their sincerity, like looking to the bottom of the clearest lake. Jack's were both smooth and piercing, all at once, just like he was.

"Don't you think that's what I'm trying to change, Lizzie?" He used the familiar version of her name, causing her maid to wince. She herself ignored the social gaffe, since she wanted to hear what he was saying. "Don't you think that a more equal distribution of wealth and social freedom would be a better thing?"
Elizabeth didn't know what she thought, frankly, other than that this talk was entirely opposite of everything that she had been taught, and would do precisely nothing to help her in her situation. She cocked her head archly. "All I see is robbery for personal gain, Jack Byrd. Good night."

And Lizzie had left him with a swish of her skirts, her maid scurrying to keep up in her imperious wake.

The train had whistled once. "Do you hear that?" Jack called after her. "That, Elizabeth, is the sound of freedom. Not the sound of a till. The train, and the movement of the train…that is freedom."

She had said nothing.

 

"Damn," the reflection said again. "Damn."

Another cargo train blew through Northampton, its whistle crying out to the night sky.

-----

Elizabeth sat in the courthouse, fanning herself lightly. It was dreadfully warm for April, and to make matters worse, the courthouse chairs were ancient wood, creaky and unbearably hard. Sentencings were mercifully short, but that didn't particularly matter when one still had to wait for the judge to get through several cases. Lizzie was in the balcony with her father—while the balcony was usually a place for the less fortunate, Mayor Swanwick had made it almost entirely into his own personal box this afternoon.

Jack sat at the defense table. He'd insisted, despite Elizabeth's attempts to convince him otherwise, that he defend himself. And then he'd presented essentially no defense at all…it was quintessentially Jack Byrd.

Elizabeth was miserable, merely watching the entire thing. She didn't want Jack to be sentenced to prison…or worse, death, seeing as this was the last in a string of offenses that included attacking federal officers, evading arrest, murder (strictly in self-defense, Jack had said, and she believed him), and escape from prison.

Right before the judge pounded his gavel, Elizabeth saw Will Turnbull enter the balcony. Still uncomfortable in a pair of new shoes (so fresh you could fairly smell the polish) and a starched suit, he nearly tripped over the railing, then caused a stir when he apologized profusely to the matron whose lap he'd nearly landed in. Elizabeth pretended to cough, hiding her smile in a neatly ironed handkerchief.

Her smile, the one that one gets when one loves someone despite their flaws, faded when she opened the note he'd had passed to her. Frankly, she was lucky that no one had opened it, but then again, no one would tamper with the business of the mayor's daughter openhandedly. She promptly opened her fan, wishing she was still in the Chemistry laboratory, and attempted to cool the blush that had risen to her cheeks. As she did so, Lizzie took a moment to discreetly survey the balcony; Will had vanished, but she thought she caught a glimpse of his new jacket somewhere in the crowd downstairs.

 

And then, of course, Will Turnbull did something entirely rash.

 

Elizabeth couldn't say, later, how she'd known that Will had changed. Perhaps it had been when they were at the abandoned station near Worchester, and Jack had interrupted one of their few moments alone. She'd caught a look in Will's eyes, one that changed quickly from anger at the intrusion to a longing that she had thought was for her, or even for Jack, much as she wished it were not so.

"No," she wrote later, "It was the desire to become a brigand that I saw, the need to become a highwayman. And God help me, I felt a kinship to that, and a certain love for Jack because of it."

And so she stood by William Turnbull and Jack Byrd on the steps of the courthouse, facing down the myriad of policemen and the mournful eyes of Jim Knowles, who ordered his men to disperse. And as they ran down Main Street into the afternoon, hands strangely intertwined, she smiled, because she too was a brigand, an usurper of her place as a woman.

 

She was a woman of the college, after all.

 

FIN