The Catskill Mountains - New York State
10:00 p.m. – May 1, 1850
Seeds to saplings to young adults, the two oak trees had slowly matured, their branches intertwining with each other in an almost loving, symbiotic rapport, inching skyward in unison. Together, they had survived the forest fires of 1824 and 1832. Below ground their root systems had grown strong—spreading, tangling and meshing, indistinguishable one from the other. Disparate in the beginning they had become as one, ever closer with each passing year.
The thunderstorm rolled in, growling low and dark, fracturing the night with ragged shafts of light. Thunder clapped in near unison as it shadowed the pulsing sky. The forested hillside of pines, oaks and aspens was whipsawed into a growing frenzy by the rising winds. Rain commenced in driving sheets, a pelting torrent of water that drove even the bravest of the forest animals to seek cover.
The thundering, roiling storm lashed out at the two entwined young oaks. The surrounding area was illuminated in electric blue as one of the trees was struck near its base in a shattering explosion of wood and flame. But the mortally wounded oak, leaning heavily against its partner, did not fall. Its mate refused to release its lifelong companion, its limbs and branches stubbornly clinging to the other in a futile attempt to deny the truth.
Two weeks later another storm returned, again at 10:00 in the evening, bigger and even more lethal than the first. It swept across the forested mountainside, flashing an angry spider web of lightning, booming thunder claps trembling the very earth. This time the torrential downpour was accompanied by golf ball sized hail, killing small animals caught in the open.
The two young oaks stood, one grievously wounded tree yet clinging to life, obstinately supported by its partner against the howling wind. The furious storm swept overhead. A blinding light struck the supporting tree at its base; the explosion of light and sound rivaling the mayhem in the sky. Quickly, dark returned to swallow the light. The tree, dealt a lethal blow, slowly toppled to the earth with a swishing and rustling of branches, its last dying breath. Its mortally wounded mate joined it with a sigh, and together they descended to the earth from which they had sprung.
After the weather calmed lumberjacks slowly worked their way up the mountainside. Felled trees were trimmed and dragged down to the river by mule teams to form a log flotilla to make the eight mile trip to the Oak Creek Sawmill. At the mill a huge, steam-driven belt saw would reduce the once proud trees to lumber to be loaded onto wagons bound for the railroad, and from there to locations throughout New York to answer the continuous clamor for more wood to appease a growing America.
The two young oaks, still quietly entwined and resting against their Mother Earth, also succumbed to this end. By twilight the two were reduced to limbless logs and had joined their brethren at the mill to be cut, ripped and sized to fill orders.
From their core, the heartwood of these two oaks met the highest Architectural Grade Standards. The wood contained no knots, was warp and twist resistant and had the highest amount of natural preservatives. It was unequaled in the beauty of its grain—the resulting laths were the best and most costly to be had. Much of this heartwood was set aside for one very special order.
The driver guided the team of oxen with its wagon load of lumber along the rutted roadway into the outskirts of New York City. The invoices indicated half the shipment was destined for one place: Hadley and Farmers Trunk Company at 1214 Adams Street, New York, New York. It was a very expensive order, requiring all of the heartwood from one of the oak trees and a number of heartwood laths from the second just to satisfy the request.
The owners of Hadley and Farmers were overjoyed. The black leather and brass fittings had been delivered earlier; the heartwood oak would allow them to begin crafting the special order immediately. The mandate had been specific. The six distinctive Saratoga trunks had to be finished and delivered to the Irving House Hotel by September 1 in time for the arrival of the steamship Atlantic. The trunks had to be perfect. They were to be gifts for the famous Jenny Lind and her entourage.
In the construction of one of those trunks the result would be much more than perfection. The two young oak trees would be joined together one last time—for a very long time.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
August 4, 2013
Nathan plopped down on the old aluminum lawn chair and exhaled loudly through pursed lips into the hot, humid air of the garage. Humid for New Mexico, anyway. In Pennsylvania, which his sister called home, you almost needed gills to survive the summer, but add ninety-five degree days to New Mexico’s “rainy” season and it still got a tad uncomfortable.
He leaned forward, elbows on knees, hands cupping his chin, and sighed. It was amazing how much junk people could accumulate over the years. He was going to have to set up another garage sale but, thank God, his classes weren’t going to start until the beginning of September. That gave him over a month to get Grandma Vera’s house squared away and up for sale.
At ninety-eight Grandma Vera had nearly outlived everyone, including her second husband, Herman. Nathan and Sandra were her only two great-grandchildren and, even more amazingly, her only living relatives. Therefore, Nathan, at the ripe old age of twenty-four had wound up as executor of her estate.
As he looked around aimlessly, his eyes paused in their wandering and slowly focused on an object in the rear of the garage. He hadn’t seen it earlier. Partially concealed by an old, rolled-up, canvas tarpaulin, it was shoved back and under a long wooden workbench built against the back wall. From this angle, with his head down and in his hands, he spied the end of the oddly shaped trunk. Curiosity pulled him out of the chair and over to the workbench.
He bent down and tugged and pulled at the heavy tarpaulin. He wiped his hands on his dusty jeans; the musty smelling tarp had an oily feel from whatever had been used to waterproof it. He pulled it out from in front of the trunk and rolled it to the side. On his hands and knees Nathan reached under and back, grabbed the leather handle on one end of the dilapidated chest and gave it a hard pull. The chest was heavy and the weathered, time-worn leather strap broke loose in his hand. He discarded the crumbling piece and crawled all the way under the bench and, alternating from one end to the other, yanked and pulled until it was far enough out for him to get behind it. He finished the job by bracing his back against the wall and pushing with his legs.
Nathan was sweating and breathing heavily when he finally stood from his task in the muggy air of the garage. His University of New Mexico tank-top clung damply to him. Three feet long, two feet wide and high with a slightly domed top, it was a good sized trunk. It appeared that once upon a time it had been covered in leather, but most of the leather had disintegrated over the years. Several iron bands circled the trunk, curving in at the center as they followed the contours of the trunk and were fastened with large brass studs. Nathan moved to view it better from the side. From that angle the inward curve reminded him of a loaf of bread or maybe a figure eight. Nathan realized it was a traveling trunk and not a storage chest, and he’d seen enough old movies to recognize it as an antique steamer or stagecoach trunk. Nathan’s interest was suddenly piqued. Something heavy was inside.
The trunk had a brass locking mechanism; his curiosity jumped when he found it locked. He could force or break it open, he supposed, but even in its sad shape he felt it somehow sacrilegious to damage the vintage piece. He was sure his grandfather would have had a key somewhere, a key that Grandma Vera was sure to have kept. He began looking through the numerous jars and cans on the workbench, each containing various sized nails, screws, washers, nuts and bolts and assorted hardware bric-a-brac. Nothing. The wall nearby was covered with pegboard, different sized wrenches, handsaws and other tools hanging from hooks. He walked over, letting his eyes roam across the area, occasionally fingering and moving tools to the side. He found the old metal key hanging on a hook beneath a wrench.
With his excitement still mounting, Nathan inserted the key into the lock and gave it a turn, half expecting it to fail. It didn’t. He flipped up the latch, lifting the heavy lid to gaze upon—more old tools, many of them rusted. Pipe wrenches, adjustable wrenches, a bolt cutter, ice tongs, ice picks, screwdrivers, hand saws and a few tools he wasn’t even sure the use of. Nathan was disappointed. He had been hoping for something valuable, or at least exciting. It seemed Herman hadn’t thrown any of his tools away when he replaced them; he just stored them in this ancient, beat-up steamer/stagecoach trunk.
Slowly, Nathan started pulling the old gear out of its wooden graveyard. He doubted there would be too many things worth putting in a garage sale. But then again, one never knew. As the old saying went, “one person’s junk was another person’s treasure”. Maybe if he fixed the old steamer trunk up, cleaned and refinished it, it could be worth something, he supposed.
“Hey, Nathan, you still in there? Ready for a break yet?” It was Tina. She was standing in the bright sunlight just outside the open garage doorway, shading her eyes as she peered into the interior of the garage. She was a stunner. In her sandals, blue shorts and white halter top, his petite, blonde and blue eyed girlfriend was a breath of fresh air on a sweltering day.
“In here, in the back, Tina.” Breathing a sigh of relief, Nathan threw a collection of small screwdrivers onto the workbench. “I’m ready for a break.”
The pride of the Alpha Chi Omega sorority, Tina Wade was a sparkling, little bundle of energy. She flitted into the garage and up to Nathan before suddenly putting her hands on his chest, stopping him from giving her a big, bear hug. “Whoa, big guy, you’re all sweaty and smelly, it won’t mix well with my sweetly perfumed exterior. Take a quick shower and you can buy me a couple of beers. You’re spending way too much time on this house and not enough on me.”
“I don’t suppose you’d like to join me for a slightly longer shower?” Nathan chided.
“Nope.” She gave him a push towards the house. “I spent too much time on my hair and makeup. And make it snappy, the humidity is going to do as much damage as a shower would. I’m coming in to wait, so turn your grandma’s air conditioning on.”
Nathan was back in harness the next day, sorting through things in the garage, filling trash bags and boxes with the useless junk and trying to organize the remaining items for the next sale. He’d already had one big garage sale which had taken care of many of the household items. The furniture and larger pieces he’d advertised in the newspaper and online, managing to bargain most of it away. One more big rummage sale and any leftovers he’d donate to charity. Then he’d make an appointment with a realtor and have the house put on the market.
Nathan sniffed in the dusty, dank air. He was already sweating; his head ached and his stomach was roiling. Tina’s “couple of beers” had turned into an impromptu party at the frat house. Members were sparse during the summer months, but Tina had scraped together a few sorority sisters and coaxed Nathan into rounding up a few of his Phi Gamma Delta brothers and presto—party time. He must have had a good time, at least gauging from how his head and stomach felt.
Nathan gazed down at the now empty stagecoach trunk. The battered relic looked somehow forlorn—abandoned, no longer with even its former menial purpose. He knelt and ran his hand along the inside. Once upon a time it had apparently been lined with paper, remnants of which still adhered in places to the interior wood. It had some kind of design, but was now completely undecipherable. Riveted on the inside of the lid was a rectangular leather pouch, Nathan guessed for holding letters and correspondence. Amazingly, although finely wrinkled with age, the leather had survived the ravages of time, undoubtedly because it was inside and protected. Nathan figured that he could use some type of emollient to soften it up.
He gently explored the exterior, pulling off bits and pieces of the desiccated leather. The underlying wood was nicked in a few places, but not badly. The metal bands, hinges and brass studs, as well as the locking mechanism were all tarnished and a little pitted, but intact. The metal braces that held the lid open were bent; the left one had broken loose at the bottom. The key worked. If he applied some elbow grease and cleaned it up, sanded down the wood, lightly burnished and polished the metal and sealed everything with some kind of urethane … maybe relined the inside with new paper, possibly patterned wallpaper … Nathan figured he could make the trunk look pretty good. He was a little surprised to find himself excited by the idea. It was time to take a break and do a little research.
He walked over to his car parked in the driveway, squinting in the bright afternoon sunlight. With its faded and chipped black paint the ’99 Honda Civic was showing its age, but even with 168,000 miles in the rear view mirror it ran like a top. Nathan just couldn’t bring himself to part with the car, even though Tina was giving him grief about it. She figured a newer vehicle would improve his image when he graduated next year. Personally, he imagined she was just embarrassed being seen in it. Tina’s family was pretty well off; he didn’t think she was worrying about student loans like he was. Maybe after Grandma Vera’s estate was settled and the house sold, he’d pop for a car more in tune with his future career as an attorney.
Nathan retrieved his laptop from the front seat of the Honda and headed in the back door of the one-story brick ranch. He had turned on the air when he’d arrived and the house had cooled nicely. Other than a card table, a couple of chairs and a floor lamp in the living room, the house was devoid of furniture. He’d left a few plates and glasses in the kitchen along with a small microwave. An empty pizza box sat on the counter, evidence of Nathan’s less than balanced diet.
He dropped down onto one of the folding chairs, opened the laptop and fired it up. He typed in the security code of the Richardson’s wireless network next door. Grandma Vera had refused to go into an independent or assisted living home and Nathan had come over often to help her around the house and yard. Actually, Grandma had been pretty self-sufficient right up to the end. Nathan had gotten to know the Richardson’s and they had entrusted him to use their network.
Nathan Googled steamer and stagecoach trunks and bounced from site to site. He soon had several pages of pictures and descriptions, including a number of trunks for sale on eBay. It didn’t take long to hit upon pictures of identical trunks to the one sitting in the garage, easily distinguishable by the odd, bread loaf shape when viewed from the end. They were identified as Jenny Lind stagecoach/steamer trunks from the mid 1800’s. Nathan did a search on this Jenny Lind person, and spent the next half hour learning about the fascinating opera singer of that era. Apparently, the woman had toured America between 1850 and 1852 and had been extremely popular. At least enough so that they had named this style of trunk after her, Nathan thought.
It appeared Nathan had a little chunk of Americana sitting in the garage. That settled it; he was going to restore the authentic piece of history now in his possession. An odd excitement enveloped him. It was too hot in July to be fooling with it in the garage. He’d work on it in the house.
From the cool of air conditioning to the heat of July, Nathan went back to the garage and located the four-wheel appliance dolly, worked the Jenny Lind onto it and push/wheeled it to the back door, into the kitchen and on into the living room. He returned to the garage and hoisted the rolled up, canvas tarp over his shoulder and returned to the house. He spread the tarp out on the living room floor and unloaded the trunk onto it.
Back in the garage, he began accumulating things he thought he might need. Two sanders—both disc and vibrator—several grades of sandpaper, a drill with a wire disc attachment to work on the metal, an extension cord, steel wool, box cutter, paint scraper and a screw driver. He didn’t know what he might need the screwdriver for; he just didn’t want to keep running in and out of the house. Herman had kept a well-stocked garage. The only things Nathan couldn’t find were any kind of wood or metal sealant and wallpaper for the wood interior. Of course, he’d have to hunt up someone to replace the leather handles, but he figured he could do everything else.…
Nathan’s cell phone went off in his pocket. He retrieved it, flipped it open and saw it was from Tina. He guiltily brushed aside the thought of ignoring it. “Hello, this is Nathan,” he answered.
“Hey, big guy, it’s Tina.” Before he could acknowledge, she continued in her chipper, almost breathless voice. “Some of the gang are heading down to the lake. Jimmy has access to his dad’s speed boat and we could get some skiing in. What do you think?”
Nathan glanced over at the trunk and tools in the middle of the room and frowned. “Listen, Tina, I’m right in the middle of a project here at the house and I really should keep at it. Why don’t you just go and have fun? I’ll catch up with you tomorrow. We have a month of summer left and I promise we’ll do the lake thing a few times before it ends. As a matter of fact, we can do a weekend there.”
“Are you sure, Nathan? You’re spending a lot of time working on that house. We’re wasting a lot of this summer, and remember it is our senior year.”
He didn’t know if she sounded disappointed or was just petulant. “I know, hon, but I really need to get this stuff done. I’ll make it up to you.”
“Well, if you promise me a weekend at the lake, I guess I can forgive you,” she sighed.
“It’s a promise, Tina, and be careful at the lake. Go easy on the partying, okay?”
“Yes sir, will do,” she laughed. “Call me tomorrow, my ‘hunka hunka burnin love’.” With that she disconnected.
Nathan frowned at the silent phone in his hand. He couldn’t believe he’d just passed on an afternoon, evening and possible night with Tina in exchange for refurbishing an old, beat-up trunk. He definitely had a screw loose somewhere.
He sat down cross-legged in front of his unplanned project, picked up the scraper and utility knife and began to carefully remove the remaining bits and pieces of old leather from the outside. When he was done with that he’d move on to the interior and get rid of the tattered remnants of paper.
“Where the hell are you, Nathan?” It was Tina and she was pissed.
He was still half asleep and disoriented. But it only took him a second to realize he had been sleeping on Grandma Vera’s living room floor, a rolled up army blanket for a pillow. “I … ah … spent the night at the house, I was working on this chest … I mean trunk … I’m restoring it and—”
Tina was on a roll and kept right on going. “A trunk? You could have spent the night with me and you spent it working on a trunk? Are you kidding me? I was going to surprise you at your apartment this morning by bringing you breakfast—among other things. Well, bucko, you get neither the food nor me for breakfast.” And with that, Tina hung up.
Nathan groaned. This was going to take some major ass kissing for him to get back into Tina’s good graces. She had a vindictive side when crossed, and it wasn’t a fun side to be on. But her talk of food had elicited a growling response from his empty stomach; he’d eaten nothing since lunch yesterday, except the two granola bars last night while working on the trunk. And now he’d missed a REALLY good breakfast. He tried to remember what he had in the fridge at his apartment, but couldn’t think of much. It sounded like it was time for coffee and a couple of Egg McMuffins on the way home—while he thought about how to kiss up to Tina.
Nathan pushed himself up off the floor, listening to his knee pop as he stood—compliments of last year’s Annual All-Greek Championship flag football game—a futile sacrifice since they’d lost the game to the Theta Chi’s. He stopped and stared at his handiwork from the night before. The wood had been sanded—inside and out—first with coarse sandpaper, then finished with a fine grain. The metal bands, brass studs and locking hasp had been ground with the wire wheel. It had taken a while and the stiff wire hackles had been worn down on the disc, but he had ground out most of the pitting and all of the tarnish. He’d finished with a little elbow grease and steel-wool. The wood, metal and brass looked clean, clean, clean. When he covered it in some kind of protective coating it would shine. But right now he wanted to get something to eat.
Nathan was almost to the back door when it dawned on him to take the trunk back to his apartment to finish. He returned and worked it onto the moving dolly and trundled it out to his car. Getting it into the car was a little more of a problem; it was too big for the Honda’s trunk. He pulled the passenger and driver’s seats all the way forward and somehow wrestled the chest into the back seat. He locked up the house and garage and headed out. Of course, with the driver’s seat pulled forward, Nathan’s lanky six foot frame was scrunched uncomfortably close to the steering wheel and dash board. He managed to force his seat back a little, enough so that his knees weren’t hitting the dash, anyway.
He stopped at a Taco Bell—it was the first fast food place he came to. He went through the drive-thru, ordering two sausage and egg burritos with hot sauce and a large coffee. He pulled out and headed east on Alameda Road towards his apartment, fifteen miles away. He ate and drank as he drove, a bad idea he knew, but having worked all yesterday and most of last night, he felt too grungy to eat inside.
It was two in the afternoon when Nathan pulled into his apartment complex. He realized he had another problem. His apartment was on the second floor. No elevators. The Kirkland Apartments were older but well maintained, built in a square surrounding a central, outdoor swimming pool and courtyard. All of the apartments faced this central focal point, wrought iron stairways leading from the “commons” to the second floor. Nathan found his undersized, one-bedroom apartment quaint but serviceable. The bedroom was small but there was a generous living room. The kitchen was utilitarian and had a little breakfast nook large enough for a small table and two chairs.
Nathan pushed/rolled the trunk on the appliance dolly through the arched entrance and on to the foot of the nearest stairway. Here he stopped, shaded his eyes in the bright afternoon sunlight and looked over towards the pool. Although the complex was farther away from campus than other apartments, several students rented there, enjoying the more relaxed ambience and its more—upon occasion—lax management.
He spied Fred Turcotte and Jimmy Ferguson, both juniors, sunning themselves out by the pool, several beer cans on the small, white table separating their lounge chairs. “Hey, Freddie, Jimmy—I need a little help over here.”
Both looked his way and waved. After taking another swig of their beers, they rose and ambled over to Nathan. “Wadda ya got there, Nate?” Jimmy asked. He belched and smiled, obviously several beers into the Sunday afternoon.
“Just an old trunk of my grandmothers that I’m restoring,” Nathan answered.
Fred, shorter, darker and a little pudgier than his blond counterpart—and a little more sober—chimed in. “It already looks pretty good; I didn’t know you knew how to do that stuff.”
Nathan had to laugh. “I don’t. I’m just trying to do it logically. Probably doing everything wrong, but either way, I’ll have something for a little more storage, plus a unique piece of furniture—maybe a coffee table or something. Anyway, I need some help getting it up to my apartment.”
“No problem, bro,” Jimmy said and hiccupped. Both stepped towards the trunk.
“Hold on, Jimmy,” Nathan said. “Fred and I’ll take care of it; I don’t want you falling down the stairs with my trunk.” He said it jokingly and Jimmy didn’t seem too put out.
Jimmy just shrugged his shoulders, hiccupped again and headed back towards the pool.
Fred helped Nathan lug his project up the stairs and into the apartment, setting it down in one corner of the living room. When they were done, Freddie asked, “Nathan, how about a beer? Jimmy has plenty; I think he plans to drink himself into an early afternoon stupor. He has to go back to work tomorrow.”
“Not today, but thanks for asking. I’m going to take it easy; I have to work tomorrow myself.”
Nathan dropped heavily onto his well-worn, brown Naugahyde couch after Freddie left. It sat opposite the wall supporting his 47” flat screen TV, a foreign off-brand he had picked up during a Christmas sale at Wal-Mart the year before. Two mismatched end tables with lamps flanked the couch; a plain, worn coffee table fronted the seating—a repository for miscellaneous books and magazines. A worse-for-wear cloth recliner sat by the window angled at the TV, but it still afforded a scenic view the apartment courtyard. The kitchen and breakfast nook were to the left of the living room. A short hallway to the left of the TV wall led to a modest bathroom and his bedroom. He had splurged and bought a queen-sized bed with a Posturepedic mattress.
Nathan wasn’t much of an interior decorator. His walls were adorned with several pictures of generic landscapes and a nondescript circular wall clock—a clock he now noticed wasn’t working. He wondered how long the batteries had been dead. The trunk sat between the end of the couch and the front wall. Nathan squinted at the area in front of him, trying to visualize how it would look as a coffee table. He glanced at his watch—three o’clock. Nathan jumped up and headed for the bathroom; time for a shower, shave and a change of clothes.
When he was finished he was clean shaven, his thick, dark hair slicked back wetly. He had donned a yellow, short-sleeve shirt, an old pair of khaki Dockers and white tennis shoes. He nodded his approval in the bathroom mirror. By four he was out the door, refreshed and ready to go. He decided he’d let Tina cool off a little more and call her tomorrow. For now, he’d just zip over to the Super Wal-Mart and pick up a few things.…
A few things turned out to be three bags of groceries, a six-pack of Miller Lite, a can of polyurethane wood finish, another can of polyurethane metal coating, paint brushes, wall paper adhesive and several sheets of floral designed wallpaper. The non-food supplies had put an unexpected dent in Nathan’s budget, but he was caught up in the excitement of restoring his fascinating piece of history. He couldn’t help but wonder who the trunk originally belonged to, where it had traveled, what sights it might have seen, and what secrets it harbored.
By midnight Nathan was done. The hardest part was getting the paper cut and glued correctly on the inside. He’d made enough mistakes cutting it to almost use up the whole supply of paper he’d purchased; he wanted to get it just right. In the end Nathan and his single edge razor blade had triumphed. And the first coat of polyurethane on the wood and metal had set the trunk aglow. He’d put on another coat after work the next day.
Nathan was a mail courier for First Federal Credit Union, working part-time three days a week plus every other Friday. The job was a snap. He was given a company car, a gas card and a set route between the six branches scattered throughout the city; a route that he completed twice a day—once in the morning and again in the afternoon. He would pick up interoffice mail and deliver it to the appropriate branch, as well as deposit receipts he’d turn in to the accounting department. Other, random deliveries were made to various subsidiaries as assigned. Nathan worked by himself driving around the city and listening to the radio.
When he was running ahead of schedule he had time to catch up on his reading at one of the city parks or fire up his laptop at one of the internet cafes. It was during one of his breaks at the Satellite Coffee Shop the following day that he located, via the internet, Bidwell’s Antique Restorations. Nathan checked out their website and was pleasantly surprised to see that they did antique trunk restorations. This was Nathan’s off Friday; it would be a good day to take the trunk in to see about replacing the leather handles, and maybe have them take a look at the small metal wheels—the rollers that the trunk moved on. He had been afraid to remove and burnish them.
Fred agreed to take a break from his tanning efforts at the apartment pool and help Nathan with transporting his project to Bidwell’s. Between Fred’s scholarship and his parent’s generosity, he wasn’t in a pinch for money and had decided to take it easy for the summer. He even volunteered to haul the trunk in his Chevy S-10 pickup.
Bidwell’s Antique Restorations was located on Central and 98th. An unassuming single story structure of approximately twenty-five hundred square feet, the retail area comprised maybe twenty percent of that; the rest, Nathan assumed, was devoted to the actual restoration process in the rear.
Nathan and Fred toted the trunk in the front door and set it down, taking a few seconds to orient themselves and allow their eyes to adjust to the dim interior. It was an interior that was permeated with history and the rich, underlying smell of its renovation. Antique furniture—tables, chairs, bureaus, end tables, desks, trunks, chests, bedroom sets—shared floor space with grandfather clocks, metal cookware, china, fireplace paraphernalia, crocks, ice tongs, a two-man lumberjack cross-cut saw, metal milk jugs, sculptures and items Nathan wasn’t sure he could even identify. But everything had one common denominator—age. The room had the feel of … people … the former owners and users of the items surrounding Nathan. They were part and parcel of the vintage objects crammed into the room. He breathed in deeply; the room had an unidentifiable aura, a subtle weight, an underlying smell—
Nathan jumped, startled. “Wh … what?” He hadn’t heard the man approach.
“Tung oil,” the old man repeated. “It’s what we use on the wood after the refinishing.” It was very faint, a rich and pleasant smell. The speaker was a bespectacled, gray haired, slightly rotund man wearing a white shirt and tan pants held up with red suspenders. He reminded Nathan of a clean-shaven Santa Claus.
Fred had wandered off and was browsing along the far wall, inspecting what appeared to be a set of oxen yokes.
“Oh, my, I see you have a Jenny Lind stagecoach/steamer trunk.” The man had bent and was inspecting the trunk over the tops of his eyeglasses. “And you’ve been working on restoring this piece.”
“Yes, there are just a couple of things I need help with,” Nathan replied.
The man stood, smiling broadly and holding out his hand. “My name is Wilber Bidwell, owner and proprietor, and you’ve come to the right place.” He shook hands with Nathan. “Mind if I take a look?”
“I’m Nathan Thompson,” he answered, smiling. “And no, of course I don’t mind.”
Wilber knelt amid the popping of his own reluctant knees. He tilted the Jenny Lind onto its back and inspected the bottom, moving the four rollers with his thumbs. Setting it back up, he slowly turned the trunk 360 degrees, examining the metal bands, hinges, locking mechanism and hasp. Next, he opened the lid gently—Nathan had left the key inserted in the lock—caressing and exploring the interior leisurely with his hand.
Finally he stood, accompanied by the faint, corresponding creaking of his joints. His weathered face sported a grin. “A nice job, son. You put some effort into this. May I ask, was this originally covered in leather and the interior papered?”
“Yes, it was, sir, but the leather had pretty much disintegrated; I took off what was left and went with the wood. Same with the paper on the inside, although I replaced that.”
“You can dispense with the ‘sir’, just call me Wilbur.” His head was nodding appreciatively, the faint scent of Aqua Velva after-shave lingering in the still air. “Again, nice job on the wood. And the metal, too; I imagine there was some rust and pitting.”
Now the old man was shaking his head, although his smile remained. “Most people would have skipped relining the interior with paper and just gone with the natural wood. Others would have done a slip-shod job of paper relining, or brought it in for us to redo. You, on the other hand, relined it with a thick, textured paper…?” Wilber looked at Nathan with questioning, raised eyebrows.
“Creative, Nathan. And painstakingly done. Precise cutting and a tedious job, especially around the leather letter holder.”
“Yeah.” Nathan smiled wryly. “Took me most of the night. I didn’t want to take the rivets out, especially since I don’t know what I’m doing.”
Wilber chuckled. “I’m surprised that letter holder survived all these years, and I see you even worked on that. Wish you would have come here first. We have ‘crack and peel’ trunk liner paper that would have made life easier for you. Still would have been an investment in time, and I’m not sure it would have turned out any better.” He was rubbing his chin and musing. “Wallpaper, go figure.” He chuckled and looked back at Nathan. “You ever want a job in the restoration business, come see me and we’ll talk.”
Nathan replied with his own laugh. “I don’t know about that. There’s a lot of work involved, more than I ever imagined, anyway.”
“Come here.” Wilber took Nathan gently by the arm and led him over to the customer service desk. Fred was still wandering the store, apparently still mesmerized by the weight of the history surrounding him.
Wilber went behind the waist high wooden counter, bent over and rummaged around for several seconds before standing and placing a large, hard cover book on the polished surface. He began flipping through pages, mumbling … “Let’s see … should be … ah, here we are.” He turned the book around for Nathan to see. “A sole leather, Jenny Lind trunk, circa 1840-1860.” The picture featured a Lind trunk, covered with a thick, black leather, which further emphasized all the normal “bells and whistles” of metal and brass. Wilber continued. “The leather was very thick, at least the thicknesses of a shoe sole—hence the name—and was featured on the most expensive, top-of-the-line models. Considering the work you’ve put in, I assume you’ve done some research on Jenny Lind, ‘The Swedish Nightingale’, and the trunks she popularized?”
“Yes, you assume correctly, Wilber, a fascinating woman—and decade for that matter.”
“So she was Nate, and yes, the 1850’s was a booming decade. But, down to business, Nathan, what do you want me to do with the trunk? I’ll give you three hundred dollars as it sits, or—”
“No, no, I’m not ready to sell it,” Nathan laughed. “I just need help finishing it for now. Besides replacing the leather handles and lid stays, maybe you could check the rollers. And I’m certainly open to any other suggestions you may have.”
Wilber was peering over the top of his bifocals at the trunk. “We can replace the leather handles and install some new lid stays.The rollers look to be in good shape, but we can remove them and the end caps,clean them up and reinstall them with a little WD-40. I would also install a couple of small wood blocks on the inside to reinforce the hinges. If you have some more of that wallpaper,” he paused and smiled at Nathan, “I can cover the blocks so everything matches. Do you have a spare key for the lock?”
“No,” Nathan replied.
“Then, you might want to get a duplicate made. As you’ve already found out, the lid locks every time you shut it. Lose the key and you’ll be paying a locksmith big bucks to get it open. I can get another one made for you and include it in the price. And I’ll do all the work on this one myself.”
“And how much will the total cost be?” Nathan asked, steeling himself for the answer.
Wilber gazed upward, squinting one eye, mentally calculating. “Let’s see … parts, labor …” he looked back at Nathan, “one-hundred-fifty dollars, out the door, which includes delivery to your home. And I guarantee all my work.”
Nathan had no idea if it was a reasonable price or not but another, more appealing, thought had just occurred to him. “Mr. Bidwell … Wilber … do you think I could do the work myself if I just purchased the parts?” he asked.
The old man’s face creased into a huge grin. “Let me guess, son, you’ve come this far doing the restoration and you’d like to finish the project yourself.” He actually chuckled. “Correct?”
“Correct. And I’m guessing I might need special tools for the braces, rivets and end caps. Is it possible to purchase those also?” asked Nathan.
Wilber pulled out a sales form and began filling it out. “Tell you what, Nathan, I’ll just charge you for the parts, loan you the tools and give you a crash course showing you how to use them. Will that work?”
“Perfect,” Nathan said. He looked around for his wandering friend, spied him. “Hey, Fred, this may take a little longer. Mr. Bidwell is going to give me a hands-on course on trunk restoration.”
Nathan did the required amount of groveling to get back into Tina’s good graces. He did a pretty fair job of it, too. After pouting for another day, she had allowed him to take her to dinner on Tuesday and back into her bed on Wednesday. Her roommate, Cindy, was gone for two weeks visiting her boyfriend in California and Tina preferred her apartment to Nathan’s smaller efficiency when it came to their sexual liaisons.
Nathan, of course, made no further mention of the trunk. And for her part, Tina agreed to help him with his final garage sale in two weeks. Nathan also made an appointment for the following Monday afternoon with a local realtor, Nancy Calloway of Stonebrook Reality, for a look-see and appraisal on Grandma Vera’s house. Things were looking good. He and Sandra would be getting the money from their grandmother’s estate and, if he kept his grades up his senior year, he was a lock to get into U.N.M.’s Law School. Tina had been encouraging him to concentrate on corporate law where the big money was, although Nathan—a history buff—was more inclined towards constitutional law. Tina was majoring in Hospitality Management; a field Nathan figured she’d excel in considering her social aptitude.
He couldn’t help but smile. Tina was a blonde bundle of energy, attractive and extroverted, a fun person to be around as long as you didn’t cross her—as the trunk episode had recently shown. Nathan frowned slightly; a quote from ex-boxing champ Mohammed Ali popped into his head whenever he thought of Tina’s dichotomy: “floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee”. How true, Nathan thought.
And in a few days Nathan and Tina would be hooking up again when he made good on his promise to whisk her away to the lake for the weekend. They’d rent a cabin, do a little hiking, swimming and maybe some waterskiing. And of course, the requisite bedroom sports.
But through it all, the Jenny Lind trunk weighed heavily on his mind.
The Steamship Atlantic – Atlantic Ocean
August 31, 1850
Katrina hurried down the hallway, the skirt of her dress whooshing along, ballooned out by the four petticoats beneath and nearly filling the passageway with its fullness. She could barely contain her excitement; Miss Lind had invited her to the Captain’s table for dinner. Millie had done her hair in a chignon, with the braided bun at the back of the head, adorned with two blue ribbons that matched her dress. One thick strand of hair on each side draped loose, curling provocatively. It was so Avant-garde that Katrina hoped that it wouldn’t embarrass Miss Lind in any way. Katrina considered herself a free spirit, and she liked to think this was one of the reasons Miss Lind had hired her as a servant for her upcoming American tour. Well, that and the fact that Josephine Ahmansen, her sister-in-law, had recommended Katrina as a replacement for her when she was injured in a horseback riding accident just ten days before the Atlantic sailed. Katrina also liked to think she had impressed Miss Lind greatly when she had been interviewed for the position.
As she huffed towards the diva’s stateroom she again mentally cursed her corset. Katrina never had much occasion to wear one, and its infrequent use now increased her discomfort. Thank the Lord she had been blessed with a narrow waist to start with.
Her excitement continued to rise, as did her apprehension. Miss Lind was bringing an entourage to America, consisting of Messieurs Benedict and Belletti, Englishman John Wilton, Lind’s two cousins, Agnes and Beatrice, and four servants. Katrina was bunked with Millie in one stateroom; the other two servants, colored sisters Abigail and Felicia, were in an adjoining room. And Katrina was the only servant to be invited to the Captain’s table by Miss Lind. This would be their last night on board the Atlantic; tomorrow afternoon they would be docking in New York harbor.
Katrina finally reached Miss Lind’s suite, A36. It was located on the starboard side of the ship along with the other suites of the more distinguished leisure class—opposite the enclosed, port side paddle wheel—greatly diminishing the noise for those passengers. Katrina’s stateroom and the other second class cabins were on the port side and, although located aft, were still subjected to an increased noise level—not only from the giant paddle wheel—but from the huge steam engines grumbling in the bowels of the great ship. It took a while to get used to the new sounds. Like all steamships, the Atlantic was still equipped with three masts and a full complement of sails, should the unfortunate happen and the steam engines or boilers fail.
Katrina stood in front of A36 for a moment, taking several deep breaths to calm herself. Although she had already donned her white gloves, she ran her hands nervously over the front of her billowed skirt, imagining the sweaty palms she was sure she must have. In the nine days they had been at sea, it seemed the famous Jenny Lind had continued to take a shine towards her. Katrina felt the great lady had been treating her more than a mere servant. On several occasions Madame Lind had even conversed on subjects Katrina had considered more of a personal nature. Even so, Katrina could be wrong about everything.…
She took one more deep breath and knocked firmly on the dark wood door. Several seconds passed. It was finally opened by the great lady herself, Madame Jenny Lind. Twenty-nine years old, pale of complexion with dark hair and eyes, she was of similar stature to Katrina, although slightly taller. Besides similarities in physical characteristics, both were intelligent and possessed compassionate personalities. Each was outgoing, daring and exhibited a thirst for adventure. Madame Lind was already a well-traveled, world renowned singer—possibly the greatest of her era. Katrina, at only twenty-two years of age, was embarking on the greatest adventure of her young life. It was not surprising the two found an understanding and rapport between them.
The prima donna smiled, stepped aside and allowed the young Englishwoman to enter. “Hello, Katrina, you are early.” The singer was resplendent in a mauve dress—the skirt ballooned out with multiple petticoats, the bodice off the shoulders, her slim neck accented even more by the daring use of a single strand of white pearls. Her skirt had a greater number of flounces than Katrina’s, as well as a higher number of bows. Like Katrina, her hair was parted in the middle, but finished with a French chignon at the nape of her neck. Millie must have devoted the early part of the day on the young diva’s hair. But Miss Lind had forgone any dangling curls; she probably thought the pearls were daring enough. At the moment she was inspecting Katrina with pursed lips and a frown.
Suddenly Katrina felt self-conscious. Maybe she had assumed too much and had overstepped her bounds. Her hand fluttered up to her breast. The neckline of her bodice plunged in a V, but her bosom was covered discreetly by a small chemisette. Maybe her hair … no, she had just forgotten her place. She was just a servant, after all. “Miss Lind, is something wrong? If I have done something—”
“Please sit down, Katrina.” Miss Lind indicated a plush sitting chair next to an ornate Victorian table.
“Thank you, ma’am.” Katrina sat with a swirl and whoosh of her multiple petticoats, holding down the billowing skirt with her gloved hands as she adjusted herself in the chair.
The famous diva stood before her suddenly apprehensive servant and continued. “You are very beautiful, Katrina.” She smiled disarmingly. “Maybe I should hire an ugly, old hag as my personal assistant. That way I would not be outshone in my social gatherings.” She sighed and bent slightly, touching one of Katrina’s curls lightly. “I knew I should have had Millie be a little more daring with my hair.” She touched Katrina’s cheek gently. “You have a lovely complexion my dear, but maybe you would like to try a little of my cosmetics for fun?”
Katrina’s head was spinning. The words “my assistant” were still echoing in her mind. This was the most famous opera singer in all of Europe, one who had performed before tens of thousands, even Queen Victoria herself. Her Lord God had blessed Katrina with, not only the opportunity of seeing America, but the chance of walking next to this great lady on this great adventure. Could this really be happening? Wait … what was Miss Lind saying about cosmetics—
“Have you been listening to me Katrina?” The singer was looking at her inquisitively.
Katrina was blushing with embarrassment. “I am sorry, Miss Lind, I was just surprised at your reference to … ah, um …”
“The personal assistant or the cosmetics remark?” Her employer was busy retrieving a gleaming, dark wood toilet chest from a nearby bureau.
“Ah … both, I guess. I am not sure I understand exactly what you mean, Miss Lind.”
“First of all, in private you may address me as Jenny. In public, we must adhere to the more formal conventions and you will continue to address me as Madame or Miss Lind. Before we reach New York tomorrow afternoon, I will enumerate the list of duties I expect you to fulfill on a regular basis. As you may have perceived, you and I are much similar in our outlook on life and the demeanor in which we approach it. You are remarkably intelligent and grounded for a young woman of twenty-two, all the more reason for my hiring you. Your sister-in-law, Josephine, recommended you highly, and rightly so. I am twenty-nine and, considering the members of my entourage, you shall help keep me sane.”
“What about your cousins?” Katrina asked. “They are similar in age to me.”
“Agnes and Beatrice? I think not. I brought them along to pacify my older sister, Regina; I owed her a favor. She probably pawned those two biddies off on me to keep them from driving her crazy. With her husband dead, both of the girls still living at home and no suitors knocking down their door, I think Regina is hoping their luck might change in the Colonies—I mean America. Personally, I doubt it. But, be on your guard. When they see you …” Jenny’s eyes panned up and down the young woman before her “… they will be screeching with jealousy.” She paused again, gazing at Katrina. “So, do you think you are up to the task?”
“Yes, ma’am … I mean, Jenny.” Katrina smiled self-consciously, but it was a mighty big smile.
Jenny had placed the toilet chest on the table next to the lounge chair. “You also seemed surprised at my cosmetology remark.” She had a mischievous look in her dark eyes.
“Well, it is not something that is approved of, or accepted by—”
Jenny gave a dismissive wave of her hand. “Please, Katrina, I am well aware of Queen Victoria’s public declaration concerning makeup. But, do I agree that cosmetics are improper and vulgar, just because she says they are used primarily by harlots? No, I think not.” She stepped closer, her eyes running over Katrina’s features. “As I said before, you have a beautiful complexion, but is that uniformity of fairness perhaps enhanced by the use of rice powder? And that slight shine to your full lips? Maybe a touch of beeswax?”
“I am sorry, Mis … Jenny… I only use a little on special occasions, which is not very often, and like I said—”
Jenny couldn’t keep from laughing. “Stop, I am not criticizing you. Your freedom of spirit is a breath of fresh air amidst all the straight-laced, uptight people who seem to constantly surround me.” She perused her ornate chest, bound with brass and lined with velvet, containing various containers of medicinal salves and ointments, as well as scissors, tweezers, medicine spoons, corkscrews, bodkins, boot hooks, knives and the like. She removed a lower tray, revealing a secret compartment beneath. From this compartment she removed several small containers.
Katrina was staring, her mouth slightly agape.
“Let us try a little of my special pomade, made from crushed flowers and carmine. It will discreetly accentuate your lip color.” Katrina leaned forward, tilting her head up and Jenny applied the balm with the tip of a slender finger. Jenny leaned back and studied her work. “Now, maybe a little eye paint, a very subtle lining of the eyes and darkening of the lashes, so delicate no one will be able to tell. My apothecary in Liverpool makes it with cinnabar, vermilion and a few other things I have never heard of. I will give you his address when we return.” Jenny worked for a few minutes with a small, horsehair brush before standing back for another inspection. “Here, take a look.” She turned the travel chest towards Katrina so she could use the mirror inside the lid.
Katrina smiled approvingly at her reflection. Her pale beauty, accented by her dark hair and eyes, was somehow even more focused, the slight blush of her lips even more inviting. Her natural beauty seemed, well, more natural somehow. She hadn’t been able to afford more than the rice powder and beeswax, most of her savings had been spent on clothing for her great two year American adventure, the biggest expense being the evening dress she was now wearing. It was going to be worth it, sooner than she expected.
“One more thing,” Jenny said. She removed a small perfume atomizer from the chest. “Stand up for a moment, Katrina. Watch, I will go first.” Jenny held the atomizer in front of her at arm’s length and squeezed the bulb twice, creating a fine mist in front of her. She quickly stepped through it. “Your turn, Katrina.”
Katrina followed suit, stepping through the mist Jenny created for her.
“A hint of lavender, just enough to keep the men straining at the leash,” Jenny said. She reassembled her toilet travel chest, replaced it in the bureau and glanced up at the suite’s English Regency wall clock. “It is almost five, our escorts should be arriving shortly. I hope you do not mind; Mr. Wilton will be your escort and Mr. Benedict will be escorting me. Just relax, Katrina, you are educated, well rounded and, as far as I have seen, possess a composure that should serve you well when conversing with the snobbish women you will be sure to come into contact with.” Jenny seated herself in the other chair and busied herself with slipping on her white gloves and making a final check of her hair and makeup with a hand mirror.
As a mere servant, Katrina had never been formerly introduced to Mr. John Wilton, or any of the other passengers in first class for that matter. She imagined all that would be changing soon. All she knew of Mr. Wilton was what Jenny had related to her over the last week. He was the agent representing the American entrepreneur, Mr. P. T. Barnum, and had been sent to Europe to locate the famous opera singer and convince her to agree to an American tour. Mr. Barnum had come to England himself for the final negotiations and signing of the contracts. As his agent, Mr. Wilton had stayed behind to handle the details and escort Miss Lind on her journey to America. Mr. Barnum had already returned to America and would be meeting them in New York when they landed.
As she took a deep breath and tried to relax, Katrina gazed around the large and luxurious suite. She had considered the stateroom she shared with Millie in second class well-appointed. Although double bunked, it was large enough to accommodate a small sitting area with two chairs, a table and a bureau. It was carpeted and though it did not sport a window to the outside, it had—wonder of wonders—its own separate bath.
The famous diva must have been assigned one of the special “honeymoon” berths. Katrina had heard several of the more well-informed second class passengers talking about them. It was larger than the first class suites. Carpeted, the windows covered by thick, damask curtains—now pulled back to admit light—the large drawing room featured a sofa, two chairs, a small table and a bureau that converted into a writing desk. Tiffany lamps on the table and bureau would provide illumination in the evening. Katrina had glimpsed the separate bedroom and bath through their partially opened doors when she had entered; she could only imagine their similar elegance. All the berths had steam heat, but she saw that first class also had a bell-rope system for summoning the steward.
Publisher: BookRix GmbH & Co. KG
Text: John C. Laird
Images: © RetroAtelier (17640514), istockphoto.com, Coverdesign: Vivian Tan Ai Hua – http://www.facebook.com/aihua.art
Editing: Alexandra Laird
Publication Date: 06-05-2014
All Rights Reserved