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One Glorious Ambition: The Compassionate Crusade of Dorothea Dix, a Novelby Jane Kirkpatrick
Like Orphans in the Chaos
I’m going to take care of us, so please don’t cry.” Dorothea thumbed the tears from her brother’s blue-gray eyes, eyes the color of her own. “I’ll make it better.” He nodded, uncertain, she could tell.
The cold air, as stinging as finger slaps, bit at Dorothea’s face as she waved one last time at her four-year-old brother, Charles, then pushed the door closed behind her and entered the Massachusetts dawn.
After two hours of walking, hoping the rain would stop, she shivered and her teeth chattered. Maybe this wasn’t such a good plan. It was forty miles to Orange Court, their grandmother’s house. A blast of wind rattled the elm trees and jerked late-clinging weeds from their branches, a few jabbing her already numb face. The snow-speckled grass proved better for walking, so she paralleled the muddy cart trail whenever she could. Eight miles passed before she came to a small village. No one asked about a child trudging along alone. No one noticed a lonely child. Not even the smith hammering at his forge raised his eyes as she halted briefly, warming her hands, smelling the hot metal as it singed and spattered in the water. Everyone tended to their own lives, not worrying over any wayward children.
She had eight more miles to go before reaching a stage that could take her the next thirty miles or so to Boston. She knew the way. She’d taken coins from her father while he slept, just enough to get her to the city. Her ankles ached, and her feet were as stiff as hammers. Outside the village, she slipped in the mud, her thinsoled shoes caked with greasy earth. She twisted to catch her balance and couldn’t and landed hard on her bottom. The rain gained force and pelted down, turning to snow, the white flakes silent as death. Why should she get up? Would it be so bad to escape into the cold of nothingness, forget this challenge of being alive and rescuing her brother? The cold could simply rock her to sleep.
A crow caw-cawed above her. Charles loved to watch the crows. For you, Charles. I’ll keep going for you. She dragged herself onward toward the goal, praying she walked the right path.
“What do you want?” The woman’s eyes searched behind Dorothea, then back to her. “We’ve no need of rags to buy. And if we did, that would happen at the kitchen.” She began to close the heavy mahogany door. Dusk hovered at the eaves. This was the second day of Dorothea’s escape, and she had walked the last few miles in the snow beneath a pewter sky.
Dorothea thought she remembered the woman as the housekeeper, but it had been a few years since her last visit. “Please. I’d like to see Madam Dix.”
“Madam Dix has no time for urchins.”
“My name is Dorothea Dix. I’m her granddaughter.”
“What?” The woman squinted. Dorothea hoped she could see the same high forehead, the firm chin that her grandfather said she had gained from her grandmother. Perhaps her enunciation, clear and precise, would remind her of Madam Dix.
“Please. I’ve come all the way from Worcester. I’ve been here before, with my parents, Joseph and Mary Dix. I know where the library is, where the clock sits in the hall.”
The woman frowned. “Clock’s been moved.”
“My chin. It’s a Lynde chin, my grandmother’s.” She touched her dirty gloves to her face. “See?”
The woman pressed her lips together and scowled. “Go around to the kitchen. I’ll see if Madam Dix is willing to receive
Dorothea pulled her cloak around her neck and walked to the side of the brick mansion, across the snow-covered lawn, past the marble statues that marked the entrance to the garden that harbored the Dix pear tree, her grandfather’s pride and joy. Before her grandfather’s death, her family had come here when they had no food or lacked money for wood or had burned their last candles.
They’d throw themselves on her grandfather’s mercy, asking for assistance, insisting that this time would surely be the last. For a few days there would be comfort and hours in the library and warm food when one was hungry. But soon they’d be on their way to whatever temporary housing arrangement her grandparents could make for her father and his family.
Her father might have been successful once. He’d trained at Harvard. But he lacked “drive,” she heard her grandmother tell her father, Dorothea’s face hot from hearing her father chastised. He’d even swapped land in Vermont for books. “Land,” her grandmother said in disgust when she heard this, “is where wealth is.” It was only because her parents had imposed themselves on friends in Worcester that she was close enough to get to her grandmother’s. Then last evening, when her parents failed to notice how the “friend” let his fat fingers linger hot on Dorothea’s shoulder while he praised her “pretty face” or spoke of how “mature and graceful” she was for one merely twelve, his eyes like a wolf’s, his smile a licked lip, she had made her decision.
The kitchen door opened and the cook, a smile on her face, introduced herself as “Mehetable Hathorne. Call me Cookie,” and motioned her inside. Dorothea saw the back of the housekeeper and she said “thank you” loud enough for the departing woman to hear. At least she was inside. Whether she would be allowed to stay, whether she could convince her grandmother to send for her brother and parents, that would be up to Dorothea’s persuasive ways. She was inside Orange Court! Half the battle won.
“Where are your parents?” Dorothea’s grandmother stood before her, black cap tied beneath her chin, her hands over a hickory stick she used as a cane. She was not much taller than Dorothea. “And Charles?”
“In Worcester. With friends. It’s…it’s not good there, Grandmamma. Not good at home either. Papa’s…consuming again, and Mother is…sleepy and when she wakes, she’s…wild-eyed and unpredictable. Or she doesn’t seem to know Charles and I are even there. I have to cook and clean the sheets and wash his clothes and—”
“Complaints are unbecoming.” The older woman’s jaw set hard like the flat irons on the shelf behind her. The scent of onions cooking at the kitchen hearth brought water to Dorothea’s mouth. Cookie bent to her work as though she were alone in the room. “’Tis not a complaint, Grandmamma, but bold truth. You always told me to tell the truth.”
Her grandmother tapped her hand on the cane. “Take off that wet cloak and cap, Dorothea.” The girl complied and pulled a knot of her thick chestnut hair behind her ear. “How did you get here, anyway?”
“I walked. And took the stage partway.”
“Indeed. Well, what would you have me do then? I’m an old woman with limited resources. I can’t take you all on.”
“Take in Charles and me, then. We could bring in wood for you…and cook.” She glanced at the cook’s back. “I’d look after Charles. He’s a bright boy, interested in many things.” A knot worked in her throat as she thought of her parents and how quickly she had stopped pleading for them. “We’d be no trouble, really, we wouldn’t. And you’d have…companionship.” Her grandmother only snorted. “If you took us all in, maybe Papa could help fix the shutters and he could look after Mama—”
“Companionship you say? What need have I with the companionship of undisciplined children?”
“There’ll be a third.” Dorothea dropped her eyes as she spoke.
“It’s imperative that you help us now.”
“Imperative!” the older woman grunted.
Dorothea wasn’t sure if it was the idea that she had spoken indirectly of a pregnancy that distressed her grandmother or if the thought of yet another mouth to worry over in her second son’s life caused the woman to now purse her lips. It was Dorothea’s strongest argument—the safe arrival of another Dix. They’d need the refuge of her grandmother’s large home in Boston if they were all going to survive, especially a baby. Couldn’t her grandmother see the logic in that?
Dorothea’s emotions swirled like leaves in a whirlpool in the continuing silence. She heard her heart beat faster at her temples. Snow outside accumulated on the sills of the wavy glass windows. “You’re our only hope.” Her voice broke. I must not cry. She stiffened her narrow shoulders. She stood as rigid as wrought iron. She knew one thing for certain: if anyone ever pleaded with her for help as she now beseeched her grandmother, she would find a way to meet the depth of the request. “We suffer,” she said.
“Everyone suffers. Some more than others. There’s nothing to be done for it. The suffering will always be with you. Scripture states it. Time you learned the lesson.”
“The child will come right after Christmas, Grandmamma. Don’t let it struggle too. And Charles. He’s only a child!”
“Then your mother will need you much more than I will, Dorothea.” The woman’s voice softened into a sigh. “You must go back, girl. I simply can’t take you all in again. I’m sorry. Your father has made his bed and he must lie in it. Which apparently he does quite often.”
With that the woman turned away, the brim of her day cap fluttering with the brusqueness of the turn. As she pushed her wide hips through the narrow door she stopped.
She’s changed her mind! Dorothea thought.
Instead, the woman leaned toward the cook and spoke quietly, then she moved into the safety of the mansion, a small dog that Dorothea hadn’t noticed before following at her heels. “It’ll take them a bit to bring the carriage around.” The cook turned to her. “You come warm yourself at this fire and have a bite to eat. I’ll fix you a basket to take with you. For your little brother and your parents.”
“Thank you, missus…” Dorothea dropped her eyes. She couldn’t remember the name of the woman, the one person who was at least going to give her stomach comfort before she was sent back into chaos.
“Cookie.” She motioned for Dorothea to sit at the table. Dorothea removed her wet wrap to hang beside the hearth.
“Your shoes too, dearie. May as well get them a little drier while you sit.”
Dorothea sank like a weary dog onto the chair, removed her soaked shoes, her ungloved fingers pulling at the wet leather laces and hooks while she watched Cookie gather a spatter of potatoes and onions from the hearth and a slice of dried beef from the larder. A butter round appeared with a loaf of bread.
“Eat now,” she said.
Lifting the bread took all the strength Dorothea had. Cookie placed a piece of ham in a basket and added a round of cheese, and the girl saw her nestle dried pears in a small stone pot, then put a few more pieces of the fruit on the table for Dorothea. “Don’t be too hard on your grandmother.” Cookie continued loading the basket with food, then tied the white cloth into a big bow of protection. “She’s a good woman. Done much for this district ever since your grandfather’s death. She’s likely carried your parents across many a swollen stream.”
Dorothea wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, breadcrumbs tumbling onto the bodice of her dress. “But we could assist her. I could.”
“She might not say it, but I suspect she’s proud you come to her for help. She just can’t give it to you the way you’re askin’. But that’s what we’re about, you know, we women. We find a way over troubled water, even if it has to be a boat bobbing in the currents rather than a bridge.”
Dorothea ate slowly, savoring the food and warmth and taking in the wisdom of this ordinary woman. It was apparently all she would get from Orange Court. Who knew what trouble she would face when she was returned to Worcester. The outrage of her father for disappearing. Would her mother have noticed? She sighed. Her journey and her words had failed.
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