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Short Story, J. P. Wentworth
J. P. Wentworth
“Well now, I do believe I have discovered a diamond in a coal bucket! What is a beautiful woman like you doing in a cow town hardware store? ”
He was the most handsome man she had ever seen, and he was currently flashing a dazzling smile with perfect white teeth. He was tall, expensively dressed, and his mannerisms spoke of money.
Katherine Peabody concealed her sudden interest, and gave him a cool reply.
“I will have you know that I am a lady, sir, and a married one at that. I also happen to own this establishment. My husband is the manager and currently gathering your order.”
His smile did not falter, as he tipped his bowler hat to her, and spoke again.
“Nor would I ever presume to knowingly approach a married lady, madam, no matter how beautiful she might be. I saw no ring. Please accept my apologies.”
He replaced his hat, as Adam Peabody returned to the counter with his goods. He paid Adam, and strolled to the door, where he paused and looked back at the counter. Adam Peabody was busy with the books, but his wife, Katherine, was still watching the stranger. He smiled again, and then gave her a slow wink. She felt her heart jump, and despite herself, she felt a smile came to her lips. He nodded and left.
Less than a minute later, Jeremiah Lewis, the local newspaper owner and editor, burst through the door. He was a small, somewhat educated man, but he seemed permanently breathless and excited. However, his well known ability to make mountains from molehills had proved to be a valuable newsman’s asset, in a small town where matters of any real significance seldom occurred.
“Do you folks know who that was that just left here?” Without waiting for an answer, he went on. “That there was J. P. Wentworth, the financier!” He leaned back out of the door, watching something further up the street with great interest.
Adam Peabody looked up from his books. “The railroad man out of San Francisco?”
Lewis left the door and approached the counter, nodding rapidly. “Yes, that’s right! You know of him? I had never heard of him until today.”
He stopped and regained his breath. “He stopped by the newspaper office, asking questions, and told me who he was. He’s planning on bringing the railroad through here.” He paused and looked thoughtful. “I reckon I just spoke out of turn, since that was told to me in confidence. I will have to ask you folks to keep that under your hat.” He looked at Adam and Katherine hopefully.
“Of course,” Adam replied. Katherine nodded absently, her mind already on other things.
The Campbellsburg hardware had been established by Katherine’s father, when the town was nothing more than a cattle crossroads with two taverns, a jail, a church and a dozen scattered homes. He had built it into the town’s most prosperous business and had married Katherine’s mother, a beautiful and gracious woman. A year later, Katherine was born, an only child. When Katherine was nine, both she and her mother contracted influenza. Her mother passed away after five days, and it was a month before the doctor became hopeful that Katherine might survive. After that, her father doted on her, and she, in turn, worshipped him.
As she developed into a stunning young woman, Katherine became aware that she was the center of young male attention, a position she relished. At the same time, she also became aware of the jealousies of other young women, and she discovered that she enjoyed that too. But none of the local males interested her for more than a short time, so she played one off the other for amusement. There were several fistfights and bloody noses, but that too soon bored her. She had no female friends, a fact that bothered her father.
When Adam Peabody came to town, he approached Katherine’s father, looking for employment. Adam’s family had also been in the hardware business back East, so he impressed the owner with his knowledge of the business, and was promptly hired. He was handsome, dapper, and a stranger, which immediately drew the attentions of the town’s young lady population, including Katherine. But to Katherine’s shock, he all but ignored her. She never once realized that he did it out of respect for his employer and her father.
When she discovered him having dinner in the company of Miss Mary Peterson, she was immediately livid with jealousy, so she began making her plans and spinning her web. None of the town’s available young men had ever ignored her or been able to resist her, once she decided that she wanted their attentions, at least until she was tired of them. So the more Adam Peabody persisted in keeping his distance, the more determined she was to snare him. But no matter what charms she tried, it took a full six months to make any headway with him. And in the end, it was neither charm nor seductive beauty that finally succeeded. It was instead, a blatant and desperate appeal to his sense of chivalry.
She became aware of his evening strolls around town, so she excused herself after dinner, late one afternoon, telling her father she wanted to get some night air. She waited until she saw Adam approaching, and then stumbled on the boardwalk, falling to the ground. Immediately, Adam Peabody was at her side, and when she complained of a pain in her ankle, he picked her up lightly, and carried her womanly softness home in his arms, her carefully selected perfume wafting silently and seductively in the warm evening breeze.
Her plan to turn the head of Adam Peabody was in the end, a great success, but, unlike her other beaus, she unwillingly found herself making plans for a future with Adam, at her father’s insistence. He had grown quite fond of Adam Peabody, and he had grown quite tired of his daughter’s fickle treatment of her many beaus. Even worse, at eighteen, she was on the verge of becoming too old to be considered an eligible bride, and he wanted her married off before that happened. After all, he was nearly an old man himself, and he did not want to leave behind a spinster.
Even so, Katherine planned to eventually find a way out, somehow, as she always had in the past, but suddenly, six months later, and to her everlasting dismay, she found herself trapped, unable to escape. The plans were made, the dress was bought, and invitations were printed and delivered. Then, one warm Saturday morning, to her utter horror, she found herself walking the aisle out of the Methodist Church as Mrs. Adam Peabody. Two weeks later, her father died without warning.
Almost immediately, Katherine was engulfed in a deep sense of remorse mixed with anger and a seething resentment. Her father had always been her shelter and protector, but now he was gone, replaced by her stranger of a husband. On top of that, she knew almost nothing about the hardware business, and would have to rely on Adam Peabody’s expertise and support. The one saving grace was her father’s will. He had left her the sole owner of the hardware store, and had not had time to change the will to include Adam. So at least she had a lever with which to manipulate her unwanted husband.
Over the next few months, her resentments grew, and Adam Peabody became unhappily familiar with her wrath. She suddenly ceased making meals, demanding that he take them at Trimble’s café. She also refused to wash his clothes, so he took them to the Chinese laundry. One evening, she picked a quarrel, and slept in her father’s old room. After that, she never returned to her husband’s bed, and he found her wedding band tossed in a drawer.
Then one night, she failed to come home at all, returning the next morning, claiming she had developed a headache and had taken a room in the hotel. But there was an ugly rumor going around town about a certain curly haired cowboy, and a married town woman. Through it all, Adam Peabody kept his peace, and was found daily behind the counter of the Campbellsburg Hardware. Katherine still stopped by now and then, because it was after all, her store. She was now determined to rid herself of Adam, by making life so miserable that he would grant her a divorce.
Katherine Peabody was reaching in to her Post Office box when she felt a presence close behind her and caught a whiff of expensive male cologne.
“Hello Diamond lady.”
She turned to face him, and he moved even closer, looking down at her with coal black eyes. She felt both vulnerable and protected at the same time. He smiled again and for the first time, she noticed a handsome dimple in his chin.
“I am going on a small picnic tomorrow at noon, under the apple orchard on the old Cashman place. Will you join me? I can pick you up in my carriage.”
Curly Dan Brasswell had been just a passing thrill, and her physical betrayal with him had bothered her not at all, so her hesitation was not based on loyalty to Adam. She simply did not want to appear too brazen to the town where she grew up, or possibly cause her usually docile husband to finally rise up in anger. She looked up at him.
“I will be there,” she whispered, “but I will walk through Brown’s pasture and then along the creek. It is not far, and I sometimes walk out that way. It will make for better appearances.”
Once again, he gave her a slow wink, and she smiled up at him.
Two nights later, Katherine once again took a room at the hotel, but this time, she did not return home. Her association with J. P. Wentworth became brazen in spite of herself, and they were openly seen together, although his nightly visits to her room were somewhat more discrete. Then one day, J. P. Wentworth abruptly left town, telling newsman Jeremiah Lewis that his business in Campbellsburg was concluded.
Two weeks later, Adam Peabody looked up from his books to see Katherine standing before him, a sheaf of papers in her hand.
“I suppose you already know about J.P. and me.” She lifted her chin in defiance, and he nodded slowly, carefully watching her.
“I had Lawyer Griffin draw these up. They are divorce papers, and I think you will find that I have been quite generous. I know you can refuse me, but if you will grant me the divorce, the hardware store and the house are yours. I have signed papers to that effect. J.P. is a wealthy man, and I am giving you the house and hardware on his advice. He is right, because that way, I will have no ties to this horrible town or to you. Do you agree?”
Adam studied her for a moment. “Are you sure this is what you want Katherine? Perhaps you should take some time to consider?”
“I need no time. I know what I want, and it certainly is not you or Campbellsburg. I’m leaving for San Francisco on the afternoon stage. J.P. has sent for me!”
Adam sighed and stood up, taking the papers. Glancing at them briefly, he put them on his roll top. “All right Katherine. I will sign the papers and you will be free. You can have your divorce and your J.P. Wentworth too. Do you have money for the stagecoach?”
“J. P. bought the ticket for me before he left. I don’t want your money or your help. I just want to be rid of you.”
Two months later, Adam Peabody was nursing a beer in the dim coolness of Jake’s saloon as he took his noon lunch. Big Carl, the bartender, polished a glass as he quietly watched Adam. At last, he approached, and leaned his massive forearms on the bar top in front of Adam Peabody.
“Ever hear from Katherine, Adam?”
“No, and I do not expect to hear from her.”
Carl nodded and stood up. He shook his great head sadly.
“Well sir, that there J. P. Wentworth feller was a real bastard to steal another man’s wife like that.”
The murmuring poker players at a nearby table overheard, and nodded their agreement.
Adam Peabody bit the end off a cigar and spat it on the floor. He scratched a match to life and held it to the tip of his cigar. After a few puffs, a red ember glowed warmly. He held out his glass and the bartender filled it at the tap.
For a long moment, there was no sound except the ticking of the clock over the back bar and the whisper of cards being dealt. Finally, Adam spoke.
“There is no J. P. Wentworth.”
The bartender blinked and the poker players twisted in their chairs, staring at Adam.
“What did you say?”
“There is no J. P. Wentworth, and there was no one waiting for Katherine in San Francisco.”
Big Carl and the poker players exchanged questioning glances. The bartender shrugged his shoulders, lifting his palms in silent bewilderment. Outside, a dog barked listlessly, mostly out of boredom.
Adam paused and took a swallow of beer.
“No sir, the man you saw was Junior Bascomb. Junior and I grew up in the same Philadelphia neighborhood. I took up the family hardware business and Junior took up the theater. He’s an actor.”
Adam Peabody puffed on his cigar, and took another swallow of beer. He glanced around the room at the incredulous listeners and smiled happily.
“Yes sir, he’s an actor, and a damned fine one at that.”