Authors: Sonia Gensler
THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Text copyright © 2011 by Sonia Gensler
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The revenant/Sonia Gensler. — 1st ed.
Summary: When seventeen-year-old Willemina Hammond fakes credentials to get a teaching position at a school for Cherokee girls in nineteenth-century Oklahoma, she is haunted by the ghost of a drowned student.
1. Cherokee Indians—Oklahoma—Tahlequah—Juvenile fiction. 2. Cherokee National Female Seminary—Juvenile fiction. [1. Cherokee Indians—Fiction. 2. Cherokee National Female Seminary—Fiction. 3. Indians of North America—Oklahoma—Fiction. 4. Haunted places—Fiction. 5. Teachers—Fiction. 6. Boarding schools—Fiction. 7. Schools—Fiction.] I. Title.
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THOUGHT BY THE TIME
to the Kansas and Arkansas Valley Railway, this foolish tendency to jump at every sound, to blush each time someone looked me in the eye, would have subsided. If Papa had been sitting next to me, he’d have patted my hand, his mustache curving into a smile. “All the world’s a stage, Willie,” he’d have said, “and you’re playing your part out of necessity, as have many before you.”
But Papa was dead, and the space next to me was empty. Staring at that void, I knew in my heart I was something much worse than a player on the world’s stage. And more than the summer heat made the perspiration trickle down the back of my neck. I jumped and blushed and perspired for good reason.
I was a liar and a thief.
The conductor called all passengers aboard, and I breathed a sigh of relief. But before I had time to celebrate my solitude, a young man bounded up the steps of my car and slid into the opposite seat. I stiffened, bracing myself for the prying questions strangers asked so freely of young ladies traveling alone. But he only removed his hat and, with a quick nod to me, slumped against the window with his eyes closed. The train jerked into motion with a great metallic screech, but even this did not rouse him. Grateful, I turned back to the window and studied what I could of Van Buren, Arkansas, branding my memory with details of the landscape before we entered Indian Territory.
What had I expected to find outside the train windows when we’d crossed the Arkansas border? Men with crow-black hair riding painted ponies and throwing spears at buffalo? Women in buckskin tending the fires outside their tepees? I knew it could not be so wild or so quaint as the stories I’d read, but I’d expected something … else. I never expected to find the terrain so
. The trees weren’t quite as tall here, but otherwise we might as well have been traveling through Tennessee, what with the densely wooded hills and crisscrossing rivers. It should have been comforting to me, this familiarity, but instead it made my heart ache and I had to turn away from the window.
More than an hour had passed, and yet the young man across from me slept on, his mouth hanging open slightly. Something about him reminded me of Papa after a night cozying up to his whiskey bottle. No doubt he’d spent the previous evening carousing with gentleman friends. He
a gentleman, I felt sure. His clothes were much finer than mine—they fit his rangy frame as though tailored rather than ready-made. A barber had trimmed his smooth brown hair, and though his tanned cheeks were covered in stubble, the skin itself looked accustomed to careful tending. I studied his face, noting his strong features and handsome cheekbones. Papa would have deemed it a good face for the stage. “Some folks,” he often said, “have delicate features that seem pleasing up close but look mushy from a distance. An actor needs bold features and sharp angles to his face. The audience needs something for the eye to grab hold of.”
The face across from me would have made a fine Cassio, I thought, with those handsome features slack with fatigue after a wild night. Or perhaps a Demetrius—there’d been a haughty quality to the young man’s bearing when he leapt upon the train and sat down without the merest “How do ye do.” But not a Hamlet. There was nothing tortured about his face, no inner turmoil written there.
At that moment, he opened his eyes and looked directly at me. His mouth curved.
Then he winked.
I turned my head to the window so quickly that my neck bones nearly cracked. My cheeks flushed with heat. Such an impish sparkle to his eye! He must have thought me quite common to stare so openly. Surely he would think it an invitation to pry and flirt.
But he said nothing. When I risked a peek at him, he seemed to be asleep once more. My toes tingled with a longing to kick him. He could have at least shown me the courtesy of being aware I was ignoring him.
Two more hours dragged on, and the champion sleeper barely stirred. When we reached Gibson Station, I leapt to my feet as soon as we came to a stop, heaved my bag off the floor, and headed for the door without a backward glance. But once outside, no one would meet my gaze long enough for me to ask directions. The letter had provided no details about this part of the journey, and I was overwhelmed again by the brazenness of my scheme. I stood alone as the press of people continued past me.
A sudden and powerful gust of wind tore the hat from my head. I whipped around to follow its flight through the air until it fell at the feet of … the smirking young man. He reached down, catching it before the wind tossed it again. My heart sank to see him hold the crumpled thing in both hands.
His eyes met mine. “Miss?”
I wanted to turn my back to him, but he held the only hat I owned.
“Yes?” I gripped the pinned coil of my hair as the wind gusted again.
“Pardon me,” he said, “but are you on your way to the female seminary in Tahlequah?”
I blinked. “How did you know?”
He smiled, though gently this time. “You look the scholarly type.” He pointed past the platform. “You’ll find the stagecoach just beyond the station house. It will take you to the school. There’ll be other young ladies from this train heading the same way. May I help you with your bag?”
“Thank you, no,” I said quickly, reclaiming the offered hat. “It’s not terribly heavy.” His brown eyes were warm and no longer impish. I stifled the urge to say more, for fear of speaking foolishness.
“I wish you good day, then.” He tipped his own hat and turned away, strolling easily and not looking back. I set the bag down to pin the hat more securely to my head. Then I slipped my fingers into my purse to count the few remaining coins, praying they would be enough to cover this final leg of the journey.
It was early afternoon by the time my bag was stowed and I’d taken my seat in the coach. A dark-haired girl in a simple dress and bonnet sat next to me with her head down and hands clasped in her lap. I could not see much of her face, but the skin of her slender hands was light brown. She was Cherokee—most certainly a student. I’d not expected the Indian girls to dress … well, to dress much as I would.
“Do you travel to the seminary?” I asked, though I knew the answer.
She turned her broad face and dark eyes to me, her expression guarded.
“How long a journey should I expect?”
“Two hours,” she said flatly, before returning her gaze to the hands in her lap.
I didn’t mind her shyness. I was relieved—relieved to have someone to follow and also glad the girl wasn’t given to chatter and questions. Free to gaze out the window, I took in the wooded scenery and imagined what sort of place awaited me. A female seminary in the middle of Indian Territory must be something like a mission school, I thought. Rougher living than I was accustomed to, but much preferred to living with
and taking care of her brats—and watching her playing wife to the likes of
. My blood boiled at the very thought.
As a distraction, I imagined myself a heroine out of Shakespeare.
As You Like It
seemed best suited to my wooded surroundings, so I became another Rosalind. Life at court had grown dangerous, and thus I must flee to a simple, rustic life. I would trade court intrigues for a quiet existence among the forest people, who would be grateful for my wisdom and company. I only lacked a dear cousin to be my bosom companion. That, and a father waiting for me at the center of the forest.
My stomach growled, as I’d not eaten since that morning, but the warm air and rocking of the coach soon lulled me to sleep. When I woke, damp with perspiration and blinking at the light, the forest had given way to the outskirts of a town. Moments later, the coach jerked to a halt and the door swung open. I scrambled out to collect my bag from the driver, and then I sought the girl who’d sat next to me.
“May I follow you? I’ve never been to the female seminary.”
“I thought so.” She pointed at my bag. “Is that all you have?”
“Yes, it is.” I blushed, for it was indeed very little. Yet it was everything I had in the world.
“I didn’t think to meet someone with less than me. My trunk will be sent separately. Will you follow me?”
Despite her blunt manner, I was grateful to have someone in the lead so I could look about me. Tall, elegantly bricked storefronts lined the main street, including two general stores, a druggist, a livery stable, and more. Distracted by a pretty park area with a burbling creek, I did not look into the distance ahead of us until the girl spoke again.
“That’s it—up there on the hill.”
I looked up and nearly stumbled. This was no lowly mission school cobbled together with the labor of poor folk who wanted their children to learn numbers and letters.
This was a
I turned to the girl. “It’s not at all what I expected,” I breathed.
She ducked her head, saying nothing.
The school was enormous, intimidating and elegant all at once. A three-story, redbrick structure, it boasted two fairy-tale turrets at the center, framing the entrance, and at the right a handsome clock tower reaching up to the sky. A walkway made of wooden slats led to a wrought-iron gate that arched in front of the building. Two lampposts stood just beyond the gate. I couldn’t have been more surprised if the school had been surrounded by a moat and we’d been forced to enter by drawbridge.
In truth, I felt emptied out when looking upon it. There was barely anything left to keep me from blowing away in that relentless wind. No food in my belly, no bravery in my heart. Barely a thought in my head except for wonderment.
The girl walked on, undaunted. We climbed the steps and passed through the brick archway of the building to stand before the large double doors. The girl boldly opened one door and walked through, not bothering to stand aside for me to enter. I followed her into a large vestibule with a bricked fireplace at the right and a handsome staircase with polished wood banisters to my left.
I’d set my bag down to take in these impressive surroundings when the silence was interrupted by a crash and piercing scream in the next room.
The girl frowned. “Someone’s in the parlor.”
I followed her through the corridor to a well-furnished sitting room. Three ladies stood by a low table set for tea, their faces stricken. They were teachers, fashionably dressed and quite lovely to look upon. My heart sank a little, and I shivered at the strange chill in the air. On second glance, I saw that one lady’s fingers were bloodied, her bodice soaked with tea, and the shattered remains of a cup and saucer lay on the floor by her skirt.
Her eyes were wild as she looked to us. “It fell to pieces in my hands!”
The lady next to her, who was taller and possessed a bolder beauty, tossed her head. “She wasn’t handling it roughly.”
“Miss Crenshaw is going to blame us anyway, Fannie.” The third lady was plump and bespectacled.
“But it wasn’t my fault!” The injured lady paled as she stared at her bloodied hand.
The plump one gripped her arm. “We know whose fault it was,” she hissed. “But
won’t believe us.”
Fannie sighed and pulled a handkerchief from her sleeve. “Wrap this around your hand, Lelia. If we throw away the broken pieces, Miss Crenshaw might never know.” She turned to us, her eyes narrowing at the girl next to me. “Unless
say something, Lucy Sharp.”
My companion’s spine stiffened at the lady’s imperious tone. I could do nothing but stare at Fannie, mesmerized by her deep green eyes. Surely I needed to speak, to introduce myself, but my tongue stuck in my throat.
Just then, a tall figure in black swept into the room. Everyone but me lowered her head. The woman, older and plain but with a commanding presence, surveyed the damage in silence. The moment stretched on for a small eternity before she finally spoke.
“Lucy, help them clean up—they seem to have worked themselves into a tizzy over nothing.”
The three ladies relaxed visibly, but Lucy’s face was grim as she knelt to retrieve the shattered pieces of porcelain. My stomach chose that time to growl most hideously.
The woman in black turned to me, her eyebrows raised in question.
“May I help you, young lady?”
I choked back a gasp.
I’m Willie Hammond, and your bulldog face doesn’t scare me
Straightening my spine, I stifled that thought and cleared my throat.
“I am Angeline McClure, ma’am. Your new English teacher.”