"Then we are," he said. "We are engaged. Say you'll be mine. Marry me. It'll make me the happiest man alive. And you can learn to go out in society, and live in a fine house. I'm opening a law practice in Tucson. I'll be sure you wear the best of everything and know how to have the right manners and everything. We'll have a fine address in Tucson. Plenty of children. You'll be a governor's wife before you're old. Marry me."
"Oh, Aubrey, sincerely? You want to marry me?" My heart thundered in my ribs and my throat turned dry as dust. At that second I could see in my mind's eye my mother and sisters, joyfully holding out armloads of gifts for me, the youngest daughter, well-married to this handsome and wealthy lawyer soon to be governor. I'd be appreciated for my fineness of dress and manners, not just my ability to brand a calf and string a lariat. This was so startling I felt as if I needed a walk, too. I wished I'd brought my horse. First thing when we got home, I was going for a long ride. "I don't know why you'd want to marry me. You don't even know me."
"I know enough. You come from a fine family, industrious people with plenty of land. Your beauty makes men faint. You are gentle and polite. The perfect age. There's no woman on earth I could want more."
"I'm going to art school. College. In the east."
I'm not going to claim I was certain I liked kissing him, but I sure never had known that strange stirring it caused. I almost felt relieved when he let me go and sort of settled back in place, saying, "Here come the courting ones." He laughed and I felt at that moment the sound of his laughter was music to me. I never expected this to be the outcome of a simple buggy ride. I felt as short of breath as if I were having the ague again.
I couldn't look at my aunt and Mr. Hanna, but luckily for me, they only had eyes for each other. First thing Aubrey did was pipe right up and say, "We're thinking about getting married, too, folks. Miss Mary Pearl says she'll have me."
"Well," I said, "I said Ma would want us to be engaged before—" Mr. Hanna smiled over his shoulder at his son and me, and said, "Maybe we were the ones needing to be the chaperones, eh, Sarah?"
It was a happy drive home. Aunt Sarah and Mr. Hanna planned to marry. Aubrey and I planned to marry. I made them all promise to let me tell my folks, and not to make a fuss about it until I had done so. The three of them reluctantly agreed, and for the first time in my life I felt as if Aunt Sarah and I were girls, instead of her being the older.
A few days later, I rode Duende to get the mail from Marsh Station. Ezra was perched on behind, and we were both bareback. With the two of us on there, it was hard to balance the crate addressed to Ma from the Park Seed Company. Ma was tickled to pieces and soon as we broke the crate open, she made Ezra, Zachary, and me start to dig up the ground around the front porch. It looked like a box of onions to me. Ma oversaw our digging, and made us fetch the oldest manure from the piles and work it into the soil. While we worked, we sang. And then there was a pause between songs while Ma thought of another one, and I said merrily, "Ma? Aubrey Hanna asked me to marry him."
She stared at me as if I'd told her I had danced on the roof, then her face broke into a great grin. "Is that so?"
"Yes," I said. "I told him I am going to school, and I'm too young to marry anyway."
"Well, well, no, you're not. Plenty of girls marry at seventeen."
"I'll be nineteen when I get home from school. I always figured to marry at nineteen."
She handed me a bunch of bulbs and said, "Put one of these in each hole. Five inches deep. When did he ask you?"
"A few days back. I've been thinking about it."
"You're not going to turn him down, are you?"
"What do these flowers look like? I reckon I can learn to draw all kinds of flowers at art school."
"But you're engaged. Betrothed. You can't leave home now. That's my final word."
"But, Ma, I'm no different than I was ten minutes ago before I told you. You told me I could go to school. Aren't we going to talk it over with Pa?" I asked. "I've been planning on going away to school. I told Aubrey about it. That it was settled."
But right then, Aunt Sarah drove up in her buggy with Granny seated beside her. First thing Ma said was, "Mary Pearl is going to marry Aubrey Hanna. She's not going to Illinois. Isn't that good news?"
My aunt looked surprised and gave me a look I couldn't figure. "No art school? I thought you'd had your heart set on it."
This excerpt ends on page 13 of the hardcover edition.
Monday we begin the book ROUGE: A NOVEL OF BEAUTY AND RIVALRY by Richard Kirshenbaum.