Today's Reading

For the rest of the journey, her mood was black. She spoke to no one and grimaced at every shudder of the coach's frame as it toiled over the swells. When at last they crested the final hill and began the slow descent into Springfield, the view that rose up before her was a match for her mood. Streets treacled with mud and horse dung. Unpainted mud-daubed cabins. Steers and hogs and the noisiest wagons in creation, piled high with corn and turnips. Shoeless farmers and their shoeless wives and children. Not a sidewalk, not a streetlight. The mud so thick the stage could barely pull through. An ugly, raw, primordial town.

What had she done? Why had she left behind the four walls she knew? The people who loved her? Father and Sally and Nelson and Madame Mentelle and Mrs. Ward. She had thrown them all away on a bet.

"Now now," said the deacon's sister, resting her hand on Mary's. "Why should you be crying, dear one? You're going to your future."


Living in a frontier town, Ninian Edwards liked to say, was no different from living anywhere else. You just had to find a way to rise above.

In a town like Springfield, you might start by shaking off your fifteen-by-eighteen cabin for a two-story frame house with wooden paling. From there, if you were feeling bullish about your prospects, you might graduate to something in the Greek Revival style, with as many as four rooms upstairs and another room in the attic and a back stairway. This stairway would necessarily consume part of your kitchen, which would then require you to eat all your meals in the dining room. From there it was a short step to the cherry dining table with the turned legs and thence to the French bedsteads that sold for ten dollars. Why stop there? Why not build a wide hall with parlors on both sides? From there, you would necessarily have to hire servants to clean all the rooms and to spare your wife, in her newly minted role as hostess, the labor of cooking and laundering and child rearing.

But finally, the best way to stand out among your fellows was to move skyward. It was, thus, the impulse of Ninian Edwards—an impulse very much encouraged and, one might even say, fomented by his distinguished wife—to buy the first plot and to build the first house on the elevation known (with some bitterness and only by those who did not live there) as Quality Hill.

This being Illinois, it could scarcely be called a hill, but the house was pitched at least thirteen feet above its nearest competitors and boasted two floors and five servants and a dizzying fifteen rooms, including bedrooms for the master and mistress. But where the house particularly excelled in the eyes of the Springfield gentry was in its front parlor, which ran for an unprecedented forty feet, making it longer than most flatboats and giving it the capacity to hold as many notables as Ninian Edwards, in his position as lawyer and state representative, could cram inside.

For his wife, Elizabeth, however, the room that bore the most strategic value was the spare bedroom. Here she had resolved to install each of her younger sisters until such time as they were carried off by husbands. Frances Todd was the first beneficiary of that campaign and was claimed—within a year and to a mostly lukewarm response—by William Wallace, a genial, impoverished doctor and drugstore proprietor who harbored dreams of land speculation.

Now it was Mary's turn, and her pride bridled not just at being second but also at being so scarcely concealed a burden. Ninian, for all his upward aspirations, had weathered setbacks in the panic of thirty-seven, and with his liquidity strained by the cost of entertaining, he was not eager to add more debits in the form of Todds. But he himself had a young cousin he was preparing to bring into the world, and after weeks of remorseless negotiations with his wife—waged in each of their fifteen rooms—Ninian agreed that Mary could be sent for.

Never was there a question of whether she would come.

At the time of her summons, she was working as an apprentice teacher at her old school. She had taken the job on the premise that teaching was a perfectly honorable profession for an unmarried gentlewoman and that there might be worse ways to fill one's days than helping Mrs. Ward herd a pack of Lexington girls from grammar to arithmetic to history to plain sewing. Yet she couldn't escape the feeling that every time she read aloud from Miss Swift's Natural Philosophy, every time she encouraged some tin-eared ten-year-old to plump up her French vowels, she was being measured for a coffin. Her father was more than usually absent from home—the state senate, the branch bank, and the family manufactory all claimed their pieces of him—and Mary had little to do with her spare time but quarrel with her stepmother and pick her way through the thickening ranks of Todd brats. Springfield, Illinois, may have been on the edge of civilization, but it had the advantage of being there and not here.

So, in the fall of 1839, she came.

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