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Chapter 101: Day One in Sterling

October 25, 1905
Residence of Nicholas Van Sant
Sterling, Illinois

A photo postcard of Nicholas Van Sant’s house in Sterling, Illinois. No date for the actual postcard; no postmark either, but likely taken around 1920. This house has been on this site from at least 1904, according to Sterling town records; Emmett would have stayed here. Photo and postcard are the author’s.

I slept well after the three-day train trip to Sterling. Van Sant met me at the Sterling train station, brought me home right away; as it was late, the house was already quiet, but that was no matter — I was glad to be off the train and into an actual bed. I woke to the smell of coffee; headed downstairs for breakfast in the dining room.

Van Sant and his wife, Ella, were already at the table. Nick stood up, came over, shook my hand and introduced me to Ella; she’s polite, hospitable, but seems a bit unfriendly — first impression is that she’s a stern, direct, no-nonsense woman. Unusual: She has correspondence and letters at the table, she’s reading and writing while she’s drinking coffee. She’s been up for a few hours already; begs my pardon because she has a full day of activities and meetings to manage — is sure that he and Nick do as well. Nick chuckles a bit as he passes a platter of scrambled eggs and bacon to Emmett; tells Emmett that this is typical breakfast for himself and Ella. “She’s a one-woman powerhouse in this town, and in my businesses.” Ella’s already deep into correspondence again; doesn’t acknowledge the compliment.

I think about Cephas and Lula in Marianna likely at their breakfast table this morning at the same time — Cephas would never acknowledge the same of Lula publicly. Not that Lula was weak in any way, but she doesn’t have a hand in any of Cephas’ business.

All married couples are a partnership of sorts, but this is a different partnership; subtle but there’s the undercurrent, I realize: Nick trusts his wife; she and Nick present a carefully curated facade to the people of Sterling, to their friends. She’s the stronger in this relationship, I realize — and I remember — it reminds me of my Mother and Father. Mother would never do correspondence at breakfast, but still — I remember that feeling —

“Coffee, Emmett?” Van Sant asks, offering the silver pot to me.

I will have to be on my best behavior while at the VS house. He thinks — I have a flask in my suitcase. Some one will find it and report to Ella. Make a mental note to hide it somewhere in the room/house where won’t be found.

Nick turns to me and asks, “Did I ever tell you the story of how I came to Stetson?”

“No,” I reply. I’ve always been curious, especially with so many different schools to choose from in this part of the country.

“Well,” he said, leaning back and warming to the subject, “It was a long-held dream fulfilled. Although money and opportunity were never really problems for my siblings and myself, my father always instilled the idea of priorities ahead of dreams — we could have what we wanted, but first, we had to earn it. He encouraged us to work hard in the family businesses — shipping, lumber, real estate, you know –” I nodded. “And that’s how my brothers and sisters went about things — we all built our own security through hard work.”

“Couldn’t you go to law school as well during this time? Surely your father would have seen the benefits your education to the family businesses?”

Nick nodded. “I thought about it now and then, but to be honest, it just wasn’t practical. I spoke with Father about it, but he believed it was folly to try serving two masters at one time — and besides — he’d come to rely heavily on me in those days. He called me his right hand,” Nick said, smiling at the memory.

“But you never forgot that dream,” Ella said, softly, looking at Nick, who smiled at his wife.

“Indeed,” Nick added. “I swore I would find a way to make it come true someday, no matter what.”

“And here you are,” I said. “It’s commendable — so many would have given up long ago.” 

Nick smiles over at his wife. “It came about because we am blessed, Emmett. Ella and I appreciate the gifts of hard work in business and professional relationships. But what I’ve truly come to appreciate at my age is the gift of acceptance.”

I look at Nick questioningly. “Acceptance? I’m afraid I don’t follow.”

Nick smiles kindly at me. “While I was at Stetson, I completely enjoyed law school. But while I was away from my businesses and home, I had a lot of time to think deeply about what life would be like for Ella and myself, with me essentially, restarting a career in my mid-50s.”

Nick sits forward in his chair, and leans towards me. “Emmett, I’m established already in local shipping, building, politics, and my pet project, the local YMCA. I have a full plate already. My cup runneth over. Ella has helped me to realize that the idea of having my own legal practice was arrogance. I’m a satisfied man, but I’m happiest being of service to others,” he said, opening his hands. “I went to law school to fulfill a dream, but I don’t need to do more to make more money and build up Earthly prominence even more that I already have.”

I frowned slightly. “I’m sorry, Nick; are you telling me you’ve decided not to go have a law firm?”

“Oh no, son,” Nick said, smiling at me. “What I’m saying is that I’m not going to have time to do anything with running the law firm. At least, not for the first year. Your role will be to run the law firm, top to bottom.”

Involuntarily, my face flushes red while my mouth drops open in astonishment.

“Son, you look shocked!” Nick said, with a chuckle. “Oh, don’t worry,” he added, reaching forward and patting my arm. “I’ll drop in now and then to see how you are doing, and to practice a little bit here and there, but mostly I intend to be hands off. This is why we’re lucky to have you here; we know you, you have experience as a partner with your brother’s firm. This won’t be anything new, except you’ll be fully in charge.” Nick smiled at me broadly. “When you wrote to me about your dreams of running your own law firm, using the knowledge you gained working with Cephas to make your own successful law practice, the timing could not have been more fortuitous!”

“But the practice itself,” I said, stammering. “I don’t understand — what will we be doing, exactly?”

“Public service,” Nick said, enthusiastically. “Helping those who need legal advice, who may have nowhere to turn. The least of our brothers and sisters!”

At that moment, Ella deftly gathered her papers into a neat square, and removed her glasses. “I’ll tell cook to prepare lunch for you and Mr. Wilson,” she said, nodding politely at me. She stood up; Nick and I rose as well. Ella wished us both a good day; she and Nick exchanged a sterile peck, and swept from the room.

I remain standing until she leaves the room, Nick sits back down, chuckles at the shocked look on my face. “What’s the matter, Emmett?”

I’m shocked as hell — I feel shattered really, the dreams and plans I had, the expectation that I was going to be wealthier and more important than Cephas with this move away from Florida — but of course, I can’t say that to Nick — I’d sound like a fool. Instead, I stutter out, “You don’t want to be a lawyer? After all of that time, money, education — years of work….”

“Not true. I do plan to practice now and then. The goal is to share the time, talent and treasure with those less fortunate, through service to others with the law firm. More coffee, Emmett? No?”  

I sit quietly for a few moments.

“Emmett, what’s worrying you about this? Is it the money? Don’t worry — you’ll be well compensated, if that’s what it is.”

“No,” I lie. “It’s just….”

“Getting started so far away from home, is it?” Nick asks. I nod, convincingly I hope. “Well, I’m not worried. I believe in you. You said in more than one of your letters to me that you wanted a chance to prove yourself; I trust you and know the kind of person you are — you have integrity and intelligence — and this seems like the perfect fit for someone with your experience, your attention to detail, and your desire to always do the right thing.”

Nick stands up. “Let’s go. I want to take you around to introduce you to my friends, and to show you the new office.”

“You have an office set up already?”

“Of course. Did I misread the letters you sent from Florida?”

“No…no, but I’m still a bit surprised.” 

“I understand,” Nick said, with a chuckle, gesturing me towards the hallway. “Shall we go? Lots to see and do today.”

Before we leave, I go upstairs to my room. I take my flask out of my suitcase, and find a dark dusty ledge in the closet door frame. I place the flask there carefully; take my overcoat and hat, and join Nick downstairs.

Categories: Book In Emmett's Words

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Communication, Arts, and the Humanities
The University of Maryland Global Campus

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