Wednesday, January 3, 1906
It was breathtaking, the snow, all blinding white, crisp, clean, cold. White fluffy drifts and dunes everywhere. I felt light hearted.
“This is wonderful,” I said to Sydney Anning, as I looked around at the blinding whiteness that was everywhere. There had been a fresh snowfall the night before, and the houses, streets, bushes were blanketed with smooth, white snow. It all seemed so clean and perfect, the air crisp, not a cloud anywhere, my breath coming out in white clouds against the sharp blue sky.
I lightly glided my gloved fingers across a smooth hill of snow on the front porch rail, then pushing my hand all the way down to the rail, and brushing the snow off of it. “Is it always this beautiful?” I said, walking down the steps of the house to the sidewalk, with a smile and a feeling like my life was about to take off.
Sydney just laughed at me and shook his head in amusement. “It snows all the time, Wilson; you won’t see grass again until almost April. And this cold — well, enjoy it while you can.”
I shook my head in amazement — “April? Oh, surely not,” I said. It was exhilarating — I felt buoyant, lighthearted, free. I hadn’t felt like this in years — It was my first day in a new place, and I felt happy, feeling the potential and the possibilities just ahead of me that were within my reach. I was anxious to get my day and my new life started. Without Cephas, or anyone, anything from the past to stand in my way.
Sydney only shrugged and pulled his hat down lower over his ears, as a gust of wind swept through, blowing loose snow and buffeting the bare, creaking tree branches.
I spent yesterday getting to know Sydney as we rode around town in the family wagon, at Luella Anning’s suggestion. He was the head sales clerk at Lawrence Brothers, a hardware manufacturer located across the river in Rock Falls. When we had seen what there was to see in Sterling, he drove us across the 1st Avenue Bridge to show me where he worked. As we crossed the bridge, I was astounded at what looked like massive islands of ice in the Rock River.
“It looks as if you could go right onto one of those ice islands, and float down the river,” I said to Sydney, watching them as we drove slowly across the bridge.
“You probably could, he said, but you wouldn’t want to. The ice men go down there to harvest the ice for summer, but it is very dangerous. Several men have died after falling in, it is so cold. Also, a lot of folks are worried about larger ice floes coming downstream; that ice could destroy the bridge.”
This morning, Sydney had offered to walk with me to the office on my first day at Van Sant & Wilson, to show me the way. I had told Sidney that Nick Van Sant had set up the law office and mailed a key to me — I had no idea what to expect because it was unfinished when I first saw it in October. But I didn’t care — I was simply looking forward to a fresh start and to making my own way as a lawyer.
Sidney thought it would be interesting. “A lot of folks downtown were saying that Old Man Van Sant spent a lot of money on that office space over the shoe store, and keeping it to himself what it looks like,” he said. “You mind if I come take a look at what he did with the place?”
“Not at all,” I said. “I’d appreciate the company. I’m not even sure Nick will stop by today.”
The Anning’s house was located on the corner of Third and Avenue H. You couldn’t get lost in Sterling, I thought; the streets are named and organized in numerical and alphabetical order. It appealed to my sense of organization. It was neat and tidy; predictable. This might sound odd, but it was one of the things I liked about this city when I first visited back in October. It was as if the town offered me a simple, logical framework from which to build my life all over again, to reinvent myself for myself — a foundation I could use, not someone else’s.
Sydney’s younger brothers had shoveled the steps and the front sidewalk clear, but the rest of the sidewalks leading to downtown Sterling were not clear, and most of the walk into town was sort-of a march, picking up our feet to move along in snow that was over our ankles, and deeper, in a few places.
It was an easy eight-block walk east; one way downtown — easy, that is, on a normal day without several inches of snow to trudge through.
The walk into town was a bit of a challenge — trudging through several inches of fresh snow on the sidewalk in borrowed snow boots that had belonged to Mr. Anning, who died a few years ago. The office was in the Wolf Building, 1 West Third Street, over the Killen & Peters shoe store. “That would be handy,” Mrs. Anning had said to me as we left the house that morning. “You can pick up a good pair of boots and save your nice shoes. Tell them you’re Mr. Van Sant’s new partner” — she added — “they’ll take good care of you.”
When we reached the building, I looked up at the modest red brick structure; the center window facing the street had painted on it, in black letters, “Van Sant & Wilson. Attorneys-at-Law.”
“Here we are,” I said to Sydney, who was also looking up at the windows.
“I really don’t know what to expect,” I said to Sydney, as we stomped the snow off of our boots outside the entryway to the stairs. “Nick had brought me over here, showed me the building and the office space, but most of what I saw was empty rooms, some painting and plastering going on, and sawhorses.”
We trudged up the narrow staircase, and at the top, turned and walked back toward the front of the building. The hallway was dim; the overhead light was yellow and did not illuminate the hall well; the office was located at the front of the building. The glass door leading to the law office was opaque milky white; our names painted in black letters on the door: Van Sant & Wilson. Attorneys-at-Law.
I fished the key out of my pocket that Nick had mailed it to me in one of the last letters home before Christmas.
“Nice,” Sydney said, touching the lettering on the door window.
I nodded; my hand shook a little as I fumbled the key in the lock.
I opened the door; I turned, pushed the light switch button on the wall as we entered.
And we were both astounded.
I just stood there a moment and took it in — the outer office — it was the most elegant, beautiful room I’d ever seen. The first thing you noticed was a large secretary’s desk of dark, heavy oak; the wood polished and shining with two leather chairs in front of it for clients. There were brass fixtures, lamps, leather chairs, a rich oriental rug on the floor. Against the wall, there was a large leather couch with two small fine oak tables on either side; two expensive matching silver lamps stood on each table. I turned the switch on one of the lamps, and a soft, yellow glow filled the side of the room. There was a small bookcase outfitted with a variety of reading materials; mostly legal books; a large silver ashtray on top of the bookcase, engraved with the initials VS & W.
A spittoon was positioned near the client’s chairs in front of the secretary’s desk. An oil painting of a large, white plantation behind the secretary’s desk.
Sydney whistled. I didn’t say anything — I took off my hat, and gazed around the room. It was more beautifully decorated than my Uncle Evelyn Maxwell’s parlor back in Pensacola.
There were two inner office doors — two separate offices. Both had oak doors with opaque white glass, with the words “Mr. Van Sant” one one and “Mr. Wilson” on the other, in black letters. I went over to the door with my name on it — I paused a moment to take it in.
“Go on, Wilson,” Sydney said, excitedly. “Open the door. Let’s see what’s in there.”
I nodded, and turned the handle.
“My God,” I said.
Nick had outfitted the inner office with the best of everything. Floor-to-ceiling oak bookcases lined one side of the room; most of the shelves were filled — there were two or three empty shelves for my own books — but on the shelves were books: beautiful, leather-covered, new.
There was a massive oak partner’s desk in the center of the room; on a small side table next to the desk was an empty crystal decanter with four heavy glasses arranged on a silver tray.
As we walked into the room, we both turned as the oak-and-gold-leaf Grandmother clock hanging on the wall, chimed the half hour softly. There was a small table with an elegant wooden humidor situated below the softly ticking clock. Sydney looked at the small cabinet, then over at me questioningly.
I nodded excitedly to Sydney.
He pulled one of the drawers — it was filled with fine Cuban cigars!
The scent of expensive, fine tobacco wafted out. He looked at me, and I nodded again. “Go ahead.”
Sydney carefully took one of the cigars out, and held it under his nose, inhaling slowly and appreciatively. “I think I’ll save this for later, after lunch,” Sydney said with a chuckle, gently inserting the cigar into his inside coat pocket. “The fellows at the factory will be envious.”
I continued looked around the room some more, taking in the details:
A dark red plush oriental rug covered most of the floor; there was a brass spittoon in here too, but strategically placed off of the rug and to the side of the table holding the humidor. I walked over to the solid oak partner’s desk and put my briefcase on the floor next to the desk —there was a giant green and leather blotter on the top of the desk and I examined it — the leather had a fine gold tooled line all along the edges. There was a silver desk set on one side; a green and brass lamp with two tulip-looking shades pointing down, one to the left, one to the right onto the desk.
Sydney walked over to the wall opposite the bookcases, where there was a separate sitting area for clients. Here were large, comfortable leather chairs that matched the chairs in the outer office, except there was a leather ottoman in front of the chairs, and an oak table outfitted with a silver lamp.
I noticed the wall above the sitting area. It prominently displayed a framed photograph of Science Hall at Stetson University. I smiled at the photo.
“What’s that?” Sydney asked.
“A photo of the law school building at Stetson University. That’s where Nick and I went to school together. Those were some of the best days,” I said, turning to Sydney and smiling.
For a moment I felt happy. Truly happy. Something I hadn’t felt in years — and then, irrationally, momentarily, fear. I glanced around the rich, sumptuous room — the display reminded that all around me, this was really Nick’s office, not mine. And yet, Nick had set this up for me —
“Is that a closet?” Sydney asked, interrupting my thought as he nodded over at the corner, at a nondescript door at the side of the room.
“Open it and find out,” I said. Sydney turned the doorknob, and whistled appreciatively — it was a small washroom; modern, neat and compact. Tiny black and white tiles; a sink and toilet only. Outfitted with monogrammed linens — VS & W.
I came over to look over his shoulder into the bathroom. “The best of everything,” Sydney said. “I don’t know why I would have expected otherwise. Old Man Van Sant doesn’t miss a trick,” he added, with admiration in his voice.
I shook my head in amazement. “And I thought my older brother Meade had something special because he has a washbasin in his office,” I said to Sydney. “This is incredible.”
“I’ll say,” Sydney added. “Just think, Wilson. If you wanted to, you wouldn’t ever have to leave the office. A man could live right here,” he said, admiringly.
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