Phoebe Apperson, George Hearst
Whitmire Campground, Franklin County, Missouri
Phoebe could not take her eyes off George Hearst.
He sat not very comfortably on her mother’s horsehair sofa in the parlor, in his flannel shirt and heavy boots.
No one could possibly have suspected him of being the wealthiest man in the county. Phoebe was having a difficult time believing it herself, though the whispers were that he had come back from the Nevada silver mines a rich man. Her eyes kept drifting to spots on his shirt that she feared might be tobacco stains.
He was old, as old as her father. But he was tall, more than a foot more so than she, and strikingly manly in appearance. He had deep set blue eyes, and a musical voice with a slow, soft Southern accent. His face was rough and wind-burned under a bushy, long beard, and the roughness was part of his appeal.
And there was that thing that set him apart from the farmers of Missouri. She could almost smell it on him… rock and metal; spicy pine sap; cold, crisp wind.
She could smell adventure.
Phoebe had been born right there on the Missouri frontier, in the small wilderness settlement of Whitmire Campground. Unlike many of the other settlers, Phoebe’s family were not pioneers. Her mother had grown up as a Southern lady, with manners and property, and had brought Phoebe up to be and expect the same. But Drusilla was also a formidable household manager and had drilled her daughter in the importance of hard work, had taught her to sew, wash, iron, mend, and churn.
Phoebe’s father, a farmer, Presbyterian elder and Sunday School teacher, treated Phoebe much as he would have a firstborn son. She helped him with accounting in his general store; they rode horses together, they even wrote poetry together. He’d always encouraged her education, first at the common school and then the Steelville Academy finishing school—though the higher education she longed for was not available to women. Instead, her parents had arranged for her employment in the prosperous community of Maramec, as a governess and tutor at the home of William James, owner of the Maramec Iron Works, and his wife, Lucy Ann Dun James.
Phoebe’s work with the Jameses had given her a taste of a better life.
In the James household, Phoebe’s most secret longings bubbled to the surface. She allowed herself to dream of a beautiful home of her own, of books and music and travel, of moving into society and communing with artists and writers.
She observed Mrs. James’ philanthropy, studied French to elevate herself. She dreamed of escape.
After her time with the Jameses, she took a position as a schoolteacher at a small district school in Reedville. It was a great satisfaction to be making her own money—but she felt the despair of the rural sameness closing in on her. Her prospects of a bigger life were slim. She knew she was pretty; she’d even been called a belle. She was being courted by several young men, but any man in the state who had any ambition had already departed for California. Of those that remained, none of them could change the scope of her life as she so desperately wanted it to change. Her brief glimpse into a different life, richer in every way, seemed to be retreating.
And now, suddenly, George Hearst.
He’d stepped straight out of the papers Phoebe scoured for news of the world outside Franklin County, packed with letters and stories from the gold fields and silver mines, and ads for California-bound ships and stagecoaches.
And San Francisco. That new, wild city. The center of every American’s aspirations.
It seemed an utter wonderland to her.
Mr. Hearst had been there, lived there. He’d made that perilous land crossing, three thousand miles over swollen rivers, alkaline desert and inconceivable mountain ranges. Had survived cholera and near-starvation.
But he’d born and raised on a farm near her father’s, that he’d taken over the running of after his own father died when George was just fifteen. When gold fever had struck the country, Mr. Hearst had been one of the first in Whitmire County to leave. When his mother had taken ill this year, he’d come back from the West to care for her, and Phoebe could still see the grief in his eyes from Mrs. Hearst’s recent death. His emotion touched her. And she could listen all day as he spoke freely of his adventures—never boasting, but patiently indulging the fascinated questions Phoebe could not help but ask. He seemed happy to answer in his slow, easy drawl. When he made light of the dangers of the overland crossing, she was comfortable enough to blurt out, “Were you not much afraid of Indians?”
Immediately she regretted the query. She sounded like a child. But Mr. Hearst looked at her thoughtfully. “It is a strange thing—that I have travelled all over the country and never had an Indian molest me in my life. Perhaps because I was a boy amongst them I had a better chance to study their nature and habits. Anyway the Indians seemed to take to me and it may be because they felt I understood them. I hardly know how to account for this except in the way of destiny.”
Phoebe had never heard anyone talk like that. Except perhaps for her father. There was something almost godly in Mr. Hearst’s quiet conviction.
“I think it’s very brave of you to have gone,” she said. “To be one of the first, when it was all so new and…” Perilous, she thought. “So uncertain,” she finished.
He chuckled, a low, warm laugh. “I recollect talking it over with my mother. She did not like it at all. But I told her they were making forty and fifty dollars a day there and that it seemed to me it was by far the best thing to do, as it is pretty hard pulling here.” Phoebe saw a shadow pass over his face before he continued. “She said that if they were doing that, she had no doubts I would make something, too, and she agreed for me to go.”
He was silent for a moment, and then said abruptly. “This is a poor place. You can make a living out of farming, but that’s about all.”
Their eyes met, and Phoebe burst out, “The country is so poor and rough. The people of Missouri have to work so hard. Some of the people here are so miserably poor, it makes me almost sick to see it. And they think it is a good place to live.”
“It’s not,” he said, in a strange, flat tone.
When she walked him to the door, she noticed again how he towered over her. It made her feel tiny… and protected.
On the porch, she thought he would to speak, but he was silent, looking out over the acres of farmland. Finally he turned to her, looked down at her from his height. “You don’t belong here, Phoebe Apperson. There’s more for you. Much more.”
Later that day, Phoebe and her father saddled their horses and went out riding in the lush trees of the Meremac Valley, as they had done since she was just a small girl. As always, she thrilled to the freedom of riding, feeling Prince’s powerful rhythm beneath her, supporting her, as they loped through the familiar woods and gentle rises. She was seized by the familiar longing: to see the new vistas she read about… oceans and towering mountains and dazzling cities.
Sights and experiences that now seemed within reach.
George Hearst was rough. He was twice her age. He’d had almost no formal schooling. But he’d said himself that he’d read every book on mining he could get hold of, and read for pleasure when he could. “Two and a half years was all the time I ever spent in a school house. But I liked the school first-rate and was very ambitious to learn everything. It would worry me terribly if I could not succeed.”
He had a manliness of bearing, and a kindliness of manner that she found magnetic. Even more than that, she felt comfortable with him.
Ahead of her, her father slowed his horse and dropped back to ride beside her, rousing her from her thoughts. “You are quiet, Puss.”
The gentle concern in his voice nearly undid her. She felt tears in her eyes, at the back of her throat.
“Just thinking, Pa.” Her voice trembled as she said it.
She knew her parents disapproved of Hearst’s courting, were not in favor because of his age, though they knew perhaps better than she that Mr. Hearst was her best chance to have a bigger life.
“I do not know how I feel,” she said aloud.
But Mr. Hearst had opened a door in her mind. Not merely an escape route. A chance for so much more. Adventure. Travel. California. The pinnacle of dreams.
Her father cleared his throat. “Mr. Hearst has proposed to settle fifty shares of stock in his Gould & Curry Gold and Silver Mining Company in your name. Yours, for your natural life.”
Phoebe was startled. There was no law in existence that compelled a man to give his wife any property in marriage.
“It is not a fortune, Puss, but it is a fine income. I did not ask for anything of the kind. It is entirely his idea. And in California, it would belong to you, as that state’s law allows women their own property.”
Her own property. Why, not even Mrs. Lucy Dun James had such a thing.
But it was Hearst’s last words to her that day that decided her.
George Hearst saw her.