Synopsis: Be careful what you wish for. A What Happened Later for Marie, My Love.
Rating: PG-13 (mild sexual content)
Word count: 5,275
Marie, Once More
If you no longer live,
If you, my love, if you
have died, . . .
my feet will want to find you wherever you lie sleeping,
but I will stay alive. . . .
Pablo Neruda, “The Dead Woman”
Afterward, what Ben remembered was how quiet the night had been. The boys were off on a cattle drive. Hop Sing was visiting relatives in San Francisco. Days and nights of solitude stretched before him.
It was the kind of night that made him long for Marie. A night of privacy, when they could make love on the settee or wherever else they chose. His sons would have been at least slightly shocked to know how many places in this respectable home had hosted their passions. Every room at one time or another. The long low pine table in front of the fireplace. Ben’s desk, where they’d swept everything to the floor before he bent her over and raised her skirts. The kitchen floor while Hop Sing was in town. Even the dining room table, which had creaked slightly under their weight, causing them to finish quickly and roll off before it could collapse. Not to mention the barn, its loft, and even the front porch late at night when no one else was awake.
Now, he sat in his red leather chair next to the fireplace, trying not to dwell on the memories of their lovemaking because really, what was the point? He didn’t even know what was conjuring up these thoughts tonight. Surely he’d be better off at his desk, working, making plans for the future of the Ponderosa.
Except he missed her. Always had, always would. He missed Elizabeth and Inger, of course, but there was something different about the way he missed Marie. Maybe because they’d had more time together, and much of that time had been right here, in this house. This had been her last home. She belonged here as much as he did.
“I miss you, cherie,” he said aloud. Tears welled up. He was not surprised; he’d realized long ago that they would never go away. Her absence would always pain him, like the occasional ache in the leg he’d broken as a young rancher trying to gentle a horse that would not be tamed. “I miss you,” he repeated, tears falling. “I miss you so much. I miss you, I miss you, I miss you.”
“And I miss you.”
He could hear her voice as if she stood beside him, and it pierced his soul. How could she have left him that way? Not that it was her choice—the horse fell, she had no control over that—but in an instant, their life together was over. She was gone and it wasn’t fair, it wasn’t right, it wasn’t fair—he could almost feel her gentle hand on his shoulder, as if she were really in the room, really present, her lips in his hair, her breath on his cheek—
“Benjamin, mon cheri.”
He sobbed in earnest now, his fantasy of her so vivid he thought he could smell her perfume, faded roses with a touch of what might have been dust. “Why did you leave me? Marie, my love, why did you leave?”
“I didn’t want to.”
He was losing his mind, he must be. He could have sworn he heard her speak, that musical lilt making even the most mundane statement magical. Then he thought he felt her again, her arms around his shoulders, her kiss on his brow. He looked up, and—
There she stood, as beautiful as the day she died. Her silken blond curls, her wide brown eyes, her luscious pink lips. “Marie,” he whispered. “Oh, my Marie. If only you were really here.”
“I am, Benjamin.”
The statement was so startling that he stopped crying. He reached out, expecting to see his hand go through his dream, but she caught it and held it.
“Marie?” It was impossible, but it was real. She stood next to him as though she’d never left. Her touch was cool, but otherwise exactly as he’d known it. He tried to speak, but he choked on his own voice. He started to rise, but she pushed him back into his chair and settled herself on his lap as she had so many times.
“It’s really me, cheri,” she said. “Truly, mon amour.”
“But—but how—what—why—?” His thoughts and feelings and words jumbled together, none coherent.
“Ssssh.” She placed her fingers on his lips as she had done so many times before. “I have been trying to come back to you ever since that day. And now, here I am.” She kissed him, and his heart pounded.
“But—how? Are you—are you alive? Did you not—?” He couldn’t say “die.”
“I did,” she said. “But I’m here. I can’t explain why.” She stroked his hair. “Your hair was dark then.”
He smiled in spite of the tears still staining his cheeks. “It’s been a long time,” he said. “Eighteen years.” And two months and four days, he nearly added.
“The boys are grown.”
He wasn’t certain whether she was asking him or telling him. “Yes,” he said. “Have you—can you—do you—?”
“I have not seen them,” Marie said. “But I imagine Little Joe has grown up.”
“We don’t call him Little Joe very much anymore,” Ben said. “He’s just Joe now.”
“He’ll always be Little Joe to me,” she said. “And Hoss—he was a big boy then.”
“Now he’s even bigger than Inger’s brother,” Ben said. A thought occurred to him. “Have you met her? Or Elizabeth?”
Marie’s laugh filled the room. “Are you worried that we’ve talked about you?”
“I—I just wondered—Are they coming, too?”
“No, mon amour,” she said. “It doesn’t work that way.”
“How does it work?”
Marie sighed. Even her sigh was lovely. “I can’t explain. Just know that I was able to come back to you. I know it seems like a long time to you, but for us, it was the blink of an eye.”
“How long can you stay?”
She kissed him. “As long as you like. I’ll be here until you say, ‘Begone.’”
“I would never do that.” He wrapped his arms around her and held her close. She shifted in his lap, and he could feel himself responding. He wanted to ask if they could make love, but it seemed a strangely presumptuous thing to ask of his dead wife.
She extricated herself from his arms and rose from his lap. “Come, mon cheri,” she said, holding out one delicate hand. The look in her eyes told him everything he needed to know. Laughing like newlyweds, they ran up the stairs to his bedroom.
The next morning, his first thought was that it had been a dream. Then, he turned his head and saw her asleep on her side of the bed. He reached over and stroked her hair, and he could feel it under his fingers. He nuzzled his face in her curls, and he smelled again the faint scent of faded roses and dust. He reached around her to draw her body close to his, his hand cupping her breast as he had so many times when he was alive.
“Good morning, my darling,” she whispered. She turned over, smiling drowsily.
“I can’t believe you’re really here,” he said. “I’m so afraid I’m going to wake up.”
“Be awake,” she said. “I’m really here.” She kissed him; her lips were cool.
Banging on the door downstairs startled both of them. “Who is that?” she asked.
“Probably one of the hands,” Ben said. “Wait here.” He pulled on his robe, tying the sash as he descended the stairs. When he opened the door, he saw Cody, one of the few who hadn’t gone on the cattle drive.
“Morning, Mr. Cartwright,” said Cody. The boy looked uncomfortable, as if he’d caught Ben doing something unseemly.
“Morning, Cody,” Ben said. “What can I do for you?”
“Well, sir, you said we were going over to Mr. Anthony’s ranch to look at that stallion first thing in the morning, and—well, it’s almost ten, and I wanted to be sure you were okay.” As if to prove the boy correct, the grandfather clock next to the door chimed ten.
Ben had no idea what time he and Marie had finally fallen asleep, but the truth was that all he wanted was to return to their bed. “Tell you what,” he said. “You and Clint go over and take a look at the stallion and tell me what you think. If he’s worth the trip, I’ll go over later.”
Cody looked uncertain. “Yes, sir,” he said. Then he glanced past Ben, and his eyes widened. “We’ll take care of it, sir.” He darted away, and Ben closed the door.
“Who was that?” Marie asked. Ben whirled around to see her coming down the stairs. She wore wearing Joe’s rough brown robe.
“What are you doing down here?” he demanded. He could only imagine the stories that would be circulating among the men.
“I’m going to make us some breakfast,” she said. “After all, we need to keep our strength up.” She rose up on her toes to kiss him and took his hand to lead him into the kitchen.
Two hours later, they were finishing their breakfast in bed. Ben couldn’t recall when he’d ever felt so contented. He hated to get up, but he didn’t know when Cody would return, and he certainly didn’t want to be caught in flagrante delicto again. “Darling, I need to get up,” he said.
She pouted. “Must you?”
“I must. Will you be here later?” He kept his voice casual, but his heart pounded.
“I told you before. I’ll be here until you say, ‘Begone.’”
“That could never happen,” he said, kissing her. Before he could get up, her arms were around his neck, and she was pulling him down on top of her again.
The pattern continued for three blissful days. When Ben went outside, the ranch hands were careful not to meet his eye. He considered having a word with Cody about discretion, but that horse had clearly left the barn.
He told Marie to stay inside. He couldn’t risk having anyone see her who might recognize her. “What would Roy Coffee say if he saw you?” Ben asked as they ate dinner one night.
“Most likely, he wouldn’t believe his eyes,” Marie said. She sipped her wine. “But I’m not interested in him. It’s the boys I want to see.”
“No.” The word was out before he could stop it.
“No?” Her left eyebrow arched.
“You can’t do that to them.” As if it had happened yesterday, he remembered his boys weeping at her graveside. Little Joe wailing, Hoss sobbing, Adam clenching his jaw as tears rolled down his face. Heartbroken, all of them.
It had taken so long for them to get over her death. Even now, Joe’s eyes grew wistful whenever anyone mentioned Marie although he never tired of their well-worn stories. Hoss chuckled as he told tales of her wonderful meals, and Adam recalled how she taught him to dance. But being able to talk about her without tears and sorrow had come at a high price. One Ben was determined they would never pay again.
But Marie said, “They’re my sons, too. I have a right to see them. As their mother.”
“No,” Ben said. “I won’t allow it.”
“There’s only one thing you can do to stop me.” Her eyes flashed fire as she mouthed the word begone.
No. There had to be another way. “Can’t you do something so that only I can see you?”
Her laugh had a bitter note. “It doesn’t work that way, mon amour. It’s all or nothing. I’m here, or I’m gone.”
“What if you left, but not permanently? Could you come back again?” Maybe they could work something out where she only came to him when everyone was away.
She shook her head. “This is it. If I leave again, it’s forever.”
He could almost feel his heart breaking. “Surely we can figure something out.”
“Why is it so awful if I see the boys? Don’t you think they’ll want to see me?”
Of course they would, he admitted to himself. Joe would be thrilled beyond all imagining. Adam and Hoss, too. They could be a family again, all of them together. He was a fool even to hesitate.
Maybe the answer was to pretend she was someone else, someone who merely looked like Marie. So many people had come and gone through Virginia City over the years that practically no one would remember her. Roy Coffee, and a few others, but not many.
He tried to imagine telling Roy the truth, that Marie had returned from the dead. Roy would probably have him locked up in the asylum, he thought ruefully. He’d never believe it.
Neither would the boys. No matter what she told them, they wouldn’t believe her. Joe would hate them both, convinced they were lying to him, toying with his feelings about his mother. Adam, always so logical, would never accept the notion. Even Hoss, who would be most likely to countenance a supernatural experience, would think it was a cruel joke.
Ben regarded the beautiful woman drinking from the rose-colored coffee cup. She’d chosen these cups. In fact, her mark was all over the house. It was her home as much as it was theirs.
The next morning, Marie announced, “I’d like to go into Virginia City.”
“What?” Ben, who was putting on his boot, stopped dead.
“I’ve been in this house for days. It would be nice to get out and see everyone again.”
“You can’t do that!”
She shrugged prettily. “Why not?”
“You’re—you’re dead. You’re a ghost.” It was the first time he’d said it aloud.
She shrugged again. “They won’t know that.”
“Darling, you just can’t,” Ben said even though there was a part of him that was growing restless, too. He hadn’t spent this long sequestered in the house since last year when Little Joe had pneumonia. While Adam and Hoss ran the ranch, Ben spent hours by his youngest son’s bedside, making steam tents to help him breathe, helping him to sip broth between coughing fits, reassuring the boy—and himself—that everything would be all right. When the day finally came that the two went outside, Joe still unsteady on his father’s arm, the sun on their faces felt like a benediction.
Marie had never been the type to sit inside and do needlework. If she had, she mightn’t have been riding the gray stallion that fateful day, Ben thought before he could stop himself. But he’d known from the start what she was like, ever since he saw her riding in New Orleans.
“I suppose you could wear a veil and use a different name,” he ventured.
“Don’t be silly,” she said. “I am who I am. I haven’t come all the way back from beyond to pretend.”
“What if we go for a ride around the ranch instead?” He wasn’t certain why he suddenly felt so desperate. So what if she did tell people who she was? Nobody would believe her. At most, they’d think she was beautiful and feeble-minded. Even Roy would never believe it was really her.
Except what if word got back to his sons that their father had been parading around Virginia City with a woman who claimed to be the late Marie Cartwright? Adam and Hoss would be horrified; Joe would be devastated. No. She couldn’t go out and see people without a disguise and a false name, and she couldn’t see anyone she’d known. She simply couldn’t.
She was wearing that determined look that used to mean she was going to get her way no matter what. Ben wasn’t certain whether to be furious or frightened, so he used the only weapon at his disposal: he pushed aside the dishes, set her on the table, and lifted her skirts.
That was Friday. Marie had come to him on Monday night. Saturday night, she announced that she wanted to go to church on Sunday. “At least there would be no more doubters about life after death,” she pointed out.
“We can’t,” Ben said for what felt like the thousandth time. The truth was that he wanted to go to church, if only to see something besides the walls of his own house and barn, but he couldn’t take Marie. He was getting worried, though. Her restlessness was increasing. She’d taken to rearranging the furniture every time he went out to the barn. When she ran out of ways to move the chairs and settee around, she set to work reorganizing the kitchen; Hop Sing would have a fit when he came back, but it kept her occupied.
Even when she went out back to the garden to pick vegetables for meals, Ben watched to make sure she wouldn’t sneak off to the barn, grab a horse, and ride away. It was the same reason he didn’t take her riding—if she decided to head for Virginia City, how could he stop her? He suggested a buggy ride, but she dismissed that as something for old women. “I’m not old,” she said with a so there! head bob. It was true, of course: she literally hadn’t aged a day.
Which was another reason he couldn’t take her to Virginia City—the people who had known her would recognize her instantly. Not that they’d believe she could really be Marie, but they’d remark on the resemblance, and what could he say? If he wasn’t willing to admit she was Marie, how would he explain where he met her?
So many questions, and no answers.
On Monday, Cody came back from town with the mail. “The widow Dobson sent you a note,” he added.
“Thanks, Cody.” Ben waited until the young man had gone back to the corral before opening Susannah Dobson’s note.
My dearest Ben,
I would very much like for you to come to dinner on Wednesday.
With my fondest wishes,
“What is that?” Marie asked.
“Nothing,” said Ben. “Just a note from a friend.”
“Is it someone I know?”
“No,” he said honestly.
“What does this friend want?”
He wanted to tell her it was none of her business, but she was his wife. “It’s a dinner invitation.”
“How delightful! It will be wonderful to meet your friend!”
Not once during any of his marriages had Ben ever strayed, but now he felt as if he were doing precisely that. Over the past two months, he and Susannah Dobson had enjoyed several dinners, and their encounters were definitely trending toward the romantic. He wasn’t in love with her, but his feelings were heading in that direction. Susannah was kind, generous, intelligent, and amusing. Their conversations ran the gamut from lighthearted banter to spirited debate to solemn discussions about important subjects. She had told him about her late husband; he had told her about his wives. Susannah had twin sons who were bankers in Chicago and a daughter who was married to a Philadelphia lawyer. Susannah’s husband was a doctor who came to Virginia City to build the first hospital; a year later, he died of the fever in that very hospital.
“Why did you stay on?” Ben inquired over dinner one night.
“Because in a short time, Virginia City became my home,” Susannah replied. “I’ve never had any interest in Philadelphia, and I spent quite enough years of my life in Chicago. Besides, I like overseeing Jonah’s work here.” As a woman, Susannah was not permitted to serve on the hospital board of directors formally, but after her husband’s passing, the board had voted unanimously to grant her a lifetime honorary membership.
Now, Susannah’s note felt like a fiery branding iron searing his hand. He couldn’t tell Marie about Susannah, any more than he could tell Susannah about Marie’s return. The truth was that he wanted to have dinner with Susannah. He loved Marie, truly he did, but right then, all he wanted to do was to ride into Virginia City and accept Susannah’s invitation in person. Then, he would drop by the sheriff’s office to chat with Roy, followed by a stop at the Silver Dollar for a beer, after which he’d ride out to see Lake Tahoe shimmering in the sunlight and then swing by the corral where the hands were busting broncs. His precious house, the one he’d built with his own hands, where he’d raised his sons, where he’d brought her as a bride—it felt stifling.
“Ben? Are you listening?”
“Of course, darling,” he lied.
“No, you’re not,” she said. “I asked you your friend’s name.”
There was no escaping the question. “Mrs. Dobson.”
“Mrs.? What about Mr. Dobson?”
“You’d know him better than I,” Ben said.
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“It means he’s dead,” Ben snapped.
“I don’t actually know everyone who has died,” Marie shot back. “But I’ll be sure to look him up when you send me back.”
“What are you talking about?”
She waved her hand at the note Ben still held. “Clearly you want me to leave so you can have dinner with your friend.”
“I never said that!”
“Then take me to dinner with you.” She crossed her arms and raised an eyebrow.
“And say what? ‘Meet my dead wife’?”
“That’s a terrible thing to call me!” She whirled and ran up the stairs.
“What else should I call you?” Ben shouted after her. The bedroom door slammed.
Ben poured a brandy, drank it in a single gulp, and poured another. He was at a loss, he truly was. On one hand, he was thrilled beyond belief to have Marie back. On the other hand, living with a dead woman was . . . complicated.
In the end, he declined Susannah’s invitation. He wrote that he had a guest staying with him. He wanted to suggest that they meet at another time, but how could this be unless Marie went back—a thought that felt like a dagger in his heart whenever it crossed his mind?
As the days passed, Ben felt more and more as if he were imprisoned. He was certain the reason he and Marie were bickering so much was that she felt precisely the same way. Surely if they could get out of the house and off the Ponderosa, things would be better. They could go to an obscure town where nobody knew them, or maybe somewhere like San Francisco, a city big enough for them to be anonymous. That could work.
Except this would be a temporary fix, he admitted. Sooner or later, they’d have to return to the Ponderosa, and it would only be a matter of time before she began chafing at the notion of remaining in the house and out of sight.
On Thursday afternoon, Ben realized suddenly that the boys would be home the next day. He was no closer to a solution than he’d been the night Marie arrived. All he knew was that they couldn’t see her. Let the ranch hands tell them about the woman Ben had been playing house with during their absence. He could live with that. He could live with anything as long as she didn’t break their hearts again.
Marie had no intention of leaving before they returned. She had made that perfectly clear. In fact, she delighted in prowling around their rooms, scanning the books on Adam’s shelves, admiring Hoss’s enormous bedstead, fingering the locket Little Joe had framed and kept by his bed. She chattered about how happy they would be to see her, how she couldn’t wait to see them all grown up, how marvelous it would be for their family to be together again. “Just like we used to be,” she trilled Thursday night as she brushed her hair.
“Not just like we used to be,” said Ben. “They’re grown men. They’re nothing like the little boys you remember.”
“Nonsense,” she said. “It will be wonderful.” She set down her brush, planted a kiss on Ben’s lips, and climbed into bed, promptly falling asleep.
Hours later, Ben still lay awake, his mind a fierce jumble. The last thing he wanted was for her to leave. Perhaps he was selling his sons short. If he could adjust to having Marie back, why couldn’t they? They’d probably be so glad she’d returned that the fact of her death would vanish from their memories like a tumbleweed. And what if they found out she’d been here and he hadn’t allowed them to see her? Would they ever forgive him for depriving them of this chance to know her? Granted, the pain of losing her had been unbearable, but they were children then. Surely that would make a difference.
All the questions and arguments made sense. The only vote against it was his gut telling him it would never work. The boys would never believe it was her. They would think it was a cruel joke, and they would never forgive him. No matter what Ben or Marie said, none of the boys—especially Joe—would ever accept the notion that Marie came back from the dead.
Eventually, dawn began to lighten the room. Ben was no closer to an answer than when he’d gone to bed. Beside him, Marie slept, a smile on her face.
He got up and went for a long solitary ride. His sons were about to have their world upended. The only way to avoid it was to send his beloved wife away forever. He wished he were coward enough to ride out to a bluff and throw himself off. Marie could return to the beyond, and they could be together for eternity, and while the boys would grieve, they would never know the truth.
Finally, he rode back into the yard. No sign yet of his sons and the drovers. But they would come.
Maybe he was underestimating them. Maybe their sons could handle such an unexpected event as their mother’s return from the dead. Maybe he should give them a chance.
When Ben walked into the house, Marie was sitting at the table. She had set a place for him, but none for herself. Her eyes were dark and unreadable.
“Where were you?” Her voice was dull.
“I went for a ride.”
“I wish you’d invited me.”
“I—I needed to think.”
She laughed humorlessly. “You needed to get away from me.”
“You’re not the same man you were, Ben. I’ve seen it over these few days. You’ve become more independent. You like being on your own. It suits you.”
“I had to get used to being alone,” he said. “I didn’t have a choice.”
“Of course you did,” she said. “You’re wealthy and handsome. You could easily have found yourself another wife. But you didn’t.”
It was true. After her death, after the initial period of searing grief, when the pain leveled off, something shifted. He no longer felt that having a woman in the house was a prerequisite for calling it a home, for calling their little clan a family. He still enjoyed the company of women, and he certainly hadn’t ruled out the notion of marrying again someday, but he no longer felt incomplete without a wife. If he fell in love, with Susannah or someone else, that would be wonderful, but if he didn’t, he could still be content with his ranch and his sons—and someday, their wives and children.
“I love you,” he said, feeling helpless. “That’s never changed.”
“I know,” she said. “But it’s a life you want. A full, complete life. You can’t have that with a dead woman. Any more than I can have it as a dead woman.”
“We could work something out—”
She held up her hand. “What about the boys?” He had no answer. “I wanted to pick up right where we left off, but I was foolish to think it was possible. You all passed that point long, long ago.” He nodded, his throat too tight to allow words to pass. “They’ve already mourned me once. They shouldn’t have to do it again.”
“I don’t understand. Yesterday you were determined to see them. What changed?”
Her eyes were unfathomably sad. “You had a daguerreotype made. Of the four of you.”
“You saw that before.” In fact, she’d exclaimed over it on her second night back, marveling at how their sons had grown into such handsome men.
She nodded her acquiescence. “But this morning, when I looked at them, I realized—I’m nothing to them now. They’ve gone on with their lives.”
“That’s not true—”
She rose and pressed her finger to his lips. “I’m a part of their past. A cherished part. But I’m nothing to their present—or their future. What good can it possibly do them to have a ghost for a mother?”
“We could make up a story. We’ll say you’re Marie’s cousin.” Something. Anything.
“I don’t want to be a story,” Marie said. “I want to be myself. I want to be real.” Tears brimmed in her eyes. “And I cannot be real. Not here. You all can grow and age, go places, have adventures—even fall in love—but all I can ever be is exactly what you see before you. When Little Joe is a grandfather, I will be just what I am right now.” She stood on tiptoe and kissed him tenderly. “I love you, mon cheri. I love you all. That is why you must let me go.”
“We love you, all of us. We always have. We always will.” His voice broke.
From outside came the sound of horses. Men called to one another. He heard the familiar, cherished voices of his sons. “They’re here,” he whispered. He wrapped her in his arms for a final time, kissing her with all the love he could express.
“You must say it,” she whispered against his mouth. “I cannot leave unless you do.”
He felt his heart break as he whispered the word: “Begone.”
And she was.
Behind him, the door opened. “Hey, Pa!” Joe called as his sons entered, full of trail dust and laughter and life.
Ben dashed the tears from his eyes. “You boys are back early. How’d everything go?”
Adam peered at him. “You all right?”
“Oh, sure. I just—” He couldn’t come up with a good lie.
“I know the feeling,” said Hoss. “Dadburned ragweed!”
“I was out this morning. Must have hit a nasty patch.” Ben cleared his throat and mustered up a sneeze.
But Joe was looking at him oddly, sympathetically. “Come on, brothers, let’s clean up!” he said in a voice that was almost too jolly. He clapped his father on the shoulder as they passed him on the way to the bathhouse. As Ben turned, he noticed for the first time the framed locket from Joe’s room lying on the pine table. The locket that had belonged to Marie.
He picked it up and took it back to Joe’s room. For a moment, he held it against his cheek. Then, he set the framed locket on the night stand.
“Goodbye, my love,” he whispered, just in case she could hear.
Tags: Ben Cartwright, death, Family, love, Marie Cartwright
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