Robert Boucheron

The Exhibit

     Nora Devereux arrived at seven o’clock, the stated hour, and found the lecture room empty. Built in the 1850s at the height of the Lyceum movement, the room had tall windows, a plank floor, and floral stencils on the plaster. Colorful garlands had faded to tints of rose, amber, and pale blue. Metal folding chairs, painted battleship gray, worn and dented, were salvaged from a school or a basement social hall.
     Nora took a seat, and the rusty joints creaked. A few people straggled in. She shifted, and the chair made noise. Should she leave two empty chairs on the aisle? No, another single person might take the seat, as well as the opportunity to complain. Wasn’t that the point of attending a social function, to socialize?
     The occasion was a new exhibit upstairs, to which Nora made a contribution. Her name was listed among the donors. The contribution was in kind, however, not cash. Purely by chance, in the course of recreational shopping, Nora had discovered a cache of objects and documents in a black leather doctor’s bag. She tipped off Margaret Howe, president of the Historical Society, who then bargained with the shopkeeper and scraped together donations to buy the items. Staff examined them intently and conserved them lightly. The result was a display in a glass case of 1860s medical instruments, letters, photographs, and a silver locket. A dummy stood beside it in a Confederate officer’s dress uniform.
     The other attendees were ten or twenty years older than Nora. Wrapped in a scarf or bent over a cane, they tottered perilously. They murmured a quiet word to each other, then sat in silence, as at a memorial service. So much for mingling at the Historical Society. Many chairs remained untenanted by the time Mrs. Howe stepped up to the lectern.
     “Thank you all for coming, and a special thank you to those who made our new exhibit possible. One of those generous people is also our newest member. Nora Devereux, would you please stand?”
     Embarrassed, Nora stood to accept a sprinkle of applause. She smiled but feared a dreadful mistake. Mrs. Howe promised she would not have to speak in public. Did Nora really belong to this club of ancestor worshippers and heirloom polishers? She was an imposter! She sat down as soon as she could. Maybe she would skip the punch and cookies after the talk.
     “The subject of the exhibit, Dr. Olivia Raeburn was the first woman physician in Hapsburg. She also taught biology and chemistry at the Poindexter Female Academy, now Poindexter College. By her example and instruction, she inspired a generation of girls to pursue science, if not as a career, at least as a way to address the problems of daily life. Cooking is chemistry, after all.
     “Dr. Raeburn advanced the medical treatment of women. She overturned popular beliefs about child-bearing, hygiene, and reproductive organs. As the exhibit reveals, she also served in the Confederate Army as a field surgeon, after her husband Nathaniel, a cavalry lieutenant, was declared missing in battle in 1863. Olivia enlisted in male disguise to go find him. She was captured in battle and imprisoned in Washington, D. C. Both Raeburns were freed in 1864 and reunited. Their home Meadow Grange was sold to the Hapsburg Iron Works president, Raphael Poindexter. It became the college campus. Nathaniel became a lawyer, Olivia started a medical practice, and they raised a family, with help from newly freed black servants.
     “Olivia was born in Staunton in 1838, the daughter of Dr. William Kearns, who was educated in Paris, where he met and married Jeannette Coudrier, Olivia’s mother. Nathaniel’s mother was Laetitia Happ, a great-granddaughter of Joseph Happ, the founder of Hapsburg. The name Laetitia recurs down the years, to Laetitia Tharpe, a beloved English teacher at Hapsburg High School. Some of us remember her well. From the founder, then, to Miss Tharpe is a line that spans three centuries and nine generations.
     “Miss Tharpe was the end of the line. She died with no close relatives, and her estate was dispersed. Though she proudly claimed Dr. Raeburn as a forebear, she kept the family secret. We can only guess at her motive. Loyalty to loved ones who died long before? At this remove, we can tell the full story. We can appreciate, as the actors in the story did not, the contradictions they lived through. Olivia and her kin had their blind spots about slavery, wealth, and personal responsibility. By looking at what they left and reflecting on it, we might learn something.”
     Yes, Nora thought, we might. But the full story? The gray uniform, lieutenant insignia, and sword, for example. Did they belong to Nathaniel or Olivia?
     Margaret Howe was the wife of a Poindexter professor. She was an educator, not one of the old guard. That was her recruitment gambit. In the excitement of research and acquisition—historical shopping—Nora signed up.
     The audience rose and shuffled to the stair. Among the old furniture, stiff portraits, awkward memorabilia, and fashions of yesteryear, refreshments awaited. Go with the flow? The chair screeched like a gull, and she did.

Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His stories and essays appear in Bellingham Review, Fiction International, Saturday Evening Post, and online magazines.