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1900 — The Price of Gold

by Susan Marie Brown, © 2014

Seattle, Washington

The first and foremost reason for young Wilford Hoggatt’s dedication to the Navy was his ambition to explore unchartered portions of the world. Second: he was desperate to escape the dull fields of Indiana. Third: he meant to achieve greater fame and fortune than a dairyman could ever imagine. Fourth: his uncle said the Captain of a giant ship steaming from port to port was guaranteed to be attractive to more women than a dairyman would ever meet.

It didn’t occur to Wilford that steaming from port to port to enchant beautiful women and exploring uncharted waters were impossible to do on the same coast.

Yes! He was eager to make discoveries by surveying the coast of Alaska! He hardly glanced at the contract before signing, and spent the next six years mapping a sparsely populated stormy wet region. Here’s a rock, there’s a rock. The water is so shallow. No, deep. Yes, this inlet is filled with ice.

Yes, some women on that rugged coast clearly adored him, but none of them seemed to be virgins. The ship’s doctor kept warning they might be diseased.

Alaskan waters were definitely the wrong place to be for a young man who aspired to marry the beautiful pure daughter of an aristocrat. Yes, he was the handsome Captain of a ship, but Wilford Hoggatt felt doomed to live as chaste as a priest.

Forget the damn wilderness. He would rather have a wife. He applied to attend law school in a great city he knew was full of ambitious young ladies: Washington, D.C.

The Navy agreed.

The first time Wilford ever saw Marie Hayden she had both hands on an oar, and was rowing a dinghy up the Potomac, with her sister. They were laughing. They were beautiful young ladies, beautifully dressed.

Wilford followed along the shore, enchanted, bedazzled, determined to meet her, already in love. They married when he finished law school. They were eager to have babies, but none were born. They fought about the cause of that. He blamed her. She blamed him.

The Navy sent Wilford back to Alaska. He left Marie behind, in Annapolis.

When gold was found in the Yukon, Wilford didn’t know minerals but he learned to pan for nuggets in the creeks he was mapping along the coast. He kept making claims, till he was ordered back to the Capitol to help win the war, the Spanish-American war. He put his brother in charge of the gold and returned to Annapolis.

He planned battles all day, attended the School of Mines in the evenings, and slept with Maria at night, hoping she would get pregnant at last. She begged him to quit the Navy. To stay home. To write tender poems, like he used to do.

The war ended. He finished the mining course, quit the Navy and returned to Alaska. What he really wanted was gold.

Marie secretly followed. She surprised him by landing on the beach by his mine in a boat filled with rouge and jewels and trunks of books and ridiculous lacy clothes.

Wilford was annoyed. Why was she so determined waste his time? She didn’t belong at the mine. It wasn’t a safe place for women. He had to buy her a house in Juneau.

Maria did her best to turn the house into a warm and elegant home. She rejoiced whenever Wilford came to town. She planted flowers, baked cakes, served wine, and read his poetry over and over again.

Whatever she did, he always thought about gold, gold, gold. Ounces, pounds, tons. Until the fall of 1900, when she coughed and coughed into a handkerchief and he saw it was spotted with blood — a sign that consumption was killing her.

How could he be so foolish? Why didn’t he notice she was growing too thin? His knees shook. He almost wept. What did he want all that gold for? It would never love him.

He said, let’s spend the winter in Seattle. He took her south to a luxurious hotel. They went to see plays and concerts and doctors who had no cures to offer.

Wilford wept alone, on the beach, in the rain, almost daily. He wrote her poetry for Christmas and held her hand as she waned and deeply regretted letting the gold make him forget how much he loved, loved, loved her.