A tale of love won and love lost, and the faith to find it again.
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Beside Two Rivers
Book 2 The Daughters of the Potomac Series
By Rita Gerlach
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2012 Rita Gerlach
All rights reserved.
The Potomac Heights, Maryland
She'd been warned not to venture far from the house, nor go near the river, nor climb the dark shale bluffs above it. But Darcy Morgan had inherited an adventurous spirit that could not be bridled. It had been her favorite place to retreat since the age of nine, when she had discovered it one morning while trekking with her cousins over the ridge that shadowed the Potomac River.
Bathed in sunlight, she stood at the bluff's edge and gazed down at the water as she had done a hundred times before. She looked at the sky. Pink and pearled, speckled with white summer clouds, it looked heaven-like in the glow of a golden dusk.
Mottle-winged caddis flies danced in hordes at the brink and Darcy paused to study them. How could such delicate wings flit so high without turning to dust in the breeze? It caressed her face, blew back her dark hair, and eased through her cotton dress. She breathed deep the scent of wild honeysuckle that traveled with it. Drowsy warmth hung everywhere, while the birds sang evening vespers.
With closed eyes, Darcy listened to the water tumble over the boulders and rocks below. Stretching out her arms, she turned in a circle and soaked in the majesty of creation.
"Darcy ... Darcy Morgan ... Where are you, you adventuresome pixie?"
Turning, she spied her uncle, William Breese, as he lumbered along the ridge toward her. With caution, he stepped over rocks and between roots of great trees, a barrel-chested man with stocky legs. His eyes were pale green against his swarthy face, his head framed in a nimbus of white hair. Darcy's father, Hayward Morgan, had been his half-brother, and Darcy wondered if her father's eyes had been like her uncle's, for she could not remember his face. Breathless, her uncle glanced up to see her, and she skipped down the path toward him.
When she reached her uncle, he put his hands upon his knees to catch his breath. "Your aunt has been fretting all afternoon, wondering where you had gone off to."
Regretting she had caused her aunt such uneasiness, Darcy brushed back her hair and halted before him. "I am sorry, Uncle Will. I should have told her. I did not mean to cause Aunt Mari to fret."
"Ah, the woman has had a nervous constitution from birth to forty and two. She fears that one of her girls, and you, Darcy, could be injured or lost, fall from the bluffs, or be swept into the river and drowned. She goes so far as to believe that one of you could be carried all the way to the Chesapeake and then out to sea."
Darcy giggled. "It would be an adventure to survive such an ordeal, to perhaps be rescued by our Navy."
He shrugged. "Only you would think so. Your aunt wrings her hands and paces the floor every time one of you ventures out-of-doors. Think of me, dear girl, what I've had to endure."
Darcy smiled and put her arm around him. "Are you angry with me?"
He smiled and wiggled his head. "I could never be angry with you, Darcy. I like your drive for exploration. Just look at that patch of sky. Only God can paint a picture like that."
She raised her face to meet the sunlight. "I've been watching it for hours, how the light mellows the clouds."
"I wish your aunt were more attentive to the things of nature."
"To console you, Uncle, I have seen her pause to admire the flowers she brings into the house."
"Indeed, and now she has news and is eager for you to come home." Mr. Breese looped Darcy's arm through his and proceeded to walk with her down the hill. "She has the girls gathered in the sitting room and refuses to read a letter until I bring you back and we are both present."
"I imagine she is cross," Darcy said.
"She would have forbidden you at this late hour. Next time tell me." He threw his free arm out wide. "I don't mind, and most likely will join you."
The house belonging to Mr. Breese was modest by well-to-do standards, but affluent for a Marylander living miles away from the cities of Annapolis and Baltimore. Darcy loved it, with its broad porch and dark green shutters. Its meadows filled with Queen Anne's lace. Its forests thick with ancient trees and wild lady slippers. Above all, she loved the river and the creeks that flowed into it.
She stepped down the path between rows of locust trees, aiding her uncle along, for he was not strong in the legs at his time of life. The windows glowed with evening sunlight. The front door sat open, allowing the breeze to flow free. A shaggy brown dog slumbered on the threshold with his head between muddy paws, and when he heard her whistle, he lifted his head and bounded up to her and her uncle.
When Darcy entered the cool narrow hallway of the house, she pulled off her broad-brimmed hat and shook back her hair. Even with a bright sun that day, she had not worn it on her head, but let it hang behind her shoulders. She set it on a hook beside the door and paused when she heard her aunt's voice in the sitting room.
"Darcy," Mari Breese called.
She stepped inside with a smile. "I am here, Aunt Mari."
"Where on earth have you been? I have worried." Mrs. Breese fanned her face with the letter, set it on her lap, and fell back against her chair. Accustomed to her aunt's melodrama, Darcy dismissed her troubled tone of voice.
"I was out walking." She kissed her aunt's cheek.
"Walking, walking. What is so grand about walking? On my word, I do believe there are still Indians roaming about who would be pleased to snatch away a beauty like you. They might lust for that lovely hair of yours, I dread to think."
Proud of her locks, Mari Breese tucked her mouse-brown hair, peppered with gray, further into her mobcap. Her eyes were dark blue, close to the shade of ink that stained the letter she held. The rose in her cheeks heightened, not from the heat in the room, but from the excitement. Darcy wished she could calm her. Everyone would be better off.
"Uncle Will said you have news, Aunt. May we hear it?" Darcy sat next to her cousins, who were seated with perfect posture in a row upon a faded settee.
"Yes, Mama. You said you would read it once everyone was here," said Darcy's cousin Martha.
Her eldest cousin possessed a flawless row of pearl-white teeth and eyes like her papa's. She and Darcy were the same age, and their resemblance to each other caused people to think they were sisters. She wore her hair in a loose chignon today, silky and dark brown, accenting her fair skin. Darcy could not tolerate the style, and each time Martha urged her to try it she exclaimed it gave her a headache.
"We have been patient," Martha reminded her mother. The other girls—Lizzy, Abigail, Rachel, and Dolley—chimed in.
"If your father would be so good as to sit down, I will begin. It involves all of us."
Mr. Breese drew his pipe out from between his teeth. He sat in a chair beneath the window, picked up the newspaper, and proceeded to look it over.
"Will, your attention please." Mrs. Breese slapped her hands together.
"Here's an interesting article, girls," he said. "In March, a gentleman by the name of Whitney invented a machine that removes the seeds from cotton. Calls it the cotton gin. Fancy that!"
"More than likely it will add to the South's sinful institution of slavery," Darcy said.
"I hope not, Darcy. But with an invention of this kind ..."
Mrs. Breese stamped her foot. "Husband, do you wish to hear this or not?"
He set the paper down on his lap. "What is so important, my dear?"
"We've received an invitation. I must say, I have been anticipating this, and now we have something to break the boredom we endure in this wilderness."
"Boredom, my dearest? With this lot, how can you be bored? And it's hardly a wilderness anymore, not with towns and villages springing up everywhere. It is no different here than in New York."
Mrs. Breese huffed. "New York indeed. New York is a city. This is the end of the earth as far as I am concerned."
"No different from where you were raised, then."
"Indeed that is true. This invitation reminds me of when I was young. You girls shall benefit from this."
Darcy's cousins pleaded for her aunt to reveal the facts. She sat quiet, her mind summing up all the things this invitation could be. A ball? A dinner party or picnic? She thought of the few neighbors they had, and not a one seemed given to hold such events. But on the other side of the river were large plantations, and the Virginians were noted for gatherings of all sorts. She'd never been to the other side of the Potomac, and the chance excited her.
Mr. Breese lifted his paper and glanced over it. "Are you going to keep us in suspense, my dear?"
"I shall read it when I am ready ... I am ready now."
"I am glad to hear it, my dear."
"Which do you wish to know first, who it is from or where it is from?"
"I suppose you will tell us both, whether I want to know or not."
"It comes from Twin Oaks. A country picnic and dance is to be held this Saturday in celebration of Captain and Mrs. Rhendon's son's homecoming." She wiggled and her mobcap went awry. The girls were bursting with smiles and exclamations.
"How thrilling." Mr. Breese yawned.
"It says here that Daniel Rhendon has returned from a long stay in England and wishes to celebrate. I imagine everyone has been invited. Meaning those of good social standing like us."
"Why do you suppose that, Mother?" Rachel winked at her sisters, her blonde curls, amid a wide blue ribbon, toppling over her slim shoulders.
"Because, my dear, we are people of quality, and it is only proper the Rhendons would invite us."
Darcy wondered, Why now? "They never have before, not in all the years we have lived here."
"That is true. Perhaps an acquaintance mentioned us."
Mr. Breese blew out a breath. "It would displease your dear departed mother to know you approve of the Rhendons, my sweet."
Mrs. Breese arched her brows. "How so, my dear?"
"Have you forgotten, she was a loyalist during the Revolution?" Darcy's cousins turned their heads in unison and looked at him with wide-eyed interest. "Their neighbors convinced your papa to join the militia at a ripe old age. Remember?"
Mrs. Breese shrugged. "I do. And Mama said rebellion was an evil thing. She grieved that Papa thought differently and took up arms against the King. I recall her wails that he'd be hung by the neck along with the rest of the traitors—which meant the Patriots."
This sparked Darcy's interest. Her aunt shared so little about her family. "Did their difference of opinion cause them to love each other less, Aunt?"
Mari Breese shook her head. "Not one whit. Mama swore she would not abandon Papa for his misguided politics, and she never did. His stint in the militia did not last long. He was too old to cope."
It pleased Darcy to hear that love had won out over all odds. If only it had been that way for her parents. She knew something dark had happened between them, with the little she could remember, but she had never dared to force the information from her aunt and uncle. They never offered to reveal anything. And so, she left well enough alone.
Darcy shut her eyes and forced back one memory—that of her mother lying still and pale. She could not see Eliza's face, only a flow of dark hair. She remembered the firm touch of her father's hands, the sound of his voice, and the words—You've heard of Hell, haven't you? Well, that's where your mama will be.
She had vague memories of her father, some that were nightmarish that she kept to herself, others of a loving parent who pampered her. Her heart ached recalling him and her mother, whose faces were a blur in her mind.
"This gives me pause to think of your own parents, Darcy," her aunt said. "Such negligence by your father to have left for the West the way he did, leaving you with us without a forwarding address of any kind. But I should not have been surprised."
"I do not remember him well enough to know, Aunt. And I doubt there are forwarding addresses into the Western territories."
"I would say it was more that he did not wish the responsibility of raising a girl," said her aunt.
You see, if you are a bad person and sin—that is where you will go. That is where your mother is going ... forever.
Those words came back again, causing her heart to sink. She gazed at the evening light pouring through the window and wished it could erase them from her memory.
Night was falling and the crickets in the garden were chirping. Aunt Mari stood and pushed the window wider to allow the breeze to pass into the room. Then she sat back down and looked over at Darcy. "Oh, it has troubled you for me to mention them. Would it help if I told you that your papa loved your mother? That much I can say with certainty, Darcy."
Darcy raised her eyes to meet her aunt's. "Do not worry yourself, Aunt Mari. I was so young and do not remember them. You and Uncle Will have been my parents, and I thank God for it."
"I believe the truth is when Eliza died, Hayward went West to lose himself in his grief," her uncle said.
"Oh, how romantic!" cried Dolley. Her winsome blue eyes glowed as she clutched her hands to her heart. Dolley heaved the next two breaths while she brushed back her light brown hair from her forehead.
"Romantic?" Mrs. Breese clicked her tongue. "A sad turn of events, shrouded in mystery is hardly romantic, Dolley. There were things said and done we will never know ... never."
Darcy grew silent, for she had nothing she wanted to say that would reveal her own thoughts and feelings on the subject. But within her, emptiness remained.
Her aunt reached over and patted her hand. "Never mind, Darcy. You should not think on such sad things. I'm sorry for mentioning them. Let us return to the Rhendons' invitation instead. I wager you will catch the eye of many a young man at this event. Perhaps even find a husband."
Darcy shook her head. "Oh, not me, Aunt."
"Why not? You are just as pretty as Lizzy and Martha, and I dare say even Abby and Rachel. Dolley is yet too young."
Darcy disagreed. She thought her cousins were far more attractive. They were enamored with fashion, wore their hair in the latest styles, and always wore stockings and shoes; whereas she cared little for what was in and what was out, wore her hair loose about her shoulders, refused to wear stockings in hot weather, and loved going barefoot in summer.
She stood up and, going to the window seat, leaned on the sill and drew in the air. "If you could have your way, Aunt, you would have us all married by Saturday eve."
Her aunt sighed. "Well you should have married a year ago. Lizzy and Martha should be married by the year's end. I was sixteen when I married Mr. Breese."
Mr. Breese looked over the rim of his spectacles. "Thank you for the reminder, my dear."
She gave him a coy look in response. "Now, girls," she went on. "We should look at each one of your dresses to see if they are in acceptable condition for this affair. If they are not we shall see if we can make subtle repairs or changes to them, perhaps add or subtract where needed."
"Can we not make new dresses? Or go into town and buy new ones?" Lizzy gazed over at Mr. Breese with a demure smile and batted her large blue eyes. Darcy had seen it many times—Lizzy's attempt to twist him around her finger.
"For all six of you?" Stunned, Mr. Breese lifted his brows. "I am not a rich man, Lizzy. You must make do with what you have."
The girls pouted in unison, but Darcy rose to her feet and swung her arms around her uncle's neck. "We shall make you proud of us. Our clothes are just as good as any others, and we should not be judged by what we wear. French fashion is out, since their gentry are wearing sackcloth and ashes these days."
Mrs. Breese brushed her handkerchief over her neck. "Oh, Darcy. I hope you keep opinions like that to yourself while at Twin Oaks. Many people judge a young lady by the clothes she wears. It says where you fit in."
"Yes, Aunt." Darcy wrapped a strand of her hair around her finger. "I hear they have fine horses at Twin Oaks. Do you suppose they shall let us ride?"
Astonishment spread over her aunt's face. "Certainly not. It would be unbecoming."
Excerpted from Beside Two Rivers by Rita Gerlach. Copyright © 2012 Rita Gerlach. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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