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A Biltmore Christmas
By Diane T. Ashley, Aaron McCarver, Sylvia Barnes, Rhonda Gibson, Jeri Odell
Barbour Publishing, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Jeri Odell
All rights reserved.
Charity gazed from one sister to the next, having no idea how hard saying good-bye would be. They huddled together in a tight hug, each face as somber as the next. A lump tightened her throat.
Each of them — the four Bradford sisters — was an interesting combination of Mama and Papa. Charity hated how their images had faded in her mind. She never wanted to forget them, but a dozen years had effectively erased many of the memories. So grateful for the photograph tucked away in her Bible. Otherwise, she might not remember their faces at all anymore.
"What a pathetic sight you are." Mama Elsie wrapped her arms around Charity and Melissa. "You'll only be three miles away, child."
Charity smiled at the woman who'd become like a mother. "I know." She brushed a tear from her cheek. "But I've never spent a day apart from Selma or Melissa, and we see Peggy often. An hour away by foot seems terribly far."
"You don't have to go," Mama Elsie reminded.
"I do." Charity couldn't explain the burning desire within but knew she must leave. She'd been in this orphanage since she was eight. After reaching her adult years, she'd taken a job here to remain close to her sisters, but now at twenty, she couldn't bear these walls any longer. She had to get out and breathe the fresh air, feel the sun on her face, and live life beyond this gray existence.
She stepped back, breaking the hug. "You've been good to us and loved us as your own. Now I must make my own way in this world, and someday perhaps I can care for you." She held Mama Elsie tight and kissed her cheek.
"Ah, Charity, my little dreamer." Mama Elsie returned the kiss. "You've always been the most like your father, a bit of wanderlust in you, child."
No truer words were ever spoken. Charity dreamed of a different life, a life filled with travel, perhaps helping others less fortunate than herself.
She turned to Melissa, taking her into her arms. "I can hardly believe it. My baby sister is fifteen!" She tugged at the cap Melissa wore. Melissa had shoved much of her auburn hair inside the hat. "Someday you'll outgrow your desire to be a boy. You'll meet a man who'll make you want to be every bit a woman."
Charity spoke with authority, though all her knowledge came from books not life.
"Like Mr. Darcy?" Selma teased, and her three sisters giggled.
Charity raised her chin. "Make fun if you will, but I shall one day have my own Mr. Darcy." She'd read Pride and Prejudice so many times that some of the pages had come loose from the binding. "He is the epitome of a man."
In truth, for twenty-year-old Charity, spinsterhood was looking more probable with each passing day, which was one reason she'd taken the job at the Biltmore. Free room and board and a chance to save some of her salary for the future. She wanted more than she'd known as a child.
Charity released Melissa from her long hug and moved to Selma. She and Selma shared the same light brown hair, the color of their mother's, or so Mama Elsie said. Both Selma and Melissa inherited their papa's striking emerald eyes. "You're almost eighteen. It won't be long until you join Peggy and me out in the real world. Prayerfully consider the future God has for you. If you're lucky you'll be like Peggy and know exactly what you love, finding a way to do it each day."
"Baking makes me happy." Peggy said those words often.
"I do not love laundry, but it is a means to an end." Charity smiled to soften the truth of her words. "What that end is, I am not so sure, but God will direct my path. I claim that promise daily."
She and Selma hugged. Selma hung on tightly and sniffled. "I will miss you terribly."
"And I you. Do remember that I have one day off per week and a half day every other Sunday. I will walk home often. I promise." Kissing Selma, she moved on to Peggy.
Charity took Peggy's hand. "If you grow tired of your job at Reynolds House, maybe you could work in the kitchens at Biltmore. Wouldn't it be fun to be there together? Though with our work hours starting at six and ending at nine in the evening, we would not garner much time together. Maybe our two hours off in the afternoons would coincide." Charity shrugged.
"I will give it some thought," Peggy promised. "Though I'm quite content with my present position. I'm treated well."
Charity wrapped her arms around her older sister. "You, my dear sister, would be content anywhere, as long as you found dough to knead and ovens to bake in." They both giggled.
Charity believed Peggy's deep love for kitchen work stemmed from feeling connected to their precious mama. They often had worked together preparing family meals before the Good Lord took Mama and Papa home to be with Him.
"I do wish I had a passion for something that rivaled yours for baking." She stared into light-blue eyes the exact shade as her own. "You have no idea how blessed you are."
"God has a plan for you, and when you find it, your passion will ignite." Peggy's words held promise.
I certainly hope so. She knew God said it. Her head believed it, but her heart feared she'd never discover God's purpose for her.
"I must leave now." Charity let her gaze roam over the four dearest faces in all the world. She picked up the satchel and walked out the door, turning back to face the group who'd followed her outside into the crisp autumn air.
"Wait," Peggy called. "I'll walk with you a ways. I need to get back to work myself. I only came to say good-bye."
She hugged the two girls and Mama Elsie. "I will see you soon," she called to them as she rushed to catch up with Charity. Both looked back and waved once more.
"I feel as if I'm two people," Charity said. "I'm filled with excitement as I embark on this new life; yet I'm sad leaving behind the known and familiar. Did you experience such emotion when you left home?"
"I did," Peggy assured. "But as I said earlier, I'm very pleased with my life and the happiness I feel when I cook."
"Imagine, I shall not only have my own bed, but own room. A private room. Even as a laundress, I will have all the amenities the house has to offer. Indoor plumbing! Can you imagine such a luxury? Forty-three bathrooms in one house."
Peggy giggled. "That's more than the entire village added together. Seems ostentatious when most homes don't even have one, and I would hate to clean forty-three bathrooms."
"Me, too, but would not mind using them, not one bit. When Miss Bohburg hired me, she showed me the servants' quarters. She is Swedish, speaks with a heavy accent, and is in charge of the laundresses." Charity sucked in a breath. She'd been talking so fast, she'd nearly forgotten to breathe.
Excitement built as she shared with her sister and dearest friend. "The rooms are comfortable with nice beds. Mine has a white iron head- and footboard. Covered walls. A wooden rocker, a dresser, even a rug on the floor, making it feel very homey. I shall enjoy my room very much and should I grow lonely, there are twenty other bedrooms on my hall filled with other servants. We will all live together on the fourth floor."
"Maybe someday I shall come for a visit and see for myself."
Charity spun around, raising her eyes to the sky. "Guess what is the very best of all Biltmore has to offer?"
Peggy shrugged and shook her head.
"A library with more than ten thousand books in eight languages!"
"Since you only read and speak English, the other seven languages may prove worthless to you." Peggy poked her in fun. "Are servants allowed to borrow books?"
"We may check them out one at a time! That is more books than the library at Biltmore Village houses."
"And you do love to read!"
"I will keep you informed if I find any that you must read."
"Thank you. What will your job entail?"
"They use handmade French linens in their guest bedrooms and intricately embroidered damask linens on tables and dressers. I will work in brown laundry in the basement. That is where the kitchens are as well." Charity stepped over a rock. "Anyway, they use wooden washboards and after the linens dry, we also press them. From everything I saw, it's an intricate operation. Miss Bohburg says though Biltmore is a private home and the largest in the United States, it is run like a hotel."
"So you will work in the basement and live on the fourth floor. Where does the kitchen staff live?"
"They have rooms in the basement near the kitchen, but all the servants eat together in the servants' dining room, which will give me a chance to meet people. Can you imagine not knowing a single soul?"
"Maybe Mr. Darcy lives there," Peggy teased.
"Mr. Vanderbilt does. He is very rich and very single." Peggy's mouth dropped open. "And strikingly handsome. But surely you don't think he's your Mr. Darcy."
"You never know. I've read about him. He's shy and reserved and loves reading. What a pair we'd make. We could spend quiet evenings in the library together, travel to Europe and New York on holiday."
Peggy's cheeks pinked as Charity shared her deepest dreams. "Your life station is quite different than his. The two of you marrying is not only highly unlikely, it would be frowned upon."
Charity noted the worried expression on her dear sister's face. She laughed. "They are only dreams. I will not count on them coming true, but will do my best to make his acquaintance. Perhaps my beauty will capture him, and he will not be able to chase me from his mind." Charity did not believe she possessed any outer beauty, so all her words were in jest.
"Honestly, being a servant at Biltmore is as close as I'll ever get to wealth. Do you wonder why some are born with everything and some with nothing?"
"I guess the good Lord puts us where He wants us. Perhaps if we had wealth, we'd not have time for Him."
Two gentlemen on horseback passed. They tipped their hats. "Good afternoon, ladies."
Both girls said hello in unison.
"Now that was a fine specimen," Charity whispered and grinned at her sister.
The familiar pink hue returned to Peggy's cheeks. "Which one?"
"Either." Though she favored the one with raven hair and black eyes.
"You, my little sister, must do a better job corralling your thoughts. A woman with men on her mind can only fall into trouble."
Charity enjoyed toying with Peggy. Sometimes she was far too serious. "I only say those things to glean a reaction from you."
Peggy rolled her eyes. "Charity, you have craved adventure since I can remember, and now you embark on the biggest one of your life. I remember when Papa would leave, you'd cry to go with him. You wanted to preach to the Indians, too."
"And here I am at twenty, finally starting my own life. Do you think Mama ever resented Papa being gone so much?"
Peggy shook her head. "Papa preaching the Good News to all who would listen made her time alone with us easy to bear. After all, she had a stake in his ministry, too."
"You and Mama were so close." Charity's quiet words held awe.
"I think in some ways she relied on me, since Papa wasn't there much of the time."
"Isn't it strange that the first time she left us behind to travel with him, they were killed? I wish she'd stayed home. At least we'd have one of them." Charity gazed at her sister, remembering.
"But God did provide Mama Elsie and the orphanage. We have never wanted for a thing, and we were always well loved."
That was all true. "But how nice it might be to own more than two day dresses."
"Two is twice as many as one," Peggy reminded her. "I'd better turn back now. I think this is about the halfway point. You have another mile and a half or so to go."
Charity set down her small suitcase and hugged her sister tight. "I love you."
Peggy smiled and Charity recognized the expression on Peggy's face. She was about to expound some older sister wisdom. "Don't get so caught up in dreamin' that you miss what God has for you in the here and now." With that, Peggy turned and headed back toward Biltmore Village.
Charity watched her walk away, repeating her parting words again and again in her mind. Peggy walked the opposite direction for several minutes, then spun around and waved once. When she was nothing more than a speck on the horizon, Charity pivoted and headed toward her future.
The majestic Blue Ridge Mountains rising in the distance beckoned her onward. She'd read many a travel book, savored the pictures, but had never laid eyes on a place prettier than western North Carolina. No matter where the Lord led, she hoped this area — her favorite place in all the earth — would always be home.
"Thank you, Lord, for the promise of a new beginning and for my job at Biltmore. Even if I hate laundry, I shall cherish every moment of my stay there."CHAPTER 2
Joseph Malachi Claybrook followed his older cousin Elizabeth to the fourth floor observatory.
"You must stay here at the Biltmore while building your own home." Her request sounded more like an order.
"This is your family, not mine," Clay reminded her.
And in truth, Clay knew she and George Vanderbilt were much more distant in relationship than Elizabeth cared to remember. She called him cousin, but actually their grandfathers were cousins.
"I spoke to Cousin George, and he welcomes you. If you recall, his father, your father, and my father were all dear friends back when we were children." Elizabeth sat erect at the edge of a chair, pushing her bustle off to one side. "I shared your plans to build a mansion near the Biltmore estate, and he was most interested. He'd love to sit with you and hear of your plans."
Clay paced to the window. The magnificent view drew his gaze across fields and outbuildings to the mountains in the backdrop. "I'm not building a mansion but a modest home."
Elizabeth gave him a pouty look and poured them each a cup of tea. "Why ever would you settle for modest? Grandfather Claybrook's death left us and our siblings a tidy sum of money. You surely can afford a step or two above modest." Elizabeth liked flaunting the family money. He did not.
She raised a disapproving arched brow. "What sort of parties could one throw in a modest home?"
"You know me...." He settled on the chair across the small table and faced her, picking up the delicate china cup and sipping the warm tea. "I've always been restless in New York City. I hate the crowded feeling it brings. High society and parties leave me discontent."
"You're foolish, Malachi. The world could be your oyster. Why would you throw away your station in life?"
"Because none of that truly matters. I had no peace in my life until I came to North Carolina for a holiday with family. We attended revival meetings with my mother's family." He wandered back to the window. "A tent revival led by The Reverend Abraham Bradford, and he led me to salvation in Jesus Christ that very night. I was thirteen at the time and found peace with Jesus here in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Sadly, that was his last tent meeting. He and his wife were killed the following day in a tragic train wreck." He faced his cousin. "Do you have peace, Elizabeth?"
His question apparently startled her. She stammered, "Frankly, I've never thought about it. But I do have money and can do whatever I want, whenever I care to. That gives me peace."
Clay felt sorry for her. "I remember to this day the good reverend speaking on money being God's tool to use, not just for our comfort, but to help those less fortunate. I plan to invest heavily here in the orphanage in Biltmore Village. It is where Reverend Bradford's children are growing up, and in his honor I wish to give them a fine facility, rather than spending all I have on me."
Elizabeth rolled her eyes. "Waste your share of the family's money, if you like. I shall hope that when you meet with George, he will redirect your thinking on this whole matter."
Clay only smiled. "The matter is settled, Elizabeth. I followed my heart and have returned here, as was my plan since age thirteen, to build a home on the land adjacent to Biltmore."
"Well, no matter. George wishes you to make yourself at home here while you build."
The thought tempted Clay. He'd be much closer to oversee the project than if he stayed at the boardinghouse in the village. Plus he'd heard the kitchen staff here was top-notch.
"Would there be room for my horse in the stables?"
"I'm certain of it."
"Then perhaps I will consider George's most generous offer." He'd left his horse with a stable hand. "If you'll excuse me, I'd like to go down and check on Buck now and get him settled. We've traveled a long journey."
Elizabeth's mouth hung open in a most unbecoming fashion. "You rode from New York?"
Clay again grinned at his snobby cousin. "What better way to see God's beautiful creation?"
As an aristocrat, he could afford hotels and nice stalls for Buck. He didn't really travel like the true pioneers did, with a bedroll and a saddle under his head. He and Buck did spend one night under the stars, but only one.
"I'll see you at dinner," Elizabeth called after him. Sounded more like an order than a request. He shook his head as he started down the grand staircase. She always was a bossy thing.
He exited through the back and found Buck tied to a tree. He led him down toward the stable area. "Do you want to live here with these high-class, pretentious people?" he asked the large buckskin.
Excerpted from A Biltmore Christmas by Diane T. Ashley, Aaron McCarver, Sylvia Barnes, Rhonda Gibson, Jeri Odell. Copyright © 2011 Jeri Odell. Excerpted by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc..
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