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Lovelier than daylighta novel
By Rosslyn Elliott
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2012 Rosslyn Elliott
All right reserved.
Chapter OneOhio, 1875
Tall grass and wildflowers blocked her view and stranded her in the middle of the meadow. Susanna's arms prickled as if someone watched her—but surely no one else was out here in the country on this June morning already hot and breathless.
Scores of fleabane daisies studded the wall of grass like flat yellow eyes, unblinking. The heavy air pressed from all sides, its stillness broken only by the hum of a wasp that circled above her head.
Her sister needed her. She must get to the farmhouse as soon as she could. She gripped the handle of her heavy valise with both hands and pushed through the grass, peering for marks of passage to keep her on the overgrown path. Her back grew warm under her bustled polonaise and corset, and her petticoat dampened beneath her skirt. She wanted to lift her curls away from her neck and fan herself, but she trudged on. At least her straw hat kept the sun out of her eyes.
This summer refused to relent, with its constant liquid heat, harsh as the burn of whiskey on the tongue. Susanna had tasted a sip of whiskey once, at her father's request. He wanted her to know its flavor so curiosity could never tempt her, even though she promised him drink held no allure for her. Whiskey had done more than enough harm already.
She would not think of that. She was here to bring companionship and merriment to her sister and her children before she headed off to college in Westerville.
In her valise she had a surprise that would entertain them for hours—layers and layers of thin paper in seven colors. With it she would show her nieces and nephews how to make something wondrous, exact replicas of the flowers in her botany book. She could not wait to see the joy of creation ease their cares, at least for the few days she was with them. A smile pulled at the corners of her mouth. The children would crowd around and ask with bright eyes what was in her valise—they knew there would always be a surprise. She only wished she could give them more.
A brick chimney poked above the grass, which finally opened to a clearing. Her sister's house squatted ahead with its familiar, peeling white planks. Rusted farm tools lay by its walls, and the fields beyond bore only a sparse cover of wilting corn. But any neglect was not Rachel's fault. With a lazy husband and six little ones to feed, Rachel could not go out in the fields and do everything herself.
Susanna hurried forward, her shoulders aching from the pull of the valise.
Why hadn't the children come out to greet her? Clara or Wesley should be out doing their chores, even if the little ones stayed inside.
She stopped. Something had happened to the flowerbeds. The blooms lay crushed and browned along the foundation of the house. Her throat knotted—Rachel must be so sad. The only color and luxury at the home had come from the flowers she had so patiently watered and weeded. All dead now.
She set her luggage at the bottom of the stoop, climbed up, and knocked. No answer. She laid a tentative hand on the knob and pushed the door open a crack. "Rachel?" Her call sank into eerie silence. Her stomach hollowed and she gripped the knob tighter. She eased the door open. The small parlor with its threadbare furniture was empty.
A few steps took her into the dim hallway and back to the bedroom. No one was there. The sheets were rumpled, the quilt hung on the floor, and the baby's cradle was empty. Something was wrong—her breathing quickened.
No, she must not panic. Perhaps her nieces and nephews were upstairs, caring for Rachel there. In her most recent letter, she'd mentioned having a mild fever. If she were still feverish, Clara and Wesley would be caring for her, as their father would be of little help.
The motionless, musty heat of the house gave her a queasy feeling, but she climbed the narrow stairs in the hall anyway. There were two bedrooms upstairs, one for the two older boys and one for the three girls.
"Clara?" she said into the stillness. Both bedroom doors were open, and an unpleasant odor seeped out. A cold flutter started in her chest. She pulled her handkerchief from her skirt pocket and steeled herself to step up to the doorway. It was too quiet. Clutching the handkerchief to her nose, she edged forward.
The room was in shambles, and vacant. The odor came from a few soiled diapers strewn across the floor with flies creeping over them. An old quilt lay in a heap on the bed, as if the children had been playing with it. This was not like Rachel at all. Difficult as her circumstances might be, she had always kept her home clean and orderly. Susanna tried to swallow but her mouth was paper dry.
The boys' room was deserted, and the bedclothes in equal disarray. A drawer had been pulled out of the shabby dresser and lay upended on the floor.
She hurried down the stairs, her heels thumping on the wood. She must return to town and ask if anyone knew the whereabouts of Rachel Leeds, George Leeds, or their children. She would not lose her head, she would stay calm. But she gripped the banister with white knuckles.
She should leave a note for them, in case someone returned while she was gone. A simple desk stood against the parlor wall. She rummaged through its first drawer. There was only a scrap of paper, but it would do. But no ink—perhaps there was a pencil. She opened the second drawer to find it empty.
"What are you doing here?"
The breath froze in her lungs and she whirled around.
George stood inside the door, rank with the stench of stale liquor. He wore no tie, and his shirt and vest were stained and wrinkled. His oily mustache ran down into his beard, which was unhealthy and sparse. It was hard to believe he had ever been a handsome, hardworking farmer who had courted and won her merry sister. But Rachel was not merry anymore, thanks to him.
"Where are Rachel and the children?" Her voice was taut as a frayed rope.
Her vision narrowed to his slack, tilted face. Had Rachel left him? Where would she go, with all her children?
He blinked at her. "She left. Went off with some other man."
"That's not true. She was ill—she wrote to me."
"Maybe she had brain fever, maybe that was her excuse." His mouth twisted in a bitter grimace. "Guess she wasn't too sick to ride the train."
Rachel. Susanna's heart contracted. "Where are the children?"
"She gave 'em to the county."
"The county?" She could only repeat it, dazed.
"To the orphan home."
"But why would she do that?"
"Maybe she didn't want 'em in the way of her and her new man. And I sure as heck can't manage 'em. They're motherless now."
"But they're not fatherless. You let your children go to an orphanage?" She felt her hands shaking and hid them behind her skirt.
"She didn't ask me. She left a note. But now it's done, I'm not going to fight it. And don't get smart with me, Susanna Hanby. You Hanby women let your looks puff you up, think you're more important than you are. I could pick you up in one hand, just like your sister. Well, you see how she turned out—nothing but a loose woman."
He was full of lies. Rachel had never been vain, even though she was pretty. Her nails bit into her palms. She'd like to dig them into his uncaring face instead. "What orphanage?"
"I dunno. In Columbus. What, do you think I could take care of all of them, plus a baby? That needs a woman."
"No, just a sober, decent man!" She flung herself past him and out the door, stumbling down the front steps. All six children, gone. And what could she do if Rachel had signed them over as wards of the county and George did not want them?
She seized her valise and hurried away. It could not be true. Rachel would not do such an awful thing. Perhaps he himself had given the children away to the county.
But George would have no reason to lie.
Unless he had harmed Rachel.
No, she must not think of that or she would not make it back to the railway station. Her sister would write to her and all would be made clear.
She could not bear the whiskey-sodden inhumanity of George. Anger glowed like a pillar of fire to lead her—she closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and let it blaze. She would find the children. They must not be separated and given to strange families, perhaps unloved and subjected to callous treatment.
She had told Rachel about George, and so had her parents. If only Rachel had listened and refused to marry a man who drank, none of this would have happened. Of course, when they met, George didn't drink day and night. He was just a happy-go-lucky, merry farmer who stopped into the saloon at week's end. But they had warned Rachel, nonetheless, about what the future might hold, and she had not listened.
Susanna could not think ill of her sister, not after all she had suffered. Certainly not now, when she didn't even know where Rachel had gone.
She sloughed off the trembles from her arms and legs and kept walking. Should she go back to Milford Centre and tell her parents so they could get the children back?
How they would do it, she did not know. Their last savings had gone for the tuition money she needed to go to college in Westerville—money now folded in a tight bundle of bills in her handbag. Her parents were growing old and barely eked out a living from their small plot of land, one cow, and chickens. They would not be able to give any further help—they had already given her all they had. She was a Hanby, and they were sending her to Otterbein, where all Hanbys attended college.
No, she could not go back—she must go on with her journey as planned. Westerville was only a little way farther down the railroad. Her Uncle Will and Aunt Ann had more worldly means than her parents, didn't they? Perhaps they could even rally the Hanby cousins to help, though they were spread far and wide now across the country and even on foreign missions.
She staggered in a pit of dried mud and yanked at her valise to keep her balance. George Leeds had been a good man, once, before the whiskey had ruined him. The whiskey! She would like to put all the barrels and bottles in a pile and burn them.
The heat made her dizzier. I will not faint. I will not. Her bodice was soaked and moisture ran from her hairline down her face, as if her whole body wept the tears she could not afford to shed.
Uncle Will would never let his great nieces and nephews be lost. If he had a spare dime to his name, he would use it on their behalf.
Light glinted from a tin roof ahead. She was almost to the station.
Her nieces were so little, Della and Annabeth. And baby Jesse would not remember his mother or his family at all if they gave him away.
Where was her sister? She dropped her bag with a thump in the dusty track and pressed the heels of her hands hard to her eyes.
Nothing could be done until she made it back to civilization, which she must do on her own. She hoisted the bag and went on, fixing her gaze on the pitched roof of the tiny railroad station. She would not fail Rachel or the children.
Chapter Two"The New Yorker Staats-Zeitung is looking for a good newsman." Mr. Reinhardt flourished a folded newspaper in Johann's direction and gave him a keen look over the top of his wire spectacles.
Johann pretended nonchalance and cranked the great iron wheel of the printing press. The tray slid forward, hesitated, and slid back, imprinting its rows of German letters on first one sheet, then its reverse side. The machine's regular clack echoed off the walls of the large room.
"You hear me, Johann?" Mr. Reinhardt raised his voice. The noise of the press was no match for his ripe baritone, heavy with the Bavarian accent of his native land.
"Yes, sir." Johann did not look up but continued to run the press. A redheaded boy stood beside the cylinder, peeling each sheet and taking it to the drying rack.
"And you are not interested?"
"For what position?"
Johann's head snapped up and he met the older man's knowing gaze.
The editor opened the paper and pointed at the back inside page, as if Johann could read it from five feet away. "Ja. They want someone with experience, it says right here. Someone who has written a number of crime articles for a German paper."
New York, where presses could take ten sheets at once and print eight thousand sheets an hour. Where men skulked through oyster cellars and opium dens by gaslight, and stories lay so numerous and thick a reporter could wade knee-deep through them every time he walked out of his brownstone. The Mecca of every newspaperman's dreams.
Johann brushed it away. "I can't do that, Mr. Reinhardt." He concentrated on the hypnotic swing of the press tray below him.
Some explanations were best swallowed. He kept silent.
Mr. Reinhardt looked down at the paper through his spectacles and read aloud, "'Candidates must present a clipping of one self-authored crime article of national significance, a story to rouse the interest of even the most jaded city dweller.'"
"That's quite a challenge." Johann's interest flared. "Especially for us yokels out in Columbus." He did love a good contest.
Mr. Reinhardt chuckled. "I think you should go get a story to win you the position. Take it as a challenge. You can always turn it down." He folded the paper up again. "I've seen your face when we talk about New York. Admit it, you want to go."
Johann turned the wheel a few more times. "Very well, I'll find a story." He could write something worthy of the prize, if he put his mind to it. The alluring gaslight and shadow of the metropolis stuck in his imagination. Even bustling Columbus was like a small village by comparison.
The door from the street smacked open and another of the printer's boys ran in. "Danke, Herr Giere," the blond boy said to Johann. "Sorry I was so long at lunch." He rushed over and took the wheel as Johann stepped back to give him room.
"You're welcome. I don't mind taking over for a while. You know I like the press." Johann turned to Mr. Reinhardt. "I must be going, sir, my father's waiting." He grabbed his hat from the peg and headed for the door.
"Show them what we are made of in the West, Johann!" The subdued roar of Reinhardt's voice chased him out into the open air.
* * *
"Front Street," the driver called out, pulling at the reins of his team of horses. The mighty omnibus rumbled to a stop—twenty passengers crowded in the seats, looking surly in the blistering summer heat.
Johann stepped down to the rutted road and nimbly evaded the swish of a passing carriage. A hundred more paces brought him to the brewery yard, which was lined with wagons yoked to huge horses. His father had invested in the new Norman imports. The dappled grays with round, muscled shoulders and haunches were more than capable of pulling the heavy lager wagons. Still, Father often wished aloud for the cream-colored German draft horses of his youth.
Johann walked past them, raising his hand to Heinrich, their brewmeister, who stood beside the first team.
The red-cheeked man waved back with his one arm. "Guten Abend." Confederate bullets had left Heinrich with an empty left sleeve. But like the other men from German Village who had returned missing arms or even legs, Heinrich worked twice as hard to make up for it. And Johann's father would never dismiss a workman who had sacrificed his own body for the Union. Not after what the Giere family had lost in the War.
Johann headed for the thick smell of hops that rolled out the barn-like doors.
"Johann." His father stood in the door frame, his blond head ashy with middle age. He pointed upward so his brown linen coat stretched over his muscular shoulders. "You see the new sign?" Up on a ladder, one of the brewery men had whitewashed out the words "Giere Brothers." On the new white surface, he was painting in the letters "Giere and Son."
"You like it?" his father asked, smiling, but with a hint of melancholy. He walked over to Johann, his hat held to his chest. "It can't stay forever the old way. It is ten years now—we must go on. Fritz would want it."
Johann hoped the sharp stab of guilt didn't show on his face. "It's good. It's what Uncle Fritz would've wanted." He patted his father's shoulder and searched in vain for words, the glamour of New York searing his conscience.
His father cleared his throat. "A customer needs our assistance." He gestured back beyond Johann.
Johann pivoted. Over in the corner by the loading dock, the third team of Norman horses stood at their wagon with several barrels already on board. The floor workers were loading another barrel as a tall, thin man watched.
"Let me introduce you to him." His father took Johann's elbow with affection and swept him across to the visitor.
"Mr. Henry Corbin, this is my son, Johann, who will be glad to assist you."
Excerpted from Lovelier than daylight by Rosslyn Elliott Copyright © 2012 by Rosslyn Elliott. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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