Read an Excerpt
By Lauraine Snelling
Bethany House PublishersCopyright © 2004 Lauraine Snelling
All right reserved.
Chapter OneChicago, early March 1883
Once a teacher; always a teacher.
Pearl Hossfuss stared at the line she'd written in her most perfect script. That is the story of my life, the rest of my life for however long it may be. Was that a sigh of despair or acceptance she felt working its way up from her toes?
"Miss Pearl, your father said you are late for supper." The maid stood in the doorway, a quick glance over her shoulder giving the impression she would rather be anywhere than where she was at the moment.
"Thank you, Marlene. I'm sorry you had to come searching for me." Pearl corked her inkwell and stood, tucking her hair into the gentle wave that, along with the high-necked waist, covered the scar on her neck. She glanced in the mirror as she passed the oak-framed oval mirror. No sense in not being perfectly groomed. She'd been sent back to her room more than once to repair an imperfection.
She touched the cameo at the neckline, her talisman, the last gift from her mother. Would her father even remember that today, March fifth, was the tenth anniversary of her mother's death? Not that he would say anything, of course.
She made her way down the curved and carved staircase, the gas-lit chandelier on the landing dispelling the gloom of a gray day. Thelight reflecting off the Venetian crystals was a sight that never failed to lift her spirits.
"I'm sorry I'm late. I was studying for tomorrow." She made her way to the chair at her stepmother's left hand, where she had sat ever since Amalia joined the Hossfuss family a year after Pearl's mother died. Her father had at least paid tribute to the strictures of society regarding the year of mourning.
The way he snapped his napkin and laid it across his lap told her he would have more to say later on the subject of her tardiness. Muttonchop whiskers, two shades darker than his sandy hair, bristled. Gold-rimmed glasses perched low on a nose as regal as a Greek god's.
Eleven-year-old Jorge Bronson Hossfuss Jr., a miniature of his father, sans glasses, in appearance only, glanced at her from lowered eves, one twitching in a wink. If it weren't for the antics of Jorge, life in the Hossfuss mansion would be far more sober.
"Let us pray." Mr. Hossfuss, the name still called him by his wife, bowed his head and began without waiting to make sure everyone did the same. He just expected it.
"I Jesu navn ..."
The Norwegian words flowed around the table, a daily reminder of their heritage, a heritage that Jorge Bronson Hossfuss Sr. had capitalized on as a way to the wealth that built a warehouse, office buildings, and as Pearl recently discovered, some of the tenements where her pupils lived, as well as the Hossfuss estate on Lakeshore Drive.
Pearl brought her thoughts back in time to join the others in the amen. Was that why her father allowed her to teach at the settlement house? As a way of atonement for his investments? Or, as she had suspected more than once, was it because teaching was the only permissible position for his elder daughter who refused to become a leader in the society where his new wife thrived? After nine years of marriage, Amalia was not new, but Pearl always thought of her that way.
"Thank you," she responded as the maid set a gilt-edged flat bowl centered on a matching gilt-edged plate in front of her. Fish ball soup tonight. Inga, direct from the old country, cooked all manner of meals but was truly in her element when she could serve true Norwegian fare.
"How was school today?" her father asked his son.
"All right. I made an A on that composition about the wreck of the HF, thanks to the information you gave me."
Mr. Hossfuss shook his head. The HF, standing for Hoss Fuss, had been one of his ships, veteran of many Atlantic crossings, but had sunk in a freak storm on Lake Michigan.
"And you, Pearl, have you a good report also?" His mandatory question asked, he nodded to the maid to remove his soup dish.
"Yes." But she made no effort to continue. He never bothered to listen.
"Mrs. Smithson said that she'd heard your headmistress saying what a superb teacher you are." Amalia patted her mouth with her napkin. "I know that makes your father very proud of you."
Pearl knew no such thing. Once, back when she was his princess, she had thought that, but no longer. He did his duty by her-he would never bear to have someone say he had shirked his duty-but with that taken care of, he relegated her to things past.
Wishing she were up in the nursery with the younger children, Pearl finished her dinner, waited for her father and stepmother to adjourn to the parlor for their evening together, then she and Jorge headed for the second floor in the west wing, the floor devoted to children.
"Did you see the stage since I remade it for Arnet and Anna?"
"No. When did you finish?"
"So they will be able to give their first performance for Father's birthday?"
"Right on schedule. He'll have to believe you had a hand in the script."
"No one will tell him." She'd already made sure of that. All the credit would go to Arnet and Anna who, while they were ten months apart, looked more alike than many twins.
"Do you think Father will like our surprise?"
He better. "Of course he will. After all, it's about when he came to America. How many times has he told you the story?"
Jorge grinned. "I can't count that high."
Jealousy was one of the seven deadly sins, and Pearl had to fight it off on a regular basis. On one hand she rejoiced for her younger brothers and sister, but on the other, if only her father would grace her with the smiles she remembered from before, then ... But it was always before. Before life had changed in an instant. Accidents happened. That's why they were called accidents.
"Are you having your class do a play this year?" Jorge asked.
"I'd like to." Ignoring the memory of the extra long hours she'd put in to make the play a success, she thought only to the faces of her pupils, the smiles, the excited jabbering, the fear overcome. Could she manage to create such a production again, or had her children last year been especially gifted?
"I'll help you."
She turned to her brother. "Tusen takk and more."
He sketched a bow. "You have no idea what it will cost you."
Her laugh made his smile widen.
* * *
That night as she prepared for bed, Pearl opened her Bible to Psalm 91, one of her favorites. She recited it aloud as she loosened her corset, sliding the bone-ridged garment down so she could step out of it. She hung it in the chifforobe, lifting her dressing gown off the hook at the same time. "'He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust. Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence. He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings thou shalt trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler.'" She turned the pages to verses fourteen and sixteen, her latest verses to consign to memory. She read one verse aloud, reciting it again as she sat to brush her hair the required one hundred strokes. Dark like honey, left in the hive over winter, that glinted fire when sparked by sunlight, the strands rippled down her back. She could call one of the maids to come brush it for her, but she knew they were busy cleaning up from supper. The pitcher of water, still warm for her to wash her face, was a luxury. Bathing in the bathroom was also a luxury, but there was something special about the privacy of her own room. And besides, this was the time she used to spend with her mother, a sacred hour just before bedtime, when Anna asked about her day, told her stories of when she was little after coming from Norway, and always, the most delicious, brushed her hair. And allowed her daughter to brush hers. Ah, the rippling gold of her mother's hair. Pearl's had never held the sheen and silkiness of her mother's.
She stared at the face in the slightly wavy mirror. She knew she looked like her mother-straight nose, full lips, and eyebrows with a tendency to arch, both in question or amusement. Except for the side she kept turned from the light. Always there was an except. But her mother had been a beauty, so why didn't the similar features do the same for her daughter?
Was it the touch of her father's square chin? His wider brow? The tiny gap between her two front teeth? Beauty was in the eyes of the beholder, or so the old saying went. And her eyes always saw only the almost, the not quite.
She folded back the covers and stroked her hand over the warmed sheets. Marlene had been busy with the warming pan, a long-handled round pan filled with coals that she stroked between the sheets. Settled with two pillows propped behind her so she could read, Pearl opened her book, carefully placing the leather bookmark beyond where she was reading. Nothing gave her more pleasure than a good book. Even though she'd read Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility before, she lost herself in the story, finally turning off the gaslight when her eyes grew too heavy to stay open. In the darkness of her room she watched the branches outside her window dance in the wind. As a child they'd frightened her, but now they'd become old friends.
"Lord, what is to become of me? Am I to remain here in my father's house, doing his bidding for the rest of my life? Is there not another place for me? Perhaps even a husband? I hate to sound like a whining woman, but I'm nearly twenty-three, an old maid in everyone's eyes. Is that your will for me?" She paused, a heaviness settling on her chest. A sigh sent it scurrying. "I surely do hope not, pray not. Have I been remiss lately in saying how I love you? Forgive me for being so wrapped up in my own concerns. I do love you. I honor you and praise your most holy name. Amen." She turned on her side and tucked the quilts up about her shoulders.
Sometime later, she woke from a dream of traveling on a train. I wonder where I was going.
Chapter TwoPearl stared across her fifth-grade class at the settlement house. Half of them belonged at home in bed if their coughing and runny noses were any indication. But they were at least warm here and had a hot meal at noon.
"Miss Hossfuss, I gotta go," one of the boys said.
"You may be excused." She gave him an arched eyebrow look. "But come straight back." She refrained from adding "this time," but he knew. One more trip to the principal, and he would be out on the streets.
No one with even a lick of brains wanted to be out on the sleety streets of Chicago. The wind seared skin and sucked the juice out of one, leaving a person reeling. And yesterday had been the first fine taste of spring.
"All right class, since we cannot go outside for recess, we will play a game in here. Now count off by twos." She pointed to the girl on the far left side of the room. "Start with you, Sadie."
Sighs and groans accompanied the numbering as the sides took shape. Letting them choose took far too long and always left the last one standing feeling as though no one liked him, or her, as the case may be.
"You're here with us," someone called when the boy reentered the room.
"All right now, form up behind the line. We're going to do a relay. The person at the head of the line runs to the front of the room, grabs an eraser off the blackboard, and runs back, handing it off to the next runner: The first team to finish wins."
"What is our prize?" Several children asked at the same time.
Pearl kept a jar of peppermint candies for such a time as this. She reached down in the drawer and set the jar on her desk. "The winning team each gets two pieces, the other team one." As soon as the cheers quieted, she counted, "One, two...." and paused. They groaned. "I forgot to tell you that you cannot cross the line until the runner ahead of you does." She pointed to the line she'd painted on the worn floorboards. When they nodded, she began again, "One, two, three, go."
Yelling and jumping as they cheered their teammates on did more to warm kids up than the actual running. The teams were neck and neck when they hit the tenth and last person. The last two runners, the two weakest class members, grabbed their erasers and scrambled to keep their footing as they headed for the blackboard.
Pearl stood at the side to judge fairly. The blue team won by such a slight margin that she shook her head. "I declare a tie." Now she hoped she had forty pieces of candy in the jar. "You two can each count out how many pieces?"
They scrunched their faces.
"Ah ... ten," one boy said. His team groaned, but no one shouted out the answer. They'd all learned a hard lesson one game when someone shouted the answer and their team went without the treat. Keeping to her decision had been one of Pearl's more difficult moments.
"Think again, Ean. Two for each person on your team."
"I know." A girl on the other team nearly burst her skin with excitement.
"Now write down your answer." Pearl pointed at a piece of paper and pencil on the edge of her desk.
As the girl wrote her answer, Ean's grin lit his face, like a gas jet flaring.
Pearl held up her hand as if stopping traffic. She checked the gift's writing, nodded, and turned to nod at Ean.
"Twenty," he said triumphantly.
"Very good." Pearl poured the red-and-white striped candy pieces from the jar onto a napkin. "Count them out."
With everyone sucking on peppermint candies, she motioned them to sit on the floor in front of her closer to the radiators where it was warmer. As soon as they were settled, she opened the book she'd been reading a chapter at a time. Oliver Twist took off on another adventure with his gang, each child sitting spellbound as Pearl read to the class.
When the dismissal bell rang, Pearl closed the book. "Now remember that we have a test tomorrow in arithmetic, and you must all be ready to recite your poem." Knowing that few of them had more than a candle or lamp for light in the evenings, she hesitated to give homework assignments during the long winter nights. Not that many of the parents paid much attention to the assignments she did give.
If half of her fifth-grade class returned in the fall, she'd be surprised. Too many families needed the older children to be out working, especially those with no fathers.
Three children stayed after the bell to help her clean the classroom, chatting and laughing as they washed the blackboard, swept the floor, and banged the chalk out of the erasers on the lee side of the building.
Excerpted from Pearl by Lauraine Snelling Copyright © 2004 by Lauraine Snelling. Excerpted by permission.
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