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Song Of A Soul
By Lawana Blackwell
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 1997 Lawana Blackwell
All right reserved.
Chapter OneJuly 7, 1883
Edmund Woodruff IV rubbed his throbbing temple and glared across his desk at the young man seated before him. Why do our children have the power to grieve us so? he asked himself, though he already knew the answer. Love was the shackle that had so far kept him from throwing his hands up in resignation. Even if, at twenty-one, his youngest son was too thickheaded to see where his folly would ultimately lead him, Edmund still felt an obligation to intervene and point him in the right direction.
But this is the last time. I'm getting too old for such aggravation.
Edmund looked up as Gregory's voice cut into his thoughts.
"I would just like to say-," his son began, looking as contrite as he always did when called on the carpet. But Edmund was not willing to listen to the young man's excuses just yet. He held up a silencing hand and continued to glare.
The tragedy was that Gregory had the potential to go as far in life as he desired. The brightest of Edmund's six children, he had made excellent marks at Owens College in Manchester before being expelled for scandalous behavior two years before. And easily he was the most handsome man in Walesby, for his dark hair and intense blue eyes, combined with the aristocratic lines of his face, drew attention everywhere he went. It would have been better if he had been ordinary looking, Edmund thought. Good looks were a curse without the character to go with them.
Finally, he cleared his throat. "What possessed you to lock a cow in the vicar's house?" he asked in a remarkably calm voice for his state of mind.
Gregory had been sitting there in rigid foreboding since being summoned into the study. Now a lightning-quick twitch played at the corners of his mouth.
"So, you're still amused by your little prank!" Edmund snapped, and the vein in his temple throbbed harder. Gregory's face blanched. "I'm not, sir."
"Then answer my question."
"Oh, I've no doubt your friends wagered you into it. How much money did this idiocy earn you?"
This time Gregory's handsome face went crimson in an attempt to look indignant. The effect was spoiled, however, when he could not meet his father's eyes. "It wasn't a wager."
"How much?" Edmund demanded.
After some hesitation, his son mumbled, "Ten pounds."
"You will give that to the vicar for the inconvenience you've caused, along with your sincere apology."
"Yes sir." Though Gregory's eyes were still lowered, there was an easing of his posture, a relief that the worst was over. "I'll do that right away."
"Not quite yet."
Edmund took a deep breath. "The examinations for Cambridge are next month. I have arranged for you to take them."
"Cambridge?" Now the young man looked up at him with a dazed expression. "But I don't want to-"
"You're going to enroll in the university, or I will purchase you a commission in the army. Either way, you will not stay in Walesby and shame your family any longer."
"Father, please. Just give me one more chance."
"That's the problem, Gregory. I've given you too many chances already."
The color came back to Gregory's face. "And if I don't choose to take the exam? You would force your own son into the army?"
Edmund sighed, the heaviness in his heart far worse than the pain in his head. "I would force my son to become a man."
* * *
After leaving his father's office, Gregory walked outside to the garden, where his mother usually sat with her embroidery. Sure enough, she was there in her favorite spot-between the goldfish pond and a bed of blue larkspur-her matronly frame bent over a hooped canvas in her lap. At his approach, his mother looked up at him and smiled.
She said his name, as she did all of her children's and grandchildren's names, in a tone that resembled a verbal caress. Gregory's spirits lifted. Surely, if he were careful about it, he could convince her to talk his father out of this latest insanity.
He sat down on the bench beside her. "What are you making?"
"A sampler for little Frances's nursery." Frances was her latest grandchild, his older brother Jeremy's daughter, who had just been christened the month before. Holding up the fabric, she pointed to an elephant she had just embroidered around the letter e. "Each letter of the alphabet will represent an animal."
"That will be nice," he said, feigning interest. "But tell me, what animal could you possibly find for x?"
Gregory had to laugh. "There's no such thing."
"Yes, there is, although I'm not sure if I'm pronouncing it correctly. It's another name for a horseshoe crab."
"You're going to put a picture of a crab on a baby's sampler?"
She shrugged her shoulders. "It's either that or have little Frances go through life believing there are only twenty-five letters to the alphabet. At any rate, it will be a most attractive crab, I assure you."
Gregory smiled, secure in the knowledge that he could always put his mother in a good mood. Now was the time to work on her maternal instincts, he told himself. He would have to hurry if he were to make the start of the faro game at The Cat and Fiddle in a little over an hour.
He peered off into the distance with what he hoped was a melancholy expression and breathed a sigh that was heavy but not too theatrical. "I will miss our talks, Mother." Actually, it had been weeks since he had last sought her company-when the bill for the dozen new shirts he had ordered had reached his father's hands, and he had needed an ally.
His mother put the canvas back down in her lap. "And so will I, dear." Her voice was shaded with sadness, but she didn't ask what he was talking about. It wasn't a hopeful sign. If Mother already knew what was going on, that meant she had been in on the decision-or had already been convinced by Father to see things his way. Gregory knew he would have to be careful with his presentation.
"I do wish I could make Father understand how sorry I am about my past actions," he began, heaving another sigh.
"Have you told him?"
The sympathy in her voice gave him some hope. "I have," he replied. He hung his head and allowed his shoulders to sag. "But he still wants to send me away."
After a protracted silence, his mother shook her head. "The university will be good for you, Gregory."
"But you don't know how lonely it was for me in Manchester."
"Oh, I don't recall that you were that lonely."
Gregory looked up at her, startled. Surely Father, who usually shielded her from the most indelicate incidents, hadn't told Mother about that bit with the daughter of a smithy.
"I'm not proud of what I did," he said, lowering his head again. He dared not take out his watch, but he wondered what time it was. If he left soon enough and rode Spartacus, his father's fastest horse, he could still easily make the game. "I wish I could prove to you and Father how badly I wish to change my ways. Just one more chance would mean so much to me."
His mother touched his shoulder, and Gregory stifled a victorious smile. He knew he could win his mother over-she always had been a soft touch.
She patted his shoulder gently. "You can prove it by doing your best at the university, Son."
* * *
October 3, 1883
In London, nineteen-year-old Deborah Burke closed the catch on her trunk for what she resolved would be the last time. "If I've forgotten anything, I'll just have to write Mother and ask her to send it," she told her younger sister Theresa. "I'm worn out from packing."
Theresa, one year Deborah's junior, drew a wool wrap of bright chartreuse from the open armoire. "Won't you need this?"
Deborah winced and then glanced at the door. "I suppose Laurel would notice if I left it behind."
"I imagine she'll be up here checking the room an hour after you're gone," Theresa replied, covering a giggle with her hand. "But just because you pack it doesn't mean you have to wear it."
Their youngest sister, fourteen-year-old Laurel, had decided to make all of her Christmas gifts last year-a touching gesture and a sweet idea. Unfortunately, she was attracted to colors that could be seen for miles. It could have been worse, Deborah thought. She might have used the same wool she chose for Father's muffler. She smiled inwardly at the thought of the garish fuchsia scarf. But like a good father, he gamely wore it during nippy weather and pretended to love it.
"You're right, of course," Deborah sighed. She took the wrap, folded it, and unlocked her trunk one more time.
Later, as she sat with her family in the dining room, she realized with a pang of regret that it was the last dinner she would share with them until Christmas. Lucy, the cook, had prepared Deborah's favorite dishes for the occasion: chicken-and-leek pie, braised shrimp, and Welsh rarebit, with treacle tarts and marmalade pudding for dessert.
"Lucy has boxed up several jars of apple chutney for Miss Knight," her mother told her. "She doesn't want you to show up empty-handed."
Deborah had grown up taking for granted the bond between her mother and the cook. Until she visited in the homes of some of her school friends, she had assumed this kind of relationship to be the norm. She traded smiles across the table with her mother, whose green eyes were so much like her own and whose honey-colored hair had only recently begun to show traces of gray.
Before marrying Father, Mother had been a servant herself, which was why she treated the household servants as people instead of property. Now she was a successful portrait artist, whose works were commissioned by such eminent people as Octavia Hill and Lord Randolph Churchill. But Mother would tell anyone who asked that her most prized works were the portraits of members of her own family, which occupied places of honor in the sitting room.
A lump came to Deborah's throat. She had been so eager to begin her tutoring with Signora Pella that she hadn't given much thought to how she would miss her family. Now the reality of her imminent departure struck her full force, and she blinked back tears.
"I'm surprised Lucy hasn't convinced Deborah to stow a roast goose away in her trunk," her father said from the head of the table. When Deborah looked over at him, he raised an eyebrow as if to say, Are you all right?
She smiled back and nodded, but the lump still remained. Though her father drew curious stares from strangers out in public, she thought him the most handsome man alive. The warmth and intelligence in his brown eyes made up for the severe scars on the right side of his face, wounds from the Crimean War. She had inherited her dark brown hair from him, as had Laurel, while Theresa's hair was light, like Mother's.
Father was the one who had made the arrangements for her voice lessons from the famous Clarisse Pella, now retired from the stage and residing in Cambridge as the wife of Lord Payton Raleigh. Ten years ago, Deborah and her family had attended a performance of Verdi's Aida at the Opera Comique while on holiday in Paris. Deborah, who was already showing promise with her choral lessons at school, had sat in teary-eyed absorption, caught up in the spell of Signora Pella's clear mezzo-soprano voice.
At that moment nine-year-old Deborah fell in love with opera and determined that she must one day become the weaver of such musical spells. With a recommendation from her school music teacher, she auditioned for and was accepted by the Royal Academy of Music in London. She proved herself a dedicated student. As a young woman, while most of her friends were giving their attention to soirees and fashions-and later, to finding suitable husbands-Deborah was spending two hours a day going over the scales. And her hard work paid off. She made her mark in the academy's opera productions, starting out in the chorus and progressing to larger parts.
Then last spring, a few months before graduation from the academy, she auditioned for and won the role of Amneris, the same role that Clarisse Pella had once played, in the academy's production of Aida. Deborah felt that she had reached the pinnacle of her dreams-how could she aspire to anything greater than playing the role that Signora Pella had so magnificently brought to life? But as the performance ended and the curtain calls went on, she discovered that this was not an end but a beginning. There was no place more exciting to Deborah Burke than the boards of the theater. Opera had become so much a part of her soul that she couldn't imagine life without it.
Upon graduation, most students of the academy began a life of auditioning for the London opera houses. The majority of them would begin with parts in the choruses while waiting for that one big part that would establish their careers. That had been Deborah's plan, too, although she felt she still had much to learn to reach the perfection she desired. Hopefully, the polishing of her craft would continue with maturity, experience in various small roles, and her own vocal practice at home.
Then one day her father approached her with a letter he had received from Clarisse Pella. He had been secretly writing to the great diva for over a year, detailing Deborah's progress and asking if Signora Pella would consider taking her on as a student. He had kept his plan a secret from Deborah so as not to raise false hopes, especially since Signora Pella never answered his letters. When she finally did answer, it was in response to Father's account of how splendidly Deborah had performed in Aida.
"I will give your daughter one month," had been her succinct reply. "If she is as promising as you claim, I will continue to teach her."
Father's news brought an abrupt, though joyful, change to Deborah's plans. She would be taught by the very woman who had so inspired her a decade before!
Once the lessons were finalized, Father wrote to a friend of his late mother's, Helene Knight, to ask if Deborah might board with her. The eighty-year-old spinster-blind, but still in good health-replied that she would be delighted to have a young guest in her house and wouldn't dream of charging board.
* * *
"Did you pack your green wrap?" Laurel sat at the table next to Mother. Her intense tone of voice drew Deborah back into the present.
Ignoring a nudge from Theresa's foot, Deborah smiled at her youngest sister. "It's the first thing I'll see when I open my trunk."
After supper, the family sat around the game table in the library and played vingt-et-un.
Excerpted from Song Of A Soul by Lawana Blackwell Copyright © 1997 by Lawana Blackwell. Excerpted by permission.
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