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FAIRER THAN Morning
By Rosslyn Elliott
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2011 Rosslyn Elliott
All right reserved.
Chapter OneRushville, Ohio 15th July 1823
Proposals of marriage should not cause panic. That much she knew.
Eli knelt before her on the riverbank. His cheekbones paled into marble above his high collar. Behind him, the water rushed in silver eddies, dashed itself against the bank, and spiraled onward out of sight. If only she could melt into the water and tumble away with it down the narrow valley.
She clutched the folds of her satin skirt, as the answer she wanted to give him slid away in her jumbled thoughts.
Afternoon light burnished his blond hair to gold. "Must I beg for you? Then I shall." He smiled. "You know I have a verse for every occasion. 'Is it thy will thy image should keep open, My heavy eyelids to the weary night? Dost thou desire my slumbers should be broken, While shadows like to thee do mock my sight?'"
The silence lengthened. His smile faded.
"No." The single word was all Ann could muster. It sliced the air between them with its awkward sharpness.
He faltered. "You refuse me?"
He released her hand, his eyes wide, his lips parted. After a pause, he closed his mouth and swallowed visibly. "But why?" Hurt flowered in his face.
"We're too young." The words sounded tinny and false even to her.
"You've said that youth is no barrier to true love. And I'm nineteen." He rose to his feet, buttoning his cobalt cutaway coat.
"But I'm only fifteen." Again Ann failed to disguise her hollowness.
She had never imagined a proposal so soon, always assuming it years away, at a safe distance. She should never have told him how she loved the story of Romeo and Juliet. Only a week ago she had called young marriage romantic, as she and Eli sat close to one another on that very riverbank, reading the parts of the lovers in low voices.
"There is some other reason." In his mounting indignation, he resembled a blond avenging angel. "What is it? Is it because I did not ask your father first?"
"You should have asked him, but even so, he would not have consented. Father will not permit me to marry until I am eighteen."
"Eighteen? Three years?" His eyes were the blue at the center of a candle flame. "Then you must change his mind. I cannot wait." He slid his hands behind her elbows and pulled her close. His touch aligned all her senses to him like nails cleaving to a magnet. With an effort, she twisted from his grasp and shook her head.
His brow creased and he looked away as if he could not bear the sight of her. "I think it very callous of you to refuse me without the slightest attempt to persuade your father."
"I do not think he will change his mind. He has been very clear."
"Then perhaps you should have been-clearer-yourself." His faint sarcasm stung her, as if a bee had crawled beneath the lace of her bodice.
He dropped his gaze. "You would not give up so easily if you cared. You have deceived me, Ann."
He turned and walked up the riverbank, the white lining flashing from the gore of his coat over his boot tops. Before she could even call out, he topped the ridge and disappeared from view.
She stared blankly after him. She was so certain that the Lord had intended Eli to be her husband. But that once-distant future had arrived too early, and now it lay in ruins.
Numb, she collected the history and rhetoric books that she had dropped on the grass. She must change her father's mind, as Eli had said. If she did not, all was lost.
She clutched the books to her like a shield and began the long walk home.
In front of the farmhouse, her two young sisters crouched in the grass in their flowered frocks. Mabel pointed her chubby little finger at an insect on the ground. Susan brushed back wispy strands of light-brown hair and peered at it.
"Have you seen Father?" Ann asked them.
Their soft faces turned toward her.
"He's in the workshop." Mabel's voice was high and pure and still held a trace of her baby lisp. She turned back to inspect the grass.
"He said he is writing a sermon and please not to disturb him," Susan added with the panache of an eight-year-old giving orders.
Without comment, Ann angled toward the barn, which held the horses and also a workshop for her father's saddle and harness business. Like most circuit riders, he did not earn his living from his ministry, and so he crafted sermons and saddles at the same workbench.
He glanced up when the wooden door slapped against its frame behind her.
"Ann." His clean-shaven face showed the wear of his forty years, though his posture was vigorous and his constitution strong from hours of riding and farm work. "I asked Susan to let you know I was writing." There was no blame in his voice. He had always been gentle with them, and even more so since their mother had passed away.
"She did. But I must speak with you."
"You seem perturbed." He laid down his quill and turned around in his chair. "Will you sit down?"
"No, thank you." She clasped her hands in front of her and pressed them against her wide sash to steady herself as she took a quick breath. "Eli Bowen proposed to me today."
"Without asking my blessing?" A small line appeared between his brows. "And what did you tell him?"
"That I cannot marry until I am eighteen. That you have forbidden it."
"That is true. I have good reason to ask you to wait." He regarded her steadily.
She summoned restraint with effort. "What reason? I am young, I know, but he is nineteen. He can make his way in the world. He wishes to go to medical school."
"I don't doubt that Mr. Bowen is a fine young man." Her father's reply was calm. "But I do not think your mother would have let you marry so young."
"Dora Sumner married last year, and she was only sixteen." She paced across the room, casting her eyes on the floor, on the walls, anywhere but on him. He must not refuse, he must not. He did not understand.
"I am not Dora's father." His voice was flat, unyielding. He turned to his table and gently closed his Bible. When he faced her again, his demeanor softened. "Your mother almost married another man when she was your age. She told me it would have been a terrible match. She was glad she waited until she was eighteen." He looked at her mother's tiny portrait in its oval ivory frame on the table. "She said that by the time she met me, she knew her own mind and wasn't quite as silly."
"I am not silly. I know how I feel. And he is not a terrible match." Her voice grew quieter as her throat tightened.
"I am sorry, Ann. I must do what I think is right." He was sober and sad.
Or what is convenient. For who else would care for my sisters, if not me?
But such thoughts wronged her father, for she had never known him to act from self-interest.
"But how can he wait for me? He is older than I am. He will want to marry before three years are out." She did not try to keep the pleading from her voice, though her face tingled.
He paused, then leaned forward, as steady and quiet as when he comforted a bereaved widow. "Then he does not deserve you."
"No, you are simply mistaken. And cruel."
He stood up and walked to the back of the barn.
Clutching her skirt, she whirled around, pushed through the door, and ran for the house.
She would not give way to tears. She must stay calm. She slowed to a walk so her sisters would not be startled and passed them without a word.
Her bedroom beckoned her down the dark hallway.
She did not throw herself on the bed, as she had so often that first year after the loss of her mother.
Instead, she went to her desk, lifted the top, and fished out her diary. Her skirts sent up a puff of air as she flounced into the seat and began writing feverishly. After some time, the even curves of her handwriting mesmerized her, and her quill slowed. She lifted it from the page of the book and gazed ahead at the dark oaken wall.
What if he does not wait for me?
She must not doubt him so. Eli would regain his good humor and understand. He had told her many times that she was his perfect match, that he would never find another girl so admirable and with such uncommon interest in the life of the mind.
Besides, she had been praying to someday find a husband of like interests and kind heart, and God had provided. Eli loved poetry and appreciated fine art, but he was nonetheless a man's man who liked to ride and hunt. And of course, he was every village girl's dream, with his aristocratic face. No other young man in Rushville could compare.
She doodled on the bottom of the page. First she wrote her own name.
Then she wrote his. Then she wrote her name with his.
She smiled, pushed the diary aside, and pillowed her head on her arm to daydream of white bridal gowns and orange blossoms.
Chapter TwoPennsylvania 18th July 1823
If a young man had to sign away his freedom for five whole years, surely this was the best way to do it. Will pulled the heavy window cloth aside and leaned forward to look out the carriage window.
"Not yet, boy," Master Good said.
What a kind voice Will's future master had. It was smooth as oiled leather, befitting a man with a calm brow and a steady gaze. Master Good's hair was uncommonly dark for a man of middle age, his light blue eyes ageless under the rim of his fine black hat. He lifted his hand with fluid grace to gesture at the window. "See that hill?"
"Yes, sir." The carriage drove alongside a huge mound that obscured their view. All Will could see was a tapestry of grass rolling past the window at a rapid rate. The foot-tall growth on the hillside was mostly green, but here and there threads of dry straw whispered of colder days to come.
"The city won't come into view until we round the hill." Master Good lifted his leather satchel into his lap. Unbuckling the clasp, he drew out several pieces of ivory parchment and thrust them in Will's direction. "Look, boy."
Will let the cloth fall back over the window and wiped his hand on his pants before taking the papers.
His master leaned back against the leather seat. "We'll be stopping soon to sign this and have it witnessed by my neighbor. Best to read through it now so we can be quick."
Will was grateful his father had taught him to read so well. Father would be proud now, if he could see how Will had secured such a good future for himself.
The threat of tears prickled in his eyes. He fought them off. It had been six years since he lost his parents. The boy of ten who wept every night that year was now almost a young man. He would behave like one, especially in front of his soon-to-be master.
Holding the documents in one hand, Will pressed his thin knapsack with the other and reassured himself that his folded packet of letters was still in there. Those letters and the little silver locket were all he had left of his mother and father.
He stared at the papers Master Good had given him. The letters stood out in thick flourishes, stark and black against the purity of the paper.
County of Allegheny To wit Mr. Jacob Good Came this Day in the presence of witness, to receive William Hanby as an Apprentice for the period of five years, to learn the art or trade of Saddlery and perform sundry duties to support his Master's trade. During the whole of this period said Apprentice will be in His Master's Service and will not work for Hire for any other person; he will be obedient to his Master's command and diligent in his Employment. To his Master he will grant all Sovereignty over his person and his whereabouts for the duration of his Apprenticeship; his Master shall provide him with bed and board. Upon the successful completion of the Term, his Master shall furnish him with a set of tools of the trade, one new coat, and one pair of new shoes. Signed, dated, and countersigned,
"You see that all is in order," Master Good said. He adjusted his hat and opened his hand for the papers.
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir." Will gave back the indenture agreement with care.
The driver on top of the carriage whistled to the horses in their traces; the whip cracked. The jostling increased, and Will's shoulder rammed into the wooden doorframe on his left. Wincing, he leaned again to the window and pulled the small curtain aside.
The city of Pittsburgh! The coach had topped the hill. In the valley below, three rivers joined and a jumbled maze of dark buildings spread out between them. Smoke drifted over the city like thick fog. He smelled something unpleasant, like burning refuse. No matter. Naturally, where there's industry and wealth, there will be smoke. Nothing could quell his excitement.
All he had known was life on a farm. When he was seven, his parents and his two sisters had developed a consumption that gave them first a cough, then fever and pains throughout the body. On a doctor's advice, his father had indentured Will and his still-healthy brother, Johnny, to two separate farming families, in order to save them from infection. Over the course of two years, one letter after another informed Will that first his sisters and then his father and mother had succumbed to virulent infection of the blood, an effect of consumption no doctor could heal.
With the Quaker farmer, Will's work had been hard, though the farmer was fair and honest. Will had longed to see more than barns and horses—he wanted to read books, see ships, talk to travelers. When his farm indenture expired last month, he had jumped at the chance for a Pittsburgh apprenticeship. He could hardly wait for the larger world that lay before him.
At the bottom of the hill, the coach entered a labyrinth of streets dense with buildings. First was a two-story mercantile, then a livery stable. Next came a brick warehouse with "Rifles and Munitions" painted in white across its side. Pedestrians clotted the road. The coach clattered past doctors' establishments with gilt signs, and offices for attorneys-at-law.
"Master Good, look. Another saddler." Will pointed to a sign with a saddle and two crossed whips.
"Yes, I have plenty of would-be rivals." His master did not seem curious about the sights, but instead picked up a newspaper that lay on the seat beside him and scanned the advertisements. Outside the window, the crowd thinned and wider plots of land girdled genteel residences.
The carriage slowed and shuddered to a stop as the driver yelled, "Whoa there!" Boots thumped on the ground outside and the driver opened the door for them, his hat and whiskers covered with dust.
Will's master stooped to exit the carriage, and then it was Will's turn. He slung his knapsack over his shoulder with care. He would not let it out of his sight until he had a safe place for the letters and the locket in the little drawstring pouch.
When Will climbed down from the coach, his master was already striding toward a two-story white home, graceful amid green lawns. Will had never seen such a large dwelling; he tried not to let his eyes pop like a bumpkin's.
He quickened his step to catch up with his master, who rapped with a brass knocker on the blue double door. After a brief wait, the door opened to reveal a young woman in a gray dress and white apron, her hair bound in a net.
"Hello, Mary," Master Good said. "I need to speak with the doctor, if you please."
She bobbed her head and ushered them in, then disappeared into the recesses of the home.
The foyer had a high ceiling, marble floor, and a banister-lined staircase curving up and back to the left. A painting in muted tones depicted a dark valley, relieved only by rays of light breaking through massed clouds above.
"Good afternoon to you, Jacob." A deep voice issued from the man who stepped through the arched doorway on the far side of the foyer. He was of average height and wore a black frock coat; his hair was pure white and his shoulders straight as a soldier's. As he crossed the room to offer a hand to Will's master, he shot Will a quick glance. Will wished his own coat and trousers were not so threadbare and shabby.
"Dr. Loftin." Master Good shook the doctor's hand briefly, then clasped Will's shoulder. "This is my new apprentice, William Hanby."
Excerpted from FAIRER THAN Morning by Rosslyn Elliott Copyright © 2011 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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