Read an Excerpt
The Triumph of Grace
Book 3 of The Grace in Africa series
By Kay Marshall Strom
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2011 Kay Marshall Strom
All rights reserved.
Who is it? Who is out there?" Nurse Hunter demanded. She rushed down the hall of the Foundling Hospital. "Must you knock the door completely off its hinges?"
Even in the best of times, Nurse Hunter was not a patient woman. And now, with her nerves already taxed by two weeks of unrelenting rain, the persistent pounding on the front door pushed her to the point of exasperation. Her characteristic staccato steps clicked through the halls with even more haste than usual.
Grace Winslow paid Nurse Hunter no mind. She extracted another bedsheet from the bundle young Hannah held in her outstretched arms. With an expert hand, Grace stuffed the sheet alongside the soggy heap already jammed into the corner where the dining hall floor connected to the entry hallway. She dropped to her knees and forced the padding firmly into place.
As Nurse Hunter tugged the water-swollen door open, Grace straightened her back. She sighed and brushed a stray lock of auburn-tinged black curls from her dark face, now glossy with sweat. "Whoever you are, do not trail mud over my freshly scrubbed floor," she murmured —but not loud enough for either Nurse Hunter or the newcomer to hear.
A worthy concern it was, too. With the road outside an absolute quagmire of muck, first one person and then the next tracked the mess inside and down the hallway faster than Grace and the girls could clean it up. Even courteous people carried the foul outside into the building. And whoever it was raising such a row at the door was obviously no courteous person.
Through the open front door, a rough voice demanded, "We's come fer Grace Winslow!"
"And just where do you fancy yourself taking our help in the middle of the day?" Nurse Hunter demanded. "The children sweat in their beds with the fever, and every corner of this building has sprung a new leak. I'd be a fool to hand our best worker over to you, wouldn't I, now?"
"Takin' her to Newgate Prison, is wot," came the sharp reply. "On orders of Lord Reginald Witherham hisself."
Grace stiffened. Lord Reginald Witherham? Charlotte's husband? An entire year had passed since Grace made her escape from that dreadful man's house! Lord Reginald had been frightfully angry, but so much time had passed. Surely by now—
"And what right does Lord Reginald Witherham have to remove our help from this charitable establishment?" Nurse Hunter demanded, her long, thin arms akimbo on her spare body.
"Grace Winslow be a thief, is wot," the irritated voice replied. "Now, kindly step aside. Elsewise, we be taking you along with her."
A thief! Grace could not believe what she had heard. She was no such thing! Charlotte would tell them as much. Yes, Lord Reginald's wife knew everything that had happened that day at Larkspur Estate.
A tall burly man in a shabby greatcoat pushed past Nurse Hunter and forced his way into the entry hall. Right behind him was a short man with bushy eyebrows and an overgrown mustache.
"Hannah!" Nurse Hunter ordered. "Run and find Nurse Cunningham and bid her come immediately. Hurry, now!"
The child dropped the bedsheets. She looked uncertainly from Nurse Hunter to Grace to little Phoebe, whose arms were still piled high with folded cloth.
"Go!" Nurse Hunter commanded.
As Hannah bolted down the center hall, little Phoebe screamed to Grace, "Wun, Gwace! Wun away fast!"
The burly man pointed to Grace and called, "That be her!"
Before Grace could get her wits about her, the men were upon her. The tall burly man held her firmly in his grasp, and the bushy one bound her wrists with a rope.
"It is all a mistake!" Grace protested. "I never stole anything!"
Without bothering to respond, the men shoved her toward the door. Phoebe shrieked and Nurse Hunter scolded, but the men paid no mind. They hustled Grace out into the rain toward a waiting carriage with doors that bore the golden letters WL—the unmistakable monogram of Witherham Larkspur, Lord Reginald's estate.
"Here, now!" Nurse Cunningham panted as she ran up behind Hannah. "What is the meaning of this?" When she saw Grace in the grip of the two ruffians, she ordered, "Loosen our servant this instant! I insist!"
Nurse Cunningham might as well have been speaking to the trees.
"We are a charitable house for orphans, sirs!" she exclaimed." Have you no concern for the welfare of poor children?"
The burly man shoved Grace through the open carriage door and hefted himself in beside her. The bushy-faced man scurried up after them, settled himself across from Grace and the large man, and yanked the door shut. Not one word was spoken. Not one word was needed. The driver whipped the horse. The carriage jerked forward and rattled onto the cobblestone street.
Grace tugged herself around in time to see the two women and a clutch of children staring after her. Wide-eyed, they huddled together in the driving rain.
"I am no thief," Grace said.
"Save it fer the magistrate," the burly man told her. "It's him wot will hear yer plea."
Grace started to object, but the bushy-faced man glared hard at her and growled through his mustache in such a terrifying way that she closed her mouth and sank back in miserable silence.
A year of schemes and plans. A year of saving every shilling of her pay from the Foundling Hospital. Months of gathering bits and pieces of men's clothes.
"When may I go back to the Foundling Hospital?" Grace ventured.
The burly man barked a sharp guffaw. "The Foundling Hospital, is it, then? Be there a graveyard out back? One with a poor hole, perchance? 'Tis the only way you will be seein' the likes of that place again."
"Should've said yer good-bye's afore the door closed on this carriage," said the small man with the bushy face. His stony voice unnerved Grace. "You won't be seeing them children again. Not in this life."
Grace shivered in her drenched dress and sank further into the seat. Each clomp, clomp, clomp of the horse's hooves was like a hammer driving a spike of despair deeper into her heart. Why now, after all this time? Surely, with his powerful connections, Lord Reginald Witherham could have found her at any time during the year she had worked at the Foundling Hospital. Why now, just when everything was almost ready?
For the past year, at the end of every exhausting day, Grace took off her only dress, laid it over the single chair in her room and slipped into the loose cotton garment Nurse Hunter had given her for sleep. She lay down on her cot and in the darkness carefully traced Cabeto's face in her mind. She recalled its every curve—the laughing tilt of his mouth, the broad shape of his nose, the spark of assurance in his eyes. When her husband was firmly fixed in her memory, she whispered again the promise she had called out to him on that awful day in Africa: "I will see you again. I promise!"
Cabeto, in chains. Cabeto, forced onto the slave ship. Cabeto, the slave.
Oh, but Cabeto, in America, waiting for her!
Unless ... unless she couldn't get to him in time. One year, Captain Ross had told her. Maybe two. That's how long it would be before whatever slave owner bought Cabeto would likely work him to death.
One year, maybe two.
"Don't you worry yerself about Newgate Prison," the burly man taunted. "Lord Witherham be in such a state, I guar'ntee you won't be lingerin' there fer long."
Mistakes happen. Grace understood that. Misunderstandings occur. If she were in her village in Africa, she and her accuser would simply sit down under the baobab tree—the spirit tree—with the wise old man in the village, and they would all talk together. The wisdom of the ancestors would rise from the spirit tree and fill the mind of the old man, and he would guide the disagreeing sides to a place of understanding. In Africa, the two would walk away in harmony. But this was not Africa. It was London, where no baobab trees grew. Even if a spirit tree did exist in London, it would be lost among the crush of tall buildings and chimneys that clogged the city and church spires that reached to the sky. Nor could the wisdom of the ancestors hope to pierce the unyielding shroud of thick, smoky fog that held London in its relentless grasp.
"Lady Charlotte—I must speak to her!" Grace said.
The burly man burst out in a great guffaw. "You? And what would the likes o' you say to so fine a lady?"
"I know her, you see, and—"
"If you knows anything at all, you knows to shut yer mouth while you still can."
"Exceptin' to beg fer mercy," interrupted the man with the bushy face. "Surely you knows that. Elsewise you be about to gift all London with the pleasure o' watchin' you dance at the end of a hangman's rope."CHAPTER 2
The charge?" asked Magistrate Francis Warren.
Attired in a long black robe and with a white powdered wig on his head, the magistrate looked frightfully official even though he sat at his own desk in the parlor of his own home and rubbed his hands warm before the fire in his own hearth.
"What charge do you bring against this woman, Lord Reginald?"
Magistrate Warren peered over the wire-rimmed spectacles perched on the bridge of his nose and squinted with filmy eyes at Lord Reginald Witherham, who sat stiffly on the opposite side of the fireplace. With great show, Lord Reginald set aside the teacup he so expertly balanced on his knee. He rose to his full unimposing height and bowed low to the magistrate. Lord Reginald artfully posed himself to one side of the opulent marble mantel—head high, left hand behind his back for a touch of elegance, right hand free for gesturing. For an entire year, he had bidden his time. After so great a display of discipline, this moment was far too sweet to pass by without indulgence.
Slowly, deliberately, Lord Reginald turned his attention to Grace Winslow. Miserable and shivering in her wet dress, she stood some distance from the fire, flanked by the same two men who had brought her from the Foundling Hospital.
"Your Lordship," Lord Reginald began with a most dramatic flair, "this African woman who stands before you—" here he paused to look at her with disgusted pity "—is naught but a wanton thief!"
The magistrate heaved a wearied sigh.
Grace caught her breath.
An air of victory settled over Lord Reginald's pale face. He lifted his narrow jaw and fixed Grace with as searing a glare as his weak features could manage.
"Sir," Grace said, but not to Lord Reginald. She searched the magistrate's craggy face for understanding. "Are you the wisest man of this town? Are you the one who hears disagreements and leads your people to a way of healing?"
"Your Lordship!" Lord Reginald interrupted with a great show of indignation. "I really must protest this display of insolence!"
Ignoring Lord Reginald's incensed huffs and allowing the trace of a smile to push at the corners of his mouth, Magistrate Warren answered Grace.
"I should be most pleased to think of myself in such lofty terms," he said. "But, to my great misfortune, I fear that such a calling is not mine. You stand before me today for one purpose alone: to make it possible for me to determine the quality of the case brought against you. With that single intention in mind, I am required by my office to insist that you remain silent as I hear Lord Reginald Witherham state his charges against you. Afterwards, I shall determine whether you shall be bound over for trial."
With a sigh of impatience, Lord Reginald abandoned his carefully orchestrated pose and strode to the magistrate.
"I took pity on the wretch," he informed Magistrate Warren." That was my downfall, Your Lordship. Out of naught but kindness, I allowed her to enter my house, and she repaid my benevolence with blatant thievery. She took my goodwill as an opportunity to remove from my estate as many items as she could secret under her skirts. Of that I have not the least doubt."
Grace gasped in disbelief. She had been inside Lord Reginald's estate house, that much was true. But only one time, and she was never left alone. No, not for one minute.
"Sir, that is not true!" Grace protested. "I never—"
"Madam, you have no right to speak," the magistrate cautioned. His voice was kind, yet firm. "This is an official hearing."
"If you just ask Lady Charlotte, she could tell you—"
"Hold your peace, madam! If you do not, I shall have no choice but to have you removed forthwith straight to Newgate Prison!"
Lord Reginald allowed himself the indulgence of a satisfied smile.
All was proceeding precisely as he had meticulously planned. Justice wrought would surely be worth the year's wait.
"Your Lordship," Lord Reginald continued. "I ask permission to submit for your excellent consideration one particular piece of evidence."
Here Lord Reginald reached into his pocket and pulled out a fine linen handkerchief, sewn with the daintiest of hands and most delicately trimmed in an elegant lace border.
Grace cried out in spite of herself.
"Please note the quality of this piece of finery," Lord Reginald continued unabated. "Embroidered flowers throughout, all done in the most perfect of stitches. This piece is easily worth six shillings. Perhaps as much as eight."
"Missus Peete gave me that handkerchief when I left her employ!" Grace cried. "Where did you get it?"
"Silence!" Magistrate Warren ordered.
"It was in my room, sir! I kept it under the pillow on my cot!"
"I shall not repeat my injunction," insisted Magistrate Warren. The kindly creases in his face hardened into angry resolve.
"The handkerchief was indeed retrieved from the cell where the accused has lived for the past year," said Lord Reginald, "but not from under the cot pillow where she lays her head at night. No, no. Some days past an associate of mine found it hidden away behind a loose stone in the wall." Lord Reginald paused dramatically. "I ask Your Lordship, does that not provide ample proof that Grace Winslow is nothing but a common thief? That she is only using the Foundling Hospital as a convenient place to hide herself, cloaked in the guise of a nurse caring for homeless children?"
Magistrate Warren ran his hand over his face and heaved a weary sigh. "A six-shilling handkerchief, then. Have you evidence of further thievery, Lord Reginald?"
"Even such a one as she is not fool enough to keep stolen goods lying about," Lord Reginald answered. "Undoubtedly she visits the rag fair regularly and offers for sale whatever she has pilfered. This particular piece, however, she evidently determined to keep for herself." Here he held the handkerchief high, as though it were a great trophy. "Perhaps such a dainty allows her to believe that she truly is a lady ... and not merely an escaped slave from Africa."
"None of that is true!" Grace cried in exasperation.
"Silence!" ordered the magistrate.
"And I am not a slave!"
"Have you any witnesses to call, Lord Reginald?"
"No, Your Lordship," replied Lord Reginald with a deep bow. "Taking into consideration the obvious circumstances of this case, I did not deem it necessary to inconvenience such witnesses."
Since Magistrate Warren would not permit Grace to speak in her defense, he most certainly did not extend her an invitation to call witnesses.
"I am certain you will find that I have set before you a case most worthy of trial," Lord Reginald continued.
Magistrate Warren knew perfectly well what he had before him: an African woman—a mere cleaning maid—one of a multitude of her kind to be found in London. She faced a charge brought by an exceedingly wealthy lord, an aristocratic gentleman of great power and influence. A servant of foreign extraction could disappear into the depths of Newgate Prison—or worse—and never be missed. On the other hand, Lord Reginald Witherham had it in his power to do much to propel a cooperative magistrate forward politically, or he could wield equal influence to destroy an uncooperative one. Magistrate Francis Warren could ill afford to subject himself to such a risk. And, really, why should he? There was, after all, that expensive handkerchief to consider. What further evidence did he require?
Excerpted from The Triumph of Grace by Kay Marshall Strom. Copyright © 2011 Kay Marshall Strom. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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