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Leah lifted her head and winced. Her neck muscles did not appreciate her brain's intense concentration at their expense. Absentmindedly she rubbed out the muscular kinks while she contemplated the microscope and multiple slides on the high laboratory table. Of the twenty-six slides she had chosen thus far, a handful would be too difficult for her students to identify. Four of them wouldn't challenge the brain of an earthworm, which, of course, possessed no brain at all. That left only-Leah calculated in her head while her fingers nimbly sorted slides-seventeen, satisfactory for inclusion on spring semester finals.
Unacceptable. She wanted at least twenty.
With a resigned grimace Leah slid off the high stool where she'd been camped for the past four hours. Her neck and shoulders were on fire, but she ignored the discomfort, one of the many attendant woes of a teacher, and marched across to the cabinets that held all the neat trays of slides. The science laboratory was Leah's pride and joy. Both curriculum as well as facilities had been in dire need of refurbishment when she accepted her position as teacher in residence at the Esther Hays School for Young Ladies a little over four years ago. But the Panic of '93 hit Richmond hard,and monies were scarce, interest in the School even scarcer. Mrs. Hayes had warned Leah that the school might be forced to close within a year.
Leah thrived on challenges. Her gaze wandered around the fully equipped laboratory, and the quiet glow of accomplishment offset darker currents she'd been ignoring for weeks.
"Mm? Oh, Rowena. Is it time for our tutoring session?" Leah lifted her chatelaine watch, fastened around the waist of Thursday's costume, the plaid gored skirt and pin-tucked shirtwaist. "You're forty minutes early. Something wrong?"
There was no need to ask. At a glance Leah had read the younger girl's guilt. Head tilted, she studied Rowena's flushed cheeks. "Let me guess. You'd like to arrange another time for your tutoring, because you wish to attend the Choral Festival this evening. Where, of course, you might bump into that charming young man you met at church. Geoffrey, I believe was his name?"
Rowena's mouth dropped open. "How do you know so much?"
"I'm a teacher. Teachers know everything, Rowena," Leah declared solemnly. After all, she had a reputation to maintain.
In truth, she'd learned it from Mertis Dittmore, Rowena's best friend at the school, who had also developed an affection for the hapless Geoffrey. Leah had discovered Mertis sobbing behind the rose trellis one afternoon and pried the story from her.
Rowena's lovely thick-lashed eyes searched Leah's face. "Miss Sinclair, why don't you come to the festival too? I-I'd like for you to meet Geoffrey."
"Thank you, but I'd better stay here. Remember it's my calling to torture students through their finals. I only hope you'll be able to adequately prepare, since you'll miss your tutoring session."
"Oh." Rowena gnawed on her lower lip, looking suddenly far younger than her fifteen years. "I want to do well for you, Miss Sinclair. I respect you so highly, you're the reason I'm here, because of my sister's best friend, Rachel, who said you were the best teacher she'd ever studied under. And I begged my-"
"Rowena. I'm teasing you."
Leah stepped closer and laid a hand on the flustered girl's forearm. Few persons outside the Sinclair family circle seemed able to respond in kind to Leah's subtle wit. Sighing, she offered Rowena an encouraging smile. "Have Mrs. Gribble dig an hour out of my schedule and we'll have our session then. Go enjoy the music, and your young man."
"Thank you, Miss Sinclair!" To Leah's astonishment, Rowena threw her arms around her, squeezed, then dashed from the laboratory in a swirl of white petticoats.
The melancholy struck without warning, twisting Leah's heartstrings as she listened to the fading sound of footsteps. She ignored it and turned back to the slides. She refused to wallow in wasted emotion, no matter how desperately she might miss her family. Yes, all right, Rowena's exuberant personality reminded her of Meredith, and Mertis Dittmore's sensitive nature of Garnet, but over the years there was always a student who bore a resemblance to one or both of her sisters.
Just as her sisters grew up, married and left home, so those students graduated from the Miss Esther's and departed. Occasionally one might write to Leah with the news of her impending marriage, or her entry into college, or gainful employment outside a domestic venue. But former students seldom wrote more than once. Leah was surrounded by people, but all of them drifted into her life like bright autumn leaves from the hardwoods back home, then drifted away again on a passing breeze. As Heraclitus had stated some five hundred years before Christ, nothing endured but change.
Goodness, but wasn't she gloomy today.
Leah blew out an exasperated huff of air. She could hear her father's voice as plainly as if he were standing beside her. "The love of God never changes," he would argue, his brogue thickening when he couldn't persuade Leah to his way of thinking. "The cross of Calvary never changes."
Leah selected a half-dozen slides and carried them back to her microscope. "Find me that cross." Her movements were automatic but precise as she positioned a slide on the stage. "Impossible, of course," she muttered as she peered through the eyepiece. "It disappeared nineteen hundred years ago."
For every devout believer there was a skeptic arguing with equal fervor. In Leah's experience, not a one of them, skeptic or believer, was certain of anything. Even her father. She had learned when she was a child not to hurt him by posing troublesome spiritual questions he could not answer to her satisfaction. Of course, after leaving home she had discovered that college professors and supercilious theologians stumbled over them as well.
Sometimes Leah grew so weary of her mind's relentless seeking that she longed for a knob on the top of her head, like the one on her father's pocket watch. She could press the knob on her head and have it spring open like a watch lid so she could remove her brain long enough to rest her spirit.
The simplistic trust of a child-that was the mind-set she was supposed to embrace. Accept without question a faith that demanded, to Leah's way of thinking, complete abdication of the very rational thinking process God had endowed in mankind from the beginning. He had chosen to bequeath part of His divine nature in order to elevate Homo sapiens above all other animals, so that they could enjoy a relationship with Him. A relationship based, however, not on one's mental acuity or logical deductions but on a nebulous spiritual reality known as faith.
All her life she had struggled to understand. And when understanding never arrived, she had struggled to conform, because she loved and respected her father more than any person on earth.
Her sisters had found that mysterious faith, had even found husbands who shared it. As always, Leah was the fifth wheel. The oddity. The ugly duckling who would never grow into a beautiful swan.
Relieved, Leah glanced up at the school's longtime secretary. Mrs. Gribble was a lonely but tiresome woman, who like the English Queen Victoria persisted in wearing widow's weeds even after seventeen years. Leah suppressed the urge to embrace her in a Rowena-like hug. "Hello, Mrs. Gribble. I take it Rowena dropped by?"
"A most annoying girl. Flighty, with that irritating breathlessness to her voice common among young, impressionable females."
Everyone at the school-including Esther Hays herself-approached Mrs. Gribble gingerly. Everyone except Leah, who understood the secretary's fanatical discipline and need for order.
"Impressionable they certainly are." She lowered her voice confidingly. "Which is why I need for you to find me a spare hour somewhere. Rowena's mind must be engaged, to combat all those unruly emotions."
"That, Miss Sinclair, should be the responsibility of a husband." Mrs. Gribble surveyed the laboratory. "I never have agreed with Miss Esther about the addition of applied sciences to the school's curriculum."
"Not all women are fortunate enough to secure a husband. And even if they do, they are not always fortunate enough to enjoy a lifelong relationship."
"I am well aware of that, Miss Sinclair. Not an hour goes by when I am not reminded of the burden of sorrow God saw fit to place upon my shoulders."
Patience, logic, and control, Leah reminded herself. Otherwise, the secretary would argue with her until the next full moon, some ten days away. She offered Mrs. Gribble a sympathetic nod and carefully returned to the reason for her appearance in the laboratory. "Were you able to fit Rowena in next week? Of course you were; you are without doubt the most capable staff member at the School for Young Ladies. It was thoughtful of you to climb all those stairs to let me know. Here"-she tore a piece of paper from the back of a tablet-"if you'll write down the time, I'll pin it on the calendar in my sitting room so I won't forget."
"You need your own office, Miss Sinclair," Mrs. Gribble said. "I've made such a recommendation to Miss Esther. Of course, as merely the secretary I'm sure my counsel is considered of little consequence ..."
Leah strolled with her over to the door, pretending to listen, and finally waved the still muttering woman down the stairs. Leah returned to the slides and was instantly absorbed.
A quarter of an hour later she was interrupted again, this time by Esther Hays herself. "My dear, I really must insist that you pry yourself away from this room. You've missed supper again. You know how I feel about that."
"I have an apple, and some bread and cheese." Leah glanced down. Still two slides short ...
"Hmph. You need meat, and fresh air. Pale as a new moon, and so slight I could fold you into a foolscap envelope and still pay naught but a penny's postage. What would your father have to say?"
"That you're fretting over nothing. I took care of myself-and my family-from the time I was seven years old, and we survived quite adequately." Her movements brisk, she covered the microscope, returned slides to files, stacked books and papers while she talked.
Leah paused in the middle of gathering up the pencils she scattered like chicken feed about a room over the course of her day. When the headmistress addressed her in that particular tone, it was wise to pay attention, even if she disagreed. "Miss Esther, in two weeks the semester ends. I'm always a trifle ... intense, at the end of a year."
"Yes. I have noticed that about you." Behind new wire-rimmed spectacles a pair of shrewd gray eyes studied Leah. "Something is troubling you. You've been even more preoccupied than usual, and don't try to persuade me that it's students or studies." She paused, watching Leah with a formidable dignity made easier by her commanding height and generations of breeding. "I seldom pry into the personal affairs of my teachers. But you know that I have a willing ear, and a deep affection for you."
"The regard is mutual." Leah contemplated her oxford tie shoes for a moment, then reluctantly admitted, "In her letter last week my sister Meredith invited me to spend a month at Stillwaters when the school year ends. I was planning to attend a series of lectures in-"
"Nonsense! I've read excellent reports of Mr. Walker's newest enterprise. In fact, according to the Daily Dispatch, the governor himself plans to take the waters there, come August. A summer at Stillwaters would be far more beneficial for you than sitting inside some stuffy lecture hall."
Leah could feel heat building in her cheeks. She should have heeded her instincts and kept her mouth shut. She might have wished to remove her brain for a moment or two, but not in front of witnesses.
"Leah? I'd appreciate candor, if you please."
So be it. Leah returned the headmistress's level gaze. "Not all of us are destined to be wives, Miss Esther."
"Ah. I see. Your family's matchmaking again? Your sister Meredith is rather ... tenacious, isn't she?"
"She and Benjamin are happy. They can't accept that I am equally content, despite my spinster status."
"Certainly you have achieved remarkable success and fame for a young woman of twenty-five years." Miss Esther's voice was smooth as polished agate. "Seems to me that the Leah Sinclair who persuaded a dozen businesses to donate enough money for us to purchase twice that many Hammond typewriting machines ... who convinced an equally strong-minded headmistress"-she paused to slide Leah a glance down the length of her rather formidable nose-"of the efficacy of a fully equipped laboratory ... who has won the adoration of hundreds of undisciplined adolescent girls over the past four years ... seems to me that Leah Sinclair should be able to fend off the well-meaning ploys of her loving family."
Outmaneuvered, Leah conceded graciously. "Well, when you put it that way, I suppose I'd better write Meredith and tell her when to expect me." She gathered the books in her arms, conscious of a sensation of relief. "June is a lovely time to visit the mountains."
"Precisely," Miss Esther nodded once. "Shall we?" She gestured toward the hall. "I told Cook to keep a plate warmed for you. She's also saving me an extra helping of dessert. Why don't I join you, and you can fill me in about your incorrigible nephew's latest antics."
* * *
By the end of the week Leah had completed the format for final exams in each of the classes she taught-household management, botany, astronomy, physics, and geography. With Mrs. Gribble's grumbling but efficient help she compressed her schedule so that she was able to tutor a half-dozen girls, including Rowena.
She squeezed in an afternoon downtown, purchasing from Thalhimer's a new traveling suit made of fine lightweight crepon, and a pair of black kid lace-up boots with fashionably pointed toes. This visit, Meredith would have little reason to nag Leah about her regimented wardrobe and lackluster style.
Two weeks later, with the semester concluded and all students having successfully passed their examinations, Leah turned all her attention to her imminent summer sabbatical at Stillwaters. On the eve of her departure, she had just laid out the new traveling suit and shoes when Miss Esther summoned her into the school's auditorium. There, still dressed in their white lawn commencement gowns, thirty-seven giggling students presented her with a sturdy new Gladstone traveling bag and a book on flora and fauna of the Virginia mountains. Several of the girls offered effusive speeches. Afterward, everyone clustered around Leah, proffering thank-yous and good-natured banter.
Touched, Leah stood in their midst, feeling both ancient and motherly despite the fact she was only a few years older than they. No doubt the feeling arose because she'd been destined from birth to fill the role of spinster schoolmarm. Feelings, however, as she always reminded her overemotional girls, were never reliable indicators of reality. They tended to change by the hour, or with the weather. With a mental smack, Leah thrust aside her doldrums and enjoyed the gift of the students' affirmation.
That night as she lay in her narrow bed in the teachers' wing of the school's dormitories, Leah allowed herself a final moment of self-indulgence. It was lovely, finding a niche in a profession where she was respected for who she was, instead of ignored due to her diminutive stature and unremarkable looks,
Lovely, yet amazing. And, because she knew it would please her father, Leah fell asleep whispering a formal expression of gratitude to God, to whom any acknowledgment at all by a doubting Thomas such as herself must surely cause a heavenly chuckle or two.
Excerpted from Virginia Autumn by Sara Mitchell Copyright © 2002 by Sara Mitchell
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.