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By Patricia Gaffney
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1991 Patricia Gaffney
All rights reserved.
Lily whipped her hand away from the red-hot handle of the roasting spit and flapped her fingers in the smoky air. "Ow, ow, ow," she yelped—softly, so her guests couldn't hear. Gripping her wrist, she squeezed her watering eyes shut as a blade of intense irritation sliced through her, so sharp it almost eclipsed the pain. It was at times like this when she wished she knew more swear words.
The roast pork was black, ruined; even the grease in the pan was only a dried-up charcoal glaze. Fanny, of course, was nowhere in sight; her twelve-year-old maid-of-all-work must have gone home as soon as she'd put the meat on the spit, no doubt expecting it to turn itself. Maid-of-no-work was a likelier title, fumed Lily. But what in God's name was she going to feed them now?
She wrapped the wet dishclout around her right thumb and wiped her eyes on her sleeve. There was no need to check the larder. She did anyway, but a miracle had not occurred since this morning: two eggs and a jar of lemon pickle were still the only edible contents. Uninvited houseguests had a way of depleting a girl's pantry, especially if it was nearly empty to begin with. Now after three dinners, two suppers, and innumerable teas, Lily's pocketbook was empty, too.
Nothing for it but to tell them. Who knew, they might even treat her to a meal for once. She unwrapped her thumb and blew on the raised welt, smoothed her hair back in its unruly red knot, straightened her shoulders, and started up the worn basement steps to her first-floor sitting room.
In the doorway she paused, and a quick flood of the old vexation spurted through her. Roger Soames sat beside the fire in her father's old chair, slippered feet on the fender, reading the Lyme Regis Monitor and sipping from a glass of canary wine. The last glass of canary wine, she thought crossly; she hoped he enjoyed it, for there would be no more. She wondered how Reverend Soames's fire-and-brimstone God managed to overlook his fondness for spirits—then chastised herself for judging him. And yet she couldn't like him, even if he was her ... well, she wasn't exactly sure what he was. He was her father's third cousin, but whether that made him her fourth cousin or her third once removed or something else altogether, she didn't know. What mattered was that he was her last male relative, the executor of her father's estate—if a legacy mostly of debts could be called an "estate"—and, for thirteen more months, her legal guardian.
She was even less clear on her relationship to Lewis, Soames's son, who was sitting at her little writing desk and scribbling something with a quill. A sermon? A new tract on pious, godfearing behavior? Again she scolded herself: she had absolutely no right to make fun of him. Soames might or might not be a religious hypocrite, she hadn't finally made up her mind on that score, but son Lewis was a genuine believer, a truly devout man. Curious, then, that she couldn't quite bring herself to like him, either.
Reverend Soames glanced up from his newspaper. "Ah, Lily. Dinner is ready?"
"Cousin," she faltered, unable to call him "Roger" even though he'd invited her to, "I'm most awfully sorry, but there's been an accident. In the kitchen. Dinner's ruined," she confessed, spreading her hands.
A gleam of annoyance flared in his cold gray eyes before he masked it with an understanding smile. "Never mind, child. Come in, come, it's time we talked."
How could it be? thought Lily, almost in desperation. They'd been talking for two days! Before that she hadn't even known she had two cousins from Exeter, much less a legal guardian. And now she was being worried, tormented, and bullied into marrying a man she didn't care for, didn't even know. Had she been too polite? How many ways were there to say "no?"
She moved farther into the room reluctantly, hands in the pockets of her shabby morning gown, nervously fingering the shillings in change she'd gotten back from the coal man this morning. "If it's about Lewis and me—"
Soames stood up. He was a large, blocky man with a square face, big square hands, square shoulders. His body looked hard, as if carved out of a block of wood. No, not carved—chopped, with a hatchet or an ax. But his clothes were beautifully tailored and expensive, an anomaly that said much, in Lily's opinion, for the sincerity of his commitment to the poor and unfortunate. He wore his iron-gray hair parted in the middle, folded into little sausage curls over his ears, and tied in back in a queue. His thick neck and wide, bluish jaw gave him a bovine look. He even had square teeth.
"Maidenly shyness is an estimable quality," he announced, cutting her off in the fluid, booming tone that she could imagine sent sinners to their knees—or scrabbling in their pockets for donations. "And natural reserve is a trait to be nurtured and admired in a young Christian female. I respect you for it. But wisdom and humility are even higher virtues, and the young soul must aspire to them as well before the gates of heaven crack open for her. Come, my dear, it's time to pray." He stretched both huge, hair-covered hands out to her and bowed his head.
Blister it! Lily shot a glance at Lewis, who was getting up from behind the desk and moving toward them, presumably to join in the praying. Rebellion stirred sluggishly in her bosom, like a soldier roused from sleep before an uneven battle. She kept her hands at her sides. "Cousin Roger, I'm afraid that somehow I've misled you—all inadvertently, I promise. You do me great honor by proposing this marriage between Lewis and me"—here she turned what she hoped was a humble, appealing smile on her younger cousin—"but it just can't be."
Soames had snapped the word out. Was his infuriating equanimity finally deserting him? Would they both throw politeness away now and speak their minds?
"Because the match is unsuitable," she said.
Now they were getting to it. But politeness was too ingrained a habit to relinquish so easily. "Because I'm not worthy of it. Lewis is my superior in every way, but most particularly in the—the spiritual way. He deserves a wife who can complement and encourage that part of him. A woman closer to his equal, one who—"
"Lily, Lily," Soames cut in, shaking his big head disappointedly. "You speak of what Lewis 'needs' as if you knew the answer better than God. But what do you need?"
Money, she answered immediately, but inaudibly. Just enough to get by on until she was twenty-one and came into her minuscule "inheritance." Then she could live in impoverished independence forever, if she chose to, and not marry anyone at all!
"You can't answer, I see. But I know what it is you need."
"Do you?" For the first time a tiny note of irreverence crept into her voice. She heard it, and vowed not to repeat it. Burn no bridges had been one of her father's maxims, one of his few practical ones. If she allowed fatigue and exasperation to snap her self-control, the goal would be lost. And the goal was to get these men out of her house in such a gracious, ladylike way they would hardly even know they'd been dismissed. She wanted them gone, but she needed their goodwill.
"What you need, Lily, is guidance. Something you've had precious little of in your short life, I fear. Your father set a shocking example. When your willfulness causes me to lose patience with you, I think of the life you've led; then my annoyance vanishes and I forgive you."
Lily's fingers curled into her palms. Condescending ass! And how dare he speak of her father that way?
"From now on, I intend to be your guardian in every sense of the word, but most particularly in the spiritual."
Again she fought for control. "I thank you for that. You're very kind, and I'm sure my soul can use ... all the guidance it can get. I've no objection at all to any instruction you think is best. But as for me marrying Lewis, really, it's simply not possible. We hardly know each other, we've only just met—"
"Permit me to claim a higher wisdom in this matter man you, my dear child. But we've wasted enough time talking. I have a large flock of souls to attend to, men and women who depend on me for moral and spiritual leadership. I can't stay here past tomorrow."
She tried not to look jubilant.
"There's no sense in delaying the marriage. You'll come with us to my home in Exeter tomorrow—you've only a month left on the lease of my house, after all. In three weeks the banns can be announced, and then the wedding can take place. In my home. Naturally I'll officiate. You and Lewis will live with my wife and me, at least for a while, until you're—"
"Cousin, please—you mistake me! I have not agreed to this!"
The look of arrogant benevolence faltered, but only for a moment. "Think, Lily," Soames said softly, smoothly. "What else can you do? You have no means to support yourself, and thus no alternative."
You smug, hypocritical, self-righteous ... She steadied herself, clasped demure hands, and looked at the floor. "You're right, of course. But I had hoped that you might see another way to help me. My needs are small, I require very little. And I know you to be a generous man. If you would make me a modest loan, in your capacity as executor and under any terms agreeable to you, and only until my father's small bequest comes to—"
She looked up sharply. She thought she saw cynical recognition in his eyes—as if he'd decided his newfound cousin wasn't so very different from him after all—but it was gone in an instant.
"My generosity is not being tested now," he told her. "We're discussing the will of the Lord."
She blinked to disguise her annoyance. This was too unfair! "But surely the Lord's will in matters like this is a puzzle to men, an ambiguous thing."
"Often it is. Not in this case."
"But why? Why?"
"Because I saw it in a vision. The Lord vouchsafed to me an image of His will at work, and I saw with great clarity the wisdom and perfect order of your union with Lewis. Come, we'll pray."
He reached for her hands and drew them forcibly away from her sides. He gave one to Lewis and then dropped to his knees. Lewis followed, and Lily found herself forced to kneel between them on the thin rug in front of the fireplace. Soames's grip on her burned hand was torture, but when she tried to pull away he only held tighter.
"Almighty God, we beseech Thee! Look down upon Thy pitiful servant, Lily Trehearne, and grant her the wisdom to know Thy will and the humility to accept it. Make known to her the awesome folly of her pride and the sin of her arrogance, and in Thy infinite mercy grant her pardon. Reveal to this woman, this most unworthy of Thy daughters, the wages of sin and the penalty for selfishness."
There was more, much more, but she shut her ears to it. Finally he stopped. She stole another glance at Lewis. His head was bowed, eyes shut tight; like his father, he seemed to be offering up a private prayer. What was in his mind? she wondered dismally, examining his set, expressionless face and stubborn mouth. He was a big, hulking man, like his father; the resemblance between them was unmistakable, although Lewis wore his hair short in the manner of a workingman—a laborer for the Lord. In the brief time she'd known him he'd hardly spoken directly to her, and then only to second his father's pronouncements. She understood that he was as much in favor of this ridiculous marriage as Soames, and yet he'd shown no personal interest in her whatsoever, either as a friend or as a woman. Why were they so set on this union? Lily's father had left her a pathetically small living—it couldn't be for her money. Might Soames really have had a vision? She supposed such things were possible, and yet ... somehow she didn't believe it.
The small of her back had begun to ache; the muscles between her shoulder blades felt as if they were on fire. Soames's huge hand tightened around hers. She winced, but took heart—he must be about to get up.
But no. "Oh Lord, who art the fountainhead and the giver of strength—" he resumed, and the litany of her transgressions began all over again.
From time to time he would stop, and on each occasion hope would soar in her that this time he'd really finished; but always he started up again, with an undaunted energy that distressed and demoralized her. She heard the clock on the mantel strike two times, and finally she couldn't bear it any longer. The bones in her knees felt in danger of fracturing if she knelt on them for one more minute. And she was afraid she was going to cry. At the end of one of Soames's protracted silences, before he could get out anything more than "Hear us, almighty G—" she jerked her hands out of both men's damp grasps and clambered stiffly to her feet.
"Please, I beg your pardon, but it's useless!" She cradled her smarting hand against her bosom, fighting back tears of pain and frustration and embarrassment. They were looking up at her with identical disbelieving expressions; she took an awkward step back to distance herself from them. "I'm sorry, but it's impossible. I cannot marry you, Lewis—I don't care for you and you don't care for me. Please try to understand, I mean no disrespect to either of you, and—and certainly not to God. But the vision was yours, Cousin Roger, not mine, and all our prayers can't change that." They got up slowly, still staring at her, and she felt compelled to keep talking. "Surely as men of God you believe that matrimony is a holy state, not one to be entered into lightly. And don't you agree that a man and woman ought to have as much in common as possible before they take such an important step? But Lewis and I, apart from esteem, I hope, and mutually—"
"Lewis, go out of the room and leave Lily and me alone."
Lily's eyes widened. Even Lewis looked surprised. But after a second's hesitation he obeyed, and closed the door behind him.
Soames faced her. She felt the full force of his personality and tried not to quake. The image of David and Goliath flitted through her mind; religious metaphors rarely occurred to her, but this was certainly the day for them. She watched her cousin's great box of a chest expand, and focused her eyes on the diamond and gold stickpin nestled incongruously in the frothy folds of his stock. The extravagance of it made him seem more human, less like the living voice of God, and she knew she would need to hold on to that sensibility to survive in the battle of wills that was coming.
But when he finally spoke his voice was pitched low and conversationally. It made his words all the more chilling. "You must marry Lewis, Lily. It is the will of God. If you refuse, I will take steps to see that you regret it. In this life."
Lily knew a threat when she heard one. "What will you do?" she asked, keeping her hands still when they wanted to flutter to her throat.
"I give you one last chance. Will you marry my son?"
"Will you marry him?"
She drew a nervous breath and managed somehow not to flinch from his dark, penetrating stare. "I cannot," she said quietly.
Without looking away, he reached into the pocket of his waistcoat. A hundred lurid possibilities occurred to her before he withdrew a flat leather purse. When he opened it and took out all the bills inside, she spoke up hastily.
"I will not take money, you can't bribe me."
He smiled coldly and turned away, bending over the fireplace grate. He stirred the smoldering coals to life with the poker and then, while she gaped in astonishment, he dropped the thick wad of money on top. It caught fire instantly.
"Stop, what are you—? Your money! Reverend Soames, what have you done?" Aghast, she darted closer. The bills in the middle hadn't ignited yet, maybe she could save them! But he prodded with the poker and they flared up in a quick, bright blaze. Then there was nothing left, not even smoke. And she could only gaze at him with her mouth open.
Almost immediately the door to the hall opened and her younger cousin came through. "Yes, Father?"
"Go and get the constable. Lily's stolen all my money, over seventy pounds."
Lewis didn't move; he looked as shocked as Lily felt. "But—Father, how can this be? Are you sure?"
"I know it was she. I left my pocketbook on the mantel this morning. It's empty—look. No one's been here, it couldn't be anyone else." Lily and Lewis began talking at once. "Go!" thundered Soames, silencing them. Lewis went out.
This is a dream, thought Lily. She heard the front door open and close and thought, This can't be happening.
He moved to stand between her and the door. "Now is the time to change your mind. If you do, I'll simply tell the constable I was mistaken."
Excerpted from Lily by Patricia Gaffney. Copyright © 1991 Patricia Gaffney. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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