THE PUREST GOLD – Chapter One

Exposed

Clouds hung heavy over the city of Boston, over the cobblestone streets cluttered with wagons and carriages hurrying home as the cold February afternoon faded into dusk. Like a long finger pointing heavenward, the white steeple of the River View Presbyterian Church stood out against the gray of the darkening sky.

In the elegant manse next door to the church, Lily stood outside the closed door of her father’s study, her hand pressed over her heart, her eyes wide with shock. Her father, the stern and perfectly controlled Reverend Daniel Wright, was crying. She could hear him gasping, choking on his sobs.

Upstairs, in the spacious bedroom at the front of the manse, her sister, Rose, lifted her head from her embroidery and stood, spilling her work from her lap. Lily? she called inwardly. A moment later she heard footsteps quick and light on the long spiral staircase, then the door flew open and Lily burst in.

“Papa’s crying,” she said.

“Crying!” Rose exclaimed. She held out her arms, and Lily rushed into them. Rose took her hand and led her to the wide four-poster bed.

They sat down, put their arms around each other, and leaned their heads together so their foreheads touched. A shiver of fear moved between them. Their father paid little attention to them; most of the time he barely seemed to notice them. But still he was their papa, their anchor.

They spoke softly, words and thoughts flowing between them, as they always had, so fluidly that it hardly mattered who spoke and who listened.

“This morning,” Rose said, “when he came in from his calls, he didn’t see me or answer when I greeted him, just went straight to his study and shut the door. And now he’s crying? Papa never cries.”

“He cried when Mama and the baby were buried.”

“I remember.”

They were silent, holding each other a little closer, sharing the memory of the day when they had huddled by the open grave, watching the first shovel-full of earth fall on the casket. Their father stood beside them, weeping openly in front of all his congregation. It had been ten years since that day, and they had been only five, but the memory was still vivid.

“What could be so wrong that he would cry now?” Rose asked.

“I don’t know,” Lily answered. “We have to find out.”

The rattle of a buggy and the sound of horse hooves on the curved cobblestone drive in front of the manse startled them.

Catching each other’s hands, they ran to the window and looked out.

“It’s Mr. Peabody,” Lily said.

They watched as Thomas Peabody, elder in the church and their father’s closest friend, climbed down from his buggy.

“Maybe he knows what’s wrong.”

“There might be trouble in the church.”

“We could hide.”

“Where?”

“That table in the corner of Papa’s study with the red cloth over it.”

“Quick!”

They ran—down the long corridor to the back stairway, down the narrow, dark stairs. The housekeeper, Becky, had gone to answer the front door bell. They flashed through the kitchen and the dining room and hovered outside the sliding door to their father’s study until they heard him go out the other door to the parlor. They slid the door open, silently closed it behind them, and dived under the table in the corner.

“Straighten the cloth,” Lily whispered.

“Pull your foot in.”

After a moment of breathless scuffle, they settled in the dim, reddish light behind the heavy red cloth. It was a tight squeeze for their full-grown young bodies, but they wedged themselves in, pressed close against each other. They were used to being close, had been close in every way since their beginnings, curled together in their mother’s womb.

The parlor door opened. They heard their father’s voice. It was husky but warm and cordial.

“Thomas, it is always a pleasure to have a visit with you. Come in. Come in, let me take your coat and hat. Have a seat. Can I offer you any refreshment?”

“No. No, thank you.”

The twins felt footsteps through the floor. They heard their father’s chair creak and Mr. Peabody’s chair scuff against the carpet as the two men sat down. There was a moment’s silence.

Mr. Peabody said, “Daniel, I am here with a troublesome matter. I hope you can put my concern to rest and help me decide how to handle a difficult situation.”

“I hope so, too. What is it?”

“Ebenezer Decker came to me this morning, beside himself with rage and jealousy, telling me he had discovered yesterday his wife was with child. Ordinarily this would be a cause for rejoicing, but he claims he has not touched her for more than a year, seeking to subdue his unseemly passion for her—”

“Oh, he has touched her!” their father’s voice broke in. “Not to cherish her as a husband ought, but to beat her whenever his ‘unseemly passion’ arose. So severely that his housekeeper Nell—she is sister to our Becky—came to me last summer, pleading with me to intervene lest he kill her in one of his fits of violence.”

“That’s shocking! I didn’t know that.”

Behind the red cloth, the twins’ eyes met, wide with horror.

“So I went to talk with him,” their father continued, “to dissuade him from abusing her. I persuaded him to give her her own room so she would not be a temptation to him. But still she sometimes comes to church veiled, as I learned later, to hide her bruises.”

“He is a strict and pious man,” Mr. Peabody said. “I’ve heard he has a temper, but I did not know he took it to such extremes. Until this morning—and now, hearing what you say. He is convinced that his wife carries the child of adultery. He said he beat her, but she would not tell him who the father was.”

“He beat her, knowing she was with child?”

“With the child of adultery, so he believes.”

The twins heard their father’s chair creak, then felt his footsteps shake the floor as he paced, his voice raised in anger.

“She never should have married him. Oh, he can be charming, I know. They told her he was a good match, a wealthy banker, a lucky chance for an orphan, never mind he was twice her age. Little did she know what a monster he was.”

“I have never heard you speak this way before! About anyone. He’s not a monster, just a poor wretched sinner, struggling to be good, but out of control of his passions.”

“An evil man.”

“Daniel, please sit down. There’s more.” The pacing footsteps stopped, the chair creaked again. “Mr. Decker told me he came home this morning at a time when he is usually at work, hoping to catch the culprit. He said he found your horse and buggy tied up in front of his house, and upon stealthily entering, saw his wife in your arms. He watched until you left, then confronted her, locked her in her room and came straightaway to me with his accusation. He believes you to be the father of her child. I know this cannot be true …”

Under the table, the twins tightened their arms around each other.

Their father’s voice broke in, sharp, urgent. “Mr. Decker—what did he do after he made his accusation?”

“I forbade him to speak of it until it could be investigated according to the rules of our church. Then he left, still in a rage.”

“You let him go? Thomas, I fear for her life!”

“As did I. I tried to restrain him. Though he is thin, he was strong in his passion, and broke away. But he was back in an hour, saying she had fled.”

“Thank God!”

“He was beside himself the second time he came, insane, saying she must be at the manse and we should search it, that you should be tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail, that she should be stoned. Suddenly he clutched at his heart, turned white, and passed out on the floor. I sent the office boy for the doctor, who came immediately and managed to revive Mr. Decker. We took him to the hospital, where he is now, heavily sedated. The doctor says he has had these spells before.”

“God strikes him.”

“He must have imagined in his hysteria that you were holding her in your arms, that you’re the father of her child. He has always been critical of you, saying you spoke too much of God’s love and not enough of His vengeance. But this is going too far, to make such a outrageous accusation.”

Their father coughed, cleared his throat. “It is.”

Mr. Peabody went on. “I am concerned about Mrs. Decker fleeing alone in the winter. I don’t know if it is true she is with child. You have been counseling her. Do you have any idea where she went?”

“She had planned to go to her aunt in New Hampshire for her confinement. She was to take the train today. I went to say good-bye to her and found her all bruised and battered … But if he locked her in her room, how could she get away?”

“Bruised and battered!” The twins could hear the shock in Mr. Peabody’s voice. “So she is with child? That much is true?”

“Yes … yes it is.”

“She confided in you? Do you know then who the father is?”

“Yes … I … It’s confidential.”

Lily pulled the edge of the curtain aside, and the twins peered through the narrow space between the edge of the red cloth and the table leg.

Their father started to get up from his chair, sat down again, fumbled with some papers on his desk. Mr. Peabody leaned forward, a strange expression on his face.

Their father began speaking fast. “It must be Mr. Decker’s child. He didn’t want children, she told me that. Maybe that’s why he got so upset and made such accusations. He said he hadn’t touched her, but he beat her. Who knows what else he might have done when overwhelmed with his ‘unseemly passion’?”

Mr. Peabody was slowly standing. “But you just said she confided in you. That you know who the father is. Don’t you understand? He has accused you. We must get to the bottom of this, to clear you… . Daniel, why won’t you look at me?”

The twins watched their father twist in his chair and bend forward over his desk, his head turned aside.

Mr. Peabody came around the desk and gripped his shoulders. “Daniel, what is it?”

Their father’s voice was husky, choking. “I cannot hide from you, my closest friend … or from God … any longer … It is I … I am the father.”

There was a terrible silence in the room.

Then Mr. Peabody spoke. “I cannot believe you. Tell me I misheard.”

Their father’s voice was almost a sob. “You did not.”

There was another silence. The twins could barely breathe. Their father spoke again, his voice breaking.

“I never intended … I went to minister to her, for she was so desperate as to be at the point of suicide. She is so young, so vulnerable, to be faced with such an intolerable situation … I went to speak to her of the love of Christ … and found that I, too, loved her.”

“And led her into adultery.”

Mr. Peabody strode across the room, coming dangerously near the table in the corner. Lily hastily let the red cloth drop into place.

Mr. Peabody’s voice was anguished. “It is you then? How could you? Daniel, you of all people, who have nourished this church faultlessly for all these years, who are beloved and honored by your congregation like no other pastor in all the city of Boston, whose sermons, in their beauty and inspiration, open the hearts of all who hear you. How could you do such a thing?”

There was no sound from their father.

Anger came into Mr. Peabody’s voice. “Do you have any idea what this will do to our congregation? You have betrayed us, disgraced the church. Some may turn away from Christ because of what you have done. And what of Mrs. Decker, cast adrift in the world so near her time?” Mr. Peabody paused in his pacing. Lily pulled the edge of the curtain aside again.

Their father was gripping the arms of his chair. “I urged her to leave earlier. I feared Mr. Decker would discover her condition and harm her. But she didn’t want to be parted from me. She didn’t plan to ever return. We hoped that after a while he would divorce her and …”

“Say no more! Your soul is in mortal danger. You must never see her or communicate with her again. Your only path to salvation after this is to repent and pray for forgiveness.”

Their father bent his head. “I do repent. I have sinned most grievously. I could have comforted her without … Pray God she is safe!”

His head came up again. “But Thomas, it wasn’t all evil. She blossomed with my love, after her loveless orphan childhood, and then Ebenezer Decker. You should have seen her, how her face opened, like dawn coming, like the sunrise … her smile …”

“Hush! You must never speak of her again. Pray, pray, repent!” Mr. Peabody paced again. “What’s to be done?

“That’s for the Presbytery to decide.”

“Yes, that’s true. There’s no need for an investigation, because you have confessed… . If only this need not come out, be a public disgrace.”

Again Mr. Peabody came near the corner table, but this time, abandoning all caution, Lily left the edge of the curtain pulled aside, and the twins peered through, riveted by the scene before them.

“No one knows but you and I and Ebenezer Decker,” their father murmured.

“True. I do not know what the Presbytery will decide. But surely you cannot stay in your present position. You will have to leave. And who could ever replace you?” Mr. Peabody stopped by their father’s chair and laid a hand on his shoulder. His voice softened. “What will I do without you? You have been like a brother to me as we’ve worked together all these years to build our church.” He took a deep breath and straightened. “I will call an emergency meeting of the Presbytery. Perhaps this does not need to come out, if we deal with it speedily. We will pray for guidance, and you—pray, pray for forgiveness. I must go now.”

Mr. Peabody hastily gathered up his great coat and hat and moved toward the parlor door. Their father left with him.

“Quick!” whispered Lily.

They burst out of their hiding place, ran to the sliding door, and slipped into the dining room. At the door to the kitchen, they paused, pushed it open a crack.

Becky was poking at the coals in the stove. Her apron was tied high under her abundant bosom. Wisps of gray hair, broken loose from her bun, hung around her face.

“That Mr. Peabody,” she was muttering, “comes just at suppertime and stays as long as he pleases. The soup’s gotten too thick, and the bread is cold, and the stove’s nearly out. Well, he’s gone now.”

She bent to add more coal to the fire, her broad back to the dining room door. The twins slipped through the corner of the kitchen and up the back stairs, down the long corridor to their room. Lily shut the door and leaned back against it.

“Oh, my goodness!” she gasped.

“Oh, my goodness!” Rose echoed.

They stared at each other.

“I don’t understand,” Rose said. “What did Papa do?”

“He led her into adultery.”

“But what’s adultery?”

“I asked Grandmama when we were learning the Ten Commandments.” Lily shook her head. “And she rapped the back of my hand with her fan, like she does, and said it wasn’t to be spoken of.”

“You’re not supposed to commit it.”

“I know. That’s why I asked Grandmama. How are you supposed to not commit it if you don’t know what it is?”

“Papa is the father of Mrs. Decker’s child?” Rose asked.

“A child of adultery, Mr. Peabody said. She must be—we’re not supposed to speak of that either.”

“How could he be?”

“He was holding her in his arms.”

“He loves her. He said her face was like the sunrise. And she loves him.” There were tears in Rose’s eyes. “She didn’t want to leave him, even to escape Mr. Decker’s beating. How could he be so mean? To beat her when she was … How could it be Papa’s child?”

Lily shook her head. “It’s so confusing. But it’s clear Papa has done something with Mrs. Decker that would disgrace the whole church if it came out. And now she’s gone away. That must be why he was crying when I came by his study.”

Rose’s tears spilled over. “Poor Papa. How can it be so bad to love someone?”

“Maybe because she’s married to Mr. Decker … Maybe adultery is loving someone who is married to someone else.”

“What will happen? Mr. Peabody said Papa would have to leave. Where will he go?”

“Where will we go?”

A bell rang in the downstairs hall. Becky called up the stairs, “Lily, Rose, come to supper. Hurry up, it’s late.”

The twins hugged each other.

“We must never tell that we know,” Lily said.

“Never.”

 

Daniel heard the bell for supper as he sat, slumped over his desk, in his dark study. He couldn’t eat. He was sick, sick with shame and despair. His thoughts tumbled in a downward spiral. To have Thomas know … to have the whole church know …

I will have to go away. Where can I go? Not back to the farm. When my mother hears what I have done …

Maybe it won’t have to come out. Thomas wants to prevent that for the sake of the church. But Ebenezer is bent on revenge …

Rachel. If only she’d left before Ebenezer found out. But we clung to each other. Too long. Where is she? He beat her again, even as far along as she is. Beast! How did she escape, locked in a second-story room? How badly is she hurt? I can’t bear not to know where she is, how she is … Did she get to the train? How could she, alone, big with child?

What if she dies in childbirth, as Grace did? … Rachel, what have I done to you?

There was a knock on the study door.

“Reverend Wright, supper’s ready,” Becky called through the door.

Daniel controlled his voice with difficulty. “Thank you, Becky. I’m not going to eat tonight.”

“You’re not eating? I have a good soup ready, and hot bread.”

“Not tonight, Becky.”

“You all right, Reverend?”

“I’m fine. I just have a lot of work to do.”

“Come on out if you change your mind.” He heard Becky’s footsteps retreating.

Daniel sat a moment, then straightened, arrested by a thought. Nell. Becky’s sister. Maybe Nell helped her.

He got up and strode back and forth across the room. Maybe that’s how Rachel got away. Nell would have a key to her room. Nell loved her. Who could not? Nell knew about us and protected us, though she never let on. That must be how she got away … I need to talk with Nell.

He started toward the door to put his thought into immediate action, but was arrested by another knock.

“Who’s there?” he asked.

“Papa, may I come in?”

Daniel opened the door. Light poured in from the dining room. One of the twins stood in the doorway with a tray in her hands.

“Becky said you couldn’t come to supper because you had too much work to do. But you need to eat. I brought you some soup and bread. It’s really good.” She looked into his face. “I thought you could eat while you work.” She came in and set the tray on his desk. “Shall I light the lamp?” She lit it as she spoke.

Daniel sat down and lifted the cover off the soup bowl. It did smell good. He looked up at his daughter.

“Thank you … Which one are you?”

“I’m Rose.”

“Thank you, Rose. That’s very kind. The sort of thing your mother would have done.”

Rose bent and kissed the top of his head. “I hope your work goes well, Papa.” She turned and left, sliding the door closed behind her.

After all he was hungry. Rose is kind, he thought. She looks so much like Grace. They both do. There must be a way to tell them apart. Becky can. What will become of them when I am sent away? I hardly know them, what they would want.

When he finished eating, he pushed the tray back, got up and paced again. Nell. I have to talk with Nell. He stopped by the window and looked out. It was fully dark, snow falling thinly in front of the gas street lamp. He drew the curtain. Then he realized, I can’t go over there. Ebenezer might be home from the hospital.

His stomach churned as the immensity of the day’s events assailed him.

On the floor by the window seat was a worn, red cushion on which it was his habit to kneel in prayer. Numb, he sank to his knees there, bent his forehead to the cool, smooth wood.

I should pray. But how could even God forgive me?