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Trade Paperback
336 pages
Apr 2004
Steeple Hill

Where Heaven Begins

by Rosanne Bittner

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Chapter One

Be not a witness against thy neighbor without cause;
And deceive not with thy lips.
—Proverbs 24:28

San Francisco, August 4, 1898

“We’ve taken a vote, Elizabeth. We understand you will need to find a job and a place to live, and we are ready to help you there, but you will have to leave Reverend Selby’s residence.”

Elizabeth Breckenridge felt as though the blood was leaving her body, beginning with her head and draining down toward her feet. She had no doubt what had caused this meeting of church deacons who sat circled around her with looks of condemnation on their faces.

“May I have an explanation?” she asked, fighting not to cry. Elizabeth always cried when she was extremely angry, but she refused to shed tears in front of these pious judges, especially the two-faced Reverend Selby. Lord, help me not to hate these men.

“Surely you know the reason for this.” The words came from Anderson Williams, who’d once been a good friend to her father.

Liz faced him squarely. “And surely you know me better,” she answered. “How can you do this, Mr. Williams? You were one of my father’s staunchest supporters. You know my family well, and you know how I was brought up.”

Williams shifted uncomfortably, and Liz could see that he was bound to abide by the decision of the rest of these church leaders, six deacons in all. And, of course, the Reverend Thomas Selby himself sat in judgment.

“I’m sorry, Elizabeth, but I do understand it’s possible after all that’s happened to you that…well, my dear…it would only be natural for you to turn to someone for comfort, and perhaps for you to…well…yearn for the safety and steadfastness of a man’s love,” Williams said.

“Love? Is that what Reverend Selby told you? That I turned to him for comfort? That I said I loved him?” Still fighting tears, Elizabeth continued. “Gentlemen,my father always taught that we should not condemn. According to St. John, Chapter 7,Verse 24, Judge not the appearance, but judge righteous judgment. You havemade a grave misjudgment, I can assure you. I am not the one who should be cast out of this church, but I can already see that none of you is ready to listen to the truth, so I will not sit here and beg you to believe me! Only our Holy Father knows the truth, and true judgment will prevail when all of you stand before Him!” She turned her gaze to Reverend Selby. “Including you, Reverend, but I forgive you, for if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. St. Matthew, Chapter 6,Verse 15.”

Reverend Selby’s dark eyes narrowed with what Liz interpreted as a literal threat. “We all understand your sad situation, child.”

“My sad situation?” Oh, how hard it was to hold her tongue! That had always been difficult, and right now the Lord was not helping her at all when it came to not harboring hatred and a desire for revenge against the reverend. Deep in her heart she really could not forgive this man! “For one thing, I am not a child. I am twenty years old.”

She turned her attention to the others, men who had known her since she was a little girl; men who had worked with her father to build this church in San Francisco; men who now fell into the common belief that all women were basically weak and needy and were somehow responsible for any man’s basic weaknesses. “My sad situation is not the awfulness of losing both my parents to death and my brother to a higher calling,” she continued. “My saddest situation is that I accepted the reverend’s offer to remain living with him and his wife until I could get back on my feet and decide what to do next after Mother’s death. My saddest situation results from trusting a supposedly godly man and thinking he truly wanted to help me. I misjudged his kindness. Reverend Selby had in mind when he offered his home to me other intentions than just helping the daughter of your former preacher!”

“Daughter, watch your tongue!” The words came from Cletus Olson, another former friend of her father’s. “Don’t add false accusations to what has already happened. We are ready to forgive and help you.”

Liz rose from the straight-backed oak chair in which she sat. She felt like an accused harlot. She took a deep breath, astounded and disappointed at the attitude of these men who’d known her family so well.

“Speaking of false accusations, I can only imagine what the pious reverend has been telling you,” she said, turning to meet the eyes of each man directly. “I need no forgiveness, and it sickens me that you would believe him. I assure you that I will gladly leave his home, and in fact I was about to tell all of you the same…that it might be best if I lived elsewhere.”

She swallowed, realizing now that this was God’s way of letting her know it was time to act on what she’d been wanting to do for a long time. “I had already decided to join my brother in Dawson. I know that many of you believe he only went there to search for gold like all the thousands of others who’ve gone, but I know in my heart he intended to build a church and minister to the many lost souls who will surely need his services. I’ve heard some of you joking about his real intentions, but you know what a sincere man of God he is, how hard he worked to save this church after Father was killed. He would never drop all of that for something as shallow as a gold rush. He felt God’s calling and he followed it. I intend to go and find him.”

“How on earth will you get there, Elizabeth?” Anderson Williams frowned with what seemed true concern.

“It’s a terribly dangerous trip for a young woman alone. Besides, it’s too late in the year to go at all.”

Liz held her chin proudly. “That shouldn’t concern any of you, considering that you are so eager to ban me from the reverend’s house and brand me as something I am not. Traveling to the Yukon won’t be any worse than struggling to find work and fend for myself with absolutely no family left here…and a congregation that is apparently whispering behind my back.”

Elizabeth folded her arms, angry with herself for not speaking up sooner about Reverend Selby instead of keeping quiet and allowing him the chance to speak first and turn everyone against her. It had always been obvious to her that the man was jealous of the fact that her father had founded Christ Church, and that her presence reminded the congregation of that. Selby didn’t just want to preach here. He wanted to “own” Christ Church and its members. He didn’t want to be known as the man who tried to fill Reverend William Breckenridge’s shoes.

He wanted all the glory for himself. He’d done what he could to malign the Breckenridge name and get rid of the last bit of Breckenridge influence in this church so that he and no other would be the number-one leader of his flock. Winning over these men, former friends of her father’s, was his final victory.

“We’ve taken a collection for you, Elizabeth,” Jeffrey Clay spoke up. He was always the most quiet, reasonable man among the deacons. “It was intended to help you find a boarding house and keep you on your feet until you could find a way to support yourself, perhaps by teaching. If you choose to use the money to get you to Alaska, that’s your choice.” He rose and cleared his throat, walking up to her and handing over an envelope.

“There is four hundred dollars here. That should be of considerable help. We are aware that your mother also saved some money, which she put in your name before she died.”

Elizabeth took the money with a gloved hand. “I am told that traveling to Alaska could take much more than this, what with the embellished prices of goods there. But somehow I’ll make it with this and what little else I have. I apparently have no choice.”

She turned to leave, wanting nothing more now than to get away from the accusing glares of these pompous men who knew nothing of what she’d suffered since her mother had died three months ago. She should be angry with her brother. This was partly his fault. If he hadn’t up and left last summer… Oh, Peter, if only you were here, none of this would have happened!

“Elizabeth, wait!”

Liz stopped short at the sound of Reverend Selby’s booming voice. Even before he’d started making advances toward her, he’d always had a way of looking at her as though she were some kind of evil temptress. She turned to glare back at him.

“Our love and prayers go with you, daughter,” the reverend told her. “Know that I forgive you, as does my wife. You are welcome to stay another few days until you can make your arrangements, or until you find work. Surely you could teach, or perhaps work as a nanny. And there are any number of young men in our fold who would like to court you. Marriage could bring you all the security you desire.”

Oh, Lord, why are You making it so impossible not to hate this liar!

“I’ll not marry just for security,” she answered aloud. “And yes, I will look for work, but not in San Francisco. I’ll not stay here any longer than it will take me to go home and pack my things. I’ll find a hotel room for tonight and however many days it takes to procure passage to Seattle. I’ll leave as soon as I can!” She moved her gaze about the circle of men again. “And how dare any of you talk about forgiving me! I am not the one who needs forgiving! I am the one who will be praying that God forgives all of you for what you’ve done today!”

With that, Elizabeth quickly left the brick building that had been built next to Christ Church as a gathering hall for potlucks and the like. She rushed around behind it, clinging to the envelope of money. She let the tears come then, deep sobs of humiliation, disappointment, mourning for her dead father and mother, and fear of the unknown.

What choice did she have now but to go and find Peter? All she wanted was to be with her brother, the only family she had left.

“Lord Jesus, help me do this,” she wept. How afraid Jesus Himself must have been so many times, but He trusted God to give Him the strength and wisdom necessary to bear the accusations thrown at Him, and to travel where others dared not go. Now Elizabeth knew that she must do the same.