O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be Thou our guide while life shall last,
And our eternal home.
Skingle Creek, Northeastern Kentucky
Maggie Stuart. Maggie MacAuley Stuart. Mrs. Jonathan Stuart."
Maggie stood looking out the window at the bright December morning. The snow that had fallen Christmas Eve-her wedding night-still blanketed the ground. Because of the mines being closed over the holiday, the pristine whiteness had not yet turned gray with coal dust.
Even though she was alone at the moment, she felt a little foolish practicing her new name over and over. She turned away from the window to let her gaze play over the bedroom. Everything was new: this room, a new name, a new home.
Jonathan's home. How many times had he reminded her that it was now her home too? Their home.
That being the case, she wondered if she dared act on his suggestion that once they returned from their honeymoon trip, she consider doing some redecorating. She wasn't sure how she felt about that. On the other hand, she wouldn't mind turning the bedroom into their room rather than the masculine sanctuary it now represented. With not a feminine touch to be seen, it was almost spartan in its decor: functional pieces of dark, sturdy wood, bare walls, heavy drapes, and shelves groaning with books.
Suddenly the thought of stripping all this away and starting over felt presumptuous, even intimidatingcnot to mention extravagant. And no matter what Jonathan said, could she really bring herself to start making changes to the home in which he'd lived for so many years? Wouldn't he ultimately resent her for it? Besides, what did she know about redecorating? Miners' families did well to fix their broken furniture and add a coat of fresh paint every few years. Only wealthy people had the means to redecorate.
People like Jonathan's family.
The slam of panic came out of the blue, stealing her breath. There were so many changes, so much that was new. Jonathan would expect her to know how to do things. Things his mother would have done. And his sister.
The thought overwhelmed her. Oh, she knew how to keep house well enough. She'd been brought up to do her share of housework: laundry and ironing, cooking and cleaning. But she knew next to nothing about the niceties of maintaining a home. There'd been no money, thus no interest, in that sort of thing in her family.
But she wasn't exactly dimwitted. Didn't Jonathan insist that she'd been the brightest student he'd ever taught? And hadn't she made her way through university as an honor student? Surely she could learn whatever she needed to learn. She'd not disappoint her husband.
My husband! I'm a wife. Jonathan's wife.
That was the newest-the strangest-thing of all. Jonathan wasn't new to her, of course. Across the years he'd moved from teacher to mentor to friend. But now he was her husband. Someone to come to know in new and different ways.
The thought gave Maggie her first cold feeling in her married life.
She sank down on the side of the bed. Beside her, Jonathan's briefcase lay open where he'd left it before going downstairs to fetch the newspaper for reading on the train. At the top of the other odds and ends he'd already packed was Maggie's book-The Penny Whistle-that she'd finally given to him yesterday morningc Christmas morning, the day after their wedding.
Naturally she'd told him about the book she'd written. What she hadn't told him was the reason its publication had been delayed. Originally scheduled for late fall, she'd bargained with Mr. Rice at the publishing house to delay the book's release until after Christmas in order to change the dedication appropriately: "To Jonathan Lawrence Stuart-my mentor, my hero, my husband."
The thought of how moved Jonathan had been upon reading the dedication page brought a smile now, albeit a fleeting one. Her thoughts seemed bent on returning to the same treacherous direction as before-her own inadequacies for all that lay before her in her new life.
In a little while they would leave on their honeymoon trip to Lexington. There she would finally meet Jonathan's family: his ailing father and his widowed sister. What would they think of her? Her youth, her inexperience, her lack of refinementcwould they be terribly disappointed in his choice of wife? Even the thought of bringing disappointment or embarrassment to Jonathan and his family was intolerable.
The sound of him clearing his throat yanked her out of her thoughts. She looked up and saw him standing in the doorway, his head tilted to one side watching her.
"So-" he said, "are you getting used to it yet?"
"Used to it?"
"Everything." He came and took both her hands in his, tugging her to her feet. "Being married. Having a new name. A new home. A husband who's absolutely wild about you. That's enough for a start, I expect."
He kissed her lightly on the forehead.
At the moment Maggie wasn't eager to talk about newness. "I see you're taking my book along," she commented, gesturing to his travel case.
"Of course I'm taking it along! I can't wait to show it to my father and Patricia. A man's entitled to boast a little about his wife's accomplishments after all."
"Don't you dare, Jonathan."
He drew her into his arms. "It's not every day a man has a book dedicated to him, you know."
Maggie framed his face with her hands. "It's really your story, Jonathan. So of course I dedicated it to you."
"Do you have any idea how proud I am of you?" he questioned quietly.
She loved the way he drew her into himself just by searching her eyes. And the way a strand of his flaxen hair fell over one eye when he dipped his head to kiss her. And the way he always breathed her name after he kissed her. Oh, she loved everything about him, this man who had been her husband for all ofcthirty-eight hours now! She had never known such a feeling as this dizzying whirlwind of love and happiness.
An unexpected chill passed over her, as if to thwart the rush of emotion bubbling up in her. She recognized it for what it was-the old Irish superstition she'd too often heard as she was growing up: Too much joy was likely to invite an equal cup of sorrow.
"Maggie?" Jonathan was watching her, his expression one of concern. He held her slightly away from him. "Are you all right?"
Maggie managed a smile and nodded. "Just trying to think of anything I might have forgotten."
He didn't look convinced. "Are you quite sure you've no regrets about leaving your family so soon after Christmas? We could have waited a day or two more."
They had spent their wedding night at Jonathan's house. Their house, he would have reminded her. Yesterday they shared Christmas with Maggie's family, coming back here in the evening to prepare for their trip.
"I've no regrets about anything so long as we're together," she replied, resolved to give truth to her words. Forcing a note of brightness into her tone, she added, "Although I confess that I already miss Figaro a little."
"Ah. So my competition is to be a hound."
"I loved your dog before I married you," she reminded him.
"Yes, I know," he said dryly. "Is it possible that's why you married me? So you could move in with my dog?"
"He's an awfully handsome fella. But then so are you."
"And both of us are obviously besotted with you."
He drew her close again as if to act on his besotted state, but Maggie stole a glance at the clock on the bedroom mantel.
"Jonathan-we have to go or we're going to miss the train."
He sighed, still managing a brief kiss before taking a last look around the bedroom.
"Already in the buggy."
"Did Figaro settle in with my folks all right?" she asked as they left the room.
"The big faker. He tried to pull that pitiful-pup routine on me until I was almost out the door. He'll be fine. By now he's probably driving your mother crazy, tagging along on her heels through the house."
They hurried down the steps, making a final check of the first floor before locking the door behind them. Once they were settled into the buggy, Jonathan hesitated before driving away. "Well, Mrs. Stuart," he said, turning to Maggie, "this is our first trip together. How do you feel?"
Maggie thought for a moment and then decided to be honest.
Jonathan's face fell. "Why?"
"Because I'm meeting your family for the first time, and I want them to like me. I want you to be proud of me."
He shook his head. "Maggie, it's not possible for me to be any prouder of you than I already am. And my family is going to love you."
"I'm sure I'm not the kind of wife they'd have chosen for you."
"They would never presume to choose a wife for me." He took her hand. "Listen to me, Maggie. You have nothing to worry about where my family is concerned."
"You can't know that."
"Oh, but I can. I know my father and my sister. And I promise you, they're going to love you. They'll love you because you're irresistible and because they'll see how much I love you, and because the only thing my family has ever wanted for me is my happiness." He squeezed her hand. "And there is no way whatsoever, my dear, that they'll be able to miss the fact that I am now the happiest man in the world."
Maggie took a deep breath, tempted to scandalize the neighborhood by throwing her arms around her husband this very minute, in broad daylight, never mind who was watching. He was still Jonathan, after all. Her husband, yes. But also her friend. And as he had so many times in the past, he'd dispelled her doubts and fears with his quiet, steady reassurance.
She took one more long look at the man beside her. In that moment she realized that as long as they were together in the shelter of God's love and their love for each other, she had nothing to fear.
I dreamt not that life
Could hold such happiness.
Wilfred Wilson Gibson
Maggie held her breath as she watched Lawrence Stuart slowly rise from his wheelchair. Her concern for Jonathan's father was growing almost as quickly as her fondness for him. The effort it cost him to get up was visible, yet he insisted on walking from the dining room to the front room-which Jonathan and his sister, Maggie noted, referred to as the parlor.
On the way from the hotel Jonathan had explained that although his father had to rely heavily on a wheelchair, on "good days" he still forced himself to walk a little, if only from one room to the other. All through dinner Maggie had tried not to stare, but now, as they sat talking in the parlor, she caught herself studying her new father-in- law when he wasn't looking. In his late seventies, despite years of crippling arthritis, he was a striking man, elegant in appearance and demeanor. A lawyer by trade, Lawrence Stuart looked honest and trustworthy.
The longer Maggie was around him, the more she saw her husband reflected in his father. The same refined and gentlemanly behavior, the same strong and noble features, the same dry, unpredictable sense of humor, and the same deference to others that so appealed to her in Jonathan were all evident in his father. Even the stubborn strand of hair that tended to fall over his left eye-silver rather than Jonathan's flaxen shade-was reminiscent of his son.
Just as Jonathan had said, her earlier apprehension about meeting his family had been unwarranted, although when she'd first walked into her husband's childhood home, she felt as if she'd entered a foreign country. The oak doors with their shining brass knockers were massive and heavy; the entry floor marbled, setting up an echo with every step; the ceilings high; and the walls lined with paintings that even to Maggie's unstudied eye looked to be of excellent quality. But by the time they entered the dining room, despite the quiet elegance of a table that would have served at least two dozen people, and china and tableware that reflected the light like diamonds, she had already relaxed more than she would have thought possible.
Jonathan's father and sister had greeted her with open arms, and with open hearts as well. Maggie warmed to Patricia almost immediately. A widow in her early fifties with both her children grown and away at university, she clearly doted on her father and brother. If for no other reason, Maggie would have loved her profusely after seeing her affection for Jonathan.
A tall, slender woman with the same dark eyes as her father and brother, Jonathan's sister possessed the genteel stateliness Maggie might have envied in someone else. But Patricia treated her with such warmth and open friendliness-and took such obvious delight in her brother's marriage-that even a hint of envy toward her was out of the question.
To Maggie's considerable relief, if Jonathan's father and sister had been disappointed in his choice of a bride, they kept their feelings well concealed. For the past half hour, Patricia had been regaling her with stories of Jonathan's childhood, stories that Maggie found immensely interesting while Jonathan, seated between the two, clearly would prefer to forget.
"Patty, you're enjoying yourself far too much," he said, shaking his head. "Leave me some secrets, won't you?"
His sister ignored him, reaching over to pat Maggie's hand. "Don't worry, Maggie. I'm sure he's over his youthful fascination with frogs and toads by now."
"Father, stop her! Please." Jonathan put a hand to his forehead in mock pain. "This isn't fair."
Lawrence Stuart laughed. "She's just getting warmed up. If you had any thought of impressing Maggie, I'm afraid there will be none of that now."
"Oh, and wait till I tell you about the frog wedding," Patricia said, leaning across Jonathan toward Maggie.
"The frog wedding?" Maggie repeated, looking at Jonathan.
"You don't want to know," Jonathan said as he scowled at his sister. "Patty, if you can bring yourself to stop disgracing me long enough, why don't you take Maggie upstairs and show her your paintings?"
"Oh, that's right!" Maggie said. "Jonathan told me you're an artist."
"Hardly. But since he so obviously wants to spoil my fun, come along, Maggie. We'll humor him."
"She is an artist," Jonathan said, standing. "She has quite a reputation in Lexington."
"All over the state now," his father put in. "Patty's had some very successful showings over the past few years."
"Let's leave them alone," Patricia said, getting to her feet and reaching a hand out to Maggie. "This way they'll talk man talk instead of embarrassing me."
Maggie met Jonathan's smile with one of her own, then got up and let his sister lead her from the room.
Jonathan watched his sister and Maggie start upstairs. He punched up the fire before taking a chair close to the fireplace and across from his father.
"She's absolutely lovely," his father said, smiling. "I liked her immediately, and you can see for yourself that your sister has taken to her too. And you look to be in fine form. Fit and happy. I'm glad, son."
"Thank you, sir. I am happy."
"And you're staying well?" Even though it had been years since Jonathan had been plagued with heart trouble, one of the first questions from his father any time he came home had to do with his health.
He nodded and his father looked satisfied.
"I'm eager to read Maggie's book. What an accomplishment for one so young."
Jonathan shifted in the chair. "Are you bothered by Maggie's age, Father? That there are so many years between us?"
His father lifted an eyebrow. "It seems to me that would be none of my business. But since you asked-no, I'm not in the least concerned. I trust your judgment. Besides, seeing the two of you together, it seems to me that God has blessed each of you with the ideal mate."
Pleased, Jonathan realized he'd been waiting for this. He'd written about Maggie and their marriage, of course, and his father had immediately replied with his congratulations, along with a note from Patricia that said simply, "About time!" Unfortunately, his father's health wouldn't let them make the trip to Skingle Creek for the ceremony.
Even though he'd recently turned forty, Jonathan still considered his father to be the wisest, most discerning man he'd ever known and, as always, coveted his approval.
"Jonathan, your last letter said there was something you wanted to talk to me about. Some kind of bad business with Maggie's sister and her husband."
Although Jonathan had written only the briefest account of Eva Grace's abusive marriage to Richard Barlow, he'd been eager to get his father's legal advice about the situation. "Eva Grace-Maggie's sister-was also my student a few years ago," he said, leaning forward.
"A wonderful girl. She and Maggie are very close, so you can understand how all this ugliness with her sister is affecting her." He went on to tell his father the whole story about the brutal beatings Eva Grace had suffered at her husband's hands, how she'd left Barlow some months back and gone home to her family in Skingle Creek, and Barlow's subsequent attempt to force her to return to Lexington with him.
"I think I mentioned in my letter that Eva Grace is carrying Barlow's child," he said.
Frowning, his father nodded.
"When Barlow came to Skingle Creek-and in two letters afterward- he threatened to take the baby away from Eva Grace once it's born. She's due to deliver anytime now, and Maggie is worried sick that Barlow will come after the child. Can he do that?"
Still frowning, his father steepled his hands at his chin, not replying right away.
"Just so you know," Jonathan added, "Maggie has seen the marks of Barlow's savagery for herself. And come to think of it, I suppose Eva Grace's physician would have seen them too."
His father looked up. "I'm not sure that would help, but would he testify if necessary?"
"I feel certain she would."
Lawrence's frown darkened. "The doctor is a woman? I'm afraid she'd not be as credible in court."
Jonathan gripped the arms of the chair. "That's absolutely absurd. As I understand it, Dr. Gordon is a fine doctor with impeccable credentials."
His father made a palms-up gesture. "You know how things are, Jonathan. We may not like it, but we're not going to change the system in a few weeks. The day is coming, I believe, when women won't be treated like chattel, but it's not going to happen soon enough to help Maggie's sister." He paused. "You might as well know that even with witnesses, we'd almost certainly lose in court. If we even made it to court."
Jonathan pulled a long breath and got to his feet. "I hate to tell Maggie this."
"Well, don't tell her, not just yet. Give me some time to think about things and discuss the situation with Jeff. It's always possible he might come up with something I haven't thought of."
Jeff Prescott was a senior partner in the law firm and a close friend of the family. It was no secret that Lawrence Stuart trusted him as much as if he were family.
"This Barlow-you say he's fairly well-regarded here in Lexington?"
Jonathan nodded. "According to Eva Grace, yes. Apparently he rose quickly in business and ever since has been active in community affairs. And in church."
His father's mouth pulled down. "While he beats his wife behind closed doors." He made a move as if to stand, then seemed to think better of it.
"I know Maggie would greatly appreciate any advice you might have to offer, Father. And so would I."
"Well, Maggie's part of our family now, so of course we'll try to help her-and her sister-any way we can." He glanced toward the entryway and the staircase. "Before the ladies return, I want to tell you again how happy I am for you, son. I've prayed for years that you'd make a good marriage, and it seems you've done just that. My deepest wish is that you and your lovely Maggie will be as happy as your mother and I were."
Jonathan didn't miss the trembling of his father's hands. Lawrence Stuart had never been an openly emotional man, not with his wife nor his children. He almost always expressed his affection more with deeds than words, but none of them had ever had occasion to doubt his love.
On impulse, Jonathan went to him. Earlier he had noted how thin his father had grown, thinner than he had ever seen him. But only when he clasped the other's shoulder did he sense that the father who had once seemed so strong and indestructible had become a frail old man.
Jonathan had all he could do to control his own emotions as he tightened his grip on his father's shoulder. "If I can be half as good a husband to Maggie as you were to Mother, I know we will be happy, sir. I have every intention of following the example you set for me."
His father reached up and covered the hand on his shoulder with his own. "You were always a good boy, Jonathan. You made your mother and me very proud. I have no doubt in my mind that you'll do well by your Maggie."
Jonathan's eyes burned. He didn't trust himself to say anything more. Because it was so unlike his father to be this vocal, he felt as if he'd been given an uncommon gift.
On the way back to the hotel it started to snow again, a heavy, wind-driven snow that quickly veiled the darkened streets and buildings in relentless white.
"I'm beginning to think we should have hired a sleigh instead of a cab," Jonathan remarked. "I suppose you're enjoying this."
"You know I am! It's so beautifulcand so romantic."
He rolled his eyes but tugged her a little closer to him in the darkness of the hack.
"So how do you feel about my family now?"
"I think they're wonderful! I see so much of you in your father. How could I help but love him? And Patricia-she couldn't be any nicer, could she? I feel as if I've known her forever. And they were both so kind to me, Jonathan."
"Why wouldn't they be?" he said, squeezing her hand. "You invite kindness, Maggie."
He stopped her protest, insisting, "It's true. People want to be nice to you."
He touched her face, brushing the back of his hand along her chin.
"The driver can't see us, nor can anyone else," he assured her, tilting her face up to his and tracing her cheek with his lips.
"Quite. We are totally, romantically alone."
He bent his head and kissed her, and Maggie took a deep breath.
She was secretly pleased that they were staying at the hotel instead of with his family. She hadn't known before tonight just how quickly she'd be comfortable with his father and sister. In spite of the fact that she no longer felt intimidated by them, she was happy she'd have Jonathan to herself for most of the week.
They'd had so precious little privacy in their time together. With her living at home-and with Da being as strict as he was-there had been no real opportunity for them to "court." Days were spent at the school surrounded by their students, and the few evenings they could manage together were usually spent with Maggie's family. They couldn't even take a quiet walk together without coming upon friends and neighbors, many of whom were eager to talk to the principal and teachers of their children.
To suddenly find themselves facing entire dayscand nightsc alone together was a rare experience indeed, and one that Maggie was still trying to get used to. She wanted to learn as much about Jonathan as she possibly could. As recently as a few weeks ago she would have said she knew him well. But knowing him as her former teacher, later as her supervisor and friend, wasn't remotely the same as knowing him as her husband.
Years had passed since they'd first met. This was no longer a little girl's hero worship for an exceptional teacher or a schoolgirl's crush. She had known Jonathan Stuart to be a quiet man, self-contained, and often contemplative. Strong but self-deprecating. Sharply intelligent but practical. A devout and highly principled man, but never didactic.
Now she was discovering formerly unknown facets of his personality that surprised and often delighted her. An unexpected lightness and an almost boyish playfulness that watched for ways to make her smile or laugh. A way of loving her with infinite tenderness and dizzying passion, bringing her to tears with his gentleness, taking her breath away with his touch. An abandonment, a total relinquishment of himself to his God that at one moment was almost childlike-the next, holy. And a genuine, selfless love, a concern for others that was as much sacrificial as generous.
She loved this man to the point of drowning in him. She had been his wife for only two days, but she knew the time had already come when she could no longer feel at home anywhere but in his presence.
So much was known, so much was still unanswered.