Bethany House Publishers
At Hill House, located at the far northern end of the village of Candlewood, Widow Emma Garrett was sharing a quiet supper in the kitchen of her boardinghouse with her family and staff. She glanced at the people sitting around the table, realized that they did not chat as easily at mealtimes as they had always done, and wondered how much longer she could carry the burden of the secret she had been keeping from them for months.
Her mother-in-law, Widow Mercy Garrett, was sitting next to her. She answered to Mother Garrett to everyone to avoid the confusion of having two women in the same household with the same title and name—for guests and staff alike. At seventy-six, she had a large girth, a big heart, and more gumption than anyone Emma had ever met. The elderly woman did, however, have a tendency to see the dimmer side of life, and Emma was reluctant to give her any cause for worry by sharing her secret with her.
Reverend Glenn, the retired minister who had made Hill House his home with them after suffering a stroke, was sitting at the head of the table. His faithful dog, Butter, sat close-by, waiting for a table scrap. At seventy-one, the man was very frail, but his faith was strong and his heart was loving. If Emma shared her secret with him, he would be very understanding. But he would also feel that his presence in her household only added to her troubles.
The two young women on the staff, Liesel Schneider and Ditty Morgan, sat opposite from Emma and her mother-in-law. At sixteen, they were hardworking and extremely reliable, and they were both struggling their way to adulthood. Their families depended on the wages the young women earned for their survival, and Emma loathed the thought that they might be forced to look for other employment.
Tempted to tell them all tonight, Emma struggled to find the words but failed. Troubled, she simply continued to eat in the silence that surrounded her, when an ominous, deafening rumble, resembling a heavy clap of thunder, shook the boardinghouse from roof to cellar. Behind quivering curtains, the kitchen window rattled. The floorboards trembled, and hot soup sloshed against the sides of just-filled bowls before slowly gentling.
Caught completely unaware, Emma stiffened and braced her hands on the edge of the table, even as her mind struggled to make sense of what was happening. A thunderstorm in the depths of winter would be highly unusual, but this winter was odd. By this time of year, Candlewood was typically buried by one snowstorm after another, but they had yet to see more than a dusting of snow so far. This clap of thunder, however, felt different somehow and far stronger than anything she had ever experienced at any time of year.
She quickly glanced around the table again and saw her own surprise and confusion mirrored in the others' expressions only moments before an ear-shattering roar forced her to her feet. With her heart pounding, she pushed her chair away from the table, scrambled to her feet, and scurried from the kitchen. She raced through the dining room to the center hallway and charged past the two front parlors to get to the front door, her companions following on her heels.
Emma hurried outside to the wraparound porch, which offered a commanding view of the skyline and the town below, as well as the skies overhead. As the other women gathered beside her, leaving Reverend Glenn waiting just inside the front door, frigid wind whipped at her skirts. She wrapped her arms at her waist and stood close to the porch railing as she searched the night sky in vain for visible signs of what had to be a horrendous, mammoth storm system.
She furrowed her brow. The skies above Hill House were clear. Not a single cloud blocked the light of the full moon or the stars twinkling brightly on a bed of velvet that stretched across the full breadth of the horizon. Not a sliver of lightning sliced through the sky. Save for the sound of the swirling winds, the night was thick with silence.
Shivering, she lowered her gaze and studied the outline of the town below as the wind continued to whip at her body and chill her to the bone. As usual, only fireflies of light marked the homes and businesses there, including the factories and warehouses along the frozen canal, where workers had yet to finish their workday.
Confused that she could find no explanation for the rumbling sound that had sent them all rushing outside from the supper table, she nevertheless let out a sigh of relief to relax her tense muscles. She flinched the moment she heard a loud blast, accompanied by an amazing flash of light that illuminated the factories in the center of town. She watched, wide-eyed, as flames shot high into the sky. Once the heavy, gusting winds filled the air with the distinctive smell of phosphorous and burning wood, she knew the source: the match factory.
She clutched her heart. Horrified by the thought of workers who might have been killed or injured in the blast, she abandoned her own concerns and tucked her secret deeper inside her troubled heart. As Mother Garrett and her two young charges pressed closer to her at the railing, Emma pointed to the flames and what seemed to be a massive fire that was spreading quickly, even as she struggled to accept the undeniable thought that the rumble they had heard earlier had come from the same area. "Did you hear that? Do you see that? It—it must be the match factory. There must have been an explosion there. And now... now it's on fire," she groaned.
"My father! My brother!" Liesel wailed and ran from the porch.
Emma charged after her, running down the steps and across the front yard. She caught up with the young woman before they reached the front gate. Beneath the gentle light of the swaying lantern that hung over the gate in the wrought-iron fence, she tried to pull Liesel into her arms, but the sixteen-year-old kept struggling to get free. "Let me go! I have to go! My father and my brother work at the match factory. I... I have to go...."
"It's not safe. With the canal frozen, there's little to be done to keep the fire from spreading, especially in this wind," Emma argued.
Liesel nearly pulled free, but Emma kept a firm grip on one of her arms. "I have to go! Please! I must go!" she pleaded. "I know you're worried about your father and your brother, but you can't go alone," Emma said, realizing she could not expect to keep the young woman from going into town to check on her family. "Besides, you wouldn't get very far dressed as you are before you froze to death. Just... just calm down long enough to put on your cape and bonnet and a pair of gloves. I'll get mine and go with you."
Ditty joined them and put her arm around her distraught friend. "I'll go with you, Liesel. Don't worry. I'm sure your father and brother are fine. You'll see. Come inside. We'll both get dressed properly and then we'll go straight to your house." She paused and looked up at Emma. "Is it all right, Widow Garrett? May I leave with Liesel to take her home? We'll be careful."
With her cheeks stinging from the wind and the smell of smoke getting stronger and stronger, irritating her nose and throat, Emma hesitated. Now was not the time to remind the two young women they were still under punishment for their misadventure last fall and were not allowed to leave Hill House without an adult to accompany them. "Only if you promise not to go anywhere near the match factory. It's far too dangerous, and you'll only be in the way. Stay together and go directly to Liesel's house. I'll need to go into town to see how I can help, too, but you two can go ahead. I'll stop to see you both in a little while. If everyone is all right, then I'll bring you both back here," she said as she ushered the two young women back to the house.
Mother Garrett and Reverend Glenn, along with Butter, were waiting for them in the front hallway. While the two young women rushed to their room to get their winter outerwear, Emma tried to rub warmth back into her arms. "I told Liesel and Ditty they could go to Liesel's house to make sure her brother and father are all right. I think I should go into town to see how we can help."
Mother Garrett dabbed at her eyes. "There are bound to be some people who'll need a place to stay, at least for the night. I'll make up some beds while you're gone."
Reverend Glenn, his aged face wearied with concern, reached down to pat his dog on the head. "I think it would be best if I went down to the parsonage. Reverend Austin will need some help, but you go ahead. You'll make it faster without me and Butter here."
Emma locked her gaze with his and smiled. "Maybe I would, but I'd rather not go alone. We can go together," she suggested, then turned to take his coat from the oak coat rack and handed it to him. "We'll need to bundle up first before we can leave." She silently prayed that God would help them all to transform the horror of this night into a channel for His glory and to guide them to those who would need their help the most.
Refining Emma (Candlewood Trilogy #2) by Delia Parr
Copyright © 2007; ISBN 9780764200878
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.