October 1849, Lowell, Massachusetts
Jasmine Houston trembled uncontrollably. Surely her brother-in-law was mistaken!
"I'm to return home to The Willows immediately? Please," she said, extending her shaking hand in Nolan's direction. Her voice sounded strangely foreign to her own ears, and she cleared her throat before attempting to once again speak. "Permit me to read the missive for myself." The high-pitched quiver remained in her voice, ruining any hope of appearing unruffled by Nolan's news.
Nolan's brow furrowed into deep creases. "I'm sorry. In my haste to arrive, I failed to bring the letter with me."
She lowered herself onto the ivory brocade settee and met her brother-in-law's concerned gaze. "Does my father say why he penned the missive to you instead of corresponding directly with me? And why did Samuel say nothing of our mother's failing health when he was in Massachusetts? Surely if Mother's health hung in the balance, Samuel would have sent word." Giving Nolan a feeble smile before continuing, she said, "Perhaps Mother is merely languishing since suffering with yellow fever this summer. What with her bouts of melancholy, she tends to be somewhat slow in healing from any illness. I suspect Father is hoping a visit from little Spencer and me will cause her to rally."
"It certainly could do no harm."
Jasmine gave an emphatic nod. "It will take time to make preparations for the journey. Traveling with a child of nearly two is not quite as simple as one might think. And, of course, I'll need to make inquiry concerning when a vessel will be sailing. Also, I must see to Grandmother Wainwright. She's been ailing this past week." She hesitated for a moment. "And you say Mammy isn't well either?" Her thoughts were jumbled, and she now realized her words had poured forth in a mishmash of confusion.
"That's what your father indicated in his letter," Nolan softly replied.
"I must admit I am exceedingly surprised to hear that piece of news. The fact that Mammy would remain in a weakened condition after her supposed recovery several months ago is disconcerting. She's always been strong and healthy. Perhaps Father was overstating matters in order to ensure my return to The Willows for a visit."
"There is always that possibility. And your grandmother? What ails her? I thought she might give consideration to making the journey as well."
Jasmine began pacing, quickly covering the length of the parlor and returning several times. "The doctor fears she may have pneumonia. Grandmother says it's merely an attack of ague and will soon pass. However, she does have a troublesome cough, and I doubt whether she's strong enough to travel. Then again, she's a stubborn woman. Who knows what she may decide. But unless she makes a quick recovery, I believe she should remain in Lowell."
"You're likely correct on that account. The journey from Massachusetts to Mississippi could prove harrowing for her. Hearing of her condition only serves to confirm the decision I made upon receiving your father's letter," Nolan said.
Jasmine glanced over her shoulder as she continued crisscrossing the room. "And what decision would that be?"
"I plan to accompany you and Spencer to The Willows."
Her pacing came to an abrupt halt at the far end of the room. Turning toward him, Jasmine flushed at the overwhelming sense of warmth she felt for Nolan. His obvious concern touched her. "I can't ask you to do such a thing, Nolan. The commitment of time required to make the journey is unreasonable to ask of anyone--other than a family member, of course."
His gaze fell. "Am I not family?" His question was barely audible.
"Oh, what have I said? Of course you're family. My comment was directed toward Father's request that Spencer and I make the journey." Taking several quick steps, she came to a halt in front of him before meeting his questioning gaze. "Surely you realize that Spencer and I couldn't have survived since Bradley's death without you. Spencer has come to look upon you as his very favorite visitor. In fact, he often demonstrates his displeasure over the fact that you live in Concord rather than Lowell. He would, of course, prefer more frequent visits."
Nolan gave a slight nod, but his lips remained fixed in a taut, thin line. She feared he was weighing her response much too critically, so she hastened to explain further. "I find the fact that you would be away from Massachusetts for such a long period of time to be a matter of grave concern. I can't expect you to make yourself available every time difficulty arises in my life."
His gaze softened. "Of course you can. That is exactly what I want. You and Spencer are my only remaining family. How could I ever consider any request from you a burden? Besides, you didn't ask me--I offered to accompany you. As for my work, you may recall I can write as easily at the plantation as I can in Concord--or anyplace else, for that matter."
"Yes. In fact I remember quite well." A faint smile crossed her lips as she recollected the antislavery articles Nolan had penned after his first visit to The Willows. Words that had stirred the hearts of abolitionists and also drawn the fiery criticism of the pro-slavery movement. Words that had set Nolan at odds with his brother, Bradley, and provoked a seething anger from her father and other Wainwright men. And it had been Nolan's words that had convinced those same men their anger was misplaced. With carefully chosen words, he had cajoled them into admitting they supported free speech and, in turn, his right to argue against their stance on the slavery issue. Finally they had decided to call a truce. With the distinct understanding, however, that such an agreement merely served as permission for all of them to disagree in a civil--and silent--manner over their personal feelings on the topic of slavery.
"I imagine you do," he said, returning her smile. "Incidentally, I hope you won't think me intrusive, but I did take the liberty of sending word to Mr. Sheppard at Houston and Sons that you will be sailing as soon as preparations have been completed for your journey. I have little doubt there will be a ship awaiting us when we arrive in Boston."
"I'm certain your foresight will prove helpful in expediting our voyage," she replied, giving him a pensive gaze. Jasmine knew they would be traveling after the first picking, and any slowdown in cotton shipments could prove costly. "Let us hope our journey won't interfere with the crop shipments. No doubt harvest will have begun in earnest by the time we arrive, but I wouldn't want my personal travel to be the cause of any delay."
"Your father requested your presence at The Willows. I'm certain he values your visit more highly than the cotton crop. Please don't fret over any possible delay with the ship's voyage to New Orleans."
"So long as it's Wainwright cotton, I suppose you're right. However, I doubt any of the other producers would be so forgiving should their shipments be hindered. Did you happen to inquire regarding their future schedules?"
"As a matter of fact, I met with Mr. Sheppard last week to examine the books of Houston and Sons, and he gave me what he hoped would be a final plan for the upcoming month. Our travel should coincide nicely. By the way, you'll be pleased to know that all is in order with the shipping company. It continues to turn a nice profit, and the investments you're setting aside for Spencer are accumulating handsomely. Of course, the cotton shipments between New Orleans and Boston provide our greatest profit."
"Thank you, Nolan. Since Bradley's death, I've never once worried about Houston and Sons Shipping Line. I know you've performed the necessary duties to keep everything operating smoothly. And I'm pleased you retained Mr. Sheppard. I think he feared losing his position when you assumed management of the business."
He chuckled. "We both know that would have been a disaster. I would be miserable attempting to operate any business on a daily basis. This arrangement has succeeded nicely for all of us. In fact, his work load has increased steadily as the business has grown. I'm amazed at the amount of cotton the company is now shipping. A mixed blessing, I suppose."
She nodded in agreement. "I understand what you're thinking. It's a complicated situation I find myself thrust into. With much of the cotton being grown on Wainwright plantations, I feel somewhat the hypocrite when I attend the antislavery meetings or when I state my opposition to the Southern bondage. Speaking of the Southern mindset, you still haven't told me why Father wrote his letter to you."
Nolan directed her back toward the settee and then patted her hand as though she were a fragile piece of china that might fracture at any moment. "I believe your father worried you would be overly distraught receiving news of the ongoing illnesses of both your mother and Mammy. He decided his concerns might be less worrisome if delivered personally--knowing someone would be with you when you actually heard the news. As for your questions regarding your brother Samuel, you must remember his schedule is continually filled with business meetings when he is in Lowell. Besides, with all of his traveling, I doubt he has been able to spend much time at The Willows during these past months."
Jasmine wrung a lace-edged handkerchief between her fingers and frowned at Nolan. In spite of October's chilly sting, she blotted the linen square to her cheeks and forehead. "It's terribly warm in here, don't you think?"
"As a matter of fact, I thought the room rather cool and drafty. I hope you aren't taking ill. Are you feeling faint?"
"Of course not! You're beginning to sound like Father, always thinking women will faint at the first sign of bad news," she replied while continuing to dab her face. "I'm perfectly fine. Now tell me more of what Father said in his letter." Before Nolan could answer, Jasmine's gaze shifted toward the stairway. "It sounds as though Spencer has awakened from his nap. If you'll excuse me," she said while tucking her handkerchief into the pocket of her apricot merino dress.
"Please," he said, immediately jumping to his feet, "let me go and fetch him. It's been nearly two weeks since my last visit. I'm anxious to see my nephew."
She resettled herself on the settee. "As you wish."
Nolan's pleasure was obvious as he bounded toward the stairway. "He's likely grown at least an inch during my absence," he ventured, his words floating into the parlor.
"I don't believe he's grown quite that quickly, but there's little doubt your presence will bring him great delight," she called back toward the hallway.
The sound of Nolan's footsteps grew fainter as he hastened up the stairs. Had Bradley ever hurried in such a fashion to see his own son? If he had, Jasmine could no longer remember. Of course, Spencer had been only an infant when Bradley died; her comparison was doubtless unfair. Yet that realization didn't quiet the longing that stirred deep within her. In only moments she would hear Spencer's unbridled cries of joy burst forth like a heralding trumpet. How she longed to have a father for her son--how she longed to have a loving husband's arms embrace her ... and to lovingly embrace a husband in return.
Regrettably, she harbored only unhappy recollections of her marriage to Bradley. Oh, he'd professed to love her in the beginning, but even then she'd known their marriage was no more than a profitable liaison between the Wainwrights and himself. The true desires of Bradley's heart had been power and money. The Wainwright family had provided a viable connection to the cotton Bradley needed to procure for his success--and their marriage had sealed the much-needed link to secure his lucrative future. Unfortunately, their union had been a fraud from the beginning.
When Bradley met with his untimely demise, most who knew him felt either pity or revulsion for the life he'd led. As for Jasmine, she had experienced a little of each, but her focus had remained on Spencer. He was her joy: the light of her life, the pure pleasure God had given her. Spencer had burst forth from a dismal marriage like a single rose unfolding each petal and coming into full bloom after an unforgiving drought. His tiny life had given her more pleasure than she imagined possible, and had it not been for Spencer, Jasmine would likely have harkened to her father's plea and returned to live at The Willows.
Her nerves had been taut with anxiety. How could she suitably explain her decision to remain in Massachusetts without causing her family sorrow? After all, most people would view a young widow's return to the bosom of her family quite appropriate--would even expect it. In addition to being a youthful woman set apart by her widow's weeds, she was a misplaced Southerner living amongst Yankees, both facts that her father would quickly draw to her attention. She had carefully prepared, however, her words judiciously framed as she pointed to Grandmother Wainwright's increasing dependency upon her as she grew older and her health began to fail. She'd also explained that the rigors of making such a move would likely prove an overwhelming task so soon after Spencer's birth. However, the truth had been that Jasmine didn't want her son reared in a culture that perpetuated slavery. Making such a statement to her father would have breached their relationship--perhaps permanently, a risk she was unwilling to take. Although Jasmine fervently disagreed with her family's views on slavery, she would never intentionally damage her relationship with them. She disagreed with her family, but she loved them in spite of their beliefs.
And now the news in her father's letter. She stood and began to once again pace the length of the room. It was difficult to believe both her mother and Mammy suffered from illnesses to such a degree as to summon Jasmine to their bedsides. She wanted to believe her father was merely anxious to see Spencer and have the two of them come to The Willows for a lengthy visit. Yet Malcolm Wainwright was not a man to use such methods to draw his family home. He would have been straightforward in his request. A hollow feeling edged into her consciousness, then yielded to fingering tendrils of fear that slowly crept into her thoughts and began to take root.
"What if one of them should die before I arrive?" she murmured. Her fingers spread wide as she placed an open palm against her chest and dropped onto the brocade divan. Giving voice to her fears now caused her to face the possibility that one or both of the women she loved might be dead before she arrived home. "Oh, surely not! If I'm not careful, I'll soon become as histrionic as some of Grandmother Wainwright's acquaintances," she muttered.
"Mama!" Spencer screeched from the hallway. The boy pointed a chubby finger in Jasmine's direction before turning back to hug Nolan's neck in a tight bear hug.
Jasmine gazed up at the two of them, warmed by their obvious affection for each other--a devotion that was obvious to even the casual observer. So much so that Velma Buthorne had taken exception to Nolan's relationship with Spencer upon her first visit to Lowell, as well as on each of her two subsequent visits. It had been during her final visit six months ago that she had given Nolan an ultimatum--choose Spencer or choose her. He had quickly chosen Spencer, deciding that if Velma's security was threatened by a mere child, she was not a woman with whom he wanted to build a future. And now with the news of this imminent journey to Mississippi, Jasmine was exceedingly thankful she could accept Nolan's offer of assistance without worry of offending Velma.
Nolan sat down beside Jasmine and adjusted Spencer's wriggling body on his lap. "I shouldn't have left you alone for so long. You've obviously done nothing but fret since I went upstairs. There's not a drop of color in your cheeks. Shall we go outdoors and get a breath of fresh air?"
Nolan's suggestion elicited an immediate reaction from Spencer, who instantaneously attempted to wiggle off his uncle's lap. "Out, out!" he cried, pointing toward the doors leading into the garden.
Spencer's enthusiasm brought a faint smile to Jasmine's lips. It was difficult for unhappiness to reign while young Spencer Houston was up and about. The child pulled at her fingers, tugging as though certain his efforts would bring his mother to her feet. "All right. We'll go outdoors, but first you'll need a coat." She grasped his plump hand in her own, and he toddled alongside while they fetched his jacket and cap.
Nolan remained at her other side, holding on to her elbow. She glanced toward him and said, "I promise I'm feeling better. You need not fear for my well-being. If you'll take Spencer's hand, I'll gather my cape."
"I will admit your color has returned, but I don't want to take any chances," he said, his features a strange fusion of apprehension and cheerfulness.
"I'm fine," she insisted, careful to speak in a firm and confident tone.
The three of them walked into the small flower garden that had recently been given over to Spencer as a play area. Jasmine no longer fretted over the trampled or picked flowers. The perennials would shoot up voluntarily again next year, and she'd be required to choose new annuals next spring anyway. In the end, Spencer would remain a toddler for only a short time, and if his wobbly feet carried him into the roses, mums, or azaleas, so be it. Truth be told, she enjoyed his occasional offering of a partially defrocked rose or daisy.
"You appeared deep in thought when I came downstairs," Nolan commented, though his gaze was still fixed upon Spencer as they sat down on one of the benches. "Were you worrying over your mother's condition?"
She followed his line of vision toward the tiny, robust child, who was examining a newly fallen leaf. "To be honest, I was thinking about Velma Buthorne--rather, I was feeling somewhat thankful that Velma is no longer a part of your life. I was selfishly grateful." She leaned down and picked a handful of golden mums that bordered the walkway.
"Were you?" he asked. His tone was almost playful. "And why is that?"
She met his gaze and then quickly looked back across the garden. "Because Velma would have objected to your offer to accompany us on the trip."
"Hmm. Only a short time ago, you told me you didn't want to impose upon me, and now you're pleased I'm making the journey?"
"I was merely being polite when I said I didn't want to impose," she said, giving him a sheepish grin. "There is no doubt that having your assistance will prove invaluable, and I know Spencer will find the journey much more to his liking with you along."
"It's my desire that my presence will make the journey more pleasant for both of you. And since we're discussing the voyage, have you come to any decision regarding when we might sail?"
"I can be ready by week's end. I hope that will give you sufficient time for your return to Boston to make preparations--if you still intend to accompany us," she hastened to add.
A sheepish grin tugged at his lips. "I made my preparations before leaving Boston. I had Paddy take my trunk out to the barn when I arrived."
His words brought back the reality of the situation. Surely Nolan must believe the circumstances ominous if he had already prepared to make the journey. Her thoughts were in a state of unrest--one minute calm and collected, the next fearful and apprehensive--uncertain what to expect when she arrived at The Willows. "I see. Well, then, I suppose I had best begin packing. With Kiara to assist me, I think everything should be in readiness by the day after tomorrow."
"Why don't you go inform Kiara of the news and I'll remain out here with Spencer? I'm certain he'll be happier playing outdoors."
"And likely will sleep better tonight," she replied. "Thank you."
* * *
Nolan reached into his jacket and pulled Malcolm's letter from the inner breast pocket while he watched Spencer tug at a small purple bloom. The child appeared to be completely engrossed with the blossom, unaware of the activity that swirled about him. Nolan held the envelope between his thumb and index finger, his guilt beginning to take root as he stared at the missive. It went against his nature to tell untruths. In fact, all his life he'd prided himself upon his truthful nature.
"It was a kindness to withhold the truth," he muttered. Revealing the full contents of her father's letter would have been nothing less than cruel. After all, Malcolm had written to him instead of Jasmine in order to protect her from the truth--at least until her arrival at The Willows. And Nolan didn't intend to second-guess Malcolm Wainwright's decision. He unfolded the missive and reread the carefully scripted second paragraph.
I fear my wife's condition hangs in the balance. The doctor has not given me hope that she will live much longer. However, knowing that Madelaine's life is in God's hands, I believe the possibility exists she may rally. Therefore, please do not convey the gravity of her mother's illness to Jasmine. It is useless for Jasmine to spend the entire voyage fretting over her mother's condition. Try to assure her that although I've summoned her home, she should remain calm. Being unduly distraught over Madelaine's condition will serve no useful purpose.
Nolan believed Mr. Wainwright's position was the correct one. However, his confidence waned as he considered how Jasmine might react once confronted with her mother's condition or possible death. Perhaps his thoughts were selfish, but he didn't want to be the object of Jasmine's anger when she discovered he'd withheld information from her. Yet he felt an obligation to honor Malcolm Wainwright's request. For now he would say nothing further and continue to pray for Madelaine Wainwright's recovery.
Spencer struggled to remain upright as he wobbled across the uneven terrain of the small garden. A winsome smile tugged at his bow-shaped mouth. Reaching Nolan's side, he extended his chubby hand to offer a large fall mum, now minus its leaves and the majority of its purple petals. "Well, thank you very much," Nolan said while taking the fading bloom from the child's hand. "Why don't we take your flower into the house and see if we can revive it with a vase of water."
"Wa-der," Spencer said in a childish attempt to mimic his uncle.
"Yes, water. I fear you may be seeing more water than you'd like in the next several weeks. But we won't worry about that for the time being. For now, we'll get your flower a drink."
A Love Woven True (Lights of Lowell, Book 2) by Tracie Peterson and Judith Miller
Copyright © 2005; ISBN 076428951
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Unauthorized duplication prohibited.