Monday, October 08, 2007

OCT EXCERPT: Blessed Assurance

Blessed Assurance
by Lyn Cote

Three generations in the Wagstaff familyface and conquer the challenges of their times and plumb the depths of human and divine love. This is a reissue of Lyn's first historical series published originally in 1999-2000.


April 9, 1871

Would the baby live? He'd survived the night, thanks be to God. But would he finally be able to keep liquids down today? The dark-skinned baby in Jessie's arms drew a deep, a wonderful breath. She kissed the baby’s slightly cooler forehead. She'd bathed the fevered child all night long. Trembling with fatigue, she slumped onto the old rocker. Would she have the strength to walk the miles home?

Across from her in the gray glow of near dawn, she glanced at the outline of the baby's mother and father. They lay side by side on their narrow rope-bed in mutual exhaustion. Earlier, the mother, unwell herself, had nearly fainted and Jessie had forced her to lie down. Now, the way the black couple lay so close, so intimate made her throat tighten. She looked away as if she'd intruded. She took a deep breath, steadying herself.

The awful dread of death which had oppressed her all night turned to cautious gratitude. But I must get home now. “Ruth,” she called softly to the sleeping mother.

The young black woman stirred and moaned, “My baby?”

“I think his fever may have broken.”

Ruth stumbled to Jessie's side and lifted the child into her arms. With the inside of her wrist, Ruth tested her son’s forehead. “Oh, you have the bestes’ way with sickness.”

Feeling as achy as an old woman, Jessie shuffled the few steps to the door and lifted her black cape and bonnet from a nail on the wall. "Ruth, he's not out of danger yet." She fumbled with the ribbons of her black bonnet and her gloves, noticing another seam was unraveling. More mending.

“Please, my husband will walk you home.”

Jessie shook her head. She already needed to hurry home before her gossipy neighbors saw that she, a young widow, had spent a night away from home. And if a black man were seen with her, a white woman, it’d only add spice to their scurrilous rumors. “Now, Ruth, please don’t give your baby anything but mother’s milk. It’s important. Promise me.”

Cradling her baby son close to her breast, Ruth nodded. “God bless you, Mrs. Wagstaff.”

After one last reminder to Ruth to follow her warning, Jessie waved farewell and shut the flimsy door behind her. She hurried north along the railroad tracks and then crossed them. Like the Continental Divide, the parallel black metal lines divided the freed black slaves on one side of the railway from the white Irish immigrants opposite them. Though the gray-brown shanties, thrown together from used lumber and tin, looked like heads bent in sadness, leaning close to each other as though sharing their sorrows, the two sides, both equally needy, never mixed. The scene always depressed her.

Jessie’s long black skirt and petticoats swirled around her ankles and the weight of them seemed to grow with every step. Her fatigue began to slow her down. She fretted more about getting home and time--unseen. Over the thud of her heels on the wooden Randolph Street Bridge, she heard the jingle of the harness bells and clattering hooves of the first morning bob-tail trolley. She hated to part with the two-penny fare, but she couldn’t walk any farther. A stitch in her side, she hurried to the corner and flagged it down.

Lifting her skirts discreetly, she climbed up the wooden steps. While she was finding seat among the day-maids and workmen, the trolley jerked to a start. She stumbled and sat down abruptly, then positioned herself more comfortably on her modest bustle.

She would make it home now well before the gossips were up and snooping. Sighing, she closed her eyes, letting herself sway with the trolley's curious rhythm of going forward while rocking side to side. She snapped her eyes wide open. If she missed her stop, then needed to ride back, it would cost another penny and minutes she couldn’t afford.

Blinking to keep her watering eyes open, she glimpsed the skyline of downtown. Dawn had come. The rising sun cast a rosy glow over the squared, ornate parapets of the limestone hotels. She Will had called them imitation castles. Will’s face surfaced in her memory, smiling as always, blonde and blue-eyed. He whispered to her, “Come here, princess.” He drew her into strong arms and his warm lips touched….

Ring! Startled awake, Jessie sat up straighter. Blinking to stay awake, Jessie noted each northward street sign. At Ontario Street, she yanked the bell cord. Relief left her feeling hollow as she stepped down at the corner. Her pace quickened—so near home now--just a few blocks from Lake Michigan. Around the familiar, white frame houses, the lowing of a few cows and the clatter of a milk pail told her some people had already risen.

The mistiness that filtered the rosy sunshine concealed her and left her alley sticky with mud. Though she lifted her skirts, murky puddles wet her shoes and cotton stockings.

Almost there. She began to breathe easier. From her alley shed, she heard the clang of her goats’ bells and the tut-tut of her hens. At last, through the thick grayness, she approached her back porch steps, an island in the surrounding fog.

Weakened, she felt like a rag doll moved by unseen hands. She listened to the crunch-crunch rhythm of her shoes on the coal-cinder path. Longing for her first cup of coffee, she lifted her foot to the first step.

“Jessie?” a sleep-filled voice muttered out of the mist.

A man’s voice. A cold needle of shock jabbed her. She yelped.

“Jessie, Jessie Wagstaff?” the same voice asked.

Her eyes focused on the man, looming above her on the porch. But the slender man with dark hair and eyes, dressed in a well-cut black suit, did not appear very threatening to her. Indeed, his startled reaction must have mirrored her own. “Who…are you?” she stammered.

“Smith. I’m Lee Smith.”

Now all her hurry and worry would go for naught. Surely every neighborhood gossip must have heard her shout. She turned her aggravation on him. "Why are you on my porch at this hour?"

The man just stood there gawking at her.

The door behind him hit the outside wall with a crack like a gunshot. Susan bolted toward the stranger, brandishing a broom. Outrage twisted her dark features. "Get! Get! You leave Mrs. Wagstaff 'lone!"

The man ducked just in time to avoid the swat aimed for his head.

Shocked also, Jessie just watched as the man swerved to avoid Susan's next blow. He stumbled down the few steps to her side.

"Susan!" Jessie finally shouted over her friend's stream of threats and captured the end of the broom. "Stop! Please! I’m unharmed!" Instant silence.

Jessie glared at the stranger. "Sir, you have just sixty seconds to persuade me that you have a lawful reason to be here before Susan and I run you off."

The stranger removed his knocked cock-eyed hat. He began in a soothing tone, "I apologize to you both. I didn't mean to alarm you. I must have dozed off while I waited for your household to waken--"

"I asked you a simple question.” Jessie gripped the end of the broom as if it were her temper. “Answer it now or I will summon the police." For her part, Susan scorched the man with her gaze.

"If this is the Wagstaff house, I am looking for a room."

"You want a room?" Jessie couldn't keep her voice low.

"This is a boarding house. I need a room--"

"It’s only five a.m. Who would look for a room at this hour?"

"I'm so sorry, Mrs. Wagstaff. You are Mrs. Wagstaff, are you not?"

"Yes, I'm Mrs. Wagstaff," she admitted though she would have much preferred to punch him. Susan began to mutter under her breath again, sounding like a locomotive building up a good head of steam.

"I arrived at the railway station downtown only about two hours ago," the man continued. "I didn’t see any sense in taking a room, so I asked directions and walked here--"

"Here? Why?" she demanded, her eyes narrowing. "Do I know you?"

"No, your boarding house was recommended by the conductor on my train."

Liar. "Chicago has over three hundred thousand people and you expect me to believe that some train conductor I don’t know gave you my address."

"Well, he spoke highly of you." The man's irksome smile held.

The hooves of a fast-approaching horse clacked on the wooden street out front. Soon, only a few feet from Jessie, a uniformed officer dismounted. "Police! What is the disturbance here?"

Jessie felt her face go red. Police and a strange man in her back yard at dawn. The gossips would have a heyday with this. Jessie deftly dropped the broom and turned to face the policeman. "Officer, I'm so sorry you were called. Yes, I did cry out. The fog hid Mr. Smith from my sight and he startled me.”

"One of your neighbors heard it and flagged me down. You're certain you do not need any assistance, madam?" The policeman glared at Smith.

"No, but thank you for coming so quickly.” She looked up the steps at Susan.

Astonished, Lee felt the widow link her arm in his and then she glanced back at the policeman. "Officer, it does my heart good to know that such a minor disturbance brought such quick action. Thank you again."

With a feeling of unreality, Lee allowed her to lead him up the steps to the door. Standing so close to Jessie, he finally took a moment to really look at her. A young woman with ivory skin, dark, serious eyes and soft, wavy brown hair, she'd changed little from the pretty girl on the worn daguerreotype he still carried in his pocket.

Over his shoulder, Lee nodded civilly to the policeman. He let Jessie lead him through the back door into a large kitchen. As soon as the door closed, she dropped his arm as if he had leprosy.

With his hat still in one hand, he stood stiffly, conscious of being travel-worn, wishing he had delayed and taken time to have his suit freshly brushed and pressed. The two of them remained, facing each other in tableau, listening to the officer's departure.

Coming inside, Susan closed the door behind her. “He’s gone, Jess…Mrs. Wagstaff.”

Jessie released a deep sigh. "That takes care of that."

Lee's curiosity forced him to ask, "How did someone alert the police so quickly?"

"You think," the hired girl asked, "someone pulled the alarm on the corner?"

"No, not enough time." Jessie untied the strings of her dreary bonnet. "They probably were heading for the alarm and saw the policeman down the street."


“Yes, you sound like you're from the East." Jesse propped her hands on her hips, giving him a disgusted look. "So we know you didn't expect to find that Chicago has modern communications. We have alarm boxes every few blocks which are connected by wire to the nearest police and fire station. They come in handy most of the time.” She turned her back to him. “Susan, who do you think flagged down the policeman?”

"Got to be that Mrs. Braun or Mrs. O’Toole," Susan said, her hands perched on her hips.

Grimacing, Jessie nodded. "What would they do for diversion if we didn't live here?"

He detected only the barest touch of humor in the widow's tone. Then he found her disapproving gaze on him once more and he fought the urge to tug at his stiff white collar. He tried to come up with some reason to stop her from sending him right back out her door.

"I suppose you'll have to stay . . . for a while," Jessie grumbled, with an unwelcoming expression that made him feel like a child who'd come to her table with dirty hands. "At least, till breakfast is finished. One of my nosy neighbors will certainly stop the officer and ask him about you. It would look suspicious if you were seen leaving too soon.”

"Old biddies," Susan muttered.

Well, the old biddies had done him a favor. They'd got him inside and were keeping him there. Stifling a mocking grin at this irony, he bowed. "Thank you for your charming invitation. I am free for breakfast."

"Humph." Jessie walked away from him.

He bit back a retort while she took off her dowdy threadbare bonnet and cape. She then tugged the gloves from her fingers and tucked them inside the cape pocket.

A startling fact suddenly occurred to him. At five o'clock in the morning, she had been coming up the steps, not out of her door. Where had Mrs. Jessie Wagstaff been all night?

The black girl was tying a red calico apron around herself when she put his thoughts into words. "Do you think they saw you was coming in, not stepping out?"

Jessie, donning a full white apron, frowned and shook her head at Susan. For a moment, Lee considered repeating the hired girl's question. However, he couldn't afford to antagonize Jessie any further.

"How is Ruth's baby?" the girl Susan asked.

"Better, but not out of the woods yet. I hope Ruth heeds my warning." Jessie motioned to Lee, directing him toward a long table beside the kitchen window. The stark white curtains that fluttered over it suited the sparsely adorned whitewashed room and it all seemed to go with the cheerless woman who stood near him. She ordered, "You might as well sit."

With clenched teeth, he obeyed, balancing his hat on his knee. He hadn't known exactly what to expect from Mrs. Jessie Wagstaff, but it hadn't been this. How long did this woman think she could get by with treating him like a pesky bill collector?

Ignoring him, the two women went on with their obvious morning routine. Fine. Just as long as breakfast is good and comes quick. Susan picked up a milk pail and left by the back door. Jessie filled a wall-mounted coffee mill and began to crank it. The aroma of freshly ground coffee beans wafted through the room making his mouth water.

He got up his nerve and made another attempt to get a toehold here. "Do you have a room for rent?"

"I have no vacancy and even if I did, I never take in male boarders. A widow can't be too careful when it comes to gossip."

Her dismissive tone sparked his temper. "I want a room--not a widow," he snapped back.

She glared at him.

Suddenly he didn’t like Jessie Wagstaff one bit. But what had that to do with what had brought him here? He didn't need to like her to achieve his goal. And only his long-delayed purpose for coming here compelled him to swallow her rebuff in silence. Instead, he reverted to his lifelong tactic, charming nonchalance. It had always infuriated his family while giving them no opportunity to continue to badger him. He gave her a practiced languid smile and dusted the top of his hat with careless fingers. "I'm merely looking for a clean room and good food. You were recommended and--"

"Mother!" A young lad with tousled blonde hair, still dressed in his white night shirt, rushed through the curtained doorway into the kitchen. The sight of the boy caught Lee off guard. Her son--this was Lincoln.

As Jessie unhooked the jar of freshly ground coffee from the mill, the boy grasped her forearms and bounced on his bare toes. "There was a policeman and a horse. I saw them out of my window."

Jessie balanced the coffee jar to keep it from spilling. "Well, why not? Policeman often come down our street, Linc.”

The boy dropped his hold on his mother and turned to Lee. "Who's this?"

Lee looked into the face of the boy—so new to him, yet so familiar. Without warning, the innocent face unleashed an avalanche of wrenching images inside Lee. Phantom cannon roared in his ears and the sweetly putrid smell of gangrenous flesh made him gag. Fighting the urge to retch, he clutched his hat brim with both hands.

Susan came in and set a heavy milk pail on the edge of the sink. "Mister, you be all right?"

He couldn't answer. He fought free of the haunting sensations. "I'm fine." Both women were staring at him. "I'm fine," he repeated, his voice firmer. "I'm Lee Smith." He stretched out his right hand and grasped the youngster's hand in his.

"Linc, Mr. Smith is staying for breakfast." Jessie said. "He is new in town and wanted to rent a room from us. But since we don't have any rooms available, he will have to look elsewhere."

Linc moved closer to Lee. The boy’s scent, a mix of cornstarch powder and soap, blotted out the lingering horror in Lee’s memory.

"Mr. Smith, I wish you could stay," Linc said. "I'm the only boy here."

Unused to being around children, but touched by this sentiment, Lee clumsily stroked the boy's hair. "I'm happy I was able to meet you, Linc." Poor kid--defenseless in a household of “skirts.” Well, maybe I can to do something about that.

Jessie came up behind the boy and turned him by the shoulders, then swatted him gently on the behind. "Young man, you need to get yourself ready for breakfast. You remember what happens today, don't you?"

"The game! It's today, isn't it?" Linc hopped up and down. "It's April ninth!"

Smiling, Jessie bent and kissed the bobbing head. "Yes, Linc, it is finally the ninth. Go mark it off on the calendar."

Beaming, Linc charged toward the calendar beside the pantry doorway. He lifted a pencil, dangling from a string, and marked a large "X" through the date.

His mother touched the boy's shoulder. "Get more wood please. We barely have enough to finish heating the wash water and I need to start brewing the coffee."

Groaning, the boy padded back out of the room.

Jessie went to the sink and began filling the two large coffee pots with water.

"What game is Linc excited about?" Lee asked, searching her face.

“Today is the first exhibition game of the new Chicago White Stockings Baseball Club. My son is an avid supporter."

"Is he?" Lee grinned, cheered to see that she wasn't as stern with her son as with unwanted strangers at her door.

Jessie began spooning coffee into the pots. "Yes, he will tell you all about them and the new National Association of Professional Baseball Players." Lee liked the way her voice gentled as she spoke of her son.

Susan added with a grin, "Five games they play with five other teams first." Carrying a wire basket, the hired girl started out the back door.

“Yes, would you like us to recite the names of the other nine teams, Mr. Smith?” Jessie surprised Lee by actually chuckling.

Emboldened by this, he took another chance and asked, "Thank you, no. But when do you think you might have a vacancy?"

"You are persistent, Mr. Smith. But even if I had a vacancy and even if I rented to males, I still would never rent to a stranger. I cannot, will not, rent you a room, Mr. Smith."

In Boston, it had all seemed so easy. She ran a boarding house. He'd rent a room from her. Lee gritted his teeth behind grimly smiling lips. I'll get into your life one way or another, Jessie. I'm late but I'm here to stay.

A young woman's voice from the other side of the curtain interrupted them, "Mrs. Wagstaff, is the wash water ready? Some of the boarders are fussing."

He watched Jessie grimace, but her voice did not betray this. "Please tell them it won't be long."

The young boarder murmured indistinctly and retreated.

Linc came into the kitchen pulling his suspenders into place. Jessie motioned her son to the back door. "Hurry, Linc, we're running late."

A querulous voice issuing from the hallway startled Lee. "How long is a body supposed to wait for a small pitcher of warm water?" A very old twisted-looking woman, leaning heavily on a gnarled wooden cane, made a good effort at stomping into the room. She reminded Lee of his own Great Aunt Hester. Out of common politeness, he rose to his feet.

"Who is this man? Why are you entertaining a man in this kitchen at this hour? Or is he peddling?"

"I'm not a peddler, ma'am," Lee cut in, holding back his temper.

The old prune ignored him and spoke to Jessie, "Is he another Army comrade of Will's? I thought we were all done with that sort of chicanery. They start by making women believe they are army friends of their husbands and in the end, the ninny-women have bought worthless shares--"

"I'm not--" Lee began, but Jessie overrode him. "Miss Wright, Mr. Smith arrived this morning looking for lodging and employment. He is staying for breakfast."

"Humph. Too poor to buy his own breakfast...," she grumbled.

Linc brought in an armload of wood. Miss Wright scolded him, "You there, boy, why didn't you bring in enough wood last night? Are we to wait for breakfast while you gawk at this stranger?"

Bristling, Lee was impressed by Linc’s composure while under attack. The boy carefully, but swiftly, loaded the wood into the stove.

The irritating old woman went on, "If his father were here, he would take a strap to this boy--"

"No, he wouldn't...." Lee and Jessie, who had spoken the same words at the same time, stopped and stared at each other.

"Humph!" The old woman declared. "Send that worthless black girl up with my water. I don't know why I put up with the inconvenience of living here. If only Margaret were still alive," Miss Wright continued her tirade, thumping her cane all the way down the hall.

“Why did you say that about my late husband?” Jessie asked him, eyeing him with fresh distrust.

Scrambling for a reason, he lied through all of his smiling white teeth, “No particular reason. I just don’t like peevish old women. And before breakfast.” He wondered if she'd buy it or not.

Susan entered with the wire basket now full of brown eggs. When she glanced darkly at the curtained doorway and grumbled to herself, Lee was certain Susan had heard every nasty word the unpleasant old woman had said.

Jessie shook her head and turned from him. While Susan shot inquiring glances his way, Jessie never turned her eyes toward him. Her ability to ignore him so completely grated on his tender nerves. Why couldn't he ignore that fact that she had turned out to be an attractive woman? He hadn't anticipated this possibility. Why couldn't she have turned out to be a mousy, miss-ish widow who would only welcomed a man at her door? Just the kind of woman he'd expected and the kind he usually avoided? But Jessie Wagstaff was both pretty and a woman to be reckoned with. Not at all what he wanted.

Soon the aromas of bubbling coffee, sizzling bacon and eggs made Lee's mouth water and his stomach rumble in anticipation. Finally, Jessie removed her white apron. At her nod, he followed her through the curtain into the long, narrow dining room. She carried the large tray, laden with a covered blue-and-white tureen filled with oatmeal, and the matching platter of the bacon and eggs to the table. Breakfast, at last.

Lee scanned the room. The rectangular table of dark walnut, though simply covered with a white oilcloth, stood out as a showpiece with its ornately carved legs. Three women sat around it, the old one with her cane, a middle-aged redhead, and a pretty young blonde. This should prove interesting.

He bowed to them. After nodding to him in reply, the young, stylish blonde politely looked away. The middle-aged redhead ogled him. Miss Wright scowled at him. He smiled what he hoped was his most aggravating smile at the old biddy.

Jessie supplied the introductions, "Mr. Smith, you have already met Miss Wright. This is Mrs. Bolt and Miss Greenleigh."

Mrs. Bolt, the redhead, simpered, "Your place, I believe, is next to mine, sir." She indicated the empty chair to the right of hers.

Lee bowed to the ladies once more and sat down. Linc welcomed him with a grin. As Lee spread the crisply starched napkin across his lap, he heard the old lady sniff pointedly. He looked up. Everyone, except for the old woman and him, had their heads bowed for morning grace. Scold me, will you?

He waggled his forefinger as though chastising her for not bowing her head also. Then smiling inwardly, he folded his hands in his lap and bowed while Jessie prayed. Afterward, he savored the combination of hot coffee and crisp toast with crabapple jelly. Mrs. Bolt, who immediately informed him she was a war widow and taught eighth grade, kept him busy lying to each of her questions. Interspersed between the coy widow's chatter and Linc's occasional comments about the afternoon's game, the old spinster grumbled at him. But overall, Jessie's silent, unwelcoming perusal discouraged him most. How would he break through the wall she surrounded herself with? Without telling her the truth?

The meal ended all too soon. Linc dashed upstairs to get his school books. In bonnets and gloves, Miss Greenleigh and Mrs. Bolt departed to the local school where they both taught. The old woman, thumping her cane as though still scolding Lee, crossed the hall to the parlor. He and Jessie were left alone at the table.

"What kind of work will you be looking for in Chicago, Mr. Smith? Or do you already have a position?” Jessie asked him in a cool tone, daunting him further.

"Clerking," he mumbled. How did one go about finding a job in a strange city?

"The McCormick Reaper plant is nearby at the corner of Rush and Erie. But there are many offices downtown or at the grain elevators along the river or the lumber yards. I'm certain you will have no--"

Saving Lee from more of this dismal information, Linc rushed in. "Excuse me, Mr. Smith. Mother, I'm ready for school." The boy halted beside her, his hair slicked back with water. "Remember--I'll be going to Drexel Park to see the White Stockings."

"Yes, and that's after school." Jessie smiled and tugged his ear lobe.

"Aw, mother." He headed out the kitchen door, calling over his shoulder, "Bye, Mr. Smith, I wish you were staying."

Touched in spite of himself, Lee waved farewell. Linc wouldn't be hard to get close to. Lee stood up. "Mrs. Wagstaff, I’ll be off now."

She accompanied him to the front door as though to make sure he left the premises. Outside down the front steps, he paused at the bottom, looking up at her standing in the doorway of the simple white frame house. Again, he was struck by her young prettiness, which her serious expression couldn't hide. And he recalled the intriguing fact that she'd been coming home this morning at dawn. Where had you been, Widow Wagstaff? "Thank you for a fine breakfast.”

"You're welcome. Please let me know how you get on, Mr. Smith." Her face wore a warning expression that did not match her polite words.

But the Widow Wagstaff would see him again and soon. He’d left his valise on her back porch.

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