Blessing Debuts

Blessing

Here is the beginning of Blessing as I promised yesterday. Blessing Debuts today! Hope you enjoy it. Is this the kind of story that catches your interest?

Chapter One

Seneca Falls, New York

July 19, 1848

On the high bench of the farmer’s open wagon, Gerard Ramsay tried to take a deep breath, but the heaviness of life, a constant pressure over his heart, made it difficult–not to mention the July heat. Under the cloudless, royal blue sky, the New York countryside blazed green with healthy crops and full-leafed trees.

From the corner of his eye, Gerard observed with increasing chagrin his lifelong friend Kennan Buckley, sitting next to him and whose expression radiated a kind of unholy glee.

Kennan’s devilish sense of humor had lightened their boarding school and university years, but now that they were nearing thirty…  Gerard almost asked, “This isn’t one of your foolhardy pranks, is it?”

Then nearing a town, the rough wagon lurched over a deep rut and Gerard had to hold onto both his seat and his silk top hat. “I can’t believe you talked me into this,” Gerard growled into Kennan’s ear. “I left Boston for Saratoga for some horse racing and light flirtation at the springs–” Another deep rut jarred them. “–not this.”

“Do you want to let your own cousin down?” Kennan retorted. “And of course, I had nothing better to do than bump along a country road in this heat?”

Gerard sucked in hot July air and felt the starch in his shirt wilting in the blazing sun. “All right,” he said under his breath. “The whole idea seems inconceivable.”

“Well, conceive it. Stoddard Henry is in danger of becoming ensnared by a female–and a female who would lure him to a women’s rights meeting. Have you ever?”

“I–“

“Whoa!” The driver announced. “Here we are, gents. Wesley Chapel.” The wagon rolled to a halt. The two horses flicked their tails high, swishing away the irritating flies.

After Kennan, Gerard scrambled down from the bench, resisting the urge to rub his bruised posterior. He glanced around at the small town. He immediately recognized his destination, a large brick building on the corner surrounded by tall leafy oaks and maples, with a few hundred people gathered around the door. A few hundred standing outside in this heat and in this out of the way village? “Look. Would you believe it–a crowd?”

“What did I tell you?” Kennan said, striding away toward the building.

Gerard turned to pay the farmer. Kennan wouldn’t. But they’d been lucky to find this man and his wagon. When they’d arrived this morning on the early train from Saratoga, all the carriages at the station had been taken. They’d persuaded this farmer who’d been picking up a package to bring them the few miles here.

“Gent, I’ll be going back this way in a few days.” The farmer mopped his face with a large frayed kerchief. “Should I stop and pick you up?”

Gerard hesitated. “Is there an inn here?”

“A few. The best is the Seneca Farmer’s Inn, best food, clean sheets.”

“When you come through, check for me–Gerard Ramsay–there then. I’ll leave word whether to find me or forget me.” Gerard added an extra two bits.

The farmer beamed at him. “You can count on me, gent. I’m Jim Patterson. Everybody around here knows me.” The man tugged the brim of his straw hat, pocketed the money and slapped the reins.

Gerard hurried into the shade of the tall trees near the Wesleyan Chapel. He too took out his handkerchief and wiped the grime and perspiration from his face and hands. This crisis would have to land right at the very height and heat of summer.

A large crowd of women and–unbelievably some men–waited outside the double doors of the chapel. Something odd was going on there. Two men were lifting a boy up to a window near the door. The lad opened the latch and slipped inside. Soon to everyone’s loud approval, he opened the chapel doors from within. No one had a key to open the chapel door? What kind of ill-prepared meeting was this?

Gerard already knew the answer to that. A bunch of lunatics and radicals. He hurried forward, craning to see above the crowd, looking for his tall cousin.

“There!” Kennan shouted across the people surging inside and gestured toward the door.

Gerard glimpsed his cousin–who at the sound of Kennan’s voice–turned just as the door swallowed him from sight.

Kennan jogged back to Gerard. “So did you see her?”

“No.” Gerard felt irritation–hot and unpleasant like the summer air–roll through him.

“She’s a very pretty blonde and she was right beside him.”

Gerard chewed on this information. “I can’t believe this is happening.”

“Believe it.”

Gerard started forward.

Kennan grabbed his arm. “Where are you going?”

“I’m going after Stoddard.”

“Into that women’s meeting?” Kennan’s voice rose. “Are you out of your senses too?”

“Maybe he’ll come to his senses when he sees me.” Gerard pulled away and hurried toward the chapel.

“Suit yourself. And I’ll do the same. I’m going to find a tavern and some cool wet ale. Isn’t that better than charging into bedlam? Stoddard will come out at luncheon–“

Gerard shook his head as he hurried to the chapel door. At seven years of age, all three of them Kennan, Stoddard and Gerard, had been sent away to boarding school; Stoddard and Kennan had been unwanted stepsons and Gerard had felt like one. The three had learned to count only on each other. The bond still held and he must find his cousin and stop him from making a fool of himself.

Inside the chapel, Gerard tried to glimpse Stoddard but it was so crowded that he couldn’t. And since the seats were all taken, he found himself obliged to stand in the back. When a woman stepped to the pulpit to address the congregation, Gerard felt his jaw drop. A woman addressing a group of females and males–in public?

Astounded, Gerard stumbled outside toward a bench in the shade under an old oak. What had Stoddard got himself into?

“Hey! Ramsay!”

The vaguely familiar Boston-accented voice stopped Gerard in his tracks. He turned to see who had called.

“It’s been a long time,” a stranger said, holding out his hand.

Suddenly recognizing him, Gerard felt a wave of disgust. Ambushed. Conklin had been a scholarship student at the same university as Gerard, Stoddard and Kennan. He forced himself to shake the man’s hand. “Conklin, what brings you here?”

“Working.” Conklin waved a notebook. “I’m covering this Women’s Rights Convention. Have you ever heard of anything so outlandish?” The man chuckled, mocking. “What is the scion of one of Boston’s most swank (c 1810)–uh, I mean, most prestigious families doing here?”

Gerard stared at the man, trying to hide his discomfort at being recognized by a journalist. This meant Stoddard’s folly might be written up in the Boston papers. Worse and worse. “Just happened to stop here,” Gerard said, trying to smooth matters over. “I’m trying to find some place cooler. Thought of the Finger Lakes.”

“Really?” The journalist rocked on his heels, his expression amused.

“Really. Now if it’s not against the law, I’m going to sit in the shade and relax.”

Conklin studied Gerard for a moment. “Wish I could. But I have work to do.”

Fuming, Gerard watched the journalist hurry into the chapel. He could only hope that Conklin wouldn’t see Stoddard and would find more to write about than the fact that a Boston Ramsay had come to Seneca Falls on the same day that fanatics and lunatics had gathered for a big meeting, promoting the rights of women. Unbelievable.

Within him bloomed the urge to strangle Kennan for leaving him to deal with Stoddard alone. And a second urge, to throw a bucket of ice cold water into Stoddard’s face, shocked him back to his senses. Gerard would have been happier in Boston and he hated Boston.

#

In a few hours at the time for luncheon, people began to exit the chapel, and Gerard rose to watch for his cousin. Finally he saw Stoddard’s head above all the others. Gerard hurried forward. “Stoddard!” he called out.

Stoddard turned, looked startled and then pushed his way from the throng and hurried toward Gerard.

“Cousin, what are you doing here?” Stoddard gripped his shoulder, grinning but looking puzzled.

“I met Kennan in Saratoga, expecting to see you too, but  he said you were here so we came to find you.”

Stoddard’s grin tightened. “Come to save me from my own folly?”

What could he say here in this crowd? “Yes,” Gerard said, leaning close, “how could you ever think coming to a meeting like this was a good idea?”

Stoddard chuckled in reply.

Gerard glimpsed Conklin, the reporter, dodging in and out of the crowd, heading straight for them. “Cousin, there’s a Boston reporter here. Remember Conklin–“

“Stoddard,” a soft feminine voice from behind his cousin interrupted Gerard.

A truly lovely blonde, dressed in the height of fashion and almost as tall as Stoddard, claimed his cousin’s arm.

Beside her walked a petite Quakeress dressed in simple gray and white, her prettier than average face framed by a plain white bonnet. The ladies were arm in arm, but in total contrast. They looked to be from two different worlds.

Gerard snapped his mouth shut so he wouldn’t blurt out any ill-considered words. Over heads, he glimpsed that the reporter Conklin had been snagged and button-holed (c. 1834) by another attendee. Saved.

Stoddard chuckled, shaking his head at Gerard. “Ladies, may I introduce you to my cousin? This is Miss Xantippe ‘Tippy’ Foster and her friend, Mrs. Blessing Brightman, a widow, both of Cincinnati. Ladies, my cousin Gerard Ramsay of Boston.”

Gerard commanded himself enough to accept the blond’s curtsey and their proffered gloved hands in turn. “Ladies, a pleasure I’m sure,” he mouthed the social lie.

“Don’t you mean a surprise?” Xantippe laughed merrily as if he’d made a jest.

Gerard stiffened.

“Gerard Ramsay, won’t thee join us for luncheon?” the Quakeress invited, speaking in the Quaker way, dispensing with any title, even Mister. “Expecting we might meet a friend, we reserved a table for four at our inn.” Without waiting for his answer, the woman started walking briskly toward the street of shops and inns of the town.

Stoddard offered his arm to Miss Foster and nodded Gerard toward Mrs. Brightman.

Gerard could not disobey years of training in proper manners. He edged forward as efficiently as he could through the crush of the surrounding crowd.

The Quaker lady paused, letting Stoddard and the blonde precede them. Then she gazed up at Gerard with a look that he might have used when trying to decide whether a glass of milk had soured without tasting it. It unnerved him. He tried to step back but bumped against a stranger. He swallowed an unkind word.

She cocked her head, still studying him.

He’d had enough. He offered her his arm. “May I escort you, ma’am?” he said as if issuing a challenge.

“Yes, but I do not need to cling to thy arm. I am quite capable of walking unaided.”

More startled than insulted, Gerard held back a sharp reply. As audacious as she might be, a gentleman did not contradict a lady. Peering ahead, he observed the possessive way the tall blonde clung to Stoddard’s arm. He wanted to snatch up his cousin and run.

“I did not mean to be rude or uncivil,” the Quakeress continued, walking beside him. “I’m sure thee offered thy arm simply from courtesy. But after this morning’s meeting, I am afraid I see more clearly the proscribed manners between gentlemen and women as a form of bondage.”

The equation of courtesy with bondage sent prickly disbelief rippling through him. “I beg your pardon.” And with the press of the crowd though feeling bowled over, he was forced to walk faster to keep up with the other two. What would this woman say next?

She looked up at him. A mischievous smile lightened her face and he saw now that it was not just a pretty face but a beautiful face–big blue eyes, a pert nose, generous pink lips and thick chestnut hair peeping out around her close bonnet.

Her smile did something to him, something unexpected yet welcome. The heaviness he always carried lightened and he could draw breath freely. What was going on here?

“What is thy stand on abolition?” she asked, completely ignoring what should be the proscribed polite conversation between a man and woman upon first meeting. They should be discussing the weather and then move on to discreetly find out about each other’s family connections.

He stared at her. Ahead, Stoddard was chuckling at something his lady had said. The sound wrapped Gerard’s nerves tighter.

The Quakeress shook her head at him, still grinning. “Very well. I don’t mean to be impolite. I will follow propriety.” She cleared her throat. “Gerard Ramsay, what brings thee to Seneca Falls this day?”

He swallowed and tried to come up with a palatable conventional reply. He failed. “I’m against slavery,” he said instead.

“I am happy to hear that, but I asked, what thy stand on abolition is.”

He was not accustomed to women who put forth opinions and her tone though cheerful, was almost cavalier as if she were making fun of him. Usually with him, people did that to their own peril. But this Quakeress had pushed him off balance. “You are in favor of abolition?” he ventured, trying to find his feet in this discussion.

She laughed softly, the sound reminding him of the children playing. “Yes, I am in favor of abolition. Has thee ever met Frederick Douglass?”

“No,” he said, trying to keep up with her unexpected questions and her brisk pace without bumping into anyone. “Would thee like to meet Frederick Douglass?” she asked.

“Who is Frederick Douglass?” He looked down at her again, her face attracting him in spite of himself.

“Thee hasn’t read his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave? It was published three years ago and has sold over five thousand copies.”

Distracted, he wished he could overhear what the other lady was saying to his cousin. “I’ve not had the pleasure.”

“Indeed thee hasn’t read it then. It is not a pleasant book to read. It is as harsh as the slavery that bound him.”

Gerard felt as if he were back on the wagon, only riding over an even bumpier road. Primarily concerned with Stoddard’s flirtation, he scrambled to keep up with the Quakeress’s odd conversation. “He’s a fugitive slave then?”

“He is a free man of color who left the state and master that enslaved him.”

Gerard gaped at her. Ladies didn’t discuss slavery. No woman had ever spoken so frankly to him in his life. All his usual sangfroid evaporated.

“I see my direct manner has disconcerted thee. I apologize.” She smiled and said in a sweetly conversational tone, “When does thee think this hot weather will ebb?”

His mind whirled but he wouldn’t bow in defeat. “Is this Frederick Douglass attending your…convention?”

“Gerard Ramsay, thee must make up thy mind whether thee wishes me to be conventional or not. I own fault. I started by speaking frankly as I always do with people with whom I’m acquainted, not strangers like thee. But this morning’s discussion of the ‘Declaration of Sentiments for Women’ has made me overbold with thee–one who is not at all acquainted with me.”

She tilted her head like an inquisitive robin. “I apologize. Should we try to follow convention or continue with frankness?” She looked at him expectantly as she continued walking. “Please choose. I do not wish to be rude.”

He inhaled the hot humid air. Her candor irritated him and he would be cursed if he let this woman best him. “Mrs. Brightman,” he drawled, ”I must confess your conversational style is completely unparalleled in my experience.”

She laughed again, again sounding almost musical.

Was this woman being artless or artful? He glanced at the blonde again. The two women differed in costume, but did they both share this uncommon originality? Was it this uniqueness that had entrapped Stoddard?

The foursome arrived at the besieged Seneca Farmer’s Inn. Telling them to wait, Stoddard threaded his way through the crowd and then at the door turned, motioning for Ramsay to lead the ladies to join him. “They saved us our table!” He waved them forward. “Come.”

They followed a flustered-looking hostess to a table at the rear of the inn, just outside under a shade tree. She pointed out the bill of fare, posted on the outside wall near the door, and left them, promising to bring them glasses of cold spring water.

“Oh, this is so much cooler,” Miss Foster commented as Stoddard helped seat her.

Gerard was at a loss. He was a gentleman and had duties as such. He never broke any of society’s rules around ladies, no matter what he thought of them. Should he offer to help the unpredictable Mrs. Brightman sit or not?

The Quakeress peered up at him. “Which does thee choose?”

“What?”

“Should I sit with or without thy assistance?”

Her perspicacity nicked him. He swallowed down his discomfort, his tight collar constricting his throat. He could not let her get the best of him. “I would feel unmannerly if I didn’t assist you.”

“Then please help me.” She beamed at him as if this were all a game. Maybe to her it was, but Stoddard’s presence here was serious to him.

He seated her. Then he took his place and sent a tart questioning look at Stoddard.

The waitress delivered the sweating glasses of spring water and then took their orders. They all chose cold sandwiches of ham and cheese. Then the four of them were left alone.

Gerard could not think of a word to say, an unusual occurrence. And each moment he watched Stoddard and Miss Foster interact with little glances and intimate smiles upset him more and more. This did not appear to be a mere holiday flirtation with which Stoddard was diverting himself. This was different because the woman was too. Had the sense of novelty ensnared his cousin?

Blessing took her time sizing up Gerard Ramsay as he turned his attention to his cousin. Ramsay was of medium height, a good build, very expensively dressed yet without any dandyism. His dark brown hair curled slightly which gave him a boyish appeal, but his guarded dark brown eyes and cynical mouth warned her that he was not merely the proper Boston gentleman that he seemed.

She tried to detect a family resemblance between the cousins but saw none. Fairer and taller, Stoddard had red-hair and striking green eyes. He was well dressed, but not as expensively as his cousin.

She’d ruffled Gerard Ramsay with her frankness yet she hadn’t meant to be rude. But the stirring phrases discussed this morning had tilted something inside her–…He has…destroyed her confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to…lead a dependent…life.

The old hurt twisted inside her, a physical pain. She drew in air and then sipped her cold spring water, quieting herself. The past had been buried. She was free now. But the deep scars remained and could never be sponged away by anyone or any words.

“So cousin, what did you think of this morning’s meeting?” Stoddard asked.

“Sitting outside, I heard only snatches,” Ramsay replied with a sour twist.

Both men spoke with the Boston accent so Blessing heard “Sittin’ outside, I hea’d only snah-tches.” She noted that just like Stoddard, Gerard dropped ‘r’s” in most words and the “g” in “ing.” She had heard this accent in other Eastern abolitionists and wondered why they didn’t like “r’s” or “ing.” Midwesterners certainly enjoyed the sounds.

“No doubt Mr. Ramsay questions your sanity, Stoddard,” Miss Foster said, grinning. “Whatever are you thinking, man,” the lady mimicked a man’s voice, “going to a women’s rights convention?”

Blessing hid her smile behind her glass. “Tippy, don’t tease Gerard Ramsay. It’s not fair. As a gentleman, he can’t contradict thee.”

Ramsay glanced at her but revealed nothing of what he was thinking.

But Blessing could guess. Did he suspect that she too had reservations about this new romance?

Tippy inhaled deeply and sat back in her chair. “I can’t tell you how invigorating this morning has been. I have never felt so liberated before, so free.”

Ramsay frowned.

“We are not being polite, Tippy,” Blessing said, not unsympathetic to the man from Boston who disapproved. “Gerard Ramsay, please tell us about thyself. I confess I am curious.”

The man shrugged. “Stodda’d is my cousin. A good friend saw my cousin near Saratoga Springs and asked me to come and enjoy the Finger Lakes region. Said it would be cooler.” He pronounced the last word, “coolah.”

“It should be cooler here,” Stoddard replied, touching his upper lip with his folded handkerchief. “After this convention, I want to spend a few days relaxin’ by the Cayuga Lake near here. Mother has been takin’ the waters at Saratoga. That is how I met Miss Foster.”

Blessing began to become familiar with the accent. It was different an had a certain appeal.

“Yes, my mother was there also drinking the waters,” Tippy said and then lifted her glass in a mock salute and took a sip.

“When Tippy read about this meeting in the newspaper, she sent me a telegram,” Blessing spoke up. “I set off immediately from Cincinnati and arrived yesterday. I wish there had been more advance notice. I barely made it in time.”

“You’re both from Cincinnati?” Ramsay asked.

“Yes, we’re longtime friends,” Tippy replied, reaching for the Quakeress’s hand. “Blessing is a very exceptional and interesting woman. I know my life would be quite flat without her.”

Blessing shook her head but accepted Tippy’s hand. “Tippy, my life would be flat without thee.” And very lonely. There were few she could trust with her secret missions.

Their food was served and luncheon ended up being brief. Soon the four of them rose to cede their table to waiting hungry convention attendees.

“Well, Gerard,” Stoddard said, saying something more like ‘Ge-ahd’ and looking mischievous, “I take it you won’t be joining us this afternoon?” Before Gerard could reply, he went on, “I have a room here at the inn and you can bunk with me tonight if you wish. Kennan too if he doesn’t mind some crowdin’ a bit.”

“Thanks, I will stay with you and tell Kennan.” Gerard turned to Blessing and Tippy. “It has been a pleasure to meet you, ladies.”

“Don’t you mean a surprise?” Tippy teased.

“Mind thy manners, Tippy,” Blessing scolded gently. Blessing offered her hand to Ramsay. “I enjoyed our conversation, Gerard Ramsay. I hope thee finds something interesting and cool to occupy thyself with today.”

Ramsay merely bowed over her hand.

The four walked through the crowded, noisy inn together and then parted at the door. Blessing resisted the urge to turn around and glance once more at Ramsay. He had gained her attention, something few men did. Maybe it was the accent; maybe something more.

She drew in the hot, thick air and pushed him from her mind. Thinking of the afternoon of spirited discussion ahead, she quickened her step on the dusty street and walked arm in arm with Tippy who laughed out loud for no reason. The two of them drew ahead of Stoddard.

“Stodda’d, may I have a private word with you?” Gerard asked, sounding a bit desperate.

“Ladies, I’ll just be a moment,” Stoddard called. “I’ll catch up with you.” He drew Gerard into the greenery around the outdoor dining area. “I’m goin’ to the meeting. It’s the most interesting, most revolutionary event I’ve ever attended. And you don’t have to stay and chaperone me. I know what I’m doing.”

Gerard steamed with aggravation. “Do you? That reporter is here. He might include our names as attendin’ this farce.”

“You’re not concerned about him mentioning your name. Just think how you’d enjoy the unpleasant jolt that would give your father. A Ramsay at a radical meeting.” Stoddard paused. “And I don’t care one whit if all Boston–indeed all Massachusetts–knows I’ve attended a women’s rights convention.”

Gerard nearly swallowed his tongue.

Stoddard laughed and shoved Gerard’s shoulder. “Go find Kennan. He’s probably somewhere getting drunk. Then stay or go back to Saratoga Springs or Boston, whichever you choose. But be happy for me, Cousin. I’ve found a woman who defies our dismal concept of womanhood and the bondage we considered marriage.”

Gerard tried to interrupt.

“And I’m not going to let Tippy or her exciting ideas slip from my grasp. I’m tired of my lonely bachelorhood and stifling Beacon Hill society. I’m moving to Cincinnati, cousin. I’m going west!”

***************************

So did that catch your interest? I always enjoy a good battle of wills! Like Tracy and Hepburn. Scarlett vs. Rhett. Do you enjoy a plot where the hero and heroine try to best one another?–Lyn

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About Lyn Cote

Lyn Cote welcomes other authors to her "Strong Women, Brave Stories" blog to share stories of women who triumph over the challenges common to all women.
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3 Responses to Blessing Debuts

  1. Deanna S says:

    Very good! Yes I do enjoy an intelligent women who can go toe to toe with the man 😉

  2. Lis K says:

    ooh, what a good teaser! thanks for the excerpt!

  3. Sunnie says:

    Yes! That was very good!