Miss Ellen Thurston of Galena Illinois, 1870. Please leave a comment at the end to be entered into another book drawing.
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“Suddenly Sunny noticed that everyone was glancing behind to the west and she heard the sound of a boat’s horn. A riverboat must be docking.
Old Saul chuckled. “Let’s sing some more. I know everybody wants to see if anybody or anything’s getting off the boat.”
Lavina stepped forward and began a hymn. People sang along but in truth the boat docking had distracted everyone. Sunny felt the pull of curiosity too. So little happened outside the daily routine of chores. And if nothing else, the boat would bring newspapers from downriver and maybe mail.
Then Sunny heard Ophelia, standing nearby, gasp. The bride turned completely toward the river.
Sunny swung around to face the same way.
From the boat ramp, an older well-dressed, very expensively well-dressed, woman with a younger one was advancing toward the Sunday gathering. Lavina must have noticed this because the hymn trailed off.
The older woman waved a lace handkerchief and hurried forward. “Ophelia!” she exclaimed.
“Mother?” Ophelia said, her eyes wide.
“Yes, Ophelia, I’m here.” The woman said the words as if Ophelia lay on her death bed.
Just before Ophelia’s mother reached her, the bride pressed the handkerchief over her mouth and wailed softly, wordlessly.
Quickly Sunny moved to Ophelia’s side. “Are you indisposed?”
“Yes.” The young woman looked about to faint.
Sunny took charge. “Mrs. Ashford! Mrs. Steward is indisposed! May we take her upstairs to your quarters please?”
Mrs. Ashford swooped down and helped Sunny assist Ophelia inside. Martin hurried behind them and Ophelia’s mother began calling out instructions in rapid fire from the rear.
Soon the five of them arrived in the Ashford’s parlor. Martin had carried Ophelia up the steps at Sunny’s suggestion. He lay his wife on the sofa and stood beside her. “Do you need anything?”
Sunny noted that Ophelia was trying to swallow down nausea. “Mrs. Ashford, a basin please.”
“Is my child ill?” the newcomer demanded in a voice that went up Sunny’s spine like a coarse brush.
Mrs. Ashford handed Sunny the basin just in time. Ophelia lost the scant breakfast she must have eaten.
“Oh, no!” the mother exclaimed.
Ophelia couldn’t speak, gripped by spasms.
Sunny knelt and helped support Ophelia.
“Is there a doctor in town?” Ophelia’s mother demanded.
Sunny wished the woman would show some sensitivity. She offered her free hand. “No, we don’t have a doctor yet. I’m Mrs. Noah Whitmore, ma’am, Ophelia’s neighbor.” And friend.
“I’m Mrs. Buford Cantrell, Ophelia’s mother.” With lifted nose, the woman shook hands as if she were the lady and they were the lowly. And then turned to her daughter. “I can see I didn’t come a moment too soon.” She began chafing Ophelia’s wrist.
Martin retreated, but stayed near his wife.
“Mother, please,” Ophelia begged faintly, “don’t fuss. I’m fine.”
Mrs. Cantrell snorted–but in a very refined way. “I told you that you were too delicate to venture onto the frontier. I had this terrible premonition that something awful–”
“I don’t think expecting her first child is something awful.” Nan’s matter of fact voice startled all of them. They glanced toward the top of the stairs where Nan stood near Martin. “So you’re Ophelia’s family?” Nan came forward, smiling with outstretched hand. “I’m Nan Osbourne, another friend of Ophelia’s.”
Mrs. Cantrell’s mouth gathered up like a drawstring purse and instead of taking Nan’s hand, she nodded curtly. “Mrs. Buford Cantrell. Charmed I’m sure.” She didn’t sound charmed.
“Oh, a baby–this is good news,” Mrs. Ashford said obviously trying to help keep everything polite. “I’m so happy for you, Mrs. Steward.”
Mrs. Cantrell ignored this and went on. “Well, as I was saying, I had a premonition that my Ophelia needed me. I can see she must come home where I can care for her.”
“Mother!” Ophelia protested. “I’m not going home with anybody but Martin.”
“But there’s no doctor here,” Mrs. Cantrell protested. “And anyone can see you’re in need of one.”
Sunny wanted to shake the melodramatic woman. Really she should have taken to the stage!
“She’s having a baby, that’s all,” Nan said in a pleasant honest tone, completely opposite of the mother’s histrionics. “She’ll be fine. Mrs. Ashford helped birth my little Pearl Louise not too long ago.”
Grateful for Nan’s support, Sunny hovered close to Ophelia protectively.
Mrs. Cantrell looked as if she wanted to say more, much more, but evidently realized that she couldn’t disparage Mrs. Ashford in her own home. And Mrs. Ashford of course was dressed too fine to disdain. So she turned on Nan. “You obviously are the kind of hefty woman who has no trouble with child-bearing, but my Ophelia is so delicate.”
Sunny caught the insult and gasped.
Ophelia sat up on the sofa. “Mother! Why have you come?”
“Because I thought by now you’d realize that you don’t belong here.”
“I belong wherever my husband is.”
And then everything descended into a family squabble. Sunny didn’t want to intrude but she also didn’t want to leave Ophelia at her mother’s mercy. Especially when Ophelia wasn’t at her strongest. So Sunny stuck close; Nan remained stolidly by the head of the staircase; Martin stood behind his wife, wisely Sunny thought, letting her tackle her own mother. Now Sunny realized why Ophelia had married so young and had been willing to leave for the frontier. Mrs. Cantrell struck her as a bad dream.
Finally, when Ophelia burst into tears over her mother’s unkind words, the tall younger woman who had arrived with Mrs. Cantrell stepped into the room and cleared her throat. “I think Mrs. Cantrell, it would be best if we returned to the riverboat now. Your daughter needs peace and some rest. And our noon meal will be served soon.”
This precise and very cool speech caught Mrs. Cantrell in mid-stream. But it did catch her and stop her tongue. She blinked.
The young woman, who was also dressed stylishly but much less showy in Sunny’s opinion, looked to Martin. “Martin, why don’t you convey Ophelia home and then return to town and take us out to see your place and your progress? I know I’m eager to meet your friends and see how much you’ve accomplished. That’s why we came.” The young woman emphasized ever so slightly the last sentence.
Sunny waited for a backlash–in vain. Mrs. Cantrell swallowed several times and then pinned a painfully artificial smile on her face. “An excellent idea, Ellen. I’m afraid finding Ophelia in such straits discomposed me.”
Her head resting on the back of the sofa, Ophelia spoke up. “Everyone, this is my cousin Miss Ellen Thurston. I’m happy to see you, Ellen.” Ophelia quickly introduced everyone.
Ellen inclined her head to all politely and gestured for the older woman to precede her down the stairs. Ellen then turned to Mrs. Ashford. “Thank you so much for opening your charming home to strangers like us. So kind.”
Beaming at the compliment, Mrs. Ashford accepted the younger woman’s thanks and showed the ladies down the staircase. That left Sunny, Nan, Ophelia, and Martin. Ophelia looked to Martin and burst into fresh tears of frustration.
Nan sat down and put her arms around her. “There, there,” she murmured, “she can’t make you go. This is just commotion, that’s all. We’ll all smile about it in the future.”
Sunny thought that would be much, much farther in the future. Maybe when they were grandmothers.
Martin looked chagrined, but said gently, “Are you able to go downstairs, dear?”
Ophelia held out both her hands. “Oh, Martin, I’m so sorry. I hate the way she talks to you.”
He took her hands and helped her up. “Now, Mrs. Osbourne is exactly right. This is all sound and fury, nothing to concern you. Your mother is just being herself. I’m only grateful I’m married to you, not her.” He shepherded his wife to the stairs and over her protests, carried her downstairs.
Sunny looked at Nan and Nan looked at Sunny.
“What next?” Nan asked, shaking her head. “I got an aunt just like Ophelia’s mother–loves an audience. Should-a gone on the stage.”
Sunny laughed out loud and then put her hand over her mouth. And the two of them followed the young couple downstairs and outside. What next indeed?
Later that day, Noah had remained dressed in his Sunday best as had Sunny. They sat on a bench just outside their door, enjoying the spring day. The gloomy layer of clouds had blown away and now the sun shone down and a breeze fluttered the leaves overhead. Sunny sat beside him and with Dawn asleep on his lap, Neechee lying at his feet.
Martin had fixed it with the Osbournes and with Noah and Sunny. He would drive his mother in law and the young relative Ellen Thurston to his homestead and then on their way back to the river, stop to visit his neighbors, the Whitmores. Gordy had been invited to come there also. Strength in numbers, Noah thought.
Martin had muttered to Noah and Gordy that his mother in law was the main reason he had headed for Wisconsin. The woman considered herself among the leading lights in Galena society and deemed Ophelia to have married beneath her. Martin had Noah’s sincere sympathy.
Neechee stood up and barked once. “Well, Neechee’s right. I hear a wagon coming.” Noah looked to Sunny for agreement.
“Yes, with company coming, it’s fortunate that I baked yesterday.”
Nodding, Noah stroked Dawn’s fine hair. The little one had fallen asleep in his lap after lunch. She didn’t stir now. Sunny smiled at the babe. Noah’s fingers brushed Sunny’s cheek. He tried to ignore the urge to lean forward and follow the touch with a kiss.
“I feel sorry for Martin,” Noah muttered, dragging his mind back to what bothered him.
Sunny sighed, looking as if she agreed.
Then an unexpected sound–horse hooves, not a wagon creaking. Up the track rode Isaiah.
Elated, Noah rose, lifting Dawn to his shoulder. “Isaiah!”
Sunny bounced up too. “Oh, you’re home. I’m so glad!”
The lanky teen slipped off his horse. “Got home in time for Sunday dinner. But wanted to bring you news and gifts from Bid’a ban right away.”
Sunny pressed her hands together as if trying to contain her obvious happiness. “They’re well then? With their family?”
“The trip north took a bit longer than I guessed. But we got there and her family celebrated her homecoming for three days.” Isaiah beamed at them. “Relatives from her clan came from miles around. They thought they had lost her for sure.”
Neechee barked again. Then the a wagon came. Noah looked past Isaiah, expecting to see Martin. But instead Old Saul and his family were arriving.
“I’m glad I baked a double layer cake,” Sunny whispered to Noah. They went forward to welcome their guests. Then Noah and Isaiah carried out the table and the other bench for their company.
“What a beautiful day,” Lavina said, looking happier than she had in many weeks.
Noah brought out the rocker for Old Saul and the older man lowered himself into it. Before he really got settled, Martin’s wagon with his company on the bench with him and Ophelia and the Osbourne family riding in the back drove into the yard.
For a moment, Noah was taken aback though expecting Sunday company. Much more had arrived. And all at once. Neechee obviously recognized this company and didn’t bark, but remained watchful.
“This should prove interesting,” Sunny murmured and then went forward in welcome.
She watched Martin maneuver his wagon so that some could sit on its rear. And evidently thinking ahead, Nan had brought a bag of enameled tin cups, plates and flatware to augment theirs.
For a few minutes, Sunny bustled around, making coffee and bringing out the cake. Mrs. Buford Cantrell sat in stony silence at the table. On the other hand, Miss Ellen Thurston spoke cordially to everyone as if she were accustomed to sitting outside a cabin in the woods.
As soon as everyone was settled and began eating cake and sipping strong coffee, Old Saul nodded to Isaiah. “Our guests don’t know that my grandson just returned from a trip north to Chippewa land. Why don’t you tell us all about it, son?”
“Why would he go to Indian land?” Mrs. Cantrell snapped.
Complete silence replied to this.
“Mother, you don’t have much time before your boat leaves in the morning,” Ophelia said.
“Maybe we should just finish our cake and take you back to town.”
Mrs. Cantrell sniffed.
“We’re very happy to have your daughter and husband in our town,” Old Saul said.
“This is not the life I wanted for my daughter,” the older woman seemed to have reached her limit. She wasn’t acting the grand dame as she had been in town. Now she sounded like a over-tired child who wasn’t getting her way. “And now my first grandchild will be born in a cabin,” she complained.
Again comprehensive silence met this.
Sunny almost felt sorry for the woman. She must be very used to getting her way. But did she really think Ophelia would leave her husband?
Lavina cleared her throat. “I understand how you feel, ma’am, but our children only belong to us till they grow up and leave home. Still it’s hard not to want to continue to protect them, guide them. I’m afraid in spite of my praying for Isaiah, I worried everyday till he returned home. I know I should have more trust in God to take care of him, but he’s my baby.”
“Mother,” Isaiah objected.
“But of course, he’s a young man now,” Lavina said with an apologetic grin. “And this trip has helped him see his path forward.”
“Yes, I learned so much and saw so much,” Isaiah put in eagerly. “There is such need there especially for teaching.”
His enthusiasm impressed Sunny.
“I don’t know what any of this is about,” Mrs. Cantrell said and meant she didn’t care either. “Or why my daughter would want to live here in the wilderness.” She stood abruptly. “Martin, it doesn’t seem as if I can make my daughter see sense. Take us back to the riverboat.”
Ophelia looked mortified. But Martin looked relieved. “If that’s what you wish, Mother Cantrell.”
The woman marched to the wagon and Martin hurried after her. Miss Thurston wiped her lips and rose. “Mrs. Whitmore, the cake was delicious. Thank you so much for the refreshments. The setting of your home is lovely and I know from my cousin Ophelia how supportive her neighbors have been. I must, however, bid you farewell. For now.”
Everyone bid the nice young woman a warm goodbye and Martin drove off. Ophelia rode in the back, looking forlorn.
A moment of strained silence followed their departure.
“Ophelia’s mother told me that Miss Thurston’s uncle is a state senator in the Illinois legislature,” Nan informed them, “and comes from a wealthy family too.” Nan’s tone informed them that Mrs. Cantrell had sought and failed to impress Nan.
“Well, she’s a much happier woman than Ophelia’s mother,” Old Saul said mildly. “Meddling is a sin too.”
So that’s my first glimpse of Ellen. She impressed me–how about you? Leave a comment to enter the drawing.–Lyn