[SNEAK PEEK] THE SISTER WIFE

The Sister Wife by Diane Noble

 

Liverpool, England
July 1, 1841

Lady Mary Rose Ashley sat at a forward angle on the plush velvet seat of the ornate carriage, gazing one minute out the window, wanting to jump, and the next minute, while swaying with the carriage, believing the long uncomfortable ride would never end. It didn’t help that on either side of her sat a fidgety four-year-old twin and, across from her, their equally fidgety and considerably louder seven-year-old brother.

Grandfather had gone to great trouble to arrange for passage for them all, but she became more certain with each turn of the carriage wheel that he kept something from her. Two days ago when the team pulled the vehicle away from the portico and into the tree-lined lane, he had not turned for a last glimpse of the massive Salisbury manor house and manicured estate grounds that had belonged to the Ashley family for centuries. And it seemed his sadness grew with each mile as the groom urged the high-stepping grays on toward the harbor where the Sea Hawk anchored.

Mary Rose peered out the window, searching for her first glimpse of the tall ship in the distance. As the landau raced along the cobbled streets of Liverpool, Mary Rose studied her grandfather’s lined face, wondering again what his stooped shoulders and downcast eyes hid from her. Whatever it was, in her heart she knew all was not right with her grandfather, the Earl of Salisbury.

“Lady,” Pearl said, tapping Mary Rose’s arm. “Am I going home?”

“Yes, Boston is your new home. You’ll like it there.”

“Will I like my new mama?” The catch in her young cousin’s voice twisted Mary Rose’s heart. She reached for the child’s hand. Four-year-old Pearl and her twin, Ruby, sitting on her opposite side, asked the question at least a dozen times a day. She gave them each a confident smile. “Yes, dears, your new mama can’t wait for your arrival.”

Coal sniggered. “How is it you can know this? She’s a relative so many times removed and so far away that I daresay—”

Grandfather held up a hand, palm out, and arched a bushy white brow in the boy’s direction. “And I daresay, you should be aware of your elders and speak to them in a genteel manner, young man. You may have lived only seven years, but you are old enough to behave properly. You should also be aware of your sisters’ feelings. A positive outlook will pave the way to success in your new home.”

“It didn’t help in the last three,” the boy muttered, turning to the window.

“That doesn’t mean my words are false,” Grandfather said. “It only means that all of you must try harder to fit in.”

Ruby sniffled, her eyes wet with tears. She glared at Mary Rose’s grandfather. “Don’t talk to my brother tho mean.” Her lisp was more pronounced when she was unduly stressed, and it seemed lately that the child’s impediment was evident nearly every time she spoke.

The manor house had been nothing but mayhem since the children had blown in like small tornados in the company of Grandfather’s brother and his wife, both looking white-faced and frazzled. The twins were identical, their only distinguishing mark a tiny heart-shaped beauty mark just below Pearl’s right ear. And, of course, Ruby’s speech impediment. It helped, when observing the two from a distance, that Pearl insisted on wearing her hair plaited so her beauty mark would show.

Still holding Pearl’s hand, Mary Rose reached for Ruby’s and gave them both a gentle squeeze. “Grandfather is merely trying to help your brother understand that you must adjust to your new circumstances.”

Pearl looked up at Mary Rose with large eyes that seemed far too wise for one so young. She didn’t speak, but Mary Rose wondered if the child was remembering all the times such an adjustment was called for since their parents sailed to the Sandwich Islands to evangelize the natives. She wondered how parents, no matter their fervency for serving God, could leave their children half a world away.

“I want to live with you,” Ruby said, squeezing Mary Rose’s hand. “I loved the manor houth, but a thip will be even better.”

“Where you live is your mother and father’s decision to make,” Mary Rose said, “and she’s very clear that Grandfather and I are to see you safely to her cousin Hermione’s lovely home in Boston. We cannot go against her wishes.”

“The thip!” Ruby stood up and pointed out the window.

Her twin scrambled to the window and reached for the hand-holds that hung above it. She’d discovered two days ago they were the perfect height for swinging.

Mary Rose sighed. “Pearl, child, you need to get down now. Not only is it inappropriate comportment for a young lady, but you could fall and hurt yourself.”

Pearl kept swinging.

Coal got to his knees and pulled the velvet window curtain back further. “I see it,” he shouted. “The clipper. The Sea Hawk. She’ll beat the record, I just know she will.” In his excitement he bounced up and down on the bench seat.

The carriage rocked and swayed more violently than before, and Mary Rose felt more light-headed than ever. The sight of the crew hoisting sails on one of the taller masts did nothing to assuage her jitters.

Charles, the groom, did some fancy maneuvering in an attempt to crowd into the queue of waiting carriages but missed his first try. Then, racing along the cobbles, he tried the maneuver again, this time bypassing the queue and heading onto the wharf itself.

Mary Rose grabbed the edge of the seat, her knuckles white as they rumbled onto the wharf’s rough wooden planks.

A wave of apprehension swept through her. She had gone along with her grandfather for all the wrong reasons. Her gaze darted to the Sea Hawk then back to her grandfather’s face.

His smile broadened as he looked out over the harbor to the open waters beyond, and he exhaled a long sigh of contentment.

Mary Rose couldn’t help but wonder if they had made a colossal mistake.

Even before he caught a glimpse of the passengers inside, Gabe MacKay knew the gleaming black landau, drawn by four high-stepping grays, meant trouble.

The rig clattered recklessly down the narrow cobbled street that ran parallel to the Liverpool wharf. Without so much as a nod to the other drivers, the white-haired groom cracked his whip above the team and bullied his way through the crowd to the front of the queue of waiting carriages. Gabe drew in his breath. It was only by God’s good grace that someone had not been knocked down or run over by the vehicle.

The groom halted the grays precariously close to the edge of the wharf, just a few dozen carriage lengths from what would surely be a plunge into the brackish waters of the harbor. Gabe bit back an oath and stepped closer to the Sea Hawk’s rail to have a better look. One false move by that high-strung team and the fancy rig, along with its inhabitants, would be in grave peril.

Apparently oblivious to the danger, the groom set the brake and, in one slapdash move, wrapped the reins around the brake handle to keep it from slipping. Without a backward look, he stepped down from his driver’s perch, rounded the carriage, and opened the glass side door with a flourish.

“Bannock’s boucle!” Gabe muttered under his breath.

Just when he thought things couldn’t get more perilous, a passel of children tumbled from the vehicle with shouts and giggles loud enough to carry across the wharf to the quarterdeck where he stood. A tow-haired lass of about five years exited by hoisting herself up like a small monkey to swing from the carriage door; another that looked to be the same size pushed around her then clambered up to the groom’s bench; and an equally tow-haired lad sporting a stick-straight Dutch boy haircut, a sailor’s suit, and striped stockings raced toward the horses, chose the one he wanted, then struggled to mount. Ach! But of course it would have to be the gray in the lead, the one that was already snorting and rolling its eyes.

The elderly groom may as well have been wearing blinders as he went about his business, unloading trunks and valises of varying sizes from a second landau that had pulled alongside the first. Neither the groom nor the stevedore now helping him noticed when the lass on the groom’s bench clambered from her perch, unfastened the reins, then, struggling under the snarled weight of them, climbed back to the bench and pretended with great relish to drive the team.

Gabe heard a chuckle and turned as Captain Hosea Livingstone, master and commander of the Sea Hawk, strode toward him. His friend’s expression said he was as worked up as Gabe about the clipper’s maiden voyage and her challenge to break the world’s speed record.

Gabe had overseen the building of the Sea Hawk for Messrs. R. Napier and Company on the River Clyde. Originally from Nova Scotia, Gabe had studied the architecture of shipbuilding in Boston, and then sailed to Scotland three years earlier to learn more about his trade from a company known to be the best in the world. He began as an apprentice to the head architect, but his skill quickly became apparent and he soon began working side by side with the aging but brilliant builder. The Sea Hawk had a curve and elegant beauty to her that, Gabe felt, was beyond compare. As the project was completed and the sale to Cunard neared, Gabe recommended his friend Captain Livingstone to Cunard, who as owner was in charge of hiring the captain and crew.

Now they were on the Sea Hawk’s maiden voyage to assess the ship’s performance and endurance, in what they hoped would be the fastest Liverpool-to-Boston transatlantic crossing made to date.

He couldn’t think of anyone he’d rather be with on this important voyage. Still watching the landau and its inhabitants, Hosea chuckled. “You are about to be introduced to the Earl of Salisbury and Lady Mary Rose Ashley—and from the look of things, perhaps it’s better done at considerable distance.” He laughed again.

“I have to admit their arrival has proven amusing.” He smiled. “Though something tells me trouble’s afoot, earl or not.”

The fog blanketing the harbor during the predawn hours had rolled out to sea, leaving only a few ribbons of mist in its wake. The foghorn had stopped its mournful cry, and now, above the gusts of wind, Gabe heard snatches of conversation rising from the wharf where passengers and well-wishers had begun to gather. The sounds mixed with a coarse seagoing ditty some stevedores were singing as they loaded cargo in the hold.

Just then a high-pitched whoop-whoop-whoop! carried toward Gabe. He turned to see that the little ruffian had indeed found a foothold and swung himself across the nervous gray’s back. With another whoop and a holler, he bounced up and down as if riding across an imaginary prairie while shooting an imaginary bow and arrow at an imaginary target.

He extended his telescope and raised it to his eye. He had it in mind to stride to the landau himself, remove the lad from the gray, and then have a strong word with whoever was in charge of the little lad and lassies. Was there not a parent aboard that fancy carriage? Or perhaps a nanny? A nursemaid?

As if he’d summoned her with his words, a young woman appeared in the landau’s doorway, and in the circle of his glass. She attempted to remove the giggling tow-headed monkey child from her swinging perch on the door, but the child took flight and landed on the ground in a tumble of skirts, petticoats, and pantaloons. Unhurt, she scampered toward the stack of varying-sized trunks the groom and stevedore had just unloaded and climbed them like stairs. Then she plumped down on top of them, her chin resting in her hands and elbows on knees in a highly unlady-like pose.

Gabe couldn’t help chuckling as he moved the lens back to the woman who, appearing dismayed, called something to the two children out of her reach—the boy still making Indian calls and bouncing on the nervous gray, the girl pretending to drive the rig by flicking the reins she’d unwound from the brake. A lethal combination, to be sure. Surely the woman could see that. He prayed the horses had grown used to such rowdy behavior and wouldn’t bolt.

As if she felt his gaze, the woman glanced up just long enough for him to take in the unruly auburn ringlets beneath a straw bonnet, its froth of netting and ribbons framing a fair face, and the sparkling hue of her eyes, a shade of gold-green the Atlantic took on just before sunrise. She wasn’t beautiful by the standards of the day, too thin and willowy, but something about the shape of her face, the fullness of her lips, and the dark fringe of eyelashes that framed her eyes captivated him.

Then she disappeared back inside the landau.

He kept the glass trained on the doorway. Seconds later she reappeared in the telescope’s lens, this time to help a quite elderly man from the carriage.

Gabe turned to make a comment to Hosea, but his friend had left to talk to Mr. Thorpe, the chief mate. He returned the glass to his eye. It was indeed Langdon Ashley, the Earl of Salisbury. His manner, his dress, bespoke his position in life. Besides, Gabe had seen him caricatured in many a broadside sold by the hawkies in Glasgow’s Saltmarket. His rotund midsection, his mustache with its magnificently waxed and spiraled ends, beaver-skin top hat, and waistcoat that strained its seams to fit his portly frame had long proved irresistible to political artists who penned his exaggerated image. He was well known for his relish for adventure, and had written extensively about his excursions in the Rocky Mountains with Sir William Drummond Stewart, a Scottish nobleman, the oddest of mountain men of the time.

The earl seemed to be searching for something…or someone. He stood near the landau, leaning on his cane. His gaze took in the Sea Hawk, and he scanned the knots of passengers and well-wishers on the wharf. After a moment, he stopped and seemed to recognize someone on the pier below Gabe.

He followed the earl’s gaze to a man standing just yards from the dock, close enough for Gabe to see him well even without the telescope. He was a commanding presence: tall and slender with light brown hair that curled under just before reaching his shoulders, a curious style and not one often seen in England or Scotland. More charismatic than handsome, he seemed to have a powerful hold on the small cluster of people who stood around him, appearing to hang on his every word.

Gabe caught snatches of his conversation before the winds whisked most of the words away. “Good of you to come, brothers and sisters…You’ll be following soon, of course…You’ll find America is a new world, your life with the Saints an exciting new…” He gave instructions that Gabe couldn’t pick up, and then he gestured toward the earl and his party. “By all means, let them know you’re here to see them off.”

His accent was unmistakable. And his delivery bordered on oration. A preacher perhaps? If so, a preacher as American as Daniel Boone’s coonskin hat or Jim Bowie’s knife. But why would the Earl of Salisbury seek him out? And who were the people standing around him? They were mostly families, and rather impoverished in appearance at that. Crossing the Atlantic by clipper ship, especially this clipper, cost far beyond what most Englishmen could even dream of paying.

He was still pondering the connection between the earl and the preacher when a child’s frightened shriek pierced the air.

For a moment, dead silence hung like a pall. Then another shriek, this time louder. The carriage—with the boy on the wildly rearing gray, the little girl in the groom’s seat—had lurched forward, tilting precariously. As the horse reared again, Gabe’s heart lodged in his throat. The earl fell to the ground and rolled toward the safety of the wharf. But the woman, frilly hat askew, had pulled up her skirts and petticoats and, holding on to the carriage with one hand, found her footing and catapulted herself into the groomsman’s box to reach the now sobbing child.

Gabe kept the rig in sight as he took the quarterdeck stairs three at a time, raced to the outer rail, swung his legs over, and shimmied down a rope. It took all of three seconds to reach the bottom, where he dropped to the wharf.

As he ran toward the landau, he listened for the sounds that too easily could follow within seconds: the clatter of the wagon wheels on the rough wood of the wharf and the terrified screams of the horses just before they plunged into the deep waters of the harbor, dragging the carriage, two children, and their mother to certain deaths.

“Jump!” Mary Rose scrambled to get a foothold near the child as the carriage rocked first one way, then the other. “You must jump now—to the other side. Quickly. Do it now!”

Pearl, for the first time in the fortnight since Mary Rose had taken her under her wing, seemed as immovable as a chunk of granite. Nose running and cheeks glazed with tears, the little girl stared at Mary Rose. She held her hands around the tangle of reins in a seeming death grip. Not a strand of leather remained wrapped around the brake. Mary Rose prayed the apparatus would hold just long enough to get the children to safety.

“Jump to me, then, child, jump to me!” This time she didn’t wait for Pearl to act. She flung herself toward the girl and pulled her from the seat. In one swift movement as the horses reared and the carriage rocked, she dropped her gently to the ground, cried after her to run to Grandfather, and then grabbed the reins. The team, following the lead of the gray that Coal clung to, reared and neighed.

With a screech, the brake slid from its shoe and the carriage lurched.

Mary Rose made a grab for the handle but didn’t have the strength to jam it into place. In one swift movement, she tightened her grip on the reins and, holding her breath, pulled back. “Whoa, boys,” she cried and then, swallowing hard, tried to use a calmer voice. “Settle yourselves. Come now, gentlemen, settle yourselves.”

The cacophony rising from the gathering spectators made the team more skittish than before.

“Help uth!” yelled Ruby from somewhere behind Mary Rose. “Thombody, help uth.”

“Jump, Coal,” Pearl cried to her brother. “You can do it. Make believe you’re Davy Crockett. Jump!”

“He’th not going to,” Ruby sobbed. “He’th gonna get killed and we’re not even to America yet.”

The team reared and screamed again, wild eyes rolling. Even Prince, normally as calm as a feeble old cat, rolled his eyes right along with the others and neighed in protest.

And for good reason.

Coal had started screaming like a Comanche again, clinging to the mane of the wild gray in the lead.

Mary Rose’s heart threatened to stop beating. “Jump!” she yelled. Until this moment she didn’t realize how much she cared about the boy. He’d been merely a relative in her charge to see to his new home. And not a pleasant relative at that. Tears stuck in the back of her throat. If the team broke loose and he jumped, he’d surely be trampled; if he held on, the frightened horse would take him with the entire team straight into the deep harbor waters.

“He’th gonna die,” sobbed Ruby from a few yards away. “Pleathe, Lady, don’t let Brother die.”

The lead horse reared again, and the team, sensing freedom, bolted forward and again Mary Rose yanked back on the reins. Her gloves split as the hard leather sliced into her flesh. Instantly, her palms became wet with blood.

Standing to gain better leverage, she repeatedly yanked. And cried out another command.

Still they ran wild.

“Jump, Coal,” she shouted once more. But the boy, clinging to the gray’s mane, seemed not to hear her.

The dark waters of the harbor lay dead ahead.

 

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