05. February 2015 · Comments Off on Another Chapter of Sunset and Steel Rails · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book

Sunset and Steel Rails Mockup Cover Pics with titlesWeirdly, I am being inspired by the newest idea for a book – the story of the Fred Harvey hospitality empire, which came about in those years when the Wild West was passing from the real world into legend. I’m posting about half a chapter here, as I write them. As soon as I get a little farther on some other book projects, I’ll write and post some more of The Golden Road. But for now – I’m bubbling over with ideas for character and plot. I’ve always done best, working on two books at a time… Previously posted half-chapters to Sunset and Steel Rails are here, and here

Chapter 3 – Potions and Portents

It was not – as she half-feared it would be – Richard who came to her room door, and tapped on it, hesitantly requesting admittance. It was Phoebe, tearful and apologetic. Sophia wondered, somewhat cynically, how much of that was due to Phoebe having to take charge of her sons herself, and to bear the brunt of Richard’s cold displeasure at the workings of the household not going quite as smoothly as he had become accustomed in the last few years.
“Richard is quite unhappy,” Fee announced, as she closed the door behind her. She shuffled into the room, the weight of the child within her body rendering her ungainly. She settled her awkward self into the bedside chair, and reached for Sophia’s hand. “He … he is so very fond of you, dear. We all are … and so worried about your condition.” Sophia bit back her initial waspish response – I had no condition until everyone began insisting that I had one! Instead, she answered,
“Fee, I am perfectly fit. It is only that everyone insists that I am not, which puts me out of all good temper. I was fond of Lucius Armitage – I do not think I really loved him to any great degree, although I believe I might have come to love him, in time. Just as you came to love Richard …”
Now, that was a startling thing, the fleeting expression in Fee’s eyes and countenance – was that … could it be stark terror? Again, that cold trickle of fear ran down Sophia’s spine. She looked at Fee – this time with cold analysis. Sophia had been a girl of ten years when Richard married his bride; all white dress and misty veil, on her father’s arm, advancing in stately tread down the aisle of the ancient Christ Church. Sophia had been one of her attendants, and not particularly happy about it, because this was Richard! Fee was, as the ten-year-old Sophia saw it – an interloper: A silly and unwelcome trespasser on a happy family; Mama, Richard and herself, living a contented life in the Brewer mansion. A ten-year-old’s impatience, and a touch of jealousy had given away to … well, still impatience, mixed with exasperation, and to this present day, with a heavier helping of exasperation and even a degree of contempt. Recalling how Richard seemed most cold and even horrible just now, Sophia wondered if she had misjudged Fee all these years. What would Fee have seen, be subjected to, in the privacy of a marital relationship? And what was Richard? Loving husband and brother, responsible head of a family and fortune … or something else? Sophia shook off the thought, although the question continued to haunt.
“Of course – he is a most loving husband and brother,” Fee insisted, breathlessly. “How could I not? Richard, my dear husband, he is unwearied in his care and concern for us all …”
“As he was from the day that Papa fell,” Sophia said. Truly, she wished that she could recall Papa – see him in flesh and life. Instead, all she had was an image from the daguerreotype that was always at Mama’s bedside; a handsome man in a dark Union uniform, one hand thrust into the front of his coat, the other resting on the sword at his side. Fee continued, “I know that you are being brave and very stoic about … Mr. Armitage and everything … but we cannot help but see that you are unhappy, and short of temper. And we think that you might benefit from a period of quiet and rest … in the countryside, under Dr. Cotton’s care…”
“I do not care for Dr. Cotton,” Sophia answered, with an edge in her voice that she didn’t bother to hide. “Nor his potions, or his advice, nor any else of his recommendations. I was perfectly content – a little disappointed in Lucius, for I thought he might have had enough character and spine in him to defy his father … this is the 19th century, Fee – what business do fathers have in absolutely forbidding a marriage when everything to do with those promised to each other has otherwise met with approval? Lucius’ father now finds me an abhorrent connection to his family merely because of those losses sustained in the failure of the Marine Bank! Tell me, Fee – does money now rule all? Over character, affection and long-established connection?”
Phoebe regarded Sophia with bafflement in her eyes – large, cow-like eyes, Sophia thought, viciously – and every bit as stupid as a cow which her sister-in-law resembled. “I suppose it does,” Phoebe admitted, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, and Sophia could not conceal her contempt.
“You had a generous dowry settled upon you when you married Richard … a very enormous dowry, indeed. Was it the dowry which appealed most to my brother, or the charms of your own person and intellect?”
Phoebe colored as red as if she had been slapped, and tears started in her eyes. She sprang up from the chair, crying, “So what if there was! Richard does so love me, and we were happily wed – and you have always been cruel and sarcastic – anything but a true sister, for all that I have tried to be kind and affectionate …”
“Fee, I didn’t mean …” Sophia levered herself from the bed by her elbow, but was struck with a sudden fit of dizziness as she did so, and by the time she had pulled the right words of apology out of her mind, Phoebe had turned around at the doorway and launched her parting remark.
“Lucius Armitage has decided to marry after all – to your friend, Miss Chase! I imagine generous dowries do have some recommendation, after all!” Then Fee slammed the door behind her and it was too late. Sophia lay back down on the coverlet, staring up at the ceiling of her room. This had the effect of a bodily blow – that Lucius would have chosen Emma Chase, and within weeks of breaking their engagement. Truth to tell, she was more disappointed in Emma than she was in Lucius Armitage. Lucius was only a poor silly boy-man, still commanded by his irascible father … but Emma was her bosom-friend. She had not expected anything such as this. Was Emma so desperate for suitors, so eager for marriage at any cost? It appeared so.
The following afternoon was Pheobe’s ‘at home’ – the day when she and Sophia put on their afternoon best and received calls from friends and acquaintances. Sophia had always rather looked forward to their ‘at home’ afternoons; a few brief hours not exhaustingly engaged in housekeeping and errands, when she could sit in the parlor with her needlework and converse with those friends and kin whose company she enjoyed.
Aunt Minnie and Phelpsie appeared almost at once, shown into the parlor by Agnes.
“My dear child – have you heard? Lucius Armitage …”
“I have,” Sophia answered, curt and cold. “Fee told me last night.” She darted a sideways look at her sister-in-law, who appeared to have completely forgotten how bitter their exchange the previous evening had been. “It matters only a little to me, Aunt Minnie. They are both my friends and I wish them well …”
Great-aunt Minnie patted Sophia’s hands, visibly relieved. “None the less … water under the bridge, my dear, water under the bridge. You have been spared what I would say is a disappointment inevitable, given his weak and easily-influenced character. And our holiday in Newport … that will be a welcome change of scenery, my dear. Would you not agree?”
“I would … and with my whole heart,” Sophia answered. “Auntie … would you take it amiss … would it inconvenience you, if I were to come and stay with you and Phelpsie awhile? Even before then? My birthday is in two weeks … and I think that I would like to make some decisions for myself, as I will then be of age.”
“But … what would we do without you?” Fee interjected. “This is your home, Sophie, why would you …”
“No, this house is yours,” Sophia returned, not without a little malice. “And it should be your duty and pleasure to have the ordering and management of it, as my brothers’ wife. Being of age, and a confirmed spinster – why should I not set the direction of my own life and pleasures?”
“But that is … unseemly!” Fee bleated, and Great-Aunt Minnie snorted.
“Unseemly fiddlesticks, my girl. I am not keeping a low boarding-house, and there comes a time when a woman might be expected to know her own mind and desires. Sophia shall come and live with me as she pleases, being of age and there’s an end to all discussion.”
“Richard won’t like that,” Phoebe’s voice quavered. “He will be angry.”
“The venting of splenetic energy will be good for him,” Great-Aunt Minnie retorted, crisply. Sophia marveled at how little the thought of Richard’s anger dismayed Great-Aunt Minnie, even as it cowed Fee. Well, she thought, as she bent to her embroidery – Richard’s anger wouldn’t cow her either. She would go and live in the old Vining mansion, cramped and dark and old-fashioned as it was, and now in a neighborhood definitely decayed, and help Phelpsie look after Minnie, and listen to her great-aunt’s reminiscences about the old days, about Minnie’s brothers, and the various dramatic or mundane adventures of the various ancestors … which surely would prove more amusing than everyone groaning on at her about how badly she must feel about her broken engagement.
These pleasant thoughts were interrupted by Agnes, in the doorway with the silver card tray in her hand.
“Oh, Marm,” she said, her voice barely above a tremulous whisper. “’Tis Mrs. and Miss Chase presenting their cards …”
“The nerve!” Great-Aunt Minnie snapped and Sophia set her embroidery aside.
“I don’t care for what the rest of you do, but I am not at home for Miss Chase at this moment. Tell her,” and Sophie took a little enjoyment in saying so, since it was only what everyone had been telling her for weeks, “That I am indisposed. I shall be upstairs in my room … Agnes, if Mrs. Brewer decides to receive their cards, wait a little, until I have gone up the stairs, before you admit the Chase ladies.”
“Yes, Marm,” Agnes breathed. Sophia had no doubt that Agnes would be vociferously in sympathy with her, when next the two of them were folding laundry. As she reached the second landing, she heard the front door open and close, and Emma’s familiar voice exclaiming,
“Oh, what a shame! We had sworn to be bridesmaids to each other, for the first to marry…”
Sophia bit her tongue and hurried up the next flight of stairs to the refuge of her own room. How long would these humiliations be delivered upon her, as long as she lived in her brother’s household?

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