22. March 2015 · Comments Off on Another Chapter – Sunset and Steel Rails · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book

Sunset and Steel Rails Mockup Cover Pics with titles(So, this is a snippet of one of the works in progress – Sunset and Steel Rails, set in 1885 through the end of the century, where a young woman sets out on a journey west. Previous chapters here, here, and here.)

Chapter 6 – The Escape

“That is … providential,” Sophia whispered, barely a breath as she leaned her head against the back of the tall bedroom chair. The exertion of dressing – then hurriedly undressing to put on a pretense of helpless invalidism in front of Richard – and the stress of maintaining that pretense had exhausted her almost completely. Likely she was not as well-recovered as she thought. When she was done with the breakfast tray, she would walk around the room for a bit – slipper-clad so as not to make any noise – and then lie down for a rest. “I must remember to thank your brother … and make some small reward to him. Any reward within my power to give him is likely to be too little.”

“Ohh, think nothing of it,” Agnes assured her. She regarded Sophia with anxious eyes. “You can eat a bit, Miss Sophia? I know… the bread is a bit burnt, but I scraped off the worst bits. And the eggs are done, right enough. Ye need your strength, ye do. Declan – he has a crochet about being locked in. He does no’ like it for any, after the fire when Dadda was away with the Army an’ Mam was working in the laundry at night … she had locked Declan an’ Siobhan into their room – Siobhan was only a baby, y’see, an’ Declan seven or eight. She wanted to keep them safe, y’see. Ohh, it were dreatful, to hear them tell it now! Declan, he can no’ bear a closed room – he must keep a window open, all but the coldest nights, or he can no’ sleep at a’.” She peered earnestly at Sophia; so worried about the plate prepared for her. Sophia felt obliged to take a bite, and then another, so as to reassure Agnes. It wouldn’t have passed muster at Delmonicos’ – or in the meanest boarding-house in the harbor district by any means – but Sophia found her own lingering sense of hunger, and so it tasted good enough.

“He must get out, y’see,” Agnes continued, speaking softly as she moved around the room, while Sophia ate her breakfast, deftly re-making the bed with clean sheets, and gathering up those few crumpled garments that might benefit from a trip to the laundry. “So – he said. He told me, I would have anither key, to keep w’ me always. He’ll give it to me before he is finished, so he will. An’ as soon as ye can,” Agnes fixed Sophia with a particularly earnest look. “An’ ye can – soon? When Mr. Richard goes out for a long while, an’ ye can walk to Miss Minerva’s house … oh, an’ if the house catches fire… I will so have ye’ out o’ this room …”

“Good,” Sophia took a last mouthful of scrambled egg – a little rubbery and weeping into the slices of toast, but she was indeed hungry, and it took the tasted of molasses thinned with water and vinegar out of her mouth. She did have an appetite, which is how she was certain she was on the mend, physically. “I can’t let my brother send me to Danvers, Agnes … I imagine that the only thing stopping him is that he must think I am still very ill and drugged with Dr. Cotton’s vile potion, although I suppose I could be carried away on a litter. The very first time that he leaves the house for a good length of time … that will be the best chance that I have.”

“Aye,” Agnes bobbed her head in perfect agreement. “An’ I will set aside some of your clothes an’ things – an’ hide them with the dirty things to go to the laundry, so that you will have a bit o’ luggage. I’ll bring it to Miss Vining’s, so that you need not exhaust yourself carrying it, or attract notice.”

“When does my brother next have an engagement away from the house?” Sophia considered the walk to Beacon Hill – not a long way, but through streets that might be busy during the day and dangerous for a woman alone at night.

“Tonight, I think,” Agnes replied. “Although he has not said so to me straight-out. He is thinking of meeting with a friend for supper, so he told me. He has gone out every evening to a chop-house for a meal, but he does no’ stay very long. Perhaps with a lock on your door, he may think he has time for a meal at leisure…”

“Tonight, then,” Sophia agreed. Fury and desperation might have to carry her when will and strength failed. She heard a distant heavy weight on the staircase below. “There he is, come to let you out, Agnes, let me have the pillowcase.” She set the tray aside, and going to her dressing table, tumbled some hastily-selected contents into it. “My little bits of jewelry … my good gloves. The rest are some shifts and petticoats and things. The lace-trimmed shirtwaist Emma gave me for my birthday. I might not think her so dear a friend now – but she does have the most refined taste. There … come and let me out directly that Richard has gone. I shall be ready.”

“Yes, Miss Sophia!” Agnes whispered. “Into the bed w’you, so he will think you are still weak!”

Sophia flung off her wrapper, and rolled herself between the fresh and crisp sheets even as Richard fumbled at the door. She closed her eyes, as if laying in a stupor, listening to Richard chiding Agnes for so neglecting the housekeeping. How hateful – when it was only poor Agnes working all alone, to bring in the coal and wood, and take away the ashes and the chamber-pots, and now to see to the sparse meals as well! Were she Agnes, she would hate Richard with a sullen and abiding hate. She supposed it was only Agnes’ sense of duty and personal fondness for herself which kept the downtrodden little maid-of-all-work in the house. Should Sophia effect her escape tonight, with Agnes’ help, she would encourage the girl to find work elsewhere … yes, certainly – and write up a recommendation for her.

The door to her room closed with a thump, and then a brief metallic rattle, as Richard padlocked it closed. Sophia listened to the voices and footsteps of her brother and Agnes fade, and considered what she must do next: choose and pack those few things which she couldn’t bear to leave behind … and rest. She was more exhausted from her efforts in this morning than she liked to admit, even to herself. She meant only to close her eyes and rest for a few hours, but when next she opened them, the pale golden sunshine of afternoon had painted the pattern of the window-frame on the worn Turkey rug at her bedside. A whisper at the door had roused her – Agnes’ voice.

“Miss Sophia? Are ye awake? I have the key in me hand. Mr. Richard … he will be away at about half-past five. Are ye awake – d’ye hear me, Miss Sophia?”

Sophia threw off the bedclothes laying over her, and scrambled to the door, her heart hammering with apprehension, lest they be overheard. “Yes, Agnes – I am awake. How long is it until then?”

“The clock has just struck the hour of four, Miss Sophia,” Agnes sounded immeasurably reassured. “Be ye dressed and ready … I will come and unlock the door as soon as I have seen Mr. Richard around the corner of Berkeley Street.”

“I will be so, Agnes …” Sophia whispered, almost limp with gratitude and relief. “…and bless you.”

“Och,” Agnes sounded almost embarrassed. “’Tis nothing. Ye’ve been good t’ me, an’ Declan, too … an’ Father Anselm says that one should never stand by an’ see injustice be done.”

“I am grateful – to you and to your Father Ans…” Sophia began, but Agnes cut her off.

“No mind to that, Miss – ‘e’s calling for me, awa’ downstairs. Be ready!”


Heedful of the danger that Richard might still choose to climb the two flights of stairs to assure himself once again of her helpless condition, Sophia put off dressing herself in her best street costume, and instead sorted out what she might take with her, either in her reticule, or in whatever bag that Agnes might bring for the rest of her possessions. She sat on the edge of the bed in her wrapper, regarding the room that she had as her own, the room she had slept in since a child – every object and furnishing dear and familiar; no, she could not take any of the larger things, and in any case they belonged to Richard. She gathered up her ivory and silver hairbrush, the dressing set that it was a part of, several of her favorite books – to include a battered edition of Vanity Fair and a collection of Tennyson poems. No, no more – too many books would make the bag too heavy for Agnes, or for herself. She added a single silver-framed daguerreotype of her parents at the time of their wedding, the best and newest of her dresses … that would have to do. Underneath the wrapper, she had on her cleanest shift, drawers, stockings and petticoat, her corset as tightly-laced as she could draw the strings. The minutes crawled past, as slowly as a crippled beggar working his way down the street with his crutch and tin cup, measured out every fifteen minutes by the chimes of the tall-case clock two floors below. With the windows open to the mild late-spring afternoon, Sophia could hear them clearly.

She used those minutes to think on what she must do, once she achieved the sanctuary of Great-Aunt Minnie’s house. There she would be safe from any effort of Richard’s to pry her out; Great-Aunt Minnie would see to that, with her many friends – some of them in high places indeed. The old lady had campaigned fearlessly for abolition, and for the rights of women – and if there was a cause she would champion to her last breath, the freedom and well-being of her dear brother’s grandchild would be chief among them. Until Minnie brought her legal weaponry to bear, Sophia might yet be as much a prisoner in the old Vining mansion as she was in her brother’s.

“I won’t mind in the least,” Sophia said aloud, more to hear a voice in the room. She had always been fond of Great-Aunt Minnie’s tall old-fashioned house, with the narrow garden and the stables – presently disused for anything save dusty piles of crates and trunks, for the Vinings had never thrown or given away anything. When she was a child, she had loved exploring the old house and listening to Great-Aunt Minnie’s stories of the family. Her own mother had been born in the sunniest and best-fitted of the upstairs rooms – the same that her Grandfather Horace had died in, for he was a consumptive and came back to his childhood home at the last. “There is so much that I would ask of her,” Sophia said again, aloud. “Of my father. He was very brave, so Mama always said. And of Grandfather – he traveled, so Mama told me. Traveled far, because of his bad health; Mama barely knew him at all, when she was a child or near to grown. Aunt Minnie would know of his adventures – he was her brother, after all …”

Agreeably lost in these considerations – which passed the time, no doubt about it – Sophia was brought abruptly out of them by a quiet knock on her door, and the sound of someone fumbling with the padlock upon it.

“Miss Sophia?” Agnes called. “Are ye awake? Mr. Richard has gone from the house, and is away down the street – he will be away to his supper. Are ye ready no’?”

“I am,” Sophia replied. She stood up as Agnes came through the door, with a limp and empty carpet bag in hand. “Let me put on my dress, my hat and mantel – oh, take this, Agnes! Three minutes, and I will be!”

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