Edwina Parkhurst, Spinster
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by Patricia White
Category: Romance/Historical Fiction Frankfurt eBook Award Nominee
Description: Edwina Parkhurst has a guilty secret, one that she has lied, contrived, and connived to keep hidden. Knowing full well that what she does is denounced as a terrible sin, preached against in pulpits, seen as Satan's handiwork by the God-fearing people in her world, and especially by the family she loves and has supported for years, Edwina continues her sinful ways. She has no choice if she is to keep a roof over her family's heads, food on the table, and garments suitable to their station. Everything changes when she agrees to accompany her married sister to Oregon to rejoin her abusive husband, a trip that takes them through the wilds of Nevada's High Desert. A trip that has the sister and her daughters stolen by outlaws and strands Edwina in the desert winter. Dressed as a boy, driving a buggy destined for a "calico queen," and taking care of a man she thinks is an outlaw, she is hard put to keep on lying to Tal Jones, her captive, a blind gunfighter. Wanting nothing more than to make enough money to go south where it's warm, Tal agreed to protect the freight wagons of whiskey, but he didn't expect to get shot in the head, lose his eye-sight, and wind up with a boy who was becoming more and more attractive every minute. And, of course, that isn't right. And, of course, Edwina isn't a boy.
eBook Publisher: Hard Shell Word Factory, 1999
eBookwise Release Date: August 2004
18 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [409 KB]
Reading time: 282-396 min.
"Patricia White is one of those authors who will have a multifaceted career. She has talent up to here. Edwina Parkhurst, Spinster is a delightful western romance. Internal and external tension are nicely balanced while you wonder what is up, or what will happen next. All you can do it read and read until you get to the end. Thanks Pat, I love your stuff!"--Romance Communications
"It's beyond my capability to describe this book. Simply put, it's wonderful. Ms. White, with her huge talent for characterization, shows the reader what honor and hardship are. The descriptions in this book are so real that on a hot summer night, I shivered and hid beneath the covers as the icy pogonip gripped Edwina and Tal in its frozen fury. And the romance, well...you must read it for yourself. Very Highly Recommended!"--Under the Covers Book Reviews
"A historical romance that is totally new and different, Edwina Parkhurst, Spinster showcases yet another of Patricia White's multi-genre talents. Supposedly a historical romance, this book doesn't break the mold. It never fit into the mold!"--The Word Museum
Outside of St. Louis, August 1877
"Edwina? You in there?"
It was a silly question. Where else could she be? The attic was stifling hot, making Edwina Parkhurst glow far more than was proper and seemly for a lady. The cluttered, unfinished attic, and the small enclosed space she had fashioned for the battered roll-top desk and a single wooden chair, was the only completely private, and lockable, place in the old, overcrowded house. And given her morally unacceptable occupation, privacy was as essential as guile and deceit. In fact, in her particular situation, one wasn't possible without the others.
Even if it was an unwelcomed interruption, Edwina knew Martha Biggs, who was, after years of service, more family than family retainer, wouldn't have climbed the steep stair without ample reason. And she was prepared to hear nothing good when the old woman rapped on the door again.
"You best hurry, child," Martha said. "They be trouble." Without waiting for Edwina's reply, and with scant respect in her voice, the woman added, "Lord have mercy on us all, that no-gumption sister of yours be a fool for listening to a man like that. A pure-dee simpleton, if you was to be asking. But you ain't, and you ain't likely to, seeing as I ain't having no truck with any of this, no matter what your ma says contrary."
The stair, creaking under the heavy tread of Martha's retreating feet, took away any need Edwina Parkhurst had to defend her older sister's mental capacity, but it didn't take away the fact that there was trouble. And in this house, trouble always called Edwina's name-- and expected an immediate answer. Sighing, she wiped the steel nib of her pen with the flannel wiper, returned them both to her writing case, capped the ink bottle, closed and locked the desk. Using the tail of her all-enveloping apron she mopped her face dry, but there was no use to even try to tidy her hanging braid of chestnut hair-- nor any real reason to do so.
The family was used to see her inky-handed, with possibly a smear or two elsewhere on her person, and a trifle untidy, and there was no one else who mattered-- and there hadn't been for a very long time.
Not that that was important at the moment. Those tears had all been shed and Edwina didn't have the time, or the inclination, to moon around over what might have been. Especially now, when there was new trouble in the house-- a house full of women, three generations of women. All of them, whether they knew it or not, her responsibility.
Even the stuffy air in the narrow stairwell felt cool after the heat of the attic, but Edwina didn't dare linger. Lifting her skirts and starched petticoats several inches higher than was proper, exposing more lower limb than was decent, she hurried down to do battle with whatever constituted their latest trouble. It was waiting, in the form of her older sister, in the front parlor.
"The preacher said I have to..." Olivia's voice broke. She tried, without much success to swallow back a sob. Finally, she just stood in middle of room, bonnet dangling from her fingertips, auburn hair unkempt, straggling loose from the horsehair frame that was supposed to shape her waterfall, tears running down her pale face.
Halting in the doorway between the front and back parlors, taking a deep breath, Edwina asked, forcing her voice into tones of deceptive gentleness, "Have to what, Livy?"
Her sister dropped the black velvet bonnet, put both gloved hands to her face, and rocked back and forth, sobbing as if her heart were being torn asunder.
The moaning and the tears weren't at all unusual. As their mother's sister, Auntie Jean, was wont to say, with pursed lips and a shake of her head, "Livy is afraid of her own shadow and can weep to prove it." She usually added, "And all because of that horrid man. Poor soul. Poor, dear soul."
Pity was way down on the list of emotions Edwina was feeling, well below irritation, aggravation, and a smidge of anger. But, if she wanted to get any more work done this day, she had to calm her sister. Edwina looked around the crowded room. She hoped to locate the vial of smelling salts before she was forced to wend her way through the maze of small, well-draped tables, curio cabinets, and hassocks. All with their burden of fringe, tassels, figurines, keepsakes, portraits, oddities, and other dust catchers. After a quick search, the smelling salts were in her hand when Edwina walked across the Turkey red carpet, halting before her black-clad sister, who still wept uncontrollably.
"Livy," Edwina said, "it can't be that bad. Just tell me and we can...."
"My Christian duty..." Livy sobbed. "Have to go...The preacher said I...Burn in hell if I don't...Submit...."
With his hell-fire-and-damnation sermons and sly, lecherous eyes, Preacher Halbert wasn't one of Edwina's favorite people. Barely managing to suppress a snort of derision, Edwina saw the girls, Livy's two daughters, Meg and Becca, and her own black-gowned mother, standing in the shadows of the entry hall. They looked scared and helpless, but, as much as she loved the three of them, their fear would have to wait. She put her hand on Livy's arm, gave it a little shake, perhaps a little more vehemently than she intended, and said, "Tell me."
Her mouth tightened, but she managed to keep her voice neutral as she asked her question. She was hoping her sister had finally decided on a divorce. But she knew, given the tenets of the preacher's church and her sister's pious nature, that a divorce, for any reason, was only wishful thinking on Edwina's part, "What about him?"
Behind her she heard the rocking chair squeak as Auntie Jean laid aside her fancy sewing and got to her feet-- and she also heard her aunt's exclamation of dismay at the mention of Livy's husband's name. Ambrose Raiter wasn't a proper topic of conversation in Edwina's house and hadn't been in the last six years. The beast had taken off for points west, without a word, and left his wife and daughters destitute and dependent on Edwina. They were dependent on the woman he had called, more often than not and with hate hard in his voice, a vinegar-tongued, slab-sided, she-devil of an old maid.
There was no immediate answer from Olivia, unless a near-swoon, a sniff of salts, being helped, by Edwina and Jean to the medallion-back settee could be considered her response. She reclined there as others fussed over her, tucking pillows under her head, loosening her corset strings, fanning her with the ostrich feather fan, and offering her a sip of brandy.
The grandfather clock in the entry had bonged the half-hour and then the next hour before Edwina got her answer. Then it came from her youngest niece, Becca, and not from Livy, who had consented to taking a draught of Dr. Miscker's sleeping powders and being led up the stairs to her bed by her mother and older daughter.
"Papa wrote a letter. Mama got it this afternoon and went straight to talk to the preacher about it. He said she had to go, that it was her wifely duty to submit to her husband's will and obey him in all things." The words came out in the barest of whispers, and the girl, nearing thirteen and something of a beauty, caught her trembling lower lip in her teeth and couldn't look Edwina in the face. But that didn't stop her from adding, "We have to go, too, and I don't...Aunt Wina, I'm so afraid. He'll kill her this time, I know he will. And maybe us too."
Holding her fury in check, Edwina patted her niece's hand as she asked, "Go where? Where is he?"
"He said he had a homestead and...We are supposed to take the train to a place in Nevada, it's Winnemucca, I think, and then go from there in a wagon and..." The girl flung herself into Edwina's arms, clutched her with frantic hands, and wailed, "You have to come with us. Mama's not strong enough to go all the way out there alone."
The child soothed and placated, put off with generalities, Edwina returned to the parlor, not the attic, to pace, not write-- even though the deadline for the promised work was looming over her like a portent of doom. Auntie Jean's needle flashed in and out of her embroidery. Somewhere in the distance a dog barked. And closer still the clock ticked away the minutes, growing louder and louder, or so it seemed, intruding on her worries, reminding her of Livy's tears of despair. Finally, she said, "She doesn't have to go, Auntie."
"Yes, dear, she does. Even if you are a maiden lady, you know that as well as I do. Ambrose is her husband in the eyes of the state and the Lord. It is her bounden duty to do as he says, to be meek and obedient in all ways."
Biting back a sharp, and unseemly, retort, Edwina asked, "Even if she dies of fear, or worse? The man's a fiend and...."
Jean dropped the needlework to her lap, looked at Edwina, and said, "Dear, I know you believe yourself to be something of a free-thinker, but our Livy is a moral, God-fearing woman, just like her dear mother. If she sees this as her lot in life, she will accept it as most wives do."
"She's a fool, and you know it."
"Nonsense! I know nothing of the kind."
Whirling around, Edwina stomped out of the room, kicking her skirts aside with every angry step, and into the kitchen, hoping to find some lemonade in the icebox. But Martha forestalled her with a quick question, "You be going with her?"
"I don't know. I have to...I've made promises to some people that..." She turned away from the old woman's knowing eyes and went to the back door, stood there, looking at but not really seeing the back yard, the path that led to the privy, the sheets hanging limp on the clothesline.
Coming up to stand behind her, bringing with her the odor of lye soap, camphor, and horehound drops, Martha put her hands on Edwina's shoulders and said, "Best take warning, child. That there preacher's been yelling about evil in them dime novels for the past year or more. And every time, he be looking in your direction. I be thinking he knows you...."
Still worrying about Olivia, but not entirely removed from her own world of handsome gunfighters, murderous Indians, damsels in distress, and other bits of melodramatic derring-do, Edwina felt a twinge of guilty shame. But her voice was flat when she said, "When Preacher Halbert puts money in my pockets and food on our table, then I'll trying writing something more to his moral taste."
"It be hard on you, child, keeping secrets, letting your ma and the rest of 'em think all you write is them sweet little pieces for Godey's Lady's Book and Capper's Weekly. Then you be doing what needs be to keep'em eating and covered decent."
She patted Edwina's shoulder before she said, "You'll be going with Livy, and likely paying for the whole trip, your ma'll see to that."
"No, I..." Knowing Martha was right, that that was exactly what her mother would do, Edwina stopped in mid-protest-- knowing too that she would do whatever her mother wanted, would do almost anything to spare her any more pain.
Almost as if she could read Edwina's thoughts, Martha's hands tightened for just a second and her voice held a hint of kindness when she said, "Go do your scribbling, child, and leave me be. Like as not, you be having a lot to do afore you be leaving."
Nodding agreement, Edwina gnawed on her lower lip, started to say something, changed her mind, and left Martha stirring the beans that were simmering in a black iron pot on the big wood-burning cookstove. The chrome-plated, carefully blackened Acme Supreme was the delight of Martha's life.
The rose-shaded coal oil lamp was lit and pouring its own acrid heat into the attic before she penned, writing as the ice-eyed gunfighter and scourge of the West, Lobo Chance, the final page of Chance's latest dime novel, Young Nell; or Lost Among the Savages. Weary and alone, Edwina sat there for a long time before she stood. Then she straightened her back, lifted her chin, and went down the stair, ready to smile and nod agreement when her mother said, as she surely would, "Olivia isn't strong like you, dear. We can't let her go out into that heathenish land all alone. It wouldn't be fitting. You'll have to go along to take care of her and the girls."
After all, that's what old maids were for, wasn't it? she thought wryly, swallowing back the lump, half anger, half hurt, that was trying to form in her throat. Without a husband and family to make them whole, they were objects of pity, shadow creatures, unloved and unfulfilled. So, what else was there for spinsters to do except smile, make themselves agreeable to all and sundry? It was their lot in life to become useful adjuncts to their more fortunate sisters, the ones who had been initiated into the closed ranks of the sorority of married women?
For one brief second, Edwina wasn't sure whether she wanted to cry, laugh, or break things. But she was sure, despite the low regard afforded those of her status, that being an independent woman was far more to her liking than being married to a beast like Ambrose Raiter. And with that sureness came a small, cherished memory of a long ago kiss in the moonlight. And with it, whispered vows of eternal love, and a tearful farewell given to a young man in uniform. He was a man who could never be another Ambrose, but was, according to her father and mother, far more unsuitable.
"Perhaps he was," she whispered, but there was no real way of ever knowing-- a war and bitter loss had seen to that. Nonetheless, her lips were soft with remembering when she went down to join her widowed mother-- and, as she had done for years, do whatever had to be done to keep her family safe and secure.
Copyright © 1999 by Patricia White