She’s got a baby that is not hers to save. He’s got a broken soul to cure. A marriage of convenience brings them together but is it enough to sow the seeds to their salvation?
After the death of her sister during childbirth, Rosie realises that she is the only one her newborn niece can count on. She prays for guidance and with an angel’s words in her ear, she travels West with the baby in her arms. But Michael, her new husband, avoids spending time with their little family as much as he avoids God. How can Rosie help him see that true love is meant to liberate him?
Michael has lost his trust in women and the values of a Christian family. He leads a solitary life until the moment his sister issues an ultimatum: he’ll either get married or he’ll have to take care of everything without her help. Marrying the young and impulsive Rosie though and accepting her baby niece shakes him to the core. How can he understand that God works in mysterious ways but all he needs is to trust Him?
God’s divine guidance has intertwined their lives and blessed their love. When envy and greed threaten to destroy Rosie and Michael’s family though, how can our Lord protect them and help them weather the storm?
Rosie stepped out from the shrubbery surrounding the alabaster statue of Our Lady of Sorrows. Startled, the priest turned to look at her. “Rosie?” he inquired. “I have not seen you at mass lately.”
Rosie took comfort from the absence of condemnation in his tone. He knew why she had not been at church in recent weeks.
“How is Mary?” he asked with no judgment in his tone.
Rosie’s angelic features seemed to crumple as she held back tears. “Father, please help me. The baby will be here soon and I don’t know what to do!”
Early Autumn, 1874
Father Pearce, the celibate clergyman, had prepared Rosie well for midwifery–at least as well as one could, given the circumstances. Mary’s pains had begun earlier that day; Father Pearce had explained to her that the actual labor pains which presaged the imminent arrival of the child, would intensify as the baby moved. Mary had spent the afternoon walking the floor, back and forth across the room, to alleviate the pain in her back.
Downstairs, their stepmother, Susannah Minter, irritated by the constant tread of footsteps overhead, had shouted up the stairs. “You’d best not be making the floorboards creak all night when my gentleman is here,” she’d warned.
But the pains soon became worse, as Father Pearce had said they would, and Mary had taken to her bed. Rosie helped her undress so that her sister would be more comfortable during the ordeal to come. Mary, garbed in her chemise, drawers, and stockings, lay back upon her bed.
“Can I get you a glass of water?” Rosie offered.
Mary shook her head. Other than the times when the pains gripped her so that she could not refrain from moaning, Mary had said very little all day, as if there was no language known which could convey her thoughts. The silence made Rosie uneasy; what thoughts was her sister hoarding behind that impenetrable wall? Father Pearce had not told her what to do about Mary’s strange aloofness.
He had given other advice which Rosie had accepted, red-faced. It was not the sort of information one sought from a priest. But there was no woman to whom Rosie could have gone for what she needed. There was no one else who could help Mary deliver her baby, and Mary was too ashamed of her condition to go to the priest for advice or solace. She knew that no decent woman would enter the Minter house now that Susannah Minter earned her living by meeting the carnal needs of men.
And so Rosie had followed the priest’s instructions. A basin of water was on the nightstand beside the bed. Neatly folded pieces of cloth obtained from tearing up an old sheet waited to be of use. The bureau was missing a drawer that would have to serve as a crib, but Rosie had placed warm blankets inside the wooden confines so that the child would be warm and comfortable.
The wild, mournful wind wailing sent a chill through the small dark upstairs room. The withered limbs of the leaf-stripped maple tree created grotesque shadows against the glass. Such a gloomy night for a child to be born, Rosie thought as she wrapped the blue shawl tighter around her shoulders and left her chair to go over to the window. Down the street, she could see Mrs. Grover’s home; how she wished she could have asked their neighbor, the mother of six children, what she should know about childbirth. Just a few years ago, she would have been welcome in the Grover household. But that was before Joseph Minter’s widow had turned to prostitution for her livelihood due to the lack of any other income.
The Bible told of another Mary whose pregnancy had caused a stir in her town. But that child was of God, not from the forced coupling with a stranger. The Lord Jesus came to earth as a child, Rosie thought, taking comfort from the familiar story as she silently prayed, Lord Jesus, protect this baby from harm.
Mary’s breathing changed. Rosie peered at her sister anxiously. Was it time? Father Pearce had said–oh, what was it that he had told her? He had said–
“Mary, perhaps you need to push now?” Rosie exclaimed.
Her sister’s face twisted in an expression she had never shown before. “I will know when it is time to push!” Mary said through gritted teeth.
Rosie, stung by the sharp words, shrank back against the bedpost. Mary had never talked to her thus. “I’m sorry,” Rosie stammered.
“Rosie,” Mary said in a voice so weakened by groans of pain that it seemed to come from a stranger. “Stay here with me. Sit beside me. It’s not time yet. It will be, but it is not yet.” She forced a smile, but the effort was grotesque. Mary’s face was blotchy and puffy; her eyes were bloodshot from exhaustion; her hair tangled from sweat. The two girls were twins, but Mary looked like a stranger now.
Rosie gazed down with concern at her twin. Although the girls shared the same raven-black hair and blue eyes, they had never looked less alike. Nothing is the same tonight, Rosie thought. The shabby furniture was the same, the worn carpet on the floor, the curtains swaying slightly from the drafts were all the same, yet everything now, even the furniture, had taken on the role of spectators to Mary’s misery.
“Of course, I will, Mary,” Rosie said. She moved to pull the bedcovers over Mary so that she would not feel the chill in the room, but Mary, irritated, pushed them away. Her petticoat was twisted around her waist, revealing her swollen belly.
What will we do? Rosie wondered as she sat beside her sister, desperately seeking a subject for discussion that would alleviate some of Mary’s torment. How will we manage to provide for the baby? Susannah had already threatened to find parents who would purchase the child and rid her of what she described as ‘a noisy nuisance’ once it would be born.
Rosie could not trouble her sister with these things. Mary was fully aware that the future was dire for an illegitimate child. It didn’t matter that the Minter girls had been well brought up and respectable. That was before their widowed father had married Susannah. After that, his business failed and his own life became a hollow replica of what it had once been.
What subject could she discuss that might give Mary something to hope for?
A name for the baby! Of course! Surely that would rally Mary’s spirits.
“Mary,” Rosie began, “have you thought of what to name the baby?”
“Please don’t talk,” Mary said, her eyes closed as she shifted against the mattress, writhing with the pain. “I can’t bear it, I really can’t.”
“I’m sorry, I only meant to help.”
Mary nodded as if she understood, and forgave her. “It hurts,” she whispered.
Rosie held out her arm for Mary to grip when the pains were more than her thin, tired body could endure.
Surely Mary would be all right, even though she had not thrived through the nine months while the baby grew. Nothing seemed to be particularly wrong, but then, Rosie knew, nothing was right either. How could it be?
Her sister moaned, a low, guttural sound from deep within her being. Rosie brought the wet cloth to her sister’s forehead. Mary licked her dry lips and nodded her thanks.
“Mary,” Rosie began, but Mary shook her head as a paroxysm of pain overtook her. “I just want to help.”
“You can’t, Rosie. Nothing can help me now.”
“But Mary, I can’t bear to see you suffer this way. Isn’t there something I can do or say?”
Mary shook her head as another pain, sharper this time, drove through her body. “Nothing,” she whispered. “There’s nothing you can do.”
As the pain coiled itself through Mary’s body, Rosie held her sister’s hand. She could offer no words of comfort or ease for the pain. All she could give was her presence. It was up to her to ponder the future. Mary had enough to do with the present.
It took all of Rosie’s fortitude to bear the twin burdens of her sister’s distress and her stepmother’s crass plans, but she had done so with her Bible as the fulcrum to balance the opposing realities.
The Bible she used had first belonged to her mother. Rosie felt as if she could draw on her memories of her mother’s smile and reassuring embrace, to summon the strength to meet the challenges. A scripture verse came to mind now and Rosie found it comforting, not realizing that she spoke aloud. “’Know that the Lord is God. It is He who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name. For the Lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.’” Psalms, chapter 100, verse 5.
Mary sighed, her body still for a moment as the pain eased. “I will enter His gates with thanksgiving, Rosie,” she said. “Thank you for reminding me. I’m glad you understand, Rosie,” Mary said. “I am sad to leave you, but I shall see Mama and Papa again. You will take care of my baby, won’t you?”
Stricken, Rosie could not speak, so great was her sense of desolation. Mary said she was going to die. She sounded as though she wanted to die! But if Mary died, what would become of the baby? And how would Rosie manage without her sister? They had been inseparable since they were born, twins of body and heart, their mother had described them.
“Mary,” Rosie begged, “Please don’t say such things. Mothers in childbirth often feel as you do.” Didn’t they? Did they not also look pale, their bodies strangely deformed by the child within making its way into the world? Surely they too were cross and impatient and even morbid, voicing thoughts that they would never have uttered if they were not in this condition. Father Pearce had told her what he knew of women in the throes of giving birth. But he had not told her enough. He had not told her that she should fear for Mary’s life.
“Rosie, do you remember when the two of us would walk to Papa’s store and Papa would act as if we were his customers?” Mary’s voice was weak from groaning, and her face still wan and tired from the pain, but it seemed as if a trace of joy appeared there as she recalled this episode from a brighter past.
Rosie smiled, relieved that her sister had ceased the morbid talk of dying. “He called us ‘Miss Mary’ and ‘Miss Rosie’,” she recalled, “and asked how he might be of service.”
“Yes,” Mary smiled. “Such happy times. You will see that there are happy times, won’t you, for my baby?” Mary moaned as another pain gripped her. She sat up, her face contorted with the effort of birthing.
Rosie hurried to the foot of the bed. “Push, Mary,” she said, sensing that now was the time. “Push!”
Mary pushed. Rosie leaned forward, remembering Father Pearce’s instructions. She could see the crown of the child’s head between her sister’s parted legs. She felt a thrill of anticipation: illegitimate or not, wanted or not, the baby was about to be born and Rosie was ready to welcome her.
Mary gave a sudden vigorous, thrusting push to send the child on its journey, her breathing coming out in sobbing gasps as she summoned her frail strength for the task.
The bedsheets were suddenly red and soaked with blood. Surely there should not be so much blood, Rosie thought. Do all women spill this much blood giving birth? she wondered, knowing full well that some women perished giving birth but refusing to dwell on that thought.
Then the baby emerged, a girl, wrinkled and tiny and, to Rosie’s eyes, utterly and mysteriously beautiful. Alive. Somehow, despite Rosie’s lack of knowledge and Mary’s weakness, the baby was alive. Rosie lifted the child up and put her in Mary’s arms. “Your daughter,” she said, her voice trembling with reverence for this new life. A surge of love welled up within Rosie for her sister’s child. I will protect you, she vowed silently. Don’t be afraid. I will protect you.
“Your daughter! You will be her mother!” Mary said, her voice no longer wispy and tired, but filled with certainty. “You will be her mother,” she insisted, pinioning her sister with her gaze. Mary held her baby, looking down upon the child as if she were bidding her farewell. “Lily,” she smiled faintly. “For Mama.” With that pronouncement, Mary closed her eyes and her last breath left her body.
Bewildered, Rosie gazed down at her sister’s still form. Just then, the baby cried out, at first, a thin wail that gradually gained strength as the infant drew air into her little lungs.
Rosie’s eyes streamed with tears. She held her niece, still connected to Mary’s body by the cord that bound mother and child together. “I will be your mother,” she promised before she cut the umbilical cord, the final tie between Mary and her child.
Mary’s body needed to be cleaned and prepared for burial. Thinking of the tasks that she needed to accomplish was a shield, albeit a frail one, defending Rosie from collapsing with grief and fear. But there was no time for grieving. The linens would need washing. The undertaker needed to be summoned. Rosie’s thoughts swirled as she was caught up in the whirlwind of indecision. As she held Lily, Rosie felt panic, realizing that there were too many things that she did not know how to do. But she knew how to love Mary’s child and she would not let harm come to her.
Hours later, when Susannah Minter learned that one of her stepdaughters was dead, she eyed Rosie speculatively as she scanned the bare room, the bed stripped of its linens, the fire a-blazing. Her lip curled as she noticed the bureau drawer by the hearth, the baby wrapped in a blanket within. “You’ll have to take care of the sniveling brat until I find someone who’ll buy her. Girls aren’t as easy to sell as boys,” she said.
Rosie kept her features impassive. You will not sell this baby, she thought as she met her stepmother’s eyes. I will be her mother. You will not take our baby. “I’ll go to Father Pearce,” she said.
She wanted her stepmother to leave the room. Her presence was a violation of the innocence of Lily’s birth and the tragedy of Mary’s death. Rosie longed to be alone so that she could cry and pray and glean comfort from the baby.
Mary had gone straight to heaven, Rosie knew that. Even if her body had been taken away in the undertaker’s wooden hearse, her spirit had broken its earthly bonds and soared to the heavenly gates with thanksgiving in her heart.
There was no one at the funeral except for her, Mary’s daughter, now Rosie’s daughter, and Father Pearce, who, like Rosie, knew that Mary was sinned against and not a sinner. Father Pearce, tall and lean, read from his battered Bible as the folds of his cassock fluttered in the afternoon breeze. His voice had a robust timbre that was at odds with his wraithlike appearance, but his words were filled with the certainty that God was as present in death as He was in life.
“What will you do now, Rosie?” he asked in a compassionate tone as he walked with her from the cemetery to the Minter house. His question put voice to the queries that Rosie was asking herself.
“I don’t know. I’m her mother now. I must take care of her.” The overwhelming weight of knowing that she was all that Lily had was paralyzing in its enormity. She knew she could not continue to function this way. Mary’s death and Lily’s birth had effectively closed off a part of her emotions, leaving her suspended in a state of anxiety and exhaustion.
The house was just ahead. Dark and shuttered, it stood upon the rise of the hill like a grim landmark. Smoke came from the chimney to fade into the pale blue sky. The autumn leaves of the trees had fallen early in the season in bright hues at variance with the naked branches overhead.
“I will pray for you, Rosie. And for Lily, too.”
One month later, 1874
The stained sheets had long since been washed in the month that had passed since Mary’s death, and the blankets heaped upon the mattress, although worn, offered warmth in the colder nights. The pale white walls were given life by drawings that Rosie had nailed up so that the room would have some color to it. Perhaps it was silly, but she found some comfort in the sight. There was too much sadness in this room; Mary would not have wanted Lily to be surrounded by desolation.
Rosie began to sing softly; the sound sometimes calmed Lily when she was fretful, and she listened, alert for the familiar voice that was the only one she knew. But now she was too hungry to be assuaged by a song and she continued to cry, even when Rosie picked her up and held her.
It was heartbreaking to watch as Lily nuzzled against Rosie, instinctively searching for the sustenance that she expected to find within the soft swell of Rosie’s bosom. She didn’t like the soft rag dipped in the fresh cow’s milk which Rosie pressed to her lips. She wanted great, thirsty gulps of milk to satisfy her hunger.
“Oh, Lily,” Rosie said, keeping her voice light even though she wanted to cry. “You must learn to be patient.”
The child, deterred from her crying by Rosie’s voice, stared at her with Mary’s blue eyes, which were Rosie’s blue eyes, big and framed in black lashes. The child’s tuft of soft, feathery hair was black, just like Mary’s and Rosie’s, giving promise that when she was grown she too would have raven tresses that fell past her shoulders in thick abundance.
“Come now,” Rosie urged, “a little bit more.” Lily didn’t understand that Rosie stole down the stairs early each morning when she heard the milkman’s cart so that she could bring in the milk can, boil it to rid the cow’s milk of any impurities which might harm Lily, and then feed the child. It was done furtively, to spare the tirade that came from Susannah when she shouted that it was thanks to her that the child had anything to eat at all.
The truth of that accusation stung, and Rosie made sure that milk was the only item for which she was indebted to her stepmother for Lily’s sustenance. Rosie’s search through the trunks upstairs in the attic had yielded diapers and infant clothing, but no bottles. Of course, their mother had been able to feed her daughters. She wouldn’t have needed bottles or cups.
Rosie brought the wet milk cloth to Lily’s lips. The infant wrinkled her nose as she sucked, displeased with the process but eager, nonetheless, for the nourishment. Again and again, methodically, Rosie dipped the cloth in the cup of milk and then pressed it against Lily’s little rosebud mouth. Finally, with painstaking diligence, Rosie was able to feed Lily the entire contents of the cup of milk from the farmer’s cows. As she held the baby upon her shoulder and patted her back, Lily released a loud, contented belch, and then cooed happily as if she had achieved something momentous.
Rosie pressed her cheek to the baby’s face and held her close. Caring for Lily was the only thing that kept Rosie from succumbing to her grief at the loss of her sister. Rosie knew she owed both Mary and Lily her best efforts to provide more for the child than the current situation afforded.
But how? She was eighteen years old, with no money of her own and no family to whom she could go to for help.
Mrs. Minter had already told Rosie that she expected her to earn her living. There was no mystery regarding the profession that Susannah intended her stepdaughter to enter. Lily would always be in danger because to Mrs. Minter, she was a burden, a noisy nuisance who needed to be fed, whose soiled linens were washed and hung out on the clothesline for everyone to see, whose crying was a disruption. What was worse, Rosie suspected that Susannah intended to use her threats against keeping Lily as a way to force Rosie to entertain the men who came to the house.
Rosie pondered this as she bathed the baby in a metal basin that was filled with water warmed over the fireplace, singing so that Lily would know peace. After Lily was bathed and dressed in a clean diaper and clothing, Rosie laid her down in the drawer that served as her bed, sitting beside her, and singing until the child’s long-lashed eyelids gradually closed in sleep.
This was the time of day when Rosie felt the safest. Mrs. Minter slept late into the day. Lily was safe in her bed. Rosie ventured downstairs to prepare food for the day, to wash Rosie’s soiled diapers and clothing, to clean up the kitchen after she had worked, and leave a plate of food for her stepmother, even though Mrs. Minter never acknowledged the offering. Then she went to the front porch to gather wood to keep the fireplace fueled, and brought up newspapers that some of the gentlemen left behind during their visits to Mrs. Minter.
She went back upstairs and put the wood in the fireplace, using a sheet of newspaper to start the flames. But as she did so, reciting scripture all the while so that Lily would hear her voice even as she slept and know the calming presence of the Holy Spirit, Rosie had to acknowledge the sobering truths about their lives. Her voice was the only voice known to the child except when Mrs. Minter bellowed up the stairs. This room was all that Lily knew, for Rosie didn’t dare bring her downstairs.
While Lily slept, Rosie returned downstairs to clean the other rooms, leaving only her stepmother’s bedroom untouched. She worked quickly and efficiently so that she could get the work done and avoid contact with her stepmother. She and Mary had gotten proficient at keeping the house tidy when they were younger and eager to do all that they could to help their father while he managed his grocery store. Even after he’d married their stepmother, the girls had continued to manage the household because Mrs. Minter was an untidy woman with no interest in maintaining a home.
Despite the deplorable use to which their home was now being put, Rosie did not allow the inside of the house to fall into a slovenly appearance. When Mary was alive, they had been able to take care of the yard and the trees outside as well as the inside rooms, but now, Rosie’s time was limited. The weather was turning colder after the beneficent heat of the summer.
Rosie was dusting the parlor furniture when she heard a door open. She froze; it was only early afternoon, too early for Mrs. Minter to be awake. Of course, she had always been a late riser, even when Joseph Minter was alive. She had not, however, been entertaining other men during the night back then.
A heavy tread on the floorboards warned Rosie that it was a man, and not her stepmother, leaving the room.
“Aren’t you the pretty one,” a voice crooned behind her.
Rosie whirled around, the dust cloth held in one hand like a weapon. She said nothing, but her thoughts were in a mad tempest. Was he going to try to hurt her? Would he hurt Lily?
“You could earn yourself a tidy bit of money,” he went on. He was a large, big-bellied man with sparse hair on his head and a thick beard on his chin. His eyes glittered with lascivious interest. Rosie had been effective at keeping out of sight of the men who paid for Susannah’s favors, but now she felt trapped and more fearful than ever. The memory of what had happened to Mary was still vivid in her mind, perhaps even more powerful now because that incident had led to Mary’s death.
“Susannah has been hiding you,” he said, taking a step into the room. His clothing was disheveled as if he had dressed quickly; his waistcoat was unbuttoned and his shirt was wrinkled. Despite his unkempt appearance, he did not look as if he were poor. In fact, he looked like a man who was accustomed to living well, albeit in a disorderly manner.
He took another step into the room. “Or have you been hiding from me? Don’t you remember me, pretty girl? We had ourselves a time, didn’t we, back in the winter? I still think back on that night. To think that you’ve been hiding all this while.”
As she listened to him, Rosie realized with mounting apprehension that this must be the man who had assaulted her sister and left her pregnant. But he didn’t know that his evil doings had produced results, and he didn’t know that Rosie wasn’t Mary. Rosie wanted to run, but he was blocking the entrance to the parlor. To think that this odious man had fathered Lily was a disgusting thought, and Rosie felt profound relief that Lily resembled her mother and not this reprehensible man. He was fat, with loose flesh that seemed to sag from his face as if his bones couldn’t bear the weight of it. But it was the expression in his leering gaze that filled Rosie with fear. His eyes revealed his intentions.
“Go away,” she said, her voice trembling and her heart racing.
He laughed, advancing a step into the parlor as he did so. “Oh, you don’t mean that. You need to be a little friendlier to me.”
“Never mind, George, you’ve had your fun and paid for it. Now get along. She’s nothing for the likes of you unless you know someone who’s looking to buy a baby girl.”
Neither of them had heard Mrs. Minter leave her bedroom until she appeared behind her customer. Her tone was pragmatic; a businesswoman who would not be swayed by tender feelings.
“A baby, eh?” The man gave Rosie a slow appraisal and she feared that he was assessing not only what Mrs. Minter had suggested, but also the information about the child. “I might, at that.”
“She’s a crying brat and this is no home for a baby. I’ll want to get paid for it.”
“I’ll see what I can manage,” he said, giving Rosie a shrewd, knowing look of scrutiny.
Rosie was seized with the need to hurry upstairs and shield Lily from the threat that this vile man posed. She needed to take Lily from there. Somehow, they had to escape, get away from this hideous mockery of a home and flee to somewhere far away, so far that Susannah would never find them.
“You do that. I’ll see you next week, same as always. Now get on your way.”
Mrs. Minter left to escort her departing client from the house. Rosie dropped the dust cloth on the table and hurried to the stairs, but Mrs. Minter came back and followed her to the landing of the staircase.
Slowly, Rosie turned around to face Susannah.
“I don’t care what George wants or what any man wants, so long as he pays for it,” Mrs. Minter said. In daylight, the lines that had begun to etch themselves at the corners of her mouth and her eyes were more pronounced. She had been an attractive woman when she married Papa, Rosie remembered, but a cross disposition and a sordid way of living were aging her quickly. “If he takes a liking to you and is willing to pay, it won’t trouble me. We could use the money, and I’m tired of you living here at my expense while I do all the work.”
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