Excerpt of Harriet and Isabella by Patricia O'Brien
(Page 6 of 8)
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"Eunice -- "
"Fiddlesticks." Eunice's voice is matter-of-fact. "Henry has no
time to die. He'll be rushing through the door any minute, tugging at his
collar, saying he's hungry, imploring me to sit and listen to his latest
brilliant sermon, as if I didn't have anything better to do. And then he'll be
gone, hardly having seen me, hugging the maids and patting the shoulders of
neighbors on the street and never once touching me." She gestures toward the
window. "And then I'll stand here and watch him as he strides across the street
to where he really lives. His church."
Harriet breathes deeply, trying to shape a response. All these
years of puzzling over this difficult sister-in-law. What came first, her dour
approach to life or Henry's desire to flee? It is far too tender a question to
speak about openly in the family, but there have been whispers about her
refusing Henry his marital rights. What are her secrets? Once Henry told Harriet
that Eunice's father threw a tureen of hot soup on his daughter when, as a young
girl, she wore a slightly low-cut dress to dinner. Harriet tries to imagine not
only the shock of such a physical scalding but the shame and humiliation the
poor woman must have felt. It makes a charitable response easier.
"This is his home, Eunice. With you," she says.
Eunice makes no reply.
The nurse suddenly appears at the door. "Where have you been?"
"Taking my breakfast, ma'am."
Harriet sees the dislike in the nurse's eyes as she glances at
Eunice and then approaches the bed. She has seen the same expression on the
faces of several servants in the short time she has been here. There is more
than one reason why this house is so cold.
Her gaze travels to her brother. He hasn't spoken a word since
his stroke two days ago. Is she imagining it, or is his breathing more shallow
than last night? The doctors know nothing. They stand around the bed and clear
their throats and say he is a very sick man, and the outcome is doubtful,
although, well, he might regain consciousness.
He "might"? How could that be, when only a few weeks ago, on her
last visit, he had entered the parlor in his great melton coat, the cape thrown
over one shoulder, a slouch hat covering his long, flowing hair, laughing and
having his usual convivial exchanges with friends while she and Eunice provided
refreshments? How could someone larger than life be brought down so fast?
"Is there no improvement?"
"No, Mrs. Stowe, I don't see any, but you never know. I've had
patients who came back -- sometimes only for an hour or so, but they talked away
and sometimes they recovered."
Harriet bends to stroke her brother's forehead and senses Eunice
stiffening. She steps back, quick to cede position. Eunice lifts her husband's
head and begins briskly plumping up his pillows.
"Don't shake him, Mrs. Beecher," warns the nurse. "It's not
"I'm not shaking him."
Harriet hears the chanting outside first. Moving swiftly to the
window, she opens it before Eunice can object.
Beecher, Beecher is my name -- Beecher till I die!
I never kissed Mis' Tilton -- I never told a lie!
Eunice turns from the bed and put her hands to her ears. "Close
that window," she demands and whirls on the nurse. "Call the police, do you
hear? I want that scum outside removed! Now, do you hear? Now!"
The nurse pales, and Harriet can see the indignation -- and then
the uncertainty -- in her eyes as she hurries from the room, eager to be gone as
fast as possible. Eunice rushes out after her, running downstairs, her hands
still over her ears. Harriet sees her pause only briefly at the polished
hardwood telephone box that hangs in the hall. She can imagine the berating the
nurse will get on the ground floor for not having used Mr. Bell's telephone to
call the police, but Eunice, clearly, is not interested in making the call
herself. Harriet's pity for her sister-in-law is dissipating rapidly.
Copyright © 2008 by Patricia O'Brien.