Excerpt from Harriet and Isabella by Patricia O'Brien, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Harriet and Isabella

by Patricia O'Brien

Harriet and Isabella
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2008, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2009, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Vy Armour

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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?" Eunice demands.

"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 good."

"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.

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