“Tom! Tom Lance!” Bill Preston’s little brother came running across the fields to where the older boys were playing ball. “Go back to your house!”
Tom caught the young boy in his arms. “Whatever is the matter?”
“Your mother has collapsed,” the young boy said, panting from the exertion of his run, “and they have sent for Dr. Carter.”
Tom sat by her bed, holding his mothers hand.
“Hush, mother. Dr. Carter will be here shortly.”
“It is not the Doctor I look for. No doubt he can do little for me. No, it is Deacon Brent that I am afraid of.”
“Why ever would you fear Deacon Brent? He has a reputation as a harsh man, and I do not myself care much for his company, but certainly his place as a Deacon must reassure you as to his character. And he has always been straight in our dealings with him?”
“So I have lead you to believe.”
Mrs. Lance struggled to sit up against the pillows.
“Tom, I have little time left, and so I must acquaint you with the story of my past; and yours. I fear afterwards you will not think highly of me, but facing the view of heaven I see I have no choice.”
Tom sat up straighter.
“Mother. I know you for a loving and a virtuous woman, and nothing you tell me will change my affection for one who has raised a son with the tenderest attention.”
“Would that were true,” she sighed, “but the sad truth Tom, is that you are not my issue.”
She paused, gripping his hand in her pain.
“No doubt you wondered how a single woman, unblessed by relations of any sort, came to raise a son in this small town?”
“Never! Mother.” Tom took a deep breath, “If there was a moment of error in your youth, it needs no confession. You have been true and straight for all the years of my memory, and I will hold to that, and not some fall so dearly repented and amended.”
“I have indeed fallen into sin, Tom, but not the one you might most commonly imagine. I *am* a widow. That much is true. I was married to a sailor out of Boston, and he did died in the course of his duties aboard the Saucy Sue. So there would be no shame in me to be the mother of a son. But Tom?” She pulled his hand to her heart. “You are not that son.”
“It was sixteen years ago, just after my husband’s death. I was living in a 'flat' on Sixth Street little better then a barrack. Mr. Lance’s death benefits had maintained me for a while, and I had previously had work as a shop girl, so I thought I could manage to keep myself. But then it proved that my husband had left me with a token of his memory that, howsoever desired while he was here to share the joy, was a lethal burden for a woman alone. Once my state showed, I lost my good job. I tried to labor along, taking in sewing for the Ludlow Street Poles, but it was a harsh life for one in a delicate state. I collapsed in the factory, and my son was born on the cutting room table.”
Tom heard her story with widened eyes.
“No, Tom. My son, who did not live to draw his second breath.”
She closed her eyes.
“My friends there offered to call for the hospital ambulance, but while I thought I might die I had no desire to die in that festering company. So at my demand they took me home. I was 'sitting up' with my little infant’s corpse - or rather laying on the bed, for there was no other place in the flat - when *he* came.”
“He?” Tom questioned.
“I do not know the man’s name. He called himself Mr. Smith, but from his hesitation in speaking it I think that name was false. He bore in his arms a flannel bundle, and within that a fresh babe. A boy, only a day or so older then my own. He said he had heard of my misfortune from a friend at the factory, and had come to see me with a proposition of mutual benefit. His nephew, he said,” she paused there, “for he called you his nephew, although even then I knew that as false as his name, had just been orphaned, the man said. The death of the father by misadventure, and the subsequent loss of the mother in childbed, had left the infant alone. And now, Mr. Smith said, he feared the loss of the child as well, through starvation of his natural nourishment.”
She opened her eyes again, searching Tom’s face.
“My heart ached for you, and I conveyed you at once to my own breast. How happy you felt there. So right and natural. While I could never forget my own loss, I knew I could love you. Even though it is not truly considered proper for American women, I offered to be you nurse there on the spot. For, in truth, that is what I thought he had come for.”
She raised his hand to her cheek.
“The man refused. He said he wanted no sad reminders of his brother and his folly. Instead, he said, he wanted me to take the child as my own. My son, to replace the one so recently lost.”
“And you did?”
“I could not give you back, Tom. Not at all, and never to a man who did not love you. For I swear Tom, I loved you that minute, and more with each that passed.”
She paused a moment, catching her breath.
“He gave me one hundred dollars and train tickets to this town, along with a note to Deacon Brent’s father. It directed that I was to have a decent job and this house without rent for as long as I lived and you lived with me.”
“So Deacon Brent knows my true parentage?”
“I do not know what the old man knew , but I suspect that he did not tell the whole story to his son. Since the old man passed on and Deacon Brent inherited he has kept his father’s word to me, but he has done so grudgingly, and with a bitter heart. I suspect he thinks his father more carnal then charitable in his generosity, and I know he would want the money that renting such a property as this would bring.”
Mrs. Lance shut her eyes again.
“I have some savings. One hundred and fifty dollars is tucked in the sugar canister. It will pay for my burial with some left over, but I fear it is not enough to do all I would wish. I had so hoped to send you to college, for you were such a clever boy for the schooling...” Her voice died into a whisper.
“Do not fear, mother. I know Deacon Brent to be a professed man of God. Even if he were to harbor false suspicions of you, it would not be Christian to 'punish the son for the sins of the father'. I shall deal with him frankly, and if he desires this house, which I grant is a bit extravagant for one boy alone, then no doubt he will recommend me as a boarder with one of the families of his congregation. In only a year and a half I will finish high school, and then I will be fit for a man’s tasks in the world.”
“You are so good, my... Tom.”
“Say your son, mother. For you have been a mother to me, and even at the gift of all the world I would have no other.”
So comforted, she relaxed back into sleep, and as night passed to morning she passed from this world to a kinder.
Deacon Brent came back to the house after the funeral.
“Tom.” He addressed the boy directly. “I do not know what your mother told you of her past.”
“Enough to know of your objections to us.” Tom answered forthrightly. “You labor under misapprehension, but if you are set I will not insist to dissuade you. I knew her for a good women, and that is satisfaction enough to me.”
Deacon Brent was taken aback. “And you think I should be satisfied as well?”
“I do not know what should satisfy you, Deacon Brent.”
The older man stepped forward and placed his hand familiarly on Tom's lower back.
“I think you could find a similar way to satisfy me, Tom,” Brent answered. “I could think of many satisfactory accommodations I could reach with a handsome young boy such as yourself.”
“I do not think such would satisfy Mrs. Brent, were she to learn of it, and I know it should not be to my satisfaction.”
Deacon Brent moved his hand lower, sliding below Tom’s belt.
“You are too young to know what accommodations you might receive, were you open to my suggestions.”
Tom stepped back sharply.
“I am old enough to know I should not wish to receive what you would give me.”
Seeing his desires frustrated, the Deacon grew hard hearted.
“If you defy my kindness, you can not expect to stay on my property.”
“No, sir, I do not,” Tom answered. “I rather thought I should board with a family in town. I am a strong boy, and willing to work, so it should not cost more than a dollar a week. That is far less then the rent you would receive from this property. In a year and a half I shall graduate from high school. Then I should expect to make my own way entirely.”
Deacon Brent nodded grimly.
“So you are willing that, if I were to place you where your care would be promised, you would relinquish all claim to this property.”
“Yes, sir. That should seem only fair to me. Whatever the motive for placing me here, it was clearly that I should grow into my own competence, not that should be a almoner for life. So if I have an honest place where I may study to make my way, I am content.”
“And you will sign a letter to that end?”
The Deacon scribbled a few world on a nearby foolscap, which Tom signed with a flourish.
“Very well,” Deacon Brent said, tucking the letter in his pocket. “It should take only a day of two to find such a home to take you off my hands. In the mean time, you should pack and be ready.”
*END CHAPTER ONE*