Throstleford (Paperback)

by Susan Evans McCloud


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Product Description

When two American Missionaries visit the English village of Throstleford in the early 1840s, they forever change the life of the village — and of the villagers. Esther Grey and her father, the local vicar, are the first to receive copies of the Book of Mormon. Both recognize truth in the book, but recoil from the challenges this knowledge brings. Esther knows that accepting the message would be a betrayal of her dear father. Yet how can she deny the truth that burns in her heart? Permeated with faith, charm, and romance, Throstleford is a sensitive, finely-drawn novel that brings to life the wondrous power of testimony, the real meaning of struggle, and the value of a sanctuary you can call your own.

About the Author

Susan Evans McCloud is the mother of five children. She has published more than forty-five books in the LDS market. Her writings include poems, children’s books, newspaper articles, screenplays, and hymns—including the well-loved ‘Lord, I Would Follow Thee.’

Chapter One

Esther was the first to see the strangers wend with weary walk into Throstleford. They came by the narrow back road that crossed through the mill meadows close to the pond. It was a raw day in March, raw and windy. She pushed a tendril of hair back from her face, where the wind wanted to plaster it, and stood uneasily outside Sallie Brigman's cottage to watch them walk on, and up the path to the doctor's doorstep. A shudder passed through her frame. She was to remember that shudder, with all else about these first moments, for the rest of her life. And yet, she had no premonition of ill or of trouble. Rather, in a singular way, a sense of quickening anticipation seized her, which she could not explain.

She entered Sallie's house and remarked casually on the fact that two strangers had just come into the village.

“Stopped at the doctor's, did they?” Sallie raised herself from her sick bed on one elbow and squinted up at her young visitor. “He's got a brother in London, you know, missy, and who can guess what other connections. They could be anybody, come to see him about who knows what matters, highfalutin and consequential. Did you bring the lovage for my rheumatic?”

Esther nodded. This was a clear dismissal of the subject, and she would not allow her curiosity to press her further. Sallie was old enough to be her grandmother, and crotchety as a wet hen left out in the rain. She possessed the warmest of hearts, thank goodness, but her manners could be off-putting, to say the least.

“That and some of Pearl's hot biscuits,” Esther smiled. “Would you like me to put the kettle on and brew the lovage for you and a bit of mint for myself?”

“That would be cozy, m'dear.”

Esther moved easily about the tiny kitchen, for she knew where every crock and plate had its place, and she hummed under her breath as she worked.

“You be just like my bees,” Sallie crooned. “Always have been, since you were a littl'un, hummin’ and singing that way.”

Esther smiled. Sallie had been a part of her life since she could remember; but then, it was the same with most of the villagers, who thought of themselves as separate and distinctly individual—yet very loyal—members of one family. Esther was nine when her mother died, and every heart quickened to the sorrow of the quiet, wide-eyed child, who had her mother's mild disposition and tender ways. And they kept their eye on the kindly young vicar who seemed to go gray and haunted at the terrible loss of his wife. Only Esther had power to reach him, to draw him out of himself, and that power grew as she emerged into a young woman, with many of the canny ways and perceptions of her sex.

“I found a bit of lace the other day in my sewing box,” Sallie mumbled, sucking the hot tea up through her teeth. “Here, I set it out to give ye.”

“You mustn't!” Esther protested. She picked it up and ran her finger-tips along the finely-stitched designs. “It's far too precious for giving.”

“Made it when I was a slip of a girl,” Sallie continued, ignoring her. “I remember doing up half a dozen like pieces, I fancied the pattern so well.” Esther moved to replace it on the low table. “‘Twere meant for you, Esther. I ask you, who else would I give it to? You'll take care of it, see, and use it with love.”

“Yes, I shall do that,” Esther promised, bending to kiss the soft wrinkled cheek of the woman beside her.

“I know what you're thinking,” Sallie blurted. “And I agree that ’tis a pity I have no fine girls of my own.” They both sighed, picturing the three small graves in the churchyard, unaware of the wistful sound their breaths made in the quiet room. “But I've yourself to take care of me, Esther, and that means the world.”

Esther reached for the hand that lay on the counterpane, so slender, yet so capable, so cunning. “I know, I know.” She sighed, and rose reluctantly.

“Ye must away, then?”

“Father does not like his supper to be late, as you remember.” She moved to the door. She felt happy inside; she felt like smiling. Was it only the gift of the lace?“I'll bring you some celery seed from Meg first thing in the morning, along with a cup of new milk, I hope.”

Sallie nodded. “Wrap your shawl against the wind, dear, and give my respects to your father.” She smiled, and for a moment her lined face lit with a remnant of the woman's beauty that once had been hers.

Esther leaned into the press of cold air that greeted her and kept her head down, though her eyes sought the doctor's closed door and closed, silent windows, lit by the last of the sunset so that the small panes seemed to tremble and throb with a shimmer of gold. I wish I had a fair excuse for knocking on that door, she thought. The curiosity was stirring inside her again. But her hands were empty, as was the basket she carried, save for the circle of fine lacework she had tucked inside.

So she walked on to the vicarage, which was set deep in the wedge of the churchyard, where old trees and old stones leaned against each other and where, beneath an arch of weeping birch, a gentle mourning dove sat watching her. He uttered his plaintive coo, tender with longing, and Esther stood still to watch him, until he lifted his feathers and glided away. She knew that longing; she had known it all her life. Perhaps she had even been born with it. She cupped her heart around the sound and entered the dim, lonely house.

Esther found a place for the lace doily on the table beside her bed. It set off the picture of her mother, the candlestick, and a small stack of books she kept there. She was pleased with the effect and smiled to herself as she hurried down to supper.

“Has Father come in yet?” she asked Pearl, who was bustling about the steamy kitchen, looking a bit ruffled.

“That he has not. I've not seen hide nor hair of him.”

“Well, that is strange; neither have I.”

Pearl fairly bristled. “Some busybody, choked with care for himself, has kept him since tea is my guess,” she fussed. Esther frowned slightly. It was a bit unusual for her punctual father not to be home in good time for his hot evening meal. She reached for her shawl, draping it over her head and shoulders as she called, “I'll step out and take a quick look ’round for him, Pearl.”

But her father was not on the path, nor could she spy him in the shadows that were beginning to loom from the dim light that gathered into darker pockets beside hedge, stone, and tree. She came inside slowly, wondering what could be keeping him, sensing from long experience that it must be something of import. But what in the world could that be?

At length the two women set out the food, and just as the steaming chicken was lifted from the oven, Christian Grey walked through the door. He lifted his eyes and smiled thinly at his daughter, barely moving his mouth. “So sorry to worry you both,” he apologized, “but it could not be helped.”

He pulled out her chair and sat Esther at the table before seating himself. He was preoccupied still; it was easy to see that, and Esther hesitated. Should she tell him her news? He might not even take note of it, or he might wonder, when he heard, what import it might possibly hold. How could she explain how she felt? That little lift at her heart when she saw the two strangers, that grew into a warmth as she had watched them—the whole thing made no sense.

Thus they ate in silence, her father quickly and methodically, his mind elsewhere. After a very little time he laid by his napkin and scraped back his chair. “I'll be in my study,” he announced. Then, as a bit of an afterthought, “That was an excellent meal, as always, Pearl.”

How proper he is, Esther thought. But how kindly. No matter what his own concerns may be, never neglecting consideration of others. She took up a plate of scraps to feed the cats who, hearing her come out on the porch, scampered up and made a pool of moving fur around her legs as she bent down to them. The large ginger male was her favorite. He possessed a certain dignity that the others lacked. She scratched the soft spot behind his ear and drew her hand through his fur. The wind had settled into an uneasy slumber, and the tree branches were still. Esther had none of that stillness within her, only this restlessness which was new to her, and which she could not explain.

Back indoors, she lit the lamp in the sitting room and settled down with a book. This was one of her favorite pursuits, but tonight she could not turn her mind to the words on the page. There seemed, unaccountably, to be something in the air, almost an expectation that destroyed her ability to concentrate, so that she found her thoughts wandering and her hands fidgeting in her lap. She discarded the book and took up her knitting from the basket beside her chair. Now her fingers could fly of their own accord, and her thoughts might also fly where they would.

She jumped, startled at the sound of her father's voice calling her name. At once she rose and went to him, pushing open the door to his study with a trembling hand.

“Come in, come in, Esther, and draw the door shut behind you. There's a good girl.” The preoccupation was still in his tone of voice, and in an uneasy tightening along the muscles of his face.

“What is it, Father? May I be of assistance to you?”

“I think, perhaps, Esther, you can.” He ran his fingers through his hair, an anxious gesture, and the ruffling of his pale, wheat-colored locks made him look younger and suddenly vulnerable. Esther drew her chair a bit closer to his desk. “What is it, Father?” she asked again.

“I have been with Doctor Sterne,” he began, “and he has introduced me to two strangers—gentlemen—who are, in fact, staying with Archibald and Janet for”—he coughed into his hand—“for I know not how long.”

Esther's heart gave a jump, ever so slight a sensation, but she placed her hand on the front of her dress as if to quiet the stir. “These men are clerical men, ministers of a new religion.” He paused. Drawing the words out was not easy for him. “An American religion, Esther. And apparently Archibald's brother, in London, has become involved with them, and the good doctor himself is interested—most interested—” The nervous hand through his hair again. “And the long and short of it is that he has asked me if they might preach on the Sabbath in my church.” He stressed the words ever so slightly, but Esther already knew how confused and affronted her father felt. “My good friend, Esther. One of my dearest friends.” He paused, gazing at her, gazing through her, gazing inside his own self.

“Did you meet these men?” Esther scarcely breathed the words.

“As a matter of fact, Esther, I did.”

“At the doctor's? What were they like, Father?” She could not help pressing him.

“Good men, it appears. Reasonable, well spoken. Clear eyes, honest eyes—you know that is one of the first things I look for, Esther—” She nodded. “Eyes reveal so much that we can in other ways conceal or disguise.”

“You were favorably impressed with them?”

“I was.” He may as well have said, “I fear I was,” for she knew him so well, and could read that thought in his mind.

She drew in her breath, gathering courage. “I saw these men myself, Father, on my way to Sallie's house.”

Her father lifted an eyebrow. “You saw them?”

“Well, not to speak to; only from a distance, really.”

“But? There is more to the matter?”

“Only within myself, Father.”

“Yes—” He leaned unconsciously toward her, where she sat demurely, her hands folded in her lap and her face a bit pale.

Esther had always been honest with him, entirely open and honest with her thoughts and her feelings since she was a child. It seemed the most natural and right thing for her to share everything with him, everything that impressed or frightened or delighted or amazed her. “As soon as I saw them my heart gave a leap, truly, Father, as silly as that may sound. And I felt—oh, I don't know, not exactly happy, but expectant, as though, as though—” She let her voice trail away, then added, “It was nothing greater than that.”

Her father nodded, and a slight frown creased into lines between his eyes, giving him a quizzical aspect. “I see.” He was thoughtful; Esther could almost see him thinking, This is most singular, Esther. He might have said the words; it was a phrase he was fond of and often used. But this evening he refrained. Looking up, he attempted a smile. “Thank you, daughter, thank you for coming to me.”

“When must you make your decision? Must you tell the doctor soon?”

“Today is Wednesday. By tomorrow or the day after at the latest, I should think.”

Esther nodded, and rose slowly. “Will you be all right, Father?”

At her words his smile broadened. “Indeed, I shall. Be on your way now; I've kept you long enough troubling yourself over my concerns.”

He made a sweeping movement with his hands, but she planted a kiss on his forehead before turning and leaving him, quickly and quietly. How I love him, she thought, as she stood in the hall and leaned against the cool wood of the closed door. He is lonely without Mother, though he tries to hide it. But the loneliness is always there. Something he lives with, but I do not think he is entirely reconciled to.

Within the study Christian Grey rose from his chair and went to the window, pushing it open to let in the night air. I need something to clear my head, he thought. But it was really his feelings that were troubling him. What disturbed him about these men? It was a common enough request, really, that his good friend had made. Why did he hesitate? Why did he feel that there was something portentous in the decision he was to make? For good or ill, what he decided would somehow make a difference; of that he felt sure. But, beyond this he could see nothing, discern nothing. All was silence and shadow, both without and within. He stood for a long while leaning on the sill, gazing up at the trees, watching them reach in the night wind, long-armed and eager, toward the stars: cold inimitable stars, realms of light and splendor set in the canopy of heaven that stretched above this small earth and beyond, always beyond. He sighed. Men, he mused, understand so little. And perhaps that was how it should be, how God intended it. Faithwas faith meant to be all? He wished he knew. He wished—with another sigh he drew in the window and tightened the latch. Then he moved to his desk and reached for his Bible, the volume he had known and trusted since boyhood, its leather covering frayed and thin because it had come so much under the touch of his hand. He thumbed through the pages, selected a favorite part, and settled down in his chair to read.

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