Scene at Hillcrest, Lady Harper’s drawing room. Cut from section two.
Lilac and apple blossom scent melded together and wafted through Lady Harper’s drawing room. The entire Women’s Christian Temperance Union had come together for their annual meeting. Once all the ladies were served tea; Mrs. Bennett stood up to address the Union.
“We are very excited to inform you that we have received a new pledge. Mrs. Priscilla Markus requests to join the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Priscilla if you would step out so we can take a vote. I’m certain you will be right back with us in minutes.” Mrs. Bennett’s warm smile made joy well up in Priscilla’s heart. The union had done so much for her she was excited to join and assist them where she could. She was under no illusions, without the generosity of their charity; she shuddered to think of where she would have ended up.
Priscilla slipped out of the drawing room and into the hallway. Sitting down by the closed door, she studied the pattern of cream and caramel on the wallpaper. Smoothing her skirt, she waited and tried not to overhear the conversation in the drawing room.
“She’s a married woman who is on the run from her husband,” Mrs. Carr’s voice carried out into the hallway. “Until we know more about this situation, I think this is unacceptable.”
Priscilla gasped at the venomous statement from Mrs. Carr. Hot with shame, her eyes filled with tears.
“We need to draw a hard line here, if we allow her to pledge, would that not encourage other young women to run from husbands at the first sign of trouble,” Mrs. Daindridge’s added her voice to Mrs. Carr.
Does every woman in Oakland feel the same way?
“Wouldn’t you agree, Mrs. Daindridge and Mrs. Carr, that sometimes we do not know the whole story?” Mrs. Bennett’s voice hardened to iron. “Isn’t it a virtue we are told to cultivate- to believe the best in people…”
“What is the whole story?” Mrs. Carr demanded as she interrupted Mrs. Bennett.
Priscilla wished the floor would open up and swallow her on the spot. Tears gathered in her eyes as she stood up and paced in the hallway. Trying not to hear them but not able to stop listening either.
“Mrs. Rood, Mrs. Holt, Lady Harper and I interviewed Mrs. Markus before allowing her to pledge.” Mrs. Bennett’s voice shook with emotion. “I assure you, we are fully apprised of the situation. You can trust us when we say that Priscilla Markus is an upstanding woman.”
Priscilla hung her head in shame.
“I will remind you, we are within our rights to decide on who should be allowed to pledge without the entire community knowing all the ins and outs.” An edge of anger laced Mrs. Bennett’s voice. “Trust me, Mrs. Carr, when I tell you Priscilla’s reputation is flawless.”
A tear slid down Priscilla’s face.
“We saw her flirting with Matt in a brazen manner. We were shocked. This is not the behavior of a woman who is here in disgrace.” Mrs. Daindridge huffed. “What’s next I ask you?”
I wasn’t flirting! Why do they think I should be in disgrace?
“Is Matt Hartwell in love with her?” Priscilla tried to place who that voice belonged to, she wasn’t sure, nonetheless, the question sliced straight through her heart.
“We are not a gossip mill.” Mrs. Bennett’s voice hardened to ice. “We are here to decide if Priscilla Markus can join this Union, we are not here to sit in judgment of her.” Mrs. Bennett’s voice rang out into the hall.
Anger burned through the shame.
Matt Hartwell’s flawless reputation is being destroyed- because of me.
She wouldn’t stand for it. Priscilla’s hand trembled on the door knob before she threw caution to the wind, swung open the door and faced her accusers.
“Unless we hear the whole story, there is no way we can vote on such a…”Mrs. Daindridge’s voice trailed off as Priscilla stepped into the drawing room.
Priscilla dashed tears away as every eye clamped on her. She marched to the front of the room. She faced the women who had assembled and judged her so viciously. Taking a deep breath, Priscilla snatched the pledge from the table and crumpled it in front of them.
“Vote on such a what, Mrs. Daindridge? Tart, strumpet, a fallen woman? Is that what you think of me?” Priscilla tossed her pledge into the garbage.
Mrs. Bennett put her hand on Priscilla’s arm. The women of the Union gasped at the language that spilled from Priscilla’s lips. Their eyes widened from the scandal.
“It’s not true!” Priscilla dashed tears from her eyes as she stood tall. “I am none of those things.”
“Well, I never!” Mrs. Carr whispered to Mrs. Daindridge. “She’s so crude!”
“Yes, Mrs. Carr. I am very crude.” Priscilla’s voice caught with emotion. “Please, forget that I ever asked to join. I want nothing to do with a group of women who would so easily believe the worst in me. You don’t even know me.”
The eyes looking back at Priscilla were hard with judgment.
“You want to judge me? You don’t know what I’ve endured.” Priscilla swallowed down her tears she gathered her thoughts to speak.
“Priscilla, you do not owe anyone any explanation,” Mrs. Bennett interrupted.
“Look at them. Look at their faces, their eyes. They think I’m a terrible woman, here to corrupt Matt Hartwell! ”
“You do not need to defend yourself to this group, Priscilla. That has nothing to do with us… it is no one’s business.” Mrs. Bennett put her arm around her.
Priscilla couldn’t stop the words from tearing out of her. “Mrs. Bennett, I didn’t know I was considered a woman in disgrace. Is that the wording you used?” Priscilla looked pointedly at Mrs. Daindridge. “I have nowhere else to go. If you paint me as a fallen woman I will be reduced to living on charity.” Priscilla wiped tears off her cheeks.
Silence filled the room as the women shifted uncomfortably in their seats.
I should tell them the whole sordid story.
“I remove my pledge.” Priscilla addressed Lady Harper and Mrs. Bennett. “Please, proceed with your meeting. I’ll see myself out.”
Priscilla slunk out of the room with Mrs. Bennett close on her heels.
“Priscilla…” Mrs. Bennett stopped her on the front verandah of Hillcrest.
Priscilla turned to Mrs. Bennett as she tried to wipe the tears from her face.
“Oh, Priscilla I am so sorry.” Mrs. Bennett tried to reach out to her. Priscilla sidestepped her.
“It’s alright. Please, I just need to calm down.” Priscilla turned on her heel to flee from the entire situation.
“I’ll speak to them,” Mrs. Bennett promised.
Priscilla turned, nodded and then kept walking.
“Where are you going now?” Mrs. Bennett called to Priscilla’s retreating back.
“I just need to have quiet moment. I’m going to the park.”
“Priscilla.” Mrs. Bennett’s voice stopped her in her tracks.
Priscilla turned to listen.
“You are an upstanding woman. You have nothing to be ashamed of and we will resolve this. Don’t listen to the two old gossips in there. I mean it. You are a good woman, Priscilla.”
Dashing more tears from her eyes, Priscilla nodded to Mrs. Bennett, turned from her, and fled to Victoria Park.
When Matt Hartwell needed a break from life and study, the walking trails at the top of Victoria Park were his favorite place to go. It was easy to forget about his troubles and simply focus on the beauty of the day. Taking a moment to stop walking so he could look up through the leaves of an oak tree, he marveled at the beauty of the sun filtering through them. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. The tension in his shoulders dissipated as his eyes slid over the green grass surrounding him. In the distance he could hear plum creek splashing over rocks. His eyes lit up as he saw fruit trees with blossoms in full bloom on the bank. A smile played on his lips as he kept walking towards the giant Oak tree that graced the north side of the hill.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, a screaming woman shattered the peace that surrounded him. Muscles tensed, ready to defend whoever was screaming- Matt broke into a run in the direction of the scream.
As he turned the corner towards the sound of shrieking, he saw Priscilla Markus standing on a park bench, hands over her eyes, screaming at the top of her lungs.
“Priscilla?” Matt gasped as he looked around. Worry coursing through him at the thought that she had been attacked.
“Matt, is that you?”She didn’t take her hands away from her eyes.
“Yes. What happened?” Matt was confused and concerned. His hands clenched into fists thinking the attacker had bolted. He was torn between staying to comfort Priscilla and finding the attacker all at the same time.
“Matt are you terrified of snakes?” Priscilla cried out. “I saw two right here! Oh, I don’t think they are gone!”
Matt’s hands unclenched as he let out a sigh of relief.
Snakes! Snakes are behind all this screaming?
“I’ll check.” Matt kept his tone of voice gentle.
Priscilla stayed on the bench, hands over her eyes as she trembled with fear.
“You are safe now. The snakes are gone.” Matt confirmed as he squinted up at her.
“Oh, thank goodness you came by.” Priscilla took her hands off her eyes. “I’d be stuck on this bench for the rest of my life.”
Matt smiled and held his hands out to help her down off the bench.
“You’ll think I’m ridiculous,” she said as she held her hands up declining his assistance. “Could you look once more? I just need you to be sure there are no snakes left on this trail.”
“You know snakes can’t hurt you.” Matt tried to reason with Priscilla.
“I don’t care; I hate the way they move. Please be sure!” Priscilla’s voice escalated in fear.
“I’ll triple check.” Matt turned away from her and stifled a chuckle. He dared not laugh at her. The last thing Matt wanted to do was hurt Priscilla’s feelings.
Matt looked around and sure enough, there was a snake near the old oak tree. A rather large one. He pretended it wasn’t there as he nudged it to move along with his foot.
“Is there something there?” Priscilla shreiked at him.
“Just a stick,” Matt lied through his teeth as the snake innocently slithered away from them. “All clear.”
Priscilla let out a sigh. “Alright.”
“Wait; let me help you off that bench. The last thing we need is you falling.” Matt stood in front of her on the bench, he held his hands out. His heart galloped with desire as he put his hands at her waist and lifted her down.
Marshalling every speck of self control he possessed, he let go of her waist.
She is married- take a step back.
“You are safe now.” Matt reached into his breast pocket and found a clean handkerchief. He gently wiped tears from Priscilla’s cheeks. “You scared me to death, I thought you were being attacked, it took years off my life.” Matt looked at her helplessly as more tears welled up in her eyes. “The snakes are gone, Priscilla.” Matt looked around on the trail in case someone really had frightened her.
Priscilla sat back down on the bench and wept.
Confusion played on Matt’s face. “Do you want me to carry you out of here?” Matt offered. He could see no need for hysterics. However, one of the few things Matt knew about women was, they despised being told they were in hysterics. Wisely, he said nothing and waited for Priscilla to speak.
“You don’t have to carry me out of here, gracious, that would be ridiculous!” Priscilla wiped her face on his handkerchief and Matt noticed she made a valiant effort to calm down. “You walk ahead of me and make sure there are no snakes.”
“Alright,” Matt agreed. “What are you doing up here?”
Priscilla choked on a sob, Matt’s eyebrows knit together.
“What happened, Priscilla?” Matt asked helplessly.
“I left the union meeting.” Priscilla wept.
“Why?” he asked gently. Her distress worried him. She was not the sort to weep for no reason.
“I left in disgrace.” She covered her face with her hands again.
“What do you mean in disgrace?” Matt’s jaw tightened.
“They don’t want me to join.” Priscilla’s hands shook as she dug around in her pocket and found a handkerchief. She wiped tears from her eyes with laciest, frilliest handkerchief Matt had ever laid eyes on. “I handed in my pledge and some of the women think I…” Priscilla’s voice caught as she turned away from Matt.
“Who doesn’t want you to join?” Matt’s voice hardened with fury as he cut to the point.
“I don’t want to involve you, it’s so terrible. Oh, Matt. I am so ashamed.” Priscilla hung her head, her shoulders slumped. “I had no idea they thought such things of me. I am humiliated. I should have known better.”
“Priscilla.” Matt patted her on the shoulder. “You have nothing to be ashamed of.”
“They think I flirted with you and that if I am here in disgrace.” Even though they were alone, she spoke in a whisper in case someone could over hear and judge her further.
A slow burn of fury washed through Matt at her words. “Then what happened.” Matt’s jaw felt like it would break as he spoke. He kept his voice gentle as he leaned into her. Priscilla took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
“While they were deliberating, I sat in the hall, but I could hear them. Finally, I had heard enough, I went into the meeting, withdrew my pledge and said I didn’t want to join. I stormed out.” Priscilla hung her head in shame. “I lost my temper, Matt.” Priscilla dropped her hands and then spoke to Matt in a voice barely above a whisper. “I did not act like a lady at all. Mrs. Bennett had to stop me, the words I used scandalized the entire union.”
“I see.” Matt’s eyes softened with sympathy. “You know that you are not a woman in disgrace. Right?” Matt reached out and brushed a piece of hair out of her eyes.
Priscilla looked up at him through wet eye lashes and bit her lip.
“Priscilla. Please, tell me you know that you are…”
“What if they are right? What if I could have done something differently?” She cried.
“Hang on a minute, who knows the whole story?” Matt reasoned with Priscilla.
“My heart is broken and you are trying to use logic?” Priscilla threw her hands up in the air.
“It’s a crime, I know.” Matt said dryly. “Let’s try it.”
Priscilla sighed. “You and Mrs. Bennett know the worst of it.”
“Does Mrs. Bennett think you are a woman in disgrace?” Matt prodded gently.
Priscilla looked up into the canopy of leaves that arched over them and thought about that question.
“No.” Priscilla blinked tears away.
“Well, there you go. Mrs. Bennett would be the first one to set you straight. You have nothing to worry about.” Matt reasoned with Priscilla.
“The worst thing is, Matt, they dragged you into it.” Her dark eyes flicked from the beauty of the sun streaming through the coin shaped poplar leaves to Matt.
Matt shrugged. “I don’t care what a bunch of old gossips say, Priscilla. It’s of no consequence to me.”
“They are worried about your virtue. As if I’m here to somehow lead you astray.”
Please, please, please lead me astray… I beg you.
Instead of saying the thought in his head, Matt chuckled. “Let me guess, Mrs. Carr?”
“How did you know?” Priscilla’s eyes widened in surprise.
“Mrs. Carr has some sort of deranged notion that I am going to fall in love with Cissy Carr. I hadn’t noticed but Cole pointed out that Cissy is parading by the livery stable every day at 4:15. Most unsettling.”
“Oh.” Priscilla’s eyebrows raised.
“It won’t work. Cissy Carr is a nice girl, but not for me. Let’s go.” Matt spoke firmly.
“Where?” Priscilla’s eyebrow raised in worry.
“We’re going to talk to Mrs. Daindridge and Mrs. Carr. We’re going to settle this right now.” Matt stood up.
“Oh! No. Absolutely not. I couldn’t.” Priscilla gasped in horror.
“They owe you an apology. There is no way; under any circumstance I will allow them to bully you. They are likely still at Harpers. We’ll stop by and get this settled right away.”
“Matt, I can’t.” Priscilla shook her head.
“Priscilla, you are going to run a business in this town.” Matt held his hand out to her. “You need the women of this community to be clients. Mrs. Daindridge and Mrs. Carr are slinging unfair accusations at you. They are influencing the women of the community. I’ll stand by you while you address these women. It’s the only way.”
Priscilla bit her lip in fear.
“Listen, you have to come with me, who will protect you from the snakes?” Matt smiled at her.
“Between the snakes, Mrs. Daindridge, and Mrs. Carr, this is the worst day since…” Priscilla cut her sentence short.
“I know. You’ve been through a terrible time so let’s not let a gossip mill compound it. Up you get. Let’s deal with this right now while the group is contained before gossip that destroys your reputation spreads like a prairie fire.”
Grudgingly, she saw the wisdom of his suggestion so she stood up.
Matt held out his arm, he glowed inside as she tucked her hand into his elbow. As they walked toward the entrance of the park and away from the area that had been verified clear of snakes, Priscilla held onto his arm in a death grip.
“Priscilla.” Matt turned to her. “It’s never as bad as you think.”
“Matt, everyone loves you. They have mixed feelings for me at best.” Priscilla groaned.
“Once they know you that will change.” Matt turned her to face him so she wouldn’t see a huge snake soaking up the spring sunshine at the side of the trail nearest to her.
“You’re distracting me from a snake aren’t you?” Her voice was on the verge of shrieking.
“No need to scream.” Matt flashed her a quick smile. “Just look at me, there is no reason to panic. We’ll give this snake some room to get away.”
“Why are there so many snakes on this trail?” Priscilla cried.
“They migrate this time of year. In a couple of weeks there won’t be many,” he assured her.
“Many!” Priscilla covered her face in her hands, Matt turned to be sure the snake had moved along. It hadn’t. He stamped near it so as not to injure it, but to encourage it to slither along.
“If I ever get off this trail, I am never coming back!” Priscilla wailed at him, hands firmly clamped over her eyes.
“That’s a shame.” Matt returned to her and rubbed her upper arm to let her know the trail was clear. “It is a beautiful trail. There are no snakes now, let’s keep going.”
Once off the hill and safe from the snakes, Matt and Priscilla returned to Hillcrest. Matt marched forward and Priscilla dragged her feet. He squeezed her hand in support as every step brought them closer to a confrontation she was dreading.
Jaffrey opened the front door of Hillcrest, eyebrows raised in surprise. Priscilla bit her lip and followed Matt inside.
“We would like to address the Union, unfortunately, there has been a misunderstanding. Could you make that request on our behalf?” Matt asked Jaffrey.
“Of course, I’ll ask Lady Harper.” Jaffrey raised his hand to knock politely on the closed door to interrupt the union meeting.
“Just a moment, Jaffrey. Excuse me.” Priscilla reached out to stop him. “I’ll address the union.” Priscilla’s chin lifted. “It’s my character being attacked, and it’s my story they need to hear. I will speak for myself.”
Jaffrey spoke to Lady Harper who immediately brought the meeting to a halt and requested Priscilla and Matt join them.
Matt’s heart lodged in his throat as he stood back to let her address the women. He watched and worried about what they might say to her as Priscilla made her way to the front of the room to face her accusers.
“I would like to apologize for losing my temper.”
A murmur passed through the assembled women. Mrs. Carr shot Mrs. Daindridge a look complete with an arched eyebrow of disbelief. Protectiveness for Priscilla made him want to address Mrs. Daindridge and Mrs. Carr on her behalf. He dared not.
“You are right; you do deserve an explanation since I am here on your charity.” Matt winced at that word and the humiliation evident on her face. He yearned to step between her and the hard faces of judgment in the crowd.
“I shudder to think of my life without your generosity. So, as requested, I am going to tell you the whole story.” Priscilla’s voice shook. Matt crossed his arms over his chest and reminded himself to stay rooted to the spot.
Mrs. Bennett quickly came to Priscilla’s side and stood near her in support. Matt Hartwell had always had a deep respect for Ada Bennett, but today, watching her lend her support to Priscilla he wanted to hug her.
“On April 30, 1904…” Priscilla’s voice shook as she began.