Lavinia's 12th birthday proves to be a year of change. This novel, set in post Civil War Pennsylvania, shows that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Lavinia faces many challenges that girls today face as she struggles to find balance in her life and make good choices.
Words of Mercy
The year is 1883 and Lavinia Spencer Rexford, a motherless 12 year old girl, resides with her maternal grandmother and great uncle at Millstone Manor in Chaddsford, Pennsylvania. On Lavinia’s 12th birthday, her grandmother presents her with a journal, and instructs her to focus on the seven heavenly virtues in the upcoming year, “The virtues represent values that we are not born with, but must strive to achieve for ourselves. God gives us the gift of choice, and the ability to differentiate between what is good and what is not.” Lavinia is instructed to learn and absorb the values of truth, love, courage, wisdom, creativity, tolerance, and freedom, and to use them in pursuit of a grand adventure to celebrate her passage from childhood to adolescence.
Lavinia observes the actions and antics of her eclectic group of family and friends to arrive at her own moral compass. These external forces shape Lavinia’s perspective, but it is the internalization of lessons learned through love, friendship, sorrow and pain that prepares Lavinia for the greatest confrontation of her life. As the year draws to a close, Lavinia’s father, who abandoned her at birth, threatens the sanctity of her home and only Lavinia can prevent the destruction of her family.
25 March 1871
Alex Rexford cut an impressive figure in his expensive suit as he sat alone in a first class car on the C&A Railroad traveling from Philadelphia. His thick dark hair curled around his collar and his profile revealed deep set brown eyes, an aquiline nose, strong cheekbones, and a firm mouth. Impassive and aloof, he gave no sign of his inner turmoil. Tragically, he had learned that very morning that his young wife had died. His natural poise deserted him as he shifted his large frame in unfamiliar positions, seeking comfort where there was none. He held himself in check as he twisted the ring on his left hand round and round while the train swayed back and forth on its tracks.
He drew in a deep breath and slowly exhaled. Had it been only a year ago? He leaned back and envisioned his lovely young wife, Julia. At eighteen, Julia possessed wisdom far beyond her years, and she was more precious to Alex than he had ever imagined anyone could be. She gave selflessly, and Alex could never quite believe his good fortune. There were no ulterior motives with Julia. She was too naïve to pretend to be anything other than what she was – a sensitive young woman with a deep sense of responsibility to those she loved. And she had loved him.
“How could our life together unravel so quickly?” he thought as he buried his face in his hands. There was never any doubt that Julia was the woman he wanted to spend the rest of his life with. He had reached the point where his business success had brought him financial stability, but only Julia filled the lonely spaces in his life that work eclipsed but never erased. She embraced his weaknesses as well as his strengths and deep down, he had feared to lose her. He was ready for marriage and believed Julia was also, but Julia’s parents, John and Constance Spencer, felt she was too young and New York was too far away from the little town of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. They objected strenuously to the marriage, creating ill will on all sides. Julia defied her parents and accepted his proposal. They married, but she paid a terrible price. In her parents’ eyes, their dutiful daughter ceased to exist. Julia knew few people in New York, and Alex worked long hours. She never complained but he knew her well, and worried about her feelings of isolation. He tried everything in his power to make her happy, and that included reconciliation with her parents. He extended many invitations to John and Constance in hopes of restoring the familial bond, but they never responded. Alex’s despair turned into a deep and bitter anger as he helplessly watched his wife suffer.
And then Julia became pregnant, and it seemed that all might be put right. They planned to deliver their happy news to Julia’s family, when Julia’s father died suddenly. Alex accompanied his distraught wife to the funeral, not knowing what to expect. Constance instantly reached out for Julia, and Alex breathed easier. Still, Constance barely acknowledged his presence, and when Julia approached him to stay with her mother to comfort her, Alex had serious misgivings. He assumed it would be for a short time, but days turned into weeks and weeks into months. Alex grew frustrated with Julia’s endless excuses, and realized that he had underestimated Constance’s influence. He told himself that his work obligations prevented him from traveling to Pennsylvania but, in truth, he was no longer certain that Julia would return home with him if he did travel to Millstone Manor to claim her.
A telegram from Constance arrived in March stating that he had a daughter and requesting he come immediately to Millstone Manor. Alex wondered why Julia had not contacted him directly. He could not bear to think that perhaps she did not love him after all.
Upon his arrival at Millstone Manor, Alex was greeted at the door by a young maidservant and admitted to the drawing room to wait. It was a formal room, reserved for company, and Alex held no illusions regarding his stature in the Spencer family. When Constance entered the room, his animosity intensified. She was a formidable woman, and their brief encounters had not been pleasant. Constance had made her disapproval regarding the marriage well known, and he felt that she was behind Julia’s decision not to return to New York. Absorbed by his own concerns, he failed to see the grief in Constance’s eyes.
Alex lashed out. “Why am I standing here? Where is my wife?”
“Julia died giving birth to your daughter,” she said quietly.
Shocked, Alex felt the room shift. He staggered, and steadied himself against the back of a divan. Constance went over to an oak side table and poured whiskey from a crystal decanter. She pressed the glass into his hand. The liquid burned his throat.
“How in God’s name could you allow this to happen?” Alex shouted. “Did it ever occur to you that my wife might still be alive had she returned to take her proper place at home? Why, New York has the finest medical care in the United States!” Enraged, he threw the tumbler at the wall where it shattered.
Constance flinched. “My daughter made her own choices.”
“Did she, Constance? Julia came here to console you, and I allowed it because I hoped she could find a way to make you understand how much we both wanted you to be part of our lives. Do you have any idea how much pain you caused your daughter when you abandoned her? What did you expect me to do? You rejected my own pleas to reconsider your position.” Alex shook his head in disgust. “I was a fool to believe that you had changed. You used my wife’s family loyalty to bind her to you and, in doing so, betrayed us both.”
The ugly accusation hung between them.
Alex turned away and stared unseeingly out the window. “Where are they?”
“We buried Julia in the family cemetery and...
Alex whirled around. “You buried Julia already? How could you? Were you afraid that I might take her away from you even in death?”
Constance looked away, and Alex saw the truth in his statement.
“Where is the child?”
“Rose is in the nursery.”
“I named her after Julia’s grandmother.”
“The child shall be called Lavinia, after my mother,” said Alex evenly. “Do you understand?”
Constance hesitated for a moment. “Yes, as you wish.”
“Show me where Julia is buried,” he ordered.
Constance led Alex out to a small family cemetery some distance from the house. They walked without speaking. She pushed open the wrought iron gate and directed Alex to a fresh grave covered with flowers. Alex stood at the foot of Julia’s grave and looked out at the gray overcast sky.
“What a miserable place this is,” he thought. He felt numb, and it seemed that he could barely recall what Julia looked like after so many months. “I must return to New York,” he said finally. “I’ll order the headstone.”
“Yes, of course.”
Alex turned and noted how thin Constance had become. Her face was lined with sorrow, and bluish smudges of fatigue bruised her eyes. The deaths of her husband and daughter had taken a harsh toll. Alex felt no sympathy for her. She had ruined their lives. Let her suffer. Yet, she stood in anticipation and Alex sensed that there was something she needed from him. What, he could not imagine.
She hesitated and then, “Will you take the baby with you?”
And there it was. She wanted the girl.
“Sir, may I offer you something?” Alex turned, momentarily confused. The porter stood before him. “Are you all right, sir?”
“Quite, I’ll take brandy,” he said stiffly.
“Very good, sir.”
Alex sipped the brandy, and closed his eyes.
He left the child with Constance of course, but he had made her wait it out before replying. Wretched woman! What Constance anticipated would be a difficult decision for him was no decision at all. He had no desire to raise a child alone, and so he left Millstone Manor without seeing the baby, much to Constance’s disgust. Still, she dared raise no objections lest he change his mind.
“Let her remember me every time she calls that child Lavinia,” he thought with grim satisfaction, “I am only obligated to provide for the girl financially. Beyond that, let Constance finish what she started.” He traced his ghostly image in the window. It was a face naked with grief, rare in one who kept a tight rein on his emotions, and he did not recognize himself. Alex pressed his burning forehead to the cool pane of glass, forced to imagine an unthinkable future, as the train slipped away into the night.