Rumors spread as merrily as Christmas cheer in the little town of Bridgeport. And, though she did not know it, Temperance was at the center of the largest. It took them a good three weeks to notice, but sometime around Thanksgiving the truly devout became aware that the more eccentric lesser half of the prolific Prudence was missing from her usual pew. She never warranted specific consideration before, but now that she was proving to be the heathen so many people expected she would turn out to be, her’s was the name that was voiced on hushed whispers as the collection plate made the rounds.
As Sundays passed, and the holiest of the good Lord’s days approached, whispers crescendoed. From baritone to soprano, a choir of voices flooded the church doors filling the street with the sound of gossip.
Temperance was not entirely alone in her life as an eccentric. Eloise, the maid, had become quite the trustworthy companion. But even she could not explain the absence of the lady of the house from weekly worship. Every Sunday, Temperance was up bright and early, and out the door dressed in her Sunday best. And every Sunday, she was absent. What was happening between the house and the church? She was determined to find out.
One Sunday morning, Eloise, intent on figuring out the real story behind the gossip, dressed early and hid beneath the fur blanket in Temperance’s usual ride. Minutes seemed like hours as she waited for her mistress to depart. The air was frigid even beneath the heavy pelt so she was quite relieved when she heard the woman’s voice clucking a string of broken thoughts aloud. The sleigh dipped subtly as Temperance hoisted her small frame into the driver’s seat. And, with a crack of the whip, they were off.
Eloise tried her hardest to remain still beneath the blanket but a particularly surprising dip dislodged her cover leaving her quite exposed. She let out a gasp and scrambled trying to capture the hide beneath which she hid only to see it slip further from her grasp. Had she not panicked, Temperance would have never noticed her stowaway, but the hustling coupled with the string of stage-whispered curses drew her attention.
Temperance whirled around nearly dropping the reins. Surprise commanded her vocal chords and she let out a shriek which, while not joyful, was certainly triumphant. It scared her secret passenger half to death. “Stowaway! Castaway! Hijacker! Thief,” she screamed. Luckily the horses were used to Temperance’s outbursts and, knowing her tendency to spook at nothing, remained calm as they dropped from canter to trot and came to a slow halt. Shock filled the air between the two ladies and a brief staring contest ensued.
Upon recognizing her attacker, Temperance was the first to break the silence. “Dear Heavenly Lord above, Eloise WHY?”
Eloise stammered as she tried to produce the explanation she had not had the foresight to prepare. “Sorry, Miss! So sorry! But…I wanted to know where it was you had been off to these past few weeks!”
Temperance glowered at the girl, unable to understand why such a simple question had to be prefaced with such subterfuge. “It has been my experience that simple questions should be simply ~asked~.”
She had a fair point. Eloise felt rather ridiculous for not having tried the simpler tactic first. “I’m sorry miss,” she said again, her voice rich with apology. “But there had been so much speculation when you stopped going to church. I thought….well…I didn’t know what to think!”
Temperance could only offer an exasperated reply to the girl’s attempt to explain. “I will have you know that I have been to church every Sunday of my life!” While this may have been something of an exaggeration, she felt it should be stated in order to prove her point. “One doesn’t wear a hat as grand as this for a simple ride in the country. This, my dear girl, is a ~church~ hat.”
Eloise peered up at the hat. It was indeed a whimsical and stately creation, much more so than any of the others she had seen. “Yes miss. I should have realized.”
“Indeed you should have,” Temperance said, her vexation fading. Temper gave way to amusement and she chuckled at the girl. “Well, I cannot turn back now. You shall have to join me for today.” Though apprehensive, Eloise felt obliged to concede. She retrieved the mantle that had slipped from the sleigh, tucked it over her lap, and settled in for the ride.
Less than twenty minutes later Temperance brought the sleigh to a stop and looked off into the distance. There, on a nearby hill-top, was a small red church. Amber light illuminated the windows and the distant sounds of joyful song, the likes of which was never heard from the church in town, danced across the country side. Dismay was written on Eloise’ face and it was even more evident in her voice. “Miss! We can’t go in there! That’s not ~our~ church!”
Temperance turned to her companion and snorted a brief laugh. “Of course it’s not ~our~ church. It’s ~God’s~ church!” And off to worship, they went.