Ashburne House, Cornwall, England September 1773
Rebecah Brent drew her legs beneath her and glanced over at the jittery servant sitting in the armchair next to the fire. She tried to appear unmoved by the storm’s rage thinking it would calm Margery Holmes, but every time thunder boomed, her breath snatched and she gripped the letter harder in her hand.
“Oh, this storm…my poor nerves,” Margery muttered. “Dear me…the wind…It seeps straight through the windows.”
“I’m sorry, Margery. What did you say?”
Margery pulled her woolen shawl tighter across her shoulders and shivered. “The wind—it blows through the windows.”
Rebecah folded the letter closed that had come earlier. “Ashburne is an old house. Drafts are to be expected.”Sighing, Margery stood and tidied the room though it were already neat. Everything was in its place, with a place for everything. Rebecah knew the woman’s nerves were on edge and keeping busy gave her ease. But when lightning flashed, she jumped.
“Heavens!” Margery dropped a pillow on the floor, retrieved it and held it against her bosom.
Thunder shook the windowpanes. Wind whistled down the chimney. The room grew colder, the fire smaller. The old retainer set a log in the hearth, stirred the ash and embers until it caught. Flames grew. Wood crackled.
Orange light flickered over the bricks, over the floor. Now she would be warm. If Margery would light more candles and close the curtains the lightening would not overtake the darkness. It would appear less fierce with more light in the room. But candles were a luxury they could not afford to waste. She had to make do with the one on her bedside table.
The warm glow touched Rebecah’s face and eased through the blanket over her lap. She glanced at the window. A flash and then darkness and a candle flame. The storm frightened her, yet she hid her fear by opening her father’s letter. The words blurred as she listened to the wind and rain. Dread rippled through her. Perhaps she needed to read his missive again—search between the lines.
Time to settle down and enjoy his estate, he had said. She knew what it meant. She would be married off to the highest bidder—to a man she did not love. Is there such a thing as true love? What choices do I have other than Lanley?
Indeed, for no one else had asked for her hand.
How can I go against Papa’s will? I hope he listens, let’s me explain.
After a second read, she set the letter on the table beside her. Rain streaked the windowpanes. For a moment she fixed her eyes on a single drop. She watched it rivet down the glass,melt at the bottom. The mantle clock ticked on. The minutes dragged closer to the hour he said he’d arrive.
By the hour strike, she stepped to the window, leaned against the jamb and searched the sky. The stars hid behind clouds. No moon shone upon the rolling green she loved. A cold ebony vault, then an illumined violet cavern hung over Ashburne like a heavy hand. The clatter of coach wheels rolling over the high road, mingled with thunder. Between the lightning flashes, she saw horses pounding their way toward the house. She leaned closer, watched the brass lantern sputter. The coach slowed, pulled to a stop. The horses pawed the gravel, shook the rain from their manes.
“Margery, come look. My father is home.”
She hurried away from the window, took Margery by the arm and drew her back. They stood side by side gazing below. The coach door opened. A man dressed in a black cloak stepped out. He turned back, reached inside to aid another—Sir Richard.
“My father is wearing the red cloak I made him.”
“Aye, he is…That man is helping him up the stairs.”
“It must be because of the wind.”
“I’ll go down, Miss Rebecah. You stay here.”
Rebecah frowned. “I remember the rule. Whenever Papa arrives home I must wait to be called.”
She sat on the side of her bed when Margery left. Her mind wheeled. She clasped her hands together, listened, and waited. Voices and a door closed. She gripped both arms as if cold air rushed over her. Then she crept to the door. Grasping the handle, she opened it, drew in a breath, and peered out. Huffing and puffing, Margery came up the staircase. Rebecah watched three men lag behind.
Grave faces. Dripping wet cloaks. Muddy boots.
Before she saw her father’s eyes she shut the door, though she wanted to rush out to him, throw her arms around his neck and kiss his cheek. But he would chastise her for any emotional greeting shown to him in front of others. Margery turned back inside. Candlelight from the candle she held spread over her plump face. “Not a pleasant evening for a homecoming.”
“Did he ask for me?”
Margery gave her a look of sympathy. “No.”
It hurt. Perhaps he needed time. She handed Margery her brush, and the older woman glided it through Rebecah’s long tresses.
“I didn’t see Lanley with him. I’m relieved. I haven’t seen him in three years…I hope he stays away forever. He has as much appeal as an undertaker.”
Margery twisted a lock and fastened it behind Rebecah’s ear. “Your father desires you to speak well of the choice he’s made.”
“You know as well as I, Lanley does not love me.”
“But his gifts and letters say he has an extreme fondness for you.”
“Shall I mention his indecent morals and lack of charity? He has no faith in God.”
“Would you rather be a missionary’s wife living in some heathen country, than be wed to the lord of the manor?”
Rebecah laughed. “Can you imagine Lanley a missionary? The heat would cause him to swoon. The food would upset his delicate constitution. The natives would frighten him to death. In a week, he’d pack up and head back to England to his creature comforts.”
“You paint a vivid picture, miss.”
“I would marry a missionary for love.”
“I cannot see you marrying such a man. Life would be too harsh for you living among the tribes.”
“Perhaps I shall find myself such a man.”
“Poor? Is that what you want?” Margery looked appalled.
“No. I wouldn’t wish to starve. What I mean is I want a man with a noble heart.”
Margery smirked. “It’s not good for a young woman to be so wishful.”
“I suppose you’re right.” Rebecah glanced over at her door. “When is Papa going to call me?” Anxious she slipped on her shoes. “He must realize I’m a grown woman now. Not a child.”
With a touch of her hand, Margery stopped her from going on. “Go softly. He’s unwell.”
“Why did you not tell me?”
“He said I mustn’t upset you.”
While Margery spoke, Rebecah hurried out the door. She rushed down the corridor toward her father’s bedchamber. Mucky footprints led from the staircase right to the threshold. The door sat open, and she paused outside it.
“The infection has grown worse?” she heard her father say.
“It’s very bad,” an unfamiliar voice said. “What’s the army getting for field surgeons these days? Village butchers, or Indian witch doctors? You would’ve been better off to have stayed in America, then to have made the sea voyage back to England and gotten into trouble. There must be at least one competent doctor in the King’s army.”
“It was my choice. England is home. My daughter is here.” Her father’s raspy voice distressed her. He did not sound the way she remembered, strong and disciplined.
“True. But it will cost you dearly, Sir Richard. The infection will spread.”
A chill rippled over Rebecah’s skin. Her heart sank to her soles. A pause followed, then, “In the name of heaven, what did they use for stitches—horsehair?”
“Leave me alone. Call my daughter.”
Stepping through the door, Rebecah entered the room. Her father lay in the four-poster bed he once shared with her mother, pillows piled behind him, a counterpane covering him up to his chin.
With the utmost care a man in a tight gray wig, unraveled bloodstained bandages. She shuddered when she saw the infectious lesions invading her father’s bicep. The shriveled arm streaked red and molting, shook at the physician’s touch.
Beads of sweat glistened on Sir Richard’s forehead. Rebecah wanted to save him, heal him, take away the pain. She went on her knees at the bedside and held her father’s hand.
The physician glanced at Rebecah over the rim of his spectacles. “Young woman, it’s best you leave the room.”
“He needs me, sir. I will stay.”
In the past, Rebecah’s father had always returned hale and hearty, blustering through the front door, barking out orders to servants, with his hounds leaping and baying around him. When she first read his letter saying he meant to come home, she thought he was in good health. But now to see him mortally wounded, she repented of her feelings, of thinking of herself, of what his homecoming meant for her.
His eyes were closed. Did he not hear her, feel her hand close over his? His face ashy, his breathing shallow, his movements stilled. The surgeon asked if he could speak with her outside in the hall.
“I did not want your father to overhear in case he woke.”
Rebecah’s throat tightened. “Is my father dying?”
“He’s in danger.” He removed his spectacles. “The bullet was removed carelessly in my opinion, a sloppy job, and the wound sutured with I know not what. Infection set in and inflamed the arm. It is amazing he lasted this long.”
“Do you know what happened?”
“I’ve been asked not to divulge the details.” He held out his hand. It had blood on it. “I’m Dr. Harvey, by the way.”
“Forgive me for not shaking your hand, sir.” She glanced at his hand and he withdrew.
“Oh, I beg your pardon.” He placed it behind his back.
“If you remove the arm, will my father live?” she asked.
“He has a better chance. I’ve administered mercurial ointment, wrapped the arm in warm cloths soaked in vinegar, and bled him before we made the journey here. There has been no improvement.”
“You mustn’t let him die. He’s all I have in the world. I lost my mother a few years ago. I’ll do whatever you ask. Money is not an issue. I must go to him.”
“I promise to do all I can. I’ll bleed him again from a larger vein and draw out a substantial amount of blood. It will help purge the infection from his body.”
“That you’re willing to try, sir, gives me ease.”
“Pray for your father. It’s the best thing you can do for him.”
Together they returned to Sir Richard’s room. With each step she took, Rebecah made an anxious plea to God.