The Boundary Stone
“We should never allow ourselves to be persuaded except by the evidence of our reason”
~ Rene Descartes
Village of Stockbridge
25 August 1660
Catherine Abbott stole quietly through a half-timbered hall toward the wide staircase of the family quarters, carefully feeling her way in the cloaking darkness. A single curl fell from under her sleeping bonnet and tumbled before her eyes, obscuring her path. She shoved the wayward lock back into her lace nightcap and then turned to make her way down the stairs. She paused for a moment on the landing and looked through the leaded glass windowpanes to the hills beyond the Abbey gardens that were as familiar to her as the back of her own hand. In the distance, barely visible above the treetops, the ghostly stone chimney pots of Houghton Hall glowed in the light of a full moon. At the sight of the imposing manor, Catherine’s thoughts unexpectedly began to drift toward its eighteen-year-old heir. A loyal, rambunctious, even reckless childhood conspirator, she’d known Miles Houghton all of her fifteen years. She smiled softly at the memories of long summer days spent running wild through the wheat fields with Miles and her younger brother, Charles, delicious memories of archery competitions and games of quiots with ropes and rocks in the cool, dark forest behind the Abbey. As she stared out over the hunting grounds toward Houghton Hall, Catherine wondered briefly if Miles would be much changed when at last he returned from his university studies in Paris. The thought of him now, in the quiet moonlight, sent a tiny, unfamiliar shiver through her that she did not quite understand.
Catherine shook her head abruptly to clear her mind and tiptoed down the staircase. The sturdy wooden planks of English oak were warm to her bare feet as she descended to the floor below but when she stepped to the black and white marble squares of the formal entrance hall, she felt a sudden chill. She wondered why the two floorings should feel so very different when outside the late summer air was soft and warm. She often wondered why things were the way they were.
Catherine quietly unlatched the iron joinery on the heavily carved door of Abbottsford Abbey and slipped out into the still gardens of the elegant brick and timbered estate. She breathed deeply of the fragrant night air and untied the laces of her robe and bonnet, letting her curls tumble around her nearly bare shoulders. A slight breeze blew gently across her skin, briefly billowing the cotton ruff of her nightdress. She glanced back at the sleeping house, and then quickly crossed the grassy courtyard toward Houghton Hall. Though she knew it hadn’t rained in Stockbridge for nearly a fortnight, the dew beneath her feet was wet and cool. Again, she wondered why.
Climbing barefoot over a low, moss-covered fieldstone wall, Catherine made her way across the greensward into a luminous field of barley in full flower. Tipping her face to the heavens where millions of glittering stars sparked, she searched for something across the infinite blackness. Her gaze dropped down to an ancient oak tree at the end of the hedgerow, an ethereal sentinel in the silverlight. Above the tree’s crown, her gaze once again traveled upward, sweeping across the vast midnight sky. She was looking for a singular collection of stars that to her eyes looked very much like the ladle that Gussie used to serve the midday broth. At length, she found what she’d been seeking. Ursa Major.
Catherine reached into a small leather pouch and pulled out a charcoal stub and a piece of linen parchment paper. Working quickly, she began to sketch the position of the stars in relation to the topmost branch of the massive oak tree. Night sounds surrounded her as she laid charcoal to paper. Scores of deep-throated bullfrogs and crickets echoed by the moonlit pond where as children, the three friends scudded small boats carved from the fallen limbs they’d found in the surrounding woodlands. A hooting owl echoed softly in a nearby orchard, as she put the last few lines to her work.
When she finished, Catherine carefully folded her sketch and placed the parchment into the leather pouch, then made her way back across the grounds of the Abbey and up to the sleeping quarters. In the room next to hers, Aunt Viola softly snuffled and groaned in her sleep. Catherine quietly latched her door, and crossed over the soft tapestry rug that warmed her cozy chamber in winter. At the foot of the bed, Catherine lifted the lid of a hammered-copper trunk that her father had brought from the ancient bazaars of Bombay. She pulled a bundle of sketches from the trunk and untied the slender silk ribbon that kept them together. In a wide shaft of moonlight shining through her windowpanes, she spread the drawings across the rug, four and twenty in number, and then laid them neatly in a row, adding her newly drawn rendering to the collection. She could hardly wait until the morning to share the drawings with her father, for with a growing sense of excitement, Catherine realized that just exactly as she had read in a book from her father’s library, over the course of the summer the constellation had indeed moved ever so slightly from right to left over the top of the ancient oak tree. As she stared through the windo at the endless, star-filled sky, Catherine did not know how, but she avowed that one day she would understand the mysteries of this world.
Smithfield, Aldgate Parish
24 December 1664
Heavy Christmas snows were falling on the small chapel of St. Michael’s Church, a medieval stone parsonage just outside the boundaries of London proper. Swirling flakes and mid-winter fog were creating an eerie silence in the fields around the ancient sanctuary. Frozen ice crystals cracked beneath the hooves of the mare that was harnessed to a creaking cart. The cart pulled up short on a little-used path that led to a field just beyond the churchyard. Lashing the horse to a barren tree dripping with icy shards, two heavily cloaked men pulled shovels from the bay and made their way slowly toward a lonely corner of a snow-swept cemetery, leaning hard into a gusting wind.
“Ere,” said the smaller of the two, as they stopped near a rough mound covered with new-fallen snow. He pointed toward a newly covered patch of earth.
“Dig,” he grunted.
The two men began to steadily carve into the frozen heath. Just over a foot down, the rusty shovel of Ezekiel Angus Dodd hit solid pine with a heavy thud. His partner, Flynt Pollard, gazed down nervously, as Dodd stood upright, stretched his twisted spine, then leaned on his shovel and winked.
“Aye, thas it, nae,” he said, glinting a crooked half-smile.
A sudden, electric shock charged through every last nerve ending of Pollard, a disreputable thief with an immoderate and largely inaccurate habit of cockfight bets. Though he knew exactly why he was here on this of all nights, hiding a small lantern in the folds of his cloak and glancing furtively across the desolate field toward the clergy-house of St. Michael’s to be sure the priests were deep into their sacramental wine-fueled slumbers, he wished for all the world that he weren’t. Graveyards gave him the fits.
“Bring ye’ lantern closer, nae,” barked Dodd.
Pollard could see that heaving the sodden weight of snow and wet dirt off a newly buried coffin was hurting Dodd’s twisted back, for the little man was in a very foul mood, indeed. Pollard lowered his head and thrust his spade into the earth once more and wondered how the devil he had ever fallen in with the scheming caretaker of St. Michael’s.
Pollard knew that the little caretaker was paid scant wages to polish the pews, the floors and the very large egos of the parish vicars. He also knew that Dodd was dead broke. Slipping out of the house on Christmas Eve to dig up what he had planted mattered not a whit to the caretaker who had dragged him in on the scheme that very day over a tankard of ale. Guineas are bloody hard to come by, wheedled Dodd, a man with seven ravenous mouths to feed and one more on the way, and aye, God, Pollard, we’ve got to take ‘em where we can get ‘em. Dodd had tossed another coin on the barrelhead, tempting him mightily with another ale. That he was also dead broke was more to the point, thought Pollard, grimly throwing another spade full of dirt on the snow.
“Nae, grab tha’ end,” whispered Dodd, his gravelly Scottish burr low and urgent.
Pollard thought for a moment about the small fortune he could make in just two days time. He also thought he might just bolt for the horse and abandon Dodd to this strange and ungodly business. Pollard stood in the knee-deep snow and cast a fearful glance at the craggy stone cairns in the little cemetery listing in the snow; melancholy markers of husbands, wives and countless children lost to the ages. The shadowy apparitions they made on the icy drifts were deeply chilling to a man of his considerable imaginations. But then he thought about the two menacing cutthroats who stood each night outside his dingy room above the brawling Ratcliff Alehouse, their twitchy fingers ceaselessly caressing well-worn sword handles, their leers and insults at the steady stream of harlots parading through the narrow, twisted hallway; and their mounting impatience for payment on the last unfortunate wager he’d made downstairs at the riotous dockside inn. He also thought about signing onto the first galleon headed for France. Mostly, though, he thought about Flossie. Uproarious, voluptuous, magnificent and truly expensive, Flossie. Two silver guineas would indeed go a very long way toward solving his most vexing problems.
Pollard sighed. “Aye.”
He dropped to his knees and reached a trembling hand deep into the trenching. He took hold of a rope handle at the top end of the pine coffin that housed the remains of an unknown beggar who had just the day before passed from this world into the next, inhaled deeply, and gave a mighty jerk.
“Jaysus, the bloke’s heavy enough!” muttered Pollard, heaving the coffin northward from its final resting place.
“Quiet!” Dodd hissed. “We’re not being paid to measure the man, just to ‘aul ‘im back up.”
With the beggar’s coffin dragged halfway out of the muddy hole, Pollard looked up and froze. Dodd jerked his head around, his myopic eyes squinting toward the rectory.
“Damnation!” Dodd cursed, as he dropped his shovel into the snow.
A soft glimmer of candlelight appeared through a small leaded glass window above the narthex. Pollard quickly snuffed the flame of his lantern, held his breath and watched. Long seconds ticked by. The shadow of a stooped and shuffling old man crossed slowly past the windowpanes. The two men waited anxiously, as a frigid gust of wind billowed through their cloaks and swirled the snowflakes around them. Pollard shivered and pulled his woolens tighter. Dodd raised a finger to his lips.
“Shhhh,” he whispered. “Don’t move, nae.”
Pollard nodded slightly and stood, shifting from foot to foot to keep warm. “Aye.”
At length, the candle was extinguished, and once again, darkness fell over the rectory. Pollard exhaled in relief. The two men returned to their charge, struggling under a leaden moon to pull the coffin from the earth and jockey the cumbersome pine box into the bay of the waiting cart. When they’d finished, Pollard took a shovel and tossed the scattered dirt and ice back into the hole that was quickly covered by the drifting snows. They’d be back in just twenty-four hours time, and by God’s good graces, no one would be the wiser. Pollard clambered up to the bench of the cart and reached for the reins. Dodd threw a blanket over the coffin and sat in the back.
“Giddup,” hissed Pollard, more than anxious to abandon this God-forsaken snowy field.
With a quick flick, the snorting horse carried the men and their plunder back down the frozen path toward town as the faint light of dawn began to wash over the horizon.
Just outside the walls of London, the small hamlet of Smithfield was a bustling little village. In the quiet interlude before the break of day, however, the muddy lanes of Smithfield were deserted. Only the sleepy inhabitants of the local whorehouse, the fishmongers and the peasants who rose early to display their wares for the morning’s market were rustling about at that particular hour of the morning. Scant attention was paid to the cart and its cumbersome cargo; the villagers had troubles enough of their own.
Pollard yanked on the reins and drew the creaking cart up short to a small, thatched roof cottage on Hawthorne Lane. He dismounted and gave a soft knock on the low, lime-washed door. From inside, the latch was unbolted and the door swung wide. Pollard was sorely troubled that they’d been in the cottage many a time over the last few months and he took a deep, apprehensive breath as they dragged a pine box from the cart once more. The two men hauled the coffin inside, banging it off the walls through a narrow hallway and past a single room sparsely furnished with a wide desk, a high-backed chair and a tidy bedstead. Pollard saw that the desk was covered with open books, stacks of papers, inkwells, quill pens and countless wooden candlestick holders, the candles burnt to the quick with heavy waxen layers dripping down the sides as though the occupant worked through many a long night. He wondered who would spend that many hours with their nose in a book.
Pollard banged into a low, timbered doorway that led into a small, windowless back room that was illuminated by several forged iron lanterns. “Mind yer ‘ead,” whispered Dodd. Pollard snarled and rubbed at the growing lump on the top of his skull.
Flickering candlelight cast macabre shadows upon the rough, plastered walls. With nary a word spoken, they pried the top off of the coffin and set the lid down on a freshly swept stone floor. The two men grunted as they heaved the lifeless body of the beggar up and onto a bare wooden table. Pollard literally shook in his shoes as he dared to glance around the cluttered chamber that was overflowing with journals and curious sketchings tacked with crude nails upon the earthen walls. He was truly spooked and more than ready to hie from this strange dwelling. Dodd was handed a small leather pouch. He took a quick glance inside. Two silver coins glittered in the candlelight.
“Two more on the morrow,” came a quiet voice from the shadows.
“Aye. An’ happy Christmas to ye, sir,” said Dodd, briefly tipping the brim of his hat as he and Pollard backed nervously down the narrow hall.
Outside, Dodd dropped one coin into Pollard’s trembling hands, and quickly pocketed the other, thinking of the Christmas feast he could now afford for his burgeoning family. Then the two men, having completed their midnight labors, headed into the early light of dawn, satisfied with their wages and very well satisfied to have this ungodly night over. They left the small cottage as the sun began to rise above the pastoral hamlet. The door was latched quietly behind them.
In the windowless back room of the tidy thatch roofed cottage, a pearl-handled knife blade glittered in the light of a flickering candle, suspended over the now shirtless body of the beggar. Outside, the muted footfalls and low murmurings of the village waking to a Christmas morning could be heard. Somewhere in the cottage, a small clock softly chimed the early hour. A heartfelt prayer of forgiveness on this, the holiest of days, was whispered. Then, the razor-sharp bladepoint of a pearl-handled knife met the soft, yielding flesh of a man at once unknown and uncared about in this world, with a very practiced hand.
25 December 1664
The ferocious Christmas Eve storm that blasted through the county of Buckinghamshire during the night had finally subsided during the early hours of the morning. Raging snows had turned into the soft crystalized flakes that were now floating to earth, creating a magical mid-winter backdrop to the excitement that was about to take place inside the Abbey. In the cookery belowstairs, excitement of a different sort was unfolding.
“Mind ye, lass! The dried cherries go in tha’ batter over there,” cried Gussie Crawdor, to Annie, a heavily pregnant, dim-witted scullery maid.
Gussie pointed to an earthenware pipkin on the wooden sideboard of the Abbey’s kitchen as the startled young girl jumped, dropping the wooden spoon she held.
“Great Gods!” cursed the exasperated cook to no one in particular. “I’ll do it, m’self.” She grabbed the spoon up off the floor. “Get along with ye’, dearie,” she sighed.
The cook tossed the spoon into the wash bucket as Annie clutched at her side and lumbered for the safety of the larder.
Gussie Crawdor ran her kitchen with an excitable temper that matched the frizzled russet hair that was constantly threatening to spring in all directions from the rough cloth that was tied around her head and she was in no mood to suffer a fool, no matter how befuddled or delicate her condition.
Pre-dawn preparations for the Abbey’s Christmas feast had begun well before the household arose, and Gussie was responsible for it all. She took up the wooden vessel Annie had abandoned, rested it on her hip, and stirred the velvety cherry trifle batter with a well-seasoned stroke.
Gussie leaned back against the sideboard and contemplated tonight’s guests who would include, to her everlasting vexations, Lord Mayor Hardewicke of the neighboring town of Wells, who sat with Lord Abbott on the board of the East India Company. Lord Mayor Hardwicke, a lusty ne’er-wed whose outsized girth matched his outsized opinion of himself, could be quite the rouser. Gussie always thought he had an eye for Lady Viola, but then again, the Lord Mayor had a barker’s eye for any lass in a skirt. Aye, he was a cracking twaddler, she chuckled, mentally ticking through the rest of the guest list. There would be the families of the neighboring estates, including the aristocratic inhabitants of Houghton Hall, and the well-to-do villagers from the little hamlets of both Stockbridge and Wells. Thank heaven that the good Reverend Jessup sent his regrets, she thought; he was always quite the prig with his dour Puritan preachings. Aye, the feast would not nearly be as riotous if he turned up. She sighed. So much to do.
Another thought struck the feisty cook. The engagement of her lambkins to the spirited and spoiled Houghton lad. Though Gussie was not entirely sure she approved of the match, for she thought the lad far too cocksure for her taste, she thanked God once again that it was not for her to gainsay the curious ways of the wealthy. Gussie gave the batter one final stir, and then thrust the bowl into the hands of a passing kitchen maid.
“Into the oven, one hour,” she instructed briskly, and went searching for her husband.
“Archie!’ she yelled, as he tended to the coals in the cove of the massive kitchen hearth, “bring three cases of Bordeaux up from the cellarage.” “Put ‘em in the larder!”
“Aye, lovey,” said Archie, cheerfully swinging down a heavy sack full of kindling for the fire from his broad shoulders.
With everyone attending to their duties, a momentary hush fell over the kitchen. Gussie worked through the evening’s events, crossing off the tasks as soon as they were completed. Lord Abbott would make an announcement of the betrothal tonight and wine for toasting the young couple would have to be at the ready. She watched as Archie finished stoking the grate, and then laughed out loud as he blew her a kiss on his way to the cellar.
The massive wooden worktable anchoring the center of the downstairs cookery overflowed with a profusion of batters, puddings, and pastries. Wooden staves laden with freshly slaughtered beef and boar from the fields surrounding the estate were stacked off to one side. On the planked sideboards, several maids were polishing all manner of silver candlesticks and chargers, and laying out pewter table settings for the evening’s feast.
The thick stone and plaster hearth that dominated a small coved chamber at the far end of the kitchen burned hotly with pungent oak timbers under a rotating iron rod that was coupled by chains to an ingenious roasting contraption. Charles and Catherine had invented the device when Gussie complained that her cooking pots were not big enough to roast more than two chickens. Gussie often marveled at the cleverness of her young charges. She had never seen such resourcefulness in ones so young. Especially from a wealthy family where spoiled children were routinely banished to their playrooms, only to be raised by hard-working servants to potter away their frivolous little lives with the foolish offspring of other wealthy families. Thank the good Lord that her lambs had been raised more sensibly. Aye, thought Gussie, slamming the cook stove door on a roasting pan full of turnips and onions, if they had, to those two could make their way in the world just fine.
Looking over at the massive stone hearth, Gussie was delighted to see that the long iron rod gigamaree they’d invented now held five fragrant, golden brown geese roasting evenly over the fire. A solemn-faced little girl with wispy yellow hair plaited down her back sat on a three-legged milking stool and slowly cranked the gear with a wooden handle. Sizzling, fragrant juices from the hens dripped into heavy copper pots nestled deep into the coals that would later be made into drippings. The chickens were the first of more than threescore that would be slaughtered by several young field boys throughout the long day.
Glowing with perspiration, Gussie took a moment to lean against a counter and wipe her damp brow with the threadbare linen apron she wore on heavy workdays. She took hold of the hem and flicked at a long-legged spider crawling its way across a pine storage cabinet, then gathering her thoughts, crossed the well-worn black and white marble squares of the warm, comfortable cookery, and shouted briskly to a small army of help borrowed for the occasion from the neighboring estates.
“Look sharp, nae! Bridget, Sarah, and Alice, yer’ on the puddings down there,” she called out, pointing to a counter at the far end of the cooking hall.
She looked over to the Lord Mayor’s cook, Eliza, borrowed for the day to lend her sharp wit and considerable organizational skills to the preparations.
“Eliza! You’ll oversee the girls?”
“Aye, Gussie,” she called cheerfully. Gussie watched as, grinning, Eliza turned to the three maids and clapped her hands. “Get on with ye’ girlies, do as she says!”
Under Eliza’s direction, the three startled young maids quickly clattered to the end of the worktable and began to measure and mix ingredients into several large pattypans, stirring the velvety batters with large wooden paddles.
“McTavish, Johnny and me own Mr. Crawdor; yer’ on the meats – and mind ye’, don’t be stingy with th’ carvin’,” yelled Gussie.
Archie Crawdor grinned as he passed by and gave his ample wife a lusty smack on her broad behind. Gussie swatted his hand away.
“Nae, d’ye think I’ve time fer yer tomfoolery this mornin’, Mr. Crawdor? Get th’ wine to the pantry, then toss another log on the fire, ye’ daft man!”
Collecting the hand-forged pewter forks and knives in the larder, the pregnant maid, Annie, felt a searing stab of pain across her midsection. She inhaled sharply and clutched at her side, then fell to her knees with a second agonizing wave. The utensils clattered loudly back down into the pine thirkenbox they were stored in. She quickly glanced toward the chaos in the kitchen and closed her eyes, desperate to will the pain away. Hearing the commotion, Gussie poked her head in the pantry.
“Are ye all right, Annie?”
“Aye, ma’am,” she said, grabbing the silverware, terrified that the baby was coming early and she would be sent home. She hated to miss a fancy party.
Gussie narrowed her eyes at the ungainly scullery maid. “Is yer’ time near?” she asked.
“No, ma’am,” she breathed.” “Not for at least a fortnight, perhaps longer, I’m told.”
“Are ye sure?”
The girl nodded, wide-eyed. A skeptical Gussie was nonetheless satisfied with the answer; for she needed every last pair of willing hands she could get this day.
“Aye, then back to it, m’lass,” said Gussie, cheerfully steering Annie toward the wash buckets.
The intense, cracking pains slowly eased off. Annie breathed a heavy sigh of relief and reached for the soapy wash bucket. Gussie turned her attention back to the chaos of the kitchen and shook her head at the days work that lay ahead of them all.
Blissfully unaware of the drama unfolding belowstairs, Catherine snuggled deep into the goose down feather mattress that lay upon her elaborately hand-carved tester bed. She savored the delicious warmth of the thick eiderdown coverlet that enveloped her and thought of the days and years that lay ahead.
“Betrothed.” She dared to breathe the word aloud.
Catherine drew the crisp, finely woven Holland sheets up to her chin and absently bit her thumbnail, a habit from childhood that she fell to when deep in thought. Aunt Viola had tried many a time to make her stop; first wrapping her thumb in strips of rough cloth, then slapping her hand out of her mouth, and then finally, dipping her thumb into a vile-tasting poultice made of vinegar and ground mustard seeds. When her efforts failed to break Catherine of the habit, her aunt fell into an endless series of tiresome lectures, often chiding that no man would marry a lady with the hands of a field boy.
Catherine almost laughed aloud at the thought of her high-strung, spinster aunt giving marriage advice. She rolled over and leaned her head back upon her hands and wondered how much life would change from being a schoolgirl in the pretty herringbone brick and timbered abbey, her every move watched over by governesses, tutors and her over-bearing aunt, to becoming the mistress of the massive stone pile that was Houghton Hall.
It was, she knew, an arranged marriage. She bore no silly, girlish illusions about love and romance, being made fully aware from birth of the expectations of wealthy gentlemen’s daughters. Aunt Viola had quite seen to that. Though Catherine, by most measures, considered her title to be a bother, Viola nearly always swooned at the thought of her niece becoming the future Countess Houghton. Catherine supposed that Miles carried the full weight of his peerage as well, being the only Houghton heir. Nonetheless, she thought, Miles seemed to far more easily delight in the considerable privileges that accompanied his title than she.
Lord Abbott and the Earl of Houghton had long agreed that she and Miles would be married, though Charles would by law inherit the Abbey, their marriage was to be a ceremonial union of the two estates. A masterful stroke of commerce and ceremony to be sure, yet since she’d known Miles the full measure of her life, she did not entirely disapprove. Father would make the announcement at the banquet tonight. She wondered what the other young ladies of the village would say, their petty jealousies always on the tip of their sharp tongues.
Catherine smiled, knowing the excitement that her marriage would bring to Stockbridge. The little village and its neighbor, Wells, were tiny, peaceful hamlets nestled together like two spoons in a gentle, forested glen nearly a full days carriage ride to the southwest of London. Had she lived through Charles’s birth, the beautiful Lady Tamesine Abbott would have journeyed with Catherine to London during one of Lord Abbott’s business trips where they would have shopped for weeks, assembling an elaborate marriage wardrobe of sturdy riding habits, sensible day gowns, shooting and walking gowns, elaborate court-gowns, sheer petticoats, corsets, nightgowns and delicate chemises, as well as fur cloaks and heavy woolen doublets.
Catherine gazed at the rich colors in the tapestry tester hanging above her bed and thought wistfully of the glorious adventure she and her mother would have had while she was fitted and fussed over for her marriage gown by the finest of London dressmakers. She sighed. There was only Aunt Viola to oversee the ceremony now, and she would not be nearly as much fun shopping for such fripperies. Talented with the needle, her beloved French tutor, Lisette Chanon from the village, would craft her wedding costume.
Catherine shivered under the covers. She’d thrown her heavily burnished tapestry curtains wide overnight so that she could see the winter snowfall, but by the morning a deep chill had set into her sleeping chamber. Pulling the bedclothes high over her head, she lay still and dreaded setting her feet to the cold floor. A soft knock at the door announced the arrival of her young handmaid, Jane, who quietly entered to light the morning fire. Catherine groaned. Soon, a crackling warmth began to fill the room.
“Christmas services in twenty minutes time, Mi’Lady.” said Jane, selecting a fur-trimmed gown and deep green woolen over-cloak from a massive English oak armoire.
Catherine gazed over at a heavily carved wooden cross that hung next to her bed. She bit her thumbnail once again, contemplating the dreadfully long church service that lay ahead. She looked over to the slight handmaid as Jane lifted the woolen gown from a hanging peg and began to freshen it with a few quick strokes of a small straw brush.
“Do you believe in God, Jane?”
Catherine watched as Jane nearly dropped the gown in shock. It was clear that no one ever had ever asked the young maid her thoughts on such subjects.
“Aye, I do, Miss,” she breathed. “Do ye not?”
Catherine thought for a moment.
“I don’t know, Jane,” Catherine said softly. “I’m not entirely sure. I think I believe in only what I can see.”
Catherine reached for a journal entitled “Philosophical Transactions,” by the Royal Society of London that was lying next to several burned down candlesticks on the small table beside her bedstead. She read the cover aloud.
“The Royal Society, Jane.” Jane looked sorely confused. “In London.” Catherine tried to explain. “The Royal Society is the repository of all the known scientific knowledge in the world, can you imagine that? All the known scientific knowledge!”
“Nae, Mi’Lady,” said Jane, turning back to her task.
Catherine opened the cover, running her fingers over its thick, hand-pressed parchment pages and then looked up, questioning.
“Have you heard of Copernicus, Jane?” she asked.
Jane looked up again and stared blankly as Catherine held the journal out for Jane to see. She tapped on the slim volume.
“Nae, Miss,” replied Jane, warily. Catherine opened the book and pointed to a printed passage.
“Copernicus says that the earth revolves around the sun. But you see, Jane, the priests would have us believe that only we are in God’s favor. That everything revolves around the earth, and not the other ways ‘round.”
Catherine lay back on her lace-edged pillows and stared up at the cross once more.
“No, Jane,” she said, contemplating the carving. “I did not make myself entirely clear. I do believe in God, but I do not know that I entirely believe everything the priests say.”
“What about the after life? Are ye’ not afraid of damnation?” asked an astonished Jane.
“I suppose I’ll have to see when I get there,” mused Catherine, slowly leafing through the crisp, tantalizing pages of the scientific journal.
“Aye’n wouldn’t the priests have something to say about that!” said Jane. “Why, wouldn’t me own father take the strap to me for such thoughts!”
Catherine slapped the journal shut and sat straight up in bed with indignation, her chills vanishing with a fire that began to rise inside.
“The priests, indeed!” she exclaimed. “Aren’t they the fine ones for telling us what to do and what to think and how to behave while doing the very opposite themselves, and all the time grandly lining their pockets with many a gold sovereign?”
The handmaid gasped, wide-eyed. “I’ve never known anyone who wasn’t afraid of the priests. Does yer’ aunt know ye hold such thoughts?” Jane took a deep breath. “Aye,” she whistled. “An’ won’t she be the buggars, then?”
“Nobody knows, Jane, nobody except Charles – and Master Howell, of course.” She played with the edge of the coverlet. “Did you know that Master Howell was engaged because he was the only tutor who agreed with Father that girls should be educated?” She sighed. “If only Aunt Viola would allow me to sit with them more than once a day.”
Near the top of her coverlet, Catherine picked idly at a loose thread from a thin, ice blue stripe about as wide as her quill pen woven through the flaxen fibers. She briefly wondered why anyone would weave such an unusual color into the exquisite, cream-colored sheets, then quickly abandoned the thought and turned her attention back to Jane.
“I hear them, you know. I hear them debating God and science while I am made to sit for hours in the conservatory with Aunt Viola staring over my shoulder, counting my every stitch for the May Day Fair tapestries. It’s positively maddening.”
Catherine threw back the covers and set her bare feet to the floor. She stood and stretched.
“Aye, an’ yer’ needlework is beautiful, Mi’Lady. And sellin’ yer’ work at the fair does such good for th’ village.”
Catherine yawned. “Jane, I have no patience for embroidery.”
“Nor do I, Miss,” confessed Jane, helping Catherine into her gown. Catherine struggled into the sleeves, pulling impatiently at the fur trimmings.
“When Charles is finished, he lends me the scientific journals that Master Howell borrows from Gresham College in London. Father is truly interested in our thoughts and my opinions.”
“Science, is it?” Jane looked terribly confused.
“Master Howell says that science is the basis of all life on this earth, and that scientific discoveries about the world are being made every day.”
Catherine turned and faced her handmaid.
“Jane, I think I believe in what I can actually see, and not nursery tales for the weak and easily led,” said a defiant Catherine. Speaking the words aloud for the first time, she realized that she sounded far braver than she actually felt.
Jane drew a quick breath at the thought. “Coo-ee, are ye’ not frightened of the heresy? Are ye’ not frightened of yer’ aunt?”
Catherine smiled, instantly softening at the young girl’s innocence. “If I am late to Christmas services? I am, indeed.”
At that, Catherine laughed and quickly dressed in the pale morning light. Minutes later, she hurried down an icy path that cut through the barren garden to the estate’s parsonage and joined her family just as the Christmas services began. Aunt Viola turned and arched a disapproving eyebrow as Catherine quietly entered the church. Her aunt absently motioned for her to join the family pew. Catherine slid in next to Charles. He gave her a slight nudge.
“…And the shepherds in the field heard glad tidings of joy,” intoned Father Jessup, austere and foreboding in his magnificent crimson robes behind the lectern of the small stone and timbered baptistery.
Catherine leaned back against the hard oak pew until her aunt caught her eye and motioned her to sit up straight. She sighed and sat forward, resting her hands in her lap. Father Jessup could go on for hours, she thought impatiently. Thank heaven for Lord Abbott’s gentle, but pointed request that the good priest not stray too far from the customary canon. To her complete dismay, however, Father Jessup seemed to be warming to his biblical charge. Still waking, Catherine was having a hard time concentrating on the elaborate sermon and the ancient rituals. Something about Micah, or Michael… She didn’t know. She wasn’t interested.
Catherine’s mind was drifting toward the evening’s feast. Nerve endings tingled as she felt a disconcerting excitement at the very thought of seeing Miles once again. Strange butterflies danced in her stomach as she thought about his dark, wavy hair, his intense brown eyes, and his wicked sense of daring. It was Miles who’d made up most of their childhood games. More than once, he’d gambled with their young lives, challenging Catherine and Charles to reckless games; swinging on vines over brooks or balancing on fallen trees that stretched across deep chasms in the woodlands that surrounded the two estates.
“Please rise,” commanded Father Jessup. The small gathering took to their feet.
They’d even kissed once. She was just twelve when he’d caught her up tight in his grasp after a long game of chase through the forest. A soft rain dripped from heavy pine boughs in the deepening shadows and she remembered how his lips felt at once soft and hard, and altogether forceful. He’d caught her by the arms and pressed her up against a massive chestnut tree. The bark felt rough and it scratched against the back of her neck as she let him touch her in places she knew she shouldn’t. Unfamiliar, exquisite sensations pulsed through her as he thrust himself against her again and again. She was so ashamed and confused long afterward, but he was older and she trusted him. He was brave, foolhardy, and absolutely beautiful. Oh, how she’d missed him.
“Let us pray,” said Father Jessup, raising his palms reverently toward the heavens.
She felt a pinch from Charles, and quickly bowed her head, crossing herself a tick behind the rest. After an agonizing length, final blessings were bestowed and, at very long last, the family headed back up the icy garden path toward the Abbey.