Before the Scarlet Dawn
Author:Rita Gerlach

Before the Scarlet Dawn - By Rita Gerlach

Part 1

Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave: the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame.

Song of Solomon 8:6


The Hope Valley, Derbyshire, England

April 7, 1775

Eliza Bloome sat forward from the tattered high-backed chair when someone pounded a fist on the front door downstairs. Her father’s Bible lay open on her lap and slipped over her knees to the floor. She bent down to retrieve it, and felt the cold rippled over her fingers through a crack. Wind howled across the downs and moaned through the weatherworn windows. Shivering from the draft, she set another log on the fire and listened to Fiona’s shoes tap down the staircase. Whenever the wind rose fierce like on this night, it held the front door fast. Any moment now her father’s housekeeper would brace herself against it and the jamb until her strength gave out. As Eliza expected, the door slammed on its lock and hinges. The crash echoed up the staircase, mingling with a man’s voice.

The bedroom door quietly swung open.

“Who is it, Fiona?” Eliza glanced at her father, then back at the stout woman standing in the doorway. “Papa is asleep. He should not be disturbed.”

“A messenger to see him, my girl. Chilled to the bone, I’d say. Riding over the downs in the dead of night in the wind and cold. It must be important if he went to all this trouble. Should I let him in?”

The log caught fire and the room grew warmer. Eliza drew off her wrap and folded it across the chair. “Yes, I will speak to him.”

Fiona placed her hand over the brass knob and set her back against the door to allow entrance to a man dressed in the simple drab brown attire of a servant. He drew off his tricorn hat and gave Eliza a slight bow. A lock of brown hair fell over his broad forehead.

“Is he able to speak with me, Miss Eliza?” He glanced at the frail form asleep in the four-poster bed.

“My father is not well. It depends on who you are, why you’ve come, and for how long you intend to stay.”

“Name is John Travis. I’ve come with a letter from Mr. Langbourne with strict instructions to put it into your father’s hand and wait for his reply.”

“On a night like this? It is a wonder you were not blown off your horse, Mr. Travis. I do not think well of Mr. Langbourne for it. He must have paid you well.”

“Aye, he did. The wind is harsh tonight, to be sure. But I have a good horse, and Mr. Langbourne deemed my journey urgent. He has heard how sickly your father is. Everyone in the parish has.”

Knowing her father was not long for this world, Eliza went to his bedside and tucked in the coverlet. Tonight his breathing was labored, and when she touched his hands, they were cold as the chill wind.

Even in the bronze firelight, his face looked drawn and pale. His hair seemed to have gone white within such a short time, and his body smelled of sweat no matter how much she bathed him. He opened a pair of watery gray eyes and looked at her.

“Who is it, Eliza?”

“A man is here to speak to you, Papa. His name is John Travis. Should I send him away?”

Pressing his brows together, Reverend Bloome paused. Eliza waited patiently, knowing he needed a moment to think. Over several weeks, he had grown forgetful and confused, and relied more and more upon her to help him understand.

“I know no one by that name. Should I know him, Eliza?”

“I do believe you met him once or twice, but no, Papa. You do not need to know him. But he says he has a letter for you— from Mr. Langbourne.”

“Langbourne I do recall. Raise me against the pillows, Daughter.” He pushed back on his elbows with her help. “There, that is better. Bring him forward and leave us to speak alone.”

A shiver passed through her at the last two words. Why would he not want her to stay? What did a letter from Langbourne, a man she had barely spoken two words to, mean? But she did not need to have a conversation with him to know what he thought of her. Either in church, the marketplace, or at a gathering, he always seemed to find her, bow in greeting, and feast his eyes on her.

Once outside the door, she leaned her ear against it and listened. Muffled voices were all she could make out. Seconds later, Fiona, the woman who had nurtured her from the day of her mother’s passing, poked her head around the corner. The cap she wore looked white as snow in the candlelight. Fiona always kept her caps starched and clean, and her hazel eyes, set deep within a face round as an October moon, looked just as bright when she raised her brows at Eliza.

“Go on with you, my girl. It is not polite to eavesdrop.” Fiona waved her off and moved in front of Eliza with the tray of tea toppling to the left.

Eliza stepped back. “What is this all about, Fiona? Do you know?”

“I won’t know a thing until I go in with the Reverend’s tea. Now move away from the door. Do not let me catch you peering inside to see what’s going on. It would be rude, my dear.”

“Then I shall listen outside the door. I have every right to.”

“No, you do not, my girl. If your father wants you to know his business, he will tell you. He doesn’t need his daughter being so bold as to lay her ear upon his door and listen in on his private conversations.”

Determined, Eliza pressed her back against the wall. “Perhaps not, but I think I know why Mr. Travis has come. Langbourne sent him with a letter to Papa to ask permission to wed me. I wish I knew what Papa was telling him.”

Fiona rolled her eyes, huffed, and shoved the door open. Before she could close it with her hip, Eliza overheard, “Mr. Langbourne said he knows how dire your situation is, sir, and wishes an answer forthwith.”

“And what are the conditions?”

“It’s all contained in the letter I have brought. Ah, hot tea. I am chilled, ma’am, to the marrow. Thank ye.”

Eliza’s breath slowly escaped her throat. She pressed her mouth into a firm line, kept her back against the paneled wall, and stared at the ceiling.

So Mr. Langbourne wishes an answer? No, Papa would never be so callous as to give me to a man I do not know very well, let alone love. He believes in the sacredness of marriage; a holy, unbroken institution in the Lord’s eyes, where man and woman make a lifetime commitment to each other in their love for each other. It’s a serious matter and not to be trifled with, or bartered for land, possessions, or money.

For a moment, she thought of her mother, how, through the years her father kept his beloved’s memory alive, telling Eliza how he had loved Mary Lanham. Plenty of opportunities presented themselves, but he never remarried. And if only her brother were home. He would see to it that she married the right man and take this burden off their father. Instead, he lived far away, serving in the King’s army, committed to finding his own way in the world. In another year, he would be able to resign his service and settle down. But his choice, he said—America. How could Stephen help her from so great a distance?

Unable to bear the suspense, she turned the doorknob and the door opened slowly. Standing in front of her father, Travis turned and passed his eyes over her, as if assessing her from head to toe.

She took the cup from his hand and set it on the tray. “My father is tired. You must leave now.”

Her father lifted one side of his mouth into a gentle smile. She hoped he saw her distress. “Thank you,” he said. “Tell Mr. Langbourne I am honored by his letter. But it is my daughter who must give him an answer.”

Her father’s hands trembled while he clutched the letter between his fingers and set it down beside him. The disease that plagued his body caused the tremors, and they seemed to grow worse as the days wore on.

Hat in hand, John Travis nodded and stepped from the room.

“Do not look so troubled, child. This is good news, I should say,” Matthias reached for Eliza’s hand.

She drew up her chair beside her father and sat. “Let me guess. They have decided to accept women at Oxford and have offered that I come there to study.”

She smiled, hoping to ease his melancholy. He frowned instead. “It is nothing of the kind. Why do you jest about such things?”

“To make you smile, Papa.” She squeezed his hand. “But I failed.”

“Ah, it is good of you, but silly. Women will never be admitted into Oxford or Cambridge. You must read and study on your own at home, as you always have.”

“Yes, Papa.”

“But not too much, for all a girl needs to know is how to run a house, and you will not find that in the pages of books.”

She cocked her head. “Hmm. I do believe I might. But more importantly, love should run a house, not just head knowledge or skill. Now, tell me what Mr. Langbourne has written.”

Matthias sighed. “You have been offered a proposal of marriage.”

She glanced at the letter and did not let on that she had overheard some of the conversation. “Really? Again?”

“He tells me he will come into his inheritance soon. He says his situation at present is three hundred pounds a year. Later, he will have one thousand pounds yearly for the remainder of his life. For he has been named heir of Havendale, instead of his cousin Hayward Morgan.”

“I suppose that is because Mr. Hayward left for the Colonies.”

“Against his father’s wishes.”

“Hmm. He is a bitter man to cast off his true son.”

“We are not to judge. Whatever his reasons, Langbourne will own Havendale someday.”

Eliza screwed up her nose. “I hear Havendale is unbearably cold. I would not want to live there. And . . .”

He lifted his hand and patted hers. “Have you had any other proposals that exceed this offer?”

“No, Papa. But do not expect me to live with a man I do not care for. Surely he does not love me.”

“He says he likes you.”

“I cannot accept him.”

With a wheezing breath, her father drew himself up. “You will have to deal with him. You will be the one to say no, not I. I wish I could say he is my choice of husband for you, but I am unconvinced of anyone being good enough for my Eliza. However, if you do not have a husband soon, and I should leave this world, you shall be alone and no doubt fall into poverty. That grieves me too much to think of.”

Her father’s expression grew thoughtful, and Eliza knew to be patient. She stroked his arm in an effort to comfort him. “I could go to Stephen.”

Her father shook his head. “He is in the King’s army. He would not be permitted to take you. This—” and he held the letter up for her to see, “might be for the best.”

“I will pray, Papa, that the Lord will give me the answer I need. After that, I will reply to Mr. Langbourne.”

“Langbourne is not a bad-looking man, and he has the means to take good care of you. I know you do not know him well, for you have barely spoken two words to him in all your life. But knowing one another comes in time, and love will follow.”

Eliza frowned. “But why would he choose me?”

“For your pretty face and that beaming smile of yours, which would captivate any young man. You are healthy in body, mind, and spirit. Your price, dear daughter, is far above rubies.”

She shook her head. “I doubt the health of my mind and spirit matters to Mr. Langbourne, Papa.”

“Just consider the offer, child. You might thank me one day for my advice, as you stand over my grave.”

Stunned, she could not hold back a whimper at his mention of his grave.

The following afternoon, Eliza saddled the dappled mare kept in the single stall in the stable behind the house. She inhaled the rich scent of hay and lifted her face to greet the sunlight that shot through a hole in the roof.

Before she could lead the horse out, she heard her name and turned to see a horse and rider draw up outside the stable door. Langbourne, dressed in taupe riding clothes and black boots, dismounted. Since the last time she had seen him, he had put on several pounds, and his sandy hair peeked out from under his hat in wiry strands.

He leaned against the frame of the door and tapped his riding crop against his thigh. “Your father has, more or less, consented.” His voice sported a tinge of arrogance. “But what about you, Eliza? Have you accepted my offer?”

“No, and not a moment to dwell on it.”

“Why not?”

“Because I do not love you.”

“Love? That should not matter, at least where you are concerned. I do like you exceedingly, even though I’ve never said it before now.”

She laughed. “Like me? How can you feel anything for me when we have never said more than hello or goodbye in chance meetings either at church or in the village? And I cannot marry a man I know nothing about.”

“You shall get to know me, beginning today.” He smiled with a glint in his eyes.

She ignored him and cinched the saddle. “And I cannot resign myself to a life of boredom, shut up in some London house, with nothing to do all day but sit and sit.”

He moved closer. “I will find plenty of diversions for both of us.”

Eliza pulled her horse forward. “I am not of your society.”

“You will be. I am taking a risk, I know, by marrying a vicar’s daughter. People will say I could have reached higher. But I do not care what the gossips may spread. It is a challenge I relish.”

Turning to face him, Eliza lifted her chin. “What do you mean?”

“I should like to change you, take you like a piece of clay and mold you into a wife suitable to my status. With my money, you shall have plenty of silks, and a string of pearls that shall be envied.”

“Change me? Mold me? Now I know a union between us would be a disaster. And I do not like silk. It stains too easily. And I cannot abide lavish balls or dinner parties. I am not right for you.”

His jaw stiffened. “But I desire you, Eliza. Doesn’t that count for something? Is that not what a woman wants? That, and a rich husband?”

She huffed at him. “Surely it is an infatuation on your part. What you see before you on the outside will fade in time.”

Frustrated, he breathed out and took her roughly by the arms. “What I see is the most beguiling woman in all the world. You would end up an old spinster if not for your body, which I can only imagine is luscious beneath this dress. And that dark hair of yours—I’ve thought of it flowing over your bare shoulders. And those violet eyes to tempt me with. Can’t you see I want you?”

“I can, and in a manner I do not welcome.” She resisted his embrace and pushed him back. His lustful words caused her to wither. She squirmed out of his arms and stepped away.

He slapped the stable wall. “One day you will regret your refusal, Eliza.” He mounted his horse and rode off. When he was finally gone, Eliza climbed onto her mare’s back and nudged its side with her heel. Her eyes pooled with angry tears that slipped from her eyes and ran down her cheeks. If only he loved her for what thrived deeper than skin, perhaps then she would have considered his proposal. His handsome bank account was not enough to tempt her, nor his promise of a secure future.

Langbourne proved to be no different from the others who had courted her affections. They wanted what they saw on the outside—a body as desirable as an artist’s model, seductive lavender eyes, hair the color of black silk, and skin as light and translucent as morning mist.

She reined in her mare and dashed the tears briskly from her face. With a heart that yearned and sought God’s plan for her life, she stared at the downs that stretched far into the distance, and drew the cool, damp air deep into her lungs. Determined to make her own choice, she kicked the mare’s ribs with her heel and raced it across the windswept heath.