October 21, 1630
Wooden ships languished in the Thames, lolling to and fro, like oxen taking a mud bath. The murky water lapped at the blackened oak as Papa’s words washed over her once more. Mary Langton leaned over the crumbled stone wall and buried her face in her arms. How long she wept she could only guess.
Someone moved beside her, but she could not bear to look—could not bear to face anyone. She turned her tear stained face eastward to the great port.
After an eternity, she pressed a handkerchief to her reddened nose and cast a sideward glance. “Papa.” She straightened and turned from him. What use would a discussion be?
Her sister approached and hope rose in her heart. An ally, perhaps? No, Lizzie stepped aside, apology evident in her eyes.
Papa’s voice was strained, with a sadness she’d not heard since her mother had died. “You shall come to know that I am right, my girl. You might not agree with me today, but you shall see.”
“You are wrong about that, just as you are wrong about forcing me to marry Robert.” She whirled to face him and raised her chin.
“How could you? Please don’t do this to me. Papa, the last thing I would want to do is to leave Mowsley and marry someone here in London. I could not bear to leave you and Lizzie. You know that.”
Before he could answer, wind and tide came together. Sails snapped. With creaks and groans the ships moved in awkward unison toward the North Sea. The same gust of wind that billowed sails lifted her hat.
She grabbed the brim with both hands, firmly settled it on her brow, and watched the ships as they bumped about, leaving port. Fresh tears pressed from the corners of her swollen eyes to the inky water below. “You might as well be sending me off to the colonies.” Her stomach clenched, causing the words to rush out in gasps, and she clutched her waist as she glanced at her father.
His cheeks reddened. “Hush. Do not say that. You know I love you dearly. I have always had your best interests at heart.” His voice was rough and strained.
He hurt as much as she did, she knew that, but still the words tumbled out. “Do you, Papa? And Nathan? Was he best for me?”
“Do not speak to me in that tone. I agree. Marriage to him would have been a tragedy, indeed, but ’tis why you must let me take care of you.”
It tore her heart to have words with Papa, but desperation urged her on. “I’m sorry, but how many tears must I shed? What must I do to make you see?” She was wailing now.
A second blast of wind caught her hat and sent it cartwheeling down the dock. She grasped her skirt as she raced after it. With
her free hand she tried to hold her hair high on her head, but it tumbled down, swirling in the wind.
“Be careful. We shall buy you another,” Lizzie called as Mary’s boots flew over puddles in the chase.
The errant bonnet came to rest at the foot of the stone bridge spanning the Thames. With a sense of triumph, she scooped it from the mire, then stood to face her family. Her father, shoulders slumped, trudged up the cobbled path toward the shops as Lizzie came to her aid. Thank heavens. What took her so long?
“You should not run like that. You might have broken your ankle and then how would we get you home?” Lizzie’s eyes rolled as she shook her head, but a gentle smile played on her lips. “Father says we should go to the milliner’s. He has business to finish with Mistress Haskins.” She eyed the muddied gray felt with its high crown and wide brim. “It looks worse for wear anyway. Perhaps you shall get a new hat out of all of this.”
“Business to finish? I hope it has nothing to do with me and Robert. What shall I do? I do not love him. Not one whit. I shan’t marry him.”
Her sister’s eyes filled with sympathetic tears and the corners of her mouth quivered. “Father is adamant. After what happened with Nathan, he feels there is no other solution. Certainly your prospects for marriage in Mowsley are naught. Perhaps here in London . . . Perhaps Robert . . .”
Mugginess draped her like a shawl. Her nose wrinkled at the acrid stench of the water below. Nathan. What shame he had brought to her family. She pushed her sadness aside. “’Tis not as if I loved him, Lizzie.”
“Whatever do you mean? Nathan? I thought surely after five years you had grown to care for him. You cannot tell me you have no pain, that you did not love him.”
“I did not. Truly. I think I was more enamored with the idea of marriage than with Nathan.” She folded the cu" of her sleeves back and fiddled with the lace. It looked much like the lace her sister had sewn into the gown for her wedding. She glanced at Lizzie sideways.
Did Lizzie believe her? She would never admit to an other being, not even her sister, her love of Nathan. Not after he left her standing on the church steps. “I think by the time Nathan returned from university, he realized I lacked the skills he would need in a wife. Who needs a wife who rides horses and loves numbers? He feared I would rather be out riding than washing his clothes.”
“But you loved him, yes?” She closed her eyes for a moment, bracing herself for the whitish lie. “Lizzie, I only care about the disgrace he brought you and Papa—how the whole village must have laughed at us. But I do not give a fig about Nathan or myself. I cried over the spoilt feast left on Papa’s table much more than Nathan Cadwell. How could he have done that?”
“Disgrace to be sure, but ’tis why you must let Fat her take care of you. Everyone in Mowsley knows of your disgrace. It was not very manly for Nathan to just abandon you rather than admit to you he had a change of heart. Father truly wants you to be happy. Let him take care of you, Mary.”
Lizzie wrapped her arm about her sister. “Tell him you shall marry Robert. Mistress Haskins will be a kind mother-in-law. She’s a good businesswoman, and we know she is a good cook—we’ve supped with them many times. Indeed, you can keep the books for her, as you do Father’s, and she’ll treasure your help as well as your company.”
They followed the narrow cobbled streets, and Mary covered her nose with her damp handkerchief. The perfume of the gardens mingled with the stench of garbage in the lane and underscored the capriciousness of the city. “I always look forward to our trips to London, but once I’m here I long for home.”
Her sister took her hand, her voice gentle. “You should know, little sister, Father wants to find a husband for you quickly. And London is the most likely place to find one. Mistress Haskins’s son is a most eligible one.”
“Do you not see, Lizzie? It cannot be Robert. I shall never love him.” She’d played with Robert when they were little, but as they grew older he treated her in a most awkward fashion, staring at her without saying a word. And with her engagement to Nathan, he had become downright hateful. “You and Zeke love each other and I want that someday too. Besides, he looks rather like a pudgy pear.”
An infectious giggle erupted and the two laughed until their sides ached. Lizzie smoothed her stomacher and tried to regain a degree of decorum. “You shall be a spinster if you stay in Mowsley. Father shan’t be around forever. Besides, many women who marry for the social status fall in love later. It happens all the time.”
“And the men? Do they fall in love?”
“A man would be a fool not to fall in love with you, little sister, but you are not getting any younger.”
What could she say? Mary glanced up as the shops came into view and dabbed at the tears that still threatened.
Lizzie seized her arm, directing her into Haskins’ Hats. “A wool hat or silk?”
“I—I am not up to looking at hats, Lizzie.” She cast a look around, hoping to avoid Papa, Robert, and Mistress Haskins, as if that were possible.
“It will take your mind o" your troubles. Come, this is always the favorite part of our trip. Please don’t spoil it now. Please?” Her look was more than Mary could bear, and soon the two buried themselves in feathers and lace. Lizzie tried on a pretty purple silk and Mary noted how it gave her crystal-blue eyes a hint of violet. Her sister’s striking black hair, arranged in ringlets and piled high on her head, added to the pleasing appearance. “I always feel so plain when I am with you.”
Lizzie do"ed the hat and placed it on Mary. “You are so silly. I’ve always wished for your hair, so long and thick.” She reached out to smooth the stray tangles that framed her sister’s face. “And your eyes are so pretty. Watercolor eyes. ’Tis what Father calls them.”
“Watercolor eyes.” Mary fluttered her lashes as she twisted her long hair and tucked it under. “He does, but whatever does that mean?”
Her sister laughed. “It means they change, like they were washed in color with a brush. They reflect your mood. Father says they are just like Mother’s. I’ve always been a bit jealous, truth be told.” She smiled. “Shall we try the blue? ’Tis your best color. That and green.” She handed Mary the blue hat as she placed the purple back on her own head.
Mary froze. There stood Papa and he did not look happy.
“You may each pick a hat, if you like. I need to show Mistress Haskins some samples of the felt I brought and speak to her about the wool order. After that we should be on our way. We need to make it to The Swan by nightfall. We shall sup there and stay the night.”
Mary met Lizzie’s smile with a wan attempt at joy. It looked like there was much more on Papa’s mind than felt and wool. She turned to the window but caught her own reflection. Tears sprung, landing on her lashes like dewdrops on asters. What agony. If only her life could remain the same, her world the same comfortable existence she knew growing up.
She wiped at her eyes, picked a hat, and smiled at Lizzie as Papa concluded his business with Mistress Haskins. At least Papa had not mentioned Robert. Hope glimmered.
Stardust, Starbelle, and Starnight stood patiently as the boxed purchases were secured above the pommel of their saddles. Papa lifted both girls to their horses before he mounted his own. Lizzie rode with a ladies’ sidesaddle, but Mary much preferred riding astride like the men. It was how Papa taught her and she felt much more in control. They urged the Old English Blacks into a smooth trot. As the sun began its descent, London fell behind. They rode toward Mowsley and home.
Hours passed. The dark clouds scuttled away like the ships in the harbor, while autumn’s low sun turned the rolling hills of wheat to a burnished gold. The wind rustled through yellow heart-shaped leaves of the silver birch that punctuated the landscape and brought refreshment to the weary trio. At last, The Swan came into view.
Papa reined Starnight to a walk, and Mary left Lizzie to move alongside him.
He leaned in his saddle and touched her arm. “This is a difficult time for you.”
She smiled at him. “Yes, Papa, but I’m all right.”
“I am not one to beat about the bush, as you know, my girl. We shall not find a marriage prospect for you in Mowsley. Mistress Haskins’s son, Robert, is a fine lad—”
“Daughter, quiet.” With a wrinkled brow, he studied the road. “As I said, he is a fine lad, and his mother adores you. You can help her with her books, as you do for me. You shall always be well provided for. I shall come to London as often as I can and bring Elizabeth and the children. You may come home for visits. You know I love you dearly. I want the best for you, my girl. And may I remind you, there was a time when you were fond of Robert.”
“We were six.” She shifted in the saddle. “He rather turns my stomach now."
Her hands trembled and Starbelle lost her footing for a moment. “Papa, I will try very, very hard to learn all of the accomplishments of a good wife. Lizzie will teach me. I want to be in love when I marry. I want what Lizzie has.”
“My dear girl, Elizabeth’s marriage to Ezekiel was arranged long before they married. And they fell in love, did they not?”
“Yes, Lizzie and I spoke about that today.”
“Believe me, it could be worse, and you will do as I say. This is my responsibility and for your own good. Your mother would have agreed.”
Her voice was soft as she turned back to her father. “Please, Papa, do not do this to me.”
There was no answer and she turned to flash a look toward Lizzie. Had her sister known all along that Papa had made his decision? How could she say nothing in her defense? She took a firm grip on the reins and urged her beloved Starbelle into a gallop toward The Swan.
Night fell quickly, but not soon enough. She wanted nothing more than to hide away in darkness where she could let her tears fall unnoticed. How could she marry a man without the love and passion she thought she’d found with Nathan? How hollow life would be. If only Mother were still alive. Would she say London was her only chance of marriage? Robert her only chance of a husband? Was there no chance of ever finding love?