Sneak Peek: Prologue, Down Salem Way

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20 December 1691

My life has only just begun. Is that not odd? I am nine-and-twenty years old and did not know who or what or why I was until I met my Elizabeth.

How did I know she was the one for me? In truth, I cannot say, but knew I did from the instant I saw her. Twas but three months ago, over the supper table where we were gathered with friends from the Village where Elizabeth and her father and sister had recently arrived from England. I noticed her the moments I walked in I saw her floating gracefully about the simple wooden cabin, making sure everyone’s mugs and bellies were full, caring for her younger sister, tending to her father. And then our eyes met and my life on earth made sense to me. I wanted to know Elizabeth, and when I discovered that she wanted to know me, I knew why I was brought forth on this earth—to love and cherish this woman.

I am not a religious man. I believe in God, I believe in His mercy, but I do not believe our lives are predestined, mapped out for us before we are born. I do not believe we have to forgo earthly joys in pursuit of some unknown Paradise in a mysterious afterworld. I believe we make our own fortunes through our work, our families, our friends, and elsewhere. I can devote my heart and soul to my wife and still do good and be good to those I love on earth and those I love in heaven. I listen to Reverend Noyes in the meeting house on a Sunday and his brimstone and hellfire sermons do not prompt my piety. There is a lot of brimstone and hellfire here in Salem, but I let it pass over me. If this is what others believe, that is all and well, but I believe in a God of compassion.

I’m certain I sound like an old married man though I have been married but this week past. Though my father is one of the wealthiest men in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, my wife is a farmer’s daughter, and she decided that our wedding would be a simple affair with family and a few friends. My wife, beautiful no matter her clothing, looked ethereal in the brown silk that matched the brown silk of the wisps of her hair that fell from her coif and the brown silk of her soft eyes. My father presented us with the best food and drink money could buy—spiced hard cider, fish chowder, stewed oysters, parsley-flavored mussels, roasted game birds, red pickled eggs, succotash stew, bearberry jelly, rye bread, maple syrup candy, nutmeats, my wife’s bride cake, and my father’s favorite, the Indian pudding with dried plums and West Indian molasses.

For myself I was all of nerves, trembling and stumbling, not from fear but from disbelief that Elizabeth Jones was about to become my wife. I forgot to tidy my hair or my clothing prior to the wedding, and I’m sure I looked like a rumpled roll of bedding tossed from the last ship to dock from England. I had to run to my own wedding, smiling, happy, impatient to create a life with the woman I love. It has been cold this December, but Elizabeth decided we would be married after the harvest months so that my father-in-law, a farmer, and our other friends from the Village could join in our joy. The magistrate recited the vows. My wife and I exchanged rings. My father bought us the rings, for, though rings are unpopular here where any earthly adornment is considered vain, he says that the thin bands represent eternity, which is as long as I shall love my wife.

“I shall never leave you ever,” I said to my blushing bride, and she promised me the same. My father brought us to our new two-story, two-gable house, one of the larger homes in Salem Town, his wedding present to us. When Elizabeth and I were finally alone, I was tongue tied. I had been dreaming of this moment from the very first time I saw her, but there I was in the great room staring into the kitchen where she appeared to be examining the larger cauldron hanging from the center of the hearth. I thought if she spoke first then she might alleviate the awkwardness. Finally, I laughed, and she laughed, and I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that this is where I’m supposed to be, in my beautiful home with my beautiful wife, and there was nowhere else in the world for me.

As I sit here looking through the diamond panes into the fading daylight I see my Elizabeth sitting in her chair by the heat of the hearth, her feet up on the tapestry-covered stool, a book in her lap, the flickering flames illuminating her peach-like complexion, her lips parted as if she had bitten into berries that stained her full mouth red, her dark curls falling down her back, her hair loose since it is just we two in the privacy of our home, her thin linen shift covered by a shawl to protect her from the cold that still filtered between the diamond panes of the windows. She looks from her book to me and smiles, and I know that all is well in the world. As I write this she stands, places her book on the chair she had been sitting on, and walks to me. She is placing her warm hands on my shoulders, and with the knuckles of her thumbs and forefingers presses the tight muscles of my neck and shoulders into submission. I exhale and lean back into her kneading hands, allowing the relief they bring me body and soul.

I thank God every night for this woman. Who am I to have such good fortune? Tonight, I, James Wentworth, am a content man, a joyous man, a grateful man with my loving, radiant wife beside me.

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Excerpt: Chapter 3, Her Dear and Loving Husband

James Wentworth arrived on the campus of Salem State College a half an hour after dark. He parked his black Ford Explorer in the parking lot off Loring Avenue near the Central Campus and walked past the Admissions Office and the bookstore, stepping out of the way of a student speeding toward the bike path. After he walked into the library he paused by the door to watch the young people studying at the tables, searching the stacks, hunching over the computers, so raw and fresh they still had that new-car smell. They had so much ahead of them, James mused. The world was exciting to them, adventures waiting to be had, dreams to be discovered, loves to be found and lost and lost and found. The students in the library were naïve, yes, but that would be tempered by experience and learning. Some of them thought they already knew everything they would ever need to know, but James had compassion for them. We think we know it all, but we never do, no matter how long we live.

Class that night was lively. These students had opinions and they liked discussing and debating, which kept the energy high. There is no worse class than when there were thirty silent students who wanted nothing more than to listen to the professor speak for fifty minutes and leave. That night’s class was an independent study seminar where the students chose which work of literature they would focus on. Usually, James found, the young people were predictable in their choices—Dickens, Shakespeare, Twain, Thoreau—but that term the students were more creative. One was studying Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray about the cursed man who never ages, a story James thought of often. He was amused by the choice, and curious.

“Why The Picture of Dorian Gray?” he asked.

“Staying young forever?” Kendall said. “How cool is that? I mean, don’t you want your hair to stay blond, Professor? You want to turn old and gray?”

James shook his head. “On the outside Dorian stayed young-looking and fresh-seeming, but on the inside he became decrepit in ways no one would guess. His physical body didn’t age, but the catch was, as the years passed, he grew more depraved and detached from human decency.” James looked at Kendall, a Junior about twenty years of age, her sandy-brown hair slung back in a ponytail, wearing a blue and orange Salem State College t-shirt with the Viking logo. Her expression hadn’t changed.

“Dorian looked young, Professor Wentworth. Isn’t that all that matters?”

“A youthful appearance is certainly valued in our society, but don’t you think there could be problems always looking the same while you grew in knowledge and experience?”

“But looking young forever would keep me out of the plastic surgeon’s office.”

“Fair enough,” James said.

“I mean, my sister is twenty-five, and she’s already getting Botox.”

James sighed as he surveyed the classroom, admiring the bright, fresh faces, and he wondered how many others were convinced they looked old when they were oh so very young. He scanned the list in his hand and his eyes grew wide. He pressed his wire-rimmed eyeglasses against his nose as he looked at Trisha, sitting front and center, a bright student, one of his hardest workers, and he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at her choice. He wouldn’t have guessed it of her.

“Why did you choose Bram Stoker’s Dracula?” he asked.

“Because I love that genre,” Trisha said. “I love the idea that there are supernatural beings so extraordinary out there walking unnoticed among us. Since we’re not looking for them we don’t see them, and when we do see them it might be too late.”

“Do you believe in vampires?” he asked.

“Of course not. That’s silly.”

“Yes,” he said. “That is very silly.”

“Besides, even if there were really vampires no one would believe it. It just doesn’t seem possible.”

“You’re right. Let’s hope we never have to find out.”

Levon Jackson, another bright student, an ice hockey player touted as a potential NHL draft, patted Trisha’s shoulder and shouted a loud “Amen!”

James sat on the edge of the instructor’s desk at the front of the room. Levon was one of his favorites that term, in two of his classes, and the young man so rarely shared without raising his hand. Though James insisted from the first day that students didn’t need to raise their hands, this was college, not kindergarten, Levon was always respectful, polite, waiting for James’ attention before he spoke.

“Amen to what, Levon?” James asked.

“Amen to let’s hope we never have to find out. Who wants to learn there’s some nasty old vamp lurking around somewhere?”

“There’s nothing to find out,” said Jeremy, who had aspirations of doctoral school at Harvard. “Who wants to waste time on make-believe?”

“Vampires could be real,” Kendall said. As other students laughed and hissed, she turned her scrunched face to the class. “Why not? Stranger things have happened.”

“How can something be dead and alive at the same time?” Jeremy asked.

“I’m not saying it’s true,” Kendall said. “I’m just saying it’s possible.”

Levon slapped his large hands over his ears, his palms flat against his head. “I don’t want to hear any more about vampires!” James couldn’t tell if he was joking.

Jeremy smirked. “You must cover your ears a lot, Levon. Everyone everywhere is talking about vampires. Vampire movies. Vampire television shows. Vampire books.” Jeremy’s fingers went to his temples and he shook his head from side to side. “I am so damn sick of vampires.”

 

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Christmas at Hembry Castle: An Excerpt

Happy holidays! Normally this time of year I post a chapter from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but since I’ve nearly finished revising my new novel, When It Rained at Hembry Castle, and there just so happens to be two Christmas chapters, I thought I’d share those instead. For those of you who have been following the progress of the new novel, you know it’s set in Victorian England (in 1870) and loosely inspired by Downton Abbey (which is set later than the Victorian period–yes, I know).

Today’s chapter, entitled what else but “Christmas at Hembry,” currently stands as Chapter 17, though that could easily change by the time the novel is released in February. This isn’t a finished product, and I never show my unfinished products to anyone. But since we’re among friends, I thought I’d share. Enjoy!

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Hembry CastleChristmas at Hembry was glorious. The same rooms that felt cavernous and cold the rest of the year glowed gold and warm from the candelabras and hearth fires that waved holiday cheer to all. Every surface in every room was covered with berried evergreens while mistletoe draped the walls and baskets of clove-wrapped oranges scented the air. The centerpiece of the castle was a 15-foot-tall tree lit with white candles and decorated with paper chains, strung candies, ribbons, and tinsel, all presents from the village children who gasped with delight to see their handmade gifts on display in the grand old house. Even the Countess of Staton was softened by the glee of the season, and she seemed almost dreamy as she floated about, her wind blowing a few degrees less coolly, and she entertained Daphne with memories of her sons’ first Christmastides. She named every present her sons had ever presented her, every mischief they had found themselves in. In the darkness, descending early now, Lady Staton spent hours with Daphne by the hearth in the sitting room over steaming cups of tea and lemon biscuits to tell stories of Frederick’s antics as a boy, like the time he meant to give his nanny a frog as a holiday gift and the slimy thing leapt first into Nanny’s apron pocket and then down the front of her dress. Oh, how she screamed, Lady Staton said, nodding at the memory. Lady Staton told Daphne how Prince Albert had brought his country’s Christmas traditions, including Christmas trees, to Windsor Castle in 1841. “And if Queen Victoria had a Christmas tree,” the Countess said, “then all of England wanted a Christmas tree.”

“We have Christmas trees in America,” Daphne said. “They add such a festive feeling to the season. And the candlelight is so beautiful.” When Lady Staton started in her chair, Daphne said, “Yes, even we Americans are civilized enough to have Christmas trees.” To Daphne’s surprise, her grandmother laughed. A Christmas miracle indeed.

The day itself was snowy, and iridescent light filtered from the quilted gray sky. The castle was full, as it was every year, with family, villagers, farmers, tradesmen, and anyone else important to the castle and its people. They had gathered together, as was the 250-year-old tradition, to eat and drink to their heart’s content, sing carols, and dance like there was no tomorrow. Daphne clasped her hands together when she saw two faces that made her particularly joyous: her Uncle Richard and Edward Ellis. Uncle Richard had disappeared without a trace a few weeks before, his only contact a cryptic message to her father about how he had pressing business but would be back at Hembry for the holidays. Despite her father’s best efforts, Richard couldn’t be found, and when her uncle turned up unexpectedly on Christmas Eve, everyone was so relieved they let his latest disappearing act pass without comment. Though it had only been a day since his return, Daphne saw her uncle smiling, easy, relaxed—as though some great weight, some strangulating albatross, had been removed from his neck once and for all and he moved all the lighter for it. She watched her uncle move among his guests, chatting with the farmers and villagers, laughing with the servants, dancing with his mother, all the time looking over the gathering as though he could hardly believe he was there. Daphne watched her uncle dance with a ten-year-old village girl, who positively beamed.

victorianchristmastreeEdward Ellis’s arrival had a very different effect. He arrived in the afternoon, making his excuses to her father, apologizing for his tardiness, but he had wanted to spend some time that day with his family in London. Edward looked at his grandfather, who stood in his usual hunched manner with his hands behind his back. Mr. Ellis looked very pleased indeed with the turnout at Hembry Castle, and he watched the festivities over his round-rimmed spectacles, nodding at everyone and everything he saw. “I’m grateful to be here now, Mr. Meriwether,” Edward said. “I’ve always wanted to spend Christmas with my grandparents.”

Frederick clasped Edward’s shoulder and steered the young man toward the steaming punch bowl. “I’m so pleased you’re here now, Edward, as is Daphne. I know your grandparents have been looking forward to this since you agreed to come.”

Frederick excused himself to see about Mrs. Pearson, a village widow whose son, Joseph, had been ill. Frederick spoke softly to the doctor, Mr. Hough, and the men approached the woman and her small boy, giving the little fellow some peppermint and molasses taffy to put a smile on his face. Frederick then led the boy to the sitting room where a pantomime put on by the village children was in full swing.

“Who is that?” Edward asked as he watched Frederick and the boy. After Daphne explained, Edward said, “That’s good of your father to take such an interest. And you.”

“Papa and I have been to their cottage a few times to see how Joseph was doing. At first he seemed better, but then he was ill again. Mr. Hough saw Joseph yesterday, but he isn’t sure what’s wrong with the poor boy. He doesn’t have a fever, and he doesn’t have the chills. He’s just ill. Mr. Hough left a note with directions about how to care for the boy, and we’ve been following his instructions to the letter.”

“It must be working. The boy looks well enough.”

“He does, doesn’t he? Let’s hope that’s a good sign.”

Daphne saw little Joseph begin clapping when carolers began singing:

God rest ye merry, gentlemen
Let nothing you dismay
Remember, Christ, our Saviour
Was born on Christmas day
To save us all from Satan’s power
When we were gone astray
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy.

When the song was done, the orchestra began an upbeat tune and dancers filed into the center of the Great Hall to bow or curtsey before taking off down the rows on their toes. It was a beautiful scene, Daphne thought, as family, villagers, and anyone else who wanted laughed like children and danced before the great tree. Mothers danced with their sons, daughters with their fathers. The Earl of Staton danced with the baker’s wife and the peacock of a first footman danced with the Marchioness of Braddleton. Edward laughed when his grandfather took his grandmother for a swing around and around. He looked at Daphne and nodded toward the dancers.

“Miss Meriwether, may I have this dance?”

DancingDaphne curtsied, and she joined Edward with the others. As soon as she started moving she forgot about everyone else. She forgot about the holiday decorations and the tables of delicious foods. She forgot the music and the very walls holding up the castle around her. She was with Edward, his left hand on her hip, his right hand holding hers. He looked nowhere but into her eyes, and she into his. His eyes were very green then, Daphne thought, spring green, green like new life and green like hope and dreams. He smiled at her, and she expected a comic comment from him as was his way, but he only smiled, and she smiled too. A space opened around them, and Edward twirled Daphne so her red velvet dress flared behind her. She felt as though she waltzed on air. When the music stopped and the others clapped, Edward and Daphne clapped too, Daphne still dizzy with exhilaration.

When the next song began, Edward grabbed Daphne’s hand and led her to the empty seats nearest the hearth. He opened his mouth, about to speak, but then he looked from the dancers to the Christmas tree to his grandparents, who were close in conversation and glancing in their direction. Edward reached beneath his black frock coat, his green and red paisley cravat falling out from his green velvet waistcoat while he fumbled in his pocket. After an anxious moment, he pulled out a small green box. He looked around, but though the room was full everyone was so caught up in their own frivolity they didn’t notice the chocolate-haired, nervous-looking young man and the small box he handed to the golden-haired, glowing young woman.

“My grandparents would say I’m being too forward, but I wish you’d accept this in the spirit it’s intended—a gift between friends.”

Daphne turned the box over in her hands. “May I?”

“Please.”

She gasped at the ruby earrings inside. Perhaps the gems weren’t of the same quality as the heart-shaped ruby ring her grandmother had given her, but they were perfect—small, round, set in filigree gold.

“You’re not offended?” Edward asked.

“Offended? They’re beautiful. Come here.” Without thinking of the hundreds of people in the castle, without thinking of anything but the present she had for Edward, she led him across the room and around the dancers to the ceiling-high tree. She knelt by the white-lace skirt at the bottom and reached around the back, pulling out a gold-wrapped box with a sprig of holly.

“This is my present for you.” She handed Edward the gift and waited with clasped hands while he opened it—a copy of A Christmas Carol signed by Mr. Dickens himself.

Edward turned the book from front to back to side to front again.  “You must have contacts beyond the grave.”

Daphne laughed. “Not quite. My father and I found it in a bookshop on the Strand in London. As soon as I saw it I thought of you, the soon-to-be famous author. Your book will be out before long, and who knows? Maybe you really will be the next Mr. Dickens.” She pointed to the inside flap of the book. “In case you were wondering, that is definitely Mr. Dickens’ signature. My father had it examined. Someone must not have known what they had when they sold the book.”

Edward stepped closer to her, closing the space between them. “I know exactly what I have.”

Daphne wanted him to look at her that way all the Christmas day, with an intensity she had never seen from him before. When the musicians played a waltz, Edward held out his hand. Daphne curtsied, and again he twirled her across the dance floor, and again her ruby-red dress fanned behind her, and again she felt lifted by the air.

This time, however, Daphne was aware of the others in the room, and she felt their eyes following her every move. Her grandmother squinted at them while she held her ear trumpet in place to hear her Uncle Jerrold and his wife Hyacinth, who had her monocle to her eye so as not to miss a detail. Her Uncle Richard leaned close to John Hough and whispered. Her father watched them too, exchanging sly looks with his lordship and Mr. Hough.

ChristmasFor the first time that Christmas Day, Daphne realized what she had done. By speaking so publicly to Edward, by dancing with him to the exclusion of everyone else, by sharing their gifts in this public space, she had made a choice. Most likely everyone in the castle knew how she felt about him by now. It had to be obvious in the way she felt light on her feet and grinned like a silly girl and laughed at anything he said however he said it.

So let it be, Daphne thought. While Edward hasn’t made any declarations yet, she guessed he felt the same for her as she did for him. She had to follow her heart, and her heart led to Edward Ellis.