There was a large leather-bound book at the top. It reminded Lucas of the family bible down in the parlor, worn at the corners with the gilt-work nearly gone, though not nearly as thick. Lucas took the book from the chest and tilted it toward the southern sunlight. He opened the cover with care, smoothing the thick parchment pages, and began to read.
June 1750 – Istanbul
It is with gratitude for the infinite grace of God and Fortune, I am finally able to take up pen and paper to transcribe my tale. All who once knew me must believe me dead, lost, or forsaken, a woman beyond hope. It is my fervent wish that someone may one day preserve my story, so that the memory of me, and my family, does not simply vanish from the world.
My name is Verity Hightower. I was born in Hathersage, England, near Sheffield, on May 1st in the year of Our Lord 1726. I am the only surviving child of James and Virginia Hightower, may God rest their blessed souls. I grew up in the parsonage in Hathersage, a snug cottage with tilled gardens, fruit trees, and a tidy stable yard. There were grassy hills and forest nearby, open places where I rambled as a girl. I stood for hours on the old stone bridge dropping primrose petals into the stream and waiting for trolls.
My father was an enlightened man. He encouraged my education and love of music and reading. I taught church school for the village children on Sunday mornings, inventing small theaters from bible stories to enact during Christmas and Whitsunday. My mother instructed me in domestic arts, as well as indulging my youthful talent for portrait painting. My life was small and homely. My fondest hope was to marry a young vicar and share the same parsonage with my parents when my father retired.
Alas and woe! Fie to the wanton twists of life, lures to the unwary and naïve, grief to the unlucky, to believe a snug sheltered life is simply an apple ripe for picking! Come the hard winter of 1743, my entire life came crashing down. A freezing fog fell for weeks on end, a bitter pall of frost, with little sunlight to warm the bones or cheer the spirit. Noxious vapors rose from the river and covered the vale. Bess, our lovely white milk cow, took fever at Epiphany and died within a day. Soon after, both my father and mother took the fever and were dead in less than a fortnight.
I was alone and bereft. An ox cart came and bore away my parents’ bodies to be burned. For many days, I scarcely kept the hearth fire stoked to warm a little broth to sup. Neighbors brought bread and porridge, yet I had no heart to brew them tea and listen to hushed words of faith spoken to comfort me.
In March, the spring rains came and the malaise over our township lifted. The roads were slick with mud. With the rains, came the Bishop. If I did not understand that my family was poor while my parents lived, the Bishop disabused me of any illusions I might retain about my prospects. Squeezing into my father’s chair in the rectory, he looked me over and pursed his lips. At last, he shook his head until his jowls trembled.
“Have you any prospects to marry?” He finally asked.
“Marry?” I knew very few boys and fewer young men, only those in our village. I never entertained the question before, in real terms, of securing a suitable groom.
“My dear,” The Bishop looked me up and down. “I am sorry to say that your prospects appear…how shall I say?…severely limited.” The Bishop tutted and scowled across the desk. “By your womanly appearance, I presume you are of an age and fertility to marry. I understand you are well-versed in letters, music and domestic management, however eccentric your appearance. Perhaps you know of a young man who might take you to wife?”
By this, I understood the Bishop to mean that despite mature bosom and hips, my red hair would deter any superstitious suitors from matrimony. Most in the Midlands still held to the belief that a woman’s red hair meant she was wanton, at best, and at worst, a witch.
“I hadn’t thought to marry,” I said. I hadn’t thought to marry because I’d never even kissed a boy, only danced with one at the harvest fair. I had no idea who the Bishop thought I might marry.
“Ah, then,” the Bishop grimaced and shook powder from his wig with a little pinch at his forelock. “There are only one or two alternatives to marriage, you see. You must earn your bread in this world my dear, even as an unfortunate orphan, by the sweat of the brow. Another vicar is appointed to this parish, and he will arrive soon. We must arrange for your removal with all alacrity.”
My heart sank. My lips felt numb. I stared down at my father’s writing desk and the stained blotter on which he wrote weekly homilies.
“You are young and healthy, that is good. Your father left no debt, so you need not fear the poor farm, yet. By the Lord’s grace, I have learned of a position for you to serve as a domestic of the higher order. Though this engagement is somewhat exotic, it is with a well-born family, a noble family. I understand you excel at instructing children.”
I nodded. I felt dumb as old Bess just before she died.
“Very good,” the Bishop scratched at his wig again and stood up. “Pack your things, my dear. We’ll have you on the coach for Liverpool tonight.”
With that I was dismissed. I returned to the cottage to gather my clothes and what few mementos I could squeeze in my mother’s portmanteau. The Bishop was true to his word. I was bundled up with my scant luggage, given a small basket of bread and sour apples, and set on the night coach to the west. In Liverpool, I took ship for Brighton to meet my new employers, the Sackvilles. With that family, I boarded a tall sailing ship to parts east, bound for Istanbul.