Table of Contents
He turned the key and pushed open the lid. There was an old leather-bound book on top. A yellowed tapestry was spread beneath it. Lucas thought of the family bible down in the parlor–dogged at the corners with faded gilt scrollwork like this, but not as heavy. Lucas took the book from the chest and angled it toward the waning sunlight through the southern window. When he opened the cover, the spine cracked. He smoothed the first parchment page 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 all that has befallen me. All who knew me once must now believe me dead, lost, or fallen, a woman beyond hope. It is my fervent wish that someone may one day read my story, so that the truth of my life does not simply vanish from the world.
My name is Verity Hightower. I was born in Hathersage, a village near on to 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 where my father served as vicar. We kept a snug cottage with kitchen gardens, fruit and nut trees in the orchard, and a tidy stable yard. There were grassy hills and some woods nearby, open places where I rambled and rode my Fell pony as a girl. I liked to stand on the old stone bridge to drop pebbles in the stream and wait for trolls to climb up and chase me.
My father was an enlightened and gentle man. He encouraged my education and love of books and writing. I taught the church school for the village children on Sunday mornings. I invented small theater scenes from bible stories for the class to enact during Christmas and Whitsunday celebrations. My mother instructed me in every domestic art, as well as fostering my youthful talent for sketching and painting. My life was small in scale and homely. My fondest hope was to marry a young vicar and share this same parsonage with my parents when they grew old.
Alas and woe! Beware the wanton ways of life, lures to the unwary and naïve, grief to the unlucky and unprepared. It is folly 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 befell our valley for weeks on end laying a bitter pall of frost across the parish. There was bare little sunlight to warm the bones or cheer the spirit. Noxious vapors rose from the river and covered the vale night and day. 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. They were dead in less than a fortnight.
I was suddenly so alone. An ox cart was summoned by the parishioners to bear away my parents’ bodies to be burned without holy rites. For many days, I scarcely kept the hearth fire stoked to warm a little broth to sup. Neighbors brought bread and porridge; they bid me eat to keep body and soul as one, yet I had no heart. I had no strength to brew tea for these visitors and listen to their familiar words of faith meant to comfort me.
In March, the spring rains came. The malaise smothering our township was broken. The freezing fog dissolved. The roads were slick with mud, yet 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 retained about my worth and prospects. Squeezing into my father’s chair in the rectory, he looked me over and pursed his lips. At last, he shook his head so that his jowls trembled like jellies.
“Have you any prospects to marry?” He finally asked.
“Marry?” I knew few boys and fewer young men, and those only the ones from our village. I never entertained the question before, in stark 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?…particularly limited.” The Bishop 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 hip, 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. I merely danced with one at the harvest fair the year before. I had no idea who the Bishop thought I might marry.
“Ah, then,” the Bishop pinched at the forelock of his wig. A puff of powder drifted down his nose onto my father’s blotter. “There are only one or two alternatives for you other than marriage, you see. You must earn your bread in this world my dear, by the sweat of the brow, even as an unfortunate orphan. Another vicar is appointed to this parish and will serve the church. 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 shabby writing desk on which he wrote his 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 most recently learned of a position that you are most suitable to undertake. You would serve as a domestic, one of the higher order, rather than a scullery. Though this engagement is somewhat uncommon, I assure you it is with a well-born and 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 join my new employers, the Sackvilles. Together with that family, I boarded a tall sailing ship bound to parts east, destined for Istanbul.
It was a sound so familiar. Lucas read for another moment before it registered. Who was in the house? His eyes burned from straining to decipher the faint script in fading daylight. He returned the book to the chest and dropped down through the trapdoor. He hurried to the entry hall.
“Hello!” Lucas called. He was sure the front door was locked, but didn’t precisely remember when he’d checked it.
“Hello?” A woman’s voice answered above him on the stairway. Lucas stopped at the foot. A stunning pale face peered down from the first landing and then recoiled. “Who are you?” she demanded.
“Who am I? This is my house. Who are you?” Lucas rested one foot on the first stair ready to climb.
The woman skipped down the stairs and stopped in front of him. Her sleek black hair was sculpted like marble.
“I’m Sloan,” she reached out her hand. Lucas took the tiny white hand that felt like a kitten paw inside his own rough palm. She smelled like ripe pear. “You must be Lucas. Hey, great! I’m so glad you’re here, now we can get things moving.” Sloan scanned Lucas’ tall frame. “You don’t look much like your brother.”
“That’s true,” Lucas agreed.
Sloan laughed and her eyes glittered like ice. “I’d say so. You two are nothing alike.” She looked him up and down. “Hey, love the dreadlocks, Lucas. Very ‘90s, very retro.”
Lucas felt himself flush until his forehead burned. What right did this stranger have walking into Nana’s house through the locked door?
“How did you get in?” Lucas gripped the bannister.
Sloan took a step back and held out her phone case. A keychain dangled from the ring attached to it.
“Mark hired me to sell the house. I’m the realtor. I work the coast market, usually Seaside to Cannon Beach, so this is a bit of a push. But what a great property! Cannon Beach can be very lucrative, but Astoria is a dice roll. This house will bring loads of offers.” Sloan studied the hardwood floors and original wainscoting, nodding her approval as she scanned the Victorian architecture. “I’ll need to take a look around, give it a walkthrough. Then I’ll work up comps.”
“Where did you get the key?” Lucas squared his shoulders. Sloan opened her phone and started typing.
“I picked it up from the attorney’s office.” She didn’t look up.
Sloan glanced up at Lucas but kept typing.
“Your probate attorney, Chad Walker, he’s the one handling the estate. I’m texting him right now.”
Lucas realized there would be paperwork when Nana died, but didn’t consider there would a lawyer involved, or a trespassing real estate agent, however attractive.
“Look,” Lucas paused a moment to wonder how much authority a realtor might have over him. “Give me back the key. I’ll see the lawyer tomorrow. I’m here now. I don’t want you, or anyone else, just coming in whenever you feel like it.”
Sloan swung her chiseled hair and shrugged as she finished her text.
“How about this, Lucas. Since I’m here already, show me around. I need to take photos, and I can’t give the key to you. I signed for it at Walker’s office. Maybe I’ll drop it off there. You can pick it up when you meet with him, although that will be inconvenient going forward for everyone. How does that sound?”
Lucas scratched at his chest.
“OK, I guess. We can start upstairs.”
The tour concluded in the kitchen at the back of the house. Outside it was growing dark. The windows mirrored their movements as they passed from room to room. Sloan peered down into the cellar, but didn’t want to go down the stone steps, only asking a few questions about its construction and whether it stayed dry in winter. She stopped outside the narrow stairway leading up to the attic.
“Where does that go?”
Sloan took hold of the doorknob, but Lucas stretched his arm across the jamb. Sloan tugged at the door.
“Lucas, I need to see it too. I need to check for leaks, see the view. I know there are windows in the attic. I saw them from the street. There might be big potential renovated into a loft, or use the head space to raise these kitchen ceilings.”
“Too dark, not tonight,” Lucas shook his head. “I need to replace the light bulb up there. It’s rickety.”
Sloan backed away to the center of the kitchen. She swiped through the gallery of photographs she’d taken.
“Okay, I have most of the shots I need. A few of these might need better light, but they’re mostly okay. I already have some shots of the exterior. Maybe I can come by tomorrow and check-out the attic?”
“Maybe,” Lucas wondered how he would keep Sloan out of the attic. He wanted to go back and open the chest, continue reading Verity’s story. He didn’t want Sloan prying.
Sloan waited for Lucas to say more, but he was watching his own watery reflection in the darkened window.
“Well, give me your phone number, Lucas, and I’ll give you mine. We’re going to be working together, so that would be helpful.”
“I thought you were working for Mark?” Lucas finally looked away from the window and back to Sloan.
“Mark hired me. But technically, I work for you.” Sloan cocked her head and studied Lucas. “Your grandmother named you executor of her estate. You make the final decisions.”
“No shit,” Lucas laughed and then shivered. He shook his head. It seemed a ghostly joke Nana was playing. He shivered again and thought of the chest in the attic he’d opened just hours ago.
When Sloan finally drove away in her black Escalade, Lucas rummaged in the mud room. He found a light bulb and climbed up the narrow stairs to the attic.
The attic was the size of a galleon when he was younger; the view was the view from the crow’s nest on a schooner when he was a boy. Lucas screwed in the lightbulb. The bunk he built from scrap lumber was still there, and the mattress. When the play battles ended, the brothers fought in earnest. Lucas abandoned their bedroom to claim the attic for his own.
Lucas knelt in front of the chest and stroked the cracked leather and nicked brass corners. The clasp was tarnished black but the shiny silver key slotted in the keyhole was unblemished. Where did the key come from? How long had it been in the lock? Did Nana finally find the key and reunite it with the chest, or was it never really lost after all? Lucas sat back on his haunches and stroked his beard. He opened the chest and took out the book.
We traveled southeast in riotous seas that plunged and rocked the ship so violently that waves crashed over the decks. Every hour of those first days, I feared the creaking hull would splinter into a thousand pieces. We were confined below, each in our own cabins; mine was little more than a cupboard with a cot and chamber pot where I passed the time sketching under the dim light of a dirty lantern, or dozing until the hammering waves woke me again.
Upon rounding the Pillars of Hercules, the weather suddenly turned fair and the ship slipped tranquilly through calm blue seas. The crew pointed out porpoises cavorting and leaping in the wake behind the ship when we were finally able to come up on deck. The sun blazed hot by afternoon off the water, even in that early spring, yet I was glad to be away from the bitter memories of Hathersage and the killing damp of the past winter. The moonless nights revealed an endless canopy of milky stars. Having never traveled beyond the Midlands, I was astonished each morning when I came on deck by the broad expanse of water meeting sky at the horizon. How big the world was! I loved the wild smell in the wind and the taste of salt in the spray.
With the change in the weather, I was finally able to become acquainted with my new charges. The Sackville children, Charles and Lottie, were mild and curious, though quickly growing bored with our cramped sea journey. I started lessons for them each morning, setting them reading and writing tasks in their cabin, while I inventoried what manner of materials had been provisioned for the children’s instruction. I oversaw the children’s meals and daily routines of exercise and hygiene. It was a welcome distraction from the dull ever-present grief I felt.
Charles was eleven and fancied himself a sophisticated young man. He had opinions on every topic, especially politics or philosophy. I surmised he was merely parroting the views of his father, Lord Sackville. Lottie was nearly eight. She loved to watch me sketch when we lounged at leisure on deck in the afternoons, so I began to teach her to draw as well. At breakfast, she pocketed crusts of bread to throw to the ever-present seagulls shadowing the ship for refuse. The children shared a cabin with their nurse. I remained in my cramped low closet, but it was snug enough, and all my own.
When the ship docked in Gibraltar, the children and I were allowed to disembark to explore the port. We walked the battlements of the Moorish castle under the watchful gaze of the Tower of Homage. We browsed the booths in the busy central market in its confusing cacophony of sound, with so many languages spoken in such a small space. We were beguiled by the scents of foreign fruit and spices and the songs of exotic caged birds for sale.
On our excursions, we were assigned an escort in the person of one Lieutenant Scott, a cavalryman in Lord Sackville’s troops, to ensure our safe passage in the strange city. The lieutenant was hardly older than me and sported a blond mustache so fair it disappeared in the noonday sun. He walked a bit in advance to clear the way brandishing his musket before his red coat.
On our second day in port, our little group climbed the famous Rock. Lieutenant Scott helped the children gather posies of brilliant red poppies and lush floats of rosemary and thyme, which they presented to me with bows and a flourish. The good soldier refused to let us climb to the top of the Rock. It was inhabited by wild apes he said, so we returned to the ship before tea, despite Lottie’s plea that we seek out the beasts and sketch them. The crew stowed barrels of fresh water, crates of fruit, chickens, and pigs before again hoisting sail. We set out to sea before sunrise.
The Sackville’s nurse and cook was a Hindi woman close to my own age. She was my only companion during the journey. When I asked her name, she insisted her name was simply the same as her duties: Amah. We sat together down in the galley peeling potatoes every afternoon. Amah told me little stories about her childhood home, the mischievous djinns, and her many gods and goddesses. I taught her English skipping rhymes I remembered and the letters of the alphabet. Each day I carved one letter into a potato as I peeled and Amah copied the letter in her potato.
Lady Sackville was kind enough, I suppose, though distant. She welcomed me in passing, yet expressed how pleased she was that I undertook the education of the children in letters, music, and common courtesy, while traveling abroad to such a wild and remote posting. Unfortunately, the Lady was vague in defining my duties, as she suffered from some persistent malady requiring the constant relief of laudanum. Lord Sackville remained silent and scowled during my initial interview, deferring entirely to his wife. He refrained from addressing me directly thereafter.
During the fair weather of our voyage, Lord Sackville was constantly in motion. Each day he could be found strutting along the deck of the ship, browbeating the sailors at their tasks, all the while thrashing his cane against canvas and rope. I made it my afternoon habit to nestle down in a thick coil of mooring rope at the rear of the ship to sketch, often joined there by Lottie. As I worked a little scene in my notebook while sailing past a shimmering blue island, I overheard the lord muttering oaths and curses about his posting to Kazakhstan. A damnable undeserved fate, he repeated, and swung his silver-tipped cane at the mizzen mast. I sunk down a bit further into the ropes in hopes the lord did not notice me there.
It was to this distant land we were traveling, first by ship and then overland by caravan. The children and I unrolled a map every day, consulting the First Mate if he was at leisure, as to our progress toward this wild land between the Ottoman, Russian, and Chinese empires. We reached the Bosphorus Strait with a fair wind at our backs. On the first day of May, we landed in the great city that was once named Constantinople, and was now known as Istanbul. We were to lodge at the embassy while preparations were made for the long caravan trek to the Kazakh capital, far to the north.
Lady Sackville summoned me to her cabin while our vast cargo of luggage and furnishings was hoisted off the deck and maneuvered to the dock below. I insisted the children wash thoroughly before leaving the ship and dress in sturdy shoes and durable traveling clothes, as most of our luggage was sent forward to the assembling caravan. I donned my dark gray Brunswick with a deep blue petticoat and high-laced boots. Our luggage and books were safely down on the docks being stowed in wagons, when I knocked at the Lady’s cabin door.
I stepped inside the doorway. Lady Sackville turned from her dressing mirror and looked me over. She turned back to the mirror and fussed with her cap.
“Verity. Good. Are the children ready?”
I curtsied a bob and replied they were prepared.
“Lord Sackville wanted me to have a word, Verity.”
“Very good, ma’am,” I had not spoken many words to Lady Sackville during our sea voyage, not since our first meeting. There was a pervasive odor of decay inside the cabin, a rankness of rotting fruit or spoiling fish. I tried to refrain from covering my nose and took only shallow breaths.
“You see, Verity,” Lady Sackville gazed up at the far corner of her cabin for a very long time. I waited with a growing fear I was being dismissed just as we arrived in the East. The idea grew in my throat and, combined with the sickly smell of the cabin, I feared I might retch. Finally, Lady Sackville turned to look at me. She seemed surprised I was still standing at the threshold.
“Ah, yes. Well, Verity,” Lady Sackville seemed to grow more decisive. “Lord Sackville is advised that a young lady such as you must be very circumspect in these strange lands. There are many barbaric and unusual customs where we travel, and indeed, even more where we are destined. Do you understand?”
“As you say, Milady,” I bowed my head against the stench.
Lady Sackville straightened her shawl and cleared her throat. “Peculiar young ladies, such as yourself, are largely unknown and strangely prized here. Those are the very words Lord Sackville used,” Lady Sackville seemed to snigger, though I couldn’t be sure. “Restraint and circumspection is called for at all times. Indeed, to ensure any unwanted attentions are avoided, I require you to wear your cap and conceal your hair beneath it. In addition, you will take this scarf such as the women wear here,” at this she handed me a long woven shawl from her dressing table. “And cover your head and shoulders as we travel.”
Though relieved that I was not to be dismissed, yet I was still puzzled by the entire exchange. I took the scarf and thanked Lady Sackville for her kind attentions.
“It’s the awful red hair, my dear,” she confided before I closed the cabin door. “It is unheard of here, there is gossip of it. Lusty vixens insatiable in the bedclothes, or some such I suppose. Go now,” she waved me away and turned back to her mirror. “See that your hair is concealed before we leave the ship.”
I climbed down to the galley to find Amah. She showed me how to wrap the scarf according to local custom, clucking her tongue and laughing while she swathed me in the cloth, and then unwrapping it again to insist I try it myself.