The creak of the opening gate jerked Bella from sleep. She held her breath, listening, all of her senses alert and her body tense.
Merrymount was quiet now, even though the May Day revels had lasted late into the evening. She could hear the soft hiss of the embers in the firepit outside and the wind brushing over the grass and leaves, but more important was what she couldn't hear – the insects and nightbirds had fallen silent. Something was out there. Something was wrong.
There was a soft scraping sound, a leather boot sole against gravel, and then came an indistinct whisper. A soft click of a buckle against metal. Panic almost made her freeze, but every instinct was telling her they needed to run.
She rolled over and shook Edward's shoulder. He took an abrupt snorting breath and his eyes blinked rapidly then moved to find her in the dark. Bella put a finger over his lips and reached across the pallet to where Rose was sleeping. She gathered the sleeping girl into her arms and gestured for Edward to rise just as a loud boom shattered the silence. Someone had kicked in a door of one of the houses.
"Up! Up with you!" a man shouted.
"That sounds like Standish," Edward whispered. He was hastily yanking his breeches on. "What's Standish doing here?"
Bella grabbed their pallet and threw it into a dimly lit corner. "I don't know, but we've got to hide."
A woman's scream cut through the night as another door broke, and a man's voice shouted something indignantly, his words drowned out by other men roaring for everyone to go outside. Similar explosions of sound were erupting all over the village. They would be here soon.
Bella pulled Edward to the back of the room among the barrels of ale and sacks of seed wheat just as Jenks stumbled down the stairs, rubbing his eyes. He saw Bella, and his brow crumpled in a question. He opened his mouth to speak but never had a chance before the door smashed open and soldiers poured into the room.
Bella grabbed Edward by his shirt and pulled him down behind a pair of barrels near the back door. A soldier shoved Jenks aside and climbed up the ladder to look around in the loft. "There's no one else, Captain."
"Outside with you," Standish said.
"What news?" Jenks demanded. "How is it that you come to disturb good people at their rest?"
"Out with you, I said." Standish shoved him roughly toward the door and the soldiers followed. Jenks turned his head toward the spot where Bella and Edward were hiding. His mouth formed a word. It looked like run.
Once they were gone, Bella jerked her head in the direction of the back door. She turned the simple wood latch that held it shut and slowly opened it a bit to peer out into the night. The moon was still shrouded by clouds, but there was enough light for her to see. Once she was sure it was safe, she opened it and gestured for Edward to follow her.
They hurried for cover in the tree line on the small hill behind Jenks's house. Edward's feet were almost as quiet as her own in the dampened leaf litter. She had a fleeting regret that she hadn't grabbed a blanket for Rose, but the girl still slept, her head pillowed against Bella's shoulder.
From their vantage point, they could see that everyone in Merrymount had been forced outside around the fire pit. They were in various stages of dress and everyone looked more confused than frightened at this point. One woman clutched a blanket around herself for modesty as she huddled with the others.
One soldier was busy stoking the firepit back into flames. He threw on a few logs as Standish stepped forward.
"This place," he intoned, "is an affront in the eyes of the Lord. You feast in plenty while your neighbors hunger."
"It is not my fault the Wôpanâak won't trade with you," Jenks snapped. "You drove them away."
"It is because you're giving them rum and guns." Standish glared toward the group of Native men who were looking around uneasily, probably unable to understand what was being said, but being dragged outside by armed men spoke in a universal language.
"Rum, certainly." Jenks shrugged. "But I have no guns to trade even if I should want to."
Standish clearly didn't believe him, but wasn't going to argue. He pointed off to the middle of the square. "But that… that was the final straw."
Jenks turned his head and stared at the object to which Standish had gestured. "The maypole?"
"Yes!" Another voice spoke from among the group of soldiers. It was Bradford and he was clutching his Bible to his chest as if it were a shield against this place. "Drinking and dancing about it many days together, inviting the Indian women for your consorts, dancing and frisking together - like so many fairies, or furies /rather - and worse/ practices. As if you had anew revived celebrated the feasts of the Roman Goddess Flora, or the beastly practices of the mad Bacchanalians."
Silence greeted this speech. Finally Jenks gave a snort. "I know not what you heard, or think you heard, but 'twas all innocent fun."
"There is naught that is innocent about this devilry."
"Where is John Brandt?" Standish demanded.
"Who?" Jenks replied, and his tone said that he knew exactly whom Standish sought but wasn't about to cooperate.
"Here, Captain." A teenage boy spoke in a timorous voice and stepped forward. He squared his thin shoulders and held his chin up, posing bravely, though even from this distance, Bella could see how he shook.
"You are indentured to Matthew and Sarah Good?"
"And you wickedly abandoned your lawful service to come to this ... place?"
"They…" John rubbed his arms as if he was cold. "They treated me poorly, Captain."
"Poorly," Jenks repeated. "That's a mild way of putting it. They were brutal to the boy."
Standish didn't care. "Bind him. And try to find the other one. Samuel is his name, but I don't see a boy his age among these."
Two of the soldiers obeyed, yanking the young man's arms back, harder than necessary. He winced but said nothing as they tied his hands together.
Some of the soldiers stepped forward with torches in their hands, which they lit in the merrily crackling fire.
Jenks held out his hands. For the first time, he looked frightened. "Wait, you… please..."
"Burn it," Standish ordered.
There were gasps and cries from the people around the fire, but the soldiers ignored them. The men fanned out, each entering a building. In a moment, orange light began to glow from each doorway. A group of soldiers were still moving around the building down at the end, emptying Merrymount's storehouse of its grain and trade goods. Bradford scowled as the pile got larger. When everything was out, they hurled their torches inside. The air was acrid with smoke.
"Bella, we have to go," Edward whispered. "Rose could wake at any time, and if she cried…."
He didn't need to finish that thought. Bella knew they'd be standing down there with the group if that happened, and there was no way of telling what Bradford and Standish had in store for the residents of Merrymount. "Follow me," she said, knowing that in this dark, Edward's eyes wouldn't be able to find their way back to the main path. It sounded like Bradford was shouting a sermon behind them. The sounds of fire followed as the buildings ignited in earnest and it made her shiver and hold Rose closer. She felt better once they were on the main path again, though God only knew how they'd justify being out at this hour if one of the soldiers happened to spot them.
"I'm sorry," Edward said, breaking the silence. "I thought you'd enjoy having a Mayday revel as you used to … in the old days."
He meant the life in England that he could remember only in fragments, in the fog of dreams. Bella took his hand. "I did enjoy it." It had been the first time she danced in years. "You certainly couldn't have known what Bradford had planned."
"I should have," Edward said. "His rhetoric has been getting so heated of late, calling the place Mount Dagon. The more the place prospered, the angrier he got. I suppose he had expected God to strike it down and when God didn't comply, he decided to act on His behalf."
Bella arched a brow but said nothing. Edward's voice had a tinge of bitterness and it was the closest he'd gotten to outright criticism of the religion in which he'd been raised.
They returned to their house without anyone being the wiser. Once they were inside, Edward let out a shuddering sigh. He kissed rose on the forehead and then kissed Bella and drew them both into his arms where he held them for a long while, until the first glimmers of dawn began to peek through the gaps around the shutters.
Though they'd barely slept, they had to get through the day. Bella started her morning chores while Edward donned fresh clothing. They were both afraid lest the scent of smoke clung to the ones they'd been wearing. Bella dressed Rose and started the fire, then headed out to milk the goat. They were eating breakfast, she thought, while their friends' homes burned. And she could do nothing about it. She sipped her morning cider, staring out the opened window at the bustling town.
Edward came up behind her to nuzzle her hair and plant a kiss on the curve of her neck. "I hate this place," she said.
She felt him go still behind her. He didn't respond, but she could almost feel what he was thinking.
A few hours later, Bella headed out to the market. She didn't really need anything, but she wanted to get a feel for the mood of the town. The burning of Merrymount was the subject on everyone's lips, and she saw furtive glances toward the dark smudges of smoke that stained the sky until midday. Most were supportive of Bradford's decision, but she doubted if many would have voiced opposition, at least not publicly. Everyone seemed delighted with the trade goods Bradford and Standish had seized. The goods were being stored in the meeting house, and it was said they'd be distributed to the deserving - which would likely be Standish's soldiers, Bella thought. She waded among the townspeople, catching bits of the conversations.
The place had been a nuisance, the cheese merchant's wife said as she wrapped up someone's purchase. Harboring all sorts of ne'er-do-wells, like that Brandt boy.
Bella's ears perked up and she moved closer, idly examining an apple while she listened.
"They're going to give him his lashes at the meeting house today," the woman said, and sounded a little smug about it. "That'll show the bondsmen what happens when you break an indenture."
Bella felt like she would never get used to the cruelty of human law, no matter how long she lived among them. When she returned home, she told Edward what she'd heard about the burning of the town, but she didn't tell him about the whipping. The words just wouldn't come. He could tell she was troubled and pulled her into his arms. He would hear about it, of course. But right now, she didn't want to say the words, didn't want them to hang in the air between them.
Had it not been for Jacob, Bella and Edward might never have known what happened to Jenks. They were merely told by Bradford at Meeting that Merrymount had been dissolved, the men who'd been residents were coming back to Plimouth or joining other colonies. Apparently, after Bella and Edward had slipped into the woods, Bradford had conducted a trial at which Jenks was found guilty of stealing a canoe from a Wôpanâak trader, and that Jenks was returning to England.
Bella looked across the room to where Edward was seated in the men's section. He glanced at her and she could see in his expression that he was puzzled too. Jenks stealing a canoe? It made no sense.
It was Jenks' good standing with the Wôpanâak that saved him.
When Jacob stepped from behind the trees as Bella made her way down to the sea one evening, she was startled. She hadn't expected to see him again and thought his people were far from here. But when she took his hand, she understood why the Wôpanâak would make the effort to get a message to him and have him come to meet with Bella.
Through his mind's eye, she saw Jenks, shivering, his skin red and blistered from the sun, standing in knee-deep water on a tiny sandy shoal far out into the bay, barely within sight of the coastline. He held in his hands the only items he'd been given for his survival – a knife and a Bible. In his other hand was a basket with things the Wôpanâak had given him when they discovered that he'd been marooned out here - emergency rations of dried meat and skins of water until better arrangements could be made.
She could feel Jacob's cold, sick rage and she was feeling a similar sensation, deep within her. Part of her was astonished that Bradford could be so cruel; the other part was unsurprised and wearied by it.
His message delivered, Jacob's hand loosed around hers as he prepared to disengage. Bella tightened her grip. "How are you faring, Jacob?" she asked him.
He seemed faintly surprised she'd asked. "Well enough."
"And your people? Where did you go when you left the seaside?"
She could feel his hesitation, and knew how difficult it must be for him to trust her. "…. North. Near the lands of the Siwanoy people."
She gave his hand a squeeze. "I hope you are safe and happy there."
"We will never be safe." His face was as grim as the mood their link send through her blood. "But we will defend our new home and keep it for our people. Yours must never come. Can you tell them that? To leave us in peace? You build your homes on the graves of our ancestors, and we have abandoned these lands to you in the name of peace. But we will surrender no more. We will cede no more ground."
"I will tell them," Bella said, but his words had given her an odd sense of foreboding, a dark dread she couldn't explain. She knew he felt it, just as she felt his emotions through their link.
He sighed. "When I was a child, I went on a trading expedition with my father. We walked all of a summer. I saw great hills so tall their tops scraped off some of the white of the clouds. I saw seas of grass as far as the eye could see, and giant beasts whose running feet shook the earth with thunder. And then I saw mountains even greater than the first, and rocks as smooth as a pearl but as black as the night sky and sharper than any of your steel. This land is larger than any mind can imagine. There is space for all of us. There can be peace between us, as long as your people can endure not claiming every blade of grass and pebble on the beach as their own."
She wasn't sure they could. She knew that land ownership was a bizarre concept to him, as weird and nugatory as claiming to own the moon. There was no way she could explain how Europeans could apply the concept of ownership to anything, including people.
"I came to give you this message because Jenks has been good to my people, just as you have, but the debt is paid. I will not return. We will not see each other again. We part as friends, but if we ever see one another again, I cannot promise that will remain true."
"Go down to the beach. My people have built a raft for him. Take him what supplies you think he'll need. My people will row out once a week to bring him fresh water and dried meat."
"Thank them for me." Bella inclined her head. "I wish you and your family good fortune, Jacob."
He gave a small nod and walked away. As he blended into the trees, she saw him shift and got a glimpse of an outline of a huge wolf making his way through the forest.
Edward took a bit of convincing when she told him. He was worried she'd be caught helping a banished man, and his anxiety was perhaps higher than normal given their recent close call at Merrymount.
"It's too far out from the shore line for them to be able to see anything. And besides, even if someone does go out there and sees Jenks has a tent, he's not going to tell them who helped him. He wouldn't tell them anything at this point."
The Wôpanâak had left the raft near the place Bella went for her swims. It was concealed by recently cut branches, their leaves barely wilted, but enough that they immediately caught Bella's eye. She and Edward loaded it with the items they'd brought when they slipped out of the fort tonight. Inside a iron pot was a bundled flint and steel with a ball of flax for kindling, skins of water, wheels of cheese wrapped tightly in waxed cloth, dried meats in leather pouches, blankets, fresh clothing, and salve for his blistered flesh. Bella kept worrying they'd forgotten something but the Wôpanâak would bring him anything he needed beyond her supplies.
They packed everything into the center of the raft and tied it down securely under the waxed tarp that would be Jenks' shelter until a ship could pick him up. Edward took his wife in his arms. "You'll be safe?" he asked.
She smiled. "There's naught in the sea that can harm me."
"I'm not worried about the sea." Edward pressed a light kiss to her lips. "Come home to me soon."
Bella nodded and reached down to pick a rope up from the sand. It tied to a corner of the raft. She looped it around her ankle and waded out into the waves, turning to give the rope a tug until the raft caught the water and gently bobbed along behind her. She watched for a moment to ensure it was balanced and then dove below the waves.
She could only swim down a few feet, still within the glow band of moonlight that filtered down through the water. Beneath her yawned an abyss of cool darkness and a part of her longed to slip the rope and dive down into its embrace. To twist and turn and revel in the sweet coldness against her skin. But tonight she had a job to do.
She raised her head as she neared the shoal. Behind her, the coastline was just a low, dark smudge against the horizon. At night, with the tide out, the little island of sand stood dry above the waterline. Jenks lay on the sand, curled up on his side. His head was pillowed on his Bible. Its pages were waterlogged and swollen. Even in his sleep, he shivered in misery.
Bella said his name. He was slow to wake. When he finally opened his eyes, he stared at her in disbelief and then in wonderment. "How is it… How are you here?"
"I can swim," Bella said. "But that's not important right now. Let's tend to that skin of yours."
She rinsed off the salt from his back with some water from a skin. He winced as it hit the raw areas, scorched by the sun. "I don't remember how long I've been out here," he said. "A few days? A week? Captain Shrimp said a ship would come for me, but I've seen nothing."
Bella didn't want to tell him that Bradford had claimed no ship wanted to carry him lest he stir up insubordination amongst the crew. What Bradford hadn't said was that it left Jenks at the utter mercy of the elements, and as far as Bradford knew, Jenks had only that Bible and knife to sustain his life. She knew that Bradford was piously thinking that if God intended Jenks to live, the Bible and knife would be sufficient to provide. Let him think that Jenks had carved the raft with the knife and the food had fallen as manna from heaven, Bella thought.
She dabbed the ointment on his sores. It wouldn't dull the pain, sadly, but it would at least give him a little relief as it healed. He was too weak to help as she anchored the raft to a heavy stone and set up his shelter on top. The raft would keep his possessions out of the water during high tide and he'd be able to cook on the shoal when it receded. She set him up a small fire and set the pot to boiling some of the meat and dried peas she's brought.
Jenks was pulling on a clean shirt, too wrecked for modesty at this point. She helped him with the arms.
"I don't know how to thank you, Bella."
She took a deep breath. "You can thank me by seeing this letter is delivered."
"No one who will cause you trouble, if that's what you're thinking. I just wish to ensure it gets to its destination. It's to my family."
Jenks unwrapped it from the piece of heavily waxed parchment in which Bella had wrapped it to keep it safe and dry. "The Dowager Duchess of Cullen?"
"A condolence letter." She looked up at him sharply. "Why does it interest you?"
"Because I intend to get the charter of this colony revoked and it would be a boon to have the support of her son, Charles."
Bella tossed her hands. "I know nothing of the political situation there. You're free to tell them of our acquaintance, but I have no friends there now. They're all ... gone." The last words came out softly, with a hint of wonder. It was true. Her grandchildren would be adults now and have few memories of her. Anne would be approaching seventy. She gave a small shake of her head and noticed Jenks was staring at her.
She gave him a small smile. "If you're still here, I'll return in a week or so."
Jenks surrendered. "I hope very much to be gone by then."
She nodded. "I hope so as well. If I don't see you again, fare you well in your travels."
"And you, lady of mysteries." Jenks bowed from his seated position, and Bella slipped back into the water.
She felt weary on the return trip, her thoughts weighing her down. What would happen if the colony's charter was revoked? Bella would still have her land grant, of course, but what would it mean for Plimouth itself? Every spring, the colony swelled with new people, new homes, new animals, and new farms etched into the countryside. Could all of that just…vanish with a piece of paper?
She waded from the sea and picked up the bundle of clothing left for her by the shore line. It took her some tie to fully dress, but she had no other choice. So many people were coming and going from the town these days that she was bound to be spotted.
The sky was beginning to lighten when she approached the town. It was now grown outside of the palisade fence and no one bothered to keep the gate closed any longer because of the bother of constantly opening and closing it for the foot traffic. Bella fell in with a group of servants heading into town for work and kept her face hidden behind the brim of her hat as they wove through the streets, already starting to bustle with the business of the morning.
Bella met the eyes of a little boy opening a door to let in a cat. She recognized him. He was one of the orphans who'd been brought to Plimouth in the spring and doled out as indentured servants to families who would pay for their passage. They would work until they were twenty-one, in some cases, before being set free. Bella had begged Edward to allow her to buy some of their indentures, but he was firm when he told her, "Bella, you can't save everyone." She was relieved to see that this boy, at least, looked well-kempt and content. He gave her a little wave around his armful of squirming cat.
She supposed some of the boys from Merrymount would be sold back into indenture; perhaps she could talk Edward into allowing her to purchase one of those contracts, since those young men could help with the farming labor. She smiled a bit as she imagined his deep sigh.
She opened the front door and stopped by the fireplace to stir up the embers and drop some wood on them to get the fire going. The ashes were starting to pile up again, she noted. The work of keeping a household going was never-ending, and even a preternaturally strong creature such as her herself found it exhausting.
She tiptoed upstairs to slide in bed beside Edward for an hour or so until it was time for him to rise. He mumbled something unintelligible and turned his face into her neck with a soft sigh of contentment. She thought he'd drift back off, but instead he slid a hand under the nape of her neck and into her hair. "It's still wet."
"'Twill dry soon en—"
There was a knock at the door.
Edward sat upright in bed and turned wide eyes to Bella. "Were you seen?"
She shook her head. "I think not, but –"
The knock sounded again, loud and insistent. They both climbed out of bed and Edward pulled his pants on, stuffing the hem of his shirt hastily into the waistband. "Put on your cap and bonnet."
"And my bonnet? In the house? That would look stranger than wet hair!" Bella hadn't taken off the dry dress she'd donned from the bundle of clothes. She smoothed the fabric and made sure her hair was tucked up neatly beneath her day cap.
"You can say you're getting ready to leave."
Bella opened her mouth to answer but the knock sounded again and she heard Rose sit up in her bed. "Mama?" she called.
"I'll get her," Bella said. "You go and get the door." She caught Edward's hand as he headed for the bedroom door. "Whatever it is, we shall face it."
He gave a short nod. Suddenly, he leaned forward and gave her a hard kiss, his arms crushing her body against his for a silent moment before he released her. She heard the creak of the stairs beneath his feet as he went down.
She slipped into Rose's room. Rose was sitting on the edge of her bed, rubbing her eyes. Her blonde braids were rumpled and pulled out of shape. "Morning love," Bella said. She took a clean shift from Rose's trunk. "Let's get dressed, shall we?"
Bella tried to remain cheerful, but she was concerned about what could have caused the knock. Rose padded around her room as she donned her clothing, chatting to Bella about something, but Bella was straining to hear what was going on downstairs. It was a pity, because Rose talked so little Bella wished she could give her the full attention she deserved. She was about five years old now, a pretty, sturdy little thing, solemn and reticent. But the traumas she'd endured still haunted her, even if her memory of them was fuzzy.
Bella held her hand as Rose carefully picked her way down the stairs. She and Bella saw their visitor at the same time and Rose let out a delighted little cry as Bella blurted, "Alice!"
And then she saw Edward's face.
She let go of Rose to go over to him. She put a hand on his arm and he slowly turned to her. His skin was drained of color and his eyes were wide and stricken.
She asked Alice, "What has happened?"
Alice stumbled over and grabbed Bella into a hug. Choking sobs punctuated her words. "It's Carlisle. He – He's gone."
It was a moment before Bella comprehended what she meant.
A chill washed over her and she tightened her arms around Alice. "God's teeth, Alice, I'm so sorry. So sorry." She held one of her arms open for Edward to come and join the embrace. He did, but that stunned look hadn't left his face.
Alice drew back and pulled a handkerchief from the cuff of her sleeve to scrub her eyes. "I know that a Christian is supposed to bear these things with fortitude. To be glad, even, that one of the faithful has gone to their reward. But it's so hard."
"What happened?" Bella kept glancing over to Edward, worried that he hadn't spoken and that horrid blank look hadn't left his face.
Alice took in a shaky breath. "Esme came to me – I don't know, maybe two hours ago? I've lost track of time. She knocked on the door, and I opened it to find her standing there in her shift, a shawl wrapped around her shoulders." Alice shook her head as if she still couldn't believe it, and Bella understood what she was trying to convey. For a woman to run outside in her underclothes like that meant that it was a true emergency.
"I drew her inside the house and she told me. She said Carlisle sat up in bed and said his head hurt. He started to climb out and fell to the floor. Esme… Esme strained her back trying to pull him back up. But he was dead."
Bella looked over at Edward. He still seemed numb, staring at nothing. She took a deep breath. "I'll gather what we need."
Before they left, she re-dressed in her plainest black dress. It was velvet, likely thought of as too fine for sober funeral garb here, but it would have to do. A pair of black undersleeves would be sacrificed to make mourning arm bands for Rose and Edward.
Edward didn't say anything until they were following Alice down the path toward her house. When he spoke, it was so soft that even Bella's supernatural ears strained to hear. "I didn't get to say goodbye."
She took his hand in her own. "It's not often there's a chance to say goodbyes. It rarely happens as people think, with everyone gathered around a bedside to make peace. When that happens, it's a gift, but not as great a gift as you might expect. Often, when you're standing there, those things just don't seem important."
"I thought I had ... time."
"What do you mean?"
Edward's green eyes met hers, and they were dark with anguish. "I meant to forgive him for what he did to you. But I was so angry. I was going to wait until… until my anger faded, I suppose. I thought I had time. I thought he had time. What was that you once said about the power of grace?"
"There's a grace too powerful to name."
He nodded. "That was it. Would it have come soon, I wonder? I suppose we'll never know."
They continued down the path. Bella looked ahead to visually check on Rose, holding Alice's hand as they walked.
That chill she'd felt earlier washed over her again when she realized what her subconscious mind had grasped immediately: that Carlisle, with his status as a respected elder, had protected Alice. Now there was nothing to prevent Bradford from cracking down on her meetings.
Esme was sitting on Alice's steps, her arms wrapped around herself. She was wearing one of Alice's spare dresses, too short for her, and the laces gaping. She had the same stunned look as Edward.
"We should leave Rose here," Bella murmured as Alice gathered the things she would need into a basket: a long length of unbleached linen, soap, a needle tucked into a ball of thread. "She won't get in the way while they're building the coffin."
Alice met her eyes. "You can't shield her from life."
"Yes, but this is…"
"—Part of it," Alice said firmly.
They walked in single file toward Esme's house, as if they were already in procession. Esme lingered outside the door, waiting until everyone else had gone inside the one-room cabin before she stepped in herself, but she still remained by the door, refusing to look toward the bed.
Alice cleaned off the table while Bella went over to the bed. Carlisle lay there, gray and still, his face muscles slack. Bella picked him up without thinking that she should have pretended she needed help, but none of the women seemed to notice. She carried him over and laid him on the table. His body was beginning to stiffen, so it was best they finish this as quickly as possible. The duties of the women of the family.
She reached for the ties at the neck of his shirt. Esme's hands gently bumped hers out of the way. "I'll do it," she said. Her voice was shaking and so were her hands, but she managed to untie the shirt and with the help of Alice and Bella lifting his torso, to slip it over his head. Alice used a sheet from the bed to give him a bit of modesty as they warmed the water and Bella measured the linen against the length of his body to begin to make the shroud.
From head to toe, they washed his body, shaved his face, and trimmed his hair. Then they lifted him to wrap the length of linen around his body. Bella gathered the loose ends at the top of his head and Esme whispered, "Wait." She brushed aside a fold of cloth and held his head in her hands one last time, her fingers stroking over his cheeks. She gave him a kiss and then backed away.
The men carried in the coffin. It was plain wood, hastily painted black, the paint still damp in some places. They lowered the linen-wrapped body inside and then nailed the lid in place. The sound of the hammers was incredibly loud in the small space and Esme flinched with every blow.
The table was pushed against the wall to make a bier, and they positioned chairs around it. And now all there was to do was wait. It was summer; he'd be buried tomorrow morning. The men were making the arrangements, what few there were in Brownist society. She tore the undersleeves into long strips of fabric and hemmed them, occasionally pausing to look up at Esme, to see if the wall of numbness around her had cracked yet so she could grieve. But all Esme did was stare straight ahead, her hands twisting in her lap.
Bella settled into her chair and thought of the funerals she'd known in her previous life at the court, the elaborate ritual and expense that involved hundreds of people. They hadn't gone to Queen Mary's funeral. Bella had been supposedly recovering from the fire at Cullen Hall, and Edward had told Elizabeth he needed to be with his wife. Elizabeth had given them space, knowing they were still traumatized from Bella's trial, but from what Bella heard, she hadn't been as forgiving with the rest of the court. She'd insisted that everyone attend Mary's funeral rites, for any disrespect to Mary was disrespect to the crown itself. The court hastened to obey.
While all of this had been going on, Mary's household officers and doctors had prepared her body for burial. Mary's internal organs were removed and placed in jars and caskets. Her heart was placed into a silver cask ad buried in the chapel of St. James.
The torso would be stuffed with sawdust and spices, then the body was rubbed with perfumed ointments and salts, meant to ensure preservation. After being wrapped in layers of waxed linen, the body was sealed in sheets of lead before it was placed in an elaborate coffin. Atop it was laid an effigy of carved wood, made to resemble Mary as closely as possible, dressed in Mary's clothes. Around her bier, a thousand pounds of wax candles burned day and night, and her ladies prayed for the queen's soul around the coffin until the burial a month later.
Elizabeth didn't want these things when she died, Bella recalled. She'd been squeamish at the very thought of embalming and wanted only her chamber ladies to tend to her after her death, simply to undress her and put her into a winding sheet, and then into her coffin. But Lord Cecil had overruled that and ordered Elizabeth fully embalmed. She was buried in her grandfather's tomb temporarily until her own could be built. When it was finished, Mary was exhumed and put into Elizabeth's grave and then Elizabeth's coffin was lowered on top of hers, two sisters, partners in throne and grave.
Mary would have hated that, Bella thought and a faint smile came to her lips. Mary had once starved herself into illness rather than eat from a plate that was placed in a subordinate position to her sister's. To end up in a subordinate position for all of eternity would have galled her.
But these Reformists didn't embalm their dead. There was no effigy, no candles, no prayers for the dead. Just silence and sorrow.
At various points during the long day and night that followed, people stopped by. Edward, as eldest son, greeted them at the door and gave the mourners their gift of a pair of gloves or a memento mori ring, selected from one of three piles. The gift a person got depended on their social class and their closeness with the family. Gilded brass for the lowest grade, and enameled gold for the town elders, but they all had a white grinning skull on a field of black. Around the band the words "Today me, tomorrow thee," or "Watch thy hour" were engraved.
Some sat vigil with them for a while, bringing their own chair. Esme was positioned near the head of the coffin, sewing a black pall, embroidered in black silk around the edges with crosses and vines. She looked up and nodded as people expressed their condolences, and probably earned quite a bit of approval for her Christian stoicism, but Bella knew she was in shock, just as Edward was.
In the morning, they carried the coffin, covered in the pall Esme had made, to the meeting house. It was a testament to Carlisle's popularity in the community that the place was tightly packed, with room only to stand at the back. One of the elders preached a funeral sermon, warning the listeners their own deaths were approaching and they needed to look to their sins. Beside her, little Rose looked terrified. Bella took her hand. Rose was starting to lose the ability to communicate mentally with Bella, but she did get a message of general comfort and love. She leaned against Bella's side as much as she dared without drawing the attention of one of the ushers, who didn't hesitate to poke whispering or fidgeting people with their pole.
Alice and Esme had stayed behind at the house to cook the funeral feast. Wives were never present at funerals, and Alice felt she'd need the help.
Bella and Edward stood outside of the meeting house, passing out the last of the gloves and rings to those who would follow them to the graveside. The coffin came out last, Jasper as one of the bearers. Edward walked in front of it as they trudged silently the short distance to the burying grounds. There, another sermon was intoned and Carlisle's coffin was lowered into the raw earth and covered with the handfuls of dirt dropped by the passing mourners as they filed away.
Bella and Edward stayed until it was done, until the last spade of earth had been filled back in and the wooden cross set. When the last set of footsteps died away, Edward slowly sank down to the grass at the foot of the grave. Bella sat down beside him, tucking her skirts around her legs.
"You don't have to stay," he said, not looking in her direction. "I just wanted… I wanted a little time."
"Time I have in abundance," Bella replied. "If you wish me to go—"
"No, stay." He drew his knees up and laid his forearms over them. "This is what I have to live with. My mistake and a pile of earth that shows I will never be able to make it right."
"What would you have said to him, if you could change it?"
"That I loved him."
"Do you think he did not know that? Even though you were angry with him, do you really think he ever doubted your love? Did you ever doubt his?"
They were silent for a long moment. "You don't have to accept it yet. You don't have to do anything until you're ready."
"Will he come back?" Edward turned and met her eyes. "You said that souls that love one another, truly love one another, tend to linger around each other. Will he be reborn?"
"He may. I cannot say."
"What happens to him if he doesn't?"
She shook her head. "Edward, I don't know this. No one does. We say they move on to another space, another world, but we don't know. We only have stories and legends, just as you do."
"Maybe we keep coming back to try to get it right."
"No one ever gets it right, Edward. We just do the best with what we have at the time. We make mistakes, we leave things unsaid, we have regrets and things we would have done differently. So many lifetimes I have lived and I can't say I've ever gotten one of them right."
"What have you learned?"
"To never hold back the words in my heart. To love as openly and fiercely as I can, and hold on to those I love for as long as possible. Because life is brief and uncertain."
"Memento mori" Edward looked down at the ring on his finger, its skull surrounded by black enamel. Its metal was cold against his skin. "Remember death."
"But also remember life," Bella told him. She put her hand over his covering the ring and warming it with her own hand. "It does no one any good to live with regret. You know your father wouldn't want that."
He threaded his arm through hers and they walked out of the burial ground and onto the path down the hill into Plimouth Town.
Notes: Please forgive a bit of an anachronism. Mourning rings weren't yet common in Plimouth Colony yet. They were customary In Europe, but this was one of the traditions that had been "purified" away. Within a hundred years, the formality would creep back in.
- Thomas Morton really was abandoned on a shoal offshore. I've condensed the timeline of Merrymont quite a bit, but the bones of the story are the same. Morton went back to England and sued the Massachusetts Bay Company to revoke the colony's charter, but the English Civil War made the lawsuit's judgement unenforceable. Morton wrote a three book series about what had happened to him and the lawsuit, but it was banned in England and banned in the colonies. When he returned to Massachusetts in the early 1640s, they jailed him, claiming the book was slanderous, "full of lies and slanders against many godly men of the country in high position and of profane calumnies against their names and persons and the ways of God." After his release, a year later, Morton made his way to Maine, where he lived out the rest of his days.