Before the Scarlet Dawn - By Rita Gerlach

Part 1

Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave: the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame.

Song of Solomon 8:6


The Hope Valley, Derbyshire, England

April 7, 1775

Eliza Bloome sat forward from the tattered high-backed chair when someone pounded a fist on the front door downstairs. Her father’s Bible lay open on her lap and slipped over her knees to the floor. She bent down to retrieve it, and felt the cold rippled over her fingers through a crack. Wind howled across the downs and moaned through the weatherworn windows. Shivering from the draft, she set another log on the fire and listened to Fiona’s shoes tap down the staircase. Whenever the wind rose fierce like on this night, it held the front door fast. Any moment now her father’s housekeeper would brace herself against it and the jamb until her strength gave out. As Eliza expected, the door slammed on its lock and hinges. The crash echoed up the staircase, mingling with a man’s voice.

The bedroom door quietly swung open.

“Who is it, Fiona?” Eliza glanced at her father, then back at the stout woman standing in the doorway. “Papa is asleep. He should not be disturbed.”

“A messenger to see him, my girl. Chilled to the bone, I’d say. Riding over the downs in the dead of night in the wind and cold. It must be important if he went to all this trouble. Should I let him in?”

The log caught fire and the room grew warmer. Eliza drew off her wrap and folded it across the chair. “Yes, I will speak to him.”

Fiona placed her hand over the brass knob and set her back against the door to allow entrance to a man dressed in the simple drab brown attire of a servant. He drew off his tricorn hat and gave Eliza a slight bow. A lock of brown hair fell over his broad forehead.

“Is he able to speak with me, Miss Eliza?” He glanced at the frail form asleep in the four-poster bed.

“My father is not well. It depends on who you are, why you’ve come, and for how long you intend to stay.”

“Name is John Travis. I’ve come with a letter from Mr. Langbourne with strict instructions to put it into your father’s hand and wait for his reply.”

“On a night like this? It is a wonder you were not blown off your horse, Mr. Travis. I do not think well of Mr. Langbourne for it. He must have paid you well.”

“Aye, he did. The wind is harsh tonight, to be sure. But I have a good horse, and Mr. Langbourne deemed my journey urgent. He has heard how sickly your father is. Everyone in the parish has.”

Knowing her father was not long for this world, Eliza went to his bedside and tucked in the coverlet. Tonight his breathing was labored, and when she touched his hands, they were cold as the chill wind.

Even in the bronze firelight, his face looked drawn and pale. His hair seemed to have gone white within such a short time, and his body smelled of sweat no matter how much she bathed him. He opened a pair of watery gray eyes and looked at her.

“Who is it, Eliza?”

“A man is here to speak to you, Papa. His name is John Travis. Should I send him away?”

Pressing his brows together, Reverend Bloome paused. Eliza waited patiently, knowing he needed a moment to think. Over several weeks, he had grown forgetful and confused, and relied more and more upon her to help him understand.

“I know no one by that name. Should I know him, Eliza?”

“I do believe you met him once or twice, but no, Papa. You do not need to know him. But he says he has a letter for you— from Mr. Langbourne.”

“Langbourne I do recall. Raise me against the pillows, Daughter.” He pushed back on his elbows with her help. “There, that is better. Bring him forward and leave us to speak alone.”

A shiver passed through her at the last two words. Why would he not want her to stay? What did a letter from Langbourne, a man she had barely spoken two words to, mean? But she did not need to have a conversation with him to know what he thought of her. Either in church, the marketplace, or at a gathering, he always seemed to find her, bow