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0764200607
Trade Paperback
272 pages
Jul 2006
Bethany House Publishers

The Longing Season

by Christine Schaub

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Excerpt:

PROLOGUE

Olney, England
December 31, 1772

The vicar stood at the frosty window of the attic room squinting out at the snow, contemplating his next move.

In his right hand he cradled the clay bowl of his favorite Alderman, the tobacco glowing red in the window's reflection as he rhythmically drew air through the long stem. His left hand held a soft leather-bound book that he tapped against his leg as he stared out at nothing, deep in conflicted thought.

He'd found the book exactly where he'd known it would be—in the desk's bottom drawer, hidden under a secret compartment. There were two others like it in that drawer, each one written in a careful hand, each page full of names, dates, and observations that were both revealing and ... disturbing. The carefully—or carelessly—recorded information could answer age-old questions, entertain with peculiar detail, or crush with significance.

He understood the intrigue of a book like this left behind for curious eyes. And that was what he contemplated as he puffed and tapped ... puffed and tapped.

He suddenly pivoted on his heel and marched over to the grate. The fire both warned and beckoned him, and he thrust the book over the flames, intending to drop it in ... but the dancing light illumined the wall directly above him. He looked up, hand still outstretched, and read the words painted there:

"Thou shalt remember that thou wast
a bond-man in the land of Egypt,
and the Lord thy God redeemed thee."

Deu. XV. 15th.

He closed his eyes, clutched the book to his chest, and rested his forehead on the mantelpiece. Thou shalt remember ... All manner of images—lurid and beautiful—tore through his mind. Even after all this time, his memory would not separate the wheat from the chaff.

He was sweating from the fire and the anxiety of the moment, his pulse pounding in his ears. He backed away and shook his head. Impulsiveness still plagued him after two decades of discipline. He feared he would never overcome it.

A great leather chair sat before the fire, and he settled the book on its arm, running his fingers over the worn cover. Thou shalt remember ... He sighed.

His pipe had grown cold. He selected a piece of kindling from the copper basket on the hearth, fired the tip, and relit the tobacco in his Alderman. Then he took a seat in the great chair, placed the book on his lap, laid back his head ... and remembered.

1

Plantain Island, Sierra Leone
January 1746
Twenty-six years earlier ...

Newton lay where he'd collapsed, his trembling hands clutching the rope, his cheek against the smooth wood.

In his mind's eye he saw them there—the Marines with their muskets, the officers in full-dress uniform with their swords. Through the roaring in his ears, he heard the six bells signaling the forenoon watch and the call for all hands to witness punishment.

The master-at-arms brought the charge of desertion against him, and Newton nearly choked on his rage. Desertion! He had no more deserted than enlisted! He'd simply left to find his father. If any man could gain his release from Navy conscription, it was John Newton Sr. Everyone was a little afraid of his father—a pompous and severe man with all the right connections and a distaste for injustice. The man always managed to get his way ... the son had been counting on that.

"Strip!" the captain commanded, and Newton never felt the quartermaster's hands on his back, never heard the fabric rip, so black was his rage and bitter his despair. Then all was suddenly, eerily silent, and he heard the unmistakable whisk of the cat slipping out of its red baize bag.

How many times had he stood with the other midshipmen at forenoon, watching the cat o' nine unfurl onto the deck, horrified and fascinated at once? How many times had he winced as the iron-studded tails flew through the air, connected with skin, and raked down a sailor's back? And how many times had he convinced himself that he could always talk his way out of this kind of punishment?

Too, too many times.

But this time he'd realized much too late that no amount of persuasion would stay the captain's hand. A war was on. Newton had taken his leave without permission and been caught on the road to Dartmouth. Now the captain was determined to make an example of him.

"Do your duty," the captain told the boatswain's mate. And Newton determined right then he would throw himself into the sea. He would suffer this final humiliation, but when they unbound him, he would put an end to his sorry life. And he would take one or two of these meddlesome sailors with him.

He looked up, defiant and eager to choose his victim, but found nothing there in the twilight—no sailors, no Marines, no ship. He lay on the sand, his hot face pressed against the cool planks of a small overturned boat, gripping the mooring rope, shaking from the fever. The scene that played over and over in his delirium was real. Close to a year had passed, but he had been flogged on board a man-of-war—he bore twelve cat's marks to prove it. He had stood and lurched toward the rail, but a bucket of salt water thrown across his lacerated back had sent him to his knees.

It was a memory too awful in its actuality to be a dream.

"Mr. Newton?" The slave they called Tome stepped into view and squatted beside him in the sand. "The princess say you are to come to her."

Newton would have snorted at that—the title the master's mistress used and the idea that he could actually walk across the island—if he had been capable of making any sound at all. As it was, he simply shook his head no.

"But you must come." Tome pried Newton's hand from the rope and slung it over his far shoulder. "She say she will have me whipped if I am back without you."

Newton felt himself hauled to his feet, the sudden change in position reinvigorating the blinding headache and muscle spasms he could manage only by lying perfectly still. Tome stood with him as his head lolled forward and he groaned in agony. Then a cup was pressed to his lips, and he smelled the wonderful fragrance of fresh water. He opened his mouth and savored the mouthful as he would the first glass of Christmas punch. He swallowed and took another mouthful, then another, and another. Then he opened his eyes and looked into the gentle face of Tome's island "wife"—a young, sturdy woman and holder of the cup. He opened his mouth for more, but she shook her head, tied the empty cup at her waist, and threw his other arm across her shoulders.

So this was how it would be. They would help or drag or carry him to their mistress. But he would go.

They started up the sloping beach, Newton trying to move his aching legs as they pulled him inland, around the dense coconut palms, and over the marshy ground. They did not rush, but neither did they tarry as they ushered him along, occasionally speaking to each other in their strange Krio language—a language Newton had just begun to learn when the fever had struck. They stopped for a moment, and the cup was again pressed to his lips. He drank and whispered, "Tenki ya." Thank you. He waited, hoping they would see he was just one of them—a slave to a cruel mistress on this miserable island ... a supplicant for a drink of water. The cup touched his lips again.

Then on they trudged, each step familiar to him from his earliest days here after he'd been discharged to the merchant ship Levant—days when he'd worked as a free man alongside a powerful English trader ... days, then months, filled with home building and rice planting, goods trading and slave selling. It was the Englishman's African mistress—the self-proclaimed "princess"—who'd eventually spoiled everything. Because Newton did not honor her status, he surmised, because he was a white man and confidant of her "husband," she'd developed a prejudice against him. She'd soon found her opportunity to exert her power when he'd become sick and missed the trader's trip up the Rio Nuñez. She'd made him a slave.

And now the tyrant commanded him to her side.

Soon they were in sight of the village guards, the little bit of water and exercise doing much for Newton's condition so that when they gained admittance and crossed the threshold of the "princess'" mud house, he was able to stand without assistance.

There she sat—the great Pey Ey—trying to look imperious in near-royal dining splendor. Her dark fleshy skin gleamed under the candlelight as she lorded over the lavish table, shoveling large spoonfuls of rich food into her painted mouth, barely chewing before washing it all down with a deep red wine.

He hated rich food—hated the way fresh vegetables slumped in heavy cream sauces and joints of beef sat smothered in fatty stock. That kind of fare simply encouraged greed. Give him a slice of buttered toast dotted with oysters wrapped in a rasher of bacon and grilled to crisp perfection. Give him the skewer, and he would pierce her gluttonous heart.

A servant leaned close to the "princess," refilling her crystal wineglass, whispering in her ear. She squinted over at her intruder, perching delicate gold spectacles on her wide nose—spectacles everyone knew she did not need but considered essential to appearing "learned."

"Meester Newton," she said in her haughty island accent. "Why do you inseest on playing the poor, seeckly beggar, hmm?"

He knew from past experience that he was not expected—indeed, should make no attempt—to answer, that it gave her great pleasure to mock him in the presence of her servants ... that any rebuttal on his part would only earn him ill treatment. She sighed dramatically and beckoned to him, the fat of her upper arms wobbling and straining against the rows of shiny armlets that only enhanced her girth.

He did not think he had the strength to cross the room unaided, but he put one foot in front of the other, covering the short distance in a shuffle step, breathing heavily from the effort. When one of the many empty chairs was within reach, he made a grab for the high back, focusing on a strange spot on his tormentor's costume—an odd-shaped circle of gray out of sync with the intricate pattern of yellows and reds on her sari. He frowned.

She pounced on his expression. "You are very deesappointed you no longer share my table, Meester Newton?"

She is stupid, as well as fat, he thought. He missed sharing nothing with this bully.

She flicked her wrist over the exquisite silver and china. He followed the motion, taking in the enormous spread of food laid out in true European fashion, nearly swooning from the aromas that triggered his empty stomach to contract in sudden desperate need.

"You mees the lavish meals and conversation weeth my brother, no? You mees sparring weeth the Bombo keeng, yes?" She gestured to the chair he gripped. "Come. Seet. Speak to me." He did not move, so she picked up her half-empty plate and offered it to him. "I am feenished, so you may have eet."

The fever may have muddled his mind, but it did not escape him that she was offering him her scraps, as she would offer them to a dog. Part of him was outraged—he was no dog. Part of him was humbled, as a beggar wanting alms. And he watched as, astonishingly, his eager hand reached out of its own volition, it seemed, and grasped the china plate. But no sooner did she release it than the weight of the platter proved too much. He watched in detached dismay as it slipped from his hand, flipped, and bounced on the floor, sending every morsel of food into the rushes covering the packed dirt.

He dropped to his knees as Pey Ey cackled with glee. Tears sprang to his eyes as he tried to gather up the soggy mess. But it was in vain. Gone. The first meal offered him in days was gone.

He looked up, blinking back the tears, and caught a distorted glimpse of himself in an ornate mirror leaning against the far wall. He stared back in horror. Who was this emaciated, filthy man with the ragged hair and blistered skin? In the candlelight he scarcely recognized his face—weirdly pinched and sickly yellow under a rat's nest of beard. His cheekbones strained against his skin, and each dull eye was circled with a bluish tinge. Where was the hearty Englishman of twenty who walked with a sailor's swagger and ridiculed without remorse? What had this mad, mad career done to him? He wagged his head side to side. And why was the son of a wealthy shipowner kneeling at the feet of a cruel and contemptuous African whore?

Get up! What remained of his ego screamed at him. Get up!

"Get up." Her foot came from under the table and caught him in the ribs. He gasped with the effort it took to resist the blow and remain on his hands and knees. When he did not comply with her command, strong hands grasped his upper arms and hauled him to his feet.

Pey Ey shouted something in Krio, and he was dragged out of the house and back through the trees to the slave quarters. Once through the cabin door, his captors became more gentle. They carefully lowered him onto his mat, and a kind hand placed his head on the log that now served as his pillow.

He closed his eyes. At least she had not ordered her servants to mimic him this time. At least they had not pelted him with limes as he'd staggered away. After the flogging on the Harwich, he thought he'd suffered cruelly at the hands of his shipmates—demoted, shunned, miserable in both flesh and spirit. But he had not been tormented. He had not been denied basic physical survival.

He closed his eyes, hoping to sleep but not dream, and saw Plymouth as he'd left it—the trees in spring leaf, the dockyard bustling with trade and shipbuilding, Mount Edgcumbe rising behind the city like a sentry. He'd stood on the deck of the Harwich that day and kept his eyes on the shoreline as they'd passed out of the sound and into the bay, then the Channel.

And before the shore had even faded from view, he'd been gripped with such a longing that he'd felt he would never breathe deeply again. For whilst his heart had certainly ached for the loss of hearth and home, it had been a sharper, more profound thing that had unexpectedly seized him. There was a time, long, long ago—before they'd taken his diseased mother out of the city, before she'd died that horrible death ... a time when the days were filled with love and poetry and contemplation. The last time he had ... belonged somewhere, to someone.

He thought he'd happened upon it again in a moment both fleeting and full of promise, in the home of his mother's last season ... in the home of Mary Catlett. Mary ... dear, sweet Mary of the ginger hair and blue, blue eyes, first a playful freckled girl, now a sparkling young woman. She'd made him think of a line from Virgil: "When I saw her, I was undone." She was the only element of innocence left in his depraved life, and he clung to the spirit of her memory, as he'd clung to his mother's skirt when she'd left him so many years ago.

Chatham ... Wapping ... Plymouth—all distant points of distant memories.

And here he now sprawled, neither sailor nor scholar, neither lover nor beloved, neither departing nor returning ... just a slave on an African island, burning with fever, desperate for a cup of water.

He would recover, he promised himself. He would steal food, if he must, and regain muscle, and then he would invoke lex talionis—retaliation. And when he escaped, he would make certain that no one on this godforsaken island would ever forget the name John Newton.

2

hatham, Kent
January 1746

She hated good-byes.

They were rarely done well—the bidder proffering formal words of safety and good health and repressing emotions of either relief or sorrow at the parting; the leave-taker, his foot already in the stirrup, thinking less of what he was leaving and more of whence he came. Even with the best-laid plans, the parting seemed so abrupt and hurried, and within moments of the final wave and settling dust the regrets settled in.

Mary was listing her regrets as she watched the morning London-bound stage pull up to the coach office on High Street. Any moment now her brother would get on that stage. And she had not broached the topic with him—the topic only he knew still lay so heavily on her heart.

Last night, whilst Jack had regaled his friends with yet another tawdry tale of life as a junior monitor at boarding school, she had slipped out, unnoticed, searing into memory the sight and sound of her brother laughing with the Best boys. Almost the entire Christmas holiday had been filled with laughing—squeals from young George as Jack had carried him under his arm, room to room, as if George were a riding crop and not a wriggling three-year-old. She'd heard snickers from her father's den and chortles from her mother's kitchen. Only Elizabeth, feeling superior in her fifteen years to Jack's paltry fourteen, resisted the merriment.

Regret seemed misplaced in such a memory.

But here Mary sat, curled up in a heavy quilt on the window seat of her third-floor bedroom shortly before dawn, regretting. She gazed out at the dark winter sky, the oil lamps dotting the snow-covered street with pools of yellow light, illuminating the figures of night watchmen on patrol and travelers rushing toward the six-o'clock stage. From here, she would wordlessly ache and wish her brother a silent adieu.

She'd made a lot of wishes from this perch. The conversion of attic to living space had caused no amount of astonishment when she'd suggested it to her parents two years ago. Yes, she'd agreed, it was stuffy in the summer and frigid in the winter. But she simply loved the views from the dormer window. In the spring she pushed it open to let in the tangy ocean breezes. She could watch the far-off ships make their way into the harbor, the sails and flags flapping, the men gesturing and shouting to each other on the decks. In late fall she often watched the first snowflakes drift lazily by, saw the passersby glance up at the sky, heard them exclaim to each other, then hurry on. So much of life, so many smells and sounds, rode the wind to her little space.

Through this window she often imagined herself out on that sidewalk with her luggage, about to board the London stage ... or on the arm of a certain naval officer, en route to a nearby party. In the world beyond the window she was more than the eldest daughter of a customs officer—she was a boy with worldly options in profession and adventure, she was the lady of the house, she belonged to someone. Outside the window she was not a lonely young woman of seventeen.

The town clock struck quarter of six, interrupting her reverie. Jack had not appeared in front of the coach office. What was her brother up to?

"I miss you every day."

Mary looked over her shoulder at Jack, leaning against the doorframe as if he had all the time in the world, smiling and so handsome in his dark traveling boots and cloak. She smirked back at him.

"You do not."

"But I do!" And his eyes twinkled with mischief. "I miss besting you at cards, and besting you at whistling, and besting you on that lame mare you spoil. The Bedford boys are much, much more of a challenge."

She tossed him what she hoped was a truly priggish look.

He smiled all the way to his eyes, then his mouth softened, and he cocked his head slightly. "Why will you not say good-bye to me, Mary?"

She turned back to the window. "'Parting is such sweet sorrow ...'"

She heard the grimace in his voice. "Oh dear. You'll not be quoting Shakespeare to me on such a dreary morning. I shall go mad as Hamlet trying to place it in the right play, then the right act, then in the right character's mouth all the way past London."

She closed her eyes in exasperation. "Hamlet?"

"I shall go mad as ... Macbeth?"

"No."

"Desdemona?"

She swung completely around until her feet hit the cold floor with a thunk. "Honestly, Jack. For twenty pounds a year one might think the professors of the great Bedford School would teach you something of the classics."

He stared at her silently until she sighed. "It is quite possibly one of the most famous refrains in all of literature."

He shook his head.

"It is from Act II, scene ii of the greatest of romantic tragedies."

He shrugged his shoulders, and she stared hard at him. "Juliet"—she paused for the moment of recognition to dawn—"bids Romeo farewell until they meet again on the morrow. But they do not ... meet again." And she frowned.

Jack slowly nodded his head, left the doorway, and sat next to her on the window seat. When he spoke, all the brotherly teasing had left his voice. When he spoke, he talked quietly, as a friend.

"So you've not heard from him again."

She shook her head.

Him. They no longer spoke his name, as Mum had forbidden the relationship and any further contact in person or by post. But he had found a way to circumvent the order. Over the past year several envelopes addressed to "Mrs. Susannah Eversfield," her mother's sister, had mysteriously appeared in her saddlebags or reticule or volume of prose. Inside were clandestine letters written to "My Dear Mary" in a fluid hand. Letters signed by him—John Newton.

And then, just as suddenly and without explanation, the letters had stopped appearing.

She dared not question her aunt, for her complicity went unspoken between them. She scoured the papers in vain for mention of the HMS Harwich in either war with Spain or France. In desperation Mary had confided her worries in a letter to Jack. Her brother had powerful connections at Bedford School and considered John a friend.

Jack took her hand and spoke in a low voice. "You know that had I come with any information on the Harwich or John, I would have told you immediately."

She nodded, her head down, a lump in her throat.

Jack sighed. "War is a good and a terrible thing—and the Navy may be just the sort of employment to make him, well, worthy ... at least in Mum's mind."

Mary sat there with her brother and dearest friend, fighting back the urge to tell him everything racing through her mind: Where was the Harwich—that massive, heavily armed warship? Was the Navy a good fit for someone of John's bookish disposition? Would the wars never end? Conflict was good for a royal dockyard such as Chatham ... "Excellent for business," her father liked to remind them. When John returned, would he return to her? He traveled to exotic lands, full of intriguing women. Moreover, she was a young woman of marriageable age in a naval port bursting with eligible men ... would she be free to receive him?

She turned toward Jack and drew a breath, ready to reveal her thoughts, when the watchman's stick thumped on the front door, his cry of "Good morrow, good morrow, my masters all!" interrupting them. Immediately afterward the coachman's whistle cut through the air, Mum called out, and Jack leapt to his feet.

"I must make haste." He kissed her quickly and dashed for the stairs. He turned at her door. "Do not lose hope." And then he was gone.

Hope.

She opened a door beneath the window seat and pulled out a volume of Shakespeare's sonnets. Pressed between numbers LXIV and LXV was a letter sent nearly a year ago from the town of Deal. There were other letters hidden within the pages of other books. But this was the letter that sustained her when worry overpowered faith.

She unfolded it, her eyes traveling a familiar path to the middle of the page.

The first day I saw you I began to love you.

Bold, heart-stopping words written in a careful hand on a sheet of plain white paper. Affectionate words—whole sentences—preceded and followed that statement. Indeed, the letter was an entire page of genuine regard. But this was the sentence Mary read again and again ... the sentence that made her heart beat more steadily, the declaration that kept real fear at bay.

She tried to imagine John as he'd written those words aboard the Harwich. She pictured him in his nankin breeches and blue jacket, surprisingly well-tailored for his tall frame. His tarpaulin hat would be cocked just so as he worked the middle watch, putting pen to paper in the relative quiet of night. Even in the dead of winter, his face would have the sailor's color of life amidst the elements.

His was not a handsome face, Mary reflected. It was long and had too many sharp angles—very Romanesque. But she found his countenance quite pleasing, and the shock of his blue eyes against deeply tanned skin was captivating. He'd eschewed the powdered wig, thankfully, and kept his auburn hair clipped short.

When she'd last seen him, a year ago Christmas—when she'd had an inkling of his growing affection, when she'd learned of their mothers' matchmaking—she'd been uncharacteristically girlish, combining their adult features into sons and daughters, painting imaginary portraits, daring to think of herself as part of a striking pair. Those images, combined with the letters, had created an expectation she found difficult to surrender—even in the harsh reality of daylight.

Reality reared its head as the watchman's fading knock and cry drifted into her fantasy, the smell of toasting bread wafted up the stairs, and the coachman whistled again, cracking the whip over the horses' backs.

Mary stood, threw off the quilt, and marched to her wardrobe. She donned a robe of worsted wool dyed red--the color of courage, she resolved. A life with John Newton was possible. She believed it. Jack believed it. That was enough assurance for now.

She stepped into her slippers and descended into the rooms of their first acquaintance, remembering the past, anticipating the future. Aristotle was right, she thought. Hope is a waking dream.


Excerpted from:
The Longing Season (MUSIC OF THE HEART) by Christine Schaub
Copyright 2006; ISBN 0764200607
Published by
Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.