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Bella at Midnight
By Diane Stanley
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. Copyright ©2006 Diane Stanley
All right reserved. ISBN: 0060775734
When the message came and I saw it was from Edward, I nearly choked on my plum cake. It could only mean that my sister was dead.
I had not seen her since her wedding day, three long years before. An occasion for rejoicing -- that's what you're imagining, is it not? A beautiful bride, a blushing groom, flowers, and music, and bright new beginnings?
It's a sweet picture, but that is not how it was, not for Catherine, anyway. Oh, she did look a perfect angel in her delicate gown of robin's-egg blue, her hair cascading down her shoulders, shining like the finest gold. And there were flowers aplenty, and music, too, and a sumptuous feast that lasted well into the night. Father wanted nothing but the best for her, you see. But as for the bright new beginnings -- well, that's another story. You'll notice I haven't yet mentioned the groom.
Sir Edward of Burning Wood was an odd man, arrogant and proud. But I thought such traits to be common among the nobility. I knew little of such things, being born to the merchant class. And so I would have taken his peculiar and unfriendly ways as natural to his station in life -- if it hadn't been for the way he looked at me. There was such coldness in those eyes, such a hardness near tohatred, that it positively made me tremble, and I could not help but turn away. I remember thinking, when first he pierced me with that terrible gaze, that Edward of Burning Wood was not altogether right in his mind.
He was no proper husband for my sister, of that I was sure -- and I told Father so.
"Catherine is rich," I said, "and beautiful besides -- she does not need to settle for such a man."
"Settle?" Father said. He was astonished, for he considered it a splendid match. "What can you be thinking? Edward is a knight, and he shall make our Catherine a lady. Just think of it, Maud -- and she only a glass merchant's daughter!"
"A glass merchant's daughter with a fortune, Father, don't forget that." (I knew, and Father knew, and surely even Catherine knew that Edward was marrying her for her money.) "I would far rather she remain a common lass than be raised to the nobility and be miserable all her life!"
"But why should she be miserable?" Father countered. "Can you not see how the man dotes upon her?"
This was true enough; Edward did seem besotted with my sister, for all that he wed her for gain. Yet even in this he was extreme and unnatural -- for his was a wild, possessive, fanatical love. Catherine was flattered by it, of course. Moreover, she thought him handsome and admired his confidence and manly bearing.
And so, as both Father and Catherine seemed so pleased with the arrangement, I resolved to keep my doubts to myself and say no more against the man.
After the wedding -- indeed, the very next day -- it became clear that I had greatly underestimated Edward: he was far, far worse than even I had believed him to be! For once he was in possession of both Catherine and her dowry, he turned his back on us, forbidding my sister to ever see us again!
Can you imagine such a thing? Why, it nearly put poor Father in his grave. Indeed, it was at about that time that his mind began to wander and he became childlike in his ways, as the old are sometimes wont to do. But I believe it was the loss of Catherine that caused him to decline -- that and the guilt he felt over giving her in marriage to such a terrible man.
And perhaps his infirmity was a blessing of sorts, for as I opened Edward's letter now, I took some small comfort from the knowledge that, however dreadful its contents might be, Father was past suffering over it anymore.
I scanned the message quickly, searching it for words such as dead or death -- but they were nowhere in evidence. I am a poor reader, I confess, and tears blurred my sight. Also, Edward's script was cramped and small and difficult to make out. But I struggled through it, word by word, until at last I reached the heart of the letter and -- what joy! -- discovered that my sister was not dead, not in the least! She was about to give birth to her first child -- and I had not even known she was expecting!
I squinted now, concentrating hard in my eagerness to learn what more the letter might tell me. I could not imagine that Edward had written me out of courtesy, even at such a time. And of course I was right; he wanted something. He wanted me to go there -- to that house he had bought with my father's money, to which we had never once been invited -- he wanted me to go there and comfort dear Catherine in her labor! He said he did not like the looks of the midwife.
He is afraid, I thought, afraid for Catherine's life -- for indeed, she was always a delicate creature and had never been strong. Now he feared to lose her, and he was so desperate that he had even stooped to asking me for help.
Well. I would do it for Catherine. I would gladly suffer his haughty pride and sharp tongue for her sake. And a new babe -- oh, how the prospect stirred my spirit! I would go at once!
And so I wrapped up well against the cold, roused the kitchen maid, and bid her keep an eye on Father (lest he wake in the darkness and, in his confusion, miss the chamber pot again). Then I rode off with the messenger in the direction of my sister's house. It was full dark by the time I got there. As I mounted the steps, I heard the bells ring for Compline. The monks would be going to prayer and then to bed. But I knewthere would be no rest for me that night.
Excerpted from Bella at Midnight by Diane Stanley Copyright ©2006 by Diane Stanley. Excerpted by permission.
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