(Excerpt from Prologue:)
That the magistrate's men came
after dark was no surprise, given the methods the Johnson family
employed to put bread on the table. What was surprising was that
the men chose to break down the door.
One moment, the Johnsons were
consuming their meager soup in the dark main room of their rented
cottage, and the next, Mr. Johnson, beaten and bloody, was pinned
to the wall by three brutes, and Mrs. Johnson's arms were firmly
held in the grasp of a fourth. The screams and curses had awakened
their son, and the boy added his cries to the din. Two other
men were in the small room, and while the constable was ordering
that the house be searched, the other man, the steward of Rosings
Park, loudly demanded that the sobbing brat be quiet. Mrs. Johnson
screamed as the steward raised his hand to strike the child.
"Here," drawled an
aristocratic voice, "none of that, Perkins."
The already crowded space was
filled by the newcomer. It was not by his physical presence;
indeed, the man was of middling height and very slim. He wore
a coat of gold over ivory breeches, a powdered wig under his
black tricorne hat, and held a tall ebony walking stick adorned
with a brass knob in his left hand. No, it was the authority
the man exuded that lit the dank scene like a lantern in a coal
"Is this the man, Perkins?"
asked the gentleman-for dressed like that, the newcomer could
only be a gentleman.
"It is, Sir Lewis,"
the steward assured him, "this is the thief."
"And have you found what
"Aye, Master," cried
the constable, holding aloft the pilfered treasure.
"Hmm," the Master
of Rosings Park and Magistrate for Hunsford mumbled as he inspected
his property. He then walked over to the prisoner, stopping only
a foot away. He studied the injured man as one might a troublesome
insect. Finally, he spoke.
"You stole from me, Johnson."
The man Johnson had to spit
out a bloody tooth before answering. "I don't know nothin'
about that, your lordship-" His protests were interrupted
by a slap on the face.
"Stop your damned lies!"
the constable demanded. "We have the seeds right here!"
"I tell ya, I don't know
nothin' about any seeds," Johnson insisted.
Perkins then spoke. "Things
have been disappearing for years, Johnson, and I've had my eye
on you. Now we've got the proof. It's the noose for you."
That got through Johnson's
bravado. "Hangin' just fur seeds?!"
"Those are not just seeds,"
the gentleman said in a bored voice. "Those are the future
of Rosings Park. How can we have spring planting without seeds?
How can we have wheat without seeds? You might as well have taken
my money right out of my pocket.
"But hanging may be too
severe. Confess, and I will be merciful. Where is the rest of
Johnson just stared at the
gentleman. A violent shake for one of his captors seemed to loosen
his tongue. "Buried it in th' woods," he admitted in
"I will wager there's
more besides, sir," said the steward.
The gentleman nodded in a satisfactory
manner. "You will lead my men to the cache. Should all be
recovered, I will recommend transportation to the court."
To the constable he said, "Take him away."
"Transportation? Ya just
might as well kill me!" Johnson cried as the brutes dragged
him out the door. The gentleman seemed to pay him no mind, occupied
as he was by glancing about the small, run-down cottage.
"Sir Lewis?" asked
the steward. "What about them?"
Sir Lewis turned to Mrs. Johnson.
"You, too, benefited from your . . . husband?" At her
nod, he continued. "You benefited from your husband's crimes.
You are as guilty as he."
Mrs. Johnson said nothing.
Not only did she know any protest would fall on deaf ears, the
bloody rich bastard was right. She knew full well what sort of
man Johnson was when she married him. He was just like her father.
Big promises of an easy life that never came true. Crooked and
careless. She was the daughter of a thief and the wife of a thief.
It was the only life she knew.
"Should we take her in
hand, too?" asked Perkins.
Sir Lewis shifted his gaze
to the young boy, his cries reduced to sniffling. He looked at
the child with an unreadable expression.
Mrs. Johnson nodded.
"He is about the same
age as my daughter," Sir Lewis mused. "A boy. You are
Mrs. Johnson shrugged. It was
neither good nor bad. He was her son.
The gentleman sighed. "Perhaps
my next child will be a son." He turned his attention to
Mrs. Johnson. "Do you have some honest way to earn your
Mrs. Johnson spoke for the
first time. "I'm a fair seamstress, m'lord."
"Hmm." The gentleman
stroked his chin. "You cannot remain here. This is a cottage
for a working family." He turned to the steward. "Have
we any cottages available on the plantation? Ones that are out
of the way?"
Perkins thought about that.
"There's that old blacksmith's shack on the other side of
the woods, but it's in bad shape."
"Yes, that will do."
The gentleman turned again to Mrs. Johnson. "Normally, you
would share your husband's fate, but I am a Christian man, and
I will offer you a choice. You can accompany Johnson to exile,
or you can move to new quarters on Rosings. You will receive
no other charity from me, save what the Church decides to do,
and you must earn your way in the world with your needle and
Mrs. Johnson eyed him suspiciously.
"An' what else?"
Sir Lewis sneered. "Do
not flatter yourself, woman, that I would ever soil my hands
on you. You will pay rent, based on what you earn. You must rebuild
your reputation by honest effort, or you may go to Australia.
I have stated my offer. What is your choice?"
There was no choice, as there
was no love between Mrs. Johnson and her husband. He was simply
there to provide what little he did to the table, and in turn,
she shared his bed. She would not risk her life for him. Many
died on the voyage to exile. She would be lonely in Hunsford,
but so be it. "I'll stay."
"Very well. Perkins, see
that her belonging are packed and moved to the shack as soon
as may be. Make any repairs to the roof as needed." He turned
again to Mrs. Johnson. "You owe my benevolence to your son.
Treat him well." The baronet walked over and ruffled the
frightened child's hair. "Let it not be said that Sir Lewis
de Bourgh is not a generous man."
The gentleman left, obviously
pleased with himself, and never saw the look of hate on the face
of Mrs. Johnson.
For centuries, the mountain
on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa had been quiet. Highly productive
agriculturally, honey, horses, and sandalwood had been raised
on its fertile slopes. The people who lived there had no idea
that the mountain's bounty came from ancient volcanic ash and
that there would eventually be a price to pay.
The fourteen thousand-foot
mountain was a volcano named Tambora, and it would change the
The eruptions began ten days
before and grew in intensity. Those that could flee did so, but
there really was no place to hide. The final explosion, rated
almost two centuries later at eight hundred megatons, ejected
thirty-eight cubic miles of pyroclastic igneous rock into the
atmosphere as nine thousand feet of mountain disappeared. The
eruption was heard up to sixteen hundred miles away and killed
twelve thousand people outright.
All the ash and debris pumped
into the sky by the volcano in the southern Pacific Ocean would
take some time to fall back to earth-years, in fact. It would
block sunlight, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere. There
would be years without summer, abnormally cold growing seasons,
and that meant there would be small-to-no harvests in Europe
The dying had just begun.