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Chapter One

It was twilight but the heat of the day lingered.  The air was heavy with the promise of rain to come and lightning streaked the horizon.  Captain Teach watched as his men hauled burlap sacks of coffee beans into the hold of the ship.  They would need to hurry.  He planned to be far out to sea before the storm hit here, away from the treacherous Frenchman’s Reef surrounding the harbor.  A bad storm could toss a ship around even in this protected harbor, bashing the hull against sharp coral and sending her to the bottom.

He’d been watching the storm’s approach earlier in the day from the tall windows circling his room in the top of Blackbeard’s Tower.  His grandfather was no fool.  The old rogue had known what he was doing when he had the tower built – sitting on the highest peak overlooking Frenchman’s Reef; it afforded a perfect view of the bustling port of Charlotte Amalie to one side, while other windows faced the waters surrounding his island refuge.  No vessel could get near the harbor unseen by someone in the tower – and no storm could take down those massive stone walls.

The crew stumbled around on deck, exhausted from three days of drunken whoring in port.  “We’ve all had our fun,” he thought. “Now it’s time to get these men back to work.”

On a hillside high above the town of Charlotte Amalie, a solitary figure paced on the terrace outside the Great Hall at Whitaker Manor, watching with dread as the storm approached.  She murmured a prayer to Barakiel, the angel of lightning, asking that the storm pass by this island, all the while knowing it was in vain.  She knew how the night would end – she had seen it over and over on too many sleepless nights through the years.  No matter what charms she used, what prayers she uttered, the outcome was always the same.

Mercedita was skilled in the arts of divination.  Her Creole nanny taught her to read bones and interpret the signs of nature when she was but a child.  Later she was taught to scrime, using the blackened mirror that Miz Sairy treated with such reverence.

“This was giv’n me by ma granny,” Miz Sairy explained the first time she unwrapped it in front of Mercedita. “An she allus said it was giv’n er by er granny.  No ‘un knows fer sure how fur back t’was made.  Not ever’one can see into it, mind ye.  But I kin.  Now, ‘tiz yer time ta be tested.”

Miz Sairy laid the old mirror in the center of the table.  She showed the young girl how  to light a candle, whisper her request into the flame, then blow it out and let the smoke take her question to Heaven.  Then the old woman taught her to recite an incantation created from the words Beatrice spoke as she prepared to guide her lifelong love Dante through the halls of Paradise:

            “And all are bless’d, ev’n as their sight descends deeper into the truth, wherein rest is for every mind.  Thus happiness hath root in seeing.  Now I call upon all my Angels.  Bless me and let me see the truth that lies here before me”

Mercedita stared for the first time into the murky surface of the mirror.  Carefully she lit the candle, whispering “What does my future hold?” 

She blew out the candle and watched as wisps of smoke disappeared into the humid air.  Swirling shapes appeared across the surface in front of her, blending and merging.  Somewhere – whether in the mirror or in her mind’s eye she knew not – the images began to take on forms she recognized.  There was her mother, lying peacefully at last in a pine coffin in the Great Hall.  Next to her lay the empty shell that had once been Mercedita’s father, his body frail, ravaged by the fever that would overtake hundreds of the islanders.  She shuddered and rubbed her hands roughly over the surface of the mirror.

“I didn’t see a thing,” she shouted angrily.  “I don’t have the gift.  Take this worthless abomination away.”

Miz Sairy slowly wrapped the scriming mirror in layers of yellowing linen cloth and tucked it back into the wooden box.  She nodded her head, sadness dimming the fire in her dark eyes.  “A’l right, chile.  Soon enough, ye’ll know the truth of what ye sees.”  For Miz Sairy had seen it too.

And now, as night descended, she felt the doom she had seen so long ago, carried on the rising winds, moving relentlessly toward her peaceful island.  Miz Sairy appeared at the doorway, beckoning her to come inside.
 
“Tiz time, chile.  Ye must go now, while ye still can.  I’ll tend te yer mama and yer pappy.  Soon, they be at peace.  No ‘un can hurt em now.  But ye must na’ tarry.  Ever’ minute ye wait, the danger grows.”

Mercedita grabbed the tiny woman in a fierce hug.  Sairy had been part of her life since Mercedita was born.  She had no idea how old her nanny was.  Sometimes Sairy spoke of things that had happened in days long past, but she was spry as any young maiden.  Her heritage was as colorful as the island’s tropical blooms.  Among Sairy’s forbearers were an African princess brought to St. Thomas by the slave traders over 100 years ago and a native Arawak Indian medicine man whose village had been all but wiped out by diseases carried to the island by European sailors - and, of course, the genes of some of those conquering European sailors as well. 

Her religious beliefs were as varied as her ethnic background.  Mercedita grew up hearing bedtime stories from the Bible interspersed with African tribal lore.  Christian prayers and native spells carried equal weight.  Sairy was a rarity on the island – a free woman who was a servant rather than a slave.  In truth, Mercedita’s parents had always treated her more as a member of the family.  To Mercedita she’d been like a doting grandmother, always patient, always loving.

Earlier that evening, Mercedita had bid a final goodbye to her beloved mother and father, though they were so deep in the grip of the fever that they no longer knew who she was.  She and Sairy had been preparing for this night for years.  They knew not when it would come, but that it would come, they had no doubt.

“Ye must be brave, chile.  Be strong.  Remember all ye’ve learnt and o’er all else, trust yer heart.  I’ll see ye agin.  Ye’ll be back ta this island afore long.”

Sairy handed her a bundle of clothes, hustling her into a small room off the parlor to change.  “We’d best do ‘er away from pryin’ eyes.  Ah dunna want the servants able ta tell the tale ‘a how the mistress went away.  All they’ll know iz there’ll be a third coffin in the Great Hall in three days time, nailed shut like alla others.  Ah’ll wail an’ moan for me young mistress that ah raised up from a baby girl, taken so sudden.  Ever’one will hear that ye jest let the fever git ye, gave up livin’ cuz ye wuz grievin’ so bad o’er losin yer poor mammy an pappy, all in one whack.”

She helped Mercedita into the unfamiliar garments, then handed her a worn leather satchel.  “Here’s sum provisions ye’ll na doubt be needin’.  Keep ‘er close.”

Sairy bustled her out through the servant’s area and helped her climb into the back of a wagon loaded with sacks of vegetables.  After arranging several dirt-streaked burlap bags over Mercedita’s tall frame, Sairy climbed into the front seat of the old wagon and urged the horse into a trot.

The ride down the mountain road to the harbor seemed to take forever, but full darkness had not yet fallen when Mercedita felt the wagon lurch to a stop.  She heard Miz Sairy, calling out to the crew of a ship nearly ready to set sail, offering to sell them fresh yams at a price not to be believed.

“Ye’ll not regret addin’ these plump beauties to yer stores below deck.  An’ sech a bargin, ah’m teched inna head ta be lettin’ em go.  But me lazy man dun drunk up alla ‘is pay an’ ah need ta buy me sum supplies.”

Sairy drew the sailor’s attention to a bulging bag of bright orange yams, spilling them out in front of the wagon, laughing and chattering all the while.  Mercedita swiftly dropped from the other side of the wagon and crept up onto the ship.  Sairy had made inquiries in town over the last two days regarding all the ships in port.  They chose this vessel because the English captain, though said to be a descendant of the infamous Blackbeard himself, was reputed to be outspoken in his refusal to fill the hold with slaves, preferring to make his fortune trading in scarce commodities rather than human lives.

“I heered ‘es a gentlem’n, least as much as ye can ‘spect any of ‘em ta be,” Sairy had explained.  “Keep yerself hidden til yer well away frum port.  With the storm comin’ ‘e won’t be turnin’ back when ‘e finds ye.  He’s headin fer Port Au Prince.  He’ll likely put ye off there and ye kin go to the house of the guvnor.  He wuz a dear friend to yer pappy an e’s a good man.  He’ll keep ye safe.”

Mercedita slipped into a long boat lashed to the outside of the ship just below the deck.  Lying flat with her face pressed against the rough boards, she knew that unless someone looked closely, the black garments would render her nearly invisible in the gathering darkness.  Their plan was crude at best, but it was her only hope. 

Rumors were swirling round the islands that some traders had found a new commodity to harvest. After dropping off a full cargo of slaves in the colonies, they crammed the holds of their ships with women for the return journey across the ocean.  The sheiks and princes of the desert realms would pay a bounty for a comely light-skinned female to add to their harems.  Those who were not as attractive still brought in a good sum from the whorehouses in foreign ports.

Single women were being kidnapped everywhere in the Colonies and dragged off, never to return.  The pirates and slave traders knew there was little chance that the anxious fathers and brothers, mostly shopkeepers or the owners of a few hundred acres of cropland, could muster the resources and the manpower to pursue them across the vast ocean - and even less chance of finding them once they pulled into port somewhere on the endless coasts of the Middle East.   Mercedita knew that as soon as word got out that her parents were dead, she would become a target.  With no powerful protector at hand that the local authorities would acknowledge, her servants would be captured or driven away in fear. An attractive, unmarried Englishwoman living alone was a prize just waiting to be plundered. 

She and Sairy had seen them coming in the scriming mirror, just as they had seen the death of her parents.  There was a distant relative in Bath, a middle-aged man Papa had named in his will to run the plantation for Mercedita if his death occurred, but it would take months to get word to Cousin Daniel and months more before he would arrive in St. Thomas.  Mercedita was fully capable of overseeing the day to day operations of the estate herself and had done so even before her father became gravely ill, but the local courts refused to recognize a woman’s authority as binding when it came to engaging in commerce.  To make things worse, the port of St. Thomas had long been recognized as a haven for pirates.  Their trade enriched the coffers of the island’s Governor General and he was unlikely to lift a finger to defend the holdings of a lone female, especially if he were to receive a share of her wealth in exchange for his inaction.  Her hands were tied until her cousin, this faceless stranger who had the necessary male appendage, arrived. 

Mercedita realized that if she were captured, her unknown relative had even less reason to rescue her, since he would then be the sole heir to Whitaker Hall and all its extensive holdings in the Islands.  Her best chance of continuing to live the life she loved here on St. Thomas was to leave it - at least for now.

So here she lay, cowering in the darkness in a flimsy lifeboat, praying that she could remain hidden till the ship was far out to sea.  She heard the shouts of the crew as they prepared to set sail and soon she felt the swell of the ocean carrying them out past the harbor.  Mercedita had been on long ocean voyages before.  She and mama had returned to England for two years so that Mercedita could further her education and become familiar with all the unwritten rules of English society.  St. Thomas was under Danish rule and her parents were determined that their only child and heir be familiar with her British roots. 

Mercedita flatly refused to allow Mama to turn their trip into a husband-hunting expedition and made that clear from the start to both her parents.  Once there, she quickly found out that she hated the cold, damp weather, hated the restrictions placed on proper Englishwomen, hated their simpering helplessness, hated being confined by tight corsets and layers of petticoats.  She endured the experience while counting the days till they returned to her tropical island.

Mama secretly agreed with her.  She did her duty, introducing her daughter to England and England to her daughter, all the while homesick for the warm breezes and casual lifestyle of their West Indies home.   Both women breathed a sigh of relief when they boarded the ship that would take them on the long voyage back to St. Thomas.

But the ship she was on now had scarcely cleared the harbor and already Mercedita knew this sea voyage would be nothing like her past experiences.  The wind picked up and the first hard raindrops began to pelt her.  Having been through a hurricane at Whitaker Hall as a child years ago, she prayed that they be spared the full wrath of the heavens on this night.

It seemed that Mercedita’s prayers were in vain.  Once out on the open ocean, Captain Teach found himself sailing right into the heart of the storm.  Enormous waves crashed over the bow of the ship and the rain attacked them cruelly, driven sideways by the force of the wind.  It took all of his considerable strength to hang on to the ship’s wheel.  He tied himself to its base and gave the command for his crew to lash themselves to the nearest rail or mast.

Mercedita was terrified.  So much water was pouring into the long boat as the waves crashed over her head that she feared she would drown right there in the bottom of the craft.  Over the howling of the wind she heard the captain give the order for the crew to secure themselves. 

As soon as she felt a momentary break in the wind, Mercedita dragged herself out of the long boat and back over the rail, coming face to face with a startled crewman.  He let out a bloodcurdling shriek and backed away.

“I’m not a ghost,” she cried out.  “Help me!  For the love of God, give me a rope!”

Even over the din of the storm Captain Teach heard the screams and shouts of his crew.  He called out to his first mate to take his place, lashing the man securely to the helm.   Struggling to stay upright, he made his way amidship, clinging to any handhold he could find.

“It’s the Angel of Death, Cap’n!  Here to take us down to our grave!”

As the captain came face to face with the figure huddled against the railing, a bolt of lightning illuminated the deck and he got a clear view of his unexpected passenger.  A veiled woman, dressed in black from head to toe.  Her face was framed by a stiff white cloth, with only the edges of it peeking out from under the black cloth that covered her head.  Pale skin set off dark brown eyes wide with fear.  She clutched the rail for dear life with one hand while the other fingered a string of roughly carved wooden beads.

She looked up, saw his ferocious scowl, and sank to her knees, reciting what sounded like the Lord’s Prayer in French.  He stared at her in shock.

“You’re…you’re a nun!” 

 


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