Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John
The Bed be blest that I lie on.
Four angels to my bed,
Four angels round my head,
One to watch, and one to pray,
And two to bear my soul away.
—Thomas Ady, A Candle in the Dark (1656)
Alexandra Theodora Beaumont grasped the rim of the polished mahogany library ladder and attempted to unhook it from the ledge of Bible study volumes. Although she had just turned eight, her hands were too small and helpless for the Herculean task. With a moue of disgust, she glanced around the lamp-lit library for an alternative.
Her gaze alighting on the rich maroon leather of a high-backed wing chair near the shelves she wished to reach, she set her determined little chin and advanced upon her goal like a soldier marching off to war. The lamp’s flickering flame cast shadows over the deep wine of her short velvet gown but shimmered on the gold-threaded embroidery of the bodice. The gold threads could not match the angelic halo of white-gold curls creating a nimbus around her elfin features. Despite the rich threads and halo, there was very little angelic about Lady Alexandra at the moment. She knew she approached forbidden territory, and she moved with extreme caution, testing the chair for the squeak of its springs before climbing up on it.
Even the extra couple of feet gained by standing on the leather seat did not give her the height necessary to reach the shelf just tantalizingly out of her reach. Gareth had told her that the shelf contained the angel books.
He had even pulled down a volume and showed her the charming watercolors of golden angels in a blue sky. And then he had laughed and shoved the book back in its place—out of her reach. She hated her half brother with every fiber of her being, but she wouldn’t let him defeat her. She might be ten years younger and small for her age, but she could do anything he could.
With cautious patience, she eased the chair around so the arm aligned with the bookcase. Then she scrambled back into the seat again and stepped up on the arm. The heavy old chair easily counterbalanced her slight weight. Standing on tiptoes, she curled her fingers around the first volume on the shelf.
The library door flew open with a thud that bounced off the paneled walls, echoing in the high-ceilinged room. The single lamp flame flickered, sending dancing shadows of her precariously perched figure across the shelves. Her fingers defiantly grasped the binding when the expected bellow ripped through the quiet library.
“Father, she’s at it again, just as I said!”
There wasn’t any use in running. She could drop the book, jump down, and look innocent, but it wouldn’t matter. She really didn’t even know why Gareth went to all the trouble of trapping her. He could tell their father anything and be believed. Grasping the book firmly, Alexandra pulled it off the shelf and hopped down into the chair seat. She stood firmly on the floor by the time her father had followed the sound of Gareth’s voice and entered the room.
She clasped the volume to her chest, prepared to argue her position when she heard the sound of her mother’s voice in the hall, and she cringed. Her mother shouldn’t be here. She was supposed to visit the vicar. That meant the earl hadn’t let her go after all. That meant . . .
She wouldn’t think about what it meant. She wouldn’t think about the whimpers and cries of pain coming from her parents’ chambers on the nights her father decided her mother needed a lesson. It made her stomach hurt just thinking about it. And now he had Alexandra’s disobedience to make him even more fierce with his justice.
She screwed up her inner courage, closed her eyes, and tried praying fervently to God as her mother had told her to do, but God just wasn’t there. Her father was. His large boots stormed across the beautiful Turkish carpet. His big hands wrapped around her arms as he jerked her from her feet. She didn’t even register the roar of his words over her head or the pain of his fingers pinching into her flesh. She prayed hard and fast, praying for a miracle.
“George, she doesn’t mean anything by it!” her mother pleaded. “Gareth teases her into it. You know he does. I’ll spank her and send her to bed and she’ll only have bread and water tomorrow. I promise.”
One large hand casually lashed backwards, shoving his wife away as the other hand held his daughter dangling from the floor. Crying, his wife grabbed her husband’s arm and clung.
“George, please. It’s all my fault. I’ve cosseted her too much. I won’t do it anymore. Punish me, George. She’s much too little to understand.”
Alexandra cringed and wept inside at these words, but she knew for her to say anything would only aggravate her father’s ire. And raising his ire would mean even stronger retribution for her mother. She held still and tried making herself very small.
“She is weak, just as you are weak. It takes a strong love to provide guidance.” The words boomed over her head. “I’ll not have your interference, Matilda.”
With his free hand, the earl grasped his wife’s slender hand, the one clutching his arm. In a single, simple twist from his powerful fingers, he produced a popping noise of damaged bones. Matilda’s muffled cry of pain echoed through the thick air. The grip on his arm loosened as his victim grabbed her pain-wracked wrist.
“George, not tonight, please,” Matilda whispered insistently, despite the pain. “You wished me to stay home so we could be together. I am here. Let Dora alone, and you can teach me to be strong. I’ll have Carrie take Dora to her room.”
Alexandra clenched her tiny hands into fists, squeezed her eyes shut, and prayed silently, ignoring the fiery pain in her shoulder. Lord God, please do not punish my mother for my sins. I will never touch the angel books again. I promise, Lord God, just don’t let him hurt my mother again. Please, God, I will try to be good. If it weren’t a sin, I would drown myself in the river so she never be punished again. Please, by all that is holy, amen.
It sounded reverent and holy as the vicar, and if there truly was a God, surely He would hear and answer her prayers. But as Alexandra had already suspected, God didn’t exist.
“Go to your room, woman. I’ll be there directly.”
His voice wasn’t even a roar anymore. It was cold and commanding, and a shiver traveled down Alexandra’s spine. She knew what that meant, and a tear squeezed beneath her eyelid despite all her efforts to force it back.
Her mother knew, too. She slipped quietly from the room. Further protest would only worsen the punishment for both of them.
Alexandra stoically followed at her father’s heels as he grasped her arm and led her toward the wide circular stairway that was considered one of the architectural wonders of this far corner of England. She lived in a mansion far beyond the means of the fishermen and miners here in Cornwall. They had no social equals here. She had no playmates. The vicar and his wife were their only friends, and the vicar relied on Lord Beaumont for his living. If she couldn’t call on God or her mother for help, she could call on no one.
That night Alexandra got off lightly—physically. A large man, with handsome black hair, flashing dark eyes, and a sensuous mouth, Beaumont had the respect of his peers and his lessers for not using his good looks to get what he wanted. He was considered a religious family man who treated his tenants sternly but fairly. He wouldn’t use his greater strength to deliberately harm his only daughter. He merely made her stand in the corner on her toes with her nose pressed to an impossibly high spot on the wall, then sent her nursemaid to see that she stayed there. He paid the nursemaid well to follow his orders.
Physically, the punishment was almost endurable. Alexandra was light and agile and she had grown an inch or so since the last time he had used this punishment.
She didn’t have to stand on the very edge of her toes to reach the mark. Weariness was her worst enemy, that, and the ache in her shoulder. The real punishment came later, as the house grew dark and silent, and the muffled sounds from the room below became pounding drums in her ears.
When her mother’s piercing cry finally rang through the silence, Alexandra removed her nose from the spot and vomited the remains of her delicious duck dinner into the porcelain washbowl at her side. It wouldn’t do to stain the expensive carpet and start the punishment all over again.
Later, in the early dawn hours when her mother entered the nursery and sent the maid away, Alexandra collapsed limply into her arms and listened with a child’s dying hope to words she had heard a hundred times before.
“He doesn’t really mean to hurt us, Dora. He’s just much bigger and doesn’t know his strength. He’s so good, and he loves us so much, he just wants us to be good like him. We must try harder, Dora. Promise me, you’ll try harder?”