Image description

Mercy First And Last

The youngest daughter of a prominent radical politician, Sarah Curran comes of age in an era of rebellion and revolution, buffeted by tragedy and scandal. She has long known Robert Emmet, but not until she is caught up in the fevered calls for Irish independence does she fall in love with the budding revolutionary leader.


Her father forbids their union, but a child raised in a climate of insurrection veers towards her own small rebellion. Determined to win her father's acclaim, she strives to raise his fortunes through marriage to Ireland's future ruler---certain that the uprising cannot fail, even as Emmet's plans fall apart with deadly consequences.

Please enjoy the opening pages:



We fought with unbridled ferocity, granting no quarter, as only sisters can. For the slightest acknowledgement from our father we launched attack after attack, yet Gertrude held the field with an ease that further infuriated me. She mocked my efforts to improve my mind as a way to gain Father’s attention, snatching Paradise Lost from my hands when I wanted to pass the afternoon in reading instead of following her orders. I would have landed a harder blow if I had thrown the book at her head instead of using the knowledge inside as a weapon. I would not have lost the war so thoroughly.


Down the stairs she flew with the leather-bound treasure that I intended to memorize so that I could be part of the intellectual circle that flocked to The Priory, our home on the Rathfarnham Road. I lobbed verbal missiles at her back, irking her to no end and pushing her to run that much faster. “In mercy and justice both,” I said, “through Heaven and Earth, so shall my glory excel.”


“One day I shall be married and you will remain here, a spinster, your mind ruined by education,” Gertrude said, She flew out of the door into the back garden where dead leaves skittered across the gravel path.


“But mercy first and last shall brightest shine,” I continued.


“And Father shall have to maintain you,” she said.


“After he has married you off to a tinker because no other would have such a sour old witch,” I said.


“Even the tinkers would not take you.”


Her comment stung all the more because I valued her opinion. We were inseparable, Gertrude and I, and the thought of being torn apart by husbands was impossible to imagine. No matter how angry I was with her, however, the fact remained that she had stolen an expensive book that had to be shelved in the library before Mr. Curran returned and discovered that it had been taken without his express permission. As if to reinforce the danger I faced, Gertrude held the book aloft as she circled around the rose bed and charged through the garden gate to the carriage walk.  


"Richard’s friends are drinking tea with us on Sunday," she said as she raced around the house. Our older brother was a student at Trinity College and often brought friends to our home, to listen to one of Mr. Curran's discourses on the state of Ireland. We thought some of the gentlemen were rather handsome. "Do not expect them to take any notice of your sour face. Stick your nose in a book, little bookworm. You would not be missed."


She slowed just enough to let me get close, a trick that gave me false hope of catching her before she sped up and dashed through the front door. Up the stairs I flew, hot on her heels, but not quick enough to reach her before she had thrown open the bedroom window and dangled Milton over the sill. I leapt for it but she pulled it back. "They will not pay you any heed, either," I said. "Father tells everyone that he has no money and we bring nothing to a marriage. You less so than the rest of us."


Eighteen months older, and with an advantage of height, she held me at arm’s length while waving the book around like a battle flag, taunting me with renewed threats to let the tome fall to the ground. “Admit defeat. Abandon this foolish quest and come for a walk with me,” Gertrude said.


We faced off across the bed, Gertrude feinting a move to the right that put some distance between us when I fell for her ruse. I used the bedpost to propel my turn around the footboard, but she had the advantage of me yet again. She jumped across the mattress, only to tangle her feet in the coverlet. The book fell to the floor with a thud.


Screaming filled my ears, so many voices screaming that I was not sure if one of them was mine. Gertrude’s black shoe sat under the window in a puddle of white linen, a still life from a nightmare. How long did I stand in place, unable to move, staring at her shoe? I looked around to find her, telling myself that she had thrown it at me, but at the same time I knew she had not. How did I make my way downstairs? The memory was never formed, the shock too great. Mercy, first and last. If only our father had read Paradise Lost and absorbed its philosophy.


I was told that one of the tenants carried Gertrude into the house and placed her on the dining table, a scene I was said to have witnessed in a state of absolute hysteria. A great wailing erupted as soon as Dr. Emmet declared my sister dead, a cacophony of tears and prayers offered up by the women who filled the room. The maids keened in a way that terrified me, a sound from the depths of hell. By the time Mr. Curran arrived from Dublin, I had been drugged into a numb haze, kept from Gertrude's side by our sister Amelia. It must have been her, rather than our mother, who slapped me when I kept insisting that Dr. Emmet was mistaken and Gertrude was in a deep sleep.


My head was swimming when my father took me by the arm and wrenched me from Amelia's crushing embrace. "How did this happen?" Mr. Curran asked.


"She fell," I said.


For the first time in my life I saw my father cry and his sorrow shocked me. He threw himself across Gertrude's inert form, cradling her broken body with care. He sobbed and cursed God, then cursed my mother for failing to protect his precious little girl, his angel. It was an accident, Amelia said, and Mr. Curran turned on her with his brilliant rhetoric and cursed her for caring about nothing but her own pleasures.


Black eyes spit fire, as if Mr. Curran could burn me alive with his rage. "How could you allow this to happen? How could you stand by and let her die?"


He shook me but there was no shaking out a reply to a question that had no answer. If I had not chased after her, if I had put the book away when she asked me to go walking on such a splendid day. If I was a little faster and had reached her, grasped her skirt before she fell. I might have saved her. Gertrude would still be alive. I replayed the scene, over and over in my head, changing the outcome in my imagination and wishing I had done even one of the things I pictured too late.


"It should have been you," Mr. Curran said when I failed to answer. He had wanted a second son, and then I arrived, a fourth daughter. I was always a disappointment. "Almighty God, why did you take my Gertrude? Why Gertrude?"


Once released, I ran to the darkest corner of the drawing room so that I could obey his command that I get out of his sight. I prayed that I might switch places with Gertrude, but all my entreaties went unheard, the ears of the Lord closed to me. I was still hiding when Rev. Mr. Sandys strode into the room, his severe appearance heralding a new round of weeping. For the briefest of moments, I felt Gertrude next to me, but when I tried to take her hand there was nothing there.


"What sort of mother fails to supervise her children?" Mr. Curran ranted, turning his ire on the woman who could not seek shelter from his verbal storm. From my fortress behind a chair I listened to the tirade. Both Dr. Emmet and Rev. Sandys beseeched my father to accept Gertrude's death as a tragic accident that none could have prevented. God's will be done, the minister said, while the doctor spoke in platitudes that did little to calm the madman who stalked the drawing room.


There was talk of calling the undertaker and making the necessary arrangements. A fierce argument erupted, all reason and sense taking leave of Mr. Curran in the moment of his deepest grief. I trembled as people came and went, the pounding of shoe heels reverberating in my belly. Guilt weighed me down, kept me from crawling out and running off to seek sanctuary with anyone who would forgive me for killing my sister. The barrage of hot words grew hotter, the skills of an acclaimed orator put to use in arguing against a normal burial. How Dr. Emmet's son discovered me I could not say, but he joined me on the floor and formed a strong wall against the assault.


"It was an accident," I said to him.


"Of course it was. A very sad, very tragic accident." Robert Emmet was one of Richard's closest friends, a young man I held in some esteem because he was so intelligent and yet humble. Unlike my brother, he was consistently kind to me.


"For the love of God, Jack. You cannot bury that child in unconsecrated ground," Rev. Sandys bellowed.


Robert patted my hand. "Your father is a prominent man, and his enemies may imply that Gertrude killed herself if Mr. Curran is allowed to proceed with his plan," he said. "You must be strong and close your ears to those who seek political gain through invective."


"He will not listen," Richard said. My oldest brother had come from school after hearing of Gertrude's death. What a dreadful, horrible journey he must have shared with Mr. Curran on the road from Dublin. He fell into the chair, reinforcement for my barricade.


"The fault is not yours, Miss Sarah," Robert said. "Mr. Curran is beside himself."


"Lost his senses," Richard said. "How can he even think to bury Gertrude in the garden, like some favorite dog?"


Mrs. Curran had grown increasingly hysterical since Gertrude was nestled into a lead box, sealed up, to never be seen again. The discussion over internment only added to heightened emotions and Dr. Emmet demanded that we retire and try to rest. Robert helped me up and escorted me to the door, but I did not climb the stairs with my siblings. Instead I drifted to the library, where Paradise Lost rested in its proper spot, likely returned by the housemaid. Or perhaps it had always been there and I was imagining some horror. My forehead felt warm. Surely I was delirious with fever and ought to go to bed. I made my way to the bedroom and saw Amelia standing at the window.


Torches glowed at the edge of the garden, in the grove that Gertrude and I had claimed as our own playground. Shovels and picks cut into the sod under our favorite tree as a gang of men worked in the cool autumn air. "He means to put her right there," Amelia said.


"Not in the family vault in Cork?" I asked.


"Cork is too far away. He wants to keep her here, nearby, forever and ever."


Flames and shadows danced in a macabre gavotte. "Will Gertrude not go to Heaven?" I asked. Convicts and suicides were buried in such places, hidden away, their sins making them unfit to lie with good Christians in consecrated ground. My poor sister was only twelve years old. How could one so young have been so evil as to deserve the same fate?


"Of course she will," Amelia said. "She is an angel now. Poor innocent child."


Not a feverish dream, then, but unbelievable reality. Put to bed, I stretched out my arm to find Gertrude next to me, as she had always been. Empty space filled my hand. I tossed her pillow to the foot of the bed but she did not chase after it or swing it at my head. There was nothing but nothingness, and a silence that rang in my ears like the buzzing of bees. I shivered despite the suffocating blanket that my sister Eliza tucked around me, shook with the chill that descended on The Priory.


“Mercy first and last shall brightest shine,” I whispered. Darkness descended on The Priory, an unremitting black darkness.