By Celia Jolley
(Please excuse the language, the verbiage of the Regency Era.)
The lass made him feel positively old with her youthful bloom, though less than seven years was the span of their age difference. All the grief of his previous attachment welled up within him as if to crowd the room with specters of his past: the courtship, the nuptials, the marriage bed, the unveiling of her true character, the scorn, the unhappiness, then the illness unto death. He felt no more than a spent, guttering candle. This young woman deserved so much more than he could offer. He felt a pity for her being paraded out in front of him.
The only trustworthy statement his friend had asserted was that she was comely. After taking her measure for longer than seemly, Edward finally offered them their seats and ordered tea. The girl, Miss Faith, glanced up once or twice to meet his gaze. She had sorrow in her eyes behind where the tears pooled without dropping. Yes, she was as unwilling as he. What a quandary.
The gentlemen conversed as the tea was poured. He could tell by her mother that she would retain her good looks even as she aged. Not a word did she speak. Edward had to hear her voice to find if it as a gratingly sharp as his dearly departed's had been.
"Miss Corinth, do you enjoy the country?" He rarely went to London, much preferring his quiet home in the country."
"Perhaps you all would like a walk in the garden after tea then. It is a fine day, is it not."
The father gushed, "Yes, yes, the garden. That would be dandy. Quite."
Edward had not missed the man's appraising glances about the room and his flushed favor. The company followed him out the French doors to the crushed limestone path. His friend kept the parents in a happy banter while the miss took the arm he offered. She barely touched him with her fingertips as if he would burn her.
"You do not have to be afraid of me, Miss Corinth. I just learned of your invitation and pending arrival a mere hour ago. I can guarantee I have no aspiration beyond your willingness."
"Oh, I see. Thank you for being so candid. You are a widower I am told."
"Yes. I was married at twenty and three for less than a year before she met an untimely death of lung fever."
"Oh, how sad. You must have grieved."
"Yes. It changed me so that now I fear I don't see life so full of roses once I had felt the thorns."
He saw her wipe a tear with a handkerchief crushed in her free hand.
"I've been told of your recent heartbreak and can tell it is no less devastating to you."
"Truly." She looked up as if to read his sincerity.
Her eyes held no artifice, her lovely eyes. Edward looked away and concentrated on the horizon. If the arrangements became mutually agreed upon, it would not be claimant upon your heart. I have no self-delusion there. But I must tell you that I seek an heir."
"Oh." She blushed prettily.
He again sought the tranquility of the horizon as his heart pounded in his chest. "I hope I haven't spoken too plainly."
"No, sir. I thank you for being so forthright. It is much better than dancing around the truth."
Edward went on, "You would be allowed much freedom to seek your pleasures. Do you ride?"
"Oh, yes. I have my own horse. I find solace in the saddle."
"Yes. I find that to be true as well."
"I love to read as well."
"Good, good. We have a fine library here that I think you would enjoy."
"And the kirk?"
"Yes, we have a chapel here on the grounds as well as a kirk in the village. Perhaps you remember seeing it on your way in?"
"I'm afraid I was too distraught to notice."
"As I can imagine. I must say this walk in the garden is an advantage to the frippery of the salons of London. Do you agree?"
He quirked an eyebrow at her choice of term. They had wended their way apart from the others, but found themselves back at the manor where the others stood waiting. He surprised himself by kissing her hand while she caught her breath. Another tear slipped down that he audaciously wiped away with his thumb.
"Good day, Sir Edward."
The rest of the farewells were said, though she did not look back once seated in the carriage. His head was in turmoil. At least his heart was unaffected, or so he told himself any way.
"A possibility then. Good, good. Shall I speak with her father? They planned to leave on the morrow, but he assured me he could stay over for the next week if there was any chance for an understanding."
"It is too soon to know. These things should not be rushed."
"I'll take that as a chance." Thomas grinned unabashedly and called for his mount. "I will be off then. A lunch tomorrow and a supper the evening following?"
Between the lunch and the supper, Edward had made up his mind. She was detached of heart but seemingly unwillingly willing, as was he. He allowed his friend to come to an agreement with the father before speaking to her the following day as they rode. The weather had been generous with the promise of spring; daffodils and jonquils were petals of sunshine nodding in the breeze while in the shade violets peeked more shyly. The blue skies were ruffled in the fluff of clouds. If he was younger, innocent, it would have been heady stuff indeed. As he reigned to a stop, he dismounted and helped Miss Faith down as well and led her to sit on a fallen log. He paced in front of her to battle in his mind with his eyes blazing.
"Am I to understand correctly that you have been disappointed in love?"
"Yes." She swallowed hard.
"So, we are under no pretenses if we were to enter an agreement of marriage."
Faith nodded while choking back a sob.
"I'm afraid this is as gallant as I may be, but I won't be unkind. You may ask my staff if you like. I believe they find me a fair man."
Faith had dropped her head in her hands giving way to a burst of tears.
"Are you able to consent to such a proposal with the hope of producing an heir? Perhaps in time we might even find ourselves suitable."
She nodded but did not look up from her noisy tears. He handed her his handkerchief.
"I'm sorry it is not under different circumstances as obviously you are grieved." An apologetic marriage proposal. How pathetic. Edward hid a flash of anger behind a face of stone. "How soon would you like the nuptials then?" Her weeping grew louder. He went out trying to ignore her outburst. "Then the banns could be read as soon as possible." He knew if he waited, he would back out of it.
She nodded though unable to speak as she was unable to contain herself at all. Gripping her elbow, he helped her up sobbing and led her to her horse, offering his hands for a lift up. He grimaced at such a travesty of a proposal, an aberration of what should have been, love's sacrosanct declaration. He argued with himself as they rode down the slope. This time it would be a mistake of his own choosing. Would time make it better or worse, for the better or worse?
The Spring thought better of itself and swept in with grey clouds on the horizon the morning of the wedding. He silently blasted away with self-recriminations as he stood still while his valet fussed over his neck cravat as if the vows depended upon it.
Just then Thomas burst in looking wild. Hatless, his hair stood on end and his face blanched except for two circles of heat spreading across his cheeks.
"What is it, man?"
"I dare not tell you, but I must. She is gone."
"Gone?" he shouted.
"Eloped. Her lover spirited her away in the middle of the night to Scotland, likely Gretna Green. There is no time to catch them in time. She is likely married by now."
Edward was speechless. His hands fisted and flexed straight until suddenly a chortle passed his throat. By the time he whipped off his neck scarf, he was bent over erupting in guffaws. Thomas stood by half smiling, half in fear still.
"Good God Almighty! He spared me from that one, no thanks to you."
"Go ahead, pummel me. I deserve it."
"No, the chit deserves the happiness she chose. It shows some gumption. I would like to shake her man's hand."
"Well, she made a cake of me, that's for certain. It will give the village a bone to gnaw on, delicious fare for the gossips, I dare say."
"Quite," Thomas tugged nervously at his neck.
"Arrange for her dowry to be returned. No, in fact, find her new husband. I am sure he could use it. Her father doesn't deserve it."
"You, my friend, are a rare one. Would you like the stableman to bring round your horse? I think you may be spoiling for a solitary ride before the clouds burst."
"Quite so." Edward laughed again, but this time it was edged with more bitterness than good will. "Twice cursed in love," he said under his breath as he changed into his riding attire.
"I found Hope."
Edward pulled his face up from the book he was reading. "I don't understand you, Thomas."
"Hope, her name is Hope."
"Oh no. No! NO! NO! Edward pounded the table.
Thomas took a sip of tea looking slyly at the angry man.
"It's a sure thing this time. Her father had enough standing to not only allow for her to be granted a divorce through Parliament of bed and board, a mensa et thoro, but also a divorce from the chain of matrimony by lunacy of her husband for his cruelty. Quite expensive and highly unusual for a woman to receive this from the King's Bench. One has only been allowed to remarry in the last few years, an opportunity indeed."
"No, oh no! They would find me guilt of lunacy if I agreed to more of your matchmaking."
"And how many progeny are upstairs in your nursery?"
"Public opinion has probably been swayed to a woman's favor since Sir Meredith's sister was granted a divorce from Lord Ferrers."
"The Earl? The one who was hanged for murdering his servant?"
"Yes. The poor man was found to be simply paying the Earl's former wife the allotted alimony Parliament had determined. Anyway, a woman who finds herself in such despicable circumstances deserves sympathy."
"But what does that have to do with me? I believe I deserve your sympathy since our last marital mishap enough to be left alone."
"Must I keep reminding you that you need an heir?"
"Your anger doesn't negate the truth. That has remained unchanged.
"And who is Hope, pray tell?"
"A woman from the highest ton, Lord Fitz Warren's daughter, who has sequestered herself from society in the country near by at her uncle's estate since her divorce. It was said that she is quite lovely and still young, not five and twenty. So I felt it behooved me to pay a call at her uncle's Lord Whitehall."
"Of course you did. Why am I not surprised?"
His friend was staring out at the verdure unseeing. Thomas finally spoke, "She is the loveliest creature I have ever seen."
"She has bewitched you then? Your ebullient praise astounds me."
"I do not exaggerate. She is exquisite."
"Enough huff and puff."
"We are expected to dine tomorrow."
"You would break an invitation sent by Lord Whitehall?"
"No, you will break it."
"I cannot. I have given my word in her presence."
"Nevertheless, it is set. Fait accompli."
"I could always change your will so that your estate will go to your sister's husband."
"I'll go. Just don't expect me to be as enthralled as you obviously are."
"Wait until you meet Hope."
The woman was no shrinking violet. Stunningly beautiful, she was in truth. She held her head up high as if to do less would give in to wagging tongues who had relished the news of her divorce in explicit details in the London papers. She had a backbone. Only her aunt wiped a tear surreptitiously with a handkerchief pulled from her sleeve. The young woman was not haughty; rather, held upright in spite of the worst of circumstances. Her hauteur was for good reason. Pity would be shunned. Respect was demanded.
Edward was intrigued, whereas Thomas was a moonstruck calf. "Hold yourself together, man," he said to his companion under his breath. The man dared to sigh before shaking himself to notice the plate before him. "Must I tell you to breathe and eat or feed you myself?" Edward jabbed his friend.
"Sorry, I forget myself. But you must admit, Hope is quite the thing."
Edward snorted then hid it by a cough. He was determined not to play the veritable fool this time.
Miss Hope conversed intelligently on every subject. It was easy to see that she could carry her own and was not afraid to look a man in the eye. He wondered if she would despise all of the breed of man for the sins of her former husband. She certainly would be her own mistress.
After dinner, Edward drank black coffee while the other men drank port. Once again rejoined with the fairer sex, he dared to take a turn about the grand drawing room to speak with the lady. Hope was cordial, but guarded. He decided to be blunt.
"You've heard of my previous circumstances as I have heard of yours, only I'm not presumptuous enough to have followed it in the papers, bad business that it is."
She nodded looking straight ahead, but he saw that her jaws were clenched.
"I wonder if while you are enjoying your stay in the country if you would wish to dine with me, along with your aunt and uncle, of course. Perhaps, this coming Thursday would do?"
"I will ask my uncle if his schedule would allow."
The private conversation ended as Thomas insisted on them joining him and her cousin in a game of whist.
Thomas was in a twitter, almost giddy, when they left the next morning having stayed over due to the late hour last night.
"Stunning, isn't she. And so accomplished."
"She played so well on the pianoforte, and then when the angel sang, I was undone completely."
"I will travel back tomorrow morning as I have arranged an interview on your behalf with her uncle. He has been given the authority by Miss Hope's father to speak for her."
"I haven't made up my mind yet."
"How can you not? This is ludicrous! She is perfect. You could never hope to meet a woman so charming ever again. If you let this one go, you are more intrinsically dull than I thought."
"I refuse to go blithely down to the altar again. I must take time to think, to pray."
"You must admit all her allurements are enticing."
"Well, don't be intransigent. Be decisive."
"I don't claim ennui, but neither can I put on affectations falsely. I am not delusional. Such a match could mean extremes to either the good or to the bad, not to be entered into lightly."
"Being married to such a one would be a dream."
"I cannot afford to lose my head."
"Your heart, you mean."
"It is a stone."
"Idiot. You don't deserve her."
They rode along in a current of seething anger below the surface. Edward knew it would be ridiculous to get in a fisticuff over their perceptions of Hope, but it did not lessen his desire to take his friend down a notch. He had to satisfy himself with an occasional withering look and gritted teeth."
However after dining with his guests, Edward began to warm to the idea of waking to Hope every morning imaging having her sitting by him at the table. Rather, it was Thomas who made no effort to hide his infatuation. That would have to end once Edward married her. Yes, his thoughts he had to admit were meandering there, marriage. She certainly came with a generous dowry, though he would allow her to keep her alimony for herself. It was obvious that the woman would not last in the marriage mart, certainly not once she reentered the London scene. He felt precipitously close to a decision.
The next day, he watched as Thomas rode back to Hope's uncle. He had given his consent to come to an agreement, though grudgingly much to Thomas' consternation. He felt Miss Hope understood without him blathering about with a fancy proposal. She was divorced wasn't she. That was a taint beyond his being stood up at the altar, not that he would hold it against her.
The next day Thomas rode home thundering ahead of the clouds gathering once again upon the horizon. A late spring storm portended.
"Well, man, is it done?" Edward was surprised at the nervous churning in his stomach.
His friend nodded, but there was that wild look about Thomas again. His face once again blanched with a blush spreading rosily in his cheeks.
"What is it?" Edward demanded.
"The banns will be read this Sunday in her uncle's kirk. She has agreed to marry me."
"Marry YOU?" Edward shouted!
"You did not deserve her. She knew that though the divorce was through no fault of her own, you would be taking her on discounted terms. Hope knew I worshipped her for who she was. She doesn't give a whit about my lower station."
"I ought to thrash you for this!" Suddenly the laughter was coming up from his belly, and he found himself pounding his best friend on the back. "Congratulations, you old devil, you! You are right. I don't deserve her. As ludicrous as it sounds, I am very happy for you as a truth and am glad to have escaped the nuptials once again."
Thomas had been nervously laughing along with him, but finally said, "Truly? You are not incensed with me?"
"No. Just promise to leave me alone and perhaps I will leave everything to your first born male offspring."
"No, never. I could never promise that."
"My hope was dashed and my faith, broken. Come, come, my man, even I deserve a break."
Both men laughed till they cried pounding each other until servants peeked out from behind doors in consternation.
Edward stood up with Thomas as his witness in a small ceremony three weeks later, a morning ceremony as required. He indeed was genuinely happy for his friend. He only felt a twinge of jealousy, not over the woman, but over their obvious happiness. He sighed and turned back to return to the tomb like quiet of his home.
Thomas had promised to visit upon their return from the seaside. Edward had offered to give them enough for a trip to the continent, but his friend had been adamant. "You think I want to sightsee on my honeymoon? Have an idea, man! You've been out of the marriage bed too long." Edward had not known he could still blush until then.
One morning in the heat of early summer, he returned home from a round to his tenants to find a carriage pulled up in front. It was Thomas and his bride, he was certain. Edward threw open the drawing room door to find only a vulnerable young woman quite startled where she had been looking out over the garden.
"I beg your pardon. I was expecting to find my friends home from their wedding trip."
"Oh yes. They are upstairs settling in their chamber. You must be Sir Edward Northrope." She curtsied.
She blushed deeply. "I am just Charity. Charity Quimby. Did you receive Thomas' letter?"
"No, I haven't. I assumed him to be too busy, I mean, too preoccupied to write." Edward stammered at her look of mortification.
"Edward!" Thomas burst in upon them hugging him as if they were still the boyhood pals of their youth.
"Well, it seems married life has increased, not diminished your joie de vivre."
"Quite so. I highly recommend it. In fact..."
"Oh. No!" Edward barked as his friend's face began the tell-tale look of blanched cheeks suffused with a rosy blush.
"I thought this would be better handled in person than by letter," Thomas nervously suggested.
"Miss Quimby, if you'll excuse us, I think you might enjoy a turn in the garden."
Edward's howl of rage, "YOU WHAT?" could be heard plainly among the roses in full bloom.
Hope came running down the stairs to stand by her Thomas.
"Really, Edward. Don't scare the poor thing half to death," she scolded.
"How dare you!" he hissed. "I vouchsafed my signature and seal to you and this is how you treat that trust?"
"Edward, Miss Quimby can hear you!" Hope pointed out the French doors.
"Surely, you jest. I have never heard of such a thing, a wife auction? How preposterous! It can't be legally binding. I was not even there. Of all the audacious, officious, high-handed, perfidious treachery, this takes the cake! You have gone too far." Edward glared at Thomas.
Hope laid a gentle hand on his arm before he could punch Thomas in the jaw. Her direct gaze momentarily backed him down. "You need a wife. I have known Miss Quimby from my girlhood. We were in finishing school together and both unlucky in love, to state it mildly. Since you must know her tale of woe, I will relate it in all the tender compassion I feel."
Hope began such a story that it had Edward seething. "On a trip home on holiday from school, she was lured away from her chaperone who was bribed to look the other way. The girl was assaulted by a dreadful, poor excuse for a man." Edward found himself white-knuckled with his hands clenched in fists.
"When found to be with child, her despicable father forced her to marry the blackguard who has been on a drunk ever since. Believe you me, I understand what it is to be treated thus. Whereas I was fortunate to have a father and a brother with the means to go before Parliament to plead my case, she did not. Finally, the child did not live and her husband became so in debt that he not only did not provide for her, but could no longer pay for his liquor nor..." she sought for the right words, "his favors at the tavern." The rogue decided to sell his wife. God in His graciousness allowed us to come across her two days ago at an inn where he was parading her about with a harness like an animal ready to sell her to the highest bidder so long as he could buy his next pint."
Edward growled, "How dastardly! Didn't you do something, Thomas? How are such things acceptable?"
Hope continued. "It is not uncommon in the countryside. Few there are who are able to effect a divorce in either the church or in Parliament, so that a wife auction is the means prevailed upon and winked at by the authorities.
Thomas added, "Of course I could not let her be sold to nary a one of the rough looking lot of lurid on-lookers. So, I bought her."
"You what? You cannot have two wives."
"No, but I had your signature and seal to buy her for you."
Edward groaned and ground his teeth. "This is too much. It goes beyond the pale."
"What would you have me do, my friend? Hope was her only friend in a mob of fiends. The woman had been abandoned by her family. They condemned her to such a life through no fault of her own."
Suddenly, Charity stood in the threshold of the open door to the garden looking more fragile than a crushed rose petal and just as sweet. "You are under no obligation, sir. Hope and Thomas have promised me that I could live under their care if you refuse me. I held no false hope."
She stood in the doorway looking him straight in the eye though trembling. Indeed, his heart lurched finding himself inexplicably drawn by her tender loveliness where the sun gleamed a halo around the tendrils of hair.
Thomas said half under his breath, "She is a godly woman who has walked through the fire. Don't desert her now, Edward, I beg of you. She needs your protection. If you refuse, it would be the biggest mistake of your life."
Edward gave him a withering look, but was filled with a morass of doubt. She was certainly beautiful in a vulnerable sort of way. Though her chin was upturned, it merely showed that she would disdain artifice.
He had an arduous struggle. It outraged his sensibilities to think of all she went through, but it at the same time beckoned him to be a knight in shining armor to a maiden in obvious distress. He felt revulsion and anger at the circumstances the woman found herself in. It was an onerous task, yet one of such delicacy. One could hear a pin drop even though he was in the battle of his life inside. Was he impolitic, ungenerous. He wrestled fiercely.
Marriage was to be inviolable, not to be profaned nor injured. It was more sacred than anything in God's creation, an example of Christ's love for the Church. Could he offer this young woman his protection, his name? Had he unwittingly done so already by Thomas' actions? They stared at each other down to their depths as if taking one another's measure. She was so vulnerable, it made him desire to rise to the challenge. He sighed.
"Miss Quimby, if you will excuse us, I would like a word with Thomas in my study."
He waited for his friend at the door observing Hope crossing to her friend to grasp hands.
He waited to speak until they were removed. "Am I to understand, according to your use of my signature that I am already wed to Miss Quimby, or do I have the leisure of choice in the matter?"
Thomas sat nervously crossing and uncrossing his legs squirming as a schoolboy. "It is a curious thing."
"Go on," Edward grimaced.
"It might not have an exact precedent in the law, but I believe that Henry Brydges, 2nd Earl of Chandos, bought a wife in 1740 from an ostler in a similar situation. I am not aware if he was present or not. However, wife selling is a publically witnessed contract rather than a ceremony in the church, by sale in the market or in a public place. The sticky point is that I did it by proxy for you. If you so choose, it could possibly be undone, but of that I am not certain."
"You are not certain if I am married or not? Preposterous!"
"Well, I would offer my legal opinion that you are married. It is merely a question of whether it could be undone. There are cases where a marriage contract has been thrown out due to a woman being forced into it without her consent, but none that I am aware of where a man has been forced into it. That would certainly go down in law history."
"How delightful. I am to be made a permanent jest in the law books?"
"You could have a simple country ceremony to seal the marriage to everyone's satisfaction. She is a very affable, pleasant woman, not to mention lovely in all aspects of her appearance. She was raised as a lady until the unfortunate turn of events."
"Blasted parents! How could they have abandoned their own flesh and blood to such a fend?"
Thomas arched his brow at his friend. "How could I have abandoned her myself to those lechers? You should have seen the lurid looks, positively salivating to satisfy their sinful appetites. She was bound around the neck, for God's sake!"
"No, I commend you for acting on her behalf. I just have not quite reconciled myself to my part."
"I explained your need of an heir. You should have heard even my Hope singing your praises to her."
To that Edward snorted. After my disastrous courtships, I've lost all pretense of scruples. I've no self-delusion. Even you must admit, ladies have not found me quite to their liking so far."
"Oh, so this is about you and your dread to be played as a fool."
"I have very little conceit left."
"I have even less of hope or faith."
"Well, then try Charity. The greatest of these is charity. Give love a chance. You are a good man, Edward, the best. I do know that she would be eternally grateful to have a Christian husband. I even have it on my wife's authority that you are indeed a handsome man, almost as handsome as myself, according to her. You are quite a catch no matter how you denigrate yourself."
"Besides, after my glorious wedding trip, I am convinced more than ever that marriage is wonderful, the crowning glory. I would that you could find this for yourself, Edward."
"I have little expectations of love, though I congratulate you upon your success."
"Do not allow your first wife's shallowness or petty, petulant spirit taint what God would have for your future. Can you trust Him to bless you as you have faithfully served Him? The question remains, did God plop Miss Quimby in your lap, figuratively speaking, for a purpose? Gracious! Who would think that one would stumble upon a wife auction and find one of your bride's dearest friend with a leash around her neck? I understand that most wife sales are due to an offended husband taking a settlement for a wife's adultery allowing the lover to pay for his dalliance. In Charity's case, she slept with a knife under her pillow for her own protection from her so called husband's vileness. He found more willing arms in the taverns."
Edward slammed his fist down hard upon his desk causing his inkwell to dance dangerously close to the edge. "The man should be behind bars!"
"Precisely. It is shameful that her father did not pursue that end. He was more concerned for his reputation than his daughter's welfare. The morals in London are indeed that low it seems."
After a very long pause, Edward finally said, "I think I see my way clear. But would you pray with me, Thomas. I must confess this has all come as a shock to find myself married after the fact."
Thomas put a hand on his shoulder and prayed, "Our Father in heaven, I thank you that you have redeemed us and did not leave us in our sin, those we committed and those which were committed against us. I thank you for my friend, Edward. I pray that he will find marital bliss as he is trusting Your hand in all of this, bringing Charity under his protection. I ask for divine grace that can even surpass anything we can ask or think. And one more thing, Lord, I ask for an heir, to this union. In Your holy name, Amen."
The men shook hands solemnly, but then Thomas broke out into his giddy grin. "You won't be sorry, Edward. God is in this, I am certain of it."
"I'm committed to be a godly husband, regardless."
When they entered the drawing room, the ladies stood. Edward had eyes only for his bride. He strode across to stand before for and took her hands gently in his. Miss Quimby, I believe we are indeed married, but I would like to say vows before God in the chapel if you are willing. I assure you my intentions are honorable. I will give you time to adjust to being my wife without undue pressure on my part. Do you give your consent?"
He realized her hands were trembling in his. They felt so soft as he stroked his thumb across them. Her eyes spoke volumes, not just of trepidation, but of a solid faith, of hope, and a promise to love. A tremulous smile broke from her face like a ray of sunshine into cold places in his heart and set it to hammering hard enough to break stone.
"I am grateful and accept your most generous offer, Sir Edward."
He sighed. Charity at last. "Faith, hope, and love, but the greatest of these is love." Not only that, but Edward found himself quickly falling, becoming as infatuated as a schoolboy, as love-struck as a country swain and grinned before kissing his wife's hand.