The youngest of seven sons did not have the best start one could have in life, even if he had been born into an affluent family. The family estate would go to his eldest brother, and with every new son born the younger brothers' portions became smaller. While, for some of his elder siblings, provisions could be made by supplying them with a profession - a handsome living bestowed on one of them, army commissions bought for some of the others - the sum available for the youngest had been merely enough to give him an education that was considered necessary for a gentleman's son. Even a proper name had been denied him, Septimus Edenthorpe had always thought. Septimus. The Seventh. A number rather than a name. If it had not been for his godfather, who'd been responsible for his middle name, Mr Edenthorpe would have had to put up with being a number rather than a human being for the rest of his life. As it was, he'd chosen his middle name as the one he wished to be called by, and by the time he'd been seventeen and considerably taller and stronger than most of his brothers, he'd been "George" to everyone who knew him except his mother, who after almost eight-and-twenty years still refused to see reason in the matter and persisted in calling him Septimus.
Being the youngest son and without a means of income, George had been dependent on his mother and brother's generosity until fairly recently, when he had taken up his position as a junior official at the Home Office. Contrary to his expectations he enjoyed his duties there; even more so because his salary enabled him to support himself without having to resort to his brother's financial assistance. Although George Edenthorpe lived in London and took his part in society as his family required, he did not live expensively. He had lodgings in Albany, mainly because his lordship insisted on his having a good address; and he attended society functions now and then - not that he got many invitations, because a seventh son with no expectations was not the kind of man a prudent mama wished to introduce to any of her daughters of marriageable age.
His pastimes were mainly of a sporting kind. From early childhood on, George had had to learn to defend himself against his elders, and that had led to his taking up boxing and becoming quite proficient at it. Although he could not afford to buy or keep hunters he was known to be a bruising rider to hounds if given the opportunity, and while he was no top-sawyer he could handle the ribbons well enough. He was popular among his peers for his kindness and generosity as well as his willingness to come to the aid of anybody who asked him for help.
The ladies admired his athletic good looks, although they often deplored his lack of address, for Mr Edenthorpe was no ladies' man. He'd never learned to flirt - in fact he had never bothered to learn; and although he was polite enough to any lady who happened to find herself in his company they did not find him particularly entertaining. The youngest Mr Edenthorpe, in spite of having to marry well in order to provide himself with a sufficient income, was no charmer, which annoyed his mother, the widowed Lady Edenthorpe, to no end. No matter how many eligible young ladies she introduced him to, nothing ever came of her efforts. Poor Septimus, Lady Edenthorpe told her eldest son one evening after yet another failed attempt at matchmaking, did not have the talent for seduction.
"You should be glad about that, ma'am," Lord Edenthorpe replied, defending his youngest brother. "Do not tell me that you'd wish him to be a libertine, a seducer of innocents!"
"Heaven forbid!" the Dowager cried. "But I do wish he was more at ease around women; just a little better at engaging their interest! I want him to marry well, but it looks to me as if he will not marry at all."
"He may still do so, ma'am," Lord Edenthorpe said coolly. "Maybe you should just leave him be, Mama, and let him make his own choice. It worked with me."
Lord Edenthorpe had married three months previously, and although his bride had not been of his mother's choosing the Dowager Baroness was very pleased with her new daughter-in-law.
"Dearest Helena! I cannot hope for another daughter as perfect as she, of course, but if Septimus could find someone only half as eligible I'd be very happy indeed!"
Meanwhile, Mr Edenthorpe returned to his lodgings to find a letter from his godfather, Sir George Yaxley, asking him to come and see him as soon as possible. Sir George was not fond of Town life; he spent most of his time on his estate in Hertfordshire, and this was where his godson set out in his curricle early the following morning. The message had sounded urgent, and George was not one to keep his godfather waiting.
He had not seen Sir George for nearly two years, and when he arrived in his godfather's house and was taken to his study George was startled to find him looking very ill. Sir George had grown very thin and pale; and he was sitting in an easy chair next to a fire that had been lit in spite of it being a warm summer's day outside, wrapped in some blankets.
"S … sir!" he stammered, moving towards the gentleman with his hand outstretched.
"Welcome, my boy," Sir George replied. "I am glad you could come so quickly. Please forgive my not being able to get up to greet you as I should."
"Of … of course." George shook hands with his godfather. "How … how are you, sir?"
"Rather better than my appearance may lead you to think, but not as well as I could wish. This is why I have sent for you."
"Is there anything I can do for you, sir?" George asked. "You know I'll be glad to help in any way I can."
Sir George Yaxley, apart from having endeared himself to his godson by giving him a name one need not blush for, had always been his friend. There had been many times when Sir George had been at hand to get him out of trouble, without subjecting him to the kind of lectures that George knew he'd receive from his father if he ever found out. What was more, Sir George had never told tales. Many were the things that George had confessed to his godfather, knowing that they would never come to his parents' or brothers' ears. In a way, Sir George - who'd had no children of his own - had been a better father to him than the late Lord Edenthorpe had ever been. It was therefore no wonder that George felt strongly attached and profoundly grateful to the gentleman without whom his childhood and youth would have been truly miserable, and that he would gladly do anything to assist him.
"I admit I have asked you to come to see me with that thought in mind," Sir George said. "But I won't tell you what I want you to do till after dinner. There'll be plenty of time then, and by then you'll be … better informed, too. Have a drink and get some rest first."
"As you wish, sir," George replied. Sir George then inquired after Mr Edenthorpe's numerous family members - his mother and brothers, and how they were getting on in their various situations in life - and then dismissed him for the time being.
It was at the dinner table that Mr Edenthorpe discovered that he and his godfather were not the only people in the house. He'd known that his godfather had had a ward for nearly two years now, but he'd had no idea that the young lady - a Miss Wallis - was living under her guardian's roof. Yet so it was. Miss Wallis, a girl whom Mr Edenthorpe with his limited experience of very young ladies judged to be some fourteen or fifteen years of age, sat down to dinner with them, and so did her governess, a Mrs Simmonds.
Miss Wallis did not say much. She appeared to be painfully shy, and did not direct any remarks at George apart from the most commonplace observations civility required her to say to him. She spent most of the dinner staring at her plate and, in spite of her guardian and Mrs Simmonds's efforts to include her in the conversation, remained silent for most of the time. Whenever Mr Edenthorpe made an attempt to draw her out, she blushed furiously and stammered a reply, making it obvious that she had rather do anything than talk to him.
Mrs Simmonds was the one who kept the conversation going. She was a widow in her late thirties or early forties, with pleasant manners and well-educated. Yet by the time she and Miss Wallis retired to the drawing room, Mr Edenthorpe was glad to see them go. He was never at his best when there were ladies around, and although Mrs Simmonds had been quite agreeable he had had a feeling as if he was being cross-examined; a feeling he had not liked above half.
"How do you like her?" Sir George asked him.
"Mrs Simmonds? She seems to be pleasant enough, and does not lack good sense," was George's cautious reply.
"I wasn't talking about Mrs Simmonds and you know it." Sir George took the glass of port his godson had filled for him. "How do you like Sally?"
"Miss Wallis? She's a child; that's all I can say about her," Edenthorpe said. "How old is she? Thirteen? Fourteen?"
"Seventeen," Sir George said.
"Indeed? She does not look it."
"You are right. She doesn't." Sir George drained his glass. "She is very thin, and a shy little mousey creature. Yet she'll be eighteen at Michaelmas. She has had a very sheltered upbringing, which may account for her extremely youthful appearance. Her father did not mean her to grow up before her time - to become pert and flirtatious, like so many young girls these days."
"How did you come to be her guardian?" Edenthorpe asked.
"Her father was a cousin of mine, and he thought I was the most suitable of his relatives to be in charge of her. I am rich enough not to have designs on her fortune, you see, neither for myself nor for any offspring of mine. She is her father's only child, and he has left her some three hundred thousand, safely invested in the Funds."
"Quite so. Highly tempting, isn't it? So what my cousin needed was a guardian who would be able to look after her finances as well as her person without trying to feather his nest at her expense - and that was why he chose me. Charles Wallis was a shrewd man."
"He must have been."
"It is Sally I want to speak to you about," Sir George said.
Mr Edenthorpe carefully put his glass down on the table. He was afraid he might not like what he was going to hear. "Miss Wallis?"
"That's her name. - I won't beat about the bush, my boy. I've had notice to quit, and I need to settle my affairs. I want you to look after Sally when I am gone - and this is why I have sent for you."
"Me?" George stared at his godfather, aghast. "I cannot think of anyone less qualified to be in charge of a young girl! I … I don't even have a wife who could take her under her wing!"
"You have not understood my meaning, George. Your being a bachelor is what makes you so perfect for her," Sir George replied. "I am not asking you to become her guardian. I want you to marry her."
"You want me to …" Mr Edenthorpe broke off, took a deep breath and then said, "I am flattered, sir, but …"
"Now listen to what I have to say, and think twice about it before you give me your answer," Sir George said. "I am the last of Sarah's relatives who is still alive - the last in England, at least. When I am dead - and according to my doctor this will be soon - she'll have no one to turn to. Do you really think I'll leave her all alone in the world? A seventeen-year-old girl with no more worldly wisdom than a newborn kitten, but with a fortune that will attract every gazetted fortune hunter in the world? Can you imagine what her life will be like if she falls prey to one of them?"
Having been on the town for some time, George could well imagine what it would be like. He'd seen it often enough.
"I need her safely married to a man I can trust," Sir George continued. "Someone who is considerate; who will treat her kindly and who won't lose her inheritance at the gaming tables or waste it on loose women! Someone who will be able to protect her, who will take his marriage vows seriously! That's why I asked you to come. I want you to marry Sarah Wallis. I know you are the kind of man she needs."
"But Miss Wallis is too young to be married," Mr Edenthorpe protested.
"She's not. She is almost eighteen."
"And looks like a fourteen-year-old. A girl not yet out of the schoolroom! She should not be thinking of marriage for another couple of years!"
"I'll lay you any odds that it won't make a difference to those fortune hunters in Town, once they discover that there's an heiress at large with no one to protect her interests." Sir George observed cynically.
"It does make a difference to me!" Mr Edenthorpe said. "I am no cradle-robber, sir!"
"If that is the only reason for you to dislike the match, her age is one fault that time will remedy," Sir George said. "I am not asking you to live together as husband and wife in every respect until both of you are ready to do so. Once the knot's tied you can wait for as long as you like."
"Except that the marriage must be consummated or it won't be valid," George pointed out.
"Who will dispute the validity of your marriage, do you think? I certainly won't; and neither will any member of your family - Sally is as well-born as you, and even if she wasn't her inheritance would make her acceptable to them, or I am very much mistaken. Apart from that I do not think you'll go around telling tales about the things happening or not happening in your marriage bed, and nor will Sally."
"I doubt she has any idea of what is supposed to happen in a marriage bed," George remarked.
"I think we may depend on Mrs Simmonds to give her a hint or two in that respect. She used to be married after all so she will be able to tell the girl what to expect." It did not look as if Sir George was going to take no for an answer, George thought gloomily. But he kept trying.
"Can you imagine what people will say?"
"They'll say you stole a march on everyone else by securing an heiress for yourself, and considering your situation no one will blame you. Gossip will stop once people discover that you and your wife are on good terms with each other."
"But I am not on good terms with Miss Wallis! She does not even talk to me! Besides I know nothing about her!"
"That can be mended," Sir George said. "You can stay here for as long as you like and get to know her. How long do you think you'll need until you can make your decision?"
"I really have no idea," George said unhappily, realising that it would be a hard task to dissuade his godfather. "Maybe a week?"
"I think I can give you a week," Sir George replied, evidently pleased with George's docility. "Very well. You'll let me know then?"
"Of … of course. Can you tell me one thing? Does … does Miss Wallis know why you have sent for me?"
"Naturally. I would not have asked you to come without letting her know what my plans for her future are. She knows I want her to marry you."
That, at least, explained Miss Wallis' extreme shyness at the dinner table, George guessed.
Miss Wallis' conduct did not improve much when Mr Edenthorpe and Sir George joined the ladies in the drawing room after dinner. George, conscious of the promise he had given his godfather, once more made an effort to engage Miss Wallis in conversation, but even the best of his endeavours led to nothing. Miss Wallis did answer his questions, but she did so looking at the tips of her shoes rather than George's face, blushed furiously whenever he addressed her, and looked as if she would dearly love to run for it if only she had the chance. As for her looks, George was not impressed at all. Miss Wallis was not a beauty; she might be tolerably good-looking but since she did not let George see much of her face he could not really tell. Her figure was best described as non-existent. She did not have those curves that one usually found on females, George noted gloomily. There was little beauty, and less charm. Things did not look encouraging at all. George could only hope that Miss Wallis would improve on closer acquaintance. As things were, he could not imagine marrying her. It was not that he had ever decided that none but a ravishing beauty would do for him, but he did want his wife to be able to hold her own in a conversation with him. This was not overly difficult, for George was not demanding in that respect.
At one point Mrs Simmonds took pity on her charge and requested her to entertain her guardian and his guest with some music. Miss Wallis almost leaped to her feet and retired to the pianoforte where she arranged the music sheets with shaking hands. Her musical performance left much to be desired. Even George, who was no expert in music, noticed it but put it down to nerves. The poor girl was frightened, and as George considered her situation did not blame her for that. That a very young girl should be nervous upon meeting the man her guardian had selected for her was not surprising at all. She had never had the chance to meet young men; her guardian wanted to marry her off before she'd had an opportunity to meet some eligible candidates and choose a husband for herself. The mere thought of marriage must terrify her, he thought grimly. To be honest, the idea terrified even him! To make things easier for Miss Wallis, George took care to ignore her for the rest of the evening and played cards with Mrs Simmonds instead.
George greeted the arrival of the tea tray with no little amount of relief, for it meant that the ladies would retire to their bedchambers soon. It also meant, however, that Mrs Simmonds wanted her pupil to display her skill in handing out tea, which led to disastrous results. Miss Wallis, whose nerves appeared to have somewhat calmed down once she had spent some time at the pianoforte, at a safe distance from Mr Edenthorpe, turned back into a bundle of nerves the moment she was expected to join the rest of the party, fill teacups and hand them around. In the end her hand shook so much that she spilled the tea all over George's knee when she wanted to hand him his cup. George hardly even flinched, although inwardly he cursed the girl's clumsiness which would require him to buy a pair of new knee breeches for evening wear the moment he got back to town. But even though he said not a word of reproach, Miss Wallis stared at him in horror, stammered an apology and, the moment he had taken the tea cup from her trembling hands, fled. Mrs Simmonds put her tea cup down on the table, excused herself and followed her out of the room.
"Well, sir," George said to his godfather once he could safely assume that both ladies were safely out of earshot, "this first meeting has left a great deal to be desired, don't you think?"
"Oh, go away, Mrs Simmonds, please do!" Sarah Wallis cried when she heard her preceptress' soft knock at her bedroom door. "I cannot face them! I simply cannot! It's no use asking me to come back downstairs for I will not do it!"
Mrs Simmonds, instead of going away as Sarah had asked her to, came into the room and sat down on the bed next to her pupil.
"You need not face them any more tonight," she soothed her. "I will go to the drawing room again and tell them you are suffering from the headache and have gone to bed. They will accept that, I think."
"But what about tomorrow?" Sarah wailed. "I will have to go downstairs tomorrow, and meet Mr Edenthorpe, and he'll look at me and think what a clumsy, foolish, ugly creature I am and he will be quite disgusted with my manners!"
"My dear, was that not what you wanted when Sir George first told you why he had sent for his godson?" Mrs Simmonds was not quite able to keep the amusement out of her voice.
"That was before I met Mr Edenthorpe," Sarah mumbled, blushing. "I did not know then how … how handsome he is! And how kind! Although I suspect he is treating me like he would treat a little girl! His favourite niece, I suspect!"
"He is being very considerate," Mrs Simmonds agreed, not commenting on her pupil's suspicion which coincided with her own.
"But how can I marry a man who thinks me an awkward, silly child? A man of fashion like him will not be content with a wife like me and … and …" She burst into tears again. "I wish I was dead!" she finally announced.
"And how would that help you?" Mrs Simmonds asked her calmly.
"At least I would not have to look him in the face again tomorrow if I was dead," Sarah explained. "It would spare me the humiliation of having to talk to him, and he would be spared the awkwardness of having to think of something to say that might draw me out. Why am I so hopelessly gauche? What is wrong with me?"
"You are not accustomed to associating with young gentlemen," Mrs Simmonds said. "Things will get better the more practice you have, believe me. Mr Edenthorpe will stay here for several days, I believe, and you will get better acquainted with him every day. In the end you will not think twice about talking to him. Just be yourself; there is no need for you to go to any length to impress him."
"That is more easily said than done," Sarah sighed. "And you must admit, ma'am, that being able to talk to a man without making a fool of oneself and marrying him are two very different things."
"'True; however one should not marry a man without enjoying talking to him," Mrs Simmonds remarked wisely. "Shall I ring for your maid now? Go to bed and try to get some sleep. You will feel better tomorrow; I promise."
Sarah permitted Mrs Simmonds to ring for her maid, and wished her governess a good night. Yet it took her hours until she finally managed to fall asleep, and even then her rest did nothing to make her feel refreshed. How was she to make up for the disastrous first impression she had given the man she was supposed to marry? And how was she to change his opinion of her?
When George came downstairs to the breakfast parlour the following morning he did not find - as he had half feared - Miss Wallis and her governess but Mrs Simmonds all by herself. He politely bade her good morning, helped himself to some coffee, bread and ham and then took a seat at the table, planning to engage Mrs Simmonds in some polite conversation before making his escape to the stables and going for a ride, hopefully before Miss Wallis made her appearance.
However, it soon became evident that Mrs Simmonds was not going to content herself with merely talking about the weather and the quality of the food on the table. She had something of more moment to discuss.
"I wanted to thank you for your kindness to Miss Wallis last night," she said. "This is why I came down early, in the hope of getting an opportunity to do so without being overheard."
"Indeed? There is no need for you to thank me, ma'am. I am not in the habit of being unkind to young females if I can help it."
"I have realised as much." Mrs Simmonds smiled. "I told Sir George how it would be - that he had better not tell Miss Wallis about his plans for her future before everything was settled, but he did not pay attention to my advice."
"It is as I have suspected then," George admitted. "I, too, would have preferred to be able to meet Miss Wallis before she knew that I was the husband Sir George had chosen for her. As it is, the situation is decidedly awkward. I am afraid I am not good at dealing with young girls, even when they are at their best."
"I thought you were making a very good effort, sir," Mrs Simmonds told him. "And I know Miss Wallis is well aware of that. Naturally she is very ashamed of herself - this is why I permitted her to remain in her room after she spilled your tea last night. I hope your clothes have not suffered any permanent damage."
"There is no need for Miss Wallis to be ashamed," George replied. "These things happen. She should not set so much store by a minor mishap. Do tell her that I no longer think of it."
"She would not believe me if I did," Mrs Simmonds told him. George was afraid that Mrs Simmonds did not believe him either.
Since George had promised his godfather that he would take some pains to get to know Miss Wallis, he decided to ask for Mrs Simmonds's assistance. After all, hardly anyone could be better acquainted with the girl than the woman who had been living with her and had taught her for years.
"You know, ma'am, I wish there was something I could do to make Miss Wallis feel more at ease in my company," he confessed. "I agree with you that it would have been better for her not to know what purpose Sir George had in mind when he invited me. In fact, Miss Wallis knew of Sir George's plans before I did - he only told me after dinner last night that he wanted me to marry Miss Wallis, and I am not at all certain whether I should grant him his wish and do what he asks of me, or whether I should not. One thing is certain, however - if Miss Wallis cannot like me there will be no marriage. I hope you will be able to convince her that it is for her to decide whether this wedding takes place or not."
"I have already told her so. Sir George is not the kind of man to force his ward into a marriage that is distasteful to her. Miss Wallis knows him well enough to know that."
"Indeed he is not that kind of fellow! He is one of the best men I know! He did confess to me that he was worried about her future, however. His health is not what it used to be and he is afraid of leaving Miss Wallis all alone in the world."
"I am well aware of Sir George's motives, and cannot but applaud them," Mrs Simmonds said.
"So, to oblige him, I will do my best to become better acquainted with Miss Wallis while I am here, and will try to make her feel more comfortable with me. Will you assist me in this, Mrs Simmonds?"
"I will assist in anything that will contribute to Miss Wallis' happiness, Mr Edenthorpe," Mrs Simmonds promised. "I am very fond of her. May I assume that you are going to marry her, then?"
Mr Edenthorpe sighed. "I have not decided yet," he said. "I told Sir George I would think about while I stayed here and tried to get to know Miss Wallis. If she will let me get to know her, that is. - Tell me about her, Mrs Simmonds. What are her interests? I will only get her to talk to me if I introduce a topic that she is familiar with, I am afraid."
"There is a great deal of sense in what you say," Mrs Simmonds agreed.
"Is Miss Wallis fond of music? I am not much of an expert, but maybe it will do her good to be my superior in one subject," George suggested.
"She likes music, though she is hardly an expert either," Mrs Simmonds told him. "She prefers listening to playing music herself, and while she is a decent performer on the pianoforte she is often prone to making mistakes."
"When she is nervous, for example?" George asked with a smile.
"One could hardly have missed that last night," Mrs Simmonds admitted. "Miss Wallis is not a particularly artistic young lady, I am sorry to say. Her forte lies in needlework - she is an excellent needlewoman, which is a useful thing to have about the house, or so my husband has told me on many occasions."
"I do not doubt that, ma'am," George said. "I will have to compliment her on her needlework then - or ask her what it is she is making when I catch her working on it."
"Do not do that unless you know a thing or two about stitchery," Mrs Simmonds warned him. "She has already told me that she thinks you are treating her as you would treat your favourite niece, and she does not like that. She wishes to be taken seriously, not patronised."
"Everyone has that wish." George got up from the table to get himself another cup of coffee. "I am by no means an expert in needlework, but I will be able to tell whether I think a pattern pretty or not. I will not go any further than that; believe me, ma'am, I have no wish to make a fool of myself. I shall not patronise her. - Does Miss Wallis ride?"
"Yes; she has a horse of her own and often spends an hour or two on horseback. Her father used to be a keen horseman, so he made sure she learned to ride at an early age."
"That's excellent! I am rather fond of riding myself," George said. "I will take Miss Wallis out one of these days then - properly chaperoned, naturally. Do you ride, too, ma'am, or shall we have to take one of Sir George's grooms with us?"
"I sometimes ride with Miss Wallis, but I am not partial to the sport," Mrs Simmonds admitted.
By that time, Mr Edenthorpe had finished his coffee and took his leave, preferring not to be there when Mrs Simmonds and her pupil met again. They might have several things to talk about, he felt, and wished that Mrs Simmonds would be able to calm Miss Wallis down. Later in the day, he hoped, he would be able to talk to Miss Wallis herself, and maybe even invite her to ride across the country the next day. At least he had discovered that she had something in common with him - she enjoyed riding. He would be able to start from there.
Sarah awoke, feeling just as miserable as she had felt the night before. No miracle had happened overnight, and she would have to get up and face both her guardian, of whom she was very fond and who would be highly disappointed with the picture she had presented last night, and her guardian's godson. To say the truth she did not know which was worse - having to talk to Sir George, or to Mr Edenthorpe.
She knew why Sir George's opinion of her mattered so much, as much was clear. He had always treated her like a father, and remote though their relationship was he was the only one of her relatives she knew. She was grateful for everything he had done for her, knew that he was taking pains to protect her and make her happy, and felt miserable because she had fallen so short of his expectations. She had so wanted him to be proud of her; instead she had behaved just like the shy and inexperienced schoolgirl that she was, and had put him to the blush. He would not say anything about it, of course, there would be no word of reproach; he was too much of a gentleman for that. But she knew nevertheless. She had let him down.
As for Mr Edenthorpe, she was not quite certain why she wanted him to have a good opinion of her, apart from the fact that this was what her guardian wanted, too. Mr Edenthorpe was a very handsome young man, and he was the man whom Sir George had chosen to be her husband. He had also been very patient and civil to her, and one did not want to be rude to someone who had treated one with such forbearance. This was as much of an explanation as she could come up with on the spur of the moment.
Besides, she liked him. From the moment she had stood at her bedroom window, safely hidden behind her curtains, and watched him enter the house, she had liked the way he looked - though to say the truth she preferred him in his travelling clothes. He had looked so forbidding in his evening attire! Maybe this was why she had been unable to utter a coherent sentence in his presence. It would be no wonder, Sarah thought bitterly, if he thought her a halfwit.
And that was it. She did not want him to think she was stupid, or an awkward girl not out of the schoolroom. She wanted him to appreciate her qualities, which were there somewhere if he took the trouble to discover them. She wanted him to think of her as a grown woman; as someone he could respect, someone who attracted him. For if he was to be her husband, he should enjoy her company. She did not feel like being married to someone she would only meet at the breakfast table, and maybe again at the dinner table if he did not dine at his club in order to keep away from her. She did not want to be married to someone who only wanted her to hand over her fortune, do his bidding, provide him with the necessary heir and spare and be his quiet and docile little wife. She did not want him to see her as a poor little chit of a girl; as someone to be sorry for. She was acutely aware that this was the impression she had given him, and that it would be difficult to make up for that. Still, she had to do it. She owed it to her guardian but also, she realised, to her self-respect.
Having made that resolution, Sarah rang for her maid, dressed in her best morning gown and went downstairs to face Mr Edenthorpe, only to discover that he had gone out a couple of minutes before. The only person she found in the breakfast parlour was Mrs Simmonds, her governess.
"Good morning, my dear," Mrs Simmonds said. "How are you feeling this morning? Did you sleep well?"
"I had a dreadful night," Sarah said. "I cannot have got above three hours of sleep - I must look a fright!"
"Not at all, Miss Wallis. At your age such things as wakeful nights do not show yet."
"You are very kind." Sarah sat down at the breakfast table with a cup of tea and some buttered toast.
"You have just missed Mr Edenthorpe," Mrs Simmonds told her.
"Oh! Has he gone out?"
"He told me he was planning to go for a ride this morning," said Mrs Simmonds.
"Did he … did he mention my behaviour last night?" Sarah asked anxiously.
"He said - and you must admit that he was quite correct in that assumption - that you appeared to be a trifle nervous."
"Nervous does not even begin to describe how I felt," Sarah replied. "I was absolutely terrified! One does not meet one's future husband for the first time every day!"
"Perhaps," Mrs Simmonds suggested, "he is not your future husband after all."
"You mean he's going to cry off? I am going to be jilted?" Tears came to Sarah's eyes as the thought struck her. Did he hate her so much that he actually considered humiliating her thus? Not that their engagement - if one could call it that - had been announced to the world, but nevertheless she would feel utterly mortified if it all came to nothing.
"He never said so," Mrs Simmonds said. "What he did say, my dear, was that he is not going to marry you unless this is what you really want. He wanted me to tell you that the marriage depends on your decision, and that he will accept your wishes, whatever they may be."
"But he indicated that he wished me to cry off?" Sarah was not yet convinced.
"He did not. Sir George has put him into an awkward situation, my dear, by telling you what his plans for your future were before he had informed Mr Edenthorpe of them. What is he to do?"
"I don't know," Sarah said hopelessly, wondering why she was greeting the fact of Mr Edenthorpe's acceptance of her hand with relief. He had not said no yet. He had not jilted her. Yet.
"He told Sir George that he was not going to make a final decision before he has had a chance to get to know you better," Mrs Simmonds told her. "I must say this sounds like a sensible thought."
"You mean he has not had enough of my company yet?" Sarah asked. She became aware of the eagerness in her tone of voice and blushed.
Mrs Simmonds smiled. "You like him, don't you?"
"I … I think I do," Sarah admitted. "He … he is quite pleasant, and … and very handsome, don't you agree?"
"There is no doubt about that," Mrs Simmonds said. "We also know that Sir George's opinion of him is very high, and Sir George does not bestow his approval easily, as we know."
Sarah nodded. "I wonder, though," she reflected, "why a man like Mr Edenthorpe is still single."
"Maybe he has not met the right woman yet," Mrs Simmonds said diplomatically. "Or he has not yet felt the need to be married."
"Do you think he needs to marry a fortune?" Sir George had seen to it that Sarah harboured no illusions regarding her person; he had told her that her fortune made her a very eligible bride, and a very desirable catch for anyone hanging out for a rich wife. Yet she desperately hoped that Mr Edenthorpe was not one of those men.
"I do not think he needs to marry a fortune," said Mrs Simmonds. "But being the youngest of seven sons - you see I am acquainted with his circumstances, at least a little - he has probably not much of an inheritance to expect for himself. He may welcome the opportunities that his marriage to a woman of fortune would offer him, but I do not think he desperately needs to marry money. From what I have been able to discover, Mr Edenthorpe lives modestly on his income; Sir George has told me that he does not bet or gamble for high stakes, and that he does not run up any debts he could not settle at any time he chooses. In short, Mr Edenthorpe is most respectable. You could do worse, my dear."
"Do you think so?" Sarah asked miserably.
"I have great trust in Sir George's judgement," Mrs Simmonds told her. "He is very fond of you and would never knowingly make any decisions that put your happiness at risk."
"But even Sir George could be mistaken in some people."
"Not in a young man whom he has known literally from the cradle," Mrs Simmonds assured her. "I am absolutely certain that you have no need to be worried on that score. If Sir George Yaxley approves of a young man, you can safely assume that he will make you an excellent husband."
"If he marries me."
"That, Mr Edenthorpe told me, is for you to decide, which in my opinion means that his decision will be led by yours. At any rate you ought to try and spend as much time with him as you can before you decide either way. If, at the end of Mr Edenthorpe's stay in Yaxley Place, you believe that you cannot like him enough to marry him, tell him so and I am sure he will accept your decision like the gentleman he is. If, on the other hand, you believe that you can be happy with him, accept his proposal and marry him. He will keep you safe and happy, or at least do his best to make you comfortable, and you cannot ask for more than that from any man."
Mrs Simmonds was not the only one to speak to Sarah about her impending marriage that day. Sir George Yaxley, too, summoned her to his library and wanted to know what she thought of Mr Edenthorpe.
"He seems a very kind gentleman," Sarah said. "Very likeable, I thought."
"You did not behave as if you liked him," Sir George remarked.
"I was nervous, sir," Sarah confessed. "As you know I have not encountered young men very often - I do not know how to speak to them, or how to entertain them. One might say I am lacking practice."
"That can be remedied," Sir George said. "I have asked young Edenthorpe to stay for a week - I expect the two of you to make the most of that opportunity." He did not sound as if he would take no for an answer, Sarah noted.
"Certainly, sir," she promised, blushing slightly. "I will do my best to avoid any awkwardness today."
"Do try," Sir George said with a grin. "A man may be able to stand being baptised with tea if it happens once, but he may grow tired of the performance if it occurs repeatedly."
Sarah reddened even more. "It was an accident," she murmured. "I am sorry! I am sure I told Mr Edenthorpe so!"
"You did, my dear, you did half a dozen times - before you ran off like a frightened deer."
"Mr Edenthorpe must have an odd impression of me," Sarah said. "He must think me insane!"
"It is not as bad as that," Sir George comforted her. "He is aware of your predicament and not an unreasonable man, as you will find when you know him better. I have not told you much about him yet, have I?"
"Next to nothing, sir, merely that he was your godson and lived in town. Even Mrs Simmonds knows more about Mr Edenthorpe than I do." She did not manage to sound indifferent - there was a touch of grievance in her tone of voice. After all, one might reasonably expect being told things about one's husband-to-be, and no one had told her anything. It was highly irritating.
"We cannot tolerate that state of affairs to continue for much longer," said Sir George. "I can give you some information that will enable you to get into conversation with him - he will tell you the rest."
"How come you are his godfather, sir?" Sarah wanted to know.
"I knew his father in Oxford, and we were close friends, so when the Edenthorpes had their seventh son I was asked to act as the boy's godfather."
"Mr Edenthorpe has six brothers?" Mrs Simmonds had told her as much, but Sarah had still hoped that she might have been mistaken. Such a large family! And if she married Mr Edenthorpe she would have to meet them all - a daunting prospect.
"Quite a few, isn't it?" Sir George laughed. "And although I may be biased in his favour I must tell you that he is the best of the lot. Of course, being the youngest of seven sons meant that he had to go through some harsh schooling - he has had to learn early that he is not going to have things his way very often."
"Not even in his marriage, as it turns out."
"I don't think he will have a reason to complain."
"I hope he won't, but I fear he may have." Sarah sighed. "I am afraid I am not the kind of wife to make him happy."
"How can you say so? He is the one to decide who is the kind of wife to make him happy."
"Maybe that's so, but it is not as if you have left him much of a choice, sir."
"As long as the engagement has not been made public he has every possible choice, my dear," Sir George told her.
This announcement ought to have cheered her up, Sarah thought, and was surprised to find that it did not.
When George returned from his ride across the country some two hours later, he decided to get hold of his not-yet-intended bride and talk to her, if she was inclined to converse with him, which after the previous night's events he took leave to doubt. So, having changed from his riding dress into something more suited to indoor activities, he went in search of Miss Wallis and found her - and her governess - in the drawing room. Miss Wallis was working on a pair of slippers which, she told him, were meant as a gift for Sir George.
"His birthday is coming up," Miss Wallis informed him, looking at the slippers rather than his face. "And he is very partial to homemade gifts. He prefers them, in fact."
"I can see why he does, too," George said with a smile. "These slippers look very fine, Miss Wallis."
Miss Wallis looked up for a moment, surprised. "Oh - you have some knowledge of needlework, Mr Edenthorpe? Most gentlemen in my acquaintance do not."
"I am sorry to say that like most gentlemen in your acquaintance I know nothing at all about needlework, but I do know what I like," George said, glad that he had got Miss Wallis to utter more than a monosyllabic reply to one of his remarks. This looked promising. "It seems to me that it is rather difficult to do - such dainty work! I know I could not master it."
"It is not that difficult to do," Miss Wallis observed. "But then I have been taught how to sew and embroider almost since I could hold a needle, so I have had plenty of practice. It is my one accomplishment worth that name, I believe."
"You have every reason to be proud of it," George told her. She blushed. "Mrs Simmonds told me that you liked to ride, Miss Wallis. Is that correct?" George wanted to take full advantage of her current talkative mood.
"Oh yes; I often ride." Miss Wallis chose another yarn and threaded her needle. She still seemed uncomfortable with looking at him, even though she talked more. Her embroidery gave her an excuse for keeping her eyes lowered, and George wondered if she had chosen to do needlework for that very reason.
"Would you care to accompany me on a riding expedition tomorrow, then?" he asked. "Maybe Mrs Simmonds will come with us too - we could ride to Ware and explore Scott's Grotto if you like."
The idea obviously found Miss Wallis' favour. "I would like that," she said, looking directly into his eyes for the first time since he had come into the room, if only for the fraction of a moment. "If you will care to go too, Mrs Simmonds." Her tone of voice indicated that although she would enjoy the outing she would not go without Mrs Simmonds to chaperon her.
Mrs Simmonds gravely informed her pupil that nothing would please her more. George supposed that this meant Miss Wallis' governess was on his side.
"Have you seen the Grotto before, Mr Edenthorpe?" Miss Wallis wanted to know, turning her eyes back to her work.
"I have. Sir George and Lady Yaxley took me there to see it when I visited them years ago - I was still a schoolboy then. Time flies; it seems like only yesterday."
"Sir George took me there too, shortly after I had come to live with him," Miss Wallis told him. "Mainly because, he said, it would remind me of my home, and so it did."
"You used to live in a grotto, Miss Wallis?" George knew, of course, that the joke was weak as jokes went, but wished that this mild jest might just make her laugh. While she did not go so far as that, she gave him a fleeting smile. It was the first one since they had been introduced, although she did not, by all appearance, appreciate being made fun of. But then who did?
"My father's house is built very much in the same style as the summer house there," she explained. "Both he and my mother were great admirers of Gothic architecture and had their house built accordingly when they returned from India."
"Your father spent some time in India then? I did not know that."
"That was where he made his fortune and met my mother," Miss Wallis told him. "They married, and I was born there. But the climate did not agree with my mother's delicate health, and so my father took us back to England. Unfortunately my mother did not live for long enough to enjoy the comfort of her new home - she passed away before it was finished."
"I am very sorry to hear it," George said. "You must have missed her sorely."
"I did not - not really. I was so young that I do not even remember her. There is a portrait of her in my father's library which everyone who knew her tells me is an excellent likeness, but I am in no position to tell whether that is true or not."
"Is your home far from here, Miss Wallis?" George asked. He wondered whether she would like to go there for a day; he could take her there and have a look at her home which, if he decided to marry her, would become his home too. That Miss Wallis was attached to it was evident, so getting rid of the property was out of the question. Anyway, they did need somewhere to live when Sir George died. Sir George's estate would go to his heir, and at least Miss Wallis would feel at home in her father's house. It would also be a convenient place for her to stay while he returned to London.
"It is about sixty miles from here, near Wallingford," she informed him.
"Not close enough for a quick visit, then," George said. "A pity - your description has tickled my curiosity. I shall have to be content with escorting you to Scott's Grotto instead."
While Miss Wallis was still a trifle nervous that evening, she was in a calmer state of mind than the night before. Her musical performance had certainly improved - her hands no longer shook as much as they had the previous night, and George found himself enjoying her playing very much.
She was even able to hand him his tea cup without any further mishap, and to laugh at one or two of his joking remarks. Miss Wallis was certainly warming to him, George felt, and he began to discover her charm. It was certainly there, somewhere, and once she grew up she might well become a charming young woman. A pretty one too, George suspected, for although she was still very much the awkward schoolgirl there was no saying what she might turn out to be. She had her talents and was not without intelligence - she might not be bookish, but neither was he so that was fine with him. In fact, he preferred having a wife that was not bookish.
It was too early to make a definite decision, but George began to think that he could do worse than marry the girl his godfather had chosen for him. The only thing that could be said against her, so far, was her extremely youthful appearance. George did not find very young girls appealing; he never had. It was no wonder, therefore, that the thought of marrying a seventeen-year-old who did not look a day older than fourteen did put him off. If Miss Wallis had only been a year or two older, or looked older at least, well then … there was no saying but he might have accepted his godfather's offer without having second thoughts about it.
Whom was he trying to fool? Even now he was seriously considering it. His mother had been plaguing him to find himself an eligible wife for years; she'd be delighted to find out that he had become engaged to an heiress; an heiress coming from a respectable family no less. The Dowager Lady Edenthorpe would probably not even mind if George's bride-to-be had been younger, as long as her fortune was large enough. His eldest brother, too, would greet his marriage with enthusiasm as long as the bride came from a good family, was well-educated, and had money. All of these things could be said about Miss Wallis, so one might safely assume that Lord Edenthorpe would find no fault with George's choice if he decided to marry Miss Wallis. He would probably even congratulate him on his good fortune.
As for his other brothers, they would not care one way or another - except for Reggie, maybe, who would envy him his bride's large fortune. Reggie was permanently short of funds; even Miss Wallis' huge income of fifteen thousand pounds a year would not be enough to keep him out of trouble if George was any judge.
Even though George had no intention of marrying for financial reasons only, an annual income of fifteen thousand pounds was a good point in favour of the match his godfather had proposed to him. He had to marry someone, and suitable heiresses were few and far between. So he might as well offer for Miss Wallis and be done with it. But it was too soon for a final decision. One did not decide to marry a female after having been acquainted with her for a mere four and twenty hours. Even Sir George Yaxley knew as much, and was not pressing him for an answer. If all else failed, George could extend his visit for another week, and see what came of it. While Sir George's health was admittedly rather feeble, his condition appeared to be stable at the moment. There was no need to hurry.
His riding dress certainly suited Mr Edenthorpe, Sarah thought when they met in the stable yard the following morning. Sir George had given his permission for the projected outing the night before, and so they had decided to make an early start, provided the weather was fine enough to permit the excursion to Ware.
It turned out to be a fine morning, and in spite of herself Sarah was looking forward to spending it in Mr Edenthorpe's company. He would take good care of her and Mrs Simmonds, she knew as much - Sir George would not have given his permission for their trip had he had any doubts in that respect.
Mr Edenthorpe first assisted Mrs Simmonds in getting into her saddle and then turned to Sarah.
"May I help you, Miss Wallis?" he asked, holding out his hand.
"Thank you, you are very kind," she said, and allowed him to toss her into her saddle, which he did without much difficulty. Mr Edenthorpe then went to his own horse, and mounted it while Sarah arranged her skirts becomingly. He did look good on horseback too, she noticed. An excellent seat, and light hands. She would not have to be ashamed for her spouse when he took her riding in the Park, which, she hoped, he would do frequently. If he was planning to live in Town with her, that was.
"Are you fond of outdoor activities, Mr Edenthorpe?" she asked as they made their way down the long carriage drive to the country lane leading to Ware.
"I try to fit them in whenever I get the opportunity," Mr Edenthorpe replied, smiling.
"I can see that you are a very good horseman, so I guess that you get the opportunity fairly often," Sarah remarked.
"Thank you," Mr Edenthorpe said. "Everyone in my family is good at riding; my father made a point of making us all learn at an early age. He was quite addicted to outdoor sports himself."
"So was mine - he also used to breed horses and so, like you, I was made to learn riding early. Do you often ride in Hyde Park then?"
"Not if I can help it." Mr Edenthorpe laughed. "It is usually crowded, and galloping is not allowed anyway. If I have enough time, I go out into the country and ride there. In Town, I prefer sparring with Gentleman Jackson, and taking the occasional fencing lesson. Riding is a pursuit more suited to the country, I believe."
"You box, Mr Edenthorpe?" Sarah was surprised to hear that. Mr Edenthorpe did not at all look like her picture of a boxer. For one, his nose did not look as if it had ever been broken, and that, she had thought, must be happening to pugilists all the time.
"Learning to defend myself was a prudent thing to do, Miss Wallis, considering that I have six older brothers. If I was to survive childhood I had to learn to hold my own in a fight. Boys can get rather rough with each other at times."
"I see. I have never had any brothers or sisters, so I am afraid I cannot share any interesting stories of my own family. Do you see much of your brothers these days, sir?"
"I see those who live in Town fairly often," Mr Edenthorpe told her. "His lordship, my eldest brother, and Oliver, who is a lawyer."
"You call your eldest brother his lordship?" Sarah gave an amused chuckle.
"Not to his face," Mr Edenthorpe confessed with a grin. "Although that is what he is. The Right Honourable the Lord Edenthorpe; and he has the manners to prove it. Very high in the instep, his lordship is - he has always been like that."
"And Mr Oliver Edenthorpe - which brother is he?"
"Is his middle name Quintus, by any chance?" Sarah wanted to know. After all, Mr Edenthorpe's given name was Septimus, so it seemed likely.
"No, they gave him a proper name," Mr Edenthorpe replied, with more than a touch of bitterness in his tone of voice. "My parents have singled me out in that respect."
Sarah realised that she ought not to have made any allusion to Mr Edenthorpe's first name; it looked as if the subject was a touchy one with him. She blushed furiously and bit her lower lip.
"I am sorry," she whispered.
"You need not be. At my christening, Sir George Yaxley made sure I had one respectable name," Mr Edenthorpe said lightly, trying to downplay his feelings regarding the matter. There was an uncomfortable silence for a few moments, for Sarah could not think of anything to say that would improve the situation.
"What about your other brothers, Mr Edenthorpe?" Mrs Simmonds, bless her, was trying to keep the conversation going. "Where do they live?"
"My brother Stephen - the second in line - is the incumbent of the living in Exton, Northamptonshire - a village not far from my family's country seat."
"Brook End." Mrs Simmonds nodded. "I have read about that, of course. The guidebooks describe it as a fine and ancient house, though I have never seen it and therefore cannot be a judge."
"So it is," Mr Edenthorpe agreed, his face lighting up. "We all love the place, even though it is the most inconvenient old pile imaginable! But what a home to grow up in! We often meet up there at Christmas, for my mother insists on celebrating with those of her sons who can possibly be present. Three of my brothers are not in England at the moment, so they will be missed this year."
"Are they military men?" Mrs Simmonds guessed.
"Yes. Two of them - Joseph and Reggie - are stationed in Spain, with Sir Rowland Hill's staff. And my brother John - who is closest to me in age, being only a year older than me, is in the navy and currently stationed in the West Indies."
"Are any of your brothers married, Mr Edenthorpe?" Mrs Simmonds inquired.
"His lordship is, although that happened quite recently - a couple of months ago. My brother Stephen was the first of us to be married; it must have been some five or six years ago, I cannot quite remember at the moment. I do not see much of him or his wife, except when I am staying at Brook End. They have three children; all of them girls so far. Oliver is married, too. The rest of us are still single."
"Does Mr Oliver Edenthorpe have any children?" Sarah asked. That, she felt, was a safe topic. No one could take exception to being asked whether he had any nephews or nieces.
"He, too, has a daughter," said Mr Edenthorpe and grinned. "It looks as if my parents used up the entire family allowance of sons for two generations, doesn't it?"
"With only three out of seven sons married," Mrs Simmonds replied, "one can hardly say so. There may yet be a grandson or two in store for your mother. Lord Edenthorpe, especially, will want a son and heir."
Mr Edenthorpe agreed with Mrs Simmonds that his brother would certainly want a son, and then drew the ladies' attention to a particularly fine view. Sarah took this as a hint that he no longer wished to discuss his family with them, and readily complied.
Although George had visited Scott's Grotto before, it had been a long time ago and he did not quite remember what it had been like. It was certainly worth seeing, even though those things had been quite a fashionable thing to have some fifty years before and a grotto had been built on every country estate the owners of which had had some pretensions to fashion. George had seen similar grottoes in many of the country houses he had visited, but this one was certainly something out of the ordinary.
For one, it was larger. Another reason were the sea-shells that had been used for the building. Some of them came from exotic waters; this was what the gardener who was in charge of showing people around told them. George listened to his description patiently, not being all that interested in the fauna of far-away countries. It seemed, however, that Miss Wallis was interested. It was probably because she had been born in India, George surmised. She probably knew all about tigers as well as the poisonous snakes to be found in that country, for although she had not lived there for long enough to become aware of its dangers her father had and would have told her all about them. It was a good thing she was taking an interest in these matters, George reflected. He did not want her to be bored on her first outing with him, no matter if they got married or not.
As they left the grotto and went towards the gate where they'd left Sir George's groom and their horses, George asked Miss Wallis whether his surmise was correct; whether she knew anything about India.
"I know quite a few things," she said. "My father used to tell me a great many stories about his time in India when I sat with him in the evenings and he was in the mood to talk."
"Was that often?" It did not sound as if it had been a frequent occurrence, George thought, but he wanted to know what kind of person Miss Wallis' father had been; whether he had been the kind who had spent much time with his daughter, for example.
"Not as often as I could have wished, but it did happen occasionally. I think I was lucky with my father - most men, I have been told, would not have bothered with entertaining their children. Daughters, especially."
George remembered his own father and nodded. The late Lord Edenthorpe had not talked to his sons unless he had wished to give them one of his lectures. None of them had enjoyed their conversations with their father - there had never been any companionable evenings by the fireside that George could remember. Sir George Yaxley had been the man whom he had approached whenever there had been a problem. Lord Edenthorpe had just told his sons off; he had never offered any sound advice when they had been in a scrape. Sir George had often chastised George, too, but always in a way that, rather than making him angry, had made him feel ashamed of himself and want to make up for whatever it was he had done wrong.
"Why did your father go to India in the first place?" he asked Miss Wallis. "Do you happen to know?"
"He was sent there. An uncle of his - no relation of Sir George's; it was the other side of his family - had set up a law firm in Calcutta and wanted a clerk. My grandfather was not very rich, and so he sent my father; he felt it would give him an opportunity to make a fortune."
"Which is what he did."
"Yes, Papa had a very shrewd, businesslike mind. That is what Sir George says, I would not know; I never became acquainted with that side to his character. By the time we got back to England he no longer needed to apply himself to any kind of profession; we could live very comfortably on the proceeds of his capital in the Funds. In spite of his success I believe he was not a very energetic man; he was just lucky in his investments."
"Some would say that he was very lucky indeed," George agreed. "He met your mother in India, I believe? I think you mentioned it the other day."
"Yes; her family lived in Calcutta as well and they met at a dance at the Governor's house." Her eyes lit up. "It was quite a romance, or so I gathered from what my father told me."
"Was it indeed?"
"Oh yes; my grandfather - Mama's father, that was - did not like the match at all. My mother was an heiress, you see, and Grandpapa thought Papa only wanted Mama's fortune, so he did not allow them to be married at first. Only when he realised that Papa was willing and able to earn a fortune of his own, he gave in. He was not disappointed in his son-in-law, as it turned out."
George suspected that the late Mr Wallis' father-in-law had merely accepted the inevitable, and wondered whether Miss Wallis' parents had made a runaway match of it. It would be worthwhile, he thought, to ask Sir George in how far this romantic tale of star-crossed lovers and a young man earning his bride was true. Not that Miss Wallis was deliberately lying to him, he was sure. Her father would have been unlikely to tell her the whole story if her parents had really eloped with each other, especially since she had been at an impressionable age and, like her mother, a considerable heiress. Putting romantic notions into the head of such a girl was a dangerous thing to do. Rakes made the strictest fathers, it was said, and George wondered if Mr Wallis had been one of those - he speculated whether that was why he had been sent to India in the first place. Again, Sir George Yaxley would know.
It was evident, though, that Miss Wallis did have some romantic notions regarding marriage, and that worried George. He knew very well that their marriage - if it was to take place at all - would be a marriage of convenience, and he hoped Miss Wallis was aware of that too. Still, what if she discovered, after a few years, that she would have preferred a love-match? This sounded like a sure-fire recipe for connubial misery, and that was a risk George did not want to take. Not if he could help it.
He allowed Miss Wallis to ramble on for a while as they rode back to Sir George Yaxley's estate, lost in his own thoughts for most of the time. It seemed that Miss Wallis was pretty acute, though, as he soon discovered.
"Am I boring you, Mr Edenthorpe?" she asked him all of a sudden. "Please tell me so if I am!"
"You are not boring me at all, Miss Wallis," George protested. "I was simply woolgathering. Thinking things over, you know."
"By the way you looked you must have been thinking some pretty unpleasant thoughts," Miss Wallis remarked.
"Not unpleasant, merely complicated." George smiled. "I am not much of a thinker, Miss Wallis. Complicated affairs give me some trouble."
"Sir George has given you a great deal to think over, I am afraid," Miss Wallis stated. "And it is all my fault!"
"How can it be your fault, Miss Wallis?"
"If Sir George did not have me to worry about he would not have involved you in my affairs."
"But that is hardly your fault! I think I can safely promise you that I shall not take any interest in your affairs unless it is what I really want," George told her. "But I cannot deny that my mind was busy with Sir George's wish regarding our future."
"It would be useless if you did deny it," Miss Wallis said. "It was quite obvious."
"Do you think about it at all, Miss Wallis?"
"Of course I do! It concerns my future as well; I need to think things over as much as you do."
"Have you come to a conclusion yet?"
"Not really." Miss Wallis sighed. "It must be an object with me to oblige Sir George, of course. He has been very good to me. But - I hope you will not take it amiss when I say so - I am not certain whether I can oblige him in this matter. I don't know what to do."
"I feel very much the same, Miss Wallis, so I am not at all offended by your telling me about your feelings in that case. They coincide with my own, so how could I blame you?"
"It is just that I do not really know you," Miss Wallis confessed. "And I did not like meeting you under these circumstances - with everyone assuming that we would be married, and knowing that you knew that this was what people wanted us to do, if you know what I mean."
"It was certainly awkward," George agreed.
"If only we had more time to get to know each other!" Miss Wallis sighed.
"Do you think Sir George would insist on our getting married at once, should we decide to make a match of it?" George asked.
"Not while he was feeling well, but there is no saying what will happen. He has made it very clear to me that he wants the knot well tied before…" Her voice sounded slightly panicky, and she broke off. "He wants my affairs settled," she finally said after a short pause, having calmed herself. "He wants to do his duty as my guardian."
"That is hardly surprising, but once you have entered an engagement to be married there is no need to be in a hurry," George argued. "As your betrothed I would have every right to take care of your affairs if need be. I could take you to stay with my mother in town until you are ready to be married. She'd be delighted to have you with her I am sure."
"I believe," Mrs Simmonds remarked, unconsciously throwing a damper on their conversation, "that Sir George does not wish Miss Wallis to go to Town until she is married."
"He feels that an engagement to be married is not enough to keep the fortune hunters at bay," Miss Wallis added gloomily. "I might still change my mind and elope with someone quite ineligible."
"When it comes to that, I do not consider myself overly eligible," George pointed out. "Most people in Town would tell you that I am the youngest of seven sons and quite penniless. Prudent mothers have been known to steer their daughters clear of me, although I have never given them any reason to suppose that I was hanging out for a rich wife."
"How foolish of them," Mrs Simmonds said. "My experience of young ladies tells me that the more one's elders want one to stay away from certain young men - or certain things for that matter - the more interesting those forbidden fruit will become. They should have encouraged them to make your acquaintance, and pushed them towards you. It would have been the safest thing to do!"
George laughed. "I have not had any reason to assume that I was being interesting, either," he said. "Nor do I want to be. I am too staid to be interesting."
"And this is why Sir George thinks I will be safe with you," Miss Wallis said.
"Because I am uninteresting?"
"Are you fishing for compliments, sir? Because you are staid and respectable, naturally." She laughed. "I am sure that this is what Sir George wants me to have - a respectable husband."
"Is this what you want to have as well, Miss Wallis?"
"Until the moment when Sir George suggested I marry his godson I never gave the matter much thought," Miss Wallis confessed. "But I suppose I should prefer a sober husband to an adventurous one. An adventure now and then is all very well I suppose, but I am afraid one may soon grow tired of them if they occur regularly."
Once the ladies had retired to bed that evening, George decided to ask his godfather to tell him more about Miss Wallis' family background.
"Miss Wallis told me about her parents today," he remarked. "She said they met in India, and that her mother was an heiress. There was quite a romance I understand."
"There was nothing fishy to it, however," Sir George said defensively. "My cousin was quite respectable, but since old Mr Grayson - Sally's grandfather - did not know his family he was naturally suspicious when he asked for his daughter's hand in marriage."
"What made him change his mind then?"
"I think it was both the fact that his daughter refused to marry anyone but my cousin, added to his undeniable success in business matters. I think he must have been hard put to find a reason why a hard-working, respectable young man should not be permitted to marry Miss Grayson, especially since she wished to do so."
"Are any of Miss Wallis' maternal relatives still alive?" George asked.
"She may have an uncle and cousins, but the family is still living in Calcutta as far as I know. This is why her father wanted me to take care of her, rather than her mother's relatives. He did not want her to return to India. He seemed to think the climate killed her mother, so naturally he was reluctant to let his daughter go there. - From your interest in her family I gather that you are not averse to marrying her?"
"If she will have me," George said. "She does not seem to have made up her mind yet. I will not ask her until she has given me some hint or other that she is ready to receive my addresses."
"Do not wait too long," Sir George warned him. "My health is not getting any better, and I do not want to leave unfinished business behind."
"Would it not be enough if I became engaged to Miss Wallis?" George asked, remembering the discussion he had had with Miss Wallis in the afternoon.
"It would not. You know as well as I do what kind of fellows are around in Town. Let them get wind of an heiress being at large and watch what will happen! I don't want the girl to be ruined. I have promised myself that she will be married to some trustworthy fellow before they close the lid on me."
After a sleepless night, George had more or less resigned himself to marrying Miss Wallis. Mainly it was because did not want to ignore what, he was beginning to think, was his godfather's dying wish. Like every decent man George knew, Sir George wanted to settle his affairs properly before leaving this world, and he had made it clear to George that he wanted him to help him in every way possible.
There was also, he had to admit, the fact that he liked Miss Wallis and felt sorry for her. He could not bring himself to leave the girl to the mercy of her servants and every gazetted fortune hunter in Town. She needed someone to protect her, and although he did not find her overly attractive she did awaken his protective instincts.
She would also be the kind of bride whom his family - his mother, at any rate - had wanted him to take ever since he'd been of age. Lady Edenthorpe had often told him that he owed it to his family to find and marry a prosperous, respectable girl. Miss Wallis was both. Still he knew that he would never hear the end of it if he did not ask for his mother's consent to the marriage before committing himself, and so he sat down to write a letter to her and his eldest brother in the morning, informing them of his intention of offering marriage to his godfather's ward. He did not doubt that they would both give their consent, but they would be seriously put out if he did not ask them for it beforehand. It was the kind of courtesy that was due to the head of his family, and to his mother.
As you know, ma'am, George wrote to his mother, I have received a summons from Sir George Yaxley, who wished to discuss an important matter with me. I was not aware what his plans might be, but he made them clear to me when he introduced me to his ward, Miss Sarah Wallis, and later asked me to marry her. Miss Wallis is aware of the arrangement and, I think, not altogether averse to the plan. She is an orphan with no family living in England. Her father may have been known to you; his name was Charles Wallis and he was a cousin of Sir George's. Sir George has assured me that Miss Wallis' family connections are all that is respectable. So, I understand, is her fortune.
All in all I believe you will be very pleased with Miss Wallis once you meet her. She is very young - not yet eighteen - but that, Sir George assures me, is a fault that will mend as time moves on.
It will surprise you that I should be contemplating such a speedy marriage, but Sir George tells me that he has not much longer to live - he looks very ill, I am sorry to say, and his doctor does not encourage him to hope that his condition will improve ever again. This is why he urges me to go through with this marriage as quickly as possible. Should you have any objections to my marrying Miss Wallis, ma'am, I hope you will let me know quickly. Otherwise, if Miss Wallis is agreeable, I will have everything arranged as soon as possible.
A similar letter went to George's brother. Although his lordship's opinion did not matter to him half as much as his mother's, George still felt he ought to ask for his consent to the marriage he was planning. He was the head of the family, after all.
"Have you ever heard anything about this Miss Wallis?" Lady Edenthorpe, upon receiving her youngest son's missive, had immediately called for her carriage and made her way to the family town house in Clarges Street. She was now sitting with her son and daughter-in-law, and not knowing anything about Miss Wallis or her family she asked them the most crucial of questions. "What kind of girl is she, I wonder?"
"I am not acquainted with her, I am afraid," the younger Lady Edenthorpe admitted.
"We may safely assume that Miss Wallis is respectable," Lord Edenthorpe remarked. "If she is one of Sir George Yaxley's relations, her birth is above suspicion."
"I knew her father, I think," Lady Edenthorpe mused. "It must have been ages ago; before he went to India."
"Was there any particular reason for him to do so?" his lordship asked.
"None, except that the Wallises were not rich, and his father wanted to give him a chance to make his fortune abroad," Lady Edenthorpe replied. "If I remember correctly he was a very well-bred young man, quite comme il faut."
"George says her mother was a Miss Grayson."
"Never heard of her, but Sir George appears to believe her birth was respectable. He would not expect Septimus to marry a girl whose parents are not quite the thing." The emphasis on his youngest brother's given name did not escape Lord Edenthorpe's notice.
"Surely she is very young," he stated. "I am not certain whether I should permit my brother to attach himself to a female so many years his junior - she is not yet eighteen!"
"My dear boy," Lady Edenthorpe said haughtily, "I myself was married at sixteen, and your father, if you will remember, was five and twenty at the time!"
"George is eight and twenty, ma'am," Lord Edenthorpe pointed out. "There are more than ten years between them."
His wife giggled. "Henry, my dear, are you not forgetting something?" she asked. "There are fifteen years between us!"
His lordship reddened, realising that his wife was right. He could hardly object to a marriage on the grounds of a disparity in the bride and groom's respective ages since he, himself, was happily married to a woman fifteen years younger than himself.
"Your brother is a sensible man," the younger Lady Edenthorpe continued. "He knows what he is doing, and if there is truly nothing to be said against Miss Wallis - neither against her character nor her family - I think you should let him do as he wishes. He is not likely to get such another chance any time soon."
"Are you telling me my brother has no other marriage prospects?" Lord Edenthorpe asked indignantly.
"My dear, partial though you may be to your brother even you must accept that the seventh son of a baron is by no means an eligible choice for a young lady, no matter how amiable he may be. I know for certain that my parents would not have consented to such a match."
Grudgingly, his lordship had to admit that this was so.
"And if," his wife continued, "he lets this opportunity slip, with whom will he come up next? Miss Wallis sounds like the kind of girl we want him to marry, don't we? Her birth and upbringing are unexceptionable, and she has a fortune that many of us can only dream of. What we should ask ourselves before making a decision is - is George likely to do any better?"
"My dear Helena!" the Dowager Baroness remarked. "Your good sense is admirable, as always. We will let Septimus know that we approve of the match, and welcome Miss Wallis into our family when she comes to Town with him. I am sure she is a charming girl!"
"I think, my dear Miss Wallis," Mrs Simmonds remarked to her pupil one evening when they were sitting alone in the drawing room after dinner, "that Mr Edenthorpe is going to declare himself in the near future."
Sarah smiled. "It is not so much a declaration, Mrs Simmonds, than asking me what I mean to do. His intentions have been pretty clear from the outset, haven't they? It was not as if Sir George left him much of a choice!" That reflection put an end to her smile. She wished Mr Edenthorpe to marry her, but she also wished he'd do so without being told to. Was a husband who was fond of one too much to expect for the likes of her?
"Very well; then I shall say that Mr Edenthorpe will want to know your decision soon. Does that sound better?"
"It is a slight improvement," Sarah said. "It gives me the illusion of having some say in the matter."
"What answer do you mean to give him, Miss Wallis?" Mrs Simmonds asked, choosing to ignore Sarah's comment.
Sarah blushed slightly. "I think I will marry him," she said, after a moment's hesitation. "He is very handsome, and kind-hearted, and amiable. I could do worse, couldn't I?" She gave her governess an anxious look, as if asking her to contradict her. Mrs Simmonds did not do her that favour.
"You could certainly do worse," she agreed instead.
"Besides, he is a man I think I could grow to love one day," Sarah confessed, acutely aware that this was only half the story. The truth was that she had already fallen in love with Mr Edenthorpe. Even though he had never attempted to flirt with her, had never treated her in the least lover-like manner, she had fallen for him head over ears. By marrying him, she hoped, she could make him fall in love with her as well - at least that was what she wished, although she feared that he would never love her as much as she loved him.
Still, the prospect of being married was, as such, much too terrifying to contemplate, and feeling a sudden need to unburden herself Sarah did just that.
"Mrs Simmonds, you were married once, weren't you?"
"I was," Mrs Simmonds said calmly.
"What … what was it like?" With bated breath, Sarah waited for an answer.
"My dear, I believe no two marriages are alike; just as no two people ever are," said Mrs Simmonds. "My husband was an admirable man, with a kind heart - like Mr Edenthorpe, though not quite as handsome; and his wits were as sharp as a knife."
"Did you love him?"
"I did, eventually."
"But you did not love him at first, when you married him?"
"Not really. I did not know him well enough to have formed an attachment. He was a friend of my brother's who often called at my parents' house - to see him, I thought at the time. I was quite surprised when my father informed me that Mr Simmonds had made me an offer of marriage and told me in no uncertain terms that I was supposed to accept it."
"Why did your father want you to accept Mr Simmonds' offer even though you did not love him?" Sarah wanted to know. After all, unlike herself Mrs Simmonds had not been an heiress whose fortune must be kept safe no matter what. There must have been another reason.
"My fortune was not large," Mrs Simmonds told her. "I believe my parents thought Mr Simmonds' offer was the best I was ever likely to get, so naturally they wanted me to become his wife. They wanted to be certain that I had someone to provide for me when they were no longer able to do so."
It was pretty ironic, Sarah thought, that Mrs Simmonds was now a widow and obliged to earn her living as a governess - that the late Mr Simmonds had, in the end, been unable to provide sufficiently for his wife. But she kept these thoughts to herself, not wishing to offend Mrs Simmonds.
"I see." Sarah added a couple of stitches to her embroidery before she said, "But you still have not told me what it was like to be married."
Mrs Simmonds laughed. "It was pleasant enough," she said. "I had a home of my own, and the running of the household - Mr Simmonds allowed me free rein in the management of his home. I enjoyed that, I confess."
"I guess I will enjoy that too," Sarah said, reflectively. "But…" She broke off, not knowing how to put her question. Her ideas of marriage were somewhat hazy, she had to admit. She had never had any experience of it, not even second hand. She could not remember her mother, who had passed away before her daughter had been out of leading strings, and neither had she known Lady Yaxley. When she had joined Sir George's household, he had already been a widower. So she had never really seen how a marriage worked, and that worried her. How was she to be a good wife if she knew nothing of what it was that wives did? They kept house for their husbands, she knew as much, and they had children and raised them, but she suspected that there was more to being married than that.
"But?" Mrs Simmonds was giving her an expectant look, obviously waiting for her to continue her question.
"Apart from keeping house," Sarah said, and blushed furiously. "What I mean is, husbands and wives and…"
Mrs Simmonds sighed. She had been aware that it would be her task to inform her pupil of what was expected of a wife in marriage, but she had hoped to be able to put the discussion of these matters off for a while. However, since Miss Wallis had asked her she had better answer her questions truthfully, and it was going to be an embarrassing conversation, she knew.
"For the most part," she began, "you will live with your husband, of course."
"Well, yes, I thought as much, only…"
"And occasionally," Mrs Simmonds continued, taking the plunge, "you will share his bed."
Sarah was surprised to see that even a lady of such unshakeable poise as her governess had it in her to be embarrassed. Mrs Simmonds blushed.
"You mean I will have to sleep in the same bed as my husband?"
"Well… yes. You see, your husband will want children, and in order to have children you will have to sleep with him."
"Oh, is that all?" Sarah was somewhat relieved. Although she felt it would be rather uncomfortable to have to sleep in the same bed as Mr Edenthorpe - especially if he snored, or was selfish with the blankets - she would be able to adjust to that if she had to.
"Though the term sleeping with him is a trifle misleading," Mrs Simmonds went on. "The marital act involves some … er ... activities, and sleeping is not one of them. The … the only thing sleeping and that other activity have in common is that both usually happen in bed. Er."
Mrs Simmonds had never been more grateful to have the gentlemen join them in the drawing room than tonight. This meant that she was safe, for the time being, and could think of a way of explaining the facts of life to her pupil in such a way as would not make her shy away from marriage after all. Sir George would not thank her for that.
The interview continued sooner than Mrs Simmonds had expected. The next morning, Miss Wallis asked her to go for a walk with her, and they had hardly left the house when she said, "I need to know, Mrs Simmonds. About the matter we talked about last night, I … I do not quite understand. Please explain it to me! How am I to marry Mr Edenthorpe if I do not know what it is that he expects me to do when we are married?"
There was something akin to panic in Miss Wallis' voice. Mrs Simmonds told her that she would tell her everything she needed to know, as soon as they were at a safe distance from the house.
"It is a delicate matter, my dear," she said. "We do not want anyone to overhear our conversation, do we?"
Sarah saw that the topic appeared to cause Mrs Simmonds some discomfort, and agreed. But she desperately wanted to know - she had lain awake for a long time the previous night, imagining all kinds of things, and not all of them pleasant. She was not going to go through the ordeal another time, she had sworn herself, and she was going to find out. If Mrs Simmonds did not tell her she would ask Sir George - after all, he had been married too. His wife had even borne him two children, whose names were to be found on the marble memorial in the village church along with Lady Yaxley's. None of them had survived for longer than a week, which was sad - Sir George, as far as Sarah was a judge, would have been an excellent father.
It was not until they had reached the meadows beyond the park, where one had a good view of the surrounding countryside - and of anyone approaching them, Sarah could not help but notice - that Mrs Simmonds said, "Now then. What do you want to know, Miss Wallis?"
"What exactly did you mean with sleeping with one's husband?" Sarah asked, bluntly.
"Before I describe the marital act to you I had better tell you that it can be very enjoyable - you will find that once you have got used to it you will actually want it to happen." Mrs Simmonds began.
Sarah nodded. That was good news at least, though she still had no idea where this was going.
"Your husband will kiss and caress you and…" Mrs Simmonds broke off.
Kisses and caresses did not sound too bad, Sarah thought. She could certainly live with them. Even better, she could see herself enjoying them. At least as long as they came from Mr Edenthorpe.
"Miss Wallis, you did grow up in the country," Mrs Simmonds said, somewhat desperately. "What is more, your father used to breed horses. Do you remember the occasion when we walked past the paddock one morning and one of the stallions and one of the mares were…"
Sarah did remember that occasion. Mrs Simmonds had been in a hurry to pull her onwards, though, so she had not really seen what had happened, except… Realisation dawned.
"They were engaging in …" In her mind, she searched for a suitable word. "Engaging in marital activities?" she finally said, flushing scarlet.
Mrs Simmonds, glad to have got that point across without having to go into too much detail, nodded. "Something of the kind. They were mating, and … and the principle is the same with humans."
Sarah blenched, remembering what she had seen that day. "But I cannot possibly do that!" she protested. The very idea was disgusting. And Mrs Simmonds had said she would actually want such a thing to happen to her - what was she thinking? How could anyone want to do this? How could she tolerate being approached in such a way?
"You will do that and enjoy it," Mrs Simmonds said soothingly. "Mr Edenthorpe is a considerate man, we know as much. He will not do anything to you that you do not want him to."
"I certainly hope so," Sarah said, with feeling.
"You must keep in mind, though, that it is your duty as his wife to … engage in marital activities, as you said … with your husband. Whenever he wants you to. But believe me when I tell you that it will not be such a burden as you may be thinking at the moment. Coming to think of it, it was the one wifely duty I enjoyed most." Mrs Simmonds blushed. "And you want babies, don't you? You will not have any unless…"
"Fine. But I do not want to have any children yet," Sarah declared. "I am too young to have children."
"Maybe," Mrs Simmonds said, "you ought to discuss that matter with Mr Edenthorpe when he formally proposes to you. He may be of the same mind as you - that you are too young to have children - and will therefore not demand his marital rights until such a time as you are ready for them. I must beg you not to talk to him about sleeping with him, however. Young ladies - especially young ladies of your age - are not supposed to know anything about these matters, and he might object to my having told you. Mr Edenthorpe is a young man with a strong sense of propriety, I believe."
With this admonition in mind, Sarah received Mr Edenthorpe's proposal that evening. She had come down to dinner early, as was her custom, and was surprised to find Mr Edenthorpe waiting for her in the drawing room.
"Good evening, Miss Wallis," he said with a pleasant smile. "We did not see much of each other today - you had a pleasant day, I hope?"
"Oh yes, I did," Sarah lied. "I went for a walk with Mrs Simmonds in the morning, and spent some time reading in the afternoon."
This, she added silently, had been a vain attempt to take her mind off the mental picture Mrs Simmonds' description of marital duties had created.
"You certainly had lovely weather for your walk," Mr Edenthorpe remarked and then cleared his throat. "Miss Wallis, I have come down early to discuss something with you; a matter of some importance. Far be it from me to press you for an answer, but Sir George is getting impatient. Will you do me the honour and accept my hand in marriage?"
"What about you, sir?" Sarah asked.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Is it your wish to marry me, or are you merely asking me to oblige Sir George and actually hoping that I will turn you down so you could go back to town and resume your bachelor's existence with a clear conscience?"
"If I did not wish you to marry me I would not ask you to," Mr Edenthorpe said. He sounded quite sincere, Sarah noted.
"If you truly wish me to become your wife," Sarah said, "I will accept your offer. There is one favour I must ask of you, however."
"What kind of favour is that, Miss Wallis?"
"Well …" This was not going to be easy, Sarah knew. Yet she needed to tell him - Mrs Simmonds had been quite clear about that. A wife had to be honest with her husband, she had said. Honest at all times and about everything. Only then a marriage could work.
"You see … I am afraid …" She became aware of his intent look and turned away from him, hoping she might be able to say what needed to be said if she did not have to look into his face while doing so.
"I am quite young still and … I was wondering … I mean … I was wondering about … do you want children, Mr Edenthorpe?"
"I have never really thought about it so far, but I guess I do," Mr Edenthorpe said. "Everyone does, sooner or later."
"Well … it is about children I wanted to talk about, I mean … how soon do you want them?"
From the expression in Mr Edenthorpe's face she could tell that he had understood her meaning, but he did not say anything, obviously waiting for her to have her say. She was well aware that she must be looking like an over-ripe tomato by now, and felt unable to stay in the same room with him for a moment longer.
As she stormed out of the door, she bumped into Mrs Simmonds. "I cannot ask him," Sarah cried and pushed her way past her governess. "Please, do it for me, Mrs Simmonds!"
George turned to Mrs Simmonds, who entered the room and closed the door behind her, looking rather startled.
"What is it that Miss Wallis wanted to ask me?" he asked. "She seems to think you know what it is."
"I do know," Mrs Simmonds confessed and sighed. After having had to deal with a nervous bride, it now seemed as if she was supposed to tackle the husband-to-be as well. "Miss Wallis feels very nervous about … her marital duties."
"I see. You are in her confidence, ma'am?"
"Entirely; for which I am glad."
"So am I, although I would have preferred to discuss the matter with my future wife rather than her governess." George decided that the situation called for a strong drink, but he was not going to give in to temptation just yet, with Mrs Simmonds in the room. "So, what did Miss Wallis want you to ask me?"
"She wanted to ask you not to consummate the marriage just yet but to wait until she felt ready."
"What did she think I was going to do to her?" George was appalled, and felt he had every reason to be so. If Sarah weren't such an innocent, he might even feel justified in being offended. As it was, he surmised, she probably did not quite know what she was talking about, and had certainly not meant to insult him.
"I'll have you know that I have never in all my life forced my attentions on a woman and won't start doing so when I am married. I give you leave to tell Miss Wallis so," he said coldly, making an effort not to let his annoyance show. He failed.
"Please don't be angry with her," Mrs Simmonds pleaded. "Miss Wallis is very young, and the thought of having to share her bed with you scares her. It is not uncommon for young brides to be uneasy about these matters."
Honesty compelled George to admit that Mrs Simmonds had a point, and calmed down.
"To say the truth," he said, "I was not planning to … to demand my marital rights any time soon."
"You were not?"
"I believe Miss Wallis is too young to be a mother, so I do not want to subject her to the ... the consequences of marriage just yet. She need not worry; I will not demand anything from her that she is not willing to give. But do answer me one question - when, do you think, will Miss Wallis be willing to accept me as her husband in every sense of the word if she is not prepared to do so right from the start?"
"I do not think it will take too long," Mrs Simmonds said, with a smile. "She is already much inclined to like you, I think. But it is difficult to give you a precise moment. You will be able to tell when she is ready for you, I believe, once you know her well enough."
George sighed. "This marriage business is more complicated than I thought," he said.
"You will learn as you go along," Mrs Simmonds promised. "Everyone does."
"I suppose so. But I wish Miss Wallis would stop being so nervous around me - I really do not think of myself as a terrifying person, and I shudder to imagine what our marriage will be like if she runs off whenever we need to discuss personal matters."
"In all fairness, Mr Edenthorpe, you will have to admit that a gently bred young female has never been encouraged to discuss personal matters with anyone, least of all with a young man she is not related to. It is one thing she will learn once you are married - once she has realised that you are fully to be trusted."
"She does not trust me? Why does she want to marry me then?"
"She does trust you." Mrs Simmonds said. "It is difficult to explain. I think it has a great deal to do with being afraid of making a fool of herself in front of you. She is afraid you will not take her fears seriously, that you might laugh at them."
"I have never made fun of anyone's fears; it is a despicable thing to do." George said simply, again wondering what picture Miss Wallis had of him - and why she agreed to a marriage with the kind of man she apparently thought him to be. She was not usually lacking in sense.
"Remember that Miss Wallis has not met many men of your age, and that she does not know anything about their ways. For all she knows you may well make sport of her worries and tease her with them," Mrs Simmonds explained.
"It's a delightful picture she has of me, to be sure," George said tartly, unable to keep his annoyance to himself any longer.
"Of young men in general. Sir George is partly to blame for that; he has never kept his opinion of them from her, and you know that one of the reasons why he wanted you to marry Miss Wallis was that you were the only young man in his acquaintance of whom he thought highly enough to approve of the match."
This was going to be more difficult than anything he'd ever done before, George realised gloomily, and for a moment he wondered what he had got himself into.
It was a strange wedding that took place in Waltham parish church the next morning. There were hardly any wedding guests; merely the bride and groom, both with their attendants - Mrs Simmonds acted as matron of honour while one of Sir George's neighbours, with whom George was on friendly though not intimate terms, had agreed to be his best man - the vicar and his family to witness the event, another friend of Sir George's to give the bride away, and some of Sir George's senior servants.
The vicar had been slightly disapproving at first when George had shown up at the rectory the previous night and asked him to perform his marriage the following morning. Only when George had told him how matters really stood with his godfather, and that his speedy marriage to Miss Wallis was Sir George Yaxley's dying wish, the vicar had given in and agreed to conduct the marriage service. Partly, though, George supposed, the vicar's cooperation had been based on the knowledge that there were plenty of other clergymen who would perform the wedding service for Mr Edenthorpe and his young bride if he did not oblige them.
Yet there they were now; George waiting for Miss Wallis at the altar with Henry Norville, a friend of Sir George Yaxley's, standing by his side. And although he had not particularly wished for this marriage in the first place, now that he had committed himself to it he felt nervous when the bride did not turn up at ten o'clock, as had been arranged.
"What's keeping her, I'd like to know?" he wondered and blushed slightly when he became aware of both the vicar and Mr Norville's knowing grins.
"I have yet to see the wedding where the bride is not late," the vicar remarked soothingly. "It must be something they are doing on purpose." Aware of his wife and daughters sitting in the parsonage pew, he then lowered his voice and added in a conspiratorial whisper, "You'd better get used to it, Mr Edenthorpe. They delight in keeping a man waiting for them."
George wished he could have said, later, that he fell in love with his bride the moment he saw her enter the church on their wedding day, but he did not. Miss Wallis was not ill-looking; she was wearing her best dress and her hair had been done in a more becoming way than usual, but she was still looking very youthful and vulnerable, and while George was determined that she should always be able to depend on him for help and protection he was almost certain that the only emotion she could ever reasonably expect him to feel for her was friendship.
She was nervous - would she ever get rid of her nervousness, George wondered - although it would have been surprising if she had not been. A bride ought to be nervous on her wedding day, George felt, though he hoped that the matter of her marital duties no longer worried her. Mrs Simmonds must have done her job and told her that she had nothing to fear from her husband in that respect.
"Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this congregation, to join together this man and this woman in holy matrimony…"
George forced himself to pay attention; this was his wedding after all - it would not do to let his mind drift off and miss his turn. There were many things he had to think over, he knew - but he had no time to think about them now. He was getting married. He would think about them later.
"Wilt thou have this woman to thy wedded wife, to live together after God's ordinance in the holy estate of matrimony? Wilt thou love her, comfort her, honour, and keep her in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all other, keep thee only unto her, so long as ye both shall live?"
There it was now - his turn. In what he hoped was a determined tone of voice, George said, "I will."
Sir George Yaxley was unable to take part in the wedding, being too ill, and so he had asked another friend and neighbour of his to give the bride away. George took Miss Wallis' - he would have to become accustomed to giving her her first name once they were married, he supposed, for if he called his wife "Mrs Edenthorpe" he would always think he was talking to one of his sisters-in-law - hand, and together they turned to the vicar to listen to what he had to say.
"I, Septimus George …" George obediently said his vows, repeating after the vicar. Then it was Miss Wallis' turn. She spoke quickly and in a hushed voice, as if in a hurry to be done with the marriage service as quickly as possible.
"I, Sarah Catherine take thee, Septimus George to my wedded husband…"
George then received the ring from Mr Norville's hands and put it on Sarah's finger. He was surprised to find that it fit her - he had not had any precise picture of what his future wife's hands looked like when he had purchased it; instead he had gone for what he had hoped would appeal to her taste.
Before George knew it, the wedding service was over - he was a married man, and was surprised to find that he was feeling no different to what he had felt like before. He received the congratulations of his wedding guests with his bride holding on to his arm, and invited them to the wedding breakfast which had been prepared in Sir George Yaxley's house.
He then took his wife's - how strange that sounded, his wife! - hand and led her to Sir George's carriage that was waiting for them outside the church.
"You look very pretty today," he remarked. "I suppose it is the colour of your pelisse - very fetching. And this way of doing your hair, and your bonnet - it is very becoming, too."
She smiled and blushed slightly, apparently pleased with the compliment he'd made her.
"You are looking quite dashing too," she said. "I have never seen you wear this coat before - is it new?"
"It is - I had it made before I went to visit Sir George, and picked it up when I got to town last week," he said. "I thought the occasion warranted my wearing it."
"You are probably the most dashing bridegroom ever," Miss Wallis - Sarah, George reminded himself, said. No longer Miss Wallis but Mrs George Edenthorpe. He had to keep that in mind.
"Mr Avery did look rather stern and disapproving, don't you think?" Sarah said thoughtfully. "Almost as if he did not want us to marry."
"The vicar? Do you need his approval?" George asked. "Our nearest and dearest have given us their blessing, that ought to be enough."
"It is enough, only during the entire ceremony I felt as if he was going to give us a piece of his mind any moment. It was not a pleasant feeling. This should be a happy day for us!"
"So it should," George agreed. "Is it a happy day for you?"
"It is a happy day, in a way," she told him. "Though I do not permit myself to become too happy because whenever I am something will happen to spoil it."
"How are you ever going to be truly happy then?" George asked. "If you are forever fearing that something will spoil your happiness you will never be able to really enjoy life!"
"I know. Maybe I will learn to be happy in time," Sarah said. "What are we going to do now that we are married? Where shall we live? How shall we go on?" She sounded slightly panicky, George thought.
"We will stay with Sir George for the time being - until he is feeling better again," he said. It would not do to tell Sarah that he had no real answer to her questions. He had to act as if he knew exactly what their future would look like. "Then I will take you to meet my family - my mother and my brothers and their families. They are looking forward to meeting you."
"I will like that," Sarah said, smiling a little.
"And then I will take you to your home - I think we will live there when we are in the country. I'll have to return to Town at one point, but I have leave of absence for a couple of weeks, to attend to those personal matters arising from our marriage. I arranged for that last time I was in town."
"Are you going to take me to town as well?" she asked, hopefully.
"Since my family lives in town I'd say yes I will - pretty soon, too."
Sarah's countenance brightened. "Will I be presented at Court?"
"I do not quite see the point of doing so but if you insist on it, yes, you will be presented at Court. My mother will be happy to do that for you, I am sure."
"And Almack's?" she asked eagerly.
"What about Almack's?" George asked, although he could guess what she meant. Females were wild after that place, though personally he had never thought it had anything to recommend it, and had avoided going there.
"Shall we go to the assemblies at Almack's?"
"If we are in London for the season, I will ask my mother or my sister-in-law to procure a voucher for you," he promised.
"I want to go to London for the season," Sarah said. "Everyone does!"
"Not everyone," George said. "But if you want to go, and if I can get one of my female relatives to sponsor you, you certainly shall. I will have to find a suitable house for us first, of course. I cannot take you to my lodgings, and I do not want to depend on my brother's hospitality. It's all very well for a bachelor to do so, but a married man ought to have a place of his own."
Sarah digested that piece of news.
"At any rate," he continued, "we need not worry about the season yet. It's summer! There is no need for us to discuss the matter before February."
"I suppose so," Sarah said and sighed. "I hope Sir George will get better soon!"
George agreed with her although he privately felt that Sir George was unlikely to recover quickly, if he recovered at all. He was even more convinced of that when they went upstairs to Sir George's bedroom to present themselves as a married couple and receive his congratulations. Sir George was evidently pleased that everything had gone according to his plans, that Sarah Wallis had become Sarah Edenthorpe and now had a husband to take care of her. But his handshake was not as firm as it had been, George thought, and when they remained with him for longer than ten minutes it became obvious that their company was tiring him. George therefore took pains to steer his bride away from Sir George's bedside as soon as possible, and succeeded when he reminded her that they had guests waiting for them downstairs in the breakfast parlour.
George did not quite enjoy the back-slapping joviality that was prevalent among his gentlemen guests, but was too polite to say so. He even endured their innuendoes with something akin to a grin on his face, and pretended to be enjoying himself immensely. Meanwhile, Sarah and Mrs Simmonds were doing the same with the females of the party - the vicar's wife and daughters to be precise. They were sitting on the sofa, sipping their tea, eating the wedding cake - which, Mrs Avery was sorry to say, did not nearly look like a proper wedding cake in her opinion, which just showed how shabby an affair this wedding was. Although the observation had been only meant for Mrs Avery's daughters it had been made loudly enough for Sarah to overhear, and her mortification was evident. George wished he could show Mrs Avery the door, but did not feel it would improve matters if he did.
As far as he could tell, the wedding cake was perfect, and he told Sarah so as they cut it.
"Don't worry," he whispered to her as he fed her some cake, as tradition required. "As far as I am concerned our wedding is just what it ought to be."
She gave him a smile that was far from happy and, when everyone had left, confessed that while she was not feeling sorry for herself she had worried that George and his family would think of his wedding as a shabby affair, too.
"Lady Edenthorpe will not like it," she said unhappily. "My mother-in-law will hate me before she has even set eyes on me!"
"Nothing of the sort. I will say this for my mother, although Heaven knows she has often annoyed me. She is not unjust, and she is intelligent enough to see that in these circumstances we could not have acted any differently as we did. She will be happy I am married, and will send you a letter demanding grandchildren every week from now on."
"Oh dear! In that case she will hate me even more if … if there are no grandchildren at such a time as she thinks there ought to be some," Sarah replied.
"Such things cannot be rushed, as my mother well knows," George replied. "You will see - you need not worry about my mother, or any other member of my family. They will love you, believe me."
By dinner time that evening, Sir George's valet knocked at George's door and informed him that his godfather was feeling very poorly indeed.
"If it were for me to decide, sir, I would send for the doctor, but you know what Sir George is like. He says that no doctor can help him any more, and so he will not send for one if he can help it."
"So what do you want me to do?" George asked.
"I wanted to ask you, sir - though surely it is a piece of impertinence of me, considering you have been married only this morning - to remonstrate with Sir George."
"I can do that," George replied, "though you ought to know that if Sir George's mind is made up he will not allow himself to be persuaded by anyone."
So it turned out to be. Sir George refused to send for the doctor, and when George went up to look in on his godfather after dinner Sir George's valet informed him that his master had fallen asleep and ought not to be disturbed.
Under these circumstances, George would have felt little to no inclination to spend his wedding night with his wife even if she had not made it clear to him that she did not wish for any such visits from him yet. He told Sir George's valet that he should not hesitate to wake him, should he feel that any help was needed during the night, and went back to the drawing room where his young wife was waiting for him.
Mrs Simmonds had already retired, feeling that the young couple should be left to talk to each other in private. Now that they were married, no chaperon was necessary any more.
"How is Sir George?" Sarah wanted to know. "Is he better?"
"He is asleep," George replied. "Saunders told me not to disturb him."
"Oh no; he needs to rest to be sure," Sarah agreed. After a short pause she asked him, hesitantly, "Do you think he is going to die?"
"That's hard to say," George said. "I am no doctor, so I have no way of knowing what is the matter with him. I wish he would not be so stubborn and allow us to call in a doctor to attend to him. He would know what to do! But if Sir George is not better by tomorrow morning I'll send word to his doctor without his consent."
Sarah chuckled. "Do you think Sir George will see him if he did not want him in the first place?"
"He will be in no state to refuse him," George said, and sighed. "There is one thing for certain; he is anything but well."
"I have not been lucky with my relatives so far," Sarah said sadly. "First my mother, then my father, and now Sir George…"
"Things will get better from now on," George promised, striving for a cheerful tone of voice. "Now, what do you want to do? It's still early and this is our wedding night after all."
After some deliberation, Sarah decided to play dominoes, and so they whiled away the evening with this innocuous pastime until the tea tray was brought in. If anyone ever found out that all he'd done on his wedding night was play dominoes with his bride, George thought, he'd be a laughing stock all over town, but luckily no one ever needed to know.
© 2011, 2012 Copyright held by the author.