The next morning Sir George was still very ill, and so George acted on the promise he had given Sarah the previous evening and sent his groom to the doctor's house with a message. Knowing that Sir George's physician was not likely to arrive within the next hour, he then took his bride for a ride around the countryside to take her mind off her guardian's poorly state of health for a while. Having reached the river, they tied the horses to a tree and went for a walk along the river bank. George felt that they needed to talk about many things, and that one could not do so at home where one might be overheard. Nor was it a good thing to discuss important matters while on horseback.
"I hope Sir George will get better soon," he remarked. "But we still need to determine what to do next."
"I think we should wait for Sir George to recover before we make any plans for our immediate future," Sarah replied.
"Do you mean to let Sir George have a say in our decisions?" George asked.
"Not any longer, no," Sarah said, after a moment's reflection. "We married to oblige him, but there his influence in our affairs ought to end - our marriage only concerns the two of us. What I meant was that we need to find out whether he will need us or not - I do not want to leave Sir George behind all by himself, at the mercy of his servants, after everything he has done for me! While he is so ill I must stay with him. I owe it to him."
"This is very much how I feel about this situation," George admitted. "I am glad to find that we are agreed on this. We will not go anywhere while Sir George is ill."
"Do you think I will be allowed to nurse him?" Sarah asked.
"Do you think Sir George would want you to?" George asked in return. "I am afraid he may not like it."
"He may not have liked it while I was … while I was single, but do you think he'd still object to it now that I am married? Things are different now!"
Not so very different, George thought but did not say so. "Not even then," he said instead, and added, lightly, "Things would be different if I was ill. You could nurse me with perfect propriety."
"If you ever fall ill I will be sure to do so," Sarah promised earnestly, and then said, "I will have to resort to keeping house for Sir George then. I have done so for some time you must know. Mrs Simmonds told him I needed to learn how to run a large household, and that was when I was allowed free rein in the management of his home."
"I had no idea it was you who had the running of Sir George's household," George said, surprised. "I thought his housekeeper did that for him."
"And who, do you think, gave the housekeeper her instructions? Do you think me incapable of managing a house?" Sarah's tone of voice suggested that she would not take kindly to being so grossly underestimated.
"I did not think about it at all, I must confess," George defended himself. "But if anyone had asked me I would not have thought a seventeen-year-old capable of managing such a large household as Sir George's without having been taught first."
"Since ladies are supposed to take care of their husband's homes at one point," Sarah pointed out to him, "we had better learn how to do so at an early age. What use would we be if we were not allowed to practise?"
"I would not call looking Sir George Yaxley's household affairs without the assistance of a more experienced lady practising," George replied. "It sounds rather like being thrown into cold water and being expected to keep your head above water without ever having learnt how to swim."
"It was not easy in the beginning," Sarah admitted. "Indeed I was feeling quite overwhelmed at first. But Mrs Simmonds has been so much help! That reminds me - what is to become of her now that we are married?"
"I have not thought about that matter either," George confessed. "We must ask her what her plans are; whether she has anything in mind; and if we can assist her in any way we shall naturally do so."
"Oh yes, we must find out if she has anywhere to go," Sarah said. "She has family, but I do not know if she is on good terms with them; whether she can stay with any of them until she has found some other employment. She has never discussed them with me."
"There is no need to be in a hurry," George said after a short pause. "If you are to stay here alone - once I must go back to town to take care of my obligations there - you may be glad of her company. Or will you be happy to see the back of her?"
"Not in the least; she is a very good friend, and very much in my confidence. It would be wrong to leave her to shift for herself."
"It was never my intention to do so - I had always thought of pensioning her off. But if you want her to stay with you I have no objection at all. Though Mrs Simmonds may have; she may not want to live with a pair of newly-weds."
"We must offer her a home at least. Whatever she wishes to do then, I want her to know that I still value her friendship, and that I do not want her to go away."
"You will make that clear to her, I am sure," George said. "Where do you want to go once Sir George is better? I would say London is out of the question; the city is dead at this time of year."
"Is there not such a thing as the Little Season?" Sarah asked.
"Yes, but it is not a patch on the season in spring," George replied. "I can see you are eager to get to town, but if I had a choice I had rather present my wife during the spring season than the autumn one. People would think it rather shabby of me; a dowdy affair. While I would not mind that so much I am afraid you would."
"Heavens, yes! I do not want to be a dowd! - We will not go to London before spring then, but I would really like to meet your family! If they want to get to know me, that is." She looked as if she seriously doubted that.
"You need not worry about them; I have told you so before! They are very keen to make your acquaintance and if I know anything of my mother there is already an invitation on its way. If we do not come to visit her in London, we will meet up with everyone at Brook End at Christmas. The traditional family festivities - we will not be able to excuse ourselves from those I am afraid, especially since my mother knows we have no prior engagement!"
"I do not want to excuse myself," Sarah pointed out. "To say the truth I am looking forward to it."
"And after that, where?" George asked. "No doubt my brother will invite us to make a long stay at Brook End, but I am not quite certain whether his wife will like that too. She still is a bit of an unknown entity." George grinned. "They have not been married for long, so I do not know her very well."
"A stranger but lately admitted into the family," Sarah laughed. "Like me!"
"I would not call her a stranger. Just someone to whom I have not yet grown accustomed. I get along with my other sisters-in-law, so I believe her ladyship will be no exception; I am certainly not going to do anything to put up her back against me. But I know nothing yet about her likes or dislikes, and therefore I do not know whether she would want us to make a prolonged stay at Brook End or not. I had rather not put her patience to the test if I can help it."
"Your family's home is in Northamptonshire, is it not?" Sarah said after a short pause.
"Is it at an easy distance to Wallingford? My home is there, if you remember."
"I suppose it is not too far to travel, provided the weather does not hold us up."
"I would like to live there again - I love Drayton House so much!"
"Then this is where we will go when the Christmas party at my brother's home is over," George promised. "To say the truth I am looking forward to seeing it."
As they returned to Sir George's house, however, they found the doctor's gig in the stable yard and as George went upstairs to his godfather's room it became evident that they were not going anywhere any time soon. The doctor, having examined his patient, told George that he had done well in calling him in, and once he had finished his instructions for Sir George's valet asked George for an interview.
George showed the physician into the library, offered him a glass of whisky which that learned man was eager to accept, and then asked him for a report on the invalid's state of health.
"Sir George tells me you are a relation of his," Dr Wheeler said.
"Not a blood relation, but I am his godson," George told him.
"Oh? He said you were a cousin by marriage, Mr Edenthorpe."
"That relationship is of fairly recent date," George explained. "I married his cousin's daughter yesterday."
"My heartiest congratulations, sir."
George smiled. "Thank you."
"The marriage has taken a huge weight of Sir George's shoulders," Dr Wheeler told George. "He told me so himself; and I have found it to be true. At last he looks as if he is at peace with himself and his illness. The thought of what might become of Miss Wallis if he did not succeed in settling her affairs properly weighed heavily on his mind. You have relieved him of a great burden. - Not, I must assure you, that he considered Miss Wallis a burden, for how could he? Such a well-mannered, kind and diligent young lady! You have chosen well, Mr Edenthorpe."
"I know. Mr Wheeler, so far Sir George has not confided in me as to what illness he is suffering of, and although he told me you had not much hope of his living much longer I wanted to know if that was true; if Sir George's view of the matter was not too pessimistic."
"Sir George Yaxley is a realist, Mr Edenthorpe, and has never been prone to exaggeration. What he told you is true. He is very ill, and not likely to live much longer."
George had never had any reason to disbelieve Sir George's assurance that he was terminally ill, but hearing it from the doctor's lips somehow brought it home to him that he was going to lose his godfather and that there was nothing he could do about it.
"What exact illness is he suffering from, Mr Wheeler? Or did Sir George forbid you to tell me about that?"
"Nothing of the kind. It started out as a stomach complaint, but by now I believe the disease has spread all over his body."
Even though the doctor did not name the disease, George realised what was wrong with Sir George. His father had died of the same illness - the doctors had called it cancer. For a minute or so, he was too stunned to say anything, and it took him some effort to ask his next question.
"When you say he is not likely to live much longer, Mr Wheeler, what period of time are you talking about? How long is he likely to … to remain with us?"
"It is difficult to come up with a precise date," Dr Wheeler told him. "I have often seen patients with remarkable resilience who outlived the expectations of myself and their relatives by months - years, even, in one case. This is why I do not like to make predictions - I know they can never be accurate."
"Try to make an exception in this particular case," George said. "How long a period of time are we talking about? I must break the news to my wife, and I am fairly certain that this will be the first thing she will ask me."
"Let me say as much," Mr Wheeler said hesitantly. "I do not expect him to live for much longer than three months."
George calculated. "You think he will be dead before Christmas then."
"Even sooner, probably."
"Thank you for your frankness." George took a sip of his whisky. He was certainly in need of a stiff drink. "Is there anything we can do for him, Mr Wheeler? Myself and … Mrs Edenthorpe?"
Calling Sarah Mrs Edenthorpe still sounded odd to him. Well, they had only been married for a day so far, though somehow it seemed much longer.
The doctor did not reply for a few moments, and so George repeated his question, adding, "Anything to make him more comfortable, you know! Is he in pain?"
"That is difficult to say. Sir George has never been one to complain, so if he does suffer he does it stoically. I have left plenty of laudanum here, so if he should be in pain his valet has the strictest orders to give it to him. That's a very competent man he has here - I'd leave the nursing to him if I were you."
"I was not proposing to nurse him," George admitted. "I do not know the least thing about it; he will certainly be much better off with his valet."
"I think the best you can do for him is to keep him company and keep his mind off things while you still can," the doctor told him. "Sit with him, tell him entertaining stories, read to him, play cards with him - he will enjoy that."
George knew this was the case, but was afraid that Sarah would not think it at all sufficient. He would have to persuade her to accept the doctor's view. It was going to be a difficult task, he was afraid.
"It is a sad honeymoon for a pair of newly-weds with a dying man in the house," the doctor remarked. "Maybe you should leave for a couple of weeks."
"And leave Sir George to the mercy of his servants? Certainly not; that is out of the question," George said firmly. "I know my wife would not hear of it even if I were so forgetful of what is due to my godfather to make a suggestion of the kind."
"As you wish," the doctor said with a shrug. "I merely thought it would be better for Mrs Edenthorpe if she got away from here for a while."
"You may well be right, but I know she would not consent to it. We'll stay here with Sir George."
The doctor changed the topic then, and took his leave ten minutes later, having finished his glass of whiskey. With a sigh, George went to look for his wife.
George was taking a lot of time talking to the doctor, Sarah thought. She was impatient to talk to him, to find out what the doctor thought of Sir George's state of health, and what she could do for her guardian to make him feel better.
She was genuinely fond of the old gentleman; for although he had seemed forbidding and reserved when she had first arrived in his household she had soon discovered that behind that façade there was a generous heart and a great deal of intelligence. Although he had never raised any children of his own he had made a real effort to be a good father to her, and had succeeded. She felt an affection for him that equalled her love for her own father, and the thought that she might lose him soon was extremely painful.
But she would do what she could to make his last days as pleasant as they could possibly be; she was determined to stay with him to the last and was glad that her husband had no objection to that plan. She would have hated to quarrel with him on the first day of their marriage, but if he had wanted her to leave Sir George behind in the state he was currently in she would have fought his decision with every means at her disposal. She was glad to find that her husband was not that kind of person, though; that he appeared to be interested in her opinions and seemed to agree with her at least in this matter. He would not always agree with her, she knew, and they would probably have plenty of quarrels sooner or later, but for the time being they were in perfect agreement. Sir George, the man who had been a father to both her and him though the actual father of neither, the man who had brought them together, deserved every bit of comfort they could give him, and Sarah was prepared to make whatever sacrifice necessary to ensure that he was comfortable.
She heard George and the doctor walk past the drawing room door, talking, though she could not make out what their conversation was about. Then she heard the doctor walk along the gravel path towards the stables, and at last the door opened and George came to her and Mrs Simmonds into the drawing room.
Sarah did not even need to ask. She saw that George, although he was making an effort to look his normal, cheerful self, was anything but cheerful, and knew that the news he had received from the doctor was not good. Still she wanted to know.
"What did the doctor say?" she asked. George sighed, and sat down in the chair opposite her, taking her hands.
"No good news, I am afraid," he said, and told her exactly what she had been afraid of - that Sir George Yaxley was a dying man, and that the doctor had no hope of his surviving the year.
"He never told me things were so bad!" she cried, with tears in her eyes. "He ought to have done!"
"No doubt about that, but I suppose he did not want to worry you," George said, awkwardly. "He has always thought of others rather than himself, as you know."
"I know," Sarah said, taking out her handkerchief, drying her tears and trying to sound calm. "Is there anything we can do?"
"The doctor thinks we should leave the nursing to Sir George's valet, and I tend to agree with him. But he has no objection to our sitting with him and trying to entertain him. He says that Sir George needs us to take his mind of things."
"So this is what we will do," Sarah decided.
She then remembered that she ought to take care of household affairs - there was nothing Sir George disliked more than an ill-managed household - and went to see the cook about the dinner menu and to compliment her on the quality of her wedding breakfast which, in spite of having been hurriedly made at extremely short notice, had been excellent; no matter what Mrs Avery had said.
In the kitchen she quickly discovered that her newly married state had turned her into an interesting person. The cook - a formidable woman of uncertain age - invited her to sit down at the kitchen table and immediately supplied her with tea and biscuits, informing her that she needed to keep up her strength.
"You are perfectly right, Mrs Burns," Sarah said. "Especially with Sir George being as ill as he is."
Mrs Burns gave her a sly look, which indicated even to someone as innocent as Sarah that she had certainly not been talking about the presence of an invalid in the house. Sarah suspected that if it had not been for the presence of the kitchen maids Mrs Burns would have been even more explicit, and blushed. Even if anything had happened on her wedding night - other than her tossing and turning in her bed and being unable to find sleep until the small hours - she would hardly have discussed events with her guardian's cook. Luckily Mrs Burns, perceiving the blush on her young mistress' face, refrained from any further sly remarks.
"There, there, ma'am," she merely said. "Sir George will get better soon I am sure, and you have Mr Edenthorpe to take care of you."
"Let us hope that Sir George's health will improve soon," Sarah replied, ignoring the cook's remark regarding her husband. "What's for dinner tonight, Mrs Burns?"
"Mock turtle soup - you know how much Sir George likes that, Miss - I beg your pardon, Madam. Then there is chicken fricassee, a cottage pie, and a leg of mutton. We have some very fine green beans in the garden, I shall fry them with some bacon and they will make a delightful side dish. And some eels in aspic."
Sarah was not overly keen on eels, but she still gave her permission for this menu to be put on the table in the evening, pointing out, however, that Sir George might not feel very hungry.
"But the mock turtle soup will tempt him, ma'am, he will want some of that, and the chicken fricassee is a very light dish, just the thing to make him eat a few bites."
Sarah agreed that if they were to get Sir George to eat they would have to provide him with his favourite dishes, and then went upstairs again to write some letters. She had to notify her Indian grandfather of her recent marriage, and also write to those friends of her parents' who merited such personal attention. The others would just have to be content with the notice that she knew had been sent to the newspapers.
Having finished writing those letters, she left them on the table in the hallway to be posted and then went upstairs to visit Sir George. He was sitting in bed, reading, and as she entered the room he looked at her and smiled.
"May I come in?" Sarah asked.
"But certainly, my dear. Have you come to keep me company?"
"If you wish it," Sarah replied. "How are you today, sir?"
"Well enough." A violent cough shook Sir George, belying his words. "I am sitting upright and reading."
"Do you want me to read to you?" Sarah asked.
"No; I had rather you told me how you are getting on, the two of you."
"There is not much I could tell you," Sarah replied. "We have only been married for a day!"
Sir George did not say anything in reply to that; he merely raised an eyebrow.
"To say the truth," Sarah admitted, "it feels odd, being married."
"Well, you see, we hardly know each other, and I am afraid I don't know what to do with my husband," she continued.
Sir George laughed. "As long as your husband knows what to do with you, you will have no cause for complaint!"
"I am not sure he knows what to do with me," Sarah replied and, when Sir George laughed, blushed scarlet. "This is not what I meant!"
"What did you mean?" Sir George asked, once his cough had abated.
"What I meant," Sarah explained, "was that he is trying hard, but I am not sure he is succeeding."
"Succeeding with what?"
"Getting to know me," Sarah said.
"It is early days yet I'd say," Sir George reassured her. "If he is trying hard, as you tell me, he will succeed at one point. Did he kiss you?"
"Well, did he?"
"He did not - except at the wedding, when everyone seemed to expect it of us, but that did not count."
"Did it not?"
"No; because as I said it was just because everyone expected us to do it. He would not have kissed me if it had been for him to decide."
"And that upsets you? I thought - from what George confided to me I was led to think - that you did not want him to become overly familiar too quickly."
"I never said I did not want him to kiss me," Sarah said sullenly. "How am I to get used to kissing him if he keeps his distance?"
"I can tell you one thing about men," Sir George said after a short pause. "We are but human. I can safely say this about myself as well as your husband. None of us can know anything we are not told. So if you feel he ought to kiss you, you had better tell him so. Or make him kiss you."
"Do you mean I should ask him to kiss me? Over my dead body!" Sarah protested. "I am not that kind of woman!"
"No, but one does not kiss that kind of women anyway," Sir George told her.
"Let us just say you should give him a hint then," Sir George replied. "A hint that his kisses, under certain circumstances, would not be unwelcome. But apart from your lack of kisses, how do you feel about him?"
"I like him," Sarah said. "I would not have married him if I did not like him."
"How much do you like him?"
"Very much," Sarah whispered. "Very much indeed!"
The entry of Sir George's valet put an end to Sarah's confidences; that trusted attendant told her in no uncertain terms that she was to leave the room now since he had to get Sir George ready for dinner.
"Oh! Are you coming down to dine with us tonight, Sir George?" Sarah asked.
"No, my dear. I am afraid my constant coughing would put you off your food, so I had better dine up here, by myself," Sir George replied.
This was not what Sarah had wanted; she had meant to dine with Sir George, either in his room or in the dining room, but she had by now become accustomed enough to his ways to realise when he was in earnest. He did not want her or George to dine with him, and she ought to respect that wish.
"But we may come up and sit with you after dinner?" she merely asked.
"A pair of newly-weds should have better things to do," Sir George said.
"You cannot think us ungrateful enough to leave you all to yourself up here while we are enjoying ourselves downstairs," Sarah said. "You need company, Sir George, and we will sit with you."
Sir George meekly submitted to her dictum, and Sarah left him to his valet's ministrations.
Three days later, Sir George Yaxley was dead. The evening of the day after Sarah's wedding was the last when he was in the full possession of all his faculties, and the last time Sarah was allowed to see him. George, who had paid his godfather an occasional visit in his bedroom, had been so shocked at the rapid deterioration of Sir George's health that he had advised Sarah against it, and although she had once tried to sneak into Sir George's room to see how he was doing, her guardian's valet had been there and sent her away.
"I am not a child," she'd protested, and tried to persuade her husband to let her see Sir George. But George had been adamant; the sight of a dying man, he told her, might well turn out to be too much for her.
"Remember him as he was," he advised her, and that was that. Sarah did not get to see her guardian until he was laid out in his coffin, washed, and dressed in his best suit.
Sir George had died peacefully in his sleep, his valet told her. No, he had not regained consciousness, and he had not left any messages for any of his friends and relatives. It was all Sarah could do to keep herself from bursting into tears while the servants were present; but the moment the valet had left the room and gone back to Sir George's room to render him his services for the final time, Sarah could no longer keep herself from crying.
She was surprised to suddenly find herself in her husband's arms, leaning on his shoulder.
"There, there," he said awkwardly, handing her his handkerchief to dry her tears. It was obvious that he was not familiar with situations like this one, but he was doing his best in his attempts to comfort her. Maybe Sir George had been right, and he would make her a good husband after all.
Some busy days followed. George, being the one of Sir George Yaxley's friends who was on the spot, took it upon himself to arrange the funeral in such a style as he knew was customary in this neighbourhood, and would be what Sir George had wanted for himself. Sir George's heir, a distant relative, arrived two days after Sir George's death, and did not take the trouble to hide his opinion of having two guests staying in the house whose presence he could easily dispense with. Since they had both been staying there at Sir George's invitation, Sir William Yaxley could hardly send them away without causing a great deal of comment, but both he and his wife made it very clear to them that they were there on sufferance alone and not actually welcome.
Sarah resented their behaviour; she thought it extremely tactless of Lady Yaxley that she should demand to see the household inventory almost before the previous owner of the house had been laid to rest in the family tomb. But she did what she knew Sir George would have wanted her to do - she went through the household accounts with Lady Yaxley, made the upper servants known to their new mistress, and treated both Sir William and Lady Yaxley with the utmost civility even though she privately felt that they did not deserve such deference on her part.
Once the funeral had taken place, the gentlemen assembled in the library to hear the reading of Sir George's will. On the whole, it was just what had been expected; Sir George's title, his estate and his entailed property went to his cousin, Mr William Yaxley. There were some personal bequests to Sir George's servants, especially to those who were too old to seek employment elsewhere. But one clause in the will caused not a little surprise among those present - Sir George's unentailed property was bequeathed to Mr Septimus George Edenthorpe, Sir George's godson who, according to the testator, had "been the closest thing to a son he had ever had". No one could have been more surprised than George himself. He'd never had any expectation of an inheritance from his godfather. Not everyone was happy to hear that piece of news. Sir William, especially, protested vehemently against the clause, but the lawyer soon made it clear to him that he had no grounds on which he could contest that will.
"The will was made six years ago," the lawyer informed Sir William. "Everyone who knew Sir George will be able to corroborate that he has always been of sound mind, and no one will deny that every man has the right to dispose of his property in such a way as he sees fit."
Sir William fumed but had to accept this verdict, fully aware that contesting the will would lead to nothing except, in all likelihood, a nasty scandal in which public opinion would be against him.
Under these circumstances George thought it wise to leave Sir William's house as soon as possible, and did something he had not done before - he visited his wife in her bedroom that evening to tell her about his decision. He knew well that Sir William, who had never been happy with their staying on in the house in the first place, would be even less suited with their presence now, and he wanted to avoid being thrown out. They would leave as quickly as they could contrive it, but they would leave on their own terms.
He knew, of course - or at least suspected - why Sir George had left his unentailed property to him. While it did not provide him with a huge income, it was enough to yield a couple of hundred pounds a year; enough to enable a young man to marry if he lived modestly. By the time Sir George had made his will, no one had known about the existence of Sarah Wallis and her large fortune; but even so, George thought, the money would enable him to remain somewhat independent from his wife. He would not have to live on her money now; he could use his inheritance to cover his personal expenses and leave his wife's income to her. That way, even if some people might think that he had married her to get his hands on her fortune, both he and Sarah would know that he was not living at her expense. A man had his pride, after all, and by leaving him some money of his own Sir George had enabled him to keep his pride intact.
Sarah was sitting at her dressing table as George entered her room, with her maid doing her hair. She was wearing a dressing gown over her night dress and was looking, George thought, even more like a little girl with her hair down than she did during the day when her hair was properly pinned up.
He rapped gently at the frame of the door and asked, "May I come in?" He was aware of the maid's curious gaze but was determined to ignore it. Surely he could visit his own wife in her room whenever he liked without giving rise to vulgar rumours!
"Why, certainly," Sarah said, blushing. It was almost ridiculous how quickly she blushed, George thought, but then he realised that she had probably never allowed anyone to see her in this state of undress; certainly not a man. So for once she had reason to blush, even though her voluminous dressing gown hid rather more of her person than any morning dress of hers ever had.
"You may go, Ruth," she said to her maid. Unhurriedly, the lady's maid finished her work and handed Sarah's nightcap to her. She then dropped George a curtsey, and went out of the room.
"By tomorrow morning everyone in the house will know you came to see me," Sarah said calmly.
"If it comes to that, I don't think it will take even that long," George agreed. "Let us say within the next half hour each and every servant will know I am here. They'll probably think about what we might be doing, and come to false conclusions in nine cases out of ten."
"How am I to face any of them tomorrow?" Sarah wondered.
"Do not let your embarrassment show," George recommended. "We won't cause our servants any amusement if we can help it."
"No, certainly not. Though they are not our servants, George."
"That is what I wanted to discuss with you," George said, moving towards one of the chairs by the fireplace. "Come and sit with me by the fire; I do not want you to catch cold. This is going to take some time I am afraid."
Sarah got up from her chair at the dressing table, and did as he had told her. He began, "I think we ought to pack up and leave as quickly as we can."
"This is very much what I thought, too," Sarah admitted. "This house is no longer a place for us."
"No; it is clear that Sir William and Lady Yaxley want us gone," George said. "So we should start our journey to Oxfordshire as soon as possible. How long do you think you will need to be ready?"
"I can be ready by tomorrow," Sarah said quietly. "Ruth can pack up my clothes for me, and I will ask the servants to get my other possessions ready as well. If they cannot get them ready in time for our departure they will be able to send them after us by carrier. To me it looks very much as if we had outstayed our welcome already, and there is no need for us to stay any longer than we must."
George was surprised to find that Sarah did not seem overly attached to Sir George's house and said so.
"I was attached to Sir George," Sarah explained. "Not to this place. Now that he is gone there is no reason why I should remain here. If Sir William and his wife had made me feel welcome, I would have stayed longer, but affairs being as they are I think the sooner we leave the better it will be."
"Will you ask Mrs Simmonds to come with us?"
"I already have; I do not want to leave her behind. She has accepted the invitation and will be ready when we are."
"Fine. Then maybe we should start our journey the day after tomorrow," George decided. "If we leave tomorrow, it will look as if we are running away. The day after tomorrow will still give rise to comment, but at least our departure will not be quite as hasty as that."
"Very well. I will tell Ruth so first thing tomorrow morning. Was there anything else you wanted to talk about?"
"Well, yes," George said after a moment's hesitation. "We have not had the time to talk - properly talk - since Sir George passed away. How are you?"
Sarah sighed. "Rather better than I thought I would," she admitted. "And feeling immensely guilty because of it. What about you?"
"Very much the same," George told her. "Although the truth is just beginning to sink in; I am just beginning to realise that I will never see Sir George again in this world. It will take me a while to fully realise what losing him means, I think. Sir George was the one who made me feel as if I was special, as if I was a human being worthy of attention, which is a thing none of my parents ever did - they never bothered much with their youngest son. I will miss that."
"You are worthy of attention," Sarah cried indignantly. "Everyone is! I do not know any of your brothers yet but how you can think you are inferior to any of them is a mystery to me! No doubt they are good, respectable men, and there is nothing to be said against them, but then the same goes for you."
"Thank you," George said lightly, becoming aware of how much this compliment pleased him. It was a good thing to have a wife who had a good opinion of him. He would have to make an effort to keep things that way; to live up to her expectations. He might not always succeed, but he certainly ought to make the attempt.
"No need to thank me," Sarah said. "Did your father offer your brothers more support than he did to you?"
"I cannot say he did," George replied. "He was just there, but he never took any interest in any of us I think. Maybe Henry, the eldest - he was the one to inherit the family estate, so it was necessary for him to learn everything pertaining to its management, and this was why he was made to spend more time with my father than the rest of us. But I do not know if he particularly enjoyed that. It did not look as if he was on better terms with him than the rest of us."
"At least you had brothers," Sarah said. "I always wanted an older brother, but if you asked me why I do not think I could give you an answer to that. It was just a feeling that I would like having one."
George laughed. "I have six of them, and believe me having to grow up with them was not always fun! What a nuisance they could be on occasion! Being the youngest I had to fight to win their respect, and I am not sure if I have gained it even now. Of course things get better as one grows older, one becomes more mature and the petty rivalry of childhood is more or less forgotten but some things never change. I do not think you would have liked having an older brother; he would have ignored you at best and teased and terrorised you at worst. Boys are like that. They don't like little girls tagging after them."
"How do you know? You never had a sister!"
"No; but there were a couple of girls living in the neighbourhood, and sometimes we had to play with them. We hated that; it was so dull - they never wanted to do the things we liked! Ask an eight-year-old boy to play with your dolls and see how he likes that!"
Sarah laughed. "Poor you!"
"Poor me indeed, because since I was the youngest I was the one my brothers decided to sacrifice for the greater good of all. In other words, I was bullied into staying and playing with the dolls while they invaded our neighbour's orchard to sample his apples." George grinned. "I will say this for my father; he was fair. I was the only one who did not receive a thrashing that night. He must have had quite an exhausting evening."
"How did he find out?"
"The gardener saw them, naturally, and our neighbour complained, so they were in trouble. Later I was in trouble with my brothers because I had not got in trouble with my father."
"At least you had brothers to get in trouble with," Sarah said. "You must have had some fun, sometimes."
"Occasionally, yes," George said. "But more often they were just a pain in the neck. Some of them more so than others, but all of them at times."
He rose from his chair. "You should go to bed and get some sleep now. I'll go to the village tomorrow morning to order a chaise for us to travel in, and get a carrier to pick up those of your trunks you do not need immediately. Good night, and sweet dreams."
Almost as an afterthought, he bent down and dropped a light kiss on the top of his wife's head before he left the room. It was what a good husband did, and since he'd decided to make an effort to live up to Sarah's expectations he'd better go about it properly.
Sarah went across the room to her bed, somewhat dazed. Her husband had kissed her, and although it was not what one might call a proper kiss - a kiss a man might give his wife - it had been a kiss all the same. The kind of kiss a young man would give his sister, probably, which was not promising at all, and she knew she ought not to get her hopes up. He was being kind, that was all, and she should not put too much meaning into it. But that kiss, fleeting though it had been, had been enough to make her dream. There was nothing wrong in thinking what would happen if … though, to say the truth, she did not yet feel ready for what if, and was glad that George had made it clear to her that she had all the time in the world. Yes, she was glad.
Years ago, when the late Mr Wallis and his wife had returned from India, they had bought extensive property in Oxfordshire and, since the old dwelling on their newly acquired land was no longer habitable due to decades of neglect, had it pulled down and built a new one. Since they had both been charmed with medieval architecture, however, the house had a distinct similarity to its predecessor, for it had been built in the Gothic style, complete with huge arched windows and vaulted and stuccoed ceilings.
Luckily, George thought as his bride showed him around, they had not extended their love of Gothic buildings to furnishing the house in the same style. There was no dark oak wainscoting, and no tapestries lined the walls. The rooms were light and airy, and pleasant enough. He could see why Sarah was fond of Drayton House, even apart from the fact that she had spent most of her childhood here. There were some mementoes of the Wallis' stay in India too, there were statues and works of art, and the silk upholstery in the front drawing room made George almost fancy himself in an Oriental palace.
A skeleton staff had stayed at the house at all times, simply to make sure that it was well looked after and kept its value. Sir George had insisted on that. There was a housekeeper and several maidservants, as well as grooms and stableboys - Mr Wallis' stables had quickly earned fame for the high quality of the horses he bred. There was also a butler, and a steward who managed the estate.
George had made use of his trip to Waltham village the previous day and not only ordered a chaise that was to convey him, his wife and Mrs Simmonds - whose position in their new household was yet to be determined - to Oxfordshire. He had also sent an express to Drayton House to inform the housekeeper of their imminent arrival, and was satisfied to find that the housekeeper had received it in time to make the principal bedrooms as well as the drawing room, dining room and library habitable. She was even able to offer them a tolerable dinner, but she made it clear that although she had no objections to filling in in an emergency, her new master and mistress should not make a habit of expecting her to do the cooking.
Sarah, who by now was quite adept at soothing ruffled feathers, promised to write a letter to one of the London agencies the next morning to make sure they soon had a cook, unless Mrs Grey could recommend someone local to fill the post?
"For, you see, it will take some time for a London cook to arrive here," she said, quite sensibly, George thought. "If you know someone who is willing to work as a cook here and who will do so for reasonable wages, you may send for her and we will spare ourselves the trouble of having to deal with a London servant whom nobody knows and who may fit in with the rest of the household or or not."
Mrs Grey agreed, and told Sarah that she would consider the matter.
"She is just biding her time," Sarah said when the housekeeper had left them. "Mrs Grey is an excellent housekeeper, and I'll lay you any odds she already has someone in mind. If I did send a letter to London she would be offended!" George, who had observed her conference with the housekeeper with some respect - for in his eyes Mrs Grey appeared to be a formidable character - merely nodded. Sarah might look like a girl not yet out of the school room, but she certainly behaved like a grown woman; very much the mistress of her own home.
George liked his room. He was to have the master bedroom, the best bedroom in the house, which was connected with Sarah's bedroom via two adjoining dressing rooms. A huge bay window overlooking the lawn and the nearby forest supplied it with plenty of light; the fire crackling in the large fireplace gave a cosy feel to it, and the large four poster bed looked comfortable. A small recess in the wall hid a bookshelf with a collection of books, and a comfortable- looking chair in the bay window bore witness to his father-in-law's habit of reading in his bedroom. On the walls, several paintings of tropical forests and exotic landscapes reminded George of where Mr Wallis' - and therefore Sarah's - wealth had come from. The dressing room, though rather small, was enough for George's requirements. There was a small fireplace, several wardrobes and chests of drawers to house George's clothes and linen, and a dressing table by the window, which overlooked the same scenery as that of George's bedroom.
The dining room had a vaulted, stuccoed ceiling, which would have given it the air of a medieval refectory if it had not been for the fact that the walls were painted red. The paintings on the wall were portraits of family members, Sarah told him. There was even one of herself as a little girl; one of her mother, her father and her grandparents. Again, there were large windows overlooking the garden and curtains which, Sarah knew, had come to England all the way from India. So had some of the silverware on the buffet table, and the carpets on the floor. They were pure silk, Sarah told him, and had been made in India as well. George wondered what those carpets alone must have cost, but made no comment. His father-in-law, it seemed, had not only been a wealthy man but also one who had had no problem with displaying his wealth. But in spite of all this ostentation, whoever had furnished the house had not lacked taste. While some things might take some getting used to, the overall impression was not overwhelming. First and foremost, Drayton House was a family home and not a show-piece like some other places George could have named.
After dinner they spent the evening in the drawing room, the ladies working on their stitchery and George, lacking other employment and not feeling like spending the evening in the library on his own, reading to them. Mrs Simmonds had given him the book, and it was well enough, he thought, though it was not of the kind he would have chosen for himself. As far as he could tell it was about a pair of sisters; the elder much more sensible than could be expected of a girl her age, and the younger sillier than most girls at seventeen were. Sarah certainly wasn't, thank God. But both Mrs Simmonds and Sarah appeared to enjoy the story, and so he forbore to comment and read on. Thus, the evening passed quite pleasantly. Only when the ladies retired he went to the library, where he had a fright, for he had quite forgotten about the enormous tiger coat on the floor in front of the fireplace, with the head of the animal still attached. The sight of those huge, sharp teeth and the glassy eyes which glinted maliciously in the firelight was enough to give George a disgust of the library, and he decided to go to bed as well and to demand that the tiger be taken away the next day. He feared he was not going to get used to having that fierce animal stare at him whenever he entered the library; and although he was not much of a reader he felt he would need a retreat at times.
Not that his young wife was giving him much trouble so far. She was making an effort to please him, he thought, agreeing to everything he said, and catering to his ego whenever she could.
She even readily assented to his wish of having the tiger removed from the library, loyally informing him that she had never really liked having it there.
"As a child I was terrified of it," she confessed. "For Papa told me that Raj was a man-eater and lived on people who entered the library unbidden."
"An excellent way of keeping out nosy little girls, eh?" George laughed.
"I never even walked past the library door if I could help it. I always feared the tiger was lurking behind that door and would eat me if I didn't take care."
"It does look as if it was lurking, does it not?" George agreed. "We'll put it into the attic until I feel the necessity of keeping little girls out of my sight; it can lurk in the attics for as long as it likes. - Your father gave it a name?"
"Yes, Raj means king. Papa said it was a fitting name for such a magnificent creature. Tigers are magnificent, though I cannot but feel that they are so in the way about the house!"
"Indeed they are! I'd rather have a carpet instead; I needn't fear a carpet might devour me any moment."
After breakfast he strolled over to the stables to inspect the horses. The stud farm contributed a large sum to Sarah's income, and although George did not know much about business in general he did know a thing or two about horseflesh. His father-in-law had chosen well when buying horseflesh and, as the head groom told him, had been lucky in his breeding programme. Some of the horses from the stable had fetched very tidy sums and done well at the races the head groom told George, not without pride. All the while George suspected that he was being weighed up but, by the time his interview with the head groom came to an end, he felt that he had not been found wanting. With that part of his wife's establishment, he felt, there would be no trouble. The grooms and stable boys took enormous pride in their occupation, and would continue to do good work - not because they wanted to oblige their mistress or their new master but because they owed it to their own reputation. They had also recognised him as a man who could tell that they were doing their jobs properly, and if they had not yet accepted him as their master they soon would, George hoped. It probably helped that they fully approved of the horses George had brought with him, and were well on the way of acknowledging George's groom as an equal in their midst.
Back in the house, he found two gardener's boys carrying Raj out of the library, followed by Mrs Grey overseeing their work. She applauded the notion of finally getting rid of that "great, troublesome thing", which had done nothing but frighten the housemaids and collect dust; as she took leave to inform George.
"I know Miss Sarah - Mrs Edenthorpe, I mean - was never fond of it, but Mr Wallis was. He used to be very proud of it, for it must be very difficult to shoot such a dangerous beast, but why it should be allowed into the house I really could not say. Not that I will say anything against Mr Wallis, for a kinder and more generous gentleman has never lived I am sure!"
While George did not think a kind man would have frightened his daughter with tales of man-eating tigers - not in England, at any rate, where she was unlikely to come across such an animal - he did not say so. It was only natural that the late Mr Wallis' servants would speak well of him; they expected to remain in his daughter's employment. No servant who spoke ill of their employer to their betters would remain in a household for long.
George sat down at the desk and wrote letters to his mother and his brothers, informing them of his new address and, in the cases of those currently living overseas, of his recent marriage as well. He could not help grinning as he pictured their surprise at receiving that piece of news; they had known, after all, that he had not felt any inclination towards marriage. This had been just as well because no woman had ever felt any inclination to marry him.
He had only just finished his letter to his mother when there was a knock at the door and the butler came in.
"Mr Edenthorpe, Mr Marshall is waiting in the hall and respectfully asks for a few minutes of your time."
"And who is Mr Marshall?" George asked.
"Mr Wallis' steward, sir. He has been in charge of Mr Wallis' estate for years, and was hoping to make himself known to you, although he is aware that it would be more proper of him to wait until you sent for him."
"Is it an important matter?"
"Mr Marshall did not go so far as to confide in me, sir," the butler said woodenly.
Since he had nothing much to do now that his letters were written, George thought, he might as well see the steward, and so he asked the butler to show the man in.
Mr Marshall was a man considerably older than George; he imagined him to be in his late forties or early fifties. He had a brisk, businesslike manner, but nevertheless there was something likeable about him George thought. Marshall did not beat about the bush, but after having introduced himself and congratulating George on his marriage he immediately launched into a description of matters that needed to be seen to.
"I realise you are not acquainted with how things are run here, sir," he said, "but I presume you will want me to give you an exact account, which I will be able to give you in a couple of days. If Sir George Yaxley had let me know in time that he was going to pass the responsibility for the Drayton estate into your hands, I would have had everything ready for you to inspect upon your arrival, but as things are the preparation of the inventory will take a while."
George assured the steward that he did not expect him to give him an account any time soon; that the place looked like a well-run estate, and that there was no hurry.
"I am not going to meddle until I know how matters stand," he told Marshall, "for it would be an act of gross impertinence if I did. You know best how to go along, having been in charge of the estate for such a long time, and I hope you will continue your good work. I was not brought up to manage an estate and know next to nothing about it, though I am not unwilling to learn what I must know."
His frankness, he saw, appeared to please the steward, who promised that he would endeavour to justify the trust his new master placed in him, and that he would consider it an honour if he was permitted to teach Mr Edenthorpe anything he wished to know about estate management.
After Marshall had left, George got up from the desk - maybe, he thought, it had been a good thing he had been sitting there, for it had made Marshall think he was a hard-working man. Well, he was a hard-working man, though he had said nothing but the truth when he had told Marshall that he knew nothing about the management of an estate. As the youngest of seven, no one had seriously expected him to learn it. No one would have been more surprised - amused, even - than his parents, if anyone had told them that their youngest son would marry the heiress of what was by all appearances a thriving estate. The best match they'd hoped for had been the younger daughter of a peer with a respectable portion - Lady Penelope Burton sprang to mind. George shuddered. At least he had been spared that. Now he was married to a seventeen-year-old, had an income of some fifteen thousand a year from her fortune invested in the Funds alone, and on top of it all it seemed as if he was supposed to take care of her estate too. Sir George ought to have warned him of what was expected of him once he was married. With a deep sigh, he sat down in the easy chair next to the fireplace - which was now no longer in the vicinity of a tiger's threatening jaws - and considered his options.
The Dowager Baroness Edenthorpe put her son's letter announcing his marriage aside and looked at her daughter-in-law.
"You have acquired a new sister," she announced.
"We knew as much, did we not?" the younger Lady Edenthorpe replied calmly. "The news ought not to surprise us."
"Well, yes," the dowager conceded. "Septimus told us that he was in a hurry to be married when he was in London - he was here to get the special licence, so it was not as if he was keeping quiet about his intentions. I wonder what kind of girl she is. Maybe I should go to this place in Oxfordshire and have a look at her."
Her daughter-in-law, although unfailingly polite whenever she was conversing with the Dowager, was horrified at the suggestion. "I am not sure it would be advisable," she ventured.
"Why ever not? The poor young thing will need a female to advise her!"
"The poor young thing is enjoying her honeymoon at the moment," the younger woman pointed out. "You did not come with Henry and me on our honeymoon." God be thanked for that, she added silently. She was truly fond of her mother-in-law, but the thought of having to face that stern countenance at the breakfast table the morning after her wedding night was enough to make her blood run cold.
"She has her governess with her, according to Septimus," the dowager insisted.
"Then she already has a female to advise her, ma'am."
"Are you not at all curious to meet her, Helena?" her ladyship demanded.
"I am very curious, but I depend on seeing George and his young wife at our Christmas house party, and I am sure I will make her acquaintance then. It will be the proper occasion for her to meet her new family, would you not agree?"
Grudgingly, her ladyship had to admit that the traditional Christmas house party of the Edenthorpes would be a fitting occasion for her youngest son's bride to become acquainted with his relatives.
"It will be quite overwhelming for her, the poor girl," she remarked. "Meeting all our relatives, all of them at once! Oh dear! She will wish she had never married Septimus!"
"If she only wishes so because she is overwhelmed by a bevy of relatives most of whom she will not meet again in a hurry it will be well enough, for she won't have to face them every day. She will reconcile herself to having a large family, I am sure, even though it is not at all what she is used to. Maybe she will even enjoy this new experience." As usual,the Dowager thought, dear Helena was right.
With one exception, George and Sarah's honeymoon was just as one might expect a honeymoon to be. They spent a great deal of time together; probably more than they ever would as their marriage continued. They rode out together every morning, for that was the one interest they appeared to have in common; which was why George was determined to cultivate it. He then retired to the library in the company of Mr Marshall, the steward, to learn everything there was to know about the Drayton estate and its management. Marshall was a sensible and honest man, and George soon took a strong liking to him. It was for his sake as well as Sarah's that he worked hard to learn something that he had never even thought about in his life so far, and Marshall had some reason to be satisfied with his pupil's progress.
Having finished his daily tasks in the library, George usually went to the drawing room where Sarah was working on some needlework or other, or practising her music, or writing letters. The notice of their marriage had by now been published in all the proper papers, and together they answered such letters of congratulations as arrived from family friends and relatives. Their reactions ranged from surprise to delight to - in one case - disbelief and reproach. This was from a former friend of Mr Wallis', who had had some hope that his son and Wallis' daughter would, one day, make a match of it. As Sarah read that letter, George was privileged to witness a temper tantrum of hers for the first time. He had already become acquainted with her amiable and even-tempered self, and his surprise was great when he suddenly saw her flare up - and in his defence too.
"How can Sir John say such terrible things!" she cried, flinging the letter down on the table and rising from her chair with a violence that nearly sent her chair crashing to the floor.
"Sir John Adams, a friend of my father's - I thought," Sarah said bitterly. "He writes you only married me for my money, and he hopes I will not live to regret this step I've taken. He says he always knew Sir George Yaxley would only serve his own interests and fob me off on one of his protégés to make sure they got their hands on my fortune." She burst into angry tears.
For a moment, George stood by helplessly, then he put his arm round Sarah's shoulder and pulled her towards him.
"He is certainly very outspoken," he said quietly, "but then I am afraid there are many people who will think like him."
"Is it so impossible that a girl with a large fortune should get a husband who cares for her?" Sarah cried.
"Not at all impossible," George said soothingly. "But people being people they take their own standards to measure others. You see, people who would be willing to marry anyone as long as she had a large fortune will think it quite likely that others would do the same. For the same reason rakes make the strictest fathers; they expect everyone to be as depraved as they are and want to keep their daughters safe from such men as they are themselves. Don't mind Sir John Adams. We don't need his approval, do we?"
"But I do not want people to think ill of you!" Sarah cried. "You don't deserve that!"
"There will always be people who will dislike me, or who may be thinking ill of me for one reason or another," George replied. "There will be times, I am afraid, when even you will do so. We will just have to learn to live with that, or we will never be happy."
"I might find it easier to accept if I did not know that Sir John wanted me to marry his son, only I would never have done so! I hate Colin Adams; I'd sooner marry a rat!"
"Thank you," George said dryly.
"I never said I would marry a rat sooner than you," Sarah argued, pulling a handkerchief from her pocket and drying her tears. "Whenever I met Colin, which sometimes happened when we were children and Papa had invited the Adamses to stay with us, he did something dreadful. He used to pull my hair, or hit me, or break my toys - intentionally, too! He tore off the head of one of my dolls and threw it on the dung heap because I did not give him my sugarplums! How could I marry anyone like that?"
"You had much better not," George agreed. "And while I have been quite good at hitting others when I was a boy - some think I still am, by the way - I think I can safely promise that I will never hit you. Or pull your hair, coming to think of it. There is no saying what I might have done when I was, say, ten years old, but one does grow up you know. Colin Adams may have improved."
"Not him," Sarah said darkly. "And I resent Sir John's letter."
"You have every right to resent it. Write back to him and tell him so - or do you want me to do so?"
"No; it will be a pleasure to do it for myself," Sarah said, smiling grimly. "And if I cannot find the right words I will ask Mrs Simmonds for help. She knows how to express her opinions with style."
Not many letters were of a kind that put Sarah into a passion, though. She was genuinely delighted when she received her sister-in-law's letter of congratulations, which included an invitation to the family Christmas at Brook End in Northamptonshire.
"This means they have really accepted me as one of the family," she said ingenuously as they were riding across the countryside one morning.
"Of course they have; why should they not?" George asked.
"Well; they have never met me," Sarah pointed out. "It must be difficult to welcome a woman whom one has never met in one's family."
George laughed. "You appear to have accepted all of my family without having met them either; so why do you think they'd be different?"
"I do not know. Maybe they will think we are not really married…"
"Sarah; they will think no such thing!" George was scandalised. "I was brought up in the proper way; I would not take a seventeen-year-old girl and live with her without marrying her! My mother would not even dare think of such a possibility! The very idea would shock and offend her!"
"That is not what I meant," Sarah said, taking due note of the girl. He did not think of her as a woman yet, she realised.
"What did you mean, then?"
"They may not approve of - our arrangement." Sarah admitted, blushing. George understood. There was, indeed, the possibility of contesting a marriage that had not been consummated, though who would? No one would gain anything by it. Besides, who would know?
"You may rest assured that I have told no one about our arrangement," George informed her.
Mainly, he thought, this was because he was afraid of becoming a laughing stock among his friends if it became known that he had a wife who refused him access to her bed. It was nothing he was particularly proud of or wished to discuss. Not that he wanted to sleep with Sarah - she was a nice enough girl but very young; and he had never been drawn to very young girls. In a year or two, he hoped, this would have changed. Still, he asked her, "Do you want things to change between us?"
Sarah flushed scarlet. "No … not yet," she managed. Not until he realised he'd married a woman and not a girl, she decided for herself.
"There you are, then," George said, somewhat relieved. "Since no one in my family knows anything about it, there is nothing for them to disapprove of. If it makes you feel any better I can sleep in your room while we stay there; to give them the impression …"
"I do not think that will be necessary," Sarah said. "Though you might visit me in my room occasionally."
"To do what, exactly?" George asked.
"I don't know - talk, play chess or checkers or …" She broke off.
George pulled his horse over to hers and took her hand in his. "As you wish," he said, smiling, and then gave her hand a quick kiss before he let it go.
"A race?" he suggested to give her some time to regain her composure. "Across that meadow over there?"
"I would like that," Sarah agreed and spurred her horse into gallop at once.
Every honeymoon must come to an end at one point. In the case of Mr and Mrs George Edenthorpe's it was a letter from London that put an end to it. George was needed at the Home Office again; his leave of absence was almost over and he was expected to be back on duty the following week.
The disappointment in Sarah's face as George read the letter to her was evident; although there was also some pride in her husband who, it seemed, was so important to his superiors that he was practically indispensable.
"So when are you leaving?" she asked him, trying hard to keep her disappointment out of her voice.
"On Thursday, I think," George said. "So I can be in Town by Friday night."
"I wish I could come with you," Sarah said longingly.
"I could take you with me and let you stay with my mother while I find lodgings for us," George suggested. "I am sure she would be delighted to have you with her."
"I cannot possibly descend on Lady Edenthorpe at such short notice!" Sarah protested.
"Are you sure?"
"Then I am afraid there is nothing I can do," George said.
"Will you come to see me sometimes?" Sarah asked.
"If I can get leave of absence again; but I doubt it," George told her. "But I will write. Often."
He was not going to make any promises as to the frequency of his letters, though. He had never been a writing man and so far he had found letter writing a tiresome task. But he would have to write to his wife, there was no getting away from that.
"I will write to you, too," Sarah promised.
"And I will come here and pick you up for the Christmas party at Brook End," he told her. "So that's the latest we will meet again. But you will have Mrs Simmonds for company; so you will not be alone. Bringing her with us was a good notion, wasn't it?"
"No; I won't be alone," Sarah agreed. "And I will have plenty of things to do. If I give you a list of the things I need from London, could you go to the warehouses and get them for me?"
"Why, certainly," George said, guessing that this was what a good husband was supposed to do. "Though I cannot vouch for me getting the right things, or paying the best price for them, knowing nothing of household matters."
"That might be a problem," Sarah admitted. After a short pause during which she appeared to consider the matter, she asked shyly, "Do you think it would be a great bother for your mother if you asked her for advice?"
George, knowing that there was nothing his mother liked better than a shopping spree, told her that her ladyship would not consider it a great bother at all.
"But you must go with her and help her," Sarah said. "I don't want her to think the task has been fobbed off on her, and none of us is willing to do it."
"I will take my mother shopping," George said, grinning. "And never mind, she will like it."
Back in London, George moved into his lodgings in Albany although he knew that this was only a temporary arrangement. He would have to find a house for himself and Sarah to live in, for while she had agreed to his going to town by himself while they had no place to live there together, he was well aware that she would not be put off for long. She had made it quite clear to him that it was her intention to spend the next season in town, and that she expected him to present her to society. Some town bronze might even do her good, George thought, and decided to not only buy the things she had written down on her list - useful household items most of them - but also some fabrics she could use for new clothes, once she had got rid of those blacks she had insisted on wearing even though she had been no close relation of Sir George Yaxley's and not obliged to mourn him. He might also buy her some jewellery, and other things she might like. George remembered that it would be her birthday soon, and that he ought to buy her a proper wedding present too. Perhaps, he thought, he should ask his mother to buy a complete trousseau for Sarah. She would enjoy doing that, and Sarah would love getting so many new things to wear.
Having been away from London for several weeks, George decided to spend his first evening back at the club to meet up with friends and discover the latest news. It turned out that his own marriage still was the biggest piece of news there was - and that many of his friends appeared to take much greater interest in the event than he'd foreseen.
One of the first people he met was Captain Morrison, a former army officer who was in town trying to find lodgings for his family - his wife had a fancy for spending the Little Season in London, he told George. She did not want to go to London for the spring season, for there were people whom she preferred not to meet, but she was looking forward to staying there in autumn, when people of high fashion preferred to stay away from the capital.
"Speaking of wives; what are you doing in town?" Morrison asked, grinning. "Shouldn't you be enjoying your honeymoon?"
"That's what I did, until yesterday," George said. "But I was ordered back to the Home Office, so here I am."
"Did your wife come with you?"
"No; she stayed in the country. We don't have proper lodgings yet; until we do she has decided to remain in Oxfordshire, which is where her father's estate is. She will come with me to the Christmas house party at Brook End, though."
"You never told me how you managed to get out of going to Brook End last year and spend Christmas at my place instead," Morrison laughed.
"Oh, that was easy. My mother was annoyed with me for not making enough of an effort to fix my interest with Lady Penelope, and told me not to come near her until that lady had accepted my suit. That's what I did - what I mean is I did not come near my mother until Lady Penelope had accepted Skelling's suit."
For a moment, Morrison's countenance darkened, but his anger was short-lived.
"Let me buy you a drink," he offered, "and tell me all about your fair one. For your sake I hope that she is nothing like the lady your family meant you to marry before." Morrison knew all about Lady Penelope Burton and the hopes George's family had entertained in that direction.
"Nothing like her," George agreed, and added a heart-felt, "Thank God!"
"Where did you meet her?" Morrison asked as they sat down in a quiet corner. "Miss Sarah Wallis - I cannot remember anyone of that name. Not that I am an expert in these matters, but my wife does not remember having met her either."
"None of you have never met her," George said. "She is very young - not quite eighteen yet. I met her at my godfather's place, and it was his wish that we should make a match of it."
"Even though she is so young?"
"He was already very ill when I first met her, and he was anxious that she should have someone to look after her when he was no longer able to do that," George told his friend.
"So it is not a love match," Morrison said. It was not a question but a statement, and honesty compelled George to admit that his marriage was, indeed, not a love match but a marriage of convenience.
"I did not marry her for her money," George added defensively as he saw Morrison's worried expression. "I felt I owed Sir George a favour, and I was feeling sorry for a girl who was going to be left all alone in the world before long. Mind you, she is a good girl; with excellent sense and a good heart. I like her a great deal - I would not have seriously considered marrying her if I had not. But that's all there is to it. As for her, I think she views me as the big brother she never had."
In that, although he did not know it, George was entirely wrong. By now his wife was very much in love with him, although well aware that he did not feel the same way about her. She had been careful not to show her dismay when he had told her that he had to leave; that he had to go to Town. Only her fear of making a nuisance of herself, which she had suffered from ever since she had been obliged to depend on virtual strangers, had kept her from accepting George's offer of taking her with him and leaving her with his mother. What would Lady Edenthorpe have thought of her if she had accepted it?
And so she had stayed behind, hoping that George would not forget all about her the moment he returned to the capital and all the entertainment it had to offer, and that he would return to her sooner than he'd promised. She knew her hopes to be far-fetched, but she could not help wishing he would come back to see her - on her birthday, at least. She fervently hoped he would remember her birthday.
In the meantime she resolved to do just what every good wife did - make her home a place her husband liked coming back to. Sarah knew that Mrs Simmonds suspected how she was feeling, but refrained from confiding in her. This was a matter between her and George; Mrs Simmonds did not need to know anything about it. She did not even want George to know anything about it - not yet. Not until she could be fairly certain about how he felt about her; whether there was any chance of him returning her feelings for him - one day, when she was older and more attractive and everything a husband could wish for.
She spent her days improving the house, instructing the new servants in their duty, and to the surprise of her father's old housekeeper she turned out to be not only an exacting employer but also one who knew what was what. The better things worked and the more respect Sarah received from her servants, the more confident she became.
Mrs Simmonds, torn between satisfaction and amusement, watched as her former pupil grew into a young woman to be reckoned with. She had never been like this in Sir George Yaxley's household even though she had been in charge there, but then Miss Wallis had been living in her guardian's house, not her husband's. Now Mrs Edenthorpe was living in an establishment of her own and appeared to be enjoying every minute of it. The only thing that put a damper on Mrs Edenthorpe's spirits, Mrs Simmonds thought, was her husband's absence. Like her former charge she hoped that Mr Edenthorpe would not stay in town for too long; that he would remember that he had a wife and not allow himself to be distracted by the amusements Town had to offer him. She hoped Mr Edenthorpe would learn to appreciate and maybe even love his wife; Mrs Edenthorpe was such a loveable creature! Mr Edenthorpe was not the cleverest of men, but he was reasonable enough she thought. He would realise what a treasure he had obtained by marriage - worth a thousand times more than the fortune she had brought him. If he did not … but that thought did not bear thinking about. No; he would learn to appreciate his wife. He simply had to, for if he did not Mrs Simmonds would never stop blaming herself.
George, having sent a note to his mother informing her of his arrival in Town and his intention to call on her, received a reply by return of post which told him that she was eagerly awaiting his visit. There was a look of smug satisfaction on the Dowager's face, George thought as he was ushered into her morning room. George did not know whether he had done anything to cause that expression, but when his mother congratulated him on his marriage and told him how pleased she was that he had finally settled down and married - and such an eligible bride, too! - he realised that, for once, he had gained her approval. She even appeared to have forgiven him for having married in such a hurry, he thought with some feeling of relief.
"Where is your wife?" she demanded, having exchanged the necessary civilities with her son. "Did you not bring her to town with you?"
"I wanted to, but until I have found a suitable house for her she will not come," George said.
"Oh! A demanding young chit, then!"
"Not at all; I told her she could come with me and stay with you until I had found something suitable but she did not want that; she said she did not want to descend on you without warning."
"How kind of her! But quite unnecessary; I would have been delighted to take her in and become acquainted with her!"
"I told her so, ma'am, but she felt it was not proper."
The Dowager Baroness snorted. "What is more proper than visiting one's mother-in-law?"
"Perhaps if you invited her, ma'am, she would come," George suggested.
"Do you want her to come?"
"That is not for me to decide," George replied.
"Of course it is; she is your wife and will do as she is bid!"
That was probably the truth, George considered, but he did not want Sarah to do anything just because it was what he wished. She ought to think for herself; he did not want a wife who put the responsibility for everything she did on his shoulders. Sarah was young, but she did not lack sense. She could well decide for herself.
"We will come to Brook End together," he merely said. "She is very much looking forward to that."
"So are we. Your brother Reginald may be with us this year - he wrote me a letter telling me that he may be able to obtain leave of absence, in which case he would like to spend Christmas at home."
"That's good news," George said. He had not seen his brother Reggie for years. "What about Joseph? Will he come too?"
"I am afraid he cannot be spared," her ladyship said. There was an undertone of pride in her voice; Joseph was the one of George's brothers most likely to rise to the top of his profession. He was hard-working and keen, and would not rest until he was a general, George thought; provided he took care not to be killed before that.
"I have come here on a commission," George finally told his mother.
"Indeed? What can I do for you?" her ladyship asked.
"Sarah has asked me to buy some things for our house, and I wanted to ask you to assist me. You know I know nothing about these things - I depend on you to show me the items Sarah wants to have, and tell me where to buy them."
"But certainly," Lady Edenthorpe cried. "You have done the right thing in coming to me; I'd lay you any odds you'd be cheated if you ventured on such a mission by yourself."
"Mind you; it is not that the house is ill equipped or anything; I wonder what it can be that she wants - it looked perfectly fine to me!" George said, feeling that he ought to defend his new home.
"Every housewife wants her house to reflect her own taste," Lady Edenthorpe replied. "And there may be some old household items she may want to replace with new ones. What does she need?"
George handed his mother Sarah's list. She opened it, and read it. "A good, neat hand," she commented. "Did your wife write it or that governess of hers?"
"Sarah did," George said, not without pride. "Her handwriting is rather neat, is it not?"
"She also appears to know a thing or two about housekeeping," his mother told him, critically studying the list. "I am quite pleased with her, even though I have not yet met her!"
"She will be glad to hear that," George said, smiling. He was surprised to find that he was proud of Sarah. His mother's praise, moderate though it was, pleased him to no end, and he was going to pass it on to Sarah in his letter which he was going to write to her that night. Coming to think of it he missed her.
"I also want to buy a birthday present for Sarah - she will turn eighteen at Michaelmas - and I don't quite know what to give her. I'll need you to advise me regarding fashion - you are always so well dressed! I thought I'd buy her a trousseau; she has not had time to buy any clothes before we married."
"The poor thing! It's just as I had feared! What a shabby affair this wedding has been!" his mother cried. "Quite ill-managed! My dear boy, you ought to have brought her to town with you when you came for that wedding licence; I would have seen to it that she has everything she needs! Why, I'd never have thought it of you - or Sir George!"
"She did not complain," George defended himself.
"Of course she did not! The poor dear! But that is men all over! You never see anything that does not hit you full in the face - not even your poor father, may he rest in peace, was any different. I never got anywhere with a mere hint if I wanted him to do anything for me. My dear boy, you will have to learn to read the signs or your wife will be quite unhappy!"
"I will make an effort," George promised. As it seemed, his mother had already taken Sarah under her wings - as she had done with all her daughters-in-law so far, probably because they were the daughters she had never had. Sarah would be in good hands with her, he knew.
"Oh, Mrs Simmonds, come here and look!" Sarah cried as the first batch of parcels arrived in Drayton House, about a week after George had left. They did not contain, as she had expected, such necessities as new curtains for the guest room windows or the kitchen copperware she had meant to buy. They were meant to be, as George had told her in his letter, both her wedding gifts and bridal trousseau.
My mother has given me one of her scolds for not taking you to town with me before we were married, he wrote. She told me in no uncertain terms that the wedding was a dreadfully mismanaged affair, and that a bride who has not had the pleasure of shopping for a trousseau has every reason to be severely put out. I shall not risk this, and have therefore set about buying such things as are a necessary part of a bride's equipment; with the able assistance of her ladyship who sends her kind regards. You have taken her by storm, and it has already become quite clear to me that in her eyes you will never be able to do wrong. Heaven help me if you are not happy; my mother acting as an avenging angel is a terrifying thought.
Carefully, Sarah unpacked the parcels, and marvelled at the treasures that came to light. There was material for at least fifteen dresses; both morning gowns and evening attire which she decided to have made up in time for the Christmas house party. There was some of the finest linen; silk stockings and gloves; two gorgeous paisley shawls and some dove-grey kerseymere that would make a fine pelisse. There were ribbons and lace for delicate trimmings, shoe roses and fans, and, at the bottom of the largest crate, two small rectangular boxes which, upon closer examination, turned out to be jewellery boxes.
"Good heavens," Sarah breathed as she saw the contents of the first box. It was a beautiful pearl necklace, with a matching bracelet and earrings. Not even among her mother's jewellery, which was a class of its own, had Sarah ever seen anything like it, or so she felt. There was a pair of mother-of-pearl combs that would look beautiful in her hair, Sarah hoped.
But magnificent though the pearl set might be, she loved the contents of the other box even more. There was a gold ring in it, and a locket on a chain. Sarah took out the locket and opened it, and found that it contained an ivory portrait of her husband. Sarah did not know if George had had it made especially for her, but she hoped he had.
"I think I'll put this on at once," she decided, and asked Mrs Simmonds to assist her. "Does it suit me?" she asked breathlessly.
"It looks very pretty," Mrs Simmonds assured her. Sarah, wanting to know for certain, hurried to the mirror that was above the fireplace and took a critical look at herself.
"It does not match that old gown," she said. "I will have to take these fabrics to Wallingford to have them made up as quickly as possible. Will you ring for Mrs Grey, Mrs Simmonds? I must ask her if my mother's old dressmaker is still around."
Since that turned out to be the case, Sarah carefully packed up the bales of fabric that her husband had sent her from London and, with Mrs Simmonds in attendance, she went to Wallingford to visit Mrs Mason's shop. Mrs Mason had once been employed as a personal maid to a grand lady, and upon having saved enough money to start her own business she had set up a shop in Wallingford. She was a first-rate dressmaker and, even though her premises were not in London, she was always well informed as to what the latest fashion was. Sarah's mother had had her dresses made there, and although Sarah did not remember much about her mother - she had been very young when her mother had passed away - she did remember how pretty and elegant she had always looked. If only, Sarah thought wistfully, she could be as pretty and elegant as her, but misfortune would have it that she had taken after her father, as far as looks were concerned. She'd never be able to hold a candle to her mother's beauty.
With the help of the latest fashion plates and Mrs Mason's unerring eye for style, Sarah chose the dresses she wanted to have, had her measurements taken and then returned home in the safe knowledge that by the time they travelled to Brook End her husband need not blush for her appearance. Her dressmaker might not be one of the fashionable modistes in London, but she certainly knew how to make pretty dresses.
"Do you think I ought to do something about my hair?" Sarah asked her companion that evening.
"What is wrong with your hair, Mrs Edenthorpe?" Mrs Simmonds inquired.
"Where shall I start?" Sarah complained. "No matter what I do to it, it never does what I want! If I curl it, the curls will be gone in less than half an hour. If I want it to be sleek and tidy, I can depend on it curling in the most impossible places! The colour is quite unremarkable - in short, my hair is not at all beautiful!"
"I have always thought you had beautiful hair," Mrs Simmonds reassured her. "I have often envied you its texture and thickness. I wish I had anything like it!"
"I have been wondering if I should have my hair cut," Sarah confessed. "I quite liked that hairstyle I saw in that fashion plate - the one with the blue dress."
The fashion plate in question had shown a mother and her small son, the mother wearing a blue and white morning dress - which Sarah had immediately taken a fancy to, and which, in consequence, she had ordered at Mrs Mason's.
Mrs Simmonds thought for a moment. "Do you think your husband would like you having your hair cut?" she asked.
"To say the truth I don't think he would care one way or another," Sarah said glumly. "I am afraid he would not even notice. If I was prettier he might."
Mrs Simmonds began to understand what her employer's problem was.
"Maybe," she suggested, "in that case you should please yourself. You are pretty, Mrs Edenthorpe, but if you do not feel pretty no one will ever notice. If you behave like a plain girl, everyone will treat you like one. So if there is anything you can do to make yourself feel better I'd say you should do it. Is there a hairdresser in Wallingford whom you would trust with your hair?"
"No," Sarah admitted. "But if I show Perkins that print she could cut my hair in that style. She is rather good at this."
Mrs Simmonds was not certain whether a lady's maid - no matter how skilled she was - could match the expertise of a fashionable London coiffeur but did not say so. It was true that Perkins could cut a lady's hair pretty well, and if Mrs Edenthorpe wanted to change her hairstyle it was none of her business. It was, after all, a laudable intention to smarten up one's looks in order to impress one's husband. She had been known to do the same thing. Mrs Simmonds sighed, and returned her attention to her embroidery.
Although George enjoyed being back in town there was this nagging feeling at the back of his mind that kept telling him he ought to be with Sarah. He had promised to look after her; yet here he was in town living a life not much different to the one he'd led as a bachelor and neglecting his wife's affairs. He did take care to keep his spending strictly within his means; he was not going to live on Sarah's money unless he had to. But he knew that there was work to be done in Drayton, that Sarah was depending on him to manage her property, and that the master's absence was never a good thing for an estate. George's father had often told him not to trust servants in money matters - or at least not to trust them without maintaining a healthy dose of scepticism. To keep one's eyes on one's own business interests was essential. To protect the interests of one whom one had vowed to cherish and protect before God and the world in general was more than that - it was a moral obligation, and George felt that he would not be able to look himself in the face any more if he did not at least make an effort to do so.
Mr Marshall was certainly a very competent man and would be able to deal with day-to-day matters without George's interference. In fact, George thought wryly, he would probably cope much better without him. George was well aware that there was nothing he could do that Marshall could not do better. But he ought to be there. He ought to be on hand if Marshall needed to ask his opinion of things to be done or investments to be made. He ought to deal with the tenants. And he ought to be with his wife. So, one evening when he met his eldest brother at White's, he decided to ask Henry for advice.
His lordship willingly followed George to the library where they could talk in private. He listened to George's explanations, and then thought for a while.
"Before I got married," George said, "I thought I could live on my own salary and leave Sarah's money to her. If I give up that post at the Home Office I will have to live on her income. I don't like the idea of being a kept man."
"Don't talk nonsense," Henry said. "A kept man indeed! You just told me you were going to look after your wife's business matters. If her estate is that large you'll have your hands full. You'll earn every penny you'll spend. Do you think your wife would grudge you the money you need for your own expenses?"
"Lord, no, she's the most generous creature!"
"Then what is your problem?"
"My pride, I suppose. You know what people think of fortune hunters. I don't want to join their ranks."
Henry laughed. "People will think whatever they like. But you're not a gamester, or a drunkard, or addicted to other expensive pastimes that will make you run through your wife's fortune within a year. You are planning to return to your wife's estate and work for your living. Would a fortune hunter do that?"
"Probably not," George admitted. "So you think I should resign and go back to Oxfordshire?"
"I think you are right when you say that taking care of your wife includes taking care of her property," Henry said. "What's more, you will have children one day - the estate must be kept intact for your heir. You owe it to yourself as well as your family. The decision is yours, of course; you must do what you think right. I, for one, won't think ill of you if you leave the Home Office and take care of your wife's business instead. Nor do I think anyone else will."
And so George wrote his resignation and handed it to his superior the next day, swallowing that old gentleman's sly remarks regarding young men finding their fortunes in marriage with as much grace as he could muster.
He was not going to show the same forbearance when it came to his own family, however, as his brother Reggie was destined to discover. Reggie returned to England to deliver some dispatches, and had been granted a couple of weeks' leave of absence which he was going to spend with his family, whom he had not met for several years. The news of his youngest brother's marriage to an heiress had not yet reached him in Spain, for although George and his mother had written both him and his brother Joseph a letter informing them of the fact it had not arrived in time to reach him before his departure to England.
"So here's the lucky one," Reggie cried as George, as well as the rest of the family, dined at his eldest brother's house. "Admit you've stolen a march on us all! Such a shame it is; for I'm in sore need of a fortune for myself - damme if I'd been here in England I'd have done my utmost to cut you out!"
"If the Army tolerates such vulgarity among its officers maybe it's time you sold out," George said coldly. "This comment was neither intelligent nor original, you know."
"Come now, George," Reggie protested. "Can't you take a joke?"
"Not when it's made at my wife's expense," George replied. "If you go on in that vein I will have to risk annoying my sister-in-law and give you a nosebleed you won't forget in a hurry."
Reggie, well aware of his brother's ability to carry out that plan, apologised and held out his hand. "Friends again?"
"Let's say we are brothers, that should be quite enough," George said grinning.
"Where is your wife?" Reggie asked. "Why can't I meet my new sister?"
"Because she is in the country. You will meet her in Brook End; she'll come to our Christmas house party."
"Of course she will. But why are you hiding her?"
"I am not hiding her. If I was, she would hardly come to Brook End with me. She'll come to town with me in spring, for the season - if I can find a suitable house for us."
"That reminds me, Septimus," the Dowager Baroness said. "There is a charming house in Clarges Street that we must have a look at before we go to Brook End. I think it will suit your purpose quite well, but of course it must be refurbished until you can bring your wife home to it, so you had better make a quick decision."
"You know I trust you implicitly, ma'am," George said. "If the house meets with your approval…."
"Oh no, you shall not get out of it as easily as that!" her ladyship cried. "You will come with me and be taken all over the house - you are the one looking for lodgings, not me!"
"Your son is your son till he takes a wife," Reggie quoted sotto voce. "Unless your name is Edenthorpe."
"Just wait till she tries to marry you off," said George, not without malice. "It's time for Joseph and you to find eligible wives now - I'm settled down, and so is his lordship. Stephen and Oliver have been married for years. John is out of reach. That leaves only you, since Joseph has been prudent enough to remain where Mama cannot get her hands on him."
"You may be right," Reggie agreed, shuddering. "Maybe I should not have come."
"At least you won't have to make up to Lady Penelope Burton. She's off the market, thank God."
"Thank God, indeed. But there won't be any eligible brides in Brook End, will there?"
"I would not depend on it too much," George warned his brother. "Never underestimate my mother when it comes to matchmaking!"
"Have you seen anyone yet?" Sarah asked breathlessly. She had not seen her husband since he had left for Town almost three months ago and was eagerly looking forward to meeting him again. Not even the news that her formidable mother-in-law would be travelling with George and would spend several nights under her roof before they continued the journey to Brook End together had been able to spoil her pleasure at finally having George with her again. She had taken extreme pains with her toilet this morning; she was wearing the blue morning dress that had so charmed her when she had looked at the fashion plate and which, even though she said so herself, made her look quite pretty. Her new haircut, too, had done much to improve her looks she thought. She had cut her hair shorter in front, which had made it easier to curl. So now her face was framed in some highly becoming curls, her dress was fashionable, and she would do her best not to betray her nervousness to her mother in law - or George. She no longer was a chit hardly out of the schoolroom; she was a married woman now, a married woman receiving a guest in her own home, and she would behave like one. George should have no reason to be ashamed of his wife, young though she might be.
But she could not deny that her hair was standing on end at the thought of how her first meeting with her mother-in-law might go wrong. She had personally checked the best guest room to make sure that everything was just as it ought to be - no speck of dust was to draw that redoubtable lady's attention! She had asked George to give her a list of his mother's favourite dishes to make sure her ladyship would enjoy her dinner, which had put George to some trouble because the very idea of his mother having any preferences when it came to food had never even occurred to him.
Since George had not been able to supply what Sarah considered a proper list of the Dowager's favourites she had written to her sister-in-law instead, begging to be forgiven her forwardness in addressing her before they had even made each other's acquaintance, but asking her for any information regarding the Dowager Baroness that might be useful for a hostess wishing to impress her ladyship. Luckily, the younger Lady Edenthorpe had been better informed than Sarah's clueless husband, and had generously shared both recipes and advice with Sarah. Sarah had immediately carried the recipes to her cook and demanded that they should be put to practice at once - nothing could be more disastrous than trying out a new recipe on the day guests were due to arrive, and failing. This was not the time for experiments.
As the carriage drew up in front of the house, Sarah and Mrs Simmonds went into the hallway to receive George and the Dowager. The look of approval in George's eyes as he greeted her was not lost on Sarah, and it made her feel positively elated. Her efforts to improve her looks had been crowned with success, it seemed - George was pleased to see her, and liked what he saw. She hoped her mother-in-law would also approve of her appearance.
Sarah curtseyed as George made the necessary introductions and, quite forgetting the little speech she had made up for the reception of this important guest, merely welcomed her to her home, remarked that her ladyship must be tired, and finally offered to take her to her room where she could refresh herself after her long journey. Sarah hoped it did not sound too involved, but Lady Edenthorpe's smile told her that she must have passed some sort of test.
She had nothing to blush for in her housekeeping, Sarah knew. She had spurred the housemaids on to work hard; the surfaces all over the house were gleaming and so were the windows. There was no speck of dust to be found anywhere; the curtains had been washed and ironed, and the silver polished. Lady Edenthorpe should not think of her as a sloppy housekeeper.
Indeed, Lady Edenthorpe was impressed with her daughter-in-law, as she told her when she returned to the drawing room before dinner.
"This is a beautiful house, my dear," she said. "And very well kept - you have made good use of your time it seems."
"The credit must go to Mrs Simmonds too, at least in part," Sarah replied modestly. "Without her teaching I would never have been able to master this task."
"Your pupil is a rare specimen, Mrs Simmonds - not only putting practice to your teachings but also giving you credit for them."
"I am glad that my teachings have been of use to her," Mrs Simmonds merely remarked.
"But come and sit with me, my dear," Lady Edenthorpe continued, "and tell me all about yourself. I must say you look older than my son has led me to believe - he made it sound as if you were barely out of the schoolroom! Instead I find a fine young lady and excellent housewife with nothing of the schoolgirl about her! I must ask him what he meant by deceiving me so!"
"I must admit that I have made a few changes about my person since my husband left," Sarah said. "When he went away, I was really nothing more than a girl, but with those new clothes - for which I have you to thank, I presume - I may look more like a fashionable lady than I did before."
"I have never had more fun than when I went shopping with Septimus," Lady Edenthorpe told her, with a twinkle of amusement in her eyes. "The poor boy did not know what had hit him! It was quite amusing! But I will have to say this for him - he did not try to get out of it. There he was, tagging along with me and looking decidedly unhappy, but he remained there until the end! His loyalty is his chief virtue; he will never go back on his word, I will say that for him."
"It is one thing I have already discovered about him," Sarah agreed. "It is a highly desirable virtue in a husband, I think."
"Without doubt," Lady Edenthorpe said. "I should not say so, because I am his mother, but he will make you an excellent husband if you let him."
"I would hardly have married him if I did not want him to be my husband," Sarah said.
"My dear; I do not doubt that. But I wanted to tell you that your decision was the right one. You will not regret it. - But now let us talk about yourself! You were born in India, Septimus has told me…"
George did not know whether to be glad or alarmed when he came to the drawing room and found his mother sitting there with his wife and Mrs Simmonds, engaged in a lively conversation and getting along like a house on fire. Sarah was talking about her mother's family, and it seemed as if Lady Edenthorpe knew exactly who they were. She was acquainted with Sarah's maternal grandmother, she said, who had been quite a beauty in her day. She had married an army officer and had followed him to the East Indies, where he had made his fortune.
"That was before my time, of course; I am much younger than her, but she was a friend of one of my sisters' - your Aunt Bradbury, Septimus."
George nodded. His mother looked pleased with her discovery about Sarah's family. Had there been any reservations regarding her birth before there were none now. The butler came in to announce dinner, and George, mindful of his duty, took his mother into the dining room. The table was elegant, and the dishes Sarah's cook had prepared for her ladyship were calculated to please her. George was relieved to find that Sarah had got rid of her extreme shyness - although a new mother-in-law could hardly be more alarming than a future husband. Yet, he still shuddered whenever he remembered his first meeting with her, and was glad he was not going to witness history repeating itself.
She had certainly improved, he thought as he looked at her across the table. There was something girlish about her still, but all in all she was looking more grown up and at ease with herself than she had done before. There was more to it than just the fact that she was older; George knew that. No one could grow up so quickly, whether at seventeen or eighteen. It had to be her clothes, and that new way she had of doing her hair. It was also clear that she was managing her household well; and the knowledge of that seemed to add to her self-esteem, as well it might. Whatever it was, it suited her.
"I like your dress," he told her as he sat down next to her on the drawing room sofa later. "It 's very pretty."
He was not one to make flowery speeches, and he knew that as far as compliments went this was a rather unspectacular one. Nevertheless Sarah was pleased. She gave him a smile and said, "Thank you. I hoped you would like it. You gave it to me."
"I had it made from one of the fabrics you sent me from London," Sarah replied, and quickly touched the locket she was wearing on a chain round her neck. "You also gave me this - it is the most beautiful present anyone ever gave me!"
"Is that so?"
"Yes - it may not be the most costly one, maybe, but it is certainly the one I like best. I'll always cherish it!"
"I am very glad to hear it - I meant to give you something memorable." George smiled. "Not exactly a wedding present, but something to remember me by whenever I am not here with you."
"I will have to get something similar done for you," Sarah decided. "When we get to town. Maybe not a locket on a chain - do gentlemen wear lockets? I have never seen any who did, but then I have not met many gentlemen in my life."
"I do not know about lockets," George reflected. "None of my friends wears any, though the married ones may have portraits of their wives about their person somewhere. I never inquired - it is not the kind of thing to ask one's friends. Speaking of whom, you may expect at least a dozen calls from them and their wives when we get to London. Each of them wants us to dine with them as soon as we are there - the wives, that is. The husbands too, naturally, but it was the wives who issued the invitation in most cases. You will be quite popular."
"We will be quite popular," Sarah replied. "I know very well that I could not be popular at all if you were not. You must tell me all about your friends; I do not want to make a fool of myself when I meet them."
George did tell her about some of his friends then, but later, knowing his mother's predilection for whist, he suggested a game and they spent the rest of the evening playing cards until the tea tray was brought in. The evening passed without Sarah making any embarrassing mistakes in her card game, or spilling tea on anyone's dress. It had been a success, George thought as the ladies retired for the night and he gave Sarah her goodnight kiss on her cheek.
Sarah thought so too. As she was getting ready for bed, she reflected on the day's events and felt that she had done rather well. Lady Edenthorpe, of whom she had been not a little afraid at first, had treated her very kindly and, she thought, had taken a liking to her. George had complimented her on her looks, and had kissed her even - although, she added, quick to make sure that she did not get her hopes up too high, it had been a brotherly kiss. It would take a long time, she was afraid, until she would receive a husband's kiss from him. She would just have to keep trying.
George had asked Sarah to ride out with him before breakfast the next morning as had been their custom during their honeymoon, but when he got out of bed he found that the weather was not at all inviting. It was raining heavily, and although he had no objection to being out of doors in rainy weather during the summer, he was none too keen on doing so in December. So he sent a message to Sarah in which he begged her to keep him company in the library instead, since he had some important news he wanted to share with her.
He had not so far told her that he had resigned his post - he'd felt that the matter had to be talked over rather than written down in one of his hurried letters to his wife. It was probably because he was not much of a letter-writer; he preferred to keep his missives short and to the point, and thought that in this case short and to the point would not do. And so, once they were well supplied with coffee and macaroons to keep them going until breakfast, he said, "There's something I want to tell you, Sarah."
"You said so," she replied, looking at him earnestly. "I hope it has nothing to do with your mother - she seemed quite healthy and happy last night."
"It has nothing at all to do with my mother."
"You are not falling ill, are you?" She looked as if the mere thought terrified her.
George laughed. "I've never felt better," he reassured her. "It's not that either. It is just that I have quit my post at the Home Office. I am not going back to work in January."
"Oh! But why?"
"It's complicated," George said. "I am not sure you will understand my motives, but I will try to explain them anyway. When I took up my position there, it soon became clear to me that this kind of work did not suit me at all. Yet I stayed there because the salary was enough to live on without having to apply to my brother for additional funds. I like to be independent. This was why I kept working at the Home Office even though I found it extremely dull. When we married, I knew that I did not need to go on working there, but I thought I wanted to - if only to keep my pride intact. I … I needed the money to pay for my own expenses; I felt this was what I ought to do in order to be able to look at myself in the mirror without being ashamed of myself. Do you understand that?"
Sarah nodded. "I think I do."
"But then letters from Marshall arrived; he kept asking me about this and that, urging me to make decisions regarding this estate that I could hardly make, not being here to see what it was all about. And that was when I realised that it would not do - that I would have to resign and come back here, to look after your estate properly; that I owed it to you to do so."
"George - I don't want you to make a sacrifice for my sake!" Sarah cried.
"I thought I'd just explained to you that I was never really happy with my work," George said. "So what makes you think I gave up something for your sake?"
"You were talking about your pride just now," Sarah said. "And you said you valued your independence. You said you wanted to have enough money to cover your expenses without having to apply to anyone for help. I did listen to what you were saying!"
George sighed. "So you did, and I know what you mean. But you may rest assured that I do not consider it a hardship at all. There is the money Sir George Yaxley has left me, remember? That will be enough for me to stay independent if I wish. Besides if I take care of your business affairs I will earn my keep, don't you think?"
"Earn your keep!" Sarah cried indignantly. "Who talks in such a way, I wonder? I know I don't! You are welcome to everything I have, and never will you hear a word of reproach from me if you take whatever you want!"
"It seems to me," George said, "that you are none too happy about my having resigned."
"I am happy if you are, George," Sarah said simply.
"Fine!" George said, glad to have the matter settled once and for all. "And now, since we didn't get to talk to each other much last night, will you tell me what you have been up to while I was away?"
After breakfast the Dowager Baroness expressed a fervent wish to be taken all over Drayton House and Sarah, in the safe knowledge that she had nothing to blush for in her housekeeping, was very willing to do so.
She laughed as Sarah showed her into the library and told her the story of Raj, the tiger, whose skin had now found a resting place in the attic. The refurbishments Sarah had undertaken in the house with the help of her husband and mother-in-law, also met with approval.
"You have made good use of your time while your husband was away," the Dowager said.
"I have managed to keep myself tolerably busy," Sarah replied. "There was much to be done. No one has lived here for years, except for a couple of servants who kept things in order."
"I hope you have not been lonely while my son was in town," the Dowager said.
"No, I was not. I did miss him, and if I'd had a choice I'd have preferred him to stay here with me, but I knew that he could not, and tried to make the best of the situation. I had Mrs Simmonds with me, that helped, and I have reacquainted myself with my neighbours. We are quite popular with them, I am happy to say."
"Yes; most of them knew and liked my father, and they have not forgotten him. I am sure I got most of my initial invitations to their houses for his sake, but I am equally sure that I have been invited for my own ever since. - I hope you do not mind, ma'am, but we are going to have some particular friends to dine with us tonight."
"But my dear, I certainly do not mind! This is your home; you may invite whomever you choose whenever you like! Is it going to be a large party?"
"No, just some neighbours. Mr and Mrs Farlow - the vicar of Drayton and his wife; and the Squire and his sister, Mr and Miss Clarence. Miss Clarence is a childhood friend of mine, although she is some six years older than me."
"And still unmarried?"
"She says she will not marry unless her brother marries before her," Sarah said. "For no husband will put up with her staying in her brother's home to keep house for him, and she cannot abandon him. Which, according to Mr Clarence, is nonsense."
"Maybe Miss Clarence is only saying so to hide the fact that she has no suitor," the Dowager said.
"When you see Miss Clarence, ma'am, you will find that there must be plenty of them," Sarah replied. "She does not talk about having any, but it is my belief that such a beautiful and intelligent young lady must have admirers. George agrees with me there."
"Septimus does, does he?"
"Would you prefer me to call him Septimus when you are present?" Sarah asked the Dowager. "Since you seem to prefer that name?"
"No, you need not," the Dowager said. "I know Septimus would not like it if you did, but it is the name his father chose for him, which is why I prefer it. However his wife may call him by the name he wants her to use; I shan't complain. - So this Mr Clarence is a bachelor, is he? Is he older or younger than his sister?"
"Older. He is the same age as George."
"That is odd. A man almost thirty and yet unmarried - a man of means too, if I am not mistaken. What is wrong with him?"
"There is nothing wrong with him as far as I can tell," Sarah said. "In my opinion he is simply very comfortable with his situation and has no intention of changing it. His sister is an excellent hostess and a good housekeeper; why should he put his house in charge of someone who might be her inferior?"
"But there are some aspects of marriage - I need not tell you what they are, my dear - that a sister cannot provide," Lady Edenthorpe remarked.
Sarah flushed. "I have never thought about that," she confessed. "In fact, I am certain that Mr Clarence will marry, once he has found a lady who will suit him - and once he realises that his sister will not always be there to look after him."
"No doubt," Lady Edenthorpe agreed, and followed her daughter-in-law into the still-room.
Again, George was surprised at the changes he perceived in Sarah. She dressed more elegantly - due to the things he'd sent her from London, of course - but that was not the only thing that was different about her. There was also some self-assurance now that she'd been lacking before. He only needed to think of their first meeting to realise that Sarah had come a long way since then. As their dinner guests arrived he again watched her acting as a hostess. Those people were friends of hers - they had known her since she'd been a little girl - which was the reason why she felt at ease with them he supposed. Still, he felt somewhat proud of her as he watched her making her friends known to his mother and conversing with everyone no matter what topics they introduced.
He had met these people before when they had called on the newly-wed couple after their marriage, but he was not well acquainted with any of them. He quite liked the Vicar, a kindly gentleman in his sixties who'd taken pains to make George feel at home in Drayton village. The Vicar's wife was an unknown entity; he had only met her on those few occasions she had visited Sarah, and he had seen her in church when he'd attended the Sunday service. But he hadn't had much of a chance to talk to her. Sarah seemed to be fond of her, however, and Mrs Farlow appeared to have lost no time in including Sarah in her schemes for poverty relief. Right now she was discussing what was to be done to assist a young couple. The husband, a carpenter, had recently taken a fall while working on someone's barn roof, and his injuries had rendered him unable to work. Even now it was uncertain whether he'd ever be able to work again.
"They are such nice young people," Mrs Farlow said. "Such a tragedy, and at a time like this, with Mrs Jones expecting her third! I really do not know how they will go on, but something must be done to help them!"
"They do not strike me as the kind of people who will accept help from us without being able to earn it," Miss Clarence said.
"Very true," Sarah said. "Sometimes people, no matter how poor they may be, are too proud to take what people give them without being able to give something in return. We must think of a way to help them without offending their sensibilities."
"Mrs Simmonds," Miss Clarence asked, "are you going to accompany Mr and Mrs Edenthorpe or will you spend Christmas here?"
"I am planning to stay here," Mrs Simmonds said.
"All by yourself? I cannot allow that! You will spend the Christmas holidays with us at the Manor!"
Mrs Simmonds blushed. George was surprised to see that she had it in her. After all this was the woman who'd discussed such delicate matters as his marriage bed with him.
"It is certainly very kind of you to invite me," Mrs Simmonds said. "But I don't think..."
"I insist, Mrs Simmonds. We must not allow you to be all by yourself at a time like this."
"I am not sure," Mrs Simmonds said, "what your brother will think."
"I'll be very happy to have you with us if you choose to come," Mr Clarence said. "There is no need for you to refuse for my sake. I promise I will be on my best behaviour, too." He grinned.
"William! Really!" Miss Clarence protested. "Don't mind him, Mrs Simmonds."
Again, Mrs Simmonds blushed and George suspected that Miss Clarence was merely carrying out her brother's orders - and that Mrs Simmons was well aware of that. If Clarence wished to marry Sarah's former governess he was welcome to her - she'd stay in the neighbourhood, which Sarah would like, yet she would no longer live with them, which would suit him perfectly. It was not that he disliked Mrs Simmonds, and she had certainly been very helpful, but he and Sarah would be able to do without her now.
Again he watched Sarah as she was talking to the other ladies. She certainly acted more grown-up now, he thought, and hoped that she would not return to her old ways when they arrived in Brook End.
"Feeling cold?" George asked his wife as their carriage travelled along a country road in the dusk. She was sitting next to him, shivering. The hot brick that was supposed to keep her feet warm must have cooled down by now, he realised, and it was getting rather chilly in the carriage now that the sun was gone and the darkness grew.
"Only a little," Sarah admitted.
George started to unbutton his driving-coat, only to be told to stop. "I don't want you to catch your death of cold for my sake!" Sarah protested. "I don't need your coat."
"Come and lean on me then," George suggested, and Sarah did that readily enough. She snuggled up to him, and he took one of the blankets and wrapped it around them both. His mother, who was travelling with them, watched his proceedings with a tolerant eye. She might even derive some amusement from the situation George suspected. One never knew.
"It won't take us much longer now, my dear," the Dowager said comfortingly. "We've nearly reached Exton, which is where my son Stephen lives. From here, it will not take us above half an hour to get to the Dower House."
And the Dower House, as she had told Sarah as they'd set out the previous morning, was a mere ten minutes' drive from Brook End House. The Dowager Baroness Edenthorpe was not going to be part of the Christmas house party at Brook End Hall - at least, she had said, she was not going to put her daughter-in-law through the intolerable situation of having the former mistress of Brook End stay there and watch over her housekeeping.
"She is the mistress of Brook End now," she'd said placidly, "and I'll be content to be her guest. How to deal with me during that house party has troubled her, I know, although she never said so to me. Of course it would - I remember it worried me too, when my mother-in-law was still alive. It will be better for both of us to avoid that kind of awkwardness, or it will put a damper on everyone's spirits. The house will be full of guests as it is; she'll be glad she need not find a bedroom for a woman who has a perfectly comfortable home at a mere walking distance from the house."
George suspected that there was more to it; that his mother disliked staying under a roof that was no longer hers, and watching how her son's wife had taken over her former duties. Maybe it was better that way, he reflected. His mother was a clever woman.
"I don't suppose Stephen is still at home, is he, ma'am?" he asked her.
"No; he must be at Brook End already."
"What a pity. We might have been able to drop in at the vicarage and warm up a little," George said. "What about stopping at the Wheatsheaf Inn instead? Only for half an hour or so, until you're quite comfortable again, Sarah."
"I am very comfortable now," Sarah replied. "There is no point in stopping at an inn only to go out into the cold again. I'd rather go on to Brook End if you do not mind."
"I quite agree with Sarah," the Dowager said. "There is no need to stop now that we are nearly there. In less than half an hour I will sit in front of a roaring fire in my own drawing room, and I infinitely prefer that setting to the Wheatsheaf Inn."
They set George's mother down at the Dower House, and then their carriage made its way across the park to the ancestral home of George's family.
"I wonder how many of the guests have arrived already," Sarah said quietly.
"Are you nervous?" George asked, taking her hand.
"You needn't be."
"I'd be less nervous if I knew how many of your relatives I will have to face tonight."
"Not that many. My aunt and uncle Bradbury never arrive before Boxing Day; they usually celebrate Christmas with one of their sons. Uncle Horace and Aunt Richenda will be there though, probably with my cousin Theresa."
"Uncle Horace would be your father's brother, while Lord and Lady Bradbury are your mother's sister and brother-in-law, am I right?"
"Perfectly. My mother has not wasted her time, I see. You're already familiar with most of my relatives' names." George smiled. "Aunt Bradbury is the lady who used to be friends with your grandmother, so I guess the two of you will have much to talk about, and she will be very happy to take you under her wing."
"Will your Aunt and Uncle Bradbury's sons join the house party too?"
"They used to when they were children, but have not done so ever since they've grown up. They're both much older than me - older than Henry, even. Coming to think of it Philip's son must be your age, or very near it, and Samuel's children are in their teens as well if I'm not mistaken."
"And your brothers?"
"You'll meet them all tonight, I think, including their wives and children. I've already told you about Henry, his lordship. He's terribly high in the instep, but not a bad fellow once one gets to know him. I don't know much about his wife yet; I haven't met her often, but she seems pleasant and sensible."
"Is she pretty?"
"She's a beauty," George said. "Henry would never have settled for anything less. I'm not saying that he does not appreciate her other qualities, but we always knew that if he settled down nothing but a diamond of the first water would do, and she is just that kind. Not one of the shallow-brained sort, luckily."
"Your brother Stephen is the vicar of Exton, I believe?"
"So he is. His wife's name is Mary - is there a better one for a clergyman's wife? She's an elegant woman, and rather bookish. So is Stephen, which means they are a good match. They have three daughters - Susan, Hermione and what's her name? - Camilla or Clarissa or something. You'll find out soon enough."
"How old are the girls?"
"I've no idea, but Susan cannot be any older than five. Stephen and Mary got married six years ago."
"Younger than five then. Mrs Stephen must have her hands full, with three young children, a house and garden and parish business on top of it all. She has my greatest respect already."
Right now, Sarah was feeling perfectly happy. George was holding her close, and she wished their journey would last another hour or two, in spite of the cold. As long as she could stay right where she was, she would not complain.
"Reggie has come to Brook End with Henry and Helena, as have Oliver and Caroline, so you will meet them all tonight," George said. "But you need not worry. Apart from Henry, no one in this family cares a jot for ceremony." He squeezed her hand reassuringly as their carriage turned round a corner and the house, or rather its brightly-lit windows, came into view. Sarah looked out of the window to have a good look at the place where George had spent his childhood years. It was too dark to see any details, all she could see was the outline of a large square building with a tower in the middle. George had told her that it was an old house; that it dated back to Norman times but that one of his ancestors had pulled down the ancient building and rebuilt it in Tudor style. Since then, he'd told her, it had remained more or less unchanged, although each generation had added to its furnishings according to its tastes.
Two footmen emerged from the house almost before the carriage had come to a halt, and after having opened the carriage door and let down the steps they turned their attention to their luggage, while George assisted Sarah in getting out of the carriage. They entered the house and were ushered into a parlour at the far end of the Great Hall. To Sarah's relief, only two people were there - Lord and Lady Edenthorpe.
Lord Edenthorpe was a tall, earnest-looking man, though not as tall as his youngest brother. Sarah knew that he was ten years older than George, which meant that he was in his late thirties, but he had the appearance of a man younger than that. It was a curious mixture, she thought - his manners had something of the formality that had been prevalent in the older generation, yet he looked not much older than George.
George had not exaggerated when he'd called his sister-in-law a beauty. Lady Edenthorpe was everything Sarah hoped she'd be one day while knowing quite well that she was aspiring to the impossible. Her air of self-assurance was something that Sarah knew she would never achieve. She was dressed in the latest style of fashion; wore few but exquisite items of jewellery, and her face and figure were such as would have put Lady Edenthorpe's Homeric namesake into the shade. Maybe that was it, Sarah thought wryly. A Helena had to be beautiful, but what could one expect from a mere Sarah?
However formal Lord Edenthorpe might look, he gave Sarah a warm welcome. He shook her hand, expressed his pleasure at being finally able to meet his new sister-in-law, and asked her whether she had had a pleasant journey. Sarah told him that it had been pleasant enough, considering the time of year.
"You must be half-frozen to death," Lady Edenthorpe said. "I will take you to your room at once, and I have already given instructions for a hot bath to be prepared upon your arrival. There is nothing more pleasant than having a bath when coming in from the cold, is there?"
Gratefully, Sarah agreed. In spite of George's efforts to keep her warm, she had been looking forward to sitting in front of a warm fire. A hot bath was just what she wanted.
"I have given you the Tapestry Room, George," Lady Edenthorpe said.
"The Tapestry Room? Not my old room then?" George asked.
"No; because your room would be too small for the two of you," Lady Edenthorpe explained. "With all those people staying here I am afraid you will have to share with your wife - I hope you do not mind? The Tapestry Room is very comfortable."
"I certainly don't mind," George said. Sarah blushed, but managed to say that she did not mind either. It was not that she objected, it was just that she'd never spent a night with her husband yet, and the thought that she was to do so now was - well - thrilling, yet embarrassing at the same time.
"Where is everyone?" George asked his brother.
"In the drawing room," Lord Edenthorpe replied. "We felt your wife should have an opportunity to rest before having to meet all her new relatives at once."
"That is very kind of you, sir," said Sarah.
"I hope you will not stand on ceremony with us," Lady Edenthorpe said. "Please call me Helena - we are sisters, after all! And my husband is Henry to his family, aren't you, my dear?"
Lord Edenthorpe nodded.
Sarah smiled. "As you wish - Helena." While she felt quite comfortable with being on first-name terms with Lady Edenthorpe, she had her doubts about doing the same with his lordship. He looked rather more like "my lord" than "Henry". But she would have to get used to it - it would not do to give offence.
Helena then took Sarah upstairs to her room, telling her to enjoy her bath and rest until dinner.
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