Susan Wilton sat at her dressing table with her mother, Betsy, hovering behind her left shoulder, hands aflutter; while her very best friend and bridesmaid, Katherine Howe, was fussing with Susan’s hair at her right side. Louisa, Susan’s fifteen-year-0ld sister, knelt beside her and helped her slide into her satin shoes.
Mother heard the carriages pulling up in front of the house. She turned to the clock on the mantel. “Oh, my… It’s time to go. Katherine, is her hair done?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Katherine said, as she adjusted one last curl with the tip of her comb. “Now, don’t you look like the perfect bride,” she added, stepping back to admire her work.
“Hold still,” Louisa complained, as she tried to fasten the button on the shoe of Susan’s left foot.
Mother rushed to the bedroom door and opening it, called out, “Thomas… Jacob… are you ready?”
“Yes, Mamma,” Jacob shouted up from the entry hall. “We’ve been waiting for twenty minutes. Father has had the carriages brought around already.”
“I know. I know.” Mother called back, but became flustered again and turned to Susan. “Come. Come. Stand. Let me look at you.”
Susan stood up from her dressing table. “Mamma, there’s plenty of time. Simon always runs late, anyway.”
“But it’s his wedding day. Surely, today, of all days, he’ll be on time.” Mother took a long look at Susan and began to cry. “Oh, my baby. Look at you. All grown up and about to be married. I’ve always dreamed of this day, and now it’s here. Oh my, don’t you look lovely.”
Susan was, indeed, a lovely bride. The eldest daughter of Squire Thomas and his wife, Betsy—Susan was twenty-years-old, with a pleasing oval face, dark curly hair, a delicate mouth, and large, expressive eyes that seemed to laugh when she was amused.
“Enough. Come. The carriages are waiting. Your Papa is waiting.”
They left the room and headed down the stairs to the entry hall where Father and Jacob, Susan’s older brother, and his wife, Amy, were waiting.
“Are you nervous?” the plump and rosy Katherine whispered to Susan as they descended the stairs.
Susan was surprised by the question. “Not at all. Why, should I be?”
Katherine took her arm. “Well, big changes are ahead. A new home and husband. You’ll be leaving your teaching position no doubt, and you must say good-bye to your family. And what about me? I’ll miss you so very much, my dear friend.”
“Oh, Katherine, I’m not going that far away. It’s only twelve miles or so to Haverford House.”
“Is that where you’re to live? I thought that was the Duke’s home now. Surely, Simon will have his own residence now that he’s married, will he not?”
Susan had not given that any thought and Simon had said nothing about where they would reside. London, perhaps?
“Come along—come you two. Stop dawdling,” Mother insisted.
The party was suddenly swept up with the task of getting into the carriages. Mother, father, the bride, and Jacob and his wife were in the first carriage and Katherine, Louisa, and two attendants were in the second.
It was several miles to the parish church where the ceremony was to take place at noon.
It was a lovely May morning and not too hot. Susan turned to look out the carriage window as they passed along the country road leading to Ash, a modest country village in Kent. The whole morning had been such a whirl of activity and this was the first time Susan had had a moment to reflect upon the changes soon to sweep her up into her new life. But first and foremost in her heart and mind was her groom, Simon, the younger brother of the Duke of Lennox of Haverford Hall outside the community of Preston, also of Kent.
Simon had met Susan at the school where she taught when he came to represent the Duke during a school awards day. The Duke had promised to come, but the House of Lords had called an extraordinary session, and he had been unable to attend, sending Simon along in his place.
Simon couldn’t keep his eyes off Susan from his seat with the teachers on the presenter’s podium, and, after the ceremony was over, he introduced himself, and wooed her aggressively for several months before asking her to marry him.
Katherine had advised caution when he proposed but, despite the short engagement, Susan’s parents had urged her to accept the proposal from an aristocrat—even if he was only the second son with no title or inheritance.
Simon was, without a doubt, a handsome young man, and Susan found it easy to be enchanted by his blond good-looks, his boyish charm, and his breezy ways—despite his often unexplained absences and broken appointments. Afterwards, there were always the most convincing and heartfelt excuses and expressions of deep devotion.
But today was the culmination of all that effort. She was to be married in less than an hour. She wished that Katherine was sitting with her in this coach instead of Jacob and Amy, but, as her bridesmaid, she would be beside her soon enough.
The carriages pulled up in front of the church. The wedding carriage that would be used to whisk the bride and groom away was parked nearby festooned with ribbons and flowers. However, as Susan descended from the carriage, she saw no sign of the Duke’s carriage which had his royal crest painted on the door.
Katherine came, breathlessly, running up and took Susan’s arm.
“Come, we must hide you away until time for the ceremony. We can’t have the groom seeing you before the wedding.”
The two of them ran giggling into the vestry where they would wait until the processional music started up. Thomas, the Squire, and Susan’s father, soon arrived to sit with them until it was time to lead her down the aisle when the ceremony was to begin. Mother, Louisa, and Jacob and wife had been seated in the front row on the bride’s side of the church.
“Daughter, you tell that husband of yours that I’ll be sending over three brace of sheep as promised—four ewes and two rams. Twern’t ready till yesterday, and this day being the wedding, thought it best to wait till later in the week.”
None of the three could think of anything further to say. Susan was too nervous, Katherine was too sad to be losing her friend, and Papa hardly ever spoke unless spoken to.
They sat for quite a few moments before Father took out his pocket watch and checked it.
“Quarter past,” he said, putting the watch back in his waistcoat pocket, and shifting his bulk in the uncomfortable chair. The Squire was a solid man with a mane of unkempt hair, rosy cheeks and a wicked grin when he was playful—which was seldom.
After a while longer, he stood and went to the vestry door and looked out. He turned back to Susan and said. “Wait lass, I be right back.”
Katherine reached over and took Susan’s hand. “Nothing to fret about. You know the aristos. Bound to be late to make an impression, no?”
Susan nodded but wasn’t so sure about that.
The Padre opened the door and looked in. He smiled and rubbed his chin and left.
The Squire returned. “The sheep are getting restless. Your groom better show up soon or the church will empty out.”
Mother appeared at the door. “What’s going on, Thomas? It is half past, and no one from Haverford House has made any kind of appearance.”
“Now, Mother, stop your fretting. There could be any number of reasons.”
Mother pursed her lips and shook her head.
“Go back and sit down. What’ll people think with you strutting around the sanctuary like a Guinea hen?
“Now, Papa, let her be,” Susan insisted.
“Humph,” Mother said and turned and left.
By now Susan was becoming anxious and she stood and went to the vestry window and looked out toward the road at the front of the church.
“I see a carriage,” she said.
“Ah.” Father stood and left the room.
Katherine went over to the window with Susan and they watched the carriage until it disappeared from their view.
They turned back and watched the door which shortly opened.
Papa stood there. “Daughter…” He looked back into the church and stood back as a man appeared at the entrance.
“Miss Wilton…” It was John Chamberlain, the Duke of Lennox. “Miss. Wilton…” He strode into the room, holding his hat in his hand.
Susan was surprised for he did not look as though he was dressed for a wedding.
“Miss Wilton… I don’t quite know what to say.”
John Chamberlain was a tall and quite imposing man. He was much taller and more solid than his younger brother. He had broad shoulders, an equally handsome face, but had dark hair while his brother was blond.
Susan’s stomach seized. “He’s not coming, is he?” she asked.
The Duke shook his head. “The scoundrel has absconded with all the family silver, the best horse and carriage, and several hundred pounds of cash.”
“Do you know where he’s gone?” Susan asked quietly.
“I have no idea, but I suspect he went to London. He had some rather serious gambling debts and begged me for money only yesterday, and I refused him as I was to surprise him with a living as my wedding present to the both of you.”
“And he left no note for me?” Susan asked, now becoming angry.
“I’m sorry, Miss Wilton. He didn’t.” The Duke turned to the Squire. “I shall, of course, reimburse you for any losses associated with the wedding, and shall return any and all dowry that has been forwarded to Haverford House—if it’s not already been taken and spent by my brother. I’ll make an accounting and pass it on to you.”
“Most kind, Your Grace,” the Squire said, bowing his head.
The Duke looked frantic. “Now, you must excuse me. I must leave. My wife is with child and having a troubled confinement.”
The Duke turned and left. And that was the end of the engagement and the wedding.
Susan was standing at the drawing room door with her mother who was whispering to her and also trying to push her through the doorway at the same time.
“He came all this way to see you,” Mother insisted. “Why are you not wearing your pretty yellow dress? He’s commented several times how nice you look in it.”
“Mamma, I didn’t know he was coming this early. I didn’t have time to change.”
“What’s all this whispering about?” Louisa asked as she passed by in the hallway.
“Your sister in insensitive to the fact that her young man has come to call and she looks like she just got up from scrubbing the kitchen floor,” Mother pouted.
“She looks just fine to me,” Louisa said, as she flipped through the pages of the book she was examining.
“She does not. Look at her bodice, not even a whiff of lace. And her cap is askew. She might as well be a beggar out on Tiddlewhit Square.”
“Oh, Mamma…” Susan complained. “You know you exaggerate.”
“Let her be,” Louisa said, “Jasper Grant is such a bore anyway. I don’t know what all the fuss is about.”
“Oh, Louisa, you’re such a scandal. How can you say such a thing about your sister Susan’s beau? And a Knight of the realm and all that. You should be ashamed of yourself.”
Louisa just shrugged and patted on her way down the hall in her slippers.”
“Mamma, shall I go in or not? Sir Jasper’s waiting.”
Mother became flustered and backed away. “Disgrace yourself then. Go on. Drive him away. Your last chance at marriage bliss and happiness. You’re not twenty anymore. And I couldn’t bear another episode like the one with Simon Chamberlain.”
Susan turned and entered the drawing room.
“Sir Jasper, you’re early,” she said.
“I couldn’t keep myself away from your radiant, beaming smile,” he said as he turned from the window where he was gazing at the sheep pond and came toward her.
Sir Jasper Grant was a fastidious young man who spent a great deal of time shunting between his tailor and his haberdashery. He was aware of every eye that was trained on him wherever he went. He studied his profile each morning in a trio of mirrors he’d had especially set up for his personal viewing satisfaction. He was lithe and comely and knew it. He had a small curl on the left of his forehead that he was constantly adjusting, and carried a small silver hand mirror about the size of an apricot on a silver chain around his neck. This he would hold out to gaze at, for the satisfaction of admiring himself or to find and correct any flaw that might need immediate attention.
“How are your parents and dear sister, Beatrice?” Susan asked as she directed him to a chair opposite where she would sit.
“All in the very best of health, and I trust all of you are heathy as well?”
“We are thank you.”
They sat for a moment without speaking, as Sir Jasper studied his mirror.
“My mother sends her very best regards, and thanks you for the tidy woolen mittens you knitted for her birthday. She much appreciated the thought.”
“I’m so glad. Shall I order some tea? You must be parched after your journey from Folkestone.”
“Yes, tea would be lovely.”
Susan rang the service bell on the table beside her and Julie appeared.
Susan turned back to Sir Jasper. “Did you ride or bring your gig?”
“It was such a lovely afternoon I rode over on Dapple. Such a fine animal.”
There was a knock on the door and Mother inserted herself into the room.
“Sir Jasper, what a pleasure to see you. Julie says you’re to have tea. May I join you?”
Sir Jasper looked annoyed for a moment, but put on a brave smile and answered, “Of course, Mrs. Wilton. It would be a pleasure and an honor.” He stood to welcome her.
Mother scooted over and drew up a chair. “Susan tells me you’ve been having fine weather along the coast this summer. I know the channel storms of winter can be fierce so it must be nice to have a fine spell.”
“Indeed it is. And I noticed the cabbages in your vegetable garden are particularly plump this season,” Sir Jasper responded.
“Yes. They are. They are.”
And the three fell into silence until Julie came in with the tea tray and began serving.
Sir Jasper kept glancing over at Susan, but she had busied herself with serving the tea and was not catching his glances.
“Miss Susan, shall we take a walk after tea? There’s something I would like to discuss with you.”
“Certainly, Sir Jasper, it would be lovely to take a stroll. Perhaps we could walk down by the river.”
Silence overtook the trio once again as they sipped their tea.
Mother finally spoke. “Sir Jasper, how is your fine father and his business? Last we spoke you said he might be expanding his wholesale operation.”
“Ah… yes. Indeed he will. The good news is there will soon be a railway connection running between Folkestone and London. That will greatly increase our ability to keep the fish fresh. And I believe the line will be constructed somewhere in the vicinity of Preston, if I’m not mistaken. So you will soon be able to pop up to London whenever you like.”
“How interesting,” Mother said flatly.
Susan gave her a look indicating she wanted to be alone with Sir Jasper.
“Oh, my… how late it’s become. I really have much to attend to before supper. If the two of you will excuse me…”
Sir Jasper rose halfway up from his chair. “Good day to you, then, Mrs. Wilton.
“Good day, Sir Jasper.” Then she left.
Susan had had quite enough of this boring tea and she stood, saying, “Shall we take our walk now, Sir Jasper?”
“I should be delighted,” he offered.
As it was summer no wrap was needed, and Susan led the way from the house along the road to the river walk.
The Kent countryside was mostly agricultural, with gently rolling hills and flat grazing fields with many sheep farms like her father’s. The path along the river provided a pleasant stroll, with overhanging trees giving shade and a pleasant aspect.
“Have you been working on any new songs?” Susan asked.
“I have. I’m working on an ode to Her Royal Highness, Princess Charlotte on her Birthday,” Sir Jasper said as he took a quick glance into his hand mirror and adjusted his curl. “Ever since His Majesty, King George bestowed my knighthood upon me for writing Hail, His Conquering Majesty for his coronation, I have endeavored to please his Majesty with a new musical work each year. It’s exhausting, but one must bow to the royal will.”
“Of course,” Susan said, having heard the story of his knighthood far too many times.
They walked on in silence a few minutes before Sir Jasper asked, “Have you given any thought to our last conversation?”
Susan knew exactly what he was referring to but chose to feign ignorance. “And which conversation would that be, Sir Jasper?”
He looked askance at her. “Susan, certainly you must remember my urgent request for an answer to my proposal of marriage. I’ve patiently waited these many months and each time I ask, you evade an answer. I am patient, but not eternally so.”
Susan looked over at him. She could see his genuine pain at her evasion, and she felt a twinge of guilt.
“I’m sorry, Sir Jasper, I must admit to my continued uncertainty about my answer and I am sorry.”
She stopped the walk and turned to address him directly. She had known her answer for some time now, but her parent’s strong insistence that she marry had made her prolong giving an honest answer to the poor, suffering man.
She reached out and offered him her hand, which he took. But she didn’t speak immediately.
“You’re refusing me, aren’t you?” Sir Jasper said quietly.
“Yes, Jasper, I am. I’m most sorry, but I can’t marry you.”
He was annoyed. “Susan, you are six and twenty years old. Do you really believe there are that many other worthy suitors out there who’d lavish you with the time and attention I have?”
She was not going to be intimidated by this man. “That is as it may be. However, I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t love you, and I don’t wish to enter into a loveless marriage. Please forgive me, but I must be honest with you.”
Sir Jasper turned away and stared at the river. “I greatly resent the time I’ve wasted as I’ve waited for your answer. Why couldn’t you inform me of this decision earlier?”
“For that, I take full responsibility, and I’m truly sorry. You may put that down to my feminine timidity—and my parent’s forceful insistence that I marry you.”
“So you disregard your parent’s wishes?” he asked as he turned back to face her.
“As you say, I’m indeed six and twenty, and I’m no longer a child, and I know my own mind. You are correct to admonish me for my cowardice, but believe me when I say I’ve spared you from a marriage you would eventually come to regret.”
“Very well. I accept your decision. Then I propose we return to you home and I shall then forever take my leave of you and your family.”
“Sir Jasper, can’t we remain friends?”
“I think not.” And he turned and walked away without escorting her back to her house.
The village of Ash was but a short walk through her family’s fields, and she often did the family marketing when she was not teaching and would stop by to visit with her friend, Katherine, as they loved to chat and gossip.
Katherine lived with her family in a house just off the main square where her father had a cobbler’s shop on the ground floor. After doing her shopping at the market, Susan knocked on the family’s door.
“There you are,” Katherine said, “I thought you’d forgotten about me.”
“Come in,” Katherine offered. “I’ve just baked the most deliciously evil, pudding cake. Would you like to try a slice?”
Katherine led the way down the hallway beside the cobbler’s shop to the back of the house where the family lived. The kitchen was at the very back of the house and led out to a fairly generous garden where the family spent a lot of time during the summer months.
Susan studied her friend as she made the tea. Katherine had lustrous, rich, red hair, which she piled atop her head. She was a big girl but had an infectious laugh that immediately endeared her to everyone she met. And her green eyes sparkled, invited, and enlivened her full face.
“Would you like some tea with your cake?” Katherine asked.
“I would, thank you.”
Having prepared the refreshments, Katherine led the way to the back of the garden where there was a table and several comfortable chairs under a broad oak. She set down the tea tray and served them.
“Any news?” Susan asked as she stirred her tea.
“There is,” Katherine responded. “I can see Roger is working his way up to popping the question.”
“And you’ll accept?”
“A big girl like me doesn’t get very many eligible suitors. Are you seriously thinking I would not?”
“I thought you probably would, but it’s been a long time coming, hasn’t it?”
“And he’s a terrible brute for making me wait so long.”
“But there were money issues, weren’t there?” Susan asked. “He wanted to be certain he could support you, yes?”
“I’ve got a modest living to offer.”
“But Katherine, you must remember a gentleman’s pride—particularly with a fine man like Roger. He wants to feel he’s supporting you.”
Katherine leaned back in her chair and gazed up at the sun speckling through the leaves of the tree.
“Any idea when you might have the wedding?” Susan asked.
“Oh, no. We’ve not gotten to that point yet. But your darling sister’s wedding is coming up quickly now, no?”
“September. Nice time for a wedding.”
Katherine tread carefully, but had to ask. “And how do you feel about it?”
“Delighted, why wouldn’t I be?”
“Well… there was that episode with Simon a few years back. And that reminds me, any further thoughts on Sir Jasper?”
Susan bowed her head. “Oh, Katherine, I just had to finally say no.”
Katherine leaned forward in her chair. “You didn’t. And how’d he take it?”
“He was a perfect beast. He stormed off without even saying good-bye. And good riddance, I say.”
“Were your parents furious?”
“I think my father took it in stride, but Mamma nearly capsized with disappointment.”
Katherine laughed. “Well, at least you’ve got Louisa’s event coming up. Maybe you’ll meet just the right gentleman for you at her wedding.”
“I wouldn’t count on that. For now, I’m quite content with teaching my kids.”
“But Susan…” Katherine looked at her with just the faintest hint of pity.
“Now, don’t be horrid, Katherine, there is absolutely nothing wrong with spinsterhood,” Susan said with a wry smile.
“Never, never. You are too gifted and charming to go long without a suitable gentleman calling.”
Susan sighed. “The tea was delightful and the pudding cake a marvel, however, I must be going.”
“If there’s anything I can do to help with Louisa’s wedding, please let me know.”
“I’ve nothing to wear. Perhaps you might help me with that.”
“Ah… Let’s walk to Howell and Barton’s. They have a new shipment of French fabrics in. Let’s select the perfect materials, and we’ll construct you the perfect dress for the wedding.”
Katherine picked up the tea tray and they headed back toward the house.
“Brother Daniel has written to say he’ll have shore leave in the next month or so. I’ll be so happy to see him. It’s been over two years.”
“And that is navy life for you.”
“Did I say he’s been made a captain?”
“Really? No, I don’t believe you told me that. Your parents must be very proud.”
Luisa’s wedding was just a week away. The activity in the Wilton household could only be described as frantic. The Duke of Lennox had RSVP’d that he’d attend the wedding with his Aunt Clarissa, which they’d not expected, after the debacle with Simon. And the fact that he was attending put added pressure on the family to be sure the wedding planning was just perfect.
Mamma appeared to be in a tizzy, but everyone knew she was reveling in the chaos of the wedding.
Susan was helping however she could, but she was still haunted by the fact that Luisa’s wedding was going to be held in the same church where Susan had been jilted those few years ago. And she couldn’t help but worry that Simon might show up as well—even though he’d not been invited. But Susan brushed away her few lingering concerns and focused her entire energy on helping make the wedding as happy as possible for her sister.
One afternoon there was a knock at her bedroom door.
“Yes?” Susan called out.
“Come in, Louisa,” Susan said, as she sat on the edge of her bed.
Louisa came inside. “May we chat for a moment?”
“Of course.” Susan patted the bed. “Come, sit with me.”
Louisa paced the room for a moment before she sat.
“Susan, I’ve spoken to Mamma, about… you know…”
“The wedding night?”
Louisa looked down shyly. “Yes.”
“And she’s not answering your questions to your satisfaction.”
“Exactly. What can you advise me?”
“Well, as you know, I’ve not yet been married, so I’m, perhaps, not the best person to ask.”
“But you’re older and wiser, and a teacher. Surely you know more than mother’s willing to tell me.”
Susan sighed. “What’s she told you so far?”
“She assembled a carrot and a melon and attempted to do a demonstration, but she became so flustered she ended up throwing her hands up in the air, tossing the carrot into a soup, and running out of the kitchen with the melon in her hands, going who knows where.”
Susan nodded and laughed. “Yes, I had the same botched demonstration. And when I asked Father, he tuned beet red, and kept blowing his nose until he too had to leave the room.”
“Can you help me?”
“I’m quite certain you must know the mechanics by now, Louisa. You’re twenty years old, after all. But what’s really important, are the emotional aspects of your relationship with your husband. And you must certainly have some inclination of how he may behave with you. No?”
Robert’s such a caring man. I believe he’ll be sensitive and patient with me.”
“Robert Tunbull is a wonderful man from my experience. I’ve been teaching with him for quite a few years now, and I can attest to his many fine qualities. But to be quite honest with you, I’m not experienced in the arts you’re asking me about. What about asking your friend, Matilda? She’s been married for over a year now, and should be much more useful as a resource than I am.”
Louisa considered the suggestion. “Yes, that’s an excellent suggestion. I’ll speak to her tomorrow when I’m in the village. Thank you.”
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