A Second Excerpt from The Secret Wedding
I've skipped ahead a little so a scene where Christian takes his problem to his foster brother, the Duke of Ithorne.
Thorn shook his head. "It's never easy. There might be something about consummation being necessary when the vows take place outside of a church...."
"We definitely did not."
"Given the rape, hard to prove."
"I didn't have my father's consent,” Christian said. “Surely that counts for something."
"No. That was the main point of Hardwicke’s reform -- to give parents control over the marriage of minors, and prevent secret weddings through banns, openness, and true consent." He gripped Christian’s arm. "Don't worry. We'll sort this out. Now, what documents do you have?"
Christian thought about it. "None."
"I stalked out of there in high dudgeon without a scrap of paper. I can't even remember the name of the parson who did the deed."
Thorn rolled his eyes.
"I was sixteen!"
"If they hanged people for arrant stupidity -- which might be a good idea -- you'd still hang. God only knows where any record is lodged, or even if the man bothered to pass his records on to a bishop. What about witnesses? Who were they?"
"Half the people in the damn inn. What was it called? The Tup, I think. Somewhere near Doncaster."
"I am positively drowning in useful details.”
“The aunt was there,” Christian said. “If she's still a Froggatt she'll be easily found. No sane man would marry her, that's for sure."
"It's astonishing who will marry whom, but if the aunt is behind the enquiries, we may not want to go directly to her. If that clergyman didn’t file his records, you could deny the marriage took place."
"Lie?” Christian said. “In any case, there were all those witnesses."
"Ah, yes. Pity, that."
"You'd feel no honorable qualms?"
"You didn't bed her,” Thorn said, “you haven't sired children on her who'd be bastardized, and the alternatives are disastrous." He went to his desk to make notes. "Where exactly did this happen? The Tup, you said? In Doncaster?"
"No, near. Hell, I don't remember." Christian tried to run his hand through his hair but only dislodged the damn powdered wig. "We were billeted in Doncaster and it was a few miles away in the direction of Sheffield. Nether something-or-other."
"The back end of somewhere?" Thorn queried, brows raised.
"Or privy parts. Greasy ones...."
Christian pulled his wits together. "Nether Greasebutt!"
"Nether Greasebutt?" Thorn echoed.
"Something like that. Damn funny names up there. But don't worry about that. I'll recognize it. I’m going to investigate the nether regions for myself."
Thorn straightened. "Unwise."
"Look, either I'm legally married or I'm not. Going there won't change that. But someone needs to make enquiries on the spot, and it might as well be me. I can get leave. I might remember more when I’m there."
"This could stir the very corpse you're trying to keep interred."
"How? I'm not going there as Jack Hill. I'm Lord Grandiston now. No one will know I'm in the army when I'm wearing civilian clothes."
"And if Dorcas and her aunt know or suspect that Jack Hill is now Lord Grandiston, heir to the Earl of Royland?"
"Devil take it.” Christian paced again. “Very well, I'll be Mr. Grandiston. If they do recognize the name, I'll have reason for my investigations. I'm a concerned relative of Jack Hill, seeking the truth of an old incident."
"Ever the hot-head," Thorn sighed. "If you encounter the Froggatts -- Abigail or Dorcas -- won't they recognize you?"
"I was a stripling in uniform with powdered hair."
Christian turned to the mirror. His eyes were a green-gold hazel that women tended to remember.
He turned back. "Half the family has 'em. But in any case, I doubt anyone in that debacle was noting eyes."
"He had extraordinary eyes," said Caro Hill, putting aside the letter from the Horse Guards and picking up her chocolate cup.
She was with her companion, Ellen Spencer, in the elegant morning room of Luttrell House, where sun shone in through the diamond-paned windows which provided a tranquil view of orderly gardens. In her mind, however, she saw a squalid, crowded inn room, a bloody corpse, and the bloodstained young officer who had been forced to marry her.
"I wonder what he remembers of me."
"Nothing," said Ellen, without looking up from her own correspondence. "He's dead."
Caro grimaced. There Ellen sat, in perfect order from her brown hair beneath a neat cap to side-by-side feet in polished shoes, insisting that everything else in the world was as neatly arranged as she, when it clearly wasn't.
"Ellen, I want to marry so I must be sure of that."
Ellen glanced up, looking over half-moon glasses. "You received a letter of condolence from his colonel."
"As I've said before, anyone can write a letter."
"And as I have said before, your Aunt Abigail was capable of a great many things, but even she would not falsify an official document."
But Caro wondered, and had wondered for some time. To Abigail Froggatt, everything was like the crucible steel that made the family fortune -- malleable if one applied the right force.
"Do you really believe that?" she asked quietly.
Ellen looked up again, lips pursed, perhaps in irritation. "She did have her own notions of what was right."
"Like forcing that marriage. Even she admitted that it might have been a mistake."
"Did she? How odd. If there'd been a child, marriage would have been salvation for you and the little one. She acted decisively, as she did in business matters. You must never forget that she ensured the comfort we enjoy today."
It was the stern voice of the governess, which Ellen had been in Caro's younger years, and it was the truth. Caro wouldn't be living the life of a lady on a lovely estate without her aunt's grim determination and hard work.
Because of Aunt Abigail, Froggatt's cutlery works had been one of the first in Sheffield to adopt crucible steel, which others said was too hard to work. It proved worth it, however, because it made stronger blades, and soon money had begun to pour in.
Aunt Abigail had not approved of Caro's father attempting to join the gentry by buying Luttrell House and moving his wife and daughter there. Or when he’d enrolled Caro in the Doncaster Academy for the Daughters of Gentlemen. Or when Caro had begun using her second name instead of her grandmother’s name – Dorcas. Aunt Abigail had called her Dorcas to her dying day.
Perhaps Abigail Froggatt had been right. Only a year after moving to Luttrell House, Caro’s mother had died of pneumonia. “That big drafty place,” had been Aunt Abigail’s opinion. Not long afterward, her father had followed from an apoplexy Aunt Abigail had put down to too much rich food, and Froggatt’s looked likely to collapse.
Abigail Froggatt had taken over the management. Everyone had predicted disaster, but the works had increased in prosperity, helped by the long war with France. Froggatt blades were shipped around the world, and even then, Aunt Abigail had been introducing the manufacture of excellent steel springs, looking ahead to times of peace.
Aunt Abigail had lived out her life in the small house by the works, but she'd been grimly determined to fulfil her brother's dreams. Luttrell House had been retained, “Dorcas” had continued at school, and after the Moore disaster, a suitable governess had been hired.
Ellen Spencer was the impoverished widow of a clergyman, but she came from a gentry family and had a brother who was a dean at York Cathedral. She'd been able to teach Caro basic subjects, but also to continue her education in the ways of the gentry. In that respect, Ellen's training had been limited as she disapproved of social frivolities, but Aunt Abigail had also engaged music and art instructors, and even a French dancing master.
If a thing's worth doing, she always said, it’s worth doing well.
Yes, having forced that marriage, Aunt Abigail had been capable of doing anything to do it well, even forgery.
"What exactly does the letter say?" Ellen asked, putting aside her own reading with a slightly martyred air.
"That I've given them insufficient information. I don't see why."
"Jack Hill is a common name."
"How many Jack Hills were officers? How many Jack Hills were sixteen in 1754 and died 1756 in Canada?"
"Cogent points," Ellen agreed, frowning.
"There's something else. Aunt Abigail constantly advised me against marriage."
"And very odd it was, too. Quite unchristian."
"But based on reason. A woman such as myself, with independent control of a substantial income risks losing everything that way."
"Women are not supposed to have independent control of their income," said Ellen.
"You control yours."
"I pay you more than a pittance." Caro turned from that diversion. "My point is that when I attracted suitors, she became quite fierce about it. She used to point out every story of an oppressed wife, or of a husband who lost all at dice or cards. On her death bed, she even tried to compel me to promise never to marry."
"Caro! You never mentioned that."
"What point? I refused, of course. It distressed her, which I regretted, but I would not bend. But what if her urgency, her distress, was because she'd fabricated the news of Hill's death?"
"And feared bigamy? Oh dear, oh dear. You must consult Sir Eyam."
"Tell the sordid truth to the man I want to marry?” Caro protested. “Bad enough that he knows the official story, that I eloped with a young officer who died soon after in the service of the king. To question that death is to question all."
"Perhaps it’s time to trust him with the truth."
"No," Caro said. "And you must not either."
She dearly wished Ellen didn't know, but it had probably been necessary. She'd been such a distressed waif when Ellen had first come here.
"Of course not," Ellen said, but though discretion was sacred to her, so was truth. If anyone directly questioned her, could she lie?
“Give me that letter,” Ellen said with the manner of one who could sort out this in a moment. She read it quickly. "They ask about Hill's regiment. Why didn’t you tell them?"
"I don't remember it. Moore didn't march around announcing it."
"Caro, it will be in the letter informing you of his death."
"Lud, so it will!" Caro rose, but then said, "I don't know where it is." She put a hand to her head, trying to remember. "Aunt Abigail came up here with it….”
“She insisted in speaking with you privately,” Ellen said. “I remember that.”
“I read it...."
"And I felt nothing. I was ashamed of that. No – of feeling relief. Dead so young, and he had dashed in to save me." She twisted the wedding ring on her finger. Not the one Jack Hill had put there in the ceremony. That had been cheap metal and had left a mark even after only a few hour's wear.
"I mean," said Ellen, irritated, "what became of the letter?"
Caro came back to the present, picturing the event. "Aunt Abigail took it back. Yes. I didn't want it so she took it away with her."
"Where would she have put it?"
"With her own letters, I assume. Which,” Caro said, “are in the library!"
She ran across the hall, removed the wooden box from a cupboard, and carried it to the central table to search. This didn’t contain any business papers – they were stored at Froggatt’s -- but it held her aunt’s letters and other personal papers.
She put aside invoices, lists, and household account books to concentrate on letters. There weren't many.
Ellen came in. "Have you found it?"
Caro put aside another letter from someone called Mary, who had written from Bristol, and who seemed to have married a ship captain.
"No. And now I'm at letters twenty years old and more. Where else could it be?"
Ellen began to search for herself, but then stood back. "Perhaps she destroyed it. Once it had served its purpose."
Caro sank into the wooden chair. "Because it didn't bear close scrutiny."
Ellen rested a hand on her shoulder, consolation in a time of tragedy.
Caro rebelled. She rose to her feet saying, "I won't give up hope. How do I find out which regiment? It was stationed around Doncaster
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