“Louisa, my dear. Come.”
In a voice that brooked no argument, Lady Hawley patted the sofa and sent Louisa an uncharacteristically kind smile.
The sofa patting was generally the indicator that Lady Hawley wished to be read to, but the uncharacteristically kind smile suggested to Louisa that her aunt was about to make some impossible, or at least highly inconvenient, demand of her.
“Did you want me to resume Ivanhoe where I left off?” Louisa halted in the doorway, wishing she’d not been so foolish as to look into the drawing room. With so many people arriving for Lady Hawley’s annual August ball, Louisa had a million chores to finish.
“Later, my dear. First bear me company a few moments, as I have to—” Lady Hawley closed her eyes and rapidly fanned herself — “prepare you.”
Upon these ominous words, Louisa cautiously entered, and took a seat on a gilt and gold upholstered Chippendale chair at right angles to her aunt, her anxiety increasing at the emotion on that lady’s plump, powdered face.
“What is it, aunt? Someone hasn’t… suffered an accident?” Her mind ran over the direst of possibilities and before she could stop herself, she whispered, “Not Mr. Evesham? Please tell me nothing has happened to him. I know you were worried when he did not arrive yesterday, having been expected.”
Louisa hoped her aunt did not notice the colour that stained her cheeks. Mr Evesham was the most beloved of Lady Hawley’s many godchildren. He’d attended Lady Hawley’s famous August ball for the past five years and while his annual visit was the brightest spot on Louisa’s uneventful calendar, Louisa cringed inwardly to think she’d been so transparent.
“No, no, not Mr. Evesham, my dear. No…” Lady Hawley trailed off, her mind clearly on another matter altogether, as she continued to fan herself.
“Then what is it, Aunt?” asked Louisa, her alarm not abating, for clearly the matter was of considerable importance as Lady Hawley rarely offered quite such a preamble to important news. “Cousin Sarah is well?” Lady Hawley’s eldest daughter, who was several years older than Louisa, and who’d left her home to be married two years after Louisa had joined her aunt’s household, was the light of her mother’s life. She was also in the early stages of her third pregnancy.
“No, no, my dear, Sarah arrived yesterday with Sydenham. Both are well. Do let me speak.” With some acerbity, Lady Hawley put down her fan and fixed Louisa with a beetling look. “It is Mr. Rivers.” She took a deep breath. “He is in the green drawing room and has come to this house to do you a great honor.” As her critical gaze ran from the top of Louisa’s homely cap to her well-worn slippers, she sighed. “Well, you’re looking no better or worse than usual, so I daresay there’s little point in sending you off to change and therefore keep the young man waiting. No, my dear, either way, I expect that what he has to say will come as a great surprise to you, for although you are familiar with Mr. Rivers through his regular visitations concerning my hothouse blooms, you can have no idea what is behind this visit.”
A ghastly premonition caused Louisa to gasp, and the blood clearly drained from her face, for her aunt said quickly, “Poor Louisa, I’ve completely taken you by surprise. But yes! It is all we could have hoped for, though do pretend to be surprised. It has taken a long time for the poor young man to build up to this moment and, as you can imagine, it is not a decision he has taken lightly.” These last words were uttered with great sorrow and accompanied by a heartfelt sigh.
Louisa would rather not have had to witness the physical manifestation of her aunt’s distaste as Lady Hawley added, unnecessarily, “Clearly the dear boy could have done so much better—and you know I am not referring to your lack of fortune.”
Louisa was quite aware that her aunt was referring to Louisa’s lack of something much more important than a fortune and, as required, she lowered her head in shame.
Not that shame wasn’t what she truly felt. She did, and it had blighted much of her life.
“Now, we don’t want to keep Mr. Rivers waiting, but I did also want to ensure that you were dressed appropriately, which I’m glad to see you are.” Her aunt’s previously critical appraisal was replaced by an approving glance at the ghastly cast-off she’d magnanimously gifted her niece. “I’m not sure that puce really is your colour, but it is a fine gown, and it will reassure Mr. Rivers that your wardrobe will not be a costly expense he has to bear. I will reassure him you have clothing sufficient for some years and that your wardrobe will therefore not need replenishing, thanks to my generosity. That was one of his concerns. Mr. Rivers has a comfortable annuity, but he is, as you know, a careful young man.” Her lips pursed, and she added, “Which is why, of course, it has been difficult for him to come to this decision.”
Louisa plucked at her skirts. “If it is not a decision he finds comfortable, aunt, then perhaps it is best he reconsider.” She sent her aunt a rather combative look which the older woman received with arched brows.
“Do not tell me, Louisa, that you could possibly think to reject the only offer you will ever receive?” Clearly the notion was scandalising to Lady Hawley who went on with growing choler, “You must know that what you have done is not lightly forgotten—”
“Nor will it be forgiven with the passage of time, aunt,” Louisa cut her off. “Yes, I do know that. I have had nine years during which to repent but, please, I would hate to be a stain that would blight poor Mr. Rivers’ prospects of social acceptance and, thus, happiness.”
“That is neither here nor there, Louisa. The fact is that Mr. Rivers has ridden over from Oak Farm with the specific intention of making you an offer. Now, you have known him long enough for me not to have to highlight his many qualities—”
“Maybe you should, aunt, so that I can have a good accounting of them in my head when he says whatever he has reluctantly decided will be said, whether I like it or not.” Louisa knew she’d gone too far when her aunt dropped her fan and, with heaving bosom and flapping hands, rummaged beneath some cushions to retrieve her vinaigrette. Bottles of these were kept in multiple locations on account of her delicate nerves.
And Louisa, normally so responsive as this eased the difficulty of her tenure under her aunt’s roof, watched her impassively.
“How can a girl like you, with the stains of your wicked deplorable actions all those years ago, think to refuse Mr. Rivers?” her aunt asked on a hiss. “You have no dowry, no allowance of any kind, no reputation and,” she shook her head sorrowfully, “no longer the looks that led you to chase the scarlet that led to your downfall.”
This last was indeed like a blow to the solar plexus.
It was drummed into Louisa countless times a day through sly insinuations, and bullying taunts that no one was ever going to forget her crimes of so long ago.
But to be told that she was now an ageing and immoral eyesore was beyond anything.
A few years earlier, she might have responded with a tart retort. Now she simply hung her head. “I’m very happy doing your bidding, aunt,” she lied, thinking that Lady Hawley was, despite everything, the lesser of two evils. Even if she was sent on fetch-and-carrying expeditions from dawn to dusk, at least she could sleep in her own bed at night.
Her aunt shook her head. “I’m sure you are, Louisa. And you’ve been a very adequate companion, I will give you that. I won’t deny that the thought of housing such a wicked girl under my roof when no one else would take you was a burden I could have done without. But my Sarah told me it was my Christian duty to extend the hand of hope and redemption to a wild child who had lost her way. Where else would you have gone? No parents, no siblings, no money for your upkeep. When you were brought back from your,” she shuddered, “escapade that we do not mention, no one knew what to do with you until I graciously agreed to offer you a roof over your head. But now, Louisa, there is another charity case I am duty bound to assist.” She dabbed the corner of her eye. “Suffice to say that I have offered my home to this young person, as I offered it to you all those years ago. And there is no room for the two of you. Now, if you do refuse Mr. Rivers, or if he changes his mind in view of the response he receives from you,” she added, meaningfully, “I know Mrs. Mumphrey is looking for a girl to help her with the new twins. I don’t wonder she needs help with seven children under ten.” Her aunt shook her head on another sigh, then smiled, waving her hand at Louisa in a shooing motion. “Poor Mr. Rivers will be wondering what’s keeping you, Louisa. You know how much he does value punctuality. Now go!”
Louisa, who had some minutes before taken a modicum of relief in the fact that puce was not her color, hastily tucked a few escaped strands of hair into her cap and tried not to show emotion as she stepped into the green drawing room.
So, her aunt had given her choice: accept Mr. Rivers… or become Mrs. Mumphrey’s galley slave.
“Ah, Louisa, you’ve taken your time.” The young man did not immediately turn from viewing the painting on the wall. The stiffness of his spine indicated his irritation. Louisa had known him long enough to gauge the many little ways in which Mr. Rivers showed his feelings.
Clearly, however, he was in a mood for forgiveness for, as he turned, a little smile turned up the corners of his mouth and he offered her a very gracious half bow.
“Louisa, as you know, I do like to get to the point, so I will not prevaricate so that I might begin my journey home in order to avoid the rain that is forecast.” He sent a worried look through the window at the grey skies as he smoothed back a lock of oily dark hair, and Louisa, following his gaze, had to put her hand to her mouth to stop the gasp at the sight of Mr. Evesham, on horseback, riding up the driveway.
“Are you attending to me, Louisa?”
“Of course.” Louisa snapped to attention and sent Mr. Rivers an earnest look that she hoped indicated how important she considered his concern for rain, and whatever else it was she feared had brought him here.
But an opportunity to glance out to see Mr. Evesham dismounting, his well-built, handsome form sliding from a glistening black gelding, was granted by Mr. Rivers’ careful adjustment of his neck linen in the large mirror above the mantelpiece. The cut of her would-be suitor’s expensive coat indicated a man who was concerned with sobriety, but also conservative fashionability, and his long, lean legs highlighted his moderation towards diet.
Whereas Mr Evesham’s long, lean, well muscled and well-shaped legs — Louisa couldn’t help noticing out of the corner of her eye through the window — indicated a man who enjoyed exercise, such as, obviously, riding, which Louisa had loved as a younger girl when she’d been allowed a mount. And the easy smile that curved his beautiful mouth, and the casual way he brushed back his fashionably cut brown curls as he hailed a stablehand, indicated a friendly, generous personality.
Louisa sighed wistfully as she snatched stolen glances through the window, while Mr. Rivers paced, cupping his chin in his hand, his expression deeply thoughtful. “It has been a difficult decision to arrive at, Louisa,” he said in his ponderous manner, “if I may call you that, which I am sure you will allow since we have known one another since I took up residence at Oak Farm.”
“Six years, Mr. Rivers. Yes, a long time.”
“Sadly, not long enough to know if you have repented of your sins, though your aunt assures me you have shown yourself the very model of decorum in all the nine years you’ve enjoyed her charity.”
Louisa reflected that the amount of hard work she’d done during those nine years went far beyond what a paid servant might expect in order to earn food, shelter and cast-offs, so could hardly be considered charity, but said nothing.
Taking her silence for acceptance, Mr. Rivers nodded approvingly and Louisa was now happy to gaze in his direction for he’d taken up position just where Mr. Evesham was now standing, on the other side of the window glass, obviously discussing the needs of his mount, to the head groom, who was about to lead the horse to the stables.
“I’m glad to see that you appreciate your good fortune,” he went on, and Louisa realized she was smiling stupidly in his direction, following Mr Evesham’s movements, while not attending to a word Mr. Rivers had said.
“Yes, indeed. Very fortunate,” she murmured.
“Repentant, too, your aunt said.” He narrowed his gaze. “Are you repentant, Louisa? I can only hope and trust, for your aunt is an improving woman and I know that the years you’ve spent under her roof would have trained you well.”
Mr. Rivers considered her, rather in the manner Mr. Evesham had assessed the hocks of his horse before he’d sadly passed out of view.
“Yes, to be mindful of your duties, to behave with modesty, and to temper the impulses that led you,” he paused significantly, “into sin.”
Louisa pressed her lips together and bowed her head. Why was everyone bringing this up today, in actual words? She was used to veiled references and to insinuations, but today it was becoming tiresome.
“Yes, I made a mistake, Mr. Rivers, and for that I have paid the price,” she said with perhaps less humility than he required for he said sharply, “You can never pay the price that is due, Louisa, for what is done cannot be undone. And that is why I have been reluctant to make you my offer. There! I have said it so we can be clear.”
He sighed, adding as he flicked back the tails of his coat, “And now I shall do what protocol and courtesy require and say what I have come here to say using words that will resonate long after I have left you, so that you may reflect upon them with joy. I believe every young woman deserves that.”
“No, please, Mr. Rivers!”
He’d gone down on one knee before Louisa and now gripped her hands in his slightly moist grasp.
“Miss Stapleton, I have come here to ask you to be my wife.”
“Mr. Rivers! Please, get up, you… you mustn’t—”
Distressed, she pulled away and began to pace, cupping her cheeks and not sure what she should say.
There was an awkward silence, broken when the young man said crisply, “Of course, you are so accustomed to being inferior that it must be difficult to see me on my knees, but it will be the only time, my dear.”
She turned, and saw that his smile was more tender than hitherto, obviously having misinterpreted this as the cause of her concern.
“Now that I have reassured you, let me say it again. Louisa, will you consent to be my wife?”
“Mr. Rivers! No—”
“I beg your pardon?” He blinked rapidly, as if he truly had not understood her.
“Please, Mr. Rivers, get up—”
“You will not tell me what to do, Louisa.”
Nevertheless, as Louisa had moved to the fireplace, he unfolded his lanky frame and rose to his feet.
“I would never presume to do such a thing, sir,” she assured him. “But I… this has taken me so much by surprise I am… quite lost for an appropriate response.”
He looked grave. “My dear, I realize it will be incumbent upon me to tutor in appropriate behavior, though your aunt has assured me she has tolerated nothing that might lead you into the excesses of your past. You are not the wild and undisciplined creature who was dragged from the arms of—” He blushed violently, indicating where his mind had gone.
Horrified, Louisa cried, “Mr Rivers, my aunt swore that would never be spoken of! I was tricked! You must believe that!”
“I don’t say I don’t believe it,” he countered. “The fact is, you were discovered where no virtuous young woman should be discovered. That is your crime. Not whether you were tricked, or not. But I have done much soul-searching, Louisa. Of course, I will be pitied by some, but others will applaud me for my generosity of spirit and my boldness in taking a chance on you and offering you a home. You will bear my children, but it is I who will instruct and discipline them. You see, I have thought of everything.” He smiled as if expecting her admiration, not seeming to recognize her expression for what it was: horror.
“But… I don’t want your children—”
“And with time your past will be forgotten,” he said, as if she had not spoken. “Or rather, it will no longer be the stain that is immediately apparent to all those who look at you.”
“Of course. But I also relish the chance to mould you into the creature of my own design. Under my tutelage you will be made better. Good lord, Louisa, are those tears? Ah, yes, tears of happiness—” He faltered, then went on with increased fervor, “My apologies! I see they are tears of shame, of course—”
“No, Mr. Rivers, they are neither tears of shame nor happiness!”
Rage. Horror. Disgust—though not with herself. These were the source of her damp lashes, though she would not say it.
He looked quizzically at her and then realization spread across his features. “My dear, it was remiss of me not to utter words of affection. Of course, every young lady wishes to hear words of admiration and affection when her future husband is making his declaration.”
In two strides he was in front of her once more, snatching her hands and kissing the backs of them as he said, “Louisa… Miss Stapleton, I have always found you a curiously interesting creature. In fact, no one has affected me so deeply. No one has inspired in me such a burning desire to help you see the light, to show you the way. I think it is the closest I will ever come to feeling love. There!” He gazed up at her with satisfaction. “I have said it, the words of love a young lady needs to hear.”
“Love? You want only to discipline me—”
“It is how I show love, Louisa. Now, let us go through to the reading room and inform your aunt of the happy news.” He took her arm but she shook him off, gasping, “No, Mr. Rivers! I have not said yes!”
He stopped, sent her another quizzical look, then answered in an understanding tone, “Indeed, my love. It might be considered improper if you were to accept me without deliberation. I shall return after a suitable interval. Shall we say, two days?”
Louisa shook her head. “No, Mr. Rivers. Please listen to me! I mean it, I know my mind already, and I really can’t marry you.”
He regarded her as if she were a creature he’d never seen before. Then, slowly, he said, “My dear, I don’t think you understand. I am asking you to be my wife. Mistress of my fine home, Oak Farm.”
“But at what cost, Mr. Rivers? Everything you have said has made it clear how much you disdain me. That every time you look at me, you will remember my sins and my shame. How am I to bear knowing that you do not honor me? That my past will forever blacken me in your eyes?”
He considered this a moment; then nodding with a smile to suggest that he accepted her argument, said, “You are right. When I return to receive your answer it will be on the understanding that I forgive you everything you have done before you became my wife. The past shall be forgiven. Not forgotten… but forgiven… as I teach you to embrace a new life of repentance and purity. Now, I shall leave you. I am a happy man, Louisa. I shall return on Thursday.”