I feel such a great sense of responsibility and am quite cross with my husband. He is no doubt sitting happily at his club conducting some business or other whilst I was plotting the destruction of a poor man’s hopes.
I waited in the Cornbench’s parlour all morning, having sent word to Jennet and that booby that I wished to speak with them. Mrs Cornbench hovered in the hall downstairs like a ghostly presence, appearing from nowhere at the slightest sound of footsteps on the drive, but pretended she was leaving me to my thoughts. I had no-one for company but her wretched dog – why anyone should choose to nuzzle such a vile creature I shall never know; at least Dauncey is clean – because Mr Cornbench had taken his whispery children on a pheasant shoot in the grounds. I amused myself by wondering how many of them would return to the house alive. I shouldn’t be surprised if no-one noticed one of them missing.
It was not until nearly midday that I saw from the window the betrothed couple making their way to the house. Jennet was wearing his best clothes, I expect, and his bride-to-be had clearly made an effort to impress me. She had on a sprigged muslin dress – appropriate material for the time of year, if a little showy for daytime – and was wearing a feathered hat. They must have walked quite some distance because her face seemed quite flushed and she looked as if she would like nothing more than a brief rest.
I stood back a step or two so they could not see me watch them approach.
I am no expert in affairs of the heart – despite having made a wondrous match myself – but I fancy I can recognise young love, even at a distance. Jennet was holding his intended by the elbow, guiding her up to the front steps. She wavered a little as she looked up at the house, no doubt overwhelmed by the stately frontage, such that Jennet reached to steady her. He bent his head towards her, appearing to whisper a word or two of encouragement. She gazed back at him as if seeing him for the first time and reached out to touch his cheek. I felt a little lurch of envy at that, I do not mind confessing.
She paused just before they rang the bell and she appeared to reached inside her cloak, looking for something. After a few seconds she produced a small glass bottle and held it aloft. Jennet said something sharply to her, at which she jumped and hid the bottle again within the folds of her cloak. In her desire to impress me, she had brought a gift which Jennet was anxious for her to keep concealed until the moment presented itself for her to give it to me.
The maid showed them in to the parlour and I could hear Mrs Cornbench sweeping about making sure everything was in order. They stood before me, Jennet still holding his bride steady as she attempted a curtsey.
“I expect you will be wondering why I have come from London in such a hurry to see you before your nuptials,” I said. They looked a little blankly, but nodded their agreement that they were unsure of the reason for my visit.
“Ma’am,” ventured Jennet, “I hope your journey has been pleasant at any rate.”
“It has been unremarkable thus far,” I answered, “but thank you for your concern.”
The girl tottered slightly as I spoke. Truly I believe she was so in awe of her surroundings she could hardly keep her attention in one place. Jennet gripped her arm more tightly and gave me a beseeching look. His discomfort was such that I decided I should dispense with any more pleasantries – I do not like to chit-chat with servants in any case.
“I have come to ascertain the reasons for your marriage.” I told them. “The news has been received in London with alarm in some quarters and I wish to find out for myself what exactly has brought it on.”
They both stared at me and then at each other. Bless them, they seemed so wrapped up in each other that I felt quite cruel. I wondered how Boo would have conducted herself in my position and concluded that she would have been businesslike and direct, so I said,
“Is this intended union absolutely necessary?”
“Necessary, ma’am?” said Jennet. “I am sorry, I do not understand your question.”
I looked at the girl, who was now quite faint. I have not seen many young women in a delicate condition but this was unmistakeable.
“Are you with child?” I asked her. She whimpered a little and seemed to slump against Jennet. He mopped her brow with his cap and turned back to me. She gathered her wits enough to smile a little, before whispering the words “Bill to become a father? How funny!” Jennet cleared his throat and stood forward a little.
“Ma’am, I have always worked hard for you and Mr Hatherwick, have I not? I pride myself on being a loyal and trustworthy servant. I hope that my service has never been questioned or needed to be. I have tended the grounds at the Hall for the last…..” He sounded exactly like Villiers did during the outburst that prompted this whole exchange in the first place. I held my hand up to stem his flow.
“Calm yourself, Jennet, for all our sakes. I am not commenting on your abilities as a groundsman. I merely want to find out why you are marrying this girl.” As I gestured towards her, she produced a sound which I can hardly describe outside the confines of a farmyard.
“I am marrying her because it is the right time for me to take a wife, Ma’am. There is not a man in the village who wishes to marry her as much as I do. Miss Everdown is the wife I must take.”
‘Must?’, what did he mean, ‘must’? “Miss Everdown’s father has been kind enough to allow me to have her hand in marriage. He has known me all my life and understands me better than any man.” She spluttered a little at hearing this and made to remove the bottle from her cloak to give to me, I fancied, but Jennet stopped her. “Her father is most insistent that I look after his precious daughter from now on.”
I remembered Josiah and his protestations to Papa all those years ago, when I had been hiding on the stairs listening to the man I loved persuading my father why he should let me go. As I heard Jennet speak of his intentions I felt quite overcome with emotion. I could not stand in the way of such lovestruck determination, even though it might cost me the best manservant I had ever employed.
“Very well,” I said to them, “That is all I wanted to hear. Mr Hatherwick and I give you our blessing. We shall of course pay for the wedding breakfast and will welcome you both into our household upon our return to Blindingham Hall.”
I watched for their reaction. In truth I think my generosity must have stunned them a little for they spoke not a word, just stared at me. In the end I was compelled to break the silence,
“I must pass on to you some further congratulations. From Villiers, who wished to be remembered to you.” As I said these words, Jennet’s face took on a stricken look and his eyes became wet with tears. The girl showed more spirit than she had shown throughout as she turned to Jennet and said, with steel in her voice, “Villiers? What, still?” And they gave each other an intimate look of such deep understanding I was almost tearful myself. She turned from him, the intensity of feeling obviously too much for her as she covered her mouth with her cloak and made another of those wretched noises.
“Thank you, Ma’am,” said Jennet as he led his intended away. I watched them walking away from the house, wondering whether Josiah and I had ever shown such feeling to each other in public. As they receded from view, I saw them begin to engage in that puppy-like playfighting that new lovers will. She pretended to berate him with clenched fists as he lovingly dodged her ‘blows’. I felt quite lonely to see their happiness.
It would be impolite to leave Lydiatt House before the morning, so I have another tedious evening ahead of me, with the full complement of Cornbenches for company.
I have witnessed true and unashamed love this morning and am still without a butler!