Friday, 4 April 2014

The Scent of Roses

THE SCENT OF ROSES


CHAPTER ONE

 

"I am promised to Lord Christopher," Felice repeated for the third time. She was growing impatient, having spent the last hour or so going over the same ground, repeating the same argument.  "It makes no difference how many times you declare your disapproval, how many unlikely schemes you invent to lure me away.  The promises our fathers made can no longer be honoured.  You have to accept that, Thomas, and wish me well."

Viscount Lindsay frowned and shook his head slowly, reluctant to accept the inevitable.

"But you love me," he insisted.

"I have never said that I love you," she argued with an impatient sigh. 

"We were pledged to each other from the cradle," he said.  "We have grown up knowing that one day we would marry.  Does that mean nothing?"

"It does not mean that I love you," she said.  "It means that at the time a prospective marriage between our two families was advantageous.  Things have changed since then; your father broke the betrothal agreement because I no longer have a dowry and you do not have the means to save my father from his own folly.  Lord Christopher does and he will keep his word. It would disgrace him to see his wife's family degraded, or do you doubt that he is a man of his word?"

"No," said Thomas reluctantly. "I have heard that he is, in fact.  But he has other reputations which are not so noble.  I am also suspicious as to why he would part with so much of his wealth to marry you."

Felice stared at him in astonishment.  It was hard to believe that all her life she had been content with the idea of marrying this man, when he could make such a remark.  He had gone down in her estimation this evening, to come here with his meaningless schemes to persuade her to renege on her promise to marry a wealthy and powerful man, when he had nothing better or even equal to offer in return.  If she had loved him, as he seemed to believe, he would be causing her great distress, but that had obviously not occurred to him.

"I am sure you did not intend to insult me with that remark," Felice commented archly.  "Is it so unbelievable that a man might give a fortune to win my hand?"

"Another man might; I most certainly might, but not him, not Lord Christopher. He cannot love you; he is incapable of love."  Thomas paused for a moment, looking hopefully at her, while she studied his face, wondering if he really believed that.  "Did you know that his first wife died in childbirth and he had so little respect for her that he did not even give her a proper burial.  She lies in a pauper's grave in the village churchyard, no memorial stone, nothing to mark her passing but a rough, wooden cross."

Felice felt her heart sink, not only at this new tale but that Thomas would tell her such a thing, even should it prove to be true.  Surely she was better off not knowing.

"Did you come here tonight deliberately to frighten me?"  She asked him.

"I came in the hope of persuading you to run away with me.  I can give you a comfortable life."

"But you cannot pay my father's debts, you cannot restore my family's reputation," she argued.  "My father's creditors have been kept at bay with the promise of this marriage, a promise made to them by Lord Christopher himself.  You are asking me to force him to break his word, which I have heard he holds in high regard.  How do you expect he will react to that?"

Thomas seemed reluctant to answer that question.  She thought it likely that he,  along with many others, was afraid of her future husband, although he would never admit it.

"Were it any other man, I would not be so concerned," Thomas persisted. "Besides, they are your father's creditors, not yours,"

She shook her head in dismay.

"My father is dear to me," she said firmly, "as is my family's good name.  You are not dear to me."

"I was dear enough before," he muttered.

Her eyes held his for a moment, while she cursed him for coming here and unsettling her like this, for bringing her tales of her bridegroom of which she would rather have remained in ignorance. 

"I was content with my marriage plans before tonight," she said sadly.  "I was even happy to be marrying a man who is kind enough to help us.  Indeed, I was looking forward to being a good wife to him, then you came here with tales to frighten me.  Now I know not what to expect, now I am dreading what tomorrow may hold.  I trust that satisfies you."

Certainly His Lordship had the reputation of being ruthless, but that could not deter Felice.  Her alternative was to marry Thomas with no dowry to support her should he die, and to leave her father to rot in debtor's prison. Lord Christopher was all that stood between her family and ruin and she was only grateful that he had noticed her in time to save them.

It was growing dark in the small porch outside the house, and the autumn damp was closing in.  She glanced down at the frayed hem of her brocade gown and pulled her fur lined cloak closer about her shoulders; only she knew how worn and thin was the fur inside.  This cloak had belonged to her mother and she had died ten years ago.  Felice had but one wish now, and that was for Thomas to go home and leave her in peace.

"You know no more of him than I do," she said. "He is powerful and wealthy; that is all either of us know about him.  Anything else is mere rumour."

"His poor wife's grave in the village churchyard is not rumour," he replied.  "Go, see for yourself.  Her name was Sonia and she should be resting in the family vault with her predecessors, not in a grave no better than that of the poorest peasant.  And he is reputed to be a violent man, controlled by his temper."

She had heard that herself and people hereabouts did seem to fear him, but whatever his temperament or his character, she had no choice.  If she did not marry him, her father would lose everything and she would not let that happen, not while it was within her power to prevent it.

"Reputations are not always justified," she remarked hopefully.

"He is also reputed to keep a peasant woman who has his children.  I hope you do not expect him to be faithful."

She looked sharply at Thomas, not sure whether he was now inventing tales of his own.  She had heard nothing of this peasant woman, but the news came as no great surprise and made no difference to her plans.  Nothing could make a difference to her plans.

"I do not expect any man to be faithful, Thomas," she said calmly.  "It is not in their nature."

"I would be faithful to you," Thomas insisted.  "I love you. You should not be bartering yourself for your father's sake.  Let him sort out his own problems."

She stared at him with contempt.  How could anybody be so ignorant as to make such a stupid remark?  Whatever Lord Christopher's character might be, she was rather glad she would not, after all, be marrying Viscount Lindsay.

"If I thought for one moment that you really did love me, I would feel sympathy for you.  But you are only annoyed that you have lost a possession, like a small child with his favourite toy.  My father's problems are my problems," she said firmly.  "Lord Christopher will save him from debtor's prison and by so doing will save the good name of my family.  That is well worth bartering myself for, as you so elegantly put it."

"I will not give up.  I have spent my life expecting you to be my bride."

"And tomorrow I will be Lord Christopher's bride and you must look elsewhere.  I am sorry, Thomas, but this is the way it has to be."

She got to her feet to indicate that the meeting was at an end, then turned to face him.

"Please leave me alone now, Thomas.  Tomorrow I will be the Countess of Waterford, and I intend to make Lord Christopher a good and faithful wife.  I shall be grateful if you will respect that and leave me alone."

"I never realised how cold you could be, Felice," he persisted.  "You do not even know this man, you have never once spoken to him, but you accept that you will be his wife without a qualm.  You will spend tomorrow night in his bed. Do you think it is an accident that half the countryside fear him?  He must have done something to earn that reputation."

Felice hardly needed him to tell her that.  She knew very well that he was a formidable and powerful man who struck terror into the hearts of many, but all she could do was to be as good a wife as she could, and hope he was not violent for violence sake.  If he was, she was strong enough to live with it, strong enough to find ways to appease him.

"If what you say about him is true, it would not be safe for you to be seen with me."

"I am not afraid."

So typical, thinking of himself as always.  She knew nothing about the man she was to wed, nothing whatever.  All she knew were rumours, mostly spread by his enemies of which he seemed to have many.  She should be afraid to marry such a man, but she feared penury more. As she walked to the door to her father's manor house, she knew a little spark of gratitude for His Lordship.  He was not only rescuing her father, he was rescuing her from a marriage with a weak and selfish man who would put her safety at risk to get his own way.

She turned back to face him as she reached the door.

"What do you suppose he will do to me if you continue to pursue me?" She said after a few minutes thought. "Or does that not matter?"

 

***

 

Lord Christopher gazed at his own reflection and sighed impatiently.

"Do you not think, Howard," he addressed his valet, "that this outfit is a little flamboyant for my tastes.  It is too fancy; makes me look like an idiot."

"My Lord," Howard replied hesitantly, "it is your wedding day."

"And that is special, is it?"

"You know well that it is, My Lord."

"Did not work out too well the last time, did it?"  Lord Christopher mumbled, wondering just why he allowed himself to speak so intimately to this one particular manservant.  Perhaps because the man had been with him all his life and was the only one in his employ who was not terrified of him.

"Pray God this marriage is worthy of you," Howard replied.  "I am sure Lady Felice will be a faithful wife."

"She had better be," Christopher answered with a note of anger.  "If she is not, she will regret it."

Howard shuddered, knowing that his master was not given to making empty threats.

Christopher adjusted his hat, squirming his neck to make the thing a little more comfortable.  He hated new clothes; they were always so stiff and uncomfortable and he always made Howard wear them before him, to make them looser and easier to wear.  But Howard had talked him out of making him wear his wedding suit before him; the man had the damned cheek to say it was the wrong thing to do.  Just as if Christopher followed rules of etiquette, or rules of anything else for that matter.

He had been half heartedly looking for a suitable wife since his last one died, but he had so far found no one he believed he could trust, not even the one he was to wed this day.  He had to marry someone, had to attempt to sire an heir to his title and his estates, as there was no one else and if he died childless the whole lot would go to the crown.  Christopher believed that the crown had enough money and he was not a great supporter of the present King.

He wanted to help his bride's father for his own reasons; he did not like to see a fellow earl degraded as it did nothing to support his own position.  Lord Sutton had little left save his pride and his daughter.  The first made him refuse Lord Christopher's attempt to pay off his debts; it seemed the man regarded such an offer as charity and would make him feel more degraded than his present circumstances.  The second was another matter.  Lady Felice's long standing betrothal to a young viscount had been dishonoured because her father had gambled away her dowry, and despite her beauty and fine heritage, she had received no offers since.  It was possible she would be grateful for Christopher's offer of marriage and such an arrangement would satisfy her father, make him feel less of a charity case and more like a nobleman arranging an advantageous marriage for his daughter in the normal way.

Even so, Christopher was surprised that Lord Sutton would not agree without his daughter's agreement.  He found that very odd indeed, considering the marriage was his only hope of redemption.  Lord Sutton obviously did not want his daughter to marry Christopher, and he held no malice toward him for that.  He knew his reputation was one that would make the most indifferent father think twice about allowing a marriage with him, and the pauper's grave in which he had buried his late wife did nothing to dispel that reputation.

When Sonia had died, people had thought it a disgrace that someone of his wealth and standing should bury his countess in such a way.  Of course, no one had the courage to tell him so, but he had his spies and he did not miss the scowls that followed him wherever he went.  None of it bothered him.  He could have made his reasons public, but why should he?  It was nobody else's concern and they could think whatever they liked.  He knew the truth and that was enough for him.

Everyone of any importance had been invited to this wedding and not a single one of them had refused.  Apart from being too curious to stay away, none of them wanted Lord Christopher as an enemy.

Once he had made his offer of marriage, he watched the house to catch a glimpse of the woman who was to be his bride.  He had seen a portrait of her in Sutton Hall, but he had never before seen her in the flesh, never seen that the porcelain complexion was not a mere brush stroke by a clever artist, that the cornflower blue of her eyes was not simply an imaginative touch on the part of that artist.  She was beautiful, really beautiful, the sort of beauty that made people turn their heads to watch her as she went past, the sort of beauty that made both men and women catch their breath in awe.

He wanted to present his bride with a fine piece of jewellery to mark the day, and had refused to accept her father's word that his daughter would prefer simple flowers.  He thought perhaps Lord Sutton felt Christopher had spent enough on them, and wanted to save him the extra expense.  But the man had been so insistent, that he had given way and ordered the roses, while he also made sure he had a precious stone to give her if she should be less than delighted.

He was marrying this woman solely to persuade her father to take his money.  Christopher smiled a little in amusement at the thought.

"My Lord?"  Howard saw his smile in the mirror and was quite taken aback.  His Lordship was not given to smiling.

 

***

 

When the servants brought the rose scented bathwater into Felice's bedchamber that morning, she realised that this would be the last time she would awake in these familiar surroundings.  This bedchamber had been hers since she was a small child and she had never slept anywhere else.  Tonight she would sleep in Waterford castle, the home of Lord Christopher; she would be his Countess and she could only hope that he would treat her fairly.  Thomas' tale about his first wife and her pauper's grave made her shiver, but she could not afford to believe it.

Being married was a frightening idea.  She had never spoken to the man, only seen him from across a crowded marketplace and for a few minutes when he came to arrange the marriage with her father.  She had no real idea what manner of man he was, but tonight she was expected to share his bed and what else she did not know.  She was fairly sure that babies were not made simply by sharing a bed with a man, but she could not imagine what else one had to do.  

Of course he would want babies, sons.  Why else would a man like him marry at all?  She still had no idea why he had chosen her, but perhaps it was some perverse need to control her father, Earl Sutton, who had squandered his fortune at the  gaming tables and would face criminal charges were it not for this earl who would pay off his debts and help him to begin earning income from his estate once more.  All that in return for the hand in marriage of his daughter.

Lord Christopher could have any of the fine ladies who were available; he was an important man who had the choice of many, so just why he had chosen Felice she could not imagine.

She had made no attempt to refuse this marriage.  She had agreed willingly, even eagerly, when her father had told her of the offer and she had agreed with a sigh of relief that they would not be turned out in the street after all.

Felice was a proud woman, young though she was.  She knew her place in the world should be privileged and she could not avoid a certain disappointment in her father for degrading them both in the eyes of the world, as well as in her own eyes.  She was a person who would always be true to herself, no matter what the world threw at her, and she had made a pledge to herself that she would do her best to make Lord Christopher a good wife.  She would endure anything to do so, if the need arose, but she would prefer to win him over, to elicit some affection from him, if that were possible.

This day her blonde hair shone and she smelled of roses, her favourite perfume.  There was a time when her father would send for the flowers from Europe when they were out of season here in England, but no more.  Now he could not afford such luxuries and she had not seen a fresh rose since the summer.  Scenting the bathwater this morning had taken the last of the dried flowers she had saved from then. She so wanted a bouquet of roses for her wedding, but that was an extravagance too far.

Once she was dry, her hair was brushed and dried before the fire and her servants proceeded to dress her in the embroidered Chemise and white satin kirtle that Lord Christopher had provided for her to wear.  She tried to resist the need to feel the cloth, to run her fingers over the fine fabric, smell its newness after all this time of wearing patched up, tattered cloth, but the temptation was too great.  The satin was smooth and soft to her touch, the chemise embroidered with delicate little pink roses especially for her.

Over the kirtle was a see through gown of cloth of gold which shimmered in the sunlight from the window opening.  Her father could not even afford to provide her wedding clothes, and for that she was ashamed.  But she bore him no malice. He had always done his best for her, even after her mother's death when he failed to tell her of the mess he was getting himself into.  He had educated her, taught her to read, which was not something most people could do, especially females.  

If anything, on closer scrutiny of Viscount Lindsay, she was grateful that she had the opportunity to wed another man, even though all she knew of him was his fearsome reputation. What she did know for certain was that men did not acquire reputations like that of Lord Christopher by being weak and cowardly.

"You look beautiful, My Lady," said the one maidservant they still kept. Lord Sutton had freed all his serfs and servants or sent them off to work for other lords when his plight became so dire, he could not longer afford to keep them.  She had no wages, only her bed and board, and she stayed out of loyalty to Felice and her father.  Without her there would be no one.  The servants who had brought her bath and helped with her hair and dress had been sent by Lord Christopher, another shameful gift.

"Thank you Lisa," she said softly. "You know I would really like you to come with me.  I shall ask Lord Christopher at the first opportunity."

Lisa shivered as though she felt a sudden chill.

"It is very good of you, My Lady, but your father needs me."

"And?"  Felice asked.  "There is more.  Come; you can tell me."

"I wish you every happiness with Lord Christopher, My Lady," Lisa replied pertly, "but I am glad it is you who will share his bed tonight and not me."

Felice laughed.  So the rumours had found their way into the servants' ears.  It mattered not.  She was grateful, tremendously grateful.  She loved her father too much to be anything else and she was only pleased she could do something to help him.  She would never show him anything but joy over this marriage, no matter what it may hold in store for her.

Felice had known about Lord Christopher for most of her life, ever since his own father had died when he was a very young man and he had succeeded to the title.  She had seen him once across a market place and thought him handsome, just the sort of man to whom she was attracted.  She had heard tales of his ruthlessness but never thought to think long about them.  After all, he was nothing to her, just a local earl and one who had more land and more power than most.  When she had been told of his offer of marriage, she had been shocked at first, recalling the rumours about him, but when she had given it some thought, that shock had turned quickly to delight.  Ruthless he may be but he must have some goodness in him, or he would not be offering to save her family, her father and she would always thank him for that.

She felt an ache in her throat as she thought of the things that her bridegroom had provided, things that should have been provided by her father and she felt grateful all over again.  She could hardly wait to get to the church, to take her vows before God and put her life of poverty behind her.  She could hardly wait to restore her father's pride and return him to his rightful place in the world, but most of all she could hardly wait to get to know this man who would take her as his bride.  Ruthless and fearsome he may be, but there was also a side to him that was extremely generous and kind to be providing all these things, and that was the man she wanted to know.

There came a gentle knock at the door and Lord Sutton opened it and stepped through.  He wore a smile but she could see behind it, see that he was holding on to an ache of his own.

"You are beautiful," he whispered.  "You look just like your dear mother on our wedding day.........except that she wore the Sutton necklace which I no longer possess.  You are the only possession I have left to give away, and I wish more than anything I could give you to a worthier man."

"What on earth do you mean?"  She protested.  "Lord Christopher is a worthy man.  He will make me a fine husband and you will not have to worry any more."

She held out her hand to him and he kissed it, then held on to it.

"In Pagan times, the tribe would choose their most beautiful virgin as a sacrifice to appease their evil god. I feel as though that is exactly what I am doing, sacrificing my most beautiful maiden to the evil god who is Lord Christopher."  He paused and swallowed to keep his lips from creasing up.  "I am so sorry, Felice.  I wanted to give you so much but you have been forced to break your betrothal to the Viscount and marry this fearsome stranger to keep me from the punishment I am owed."

"Father," she said, taking his arm, "I cannot tell what the future will hold for me now, but if there is one thing about this arrangement for which I am grateful, it is that I will no longer be marrying Viscount Lindsay."

Earl Sutton looked in surprise at his daughter.

"I thought you were fond of him," he commented.

"So did I," she answered, "until last night, when he showed his true colours.  Do not fret about me, Father.  I am sure I will be perfectly content with my new husband and my new home."  She paused thoughtfully for a moment before going on:  "I can only hope that he is perfectly content with his new wife."

"If he is anything of a man, he will love you."

She took his arm and they descended the stairs to the carriage that awaited, the carriage sent by Lord Christopher.  Her father still kept a carriage, but it was old and unsafe, the paint peeling and the wood rotten, certainly not fit for a noblewoman to arrive at her own wedding in.

As her father opened the door, she saw on the seat a beautiful bouquet of white roses, wrapped up in cloth of gold.  She picked it up tentatively, almost afraid it was an illusion which would vanish on first contact.  She read the note from her bridegroom.  "Lovely though these flowers may be, they cannot overshadow the beauty of my bride."

She gasped and buried her face in the flowers.  Her eyes met her father's to see that he had turned his head away, once more ashamed that he had not been able to provide them, that it had been left to this stranger who was about to own them both.

"You must have told him," she said softly.  "He could not have known about the roses unless you told him."

He looked shamefaced again.

"He asked me if you had a particular jewel you preferred.  I thought you would prefer the roses," he said.  "Was I right?"

She put her arms around his neck and kissed his cheek.

"Of course you were, Father.  Thank you."

"Thank Lord Christopher," he replied.  "I did not think he believed me."

Felice spent the short journey to the village church with a little smile on her lips as she buried her face in the sweet and half forgotten scent of the roses.

 

***

 

There were a lot of people inside the church, all standing and watching her arrive, watching her father lead her to the altar to be given to this handsome man who was to be her husband. She wondered if any or all of them knew just why she was marrying him, whether they knew of her father's shame and the thought made her flush with embarrassment. 

But she saw that he was watching her and the look of admiration in his eyes was not lost on her. He was so tall, Felice barely came up to his chest, and he was resplendent in embroidered gold satin, with a matching ermine lined hat covering his dark hair and a neatly trimmed dark beard.

Her heart fluttered a little as reality presented itself at last.  She seemed to have been in a little trance since Lord Christopher had made his offer, not really believing that it would come to pass.  But here she was and as she drew close to him and her eyes met his, he gave her a smile that warmed her heart.

"Thank you for the roses, My Lord," she whispered as the priest appeared before them.  He gave a little bow of his head in acknowledgement, then the ceremony proceeded.  She understood no Latin, and neither did anyone else in the church, yet she knew she was married at the end just the same.

She took his arm and allowed him to lead her slowly through the churchyard to the lychgate, to his waiting carriage. There were many people following them, wedding guests as well as villagers come to watch, and Felice felt conspicuous as she walked among them.  Everybody was laughing and smiling, except for one lone woman who stood outside the churchyard and looked down at the wedding party from a hill in the distance.  She wore rough linen and a peasant's cap covered her hair, allowing only a few blonde tendrils to escape.  She was not smiling; she looked angry, if anything, and Felice recalled Thomas' tale of a peasant family.

Felice turned her eyes away from the woman and glanced surreptitiously at the edge of the churchyard where the poor had their final resting places.  There she saw a pile of earth covered with grass and a wooden cross with only the words Sonia and her child.

So it was true.  Her new husband, her very wealthy and important new husband, had buried his first wife in a pauper's grave with no respect and no remorse.  Felice's heart sank and she was suddenly filled with dread.  What was the story behind Sonia's untimely death that her husband had done that to her, with no respect for her memory, not even a thought for the opinions of his peers?  Felice could not even imagine what crime she had committed, but she hoped it was not because she had failed to give him a healthy son and had not survived to try again.  That would be callous in the extreme, but from what she had heard, he was quite capable of such an act.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Featured post

FIVE FREE BOOKS FOR NEW SUBSCRIBERS TO MY READERS' GROUP NEWSLETTER

FREE BOOKS These are the e-books you will receive absolutely free when you sign up for my Readers' Group Newsletter. Three of the...