The Second Wife
There was but one way in which Charlotte Wallis ever learned of plans for her family and that was to listen at doors. It was this habit of eavesdropping which had given her the knowledge that, since her father bought this house from the impoverished Earl of Sutton, he had received unwelcome visits from local noblemen and knights.
These fine gentlemen seemed unanimously to resent Master Wallis’s sudden rise in wealth and status, brought about by sheer hard work and guile. These titled men believed themselves a race apart from the man of trade and worked very hard to keep the lower classes in their place.
Charlotte started life in a small house in London which she shared with her mother and father and her younger brothers and sisters. They were a happy family, a family of free born townfolk who worked hard to make the best they could from life.
Master Wallis’ wealth came gradually and built up slowly until he had enough to employ others to do the work and he wanted to grant his wife’s wish for a big house and estate such as the nobility enjoyed.
He at first tried to buy land on which to build his house, but always before anything could be properly arranged, the land would be sold to someone else and he knew it was his so-called betters, trying to stop him from building a house as good as their own.
Lord Sutton, however, had fallen on hard times and of his many properties, this one was the greatest drain on his limited resources. It was a large house, much larger than the family had been used to, but there was not much arable land to produce grain and few tenant farmers to produce income in the form of rents. There was a very small village, inhabited by the tenants of Willowside who worked their small farms and gave what they could. Master Wallis took only their rents as his wealth was such that he had no need of more and saw no value in taking from these poor people. He had been poor himself once, so knew what hardship that could cause.
Lord Sutton decided to sell and knowing how his fellow earls resented Master Wallis’s efforts, he had approached him directly with an offer to sell Willowside, a large manor house which had been part of his late wife’s dowry. He asked a price for the estate which was far more than its worth, but he knew Master Wallis could afford it and would be willing to pay. It was the only way he would get his manor house and Lord Sutton felt no disloyalty in betraying his fellow noblemen; his only interest was in the money.
The Wallis family moved into Willowside before it was ready for habitation, but Master Wallis thought it best to let the lords know he was going nowhere. He also feared vandalism if the house remained empty so he moved his family in straight away, inviting Lord Sutton and his daughter to return any time they wished to retrieve their belongings.
Most of the furniture Lord Sutton decided to leave for the new owners, but his daughter had some personal things she wanted. That was why she was there that summer afternoon, sorting through souvenirs of her childhood, looking for any clothing that was still fit to be worn.
She was in the chamber which had once been hers but now was used by Charlotte. Knowing that Lady Felice would be coming for her things, she had left them exactly where they were and that lady seemed pleased about that.
“I am sorry to intrude,” she said to Charlotte. “Had I notice of the sale, I would have taken my things before you moved in.”
“Lord Sutton did not tell you?” Charlotte asked.
She could not imagine such a thing. If her father was selling his house, he would certainly have told all his family, but perhaps the nobility did these things differently.
Lady Felice was a very beautiful young woman. Her hair was blonde and arranged intricately on her head to show her long neck. Her skin was very smooth, like fine china almost, and looking at her, Charlotte caught herself running her fingers over her own face in comparison.
“No, he did not. Unfortunately he has not told me most of the mistakes he has made over the years since my mother died. He loved her, you see, and when she died he was beside himself with grief. He found solace in gambling. He gambled away almost everything we had and more.” She glanced up at Charlotte and blushed. “Forgive me. I should not be telling you these things; it is disrespectful. I love my father, but I am so angry with him! Had he told me his problems earlier, I might have been able to do something, although what I cannot think.”
“I am sorry. It must be very hard for you. My father says this house was to be part of your dowry.”
“It was. I have been betrothed to Viscount Thomas Lindsay since I was a child, but now, with no dowry, the marriage may not happen. We shall see.”
Charlotte thought that odd, both that they had been betrothed since childhood and that the young man would not marry her without a dowry. If he loved her, it would not matter.
“You do not mean betrothed, do you?” She asked. “I mean not officially. You mean promised or something.”
Felice glanced at her and raised an eyebrow, gave a cynical grin.
“No, Mistress,” she said. “I mean betrothed.”
“Oh,” was all Charlotte could think to say.
“Ah, there it is!” Felice exclaimed suddenly as she reached into the bottom of her clothes chest. “I knew it was here somewhere.”
“What is it?”
She held up a beautiful gold bracelet, intricately carved with hearts and roses, and draped it over her wrist.
“It is beautiful,” Charlotte said. “I wonder why it was buried in the chest.”
“I threw it there when the Viscount told me he had doubts about our marriage. It was a gift from him when we were but twelve years old and I was angry with him.”
“Because he refused to marry you?”
“No. Because he told me there was no dowry left except this house. I had no idea until then that my father was having difficulties and I was angry that Thomas knew and showed no sensitivity in sharing the knowledge.”
“Well, now you have it back at least.”
“Yes,” she answered, clutching the bracelet in her hand. “Now I can sell it. It might fetch enough to help Father more, although I doubt it.”
“Do you want to sell it? Does it not hold sentimental value?”
Felice shook her head.
“Thomas asked me to return it,” she said angrily. “Can you imagine that? When he learned that my father had sold Willowside, the last vestige of my dowry, he had the temerity to ask for his bracelet back! So I shall be taking it to the goldsmith in Colchester at the earliest opportunity.”
Charlotte watched her for a few more moments. She wondered why she was doing this herself instead of bringing a servant, but she thought it best not to ask. She could offer one of their own maids, but somehow she knew the offer would not be welcome.
“If your marriage to Viscount Lindsay is not to take place, what will happen then?”
“To me?” Lady Felice rolled her eyes up to look at the ceiling. “Who knows? I have more important things to think about, like keeping my father out of debtor’s prison and keeping a roof over our heads.” She paused and sighed heavily. “Oh dear! I am saying far too much. Why are you so easy to talk to?”
Charlotte shook her head and smiled.
“I had no idea I was.”
“Well, you are. Do not be surprised if everyone throughout your life burdens you with their problems. But please, do not breathe a word. My father would be humiliated more than he already is. Everyone hereabouts knows about his problems, but they are too polite to speak of it so he can pretend they are ignorant of the facts.”
“My Lady,” Charlotte said as her hand covered Felice’s. “You and your father have a home here should the need arise. I know my father would welcome you both.”
Felice turned to her, tears in her lovely blue eyes, and she took Charlotte into her arms and hugged her.
“You are very kind,” she said. “I will not forget. It may well come to that; we have nothing left to sell except Sutton Place itself.”
“That is His Lordship’s estate?”
“Yes. It used to be a wealthy property, used to produce a good income, but no more. It takes money to produce money and Father simply cannot afford to run it. I wish there was something more I could do to help him, marry a very rich man or something. But I fear Sutton Place will have to go. I hope it does not come to that, but I fear it will.”
“Would you do that?” Charlotte asked. “Marry a very rich man for your father’s sake?”
“If I could find one, yes I would. But wealthy, unattached men are in very short supply.”
She glanced out of the window to the small garden below. Lord Sutton had planted that garden specially for her and she hoped the Wallises would keep it up.
“Do you mind if I ask you a favour?” She asked.
“May I take some of the roses from the garden? My father had them planted for me. Lord knows when I shall ever have them again.”
This would be the first summer Charlotte and her family had spent at Willowside. Renovations had been going on for a little while and her father was having gardens made from the meadows closest to the house. Lord Sutton had never actually lived in this house, so he never saw the need for gardens, just the small cluster of rose bushes he grew for his daughter. But Charlotte’s mother wanted them. She was feeling very important about their sudden rise in status and wanted whatever the upper classes had, although gardens were not something even they had in general.
Charlotte just happened to be observing the gardeners from the window of her bedchamber and appreciating the muscular figure of the young man who was planting the hedges, when she saw the large black stallion approaching, ridden by a very handsome man. He was in his late twenties or early thirties, with dark, glossy hair and muscular thighs beneath his deerskin breeches. She could only imagine what was beneath the matching jacket, but he definitely provoked her interest and tore her attention away from the young gardener.
He approached the house and her eyes followed him as he rode up to the porch and dismounted. She supposed he was another local lord come to complain about her father having the audacity to buy a large manor house. It was a shame; he was such a good looking man, a petty nature would spoil the image altogether.
She crept out of her bedchamber and slipped through the open door, made her way quickly to the spiral staircase which led up to the attics where the servants slept. There she sat on the floor beneath the stairs where she could listen without detection. Below her the staircase continued down to the great hall and that was where the visitor stood with her father.
She waited to hear raised voices; her father would not be cowed by these men, would not apologise for being able to afford the things he wanted, and for that she was proud of him. She was also rather enjoying the lords’ frustration at not being able to either buy or bully their way to their goal, which was to banish Master Wallis to what they considered a more appropriate dwelling.
The opening of shipping lanes between England the eastern countries had given more freedom to merchants like Master Wallis, had brought them wealth as they could now import many fine silks as well as expensive spices which could not be found in England. He had even imported sugar, a very expensive and rare sweetener which was unheard of in their cold little island. Now ordinary, hard working men like Charlotte’s father could rise up and attain the same things as noblemen and the latter would need to be very devious and part with a lot of money to stop them.
There were laws to dictate what fabrics and colours could be worn by the middle classes, laws meant to be sure they never rose too far above their station. She had no idea if she was wearing a colour she was not allowed to; nobody really took these laws seriously.
Peering through the gaps in the stairs, she could see that the two men had seated themselves at the table, that her father was pouring wine into pewter goblets for them both. This looked quite civilised. Her father had shown no particular hospitality to the other lords who had come calling. Perhaps this one was trying a different approach, just to persuade him to leave. He was unlikely to sell, Charlotte knew. He had spent too much already on the renovations and her mother would never part with her new house.
Charlotte smiled. It would be a shame to disappoint such a handsome man, but she anticipated some entertainment in his attempts.
“I am honoured by your visit, Sir,” her father was saying now. “I am at a loss, however. Have we met?”
“My name is Robin Willard, Sir,” the man replied, his voice deep and his accent displaying his heritage. “The Earl of Eversley. I noticed your arrival, I noticed your family. I expect you paid a high price for this estate.”
Ah, here it comes. Now he would offer a higher price for them to leave.
“I did, but I was happy to do so. Lord Sutton was kind enough to sell it to me, having learned of my thwarted attempts to build.”
There was a note of sarcasm in Master Wallis’s voice and now Charlotte saw the Earl grin sardonically.
“I have heard about your problems in that direction,” the Earl said. “I have to admit to some amusement myself and I admire your determination.”
Master Wallis bowed his head and lifted his goblet.
“That is kind of you to say,” he said. “But I find it hard to believe you have come here to welcome me and my family to the neighbourhood.”
“I have a proposition for you, Sir,” said the Earl.
“I will not sell, no matter what you offer.”
“And I have no interest in buying,” the Earl replied. “But you will not be left in peace. I anticipate you will receive many offers to buy this place, but I may have a way to save you the inconvenience, to give you some sort of acceptance among my peers, if a tenuous one.”
Master Wallis raised an eyebrow.
“I cannot imagine that I have anything which you might want,” he said.
“Then you would be wrong. I have, as I said, been observing your family and I have noticed you have a very lovely young daughter.”
Charlotte caught her breath, covered her mouth with her hand to prevent an audible gasp from escaping and revealing her presence, while her father frowned suspiciously.
“What of it?” He said.
“Simply that I am in need of a wife and I would be honoured if you would accept my offer for her hand in marriage.”
Charlotte was sure her sharp intake of breath must be heard by the two men. She sat rigidly, watching to see if either were looking toward the stairs and had perhaps discovered her hiding place. This man wanted to marry her? Not only was he temptingly handsome, he was an Earl!
She swallowed hard and peered once more through the gaps. Her father could be obstinate at times and he might take pleasure in refusing such an offer in the hope of establishing himself, to let these lords know he was not to be bought; she hoped not. Surely he would not allow his stubborn nature to get in the way of such an offer, would he? In truth, she could not have said for certain. She hardly knew her father; he had spent most of her life away making money for his family and having got to this stage, where he could afford this grand house and estate, could afford the fabrics his class were not permitted to wear, to her it was almost akin to having a stranger in the house.
She listened carefully, waiting for either one of the men to speak; neither did, not for many minutes until Charlotte thought she could stand the silence no more. She felt sure she would burst if one of them did not say something soon.
At last it was her father who broke the silence.
“Forgive me, My Lord,” he said, “but I am at a loss to know your intentions with this offer. Surely there are many ladies within your own circles from which to choose a bride.”
No! Please do not try to talk him out of it!
“That is true,” the Earl replied. “But I grow tired of noblewomen. They are mostly very pretentious and rarely honest.”
“You have a low opinion of your own class, My Lord. How can I know you will not have an even lower one of mine? Judging by your age, I am guessing you must be a widower. Are there children involved?”
The Earl frowned, looked a little surprised at Master Wallis’s question.
“I will tell you all of that when I have your consent, Sir.”
Charlotte wished she had a better view of their expressions.
“You will have my consent, My Lord, when I have my daughter’s,” her father said.
“Oh,” murmured Lord Eversley. “Forgive me. I was not expecting that.”
“No? Well, you are unaccustomed to our way of doing things. You are a good deal older than my daughter, My Lord, and if you are not a widower, I think I am entitled to know how you have reached this age without marrying.”
Lord Eversley was thoughtful. He had most certainly not expected this tradesman to question his motives in asking for his daughter. What he had expected was that the man would be grateful, happy with the opportunity of a door into aristocratic circles. After all, he had spent a long time trying and failing to buy land on which to build his grand house, he had gone to a lot of effort in refusing to be intimidated into giving up the idea and building something smaller to please a lot of noblemen who were unknown to him.
Robin felt bemused by this outcome, that feeling being quickly followed by a dart of shame for his presumption.
There were many large estates in this part of the country and each one was ruled by its own Lord of the Manor, be he an earl, a baron or even a duke or a marquess, but each of these men had a vested and determined interest in keeping the lower classes in their place. That was becoming more difficult since free trade with the east had opened up to all who had the guile and the ambition to take the opportunities presented to them.
Most of these noblemen had joined together to pursue their common goal of stopping Master Wallis and others like him from building new estates to equal their own and they had succeeded until Lord Sutton approached the merchant, with no prior consultation with his peers, and offered to sell Willowside. It was true he was heavily in debt and needed the money, but his fellow lords would have bought it from him. Robin knew why he had not told them of his intention; it would have hurt his pride too much to have to go to them for help.
So Master Wallis had bought Willowside and moved in with his family and the lords had made many attempts to persuade him to sell to them. He had refused each and every one. It was not that they wanted to prevent him building a house at all, that was not the case. What they did want was to prevent him building a large, self sufficient estate, with tenant farmers and a village of its own, all the things that made up the sort of estate only a titled gentleman should own.
While Willowside had little in the way of land, Master Wallis had also bought the adjoining acres which Lord Sutton had allowed to lie fallow over too many years and he had the wealth to build a bigger village and to restore that farmland.
As a last resort, they had presented Robin with the task, since they had all failed. What they could not know was that his heart was really not in the project and he had taken his time about it, so much time in fact that he had been able to observe the family and take a fancy to the Wallis daughter.
She was very beautiful, very young too. Her hair was dark, as dark as his own and she had a pleasing figure. But what attracted him more than anything else was her laughter. He had watched her with her little brothers and sisters, playing some sort of game in the grounds, and when he first heard that laugh, he thought it must be coming from one of the children. But no, it was young Charlotte whose laughter reached out to him and brought a reluctant smile to his lips.
He had been sent here to try to persuade her father to sell the estate and move his family elsewhere, not to become attracted to this young maid. She was a grown woman, even though a young one, and by this age all the maidens of his acquaintance would be taught that it was unladylike to laugh in public so openly and loudly like this. Was it in public? She was on her own father’s land, after all, so perhaps things would be different in the town. But he doubted it somehow. Her laughter was spontaneous and joyous, as though she was having the most enjoyable time of her life. She obviously loved these younger siblings of hers and would likely make a fine mother.
That thought was followed by an image of his own daughter, a girl of six years whose mind had never grown. She was the main reason he had discarded her mother, his first wife.
Now he turned back to Master Wallis, who was still waiting for an answer to his question.
“I was married, Sir,” Lord Eversley said. “I had the marriage annulled.”
Once again, the man’s forthright way of speaking took Robin by surprise. He was not used to such outspoken manners. He sighed, deciding that honesty was likely the most expedient way to deal with this man.
“I was not the firstborn son of my father, Sir,” he began. “My brother disappeared and after the appropriate time, my father had him declared dead. He was betrothed to Lady Annabel Fairfax; my father did not want to return her dowry, so he decided I would marry her instead. It was not a successful union and we both felt it was incestuous, being as she had been promised to my brother. We were relieved to part company.”
“Ah, so you claimed a prior commitment. Were there any offspring? My daughter is very young; I do not want her given too much responsibility.”
Once more his words took Robin by surprise. He had always been of the opinion that there was little difference between his own class and that of a merchant, that they were separated only by wealth. Now his opinion was changing. If his daughter was anything like him, she would need instruction on how to behave like the countess he intended to make her. But in that case, she would be no different to all those noblewomen he had decided he did not want.
“I have one daughter, Sir,” Robin said. “Her name is Genevieve and she is six years old. But I fear her mind is not growing as it should. I have observed your daughter with her younger siblings and she seems to have a fondness for children.”
“You are right, My Lord. Charlotte enjoys the company of her younger siblings.”
“Well, Sir,” Robin said. “Do I have your consent?”
“You have my consent to ask her, certainly. Whether she will agree is entirely up to her. Perhaps you would like to take a ride about the grounds while I talk to her.”
Robin did not know whether to be angry or amused. This was most certainly not what he had been expecting, not at all. He recalled his own brief betrothal to Annabel, how both their fathers had told them they were to wed and should they refuse they would be turned out to starve.
He got to his feet, shaking his head in puzzlement. Master Wallis’ voice stopped him.
“Tell me, My Lord, were you sent here in a further attempt to persuade me to sell?”
“I was, Sir, but really my heart was not in it. If you want to build a grand house and can afford to run it, who am I to naysay you? I began to watch your family, just to see what sort of neighbours you might make, and I became enamoured of your daughter.”
“From what I have gathered from village gossip, there is one earl who has not shown his face, who has not tried to buy land out from under me nor to buy Willowside, yet I have heard people whisper his name with a shudder.”
“Ah,” Robin replied. “You speak of Lord Christopher. He does have a fearsome reputation.”
“Then why has he not been here wanting to be rid of me and my kind?”
“Lord Christopher is a law unto himself, Sir. I have no idea whether he would agree with the others, as no one really knows him well enough to ask. He recently lost his wife in childbirth, so likely has more important things on his mind.”
“Like whether to allow her to lie in the family vault?”
Robin raised an eyebrow and gave a slight smile.
“So you have heard? As I said, he is not a popular man nor an amiable one. He has indeed buried his late wife and her child in the pauper’s section of the churchyard, but nobody knows why nor are they likely to. If there is one thing you should know about Lord Christopher, it is that he trusts no one.”
Lord Eversley had no idea that the object of his interest watched him leave the hall from her hiding place beneath the upper stairs. If he had known, he would have been surprised by her behaviour and might also have been amused. There was not a lady of his acquaintance who would sit on the floor under the stairs to eavesdrop.
Now Charlotte got awkwardly to her feet, her legs having stiffened from being squashed into her small space, and walked slowly down and into the hall to greet her father. He was watching through the window as his guest departed and he turned when he heard her movements.
He was not in the least surprised to see her there. He laughed.
“I suppose you were listening?” He said.
“How else am I to learn what is happening?”
“If it concerns you, you will be told. You know that.”
“Ah, but not the whole story. Besides, I would have known nothing about these lords who tried to frighten you away had I not eavesdropped, would I?”
“I kept that to myself to protect you and your mother from worry. She is enjoying her new found wealth and I know she will be thrilled to have a daughter called ‘countess’. But you must not allow that to influence you; not that you would.”
Charlotte’s heart began to race and she went to the window to watch Lord Eversley as he rode away into the distance. His horse was a fine animal, a huge, black stallion, and he cut a fine figure sitting astride the creature.
“Why do you think he has offered me marriage, Father?” She asked. “Do you think he is really as kind as he pretends, that he does it only to appease his peers?”
“I am not sure about that, my dear, but he has a child, a daughter. It seems to me he has watched you with your brothers and sisters and feels you might be a good mother to her. He said her mind had not grown, whatever that means.”
She felt a little disappointed with his suggestion, but she consoled herself.
“Surely if that was his only interest, he could employ a nurse for her,” she said. “I think perhaps he cannot persuade a noblewoman to join with him because he annulled his first marriage. It might make a lady feel insecure, do you not think?”
“You could be right.” Master Wallis paused, went to stand behind her at the window.
The Earl stopped and turned back toward the house now and as he came closer Charlotte could not help but notice his fine features, his glossy black hair, the strength in his figure. She felt a little pulse deep inside, an unfamiliar feeling of excitement but not like the stomach fluttering excitement she knew when anticipating an event or a dressmaker’s visit. This was different; this was a sort of physical excitement which she could not explain.
She began to consider how this man would look without his heavy leather jacket and she blushed.
“Well, Charlotte,” her father said, squeezing her shoulder. “The decision is yours. I would like you to meet with him before you make that decision though. It might be the custom for lords and ladies to marry someone they have never spoken to, but it is not my idea of how to begin a lifetime together.”
“How did you meet my mother?” She asked.
Now why had she never considered that before?
“Our marriage was arranged by our parents, but not like this. We went to her parents’ home where we were formally introduced and had time to get to know each other. I certainly did not ask her father for her hand and expect it to be granted without a word to her. Very odd if you ask me.”
“It is to us, yes. But I doubt it is the only difference I shall have to get used to.”
“So you have decided then?”
“He is very handsome,” she said. “And he has a kind smile.”
Master Wallis laughed, pulled her close, then turned to see his visitor returning to the hall.
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