Read Vice and Virtue Online

Authors: Veronica Bennett

Vice and Virtue (4 page)

BOOK: Vice and Virtue

“Thank you, Richard.” Never removing his gaze from Aurora’s face, Edward kissed the garter before allowing Mr Allcott to tie it to his hat. Amid the applause that followed, he said, “Now, let us have more dancing. As we have seen, traditions must be adhered to.”

The musicians played; the hour grew late. Aurora’s head and feet began to ache, and she was relieved when Edward ordered one last dance before thanking and dismissing the musicians. They bowed, and while the dancers applauded, Aurora sank gratefully into a chair.

The man-servant appeared in the doorway, almost hidden behind armfuls of rosemary and branches of bay. He put his load on the floor, gave Edward an inscrutable look, and retreated.

“Oh, Eleanora, look!” exclaimed Flora. “We are going to strew the way for them!”

Aurora could not find it in her heart to look forward to the events leading up to the bride-bedding. But she made no comment while her sisters scooped up handfuls of greenery, sticking sprays in each other’s hair, and trying to do the same to their mother. Mrs Eversedge resisted, though amiably. “Oh, girls, if only your father were alive to see this!”

“If Father were alive, Aurora would not be in this situation.”

Everyone turned to Flora, who immediately flushed. “I mean,” she continued, twisting a sprig of rosemary in her fingers, “Mr Francis – Edward, that is – would never have… Oh, do not listen to me. I have spoken hastily.”

“Quite right, young lady, you have,” admonished her mother. “And you must apologize.”

Edward held up his hand. “My dear madam, Flora is mortified enough.” An expectant silence hung upon the room as he came to Aurora’s side, took her hand and drew her to her feet. “We are all aware,” he declared, “that the circumstances of this wedding are not what Aurora deserves. Her father would not have parted with his daughter in anything but the traditional manner, bestowing upon her a dowry and demanding, rightly, that a contract be drawn up. But I will do everything in my power to honour and protect Aurora, and to make her as happy as she has made me today.”

He leaned towards Aurora and placed a kiss upon her lips. She had never been kissed by a man before. His mouth felt soft, and the stubble on his chin scratched her skin. But Aurora did not feel the emotion a bride should feel. She felt a sense of loss. She was no longer Aurora Eversedge, eldest daughter of a Westminster mantua-maker. She was Aurora Francis, mistress of Hartford House, and whatever lay before her was in the hands of this plain, bookish, music-loving man.

A stifled exclamation came from Eleanora. She was staring at the bay leaves in her hand as if she were wondering how they had got there. “Oh, Aurora!” Advancing towards her eldest sister, she held out her arms. “I hope he loves you truly!”

And, clinging to Aurora as tightly as a child to its mother, she burst into tears.

The fragrance of rosemary and bay reminded Aurora of Father’s garden. He had favoured flowers, but had grown herbs too, for the cooking pot and to indulge his love of orderliness. Rosemary, thyme, lavender, parsley, all in rows, and the pretty bay tree in the corner, against a sunny wall. When Aurora and her sisters were small, they were set to picking and drying the herbs for muslin bags, or to be stored in the kitchen. Aurora had loved the bursts of scent that came from the crushed thyme, the solid, shiny green of the bay leaves, the papery lavender flowers.

The smell filled the room. Edward’s bedchamber was not large, but it had a pleasant aspect, with windows on two sides. Hartford House was square and well built, with a carved canopy above the door. The windowpanes sparkled, the grounds were neat, the furniture and decoration tasteful. Throughout the afternoon, Aurora’s mother had not been able to hide her satisfaction at the prospect of her daughter’s substantial inheritance. Later, she had demanded to make Aurora ready for bed and present her to her new husband in the bedchamber, as tradition demanded. But seeing Aurora’s discomfiture, Edward had instructed Mr Allcott to take Mrs Eversedge and her younger daughters home to Dacre Street, and leave himself and his new bride in peace.

Aurora’s eyes became hot as she imagined the conversation in the carriage. This stuffy, fragrance-filled room was very different from the chamber she and Flora had shared. She already missed the sight of Flora’s face, animated in the candlelight, her stream of chatter mingling with the street sounds below. But Aurora had secured her freedom from that childhood existence by making her bargain with Edward. She had taken a step into a new world.

Her mother had explained what her husband would expect from her in return. She considered herself prepared, but when a knock sounded on the dressing-room door, her heart leapt. Her voice was so soft when she called for Edward to enter, she wondered if he could have heard it. She lay against the pillows, her hands folded on the counterpane, her heartbeat unsteady.

Edward opened the door. Wigless, he was wearing a nightshirt of white linen, with frilled cuffs and an embroidered hem that stopped short of a pair of white ankles and bony feet. All this Aurora had expected, but she could not help staring. She had never seen him without his wig before. The lack of it did not improve his appearance. His hair, which was very dark, was not clipped close or shaved off, like that of many men who wore wigs, but cut untidily into locks of differing lengths – short above his brow, longer behind his ears – perhaps by his own hand. Whatever his vices might be, it was clear that the personal vanity of the wealthy was not amongst them. The proportions of his head were not bad, and the neck that emerged from the ruffled collar of the nightshirt was slender, with a prominent Adam’s apple.

She thought he would smile then, his face taking on the tender look she had seen at the wedding, and climb into the bed beside her. But he crossed the room to one of the windows, where he leaned on the sill, his face immobile and, to Aurora’s dismay, unreadable.

“What is it, Edward?” she asked. Was he about to tell her that he was feeling too ill or exhausted to perform the act of consummation tonight? His weakness would be a constant in her married life. Consumptives never recovered. “Is there something wrong?”

He took an embroidered robe from the back of a chair and put it on. Then he came and stood beside one of the posts at the bottom of the bed, his eyes upon Aurora’s face. She watched his fingers twist the fronds of the tasselled cord that secured the bed curtains.

“My dear Aurora,” he began, “I am not quite as I have represented myself to you. Now I will tell you the truth, and you must decide, in the light of that truth, what you will do.”

A coldness crept over Aurora, raising gooseflesh upon her arms. She sat up and pushed her loosened hair behind her shoulders. “I do not understand, sir.”

He did not look at her, but worked more vigorously on the tassel. “It is quite simple. Nothing that you see around you is mine. Not this tassel, nor this curtain, nor this bed, nor this house. It all belongs to Richard, who – thank God! – has remained a loyal friend. The servants and musicians who attended to us today are associates of Richard. Actors, who have been paid for their silence. I have no carriage, no horses, no estate, no fortune.” His voice quivered on the last word. He swallowed several times, composing himself. “I have nothing,” he said. “Not even consumption.”

Aurora said nothing. She had not the breath. She felt as if something had struck her chest with great force, squeezing the air out of it.

“My health is no more delicate than yours,” continued Edward, raising his eyes to look at her at last. His voice was full of bitterness. “Though I do a mightily clever impression of a consumptive, do I not? Leaning on a stick, barely joining in the dancing, even arriving late for my own wedding? It could barely be improved. A coughing fit, perhaps? Blood on my wedding clothes? Richard warned me it was a risk, and that you might take offence at my lack of punctuality and change your mind. But I insisted. I knew you would not.”

Aurora’s brain buzzed with bewildered questions, interrupting one another, beginning but not ending. She could not voice any of them because her lips would not form the words. She was aware that she had pulled the covers up to her chin and was staring at her husband as if he were an exhibit at a freak show that she had paid a penny to view. Beyond that, bafflement had paralyzed her senses.

“May God forgive me,” said Edward bleakly, “but I tricked you because I love you. How else would a penniless man have persuaded you to marry him?”

The bravado he had summoned in order to make this extraordinary confession had deserted him. In the candlelight the rich colours of his robe contrasted with the pallor of his face. He remained standing for a moment longer, kneading his hands. Then he untied the tasselled cords one by one and let the bed curtains fall. Taking a candle from a side table, he sat on the bed, holdng the candle so that its flame would illuminate his face, and Aurora’s.

“I know you are astonished,” he said, his voice both tender and urgent, “but I swear before God that what I am about to tell you is the truth.”

At last, Aurora found words.

“Sir, no more!” In the small, candlelit space, their shadows thrown weirdly upon the bed curtains, she addressed him as calmly as her thudding heart would allow. “Mr Allcott will be returned with the carriage by now. I will prevail upon him to take me home.” Her throat contracted. She absolutely
would not
cry but she could not suppress her outrage. “What a good joke it must be for you and Mr Allcott, and his play-acting ‘associates’! A clandestine marriage with a willing girl! Dear God, only a madman or a criminal would perpetrate a falsehood on this scale!”

“I beg you, Aurora—”

She held up her palm. “Do not speak to me. I do not know to what end you sought to humiliate me, but you will have no further opportunity to do so.” She pushed aside the blankets, fought her way between the heavy curtains and put her bare feet on the floor. “I must leave this house without more ado.”

Edward did not speak. His face was stony.

“We made a bargain,” she reminded him angrily. “Your money for my flesh. Well, sir, no money, no flesh!”

She had no robe, but her cloak lay upon the window seat. She gathered it into her arms and went towards the dressing-room, where she had left her other clothes. The handle turned, but nothing happened. Her shoulder hit the door. There was no doubt it was locked. She flew to the bedroom door and tried its handle, equally fruitlessly.

The desire to scream for help fought with the certain knowledge that Mr Allcott had not yet returned, and the impostor servants had already gone. No one else was in the house. Aurora tried to breathe; she tried to think. She was ready to plead, or even fight, but she must escape.

Edward’s black eyes glowed as he walked towards her. She yelped in fear, but he stopped before he was near enough to touch her. “You are quite correct,” he said steadily, “we did make a bargain, and I am determined to keep my half of it, as I assured you. You may not give me your flesh, but I, God willing, may yet give you my money.”

Aurora’s breath had shortened so severely that her lungs burned. She could not control her fear. In the face of imprisonment by this man to whom she had promised herself, but who by his own admission was a liar and a deceiver, she could not find courage. “I am frightened,” she gasped.

“There is no need. But I cannot allow you to leave this room until I have told you the reason for my shameful behaviour. When you have heard me, you will be free to do as you consider best.”

Aurora put on her cloak, thinking busily. Another bargain had presented itself. “I will hear you, sir, if you will unlock the door.”

“I cannot do that.”

“Then I cannot hear you.”

“You are stubborn.”

“I am intelligent. You told me so yourself.”

He contemplated her for a moment, neither smiling nor frowning. Calculating, perhaps. Then he drew a bunch of keys from the pocket of his robe.

Aurora stood aside while he unlocked the door. He stepped back, the keys still in his hand, his eyes still upon her. But by the time he had drawn breath to speak she had pulled the heavy door a few inches open and slipped through. Her bare feet slapping the flagstones, she ran along the gallery and down the stairs. Her heart pounded; her temples throbbed. At last, tears escaped, half blinding her as she ran. How could this have happened? How could everything she had believed be false? She desired only to get away from this place, and from Edward Francis.

She stopped at the bottom of the stairs. Where was he? Why was he not following her?

The house was utterly silent. The lighted tapers on the walls of the hallway showed that the main door was secured by bolts and an iron bar. Moonlight threw patterned shadows from the small-paned windows. The door to the dining room stood open, revealing the remains of the wedding breakfast. The actors had left the clearing-up, apparently, for Mr Allcott’s real servants.

Aurora’s legs were trembling. Her tears cooling on her cheeks, she sat down on the bottom stair. She was alone, at the mercy of a man who was not the fool she had taken him for. He had unlocked the door knowing perfectly well she would flee. She might escape Richard Allcott’s bedchamber, but she could not escape his house. If she ventured out at this hour, dressed only in a nightdress and cloak, with no carriage or driver, and not knowing the way from Hartford House to Dacre Street, she would not get far.

For a moment she wondered wildly if she could take a horse from the stables and ride to London, relying upon strangers to set her on the road to Westminster. But she had been brought up in the city, and was no horsewoman. She leaned her head against the banister post, beset by the weariness of defeat.

“Aurora,” said Edward from the top of the stairs. “You will freeze to death. Come back to the bedchamber. I swear I will leave you alone there, once you have heard me out, which you promised to do if I opened the door.”

She pulled her cloak closer around her. “I care nothing for your ‘swearing’, sir.”

The sound of his footsteps as he descended the stairs jolted Aurora’s heart once more. She could not fight down her fear of this man, who, careless of the fact that he had deceived her so wantonly, continued to press his request to be heard. She huddled at the edge of the staircase, clamping her teeth together to stop them chattering. She was cold, to be sure, and fear was making her colder. She drew her bare feet under her nightdress, waiting for his next words.

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