Authors: Anne O'Brien
Tags: #England/Great Britain, #17th Century, #Fiction - Historical, #Royalty, #Romance & Love Stories
nd how long do you expect to be gone?’ Lady Elizabeth Oxenden, seated in the window embrasure of the library at Winteringham Priory, addressed her son.
‘Two weeks. Possibly three.’ Viscount Marlbrooke stood behind the desk, leafing through a sheaf of estate papers. He was dressed for travel, his cloak, gloves and flamboyantly plumed hat cast negligently on the chair by the door. ‘I trust that you will be quite comfortable during my absence. Verzons will see to all your comforts. And there is, of course, Felicity.’
Indeed there was. She did not care to dwell too much on the thought. The grey light that dulled the brocade curtains and barely crept into the distant corners of the room matched her mood perfectly.
‘I beg you will not leave me too long at Felicity’s
mercy. I need someone I can talk with, without having to watch my every word in case it offends her sensibilities.’ She deliberately kept the tone light. She would not burden him with a need to dance attendance on his mother.
‘Would I do such a thing?’ He raised his eyes to hers, humour glinting, his expression one of surprised innocence. Studying the slight, pretty woman with sable hair, now heavily streaked with silver, he allowed her to set the tone and direction of the exchange.
‘Find her something to do. There must be enough attics to clear out in this place to keep her from under your feet.’
But then I would be lonely.
‘What an excellent suggestion. Felicity excels at organisation. I will tell her you suggested it.’
‘I wouldn’t, if I were you. She would immediately balk at the suggestion.’ They smiled at each other, in perfect understanding.
‘I suppose, Marcus, that you will find the opportunity to visit Whitehall?’ Lady Elizabeth deliberately turned her eyes to the view beyond the window. Although she might wish herself back in London with its distractions and glamour, she found it difficult to hide her censure of some of the more extreme elements of the Restoration Court.
‘Of course. Do I detect a hint of disapproval?’
Marlbrooke cast the papers on to the desk and moved with agile grace to sit opposite her. ‘You should know, madam, that it pays me to keep my name and person in the King’s mind. Charles is gracious and affable, but notoriously fickle. And since I need his favour yet for the security of my inheritance here at the Priory, I will pay my respects to him with due humility and considerable flattery.’ His black brows rose in faint mockery. ‘I find that I have become adept at it. Do you not approve?’
‘I would—’ she frowned ‘—if our esteemed Sovereign Lord were not such a bad example for any man to follow. There, now! I don’t suppose I should have said that, should I?”
‘Certainly not! Can this be his Majesty King Charles, our beloved monarch, brought back from exile, who has earned your displeasure in three short years? Are such opinions not treasonable?’ The gleam in his eye was most pronounced. Conversations with Elizabeth Oxenden were always stimulating.
‘Most definitely. Rumour says—and I am sure that it is true—that he lost one hundred pounds at cards in one sitting last Twelfth Night.’
‘But, as you should know,
do not gamble. Not unless the cards are definitely stacked in my favour.’
‘And as for that baggage Barbara Villiers …’
Marlbrooke laughed aloud. ‘And what do you know about the Lady Castlemaine? Have you been indulging in scandalous gossip again?’
‘Of course I have. This place may be some miles from London, but I frequently receive interesting news by letter. Some of it I could blush for!”
‘So now you are critical of our new King’s taste in women. Barbara Villiers is a very attractive lady. Ravishing, in fact. A riot of auburn hair, deep blue eyes. And such a figure …’
‘And such a trollop!’
‘The Villiers blood is as good as yours, Mother.’ He grinned his appreciation of her assessment of the lady who had installed herself so effectively as Charles’s current mistress.
‘That may very well be, but she is still—’
‘A trollop. As you said. But she has a passionate nature—and Charles is attracted. The lady has presented his Majesty with two healthy offspring already.’
‘And neither of them legitimate.’ Elizabeth wrinkled her nose in distaste. ‘Of what use is that? The man needs a legitimate heir. My heart goes out to poor Queen Catherine—how she tolerates it I know not. I only hope that
do not bring home such an ambitious, self-seeking harpy as your wife.’
‘Mistress Lovell is not an ambitious harpy.’
‘Mistress Lovell?’ Elizabeth’s eyes widened, searching in her mind for the last name to be linked in liaison with that of her son. ‘I thought it was Dorothea Templeton.’
‘No. That was last month.’
‘Oh, Marcus. I wish you would not!’ But she could not prevent a ghost of a smile from warming her expression.
‘I know. But allow me a little freedom and pleasure. I promise that while I am at Whitehall I will neither gamble away my fortune nor bring our name into disrepute. Nor marry a trollop. Does that satisfy?’
‘I suppose it must.’
‘I shall marry soon enough and produce an heir to the estate and grandchildren for you to spoil.’
‘It is time.’ She hesitated and then broached the delicate subject that had been on her mind for some days. ‘You will see Sir Henry Jessop?’
‘Yes. It is my intention to go to Downham Hall.’ The humour immediately vanished from Marlbrooke’s face. ‘It is more than time that the matter was settled.’
‘And so you are fixed on this marriage?’
‘Of course. It is the perfect solution. For both our families.’
‘She may reject you, you realise.’
‘I doubt it.’ His shoulders lifted in the slightest of shrugs. ‘It is as politically advantageous for the Harleys as it is for the Oxendens. Perhaps more so. The girl’s situation is not enviable. Not everyone is as tolerant of erstwhile supporters of Parliament as King Charles. I am sure they will have suffered their share of slanderous gossip and malicious revenge, so I would be amazed if Katherine Harley did not leap at the chance of so advantageous an alliance.’
Elizabeth was compelled by good sense to agree. She looked at her handsome, charming,
son who resembled so closely his father. And remembered the days when, as a young girl, she had been swept off her feet to fall headlong into a love that lasted until death had parted them. What girl in her right mind would reject Marcus Oxenden? Katherine Harley would be either a fool or blind to do so.
‘Would you not consider marrying for love?’ Her suggestion, for once, was tentative. It was not, she knew, a subject open for discussion.
Marlbrooke smiled at her, making no attempt to hide the deep affection between them, understanding her anxieties. He leaned forward to bracelet her wrists in a light clasp. ‘It may not be. I know that you adored my father. And he you. But such a blessing is not for everyone. I do not look for love in marriage. Merely respect, friendship if we are fortunate—tolerance if we are not. I believe that Katherine Harley will be more than suitable as a wife. Now, let that be an end to it. There is no need for your concern.’
Elizabeth sighed, but accepted from experience that there was no good to be had in pursuing the matter further.
‘Be kind to her, Marcus,’ was the only comment she allowed herself to make. ‘Her childhood can not have been quite comfortable. And tell her … tell her that I will welcome her here as my daughter.’
‘I will.’ She instantly knew that she had touched a nerve. His tone took on a sardonic note. ‘Many would tell you that I have no such finer motives, but whatever they might say about my character, it is not my intention to be cruel to her.’
‘I know all about your character! I would not accuse you of such things!’
He showed his teeth at her response. ‘But you are biased, my love.’ Then made her smile again as he raised her hands to his lips and kissed them lavishly.
‘Just try not to overawe the poor child.’
‘It was not my intention.’
‘No. But it would be so very easy for you to do.’
‘I will do my poor best. Nor is it my intention to punish her for past sins. So don’t fret.’
‘Very well.’ And that was as far as Lady Elizabeth dare push the issue. She stood and made her way slowly towards the door, now followed by Marlbrooke.
‘So, madam. What shall I bring you from the flesh pots of London?’
‘Anything your heart desires.’
A bride with whom you have fallen hopelessly in love and who will love you in return.
‘Books, if you will. Poetry. Whatever is fashionable.’
‘Whatever I think Felicity will dislike?’
‘You are too astute for your own good.’ Elizabeth chuckled, allowing her hand to rest for a brief moment
on her son’s shoulder, smoothing the dense nap of his velvet coat.
‘I will do it, with much pleasure.’ He bent to kiss her cheek.
‘Take care, Marcus.’
And he was gone, leaving her to worry over a proposed marriage that had such cold expectations. A suitable wife, indeed! It seemed to her to be damned before it had even begun.
And now, a week after Marlbrooke’s departure, Elizabeth Oxenden made her way slowly and painfully through the Great Hall in the oldest part of Winteringham Priory. She leaned heavily on a cane, her knuckles white with the effort and her lips compressed into a firm line. Today she felt every one of her forty-eight years. It had been a long winter. Every joint and muscle ached with the persistent damp and cold. The flaring agony in her left hip caused her to limp heavily and doubt that she could reach the distant doorway without aid.
How embarrassing! It seemed such a short time ago that she had been able to ride with her husband, to dance until the candles guttered, to play in the Long Gallery with her boisterous son. She paused to rest against the heavy oak table. Her skin was still soft and clear, her eyes arresting with green flecks in their luminous grey depths, all remnants of her earlier beauty. But pain had left its
imprint, strain had touched and deepened the lines around mouth and eyes. She felt so tired. Elizabeth sniffed in an instant of weakness and self-pity and tears threatened to spill from her eyes.
But self-pity was not in her nature. She would
call for Felicity. She straightened her spine and continued her clumsy route, surveying the heavy linenfold panelling and oak floorboards that stretched before her. They looked polished and well cared for to her critical eye. She did not to any degree dislike the house. She simply wished that she was not there. She would much rather be in London where her home was familiar, far smaller without the inconvenience of long corridors and vaulted ceilings and so, of course, much easier to heat and eradicate draughts. Where friends came to visit and cheer her through the dark winter days, where there were shops, and companions and entertainments now that the King had come into his own and made it clear that he intended to rejoice in his new powers.
Her own house in the country—not this one, but Glasbury Old Hall—had been destroyed in the war, razed to the ground after a year of bitter and violent siege in 1643. All her furniture gone, her treasures and her comforts, everything but the most personal of possessions, which they had managed to carry away in a night of frenzied packing and flight.
As for this house, Winteringham Priory, her husband had valued it greatly as an object of conquest. He had
wrested it from the Harleys and taken it for his own in the same year that they had lost their own home. Sir Thomas Harley had been absent with the Parliamentarian army and his wife Philippa did not possess the backbone to withstand the siege as some beleaguered wives had done. And then Sir Thomas had been killed at Naseby—so young, such a waste … And so Elizabeth had come to live here, comfortably enough, if a little shadowed with guilt. It had seemed like justice, she supposed—if she could close her mind to the fate of Lady Philippa and the baby. But everything had changed so quickly. The house had been confiscated by Parliament under the authority of the Rump after the execution of the old King. And John, her beloved John, was now dead. Memories were too painful and Elizabeth would not willingly have returned to the Priory, no matter how magnificent its rooms, how valuable the estate.
But since King Charles had seen fit to gift the Priory to her son rather than the Harleys, here she was, uprooted from London and restored to this place of edgy memories and icy draughts. She winced and gasped in pain as she had to pull with some force to open the door from the Great Hall to the kitchen regions. It should please her that her son had the ear of the King, she mused as she rested again on a convenient window seat. But she wished he was here with her now, rather than indulging himself in the dubious pleasures of the Royal Court. Not that it was any hardship to him, to immerse himself in Court life, if
rumour did not lie. Drink, cards, women, all the delights of the flesh—John would turn in his grave if he knew what Marcus was about. And if she remonstrated with her son, the love of her life, he merely smiled that particularly charming smile, his eyes warming his handsome but frequently unnervingly austere features, assuring her that there was nothing for her to be concerned over.