Since her condition and the situation conspired to make time a significant factor, Elizabeth agreed with Jennings’ suggestion that they be married within the fortnight, and selected, at his urging, Thursday-next as a perfectly acceptable day for a wedding.
On that day, the minister arrived at Lady Morton’s barely an hour after Jennings, and he was shown into a small parlour in the back of the house – a room with huge windows that overlooked Lady Morton’s beautiful gardens. Flowers had been placed on every conceivable surface, and platters of cold meat, fruit, and biscuits were arranged on a side table beside the door. As the minister entered, a servant was setting up tea and coffee and lemonade on another small table; she gave a small curtsey to the minister, adjusted a nearby bouquet with a practiced hand, and left the parlour.
A moment later, Jennings came in, bowing a greeting to the minister. “Thank you so much for coming on such short notice, sir,” he said sincerely. “Miss Carlisle is not quite able to leave the house, but I thought it best to be married as soon as possible to avoid any further stain on her reputation.”
The minister emitted a barking sort of laugh. “It is only her father, I am assured, who perceives any ‘stain’,” he said crisply. “I have had the pleasure of meeting Sir James, sir, and he struck me as a man much devoted to very antiquated notions. His characterization of the fair sex seemed to me to be most unfair, and not rooted in any actual experience with them that I could perceive.”
“Indeed,” Jennings said, raising one eyebrow. “The women in Sir James’ life seem to be of the most exemplary sort. And,” he added, smiling broadly and standing a little taller. “I am most honoured that Miss Carlisle has accepted my hand, and that she will not be obliged to suffer any more from this attack than she already has.”
The minister leaned forward and asked quietly, “As to that, sir – you alluded – what I mean, sir, is … has there been any trace of this fellow? Have the constables anything to say?”
“I fear her attacker left few clues,” Jennings said, also in a low voice. “But I have reason to think we will bring him to earth one way or another. Hopefully quite soon.”
The minister snorted again. “And what will her father have to say then, I wonder?” he said. “When the truth is laid out before him!”
Jennings smile became rueful. “I do not think,” he said. “That it will matter to him a whit. His views seem most deeply ingrained, and I believe they may shield him from the truth, however loudly it speaks to him.”
“Sad,” the minister said, shaking his head. “He has lost a great deal over this stubbornness.”
“He has indeed,” Jennings agreed.
Behind the two men, the door to the parlour opened and Lady Morton entered, two of her daughters beside her. All three women were dressed elegantly, and the two girls carried bouquets of flowers in their hands.
“Mr. Jennings!” Lady Morton said, beaming. “Mr. Westlake,” she said to the minister, and extended her hand to him. “It is a fine morning, is it not, for a wedding?”
The minister bowed over Lady Morton’s hand. “It is very fine, ma’am,” he said.
Lady Morton indicated her daughters. “These are Mariah and Jane, my eldest girls. They will be standing up with Miss Elizabeth.”
Both Jennings and Mr. Westlake bowed to the girls, who curtsied shyly. They stood close to one another, seeming uncertain about their role of bridesmaids but apparently excited at the prospect.
“And who will stand up with you, Mr. Jennings?” Lady Morton asked.
“My friend, Lord Remington, is here, ma’am,” Jennings told her. “In fact, he has agreed to escort Miss Carlisle, and to give her in marriage in the place of her father, since he could not be here.”
“Hmm!” Lady Morton sniffed disdainfully. “‘Could not’,” she repeated. “You are very charitable, Christopher.”
“I do my best, ma’am,” he said. He turned then as Lord Remington poked his head into the room around the half-closed door.
“Are you ready, then?” he asked jovially. “Your lovely bride awaits!”
Jennings felt his heart beating faster. “I am ready,” he said, grinning at his friend.
Lord Remington swung the door wide, revealing Miss Elizabeth standing in the hallway. She stood unaided, but she held herself quite stiffly; her recovery was far from complete. Her face, however, had healed, and when she looked into the parlour at her husband-to-be, her twinkling eyes and dimpled smile were the ones he remembered from their first dance together. Her dress had been made especially by Lady Morton’s dressmaker, and, though simple in design and ornament, became Elizabeth very well. Her hair had been curled round garlands of flowers, and she carried flowers in front of her.
“You’re as pretty as anything!” Remington exclaimed, offering her his arm.
“Thank you, my lord,” she replied, blushing at his compliment. She gratefully took the support of his arm, and allowed him to lead her into the parlour.
He brought her to Jennings’ side, and, taking her hand, he put it gently into Jennings’ outstretched one. “I wish you very happy, old man!” he said, smiling warmly, and stepped away so that Jennings could stand beside Elizabeth in front of the waiting minister.
“Oh!” Mariah breathed softly, overcome with sentiment. She and her sister both dabbed at tears in their eyes, as the minister performed the ceremony, and behind them, Lady Morton had recourse quite often to her handkerchief.
“What God has joined,” Mr. Westlake said at last, grinning almost as broadly himself as the couple he had just wed. “Let no man put asunder!”
Four days later, the doctor deemed Elizabeth well enough to travel the distance to Mr. Jennings’ home. Not knowing for certain her feelings – except a notion that the last few weeks of her life seemed far too surreal to have actually occurred – Elizabeth climbed into her new husband’s coach and sat down across from him.
Lady Morton leaned into the coach, her hands anxiously tucking a blanket around Elizabeth’s knees. “Take care of yourself, my dear,” she said. She placed a loving hand on Elizabeth’s cheek and smiled. “You look almost your old self, Lizzie,” she said. “I believe the doctor is right, and soon it will be as though nothing ever happened to you.”
Elizabeth returned Lady Morton’s smile, then impulsively reached out to give her a quick embrace. “Thank you more than I can say, Lady Morton,” she said, blinking tears from her eyes. “Without your kindness, I don’t know what I would have done.”
Lady Morton demurred with a slight shake of her head. “Indeed, my dear,” she said. “Your true hero is here –” She indicated Mr. Jennings, who flushed at this compliment and attempted to protest. “And he has always been,” she went on, before he could speak. “If not for him, I cannot bear to think what might have happened to you!” She squeezed first Elizabeth’s hand and then Mr. Jennings. “Take good care of one another!” she told them brightly, stepping away from the coach and allowing the footman to shut the door. “And please do visit me whenever you wish!”
The coach pulled away from Lady Morton’s house, and Elizabeth, lost at first in silent reverie, soon found the rocking of the coach to be soothing enough to put her to sleep. She dozed, undisturbed by her watchful companion, until at last the coach turned down a winding lane that was flanked on both sides with rows of trees.
“We are here, Elizabeth,” Jennings said softly. “At Brightwood.”
Elizabeth looked out the window of the coach at the surrounding countryside; Jennings’ estate was not as manicured as Lady Morton’s carefully sculpted gardens, but it was quite beautiful, and its green hills, meadows full of flowers, and clusters of trees rolled out as far as she could see in all directions.
“My goodness!” she exclaimed, her eyes opening wide. “All this is yours?”
“It is,” Jennings said, glad that she seemed happy with it. “I hope it is to your liking, and that you will be happy here.”
Elizabeth faced him with an expression of delight. “I cannot imagine anyone who could not be happy here, Mr. Jennings!” she said. She turned back to the view outside the coach window, looking at everything eagerly, as though she might never see it again. “These are the loveliest grounds I have ever seen.”
They came presently to the house, a vast stone structure that was made less imposing by the tangles of ivy that crept up its walls and framed its many windows. “My goodness!” Elizabeth repeated, struggling to convince herself that a man so clearly above her family’s modest station had agreed to share all of this with her, and to make her mistress of such a grand estate.
Jennings climbed out of the coach and held his hand up to Elizabeth, a warm and inviting smile lighting up his handsome face. “Welcome to your new home, Mrs. Jennings!” he said, as she took his hand and carefully descended from the coach. “It already seems brighter, now you are here.”
Her eyes twinkled as she returned his smile. “I’m sure,” she said dryly. Growing serious, she surveyed the house and added a bit uncertainly, “I fear I shall get lost in there.”
“Devil a bit!” Jennings said jovially, escorting her to the door where several servants stood waiting to greet them. “You’ll soon know every part of it, and, of course,” he added, pausing a moment and speaking earnestly to her. “You must feel free to make it yours in whatever way you wish. Change anything you desire – it is your home now, as surely as it is mine.” He turned then to the row of servants. “This is Mrs. Raleigh, Elizabeth,” he said, stopping before a middle-aged woman with a round, pleasant face and faded red hair tucked up into a cap.
“Mrs. Jennings,” she said, bobbing a curtsey. “I am the housekeeper, ma’am. If you wish for anything, you’ve only to ask.”
“My butler,” Jennings continued, gesturing now to a tall, thin man with black hair and an imposing air. “Combes.”
“Ma’am,” Combes said, bowing to Elizabeth with his hands behind his back. His voice was deep and gravelly. “A pleasure to welcome you to Brightwood.”
Jennings introduced all of the assembled servants, and then, as they passed through the door into the front hall, he waved his hand expansively to indicate the whole house. “It is all yours, Elizabeth,” he said, grinning. “I hope that you will be as happy here as I have always been.”
Elizabeth, too overcome to absorb her new surroundings fully, gave a small laugh, and put her hand on Mr. Jennings’ arm. “I am happier already, sir,” she said. “Than I have been in many weeks!” She looked around at the elegantly appointed hall and the sweeping staircase. “I believe it will take me some time to get used to all this, I’m afraid.”
“We will start by showing you your rooms,” Jennings said, guiding her toward the staircase. “At the moment, they are on the south side of the house, overlooking the lake, but if you find that you would rather be settled in another part of the house, it will be no trouble at all to achieve that for you.” They climbed the stairs to a wide hallway, at the far end of which stood a cluster of housemaids falling over themselves in an attempt to flank the entrance to one of the rooms.
“Everyone seems so happy to greet me,” Elizabeth noted, wide-eyed. “Do they believe me to be someone particularly important, sir?”
“You are particularly important, Lizzie,” Jennings said softly. He took her hand and held it to his lips, gazing for a moment into her eyes before turning once more to the cluster of maids. “Is it all ready?” he asked them, nodding his head toward the room behind them.
“It is indeed, sir!” one of them said, curtseying first to him and then to Elizabeth. “We’ve put all of your things inside, ma’am,” she said to Elizabeth. “If you find anything amiss, tell us straight’way, because the man what brought your trunks from your ‘ouse was not sure that all ‘ad been included.”
“I thank you most sincerely,” Elizabeth said, tears filling her eyes. “And you, Mr. Jennings,” she added, blinking away the tears and managing to smile up at him. “I cannot say how grateful I am.”
Jennings dismissed this with a small shake of his head. “It is I who am grateful to you, Mrs. Jennings,” he said. “For allowing me to help you.” He walked with her then into the suite of rooms that had been given to her, and he smiled broadly in relief as she put both of her hands over her mouth and stared incredulously at what she saw.
“All for me?” she asked, breathlessly. “It’s beautiful!” Before her was a large sitting room, decorated in light blues and greens and filled with flowers. Doors opened out onto a wide balcony, and Elizabeth could see, over the stone railing, a park that sloped down to a copse of trees and then curved toward a small lake that glittered in the sunlight. To her left, a set of steps led up to another door, and, behind it, a spacious bedchamber arrayed in sky blue and brown. Flowers had been set in this room as well, and she could see that her belongings had indeed been brought from her father’s house, and laid out here as congenially as though they had always been here.
Elizabeth no longer tried to hide her tears. “Mr. Jennings!” she exclaimed, impulsively taking his hands in hers. “This is absolutely beautiful! I cannot describe – ! Are you sure all this is for me?”
“I am quite sure, Mrs. Jennings,” he replied. Behind him, the maids looked to be on the verge of tears themselves, and as happy at Elizabeth’s delight as she herself was. Jennings turned to them and said, “Miranda, would you be so good as to arrange some lunch for us? I am sure we are both quite famished.”
“At once, sir!” Miranda said, curtseying once more and scuttling off with the other maids behind her. Once they had gone, Jennings brought Elizabeth to the balcony and helped her settle into one of the chairs there.
“I’m so very glad you are pleased!” he said. Nodding his head toward the departing maids, he added wryly, “As you can see, we are all most anxious to make you comfortable here.”
She laughed and brushed away a tear from her cheek. “When you offered me your hand, sir,” she said, gazing out over the park and the lake. “I had no idea what in fact you were offering! I – I hope you find me deserving of it!”
He seemed surprised. “I hope I am deserving of you, ma’am!” he said with great sincerity. Waving a hand toward her rooms, he went on, “As I said, if you are ever unhappy, simply tell me; all shall be made as you wish.” He paused, studying the tops of his boots as though they held important information, then abruptly he sat in the chair across from Elizabeth and, leaning forward, took her hand. “Elizabeth,” he said with some intensity, “I know that you have notions of yourself, and of me, and of – of what –” He stopped, cleared his throat, flushed to the roots of his hair, and continued in a rush: “I believe you have notions of what marriage is supposed to be, but I tell you now that I have offered this to you for your own sake, and not for my own, and I expect nothing from you. If – if you wish to – that is – if you wish to – if, after befriending me, you are content to take on all the roles of marriage, and to be intimate with me, then I would count myself most fortunate to have earned your favour. But if your feelings for me do not include such things, I would count it as nothing, and have only ever been gratified to be of use to you.”
Elizabeth listened to this whole with the dawning realization that he referred to the marriage bed. Blushing as fiercely as he, she waited until he had done speaking, and then, stammering in embarrassment, she said to him, “As to that, sir, I – well, I – well.” She sighed, and smiled gently, and allowed herself to tell him the truth. “I would like, sir, to befriend you … before – well, before … beforehand.”
They sat in awkward silence for a brief moment, then Jennings laughed, and felt an odd sense of relief. “I would like that, too,” he admitted. “So let us proceed from there.”
Elizabeth nodded, and also laughed. “That sounds quite nice, Mr. Jennings.”
They sat together then for some time, enjoying the afternoon sun and the scenery, and each thinking of the future with a mixture of excitement and curiosity. Then, his face crumpling into a nervous sort of frown, Jennings took a deep breath and broached what, for him, was the more problematic subject. “Lizzie,” he began, again looking down at his feet, his fingers drumming distractedly on the arms of his chair. “Lizzie, there is something I would like to show you.”
Elizabeth, observing his apparent anxiety, reached out and touched his arm. “What is it?”
He took another breath, and let it out in a gusty sigh. “It is something my family has always had, for many generations,” he said, raising his eyes at last to meet hers. “I would like to show you the slate.”