A Thing Of Beauty (continued)

 

 

Horace was of medium build, thickly muscled and broad shouldered. If one didn’t know what a brute he was, one might even think him handsome. But all Eliza could see was his lust for violence. She tried to straighten but he pushed her back against the wall and ground his groin into her belly. He smelled of stale ale and sweat and she could feel his manhood swelling as he rubbed against her.

“Wilkins paid me twenty quid for yar li’le virginal cunt, so ‘e owns ya now.”

Outrage overrode pain and disgust, and she pushed at him hard enough to force him back a step. “You sold me to Pig Face. You truly are despicable!”

His face twisted with hate and his open hand connected painfully with the other side of her face. Wilkins and Horace were birds of a feather, best mates so to speak, and calling Wilkins “Pig Face” was sure to get his goat—she should have thought of that.

“Always with the big bloody words. Ya’re nothing but a tavern wench but ya won’t go with the customers and ya won’t let me between them lily-white thighs. What the fuck did ya ‘spect me ta do with ya?”

He was screaming at her at the top of his voice now. Through the haze of pain Eliza heard Lynn chime in from the bottom of the stairs.

“Just lock ‘er in the cellar, love and let Wilkins deal with ‘er when ‘e gets ‘ere.”

Eliza ignored her. In for a penny, in for a pound. She might as well get him good and mad now—maybe Wilkins wouldn’t want her all bruised up. Correcting his pronunciation she countered, “I expected you to ignore me but even that was obviously hoping for too much.”

He grabbed her by the hair and started dragging her down the stairs and along the corridor towards the store cellar door. “Ignore a bit of all right like you? Not bloody likely. But I ‘ad enough of ya stalking about the place like ya bloody own it and looking down yar nose at me.”

The cellar door loomed before her. Eliza tried with one hand to yank her hair out of Horace’s grip and braced herself with the other against the door frame. She could not let him lock her up down there. She was beginning to understand why he was so keen to get rid of her—she was the only obstacle to his full ownership of the inn.

Her father had left the inn to Eliza and her mother in his will. That meant that now her mother was gone it should really be hers. But if it bought her freedom from Wilkins, she would give up all claim to it. “You can have the inn. Just don’t make me go with Pig Face.”

Eliza couldn’t quite keep the desperation out of her voice and the way he chuckled in her ear confirmed how much he liked hearing it. “Too late Liza, he paid me coin for ya.”

Lynn cackled behind her. “‘e owns a mill and ‘e is willin’ ta marry ya. What the fuck’s yar problem?”

With that she kicked Eliza hard in the small of her back, sending her flying down the short flight of stairs into the cellar, where she landed on a heap of coal. She heard something crack inside her and a strange kind of prickly sound accompanied the darkness that tried to claim her before she was pulled back by Lynn’s shrill laughter. “Prince Charmin’s all out of glass slippers, ya stupid cunt.”

Eliza got up, white hot rage giving her the courage to taunt them into killing her right then. A quick death would be better than having to endure Wilkins and dying at his filthy hands. “I’m gonna make you pay for this and everything you ever did to my mum you greedy, wife-murdering morons.”

Something solid slammed into her arm with such force, it lifted her off her feet. She heard another crack, this time in her arm, and pain exploded all through her. This time, she didn’t think she would be able to get up again. She lay limp, waiting for Horace to deal her the deathblow. But it didn’t come. Instead she felt Horace’s fetid breath fan over the side of her face as he whispered in her ear. “I wanna fuck ya and kick the living shit out of ya all at the same time, but Wilkins paid to be the first in yar snatch and ‘e wants ya still breathin’ so I’ll leave ya to contemplate yar future…see I know some big words too.”

She heard him climb the stairs, slam the door and throw the bolt. And then, when she was sure she was alone, she gave herself up to despair. Hot tears streaked down her aching face as she let herself rest against the mountain of coal at her back. Something warm and sticky seeped into her collar and she wondered if the cut was big enough for her to bleed out.

“I’m sorry, Mum, I tried.”

She lifted her eyes to the ceiling, wishing she wasn’t so completely alone in the world. “But how do you expect me…” She frowned at the usually pitch dark upper left hand corner of the room and caught her breath. The coal chute had been left open and the mountain of coal reached almost to the top. Horace couldn’t have known about this. They certainly had not noticed it before. It was growing dark out and the opening did not add much light. Could she get up? Did she dare to hope that she could make it out of the cellar and away from the inn and the fate Horace had arranged for her?

She might as well try. She had nothing more to lose.

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

On the road just north of Hampstead, November 1819

 

 

The last pale light of the day filtered through the mostly bare trees onto the road and the two men traveling on it in an elegant open sports carriage. The jingle of the harness proceeded their passage, the sound of the horses hooves muted by the leaves blanketing the road. One man did his best to nap on the high seat but the vehicles driver seemed to thoroughly enjoy his occupation and the way the gathering darkness drained the color from the forest around them. A light rain had fallen earlier, and the damp soil smelled rich and fertile. In fact,  it was the perfect evening to drive the last remaining miles to London.

The driver happened to be Sir Henry March, knighted for his services to the crown during the campaign against the Corsican megalomaniac—although nobody cared to speculate on what exactly he had done to warrant that knighthood.

Beyond being a Knight of the Realm, Henry was a classical scholar, a notorious libertine, and the responsible owner of four estates, who could trace his lineage to William the Conqueror.

He was a handsome man. His nose was straight, his sandy hair was cut short and reached down into short-cropped sideburns and his lips were neither too thick nor too thin. However, his jaw had a determined set to it and even when he was otherwise relaxed, his blue eyes were intense.

His person was presently obscured by a calf-length, multi-caped greatcoat and a carriage blanket thrown over his knees against the November chill. But it was generally agreed that he cut an impressive figure, even if his clothes tended to be comfortable rather than fashionable.

Sir Henry was expertly maneuvering his sportive curricle down the road with his groom, Roberts, by his side stretching the sleep from his limbs. They had just left the lights of a small roadside inn behind them and were turning up the hill towards Hampstead village when Henry became aware of a shadowy figure scurrying along the road in front of them.

At the sound of the horses, the woman visibly startled, then ran as if the hounds of hell where nipping at her heels. She was bent forward as if aged, and her gait was unsteady. But the face that turned over her shoulder to see who followed her was young and utterly terrified. In her haste to get away from whomever she was trying to outrun she stumbled over the hem of her soiled and tattered skirts and yelped in pain when her knee hit the gravel on the road.

Henry found it impossible to ignore the woman’s obvious distress. He stopped just ahead of her, handed the ribbons to his groom, and jumped down to see what he could do for her.

Even once he was standing next to her and she could see him clearly, she continued to look behind her as she tried to get back on her feet, unafraid of Henry but terrified at what could still be behind. Henry put a hand under her arm to help her up but she winced and drew in a sharp breath. He tried gently placing his arm around her waist to steady her, eliciting another pained noise as she sagged against him.

She was small and light, and a sense of unease crept over him as he examined her more closely. Her waist was trim under his hand and luscious dark curls framed her face. A face that showed unmistakable signs of a beating. Her lip was split and her jaw showed the early signs of discoloration. There was a boil on her forehead and her left eye was almost swollen shut. Her hands and clothes were blackened with what appeared to be coal dust and she was clad in only a simple peasant skirt and blouse whilst her shoes were missing altogether.

“Good God,” Henry breathed as he quickly decided that whatever her story was, he could not turn his back on her. “You're injured, can I take you somewhere? To someone who will help you?”

She shook her head, which obviously hurt, and squeezed out between clenched teeth, “I just need to get away.”

She obviously wasn’t thinking clearly, so Henry decided to probe for more information. “From whom or where?”

She was barely holding herself upright now but her voice was full of contempt. “My stepfather at the inn.” She indicated behind her and sagged farther against him as she lost her footing again. Henry could feel as well as see that her injuries were serious.

“Did he do this to you?”

She almost spat out her next words.

“Him and his new missus. But I’ll not marry that bastard Wilkins. I’ll die first.”

She then truly spat on the ground for emphasis, her eyes blazing with a need to defy her fate that struck a chord with Henry.

He answered her with a calm he did not feel.

“Well, if you stay out here alone and in this state for much longer you probably will.”

He smiled down at her, hoping to reassure her. “You had better come with me so my housekeeper can have a look at you.”

She twisted to look at him for a moment as if to assess whether she would get herself into even worse trouble by going with him, then shrugged. “I think I’d rather the devil I don’t know.”

Henry couldn’t suppress a wry grin. .”That’s the spirit.”

He led her to the curricle without further delay, and when her knees buckled he simply lifted her into his arms and boosted her up to Roberts on the seat. She was too light for her frame, and he wondered what other methods her stepfather had employed to bend her to his will.

He had just pulled himself up onto the driver’s seat next to her when he realized that he had neglected to introduce himself.

“I’m Henry March, by the way. Can you tell me your name?”

“Eliza” Her voice was weak now, the fight having gone completely out of her.

Henry wrapped the carriage blanket around her before he took the ribbons from his groom, and Roberts swung himself around onto the box seat behind. Henry urged the team into a trot despite the gathering darkness and the girl’s unsteady hold on consciousness. He tucked her uninjured arm through his and urged her to lean on him as he drove them towards London and his Mayfair home.

 

***

 

They arrived at the town house on Cavendish Square a little over an hour later with the girl next to Henry barely conscious. Roberts jumped down to knock on the door and then took the horses’ heads.

Henry nudged Eliza awake, and she straightened enough for him to climb down to the pavement. But by the time he turned to assist her, she was almost falling off the high seat and he had to lift her down.

The door opened as Henry carried the girl up the front steps. William, the footman who was military trained and well acquainted with his master’s habits, had no trouble comprehending the urgency of the situation and preceded him to the first available guest room on the second floor. There, Henry entrusted Eliza into the care of Mrs. Tibbit, his housekeeper, who had appeared at his side halfway up the stairs.

Mrs. Tibbit was an efficient woman with a kind heart and a serious dislike of anybody who treated another female with such violence. Having left the girl in such capable hands, Henry retreated to his private sitting room down the hall to pour himself a stiff drink.

 

***

 

Mrs. Tibbit found him there less than half an hour later slouched into one of the big leather arm chairs by the fire, visiting with his old friend Shakespeare. She spared a disapproving glance for the tomes littering the floor around him and the booted feet comfortably propped on the chair opposite. Henry looked up from his book and grinned at the old retainer’s obvious disapproval, secure in her affection for him. Mrs. Tibbit shook her head, acknowledging that at thirty-one years of age he was too old for her to scold, and heaved a heavy sigh. “I think we best call the doctor if you don’t mind, Sir.”

“Oh, are the girl’s injuries beyond your capability Mrs. Tibbit?” he teased gently.

The narrow-eyed look his housekeeper bestowed on him said much about what she thought of him questioning her abilities and teasing at a time like this. “Well Sir, we cleaned her and I patched her cuts and bruises as best I could with basilicum powder and arnica cream and I’m making her an infusion for the pain. But I can’t set any broken bones and the gash to the back of her head is too big for me to stitch.”

Henry winced at this matter-of-fact description of Eliza’s injuries. “By all means, call for the doctor, but make sure nobody mentions that I brought home an injured girl. The brute who did this to her may well be looking for her.”

Mrs. Tibbit’s round eyes blazed with indignation and the desire to protect the mistreated girl. “I’ll send William to the doctor and make sure everybody keeps their mouth shut down at the pub. The poor mite! Do you know who did this?”

All hints of playfulness had left Henry’s demeanor. “She says it was her stepfather and his wife. And she mentioned a man called Wilkins they want her to marry.”

The housekeeper nodded as if that explained everything and turned towards the door. “Well, they won’t find her here. I’ll make sure of that.”

Henry knew that she ruled her kingdom below stairs like a benevolent queen so he did not doubt their guest’s safety. “Thank you. And send the good doctor to me after he has done what he can for Miss Eliza.”

Mrs. Tibbit headed for the door without being dismissed and threw her next words over her shoulder with complete disregard for proper address and ceremony. “Will do.”

Henry grinned and mused—not for the first time—that her kind of familiarity would not be tolerated in any other household. But then again, they had known each other since he was five months old and he supposed it was progress that she no longer told him to sit up straight and pick up after himself.

 

***

 

Two hours later, Henry lingered in the dining room over port and an after-dinner cigar when Dr. Hartcastle found him. The good doctor took the glass of port Henry offered, confirmed Mrs. Tibbit’s assessment of the broken arm and lamented that it had taken seven stitches to close the gash at the nape of the girl’s neck. Beyond that, the doctor reported two broken ribs and that Eliza’s dizziness was caused by a concussion. He recommended she stay abed for at least a fortnight and informed Henry that he had given her laudanum for the pain. He had also left Arnica drops that were to be taken three times daily to combat any internal injuries.

He assured Henry that he would return the next day to check on her progress. Before he left, the good doctor took it upon himself to tell Henry very earnestly that, in his opinion, Henry had saved the young woman’s life.

Dr. Hartcastle said it as if Henry ought to be congratulated for such a feat. But having noticed her at the side of the road, Henry could not have left her to her fate, and now that she was under his roof he felt responsible for her. It seemed she had no one else. Henry resolved to find out Eliza’s full story as soon as possible.

 

***

 

Once Dr. Hartcastle left, Henry climbed the stairs to look in on his guest. He entered the comfortable second floor bedroom quietly and found Mrs. Tibbit sitting by the fire doing her mending and watching over her new charge. The bed in this room, although big enough and made of rich, dark cherry wood, had no curtains that could be drawn around it. In order not to disturb the girl’s slumber, Mrs. Tibbit had angled her arm chair to shade the single candle she had lit so she could work.

She smiled up at Henry. “She’s resting easy now.”

Henry stood next to the bed and gently brushed a dark brown curl out of the girl’s bruised and battered face. “I have seen some truly horrendous things on and off the battlefield in Spain and France but this somehow seems worse.”

Mrs. Tibbit snorted her disgust. “Ay, there’s no justifying this one. Can’t blame it on war or hate between enemies. The person who was supposed to keep her safe did that.”

Henry nodded and idly fingered a silver locket that had been placed on the nightstand.

“Is this hers?” he asked, holding it up so Mrs. Tibbit could see.

“Ay, I found it pinned to the inside of her corset. It’s nice work and there’s a lock of hair in it.”

He studied the fine floral motif engraved on both sides of the ornament and opened it to look for an inscription. It was a long shot since only people who could read and write bothered to inscribe their possessions, but when he lifted out the lock of coarse brown hair, he found a dedication: “All my love, Ted” and the date, 1799.

Had it been a betrothal present? Henry wondered whether Ted was the girl’s father and the locket had belonged to her mother. It seemed likely. When had things  started to go so terribly wrong for Eliza?

He placed the locket back on the night stand. The more he found out about the girl, the more curious he became. He turned to Mrs. Tibbit and instructed her softly. “Make sure she knows it’s safe as soon as she wakes up. She obviously went through some trouble to keep it from her despicable stepfather.”

Mrs. Tibbit nodded without bothering to glance up from her stitching as he moved to the door.

“And get one of the girls to sit with her so you can get some rest. Good night, Tibby.”

She smiled at the use of his childhood name for her. “Will do. Good night.”

 

***

 

Whilst Eliza slept the next day away in a laudanum haze, Henry caught up with his affairs. The autumn round of his estates had taken him from Brighton in the South, to Berkshire and Lincolnshire, all the way to Norfolk, and back to London. It was no small thing to oversee the running of four prosperous estates, but besides his land, Henry had several financial investments that also demanded his attention. In the six weeks of his absence, a veritable mountain of mail had accumulated on his desk and Henry promised himself that he would give it its due attention right after he had completed his duty to the crown.

In that spirit, a summons from his superior to give his report in person was heeded first and without delay. Once the Old Man was satisfied everything had been done to strike yet another suspect of their list, Henry made his bow to his Godmother and then paid his man of business a visit to discuss his finances.

The following day, after checking on his house guest and finding her still deep in slumber, Henry cloistered himself in his library to sort through his mountain of mail. His man William was good at a surprising number of things, but imposing any type of order on Henry’s mail was not one of them. Henry worked systematically through the pile, answering queries as needed.

Personal correspondence had been kept for last, and he was glad when he reached for the last missive around four in the afternoon. Henry recognized his cousin Arthur’s handwriting on the envelope as well as his ducal coat of arms on the seal and smiled at the thought that the missive might contain news of his daughter, Emily. But instead, it was an open invitation to dine at his cousin’s residence as soon as Henry returned to London. Henry buried his disappointment and sent a note to the Ducal Palace on St. James’s Square, informing his cousin of his return. Two hours later, Henry strolled through the now-dark but still bustling streets of Mayfair to join his cousin Arthur, the Duke of Avon, for dinner.

 

***

 

A blue- and silver-liveried footman ushered Henry into the magnificent marble foyer, illuminated by the refracting light of a chandelier. There he was greeted by the family’s butler, Higgins.

“Good evening, Sir Henry. His Grace awaits you in his study.”

Henry handed his hat, walking stick, and greatcoat to the aging retainer and let his eyes wander over his mother’s ancestors lining the walls. “Thank you, Higgins. No need to announce me, I know my way.”

Higgins bowed. “Of course you do, Sir.” But he still preceded Henry down the hall and announced him anyway. “Sir Henry, Your Grace!”

Arthur Redwick rose from behind his desk and strode forward with his hand outstretched in greeting. “Henry, I’m so glad you could join me tonight.”

Henry smiled warmly and shook his cousin’s hand. “Hello, Arthur. How is everyone at Avon?”

The Duke of Avon was a somber man by nature, his countenance perfectly suited to his political aspirations. He was a decade older than Henry, but the years had been good to him. The Duke had hazel eyes and was perhaps an inch shorter than Henry, but shared his broad shoulders, sandy hair, and even features. There was definitely a family resemblance.

“Last I heard, everyone was in excellent spirits. Did Emily forget to write again?”

Henry followed his host to the sofa in front of the fire and took the brandy Arthur had poured for him. “I had a letter from her in Norfolk but that was two weeks ago.”

“Ah, my information is only three days old. How was your trip; it seemed rather longer than usual.”

Henry heard the underlying question and contemplated how much to tell his cousin. Arthur was one of the few people who knew what Henry had done during the war, what he still did for the Crown, but for everybody’s safety, it was better to keep his own council in this instance. “I just had to stop off in Norwich to tie up a few loose ends.”

The Duke shot Henry a sharp look but only nodded, and a moment later Higgins entered to announce that dinner was ready to be served.

They shared an excellent meal and pleasant conversation but never ventured beyond the commonplace until the dishes had been cleared away and the servants had left them alone with their brandy and a box of fine cigars.

Arthur took a sip of the amber liquid in his glass and lifted his finger. “By the by, Henry, you may have to write to your Emily again concerning her tendency to outwit her groom. The poor man does his best to keep up with her but he reported last week that she had gotten away from him three times in the last month. Bertie is usually a willing participant in her adventures, but he is only two years older than she, and at fourteen not capable of protecting her, or himself for that matter.”

Henry watched his cousin carefully. His daughter’s regular bids for freedom were nothing new, neither were the Duchess’s pleas to curb her wild streak, but for the request to come from the Duke piqued his interest. “Oh, any particular reason for your concern?”

The Duke shot him a wry smile. “Not much gets past you, does it?”

Henry grinned in response and waited patiently for his cousin to come to the point.

The Duke rested his elbows on the linen-covered table, steepled his fingers in front of him, and weighed his words like only a politician could. “Under normal circumstances I would not be concerned but I am working on a bill that will be contentious and it has come to my attention that questions have been asked about my family, particularly the comings and goings of the children.”

Henry did not move, his brow slightly furrowed in concern. “You think someone is trying to intimidate you by threatening our family?”

Arthur shook his head decisively. “No threats have been made. Just a few questions strange enough to prompt my stable master to report them to me.”

Henry moved forward, mirroring his cousin’s pose. “How strange are the questions, and who is asking them?”

Arthur met Henry’s gaze steadily. “The questions are about the children. Where they go and when, and if they ever do it alone. As to who is asking: a groom from the livery stable in Woodborough. He is related to one of my footmen and therefore a fairly frequent visitor.”

Henry considered that for a moment. “And you couldn’t just put a stop to his visits?”

Arthur tapped his steepled fingers against each other and pursed his lips. “I would rather not curtail visits to the estate, especially so close to Christmas. Happy servants make for a well-run house, after all.”

Henry’s mouth quirked up in a crooked smile. “Besides, that wouldn’t stop them from meeting in the pub. I see what you mean; it’s best to tell the children not to venture out alone. I don’t suppose you want to tell me what your bill is about.”

“I would rather not,” was the Duke’s only response.

Henry knew his cousin well enough to know that he had said as much on the subject as he was willing to, and Henry respected that. The whole thing was probably nothing more than a few gossiping servants. He was not worried about his daughter’s safety, but he would write to Emily all the same. There was no point in tempting fate.

The two men enjoyed their smoke and each others’ company for a while longer until the Duke cited fatigue and Henry went home to write a letter to Emily.

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