It is an unacknowledged truth universally ignored, that a domestic servant in possession of a reputable employer must harbor a fervent inquisitiveness when an epistle of unknown origins arrives by post. Unsupervised, they are left to weave tales of intrigue from the strands of speculation, denied the privilege of glimpsing the secrets sealed within the mysterious missive.
Her own curiosity ignited, young Nora Green had taken it upon herself to polish the immaculate entrance hall once again, with the intent purpose of gathering information as to the letter’s origin. Therefore, she was dismayed to find that Betty had preceded her to the task and was actively examining the envelope.
“Put it down afore someone sees you!” Nora hissed, startling the other maid, while her eyes darted furtively about the entrance hall. She prayed that no one would witness their indiscretion.
“Christ a’mighty!” Betty gasped. “You near frightened the life out a me!” She carefully returned the letter to the silver salver. “I were just trying to see if it were from his Lordship or from that ne’er do well of a Captain.”
“It’s not our place to know, an’ you will have all us maids in trouble if you was caught poking about in her Ladyship’s business.”
“Her Ladyship has had her wits upended and her head turned by that overly charmin’ officer, though what he be doin’ in these parts, I don’t rightly know. It’s not as if there were militia here ’bouts.” Betty frowned. She was not the cleverest, having never attended the village school, but even she was aware that the little French General and his army were nowhere near Barkley Manor.
Both maids examined the missive on the salver, its message captured and sealed within the folded white parchment.
“It be franked,” Betty observed. “But I can’t read it.” Never had she regretted not learning her letters more than she did at this moment.
“Nor I,” admitted Nora. Although she’d had the good fortune to learn her letters, the scrawl on the envelope could not help her identify the sender with any certainty.
Nora swiped her duster over the immaculately clean surfaces, and with a cautious, furtive motion, quickly overturned the letter so to peer at the seal upon the reverse side.
“I cannot make out the seal,” she whispered, her brows furrowed.
“The impression is quite smudged. P’haps his Lordship were in a dreadful hurry,” Betty suggested.
“Or p’haps the sender doesn’t want to be identified, and deliberately mussed the seal.”
“Someone with experience in intrigue, perhaps? Mayhaps a military man?”
The two maids nodded knowingly, and although neither was overly bright, they were content with their conclusions. Upon hearing the returning footsteps of the butler, they scampered away to spread their conjecture as absolute fact among the staff.
The blacksmith shop smelled of horse and smoke and molten metal, and Jimmy breathed the aroma with delight. He had wanted to apprentice with the smith, but his mother had secured him a position within Lord Talbot’s household as a stable hand. She had great hopes of his being promoted to Under Groom and eventually Head Groom once he had his growth spurt. Although he loved working with the animals, and had a gentle manner about him that seemed to calm even the most skittish of horses, Jimmy dreamed of working in the blacksmith shop, pounding at the anvil and stoking the flames of the furnace.
“Hallo, smith, sir!” Jimmy called, his youthful treble voice like a clarion bell ringing through the workshop.
Harold, the huge blacksmith, looked up from his task, his eyes peering from under bushy black brows and he sighed, as he spotted the boy, knowing Jimmy would talk his ear off. He grumbled a response and indicated with his hand that Jimmy wait on the other side of the shop with the horse. It was too much to hope that the boy would follow the unspoken instruction, and once he had the mare secured to the railing, he popped up on the fence to chatter.
“Daniels says Amber needs shoeing today as she has come up lame three times last week. Lady Talbot has not ridden her for five days now ‘cause she is afraid of harmin’ her more.” Jimmy explained his task with nary a breath taken, an unnecessary and extravagant use of words in Harold’s opinion. He grunted at the boy who chattered away, oblivious to the smith’s desire for silence.
The boy prattled non stop, and Harold mumbled and nodded at the appropriate pauses, but allowed most of the river of conversation to wash over him. However, one snippet caught his attention.
“My lady is having regular intercourse with the good Captain. He wrote her daily, and she has quite a private affection for his company,” the boy spoke artlessly, chattering like a morning sparrow.
“Now Jimmy, you shouldn’t repeat any of that, ‘Tis naught your business to be prattling over,” Harold scowled at the lad, waving the heavy hammer at the boy to reinforce his displeasure in the conversational turn.
Jimmy blinked twice, shocked by the vehement grumbling of the usually taciturn blacksmith, before he turned his chatter to business more becoming of a man in the stable.
Harold returned to his work, his own thoughts tumbling over the snippet of gossip he had gleaned.
The Sail and Anchor was a misnomer of a public house, situated as it was—firmly landlocked—that not one of its patrons could boast of ever seeing the sea. Harold sat in a quiet corner, where he could guarantee his comfort and distance from the other patrons while he ate. The fare was adequate at best, but by far superior to Harold’s own attempts at cooking, and so he routinely handed his coin to the tavern master in exchange for a stew that was often more water than broth.
From the other side of the tavern, he heard a raucous cheer, and he paused, intrigued by the sound. There was not often cause for celebration in the village.
“Three cheers for his Lordship!” hollered one voice. Harold believed it may have been Kit Walton. “And three cheers for the ‘heir to be’ wot’s due in spring!”
The crowd erupted in robust cheering. It was a matter of some import that her Ladyship produce an heir. There had been speculation that she was not capable of fulfilling that most basic duty, as their marriage was now a full five years childless. The uncertainty of the future impacted the livelihood of all in the village. Many village families had their income and employment tied closely to Barkley Manor, with sons and daughters obtaining positions there in some capacity. No one wanted to see it passed into the hands of strangers, should the unthinkable happen and Lord Talbot pass without male issue. Of course Harold knew that there was half a chance this child would be born female, but more pressing was the knowledge he’d gleaned this afternoon. This child was likely not the product of his Lordship’s loins, if rumour was to be believed.
“A cuckoo in the nest,” he rumbled to himself. “Her Ladyship has put horns on her husband’s head.”
Sally Prentice gasped as she laid the watery stew before the blacksmith, whom, until this moment, she had presumed to be mute, as she had never heard him utter any words in her presence before. Did he mean to say that her Ladyship had made a fool of her husband, that the child was not his? She was most vexed and discomposed. His Lordship was a fine man, a gentleman by birth and nature. He did not deserve to be made a fool of. Sally’s older brother worked for his Lordship as his personal valet and without stopping to think, she immediately penned a quick note to be delivered to her brother at the manor as soon he and Lord Talbot returned from London.
“My Lord,” said his valet, Mr Prentice, to his Lordship the following morning. It was unpardonably early, as they had driven all night in response to her Ladyship’s missive. The lateness of the hour that his Lordship had retired the previous evening had no impact upon his morning routine whatsoever. “There is somewhat I must bring to your attention.” The valet’s usual composure was severely tested, but he pressed onward with his carefully prepared speech. “I am keenly aware of the boundaries that etiquette demands, yet a matter of some delicacy has come to my attention—one I deem it my duty to acquaint you with.”
Lord Talbot, a gentleman of quiet reserve and somber stature, turned from the inspection of the fall of his cravat in the mirror. He arched an eyebrow in a silent invitation for his man to continue.
“Sir, please know that I do not wish to intrude upon your personal affairs. That I do so now is only due to the urgency and delicacy of the matter,” Mr. Prentice began, his tone a perfectly practiced blend of cool discretion and quiet concern. “I have been the recipient of information that I believe is my responsibility to share with you.”
Lord Talbot’s expression remained impassive, yet his eyes betrayed a flicker of curiosity. “Continue, Mr. Prentice.”
Drawing a deep, steadying breath, the valet spoke with the careful precision of a man who understood the weight and gravity to be imparted by his words. “Sir, I have been reliably informed that Her Ladyship has been in company with another, and that the delicate condition she currently enjoys may be a direct result of that and other indiscretions.”
The room seemed to hold its breath as Lord Talbot fixed his steady gaze upon his valet. “Pray tell, Mr. Prentice, do you have any evidence to support such an outrageous claim?”
Mr. Prentice, though mindful of his place, felt it his duty to convey his findings and passed the scrap of paper to his Lordship as he spoke. “I have this letter from my sister at the Sail and Anchor informing me that it is common knowledge in the village.”
Heavy silence lingered a moment as Lord Talbot perused the hastily written note. The weight of unspoken implications hung palpable in the air. Although a cloud of contemplation had darkened his eyes, Lord Talbot’s features remain composed.
“Mr. Prentice,” his Lordship began. “I am indebted to your loyalty and discretion.”
The valet nodded in understanding. “Sir, please know that my intention is solely to ensure your welfare and happiness.”
Lord Talbot’s lips curved slightly. “Your dedication does not go unnoticed, Mr. Prentice.”
“Of course, sir,” Mr. Prentice responded, inclining his head respectfully. “Your privacy shall be respected. If there is any further assistance I may offer, you need only ask.”
With a final nod, Lord Talbot gestured for his valet to withdraw.
“Good afternoon, madam.” His Lordship strode into the parlour, his face a stoic mask of cool indifference.
“My Lord, I am so pleased to welcome you home.” Lady Violet rose to greet her husband, but he waved her away as he strode to the sideboard, pouring himself a generous splash of brandy.
“My lady, have you anything you wish to tell me?” he said with cold civility.
“I informed you by letter the moment my suspicions proved correct. I am with child. Doctor Phillips confirmed that your child will arrive in spring.”
“My child? I have been informed upon my arrival that there is some question as to the child’s paternity.”
Lady Violet sat speechless with shock, unable to comprehend the words that spilled like bitter poison from her husband’s lips. Finally, she gathered her composure enough to respond. “I fail to understand your meaning, sir.”
“I cannot be clearer. There is gossip pertaining to you and a secret liaison which has called into question the legitimacy of the child you carry.”
“I am all astonishment!” The lady gasped. “You have listened to vicious gossip and have chosen to believe it. Am I to be damned in your eyes without question, without a fair hearing or a chance to defend myself? Do you have such little faith in my character and virtue?”
“What defense have you?”
“I am unable to call to mind a defense for something I know nothing about. What do I stand accused of?”
“Never have I been unfaithful to you, not once in either my thoughts or actions. I resent your belief that I would consider my marriage vows so inconsequential, that I would blatantly disregard them.”
“‘Me thinks the lady doth protest too much.’ You do yourself no service by not admitting your fault immediately.” He glared at her, his eyes afire with passion and pain.
“My fault! I have many faults, sir, but not the fault of which I stand accused.”
“I have proof, my dear…”
“Where?” She interrupted his tirade with one of her own. “Where is your proof? How can you have proof of something that did not take place?”
He withdrew from his pocket the crumpled note and tossed it into her lap so that she could peruse the contents of the damning missive.
“And just who, pray tell, is Sally Prentice? And how has such a person come by such slanderous information?”
“Miss Sally Prentice is the younger sister of my man, and she works in the tavern, where a good many people meet and share their concerns and conversation.”
“And do they also make up gossip and slander? This woman can know nothing of me or my doings, yet you will believe her tale? I am insulted and disappointed in you, sir!”
Lord Talbot pulled the bell to summon a house maid. When the servant arrived, he demanded that someone go directly to the Sail and Anchor to fetch Sally Prentice and bring her to him for questioning. While they waited, the Lord and Lady sat in bitter, unrelenting silence, each consumed by their own turmoil.
Thirty minutes later, a flustered Sally Prentice stood before them, knees knocking and bobbing a curtsy so low it was fit for the King, or at least the Prince Regent.
“Did you pen this note?” Lord Talbot demanded without introduction.
The lass eyed the crumpled missive in his Lordship’s hand and nodded once. Her eyes then studied the intricate design of the carpet beneath her feet.
“How did you come by the knowledge you imparted in this letter?”
“I heared it from the blacksmith. I thought you would need to know, my Lord. I’ve not said naught to another body at all, but was thinking that you should know what people are saying.”
“Thank you Sally, you may leave.” The lass could not scurry from the room hastily enough.
Lady Talbot glared at her husband. “The blacksmith, My Lord? I fail to understand how the blacksmith can have any intimate knowledge of my personal life. Is his word more reliable than my own?”
Once again, Lord Talbot summoned a servant to fetch the blacksmith who arrived quite flustered and recently scrubbed clean of the soot that and ash that stubbornly clung to his person and lodged under his nails.
“I am sorry, M’Lord, I ain’t ne’er aught to have said nuthin’. The boy, the one from yer stables that bringed the mare, he prattled on so and I was only thinking aloud to meself. I don’t hold much with gossips usually and I told the boy as much.” Harold twisted his hat in his beefy hands. Lord Talbot nodded and dismissed the smith before summoning the stable lad.
“Perhaps, my dear wife, a stable boy may have more intimate knowledge of your personal life and how you have comported yourself in my absence.”
The boy was duly summoned and trembled in fear as he recounted his story. How he had heard the lasses in the servant hall saying that the baby belonged to a captain because of a mysterious letter that had arrived. Upon hearing this, the Lord Talbot dismissed the boy with a firm warning not to spread any more gossip or he would be turned off without a reference.
“So, my dear, can you explain this mysterious letter that arrived for you? And pray tell, who is the mysterious captain that turned your head?”
“I can tell you, there is no secret. My brother, Captain John Anderson, visited with me for a few days during your absence. He stayed with Mrs Whitley in the village and visited with me every day. The letter was delivered here after he had been called back to his regiment urgently and did not have an opportunity to bid me farewell before he left.”
The silence that followed this declaration allowed Lord Talbot to align his thoughts and words.
“Lady Talbot,” he began, his voice infused with a humility he had not felt before, “I must beg your pardon. I have been consumed by baseless suspicions founded upon rumours and allowed my own insecurities to cloud my judgment. My words were unjust, and for that, I am truly sorry.”
Lady Talbot met his gaze with a mixture of surprise and disbelief. In their five years of marriage, she had never once heard an apology fall from her proud husband’s lips. “My lord, your accusations have wounded me deeply, but your apology brings a glimmer of solace.”
“Violet, I am truly sorry. May we begin again?” He took her hand in his and gently assisted her to stand before him as he asked, “Madam, is there news that you wished to impart?”
“My Lord… James,” said she, with a small smile reminiscent of the Madonna in a da Vinci painting . “You are going to be a father.”
He gathered his wife in his arms and stated with fervent sincerity, “I am overwhelmed with exhilaration.”
“That, My Lord, is the correct response,” she replied as she settled into the comfort of his arms and happily received the kiss he bestowed upon her lips.