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Romance Historical Fiction

Twenty-six-year-old Ephraim held his new wife close to him as she lay sobbing beside him. They had been married a few hours earlier in Greyfriars Church, and although he had expected some immaturity in sixteen-year-old Chloris, he was unprepared for this. A few weeks earlier, her wealthy merchant father, James Bailey, surprised him by suddenly retracting his earlier decision to refuse the pair permission to marry. He was further amazed when James had gifted the pair the small house where they were now laying. Chloris’ tears now soaked her nightgown, and were threatening to do the same to Ephraim’s nightshirt.

‘Come, my sweeting, don’t take on so. Tell me what troubles you.’

‘Dear husband, I have deceived you.’ This statement accelerated the girl’s distress, and her tears flowed even faster.

‘There, there. Tell me how, and then there will no longer be any subterfuge between us.’

‘Oh, it is too awful. You will hate me ever more.’ Ephraim doubted this.

‘Even so, I would know the truth.’

‘I am with child.’ Now, the pieces of the jigsaw began to fall into place. Her father’s change of heart made sense, and also the speed in which the wedding had been arranged and taken place.

They met eleven months ago, when Ephraim was commissioned by her father to work on the statues in the garden of the family’s newly erected house. He had come to London from Kent, to be employed as a sculptor and mason in the construction of St Paul’s cathedral. Mr Bailey saw and was impressed by Ephraim’s work, and when the great cathedral was finally finished, he offered Ephraim work carving ornaments for his elaborate garden. Whilst he laboured, hewing and chiselling great lumps of stone until they became ornate fantasy figures, decorated with fruit, leaves and flowers, Chloris and her two younger sisters often came into the garden to watch him.

The three girls were similar in appearance. Chloris being the oldest was slightly taller than the other two, and they tended to allow her to dominate the conversation. She asked him questions about his trade, and he had been impressed by her innate curiosity. She was a pretty, little thing with dark, shiny curls escaping from underneath her broad, brimmed straw hat, pale, creamy skin and large, doe like eyes. She had a way of listening to him intently as he spoke, which he found flattering and vaguely unsettling, as if she was seeking a deeper meaning to his words. Gradually, their conversations progressed to her asking about where he lived, and who with. It slowly dawned on him that she was attracted to him, but dismissed the thought as it being an adolescent crush rather than anything serious. In any case, he knew that any attempt to follow his inclinations could well result in shame and dismissal from his post. Chloris demonstrated no such caution, after several months, she asked him if he would walk with her in the local pleasure gardens on the following Sunday afternoon. Ephraim was thrilled when the day came and she arrived alone. As they walked, she linked her slender arm through his muscular arm. These meetings became a regular weekly routine, until eventually she asked him.

‘Ephraim, do you not think I’m pretty?’ He blushed at the naivety of her question, but decided to answer honestly.

‘Most certainly, I think you are truly beautiful.’

‘Well then, when will you ask father for my hand in marriage?’ Ephraim was stunned, he had never envisaged that such a thing could be possible.

‘Miss Chloris. I could not give you the lifestyle to which you are accustomed.’

‘Do you not love me?’ Ephraim had never considered his feelings in this light, but now faced with Chloris’ earnestness, he decided that yes, he did adore this innocent, young woman.

‘I do indeed, but tis not as simple as that. I think your father would box my ears and throw me off his land if I made such a presumptuous request.’

‘So, you would rather see me betrothed to some ancient, old duffer more than twice my age?’ The discussion went back and forth, like the ball bouncing in a tennis match, until eventually Chloris had her way and persuaded Ephraim to approach her father.   

           He decided to wait until Mr Bailey came out into the garden to inspect his work. The opportunity arose the following Wednesday, as Ephraim gently chiselled the fine features of an angelic cherub. It was a bright, sunlit afternoon, and his labours threw up a light grey dust. The sound of bees flying from flower to flower accompanied the chipping of his chisel. The delicate scents of roses, sweet peas, honeysuckle and lavender perfumed the air, as the sun warmed the terraced beds and trellises of the garden. He was concentrating and so did not immediately notice the merchant standing nearby watching his progress. James Bailey was a short, stout pompous man who had made his fortune from the rapidly expanding trade in foreign goods. When he became aware that the merchant was standing behind him, his well-manicured hands clasped behind his back, rocking back and forth on his heels as he observed the young man working, Ephraim carefully placed his tools on the ground, before beginning the conversation.

‘Good afternoon, Mr Bailey.’

‘Good afternoon, Ephraim. Things appear to be shaping up nicely.’

‘They are indeed Sir.’

‘I won’t delay you then.’

‘Actually Sir. I had something that I wished to ask you.’

‘Speak up boy.’

‘It’s about Chloris. I want to ask your permission for us to marry.’ As predicted James flew into a rage. He turned puce, took several paces towards Ephraim, before virtually spitting.

‘You impudent dog. You have ideas above your station. How dare you presume to ask me such a thing. Get on with your work, and never venture near my daughters again.’ Ephraim would have liked to follow his pride, pick up his tools and leave the garden never to work for Mr Bailey again, or even punch the older man full in the face, but he needed the pay from this job to live. Instead, he bent and picked up his tools and continued to work on the cherub without biding Chloris’ father good day or even glancing at him. And so, it was a complete shock when one afternoon two weeks later Chloris came and found him in the garden. He had not seen her since his conversation with James, and had correctly assumed that she had been forbidden to approach him. She was in good spirits, rushing down the garden in a most unladylike fashion, flinging her arms around his waist, whilst saying.

‘My own true love, how I have missed you!’ and then hardly drawing breath, she announced ‘Father has changed his mind. He says that we can marry.’     

Ephraim realised that he had been trapped into marriage, to save Chloris reputation, but despite his powerful physique, he was a gentle man, who was slow to anger.

‘Who is the child’s father, who was unable to do the honourable thing and marry you, may I ask?’

‘I cannot tell you. It is the most shameful matter.’

 ‘If I am to support you and raise this child as my own, I believe that I have the right to know the truth.’

Thinking that she had no choice, Chloris recounted her sorry tale to this straightforward man. She told him that within the confines of his elegant home, James Bailey was a violent bully, regularly taking his belt to his wife and children. His wife coped with her life by imbibing copious amounts of brandy and taking spoonfuls of the medicinal tonic, Anodyne, which was in truth diethyl ether. The family’s respectable façade threatened to dissolve some ten weeks earlier, when James and Chloris’ elder brother, Reuben entered her bedroom as she prepared to retire for the night. Her brother had thrust a clothe into her mouth, and then thrown backwards onto her bed. He then held her down, whilst her father dropped his breeches, pushed up her nightgown and brutally raped her. The pain as she lost her maidenhood was excruciating, the searing sensation in her most delicate parts feeling as if her body were being invaded by a red, hot poker. They then swapped places and Reuben also sexually assaulted her. Without saying a word, the two men redressed themselves and left Chloris laying sobbing and bleeding on her bed. She had been in deep shock and believed herself to be mortally injured. She lay there shivering and crying, until eventually, she recovered enough to crawl under her bedclothes, and fall into a fitful sleep.

In the morning, she cleaned the dried blood from her thighs and groin area, and waited until her father and brother left the house. She then went and found her mother and told her of the previous night’s events. Rather than be horrified, Mary Bailey had listened with apparent equanimity, her face impassive. When Chloris finished her near hysterical account of the previous night’s events, she said.

‘Breathe a word of this to anyone, and I will make sure that you are admitted to Bedlam.’ She then offered Chloris a dose of ether from the phial, which she kept about her person. Chloris said that her father and brother made several more night time visits to her bedroom, and on several occasions, she had asked her mother for a dose of Anodyne before retiring. It was the only way that she could manage her dread of their visits. She also realised that there had been several young maids, barely more than children, who briefly worked for the family and then disappeared. She suspected that James and Reuben had used them in a similar fashion. She added that, she was fearful that her two younger sisters would suffer the same fate within the next couple of years.

When she became aware that she had missed her monthly course, she again approached her mother. Upon hearing this latest piece of information, Mrs Bailey promptly rose from her chair by the hearth, and walked to the brandy decanter and poured herself a generous slug, downing it in one, before remarking.

‘There are things that can be done. Let me speak to your father.’ Unworldly Chloris did not know what Mary meant by this, but Ephraim had an idea, and he felt his blood run cold at the thought of her being subjected to such a fate. Evidently, James came up with an alternative solution, which resulted in their wedding earlier that day. Once Chloris had finished her story, Ephraim kissed the top of her head and spoke.

‘Dear one, none of this is your fault. Settle down and go to sleep. We will talk some more in the morning.’ Comforted, she snuggled against the bulk of his body, and her breathing soon settled into the gentle rhythm of sleep. Ephraim on the other hand lay awake long into the night, considering what she had told him. His first instinct was to kill both James and Reuben, but he knew that this could only result in him hanging from the gibbet, leaving Chloris vulnerable again. After several hours of tossing and turning, he realised that he did not want to stay in this house, which James Bailey’s money had bought, but that he now had a wife and unborn baby to provide for. The house represented the only real capital that Ephraim had ever possessed, he wondered if he could sell it. Furthermore, his conscience would not allow him to leave Chloris’ two younger sisters unprotected from the fate that she had suffered.

Whilst working on St Paul’s cathedral, he had made friends with several young men from different backgrounds. One of these was an intelligent young cleric called Father Stephen. In the morning, he left Chloris in bed and threaded his way through dusty streets where vendors selling wares ranging from oranges, through to dead rabbits to broom heads vied to attract his attention with their loud cries. He was making his way to Ludgate Hill where Stephen was now the priest of St Martins church. Once he reached the cool, calm interior of the church, he and his friend sat at the rear of the building, and he explained the reason for his visit. He did not tell Stephen the full story, merely that he had a house, which he wished to sell, and was this possible? The priest advised that provided he had the deeds of the building it could be done with the help of a lawyer, who would require payment. Ephraim said that he possessed the necessary documentation, but asked how would he find a buyer for the house and a lawyer. Stephen said that he would make enquiries, and if his friend could come back in a week, he would tell him what he had found out.

A week later, Ephraim again visited St Martin’s church. The priest told him that, the church wished to buy the property for the use of their clergy. He had more good news, they would also cover the cost of the conveyancing. Ephraim asked what the church would pay, and Stephen said that they had agreed to pay the price on the deeds, which in practice meant that the sculptor would make a small profit on the deal as they were also paying the lawyer’s fees. The two men shook hands, and a date for completion of the sale was agreed. However, this left Ephraim with a problem. In four weeks’, time, the agreed date that the house would be exchanged for money, he and Chloris would be homeless. He decided that once he had the proceeds of the sale, he and his wife would travel by stagecoach to Kent.

On the appointed day, he sent Chloris to her family home, telling to bring her sisters out for a walk. As he stood along the street, out of sight of the house waiting for the girls to appear, he wondered what he had taken on. How would he provide for three young women and soon a new born baby? He did not have long to contemplate the folly of his actions. The sisters appeared and he quickly took them to the Blossoms Inn at Cheapside where they were to board a stagecoach for Sittingbourne in Kent. As they hurriedly wound their way through the busy London streets, Chloris explained their plan to the girls. They were to run away together, and would live as a family in Kent. If she expected resistance from them, she was surprised. As she feared, James and Reuben had already transferred their sordid attentions to the next sister down, Tansy.

The inn was a scene of frenetic activity. Horses stamped, snorted, shook and neighed. People scurried around, fretting about seats, departure and arrival times, and leaving loved ones. Men shouted instructions to one another re loading luggage onto the coach. This later issue was not a problem for Ephraim’s party. They had one large bag between them. Tansy and Martha, the youngest sister, having no prior knowledge that they were to abscond brought nothing, and Ephraim and Chloris had few possessions.

The journey took five hours, and when they disembarked, they all felt weary from the coach’s incessant swaying and rattling. Ephraim led the way to his mother’s small home on the edge of the town. This plump, elderly woman had not seen her son for over five years. Like him she possessed a calm, unflappable disposition. She was clearly delighted to be reunited with her son, and quickly set about making the three young women he brought with him welcome. Although, she was hospitable, it was clear that it would be unsustainable to stay with her for any length of time. Fortunately, Ephraim was soon able to buy a cottage with the proceeds of the sale from the London house. Sittingbourne was the site of a new brick factory and a burgeoning paper industry, and so he had little difficulty finding construction work.

The three sisters were used to living in a house where there were domestic staff. Consequently, they had little idea on how to run a home. In the early days, Ephraim’s mother was often called upon to help and for advice, but the girls rapidly learnt and adapted. During one early visit, she noticed one of the girls mending a tear in her dress using a small sewing kit, which she had removed from her purse. Realising that the girls had a useful skill, the older woman approached a neighbour who worked as a laundress. This lady confirmed that often she washed clothes in need of repair, and sometimes was lucky enough to be the recipient of items deemed beyond repair. She generously offered to share the tattered remains of a sheet she received some weeks earlier, its owners considering it to be beyond repair. The three sisters set about making a layette for Chloris’ forthcoming baby. When the items were completed, Ephraim’s mother took them to show the laundress, who was impressed with the girls’ tiny stitches and neat handiwork. From then on, she passed them small repair jobs. The girls’ reputation as seamstresses spread and people started to approach them. Gradually, they began to make enough money to contribute towards their upkeep. They were relieved to have escaped their father’s frequent beatings, and proud to be providing their saviour, Ephraim, with some monetary assistance. Five months after arriving in Kent, Chloris was delivered of a healthy baby girl. The three sisters now had more than enough to do to occupy their time.     

Two years later, in 1713 James Bailey lost most of his fleet of ships in a hurricane. He had invested heavily in their cargo, and so subsequently faced financial ruin. On reading of this in the newspaper, Ephraim could not but feel that justice had somehow been done.

September 17, 2021 13:24

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4 comments

Tanya Humphreys
23:38 Sep 22, 2021

The main negative issue I have with this story is that the dramatic part happens to early in the story which left me waiting for something exciting to happen- a twist or big obstacle. The entire moral seems to be a tired one- "bullies have bad karma." Going in to details: We hear that James Bailey is a pompous bully. We need to hear more about his character because being a rapist is so much more than bullying. And the brother, Rueben, as well. He just pops up in the story as being her brother. Evil characters need more depth. There's a...

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Sharon Williams
16:04 Sep 23, 2021

Dear Tanya, Thank you for taking the time to give such detailed feedback on my writing. One of my main reasons for being on here, and also for not writing a bio, is in order to get honest rather than 'kind' critiques on my writing. I agree re the story being a well worn one. It's only my second try at writing a romance (another reason for being on here, to try writing different genres). Reading through I think an interesting twist might have been to make Chloris realise that, she preferred life in her privileged abusive family to life as a...

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Mustang Patty
14:33 Sep 21, 2021

Hi, Sharon, You wove a tale that is all too true, both in the days gone past, and today. For some reason, the men in the household believe that the women there are their toys. Though you presented a problem - the pregnancy, the solution was too smooth, and there were no further obstacles - or if there were, they were solved much too easily. KEEP WRITING - it is the only way to develop more skills, ~MP~

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Sharon Williams
15:35 Sep 21, 2021

Thank you for commenting on my story. I always appreciate any critique. It's hard to be objective about my own writing. Thank you again and take care. Sharon

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