Despite Prudence Pentyre’s best efforts, her cousin Margaret proves reluctant to accept Sir James Brownell’s marriage proposal, and fears being “bovinised” if she undergoes the controversial cowpox vaccination he recommends. And the dashing baronet seems more concerned about the plight of headhunters in Borneo than Margaret’s refusal. Then Prudence suddenly finds herself smitten with the man. What to do? What to do?
“You should not wear that to the pox party,” Prudence Pentyre said, indicating her younger cousin’s dress of light green Italian silk. “I recommend something with short sleeves which allows you to expose your forearm to the lancet.”
Margaret shuddered. Her plain face, pale and lightly freckled, appeared downcast. “Oh, Pru, I wish I didn’t have to go.” She stood, slender shoulders drooping, in front of her open wardrobe.
“Truly, Meg, there’s nothing to worry about,” Prudence assured her, slipping a comforting arm around her cousin’s slim waist. “Papa had all of us vaccinated with the cow pox when we were still in the school room—and the servants too. I’m quite surprised my Uncle Giles didn’t do the same,” Prudence replied.
A glint of disapproval flashed in her soft brown eyes. Silently, she fumed. Uncle Giles had held too many old-fashioned notions. Such an old stick! He was dead now, having suffered an apoplexy two years ago. Her mother, if she knew of Prudence’s unspoken condemnation, would have reminded her not to speak ill of the dead. This dictate had never made sense to Prudence. Why were some of life’s most unsavory characters deemed to be saints after their deaths? Not that Uncle Giles was unsavory, but he had been shamefully old-fashioned.
“Look, Meg, there’s not even a scar.” Prudence held out a white arm for her cousin’s perusal. “Mr. Jenner’s procedure is almost painless and quite safe, much safer than buying the smallpox and enduring the dreaded disease.”
“Papa didn’t believe in it. He said it was God’s will some people should die of the small pox,” Margaret said, turning away from her to examine an array of dresses hanging in the wardrobe.
“God is not so cruel,” Prudence insisted.
“Some say the vaccination will cause one’s facial features to resemble those of a cow,” Margaret ventured, her forehead creasing with anxious wrinkles.
Prudence laughed. “Neither John or Patience have any cowlike features, and you can see for yourself I do not.” Slightly unsettled by her cousin’s close examination, Prudence shrugged.
“Yes, look at me, Meg! Do I resemble a cow? I can assure you I don’t have a cow tail hidden beneath my skirts either. None of us have bovinized, as you fear. I believe Mr. Jenner’s procedure to have been God-inspired. Truly. Papa has preached this same opinion from the pulpit. Mr. Jenner took notice how milkmaids and dairy farmers did not succumb to the deadly small pox plague when there was an outbreak in their village. It was because of their exposure to the harmless cowpox. It was an amazing observation which will benefit us all.”
Like her parents, Prudence was an ardent admirer of Edward Jenner. In fact, her father the Reverend Henry Pentyre was a member of the Royal Jennerian Society and helped to raise money to give free vaccination to throughout England. Prudence enjoyed accompanying her father when he rode out to the rural areas to administer the vaccine himself to those members of his parish willing to undergo the procedure.
“But what if you should marry and have children?” Margaret hinted, unconvinced. She clutched her hands at her waist. Prudence, noting the slight tremor, realized her cousin was trying not to reveal her agitation.
“Both John and Patience are married with children and none of my nieces and nephews look like heifers, I assure you!” Prudence insisted. She gave Margaret a reassuring pat on the shoulder “You’re making a great fuss for nothing.”
With a sigh, Margaret retrieved a short-sleeved muslin gown from the wardrobe and held it up before her. As she considered her image in the mirror, Prudence stepped up behind her, peering over her cousin’s shoulder. Smiling at Margaret’s reflection, she noted the similarity of their features. They were much the same height—too tall and thin to be in fashion. They had dark brown hair, pert noses, and generous mouths, much too wide to be considered beautiful. But each had soulful brown eyes, heavily fringed with thick, dark lashes.
Prudence considered her eyes her best physical feature. They were large and expressive. When she had been much younger, an infatuated suitor had once written a poem for her, referring to the subject of his adoration as the, “lovely, ox-eyed Prudent Athena.” Smiling, she recalled this bit of poetic nonsense, but decided not to mention the particular compliment to Margaret. At least not until after the girl had been vaccinated with cowpox and quite recovered from her current state of anxious misery.
Addressing her cousin’s image in the mirror, Margaret asked, “What are you smiling about?”
“Nothing,” Prudence answered as she prinked her dusky curls before stepping away from the mirror. Her mother had raised her and her older sister Patience not to think overmuch of their appearance.
“Pretty is as pretty does,” Mrs. Pentyre had reminded them many a time. In all honesty, Prudence wasn’t pretty, and she knew it. Neither was her sister Patience. But their friendly smiles and easy manners had afforded them some modest popularity in society. Patience had wed several years ago and was the proud mother of three vivacious youngsters. At the age of twenty-seven, Prudence remained unmarried, and did not blush to acknowledge it.
“Pru, have you ever wanted to?” Margaret asked, as though reading her mind.
“Wanted to what?” Prudence replied with a slight hesitation.
“Don’t you want to marry and have children?” Margaret asked with an unsteady smile. “Have you never received an offer of marriage from an eligible gentleman?” She twirled away from the mirror to lay the newly selected dress across her bed.
“Two offers actually, but quite long ago. Mamma considered them eligible; I did not,” Prudence admitted. “Neither one of them was handsome or dashing. One lolled about. He never seemed to sit or stand up straight. He positively drooped upon the furniture, the mantle, even his horse. He smoked foul-smelling cigars and his jackets reeked of smoke.” Prudence rolled her eyes. “The other one could barely string two coherent sentences together to make an interesting conversation. He was socially backward—sadly so.”
“Even so, have you never regretted rejecting their proposals?” Margaret pursued.
“Indeed I have not,” Prudence insisted. “Being unmarried has allowed me to become involved with Mr. Wilberforce’s Abolition Society—and I’ve found the work to be fulfilling and meaningful.” Then noting her cousin’s perplexed frown, she added, “Please don’t think I nurse a broken heart in my bosom. I do not. I’ve also been blessed with a modest inheritance left to me by my fraternal grandmother, so I’m under no pressure to marry for security.”
“I wish I had a rich grandmother,” Margaret commented with a gloomy frown.
“Just because my emotions have been unmoved by men’s romantic attention, it is no reason for you not to marry,” Prudence went on, ignoring her cousin’s comment. “Your mother has informed us you are about to make an advantageous match.”
“I’ve not yet accepted him,” Margaret said with a sigh. She sat down on the edge of the bed with a dejected air.
“So my Aunt Judith has told me,” Prudence replied, claiming the small chair in front of Margaret’s dressing table.
She did not tell her younger cousin she’d been invited by her aunt to visit them in Bath for the express purpose of coaxing Margaret into accepting Sir James Brownell’s offer. Aunt Judith had resolved her daughter should make a suitable match. The girl was twenty, some seven years Prudence’s junior. Just because she’d not contracted an eligible match for herself did not mean Prudence was unwilling to see her younger cousin happily wed.
“So tell me all about your young sprig of fashion,” Prudence urged, smoothing her skirt and watching Margaret’s face with keen eyes.
Margaret fixed her with a glare and then snorted in a most unladylike fashion. “Sir James is neither young nor fashionable—mores the pity,” she replied petulantly.
“How old is Sir James?” Prudence queried.
“Old!” Margaret replied with glum reluctance. “At least thirty-five or even older.”
Prudence’s mouth twitched with secret amusement. “I must say it all happened rather suddenly, didn’t it?” she went on. “In your letters, there had been no mention of Sir James Brownell and then recently, it is all Aunt Judith has written about.”
“His mother, Lady Eliza Brownell, and mine put their heads together and planned it all. Such an ill-conceived idea!” Margaret replied, pouting. “I was not consulted. And Sir James, who is marrying to oblige his mama, had the audacity to tell me so. He mentioned it made no difference to him whom he wed, as he knew no eligible young ladies and was therefore, trusting Lady Brownell to select someone suitable for him.”
Prudence frowned. “How poor spirited! But I believe he has been ill, is that not so? Perhaps he is not quite himself.”
Margaret nodded. “Yes, he came to Bath to recover his health. Lady Eliza keeps a house here. Sir James owns property in the country. Stalwood is in the north somewhere. He told me as soon as he has fully recovered, he will return to his estate to repair the leaking roof, stop up the drafts, and clear the drains. Then we shall marry.” A becoming flush heightened her complexion.
Prudence said dryly, “How romantic! At least he’s taking his future bride’s health into consideration. Best to prepare the leaking roof and stop up the drafts first so you don’t fall ill with lung disease immediately following the wedding.” On a softer note, she asked, “Is there no affection between you at all?”
“He says he admires me, and he always treats me with the greatest courtesy,” Margaret told her, with a tremulous smile. “Mama thinks it is wonderful he is so solicitous. But when we are together, his speech is not in the least like a lover. Instead, he quite pesters me with questions about the oddest matters—like my views on slavery and the cowpox vaccine.” Lowering her voice, she complained, “He talks too of the most dreadful things he has encountered on his travels—as though I would care to hear of them.” She gave a slight shudder.
Quirking an eyebrow, Prudence asked, “What sort of dreadful things?”
Margaret straightened with indignation. “Heathen headhunters!” This time, her face flushed a deep, ugly red. “He never says pleasant, complimentary things to me or talks with animation about anything a lady would be interested in hearing about, not like…” Margaret bit off the last words. Heaving a sigh, she finally added, “He’s bold and brash and says just what he’s thinking.”
“A rare bird indeed, your Sir James Brownell!” Prudence declared, intrigued.
“He’s not my Sir James,” Margaret retorted.
“Couldn’t you find it in your heart to like him a little?” Prudence asked. “Many marriages begin with little more than mutual consent. Later, they grow into friendship and then love. Or so I’m told.” When her cousin merely shrugged, Pru went on. “In her letters, Aunt Judith described Sir James as a handsome man.”
“Handsome!” Margaret gasped out the word. “How can she say so? There’s nothing handsome about him at all—not even his manners. His skin is burned brown by the wind and the sun. He dresses with indifference, sometimes quite like a rustic. He walks with a pronounced limp, so he cannot stand up to dance with me, although Lady Eliza assures me the wound will heal. Worst of all, he wears an eye patch! Another injury, and one, I fear, must be permanent.” She shuddered with loathing.
“Good gracious! An eye patch? Meg, truly, I cannot wait to meet the gentleman!” Prudence announced.
“Meet him and marry him, for all I care!” Margaret exclaimed.
Prudence chuckled, smoothing a wrinkle in her dress. “Your mother would never forgive me.”
Margaret’s shoulders slumped. “She’ll never forgive me either should I refuse to marry the odious man. Oh, Pru! What am I to do? Did I mention Sir James first dangled after the vicar’s daughter? She refused his offer and sent him on his way, and I can hardly blame her. But Lady Brownell insists he must marry, so she and Mama put their heads together and decided we would make a good match between us. How they can think it, I do not know.”
“Do you despise him so much?” Prudence asked kindly.
Margaret shrugged. “I do not despise him, but nor do I have any affection for him whatsoever. I am not certain I even like him,” she confessed. “He admitted quite frankly to me one bride is as good as another, as long as she is young, healthy, and God-fearing.” She shook her head and added feelingly, “As though he’d find heathen women here in Bath like those he lived among in Borneo!”
Convinced now Sir James must be somewhat addlebrained, Prudence asked curiously, “Was he living there when he became ill? In Borneo? Aunt Judith mentioned only that he had traveled extensively in the Far East.”
“Yes, he has been there for some years. Recently, he was injured while fighting Malay pirates and then fell ill with malaria.”
“Quite the adventurer, is he not?” Noting her cousin’s gloomy countenance, Prudence rose from the chair and moved to sit beside her on the bed. “Margaret, in all fairness, you must admit Sir James would not have asked you to marry him, if he did not desire to marry you. He’s a man grown. Lady Brownell cannot force him to marry the bride of her choice, no more than your own mother would force you to accept him—if you indeed find him so repugnant.”
Margaret tilted her head to one side and considered for a moment. “I feel indifference only. Occasionally, I do feel anger and resentment when he insists I attend some insufferable function or another—like this afternoon’s cowpox party at Lady Oldenfield’s.”
“He is coming for you?” Prudence asked.
“No, we shall meet him there. Mama insists I should go, as I’ve not yet had the disease. Sir James has convinced her the Jenner vaccine is much safer than buying the small pox in London in the usual way.”
“It is,” Prudence assured her. “You have nothing to fear. We shall go together. I will hold your hand, and you may introduce me to Sir James.” She rose from the bed.
Margaret shrugged. “All right then, if we must. In truth, I am interested to know your opinion of him.” She rose from the bed with a sigh.
“Will Sir James perform the vaccination procedure himself do you think?” Prudence asked.
“I do not believe so,” Margaret replied with a skeptical frown. “Surely, there will be a physician? I wish I knew how Sir James convinced Lady Oldenfield to host the affair in the first place,” she said. “I am dreading it.”
“Meg, you are fretting a good deal over nothing, I assure you,” Prudence tried to cheer her. “My own father performed nearly all the vaccinations upon the members of his congregation with my help and that of his curate. It is quite a simple procedure and so effective. Papa hopes one day in the near future, the christening and vaccination of small children will be performed on the same day.”
Margaret appeared so aghast at this hopeful suggestion Prudence could not help laughing. Then she gave her cousin a heartfelt hug. “While you change your gown, I will look in on Aunt Judith and tell her we will be leaving soon. I shall ask her to have the carriage brought around too.”
As Prudence made her way down the drafty corridor to her aunt’s room, she glanced outside the window. Such a bleak and dreary July day! This summer had been unseasonable chilly. Prudence, who reveled in the warmest weather, did not approve. Noting the gooseflesh on her arms, she wished she had first stopped by her own room for a shawl. She suspected her aunt would not have a fire in her room. Aunt Judith lived as though she were penny pinched—much to the inconvenience of her guests. Prudence considered her to be thoughtlessly stingy, although her mother insisted her widowed sister-in-law was merely frugal.
She tapped on the door to her aunt’s room and opened it when she heard her call, “Enter.” Prudence found her aunt sprawled upon her chaise, indisposed. She was built upon thick and sturdy lines, which belied her frail health. Her thinning dark hair appeared heavily streaked with silver strands. Her long, plain face sadly resembled that of a horse, Prudence thought. Two small tables were within her aunt’s reach—one with a lovely Wedgwood tea service, the other littered with bottles containing various elixirs for one ailment or another.
“My dear Prudence, it is so good to see you!” her aunt declared, holding out a tremulous hand to her. “I do beg pardon for not greeting you upon your arrival yesterday. I am positively burnt to the bone socket. My headaches are quite debilitating, as you know. I trust your dear mother and father are in good health?”
“They are fine indeed,” Prudence assured her.
“Oh, Prudence, I am so grateful you have come. I do so need your help,” her aunt told her with a lachrymose expression.
“I am always pleased to be of assistance to you, Aunt Judith,” Prudence replied, squeezing her aunt’s hand as she bent to kiss her pale cheek. As she did so, Prudence glanced sidelong toward the hearth. No fire, as she feared. Then noting the purple bruises beneath her aunt’s eyes and her sallow skin, Prudence felt a stab of guilt for having assumed Mrs. Leyes had merely been indulging herself with another imagined illness, a common habit with her. But no, the woman did indeed look haggard.
“If anyone can talk Margaret into seeing reason, it would be you. She has always admired you—you have been more like an elder sister than a cousin. I am so grateful.” Mrs. Leyes sniffed into her handkerchief.
“I am quite as fond of Margaret as she is of me,” Prudence assured her, sitting down upon a small chintz-covered settee.
“Margaret cannot afford to pass up this opportunity. In truth, it is like manna from Heaven. You must make her see it, Pru.” With a sigh, her aunt sank back against the chaise. “How could I bear it if I should die, leaving my only child a spinster?” she wailed. “Margaret, an old maid!”
Prudence lowered her gaze, focusing her attention upon the ornate garnet ring her grandmother had given to her upon her sixteenth birthday, more than a decade ago. Her distraught aunt, realizing what she had said, quickly begged pardon and gulped a swallow of tea from a dainty cup.
“I’m sorry, Prudence,” she sputtered, her pale face flushing. “I did not think. Oh, my wicked tongue! I do rattle on. Giles always said so, and it is lamentably true.”
Clearing her throat, Prudence replied, “It is also true I am—as you say—an old maid. I’m nearer thirty than not and still unmarried. I am resigned to my fate and contentedly so.”
She forced a smile and admitted on most days, this was indeed true.
Love and marriage were not part of God’s plan for her life. She had come to accept it—most of the time. She felt blessed to have the loving support of her parents, well as the modest inheritance left to her by her grandmother, which became Prudence’s to manage when she had reached the age of twenty-one. And although Mrs. Pentyre often hinted how delighted she would be to see her youngest daughter happily married, as were her other children, Patience and John, neither she nor the vicar persisted in this and seemed pleased to have Prudence remain with them to help with the church work.
Fixing her niece with a tender gaze, Judith added, “I do hope you will not think me impertinent, Prudence, but I cannot help wishing you were credibly established—like your sister Patience, married to a kind and generous husband.”
“I have not yet met the right gentleman, Aunt Judith, nor am I likely to do so—at my age,” she replied with a quick shrug. “Thankfully, my parents have allowed me to make my own matrimonial decisions.” Prudence winced then as she realizing how condemning the comment must sound to her aunt who, indeed, wanted to force her own daughter into a marriage of convenience.
But her aunt had not noted the condemnation in her tone, and Prudence, eager to change the subject, said, “I must confess, I am surprised to learn Margaret is not yet officially betrothed. In your letters to Mama, you intimated the match had been made. We expected to see the announcement in the Times before I left for Bath.”
“No, it is not official yet,” her aunt replied with a tragic sniff. “And through no fault of Brownell’s, I assure you. He’s come up to scratch. Margaret is the one balking at the fences,” she went on with a lamentable mix of metaphors. “ I don’t know what to do. I am at my wit’s end. She says she wants to carefully consider the offer. But there is nothing to consider, as far as I am concerned. I have never known Margaret to be so stubborn. She has always been such a good, biddable girl. But now…” Judith’s shoulders slumped with despair.
“Perhaps Meg’s affections are engaged elsewhere?” Prudence suggested.
“I do not believe so,” she replied, her forehead creasing with perplexed wrinkles.
Recalling her cousin’s less than enthusiastic comments about the gentleman, Prudence added, “Perhaps she finds Sir James repugnant in some way.”
“How can that be?” her aunt queried. “The man is rich, attractive, and personable, even though his manner may be considered,…” she paused to find the right word.
“Brusque?” Prudence prompted.
Her aunt frowned. “Perhaps, but his lineage is impeccable. He came to Bath for the express purpose of recovering his health and securing a wife. He fixed his attention on Margaret almost at once.”
“After first being rejected by the vicar’s daughter, I understand,” Prudence pointed out. She regarded her aunt with arched brows.
“Not our vicar’s daughter,” Judith replied, as though this made all the difference in the world. “Margaret has never had an offer before, you know. To be quite honest, she is not likely to have another. Although I love my daughter dearly, I must admit the child is lamentably plain.” Mrs. Leyes shook her head. “Even if Margaret should receive another offer, which is doubtful as I have said, it would surely not be as advantageous as this one. It is why I have sent for you, Prudence. You must convince Margaret to marry Sir James!” She raised a languid hand to indicate the teapot.
Prudence shook her head, declining the offer of tea. “I’ll try to be helpful to you, Aunt Judith,” she replied. “I wish Margaret all the happiness in the world, but I will not urge her to marry someone she finds repulsive.” She fixed a candid gaze upon her aunt’s pale face.
“Then you must convince her Sir James is not repulsive,” Judith said stiffly. “He is an excellent man with a superior mind. He has many fine…er…qualities besides his fortune. For Margaret, this will be a most splendid match.” After a moment’s pause, she frowned and asked with quiet hesitation, “Did Margaret say she is repulsed by him?”
“She complains he is rather an odd fish,” Prudence replied frankly. Licking her dry lips, she added, “Margaret also thinks he is old and unattractive.”
“Old? Bah! He is not yet thirty-five years of age,” Judith insisted. “I will admit, he is not handsome in the conventional way, but he has a rugged, manly appearance. And he is rich. I believe I mentioned it, did I not? His father invested heavily in the East India Company. Sir James himself has done considerable business in the East as well, importing antimony, I believe. It is my opinion he should be commended for increasing the wealth of the estate left to him by his late father.”
“And yet Margaret doesn’t seem impressed. I’m not sure she even likes the man,” Prudence pointed out.
“What’s not to like?” her aunt protested. “Sir James has wealth. He’s generally admired and has none of the usual vices—like gambling and excessive drink. Truly, Prudence, he has quite turned everyone’s head with his tales of dining in foreign palaces with sultans and Oriental princes. He brought back with him many curious mementos of his journey to the East. It is true he is not debonair. But he cuts quite a romantic figure nonetheless. Bath society has embraced him.”
“Yes, but Margaret mentioned he walks with a limp and wears an eye patch.” Suppressing a smile, Prudence tried to conjure an image of the adventurous Sir James Brownell. The image portrayed by her aunt and the one provided by her young cousin merged into something of a comical figure.
“Poor man! He was injured while fighting with Malay pirates. Why, he was actually shot in the battle! Lady Brownell saved the bullet and keeps it under glass, like some prize specimen to show to everyone who calls.” Judith shook her head, tugging impatiently at her gown. “But to his credit, Sir James is determined to take a missionary back with him the next time he journeys East. As you are a vicar’s daughter, you must approve.”
“You are close friends with his mother, I believe?” Prudence asked, ignoring the comment.
“Yes, Eliza and I were at school together. Bosom chums,” she added with a reminiscent smile. “We shared an infatuation for our dashing art instructor, Signore Angelo Roscetti—such a handsome man with black moustaches and flashing dark eyes.”
Prudence gently led her aunt back on course. “Before I do what I can to convince Margaret to accept Sir James’s offer, are you quite sure she has not formed a secret passion for another?”
Her aunt seemed bewildered by the suggestion. “No,” she insisted. She then quickly amended this declaration with, “I don’t know. Margaret has not shown a partiality to any young man I am aware of. Nor has any gentleman singled her out.”
“Could she be meeting someone in a clandestine manner?”
“Prudence, no!” Judith declared. One frail hand fluttered to her throat. “I’ve not heard of it. Someone would surely have noticed and informed me of it, don’t you suppose?”
Prudence thought much went on in Bath her reclusive aunt would not know about. She could tell by Judith’s flushed face and agitated manner the notion of Margaret meeting someone clandestinely had never occurred to her. Prudence wished she had not mentioned it. Aunt Judith would, she feared, fret about it.
“Poor Margaret has been suffering with megrims of late. Some days, her appetite is poorly," Judith stammered. “And yet on other days, she fairly blooms with good health and high spirits. It is puzzling, but of course, but I believe it is often so with the young. They can be emotionally intemperate.”
“Don’t worry, Aunt Judith. If Margaret does have a have a secret tendre for some other gentleman, I will ferret it out,” Prudence promised. She felt no qualms about doing so as Margaret had not given the slightest indication she nursed a secret passion for Another. “Who knows? He may even be in attendance at Lady Oldenfield’s gathering this afternoon. I shall look sharp.”
Her aunt’s eyes widened with apprehension. She blinked. “Did she mention…?”
“No, Aunt Judith, I do not mean to tease you,” Prudence hastened to assure her. “Meg did not confess any such secret passion to me. She is merely indifferent to Sir James—so she told me. She cannot bring herself to accept him as her husband.”
“Do what you can to see she warms to him,” her aunt pressed. “If there is someone else, Clarissa Paige may possibly know who it might be.”
“I remember Miss Paige,” Prudence said, immediately recalling the pretty, dark haired young woman, who was Margaret’s true and closest friend. If her cousin had indeed revealed any secret passion to her bosom chum, Prudence would find it no easy task to pry the secret from Clarissa’s loyal lips.
“Be clever, Prudence,” her aunt cajoled, as though reading her thoughts. “You must persuade Clarissa to speak with you regarding Margaret’s confidences—if indeed she has shared such.”
“I fear you overestimate my abilities, Aunt Judith, but I will try.” In a teasing manner, she tilted her head to one side. “I may have to take up a flirtation with Clarissa’s brother, Harry. He might be more forthcoming, under the right circumstances, if he knows anything at all about a secret amour.”
Judith appeared mildly astonished. Then realizing it was only a jest, the woman gave her a complacent smile and shook her head. “This is not a laughing matter, Prudence. Nothing must prevent Margaret from marrying Sir James.” Then squeezing her eyes shut and pinching the bridge of her nose, she exclaimed with sudden warmth, “The child vexes me so! She gives Sir James no encouragement at all.”
“I am frankly surprised this indifference has not cooled the gentleman’s ardor,” Prudence admitted, smoothing her skirt with one hand. She felt even more intrigued about Sir James Brownell than before. Her cousin was not a beauty or an heiress. Why should Sir James be so insistent upon marrying Margaret when surely there were young females who would be more willing? Why did he not give her up, as he did the vicar’s discriminating daughter and move on to more fertile ground?
“To oblige his mama, Sir James is determined to take Margaret to wife, and I thank God for it,” her aunt said feelingly.
“Because you don’t want her to remain an old maid, like me,” Prudence replied in an offhand manner, hoping to lighten her aunt’s mood.
After a brief but pregnant pause, Judith confided in low, tragic tones, “Because there is the most abominable debt to pay.”
Bewildered, Prudence asked, “What debt?”
“Giles’s gambling debts.” This in a lower tone still.
Prudence gasped softly. She had not known her Uncle Giles had gambled or that he’d left his widow saddled with gambling debts. “Is it so steep then?” she asked, leaning forward. “Does Margaret know?” She wondered too if her own mother knew her elder brother had been a gamester?
“No, Margaret does not know, and Prudence, I beg you will not tell her,” her aunt pleaded, sitting up slightly on the chaise. “You would not be so unfeeling? She idolized her father and knows nothing of his gambling habit. Giles loved Margaret too—called her his Little Button. He never once complained I did not bear him a son.” With a sniff, Judith carried her crumbled handkerchief to her nose. Her eyes filled with sentimental tears. “I cannot help but think had I been able to produce more children, perhaps he wouldn’t have taken to gaming as he did,” she added in a tremulous voice.
“I’m sorry, Aunt Judith, I had no idea,” Prudence admitted, dismayed. “Does my mother know about the debt? Does my father know?”
“Oh, yes, Henry, God bless him, has helped when he could,” Judith told her. “Your dear mother has been quite understanding too. But your father is not a rich man either, although he is a landed gentleman and fortunately need not rely solely on his living from the church for an income. But I do not want to be a burden upon your parents—upon anyone. I’ve sold most of the Leyes family jewels, which came to Giles when we married—all except the pearls, which I gave to Margaret upon her coming out. I still hold the sapphires too, which I planned to give her upon the occasion of her marriage.”
Prudence, surprised by the revelation of her late uncle’s vices, felt a surge of bitter resentment toward him for placing her aunt and cousin in this awkward predicament. Excessive gambling was one of the many sins the popular reformer Mr. William Wilberforce so strongly denounced. More than once he had declared theirs a decadent generation of excesses. Her father couldn’t have agreed more and preached the same from his pulpit on more than one occasion.
When Prudence remained silent, her aunt went on. “I have been trying to quietly pay back what I could over the years. It has not been easy. Other widows in my predicament often have sons or brothers to pay off these so-called debts of honor, but I refuse to be completely dependent upon Henry. Why, it would send him to the poorhouse! And I can hardly allow Giles’s debts to follow Margaret and me to the grave, can I?”
“This is dreadful,” Prudence exclaimed, shaking her head as she tried to digest her aunt’s shocking news. “I would never have guessed Uncle Giles gambled so excessively—and how you, his widow, would be held responsible for his debts.”
“It is hardly something one talks about it, even within the family,” her aunt acknowledged with an embarrassed blush. “You must promise me you will not mention this to Margaret.” She blinked several times.
“I promise,” Prudence replied. She meant it.
Her aunt hung her head. “Oh, Pru, it is so humiliating. You see, Giles owed money to many close friends and acquaintances. It is imperative that Margaret marry Sir James, so we might settle your uncle’s debts honorably.”
“I have no desire to pry too closely, but does Sir James know the extent of the debts?” Prudence asked.
“Yes, I’ve taken Sir James into my confidence. He has assured me he will pay off the debts in full once he and Margaret are married. He is all that is kind and good, I assure you. I look forward to living out the rest of my years with peace of mind and a modicum of comfort.”
Judith, reaching for a clear bottle of lavender-colored pills, peered at her niece and said, “Come now, let’s not talk of it any more. Go to Lady Oldenfield’s and see Margaret safely vaccinated. Meet Sir James and take the measure of the man. You will not find him wanting. Then see if you cannot persuade your headstrong cousin to look upon him more favorably.”
“I will do my best,” Prudence assured her, rising. “Will you send for the carriage?”
Her aunt nodded and reached out a hand toward her. Fixing Prudence with a look of earnest appeal, she said, “So you quite understand now, don’t you, Pru? If Margaret does not marry Sir James, her future will be as uncertain and precarious as my own.”
Prudence, holding her aunt’s cool and trembling hand, nodded and swallowed hard. She could indeed understand how, from her aunt’s perspective, it was important to both her future happiness and security—as well as Margaret’s own—the marriage to Sir James come off successfully. “I do understand, Aunt Judith. You may rely on me.”
But as she took her leave, Prudence was still puzzled by the gentleman’s persistence. Why should he be so intent upon marrying Margaret when she seemed less than eager? Prudence loved Meg, certainly, but her cousin had no beauty, position, or wealth to recommend her. Not only was she indifferent to his suit, but also her family was encumbered heavily with so-called “debts of honor.”
And if Margaret had spoken truthfully, Sir James’s affections were not strongly engaged either. This was not a love match on either side. It didn’t make sense. Could not a man with Sir James’s wealth and position find another Bath miss to propose marriage to—one without an embarrassment of gambling debts to pay off in her father’s name? Surely his mother had other friends with eligible but more willing daughters?
It was a perplexing riddle. Prudence made up her mind to resolve it.