It was hours later when he returned home. He'd walked, although the night was chilly and a rainstorm was threatening. When he entered the parlor, Rachel, Amanda, and Mrs. Pearce were all seated, blankets pulled over their laps, reading near the fireplace.
"Father!" Amanda exclaimed, running to him. "You're so cold. Sit here with this blanket."
He sank gratefully into the chair, moaning and stretching his hands to the fire. "It's a dark, cold night," he began. "Such an awful night." He stared into the fire for a while.
"My dear, what occurred today with the Ellsworths? Can you tell us?" Mrs. Pearce prodded.
He nodded. "Yes, I must tell you. I've been asked to inform Rachel of all that has happened since she and John spoke last week... although I had no idea you've been suffering under so much." He reached for her hand, and she came and knelt at his feet. He kissed her forehead and put his hands on her shoulders for a moment.
"Well, you all should sit down. I have a story to tell, certainly."
Amanda nervously drew up her chair while Maman brought a cushion for Father's feet. Amanda struggled to keep her jaw from dropping as Father relayed what Rachel had already been told but no one else yet knew: John Ellsworth had met a girl near one of their other properties. He'd fallen in love with her, and at age 21 had bought a common license to marry, so he would not have to have banns read. They were married in the girl's own parish, by her own father. Even now they have a child. "No!" she whispered. "How... duplicitous... and unfair. Rachel, how...?" Rachel just stared at her hands in her lap.
"I do not know what to think of it," the Vicar sighed. "Yes, he has used Rachel abominably. He has been working on his mother, slowly convincing her that he would do well to marry the Vicar's daughter. He showed how much time he was away with her, showed how unflinching he was in his affection, even when his mother protested at first. He said he would make no announcement until she was persuaded that she would accept a clergyman's daughter as her own. But this whole time, he was not talking of our daughter, but some other daughter. Rachel was the placeholder; if she'd agree to Rachel, she'd have to agree to this other girl."
"But they were already married," Rachel said.
"Yes, and Lord Ellsworth has worked to find some sort of loophole to have the marriage annulled. But all the correct procedures and licenses were there; he didn't need parental consent, and she had her father's consent. They were married properly in church. There seems to be nothing amiss that would make the marriage not in force. He asked me about several points of the ceremony and the obligations with marriage—all have been properly followed through." Rachel blushed at the insinuation of this last point. Of course, with a child produced from the marriage, there was no question of their committal to each other.
"The longest hours of our discussion were spent trying to calm down Lord Ellsworth so that he would not disown John entirely. I urged him to look on the situation with the forgiveness of our Lord. After all, if our Father says we simply ask, and we shall receive, can we refuse those who ask, and not give?" He peered thoughtfully into the fire for a moment. Looking up, he said to Amanda, "It was one thing for me to imagine my daughter being the wife of a peer. This girl—his new wife—is quite humble in station. No formal education, very little in worldly goods, no dowry. I at least had something for you girls." He paused. "But John swears it is not a concern for him. Even when most peers must marry an heiress to keep up their lifestyle, he insists he'd rather live modestly, never travel to London or present her at St. James, and have his love."
Rachel stood and drew nearer to the fire, leaning on the mantelpiece. "He's very much in love, then."
"Aye," her father agreed. "He had a miniature drawn up of her. She's quite beautiful." They all sat quietly a moment, taking it all in.
"You knew this?" Amanda asked Rachel incredulously.
"Most of it. John drove me out to Kildale last Thursday, where I met her—Esther—and their daughter, Amelia."
Maman began to mutter rapidly in French, but Rachel smiled. "No, Maman, the thing is, I liked her. She is quite becoming, and very sweet. She and I would have been friends, had we met at school or been introduced in a ballroom. But she is much devoted to her father and younger brothers and sisters. She spends most of her day helping them, and would not move away, even if they inherited all of Burley Park. I cannot see any fault in her. And now they have a beautiful baby, with dark, round eyes. John was very proud." She turned back to the fire. "She was born the night of Amanda's ball. That's why he was so late, and so incredibly happy when he finally came."
"Lord Ellsworth says he will leave Kildale to him, and he'll have the title, eventually. Otherwise, he's settled all he could on Phoebe and made her one of the most attractive heiresses in the nation." Amanda's eyes opened wide with this news.
"Lady Ellsworth is another story. I've never seen such anger. After the first hour, she left the room and would only write her opinion down if we sent her maid in with a note. She means to never speak to John again."
"That was what he feared," Rachel added quietly. "He knew she wanted a smart match, a very stylish wedding. He cared for none of it."
"He cared enough that he wanted to win his mother's good opinion by using his dearest friend in a false engagement!" Amanda said hotly.
"It was very badly done," Maman added. "Très mal, très mal."
"It hurt," Rachel agreed. "At first he said it was so Amanda could get engaged. That Father wouldn't have any objection to his youngest getting married if his oldest was engaged. For Amanda, I was convinced to do it. Yet something was not right. Something in the way he described, sometimes, this lady who was so devout, so steady, and he would stare across the hills... I flattered myself that he meant me. I wish he had meant me." She began to cry again, and Maman went to her. She hugged her and pulled her down on the settee next to her, letting her cry quietly for a while.
"Lord Ellsworth thought I had some complicity in the matter," Father said. "I told him I was never aware of this other arrangement, and was just as shocked today as he was to learn my daughter was not really engaged to John. It took a heavenly amount of fortitude to forgive all that, I can assure you!"
Rachel smiled amid her tears to hear her father's response. "He was relying on our ability to forgive him," she said between sniffles, "even from the beginning. He said we were too good of friends to let it come between us."
Amanda harrumphed at this, and Rachel voiced her thoughts: "Our friendship may not be completely gone, but it will never be the same."
YOU ARE READING
The Vicar's DaughtersHistorical Fiction
If every young lady likes to be crossed in love now and then, the Vicar Pearce's daughters are three times blessed. Willful and spirited, Rachel refuses to think Lord Ellsworth's son, her dearest friend since childhood, is not in love with her. But...