And What of the Children?
"And shall Eliza and her little Betsy come to live with us when we are married?"
Surprised at his vehemence, she waited for an explanation.
"I will not have a young woman, whom many suppose to be my love-child, residing with her love-child in my house with my child bride. It would be scandalous."
"Are my feelings about it not to be consulted? And I am not a child! I am to be your wife!"
He blushed. "No, dearest, you are not a child, though I am nearly twice your age. I am an old man and would not marry a child."
She reached to touch his cheek. "No, you are not an old man. I would not marry an old man. I am a young woman marrying a man in his prime. ... But I believe we were discussing something else: I accused you of not consulting my feelings."
"I am consulting your feelings, Marianne! We should all be subjected to rampant gossip. My dear friends, Sir John and Mrs. Jennings, would be the worst! And you would be confronted every day with ... with .... Well, with him ...."
"With reminders of Willoughby? Because Betsy looks like him? You don't want to say it, so I shall say it. Eliza and Betsy would remind me of my own folly and I would be uncomfortable in my own house. Isn't that what you think? And perhaps you would also be uncomfortable. He injured you, far more than he ever injured me! Before I accuse you of not consulting my feelings, I ought to consider yours."
He tried to laugh. "Before we compare injuries, shall I point out that he nearly killed you?"
"No, don't lay that at his door. I was willing to die of despair, and I hoped that if I did not care for myself, I would ... and that no one would mourn me."
He touched her hand, "Marianne ...."
"No, I know. I was weak and foolish ... selfish. I disregarded my family. And I didn't know then that you .... I only realized later, a long time after I was well again. I was the last to know, wasn't I?"
"Yes, I suppose so. Was I wrong? Should I have declared myself?"
"No, how could you have? I would not have believed you if you had. Until I discovered it for myself, that is.
"But we have strayed from our subject again," she said, "my feelings and yours about Eliza and Willoughby, and whether she and little Betsy should come to us when we are married.
"And since I am a young and selfish creature," she said, smiling, "let us discuss my feelings first. I did mourn Willoughby at one time, yes, when I heard he was engaged to another lady, because I had thought he loved me. I was devastated that he had forsaken me for someone else, but that was at first. I ceased to regret him at all, when I heard later that he had engaged himself while fancying himself still attached to me, and did it for money.
"And I learned at nearly the same time what he had done to Eliza, poor foolish girl. And that he blamed her! That is not a man I could ever have respected. It almost frightens me now when I recall that I once hoped and expected to be married to him for our whole lives! Providence must have rescued me. ... Well, Providence and you," she smiled, pressing his hand.
Then she hesitated. "But why didn't you warn me against him, when you knew what he was? How could you have let me ... ?"
"Marianne, do you think I haven't berated myself? But when I left you at Barton, when I received Eliza's letter the day we were to visit Whitwell, I didn't know. At that time all I knew against him was that he was a younger man, my successful rival in love. Much as I hated him for that, I could hardly denounce him to you for it! I didn't see you again until Berkeley Street. I thought you were about to become engaged to him then, and didn't want to disturb you by saying things you would not wish to hear. He might have reformed, out of love for you. And I didn't think you
would believe me. Why should you? A woman in love, certain of being loved in return, would likely reject whatever I said as the slanders of a jealous old man."
Marianne looked down and blushed. "You were probably right," she whispered.
After a moment she looked up again. "The reminder of Willoughby - would it pain you on my account?"
"Do you mean, would I be jealous of him now? No, dear. Since you do not regret him, I have nothing to be jealous of. I cannot imagine ever welcoming him to my house, but not because of jealousy." I cannot say this aloud to her, he thought, but she never does anything by halves. She has accepted me, and I hope that one day she will love me with her whole heart. I hope she is on her way to that, but doesn't yet realize it.
She was not thinking the same thoughts he was, but had turned her attention back to herself and Eliza. "I pity Eliza for the mistake she made, that I could so easily have made myself! But it would not cause me any pain if she and the child were to live with us. If I could add anything to her comfort, it would be my pleasure to atone a little for my own youthful errors. And I should like to become her friend. Perhaps if she knew how near I came to making the same mistake ....
"But my own feelings are not the only ones that matter. What about yours? Not about Willoughby and me, I mean about him and Eliza."
"Marianne, you are pitiless, demanding the same honesty from me that you offer. So long as she is unmarried, Eliza is my responsibility, and has been nearly all her life. But she did not bring her trouble to me, because she thought I would throw her off. After nearly two years, I still blame myself that she felt she could not trust me but must struggle alone. So how can I not invite her into our home now, when you ask it?
"But there is something yet more shaming, but I shall not allow it to govern me. Innocent as she is, little Betsy is a reproach to me, that I did not do enough to protect my girl. I was Eliza's guardian, and I failed her. With Eliza and Betsy in our house with us, I shall be constantly reminded of my failure." Unconsciously, perhaps, he raised his chin and squared his shoulders. "I would be a coward if I evaded that shame."
She touched his cheek again and shook her head. "No. She was old enough to know what she was about, and must have known to guard herself. Certainly I knew that what I was doing with him was wrong, or at least imprudent, when I went about alone with him. She must have known as well. It is surely wrong to blame yourself for another person's conduct. Only she - and he - are responsible for what they did."
"As the world sees it," he replied, "Willoughby did injure me, and I forced him to meet me in acknowledgment of that. But of course, those he truly injured were Eliza and Betsy, for whom he has never yet acknowledged his responsibility. Am I to hold my children (for I do think of them that way) at arms' length now, when you tell me you don't wish that? I have never cared about the gossip of persons whose good opinion doesn't matter to me. If you truly won't mind it, why should I?"
She smiled. "Then let us ask Eliza," she said, "what she wants."
"Mrs. Brandon," he murmured, his face lit by his smile. Responding to her inquiring look, he added, "I shall soon be able to call you that. You began this conversation, when I was reluctant to approach it. And you have settled matters in a way that I wished for but dared not hope. I must be the most fortunate man in the world."
He took both her hands, with a gaze that made her shiver. "How often in the past have I seen that look without knowing what it meant?" she wondered.
For two years, Eliza Williams had lived in a village near Delaford, where she made herself useful assisting a Mrs. Gordon in a school for neighborhood children. Although Eliza had done something very foolish, for which she knew she must pay for the rest of her life, she was not generally a silly girl. She was intelligent, well spoken and well educated for her station in life, and she enjoyed teaching Mrs. Gordon's charges their letters and sums. She and her baby Betsy were beloved among the pupils and appreciated by most of their parents. Who, in her situation, would not feel grateful?
So when her guardian and his bride asked if she would like to live with them at Delaford, she was torn. It was, after all, her ancestral home. Her mother had lived there most of her life, Eliza herself had been conceived there and had often visited her guardian there as she was growing up, but until now Delaford had not had a mistress and so she had not had the opportunity to reside there herself. Perhaps if she had ....
In the end, she decided to accept the Brandons' offer and so bade tearful farewells to Mrs. Gordon and the pupils.
Eliza had been in her new home little more than a month when her guardian received a call from a Mr. Robert Cockrell, father to two of her former pupils at Mrs. Gordon's. James Brandon and Robert Cockrell had grown up together, James in his father's house at Delaford, Robert at Thornhill, a prosperous farm on the other side of the village. Mr. Cockrell lived there now with his daughters Maria (who was called Mimi) and Elizabeth (shortened to Libby), who were nine and seven years old.
In common with all of the neighborhood, Eliza of course knew that Mr. Cockrell was himself the subject of a scandal: about six years before, his wife had left him and her children to go to the Continent with a lover, and she had never been heard from since. Eliza had even heard some of the jokes that were made at Mr. Cockrell's expense, twisting his name into a insulting epithet. She pitied him for that, knowing very well how it felt to be derided for something of that sort.
"James, I have come to congratulate you on your marriage and to beg of you a very great favor."
James accepted his old friend's congratulations and asked what he could do for him.
"You may know that my girls attend Mrs. Gordon's school, and have done so for the past three years. They love Miss Williams and her baby, and are desolated by her departure from the school. They feel it as another abandonment, as you may imagine. I am unhappy because they are inconsolable."
James expressed his sympathy at his friend's plight and mentioned that he well knew the difficulties of a bachelor rearing young motherless girls.
"I have come to ask you to allow me to employ Miss Williams as their governess in my house. It is a respectable situation; I have a housekeeper and several maids. She would have her own comfortable suite of rooms. I would pay her the wages that she deserves, and she would be perfectly safe. My daughters would be relieved and happy, and so would I.
"I will not do any thing improper or possibly scandalous. I know she has had enough of that. But at the same time I will not conceal my intentions from you. I have observed her with my children for two years, perhaps more than she realizes. At home, they talk of her constantly. I admire her for qualities that I have seen, that you must be well aware of and have probably instilled in her yourself.
"I am two and thirty, as you know very well, and I want a wife. I would eventually like to marry her if she is willing. However, I have never attempted to court her, and I promise you solemnly that I will not do so until I am free to marry again. This coming March will be seven years since Maria went away. But for my children's sake, I feel unable to wait that long to restore Miss Williams to them, if I can."
James promised to think about Robert's petition, and to discuss it with his wife and the lady herself. A few days later, he gave his consent.
Eliza and Betsy were joyfully welcomed into Robert's household. As governess, Eliza had rooms next to the nursery, which consisted of two rooms, the smaller with three beds and the larger given over to school. Eliza soon had the latter cheerfully arranged, with work tables, book shelves, maps, rugs and comfortable places to sit near the fire place. She believed it was better to keep sleeping and studying arrangements separate. Robert was impressed by her ideas; in nine years, no one had ever taken much trouble over the girls' living situation.
Robert found himself spending a great deal of his spare time in the school room, in the company of Eliza and the girls. The girls were happy and their squabbling and complaints had stopped. With Eliza in his house and the girls contented, it seemed to him that he almost had a family. All he had to do to maintain this illusion was to forget the inconvenient facts that Eliza was neither his wife nor the mother of his children and that he was not the father of Betsy.
One evening in particular, Eliza was seated on the sofa, Betsy in her lap and the two older girls cuddled up against her on either side, listening to a fantastical tale about a talking bird and a singing kitten who were best friends. When the girls demanded a third character, she introduced a dancing turtle with a delicately painted shell.
Seated across from them on the other sofa, as was his evening habit, Robert nearly lost his composure. As the girls giggled sleepily in Eliza's embrace, his vision dimmed with tears. How can I possibly keep my promise to James not to court her until I am free? I am the one likely to endanger her safety! He knew he ought to leave the room but could not bring himself to break up the peaceful mood. So he suppressed his desires and forced himself to think only of the contentment of his daughters. When Eliza rose to put the girls to bed, he also said good night and left.
Libby's screams awoke Eliza from a sound sleep.
She pulled on her robe and ran to see what was wrong. Robert had also heard and had already run upstairs.
Eliza sat on Libby's bed and cradled her like a big baby. The child's eyes were open but unseeing as her continuing screams were interspersed with sobbing. Eliza cuddled her tightly and crooned to her. The other two girls were frightened, and Betsy had begun to cry. Eliza tried to soothe Betsy and Mimi while comforting Libby and gently waking her from her nightmare.
"My mama - was here, - she was - she was - running - away from - from me. - I tried - tried to - to catch her - but she - she kept running - faster and - faster. - - And she -- she kept - she was - looking over - over her shoulder - and - and when I - almost caught up - up with her - then she ran faster. - I could never - catch her - and she ran away. - She was laughing! - I'll never see her again!"
Eliza had never been so angry with someone as she was in that moment with Maria Cockrell, a woman she had never known. How could she! How could she leave her baby in such a state? But she pushed her anger aside to concentrate on comforting Libby.
"You might run away too, like my mama!"
"I could never do that, darling. I will never leave you, Libby." Eliza blushed to hear herself. How could I have promised that, when it may not be in my power to keep it?
By this time Robert was on his knees next to the bed, stroking his daughter and murmuring to her. Through the turmoil, he had clearly heard Eliza's words and thought, I hope one day to be able to remind you of that promise, my girl! But of course he said nothing aloud.
Mimi said, "Sometimes I remember my mother, and I dream about her too. You might sneak away, as she did, and we would never even be able to chase you!" So grown up seeming at nine, Mimi was clearly affected as well. Eliza cuddled her, too.
Later, when Libby and Mimi were calm enough to speak and Betsy was nearly asleep, Eliza asked, "Libby, do you remember the game we played this morning, you were chasing me and I pretended to run away? But you and Mimi caught me? Don't you think that if I truly wanted to run away from you I could run faster than I did, because I'm tall and have long legs? But I never, never would. I never would. Do you think perhaps you had that nightmare because of that game? Could that be?"
Libby nodded, tentatively.
"Would you like to play that game again tomorrow, and you will catch me again, every time?" Libby and Mimi both nodded yes.
At last the girls fell asleep, all in Libby's bed. Eliza was exhausted, but felt too stimulated to sleep.
Robert asked her if she wanted a warm drink before bed. He led her down to the kitchen, where he heated water, poured it into the ordinary mugs that were there, and added sugar and rum. They sat across from each other at the kitchen table and drank in silence.
Eliza at last could no longer contain herself. "Mr. Cockrell, I hope you will allow me to confess how very angry I am with your wife! I could not express myself with the girls present, of course, but .... I love both your daughters, and I cannot see how she, who bore them, could not! My own mother abandoned me when I was three, but not on a whim, not because she held a lover dearer than she held me! She had no choice - she was terribly ill and she died! And I shall never see her again."
Tears began to roll down her cheeks. Robert felt helpless. He could not embrace her, as he ardently wished to do. In the end, he patted her hand awkwardly and offered her his handkerchief.
He was tired, and his feelings were completely undefended. He had not intended to broach the subject that he did: "Shall I confess something to you, Miss Williams? I hope to marry you one day. Please, I don't ask you for an answer, but I hope you will allow me to speak."
Eliza could not protest.
"Before you came to live here, I told your guardian my feelings, that I hoped one day to marry you, but I promised him I would not court you until I was free to marry again. I am not free, not yet. I don't intend to dishonor my promise, and yet there are some things I would like you to know. If you don't wish to hear them, you may stop me at any time.
"My wife left me over six and a half years ago, with a man named Harry Wellworth. Libby was a few months old, and Mimi was two. I don't know how long they were lovers, but I became aware before Libby was born. I pretended ignorance, hoping to keep her, but to no avail. I was in love with her and had thought she married me out of love also. She was willful and spirited, and very beautiful. We were both two and twenty when we married.
"She simply left one day. She said, 'I'm leaving, Robert,' and she walked out the door without looking back. She didn't even kiss her children good bye. She and Wellworth went to the Continent, I believe. But it was very dangerous then, and I don't know what happened to them. I never heard from her again, and I believe his family also knows nothing. After seven years, she will be presumed dead and I may marry again. Until then, I would be considered a bigamist, without proof that my wife is dead. The seven years will be up in March.
"I don't even know if my daughters are mine, because of the circumstances of Maria leaving so soon after Libby was born. But eventually I realized it didn't matter. They were motherless, and I was not going to abandon them. I love them, and legally they are mine, regardless of their parentage.
"Both girls were desolate at the time. Of course at the time Mimi could talk a little and understood that her mother was gone. I don't know if she really remembers her today, although she says she does. Libby, of course, was too small to remember anything at all. Maria did not even wait until Libby was weaned, and I had to find a wet nurse.
"So my girls have been reared by a succession of nurses and housekeepers. I had put them in Mrs. Gordon's school about a year before you arrived there. She's very kind, and treated them as pets because they were so young, and of course like everyone else hereabouts, she knew they were motherless. They received more attention there than they would have at home. Then you arrived with Betsy.
"I don't know if you realize how attached to you they have become. When you left Mrs. Gordon's to go live with your guardian and Mrs. Brandon at Delaford, they were inconsolable. They cried, had tantrums, disobeyed, quarreled with each other. They were very unhappy, and so was I. It was horrible in every way. All of us were supremely grateful when you consented to come here.
"The girls are afraid you will leave, like Maria. Of course, I hope you will not, although I have nothing to offer in order to keep you here just now."
During this recitation, Eliza's tears had started again, and she took some time to compose herself. "I have no intention of leaving, Mr. Cockrell. I am very happy here, and so is Betsy. I think you must know that.
"I don't know how much you know about me, ...."
He said quietly, "I know you are Miss Williams and that you have Betsy. I must infer that nearly three years ago something happened that should not have." He blushed and hesitated. "I hope it was not against your will?"
"No, it wasn't. I loved him, even after Betsy was born. Only when I heard that he had married some one else did I most unwillingly give up hope that he would return for me and his child." She shrugged.
Robert compressed his lips to keep an epithet directed at the man from escaping them.
"Perhaps my sin runs in my blood," she said. "My mother had been married, but not to my father. I have never known him, although I suppose he may still live.
"I know that many believe I am my guardian's love child. I am not. He took responsibility for me when my mother died. There was no one else. His brother was my mother's husband. She betrayed him and conceived me, so he divorced her."
Comprehension dawned on Robert. He had been a youth when Eliza Brandon's divorce had been all the news of the neighborhood. He had been at school at the time and had escaped the intensity of the gossip. It had not occurred to him to connect this Eliza with that long ago scandal.
Eliza continued, "My father abandoned her also, and she lived a life of sin until her death. How else could she have supported herself and me? She had no family, no money. Colonel Brandon was in India then, and did not know. After his return he found us, when my mother was already dying. Only he cared about either of us. Certainly the man she had cuckolded did not."
Robert winced at Eliza's matter of fact recitation. "I have heard that rumor that you were Colonel Brandon's child," he said, "but I never believed it. If it were true, he would have married your mother and given you his name, I am sure of that. I have known him all my life. To do as the rumor has it is not in his character."
He continued, "I believe I understand your sympathy with my children, not only because you are a generous woman. Your plight was much like theirs, losing your mother at such a young age."
"I understand them perfectly," she said. "But they are fortunate in having you as their constant. I imagine that is one reason they love Betsy. They pity her for having no father."
He noticed that she stifled a yawn. They both rose to go to bed, but before they parted he said, "Miss Williams, allow me to tell you again how much I admire you." And love you, he added silently. Aloud, he said, "You comforted Libby when she was beyond herself, and I am sure I should have been helpless before such a tempest. In fact, you have already made yourself indispensable here. Good night." And may you sleep sweetly, he silently added.
The next day, Eliza introduced a variant of the chase game which had seemed to engender Libby's nightmare. In the new game, she always collapsed onto the ground when one of the girls caught her, and then all three girls would pile on top of her to pin her down helplessly. She would embrace them all together before they would get up and play again. By tacit agreement, Eliza and Mimi made sure that Libby won, first and last.
Robert watched them from a window, his heart swelling in further admiration.
They never spoke of that night's conversation. She supposed he did not really mean to marry her but had merely been influenced by the drama of the evening. His steady kindness to her was no different than it had been before. She did not feel uncomfortable after their mutual revelations.
For his part, Robert thought constantly about marrying Eliza, although to her knowledge he said and did nothing to forward it. He was not free yet. But he did ask James about Eliza's seducer. He learned the man was John Willoughby, who had married a rich woman in town, had an estate in Somerset and was heir apparent to another in Devon. James clearly held the man in contempt. Robert could not be surprised, given what the man had done to Eliza.
Robert also worried about the thirteen-year age difference. Eliza would turn nineteen in January - still too young to make her own decisions about property or marriage and yet old enough to be a mother and to be responsible for her own child and others A system which made a woman the property of her father and then of her husband - like someone born or sold into slavery - and yet would look to her alone to be responsible for any child born out of wedlock, seemed to him irrational if not iniquitous.
Robert could hardly ever think of Maria in a kindly light, but these thoughts led him fleetingly to pity her. She had left the protection of his home to go with a man on whom she was completely dependent, without the protection of any status. Had Wellworth taken care of her? Was she still alive, living happily somewhere with him or another man, or had she died, perhaps in misery? Robert did not expect ever to know.
At thirty-two he was younger than James, who had also married a woman of nineteen, but Robert felt his situation was different. He could not think cheerfully of the local gossip likely to flow from taking a pretty young wife who had once fallen, to replace the beautiful faithless one who had cuckolded him and abandoned her children to his care. Of course, there were only two reasons to care about such gossip: it might hurt Eliza, and it might reflect an underlying truth - he might very well be an old fool.
But he was ashamed of such a suspicion. She was not pursuing him; it was the other way round. He had begged her to come into his house and was desperate for her to remain. She had no need to entrap him, unlike Maria. She had a loving guardian and his kind wife, who would keep her as long as necessary, even if it was for ever.
Meanwhile, Eliza was an increasingly indispensable part of his household. More and more she seemed like the mother of all three girls, loving them equally.
The fourteenth of March was exactly seven years since Maria had left. By the beginning of April, Robert was prepared with his proofs.
He went to the church to testify that his wife had left his home seven years earlier and had not been heard from since. He explained the researches he had done and showed letters to envoys in various European capitals, together with replies stating that neither Mrs. Cockrell nor Mr. Wellworth were known there. He had a letter from Maria's elder brother stating that she had not been heard from for more than seven years. There was a similar letter from the Wellworth family's man of business, who added that the estate of Harry Wellworth as younger son was about to be settled, upon the presumption that he was dead.
Robert's proofs were accepted, and the Reverend Ferrars made the following entry in the parish register: "Maria Cockrell, born Maria Horton twenty-seventh February 1768, last seen fourteenth March 1793, presumed dead second April 1800."
Robert walked back to his house with mixed feelings. He had just buried Maria, but now he was free to marry Eliza if she would have him.
Robert was free, but he waited a day or two to settle his feelings before he proposed.
"Eliza, you are inexpressibly important to me. Within a few months you have made my family seem almost intact, the girls have a mother, you have brought warmth into my house. I told you months ago that I intended to ask you to marry me when I was free. I am free now. I need you. Will you share my life, and my children, with me? Will you marry me?"
She paled and looked down. "No, Robert, I cannot."
"But why? Why ever not?"
"Because you are respectable, and so are your children. They were born in wedlock. And what I said that night in the kitchen is no more than the truth. My shame is in my blood, I was born in sin, Betsy was born in sin, I am meant to be wretched and hopeless, and I don't deserve better. I don't want to taint you and your girls."
"Eliza, stop it!"
Robert was angry, pleading, consoling, persuasive - all at once. He took her hands, and in a softer voice said, "Please, Eliza, for my sake if not for yours, please stop saying that.
"Haven't you punished yourself enough by now? Surely Reverend Ferrars would admonish you for pride - do you think you are the only one who has sinned? You were a child -- old enough to breed, yes, but still a child. An adult seduced you and then abandoned you to your fate. Was not his sin far greater than yours? And yet did he ever suffer for it? I very much doubt it!
"And look at my wife. Maria dishonored her wedding vows and me, and then abandoned her children. Wasn't that a sin? And I acquiesced when I suspected her adultery, trying desperately to keep her. Was that not also a sin?
"I am rearing cuckoo's eggs -- you must have noticed the girls look nothing like me. Mimi and Libby were born in degrading circumstances too, merely covered up by my acquiescence - they are innocent even if I am not. If you desire expiation, think how you could rescue them by giving them a mother. They love you as if you were theirs, and you could be. They treat Betsy as their little sister, and she would be if you were their mother. Don't you know how desperately they want that? Libby's nightmare told you, if you didn't already know."
Tears were running down Eliza's cheeks. She did not even try to withdraw one of her hands from his, to wipe them away. "And you, what do you want from me for yourself?"
"To live with you as my wife, for the rest of our lives. I have come not only to admire but to love you. You are serene, comforting, generous, strong, loving, you have brought laughter into my house for the first time in seven years. I have lost my heart to you. I only ask you to keep it safe.
"I know how you feel about yourself, and you know that I cannot agree. You are all that is good and kind, and innocent. But I don't know how you feel about me, what you think of me as a man, not as your employer."
"I don't know, I have never allowed myself to think of you in that way," she said softly.
"Not even after our frank conversation in the kitchen that evening?"
"No. You didn't change toward me, and I supposed our conversation was simply an overwrought reaction to Libby's distress."
"I didn't want to frighten you away," he replied. "I didn't know what else to do, how else to act toward you, so I was careful not to appear changed. But the truth is that my feelings for you have been growing. I can't deny them any longer, and I don't want to.
"But Eliza, I won't pressure you." She could not recall his ever having used her name before and had not noticed his use of it earlier in their conversation. "Take as long as you want to consider what I have asked. Your situation in my house won't change unless you want it to. And I will do anything you ask."
The next day she did not have an answer for him, but asked him to take her to call on her guardian. He left her at Delaford, after securing Brandon's promise to return her to Thornhill when she was ready. The Brandons were pleased to see her, but surprised that Robert did not intend to stay. His departure led Marianne to wonder if he had offered marriage. She knew, of course, the terms under which Eliza had left Delaford to live in Robert's home.
"He wants me to marry him, and I don't know what to do."
"Do you want to?" asked Marianne.
"I don't know." And she told them what she had told Robert, and his reply.
James said, "Eliza, dear, he confided to me his feelings for you before I consented to your going to Thornhill. I didn't tell you, because they were not my feelings but his. And so I am not surprised that he has proposed. If you accept him, you will make him happy, I'm sure, and I believe he is a man who would make you happy as well.
"I am about to tell you something that Robert does not know. It may affect your decision, I don't know.
"Of course you and Betsy will always have a home with us, if you want it. But you need not be dependent upon us or any one. You have about fifteen thousand pounds of your own."
Eliza was astonished, and did not reply.
James went on. "Your mother had a large fortune, which of course was made over to my brother when he married her. It is monstrous that four years later she died sick and destitute." He had to pause to regain his composure.
"In the years after her death, while I was a bachelor soldier, I saved a substantial portion of my earnings toward a dowry for you. Then, when my brother died, I was able to recover something from his estate that should have gone to your mother.
"I also obtained a thousand pounds from your natural father. I reminded him that he had escaped being held liable in damages for corrupting a young married woman and had never accepted responsibility for the fruit of that wrongful liaison.
"The largest portion is from your grandfather - your mother's father - who provided for you in a form that my brother, and my father before him, could not touch. When she was a young child, a short time before his own untimely death, your grandfather settled two thousand pounds on her, to be held for her children and divided among them when each attained the age of one and twenty, or in the case of females, if they married at an earlier age. As your mother's only child, you are entitled to the entire amount. Of course, that money has been untouched for nearly three dozen years, and has been earning interest all that time. The other sums I mentioned have also been earning interest.
"I am telling you this so that you will not fear want if you decide not to marry Robert, or any other man. Circumstances have led to hardships in your life, but fear of poverty should not influence any decision you may be called upon to make.
"My dear, perhaps I was wrong not to tell you this long ago. If I was, I am truly sorry."
Eliza recovered her speech and whispered her thanks and her pardon. The three drank tea and conversed further, until Eliza said she was ready to go home. James and Marianne together accompanied her.
On their way back to Delaford, Marianne exclaimed, "Why did Willoughby fight you over Eliza's honor? Had he married her, as he ought to have, he would have had her fortune instead of Miss Grey's, with so much less trouble to himself!"
"Ah, but he didn't know that, did he? And of course Eliza's fortune, good as it is, was as nothing compared with Miss Grey's fifty thousand pounds.
"I fear that I have erred severely in my guardianship, Marianne. I thought that if her independence were known, she could become an easy target for fortune hunters. She became an easy target for a libertine like Willoughby in any event. Could I have hushed up her mistake and brought her out into society, as her fortune warranted? That would have been difficult in the circumstances, but perhaps not impossible. Perhaps I ought to have attempted it."
"Will we ever know, James? - You acted for the best, as you believed."
On the third day after Robert's proposal, Eliza came down to breakfast as usual, smiled serenely and said yes.
Expressing his happiness, Robert took her hands and asked, "Will you tell me what made you decide?
"You. I have known you these two and a half years, have lived in your house half a year. I know you are kind, honest, loving and solid. I doubt there is a better man anywhere." She smiled. "Also, I don't want to leave your home."
"You needn't marry me in order to stay here, I told you that," he protested.
"But you must see that it would be impossible. We could never get along comfortably if I rejected your proposal. It is not a question of where to go -- I can always return to my guardian. But I should not like to leave your girls -- or you."
At that admission, he relaxed, but continued to hold her hands.
"And you love me," she added.
"Don't marry me only because of that -- anyone who knows you as I do would love you! But you worry me: marriage is not part of your self-imposed penance, is it?"
"No, Robert. Remaining single would be." Her eyes were glistening.
He laughed at himself. "Here I am trying to dissuade you from what I desire most, foolish man that I am!"
"I am not dissuaded," she replied, "I want to marry you."
And to his surprise, she kissed him to show how she meant it. "I love you," she whispered. "I want to marry you."
That evening, as the family relaxed together in the schoolroom before the children's bedtime, Robert said, "We have something to tell you, girls. Betsy's mama and I are going to be married. She will be Mimi and Libby's mama, and I will be Betsy's papa."
"And she will never leave us?" asked Mimi.
" I will never leave you," affirmed Eliza, and she hugged Robert's daughters tightly.
Meanwhile, Betsy had climbed into Robert's lap and was covering his face with baby kisses. Eliza's heart lurched when she realized what she might have deprived Betsy of, had she persisted in her refusal.
Another morning, Eliza told Robert, "I want to tell you all about him, so you will never have anything to wonder about."
"Darling, you told me the essentials a long time ago. You don't have to tell me any thing more."
"Yes, I do, and it will be easiest now, in this sunlit breakfast room, in the light of day. It is solid here, distanced from all that happened. I met him in Bath - "
Robert winced, and murmured, "That is where I met Maria ...."
"I had just turned sixteen. I was there with my friend and her father, but he was too sick to supervise us. We did whatever we wanted, ranged over the town, talked to whomever we liked.
"I met him at a dance in the Assembly Rooms. He was charming and very handsome, about four or five and twenty then, a rich gentleman who was very attentive and flattering. Especially to me, or so I thought, and he said I was fascinatingly beautiful and that he loved me. He said he had an estate somewhere in Somerset, where he bred horses and dogs and hunted, and also had a house in town. He wanted to take me to see his estate, and the sights of London.
"Of course I believed him. Or perhaps I should not say of course. Probably other girls would have seen it was all lies and flattery.
"At any rate, you may imagine how I fell. Soon I was sporting with him in his lodgings. I knew it was wrong, but somehow I managed to convince myself it was right.
"Then he left. He said he would return for me, and again I believed him. I was too naive to make sure I knew how to reach him.
"He never did return, of course. Then I realized I was with child, and I was desperate. I was ashamed to tell my guardian. I thought he would cast me off."
"I know he would not have," Robert said softly.
"I know that too, now, but then I was barely sixteen, and I only knew that what I had done was very bad, very shameful, and my guardian was very good and upright, and I didn't believe he could forgive me, after all he had done for me." She added softly, "I believed I deserved to be cast off, as my mother had been." She ducked her head, knowing he did not like her to say such things.
"So I borrowed five pounds from my friend and told her I was going to Bristol. I didn't tell her I was with child, and I made her promise not to tell my guardian any thing. I went to London instead.
"I found work in a scullery, with people who were willing to take me off the street. They must have seen from my manners and speech that I was a runaway, and they saw soon enough that I was increasing. They always said I could stay as long as I could work, but not after the child was born.
"In the end I became desperate and wrote to my guardian, but my letter was delayed and he did not come and rescue me until I was very near my time.
"At first I didn't want to tell him who it was, but at last I did. They fought a duel about me. I was afraid one or both would be killed, but somehow neither was.
"And he never returned for you, did he?" asked Robert.
"No, of course not. Even the challenge from my guardian did not accomplish that. He was already planning to marry his wife. She has a large fortune, I understand. He admitted to my guardian's sister, Mrs. Ferrars, that he had been a libertine with me, and I doubt that I was the only one he treated so. But it doesn't matter anymore.
"After Betsy was born and I was recovered from my lying in, my guardian brought me to Mrs. Gordon's, to have a home and be useful. He had Delaford, of course, but he wasn't married yet and could not take me there.
"Then I heard Willoughby had married, and I was finally forced to give up all my hopes for him. How foolish I was you may judge from how long I held onto them.
"And yet I was fortunate. At least I didn't end up like my mother in very dangerous and degraded circumstances -- providence and my guardian saved me from that."
"And you saved yourself," Robert said, "your good sense and determination not to succumb."
Another day, he told her about Maria. "I also met her in Bath. We were introduced at a dance, and I was immediately smitten. She was brilliant and very beautiful. I didn't care that she was poor, because although I was not rich I was comfortable enough and she seemed to love me.
"But she was bored in the country. I don't know what she had expected in marrying a farmer, perhaps that gentleman farmers spend most of their time in Bath.
"I may have been a dupe from the beginning. I learned that the acquaintance who introduced us also knew Wellworth. It doesn't matter now, of course - it just shows that I was always a fool."
"She hurt you!" Eliza said fiercely, "-- she didn't deserve your love! But at least, did she love her girls?"
"Not as you do, certainly. I had supposed that she did, in her way, but then she left them without a backward glance!"
Eliza shook her head in disdain of Maria. "Would you like to tell me about Mr. Wellworth?"
"He was a younger son of a gentleman with an estate near Taunton. I never met him, but I did see him once at an assembly. He was not paying attention to Maria, in fact he seemed to cut her. I was a fool again - I didn't recognize that they were both playing a part in order to divert any suspicion. I merely thought it odd that any man would slight my beautiful wife.
"Now you know everything," he said.
Robert went to James, and of course he consented. He told Robert about Eliza's large dowry.
"I am astonished. She never said anything! I thought she was poor."
"She didn't know it herself until a few days ago, the day you left her here."
Robert calculated the date. "Then she hasn't accepted me out of necessity, has she?"
Eliza wanted to meet her natural father. She believed such a meeting could fill a great void in her understanding of herself.
"Are you sure, Eliza?" asked James. "It may be very painful. I have no opinion of his character. What if he rejects you or takes you lightly, how will you feel? Sometimes knowledge is painful, and ignorance once lost can never be recovered."
"Whatever his attitude to me, I want to know."
"That is spoken like a soldier's daughter. I truly wish you had been mine." He took her hand and continued, "I am proud of you, Eliza. You have overcome difficulties that I had thought insurmountable."
James had promised to make the necessary arrangements for Eliza, Robert as her fiance, and himself as her guardian, to call upon Sir Stephen Worsley at his estate in Wiltshire. Eliza worried that he might refuse them.
"He won't," James assured her. "I told him that you were thinking of writing to Lady Worsley to solicit her patronage for the Dorsetshire Society for the Protection of Exploited Young Gentlewomen."
Robert looked at his friend in awe. "James, you astonish me! That's blackmail!"
"Not at all. It's diplomacy, or soldiery. One identifies the weakness of the other and then offers him a way to avoid its most damaging consequences. It is perfectly straightforward. Not every battle requires cavalry and musketry." But in fact, James was proud of his finesse.
Worsley's estate could not compare favorably with Delaford. There were signs of neglect everywhere. The visitors were not denied, and they did not see Lady Worsley, only Sir Stephen.
"I remember you, Brandon. You got the better of me a few years ago, but before that I beat you to it. I suppose you had always wanted to have your cousin yourself, eh?" And he leered to make sure that all his visitors understood him.
To Robert he merely bowed. Unable to recall his name, he simply ignored him for the rest of the interview.
Taking Eliza's hand, he said, "You are very like your mother, my dear. She was lively and beautiful, and we had a good time together, while it lasted. You must be sure to treat this man here, your , whatever he is to you - treat him as well as your mother treated me, and he will treat you well."
They left as soon as they could. Eliza maintained her composure until they were back in the carriage, and then she burst into tears of indignation.
"Vile man! I should have listened to you, guardian!"
As both men comforted her, James said, "No, my dear, you were right to persevere. You had to discover for yourself what sort of man he was, and is. Now, any regrets you may have about him will be founded on the truth, not upon wishes for something that never was and never could have been. You know now that he would never have married your mother after her divorce and recognized you as his own. It would not have been in his character."
Eliza turned to Robert and wept into his shoulder.
The Reverend Edward Ferrars married them in early May. Eliza was attended by the three girls and by Mrs. Brandon, who was much increased, and Colonel Brandon gave her away. Mrs. Gordon attended, and wept for the happy couple. The girls were to stay with the Brandons for a week after the wedding, while Robert and Eliza went away to Lyme.
The girls were not at all anxious about being left by their parents, as Mrs. Brandon had promised to give them the run of the house and lovely grounds at Delaford and to show them their mother's room. She said there was even a harpsichord that had belonged to Betsy's grandmother.
They were in awe of the Colonel, but he seemed kind. He solemnly informed them that Delaford park possessed many delightful surprises for children of any age, and that they could not possibly have time in one week to discover them all.
In their room that evening at the Royal Lion in Broad Street, Eliza and Robert both found themselves unexpectedly shy, afraid of disappointing each other. Eliza could not even bring herself to been seen by her husband unclothed, for fear of seeming - and perhaps feeling - wanton.
Robert, for all his longing for this very moment, felt similarly constrained. He had not been with a woman since Maria left, and was afraid of hurting this woman, who had been so badly harmed before.
In the end, they laughed at themselves and went to bed in their nightclothes. At least she allowed him to take down her hair. Robert promised her again, "I will never pressure you."
Eliza awoke in the night to find her limbs entwined with his, and his hand resting on her breast.
She realized that she wanted to give her husband his own child and woke him up to tell him so. He laughed and pulled her up on top of him. "Play with me," he urged.
So they played and laughed and swooned for the rest of the night. They forgot everything they had ever done before with another, and thought only of giving each other pleasure, and taking it. They spent the entire next day in their room, emerging only for dinner and then resuming their joyful occupation.
Robert had been in Lyme several times, but Eliza never. When they ventured out of their room a little, he showed her the places he liked -- Broad Street, the Cobb, St Michael's church, ancient structures dating back to Norman times, the fossil rocks. They found a very private bit of beach surrounded by rocks and sheltered from the surf, and they played there also.
One rainy afternoon, they were drinking tea in the private parlor of the inn when Eliza suddenly put down her cup, stood up, and whispered to Robert, "Chase me!" She swiftly left the room.
He caught her on the stairs and carried her into their room. He deposited her on the bed, pinning her down.
She said triumphantly, "I won!"
"No, I did!"
They argued thus, until Eliza said seriously, "Don't you understand yet, I won because you rescued me."
"You have never understood that you rescued me."
In full daylight, with the sun starting to break through the clouds and rain-spattered panes, they explored seriously and passionately who had rescued whom.
A little over nine months later, Eliza was delivered of a boy, whom they named for his father. The three girls were captivated by their baby brother. They mothered him mercilessly until forced by the arrival of even younger siblings to divide their loving equally among them all.
One spring morning three years after her marriage, Eliza was in the school room, nursing baby Tommy while her other children, Mimi, Libby, Betsy and little Robby, studied or played. The housekeeper entered to inform Mrs. Cockrell that there was a person to see her, in the kitchen.
"Not the parlor?"
"No, ma'am, I didn't think it proper. She is in the kitchen."
Eliza found a dirty, sunburned, ill-dressed and even worse-shod woman of indeterminate age, who might once have had good looks.
"I am Maria Cockrell," the woman announced. "This is my house."
Eliza was not as shocked as she might have been - she had occasionally wondered whether Robert's first wife was really dead, and had supposed that if she lived, she might some day return to claim her former place and her children.
Turning to the housekeeper, who was shocked, Eliza asked her to send the scullery boy to fetch Mr. Cockrell from his work that morning in the south field. "Tell him, please, that he is wanted at once in the house. Tell him no one is in danger here or in any distress, but that something requires his immediate attention." Eliza was not certain that the woman who claimed to be Maria was not in distress, but she did not intend to worry her husband until he could see for himself.
By the time Robert arrived, the visitor was drinking a cup of tea in the scullery.
"Maria," he exclaimed, "you are dead."
"I am not dead, as you see, although there have been times when I might have died. Are you not going to welcome me home, Robert? After all, I am your wife. And I have come to claim my children."
Moving to stand very close to Eliza, he answered, "You are not my wife. Mrs. Eliza Cockrell is my wife and the mother of my five children. You may recall the eldest two, Mimi and Libby, whom you last saw when you abandoned them to my care ten years ago. They have not been your children since the day you walked out. Nothing was known of you in all that time, whether you were alive or dead or whether you even spared a thought for them, and three years ago you were formally presumed dead. This lady, to whom I have the honor of being married, has loved and cared for them since the day she met them, and she alone has the right to call herself their mother."
A decade of anger swiftly dissipated itself through this little speech, and Robert saw the sad reality before him. He continued more gently, "Nevertheless, Maria, and regardless of what you have done, I am sorry to see you in this state. You appear to have suffered. What can we do for your comfort? Can we clothe and feed you, and take you back to your people?"
"I have no people, Robert, you know that."
"You are wrong, Maria. I corresponded with your brother and uncle a mere three years ago. They will no doubt be very surprised to hear that you are alive after all and in England, but I have no doubt that they will welcome you home."
He continued, "You must see that you cannot stay here for very long. Of course we will not turn you out before you are rested and returned to full health, but you cannot expect more from us. This is no longer your home, and I cannot have you here to disturb the peace of my family. I am sure you understand that. You were always practical, and you are too proud, I know, to cling to an untenable situation longer than you think necessary. I know that to my cost," he added bitterly.
Maria sat silently, slumped in her chair in some internal debate. At last she squared her shoulders and said, "Very well, Robert, I suppose you are right. You must tell me what to do. But first I should like to see my ch that, is, I should like to see Mimi and Libby."
Eliza interrupted. "Maria," - she would not call her Mrs. Cockrell! - "you have obviously traveled a long way to reach us, and I don't know what frightful experiences you may have encountered along the way. Perhaps you would like to bathe and put on a clean dress before the girls see you. I believe a dress of mine would fit you very well." She forbore to say aloud, You wouldn't want to frighten the girls, would you? Even an old dress and shoes of mine would be better than what you have, and if you washed and combed your hair, you would almost look like a handsome woman, although still much too thin. Eliza supposed Maria was thinking much the same as she acquiesced in the suggestion.
While one of the maids was assisting Maria with her bath, Eliza and Robert went upstairs to prepare Libby and Mimi to meet their birth mother.
"My darlings," Eliza began, "we have news that may shock you, but it is not bad news. Your mother is here and wishes to see you."
Libby protested, "You are our mother!" and Mimi echoed her.
Eliza swallowed a sudden lump in her throat. "I love you both with all my heart, as if I had borne you. But you know another woman did that."
Mimi said stoutly, "I won't accept any one but you! Whoever she is, she has no right to call herself my mother! Only you do!"
Eliza hugged them both together. "Dears, do you remember when Tommy was born, and also Robby, a couple of years ago? Remember how big my belly was before they were born, and then the day they were each born there was a lot of struggle and fuss and coming and going in the house, and you may have heard me scream a little, and then there was a tiny wet, red, crying baby where there had been none before? That is what this lady downstairs did for both of you. I didn't know you yet. I gave birth to Betsy and Robby and Tommy that way, but not you two. She did that.
"And yet now you are mine! Her having borne you does not lessen your claim on me at all!"
They all hugged and petted each other and talked further until Eliza and Robert at last persuaded the girls to meet Maria. Libby resisted longer than her elder sister did, but at length she agreed to go if Betsy could accompany them.
As they were going down the stairs, Mimi suddenly panicked and stopped, causing the other two girls to bump into her. "What shall I call her? I cannot call her mama."
"You might call her mother, Mimi dear, or even ma'am. I am still your mama, and I always will be," Eliza reminded her again.
Upon seeing a strange lady in their parlor wearing one of their mama's dresses, the girls stopped in confusion. Robert smoothly said, "Girls, this lady is Maria Horton. She was the mother of you two, Mimi and Libby." With that inspired introduction, he felt, he had solved the problem of two Mrs. Cockrells in his house. While Maria might still have the legal right to use his name, he felt she did not have the moral right, and he hoped he had made the position clear to both his wife and his former wife.
The three girls curtseyed to the stranger, and even five-year-old Betsy did her best. "How do you do, ma'am," said Mimi for all of them. She knew that greeting was more polite than "Pleased to meet you," a phrase that she knew was deemed in very polite society to be a little vulgar. It was not a greeting one could make to the Queen, although no one seemed able to explain to her what was wrong with it.
Maria had not expected to see three girls. "Who is this one?" she asked about Betsy.
"She is our sister," answered Mimi. "We like her to be with us. Her name is Betsy. She came to us when our mama did."
Maria felt that the meeting with her daughters had begun badly, and she tried to regain control. She awkwardly embraced first Mimi, then Libby, and said, "You have both grown so beautifully. I missed you both so very much. I missed this house and you too, Robert, and I am very glad to be back here with you, where I belong. Turning to Eliza, she added, "And you, Miss - , I hope you are not ...."
The two girls had both responded stiffly to the embrace. Mimi knew it was better to say nothing at all if the only words one could think of might be rude, and so she did not reply. Because Mimi was silent, Libby was also.
Robert said sharply, "Maria, I have already told you. This is Mrs. Eliza Cockrell, my wife and the mother of my children, including the two eldest. I hope you are not laboring under any misunderstanding. This is no longer your home, I am not your husband, Mimi and Libby are no longer your children. We are now a different family from the one you left behind you. There is no going back to what was here before."
More gently, he said, "I am sure that with the assistance of Mrs. Ferrars, our vicar's wife, we should be able to find you suitable lodgings in the village until you are quite recovered. We do not want you to be uncomfortable, or in any want."
The housekeeper had remained in the room partly out of loyalty to her employers and partly out of avid curiosity. Turning to her, Eliza said, "Mrs. Hamm, would you be so kind as to walk over to the parsonage and ask Mrs. Ferrars if it would be convenient for her to return here with you so that we might consult with her? You may describe our situation to her. And perhaps you could take her one of the meat pies that Mrs. Ellison has just made for us? I know how much Mrs. Ferrars appreciates them." Mrs. Hamm could not refuse to carry out her mistress's instructions, though she would much rather be allowed to observe the remainder of the interview.
Mrs. Ferrars of course knew exactly who in the village had room for the supposed Mrs. Horton (Elinor was relieved not to have to call her Mrs. Cockrell) and would be glad of the extra money.
Eliza helped Maria to settle herself in the widow Bigby's spare room and brought an offering of food from Mrs. Ellison.
Over tea, Maria began, "Are you not very angry with me, Mrs. Cockrell? I have interrupted your family's peace. You are a virtuous young woman and most likely would never consider following your heart rather than your duty."
Eliza did not intend to inform this woman of her own mistake, when she had ignored her duty and was left with Betsy as living proof of her fall from virtue.
"Shall I be honest with you?" Eliza said instead. "I have been very angry with you, not for returning now when we had all thought you were dead, but for what you did to my husband and the two girls ten years ago. My husband of course is a grown man and able to heal his own hurts.
"The two girls are different, they were both infants when you abandoned them. I still recall too well a very long evening when I had recently come to Thornhill. Libby was seven. She suffered a terrible nightmare in which you taunted her by running away from her and laughing at her when she tried to follow you. I don't know whether Libby still recalls that night, but I certainly do. Do you imagine I could easily forgive you for what you did that caused such a nightmare so many years later?
"I have five children, of whom I bore three and you bore the other two," Eliza continued. She thought, Let her calculate the difference between Betsy's age and the length of my marriage, if she cares to do so, and let her wonder why I have two daughters named Elizabeth. It matters not to me, to Robert, or to any one whom we care about. - "I love all my children equally dearly. I cannot imagine a passion unnatural enough to make me forget them. So you will kindly pardon me if there is an imperfect understanding between us."
Soon after this conversation, Eliza took her leave. She could not feel proud of her lack of charity toward the other woman, but she had to admit that she felt better for having expressed her feelings after so many years.
After Mrs. Cockrell's departure, Maria spent some time considering the differences between them. No doubt the younger woman had been carefully brought up and had never felt a moment's anxiety for her own safety in her life. She seemed to love Robert and was surely a more suitable wife for him than she herself had been. Maria saw her own life as something like a Fanny Burney or Anne Radcliffe novel, from which she had emerged with her mind, if not her honor, intact. Of course, she would never be able to tell anyone what had happened to Harry. Yet once she regained her looks, she would surely appear younger than her real age of five and thirty. There would be time to begin again.
Within a fortnight, Maria was gone, to return to her ancestral home near Birmingham. On the whole, she expected that Frederick Horton would not mind presenting his sister to local society as a fascinating if no longer very young beauty recently returned from a decade of residence on the Continent, most recently in Venice and Sarajevo ....
At dinner the evening after Maria's departure for the north, Libby stated flatly that she was glad that "she" had gone. "I didn't like her. She lied when she told us that she is our mother."
Mimi pointed out that Mrs. er - Merton ... (or whatever her name was) could actually have been their mother once upon a time, because Mimi had noticed that she and Libby looked rather like the lady. "Her hair is dark and curly like ours, but papa's is sandy and mama's is straight and brown, like Betsy's. Robby's is like papa's and poor Tommy has hardly any."
With that little discourse on the inheritance of physical characteristics, also popularly summarized by the aphorism that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, Mimi indicated that her curiosity about her birth mother had been satisfied.
Libby admitted that the lady might have been their mother when they were born, "but she isn't any more. She can't be, because she doesn't love us." As far as Libby was concerned, the discussion about the departed lady's status was finished.
"I'm glad she's not dead. I'm glad to find out what she was like. I pity her, because she voluntarily gave up what is so valuable to me and now, I believe, she saw its worth while she was here and regrets it.
"And you know I wouldn't be Mrs. Cockrell if not for her. You would have had no children in Mrs. Gordon's school, and you would not have been in want of a wife. And so I owe her all my happiness." She did certain wifely things to show to whom she really owed her happiness.
Laughing, he agreed with her demonstrated but unspoken meaning. "Oh no, my girl, I think you owe your happiness all to me. Had I been an unmarried man with no children, I would still have been a neighbor and old friend of James Brandon. Surely I would have met you in the village if not in his house, and I would have fallen in love with you, if not at first sight then within a day or two thereafter, because you are irresistible. And because I am so handsome, charming and youthful in my own right, even without the advantage that my children have indisputably given me in the marriage market, you would have fallen in love with me in return. And we would be about where we are right now."
Which was, playing in their marital bed.
Later, Robert said lazily, "Would Robby and Tommy like a little sister, do you think, to fuss over her when they are a little older, the way their big sisters fuss over them?"
"Are you certain it would be a little girl? Perhaps you are a man who sires only boys. That has been your record so far ...."
He chuckled, "Then we would have three boys to balance our three girls."
Eliza was nearly asleep in her husband's arms and did not bother to reply.
Continued in Part
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