John William Godward's The Mirror
They returned to the bedchamber to find her parents sitting next to each other on a little bench by the windows on the right. They looked up when the young people entered but neither spoke. Jaclyn went to them, taking her mother’s offered hand before bending to kiss her cheek and saying, “It will be alright you know.”
“No, Jaclyn,” her father replied gravely, “It will not. Your sister has betrayed us all and there is nothing to change that.”
“Why would she do this?” her mother seemed to be petitioning the heavens for an answer.
“Never mind that now, my dear,” her husband said with kind hand, “We must take care of Jack now. Come child,” her father said with his other hand.
Jaclyn took her father’s offered hand and said, “I’ll go to Aunt Gene in Provence for awhile.”
“Will you not even consider marriage for our sake?” her father asked.
It was a heartbreaking scene and it made Eli, looking on from just inside the dressing room door, wish that he could say something to offer solace but there was not, so he remained quiet. Jaclyn looked over her shoulder then as if to confirm he was still there then said, “I’ll marry the very next gentleman you present to me but he has his heart set on Lady Charlotte and she has always been a true friend to me.”
“But it has to be him,” her father said solemnly, “For after this, there will be no one else. Surely you see that?”
“Not if we contain your guests,” offered Eli.
“And how do you suppose we do that?” Lord Stuart inquired.
“You are more acquainted with them than I so, you tell me. How do we get them around to our way of thinking – bribery, vague threats or brute force?” Eli asked in his usual easy menace.
“They are humble gentry so I suppose you could always attempt to enticement,” his Lord said without conviction.
“Tell me about them,” said an encouraged Eli.
“There is our town crier Miss Annabelle Ward, her mother and her sister Kate,” Jaclyn offered.
“Is that all?” Eli asked optimistically.
“No there is also a widowed cousin of my mother, Mrs. Dorothea March, and her two daughters, but they can be trusted to proceed with discretion.”
“Brilliant,” Eli said with encouraged smile, “Now how do we purchase the Misses Wards and their mother’s silence.”
“With the usual fare I suppose but it’s been my experience that these sorts of things are never so easily contained,” Lady Stuart said with foreboding. “For instance how will conduct the negotiation? It can’t be us and it most positively can’t be you who approach them for then they would know for certain that it was you here in Jaclyn’s bed.”
“Are you so sure they don’t already know?” Eli asked. “For all we know Lillian could have arranged for Miss Ward to discover me here.”
“It would be, for us, a genuine surprise if that wasn’t the case,” Lord Stuart said without pause, “But there is knowing, and then there is confirmation. As it stands now you are but a man in Jaclyn’s bed but the instant, you approach Miss Ward you will be Eli Hastings, Duke of Ravensworth with all the history and infamy that entails.”
“In that case I should be the one who does it,” volunteered Jaclyn.
“Absolutely not,” her parents and Eli said in unison.
“But I’ll be level-headed and rational when I confront Annabelle with our suspicions about her involvement.”
“This is pure madness,” her father said sharply, “Lillian created this ungodly situation and she will set it to right.”
“She will deny ever having been here then it will be her and Cyril’s words against mine alone,” objected Jaclyn.
“Nonsense! They used the servants’ entrance to enter the house. Someone else must have seen them,” Lord Stuart said dismissively. “And you Ravensworth do you not remember anything of your attack?”
“All that matters naught for in affairs such as these, time is of the essence,” Eli said evenly, “And divisive argument about idle speculation is just that – idle. We have decided on a course of action now will someone please fetch Miss Ward so we may put an end to this event.”
He had been in that moment, to them, everything that he was rumoured be, influential and terrifying. No one moved, for as desperate as they were for a solution, they could not simply turn that silly girl over to Eli without first knowing his intent. Though they all had their resolve, it was Lady Stuart who first gave voice to her concern, “There is an ugly necessity to all this but I don’t want anyone buried beneath my rose beds.”
“My Lady,” her husband said reproachfully, “You will apologize to Ravensworth this instant.”
“I’ll do nothing of the kind,” she said obstinately, “This is my home and it’s nothing I wouldn’t say to any of my own children in just such an instant. In fact, that gives me an idea,” she said before rising and walking to the door.
“Will you not at least tell us what it is,” her husband said to her back.
“I’m going to have a mother’s conversation with Annabelle’s mama,” she said without breaking stride and just like that, she was gone. But, her absence would last only the time it took to walk there and back.
For by the time she got there the Wards were long gone.
“It was as though they were never here,” she said upon her return to Jaclyn’s room, “But where they could go at near ten o’clock on a Monday night is beyond me.”
“To Lillian’s,” Jaclyn said to instant agreement from the rest, “And you know what else this proves. Premeditation.”
“You know, I’ve had a change of heart,” Lady Stuart said with venom, “Not only do I want then buried under the roses I want it done while they are still alive.”
“I don’t like this,” Lord Stuart said in the silence that followed his wife’s outburst. “There is organization here and that simply does not fit with Lillian.”
“Nonetheless, it was her,” Jaclyn said flatly. “She, Cyril and one of their servants entered my chamber two hours ago from those doors there, deposited an unconscious Ravensworth, put a blade to my frock and then exited the way they came.”
“I don’t argue that, my dear,” her father said with his own certainty, “But there is just something about this whole affair that seems more calculated than Lillian or Lord Cyril Howard are capable of.”
“Greed can be a great motivator,” his wife offered.
“Yes, but how could they believe we would reward this betrayal?” Lord Stuart insisted.
“Unless their incentive lies elsewhere,” Eli said thoughtfully.
“If you know something you must tell us,” his Lord encouraged.
“I have but a suspicion,” Eli said vaguely, “But you have my assurance I’ll look into it and if it’s as I believe, fret not for I shall see to it.”
Then there was a knock at the door. Tessa had returned with two of Eli’s concerned brethren in tow. The lot relocated to the library to find Lord Robert Hastings and Viscount Warren both dressed for Howe’s ball with open worry for Eli in his shirt and neck cloth stained crimson.
“It looks far worse that it really is,” Eli assured them.
They did not believe him but kept their peace nonetheless, greeting the Stuarts politely and waiting patiently for enlightenment that came in a steady briefing from Eli. After this, Robert looked to Warren then asked Eli simply, “What do you want done?”
“I’ll need to know its root, if it’s beyond containment, and any solution you might have should it be thus,” Eli replied.
“We’ll go now to Howard’s and see what we can uncover. As for the rest there is nothing for it but marriage,” Robert offered.
“He meant a solution other than marriage,” Jaclyn said in something like polite irritation.
“It’s that or your ruin,” her mother added.
“It won’t come to that,” Eli promised.
“I hate to point out the obvious,” interjected Jaclyn, “But I’m already living in disgrace. This will not cause me much more harm.”
“You’re mistaken,” her father disagreed.
“Your father is right my dear,” her mother added. “You must think of your future. What will become of you when we are no longer here? You cannot rely on your sister for sympathy and your brother will soon be married with a family all his own.”
“It won’t be as bleak as all that,” Jaclyn assured them, “For I still have my friends.”
“And how much of them you suppose will remain your friends after this debacle is made known?” her father asked.
“The ones that are true,” she said without sway, “Besides it won’t come to that. The Duke will stop Lillian and her accomplices. Isn’t that right your Grace?”
“I’ll see you well no matter the outcome,” Eli said before turning to her father and adding, “I’ll call in the morning when I know better where we stand.”
There was but relief on the older man’s face as he nodded his agreement and just like that, they dispersed. Eli stopping briefly to bow over Jaclyn’s hand his eyes soulful with gratitude as they held hers with some unspoken promise. Then he took hold of her hand and said, “I count you as friend Miss Stuart.”
“And I you, my Grace.”
“Then call me Worth. It’s how I’m addressed by my friends.”
“So long as you return the privilege and let me be Jaclyn,” she said with a warm smile and just like that, they parted.
The Stuarts remained behind in fretful silence as the three young lords climbed into Warren’s carriage and headed north from St James Square for Howard’s in Hanover Square.
Robert and Warren sat across from Eli in the dull light of the carriage both of their handsome face marred by some unreadable question until Eli could take it no more and demanded one of them spit it out.
“How did you really come to be in the delectable Miss Stuart’s bedchamber?” Robert asked, he and Warren now on the edge of their seats.
“It’s precisely as I told you. I woke to a pounding skull, her furious parents and she half out of her frock.”
“Christ,” Robert said incredulously, “We were well convinced it was something else altogether. In fact, if it wasn’t for Warren here I would not have come.”
“The devil,” said an outraged Eli, “I told you in May of my intent to marry Charlotte.”
“Yes, but when we had supper last week you told me you thought she still loved Brian. Then there was that whole business with them in Lady Stone’s private sitting room so I just assumed you were taking refuge in the arms of the golden goddess.”
“He wasn’t the only one who thought it,” Warren said in defence of the floundering Robert. “We were six strong when Miss Stuart’s maid turned up at Weston’s and it was the prevailing belief.”
“You’re tell me that Kevin heard I was indeed –”
“No, no Kevin and Jane left long ago for the ball. It was just us lads fortifying ourselves with brandy before following suit,” Robert rushed to clarify.
“I see,” Eli said irritably, “All but one of the six of you sitting around getting foxed before facing the mamas at Howe was content to let me bled to death at Stuart’s.”
“There is no need to get emotional,” said a pacifying Robert. “The maid said only that the matter concerned you and that her mistress requested his lord’s assistance. So you see we were under no obligation to come for she sent for Kevin and the maid said nothing of your injury.”
“He’s right,” Warren second, “The maid only told us of your injury after we arrived at Stuart’s and that only because she did no want us surprised. Come now surely you can’t believe we would simply sit idly by while you fall to ill?”
“Not for a moment,” Eli said with dismissive wave, “But I am taxed by the unknowns of this.”
“That and you’re not accustomed to your having your life be outside of your control,” Robert added.
“What a thing to say to him,” said an admonished Warren. “Of course he’s uneasy with the current state of his affairs but then no one is better at this sort of thing than he. Are they?”
“Absolutely no one,” Robert agreed with confidence.
“You’re alright,” Warren said with thoughtful easy, “You are but a moment away from what you do best.”
They could see he was worried and that this mattered more than anything before ever had. He was infatuated with Jaclyn and he was terrified that he would never be as close to her and without knowing it, Warren offered the motivation Eli needed.
“If the worst is confirmed, I’ll marry Miss Stuart in your stead.”
It was precisely what Eli needed for it was one thing to be struck but the thought of truly losing Jaclyn when he was close and then to have her married to one his dearest friends. Well, it more than horrified it oppressed. Beside he gave Jaclyn his word he would see her well.
“It’s either you believe in my abilities or you don’t sweetheart,” he said as answer to Warren’s offer now with his new resolve.
“Oh, I do but the thought of you indebted to me the rest of your life appeals to the tormenter in me,” Warren said wickedly.
“I saw her in little more than her shift and I can assure that were you to marry her on my behalf it would be you who would be beholden to me,” Eli corrected. “Besides, I’d sooner kill you than see you marry her.”
“Tantalizing, but tarnished,” Robert said with some concern, “And contently so from the looks of it.”
“You’re wrong,” Eli said protectively. “I don’t know much about her but the little I’ve experienced has been true. She took care of me at great cost to herself tonight and I’ll ask you remember it on my behalf.”
“Here, you two. We have arrived,” said an intervening Warren. “Now Eli, you wait here a moment or two while Robert and I measure Howard’s reception, yes.”
“Make haste then,” Eli said without contention as his two comrades exited the carriage and climbed the stairs.
When sadness overwhelms hold close those you cherish,