I’ve never been so wrong footed in my life.
Last Saturday, at the party, I was sure the duchess was flirting with me to secure her third husband. Her first marriage had left her a rich widow and the second made her a widowed duchess. Now, with no sons, it seemed natural to look for a third husband to take care of all the accumulated estate…someone like me with tremendous wealth but no title. I had spent the golden years of my life building myself from a nobody to a prosperous businessman and the next few enjoying the success and money. I had been with numerous women but none of them really left an impression, except their lip colour on my shirts and their hands down my money pouch. At 41, I’m running out of choices. It’s high time for me to find a wife too, so I lead her on. I knew I’d never love her but she had class.
But as she invited me home for lunch, she moved the topic to her daughters who, according to her, were both the finest specimens of the fairer sex–beautiful, charming, intelligent, well-read and well-versed in arts. She mentioned looking for grooms for them and ‘hoped I would find them agreeable’.
Something did not add up. If they were even half as good as their mother, they would have a long line of suitors of their age. Why would she want them to marry me who is double their age? For my money?
Curious, I accepted the invitation.
Today, as my carriage drives into their estate, I see a long-running crack in the magnificent garden statue; unkept flower beds; a water fountain that has long dried out; and the wooden floor under the porch creaks…the beginning of the end.
So, money it is…
I knock and a rather pretty girl in her best house-help uniform answers the door. Ella, as she introduces herself, bids me to enter. Her eyes downcast, she informs me, “The Duchess and her daughters are out for an ‘urgent chore’. She has requested you to wait for them. They’ll be back later this afternoon.”
It doesn’t make sense, unless they have found someone richer. Or may be, the announcement of the King’s ball to find a bride for the Crown Prince has averted their gaze to greener pastures.
I should just leave. But Ella is clearly apologetic. Her eyes are pleading me to understand that she isn’t responsible for all this. She is embarrassed at her employers’ indiscretion. I had been there too many times. In my early jobs, when I was a nobody, my employers put me upfront to deal with angry customers. If I leave now, she would think of me as arrogant. For some unfathomable reason, I don’t want her to think I’m arrogant. So, I step inside to wait for the hostess who wouldn’t return for a couple of hours.
It’s all too weird. My stepmother has kept me up all night to finish my endless chores before he’s due. She ordered me to get presentable to wait upon this guest while they all dealt with this ‘urgent chore’, whatever it is. Why even one of them couldn’t stay back is totally beyond me.
Why are they avoiding him? Doesn’t he have enough money to their liking? His two-horse-drawn carriage is certainly worth four times our own. He looks regal, right from his formal suit, diamond cufflinks to his silk tie. His brown wavy hair has a slight sprinkling of greys.
Maybe, they think he’s too old to consider…Well, they are wrong. He’s quite handsome and fit, unlike their noble suitors whose age you could guess from the size of their girth. When he introduced himself, his smile made me gasp. He smells like the Arabian perfume that father used to love.
Right now, I feel for him. Once I gave him mother’s message, he looks downright embarrassed for being so easily dismissed. He was clearly expecting to meet my step-sisters. May be, it is better he doesn’t. Marrying them would lead to lifelong shame-facing. I serve him tea and try to be good company.
We talk about books that my sisters have placed strategically in the drawing-room to be able to brag in front of the suitors that they have read them. I tell him of my favourite place in the world, my father’s library. He’s curious, so I take him on a tour. He looks around the library in awe, touching book spines like they were made of flower petals. His fingers are hardened with old marks of callouses. I wonder if he’s had a past like mine. We talk about more books. He laughs. It’s a nice, open laughter without pretence; one that I can get used to. I offer him my favourite book to pass the time while waiting.
Back in the drawing room, he points at the piano, curious who plays it. Too lost in his voice and too busy trying to not stare at him, I blurt out the truth, “It was mine before father passed away…” I clasp my mouth at the admission.
“Yours? Are you the daughter of the late Duke?”
I nod quietly, glancing at my clothes–clean but far below the status of my family, knowing how far-fetched the story seems. Will he mention it to mother? She will burn me at the stake…or in the oven…
But his eyes hold no judgement, only understanding, “So, after your father died, she took over the estate and turned you into housemaid?”
I nod again.
“Is there anything I could do to remedy your situation? I could request an audience with the king. He is just. He would ensure you are provided your share in the property.”
My eyes well up at the unexpected sympathy, “Thank you for the offer. I, too, could have applied to the king. But I’d rather stay home and sweep the floor than drag my family through dirt.”
Ever since I saw her, it has been difficult to look elsewhere. My eyes had been drawn to her face. But now, I see her in a different light.
Is she for real? She cares for a family that reduced her to a maid. Her little hands in the lap are full of calluses from the daily hard labour. I can see the blue marks peaking out of her shirt sleeve where she had been hit with a cane over and over. And she doesn’t want to change that for her family’s honour?
I cross the distance between us to where she stands. She looks so vulnerable as she looks at me with surprised gaze. I take her hands in mine, as gently as I can, “You know, Ella, I always thought that women like you had ceased to exist.”
Her hands fit in mind perfectly and her face is a picture of subdued beauty that comes from forgiveness and love. Suddenly, I know I will not be able to forget this face or walk out of this place leaving her behind. It is clear what I have to do.
“I came here seeking a bride. I think I’ve found one–if, of course, you’ll have me. Will you?”
She’s surprised and hesitant, “I’m afraid, it won’t be appropriate, considering I am just a maid. I won’t have my father’s name or property to bring along.”
“I don’t care about the title and I have enough money to last several lifetimes. All I care about is whether you like me? Would you like to spend your life with a man like me who doesn’t have a family title, but who fell in love with you the moment he saw you?”
She blushed a deep red and nodded sheepishly, “I think, I did too.”
“Of course, you have my blessings, my dears. I’ll arrange the two of you to get married this Sunday. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be much of a fanfare because the time is short…”
I don’t think they cared for the size of celebration any way.
When we had returned, Ella was in his arms, as I had expected. She’s captivating even when covered in cinders from the oven. Being dressed decently and left alone for two hours was more than enough to bring a marriage proposal. As for Ella, she couldn’t wait to be shot of us. She would have married a horse, had it proposed her, just to get away from us.
So, now that all has gone according to my plan, she will be married a week before the Royal Ball. Thank goodness for that too! Of course, we will need to hire household help, so it wil be a little inconvenient, but with her out of the way, my beautiful daughters are sure to win the Prince’s heart.