Eighteen-year-old Amanda Eaker wished her parents had never come to Renford-on-Tees. Nowhere else, as far as she could determine, could a man forty years a girl’s senior claim her as his bride. But Mr. George Charlton, a gentleman farmer, had chosen Amanda, and Lord Rider, the squire of Renford-on-Tees, had sent his steward to tell Mr. and Mrs. Eaker that Amanda would become Mrs. George Charlton in a fortnight’s time.
“The squire bids me tell you that your daughter is to be instructed above all in the matter of the proper obedience of a young bride in the marriage bed,” Amanda heard the steward say. She had taken a stand behind the door to the front parlor, so she could hear the terrible news. “I trust I need be no more explicit than that. Miss Eaker must however be made aware that Mr. Charlton plans to exercise his conjugal rights on a daily basis, and that the squire—being an old friend of Mr. Charlton—has told him that he should not hesitate to exercise them in any fashion he chooses, including…”
Here the steward’s voice fell too low for Amanda, whose face now glowed as hot as the sun, to hear. But her mother exclaimed, “No! Begging your pardon, sir, but he mustn’t! ‘Tis unnatural—and unlawful!”
“Must I remind you, Mrs. Eaker, that the squire is our magistrate and I his judicial clerk?”
“We shall leave the county,” her father said resolutely.
“I think you would find that an extremely unwise step, Mr. Eaker. Your mortgage is of course held by the squire, and you would go forth penniless. Nor would the squire recommend you as tenants, when others of his class enquired. I shall bid you good day. Mr. Charlton will be here to make his proposal this evening. Please have Miss Eaker ready to meet with him, and to give an affirmative answer with no missishness on the one hand or coquetry on the other.”
At the thought of those two poles of the miss and the coquette, Amanda’s face burned even hotter, and she ran from the house and hid in her favorite grove of trees, which separated her family’s farm from the park of Rider Hall. She heard her parents calling for her, but she couldn’t bear to face the news—the same awful news that had come to her friend Jane Sweetser two months before, when the squire had ‘encouraged’ Mr. Penny, a man of fifty—younger than Mr. Charlton but equally a widower and an old friend of the squire’s—to propose to Jane.
Tearfully, knowing she must accept him for her family’s sake, Jane had gone to the altar. She had hoped that Mr. Penny would prove more tender to her after he had wed his young bride than he had during his brusque courtship of her. But what Jane told Amanda about her married life made Amanda feel she could never bear to be Mrs. George Charlton—that she must now run away, even if she should be ruined that way.
Jane had to serve Mr. Penny’s lusts in his bed every night and every morning, and sometimes during the day as well. She told Amanda, who had been innocent of what the vicar called the ways of the flesh and carnality, what it meant to have a husband—what it meant that a girl’s husband had conjugal rights.
If Jane refused Mr. Penny those conjugal rights, as she had tried to do at first, he strapped her down over a trestle and caned her until she screamed that he might do as he wished. Then, Jane said, with a terrible shudder and a hot blush, he did—right over the trestle where he had just caned her. Amanda thought that what Jane had said about the unnatural way Mr. Penny had taken her after that caning, how he had entered along a passage too narrow for Jane’s comfort while she cried out in shame, must refer to the same thing Lord Rider’s steward had intimated to Mr. and Mrs. Eaker—the unnatural, unlawful thing Mr. Charlton planned to enforce upon Amanda herself. Jane said that Mr. Penny often enjoyed her that way now, and said that her bottom would have to grow accustomed to him because he did not intend to have a large family.
Nor did that make the worst thing, it seemed, for Mr. Penny made Jane kneel before him, naked, every day. He unbuttoned his breeches, and trained her to give him his way inside her mouth as well. Jane said the hardest part came when Mr. Penny took hold of her head and thrust his virility in and out until he shot what he called his seed down her throat and made her swallow it, saying that this practice, too, would prevent the necessity of feeding a gaggle of children.
Could she hope that Mr. Charlton would be a different sort of man from Mr. Penny? For a few moments in the grove Amanda tried to raise her hopes in that direction. All she knew of Mr. Charlton, really, was that he was wealthy. Mr. Penny, too, had a tidy fortune, but Amanda didn’t think he had prospered to the same degree as the older man—the man who planned to make a proposal of marriage to Amanda this evening.
But had not the steward said to her parents that Amanda must expect exactly the same sort of conduct from her suitor that Jane now must endure from Mr. Penny? The tears trickled freely down Amanda’s cheeks, and she brushed them angrily away. She would set out from here right now. She had enough education to read and write respectably, thanks to Mrs. Bates, the village schoolmistress. She had the clothes and linen upon her back, which she supposed might secure her a place at least as a scullery maid—for Amanda could see clearly she would have no references, and a girl with no references couldn’t aspire to the post of parlor maid. She would endeavor to raise her station from there, and her parents, not knowing where she had gone, would probably take no blame from the squire. Perhaps they would remove as soon as they might from Renford-on-Tees, and they could be reunited. It could not be her duty, though, to accept Mr. George Charlton.
“I say, are you all right?” said a masculine voice behind her, from the other side of the grove—the park side.
Amanda, who had sat down upon the dry leaves from the oaks, turned to see a young man of about thirty, in the day dress of a gentleman—a smart buff-colored suit, with a gleaming white collar and a red cravat—coming toward her through the trees. Had he heard her, when she had sobbed a bit just a few moments before? Could he see that her eyes were rimmed in red?
She looked down at her faded blue work dress and the unstarched apron that covered it. A farmer’s daughter—and decidedly not a gentleman farmer’s daughter. Mrs. Bates had warned the girls sternly about just this sort of occurrence, hadn’t she? How the young gentlemen who stayed at houses like Rider Hall would sometimes make a sport of seeking out farmers’ daughters for the purpose of dallying with them. How only coquettes would stay to dally, if they saw a young gentleman approaching.
Amanda stood and turned to flee back to her house where proposal or no, she had chores to do. But the confused impressions of the steward’s visit, of the idea that a man past fifty would soon be in her parlor, making it clear to her under the guise of a proposal that he intended to enjoy her just as Amanda supposed a young man likes to dally with a coquette, seemed to root her to the ground of the little grove.
Behind the screen of a marriage that represented none of the tender affection that should accompany that most holy of unions, Mr. Charlton meant to have his own kind of dalliance, without even the sweet words Mrs. Bates had warned the village girls young gentlemen would use to encourage the coquettish vice that lived inside every girl. Shouldn’t Amanda feel herself free, then, to hear such sweet words once, if she were never to have the chance again?
And if she should decide to flee, after all? Perhaps, she suddenly thought—though in a very vague way—this young gentleman would help her get away!
She turned back to him, to see that he had approached now within a few yards of her. He moved hesitantly, as if worried that she might bound away from him like a fawn and be gone among the thickets. He had a handsome, firm-jawed face, graced with elegant whiskers. His hair was of a chestnut hue, and he had hazel eyes so light they seemed to glow in the morning sun that filtered through the branches.
The way he seemed to stalk her, like a deer, evoked in Amanda’s breast two countervailing and yet somehow also harmonizing instincts: to bound away indeed—or, since a girl cannot bound as well as a fawn, at least to take to her heels the way Mrs. Bates would advise—and to giggle. Perhaps, the wild thought came to her, she could giggle and then run, then stop and giggle some more. She supposed she had always imagined dryads behaved that way.
Instead of either the running or the laughter, though, Amanda raised her hands in front of her apron, clasping them together in what she thought might perhaps look like a prayerful posture, though she had not intended it as such. The young man stopped, looking into her eyes. Then, after a long moment of silence in which upon Amanda’s side at least nothing at all occurred of a cognitive nature but rather the mere gathering of impressions—the smell of leaves, the warmth of the dappled sunlight, the appearance of true manly beauty before Amanda’s eyes for the very first time—he repeated his question.
“Are you all right, Miss…?”
Clever man, Amanda thought, to end his sweet words with that ellipsis into which she could not but drop her name.
“Eaker,” she said simply, because she could think of nothing else in the world to say. “I am… yes, I am all right.”
“But surely you’ve been weeping, Miss Eaker,” he said, his eyes widening a little. Then they widened still more, and he continued, “But I must… yes, I…” The very slightest red tinge came upon his face then, but it disappeared so quickly that Amanda could not feel sure she had seen it. “My name is James Coventry. I’m a school chum of the squire’s son.”
Had he meant to say something more? Amanda felt quite sure he had, as she considered, and she felt just as sure that something about her own name had caused his momentary surprise.
“Of Mr. John Rider?” she asked, in order that no awkward silence fall between them. John had matriculated to Oxford the previous autumn.
“No, of Mr. Philip Rider.”
Amanda nodded, feeling obscurely that this commonplace conversation, though it seemed not to involve sweet words of blandishment, had nevertheless restored some of her equanimity and her ability to think. She remained terribly conscious, though, of the gulf in status between her and this young man Mr. Coventry, and she resolved that she would beg his pardon, as she had been taught to do, and take her leave. To flee immediately made no sense: she could at least gather a few things and take a little while to decide in which direction she should go—even if she kept her resolution not to tell her parents of her flight. She could also, she supposed, endure Mr. Charlton’s proposal, in hope that he might turn out to be a better man than Mr. Penny.
All those careful thoughts, however, came crashing down as Mr. Coventry seemed to resolve that he must say what had come into his mind, though some part of his better judgment advised him against the utterance.
“But I know why you were weeping, Miss Eaker. I know you’re to be married to George Charlton. And… and you do right to weep, I am sorry to tell you.”
Amanda’s lips parted, but no sound emerged. Her face glowed and she felt her brow pucker as the tingling of imminent tears began in her nose. Mr. Coventry had on his own face a look of desperate sympathy, and he seemed on the verge of saying something more for a tiny moment that seemed to stretch into an eternity.
Then, he did.
“But I will save you, Miss Eaker. I promise you that I will save you from him.”