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Runaway Bride by Jane Aiken Hodge (1)

Chapter One

‘Mark my words, George, you must marry—and quickly.’ The Duchess hitched up her auburn wig which had, as usual, slid down over one bejewelled ear.

‘I fear you are right, ma’am,’ said her grandson gloomily as he bent down to offer her his enamelled snuff-box. The Honourable George Ferris—or, to give him his baptismal due, George Frederick William Edward Ernest Augustus Adolphus Ferris—was having a bad half-hour with his grandmother. According to his friends at Brooks’ Club there were only two people in the world that this formidable young man feared: one was the Duke of Wellington, the other, the Duchess of Lewes. Friend of Dr Johnson and confidante of Fox, she was indeed a grandmother to make a man tremble, particularly as he himself was set on a political career. It was she, of course, who had insisted on his being named after all the deplorable Royal Dukes, sons of George III, and had browbeaten them into resolving their differences for long enough to stand godfathers together at his christening. It was not, as she frequently pointed out, her fault that his royal godfathers had in fact done so little to advance his career.

The younger son of a duke’s spendthrift heir, George Ferris had his own way to make in the world. While his older brother made the Grand Tour as best he might in the intervals of the long war with France, George had been given his father’s unenthusiastic blessing, a small and spasmodic allowance, and introductions to Beau Brummell and Brooks’ Club. Luckily for him, his erratic old grandfather the Duke had finally gone mad in Trafalgar year and the Duchess had lost no time in immuring her husband in one of his smaller and more remote castles and taking control of his fortune. One of her first actions had been to buy a commission in the Blues for George, whom she much preferred to his dissolute elder brother.

George had thanked her warmly, packed his few possessions and joined his regiment in the Peninsula. Handsome in a blue-eyed, black-browed, frowning way; short-tempered, daredevil, a judge of horses and men, he had soon made his mark in the field and had been rebuked by the Duke himself for putting up his umbrella to keep off the rain while waiting to charge at Salamanca. Once noticed, he was not easily forgotten. Soon afterwards, he was taken on to the Duke’s staff where he distinguished himself by capturing an Eagle in the intervals of carrying despatches at Waterloo.

With peace at last secure, the army’s attractions had dwindled. He had sold out and persuaded his father to send him to Parliament as member for the family’s pocket borough of Cuckhaven. Once admitted to the House, he had delighted that staunch old Whig, his grandmother, by the point and ferocity of his attacks on the Government and was already being talked of as a rival to the colourless Ponsonby for the leadership of the Party.

‘But depend upon it, George,’ continued his astute grandmamma, taking a pinch of snuff and sneezing with gusto, ‘Bachelor’s chambers are a damned awkward rallying ground for a coterie. A political leader must have a house, and a house must have a mistress. With the right wife, you can put them all in the shade. Marry now, marry well and, above all, marry richly and who knows where you may find yourself when the King finally dies and Prinny’s friends come into their own at last. There’s not a leader among them: Ponsonby, Tierney…bah, you’re worth six of them. But marry, George, only marry…’

He looked down at her ruefully. ‘You’re mighty insistent, ma’am.’

‘I am mighty correct.’ The fierce old eyes softened as they gazed up at him. ‘George, it cannot be that you still wear the willow for that Ponsonby chit?’

He drew himself up and for a moment his eyes flashed, fierce as hers: ‘Lady Caroline Lamb will always have my heart.’

The old lady sighed. ‘To add to her collection? Or to offer, among other things, to Lord Byron? No, no,’ she put a delicate restraining hand on his arm, ‘I’ll not tease you, George, but if you have no heart to give, you still have a hand, and there’s many an heiress will take it, and glad to. What do you think of one of the Markham girls?’

‘As little as I can, ma’am, I assure you. Now spare me, I beg, the catalogue of this year’s possible misses, for I have a mind that if marry I must it shall be a girl of my own choosing.’

She sparkled up at him, arch as the brilliant girl who had once charmed Dr Johnson. ‘George, I declare you have someone in mind. Tell me quick, who is she? What is she like? Do I know her?’

He smiled down at her. ‘No, ma’am, she is, I apprehend, something of a country mouse, nor, to deal plainly with you, do I know her myself, but of her, I think, enough…’

‘More and more romantic,’ she twinkled at him. ‘Who is this paragon you would marry unseen?’

‘She is a Miss Purchas, ma’am. Jennifer Purchas.’

‘Hmmm,’ the old lady considered it. ‘A pretty name, for what that is worth. Let me see, Purchas… Ah, I have it: the Cornish Purchases, I collect. Bought the Sussex estate with their profits out of the South Sea Bubble. There’s an American branch—they spell it differently I believe. A good old Whig family and shrewd as well. He married…now let me see, there was something of a breeze over it: yes, of course, not a Miss Butts, but some other banker’s daughter. But she was produceable enough, I always understood. Died in childbirth, did she not?’

‘Ma’am you amaze me as always, and, as always, you are entirely in the right of it. Jennifer—it is a pretty name, is it not?—Jennifer was the child. She grew up under the guardianship of her father and his sister, and much the companion of my friends, her older brothers.’

‘Oh, there are brothers are there? I had quite forgot.’

‘Were, ma’am, not are. Both her brothers, and her father, were killed at Waterloo.’

She considered it, quiet for a moment. ‘They were always a military family, but, surely, George, that was excessive?’

‘Indeed, yes. Her father rejoined the army when his wife died. The sons must needs follow him—and now Jennifer is alone.’

‘George, I declare, you are in love with her name!’

‘So much the better if I am, for, I must tell you, I feel in honour bound to marry her.’

‘In honour bound? What absurdity is this?’

‘No absurdity, ma’am, but a very real duty. Let me explain. I was, as doubtless you recall, at Waterloo myself, attached to the Duke.’

The old eyes softened. ‘Strangely enough, George, I remember it very well. It was you who took the pains, on the very day of the battle, to send me news by the messenger who announced the victory to Lord Harrowby. But we were fortunate…most fortunate. All three Purchases were killed, you say?’

‘Yes, and worse than that.’

‘Worse?’

‘Yes, I apprehend, for Jennifer. It was this way, ma’am. Francis, the eldest, died in the first charge. “Damme,” said the Duke, “there goes one of my best young men.”’

‘’Twas a terrible day. I think I have grown too old for wars. But tell me of the other two.’

‘Her father was killed rallying his men at Hougomont. I came there with the Duke’s orders that they hold the farm if it cost every man of them. Purchas smiled at me. “Someone else will have to hold it,” he said, “but never fear, they will.” And died.’

He paused. ‘Well?’ she asked. ‘Naturally I am aware that Hougomont was held. But what of the third?’

‘Richard.’ His voice was quiet. ‘Richard was on the Duke’s staff with me, and many a night we made of it together.’

‘A wild young man?’

‘Wild enough for me. But not that day. I had to tell him of his father’s and brother’s deaths. “Damn,” he said, “that’s bad, George.” But we were interrupted. The Duke rode up. It was midday and he had had no news of Blücher. He looked at us both. I had my wound by then; it was a nothing, a scratch, but it bled most confoundedly.’

She raised her eyebrows. ‘Such language to a lady?’

‘I ask your pardon, ma’am. It is sometimes hard to remember you are a lady.’

She laughed outright. ‘I find it hard enough myself. But to your story. Your wound was bleeding…’

‘Yes. A damned awkward place… The Duke looked at me. “You have got yourself deucedly knocked up, Ferris, and your horse is blown. Purchas shall bring me news of Blücher. It should be a lively ride.” Richard saluted, finished his bottle and rode away. After that, we were busy for a time. It was some hours before I observed that Richard had not returned from his lively ride. The Duke had noticed it too. Our men were being badly mauled: he called me to his side and looked me over: “So,” he said, “you are presentable again. Very good. You will ride after Purchas and bring me news of Blücher without fail. Of Purchas, too, if you can do so without overmuch delay. Do not you get yourself killed. Good men are growing damnably scarce.”

‘I found Richard not half a mile away, under a hedge. There was nothing I could do for him. A cannon ball had done its business. He could just speak: “Finishing my errand, George? I wish you may speed better than I have. But I’ll not delay you. Only, George; one kindness,” he paused for breath, then went on: “My little sister, Jenny, George. She will be all alone. Father’s will cannot stand, since Francis died before him… No protection for Jenny,” he was gasping for breath now, “an heiress, and a damned bad hat of an uncle. Look after her, George.”

‘I promised, filled my flask with water for him, and left him.’

‘And you found Blücher?’

‘Naturally, ma’am, since I am here today. I would scarce have faced the Duke without. As for Blücher, he embraced me on both cheeks, and nearly suffocated me with his stink of gin and rhubarb.’

‘A barbarous concoction. And now, you would tell me that, because of your promise to a dying man, you feel in honour bound to marry this Jenny?’

‘How else can I look after her, ma’am?’

She smiled. ‘It is indeed a difficult task for a young man of thirty, is it not?’

‘Thirty-five,’ he corrected her.

‘Time indeed that you thought of marriage. But, forgive me, George, you do not seem to have hurried yourself overmuch. It is a year now since Waterloo. Who, pray, has been protecting your Jennifer?’

‘Not I, more shame to me. But you well know that I have only these last few days got my affairs into some sort of order. And she is but a child, seventeen at most.’

‘At seventeen, George, I was your father’s mother. I think you would do well to bestir yourself. Besides, what of the wicked uncle? Is he not in all likelihood at this very moment making ducks and drakes of her fortune?’

‘I earnestly hope not, ma’am. But if he is, I am informed he is well able to make restitution. He is her mother’s brother, a Gurning, one of the banker lot, as rich as Rothschild.’

‘What makes you think, then, that he’ll marry his rich ward to a younger son with, forgive me George, no prospects but of his own making and a certain something in expectation from a long-lived, bad-tempered old grandmother?’

The dark eyes, so like her own, flashed down on her. ‘A duke’s grandson, ma’am. Don’t forget my connections. The man’s not such a fool. He has, I am told, a puppy of a ward he’s mad to get into Parliament and some such ambition on his own part too. My father has three boroughs at his disposal. I expect no difficulty.’

‘You think, then, that your father will back you in this enterprise?’

‘I know it. No need to beat about the bush with you. My father is damned nearly in Queer Street since the peace and now with my brother’s debts to be paid before he can marry he’ll think himself advantaged if he can get me a fortune in exchange for one of the family seats.’

She sighed. ‘Indeed, Henry has been most imprudent. A few thousands of debt are merely to be expected in an elder son but he, I collect, has not been so modest.’

‘Modesty, ma’am, was never Henry’s forte, as you well know. I can only regret that he has not chosen to have a few inexpensive vices.’

She frowned. ‘George, he is your elder brother.’

‘Yes, deeply to my chagrin, he is. No, no,’ he put a hand on hers, ‘do not think I grudge him the title, but his opportunities…and to see them so wasted.’

Once more she sighed. ‘Yes, I know it is hard. I told your father he gravely mistook when he made such a difference between you two boys, but he was always set on his own opinions, and so it was Oxford and the Grand Tour for Henry…’

‘And nothing for me,’ he interrupted her, ‘if you had not stepped into the breach and paid my shot at Cambridge. I’ll never forget it, nor the gift of my commission. All I am I owe to you.’

She smiled at him fondly. ‘And a most satisfactory hobby you have proved. But never thank me till you are First Minister. I shall dearly love to be grandmother to the power before the throne.’

He laughed. ‘I might have known you had your own axe to grind. Well, let me but make this marriage, set up my London house, and we shall see…’

She looked at him thoughtfully. ‘And the girl, George, what of her? Perhaps she may have a mind to wed someone else.’

He showed his surprise. ‘The girl, ma’am? I hope she knows a man when she sees one.’

She smiled her wise old smile: ‘So do I, George, so do I…’

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