Read The Marriage Bargain Online
Authors: Diane Perkins
No one took notice, however. Few attended the funeral service. Spence had not been popular in the countryside of late. Even sufferings that could not be laid at his feet, such as the high price of corn, were blamed on his neglect of Kellworth. No more than a dozen men attended: Squire Benson, who seemed to have accepted Reuben’s tale of Spence’s death without question, the estate manager, a few servants, and men from the village. Emma had absolutely forbidden Mr. Hale and Susan to come out in the damp, but Mrs. Cobbett sat at one side of her, Blakewell and Wolfe at the other.
The two men remained so stoic, Emma wanted to shake them. If they were such fast friends of Spence, ought they not show more grief?
Reuben spoke such a loving tribute to his cousin, Emma almost lost her battle with tears, but the two men beside her remained chiseled in granite.
The service ended. Reuben walked over to her and clasped her hands. “My dear, again you have my condolences. I shall see you at the house later.”
“I shall attend the interring,” Emma said. It was a short walk to the family mausoleum on the church grounds, and she had a sudden wish to see if Blakewell and Wolfe would evidence any emotion at all when their friend was closed up within a stone wall.
Reuben squeezed her hands. “Emma, there are good reasons why women do not attend the . . . the final ritual. A lady’s sensibilities are too delicate for such an event, I assure you.”
“That may be true for others,” she retorted. “But I am not a delicate creature and I will see this to the end, even if it is not customary to do so.”
He gave her an intent gaze. “I must protect you from such unpleasantness, Emma. I would wish to spare you any suffering at all.”
Emma drew back. This was not the first time Reuben had hinted at his regard for her. She supposed she must face it eventually. It peeved her that Reuben would speak this way at the funeral of her husband, no matter how unlike a husband Spence had been. “I wish to remain.”
She did convince Mrs. Cobbett to leave, sparing that woman the distress of witnessing the final entombment. She sent her back to the house with the excuse that she must see to the breakfast they would serve when they returned. Reuben argued no further, but walked silently at Emma’s side. The rain filled the silence, broken only by the occasional grunts of Blakewell, Wolfe, Tolley, and Squire Benson carrying the hurriedly and crudely made wooden coffin.
They made slow progress over the muddy earth to the somber stone edifice sitting at the far edge of the graveyard. The family crest, engraved in stone above the thick wooden door, was stained with the white-and-black waste of birds. Emma wished she’d thought to have it cleaned, but she’d never even set foot this close to the building.
The last time the mausoleum had been opened was for the entombment of Spence’s brother, Stephen, eight years earlier. Reuben and the servants told Emma that Spence’s brother died when the carriage Spence had been driving tipped over on its side. The brothers had been extremely close, everyone said. They would now lie next to each other for eternity.
Reuben turned the key in the old lock and the men strained to open the wooden door, its hinges stiff from nonuse. From the doorway Emma could see the gloomy outlines of several sarcophaguses, side by side. The pallbearers carried the coffin into the mausoleum and slid it into its compartment in the wall. Eventually the compartment would be sealed in a stone, carved with Spence’s name, like the one bearing his brother’s name. Emma felt tears prick her eyes, but she blinked them away.
Reuben recited the final prayers and walked out to stand next to her while Blake, Wolfe, and the other pallbearers filed out. The mausoleum’s interior smelled musty and stale, a contrast to the scent of the clean spring rain.
One of the men began to push the heavy wooden door closed. It was to be over too fast. The whole business had been rushed, ostensibly because of the duel. Emma glanced at Blakewell and Wolfe. They wore expressions as stony and unrevealing as the mausoleum’s thick walls.
She bit her lip, her mind racing, until one thought could no longer be ignored. She tapped Reuben’s arm. “Reuben. Did you view the body?”
He sputtered in confusion. “View the body? I confess, I did not think of it—”
“Then how do we know it is Spence in there?” she asked in a hoarse whisper.
When Spence went off to war, she’d fancied she would sense if he were killed. She’d sensed nothing. What if Spence still lived? What if someone else lay in that coffin?
“How do we know this is not some trick?” she went on. “We know nothing of these men who brought him here—”
“I recall them from school,” he broke in lamely.
“This could be a hoax.” With sudden decision, Emma stepped forward. “Stop!” she commanded the man closing the door.
Reuben tried to pull her back, but she jerked away from him. Everyone gaped at her.
She cleared her throat. “I wish to view the body.”
“No, Emma!” Reuben cried.
She ignored him. “I wish to give witness that this is indeed my husband. Lord Blakewell and Mr. Wolfe, you will attend me.” She was as interested in their reaction as she was in verifying the body’s identity.
Both men, betraying some distress at last, followed her into the mausoleum. The light from the open door barely illuminated the interior and it took her eyes a moment to adjust. Emma forced herself to look at the space containing her husband’s coffin.
“Open the coffin, if you please,” she said.
Blakewell and Wolfe slid the coffin out of its space and set it on the stone floor. Wolfe produced a curved knife from inside his coat and pried loose the nails sealing the plain wooden box. The two men looked away as the lid clattered to the floor, the sound echoing against the walls.
Steeling herself, Emma peered inside the coffin.
It was Spence.
Her husband was not shrouded but lay in a brown coat and once-buff trousers, both stained with blood and soil. His face, shadowed with beard, was still as handsome as when he’d made his vows to her.
She gasped and fell to her knees next to the body. “Oh, Spence.”
Unable to stop herself, she touched the lock of dark hair that fell across his brow, remembering how she’d dared touch it once before, the day he’d said good-bye and left for war. She wished she were not wearing her black gloves so she could feel if it was still as soft and silky. With her finger, she traced one arching eyebrow and, still unable to stop, stroked his cheek with the back of her gloved hand.
His eyes flew open and she screamed.
He grabbed her wrist and was pulled upright as she backed away in terror.
“Water!” the corpse rasped. “Give me water!”
y God!” cried Wolfe. “Spence. My God, what have we done?”
Emma looked around wildly. “Get him out of here. Get him out of that box!”
Blakewell grabbed Spence and, though both men were of a similar size, picked him up, and carried him like a baby to the doorway.
“Fetch some water,” Emma ordered to the shocked throng of men looking in. “Quick!”
Blakewell placed him on the ground outside the doorway. Spence, who a moment before had prayers for the dead recited over him, turned his face to the rain and softly laughed. He tried to catch the droplets with his tongue.
“Spence!” Wolfe leaned against the doorway, more white-faced than the would-be corpse had been.
Emma could only think of getting him away from where they had almost buried him alive. “We need transport to carry him to the house. And someone fetch the surgeon. Hurry! He cannot be left out in this chill.” Falling to her knees beside him, she pulled off her cape and wrapped it around him. “Hurry!”
Two of the servants ran to do her bidding.
Tolley rushed up with a large cup of water and handed it to Emma. Cradling Spence’s head in her lap, she put the cup to his lips. He grabbed the cup and gulped. Blakewell crouched across from Emma and held Spence’s hands to keep him from drinking too fast. Emma glanced up and caught Blakewell’s eye, nearly as wide with alarm as Wolfe’s.
Wolfe groaned. “We almost buried him! By God, how did this happen?” He clasped his arms around himself. “He had no pulse. Tell me I am not mistaken, Blake. There was no pulse.”
Blake still held the cup against Spence’s lips. “Aye, we felt no pulse. And the surgeon pronounced him dead.”
“That drunken sot!” spat Wolfe.
Emma had no patience for their recriminations, deserved as they might have been. “Well, he is alive, gentlemen, and we must get him to the house immediately.”
In Spence’s delirium, his eyes wandered as if sightless, but for a moment focused on Emma. She pulled off her glove and felt his forehead. He was burning with fever.
“Let us carry him to the church at least,” Blakewell said, handing the cup to a man nearby.
Wolfe disappeared into the mausoleum, returning immediately with the coffin’s lid. The two men eased Spence onto it, and Emma again tucked her cloak, now damp and muddy, around him. Blakewell and Wolfe lifted the hastily made pallet and started toward the church.
Reuben stood frozen in place, shock still on his face. Emma pulled on his arm. “Come, Reuben.”
By the time they reached the church door, the same horse and wagon that brought the coffin from the house waited for them. Blake and Wolfe set the pallet into the wagon and Emma climbed in.
The rain that had fallen lightly but persistently all morning had turned the road to mud, slowing their progress. On foot, Blake, Wolfe, and Reuben easily kept pace. Spence mumbled incoherently and struggled to sit. Emma strained to hold on to him so he would not fall out. His eyes still darted, but he grabbed her hand and held on so tight she thought he might crush her bones.
When they reached the house, it took only seconds for the men to carry him into the hall. Mr. Hale and Mrs. Cobbett watched with stunned expressions.
“My lady, there is no room ready!” Mrs. Cobbett said as Blake and Wolfe carried him up the stairway, Emma at his side.
“Put him in my room,” she said.
She led them to her bedchamber. When they entered, Susan toiled to rise from the chair by the window. “My gracious.”
Blakewell and Wolfe placed him on the bed.
“Help me remove his clothes,” Emma said. He smelled of stale sweat and blood. She could not bear for him to lie another second in such a condition.
Mrs. Cobbett appeared at the door.
Emma looked over at her. “Have one of the girls fetch hot water and towels. And we will soon need clean bed linens.”
The housekeeper nodded. “Yes, my lady.” She hurried away.
They pulled off Spence’s boots, coat, and waistcoat without much trouble, but his shirt stuck to his skin from the dried blood. Wolfe produced his knife again and cut through the front of the fabric as if it were paper. Susan hobbled over with Emma’s water pitcher and towel.
“Excellent, Susan,” Emma said. “More towels, please.”
Emma soaked the towel with water and pressed it against the bloody cloth, holding it there until it was soaked through. Tossing the towel aside, she carefully picked up the edge of what was left of the shirt and peeled it back inch by inch.
When she reached the wound, he cried out and began to struggle, pushing her away with such force she almost fell to the floor. Blakewell and Wolfe rushed to restrain him, but he fought on, cursing and trying to pull his arms from their grasp. Emma caught her balance again and took another towel from Susan. She dampened the cloth and placed it against Spence’s forehead.
“Shhhh,” she murmured. “All is well. Rest now.”
As she stroked his face, he stilled, staring at her. She continued to gently wipe his fevered brow with the cool cloth until, after a moment, he collapsed back onto the pillows, eyes closed.
“He is not dead, is he?” Wolfe rasped.
“Most certainly not.” Emma bit her tongue.
“He passed out,” said Blake.
“Let us hurry.” Emma returned her attention to the cloth stuck upon his skin.
She pulled it away and saw the wound, an inch-wide hole in his shoulder, inflamed with infection. The ball had missed his heart, but the infection could still kill him.
“Can you lift him so we can remove the rest of his shirt?”
Wolfe cut the shirt again to make the task easier. When the two men gently eased him up so she could remove the remaining tatters, the cloth was just as bloody on his back as it had been on the front. She and Blakewell exchanged puzzled glances, and she again soaked the shirt and peeled away the cloth.
“By God, the ball went through!” cried Blakewell, gaping at the ugly hole it left in Spence’s back.
There was a knock at the door. “Hot water, my lady.” Tolley carried in a large tin. Behind him stood a maid with a stack of towels.
“More hot water, Tolley,” Emma said. “And more towels.” She needed to wash off the stench of near death.
After a wide-eyed peek at the half-naked man in the bed, the maid hurried off after Tolley.
“We must finish undressing him.” Emma unbuttoned the fall of his trousers as the men laid him back on the pillows.
She could not allow herself to think too much on this task. The only men she’d ever seen without clothes had been sculpted from marble nearly two thousand years ago.
Blakewell and Wolfe removed his trousers.
“When will the surgeon arrive?” Wolfe asked in anxious tones as he dropped the trousers on the floor with the other clothes.
Emma had wondered the same thing. She was not sure how much time had passed since they’d pulled him from his coffin. “It will take half an hour to reach him, if he is at home.”
Blakewell removed Spence’s underclothes, the last of his garments to go, and Emma caught sight of him.
Even ill and filthy, he took her breath away. His shoulders were broad, his chest and abdomen so firm she could see the muscles under the skin. His waist and hips were narrow, and his male parts . . . Well, her heart quite pounded as she let her gaze linger on them.
She clamped her eyes shut. There was still work to do and she must not be distracted from her task. “We will bathe him.”