When the deeds of the property he has gifted his mistress fall into hands for which they were certainly never intended...
She was glad that he had chosen to go out. She could curl up with her despair and not have to don a mask of carefree civility. She could bathe away the taint of city life and drift into sable sleep.
But sleep did not come calling that night. She lay upon her bed, in a chemise of pristine white broderie anglaise, hoarding the unborn child that might well be her last. White made her feel right. She had worn it often as a young girl. James Perry had liked her floaty white frocks. His illusions had long perished, she was sure. She had treated with mammon in order to spring her family from debt.
She stared at the tester, thinking how much she preferred the Sheraton to the deeply-chiselled Jacobean oak at Berkeley. Yet she wished she were back in her beloved home county where she knew how to handle life's blows. The fire reshuffled its glowing coals and sent up a shower of sparks, expiring in an instant.
Presently, the door knob twisted. She gasped and half-raised herself. "My lord!"
He came into the room with cautious tread and in great tumult. Fumes of Havana tobacco and oxtail gravy wafted through the air and warred with the clean smell of cologne. The child started kicking against the confines of her belly.
"I have done a damn fool thing..."
His wife caught him in the beam of her gaze, wide-awake as noon.
"I went out...to the club. I had to clear my head. Never would I have wanted to cause you pain... Tonight's disclosure..."
"It was not news."
"You knew! How did you know?"
"It don't signify," Mary said dully.
This stung him on the raw. "Am I to understand that you have remained calm with this knowledge...even when we have been together?"
"Do, I beg of you, stop pacing back and forth like Kemble playing Hamlet! You're making my head spin."
Mary forsook the bed and all promise of repose and slid her toes into down-trimmed slippers. Pulling a shawl about her shoulders, she sat down at the dressing-mirror and clutched her head. "I hope you are not about to tell me that you have lost a fortune at Boodle's."
"No," Berkeley said, stalling. "Not at Boodle's. I have been at the The Cocoa Tree these three hours, trying to sink my misery."
"If your misery is to capsize, and mine, repenting your ways is a straw you must clutch!"
Why was he putting himself through this? He was head of an august family. He had no need to reduce himself to impotent self-justification.
"It was a long time ago," he said, "before we ventured our second marriage. Not since we went to the altar at Lambeth... I was thinking of you.
Mary looked nonplussed. "You...were thinking of me? How so?"
"I married you, dammit!"
The Countess rose to her full stature, still much the slighter of the two, and turned away. Many forces had prevailed to bring him to that point, but this was one she had not considered.
"Pray, spare me the details. How could you do it? To intrigue with a lower servant in our own home, whose surname was the one you gave me and my brother, to beget a child who might become a pretender to..." The tone of the harangue was heightened by a touch of tearful hysteria. "Have we not more than enough to worry us? You have heaped wrong after wrong upon my poor son."
"If that designing female chooses to..."
"She won't. Her silence has been ensured."
She turned towards him with a look that was bankrupt of affection. It was a poignant reminder of the day he had first glimpsed her in her brother-in-law's shop, weighing roast chawl, assessing the price. Will Farren fully realised the custom she brought through his door. Harassed mothers and arthritic old soldiers who wanted a mere half-penn'orth of pork scratchings came to warm themselves at her smile. Now Berkeley experienced that self-same pull on the vitals. Then, it had been radiant with promise. Ever since, he had been chasing the muse down a corridor of mirrors.
"That creature's silence has been bought at great expense. And tonight, you have staked your shame on a game of hazard! How many times have I bailed you out from the housekeeping, from the sale of timber and land and cattle?"
"You are an angel! Be an angel to me, just once more, and I engage to mend matters," his lordship began to plead in earnest, in spite of himself. He was an errant boy upon his knees, clinging to the pulsing convex beneath Mary's skirts. She had only ever wanted a companion-in-arms, someone to share the yoke. "Let it be as it used to be."
The brow was now puckered with incomprehension.
"I dearly wish you will get up, my lord," she said under her breath, "for I am clay and a tradesman's daughter."
"You were almost fond of me once, at the beginning. When I had you captive, you were mine! You had no one else in the world. Don't you remember?"
Oh, she remembered! The subtle crosscurrents of being held hostage that turned love and hatred upon its axis. A few weeks later, James Perry chanced to return to her life and she knew what an anaemic thing, born out of pity, was her feeling for Berkeley. It was a tawdry exchange coined to set her free from entrapment. Perry had won her love and Berkeley could not hope to achieve his measure, though she poured herself into promoting his good and did so all the more because she was achingly aware of what was lacking.
"I have overlooked many things," she told him, "because of the pains my sister, Susan, put you to. But how shall I forgive you this?"
A shaft of fear gave way to anger. "Have I not raised you to a worthy status? Did I not dredge your family from poverty? Your brother enjoys the office of Clerk of the Peace for the County, a sinecure if ever there was one, for he leaves Bloxsome to do the work, for which I must pay twice! Tudor is the most indolent, ungrateful toad it has ever been my misfortune to meet. I note his Republican sympathies do not run to independence."
"How much do you need?" she asked, cutting across this outburst. "We are not so flush of cash after two poor summers."
Her lashes clamped momentarily. It was bad enough, but could have been worse. "Oh dear! I don't have that much put by. We cannot borrow upon Cranford again. There is nothing else for it. It will have to be land in the Hundreds. How can you so eat up Dursley's future!"
"I suspect he will make better work of that than I!"
"With your permission, my lord, I will go down to Berkeley as soon as arrangements can be made."
"Yes," she replied, looking directly into his eyes. "Yes, if you do not choose to come."
"But I desire you shall remain here. A wife's place is at her husband's side."
A flicker of triumph lit his countenance. He dared her to defy him. She saw that the reaction sprang less from arrogance than from the need to hold her captive and that it was as acute as ever.