The sun rises over a field of golden wheat. A strong breeze billows the wheat into waves of light and dark. Pushing through the ripening stems is a woman. She is fashionably dressed in an empire crinoline and a pretty bonnet with ribbons trailing behind in the wind. She is clearly out of place; her dress is entirely unsuitable for walking in a wheat field. What is she doing there?
Let’s take a closer look. She is pretty, not yet twenty, her cheeks flushed from the exertion of pushing through the stems of wheat, but anxiety dulls her youthful features as if her heart is in a hurry to empty itself of worry. Her dress is unkempt and dirtied. The silk slippers on her feet blackened from the mud of the field. Even her ankles have been spattered with dirt.
We’ll leave the lady in the wheat field and go to meet her parents, the Duke and Duchess of Granby. They are at home in their palace. The Duchess is taking some exercise, walking down a wide hall, lined with portraits of her husband’s ancestors. The Duke… I don’t know where the Duke is, but presumably he’ll join us later. The Duchess has a fan which she swishes open and shut as she walks. Suddenly from a side door a young gentleman, whom I presume to be a servant, rushes into the hall, goes to the Duchess and, begging her pardon, says he has urgent news. The Duchess nods, and the servant explains, —Your Grace, your daughter is missing.
—She is not in her rooms ma’am.
—Where is the Duke?
—He is gone riding.
—Send word to him at once.
—And tell Marie I wish to see her.
The servant rushes down the hall. The Duchess hurries to her parlour. We are left in the middle, uncertain whom to follow.
Let’s go to see where the Duke is riding. It’s nice to be out in the fresh air. The early morning rays of the sun catch the iridescence of butterflies’ wings as they flutter round a meadow of primroses and daisies. The Duke comes into view, proud on his stallion. His blotchy red face betrays a love of dissolute living and fine wine. The Duke is a good rider. He sits well as his stallion gallops towards a hedge and clears it easily. He slows as he nears the gates of a mansion. This is the home of Lady Jane Furweedler. The Duke and the sweet Lady Jane have an understanding. He visits her occasionally to clear up any misunderstanding that may have arisen in their understanding. He will take time entering the gardens, leaving his horse at the stable and going into the house, so we’ll leave him for the time being and see what has happened to his daughter.
She is out of the wheat field and walking through the village. The farmhands in their smocks watch her with lust in their eyes. The village girls in sackcloth dresses have envy in their hearts. All of them mutter and gossip.
—She’s out again.
—Off to see her lover boy no doubt.
The Duchess’ daughter, Penelopé, (I should have told you her name earlier), is glad to be the centre of attention. At home she is always ignored in favour of her elder brother Aloysius who is, of course, more important than her and will inherit the family estate. Her cheeks glow from an inner warmth as she hurries through the village on her way to the smithy.
—G’morn, your Grace, says the blacksmith bowing obsequiously, hoping to catch a glimpse of the young lady’s ankle.
—Is my horse ready?
—I’ll just saddle him, Miss, I wasn’t expecting you so early.
The blacksmith knows why she wants the horse, most of the villagers know, even the horse knows, but her parents only have their suspicions. Everyone feels for Penelopé and no one would tell tales about her.
She goes into a side room. I think she is changing her clothes. We won’t go in with her; it would be impolite. While she is changing her clothes and her horse is being saddled we’ll go to see what the Duke is up to.
Oh, my goodness, he’s in bed with Lady Jane. I won’t say what he is doing. This is not that sort of story. Suffice it to say that one glance made me blush. Decorum dictates we shouldn’t stay.
Let’s go back to the palace. The Duchess is in a much more respectable position than her husband. She is standing for one thing, and has all her clothes on for another. She is in her parlour, talking to an elderly gentleman and fanning herself even though it isn’t hot. I’m sure they won’t mind if we listen to what they say.
—It must be stopped, says the Duchess.
—I quite agree, says the elderly gentleman.
A servant enters and bows.
—Well? asks the Duchess.
—He still hasn’t been found your Grace.
—Then send more men to search for him.
The servant leaves.
—You say he is dissolute? asks the Duchess whose name is Caroline (I’m so late with these names).
—He drinks and gambles and is a notorious womaniser. The fortune he inherited is almost dissipated, says the gentleman.
The Duchess sits, feeling faint and fanning herself with greater intensity.
—What’s to be done?
—May I suggest a marriage?
—But who would wish to marry her?
The gentleman looks intently at the Duchess and whispers, —I have a son.
What are they talking about? Who is this notorious womaniser?
We won’t visit the Duke again just yet. I’m sure he’s finished his understanding with Lady Jane but he may not be dressed. You and I need to be spared blushes.
Penelopé however won’t embarrass us at all. She has her horse and is now riding along the driveway into one of the finest houses in the county. She wears a riding jacket, breeches, and tweed hunting jacket. She wasn’t able to find her riding boots so her breeches end in satin slippers and, as she has forgotten to remove her bonnet, the ribbons still trail behind her. Like her father she rides well. The gardeners look up, admiring her beauty, but keep their thoughts to themselves.
Now she’s walking up the grand staircase. We skipped all the business about her getting off her horse and entering the house. I’m in such a hurry to learn the nature of her visit. The bewildered servants, surprised to see her this early in the morning, smile as she passes. She has something important to tell her sweetheart (for that is who she is going to see).
Full of anxiety she enters his bed chamber. He is asleep, and beside him a mass of tangled red hair moves and a woman peeks from it to ask.
—Who are you?
—Who are you? repeats Penelopé.
—Charles! shouts the woman, and the only man in Penelopé’s life snorts and looks up.
—Penelopé, he exclaims, —what are you doing here?
—I am come sir to tell you … no, I cannot … yet I must … I am with child.
—Goodness, how on Earth did that happen?
—It happened, sir, through your dealings with me.
—Nay, my sweet, I believe it happened through your dealings with me. You have been a naughty girl Penelopé.
—You sir, are a scoundrel, and have treated a maiden badly. And with that Penelopé left the room, clippety clopped down the stairs, the ribbons on her bonnet trailing.
Forget the staring villagers and the field of golden wheat. Let’s go straight to Penelopé clacking along the hall to her mother’s parlour. Tears streak her reddened face, and she shudders occasionally in distress. The ribbons on her bonnet hang limply down her back.
Not so happy now, are you Penelopé? You’ve been a naughty girl and see what you’ve got for your pleasure.
She pushes open the door to the parlour to see her mother with an elderly gentleman and a young man.
—Penelopé come in at once and sit down. Don’t stand there staring
—But mother, you don’t understand. I am most distraught.
—So am I my dear. Sit down and don’t fidget. I know all about your problems. I spoke with Marie.
—This is Mr Jefferies, and this is Mr Jefferies’ son, William. Mr Jefferies has agreed that you and his son should marry.
—Marry? But I…
—No buts my dear. You should consider yourself most fortunate.
—Oh I am indeed most fortunate, and, as she dabs her eyes with a pretty handkerchief, she squeaks, —I… I … I… and rushes out of the room.
Her mother looks at Mr Jefferies and remarks, —She was always highly strung. I’m sure that will lessen as she matures.
But what of the Duke you ask (or maybe you don’t). He has finished his activities with Lady Jane and is now seated in her bedchamber enjoying a glass of port and a plate of mutton stew. Lady Jane is telling him of her trip to London last Michaelmas. But he doesn’t listen; he watches her as she moves in her semi-transparent shift and thinks, what a fortunate a fellow I am.
Meanwhile Charles, the one-time lover of sweet Penelopé, is being harangued by a red haired servant girl.
—You told me you loved me. You said you wanted to spend your life with me.
—Yes yes, my dear, but I only said those things when I was drunk. Now, kindly leave the room and leave me in peace.
But Charles will never find peace. His demons will drive him into the arms of more and more women, but he will never find true love.
As the Duke leaves Lady Jane’s house a servant catches him and explains what has happened.
—Blast! replies the Duke. —The damn wench. If she wasn’t my daughter I would have her horsewhipped.
His daughter, not perceptive enough to recognise which is more upsetting – losing the man she loved, or having to marry a man she doesn’t know – is now slumped on the ground beside an ancient oak in the garden of her home. Tears soak into the powder covering her face and form lumps that slide down to her chin. Her waxed rouged cheeks shine brightly, making her look like a melancholic pierrot. The dying rays of the setting sun tinge her with a red glow as she wishes her heart would stop beating.
Her father rides past. Neither notices the other as each is absorbed in thought.
Now he is entering the Duchess’ parlour just as his wife says to an elderly gentleman, —That’s agreed then.
—What’s agreed? asks the Duke.
—Penelopé will marry Mr Jefferies’ eldest son.
—Will she indeed?
—There’s no other way out of this horrid circumstance.
—Horatio, as I have told you, your daughter – our daughter – has a delicate situation.
—Ah! One that requires marriage?
—Yes, well, Mr Jefferies, you wish your son to marry my daughter?
—I do sir, and, if I may say, not only for the recompense.
The Duchess interjects, —We have agreed certain moneys to facilitate the arrangement.
So Penelopé’s life is being settled as if it were a gambling debt. And what does the young girl feel about this? We don’t know. She says nothing.
As wedding bells peal, puffed-out Penelopé waddles along the aisle on the arm of her father, the dissolute Duke. She looks sweet in her white dress, her bump providing gossip for the congregation. Waiting for her is William Jefferies, son of a distinguished local magistrate and member of the new landed gentry. They say their I do’s and kiss, though passion is lacking and love sadly absent.
With the passing of time we see an older and wiser Penelopé playing with her two young children in the garden of her small cottage. Her eldest boy, James, is not here, which is perhaps fortunate because he is a sullen boy who greatly vexes his mother. But the two little ones are such dears, and her husband William is so kind and thoughtful. She could hardly wish for more.
Here comes her mother, with servants and a hamper. And the Duke? I don’t know where the Duke is. But I presume he is enjoying himself in his usual manner. The children, Mary and Tom, rush to see what their grandmother has brought them, and giggle with glee when a servant opens the hamper. But here we must leave them. I feel we have intruded too long. We won’t say goodbye. They are far too involved in their own lives to bother with anything we say or do.
Samantha Memi lives in London. Her chapbook Kate Moss and Other Heroines was published by Black Scat Books in 2012. Her stories can be found here.