The girl, Lorena, had worn her best clothing, which was poor but clean and not patched or worn. She had been waiting four days to talk to the Duke, who seemed disinclined to hear her case, which would entangle him in the affairs of a neighboring noble, with whom he’d already had disputes and gained ill favor.
This alone would little concern him, but the country’s politics were in turmoil, nobles were being stripped of title and estate, executed and exiled. And the Marquis had powerful friends in court. As a native Scot, the Duke was under a cloud of suspicion due to his birth. Taking the side of a maid trying to claim the birthright of an English nobleman for a bastard Scots get would not endear him down South.
His head housekeeper, Morag, was a woman of good judgement, and he had his man send her to the girl.
“I’ve come to you because I’ve no one else to turn to, and you’ve been a friend to me. I was foolish, and I thought I had paid, but there seems to be more to my debt yet.
I was young, I was 15 and the Marquis noticed me as a housemaid. He bedded me, and I was flattered and happy, and never thought of the consequences, which soon showed in my belly. The housemistress of course would soon dismiss me when it became apparent, so I left of my own accord before.
There was a good man in the village whom I knew cared for me, and he had given me enough favor to where I knew he wanted me as his wife. But he was a quiet, shy man who rarely spoke at all, and not at all on intimate matters, though he was strong and kind and successful in the smithy trade.
I went to him, and I told him of my state. He said nothing, but thought slow and carefully, and then spoke the most words I’d ever heard him speak at once, then or since.
He said he must marry me, to save my name and my family’s name. He never once uttered a word of censure or rebuke towards me, although he spoke of the Marquis as a stoat of a man who deserved hanging or worse.
He said we would tell no one, we would not even post bans, but would elope and take holiday, his partner would tend the smithy and we would away, for a year or more, to his Great Aunt’s in the north of Scotland, who had a manor and was a gentlewoman in some sort, having a yearly stipend and an inheritance of some capital. She would not know exactly when our marriage had taken place, and those left in the South would not know when the babe was born, and after a year or more we would return, and who is to say whether a babe is 18 months or 15 months? Let the tongues wag, it was better than the alternative.
And anyway, a lass a few months along at the alter was not an unknown thing in these parts, and although a subject for gossip and winking, as long as a marriage followed there was not much more to say.
And so we followed that course and came back here, and not its five-years hence. And our boy has grown strong and healthy and keen as a whip, and my man treats me fine and is a good father and provider. And all is as it should be.
I would of course ask you to say nothing of this, but there is more.
You must know the Marquis is not a well man. He may die any week, and surely any year. He has no issue, no wife nor kith nor kin of any kind. Its an oddity indeed, but no cousin, nor distant relative even exists. The title dies with him, and all his lands and title back to the Crown on his death.
So we come to it. It has come to me that I should visit the Marquis, and present his son, who favors him more than a little, and tell him the truth. He knows how I left his employ, and suspects the cause, this I know, for he spoke to me after he heard I’d given notice, and looked me deep in the eyes and pushed a few sovoureigns in my hand as he bade me farewell and Bon Chance.
But this would break my vow to my husband, and if indeed the Marquis takes our son in, it will become known he is, if not cuckhold, then the husband of a soiled piece and father to a bastard, and could hold his head up no more in this district. And I am sure he would also lose his love for me, and would leave me and even his business and his Father’s family and leave the county and this part of country forever in shame.
So there is my choice before me, and I come to you to ask what would you do were you in my shoes?”
The woman Morag thought hard, then answered:
“Well, its a hard burden bairns and women must bear in these dealings, but I think you know what you must do, and I dunno why you even ask this of me.
Of course you must go to the Marquis. For, in time, it must become known to the boy the truth, are you to go throughout your entire life and never tell him the truth? And when the truth be told, he can only be bitter and resentful at losing his birthright, and whatever the future holds for him, be it smithy like his foster father or priest or miller or drunkard, whatever his fate, it can hardly be likely he will end up a wealthy and educated gentleman, as he would be if he were the Marquis’ son and ward.
And surely he will resent you, and hate you for bearing him, if not in poverty, then not in gentility, and this will eat at him, what might have been, and affect every incident that passes in his life, coloured by the glass of what might have been. And yes, he will grow to hate you, and he will leave you. And although your husband may indeed leave you if you take the former course, surely your own blood will leave you if you do not.
I see little choice here, you must go to the Marquis and make of it what you will, what you can.”
She sat back and obscured her face and her reddened eyes by resting behind his hand, so his expression was hard to read.
The girl considered but a second, then said:
“Yes, this has occured to me, and I just wanted it said. And what then? My husband will surely leave, and how will I live. It may be the Marquis will take me in as a domestic to work on his staff, and oversee my boy as I may, for I have no illusion he would take me as his wife or even my mistress, for I am no longer 16, and even if I were, I am a common girl, and a whore besides, in his eyes, although his seduction made me so.
So, thinking it out, it seems I must go to the Marquis, and make his son known to him, and throw myself on his charity, and hope he will take me in as part of his house staff.”
The older woman again sunk in thought to herself:
“Ach, girl, I d’nough envy you working in that house, for the staff will soon learn of your relationship to the Marquis’ new ward, and you will be sorely resented for it.
And your son, as he grows, becomes educated and learns the ways of a gentleman under the Marquis, as long as he lives. It is a hard thing to bear, but the time will come when he becomes ashamed of his mother, and then resents her presence. And the fact of my being will be a rebuke and a reminder of his lowly birth and distaff heritage.”
Morag could only hint at this to the girl, and she responded gamely.
“I know this. And it would be like a dagger in my heart to see his resentment where there is only love and adoration in his eyes now. I canna bear that. But, I must do what I must do.”
“Then I dunna know what to say my dear. I have no answer and no solution. Why indeed have you come to me, when you seem to have all this thought out before?”
“The truth is, I have already been to the Marquis. He has accepted my boy as his rightful heir, and will make it public on the morrow. I have not told my husband, but have left him a note at our house he will find when he returns from work for his dinnner.
I face life without my husband, without my son, with no means to live and the scorn of family and friends for my shame. That is why I come to you for help, in sooth. Not for counsel, although you have always been the best counsel, in this there is but one path, but I dunna have the courage to face it alone. I ask for help, not counsel here.”
“Oh my dear, bear up, bear up! As you have these years in your sorrow!”
“Tis past bearing, and now must I am the one who must be borne. And here is the rope, and I ask you to come with me to your barn, and help me make it fast, and kiss me on my way. For it is the only path left to me, and the most honorable, and most suitable. I came only to the Duke to ask for a Christian burial and safe passage for my son to the Marquis.”
The older woman bowed her head and acquiesced, because she knew all the girl had spoken was true and immutable, and that there was no other course, and she slowly followed the girl to the barn, and her feet were heavy with grief already, for one who was good as dead but who still walked before her.