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The Five-Minute Marriage

Joan Aiken


  Joan Aiken

  Delphie Carteret’s life had not been an easy one. As she struggled to support herself and her mother—the disinherited daughter of a wealthy viscount—she also had to contend with her mother’s illusions that the luxury and grandeur of the past were still within their grasp.

  When Mrs. Carteret becomes seriously ill, Delphie is finally forced to seek help from relatives she has never met. She discovers to her amazement that there is a large inheritance set aside for her—but that an impostor has already claimed it.

  It seems that there is only one way Delphie can obtain even a small part of what is rightfully hers. And so, reluctantly, she agrees to take part in a humiliating charade—a counterfeit marriage to the principal heir, her cousin Gareth. But this attempt at deception backfires when Delphie learns that her five-minute marriage may be legally binding.

  As Gareth’s wife she confronts a very dangerous inheritance. For she has unwittingly involved herself in a web of duplicity and family rivalries that have been festering for generations. And, before long, a shocking episode of Carteret family history will be repeated, threatening not only her own life, but that of the mock husband with whom her fate is inexorably entwined.

  An enchanting novel of mystery and romance set in Regency England.


  “Pa, may we all go too?” sang the pupil on an ascending scale and then, coming down again with more assurance if less intelligibility, “La, pray, see, raw dough’s blue!”

  “Thank you, Miss Smith; you are showing great improvement in your upper notes. And,” said Philadelphia, glancing at the ancient carriage-clock on the mantel, “that will be all we have time for today, I fear.” She looked out through the first-floor window into Greek Street. “Yes—I see your mother coming.”

  Showing considerable relief that the termination of an exacting half-hour had arrived, the pupil quickly gathered her music together and donned her pelisse.

  “Next Thursday, then, Miss Smith, as ever; and do not, this time, forget to practice your aria,” added Philadelphia, casting the pupil into guilty confusion, but then assuaging this by a smile which lightened her rather serious countenance with a sudden transforming flash of gaiety.

  “When I hear you next, I shall expect to feel myself translated to a box at Covent Garden.”

  “Good day, Miss Carteret. I shall not forget again, I promise.” And with a worshiping glance the pupil, who was only three years younger than the instructor, took her departure, congratulating herself on having escaped the trimming she had expected and indeed deserved. But Miss Carteret seemed unusually preoccupied today, and contrived to greet the pupil’s mother, and get rid of the pair, without the lengthy discussion of her daughter’s abilities and progress which Mrs. Smith generally exacted.

  When they were gone, Philadelphia walked swiftly through a communicating door from the room which did duty as combined music room, sleeping chamber, and parlor, into her mother’s room.

  Mrs. Carteret lay resignedly in bed against a pile of pillows. Her gold-gray hair was braided up into neat bands and covered with a cap. The cap, and the peignoir which she had wrapped around her shoulders were trimmed with lace of the very plainest quality, but exquisitely white; likewise the furnishings of the room, though simple, were carefully arranged and most scrupulously clean. A bunch of primroses stood in a blue pot on the bedside table, and the bed-curtains, though faded, were of excellent quality damask, and looked as if they might, perhaps, have descended from some superior establishment.

  “I have to go out, now, Mamma, to give the Browty girls their lesson in Russell Square,” Philadelphia said, leaning over to kiss her mother’s smooth pink cheek. “Shall you be able to manage without me for an hour? Have you all that you require?”

  “Russell Square? Why do you have to go there?” returned her mother with a certain petulance. “In my young days, nobody who was anybody lived in such a neighborhood. Some jumped-up tradesman or cit’s daughters, I apprehend?”

  “The Browtys pay a handsome fee,” answered Philadelphia calmly, taking a bonnet from a drawer and fitting it with care over her smooth nut-brown locks. A pair of large and unusually beautiful almond-shaped gray eyes dispassionately regarded the result in a mirror; the plain bonnet was neither new nor fashionable, and its straw-colored Lyons silk lining showed decided signs of wear; but still it set off her eyes and framed her thin oval face agreeably enough.

  “Why the deuce can’t they come here?” inquired Mrs. Carteret. “Think themselves too good to set foot in the streets of Soho, I suppose?”

  Wisely avoiding a discussion on this irrelevant issue, Philadelphia said, “Now, Mamma, it is only for a little over an hour! I will not dawdle, I promise. And I will bring back some neck of mutton and barley to make a good supporting broth for you—and a few of those little almond cakes of Mme. Lumiere’s that you always enjoy,” she added coaxingly, but Mrs. Carteret was not to be placated, and only remarked in a grumbling manner,

  “Mutton broth! Why must it be that? Why not a nice roast chicken? I am sick to death of mutton broth!”

  “Dr. Button thinks mutton broth is better for you.” Philadelphia refrained from pointing out that in any case they could not afford roast chicken and that her own dinner would probably consist of a boiled egg. “Now, Mamma, while I am gone, please do not you be getting out of bed and playing the piano—or—polishing the silver cream-jug or trying to trim your mantle—or anything else! You are not well enough yet. Will you promise me that?”

  Mrs. Carteret’s pretty pink-and-white face assumed an expression of martyred discontent.

  “Why may I not? I could at least do some needlework in bed, Delphie! If you bought me a small quantity of cambric I could be making myself a new cap and jacket; these ones are so old and worn I am ashamed to face the doctor in them; I declare I have been wearing them forever!”

  “Well, I will bring you back some cambric, Mamma, but you are not to be making it up yourself; you know Dr. Button said you should not undergo the least exertion, because of your heart. But I will try to find time to make you a new jacket this evening, when I have finished my last lesson.”

  “You do it? A sad botched job you would make of it,” sniffed Mrs. Carteret. “You know you have no more notion of fine needlework than a July cuckoo!”

  “Well then I will get Jenny Baggott to help me—shall I?”

  “That vulgar creature—oh, very well! Stay, while I think of it—a piece of jaconet might be better than cambric.”

  “What color?”

  “Humph; I am tired of white; what say you to pearl gray?”

  “I think you would look charming in pearl gray, Mamma.”

  “Or no—I believe I prefer lavender. I think I will ask you to procure me a piece of lavender jaconet; or do you think that might fade? Perhaps it had better be rose pink—”

  Concealing her impatience to be gone, Philadelphia encouraged her mother to settle for the original pearl gray.

  “Now, shall I ask Jenny Baggott to step up and play a hand or two of cribbage with you while I am gone? She is the most good-natured creature in the world; I am sure she would contrive to find the time if you wish it?”

  “Certainly not! Her voice is so loud that it goes through my head like a brass gong. I shall just lie here,” said Mrs. Carteret in a melancholy voice, “I shall just lie here and entertain myself by recollecting the better times that are passed away forever.”

  “Would you care to read?” suggested Philadelphia. “Here is Rasselas; or the Spectator; or the poems of Pope—”

  “No, thank you, dear; I do not have the energy to be holding a book; besides, my head aches too badly to be able to concentr
ate on those works. If it were something by Mrs. Radcliffe, now—something a little more entertaining—”

  “I will try to get you Sir Charles Grandison or Udolpho from the circulating library,” offered Philadelphia. “So you will have something to look forward to. Now I must run, or I shall be late. Mind you stay snug in bed, Mamma, for the wind blows cold today, though it is nearly May.”

  An expression compounded of rebellion and cunning appeared on the elder lady’s face at this request, but she only replied,

  “Pile up the fire, then, child.”

  “The fire is well enough,” said Philadelphia, glancing at the modest pile of coal as she put on her shawl.

  “Do not you be walking to Russell Square, now, Philadelphia!” said Mrs. Carteret. “It is not at all the thing for you to be arriving on foot to give your lessons. What will the servants at the house think of you? You must take a chair, Delphie—you must indeed—otherwise you will be quite blowsy and blown about—you will look like a kitchenmaid and will be directed to the back door!”

  “Do not exercise yourself on that head, Mamma; the manservant at the Browtys’ house knows me well, and I am always treated with the most distinguishing civility,” Delphie answered calmly, and she escaped from the room before her mother could think up any further reasons for arguing and delaying her departure.

  The stairs from their apartments led down through a millinery shop which occupied the ground floor of the premises, and here Delphie stopped to speak to the aforementioned Miss Jenny Baggott, who stood serving behind the counter. She was a black-eyed, bright-complexioned, good-humored-looking personage in her early thirties, whose yellow-spotted lilac gown was very gorgeous, and whose glossy black hair was arranged in a row of small curls like snails across her forehead.

  “Well there, Miss Delphie! I was meaning to step up and say good day to your Ma this two hours agone, but we have been that busy this morning, you can’t think! I have been obliged to help Sister ever since we opened the shop, and she has just slipped out for a morsel of ham and a pint of porter. But if you would like me to run up and sit with your poor dear Ma when Anne comes back, only say the word and I’ll do it in a moment, for you know I am always happy to oblige.”

  “You are the best good creature in the world, Jenny—but Mamma is inclined to rest today, and I believe we need not trouble you,” Philadelphia said with real gratitude.

  “Why, it’s no trouble, my dearie! You know I am always happy to sit with her. Even when she goes on a bit twitty and cantankerous, it’s such an education to listen to her lovely ladylike way of speaking! I often say to Sis, ‘Anne, you ought to pay more heed to Mrs. Carteret, then you wouldn’t speak out so rough, the way you do.’ Well, I’ll just pop up presently with a cup of tea or a little bowl of bread-jelly for her, shall I?”

  “I am sure she would be very much obliged—but you do too much for us, Jenny.”

  “Nothing would be too much trouble after all those beautiful lessons you’ve given me, and not charged a penny. My gentleman friend Mr. Swannup is used to say you’ve taught me to sing like a nightingale—and you with two things to do every blessed minute of the day,” said Jenny vehemently. “The very instant Sis comes back I’ll just step up and ask if there’s anything the old lady would like.”

  “Pray don’t trouble to do more than just peep in—I am in hopes she may doze off. She was in one of her quirky moods, and that generally means she is tired,” Delphie said. “But I would be very much obliged, Jenny, if you would make certain that she does not try to get out of doors. You know how independent she is! And, I fear, since her illness, not wholly reasonable; she will not be brought to understand that there are some things she cannot do any more.”

  “I’ll keep an eye on the poor dear lady,” promised Jenny. “She shan’t go out! Nor I won’t let her buy twenty yards of violet satin from Sis, like she tried to the other week, nor order half a dozen ducklings from the poulterer, nor send for a hackney carriage to take her to Allardyce’s library or the Pantheon. I’m up to all her tricks, Miss Delphie, believe me, and she shan’t get away so long as I’m in the shop.”

  “Thank you—that is a great weight off my mind!” said Delphie, with her sudden flashing smile, which revealed two wholly unexpected dimples in her thin oval cheek.

  Jenny beamed back at her and turned to measure a breadth of muslin for a waiting customer.

  As soon as she was out on the pavement the smile left Philadelphia’s face, to be replaced by a look of anxious preoccupation. She knew her mother’s willful ways; and she also knew that, good-hearted and well-meaning though Jenny was, watchful though she intended to be, she was also the most impulsive creature in the world, easily tempted into the street by any interesting commotion or sound outside; during which periods, if her sister Anne was not at hand, customers were free to help themselves to caps or shawls, gloves or laces, should they choose to do so.

  It occurred to Philadelphia, whose intelligence was of a humorous turn, and who dearly loved such absurdities and anomalies, that during the last half-hour she had received three earnest promises: from Miss Smith, to practice her aria; from Mrs. Carteret, to stay in bed; and from Jenny, to keep an eye on her mother. It seemed to her that all three promises had about as much chance of fulfillment as that lilies should spring up through the cobbles of Greek Street, along which lively and crowded thoroughfare she was now making her rapid way in a northerly direction toward St. Giles’ Circus.

  She would have been even more certain of this hypothesis could she have seen her mother at that moment. For Mrs. Carteret had not waited more than two minutes after she heard her daughter reach the foot of the stair to jump quietly out of bed and pull aside the curtain in the corner behind which her clothes were kept; having got herself into her stockings and petticoat, she was now deliberating between a dove-colored velvet dress with a worn breadth in it, and one of tabby-striped silk, rather finer, but not nearly warm enough for the sharp spring day. After a short period of consideration, Mrs. Carteret decided on the silk, and replaced the velvet dress behind the curtain, from which a strong smell of Tonkin beans emanated.

  Then she began carefully and expertly doing her hair.

  The fifteen-year-old Miss Lydia Browty had no great talent for music, but she was a painstaking child, and devoted to her teacher; Delphie was pleased to find how assiduously she had been practicing, and the lesson went well. It was always a pleasure, too, for Delphie to have a chance to play the Browtys’ pianoforte, which was an extremely handsome and brand-new instrument from Broadwoods with a most excellent tone. Mr. Browty, a nabob who had acquired a very comfortable fortune during twenty years in Calcutta, had recently returned home to establish himself in town and enjoy the fruits of his labors. He was a widower, his wife having succumbed to the adverse climate of the East, but had two daughters in their teens who were delighted to be removed from the young ladies’ seminary to which they had been dispatched at an early age, and to provide the necessary feminine element in their Papa’s London establishment.

  At the end of Lydia’s lesson (Miss Charlotte being confined to bed with a cold) Mr. Browty himself came surging into the large and elegantly appointed music room, as if he had been waiting impatiently for the sounds of singing to die away.

  “Hey-day, Miss Carteret! How d’ye do! Good day to ye! (No need, indeed, to ask how you do, eyes sparkling like diamonds as usual!) How’s my Lyddy coming along, now? Learning to tirra-lirra like a regular operatic signorina, is she, hey?”

  Delphie truthfully replied that Miss Lydia was taking great pains with her music and making excellent progress, at which the fond father beamed affably on pupil and teacher alike. Delphie smiled back at him. She had a great liking for Mr. Browty, who, in spite of his large fortune and impressive City connections, was a plain, unassuming man. His complexion was somewhat yellow, due to his years in the East, and his thick hair was grizzled to a salt-and-pepper color. He was not handsome, but his eyes were clear and direct, and
his expression both shrewd and good-natured. He was far from fashionable: today he wore a full-skirted coat of drab-colored broadcloth, drab knee breeches, and old-fashioned square buckled shoes, with a white neckcloth and a mustard-colored waistcoat, whereas his daughters French cambric dress was in the height of the current mode.

  “Hark-ee, Miss Philadelphia—hey, hey, shouldn’t call you that, should I—to tell the truth I caught the trick from Puss here—’ Delphie said calmly that nothing could give her greater pleasure and it made her feel quite like one of the family.

  “Just what I feel too,” he said, beaming, “and what I had in mind when I took the notion to approach you with this plan—”

  “It was my idea, Pa!” interjected Miss Lydia.

  “Hush, Puss, and let me make all plain to Miss Carteret without any roundaboutation. The gals and I, Miss Carteret, have taken a notion to run over to Paris next Tuesday, for a few weeks, now the wars over and we can all get about again with Boney safe under hatches. And what we are hoping is that you might see your way to come along with us, so the girls need not miss their lessons. Not only that—we’d value your company, for I’m but a creaky old stick when it comes to escorting the young misses around, and know little of museums and milliners and such feminine fripperies. Whereas you are quite the lady and can tell my pusses how to go on in every kind of way.

  “Besides which, Lyddy tells me you speak capital French, while I can’t parleyvoo to save my life, and I don’t believe Lyddy and Charlie are much better, despite all those years at Miss Minchin’s! So how about it, hey? Will you give us the benefit of your presence, Miss Philadelphia? We’d dearly like to have you with us. I’d guarantee to treat you as one of my own, and,” Mr. Browty said emphatically, “you’d not lose on it, for I’d reimburse you on any lessons you’d be obliged to miss over here. I’m very certain you deserve a little holiday, so hardworking as you are!”