Emilia’s mind was clouded with series of thoughts as the carriage rode smoothly. Only the faint sound of the horses’ hooves on the cobbled road kept her aware of her surroundings. She kept opening the curtain to peek through the window occasionally to see if they were at the house yet but they were not. Sitting restlessly, she began to think about why Matilda had summoned her from school. Several questions ran through her mind. Was all well? Was Lacy in trouble? Had Thomas eaten something bad and fallen ill? No good reason or answer seemed to settle on her mind or ease her anxiety.
She heard the gates being opened and the carriage rode up the flowered path towards the house. The carriage had not fully halted when she flung the door open, not waiting for the door man to do his job. She leapt out of the carriage and ran up the steps to the house. The door man and guard who was sprawled on a chair by the door, dozing under his hat which had shifted down over his eyes suddenly sprang to his feet at the sound of the hurrying approaching footsteps.
“Milady!” he stammered and quickly opened the door with a low bow.
Emilia acknowledged him with a nod, wondering why he didn’t greet her with his usual smile. Anxiously, she ran through the door and half walked ad ran through the hallway where she almost hurried into Festus as her heels echoed in the quiet hall.
“Milady!” he gave a low bow, his hands behind him. His face tensed as if he was trying to hide something.
“Festus!” she said breathlessly.
“You came just in time, milady.” He said.
She glanced around noticing there were hardly any maids or servants in sight. “Where is everyone? Why is the house so quiet?… Where is Matilda?”
“This way milady.” He gestured with his arms towards the doors opposite them. Holding her breath, Emilia waited as he opened the door to a small living room. she stepped in, her skirts riffling.
Matilda stood before a large window, dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief while Lacy was seating on a sofa with a red nose and her swollen eyes.
Her face was streaked with tears, she kept sniffling and her shoulders shook as she sobbed, more tears flowing down her face. Even the ferret curled up in a corner didn’t look cheerful.
It raised its head to look at Emilia, hissed and made small whimpering noises then placed its head back on the soft frayed sofa pillow.
“What’s going on?” Emilia glanced from Festus to Matilda. When none made attempts to reply she almost yelled. “Matilda, tell me what is wrong!”
The old woman said in a teary voice. “I’m so sorry, dear.”
“Sorry?” she seemed more confused. “Would you all stop scaring me and tell me what’s going on this instant!”
Matilda picked a broken envelope from the table and presented it to Emilia who gently collected it, hesitating to pull the letter out. “What’s this?”
“It came in this morning. It’s from Lord Williams.”
Quickly, Emilia pulled the letter out and unfolded it. She glanced at the people around her briefly, dreading a bad news. She sighed and began to read, her eyes going back and forth on the scribbled handwriting of Lord William.
Her lower lip quivered as she continued and soon the letter began to shake in her trembling hands. “…No…no… no” she cried out. The letter slowly floated to the floor from her hands. She staggered as tears spilled down her face, Festus caught her quickly.
Shaking her head slowly in disbelieve, all the bones in her body turning to liquid, she released herself helplessly against Festus who was straining slightly from her weight and quickly helped her sit as she pointed to the letter. “Tell me that letter is not real.
Matilda, I beseech you to tell me please…”
“It is true. The Duchess is dead, dear.” Matilda answered amidst tears.
Emilia lost control then. She let out a shriek of sorrow surprising everyone that even Thomas leapt from his perch and darted out of the room. she doubled over, wrapping her arms around her stomach, rocking back and forth crying helplessly. “Why?” she asked nobody in particular. “Why now? She was like a mother. Why now? I was going to make her proud of me. I was going to make the debut into the society she promised me wonderful… I didn’t even get the chance to say goodbye.”
Matilda approached her with a handkerchief. “Take heart dear… do pull yourself together. Only God can place answers to the questions that are beyond us. At least, she rests now with the Duke.” She sat down beside her trying to pull her into her bosom.
“No… no…” she refused, trying to push Matilda away. The ferret slowly crept back into the room, after taking a peek. Eyeing everyone especially Emilia who had made its hair stand on end, then it slowly settled down at Lacy’s feet.
“Comfort yourself Emilia. We have to go home now child, we have to.”
Surrendering to her emotions, she buried her face on the woman’s shoulder, her shoulders shaking with every sob. Lacy blew her nose into her handkerchief while the Ferret whimpered.
Still trembling with her eyes red in tears, Emilia turned to look up at Festus, her hand grasping Matilda’s arm. “Tell everyone to start packing except the butler and his particular servants, they are to remain in this estate and run it till I am back. Inform the others we live for home, tomorrow.”
“Yes milady!” Festus gave a bow and exited the room.
The banquet hall was filled to its extreme with guests of honourable ranks in the society. There were more than enough food and drinks to go round. Entertainers like jugglers, acrobatic dancers and musicians entertained the guests. The hall was noisy and lively with different activities going on here and there. Some young ladies huddled together discussing the mass of wealth that would soon be bequeathed to Lord Williams and how lucky he was from rising from the rank of an Earl to a Duke.
They thought of who his lucky bride would be and secretly longed to be the fortunate ones. Some of them had even been casting flirty smiles and secret winks across the hall at him while he exchanged greetings with a couple and a viscount who offered their sincere condolences.
A guard walked into the hall, who after roving and glancing around found Lord Williams with some of his guests. He bowed to them all after approaching him. When Lord William beckoned him to come closer with two ringed fingers, he drew nearer and whispered something to him which made him frown then dismissed him. Soon the main doors loudly opened and Lord Williams turned as Emilia Flounced in and stopped dead in her tracks when she saw all the guests.
The guests who had also noticed her presence all stopped what they were doing, most of them turning to admire her beauty. The noise in the hall slowly died down when they noticed her blushing in surprise mixed in embarrassment and the tension in the air. Even the entertainers paused what they were doing till the hall was finally as quiet as a grave yard. Emilia couldn’t believe her eyes. She had seen the different coaches parked in the courtyard and was wondering what was happening but she wasn’t prepared for what great number of people stood before her very eyes now.
She wanted to turn and flee but saw Lord Williams who wasn’t pleased with the sudden uncomfortable silence making his way through the crowd towards her as she also felt Festus and Matilda come in behind her. “Lord William!” she said coolly when he finally reached her.
“Milady!” he took her hand to kiss it but she jerked it away.
“What’s happening here?” her voice echoed in the hall. “What’s going on here? I demand an explanation now!” she almost yelled as her gaze swept the large number of guests again.
“I was not expecting you until the morrow!” he said, trying to hide his disappointment.
Emilia frowned, her anger kindling within her. “That is not the answer to my question.”
Wearing a winsome smile, he gestured with his arm towards the watching guests. “These honourable people have chosen to honour us with their presence, support and condolences.”
“And… why do they feast?”
Lord William rocked on his heels and cleared his throat. “We mourn and celebrate the Duchess.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“The Duchess was buried this morning and…” Before he could finish his sentence, an unexpected slap landed on his cheek.
The guests gasped while some murmured to one another at the embarrassing act, even Lord William’s jaw flexed in anger, his face turning a shade of red.
“How dare you! How could you do such a barbaric thing? You insolent self-centred furtive! What right have you to bury my aunt in my absence, disregarding my personality…” She trembled in outspoken rage. “I will never forgive you for this betrayal! I will never forgive you for this!” she lunged at him but he stepped out of reach while she was quickly held back by Matilda and Festus who were wise enough to lead her away before she caused any more embarrassment for herself and Lord William.
Composing himself and feeling inside his mouth with his tongue behind the cheek where Emilia had struck him, he turned to face the crowd with one of his best reassuring smiles. Spreading his arms, he announced. “I apologize on my Cousin’s behalf. She is only grieved and acted irrational. Women turn babies overnight on what they can’t handle.” Most of the guests laughed. “We shouldn’t let this little display of uncontrolled emotions ruin the night, please do continue! Make merry!”
Immediately, the entertainers continued, the sound of music filled the hall and the guests joined, some of them discussing about the incident that just took place while the young ladies scorned Emilia’s act and praised Lord William for his gentlemanly manners.
Lord William gulped down a goblet of wine he took from a serving servant and swallowed hard. His gaze was fixed on the closed doors through which Emilia had just been taken away by her lady-in-waiting and Steward. His cheek burned just as he burned with fuelling rage at his piqued pride.
She would pay for this! He thought to himself. She would definitely pay for embarrassing him so.
“The child I have known ever since she started her bleeding wouldn’t do what she just did a few minutes ago!” scolded Matilda. “Did you see yourself act? Attacking a well-respected man? That was hysterical, Emilia! Whatever came over you!”
Emilia fumbled with the pins in her hair, yanking them out, bereft of words. Her past deed was just dawning on her but she did not fully regret her actions. “I’m sorry Matilda, I just went berserk with rage.” She said calmly as Matilda began to help her undo her gown. “But how could he have done something of such? It was a slap on my face commencing the burial of my aunt without first seeking my concurrence. He just casted me out of his plans as if I was not a member of the family. What he did was uncalled for… absolute wickedness I will say!”
“I do not dispute that but a lady of your status and charisma shouldn’t have acted so heedlessly before a hall of esteemed people.”
Emilia sighed. “I wasn’t thinking Matilda. I only acted on first impulse. It just hurts to know that he intentionally denied me the last minutes I deserve with the Duchess, my aunt. It was just so fiendish and thoughtless of him.”
“You constituted a nuisance out there!” Matilda chided. “Tonight, after the guests depart, you will go to Lord William and apologize for your uncouth attitude.”
“I will do no such thing to that vile, inconsiderate man!” she snapped. “I’m not even sorry I did what I did to him. Heaven knows he deserved what he got!”
“You still don’t understand the consequences of what you did, Emilia, do you? You don’t understand the embarrassment you caused him. People will talk. The rumour will float on every lip for days. You are tarnishing your reputation dear.”
“I am still grieved, Matilda. I will like some time of peace and quiet to myself.” She said as she sat on the bed and swung the covers over her body, laid down her head on the pillow, releasing a deep sigh.
“Ruminate on what we have discussed, dear. Think on it!” Matilda smoothed Emilia’s furrowed brows and exited the room.
Emilia hesitated. She rubbed the chill off her arms as she pulled the shawl around her shoulders tightly. She swallowed hard, composing herself and trying to muster courage to prove to herself that what she was about to do was the right thing. She reached for the door once again, folded her knuckles and softly rapped on the door of the study this time before she had second thoughts and changed her mind.
Lord William replied without looking up from what he was writing at the desk. “You may enter.”
The door opened and Emilia stepped in. Lord William looked up and straightened himself in his seat. “Still got some lava you would like to dislodge on me?”
Emilia ignored him. As much as she despised the man she still had to come do what Matilda had bid her to do and leave. “I only came to give my apologies for what transpired between us in the hall, earlier today.”
There was a brief moment of silence as he thumbed his beard chin for a while as if considering her apology. Then he stood up and came around to meet her. “No offense taken, milady. I understand you were grieved that was why you acted the way you did.”
She was a little bit pleased that at least, the knuckle-head had some tiny bits of brain left in his head even though she knew he was playing the gentleman and not being his real self. She was not through with him yet though.
She still wanted to scream at him, she wanted to pummel him to dust, she wanted to rake his deceitful face with her nails for burying the Duchess in her absence but she let the thought pass. They would settle their differences some other time but now was definitely not the time. He sat on the edge of the desk, regarding her.
“I will be travelling back to Minxes this weekend.” She broke the silence. “I have a month left to finish up my education.”
“I will advise you not to tarry longer.” He said. “The family lawyer arrives on July 16th, that’s in six weeks’ time. I received his letter a few minutes ago.”
Emilia could pick the hint of pride in his voice. What an insolent, covetous wretch! So eager to have the wealth bequeathed to him. She cared less though because she was satisfied with the little the Duchess had given her before her sudden death. “I will keep that in mind.” She simply said. “I hope to return before the supposed date.”
“Excellent!” he remarked. “It is sorted out already. I just don’t want you missing out on anything. You are a very important part of the family.”
Indeed! How sly of him. He didn’t think of that before burying the Duchess in her absence. Self-cantered bastard! “I take my leave now.” She said, turning to leave, already disgusted with his attitude but a clasp on her wrist stopped her.
She spun around. Her eyes travelled from the hand clasping her wrist to his face. He stood up before her, his eyes boring into hers. She could feel his breath against her cheek for he was unbearably close for comfort and she didn’t like what she saw in his eyes. It was glazed with familiar lust.
“Beloved cousin…” He began. “The passing away of our aunt should be a tool to pull us closer because this is when we need each other the most for comfort.” He wet his lower lip, his eyes roving her body with a leer. “We can’t silently continue to nurse a rift between us.”
He said so politely and harmlessly that Emilia almost felt guilty and accept his suggestion. She just wasn’t comfortable with his closeness. She could even smell the whisky on his breath.
His fingers caressing her arm jolted her back to reality. “I believe I was on my way out.” She said. With a feeling of discomfort, she turned to leave. He pulled her back this time and she didn’t see it coming as he planted his lips firmly on hers.
She was devastated and speechless as she suddenly clouded with rage. She shoved him away making him stagger backwards halting against his desk, the look of pleasure and satisfaction still lingering in his eyes as he watched her wipe her lips with her arm, clearly disgusted.
The impudent rake had just defiled and stolen her first kiss. She hated the smug look on his face and would have raked out at his face if only to tear his smirk to shreds.
“How dare you!” she snapped. “How dare you defile me!”
The smile lingered on the corner of his lips. “It was just a kiss, Emilia.” He pronounced her name for the very first time without her title sensually. “I can’t wait to discover the pleasure your chaste body keeps.” He swept her a mocking bow.
She would have offered him a resounding slap if not because that was the very reason she had come to apologize for in the first place.
“You are despicable!” she simply stated bitterly, whirled around flounced out of the study, then down the hall bristling in rage.
So much for coming to apologize to the insolent Lord!
To be continued…
© Angela Okoduwa