The gambling had been going on all day and into the evening. Now, it was approaching midnight, and they were still at it. Elizabeth had tried to reason with her husband, but he had merely hauled her onto his lap, breathing wine-sodden fumes into her face, pinching her cheek, and making the group of men laugh.
“By Jove, Palmer, if you want to bed the gel, just take her upstairs, don’t mind us!”
They all guffawed loudly, braying like donkeys. Elizabeth felt her face flush with embarrassed colour at the allusion to the bedroom.
Her husband, Lord Palmer, sneered at her reaction. "Maybe I'll just take her over the table," he shouted, and the other men all erupted with laughter. Elizabeth extricated herself with difficulty, running from the room, their laughter echoing in her ears.
She sobbed and stumbled on the stairs, hastily escaping the obnoxious gathering. Picking up her skirts, she took the remaining stairs quickly and ran along the corridor to the nursery where her small daughter was sleeping, watched over by her nurse, Mrs Crooke.
By the light of a single candle on the nearby table, she could see little Margaret asleep, as only young children can be, on her back, arms flung out, head on one side, tiny mouth open, utterly oblivious to her mother's distress. Satisfied that she was sleeping soundly, she nodded to Mrs Crooke and withdrew quietly to her room further down the corridor.
She felt unutterably depressed. How had she managed to get into this situation? She came from a good family, not Suffolk landed gentry like William, but from two generations of successful farmers who had made money through sheep. They had reared a new breed in Bury St. Edmunds, resulting from cross-breeding Norfolk Horn ewes with Southdown rams. The distinctive black-faced
Suffolk sheep was created, raised primarily for its meat, but then its wool became known for its durability, and the family fortunes rocketed.
William's father had been a wastrel, gambling away the Palmer family assets, and his son was proving to be the same. He had a weakness for cards, drink and women, not necessarily in that order, but all three proved to drain Elizabeth's dowry. Soon, the only asset they would have left would be the family home. She sat heavily in one of the Queen Anne chairs, leaning back and staring at the ceiling. She had tried to remonstrate with William many times, but the discussions escalated into full-blown shouting matches, sometimes culminating in William striking her. He would be the ruin of them; her only hope was that he would either drink himself to death, have a hunting accident, or drop dead of apoplexy.
She gave herself a mental shake; no point in ruminating on what could not be changed. Time to go to bed and try and get some sleep. Elizabeth got up and, crossing the thickly carpeted room, rang the bell for her maid.
She awoke the following morning to a grey, overcast day, the lowering skies threatening rain and maybe even a sprinkling of snow.
She got out of bed, anticipating a morning of cleaning up the detritus of last night's card game and dealing with her hungover husband.
After breakfast in bed, her maid, Alice, dressed her. After checking in on little Margaret, who was single-mindedly applying herself to coddled egg and toast supervised benignly by Mrs Crooke, Elizabeth descended to the lower floor.
She expected chaos to greet her, but the servants had quietly been at work, and all vestiges of the bacchanal evening had been dealt with.
Elizabeth walked from room to room, searching for her husband. She eventually located him in his study, sitting in his swivel chair, staring morosely at some papers on his desk. A steaming cup of coffee sat by his right hand, with an uneaten bread roll nearby. She hesitated, not wanting to interrupt him but wanting to know the outcome of the evening. She knocked softly on the door frame, bracing herself for his wrath, possibly some well-chosen oaths, but he didn't react. She knocked again, louder. William's head rose slowly, and he turned in his chair to look at her.
Elizabeth drew a sharp breath. The look on her husband's face was one she'd never seen before. Usually, after his drunken soirees, he was defensive to the point of belligerence, but the expression on his face was one of shame; sorrow even. He looked at her, then down at the floor, looking for the whole world like a naughty schoolboy brought before the headmaster for some misdemeanour.
Suddenly, Elizabeth wanted to avoid hearing what William would say. She felt as if the temperature in the room had fallen several degrees despite the cheerful fire burning in the grate.
William sniffed, wiped a finger under his nose, sniffed again and began fiddling with the points of his waistcoat, not meeting her eye.
“William?” She whispered. “William, what is it?”
He cleared his throat with a noise like tearing cloth. Margaret could see that he didn't want to tell her what he had to say, and that frightened her more than if he had shouted, sworn or thrown things at her.
“William!” She hissed his name through frozen lips.
He slowly raised his eyes to meet hers, and to her horror, she saw tears in them.
“Oh God, what have you done?”
He shook his head, and the tears overflowed, spilling down his florid cheeks.
Elizabeth felt numb. A ringing had started in her ears, and the light in the room seemed to flicker.
“What have you done?” She breathed, feeling her heart flutter, dreading the answer.
“I’m sorry, Elizabeth.” He blinked back the tears.
“Sorry, for what?”
“For what I have done to you and Margaret.” He gulped, wiping a finger under his nose again.
“I repeat, what have you done?”
"There was nothing else I could do; I had no money left; I didn't want to risk losing the house, and all your jewellery has already gone-" He was almost gabbling in his haste to explain. "There was nothing else I could do; no creditor will touch me-"
“What did you DO?!” Elizabeth shouted at him, fists clenched against the front of her skirts.
William clasped his hands over his head and began rocking backwards and forwards.
Elizabeth shot forward and grabbed his hands, forcing him to look at her.
“Beardsley, you’re his now.”
William’s head slumped forward. “I sold you and Margaret to Beardsley.” Elizabeth could barely make out the words.
She released his hands as if they burned her. She staggered back until the wall brought her up short. She stood, feeling the solidity of it behind her, thinking she would vomit on the spot. She laid the palms of her hands on the plaster, the coolness seeping into her hands, thinking that if she let go, she would spin out of control.
William continued to weep, covering his face with his hands, his elbows resting on his knees. Neither of them spoke.
Elizabeth heard the clock ticking on the mantelpiece, the crackling of the fire, and the snuffling sounds made by her husband. Her face felt clammy, but perspiration had broken out on her forehead. She could see dust motes swirling in a beam of watery sunlight breaking through the window and knew that life would never be the same again. She swallowed with difficulty, running her tongue around the dryness of her mouth, trying to generate some saliva before speaking.
“Beardsley?” She croaked.
William nodded, still weeping, not looking at her.
He nodded again, wiping the back of his hand under his nose.
Septimus Beardsley. One of her husband’s gambling friends. A man of medium height, dark wavy hair, thick black eyebrows framing dark brown eyes above a hooked nose and a close-clipped beard. The first time she met him, she had been aware of those dark eyes, sweeping up and down before finally resting on her face. Whenever he had visited, she had felt that scrutiny. He had never done anything improper, but she had always been uncomfortable in his company, aware of the dark gaze following her around the room. He had spoken less than half a dozen words to her in the nearly three years she had been married to William, always polite and differential, but the weight of his regard had made her skin prickle. The only time they had touched was when he had kissed the back of her hand one Christmas, holding onto it for a trifle too long. In her memory, she could still feel his breath on her skin as he had placed his lips on her knuckles. She had resisted the urge to snatch her hand away, instead fixing a smile upon her face, hoping that the dislike didn’t show in her eyes.
This man, this stranger who had made her feel uncomfortable, owned her. A thought flashed into her mind, what was to become of Margaret?
“What is to become of Margaret?” she demanded.
William slowly sat up in his chair, his face contorted with grief. “She is to go with you.”
Elizabeth felt her knees buckle with relief. For one terrible moment, she thought she was to be separated from her only child.
“Beardsley wants her as well?” Not that she wasn’t grateful, but she was surprised.
William said nothing, just nodded miserably.
“How could you?” she asked.
Her husband winced as if she had shouted the words. His shoulders slumped in shame. "I was drunk, I lost count of the cards, and I, I…" he spread his hands, palms upwards in a helpless gesture.
“I’m your wife, for God's sake! Not your horse! Margaret and I are not chattels to be bartered away! Do we mean nothing to you?” She spat the last words.
“I was insensible with drink, woman! These things happen!” Now he was shouting, angry in his guilt.
“These things happen? These things happen?!" She felt capable of murder at that moment, and William, correctly divining her thoughts, leapt up from his chair and took a few steps towards the window.
“I’m your husband, and if I say you go, you go, or stay, you stay. Therefore you will-“
“No! You are no longer my husband, remember? You have no dominion over me, so I do NOT have to obey you!” Elizabeth strode over to the bell rope hanging to the left of the fireplace and pulled it hard. Within a few minutes, the footman Brownlow appeared.
Elizabeth turned to him. "Brownlow, please be so kind as to get one of the lads from the stables to saddle a horse. I have a note to go to Mr Beardsley's house. Thank you."
Brownlow disappeared whilst Elizabeth walked over to William's desk and, pulling a sheet of paper towards her, dipped the quill in the ink pot and dashed a quick message to Mr Beardsley. She stuffed an envelope, applied sealing wax to the back of it from the mould sitting over the candle next to the writing implements and, rising, rang the bell again.
The ubiquitous Brownlow reappeared, collected the note and immediately gave it to one of the stable lads ready to ride the few miles to the Beardsley estate.
Elizabeth looked bleakly at William. "I have requested that Mr Beardsley ride here this evening for dinner. I shall have a private interview with him then and hear in his own words what transpired last night. No!" She held up her hand as William began to argue, "I wish to speak to him. As you say, you were insensible with drink, so how do I know that what you say is true?" She nodded once at him briefly and departed with what little dignity she had left.
For the remainder of the day, Elizabeth kept to the nursery. She played with Margaret, even teaching her a few colours. Mrs Crooke seemed puzzled at first by this attention; usually, her mistress went for a walk in the mornings, leaving the little one in her charge, only popping her head in around lunchtime. Still, she was pleased to see mother and daughter chattering together, dark heads bent over a small slate on which the mistress was writing words.
In the early evening, Elizabeth heard the sound she had been dreading all day, the clop of horse's hooves coming up the gravel driveway, and she fumbled with the necklace she had selected to wear to dinner. Her maid came forward and tied the ribbon behind her neck, smiling at her mistress in the mirror. Elizabeth nodded her thanks, then gathered her gloves, dimly noting how badly her hands were shaking.
On descending the stairs, she could hear the murmur of men's voices coming from the sitting room. Taking a deep breath, she pushed the door open. Both men got to their feet as she entered, Mr Beardsley more quickly than William, she noted. Mr Beardsley bowed politely, glancing at William as he did so, then back to her. He came forward to greet her.
“Good evening Lady Palmer; what a lovely surprise to receive your dinner invitation." Beardsley smiled at her without any trace of irony.
She gave him what she hoped was a believable smile and gestured for him to resume his seat.
Once they were all settled, she thought she would grasp the proverbial nettle and get straight to the point.
"My husband tells me you had a game of cards last night where he made a stake he couldn't honour. In place of this, I understand that the wager offered was myself and my daughter. Is that correct?”
Beardsley shot a look at William, but the latter merely looked at a spot on the thick Persian rug. Beardsley took a deep breath, then blew it out, replying, "ah yes, that is correct, Lady Palmer. Unfortunately, your husband made a wager that he couldn't meet. To avoid welching on that, he offered me this house," Beardsley waived a long-fingered at their surroundings, "however, I proposed an alternative payment. You.” Beardsley’s dark eyes fixed on Elizabeth’s. She felt the hairs on her forearms ripple.
“Surely this cannot be legal?”
“The wager was made before witnesses, and so was the agreement.”
A heavy silence descended upon the room.
Elizabeth couldn’t believe her ears. Just like that, her fate and that of her daughter had been discussed and sealed over a game of cards.
"I wish to consult with our solicitor. This is reprehensible; it cannot-"
Beardsley held up his left hand, reaching into his breast pocket with his right withdrawing a piece of paper, folded three times.
Without speaking, he leaned over and handed it to her.
Elizabeth unfolded the paper with trembling hands. It was a contract, short and to the point. It was a promise to transfer herself and Margaret over to Beardsley as their new owner in place of a wager on a game of cards. The document was signed by both men and dated last night. She felt as if she would be sick. Lights began flashing before her eyes her hearing became muffled as the room swam before her.
She came around a few minutes later, lying on the thick carpet, Beardsley kneeling beside her holding her hand. She could dimly make out William pouring himself a glass of claret. How typical of him to think of himself first. Beardsley, conversely, never left her side, rubbing her cold hands between his and murmuring insignificant nothings to her as you would to a skittish horse. Some dim recess of her brain was impressed with his attention.
“William, you might wish to attend to your wife.”
“She’s your wife now,” Palmer rasped, “not my problem.”
Beardsley exchanged a meaningful look with Elizabeth. The statement was not lost on either of them.
“Do you feel well enough to get up?” He smiled kindly down at her.
To answer his question, she pushed herself into a sitting position and got to her feet, taking his outstretched hand. The room tipped on its axis, wobbled, and then righted itself. Elizabeth became aware she was still holding Beardsley's hand and hastily detached herself, smiling at him to take the sting out of the gesture.
Beardsley bowed to her, then resumed his seat.
“So,” rasped William, “you will take her then?”
“Of course,” Beardsley replied, smiling at Elizabeth as he did so.
Inside she was seething. How dare they? Trading her like she was a horse, a cow, or a sack of grain. These arrogant, ignorant, unfeeling men. She dug her fingernails into her palms so hard that later she would muse upon the crescent-shaped marks.
They left, under a leaden sky, the branches of bare trees reaching to the sky as if in supplication to the Gods who would give them leaves. She and little Margaret jolted along in the carriage sent by Beardsley, bundled up with what little possessions they had, bound for London.
Three years. Three surprisingly short, sweet years. Septimus Beardsley had travelled to Suffolk to fetch the last of her things from her previous husband – her previous life.
"Daddy!" Margaret ran down the hallway and threw herself into Beardsley's outstretched arms. He walked towards Elizabeth carrying the little girl who, by now, had her arms and legs wrapped around him and kissed his wife.
“Welcome home, Sep.”
“It’s wonderful to be home, Lizzie, back with both my girls.”
As Elizabeth linked arms with her husband and turned to walk with him and her daughter, she smiled.
She had won the wager.
E Atkinson is a writer based in Australia. She has a background in IT and Finance.
She has written a trilogy, the Grace Beale series.
When she’s not writing she looks after her two acre farm, wrestling alpacas and errant chickens. You can find her on Instagram @crabbeshome.