“I have to elope,” announced the dejected youth. “Tonight!”
Hugo was astonished. For a small, out of the way village, where everybody went to bed by eight thirty, and strangers were very likely to meet threats with a blunderbuss, this seemed a peculiarly dramatic and romantic undertaking.
“You do not appear very pleased about it,” he ventured.
“No, I’m not,” Fred said in sullen tones. “As you can see, I am very unwell.” He pointed to his right cheek. “I should be at home in bed, but I promised Miranda I would.”
Hugo felt a jolt as he heard the name. In such a small place, there could only be one Miranda. This Miranda must be Miss Miranda Lavenham of Lavenham Court, the woman his father had had in mind for him as a wife. His intended, promised to him while still in the cradle, planned to run off with a…he had to say it…local yokel.
“Good heavens,” Hugo said in a suitably impressed murmur. Intrigued, he pushed the bottle in Fred’s direction. “How extremely…ah…interesting. Would you like to tell me about it?”
Fred needed no encouragement to unburden his heart and pour out his woes to a total stranger.
“I’ve known Miranda since we were in leading strings. We played together as children all the time at Lavenham Court. We’re still great friends.”
He smiled, and in that instant, the gloom lifted from his expression and he appeared to be a personable young man. Then he frowned, and the despondent mood descended again.
“I shouldn’t even be here,” he said with a touch of defiance. “As you can see, I have the most dreadful toothache—” he pointed to his face again “—and it may even be an abscess. My mother will be extremely angry if she discovers I’m out in the cold when I’m ill like this.”
Fred sank his chin into one hand and gently prodded his sore cheek with the other. He winced.
Hugo put on a sympathetic expression. “Do you think it wise to run off with her? There doesn’t appear to be any problem between this young lady and your parents…or am I mistaken?”
Fred shook his head. “Oh, my father likes Miranda well enough, but he won’t be too happy about me marrying her. He thinks I should marry someone more my own class. My mother agrees with him. She thinks Miss Dorothea Wilkins is the right kind of girl for me. Her father’s a local gentleman farmer.”
Hugo responded with raised eyebrows. Fred hastened to explain.
“You see, my mother says I should marry a local girl who likes a man to farm, and hunt, and fish, and do all the things a country squire enjoys because that’s what I’ll be one day.”
Hugo was of the opinion that Hodges senior was a sensible man and his wife a perspicacious woman.
Fred gave Hugo a confiding look. “I like Dorothea well enough, but who wants to think about marriage right now?”
“I agree wholeheartedly,” said Hugo, “but I’m confused. What has this to do with Miss Lavenham?”
Clearly, it must be the fate of every young man to be hounded into the parson’s mousetrap by well-meaning relatives.
“You know the old saying about being unevenly yoked,” Fred continued patiently. “My father says I should not be looking above my station at someone like Lord Lavenham’s daughter. Miss Wilkins would be a much better match for me.”
Hugo sensed an opening here and possibly a solution to his problems if Miranda loved another man.
“But surely,” Hugo suggested with utmost tact, “if you and Miranda truly love each other, your respective parents—”
Fred let out a shout of laughter that ended in a yelp of pain. He clutched his face, but still grinned through his obvious discomfort. “Love Miranda? As in romantic love?”
Hugo nodded. “It’s usually a requisite for elopement, I think.”
Fred took a long gulp of brandy and banged the glass down on the table.
“Of course I don’t love Miranda. I mean, I like her very much, and I suppose I love her as a sister ’cause I haven’t any siblings, but no fear. We don’t love each other at all.”
He gave Hugo an eloquent wink. Hugo’s optimism dissipated.
“So you did not…er…plight your troth at a young age?”
Fred gave him a long, owlish stare. “Like how?”
Hugo gave a noncommittal shrug. “Oh, you know.”
Fred looked blank. “No, I don’t.”
Hugo laughed. “Many times young people pledge to marry when they come of age and seal their promise with an exchange of rings or tokens, or carving initials into trees, that sort of thing.”
Fred said, “Like in romantic books and plays and poetry?”
Hugo nodded. “Yes, I think that’s where the ideas generally abound.”
Fred’s face was a picture of disgust. “You and Miranda would get on well, if you’re talking about books and poetry.”
He shook his head. “Miranda was a real tomboy until she discovered books and literature. Before then she was game for anything. Fishing, hunting, and shooting. We used to tramp over the fields and explore the woods for miles with my father’s dogs. Then she became a young lady, and all that ended.”
He seemed quite sad at the recollection of the inexplicable change in his childhood companion.
“Between you ‘n’ me and the doorpost here, Miranda can be quite a nag. She’s always telling me how to improve my mind by reading books.”
He gave a disgusted snort. “Books! She reads poetry as well.”
He rolled his eyes heavenwards at the ridiculous notion of any young man wanting to read a poetry book.
“Lord Byron’s her favourite. Huh! She didn’t like what I said about him.”
“My dear sir,” said Hugo, now thoroughly perplexed by the convoluted plot, “why on earth do you and this…er…Miranda want to run away and be married if you don’t love each other?”
Fred stared at him with bleary eyes, prompting Hugo to regret pressing any more alcohol on the young man. Remembering the quantity of laudanum Fred had already consumed, Hugo discreetly pushed the brandy bottle out of Fred’s reach.
“Because she’s being forced into marriage with some gouty old nincompoop from London.”
Hugo’s jaw dropped. To be called old and gouty was insult enough, but to be accused behind his back of forcing a young woman into marriage was too much.
“Good heavens,” he said, not even trying to disguise his shock. “A forced marriage? You astound me. Is it possible in this day and age that such a dreadful situation could transpire?”
Fred nodded glumly. “Incredible, ain’t it? This is the story. Miranda’s father was best friends with the nob’s father. The two chaps made a pact that their children should marry. Only—”he hiccupped “—the other fellow’s son is years older than Miranda. She wasn’t even born when they came up with this nerafious…netarious…”
Fred gazed owlishly at Hugo. “Some jaw-breaker word Miranda called it, but you know what I mean.”
“I do,” said Hugo. “Nefarious plan.”
Fred’s eyes lit up. “That’s right. She said those exact words. Nerafioush plan.”
The brandy mixed with laudanum began to have a subtle, but inexorable, effect on Fred’s speech. His head drooped towards the table, but he gamely yanked himself up and forced a concentrated stare.
“Thash why, when Miranda asked me to elope with her so she could eshcape her terrible fate of being a child bride to this old nincompoop, what could I shay but yesh?”
“Indeed,” said Hugo, taking silent umbrage at being called a gouty old nincompoop.
He detected in this horrid description the embellishing hand of Miss Lavenham, who clearly read romantic poetry of an idealistic nature and novels with melodramatic themes and possessed an overly fertile imagination.
Fred peered at Hugo, and a confused expression crossed his face, as if he was trying to make sense of his own situation.
“I really think it’s too much to ashk of a fellow to run away and elope and give up all he’sh ever known so a girl can eshcape a fate worshen death, especially when the fellow’sh in terrible pain with a toothache. But a man’sh got to honour the fact of friendship, don’t he?”
He gulped for air after his long explanation as his head began to sink towards the table top. Obsessed with the state of his health, he continued, “I could take a chill, develop a fever, and maybe die of pneumonia. My mother would be sho angry if she could shee me now, and me with my head pounding, and my tooth on fire.”
Hugo reflected that Fred’s adoring mother must have filled his young head with notions of death awaiting him at every turn, should he expose himself to any rigours of inclement weather.
“But friendship and loyalty come firsht, thash what m’ father always says. Miranda hasn’t anyone else to take her part. It hash t’ be me.”
Hugo stared at Fred. What a conundrum. Fred Hodges was indeed a true friend to Miranda Lavenham if he was prepared to risk his protective parents’ wrath and expose himself to a fever for the sake of devotion to his childhood companion. However, the proposed elopement would never happen, owing to the prospective groom’s inebriation and toothache. The landlord had said Fred was waiting to meet someone. Perhaps Miranda Lavenham was coming to the inn.
“How do you intend to run away? It must be past ten o’clock by now. Is Miss Lavenham coming here to meet you first?”
Fred nodded in languid slow motion. “Some shilly romantic notion of leaving Little Twilling on the stroke of midnight.”
Hugo gave a pretend shiver. “It’s going to be very cold in the…?”
He raised an enquiring eyebrow.
“Chaise,” Fred supplied helpfully. “I could hire one from around here, but they’d tell my father like a shot. No, I had to go ten miles out of Little Twilling to hire one and I told the posht boys to be here by eleven-thirty.”
He sighed. “I can tell you the expenshe! I used up mosht of my allowance. My pockets are well and truly let now.”
His head drooped again. “Women have no idea of doing anything shenshible. Always shilly romantic notions that never work in real life.”
A loud thump signalled that Fred had succumbed to the brandy at last.
Whatever Hugo had planned to say to Fred went out of his head as he gazed at the young man, now recumbent upon the table.
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