Weekend Wind Down – The Puritan’s Wife

When your father fights on the losing side in a war, the only thing that is certain is uncertainty. Your home will probably be sequestered, your family assets seized, and your person may be open to abuse. Any young woman so beleaguered should be grateful if the man to whom the victorious leader gifts her family lands decides to marry her to further legitimise his claim. 
Mary Ashleigh reminded herself of this fact, while her reluctant feet trod the worn flagstones to where a fussy little priest with a streaming cold waited to marry her to a man she had never met. 
As she reached the altar rail where her bridegroom waited, she risked a glance before dropping her eyes in proper modesty. She got an impression of great height and very wide shoulders, but little more than that. As the priest stumbled his way through the short service Mary made her responses in her customarily placid manner, while the man spoke equally calmly, if in a voice as deep and unknowable as a thunderstorm in a far valley.
It seemed to take no time at all until the parson was proclaiming them man and wife. To her surprise, her new husband tucked her hand under his arm as he walked her from the building. This emboldened her to such an extent that she looked up.
The face that she beheld was square of jaw and sandy of hair and a little forbidding in its very strength, but withal he seemed to her to be a very proper man and to be looking at her with at least the semblance of friendliness. She smiled up at him and he patted the hand that lay in the crook of his arm.
“I am sorry that we could not meet before this day,” he said.
Mary’s surprise must have shown because he laughed, a deep and somehow comforting sound which emboldened her to speak. 
“It was more kindness than I expected when you chose to wed me.”
His voice when he replied was solemn. “You should not feel like that, although I can understand why you might. Do you know someone who has been misused?”
Mary looked at her feet for a moment before responding. “I do, sir. My cousin Catherine. She has a big belly now, but no husband.”
“Who did such a thing?”
“She don’t know sir. They shared her.”
He made a sound of disgust deep in his throat. “And where is the lady now?”
“She is at the manor. Hoping to become your pensioner as she was my father’s.” Greatly daring she turned and faced her husband. “Catherine,” she said in a tiny voice, “is very beautiful.”
“And you are not?”
“No sir. I am a plain little dab of a thing. My father was at great pains to be sure I understood that.”
He looked down into her earnest features and she could have sworn that the expression that crossed his face was pity. Putting his hand under her chin he held her face still while he looked deeply into her eyes.
“Not so plain,” he said consideringly, “not so plain at all. You have skin like the petals of a rose and your eyes are as clear and clean as a moorland stream. I think we will walk well together if you will it so.”
Mary felt the greatest part of her worries slipping away. “I do so will it sir.”
He patted her hand. “Listen, my wife. When we are in company I must always be the cold, hard master of the house. But when we are alone you may look to see the kinder side of me.”
Mary dimpled. “Will it be wise if I am the colourless, obedient wife in company?”
“It will. And my name is William. It would please me to hear you use it.”
“Yes William. It is a fine name, I think.”
“You, I believe are Mary. A favourite name of mine.”
He smiled benignly down at her and actually caressed the hand that lay in the crook of his arm, before straightening and assuming an expression of cold superiority as they neared the open door of the manor house. 
Mary dropped her eyes to the floor and schooled her own features. They entered the flagstoned hallway to find every member of the small household neatly turned out and awaiting their new master. Mary introduced them, and her husband spoke to each in calm clipped tones. He left no doubt of who was master, and Mary had to admire his composure. Last to be introduced was Catherine. Beautiful raven-haired Catherine whose eyes were as green as grass and whose figure was lissom and graceful even with the slight bulge of her pregnant belly. Mary couldn’t help a little frisson of fear as she saw her husband’s eyes turn to the pretty member of the Ashleigh family. 
Catherine swept a magnificent curtesy, almost seeming to invite William’s attention to focus on the creamy slopes of her bosom. As she rose from her curtesy, with a matchless grace as yet undiminished by her pregnancy, she lifted her eyelids and looked him straight in the eye before dropping her long, white eyelids and wetting her lips with the tip of her pointed, pink tongue. 
William, however, had already stopped looking and was leading his wife into the parlour. Catherine made as if to follow them but the door was shut firmly in her face. She hissed.  
Inside the sunny room, Mary showed her husband a visage of stark misery before managing to pull herself together. He took her sad face in both hands.
“Why so sorrowful?”
Being unused to the arts of coquetry she answered him with the plain truth.
“I was thinking that now you have seen Catherine you must be regretting your marriage to me. She is an Ashleigh too, and so much more what you deserve.”
William laughed. “If I did not understand your way of thinking, my wife, I would be insulted.”
“Insulted? But she is a beauty, and so clever and bright. I can do naught but keep house and stitch…” 
He put a gentle hand over her lips.
“My dear wife. I have seen the like of your cousin before. She is what they would call a light skirt. But you have no idea what that means do you?”
Mary shook her head.
“It means that your cousin encourages men to take liberties with her person.”
“Oh.” Then Mary thought about what William was saying and many things made sense. “Oh, that is why she is so different with men than with women. Do you think her culpable in her situation?”
“I do not know, my wife. But I would not be surprised.”
There came a tap on the door.
“Enter.” William spoke in a cold severe voice.
The door opened to admit Catherine with her eyes carefully downcast. “Cousin, forgive my interruption, I believe I left my needlework in this room.” 
With that, she put a delicate hand to her forehead and crumpled gracefully into a heap of silken skirts. Somehow as she fell her cap came loose and a wealth of night black hair tumbled about her slender form. William looked down at her and smiled tautly. He bent and picked up the still form, throwing her over one great shoulder as if she was naught but a sack of grain. As he left the room, Catherine opened her eyes and shot Mary a look of barbed hatred mixed with scathing triumph. Mary sat down and awaited developments. She had not long to wait. 
William strode back into the room and shut the door behind him with what was suspiciously close to a slam. He came over to where Mary sat and dropped to his knees beside her chair.
“Mary,” he said with a tread of humour in his deep voice, “your cousin is little better than a wharfside whore.”
Having no idea what he meant, Mary kept her counsel, simply looking into his strong, somewhat harsh, features as calmly as she could. He gave a queer groan and pulled her into his arms, bending his mouth to hers. He kissed her lips, gently at first but then she could feel his mouth growing more urgent against hers. He used his tongue to part her lips and the feel of it invading her mouth sent queer little tingles through her body. He abandoned her mouth, and lifted her into his arms.
“I should wait for this,” he murmured, “but I am not made of stone.” 
  It was some goodly while later and Mary, having very little notion how she got from her parlour to the bedchamber, lay against her husband’s chest idly running her hands through the auburn hair that dusted its surface. She sighed.
“Why the sigh, my wife?”
She dared to lift herself onto her elbows and look down into his face. She thought he looked younger now, and somehow less formidable, but even so she arranged her thoughts carefully before she spoke.
“I am thinking that it was a happy sigh. But I am also worrying that I should not have enjoyed that which passed between us quite so much.”
His laugh was a sound of pure joy and he tumbled her from his chest, rolling to pin her between his hard body and the soft feather mattress. He bent his head and kissed her until she lay boneless in his embrace. Then he smiled. “I am only grateful that you are open to the pleasures of the flesh. It is a gift to us.” 
It was with no little regret that the newlyweds dressed themselves and left the sanctuary of their bed, but there was business to be seen to and neither was of that careless nature that can laugh at tasks undone. 

The Puritan’s Wife is one of the stories in in pulling the rug iii by Jane Jago and part two will be our Weekend Wind Down next Saturday.

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