On Her Majesty's Command
A One Shot
FNF#40: Pleasure is very seldom found where it is sought. Our brightest blazes are commonly kindled by unexpected sparks.
Her husband had been missing for a week.
It wasn't unusual for Lucky to take off without explanation or concern for her and their only child. Rather, he was an unpredictable spouse and an even more unpredictable provider, but, at the same time, he had never been gone for seven days in a row. Typically, he would come crawling back to her after a day or two, drunk out of his mind and missing the few coins that had been littering his pockets before he went. This time, however, she had sent him off with their rent money, impressing upon him how imperative it was that he pay their landlord on time. She had explained that she herself would have done it, but, with their little girl sick, she didn't want to leave her.
Seven days later, though, Elizabeth Spencer realized her mistake.
Marrying Lucky had been both the best and the worst decision of her life. While logically she knew that to be an odd statement, it was the truth nonetheless. Their union had given her the independence from her family that she had craved, and, though life with her husband wasn't everything she had dreamed it would be, she still felt that it was certainly better than living in the shadows of her older sister Sarah's skirts. Plus, their marriage had given her Audrey, the daughter she loved dearly and had named after her beloved, deceased grandmother.
It had been a whim that she had met Lucky Spencer in the first place. Shy, timid, and bullied, Elizabeth had been a meek girl who did everything she was told in hopes of pleasing her demanding parents. She trained tirelessly to become the young lady they said she had to be, but Sarah reaped all their attention, all their praise without half as much effort. It had been for her older sister that they had visited the old estate she currently now lived on several years before. Invited to a ball hosted by the illustrious and very wealthy Quartermaine family, Sir Edward himself a duke, it had been her parents' hope and dream that Sarah would catch the eye of their elder son Alan Junior. However, by the time the Webbers returned to London, Elizabeth had been the one married, and Sarah had been scorned by the Quartermaine family.
Fancy parties and the rules of socializing had never appealed to the young brunette, and, since it was not her mother's objective to see her well married, she had been excused from the mindless, droning tea parties hosted by Lady Lila and her daughter-in-law Lady Monica and allowed to take a constitutional throughout the Quartermaine's town. Her walk had taken her from the impressive manor home down to the village where she was jostled and pushed, for it was market day.
Market day in a small town was a sight to behold. While shopping in London was neat and organized, market day was teeming with activity. It was loud, colorful, and more exciting than anything else Elizabeth had ever witnessed in her sheltered seventeen years. It didn't matter that she had no money on her to purchase anything; rather, she just enjoyed being immersed in so much activity, for the joy around her was infectious, and the camaraderie was contagious. So much so, in fact, that she lost track of the time, and, before she realized her error, it was nightfall, and she was alone, without a chaperone, in a strange, cold place.
She had been saved when a bright, happy youth of her own age wandered out of the town's sole tavern. The establishment was simply entitled Spencer's. Despite her curiosity as to what the inside of a bar would look like, Elizabeth knew better than to enter. Her reputation was already at risk, and to step foot in a saloon would only set tongues wagging more. But the young man didn't present such an invite. Instead, he simply held his arm out to her and silently offered to walk her back to the Quartermaine manor, something she was entirely grateful for.
The path back from town was several miles in length, and the road was dark, only occasionally illuminated by the warm, inviting glows of hearths from inside small homes dotted along the English countryside. Despite being raised in the city, Elizabeth knew that the homes were all owned by the Quartermaines and that the renters worked the land, offering both rent to their landlords and a share of their crops as payment. It was a hard life, a difficult one, but, at the same time, to her, it looked vastly better than the one she lived with her own family.
How wrong she was that night!
By the time they reached the Quartermaine's private estate, she knew all there was to know about Lucky Spencer – that he was the son of a simple barkeep and an earl's daughter. His mother, Laura, had run away with his father, Luke, when they were no older than he himself was. For several years, they had traveled the world, settling just long enough to earn their fare on their next adventure. However, when he was born, the Spencers had settled down, started up their own tavern, and, now, seventeen years later, Lucky was there, walking her home.
The handsome young man had been full of compliments. He told her that never before had he seen such beautiful, porcelain skin, that her eyes were like the exotic sapphires his mother had told him about as a child, and that her hand in his was softer than any cashmere or silk he had ever touched on market day. Elizabeth had blushed furiously at the compliments, and the praise warmed her starved-for-attention heart. Her own parents had never once told her that she was pretty, and to hear a perfect stranger practically tell her so felt like a soothing balm across all the wounds Jeffrey and Amanda Webber had ever wrought upon her ego.
She had believed herself in love with Lucky Spencer after just that one walk, and, for the rest of their visit to the Quartermaine's estate, she had snuck off to see him whenever possible. A week later, just as her family was prepared to leave and return to London, Lucky asked her to marry him, and she ardently accepted. When they broke the news to her parents, they were disappointed but not enough so to stop such a foolish arrangement. Sarah had already been scorned as marriage material by the Duke, so Elizabeth's betrothal couldn't hurt her sister's future chances.
They were wed in a small, intimate ceremony at the local church. With only their families present, Elizabeth Imogene Webber married Lucas Lorenzo Spencer Junior in a solemn ceremony. She wore her best dress, and the groom had on a new suit. They had made a handsome pair, but the stars in her eyes quickly faded when her new husband took her back to the tavern she had met him in front of and told her they would both work there for his parents until they could afford their own place.
Four years later, they had that cottage, but she was the only one who worked to keep the roof over their heads, and it was obvious that her husband absolutely loathed her. Six months after their union and six months into Elizabeth's first and only pregnancy, he had screamed at her in a drunken rage, proclaiming that she had tricked him into marriage. After he had walked her back to the Quartermaine manor, he had believed her to be wealthy, to be a member of the landed gentry. That was why he married her, that was why he flirted with her, and that was the only reason why he had looked at her twice. On that night, he vowed to never do so again, and that was the one vow Lucky had ever made to her that he had never broken.
When they were both in the house, he slept in a separate bed, but, more often than not, he found his rest away from their home. Where, Elizabeth wasn't sure, and she really didn't want to know. While she knew the other women in town snickered about her behind her back, they were too dependent upon her skills to say anything mean or derogatory to her face, for she was the town's most sought after seamstress. Having lived as a doctor's daughter in London for the first seventeen years of her life, she knew more about fashion than anyone else in the small town. It was because of this knowledge that she was able to keep a roof over her family's head, that she was able to feed herself and her daughter.
Lucky didn't contribute at all. Rather, he spent what little money she had left over after paying their bills to get drunk at his father's bar. If nothing else could be said about Luke Spencer, he was a good businessman. He didn't give free beer to any man, not even his own son. Lucky also bought tobacco, and she had the suspicion that he paid for the company of other women on occasion as well with the money she earned. It was no bother, though. Despite the fact that she loved her daughter and, in a perfect world, would have welcomed more children, Elizabeth refused to have another baby with Lucky Spencer, and she certainly wouldn't sentence another child to the life her precious Audrey lived. So, if that meant that her husband found his pleasure in various prostitutes' beds, then so be it.
Only this time, her spouse didn't just have the few shillings left over; he had all the money she had made this last month… or, at least, he had when he had set out a week before. Not knowing what Lucky had done with the money, the young brunette just continued with her usual chores. She sewed, she cleaned, she cooked, she weeded the garden, and she took care of the few animals they could afford to have. She didn't have the time to tend to the fields her husband never got around each year to actually sowing with crops or she would have done that, too. There was just too much to do each day for her to worry about something she couldn't control, so Elizabeth tried to push her concern out of her mind.
When there was the sound of several horses traveling along the well worn path that wove through town, she went to the door, eager to see who was passing by. Not only could she perhaps catch a glimpse of the fine carriage owned by the Duke, a silly, trivial pleasure but one she enjoyed anyway, for the horses in all their silver and finery were a sight to behold, but the noise could also mean a new patron, someone coming along to request her skills at making a new, pretty frock.
However, when she came to stand at the half open door, the sight before the young mother's eyes was not a welcome one. A dozen mounted soldiers of the Queen's army stood loitering before her cottage, and a sliver of fear shot its way down her back. Despite the warm, summer sun shining, she immediately felt chilled. Audrey must have sensed the doom hanging in the air as well, for she crawled out from under the table where she was playing and came to stand by her mother's slightly shaking legs, grasping hold of Elizabeth through the thick layers of petticoats and dress.
"You there," one of the soldiers yelled, obviously meaning her for no one else was at the house, and they could not see her trembling daughter. "Please, come forth. On her majesty's command, you must vacate the premises immediately for failure to pay your rent."
Her fears in her husband had been justified. Tilting her head back so that her chin was raised in what could only be described as a haughty, impervious manner, Elizabeth did as she was told, prepared mentally to face the firing squad. She would do whatever was necessary to protect her little girl… even if it cost her her own life.
As the second son, there had been three options open to Jason Quartermaine when he came of age. The first was that he could continue to exist in his older brother's shadow, hoping to someday inherit the title, the land, and the wealth upon Alan's death. That option had been absolutely out of the question. The second was to join the church, to study at seminary, and, since he wasn't even sure if he believed in god, that had been a non-option as well. The third and final choice available to him had been the military.
Growing up, he had always enjoyed riding and hunting. He was a skilled horseman, and no one had a better shot than he did in the entire county. So, he had gone off to join the Queen's army willingly, eagerly, hopefully. Years later, though, Jason wondered if he had made the right decision. In fact, he downright knew that he hadn't.
Service in the military wasn't grand and honorable. He wasn't defending Britain's honor in a war or protecting the citizens of his country. Rather, he served evictions. He threw poor women and children, for the men never seemed to be around when the cards came tumbling down around their families' heads, out of their homes, and what was worse was that he did so on his own family's land. He burned the cottages of the very people that he should be shielding, and the knowledge turned his stomach.
He could barely eat, sleep evaded him most nights until he became so exhausted he physically could not remain awake any longer, and his mood reflected his self-disgust as well. No longer the happy, bright second son of a landed gentleman, Jason was dark and brooding, dangerous. He hated his family; he hated what they – Edward, Alan, and his own brother, Alan Junior – did to those they employed. He had lost all respect for the class he was born into, but, yet, at the same time, it was impossible for him to escape its control and influence.
As he sat atop his horse, trying in vain not to see what the men under his command were doing to yet another innocent woman and her child, Jason felt the tension rope in his mind starting to unravel, the fraying that had been occurring for years finally snapping.
"Sir, you don't understand," the brunette, an obvious beauty despite her meager lifestyle, beseeched. "I sent my husband to town a week ago to pay our rent. It was all there, every last farthing. There must be some mistake. Perhaps he took ill on his way there…"
"The walk is less than two miles," the soldier sneered.
"Then maybe there was some kind of accident," the mother continued to persist. "I swear to you on my own child's life that I had the money. If you would just find my husband, I'm sure…"
Again, the same soldier, the one who had ordered Mrs. Spencer from her home upon their arrival at the cottage, interrupted the young woman. "I don't need to find your husband, girl. I already know where he is."
"Well, then, go see him about this rent business," she demanded, sounding so arrogant Jason couldn't help but smirk. Unlike most of the women they evicted, this one had fire; she had spunk.
"I did, and your husband doesn't have a shilling on him. I believe he spent all of your rent money… elsewhere. Currently, he is holed up in the county jail, cooling his heels after he struck an officer. He is to be sentenced to death this Friday next."
The information visibly rocked the pretty brunette, but she did not break down. In fact, she didn't even take a step back. "I see," Mrs. Spencer murmured. "Considering the circumstances, sir, I ask that you give me one week to come up with the money. I give you my word that I will have this month's rent for you, plus an added bonus to make up for the late payment."
"I'm not the Duke, girl," the soldier fairly spat at the young woman. "I cannot make such decisions even if I would be inclined to do so, which, by the way, I am not. You, miss, are in arrears. You know full and well what the proper punishment is for such a crime."
While their discussion had been taking place, the other soldiers had been clearing the small cottage of all its belongings. Piled high next to the road, the furniture and personal affects looked humbling in their sheer shabbiness. Finally tearing his gaze away from the woman and child before him, Jason glanced at the homestead's fields, noticing for the first time that, unlike all the other lots under his grandfather's control, the Spencer lot was not plowed and planted. Lucky Spencer had been no husband, no man at all. He, apparently, had allowed his wife to support him.
Before he could intervene, not that he knew what he would do, for he had no money on his person, let alone enough to pay for the stranger's rent, the cottage was set on fire, its thin walls and straw thatch roof crackling with focused and thirsty flames. His duty had been performed. Major Quartermaine, through his subordinates, had evicted the young mother and her only child, rendering them homeless and destitute. In that moment, he felt like less of a man than Lucky Spencer was.
"Leave," he bellowed to his soldiers. When they turned curious, confused gazes upon him, Jason didn't offer further explanation. "I said leave, and that is a direct order."
Complying with his wishes, they galloped off, their laughter and amusement carrying on the sweet, summer wind back to his own ears and those of the dispossessed family's. Gruff, for that was the only way he seemed capable of speaking, he addressed the soon-to-be widow. "Someone will come later to pick up your things." Stepping down off his tall, majestic mount, he asked, "have you ever been on a horse before?"
Mrs. Spencer tilted that stubborn chin of hers back again and responded, "of course, Major."
No further words were said between them, not even when he went to help her onto his mare and she shied away from his touch. Once she was seated on the saddle, her skirts tucked decorously around her legs so that nothing inappropriate showed, he lifted the wide eyed, scared little girl into her mother's arms, moving himself to the front of the horse and leading the animal and its riders back towards town.
He was going to help the young brunette and her only child, and, no matter what, Jason promised himself that the Spencer's eviction would be his last. He silently gave himself - and them - his word.