Last time in The Unwanted Suitor: Cornelia says goodbye to Sir James who is racing away to London on some mysterious errand just days before the grand ball. When she overhears some of the guests gossiping about her, she is forced to question whether or not Sir James’ intentions are real or if she imagined them.
Sir James woke up to weak sunlight filtered through grimy windows, rough sheets, and the raucous noise of London streets. He sat up, groggy, and tried to orient himself. Not being a man given to drunkenness, he hadn’t found himself in such confusion since his early days at Oxford. But this was no hangover. No, in only a few moments, he remembered his exhausting and torturous ride from Yorkshire to London.
Sure, Dick Turpin was famously reported to have made the journey overnight, but James had never been more certain that it was a complete fabrication. He had made the ride in thirty-six hours, and he was quite sure that doing it in less would have killed him.
Still, after a late visit to Doctor’s Commons, Sir James had acquired the special license he had come for. Reaching out, he took the paper from his riding coat, which lay across the end of his narrow bed, and smoothed it open on the coverlet. There, his eyes went to the name which meant more to him than any in the world—Miss Cornelia Greystock, aged twenty-one of Buxton.
His heart beat in his chest as he considered that this piece of paper would enable him to at last make her his. If, that was, she would accept him. He was almost entirely sure she would, but even the smallest bit of doubt caused him great anxiety. When he thought of the two days journey ahead of him, as brutal as that which he’d already been through, he groaned. So no matter how his muscles screamed for mercy, Sir James got up from the bed, washed his face and neck and hands, and dressed as speedily as he could manage.
Ready to leave, he picked up his saddlebags and descended to the common room of the inn. He looked around, relieved to find that though the place was a bit rough, it was decently cleaned because if he was to survive the journey ahead, he needed sustenance.
“Awake, are ye?” said a high-pitched voice. Her question was closely followed by a giggle. “I never did see in all me days, a gennel-man so shakey on ‘is shambles.”
Sir James eyed her, amusement brightening his blood-shot eyes. “Is that a fact?”
“Aye, me lord. I ‘elped you to bed meself or you never would ha’ made it.”
Chagrined at this knowledge, Sir James repressed a shudder. “Thanks for your help, madam. I’d like to eat some breakfast and pay my shot before I leave if it’s possible.”
“Right away, me lord. I’ve a good kidney pie and the best home brewed that ever filled a man’s gullet.”
Within moments, the innkeeper’s wife produced a filled tankard and a wedge of pie. Sir James took a long pull of the ale and nodded. “My gullet thanks you, ma’am.” He dropped some coins into her palm to pay his shot and turned away to a table across the room.
Eating hurriedly, he planned the journey ahead of him. It would be difficult to get out of London quickly this time of day, so it might be noon before he was able to make good time on the open road. His horse would last to five or six hours ridden hard before he would want to change out for a fresh horse. His aim was to make Grantham by dusk and ride as far as Newark before resting for the night. By leaving again at dawn, he could make to Bawtry before noon and retrieve his own horse from the Crown where he’d left him. He was a powerful horse with amazing stamina. Being fresh, Sir James had every confidence the horse could carry him the rest of the way to Somerstone.
When he was at last on the road, he leaned out over his mount’s neck, encouraging her to fly, occasionally racing past carriages leaving or heading toward the sprawling metropolis. Past villages and fields, forests and cities, he anxiously marked the passing distance, measuring how much closer he was to her—and what he hoped was his future.
When it was necessary to walk his horse, stopping to water her at a stable or stream, he chafed at the delay. What if he was delayed on the road and he could not attend the ball as promised? Would she think he had deserted her? She had looked so worried, so forlorn as he had left her three days ago.
Stopping for the night in Newark as planned, he found it difficult to walk. His muscles had never been exerted in such a fashion before. He’d never asked so much of his whole body, and it complained vigorously about the ill-treatment. But with the thought of at last having Cornelia as his wife ever before him, it was not difficult to find the motivation to get back on his horse the next morning, even though storms threatened to beleaguer the final stage of his journey.
“The devil,” he shouted, as he watched the western horizon. He hoped he could outride the storm, and at least make it to Bawtry in good time. But his horse was soon winded and he was forced to slow the pace to a walk the last three miles to the Crown where he’d stabled his stallion. He turned the horse over to a stable hand just as the storm broke.
“Have my stallion ready to ride in twenty minutes,” he told the boy.
“But sir. The road will be a right mess with all this rain.”
“Can’t be helped, lad. See to it.”
He went inside where he drank a tankard of ale and ate a quick dinner of ham and roast potatoes, paid his bill, and went to find his horse. The stable boy eyed him like he’d gone stark raving mad, but he’d done a good job, so Sir James tossed him a coin and mounted. Fortunately, his greatcoat did a fine job of shielding him from the downpour, but the incessant rain at times blinded him as it ran off the brim of his hat and blew back into his face.
Just as the stable boy had predicted, the rain quickly made the road treacherous. Sir James’ steady hand kept his horse on a safe course, but the pace was too slow. The ball would be starting in only a matter of hours. There was no doubt now that he would be late. Just not too late, he hoped. Not too late for all of the Countess’s carefully laid plans for a private wedding ceremony.
After another mile, Sir James’ most urgent desire came true. The rain slowed, then stopped. The sharp wind blew the clouds away, and just when Sir James thought he would have to stop since riding in the dark would be impossible, the moon came out to light his way. Unfortunately, it’s pale light gleamed on an obstruction in the road ahead. A carriage had overturned in the mud.
The coachman wrestled with the terrified horses and the carriage, it’s axle broken, lay drunkenly in the ditch, its sides leaning against the trunk of a tree. For just the barest of moments, Sir James thought about riding past. He had no time.
But he also couldn’t leave people in need of help. As much as he wanted to shake his fist at the fates, he dismounted. As his boots squished in the mud, he gave up all hope that tonight would bring him a wedding night with Cornelia as his beaming bride. As he peered into the window of the carriage, he saw that instead, it seemed, tonight had brought him a crotchety old man in need of rescue.