The Secret of Willow Cottage by Jane Risdon Parts I and II
The Tale of the Reluctant Bride (Part I)
Willow Cottage was slowly giving up its secrets to the new owners but none was as shocking or surprising as the discovery of the huge oak chest, bound with iron and with a rusted latch sealing it tightly.
Covered in decades of dust and dead insects, the chest was uncovered in the stone out-house during exploration of the secret garden area behind the apple orchard. After a great deal of effort with WD40 and reluctant use of a crowbar, they managed to prise the lid open. At first they thought it was a pile of old carpets and cloth but as soon as they moved them aside to investigate further it became apparent it wasn’t.
Lying curled up and dressed in what had once been fine fabric, was the remains of a small person. They recoiled in shock, disbelief and horror. It was all true. The story the locals had told them about the reluctant bride who on her wedding night had fled her husband still in her wedding dress, never to be seen again, was really true.
The de Grouchy family had been sceptical about the story they’d been told, of the young girl who had been secretly betrothed to a neighbouring family’s eldest son, destined to inherit a bankrupt estate upon his father’s death, and who had been forced to marry the choice of her father instead; an elderly widower whose wife had died in childbirth leaving him without an heir of his own. Her job was to provide one, and quickly.
It made sense to the girl’s family who were having financial problems of their own and needed a good marriage for her to enable their own estate to prosper. And so the marriage was celebrated and the wedding party was almost over when the girl’s jilted fiancée, who had been thrown out of the church earlier for trying to stop the proceedings, returned and challenged the groom to a duel.
The bride had fled in tears upon seeing the men and their seconds take up their positions, swords ready, and her pleas for her father to halt the duel ignored.
This had all taken place about two hundred years before in what was the ‘big house,’ long since demolished, the estate having been divided up over time and sold off. Willow Cottage, originally the estate manager’s home, being the only remaining sign of the once-grand estate the liaison was meant to rescue.
According to the estate agents, the whole story was a fabrication which had no factual basis, but then the cottage had been on the market for ages and the agents were keen for the whole thing to be buried for fear of putting off potential buyers.
The de Grouchy family didn’t take any notice of myths and legends, and moved into Willow Cottage and set about restoring it and the acre of land they purchased, including the out-house which was overgrown and in danger of collapse, thus ensuring that the building had not been entered in over a century. Upon the sad discovery of the young woman, the police were called and after the usual investigations and an inquest, it was decided that the young girl had died of suffocation, probably when the lid of the chest in which she had hidden had dropped shut, and unable to open it from the inside her cries had gone unheard. Foul play was not suspected.
The local press took up the cause, making their own investigations and eventually the story was corroborated. The tale of the ill-fated lovers seemed to be based on fact.
What had become of the girl’s young lover was never certain though there had been talk at the time of his being driven off the estate following the duel, the groom being badly wounded and dying soon after. There had been a search for the bride but no trace had ever been found and over time it was assumed she had been reunited with her lover and they had made their way to the Americas and had lived happily ever after.
It is possible that no-one had ever looked inside the trunk and over time it had been sealed and moved from the main house into Willow Cottage, or to the out-house where it had remained forgotten, until now, the key lost long ago.
On a drab Autumn morning three months later, the de Grouchy family stood in the little village churchyard, the only mourners left to attend the last resting place of Serena Beaufort, the reluctant bride, no living family having been traced. She was laid to rest near her ancestors and as they left the churchyard the family couldn’t help but wonder what had become of her young love, Sebastian Nugent, and where he might be resting. Had he stopped searching for her? Had he left for the Americas after all?
The family returned to Willow Cottage and continued their renovations and every month they visited Serena and placed flowers on her grave and as they did, their thoughts would turn to Sebastian wherever he now lay. The de Grouchys believed deep down in their hearts that the ill-fated lovers had been reunited in death and they would raise a glass in their memory at Sunday lunch, happy that at last the secret of Willow Cottage was no more.
prequel: The Tale of the Jilted Lover (part II)
In fear for his life and the well-being of his family Sebastian Nugent dare not return home following his duel with Serena’s husband. He was certain he had struck a death blow to the old man and tried in vain to find Serena afterwards, but there was no sign of her. Her new family had most likely spirited her away so she couldn’t flee to her lover, so cruelly jilted in favour of a rich elderly widower.
Despair took hold. He rode through the night to the coast where he took a room in a quayside Inn, waiting for the dawn. Sebastian knew that if the old man died he would be a wanted man; whatever happened now, Serena was lost to him forever. She was better off without him.
As planned he located the Master of a vessel headed for Venezuela who had reserved passage for two people as requested. He didn’t show his surprise when only one passenger arrived. He had seen it all before. Young lovers seeking their fortune overseas, fleeing disapproving parents and the girl oftentimes got cold feet.
Sebastian planned to make his fortune in South America, there was money to be made in Cocoa and Gold he heard and he was prepared to work hard. Sometimes he dreamed of returning home, rich and powerful, able to help his family and find Serena, but deep down he knew that would never happen.
He’d been in Caracas just two days when the earthquake struck. Terrified he had managed to scramble into the street, buildings crashing down around him, all his possessions lost. Death and destruction all around him, he made his way back to the coast in search of another ship and that is how he came to join Jacques Dubois and his brother Philippe, buccaneers operating out of Puerto Rica, plundering the gold cargo-carrying ships of the East and Gulf coasts of Northern America. Their ship had put into port for repairs following a big battle in the Caribbean Sea with the Americans. Sebastian had asked for work aboard the ship, not realising it was a privateer. Too late to change his mind they set sail and so began his adventures aboard ‘The Swallow.’
For five years Sebastian sailed the Caribbean Seas and Maracaibo Islands with the Dubois brothers, raiding American ships and sometimes carrying slaves, cocoa and gold for auction, though often they freed the slaves who joined them in their plundering. He learned to speak Spanish and later when the DuBois brothers began spying for the Spanish, he worked alongside them, passing details of the American ships and receiving huge rewards from the Spanish in return. He dreamed of Serena often and longed to be reunited with her.
Later he joined another privateer, ‘The Endeavour.’ By this time he was Second Mate and privy to secret meetings his Master held with the British who wanted his services. His Master declined and Sebastian and his crew continued to plunder the Gulf of Mexico under the Mexican flag this time.
‘The Endeavour’ was now operating out of the Pirate Colony, Campeche, on Galveston Island Texas, where he was living with a Karankawa woman who had been kidnapped by one of his ship-mates, who later died during a battle. Members of her tribe raided the colony soon after, however, and managed to rescue her after killing nearly all the pirates living there. Once again Sebastian escaped and was in need of a new ship.
Sebastian knew he could never go home, especially after the meetings with the British, who knew his name and would soon discover his past and probably arrest him if he ever set foot in England again, so he found another Privateer, ‘The Warrior,’ run out of Texas by Jean Pierre Lafitte. He cast all thoughts of Serena out of his mind, he never stopped loving her, but he knew they would never be reunited which saddened him greatly now that he was on the way to great wealth by way of his buccaneering.
The battle with the American ship had been raging for three hours, their cannons blasting the sides of ‘The Warrior,’ relentlessly. The crew were suffering greatly from lack of sophisticated weaponry and it was taking in water. It soon became apparent that the privateer was in danger of being boarded and the buccaneers taken prisoner. The Master gathered his officers around him and they discussed surrender or fighting on to the death. The prospect of an American prison was unthinkable and they decided they would fight to the death; there was always the outside chance they might prevail.
And so the bloody battle raged as ‘The Warrior,’ slowly began to sink. Sebastian fought bravely and managed to kill seven Americans before he received a sword thrust to his neck. He fell behind empty gunpowder barrels, clutching his wound. He knew he was finished and as his lifeblood ebbed away his thoughts returned to Serena when last he saw her, in her wedding gown, inside the chapel waiting for her groom.
She was so beautiful and so young. His heart yearned for her. In his imagination he was her groom and it was to him she turned when the Priest pronounced them man and wife. He lifted her veil, gazed lovingly into her shining eyes, and then kissed her soft lips with his dying breath.
Two hundred years later when Serena had been found and laid to rest and the Secret of Willow Cottage had been uncovered, the mystery of what happened to Sebastian, her lost lover, remained unsolved. No-one ever heard of him again and despite endless research by the De Grouchy family and the local Historical Society, nothing was discovered. But he was always remembered when flowers were laid upon Serena’s grave – the family somehow knew that his love her had never died.