Updated: Apr 19
Welcome to the last installment of The Backstory short story series which began with Emily Pratt: True Friend. This series has introduced several of my favorite and perhaps least favorite secondary characters from my upcoming novel, Hope for Charity, a Christian Historical Romance set in 18th century England. I hope you've enjoyed this peek into the fictional lives of these characters I've grown to love even more after writing these short stories.
by Sandy Kay Slawson
Gwyneth Elgin stood behind a wagon loaded with baskets of apples and watched the handsome Oswin Baines. The first time she’d seen him had been three years before, right after her fifteenth birthday on an errand with her father to trade rocking chairs for sheep with the elder Mr. Baines.
After that, the men made fast friends and Gwyneth wheedled her way into any trip from Coxwold to the Baines farm outside of Husthwaite. Once she learned Oswin’s favorite type of biscuit, shortbread with caraway and almonds, Gwyneth baked a batch to take him before each visit. Gwyneth’s mum grouched at the lost help on their small farm, but Papa didn’t care to be alone and took Gwyneth along despite Mum’s protests.
After their last jaunt to the Baines', even her father recognized what a fine match they’d make and thought it a grand idea to join their families. When she heard the Baines would have a booth at the Apple Fair, she begged to go.
“Why can’t we, Papa? The Apple Fair is but once a year,” said Gwyneth.
“Lass, we’d go if we could, but your mothah has a touch of the gout and won’t be able to see to the animals,” said Papa.
“Can you not ask someone else to help? What about Jack?”
“He already works himself to death on the Earl of Fauconberg’s lands to support his wife and that young nephew of yours.”
Papa scratched his scalp under his toque. “Your elder sistah and her brood might attend since they live closer that way—“
“Perfect. Then I’ll visit her the night before and if they do, I’ll help with the children,” said Gwyneth with an excited clap.
“And if they don’t?”
“They will. I know it. If I’m there to assist with the little ones, she’ll want to be there as much as me.”
The afternoon sun bore onto Gwyneth’s shoulders as she continued to watch the Baines’ booth. Her sister said they planned to leave soon since the children were tired and cross, which gave Gwyneth this one opportunity to visit Oswin without her family in tow. However, a customer dawdled until she wanted to scream.
With Gwyneth’s eighteenth birthday come and gone, spinsterhood loomed closer. Yet, Oswin Baines appeared farther than ever from declaring himself. Before now, she’d excused his behavior as shyness, but as she watched him at the booth of woolen merchandise he and Mr. Baines managed, he didn’t appear one bit shy. The beauty he spoke with appeared to be enraptured by whatever conversation entailed between the two, and Gwyneth doubted it had aught to do with wool. Oswin wouldn’t dare flirt this way when he ought to be working, if his father wasn’t off somewhere.
“He’s making a dingy o’ himself with that stranger,” Gwyneth said beneath her breath.
By the time the young woman waved her fan goodbye, the elder Mr. Baines returned and Gwyneth missed the opportunity to be alone with Oswin. Gwyneth kicked the wagon wheel near her in frustration. The high hopes she’d entertained about this trip dashed to pieces around her. Perhaps she might still greet him? Gwyneth rejected the idea outright. How could someone like her hope to compare with such a bonny lass dressed in clothes finer than anything Gwyneth owned? The next time he eats my biscuits, he’ll forget all about her.
The next visit to see the Baines’ ended in disappointment, as well. Oswin had gone south on a delivery and wouldn’t be home in time for them to see him. On the entire return to Coxwold, Gwyneth pouted and stewed about the wasted venture. She wished she’d kept the treats to soothe her discouragement, but she didn’t, so she chewed her fingernails instead.
“You’ll have more wrinkles than me if you don’t rid yourself of that frown you’ve had for weeks,” said Mum.
“When will we visit the Baines? Winter’ll overtake us afore long. I don’t want to wait till spring,” said Gwyneth.
“Ask your fathah. I have no say. I’ve nowt to do with it except to take care of the chores by myself whilst ye two are gone for hours. Better begone before the weather turns if you're going. I’ll need ye both here once the first snow falls.”
Gwyneth rode with her father toward the Baines’ farm and hoped it wouldn’t be in vain. She tucked the lap robe around her legs and put the hood of her cloak over her bonnet. Mum and Papa had lost faith that the match might happen, and resisted at first, but Gwyneth pleaded for one more attempt to win the illusive Oswin’s affections before months stuck on their meagre plot of land amidst the moors.
After seeing him and that coquette at the fair, Gwyneth decided to dabble with a bit of flirtatiousness herself. This time, she brought the biscuits and some Yorkshire Curd Tarts. A special recipe they usually made for Whitsuntide, but mum made an exception and allowed her to use some of their precious milk for the curds. This visit, she’d give them straight to Oswin. How could he misinterpret such a bold action?
Once Gwyneth and her father reached Husthwaite, Papa stopped the wagon in front of the mercantile and pulled the brake. “There are a few supplies your mum asked me to bring home,” he said.
“Can it not wait until after our visit with Os—the Baines?” Gwyneth said.
“Nay, I don’t want to forget. Come in out of the cold if ye like.”
Gwyneth followed him into the shop and wandered around. Papa, ever amiable, started a conversation with two old men who played backgammon by the front window. Gwyneth huffed with impatience, ready to be on their way. At the rear of the store, three women huddled together and spoke in hushed tones. When Gwyneth recognized the name “Oswin Baines,” she sidled closer, pretended to peruse the fabrics, and listened.
“Can ye believe it? Where did he find her? No one remembers her from any nearby towns,” said one woman.
“She speaks different, dresses different... mayhap she came from London? I’ve heard some house servants there wear clothes as fine as the gentry.” Another woman said.
“She’s not made for farm work. That’s the truth. Did you see her hands? As smooth as a babe’s bottom. Even our grandchildren have more callouses than her,” said the third woman.
Gwyneth could stand it no longer. “Excuse me, madams, but did I hear you say Oswin Baines is married?”
One woman pulled Gwyneth into their little group. “Aye, shocked the entire village. It did. The vicar never read the banns, and no one around here ever saw her afore.”
No. It can’t be. “How do you—?”
“He came into Husthwaite with her a fortnight ago. Introduced her as his wife, he did, proud as a peacock as ye might imagine.”
With leaden feet, Gwyneth left the mercantile and went straight to their chestnut mare and laid forehead to flank. The urge to flee to home tempted her, but until she found out whether those old crones’s tales were true, she refused to leave. No matter how much it hurt, she had to continue on to the Baines and see for herself.
Mrs. Baines greeted them at the door. “Welcome. Did you hear the tidings? Oswin eloped and brought home a wife... we could nary believe it. We thought he’d gone barmy, but the Good Lord knows what he’s about, for we love her already. Sweet as ye please and eager to learn our ways. Come in and meet her. I’m sure you’ll love her, too.”
Gwyneth’s countenance fell, and Mrs. Baines’ smile slipped. Did she realize Gwyneth’s hopes for the future lay banished in the rubbish heap with this news?
Oswin and his wife sat at the table in the house. It took but a moment to recognize the young woman as the one she’d seen at the Apple Fair. She doesn't belong in this family. I do. But Gwyneth felt as dowdy as her old maid great aunt in this woman’s presence.
With Oswin’s solicitous help, his wife arose. He’s nev’r acted the gentleman with me. Gwyneth pushed the bitter thought down as the new Mrs. Baines came to greet them with a grand curtsy fit for royalty. Where did she come from?
A realization dawned; Oswin never reciprocated the fondness Gwyneth held for him these last few years. Jealousy and embarrassment made her want to spit right in the usurper’s face. Instead, she stood with rigid stoicism as Oswin escorted his wife to them.
“Dearest, these are some old friends of the family, Mr. Elgin and his daughter, Gwyneth. This is me wife, Mrs. Elizabeth Baines,” said Oswin with a goofy grin.
“Pleased to meet you both. May I offer you a tea and biscuits? Mother Baines has taught me how to make shortbread biscuits for my dear husband. He simply loves them,” said the young Mrs. Baines like some proper lady as she glanced with adoration at Gwyneth’s Oswin.
Lest she breathe fire as a great dragon might, Gwyneth bit her tongue. Thanks be. Papa rescued her from making a fool of herself.
“We appreciate the offer, Mrs. Baines, but must be on our way. Grand to meet thee and congratulations on your marriage. Tarreur, n’ God bless,” said Papa as he ushered Gwyneth out of the house. They’d gone two miles before she realized Papa hadn’t spoken with Oswin’s father, and she hadn’t given Oswin the sweets. Mother Baines has taught me how to make shortbread biscuits for my dear husband. Ugh! What sort of woman has to be taught such a simple thing?
“Ta, Papa,” said Gwyneth as she wiped her wet cheeks.
“No need to thank me. Poor lass, ye endured enough. Put that boy out of your mind, ya hear? We’ll find thee a better husband. If he wants a mate like that instead of a good sturdy woman to wife and bear his children, then he doesn’t deserve—”
“No, Papa. I don’t want anyone else. He’ll find out soon enough the mistake he made and send her away. Or she’ll flee once she experiences the harsh life o’ a North Yorkshire farmer’s wife and let him get an annulment. ‘Tis clear she isn’t used to hard labor. Then he’ll see that I am and have always been the best choice,” said Gwyneth.
“Aww, daughtah. Don’t waste anymore of your life on that foolish fella. Let me and your mothah find a better—“
“I said no, Papa. Please, leave it be. He’s mine, and one day he’ll awake and realize it. Until that day comes, I’ll bide my time with you and mum. Until that day comes, I’ll make sure he never forgets me.”
Did you enjoy The Backstory series? If so, I'd love to hear from you. I hope it made you as eager as me to see Hope for Charity on the bookstore shelves.
As we move into summer, I'd love to share more about the era in which Hope for Charity is set. Each month I'll plan to focus on a different aspect: History, Styles, Lifestyles, Classes, etc.. If you aren't subscribed, make sure to join my email list (it's free and no spam!) so you won't miss an episode.