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.
PART TWO NEXT MONTH.