Reserve and Reticence – Part Fourteen

Fourteen – Regaining Dignity

 

Poor Dr Forrester almost fled from the baron’s bedchamber, his face flushed like that of a little boy who just got caught with his hand in a biscuit tin. Beth shook her head in mild disapproval.

“You should not have done that, my lord. The good doctor has worked himself into exhaustion to save you.”

“I know, my love, and I will express my gratitude to him in due time. But now, I have other plans.”

He grinned mischievously at her and held out a hand.

“Come here …”, he breathed and Beth obeyed, suddenly feeling as if her heart would jump from her chest. She sat down on the bed, taking Stephen’s offered hand. A second later, she was drawn on top of him, his arms imprisoning her tightly.

“Stephen …”, she gasped, yet at the same time revelling in the feeling of his hard body under hers. Even through the duvet’s soft layers, she instantly noticed what he had in mind.

“Stephen … no.” Bursting with tenderness, she stroked his all too pale face with both her hands. Under her fingers, she felt his cheekbones, all too protruding beneath the stubble of beard. He must have lost a considerable amount of weight, she realized.

“No?”, her husband teased, raising an eyebrow in mock disapproval. “I am profoundly shocked, my lady wife, that you should turn down my advances after such a short time. How am I to survive some fifty years of marriage without the enjoyment of your delectable body?”

Beth giggled involuntarily and was rewarded by a deep, longing kiss, the likes of which she had never been offered before. It was as if Stephen wanted to make her understand how deeply he loved her. The kiss was ardent yet also marvellously sweet. She felt quite breathless when he released her.

“Stephen, you should rest. Your body has been through the most exhausting of fevers, my love. You need to regain your strength.”

“Is that so, my delicious wife? Pray, tell me how you are going to divert my attention from what I want to do to you, right now? I should warn you I am not easily diverted from such an activity.”

Suddenly slipping out of Stephen’s arms, Beth rose from the bed and tugged the bell cord.

“You will be attended by your faithful Hawkins, sweetheart. You valet has been hovering around your sickbed for days, eagerly awaiting the moment when he could see to your bodily needs. Let us not hold him back any longer.”

With regret, but also with acknowledgment of Beth’s good sense, Stephen gave in and nodded. He certainly was in sore need of a bath!

 

~~~~

 

Later, when Beth stepped out of her own bath tub, she allowed Trixie to dress her in a pretty day gown and to put up her hair in a bun at the nape of her neck. She then looked in on her husband who had been given a light meal. Henrietta sat next to her son’s bed and hastily put a finger to her mouth when she heard the door open.

“He is asleep,” she whispered. “My poor Stephen was so thoroughly exhausted, Beth.”

Beth nodded in agreement and tiptoed out of the room. She would give her mother-in-law a much-needed time alone with her son. As it turned out, she herself had to perform an urgent task.

Oliver and Lily had been left in the care of Ruby and her husband Ben, as long as Stephen was too ill for Beth to leave his side. That way, the children could continue their schooling under Mr Sage’s tutelage. Stephen and Beth had planned on hiring a proper tutor for Oliver and a teacher for Lily as well, because the children still had a lot to master. Their education, as heirs to Stephen, was of the uttermost importance. Beth had taken measures for the children to be informed of their father’s illness daily but she knew they would worry nevertheless so she had the carriage readied and let herself be driven to the village.

The twins threw themselves around her in enthusiastic greetings and soon, the lot of them were gathered around the Mertons’ fireplace with tea and biscuits. Beth brought them the good news of the baron’s recovery.

“I have come to take you home, my dears. Your Papa and I have missed you terribly, this past week.”

“So Papa is better, then?” Lily asked.

“Why has he not come with you?” Oliver inquired, much more critical than his sister. Beth threw him a slightly puzzled glance, concerned over the harsh tone of the boy’s voice.

“Your Papa has not fully recovered yet, Oliver. He has suffered a severe fever and …”

“Pish! He does not care for us like you do, Beth. I might be a mere child but I can feel his indifference. Granny was right all along when she said he was but a haughty member of the nobility.”

This little speech was delivered so glibly that Beth felt a cold finger touch her heart. Where had this resentment come from? And why did Lily not share her brother’s anger? The girl sat staring at him in bewilderment and shock.

Although Beth was shocked herself, she attempted keeping a cool head on her shoulders in dealing with her former charges. The children had – in all honesty – only been brought to the Abbey when Stephen realised he had no legal heir after Florence’s death. The twins’ mother had been of low birth, and Stephen and his mother had not complied easily to the thought of having to bestow status upon the commonly brought-up offspring of a village girl. Even at this very moment, Beth was not fully certain of her husband’s real affection for his bastard children. Children, Beth knew, developed a sixth sense for such lack of affection and acted on it with anger. It was nothing but emotional self-preservation, and Beth could very well understand it herself as she had done just the same after her father’s banishment. She too had hated Stephen and his family for ten long years.

Her next and urgent task would have to be to reconcile Oliver with his father but for now, she could only try keeping Oliver’s anger under control. She put her arms around the boy, startled to see how he had grown in the last few weeks. He was no longer a child, she realised, but was rapidly becoming a proper young man. No doubt, Oliver would grow as tall and handsome as his father.

“Oliver, you must behave like you always have since first we met; you have always been an intelligent and good-hearted boy. Now you are becoming a young adult, and I fervently hope you will only grow in intelligence and goodness of heart. Do not forget your grandmother’s wish for you and Lily, my darling. She wanted you to become good people, to find happiness and fulfilment in life. Do not ever forget I will always be there to help you. Your mother Molly was my childhood friend and I will always cherish her memory.”

Although the boy returned her embrace with emphasis, Beth was able to feel a slight hesitation at first, as if Oliver needed to assess the sincerity of her words for just a tiny amount of time. It worried her greatly.

 

Reserve and Reticence – Part Thirteen

Thirteen – A Glimpse of Heaven

 

Consciousness lurked at the edges of his mind but proved too hard to grasp. Extreme weakness prevented him from doing what he most wanted; to open his leaden eyelids, to move his granite limbs, to let words past his cracked lips. It was as if he were immersed in a tepid sea of slowness yet it seemed of vital importance to him that he should fight this drowsy state and become awake.

His body itched something terrible, he realised suddenly. His body … he became fully aware of it, when the itch plagued him so much he wanted to scratch and tear the skin from his flesh in exasperation! That was what gave him the strength to open his drooping eyelids, although it was the hardest thing he had ever done in his life.

He was in familiar surroundings, thank Heaven! All of a sudden, he realised he had been having this terrible fear of being in a bad place but, to his relief, found he was not. His own room, his own bed. His? Like a Jack-in-the-box, his name popped out of his memory. Stephen Fenton, Baron Brixton. He was home, at Brixton Abbey, praise the Lord!

Gingerly, Stephen attempted turning his head to get his bearings, and the first person he saw, was his Beth, slumped in a chair beside his bed. A huge wave of relief and joy washed over him. He could not be in a bad place when his lovely wife was at his side. Poor Beth, she must have fallen into an exhausted sleep in that chair. Why would she be in a chair instead of next to him in their bed? He opened his mouth to ask but no sound escaped his starched lips, and he found his throat dry as the desert. As he raised a hand to touch her, he saw the red, raw spots on his skin, some of them dried, the skin flaking off, some of them still red and aching and finally, some of them ugly blisters that itched like the blaze. He was ill. He had succumbed to a horrid disease and maybe, he was dying. He certainly felt like he had been under a dray cart!

With something of an effort, Stephen managed to sit up and lean over toward Beth by supporting himself on one elbow. That allowed him to touch her arm with one outstretched hand. Immediately, he regretted the gesture because Beth was startled into action with a faint gasp.

“Stephen! Oh, Stephen, my love! Oh, thank God, you are awake!”

She began feeling his brow and stroking his face and then, she hugged him and kissed him, tears running down her cheeks.

“Oh, my heart, my dearest love, oh! We have been so very afraid we might lose you …”

Stephen’s heart nearly burst with joy when he returned his wife’s embraces as best as he could despite the fact  it cost him a lot of energy. Soon after, he was reclining against his pillows, gasping and panting, causing Beth to admonish herself for her overzealous demonstrations. After a few moments, however, they just sat gazing at each other, clasping hands tightly.

Stephen managed to make it clear that he had no control over his voice, and Beth instantly helped him to a cup of cold tea, sweetened with honey. It was heaven to Stephen’s parched throat, and he drank with greedy gulps. Afterwards, he began feeling a bit better.

“How are you feeling? Are you still feverish? Are you in pain? Are you hungry?” Beth asked anxiously.

Shaking with silent laughter, Stephen covered his wife’s mouth with one hand, which made her laugh herself. He pointed to his stomach and mouth and Beth understood.

“I will go and fetch some food, my darling. Just lie still, do not move, please.”

She hurried out of the room and Stephen, staring after her with regret and longing, was again hit by an extreme weariness that paralyzed his limbs and made his head spin. Hunger gnawed in his belly, his stomach suddenly rumbling. Lord, but he was absolutely ravenous!

A short time after, the door burst open and a crowd of loudly chattering people entered. In astonishment, Stephen was assaulted by the relieved cries of his mother who smothered him with kisses. That was something he rarely witnessed! Clumsily, he returned her caresses.

After a while his mother withdrew, patting her eyes with a scrap of lace, and Stephen noticed the Reverend Carter and Dr Forrester, who both congratulated him on his recovery. They were followed by those of Raleigh, the butler, Hawkins, his valet, and a bunch of footmen and maids, who all twittered and squeezed in delight, just to see him on the way to recovery. Overseeing it all with a sweet smile on her bright face was his wife.

“Please …” he croaked, stunned to find he had his voice back, “please, all of you, accept my thanks for your good wishes.” Even after those few words, Stephen found his breath gone from his lungs. Closing his eyes in exhaustion, he lay panting for air during the next minutes while Beth thanked everyone and gently ushered them from the room, claiming her husband still needed his rest.

She sat down next to him again and felt his brow with the back of her hand.

“Still slightly feverish, I fear,” she said.

“I feel terrible,” Stephen replied, his voice barely audible. “Tell me, Beth. How bad is it?”

Beth took his hand in his and kissed it, almost reverently.

“You have contracted chickenpox, my love. On adults, it can be fierce because their bodies are not as flexible as a child’s. It is frequently seen that adults develop high fever, so I was not too much concerned at first. I have been mistaken, my love. You were almost taken from us because your fever was so extreme it brought you to the brink of death. I was negligent, my love. I did not apply myself enough at first.”

Again, she pressed his hand to her lips. Her cheeks were wet with tears, Stephen noticed with a shock.

“Well, I am better now, my sweetling and sure to be on my feet again soon. That can only be your doing, my dearest, loveliest Beth.”

For a few, precious moments, they gazed into each other’s eyes, conscious of what they could have lost during the horrible week of Stephen’s illness. Beth felt her heart soar like a lark in a bright, sunlit sky! It was over! All her fears and horrors were laid to rest.

A tentative knock on the door preceded Dr Forrester’s entry. The thin little man looked as haggard and – no doubt – as unkempt as Beth thought she must surely look herself. A stab of pity rose in her chest, and she quickly stood to meet him and take his hands, which startled him.

“Dear Dr Forrester,” she hastily said, “I would like to express my thanks for what you have accomplished here. It is your skill that helped rescue my husband through this ghastly illness. I can never repay you for it.”

The old bachelor blushed suddenly, harrumphing and coughing through his embarrassment.

“Oh, no, my lady! I am sure you are only being gracious and polite. There was not much I could have done for His Lordship if you had not been there for him during those long days of uncertainty. You are the one who …”

“Oh, come on, Forrester!” Stephen’s voice was trembling with suppressed mirth. “Can you not graciously accept a compliment when you are offered one? I assure you my lady wife does not proffer them to just anyone, you know.”

“Erm … yes, … erm, no, I am sorry, my lord, … you are right, of course. Thank you, my lady, for your most generous offer.”

He bowed over Beth’s hand and kissed it in a reverend way.

“But now,” he continued, “we must see to you, my lady. You have outdone yourself caring for His Lordship and without any care for your own needs. I ask of you – no, I demand that you go and rest properly.”

“I beg your pardon?”, Stephen asked, a note of concern in his voice? “What are you implying, Forrester? How long have I been ill?”

Dr Forrester briskly strode to the baron’s sickbed, eagerness making his voice waver.

“My lord, your esteemed spouse has not left your bedside for a whole week. She has not had any concern for her own needs or condition, as long as you were in mortal danger. For you have been on the brink of death, my lord, and without Her Ladyship, you might have not have lived through it.”

Stephen’s heart pinched with pity and overwhelming love as he beheld his wife for the first time since he had awakened. She looked like a scarecrow, her hair wild and come loose from the pins. Her face was ashen and streaked with dirty smudges, and her beautiful eyes were dull with fatigue. Yet, she looked absolutely lovely, had – in fact not looked lovelier than just now.

Stretching out a hand to her, Stephen gazed at her, filling his eyes with all the love he felt for his Beth.

“Well, doctor, then I mean to make her sleep the way she deserves. I will ring for your or any services as soon as my lady wife is properly rested. Pray, close the door on your way out.”

 

 

 

Reserve and Reticence – Part Twelve

Twelve – An Unexpected Approach

 

It was yet another night when Beth and Henrietta were keeping watch next to Stephen’s bed, unable to find rest and sleep. Henrietta lay stretched out on the sofa, covered by a blanket against the chilly dawn of May. She had finally given up the fight against exhaustion and dozed off. Beth sat in her chair beside Stephen’s bed and held his hand in hers. That hand was yet again hot and damp because her husband was drenched and shivering with high fever.

With a sigh of utter wretchedness, Beth reached for the leather bag, filled with ice, and gently tamped Stephen’s face with it.

“There, my love,” she whispered. “Do not worry, my darling, everything will be alright.”

Would it? Did Stephen even hear her? Did he know she was there, tending him?

“Stephen? Can you hear me? Stephen, it is me, Beth …”

He did not even stir. In fact, if Beth would not have noticed the faint but rapid exhaling of his breath, she would have thought her husband deceased.

“Oh, my dearest … please, get better … I cannot bear to lose you …”

And then the tears came and uncontrollably rolled down her face. All the pent-up misery was released at last, and she let her head down onto Stephen’s chest, sobbing frantically. It was so unjust! They had not even had one carefree week of marriage! In sheer frustration, Beth pounced her fist on the mattress.

 

~~~~

 

“Beth, you must not despair. He is going to live. You must believe that, you simply must. That is what I am trying to do because the thought of losing him cannot exist in my heart.”

The warmth of Henrietta’s arm, more than the tone of her voice, was what rose Beth out of her deep despair. That tone had been meant comforting, but Henrietta had failed to put comfort into it. Instead, her carefully masked sorrow had shown through.

Beth raised her eyes to those of her mother-in-law and saw Henrietta for the lonely elderly woman she was. The baroness had no longer any real purpose in life, since the day Stephen became the next baron. As if she had read Beth’s mind, Henrietta began to speak.

“You see, Beth, I was completely at peace with my son becoming the next baron after my husband died. It is the natural order of things that a female member of the English nobility withdraws from her duties as the lady of the house, especially when there is a young wife in attendance. I liked Florence from the start. She was a ray of sunshine in mine and Stephen’s life, lively and beautiful, witty and intelligent. She was also endearingly sweet to me. I always thought a daughter-in-law to just tolerate her husband’s widowed mother and handle her as some tedious but unavoidable person, who came with the marriage. Instead, Florence was a warm and lovable woman, who included me in her life. I was looking forward to a quiet life in the dowager house, when her sudden death disrupted Stephen’s life. Despite my own grief, I had to be strong in order to help Stephen overcome his misery. He was utterly devastated by Florence’s death, Beth. There were days when I feared he would buckle under the weight of his sorrow.”

In an impulse, Beth took Henrietta’s hands in hers.

“My lady … there is so little I know about Stephen’s life, and it frightens me. I hope you will share some of these stories with me in the future.”

Henrietta smiled and sat down on the bed.

“Beth, I have done you so very wrong and I apologize. I had not seen your great love for Stephen, I thought you were eager to bring harm to our house and later, that you were a mere fortune hunter who would cause Stephen sorrow and misery. I deeply regret my actions, my dear. Can you forgive me?”

Beth embraced the older woman warmly.

“Yes, my lady, all is forgiven. I am so very grateful for your support during Stephen’s illness. Pray God that we will not …”

Stephen unexpectedly gasped, startling both women. Beth rose and put her finger against her husband’s throat to feel for a pulse. It was still there but it felt weak and shallow.

“Stephen?! Is he …”, whispered Henrietta.

“No, no! Do not upset yourself, he still lives.”

Henrietta’s breath came out in relief.

“Then, my dear, You ought to go to bed and sleep. I will stay with him.”

However, as it was obvious that Henrietta too was at the end of her tether, Beth coaxed her to retire to her own rooms and have a proper night’s rest.

“Stephen won’t wake soon,” she said, matter-of-factly, “and I shall be sleeping on this cot, as I did so for this whole past week. I have grown accustomed to it, I fear.”

As soon as the dowager left, Beth tried feeding some weak tea to her husband, who swallowed it instinctively without waking up. She felt his brow and found it rather cool, much more cooler in fact,than it had been for a week. Earlier that day, Dr Forrester told her that Stephen was on a turning point – either his fever abated, in which case he would survive and, possibly, grow better, or he would enter another fever spell, which would deal the fatal blow to his weakened body. The coming night would be decisive, one way or the other.

With a sigh, Beth sat down in the chair beside the bed and folded her hands in prayer. It was all that was left for her to do, she realised. Only the Good Lord would have the power to save Stephen now, so she would plead his life with the Maker of all things. All night long, if necessary.

Stephen seemed to be asleep rather than lethargic, his pale, somewhat emaciated face relaxed and smooth, except for the blisters which were finally beginning to subside. His breathing, though still shallow, had become less rattling. Oh, how she loved him …

 

~~~~

 

During the long hours of the night, Beth relived all aspects of her relationship with her husband. How she admired him, when she had still been a child, and she saw him in the village with his father. He had been a thin, clumsy boy in his early teens, at that time, his movements woodenly and exaggerated. Yet, he already had that handsome face with the sparkling blue eyes, filled with joy and gentleness. She had been secretly in love with him, admiring him from afar, hoping for a sign that he noticed her. Of course, he had not. He was the young heir of Brixton Abbey, the future baron.

Her dreams of love and hope had been savagely destroyed the day of the accident, that killed her relatives. From then on, she had only room for revenge in her thoughts and heart.

All those long years of exile in France had only strengthened the need for revenge, especially when she was forced to bury her father in a godforsaken little graveyard in Provence, rather than next to her mother and brother in Woolworth.

Yet, when she set her eyes on Stephen, in those first days as a governess to Lily and Oliver, Beth had instantly known she had never stopped loving him, even when her mind battled with her heart and told her to keep him at bay. To no avail, for she never stood a chance, once she gazed into those lovely blue eyes of him.

And now, after they had joined their hearts and lives, she stood on the brink of losing him …

 

Reserve and Reticence – Part Eleven

Eleven – A Struggle For Life

 

Now that she had managed to negotiate a truce with her mother-in-law, Beth was able to concentrate on Stephen to the full. She certainly needed to do just that. Stephen was getting sicker by the hour, his fever rising to an incredible pitch. After a couple of hours, he became completely oblivious to his surroundings, suffering from long spells of heat, which left him soaked in sweat. Shivers of cold raked his body, breaking even more perspiration. After a few hours, the rash broke out, and it was worse than any Beth had seen on the children. It literally covered every square inch of his body, especially his face, and the pimps quickly turned into blisters.

Beth got really worried after Dr Forrester made an appearance and told her the situation was in fact desperate.

“My dear lady Brixton, I have to point out to you that His Lordship could very possibly die if we do not succeed in bringing down the fever. If it rises any higher, irreparable damage will ensue. So, at all cost, we must try and cool him.”

Consequently, the master bedroom was quickly transformed into a war zone and became a world apart. Stephen was carried to his dressing room by two footmen, who let him down into his bath tub, filled with cold water. The state of complete lethargy he was in, tore at Beth’s very heart. There was no reaction or cooperation coming from Stephen, which made it very hard for the footmen to handle him. Beth sponged his entire body while she supported his head with a hand, numb from the icy water. It brought down the fever only slightly. After a quarter of an hour, Dr Forrester ordered the baron to be put back into bed again.

Beth treated the blisters on his skin with talcum powder laced with lavender oil and dressed Stephen in a clean nightshirt. She made sure Trixie and the other maids had changed the sheets on the bed beforehand. She then tried to feed him some infusion of meadowsweet and lavender, sweetened with honey, but he would not swallow. Half an hour later, the fever was back in full force yet again, and the whole process had to be done over.

After a night of trying to lower Stephen’s fever to no avail, Beth had no strength left yet she did not give up. Dr Forrester had fallen asleep on one of the sofas, and the maids and footmen had been twice replaced by fresh ones, except for Trixie who had stayed by Beth’s side. The little maid meticulously looked after her mistress, making sure Beth took an occasional nap, when Stephen’s fever had diminished between baths. She also forced some food on her though she was not very successful there. Beth was hanging onto her fear that Stephen was in mortal danger, as long as the fever would not be broken. Her strength came from the love they shared and the fact that she could simply not abide the thought that she might lose her husband. Stephen simply could, would not die. She would rather die herself trying to prevent that!

 

~~~~

 

Henrietta, dowager baroness Brixton, was in sheer agony over her son’s fate yet she would prefer dying first rather than going to see how he was. But, how she longed to do just that! Stephen was her son, after all. The gift she received thirty years ago from her darling Septimus, and would she now lose him? The thought was unbearable!

So Henrietta finely cut the knot and marched into the sickroom after half a week of misery and waiting … and stopped right away in her tracks. The room was a mess! On every sofa and seat, there were people sprawled as if they had died there. One of them was her son’s physician, Dr Forrester. Henrietta had never seen him in such a deplorable state of dishabille, without a coat and with his shirt sleeves rolled up over his scrawny arms. A couple of bath tubs must have been added, and they were surrounded by huge copper jars, used for carrying hot water from the kitchens. Then, finally, her gaze was drawn to the large four poster bed, and her heart stopped with overwhelming fear!

The figure in the bed could have been a stranger she failed to recognize and surely not her beloved Stephen. The man was lying absolutely still, bony hands above the covers, face an ugly shade of grey and cheeks sunken so that the bones stood out like those of a skull. Stephen’s thin nose was like a blade jutting out of his face, and his lips were colourless and cracked. His eyes were closed and ugly dark pouches showed beneath them. His body showed a greyish white sheen that Henrietta recognized as a layer of talcum powder, through which the ugly blisters of the rash shone in a horrible way.

Henrietta became aware of something else – someone else, to be precise. Her hated daughter-in-law was sitting next to Stephen and was trying to make him drink something. She was holding Stephen’s head with one hand, and with the other, she was raising a cup to his lips, coaxing and enticing him to drink in a voice barely audible with hoarseness.

“Please, my love, drink this? Come, my darling, you must drink it. It will make you better, I promise you. Dearest, please, do not leave me. Please, Stephen, I love you so, do not die on me.”

This woman must indeed care a great deal about her son, Henrietta realised as she swallowed at the lump in her throat. She must have been at Stephen’s side the whole time, judging by the extreme state of sloppiness she was in. Her hair was like that of a scare crow, coming down from its pins, and it was obvious it had not seen a brush or comb for several days. Her clothes were filthy and wet, she wore shoes nor stockings and her face was ghastly and tear-stained. It was clear to the dowager that Beth was near complete exhaustion. How had she managed to hold up until now?

Beth’s monotone voice, coaxing her husband to drink, tore Henrietta back to reality. She resolutely stepped toward the bed, gently took the cup from Beth’s hand and spoke in a sweet voice.

“Come away, child. I will take over so that you can rest a while. You do not need to leave his side. I will order a cot to be placed here, next to Stephen’s bed, so that you can watch him while you rest.”

Dr Forrester, who had woken shortly after Henrietta came in, agreed whole-heartedly with these arguments.

“My lady dowager is right, Lady Brixton. You are wearing yourself out, and it would not help your husband at all, should you collapse.”

Beth seemed in a state of shock, and it was not until the cot was brought in and Henrietta gently led her to it, that she finally looked at her mother-in-law.

“He is dying, Mama-in-law,” she croaked, “ I did all I could but I will … lose him … nevertheless.”

The last words came out in bits and pieces, as if Beth had no breath left. Tears were running down her face now and heart-rendering sobs were raking her chest. Without thinking, Henrietta took the trembling girl into her arms and hugged her.

“Now, now, child, do not despair yet. He is still breathing, but we must join forces to make him better again. I have left you on your own far too long to deal with this wretched disease. Now, go and lie down.” With gentle but firm gestures, she pushed Beth onto the cot and tucked her in herself.

 

~~~~

 

The rest of that week – the second of Beth’s only-too-fresh marriage to Stephen – passed in a haze of misery and hard labour. Trice the Reverend Carter, who had come over as soon as he learnt about the Baron’s dire condition, administered the last rites to Stephen, so convinced as the minister was of his lordship’s imminent demise.

Henrietta and Beth, too exhausted to cry, had equally been certain they would lose Stephen. His colour was deathly pale, the skin of his face parched and dry, and his crackled lips revealed his teeth as they parted to fight for air. In his state of extreme fatigue, Stephen’s chest heaved as he laboured for breath, making Beth cringe every time he managed the effort.

Yet Stephen kept clinging to life, hour after hour and day after day. Dr Forrester professed he had never had a patient so strong and tenacious as to resist death for so long. Yet, although Stephen was still alive after seven days of high fever, his health was rapidly failing since his nurses did not get much sustenance into him. He was too weak to swallow so Beth and Henrietta took turns in trying to get fluids past his dry lips. It failed – most of the time – yet the two women stubbornly held on, refusing all defeat.

One day, Raleigh asked Beth to come down with him to the great entrance hall, which – to her astonishment – was crowding with people. Stephen’s tenants and their families and the entire population of Woolworth had come to pay their respects to their master and his lady. The Reverend Carter and Mr Sage had been chosen to convey the assembly’s support. Beth was near to tears yet she did not give in to weakness. Her voice but slightly trembling, she thanked them all on behalf of her husband, her mother-in-law and herself. Knowing she was not alone in her suffering meant the world to her.

The lovely drawing I used in my story is by Mrs Joyce Mould.

 

 

 

Reserve and Reticence – Part Ten

Ten – Savour the Moment

 

Stephen woke to the sound of voices coming from the connecting dressing room, where Hawkins was admonishing Trixie, now Beth’s lady’s maid, to be quiet. He smiled and turned his head toward his wife whose naked body lay beside him. She was lying flat on her stomach and her delicious little derriere stuck up like that of a child. The sight of those perfectly shaped pink peaches gave him a sudden jolt of desire so strong he wanted to grab her, turn her onto her back and yet again take her on the spot! God, he wanted her, right here, right now, and how was that possible when they had made love five times during the night? Yet he was fully aroused and ready, once again!

Carefully, Stephen rose from the bed and went to the dressing room, snatching his robe on the way out. The room was empty but he noticed the tray on the dresser from which came an exquisite fragrance of tea and fresh scones. Good man Hawkins!

After a quick wash, Stephen carried the tray into their room and just as he placed it on the nightstand, his wife opened sleepy eyes.

“Good morning, my lady!”

Beth smiled drowsily and suddenly discovered she was not wearing a nightgown and even worse, was lying on top of the bedcovers. That made her sit up and snatch the sheet to restore a shadow of dignity, but her husband was quicker and had her pinned to the mattress in no time.

“Where were you planning to go to, my sweet lady? You are not allowed to leave this bed, since I have not yet given you permission. I am certain you have not forgotten what you promised yesterday, before the whole community? To love and obey me for the rest of our lives, until death do us part?”

“And you, my lord?” Beth retorted, a naughty smile curving her mouth. “Did you not pledge to love and cherish me forever with the whole community as witnesses? Right now, I do not think you are cherishing me! You are on the verge of ravishing me.” She pointed her gaze at his blatant state of arousal, and her smile widened. “At least, that is what I conclude from the deplorable state of abandon you are in!”

In a few seconds, her husband disposed of his robe and lifted her onto his lap, positioning her where he wanted her the most. Beth gasped as she felt his manhood slide smoothly into her intimate self. God! This was … incredible! Immediately, she was immersed in a wave of renewed passion to witch her body responded with rapidly mounting arousal. Instinctively, she began riding him with slow movements of her hips. With a primitive feeling of feminine satisfaction, she watched Stephen throw back his head and groan, as he braced himself against the pillows to follow the rhythm she imposed with her hips. Again, they rode the wave of passion until their world exploded in millions of shards.

 

~~~~

 

They were barely granted a week of wedding bliss before the disaster struck. One night, Beth awoke to the sound of her husband’s laboured breath, only to find him burning up with fever.

“Stephen, what is it? Are you ill? What can I do to relieve you?”

“Hot … I am so hot … water … I need to drink …”

Beth remembered the fatigue Stephen had experienced during the previous day which was unusual for him. Stephen was seldom tired, was – in fact – a strong, healthy man. Yet now, he seemed weak and confused. Hurriedly, Beth rang for the servants, and they began tending to their master under her supervision. She had instantly grasped what was happening; Stephen was suffering from chicken pox. By the time her mother-in-law arrived, Beth had him comfortably tucked in clean sheets and was trying to cool his flushed face with a wet cloth. He was in a state of lethargy, not responding to words or administrations.

Henrietta, dowager baroness Brixton, limped into the room with all the grandeur she could muster. She had stubbornly kept to her rooms for the past week, furious because her son had married the former governess, whom she considered too low in station to wed a Baron Brixton. Furthermore, she had summoned her lawyers from London, who conferred with her over the steps she could take to protect herself against the consequences of her son’s union with what she considered a hostile daughter-in-law, whom she now addressed in strident tones.

“What have you done to my son, you wench? Step away from him instantly!”

“Madam, Stephen has contracted the chicken pox and he is very feverish. We need to …”

You need not do anything! I want you to leave this house and return to the village. Your place is with the commoners from whom you sprang.”

Beth stared at the dowager with incredulity and mounting concern. She now fully faced Henrietta with equal dignity and replied:

“My place is at my husband’s side, Madam. I know how to treat him as I have proven these past few weeks. I will not leave Stephen, not when he needs me.”

“Enough! My son is not your husband, Madam! Not when you have no marriage certificate to prove it!”

Before Beth’s stunned eyes, the baroness drew a document from her pocket and tossed it into the blazing fire in the hearth, where it was immediately consumed by the flames. Had the dowager suddenly gone insane? Feverishly, her thoughts went over the consequences of this. Surely, the destruction of the document did not mean that much? It could be replaced.

“But … our marriage was filed in the parish register by the Reverend Mr Carter! That document was merely a copy that was made for our own benefit!”

Henrietta smiled triumphantly and proclaimed. “Carter is a dependant of this house, my dear. I can take away his living, just as I did to your father. He has already erased your farce of a marriage from his register. Now, leave my house at once, or I will order my footmen to evict you.”

To prove her words, two sturdy men in the Brixton livery stepped forward, men Beth had never seen before, with hard faces and impassive eyes. The other servants in the room, two maids, Trixie and Raleigh, the butler, stood rooted on their spot, powerless to do anything to help Beth. Yet Trixie stepped forward and curtsied before the dowager.

“Beg pardon, my lady, but can I at least go and pack My Lady’s portmanteau? She will need her clothes and …”

Henrietta cut her off with a snap.

“No, you cannot! Get yourself off to the kitchen again and be lucky I let you take up your duties as a scullery maid once again! Resist me, and you are on the streets, my girl!”

Trixie fled the room and Beth could not blame her. The poor girl came from very poor stock, and her wages were needed to support her large family. Beth herself could not comprehend what had just occurred! Was she really banned from Stephen’s side and house? What was she to do? Where was she to go? Her frantic thoughts were racing though her head like frightened birds, and she made an effort to gather them and find an answer to this. She turned towards her mother-in-law and pleaded. “My lady, I beg of you, please reconsider your words. Stephen might be in severe danger if I do not manage to keep down his fever. Chicken pox can be extremely endangering in adults. At least, let me take the necessary precautions to ensure his safety.”

A slight tinge of fear brushed Henrietta’s heart, all of a sudden, and for the first time, she approached her son’s sickbed to better look at him. She touched his brow with the back of her hand, only to find it burning hot with fever! Only then, it occurred to her that Stephen really had fallen very ill. A huge dilemma raged in her mind as she pondered over her next step. Surely, Dr Forrester could also treat Stephen? Yet, the man had proven inferior to the governess when treating the sick children. That hated woman had successfully fought and conquered the disease!

“Very well, woman. You are allowed to stay for three days and take care of my son. Mind you, as a nurse! You will take up quarters in your former room on the fourth floor and not be alone with his lordship when tending to his needs. One of my footmen will always escort you wherever you go in this house and be present at my son’s sickbed when you are there.”

She raised her stick and pointed at Beth, eyes glowing with hatred. “Three days, do you hear? If my son does not show signs of improvement by then, I will throw you out for good!”

Reserve and Reticence – Part Nine

Nine – Lull Before the Storm

 

“Thank you, Hawkins. I won’t be needing you anymore tonight,” Stephen said as his valet finished dressing him for his wedding night.

“Very well, my lord.” Something in his valet’s tone made Stephen raise an eyebrow at him but his long-term servant – close as a friend – showed him a face as impassive as a statue’s.

“Out with it, Hawkins! What is it?”

“I do not know what you mean, my lord! I just wanted to wish you good luck.” Now, there was a grin on Hawkins’ face as he hurriedly left his master’s dressing room. Stephen chuckled softly and opened the door to his wife’s quarters. Anticipation rushed through him, and he felt the first stirrings of arousal. Yet, no matter how long he had been fantasizing over his first night with Beth, nothing could have prepared him for what he beheld next!

She was gorgeous, simply ravishingly beautiful in her silk nightgown the colour of fine champagne, her dark brown hair spilling over her back and shoulders like a coffee-coloured waterfall. The soft material outlined her figure to perfection, bringing to life the soft curve of her slender hips and the promising roundness of her fine breasts. His body reacted like that of a boy barely out of the schoolroom! Christ! It had been ages since he felt so turned on by the sight of a mere woman!

No! Not a mere woman but his woman … his wife.

 

~~~~

 

The room was exquisitely decorated with tasteful, elegant furniture, lovely shades of pastel wall papers and drawings, and a soft, thick Aubusson carpet covering the shiny parquet floor. A cheerful fire in the marble Adam fire place made it cosy enough for Beth to relax a little while she stood next to it, warming her icy hands. Would that her racing heart be so easily soothed!

She was waiting for her husband to join her and … initiate her in the pleasures of the marriage bed. Her heart was hammering in her chest as she stood staring at the dressing room door through which Stephen would enter. It connected their separate bedchambers and guaranteed a privacy whenever the need arose for a good night’s sleep … in separate beds which was often customary for marriages of the Ton. Beth fervently hoped she would not give Stephen cause to leave her bed on any night of their life together. Her parents had always shared a bed and she had never known a happier couple than Papa and Mama.

She shivered and drew a deep, calming breath. Her gaze went to the large mirror standing opposite the fire place in which her image was reflected. What she saw was a slender, frightened little girl of middle height, dressed in a night gown of creamy silk. A pale face above a décolleté that was very revealing, due to the thin shoulder straps and the low neckline that showed the onset of her small breasts. Breasts with hardened peaks straining against the flimsy fabric…

Beth was afraid, very much so. From her studies and manuals, she had of course a vague idea about what transpired between a man and a woman during sexual intercourse, yet she had not experienced it first-hand. She was only just beginning to feel sexual stirrings – all of them initiated by Stephen’s touch – and although they did not repel her, those unusual feelings did indeed worry her. It had become clear to her that they instigated a loss of free will in a person so that they were no longer in control over their reactions.

When she heard the sound of an opening door, she realised it could only be her husband, coming to claim her. A strange throbbing came to life, deep in her belly, clutching at her very heart. Her eyes shifted toward the connecting dressing room door, caught sight of Stephen and … suddenly, she stopped breathing!

 

~~~~

 

Stephen wore a long robe of moss green velvet with the sash loosely bound around his narrow waist. The V-shaped opening showed a triangle of chest, slightly tanned and smooth. Beth’s gaze roamed from his devastatingly handsome face with the blue-grey eyes, now sparkling with scarcely banked fire, to his well-defined muscular torso, sculptured by the smooth velvet it was encased in. Beneath the robe, she noticed a pair of loose drawers and then – oh, Lord! – his long, strong feet. Bare feet … Her breath caught and a surge of something immensely powerful awoke in her inner self!

She felt positively light-headed when he slowly stepped nearer and the sash of his robe came undone, revealing stretches of golden muscles and a light sprinkle of dark hair that covered his nipples. Her eyes followed that line of hair where is disappeared beneath the waistband of his trousers, that were riding low on his slim hips.

Yet, it was the look in those blue eyes that really touched her; an unmistakable look of admiration and also … something quite different, something that made her heart turn in her chest. Her blood pounding in her ears, Beth surprisingly found her legs strong enough to meet him halfway. Her hands – palm down – came to rest on that broad chest where they were instantly warmed by his smooth, hot skin. Warm spirals of desire came to life and found their way from the top of her head all the way down to the tips of her toes and finally, converged inside her womb to pool in her most delicate place. She was going to faint … surely.

 

~~~~

 

Stephen forced himself not to rip off that flimsy gown of hers, when Beth’s shy and yet so erotic touch seared his skin. He needed to go slowly and above all gently, for she was still an innocent. How he was supposed to accomplish that, when all his senses were ablaze with passion, he could not fathom! He had never, ever, been aroused like that! Not even with Florence, his first wife, had he experienced this kind of sexual desire. It throbbed in violent waves through his entire body, and his manhood was so hard it stung like hell!

A slight inclination of his head sufficed to make his lips brush hers, without touching her otherwise. Her jolt of surprise and the tiny moan she uttered nearly sent him over the edge! Christ! That, too, had never happened before!

Wanting to make his wife feel comfortable and relaxed, Stephen gently traced her lovely mouth with gentle kisses, until she responded by letting her hands rove over his body. She was very shy, but he could sense her eagerness and the onset of passion, as she became bolder. Her fingers slid over his shoulders, baring them. She gasped with pleasure as her hands stroked his back and buttocks, following the band of his trousers to the front of his torso again.

When she touched him through the fabric, it was his turn to gasp and groan as her fingers moved over his hardness. He eased the straps of her gown over her shoulders, and it suddenly pooled at her feet. Oh, dear Lord! She was absolutely the most beautiful thing he had ever laid eyes on and she was his! This gorgeous woman was his and his alone!

 

~~~~

 

To Beth, it seemed like the most natural thing to stand before her husband completely naked. Yet, she wanted him naked, too. Suddenly, she felt the unstoppable urge to feel his skin against her own!

Impatiently, she pulled at his trousers until they fell around his feet and then … oh, sweet Jesus … but he was breath-taking! A body as hard as rock, yet so velvety soft to the touch … steel muscles finely chiselled … male, all male … she could no longer breathe when she saw the glory of his manhood, standing proud and ready. All of a sudden, she knew it all! She understood everything that happened between a man and a woman and she wanted that now, this instant.

Stephen must have seen her desire for he took her in his arms and carried her to their bed. Gently positioning her against the pillows, he stretched beside her, long hard body warming her soft curves from head to toe. She pressed as close as she could, not wanting to miss a single inch of him. A need to touch him, caress him, savour him caused waves of heat to roll over her, and she whimpered softly when Stephen began kissing her all over her body. Face and neck and lower, to shoulders and breast … oh, heaven! His mouth was working wonders that started washing over her in waves of pure delight. His hands were setting her skin ablaze wherever they roamed but when they stroked her inner thighs, she thought she would melt, and dissolve, and be gone forever. God! But she still wanted more! This was not enough! Franticly, she parted her legs and pulled at him and lifted her body upward. Oh, why did he not come closer and absorb her until she was drawn into him?

 

~~~~

 

With a jolt of delighted surprise, Stephen welcomed Beth’s uncompromising response to his lovemaking and he carefully covered her warm slender body with his. Her scent, all flowers and woman, was driving him mad with need, but he forced himself to be delicate and gentle. He needed to make her adjust to his weight and supported himself on his elbows while he slowly entered her. When she pressed even closer, he understood that she was still eager. With long, gentle thrusts, he initiated her response so that she easily followed his rhythm. She was ready for him, all warm sleekness, enveloping him completely, and he became bolder, inviting her to join him in the century-old dance of love. Soon, he had her going along with him, and she did not shy away when he breeched her barrier. Instead, she became even more aroused, clutching his shoulders with hard-gripping fingers and gasping for breath as her passion rose to higher pitches. He climbed the mountain of passion with her, welcoming the surge of release that grew and grew stronger with each thrust. When Beth gave a long, shuddering cry as she reached her peak, he shattered completely in his own, powerful release!

 

~~~~

 

Afterwards, they lay wrapped in each other’s arms and savoured the infinitely agreeable feeling of their warm, sated bodies. The scent of their lovemaking was so soothing, so totally safe and full of belonging. At one point, Stephen unconsciously pulled the covers over them both and they slowly sank into blessed sleep.

 

The lovely drawing I used in my story is by Mrs Joyce Mould.

 

Reserve and Reticence – Part Eight

Eight – Persuasion

 

Looking up into Stephen’s face, Beth suddenly saw him through a haze of tears. He was toying with her, he could not be serious.

“L … love? You speak of love when … all you wanted before was …”

She could not speak those hideous words aloud, she simply could not.

“To bed you?” Stephen completed for her, then smiled sadly before he continued. “Dear Lord, but I have made a blithering mess of it, haven’t I? Forgive me, my love, for hurting you with my haughty ways.”

And he took her in his arms where she stood frozen and unresponsive yet he did not seem to notice. How could he be so carefree about something she considered so serious? Yet, quite unexpectedly, the sweetness in his voice touched her right in the heart.

“Of course, I was attracted to you. I would be blind and completely without feelings, would I not have been attracted to a lovely, adorable woman like you. The fact that we knew each other since childhood might have had something to do with it, too. I admit to having been a total cad and an incredibly stupid oaf not to understand that you would not be pleased about it. Being a peer of the realm does that to a man, darling, although that is no excuse for my boorish behaviour.”

He again lifted her face so that she was forced to meet his gaze.

“But, my dearest girl, once you had set off to Manchester after boxing my ears and leaving me so unexpectedly, I began to have an inkling of what you really meant to me. I was baffled to find myself completely lost and hating every moment of it. I could not think straight without you popping into my head every minute of the day. I could not sleep at night and when I did, you haunted my dreams. I found myself going utterly bonkers without you, Beth.”

Oh, those gorgeous blue eyes … burning with fire … Could she really believe him? She so wanted to … she so longed to.

“Beth, I know you have no trust in me and I cannot blame you, for I gave you every reason to distrust me. After all, I was responsible for so many misdeeds. I caused your mother and brother to die in that horrible accident. I compromised an innocent village girl and abandoned her and the children I begot. And … I wanted you to be my mistress. That was perhaps the dastardliest deed of all. I did not see you for the wonderful woman you are.”

Cupping her face in his hands, he softly kissed first her brow, then the top of her head.

“I love you, Beth … I must have loved you since that day, at the vicarage, when my mother spoke so harshly to you, and my father evicted yours. How crushed I felt in my parents’ stead, how ashamed and … how deeply sad at the sudden realisation that you were going to leave the village and disappear from my life. You were always in my thoughts, Beth, through my Cambridge days and later, when I was in the army and fighting.”

Finally, Beth found the courage to say something back to him. “Why were you so mean and vicious to me, then? You never gave me any reason to think you cared for me.”

Stephen’s reaction was a complete surprise to Beth. She did not know exactly what she had expected but certainly not this! Fenton released her and sank onto a chair, raking both of his hands through his hair.

“God, Beth! Could we not let bygones be bygones? I was haughty and arrogant and … well, furious, too! You came back, pretending to be someone else, and with a purpose of ruining me. I did not comprehend why, Beth! You already knew of my involvement in the tragedy!”

“Yes, I did! And I wanted you to own up to it, pay for it, Stephen Fenton! Can you blame me?”

When he lifted his eyes to hers, the look in them pierced her heart.

“Oh, I have paid for it, Beth, dearly so. First, I lost you. And then, when I finally managed to put you out of my mind and began loving Florence, I also lost her – and in a carriage accident, irony of ironies.”

There was pain in those drawn, pale features and bitterness in those thin, rigid lips. For the first time in their long acquaintance, Beth could actually see the deep hurt and sorrow in Stephen Fenton. Florence … his wife … Beth had never known her and conveniently forgotten about her. Florence Durant had been the daughter of a Devonshire earl, and the baron not only gained a charming, very beautiful baroness but also a substantial amount of dowry money. Their mutual love had been equally substantial, apparently.

“I am very sorry,” she whispered, belatedly, and swallowed away her stupid pride.

Stephen’s face was pale but without emotion, once more. Beth knew he was a master in disguising his feelings, a characteristic she loathed in him. How could she deal with a man who was incapable of showing how he felt? How was she to connect with such a man? She was not sure if she would be able to share her life with Stephen if he could not make her a part of his life and feelings.

Then, all of a sudden, one solitary tear rolled down Stephen’s cheek, and Beth’s heart skipped several beats. Her hand went up and slowly, gently wiped it away.

“I would be very honoured indeed, my lord, to become your wife …”

 

~~~~

 

When Stephen led her outside, to the front of the cottage, Beth was utterly astonished to find the whole village waiting for them. The Reverend Carter and Mr Sage stepped forward to meet them, a radiant smile on their faces.

“My dear Miss Williams,” the Reverend beamed. “May I express the extreme gratitude of the entire community for the enormous task you have fulfilled? You have brought back joy to our little village, and we want to thank and honour you.”

And there they were! All her pupils, girls and boys alike! Each with a huge bouquet of the loveliest wild flowers they could gather in the fields of early May. Beth’s eyes, once more, filled with tears.

She took several of the bouquets in her arms while Lily and Oliver carried the rest inside. After a moment, Stephen Fenton cleared his throat and raised an arm to ask for silence.

“People … dear friends … I, too, have an announcement. Miss Williams has done me the great honour of consenting to be my wife.”

A deafening cheer rose from the assembly and Ruby threw herself into Beth’s arms.

“Oh … famous! Dearest Beth, I am so happy!” A couple of minutes went by in which numerous villagers came to congratulate their school teacher, before Stephen asked for silence again.

“Mr Carter, sir? I have a favour to ask of you,” he addressed the vicar.

A gasp of delighted surprise escaped the crowd when the baron retrieved a document from his coat.

“Reverend, I have obtained a special licence to marry my beloved Miss Williams forthwith. Would you perform the ceremony now?”

Beth stared at her betrothed in appalled astonishment. Words failed her while her heart exalted with joy!

“My lord,” the Reverend replied, “I would be honoured … and utterly overjoyed to oblige you.”

“Well, my dearest, loveliest Beth, then, without further delay, we shall go into St Mary’s church and be joined in holy matrimony!” Stephen said and offered his right hand flashing a radiant smile at his beloved. With an answering smile, Beth sealed her fate by placing her hand in Stephen’s. The die was cast; from now on, she would follow her baron to the end of the world if necessary.

 

Reserve and Reticence – Part Seven

Seven – Rectification

 

The next day, Beth was to find out that His Lordship had left the house. She had gone to bed right away the previous night, after the baron and Ben Merton had stepped outside. Ruby insisted on that since Beth’s face still showed a tinge of grey.

The smallpox situation had changed for the better in more than one way. All patients were recovering nicely, their fever gone and their rash reduced to mere pimples. The children were up and playing again. Little Johnny was suckling his mother’s breasts with enthusiasm again, to his parents’ delight.

Apart from astonishment over Fenton’s sudden departure and also, over the fact he had not told her, Beth actually felt relieved they were no longer under the same roof. She still had no inkling as to why he had moved in with her in the first place! Now, with Ruby and Ben living in, she was in a better position again to deal with people’s judgements. Yes, she felt relieved. Or so she told herself …

She also missed him already, and dearly so. Living with him for just these couple of days had made it very clear to Beth how much she loved Stephen Fenton. The way he cared for the children had surprised her endlessly every single day! The patience and gentleness he exerted stirred her heart and sent her spirits soaring sky-high!  She had learned a completely different side of him, one that made her adore him more each day. And then came that moment, when he had asked her – no, told her, in that high-handed way of his – to marry him. That moment had been the happiest of her life. She was convinced her heart would burst with joy, and it had been the hardest thing she had ever done, not to show it to him. He was not to know, at least, not before he told her he loved her too. And that, he had not done.

In her heart of hearts, Beth was convinced that Stephen did not love her, though he liked her well enough and certainly, that he wanted her as a lover. She longed for him, too, desperately so. His touch was like liquid fire, spreading through her entire body, setting her senses ablaze! Although Beth had never been with a man and was justifiably afraid of the unknown things that could befall her, she knew it would be pure delight with the man she loved – on condition that he would love her back. Never could she give herself to Stephen without having his love.

 

~~~~

 

Ruby and Beth were serving dinner to a table full of hungry children, when Ben stepped inside, accompanied by Dr Forrester. The baron’s personal physician was a short, wiry man in his early sixties with a balding head of sparse grey hair and watery grey eyes. He sported a goatee beard that had retained its natural dark colour which made it look like as if it were a fake and had been glued onto the doctor’s chin.

“Good evening, Miss Williams. His Lordship sent me to examine the children and report back to him about their welfare. I have just returned from London where I consulted with some colleagues of mine from the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge. Now, I would like to take a good look at your patients, if you would allow me.”

Thus, the children were examined, one by one, which took a good bit of time. When the doctor was finished, he smiled cheerfully and gave his opinion on the matter.

“Miss Williams, I had an inkling that this disease might not be the smallpox but the chicken pox. Now that I saw for myself, I am positive. It is, for a fact, only chicken pox. You might want to know that His Lordship’s friend, Mr Masterton, was the one that contracted it in Egypt and infected His Lordship’s cousin, Miss Hannah Faraday. She is now better but she has been very ill, these last two weeks, and Mr Masterton, too, had a high fever for several days. They both have conquered it, though.”

Beth’s spirits lifted endlessly at that! Chicken pox was not nearly so dangerous as smallpox, and relatively mild when children contracted it.

“I was not aware of the fact that adults could also be infected, doctor. I thought it to be a childhood disease.”

“It is, Miss Williams, it certainly is, and once a child has gone through it, he or she acquires a long-life immunity to it. Yet, when the disease develops in an adult, it can be quite dangerous, even life-threatening. I take it you had chicken pox as a child?”

“Yes, quite so, doctor. I was also inoculated with small pox.”

“Perfect, you should be safe for either of them.”

 

~~~~

 

The day after Dr Forrester’s visit, all Beth’s little patients had gone home safe Lily and Oliver. It seemed the chicken pox was over, finally! Beth was grateful she had her former charges still with her.

“I want to live here with you, Miss Williams,” Oliver assured her. “It is so much more fun here, especially since I have made some new friends, being sick and all.”

“Yes, me too,” Lily chimed in. “Is school going to start soon again, Miss Williams? I already miss Lizzie and Jane!”

“In a few days, Little Miss Impatience! Give me time to clean up the classrooms first! In the mean time, you must return to your father’s house. I know for sure he and your grandmother miss you both terribly.”

“Then, why is she always scolding us when we do something she does not like?” Oliver put in.

“It is you who behaves badly, Oliver, not I!” Lily retorted. “Grandmama says she does not understand how a well-behaving girl like me could end up with such a scoundrel for a brother!”

They were all laughing, when the door opened, and Stephen Fenton walked in, dressed to perfection and so incredibly handsome Beth’s heart did a summersault.

“Papa!” The twins dashed toward him and it was all he could do to keep his footing when they hugged him.

“Hello, my darling brats! I have come to take you home, so go get your stuff so that my coachman can stow it away in the carriage.”

Fenton smiled when they pounded upstairs to do as he asked.

“You will allow me to send some maids and footmen to help you clean up, I hope?” he asked when they were alone.

“I will welcome the help, my lord, and I am much obliged to you. If we have conquered the disease, we could only have managed thanks to you.”

“No, Miss Williams, that is not true. You and you alone have wrought this and brought it to a good end. This community owes you and so do I.”

Beth acknowledged this with a smile of her own, suddenly feeling ridiculously happy. Seeing Stephen seemed to have this effect on her, lately. When he spoke again, the earnest tone of his voice sobered her.

“Miss Williams …” He stopped, then rubbed a hand through his face and exclaimed: “Blast it, you will always be Beth to me, so I might as well call you so!”

He took her hand in his and, with his other hand, lifted her chin. Fiery blue eyes bore into hers and Beth shivered.

“Beth, will you please do me the honour of becoming my wife?”

She was thoroughly taken aback, so much so that she blurted out the one reply that came into her head. “Why?”

Stephen’s answer came in a voice husky with emotion.

“Because I love you and I cannot live without you, dearest girl.”

Reserve and Reticence – Part Six

Six – Priorities

 

At that moment, someone banged on the kitchen door, and Beth heard a voice, shrill with horror and panic, calling out her name. Ruby’s voice …  In a frenzy, Beth tore open the door, pelted down the stairs, past an astonished Stephen and snapped open the kitchen door.

“Oh, Beth! I think little Johnny has caught the disease! Look! He is burning up with fever and he won’t suckle!”

She dumped a bundle into Beth’s arms and threw herself in the arms of her husband, who was as horrified as she. For a few moments, Beth just stood there on the threshold, her mind blank with sudden fear. She seemed to have forgotten all the necessary knowledge she would need to help Johnny, who was mewing pitifully. It was a sound that ripped through her heart. Oh, merciful God, this was Johnny! What was she to do?

Gentle hands took the baby from her and a voice, piercing through a lump in her ears, gave quiet commands. The baron …

“Ben, bring Ruby inside. Come, put her here, next to the stove. The warmth will soothe her. She appears to be in a shock. Now, help me. We have to fill the tub with tepid water. Take that big kettle, it’s warm …”

Holding onto the doorpost for support, Beth watched. Her knees were wobbling, all of a sudden. Her head was spinning and seemed to be filled with cotton wool as panic raged through her.

Meanwhile, Stephen undressed the little fellow’s limp little body and bathed him with the help of his father. Calm and detached, but with sure, steady gestures, the pair of them cooled Johnny’s body, rubbed it dry and made him drink Beth’s lavender tisane, which she kept at the ready in her medicine cabinet.

Fenton’s gestures were sure, steady and gentle as he wrapped the baby in a clean blanket and laid him in one of the laundry baskets, which he put on Ruby’s lap.

“Ruby, look. Little Johnny is asleep and, if you feel his brow, you will find his fever gone. Leave him here for a few days until we know if he is indeed affected.”

“But … my lord … I have to nurse him! I am breastfeeding him!”

“We can accommodate you and Ben in an upstairs room, if you are not afraid of catching the disease.”

Ben Merton nodded.

“Then that is what we will do, my lord. I can help with the work and Ruby too.”

“Well, Miss Williams, is that not fortunate? We will not be dealing alone with …”

Fenton, addressing Beth and turning to her, saw her swaying on her feet. He was just in time, catching her in his arms when she collapsed.

 

~~~~

 

Not more than a few seconds could have passed since she sank into blackness, Beth guessed, since she was still being held tightly against the baron’s solid chest when she regained consciousness. The three people in the kitchen were all talking but what they said was very different. Through a thick layer of cotton wool, Beth heard Ruby’s voice, shrill with panic.

“Oh, my goodness! My lord, she has fainted! Get her onto a chair, I beg you!”

Ben’s tenor chimed in with a hearty agreement, but it was first and foremost Stephen’s baritone that caught Beth’ attention while she fought to get control over her trembling knees and spinning head. Stephen’s voice, warm and soothing, right next to her ear.

“Lean on me, dear Miss Williams, I will get you to sit down. Here we are, just lower yourself down. Easy now! Put your head on your arms!”

Beth became aware of quite a few things occurring that same moment. Fenton’s arm was still around her shoulders, and his hard body touched hers in several places, suffusing her with warmth and beguiling her with a scent so totally male she nearly felt dizzy again. Her cheek was resting against his chest, and the strong, steady beat of his heart did nothing to calm her own heart rate. His voice, warm and sweet, was soothing her to the point of bringing tears of self-pity into her eyes. She also saw the way Ruby and Ben were looking at both her and the baron and she shivered. It was exactly how the town people would look at her – with appalled astonishment and with hurt. Hurt because they thought so much higher about her. Miss Williams, the vicar’s daughter, now sunken into the gutter status of a nobleman’s mistress.

“No,” she suddenly gasped. “I am fine, my lord. Just a slight indisposition. It has already passed.”

With all the willpower she could muster, Beth took a deep breath and turned toward Ruby.

“How is little Johnny, Ruby? Can I have a look at him?”

Fenton stared at Beth with a bit of disbelief. What was that? What had he done now to upset her so? Then he saw the look Merton gave him, cold rage blanching the man’s ruddy face.

Now, that, he could not let pass! Merton was one of his tenants, for God’s sake! Fenton gave the man a sign with his thumb, summoning him outside.

“Well, Merton? Care to explain why you are looking daggers at me?”

Oh, and why, Stephen mused, was he the one wanting to explain to a subordinate? Merton, however, stood his ground, as usual when dealing with his lord.

“My lord, I’m a man of plain speaking and I cannot condone your behaviour toward Miss Williams.”

Fenton studied the man closely while he was trying to establish a way of punishing him for his blatant impertinence. Yet, somehow, he understood that there must be a serious reason for it, not that Merton had not always been defiant in his dealings with his betters. Merton was a proud, straightforward man, with a strong conscience and a large sense of justice.

“And why is that, Merton? What have I done to Miss Williams that it raises your hackles so?”

Merton fixed him with a stare so stern that Fenton felt a slight uneasiness coming to life.

“My lord, begging your pardon, sir, but have you no consideration for the way your cohabitation is perceived in the village and the county? All the pious and the righteous are speaking shame about it. They are so convinced that Miss Williams is your mistress that they are going to ask you for another teacher when this disease is over. They do not want her to “foul their innocent children’s mind” any further, as they expressed it.”

If Merton had punched him in his gut, Fenton could not have been more surprised. Never had he considered his and Beth situation subjected to critic from villagers and country folk! He was their baron, for God’s sake! His actions were of no concern to the populace! But Beth … that was another matter altogether.

She was one of them, and people expected her to behave within the strictest bonds of propriety. With his high-handed ways of never asking anyone’s opinion or advice, Fenton had placed Beth in an intolerable and impossible position. Why had he not realised that long before? And of course, that was why she was so furious with him. And why she had thrown his marriage offer right back into his face.

The baron became once again aware of Merton and the scowl the man bestowed on him. Fenton’s temper rose to a pitch and for the space of a moment, he just wanted to engage in fisticuffs and punch him to a pulp! Merton must have seen the flare of anger in his eyes yet the blasted fellow did not even flinch. Instead, he drew himself up to his full 6 feet and straightened his back which made his huge shoulders look even more wide. Incredible! Even though the man knew full well Fenton could ruin his life and that of his family without even blinking an eye, Benjamin Merton stood up to him and in a quiet, righteous manner too.

“Tell me, Merton,” Fenton challenged him. “Why is it that you risk losing your livelihood in defying me, your lord and master, on behalf of my former vicar’s daughter?”

“She’s pure gold,” Merton told him. “She’s one of us, and if you hurt her, all of us feel her pain. Without the slightest hesitation, she risked her life to help and heal our children. In return, we cannot let her be compromised by anyone, my lord. Not even by you. If you want to throw me out of your farm, then do so, but Ruby and I are not letting Miss Beth down.”

Fenton withstood Merton’s glare with ease and even smiled at him.

“Well, man, you may rest assured I will try and rectify the matter to mine and Miss Williams’ satisfaction. I would appreciate if you and your wife would stay with Miss Williams and help her with the children. I will withdraw to “The Blue Boar” forthwith, just to ease your mind.”

And on that remark, Fenton turned on his heels and went back inside.

The lovely drawing I used in my story is by Mrs Joyce Mould.

Reserve and Reticence – Part Five

Five – Fighting Side By Side

 

For the next three days, Beth and the baron worked side by side in never-desisting labour. There was much to be done during the day and the night. The children’s fever had risen a bit, making them very tired. They were asleep most of the day and had to be spoon-fed because of their weakness. The baron – as Beth was prone to notice – was very good at this. This fact baffled her, to be honest. She had never known him to be patient or simply kind to small children. By God, it had even taken him several months before he opened up to his own children!

But now, she saw a completely different side of him. He usually sat on the patient’s bed, holding the bowl in one hand and feeding the child slowly and gently with the other. His patience was sweet but persistent, and he only stopped when the bowl was empty. Beth, who managed only four patients in one hour, was stunned to see Fenton feed twice as quickly, so that at ten in the morning, every child had been dealt with.

That left room for bathing, and there too the baron was extremely helpful. He had ordered a copper bathtub to be brought to the school yard. With a few heaves of his muscular shoulders, Fenton brought it inside and positioned it next to the kitchen stove. He then carried the children to it, one by one, and Beth washed and dried them. Fenton put them back into their beds after Beth had again dressed them in their night dresses. The washing took only two hours instead of four!

By then, it was time for luncheon. The baron had arranged for footmen and maids to bring on hot meals and hot water from “The Blue Boar”. He personally collected the goods at the garden gate and carried them inside. Then, he helped with the meals to be fed to the children.

What astonished Beth the most, was the baron’s patient kindness and gentle good humour in dealing with the children. It seemed he was a totally different man from the one Beth had known forever, and it worried her greatly because she detected a softening in her feelings for him. Surely, she was not planning on trusting him ever again, was she?

 

~~~~

 

After a busy day, they often sat in the kitchen, enjoying a cup of tea. Revelling in the peace and quiet of the evening, they spoke about what happened that day, about which children were worse or better, about how they would tackle the next day and the problems ahead. Time seemed to stand still for Beth, and the rest of the world was far away and unreal to her.

The cosy interior of the kitchen, with its huge stove, softly whirring with burning logs and coal, the clean-scrubbed oaken table with its blue-and white chequered cloth, the smell of food still lingering and the fragrance of the tea they were drinking, it all added to the feeling of safety and well-being. Beth sneaked a peak at the baron as he sat bowed over his tea, his large but slender hands around his cup. His hair was in damp disarray because he had just finished cleaning out the bath tub, after the children’s many baths. It hung over his collar and brow in glistening curls, black as a raven’s wing. His wrinkled white shirt had come undone to expose a part of his broad chest.

Not for the first time did Beth notice the huge scar that crossed the chest muscle, a thick red streak about half an inch wide. She recalled it was about ten inches long … It was a miracle he survived such an injury. His mother had said he nearly died of the fever that followed …

There was one, very clear notion in Beth’s mind, at that moment. She did not even begin to know Stephen Fenton, the fifth baron Brixton. All her life, she considered him haughty and without a conscience, and heartless, and … she thought of him as a monster, yet he was not that. Like every human being, Fenton too had experienced hurt, physical as well as emotional, and it had left him with scars. Not that he ever showed them – no, not him, not the baron!

That was the point, Beth mused. Stephen – her long standing enemy, but also, the man who touched her heart so very deeply – was first and foremost a baron, a noble, a man with authority, wealth and position. There was no common future for them, even if they should ever grow closer.

She swallowed at the large lump in her throat that had suddenly and unexpectedly formed. Stupid! She was being stupid and unrealistic! She had better stop indulging in those useless feelings before he …

Too late! Stephen Fenton raised his dreamily gaze to her, blue eyes glowing softly with some pleasant emotion that made Beth’s heart flutter wildly! And alarmed Fenton to the point that he grabbed her hand!

“Miss Williams! What is it? Are you unwell? Tell me, I beg of you!”

Unwell, Beth thought, no. Doomed was a better word! She cleared her stricken throat before she could begin to summon up a reply.

“It is nothing, my lord. I am merely tired and …”

“My name is Stephen, as you very well know. Surely, we are past all this silly politeness? Are we not partners in this unfortunate business?”

Oh, the warmth of his hand on hers! The heat of those beautiful eyes and the comfort of that sweet smile …

“Partners? Yes, but … I … I do not really know you, do I? How can I sit here and talk to you as if we were equals? I …”

“Not only equals, Beth, but also friends, I hope? Surely by now, we are close friends?”

“I … I …”, was all Beth could stammer, overwhelmed as she was under the onslaught of his gaze.

“Beth … could you not make an effort to get to know me for who I am? A man, Beth, just a plain, ordinary man, who longs to befriend you … we do know each other for so long, do we not? All our lives, we have been in close proximity, so why should we not be so now? We are fighting alongside each other. For God’s sake, Beth! We are practically living together!”

In sudden panic, Beth rose, causing her chair to clatter onto the floor as she pushed it back with vehemence! She stumbled out of the room, bumping into furniture on her way to the door, but not looking back at him.

Damn and blast! What had he done? He would have to cut out his tongue if he ever was to look her in the face again properly! Had he really blurted out that extremely foolish remark about living together? He knew, did he not, how easily she was thrown in uproar about such things! Had he still not yet realised how sensitive a person Beth was? Fool! He was such a stupid fool!

 

~~~~

Beth reached her upstairs bedroom on instinct, rather than actually seeing where she was going. She was so thoroughly shattered by what she just heard from Stephen’s mouth that her chest was aching with the very breaking of her heart! He still lusted after her! He had as good as laid out to her that the only thing left was for them to … to consummate that lust. They really were living together, were they not? They were in each other’s company, under the same roof, every day and every night, and the worst of it was that the whole village knew it! People would think they were lovers! Her reputation was ruined, non-existent! She was ruined, she was a fallen woman in the eyes of the community she was living in! Bitter tears ran down her cheeks now but they did nothing to alleviate her pain. Oh, why had she ever made that foolish decision to come back to Woolworth?

A soft but insistent tap on the door finally broke through the red veils of her distress.

“Miss Williams, please? We need to talk and make matters clear if we are to work together in the days to come. I humbly apologize for the clumsy way I expressed myself, just a few moments ago. My choice of words was unforgiveable. Please, talk to me, Miss Williams? Think of the children that count on us and are in need of our care?”

Although Beth was still in a horrified uproar, she had to admit that Fenton had said the only thing that would make her listen to him. She opened the door and stepped onto the landing, her body rigid with indignation.

“Oh, you are indeed caring for them now, are you? A minute ago, the only one that mattered to you was how to coax me into becoming your lover! Moreover, you called it another name; you asked to ‘befriend me’!”

“And that was exactly what I meant!” Stephen snapped. “I hold you in too high an esteem to take you to bed unless you want to yourself!”

Shocked though she was at his bluntness, Beth nevertheless felt herself softening again. He did have a high esteem for her, then? Oh, there was nothing more she could want from him, Beth thought. To know he respected her, liked her and loved her! Like she loved him, then? No! She instantly quenched that feeling! And she should not offer him her heart on a platter, too!

“Yet, that is what everybody thinks, I imagine!” she snarled instead. “That we are lovers, indeed! I asked you specifically not to come here yet that was exactly what you did! How am I supposed to go on living in this village after the disease has gone and the children are healthy again?” Goodness, she was barking at him herself, now.

“Simple!” he barked back. “Marry me!”

Stephen could have slapped himself across the face, but it was too late now. He had spoken aloud the only notion that had been in his brain for months, and there was no retrieving it. He had as good as destroyed his own defences. Yet, he could not read the look she threw at him. She was angry no longer but stood studying him with cool calculation.

“Why?” was all she asked, startling him by the harshness of her tone.

“Why? Well, because that way, you would retrieve your reputation. Besides, we have known each other for God knows how long and we have no secrets for each other anymore since you are perfectly informed about everything my life might contain. I need a wife and a mother for Lily and Oliver. My position as a peer of the Realm wants a baroness, and I cannot think of anyone better than you, Beth.”

For a long time, Beth did not speak. Stephen was aware of the sweat breaking out all over his body and of the rapid beating of his heart, emotions that had not come to him since his time as a soldier in the Peninsular War!

“My lord,” Beth said calmly, “I need you to leave this house, this instant. You have outstayed your welcome.” With that, she entered her bedroom and locked the door behind her.

The lovely drawing I used in my story is by Mrs Joyce Mould.