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 …