Reserve and Reticence – Part One

One – A Fine and Unforgettable Day

 

On one of those rare, sunny days in March 1820, the village of Woolworth, near the estate of Brixton Abbey in Leicestershire, was teeming with people wearing their best clothes. They were celebrating the opening of St Mary’s Primary School for children – girls as well as boys. This joyful event was due to the indefatigable exertions of Miss Elizabeth – Beth – Williams, daughter of Woolworth’s former vicar and previously, governess to Lily and Oliver Bradley.

It had been a lifelong dream of Beth’s, to teach children – and especially girls – and provide them with an education that would allow them to make their way in life. The times were rapidly changing in England and abroad, due to the industrial revolution. Cities like Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds needed people to work in the cotton mills. Education was sure to be neglected as children as young as five were employed to work as gatherers of cotton fluff from under the looms. Beth longed to give “her” pupils a proper education on languages, arithmetic and other useful skills, so that they could aspires to better positions.

Now this day had finally come, and Beth stood next to the school’s benefactor and sponsor, Baron Stephen Fenton of Brixton Abbey, who was just about to deliver the inauguration speech. She cast an admiring glance at his tall, slender form, when he stepped forward toward the small dais in front of the school building. He was clad in a formal black superfine coat, which fitted his broad shoulders like a glove, and in buff doeskin breeches, which hugged his powerful thighs to perfection. His snowy white linen shirt, moss green waistcoat and gold-coloured, intricately knotted cravat showed him exactly as what he was; the Lord of the Manor and patron to the village.

“Good people of Woolworth,” Lord Stephen began, “today, we are rejoicing and celebrating because an fortuitous opportunity has arisen for our children to gain a proper education …”

Stephen’s words only slightly reached Beth’s ears, as she cast a glance toward the new school building, which was, in fact, Mrs Bradley’s former cottage. It was the home where Lily and Oliver Bradley – now Fenton – had grown up in the care of their grandmother, after their mother Molly died in childbirth.

The baron had done wonders with the place. Two proper class rooms had been added next to the cottage which would serve as living quarters for Beth. Boys and girls would each have their own room and, while Beth was to teach the girls, the task would be taken up by Mr William Sage, the assistant curate to Mr George Carter, the vicar. Mr Sage stood next to Beth and smiled at her. He was looking forward to the task, Beth knew, and they had prepared for it in long meetings of scheduling and designing the lessons.

Mr Sage was a tall, lean man in his late twenties, with an unruly head of flaxen hair and a pair of cornflower blue eyes. He was a shy and quiet man and he was also very determined to make the school a success. When prompted to give his views on education, Mr Sage was as enthusiastic as Beth herself.

“And now, I would like Miss Williams and Mr Sage to formally unlock the doors of St Mary’s Primary School?”

Beth startled and was confused for a second, but Mr Sage sprang forward and took the key from His Lordship. He held out his hand for Beth, who laid her own in his, and together, they went to the class room’s door. A loud sheering raised up from the assembly as they inserted the key into the lock and together, turned it. Mr Sage was so overcome by emotion he grabbed hold of Beth’s upper arms and kissed her trice – and soundly – on the cheeks. Out of the corner of her eye, an embarrassed Beth saw Fenton raising his eyebrows in mocking acknowledgment of the embrace. Immediately, her cheeks were hot with flushing embarrassment! God! Why was it that Fenton had such an influence over her?

The long-awaited festivities – the fair, the food and drinks, provided by their baron, the jugglers, musicians and fortune tellers – drew the throng of people to the market place and suddenly, Beth found herself alone with Fenton. Towering over her, looking impossibly handsome, he extended a hand to her.

“Well, Miss Williams, shall we go and join the fun? I hope it all measures up to your satisfaction?”

Beth placed her small, white hand in his big, strong one and replied. “I would be hard pressed to find fault in the amenities you had worked out for the school, my lord. I am immensely grateful to you for all you have done. Thank you.”

She lifted her face and found herself gazing into those magnificent blue-grey eyes of his. Eyes that glowed with something she had not beheld before … a warmth, a vulnerability, a surrender to … no!

No, she would not proceed in that direction, Beth admonished herself sternly! Stephen Fenton was a danger she would not expose herself to, even though she was attracted to him in a way that she did not like at all. Thus, she averted her eyes from him and allowed him to lead her to the market place, where the banquet was about to begin.

 

From the dais, where the more distinguished guest were seated, Henrietta Fenton watched her son as he led Beth Williams to a chair on his right hand side. She herself sat on his left side and she was not entirely happy with that. She was also disconcerted about the way her son was looking at the school mistress. Henrietta knew the baron had formed an attachment to his former governess. Completely unaccounted for, as far as Henrietta was concerned, Stephen had considered himself responsible for the deaths of the Williams woman’s mother and brother in a carriage accident, ten years ago. It was absolutely preposterous to blame a young lad of thirteen for a mistake when his father, Baron Septimus, had been the one that handed over the phaeton’s reins to his son, in an attempt to teach him how to drive it.

Henrietta Fenton was indeed very concerned about her son.

She was all but too conscious of the loneliness he suffered since his beloved wife’s death. Florence had also perished in a curricle accident when she drove it off the road and onto a tree. They had loved each other fiercely and passionately and not even the fact of Florence’s barrenness succeeded in ruining that love. Stephen, devastated by Florence’s passing, had stopped being interested in women ever since. Until the advent of that irritating vicar’s daughter! Oh, Henrietta had noticed all too well the looks that were being exchanged between the two young people. There was an attraction from both sides, and how could it not! Stephen was extremely handsome, young, powerful and wealthy,and becoming his wife would secure the Williams woman’s future for good. Well, Henrietta vowed, not when she had a say in it!

 

Later that night, when the festivities were over, Fenton escorted Beth to Mrs Bradley’s former dwelling, which now bore the name of “White Rose Cottage”, referring to the heaps of newly planted bushes of that variety, dear to Beth since she was a child. Her mother had cultivated white roses all over the vicarage garden and used to tend the bushes with a passion.

Beth stepped through the little wooden gate and into the small walled front garden, already dreaming of how the roses would smell, come June.

“So, Miss Williams, are you ready to tackle your challenge tomorrow?”

“I am, my lord, and looking forward to it.”

The baron nodded and took Beth’s hand. “I will accompany Lily and Oliver on horseback and bring them to you in time,” he promised before brushing the back of her hand with firm lips. A tingle ran swiftly down Beth’s spine when she felt the warmth of Stephen’s touch. She quickly retrieved her hand before her now weakened knees would buckle. Holy Mary! Why did she always and invariably respond like a lovesick school girl, whenever the baron touched her?

“Will you be comfortable enough?” the baron asked softly, glancing down into her eyes.

Beth seemed unable to avert her face and searched for some expression in the baron’s gaze, which she did not find. Fenton’s eyes were unreadable in the dim light of the waning moon.

“I will, my lord. Thank you for asking. I will bid you goodnight, then.”

Before she could turn away and enter her house, Fenton grasped for both of her hands and brought them swiftly to his lips. He kissed them, one after the other, and squeezed hem lightly.

“Goodnight, my l … erm … Miss Williams.”

Beth stared after him in confused bewilderment while he strode toward his stallion Parsifal with long, easy strides.

 

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

Reserve and Reticense – Part Two

 

Two – A Visitor from Abroad

 

The following weeks, Beth and Mr Sage organized the school to the best of their abilities by applying a strict routine of learning and playing. Alternating lessons with physical exercise and periods of relaxing did wonders for the children’s concentration. There were twelve pupils at the school, six of each gender, ranging in ages from six to twelve. Mr Sage, the assistant curate, was in charge of the boys of whom there were two farmer’s boys, Mattie Benson, ten, and Peter Rathcliff, twelve. They had French and Latin together with Oliver Fenton, Beth’s former charge. The two sons of the local butcher, Eddie Cratchley, nine, and Roddie, six, and Crispin Robinson, the steward’s son, eight, had yet to learn reading and writing.

In her class, Beth taught the basic skills of reading and writing to four girls, while the two remaining ones, Ruby Merton’s sister, Jane Hart and Lily Fenton, the baron’s daughter, both twelve years old, practiced their French. The Reverend Carter had been teaching the older children before the baron founded the school

Little Josie Robinson of six, the Abbey steward’s daughter, was illiterate as well as Sylvia Benson and Maggie Rathcliff, both eight years old and daughters of two of Fenton’s farmers. Lizzie Goodhouse, the baker’s daughter was ten.

Beth’s pupils were intelligent and eager to learn, so it took them just one month to learn reading and writing. The older girls volunteered to read from a book of children’s stories with them during the weekends and holidays.

St Mary’s Primary School was not the only enterprise that went off well during those first weeks. Beth’s little private household too was flourishing.

The cottage she occupied – Mrs Bradley’s former dwelling – had been newly upholstered by Lord Fenton. The tiny parlour and the small dining room had been decked out with new carpets and curtains, and the walls had been dressed with new coverings. An elegant set of chairs had replaced Mrs Bradley’s ancient and worn-out ones, and the baron had graciously lent Beth a load of books to fill the large cases flanking the hearth.

Upstairs, the master bedroom had been supplied with a new four-poster bed and new curtains. The smaller bedroom was now a dressing room, and Beth had gasped with delight when she saw the huge copper bath tub Lord Fenton had provided her with. She fondly remembered the light of joy in his blue-grey eyes when she profusely thanked him by pecking him – rather impulsively – on the cheek. The gaze that followed the joy was intense enough to set her own cheeks on fire!

The cottage – and Beth’s own needs – were taken care off by Trixie Bamber, Brixton Abbey’s former tweenie. Although she was just fourteen years old and rather waif-like, Trixie was very dedicated to Beth and stronger than she looked. She kept the cottage clean and well-provided for with food and all the necessary items to make it a home.

The more physically demanding tasks were performed by Alan Widdicombe, second son of the innkeeper. The Blue Boar did not have enough customers to allow Alan to stay and help his father, so the young man of eighteen was all but too happy when Beth took him on as a servant. He was tall and strong and full of diligence for his new task.

Lord Fenton had kindly offered to pay their wages, waving away Beth’s protestations and reminding her that it was his duty to see that the new schoolmistress had everything she needed to perform her task to perfection. She found herself liking his behaviour and his manners towards her.

In fact, Lord Fenton did not behave lately as the man Beth thought him to be up until now. He had treated her with the utmost deference, on every occasion they had met. He had not tried to beguile her with smiles and pretty words, as he used to do before. All he had done, was showing her kindness and offering her agreeable companionship, as well as politeness. Beth found herself extremely puzzled over it but she nevertheless liked this unknown side of him.

 

~~~~

 

“Miss Williams,” Stephen asked, just as he was about to help Beth into Sparkle’s saddle, “my mother is hosting a small dinner party, tomorrow evening. Will you do me the honour of being our guest?”

Beth turned to him, eyes wide. She had just accompanied Lily and Oliver home. The children came to school on horseback, and it had become a habit that Fenton brought them to school, and she returned them home during the late afternoon. To that end, Fenton stabled Sparkle in The Blue Boar inn.

“My lord … I’m not sure …”

Stephen bit back his irritation at Beth’s obvious hesitation. She still distrusted him, it seemed. Yet, he forced a smile onto his face whilst he searched for the right words.

“My cousin Miss Hannah Faraday will be there, as will my friend Trevor Masterton, brother to the Earl of Charwood from Yorkshire. We were at Cambridge together and have been friends ever since. Hannah’s mother was married to my maternal uncle, who died three years ago. Aunt Sylvia has recently married again, and Hannah was feeling a bit like the odd one out. Mother invited her for a stay at the Abbey. Trevor, on the other hand, is on leave from his military service in Egypt. He is quite a pleasant fellow who could regale us with some stories from his travels. It would be awkward for Hannah to be the only young woman present, would it not?”

That sounded reasonable to Beth, and she agreed to come.

 

~~~~

 

The dinner party went quite well, actually.

Lady Henrietta was all civilized politeness and behaved the charming hostess. Miss Hannah Faraday turned out to be a lively girl of twenty-two, all fair curls and dashing blue eyes, and full of witty conversation. Beth liked her from the start, and the two of them were chatting happily away while they waited for the gentlemen to return after their port. Henrietta sat quietly apart with her coffee, and neither of the girls seemed to notice that she had no part of their conversation.

When Fenton and Lord Masterton joined them, the latter resumed the interesting travelling stories he had been telling at table. Beth found herself all ears to his tales which were about the fascinating country of Egypt. Lord Masterton talked about the ancient civilization that built the pyramids and about the temples and the tombs that could be visited and admired. He held them in suspense with his stories about the local people and their religion and their customs.

Beth got the impression that he really liked being stationed in Cairo because the country fascinated him so much. She asked him for a favour. Would he come to the school and tell some of the stories in class? The children would love them. Lord Masterton agreed, of course, and a time was settled for the next day.

Fenton, lazily sprawled upon a settee with his coffee in his hand, watched Beth as she listened with open fascination to Masterton’s stories. He revelled in the brightness of her chocolate-coloured eyes, the rosy bloom in her cheeks and the faint smile of happiness that curved her delicate mouth. She looked so lovely, tonight. Her thick, deep brown hair was dressed up in a simple but heavy bun at the back of her head. Her simple dress was of mint-green silk and flowed about her slender figure like a wisp of green clouds. It had a squared neckline, discreet but deep enough to reveal the onset of her small breasts.

Stephen found himself in a mood that was totally unusual for him. Because it was unfamiliar, it puzzled him to the extreme. Although the first stirrings of arousal were already manifesting themselves – how could they not when such a lovely vision of the woman he loved was sitting only a few yards away – lust, nevertheless, was far away in his mind. Instead, he felt a rush of deep, heart-wrenching love for Beth, a warmth that engulfed him from head to toe, a longing that left him with pain in his heart. Oh, to be able to love Beth openly, as his wife, as his lover! To give her children, to love and cherish her for the rest of his days!

Yet, for the umpteenth time, he admonished himself to be cautious. He had hurt her once already.

 

~~~~

 

Lord Masterton’s visit to the school was a great success. Beth and Mr Sage assembled all the children in one classroom, and Mr Masterton was seated in their midst so that he could tell his stories with the maximum of impact. The children simply loved it! Both boys and girls bombarded the storyteller with questions, which were gladly answered by Lord Masterton. Beth was extremely pleased with the young man and with her idea of bringing him to the school. When he left from Brixton Abbey to return to his brother’s estate in Yorkshire, she felt a sort of bereavement. She told Fenton, the next time she saw him.

“Your friend is really an interesting man, my lord. I truly enjoyed his travel stories and I think the children did too.”

Oh Lord!, Stephen thought in sudden panic. She surely would not have formed an attachment to Trevor? And what was to stop her? Trevor was an agreeable fellow, not unpleasant to look at, too. It would serve him, Stephen, right if Beth was snatched away by some other man, who treated her the way she should have been treated all along. Like the lady she was, even though she was not a member of the nobility. Maybe, it was a good thing, then, that Masterton would be on his way to Egypt again soon.

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

Reserve and Reticence – Part Three

Three – A Curse Came Upon Us

 

On April 3th 1820, little Josie Robinson stayed home from school. Her eight year old brother, Crispin, the eldest of the two, came to inform Beth about it. Mr Robinson, Brixton Abbey’s steward, thought his daughter’s fever was way too high to leave her bed. Two days later, all the children were home and in bed, with a high fever, a cough and an ache in every muscle and limb of their small bodies. Stephen Fenton came to Beth’s cottage to tell her Lily and Oliver were also ill and that she was needed at the Abbey, to help caring for them. Beth went with him, of course.

At the Abbey, more disturbing news awaited them.

Miss Hannah Faraday was also taken ill, and she was in a far more aggravated state than Lily and Oliver, who suffered only a slight fever. Hannah, on the other hand, was burning up. Her maid June had put her to bed and taken her temperature, which had mounted to an alarming 40C. Poor Hannah lay prostrated between sheets that were damp as soon as they were changed. She was not only hot and sweating but also in a state of lethargy that caused Beth to ask Fenton for his physician. In the meantime, she went to her former charges’ bedrooms.

Lily was sitting up in bed with a book and welcomed Beth with a whoop of delight. She looked a bit pale but, when Beth placed a hand on the girl’s brow, it felt cool and normal. In his own room, Oliver was asleep and did not wake up when Beth touched his brow. The rosy colour of his cheeks reassured her about his condition. It would probably be only a cold.

 

~~~~

 

When Dr Forrester arrived – after several hours, since he had been to see every sick child in the whole village – he examined all the patients and then requested an audience with Fenton.

“Erm … alone, my lord, if you please?”

Fenton turned raised eyebrows to Beth but opened the library’s door and gestured the physician in. He beckoned to Beth and she followed the two men in.

“My lord, please, I would rather not …”

“Miss Williams has my utmost confidence, Dr Forrester. Furthermore, she is the children’s teacher. She must be fully informed about their condition.”

Dr Forrester bowed his head.

“Very well, my lord. I am afraid that … my verdict on the disease will prove to be somewhat … disconcerting. I am as good as convinced we are dealing with … smallpox.”

Both Fenton and Beth gasped audibly.

“Smallpox? But how? Has there been previous cases in the county or the village?”

“None that I heard of, my lord. There has not been a smallpox outbreak for several decades in Leicestershire. Therefore, I think the contagion must be more recent. My lord, I would ask you to write to your friend Mr Masterton. He … forgive me, my lord … he is the person that comes foremost to mind of being the bearer of the disease which is known to be fairly common in Egypt.”

Stephen was appalled but recovered his wits when Beth pointed out the doctor was right. It was only cautious to find out how the disease had sneaked into the community. Fenton quickly wrote a letter to be sent to Yorkshire and Mr Masterton. Raleigh, the butler, was summoned and Fenton instructed him to have the message brought to the post office forthwith.

“My lord,” Dr Forrester then ventured, “we must take precautions to prevent the disease from spreading further. It would be wise to gather the patients in one location and set up a hospital where they can be treated without danger of contamination for the rest of the population.”

Stephen nodded pensively.

“Bring them here,” he replied, “to Brixton Abbey. We can put them up in the ballroom, which is large and airy. Tell me how many servants …”

“My lord …” The serious tone of Beth’s voice made Stephen listen to her.

“My lord, with your permission, I would like to take on organizing the hospital. When I was in France, an outbreak of smallpox occurred in the part of the country where we were living. The physician there advised my father to have me inoculated, which is a century-old method of prevention against the disease. I am immune to it. Let me deal with the sick, I beg you. We must gather them and keep the healthy ones away. My lord, I must be alone with the sick. No one is to enter the hospital lest they be contaminated. Food, water and medicines can be delivered daily.”

Beth watched Fenton stomaching her exposé with great struggle. His strong jaw was working beneath the black shadow of beard that had already formed, although it was early afternoon. Finally, he burst out with vehemence.

“No, Miss Williams, I cannot let you do this! What if you fall ill? I …”

“My lord, I just told you I am immune. I am the only one who can do this. I only ask that you arrange for the supplies I will be needing.”

“Beth … please, reconsider this! Please, Beth …”

His eyes – blue fire and glistening with tears of rage – bore into hers. Suddenly, he grabbed both of her hands and squeezed them so tightly it hurt. Beth gently pulled them free and smiled at him.

“My lord, you need not worry so. All will be fine, I assure you. Now, let us organize the hospital.”

Stephen bit back a swear word but complied, of course.

 

~~~~

 

By nightfall, Beth had every sick child tucked away in bed. She was on her own. Mr Sage, she stated, was needed for parish duties and she would hate to see him fall ill. Mr Sage did not protest.

Boys and girls were lodged separately in their respective school rooms. The desks had been replaced by beds and nightstands, each with a wash basin and pitcher. Trixie and Alan were staying at Ruby’s house, next to the school. They were to be nearby whenever Beth needed something and they would communicate through written messages which Beth would leave near the well between the two cottages. Since neither Trixie nor Alan could read, Stephen would take care of the requests.

The children were not overly sick. There was a lot of coughing and sneezing and a few of them had trouble breathing but Beth was able to relieve them by rubbing their chests with eucalyptus balm.

None of the children showed any red spots on the skin, no rash, nor stomach troubles. Beth kept watch in a small room between the two sick bays, where she had placed a cot for herself. She foresaw a relatively quiet night.

 

~~~~

 

Fenton, on the other hand, was very restless. He had taken residence in The Blue Boar inn, much against his mother’s wishes. Henrietta could not approve of her son endangering himself by lodging so close to the school. Now, he was pacing the inn’s best private bedchamber while his valet was emptying his portmanteau.

Stephen was so concerned about Beth that his fear threatened to eat him alive! It was all good and well to have received ‘inoculation’ – a word Stephen had never heard before – but would that truly make her immune to the disease? He had sent Dr Forrester to London to discover more about the smallpox disease, which was horrible enough to eradicate entire cities.

The feelings Stephen experienced were unknown to him. To put it plainly, a terror gnawed inside him, a paralyzing, primeval fear of losing the woman he loved more than anything before in his life.

After Florence died, he had vowed himself never to love again. Love was cruel, love was useless, it could not comfort you when the object of your love was ripped away from you. Yet, now, he loved again … and even more passionately than before. Passion could blister and burn a man to death …

The door of his room opened to admit his mother. She was looking gravely at him.

“My lord,” she began but Stephen cut her off.

“No, my lady, I do know what you are about to ask me, and the answer is negative. I will not return to the Abbey while this terrible disease rages on my property. Miss Williams … Beth … is risking her life trying to fight it, and I will not leave this inn until the day she steps out of the school to tell me it is over.”

The dowager gave a slight nod of her head but did not reply. Instead, she went to a chair and seated herself, leaning solemnly on her walking stick.

“Then, my son, I too will remain here until it is over.”

 

Reserve and Reticence – Part Four

Four – Besieged

 

Life settled into a strange pattern in the quiet village of Woolworth on the Brixton Abbey estate in Leicestershire. Every activity plied itself to the routine of St Mary’s Primary School, yet the school was no longer a school, it had become a hospital. Nevertheless, there was a strict schedule to its activities.

First tasks every day were the ablutions and breakfast, which took a part of the morning. The children were not so ill that they could not take care of their personal hygiene nor help Beth preparing bacon and eggs. At least, not all of them were bedridden, but some were.

Little Josie Robinson and her brother Crispin suffered a fairly high fever and had to be cared for as if they would have been small children. This was a very distressing fact since there was a third child in the Abbey steward’s home, a seven-month-old baby brother, named Joshua. Beth’s first message to the outer world was to warn the Robinsons to keep watch over the baby and bring it to her as soon as he would break a fever. The receiver of the messages was Lord Brixton. He volunteered to be at the little garden’s gate between the two cottages every morning at eleven.

 

~~~~

 

On the morning of the third day of her self-imposed quarantine, Beth provided Stephen with an alarming message. Most of the children now showed a rash – small red spots which appeared on the face, arms and torso of the afflicted. Their fever had also mounted but not alarmingly so. Only Josie and Crispin were lethargic with high fever. Their bodies were covered head-to toe with the red rash.

Beth was now constantly and solely in charge of the sick children. She washed and fed them, cooled their bodies by sponging them down with tepid water, applied ointments on the rash when necessary. It itched considerably on some of the patients.

All those intensive activities left her completely exhausted. When she stepped out onto the cottage’s yard, one evening at sunset, the crisp night air of March cooled her hot face with a gentle breeze. She welcomed it and sank down onto the bench beside the well, closing her eyes and leaning back to rest her aching limbs.

“How are they?” a soft and well-known baritone voice sounded behind Beth. Lord Stephen Fenton was standing just a few feet away from her, his features unreadable in the fading light of the setting sun.

“My lord, you should not be here! I … I am in close contact with the disease, I could contaminate you!” Beth gasped, getting up to make her curtsy. Fenton hastened toward her and took her arm.

“No, please, Miss Williams. I beg you to stay seated. You must be very tired.”

He helped her onto the bench but did not let go of her hand, not even after he say down next to her.

“How are they?” he repeated his question.

Beth enjoyed the warm pressure of Fenton’s hand for a while before answering. Although she feared for him to be affected, after another hard day of caring for the sick children, it was beyond her skills to deny herself the pleasure of Stephen’s touch. She closed her eyes and answered him.

“All things considered, it is not as bad as I anticipated, my lord. I feared the children would be more affected with stomach trouble, and that has not occurred. The rash appeared five days ago, and I expected there would be vomiting and diarrhoea, but none of the patients were subjected to it. Their fever is not very high, except with Josie and Crispin, and even they are a little better now. You may tell Mr and Mrs Robinson they are on the mending.”

“Thank you, Miss Williams. I will convey that happy message to them. You will be pleased to hear that little Joshua still enjoys the best of health. No fever, no rash.”

“Oh, thank God!” Beth exclaimed, tears suddenly welling up in her eyes. She dashed them away, not wanting the baron to see them. She did not succeed. The next moment, she was in his arms and crying against his shoulder. Oh, it felt so good, to feel the strength of a fellow human being and be comforted. After a short moment, Beth realised it was the baron against whose shoulder she was resting but that was all she was doing, resting her cheek against his well-clad shoulder. His arms lay around her own shoulders without pressure or squeezing. Beth’s nose picked up his discrete cologne, revelling in the cleanliness of his garments and the warmth of his skin as his cheek touched hers. He was not asking for more, she mused. Quietly and gently, he was just giving her comfort. Oh, how good it felt!

Stephen’s soft voice broke into her thoughts.

“Miss Williams, I cannot let you go on like that. You are exhausted and the end of the whole wretched affair is not even in sight. You need help, so please, let me take care of it!”

“No, my lord! No one is to be put in danger of being affected with the disease. I am the only one who is safe.”

His sigh ruffled the strands of hair that had escaped her bun and now framed her face. Stephen gently let go of her, took her by the shoulders and gravely gazed into her eyes.

“No one will be put in danger, Miss Williams. I will stay to help you.”

Beth was not sure she heard correctly. The baron, to move into the hospital and help out with the patients? Impossible! And very foolish! He would contract the disease! She suddenly stood and began to retreat to the house.

“No, my lord, out of the question! I will not allow you to endanger yourself. Goodnight!”

The next minute, she was inside, and Stephen heard the key turn in the lock.

 

~~~~

 

The next morning dawned cold and grey, the last remnants of winter settling on the village with a biting frost. Beth rose, washed and dressed in a hurry and went to the kitchen to stir up the stove and start preparing breakfast. On a bench, next to the hearth lay the sleeping form of Baron Stephen Fenton. He was dressed in simple clothes, a black woollen coat and grey breeches and black boots. Beth stood watching him in bewilderment. What was he doing here? How did he get in? She became aware of very ambiguous feeling battling inside her. She was distressed having Stephen risking himself and at the same time, she was extremely happy to have him at the hospital. She had to keep herself from weeping with relief, simply because he was here to help her.

But … he could not stay here! Panic rushed over her when she realised the danger he had brought himself into!

“My lord? My lord, wake up! You must leave immediately!”

Fenton opened his eyes and sat up, raking a hand through his badly ruffled hair.

“Oh, good morning, Miss Williams! What do you want me to do? I have come to help you.”

“But … but … you cannot! It is too dangerous! You must leave at once!”

Fenton stood up and went to the stove.

“Now,” he said, “I shall light the stove. Oh, you are out of coal and wood. Maybe, I will first replenish those, hey?”

And he picked up the coal bucket and went out into the yard. Bet stared through the window and stood frozen to the spot as she watched the baron shovelling coal and chopping wood. The full coal bucket dangling in one hand and the other arm full of logs, he then came back into the kitchen. Kneeling before the stove, he cleaned it out, pilled wood into it, lighted it and rose. A bright smile alighted his featured and beaming cheerfully at Beth, he asked:

“What next, Miss Williams?”

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.

 

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 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.”