They walked arm in arm down the tree-lined street, towards the cottage that John hoped someday would be Margaret’s. He was thrust into the feeling of incredible contentment welling up inside of him. He didn’t care to analyze it; he just wanted to hold this tender sensation inside him forever. John noticed the little house several times on his courthouse days. He was still finding it hard to believe that they were strolling toward a possible residence for Margaret’s return to Milton. John suspected she might like it. Its appearance seemed to be well suited for her, he thought. To him, it looked like a tiny white fantasy house. It had intricately carved ornamental trim, dragon scale wood siding, and a spindled banister porch on three sides. If a house could be male or female, this house would most definitely be female.
As they neared the cottage, Margaret excitedly pointed to it. “John,” she asked, “is that it? Is that what you wanted to show me? It looks precious from here. Oh, I hope that’s the one.”
“Yes, that’s it,” John reassured her. “With all the fancy woodwork and white paint, I think I should be cutting a piece and having it on my plate. It appears to have icing,” he added jokingly.
“Oh yes, hurry! Oh, it’s enchanting.”
Laughing to himself, John increased the pace of his stride. Earlier, he had to fall in step with Margaret’s little strides, and now he couldn’t keep up with her. Life was heavenly at this moment, bringing him to hope along with Margaret’s many enjoyable surprises and her cute feminine ways. It seemed as if the years that had torn them apart, had actually brought them closer. How odd when one considered how they had parted ways.
Where did it all go right?
Before John could locate the key in his pocket, Margaret was already running along the wrap-around porch, from window to window, peeking inside. As he opened the door, they were struck with the stringent smell of paint; undeterred, they proceeded to cover every square meter of the “little darling,” as Margaret called it. Occasionally she would say, “Oh, look at this,” as John studied the house from a totally different perspective: possible construction weaknesses, leaks, problems with the roof, dry cellar, faulty plumbing and more. He was pleased to see the little cottage had been refurbished with the most modern conveniences, such as indoor gas lights and an indoor lavatory with tub, all of which Margaret was familiar with, having lived in London. Leaving her to her decorating whims, John headed to the rear of the house. On the ground floor, he noted, with interest, there was a nice mud room with a drain and a secondary lavatory without a tub. Glad to see the back building, he walked to the small carriage house and noted it could stable one horse, with room for a small buggy, a tack room, and quarters overhead. He walked the outside observing the painted wood siding and other facets of the restored buildings. John remembered it when it was a home, but for many years it had been a bookstore that he had visited often. Since the expansion of Milton, many of the older main street small businesses sold out, making extremely nice profits. He was pleased to see the realtor had enough vision to restore the house to its original state. Satisfied with all that he had seen, he went looking for Margaret.
As John entered through the back door, he caught a glimpse of Margaret twirling around the empty kitchen like a ballerina. She was looking up at the ceiling, as she turned around and around with her arms outstretched. He stood there and watched the woman he loved more than life: seemingly enraptured by the probability that she would be living here soon. How precious these unguarded moments were, he thought.
Finally, realizing that John was at a distance watching her spin, she surprised him by saying, “Do you think I can afford it?”
John walked forward, catching her in his arms, and held her while her twirling dizziness subsided. Heat quickly rose within him. He tilted her chin up, looking deep into her eyes, then at her lips and back to her eyes for any sign of uncertainty. Finding none, his lips found hers, drawing her breath into him, kissing her fully for the first time. His kiss was warm and tender, possessed of passion and longing. John couldn’t help the moan that escaped between his lips. Margaret felt his lips soft in touch but firm in deliverance, and her knees gave way to a swoon. John immediately caught her, delighted by her response. No other women had ever reacted like that when he had kissed them, but then he knew kissing Margaret was different; his heart was in his kiss. Pleased that she had not backed away like she had on the veranda, he gently released his hard grasp of her. Having waited and dreamt of this moment for four years, John felt overwhelmed, and he feared he might prompt an action that could have consequences, she was not ready to face so quickly. Reluctantly, he stopped it there, allowing the anticipation of the future to linger. Still cradling her to him, he finally answered her question, “Afford it? It shall be yours at any price.”
Margaret wrestled herself away from John and stepped back, slightly annoyed and a bit dizzy from the kiss. “John Thornton, I’m renting this house. I don’t need any help. If I can’t afford it, I will find somewhere else.”
Uh oh . . . the Margaret I remember first loving has returned . . . independent as ever.
“Well, I can tell how you love this white frosted cake of a house, and I think it’s sound and solid. Let’s go see the agent, Mr. McBride, shall we?” John asked, as he extended his arm and completely ignored her little tantrum.
They walked back in silence, each dazzled in the moment they had just shared: their first kiss; a cherished moment to stow away in the chest of remembrances. Arriving at the Professor’s place, the Professor and McBride were settling on pieces of furniture that remained in the house: these which would also be purchased by the Doctor. John and Margaret looked around at the furniture that was being discussed, waiting for an opportunity to talk with Mr. McBride.
When it eventually came, John began to ask, “We would . . .” but Margaret interrupted him saying, “I would . . . like to speak with you for a moment, Mr. McBride, privately,” looking directly at John as she emphasized the word PRIVATELY.
“Yes, Mrs. Reed, anything you like,” he said as John handed the key back to him and he walked her to the back yard.
As much as he wanted to ensure a good price for her, John knew he was seeing what he loved most about Margaret, and that was her spirit. Smiling, he paced the room, watching from the window as he observed their conversation outside. First Margaret would frown, speak, and then smile. Next McBride would shake his head no, and then frown, speak and smile. It took some time, but John thought the smiles had it by a slim margin. Twenty minutes after god knew what, John saw them shake hands, both smiling at the same time. “She’s coming to live here, and soon,” he said to himself.
Margaret had struck her own deal, and she seemed quite proud. Good, bad, or indifferent, John could see by her face that she was pleased with whatever decision was agreed upon. Perhaps she would share that conversation with him later. Since the Professor was momentarily nowhere to be found, Margaret asked the agent if he had already purchased the very large upholstered wing chair in the future office room. Being told, no, she then asked that she be allowed to purchase it and have it delivered to her new cottage. She thought the chair looked large and comfortable enough for John, so she purchased it for his anticipated visits.
Following a lovely meal and a thoroughly enjoyable conversation at the Marlborough Mills home, the Professor Pritchard excused himself about two hours later, leaving John and Margaret to sit and talk. The three of them were together most of the day, looking all over the city for furnishings. The Professor had bought most of the pieces that were left in the house, as he had no particular preferences other than the two desks and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, he was having made. Margaret, on the other hand, was looking for contents that would go well with the age of the house and had arranged to have several pieces custom made. John and Margaret had both agreed, since he was well-known in the city, they would run the billing through him, and Margaret would reimburse him, when her finances were transferred to Milton. They had accomplished much in just a one-day period and Margaret was excited about their progress. Dixon had a cook already lined up and John was to see about a chore man / driver.
It had grown late, and Dixon came into the room and announced that she was going to bed and asked if they needed anything before she retired. Receiving “no thank you,” she went back downstairs for the night.
John sat slouched down in his chair, arms across his chest, long legs extended in front of the fire. Margaret lounged on the couch. Both felt full and tired, and especially pleased with themselves for their accomplishments of the day.
“John,” Margaret said, after a few moments of quiet, “one week ago, I was depressed, confused, and rushing towards flight out of London, and now my world has completely turned around. How is that possible?” she asked, somewhat puzzled, as she stared off through the window into the dark night, still deep in thought.
John came over and sat beside her on the couch, not facing her, but relaxed against its upholstered back, as he took one of her hands in his. “Margaret,” he said, softly, “I am sure you know how I have felt about you since I first met you. Someday I shall tell you about my first impression of you, shouting at me in the mill.” John smiled, remembering that, “I have thought about you every day for almost four years and suffered the loss of you, twice. I have dreamed of every possible way to win you, to love you, to make love to you and to possess you, forever. I am taking nothing for granted, and I am not making any assumptions at this point, but you have to know how my life has changed in the last twenty-four hours.” He gently squeezed her hand.
Margaret looked up at his handsome profile and spoke softly, “John, thank you for loving me all this time. You may find this hard to understand or think it woman’s intuition, but I could always feel you there . . . waiting . . . and I can’t explain how. You were always hovering somewhere in the twilight of my life and that brought me comfort, which I can hardly explain even to myself. It has seen me through many difficult times. I still have . . .”
John interrupted her, “Wait . . . please, let me speak first while I can,” he said, as he turned to face her, choking back the lump in his throat. “I have always loved you. I have waited a long time to have you near again, and I will wait forever if that’s what it takes you to accept me. I think you have some feelings for me, but I do not want you to feel compelled in any way to express them, at least not for a while. You have only been widowed for three months, and must have many conflicts within yourself to resolve, and a proper bereavement period to conclude. I know you are joyful right now, but a different reality could settle on you once you are comfortably situated in Milton. As much as I would like to carry you off to my bed right now, I know that would be wrong in many ways. I do not want to scare you, pressure you, influence, or smother you. I’m going to keep my emotions reined as well as I possibly can, and I’ll wait for you to come to me. If I get carried away, just say no. I hope I don’t get to the point to embarrass us both, but my body doesn’t always listen to my brain whenever you are near.”
“John . . .” Margaret said, as she stroked his cheek.
Not wanting to lose his train of thought, he pulled her hand from his cheek to his lips and kissed her palm. “Margaret, let me finish, please. I love and desire you beyond all reason. I want to be everything to you, your friend, your lover, your husband, and the father of our children. I will always be at your side to protect you, to cheer you, to comfort you and to love you. But along with my depth of devotion to you, there must come honesty in your feelings. I do not want pity, or any sense of obligation, and I do not want to wear you down. I could not live with that. I will keep my self-respect, for if you turn from me, it is all I will have left. I can take a lot of rejection before it’s all too apparent that you do not care for me in the same regard. Just don’t say you love me until you are sure of your words, but I do love you and will all my life.” John leaned in and gave her a light kiss, then licked the drops, now, falling from her eyes.
Margaret closed her eyes; a hushed sigh escaped her lips, as John drank in the salt of her tears. With a silly incandescent smile, she said, “I wish I had more tears to shed right now.”
Snuggling deep into John’s strong arms, and resting her head on his broad shoulder, Margaret began her tale.
“I think I am in love with you; I am almost sure of it. You have asked me not to say those words just yet, because you fear I don’t know myself, I think. However, I will wait, as you ask, until I am sure that you know that I love you. You seem to need proof.”
John, smiled as he pulled her closer to his chest, encasing her with both arms, while his cheek rested against the top of her head.
“It is true,” Margaret continued, “that I have conflicts within me to resolve, mostly confidence. Not with regards to my independence, as you might think, but my confidence as a woman. With the Professor’s guidance and relentless soul searching, I now know why my marriage was a disaster.”
Margaret paused, wondering how to say what needed to be said.
“If you are to love me fully, you must know where my conflicts lie. I do not want to tell you this, but lying or holding back from you is worse. I now understand what I never saw before, and what the Professor discovered after my marriage to Booker. He has opened my eyes to the fact that my husband was strongly attracted to his male pupils. Perhaps, he never realized this until he married me, but young men were his preference. I will never know if he married me out of love or as a cover for his dark desires. We had no premarital relationships, so nothing was realized beforehand. Once he discovered the truth about himself, which must have been almost immediately, I knew little love and no passion at all. Unaware of any of this, I began to think it was my fault; I was too naive and inexperienced in the ways of passion. He never desired me, not even the pretense of desire. I lived with guilt over not being enough of a woman for him. In his eyes, I was defective, or so I thought. This created deep scars and a total loss of confidence in feeling desirable to a man. We quickly grew apart, barely even touching. No good bye kiss in the morning, nothing – but worst of all, there was no explanation given as to why. I just continued in my misery. In all other ways, he was a decent husband, I guess, but for me, not where it counted – in my heart. I had moved from one setback in my life to another. I reached the bottom of my existence. After my parents died, I didn’t think life could have gotten worse, but the misery became compounded by the feeling that I was being cast off, thrown away. I was of no use. This is the most terrible thing I will ever say: I don’t know what would have happened to me, had I stayed in that marriage for a life time, and I am grateful, I won’t have to know.
So she could liberate all her sorrow and clear her soul, John let her finish without making any comments. He just held her even tighter and kissed her forehead. He wanted to know all of her story. “Go on, Margaret.”
“It became painstakingly clear to me,” she continued, “that day on the veranda that Booker’s affection for me was far from what it should be, and I had taken it to heart as guilt. Then you said those words to me that I will never forget – “Oh, God, how I love you.” You said it in such a way that it tore my heart out because I felt you wouldn’t feel that way if you knew me as Booker did. I had often thought about you. I would pull you out of the twilight and I talked with you whenever I was alone. When I saw you a year later at the funeral, it was like someone turned on the light to my soul. At first, I felt ashamed thinking I was happy to be free of Booker, but then I realized it wasn’t him, it was you entering my life again, descending from my twilight. You weren’t there for him, you were there for me. It was my ‘someday’, and you rescued me that day. The Professor has tried to free me from my guilt. He told me how sorry he felt for me, as he watched the two of us, and saw the relationship spiraling down almost from the beginning. He knew it would get worse. He hadn’t been sure about Booker himself, but after we married it was confirmed, to him, in his mind.
John stroked her cheek and kissed the hollow of her neck, still holding her fast to him. Inside, he wanted to explode and put his fist through a wall or a face of anyone who could have treated her with such indifference, enough to make her despise herself. What she must have endured that year and half marriage, and perhaps was still feeling. She believed she had married a real man only to discover disappointment; then she took the blame on herself for his lack of interest in her. This was more than John could stomach. Margaret was all the woman whom any normal male could ever want, and John knew she was everything to him. Wanting to find a way to reverse her wavering confidence and begin to dispel any self-doubts, John initiated a delicate but passionate move. He gently picked up her hand, which he was holding and placed it lightly in his lap allowing her to feel his arousal for her.
“Margaret . . . know that you are a very desirable woman and never will doubt that again,” John whispered, looking into her tear-filled eyes.
She startled herself, as she realized she wanted to know him in that way, but she hesitantly retracted her hand with a forced embarrassed look. Inside, Margaret was glowing from John’s physical reaction to her; it lifted her. She scoffed to herself that propriety deemed this closeness was too soon. Awaiting the end of her bereavement period was going to be more difficult than she had anticipated. Margaret was blushing and feeling the warmth of that sensual moment from head to toe.
John did not miss a breath of her reaction.
She brought both hands to John’s face, holding him, as she initiated a light but firm kiss. John responded the same while he slowly licked her lips apart and tried to enter her mouth. Naivety surfaced, and she pulled back unsure of what he was doing.
Now radiating inwardly, and sensing her bewildered innocence of such a kiss, John pulled her back to his shoulder. He was exhilarated to find that this passionate act was new to her. Perhaps, he would be the first in her life for many other sensual pleasures. He selfishly hoped so.
“John,” Margaret said, “I want us to take our time. I want to, need to, know that I am what you want in a complete woman. Though I know about Booker, now, but I do not feel strongly about myself, yet.” Starting to laugh, she said, “I know you are anxious to help me find myself, but we must proceed at my pace. Can you bear with me?”
“Margaret, I can wait forever, because you are my life. I have no other options and wouldn’t want them, even if there were. Being who you are, at your core, made that choice for me a long time ago. And yes, I . . . together . . . we will find you. You can be sure of that. However, let me just say, I would still love you for the rest of my life even if real intimacy wasn’t possible. Never, ever think I love you for carnal reasons, alone. I have had experience in that area of life, and still I have waited for only you. I have had sex, but I have never made love. I have wanted only you, Margaret, to release what I know waits inside of me.”
They nestled in each other’s arms for a long time before retiring for bed. Again, a brief embrace was the only affection shown before going to their rooms. The air was heavy with unspent passion.
Separately, they each lay awake a long time, ardently cherishing the openness and honesty of the words imparted that evening. Words straight from their heart were starting to tie the bindings of love.
Dixon’s assignment was to gather a housekeeping staff for the Professor, which was to consist of a live-in housekeeper, a full time cook and a daily char person, whose duties included setting the fire and clearing the fireplace, scrubbing floors and a few more menial tasks. Dixon had already selected Margaret’s cook. She was also responsible of purchasing linen for the home, along with food, cooking utensils and daily chinaware for the kitchen; she would send Margaret the measurements for the window sizes. Margaret would take care of the fine china and silver later. If all the furniture arrived, Dixon would be allowed to move in at any time.
John was responsible for finding a chore man / driver, who would be assigned all outside duties, such as cutting and stacking firewood, in addition to tending the fireplaces inside, general repairs and inconsequential yard duties. If needed, a part-time gardener would be hired on a less frequent basis. The chore man would also be a coach driver, when and if that time arose, as Margaret was already planning on this for some time in the future. In the event that any major pieces of furniture didn’t arrive on schedule, Margaret and Dixon would remain at John’s residence until they were delivered. The chore man, however, was to begin as soon as he was found, and Margaret’s cook would begin next week at Thornton’s home. She had recently retired but didn’t find it to her liking. Eager to return to the kitchen, she would be preparing meals alongside John’s cook, in order to hone her old skills in preparation for her Margaret’s arrival if everything went according to plan. Margaret would return in three weeks, the week before Christmas, to her new home and life. John promised to post to her every couple of days, and keep her informed of their progress.
As they waited for the Professor to come fetch Margaret for the train, John and Margaret stood at his parlor window, looking out at the workers going about their business.
“Margaret,” he asked, “Do you remember the last time we stood together looking out this window?”
It only took Margaret a moment to cast her mind back to the day of the riot. “Yes, John, that was quite a memorable day, as I recall.”
“In more ways than you know, Margaret.” John lifted her hair to see if there was any remaining mark from the stone that had felled her that day. There wasn’t, but John leaned down and kissed the spot where she had bled. “I haven’t spoken to you much about the mills; I didn’t care to waste words, with so little time, but when the strikers were at the door, the words you said to me that day changed my life and the life of everyone who works for me. Those words have been the very cornerstone of my success. I owe much of my success to you, you know.”
“Don’t talk piffle, John. I did no such thing. Don’t credit me for what you have accomplished.”
“Somehow, I knew you would say that, but one day I hope to prove to you, what that day inspired in me after your departure from Milton.”
John saw the carriage coming through the mill gate and pulled Margaret away from the window. “Margaret, I love you, and I will never tire of telling you so. I will live in anticipation until you are safely returned to Milton in a few weeks’ time. I will not have a moments rest while you are away. For you and me, our tomorrow will finally come.” John pulled her into his arms, kissed her lightly but firmly, and held her until they heard the knock on the door.
Dixon escorted Dr. Pritchard into the room and went straight to Margaret for a good-bye hug. “Miss Margaret, we will have everything ready and waiting for you. I’m so excited.”
John retrieved Margaret’s coat as he bid the Professor a cordial “hello.”
The Professor picked up Margaret’s bag, saying, “Hello all…so, Margaret… are you ready? Your carriage awaits, Milady,” and bowed from the waist.
Margaret laughed, as she told the Professor, “You’re stealing John’s lines.” Margaret and John smiled broadly at each other.
John accompanied Dr. Pritchard and Margaret outside, and handed Margaret into the carriage. He closed the door and Margaret leaned out of the window, “See you soon,” she said. John covered her hand, which was resting on the door frame, and squeezed hard on it, mouthing the words, “I love you” as the driver told the horses to ‘walk on’.
John returned to the top of his steps. Once again, he was witnessing Margaret being borne away from him. His stomach roiled at the remembrance, but he was uplifted, as she looked back at him, dispelling one horrid memory with a brilliant new one, balancing the scales. He stood there thinking, long after the coach had departed the gates, how the memory of the two worst days of his life had been replaced with two new beautiful memories: This one, that had just happened, replaced the day Margaret left Milton four years ago; the other, Margaret’s appearance at his door two days ago, replaced the day he read that she had married.
Sixteen – Looking For A Missing Boy
After it had become evident that the missing Oliver was not to be found on the Abbey grounds, a large party was assembled, consisting of all footmen and tenants, who were not immediately necessary to the estate’s adequate daily functioning. Their mission was to begin searching in an ever widening circle, starting from the Abbey grounds and through the fields and woodland surrounding the estate. Stephen explained this to the assembly in clear words.
“Last night, my son went to bed at his usual hour of nine o’ clock, as the maid assigned to my children’s personal needs has confirmed. Even if he managed to leave the Abbey right after that time, he cannot have roamed more than a couple of miles from the estate. No horse has been taken from the stables, and I cannot believe that any cart driver or coachman, that happened to be in the estate’s vicinities, would have picked him up without notifying me or without questioning the boy as to his reasons for being out that late alone. Therefore, we shall begin the search as I instructed and report back to my lady Brixton every two hours. She will be coordinating the search efforts.”
Beth, seated next to a very distressed Henrietta, calmly listened to her husband’s speech but inwardly, she was all turmoil. What could have been exchanged between father and son, the previous evening, that it had driven away a thirteen-year-old in fear? All sorts of horrible thoughts were assaulting her brain, such as the baron striking out at the boy or threatening him in some horrible way. Instantly, she chided herself for thinking so badly about the man she was married to, about Stephen, for Heaven’s sake! How could she? But then, a little voice in her head began reciting all the horrid things the Fentons had done to her family, and how vicious Beth herself had always thought Stephen to be. Although her heart screamed in disgust that she simply could not think in that way about the man she loved, her brain calmly summed up all Stephen’s mischief. She had to talk to him, she now realised. She had to talk to him, and it could not wait.
However, she had to wait until the evening before that talk could take place.
Oliver Bradley-Fenton reached the outskirts of Manchester early in the morning, just as the sun began mounting above the rooftops. After a long run, way past the boundaries of Woolworth, he set foot toward the industrial town and was picked up by a band of gypsies heading North. They asked no questions, used as they were at being harassed by the English authorities. They just gave him a bowl of soup and the loan of a blanket against the chilly night air and took him along.
Now, after he said his farewells, he was tired and hungry, but those inconveniences did not bother him for the moment. What an adventure this was! He had escaped the wicked baron of Brixton Abbey, the haughty man who called himself a father but was, in fact, nothing but a tyrant and a bully. As Oliver began looking around to find his bearings, he recalled the conversation he had with Fenton the night before.
Oliver was no fool. He knew very well he could never inherit the baron’s title nor the Brixton estate. He was a bastard. The more vicious people in the village had branded him and his sister with that charming nickname as long as he remembered. It had never bothered him because his grandmother taught him it did not matter he had no legal descent as long as he strove to become a good person. Lineage meant nothing, Granny said, when you were a scoundrel with no pity for other people’s misfortunes. His so-called father was such a miscreant, Granny said, and Oliver should never make Fenton a role model. It was far more important that Oliver made a good life for himself and Lily. He needed to protect and love his sister, because it was much harder for girls to find a place in the world than for a strong and smart boy.
So, on that dreadful day, when Fenton took them away from Gran and brought them to the Abbey, Oliver swallowed his fear and anger. Even when he wanted nothing more than to thwart his so-called father, he understood all too well what advantages might be drawn from a connection to a rich and powerful noble like Fenton. Oliver would bide his time and learn as much as he could.
Then, Fenton married his governess, and everything was turned upside down because now Oliver was not sure he could trust Beth anymore. Oh, she still was good to him and Lily and she had nursed them through the chickenpox like a mother would, but she also did not spend all her time with them like she used to before she married the baron. No, Oliver was no fool at all. Once the couple would have a child of their own, he and Lily would be related to the background of Beth’s life.
The proof of all this became clear to Oliver when Fenton told him he was to go to Eton soon and learn all about Latin and Greek and other useless items. Afterwards, he was for Cambridge and had to learn about how to run an estate like some upgraded steward. He would do a full day’s work for a meagre salary, and all the major decisions would come from Fenton and his offspring. He could be cast out at any time or at the whim of the baron whenever the man fancied another servant to run the estate.
No, Oliver wanted to build a worthy life for himself. When Beth took them to Manchester to live with Mrs Oakham, Oliver once visited a cotton mill and was impressed by the sheer power and working of it. The mighty looms, clacking and humming, and handled by the weavers, enchanted him. He wanted to be a part of that. He planned to start at the bottom of the chain and work his way up, until he was an overseer and run the shed all by himself. Maybe, he would rise even further! Dreams were great, and Oliver wanted to live his dream to the full.
Yet, when he mentioned – very cautiously, mind – to Fenton that he wanted something other than becoming a steward, the baron rudely cut him off and became angry. In very clear terms, Fenton stated Oliver was to obey the baron’s orders without any protest or he would be chastised until he did. There was always the military, the baron told Oliver, to bend a rebellious spirit into submission. Oliver was to have no doubts the baron would buy him a commission in some faraway barracks if necessary.
At that precise moment, Oliver knew he would always hate Fenton and never, ever submit to him.
John and Margaret’s Reunion
Maxwell and Edith Lennox took Margaret to the train station to meet the Professor for their visit to Milton.
“You know, Margaret,” Edith teased her, “it is quite scandalous of you to take off to Milton so early in your bereavement, but I must say that I envy your courage. We’re very happy to see you settle into something that you really will enjoy. You’ve been unhappy for so long. I think you have found a very agreeable place working alongside the Professor. I’ll miss you so when you move to Milton permanently; look for a house with guestrooms.”
“Thank you, Edith.” Margaret smiled at her cousin affectionately. “I agree. I think I have found a good purpose in my life, one that will bring me joy and takes me away from London. Sometimes, I envied you for your willingness to live within such strict guidelines and proper societal etiquette demands. That has never been tolerable for me as a way of life. Oh . . . there’s the Professor, now. I will say good-bye to you and will see you on my return Sunday. Take care,”
“Good-bye, Margaret. Enjoy yourself,” Maxwell said, as he handed over her overnight bag and he and Edith gave her a quick hug.
Dr. Pritchard and Margaret strolled towards each other, carrying their small bags, which would see them through the next two days.
“Excited, Margaret?” The Professor asked, without even saying hello.
“YES! I am full of questions and ideas, and I am already decorating my home in my head. I find myself laughing over the silliest things; you have changed my life, Doctor. I feel reborn into someone new. Do you think that a bad thing?”
“Contrary to what your family probably thinks,” said the Professor. “I think it the best medicine for you. If anyone needed a life change, it was you. I think of you as a rosebud, once wilting on the vine from lack of care, but now you’re like a bloom ready to open itself to the sun, beckoning the bee to taste its nectar,” he finished, laughingly lecherously, raising his eyebrows up and down.
Feeling her face redden, Margaret couldn’t help but burst out laughing. “I do like you too much, I think,” she said, lavishing him with attention. They both roared, almost doubling over with laughter.
“Ah . . . here’s our train. Ready, Mrs. Reed?” the Professor asked as he extended his arm for her to take.
“Ready! Dr. Pritchard.”
They stepped into the crowded coach and discovered they had to sit separately for several more London stops. When it finally cleared out, they sat side by side leaving only one other person traveling north to Milton. Darkness was creeping into the coach, and the third rider lit the gas lights, not waiting for the porter to come by. The man seemed to prefer his own company and newspaper, so the Professor and Margaret settled into quite a long and involved discussion about how to proceed with his reference work and getting settled into Milton. He told Margaret to expect only two or three days work a week, at the most.
“Margaret,” he said finally, “the one thing that I am not looking forward to is hiring my housekeeping staff. Do you have any experience with that?”
“Professor, I’ve very little, but I do know someone who can help us, so don’t worry yourself. We can start that task while we’re there this weekend,” she assured him. The Professor could have talked hours longer because he taught classes all day, but he could hear Margaret’s voice starting to get hoarse. “Margaret, I think I shall let you rest before you lose your voice entirely.”
Margaret smiled and let her head rest on the back of the seat, knowing Milton was only another hour away.
John had just settled down to write a letter to Margaret when he heard his big mill gate rolling open. He set his pen down and walked over to the window to see who could be visiting him, unannounced at this time of night – and in a carriage, no less. “Dixon,” John called out, uncertain as to where she was that the moment, “someone is coming to the front door. I will see who it is, don’t bother yourself.” He hurriedly threw on his waistcoat, leaving his top coat and cravat lay where they were. Descending the steps, he opened the door and saw the most unbelievable vision of his entire life. A coachman was handing Margaret out of a carriage. His breath left him, although he was sure any minute now, he would remember how to breathe. The driver grabbed her carpet bag and handed it to John. He was so overwhelmed at the sight of her; he couldn’t get a single word out.
I know I am dreaming this.
“John, please close your mouth. Yes, it’s me,” Margaret laughed as her breath plumed in the frigid air. “Surprise!”
She jests! I am definitely asleep.
John, picking up on Margaret’s playful mood, replied, “Who are you? You look incredibly like someone I used to know, but I’ve never heard her jest, so obviously you cannot be her.”
“How are you, John?” Margaret asked in all seriousness.
“Do you mean generally or at this very moment?” John laughed, not believing what was transpiring. It felt surreal. He knew he was trembling inside. “I was just sitting down to write you a letter. How kind of you to spare me the ink.”
Could this really be happening?
As John and Margaret entered the sitting room, he called for Dixon to come to the parlor. John set down Margaret’s bag as he waited for Dixon to arrive. He was very interested in knowing why she was carrying it tonight, to his home, at this hour. As he removed her coat and hung it in the hall, his heart was pounding hard in his chest. Just then Dixon came into the room and, seeing Margaret, ran straight over to her with her arms outstretched, almost hysterical with glee to see her lifelong charge. They hugged briefly and exchanged a few pleasant words. Dixon asked Margaret if she would like a cup of tea, tea being Dixon’s answer for everything.
“Not tonight, Dixon, thank you.” Margaret said, as she cast her glance toward John, who was already on his way to the bar. “I think I prefer something a little stronger, for this is a celebration indeed.”
“Margaret seated herself on the cushioned settee, feeling relief from hours of sitting on hard train benches.
“Brandy, whiskey or port, Milady?” John asked, bowing to her, mockingly. “What would you desire?”
To anyone who knew them well, John and Margaret’s performance would have seemed unbelievable. They were so giddy with delight, beyond happy, both throwing themselves headlong into some joyous abyss. Margaret knew why she was acting this way, but she was shocked to see that John . . . John Thornton . . . THE John Thornton had such a sense of humor and was joining into the farce with her. She had never seen this side of him before and doubted that anyone ever had. His capacity for high spirits enthralled her.
Continuing on with their performance, Margaret stood and curtsied saying, “Port, sir. If you will.”
Dixon was baffled by the amusement taking place before her. Eventually, they all laughed and settled into chairs with their refreshments: John, in his usual chair by the fireplace, with Margaret on the couch at his right, and Dixon sat nearby on a small chair opposite John.
John smiled and shook his head from side to side, still unable to comprehend the playfulness that had overtaken him. “Margaret,” he said, “thank you for that. I haven’t laughed this much since . . . well, I don’t know since when. I can’t believe you are sitting here in this room without our having known of your impending visit. Please tell us what it is you’re celebrating.” John seemed to be holding his breath; judging from the mood she was in, he was expecting some good news. He wanted to pinch himself to verify he wasn’t dreaming.
Margaret burst out giggling again, “John, are you pinching yourself?” She asked. “It looks like you just pinched your thigh. I do think you are awake and yes, I am really sitting here, and . . . I will be spending tonight and tomorrow night here before returning to London.”
John, now totally embarrassed, normally an almost impossible accomplishment, said, “So you will spend two days with us. I’m happy to hear that.” He was still stunned and could only offer courteous, stilted words for this unexpected miracle. He wanted to lift her off the floor and whirl her around in a circle. Finding a ray of sense, he asked, “Who accompanied you here? Surely you were not alone?”
“Miss Margaret,” Dixon interrupted, “could you please tell us what is going on? I can’t wait any longer,” she insisted stubbornly.
“Well,” Margaret said, looking at them both and smiling, “I’ve made a very important decision in my life. I know where my future lies, now, and it’s right here, in Milton. I’ll be moving here almost as soon as I can.”
An audible gasp came from John’s direction. He became silent, inwardly reeling from Margaret’s declaration, which seemed to breathe life into his abandoned soul. It was all he could do to listen to whatever followed. Four years, he had wanted to hear those very precious words.
“John,” Margaret continued, “you may remember the Professor that gave Booker’s eulogy?” John nodded yes, just barely. “He has asked if I would partner with him in writing his research book about the Industrial Age, and its beginning, which is here in Milton. He’s been a great friend to me. He is helping me overcome some rather serious matters in my life, but I have a long way to go, yet. I had already decided to move back here where I knew I had friends, but two days ago, the Professor visited me, told me of his plans, and asked if I would like to help him. I couldn’t agree fast enough.”
“Oh, Miss Margaret,” Dixon clapped her hands together, enthusiastically, “we’re so pleased. I’ve hoped for this day, and now it has come. How long before you move here?”
“Well, that will depend on John, I think.”
“I? Tell me how I can help.” John inquired, trying to form his words and allow them to flow out, above a whisper.
I can’t believe what I am hearing. Is it really happening?
“I’ve come here this weekend with the Professor,” Margaret explained, “so he could finalize the purchase of a home that he’s already selected. Instead of writing to you, John, to ask for help in finding a residence, I thought I would accompany the Professor and ask you personally, so it would be easier to discuss what I would need. The Professor will move here permanently within a couple of weeks, and I hope to be here before Christmas, which is only a month away. I don’t need the time myself, but John you might, looking for a place, that is.” Margaret finished. She was watching John while she spoke. He looked as though he had been hit by a runaway coach. He seemed to be growing paler by the minute.
Only a month away? I am soon delivered from my hell!
“Margaret, count on me to do whatever it takes to get you here. Like Dixon said, we have all waited for this day. I was only a few weeks away from visiting you, myself. This news is beyond belief. Please excuse me for a moment.” John walked down the hall to his room and quietly closed the door. He sat on the edge of his bed literally trying to breathe. He was caught in a deluge of happiness that just kept pouring over him and over him, not allowing him to catch a breath before the next blissful torrent assailed him. This must be what pure bliss feels like, he told himself. He cursed the tears that had sprung to his eyes.
I can’t face her like this..
Sensing John was overcome with happiness similar to hers, (it felt as if she had been walking on clouds for two days), Margaret told Dixon to go on to bed, and they would talk more in the morning.
A few moments later, John heard a light tap on his door, and before he could answer it, Margaret entered his room. He quickly turned his face from her with deep embarrassment. Catching sight of his tear-filled eyes, she walked over to him, and sat by his feet, allowing him to hide his manly sensitivity.
“John,” Margaret whispered. She heard no answer.
“John, happiness is overwhelming, isn’t it? I know what you’re feeling right now. I cried, too, when I was finally alone.”
John swiftly pulled her up to a sitting position on his bed beside him, holding both of her hands in his. He looked into her face and saw tears matching his own looking back at him.
God, let me find the strength to do what is right at this moment.
He bent towards her and slowly brushed his lips against hers. Feeling no denial from Margaret, he wanted to crush her to him; but then, calling on all his reserve as a gentleman, he quickly pulled away and stood up. “I think its best that we return to the parlor, don’t you?”
“Yes, John. Maybe someday, though.” She whispered enticingly, as she walked away.
Her statement staggered him to a halt; he couldn’t believe what he had just heard.
She’s remembered those words that I left for her, well over a year ago.
They talked well into the night about her move: the type of home she would like to own and what she could afford. She had the address of the Professor’s new home, and was hoping that she could find a home within walking distance to him. Purposely, there was no mention of any ardent feelings between John and Margaret. Much later, Margaret admitted she was tired and wished to go to bed, but was unsure as to where she was expected to sleep. John showed her the way to Fanny’s old room, which was always kept fresh by Dixon. He escorted her to the door, and he stopped outside. She looked up into his steel blue eyes, and he embraced her tightly, stealing her heat and her scent. He held her as she put her arms around his waist. A kiss was hanging in the air, but did not rush itself. There were no inhibitions on either part, leaving each with a suspended expectation of things to come. They no longer had to hide their feelings from each other, or, from others.
Margaret’s reaction shocked him. It was pure. No emotional burden being the cause. It was true, and it was right. John returned to the parlor, turned down the lights and sat back his chair by the fire. Staring at the embers fading to a soft glow, John drifted through all the past years: the initial meeting at the mill, the misunderstandings, his rejected proposal, the man at the station, the separation, the absence of communication, her marriage, the veranda, the funeral, and now . . . she was sleeping in a bed in the next room. After four years, Margaret was returning home, to his love, a love which he had never given up. John told himself long ago, that he would wait forever. Forever was now here and he had no earthly idea where to start, but he wept with happiness for it had finally come, setting him free from the loneliness.
When he finally retired to his room, he was afraid to sleep, fearing he would wake to find it all had been a dream.
Dawn broke the next morning, signaling the beginning of a new outlook on life for John and Margaret. Slipping over to the office, he invited Higgins over for a talk, but kept the surprise a secret. “I’ll be right behind you, Master” Higgins told him, “let me just finish giving directions to our foreman.”
John returned to the house and saw Dixon busy setting the table. Margaret’s door was still closed, but he could hear her moving around and knew she’d be out momentarily. “Dixon please set the table for four this morning and tell Cook. I want you to join us this time.”
Moments later, Higgins hollered up the steps and John told him to come ahead. Not having any hint as to what this talk was about, Higgins was surprised at the four place settings on the dining room table.
“You wanted to talk to me, Master?” Higgins asked.
“Yes, Higgins, I want you to join me for breakfast. I have something to show you.”
“I see there are four settings? You have my curiosity well and truly peeked.” Higgins said as he placed his hat in the hall and removed his coat, wishing he’d washed his hands before coming over.
Dixon entered the room, and told John that Cook would bring the food in a few moments. She began to pour the tea for four. John invited Higgins to the table, and they both sat. Seeing Dixon sit down to the table with them really unsettled Nicholas, and as he looked at the fourth place, he began to wonder. Before he could get very far in his thinking, he heard a voice.
“Nicholas!” Emerging from her room, Margaret shouted with glee upon finding her old friend seated around the table. Higgins had hardly stood before Margaret had her arms round his neck, kissing him on the cheek. “Oh, I am so happy to see you this trip. How is Mary?”
While Margaret was hugging him, Higgins looked up at John for his reaction and saw a beaming smile; he then felt comfortable in hugging her back. “Miss Margaret,” he said, “I can hardly believe this. The Master didn’t tell me you were coming.”
“Actually, John didn’t know himself until I showed up on his doorstep late last night, begging lodging,” she laughed.
As they all sat down to the table and the food was passed food around, Margaret briefly related her story to Nicholas about her return to Milton. Higgins occasionally watched John’s face as she spoke, noticing his eyes never left Margaret; Higgins was really happy for the two of them.
It was past 9:30 and the breakfast party was just starting to break when there was a knock on the door. Walking over to the window, John saw a carriage waiting outside. Dixon had gone to greet the visitor, and returned, shortly escorting Dr. Pritchard into the parlor. Margaret hugged him and happily introduced him to everyone, suddenly realizing she was surrounded by her loving and only friends, in the whole world. This is what she wanted, she felt it immensely at that moment and knew she’d found her home. To everyone’s bafflement, she was suddenly overcome by the warmth and relief that surrounded her and she started to cry. In an effort to regain her control, she turned and headed for her room.
Everyone looked at each other in bewilderment. Dixon was on her way in to see Margaret, when Margaret returned with her hanky.
“I’m sorry for being so silly,” she told them, still slightly teary-eyed, “I just became aware that all my favorite people in the world are with me right now, a moment that I have dreamt about for so long. I was overcome with the comfort of it all.
As he watched her run away, John’s knees had weakened at her happiness. He recognized, even with his great passion for her, he could never have brought such a significant moment to her life. He wondered how often that ever happened to anyone.
Rather than standing around speechless, Higgins decided he had to get back to work. “Master, I couldn’t be happier for the two of you and for us,” he said, and turning to the Professor, “It’s been a pleasure to meet you, sir. Miss Margaret,” he added with a twinkle in his eye, “I couldn’t be more pleased to know that you will be living here soon. If I can be of any help in any way, please call on me. You know where I work,” he finished laughingly as he grabbed his coat and cap and left with Margaret escorting him to the door, leaving John and the Professor alone.
“Won’t you sit down, Professor,” John asked, pointing to a chair near the fireplace.
The Professor sat, crossed his legs, and pulled out a pipe from his vest pocket. “Do you mind?” He asked, indicating the pipe to John.
“Please,” John replied with a slight wave with his hand.
There was a moment of silence while he struck the wooden match and puffed life into his pipe. “So. You’re the one.” The Professor said, more as a statement than a question.
“I’m sorry. I’m what?” John asked in total surprise.
“You’re the man in Margaret’s life,” the Professor said. “Someday, I will explain why I know that, and why I know that Margaret is coming to know, too. Furthermore, you’re the man who’s making the history around here. You will be very prominent in my book, with all that you have done in Milton. I won’t go into that now either, for I will be moving here in two weeks, and it will be several months before I come to you asking for your whole story.”
John shifted in his seat. “I will be glad to work with you when the time comes,” he said. “Do you and Margaret have appointments today?”
“Well, yes and no.”
Just then Margaret returned to the room still looking a bit embarrassed, but she sat down on the couch to listen to their conversation.
The Professor, puffing on his pipe as smoke swirled overhead, said, “Glad to have you back Margaret,” he said. “Your heart rendering proclamation warmed us all. Do not feel embarrassed. It is something you’ve needed probably your entire life. It must have been the equivalent of a person totally blind from birth, having his sight restored. It was an epiphany for you, and I am envious.”
John was watching Margaret intently, stunned by the personal way in which the Professor was talking to her . . . and speaking that way in front of him. However, he saw a smile break out on her face that took his breath away.
There is closeness there, far beyond mere friendship.
“As I was about to tell Mr. Thornton, here,” Professor Pritchard continued, “I have come by to see if the two of you would like to see where I will live, so plans can begin for your own residence, Margaret.”
“Yes, surely. I would like that, “Margaret said as she looked questioningly at John.
“I’d be most interested myself, Dr. Pritchard,” John said standing. “By the way, would you care to have dinner with us this evening?”
“Yes, thank you. I’d like that very much.”
Margaret jumped up and said she would find Dixon and tell her, as she also wanted to ask Dixon about a housekeeping staff for the Professor.
While Margaret was gone, John and Dr. Pritchard discussed where he would be locating, and the possibility of finding something suitable nearby for Margaret. John remembered a quaint little house that was being refurbished weeks ago, close by and told the Professor about it.
“Excellent,” the Professor was saying as Margaret re-entered the room. “If there is nothing left to do, I have a hired coach outside. Should we take our leave?” That remark was a small joke between Margaret and the Professor, as a sort of nose-thumbing to the vanities of Londoners.
“Oh yes, let’s do.” Margaret said, as John retrieved her coat, and placed it around her shoulders.
John slipped into his own great coat, grabbed his top hat and they all set off for 840 Queens Lane. As they were being driven there, on what was formerly known as Main Street, John noted the distance from the gingerbread cottage that sat across from the courthouse to the Professor’s residence. Upon arriving at the residence, John saw the same realtor sign in the window of the cottage. Providence was still holding sway, he thought.
As they entered the dwelling, Margaret began looking around the old refurbished store front home, remarking that it had downstairs quarters for a housekeeper. “By the way, Professor,” Margaret told him, “I’ve spoken with Dixon, and she is sure that she can accommodate you with a suitable staff, just as I thought she could.”
The realtor arrived shortly after, with the necessary paperwork prepared for Dr. Pritchard. “Hello, Dr. Pritchard,” he said, “nice to see you again. Oh, and hello Mr. Thornton, I’m surprised to see you here.”
John introduced Mrs. Reed to the realtor and asked him if he happened to have with him, the key to the cottage across from the courthouse. He replied that he did and handed it to Mr. Thornton, without a care.
“We shall let you two do your paperwork, while I escort Mrs. Reed to the cottage. We will return shortly.” John said with a smile.
Surprising Margaret and catching her totally off guard, John wrapped her arm around his and whisked her out the door saying, “Come, I want to show you something.”
Fifteen – Troubles Anew
During the following days, Beth mostly devoted herself to her husband’s recovery. It was greatly needed. Stephen, whose fever caused him to lose a full stone, still felt fairly weak, and was greatly irritated by it. He could only manage half of the work he had set his goal to, an experience that was utterly new to him. It was Beth’s task to watch over her beloved husband and see that he did not overdo it.
It was the end of May, and the weather granted mild, sunny days, crisp mornings and balmy nights. In consequence, short walks, that did not wander too far from the house, were very much enjoyed by the convalescent and his faithful nurse. Yet afterwards Stephen was always rather worn out and needed a quiet rest on the sunlit terrace, stretched on a chaise-longue and sheltered from the brisk southerly breeze. Beth sat beside him with her needlework, and they had long, intimate talks with subjects ranging from the daily workings of the Abbey to sweet, nonsensical love words.
Sometimes, Lily would be there too. The girl – as well as her twin brother – was now thirteen years old and rapidly growing into a young woman. Her slim body, light and elegant as a filly’s, had reached a height that already exceeded Beth’s by several inches and was developing the first signs of womanhood, with delicate hips and budding breasts. Lily was also a sweet, uncomplicated girl, who enjoyed life and people without prejudice or suspicion of malice.
Unlike her brother, Beth thought as she listened to Lily’s clear voice, while the girl was reading to her father. Oliver had recently shown a stubborn and sometimes heated response to everything his father was concerned. Stephen usually laughed it away as a form of boyish rebellion which he himself had also succumbed to, when he had Oliver’s age. It was only natural for Oliver, Stephen pointed out, to feel resentment over the world in general and his family in particular, since the boy needed to find out what his exact place in life was.
It was true that both children had gone through many abrupt changes over the last year, jostled between their grandmother and their father as they had been. The fact that Granny Bradley had so suddenly died had, of course, also been a great distress. Yet Beth instinctively felt that these matters were not solely responsible for Oliver’s angered state yet she had been unable to tackle the subject with him. Oliver steadfastly remained sullen and uncommunicative, even with her or Lily. Maybe Lily would be the last person to gain his confidence now that she was a head taller than Oliver, a fact that was prone to give him a feeling of inferiority.
With a sigh, Beth set aside her worrying, bent to her work and listened to Lily’s sweet voice instead.
Because of the chickenpox, there had been no time to search for – and consequently, hire – private tutors for Lily and Oliver. Beth took on this task with urgency as it was vital that the children resume their education forthwith, but in the meantime, she ordered them to be driven into the village so that they could attend school with Mr Sage, the assistant curate. As a school teacher, Mr Sage was very demanding of his pupils, requesting that they make rapid and highly satisfactorily progress in their studies. The thirteen year olds now were presented with Latin and Greek as well as with French and German. It was therefore not surprising that the children brought home a multitude of tasks to perform after school, forcing them to retire to the former class room, in order to achieve the job.
From Ruby, who knew everything that transpired in the village and far beyond, Beth learned that Mr Sage secretly hoped he himself would be appointed as private tutor to the twins, but that he dare not make a request to Stephen. After hearing this, Beth told her husband what private wishes Mr Sage was harbouring. Stephen raised surprised eyebrows at this.
“Sage tutoring my children, here at the Abbey? Well, I must confess I had not given it much thought, my love. To be honest, the whole matter had somewhat slipped my mind but I suppose I could give it some consideration. It could not be for long, dearest, for Oliver is destined for Eton, which – as you might recall – was my own school. I hope he will be going to Cambridge University after concluding his secondary studies there. As for Lily, I was thinking of Harrogate. What is your opinion on this?”
“Oh, I am very certain that Lily will be over the moon when she hears this! She has always been a keen and quick learner and she recently began her classics with relish and diligence. Of Oliver, however, I am not so sure, Stephen, especially in this new and sullen mood of his.”
“Rest assured, my love. I will speak to Oliver right away. Would you care to be present?”
“No, Stephen. It is my belief that this should be entirely between the two of you. A boy should have a special bond with his father.”
Stephen summoned Oliver to his study, but their meeting lasted not long. Afterwards, Stephen gave Beth a brief recount of their conversation, of which he was not entirely satisfied.
“You were right, as usual, Beth. Oliver is extremely sullen and sometimes downright angry. I have informed him of our plans for him, and he did not seem to object to them.”
Beth felt not comforted at all by those words and she instantly expressed her anxiety.
“But … what have you told him, Stephen? You had not yet made up your mind about the boy’s future!”
“He knows he will be going to Eton as he will need a thorough education, if he aspires to be my successor. He first started to protest, but I made it clear to him that he was very lucky to have a chance to better himself, and that he should make his profit of it.”
They were in their chamber, preparing for bed, when this talk took place. Beth, after having donned her night gown behind a screen, stepped forward and placed her hands on her husband’s chest, as if putting in a plea. Stephen’s arms immediately encircled her, pleasure and anticipation on his face. They had not made love since the beginning of his illness.
“My love,” Beth said, oblivious of the warmth in her husband’s eyes, “do you not think you have been a bit overbearing? After all, Oliver might have other wishes about his own future.”
“Mmm …” Stephen’s husky voice sounded in her ear, startling her from her musings.
“Stephen? Did you just hear what I said ?”
“I did, my love … but I prefer to ignore it …”
He nuzzled her ear and let his lips roam over the delicate skin beneath it. Beth closed her eyes in thrilling rapture, giving herself over to her husband’s lovemaking. She longed for his touch with a vehemence that was only natural after so long an abstinence. Whatever was needed, could wait until the morrow.
However, in the morning, the Abbey was rocked on its foundations when Oliver Bradley-Fenton was missing from his room. A quantity of equally missing clothes and some books pointed to a flight. When a sum of money from the baron’s study desk was also gone, Beth and Stephen understood fully; Oliver had run away.
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.
She’s Not the Margret, We Once Knew
As the large crowd milled outside, talking, John made his way through to the chapel steps and entered the church. He seated himself near the front, across from where Margaret was likely to be. The organist began to play and the assembly filed inside, quickly filling the pews, until there was standing room only. Searching through the mass of people, John finally noticed Margaret, walking down the aisle. She was accompanied by a man and woman, who could only have been her husband’s brother and sister. John thought. Margaret was naturally dressed in black with a netted veil covering her face. Even so, he thought; only Margaret could still look stunning in mourning attire. He gazed intently through the veil at her profile, surprised to find few tears being wiped away. She was composed, as she held her head high, determined to show strength, and still accepting of yet another death in her world of friends and family. The organ music quietly ended, and the minister began his words with a prayer to the congregation. It was a nice service and a close faculty friend, an older gentleman, Dr. Trevor Pritchard, who gave the eulogy. However, John’s attention was steadfastly engaged on Margaret; he was somewhat baffled that she showed little emotion.
She looks withdrawn, as if she has been discarded from life. Odd, that she shows little sadness.
After the ceremony was completed, the minister announced that the short private burial would commence immediately behind the chapel. Booker Reed was being buried in the campus church graveyard. Apparently, John heard murmured around him; this was an honor rarely bestowed. Everyone was invited to remain for refreshments in the dining hall, two buildings over.
Having Margaret near, yet so far away, he decided to attend the private burial, hoping to find a moment to speak with her. The pallbearers bore the coffin out first, followed by Margaret, her family, and the Reed family. The general assembly then flowed next with John being one of the last ones to exit.
Taking full strides with his long legs, he soon reached the party as they neared the burial site, directly behind the church. The college cemetery was very elegant with its filigree ironworks, tall oak trees and intricately carved head stones. About a dozen people attended the private burial, but John, being self-conscious of his height since no one could miss seeing him there, slipped behind the few that were standing.
He was encouraged by the fact that Margaret was handling her situation well and had seemingly shed very few tears, yet he was concerned that there could be more behind her apathetic manner. He could sense it; he wondered if anyone else could feel it. Once the final words were read by the Reverend, the mourners filed past the lowered coffin to pay their last respects with a handful of earth or flowers. John watched as Margaret stood over the grave site for several seconds, tossed her bouquet down to the coffin, then walked away, escorted by her family and followed by the other mourners.
John was the last to leave, and as they all walked toward the front of the church, he was still deciding how he should approach her.
Margaret . . . look back at me . . .
As if she’d heard his very thoughts, Margaret slowly turned her head and looking back, noticed John’s tall stately presence, casting his long shadow.
His breath caught, and he stopped walking, drinking in her vision as she stared at him.
Through our silence, she is looking back at me, as if she has heard me.
John could feel her eyes gazing at him even through her dark netted veil. Knowing she was now aware of his presence, his heart began to hammer against his ribs, reaffirming that he loved her more than life.
Margaret stopped and motioned for the others to pass her then looked back in his direction. The family wondered what had caught her attention. Her cousin wanted to wait on her, but Margaret waved Edith on.
Not taking his eyes from her, John removed his hat and started walking towards her. This was a special moment for him, but out of sympathy, he withheld his smile. He was living one of his recurring dreams. He recognized it for what it was – Margaret walking towards him as he walked towards her. He lived this moment in his mind many times. As she took steps in his direction, the distance between them grew shorter until John touched her extended hand.
Face to face, she lifted her veil.
Someday . . . she will lift her wedding veil to me.
Releasing a hushed sigh, John looked into her glassy hazel eyes and lost himself in the delicate features of her face. Even at her lowest, Margaret was the most beautiful creature in his world. He searched for words, which now seemed stranded deep within him. The silence became awkward. John knew if he forced himself to speak, he would fall over his own words. However, he cherished the fact that she was looking at him intently, unable to speak, herself.
Margaret could hardly believe he was standing before her, so tall and handsome, holding the sun behind him like a monolith. John was the pillar of inner strength she desperately needed in her life, right now. And, no doubt, had probably needed for several years, she realized.
Thank you, God, for sending him here.
The stalled moment seemed welcomed by them both as their eyes roamed each other’s faces, like long lost lovers being reunited. The vision was rapturous for John. Margaret felt every bit the same; however, she smothered that emotional passion.
Margaret felt like she had been thrown a rope as the high waves were breaking over her, battering her down into the sea. John was from a different world, a world she had missed for many years. She knew he would protect her from the harsh storm which seemed to be swirling about her. Looking into his face, she saw his serenity, his strength, and his love, all beckoning her to step into his space.
My arms are your sanctuary . . . reach out to me . . . Margaret
Feeling extremely vulnerable and suddenly weak, she collapsed against him, laying her arms against his chest. What a strange sensation, finding peace and safety even when she was not in any danger. She needed to draw something from John, but what it was she didn’t know. There was something about him that made Margaret want to lean on him. For just a few moments, she longed for reassurance that in her own world, Margaret’s world, she was not alone. “John. Hold me . . . hold me close.”
He was swiftly overwhelmed, driven by his deep love for her, surrendering his reserve, allowing his eyes to mist. The emotional wall that John had been hiding behind for many years began to crack. He fought his dominant male instinct to sweep her off her feet and carry her away to safety. He ached for her, but gently wrapped his arms about her discreetly, and sheltered her to him. John felt her unleash shivering sobs against his body. She felt so warm and soft in his arms; he almost closed his eyes from the pure tenderness of the moment. Despite the scrutiny of onlookers and how it might be perceived; he threw propriety to the wind and did not interrupt the moment. John held Margaret close to him, weathering her through her storm. He laid his cheek on top of her head to secure her closer, reveling in her scent and the feel of her within his arms. Suddenly, he felt Margaret’s weight sliding through his grasp, as she fainted. He grabbed her tightly, swinging his arm beneath her knees and lifting her easily to his chest. He carried her over to a white wooden bench, nearby.
Margaret’s Aunt Shaw and cousin Edith hurried back to see what had happened, and immediately began to fan and fawn over her. “What did you say to her,” Aunt Shaw asked, rather haughtily.
“We have yet to speak a word to each other,” John replied, somewhat annoyed. “She must be exhausted from the strain and stress of the day.” He had no sentiment for these people.
As Margaret’s eyes fluttered open, bringing her back into her surroundings, her aunt sighed in relief. “You’re going to be alright, Margaret,” she said, assuring her, as though she were a child. “We’ll take you home, and you won’t have to talk with all these people.”
John was buried in Margaret’s eyes, watching for her awareness of the family’s efforts to direct her life. If possible, he vowed, never again would he allow them to make decisions for her.
John spoke calmly but firmly, “Would you please allow Mrs. Reed and I a few moments before she leaves, so that I can express my condolences and those of others from Milton.”
Silent glances and frowns were exchanged between Margaret’s relatives.
“I must insist on this,” John said sternly, sensing their reluctance. “I will bring her to the front of the church directly; please just give us a moment. I have come a long way to say these few words to her, and I intend to say them. You have meddled in Margaret’s affairs, possibly changing the course of her life, but you will not meddle in mine, ever again. Please, leave us.”
Knowing how they had successfully contrived to keep Margaret and him apart, ruining at least one of their lives, John would brook no argument, especially from this family. There was iron in his voice, and he remained resolute.
Aunt Shaw and Edith walked away, quite aware of what his underlying reasons had meant.
Rising to a seated position, Margaret apologized to John for the scene she had created and thanked him for his help.
John sat her down beside him and turned towards her, rubbing her hands. “I’m so glad to be here with you. I am sorry for your loss. Higgins, Mary, Dixon, and I all want you to know you have our support.”
“How are they?” she asked, regaining her senses. “I miss them immensely.”
“As they do you, Margaret” John said. “Please let our friendship help you through the coming difficulties you will face. We will all worry and want to write to you, if you allow us. I will keep in touch with you no matter how you feel about it. If I receive no response, I will come to London and speak my mind to your family. No one can stand in my way ever again, except you.” He gazed at her beautifully sad face with its tear streaks and flushed cheeks, as he handed her his handkerchief.
“Thank you, John,” Margaret said, trying to stifle her tears.
“I’m hoping you might think to consider returning to Milton for your mourning period.” John said, studying her face closely. “There you will have true friends who wish to support your wishes and not steer you in any direction. The thought of you having to return to your family is almost more than I can bear. Please keep that in mind as you begin your recovery. I could even take you away this very moment, should you wish to escape all this.” Seeing her tears increase, he added in a sorrowful voice, “Margaret, I’m sorry. Please forgive me. I thought I was conveying words that would be welcomed.”
“I’m not crying from sadness, John.” Margaret assured him, “I’m overcome with relief. I have felt so . . . detached . . . from this world for a long time. You have brought an oasis to my desert. How I’ve longed for friends, my friends, and . . . and . . . thank you, John, for being here today. I know you never met Booker and this inconvenience to you is for me, alone.”
Having sensed something more in her words and actions, and unable to keep his sentiment under control any longer, John said softly, “Margaret, there is no inconvenience here. Never with you,”
“Seeing you standing there, John, I thought my guardian angel had come to rescue me. Suddenly, I was safe from the world. I knew everything was going to be alright. You saved me from the whirlpool of faces and condolences. You have lifted me up today. I’m sorry if I embarrassed you.”
I want you always to come to me.
“You could never embarrass me, Margaret,” he remarked tenderly. “I am, and always will be your guarding angel.” Please think of the people who want to help you. They all love you, you know.”
“As I do them.” Margaret hastened to assure him. “Please thank Nicholas, Mary, and Dixon for their sympathy and support. I may yet come to rely on all of you.” Margaret looked devoutly into John’s face. “Thank you . . . most of all. I’d like to tell you how much it means for you to be here with me, but propriety forbids such admissions.” She paused, wondering if she should say more. “I think I should return, now, before we speak beyond our places.”
John became aware of a lump in his throat. Her words seemed heaven sent.
Margaret . . . how I love you.
“Margaret, before we go . . . and this is a most inappropriate time but not knowing where your future will lead you, I would like to ask a personal question. I’ve thought about that night for several years, and if you don’t wish to tell me, I will understand.”
“Yes, John, ask anything and I will tell you what I can.
“I never met your husband and although, I think the answer is no . . . was he the gentleman who I saw you with at the train station that night?”
An awkward silence captured the moment, for them both.
Why doesn’t she speak . . . I’ve crossed a line.
“No, John, that man was not Booker.”
John knew it was a terrible time to ask a question that he had no right to ask. As Margaret hesitated, he realized he would be at a loss if she didn’t continue.
“Margaret,” he said, gently, “I never should have inquired into your personal affairs, and I am quite ashamed of how selfish I’ve been.”
“John,” she reassured him, “I’m the one who should be ashamed . . . ashamed of not trusting your feelings for me at the time. It has troubled me, as well, for I should have confided in you. Your attitude towards me changed considerably after that night. I knew why, but I couldn’t rectify it then; now I feel I can. I needed to keep that secret from you and from everyone, really.”
“I don’t understand, Margaret. A secret?” He prompted.
“It’s a long story for another time, but I will tell you that the man you saw me with that night at the train station, is someone I have loved all my life. That man was my brother.”
“Your brother!” John repeated quietly, in bewilderment. The realization that the stranger was her brother slowly relieved him of the mystery that had torn his heart out over three years ago.
He was her brother . . . !
“I hope someday to hear the whole story. I know I was harsh and distant, and I am truly sorry. I think you remember my feelings towards you at that time. I admit it unsettled me to think you had another gentleman in your life. I dare to say it would be no different today. Nevertheless, as you say, that’s for another time. I think we have a lot of – IF’s – in our past,” John continued, somewhat regretfully, “If you hadn’t run out to the rioters, if I’d known he was your brother, if our letters weren’t conveyed away from us, if I’d known you were about to marry, but those are all behind us now. Margaret, dare to free yourself from your past.
“Thank you, John. When we have time to discuss the whole story, you will understand.”
He nodded to her, hoping that day would come. John stood; ready to assist her, “Do you think you can stand, now, Margaret?”
“Yes, if you let me take your arm. I’m sure I am steady on my feet, now. The swarming emotions have cleared. When are you returning to Milton?”
“Just as soon as I leave here,” John said, as he helped Margaret and curled her arm around his. “Do you know what your immediate plans might be?” He asked as he began to slowly escort her toward the church, not wanting the moment to end.
“I shall be at my cousin’s house for a week,” she said, “after which I must return to our campus quarters and begin packing the few things that were ours. There are thousands of books to donate to the school’s library, and personal items that his family should have. It will probably take a few weeks to resolve all the paperwork. I’ve not totally decided to move into Edith and Maxwell’s home, as is being suggested to me. However, I may stay with them a month or so until I have firm plans. This shall be the last time that I ever depend on them. I need time to take care of all the consequences of Booker’s death, including our living quarters. Most importantly, I’ll need time to consider my future. However, I do know for certain that I will not stay in London for my entire mourning period. Like you, I feel that going back to that environment is directly in opposition to the life I want to lead. I’m anxious to start a brand-new life, on my own.
John, hearing those words, put his free hand over her hand, which was wrapped around his arm, and pressed it tightly. “Will you want Dixon to return to London?” He asked, as they continued walking.
“I want her to stay with you for now,” Margaret answered, “until I’m quite assured of my direction. I’m financially independent, and I will leave London. I will handle my affairs without family intervention. I’ll always love them, but I can never forgive them for what happened between us, our . . . letters, that is. Thank you for holding your temper back there. Your words were quite valiant and far more effective than mine had been. Right now, I feel I am handling Booker’s death well; far different from when my parents passed. His family has been very supportive throughout this trying time and wants me to continue receiving the stipend that was his rightful inheritance as a second son. They are wealthy and quite generous.”
They walked a few steps in silence.
You’ve been without your Mother for almost a year and a half. How are you faring, John?”
“Margaret, I’m managing well. I’ll not lie and tell you that I did not grieve a long time after she died, because I did. I owed her much. My life is quite empty with her gone, even with Dixon trying to ‘mother’ me. I suppose we will soon have to have words.” He smiled, as did Margaret, at the thought of anyone having words with Dixon.
“And you haven’t married; I know this because Dixon writes occasionally about you and your work in Milton. Do you have a steady lady in your life?” Margaret asked.
“No, there is no steady lady in my life and never has been since . . .” John caught his own words before he could embarrass himself.
“May I ask why you have not married yet?” Margaret probed gently.
“No, you may not ask, but I think you know.” Flustered, he continued, “I am sorry. That was quite inappropriate to say.”
God . . . can I not hold my tongue?
“Please, don’t apologize. It brings me great comfort.” Margaret said, feeling a flush of heat come over her.
I have hurt this man at every turn in our acquaintance, and yet he still loves me after all this time, waiting through my marriage. I do not deserve the attentions of a man such as him. He is a far greater person than I am, and to think that I once thought . . .
John did not miss her blush or her words. As they neared the cemetery gates, John could see family and friends waiting for her. Stopping suddenly, he stepped between Margaret and her family, so his back was to them, shielding her. He was so close to her that he could feel her body heat.
I want to take you into my arms, right now, to kiss you.
“Margaret, I wish your society allowed me to visit while you mourn, but I dare not seek to cross the boundaries of propriety, in London, for your sake.” John lifted her hand and lightly kissed the back of it in the London gentleman tradition as he drank in one last look from her exquisite face, burning her vision into his heart.
Leaning down towards her, he murmured softly into her ear, “I miss you, Margaret. Please, come back to us. Don’t lock your heart away. Return to me.” He hesitantly turned and left, feeling her absence pressing in on him from that first step away. There was a knot in his stomach, but he had done all he could do for now. But was it enough?
Instantly feeling his loss and a great sense of emptiness, Margaret watched as he threaded his way through the crowd. She would never let him walk out of her life.
John Thornton, look back at me.
As he proceeded around the groups of people waiting to see her, he turned back to Margaret one last time and was ecstatic to see that she still followed him with her eyes.
She is still looking at me . . .
John noticed that she soon became ensconced by the gathered mourners.
A half-hour later, he was seated on the train, re-living every word and each moment of his time with Margaret. How he desperately wanted that hope back! He tried to be objective, but found he could not. Recalling how she had come into his arms once again, in need of a temporary rescue, John knew she had found solace and protection in his embrace. The day had begun to close in on her, but he felt there was more to it than the funeral; something more was underlying her grief. He still sensed she was calling out to him, almost like she was very tired while treading water far from shore. The time was soon coming when he would respond to all of her needs, without the heavy curtain of propriety always hanging between them.
For the four-hour ride home, John reflected on his few moments with her, feeling as if his heart would burst if he were left alone with his dreams much longer.
I looked like her guardian angel . . . You were saving me from . . . You lifted me up. . .
As the train pulled into Milton, John shook himself out of his reverie and forced himself back to earth. Once again, his thoughts returned to the kidnapping. Exiting the train, he hailed a carriage and went directly to Chief Mason’s office. As John arrived at the courthouse, he could see Mason through the window of the glass door, enmeshed in paperwork. Tapping lightly, he walked in. “Mason, what has happened so far?” He began in an excited tone. “And hello, to you, too, Detective Carlson. Forgive me, I had my mind elsewhere and didn’t see you sitting there.”
“Good evening to you, sir. Please, no apology needed,” the detective responded.
“Sir, I’m glad you’re back. There have been some developments in the case. Only hours ago, Lindsey McKeever escaped her abductors and hailed a passing coach for help. She was on Hyde road about 2 miles outside of town. She said she hid along the road until she spotted a decent coach that she could stop. No second note was received, and no money exchanged hands. It was obvious, by her condition, that she had been assaulted in some way, starved and possibly tortured or beaten, so I allowed her to be taken home and examined by the doctor. We will interview her tomorrow, if the doctor permits. The house has been guarded. She told us that she remembered being hauled away in her own trap and thought she had walked about two miles before being picked up, so I have men searching the area for her trap. I’m glad that she is alive and safe, but those men are still out there, probably long gone by now, but we won’t give up. She thinks there were at least two men, but she wasn’t sure, as she was blindfolded the whole time. I will plan on going out there tomorrow morning at 10:00 o’clock with Detective Carlson. Would you would care to join us, sir?”
“No, I’ll leave that in your capable hands. Let me know if I can be of any other help. I’ll return tomorrow and read your report. We still don’t know if the assault was the original intent or if it was a kidnapping. The note she received, doesn’t clearly specify that either way for us. I’m very sorry that this has been as brutal as you may think. I know you will continue to seek these depraved animals.” Shaking his head and frowning, John said, “There is no lower form of species on this earth than men who prey on women and children to . . .” He could not finish his sentence.
“I agree, sir. I am sorry you were called away on such unpleasant circumstances, yourself,” Mason said.
“Thank you, Mason. No, it wasn’t a pleasant time for Mrs. Reed. You’ll remember her as Miss Hale. She lost her husband through an accidental fall. It’s been a long day for me. I’m just returning now from the funeral and would like to get home.” Donning his hat, John turned towards the two men. “If I can be of service, contact me. Otherwise, I’ll see you tomorrow afternoon. Good-bye, Mason. Good-bye Detective Carlson,” He shook hands with the men and left the office.
Moments later, John entered his coach, anxious to return home and tell Higgins and Dixon about his visit with Margaret.
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.”