Reserve and Reticence – Part Three

Three – A Curse Came Upon Us

 

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

At the Abbey, more disturbing news awaited them.

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

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

 

~~~~

 

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

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

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

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

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

Dr Forrester bowed his head.

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

Both Fenton and Beth gasped audibly.

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

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

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

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

Stephen nodded pensively.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

~~~~

 

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

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

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

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

 

~~~~

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

I Killed Him – pt 28

Chapter Twenty Eight

John never returned from his office. Margaret and Branson departed from the stable area and never passed where John could see she was riding on top.

“You know where we’re going, right Branson?”

“I know exactly where we are going and which cottage. We will park the team at some distance, Miss, so he will not know we’re coming. I will enter first with my pistols in hand. If he goes for a weapon, I will shoot at his toe. I want you to be able to talk to him and give him your doctored whisky. However, if he continues to try, I will shoot him dead, and no one will get a chance at him. Your husband and your brother want this man very badly.”

“That sounds good Branson. Is Branson your first name?”

“It’s my last name, Miss.”

“Can I know your first name?”

“I’d rather not say. I have been with the master over four years, and even he doesn’t know it. I don’t think he knows he doesn’t know it and that’s fine with me. It’s never come up. All right, we’re turning to leave the city. In this coach, it will probably only be another ten minutes before we are close enough to walk.”

Oh, damn!”

Branson reached for a blanket on the floor. Miss, put your head in my lap and hurry. She did as she was told and felt a blanket covering her.

As they drove past the man that was the target, Branson told Margaret what was happening. It looked like he was headed to the cottage. I will make sure he sees us head in the opposite direction when we turn on the road where he will walk.”

“Do what you have to do, Branson. Don’t worry about me.” Margaret’s sounds we muffled, and she felt strange with her head in Branson crotch. It was another five minutes before she could sit up and breathe the air.

“I’m sorry, Miss, I didn’t have any choice.”

“I know that. You probably saved our lives. Are you sure it was Hartford.”

“Yes. I’ve seen that picture plenty of times, and like Maxwell said, he cannot hide the military style haircut for a while.

Branson pulled the carriage into some heavy trees and bushes off of the road. He slipped back to watch the man turn towards the fourth cottage. And he did.

Branson helped Margaret down and back inside the coach until they were under a bit of darkness. Branson collected the pistols, and Margaret held firmly onto the arsenic-laced whisky bottle.

It was about thirty minutes later when the pair trekked quietly through the fallen branches and piles of leaves, heading towards cottage four.

Reaching cottage three, they waited there for twilight to almost disappear. As hoped, a candle was lit followed by an oil lantern. Branson watched intently at the windows. There was no sign of another person, but there was a horse tied to a post behind the house. That was the first that Branson knew about a horse. Hartford was ready for his attack and escape. He was expected to be carrying two pistols and one knife at least, possibly two knives. One would be in his boot. Branson gathered his thoughts and his nerve.

He held Margaret at bay still behind the third cottage while he approached the fourth. He placed her so he could find her in the moonlit night. Margaret understood and obeyed.

Branson crept to the house, silently slipping up to a window edge. Peering through the window, he could make out in the dim light that Hartford was eating bread and cheese at the table. His back was towards Branson and Hartford was facing the door. He had one pistol in a side holster and one lying on the table.

Unbeknownst to Branson, Margaret had walked to the front door but did not enter.

“Grant Hartford, I know you’re in there. It’s Margaret Hale. I’m here for you to kill me or make you a very rich man. I must tell you that pistols are pointed at you right now. So reach for your own if you want to die.

“I only have my driver, but he is an expert marksman. There is no one here to arrest you. You should know I have said nothing about your brutality and violation of me. That’s why no one has come looking for you. I hope you realize if no one knows yet, then they never will. You will have to believe that if you want to be a rich man.

“We don’t want your weapons; just put them up on that mantel behind you. I wish to enter and talk.”

“Margaret, it fills my heart with joy to know you did not go off and kill yourself as you were about to do. I know I am in a spot, so I will listen to you, but I will insist on keeping one pistol within five feet of me. That would put it at the other end of this long thin slab of wood table. That’s about as agreeable as I will be. Otherwise, just shoot me now.”

“Agreed. Place your holstered gun on the mantel. Place the other pistol at the far end of the table. Then take your right hand and shove it down your trousers.”

“Why that, Margaret?”

“I believe that is your favored shooting hand and I do not want it too accessible to the pistol on the table. That’s my deal to save your neck and make you rich. That is what you originally wanted. It can still be yours.”

Branson moved around the building from window to window watching him until he had done what Margaret asked. He nodded to her.

“I am coming in. My marksman said you have completed your end of the bargain, so I am coming to do mine.”

Margaret stepped through the door and Branson followed. He was shaking badly, watching for any twitch by Hartford. He followed Margaret inside, so Hartford knew she was not lying.

“Hello, Margaret. I remember that dress most vividly. I must say it looked better before. What’s that you’ve got in your hand? Whisky? Is that for me?”

“Only as a celebration if we can agree.”

Margaret went to the far end of the table where the pistol was laying, Hartford on the other. Branson was standing about eight feet from Hartford.

Branson had to speak. “Hartford, if you reach for the knife in your boot, I will shoot off several of your toes. I don’t want to be hung for killing you, but if it is self-defense, you’re dead.”

“I believe you, lad.”

“So, Margaret what is this deal to make me go away and not kill you?”

“Originally, you wanted to marry me for money. I am now married to a man I have loved for two years. He is wealthy. He is bringing a gang of men, including my brother, to kill you, possibly tonight or tomorrow. I don’t care what happens to you, but I do care what happens to him. As you can imagine, he would be tried and possibly hung for your murder. I cannot live with that if I have other alternatives.”

Branson saw Hartford’s arm swing down to his side. He was going for the knife soon, and Branson knew he could flick it his way in a split second.

“I can more than double what you would have had if you married me. It will take me a day or two to get it.”

“How did you know where I was?”

“You’ve been trailed for two days. You’ve been seen at Marlborough Mills, checking out the back for your escape. You spent your first night here at a sleazy bed place. Is that enough to know there are others coming?”

Suddenly, Hartford reached for his knife, and Branson fired at his boot.

A curdled scream rang out. While he was bent over cursing, Branson moved quick enough to kick the knife out of Hartford’s hand.

“Hand me that whisky woman. This hurts like bloody hell.”

Margaret slid the bottle down to him and reached for the other pistol left on the table.

“Looks to me like you don’t have much choice anymore, Grant.”

Grant continued holding his foot and drank from the bottle. Branson found a rag and threw it at him so he could stem the blood flow.

“I’d say you have backed me into a corner, there Missy. I am forced to accept your offer.”

Margaret continued negotiating until he had finished the bottle. “I didn’t know you would want to get shot. I should have brought a full bottle of that.”

Margaret knew she had enough arsenic in that bottle to kill ten people. Why wasn’t he showing any effects?

He was now harmless and totally disarmed with missing toes and arsenic in his body.

“I guess we don’t have a deal. You have not seemed very interested.”

Finally, Grant started howling in pain clutching his stomach.

“You’ve poisoned me, Margaret. You bitch.”

“Yes, I have.”

Margaret waited through the howling and doubling over in pain. When the retching started, Branson told her to leave, and he would do what needed to be done.

As Margaret entered the coach, she heard a pistol go off. She ran back and saw Branson adjusting Hartford’s body to look like a passed out drunk. He leaned him over the table in his own vomit and closed his eyes. He set the empty bottle on its side, nearby. He replaced one pistol in his holster, left the other on the table, and returned the knife to his boot. Branson doused the lantern and emptied the oil so it could not be lit. He set the only burning candle opposite of Hartford, so there was no light showing on his spine, where Branson had just fired toward.

Margaret was at the door watching. Branson was walking the room to make it look the best he could that the man was passed out and not dead.

“Branson, you’ve got it. Let’s go.”

 

Margaret and Branson disappeared into the night running. Margaret tripped over a dead branch and fell. She instantly lost her breath. Her rib was broken this time. Branson carried her in his arms to the coach.

“Miss, I’m going to have to whip this team to speed, so hold onto that side of yours. We’ll be home in no time. Good job, Miss. I was amazed. Don’t ever offer me anything to drink.”

Margaret smiled and tried to laugh but couldn’t. It was over. John was safe. That’s all that mattered. She would go to the detective tomorrow and confess.

 

Branson pulled the coach to the stable. He carried Margaret upstairs and poured her a requested scotch. He would have had a whisky, but there was no bottle. He settled for scotch instead.

Margaret asked Branson to run downstairs and fetch her pain medication, which he did.

“Branson, look out the window. Is there a light burning in the office?”

“Yes, and there is a carriage there plus Mr. Higgins’ buggy. I suspect it’s Mr. Bell’s driver. That would mean that Captain Lenox is with him. I can only assume the revenge group is readying to kill a dead man.” Branson let out a chuckle. Now, that it was done and passed, he felt the strain lifting off of him. They had survived.

“You know, Miss, if you don’t mind me saying, that was a damn fine plan you had. You really frightened me when I heard you begin to talk through the door. I had planned to come back and retrieve you.”

“I know that Branson. As a gentleman, you would most likely be too protective, putting yourself in further danger. I had to surprise you as well.”

“That was planned?”

“Yes.”

“It’s a good thing women don’t fight wars, that’s all I can say. You are quite unpredictable.”

“I think that’s a rite of passage for women,” Margaret tried to laugh again, and still couldn’t. The clock over the mantel struck eight.

“Miss, what would you like me to do?”

“Do you think your Guv could be waiting on you?

“It’s possible. We didn’t discuss the time I would be bringing you back from the hotel.”

“Maybe you should go and announce yourself. You may get to kill him again,” Margaret was forced to chuckle even through the pain.

“I doubt that. I don’t think he’ll leave you alone in the house. He will insist that I stay, but I best go let him know we’re back, so he can tell me that.”

“I’ll be fine just sitting here. Go ahead.”

Branson set down his drink and walked to the office.

 

Branson knocked lightly on the office door and then opened it. The room was silent with five men sitting around the desk. Nicholas was there to lend his coach and however else he could help.

“I’m back, sir. Do you need me?”

“You have two pistols, Branson?” John asked.

“Yes, sir but they need to be loaded.”

“Go load them and come back. I think we can return to our original plan. Nicholas will stay with Margaret and Branson can drive the one coach. This way we won’t stand out with a buggy and two horses.”

Branson left and went around the house rather than through it. That would not have been normal. Branson thought the Missus would know what happened when Nicholas arrived.

John stood staring out the window, looking at his home . . . their home, still upset from the day and how he treated Margaret. Something strange was there about the house. He kept staring at it.

“Something wrong, John,” asked Adam.

“I’m not sure.”

Nicholas came to the window.

“Could Margaret have gone to bed? There are no lights on.”

“That’s it. Margaret hasn’t found where they all are. I’m not sure she’s tall enough to light them manually. Even if she were tall enough and knew where they were, lifting her arms over her head is her most restrictive movement.”

“John, do you want me to go over now? Mason has six men on the ground, but if she’s just sitting in the dark because she can’t light them; that is rather sad, don’t you think?” Nicholas used that tone, knowing something had come between them today.

“I’ll go,” offered Fred.

John was feeling worse by the moment, and it was being compounded by the task at hand. Tempers were running high, at least for him.

“I’ll go,” John said.

 

John entered the parlour and shouted for Margaret.

“I here, John.”

He found the first light and lit it. Margaret had a drink in her hand. His feelings worsened. Kneeling at her feet, John picked up her hand and kissed it. No words were said. He went to embrace her, and she shied away. John stood. He had never felt so torn apart and lonely.

“Nicholas will be over soon to stay with you. I am going out.”

“Good hunting,” Margaret said as he walked out the sitting room door.

 

Branson brought the coach around. Margaret struggled to her feet, really feeling the pain now that the adrenaline was abating. Poor Branson, she thought. What a secret he had to keep. He must feel very low for what she had asked him to do. Now, it looked like he might have to repeat it.

Under the lights of the mill yard, the men gathered by the coach door. She saw Frederick, pull a pistol from somewhere and check it, returning it to somewhere within his clothing. Nicholas was standing there talking with them. No doubt, wishing them luck, promising John to take care of her if anything happened, she thought. The men entered the coach, although Maxwell opted to ride in the box with Branson. Margaret watched it slowly pull through the gates.

The pain was intensifying, and the pill was making her drowsy. She made her way to the sofa and laid down. She never heard Nicholas come into the room.

 

 

[serialposts]

Reserve and Reticense – Part Two

 

Two – A Visitor from Abroad

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

~~~~

 

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

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

“My lord … I’m not sure …”

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

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

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

 

~~~~

 

The dinner party went quite well, actually.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

~~~~

 

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

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

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

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

I Killed Him – pt 27

Chapter Twenty Seven

John and Frederick talked into the night, finalizing plans. Both agreed the pressure and anxiety were reaching an alarming pace, but nothing would stop them now, except death – for someone. They would have a meeting early the next day with the others; tell them all they knew and set the last plans of participation. Everyone would meet at the office around ten in the morning, including Branson.

As the plan seemed laid out, all the men would meet in the morning. Afterwards, Frederick would continue to scout Hartford. At four in the afternoon, everyone would meet with Boyle for any last minute information. Ten at night seemed to be the selected hour to put this man behind them all and Margaret. If Frederick found Hartford was not moving as predicted, the plans would have to change at the last minute.

Frederick saw John open a lower drawer in his desk and lift out a pistol.

“Do you have one of these, Fred?”

“I do, but I have no powder and ball.”

“Here.” John slid what Frederick needed across the desk. “Where do you keep it?”

Frederick reached down his trouser front and pulled out a small but powerful blunt pistol.

“I’ve carried this for three years. I’ve never used it on a person, but it has given me consolation knowing it has been there. On my trip here, I had to shoot for food. I must say, rabbits are fast. I used up all my munitions, I’m afraid.”

Both men laughed.

Each man took the time to clean and load their weapons.

John couldn’t remember the last time he had fired it. Many years ago, he had bought a set, feeling one should be in the house. Days after his purchase, he rode into a wooded area and fired for about an hour. He thought it felt strange to hold as it held a great impact in his life, one way, or another. John placed the loaded pistol into his top center drawer.

“I have a second pistol,” John told Fred.

“I’m not planning on missing, thank you. You being a magistrate, what are our chances of getting away with this?”

“None, really. There’s no doubt that Boyle will know. He’ll call us in and hassle us, but there won’t be any arrests. There is no way he can prove anything. It’s all circumstantial. I’m sure he knows what we’re doing in any regard. He has given us too much information for who we are. I may have been privileged to know it, but I do not think its usual practice to disclose what he has to our group.”

“Do you have regrets about taking a life?” Frederick asked.

“Of course, there is regret but I have no doubts. It is something I must do. My conscience will not be bothered with expediting this man to the next life. He’s headed there if the police get to him before we do. I just want the satisfaction of revenge. As a man, I have come face to face with the primitive man that still resides deep within, The Protector. It’s a rather unique feeling of learning more about the man that you really are and what you are capable of doing in extreme circumstances, don’t you think?”

“I’ve been there once before if you know my whole story. Yes, it’s like standing outside of yourself, unbelieving that you are confident in such actions. But when it comes down to it, nothing feels better than doing what is right, rather than what is just.”

“That’s the way I see it, Fred. I know I’ve ruled in my court, on occasions, for the side of right rather than justice. I’ve never been called into question about it. It’s very late,” John said, snapping his watch closed. I would imagine your sister went to bed a long time ago.”

“John, let me just say, ‘thank you’ for being the man to love her. I do not think she could have found another man with the deep feelings for her that I see in you.”

John’s thin smile appeared. “Thank you for saying that. Your confidence in me is well-placed. I would give up my life for her.”

“I think I know that. So . . . where do I sleep?”

 

As John entered their bedchamber, his heart sank. Margaret was lying across the bed, with her head near the light, book fallen to the floor, still in her day clothes. He didn’t know how far he would get and not wake her, but he would try to undress her.

He thought about which side the break was and then rolled her over onto her stomach. She made a sound but did not come awake. Slowly, button by button, he undid the back. He stood back, looking down at her, trying to use his intellect, on the next moves. Surely he had to pull off that wide skirt, whatever she called it, he couldn’t remember. Next came her bloomers. John gently reached under her stomach and pulled a long end of the bow that tied them on. Slowly, he shimmied them down and then off. Once again, he stood back with is arms crossed and figured the rest was going to be tricky. Should he wake her, he wondered. No, there was the off chance that she would sleep through his fumbling. Considering there were now, two long pieces – one, usually slipped off her shoulders, the other over her head – he thought he would try both over her head, at the same time. That would leave just the rib corset when he was done. He debated with himself over keeping her modesty or not. He opted to turn out the light, as she may have wished.

John took a deep breath and began the slow bunching of the fabrics upward. He had to roll her over once, but the darkness hid her beautiful form from him. Finally, the fabric came away from her, and he pulled it down her arms. He could reach the hooks on her side with no trouble. Completing that, he knew she was naked on the bed. He wanted badly to feel her skin, her curves, her everything, but instead, he gently lifted her to her side of the bed and pillow.

He disrobed himself, completely and slid next to her, pulling the covers over them. Little by little he slipped his arm under her neck and moved so their bodies were touching. Instinctively, he laid one leg over her and placed his hand on her stomach. He closed his eyes and let his fantasies soar.

“You are true gentlemen,” he heard whispered in the dark.

“When did you wake up?” John asked.

“I woke up missing you about a half hour ago.”

“So you were awake during all my strategic planning, doing it as I thought you would want, mind you – not what I wanted?”

“I was. I must admit it was difficult.” Margaret replied.

“It was much more enjoyable than difficult.”

“I didn’t mean that for you; I meant it for me.”

“Did I worry you, Margaret?” John asked as he leant in and kissed her sensually.

“How could I ever worry about myself in your care? I just didn’t want you to know I was awake. You might have stopped. I had to keep the smile hidden.”

“Everyday, I know I cannot possibly love you more than I do. There is no room left in my heart, but somehow you manage to squeeze just a bit more in, unexpectedly. My heart is about to burst, I love you, Margaret, with everything I am.”

“I feel that. Our visitor is back,” she giggled.

“He’s back looking for his home,” said a romantic John.

“Oh God,” John moaned, as Margaret reached for him. He buried his face in her neck. “I didn’t expect that. Oh, dear God, how I’ve waited for your touch.” John kissed her fervently.

Margaret surprised herself but the moment moved her, and she reacted. Hearing his words inspired her to continue. She wasn’t sure what to do with it, but she just reacted as he reacted. It soon became all too apparent and all too easy what he liked.

“It’s so hard,” she expressed in wonder. “How . . . John, I love how you react to my touch. I feel very womanly, suddenly. I think I’ve brought you to your knees.”

John reluctantly pulled her hand away. “You’re going to bring more than you expected, so you need to stop stroking me.”

“It that what it’s called, what I was doing?”

“Among many other terms. I think we need to sleep. Your brother is here, too.”

“Does it always get that big?” Margaret seemed to have many questions, now that her naiveté had been breached.

“Margaret, you are making me laugh. Please, let’s do this in the daylight so I can see that innocent look of yours.”

“All right, but I have a lot of questions. I am new at this, you know.”

Smiling broadly in the dark, John responded, “Yes, I know, my love. They will all be answered, no matter what you want to know.”

Margaret rolled towards him, ready to settle in for the night. She permitted his leg over her, his hand on her hip and he permitted her to hold him, but not stroke. John lay awake for a long time until her hand fell away.

 

Margaret woke, hearing the clock somewhere, striking eight in the morning. John was missing from their bed. She had to wonder what type of inner clock he had. It must come from years of working and having to be somewhere at a certain time.

She pulled back the covers and rolled out of bed. Seeing that a second bowl and pitcher had been installed, she went to it. She must have them buy a privacy screen, at least for her. What if John walked in and saw her washing her ooh-ooh.

 

 

 

Finished with her morning freshening, she thought about dressing herself. She would leave off the rib corset today and see how she made out. Finding clean bloomers, she sat on the bed and got that far. She saw the long slip that John had discarded in the night with her dressed all bunched together. She put them on with a modest amount of discomfort when she raised her arms. Later today, she would bath and find a clean dress. She looked for her soft shoes and couldn’t see them; they must be under the dining table, she assumed.

She started down the stairs and could hear her brother talking with John. Stopping to listen before she was discovered, they were not talking about anything secret.

Margaret strolled into the parlor, surprising John.

“Good morning, love. Again, I am being a bad husband. I should have checked on you.”

“Good morning, husband, and brother,” she said taking her place at the chair John had pulled out for her. “I have to try and do for myself. I’m getting there.” Margaret knew their whole day. John must not know that voice carries from his study to their bedchamber through the heat vents in the floor. She suspected they were never closed off. Her big day was before her as theirs was, too, and everyone was trying to act natural.

“I have plans today, John. I did not think you would mind if I travel over to the hotel to see my cousin. She and I want some woman-talk before she leaves.”

John set his fork down, “Are you sure you feel up to such a trip? I could go with you, although I have a couple of meetings today.”

“John, if I find the ride too uncomfortable, I will have Branson turn around. Do you need him today?”

Frederick looked at John for his answer, knowing the use of the carriage and Branson were in their plans.

“I think I can do without it, Margaret.” For Frederick’s benefit, he added, “I have Nicholas’s buggy or either one of my horses.”

Margaret noticed Frederick’s marginal relaxing posture.

“I think I will take the carriage this morning. Frederick and I want to talk with Boyle and see if there anything new to be told.”

“How long do you think this will go on,” Margaret asked.

“The last we heard yesterday, they thought they knew where he was.”

Margaret didn’t particularly care about acting dumb through this strain they were all under.

“Do you think he killed that old man?”

John kept his composure, and Frederick fidgeted.

“What makes you ask that, Margaret?”

Frederick looked on with interest at his ever-surprising sister.

“You left here in a hurry yesterday. I gave that a lot of thought of why, a hurry. I came to only one conclusion, and by the look on your face I would say I am correct.”

Frederick looked over at John.

“Margaret, I can honestly say, we do not know for sure, who strangled old Tom. I think Boyle and the ones that love you, think it’s a possibility. You would not have noticed, but there are a lot of policemen in work clothes around the mill yard. We are not taking any chances. I told you I would protect you at any cost.”

“John, I think the at any cost is new.”

John had no rebuttal, so Frederick took the opportunity to intercede.

“Sis, you need to stop haranguing your husband. He’s worried sick for you, can’t you see that?”

“That works both ways, you know?” Margaret spat back, now showing her temper.

“Margaret, Hartford is not after the men in your life, at least, not me anymore. If it does prove to be that he strangled the old man, and I don’t know how they can prove that, it means he’s here in Milton.”

John was afraid Frederick was going too far, but he knew Frederick’s love for his sister would find the line that was drawn in letting Margaret know their plans.

“So Frederick, you are saying that if he is in Milton, then he must be seeking me, is that right?”

“Yes.”

“But why? Why now?”

“Sis, how can you be so smart about some things and dumb when it comes to this?”

John sat back and folded his arms.

“I guess you’ll have to tell me, brother.”

“Bloody hell! He does not want your money any longer, he wants your silence.” Frederick replied as he pounded his fist on the table, causing Margaret to jump.

“So, he wants to kill me? Is that what you both have been trying not to tell me? Is that the reason for all these secret meetings, and private talks in the study and trips to the police station?

“Yes, sister. We have been scurrying around to ensure you are protected and to alert Boyle should we see Hartford. That’s why we have been updated daily on how the police have been tracking him.” Frederick looked at John and saw relief.

“Look, it’s simple. Give me a pistol. Show me how to use it and let him come for me.” Margaret said in a serious tone.

Frederick laughed out loud. “Margaret, you are a woman and are naive in the ways of men and warfare and pride, for that matter.

Margaret looked at John. “Is my husband not coming to my defence in this argument?”

“Actually, you are holding your own pretty fair. Besides, I’m on your brother’s side. We are ALL coming to your defence, don’t you see that yet?”

Trying to soothe her own feathers, Margaret responded, “I guess we just don’t see this the same way.”

“No, we don’t,” admitted John. “You take it too damn lightly.” John threw his napkin on the table and walked out of the house.

“Sis, you don’t know what you’re doing to the man.”

“I guess I do, now.”

“You can’t see how obsessed he is with you, can you? He’s way past loving you. That walking out just now is costing him emotional pain.

“Oh, Fred. What have I done?”

“You’ve slapped him in his face, essentially. In effect, you are taking his whole world and telling him he’s an idiot to care that much.”

“I’ll fix it. I have to.”

“Good luck.”

Frederick walked away from the table to follow John.

The room was silent. Margaret picked up her fork and went back to eating. “Yes, bring on the day,” she said to herself. “This has to be over, now.”

 

Margaret went to the window when she heard the carriage rolling out. No doubt, John and Frederick were on their way to the police station. Margaret went upstairs and lay on the bed, crying for what she did to John. She was really doing it for his own good so he wouldn’t suspect what she was up to, but it went all wrong. She had taken it too far. Today, she would redeem herself and save him because she loved him as much as he loved her. She would lay down her life, to save his.

 

John dropped Frederick off near the Princeton area. He would start his scouting then and meet up with the rest, if he could, at four. Otherwise, they would all meet at John’s office at eight that night.

John continued on to the hotel. He would find the Captain and Adam somewhere there at this time of the morning. The three would sit in the dining room, and John would let them know the final plans and times. The three would then go to the police station for any final words from overnight. All they wanted to know was that Hartford had not been discovered and captured. If the day held true to yesterday, their plan would not have to change with the exception of Branson driving the coach.

John rearranged the travel. Adam and Frederick would take Nicholas’ small two-man cab, and John and the Captain would ride the other two horses that were not pulling John’s coach. It could also work out that Branson would have returned Margaret from the hotel before dark. Either way, Branson would not need to be in on the final end, but just drive.

 

Branson sat in on the meetings in the hotel and heard their plans; he made his own. Somehow, he would have to make Hartford look like he was drunk and passed out rather than dead. The group had to think they were the first there; otherwise, he and the Ma’am might both be dismissed. He knew what this meant to his master, but his duty was to save his master, and that was the only reason he conceded to Mrs. Thornton’s demands on his protection for her. He felt like a savior and a traitor to his Guv. Down deep, his master would have wanted him to protect Mrs. Thornton, if he could not persuade her otherwise. And that’s what he was preparing to do.

 

Pulling herself out of her depression, Margaret asked for the tub to be filled with warm water. She had to ask Jane to wash her hair. She dressed in the dress she arrived in. Hartford might remember it. The dress had been cleaned and repaired. She put on a lot of powder and creams to cover her yellowing black eye.

 

Midday meal rolled around, and John had returned to his office, alone, but never came to the house for anything to eat. Margaret could not stand this separation. She had a plate fixed for him and carried it across to the office.

When she walked in John and Nicholas were talking about some work detail.

“I’m sorry, Nicholas, I didn’t know you were here. I was just bringing John something to eat. Can I get you anything?”

“No, thank you, Margaret. I was just on my way to have lunch with my daughter.”

“I will be glad to meet her soon.”

“I’m sure that will happen. I’ll leave you two to your meal.” Higgins could feel the rift between them by John’s earlier attitude. They were married now. Nicholas knew he could not intrude with questions like he once did.

“Good day, Nicholas,” John said. He went back to the papers on his desk.

Margaret walked over and sat the plate in front of him. He politely set it off to the side, seemingly uninterested. “Thank you,” he said.

“John, I’m sorry.”

“We weren’t supposed to say that anymore, remember?”

“Yes, you’re right. You’re always right. I was wrong. I’m doing a horrible job of trying to save you while you save me. I am half crazed with fear more for you than myself. I promise to make it up to you.”

“If you will excuse me, I have work to do. I will see you when you return from visiting your cousin.”

Margaret turned away and quietly walked out of the room.

John rose from his chair and watched her negotiate the steps. He realized she had on the same dress that she had arrived in, with blood coming from her mouth. He slammed his fist against the window, breaking it, as she disappeared into their door at the house. Hopefully, they could begin a new life; something with a firm foundation. He was punishing her right now, and he hated himself, but other forces were ruling him that she did not know about.

 

The hours went by like days. Finally, Margaret was ready to do her best to save her husband. She’d been over her speech all afternoon. She walked outside to check with Branson. He was ready. She asked for the arsenic, and he handed her the tin can. She took it inside and heaped a bunch into a shallow whisky bottle and shook it until it looked clear. She needed to return the arsenic tin to the stable on her way out, or John could be suspicious if he came home unexpectedly.

The sun was starting to set. Twilight was an hour away. She was shaking, but the thought of saving John from a noose lifted her through the scare.

Returning the arsenic, she said to Branson, “I’m ready. Are you?”

“Yes.”

“I want to ride up there with you. I need to talk some more about our approach.”

Margaret realized quickly that she should have worn her rib corset today. What was the matter with her? She knew what it was.

“Go.” She said to Branson.

“Walk on,” were the last words said as they left the grounds.

 

[serialposts]

Reserve and Reticence – Part One

One – A Fine and Unforgettable Day

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Henrietta Fenton was indeed very concerned about her son.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

I Killed Him – pt 26

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Six

Frederick watched as Hartford fell in step with the workers entering Marlborough Mills. Hartford pulled his cap down over his eyes and his clean cut hair in the back. A whistle blew somewhere on the property, and hundreds of people exited the sheds, thus blurring Frederick’s view of his quarry. Finally, he knew he had lost him. He would have to stand and wait for the crowd to clear out before finding him again. Frederick inched over towards the house, so he’d know if Hartford tried to enter there.

He waited.

 

Margaret, went to the kitchen to talk with Jane or Cook about purchases they would need for their bedchamber. John went down for his paper but did not notice Frederick around the corner. Returning to the parlour to read, Margaret and Greta entered the room, to say their goodbyes. Greta was ready to leave, so Margaret decided against the bath.

“Now, Mrs. Thornton, I think you are releasing me a couple days early, but that is your decision. You are making a remarkable recovery, but that does not mean that your rib is. Remember to hold steady on the stairs, no bumpy carriage rides, and don’t hesitate to take those pills if you need them. You were all right with the privy this morning?”

There was a low chuckle from John as he pretended to read.

“I had no troubles sitting and rising, Greta.” Margaret heard a stifled laugh across the room.

“Something has taken your husband’s fancy in that paper this morning.”

“I am sure that must be it. Thank you for all of your help even with the painful exercises. I know they helped me to move around more quickly. We have your address should we need to call you back. I believe our driver is waiting to take you back to your service.”

Margaret looked over at John with his smile as she walked Greta to the front door. Final pleasantries were exchanged, as John came down the steps and added his.

Margaret stayed on the porch while John escorted Greta to the coach.

This sighting was not missed by Hartford just inside a shed by the window. He had seen enough. He knew the back of the building but not what lay beyond. Grant stepped behind a few stragglers that were leaving their shift, and Frederick picked up his trail again.

 

Their meal was on the table when they returned.

“Margaret, have you any interest in becoming involved in the menus of the house?”

“Not at the moment, John. Cook is doing a fine job. I’m not sure how domesticated I will tend to be. I am not one to sit about. I would like to know your mill work before I give consideration elsewhere. I wouldn’t mind donating my time to a library; I hope you have in Milton?”

“Yes, we do have a large library and growing. We have several book stores. Would you like to own one of those?”

“Own? Do we have that much money?”

“Yes, love. Enough for whatever you desire.”

“How much do you cost?” She smiled.

John had to grab his napkin as his smile was going to allow his food to slip out.

“I think you read me like a book,” John said, returning to his meal. As you have no nurse now, I am completely at your service. I will stop over at the office to have a word with the foreman after I have read the paper. Want to come read the paper with me? I’ll bring your tea.”

John followed Margaret to ensure she could seat herself. Satisfied with that, he returned for the tea cups.

He set Margaret’s on the table next to her. “Can you reach it on your side like that?”

“Yes, I think so.” Margaret tried and succeeded not showing the slight discomfort that she felt.

John sat with his tea and picked up the paper. He decided to give Margaret the front page, and he went to the mill section. There was quiet in the room for a few moments.

“Oh, this is sad news,” Margaret said reading the article again.

“What is that?”

“Do you know someone named Tom Douglas?”

“Yes, has he died? He was getting up there in years.”

“It says here that he was strangled.”

“What!” John said in amazement.

“Can I see that?”

Margaret handed him the paper and saw concern draw over John’s face. He must have known the man for a long time.

“What is it, John?”

“I need to go see, Mason. The ladies are in the house. Will you be all right?”

“Yes, of course. Do you get involved in all police matters?”

John stood, pulling his coat from the back of the chair. “I do when it is murder as this appears to be. This is quite rare.”

“But you don’t have a coach.”

John started pacing the floor, his brows furrowed and he rubbed them. He was in deep thought. “Yes, I had forgotten about that. I’m going to see if Nicholas’ buggy is here. I’ll take that and him, too. Otherwise, I will come home and wait.”

John hurried down the steps and Margaret had to wonder why he hurried. Yes, it was possibly a murder but why did John need to be there this instant. The dead man wasn’t going anywhere. If it was in the paper, surely, the police were already working the case. Margaret, again, had that sinking feeling. When Branson returned, she was going to have a heart-to-heart talk with him while she could. She was making her own plans should Hartford be heading this way. John’s anxiousness to leave because of an old man being strangled heightened Margaret’s suspicions. She would take no chances with her husband’s life. If one of them had to shoot Hartford, it was going to be her. Both would want to die from heartbreak, but John had hundreds of people relying on his business skills. She would only be missed by John and Fred.

 

John and Nicholas arrived at the police station, only to find Captain Lenox already speaking with Boyle. Seeing John and Nicholas striding down the corridor, Boyle waved them into the investigation room.

“Have a seat, men. Where are the other two?”

“I just saw the paper,” replied John.

“As I did. I came straight here to ask a question,” spoke Maxwell.

“And what is your question, Captain?

“Were his clothes missing?”

“Yes, they were,” Boyle answered.

“He’s here, then,” continued Maxwell.

“Now?” asked John. “How do you know? Would he kill someone for their clothes to blend in?” John asked.

“Easily, if it were a war. As soon as I read ‘strangled,’ I knew it was him. That’s a very unique way to kill someone if you are a soldier. That is used when the situation calls for complete silence, or in rare cases when you don’t want blood on the clothing.”

John hung his head. “Have your men discovered anything since yesterday?” John turned his attention to Boyle.

“There was no horse found to be bought or wandering at the London end. No doubt, someone has a nice new horse in their pasture. I hate to say it, but I think he’s here, too. However, there was no horse bought for three stations either.”

“Is there anyone with a description of what old Tom was wearing,” asked Nicholas.

“We’re working on that now. I have men trying to locate anyone who may have seen this old man yesterday. From the tall grass where we found his body, it appeared there were steps leading towards town that tamped down the grass.”

“Captain, what is he doing right now?” asked the detective.

“When was the old man found?”

“I’d say it was about seven last night. The body was about an hour’s walk into town, at a normal pace.

“If he arrived in or near dark last night, he would have just found a place to eat and lay low. Today, he is looking for where Mrs. Thornton could be living, which should take no time, for anyone could tell him where John Thornton lives. He is looking for his ability to infiltrate or lure out people from the house. Grant will plan a silent attack because he has to escape. How long that will take him, I don’t know. I haven’t really seen around Mr. Thornton’s home and mill site. Then he will plan his escape route. He might buy provisions. We don’t know if he has a horse or not, but if he does not, he will have to buy or steal one. He will not rely on escaping by foot. That could put him in target range within thirty-six hours. But . . . he will wait, however, long it takes, for the right moment. He is patient; that is part of his tactical training. As long as no one startles him, he could wait weeks, even.” Maxwell paused and turned to John. “That is only my opinion, I am not certain of his exact timing or his ability to overcome obstacles in his path to complete his task.”

“Would he risk daylight hours,” asked John.

“Yes. It has to be silent, so if he can slip around unseen, daylight would be no hindrance to him. In fact, if he plans on entering your home, daylight would be to his advantage to see his way around. However, he will study the amount of people in the house, too. Night is probably better in that regard at your home.”

“Mr. Thornton,” piped up Mason, “men are moving into your yard as we speak.

John liked Mason, a lot, but he knew this one was over his head. Detective Boyle seemed laid back, but John saw hints of real intelligence that he apparently hid to ease the relatives of victims.

“That’s it, gentlemen. I will see you at four this afternoon.”

John walked over and extended his hand to the Captain. “I am most appreciative of your skill and insight into this man. Whatever comes to pass, all of your points are valid, and we would never have thought of them. I thank you.”

“No, thanks needed, Mr. Thornton.

“Please, call me John.”

“I will see you later, John.”

Both men went their own ways leaving the room. John waited on Higgins and Maxwell marched out like a proper soldier.

 

“Mrs. Thornton, I could never let you do that. The Master would kill me before dismissing me.”

“But you have to help me. You just have to. I’ll get someone else if you don’t. Do you own a pistol?”

“Yes, but it is too dangerous for you or me.”

“I don’t think it is dangerous for you and me. First, you must swear to me that you will not let John know about this, at least, not ahead of time – whether you choose to help me or I get someone else, like Nicholas.”

“Yes, I have two pistols, but you don’t know what you’re getting into. You could die facing that man.”

“That’s where you come in. He will listen to me if he has two pistols staring at him. He is going to agree with me. Please, Branson.” Margaret pleaded. “I know, and you must surely know that your master is seeking revenge. I have little to lose if the worst happens. He has hundreds of people that depend on him. But it’s not going to go that far. I just have to get to Hartford before he does. All he wants is money, and I can promise him that.”

“Is there nothing I can say that will change your mind.”

“You don’t know me very well, yet. That is a definite no. I will go with or without you, even if I have to go alone.”

“I really hate doing this, but I will not let you go alone. So, what’s this plan of yours?”

 

All Margaret had to do, now, was the impossible, such as finding out where to find him and leaving the house without John knowing. Slipping Hartford arsenic in a partial bottle of whisky would be easy.

 

Frederick had stayed well away from Hartford as he watched him go over the back grounds of Marlborough Mills. Hartford turned and walked his way. Frederick ducked behind some bushes, as Hartford passed him. It looked like the man was headed back to the inn to eat. Frederick was becoming hungry himself, but there wasn’t much he could do about it, yet. He was sure his sister was wondering where he was by now. If Hartford would ever settle, he had to get this information to the others.

Frederick waited outside the inn and expected Hartford to head to the bed place. He didn’t. Hartford began to walk away from town towards . . . he didn’t know where. Frederick anticipated it might be a trap being laid for him so Hartford could see if he was being followed. He lagged way behind to the point of barely being able to see him. When twilight started to fall, he could catch up.

It seemed about an hour’s walk when Hartford started into an area where there was a small village of abandoned cottages. No doubt when the mills came, people had to give up the land. At this point, Frederick was looking for wide trees to stand behind because Grant was checking over his shoulder on occasion. Hartford, finally, turned into one that looked almost like he’d picked it out before now. Frederick waited. Eventually, it looked like a candle was lit and after that, perhaps, an old lantern. Frederick moved in a very wide circle as night fell, to see if there was anyone else around or a horse being stored someplace. He saw nothing, only Hartford’s shadow moving past the window now and then. Frederick waited about two hours. Satisfied he was bunking there for the night, he headed back to town counting the cottages along the road. It was the fourth.

Being rested from his wait on Hartford, he was able to trot back to town, making it in about forty minutes. He headed for Marlborough Mills. It was two hours past dark when he arrived, and he was sure they had eaten. That didn’t matter, he would be given food.

Frederick knocked on the back door, and John let him in. The staff was gone, and John was just settling in for an evening alone with his wife.

“We missed you at the four o’clock meeting,” said John.

As Frederick came through the door, hearing John, he burst out as quietly as he could, but Margaret was heading towards the stairs and heard her brother say, “He’s here. I have followed him all day. I know where he is now.”

John put his fingers to his lips so Frederick would keep that to himself for a bit longer. John started to shake. The time was almost here.

“Oh Frederick, where have you been? We thought you would be with us for dinner. I know we didn’t ask you properly, though.”

“I’ve been busy today. Your husband talked with me about how I might be safe in Milton, so I started to look over the town, or I should say city. Sis, I haven’t eaten much today. Can you fix me a couple of sandwiches or anything left over from the day?”

“Of course, Fred. Sit down at the table.” Margaret didn’t want them out of hearing range just yet. She went to the larder and looked to see what was on platters under cloth covers. She brought some ham and bread to him.

“Do you want some tea?”

“Do you have any cider. I don’t feel like anything hot right now.”

John suggested that they go upstairs and he could give Frederick a real drink.

Frederick picked up the platter and followed his sister and John upstairs. They walked to the dining room table. John brought him a scotch.

“Thank you, John.”

John stared into Frederick’s eyes and asked, “Did you find what you were looking for?”

“I saw something that I think Lisa would like, but I have not made up my mind. It may be a year or more before I make that decision. I plan on marrying this woman, and that changes my risk factor. I would love to be among family, again. As far as risks go, could I talk with you after I eat about that? Privately?”

“Frederick, why can’t I hear?” Margaret whined. She had to put up the pretence of objecting so they wouldn’t think she would eavesdrop.

“Sis, you have enough to worry about right now. I just want to talk with John about things that might add to your worry. I would rather not do that just now. If I think I will move here, you will know all that will be involved. For now, it’s just man talk.”

“Don’t forget we have to plan a way to communicate before you leave,” Margaret added for good measure.

Small talk went on while he ate. Margaret was aware that Frederick was tapping his foot quietly on the carpet. That was a sign of urgency. When he was young, it meant he had to go pee, and he was being detained in some way.”

“Will you stay the night?” Margaret asked.

John was hoping he would, though it was his first night with his wife, alone. But what they were about to do was life and death, and he wished to discuss plans with Fredrick. John nodded almost imperceptibly to him.”

“I think I might, sis. Are you sure another person in the house isn’t an unwelcome guest for a newly married couple,” he smiled at her.

“Frederick, I have a broken rib. We’re not married as much as we could be one of these days.”

John and Frederick broke out laughing.

“Oh, excuse me, sis.” Frederick said, feigning offence” I didn’t mean to pry that far.” He thought again what a fine man John was because he knew what the man must be going through for her. He could see the love for his sister when John looked at her.

Margaret looked at her husband, and there he was holding his fist to his mouth, with a grin leaking out of either side.

“Well, if you promise not to make noises and keep me up, I’ll stay.”

“Fred!”

“Just teasing, sis. We used to be able to talk about anything when we were younger. Remember?”

“No matter what I say next, will not be understood, so I will just let this pass. Do you want more to eat?”

Frederick leant back in the chair, rubbing his palms up and down his chest, feeling his full belly. “I think you have fed me well enough. Could I borrow your husband for a little while?”

“If you must. I’ll see to these dishes.” Margaret began to pick up the heavy platter and head towards the stairs. John caught her around the waist to stop her.”

“Leave those for the staff tomorrow. You are not carrying anything down the steps. Would you like me to fetch your book?”

“Yes, if you do not mind.”

John took the stairs two at a time and retrieved Margaret’s book from the bedside. She had read a bit when she laid down to nap. Coming back into the parlour John asked her where she would like to sit.

“I think I’ll sit at the dining room table. It’s a better light, and I don’t have to hold it. I might even pick at the ham.”

Margaret remained seated, and John handed her the book. He walked to the bar and refilled their glasses and asked Frederick to follow him into his study. He closed the door.

“She’s getting suspicious, Fred. Depending on what you tell me, we may have to meet in the office, as a group tomorrow.”

Margaret tiptoed towards the door. Frederick had launched immediately into the where of Grant. Margaret wanted to hear more, but the voices stopped, and she thought John was coming to check the door to ensure she wasn’t listening. She quickly stepped into the privy and made sounds of a struggle.

“Margaret?”

“John, you scared me. Don’t sneak up on me like that. What do you want?”

“I was wondering what you were doing?”

“I’m trying to figure out how to turn on the gaslight that is somewhere in this room. I’m feeling the walls, but I can’t find it.”

The light went on in a flash. John stood there smiling.

“Thank you. You came out to see what I was doing when you just left the room?” Margaret asked with puzzlement in her voice.

“I was afraid you would try to take the plates downstairs. You promise you will not attempt that.”

“I promise. I think I’ll read a little bit and then may go upstairs. Do you have any idea how long you will be?”

“No, but it shouldn’t be too long. Try to stay awake for me. I need to help you get out of that dress.”

“Frederick can have the guest room or the room off the kitchen since the nurse left. There are clean linens on the bed.”

“I tell him, sweet. I’ll see you in a little while,” John winked.

Margaret went back to the table and read a few pages. She decided to sneak out and talk with Branson.

Slipping outside, she saw he had a light burning. She chucked a few pebbles at his window, which hurt her side. Branson came to his door.

“M’am? Is that you?”

“Yes. Could you come down and talk to me for a few minutes?”

Branson bounded down the stairs, and Margaret shushed him. “Come over to the back porch steps.”

Branson sat next to Margaret, and she said, “Tomorrow is the day.”

“What? Are you still very sure about this?”

“Yes. Sometime tomorrow, late afternoon, I will tell John that I wish to visit my cousin for an hour or so. You will bring the coach to the front. Under your seat, you will have your two pistols and the arsenic from the stable. I know you have to have that around with the feed. And then . . .

[serialposts]

The Counterfeit Governess – Part Twenty

books

Twenty – The Agreement

 

On Boxing Day morning 1819, Stephen Fenton, Baron Brixton, was pacing the Aubusson carpet in his library in what might be called a state of agitation. He positively had never felt thus uncertain in his whole life, he mused.

Stephen was waiting for his governess to come and have a meeting with him regarding the arrangements to be made for her charges. That was the pretext of the meeting, as far as he was concerned. But in truth, there was a more important issue he wanted to settle; how was he going to make Beth Williams stay at Brixton Abbey?

After lying awake for half the night, turning over the various difficulties of his relationship with Beth in his mind, Stephen had finally come to the only possible conclusion. He wished to make Beth his wife because he loved her. In the few months, she had spent in his home, Beth Williams had become indispensable to him. That undeniable fact had become very clear after Beth left for Manchester. His children had not been the only ones he missed, Stephen admitted to himself. Not having Beth living under his roof, not to be able to see her, talk with her, banter with her, argue with her, all that had made Stephen realise he felt the same way as when he courted his Florence, back in 1813. The longing when she was near him, the joy of being with her, the pain of not seeing her, was the same as when he had been with Florence. Stephen knew beyond all doubts he would not go through the same excruciating pain he experienced when Florence disappeared from his life. No! Never again! He would not survive another ordeal of that kind, he would not! So Beth had to stay and be with him. He would have to make her love him and marry him.

 

~~~~

 

“Come in, if you please, Miss Williams. Do take a seat.”

Stephen did his best to keep his voice level but his heart sank when he noticed Beth’s rigid bearing and her tightly compressed lips. She did not take the chair he indicated but remained within two steps of the library door. Her hands were clasped in front of her, as if to disguise the fact that they were trembling. They were, Stephen saw. She was nervous, then. He did not make the mistake of extending a hand to her but waved at the settee and coffee table. They seated themselves in opposite chairs.

“Miss Williams, before we discuss what is to be done for Lily and Oliver, I think it wise for you to tell me about your own plans first.”

“My lord,” Beth replied, “you allowed me a choice when you asked me to come back here. I would like to take you up on that. It is my wish that you should take on a new governess for the children because I want to leave Brixton Abbey and go to Manchester. I have seen a lot of sickness, misery and ignorance in that town. People like Mrs Oakham, who spend their lives trying to make things better for the poor, have made me realise I could be of greater use than to teach the children of the rich.”

Stephen took great care of keeping a straight, impassive face, yet inside, he felt like he just suffered a blow in the stomach. Although he cringed at the notion, he had known Beth would leave the Abbey and disappear from his life as soon as she had the chance. He should have been mentally prepared for the shock but discovered he had not.

“What is it that you would want to do in Manchester,” he asked, hoping his voice would not break and give away his despair.

Beth’s eyes were suddenly alight with enthusiasm.

“I want to start a school for girls and give them an education that would allow them to better themselves in life! Girls are so totally without chances, especially when they are poor and living in a rapidly growing industrial city like Manchester. Like the boys and men, they find work in the mills and factories, yet they do not have the same opportunities as their male fellow workers. Promotions are scarce and never for women. Pay raises are rare and always solely for men.”

Stephen’s heart skipped a beat when she grasped his arm in her fiery enthusiasm. She was so completely absorbed in her narrative that her eyes burned into his with a lively fire.

“Do you understand, my lord? Can you comprehend what I mean to accomplish? I want the girls to armour themselves for their rapidly changing future! They must be given the chance to learn to read and write, to master foreign languages, to acquire skills in arithmetic, geography and history. In the mills, there are numerous tasks which do not need strength or stamina but care and precision. Women can provide that if they have the necessary education. I want to try and start a school that tends to those needs.”

Despite his hurt, Stephen could not help a sad little smile, seeing Beth’s spirit.

“I can very well believe you would succeed in making the school a success, Miss Williams. I think you could succeed in anything you fight for.”

Then he suddenly needed to distance himself from those warm, smiling chocolate eyes, so he rose and went to lean against the mantelpiece. His lifelong memories of her would not distance themselves at all, he found. That was Beth, he thought, all fiercely fighting for what she thought was wrong, all warmth and compassion for those who were worse off than herself. And now, she was going to leave him …

He had to try one desperate proposition as a last resort.

“You are completely right about a school for girls, Miss Williams. Girls and women, too, are maltreated in our so-called civilized society, if not physically then certainly as a person. I have …”

He turned and looked directly at her.

“I have had this idea for some time now but never got around as to how to achieve it. In Woolworth, there is no school, no education, not even for the boys. The vicar gives some of the more intelligent boys a basic learning but it is only too little and it interferes with his duties as a minister. I would like you to consider a position as a teacher in the village school I am about to establish in Woolworth. Given time, I am planning to enlarge it. There will be other teachers if it is successful.”

She was staring at him, confused and utterly surprised, Stephen acknowledged in relief. He had her attention, albeit reluctantly, so he pressed on.

“Miss Williams … Beth … please, will you consider my offer?”

 

~~~~

 

In Beth’s mind, there was only one question: why was Stephen doing this? Ah, and she knew the answer, did she not? He wanted to keep her here, if not at Brixton Abbey, then at least in the vicinity of it. And to achieve that goal, he just proposed to make true one of her most fervent wishes, to be a teacher to children whose parents were too poor to offer them education.

While she was desperately trying to gather her thoughts, Beth stared into Stephen’s beautiful blue-grey eyes and was finding it difficult to think. Had it not always been like that? Had she not always been utterly lost when she looked him in the eyes? Had she not always, secretly, desperately loved him? Was it not her dearest wish in life to be with him? Yet, she understood all too well she had to be very careful and very weary of him. She knew all too well what he wanted from her and she was not – in a million years – prepared to give him that. So she would make him a bargain.

“Where would this school be lodged, my lord?”

“In Mrs Bradley’s cottage. I am fully prepared to make the necessary adaptations and equip the premises to be perfectly suitable. You could live there, too. I would pay for a maid and a man servant so that you have only the school to think of. Are you inclined to take on my offer, then, Miss Williams?”

Beth bowed her head and smiled. “I would, my lord.”

 

~~~~

 

Relief flooded through Stephen like a tidal wave! With some effort, he managed to keep a straight face and a steady voice.

“Very well, Miss Williams. Grant me a few days to prepare the cottage so that you can take up your task as a teacher. Surely, we will have the pleasure of your company until after the New Year?”

“It will give you the opportunity of advertising for a new governess, will it not, my lord? I must also explain the new arrangements to Lily and Oliver.”

“My dear Miss Williams,” Stephen ventured, taking Beth’s hand to bring it to his lips. “I fervently hope you will not abandon them. They could take their lessons in the village school, together with the children that are, in fact, their friends of old.”

He flashed her his most brilliant smile. “Am I wrong in thinking you are reluctant to be parted from Lily and Oliver, Miss Williams?”

Beth hesitated and her eyes grew dark with sudden sadness. It slashed through his heart like a knife! “No, my lord, you are indeed right. I would not want to lose them … as you very well know.”

 

~~~~

 

Stephen pensively stared at Beth’s back as she left his library. He had just won the first round of what would be the greatest challenge to come in his life. Now, he could make up the strategy, needed to win his counterfeit governess’s heart and make her his baroness.

It would be all but easy, he knew. He had to eat lots of humble pie, but he would do whatever it took to win his Beth.

He had to. He loved her.

Dear Reader,

This is the end of The Counterfeit Governess but not the end of Stephen’s courtship of Beth.

Please join me next week for Reserve and Reticence, and learn the rest of their story.

Thank you for reading me,

Love, Luce