Reserve and Reticence – Part Four

Four – Besieged

 

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

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

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

 

~~~~

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How are they?” he repeated his question.

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

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

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

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

Stephen’s soft voice broke into her thoughts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

~~~~

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fenton stood up and went to the stove.

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

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

“What next, Miss Williams?”

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

I Killed Him – pt 29

Last Chapter next week

Chapter Twenty Nine

Nicholas sat for a while reading the paper. He decided to fix himself a drink, but there was no whisky which was the first time he’d ever known that to be missing from John’s bar. He settled for a scotch as his nerves were shot, too.

He walked over to Margaret, wondering if he should find something to cover her. As he looked down, he noticed something coming from her mouth.

“Not again,” he said out loud and hurried to a policeman in the yard.

“Fetch Dr. Donaldson and be quick about it.” He returned to Margaret’s side.

 

Branson drove the coach on the same route he had done only an hour before, pulling under the same trees near cottage one.

“Do you want me, Guv?”

“No, stay with the team. In case anything happens to one of us, you’ll be ready to move quickly,” John told him.

Branson watched the little he could in the moonlight, as the men slowly made their way to the cottage. Due to the time of night, they followed the road, almost fearless and undaunted in their task. A strange feeling came over Branson as they looked like men from the Wild West, he’d heard about, walking side-by-side into town for a showdown, he thought it was called. These things didn’t happen in England. They weren’t even taking safety measures to hide as far as he could see.

Once the men were nearing cottage three, they headed into the wooded area for cover. Branson jumped out of the box and walked the team to cottage two. If he could get close enough, he would tie the team near cottage two and follow them. If at all possible, he wanted to watch this and see how well his setup had worked.

Branson crept close to cottage three since they would not be looking behind. Maxwell was the one that took the first pass of cottage four. Branson saw Adam restraining his Guv. Frederick was itching to run, too.

Maxwell disappeared to the other side of the cottage and out of sight. Frederick, John, and Adam all followed to cottage four, bent low as they ran to it. Everyone seemed to find a window to peer through. Branson moved close to cottage four as it seemed they were headed for the door. He had one pistol with him, so if seen, his Master would think he was there if they needed him.

The men entered the room and were quite cheated out of the fact that the man was drunk and passed out. John wanted to have a close look at him even though the man was lying in his own vomit. John pulled him by his hair and sat him back in the chair, hoping to wake him.

He waited only a moment and said, “This is for my wife and old Tom,” John pointed his pistol and fired into Hartford’s groin. The body fell forward again, and Frederick then walked to the corpse. He lifted him up as John had, and said, “This is for my loving sister, who you brutally mistreated because of me. Frederick pressed his pistol to Hartford’s heart and fired.

Hartford was still in an upright position now, and Maxwell walked to a spot across the table from him. “This is for the disrespect for a uniform worn by time-honored heroes.” Maxwell placed one directly in the center of his forehead.

He stepped away, and Adam came to the table. He raised his small pistol, but his hands were trembling. John walked over to him and said, “Adam, you don’t have to do this.”

“Yes, I do.” Adam raised the small pistol and aimed. “This is for my failure to keep Margaret safe, as I had promised my best friend.” He fired, in no particular area. He dropped his pistol and walked out of the door.

Branson ran back for the coach and reined it to cottage four. Adam was waiting. Frederick emerged from the cottage and vomited off to the side. John walked over to him and patted him on the shoulder. Branson wasn’t sure but it looked like his master was holding his head a bit higher. He wore a look of satisfaction. The Captain looked unmoved by the whole ordeal and carried Adam’s small gun in his hand. The men stood in a small circle and shook each other’s hands.

“Mission accomplished,” said the Captain.

They entered the coach. Branson didn’t seem to hear any words being spoken after that.

“Home Branson,” John said, being the last one to enter.

 

“Donaldson arrived and took a preliminary examination where Margaret lay. “Nicholas, could you carefully carry her up to her bed. She’s reinjured her rib if not broken it completely this time. Just try to keep her straight out in your arms, don’t bend her.”

Nicholas eased her into his arms as Donaldson led the way, lighting lamps as he went. Nicholas had to turn sideways going up the stairs in order not to bend her. He concluded that she was unconscious and not sleeping. He carried her to the bed and laid her down, gently. “Can I do anymore for you, doctor?”

“Thank you, Nicholas, not at this time. Please close the door on your way out.”

As Donaldson began to disrobe her, he instantly noticed she did not have her rib corset on. He looked around the room and saw it lying on a chair. He then began to examine all of her ribs. It was clear it was the same rib she had cracked. He checked her mouth for any other blood. He poured some laudanum into her mouth, and she seemed to swallow it. Retrieving the rib brace, he rolled her slightly to fit it under her.

 

Arriving home, there would be no celebration for a job well executed. Adam and Maxwell got into Adams’s coach and left. John and Frederick came to the house.

As John walked into the parlor with Frederick, Nicholas was standing there with a look that John knew was trouble.

“Margaret?” John asked immediately.

“Donaldson’s with her. He thinks she’s reinjured that rib.

John ran to the steps and Frederick ran his fingers through his hair pacing the room.

“I don’t know how she did it, Fred. She was lying on the sofa when I arrived. I thought she was sleeping. I went to cover her and saw a spot of blood on her lip again. I’m sure it’s not life threatening. How did your mission work out?”

“Satisfactorily, for all of us. The man will never bother anyone again.”

“I wish I could have been there. How about a drink, Fred?”

“I can use one. Make one for John, as well.”

“I’m way ahead of you, lad.”

 

John burst through the door of his bedchamber.

“Must you make so much noise, John?” Donaldson stated.

“What’s happened? Will she be all right?” John was in a state of anxiety. “We had our first disagreement today, and I haven’t talked to her all day. I’ve felt terrible. You don’t think . . .”

“No, John, she didn’t fall on her sword for you. She was either bumped real hard or fell. She will be fine. It’s just that this healing process has to start over. Since we’re only dealing with a rib, I think you should get that nurse back, and I’ll leave her here. I’ll be by twice a day to check on the internal bleeding.”

John watched as Donaldson hooked the corset on her. He watched her lovely breasts jiggle as Donaldson worked all the hooks. He was struggling a bit.

“John, don’t try to put her in a night dress. Just leave her like this for the night. She was unconscious, but I have given her some laudanum. She will not wake until morning.”

Donaldson rose from the bedside and snapped his case closed and proceeded to the door. “I’ll show myself out.”

“Thank you, Donaldson.”

John sat beside her, looking at his lovely broken angel. His eyes welled, and he wept. The whole day had been almost unbearable, and then he came home to this. Well . . . this was the end of bad times. Tomorrow they would begin a new life devoid of fear. John pulled the bed linens down and returned to carry Margaret to her side. He sat with her a bit longer before returning to Frederick and Nicholas.

 

“What a way to end the day, ‘ey, John,” asked Frederick, handing him his drink. “Donaldson told us how she is. My sister was a crazy little girl. I guess because I was an older brother she thought she should be able to do what I did. Over the years I’ve tried to figure out when we stopped being even.”

“What do you mean by that?” John asked, sipping his scotch.

She could do almost anything I could do: climb trees, jump ponds plus other stuff. She never was able to beat me because of her size, not her age. Even though we’re three years apart, she seemed to reach the maturity while I reached the muscle at the same time. I even think she beat me through puberty,” Frederick laughed.

“Speaking of being young, and please don’t tell Margaret I am telling you this.” John looked at Nicholas, too.

“Go on.”

“It was yesterday morning, bloody hell, how do I say this? Let’s just say we had a very big laugh. I was lying on the bed, while your sister, dressed in her night dress, got out of bed, and I cannot remember why. There was some conversation, and we started to laugh.” John laughed just thinking about it. Frederick and Nicholas were all ears.

“We were laughing most heartily, and your sister put one hand over her mouth to stop the laughing, and one hand between her legs, like a child, will do when they have to urinate. Well, the laughter got worse with her predicament. She didn’t know there was a chamber pot for emergencies. She started jiggling like a child, and I am afraid I was no help at all. It was too delightful a sight to miss, and I was rolling on the bed with laughter. Well, as you can imagine, water began to run down her legs. The look on her face was priceless. She looked down at the floor, unbelieving of the puddle she was standing in. She was my little girl for a minute.” John smiled at the remembrance.

“Then she got embarrassed, and I was able to control some of my laughter. I found a towel and mopped her up and the floor. I told her it probably wouldn’t leak to the floor below and the laughter started again, at least for me.

“Now the only reason I am telling this story is because I was sure she said something that sounded like ooh-ooh. She denied it, but I told her I heard her say it. She refused to tell me. I told her I would walk around all day saying it until she told me what she meant. She refused, so I told her I would ask you. I see a grin on your face. Apparently, you are familiar with that phrase.”

“All too familiar, I’m afraid. For her, it would mean her womanly area. When my mother said it to me, it meant, of course, penis. My mother never referred to private body parts as their real words. I think Margaret and I went on for years wondering why we were different down there and mother called us both the same. We finally, had to understand what mother had done on our own. I grew out of it; apparently, my sister slipped back when she said that. So, she was just referring to her more feminine part as she urinated on the floor.”

Everyone broke out laughing. It felt good to laugh, John thought.

“Thank you, Fred. I will wait for just the right time to spring that on her. I am sure she thought I wouldn’t ask or that you wouldn’t remember.”

“I think I’d like to turn in. Is it all right if I stay here?”

“Of course, Fred. You are always welcome. Never ask. Just find a room and bunk in.”

“I’m on my way, too,” said Nicholas. “I’m sorry about your wife. I feel bad thinking she was asleep when I arrived, and she had been unconscious.”

“Nicholas, you couldn’t have known. She’ll be fine. Go home. Get some rest. Tomorrow starts a brand new life for a lot of us.”

 

John climbed into bed that night determined to keep his hands to himself. He didn’t succeed.

 

John woke early. Margaret looked like she hadn’t moved all night. Startled with that, he listened to her breathing. It was faint but regular. He rose from the bed, performed his morning ritual, and went downstairs to the privy. From there he went to the steps for his paper and shouted good morning to cook. “I think we’ll be eating late this morning. Mrs. Thornton has reinjured her rib and is still sleeping from the medicine. Could you bring a tray of tea to our room?”

“Yes, Guv. Right away, Guv.” Cook was upset to hear about the Missus.

“Has Mr. Hale been around to eat yet?”

“Yes, sir. He left early, saying he would be back later.”

John carried his newspaper upstairs. He would not leave Margaret’s side until she woke. He made sure she looked decent for Jane or Cook to enter the room. John pulled the small chair over beside Margaret and opened the paper.

The headlines read:

 

Unidentified Man Found Slain
Believed to be the man being hunted for the strangulation of Tom Douglas.

 

John smiled at what must have been the news release given out by the precinct, in care of Detective Boyle. Boyle knew who the unidentified man was and it was a foregone conclusion that he killed Tom Douglas. Hartford would have Tom’s clothing to connect him. As he started to read the article, he heard Margaret’s hoarse voice.

“What are you smiling at, husband?”

“It seems that the police have found the body of Captain Hartford, although, here, it says, unidentified.”

“And you think it’s him?”

“Yes, I do. Since he was believed to have been here and we feel he killed old Tom, it has to be him. You never know, though, where these newspapers get their stories from.”

“It will ease my mind when it is verified.”

John leaned in and kissed her.

“You’re not mad at me anymore?” she asked huskily.

“Margaret, what did you do to yourself, yesterday? Donaldson says you broke your rib this time. We have to start all over again. Donaldson will stop in twice a day to check for internal bleeding. He doesn’t seem too concerned about that. If we get the nurse back, you can stay home.”

“I don’t have to stay in bed, do I?”

“He did not say that you did, but he has left strong medication to take, while the pain is the worst. How did you do that?”

Margaret paused, deciding whether to lie to her husband or not. “I fell, John. I tripped over something.”

“Where?”

“Outside. I was foolish and did not put on the rib corset yesterday. Branson carried me in because I was winded, but we didn’t know I had broken anything.” Margaret was thankful that John seemed to accept that as being enough detail. She hadn’t lied.

“I’d like to get up, now.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I am very sure. You will have to help me.”

“I’m ready.”

“I am going to skip the wash bowl this morning. Maybe I can wash my face and wash my teeth, but not the rest. I know I cannot bend over.”

“A wise choice, my dear.”

“Will you get me a clean undergarment?”

“You’re going to let me help you with that?”

“Only if you are not mad at me anymore. You never did answer me before.”

“I am not mad anymore. I was hurt, not mad. That is now behind us, never to happen again.”

“Somehow, I knew you would come up with a good answer.” Margaret made an attempt to smile.

John walked to the dresser and found what she needed. He helped her to a standing position. John sat back in his chair while Margaret held his shoulder.

“Do I have to close my eyes, this time?” John laughed.

“Don’t make me laugh John Thornton. No, you don’t. Just do not do anything unexpected.”

“Like what?” he smarmed.

“Oh, I don’t know. I just read these things. I don’t know if they’re true.”

“Back to the randy men, are you?”

“It’s the only book I have.”

“Since you will be sitting down for a few weeks, we shall buy you lots of books. Are you ready, because I am.”

Margaret tried not to laugh at that.

John untied the garment. “Are you sure you don’t want to put on the long slip first?”

“Not today. Only my dress which I can step into.”

“Here goes.”

John pulled her undergarment down, and she was exposed to him. His heart was hammering, but it would just have to hammer. There was an ache in his groin that he would need to adjust quickly. Margaret stepped out of her garment parting herself slightly.

“Margaret, I am going to have to stand for a minute. Can you balance?”

“Yes. Is something wrong?”

“Nothing’s really wrong. In fact, it is quite natural.”

“Then why have you turned your back. I am standing her almost naked, and you start adjusting your trousers. Oh! I see.”

“For his own sake, John looked away, and he slid the clean garment up her legs and tied it.

John went for the dress that she had on yesterday. He carried it over, ready to place it over her head.

“No, John. I wish to burn this dress.”

“I’m glad to hear you say that. Let me see what’s in the wardrobe.”

There was only one clean frock left. “I will have a dressmaker in this week to start fitting you for some new clothes.”

 

Margaret started down the stairs as she had been doing, but the exertion took her breath, expanding her chest and that was painful. John, seeing the grimace, lifted her down the steps.

Jane passed through the room, and Margaret called out to her.

“Yes, Miss. How can I help you?”

“Do you think you could do something with my hair after I eat? I cannot lift my arms.”

“I would be most happy to, mum.” Jane left with that.

“I think I’ll write Dixon today. Are you still all right with her coming to stay?”

“Yes, whatever you want, love.”

“You keep saying that and I can’t have it . . . yet.”

John kissed her again before seating her at the table.

“What does the paper have to say about the unidentified man and where is Frederick?”

“He was gone before I woke. I’ve told him he is always welcome here. I do not expect him to tell me where he is going or how long he will be gone. He’s his own man. You, however, I want to know where you go.”

Margaret was not sure if he was jesting, but she did not want to take a chance and have another day like yesterday.

“The paper says he was found almost two miles outside of town in the old Cottage Village.”

“What’s that?”

“Before the mills came, this land was owned by an Earl, and he had tenants on his land. They worked fields and raised animals for income for the property belonging to the Earl. He eventually sold it to the town of Milton that was beginning to spread. The settlers, or crofters, as they were called, had to move on. Most came to work for the mills.”

“I see. Does it say much else?”

“Nothing much. The body is at the coroner’s, and they are hoping someone will come forward to identify him.”

“John, I could identify him, you know. He’s dead now. Maybe his family would like the body.”

“Captain Lenox and Adam Bell could identify him, too. I do not want you involved in any of this.”

 

John carried their cups of tea to the small tables and helped Margaret. He handed her the front section, and he took the mills again. This time there was a little interruption. John was sinking into the warm arms of home and family. Settled. He was settled in his life.

“John I have yet to see this house. Is there anywhere to lie down on this floor?”

“Yes, there is a second guest room on this floor. My mother used to sleep in that room. I do not know if Fredric slept in there last night or downstairs. You want to lie down?”

“Yes. I think I would like some medicine and a little more rest. I won’t undress, just lay on the bed.”

John hopped up and checked the room. Frederick had not slept in it.

“You can rest in the room down this small hall.”

John helped her to the room and went for her medicine upstairs. Margaret took it, and John made her comfortable lying back.

“Do you want me to stay with you,” he asked finding a small blanket in a drawer.

“No, do any work that you have to. I promise not to do anything foolish. Maybe you could get me a bell if I need Jane to help me or go find you.”

“I’ll find a bell, but I am not going anywhere.”

“All right.”

John left wondering where he could find a bell in the house. He remembered there had been one as his mother failed in her later weeks. It was in the buffet with the sewing basket, he thought.

Walking down the hall to the dining room, he found it. Returning to Margaret, he sat beside her on the bed. He leaned towards her and looked into her eyes. “Everything is good for us, Margaret. Today is a new day. Today is a new life for us. I love you with all my heart and soul.” And then he kissed her passionately.

John left the door open and went to his study. He pulled his pistol out of the drawer and cleaned it all down. He oiled it and the matching one, setting them both away like new. When Margaret was asleep, he would run over to the office and bring back work he could do at home.

Finishing that, he went to the kitchen to advise Jane and Cook on Margaret’s new situation. He asked if either knew where Margaret’s brother was, but neither had any idea.

He was returning to the sitting room when a knock came to the front door. He was halfway expecting everyone and no one. When opening the door, there stood a young lad with a note being handed to him.

“Is a reply needed, he asked the chap.”

“No, sir. Good day, sir.”

John watched the lad run out through the yard. He turned the note over in his hand as he walked up the steps. He glanced in on Margaret. She was fast asleep.

Finding his usual chair, he sat and broke the seal.

It read:

 

Detective Boyle requests the presence of John Thornton, Margaret Thornton and a man known only as Branson to attend a private coroner’s inquest in Courtroom C, this afternoon at four.

Respectfully, Inspector Mason

 

John had to laugh. This detective Boyle really had a way with dramatics. John and Boyle knew there was no such thing as a private coroner’s inquest. He had to imagine that all the others received one, too. Another knock on the door.

John bet himself it was Adam. He was right. “Come in Adam. I think I know why you are here.” John held up the note in his hand.

“Yes, I got mine a bit ago.”

“What are we to do, do you think?”

“We go.”

“Come sit, Adam.” John went down the hall and closed Margaret’s door.

Adam sat in the chair opposite of where John always sat. John returned from wherever he had gone.

“Where is Margaret? Can we talk?”

“She fell yesterday. This time breaking the cracked rib. She is in the other room sleeping.”

“That poor dear girl. She’s really had it rough for months, it seems. Perhaps, since she left Milton.”

“Adam, there is no such thing as a ‘private coroner inquest’. Boyle is going to have fun with us, I do believe. Look at these notes. They look like invitations to a play. I plan on confessing.”

“You can’t, John. I’m the one to confess. I have very little time and how could you ruin Margaret’s life?”

“Nothing is going to happen to us. There is no proof.”

John went on with other reasons why he knew there would be no arrests made.

“Have you seen Frederick, today?” John asked.

“Yes, not too long ago. I told him about this inquest thing because I didn’t think they could find him. I don’t know what he’s up to.”

“I have an idea, but it doesn’t matter. I don’t need him. Margaret just asked about him, that is all.”

John and Adam talked well into the afternoon, with Adam eating Margaret’s portion of the midday meal. John was sure she would want little to eat. Adam was offered a scotch, and he accepted. John realized he was out of whisky when he went to his bar. He wondered where it had gone. Perhaps, Frederick drank whisky, but he didn’t think so.

It was just after two in the afternoon when John heard the bell.

“Adam, that means Margaret is awake. I need to help her out of bed.”

“You go on, John,” Adam said, swallowing the contents of his glass. “I’ll see you at four.”

John went to Margaret. “How is my sweet wife?”

“I am doing all right, I believe. Can you help me up?”

John steered her towards the dining room table and seated her.

“I let Adam have your portion of the meal. I did not think you would want much.”

“Yes, you are right. What did you have?”

“You know, Adam and I were so busy talking, I don’t even remember what I ate.”

John went to the kitchen steps and called for Cook.

“Yes, sir.”

“Could you fix my wife a very small portion of whatever we had for lunch?

“Right away, sir.”

“What were you two so busy talking about?”

John slid the note to her. She picked it up and read it.

“We don’t have much time,” Margaret remarked. I need Jane to do my hair.”

“Margaret, you are not going to this.”

“It says I am.”

“Well, I do not want you to go.”

“John,” Margaret said with a sigh, “I am going. This will be what puts all this behind me . . . us. Can you not see that?”

“But your injury . . .”

“Will have to suffer a little more for a greater reward. When you said, ‘I cannot deny you anything’, was that just words?”

Margaret had him there.

“Yes, you are right. I did say that. I did not think you would hold it over my head when I want to protect you, though.”

“I know. I know what you meant when you said it. I don’t want another day like yesterday. I think it was the worst day of my life.”

“I can agree there.”

“I know you can, John.”

John let that strange sounding answer, pass.

Cook brought a small plate. “Cook, could you find Jane for Margaret?”

“Yes, sir. With two of you in the house, I think her routine has been thrown off. I’ll find her.”

 

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.