Eighteen – Solutions
The following morning, Stephen and Beth set off for Manchester in the Brixton Abbey travelling coach, a comfortable and spacious carriage that easily accommodated eight people, if necessary. Each of them was lost in their own thoughts as they progressed through the luscious, green fields and hills of Leicestershire.
Beth pondered over the account Stephen gave her of his conversation with Oliver. Because he had been raised as the heir to a title and an estate, Stephen behaved exactly as his father once had. He was firm and strict in dealing with his equals, yet stern and arrogant towards those who depended on him, his tenants and servants. In public, he rarely showed affection to those who were dear to him, and even in private, Stephen seldom dropped the last of his defences, as Beth knew all too well.
The previous night, they had made love, as they had every night since Stephen recovered from the chickenpox, but for the first time, neither of them had reached fulfilment. Both had lain awake for long hours, each of them ignoring the insomnia of the other, and their backs turned to each other. Now Stephen sat staring through the carriage window, brooding over the whole wretched situation but unable to resolve it. Beth herself still felt too hurt over her husband’s harsh treatment of his son to sympathize much. She was very much aware that she would have an impossible task to make Stephen listen to his children’s aspirations and wishes. He was too much the lord of the mansion to do so.
Suddenly, Beth realised they were riding through the outskirts of Manchester as she recognized the sign of The Queen’s Head inn.
“Stephen, we should not go further! We might easily scare Oliver away when he sees the carriage!”
“You are right,” Stephen acknowledged and swiftly rapped on the vehicle’s roof.
“Hodgkins! Pull up into the inn’s yard, if you please!”
“Very well, my lord!” came the reply, and then the coachman turned the carriage sharp left.
Wat Burton, the innkeeper, came rushing out of the taproom, wiping his hands on a rag.
“My Lord Brixton! What a pleasure to meet you again, sir! Come in, if you please.”
Burton bowed deeply and when he straightened, let his eyes grow wide open at the sight of Beth, being handed down from the carriage by Stephen.
“Miss Williams! How delightful …”
“Mr Burton, allow me to introduce you to Lady Brixton,” Stephen said, grinning broadly at seeing the innkeeper’s surprise. The man stammered a hasty apology and bowed even deeper. His wife Isobel, who joined him when she saw there was a lady present, curtsied reverently.
“My Lady, welcome in our humble establishment. Do you wish for a private room?”
“Yes, Mrs Burton, that would be most agreeable,” Beth answered and followed her inside.
Stephen waited until his wife had gone before he went in search of Wat Burton. He and Beth agreed not to go to Mrs Oakham’s house together. Oliver might not trust his father and flee but he would not resent Beth, whom he loved and trusted. Therefore, Beth would go on her own and try to reason with the boy. Although he knew they were doing the right thing, Stephen was not entirely convinced that Oliver would listen to reason. He also was fairly sure the boy would not be at Mrs Oakham’s now, because it was broad daylight and people were at work. If he knew his son’s character just a tiny bit, Stephen thought it possible that Oliver was also at work, presumably in some cotton mill. So, when he found Burton in his cellar, taking stock of his beer casks, Stephen confronted him rather sharply.
“You know everything that goes on around here, Mr Burton. I will ask you straight away, then. Where is Oliver Bradley?”
Burton stiffened and looked the baron in the eyes in a defiant manner.
“Why are you asking, my lord? What is it to you?”
“He is my son. I want to take him back with me.”
The masterful tone the baron employed seemed to irritate the innkeeper, who straightened visibly but kept his voice level.
“I do not know where the boy has gone to other than to Mrs Oakham’s house, my lord. Why not look there for him?”
Stephen, annoyed with the man’s defiance, shot him a suspicious look.
“Oh, come on, Mr Burton. Do not insult my intelligence or your own! Which cotton mill has him enlisted on their payroll?”
When the innkeeper blanched visibly, Stephen knew he had hit the bull’s eye.
“Beth!” Mrs Oakham’s voice rang with pleasure as she beheld the young woman on the threshold with eyes sparkling with fondness. “Come in, child! How are you? Is it true that you have married that scoundrel Fenton? I could not believe the rumours that came to me from Woolworth.”
Beth felt herself blushing like a schoolgirl under Mrs Oakham’s blunt words. A tug of longing ran through her as they reminded her of Granny Bradley, Mrs Oakham’s sister, and she was again struck by the resemblance between the two sisters, in manner as well as in countenance.
“Yes, Mrs Oakham, I am Lady Brixton now, but my husband is no longer a scoundrel.”
She paused searching for the right words to describe the changes in Stephen’s behaviour over the last weeks. Her mouth curved into a smile as she saw the beloved face of her husband in her mind’s eye.
“Stephen is a good man, Mrs Oakham, but his huge responsibilities often prevent him from taking the time to listen to people. Instead, he rushes on and barges in and mostly, the regrets come when the damage is done. I am endeavouring to try and change that in him, but it is a difficult task as I am fighting years of unchallenged solitary control over a regal estate like Brixton Abbey.”
Mrs Oakham took Beth’s face between her small, slender hands, hands that were streaked with hundreds of tiny wrinkles from hard, honest work.
“Let me see how you fare,” she whispered earnestly and peered into Beth’s eyes like she would have done with a child that behaved badly.
Beth banned all thoughts from her mind. Only Stephen remained. He often was the only object of her affections, lately.
“There is a new, bright light in your gaze, child,” was the elder woman’s statement. “You are happy, I can tell. Now what is it that brought you and your husband to Manchester?” And, when she saw Beth’s astonishment, she added, “Oh, never fear, Manchester is but a large village. Everybody knows everything about everyone else. In fact, …”
She was suddenly and brutally interrupted by a loud banging on the front door and a voice, which Beth recognized Isobel Burton’s, cried in panic. “Mrs Oakham, is Lady Brixton with you? I have to talk to her! His Lordship has rushed off to Marlborough Mills, threatening to murder the proprietor for employing Oliver at the factory!”