Fifteen – Troubles Anew
During the following days, Beth mostly devoted herself to her husband’s recovery. It was greatly needed. Stephen, whose fever caused him to lose a full stone, still felt fairly weak, and was greatly irritated by it. He could only manage half of the work he had set his goal to, an experience that was utterly new to him. It was Beth’s task to watch over her beloved husband and see that he did not overdo it.
It was the end of May, and the weather granted mild, sunny days, crisp mornings and balmy nights. In consequence, short walks, that did not wander too far from the house, were very much enjoyed by the convalescent and his faithful nurse. Yet afterwards Stephen was always rather worn out and needed a quiet rest on the sunlit terrace, stretched on a chaise-longue and sheltered from the brisk southerly breeze. Beth sat beside him with her needlework, and they had long, intimate talks with subjects ranging from the daily workings of the Abbey to sweet, nonsensical love words.
Sometimes, Lily would be there too. The girl – as well as her twin brother – was now thirteen years old and rapidly growing into a young woman. Her slim body, light and elegant as a filly’s, had reached a height that already exceeded Beth’s by several inches and was developing the first signs of womanhood, with delicate hips and budding breasts. Lily was also a sweet, uncomplicated girl, who enjoyed life and people without prejudice or suspicion of malice.
Unlike her brother, Beth thought as she listened to Lily’s clear voice, while the girl was reading to her father. Oliver had recently shown a stubborn and sometimes heated response to everything his father was concerned. Stephen usually laughed it away as a form of boyish rebellion which he himself had also succumbed to, when he had Oliver’s age. It was only natural for Oliver, Stephen pointed out, to feel resentment over the world in general and his family in particular, since the boy needed to find out what his exact place in life was.
It was true that both children had gone through many abrupt changes over the last year, jostled between their grandmother and their father as they had been. The fact that Granny Bradley had so suddenly died had, of course, also been a great distress. Yet Beth instinctively felt that these matters were not solely responsible for Oliver’s angered state yet she had been unable to tackle the subject with him. Oliver steadfastly remained sullen and uncommunicative, even with her or Lily. Maybe Lily would be the last person to gain his confidence now that she was a head taller than Oliver, a fact that was prone to give him a feeling of inferiority.
With a sigh, Beth set aside her worrying, bent to her work and listened to Lily’s sweet voice instead.
Because of the chickenpox, there had been no time to search for – and consequently, hire – private tutors for Lily and Oliver. Beth took on this task with urgency as it was vital that the children resume their education forthwith, but in the meantime, she ordered them to be driven into the village so that they could attend school with Mr Sage, the assistant curate. As a school teacher, Mr Sage was very demanding of his pupils, requesting that they make rapid and highly satisfactorily progress in their studies. The thirteen year olds now were presented with Latin and Greek as well as with French and German. It was therefore not surprising that the children brought home a multitude of tasks to perform after school, forcing them to retire to the former class room, in order to achieve the job.
From Ruby, who knew everything that transpired in the village and far beyond, Beth learned that Mr Sage secretly hoped he himself would be appointed as private tutor to the twins, but that he dare not make a request to Stephen. After hearing this, Beth told her husband what private wishes Mr Sage was harbouring. Stephen raised surprised eyebrows at this.
“Sage tutoring my children, here at the Abbey? Well, I must confess I had not given it much thought, my love. To be honest, the whole matter had somewhat slipped my mind but I suppose I could give it some consideration. It could not be for long, dearest, for Oliver is destined for Eton, which – as you might recall – was my own school. I hope he will be going to Cambridge University after concluding his secondary studies there. As for Lily, I was thinking of Harrogate. What is your opinion on this?”
“Oh, I am very certain that Lily will be over the moon when she hears this! She has always been a keen and quick learner and she recently began her classics with relish and diligence. Of Oliver, however, I am not so sure, Stephen, especially in this new and sullen mood of his.”
“Rest assured, my love. I will speak to Oliver right away. Would you care to be present?”
“No, Stephen. It is my belief that this should be entirely between the two of you. A boy should have a special bond with his father.”
Stephen summoned Oliver to his study, but their meeting lasted not long. Afterwards, Stephen gave Beth a brief recount of their conversation, of which he was not entirely satisfied.
“You were right, as usual, Beth. Oliver is extremely sullen and sometimes downright angry. I have informed him of our plans for him, and he did not seem to object to them.”
Beth felt not comforted at all by those words and she instantly expressed her anxiety.
“But … what have you told him, Stephen? You had not yet made up your mind about the boy’s future!”
“He knows he will be going to Eton as he will need a thorough education, if he aspires to be my successor. He first started to protest, but I made it clear to him that he was very lucky to have a chance to better himself, and that he should make his profit of it.”
They were in their chamber, preparing for bed, when this talk took place. Beth, after having donned her night gown behind a screen, stepped forward and placed her hands on her husband’s chest, as if putting in a plea. Stephen’s arms immediately encircled her, pleasure and anticipation on his face. They had not made love since the beginning of his illness.
“My love,” Beth said, oblivious of the warmth in her husband’s eyes, “do you not think you have been a bit overbearing? After all, Oliver might have other wishes about his own future.”
“Mmm …” Stephen’s husky voice sounded in her ear, startling her from her musings.
“Stephen? Did you just hear what I said ?”
“I did, my love … but I prefer to ignore it …”
He nuzzled her ear and let his lips roam over the delicate skin beneath it. Beth closed her eyes in thrilling rapture, giving herself over to her husband’s lovemaking. She longed for his touch with a vehemence that was only natural after so long an abstinence. Whatever was needed, could wait until the morrow.
However, in the morning, the Abbey was rocked on its foundations when Oliver Bradley-Fenton was missing from his room. A quantity of equally missing clothes and some books pointed to a flight. When a sum of money from the baron’s study desk was also gone, Beth and Stephen understood fully; Oliver had run away.