Five – Fighting Side By Side
For the next three days, Beth and the baron worked side by side in never-desisting labour. There was much to be done during the day and the night. The children’s fever had risen a bit, making them very tired. They were asleep most of the day and had to be spoon-fed because of their weakness. The baron – as Beth was prone to notice – was very good at this. This fact baffled her, to be honest. She had never known him to be patient or simply kind to small children. By God, it had even taken him several months before he opened up to his own children!
But now, she saw a completely different side of him. He usually sat on the patient’s bed, holding the bowl in one hand and feeding the child slowly and gently with the other. His patience was sweet but persistent, and he only stopped when the bowl was empty. Beth, who managed only four patients in one hour, was stunned to see Fenton feed twice as quickly, so that at ten in the morning, every child had been dealt with.
That left room for bathing, and there too the baron was extremely helpful. He had ordered a copper bathtub to be brought to the school yard. With a few heaves of his muscular shoulders, Fenton brought it inside and positioned it next to the kitchen stove. He then carried the children to it, one by one, and Beth washed and dried them. Fenton put them back into their beds after Beth had again dressed them in their night dresses. The washing took only two hours instead of four!
By then, it was time for luncheon. The baron had arranged for footmen and maids to bring on hot meals and hot water from “The Blue Boar”. He personally collected the goods at the garden gate and carried them inside. Then, he helped with the meals to be fed to the children.
What astonished Beth the most, was the baron’s patient kindness and gentle good humour in dealing with the children. It seemed he was a totally different man from the one Beth had known forever, and it worried her greatly because she detected a softening in her feelings for him. Surely, she was not planning on trusting him ever again, was she?
After a busy day, they often sat in the kitchen, enjoying a cup of tea. Revelling in the peace and quiet of the evening, they spoke about what happened that day, about which children were worse or better, about how they would tackle the next day and the problems ahead. Time seemed to stand still for Beth, and the rest of the world was far away and unreal to her.
The cosy interior of the kitchen, with its huge stove, softly whirring with burning logs and coal, the clean-scrubbed oaken table with its blue-and white chequered cloth, the smell of food still lingering and the fragrance of the tea they were drinking, it all added to the feeling of safety and well-being. Beth sneaked a peak at the baron as he sat bowed over his tea, his large but slender hands around his cup. His hair was in damp disarray because he had just finished cleaning out the bath tub, after the children’s many baths. It hung over his collar and brow in glistening curls, black as a raven’s wing. His wrinkled white shirt had come undone to expose a part of his broad chest.
Not for the first time did Beth notice the huge scar that crossed the chest muscle, a thick red streak about half an inch wide. She recalled it was about ten inches long … It was a miracle he survived such an injury. His mother had said he nearly died of the fever that followed …
There was one, very clear notion in Beth’s mind, at that moment. She did not even begin to know Stephen Fenton, the fifth baron Brixton. All her life, she considered him haughty and without a conscience, and heartless, and … she thought of him as a monster, yet he was not that. Like every human being, Fenton too had experienced hurt, physical as well as emotional, and it had left him with scars. Not that he ever showed them – no, not him, not the baron!
That was the point, Beth mused. Stephen – her long standing enemy, but also, the man who touched her heart so very deeply – was first and foremost a baron, a noble, a man with authority, wealth and position. There was no common future for them, even if they should ever grow closer.
She swallowed at the large lump in her throat that had suddenly and unexpectedly formed. Stupid! She was being stupid and unrealistic! She had better stop indulging in those useless feelings before he …
Too late! Stephen Fenton raised his dreamily gaze to her, blue eyes glowing softly with some pleasant emotion that made Beth’s heart flutter wildly! And alarmed Fenton to the point that he grabbed her hand!
“Miss Williams! What is it? Are you unwell? Tell me, I beg of you!”
Unwell, Beth thought, no. Doomed was a better word! She cleared her stricken throat before she could begin to summon up a reply.
“It is nothing, my lord. I am merely tired and …”
“My name is Stephen, as you very well know. Surely, we are past all this silly politeness? Are we not partners in this unfortunate business?”
Oh, the warmth of his hand on hers! The heat of those beautiful eyes and the comfort of that sweet smile …
“Partners? Yes, but … I … I do not really know you, do I? How can I sit here and talk to you as if we were equals? I …”
“Not only equals, Beth, but also friends, I hope? Surely by now, we are close friends?”
“I … I …”, was all Beth could stammer, overwhelmed as she was under the onslaught of his gaze.
“Beth … could you not make an effort to get to know me for who I am? A man, Beth, just a plain, ordinary man, who longs to befriend you … we do know each other for so long, do we not? All our lives, we have been in close proximity, so why should we not be so now? We are fighting alongside each other. For God’s sake, Beth! We are practically living together!”
In sudden panic, Beth rose, causing her chair to clatter onto the floor as she pushed it back with vehemence! She stumbled out of the room, bumping into furniture on her way to the door, but not looking back at him.
Damn and blast! What had he done? He would have to cut out his tongue if he ever was to look her in the face again properly! Had he really blurted out that extremely foolish remark about living together? He knew, did he not, how easily she was thrown in uproar about such things! Had he still not yet realised how sensitive a person Beth was? Fool! He was such a stupid fool!
Beth reached her upstairs bedroom on instinct, rather than actually seeing where she was going. She was so thoroughly shattered by what she just heard from Stephen’s mouth that her chest was aching with the very breaking of her heart! He still lusted after her! He had as good as laid out to her that the only thing left was for them to … to consummate that lust. They really were living together, were they not? They were in each other’s company, under the same roof, every day and every night, and the worst of it was that the whole village knew it! People would think they were lovers! Her reputation was ruined, non-existent! She was ruined, she was a fallen woman in the eyes of the community she was living in! Bitter tears ran down her cheeks now but they did nothing to alleviate her pain. Oh, why had she ever made that foolish decision to come back to Woolworth?
A soft but insistent tap on the door finally broke through the red veils of her distress.
“Miss Williams, please? We need to talk and make matters clear if we are to work together in the days to come. I humbly apologize for the clumsy way I expressed myself, just a few moments ago. My choice of words was unforgiveable. Please, talk to me, Miss Williams? Think of the children that count on us and are in need of our care?”
Although Beth was still in a horrified uproar, she had to admit that Fenton had said the only thing that would make her listen to him. She opened the door and stepped onto the landing, her body rigid with indignation.
“Oh, you are indeed caring for them now, are you? A minute ago, the only one that mattered to you was how to coax me into becoming your lover! Moreover, you called it another name; you asked to ‘befriend me’!”
“And that was exactly what I meant!” Stephen snapped. “I hold you in too high an esteem to take you to bed unless you want to yourself!”
Shocked though she was at his bluntness, Beth nevertheless felt herself softening again. He did have a high esteem for her, then? Oh, there was nothing more she could want from him, Beth thought. To know he respected her, liked her and loved her! Like she loved him, then? No! She instantly quenched that feeling! And she should not offer him her heart on a platter, too!
“Yet, that is what everybody thinks, I imagine!” she snarled instead. “That we are lovers, indeed! I asked you specifically not to come here yet that was exactly what you did! How am I supposed to go on living in this village after the disease has gone and the children are healthy again?” Goodness, she was barking at him herself, now.
“Simple!” he barked back. “Marry me!”
Stephen could have slapped himself across the face, but it was too late now. He had spoken aloud the only notion that had been in his brain for months, and there was no retrieving it. He had as good as destroyed his own defences. Yet, he could not read the look she threw at him. She was angry no longer but stood studying him with cool calculation.
“Why?” was all she asked, startling him by the harshness of her tone.
“Why? Well, because that way, you would retrieve your reputation. Besides, we have known each other for God knows how long and we have no secrets for each other anymore since you are perfectly informed about everything my life might contain. I need a wife and a mother for Lily and Oliver. My position as a peer of the Realm wants a baroness, and I cannot think of anyone better than you, Beth.”
For a long time, Beth did not speak. Stephen was aware of the sweat breaking out all over his body and of the rapid beating of his heart, emotions that had not come to him since his time as a soldier in the Peninsular War!
“My lord,” Beth said calmly, “I need you to leave this house, this instant. You have outstayed your welcome.” With that, she entered her bedroom and locked the door behind her.
The lovely drawing I used in my story is by Mrs Joyce Mould.