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.