Seventeen – Consequences
Pacing before the empty fireplace of their bedchamber, Beth failed to find solace in it. She came up here after a yet another day of fruitless searching, wanting to escape the chaos downstairs, where servants and family were going about their businesses in a dazed way, upset as they were with Oliver’s disappearance. She fervently hoped Stephen would come home with some good news about the boy, who was now missing for three whole days.
Three days! Hundreds of horrors could have befallen Oliver as he wandered the dark country roads all by himself and without protection. He could fall into a stream or a crevice or be attacked by wild animals. Worse, he could be ambushed by highwaymen or taken by baby farm hunters. They would sell him to some cruel master, and he would be forced to work like a slave, fed just enough not to starve. He would eventually fall ill or get injured and die …
Beth’s heart shrivelled as she imagined all this. She plumped down on the stool in front of her dressing table and was abruptly met by her pale, drawn face. Good God, she looked like a ghost! Her hair had escaped her bun and her clothes were rumpled and askew. Her hands were trembling and sweating as was the rest of her body. It was sheer terror at the thought of what Oliver’s fate might be, right now.
Earlier that evening, she had to comfort poor Lily who was frantic about her twin brother’s fate. Lily knew her brother as well as she knew herself. They were like two sides of a coin, the one completing the other, where one of them failed. Henrietta, too, had needed support, frightened as she had been over her grandson’s fate. Beth had not known if she really had offered some comfort to either grandmother or granddaughter but she tried, nevertheless. Now, she had nothing more to give. She was starved of comfort, she just needed to know. She needed her husband and what he had learned about Oliver.
Pulling the bell cord to summon Trixie, she suddenly knew what to do, and when her little maid entered, Beth instructed her to help her into her riding habit.
Dusk was settling in when Beth slowed Sparkle into a walk as she rode into Woolworth. It had occurred to her – though a bit belatedly – that Oliver might have let Ruby into his confidence, give the close relationship the Mertons had with Granny Bradley. Scarcely had she dismounted, then a shriek pierced the quiet evening, and Ruby came hurtling out of her cottage, balancing a howling Johnny on her hip.
“Ruby, whatever is the matter?” Beth hastily secured Sparkle’s reins on the cottage fence and took Johnny out of Ruby’s arms. The hysteric slip of a woman collapsed against Beth’s chest, her lithe body shaking with distress.
“It’s His Lordship! He’s going to murder Ben! Oh, sweet heavens, do something!”
Only now, Beth saw her husband’s big black stallion, Parsifal, tethered at the rear of the house, snorting and tapping his foot in frightened agitation. A neighbour showed up, attracted by Ruby’s wailing, and Beth handed over Johnny to her.
“Ah, Myrtle! Look after them, please. I need to go and look what is going on.”
“Wha’ever it is, it’s been goin’ on for quite a while, m’lady!” the woman replied, clutching Johnny to her ample bosom. “’E’s in a foul temper, ‘e is, ‘Is Lordship!”
Beth hurried around the back of the cottage and stopped abruptly in her tracks, not quite believing her own eyes! Her husband and Ben Merton were having a heavy round of fisticuffs in the cottage back garden, pouncing and grunting and snapping at each other like two bulls in the same pen! For a brief, frightfully uncertain moment, Beth had no inkling about what to do to end this senseless fight. The two men were of an equal height and strength, each dealing and receiving the other’s blows with no clue as to whom would succumb first and be rendered unconscious. Both were equally dirty and sporting black eyes and bleeding cuts on the lips. An instant later, Beth grabbed the first bucket she could place her hands on and tossed it over the combatants. As it happened, it was the Mertons’ chamber pot.
The two pugilists stood gasping and panting … and wrinkling their noses as soon as they realised what it was they had been showered with. Or rather, Stephen who received the most of the stinking contents of the bucket, which made him even more enraged.
“Devil’s teeth, Beth! What is the meaning of this? Are you insane?” His blue eyes blazed with fury but Beth did not give in.
“Pigs wallow in refuse and frankly, my lord, you two were very much acting like pigs.” She smiled unexpectedly and added, “No offence intended to the poor pigs …”
The radiance of that smile broke Stephen’s fury and made it vanish like snow in the sun. His Beth was so right, he admitted silently. He had indeed failed to act like a gentleman and brought down his anger and fear over Oliver on someone else instead of dealing with it. A conciliatory grin on his face, he extended a hand to Ben Merton.
“I am truly sorry, Merton. I had no business attacking you like I did.”
Merton grinned back and replied. “That’s alright, my lord. Forgive me but I must refuse your … erm … hand.”
He gestured at Stephen’s dripping, smelly hand, which made them both burst out with a good healthy laugh.
“Come, my love,” Beth said, still smiling, “let us get you home and into dry clothes.”
Stephen returned her smile, his eyes lightening with pure, unabashed joy.
“Yes, my darling, let us just do that.”
Later that evening, when they prepared for bed, Beth brushed her long, brown hair in front of her dressing table mirror. It was a soothing activity which allowed her to calm down from the excitements of the day and God knew how much she needed that since Oliver’s disappearance. After a while, she noticed that her husband too seemed to have need for reflection. Stephen was sprawled in his favourite armchair near the hearth, staring blankly into the distance.
“Stephen …” Beth said softly, putting down her silver-backed hairbrush before braiding her hair in a single plait on her back. Her husband looked up, a dazed expression in his eyes.
“Yes?” he replied and smiled sadly at her.
“You are brooding over Oliver, are you not? You must not, dearest. We will find him, eventually. I actually have an inkling as to where he might have gone to.”
“You have?” Stephen swiftly stood and came to her. He gently pulled her up by the upper arms and looked into her face, full of avid anticipation.
“Yes,” Beth answered, sliding her arms around his neck. “I think he might have headed for Manchester, to Mrs Oakham’s house.”
Utter bewilderment showed in Stephen’s blue eyes. “Manchester? But … but why would he go there?”
“When we were at Mrs Oakham’s, a few months ago, Oliver showed great interest for the cotton mills and everything regarding the cotton manufacturing. He even went to one of them, one day, and asked to be shown around and be explained the process. The overseer sent him on his way, of course, although he was old enough to be put to work. The man knew him as a relative to Mrs Oakham, though.”
“A relative? What are you saying? I do not comprehend!”
“Mrs Oakham is Granny Bradley’s sister, do you not remember? That makes her Oliver’s great-aunt.”
“Oh, Lord …” Stephen breathed, his face suddenly turning white.
“What is it, my love? Tell me!”
Before answering, Stephen took a deep, shuddering breath.
“I am an utter fool, Beth. The boy tried to tell me about his interest in cotton, but I cut him short. I overruled him in a very dictatorial manner and forbade him everything that did not relate to the running of Brixton Abbey. I drove him away, Beth. I gave him no other choice than to flee.”
Even though she was witnessing Stephen’s distress, Beth could not help feeling suddenly angry with him. She could very well imagine how Oliver must have felt, being subjected to the full brunt of his father’s innate arrogance, which had been drummed into Stephen from a very tender age. The sudden realisation that Stephen and his son were part of a totally different world, and would not easily see eye-to-eye, made her feel utterly sad.
She had an enormous task still ahead, unfortunately, if she wished the two of them forging a closer bond.