Two – A Visitor from Abroad
The following weeks, Beth and Mr Sage organized the school to the best of their abilities by applying a strict routine of learning and playing. Alternating lessons with physical exercise and periods of relaxing did wonders for the children’s concentration. There were twelve pupils at the school, six of each gender, ranging in ages from six to twelve. Mr Sage, the assistant curate, was in charge of the boys of whom there were two farmer’s boys, Mattie Benson, ten, and Peter Rathcliff, twelve. They had French and Latin together with Oliver Fenton, Beth’s former charge. The two sons of the local butcher, Eddie Cratchley, nine, and Roddie, six, and Crispin Robinson, the steward’s son, eight, had yet to learn reading and writing.
In her class, Beth taught the basic skills of reading and writing to four girls, while the two remaining ones, Ruby Merton’s sister, Jane Hart and Lily Fenton, the baron’s daughter, both twelve years old, practiced their French. The Reverend Carter had been teaching the older children before the baron founded the school
Little Josie Robinson of six, the Abbey steward’s daughter, was illiterate as well as Sylvia Benson and Maggie Rathcliff, both eight years old and daughters of two of Fenton’s farmers. Lizzie Goodhouse, the baker’s daughter was ten.
Beth’s pupils were intelligent and eager to learn, so it took them just one month to learn reading and writing. The older girls volunteered to read from a book of children’s stories with them during the weekends and holidays.
St Mary’s Primary School was not the only enterprise that went off well during those first weeks. Beth’s little private household too was flourishing.
The cottage she occupied – Mrs Bradley’s former dwelling – had been newly upholstered by Lord Fenton. The tiny parlour and the small dining room had been decked out with new carpets and curtains, and the walls had been dressed with new coverings. An elegant set of chairs had replaced Mrs Bradley’s ancient and worn-out ones, and the baron had graciously lent Beth a load of books to fill the large cases flanking the hearth.
Upstairs, the master bedroom had been supplied with a new four-poster bed and new curtains. The smaller bedroom was now a dressing room, and Beth had gasped with delight when she saw the huge copper bath tub Lord Fenton had provided her with. She fondly remembered the light of joy in his blue-grey eyes when she profusely thanked him by pecking him – rather impulsively – on the cheek. The gaze that followed the joy was intense enough to set her own cheeks on fire!
The cottage – and Beth’s own needs – were taken care off by Trixie Bamber, Brixton Abbey’s former tweenie. Although she was just fourteen years old and rather waif-like, Trixie was very dedicated to Beth and stronger than she looked. She kept the cottage clean and well-provided for with food and all the necessary items to make it a home.
The more physically demanding tasks were performed by Alan Widdicombe, second son of the innkeeper. The Blue Boar did not have enough customers to allow Alan to stay and help his father, so the young man of eighteen was all but too happy when Beth took him on as a servant. He was tall and strong and full of diligence for his new task.
Lord Fenton had kindly offered to pay their wages, waving away Beth’s protestations and reminding her that it was his duty to see that the new schoolmistress had everything she needed to perform her task to perfection. She found herself liking his behaviour and his manners towards her.
In fact, Lord Fenton did not behave lately as the man Beth thought him to be up until now. He had treated her with the utmost deference, on every occasion they had met. He had not tried to beguile her with smiles and pretty words, as he used to do before. All he had done, was showing her kindness and offering her agreeable companionship, as well as politeness. Beth found herself extremely puzzled over it but she nevertheless liked this unknown side of him.
“Miss Williams,” Stephen asked, just as he was about to help Beth into Sparkle’s saddle, “my mother is hosting a small dinner party, tomorrow evening. Will you do me the honour of being our guest?”
Beth turned to him, eyes wide. She had just accompanied Lily and Oliver home. The children came to school on horseback, and it had become a habit that Fenton brought them to school, and she returned them home during the late afternoon. To that end, Fenton stabled Sparkle in The Blue Boar inn.
“My lord … I’m not sure …”
Stephen bit back his irritation at Beth’s obvious hesitation. She still distrusted him, it seemed. Yet, he forced a smile onto his face whilst he searched for the right words.
“My cousin Miss Hannah Faraday will be there, as will my friend Trevor Masterton, brother to the Earl of Charwood from Yorkshire. We were at Cambridge together and have been friends ever since. Hannah’s mother was married to my maternal uncle, who died three years ago. Aunt Sylvia has recently married again, and Hannah was feeling a bit like the odd one out. Mother invited her for a stay at the Abbey. Trevor, on the other hand, is on leave from his military service in Egypt. He is quite a pleasant fellow who could regale us with some stories from his travels. It would be awkward for Hannah to be the only young woman present, would it not?”
That sounded reasonable to Beth, and she agreed to come.
The dinner party went quite well, actually.
Lady Henrietta was all civilized politeness and behaved the charming hostess. Miss Hannah Faraday turned out to be a lively girl of twenty-two, all fair curls and dashing blue eyes, and full of witty conversation. Beth liked her from the start, and the two of them were chatting happily away while they waited for the gentlemen to return after their port. Henrietta sat quietly apart with her coffee, and neither of the girls seemed to notice that she had no part of their conversation.
When Fenton and Lord Masterton joined them, the latter resumed the interesting travelling stories he had been telling at table. Beth found herself all ears to his tales which were about the fascinating country of Egypt. Lord Masterton talked about the ancient civilization that built the pyramids and about the temples and the tombs that could be visited and admired. He held them in suspense with his stories about the local people and their religion and their customs.
Beth got the impression that he really liked being stationed in Cairo because the country fascinated him so much. She asked him for a favour. Would he come to the school and tell some of the stories in class? The children would love them. Lord Masterton agreed, of course, and a time was settled for the next day.
Fenton, lazily sprawled upon a settee with his coffee in his hand, watched Beth as she listened with open fascination to Masterton’s stories. He revelled in the brightness of her chocolate-coloured eyes, the rosy bloom in her cheeks and the faint smile of happiness that curved her delicate mouth. She looked so lovely, tonight. Her thick, deep brown hair was dressed up in a simple but heavy bun at the back of her head. Her simple dress was of mint-green silk and flowed about her slender figure like a wisp of green clouds. It had a squared neckline, discreet but deep enough to reveal the onset of her small breasts.
Stephen found himself in a mood that was totally unusual for him. Because it was unfamiliar, it puzzled him to the extreme. Although the first stirrings of arousal were already manifesting themselves – how could they not when such a lovely vision of the woman he loved was sitting only a few yards away – lust, nevertheless, was far away in his mind. Instead, he felt a rush of deep, heart-wrenching love for Beth, a warmth that engulfed him from head to toe, a longing that left him with pain in his heart. Oh, to be able to love Beth openly, as his wife, as his lover! To give her children, to love and cherish her for the rest of his days!
Yet, for the umpteenth time, he admonished himself to be cautious. He had hurt her once already.
Lord Masterton’s visit to the school was a great success. Beth and Mr Sage assembled all the children in one classroom, and Mr Masterton was seated in their midst so that he could tell his stories with the maximum of impact. The children simply loved it! Both boys and girls bombarded the storyteller with questions, which were gladly answered by Lord Masterton. Beth was extremely pleased with the young man and with her idea of bringing him to the school. When he left from Brixton Abbey to return to his brother’s estate in Yorkshire, she felt a sort of bereavement. She told Fenton, the next time she saw him.
“Your friend is really an interesting man, my lord. I truly enjoyed his travel stories and I think the children did too.”
Oh Lord!, Stephen thought in sudden panic. She surely would not have formed an attachment to Trevor? And what was to stop her? Trevor was an agreeable fellow, not unpleasant to look at, too. It would serve him, Stephen, right if Beth was snatched away by some other man, who treated her the way she should have been treated all along. Like the lady she was, even though she was not a member of the nobility. Maybe, it was a good thing, then, that Masterton would be on his way to Egypt again soon.
The lovely drawing I used in my story is by Mrs Joyce Mould.