The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Four

Chapter Three

Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, December 4th, 1815

It had become urgently clear to Alex that he needed to find out all there was about Rowena Drake. She would, however, not be forthcoming; on the contrary, she was extremely reticent, as if there were a deep and dark secret in her past. She was also avoiding him, and taking extreme care not to be alone with him.

“Porter, be so good as to search a tome for me from those shelves over there.”

Alex and his batman were in the library, working on the ledgers. Or better, trying to find their way through the heavy volumes. Alex, unable to see, had to guide a Porter who lacked the educational skills to understand what he was supposed to find or read.

“Where, major?” the servant grumbled. “There must be thousands of the blasted books in here.”

Alex walked to the case nearest to the gigantic fireplace. It amazed him how easily he found his way in this room, even though he had not been here often when he still had his ability to see; it had been his father’s realm and later his brother’s. Yet now, it seemed to have become his.

“If I remember correctly, the book I want must be in this book case here. There should be an inventory on the first open shelf, placed on the extreme left. Do you see it?”

“Yes, I have it. What now?” Porter puffed.

It was a tedious task to make Porter act as his secretary, Alex thought. It was, however, the only way he had to learn the content of documents. He was just extremely thankful that his former batman had learnt to read and write as a child.

“The volume I need is Debrett’s Peerage and Baronetage. It is a rather thick book with a red leather cover. The inventory will have the location of it in this particular book case.”

Still grumbling, Porter climbed the steps in his slow, hobbling way. He still suffered from that bullet wound in his thigh, Alex knew. Soon the batman came back down with the requested book and laid it on the desk to open it.

“Christ, major! I’m too old for this, I can’t read those tiny le’ers!”

“Use the magnifying glass, if you please.”

“Very well, what’m I lookin’ fer?”

Alex took a deep breath. The die was cast, he mused.

“Families named Drake in Cumberland. Find every fact you can.”

Porter’s next comment made him grin. “Yes, major, but couldn’t ye just ask her? There’s a whole bloody page of ‘em!”

“I could but I have not. Now continue, if you please?”

Mumbling to himself, Porter began reading, while Alex bit back a smile. He knew he should scold his old batman for being disrespectful, yet he was unable to reprimand the man who saved his life on the battlefield. Cumberland … yes, Rowena Drake had nearly given it away herself, had she not? Her accent was very faint but distinct.

“You do know that she’s been employing girls from the village and the neighbouring farms, I hope?” Porter continued in a casual way.

That surprised Alex. “No, I was unaware of it, although it makes sense. If Mrs Drake is supposed to clean up this old pile of a house, she will need proper help. I wonder how she is paying them.”

“Out of her own pocket, I suppose. She hasn’t asked Mrs Hall for coin, as far as I know.”

To his own surprise, Alex again felt a grin tugging at his mouth. So Rowena Drake was taking her task seriously, then. Good. He made a mental note to provide Rowena with the necessary funds for her girls.

 

Casting a last appraising glance at the four girls working in the first room she had selected to be thoroughly cleaned, Rowena turned and hurried down the stairs to have breakfast with her employer.

She wondered if there would be something in store for her on this day, December 4th. Silly thought, she scolded herself. Why would anybody at Ketteridge House even know that this was her birthday altogether? She had better banish these silly, childish thoughts once and for good. Today she turned twenty-one, and if her father had not chosen to leave everything to Roderick, her half-brother, she would not have been in such dire financial predicaments at the moment.

It had been a tremendous shock when Rowena, still crushed by grief of her father’s demise, had been coldly informed by Roderick’s unfeeling solicitor that she had no right to any of Daveston Hall’s funds. How well she remembered that scene in her father’s vast library with Roderick standing at the window with his back to her, and deliberately not looking at her. She would never forget the hurt she felt then, the apprehension at the realisation that she was on her own from then on, and that she was at Roderick’s mercy.

“Ah, there you are, Mrs Drake.”

Rowena abruptly stopped when the earl’s voice sounded at the foot of the stairs. He must have heard her, she reflected. She tucked a loose lock of hair back into place and proceeded her way down in a slower pace. Ridiculous, once again; the earl would not even notice her appearance.

“Good morning, my lord.”

Her employer’s eyes turned her way, but they did not focus on her. It was strange, but only now Rowena realised the extent of the earl’s handicap. Those beautiful blue-grey eyes of him would never actually see her. He must feel miserable at some moments, she mused. She could not even begin to imagine what it must be like for him.

“How did you know it was I approaching?” she asked.

He smiled, chuckling low. Rowena felt it deep in her belly, and shivered.

“My sight light be failing, but my hearing is not. I am already familiar with your step, Mrs Drake.”

She watched him return to the morning room from whence he had come. It was fascinating as well as pitiful to witness him trying to assess the distance he had to bridge. At some point, he was forced to stretch out a hand in order to prevent himself from bumping into the wall, and then use his fingers to guide him to the door. Slowly, Rowena followed Raventhorpe through the door, admiring the certainty with which he found his way to the small table at the window. How did he manage that? Once inside a room, he always seemed to go straight to where he wanted to go to.

“Mrs Drake,” the earl said, his voice rather stern, “I want to establish some very fundamental rules for you in managing this household. I absolutely forbid you to pay staff from your own resources. If you have need of money, you shall come to me and ask for it. Is that clear?”

“Yes, my lord,” Rowena replied, stunned by his stern tone. “Forgive me, I meant no offence.”

“None taken, ma’am. Next, I wish to make something clear. I insist on you disclosing who you are. It is absolutely necessary that I know, Mrs Drake.”

Flames shot up to Rowena’s face, while her heart started thumping alarmingly fast. She was grateful that Raventhorpe could not see the fear rising in her chest like bile.

“My lord …”

“Is your name actually Drake? I have considerable doubts about that, my dear.”

Rowena swallowed at the large lump that seemed to block her breathing.

“My lord, I … I implore you; please trust me. I am no criminal, if that is what you are concerned about. I am just a … a disgraced woman, seeking to set her life back on the right track. If I could just stay here and …”

“You can stay as long as you like, Mrs Drake, have no fear. Yet I must know who you are, for the simple reason that I must protect you as long as you stay under my roof. I am a soldier, Mrs Drake. We reconnoitre, assess, and protect. In order to be able to protect those who depend on us, we must know all the facts. So, for the last time, Mrs Drake, who are you?”

At that moment, the sun broke through the clouds and streamed into the room in full force. Its rays touched the earl’s eyes, just as he directed his blind gaze at Rowena. In the beat of an eyelash, they changed from the rather dull blue-grey to the sudden, vivid, almost hot sapphire blue of a summer storm lightening. It had the most astonishing effect on Rowena. Her heartbeat fluttered, and then pounded in her ears like shots from a canon. She grew warm, and her stomach clenched, leaving her quite shaken.

The panic she had been feeling suddenly grew tenfold. Rowena stood so quickly that her chair overturned and crashed with a noise like thunder. She stumbled to the door, eyes blinded with panic. She knew not how but she reached the stairs and began ascending them, clutching the banister with both hands. There was no longer reason dictating her, only a deep-rooted fear that she might succumb to the sudden, primal attraction he overwhelmed her with. Knowing that, acknowledging that, was too much.

The baby suddenly kicked hard, and her stomach lurched. Nausea swept over Rowena, forcing her to her knees. She retched but nothing came. Her lungs seemed clogged, all of a sudden, and she choked, gasping for air. Her vision blurred, grew darker …

Then she was picked up by a pair of strong, muscular arms; her head came to rest against a hard, but comfortingly warm shoulder. With infinite relief, Rowena inhaled the earl’s clean, overwhelmingly male scent, for it was he who had come to her rescue. All fear suddenly evaporated, to be replaced by a blessed peace. This man was innately honour-bound to protect, not to ravish or destroy, at least not without a reason. As he swiftly carried her back to the morning room and laid her down onto a chaise-longue, all in one smooth motion, Rowena felt once again safe, reassured, and calm.

The earl crossed his arms and straightened to his full 6,3’.

“Mrs Drake, I strongly advise you to behave sensibly. You are carrying a child, and you might have fallen down the stairs and injured yourself and the babe. Now …”

“How do you manage that?”

It was out of Rowena’s mouth before she realised that it is rudely inappropriate to cut one’s employer. He looked puzzled yet not in ire. His eyes were a soft grey-blue, now.

“How do I manage what, Mrs Drake?”

“Finding your way so rapidly into a room, never getting lost once you pass the doorsill?”

“Well, I know this house like the back of my hand. It is after all my ancestral estate; I grew up here. As for a room, once I have memorized where all the furniture is located, I will stay clear of it. Of course, everything must be left in the same spot. Porter looks to that and helps me make the necessary reconnoitring rounds, the first time I come into an unfamiliar room.”

He paused, directing his gaze to where Rowena sat. “What happened, Mrs Drake? Why did you dash out of this room as if the devil himself was at your heels?”

“I … I cannot truly say … It was as if I was suddenly in a room without air …”

The earl dropped to one knee, bringing his face level with hers, and although Rowena knew that he was unable to distinguish her expression, it nevertheless gave her the illusion that he was looking straight into her eyes. She felt strangely mesmerized, but also safe, and protected. When he laid the back of his hand against her cheek, she pressed against it, revelling in the immense comfort the simple gesture gave her. It felt entirely natural.

“You panicked, that is what happened,” the earl said gently. “I have seen it many times on the battlefield. Men freezing with horror, shutting out their surroundings, lowering their guns, dropping to their knees while clutching their heads or covering their ears. Overwhelming fear can bring it about, or even intolerably great despair. You were so afraid to tell me about yourself, that your body reacted in the only way possible; it bolted to escape danger. There is no need for that, my dear. You are in no danger when staying at Ketteridge House because you are under my personal protection.”

Alex could feel the struggle in Rowena Drake by the way she breathed; rapidly and shallowly. The woman must be in real danger, he mused. Some irate husband who abused her, and from whom she fled out of self-preservation? If what Porter had read was true, then she could not be the Rowena Drake of Daveston Hall near Carlisle in Cumberland, because no mention had been made of a marriage.

“Are you – by any chance – related to the Drakes of Cumberland?”

He had made his question as casual as he could but was rewarded by her sharp intake of breath. Oh, she had done her best to be as quiet as possible, but Alex’ hearing was sharp and he had caught the faint hissing sound.

“How …”

“I checked it. Are you from Cumberland, Mrs Drake?”

“Yes …” A note of the panic again, and she suddenly rose, nearly tumbling him over. He caught his balance and rose as well, and took hold of her arm.

“Then you are the Honourable Miss Rowena Drake of Daveston Hall, daughter of the Baronet George Henry Drake and Clarissa Maud née Stowe.”

She was trembling, and he wanted to comfort her. He wanted her to trust him. He had no inkling why this as so important, all of a sudden, but it was important, even vital. She was born in 1794, on the fourth of December, which meant that – dear Lord! – today she was twenty-one. So young still …

“I have it right, have I not? You are Rowena Drake from Daveston Hall?”

“Yes,” she breathed, then sighed. “How did you discover that? We live very remotely and have no acquaintances to speak of. I never had a London season, and the only towns we visited were Carlisle and York, where my father’s only sister lives.”

“Come,” Alex said in a sudden, light tone. “We can converse at the breakfast table. I am in need of sustenance after all this.” It made Rowena smile, her heart suddenly much lighter.

Alex guided her to her seat, then sat down and rang a small table bell for Porter. The servant came in with their plates soon after, served them and left. They ate in silence for a while, but Alex, not wanting to let the moment go to waste, resumed their conversation.

“I must congratulate you on your birthday, Miss Drake. I had Porter look you up in Debrett’s, so I am abreast of all there is to know about your family. You almost gave yourself away when you stopped yourself from naming Carlisle, and you also speak with a slight Cumberland accent. I am afraid I have to repeat my earlier question; what has happened that you are here at Ketteridge House, far away from the place that you call home?”

Rowena sighed, and then resolutely made her decision to trust the earl with her history. She believed him when he spoke of protecting her and everybody twho lived on his estate.

“My father died rather suddenly last year, from an apoplexy,” she began. “I met my fiancé the month after he died. We had an affair and he promised me marriage. Then came the war and my betrothed left to do his duty. He died at Waterloo. Soon after he left, I found out I was with child. I had little choice than to leave my childhood home after I became pregnant.”

“I do not understand,” Alex interrupted her. “You have a brother. Did he not take measures so that you would be protected?”

Again that word, Rowena realised. Protection. It seemed a paramount notion to the earl.

“My brother said he would give me a small, remote cottage on the estate, where I would stay until after the baby’s birth. He would then take away the child and give it to some people he knew would raise it when he paid them for the upkeep. I was appalled! How could he ask something like that of me? I told him in no uncertain terms that being separated from my baby was out of the question. He threatened to take me to some relatives in Scotland, by force if necessary, so I took all the money I was able to save over the years and fled. I quickly learnt that my meagre savings were too inadequate to bring me to London, where I hoped to find a position.”

“Why were you so short of funds? Surely, as the daughter of a baronet, you would have been provided for in your father’s will?”

“I was not included in my father’s will,” Rowena replied bitterly. “Roderick’s solicitor stated that my father was a firm believer in male primogeniture, in order to keep his estate free of debts. Roderick was my father’s first and only son, and it was left to him to support me. I was only the daughter my father had by his second wife, so I was supposed to marry and leave the estate. There was not even a dowry for me to give to my future husband.”

Good Lord, Alex thought. How could a father do this to his daughter? And the brother? Why would he not take care of his sister? Roderick Drake must be a truly despicable person, and what about that cad of a fiancée who seduced her when she was barely twenty?

“I thank you for trusting me, Mrs Drake, although … you are not a Mrs Drake, are you? I must call you Miss Drake from now on. However, I can no longer employ you as my housekeeper now, can I? You have been raised as a lady, and to do menial labour would be highly inappropriate for a baronet’s daughter.”

“Oh no, my lord, please! I beg you, do not send me away!”

Alex, suddenly startled by her plea, felt also unexpectedly moved by the urge Rowena laid in her words. It seemed that she would very much like to stay at Ketteridge House. Almost as much as he himself would like her to stay.

“You misunderstand, my dear. I merely meant that I will hire enough staff for you to oversee. That way you will be up to the additional task of assisting me with my ledgers. Poor Porter is doing what he can but in essence, he is a soldier, not a secretary.”

Rowena could not believe her ears. Relief, massive and grateful, swept over her, when the earl continued in a businesslike manner.

“You will be required to read my correspondence, and write down my replies. When I need to see my solicitor, you will make records of our conversations and decisions. I hope he holds on to his promise of searching for an adequate steward. The estate is in shams, and I need a competent man.”

Rowena swallowed down the excitement that clogged her throat. “I promise to do my utmost best to be of service, my lord. I cannot find the words to tell you how grateful I am for the honour you bestow on me, and please, be assured of my discretion and devotion.”

A chuckle interrupted her and she was astonished to see a mocking smile on the earl’s face.

“My dear Miss Drake, you certainly have a way with high-handed words, have you not? You make my offer sound like charity, and it is not meant so at all. It is good and solid management to take an educated, clever young woman into my staff, one who can help me with tasks I cannot perform myself because of my affliction. So please, no gratitude. It is in my soldier’s nature to make the best of an opportunity when it presents itself.”

There was a sudden, laden silence in which Rowena struggled to find her composure. She was scolding herself once more for her rash impulsivity, something she should have learnt to master by now. Why did she always have to rush headlong into things?

“My lord,” she began, after a long, deep intake of breath, just to calm herself. “I know someone who could help you out until you find an appropriate steward. John Wallis was my father’s steward until he retired, a few years ago. His wife Meg was my nanny, and became my confidante after my mother died when I was five. They moved to Leicester when they left Daveston Hall. Meg has a sister living there. I could write them and ask if they would consent coming to live at Ketteridge House for the time being.”

Alex was completely unprepared for the warm wave of joy that swept through him, at the realisation that Rowena was wholeheartedly joining him in the task of running Ketteridge. He felt positively light-headed with relief.

“Thank you, Miss Drake, and yes, do write to your acquaintances. They will be most welcome.”

They fell silent, each savouring their breakfast. The quietness brought a comfort of its own, and Rowena could not recall the last time she had felt this … well, this simple, undemanding, and soothing happiness. She knew it was too early to feel this way, given the mere seven days she had been here, but there it was, she did feel truly safe at Ketteridge House. At home.

“I would be honoured if you would have dinner with me tonight, Miss Drake.”

Stunned, bewildered even, Rowena stared at her employer, then belatedly recalled that he was unable to see her.

“My lord, such an act would be entirely …”

“Inappropriate? Yes, it would, but only if I cared for such trivial matters such as the rigid rules of Society. We are not in the London drawing rooms, my dear. I can never venture into the Ton again, and believe me, I have no wish to do so. I knew it all before and did not particularly liked it. Now that I am no longer whole, I find I even care less for it. Ketteridge House is my domain, and mine alone. You are my guest, the first I have in a long time, so please, let me enjoy your company to the full.”

Rowena swallowed at the unexpected knot of sadness threatening to choke her. She liked this man more and more each moment she was in his company. Discretely, she cleared her throat.

“Then it shall be my honour to dine with you, my lord.”

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Three

Chapter Two

Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, December 2, 1815

The next day, the weather was still extremely harsh. The snow had stopped, but the temperature had dropped considerably. The fields now lay buried under a blanket of solid ice.

Alex readied himself for a meeting with his Leicester solicitor. Septimus Middlebridge was in his mid-sixties, and had been his father’s man for as long as Alex remembered. A tall, wiry man with a large beacon of a nose in a long, thin face, and piercing blue eyes, Middlebridge still wore a wig in the style of thirty years before, powdered and with a tail, and corkscrew curls framing his face, which made him look like a French courtier. Mr Middlebridge was extremely frugal and would not waste money on a new wig when the old one was still up to snuff, Alex knew. It was an excellent characteristic for a business man.

“Good morning, my lord,” Mr Middlebridge greeted Alex in his quiet, somewhat breathless voice, as if he considered an excess of breath necessary to lend his voice the necessary strength an equal waste. Alex could not clearly see Middlebridge. He saw the man’s outlines in the black frock he always wore, and the white contours of his head, where the wig covered it. Alex had, however, no clear vision of the man’s face, besides what he remembered from the time previous to his injuries.

“Good morning, Middlebridge. Please, sit down. I will have Porter bring us some tea.”

After the tea had been brought, Porter seated himself next to his master. Alex heard Middlebridge lay out his documents in a meticulous way. The solicitor then made his skeleton-like hands crack like dry sticks, before clearing his throat.

“My lord,” he croaked, “although your personal finances are quite ample and very strongly invested in sound businesses, I am sure I do not have to tell you that your estate is in a dire situation. You are in need of a good steward and a sturdy plan to right all the wrongs that exist here.”

“I agree, Middlebridge. No need to elaborate on what I already know. I intend to take matters in hand, from now on. My injuries are sufficiently healed that I can get to work.”

“Are you saying, my lord, that your eyesight has improved? That would be very good news.”

“No, Middlebridge, it has not. My batman Porter here acts as my assistant in reading and writing. What is the most urging matter that has to be dealt with, in your opinion?”

“Well, my lord, I am no steward, but I am aware that an estate needs tenants, who tend to its fields and woodland. Your tenants have begun leaving for better places, such as city factories, where they can at least make a little money, to feed their families. The few that have stayed have elderly relatives and small children. I need not tell you, sir, that they are in dire circumstances, and little else than starving.”

“Yes, I know that. At my request, the village vicar has been delivering food baskets to alleviate the most urgent needs. I know people have been leaving for Leicester and its factories, yet what good will that do them? Working in cotton mills or gun factories for a pittance, and living in dilapidated hovels for which they pay exorbitant prices?”

“Nevertheless, my lord, you need to keep the ones that are still here. You must provide them with food and fuel for the winter, because this year’s crops were disastrously lacking, as you are aware of. Next spring, with the help of a good steward, you should be able to have them work the land and plant new crops. There is no lack of funds, my lord. The interests on your investments provide a most satisfying income, but with the continuingly escalating situation on the Continent, we English have to establish a stable situation at home.”

Alex nodded, well aware of the Vienna Congress aftermath, which had created new hearths of turmoil on a continent that had barely recovered from the Napoleonic Wars.

“Well,” he sighed, “let us go over the state of my investments then, Middlebridge. Explain to me exactly where I stand on spending my money.”

 

Rowena opened her eyes and found herself refreshed and strong. She washed and dressed, then went downstairs to the kitchen. Mrs Hall was already busy at her stove.

“Oh, dearie! Are ye up already? How are ye feeling?”

“Better, Mrs Hall, thank you. Can I give you some assistance with your chores?”

“Oh, no, ma’am! I can tell that ye’re not a commoner. It wouldn’t do fer ye te be doing manual labour.”

Rowena smiled. “No, you are quite right, Mrs Hall. I was raised as a lady, but I am no longer one now. And my name is Rowena. Rowena Drake.”

“What has happened te ye, me dearie? Ye can tell ol’ Thea about it. I’ll never tell a soul, upon me word!”

Rowena sighed. She really wanted to confide in someone, but she was afraid they would look upon her with disdain. She shook her head. “Please, Mrs Hall, I cannot divulge. His Lordship also asked me, but I refused to tell even him.”

Mrs Hall’s eyes  grew round as she gasped, “The master asked ye? Well, bless me soul! He’s been ever so reluctant te talk te people since he’s back from the war and now he’s interested in you! Mr Porter will be happy te hear of it. That man so worries about ‘im, he does.”

Trixie, who had finished washing the dishes, came to sit at the table. Her ears had pricked the whole time. “Oh yes, ma’am! ‘Is Lordship has had such a terrible time, wounded as ‘e were when he came back from fighting that dreadful Bonie!”

“Yes,” Mrs Hall acquiesced, “he came back blind and covered with fearful wounds. He was unconscious when Mr Porter drove that cart into the stables. Mr Porter has lost an eye in the battle of Waterloo, and he had been wounded, too. Yet he didn’t give up. When the master lay wounded and bleedin’ on the battlefield, Mr Porter carried ‘im on ‘is back to a nunnery nearby. The nuns tended them and then Mr Porter brought the master ‘ome. He carted ‘Is Lordship from the Ketteridge village coach inn. Poor master’s wounds are healed now, since Dr Orme took ‘im under ‘is care. The good doctor couldn’t cure the blindness, though.”

“Yes,” Trixie chimed in, “and ‘Is Lordship being the spare had to become the next earl after Sir Reginald died. There’s been no money ever since the old earl passed away, and now, Master Alexander ‘as to put in ‘is own money just to keep us fed.”

Rowena listened to all this in mounting surprise. So the earl was struggling to keep his estate running. And he had had a brother, whom he had lost, and whose place he had been forced to take. And he was as good as blind. And she, Rowena was imposing on his already dire financial circumstances.

“Well,” she declared, “I had better earn my keep, then. I cannot travel in this weather, for sure. Tell me what task you want to give me, Mrs Hall.”

At that moment, Mr Porter entered from the scullery, carrying a pair of polished riding boots. He bowed his head to Rowena.

“I see you’re well recovered, ma’am. The major ‘ll be pleased to hear of it.”

The man did his best to overcome his accent, but cockney vowels were not that easily suppressed. Nevertheless, Rowena recognized the salt of the earth when she encountered it.

“Mr Porter, I am obliged to you for rescuing me from that dreadful storm, last night. You saved my life, sir.”

“No trouble at all, ma’am. If ye’ll excuse me, I must go an’ tend to the major.”

Rowena glanced at the big kitchen clock on the wall, which indicated a quarter past ten. Early for an aristocrat.

“Is your master always up that early, then?”

“Yes, ma’am, ‘e suffers from insomnia, so ‘e wants te make good use of the day an’ start working early. I just showed Mr Middlebridge out. That’s ‘is solicitor.” He touched his brow and left.

Rowena stood pondering a while over what he told her. She liked the batman whom she guessed must be in his early forties. He was as tall as his master, but much broader in the chest and shoulders. His sparse grey hair must have been dark when he was younger. He wore a patch over his right eye, but the left one was a rich, warm brown. He had a slight limp, probably caused by a battle injury.

“Come, dearie, have a nice cuppa tea. Ye’er way too thin and ye’re expectin’, so ye must seek te keep yer strength. How far gone are ye? I’m guessin’ five months, am I right?”

Rowena blushed, then shook her head. “Actually, I am due at the beginning of February.”

“Ye never! That’s barely in two months’ time!” Mrs Hall exclaimed. Trixie, too, clucked incredulously. “Ye look far less, ma’am!”

“I was always thin, so I guess it is normal for me not to show it.”

The door opened again to Mr Porter. “The major will ‘ave ‘is breakfast now, Mrs Hall. And ‘e wants ye te join ‘im in the morning room, Mrs Drake, ma’am.”

 

The earl rose when Rowena entered. He was dressed in a plain, brown woollen coat, a moss-green, unadorned waistcoat over a white shirt, and dark brown breeches under black top boots. His black cravat was tied in a simple knot.

Even in these plain, dark clothes, Raventhorpe was an impressive sight, Rowena acknowledged with a shock. His tall, muscular frame oozed power and authority. His stance radiated confidence, and the fact that he was blind did not seem to mar the elegance of his movements.

All Rowena had noticed the previous night, was confirmed under the weak sunlight of the winter day. Raventhorpe wore his black hair a trifle too long, but the cut emphasized his strong, lean face and angular clean-shaven jaw. Loose curls framed his face and fell becomingly over his wide brow. They were tamed a bit by the ribbon that tied them in a short tail. Raventhorpe’s nose, long and thin, had a tip that bent downward for just a tad. It softened his whole face which would have been too forbidding, should his nose have been straight.

Rowena’s gaze went to the earl’s eyes; clear blue-grey but unseeing, they were directed at her, and slightly squinting as if he wanted to sharpen his vision, just by sheer willpower. His large, thin-lipped mouth was set in a rigid line, as if he were bracing himself against some kind of danger.

The stiff, military bearing emphasized Alexander Raventhorpe’s breeding to the extreme.           Rowena instantly sensed his reined-in strength, his rigid control over what must be a strong temper. A dangerous man, she reckoned, if one made an enemy of him. Even the plainness of his attire could not lessen his handsomeness, nor did his non-committal smile disguise his watchfulness. He looked like a predator, a lion waiting to pounce on its prey.

Rowena curtsied, even though she knew the earl was unable to notice. “Good morning, my lord.”

Raventhorpe bowed. “Be so good as to share my breakfast, Mrs Drake. I hope I find you well-rested after your ordeal?”

“Yes, sir, I slept extremely well. I hope to be on my way as soon as the weather permits. I will not impose on you any longer than necessary.”

He said nothing in return, but Rowena saw his jaw clench and wondered. She sat down when Porter drew back her chair. Raventhorpe waited until she was duly seated before letting himself sink onto his chair. Porter served them breakfast, then left them alone.

Raventhorpe began buttering his toast, then said in a calm voice, “Correct me if I am mistaken, Mrs Drake, but I do not think that you can be on your way. You have nowhere to go. You are pregnant, penniless, and you have no skills that would permit you to earn your living. I am absolutely certain that you were gently bred, so how were you planning to fend for yourself?”

Rowena’s temper flared at his bluntness. “You are indeed mistaken! I speak four languages, I play the piano and I sing. My household skills are well enough since I took care of my brother’s …”

She abruptly stopped, realising that she was too outspoken in the presence of gentry. She was also giving too much away.

Raventhorpe’s expression of calm interest had not changed. He was looking in her direction so attentively that Rowena had the impression that he was actually seeing her. His blue-grey eyes were alight with a sparkle that made them a periwinkle blue. It was a most disconcerting sensation, and Rowena shivered. Her host smiled, and it made his stern face look charming and boyish, all of a sudden. Rowena’s heart skipped several beats as she caught a glimpse of the young man he must have been before he went to war. Utterly beguiling.

“My dear Mrs Drake,” he said evenly, “I am offering you a position as my housekeeper. Mrs Hall is always complaining that she is getting on in years and that she has to do everything on her own; a statement which is true, sadly. I can give you but a small salary of two-hundred guineas a year, but you can make use of all the comfort my estate has to offer. You can have your child here, and raise him or her to your heart’s content. Is that agreeable to you?”

Rowena was utterly speechless. Her eyes filled with sudden tears of relief, or gratitude, she did not know which. Raventhorpe’s offer was a gift from heaven; it was all she needed on this very moment. Acting as Ketteridge’s housekeeper would allow her to have her baby and raise it. Peter’s baby. Oh Lord! She could find other employment, should the need arise, and leave her child here under Mrs Hall’s care. The elderly woman would be all too eager to help her out, Rowena knew. She would be totally independent of Roderick, her ill-natured half-brother. She would be safe at Ketteridge House.

Outwardly imperturbable, Alex was nevertheless waiting with baited breath for Mrs Drake’s – Rowena’s – answer. It irked him that he was so anxious that she could very well refuse and leave Ketteridge after all. He did not want her gone, yet he could not understand that very disturbing emotion. She had entered his life only the day before, for goodness’ sake! He did not yet know a single thing about her. She could be married and be running away from her husband. Or she could be with child unwed, and a sinner. And for that matter, who was she? A lady, or a defiled governess, carrying a lord’s child? Or a clergyman’s daughter fallen into sin? So many questions, yet he could not bear to have her go. Not without learning the answers to his many questions.

“My lord,” she said, her voice wavering just a little, “I accept your offer with the uttermost gratitude. I will work hard, and I need no salary. If I could just stay at Ketteridge to have my child, that would be enough. Thank you, my lord.”

Suppressing a sigh of relief, Alex bowed his head. “That is settled, then, Mrs Drake. I will not hear of you working without remuneration. Two-hundred guineas a year, and that is final. Now let us enjoy our breakfast. I bet you have a tendre for Mrs Hall’s rolls.”

“I confess I had a taste of them already in the kitchen, just a few minutes ago, my lord, and you are right; they are delicious.”

“Mrs Hall is a true gem, Mrs Drake. I hope you and she will get along, because she is the expert on all things at Ketteridge House. She came here as a tweeny in my mother’s days and has stayed throughout the years. However, she informs me that there is a Herculean task to perform in putting the house to rights. The cobwebs have taken over, it seems.”

Rowena laughed and took a piece of toast from the rack. “Yes, that was what I saw of it, too.”

“You have a lovely home, my lord,” she continued, growing serious again. “Even in winter, it seems a beautiful place. I will enjoy taking care of it. Mrs Hall told me that you have only recently inherited the estate and the title. It must be greatly different from your military days, I wager.”

Her tinkling laughter still in his ears, Alex replied readily, finding himself greatly uplifted by Mrs Drake’s company. It was the first time since he came back from the war that he felt so light and joyous. With a jolt of surprise, he acknowledged Rowena Drake was responsible for that.

“Oh, it is very different, Mrs Drake. Being a soldier, and in particular a cavalry man, gives structure to one’s life. The military routine is what lends peace to one’s mind. It is a way of thinking, a way of living. What I found here, was merely boredom, and an acute neglect from lack of funds. Nothing that cannot be put to rights with money. No challenge.”

“Surely, soldiers do not find peace on the battlefield, my lord! From what we heard, even through the shield of censorship, Waterloo must have been a nightmare!”

There was an almost inaudible touch of distress in her voice, which Alex would not have been able to discern without the heightened awareness his blindness lent him. She had a connection with the battle, he was sure of it.

“Forgive me for reminding you of a most disturbing experience, ma’am,” he said, putting as much comfort in his tone of voice as he dared. “I forgot that wars do not solely kill on the battlefields. Have you lost someone dear to you on June 18th of this year?”

“Yes …”

It was like a whisper, a whiff of pure sorrow. Alex cursed himself for prying.

“I am sorry,” he said, trying to offer comfort with his voice. He felt the sadness welling up inside him like a source full of evil and despair. He again recalled his own misery when his regiment was being destroyed by the relentless French artillery. All because of the stupid pride of British commanders like Uxbridge, for whom a battlefield was first and foremost a way to display the cavalry’s splendour and horsemanship.

Alex let the silence be for a while, searching for the next topic of conversation. There was not much he could do to comfort her but there was something he must learn, now, at this moment.

“Mrs Drake, have you consulted a physician about your pregnancy? I gather that you are almost at the end of your term, according to Mrs Hall.”

Rowena was astonished at the earl’s unexpected words. He – a man! – was asking her these things?

“No, I have not, my lord. I consulted a midwife in Car … erm … in my home town. She only confirmed the due date, beginning of February.

“There is a perfectly good doctor in Ketteridge. His name is Dr Orme, and he and I are long-time friends. On the other hand, if you would feel safer with a more accomplished physician, I could take you to my own doctor, Dr Richardson in Harley Street, London.”

“Oh, no, no, my lord, Dr Orme will suit admirably, I am sure!”

“Good, I shall summon him here tomorrow. Mrs Drake, there is something I need you to tell me. Since you are staying under my roof, I think I have a right to know if I need to be on guard for a husband to turn up at Ketteridge house.”

Rowena’s hands flew to her suddenly hot face. Oh, Lord! The earl had asked her a question that was going to be on everyone’s mind when they saw a young, pregnant woman travelling on her own. And the earl was perfectly reasonable, he had a right to know.

“I am unwed, my lord. I lay with my betrothed, and we would have married if he had not been called to join his regiment. He was killed at Waterloo. I had only just found out that I was with child, when the messenger came with the tidings of his death.”

She had spoken so quietly that Alex had to strain his ears, yet he did not miss the deep sadness that laced her voice. To his own stunned surprise, he felt a sudden burning anger against the man who had done this to her. It was absurd. It had nothing to do with him and it certainly was not his business. Yet he could not help thinking what an irresponsible, selfish man her betrothed must have been, to lay with her and then leave her to go to war, before they had exchanged wedding vows. The next and very logical question formed in his mind.

“What about your family? Surely, they could have helped you?”

Rowena abruptly stood, appalled by what she had so impulsively revealed. No, she could not talk about Roderick and how he had chased her from her childhood home! It was suddenly extremely important to her that the earl should not think of her as a disgraced woman without any support from family or friends. She had said enough already; he must not learn who she was. She could not disgrace her father’s name any further.

“I … I have no family. Now forgive me, my lord; I must return to my duties.”

Alex had risen at the same moment Rowena had, to prevent her from running away. He was too late, of course, and his affliction was to blame for that. His blindness effectively kept him from swift reaction. His new housekeeper was gone, fleeing from further prying into her private life.

 

From that day on, Rowena firmly settled into a quiet daily routine. She put together a schedule to cover all the tasks that were required to keep the large mansion in good order.

In the mornings, she would work alongside Mrs Hall and Trixie, to see to the laundry, the ironing and the cooking. In the afternoons, the three of them would tackle the cleaning. Many rooms were not tied up for a long time since they had not been used. Rowena wanted to bring everything back to normal.

To that end, she walked to the village, bundled up warmly against the bitter cold. Enquiring at the inn, she introduced herself as Ketteridge’s housekeeper and asked Joseph Carter, the innkeeper, for female help. He brought her a few local girls, the daughters of local Ketteridge tenants, who were eager to come and work for her. The earl had provided her with an advance on her salary, which she now used to pay the girls. She did not tell the earl that she paid them out of her own salary. He had enough to worry about already.

As for her future dealings with her employer, she was determined to shield herself from his all too inquisitive nature. One day, she would leave Ketteridge House and make a new start for her and her child. For the moment, she could stay here until the end of winter, and make a little money.

The Reclusive Aristocrat -Part Two

Chapter One (continued)

When the strong, warm hands were taken from her marble-cold flesh, Rowena moaned in protest. She wrenched her eyes open, only to see the back of a tall, dark-haired man disappearing from her sight. An elderly, motherly looking woman with a shock of white curls escaping from under her mop cap immediately replaced him.

“Oh, me dear little duck,” she crooned, “Wha’ were ye doin’ out on a hellish day like today? And you wi’ child and all! Come, me pet, let’s get you cleaned up and fed.”

With an effort, Rowena shifted in the bath. The warm caress of the rose-scented water was a heavenly soothing balm to her body. She was so incredibly cold. Her fingers and toes were numb but they were starting to tingle. It was a bit painful, but Rowena welcomed the feeling; it meant that she would soon be warm again.

“Where am I?” Her voice was hoarse, and her throat ached. Her head was throbbing, and her stomach, empty as it was, gave a loud rumble. In an impulse, she felt for her swollen belly; the child moved, and she was reassured.

“You’re at Ketteridge House, dearie. I’m Mrs Hall, the cook, and this is Trixie, the maid. The master and Mr Porter found you on the driveway, a little while back. What’s yer name? Where d’ye come from?”

Rowena did not truly want to reveal anything. There was no need to explain why she had been chased from her home by her half-brother, once he found out she was with child. The child she and Peter created just before he went to the continent to fight Napoleon. Peter … her betrothed, her love. The man to whom Rowena had given her heart and her body, and who had been killed at Waterloo on the eighteenth of June 1815. How she remembered every detail of Peter’s handsome face with his blue eyes smiling happily down on her, seconds before he rode off to London where his regiment waited to board ship. He had been a captain in the Yorkshire Regiment, a predictable career for a third son to the Earl of Carlisle.

Suddenly realising that Mrs Hall was waiting for an answer, Rowena began to rise from the bath. “I should not impose on your hospitality longer than strictly necessary,” she said. “Please give me my clothes, and I will be on my way as soon as possible.”

“Pish and nonsense!” Mrs Hall exclaimed, and Trixie chimed in, “Ma’am, it’s a pitch dark night outside! The snowstorm’s still raging, where’d ye go from ‘ere?”

“Yes,” Mrs Hall clucked, “come on, dearie, let’s get ye into bed. I’ll bring up yer supper soon.”

“Thank you, Mrs Hall,” Rowena replied. “Yet I will not retire for the night until I have thanked my host for his kind hospitality. If you could ask Trixie to restore my dress into some shred of decency, I would be very grateful.”

Trixie and Mrs Hall shared a look of surprise but they did not object. The little maid took Rowena’s sodden dress and left the room. Mrs Hall curtsied and did the same. Rowena was glad that she still seemed to have retained a bit of authority, even though she was no longer looking like a lady.

 

Alex was lounging in his favourite chair in front of the fire in his library, cradling a tumbler of whisky. It was one of his father’s last bottles, and he was very careful to make it last as long as possible, and not to indulge too often in the fine Lagavulin.

“How is our guest, Porter?”

The batman was about to leave but turned at the quiet sound of his master’s voice.

“Don’t know, major. Left ‘er te Mrs Hall an’ Trixie.”

“Yes, I know, but that was not what I meant. How is she? What does she look like?”

Porter scratched hid balding head, unsure how to respond. What did he know about women, anyway? “She’s pretty, I suppose. Got long dark hair, wavin’ like. Dark eyes, too. She’s short, and thin, way too thin, as if she hasn’t had enough to eat for some time.”

“How did she get here, do you think? And why, more importantly, is she travelling without her husband?”

“I don’ like it, major, I tell ye! She’s trouble. I can feel it in me bones.”

“Yes, well … we shall see on the morrow. Go and enjoy your supper, Porter.”

“Ta, major. Ring if ye’re wantin’ me te assist ye later.”

 

Never had Alexander Raventhorpe been meant to take up the reins of his father’s estate. He was a second son, a spare to his elder brother Reginald, who had been the fourth earl of Ketteridge for ten years after their father passed away in November 1804. Reggie had been groomed from an early age into becoming the heir his father longed for. He had succeeded only partially, since he had never married despite the old earl’s frequent attempts to shackle him to a demure little society miss.

Only recently, Alex had found out why Reggie had always fought off female company; his brother had told him in a letter just a few weeks before he died of an apoplexy. The letter had reached Alex on the eve of the battle, and he would always remember the sorrow it brought, because included in the dispatch had been his solicitor’s announcement of Reggie’s death. Reggie’s letter explained that he had always preferred the company of men over women, so it was up to Alex to provide an heir, or so his brother had written. Alex doubted that would ever happen now, damaged as he was.

Somehow, Alex mused, he had always suspected something with Reggie was different.

Since his brother had become the new earl, there had always been house parties at Ketteridge with lots of young, handsome society bucks, and very few women. Yet it was not until he was in the army that Alex had truly understood what was so different with his brother. Alex had encountered many of such men in the regiment. They had been careful not to show their preferences, because that would mean cashiering out, and a scandal attached to their names. Alex had never acted upon what he learned to notice, once in a while, when such men formed secret relationships, despite the danger of discovery and ruin. How could he when his own brother was one of them?

The door to the library clicked open, effectively dragging him out of his brooding. A soft but cultivated, female voice caressed his ears.

“Forgive me for disturbing you, sir, but I wanted to know whom I am indebted to. I hear that it is you I have to thank for rescuing me from the storm. I am most thoroughly obliged to you, sir.”

Rising from his chair, Alex slowly walked toward the sound and bowed. “You are welcome, madam. Please be so kind as to tell me who you are.”

He could instantly feel her hesitation in answering his very reasonable question. He decided to adopt a quiet manner and not press his unexpected guest into revealing her identity.

“If you are in some kind of predicament, madam, please know that you can stay at Ketteridge House as my guest, until you deem it safe to continue your journey. I am Alexander Raventhorpe, fifth earl of Ketteridge, at your service.”

Alex heard her sharp intake of breath, and her skirts rustled as she made her curtsy. “Forgive me, my lord. I was unaware of the nature of your station. My name is Rowena Drake, and I was on my way to London, to seek employment as a governess.”

“A governess? Are you a widow, madam? Perhaps you are in reduced circumstances, so that you need to earn your living? You must certainly know how difficult it will be to find employment in your present condition.”

Silence, again. Alex heard her shallow rapid breathing, indicating that she was nervous. He extended a hand, and softly said, “Come, madam. We need not stand here. We can talk before the fire. I trust Mrs Hall has given you supper?”

“Yes, my lord, and a very fine supper it was. Thank you again for your hospitality.”

She grasped his hand, and a sudden spark flitted up his arm. Neither of them were wearing gloves. Her warmth attacked Alex’ senses as her soft skin touched his own calloused soldier’s hand. A delicate flowery scent caressed his nostrils. Lily-of-the-valley; a particularly expensive brand, he knew. Simultaneously, her badly suppressed gasp indicated that she was affected in exactly the same way. Fighting the sensation, he led her to the fireplace and made her sit down in an armchair opposite the one he had occupied before.

“Now,” he said in a level voice, “I have the distinct impression that you are in need of help. You must admit that it is highly unusual for a woman in your condition to be travelling without her husband. I do not seek to pry into your personal life, madam, but as a former soldier, I feel responsible for any person on my estate, be they someone who lives here or be they a guest. I beg you to tell me what brought you here.”

Rowena was still reeling from the incredibly unfamiliar sensations she had experienced moments before. She had never, ever known that kind of – she struggled to find the exact words – bewitching attraction towards a man, not even towards Peter whom she had been very much in love with. She knew passion, of course. Her short lived romance with Peter had been wonderful and truly satisfactory. A quick, almost fleeting burst of pleasure which – at the time – had made her long for more. They had not been together many times; Peter had many obligations that required his attention. All in all, their encounters had been short but passionate. It had been just her bad luck to become pregnant after so short a time.

At present, here Rowena was, experiencing sparkling sensations when this complete stranger touched her. This tall, dark and extremely handsome earl, with his military bearing and blind eyes, almost certainly a wound sustained in battle.

She studied him with avid interest, as he let down his long body into a chair opposite hers, and adopted a pose of elegant nonchalance. He could not see her, which was an unexpected advantage. She reckoned that, given the way the top of her head had barely reached his collarbone, he must have the better of her in at least five inches. Broad shoulders topped a lean, yet muscled frame. That much she had learned when he had effortlessly lifted her in his arms.

His features were all male hardness, strength, and sculptured authority. A broad brow, eyes the colour of a winter sky, a long, patrician nose and thin, unyielding lips. Raven locks, a trifle too long yet wavy, brushed his coat collar becomingly. He was not just handsome, but also devastatingly beautiful.

Rowena knew she could not, would not give in to the attraction she had just experienced when she touched Alexander Raventhorpe. Not when she could not read those beautiful blind eyes of his. His blindness had been a surprise to Rowena, and one she realised must mean agony to a man so proud and strong.

This man was like no one Rowena had known before; a member of the peerage. Yet there was another side to him. A side that was unpredictable.  She did not understand how she knew that, but there it was. She could not possibly reveal who she was; as an earl, Raventhorpe had the authority to send her back to Roderick, and that was the last thing Rowena wanted.  So she wisely opted to distract Raventhorpe and changed the subject. “You are blind, my lord?”

The short question took Alex unawares. He blinked, swallowed, then grunted, “Yes.”

“What caused it?”

“An injury at Waterloo. And I am not entirely blind, merely visually impaired.”

“Enough to see me when I was … improperly dressed?”

“No, madam, not at all!” He flinched at his own, sudden curtness but he felt it extremely important that she should know he had been unable to see her distinctly. When he continued, he made his tone a bit more placating.

“I can see the difference between light and darkness, and I am able to see movement. I can see bright colours but I cannot make out forms. For instance, I cannot see the difference between your dark dress and the seat in which you are sitting. I know the seat is dark brown leather, so I am assuming that your dress is also dark brown.”

Alex drew in a much needed breath because he could still sense her mistrust of him.

“I know your hair must be dark, too, because of the difference between it and your pale skin. I cannot make out your features, nor your figure. If Porter had not accompanied me, I would not have seen you in that hellish snowstorm. The snowflakes completely blurred my vision.”

“But it was you who carried me inside, and it was equally you who lowered me into that bathtub. Why?”

Irritated beyond the usual, Alex raked a hand through his hair. “I told you, madam. I am a former soldier, and I was born a gentleman. Two reasons why it is my duty to protect those who are in danger. You were in danger of freezing to death, so I carried you to safety as quickly as possible.”

“Yet you – a gentleman – touched me where it is in no way permitted; you laid a hand on me. That, sir, is not the way of a gentleman at all!”

To her utter surprise, Rowena saw an expression cross his handsome face that made her heart clench. His unseeing blue-grey eyes suddenly grew moist. He blinked, and struggled to regain his composure. What was this? Had he been a father, once? Had he lost a child, maybe? Rowena was considering apologizing, but his face instantly was the usual imperturbable mask yet again.

“I apologize if I inadvertently caused you offence, madam,” Alex stated as calmly as he could, yet inwardly, he was seething. Rowena Drake proved a woman of low breeding to speak so bluntly to him, and it irked him that he had misread her. But so it was; she had offended him by pointing out that he had touched her in a way he should not have.

He turned his face away from her undoubtedly scrutinizing gaze. “I think it best if you retire, madam. A woman in your condition needs her rest.”

Rowena knew when she was being dismissed, but she would not go meekly.

“My lord, pregnancy is not an illness. You should not stress the word ‘condition’ so when you refer to it. Goodnight, my lord, and thank you yet again for your hospitality.”

Rowena made a point of striding away with her head held high, even though she knew the earl of Ketteridge was unable to see it.

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part One

Chapter One

 

Ketteridge, Leicestershire, England, December 1, 1815

 

She was going to die of sheer exposure. She was exhausted. Her limbs were shaking with the effort of simply putting one foot before the other. Her heart was pounding with exertion and weariness, but Rowena Drake doggedly kept trampling through the deserted copse. She had planned to escape the sting of the heavy snowstorm by leaving the road to find shelter in the undergrowth. The springy trees gave little protection, as they were now bare. The early winter dusk was quickly settling, and Rowena was desperate to find somewhere to spend the night. Hopefully, somewhere warm and dry.

Two weeks before, winter had caught the English Midlands by surprise. After a fortnight of dry, frosty nights and open, sunny days, the temperature had suddenly dropped. The wind had turned north and gained strength. It had brought packs of heavy, black clouds, pregnant with snow, which now flogged the empty fields and pastures. The wind blew between the cottages of small villages with a banshee’s howl.

As she trampled on through the hellish weather, weariness and hunger were beginning to take their toll on Rowena, but her journey had not nearly come to an end. Some days ago, she had left her home, Daveston Hall in Cumberland.  Rowena’s half-brother Roderick had become the next baronet after their father died, earlier that year. His estate was situated twelve miles west of Carlisle, and Rowena had covered them on foot, dragging her heavy portmanteau behind her. In Carlisle, she had spent the night in the cathedral, terrified that she should meet any of her acquaintances, if she put up at an inn. Her shame would be known all too soon.

The next couple of days, she had walked over the main road from Carlisle to Lancaster, sleeping in barns and even in the roadside undergrowth. She had not enough money to sleep at an inn every night. In Lancaster, she found a small inn and asked for a room. She needed to clean herself up and have a good meal for the first time in days. The landlady eyed her suspiciously. The woman clearly could not fathom why a lady would travel without a husband, a brother or a father. Rowena had none of these male protectors to help her.

She had been underway on the stage coach from Lancaster to London for several long, uncomfortable hours, but her meagre coins had not lasted very long. When the coach had deposited her on the side of the road just past Tamworth, she had again continued on foot. She was at a loss as to how she was to reach London without money or food, for that matter. Rowena could not even recall the last time she had a meal. It was seven or eight days, maybe, since she had left her childhood home. There had been no more money for food. How low she had fallen, and in so short a time.

Now Rowena kept putting one foot in front of the other, stubbornly ignoring her fatigue and her gnawing hunger. She had not the slightest inkling where she was, and there was no way of orientating oneself, as the snow was now a curtain shielding everything within a few feet from Rowena’s view. Where was the road? When had she lost sight of it? Her foot suddenly caught in a rabbit hole, and she landed on her knees, her outstretched hands keeping her from falling flat on her face.

For a few moments, the lure of giving up was almost overwhelming. She was already numb with exhaustion. She read somewhere once that death from hypothermia was merciful, even blissful. One would just slowly but inexorably fall asleep, never to wake again. Rowena could feel herself drifting away at that very moment … No! No, she must go onward!

Fighting against the wind’s slashing stings, Rowena struggled to her feet and trudged on. She must be soaked to the bone, she thought. Her woollen cloak was drenched, as were her gown, undergarments, stockings and half-boots. Her hands in their sodden leather gloves had long lost all feeling. Sometime ago, she had lost her bonnet, and her hair hung in sodden strands around her face. She had lost her portmanteau long ago.

Eventually, Rowena realised she was going to perish in this white hell. She staggered on, each step more faltering than the one before. No, she would not give up. If she was to die here and now, she was going to die on her feet. She was the Baronet of Daveston’s daughter and she would hold on to her gentle upbringing. It was the only relic she had left of her family.

Then, all of a sudden, there was a light ahead. She blinked against the millions of snowflakes blurring her vision, welcoming the warm yellow glow with immense relief. Rowena waved her arms, shouting against the raging wind. “Help me! Help me, for the love of God!”

 

“Major, there is someone there! Ahead of us …”, James Porter yelled.

The deep, powerful voice of his master, clearly audible against the howling wind, answered in return. “Who goes there?”

“Help me! Please, help me!”

A woman. Some blasted female had managed to go astray on a day like this, and in this hellish weather. “Stay where you are! We are almost with you!”

Major Alexander Raventhorpe, fifth earl of Ketteridge, bridged the gap between him and the woman in three long strides, ignoring the protest of his batman Porter. A second later, he caught her in his outstretched arms. There. He could not have ignored that blasted protecting streak in him, if it killed him. Too many years of playing the soldier had stamped it in. First defend, then protect. If necessary, attack. Yes, that as well.

She was very light, his mind registered. Slender and feather-light. And she seemed to have gone limp in his arms. Her hair, even wet and cold as it was, suddenly caught in the stubble on his chin.

“We must get her indoors!” Alex shouted at Porter. He swept the woman up and waited for his batman to guide him towards the house, which he knew was not far.

“Aye, major!” Porter yelled back and took a firm hold of his master’s arm. “This way!”

Alex Raventhorpe was as good as blind. His eyesight had been seriously damaged by an injury to the head on the battlefield at Waterloo, in June of that same year. He knew the difference between light and dark, could see movements, provided they were not too fast. Occasionally, he could make out forms when they had bright colours. Faces were a blur, but he could fairly judge people’s moods by the tone of their voices. His hearing had considerably improved, since that June day, when he had become an invalid.

They reached the house and entered through the scullery door at the back. Alex lost no time but hailed his cook, who most certainly had to be busy in her kitchen.

“Quickly, Mrs Hall! We need some help with this young woman. She was in the driveway. Can you install her in one of the downstairs bedrooms?”

He saw a flash of her white apron, when Mrs Hall came bustling toward him. “Oh, my goodness, my lord! We ain’t putin’ ‘er in a servant’s room, for sure! This ‘ere is a lady, judgin’ by the quality of ‘er cloak. Mr Porter, take over from ‘is Lordship and put ‘er in the blue room. The bed in there is made. Trixie ‘ll light the fire in no time.”

It was taken out of Alex’ hands in the blink of an eye. Soon he was alone in the kitchen, with the sounds of hasty footsteps disappearing through the servants’ corridor and up the stairs. A lady, then. That definitively needed some enlightenment.

Alex shed his wet coat and hung it on a peg in the scullery. He had not many servants left at Ketteridge House, his country estate. He was the earl of Ketteridge but he hung away his own coat. The estate was in dire financial straits, and Alex had only recently regained most of his former strength. He was struggling to manage his derelict estate with the money from his war time winnings, which fortunately were ample enough. Investing his money in successful businesses had been easy, yet trying to revive his estate and make it prosper again proved a lot harder. He was in dire need of a steward but he had little chance of hiring such a man when he was unable to go to London. There were many matters that Alex could leave to Porter, but searching for a steward was not one of them. With a mental shrug, Alex put his troubles aside and climbed the servants’ stairs, determined to deal with the new problem at hand; the young woman he found in his driveway.

 

On the first floor in Mrs Hall’s “blue bedroom”, he heard his erstwhile cook give orders to Trixie, concern ringing in her voice.

“Easy there, Trixie. Lord, she’s so cold, poor mite, and so thin! We must wash her after we’ve removed those wet things. ‘Ere now, pour those buckets into the tub. Mr Porter said he’ll bring some more soon. You take ‘er by her feet and I’ll take ‘er under the arms.”

Alex stepped inside, careful to stay by the door. He knew Mrs Hall must have put the folding screen in front of the hearth, and he was not as familiar with this room as he was with his own.

“Are you in need of help, Mrs Hall?” he asked, but the cook instantly replied in a panic-stricken voice, “No, no, my lord, stay where ye’ are! It ain’t proper fer ye to even be ‘ere!”

“Mrs Hall, it cannot be improper since I cannot see the lady. Can you manage lowering her into the tub?”

“Well … she’s thin but Trixie an’ me are ‘avin’ a bit of trouble liftin’ her in ‘er present condition, my lord.”

Alex stiffened. “And what condition might that be, Mrs Hall?”

“She’s expectin’, my lord. She’s at least five months gone but she looks healthy enough.”

Wonderful. A pregnant woman, probably a married lady, had landed on his doorstep in the middle of winter. That could only mean trouble and mayhem. Would he now have to deal with an irate husband, too? He inwardly cursed at the notion that his hard-won peace was certain to be shattered in the days to come. He had to get her away from Ketteridge House as soon as possible, damn it all!

In an impulse, he ignored the cook’s startled cry of warning and crossed over to the bed, a white rectangle with blurred contours. He put out his hands until they encountered the figure of the woman. Soft, round flesh, unexpectedly bare and vibrantly feminine. Damnation! Mrs Hall must have already removed her clothes. She was so cold … God! What if she would expire here, in his house?

“Sir, she’s …”

“Yes, I know, Mrs Hall. Let me get this over with, so that you can tend to her as quickly as possible.”

Alex slid his hands under the woman’s limp body, lifted it and settled it in his arms. She was light as a new born kitten, her body slender and delicate. Her dark head fell against his shoulder, causing her floral fragrance to assault his senses. His own body – damnation! – reacted in a most improper but violent way. By Jove, he had no need for this, right now! Knowing how long he had been without a woman’s touch, he should have listened to sane, solid reason, instead of indulging in foolish gallantry. Yet he could not ignore how lovely it felt just to hold a woman in his arms once again.

He let her down into the tub, relieved because at that same moment Porter entered with more hot water, which distracted the two women. Mrs Hall would soon take over, he knew, so he supported the woman, while she rested in the warm water, and made sure her head was above it.

For the space of a heartbeat, he regretted not being able to see her clearly. Her face was a pinkish spot, her body nearly invisible now that it was immersed in the water. But he could feel the silken caress of her dark hair flowing over his fingers, not to mention the velvety touch of her flesh, and the curve of her slender bottom. Gently he let her body drop to the bottom of the tub and then, unable to help himself, he touched her stomach. It was swollen to a gentle mound, and he spread his fingers over it. Suddenly, the babe moved against his hand. Oh God … oh dear God … His heart contracted with a longing ache he had not thought he would ever feel. He would never have this. He would never have a woman of his own, a woman who carried his child, and on whose stomach he could place his hand and make contact with his very own babe.

“Ah …”

Dragged from his self-pity by the woman’s soft cry, he all but growled, “Mrs Hall! Quickly, she is coming round!”

The cook leapt from behind the screen and took hold of the woman’s body. Alex jumped up and fled the room.

Reserve and Reticence – Part Twenty

Twenty – A New Step Toward the Future

 

By the time the necessary explanations had been given, the long summer day was nearly over and Beth and Stephen had returned to The Queen’s Head with Oliver. The boy had consented to accompany them home but only because Mr Charles Thornton had convinced him of the necessity of a proper education.

“You need to learn all about accounting and economics, young fellow!” Mr Thornton had lectured. “You must know how the machines operate, what techniques are used to make cotton, how to manage a factory like Marlborough Mills, if you ever want to become someone of importance in the business. I intend to send my own son to a decent school when he is of age. He will be in need of it and so are you.”

It seemed to have had a result because Oliver was in good spirits and did not balk when Stephen mentioned Eton and Cambridge again. Stephen finally gained some territory in learning to deal with his soon.

Now Beth was in their private room at the back of the inn, a large and agreeable space, set under the roof. It was painted in fading green and pink colours and furnished with dark, solid oak items, which gave it a feeling of homeliness and comfort. Trixie was just done helping Beth into her night gown and now she was brushing out her mistress’ shiny brown tresses. Beth closed her eyes, soothed by the movements of the brush.

The lovely feeling stopped abruptly when the door opened. Trixie gave a startled cry, dropped the hairbrush and fled from the room as she did every night when her master came to join his lady.

“I do not understand why that girl is so frightened by the mere sight of me that she runs like a doe before a wolf,” Stephen chuckled as he stepped closer to his wife.

“Well,” Beth answered, “I myself have a faint idea of how she feels, my love. In your night clothes, your manly chest bared and with that predator’s look in your eyes, you are an impressive figure to behold.”

Stephen, however, had stopped listening. As always, he was overwhelmed with desire, seeing his beautiful wife in her snowy white night gown of silk, trimmed with Brussels lace. Her fine figure, with its delicate curves, was moulded to perfection by the thin, shiny fabric and the chocolate coloured waterfall of her exquisite hair – also as always – aroused him to near breaking point.

“Come here,” he breathed hoarsely and extended his hand. Beth obeyed, her dark eyes dancing with answering longing. When she stood before him, her heart was pounding hard and her body was becoming hot with arousal.

“Undress me, my love,” Stephen begged, closing his eyes and sucking in a deep gush of air, when her fingers began caressing his face and neck in a searing touch.

Beth lay her hands on his shoulders and brushed away the light silken robe to reveal the broad, tight-muscled plains of his tanned chest. Her fingertips followed the spread of fine dark hair that covered it, stroking his taut muscles, kissing the hardened nipples, nibbling at them until Stephen groaned with rising desire. He forced himself to stand still and enjoy her caresses, knowing how she delighted in the feel of his body under her hands. Now she let those hands roam feather-light over the flat, hard surface of his stomach, causing heat to flare wherever she touched. He felt her fingers on the rim of his loose trousers and shivered hard in rapt anticipation, when they eased down the garment. The moment she freed him, he could not bear it any longer and snatched her up. In two long steps, he reached the bed and threw himself onto it, placing her on top of him in one smooth movement as he landed on the mattress on his back. Kicking away his trousers, he shoved her nightgown high over her head, gasping at the sight of her exquisite naked body. Oh, God! She was so beautiful, his Beth!

With meticulous precision, he lowered her onto his rigid shaft, nearly losing it when he felt her folds tighten over his flesh. She moaned in rapture and began moving her hips in an answering rhythm to his own thrusts. His hands flew to her breasts and stroked the soft mounds, kneading the hardened tips with each caress, until she whimpered in mounting desire.

“Stephen … please, do not stop … please, Stephen …”

His own hard intakes of breath echoed hers as their passion rose with every movement and stroke. God! This was torture! Heat rose in shuddering waves with every thrust and exquisite pain kept searing through his brick-hard manhood in pounding gulfs, until it burst into millions of shards as he spilled himself greedily in her hot, silk folds. At the same moment, Beth came in a shuddering cry of delight, and her flesh squeezed tightly around him, sending waves of wonderful heat through his whole body. He held her in a hard grip, preventing her from collapsing onto him for just a few, marvellous seconds, because he revelled in the feeling of her taut, highly-strung form on top of him.

When he felt her muscles relax in the climax’ aftermath, he settled her close to his heart and drew the bedclothes over them both. All was well, all was perfect.

 

~~~~

 

Later, Stephen adjusted their bodies in a more comfortable position, their heads close to one another on the pillow. Beth’s slender limbs wrapped around his under the warm covers. In the light of a candle on the nightstand, he lay admiring her beautiful face, relaxed in deep sleep, her soft mouth curved in a smile. The dark lace of her eyelashes, spread on the fine velvet of her cheeks, caused his heart to skip a beat in shuddering love and affection.

How was it that this wonderful woman had come to love him? Him, a harsh, bitter man, with forbidding manners and no compassionate feelings toward his fellow men. What had she seen in him? It must have been something good for she had opened his heart to so many new things, such as love and compassion. She had changed him into a man capable of true human feelings, one who was deeply interested in the lives of those counting on him to guide and shape their daily existence. She had taught him to love, to care, to fear for those who loved him.

This past day, when he had witnessed Mr Thornton and his little family, Stephen suddenly realized what he wanted from life. Mr Thornton’s deep affection for his son had awakened a similar longing in his own bosom, a fierce longing for a child of his own. Beth’s child … his and Beth’s.

He had come closer to Oliver, today. He had suddenly understood how the boy longed to be independent and strong. Oliver did not think of himself as a son of Stephen because he grew up away from his father. Oliver would never be as close to him as little John was to Mr Thornton.

So, in the rosy light of dawn trickling through the window panes, Stephen sent a fervent pray to the Unknown Force that ruled the universe.

“Please, Lord, I beg you: give me a son of my own, and I solemnly promise to cherish him with all my heart. I thank Thee, oh Lord, for the precious, sweet woman You gave me. I will treasure her with my love and protect her with my life. That I do solemnly swear.”

 

The End

My most sincere thanks are for Joyce Mould, who provided the beautiful drawing adorning these posts. Thanks, dear Joyce.

This entry concludes Reserve and Reticence, my first attempt to a full-fledged Regency romance novel.

Next week, I will start with a fresh one. Please, join me for,

The Reclusive Aristocrat

Rowena Drake is unmarried and pregnant. Her lover, a cavalry officer, has been killed at Waterloo, so a marriage is no longer possible. Her brother, a rich baronet, has cast her out, after Rowena refused to give up her child. Now she is alone and without money, and desperate to reach London to find employment.

Alexander Raventhorpe, fifth earl of Ketteridge, Leicestershire, has been badly wounded at Waterloo, leaving him blind and scarred, with nightmares plaguing him. He has become a recluse at his almost ruined estate, with no inkling as to how he should remedy it.

Fate brings these two people together. Will Love bind or separate them?

Reserve and Reticence – Part Nineteen

Nineteen – A Lesson Gained the Hard Way

 

Having hired a horse from Burton, Stephen galloped into Manchester at breakneck speed. He was seething with rage at Oliver’s incredibly stupid decision of hiring himself out to a cotton manufacturer, just to taunt his father and prove his rebellion. As Stephen knew all too well, a cotton factory was a hellish place, especially for the small children the money-eager factory owners were so fond off. Employing a child was very profitable, their wages being very low. Their protests were non-existent, since often the child’s wages were the only source of income for the poorest of the large families. Working conditions were harsh, the working hours as long as fourteen hours a day and six days a week. Many children were beaten into submission when they dared complain against the dangerous conditions they were employed in. Many a child would get injured or would even die on the job. As a result, Stephen was blazing with fury when he skidded into a halt at the gates of Marlborough Mills on Princess Street.

He swung himself from the horse – a tolerably well-behaved bay – and fastened its rains onto a ring in the high, soot-blackened wall, surrounding the factory grounds. Pounding on the dark green gate wings, adorned with the factory’s name in golden letters, he shouted a demand for entrance. After a few moments, one half of the gate was cautiously opened to reveal the narrow face of an elderly man, clad in the dark blue cotton clothes, so typical for cotton workers. The man lifted his cap and asked in a reverend manner how he could be of service.

“I am Lord Stephen Fenton of Brixton Abbey in Leicestershire. I wish to speak to the proprietor of this factory at once.”

The doorman stepped aside to let Stephen in.

“If you’d care to follow me to the office, sir, I see if I can find master.” And so it was that Stephen was left  to cool his heels in a tiny room, full of desks laden with thick ledgers while the overseer went to find the owner.

 

~~~~

 

Mrs Oakham first made Isobel sit down and poured her a glass of brandy which the innkeeper’s wife downed avidly. Then Isobel started to tell them about Stephen bullying her husband into naming the mill where Oliver worked. Finally, she conveyed her fears to them, about what the baron wanted to do.

“He was just so fired up, m’ lady! He kept yellin’ curses and threatenin’ to burn down Marlborough Mills an’ ev’rythin’ in it!”

Beth closed her eyes in utter despair. So Stephen reverted to his usual rash behaviour, once again.

“Isobel, I am putting my trust in you completely. Go back to your husband and ask him to gather up some men and bring them to Marlborough Mills. I will go ahead and try to reason His Lordship before any harm is done.”

 

~~~~

 

As the minutes ticked away, Stephen became more and more angrier. Where was the blasted mill owner and why had he not come running to attend to him? He gave it another minute before he walked through a door, leading to the factory’s inner courtyard. A flurry of activity greeted him, with workers carrying big cotton bales into a large shed, carts being loaded and unloaded, women shouting for more cotton, children running with errands. The whole busy scene was immersed in load noises but the loudest of them was the clanking of machines from the weaving shed.

Stephen resolutely went to investigate. A long hall, stacked to the rafters with cotton, led to a big sliding door, from which direction the clanking seemed to grow louder. With a mighty shove, Stephen threw open the door and stopped in his tracks as the deafening sound of a hundred working looms overwhelmed him.

He stared at the cacophony with open mouth, coughing now and then, when his airways became irritated with the ever-present cotton fluff. The sight was very impressive, that was the least one could say. The loom operators worked in a steady, ever-recurring rhythm, throwing the shuttle through the shed when the harnesses rose the yarn beams. It was so fascinating that Stephen forgot what he was there for in the first place, and he avidly took in all that he saw. Until he noticed the thin forms skidding under the huge warp beams, every time they were raised …

Scavengers! Small children used to pick up the cotton fluff spilled from the yarn … Oliver would most likely be one of them, as it was the lowest rung on the apprentice scale.

At that moment, the baron caught sight of a man, standing proud and tall on a raised platform, scanning the surface of the shed with eagle eyes. Everything in the man’s bearing radiated mastery and authority, his tall, broad-shouldered form towering over the clatter, as if he were the conductor of a huge mechanic orchestra.

Stephen’s fury was instantly rekindled as he burst toward the platform, darted up the stairs and grabbed the man by the lapels of his black cotton frock coat. The momentum of the attack caused both men to bump against the platform banister which cracked under their combined weight. They tumbled down and landed six feet lower, dangerously close to one of the huge looms. A few blows were exchanged, and Stephen found that the man was an equal match to his own formidable strength and fisticuff skills. The brawl did not last long because a couple of heavy-set workers plucked Stephen away from their master.

“Take him outside! Williams! Where are you, you lazy bastard?”

A short, slender man came running towards the master, plucking his cap from his head.

“Yes, Mr Thornton, I’m here! What d’ ya want me to do, sir?”

“Go get the runners! I want this lunatic thrown in jail for at least a couple of weeks! That’ll cool him down a bit!”

Stephen was so taken aback by this that he momentarily had no words to protest. Surely, the man could not do such a thing to him, a lord and a peer of the Realm? But the two strong fellows had him in an iron grip and they began dragging him to the sliding doors with grim determination. Nothing Stephen attempted to free himself had any result! Those blokes were simply too strong!

When they reached the courtyard, a woman’s voice cried out and Stephen saw a group of women running towards them. One of them was his Beth, and she had Oliver by the hand. Mrs Oakham and Isobel Burton were also there, but the fourth woman was unknown to Stephen. It was she who had cried out.

“Charles! Charles, stop this! He is a noble, a baron. You must release him at once. He could damage our business if he presses charges.”

She was a tall, very thin woman with regal bearings and a ramrod straight back. Her black hair was piled high on her head and not a single strand had broken loose of it to soften the beautiful but forbidding lines of her face, from the penetrating gaze of her black eyes to the severe, thin line of her mouth. When she came to a halt in front of the master, Stephen saw that she held a young child by the hand, a boy of maybe one year old, already showing the resemblance with his father, thick black hair and piercing blue eyes and tall for his age.

“Hannah, why have you brought the boy here? There was no need to drag little John into this! Take him to the house immediately!”

“If he is to be the master of all this one day, John has to learn quickly and from an early age. Have you seen him cry or whimper? No! He is my son and he is as strong as you like!”

Stephen saw the harsh features of the master relax as he picked up the boy and smiled at him.

“You’re not afraid, are you, Johnnie? No, I can see you’re not. Good boy, good fellow. Now run along with your mama.” While the boy was given over to his mother again, he threw Stephen a look of utter contempt, so distinctly that the baron was shocked by the vehemence of it.

This child – though not of noble decent – would do his part in the world, Stephen realized. How fortunate the master of Marlborough Mills was to have a wife and son who supported him in every step of his way in life!

“Now,” Thornton said, turning back to Stephen once again. “What is this all about? Who are you and what are you doing here?”

Reserve and Reticence – Part Eighteen

Eighteen – Solutions

 

The following morning, Stephen and Beth set off for Manchester in the Brixton Abbey travelling coach, a comfortable and spacious carriage that easily accommodated eight people, if necessary. Each of them was lost in their own thoughts as they progressed through the luscious, green fields and hills of Leicestershire.

Beth pondered over the account Stephen gave her of his conversation with Oliver. Because he had been raised as the heir to a title and an estate, Stephen behaved exactly as his father once had. He was firm and strict in dealing with his equals, yet stern and arrogant towards those who depended on him, his tenants and servants. In public, he rarely showed affection to those who were dear to him, and even in private, Stephen seldom dropped the last of his defences, as Beth knew all too well.

The previous night, they had made love, as they had every night since Stephen recovered from the chickenpox, but for the first time, neither of them had reached fulfilment. Both had lain awake for long hours, each of them ignoring the insomnia of the other, and their backs turned to each other. Now Stephen sat staring through the carriage window, brooding over the whole wretched situation but unable to resolve it. Beth herself still felt too hurt over her husband’s harsh treatment of his son to sympathize much. She was very much aware that she would have an impossible task to make Stephen listen to his children’s aspirations and wishes. He was too much the lord of the mansion to do so.

Suddenly, Beth realised they were riding through the outskirts of Manchester as she recognized the sign of The Queen’s Head inn.

“Stephen, we should not go further! We might easily scare Oliver away when he sees the carriage!”

“You are right,” Stephen acknowledged and swiftly rapped on the vehicle’s roof.

“Hodgkins! Pull up into the inn’s yard, if you please!”

“Very well, my lord!” came the reply, and then the coachman turned the carriage sharp left.

Wat Burton, the innkeeper, came rushing out of the taproom, wiping his hands on a rag.

“My Lord Brixton! What a pleasure to meet you again, sir! Come in, if you please.”

Burton bowed deeply and when he straightened, let his eyes grow wide open at the sight of Beth, being handed down from the carriage by Stephen.

“Miss Williams! How delightful …”

“Mr Burton, allow me to introduce you to Lady Brixton,” Stephen said, grinning broadly at seeing the innkeeper’s surprise. The man stammered a hasty apology and bowed even deeper. His wife Isobel, who joined him when she saw there was a lady present, curtsied reverently.

“My Lady, welcome in our humble establishment. Do you wish for a private room?”

“Yes, Mrs Burton, that would be most agreeable,” Beth answered and followed her inside.

 

~~~~

 

Stephen waited until his wife had gone before he went in search of Wat Burton. He and Beth agreed not to go to Mrs Oakham’s house together. Oliver might not trust his father and flee but he would not resent Beth, whom he loved and trusted. Therefore, Beth would go on her own and try to reason with the boy. Although he knew they were doing the right thing, Stephen was not entirely convinced that Oliver would listen to reason. He also was fairly sure the boy would not be at Mrs Oakham’s now, because it was broad daylight and people were at work. If he knew his son’s character just a tiny bit, Stephen thought it possible that Oliver was also at work, presumably in some cotton mill. So, when he found Burton in his cellar, taking stock of his beer casks, Stephen confronted him rather sharply.

“You know everything that goes on around here, Mr Burton. I will ask you straight away, then. Where is Oliver Bradley?”

Burton stiffened and looked the baron in the eyes in a defiant manner.

“Why are you asking, my lord? What is it to you?”

“He is my son. I want to take him back with me.”

The masterful tone the baron employed seemed to irritate the innkeeper, who straightened visibly but kept his voice level.

“I do not know where the boy has gone to other than to Mrs Oakham’s house, my lord. Why not look there for him?”

Stephen, annoyed with the man’s defiance, shot him a suspicious look.

“Oh, come on, Mr Burton. Do not insult my intelligence or your own! Which cotton mill has him enlisted on their payroll?”

When the innkeeper blanched visibly, Stephen knew he had hit the bull’s eye.

 

~~~~

 

“Beth!” Mrs Oakham’s voice rang with pleasure as she beheld the young woman on the threshold with eyes sparkling with fondness. “Come in, child! How are you? Is it true that you have married that scoundrel Fenton? I could not believe the rumours that came to me from Woolworth.”

Beth felt herself blushing like a schoolgirl under Mrs Oakham’s blunt words. A tug of longing ran through her as they reminded her of Granny Bradley, Mrs Oakham’s sister, and she was again struck by the resemblance between the two sisters, in manner as well as in countenance.

“Yes, Mrs Oakham, I am Lady Brixton now, but my husband is no longer a scoundrel.”

She paused searching for the right words to describe the changes in Stephen’s behaviour over the last weeks. Her mouth curved into a smile as she saw the beloved face of her husband in her mind’s eye.

“Stephen is a good man, Mrs Oakham, but his huge responsibilities often prevent him from taking the time to listen to people. Instead, he rushes on and barges in and mostly, the regrets come when the damage is done. I am endeavouring to try and change that in him, but it is a difficult task as I am fighting years of unchallenged solitary control over a regal estate like Brixton Abbey.”

Mrs Oakham took Beth’s face between her small, slender hands, hands that were streaked with hundreds of tiny wrinkles from hard, honest work.

“Let me see how you fare,” she whispered earnestly and peered into Beth’s eyes like she would have done with a child that behaved badly.

Beth banned all thoughts from her mind. Only Stephen remained. He often was the only object of her affections, lately.

“There is a new, bright light in your gaze, child,” was the elder woman’s statement. “You are happy, I can tell. Now what is it that brought you and your husband to Manchester?” And, when she saw Beth’s astonishment, she added, “Oh, never fear, Manchester is but a large village. Everybody knows everything about everyone else. In fact, …”

She was suddenly and brutally interrupted by a loud banging on the front door and a voice, which Beth recognized Isobel Burton’s, cried in panic. “Mrs Oakham, is Lady Brixton with you? I have to talk to her! His Lordship has rushed off to Marlborough Mills, threatening to murder the proprietor for employing Oliver at the factory!”

Reserve and Reticence – Part Seventeen

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.

 

 

 

Reserve and Reticence – Part Sixteen

Sixteen – Looking For A Missing Boy

 

After it had become evident that the missing Oliver was not to be found on the Abbey grounds, a large party was assembled, consisting of all footmen and tenants, who were not immediately necessary to the estate’s adequate daily functioning. Their mission was to begin searching in an ever widening circle, starting from the Abbey grounds and through the fields and woodland surrounding the estate. Stephen explained this to the assembly in clear words.

“Last night, my son went to bed at his usual hour of nine o’ clock, as the maid assigned to my children’s personal needs has confirmed. Even if he managed to leave the Abbey right after that time, he cannot have roamed more than a couple of miles from the estate. No horse has been taken from the stables, and I cannot believe that any cart driver or coachman, that happened to be in the estate’s vicinities, would have picked him up without notifying me or without questioning the boy as to his reasons for being out that late alone. Therefore, we shall begin the search as I instructed and report back to my lady Brixton every two hours. She will be coordinating the search efforts.”

Beth, seated next to a very distressed Henrietta, calmly listened to her husband’s speech but inwardly, she was all turmoil. What could have been exchanged between father and son, the previous evening, that it had driven away a thirteen-year-old in fear? All sorts of horrible thoughts were assaulting her brain, such as the baron striking out at the boy or threatening him in some horrible way. Instantly, she chided herself for thinking so badly about the man she was married to, about Stephen, for Heaven’s sake! How could she? But then, a little voice in her head began reciting all the horrid things the Fentons had done to her family, and how vicious Beth herself had always thought Stephen to be. Although her heart screamed in disgust that she simply could not think in that way about the man she loved, her brain calmly summed up all Stephen’s mischief. She had to talk to him, she now realised. She had to talk to him, and it could not wait.

However, she had to wait until the evening before that talk could take place.

 

~~~~

 

Oliver Bradley-Fenton reached the outskirts of Manchester early in the morning, just as the sun began mounting above the rooftops. After a long run, way past the boundaries of Woolworth, he set foot toward the industrial town and was picked up by a band of gypsies heading North. They asked no questions, used as they were at being harassed by the English authorities. They just gave him a bowl of soup and the loan of a blanket against the chilly night air and took him along.

Now, after he said his farewells, he was tired and hungry, but those inconveniences did not bother him for the moment. What an adventure this was! He had escaped the wicked baron of Brixton Abbey, the haughty man who called himself a father but was, in fact, nothing but a tyrant and a bully. As Oliver began looking around to find his bearings, he recalled the conversation he had with Fenton the night before.

Oliver was no fool. He knew very well he could never inherit the baron’s title nor the Brixton estate. He was a bastard. The more vicious people in the village had branded him and his sister with that charming nickname as long as he remembered. It had never bothered him because his grandmother taught him it did not matter he had no legal descent as long as he strove to become a good person. Lineage meant nothing, Granny said, when you were a scoundrel with no pity for other people’s misfortunes. His so-called father was such a miscreant, Granny said, and Oliver should never make Fenton a role model. It was far more important that Oliver made a good life for himself and Lily. He needed to protect and love his sister, because it was much harder for girls to find a place in the world than for a strong and smart boy.

So, on that dreadful day, when Fenton took them away from Gran and brought them to the Abbey, Oliver swallowed his fear and anger. Even when he wanted nothing more than to thwart his so-called father, he understood all too well what advantages might be drawn from a connection to a rich and powerful noble like Fenton. Oliver would bide his time and learn as much as he could.

Then, Fenton married his governess, and everything was turned upside down because now Oliver was not sure he could trust Beth anymore. Oh, she still was good to him and Lily and she had nursed them through the chickenpox like a mother would, but she also did not spend all her time with them like she used to before she married the baron. No, Oliver was no fool at all. Once the couple would have a child of their own, he and Lily would be related to the background of Beth’s life.

The proof of all this became clear to Oliver when Fenton told him he was to go to Eton soon and learn all about Latin and Greek and other useless items. Afterwards, he was for Cambridge and had to learn about how to run an estate like some upgraded steward. He would do a full day’s work for a meagre salary, and all the major decisions would come from Fenton and his offspring. He could be cast out at any time or at the whim of the baron whenever the man fancied another servant to run the estate.

No, Oliver wanted to build a worthy life for himself. When Beth took them to Manchester to live with Mrs Oakham, Oliver once visited a cotton mill and was impressed by the sheer power and working of it. The mighty looms, clacking and humming, and handled by the weavers, enchanted him. He wanted to be a part of that.  He planned to start at the bottom of the chain and work his way up, until he was an overseer and run the shed all by himself. Maybe, he would rise even further! Dreams were great, and Oliver wanted to live his dream to the full.

Yet, when he mentioned – very cautiously, mind – to Fenton that he wanted something other than becoming a steward, the baron rudely cut him off and became angry. In very clear terms, Fenton stated Oliver was to obey the baron’s orders without any protest or he would be chastised until he did. There was always the military, the baron told Oliver, to bend a rebellious spirit into submission. Oliver was to have no doubts the baron would buy him a commission in some faraway barracks if necessary.

At that precise moment, Oliver knew he would always hate Fenton and never, ever submit to him.

 

Reserve and Reticence – Part Fifteen

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.