Reserve and Reticence – Part Four

Four – Besieged

 

Life settled into a strange pattern in the quiet village of Woolworth on the Brixton Abbey estate in Leicestershire. Every activity plied itself to the routine of St Mary’s Primary School, yet the school was no longer a school, it had become a hospital. Nevertheless, there was a strict schedule to its activities.

First tasks every day were the ablutions and breakfast, which took a part of the morning. The children were not so ill that they could not take care of their personal hygiene nor help Beth preparing bacon and eggs. At least, not all of them were bedridden, but some were.

Little Josie Robinson and her brother Crispin suffered a fairly high fever and had to be cared for as if they would have been small children. This was a very distressing fact since there was a third child in the Abbey steward’s home, a seven-month-old baby brother, named Joshua. Beth’s first message to the outer world was to warn the Robinsons to keep watch over the baby and bring it to her as soon as he would break a fever. The receiver of the messages was Lord Brixton. He volunteered to be at the little garden’s gate between the two cottages every morning at eleven.

 

~~~~

 

On the morning of the third day of her self-imposed quarantine, Beth provided Stephen with an alarming message. Most of the children now showed a rash – small red spots which appeared on the face, arms and torso of the afflicted. Their fever had also mounted but not alarmingly so. Only Josie and Crispin were lethargic with high fever. Their bodies were covered head-to toe with the red rash.

Beth was now constantly and solely in charge of the sick children. She washed and fed them, cooled their bodies by sponging them down with tepid water, applied ointments on the rash when necessary. It itched considerably on some of the patients.

All those intensive activities left her completely exhausted. When she stepped out onto the cottage’s yard, one evening at sunset, the crisp night air of March cooled her hot face with a gentle breeze. She welcomed it and sank down onto the bench beside the well, closing her eyes and leaning back to rest her aching limbs.

“How are they?” a soft and well-known baritone voice sounded behind Beth. Lord Stephen Fenton was standing just a few feet away from her, his features unreadable in the fading light of the setting sun.

“My lord, you should not be here! I … I am in close contact with the disease, I could contaminate you!” Beth gasped, getting up to make her curtsy. Fenton hastened toward her and took her arm.

“No, please, Miss Williams. I beg you to stay seated. You must be very tired.”

He helped her onto the bench but did not let go of her hand, not even after he say down next to her.

“How are they?” he repeated his question.

Beth enjoyed the warm pressure of Fenton’s hand for a while before answering. Although she feared for him to be affected, after another hard day of caring for the sick children, it was beyond her skills to deny herself the pleasure of Stephen’s touch. She closed her eyes and answered him.

“All things considered, it is not as bad as I anticipated, my lord. I feared the children would be more affected with stomach trouble, and that has not occurred. The rash appeared five days ago, and I expected there would be vomiting and diarrhoea, but none of the patients were subjected to it. Their fever is not very high, except with Josie and Crispin, and even they are a little better now. You may tell Mr and Mrs Robinson they are on the mending.”

“Thank you, Miss Williams. I will convey that happy message to them. You will be pleased to hear that little Joshua still enjoys the best of health. No fever, no rash.”

“Oh, thank God!” Beth exclaimed, tears suddenly welling up in her eyes. She dashed them away, not wanting the baron to see them. She did not succeed. The next moment, she was in his arms and crying against his shoulder. Oh, it felt so good, to feel the strength of a fellow human being and be comforted. After a short moment, Beth realised it was the baron against whose shoulder she was resting but that was all she was doing, resting her cheek against his well-clad shoulder. His arms lay around her own shoulders without pressure or squeezing. Beth’s nose picked up his discrete cologne, revelling in the cleanliness of his garments and the warmth of his skin as his cheek touched hers. He was not asking for more, she mused. Quietly and gently, he was just giving her comfort. Oh, how good it felt!

Stephen’s soft voice broke into her thoughts.

“Miss Williams, I cannot let you go on like that. You are exhausted and the end of the whole wretched affair is not even in sight. You need help, so please, let me take care of it!”

“No, my lord! No one is to be put in danger of being affected with the disease. I am the only one who is safe.”

His sigh ruffled the strands of hair that had escaped her bun and now framed her face. Stephen gently let go of her, took her by the shoulders and gravely gazed into her eyes.

“No one will be put in danger, Miss Williams. I will stay to help you.”

Beth was not sure she heard correctly. The baron, to move into the hospital and help out with the patients? Impossible! And very foolish! He would contract the disease! She suddenly stood and began to retreat to the house.

“No, my lord, out of the question! I will not allow you to endanger yourself. Goodnight!”

The next minute, she was inside, and Stephen heard the key turn in the lock.

 

~~~~

 

The next morning dawned cold and grey, the last remnants of winter settling on the village with a biting frost. Beth rose, washed and dressed in a hurry and went to the kitchen to stir up the stove and start preparing breakfast. On a bench, next to the hearth lay the sleeping form of Baron Stephen Fenton. He was dressed in simple clothes, a black woollen coat and grey breeches and black boots. Beth stood watching him in bewilderment. What was he doing here? How did he get in? She became aware of very ambiguous feeling battling inside her. She was distressed having Stephen risking himself and at the same time, she was extremely happy to have him at the hospital. She had to keep herself from weeping with relief, simply because he was here to help her.

But … he could not stay here! Panic rushed over her when she realised the danger he had brought himself into!

“My lord? My lord, wake up! You must leave immediately!”

Fenton opened his eyes and sat up, raking a hand through his badly ruffled hair.

“Oh, good morning, Miss Williams! What do you want me to do? I have come to help you.”

“But … but … you cannot! It is too dangerous! You must leave at once!”

Fenton stood up and went to the stove.

“Now,” he said, “I shall light the stove. Oh, you are out of coal and wood. Maybe, I will first replenish those, hey?”

And he picked up the coal bucket and went out into the yard. Bet stared through the window and stood frozen to the spot as she watched the baron shovelling coal and chopping wood. The full coal bucket dangling in one hand and the other arm full of logs, he then came back into the kitchen. Kneeling before the stove, he cleaned it out, pilled wood into it, lighted it and rose. A bright smile alighted his featured and beaming cheerfully at Beth, he asked:

“What next, Miss Williams?”

The lovely drawing I used in my story is by Mrs Joyce Mould.

Reserve and Reticence – Part Three

Three – A Curse Came Upon Us

 

On April 3th 1820, little Josie Robinson stayed home from school. Her eight year old brother, Crispin, the eldest of the two, came to inform Beth about it. Mr Robinson, Brixton Abbey’s steward, thought his daughter’s fever was way too high to leave her bed. Two days later, all the children were home and in bed, with a high fever, a cough and an ache in every muscle and limb of their small bodies. Stephen Fenton came to Beth’s cottage to tell her Lily and Oliver were also ill and that she was needed at the Abbey, to help caring for them. Beth went with him, of course.

At the Abbey, more disturbing news awaited them.

Miss Hannah Faraday was also taken ill, and she was in a far more aggravated state than Lily and Oliver, who suffered only a slight fever. Hannah, on the other hand, was burning up. Her maid June had put her to bed and taken her temperature, which had mounted to an alarming 40C. Poor Hannah lay prostrated between sheets that were damp as soon as they were changed. She was not only hot and sweating but also in a state of lethargy that caused Beth to ask Fenton for his physician. In the meantime, she went to her former charges’ bedrooms.

Lily was sitting up in bed with a book and welcomed Beth with a whoop of delight. She looked a bit pale but, when Beth placed a hand on the girl’s brow, it felt cool and normal. In his own room, Oliver was asleep and did not wake up when Beth touched his brow. The rosy colour of his cheeks reassured her about his condition. It would probably be only a cold.

 

~~~~

 

When Dr Forrester arrived – after several hours, since he had been to see every sick child in the whole village – he examined all the patients and then requested an audience with Fenton.

“Erm … alone, my lord, if you please?”

Fenton turned raised eyebrows to Beth but opened the library’s door and gestured the physician in. He beckoned to Beth and she followed the two men in.

“My lord, please, I would rather not …”

“Miss Williams has my utmost confidence, Dr Forrester. Furthermore, she is the children’s teacher. She must be fully informed about their condition.”

Dr Forrester bowed his head.

“Very well, my lord. I am afraid that … my verdict on the disease will prove to be somewhat … disconcerting. I am as good as convinced we are dealing with … smallpox.”

Both Fenton and Beth gasped audibly.

“Smallpox? But how? Has there been previous cases in the county or the village?”

“None that I heard of, my lord. There has not been a smallpox outbreak for several decades in Leicestershire. Therefore, I think the contagion must be more recent. My lord, I would ask you to write to your friend Mr Masterton. He … forgive me, my lord … he is the person that comes foremost to mind of being the bearer of the disease which is known to be fairly common in Egypt.”

Stephen was appalled but recovered his wits when Beth pointed out the doctor was right. It was only cautious to find out how the disease had sneaked into the community. Fenton quickly wrote a letter to be sent to Yorkshire and Mr Masterton. Raleigh, the butler, was summoned and Fenton instructed him to have the message brought to the post office forthwith.

“My lord,” Dr Forrester then ventured, “we must take precautions to prevent the disease from spreading further. It would be wise to gather the patients in one location and set up a hospital where they can be treated without danger of contamination for the rest of the population.”

Stephen nodded pensively.

“Bring them here,” he replied, “to Brixton Abbey. We can put them up in the ballroom, which is large and airy. Tell me how many servants …”

“My lord …” The serious tone of Beth’s voice made Stephen listen to her.

“My lord, with your permission, I would like to take on organizing the hospital. When I was in France, an outbreak of smallpox occurred in the part of the country where we were living. The physician there advised my father to have me inoculated, which is a century-old method of prevention against the disease. I am immune to it. Let me deal with the sick, I beg you. We must gather them and keep the healthy ones away. My lord, I must be alone with the sick. No one is to enter the hospital lest they be contaminated. Food, water and medicines can be delivered daily.”

Beth watched Fenton stomaching her exposé with great struggle. His strong jaw was working beneath the black shadow of beard that had already formed, although it was early afternoon. Finally, he burst out with vehemence.

“No, Miss Williams, I cannot let you do this! What if you fall ill? I …”

“My lord, I just told you I am immune. I am the only one who can do this. I only ask that you arrange for the supplies I will be needing.”

“Beth … please, reconsider this! Please, Beth …”

His eyes – blue fire and glistening with tears of rage – bore into hers. Suddenly, he grabbed both of her hands and squeezed them so tightly it hurt. Beth gently pulled them free and smiled at him.

“My lord, you need not worry so. All will be fine, I assure you. Now, let us organize the hospital.”

Stephen bit back a swear word but complied, of course.

 

~~~~

 

By nightfall, Beth had every sick child tucked away in bed. She was on her own. Mr Sage, she stated, was needed for parish duties and she would hate to see him fall ill. Mr Sage did not protest.

Boys and girls were lodged separately in their respective school rooms. The desks had been replaced by beds and nightstands, each with a wash basin and pitcher. Trixie and Alan were staying at Ruby’s house, next to the school. They were to be nearby whenever Beth needed something and they would communicate through written messages which Beth would leave near the well between the two cottages. Since neither Trixie nor Alan could read, Stephen would take care of the requests.

The children were not overly sick. There was a lot of coughing and sneezing and a few of them had trouble breathing but Beth was able to relieve them by rubbing their chests with eucalyptus balm.

None of the children showed any red spots on the skin, no rash, nor stomach troubles. Beth kept watch in a small room between the two sick bays, where she had placed a cot for herself. She foresaw a relatively quiet night.

 

~~~~

 

Fenton, on the other hand, was very restless. He had taken residence in The Blue Boar inn, much against his mother’s wishes. Henrietta could not approve of her son endangering himself by lodging so close to the school. Now, he was pacing the inn’s best private bedchamber while his valet was emptying his portmanteau.

Stephen was so concerned about Beth that his fear threatened to eat him alive! It was all good and well to have received ‘inoculation’ – a word Stephen had never heard before – but would that truly make her immune to the disease? He had sent Dr Forrester to London to discover more about the smallpox disease, which was horrible enough to eradicate entire cities.

The feelings Stephen experienced were unknown to him. To put it plainly, a terror gnawed inside him, a paralyzing, primeval fear of losing the woman he loved more than anything before in his life.

After Florence died, he had vowed himself never to love again. Love was cruel, love was useless, it could not comfort you when the object of your love was ripped away from you. Yet, now, he loved again … and even more passionately than before. Passion could blister and burn a man to death …

The door of his room opened to admit his mother. She was looking gravely at him.

“My lord,” she began but Stephen cut her off.

“No, my lady, I do know what you are about to ask me, and the answer is negative. I will not return to the Abbey while this terrible disease rages on my property. Miss Williams … Beth … is risking her life trying to fight it, and I will not leave this inn until the day she steps out of the school to tell me it is over.”

The dowager gave a slight nod of her head but did not reply. Instead, she went to a chair and seated herself, leaning solemnly on her walking stick.

“Then, my son, I too will remain here until it is over.”

 

Reserve and Reticense – Part Two

 

Two – A Visitor from Abroad

 

The following weeks, Beth and Mr Sage organized the school to the best of their abilities by applying a strict routine of learning and playing. Alternating lessons with physical exercise and periods of relaxing did wonders for the children’s concentration. There were twelve pupils at the school, six of each gender, ranging in ages from six to twelve. Mr Sage, the assistant curate, was in charge of the boys of whom there were two farmer’s boys, Mattie Benson, ten, and Peter Rathcliff, twelve. They had French and Latin together with Oliver Fenton, Beth’s former charge. The two sons of the local butcher, Eddie Cratchley, nine, and Roddie, six, and Crispin Robinson, the steward’s son, eight, had yet to learn reading and writing.

In her class, Beth taught the basic skills of reading and writing to four girls, while the two remaining ones, Ruby Merton’s sister, Jane Hart and Lily Fenton, the baron’s daughter, both twelve years old, practiced their French. The Reverend Carter had been teaching the older children before the baron founded the school

Little Josie Robinson of six, the Abbey steward’s daughter, was illiterate as well as Sylvia Benson and Maggie Rathcliff, both eight years old and daughters of two of Fenton’s farmers. Lizzie Goodhouse, the baker’s daughter was ten.

Beth’s pupils were intelligent and eager to learn, so it took them just one month to learn reading and writing. The older girls volunteered to read from a book of children’s stories with them during the weekends and holidays.

St Mary’s Primary School was not the only enterprise that went off well during those first weeks. Beth’s little private household too was flourishing.

The cottage she occupied – Mrs Bradley’s former dwelling – had been newly upholstered by Lord Fenton. The tiny parlour and the small dining room had been decked out with new carpets and curtains, and the walls had been dressed with new coverings. An elegant set of chairs had replaced Mrs Bradley’s ancient and worn-out ones, and the baron had graciously lent Beth a load of books to fill the large cases flanking the hearth.

Upstairs, the master bedroom had been supplied with a new four-poster bed and new curtains. The smaller bedroom was now a dressing room, and Beth had gasped with delight when she saw the huge copper bath tub Lord Fenton had provided her with. She fondly remembered the light of joy in his blue-grey eyes when she profusely thanked him by pecking him – rather impulsively – on the cheek. The gaze that followed the joy was intense enough to set her own cheeks on fire!

The cottage – and Beth’s own needs – were taken care off by Trixie Bamber, Brixton Abbey’s former tweenie. Although she was just fourteen years old and rather waif-like, Trixie was very dedicated to Beth and stronger than she looked. She kept the cottage clean and well-provided for with food and all the necessary items to make it a home.

The more physically demanding tasks were performed by Alan Widdicombe, second son of the innkeeper. The Blue Boar did not have enough customers to allow Alan to stay and help his father, so the young man of eighteen was all but too happy when Beth took him on as a servant. He was tall and strong and full of diligence for his new task.

Lord Fenton had kindly offered to pay their wages, waving away Beth’s protestations and reminding her that it was his duty to see that the new schoolmistress had everything she needed to perform her task to perfection. She found herself liking his behaviour and his manners towards her.

In fact, Lord Fenton did not behave lately as the man Beth thought him to be up until now. He had treated her with the utmost deference, on every occasion they had met. He had not tried to beguile her with smiles and pretty words, as he used to do before. All he had done, was showing her kindness and offering her agreeable companionship, as well as politeness. Beth found herself extremely puzzled over it but she nevertheless liked this unknown side of him.

 

~~~~

 

“Miss Williams,” Stephen asked, just as he was about to help Beth into Sparkle’s saddle, “my mother is hosting a small dinner party, tomorrow evening. Will you do me the honour of being our guest?”

Beth turned to him, eyes wide. She had just accompanied Lily and Oliver home. The children came to school on horseback, and it had become a habit that Fenton brought them to school, and she returned them home during the late afternoon. To that end, Fenton stabled Sparkle in The Blue Boar inn.

“My lord … I’m not sure …”

Stephen bit back his irritation at Beth’s obvious hesitation. She still distrusted him, it seemed. Yet, he forced a smile onto his face whilst he searched for the right words.

“My cousin Miss Hannah Faraday will be there, as will my friend Trevor Masterton, brother to the Earl of Charwood from Yorkshire. We were at Cambridge together and have been friends ever since. Hannah’s mother was married to my maternal uncle, who died three years ago. Aunt Sylvia has recently married again, and Hannah was feeling a bit like the odd one out. Mother invited her for a stay at the Abbey. Trevor, on the other hand, is on leave from his military service in Egypt. He is quite a pleasant fellow who could regale us with some stories from his travels. It would be awkward for Hannah to be the only young woman present, would it not?”

That sounded reasonable to Beth, and she agreed to come.

 

~~~~

 

The dinner party went quite well, actually.

Lady Henrietta was all civilized politeness and behaved the charming hostess. Miss Hannah Faraday turned out to be a lively girl of twenty-two, all fair curls and dashing blue eyes, and full of witty conversation. Beth liked her from the start, and the two of them were chatting happily away while they waited for the gentlemen to return after their port. Henrietta sat quietly apart with her coffee, and neither of the girls seemed to notice that she had no part of their conversation.

When Fenton and Lord Masterton joined them, the latter resumed the interesting travelling stories he had been telling at table. Beth found herself all ears to his tales which were about the fascinating country of Egypt. Lord Masterton talked about the ancient civilization that built the pyramids and about the temples and the tombs that could be visited and admired. He held them in suspense with his stories about the local people and their religion and their customs.

Beth got the impression that he really liked being stationed in Cairo because the country fascinated him so much. She asked him for a favour. Would he come to the school and tell some of the stories in class? The children would love them. Lord Masterton agreed, of course, and a time was settled for the next day.

Fenton, lazily sprawled upon a settee with his coffee in his hand, watched Beth as she listened with open fascination to Masterton’s stories. He revelled in the brightness of her chocolate-coloured eyes, the rosy bloom in her cheeks and the faint smile of happiness that curved her delicate mouth. She looked so lovely, tonight. Her thick, deep brown hair was dressed up in a simple but heavy bun at the back of her head. Her simple dress was of mint-green silk and flowed about her slender figure like a wisp of green clouds. It had a squared neckline, discreet but deep enough to reveal the onset of her small breasts.

Stephen found himself in a mood that was totally unusual for him. Because it was unfamiliar, it puzzled him to the extreme. Although the first stirrings of arousal were already manifesting themselves – how could they not when such a lovely vision of the woman he loved was sitting only a few yards away – lust, nevertheless, was far away in his mind. Instead, he felt a rush of deep, heart-wrenching love for Beth, a warmth that engulfed him from head to toe, a longing that left him with pain in his heart. Oh, to be able to love Beth openly, as his wife, as his lover! To give her children, to love and cherish her for the rest of his days!

Yet, for the umpteenth time, he admonished himself to be cautious. He had hurt her once already.

 

~~~~

 

Lord Masterton’s visit to the school was a great success. Beth and Mr Sage assembled all the children in one classroom, and Mr Masterton was seated in their midst so that he could tell his stories with the maximum of impact. The children simply loved it! Both boys and girls bombarded the storyteller with questions, which were gladly answered by Lord Masterton. Beth was extremely pleased with the young man and with her idea of bringing him to the school. When he left from Brixton Abbey to return to his brother’s estate in Yorkshire, she felt a sort of bereavement. She told Fenton, the next time she saw him.

“Your friend is really an interesting man, my lord. I truly enjoyed his travel stories and I think the children did too.”

Oh Lord!, Stephen thought in sudden panic. She surely would not have formed an attachment to Trevor? And what was to stop her? Trevor was an agreeable fellow, not unpleasant to look at, too. It would serve him, Stephen, right if Beth was snatched away by some other man, who treated her the way she should have been treated all along. Like the lady she was, even though she was not a member of the nobility. Maybe, it was a good thing, then, that Masterton would be on his way to Egypt again soon.

The lovely drawing I used in my story is by Mrs Joyce Mould.

Reserve and Reticence – Part One

One – A Fine and Unforgettable Day

 

On one of those rare, sunny days in March 1820, the village of Woolworth, near the estate of Brixton Abbey in Leicestershire, was teeming with people wearing their best clothes. They were celebrating the opening of St Mary’s Primary School for children – girls as well as boys. This joyful event was due to the indefatigable exertions of Miss Elizabeth – Beth – Williams, daughter of Woolworth’s former vicar and previously, governess to Lily and Oliver Bradley.

It had been a lifelong dream of Beth’s, to teach children – and especially girls – and provide them with an education that would allow them to make their way in life. The times were rapidly changing in England and abroad, due to the industrial revolution. Cities like Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds needed people to work in the cotton mills. Education was sure to be neglected as children as young as five were employed to work as gatherers of cotton fluff from under the looms. Beth longed to give “her” pupils a proper education on languages, arithmetic and other useful skills, so that they could aspires to better positions.

Now this day had finally come, and Beth stood next to the school’s benefactor and sponsor, Baron Stephen Fenton of Brixton Abbey, who was just about to deliver the inauguration speech. She cast an admiring glance at his tall, slender form, when he stepped forward toward the small dais in front of the school building. He was clad in a formal black superfine coat, which fitted his broad shoulders like a glove, and in buff doeskin breeches, which hugged his powerful thighs to perfection. His snowy white linen shirt, moss green waistcoat and gold-coloured, intricately knotted cravat showed him exactly as what he was; the Lord of the Manor and patron to the village.

“Good people of Woolworth,” Lord Stephen began, “today, we are rejoicing and celebrating because an fortuitous opportunity has arisen for our children to gain a proper education …”

Stephen’s words only slightly reached Beth’s ears, as she cast a glance toward the new school building, which was, in fact, Mrs Bradley’s former cottage. It was the home where Lily and Oliver Bradley – now Fenton – had grown up in the care of their grandmother, after their mother Molly died in childbirth.

The baron had done wonders with the place. Two proper class rooms had been added next to the cottage which would serve as living quarters for Beth. Boys and girls would each have their own room and, while Beth was to teach the girls, the task would be taken up by Mr William Sage, the assistant curate to Mr George Carter, the vicar. Mr Sage stood next to Beth and smiled at her. He was looking forward to the task, Beth knew, and they had prepared for it in long meetings of scheduling and designing the lessons.

Mr Sage was a tall, lean man in his late twenties, with an unruly head of flaxen hair and a pair of cornflower blue eyes. He was a shy and quiet man and he was also very determined to make the school a success. When prompted to give his views on education, Mr Sage was as enthusiastic as Beth herself.

“And now, I would like Miss Williams and Mr Sage to formally unlock the doors of St Mary’s Primary School?”

Beth startled and was confused for a second, but Mr Sage sprang forward and took the key from His Lordship. He held out his hand for Beth, who laid her own in his, and together, they went to the class room’s door. A loud sheering raised up from the assembly as they inserted the key into the lock and together, turned it. Mr Sage was so overcome by emotion he grabbed hold of Beth’s upper arms and kissed her trice – and soundly – on the cheeks. Out of the corner of her eye, an embarrassed Beth saw Fenton raising his eyebrows in mocking acknowledgment of the embrace. Immediately, her cheeks were hot with flushing embarrassment! God! Why was it that Fenton had such an influence over her?

The long-awaited festivities – the fair, the food and drinks, provided by their baron, the jugglers, musicians and fortune tellers – drew the throng of people to the market place and suddenly, Beth found herself alone with Fenton. Towering over her, looking impossibly handsome, he extended a hand to her.

“Well, Miss Williams, shall we go and join the fun? I hope it all measures up to your satisfaction?”

Beth placed her small, white hand in his big, strong one and replied. “I would be hard pressed to find fault in the amenities you had worked out for the school, my lord. I am immensely grateful to you for all you have done. Thank you.”

She lifted her face and found herself gazing into those magnificent blue-grey eyes of his. Eyes that glowed with something she had not beheld before … a warmth, a vulnerability, a surrender to … no!

No, she would not proceed in that direction, Beth admonished herself sternly! Stephen Fenton was a danger she would not expose herself to, even though she was attracted to him in a way that she did not like at all. Thus, she averted her eyes from him and allowed him to lead her to the market place, where the banquet was about to begin.

 

From the dais, where the more distinguished guest were seated, Henrietta Fenton watched her son as he led Beth Williams to a chair on his right hand side. She herself sat on his left side and she was not entirely happy with that. She was also disconcerted about the way her son was looking at the school mistress. Henrietta knew the baron had formed an attachment to his former governess. Completely unaccounted for, as far as Henrietta was concerned, Stephen had considered himself responsible for the deaths of the Williams woman’s mother and brother in a carriage accident, ten years ago. It was absolutely preposterous to blame a young lad of thirteen for a mistake when his father, Baron Septimus, had been the one that handed over the phaeton’s reins to his son, in an attempt to teach him how to drive it.

Henrietta Fenton was indeed very concerned about her son.

She was all but too conscious of the loneliness he suffered since his beloved wife’s death. Florence had also perished in a curricle accident when she drove it off the road and onto a tree. They had loved each other fiercely and passionately and not even the fact of Florence’s barrenness succeeded in ruining that love. Stephen, devastated by Florence’s passing, had stopped being interested in women ever since. Until the advent of that irritating vicar’s daughter! Oh, Henrietta had noticed all too well the looks that were being exchanged between the two young people. There was an attraction from both sides, and how could it not! Stephen was extremely handsome, young, powerful and wealthy,and becoming his wife would secure the Williams woman’s future for good. Well, Henrietta vowed, not when she had a say in it!

 

Later that night, when the festivities were over, Fenton escorted Beth to Mrs Bradley’s former dwelling, which now bore the name of “White Rose Cottage”, referring to the heaps of newly planted bushes of that variety, dear to Beth since she was a child. Her mother had cultivated white roses all over the vicarage garden and used to tend the bushes with a passion.

Beth stepped through the little wooden gate and into the small walled front garden, already dreaming of how the roses would smell, come June.

“So, Miss Williams, are you ready to tackle your challenge tomorrow?”

“I am, my lord, and looking forward to it.”

The baron nodded and took Beth’s hand. “I will accompany Lily and Oliver on horseback and bring them to you in time,” he promised before brushing the back of her hand with firm lips. A tingle ran swiftly down Beth’s spine when she felt the warmth of Stephen’s touch. She quickly retrieved her hand before her now weakened knees would buckle. Holy Mary! Why did she always and invariably respond like a lovesick school girl, whenever the baron touched her?

“Will you be comfortable enough?” the baron asked softly, glancing down into her eyes.

Beth seemed unable to avert her face and searched for some expression in the baron’s gaze, which she did not find. Fenton’s eyes were unreadable in the dim light of the waning moon.

“I will, my lord. Thank you for asking. I will bid you goodnight, then.”

Before she could turn away and enter her house, Fenton grasped for both of her hands and brought them swiftly to his lips. He kissed them, one after the other, and squeezed hem lightly.

“Goodnight, my l … erm … Miss Williams.”

Beth stared after him in confused bewilderment while he strode toward his stallion Parsifal with long, easy strides.

 

The lovely drawing I used in my story is by Mrs Joyce Mould.

The Counterfeit Governess – Part Twenty

books

Twenty – The Agreement

 

On Boxing Day morning 1819, Stephen Fenton, Baron Brixton, was pacing the Aubusson carpet in his library in what might be called a state of agitation. He positively had never felt thus uncertain in his whole life, he mused.

Stephen was waiting for his governess to come and have a meeting with him regarding the arrangements to be made for her charges. That was the pretext of the meeting, as far as he was concerned. But in truth, there was a more important issue he wanted to settle; how was he going to make Beth Williams stay at Brixton Abbey?

After lying awake for half the night, turning over the various difficulties of his relationship with Beth in his mind, Stephen had finally come to the only possible conclusion. He wished to make Beth his wife because he loved her. In the few months, she had spent in his home, Beth Williams had become indispensable to him. That undeniable fact had become very clear after Beth left for Manchester. His children had not been the only ones he missed, Stephen admitted to himself. Not having Beth living under his roof, not to be able to see her, talk with her, banter with her, argue with her, all that had made Stephen realise he felt the same way as when he courted his Florence, back in 1813. The longing when she was near him, the joy of being with her, the pain of not seeing her, was the same as when he had been with Florence. Stephen knew beyond all doubts he would not go through the same excruciating pain he experienced when Florence disappeared from his life. No! Never again! He would not survive another ordeal of that kind, he would not! So Beth had to stay and be with him. He would have to make her love him and marry him.

 

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“Come in, if you please, Miss Williams. Do take a seat.”

Stephen did his best to keep his voice level but his heart sank when he noticed Beth’s rigid bearing and her tightly compressed lips. She did not take the chair he indicated but remained within two steps of the library door. Her hands were clasped in front of her, as if to disguise the fact that they were trembling. They were, Stephen saw. She was nervous, then. He did not make the mistake of extending a hand to her but waved at the settee and coffee table. They seated themselves in opposite chairs.

“Miss Williams, before we discuss what is to be done for Lily and Oliver, I think it wise for you to tell me about your own plans first.”

“My lord,” Beth replied, “you allowed me a choice when you asked me to come back here. I would like to take you up on that. It is my wish that you should take on a new governess for the children because I want to leave Brixton Abbey and go to Manchester. I have seen a lot of sickness, misery and ignorance in that town. People like Mrs Oakham, who spend their lives trying to make things better for the poor, have made me realise I could be of greater use than to teach the children of the rich.”

Stephen took great care of keeping a straight, impassive face, yet inside, he felt like he just suffered a blow in the stomach. Although he cringed at the notion, he had known Beth would leave the Abbey and disappear from his life as soon as she had the chance. He should have been mentally prepared for the shock but discovered he had not.

“What is it that you would want to do in Manchester,” he asked, hoping his voice would not break and give away his despair.

Beth’s eyes were suddenly alight with enthusiasm.

“I want to start a school for girls and give them an education that would allow them to better themselves in life! Girls are so totally without chances, especially when they are poor and living in a rapidly growing industrial city like Manchester. Like the boys and men, they find work in the mills and factories, yet they do not have the same opportunities as their male fellow workers. Promotions are scarce and never for women. Pay raises are rare and always solely for men.”

Stephen’s heart skipped a beat when she grasped his arm in her fiery enthusiasm. She was so completely absorbed in her narrative that her eyes burned into his with a lively fire.

“Do you understand, my lord? Can you comprehend what I mean to accomplish? I want the girls to armour themselves for their rapidly changing future! They must be given the chance to learn to read and write, to master foreign languages, to acquire skills in arithmetic, geography and history. In the mills, there are numerous tasks which do not need strength or stamina but care and precision. Women can provide that if they have the necessary education. I want to try and start a school that tends to those needs.”

Despite his hurt, Stephen could not help a sad little smile, seeing Beth’s spirit.

“I can very well believe you would succeed in making the school a success, Miss Williams. I think you could succeed in anything you fight for.”

Then he suddenly needed to distance himself from those warm, smiling chocolate eyes, so he rose and went to lean against the mantelpiece. His lifelong memories of her would not distance themselves at all, he found. That was Beth, he thought, all fiercely fighting for what she thought was wrong, all warmth and compassion for those who were worse off than herself. And now, she was going to leave him …

He had to try one desperate proposition as a last resort.

“You are completely right about a school for girls, Miss Williams. Girls and women, too, are maltreated in our so-called civilized society, if not physically then certainly as a person. I have …”

He turned and looked directly at her.

“I have had this idea for some time now but never got around as to how to achieve it. In Woolworth, there is no school, no education, not even for the boys. The vicar gives some of the more intelligent boys a basic learning but it is only too little and it interferes with his duties as a minister. I would like you to consider a position as a teacher in the village school I am about to establish in Woolworth. Given time, I am planning to enlarge it. There will be other teachers if it is successful.”

She was staring at him, confused and utterly surprised, Stephen acknowledged in relief. He had her attention, albeit reluctantly, so he pressed on.

“Miss Williams … Beth … please, will you consider my offer?”

 

~~~~

 

In Beth’s mind, there was only one question: why was Stephen doing this? Ah, and she knew the answer, did she not? He wanted to keep her here, if not at Brixton Abbey, then at least in the vicinity of it. And to achieve that goal, he just proposed to make true one of her most fervent wishes, to be a teacher to children whose parents were too poor to offer them education.

While she was desperately trying to gather her thoughts, Beth stared into Stephen’s beautiful blue-grey eyes and was finding it difficult to think. Had it not always been like that? Had she not always been utterly lost when she looked him in the eyes? Had she not always, secretly, desperately loved him? Was it not her dearest wish in life to be with him? Yet, she understood all too well she had to be very careful and very weary of him. She knew all too well what he wanted from her and she was not – in a million years – prepared to give him that. So she would make him a bargain.

“Where would this school be lodged, my lord?”

“In Mrs Bradley’s cottage. I am fully prepared to make the necessary adaptations and equip the premises to be perfectly suitable. You could live there, too. I would pay for a maid and a man servant so that you have only the school to think of. Are you inclined to take on my offer, then, Miss Williams?”

Beth bowed her head and smiled. “I would, my lord.”

 

~~~~

 

Relief flooded through Stephen like a tidal wave! With some effort, he managed to keep a straight face and a steady voice.

“Very well, Miss Williams. Grant me a few days to prepare the cottage so that you can take up your task as a teacher. Surely, we will have the pleasure of your company until after the New Year?”

“It will give you the opportunity of advertising for a new governess, will it not, my lord? I must also explain the new arrangements to Lily and Oliver.”

“My dear Miss Williams,” Stephen ventured, taking Beth’s hand to bring it to his lips. “I fervently hope you will not abandon them. They could take their lessons in the village school, together with the children that are, in fact, their friends of old.”

He flashed her his most brilliant smile. “Am I wrong in thinking you are reluctant to be parted from Lily and Oliver, Miss Williams?”

Beth hesitated and her eyes grew dark with sudden sadness. It slashed through his heart like a knife! “No, my lord, you are indeed right. I would not want to lose them … as you very well know.”

 

~~~~

 

Stephen pensively stared at Beth’s back as she left his library. He had just won the first round of what would be the greatest challenge to come in his life. Now, he could make up the strategy, needed to win his counterfeit governess’s heart and make her his baroness.

It would be all but easy, he knew. He had to eat lots of humble pie, but he would do whatever it took to win his Beth.

He had to. He loved her.

Dear Reader,

This is the end of The Counterfeit Governess but not the end of Stephen’s courtship of Beth.

Please join me next week for Reserve and Reticence, and learn the rest of their story.

Thank you for reading me,

Love, Luce 

The Counterfeit Governess – Part Nineteen

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Nineteen – The Lures of Temptation

 

As soon as his right arm encircled her lower back, Beth found herself yielding to Stephen’s enticing, as if it were the most natural thing to do. He took her right hand into his left one, inducing her to place her other hand on his shoulder. When he started moving in a circular way, she felt the muscles in that shoulder shift and flex in a most agreeable manner. He was strong and well-built and … very male, with the faint scent of cologne and tobacco assaulting her senses, making her body respond in a strange way. Her breasts suddenly seemed too large for her dress but the tingling feeling was very pleasant and exciting. Her lower stomach developed a life of its own, aching all of a sudden with a spiralling, throbbing wave of … what only could be named ‘desire’!

As they circled the room, enchanted by the lovely tones of the waltz, Beth raised her head and met Stephen’s gaze. His very blue eyes were glowing softly and with an expression she never beheld before. His mouth, finely chiselled and smiling, opened slightly to reveal his perfect white teeth.

“May I express my admiration on the lovely attire you chose to wear tonight, Miss Williams? You are looking exactly how I knew you would as soon as you abandoned that gloomy black you usually prefer.”

Beth felt her cheeks go hot, not as usual in anger, but in genuine pleasure, for his voice had not been mocking. Instead he had spoken in a gentle tone as if he had been admiring her in truth. She had donned a gown of burgundy coloured taffeta, with only the shortest of puffed sleeves so that the neckline, not that low at all, still gave the impression of revealing more of her bosom than it truly did. The loose, flowing skirt, worn without a crinoline, swirled becomingly as they circulated the room.

Light as a feather – that was how Beth felt. Being in Stephen’s arms, close to him as she had never been with a dance partner, did not frighten her as she would have thought it would. Instead, a strong notion of unmistakeable safety warmed her whole person.

Yet, as pleasant as it was, it was not enough to dispel her experiences of what Stephen was, nor her suspicions of what his intensions were towards her. She was acutely aware of one thing; she did not truly know the Master of Brixton Abbey.

Between the disastrous dealings with him during her youth and the present time, their lives had been led separately in different places. Beth had been tucked away in Provence with her father and her aunt, safely guarded and blissfully protected from the evils of the world, while Stephen had come into his title and position as the master of his family’s estate. He had married Florence, and it had been a love match. True, he had taken care over his illegitimate offspring, but only when his marriage had proved barren and after his wife had died.

“You seem preoccupied, Miss Williams. Are you displeased with the way I am conducting this waltz? I would hate to think myself responsible for preventing you of enjoying it.”

Beth did not know what troubled her most, the very words he had spoken or the sweet concern ringing through them.

“No, no, my lord! You have nothing to reproach yourself for and certainly not your dancing! It is excellent. Please, forgive my loss of concentration. I confess to feeling an extreme weariness over the events of the past few days, what with Mrs Bradley’s passing and the children’s grief.”

Stephen did not reply but gently tightened his hold. Beth found herself with sudden tears in her eyes when she realised he was offering her a quiet comfort when she needed it. When the music ended soon thereafter, Stephen raised her hand to his lips, turned it upward and kissed her wrist, just above the cuff of her glove.

“I very much would like to speak with you, Miss Williams. There still are some matters we must discuss about my children’s future. Does ten o’clock tomorrow morning suits you?”

“Very well, my lord.”

Beth curtsied when Stephen brought her back to her chair. She sat down next to the children who were playing on the carpet with the toys they found under the Christmas tree and watched her employer move around the room and speak to several of his neighbours and senior staff members.

With a pang of unexpected sadness, she noticed how several of the young and unmarried ladies had their eyes glued on Stephen’s tall, elegant frame in black evening coat, golden waistcoat, buff coloured breeches and shiny black Hessian boots. His fine white shirt was of the finest linen and his snowy-white cravat accentuated the strength of his firm jaw.

He was elegant and so very, very male, and amiable to every young lady present. Whenever he addressed them, albeit polite and distant, the girls would batter their eyelashes at him and flush becomingly. Their mamas would show a great deal of teeth and put an affectionate hand on his sleeve to convince him of their approval. Stephen was, Beth realised, a much-coveted widower, still young and handsome and, more to the point extremely wealthy.

To these well-bread members of society, the presence of a young, unattached governess at Brixton Abbey must constitute a genuine thread. Surely, that was the reason why Beth herself had been most pointedly snubbed by all the female guests of the Dowager’s Christmas party.

 

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Mrs Bradley’s death had not solely affected her grandchildren, Lily and Oliver. Beth too had been shaken and hurt when Granny Bradley died because she had always been fond of her father’s former housekeeper. After the tragic death of her mother and her brother Julian, Beth’s father was in sore need of a housekeeper and a female presence in the house for fourteen-year-old Beth. Granny Bradley, who needed the meagre salary Vicar Williams offered her to raise the twins, gladly and thankfully took on the task. It had been only natural that Beth renewed the bonds of affection with Granny and the children after she came back from France. She had always felt very safe and loved in Granny’s presence.

That was only one of the reasons why Beth had finally decided she would return to England, besides the fact she wanted the master of Brixton Abbey to atone for the death of her relatives. She had been struck by a wave of homesickness when both her father and her aunt passed away. Who better than to turn to than Granny Bradley and go back to her childhood village?

During her stay at Brixton Abbey, Beth had become acutely aware of one notion; she had developed a great love for Lily and Oliver. So deep an affection that she forced herself to come back – even after Stephen wounded her with his caddish behaviour – and make sure the children were taken care of.

Now, that request had been fulfilled. Lily and Oliver bore the Fenton name and would have a share of their father’s fortune.

Beth was free from the promise she made to Granny Bradley. She was free to leave Brixton Abbey and start another life. A life away from Stephen Fenton.

The Counterfeit Governess – Part Eighteen

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Eighteen – A Time For Reflection

 

Mrs Bradley’s funeral occurred on the Tuesday before Christmas 1819. It was a remarkable event with the whole village and the occupants of Brixton Abbey attending the service at St Mary’s church. The Reverend Mr Carter, assisted by his curate, Mr Sage, moved the congregation to tears with his praise of Mrs Bradley’s virtues, all of which were only very true, as Stephen knew.

His children were sitting very still and white-faced, clasping their governess’ hands as they sat on both sides of her. Stephen could clearly see their distress but also, their braveness in mastering their tears and controlling their grief. Beth, he noticed, did not weep at all but sat very upright and solemn in her black mourning clothes. He was unsure if her apparent aloofness was a good thing. He would have preferred some tears over this rigid control.

When the service was finally over, and they had laid Granny Bradley to rest beside her daughter Molly, the congregation split. The Dowager took the children to the carriage where their father was waiting for them. As her charges had no immediate need for her, Beth’s steps were drawn to Granny’s cottage before she could help it. She pushed open the door and a huge gulf of grief suddenly gripped her. Granny … dearest Granny, who took her in after Beth finally came back to the place of her youth … How was she supposed to continue now? Whom could she turn to if ever she would be in need of a comforting presence in her life? With a sob, breaking from her, Beth sank into Granny’s chair by the hearth and wept.

 

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After Stephen sent his mother and the children back to the Abbey, he followed Beth when she directed her steps to the cottage. The look of sheer forlornness in her eyes had thoroughly alarmed him. He wanted to watch over her because he knew she was upset. The unexpected sight of her, huddled in a chair and sobbing her heart out, appalled him.

He ached to comfort her – no, to take her in his arms and hold her close but … He sighed inwardly with suppressed frustration. Had he not spoiled his chances of winning her heart by his rude, lustful behaviour, he might not have to restrain himself so.

Yet, Stephen knew all too well he would have to be careful not to shock Beth with brusque manners, lest she would again think him a confessed cad.

So, he waited patiently for her to put her hands down from her face and stare at him in surprise and dismay. With some awkwardness, she began searching her pockets for a handkerchief, which she failed to find, whereupon he presented his own large white one to her.

“Come on, Miss Williams,” he said evenly. “It is not at all in your nature to be so downcast. Normally, you tackle setbacks with fortitude and alacrity. Do so now, too. The children will need you at the Abbey.”

His rather blunt approach seemed to do the trick for Beth obediently rose while she blew her nose and wiped her eyes with his handkerchief. She glided past him without a word and left the cottage, clutching – at least – at some shred of her dignity.

 

~~~~

 

Christmas came at last. Stephen and his mother went out of the ordinary to make it a memorable one for Lily and Oliver and so – the baron observed – did the whole household staff, including his governess. Everybody wanted the children to feel less forlorn about their grandmother’s death.

Henrietta took the children with her in the carriage when she visited the tenants. She encouraged them to talk to them and give them presents. A sure way for Lily and Oliver, she knew, to become familiar with the many tasks of the gentry they belonged to from now on.

Stephen made them ride over the estate with him and taught them the names of the staff members who were of vital importance to the day-to-day workings of Brixton Abbey. Especially Oliver soon became acquainted with Mr and Mrs Robinson, the steward and his family. They were a friendly couple with three children, the eldest of them a boy of Oliver’s own age, by the name of Crispin.

To her own surprise, Lily found herself liking Mrs Tremayne a lot, whose husband was the home farmer. The Tremaynes were young and had been married for only a year and Mrs Tremayne was expecting her first baby in the spring.

Mr Darton, the game keeper, was more to Oliver’s liking. He was impressed by the man’s knowledge on the woodlands and promised himself to go out with Mr Barton frequently as soon as spring returned.

Beth, on the other hand, planned outings for her charges with the head gardener, Mr Burrows, and his helpers, who took the three of them with him into the woods to collect greenery and berries. Afterwards, the children and Beth helped the indoor maids to decorate the Great Hall and stairways with holly and fur branches and mistletoe. They had so much fun that Stephen was drawn out of his study by the giggles and laughter. Mrs Banton, the housekeeper, was trying in vain to keep the excitement down but, as soon as the baron appeared in the hall, voices died down instantly. Stephen felt himself growing irritated! Was he such a tyrant, then, that the maids cowered when he entered? Even Beth seemed startled and was staring at him with big brown eyes.

“Oh, Papa!” Lily’s high-pitched voice rang. “Come and join us! This is so much fun!”

The awkward mood was instantly chased away and soon, Stephen found himself standing on a ladder to attach some greenery to the post of a hallway door or to a chandelier, with Lily and Beth handing him branches of various shrubs. To his amazement, he enjoyed it a great deal, especially when Lily handed him a branch of mistletoe and ordered him to place it in the drawing room doorway.

“Why here, Lily?” Stephen asked. “Why not in the library door?”

“Because the drawing room is the one we use most, silly! We pass this door the most so you will have the greatest opportunity to kiss under the mistletoe here!”

“Oh? Is that what it is used for? I did not know that!” Stephen said, pretending not to know, but he winked at Beth, who suddenly blushed violently. He was absolutely delighted by that!

 

~~~~

 

Yet, Stephen had to wait until Christmas Day and the party his mother gave before he had a chance of coming close enough to Beth to have a private moment with her. She had stubbornly and most efficiently avoided being alone with him during the last few weeks and he was growing very irritated with that.

Finally, the Christmas dinner party saw the Abbey’s friends and neighbours assembled around Henrietta’s table in a quiet but comforting gathering. Lily and Oliver had been officially presented as the Baron’s heirs. Stephen’s neighbours were delighted to make the children’s acquaintance and treated them with affection and good humour.

Beth, who had been presented as the children’s governess, had not expected the unaffected friendliness of the guests. She was being treated as an equal, she realised with surprise and several of the young, unattached gentlemen politely asked her to reserve a dance for them. Yet, when the dancing began, Stephen forestalled every other suitor by claiming a waltz right away. He had the immense satisfaction of seeing Beth startled yet again.

“A waltz, my lord? But … I did not think I was supposed to be attending the dance … I …”

“You are requested here tonight, Miss Williams. It is obligatory to attend the baroness’ Christmas party. And, now that you are here, it is also capital that you grant me this waltz. People would think you rude and impolite.”

The musicians struck up the introduction to “Invitation to the Dance” from the German composer Carl Maria von Weber who just made a name for himself with a new opera in Dresden, Germany.

Without further ado, Stephen put his arm on Beth’s waist and drew her with him onto the dance floor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Counterfeit Governess – Part Seventeen

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Seventeen – A Great Sorrow

 

“Oh, Miss Williams, Granny Bradley is so very ill! The fever will not abate, and I am at the end of my tether!” Ruby wrung her hands in despair and sobbed inconsolably. Beth quickly ran past her and entered the cottage.

Mrs Bradley’s body on the bed seemed to have shrunken so much that Beth was instantly in a panic. Ruby had covered her with a cotton sheet but Beth could see the ravishing effects of the fever all too well. The old lady’s face was ashen but her cheeks bore bright red spots as if someone had touched them with rouge. Her breathing was laboured and seemed to drain away the last vestiges of her energy with every intake of air. Beth knelt beside the bed and took one of Mrs Bradley’s gnarled hands in hers.

“Granny … oh, Granny …” She choked on the words and attempted to swallow the big lump in her throat. Her eyes misted over when Mrs Bradley looked at her.

“Beth, my child …” There was not much strength left in those whispered words. “Beth, promise me … you will watch over my sweethearts … promise me, please?”

“Of course, I will! I love them! I will do whatever is necessary to keep them from harm or hurt! I swear it!”

Mrs Bradley made an attempt to cough but failed. Instead, she weakly wheezed and her lips turned blue. Hastily, Beth dipped her clean handkerchief into a bowl of eucalyptus water and held it under the old lady’s nose. It brought only a little relief, she saw, and not nearly enough.

“You must … marry him …” Mrs Bradley croaked and grabbed Beth’s hand with sudden vigour. “It is … the only way to guard them. That way, you will become a mother to them.”

“I cannot do that, Granny, but surely there are other …”

Mrs Bradley squeezed her hand in a painful way and drew a deep breath.

“It will ensure you happiness, my child. You love him, Beth … “ She coughed and gasped.

At that same moment, Fenton entered and paled visibly when he saw the condition Mrs Bradley was in. Yet, he controlled himself and knelt at the opposite side of the bed.

“Mrs Bradley, I took the liberty of sending for my personal physician, Dr Forrester. He will be here shortly and …”

“My lord …” rasped Mrs Bradley. “Please … take care of  … my darlings … promise me … you will … protect and love them?”

Stephen laid his hand on top of hers and softly said, “Mrs Bradley, you have my gentleman’s word I will do everything in my power to take care of Lily and Oliver. I do love them, you know that.”

The old lady nodded faintly yet urged on.

“You must also … look after … my dearest Beth! Promise me! She has … no one …” A violent fit of coughs raked her frail body and Beth, in alarm, tried to make her drink a bit of water. Mrs Bradley pushed her hand aside and grabbed Fenton’s hand in a hard grip.

“Promise me, my lord! Promise me …”

She gasped one last time and then, her eyes lost all sparkle of life. Her head fell back on the pillow and she lay still and unmoving.

Slowly Stephen’s hand went up and closed the dead woman’s eyes before he solemnly said what she so fervently had wanted to hear during her last moments.

“I promise, Mrs Bradley, I do.”

Stephen knew beyond a single doubt that he would do as he promised. He simply had no choice but to fulfil that promise to the dying grandmother of his twins. His gaze wandered to Beth. She had her eyes closed but a single tear ran down her cheek and Stephen realised she must be very distressed. He wanted nothing more than to take her in his arms and soothe her yet he knew she would not permit it. His ghastly behaviour of a few weeks ago had caused Beth to distrust and maybe even hate him.

“Come, Miss Williams,” he said softly, “we cannot help her anymore and must lay her to rest. I will see to it that Mrs Bradley receives all respect and dignity she is entitled to.”

 

~~~~

 

The days following Mrs Bradley’s demise were bleak and laden with sorrow. Stephen took it upon himself to take care of the necessary arrangements, so that Beth could devote herself entirely to Lily and Oliver. How she would be able to comfort the children, Stephen did not know. He had broken the news to them the following morning as gently as he could and asked his mother and Beth to be present when he did so. It had been one of the hardest things he had ever done in his life yet he must have accomplished it fairly good because the children – after the first outbursts of grief, of course – seemed to recover themselves a bit.

Lily had even asked in a timid little voice if they would be living at Brixton Abbey from now on, which caused his mother to forget her usual dignity and gather the two of them in her embrace. It was she who had assured the twins that, of course, the Abbey was now their home. When Beth took them away, they looked rather composed, to Stephen’s relief.

Yet, he again felt a pang of concern when Raleigh informed him that the children and Miss Williams would be dining in their rooms that night. They were too tired and too upset to come down. His mother too did not come down so Stephen dined alone downstairs, feeling like an outcast in his own home.

Afterwards, he hastened to the first floor where his children now occupied a suite of rooms. Beth’s bedchamber was adjacent to that of the children. Stephen knocked on the sitting room door but received no answer. Upon entering, he found his mother reading in the chaise-longue.

“My lady, how come I find you here instead of asleep in your chambers?”

Henrietta put down her book and sighed.

“I could not find sleep, Stephen. Poor Lily cried herself to sleep and Oliver tried comforting her with tears running down his cheeks, although he manfully swallowed them back. Miss Williams finally succeeded to calm them down. She is resting now and I volunteered to watch the children while she sleeps.”

“Let me relieve you, mother. You need to rest.”

“Stephen, I do not think …”

But her son helped Henrietta to her feet and soothed her.

“Do not concern yourself about propriety, mother. I trust you know me well enough to assume I would never break its rules.”

Henrietta relinquished and retreated to her rooms. Stephen opened the door to the children’s room.

Lily and Oliver were in their beds, sound asleep, and in a chair next to Lily’s bed sat Beth. At one point she must have been in her own bed for she had donned her nightgown. It was a plain, white cotton one without any frills or laces. It was the most fetching one Stephen had seen in his whole life.

Beth was sitting upright in what must be a very uncomfortable position. Her head had fallen aside and was resting against the chair’s high back. Her hands were still clutching her shawl of lavender blue wool against the night’s cold.

Poor sweet darling, Stephen thought. She must be exhausted and yet, she chose to stay at his children’s bedside, to be there, should they need her. Her fine, beautiful face was very pale in the light of the bedside table lamp. A few shallow lines showed next to her pert little nose, and the sight of them clutched at his very heart. He loved her … he simply did. He would court her and woe her until she loved him back and then, he would ask her to be his wife. It would be difficult because he had to gain her trust which he himself had destroyed with his rudeness. It did not signify. He would do it, slowly and gently.

But for now, she needed to rest in a thorough, soothing way. So Stephen carefully lifted her into his arms and carried her to her bed where he gently laid her down and tucked her in. She did not even stir.

He returned to the children’s room and took his place beside their bed. He had all night to think about how he would conduct his courtship.

 

The Counterfeit Governess – Part Sixteen

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Sixteen – Coming Closer

 

Struggling for balance, Beth gripped the edge of the desk and prayed her legs would not buckle beneath her. All the blood seemed to drain from her face and the air from her lungs. It should be declared a crime to be so overwhelmingly handsome as Stephen was looking just now, she thought. His proud bearings, his powerful body, his beloved face, eyes as blue as ice on a sunny winter day, eyes scorching hers.

No, she was wrong. Eyes softening suddenly as if … no, that could not be!

Before her incredulous gaze, he bowed deeply to her, taking off his hat, and spoke in a very respectful tone.

“Miss Williams, ma’am. Forgive me for intruding on your privacy unannounced but there was no one about and the outer door stood ajar.”

Somehow she managed to curtsy and allow some sound to escape from her frozen lips.

“My Lord Brixton …”

Her voice broke suddenly when speaking his name, and all air seemed to be lacking in the entire room. His eyes grew darker with concern and he took a step toward her, taking her arm to offer her some support.

“I daresay you need to sit down, ma’am. Here, let me guide you to …”

“No!” In sudden panic, Beth tore herself loose and leaned back against the desk. She could not bear the softness of his tone nor the concern in his voice. It could not be genuine, surely? No, she would not delude herself in thinking he somehow might care for her.

“What are you doing here, my lord?” she said, her voice wavering.  “Why have you come? If it is your intention to take away the children, it will only be over my dead body!”

Fenton’s face grew grim, and his mouth became a thin line of disapproval, but he did not move.

“Miss Williams,” he said, his voice rigid with suppressed emotion. “I have no such intention, I assure you. I have no right to take Lily and Oliver away from their legal guardian and I am extremely sorry to have done just that, a few months ago. I will apologize to Mrs Bradley if she will grant me to visit her.”

Beth watched him as he closed his eyes and she heard the distress in his voice when he went on.

“The truth of the matter is, Miss Williams, that I miss them. I have come to love them over the past few months and so has my mother, the dowager baroness. I beg you to listen to what I have come to ask you. Please, hear me out.”

Her heart made a sudden somersault when his gaze bore into hers with burning intensity, all unexpectedly! All Beth could do, was to make a small hand gesture, permitting him to continue.

“My proposition is that you and Mrs Bradley and the children all come to celebrate Christmas at Brixton Abbey – as our guests, that is. My mother has a habit of hosting a small dinner party on Christmas Day for our neighbours and for a few of our estate employees, such as Mr Robinson, my steward and his wife, Mr Tremayne and his wife who run the Home Farm and Mr Darton, my game keeper. After Boxing Day, you will be free to do whatever you like, Miss Williams. So are the children. If they choose to go and live with their grandmother, I will not be opposed to it. If – on the other hand – they prefer to stay at Brixton Abbey, I will ask Mrs Bradley permission to have them be declared my offspring. I fervently wish to give them my name and be their father, Miss Williams.”

 

~~~~

 

She must have heard wrongly, Beth thought. Stephen Fenton, Baron Brixton, was humbly asking them to come and spend Christmas at the Abbey. He was prepared to give his name to his bastard children and make them legally his. He was even prepared to let their grandmother have the final word.

“My lord,” she croaked, all confusion, “if that is your wish, then I suggest I take you up to see Mrs Bradley. As for myself, I must decline your kind invitation. I cannot, in all honesty, be a guest at Brixton Abbey since I was your employee and left your employment without giving notice. People would talk, and I do not want that. It would be very bad for the children.”

“You did not leave my employment, Miss Williams. On the contrary, it was I who drove you away through my outrageous behaviour, all for which I humbly beg your forgiveness. You too are free to act as you wish, Miss Williams. You can either come back as their governess, should Mrs Bradley deem it suitable that Lily and Oliver were to stay at the Abbey, or you can stay with us during the Christmas festivities as my esteemed guest and friend. After the holy days, you can do as you please. If you wish to find some other employment, I would gladly and wholeheartedly give you the best of references. However, Miss Williams, I would hate to see you disappear from my life forever.”

Beth stared at him, her mind reeling under what she had just heard.

“I … I do not understand you, my lord,” she stammered. “Your … guest? Your … friend? How can that be since I was a mere governess in your house?”

He smiled so sweetly that her heart once again did that strange flip-flop inside her chest.

“Miss Williams, I do not wish to explain anything. I do not want to influence you in any way. Think about my proposition and act accordingly to your conscience.”

He bowed again and left the room, leaving Beth in utter confusion and turmoil.

 

~~~~

 

Stephen watched from his library window as his carriage rolled over the Abbey’s driveway towards the front of the house. While it performed a perfect half circle to round up before the main entrance and came to a standstill exactly on the right spot, he felt a thrill of something stir his heart. His footman opened the door and lowered the steps while extending a hand which was taken by a slender black-gloved hand. And there she was, Beth, his wayward governess, looking up to the windows behind which he was standing. Stephen raised a hand and smiled. She did not respond to either gesture, he noticed. Instead, she followed Raleigh inside. Lily and Oliver jumped from the carriage, all laughter and merriment. They saw him and their voices rang with joy as they waved and shouted.

“Papa! Papa! Oh, Papa, how we missed you!”

That did it. Stephen was suddenly running down the stairs toward the hall where the twins jumped into his arms, and he clasped them close and kissed them! His heart almost burst with joy and happiness. He had missed them so badly … oh, how he had missed them …

“Oh, my dear darlings!” he said in a choked voice, swallowing at the lump in his throat.

 

~~~~

 

Beth had not wanted to come back to the Abbey. It had been Mrs Bradley who convinced her it was best for the children that she did, and Beth knew she had been perfectly right, of course. Lord Brixton’s protection was vital to Lily and Oliver. Nevertheless, Beth had been frightfully worried when she witnessed Mrs Bradley signing the agreement with the baron, in which he granted the children recognition and gave them his name. It was such a final step. Lily and Oliver were not solely family to Mrs Bradley anymore.

However, it was a solid agreement in which Lily and Oliver were established as the baron’s heirs and officially proclaimed his offspring. Fenton had not even demanded that the children live at the Abbey yet expressed the fervent wish that would be allowed to do so by Mrs Bradley if they wanted it. He even offered that Mrs Bradley come and live at the Abbey, should the children wish it. But the old lady had refused, and secretly, Beth felt very relieved. There still would be a place of refuge in case she needed one.

Now, Beth was horribly shaken by what she had just witnessed. Lily and Oliver seemed very fond of Fenton and he of them. She certainly had not been prepared for this and she did not know how to deal with it. Yet, she had another surprise coming when the dowager hurried into the hall and embraced the children with equal fondness and what seemed to be happiness!

While his mother took the children upstairs, Fenton bowed and extended a hand to Beth.

“Miss Williams, allow me to express my joy on seeing you here with my twins. I am so glad you have accepted my invitation. How is Mrs Bradley? Is she settled in her cottage again?”

“Indeed, my lord, she is but she is not well. She caught a nasty cold, a few days ago, and I will need to go and see her. Ruby Merton offered to take care of her but I feel it is my duty to be at Mrs Bradley’s side, just now.”

Fenton nodded, an earnest expression on his face.

“Allow me to escort you there, Miss Williams. We will call on Dr Forrester, who is my personal physician. I insist that he examine Mrs Bradley so that she may receive the best of treatments.”

Beth had never seen him so concerned nor so generous and she hesitated, not sure how to deal with this new attitude of his.

“Please, Miss Williams, give me some credit. Do not look as if I were to have mischief on my mind. Mrs Bradley is not that young anymore and colds can be serious at her age.”

Beth bowed her head in acquiescence and they both left for the village.

When they arrived at Mrs Bradley’s cottage, Ruby Merton could only offer them sad news.

 

 

 

 

 

The Counterfeit Governess – Part Fifteen

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Fifteen – Struggling

 

“Confound it, man!” Fenton glared at Ben Merton in frustration and raked his hand through his hair in sudden misery. “Does it not occur to you that I might be worried about my children? That I am concerned if they are safe, fed, clothed, cared for?” He realized with a shock that it was true! He did worry about his children, even though he had never done so before. But now, at this very moment, he needed to know how they fared.

Merton, however,  stood his ground, an expression of profound stubbornness upon his ruddy face.

“They’re with their granny and with Miss Beth, melord. Nothing will ‘appen to ‘em. They’ll be cared for because Miss Beth loves ‘em like they’d be her own.”

And she does love them, indeed, Stephen thought. If he witnessed anything at all in the past months, it was Beth’s genuine love for Lily and Oliver. But how was he going to put proof of his own love for them into this man’s thick skull?

“Mr Merton,” his mother’s soft voice sounded behind him. “Please, Mr Merton, if you know where they are, tell us. I am their grandmother and I miss them dearly.” Yet another stunning realisation hit Stephen in the guts! His mother was pleading a commoner for help? Never had he thought to behold that!

Henrietta, her eyes glistening in a pale face, turned toward Ruby and took her hand. “Mrs Merton, you are a mother yourself. Surely, you understand how much I am suffering for the loss of them?”

Ruby Merton glanced at her husband who stood there like a rock, his brawny arms crossed over his chest, his face impassive. Yet Stephen could see a softening in the man’s eyes when his wife spoke his name. “Ben?” Merton looked at her and then, finally nodded.

“My lord,” Ruby said, “you saved our little boy from the fire and I will be forever in your debt for that. My husband made a promise to Mrs Bradley but I did not. For my Johnny’s sake, I will tell you. Mrs Bradley is in Manchester.”

 

~~~~

 

Stephen Fenton arrived in Oxford Street, Manchester three weeks before Christmas 1819 around tea time. The snow had been falling steadily during his journey and now it clung to his black greatcoat in lumps of ice because the temperature had dropped considerably as soon as dust had set in. Grateful to have found a suitable inn that bore the not too original name of “The Queen’s Head”, he assured himself that his horse was taken care of properly before entering the tap room for a pint of ale. Behind the counter, a short, burly innkeeper was serving a few patrons, all sturdy workers in drab dark blue clothes, lounging around the room or indulging in a game of cards. The man welcomed him cheerfully.

“Good evenin’, sir! Bet you’re frozen to the bones, ain’ it? What can I serve ya with?”

“A pint of your best ale, sir, and a room for the night, if you please!”

The innkeeper drew him a tankard of ale and shoved a ledger his way.

“I am Wat Burton, sir, you host for tonight. Would you kindly write down your name and the town you’re from?”

“Stephen Fenton, Baron Brixton of Brixton Abbey in Derbyshire.” They shook hands and Stephen signed the ledger before taking a good swig of his ale. He then bent over the counter and lowered his voice before speaking.

“I wish to know the whereabouts of a Mrs Oakham who, I am told, lives here in Manchester. Can you help me in finding out where exactly I could find her?”

“Mrs Oakham? Dr Oakham’s widow? Well, yes, me lord, she lives here, in Oxford Street, at number 17. Everyone could point out her house to ya! She’s very well known, here about!”

“How is that so?”

“Well, me lord, she’s kindness in person! She helps people with all kinds of sufferin’, as well as she can! From miles around, people come to ‘er with their sicknesses and injuries. I daresay she’d had hard enough times helping ‘em all before her sister arrived with Miss Beth and the children. They all help her, ya know, especially Miss Beth! That is one angel, if I ever saw one!”

There was a general approval coming from the rest of the patrons in the room.

“Miss Beth ‘elped me poor mother when she suffered a bout of rheumatism!” one of the men said, nodding emphatically in the process.

“And she delivered me son, just a few days ago!” another one exclaimed. “And made a dashed good job with it, when old Lizzie, the midwife, was out of ‘er wits, not knowin’ what to do!”

“I’m sure she did save my little Mary’s life when she used her own medicine to cure that nasty cough of hers!” a third man shouted, his eyes gleaming with tears.

Stephen felt a strange tug at his heart as he realised what he was witnessing here; a bunch of unwashed, unshaven workmen in drab clothes, singing the praise of his wayward governess who seemed to work here as some sort of nurse. Of his Beth … but why should he be surprised by that? Did she not win the heart of just everyone that had the good fortune of being smiled upon by her? Did she not always made her way to whatever she set her mind to … or her heart?

All of a sudden, Stephen was not sure anymore that he would be able to bring her back with him to Brixton Abbey. And, oh … how he wanted to do just that …

 

~~~~

 

Beth stretched her painful lower back and sighed. Another very busy morning at the infirmary had kept her on her feet almost from after breakfast until now. It must be near luncheon, she thought, and began ranging the room and readying it for the afternoon rush that would soon begin.

She had been extremely thankful that Mrs Oakham had asked her to help out with the patients. Most of the day, Beth had no time to even think about Brixton Abbey and its despicable master. No, that was unfair. Stephen Fenton was just like any other man of his social class and upbringing. He assumed that he had a right to do as he pleased and to take what he liked. Beth knew she had been too rash when she took Lily and Oliver with her, that night six weeks ago, but she could not bear the thought of leaving the two innocent children under Fenton’s roof without her. Fenton would most certainly try again to lure her into his bed. Beth could not, under any circumstances, risk them to witness or even glimpse something of the ongoing.

So, she had fled to Mrs Bradley and told her, in private, what had transpired. Sensible as she was, Mrs Bradley immediately sent for Ben Merton and Ruby and explained that the four of them would go in hiding from the baron.

Since then they all lived under Mrs Oakham’s roof in Manchester, in the big, old house that she had shared with her husband when he had been alive. Beth had been instantly drawn into Mrs Oakham’s charity work for the poorest of the workers and their families, all undernourished and suffering from lung diseases, due to the cotton fluff that filled their workrooms. There was a great deal of misery in Manchester, especially after the riots earlier in the year, that had cost so many lives and left so many women widows.

Yes, Beth reflected, she had been devastated after fleeing Brixton Abbey. She had begun to fall in love with Stephen and she had thought he was beginning to fall in love with her, too. Oh, how she had been wrong, so terribly wrong! Stephen was planning to make her his mistress, instead, and that, she could not bear to be. She could not even bear the thought of giving herself to him when he did not love her. Never, never, would she give herself to him without love, mutual love, shared love. How else would she be happy again? How else would she be able to make him happy again?

Oh, she was so tired. The morning had been hectic, with loads of very young children, all in need of relief for their coughs and running noses and fevers. Beth was glad she had sent Mrs Oakham upstairs for a much needed rest.

Behind her, the door of the surgery opened suddenly. There had been no knock. Due to her exhaustion, Beth was irritated when she turned around to see who had been so bold as to enter without waiting for an answer.

In the doorway, looking extremely attractive in his black greatcoat and black beaver hat, stood Stephen Fenton, a rakish smile on his handsome face.

 

Happy New Year!