Hearts Adrift – Part Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-EightArmitage_00412- small

 

Two weeks passed in relative peace, so that Manon was able to go to Greenhaven to check on how Mrs Lynver fared. Pru who had gone there a few days before Manon, told her that she had secured the services of a young Cornish physician, Dr Trevellyan. Together with the staff of nurses they managed to stem the constant daily tide of sufferers to a reasonable amount.

Manon returned to Bearsham Manor on the tenth of August. She found her uncle much improved in strength and in spirits, although he was still in need of rest. After a thorough examination, she left Richard to his sleep.

Conscious of her still unabated feelings for her uncle, Manon sighed with sorrow as she closed the door of her uncle’s bedchamber behind her. It had not grown easier, this constant confrontation they were both subjected to. She had hoped it would, though. Yet after a few days away from Richard, days in which she deeply missed him, the joy of seeing him again overwhelmed Manon. Her heart had leapt with love when she saw the answering sparkle in Richard’s eyes, just moments ago. His smile had warmed her to the core, even when she recognized the pain of having to suppress their mutual forbidden feelings in his hungry gaze. How were they to bear this, she had no inkling.

On the second floor, Manon passed a large oak door which was polished to a shine in certain places by the touch of many hands. Curious to the point of excitement, she pushed against it; she had not entered this room before.

The solemn silence of a chapel met her when Manon stepped over the threshold. Her upbringing had been Roman-Catholic. The chapel’s perfectly quiet atmosphere, combined with the exquisite decoration, instantly touched her very soul.

She reverently curtsied while dipping her hand into the elegant marble shell near the door. It was filled with holy water. She made a slow sign of the cross and glanced around to admire the beautiful upholstery.

 

Richard woke from a short nap when the door to his room opened. His niece rushed in, and he was struck by the somewhat dishevelled state she was in. Manon’s fiery hair was coming down from its pins, and she had a smudge of dirt crossing her nose and cheeks.

“Oh, I am truly sorry, Uncle, to have woken you. Parbleu! Tête de mule, que je suis!

She turned to leave the room, but Richard, fully awake now and intrigued, called her back.

“When you are swearing in French and calling yourself a dunderhead, then something truly upsetting must have happened, my dear. Out with it, please.”

“I wanted to show you something, but I forgot that you might be asleep. It can wait, Uncle.”

“No, it cannot. Wait for me outside, and I will call Bright to help me get dressed.”

Manon left the room with a smile on her face. So her uncle had taken her advice and allowed Bright to help him while he was convalescing.

Ten minutes later, Richard let Manon take him to the second floor chapel, but was surprised that she did so.

“The family has not used this chapel for years, Manon. The servants have their services here whenever they lack the time to go down to Bearsham Village and St Wulfram’s Church. The vicar, Mr Merryweather, has always graciously obliged me in this. I did not know you had adopted it as your own, small place of worship.”

“Mrs Briskley told me about it, but I had not found the time to visit and pray. There is something here. Come.”

Manon impetuously grabbed his hand rather and pulled him with her. Richard winced as a sharp tug reminded him of his injured ribs yet he quickly swallowed his gasp of pain.

His niece led him to the small, intricately decorated altar at the chapel’s front. It was an example of exquisite baroque craftsmanship in white, pink, and dark blue marble. Its front and upper part bore bas-reliefs, representing angels, demons, saints, and cherubs in all sizes and postures, yet the overall effect was charming and not as overly loaded as is usually the case in baroque pieces. The upper part had also a small, gilded door which concealed the tabernacle. On both sides of this door, there were two paintings, both about the size of a square foot.

“Look closely at the painting on the left, Uncle,” Manon said quietly.

Richard furrowed his brow and looked at her in complete bewilderment.

“I have known these paintings to be here as long as I can remember, Manon. The one on the right is “The Steps to Elysium” or the depiction of souls ascending into Heaven, and the other is “The Vale of Tears” or…” And suddenly, Richard grasped what his niece had wanted him to see.

He darted forward, ignoring the fiery arrow of pain piercing his back. Dizziness forced him onto his knees, and he heard Manon’s distressed cry only dimly, as if he were under water.

“I am well,” he hastened to reassure her. “It is only a passing faintness. Help me up, please.”

Once he was on his feet again, Richard acted with greater caution, grimly recalling that he had not yet his strength back. Pushing back his infuriated thoughts about his condition, he bent forward to examine the small painting to the left of the tabernacle.

It all came back to him like a high wave, breaking onto the shore. This chapel had been his father’s retreat when his wife’s harassments became too overburdening. Richard remembered that his father had often worked in here as well, seated at a small table at the back. It stood to reason that Robert de Briers must have had a place in here that was destined to hide confidential documents.

Richard’s hand went up to the gilded tabernacle door, then stopped. It must be locked, he remembered, and the key would be … where, for heaven’s sake? He abruptly realised he had no notion of its whereabouts.

“Blast!” He tried to mutter the curse under his breath, but Manon’s keen ears picked it up anyway.

“What? What is it?” she demanded, her voice rising to a pitch with frustration. “Why do you not pull the painting from its place and examine what is behind?”

“Because, my impetuous niece,” Richard patiently explained, “that is not the way to find out what is ‘behind the vale’. Which, if I may say so, is exceedingly astute of you to have figured out.”

Manon blushed so becomingly that Richard’s heart leapt with a sudden desire. Damn! When would he learn to suppress his unruly feelings for his lovely niece?

“It was not solely my doing,” she answered. “Jake and Jéhan helped me. Oh, I am so extremely curious! How will we know, then? What is this secret?”

She was almost jumping with excitement, and Richard laughed aloud at the pretty sight she presented. Hair tumbling, face flushed, and sea-green gown wrinkled and stained from her search – it made her look truly adorable.

“Well,” he replied, “I need to locate the tabernacle key, because without it, our search is over. It may very well be amongst the keys in my father’s desk. I have not yet found the time to go through all his possessions, since I had to set out for France right after his death.”

“Tabernacle keys are usually found in the vestry,” Manon said, matter-of-factly. “In a French church, there would be a special cabinet for them.”

“Let us go find out, then,” Richard replied, and preceded her to the room in question, a small, cupboard-like extension at the far left side of the chapel. It had no windows, and its sturdy door was concealed in the wall panelling. Fortunately, it was unlocked.

Richard took a candle from a holder on the altar and lighted it from the thick wax candle in the corridor which was always kept burning by Thompson. They stepped inside. Manon immediately pointed at a small wooden box fixed to the back wall.

“There! That is what I mean!”

She was right. The small but robust iron tabernacle key was easily spotted, hanging from its hook amidst its fellows, which were used to open the cabinets for books and religious garments.

“Was the chapel a Roman Catholic one?” Manon asked, a bit bemused. “All those items certainly point toward that conclusion.”

“As a matter of fact, it was,” Richard confirmed. “After Henry VIII established the Church of England, all chapels, even the private ones, had to be refurbished. My ancestor at the time instantly swore loyalty to the new religion but could not find the heart to destroy the lovely late Gothic paintings the altar had been decorated with a century earlier. He had a false front installed, with reproductions of Renaissance works. Unfortunately, a later baronet had it pulled down to replace it with that baroque-styled monstrosity. The family must have kept all the other items concealed behind the vestry door.”

“I rather love the baroque style,” Manon retorted a bit of a reproach in her tone. “It is elegant and refined, and in my country, the nobility has used it in many exquisite chateaux, townhouses and churches.”

Richard kept silent, and instead went back to the chapel to try the key. He was unexpectedly stung by Manon’s referring to France as “her country” when he had believed all along that she was beginning to feel quite at home in England. How could one not feel at home at Bearsham Manor? Even with his cold-hearted mother around when he was little, Richard had always been fond of the large barn of a house. He knew why; his father had loved and cherished him and had made him feel at home. His father had instilled pride and reverence in him, for his name, his title, and his estate. Concern and care for people who depended on him for their livelihood.

“Never forget that you are first and foremost a de Briers, Richard. A baronet who was given a community to protect, along with his title. People and families, beasts and crops, and this estate and house – they all depend on you, my son, for their well-being.” Those were words he had often heard from Robert, his father.

“Oh!”

Manon’s little cry ripped Richard back into reality, and he hastened to put the key in the lock.

The tabernacle door opened easily on well-oiled hinges, which surprised Richard until he realised his father must have used it frequently for documents he needed to keep safe. Papers that had to be kept private and out of his mother’s sight, no doubt. Richard had no doubt that the dowager would have gotten hold of the combination to his father’s vault, even if she were not supposed to have acquired that knowledge.

“Oh! It is empty!” Manon exclaimed.

“No, wait,” Richard said and put his hand inside the small cupboard. He tapped lightly on the left side wall although he had no recollection as to how he knew to do so.

A hidden panel swung inward, and Manon held her breath when Richard extracted an item out of the secret compartment behind “The Vale of Tears”. It was a parcel, the size of a book, and wrapped in brown paper and fastened with a string.

In a bold, precise hand, the words “To my son Richard de Briers” could be read.

 

 

 

 

 

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Hearts Adrift – Part Twenty-Seven

Armitage_004 - small

Chapter Twenty-Seven

 

“Whoohoo!” Jéhan’s cry of delight instantly brought his sister back to reality.

“Hush, mon chou! It is a secret. No one must know we are searching for the treasure yet.”

Jéhan’s eyes shone with delight. There was nothing her little brother loved more than to play hide-and-seek or pirates-and-villains.

Jake Davies was scrutinizing Manon in a puzzled way. He had been a London street urchin until he was rescued from starvation by Richard’s father. Playing hide-and-seek had been essential to staying alive in the grimy rookeries of London. However, he had a hard time imagining what Manon needed to be secretive about.

Manon caught his gaze and smiled.

“We must have a council of war,” she whispered. “We need to plan our strategy. Listen to what we shall do.”

The three of them went to sit at Jéhan’s desk. Manon pulled a sheet of paper from the top drawer and began writing down a word.

“Veil,” Jéhan correctly read. He had begun learning his letters under Jake’s tutelage and was making fast progress.

“What about it, miss?” Jake asked in surprise.

“What does it mean?” Jéhan piped in surprise.

“The French word is voile,” Manon said, “but that is not the point. What I want to know is, what images does that word evoke for you? Say all that comes into your mind.”

Une soeur! Nuns wear a veil!” Jéhan cried, radiating enthusiasm as only a little child could.

“Exactly!” Manon exclaimed and wrote down the word.

“Ladies wear veils when in mourning or when they marry,” Jake offered.

“Splendid!”

“I like eating veil!” Jéhan proffered. His sister and Jake stared at him in surprise until Jake said, “ Oh! You mean veal, erm, let me see, what is the French word?”

Veau,” Manon translated.

“Yes, that is it,” Jéhan said. “Sorry, Manon, I was wrong.”

“Not to worry, sweetheart.”

“Yes,” Jake mused, “but what if we considered homonyms, as well? V-E-I-L and V-A-L-E sound the same, but they are not!”

“Vale…” Manon thought hard, letting the word roll over her tongue.

“What does it mean?” Jéhan asked, for the second time.

Vallée, or valley,” his sister explained.

“That does not make sense,” Jake muttered. “Which vale? There are vales aplenty in the English countryside.” Then he said in a puzzled tone, “What is the meaning of all this, miss?”

Manon took a deep breath and began to explain the real story behind the treasure hunt.

 

Mildred de Briers reclined on the drawing room’s settee with satisfaction emanating from her countenance.

“Jeremy, I have finally acquired the means to mould my son to my wishes. When I threaten him with the disclosure of his incestuous love for his niece, he will have no choice but to increase my allowance. Richard will endeavour to spare the chit that particular shame and disaster,” the dowager tittered.

It was not a beautiful sound, Jeremy mused.

Jeremy Lawson was a pragmatic man. Over the years, his relationship with Mildred had proved an agreeable arrangement. His marriage to the timid and docile Mary Breckenridge was one of convenience and had only provided him with wealth. Mary was reluctant to accept his ardent attentions yet too afraid of his flaring temper to deny him. She endured his touch with pious stoicism only to run into her chapel afterwards and pray. To Mary, marital relations were a means to gain a place among the saints through martyrdom. Fortunately for Jeremy, his handsome looks and skills in the bedchamber had never left him wanting for lovers among the ladies of the ton. However, Mildred de Briers was the one he had always preferred over all others.

Lately, however, matters had begun to degenerate. Mildred was no longer pleasing him the way she used to. She constantly whined about her son being a miser and about not having enough blunt. Jeremy did not envy Richard de Briers. Having to cope with an unreasonable, irate creature like Mildred was always hard. Having such a woman for a mother must be hellish.

So Jeremy wanted to return to London, fervently so. He was bored with the whole farce at Bearsham Manor. Let Mildred fight her own battles, he thought. Jeremy had had enough of them.

“My dear Millie,” he drawled, careful not to reveal his doubts, “it seems to me that you are underestimating the man. Richard de Briers, as I know him, will not easily succumb to threats. You should also be more circumspect about him. His retaliation, should he have a chance to exercise revenge on you, will be fierce. I suggest that you change tack and try to win his affection instead.”

“Ha!” Mildred huffed. “That would never work! Richard knows I hate him as much as I did his father. The feeling is extremely mutual, Jeremy. Only my son’s sense of honour keeps him from banishing me from the estate. God forbid that he would do so, because I would waste away with boredom. And so, now that I hold a powerful weapon against my stubborn son, I intend to use it.”

Jeremy kept his further musings to himself since it was fruitless to go against Mildred when she was in this particular state of mind. He planned to prepare his escape, though, should the need arise.

 

Richard was furious. Since the moment he had regained consciousness, he had cursed the abominable weakness in which he found himself. Never before in his life had he felt so helpless and so dependent on the assistance of others to see to his most vital needs, such as food, personal hygiene, and healing treatment. He was only too grateful that the last one was being taken care of by his skilled niece instead of by the quack his mother had summoned in the first hours after his fall.

The thought brought Richard back to the problem of his mother, the bane of his life – and her lover, Jeremy Lawson.

Since boyhood, Richard had been confronted with society bucks circling around his beautiful mother like moths around a flame. At one time, he had been convinced that they stole his mother’s affection from him. He had hated the whole lot of them but at the same time had been powerless to do anything about them. It had wounded his soul, and he recalled all too well the countless nights that he had cried himself to sleep. Until the age of eight, the age at which he had been sent to Eton, and thus had been removed from his mother’s entourage, Richard had thought that, in spite of her indifference towards him, Mildred indeed loved him in some small measure. He had convinced himself that his mother, being as lovely as she was, had a right to have men fluttering around her. That he, a troublesome little whippersnapper, had no right to intrude upon her court and her life. He had fervently hoped that his mother would come to show her love for him if only he respected her right to amuse herself. He had hoped that she would cease her neglect of him, her only son when she saw how he worshipped her from afar.

That vision had been brutally shattered when one day, he came home after term earlier than was his habit. Lucian’s father had brought him and Lucian home in their carriage because the family had planned on a journey to Scotland. He and Lucian had been granted the beginning of their summer break three days early. How well he remembered that disastrous day. He had been fourteen and already tall, with muscles beginning to form on his arms and torso.

Richard had jumped from the carriage as soon as a footman opened the door. He had shouted a greeting to Thornton who had welcomed him even if the butler appeared somewhat surprised. In joyful excitement, Richard had run into his father’s study and had stood rooted to the spot, staring at the scene that had played out before his horrified eyes.

Mildred de Briers, shrieking like a fishmonger’s wife, had been pummelling his father’s chest in absolute rage. Richard could still see the insanity that had been on her beautiful face while she had scratched his father’s cheeks until they were covered with bloody streaks. It had most frightfully shocked him. Yet what had appalled Richard even more was the fact that his strong, brave father had not even winced at his wife’s behaviour. Robert de Briers stood there unmoving, like a rock in the surf, his face stoic and indifferent.

Something had snapped in Richard. Like an arrow from a bow, he had flown towards his mother and torn her away from Robert, throwing her onto the floor in the process. From his own mouth, words had begun to flow, words Richard never thought he knew at all.

“Stop it, you miserable bitch!”

Even more words were forming in his enraged soul until his father slapped him across the face. Only once, but it had stung like fire.

“Apologize to your mother at once,” Robert de Briers had ordered, and his voice had barely risen above normal. He fixed his son with a severe stare that brooked no argument.

Richard had swallowed and opened his mouth to protest, but the steady, commanding stare in his father’s brown eyes had killed the words forming in his mind.

“I am sorry, Mother,” Richard had uttered between clenched teeth, his eyes on the floor, and his cheeks in flames.

“That is not nearly enough,” the cold voice of Robert had sounded. “Look your mother in the eyes when you offer her your regret.”

It had been almost impossible for Richard to do as his father asked, yet the imperturbable gaze in the baronet’s eyes did not vanish until he had done so.

“I truly regret my words, Mother. Please forgive me.”

Then Richard had forced his eyes to meet his mother’s and was instantly appalled by the hatred that shone in them. By then, she was on her feet again, even though neither Richard nor Robert had offered a hand to help her. She had spit upon the floor and turned to leave the room.

Shocked beyond comprehension, Richard had helplessly turned to his father for support. Robert had not appeared to be moved at all. He stood in the middle of the room, his hands on his back and his face streaked with blood. Yet his voice was as calm as ever.

“That was extremely rude of you, my son. You are forbidden to behave like that to the woman who birthed you. If you ever do that again, I shall punish you beyond measure. Do you understand, Richard?”

“Yes, father,” Richard had stammered, mortified both by his own behaviour and his father’s reaction.

“Go to your room and do not show yourself again today. Tomorrow, I might perhaps be able to summon the patience to speak to you again.”

It had taken years before Richard understood why his father had punished him; Robert de Briers had been an honourable man who had wished to install respect for his elders in his only son.

At fourteen, it had been a blow, however. Richard had cried himself to sleep once more that evening. For the last time ever.

 

It was long past luncheon by the time the treasure hunters had inspected every picture, from the tiniest one to the largest, that graced the walls of Bearsham Manor. They had started with the portraits, which was the most logical way to start. Most of them had women with veils in them. Those pictures that could be lifted or moved to the side had been closely investigated, of course. Then they had proceeded with the ones representing outdoor scenes. Almost every single one of them featured a valley. And in those “vales” there were women with “veils” as well.

Now it was midafternoon, and Jake, Jéhan and Manon found themselves back in Jéhan’s quarters. They were dirty, tired, and famished, as well as utterly discouraged. They had no idea what they were looking for, what size it was, or if “treasure” also meant also coin and jewels.

“I give up,” Jéhan declared. “Maybe there is no treasure ‘behind the “veil” or “vale” or whatever, Manon.”

“You could be right, my angel,” Manon replied. She felt dispirited to the extreme and was in sore need of a wash. “Jake will call for your nanny so that you can clean yourself up, and have a bite to eat.”

“Finally!” Jéhan muttered, which made his sister laugh.

Manon left the two to their afternoon activities and headed for her chambers. She knew from Bright that her uncle was sleeping so she had time to attend to matters concerning Greenhaven. When Pru joined her shortly thereafter, the two women worked diligently on their project.

 

Hearts Adrift – Part Twenty-Six

Armitage_004 - small

Chapter Twenty-Six

 

“Now turn onto your back,” Manon asked. “Slowly, mind!”

Richard complied but had to bite his lip to forgo crying out with the excruciating pain. By Jove, that hurt! He could not fathom how it was possible that he had not broken any bones when Spartacus had thrown him off.

Manon repeated the gestures she had made on his back, this time on his chest, and she applied the poultice to his torso. Lord! That was an even greater torture. Her hands were sparkling fire wherever she rubbed. He begged for strength and closed his eyes in despair. Fortunately, his niece seemed oblivious to his ordeal and picked up the thread of their ongoing conversation.

“A veil? What type of veil do you think your father meant?”

“I have no inkling,” Richard replied. “I have examined all the paintings in this house – and I assure you, there must be hundreds of them. I scrutinized all those who had women with veils pictured in them – of which, I tell you, there are also many. I had them taken down and tapped the walls behind them for hidden niches. All for nought. I have grown quite desperate, Manon.”

“Yes, I can imagine you have,” Manon commiserated while she finished her ministrations, then washed and dried her hands.

“Ah, that feels like heaven!” her uncle sighed. “You have the healing touch, niece.”

But Manon wanted to hear more about his quest for the veil and ignored his comment. “Are there any statues with veils?” she asked. “Please sit up for me, Uncle. Here …”

She offered him the help of her arm so that he could manage to pull himself into a sitting position. He savagely pressed his lips together to avoid groaning.

“Brace yourself by putting your arms on my shoulders, Uncle. It will support you while I wrap a bandage around your torso.”

She was, Richard realised, every bit the apothecary and the healer, at that instant. How extraordinary that she could close off every other part of her mind and simply concentrate on the task at hand. He was the only one here to be subjected to disconcerting thoughts. Wrenching away from the disturbing sensations invoked by the position he had complied to, Richard forced himself to answer Manon’s question about the statues.

“There are several statues of women in veils. In the chapel, for instance, there are three, and in the gallery, you will find no fewer than seven of them.”

“And?” Manon prompted. “Have you examined them?”

“I have. I even hired a genuine sculptor, who probed them and tapped them, but, alas, he came up with nought. It is agony, Manon. I have run out of ideas.”

“Well,” Manon said in a matter-of-fact tone, “there is nothing you can do now, Uncle. You need to heal first. I will ring the bell for your valet so that he can assist you with the rest of your ablutions. Then breakfast, and afterwards, absolute bed rest!”

“No need to summon Bright, niece. I am certain I can manage by myself. Why would I need help in performing my morning ablutions?”

“No, Uncle, you cannot. I forbid you to even move without Mr Bright’s support. You could collapse and injure yourself even further.”

Richard lifted a sceptical eyebrow. “You are being silly, Manon. A few bruised ribs are not enough to keep me in bed all day.”

He promptly threw back his covers and swung his legs out of bed. The moment he shifted his weight onto his feet, his knees buckled and his vision blurred.

“Be careful, Uncle!”

Shaking his head to clear his vision, Richard clung to Manon’s steadying hands, becoming quite aware of her warm, soft body, with its feminine curves and its delicate lavender scent. He could not prevent his instant arousal yet struggled against it.

 

The door opened without warning and the dowager strode in.

Manon lifted her head and met the older woman’s gaze. She saw first disbelief and then calculation in the blue eyes that so resembled her son’s. A malevolent little smile curved the dowager’s thin lips. Only then Manon did realize what the scene must present to the dowager; Manon with her arms around Richard, who was clad in nothing but his unmentionables.

“Well, my son, I see that you are almost back on your feet again. You left your sickbed to embrace your niece … and in such an avuncular way.”

She laughed a bitter little laugh which surprisingly gave Richard the strength to draw himself up to his full height. His head was swimming, but he used his full willpower to keep to his feet.

“Yes, madam. I am on the mend, as you can see. To what do I owe your visit?”

Manon who had backed away several steps from Richard as soon as she understood the meaning in the dowager’s gaze, felt a chill run down her spine at the cold, unloving tone Richard used when addressing his mother. She had never heard him use that tone of voice to any person before. How could there be so little love between a mother and her son?

“Cannot a mother rush to her son’s sickbed, then?” the dowager asked in a mocking voice. “You gave us all a fright, my lord.  To be thrown by one’s horse can be dangerous. I always thought you were a skilled horseman so how is it that you almost broke your head in such a fall?”

“I do not know, madam, nor do I have to explain myself to you. Now I would like to prepare for the day so that I can give my attention to estate matters. Be so kind as to leave my rooms.”

The dowager’s eyes burned with hatred, but when Manon looked at Richard she saw an equally loathing stare directed at his mother. It shocked her to the core. It was as if this person were a Richard she did not know, one that had another side that was different from the caring, gentle person she had always seen until now.

The dowager turned on her heels and left the room. For a few moments, it seemed as if the woman’s hatred was still hanging in the air. Then Richard swayed on his feet and grappled for support. He clutched the bedpost, but his legs refused to hold him. He slowly sank to the floor, motionless and white as a sheet. Rivulets of sweat were running down his face.

Manon ran toward him, her heart beating loudly with fear. Stupid man! He had overestimated his strength.

“Uncle, come! Wake up!”

She gently shook him and rubbed his hands, a gesture which managed to rouse Richard.

“Thank God! Come, Uncle, you must go back to bed. You have suffered a severe shock and are not yet strong enough.”

“Yes, it seems that you are right again, niece. Help me up. Together, we will manage.”

Once her uncle was safely back between the sheets, Manon pulled the bell and ordered a modest but nutritious breakfast for him. Mrs Briskley must have been waiting because it was not more than five minutes before she marched in with a tray. Manon asked her to help her uncle while she went to her room to dress.

 

Later, after she had breakfasted with Jake and Jéhan, Manon returned to her uncle’s bedchamber. She still felt worried about his condition. He had collapsed when he tried to stand, and that was a sure sign that he was still weak.

On the first floor landing, she was waylaid by the dowager and Viscount Banbury. They both had a look in their eyes that gave Manon the direst of forebodings.

“Niece…” The smile that accompanied this smoothly uttered term of address made a shiver run down Manon’s spine. This woman, Manon could not think of her as Richard’s mother, had a black and cruel heart. Manon curtsied.

“Aunt.”

“You seem particularly fond of my son, for which I am grateful. Yet let me warn you, my dear, not to display those affections in public. People talk so readily. They love to gossip. They would find immense pleasure in, shall we say, misreading those affections…”

The dowager let her voice trail over her last words, thereby putting a distinct meaning to them.

Manon felt her cheeks erupt in burning flames. She lifted her eyes and met the two equally mocking stares. Through the sudden noise in her ears, caused by her own pulsing blood, she heard the rest of the dowagers’ words.

“Affections they might most frightfully abhor. People have such a nasty word to describe it. Are you familiar with the term incest?”

“My lady!” Manon put all the indignation she could muster in her exclamation. She was shaken to the core because the dowager had been so cruelly bold. Yet a little voice in Manon’s head acknowledged the allegations. The love she felt for Richard was, indeed, incestuous.

“Why won’t you return to Brighton, niece?” The dowager went on, her voice dripping with mock sympathy. “I am certain there would be no blemish in that. My son has a reputation to uphold as a country gentleman. He cannot have his young, beautiful niece living in his house, especially when it is obvious that the green young lady is infatuated with her attractive and still young uncle.”

“Aunt, you seem to have affection confused with gratitude. My uncle saved my life and my brother’s. Of course I feel a bond towards him. I reject your inference most firmly.”

Dismissing Manon’s words as double Dutch, the dowager and her lover descended the stairs, both laughing at the dowager’s sardonic wit. Manon leaned against the wall, her legs shaking. She felt as if a powerful weapon just had been thrust into the dowager’s hands. A weapon that could destroy her, Richard and Jéhan. She took a deep breath, forcing herself to regain composure. There was no point in falling to pieces. She had to talk with Richard and now.

 

Mr Waldham was present when Manon entered her uncle’s room. He and the baronet were working on the estate ledgers, which lay spread on the bed. Richard, Manon saw with relief, had chosen to remain abed instead of sitting at his desk.

“Uncle, can we speak?” she asked in a level voice. Nonetheless, Richard caught an undertone of concern. He had come to know Manon truly well over the past months, and he sensed that she was upset by something.

“Mr Waldham, thank you for your time. We will continue tomorrow morning at eleven.”

The steward bowed and retrieved the heavy ledgers from the bed. “Very well, sir.”

As soon as they were alone, Manon spoke.

“Uncle, there is something you ought to know. I have a strong feeling that your mother is your worst enemy. And mine, and Jéhan’s. In fact, your mother hates all members of the de Briers family in my opinion.”

“I can fully agree with that, Manon. My mother resented her marriage from the first day on. She hated my father, because in her eyes, he deceived her into thinking she would marry a peer of the realm. So extending her hatred to me, his son, was only a small step to take. Yet my mother cannot do much harm. I cover her large expenses, so she must keep her resentment of me in check. She would not kill the goose that lays the golden egg.”

“What of the viscount, Uncle? He and she are…”

With a start, Manon stopped talking. She had no proof of what she was about to say even if she had surmised it from the start.

“Lovers?” Richard finished her sentence for her. “I have been aware of that for a long time, Manon. That blasted adulterer, for Jeremy Lawson has been married for years to a sweet, shy girl who adores him, has been loitering around my mother since the day my father died. It did not bother me before, but now I begin to wonder what further intentions he might harbour.”

“Not ethical ones, Richard! Actually…oh, dear Lord!”

She clutched her hands to her chest, wringing them in sudden despair. Richard was instantly concerned. “What is it, Manon? Tell me!”

“She and the viscount have guessed our affection for each other. I fear what she might do to us, Uncle, and to Jéhan.”

Richard felt a surge of pure rage shoot through his chest. His mother had been a thorn, first in his father’s side, and now in his own flesh.

“She will do nothing as long as I am the master here, Manon!” he said, in a voice low with suppressed anger. “In fact, I will force her to retire to Walton House, an estate that came from the family of my father’s first wife, Elizabeth. It is in Shropshire near the Welsh border. I will threaten to retrieve her allowance if she ever comes back to Bearsham Manor.”

He meant every word, Manon realized. Her uncle could be quite merciless if he was forced to be. However, he was also not yet strong enough to have that severe confrontation with his mother right now. His face was still drawn and pale and his hands were trembling with exhaustion.

“Uncle, I am sorry to upset you so when you are still in need of rest. We will deal with this when you are back to your proper health.”

He gave her a sad, little smile. “I confess to feeling a bit tired right now. God, Manon! How is it possible to be so worn out when all I do is lie in bed?”

Manon lifted her bright green gaze to his, compassion and concern shining from her lovely eyes.

“You had a severe fall, Uncle. I hear that you strove to avoid overrunning one of the village boys. That was very commendable but also reckless, Uncle. You could have been killed. As it is, your head and your body suffered considerable bruising and you are fortunate not to have broken anything. It is only normal that you should be weakened. Rest now. We will speak later.”

When she reached the door as she went out, Manon turned around to see her uncle close his eyes and surrender to sleep. She ascended the stairs to Jéhan’s rooms where she found her brother and Jake. The tutor was just closing his books.

“Manon, I am finished for the morning,” Jéhan announced, clearly eager to engage in something other than sitting behind his desk.

“Well, my angel, I need you for something very important,” she said, crouching down before Jéhan.

“What is it? Please tell me!”

“I need you to come on a treasure hunt with me,” his sister said, and to Jake, “Will you come too, Jake? I am very much in need of your assistance.”

Hearts Adrift – Part Twenty-Five

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Chapter Twenty-Five

 

Manon did not, could not, believe her ears. That tone had been one of sheer spite if she had ever heard one. But then, that could not be right, could it? A mother who regretted the fact that her only son would indeed regain his health after an uncommonly severe fall, it was unthinkable.

Slowly turning on her heels, Manon eyed the dowager with what she hoped was a reassuring smile. Better to keep up appearances.

“Yes, my lady, of course he will. He is young and healthy and with the proper care, which I fully intend to give him, he will recover his health in no time. Why would you think he would not recover?”

“Dr Seething most clearly informed us that my son was not likely to survive his injury. The fractured ribs might already have punctured some vital organs”

Manon saw no concern in the dowager’s stony face, nor any apprehension whatsoever about the possible death of her son. Mildred de Briers was merely recounting facts.

“The physician was wrong, my lady. My uncle will heal, since his ribs are not broken, merely bruised. I will use all the knowledge I have to see that he does indeed heal. As far as I could deduce from the examination I performed, no organs were punctured. I have applied a firm bandage and will see to it that he stays in bed for at least a week. Now, if you will excuse me, I must retire for the night.” She curtsied and left the room.

 

Mildred was inwardly seething with fury at the forward behaviour of this French bastard girl. Only, Manon Favier could never be called that. The girl’s parents had married after their elopement.

A bastard…how well Mildred remembered her anxiety from long ago, when she feared that she might fall pregnant after giving herself to Jeremy.

Damn Jeremy Lawson for seducing her in her first Season and making her fall in love with him, so much so that she had been unable to love another man again! Oh, she had participated in the seduction well enough. Naive bourgeois girl that she was all those years ago, she had thought letting herself be deflowered by an earl’s son would be encouragement enough for him to propose marriage to her. Consequently, because he would have need of her father’s money – all aristocrats were in need of fresh money – the Earl of Donbridge would offer a commoner’s daughter his son and his title after she had let herself be ruined. It had not been so.

After all those years, the recollection of what had occurred after she had demanded of Jeremy that he marry her still rankled. Jeremy had flatly refused but had had the cheeky nerve to ask her if they could remain lovers.

Mildred had foolishly addressed a letter to Jeremy’s father at his London townhouse, informing him that his son had ruined her. At first, nothing had occurred. For two months, she had heard nothing from Jeremy, not a jot. During those two months, she had met Robert de Briers, Baronet Bearsham, and had let herself be courted by him. Better, she thought, to have several irons in the fire. Yet she had tried to meet with Jeremy again in London. She had even approached his father at a soirée that the Earl and Countess of Donbridge had attended without their son and heir present.

Albert Philip Lawson, Earl of Donbridge, Marquis of Banbury had looked her over as if she were a mere insect fit to be crushed underfoot. He had then signalled his valet to assist him into his coat as if nothing untoward had happened. He had utterly ignored her when she had started running after him. He had calmly stepped into his carriage while she was kept back by her father who had been appalled by her conduct. As had the whole room, Mildred recalled. One did not approach an earl without having received an invitation to do so.

A few days later, she had read in the newspapers that Jeremy Lawson had departed for his grand tour of Europe as was the habit of sons of the higher aristocracy. He had stayed away from England for two years, and upon his return, his father had granted him the income of Banbury Abbey. A few weeks after, Jeremy had become engaged to Mary Breckenridge, daughter of the Duke of Beaufort, and had married her six months later. Alexander Breckenridge, Duke of Beaufort was wealthy beyond comparison.

But of course, by then, Mildred had long since married Robert de Briers and had become the Baronetess of Bearsham. Because she had been rejected by an earl’s son, Mildred had been forced to settle for a mere baronet instead of becoming a countess. She had, however, resumed her relationship with Jeremy after he had come crawling back to her. His wife, he complained, was a frigid stick of a woman who recoiled from his touch every time he chose to rejoin her in the bedchamber. Served him right!

By then, Mildred was already pregnant with de Briers’ offspring, which kept her husband from her own bed. The arrangement suited her extremely well.

 

After a quick bath and a light supper in one of the guests rooms, Manon mounted the stairs to the second floor, where Jéhan had his own set of rooms. She spent a pleasant hour with her brother and Jake, an hour in which she marvelled at Jéhan’s progress. Her brother’s English was nearly perfect, as were his skills in mathematics , and he showed an acute interest in European history and that of England in particular. He had also grown, Manon noticed with a pang. He had added almost an inch to his height and put on at least a quarter of a stone, all of which made him a beautiful, strong boy who promised to grow to be a tall young man in a few years.

“Are you coming to live here, Manon? Jéhan asked. “I wish you would. I do miss you so.”

“If I can, I will stay, mon chou,” Manon replied. “But you know it is our uncle who makes the decisions. I must obey whatever he wishes me to do.”

Jéhan laughed merrily.

“Oh, then you do not need to worry, sister! Uncle Richard missed you too! One night, when he came to tuck me in, I heard him say so. I was almost asleep when I heard him say he missed you terribly. So he would love it if you were to stay here.”

“Go to sleep now, my angel. I need to see if Uncle is well.”

“He will not die, will he, Manon? You will make him well again?”

“Yes, my angel. I will do everything to heal him.”

She tucked Jéhan in and kissed his brow. “Sweet dreams, mon chou.

When she came out into the corridor, Jake was waiting for her.

“Can I have a word with you, Miss?”

He preceded her to a small sitting room down the corridor.

“Miss Manon, I do not think it is wise to stay here. We should all move to the Brighton townhouse, yet I fear the Master is too ill to travel in a coach.”

“Jake, we cannot do that. It would kill him. I fully understand that none of us is welcome here. The dowager is a vicious woman, and I do not trust the viscount. Also, it seemed to me that the dowager did not give a jot about my uncle’s health. She was most indifferent to whatever injuries he might have sustained. I cannot comprehend such an attitude, Jake, so I will be vigilant in seeing that my uncle is properly cared for. As I said, we cannot move him, so we must stay here. At least, I can. Maybe you should leave with Jéhan if need be.”

“Never, miss! Never without you or the master.”

Jake’s spontaneous reaction warmed Manon’s heart. “Thank you, dear friend.”

“You are very welcome, Miss Manon.”

 

When Manon entered her uncle’s bedchamber shortly thereafter, Mrs Briskley hastily rose and tiptoed towards her.

“I made Miss Butterworth retire to her room at ten, miss. She was exhausted.”

“Thank you, Mrs Briskley. How is our patient?”

“He’s ever so restless, miss, and he keeps mumbling in his sleep. I think he’s developing a slight fever. He’s gibbering about his father and about something he should find, some veil or other. I couldn’t make head or tail of it!”

“I will see to him, Mrs Briskley. You can retire now.”

“Will you need anything further, miss? Tea, or a tray of food?”

“No, thank you, Mrs Briskley. Goodnight.”

The housekeeper wished Manon a goodnight in return and left the room.

Richard was lying in the same position on his back, in what seemed to be a restless sleep. With concern, Manon touched his brow and found it damp but not hot. His pulse was slow, thank God! Just the merest onset of fever then which was only to be expected after the ordeal her uncle had gone through. However, at this moment, Richard seemed to be settling into a regular sleep so Manon nestled herself in the chair that Mrs Briskley had vacated. She might as well try and have a nap, too.

 

A deep, pained groan from her uncle woke Manon. She fetched a candle to examine him, since it was still night. The room had grown darker, now that the moon had vanished. Yet it still lacked several hours before dawn.

To Manon’s relief, her uncle was only dreaming, although the dream must not have been an agreeable one. Richard was moaning low in his throat, as if he were in pain. At first, Manon was unable to make out what he was mumbling, but gradually, his words became clearer.

“Father…Father, where have you hidden it? Father, no! Do not go before you tell me!”

Now Richard became more agitated than he had been before, so Manon dabbed his face with a wet cloth to make him settle down again. It failed.

“Veil … you said it was behind the veil. There is no veil, Father…”

“Shhh…shhh,” Manon coaxed, stroking her uncle’s cheek. “It is all right, Uncle. Sleep now.”

Maybe it was the soothing tone combined with her caress that made Richard calm down; whatever it was, he did eventually still. Manon still kept vigilant for several minutes. She needed to be ready, should her uncle start tossing between his sheets. He did not but seemed to fall into a deeper sleep once more.

With a sigh of sheer exhaustion, Manon sank into her chair. What luck that it had been a false alarm, she thought. Maybe if he managed to get through the night sleeping soundly, Richard might do better in the morning.

 

The second time, Manon woke that night, it was due to the sound of something falling to the floor. She jumped from her seat, only to find the bed empty. Richard was on his knees on the floor, bent over and clutching his stomach with both his arms. He was rocking back and forth and moaning, as if in agony. Hastily, Manon dropped onto her knees beside him.

“Uncle, what is it? Are you in pain? Uncle, it is Manon! Answer me, please!”

There was no change in Richard’s behaviour. It looked as if he had not heard her. In a low, growling voice, he muttered the words.

“I am cursed. I love her. I love my own niece. Damnation and misery, but all the punishments of hell cannot chase her from my heart.”

Her own heart stuck in her throat Manon took his hand and pressed it. Richard, she knew, was sleepwalking. Manon recognized the signs from when Jéhan was little. He had had the same affliction, although it had been a long time now since her brother had left his bed to wander through the house. If Richard’s sleepwalking came from being extremely upset, as had been the case with Jéhan, then Manon must act as if he were not asleep and talk to him. Her uncle would not remember a single thing when he woke up.

“Uncle, you are dreaming. Come, let me guide you back to your bed. You must rest, Uncle.”

Her calm voice produced the desired effect. Richard rose from his knees and allowed Manon to lead him back to his bed. She coaxed him to lie down and propped up the pillows under his back so that his injured torso was sufficiently supported. She carefully pulled the bedcovers over him. With a sigh, Richard slept again.

The rest of the night, Manon sat silently in her chair and listened to Richard’s regular breathing. Her very heart ached with the burden that she was forced to carry. When Richard’s rigid control broke at night when he was sleepwalking, only then did he confess his love for her. When it was safe for him to do so.

 

 

The last time Manon was being woken up, it was by a gentle, familiar voice. It was early morning, now.

“Manon, have you been here all night? Niece, you must be exhausted; take yourself to your bed!”

“Uncle, you have woken! How wonderful!”

Manon had trouble extracting herself from sleep, feeling barely rested at all. Her body ached from sitting in that uncomfortable chair all night. She stood and stretched.

Richard felt himself tightening in an instant. In the blink of an eye, he was as hard as a rock. He cursed his treacherous body and gripped the covers to steady himself against the onslaught caused by the sight of Manon’s lithe young body languorously stretching in the soft, rosy light of dawn. Lord, she was so beautiful!

But his worst ordeal was yet to come, when she came nearer again and laid her cool hand on his hot brow. He swallowed and closed his eyes to avoid having to look at the swell of her pert breasts under her green sprigged muslin gown, so close to his face.

“Good! You do not have a fever,” Manon said. “Now turn onto your stomach. I want to check your ribs.”

He obeyed, but it was sheer agony. His whole body seemed suffused with pain, the most extreme of it in his chest and back. His head felt like it would explode any minute.

He had other concerns now, too. His swollen manhood was being pressed into the mattress, which caused him pain. But the pain only remotely compared to the tantalising torture of her hands on his bare back. That was altogether unbearable. He braced himself and tried to endure the movements of her ravishing, sensuous fingers as they cut his bandage and peeled the poultice from it. At least the sudden chill of a cold washcloth on his heated flesh helped to overcome his rampant desire.

Oh, this was heaven! Manon was applying a slowly massaging movement onto his aching muscles, thereby gently smoothing the pain out of them. He gave himself over to the feeling of wellbeing Manon induced. Stunningly enough, all that time his niece was oblivious and unsuspicious of the way he was suffering. Perhaps it was all for the best, Richard conceded. He forced himself to lie still while Manon applied a soothing ointment onto his bruised muscles.

Manon, however, surprised him with the question that followed her chatter about the condition of his torso.

“You were sleepwalking in the night, Uncle. You had unpleasant dreams in which you talked to your father. You asked him about a veil. What is that about?”

Richard was startled. Had he truly been doing so? The veil. And his father. Those were two things he had not thought about in a long time.

“When my father lay dying,” he began hesitantly, then went on more boldly as he saw Manon’s interested expression, “he told me to search for a letter that was hidden behind a veil. I should read that letter. My father said it was vital that I did. I have been searching for that veil ever since, but I have never found it.”

Hearts Adrift – Part Twenty-Four

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Chapter Twenty-Four

 

Manon carefully retracted the sheet just a few inches. Richard was lying on his back, and now she would be able to examine his ribcage more thoroughly for broken bones. Her skilful hands gently probed, looking for damage. As she had already assumed, there were no real fractures. Because Richard’s ribs had sustained considerable bruising, she decided to apply a firm bandage. He would have to keep himself immobile for at least a week.

But first and foremost, Manon wanted her uncle to be properly groomed, so she asked Bright to perform this task, and then retreated from the table. When the valet was finished, Manon covered Richard’s badly bruised chest with the poultice Mrs Briskley brought up from the kitchen. She tried to cover as much surface as she could, which was no easy task, given the broad expanse of Richard’s manly chest. With the help of the two footmen, who carefully lifted the master from the table surface, Bright and Manon applied a sturdy bandage around Richard’s torso.

Meanwhile, the maids and Thornton had replaced the soiled mattress and sheets with clean ones. The patient had not been washed for the entire time he had been in bed. Three whole days without proper care; it was unfathomable.

Richard stirred when Tobias and Zackary lifted him from the table and laid him onto his bed. He groaned when his body touched the mattress. Manon was instantly at his side, eager to hear a word from his lips.

Mrs Briskley dabbed her eyes in sudden emotion. “My word, Miss Manon! This is the first time in two days that the master has given a sign of life. We feared he would remain in a coma and never wake up again.”

Manon put a hand to her uncle’s cheek, gently caressing it.

“Be still, Uncle. I have tended to your injuries, and you will recover, provided that you keep to your bed for the next few days.”

“Manon…”

Richard’s voice was hoarse and his eyes sought hers. She could not keep herself from running the back of her hand over his cheek. Pain contorted his features, causing Manon’s heart to ache with compassion.

“Shhh…” was all she could utter, tears in her eyes.

He nodded, then breathed, “So you have come, my precious?” He closed his eyes, and she knew he trusted her with his life.

She was calm again, Manon knew. She was a healer and she had managed to make her uncle come awake.

“I will give you a drink that will make you sleep,” Manon said, feeling his brow with the back of her hand. “You do not seem overly feverish yet, but that could change later. It is vital that you do not move your body, if possible. You must also not refrain from breathing in a normal, deep way, Uncle. I know it hurts to breathe, but nevertheless, you must endeavour to do it properly.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Richard murmured, but his voice was weakening, so Manon quickly administered him the drink. It was made from an extract of the seedpods of “sleeping poppies”, or Papaver Somniferum, which Manon’s father used to brew in his apothecary shop. Papa had done many experiments to obtain the right dose of poppy extract that would ensure the potion was effective but not lethal. Papa used to mix it with alcohol and sweeten it with honey so that the potion would be pleasant to swallow. Manon had the recipe yet had never concocted the brew on her own, so she was glad that she had managed to stuff Papa’s supply in her medicine bag. The plunderers in Paris had not found Papa’s medicines, stashed in a hidden niche in the cellar.

Richard was asleep almost instantly. Manon turned to the staff and gave orders to clean everything away.

“Pru, would you sit with Sir Richard for a couple of hours?” Manon asked, and of course, Pru agreed.

“What do you want me to do, Manon?”

“I need you to watch him, that is all. If his fever starts to rise, you must call me. Try to prevent him from moving abruptly. If he wakes, he will attempt to change position. You must help him to do that carefully and slowly so that he does not damage his body any further.”

“Understood,” Pru said in a firm tone and took up a seat near the bed.

Manon consulted the little ormolu clock on Richard’s nightstand. It read nine in the evening. How long this day had been, Manon mused, and she realised it could have been the day when she had lost her uncle as a result of his injuries. She could still lose him, she knew, if he developed a fever. It could only be hoped that he was strong enough to overcome his injuries.

“Mrs Briskley, could you take Miss Butterworth’s place at eleven o’ clock? I will go to my brother now as I promised him that I would.”

“I will come,” Mrs Briskley promised, looking at Manon with sudden tears in her eyes. “Miss Manon, thank you for tending to the master. We were all worried about his health, and…”

Manon squeezed the woman’s hand in comfort.

“It was a labour of love, Mrs Briskley. I want my uncle to fully recover and as soon as possible.”

 

Their exchange was interrupted by the door to the room being thrown open so vehemently that it banged against the wall. Her Ladyship the Dowager Baronetess of Bearsham strode into the room, taking in the mess not yet cleared away by the maids. All movement stopped, except for the curtsies of the women. Every single occupant in the room seemed to be waiting for a blow to fall. Were they all afraid of this tall, dark-haired woman? That was what Manon asked herself. Or were they merely reassessing their strategy for dealing with her? To be prepared for whatever whim this woman would choose to display? Manon squared her shoulders as if preparing for battle. It certainly felt like that to her.

Mildred de Briers’ vivid blue gaze travelled over Manon, whose white apron was stained with the marks of her nursing actions and whose bright red locks were coming down from their pins. Manon was acutely aware of her dishevelment, and uncomfortable with it, but she stood and curtsied to the dowager with what she hoped was a respectful attitude.

“You must be the French niece,” the dowager said, in a stern voice devoid of all warmth.

“I am, indeed, my lady. My name is Manon Favier.”

“As you can see, my son is indisposed. I suggest that you return to the Brighton townhouse and return when he is better.”

Manon swallowed a snappish reply. Animosity radiated from the dowager like a wave, and Manon had to fight to maintain her composure. This woman, she realized, was haughty, and strove to fulfil her every whim, even if others were hurt in the process.

“It was agreed between my uncle and me that I should visit his ancestral home, this month,” Manon replied. “I found my uncle ill and uncared for. The ministrations ordered by the physician were not what I would desire for the injuries my uncle suffered. My medical training came to proper use in tending to them. My uncle is asleep now, so I would suggest that we continue this conversation elsewhere.”

With that, she swept out of the room, leaving the dowager to follow.

 

Mildred de Briers felt rage well up in her throat like bile. The mortification of being set down by this chit in front of the servants was unbearable. She rushed after Manon, who had reached the corridor and was now walking to the staircase. Mrs Briskley hastily closed the bedchamber door to avoid her master being woken by the eventual raucousness.

“Miss Favier!”the dowager barked after Manon, her fury rising even more when she saw that Manon was descending the stairs as if she were purposely not listening to her. Even now, the impertinent girl did not stop and turn. To the right of the hall, Mildred saw Jeremy coming out of the drawing room. He intercepted Manon at the bottom of the stairs and addressed her.

“Miss Favier, please. Would you be so kind as to step into this room? Her Ladyship and I would like to speak with you.”

“Certainly, my lord,” Manon answered, a smile on her lips. “I hope you will forgive me my dishevelled attire. I have been tending to my uncle’s injuries.”

The viscount’s eyes widened with surprise, and something else that strongly resembled admiration. His mouth curved in a smile while he shook his head.

“A doctor was summoned to take care of that. Surely, it is not your task to do so. You are Sir Richard’s niece.”

“Forgive me if I disagree, my lord. I am a trained apothecary and I tended to the sick and wounded, back in Paris, where I grew up.”

“You don’t say,” the viscount marvelled in a flippant voice, but his gaze travelled towards the dowager as if to challenge her.

All three of them entered the drawing room. The dowager lowered herself onto a sofa, gesturing toward a seat opposite from her and at the other side of the low table. Manon sat down as primly as she could do so given her less-than-prim attire.

“What exactly did you say you did to my son, niece?” the dowager asked, and for an instant, Manon was of the opinion that she was not talking about the physical aspect of the matter. She quickly dismissed the thought – the dowager could not possibly know about the mutual attraction between Manon and her uncle.

“I have made certain, my lady, that he keeps immobile,” Manon answered politely. “It appears that the doctor failed to do that. I find that unthinkable, since my uncle is suffering from several bruised ribs. You should seek someone better experienced in the future. My uncle had a rather severe fall, which in turn resulted in a serious concussion. A week of absolute rest will cure that, so I will ensure that my uncle shall be properly cared for. ”

Again and clearly, there was an exchange of glances between the dowager and the viscount. There was a bond between them, Manon realised, a strong bond. Were they perhaps lovers?

She stood and said in a determined voice, “The evening has come, my lady, and it has been a long day. I would like to change my clothes, have a bite of supper, and speak with my brother. Could arrangements be made for my companion, Miss Butterworth? I have also brought my maid, because I had no notion of how long we would stay at Bearsham Manor. It depends on how quickly my uncle recovers. Goodnight, my lady.”

Manon had almost reached the door when the dowager’s voice sounded again.

“So my son will recover, then?”

 

Hearts Adrift – Part Twenty-Three

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Chapter Twenty-Three

 

Manon’s heart skipped several beats, then began racing wildly. A fear as black as night enveloped her, threatening to paralyze her. She staggered backwards until she felt the much-needed support of a wall. Her knees buckled only for a second, but she steeled herself; this was not the time to faint and be missish. She had to leave at once for Bearsham Manor.

“Pru, would you please arrange matters with Matron so that the daily running of Greenhaven is secured?” she said simply and handed Jake’s letter to her friend, who read it at once.

Pru blanched and anxiously asked, “Are you going to make the journey ? I fear it is unsafe.”

“Of course I must go,” Manon said briskly. “And you are coming with me. If Jake is right about this, then both my uncle and Jéhan are in need of me, Pru. I will need your help in return,.”

She left the ward, ran into her office, and snatched up her bonnet and pelisse. With a gesture of her hand, she summoned the footman whose task it was to accompany her to and from the infirmary. The young man sprang to attention, and Manon signalled him to follow her.

“Of course I will accompany you, Manon,” Pru answered. “That brooks no argument; you are my friend and you will need an ally if matters stand as Jake describes.”

Pru had followed Manon to the office, and she looked at Manon when the younger woman turned towards her.

“I was planning to visit Bearsham Manor in August anyway, Pru. I am sure my uncle will have informed his mother about it. We will arrive a little earlier, in all our best finery, as befits the niece of a baronet.”

Daniel Brownslow, who had been ignored by Manon so far, stepped forward.

“Miss Manon, can I be of assistance? Two ladies cannot travel unaccompanied for such a long distance. Let me come with you, I beg you.”

For a brief instant, Manon considered Daniel’s offer. From the tone of Jake’s letter, she gathered that the situation at Bearsham Manor was to say the least peculiar, if not dire. Richard had never talked about his mother to Manon, but from what Jake had once told her, the Dowager Baronetess must be a cold-hearted woman. Nonetheless, Manon was barely able to grasp that a mother would want to endanger her injured son’s life by not properly caring for him.

Furthermore, Manon realised that she and Jéhan could very well constitute a thorn in the dowager’s flesh. They were the offspring of Sir Robert’s beloved daughter Lily who had been the child he begot by his first and most cherished wife, Elizabeth. Lady Mildred de Briers might see a chance to hurt Richard by harming Jéhan. That horrifying thought settled the matter at once. Manon would present herself at Bearsham Manor but not in the company of Daniel Brownslow. If matters were dire, Manon felt no compulsion to show them to a stranger.

All these matters needed clarification, but Manon’s first duty was to Greenhaven. Mrs Lynver, the matron and her two nurses, Janet and Eleanor, would take care of the daily duties. However, Manon decided she would leave the finances in Pritchard’s capable hands for the time she would be at Bearsham Manor.

“I thank you for your kind offer, Mr Brownslow,” she said, smiling at the young man. “But I am fairly certain that I will be safe enough with the coachman, two footmen, Miss Butterworth and my maid as fellow travellers.”

Daniel knew a rebuttal when he received one. He bowed and left the infirmary.

 

The company set off in Richard’s well-sprung travelling coach the next morning at dawn. Manon was accompanied by Pru and by her maid, Bessie. Mr Daniel Brownslow had seen her off and had insisted that two sturdy footmen ride on the footboard, as well as a coachman and helper on the box. With the weather being fine and dry, the roads were passable. They made the sixty-two miles in eight hours and arrived at Bearsham Manor at four in the afternoon.

With anxious anticipation, Manon watched as the coach turned into a gated driveway flanked by tall beech trees and shrubbery laden with flowers of all colours. After a while, the coach emerged onto an open lawn, and for the first time, Manon was able to see Richard’s home.

It was utterly charming, she thought. Her heart lifted when she saw the well-proportioned, red brick house with the slate roof, the abundantly flowered borders gracing the flat stoned terrace, and the well-kept gardens surrounding the building. It was a house, Manon knew, that her grandfather Robert had created based on an earlier Elizabethan structure. Richard had not told her much, but that bit of information was one of the things he had mentioned. Manon already loved the house, because it felt like a home. A home for Richard, she realised. He was the one who filled the house with safety and caring.

The carriage stopped before the front steps, and Manon alighted when the footman opened the carriage door.

“Wait for me, Pru, until I have been allowed in,” she told her friend.

She strode towards the door, the footman in her wake. The man purposefully tapped the polished oak door.

A thin, elderly butler opened it partially, lifted grey eyebrows at the footman, and let his gaze drift towards the carriage.

“Yes?” he asked, his voice hoarse with age.

“I am Miss Manon Favier, Sir Richard’s niece. I was informed that my uncle was in need of my presence at Bearsham Manor.  Please be so kind as to let Sir Richard know that we have arrived.”

An expression of sad uncertainty slid over the old man’s face.

“I am truly sorry, Miss Favier, but Sir Richard is…”

“Thornton!”

A gentleman, well past his prime years, Manon had never encountered before came striding through the hall, a hint of reproach tainting his light voice.

“Thornton, what is all the commotion about? Who are these people?”

The butler cleared his throat to answer, but Manon quickly responded in his stead.

“I am Miss Manon Favier, and I have come to visit my uncle, Sir Richard de Briers. Who are you, sir, if I may be permitted to ask?”

The man did not reply, but his eyes wandered over Manon in an appreciative manner. Manon, dressed in a bottle-green travelling gown, her beautiful red hair blazing in the afternoon sunlight, stared back at him, determined not to be browbeaten.

“I say, what a delight to have you here, Miss Favier!” the man exclaimed and grasped Manon’s hand. “Welcome, welcome! I am Jeremy Lawson, Viscount Banbury, at your service.”

Manon started when the tall, dark, handsome man grasped her gloved hand and placed a kiss on the back of it. The viscount had abundant dark locks dusted with grey at the temples, and eyes that were a crystal-clear blue with a hint of grey. He displayed a tall, lean body with broad shoulders and a narrow waist.  He was, Manon acknowledged, a handsome man, but there was a glint in his eyes that made her suspicious. Her uncle had never mentioned this man before. Why was he here at her uncle’s estate?

To mask her surprise, Manon performed a deep curtsy and lowered her eyes. When she raised them again, she smiled brightly at the viscount, but her mind was racing.

“How do you do, my lord?” she said, taking the hand the viscount offered. They entered the hall where Thornton led them to a drawing room.

“If you would be so good as to wait here, Miss Favier,” Thornton said, “I will inform Lady de Briers of your arrival.”

“Thank you. I have also brought my companion, Miss Prudence Butterworth, and my maid, Bessie Crampton. I trust that accommodations can be organized for them as well. Furthermore, I would like to see my brother, Jéhan Favier, as soon as possible.”

While she made this little speech, Manon took the precaution to have her back to Sir Jeremy. She caught Thornton’s gaze and mouthed the words “Sir Richard”. The butler gave an almost invisible nod, bowed, and disappeared. To Manon’s relief, Pru chose that moment to enter the drawing room, which allowed Manon to introduce her companion to Sir Jeremy.

Pru bowed graciously to the viscount and started a conversation with him about the beauty of the estate. This allowed Manon to slip from the room. At the back of the hall near the green baize door, she spotted Thornton, who beckoned her inside and down the stairs to the servants’ hall. A few men and women were gathered there.

“Miss Manon,” the elderly man beamed, “I am so grateful that you are here. Mr Davies told us all about you, and we all feel as if we know you well. Allow me to introduce you to the staff.”

“I know of you, as well,” Manon confessed. “Jake described you all to me so vividly that I find you all to be exactly as he told me. You must be Mrs Briskley, are you not?” she said, addressing an elderly woman.

“Aye, miss! And here are Tobias and Zackary, our footmen. And these are the maids, Franny and Mabel.”

“Pleased to meet you all,” Manon continued, acknowledging the girls’ curtsies. “But now I would first like to see Sir Richard. I need you to tell me what that charlatan has said about my uncle’s condition. Mr Thornton, be so kind as to bring me my medicinal bag. Bessie will know where it is.”

 

It was a shockingly horrible sight. Richard was lying on his stomach, his upper body bared and one arm flung over the side of the bed. His face was damp with perspiration, and his cheeks were ashen under a two-day beard. The sheets that covered him to the waist revealed black bruises on the tanned flesh of his back. An unpleasant stench rose from the bed, and Manon realised that her uncle had been lying in the same position for two whole days without having been washed.

Manon swallowed her fear and hurried to his side. She felt his pulse with her left hand  and touched his face with the other. Oh, dear Lord. Matters were not looking at all right. Richard’s heartbeat was rapid, and his skin felt damp and hot. With trembling legs, Manon knelt beside the bed, laid her hand against Richard’s cheek, and spoke softly to him.

“Uncle, can you hear me? I have come to help you. Uncle, please open your eyes?”

There was no reaction, not even a fluttering of the eyelids. With a pang of anxiety, Manon also noticed that Richard’s breathing was frighteningly shallow. She stood and turned to Thornton.

“Mr Thornton, I will need some assistance. Could you please ask the two footmen to come up here? I will also need a table, a washbasin, clean sheets and several buckets of hot water. If you have a screen that I can put next to Sir Richard’s bed, I would be most obliged. I also require the assistance of Sir Richard’s valet, if you please.”

“I will send up the maids, Miss, but I fear Sir Richard does not make use of a valet, ” Thornton replied.

“Is there anyone who could serve as a valet? A footman, perhaps?”

“I can ask Bright, Sir Robert’s valet to perform the task, miss,” Thornton said and left the room, when Manon nodded her consent.

Manon then turned to the housekeeper.

“What did the doctor say, Mrs Briskley? I need to know.”

“He spoke about a severe concussion, Miss Manon, but that was all, according to him. I think Sir Richard has broken several ribs, so we dare not move him.  I also have no inkling of how to bandage his torso. I am feeling most guilty, but it has been extremely difficult for us to take proper care of him.”

Manon nodded in agreement, but before she could reply, the door swung open.

“Manon!”

Like a little whirlwind, Jéhan burst into the room with Jake in tow. Manon opened her arms to her brother and clasped him to her heart.

Oh, mon chou, comme tu m’as manqué! How I have missed you!”

“I missed you more!” Jéhan exclaimed, in perfect English and without the slightest accent, other than a light Cockney one. No doubt that was Jake’s influence, Manon thought fondly. With a pang of regret, she released her little brother and gestured towards the still figure on the bed.

“Jéhan, my sweet, you must let me tend to Uncle. He is ill and he needs my care. I will come and see you when I am finished. We will talk as long as you wish, mon chou.”

Jéhan cast a concerned look at the still figure on the bed.

“Jake told me Uncle was not well,” he said quietly. “You can make him better, Manon, can you not?”

“I will do everything that is in my power, I promise. But now you must let me work.”

Jake smiled at her and took her brother by the hand to lead him out of the room.

 

With a flurry of activity swirling around her, Manon began laying out the contents of her medicine bag on the table beside her uncle’s bed. She found that doing so soothed her frightened thoughts which was all for the best; Richard needed her undivided attention.

 

“All is ready, Miss Manon,” Mrs Briskley said, a quarter of an hour later.

“Mr Thornton,” Manon inquired, “the mattress on this bed seems ruined. Is there a spare that we may replace it with afterwards?”

“I am certain I can accommodate you, Miss,” Thornton replied, unperturbed.

Manon nodded and turned to her team. She handed the housekeeper a cotton bag filled with dried lavender, marigold, and white willow bark.

“Mrs Briskley, I want you to ask your cook to prepare a poultice with these herbs. Ask her to use calf fat, which is most effective. The poultice will help to heal the bruises. I also want a tisane, made from camomile and eucalyptus and sweetened with honey. Cook must prepare it with boiling water and keep a stock of it. I want a pitcher on Sir Richard’s nightstand at all times. It will reduce his fever.”

The housekeeper hurried out of the room.

To the rest of the staff, Manon only said, “For the moment, I need only Mr Bright with me. We need to undress the patient so that I can tend to his injuries properly.”

Mr Bright, a tall, thin man of some fifty years, stood at the ready while Manon turned the sheets back from Richard’s still body. She gasped when she saw the extent of the bruising on his back.

Richard’s fall from his horse had surely been harsh; were these outward signs also a measure for his internal injuries? Manon bent low so that she could listen to the sounds of Richard’s breathing. If there were a rasping sound, it could point to rib fracture. To her relief, Richard was breathing shallowly but silently.

With the utmost caution, she then began probing Richard’s spine, touching each vertebra and applying a tender pressure to ensure it was unharmed. Again, to her relief, there was no damage and thus, she could now examine the ribs. None of them had been torn from their fixation to the back vertebrae. To be entirely certain, Manon slid her fingers under Richard’s torso to probe the front part of the rib cage for broken bones. There were none. The breastbone also seemed undamaged.

Manon now wanted to turn Richard onto his back, but she needed to ascertain that there was no danger in doing so. She moved her hands to Richard’s shoulders. The collar bones also seemed to be whole, which gave Manon additional latitude to move Richard.

“Mr Bright, if you please?”

“Just Bright is fine, miss,” the valet replied calmly.

Manon smiled. “Well, Bright, would you strip your master and cover him with this sheet, please?”

“Certainly, miss. Would you please retire behind the screen?”

Manon rapidly complied, eager to continue her work on her uncle’s injuries.

After Bright had finished the task of baring his master’s body, Tobias and Zackary lifted Richard from his bed and laid him on his back onto the white sheet that covered the extra table. The lower part of Richard’s body was decently shielded by a clean white sheet so as not to offend the virginal eyes of the womenfolk. While her uncle was out of his bed, Manon asked the maids to change the mattress and bedding.

Hearts Adrift – Part Twenty-Two

 

Armitage_004 - small

Chapter Twenty-Two

 

In Brighton, Manon devoted herself to the running of the infirmary, due to her desire to ensure everything was firmly established. Richard wanted her to come to Bearsham Manor at the beginning of August, and that moment was fast approaching. It would be marvellous to see Richard’s estate, knowing how proud he was of his ancestral home. Manon also longed to see her little brother again. She fiercely missed Jéhan and was eager to know how much he had learned under Jake’s tutelage. The letters that Jake sent her weekly only teased Manon’s appetite for learning of her brother’s progress.

First, however, she needed to have Greenhaven firmly on track.

Before leaving, Richard had discussed the financial plan Mr Brownslow, Jr. had designed for Greenhaven. Manon had been interviewing nurses and other staff, and now the infirmary was running smoothly even though the number of sufferers was increasing day by day.  Manon was particularly pleased with the new matron nurse, Amelia Lynver. She proved a capable, sensible woman who ruled her staff with a firm, yet friendly hand. In time, Manon hoped to give over Greenhaven’s reins into Mrs Lynver’s capable hands, so that Manon herself would be able to direct her skills to the doctoring and caring. She was determined to train some of her nurses into becoming genuine healers with a thorough knowledge of the medicinal herbs.

Mr Daniel Brownslow proved a considerable asset when it came to keeping Greenhaven running smoothly. He frequently called on Manon and always brought a new idea or a better way to run matters.

Manon liked being in his company. Daniel had insisted upon informality from the start of their encounters and he was witty, smart, and kind. When she was with him at the infirmary or in the library at The Wild Rose, Manon was able to forget the troubles of her aching heart.

Banishing Richard’s image from her mind had been nearly impossible. Manon could manage it from time to time but she was unable to exile him from her heart. Richard was a part of her, she knew, even if they would never belong to each other. In consequence, Manon gave Mr Daniel Brownslow her full attention on matters of Greenhaven.

 

Mr Brownslow, Sr. observed his son with a benevolent eye. Daniel was readying himself for that day’s appointment with Miss Favier, and his father was most anxious to see him decked out properly.

“Do not forget that the young lady is a member of the landed gentry, my boy,” Mr Brownslow said. “She might have been born and raised in Paris, but she has been out and about in English society to a small extent. You must act with the utmost propriety when in her company, even though you have a right to court her as much as all the other young bucks in Brighton. Miss Favier is sought after by all the unmarried sons of the impoverished London nobility that flock to Brighton in Prinny’s wake. They are after the money Sir Richard’s niece stands to inherit when she reaches her majority. You must attempt to pay her a discreet courtship. We do not want Sir Richard to find fault in Brownslow & Sons, now, do we?”

Mr Brownslow rubbed his pudgy hands together in the universal gesture that embodied spotting a first-class opportunity to enhance one’s personal finances.

Daniel looked away from the mirror in which he had been inspecting himself, and in mild surprise, asked, “Father, what are you implying? Of course Miss Favier is a lady and always behaves impeccably when we are working together. I daresay I do the same. However, you need to understand that I do not intend to court her. A baronet’s niece is far too high for the likes of me.”

“You cannot be serious, my boy!” Mr Brownslow replied in dismay. “Why ever would you not take a chance with her? We Brownslows are highly respectable and of considerable circumstance. Why would you want all that lovely money to go to some hare-brained womanizer in London? Miss Favier would be subjected to the snubs of all the mistresses he might take!”

“Father,” Daniel replied in an earnest voice, “I do not harbour romantic feelings for Miss Favier. Furthermore, I think she may have taken a liking to Lord Blackthorne, who has been paying her an assiduous courtship over the last few weeks. I am certain Sir Richard would prefer her to marry nobility instead of a tradesman, no matter how respectable and well-to-do he might be.”

Mr Brownslow huffed in indignation. “Now, Daniel, my boy, you think too little of yourself. I am sure that…”

“Father,” Daniel interrupted him, “when I marry, it will be for love, just like it was for you and Mother, all those years ago. I saw how happy a marriage the two of you had and I want that for myself, too. You cannot blame me for that.”

“No, you are right,” Mr Brownslow sighed, resigning himself. “Your dearest mother and I have been blessed with happiness since the day I asked her to be my wife. Very well, my boy just provide Miss Favier with your best services as a solicitor, then.”

 

“Do come in, Daniel, and make yourself comfortable in the office. I will be with you in a moment,” Manon said smilingly before following Pru into the women’s ward at the infirmary. She gestured to one of the serving girls to prepare tea. These days, there was no shortage of helping hands, ever since the female population of the harbour quarter had quickly realised they could better themselves by working at Greenhaven.

“I do not entirely trust that one,” Pru muttered as soon as they were out of earshot. “To be honest, Manon, he seems to be calling on you too frequently to be interested in only the project he has been engaged for. I think other intentions might lie below that polished facade.”

“Pish!” Manon laughed. “Daniel is harmless and utterly charming. He is a powerful asset to Greenhaven, Pru.”

Miss Butterworth gave no further comment, because Manon was already heading for the first patient, a young woman who had given birth to a healthy baby daughter the day before.

“Hello, Jenny!”

She greeted the pale young mother with her best smile, although she knew Jenny was terribly weak and listless after the birth. Jenny had no husband and did not have the slightest idea how to raise little Daisy on the meagre wages she made by working as a tavern wench.

Manon inwardly sighed with frustration. How was she to help all these unhappy creatures? Even with the funding she had amassed during the last two weeks with Daniel’s help, she knew it would only be a small relief to Daisy’s eventual financial needs.

Both Manon and Pru jumped when the door to the ward was thrown open, and a street urchin burst inside, waving a letter at Manon.

“Miss, miss, ‘ere’s a le’er for ye! Brought by a man on an ‘orse, and ‘e said I was to give it to ye right away!”

“Thank you, Tommy,” Manon replied and took the letter from the boy. Tommy held up his hand with a grin on his grimy little face, and Manon chuckled while she handed him a sugared almond from the paper bag in her apron pocket. The boy rushed off, and Manon looked at the letter.

Her heart leapt with joy – it was from Jake!

Jake had sent her a weekly report on her brother’s progress from the day they had left for Bearsham Manor, and those letters had become the most anticipated things in Manon’s life. Jake’s style was humorous and witty, and she pictured the boy’s image as if he were there with her. Eagerly, Manon ripped open the missive and started reading.

 

Dear Miss Manon,

 

Your presence is needed at Bearsham Manor as soon as you can manage to leave Brighton. Two days ago, a terrible accident befell the master. He was thrown from his horse and has not regained consciousness since the incident took place.

A doctor, summoned by the Dowager, declared he suffered a severe concussion. He might be unconscious for a long period of time, so Sir Richard’s care has been left to Thornton and Mrs Briskley, but neither of them has any notion of how to deal with a person who is in a deep coma. You have such knowledge, Miss Manon, and it is vastly needed here. Both Thornton and Mrs Briskley are of the same opinion as I am. You are the only one who is able to help the master.

 

We cannot understand a mother such as Lady de Briers, who is haplessly playing with the life of her son. My lady has not sat by her son’s sickbed at all. It is as if she does not care about the master. Why did she not retain a nurse to assure he is being cared for throughout the day and the night? We are all mystified.

 

Miss Manon, there is yet another reason why I beseech you to come. I fear for Sir Richard’s welfare, because of trouble that comes from a direction I could not ever have imagined. The Dowager Baronetess forbade us to inform you of the incident. She even threatened to dismiss Thornton, if he wrote to his friend, Mr Pritchard about it. Thornton is at a loss because it is Sir Richard’s explicit order that the butlers at each of his residences should be kept informed about what occurs at the other.

 

I must be extremely careful not to attract the Mistress’ attention. So far, she does not seem to notice me or Jéhan so I will venture to send you this missive by the hands of a stable lad. The boy’s uncle lives halfway between Bearsham Manor and Brighton and offered to bring it to you. 

 

P.S. Jéhan is well, but truly distressed by what has occurred. He, too wishes you here.

 

Your faithful servant,

 

James Philip Davies

 

Hearts Adrift – Part Twenty-One

Armitage_004

Chapter Twenty-One

 

“I hate him.”

The sentence was uttered through clenched teeth, in a voice, low with malice. Mildred de Briers stood looking over Bearsham Manor’s sunny lawn from the window of her boudoir when she spoke the words that had simmered in her heart for twenty-seven years.

“Yes…” The voice of her lover drawled, “you have said that before, more times than I care to recall, darling. It is time you acted upon it.”

Mildred turned towards her large four-poster bed, where Jeremy Lawson lay sprawled in all his splendid nakedness. They had just made love, and Mildred, now physically satisfied, could give her attention to the matters at hand. More precisely, her acute shortage of funds. Funds that her son, Richard de Briers, refused to hand over to her.

“What do you mean, act upon it? I have asked my son for money countless times, but he has refused me over and over again. Apart from the meagre allowance he so stingily doles out to me every month, I have no other income. God! When I think of the fact that the money came from my father, my blood boils!”

Jeremy laughed, a sound that came from deep in his throat and could still make her tingle with the rapture of anticipation. He had not aged a bit, she thought. Men were fortunate. They only seemed to grow more attractive with age, provided they managed to keep their slim forms. Jeremy’s waist and stomach were still slender, and his chest and shoulders were muscular. His black hair was barely sprinkled with grey.

“Ah, well, we know that women cannot control a fortune, do we not?”Jeremy said. “Especially you, my darling; you have a tendency to fling out your blunt in every direction without even knowing the cost of things.”

Mildred huffed, which made the robe she had thrown around her shoulders slide down in a rustling heap at her feet. Jeremy appreciated the sight of her slim, lithe body and still full breasts. Mildred was a stunningly beautiful woman, despite her forty-eight years.

“What virtue is there in being rich if you cannot spend heaps and heaps of money? That blunt is mine, Jeremy, and I intend to get it back,” Mildred said determinedly and turned towards him with a gleam in her eyes.

Jeremy Lawson, Viscount Banbury, son of the Earl of Donbridge, eyed her with a mocking scepticism in his blue-grey eyes. “Have you still not had enough, my vixen, that you should uncover yourself to me? Fear not; my time is yours, you know. Come back to bed, my darling, and forget about that skinflint of a son of yours.”

Mildred did not react to his plea but retrieved her robe and put it back on. She seated herself in a chair near the window and cast a pensive glance at her lover.

“At first, I believed Richard was yours, Jeremy,” she said in a voice so low that Jeremy could barely hear her words. When he did comprehend the full meaning of her statement, his heart jumped in sudden fear.

“Mine? How could that be, Millie? We did not meet for several weeks before you married de Briers. My father had one of his apoplexies, remember? I had to see to estate matters in his stead.”

Mildred gave him a smile that chilled his heart to the core with its slyness.

“It could be, you know. My courses were late to arrive during the fortnight before the wedding. I was fearful that they would be present on the wedding night, but to my relief, they stopped the day before.”

When she did not continue speaking, Jeremy anxiously prodded her. “So your son is truly his father’s, I take it? No doubt about it?”

“Richard arrived ten months after the wedding, Jeremy. De Briers never doubted his son was his.”

Viscount Banbury felt hugely relieved to hear that. He inwardly shuddered at the thought of being morally bound to Mildred by the sole fact that he might have begotten a son with her.

“Richard could have been your son, Jeremy, had you proposed to me as was my due. We had been lovers for several weeks before my wedding.”

Her voice took on a slight wailing sound that grated against Jeremy’s nerves. Mildred de Briers was a lovely woman but a harpy as well, and the idea that he could have easily been leg-shackled to her for life created goose bumps all over his body. He forced himself to be unruffled and coolly answered.

“Yes, we know all that, Millie dear. It is all water under the bridge. You know I could not marry you. My father would never have consented to a marriage with a commoner.”

Now Mildred was truly irritated. She stamped her foot like a twelve year old, a gesture that made her full breasts jiggle attractively – at least, in Jeremy’s eyes.

“No, instead you married that nitwit Mary Breckenridge and have made her pregnant every single year of your ten years of marriage. How does it feel to copulate with a limp, apathetic skeleton of a woman, Jeremy?”

“An extremely aristocratic skeleton, darling! Let us not forget that Mary’s father is His Grace, the Duke of Beaufort. That makes up nicely for her less-than-average looks and her thin, unattractive body.”

He rose from the bed, fully aroused now. In two strides, he was at her side, and Mildred found herself wrapped in his strong arms within seconds.

“Whereas you, my darling Millie,” Jeremy said in a low voice, “are simply delicious. You know you are the one I love, my vixen, so come to bed, and I will make you soar into heaven once again.”

God help me, Mildred thought, but I cannot resist him when he speaks thusly.

She let herself be taken to the bed, where she opened herself to him once more. While her lover proceeded to do as he had promised, a small part of Mildred’s brain was still fretting over her son. How might she put enough pressure upon Richard, so that he would consent to give her a more generous allowance? She had tried everything, flattery, threats and bouts of rage, but nothing seemed to unsettle that imperturbable mind or that cold heart. Robert de Briers seemed to have passed his own nature on to his son. Both men had the same unfeeling heart and were not easily persuaded to change their minds once they had decided upon a course.

 

A few days later, Richard was back at his estate. It was the only thing he could do to make his life bearable. The sixty-two-mile distance between him and Manon was sufficient to dull the pain he suffered when he was in her presence. No, that was not so. It was indeed painful, to have to set eyes on her the whole day long and not be allowed to touch her, beautiful and sweet as she was. Yet Richard craved that pain, because it meant he was in the same house as she was. It meant that he breathed the same air as she did.

At Bearsham Manor, matters had not changed much. His mother was still entertaining a few young bucks and taking her pleasure with them. Just this morning, Mrs Briskley, the housekeeper had complained about the extra work they gave the maids by making a mess in every room they set foot in. Richard had granted her permission to hire a few extra hands for the time the aristocratic pests stayed in the house. Fortunately, they would depart shortly, Thornton informed him. They had been absent from the London Season too long.

After his daily contact with his steward, Mr Waldham, Richard had taken to the stables. Now he was riding towards one of his farms. The joy of cantering through the Hampshire countryside on Spartacus was a much-needed diversion from his gloomy thoughts about Manon. The stallion seemed to appreciate the exertion as much as his master did. He was happily stretching his long legs in a fast canter. Richard felt the horse’s back muscles work against his thighs as if Spartacus longed for a gallop. On an impulse, Richard gave Spartacus free rein. The horse jumped forward, and Richard gave himself over to the exhilarating speed for a time. Eventually, he reined Spartacus in and patted the stallion’s neck.

“Well done, boy, “ he praised. The horse whinnied softly in response.

Then Fate struck.

From the forest undergrowth, a bunch of village lads came bursting into the open. They ran straight into Spartacus’ path. Still cantering at a fair speed, the large stallion reared in fright. With desperate effort, Richard tried to keep the strong animal from trampling one of the boys, who had rolled under the horse’s deadly hoofs. Spartacus reacted against the painful pull his master exerted on the bit. He bucked, swung his large body sideways and threw Richard off. Richard’s body crashed onto the surface of the road, which had been hardened by several days of summer drought. A spooked Spartacus broke away from his master in a fast gallop.

Richard was unconscious when the villagers came rushing towards him. His body was bent at a weird angle, and he was bleeding from a deep gash on his head where it had hit a roadside boulder.

Hearts Adrift – Part Twenty

Armitage_004

Chapter Twenty

 

At The Wild Rose, Richard found Pritchard, on duty as he always was. The rest of his staff, his housekeeper, his cook, and all the footmen and maids, even the tweenie and scullery maid were at the infirmary.

It seemed that Manon had commandeered his entire staff into her service. Since even her maid Bessie was absent, Richard carried Manon to her room and laid her on the bed. She had not stirred, not even when he removed her apron, shoes, stockings and mobcap. Not even when he spread a blanket over her and tucked her in. She must have been exhausted, he realised.

In her usual brisk manner, she had made her plans and had diligently worked to make them come true.

Richard watched her while she was sleeping. She had instantly turned onto her side, and now she lay curled up, her hand tucked under her cheek.

His heart ached at the sight of her.

“Sir…” Pritchard’s hesitating voice sounded from the doorway.

“Yes, what is it?” Richard replied, turning to his butler.

“Miss Manon is well, I hope? She…well, she was so set on this infirmary scheme, and she convinced us all of its urgency, and…”

“And you all pitched in when she needed you. Yes, Pritchard, she is well, apart from being exhausted. I understand why you helped her. And fear not; I approve, but I will need to know everything there is to know about this infirmary scheme. Let us go downstairs, to my library.”

 

Half an hour later, Richard understood he had to take the matter firmly in hand, lest Manon should steer his entire household into chaos. It appeared that she had convinced Pritchard to use the funds Richard provided for daily expenses. It also became clear that Manon had been occupied for some time with her task. Her letter to him had come too late in the day, but maybe that had been her purpose from the start. To present Richard with a fait accompli so that he would have no choice but to condone it. Yes, he smiled to himself; that must be it.

Nonetheless, Manon needed his help. If she wanted to go through with this, she would be in urgent need of proper funding, and of a manager. Pulling out a sheet of paper from the top desk drawer, Richard began scribbling down some figures.

 

Manon woke with a start from a dream of horror and human suffering. She did not know where she was in those first moments of slowly returning awareness. She was also sore in her lower back and calves, as if she had walked for miles the day before. Which, of course, she had. And then it all came back to her. She gasped. Richard! Richard knew what she had done!

In a panic, she leapt from her bed and ran to her dressing room, calling for Bessie. Her maid was nowhere to be seen, nor was there hot water ready for her, and there were no clothes laid out on the chair. It was then that Manon realised she was still wearing the clothes she had worn the day before while working at the infirmary. That was, of course, why Bessie was absent. Manon herself had set her maid and everybody else in the house to work at the infirmary.

She hastily washed in cold water and dressed in a muted dark brown gown. With something of an effort, she combed and plaited her hair, the way she had done when she was living in Paris, just one thick tress down her back. She missed Bessie already, Manon thought.

There was not a footman in sight either, in the corridors and hall. Even the ever-present Pritchard could not be found.

The house seemed strangely quiet this morning. When Manon opened the door to the morning room, she registered with a shock that no breakfast was laid out on the polished round table near the window. Again, that was her own doing. She had waylaid Richard’s entire staff, and must go to see how she could put matters to right. She turned back into the hall and headed for the green baize door that led to the servants’ quarter. The door to Richard’s library stood ajar, and seemed to beckon her to come and investigate.

At his desk, slumped in his chair, sat Richard, still deeply asleep. His long legs, still in breeches and boots, lay stretched out before him. His arms were crossed over his chest, and his head rested on the back of the chair, slightly tilted to one side. His black hair looked ruffled, his face a bit drawn, even in repose.

With a stab of guilt, Manon realised Richard must have spent the entire night at his desk. The scattering of papers and books was testimony to that.

She picked up some documents, then stilled when she saw what was on them. It seemed that Richard, in his usual thorough and efficient manner, had worked out a scheme for the daily management of the Greenhaven Infirmary. There was a rudimentary financial plan, and a fund had been constructed for the daily expenses and staff wages that would ensure the infirmary could continue to be run. The fund would have to be provided for by charity events, such as fundraising balls and concerts. Richard himself would donate the money needed to get started.

Manon’s eyes filled as she realised what Richard had done. He had made her project possible and viable. Then, for the first time she took a moment to reflect on what she had done.

She had been a truly ungrateful and selfish creature. With his preparations of the past night, Richard had given her a chance to start a new life, even though she had gone behind his back and ruined the perfect routine of his household. Good heavens…she had even taken his money and used his staff, all without asking him face to face.

Yet he had never said a word the previous night. Instead, Richard had come, and when he saw she was too tired even to stand on her own two feet, he had brought her home, and had then started to work out her project.

“Well? Does it meet with your approval, niece?”

His sudden, teasing voice startled Manon, and she dropped the papers she was holding. She could only nod and swallow the tears that seemed to come so easily this morning. Richard rose and picked up the fallen documents, swiftly arranging them back into the right order.

“Look,” he said, matter-of-factly, “I will ask my solicitor, Mr Brownslow, to help us out with the funding management. We will go to Eastbourne today and discuss it with him. I want him to find us an accountant for Greenhaven. I am sure one of the young clerks he employs will be eager to take the job. Then we will need to hire a proper staff of nurses, although that might prove to be difficult. Not many girls would want to do such a demanding job.”

“I can train them!” Manon found her voice and pitched in with enthusiasm. “I learned from the best in Paris, the nuns of Les Dames de Marie! We would need to fit up free rooms at Greenhaven so that they could stay on the premises instead of having to rent. That would make it profitable for them to stay as on our staff.”

“An excellent idea! Now, let us work out some more arrangements. Take a chair.”

They worked like a team of accountants, efficiently planning the daily routines, the supplies that would be needed, and the people that would be indispensable, until Pritchard knocked to announce that breakfast was laid out. They had worked for two hours without even noticing the passing of time. Now they were famished.

 

After breakfast, during which they further talked and planned, Richard and Manon set off for Eastbourne in the gig. It was a Stanhope, which Richard had purchased after his father’s death so that he would have a fast carriage if he needed one. The twenty-two miles were covered in one and a half hours by a swift little gelding named Phineas.

Mr Brownslow, Richard’s solicitor, was a man in his early sixties, large and heavyset, with a shock of white hair above a pink, round face. His clear brown eyes smiled at Manon when Richard introduced her. His large mouth with surprisingly healthy teeth opened wide under his bushy white moustache.

“I am honoured, Miss Favier, to make your acquaintance. Sir Richard informed me of your coming to England, and it is my privilege to bid you welcome to our beautiful country.”

He bowed and took Manon’s right hand into his large, pudgy one. He placed a kiss on the back of her hand, surprising her with the subtle bending of his wide girth.

“Mr Brownslow,” Richard said evenly, “I have several matters to lay before you for careful consideration.”

Something in his tone must have spurred the solicitor into action, because he now bowed to Richard. “Forgive me, Sir Richard, for having done some research of my own already, but the messenger you sent me last night seemed adamant that I do so.”

Messenger? Manon looked at Richard in surprise, causing him to smile sheepishly at her.

“I sent Pritchard to convey my request to Mr Brownslow,” he explained.

“Now, sir, if you and Miss Favier would follow me into my office, I would be honoured to lay out what I have worked out.”

With his words, the solicitor effectively cut short any reply Manon would have made to Richard’s comment. He led them to a room at the back of the large townhouse he occupied. This chamber was airy, light, and beautifully furnished in the latest Oriental style that the Prince Regent loved so well. Elegant black-lacquered cupboards with coloured inlaid images of birds and flowers stood against the walls, which were covered in delicate, light green silk. Gold-painted sofas and chairs, upholstered in dark green silk, and with fragile curved legs, surrounded a Chinese tea table of finely carved wood.

From one of the chairs, someone rose when Manon entered.

 

“Allow me to present my eldest son, Daniel,” Mr Brownslow beamed. “He asked if he could act as your accountant, Miss Favier, and assist you with the running of Greenhaven.”

Daniel Brownslow was in his early thirties; he was not much taller than Manon and had a figure that was just a little too plump. Yet he showed an easy charm and a kind smile that lit his hazel eyes and kindled a warmth in Manon’s heart. He placed his right hand on his heart and bowed deeply from the waist, albeit with a bit of difficulty. “It will be my utmost pleasure and honour to serve you to the best of my humble abilities, Miss Favier,” he said in a warm voice.

Manon politely listened to Mr Daniel Brownslow as he explained what his scheme was for Greenhaven. He certainly was intelligent and diligent; she had to give him that. He had thought of everything, from hiring a staff to calculating what would be needed for the efficient working of the infirmary, and even how they could make a modest profit by investing their excess money once they were in business. Needless to say, for the moment, there was no excess money yet, but that did not deter Mr Brownslow junior from the course he had set.

Mr Brownslow senior had drawn up a contract, which was signed by Richard, after a careful reading and approving of its contents. After a celebratory glass of brandy, Richard and Manon left the Brownslows and returned to The White Rose.

 

“So what is your opinion on young Brownslow?” Richard asked once they were out of Eastbourne on the road to Brighton. The countryside was lush and slightly hilly with fields of barley and wheat, interspaced with meadows dotted with sheep.

“He seems a competent and intelligent man,” Manon replied. “And a truly kind one, too. I like him, Uncle, and I think he will be an asset to our scheme.”

They drove on for a few minutes while Manon felt struck by a feeling of guilt; she had forced her uncle to spend money on this scheme, when he probably had no wish to do so.

“I have not even thanked you yet for what you did, Uncle,” Manon said, clasping her suddenly shaking hands in her lap.

He did not answer right away but cast a sideways glance at her. His expression was unreadable. After a while, he replied, “I was furious with you at first, but once I saw what you accomplished in so little time and with so few means, I had to admit that it was an excellent idea, Manon.”

He fell silent again, and Manon’s pulse suddenly raced at the gentleness of his tone. She could hear his approval clearly, and she was ridiculously happy with it.

“I…I was not sure if you…,” she tried, but the words got caught in her throat.

“If I would approve?” Richard said, turning his head. Then his beautiful smile hit her in full force. “You think singularly little of me, Manon, if you feared my judgement. I could never disapprove of a job well done – and it was, Manon, it certainly was.  I admire your pluck, and your tenacity, in striving to reach the goal you set for yourself.”

After a brief pause, he continued, “Have you been seeing Blackthorne again in the week that I was at Bearsham Manor?”

“Only once. We went out riding. He has not returned since.”

“I take it that Blackthorne has not come up to scratch, then?”

“No,” Manon answered quietly. “He was kind, and always the gentleman, but he did not ask for my hand.”

“Fool…” Richard muttered, under his breath.

“I would have refused him,” Manon said, clearly and determined.

That statement was a surprise for Richard, so much so that he steered the gig to the side of the road and stopped it. Phineas instantly started to graze on the road shoulder’s lush grass.

“Why? I thought you liked Lucian.”

Manon turned to look him in the face, unsettling him with the intensity of her gaze.

“I do like him, Uncle, but I could never marry a man that I do not love, especially when I like him. It would be a living hell for both of us, to live a life without love. Companionship is not enough for me, Uncle, nor is friendship. I want love, and passion, and the joy it brings. I could never do without those. I would rather stay alone and live my life the way I want. I think I have found what I want in Greenhaven.”

She is so lovely, Richard thought. How many times had that same notion crossed his mind, lately? Yet it was the absolute truth. His Manon was the loveliest woman he had ever set eyes on.

The way she looked at him now, with love glowing in those green eyes, set his heart racing, and he welcomed the feeling like the air he breathed. Even if they could never be together, he would always want to see the love she felt for him, Richard, in her eyes.

Then, suddenly, Richard stopped fighting the searing urge and surrendered. With a sigh escaping his lips, he leaned over and kissed her.

 

They did not touch other than by the joining of their mouths. Richard felt Manon’s answering jolt as clearly as he felt the sparkle of lightning run down his own spine. From that moment on, he lost himself in the feel of her soft, pliant lips as they parted to welcome him. She was as hungry as he was, and he steeled himself to keep from losing every shred of control and jumping from the gig with her in his arms so that he could…

Soft little moans escaped Manon, as she threw her arms around his neck. He felt her shaking body press against his, and suddenly, all his rational thoughts left him. He grunted with frustration, rose and lifted her into his arms. When he jumped down from the seat of the gig, Manon wrapped her legs around his waist and she never stopped kissing him. Her small hands were entwined in his hair as if she had to hold onto him for dear life.

Manon felt as if she were on fire. She could no longer think, no longer breathe, no longer contain herself. She had to cling tightly to Richard; she wanted to feel him and touch all of him! She was vaguely aware of him, carrying her through a hole in the hedgerow, and laying her down onto cool, soft grass.

And then they were tugging at each other’s clothes, breathing hard, seeing nothing but each other. Her breasts sprang free of her bodice as if they had a life of their own, but Manon did not stop to cover herself. She tore at Richard’s coat, shoving it from his shoulders while he lifted her skirts up to her waist. His hands were on her inner thighs, stroking harder and harder, and covering her sensitive skin with liquid fire everywhere they touched.

God, she was exquisite! She was all subtle, soft curves, firm femininity in a skin of pure silk. Her breasts begged for his lips, his tongue, his teeth, and Richard kissed, licked and sucked the hard, puckered nipples until she was moaning with need. He was so hard that he would burst any moment, if he did not…

Stop! You blithering fool, stop! He could not do this. He could not!

When he tore himself loose, the pain was agonizing. He heard Manon’s soft moan of protest and hated himself for letting her go. Hated the cruel God that installed this love in their hearts yet crushed it with the forbidding laws of sanity.

“I am sorry,” he whispered, his mouth still very near hers. “I did not want to do that, yet I wished it with all my heart.”

Then he released her, pulling up her bodice and lowering her skirts. He shrugged into his coat, stood, and reached for her hands to pull her to her feet.

Manon’s small hand touched his cheek in a gesture that gave comfort as well as understanding. “I know, my love and I feel the same pain as you do. Do not ever apologize for loving me.”

They stood frozen in their agony for a few moments, their brows touching; breathing hard in an effort to overcome their distress, they clung to each other.

Finally, Richard led Manon back to the gig and helped her up. He climbed up beside her, took up the reins, and clucked Phineas into a trot.

How on earth were they to survive this agonizing torture? Richard inwardly raged. How were they to shrug off the uncertainty that weighed upon them like a curse?

Next to him, Manon averted her flushed face to hide her hot tears from the man she was doomed to love.

 

Hearts Adrift – Part Nineteen

Armitage_004

Chapter Nineteen

Richard was furious. In fact, he could not recall ever having been so outraged in his whole life.

He had done his utmost to provide Manon with the best of opportunities to organize her life, and look what the foolish chit made of it!

What was his niece thinking? Setting up an infirmary, of all things! It was unthinkable! Yet here was her letter, written in a tiny, neat hand, explaining that she would be searching for suitable premises near Brighton Port and that she would need to employ staff to help her. In a totally candid manner, Manon elaborated on the reasons why she would like to establish her infirmary – namely, the wretched conditions of the poor and the total lack of medical assistance for such people. She had been trained by her father, she wrote, and felt she was highly qualified to perform her task. Miss Prudence Butterworth would be her companion and assistant.

With a huff of irritation, Richard put the letter down onto his desk blotter. He heaved a deep sigh, but that did not diminish his concern at all! Suddenly, his mind seemed to be teeming with unwanted images of Manon staggering through filthy rookeries and her being assailed by packs of ruffians. Ravaged, possibly. He jumped to his feet and forcibly pulled open the library door.

“Thornton, send someone to the stables! I want Spartacus ready in ten minutes. I am leaving for Brighton at once.”

 

Richard covered the sixty-two miles to Brighton in less than eight hours, pushing Spartacus into a steady trot, and occasionally into a swift canter. Spartacus was large, strong, and nearly eighteen hands high, and with enough muscle strength to keep this exhausting pace up until they reached The Wild Rose. Still they did not make it until deep into the night by which time both horse and rider were utterly exhausted.

“Sir, pray, do come in.” Pritchard said. Although roused from his bed at this ungodly hour, the butler nevertheless seemed not at all surprised to see his master.

“What the deuce is going on here, Pritchard?” Richard’s voice sounded harsher than he had meant it to be.

Pritchard cleared his throat. “Well, sir, erm … it is Miss Favier. She … well, we have all been helping her this past week, and I assure you, sir, that nothing improper has been going on, what with Miss Butterworth and Mrs Carson accompanying her, as well as the three footmen, sir.”

All this had come out of his solemn, dignified butler, and Richard was simply stunned to hear him say so much in so short a time. Although, Richard mused, Pritchard had not quite said anything that made sense.

“I have no inkling what you are trying to say, Pritchard. Please, enlighten me.”

Again, the butler swallowed and said, “Miss Favier needed our help to set up Greenhaven, sir, so we all pitched in. The footmen, and some other workers hired by Mrs Carson, have cleared the house Miss Favier rented from top to bottom, whereupon Mrs Carson and the maids directed the placing of the beds and cupboards. We then…”

Richard jerked up a hand to stop the flow. “What on earth is Greenhaven, Pritchard?”

“Why, it is the name of the infirmary Miss Favier has opened in Jermin Street, sir!”

 

Amidst the grimy, sagging hovels hugging the waterside, the house actually was a haven of green. Even in the grey light of dawn, Richard could see the bright green walls from afar shining like a beacon. Inside, there was a bustling activity. Upon stepping into a small entrance hall, Richard saw a table and a seat on the left, which served as a desk for the young girl who was sitting there; she was scribbling away in a thick ledger. On the right side was a long bench, and it was occupied with people. Grubby, downcast people in rags. Mothers who clutched crying children in their arms, girls barely out of childhood but pregnant and bent over with pain, feverish boys with eyes too old for their years, and men coughing, moaning, even bleeding. It was chaos and utter misery.

“Next!” The loud voice of Mrs Carson,  the housekeeper of his Brighton townhouse, boomed from the rear of the hall. A second later, the woman saw him and gasped. “Sir Richard! We … we were not expecting you!”

“Where is my niece, Mrs Carson?” Richard demanded, struggling to maintain a constant, calm voice but not succeeding. He felt his temper rise like the tide.

“Forgive me, sir,” his worthy housekeeper told him, “but I have no time to spare. This baby is decidedly sick.”

She snatched a wailing infant from its mother’s arms and gestured the woman to follow her. She then disappeared through the door she had come out. Richard hastened after her, suspecting he might find his niece when he did so.

In contrast to the dimly lit hall, this room was ablaze with light. A bright, white light that came from a multitude of candleholders and shone upon a room with whitewashed walls and a shiny flagstone floor. In the middle of it all stood an unusually large oak table, also painted in white. Mrs Carson deposited the crying baby upon it, and then guided the mother to a row of chairs against one of the walls.

Only then, as if he was waking from a kind of stupor, did Richard see Manon. She was dressed from head to toe in a starched, white apron, and on her bright auburn hair, which was pulled back in a tidy bun, she wore a white mobcap.

Immense relief washed over Richard when he saw that she was her usual, efficient self and that she smiled at him brightly as if she were overjoyed to see him. That smile went straight to his heart. He felt his anger run away like water down a hole. And it was not as if he had not been frightfully furious with her, because he certainly had been. He had wanted to thrash her for putting herself into danger like that, venturing into Brighton’s rookeries. Yet now, he found that he lacked the words as well as the inclination to scold her. He just wanted to take her into his arms and crush her to his chest. And kiss her senseless.

“Good evening, Uncle,” Manon said cheerfully. “What a lovely surprise to see you here! I did not mean for you to come all the way down from Bearsham Manor but I am indeed delighted you did so. Now I can show you what we have accomplished here, I and all those hardworking people of your staff. They have done a splendid job! You ought to give them a raise, because they surely deserve it.”

He blinked, then gave himself a mental shake to chase away his wayward thoughts. It had been unwise of him to come here without preparing himself for seeing her after being away from her for a whole week. She was so beautiful, so heart-wrenching in her innocent enthusiasm. God! How he had missed her!

“However,” Manon went on, still smiling at him, “I shall not be able to show you anything tonight. We are rather swamped with work, I am afraid. So forgive me, Uncle; I must return to my tasks.”

With that, she turned towards the massive oak table, and to the crying infant that was lying on top of it.

 

For the rest of the night, Richard sat on one of the chairs near the wall and watched Manon perform an endless number of tasks, each one even more horrid than the last. She pierced horrible wounds, cleaned them, and bandaged them. She listened to numerous chests, probed throats and ears, and doled out spoonfuls of syrups to infants of all ages. Gradually, he saw her neat white apron become covered with blood and other, even more repulsive fluids. He abhorred the sight of it, and he loathed to see her being soiled like this, yet he could not take his eyes from her.

He noticed how she inevitably grew tired, yet she never faltered for a second until the very last patient had been dealt with. He acknowledged how radiant and unmistakeably happy she looked, even when the most vicious of tasks was presented to her. How she comforted, and soothed, and made people feel at ease. It was like a second nature to her, Richard realised. This was what she was meant for; this was her true vocation.

Again, he was forced to acknowledge that she was the one he loved, more than anything in the world. God help him but he did love her, and always would. She was the most extraordinary woman he had ever encountered, and the kindest. How could he not love her? How could he not adore his angel?

 

At some point, Manon lost all track of time and even of place. She just took on every task as it came, and performed all the right gestures, found all the right words, and ploughed on from one patient to the next. That was as Papa had taught her how one coped with human suffering. One locked off the portion of one’s brain that controlled compassion. These were not only people, but first and foremost, they were patients. Patients had a condition that must be dealt with. For every condition, there was a treatment, and Manon applied that treatment, then went on to the next patient. If only she had not been so utterly tired. And if only Richard had not been there, sitting there and glowering at her. Now she had an additional task to accomplish. She must keep her wits about her and not think of Richard.

She finished her last task and smiled at the young boy whose hand had been crushed under the heavy sack he had been hauling at the docks. There were two small bones that had snapped in that tiny little hand. Manon had put a splint on the palm so that the child would not be able to move his hand until the bones were healed. She had explained to his mother who seemed to be even younger than Manon herself, that her son could not work for several days. The woman had looked at her as if she were insane and said, “I can’t afford to keep ‘m ‘ome. Me ‘young uns ‘ll starve if he doesn’t work.”

In a haze, Manon watched her last patient leave the room.

“Just how long have you been doing this today?”

Richard’s voice broke through her sorrow, warm and so infinitely gentle that her vision blurted all of a sudden.

She turned to him and noticed that he was steadying her with a hand on her arm. How odd, she thought; why would she need steadying?

 

When Manon crumpled, Richard caught her and held her against his chest, his senses assaulted by her scent of roses. How had that fragrance managed to last against the stench of sickness that seemed to drench the room?

“Oh, sweetling …” he whispered against her temple, lifting her into his arms. How delightful it felt, just to hold her. “My darling …”

He abruptly became aware of every other person in the room when he realised they were staring at him. There was Miss Butterworth, as well as Mrs Carson and three of her maids. Two footmen stood frozen in the tasks they had been performing. Time stood still, it seemed.

Then Miss Butterworth cleared her throat. “Sir Richard,…”

“I am taking my niece home,” Richard felt necessary to explain. “I will send the carriages to bring you all back to The Wild Rose, after you finish here.”

He settled Manon’s head against his shoulder and left the room, and the house. Outside, he signalled to a footman, handed Manon over to him, and mounted his horse. Without any command from his master, the footman lifted Manon so that Richard could take her up and place her in front of him. With one arm clutching her firmly to him, Richard nudged the horse – a placid grey gelding by the name of Horace – into a slow walk.