Eighteen – A Time For Reflection
Mrs Bradley’s funeral occurred on the Tuesday before Christmas 1819. It was a remarkable event with the whole village and the occupants of Brixton Abbey attending the service at St Mary’s church. The Reverend Mr Carter, assisted by his curate, Mr Sage, moved the congregation to tears with his praise of Mrs Bradley’s virtues, all of which were only very true, as Stephen knew.
His children were sitting very still and white-faced, clasping their governess’ hands as they sat on both sides of her. Stephen could clearly see their distress but also, their braveness in mastering their tears and controlling their grief. Beth, he noticed, did not weep at all but sat very upright and solemn in her black mourning clothes. He was unsure if her apparent aloofness was a good thing. He would have preferred some tears over this rigid control.
When the service was finally over, and they had laid Granny Bradley to rest beside her daughter Molly, the congregation split. The Dowager took the children to the carriage where their father was waiting for them. As her charges had no immediate need for her, Beth’s steps were drawn to Granny’s cottage before she could help it. She pushed open the door and a huge gulf of grief suddenly gripped her. Granny … dearest Granny, who took her in after Beth finally came back to the place of her youth … How was she supposed to continue now? Whom could she turn to if ever she would be in need of a comforting presence in her life? With a sob, breaking from her, Beth sank into Granny’s chair by the hearth and wept.
After Stephen sent his mother and the children back to the Abbey, he followed Beth when she directed her steps to the cottage. The look of sheer forlornness in her eyes had thoroughly alarmed him. He wanted to watch over her because he knew she was upset. The unexpected sight of her, huddled in a chair and sobbing her heart out, appalled him.
He ached to comfort her – no, to take her in his arms and hold her close but … He sighed inwardly with suppressed frustration. Had he not spoiled his chances of winning her heart by his rude, lustful behaviour, he might not have to restrain himself so.
Yet, Stephen knew all too well he would have to be careful not to shock Beth with brusque manners, lest she would again think him a confessed cad.
So, he waited patiently for her to put her hands down from her face and stare at him in surprise and dismay. With some awkwardness, she began searching her pockets for a handkerchief, which she failed to find, whereupon he presented his own large white one to her.
“Come on, Miss Williams,” he said evenly. “It is not at all in your nature to be so downcast. Normally, you tackle setbacks with fortitude and alacrity. Do so now, too. The children will need you at the Abbey.”
His rather blunt approach seemed to do the trick for Beth obediently rose while she blew her nose and wiped her eyes with his handkerchief. She glided past him without a word and left the cottage, clutching – at least – at some shred of her dignity.
Christmas came at last. Stephen and his mother went out of the ordinary to make it a memorable one for Lily and Oliver and so – the baron observed – did the whole household staff, including his governess. Everybody wanted the children to feel less forlorn about their grandmother’s death.
Henrietta took the children with her in the carriage when she visited the tenants. She encouraged them to talk to them and give them presents. A sure way for Lily and Oliver, she knew, to become familiar with the many tasks of the gentry they belonged to from now on.
Stephen made them ride over the estate with him and taught them the names of the staff members who were of vital importance to the day-to-day workings of Brixton Abbey. Especially Oliver soon became acquainted with Mr and Mrs Robinson, the steward and his family. They were a friendly couple with three children, the eldest of them a boy of Oliver’s own age, by the name of Crispin.
To her own surprise, Lily found herself liking Mrs Tremayne a lot, whose husband was the home farmer. The Tremaynes were young and had been married for only a year and Mrs Tremayne was expecting her first baby in the spring.
Mr Darton, the game keeper, was more to Oliver’s liking. He was impressed by the man’s knowledge on the woodlands and promised himself to go out with Mr Barton frequently as soon as spring returned.
Beth, on the other hand, planned outings for her charges with the head gardener, Mr Burrows, and his helpers, who took the three of them with him into the woods to collect greenery and berries. Afterwards, the children and Beth helped the indoor maids to decorate the Great Hall and stairways with holly and fur branches and mistletoe. They had so much fun that Stephen was drawn out of his study by the giggles and laughter. Mrs Banton, the housekeeper, was trying in vain to keep the excitement down but, as soon as the baron appeared in the hall, voices died down instantly. Stephen felt himself growing irritated! Was he such a tyrant, then, that the maids cowered when he entered? Even Beth seemed startled and was staring at him with big brown eyes.
“Oh, Papa!” Lily’s high-pitched voice rang. “Come and join us! This is so much fun!”
The awkward mood was instantly chased away and soon, Stephen found himself standing on a ladder to attach some greenery to the post of a hallway door or to a chandelier, with Lily and Beth handing him branches of various shrubs. To his amazement, he enjoyed it a great deal, especially when Lily handed him a branch of mistletoe and ordered him to place it in the drawing room doorway.
“Why here, Lily?” Stephen asked. “Why not in the library door?”
“Because the drawing room is the one we use most, silly! We pass this door the most so you will have the greatest opportunity to kiss under the mistletoe here!”
“Oh? Is that what it is used for? I did not know that!” Stephen said, pretending not to know, but he winked at Beth, who suddenly blushed violently. He was absolutely delighted by that!
Yet, Stephen had to wait until Christmas Day and the party his mother gave before he had a chance of coming close enough to Beth to have a private moment with her. She had stubbornly and most efficiently avoided being alone with him during the last few weeks and he was growing very irritated with that.
Finally, the Christmas dinner party saw the Abbey’s friends and neighbours assembled around Henrietta’s table in a quiet but comforting gathering. Lily and Oliver had been officially presented as the Baron’s heirs. Stephen’s neighbours were delighted to make the children’s acquaintance and treated them with affection and good humour.
Beth, who had been presented as the children’s governess, had not expected the unaffected friendliness of the guests. She was being treated as an equal, she realised with surprise and several of the young, unattached gentlemen politely asked her to reserve a dance for them. Yet, when the dancing began, Stephen forestalled every other suitor by claiming a waltz right away. He had the immense satisfaction of seeing Beth startled yet again.
“A waltz, my lord? But … I did not think I was supposed to be attending the dance … I …”
“You are requested here tonight, Miss Williams. It is obligatory to attend the baroness’ Christmas party. And, now that you are here, it is also capital that you grant me this waltz. People would think you rude and impolite.”
The musicians struck up the introduction to “Invitation to the Dance” from the German composer Carl Maria von Weber who just made a name for himself with a new opera in Dresden, Germany.
Without further ado, Stephen put his arm on Beth’s waist and drew her with him onto the dance floor.