Eleven – Frantic Searches For Answers
Beth knew she had to act – somehow do something sensible and to the point – but her brain seemed too numb to find answers. She had always feared the Dowager Baroness for the cruel, cold-hearted woman she was, since that long-ago day when her father had been dismissed as a vicar by Lord Septimus Fenton.
Beth, frightened with awe for the tall, stern master of Brixton Abbey as he strode into the vicarage’s tiny parlour, instinctively looked at the mistress for compassion, because she hoped the baron’s wife would somehow soften him. How she had been mistaken! Henrietta Fenton was even more unforgiving than her husband and she had looked upon the trembling fourteen-year-old vicar’s daughter with eyes full of unmitigated fury and burning revenge.
“The insult, inflicted upon our family by your daughter, vicar, is beyond redemption! We cannot allow this lying, scheming girl to live in a house where only the worshipping of the Lord must dwell. You must therefore leave our service and take the sinner far from here. You have three days to prepare yourself. Good Day!”
Those had been the dowager’s words while her husband stared broodingly ahead without meeting her father’s pleading gaze for mercy. Vicar Peter Williams, devastated by the loss of his beloved wife and son, did not riposte. He simply bowed to the will of his lord and master and left within three days for France. Beth’s aunt Lucie lived in Avignon, in the south of France, where she had been the wife of a rich wine merchant, before she had been widowed. Lucie Cordier had a beautiful house – much too large for one person – and the childless widow welcomed her brother-in-law with a warm, compassionate heart. She had been appalled to learn of her sister Camille’s tragic death and immediately began mothering her sister’s only child with a deep love.
But – what was she to do now? Beth’s thoughts, reluctantly withdrawing from the happy times she knew in France, raced through her head like a caged bird wanting to escape. Hurriedly, she withdrew to her room.
Fenton raised surprised eyebrows at his mother’s remark.
“You, my lady mother? You will speak with Miss Williams? And what, pray tell, might you say to her?”
Henrietta was a tall, thin woman and when she drew herself up, she was quite impressive.
“I will tell her that she will be sent away, for beguiling my son with her girlish wiles, Stephen. From the moment she laid eyes on you, she set her cap on winning you. That, my son, would be the ultimate revenge, would it not? Trapping you into her bed and forcing you to act upon your honour by taking her as your wife so she will become mistress of your ancestors’ house.”
When Fenton was about to protest, Henrietta stilled him with an upheld hand.
“No! Do not think me a fool, Stephen. Your countenance betrays you, every time you look at her. You are infatuated, my son, and if you follow this foolish passion, you will soon be damned!”
Stephen Fenton held her fiery gaze with a steadiness he had a hard time summoning up.
“I am stunned, Mother, and deeply hurt that you think me shallow enough to let myself be drawn to a woman who could be dangerous to our family name. That would never do, would it not? Yet, I think you are thoroughly mistaken about Miss Williams’ character. She would never go so far as to give herself to me, just to punish me for what I did. Do you remember, Mother? I was the one who robbed her of her beloved mother and of the brother she adored.”
He fell silent, lost in memories. Henrietta saw the raw, excruciating pain sweep over his sensitive face and it tore at her very heart!
“Stephen …” Her hand touched his bleak face in a tender caress to make him look at her. His gaze turned to her, and she spoke to him with all the love she could muster.
“Stephen, my dearest boy … I know all too well that you think yourself responsible for that long-ago accident but that is where you are wrong. It was an accident, nothing more, nothing less.”
Henrietta sent her pleading gaze at her son who did not respond, not with words nor with gestures. She went on, urging, pleading, coaxing.
“I know you have been lonely since Florence died. I have felt every stab of your pain in my own heart, my sweetling. I understand your predicament but I also beg you; do not give in to this emotion! It will destroy you and it will annihilate the House of Fenton for good! Beth Williams is poison to us! Please, my son, heed my words!”
His voice was wrought with a strong emotion when he replied.
“Mother, please, do not continue in that way. I appreciate your concern but I have no need for it. I will deal with Beth Williams when and how I see fit. Now, please, leave me. The hour grows late and I still have obligations. Goodnight, Mother.”
However gentle the words, they were a dismissal and Henrietta did not press on.
“Come in, Miss Williams, if you please?” Fenton made an effort to keep his voice level when he saw the paleness of Beth’s face as she entered his study. She was composed, he saw, but only barely so. Her dark brown eyes were filled with concern, and when she sat down on the chair in front of his desk, he noticed the slight trembling of her slender hands. What was going on behind that smooth, alabaster brow of hers?
“Miss Williams,” he began, smiling at her encouragingly, “I want you to inform me about the children’s progress, so far. I am seriously considering sending them to a good boarding school after Christmas.”
Beth blinked and swallowed with apprehension at this. She always knew her assignment was only temporary and now, she suspected it might soon end for good.
“The children are making a satisfactory enough progress, my lord. I believe they will be ready for school at the time you mention. However, I have one favour to ask of you on their behalf.”
Fenton gestured for her to continue and she did so.
“Lily and Oliver still have a strong bond with Mrs Bradley, the grandmother who raised them. I fear they will emotionally suffer from being taken from her. For Mrs Bradley, too, it will be hard. The children are her only family, my lord. I would like to prevail upon the goodness of your heart and reconsider this.”
Beth kept her own voice equally level, carefully avoiding emotion to seep through, because she knew all too well what it would mean if Fenton decided to carry out his plans for her beloved charges. She would be unemployed and she would have nowhere to go. Yet, first and foremost, she would never again see Lily and Oliver, and that was unbearable! The children had become so dear to her that a separation from them would break her very heart. She closed her eyes, not wanting Fenton to witness her sorrow. He surprised her, though, when he spoke, in soft and gentle tones.
“Why do you not admit that you would miss them, Beth? That you have come to love them, as I have done? That you do not want to be separated from them? Neither will I, Beth. Lily and Oliver will stay at Brixton Abbey for yet a considerable amount of time and so will you, Beth. I hope you will not disappoint me in this?”
Beth gaped at him in sheer bewilderment! She never expected this, never dreamed he would keep her in his employment, after what she had done! It took her a while to recover her strength of voice and respond.
“But … I do not understand! I … I was convinced that you would dismiss me, my lord, as indeed, you have a right to, after …” She could not finish her sentence because a lump of shame and fear had formed in her throat.
Fenton did not answer her right away, instead fixed her with friendly eyes.
“Beth …”, he began but stopped when he stared at the object she drew out of her skirt pocket. His diary! In astonishment, he took it from her outstretched hand. “Why?” he asked, incredulously. “Have you not read it? I want you to read it, Beth! I want you to …”
“My lord!” Beth cried out. “Please, do not continue! I … I am very grateful to you for not sending the children away and I will gladly keep the position you so graciously offer me. Now, if you will excuse me, my duties await me. Goodnight, my lord.”
She then fled the room, leaving Stephen with an intense feeling of frustration and disappointment.
He found himself trembling with the sheer fury of it! How dare she reject the honest expression of regret he had been on the verge of delivering? He had been willing to apologize to her for what he had done to her and her family, by Jove!
Anger wrenching in his chest, he bounded after her with long, distance-eating strides.