Fifteen – Struggling
“Confound it, man!” Fenton glared at Ben Merton in frustration and raked his hand through his hair in sudden misery. “Does it not occur to you that I might be worried about my children? That I am concerned if they are safe, fed, clothed, cared for?” He realized with a shock that it was true! He did worry about his children, even though he had never done so before. But now, at this very moment, he needed to know how they fared.
Merton, however, stood his ground, an expression of profound stubbornness upon his ruddy face.
“They’re with their granny and with Miss Beth, melord. Nothing will ‘appen to ‘em. They’ll be cared for because Miss Beth loves ‘em like they’d be her own.”
And she does love them, indeed, Stephen thought. If he witnessed anything at all in the past months, it was Beth’s genuine love for Lily and Oliver. But how was he going to put proof of his own love for them into this man’s thick skull?
“Mr Merton,” his mother’s soft voice sounded behind him. “Please, Mr Merton, if you know where they are, tell us. I am their grandmother and I miss them dearly.” Yet another stunning realisation hit Stephen in the guts! His mother was pleading a commoner for help? Never had he thought to behold that!
Henrietta, her eyes glistening in a pale face, turned toward Ruby and took her hand. “Mrs Merton, you are a mother yourself. Surely, you understand how much I am suffering for the loss of them?”
Ruby Merton glanced at her husband who stood there like a rock, his brawny arms crossed over his chest, his face impassive. Yet Stephen could see a softening in the man’s eyes when his wife spoke his name. “Ben?” Merton looked at her and then, finally nodded.
“My lord,” Ruby said, “you saved our little boy from the fire and I will be forever in your debt for that. My husband made a promise to Mrs Bradley but I did not. For my Johnny’s sake, I will tell you. Mrs Bradley is in Manchester.”
Stephen Fenton arrived in Oxford Street, Manchester three weeks before Christmas 1819 around tea time. The snow had been falling steadily during his journey and now it clung to his black greatcoat in lumps of ice because the temperature had dropped considerably as soon as dust had set in. Grateful to have found a suitable inn that bore the not too original name of “The Queen’s Head”, he assured himself that his horse was taken care of properly before entering the tap room for a pint of ale. Behind the counter, a short, burly innkeeper was serving a few patrons, all sturdy workers in drab dark blue clothes, lounging around the room or indulging in a game of cards. The man welcomed him cheerfully.
“Good evenin’, sir! Bet you’re frozen to the bones, ain’ it? What can I serve ya with?”
“A pint of your best ale, sir, and a room for the night, if you please!”
The innkeeper drew him a tankard of ale and shoved a ledger his way.
“I am Wat Burton, sir, you host for tonight. Would you kindly write down your name and the town you’re from?”
“Stephen Fenton, Baron Brixton of Brixton Abbey in Derbyshire.” They shook hands and Stephen signed the ledger before taking a good swig of his ale. He then bent over the counter and lowered his voice before speaking.
“I wish to know the whereabouts of a Mrs Oakham who, I am told, lives here in Manchester. Can you help me in finding out where exactly I could find her?”
“Mrs Oakham? Dr Oakham’s widow? Well, yes, me lord, she lives here, in Oxford Street, at number 17. Everyone could point out her house to ya! She’s very well known, here about!”
“How is that so?”
“Well, me lord, she’s kindness in person! She helps people with all kinds of sufferin’, as well as she can! From miles around, people come to ‘er with their sicknesses and injuries. I daresay she’d had hard enough times helping ‘em all before her sister arrived with Miss Beth and the children. They all help her, ya know, especially Miss Beth! That is one angel, if I ever saw one!”
There was a general approval coming from the rest of the patrons in the room.
“Miss Beth ‘elped me poor mother when she suffered a bout of rheumatism!” one of the men said, nodding emphatically in the process.
“And she delivered me son, just a few days ago!” another one exclaimed. “And made a dashed good job with it, when old Lizzie, the midwife, was out of ‘er wits, not knowin’ what to do!”
“I’m sure she did save my little Mary’s life when she used her own medicine to cure that nasty cough of hers!” a third man shouted, his eyes gleaming with tears.
Stephen felt a strange tug at his heart as he realised what he was witnessing here; a bunch of unwashed, unshaven workmen in drab clothes, singing the praise of his wayward governess who seemed to work here as some sort of nurse. Of his Beth … but why should he be surprised by that? Did she not win the heart of just everyone that had the good fortune of being smiled upon by her? Did she not always made her way to whatever she set her mind to … or her heart?
All of a sudden, Stephen was not sure anymore that he would be able to bring her back with him to Brixton Abbey. And, oh … how he wanted to do just that …
Beth stretched her painful lower back and sighed. Another very busy morning at the infirmary had kept her on her feet almost from after breakfast until now. It must be near luncheon, she thought, and began ranging the room and readying it for the afternoon rush that would soon begin.
She had been extremely thankful that Mrs Oakham had asked her to help out with the patients. Most of the day, Beth had no time to even think about Brixton Abbey and its despicable master. No, that was unfair. Stephen Fenton was just like any other man of his social class and upbringing. He assumed that he had a right to do as he pleased and to take what he liked. Beth knew she had been too rash when she took Lily and Oliver with her, that night six weeks ago, but she could not bear the thought of leaving the two innocent children under Fenton’s roof without her. Fenton would most certainly try again to lure her into his bed. Beth could not, under any circumstances, risk them to witness or even glimpse something of the ongoing.
So, she had fled to Mrs Bradley and told her, in private, what had transpired. Sensible as she was, Mrs Bradley immediately sent for Ben Merton and Ruby and explained that the four of them would go in hiding from the baron.
Since then they all lived under Mrs Oakham’s roof in Manchester, in the big, old house that she had shared with her husband when he had been alive. Beth had been instantly drawn into Mrs Oakham’s charity work for the poorest of the workers and their families, all undernourished and suffering from lung diseases, due to the cotton fluff that filled their workrooms. There was a great deal of misery in Manchester, especially after the riots earlier in the year, that had cost so many lives and left so many women widows.
Yes, Beth reflected, she had been devastated after fleeing Brixton Abbey. She had begun to fall in love with Stephen and she had thought he was beginning to fall in love with her, too. Oh, how she had been wrong, so terribly wrong! Stephen was planning to make her his mistress, instead, and that, she could not bear to be. She could not even bear the thought of giving herself to him when he did not love her. Never, never, would she give herself to him without love, mutual love, shared love. How else would she be happy again? How else would she be able to make him happy again?
Oh, she was so tired. The morning had been hectic, with loads of very young children, all in need of relief for their coughs and running noses and fevers. Beth was glad she had sent Mrs Oakham upstairs for a much needed rest.
Behind her, the door of the surgery opened suddenly. There had been no knock. Due to her exhaustion, Beth was irritated when she turned around to see who had been so bold as to enter without waiting for an answer.
In the doorway, looking extremely attractive in his black greatcoat and black beaver hat, stood Stephen Fenton, a rakish smile on his handsome face.
Happy New Year!