Fourteen – Organizing the Search
The first days of December brought snow and frost in a most severe manner, keeping man and beast inside with gusts of Northeast winds. The small village of Brixton buried itself indoors to await better times and to prepare Christmas.
There was still no word of Mademoiselle Guillaume and her charges. Stephen Fenton and his mother had grown quite a bit dispirited over the whole affair. Not, that the Baron had not done everything he could about it.
He had been to London to consult his lawyers about his legal rights in the affair. After all, Lily and Oliver had been living under his roof when they were – and he could not mince words here – abducted by their governess.
It all came to nothing. He had no rights at all to warrant an official search for them since he was not their legal guardian. The fact that he had fathered them did not signify since he had failed to grant the children official recognition. Mrs Bradley, their grandmother and guardian, had exactly done that after their mother Molly died in childbirth.
Appealing to the magistrates and asking for an officially conducted search on the entire British soil, had also proved impossible, due to him having no legal rights. Besides, Stephen guessed they might not be inclined to hear him out, should they learn he used his authority as a baron to take the children away against their grandmother’s will.
So Stephen had used the ultimate remedy in appointing a private detective to search for the missing children. The fact that the poor man had virtually no clues at all to start his investigation did not count in Stephen’s eyes.
Now, after five weeks of excruciating concern for Lily and Oliver, Stephen was none the wiser as to their whereabouts and he felt almost ready for Bedlam with fretting over them!
“I never thought I would miss them so dreadfully,” Henrietta said softly when she and Stephen were dining in the much too quiet dining room. Her son looked up from pushing his food around on his plate and cast weary eyes on her.
“Yes … I know, mother. I too had grown fond of sweet little Lily and valiant little Oliver.”
He said nothing further but inwardly, his heart sighed deeply with the memory of Beth Williams. He missed her so dearly that he sometimes wondered why he had not realized it before, while she was still under his roof. He yearned for her laughter, her bickering, her lovely smile, her beautiful face and her exquisite figure far more than he could ever have imagined! He felt as is a part of him had been ripped out, a vital part, like his heart or his very soul!
“Why do I have the distinct feeling that the children’s fate is not the only thing troubling you, my son?”
She had taken him completely by surprise, and he lifted a gaze so deeply pained at her that Henrietta felt her heart clench in sympathy. She narrowed her eyes in sheer dismay and spoke angrily.
“What does that little wench possess to make you ache for her like a love-besotted schoolboy, my lord?”
Stephen abruptly stood and went to the sideboard to pour himself a stiff brandy. This, Henrietta thought in panic, was totally uncalled for! Brandy, when dinner was still going on! But her son downed the liquid in one swift motion and instantly refilled his glass.
“My lord! I beg, do not indulge yourself like that!”
Her son whirled around and his fierce blue eyes bore into hers.
“And since when, my lady mother, do I need your permission to do whatever I wish in my own home?” Whereupon he gulped back his second brandy in a blink of the eye.
Henrietta stood and left the room in indignant silence.
Stephen put down the brandy bottle he had taken with him to his bedroom and shoved it aside. He was not again going to drink himself senseless over the disappearance of a wayward governess! Instead, he was going to use his brains in a proper way to discover where she was hiding. For in hiding she had gone, for sure, by Jove!
First of all, she had removed herself from Brixton Abbey in a hurry, with all her belongings and with two children and their belongings in tow! She would have needed transport of some kind. A cart and horses and a driver, for instance. And that, she would only have found in Woolworth where she had friends and acquaintances galore.
So, all he needed to find was the villager who drove the three of them to a hitherto unknown destination. And Stephen Fenton had a pretty good idea who that might be.
The next day, Stephen had Parsifal saddled despite Thompson’s protests. The head groom wisely pointed out that the weather was far too inclement for such a ride, ice and snow making the roads treacherously dangerous, yet his master had no ears for his serious words. Instead the baron took his steed into a brisk canter over the frost-hardened country road.
The village seemed to sleep under a ten-inches blanket of pure, white snow, and only the plumes of smokes from the chimneys indicate that there were people living under those roofs. Stephen first went to the vicarage where the Reverend Carter had taken up residence after Vicar Williams left.
“Ah, vicar!” Stephen greeted him jovially when the housekeeper let him into the study.
“My lord,” Mr Carter replied, standing up from behind his desk and extending a hand to his sponsor. “To what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?”
“Nothing out of the ordinary, vicar! Just that, with this inclement weather, I thought it best to hand out the Christmas baskets early, this year. Would you inform the congregation that the event will take place in the Assembly Rooms above “The King’s Head” on Sunday next after Mass?”
“My lord, that would be very welcome! The harsh and early winter has been hard on some of the villagers. They will be very much relieved if they were to have extra food.”
“Then it is settled! I will make the necessary arrangements.”
While dozens of families were queuing to receive their Christmas baskets from the hands of the Dowager Baroness Brixton, her son kept watch for the one family he thought might have something to do with Beth’s flight. He did not have to wait long. Ben and Ruby Merton soon made an appearance, their son Johnny cradled in his mother’s arms. Stephen waited until they had received their parcel before he approached them, a warm smile on his face as not to scare them.
“Mr and Mrs Merton, might I have a word with you in private?” he addressed them and made a gesture towards the vestibule to have some privacy. They followed him in there, concern clearly written on their ruddy faces.
“Mr Merton,” Stephen began, his tone of voice level. Yet immediately, he was checked by the implacable expression on the man’s face! Only for a second, though.
“I have the unwavering certainty, Mr Merton, that you are able to tell me where I might find my wayward children and their governess. They have been missing for six weeks now and Her Ladyship and I are most concerned about their well-being. I pray you will enlighten me.”
While he looked Merton straight in the eye, Stephen was aware of Mrs Merton’s growing discomfort. The woman had given a surprised gasp when he spoke of Beth and the children, and she was now fidgeting with the baby’s frilled shawl, not looking at him directly. Merton himself, a big, sturdily built man with hands like coal shovels, had paled visibly but he had not altered his facial expression, though.
After a long, uneasy silence, Merton drew himself up to his full and considerable height.
“I promised Granny Bradley I’d never tell, a’ least not to you, melord. Me word is as good as anybody’s and I’ll no’ break it and that’s the end to it!”
A very happy Christmas to all of you. May joy and friendship be your companions the whole year long.