Seventeen – A Great Sorrow
“Oh, Miss Williams, Granny Bradley is so very ill! The fever will not abate, and I am at the end of my tether!” Ruby wrung her hands in despair and sobbed inconsolably. Beth quickly ran past her and entered the cottage.
Mrs Bradley’s body on the bed seemed to have shrunken so much that Beth was instantly in a panic. Ruby had covered her with a cotton sheet but Beth could see the ravishing effects of the fever all too well. The old lady’s face was ashen but her cheeks bore bright red spots as if someone had touched them with rouge. Her breathing was laboured and seemed to drain away the last vestiges of her energy with every intake of air. Beth knelt beside the bed and took one of Mrs Bradley’s gnarled hands in hers.
“Granny … oh, Granny …” She choked on the words and attempted to swallow the big lump in her throat. Her eyes misted over when Mrs Bradley looked at her.
“Beth, my child …” There was not much strength left in those whispered words. “Beth, promise me … you will watch over my sweethearts … promise me, please?”
“Of course, I will! I love them! I will do whatever is necessary to keep them from harm or hurt! I swear it!”
Mrs Bradley made an attempt to cough but failed. Instead, she weakly wheezed and her lips turned blue. Hastily, Beth dipped her clean handkerchief into a bowl of eucalyptus water and held it under the old lady’s nose. It brought only a little relief, she saw, and not nearly enough.
“You must … marry him …” Mrs Bradley croaked and grabbed Beth’s hand with sudden vigour. “It is … the only way to guard them. That way, you will become a mother to them.”
“I cannot do that, Granny, but surely there are other …”
Mrs Bradley squeezed her hand in a painful way and drew a deep breath.
“It will ensure you happiness, my child. You love him, Beth … “ She coughed and gasped.
At that same moment, Fenton entered and paled visibly when he saw the condition Mrs Bradley was in. Yet, he controlled himself and knelt at the opposite side of the bed.
“Mrs Bradley, I took the liberty of sending for my personal physician, Dr Forrester. He will be here shortly and …”
“My lord …” rasped Mrs Bradley. “Please … take care of … my darlings … promise me … you will … protect and love them?”
Stephen laid his hand on top of hers and softly said, “Mrs Bradley, you have my gentleman’s word I will do everything in my power to take care of Lily and Oliver. I do love them, you know that.”
The old lady nodded faintly yet urged on.
“You must also … look after … my dearest Beth! Promise me! She has … no one …” A violent fit of coughs raked her frail body and Beth, in alarm, tried to make her drink a bit of water. Mrs Bradley pushed her hand aside and grabbed Fenton’s hand in a hard grip.
“Promise me, my lord! Promise me …”
She gasped one last time and then, her eyes lost all sparkle of life. Her head fell back on the pillow and she lay still and unmoving.
Slowly Stephen’s hand went up and closed the dead woman’s eyes before he solemnly said what she so fervently had wanted to hear during her last moments.
“I promise, Mrs Bradley, I do.”
Stephen knew beyond a single doubt that he would do as he promised. He simply had no choice but to fulfil that promise to the dying grandmother of his twins. His gaze wandered to Beth. She had her eyes closed but a single tear ran down her cheek and Stephen realised she must be very distressed. He wanted nothing more than to take her in his arms and soothe her yet he knew she would not permit it. His ghastly behaviour of a few weeks ago had caused Beth to distrust and maybe even hate him.
“Come, Miss Williams,” he said softly, “we cannot help her anymore and must lay her to rest. I will see to it that Mrs Bradley receives all respect and dignity she is entitled to.”
The days following Mrs Bradley’s demise were bleak and laden with sorrow. Stephen took it upon himself to take care of the necessary arrangements, so that Beth could devote herself entirely to Lily and Oliver. How she would be able to comfort the children, Stephen did not know. He had broken the news to them the following morning as gently as he could and asked his mother and Beth to be present when he did so. It had been one of the hardest things he had ever done in his life yet he must have accomplished it fairly good because the children – after the first outbursts of grief, of course – seemed to recover themselves a bit.
Lily had even asked in a timid little voice if they would be living at Brixton Abbey from now on, which caused his mother to forget her usual dignity and gather the two of them in her embrace. It was she who had assured the twins that, of course, the Abbey was now their home. When Beth took them away, they looked rather composed, to Stephen’s relief.
Yet, he again felt a pang of concern when Raleigh informed him that the children and Miss Williams would be dining in their rooms that night. They were too tired and too upset to come down. His mother too did not come down so Stephen dined alone downstairs, feeling like an outcast in his own home.
Afterwards, he hastened to the first floor where his children now occupied a suite of rooms. Beth’s bedchamber was adjacent to that of the children. Stephen knocked on the sitting room door but received no answer. Upon entering, he found his mother reading in the chaise-longue.
“My lady, how come I find you here instead of asleep in your chambers?”
Henrietta put down her book and sighed.
“I could not find sleep, Stephen. Poor Lily cried herself to sleep and Oliver tried comforting her with tears running down his cheeks, although he manfully swallowed them back. Miss Williams finally succeeded to calm them down. She is resting now and I volunteered to watch the children while she sleeps.”
“Let me relieve you, mother. You need to rest.”
“Stephen, I do not think …”
But her son helped Henrietta to her feet and soothed her.
“Do not concern yourself about propriety, mother. I trust you know me well enough to assume I would never break its rules.”
Henrietta relinquished and retreated to her rooms. Stephen opened the door to the children’s room.
Lily and Oliver were in their beds, sound asleep, and in a chair next to Lily’s bed sat Beth. At one point she must have been in her own bed for she had donned her nightgown. It was a plain, white cotton one without any frills or laces. It was the most fetching one Stephen had seen in his whole life.
Beth was sitting upright in what must be a very uncomfortable position. Her head had fallen aside and was resting against the chair’s high back. Her hands were still clutching her shawl of lavender blue wool against the night’s cold.
Poor sweet darling, Stephen thought. She must be exhausted and yet, she chose to stay at his children’s bedside, to be there, should they need her. Her fine, beautiful face was very pale in the light of the bedside table lamp. A few shallow lines showed next to her pert little nose, and the sight of them clutched at his very heart. He loved her … he simply did. He would court her and woe her until she loved him back and then, he would ask her to be his wife. It would be difficult because he had to gain her trust which he himself had destroyed with his rudeness. It did not signify. He would do it, slowly and gently.
But for now, she needed to rest in a thorough, soothing way. So Stephen carefully lifted her into his arms and carried her to her bed where he gently laid her down and tucked her in. She did not even stir.
He returned to the children’s room and took his place beside their bed. He had all night to think about how he would conduct his courtship.