Thirteen – Uproar
For the second time that night, Stephen dashed after Beth but this time, she outran him and reached her room to close and lock the door, right in his face. He spent the good part of an hour pleading in whispered tones to listen to him so that he might explain himself. He still did not grasp what he had been amiss in his conduct nor what he was going to explain but still, he tried to make her hear him out. To no avail, for there was no sound coming from Beth’s room, not even sobs or muffled weeping. When he finally gave up, the bleak November dawn was not far away.
“I beg your pardon, my lord, but I am afraid I have some disturbing news.”
Stephen looked up from the estate ledgers he was trying to inspect and sent his butler an inquiring gaze. Raleigh was not his usual, stony self, this morning, he thought. The man was white as a sheet and his hands were shaking, despite the control he was trying to enforce on them.
“Yes, what is it?” he replied, far more harshly than had been his intention.
“Well, sir, it seems that Mademoiselle Guillaume and the children are nowhere to be found. Nobody has seen them since dinner last night, and, when Trixie went up to bring them breakfast this morning, she found their rooms empty and all their belongings gone.”
“Poppycock, man! They probably are gone to visit the grandmother in the village and will return soon.”
“I beg to differ, my lord, but would they have taken all their belongings with them, would that be the case? Besides, I have taken the liberty to send a footman to Mrs Bradley and inquire after them but she too has not seen her grandchildren since yesterday.”
A small knot of concern began forming deep in Stephen’s gut, yet he did not immediately give in to its nagging. Surely, there must be an explanation? The events of the night before again popped up in his mind, again churning his stomach with disgust and humiliation.
Damned the woman! He had practically flaunted himself at her feet, with his heartfelt apologies! He had as good as said that he loved her and wanted her to love him back but she had acted like a schoolgirl being toppled over for the first time! She was twenty-five, for God’s sake, and she had lived in bloody France for ten years! In no way could she be ignorant in the ways of love and courtship!
Stephen rose and began pacing the Aubusson carpet on his library floor.
“Let us not do foolish things, Raleigh, at least, not immediately. Mademoiselle Guillaume might return any time from a long walk in the countryside with her charges. Wait for another three hours and then, we will see what is needed.”
“Certainly, my lord,” Raleigh replied, his voice even but his eyes doubtful. The butler then left the room in offended silence, leaving his master to brood over the events that were about to stir up the whole household.
By dinner time, it was abundantly clear that Lily, Oliver and Beth were gone with no indications as to their whereabouts. Stephen had ridden to the village at breakneck speed to question Mrs Bradley but her cottage had been deserted. The neighbours – no, the whole village – had been interrogated but every single villager said the same thing; Mrs Bradley had gone to visit her widowed sister, and no one had seen nor heard anything about the governess or the children. When asked where Mrs Bradley’s sister lived, again every single one of the interrogated villagers denied knowing anything at all. They did not even know the name of the woman, let alone where she lived, my lord, I am so very sorry, my lord.
Now, Stephen and Henrietta were in their dining room, manfully forcing down a charred meal, being smacked down in front of them by a stony-faced footman. Raleigh was overseeing the proceedings with a face rigid with disapproval, though he kept himself quiet enough, giving only reluctant replies to Stephen’s remarks.
“Did Mademoiselle tell anybody where she was going or what her plans were, Raleigh?”
“No, my lord.”
“Have you found any note, issued by her?”
“No, my lord, none.”
“Damn it, man, can you tell me nothing about her intentions, then?”
Raleigh stood next to Stephen and was about to serve him with a glass of port. He threw back his shoulders, and his back was ramrod straight when he replied.
“No, my lord, nothing. I should think Mademoiselle would have informed you of her plans, as her employer, not me. I am the butler, my lord, and, although relations between me and Mademoiselle were excellent and cordial, she did not deem it fit for me to know of her plans.”
“That will be enough, Raleigh!” Stephen barked, irritated by the man’s clipped tones. “You may leave us now!”
All the servants left the room, blatant disapproval on their countenances. An awkward silence filled the space as mother and son were staring after them in stunned surprise.
“What the devil has gone into them?” Stephen fumed. Henrietta put a steadying hand on his.
“Calm yourself, my lord. The whole staff have taken a liking to the children and, alas, also to the confounded governess. They do not know you had to put her in her rightful place. I would not have thought she would take her charges with her, though.”
Stephen frowned at the dowager, not grasping her meaning.
“Put her in her place, mother? I did no such thing!”
“That is not how I witnessed it last night, my lord. She taunted you with her charms and you turned her down and very skilfully, if I may say so. The minute you proposed that she become your mistress, the game was up and she fled.”
The words his mother so contently uttered rankled in Stephen’s mind for some unknown reason.
“Have you been eavesdropping, dear Mama? How shameless of you!” he said, in a more lightly tone than he felt himself to be in.
“My lord! Who do you take me for? No, I only overheard your last words to her and had to hide myself most precipitously when she came running out of your bedroom. I am most grateful that you found a way to get rid of her without having to pay her salary for the entire time she stayed here. She was trouble, my son, and she would have inflicted great misery upon our House. Yet, I think you should find out where they went to. I already miss Lily and Oliver and their sweet chattering at dinner time. Bring them back to me, Stephen.”
The dowager rose and bade her son goodnight before retiring.
Lounging in the comfortable chair in front of his bedroom fire, Stephen cradled a glass of brandy in his palms. He sipped absently at the pale, golden liquid, but without even tasting it. Instead, his memories of what had transpired in this same room the night before kept invading his peace.
They had an altercation, he and Beth, but that was nothing out of the ordinary. They frequently quarrelled. In fact, if he were to be honest with himself, he liked their bickering. It enlivened his days of dreary estate business, and he appreciated seeing Beth at the dinner table and bickering with her.
He admired her courage in trying to search for proof as to his involvement in her family’s accident and would have given it gladly, had she asked for it. And then, there was the attraction they had begun feeling for each other … so thrilling and exhilarating.
After his darling wife’s tragic death, Stephen had vowed never to marry again. Florence had been his soul mate, his dearest friend, his heart, and even the sadness of not conceiving children together, had not estranged them. Her demise had been sudden and violent, and excruciatingly hard on him. From one minute to the other he had been robbed of the most precious person in his life. Losing Florence left him aching, not only for a pleasant and satisfying bed partner, but also – and this far more drastically – for a supporting, loving companion. Replacing the first need had not been difficult – bed partners were easy to find – but finding companionship, matching the quality of one he had with Florence, had proved to be utterly impossible amongst the simpering young ladies in the shire or Town.
Impossible, but for Beth Williams … his wayward, counterfeit governess came very close to what he lost when his beloved Florence was taken from him, Stephen realised with a shock.