Twenty – The Agreement
On Boxing Day morning 1819, Stephen Fenton, Baron Brixton, was pacing the Aubusson carpet in his library in what might be called a state of agitation. He positively had never felt thus uncertain in his whole life, he mused.
Stephen was waiting for his governess to come and have a meeting with him regarding the arrangements to be made for her charges. That was the pretext of the meeting, as far as he was concerned. But in truth, there was a more important issue he wanted to settle; how was he going to make Beth Williams stay at Brixton Abbey?
After lying awake for half the night, turning over the various difficulties of his relationship with Beth in his mind, Stephen had finally come to the only possible conclusion. He wished to make Beth his wife because he loved her. In the few months, she had spent in his home, Beth Williams had become indispensable to him. That undeniable fact had become very clear after Beth left for Manchester. His children had not been the only ones he missed, Stephen admitted to himself. Not having Beth living under his roof, not to be able to see her, talk with her, banter with her, argue with her, all that had made Stephen realise he felt the same way as when he courted his Florence, back in 1813. The longing when she was near him, the joy of being with her, the pain of not seeing her, was the same as when he had been with Florence. Stephen knew beyond all doubts he would not go through the same excruciating pain he experienced when Florence disappeared from his life. No! Never again! He would not survive another ordeal of that kind, he would not! So Beth had to stay and be with him. He would have to make her love him and marry him.
“Come in, if you please, Miss Williams. Do take a seat.”
Stephen did his best to keep his voice level but his heart sank when he noticed Beth’s rigid bearing and her tightly compressed lips. She did not take the chair he indicated but remained within two steps of the library door. Her hands were clasped in front of her, as if to disguise the fact that they were trembling. They were, Stephen saw. She was nervous, then. He did not make the mistake of extending a hand to her but waved at the settee and coffee table. They seated themselves in opposite chairs.
“Miss Williams, before we discuss what is to be done for Lily and Oliver, I think it wise for you to tell me about your own plans first.”
“My lord,” Beth replied, “you allowed me a choice when you asked me to come back here. I would like to take you up on that. It is my wish that you should take on a new governess for the children because I want to leave Brixton Abbey and go to Manchester. I have seen a lot of sickness, misery and ignorance in that town. People like Mrs Oakham, who spend their lives trying to make things better for the poor, have made me realise I could be of greater use than to teach the children of the rich.”
Stephen took great care of keeping a straight, impassive face, yet inside, he felt like he just suffered a blow in the stomach. Although he cringed at the notion, he had known Beth would leave the Abbey and disappear from his life as soon as she had the chance. He should have been mentally prepared for the shock but discovered he had not.
“What is it that you would want to do in Manchester,” he asked, hoping his voice would not break and give away his despair.
Beth’s eyes were suddenly alight with enthusiasm.
“I want to start a school for girls and give them an education that would allow them to better themselves in life! Girls are so totally without chances, especially when they are poor and living in a rapidly growing industrial city like Manchester. Like the boys and men, they find work in the mills and factories, yet they do not have the same opportunities as their male fellow workers. Promotions are scarce and never for women. Pay raises are rare and always solely for men.”
Stephen’s heart skipped a beat when she grasped his arm in her fiery enthusiasm. She was so completely absorbed in her narrative that her eyes burned into his with a lively fire.
“Do you understand, my lord? Can you comprehend what I mean to accomplish? I want the girls to armour themselves for their rapidly changing future! They must be given the chance to learn to read and write, to master foreign languages, to acquire skills in arithmetic, geography and history. In the mills, there are numerous tasks which do not need strength or stamina but care and precision. Women can provide that if they have the necessary education. I want to try and start a school that tends to those needs.”
Despite his hurt, Stephen could not help a sad little smile, seeing Beth’s spirit.
“I can very well believe you would succeed in making the school a success, Miss Williams. I think you could succeed in anything you fight for.”
Then he suddenly needed to distance himself from those warm, smiling chocolate eyes, so he rose and went to lean against the mantelpiece. His lifelong memories of her would not distance themselves at all, he found. That was Beth, he thought, all fiercely fighting for what she thought was wrong, all warmth and compassion for those who were worse off than herself. And now, she was going to leave him …
He had to try one desperate proposition as a last resort.
“You are completely right about a school for girls, Miss Williams. Girls and women, too, are maltreated in our so-called civilized society, if not physically then certainly as a person. I have …”
He turned and looked directly at her.
“I have had this idea for some time now but never got around as to how to achieve it. In Woolworth, there is no school, no education, not even for the boys. The vicar gives some of the more intelligent boys a basic learning but it is only too little and it interferes with his duties as a minister. I would like you to consider a position as a teacher in the village school I am about to establish in Woolworth. Given time, I am planning to enlarge it. There will be other teachers if it is successful.”
She was staring at him, confused and utterly surprised, Stephen acknowledged in relief. He had her attention, albeit reluctantly, so he pressed on.
“Miss Williams … Beth … please, will you consider my offer?”
In Beth’s mind, there was only one question: why was Stephen doing this? Ah, and she knew the answer, did she not? He wanted to keep her here, if not at Brixton Abbey, then at least in the vicinity of it. And to achieve that goal, he just proposed to make true one of her most fervent wishes, to be a teacher to children whose parents were too poor to offer them education.
While she was desperately trying to gather her thoughts, Beth stared into Stephen’s beautiful blue-grey eyes and was finding it difficult to think. Had it not always been like that? Had she not always been utterly lost when she looked him in the eyes? Had she not always, secretly, desperately loved him? Was it not her dearest wish in life to be with him? Yet, she understood all too well she had to be very careful and very weary of him. She knew all too well what he wanted from her and she was not – in a million years – prepared to give him that. So she would make him a bargain.
“Where would this school be lodged, my lord?”
“In Mrs Bradley’s cottage. I am fully prepared to make the necessary adaptations and equip the premises to be perfectly suitable. You could live there, too. I would pay for a maid and a man servant so that you have only the school to think of. Are you inclined to take on my offer, then, Miss Williams?”
Beth bowed her head and smiled. “I would, my lord.”
Relief flooded through Stephen like a tidal wave! With some effort, he managed to keep a straight face and a steady voice.
“Very well, Miss Williams. Grant me a few days to prepare the cottage so that you can take up your task as a teacher. Surely, we will have the pleasure of your company until after the New Year?”
“It will give you the opportunity of advertising for a new governess, will it not, my lord? I must also explain the new arrangements to Lily and Oliver.”
“My dear Miss Williams,” Stephen ventured, taking Beth’s hand to bring it to his lips. “I fervently hope you will not abandon them. They could take their lessons in the village school, together with the children that are, in fact, their friends of old.”
He flashed her his most brilliant smile. “Am I wrong in thinking you are reluctant to be parted from Lily and Oliver, Miss Williams?”
Beth hesitated and her eyes grew dark with sudden sadness. It slashed through his heart like a knife! “No, my lord, you are indeed right. I would not want to lose them … as you very well know.”
Stephen pensively stared at Beth’s back as she left his library. He had just won the first round of what would be the greatest challenge to come in his life. Now, he could make up the strategy, needed to win his counterfeit governess’s heart and make her his baroness.
It would be all but easy, he knew. He had to eat lots of humble pie, but he would do whatever it took to win his Beth.
He had to. He loved her.
This is the end of The Counterfeit Governess but not the end of Stephen’s courtship of Beth.
Please join me next week for Reserve and Reticence, and learn the rest of their story.
Thank you for reading me,