Two – Haunting Ghosts From The Past
Lily and Oliver gave a squeak of delight when their grandmother’s dilapidated cottage came into view, and ran like lightning toward it. By the time Beth reached it, they were in Mrs Bradley’s embrace. The three of them were crying, but from joy, not from sorrow.
“Dear Beth!” the old lady exclaimed. “Do come in, child! Thank you for bringing back my sweethearts to me. They have been away for three weeks and they were not allowed to come and see me. I missed them something dreadful.”
“Granny, can we have tea and biscuits?” Oliver piped, his distress already soothed, now that his worries about his grandmother had been laid to rest.
“Yes, of course, you little glutton! Go and ask Ruby if she wants to brew us some tea.”
Ruby Merton was Mrs Bradley’s neighbour and she looked after her when necessary and did a bit of household chores for her. The children swiftly disappeared through the back door.
“So, my child, tell me all about you!” Mrs Bradley asked Beth. “It has been six weeks since your last letter from Saint-Saturnain. Have you been able to tie up your aunt’s affairs after she died?”
“I have,” Beth replied. “Aunt Lucie left me a small nest egg in her will, safely invested but the income is not enough for me to live on, so I was forced to apply for a position as a governess. Mrs Bradley, no one knows I am Beth Williams. I took on the name of Elle Guillaume because I want to live at Brixton Abbey incognito and investigate at my leisure. I want to find proof of the Fentons’ involvement in the cart accident.”
Mrs Bradley nodded. “Yes, my dear, you need to know for sure if the present Lord Brixton is responsible for the death of your beloved mother and brother. You have not yet reached closure regarding their demises.”
All of a sudden, Beth was back to when she was eight years old, and on that dreadful day when she lost her mama and Julian, her older brother. Mama had been visiting the sick of the parish, as was her habit as the vicar’s wife. She had been driving her small gig to reach the parishioners who lived far from the village. Julian, Beth’s twelve-year-old brother, had been allowed to accompany her, while Beth, not having completed her homework, had been ordered to stay home. Furious, Beth took her little pony and rode after them, but she was far behind, because she had lost time, saddling her mount. By the time she reached them, she could only watch helplessly how Lord Septimus Brixton’s phaeton, racing like hell and not taking heed of other carriages on the narrow country road, came thundering from the opposite direction. Mama had startled, pulled the reins too sharply and her cart had gone off the road and down the hill, overturning several times before crashing on the boulders lining the river. Mama and Julian had been caught under the heavy vehicle’s body and died before help arrived.
The incident was hushed up by the baron who did not want to jeopardize his son’s future. It had been thirteen-year-old Stephen Fenton who held the phaeton’s reins and not his father.
And Beth had witnessed that. She had, however, kept her mouth shut until she was thirteen when she blurted it out to her father in a fit of anger over some trifle they bickered over. Peter Williams had then gone to confront Baron Septimus about it, and the latter promptly turned his vicar out and bought an army commission for his only son to remove him from the scene. Beth and her father had no other option but to exile themselves to France and the small village of Saint-Saturnain, Provence.
Lily and Oliver were pretty worn out when the trio returned to Brixton Abbey. After they were bathed and dressed in their nightgowns, Beth gave them their tea. A bed time story was all the children needed to doze off and go to sleep. Beth left the room with a satisfied smile on her face. She was pleased with her first day at the home of her worst enemy because she had succeeded in making it happy for two of his most vulnerable victims.
As she dressed herself for dinner with the help of Grace, one of the upstairs maids, Beth’s attention was diverted from her reflection in the mirror by a knock on her bedroom door. It was Trixie, the eleven-year-old tweenie.
“Beg yer pardon, miss. The master asks if yer want to come down and meet ‘im in ‘is study before dinner.”
“Thank you, Trixie,” Beth answered, wondering what His Infernal Lordship would want from her before they met at the dinner table. Steeling herself, she looked in the mirror one last time to see if everything was as it should be. It was. Her formal black bombazine dress gave her a stern, unforthcoming look as befitted a woman in mourning. Beth took care not to resemble the bright, young and joyful child she had been, ten years ago; Fenton was not to recognize her as Beth Williams. She made the sign of the cross and left the room.
Stephen Fenton, the ninth baron Brixton, sat behind his large study desk, cradling a glass of golden cherry. His long legs stretched before him, he was brooding over what might be coming to him, now that his Nemesis had returned from France. For long years, Fenton had both dreaded and welcomed this day, preparing himself on how he would deal with Beth Williams.
He was the first to admit that his father dealt wrongly with Vicar Peter Williams and his family. Trying to cover up the facts about the accident had been a mistake, but one the former baron made out of fatherly love for his young son, after he granted the latter permission to drive the phaeton.
Fenton still could not comprehend what had happened in those seconds in which he lost control over the pair of greys he had driven recklessly over the country lane. Had he turned their heads, ever so slightly, so that they swivelled toward Williams’ old mare and made her go off the road? Had he screamed out of sheer fear and frightened the mare himself with his cry? He did not clearly recollect what transpired, but only saw the results; the vicar’s battered cart going over the road’s edge and crashing down the slope. He could still hear the terrible noises of the horse, screaming with mortal fear, of the cart’s breaking wooden body and clanging metal of hinges, springs and wheels. His father took over the reins in a split second and halted the phaeton.
Then, Fenton’s heart had skipped several beats as he saw his strong, masterful father falter, and back away in horror and flee from the scene, all the way home admonishing his son not to tell a soul they had been the cause of the accident. Instead, his father said, they would pretend to have come on the spot some time after and gone for help instantly. Who was to doubt the word of Baron Brixton, after all?
It had worked out perfectly. No one suspected their foul play until young Beth betrayed them. And now she had come back to her old haunt, Fenton thought, but why? It boded ill that she changed her name and posed as a Frenchwoman in order to have access to his home. She must be seeking revenge, then, and he, Stephen Fenton, was not going to let her have her way.
When the study door was thrown open by Raleigh, his butler, to announce Mademoiselle Elle Guillaume, Fenton braced himself just as determinedly as he did before battle, back in Badajoz, Spain during the Peninsular Campaign in April 1812.