The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Three

Chapter Two

Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, December 2, 1815

The next day, the weather was still extremely harsh. The snow had stopped, but the temperature had dropped considerably. The fields now lay buried under a blanket of solid ice.

Alex readied himself for a meeting with his Leicester solicitor. Septimus Middlebridge was in his mid-sixties, and had been his father’s man for as long as Alex remembered. A tall, wiry man with a large beacon of a nose in a long, thin face, and piercing blue eyes, Middlebridge still wore a wig in the style of thirty years before, powdered and with a tail, and corkscrew curls framing his face, which made him look like a French courtier. Mr Middlebridge was extremely frugal and would not waste money on a new wig when the old one was still up to snuff, Alex knew. It was an excellent characteristic for a business man.

“Good morning, my lord,” Mr Middlebridge greeted Alex in his quiet, somewhat breathless voice, as if he considered an excess of breath necessary to lend his voice the necessary strength an equal waste. Alex could not clearly see Middlebridge. He saw the man’s outlines in the black frock he always wore, and the white contours of his head, where the wig covered it. Alex had, however, no clear vision of the man’s face, besides what he remembered from the time previous to his injuries.

“Good morning, Middlebridge. Please, sit down. I will have Porter bring us some tea.”

After the tea had been brought, Porter seated himself next to his master. Alex heard Middlebridge lay out his documents in a meticulous way. The solicitor then made his skeleton-like hands crack like dry sticks, before clearing his throat.

“My lord,” he croaked, “although your personal finances are quite ample and very strongly invested in sound businesses, I am sure I do not have to tell you that your estate is in a dire situation. You are in need of a good steward and a sturdy plan to right all the wrongs that exist here.”

“I agree, Middlebridge. No need to elaborate on what I already know. I intend to take matters in hand, from now on. My injuries are sufficiently healed that I can get to work.”

“Are you saying, my lord, that your eyesight has improved? That would be very good news.”

“No, Middlebridge, it has not. My batman Porter here acts as my assistant in reading and writing. What is the most urging matter that has to be dealt with, in your opinion?”

“Well, my lord, I am no steward, but I am aware that an estate needs tenants, who tend to its fields and woodland. Your tenants have begun leaving for better places, such as city factories, where they can at least make a little money, to feed their families. The few that have stayed have elderly relatives and small children. I need not tell you, sir, that they are in dire circumstances, and little else than starving.”

“Yes, I know that. At my request, the village vicar has been delivering food baskets to alleviate the most urgent needs. I know people have been leaving for Leicester and its factories, yet what good will that do them? Working in cotton mills or gun factories for a pittance, and living in dilapidated hovels for which they pay exorbitant prices?”

“Nevertheless, my lord, you need to keep the ones that are still here. You must provide them with food and fuel for the winter, because this year’s crops were disastrously lacking, as you are aware of. Next spring, with the help of a good steward, you should be able to have them work the land and plant new crops. There is no lack of funds, my lord. The interests on your investments provide a most satisfying income, but with the continuingly escalating situation on the Continent, we English have to establish a stable situation at home.”

Alex nodded, well aware of the Vienna Congress aftermath, which had created new hearths of turmoil on a continent that had barely recovered from the Napoleonic Wars.

“Well,” he sighed, “let us go over the state of my investments then, Middlebridge. Explain to me exactly where I stand on spending my money.”

 

Rowena opened her eyes and found herself refreshed and strong. She washed and dressed, then went downstairs to the kitchen. Mrs Hall was already busy at her stove.

“Oh, dearie! Are ye up already? How are ye feeling?”

“Better, Mrs Hall, thank you. Can I give you some assistance with your chores?”

“Oh, no, ma’am! I can tell that ye’re not a commoner. It wouldn’t do fer ye te be doing manual labour.”

Rowena smiled. “No, you are quite right, Mrs Hall. I was raised as a lady, but I am no longer one now. And my name is Rowena. Rowena Drake.”

“What has happened te ye, me dearie? Ye can tell ol’ Thea about it. I’ll never tell a soul, upon me word!”

Rowena sighed. She really wanted to confide in someone, but she was afraid they would look upon her with disdain. She shook her head. “Please, Mrs Hall, I cannot divulge. His Lordship also asked me, but I refused to tell even him.”

Mrs Hall’s eyes  grew round as she gasped, “The master asked ye? Well, bless me soul! He’s been ever so reluctant te talk te people since he’s back from the war and now he’s interested in you! Mr Porter will be happy te hear of it. That man so worries about ‘im, he does.”

Trixie, who had finished washing the dishes, came to sit at the table. Her ears had pricked the whole time. “Oh yes, ma’am! ‘Is Lordship has had such a terrible time, wounded as ‘e were when he came back from fighting that dreadful Bonie!”

“Yes,” Mrs Hall acquiesced, “he came back blind and covered with fearful wounds. He was unconscious when Mr Porter drove that cart into the stables. Mr Porter has lost an eye in the battle of Waterloo, and he had been wounded, too. Yet he didn’t give up. When the master lay wounded and bleedin’ on the battlefield, Mr Porter carried ‘im on ‘is back to a nunnery nearby. The nuns tended them and then Mr Porter brought the master ‘ome. He carted ‘Is Lordship from the Ketteridge village coach inn. Poor master’s wounds are healed now, since Dr Orme took ‘im under ‘is care. The good doctor couldn’t cure the blindness, though.”

“Yes,” Trixie chimed in, “and ‘Is Lordship being the spare had to become the next earl after Sir Reginald died. There’s been no money ever since the old earl passed away, and now, Master Alexander ‘as to put in ‘is own money just to keep us fed.”

Rowena listened to all this in mounting surprise. So the earl was struggling to keep his estate running. And he had had a brother, whom he had lost, and whose place he had been forced to take. And he was as good as blind. And she, Rowena was imposing on his already dire financial circumstances.

“Well,” she declared, “I had better earn my keep, then. I cannot travel in this weather, for sure. Tell me what task you want to give me, Mrs Hall.”

At that moment, Mr Porter entered from the scullery, carrying a pair of polished riding boots. He bowed his head to Rowena.

“I see you’re well recovered, ma’am. The major ‘ll be pleased to hear of it.”

The man did his best to overcome his accent, but cockney vowels were not that easily suppressed. Nevertheless, Rowena recognized the salt of the earth when she encountered it.

“Mr Porter, I am obliged to you for rescuing me from that dreadful storm, last night. You saved my life, sir.”

“No trouble at all, ma’am. If ye’ll excuse me, I must go an’ tend to the major.”

Rowena glanced at the big kitchen clock on the wall, which indicated a quarter past ten. Early for an aristocrat.

“Is your master always up that early, then?”

“Yes, ma’am, ‘e suffers from insomnia, so ‘e wants te make good use of the day an’ start working early. I just showed Mr Middlebridge out. That’s ‘is solicitor.” He touched his brow and left.

Rowena stood pondering a while over what he told her. She liked the batman whom she guessed must be in his early forties. He was as tall as his master, but much broader in the chest and shoulders. His sparse grey hair must have been dark when he was younger. He wore a patch over his right eye, but the left one was a rich, warm brown. He had a slight limp, probably caused by a battle injury.

“Come, dearie, have a nice cuppa tea. Ye’er way too thin and ye’re expectin’, so ye must seek te keep yer strength. How far gone are ye? I’m guessin’ five months, am I right?”

Rowena blushed, then shook her head. “Actually, I am due at the beginning of February.”

“Ye never! That’s barely in two months’ time!” Mrs Hall exclaimed. Trixie, too, clucked incredulously. “Ye look far less, ma’am!”

“I was always thin, so I guess it is normal for me not to show it.”

The door opened again to Mr Porter. “The major will ‘ave ‘is breakfast now, Mrs Hall. And ‘e wants ye te join ‘im in the morning room, Mrs Drake, ma’am.”

 

The earl rose when Rowena entered. He was dressed in a plain, brown woollen coat, a moss-green, unadorned waistcoat over a white shirt, and dark brown breeches under black top boots. His black cravat was tied in a simple knot.

Even in these plain, dark clothes, Raventhorpe was an impressive sight, Rowena acknowledged with a shock. His tall, muscular frame oozed power and authority. His stance radiated confidence, and the fact that he was blind did not seem to mar the elegance of his movements.

All Rowena had noticed the previous night, was confirmed under the weak sunlight of the winter day. Raventhorpe wore his black hair a trifle too long, but the cut emphasized his strong, lean face and angular clean-shaven jaw. Loose curls framed his face and fell becomingly over his wide brow. They were tamed a bit by the ribbon that tied them in a short tail. Raventhorpe’s nose, long and thin, had a tip that bent downward for just a tad. It softened his whole face which would have been too forbidding, should his nose have been straight.

Rowena’s gaze went to the earl’s eyes; clear blue-grey but unseeing, they were directed at her, and slightly squinting as if he wanted to sharpen his vision, just by sheer willpower. His large, thin-lipped mouth was set in a rigid line, as if he were bracing himself against some kind of danger.

The stiff, military bearing emphasized Alexander Raventhorpe’s breeding to the extreme.           Rowena instantly sensed his reined-in strength, his rigid control over what must be a strong temper. A dangerous man, she reckoned, if one made an enemy of him. Even the plainness of his attire could not lessen his handsomeness, nor did his non-committal smile disguise his watchfulness. He looked like a predator, a lion waiting to pounce on its prey.

Rowena curtsied, even though she knew the earl was unable to notice. “Good morning, my lord.”

Raventhorpe bowed. “Be so good as to share my breakfast, Mrs Drake. I hope I find you well-rested after your ordeal?”

“Yes, sir, I slept extremely well. I hope to be on my way as soon as the weather permits. I will not impose on you any longer than necessary.”

He said nothing in return, but Rowena saw his jaw clench and wondered. She sat down when Porter drew back her chair. Raventhorpe waited until she was duly seated before letting himself sink onto his chair. Porter served them breakfast, then left them alone.

Raventhorpe began buttering his toast, then said in a calm voice, “Correct me if I am mistaken, Mrs Drake, but I do not think that you can be on your way. You have nowhere to go. You are pregnant, penniless, and you have no skills that would permit you to earn your living. I am absolutely certain that you were gently bred, so how were you planning to fend for yourself?”

Rowena’s temper flared at his bluntness. “You are indeed mistaken! I speak four languages, I play the piano and I sing. My household skills are well enough since I took care of my brother’s …”

She abruptly stopped, realising that she was too outspoken in the presence of gentry. She was also giving too much away.

Raventhorpe’s expression of calm interest had not changed. He was looking in her direction so attentively that Rowena had the impression that he was actually seeing her. His blue-grey eyes were alight with a sparkle that made them a periwinkle blue. It was a most disconcerting sensation, and Rowena shivered. Her host smiled, and it made his stern face look charming and boyish, all of a sudden. Rowena’s heart skipped several beats as she caught a glimpse of the young man he must have been before he went to war. Utterly beguiling.

“My dear Mrs Drake,” he said evenly, “I am offering you a position as my housekeeper. Mrs Hall is always complaining that she is getting on in years and that she has to do everything on her own; a statement which is true, sadly. I can give you but a small salary of two-hundred guineas a year, but you can make use of all the comfort my estate has to offer. You can have your child here, and raise him or her to your heart’s content. Is that agreeable to you?”

Rowena was utterly speechless. Her eyes filled with sudden tears of relief, or gratitude, she did not know which. Raventhorpe’s offer was a gift from heaven; it was all she needed on this very moment. Acting as Ketteridge’s housekeeper would allow her to have her baby and raise it. Peter’s baby. Oh Lord! She could find other employment, should the need arise, and leave her child here under Mrs Hall’s care. The elderly woman would be all too eager to help her out, Rowena knew. She would be totally independent of Roderick, her ill-natured half-brother. She would be safe at Ketteridge House.

Outwardly imperturbable, Alex was nevertheless waiting with baited breath for Mrs Drake’s – Rowena’s – answer. It irked him that he was so anxious that she could very well refuse and leave Ketteridge after all. He did not want her gone, yet he could not understand that very disturbing emotion. She had entered his life only the day before, for goodness’ sake! He did not yet know a single thing about her. She could be married and be running away from her husband. Or she could be with child unwed, and a sinner. And for that matter, who was she? A lady, or a defiled governess, carrying a lord’s child? Or a clergyman’s daughter fallen into sin? So many questions, yet he could not bear to have her go. Not without learning the answers to his many questions.

“My lord,” she said, her voice wavering just a little, “I accept your offer with the uttermost gratitude. I will work hard, and I need no salary. If I could just stay at Ketteridge to have my child, that would be enough. Thank you, my lord.”

Suppressing a sigh of relief, Alex bowed his head. “That is settled, then, Mrs Drake. I will not hear of you working without remuneration. Two-hundred guineas a year, and that is final. Now let us enjoy our breakfast. I bet you have a tendre for Mrs Hall’s rolls.”

“I confess I had a taste of them already in the kitchen, just a few minutes ago, my lord, and you are right; they are delicious.”

“Mrs Hall is a true gem, Mrs Drake. I hope you and she will get along, because she is the expert on all things at Ketteridge House. She came here as a tweeny in my mother’s days and has stayed throughout the years. However, she informs me that there is a Herculean task to perform in putting the house to rights. The cobwebs have taken over, it seems.”

Rowena laughed and took a piece of toast from the rack. “Yes, that was what I saw of it, too.”

“You have a lovely home, my lord,” she continued, growing serious again. “Even in winter, it seems a beautiful place. I will enjoy taking care of it. Mrs Hall told me that you have only recently inherited the estate and the title. It must be greatly different from your military days, I wager.”

Her tinkling laughter still in his ears, Alex replied readily, finding himself greatly uplifted by Mrs Drake’s company. It was the first time since he came back from the war that he felt so light and joyous. With a jolt of surprise, he acknowledged Rowena Drake was responsible for that.

“Oh, it is very different, Mrs Drake. Being a soldier, and in particular a cavalry man, gives structure to one’s life. The military routine is what lends peace to one’s mind. It is a way of thinking, a way of living. What I found here, was merely boredom, and an acute neglect from lack of funds. Nothing that cannot be put to rights with money. No challenge.”

“Surely, soldiers do not find peace on the battlefield, my lord! From what we heard, even through the shield of censorship, Waterloo must have been a nightmare!”

There was an almost inaudible touch of distress in her voice, which Alex would not have been able to discern without the heightened awareness his blindness lent him. She had a connection with the battle, he was sure of it.

“Forgive me for reminding you of a most disturbing experience, ma’am,” he said, putting as much comfort in his tone of voice as he dared. “I forgot that wars do not solely kill on the battlefields. Have you lost someone dear to you on June 18th of this year?”

“Yes …”

It was like a whisper, a whiff of pure sorrow. Alex cursed himself for prying.

“I am sorry,” he said, trying to offer comfort with his voice. He felt the sadness welling up inside him like a source full of evil and despair. He again recalled his own misery when his regiment was being destroyed by the relentless French artillery. All because of the stupid pride of British commanders like Uxbridge, for whom a battlefield was first and foremost a way to display the cavalry’s splendour and horsemanship.

Alex let the silence be for a while, searching for the next topic of conversation. There was not much he could do to comfort her but there was something he must learn, now, at this moment.

“Mrs Drake, have you consulted a physician about your pregnancy? I gather that you are almost at the end of your term, according to Mrs Hall.”

Rowena was astonished at the earl’s unexpected words. He – a man! – was asking her these things?

“No, I have not, my lord. I consulted a midwife in Car … erm … in my home town. She only confirmed the due date, beginning of February.

“There is a perfectly good doctor in Ketteridge. His name is Dr Orme, and he and I are long-time friends. On the other hand, if you would feel safer with a more accomplished physician, I could take you to my own doctor, Dr Richardson in Harley Street, London.”

“Oh, no, no, my lord, Dr Orme will suit admirably, I am sure!”

“Good, I shall summon him here tomorrow. Mrs Drake, there is something I need you to tell me. Since you are staying under my roof, I think I have a right to know if I need to be on guard for a husband to turn up at Ketteridge house.”

Rowena’s hands flew to her suddenly hot face. Oh, Lord! The earl had asked her a question that was going to be on everyone’s mind when they saw a young, pregnant woman travelling on her own. And the earl was perfectly reasonable, he had a right to know.

“I am unwed, my lord. I lay with my betrothed, and we would have married if he had not been called to join his regiment. He was killed at Waterloo. I had only just found out that I was with child, when the messenger came with the tidings of his death.”

She had spoken so quietly that Alex had to strain his ears, yet he did not miss the deep sadness that laced her voice. To his own stunned surprise, he felt a sudden burning anger against the man who had done this to her. It was absurd. It had nothing to do with him and it certainly was not his business. Yet he could not help thinking what an irresponsible, selfish man her betrothed must have been, to lay with her and then leave her to go to war, before they had exchanged wedding vows. The next and very logical question formed in his mind.

“What about your family? Surely, they could have helped you?”

Rowena abruptly stood, appalled by what she had so impulsively revealed. No, she could not talk about Roderick and how he had chased her from her childhood home! It was suddenly extremely important to her that the earl should not think of her as a disgraced woman without any support from family or friends. She had said enough already; he must not learn who she was. She could not disgrace her father’s name any further.

“I … I have no family. Now forgive me, my lord; I must return to my duties.”

Alex had risen at the same moment Rowena had, to prevent her from running away. He was too late, of course, and his affliction was to blame for that. His blindness effectively kept him from swift reaction. His new housekeeper was gone, fleeing from further prying into her private life.

 

From that day on, Rowena firmly settled into a quiet daily routine. She put together a schedule to cover all the tasks that were required to keep the large mansion in good order.

In the mornings, she would work alongside Mrs Hall and Trixie, to see to the laundry, the ironing and the cooking. In the afternoons, the three of them would tackle the cleaning. Many rooms were not tied up for a long time since they had not been used. Rowena wanted to bring everything back to normal.

To that end, she walked to the village, bundled up warmly against the bitter cold. Enquiring at the inn, she introduced herself as Ketteridge’s housekeeper and asked Joseph Carter, the innkeeper, for female help. He brought her a few local girls, the daughters of local Ketteridge tenants, who were eager to come and work for her. The earl had provided her with an advance on her salary, which she now used to pay the girls. She did not tell the earl that she paid them out of her own salary. He had enough to worry about already.

As for her future dealings with her employer, she was determined to shield herself from his all too inquisitive nature. One day, she would leave Ketteridge House and make a new start for her and her child. For the moment, she could stay here until the end of winter, and make a little money.