Reserve and Reticence – Part Sixteen

Sixteen – Looking For A Missing Boy

 

After it had become evident that the missing Oliver was not to be found on the Abbey grounds, a large party was assembled, consisting of all footmen and tenants, who were not immediately necessary to the estate’s adequate daily functioning. Their mission was to begin searching in an ever widening circle, starting from the Abbey grounds and through the fields and woodland surrounding the estate. Stephen explained this to the assembly in clear words.

“Last night, my son went to bed at his usual hour of nine o’ clock, as the maid assigned to my children’s personal needs has confirmed. Even if he managed to leave the Abbey right after that time, he cannot have roamed more than a couple of miles from the estate. No horse has been taken from the stables, and I cannot believe that any cart driver or coachman, that happened to be in the estate’s vicinities, would have picked him up without notifying me or without questioning the boy as to his reasons for being out that late alone. Therefore, we shall begin the search as I instructed and report back to my lady Brixton every two hours. She will be coordinating the search efforts.”

Beth, seated next to a very distressed Henrietta, calmly listened to her husband’s speech but inwardly, she was all turmoil. What could have been exchanged between father and son, the previous evening, that it had driven away a thirteen-year-old in fear? All sorts of horrible thoughts were assaulting her brain, such as the baron striking out at the boy or threatening him in some horrible way. Instantly, she chided herself for thinking so badly about the man she was married to, about Stephen, for Heaven’s sake! How could she? But then, a little voice in her head began reciting all the horrid things the Fentons had done to her family, and how vicious Beth herself had always thought Stephen to be. Although her heart screamed in disgust that she simply could not think in that way about the man she loved, her brain calmly summed up all Stephen’s mischief. She had to talk to him, she now realised. She had to talk to him, and it could not wait.

However, she had to wait until the evening before that talk could take place.

 

~~~~

 

Oliver Bradley-Fenton reached the outskirts of Manchester early in the morning, just as the sun began mounting above the rooftops. After a long run, way past the boundaries of Woolworth, he set foot toward the industrial town and was picked up by a band of gypsies heading North. They asked no questions, used as they were at being harassed by the English authorities. They just gave him a bowl of soup and the loan of a blanket against the chilly night air and took him along.

Now, after he said his farewells, he was tired and hungry, but those inconveniences did not bother him for the moment. What an adventure this was! He had escaped the wicked baron of Brixton Abbey, the haughty man who called himself a father but was, in fact, nothing but a tyrant and a bully. As Oliver began looking around to find his bearings, he recalled the conversation he had with Fenton the night before.

Oliver was no fool. He knew very well he could never inherit the baron’s title nor the Brixton estate. He was a bastard. The more vicious people in the village had branded him and his sister with that charming nickname as long as he remembered. It had never bothered him because his grandmother taught him it did not matter he had no legal descent as long as he strove to become a good person. Lineage meant nothing, Granny said, when you were a scoundrel with no pity for other people’s misfortunes. His so-called father was such a miscreant, Granny said, and Oliver should never make Fenton a role model. It was far more important that Oliver made a good life for himself and Lily. He needed to protect and love his sister, because it was much harder for girls to find a place in the world than for a strong and smart boy.

So, on that dreadful day, when Fenton took them away from Gran and brought them to the Abbey, Oliver swallowed his fear and anger. Even when he wanted nothing more than to thwart his so-called father, he understood all too well what advantages might be drawn from a connection to a rich and powerful noble like Fenton. Oliver would bide his time and learn as much as he could.

Then, Fenton married his governess, and everything was turned upside down because now Oliver was not sure he could trust Beth anymore. Oh, she still was good to him and Lily and she had nursed them through the chickenpox like a mother would, but she also did not spend all her time with them like she used to before she married the baron. No, Oliver was no fool at all. Once the couple would have a child of their own, he and Lily would be related to the background of Beth’s life.

The proof of all this became clear to Oliver when Fenton told him he was to go to Eton soon and learn all about Latin and Greek and other useless items. Afterwards, he was for Cambridge and had to learn about how to run an estate like some upgraded steward. He would do a full day’s work for a meagre salary, and all the major decisions would come from Fenton and his offspring. He could be cast out at any time or at the whim of the baron whenever the man fancied another servant to run the estate.

No, Oliver wanted to build a worthy life for himself. When Beth took them to Manchester to live with Mrs Oakham, Oliver once visited a cotton mill and was impressed by the sheer power and working of it. The mighty looms, clacking and humming, and handled by the weavers, enchanted him. He wanted to be a part of that.  He planned to start at the bottom of the chain and work his way up, until he was an overseer and run the shed all by himself. Maybe, he would rise even further! Dreams were great, and Oliver wanted to live his dream to the full.

Yet, when he mentioned – very cautiously, mind – to Fenton that he wanted something other than becoming a steward, the baron rudely cut him off and became angry. In very clear terms, Fenton stated Oliver was to obey the baron’s orders without any protest or he would be chastised until he did. There was always the military, the baron told Oliver, to bend a rebellious spirit into submission. Oliver was to have no doubts the baron would buy him a commission in some faraway barracks if necessary.

At that precise moment, Oliver knew he would always hate Fenton and never, ever submit to him.

 

Reserve and Reticence – Part Fifteen

Fifteen – Troubles Anew

 

During the following days, Beth mostly devoted herself to her husband’s recovery. It was greatly needed. Stephen, whose fever caused him to lose a full stone, still felt fairly weak, and was greatly irritated by it. He could only manage half of the work he had set his goal to, an experience that was utterly new to him. It was Beth’s task to watch over her beloved husband and see that he did not overdo it.

 

~~~~

 

It was the end of May, and the weather granted mild, sunny days, crisp mornings and balmy nights. In consequence, short walks, that did not wander too far from the house, were very much enjoyed by the convalescent and his faithful nurse. Yet afterwards Stephen was always rather worn out and needed a quiet rest on the sunlit terrace, stretched on a chaise-longue and sheltered from the brisk southerly breeze. Beth sat beside him with her needlework, and they had long, intimate talks with subjects ranging from the daily workings of the Abbey to sweet, nonsensical love words.

Sometimes, Lily would be there too. The girl – as well as her twin brother – was now thirteen years old and rapidly growing into a young woman. Her slim body, light and elegant as a filly’s, had reached a height that already exceeded Beth’s by several inches and was developing the first signs of womanhood, with delicate hips and budding breasts. Lily was also a sweet, uncomplicated girl, who enjoyed life and people without prejudice or suspicion of malice.

Unlike her brother, Beth thought as she listened to Lily’s clear voice, while the girl was reading to her father. Oliver had recently shown a stubborn and sometimes heated response to everything his father was concerned. Stephen usually laughed it away as a form of boyish rebellion which he himself had also succumbed to, when he had Oliver’s age. It was only natural for Oliver, Stephen pointed out, to feel resentment over the world in general and his family in particular, since the boy needed to find out what his exact place in life was.

It was true that both children had gone through many abrupt changes over the last year, jostled between their grandmother and their father as they had been. The fact that Granny Bradley had so suddenly died had, of course, also been a great distress. Yet Beth instinctively felt that these matters were not solely responsible for Oliver’s angered state yet she had been unable to tackle the subject with him. Oliver steadfastly remained sullen and uncommunicative, even with her or Lily. Maybe Lily would be the last person to gain his confidence now that she was a head taller than Oliver, a fact that was prone to give him a feeling of inferiority.

With a sigh, Beth set aside her worrying, bent to her work and listened to Lily’s sweet voice instead.

 

~~~~

 

Because of the chickenpox, there had been no time to search for – and consequently, hire – private tutors for Lily and Oliver. Beth took on this task with urgency as it was vital that the children resume their education forthwith, but in the meantime, she ordered them to be driven into the village so that they could attend school with Mr Sage, the assistant curate. As a school teacher, Mr Sage was very demanding of his pupils, requesting that they make rapid and highly satisfactorily progress in their studies. The thirteen year olds now were presented with Latin and Greek as well as with French and German. It was therefore not surprising that the children brought home a multitude of tasks to perform after school, forcing them to retire to the former class room, in order to achieve the job.

From Ruby, who knew everything that transpired in the village and far beyond, Beth learned that Mr Sage secretly hoped he himself would be appointed as private tutor to the twins, but that he dare not make a request to Stephen. After hearing this, Beth told her husband what private wishes Mr Sage was harbouring. Stephen raised surprised eyebrows at this.

“Sage tutoring my children, here at the Abbey? Well, I must confess I had not given it much thought, my love. To be honest, the whole matter had somewhat slipped my mind but I suppose I could give it some consideration. It could not be for long, dearest, for Oliver is destined for Eton, which – as you might recall – was my own school. I hope he will be going to Cambridge University after concluding his secondary studies there. As for Lily, I was thinking of Harrogate. What is your opinion on this?”

“Oh, I am very certain that Lily will be over the moon when she hears this! She has always been a keen and quick learner and she recently began her classics with relish and diligence. Of Oliver, however, I am not so sure, Stephen, especially in this new and sullen mood of his.”

“Rest assured, my love. I will speak to Oliver right away. Would you care to be present?”

“No, Stephen. It is my belief that this should be entirely between the two of you. A boy should have a special bond with his father.”

 

~~~~

 

Stephen summoned Oliver to his study, but their meeting lasted not long. Afterwards, Stephen gave Beth a brief recount of their conversation, of which he was not entirely satisfied.

“You were right, as usual, Beth. Oliver is extremely sullen and sometimes downright angry. I have informed him of our plans for him, and he did not seem to object to them.”

Beth felt not comforted at all by those words and she instantly expressed her anxiety.

“But … what have you told him, Stephen? You had not yet made up your mind about the boy’s future!”

“He knows he will be going to Eton as he will need a thorough education, if he aspires to be my successor. He first started to protest, but I made it clear to him that he was very lucky to have a chance to better himself, and that he should make his profit of it.”

They were in their chamber, preparing for bed, when this talk took place. Beth, after having donned her night gown behind a screen, stepped forward and placed her hands on her husband’s chest, as if putting in a plea. Stephen’s arms immediately encircled her, pleasure and anticipation on his face. They had not made love since the beginning of his illness.

“My love,” Beth said, oblivious of the warmth in her husband’s eyes, “do you not think you have been a bit overbearing? After all, Oliver might have other wishes about his own future.”

“Mmm …” Stephen’s husky voice sounded in her ear, startling her from her musings.

“Stephen? Did you just hear what I said ?”

“I did, my love … but I prefer to ignore it …”

He nuzzled her ear and let his lips roam over the delicate skin beneath it. Beth closed her eyes in thrilling rapture, giving herself over to her husband’s lovemaking. She longed for his touch with a vehemence that was only natural after so long an abstinence. Whatever was needed, could wait until the morrow.

 

~~~~

 

However, in the morning, the Abbey was rocked on its foundations when Oliver Bradley-Fenton was missing from his room. A quantity of equally missing clothes and some books pointed to a flight. When a sum of money from the baron’s study desk was also gone, Beth and Stephen understood fully; Oliver had run away.

 

Reserve and Reticence – Part Fourteen

Fourteen – Regaining Dignity

 

Poor Dr Forrester almost fled from the baron’s bedchamber, his face flushed like that of a little boy who just got caught with his hand in a biscuit tin. Beth shook her head in mild disapproval.

“You should not have done that, my lord. The good doctor has worked himself into exhaustion to save you.”

“I know, my love, and I will express my gratitude to him in due time. But now, I have other plans.”

He grinned mischievously at her and held out a hand.

“Come here …”, he breathed and Beth obeyed, suddenly feeling as if her heart would jump from her chest. She sat down on the bed, taking Stephen’s offered hand. A second later, she was drawn on top of him, his arms imprisoning her tightly.

“Stephen …”, she gasped, yet at the same time revelling in the feeling of his hard body under hers. Even through the duvet’s soft layers, she instantly noticed what he had in mind.

“Stephen … no.” Bursting with tenderness, she stroked his all too pale face with both her hands. Under her fingers, she felt his cheekbones, all too protruding beneath the stubble of beard. He must have lost a considerable amount of weight, she realized.

“No?”, her husband teased, raising an eyebrow in mock disapproval. “I am profoundly shocked, my lady wife, that you should turn down my advances after such a short time. How am I to survive some fifty years of marriage without the enjoyment of your delectable body?”

Beth giggled involuntarily and was rewarded by a deep, longing kiss, the likes of which she had never been offered before. It was as if Stephen wanted to make her understand how deeply he loved her. The kiss was ardent yet also marvellously sweet. She felt quite breathless when he released her.

“Stephen, you should rest. Your body has been through the most exhausting of fevers, my love. You need to regain your strength.”

“Is that so, my delicious wife? Pray, tell me how you are going to divert my attention from what I want to do to you, right now? I should warn you I am not easily diverted from such an activity.”

Suddenly slipping out of Stephen’s arms, Beth rose from the bed and tugged the bell cord.

“You will be attended by your faithful Hawkins, sweetheart. You valet has been hovering around your sickbed for days, eagerly awaiting the moment when he could see to your bodily needs. Let us not hold him back any longer.”

With regret, but also with acknowledgment of Beth’s good sense, Stephen gave in and nodded. He certainly was in sore need of a bath!

 

~~~~

 

Later, when Beth stepped out of her own bath tub, she allowed Trixie to dress her in a pretty day gown and to put up her hair in a bun at the nape of her neck. She then looked in on her husband who had been given a light meal. Henrietta sat next to her son’s bed and hastily put a finger to her mouth when she heard the door open.

“He is asleep,” she whispered. “My poor Stephen was so thoroughly exhausted, Beth.”

Beth nodded in agreement and tiptoed out of the room. She would give her mother-in-law a much-needed time alone with her son. As it turned out, she herself had to perform an urgent task.

Oliver and Lily had been left in the care of Ruby and her husband Ben, as long as Stephen was too ill for Beth to leave his side. That way, the children could continue their schooling under Mr Sage’s tutelage. Stephen and Beth had planned on hiring a proper tutor for Oliver and a teacher for Lily as well, because the children still had a lot to master. Their education, as heirs to Stephen, was of the uttermost importance. Beth had taken measures for the children to be informed of their father’s illness daily but she knew they would worry nevertheless so she had the carriage readied and let herself be driven to the village.

The twins threw themselves around her in enthusiastic greetings and soon, the lot of them were gathered around the Mertons’ fireplace with tea and biscuits. Beth brought them the good news of the baron’s recovery.

“I have come to take you home, my dears. Your Papa and I have missed you terribly, this past week.”

“So Papa is better, then?” Lily asked.

“Why has he not come with you?” Oliver inquired, much more critical than his sister. Beth threw him a slightly puzzled glance, concerned over the harsh tone of the boy’s voice.

“Your Papa has not fully recovered yet, Oliver. He has suffered a severe fever and …”

“Pish! He does not care for us like you do, Beth. I might be a mere child but I can feel his indifference. Granny was right all along when she said he was but a haughty member of the nobility.”

This little speech was delivered so glibly that Beth felt a cold finger touch her heart. Where had this resentment come from? And why did Lily not share her brother’s anger? The girl sat staring at him in bewilderment and shock.

Although Beth was shocked herself, she attempted keeping a cool head on her shoulders in dealing with her former charges. The children had – in all honesty – only been brought to the Abbey when Stephen realised he had no legal heir after Florence’s death. The twins’ mother had been of low birth, and Stephen and his mother had not complied easily to the thought of having to bestow status upon the commonly brought-up offspring of a village girl. Even at this very moment, Beth was not fully certain of her husband’s real affection for his bastard children. Children, Beth knew, developed a sixth sense for such lack of affection and acted on it with anger. It was nothing but emotional self-preservation, and Beth could very well understand it herself as she had done just the same after her father’s banishment. She too had hated Stephen and his family for ten long years.

Her next and urgent task would have to be to reconcile Oliver with his father but for now, she could only try keeping Oliver’s anger under control. She put her arms around the boy, startled to see how he had grown in the last few weeks. He was no longer a child, she realised, but was rapidly becoming a proper young man. No doubt, Oliver would grow as tall and handsome as his father.

“Oliver, you must behave like you always have since first we met; you have always been an intelligent and good-hearted boy. Now you are becoming a young adult, and I fervently hope you will only grow in intelligence and goodness of heart. Do not forget your grandmother’s wish for you and Lily, my darling. She wanted you to become good people, to find happiness and fulfilment in life. Do not ever forget I will always be there to help you. Your mother Molly was my childhood friend and I will always cherish her memory.”

Although the boy returned her embrace with emphasis, Beth was able to feel a slight hesitation at first, as if Oliver needed to assess the sincerity of her words for just a tiny amount of time. It worried her greatly.

 

Reserve and Reticence – Part Thirteen

Thirteen – A Glimpse of Heaven

 

Consciousness lurked at the edges of his mind but proved too hard to grasp. Extreme weakness prevented him from doing what he most wanted; to open his leaden eyelids, to move his granite limbs, to let words past his cracked lips. It was as if he were immersed in a tepid sea of slowness yet it seemed of vital importance to him that he should fight this drowsy state and become awake.

His body itched something terrible, he realised suddenly. His body … he became fully aware of it, when the itch plagued him so much he wanted to scratch and tear the skin from his flesh in exasperation! That was what gave him the strength to open his drooping eyelids, although it was the hardest thing he had ever done in his life.

He was in familiar surroundings, thank Heaven! All of a sudden, he realised he had been having this terrible fear of being in a bad place but, to his relief, found he was not. His own room, his own bed. His? Like a Jack-in-the-box, his name popped out of his memory. Stephen Fenton, Baron Brixton. He was home, at Brixton Abbey, praise the Lord!

Gingerly, Stephen attempted turning his head to get his bearings, and the first person he saw, was his Beth, slumped in a chair beside his bed. A huge wave of relief and joy washed over him. He could not be in a bad place when his lovely wife was at his side. Poor Beth, she must have fallen into an exhausted sleep in that chair. Why would she be in a chair instead of next to him in their bed? He opened his mouth to ask but no sound escaped his starched lips, and he found his throat dry as the desert. As he raised a hand to touch her, he saw the red, raw spots on his skin, some of them dried, the skin flaking off, some of them still red and aching and finally, some of them ugly blisters that itched like the blaze. He was ill. He had succumbed to a horrid disease and maybe, he was dying. He certainly felt like he had been under a dray cart!

With something of an effort, Stephen managed to sit up and lean over toward Beth by supporting himself on one elbow. That allowed him to touch her arm with one outstretched hand. Immediately, he regretted the gesture because Beth was startled into action with a faint gasp.

“Stephen! Oh, Stephen, my love! Oh, thank God, you are awake!”

She began feeling his brow and stroking his face and then, she hugged him and kissed him, tears running down her cheeks.

“Oh, my heart, my dearest love, oh! We have been so very afraid we might lose you …”

Stephen’s heart nearly burst with joy when he returned his wife’s embraces as best as he could despite the fact  it cost him a lot of energy. Soon after, he was reclining against his pillows, gasping and panting, causing Beth to admonish herself for her overzealous demonstrations. After a few moments, however, they just sat gazing at each other, clasping hands tightly.

Stephen managed to make it clear that he had no control over his voice, and Beth instantly helped him to a cup of cold tea, sweetened with honey. It was heaven to Stephen’s parched throat, and he drank with greedy gulps. Afterwards, he began feeling a bit better.

“How are you feeling? Are you still feverish? Are you in pain? Are you hungry?” Beth asked anxiously.

Shaking with silent laughter, Stephen covered his wife’s mouth with one hand, which made her laugh herself. He pointed to his stomach and mouth and Beth understood.

“I will go and fetch some food, my darling. Just lie still, do not move, please.”

She hurried out of the room and Stephen, staring after her with regret and longing, was again hit by an extreme weariness that paralyzed his limbs and made his head spin. Hunger gnawed in his belly, his stomach suddenly rumbling. Lord, but he was absolutely ravenous!

A short time after, the door burst open and a crowd of loudly chattering people entered. In astonishment, Stephen was assaulted by the relieved cries of his mother who smothered him with kisses. That was something he rarely witnessed! Clumsily, he returned her caresses.

After a while his mother withdrew, patting her eyes with a scrap of lace, and Stephen noticed the Reverend Carter and Dr Forrester, who both congratulated him on his recovery. They were followed by those of Raleigh, the butler, Hawkins, his valet, and a bunch of footmen and maids, who all twittered and squeezed in delight, just to see him on the way to recovery. Overseeing it all with a sweet smile on her bright face was his wife.

“Please …” he croaked, stunned to find he had his voice back, “please, all of you, accept my thanks for your good wishes.” Even after those few words, Stephen found his breath gone from his lungs. Closing his eyes in exhaustion, he lay panting for air during the next minutes while Beth thanked everyone and gently ushered them from the room, claiming her husband still needed his rest.

She sat down next to him again and felt his brow with the back of her hand.

“Still slightly feverish, I fear,” she said.

“I feel terrible,” Stephen replied, his voice barely audible. “Tell me, Beth. How bad is it?”

Beth took his hand in his and kissed it, almost reverently.

“You have contracted chickenpox, my love. On adults, it can be fierce because their bodies are not as flexible as a child’s. It is frequently seen that adults develop high fever, so I was not too much concerned at first. I have been mistaken, my love. You were almost taken from us because your fever was so extreme it brought you to the brink of death. I was negligent, my love. I did not apply myself enough at first.”

Again, she pressed his hand to her lips. Her cheeks were wet with tears, Stephen noticed with a shock.

“Well, I am better now, my sweetling and sure to be on my feet again soon. That can only be your doing, my dearest, loveliest Beth.”

For a few, precious moments, they gazed into each other’s eyes, conscious of what they could have lost during the horrible week of Stephen’s illness. Beth felt her heart soar like a lark in a bright, sunlit sky! It was over! All her fears and horrors were laid to rest.

A tentative knock on the door preceded Dr Forrester’s entry. The thin little man looked as haggard and – no doubt – as unkempt as Beth thought she must surely look herself. A stab of pity rose in her chest, and she quickly stood to meet him and take his hands, which startled him.

“Dear Dr Forrester,” she hastily said, “I would like to express my thanks for what you have accomplished here. It is your skill that helped rescue my husband through this ghastly illness. I can never repay you for it.”

The old bachelor blushed suddenly, harrumphing and coughing through his embarrassment.

“Oh, no, my lady! I am sure you are only being gracious and polite. There was not much I could have done for His Lordship if you had not been there for him during those long days of uncertainty. You are the one who …”

“Oh, come on, Forrester!” Stephen’s voice was trembling with suppressed mirth. “Can you not graciously accept a compliment when you are offered one? I assure you my lady wife does not proffer them to just anyone, you know.”

“Erm … yes, … erm, no, I am sorry, my lord, … you are right, of course. Thank you, my lady, for your most generous offer.”

He bowed over Beth’s hand and kissed it in a reverend way.

“But now,” he continued, “we must see to you, my lady. You have outdone yourself caring for His Lordship and without any care for your own needs. I ask of you – no, I demand that you go and rest properly.”

“I beg your pardon?”, Stephen asked, a note of concern in his voice? “What are you implying, Forrester? How long have I been ill?”

Dr Forrester briskly strode to the baron’s sickbed, eagerness making his voice waver.

“My lord, your esteemed spouse has not left your bedside for a whole week. She has not had any concern for her own needs or condition, as long as you were in mortal danger. For you have been on the brink of death, my lord, and without Her Ladyship, you might have not have lived through it.”

Stephen’s heart pinched with pity and overwhelming love as he beheld his wife for the first time since he had awakened. She looked like a scarecrow, her hair wild and come loose from the pins. Her face was ashen and streaked with dirty smudges, and her beautiful eyes were dull with fatigue. Yet, she looked absolutely lovely, had – in fact not looked lovelier than just now.

Stretching out a hand to her, Stephen gazed at her, filling his eyes with all the love he felt for his Beth.

“Well, doctor, then I mean to make her sleep the way she deserves. I will ring for your or any services as soon as my lady wife is properly rested. Pray, close the door on your way out.”

 

 

 

Reserve and Reticence – Part Twelve

Twelve – An Unexpected Approach

 

It was yet another night when Beth and Henrietta were keeping watch next to Stephen’s bed, unable to find rest and sleep. Henrietta lay stretched out on the sofa, covered by a blanket against the chilly dawn of May. She had finally given up the fight against exhaustion and dozed off. Beth sat in her chair beside Stephen’s bed and held his hand in hers. That hand was yet again hot and damp because her husband was drenched and shivering with high fever.

With a sigh of utter wretchedness, Beth reached for the leather bag, filled with ice, and gently tamped Stephen’s face with it.

“There, my love,” she whispered. “Do not worry, my darling, everything will be alright.”

Would it? Did Stephen even hear her? Did he know she was there, tending him?

“Stephen? Can you hear me? Stephen, it is me, Beth …”

He did not even stir. In fact, if Beth would not have noticed the faint but rapid exhaling of his breath, she would have thought her husband deceased.

“Oh, my dearest … please, get better … I cannot bear to lose you …”

And then the tears came and uncontrollably rolled down her face. All the pent-up misery was released at last, and she let her head down onto Stephen’s chest, sobbing frantically. It was so unjust! They had not even had one carefree week of marriage! In sheer frustration, Beth pounced her fist on the mattress.

 

~~~~

 

“Beth, you must not despair. He is going to live. You must believe that, you simply must. That is what I am trying to do because the thought of losing him cannot exist in my heart.”

The warmth of Henrietta’s arm, more than the tone of her voice, was what rose Beth out of her deep despair. That tone had been meant comforting, but Henrietta had failed to put comfort into it. Instead, her carefully masked sorrow had shown through.

Beth raised her eyes to those of her mother-in-law and saw Henrietta for the lonely elderly woman she was. The baroness had no longer any real purpose in life, since the day Stephen became the next baron. As if she had read Beth’s mind, Henrietta began to speak.

“You see, Beth, I was completely at peace with my son becoming the next baron after my husband died. It is the natural order of things that a female member of the English nobility withdraws from her duties as the lady of the house, especially when there is a young wife in attendance. I liked Florence from the start. She was a ray of sunshine in mine and Stephen’s life, lively and beautiful, witty and intelligent. She was also endearingly sweet to me. I always thought a daughter-in-law to just tolerate her husband’s widowed mother and handle her as some tedious but unavoidable person, who came with the marriage. Instead, Florence was a warm and lovable woman, who included me in her life. I was looking forward to a quiet life in the dowager house, when her sudden death disrupted Stephen’s life. Despite my own grief, I had to be strong in order to help Stephen overcome his misery. He was utterly devastated by Florence’s death, Beth. There were days when I feared he would buckle under the weight of his sorrow.”

In an impulse, Beth took Henrietta’s hands in hers.

“My lady … there is so little I know about Stephen’s life, and it frightens me. I hope you will share some of these stories with me in the future.”

Henrietta smiled and sat down on the bed.

“Beth, I have done you so very wrong and I apologize. I had not seen your great love for Stephen, I thought you were eager to bring harm to our house and later, that you were a mere fortune hunter who would cause Stephen sorrow and misery. I deeply regret my actions, my dear. Can you forgive me?”

Beth embraced the older woman warmly.

“Yes, my lady, all is forgiven. I am so very grateful for your support during Stephen’s illness. Pray God that we will not …”

Stephen unexpectedly gasped, startling both women. Beth rose and put her finger against her husband’s throat to feel for a pulse. It was still there but it felt weak and shallow.

“Stephen?! Is he …”, whispered Henrietta.

“No, no! Do not upset yourself, he still lives.”

Henrietta’s breath came out in relief.

“Then, my dear, You ought to go to bed and sleep. I will stay with him.”

However, as it was obvious that Henrietta too was at the end of her tether, Beth coaxed her to retire to her own rooms and have a proper night’s rest.

“Stephen won’t wake soon,” she said, matter-of-factly, “and I shall be sleeping on this cot, as I did so for this whole past week. I have grown accustomed to it, I fear.”

As soon as the dowager left, Beth tried feeding some weak tea to her husband, who swallowed it instinctively without waking up. She felt his brow and found it rather cool, much more cooler in fact,than it had been for a week. Earlier that day, Dr Forrester told her that Stephen was on a turning point – either his fever abated, in which case he would survive and, possibly, grow better, or he would enter another fever spell, which would deal the fatal blow to his weakened body. The coming night would be decisive, one way or the other.

With a sigh, Beth sat down in the chair beside the bed and folded her hands in prayer. It was all that was left for her to do, she realised. Only the Good Lord would have the power to save Stephen now, so she would plead his life with the Maker of all things. All night long, if necessary.

Stephen seemed to be asleep rather than lethargic, his pale, somewhat emaciated face relaxed and smooth, except for the blisters which were finally beginning to subside. His breathing, though still shallow, had become less rattling. Oh, how she loved him …

 

~~~~

 

During the long hours of the night, Beth relived all aspects of her relationship with her husband. How she admired him, when she had still been a child, and she saw him in the village with his father. He had been a thin, clumsy boy in his early teens, at that time, his movements woodenly and exaggerated. Yet, he already had that handsome face with the sparkling blue eyes, filled with joy and gentleness. She had been secretly in love with him, admiring him from afar, hoping for a sign that he noticed her. Of course, he had not. He was the young heir of Brixton Abbey, the future baron.

Her dreams of love and hope had been savagely destroyed the day of the accident, that killed her relatives. From then on, she had only room for revenge in her thoughts and heart.

All those long years of exile in France had only strengthened the need for revenge, especially when she was forced to bury her father in a godforsaken little graveyard in Provence, rather than next to her mother and brother in Woolworth.

Yet, when she set her eyes on Stephen, in those first days as a governess to Lily and Oliver, Beth had instantly known she had never stopped loving him, even when her mind battled with her heart and told her to keep him at bay. To no avail, for she never stood a chance, once she gazed into those lovely blue eyes of him.

And now, after they had joined their hearts and lives, she stood on the brink of losing him …

 

Reserve and Reticence – Part Eleven

Eleven – A Struggle For Life

 

Now that she had managed to negotiate a truce with her mother-in-law, Beth was able to concentrate on Stephen to the full. She certainly needed to do just that. Stephen was getting sicker by the hour, his fever rising to an incredible pitch. After a couple of hours, he became completely oblivious to his surroundings, suffering from long spells of heat, which left him soaked in sweat. Shivers of cold raked his body, breaking even more perspiration. After a few hours, the rash broke out, and it was worse than any Beth had seen on the children. It literally covered every square inch of his body, especially his face, and the pimps quickly turned into blisters.

Beth got really worried after Dr Forrester made an appearance and told her the situation was in fact desperate.

“My dear lady Brixton, I have to point out to you that His Lordship could very possibly die if we do not succeed in bringing down the fever. If it rises any higher, irreparable damage will ensue. So, at all cost, we must try and cool him.”

Consequently, the master bedroom was quickly transformed into a war zone and became a world apart. Stephen was carried to his dressing room by two footmen, who let him down into his bath tub, filled with cold water. The state of complete lethargy he was in, tore at Beth’s very heart. There was no reaction or cooperation coming from Stephen, which made it very hard for the footmen to handle him. Beth sponged his entire body while she supported his head with a hand, numb from the icy water. It brought down the fever only slightly. After a quarter of an hour, Dr Forrester ordered the baron to be put back into bed again.

Beth treated the blisters on his skin with talcum powder laced with lavender oil and dressed Stephen in a clean nightshirt. She made sure Trixie and the other maids had changed the sheets on the bed beforehand. She then tried to feed him some infusion of meadowsweet and lavender, sweetened with honey, but he would not swallow. Half an hour later, the fever was back in full force yet again, and the whole process had to be done over.

After a night of trying to lower Stephen’s fever to no avail, Beth had no strength left yet she did not give up. Dr Forrester had fallen asleep on one of the sofas, and the maids and footmen had been twice replaced by fresh ones, except for Trixie who had stayed by Beth’s side. The little maid meticulously looked after her mistress, making sure Beth took an occasional nap, when Stephen’s fever had diminished between baths. She also forced some food on her though she was not very successful there. Beth was hanging onto her fear that Stephen was in mortal danger, as long as the fever would not be broken. Her strength came from the love they shared and the fact that she could simply not abide the thought that she might lose her husband. Stephen simply could, would not die. She would rather die herself trying to prevent that!

 

~~~~

 

Henrietta, dowager baroness Brixton, was in sheer agony over her son’s fate yet she would prefer dying first rather than going to see how he was. But, how she longed to do just that! Stephen was her son, after all. The gift she received thirty years ago from her darling Septimus, and would she now lose him? The thought was unbearable!

So Henrietta finely cut the knot and marched into the sickroom after half a week of misery and waiting … and stopped right away in her tracks. The room was a mess! On every sofa and seat, there were people sprawled as if they had died there. One of them was her son’s physician, Dr Forrester. Henrietta had never seen him in such a deplorable state of dishabille, without a coat and with his shirt sleeves rolled up over his scrawny arms. A couple of bath tubs must have been added, and they were surrounded by huge copper jars, used for carrying hot water from the kitchens. Then, finally, her gaze was drawn to the large four poster bed, and her heart stopped with overwhelming fear!

The figure in the bed could have been a stranger she failed to recognize and surely not her beloved Stephen. The man was lying absolutely still, bony hands above the covers, face an ugly shade of grey and cheeks sunken so that the bones stood out like those of a skull. Stephen’s thin nose was like a blade jutting out of his face, and his lips were colourless and cracked. His eyes were closed and ugly dark pouches showed beneath them. His body showed a greyish white sheen that Henrietta recognized as a layer of talcum powder, through which the ugly blisters of the rash shone in a horrible way.

Henrietta became aware of something else – someone else, to be precise. Her hated daughter-in-law was sitting next to Stephen and was trying to make him drink something. She was holding Stephen’s head with one hand, and with the other, she was raising a cup to his lips, coaxing and enticing him to drink in a voice barely audible with hoarseness.

“Please, my love, drink this? Come, my darling, you must drink it. It will make you better, I promise you. Dearest, please, do not leave me. Please, Stephen, I love you so, do not die on me.”

This woman must indeed care a great deal about her son, Henrietta realised as she swallowed at the lump in her throat. She must have been at Stephen’s side the whole time, judging by the extreme state of sloppiness she was in. Her hair was like that of a scare crow, coming down from its pins, and it was obvious it had not seen a brush or comb for several days. Her clothes were filthy and wet, she wore shoes nor stockings and her face was ghastly and tear-stained. It was clear to the dowager that Beth was near complete exhaustion. How had she managed to hold up until now?

Beth’s monotone voice, coaxing her husband to drink, tore Henrietta back to reality. She resolutely stepped toward the bed, gently took the cup from Beth’s hand and spoke in a sweet voice.

“Come away, child. I will take over so that you can rest a while. You do not need to leave his side. I will order a cot to be placed here, next to Stephen’s bed, so that you can watch him while you rest.”

Dr Forrester, who had woken shortly after Henrietta came in, agreed whole-heartedly with these arguments.

“My lady dowager is right, Lady Brixton. You are wearing yourself out, and it would not help your husband at all, should you collapse.”

Beth seemed in a state of shock, and it was not until the cot was brought in and Henrietta gently led her to it, that she finally looked at her mother-in-law.

“He is dying, Mama-in-law,” she croaked, “ I did all I could but I will … lose him … nevertheless.”

The last words came out in bits and pieces, as if Beth had no breath left. Tears were running down her face now and heart-rendering sobs were raking her chest. Without thinking, Henrietta took the trembling girl into her arms and hugged her.

“Now, now, child, do not despair yet. He is still breathing, but we must join forces to make him better again. I have left you on your own far too long to deal with this wretched disease. Now, go and lie down.” With gentle but firm gestures, she pushed Beth onto the cot and tucked her in herself.

 

~~~~

 

The rest of that week – the second of Beth’s only-too-fresh marriage to Stephen – passed in a haze of misery and hard labour. Trice the Reverend Carter, who had come over as soon as he learnt about the Baron’s dire condition, administered the last rites to Stephen, so convinced as the minister was of his lordship’s imminent demise.

Henrietta and Beth, too exhausted to cry, had equally been certain they would lose Stephen. His colour was deathly pale, the skin of his face parched and dry, and his crackled lips revealed his teeth as they parted to fight for air. In his state of extreme fatigue, Stephen’s chest heaved as he laboured for breath, making Beth cringe every time he managed the effort.

Yet Stephen kept clinging to life, hour after hour and day after day. Dr Forrester professed he had never had a patient so strong and tenacious as to resist death for so long. Yet, although Stephen was still alive after seven days of high fever, his health was rapidly failing since his nurses did not get much sustenance into him. He was too weak to swallow so Beth and Henrietta took turns in trying to get fluids past his dry lips. It failed – most of the time – yet the two women stubbornly held on, refusing all defeat.

One day, Raleigh asked Beth to come down with him to the great entrance hall, which – to her astonishment – was crowding with people. Stephen’s tenants and their families and the entire population of Woolworth had come to pay their respects to their master and his lady. The Reverend Carter and Mr Sage had been chosen to convey the assembly’s support. Beth was near to tears yet she did not give in to weakness. Her voice but slightly trembling, she thanked them all on behalf of her husband, her mother-in-law and herself. Knowing she was not alone in her suffering meant the world to her.

The lovely drawing I used in my story is by Mrs Joyce Mould.

 

 

 

Reserve and Reticence – Part Ten

Ten – Savour the Moment

 

Stephen woke to the sound of voices coming from the connecting dressing room, where Hawkins was admonishing Trixie, now Beth’s lady’s maid, to be quiet. He smiled and turned his head toward his wife whose naked body lay beside him. She was lying flat on her stomach and her delicious little derriere stuck up like that of a child. The sight of those perfectly shaped pink peaches gave him a sudden jolt of desire so strong he wanted to grab her, turn her onto her back and yet again take her on the spot! God, he wanted her, right here, right now, and how was that possible when they had made love five times during the night? Yet he was fully aroused and ready, once again!

Carefully, Stephen rose from the bed and went to the dressing room, snatching his robe on the way out. The room was empty but he noticed the tray on the dresser from which came an exquisite fragrance of tea and fresh scones. Good man Hawkins!

After a quick wash, Stephen carried the tray into their room and just as he placed it on the nightstand, his wife opened sleepy eyes.

“Good morning, my lady!”

Beth smiled drowsily and suddenly discovered she was not wearing a nightgown and even worse, was lying on top of the bedcovers. That made her sit up and snatch the sheet to restore a shadow of dignity, but her husband was quicker and had her pinned to the mattress in no time.

“Where were you planning to go to, my sweet lady? You are not allowed to leave this bed, since I have not yet given you permission. I am certain you have not forgotten what you promised yesterday, before the whole community? To love and obey me for the rest of our lives, until death do us part?”

“And you, my lord?” Beth retorted, a naughty smile curving her mouth. “Did you not pledge to love and cherish me forever with the whole community as witnesses? Right now, I do not think you are cherishing me! You are on the verge of ravishing me.” She pointed her gaze at his blatant state of arousal, and her smile widened. “At least, that is what I conclude from the deplorable state of abandon you are in!”

In a few seconds, her husband disposed of his robe and lifted her onto his lap, positioning her where he wanted her the most. Beth gasped as she felt his manhood slide smoothly into her intimate self. God! This was … incredible! Immediately, she was immersed in a wave of renewed passion to witch her body responded with rapidly mounting arousal. Instinctively, she began riding him with slow movements of her hips. With a primitive feeling of feminine satisfaction, she watched Stephen throw back his head and groan, as he braced himself against the pillows to follow the rhythm she imposed with her hips. Again, they rode the wave of passion until their world exploded in millions of shards.

 

~~~~

 

They were barely granted a week of wedding bliss before the disaster struck. One night, Beth awoke to the sound of her husband’s laboured breath, only to find him burning up with fever.

“Stephen, what is it? Are you ill? What can I do to relieve you?”

“Hot … I am so hot … water … I need to drink …”

Beth remembered the fatigue Stephen had experienced during the previous day which was unusual for him. Stephen was seldom tired, was – in fact – a strong, healthy man. Yet now, he seemed weak and confused. Hurriedly, Beth rang for the servants, and they began tending to their master under her supervision. She had instantly grasped what was happening; Stephen was suffering from chicken pox. By the time her mother-in-law arrived, Beth had him comfortably tucked in clean sheets and was trying to cool his flushed face with a wet cloth. He was in a state of lethargy, not responding to words or administrations.

Henrietta, dowager baroness Brixton, limped into the room with all the grandeur she could muster. She had stubbornly kept to her rooms for the past week, furious because her son had married the former governess, whom she considered too low in station to wed a Baron Brixton. Furthermore, she had summoned her lawyers from London, who conferred with her over the steps she could take to protect herself against the consequences of her son’s union with what she considered a hostile daughter-in-law, whom she now addressed in strident tones.

“What have you done to my son, you wench? Step away from him instantly!”

“Madam, Stephen has contracted the chicken pox and he is very feverish. We need to …”

You need not do anything! I want you to leave this house and return to the village. Your place is with the commoners from whom you sprang.”

Beth stared at the dowager with incredulity and mounting concern. She now fully faced Henrietta with equal dignity and replied:

“My place is at my husband’s side, Madam. I know how to treat him as I have proven these past few weeks. I will not leave Stephen, not when he needs me.”

“Enough! My son is not your husband, Madam! Not when you have no marriage certificate to prove it!”

Before Beth’s stunned eyes, the baroness drew a document from her pocket and tossed it into the blazing fire in the hearth, where it was immediately consumed by the flames. Had the dowager suddenly gone insane? Feverishly, her thoughts went over the consequences of this. Surely, the destruction of the document did not mean that much? It could be replaced.

“But … our marriage was filed in the parish register by the Reverend Mr Carter! That document was merely a copy that was made for our own benefit!”

Henrietta smiled triumphantly and proclaimed. “Carter is a dependant of this house, my dear. I can take away his living, just as I did to your father. He has already erased your farce of a marriage from his register. Now, leave my house at once, or I will order my footmen to evict you.”

To prove her words, two sturdy men in the Brixton livery stepped forward, men Beth had never seen before, with hard faces and impassive eyes. The other servants in the room, two maids, Trixie and Raleigh, the butler, stood rooted on their spot, powerless to do anything to help Beth. Yet Trixie stepped forward and curtsied before the dowager.

“Beg pardon, my lady, but can I at least go and pack My Lady’s portmanteau? She will need her clothes and …”

Henrietta cut her off with a snap.

“No, you cannot! Get yourself off to the kitchen again and be lucky I let you take up your duties as a scullery maid once again! Resist me, and you are on the streets, my girl!”

Trixie fled the room and Beth could not blame her. The poor girl came from very poor stock, and her wages were needed to support her large family. Beth herself could not comprehend what had just occurred! Was she really banned from Stephen’s side and house? What was she to do? Where was she to go? Her frantic thoughts were racing though her head like frightened birds, and she made an effort to gather them and find an answer to this. She turned towards her mother-in-law and pleaded. “My lady, I beg of you, please reconsider your words. Stephen might be in severe danger if I do not manage to keep down his fever. Chicken pox can be extremely endangering in adults. At least, let me take the necessary precautions to ensure his safety.”

A slight tinge of fear brushed Henrietta’s heart, all of a sudden, and for the first time, she approached her son’s sickbed to better look at him. She touched his brow with the back of her hand, only to find it burning hot with fever! Only then, it occurred to her that Stephen really had fallen very ill. A huge dilemma raged in her mind as she pondered over her next step. Surely, Dr Forrester could also treat Stephen? Yet, the man had proven inferior to the governess when treating the sick children. That hated woman had successfully fought and conquered the disease!

“Very well, woman. You are allowed to stay for three days and take care of my son. Mind you, as a nurse! You will take up quarters in your former room on the fourth floor and not be alone with his lordship when tending to his needs. One of my footmen will always escort you wherever you go in this house and be present at my son’s sickbed when you are there.”

She raised her stick and pointed at Beth, eyes glowing with hatred. “Three days, do you hear? If my son does not show signs of improvement by then, I will throw you out for good!”