Hearts Adrift – Part Four

Chapter Four

The company set off at dawn, as was agreed, in a cart drawn by a large horse, one that de Briers had purchased from a brewer. He had paid handsomely for the horse, as well as for the cart, and had asked the brewer and the landlady to keep quiet about himself and his charges. As a precaution, he had let slip that their destination was Le Havre, instead of Boulogne. It was an insurance that meant whoever followed them would take the wrong road, heading due west instead of north.

Jake and Manon sat on the bench, with Jake holding the reins, while Jéhan and de Briers were in the cart. The latter was dressed as drably as was possible, with a large cap shielding his face. Manon was extremely curious to see how he would behave if they encountered a checkpoint.

They crossed the Bois de Boulogne and reached the village of Suresnes where they crossed the river Seine. From there they followed the riverbank, travelling east for a while, until they reached the small village of Clichy. Travelling northwest, they next set off on the road to Calais. Eventually, the horse had to be rested and fed. That left the travellers time to have their luncheon.

As soon as the foursome sat down on the Seine’s grassy sloping bank, Jéhan chose de Briers’ company, barely glancing at his sister when she handed him a piece of bread and an apple.

“Uncle, tell me about England. I want to become an Englishman, like you,” the boy said in rapid French.

De Briers laughed, a sound so joyful it made Manon’s heart leap.

“Well, first of all, Jéhan, you must learn to speak English! Once you have mastered that, I can hire a private tutor for you so that you can be properly educated.”

“I do not speak English,” the boy moped. “Is it difficult to learn?”

“Not to me,” de Briers smiled, “and I am certain that a clever lad like you will learn it very quickly.”

Manon kept her mouth shut about her ability to speak the language. Up until now, the travellers had always spoken in French. However, Manon’s mother had insisted on Manon learning English from a very tender age. Manon spoke it fluently, albeit with a slight accent. She was reluctant for de Briers to learn of this – it was convenient to be able to overhear conversations between the two men when they discussed matters they did not want her to hear.

After the meal, de Briers ordered Jéhan and Manon to take a nap, given the fact that their early rising had left the boy sleepy. Brother and sister stretched out on the cool grass, basking in the warm June sun. De Briers waited a quarter of an hour before he challenged Jake.

“What exactly were you blabbering about last night, Jake? I overheard your comment about the Dowager Baronetess, and I was displeased with it.”

“I apologize once again, master, but the girl was asking eager questions about you. I saw no harm in telling her facts that are common knowledge.”

“Enlighten me, Jake,” de Briers said, his tone becoming rather implacable. “What exactly was my niece asking after?”

“Well, she wanted to know …” Jake hesitated, then continued, “… about the women in your life.”

Manon felt heat flaring up her cheeks and neck. She pinched her eyes closed more  firmly, afraid that they might think her awake.

“Did she now?” de Briers drawled. “And have you managed to satisfy her curiosity?”

“No! What do I know about that subject, sir? I am merely your Parisian man of business.”

“Good,” de Briers grunted. “I would very much appreciate it, Jake, if you did not venture to proffer personal details of my life to anyone in the future.”

“No, master, I won’t. You have my word.”

 

They stayed at the riverside for two hours to make sure the horse was properly rested. Their survival might well depend on the animal’s ability to bring them all the way to Boulogne, which was one hundred and sixty miles from Paris. That distance was but a bit shorter than what they would have to travel once they reached England.

Eventually, Jake mounted the bench while de Briers lifted Jéhan into the cart. Manon hesitated.

“I … could you just wait a moment, Uncle?”

De Briers turned in surprise upon hearing the name she had given him. Finally, he reflected, his niece was letting her guard down. “What is it, Manon?”

“I … I have … to go,” she mumbled, and began to head off for a small copse some twenty yards from the road.

Of course, De Briers realised a tad too late. She was female and did not have the luxury to go and do her business in the river, like the rest of their little band. Stupid of him, not to have anticipated that. However, he did not like the notion that she should stray into the woods all by herself and followed her. When she turned and saw him, Manon put her hands on her waist in the universal gesture of annoyance. “You do not need to come with me,” she challenged. “I will be only a moment.”

“No,” her uncle stated curtly, “times are too uncertain. There are lots of fugitives in France, nowadays, and desperate people do not shy away from violence. Let me take a look first.”

Manon had not thought about that, and she realised her uncle was not only intelligent and careful, but also sweet and caring.

“Thank you, Uncle,” she said, and waited patiently until he signalled her to come nearer.

“Here,” he said, “this is a safe place. I will be waiting just a few yards away. Be quick about it, Manon. I want us to reach Fraconville before nightfall. There is a decent auberge where we can spend the night. I do not like the look of those clouds in the west.”

 

Unfortunately, de Briers was right. The clouds became large, black, and ominous, and the group was soaked to the bone by a deluge right after they crossed the Seine outside Clichy. The river meandered through the countryside repeatedly on its way to the North Sea, so they would encounter it again and again before they reached Boulogne.

Fortunately, while the passengers of the cart sat hunched under their soaked cloaks, feeling miserable, the placid, sturdy horse kept on plodding along, oblivious to the pelting rain. There was one large benefit to the situation, de Briers mused. At least they would not encounter guards or checkpoints now.

Their progress through the lush countryside was slow but steady, and eventually, the rain subsided. The warm sun that followed the torrent was a welcome change to the bone-cold travellers, who basked in the warmth it provided. Yet, when they reached the Auberge du Coquelicot in the tiny village of Fraconville, clouds had come drifting in again.

“Remember,” de Briers warned, before they went in, “Jake is the head of our “family” and you, Manon are posing as his wife. I am a demented uncle and Jéhan is your son.”

“Actually,” Manon said, “that will not do. Jake and I, as man and wife, would be given one bedchamber. I will be his widowed sister and Jake can sleep with you. Jéhan sleeps in my room.”

“I want to be with the men,” Jéhan piped. “I am a man, too!”

But, as it turned out, there were no private rooms at the “Poppy Inn”. All guests had to sleep in the common room, but as times were uncertain, they were the only guests, that night.

Times were indeed uncertain, as Manon soon experienced. The landlord, a thickset, gloomy looking man with a head as bald as an egg, had little else to offer but a hard straw mattress and a thin blanket for a bed in the cold common room.

“I have no wood to burn, and besides, it is June,” he said sourly. “Be glad I have some rabbit stew ready for your supper. That and a tankard of wine will get you warm quickly enough.”

After their meal, Jéhan settled next to Jake, who spread his blanket over the both of them. The boy seemed to have formed a friendship with Jake, who welcomed him good-naturedly. De Briers put his pallet to Jéhan’s other side, almost automatically, and Manon envied the three males. She was banished to the far end of the room, where a curtain separated her from the rest.

 

Manon felt miserable. She was damp, cold and still hungry. She had not dared to drink wine, for fear she might be sick afterwards. Wine made by the common people could not always be trusted, her father had taught her. They added dubious extra ingredients to the mixture in order to increase the alcohol content more efficiently than was possible with grape fermentation alone, such as wood spirits, an alcohol produced by the distillation of wood and used as a diluent in cheap wines. It was poisonous and could kill or blind a person, if they were lucky enough to survive.

Her uncle, as it turned out, forbade all of them from drinking the drinking the landlord’s wine. Manon asked for a pitcher of hot water and made a mint tisane for them. She had the satisfaction of seeing her uncle’s eyes widen with surprise as she rummaged through her medicinal bag to retrieve the pouch with the dried mint leaves. She even produced a small pot of honey, which she used to sweeten the beverage. It was succulent but it did nothing to warm the body, especially hers, when she lay shivering on her lonely pallet. After a long time, she drifted into a fitful sleep, interrupted by her frequent coughs.

 

Richard de Briers listened to his niece’s coughs with growing unease. The girl had no spare clothing so she was forced to sleep in her damp dress, he knew. It must by sheer misery. He could barely get warm under the thin, mouldy blanket their host had provided, so he could only guess how Manon must feel. At least he had little Jéhan’s body to warm his back, while she had no one’s warmth to comfort her. Tired of wrestling with his worry for Manon, Richard rose and crept to the other end of the room.

His niece was sleeping like a child would do, one hand under her cheek and the other wrapped tightly over her small breasts. The blanket had slipped away to leave her trembling with cold. Without giving further thought to the matter, Richard curled up behind her and enveloped them both in his spare woollen cloak. This one was fairly dry since it had been stored inside his leather travel bag.

The moment he felt Manon’s soft, round body snuggle up against his, Richard realised his mistake. His treacherous male body immediately responded with the usual embarrassing reaction. He froze, not daring to move for fear Manon would wake. How was he, her uncle, to explain the very

non-avuncular behaviour he had just displayed by joining his virgin niece on her pallet?

However, with a sigh of well-being, Manon sank deeper into sleep, and was soon breathing, deeply and regularly. Gradually, Richard relaxed and his body with him. It felt … well, right, although he knew that it was not right, not at all. Manon was his niece – his ward, even. He was honour-bound to protect her, to offer her a home where she would feel loved and safe. His mind and heart knew her for what she was, his sister’s daughter, but his lascivious body only acknowledged her exquisite femininity.

Richard inwardly cursed himself for staying away from Madame Herodias’ London nunnery for far too long. Then, as their combined body heat started to relax him, he willed himself to rule out all inappropriate thoughts and go to sleep.

 

Manon woke as soon as de Briers gave the signal. She was surprised to see him already dressed and giving instructions, while Jéhan and Jake were still preparing, dizzy with sleep. She herself felt marvellously rested, which caused her to wonder, since she had had such a hard time falling asleep.

When they were on the road again, Manon reflected upon it. She had been cold and wet and shivering. Yet she must have fallen asleep sometime, and had a sound sleep as well, since she had not dreamt or tossed around on her pallet. She did, however, remember a wonderful warmth that had spread over her at some point. By that time, she had already been too soundly asleep to bother about trying to understand it.

 

The weather was bright and sunny again, and the group made excellent progress. Come nightfall, they had achieved their planned fifteen miles, and they reached the Abbaye Notre-Dame du Val.

The abbey had been sold to a draper from Paris a few years ago, when the Revolution dispersed the monks. It stood empty but people from the vicinity still worshipped our Lady in the ruined church, which was the only building that had been destroyed.

De Briers knew about the abbey because he had stayed there when accompanying his father to France during his boyhood. He was also acquainted with some of the farmers who lived nearby. His father had always showed an interest in how others gained their produce so that he could apply their methods at Bearsham Manor.

The four of them stopped at Thierry Dubois’ farmhouse and bought some food from him – at a very substantial price, of course. Afterwards, they took refuge inside the abbey for the night and restored themselves.

 

Hearts Adrift – Part Three

Chapter Three

The band of fugitives made its way to the quays aligning the river Seine without being spotted by members of the Garde Révolutionaire. A small boat was moored at the bottom of the steps. They got on board, Manon and Jéhan at the stern and Jake at the bow, while de Briers took the oars. He began rowing downstream in a steady rhythm, the heavy oaken shafts cutting the water in silence. They slid along the riverbank, and de Briers kept the boat as close to the quay wall as he could without crashing into it. Their progress was slow but steady and undisturbed in the moonless dark of the June night.

Manon had taken Jéhan onto her lap when the boy began showing signs of weariness, but the damp chill that always seemed to emanate from the water made them both shiver with cold. Jéhan could not settle. “I am so cold, Manon. I want my cloak,” he whimpered.

“Shh, mon chou,” Manon hushed, “you must not make a noise.” She was afraid de Briers would become angry with them. Moreover, heaven knew what would happen if they were caught by the guards patrolling the riverbanks.

“Here,” de Briers said, “take this.” He signalled for Jake to hold the oars, shed his coat and draped it over Manon’s shoulders. She stifled a gasp when the man’s body heat, still trapped in the rough woollen coat, engulfed her. His scent – clean, spicy and very male – attacked her senses. They were stirred in a way she had never experienced before in her life, creating odd little flames that tantalized her skin. Recovering from her thoughts, she pulled Jéhan into the coat with her.

Quickly, Manon lowered her gaze, shame welling up deep in her chest. What was this awkward sensation that so disturbed her? Could it be … desire? Could it? In the twenty years of her life in the French capital Manon had – of course – encountered young men. Manon knew she was beautiful, lively and witty, and some young men had been so besotted that they had tried to lure her into their beds, but none had succeeded. No man had ever stirred Manon’s heart so she always kept the upper hand. She also knew what damage could be done when giving oneself to a man. Damage, both physical and emotional, that could ruin a girl’s life and leave her with a babe to raise on her own. Manon could deal with a fatherless babe but she would have been mortified to put her dearest Papa through the ordeal of a daughter who betrayed his trust in her. Papa had always shouldered the scalding blame for her Mama’s forced flight from her family when she had eloped with him. He had instilled in his daughter a strong conviction that a girl should not give her virginity to a man unless he was her legal husband. A husband who would love and cherish her until death parted them.

Manon had kept to that belief until this day, and she meant to keep it that way. Moreover, this man, this Richard de Briers, was her uncle, according to his own words. A blood relative. Romantic feelings for him would be considered incest, even if she did not act physically on them. She needed to quell these sudden, immoral thoughts forthwith.

 

Richard de Briers focused on the job at hand, steering the small craft over the mirror-like surface of the river Seine. At the same time, he listened for unusual noises and scanned the riverbanks for lights. From the moment he had met his niece and nephew, they had become family.

The girl was indeed his niece; of that he had no doubts at all. She had the bright red hair and vivid green eyes of her mother, his beloved sister Lily. Richard had been five when his half-sister eloped with Thibaut Favier, and to him, it had felt as if a part of his soul had been ripped away. Lily, sweet and caring, had been more of a mother to him than the cold, self-centred woman who had given birth to him.

Mildred de Briers, née Thompson, was a commoner. An extremely wealthy one, no doubt, but a commoner nevertheless. Her vast dowry, the result of her father’s activities as a Manchester cotton mill owner, had been the principal motive of his father’s second marriage. Sir Robert was in dire financial circumstances and needed the blunt. The fact that Mildred had given him a son and heir had never stirred more than tepid affections for Mildred in Sir Robert. Mildred herself had not loved her husband either. She consented to the marriage to please her papa who wished to have a titled son-in-law. Because Mildred and her family were tradespeople, they had never been properly educated. They could read and write, of course, but they had no interests in Society’s intricate machinations. Therefore, they had not known until after the marriage that Sir Robert, being only a baronet, was no member of the peerage. That little piece of information had thoroughly severed the connections between Sir Robert and his in-laws.

With rising annoyance, Richard shook off the memories of his sour, grim-faced mother. He needed to keep his wits free to get his niece and nephew out of Paris safely. That was what he had promised his dying father and what Richard himself felt was an obligation to his dearest Lily’s memory. This girl and this boy were Lily’s children. He would protect them with his life.

 

They reached Auteuil unharmed and unnoticed. The small borough, just outside Paris, lay squeezed between the river in the east and the notorious Bois de Boulogne in the west. Richard’s lodgings were with a soldier’s widow called Madame Bernard. The house was situated at the edge of these woods, a safe enough distance from the capital to keep them from being overly bothered by the revolutionary guards. The nasty reputation of the woods, where people were attacked and even murdered, where women were raped and children butchered, helped to keep Richard and Jake out of sight.

By the time they arrived at Madame Bernard’s house, Jéhan was fast asleep in Richard’s arms, exhausted by the long walk from the river to the woods’ edge. Manon looked ghastly, Richard noticed, even though she never uttered a complaint as she dragged her tired and sore feet. Her shoes were threadbare; their soles were too thin to walk the cobbled streets, let alone travel the dusty roads.

Once inside, Richard ordered a bath and a meal for his charges. Madame Bernard was instantly fussing over the boy and cooing over Manon. She led them to the kitchen and shooed the men into her parlour, instructing them to pour themselves a glass of liquor. Richard grimaced at the thought of the vile green beverage the French called crême de menthe, but Jake eagerly poured himself a generous dose. Finally, Richard chose a cognac and settled into a chair.

Faint noises from the kitchen reached his tired mind. Splashing and giggling, and Madame Bernard’s happy comments; she must have been bustling about and preparing their meal. Upon hearing Manon asking for the soap, an image of her naked body, luxuriating in the bath, ambushed Richard’s mind, utterly unbidden and thoroughly unwanted. In response, his body immediately reacted, leaving him stunned with the force of his desire. What the devil was going on and what the hell was he thinking? He jumped from his seat. “I will be in my room. Tell Madame Bernard to bring up my meal as soon as it is ready.”

Jake, startled by his master’s sudden exit, stared at the closing door in bewilderment.

 

Manon was famished by the time the landlady laid out their meal. At first, she was distracted by Jéhan, who ravenous as he was gobbled up his food without even trying to chew it. A few minutes passed, in which she fed him little tidbits until he ate more slowly, before she actually noticed that her uncle had not come to Madame’s cosy kitchen. When she asked Jake about it, he shrugged.

“He is like that sometimes. I do not know why. Simply disappears. Reckon he had enough of us for tonight.”

“How well do you know my uncle, Jake?” Manon asked, eager to learn as much as she could.

“Not well, actually. I was employed by his father, the late baronet of Bearsham, who sent me to Paris. I know Sir Richard only slightly from my rare visits to Brighton in the past. He is all right, so to speak. Never treats one without respect, although he does not allow slovenliness or insubordination. He is thorough in his business dealings, and he is clever, I tell you.”

“Is he married, or engaged?” Manon did not know why she wanted to know the answer to that, but she did.

“How would I know whether he is betrothed?” Jake protested. “He is not likely to tell me, is he? I heard he was engaged once, but the lady married another.”

“Does he have a mistress, then?”

“Now, miss, you should not ask such questions. It is very unladylike!”

“Jake, this is Paris and I am no lady.” Manon eyed him with deliberate mischief.

“No, but you will become one soon. You are the master’s niece.” The young man returned her a stern gaze.

“Maybe I will,” Manon chuckled, “but really, is there a woman in his life?”

Jake shook his head emphatically. “No, indeed. I think he is somewhat lonely, is the master.”

Manon digested this information for a while before asking, “What do you mean, lonely?”

They had spoken all of this in French, of course, and Manon now became aware of Madame Bernard staring at the two of them with avid eyes. Apparently, she was considering all this to be very interesting.

“Yes, I see what you mean,” Madame Bernard chimed in. “Monsieur has a certain … look about him, of being utterly alone in the world. As if he had not a living soul who cared for him. As if no one ever told him they loved him.”

“Exactly!” Jake acknowledged.

She knew not why, but Manon’s heart contracted with sheer compassion for de Briers.

“That cannot be true,” she said. “His mother is still alive, is she not? Mothers and sons – that is the oldest love story in the world!”

Jake knowingly shook his head. “Ah, but you clearly do not know the Dowager Baronettes of Bearsham! She is as cold as they come. Haughty, and ruthless. A veritable dragon, she is!”

Suddenly, a deep voice boomed from the doorway.

“I will thank you, Mr Davies, not to comment on my family, if you please!”

Jake nearly fell from his chair and began apologizing profusely to his master. “Oh! I am so sorry, master … I …”

“Madame Bernard, we wish to depart from here at the first light of dawn,” de Briers said, cutting him off. “We will need several items for our journey, such as a food basket, blankets, and two decent woollen cloaks for the young lady and her brother. I wish to buy that wooden cart I saw in your yard. Just tell me your price and I will meet it.”

The landlady bobbed in silent answer. De Briers addressed Manon with a curt nod of his head. “Be sure to wear unobtrusive clothes, niece. We do not want to attract any unwanted attention. We will pose as a family of farmers. You and Jake as a couple with a young son. I will be an elderly relative who is weak of mind. Also, I will not speak because my accent would give me away as an Englishman.”

Manon was dumbstruck by his curtness and could only nod in agreement.

“Very well, then,” de Briers said, “we should all retire to our beds and have a good night’s sleep. We have a long journey ahead in the days to come.”

They all rose at once and left for their sleeping quarters.

Hearts Adrift – Part two

 

Chapter Two

“Are you certain, sir, that you want to pursue this matter? The streets are extremely dangerous in Paris right now.”

The young man’s pleasant countenance grew serious, causing Richard de Briers to turn a sharp eye on him. “What is it that you are saying, Jake? Are the streets barred? Bridges over the Seine destroyed, maybe?”

Jake Davies had been acting as Richard’s business man in Paris for the last four years. He had begun his life as a London street urchin and Robert de Briers had caught the boy trying to steal his handkerchief one rainy night. Richard’s father, seeing the sorry state the starving boy was in, took him into his London household and gave him a home, responsibilities, and, seeing a potential in him, eventually an education. Jake started his career as a clerk to Mr. Donby, Robert de Briers’ secretary. His childhood in the London rookeries made him the perfect man to tackle post-revolutionary Paris. He had made possible many successful business transactions for Richard and his father before him. So, when Jake found it necessary to warn him, Richard listened and pondered.

“I am saying, sir, that we must go unnoticed, which implies we have to go after dark. However, the darkness will add a definite danger to our journey. There are two liabilities, as I see it. We could get held up by the troops of the Terror –  and arrested if they have a mind to it. In that case, we are as good as dead, being foreigners, and English to boot. They will think us spies. On the other hand, we could be caught by cutthroats, and be robbed and murdered. No one would be surprised by one or two corpses floating in the Seine, these days.”

“Or, Jake, we could be clever and pick our way to the Rue Saint-Jacques cautiously. We could bring my relatives back to the inn in Auteuil and from there, set off to the coast. Once we reach Boulogne, we could hire a boat to bring us back to England.”

Jake bowed his head at the resolute tone of his master’s voice. “Yes, sir, we could do all that. Well, no better time than tonight.”

“My good man!” Richard grinned. “Let us prepare ourselves!”

The riots were still raging through Paris’ streets; therefore, Manon and Jéhan were sensibly staying indoors. They had, however, finished their last bits of food the night before. Manon realised they could not stay at the house for much longer. Jéhan was frightened, with reason, and she had done all she could to keep him quiet and comfort him as best as she was able to. After four days of hiding, Manon told her brother that their father might have been arrested. She kept silent about the real situation. Jéhan was too young to understand. Better to let him think their father was in prison, and therefore unreachable. No one was allowed to visit prisoners these days, and Jéhan, young though he was, knew that. She would explain what transpired when the time was right.

For now, she would make a plan to escape from Paris. Her mind was diligently considering her options, while she was picking up eggs in the back garden. By some miracle, the plunderers had overlooked a single chicken, hidden under a pile of straw.

A large hand covered her mouth and a steely arm sneaked around her body, effectively pinning her arms in a tight hold. Manon struggled, fought, kicked her heels against her assailant’s shins, but it was like kicking a brick wall. A warm whiff of breath caressed her ear, and a deep baritone voice whispered, “Do not fight me. Are you Manon Favier, daughter of Lily de Briers and Thibaut Favier?”

The tall, incredibly strong man had spoken in heavily accented French, and Manon had to strain her ears just to be able to understand what he said. She nodded as well as she could, given the fact that his hand was still on her mouth.

“I am your uncle Richard de Briers,” the man said. “I will release you now, and you must not make a sound. I have come to take you and your brother to England with me.”

Manon heaved a deep sigh and turned to look at her uncle as soon as he set her back on her feet. It was early dusk and she could see him clearly in the light of the setting sun.

Richard de Briers was tall and broad-shouldered, with a figure that seemed to be hewn out of granite. Although he was dressed in the drab, coarsely woven clothes of a commoner, his stance and the expression on his face immediately gave him away as an aristocrat. A face as handsome as the devil’s, Manon registered – clean-cut, with wide-set eyes the colour of a winter sky, a long blade of a nose and a wide, thin-lipped mouth. A full head of pitch-black hair completed the image of a devil, yet what troubled Manon the most was the cold, steely gaze in those grey eyes.

She shivered but straightened to her full height, which only allowed her to bring the top of her head halfway up his chest. Mon Dieu, but the man was a giant!

“How do I know that you are who you say you are, monsieur?” she challenged him, tossing back the red mane of her hair that had come undone from its pins. Her green eyes blazed at him with unmitigated defiance as she lifted her face to look him straight in the eyes.

Richard de Briers stared at her in disbelief, unable, for a moment, to find the words that would convince her. Was this slip of a girl doubting his word? If he was to act as her guardian, he had better make it clear to her from the beginning that he was the one giving the orders.

“Quit your whims, girl, and follow me. Do not fuss or there will be consequences. I have no qualms binding and gagging you.”

He gripped her arm and towed her along into the kitchen, where another man slighter and shorter than de Briers was waiting with her little brother, perched on his shoulder. Jéhan did not seem to be afraid of the strangers and had his wooden horse tucked under his arm.

“We are travelling to England, Manon! Is that not wonderful?” The boy was smiling broadly.

“Keep quiet, little master,” Jake admonished in perfect Parisian French. “We do not want the guards to hear us.”

“Sorry,” Jéhan apologized. “I can be quiet as a mouse, monsieur, I promise!”

“Who are you, monsieur?” Manon challenged Jake. “Let go of my brother, now!”

“His name is Jake Davies and he is my business man. You have nothing to fear from him,” Richard de Briers’ voice rumbled above her head. “Now, listen, mademoiselle. We will go to the river, where I have a small boat ready to take us to my rooms in Auteuil. That way, we will avoid the Barrière de Grenelle and inspection by the guards at the barrier checkpoint. The surveillance is very thorough these days.”

Manon humphed, which made the man raise an annoyed eyebrow. “I know all too well how thorough the surveillance is, monsieur! I live here, remember?”

De Briers cut her short with a glare that could have set the place on fire, then continued. “From Auteuil, where I have horses ready, we ride to Boulogne, from where we sail to England. Can you ride?”

“No,” she sneered, “Why would I have learned to ride a horse? There is no need to ride in Paris!”

“Perfect!” De Briers growled under his breath, but aloud he said, “It is of no consequence. Jake and I can take you behind us in the saddle in turn.”

Manon decided to give in, at least for now. This was as good a way as any other to escape Paris. Her “uncle” seemed to have made his plan rather thoroughly. The toll barriers and the wall, called Murs des Fermiers Généraux had been in place since 1788, a year before the storming of the Bastille. The people had not approved of the tolls on all incoming goods, which were levied to pay for the aristocrats’ extravagances. Since 1790, the barriers were checkpoints for controlling not only goods, but also the comings and goings of people, so avoiding them was paramount. Once they were in the countryside, Manon would find an opportunity to run away. Surely, in the Bois de Boulogne, that opportunity would present itself.

Manon did not trust this “uncle” unconditionally. Father had told her about her so-called English family often enough, and what she had learned about these people had not inclined her to feel generous towards them, but these were desperate times.

Manon’s mother had been a child of her grandfather’s first marriage. After the death of his wife in childbirth, her grandfather had not taken much notice of his baby daughter, so Maman had been raised by her nanny, and later, by her governess. At fifteen, Maman had eloped with her father’s French valet, Thibaut Favier. To escape her father’s wrath, they had fled to Paris, where Papa had worked in his father’s apothecary shop and learned the trade. Manon was born and the couple stayed in Paris. Jéhan was born when Manon was fifteen, but this late pregnancy was too much for Maman’s frail body. She died after three days in horrible agony, even though Manon – who had also learned the apothecary trade – and her father had tried everything that was humanly possible to heal her.

There had never been a word from England, as far as Manon knew. And now this “uncle” had shown up. Her grandfather must have remarried at some point.

“Have you gathered the necessities for your journey?” De Briers shook her arm, as if he had noticed her daydreaming.

“We have only the clothes on our backs, Jéhan and I. Our house was plundered a few days ago.”

He nodded. “I will provide you with clothes and necessaries, when we reach Auteuil. It might be useful if you had a cloak, however. The river can be damp at night.”

“I have no cloak,” Manon replied. “Nor does Jéhan.”

“We have to go, Master,” Jake urged. “In another ten minutes, the night watch will be upon us.”

“Come on, then,” De Briers said, and took Jéhan from Jake, settling the boy on his hip, before striding to the door.

 

Hearts Adrift – Part One

Chapter One

At Bearsham Manor, Hampshire, England, Sir Robert de Briers, baronet, lay dying. His ragged breathing was shallow and fast, indicating that the end was near. This last apoplexy had proved too much of a strain on Sir Robert’s heavyset, gout-infected body, even though his mind was as sharp as ever. With considerable effort, he opened his pale blue, bloodshot eyes and searched for the tall figure of his son and heir, Richard. Sir Robert had one last yet most urgent request for him.

“Come, my son, come closer…”

Richard de Briers obeyed readily and bent down on one knee beside his father’s bed. Guessing that the old man wanted only him and no one else present to hear, he bowed his head toward his father.

“I am listening, sir,” he whispered in his father’s ear. “What is it that you want from me?”

Wheezing and fighting for air, Sir Robert explained.

“You must go to Paris and find Lily’s family,” he said, referring to Richard’s late half-sister. “Her husband has … an apothecary’s workshop … on the Rue Saint-Jacques. There have been many riots lately, with the revolutionaries taking power. Thibaut Favier, Lily’s husband … has not written to me on his usual date of the second Sunday of the month. I fear … something bad might have befallen him. If so, I want you … to bring the children … to the estate and … become their legal guardian. I have discussed this … with Mr Brownslow, my solicitor in Portsmouth. Go to him and ask him. Richard …”

The old man’s pudgy hand grabbed his son’s in urgent need.

“Do not say a word of this matter to your mother. She never approved of my concern for Lily.”

Sir Robert squeezed Richard’s hand rather hard. “Swear to me, Richard … that you will do as I ask!”,

“I give you my word, Father that I will see that Lily’s children are safe.”

Richard had no inkling as to how he was to achieve such a difficult task, what with all the frightful news that seeped through from France and from Jake Davies, his poor, besieged business man in Paris. Now he had made a promise to his dying father so he would do his utmost for his niece and nephew.

“Richard, my son …” Sir Robert’s fading voice once more claimed his attention.

“Yes, father?”

“You must be the best of guardians to them, care for them as if they were your own … Richard, you must learn to love them, promise me …”

“I promise, father.”  What was the meaning of all this, he wondered? Why was his father so adamant?

“Listen, come closer. There is a letter for you … you must read it and act upon its contents. It is hidden behind … behind …”

Sir Robert gasped for breath, but the grip on Richard’s fingers never slackened.

“Where, father?” Richard encouraged.

“Behind the veil …” A faint, barely audible gust of breath escaped Sir Robert’s parched lips. It was his last one. Sir Robert de Briers was gone.

Richard laid the limp hand upon his father’s chest and closed his staring yet unseeing eyes. He rose from his knees and opened the door to the landing.

“Mrs Briskley,” Richard addressed Bearsham Manor’s housekeeper, “would you do me the kindness of seeing to it that my father is decently laid out?”

The plump, motherly woman bobbed. “Yes, sir, right away, sir,” she said as her tears quietly slipped from her eyes. She watched Sir Richard with distressed gaze as he left his father’s room.

 

“Thornton, will you notify Beacon & Sons that I will have need of their services for my father’s funeral, please?”

The elderly, thin butler bowed his head. “Of course, sir. Will you be needing anything else, sir?”

“I will say so when I think of it, Thornton, thank you. For now, I would like to be on my own for a while, in my father’s library.”

“Yes, sir. Sir … on behalf of the staff, I would like to convey our deepest sympathy on the passing of Sir Robert.”

“Thank you.” Weary to the bone, Richard descended the long, winding staircase and turned to the library door  when his mother’s cold voice stopped him.

“How is he, Richard?”

Without turning to her, he replied in the same disinterested tone his mother, Mildred de Briers had used. “My father is dead, Madam. You can pay your respects after he has been laid out.”

Not wishing to speak to her for the moment, he entered the library and closed the door behind him with a definitive click.

Lady Mildred de Briers stared at the closed door for a few moments, then gathered her lavender silk skirts and slowly mounted the stairs. As she passed the large, gold-framed mirror on the landing, she stopped and studied her face and instantly wiped the grim expression from it. At forty-five, she was still beautiful, Mildred gloated. A pity, that her only son always managed to raise her hackles, but then there it was and it would never change. She hated her son, and had done so since Richard was born.

 

It was June 1793 and Paris was once again in turmoil.

The people were rioting against the Terror regime, the power that had crushed hopes of a good life and instead made them suffer even more cruelly than under the Ancient Régime. The execution of the royal family, presented to the people as the ultimate victory over the aristocracy, had obtained the opposite effect, as people began to pity the unfortunate King Louis XVI and his queen, Marie-Antoinette, both beheaded in January 1793, as well as their surviving daughter Marie-Thérèse, barely fifteen and still imprisoned at the Tour du Temple.

People were murdered, women violated, children left to die of starvation on the streets. Shops were ransacked, houses burned, churches destroyed. It was chaos, the end of a world and of an era.

For Manon Favier, fate had something particular in store.

Up until now, the Faviers had managed to keep their heads above water well enough. Thibaut Favier had taken over his father’s apothecary shop on the Rue Saint-Jacques, near the Sorbonne university after he fled England. He was well-known and loved in the neighbourhood. He provided the much-tried inhabitants with potions, pills, and ointments for their many ailments, often without asking for payment. So the people had protected their apothecary and his family. However, recently, Paris had been caught in a different kind of frenzy, where all the values of before were scattered and obliterated. Thibaut Favier’s shop was ransacked, and the owner killed. Manon and her little five-year-old brother Jéhan were left orphans without a penny to live on.

On the day her father was killed, Manon – unaware of what had befallen to their father – had gone out to meet her brother at the Couvent des Dames de Marie, where he attended school. She was on her usual rounds, seeing to the patients in her care, so she had been carrying her apothecary satchel, filled with the necessities of her trade, and a load of various items of food, given to her by  her grateful patients. Manon had spotted the rioters, waited until they were gone, and inwardly sent up a prayer of thanks because they hadn’t set fire to the house.

She and Jéhan had gone inside, barred the door, and were planning to make up a bed for the night amidst the torn curtains and clothes the plunderers had discarded, when Manon noticed the rusting-iron odour of her father’s slaughtered corpse on the kitchen floor. Quickly, she had ushered Jéhan into the shop, preventing him from seeing the horror.

“Here, my darling; let us sit down and eat something, shall we?”

Jéhan obeyed but asked, “Where is Papa? It is filthy in here, Manon. I want to go eat in the kitchen.”

“We cannot, my darling.”  Manon debated what she should do while she handed a lump of bread and a piece of cheese to her brother. Jéhan had to be told about their father, but it was not necessary for him to see the bloodied corpse. Her stomach churning and her heart grieving, she applied herself to feeding her brother and putting him to sleep on a pile of rags in one corner of the shop. She waited until he was fast asleep before she ventured back into the kitchen again.

They had stabbed Papa multiple times, and he had bled copiously until one blade pierced his heart. His face, surprisingly, was intact and serene, as if he had not suffered a great deal. Maybe he had not, Manon mused, but she knew she was fooling herself. A large lump had formed in her throat, now threatening to burst. She closed her eyes, heaved a deep sigh and started to think.

She and Jéhan could not stay in Paris, that was obvious. The riots were becoming harsher by the day, and half the city was on the run for the countryside. The populace that would stay was a rabble of miscreants and murderers, not to mention the Terror’s troops. Any time now, she and her brother could be arrested and put on trial, which would certainly lead to them being beheaded. The fact that Jéhan was only five years old would not stop the monsters. Her own fate would even be worse than death.

Manon shivered, swallowed, and made her decision. She would bury her father in the small back garden, where they grew their herbs, and would then wait until the rebellion against the Terror slowed down enough for her to leave Paris. Where she would be going, she did not know yet. But she was going, no doubt about that.

 

Mr Thornton Takes a Wife – Part Sixty

Chapter Twenty – The Miracle of Life

Around the clock of noon on June 19th 1853, Mrs Eliza Goodyear, nurse and midwife, came into the parlour of the Thornton house, carrying two small bundles, one in each arm. Beaming with pride, she placed them in the lap of John Thornton with a smile.

“Here you are, Mr Thornton! Meet your twin sons! They are a fine example of strong, healthy English babies and you can be proud of your good wife for delivering them in so fine a condition.”

“Margaret! Oh, my God, how is she?”

“As well as can be expected, do not worry. She is sleeping and Dr Chelmsford will soon be here to tell you all about her. For now, look at your babies!”

John’s large hands were trembling when he held his newborn sons. They were so small yet so perfect!

His thumb touched one of the tiny hands and instantly the delicate fingers curled around his with a surprising strength.

“Ouch! But you are quite the muscle man, aren’t you, son,” he whispered, grinning at Nicholas and Hannah, who stood smiling at him, his mother all misty-eyed.

“Oh, you don’t know half of it!”, Mrs Goodyear assured him, “Wait until they open their mouths!”

As if waiting for a sign, both babies began crying their hearts out, the level of noise deafening and very, very shrill!

“Good God!”, John exclaimed, “Is this how it is going to be from now on? May God have mercy on us!”

Hannah now laughed through her tears of joy and reached out for one of the babies. John stood and laid one howling child in Hannah’s arms and the other in the arms of a startled Nicholas.

“Oh, yes, Higgins! I am not going to do this on my own! You are to help me, Granddad! And you too, Granny!,” he joked with an impish smile curling his mouth.

After that, he escaped from the parlour and went to find Margaret in their bedroom. Dr Chelmsford was just checking her pulse and put a finger to his lips when John entered. ‘Five minutes’ he gestured, stood and left.

The sight of his beloved wife resting peacefully brought a lump into John’s throat. He seated himself next to the bed and carefully took her porcelain little hand in his. With anxious eyes roaming over her, he took it all in, her lovely dark brown hair neatly brushed from her still pale face, delicate and precious in its sleep-relaxed state, her breast moving under the intake of breath, the slight curve  of her stomach under the covers where their children had been. He couldn’t keep himself from caressing the alabaster cheeks and the curve of the cherry mouth.

Margaret opened her eyes, saw him and smiled. “John …”

“How are you, my heart? Do you know how much I love you? You have done so marvellously, my love! You have given me two strong, handsome sons for whom we yet have to find names. I was hoping you would have some suggestions?”

Margaret smiled again, so sweetly that John’s heart turned into water.

“I know you have already picked one name, John. Charles Richard, after both of our fathers. I do agree with that but what about the other one?”

John chuckled and squeezed her hand.

“There is no way to keep anything from you, is it not? You are right. Charles Richard Thornton is a good name but which one of them is going to have it?”

“The firstborn, of course! He has a small birthmark on his chest, in the shape of a weaving reel.”

“Really? I never saw that! Remarkable! So our little future weaver is named Charles. Now the other one, any suggestions?”

“Yes … I would like to call him Nicholas Alexander. And … I would like to have Nicholas as his godfather and Dr Donaldson for Charles, if that is alright with you, John?”

John stroked his wife’s face and whispered. “You have been thinking this over very thoroughly, haven’t you, my love? Alright, I agree but what about godmothers?”

“Mother for Charles and Mary for Nicholas. It is really very simple, if you put your mind to it.”

John grinned mischievously, kissed Margaret on the mouth and stood. “Well, I will leave you to rest, darling, and go and inform the godparents-to-be of their future duties. I am looking forward to that in rapt anticipation! Just think of all the money they will have to spend on sugared almonds and silver spoons!”

Margaret burst out into genuinely merry laughter which caused her husband to bend over her and take her into his arms.

“Margaret, you are my heart and soul and I love you more than life itself. Thank you for our boys and thank you for loving me. Life is going to be just marvellous!”

The End

Mr Thornton Takes a Wife – Part Fifty-Nine

Chapter Fifty-Nine– The Agony of a Husband

On that long day in June 1853, Margaret and John Thornton were fighting side-by-side to bring the birth of their twins to a good end. As time went on, John learned to recognize all the signs and proceedings of a confinement and of giving birth.

He could feel the slightest change in Margaret’s body when a contraction was coming, a tiny rippling of her back muscles under his hands. Then he would straighten his own back, harden his own muscles and tighten his grip on her waist, as he sat behind her, legs spread with Margaret between them. When it began, he would support her with all his might, to give her the extra strength needed for the contraction to be as efficient as possible.

This process was going on for long, excruciating hours, so long that John had lost all notion of time. He had seen dawn coming through the windows, where Dixon had forgotten to draw the curtains, busy as she was with bustling from the room to the kitchen in a supply of fresh hot water, hot drinks and food for everybody in attendance.

John could very well tell that Margaret was weakening rapidly now. He literally had to hold her upright during her labour. Yet he never allowed himself to stop encouraging her, firing her up, praising her efforts, telling her he loved her. Margaret’s tears of sheer exhaustion were falling upon his hands and arms and tearing apart his very heart in the process.

Was not this the outcome of his love for her? Had he not been the sole villain in this, by impregnating her? How cruel was this, when a man could enforce this kind of torture onto his wife, solely by loving her? By God, he swore he would find a way to spare Margaret further agony in the future or to die trying to!

 

Margaret had not an ounce of strength left. She felt completely drained, body and mind. Only John’s presence and strength kept her going. John … she was utterly grateful for her husband’s strong body behind her, his capable hands on her waist and his loving voice in her ear.

“Come on, my love. Hold on for just a little while. Doctor says it is not long now. Sweet darling, come on, push, my love, push!”

“I … I cannot … I cannot go on, John, I …”

“Yes, you can! Together, we can, my love! Come on, together with me, now, Margaret!”

It was only John that kept her going, Margaret thought. As long as she heard his voice, she could indeed go on! John, stay with me, John, please, help me!

The doctor’s voice came from somewhere far away.

“Dr Donaldson? Mrs Goodyear? Stand by, if you please … here comes number one! Oh, what a beauty!”

The haze of pain grew to an extremely high peak but, strangely, Margaret found she could endure it somehow. Her body was still fighting, though she did not know how that was possible.

Someone was pressing onto her stomach but her eyes refused to open and see who it was.

“Oh … oh, my God, Margaret! Sweet Jesus, Margaret … oh, oh …”

Was John crying? She could feel him sobbing but could not believe it. John, crying? Impossible!

“Come on, my brave, brave darling, push, PUSH!”

“There is the other one!”, Dr Chelmsford cried, “And what a healthy one it is! Dr Donaldson, take him, please?”

Suddenly the level of pain dropped to almost nothing and Margaret was left shivering with exhaustion and sudden cold.

“Nurse, give me an extra blanket! Here, Mr Thornton, wrap this around her, she is in shock!”

 

John tenderly wrapped his wife into the blanket and climbed out of the bed, helped by the strong hands of his mother. Hannah’s face was wet with tears but her eyes were shining.

“Oh, John! You have two sons! Two healthy sons, is it not, Dr Chelmsford?”

As his knees buckled under the sudden demand of being upright, John took a deep breath and tried to collect his scattered wits.

“Is it true, doctor? Are the children healthy?”

It was Dr Donaldson’s voice that answered. At some point John had noticed that the faithful family doctor had entered the room but he had been too busy with his wife to even greet him.

“Yes, Mr Thornton, I have examined the children and they are very well. Two strong boys they are, a little small as was to be expected, but strong nevertheless. Would you like to see them?”

“In a while, Dr Donaldson, if you please. Dr Chelmsford, how is Margaret?”

The London obstetrician turned to him while he was working on Margaret.

“She is completely exhausted, Mr Thornton, and asleep. The after-birth bleeding does not seem too extreme and I think we must leave her into the competent hands of Mrs Goodyear who will make her as comfortable as possible. I would be obliged if you and Mrs Hannah would leave the room now, so that we can do our jobs.”

“But …but I want to see how Margaret is and …”

At this point, Hannah took hold of her son’s arm and quietly but firmly led him out of the room.

Once outside, John’s knees did really buckle and he would have crashed onto the floor but for the strong, steadying hands of Nicholas Higgins.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mr Thornton Takes a Wife – Part Fifty-Eight

Chapter Fifty-Eight – The Curse of Eve

 

John Thornton had weathered many bad spells in his life. Some of them – like when Marlborough Mills went bankrupt – could even be called horrible. On the whole his life had never been easy and he was fairly sure he could bear far more than any other man. Yet, what he was forced to undergo in the days that followed Margaret’s first pains of childbirth, nearly did him in.

How he ever survived those hellish days, he never knew.

During that first night, Margaret felt only four painful spasms. Although she managed – with John’s help – to breathe in the required way, her anxiety prevented her from sleeping between spells.

This was the time, her time. It was all or nothing. No matter what would happen in the next hours, or days, she would be in the centre of it. She stood on the verge of fighting the most important battle of her life and she was terrified!

Margaret wasn’t really asleep, she was just dozing off into a state of numbness. John, perched on the edge of a chair next to their bed, was watching her with growing anxiety. Lord! How long was this going to take?

The night had drifted into dawn and Nurse Goodyear had just examined Margaret’s progress. The cervix had barely dilated from the three inches it had the last time she checked. There was no progress! Even though the contractions – John had to force himself to call them so – followed each other a bit more frequently, the cervix did not open further.

Where was that damned fellow Chelmsford? Why wasn’t he here yet?

“John?”

He looked up to find his mother beside him. She blanched and he did not understand why but his brain was too befuddled to make an effort.

“John, go and lie down. You cannot help her and she needs to regain her strength before the next contraction starts. I will stay here, go!”

Margaret moaned as the pain rushed through her, fiercer now and much longer. She clasped the hands that were holding her, tears running down her cheeks. Her body ached all over and rivers of sweat trickled over her breasts and thighs.

“Margaret, breathe! Now, Margaret! Small puffs, quick and shallow, come on, do it, Margaret!”

When she opened her eyes to the forceful voice of Hannah, barking out the words, Margaret felt immensely relieved to have her near.

“Oh, Mother! I am so glad you are here!” Pain cut her off and she puffed, just like Hannah told her to. It helped … a bit.

“Very good, Mrs Thornton!”That was Eliza’s voice. Now Margaret was no longer so scared. She had two very competent women to help her.

Of course John could not sleep. He was lying on the couch in the parlour, ears pricked to the sounds coming from the bedroom, heart pounding with fear for what might be going on there. Suddenly he sat up and covered his face. It was no use, he was eaten up by sheer fear! It gnawed at him like a wild animal. It tore him apart and ripped the flesh from his very soul!

A cry from Margaret had him on his feet and into the bedroom. His wife was half sitting, half lying against the stack of pillows in their bed. The covers were thrown back, revealing her spread legs and raised knees. On both sides of her, his mother and the nurse were supporting her through yet another attack of pain as she arched away from the mattress. Then Nurse Goodyear took sight of him.

“Mr Thornton, will you please leave the room immediately? This is not your place!”

“Curse it! I will not go! I cannot leave her alone now! Tell me what to do, for God’s sake, woman!”

A deep voice from the doorway cut through his speech.

“You can climb into that bed behind her and support her with your body, mister! And for the rest, you can just shut up or I will remove you from the room myself!”

Dr Mortimer Chelmsford had finally arrived.

 

She was now one large mass of fierce, hot pain, eating at her, tearing her apart, killing her slowly but unstoppably. She had lost all control. There was nothing she could do except to undergo it, to let it engulf her and to try to survive. A lot of voices were humming around her but she could not make out what they were saying any longer. However, there was one familiar voice that managed to penetrate the haze of red hot pain. It came from somewhere behind her where a warm, hard presence was holding her, supporting her, carrying her through the fiery waves. She clung to that voice with every fibre of her weakening body.

“Very good, my darling, my sweet, brave love, very good. Breathe, my love, breathe, in and out, slowly, deeply, in and out. I am here, my darling, do not be afraid, I am here, with you.”

John! It was John! Oh, sweet Mother of God, thank you!

 

Five people were stubbornly and tirelessly working together to help Margaret Hale Thornton giving birth to her babies.

There was Dixon, sponging her sweat-streaked face. There was Hannah, offering her hand and arm so that Margaret might cling to them when a contraction set in. There was Eliza, watching the doctor’s every move and word, so that she might do what he asked for. There was Mortimer Chelmsford at the foot of the bed, checking Margaret’s progress after each pain wave and listening to her heartbeat and that of the babies.

Finally, there was her husband John, sitting behind his wife, legs spread to steady himself and hands firmly on her lower back to give her his extra strength when the pain hit her. Indefatigably, he talked to her, encouraging her with his steadying voice. As far as he was concerned, John was taking no risks at all to let anything go wrong in this!

 

 

Mr Thornton Takes a Wife – Part Fifty-Seven

Chapter Fifty-Seven – Torn Between Fear and Joy

Near the half of June 1853, Margaret found herself growing more and more restless every day.

She was now huge and experienced great discomfort from her pregnancy, although the babies seemed healthy enough. They were very active, especially when she tried to rest or sleep. Even John marvelled about the force of his unborn children when he laid his hand on Margaret’s stomach.

“My poor darling,” he said, one night when he helped Margaret to go to the bathroom for the fourth time that night, “how I wish I could relieve your suffering! I cannot imagine how the weight of the children must burden you.”

He plumped up her pillows and helped her back into bed. “Now, how many weeks to go?”

Margaret gave a deep, heartfelt sigh. “Theoretically three and a half weeks. But I fervently wish it to be less!”

“You know what the doctor said, darling. The longer you carry them, the stronger they will be.”

“Yes, you are right, John. It was very selfish of me to wish for the birth to begin.”

“Come, my love. Close your eyes and sleep now. You need to rest.”

Her head resting upon John’s breast, while lying on her side with one leg drawn up and the other stretched out – a position she found very comfortable – Margaret soon found sleep.

John, on the other hand, worried, as usual. He watched Margaret grow more tired every day and of lower spirits. Lord, but to have to carry two babies, large, heavy babies, for that matter, must be torture for his fragile, slender wife.

John Thornton had always been a fighter. Problems might arouse but they had to be dealt with. He was going to make absolutely sure Margaret was being taken care of as completely as could be.

Therefore he wrote a letter to Dr Mortimer Chelmsford, obstetrician in London, and invited him to come and live at the Thornton home so as to be ready at hand when Margaret would go into labour.

Dr Chelmsford , who was a busy man with a blooming practice, promised to come to Milton during the last week of June or, should labour start sooner, travel post haste to be with her. For now, he sent his most skilled midwife to cover for him until he would arrive.

Mrs Eliza Goodyear arrived duly on the 20th of June from London. She was a widow whose husband died of pneumonia ten years ago, leaving her without money. Dr Chelmsford, who was looking for a housekeeper took her on and discovered very soon that Mrs Goodyear was better suited to care for the sick than for sweeping and cooking. He provided her with the money to take a proper training so that she could go and offer her services wherever they were needed.

Margaret was immediately drawn to the lively and cheerful woman of thirty-five.

Eliza Goodyear had soon organized Margaret’s days into long periods of rest and short intervals of sitting up on the parlour couch. C & J, Margaret’s faithful chair bearers were banned from the house, at least as far the wheelchair was concerned. No more outings, Eliza said, no more tiring distractions.

That was a good thing for one night at the dinner table where she was taking her evening meal in the company of John, Margaret suddenly felt a gnawing pain in her lower back. She gasped, startling John into action.

“Love, what is the matter? Are you unwell? Talk to me, Margaret, please?”

At that moment the pain was expanding, circling her waist like a belt and growing stronger by the second. Margaret clasped John’s hand with closed eyes, unable to breathe.

“Dixon! Mrs Goodyear! Somebody, help!,” John bellowed in helpless rage.

It was Dixon who was first on the spot but this was so clearly beyond her usual skills that John was relieved when Eliza Goodyear entered the room. She took matters in hand with a comforting  confidence.

“Mr Thornton, sir, help her up. Come on, Mrs Thornton, we must get you to your bed.”

John, in his usual brisk manner, shoved her aside and scooped up his wife as if she weighed nothing. Eliza Goodyear’s eyes widened in admiring surprise seeing how strong he was. Between the two of them, they soon had Margaret in bed.

“Mrs Thornton, I want you to lie on your side in, as I told you, was the position of relax. Very well, that is it. Now, breathe, exactly the way I taught you to, deep long intakes that go all the way down to your stomach. Then, hold your breath for ten seconds and release it very slowly. Yes, that is good.”

She turned towards John. “Mr Thornton, you must see that she does this every time the pain starts. It is her body preparing for birth. The womb, which is in fact no more than a very strong muscle, is in great need of oxygen. That is the reason for the elaborated breathing process. You, sir, must help her to breathe instead of clamping up, like she did just now. Can I trust you with this? Can you do this?”

John shot the nurse a very grim but determined look. “Of course I can! Do you think me a weakling?” He turned to Margaret, kneeled by the bed and started working on her breathing along with her.

Eliza Goodyear smiled in satisfaction and left the room, feeling reassured about John Thornton’s utter commitment and cooperation.

Mr Thornton Takes a Wife – Part Fifty-Six

Chapter Fifty-Six – I, Nicholas, Take Thee Hannah

 

The second day of the month of June in the year of Our Lord 1853, the bells of Milton Chapel were peeling joyfully to announce the wedding of Mrs Hannah Thornton, mother of the Master of Marlborough Mills, and Mr Nicholas Higgins, assistant manager of the factory.

The day was a bit overcast but that did not lessen the joyful mood as the bride was being led down the aisle on the arm of her proud son, John Thornton of Marlborough Mills. At the altar stood Nicholas Higgins, tall and broad in a suit of black superfine, a white, linen shirt, dove grey waistcoat and dazzling white cravat. His hands held a pair of white cotton gloves and a black top hat, and his honest face bore a wide, happy grin as he watched Hannah approach on John’s arm.

Hannah was magnificently decked out in a lavender dress of gleaming silk, whose sober, straight cut accented the slimness of her tall, erect figure but softened the lines in her usually stern countenance. Now, Hannah was smiling, blue eyes sparkling like diamonds. Her thick, black hair, with only the hint of silver, was combed back loosily from her face to fall down in heavy waves on her back. Nicholas’s heart skipped a beat as he noticed the loosened hair. It made her look like the young girl she must have been when she married John’s father.

John solemnly lay his mother’s hand on Nicholas’s and retired at the side of his own wife.

Margaret smiled at him as he sat down beside her wheelchair and took her hand.

 

Not yet one year ago, they had been bride and groom at this very church themselves. How well John remembered his lovely Margaret in her cream coloured silk dress and lace vale, the very picture of beauty and grace. Today she wore a loose gown of mint green silk, very light to the touch as to give her as much comfort as possible with the heavy burden of her pregnancy to bear. John’s heart lurched in fear as it had for so many days now, since he knew Margaret was carrying twins.

He pressed her fine boned hand and smiled at her, not showing what he was really feeling other than his huge love for her.

Margaret watched the couple at the altar with quiet joy filling her heart.

Dear Nicholas and sweet Mother! How she wished them to gain a new happiness with each other! They had been through such a difficult time, with Hannah being stalked and nearly killed. A shiver ran through her as she remembered the deeds of their former maid, Jane.

Another memory returned suddenly and she had to swallow back tears. At this same time of year, last June, her father had died. Margaret could still see the tall figure of Mr Bell, standing in the street with her father’s suitcase in his hand, when he came to tell her of Mr Hale’s demise.

The sudden kick of one of her babies brought Margaret back from the sad past into the present. She admonished herself sternly. It was no use reminiscing about past sorrow. She had things to do, she must prepare herself for motherhood and stop being such a ninny! After all, she had the most dedicated and loving man in the whole world at her side and the strong support of a woman whom she considered a mother. Her own dear departed mother would never have given her strength at all, weak and sickly as she had been. So she brought John’s hand to her lips and watched fondly as Nicholas and Hannah spoke their wedding vows.

 

After the ceremony, there was a reception at the Thornton house. The gathering was small. There was the family, of course, and a few acquaintances, such as Dr Donaldson and Inspector Mason from the Milton Constabulary.

Margaret was watching the guests with a fond eye when her friend, Mary Higgins, came to sit on a chair beside her wheelchair.

“Dear Margaret, how are you feeling? This must be an exhausting day for you. Are you comfortable? Can I get you something?”

Margaret took Mary’s hand and pressed it fondly. “No, Mary, do not worry.  I’m perfectly alright, though huge as a beached whale! How I am ever to get my figure back after this, I do not know!”

She winced as a kick from the babies made her stomach lurch with a burning gulf of bile. Mary laid her hand on Margaret’s swollen stomach and smiled as she felt the strong kicking.

“They are very healthy in there, for sure! Two boys, I should say, and rugby players to boot!”

The two women burst into laughter at the thought, and Margaret saw John’s head turn towards her in surprise. She waved at him and he, reassured with her lightness of spirit, went on with his conversation with Dr Donaldson.

“Mary, I have not yet have an opportunity to thank you for sending your cousin, Letty Monroe, to us. She is very sweet and, although still very young, she impressed me with her quiet self-confidence. She will make a good nanny, I’m sure.”

Mary was silent for a moment, then spoke in an earnest tone. “Letty had an unusual childhood, Margaret, one that would have scarred a less stronger girl for life but not her! She was but ten years old when she lost her left foot. A cart wheel broke down and the wheel axe’s sharp edge severed it clean, so no chance of saving it. Many little girls would have lost courage but not our Letty. She stepped into our house, one day, on her crutches and tackled Dad, whom she knew to be a good carver of wood. ‘Uncle Nick,’ she said, ‘make me a wooden foot so that I can walk without these stupid crutches.’ I tell you, Margaret, Father was all in doubt about it but he did as Letty asked. After lots of failures, he finally managed to make a foot to match her leg stump fairly good.”

Margaret listened in awe to all this. “Did she manage to walk on the foot? I imagine it must have been difficult to keep her balance?”

“It was. She kept falling and she didn’t seem to be able to fasten the foot adequately enough on her stump. But, finally, she succeeded. She and Father designed something quite new, a leather sock, lined with cotton waste, to cover her stump, and then they used Arabic gum to make it stick on the foot as an addition to the straps around her leg. It works. She’ll never be able to run, of course, but she can walk alright.”

This girl, Margaret thought, deserved a chance.

 

After the reception Nicholas Higgins took his bride to their new home, their carriage seen off by their family and friends. Despite being as tall as he, Nicholas carried Hannah over the threshold and straight up to their bedroom. The housekeeper and maids had the rare experience of hearing their mistress giggle like a young girl.

 

Mr Thornton Takes a Wife – Part Fifty-Five

Chapter Fifty-Five – Most Cherished List Item: the Babies

“If I do not survive this, then you must not grieve me forever, John.”

John, on hearing those soft-spoken words, found himself prey to many different feelings, of which rage was the most powerful. “Margaret, no! I forbid you to speak like that!”

The cheer vibrant fury in John’s voice startled Margaret. Her eyes grew moist and she pressed his hand strongly.

“John, John, forgive me, I did not mean …”

But John turned her so that she now faced him.

“Margaret Hale Thornton, do not ever say such a thing again or I … I … oh, I do not know what I will do but … Lord, Margaret! We cannot even think of you not being here to raise our children together with me!”

“John, I’m sorry. I … I had a moment of weakness and it will never occur again, my darling. I am sure that I can succeed in this with you by my side.”

“Exactly, you are not alone, my darling. I will be there every step of the way. Now, you must rest. Come, let me help you to get comfortable.”

Long after her husband had fallen asleep, Margaret lay awake, staring at the silver rectangle of the window. She was really afraid of the ordeal awaiting her. The pregnancy was beginning to wear her down, more so than she would have liked and not only physically.

 

“Margaret?”

John came bursting through the parlour door, a huge grin on his handsome face and blue eyes shining with pleasure. Behind him, Margaret could see the figure of another man, a tradesman by the look of it.

“Darling, this is Mr Topplewaite. He runs a furniture shop in one of Milton’s finest neighbourhoods. I asked him to come and show you some of the drawings of the furniture he has in the shop. Nursery furniture, that is!”

“Oh!” Margaret’s face flushed with pleasure. She had been worrying about the nursery for some time now.  Hannah showed her the room when Margaret’s pregnancy was certain and the mother-to-be hadn’t been happy with it. Situated on the top floor of the house, it was a gloomy, oppressive place and too far away from their own bedroom, to Margaret’s taste. Thus, she was relieved to see John take this problem out of her hands.

“Now,” John said, “Crispin, Justin, take your places. Come, darling, fasten your seatbelt. Here, let me help you.”

Margaret had to fight herself not to ruffle her husband’s black hair while he kneeled before her to help with the belt. Dear, sweet John …

C & J wheeled her chair, not toward the stairs, but to their bedroom door and then beyond, to the room John occupied before their marriage.

“John, what is this? I don’t understand …”

“This,” John said as he threw open the door, “is to be the nursery. Look what I have done with the place.”

Margaret’s chair rolled into the room and she gasped with surprise. The whole space had been cleared, the wallpaper had been stripped, the carpets removed, the curtains unhooked. What had been John’s former bachelor room, upholstered with the appropriate subdued browns and dark greens, was now a spacious, light and airy children’s room. The wall were a soft sky blue, the ceiling pure white and the floor had been decked with new boards, painted in dove grey and polished to a gleam. The windows were hung with dark blue velvet curtains from top to bottom.

“Mr Topplewaite, do your magic, if you please? Margaret, you are to assist Mr Topplewaite and choose the right furnishings. When you are ready, Mr Topplewaite, I would be obliged to you if you would step into my office, later? Thank you.”

With that the Master left the room, still grinning with delight.

Margaret spent the next two hours choosing two cots, two small wardrobes, a large chest-of-drawers with a marble top, destined for the babies’ toilette, and a comfortable rocking chair. She picked out a small bath tub and a few stuffed animals and toys. Also needed was a bed, wardrobe and dressing table for the nursery maid – and, Good Lord, she had yet to find one!

This pleasant chore finished, the four of them were sipping at a much needed cup of tea, when Hanna and Nicholas came in. They had been overseeing the work going on in their new house and were glad to drink a cup too.

“What do you say, chaps?”, he grinned at the men present, “How about something a bit stronger to accompany the tea? I myself could stomach a brandy!”

The other three eagerly nodded in agreement and Hannah pointed at the sherry bottle.

Margaret and Mr Topplewaite then began explaining what they had been up to and the newcomers examined and approved of it all.

After tea, Mr Topplewaite and the two men excused themselves and Margaret told Hannah and Nicholas about her wanting to find a nursemaid.

“You know, Margaret,” Nicholas said, “I might have just the lass for you.”

“Oh?”, Margaret asked, smiling at him.

“Yes, her name is Letty Monroe and she is Mary’s cousin. Her father is my late wife’s brother.

Letty is … well, she had an accident when she was ten, lost a foot at Henderson’s mill. As a result, she cannot work in a shed any more. When she has to stand on that leg, despite the wooden foot, she tires easily. But, Margaret, she is a bright girl, taught herself to read and write and she is awfully good at drawing. You should see her drawings.”

Margaret kept her face bland but she was having doubts about Letty Monroe. A poor girl from the worker’s class was not what she had in mind as a nanny for her children. Yet, she agreed to receive the girl the next day and talk to her.

 

 

“So, you have found yourself a nanny, then?,” John asked, that night. He had just helped his wife into bed and was now undressing himself.

“I don’t know, John, I have to see her first. I confess I am a bit apprehensive. She is an uneducated girl, John, and she has a wooden foot, Nicholas said. She lost a foot in an accident at Henderson’s, as a child.”

John retrieved his shirt and asked. “When was this? I seem to recall something of the kind, five or six years ago.”

“I do not know. Nicholas is sending her here tomorrow.”

Hearing the sound of doubt in Margaret’s voice, her husband was surprised.

“Margaret, what is this? You seem … somehow prejudiced against this girl! That is not like you! Normally, you have no qualms about members of the working class.”

Margaret bowed her head in a sudden consternation. “Oh, I’m sorry, John, it’s just that …”

She looked up at him, tears in her beautiful eyes. Her voice was very small when she whispered. “I’m so afraid, John, I’m terrified …”

With a grunt of deep concern, John took his wife into his arms and hugged her.

“Margaret, my love, do not lose heart? I’ll move heaven and earth to help and protect you. I promise you that everything will be alright. I will not leave your side, Margaret! You and I, we will bring this baby business to a good end.”

But, Margaret was softly sobbing, her face hidden into his shoulder and, not for the first time, John Thornton, strong man that he was, had dire forebodings about the weeks to come.

 

 

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