Posted on 2013-11-10
As their carriage rocked down the dusty lanes of Kent, Lady Royston regarded her dozing husband, Andrew, with thinly veiled contempt. At last the three day trip to Hunsford was nearing its end. She could not recall so much time spent in the company of the heir to the earldom of Matlock. The many rooms and expansive grounds of Rosings would bring a brief but welcomed relief from the confining coach.
Thankfully they had made excuses to avoid Lady Catherine's funeral, but this second family gathering could not be avoided. Though she expected they would treat her with cool disdain due to rumours of her unfaithfulness, she would hold her head high. What difference did it make? It was the reality of the elite. Marriage was about money and connections. Passion and pleasure were to be found elsewhere.
Ashamed, she dropped her gaze. She'd had affection for Lord Royston in the beginning of their marriage. But her longing for London's high society, balls, and parties surpassed his. It was not long before they moved in different circles and led separate lives. She spent most of the time at her family's home in Town, while he remained in Matlock.
The coach passed the laurel hedges of the parsonage just outside Rosings' gates. She craned her neck, squinting into the setting sun, looking for the gawky rector she had heard so much about. "Roy," she muttered, poking his knee, "we have arrived... at last."
After making polite greetings, she managed to keep to their chambers until dinner.
The gathering around the mahogany dining table that night was not what she had expected. The absence of Lady Catherine's domineering presence was an obvious improvement, but it was much more than that. There was a relaxed, unpretentious comfort she was unfamiliar with. These people seemed to have nothing to prove.
Though Mrs. Jenkinson remained unchanged, Anne scarcely resembled the dull, sickly spinster from a few years ago. She was energetic, gracious, and stunning in her rose-coloured silk gown. Her handsome betrothed, never far from her side, gazed at her with adoring eyes.
Her eyes moved to Richard. He was still loud, jovial, and expressive, but there was something different about him too. There was an inward assurance, a steadiness there--she could not put her finger on it. The usual tension between him and Lord Matlock had abated. Did she detect an attraction between him and the widow?
Mr. Martin and his wife were unlike any rector she had encountered. They did not have that affected piety she frequently perceived in men of the cloth.
The biggest surprise came at the end of the meal when the prospective groom rose. "I would like to propose a toast." The men rose and extended their wine stems. "To the health and happiness of my beautiful betrothed, Miss de Bourgh."
"Here, here," the men chimed in, tipping their glasses.
The doctor remained standing. "My bride would like to make an announcement."
With a shy smile gracing her lips and her eyes cast down, Anne rose beside her intended. As she cleared her throat, everyone fell silent to hear her soft voice. "As you all know, Mr. Scott has taken another home for us in Folkestone." She smiled and gave him a sideways glance. "So from now on, Rosings will be known as Rosings Children's Home. Under Mr. Martin's supervision, we are delighted to offer it to the multitudes of orphans needing a nurturing home."
Enthusiastic applause rang from most of the fourteen guests. Lady Royston's stunned expression met her father-in-law's equally shocked one. She wondered why anyone would waste such a valuable asset on street urchins. She glanced around and shook her head.
When the men retired for cigars, she joined the ladies in the drawing room and found their company tolerable, not detecting the condemnation she had expected. Anne was especially warm and hospitable. When the men rejoined them, she had an opportunity to demonstrate her accomplishment on the pianoforte. Her audience clapped politely, but the praise for Mrs. Darcy's piece was more fervent, though it was not so expertly played. She had to admit, none came close to Georgiana's skill, and yet there was no trace of haughtiness in the young woman. Clearly she played for the love of music rather than to impress. When Mrs. Jenkinson offered to play a reel, even Darcy danced. By the evening's end, Cecelia had relaxed and quite enjoyed the unusual company.
Lady Royston lay awake long after her candle had been extinguished. The genuine affection apparent between the other couples in the group had left a deep impression on her. Even Lord and Lady Matlock seemed more at ease together in this party's company. A longing stirred inside.
She could hear Andrew, gently snoring in the chamber next door, and considered him afresh. He was a good man. Though perhaps excessive in gambling, he was kind, reliable, and would be committed, given encouragement. Could she be different? Perhaps if she attended to him as much as she did her lavish parties, her marriage would be as gratifying as her parties.
An idea popped into her head, but she immediately dismissed it. He would be too astonished. But perhaps that was all the more reason why she should. Without allowing herself time to reconsider, she lit a taper and made for his room. Slipping quietly inside, she crossed to his bed and slid in beside him. The candle cast a soft glow about his dark curls and peaceful countenance. She had forgotten how he and Darcy favoured. He was really quite handsome. After caressing his cheek, she placed a gentle kiss there; he stirred. When he opened his eyes, he saw her smiling at him.
The next day Anne de Bourgh became Mrs. Matthew Scott in a simple ceremony conducted by Mr. Martin. It seemed that all of Hunsford gathered on the lawn at Rosings afterwards to offer their congratulations and partake of the ample refreshments. The ever gracious Anne was glowing.
As the guests began to filter away, Richard approached the happy couple and addressed Scott. "Well, my friend, you have now officially crossed over to a matrimonial state. My congratulations. I hope one day I may find such happiness."
The three shared awkward smiles at his insinuation.
After a moment, Anne looked to Scott with a smile and nod.
"Fitzwilliam, as you know, Rosings is to become an orphanage. In order to pay for the necessary conversions to make it suitable for such use, Anne and I had planned to sell the stallion. However, Mr. Darcy has made a sizeable contribution to the children's home, and Anne would like you to have Prometheus as a token of her thanks for your service at such a critical time."
"Well." Richard laughed under his breath. "For once, I am speechless. Thank you."
"Richard, I do not know what I would have done without you. Mr. Thornhill tells me he expects a bountiful harvest, and the tenants are well content, thanks to you."
"Although it had its trials, it was a profitable learning experience which became rather enjoyable. I could never have imagined myself in such a position, but the Lord's plans are not always our plans. The stallion is a most generous gift and a greatly appreciated one. I like to think he and I have a sort of understanding. I believe we shall be quite content together. Thank you."
"It is beautiful, just as I recall." Surveying the home's quaint exterior, she stopped short and her mouth fell open. "Matthew! The doll house--it was a replica of this house. I never noticed that as a child."
He reached for her hand. "Would you like to see if the inside is the same as well?"
She flitted from room to room on the ground floor making delighted comments on all she saw. He followed at a distance, not uttering a word, but revelling in her enthusiasm. She skipped up the stairs, chattering all the way. In each room she continued her excited dialogue. He merely stood aside with a contented smile. Upon opening the nursery door her verbiage ceased--his smile broadened.
"Matthew--the doll house--and the Fitzwilliam family cradle!" She clasped her hands in delight.
"All for you, my love. I found the doll house in the attic. It's had some repairs as well. Come view the family chambers."
They descended to the generous hallway of the floor below. "See if these rooms are to your liking." He gestured to the chambers overlooking the front garden.
She proclaimed each of the bedrooms with adjoining sitting room satisfactory, then eyed the other side of the hall. "I suppose these are ours."
He pushed open a door midway down the hall, allowing her to pass.
She drew in a sharp breath just before her words floated out on a whisper. "It is perfect." Stepping inside, she surveyed the chamber. Soothing slate blue walls enhanced the warm wood furnishings with creamy white curtains and counterpane. "It is like the sea." She opened the doors to the balcony, closed her eyes, and breathed in the salty scent. Grasping the railing, she gazed over the expanse of water. "Did I not tell you this is the most wonderful view?"
"Indeed it is." He surveyed the woman beside him, basking in her joy.
"Shall you allow me to see your chamber?" she teased, smoothing his golden hair ablaze in the sun.
His countenance turned serious. "Anne, there is no separate chamber--this is our chamber. I told you I never wished to be separated from you again." He detected moisture in the corner of her eyes. "Are you angry? I can have--"
"Oh no! No. I just cannot believe that you really want me."
"That I really want you? Of course I want you! Look at you." He fingered a raven curl. "You are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. Not only outwardly but your spirit as well. I could not have asked for anyone more perfect."
Her sapphire orbs, full of innocent trust, spoke of her affection for him.
"I love you." Raising her chin, he kissed her tenderly and scarcely met her eyes before he felt her arms come around his waist and beckon for more. He drew her close, kissing her again and again, to show her with his lips what words could never say. Her grip tightened around him. He had once been a gift for her. She was now a precious gift for him.
Standing on the balcony the next morning, he stood behind his wife, holding her securely as they gazed out at the rising sun reflecting on the water. He breathed in the salty air wafting in on the rhythmic waves washing below and closed his eyes, content. At last he had his sweet woman in a home by the sea.
"Is everything packed, Godfrey?" Richard took a final glance around the green chamber he had slept in for so many years at Rosings.
"Yes, sir. You will find a change of clothing in your saddlebags, and your trunks will travel to Netherfield with the Darcys."
"Very good. I shall see you there day after tomorrow."
Later, as Prometheus ambled down the lane on the warm August morning, Richard reached forward and clapped the stallion's neck. "Better have a good look, old boy. Chances are, it will be your last."
Richard turned in the saddle for a last look of his own. Everything had now changed. Lady Catherine was gone, Darcy and Anne had both married, and Rosings was to be converted into an orphanage. He doubted he would have reason to return next Easter. Where would he be next Easter? It was a question he could not answer. His mother's reprise echoed in his ears, Who can know what a year can bring? All he knew now was that he was on his way to Netherfield to meet with Bingley, regarding renovations to the man's new home in Yorkshire.
It was unfortunate Richard could not travel with Darcy's entourage as they would also be stopping in Meryton to visit family before travelling on to Pemberley. But the forty-five mile trip was some fifteen miles more than a single horse could comfortably travel in a day. Though the Darcys would be departing after him, by changing horses, they could still expect to arrive by sundown. Richard would have to take lodging for the night in London.
Departing from his family's townhouse the next morning, Richard arrived at Netherfield early in the afternoon. He slid down under the shade of a massive oak overhanging the edge of the circular drive and wiped his brow with a handkerchief while surveying the impressive sight before him. Bingley had done well for himself. Netherfield was a house any man would be proud to call home. Handsomely situated on a knoll among rolling hills, its centre block had four columns under a triangular gable, with wings extending to both sides. Oaks, sycamores, and chestnuts surrounded the home, completing the scenic setting. Though not on the grand scale of Pemberley or Rosings, its warm-coloured stone, babbling fountain, picturesque pond, and simple elegance suggested a welcoming comfort inside.
Bingley was to be commended on his choice of a wife as well. Yes, her mother was a chattering busybody and her father a bit apathetic, but Jane's soft, sweet nature made her the perfect complement to her husband--not to mention that she was the prettiest woman in the county.
As Richard brushed the dust from his clothing, a footman took his saddlebags while a groom led the stallion to the stables. The butler showed him into the library occupied by Darcy and Bingley. The men rose from their chairs, and Bingley greeted him with his characteristic enthusiasm. "Colonel Fitzwilliam! Welcome to Netherfield. We are delighted you have come."
Richard spent the next two days pouring over drawings, making notes, and discovering the couple's every wish concerning their new home. Dining with the Bingleys and Darcys both morning and night, Richard admired the close attachment shared by Mrs. Bingley and her sister Elizabeth. He could not imagine being on such amiable terms with his own brother.
Having completed his business with Bingley, he was to dine with the Lucases his last night in Hertfordshire before setting out for Pemberley. Richard shrugged on his tailcoat and spoke to his valet's reflection in the mirror. "No need to wait up for me tonight, Godfrey. And tomorrow, I plan to set out midmorning, so it shall be leisurely as well." He grinned at the servant. "Then you shall have the good fortune of lounging here another day before departing with my cousin."
Ambling away from Lucas Lodge after a pleasant evening, Richard turned for a last look at Charlotte's modest family home. He caught a glimpse of her in an upstairs window just before she ducked back, and the curtains fluttered over the glass. Richard sighed. He was having second thoughts about his decision to go to Yorkshire. Though he had prayed about it, at the time he took the position, he had not considered that his father might withhold his blessing. Was he just prolonging their agony by remaining in close proximity to her? It was too late to matter. He had already committed to oversee the renovation project.
He urged his mount to a canter as he reflected on the evening. Indeed there had been tension between Sir William and his son, but the elder sought to cover it with his friendly manner. Richard would keep a close eye on Edward once in Yorkshire. The young buck carried an air of self-assured arrogance that anyone a few years his senior with a lick of sense would recognize as foolish immaturity. But Richard well knew fledgling whippersnappers could wreak havoc on the lives of others.
Turning his thoughts to Charlotte's parents, he smiled. Richard had forgotten how much he enjoyed their company. They were well suited for each other. Now that he thought about it, he and Sir William shared a similar manner and address. Though Richard hoped in his old age he would be neither so bald nor portly, he would nonetheless seek to retain a similarly jovial nature.
He noticed that Charlotte shared a similarity with his own mother, Lady Matlock, as well. Like the dear woman, Charlotte seemed intuitively to understand him. A simple look or gesture was often all that was needed for him to convey a host of sentiments to her. Perhaps that helped explain why, even after a long separation, they could pick up as if they had shared company no more than a fortnight ago. Time put no distance between them. But money did... and always would, so it seemed.
After his second day on the road, Richard saw to the stallion and ducked into an inn with his saddlebags over his shoulder. He was on his way to Derbyshire where he would spend a few days at Pemberley before travelling the short distance to Ledston.
He arranged for a room with the portly innkeeper and was headed to the stairs when he heard a male voice call from behind him.
"Colonel Fitzwilliam, isn't it?"
Richard turned to face a lean, dark-haired man in uniform. "Captain Clemson!"
"Good to see you in one piece, sir. We had no word of what became of you after the cannon misfortune. You are well?"
"Well enough, thank you. I have been curious as to the outcome of that ship we captured."
"Wash the dust off and join me for some bait. I'll tell you about it."
Richard scrubbed off two days of travel dirt in a bath and wondered why Clemson had not done the same. When he returned to the common dining room, he approached the captain sitting in a dim corner at a table cluttered with several empty mugs.
"Feeling better, sir?" The captain stood, his eyes bordering glassy.
"I am. Thank you."
A worn young girl delivered plates of mutton, beans, and roasted potatoes. "Ale, sir?" Her hands brushed her stained apron as she looked to Richard.
He nodded. "So, Clemson, what of the ship?"
The captain replaced his mug. "Unfortunately you missed our welcome into port. The admiral had been after that runner for some time. Just never could seem to pin her down. He threw a fancy celebration for us. The brothers who sailed the ship were practically promoted on the spot."
"They deserved it. Were it not for their skill, we would have been reduced to sharks' bait."
"So where are you headed, Colonel?"
The young girl sloshed a mug in front of Richard. He acknowledged her and swigged the ale. "Pemberley. A country estate in Derbyshire."
"Keep your eyes open. There has been trouble in these parts. Just this afternoon I met up with Bow Street Runners looking for a group of highwaymen with a one-eyed leader."
"I appreciate the warning. My barker's loaded in my saddlebag. So what brings you to Northamptonshire, Captain?"
The man drained his mug. "Having served on the continent, I am headed home to Harlestone, a small town a few miles up the road."
"Bonaparte?" Richard held his fork mid-air.
"Waterloo." The captain nodded and motioned to the girl for another mug.
"Waterloo? That was two months ago. Did you chase Boney back to Paris?"
The captain shook his head as a faraway look settled over him. "Took a slug on the ridge. Spent near six weeks in a peasant farmhouse with a Private Sommers. Changed my life."
Richard slowly lowered his mug. "Changed your life?"
The captain wiped his brow. "Shy little thing she was, but kept me alive. Sommers, too."
"Ah. So you are itching to get back to her." Richard skewered his beans as the girl delivered the captain another mug.
"Oh, no." He leaned forward, his expression serious. "Already got a wife. I should be home tomorrow. Left the courting to Sommers." He sipped the frothing ale.
"But she changed your life?"
The alcohol had loosened his tongue and his mien. "Just a servant girl--the only employment she could find I imagine, her being a bastard. A pity." He shook his head. "So kind, gentle. Cared for us like we were the most important thing in the world. Reality is, we were an added burden." He stared into the distance. "Wasn't her fault she was a love-begotten child. Why should she have cared for us? Next soldier might just as well have had his way with her as looked at her." He fumbled to grasp his mug and sloshed ale on his sleeve.
"So...?" Richard tilted his head, his inflection urging the man to continue.
"So... after our foray with the blockade ship last year, I came home to my wife--and an infant. I knew the child wasn't mine. Naomi begged my forgiveness; said she still loved me. But I was furious," he growled. "Treated her like dirt. Here I'd wanted a son for three years, I go away, and she turns up with a child." He pounded the table and sat back. "Only kept her around as she cooked a fine meal, kept the fire burning, and my bed warm." His elevated volume drew stares from the other patrons.
Richard thought the story was beginning to sound like a sentimental novel. He was still waiting to hear how the convoluted journey had changed the man.
"Well..." Richard cleared his throat. He had not anticipated the casual meal turning personal. "Do you want her? Do you really want her?" Darcy's recent words rang in his head.
"I do. I know that now."
"Then go get her." Richard palmed the table, clattering the plates. "Take a bath and make yourself respectable for heaven's sake, then show her that you care for her." He sat back.
Clemson affirmed the advice with pressed lips and a shallow nod.
"I have observed the fairer sex tends towards forgiveness. They love with a resolve we men would do well to imitate. They seek kindness, affection, and pretty words--then return it ten-fold."
The two sat in silence for several moments before Richard dropped three shillings and a sixpence on the table and rose to his feet. Placing a hand on the captain's shoulder, he leaned over and spoke just above the man's ear. "You're a good two sheets to the wind, my friend. One more and you won't be fit to see anyone on the morrow. Let me show you upstairs. The bath can wait."
Pouring rain the next morning delayed Richard's departure. After his standing appointment, he lingered over his coffee in the dim room, recalling his own dark days following the capture of the blockade ship. Clemson had not been the only one wrestling last summer. Had it only been a little more than a year since he'd harkened to Scott's three simple words? The man he used to be seemed but a distant memory now. He owed much to the guidance and patience of Scott and Mr. Martin.
Just before noon, the clouds finally lifted. Richard flung the saddlebags over Prometheus and turned to the sound of his name.
"I wanted to thank you and apologize for last night." The captain strode towards him, much improved in appearance.
"Think nothing of it." Richard clapped him on the back. "I have my own weaknesses and failures of which I am not proud. Becoming the man we hope to be often proves more difficult than we anticipate. I have found seeking the Lord's guidance to be profitable."
"Thank you. I have been considering similar thoughts myself."
The two exchanged awkward smiles before Richard swung up into the saddle, touched the brim of his country hat, and splashed up the road.
Late in the afternoon, Richard stopped to refresh himself and water his horse. Preparing to resume his journey, he took the reins from the inn's ostler.
"Are you sure you don't want to stay the night, sir? It looks like a new storm is brewing. It could be a right unpleasant ride."
Richard glanced at the darkening sky but considered that he had already lost much of the day to rain. "No. I shall be on my way, thank you." Buttoning his greatcoat, he mounted the stallion and set out.
Half an hour later, a light mist graduated to a torrential downpour. Richard yanked his hat down, raised his collar, and spurred Prometheus.
Eyeing dense woods just beyond the stream ahead, he dismissed the thought of seeking shelter as his greatcoat was already nearly soaked, and he recalled there was a dingy inn not far up the road. He ducked his head and pressed on in the driving rain. After crossing the bridge, he slowed his mount, approaching a stationary coach missing one of its four horses.
The rain still beating down, a sopping matron sprang from the coach, waving her arms and calling out, "Sir, please help us! We have been robbed!"
Richard swung down, slinging water in every direction, and strode towards the dishevelled, anxious woman. Recognizing her to be the Darcy's nursemaid, he stopped dead and bellowed above the pounding rain. "Where is Mr. Darcy?"
"Colonel, is that you?" The maid peered at him under his brim, hugging herself in a vain attempt to resist a further soaking and nearly had to shout to be heard. "Oh, sir, it began raining so hard, one could scarcely see the road. Our coaches got separated, and when we came over that bridge, I suppose the Darcy's coach had already rounded that bend ahead. Seeming to come out of nowhere, highwaymen overtook us and demanded our money and valuables. When the disgusting one-eyed man put his hands on Mrs. Collins--"
Alarm and fury ignited inside Richard. "Mrs. Collins? She is not with the Darcys?"
With droplets running down her face, the woman sputtered water as her words came in frantic succession. "No, sir. She offered to take little Jane and ride with us so Mr. Darcy's valet could attend him. Neither the master nor Mr. Lucas are feeling well."
"Mrs. Collins has Jane? Where are they? Are they injured?"
"When the groom lurched at the cyclops, all the men began to scuffle. It allowed her to escape, but the groom is dazed, and the coachman is unconscious after a blow to the head. They are in the coach with Miss Pierson, Mrs. Darcy's maid." The matron was nearly hysterical now. "But Mrs. Collins is somewhere over in those woods with that little child and Mr. Godfrey--"
Hoof beats seized their attention.
"Get in the coach and get down!" Richard barked, darting for his pistol. Brandishing the weapon, Richard met a lone rider as the rain slackened to a gentle shower. Surprised to see his sodden valet, he lowered the firearm. "Godfrey!" He wiped his face with his damp handkerchief.
His valet slid to the ground and slung the water from his hat before replacing it. "I thought I recognized your horse, sir. It is indeed a relief to see you. I saw no sign of Mrs. Collins and the child across that field. Shall I ride on and alert Mr. Darcy? I believe he intended to stop for the night at the next inn."
Just then the groom exited the coach, rubbing his head.
"You and the groom go on ahead, take the coach, and inform Mr. Darcy. The inn should be no more than a mile or so ahead. I will search for Mrs. Collins." Richard flung himself into the saddle, still barking orders. "A single shot indicates all is well. Two shots, send assistance. If I find her, I will bring her to the inn. Tell Darcy to stay put. If there is no shot within half an hour, have him assemble a search party." With a nod, he spurred the horse and galloped across the soggy field towards the woods. God, let them be safe!
Cantering along the wood's edge, he peered into the undergrowth, searching for footprints in the mud and calling out to Charlotte. Hearing no reply, his anxiety grew. Tiny streams of water cascaded off his hat and coat as he considered the situation. The unfamiliar woods could swallow her, and although the temperature was mild, without a coat she would be chilled. The tiny infant would as well. He shuddered at the thought of them huddling, alone and wet, through the night.
He pressed on. Relief washed over him as he spotted a lone, muddied blue slipper peeking from the brush. "Charlotte!" He plunged into the dense woods and rode for several minutes, calling her name. Richard halted as a sharp cry met his ears. Had he heard the babe or merely a bird? He angled his head, straining to hear. "Charlotte!" he roared. Was she injured? He heard no response, only the faint wail in the distance.
He urged his horse towards the sound while continuing his calls. He reined in again. Why did she not answer? Was she--? He closed his eyes upon the thought. Tracking the distinctive sound, he repeated his calls. The cries grew louder; he must be near. He slid from Prometheus as the rain petered out.
At last he glimpsed a hue of blue through the trees. Moving closer, he spied Charlotte perched on a flat rock at the base of a beech tree, gasping as she clutched a squirming bundle. Her sleeve ripped at the shoulder and hem six inches deep in mud, she stared ahead with a stunned, terrified look etched on her face.
Twigs snapping underfoot, he approached one slow step at a time so as not to frighten her. "Charlotte?" he called tenderly above the wailing.
Her gaze remained fixed. Many times he had seen the same expression seared on battle-scarred soldiers. He knelt to engage her eyes. Still she stared, locks of bedraggled hair plastered to her face. With a gentle touch to her knee, he searched her eyes. "Charlotte?" Her focus slid to meet his. "Charlotte, it is Richard." He spoke between the bellowing. "You are safe."
"Richard?" Recognition registered in her eyes, and her panicked expression softened to one of relief.
"I am here. You and Jane are safe. The men are gone." Slipping beside her, he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her head to his shoulder, rocking her, and stroking her hair. Though he feared her reply, a question begged to be asked. He steadied himself and spoke gently, just above her ear. "Did they hurt you?"
Her reply was barely audible over the wailing child. "No."
He closed his eyes in relief and without thinking, brushed his lips across her hair. Rocking her a moment longer, he felt her relax, though her bundle still wiggled with loud protests. The infant needed attending. "You have kept Jane safe, but she is wet. It is growing cooler now that the rain has ceased; she will be chilled. Will you let me take her?"
"I must fire a shot to let the others know you are safe. Do not be frightened."
The shot exploded into the stillness. Charlotte startled; Jane howled.
Charlotte watched as he jerked open the buttons of his greatcoat, spread it on the ground, then laid Jane on its warmth and covered her with his coat and waistcoat. After whipping off his cravat and shirt, he unwrapped the wet bundle. The bare baby kicked and screamed. The long muscles in Richard's broad, unclad back flexed as he worked. Charlotte felt colour rising in her cheeks at the attractive sight. He wrapped the cravat in figure eights around her legs and bottom, then swaddled her in his shirt and tied the arms. She soon quieted as he pressed her against his warm, bare chest. Richard managed to get his greatcoat on one awkward arm at a time before standing. Still he held Jane as he drew the coat around her, rocking his arms, humming, and pacing in a circle, oblivious to his tender performance. In awe, Charlotte watched the touching scene from the strapping soldier.
Approaching her with the bundle, his voice was low. "Forgive my indiscretion; it was all that was dry. I believe she is now sleeping."
She took the swaddled child and beheld her peaceful face, amazed that Jane was now so content. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Richard a short distance away replace his waistcoat under the greatcoat. She lowered her eyes, picturing the chiselled, scarred chest she had admired at his bedside months before.
A moment later, he approached her, the darker coarse hair on his chest peeking above the waistcoat's top button under the unfastened greatcoat. "Will you take my coat?" He held his tailcoat out to her.
She nodded, realizing she was shivering.
He moved behind her and held it as she slid into the long coat sleeves, one arm at a time. "Can you hold Jane securely while riding with me?"
"I believe so."
He swung up and settled in the saddle behind her. She felt the tickle of his warm breath on her neck and smelled a masculine scent of sweat and wet leather. Pressed against him with his strong arms about her, she felt secure.
For several minutes they rode in silence. The steady gait of hoof beats and patter of raindrops sliding from the canopy of leaves produced the only sounds as they rode through the dense forest. The damp air hung about them like a cloak. Lulled by the rhythmic motion and warm comfort of Richard's body, she could hardly hold her eyes open. Unable to resist, she closed them for just a moment and vaguely felt her shoulders relax. Suddenly she awoke with a jolt.
"Charlotte?" She heard his soothing voice behind her as she tightened her hold on Jane.
"Forgive me. I find myself rather fatigued."
"The inn is not far ahead. I could tell you a humorous story from my childhood if that would keep you awake."
"Yes. Yes, I believe I would like that."
"One time at Pemberley, when Darcy and I were boys..."
In Richard's arms, listening to him, there was nowhere else she would rather be.
Godfrey glanced around the cramped, dingy room, cursing the weather. With the recent downpour, numerous travellers had taken refuge in the inn, leaving only this deplorable excuse for a room for his master. As if to further vex him, a demanding baron, though aware of the unfortunate situation and the two soon-to-arrive guests, had ordered a bath. With Mrs. Collins requiring soothing warm water as well, it would be at least an hour before a tub could be filled for his master. The best he could offer was a basin of water and a clean towel.
Commotion outside drew his attention to the open window. Peering out, he saw Mrs. Darcy rush up the road to meet a rider galloping towards the inn. The groom had been sent a half-mile up the road to watch for the rescuers returning with her daughter. After a brief exchange of words, the mother paced about nervously in front of the inn as her pale husband attempted to comfort her.
Godfrey let the curtain fall and turned back to the room. His master would be arriving in a matter of minutes. Blast! Where was that bottle of wine he had ordered? Approaching the sagging bed, he fluffed the pillows again. This was a fine way to be greeting a man deserving his most attentive care. A chuckle escaped from under his breath. He was thankful to be valet to the colonel and not to the man's father, or he could surely expect a tongue lashing, though the circumstances were out of his hands.
A knock sent him to the door with haste. The girl held out a bottle and lone glass. With a nod of thanks, he inquired after the tardy cold meat and cheese he had ordered. Placing the wine on a rickety table beside a worn upholstered chair, he held the glass up to the dim light and shook his head. He drew his handkerchief from his pocket and polished away the smudges.
The low, anxious chatter between Mrs. Darcy's maid and the nursemaid floated up from below his window. They had no doubt been summoned to assist Mrs. Collins as soon as she appeared. He knew better than to flutter about his master and make a fuss. The man would expect him to attend to his duties as if nothing out of the ordinary had taken place.
A final inspection of the room assured him there was naught to be done but wait, prompting him to return to the window. Mrs. Darcy's flailing gestures left no doubt that she was the mother of the missing child. Suddenly, the attention of the Darcys and the two servants was drawn up the lane. Godfrey followed their line of sight and saw the couple atop the black stallion rounding the bend. With shrieks of relieved delight, Mrs. Darcy ran to meet them, her husband following with long strides not far behind. Reaching for her daughter, he could easily hear the young mother's relieved sobs. A moment later, the Master of Pemberley assisted the bedraggled widow to the ground where the maids immediately descended on her.
Godfrey pressed a contented smile, observing the reunited family hovering over their infant. However, the image of his master still astride his horse, startled him. Did no one else notice the man was without a shirt? He couldn't imagine how, or why, he was attired in his waistcoat and greatcoat but devoid of a shirt. Seemingly forgotten, the colonel sat in the saddle with his gaze fixed on the touching family scene before him. As if on cue, Pemberley's master separated from his wife and turned to his cousin, then nodded a gesture of thanks. Returning the nod with a tip of his hat, Master Fitzwilliam gently urged his mount towards the inn's stable.
With tousled hair and wrapped in her deliverer's coat, Mrs. Collins was supported by a servant on each arm. At the clatter of Prometheus' shoes striking the cobbles, she turned over her shoulder, meeting the eyes of her rescuer. The sentiment that passed between them in the shared smile was unmistakable. Godfrey sighed and released the curtain.
Recalling himself to his duties, he stiffened. Instead of observing the drama below, he should have been assisting in the rapid delivery of bath water for Mrs. Collins, thus hastening it on the colonel's behalf. And the meat and cheese tray--blast! Perhaps he would have time to go in search of it and still be on hand to meet his master.
He dashed for the door and rounded the corner to the stairs only to be met by the man himself.
"Godfrey! I hope you have a bath waiting and something decent to eat. I am famished, filthy, and exhausted--in that order." Striding down the hall, he stopped in front of a door. "Is this my room?"
"Y--yes sir." Before he could warn his master, the man flung the door open and froze.
"Are you certain this is my room? Today of all days..." He shook his head.
"Well, sir..." Taking his master's wet greatcoat, Godfrey explained the unfortunate accommodation and the lack of a bath. The colonel tossed his soggy hat and gloves onto the bed, then splashed water from the basin onto his face.
After wiping himself with the towel, his master looked up. "Is this inn capable of supplying its guests with an acceptable meal, or shall you tell me they served the last of it an hour ago?"
"Sir, I arranged for a bottle of their finest wine." He filled the glass as his master sank into the worn chair. "I took the liberty of ordering a tray of meat and cheese some time ago. I was in the process of inquiring after it when I met you in the hall."
The colonel swallowed a swig of claret with a contented smack of his lips and relaxed as he scanned the room with a mocking glance. "I see. Well, Darcy's groom met me just outside, negating my need to see after Prometheus and thus expedited my entrance into this fine establishment."
"Shall I see to the refreshment now for you, sir?"
"Yes, thank you."
"Would you be more comfortable in your dressing gown, sir?" Godfrey nodded towards his master's improper attire without staring.
"No. Just see after something to eat--even if you have to kill the hog yourself." The colonel tipped the glass to his lips.
"Yes, sir." He turned to leave.
"Godfrey--a hand with the boots before you go."
He knelt dutifully and tugged a muddied hessian, sliding it off.
"I heard my cousin and Mr. Lucas were peaked. What ails them?"
The valet wrestled to free the other foot. "It seems Mr. Darcy ate something at the inn last night that did not agree with him. I believe he is over the worst of it now. It seems Mr. Lucas spent his night at cards with, uh, shall we say, some less-than-reputable guests. This morning he was feeling the ill-effects of strong drink." As he slid the other boot off, he made a mental note to rise early enough to attend to the soiled footwear. "I trust the child is well, sir?"
"Thank the good Lord, yes." He drained the glass and reached for the bottle as Godfrey rose.
"If you will excuse me, I shall see to your food, sir."
The colonel sunk deeper into the chair and rested his head before mumbling, "Very well."
Ten minutes later Godfrey returned with the sustenance and placed it on the rickety table. His master, having donned the topaz dressing gown over his breeches, was sprawled in the chair. The waistcoat had been carelessly tossed on the bed.
"The room may be poor, but the fare is excellent." Godfrey could hear the food being consumed as he gathered the discarded clothing. With the room restored to order, he excused himself to inquire after the bath water. Having been gone some minutes, he was glad to be returning with good news. The tub was expected to arrive directly with the first bucket of water to follow shortly thereafter.
When he stepped into the room, he stopped short. The refreshment tray was empty as was the chair. Shifting his gaze, he found his charge propped against the bed's pillows, asleep, with one leg hanging over the edge of the bed. The bottle, balancing precariously on its side, was empty.
Moving towards his master, his attention was drawn to the man's outstretched hand resting on the counterpane. Just between his thumb and first finger lay the symbol of his enduring affection for Mrs. Collins--the stone. With a sigh, Godfrey retrieved the familiar object and fingered its smooth surface. He did not know what had transpired between the colonel and the widow that day, but he suspected it had affected his master deeply.
Posted on 2013-11-14
Richard and Edward arrived at Ledston Manor after having spent several pleasant days at Pemberley. The Yorkshire home sat nestled like a crown among the trees atop a hill. Shaped in the fashion of a U, its long central section presented eleven windows across the front of its two stories over a basement. Two shorter wings extended forward with a pair of square turret towers pressed onto the fronts of each, standing like sentinels. Dutch gables, resembling the graceful shoulders and neck of a flask, disguised the roof line while a circular drive stopped before flared steps. Terraced lawns cascaded down from the back down to an overgrown orchard and garden with a stream running along one side. In the front, weeds choked once-neat shrubs and roses that surrounded a cracked fountain.
During his first week in residence, Richard toured the estate and met with the architect and landscape gardener. Much hard work lay ahead. Although the main structure of the house was intact, much of the inside needed attention: leaking roof, peeling wallpaper, rotting floors, broken windows, in addition to reapportioning some spaces to suit the Bingleys' needs. The estate had many of the same issues he had faced at Rosings with outbuilding and tenant cottages in need of repair, fields to tend, and the like.
Edward Lucas was put to work on the overrun gardens. Richard was not surprised that the young man required constant supervision, and his disposition reflected an overall distaste for manual labour.
Most of the home's furniture had been covered and consolidated into a few rooms, except that which would be used by Richard and the few servants Darcy had graciously sent to assist him for a few weeks. Edward was housed in quarters over the stables.
As he had done at Rosings, Richard made copious notes for each aspect of the undertaking. To him, it only made sense to treat the project like a military campaign, calling into play systematic planning, meticulous attention to detail, and tight command over his troops. Now he needed troops. Thankfully, an important one walked right through the front door.
"I am Thomas Brock, steward for the former owner, Captain Weller." The lanky fellow with a quiet, humble voice removed his beaver and bowed. "I understand you are the new owner and thought you might require a steward." His bushy black eyebrows remained as calm as his mien when he spoke.
"Mr. Brock." He shook the man's hand. "I am Colonel Fitzwilliam. So good of you to come. Please sit down." He gestured to the chair in front of the expansive library desk littered with papers. "Unfortunately, I am not the owner but only appointed to oversee renovations for a Mr. Bingley, whose wife is my cousin's sister." Richard perched on the desk's corner. "And although Mr. Bingley shall be bringing the steward from his current home, I am sure we can find a place for you as your knowledge will no doubt be invaluable."
The shy man nodded.
"Tell me how you came to be the manor's steward?" Richard noted the patched trousers and worn boots on the man several years his senior.
"My family has farmed these lands as tenants for many years. My aunt, fortunate enough to marry into money and having no children, saw to my education. Five years ago the stewardship here came open, for the second time in two years. 'Twas not a desirable position due to the temperament of Captain Weller, but it allowed me to return home to care for my widowed mother and simpleton sister."
"The temperament of the captain?"
"He was given to fits of outrage and was often irrational."
"What possessed him to be so irrational as to allow his property to come to near ruin?"
"It is unfortunate, sir, that any man would choose to live his life as did he. I believe it started many years ago. Coming into a good deal of prize money capturing a frigate, he retired here as a country gentleman. However, he has always been overly fond of wine, women, and song. His wife moved to her family's house in Town with their only daughter many years ago. When his daughter married a man from Boston, his wife joined the couple in America, wanting nothing more to do with him. That is what brought the property to auction."
"Many men are 'fond of wine, women, and song,' as you put it, but they do not allow their home and tenants to suffer so severely."
Mr. Brock scratched the few grey hairs at his temple, hesitant to reveal more. "Sir, I believe it was his love of gaming and foreign women that set him apart. One took his money, the other his mind."
"I see." Richard raised his eyebrows. "So he had the French disease."
"We cannot know for sure, but 'twas suspected it provoked his ill temper."
"Well, that would certainly explain the present circumstances."
Richard took several paces and turned around. "Mr. Brock, I shall require a small army of skilled carpenters, gardeners, stone masons, and general workmen to restore this property. Can I interest you in a position as a temporary steward, and would you know where I might find additional competent labourers?"
The man leaned forward as a smile curled his lips. "There are many here on the estate. Due to the neglect, men are eager for honest employment to improve their family's situation, myself included. It would be my pleasure to recommend them to you."
"Excellent. One of my first priorities is a kitchen staff and a house maid to light the fires and maintain the few rooms in use. My cousin has graciously lent me several servants, but they are needed back at Pemberley."
"You might call on Aunt Genia. She is well loved and familiar with the skills of the women-folk."
"Would your aunt be a suitable cook or housekeeper?"
"Although she is our neighbour, she is not my aunt. I suppose her name is Eugenia Smith, but she has always been called Aunt Genia. However, I believe such duties may be overly taxing for her age."
"I see. Well, I am pleased you have come today. May I offer you a glass of wine?" He held up the decanter. "I am eager for your insight as to the condition of the estate."
Richard poured the crimson liquid, and the two men spent the next hour discussing the situation at hand.
"Please call me Aunt Genia. Everyone does." She leaned closer with a chuckle, "I hardly know who Mrs. Smith is."
"Well, Aunt Genia," he cleared his throat and grinned at using the unconventional name, "I am Colonel Fitzwilliam. I am overseeing renovations on Ledston for a relative. May I come in?" The smell of curing ham and other delectable cooking odours wafted from inside.
"Yes! Come in, Dearie! I have been expecting you." As she teetered into the neat cottage and led him to a small table before the fire, he made a mental note to have the cracked beam of her sagging ceiling repaired. "May I offer you a pint of ale and bread with gooseberry jam?"
"Well... uh... yes. That would be appreciated, thank you." Her informality and friendliness to a stranger was unexpected.
"So you are looking for kitchen servants and a house maid, eh?" She set a crock of jam and two plates on the table. Her wrinkled hand grasped a long-handled knife and gingerly sliced the crusty bread. "I know several ladies here who would do you quite well." She pushed him a slab of bread and the jam with a smile.
"Do you have someone in mind for a cook? We will be feeding three to four dozen men each morning before an eight o'clock meeting. Most will arrive from their homes on the estate. Those from a distance away will be housed over the stables." He smeared jam on the bread and took a bite.
"Oh, I have just the one. She is quite accomplished at the stove. Though unused to feeding large groups, I am sure she could learn." Her energetic enthusiasm disguised her nearly eight decades of age.
"This is delicious." He held up the half-eaten slice. "It appears you are capable yourself, Aunt Genia. I hope to have the majority of men hired and begin work next week. Would you be willing to assemble and organize what you believe is a suitable kitchen staff? I will make it worth your while and provide a coachman at your disposal."
"Well, Dearie, perhaps I could begin today."
Exactly a week later, at eight o'clock, three dozen workmen, including Edward, crowded onto two long, crudely-made tables and benches spanning the length of the large dining room. When the men had satisfied themselves with kippered salmon, eggs, rolls, and coffee, Richard began the first of their daily meetings.
"As most of you know, I am Colonel Fitzwilliam." His voice rang out as he paced with hands clasped behind him. "We have a large task ahead which shall be run with military precision. Anyone caught stealing will be handed over to the local magistrate. Moral indiscretion on the job, drinking, carousing, gambling and the like will be met with military justice--floggings--with myself as the judge. Those from far distances rooming over the stables, what you do in town on Saturday night is your own business, but otherwise you are considered to be under the estate's employ. Is that clear?"
The men mumbled an affirmative response.
"You will begin work each morning following our eight o'clock meal and meeting. Most of you already know Mr. Brock, the steward, and your leaders. To your work, men."
The estate hummed with activity. The soil was readied for winter vegetables, stone masons commenced work on the stables, carpenters had the kitchen outfitted with the latest conveniences, and a group of labourers began repairing homes occupied by the estate's many tenants.
Richard had been pushing himself hard for nearly a month now, rising early and burning his candle late into the night. One morning he had particular difficulty rising. After an extra cup of coffee in his room, he arrived at his desk in the library later than usual. His head muddled, he plotted out the tenant homes he would be inspecting over the course of the day.
After blundering through the morning's meeting, he grabbed an apple and filled two leftover rolls with a slab of ham before exiting to the stables. He ignored his worsening headache and occasional chill as he surveyed the completed repairs on several tenant properties.
With the late September sun overhead, he tethered his horse and reclined under a tree to fill his stomach. Having consumed half of his second roll, he rested his head against the trunk and closed his eyes to relieve the weight of his eyelids as he chewed.
He became vaguely aware of something wet on his hand. Shifting, he descended back into the peaceful black abyss. There it was again. Barely conscious, he slightly withdrew his hand. Feeling it a third time, he forced his eyes open and met the apologetic big brown eyes of a small black dog, licking her chops with a tentative wiggle of her tail.
He roused himself and laughed under his breath while rubbing his aching head. "I agree. Cook's ham and rolls are tasty."
The dog, perceiving a sympathetic friend, responded with enthusiastic oscillations of her tail.
He held out his hand, and the dog came closer, nuzzling and licking his palm. Richard massaged her ear. "I owe you one, girl. I do not have time to spend the afternoon snoozing in the sun."
She shook herself as if in agreement, her inch-long hair standing straight out like a mane. With her large eyes and rounded muzzle, she looked more like an adorable bear cub than a dog.
He snickered at her comical appearance, then stood with a grunt, leaning on the tree for support, willing the spinning in his head to cease.
At last he mounted Prometheus and ambled away, the little dog trotting beside him over the short distance to Aunt Genia's. Approaching from the back, he saw a felled oak tree in view of her cottage. Although most of it branches had been removed, he wondered why the rest had not been cut and properly stacked for firewood. Another year in the dirt and it would be rotten.
Her chickens scattered as he loped into her yard and slid to the ground. The door creaked open, and the tiny hunched woman peeped out. "Well, hello, Dearie! You are just in time for a bowl of soup."
"Thank you, Aunt Genia, but I have just eaten. Has the support beam been satisfactorily repaired?"
"Oh, yes. The men finished two days ago. Feels like the ceiling is a foot higher. Oh, but the mess! I thought I would never be rid of the dirt. Come see their fine work."
As he followed her in, his head was swimming. Looking up to inspect the new support, he stumbled backwards, overcome with dizziness.
"Dearie?" She took his hand in her gnarled one. "It appears you are unwell. Will you lie here for a bit?"
"Perhaps if I sit for moment." He dropped into a chair, closed his eyes, and propped his head in his hands, hoping the headache would abate.
"Are you sure you would not like some soup?"
"No, thank you."
Regaining his equilibrium, he rose, and his glazed eyes met hers. "I shall be on my way. Thank you." He took three steps and staggered against the door.
"Oh, Dearie, you must lie down. Let Aunt Genia tend you." She patted his arm.
He had no choice but to occupy the single bed in the corner. Once horizontal, sleep engulfed him. In a fog, he tossed and turned with confused images of Charlotte, artillery fire, and moaning, mangled bodies for he knew not how long.
Eventually the babblings of a small child and the streaming sun woke him. Was that Jane? Was he at Pemberley? He focused on the crude ceiling and heard the old woman's cheerful voice. Realizing he was at Aunt Genia's, panic startled him as he suddenly recalled his duties. She put a reassuring hand on his shoulder. "All is well, Dearie. Mr. Brock has the estate well in hand."
"What of my horse?"
"Mr. Brock returned him to Ledston's stables last night, and I gave your little dog her supper. I told you Aunt Genia would take care of you."
"My dog? I have no dog."
"Oh, that little dog out there believes otherwise. She sneaked in early this morning, curled up on the floor beside you, and then kept Leah entertained for a good hour when she arrived. She even answers to the name Sadie."
Richard managed a thin smile below droopy eyes and expelled a chuckle with his breath.
She lowered herself onto the chair placed beside the bed. "You are feeling better today?"
The small child toddled towards her.
"Some. But still tired--and a blasted headache." He massaged his temple.
"You keep yourself right there. You are no trouble at all." Her smile reflected her sincerity.
"Who is the child?" He glanced at the deep blue eyes of the chubby-cheeked girl.
"Leah. I keep her in the mornings. Mrs. Brock watches her in the afternoons. Her mother, Mrs. Clemson, is your cook." She pulled the child onto her lap.
"Mrs. Clemson is my cook?" Hadn't Captain Clemson said the child's name was Leah? Astonished at the implication, he tried to sit up, but his pounding head forced him to again recline.
"Well... yes.... Does that displease you, Colonel?"
"No. Her meals are quite satisfactory. I am only surprised at the name as I am acquainted with a Captain Clemson."
"Mrs. Clemson's husband is a captain..."
Richard's eyes darted to meet Aunt Genia's. "Is their situation, uh, somewhat unfortunate?"
"Last year at his coming home, he was very angry. When he left this time, she came on here where she knew we would help her. She thought her husband would never accept this next child was his."
"Oh yes. She is heavy with child again--his child."
Richard turned his head, trying to comprehend the ironic events. Dear God, what am I to do?
He turned back. "Is the captain aware of her whereabouts?"
"That, I do not know. She has neither seen nor heard from him since his departure in the spring. He could be dead for all she knows."
Richard rested his eyes to contemplate his role but sank into slumber.
The day passed in much the same manner, his waking briefly then sleeping again.
He awoke the next morning to a cool rag sponging his head and met the kind old woman's eyes. She smiled and pressed a drink into his hand. Easing himself up on his elbow he drained the cup.
"You are looking better today, Dearie."
"Yes, I think I am on the mend. Thank you."
She returned a warm smile and patted his arm. "Stay as long as you like. Leah and I will make you some gruel. Come, Leah." She held out her hand to the toddling girl.
He stared at the room's lone burning candle for several minutes, again contemplating the captain and his wife. "Do you believe in fate, Aunt Genia?"
She stilled the stirring spoon. "Oh, I don't know that I would call it fate, but I believe the good Lord has a way of working things out."
"I encountered Captain Clemson last month at an inn. I believe his wife will find him a changed man."
He returned home that evening by the conveyance sent to fetch him, the little dog following behind. Although he had no use for a lap dog, his lack of strength prevented him from shooing her away. And thus by default, Richard came to own what he thought was a useless dog.
The rain spattered against the window as James Clemson surveyed the littered, dusty cottage and asked himself for the hundredth time where his wife might have gone. She had no family, and the neighbours knew nothing except they thought she had gone north.
When the small cottage had come into view just over a month ago, his anxiety had turned to panic. The overgrown garden and smokeless chimney confirmed that indeed she had gone. Now determined to be different, he found that after their six-month separation, he yearned for her.
How could he have been so foolish to take her for granted? She had fully devoted herself to him, but after the initial novelty of marriage had worn off, he paid her little attention, treating her more like a servant than a wife. His military acumen and promotions had fuelled an unbecoming arrogance. No wonder she had found solace in another. Slumping in a chair, he passed his fingers through his hair.
Since his return, he had repaired the garden and planted autumn vegetables. With most of his regiment killed, it had been disbanded. His meagre captain's pay would now be reduced to half wages, and he would need other sources of income. Perhaps today he would turn his attention to the disarray and dirt indoors.
By mid-afternoon, the rain had stopped, and the cottage's condition improved. A knock brought a welcomed interruption.
"Hello, Mrs. Mason," he greeted his neighbour.
"I picked up a letter in town for you, Captain."
After thanking the lady, he handed her a coin and inspected the unfamiliar writing before latching the door. He broke the seal and glanced at the signature--Colonel Fitzwilliam. Scanning the post, he sank into a chair as his words filled the silence. "Thank you, God!"
Posted on 2013-11-17
Three days later James Clemson stared out of a library window at Ledston. The colonel had gone below stairs to fetch his wife.
His wife! She was cooking for dozens of men each day, a servant and heavy with child--his child! He traced his brow, overcome with shame.
Hearing the colonel's voice and the click of the knob, he turned on his heel to face the door.
She stepped into the room and stopped, stunned. The late morning sun illuminated her blue eyes and the loose tendrils of corn-silk hair floating about her smooth complexion.
"Naomi." He barely heard his own voice. Her familiarity and simplicity arrested him.
"James," she whispered back.
His gaze swept her petite form, her muslin dress ballooning over her swollen belly. He could scarcely stay on his feet. He took three hesitant steps towards her. Was she angry? Would she flee?
He saw tears spring to her eyes as she drew in an audible breath. "You have come for me," she breathed, rushing into his open arms.
Flooded with emotion, his every sense suddenly craved to be satisfied by her. Engulfing her in his arms, they teetered in a tight embrace, sharp breaths accompanying their silent cries. At last he pulled back--he had to see her. He stroked her smiling face, then placed a gentle hand on her belly, kissed her cheek, and crushed her to himself again. With one arm he held her as his other roamed her shoulder, arm, and neck like a blind man taking in his beloved. Cupping her face, he spoke into her eyes. "I love you. Please forgive me."
She clung to him again. At last she relaxed and raised her chin.
He placed a hand behind her head, glanced at her lips, met her eyes, then drew his face to hers and touched a lingering kiss on her lips. Stroking her cheeks with his thumbs, he beseeched her, "Will you and Leah come home with me?"
"Yes." A smile lit her face as tears spilled. She took his hand and pressed it to her abdomen.
Detecting movement, a sense of wonder and expectancy swept over him. "How soon?"
Richard invited the reunited family to take residence in the main house through the birth and subsequent confinement. Although he was gaining welcome company for his evenings, he was losing his cook. Slapping his thigh, he strode to the stables to visit Aunt Genia.
"Hello, Dearie. I see you decided to keep the dog after all."
"Yes, well, it was not intentional, I assure you. Although she is pleasant company, and it is flattering to be so well adored."
"Come in and bring her if you like. What is her name?"
"Sadie, of course. It was you who chose her name."
They shared a laugh as Richard ducked into the cosy cottage and joined her at the small table. Sadie curled up at his feet.
"What brings you here today, Dearie?"
"Now that the captain has claimed his wife, I am in need of another cook. Might you have a recommendation?"
She pushed the familiar pot of gooseberry jam and cutting board with thick slices of bread towards him.
"With your favourable reputation as an employer, I might know of a lady or two."
He dropped his gaze with a chuckle. "I am glad to be enhancing the local economy along with the estate." He took a slice of bread. "Speaking of economy, in another season that felled oak out back will be of little use."
"Though it has been kind of the neighbours to leave it for me, what old age has done for me is no match for what old age has done for that oak." She laughed at her own turn of words. "Ah, but bless Mr. Brock. He comes most Saturday evenings to whittle away at it, but with his needing wood for his own family and working at the manor house, I try to make do with what I can gather myself so as not to burden him."
Richard traced his chin in contemplation. "I have a proposition for you, Aunt Genia. I injured my arm last year, and it has yet to fully regain its strength. Permit me to come early Tuesday and Friday mornings and chop wood for you to exercise my arm. In exchange, you allow me to partake of your cheerful companionship and perhaps a generous slice of your bread and that gooseberry jam."
Her merry laughter filled the space. "You would do that for an ordinary old woman?"
"Aunt Genia, ordinary, you are not."
Two days later, Richard arrived at the promised early hour and went to work chopping the large tree trunk. Exhausted after thirty minutes, he wiped his brow with a handkerchief and sought the company of the vivacious woman indoors. The next half hour was spent in some of the most pleasant conversation he could recall. The tales she told fed his mirth, while her fount of wisdom fed his soul. Having lost both of her young children and husband, her zest for life and her own acceptance with joy were remarkable.
Just before eight o'clock, he handed Prometheus to Ledston's groom. As he strode to the house with a smile on his face and Sadie at his heels, he shook his head. Aunt Genia was an extraordinary woman indeed.
Although the hour was early, he was never tardy for his visits with the little old woman.
Richard had now been at Ledston for some six weeks. The work was progressing well enough that he could at last afford a visit to Pemberley--and Charlotte. Having arranged with Mr. Brock to preside at the morning meeting, he would leave Saturday and return Monday evening.
With Sadie trotting behind, it was a pleasant ride among the resplendent autumn trees dressed in their brightest reds and yellows. He was relieved not to have his head swimming with lists of tasks.
Nearing the eastern edge of his cousin's vast estate, he cut off through the field and recalled boyhood summers, riding over the fields and woods of Pemberley with Darcy. When they had been young men, had they been as foolish as Edward? The young buck seemed to believe that full freedom of indulgence would grant him happiness. Oh, the multitudes that had proven that wrong. Hopefully Edward would soon discover his folly.
Richard came within view of a tenant cottage and a field being sown with wheat. Sowing and reaping, a principle as old as time itself. Every action and every choice produces consequences, some more serious than others. While some outcomes are immediate, others are not felt for months, maybe years. Wasn't that the essence of wisdom itself--insight into the navigation of choices and their consequences?
His decision to push Charlotte away at that fateful picnic had been a conscious choice to produce a predictable outcome. He lamented the result but was confident it had been the right course of action, though perhaps the decision had come too late. It was unfortunate that human nature and passions were often at war with better judgement. He shook his head, realizing he would need to check his ardour and exercise all the wisdom he could muster in her forthcoming company. Still deep in thought, he startled at cantering hoof beats from behind him.
"Richard, you have come!" Charlotte's glowing smile met him as she slowed her mare and drew near.
"Yes. I am finally able to steal away for a day or two." His heart raced at the sight of her. That wisdom would need to be mustered sooner than he had anticipated.
"You look as though your mind is still ruminating on your work." She urged the horse and called over her shoulder, "A good run will free your thoughts!"
He had never known a woman like Charlotte. With a smile of his own, he urged the stallion and took off after her as Sadie bounded behind. Galloping side by side for several moments, they exchanged playful glances. He saw her eyes widen and her hand reach for her head, but it was too late. Her bonnet sailed behind her, pulling her hair with it. Laughing, she slowed the mare as most of her wavy brown locks bounced around her shoulders. He had not seen it loose since she was a child, and the sight took his breath away.
He wheeled his horse and slid to the ground to retrieve her bonnet. As he walked back to her, she stood beside her mount, attempting to repair her hair. Even in her sombre black dress, she beamed.
"Riding is my fondest memory of our days at Cragmount as children. I am sorry to have spoiled it prematurely today." When she finished with her hair, she dropped her hands. Their eyes locked, and Richard felt that cord tighten between them.
"Ah, well," he turned away to pat the sleek black coat of his mount, "I am sure Prometheus is not sorry for the interruption. He will be glad to ruminate on oats after his work today."
Suddenly it seemed they were both aware of their close proximity in the solitude afforded by the open field. An awkward silence hung for a moment before he went on. "What brings you so far from the manor house?" He opted to pick up a stick rather than return his focus to her eyes.
"I helped the midwife with Mrs. Langford's delivery last week. I heard she was having some trouble feeding her baby, so I took her a remedy from my basket."
Her words sounded forced. He absently hurled the stick. Much to his surprise, Sadie dashed after it.
Both spontaneously broke into laughter watching the little dog's thrill and determination. The tension was broken.
"Did you teach her to fetch?"
"No. I had no idea."
Sadie retrieved the stick and dropped it in front of Richard. He teased her with it, and she responded with intense focus, crouching, and barking. When he threw it again, she raced after it.
"I can't believe she still has such vigour after the long journey."
"Oh, she is quite hearty. I bet she could make the trip home as well."
"Well, as charming as she is, she hardly seems the choice of a dog for a colonel."
"The truth is, she chose me."
Leading their horses, they returned to Pemberley, relaxed and comfortable in the other's company. He went on to tell her about Aunt Genia, how he had been ill, the captain, and the progress at Ledston.
She was delighted to listen to him.
After dinner Richard took brandy with Darcy over billiards. Darcy leaned on his cue while Richard racked the balls. "So what has kept you so long from gracing our presence? It was my impression that you came to Ledston to afford yourself the company of Mrs. Collins."
Richard reached for his cue as Darcy circled the table. "Yes, I took a position--a very demanding one with enormous responsibility which has kept me rather occupied. But Darcy..."
His cousin looked up detecting his shift in tone.
"I am torn over the situation. For her lack of dowry, my father refused his blessing. In good conscience, I will not go against him."
"Well." Darcy raised his eyebrows. "I find this new-found loyalty to your father somewhat surprising." As he placed the cue ball, he postured for his first shot and closed one eye. "But that is your choice, your discretion." The cue ball smacked the set, and the balls scattered over the green woollen felt. Darcy faced Richard again. "But after Ledston, if you want a family, then let Mrs. Collins go. Find yourself a good woman. Quit hiding yourself on the backside of Europe and in the steward's office of country estates."
"You make it sound easy."
A shared chuckle relaxed the tenor of their conversation.
Richard took his turn, slamming a solid ball into the corner pocket. His next shot sent a second ball into a centre pocket, and a third as well.
Darcy sipped his brandy, patiently waiting his turn. "It is unfortunate your prowess with women is not equal to your skill at billiards."
Richard straightened and turned to his cousin. "And who was it the family referred to as the man with the iron mask before Elizabeth tore it away?"
They completed the game with light jesting. It was good to be back with family.
The next afternoon following Sunday services found Richard with the Pemberley party on a picnic beside a pond. The only sounds were the distant twitter of a songbird and a gentle October breeze stirring the tall grass.
Elizabeth reclined on the large blanket, nibbling cheese. "We shan't have many more of these lovely Sunday afternoons."
Darcy leaned back on one elbow. "Have you spoken to Bingley of holding a Harvest Festival at Ledston, Richard? It was unfortunate you were unable join ours a fortnight ago."
"With the disarray and poor harvest, there is little to celebrate."
Charlotte cradled a sleeping Jane. "They have been deprived for so long, I am sure the tenants would appreciate any sort of celebration."
"Oh, yes." Georgiana clasped her hands and sat up straighter. "Festivals lift everyone's spirits."
"I suppose." Richard lay back, lacing his fingers behind his head. "But the thought of any additional responsibility quite exhausts me."
Elizabeth sipped her wine. "Would you be amenable to a festival were you not responsible for its planning? I am sure my sister would be delighted for an excuse to visit her new home."
"I would gladly assist." Charlotte laid the napping child on the blanket.
"As would I." Georgiana's gaze darted from the ladies back to Richard.
"Well... I suppose I can find no objection. I would like Bingley to see the progress we have made." Richard stifled a yawn.
Elizabeth rose. "Splendid. Ladies, shall we walk to construct the plans?"
Charlotte touched the sleeping child. "What about Jane? The carriage just returned her ailing nurse to the house."
Richard closed his eyes. "Two grown men can look after a sleeping infant, eh, Darcy?"
The three women set off as the men dozed beside Jane.
Some minutes later, Jane began to rouse. Richard eyed her, assured himself there was no urgency, and resumed his rest. A gentle snore rose from Darcy. Several minutes later, hearing sputtering sounds, he opened an eye again. Still convinced she needed no attention, he closed it. When he awoke, he turned towards her, and she was gone! Bolting to a seated position, now in complete command of his senses, he scanned the area.
"Darcy! Where is Jane?"
"What?" His cousin's eyes fluttered opened.
"Jane is gone!" Richard stood to survey the area. Seeing a mashed trail in the waving grass, he followed it.
Several yards away, he swung the child up overhead. "You little imp. Thought you could get away from your papa and Uncle Richard, did you?"
He laid her on the blanket, tickling her as she giggled and kicked. With wrinkled noses, the men eyed each other knowingly.
Darcy chuckled. "What are you going to do now, you grown man, so able to look after a sleeping infant."
"Well... I... uh... surely the carriage will return any moment."
"We are quite a distance from Pemberley."
Jane began whimpering.
"Er... Which way did the ladies go?"
"I was dozing."
"As was I..." Richard smoothed his hair, looking around nervously. "Any ideas?"
Darcy looked at him with a smug smile. "You handle the situation, and I will give you pick of my wine cellar."
"Me? You want me to--" Jane's protests grew louder. Finally Richard shook his head. "I am a grown man. I have spent a fair amount of time in the stables and have mucked stalls as punishment. Certainly I can manage the soil of a small child. Where is that satchel of infant accoutrements?"
Darcy plunked the bag in front of Richard with an smug smile.
Richard fished in the satchel and pulled out several rags and a clout, then removed his coat and rolled up his shirt sleeves. Jane was now wailing. Kneeling over the child in deep in concentration, he inhaled, holding his breath.
"I shall be eager to inform Lord Matlock of his son's accomplishment."
Richard released the breath with a laugh. "Stow you, Darcy." He threw the rag at him. "For that, I shall claim two of your finest bottles of brandy." Resuming his focus, he raised her dress, and untied the offending article, revealing its scented contents. In unison, the men furrowed their brows and turned their heads with drawn out groans. Richard stifled a gag as Jane screamed and kicked.
Darcy retreated several feet. Richard distanced his face from his hands as he cleaned her plump rump. After much fumbling, he tied on a fresh undergarment.
"You see? Mission accomplished." He folded the soiled items and laid them some distance away. Handing Jane to Darcy, he strode to the pond and swished his hands in the water.
The ladies returned later to find the men entertaining the happy child.
"I see my baby is awake. Come here, my little poppet." Elizabeth reached for the girl. "Was she any trouble?"
"Oh, no. Everything went fine. Just fine," Richard lied as he grinned, envisioning himself sipping Darcy's finest brandy.
Having returned to Ledston the evening before, Richard had a meeting with the head gardener Tuesday morning to discuss his plans for the park. After studying his sketches, Richard nodded with a smile as he returned the drawings to the man. "Very good, Morley. Within a sennight, we should have the garden back to its original splendour." He rose and ushered the man to the library door. "Oh--and compliment the men for me. I am most satisfied with their progress."
"Aye, sir. The men will be happy to know you are pleased."
With their business completed, Richard strode towards the stables, intending to check on the sowing of the rye fields. Sadie appeared, running in circles, vying for his attention.
"Not now, Sadie."
She nipped at his leg and ran at a right angle, then returned.
"No, Sadie." He halted, shooting her a glare.
She crouched, growled, and repeated the nip and run.
Surprised at her persistence, he knelt. "What is it, girl?"
She returned a woof and ran again in the perpendicular direction. Following her, he neared the milking shed.
"No! No! Please stop, sir!" pleaded a feminine voice inside.
Richard ducked into the low shed. "Get your hands off her!" he barked into the dim corner.
Still pressing the flailing girl's shoulders to the corner, Edward turned his head, baring a wicked grin. "She is merely a scullery maid. Plenty here for the both of us."
"You lecherous bastard!" Richard jerked the man's shoulder, spinning him around, and caught him with a solid right hook.
Edward clattered over crates as the girl shrieked.
"The world is not for your taking, Edward!" Richard seethed, his breath coming hard. "Get out of my sight."
The defiant man pressed his gaze to Richard with a curse under his breath and stalked from the shed.
The young girl stood frozen, but at the wave of Richard's hand, she fled.
Grasping an overhead beam, he rested his head against his arm until his fury subsided.
At last he sighed and made his way to the stables. For the rest of the afternoon his mind was distracted and uneasy. He shook his head in disgust. Edward was a Wickham in the making.
As the offence was read, the words were muffled, and Richard could not hear clearly. He was only aware that he was hungry. The commanding officer then asked if anyone would like to present a defence on behalf of the condemned. The guilty man's eyes locked on Richard, entreating him. Richard shifted his gaze away and reached into his pocket for an apple. When he bit the fruit, he saw the blood--dripping from his hands. Suddenly he was aware that all eyes were on him. They all knew. He was guilty. He deserved the flogging. Richard sprinted off, seeking to escape. But instead of the others chasing him, they were running as well--as blood dripped from their hands. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw a shadow looming just behind him. He was being chased by the shadow, the shadow of death.
Frantically trying to escape, he smeared the blood on his breeches, but still the shadow pursued. He ducked into a small cottage and bolted the door. He recalled the Biblical account of an angel of death who would pass over the houses of those whose doorposts were covered in blood--the blood of a blameless lamb. He had no lamb. He was desperate for blood. Cutting his hand, he smeared the blood over the door and waited. Suddenly the shadow was in the room encompassing him, spewing accusations that Richard knew were true. His blood was not good enough. He had no covering. Just as the shadow descended on him, he awoke.
Staring into the darkness with his heart pounding, the mantel clock chimed five times. Certain he would be unable to resume his sleep, he rose. After dressing, he took a leftover roll from the kitchen and saddled Prometheus, his thoughts too restless for reading in his room. Riding nowhere in particular with Sadie trotting behind, he found himself on a plateau with an arresting view. He swung down and sat, taking in the splendour as the sunrise slowly painted the moors below.
Eventually he retrieved the roll from his pocket as his thoughts returned to the troubling dream. What of his guilt and the shadow of death? He broke the bread in half and suddenly recalled the familiar image of a rector doing the same as he uttered the words, "This is My body which is given for you." Tears sprung to his eyes as the declaration flowed through his mind. He had heard the phrase his entire life in church, but until this moment, he had not grasped its meaning. Then he heard the rector's words as he poured the wine, "This is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins." In his dream, his own blood had been insufficient. He could not atone f his own sin but now realized that he did not need to. He need only receive what Christ had already done on his behalf. He was forgiven, covered by the blood of the blameless lamb. The angel of death had no claim to him. "Thank you, Lord," he breathed aloud. He sat for some time, awed at the implications of this new understanding.
While stroking Sadie's silky head, his thoughts drifted to Edward and his guilt. He sensed an odd sort of burden compelling him to approach the young man. The right hook had been borne of his own heated emotion which, in the end, would do nothing to help change Edward's thinking and his heart. He felt driven to speak to him, to instruct him, yet at the same time repulsed by the idea. Why should he humble himself to help Edward? The young man had been the one at fault. Richard knew the answer. He was to have mercy on others as mercy had been extended to him. Certainly he did not deserve God's grace and mercy. Neither had he deserved Scott's patience and kindness after his own outburst, but his friend had freely given it. It was his turn to do likewise. He rose and returned to the estate.
Half an hour later he found Edward pulling on his boots in the quarters above the stables. "Mr. Lucas, a word please."
Edward followed him down the stairs in silence. Richard could feel the man's scorn.
Stopping in the stable yard, Richard propped his elbow on a fence post and addressed the man with a bruised chin. "I must apologize for my behaviour yesterday. Aggression was not the proper way to respond to your actions. However, I am not apologizing for preventing your assault. People are not your playthings."
"She was merely a scullery maid. No one of consequence." Edward toed the dirt with his boot.
"Perhaps no one to you. But what of her mother, her father, sisters, and brothers? Is she of no consequence to them? Many might say your own sister, a poor dependent widow, is of no consequence. Does she deserve to be treated as such?" Richard could feel his indignation rising.
"If not I," Edward sneered, "then some other cunning fox will take her. Might as well satisfy myself. Besides, who are you to judge? You were a soldier. Don't tell me you never spent the night in a shanty with a wench, drank yourself three sheets to the wind, or leveraged coppers over cards."
Incensed that Edward could only make excuses, Richard replied in an elevated voice, "I am not proud of the recklessness of my youth, Lucas. But I have never taken a woman and violated her against her will. Early on I saw the folly of loose living. A man I once knew lost a considerable estate that had been in the family for generations in one night's foray of drinking and gambling. As a young man, I decided the potential consequence of debauchery was not worth the momentary pleasure. This very estate was owned by a man unable to control his appetites. He lost his family, fortune, and his mind. If he could do it over again, do you believe he would make the same choices? I think not!"
Richard shook his head. If his intent was to instruct, he needed to calm himself. He began again. "Mr. Lucas, I am learning that becoming the man I want to be requires change--often uncomfortable and difficult change, but rewarding in the end. I nearly succumbed to the numbing effects of strong drink myself. Only by the careful attention of my friends and the Lord was I encouraged to make some changes. It is for that reason I am speaking with you today."
A silence hung between them. Edward's mien showed no remorse, only an impatience to be free of the encounter.
Richard made one last attempt. "A man cannot take fire to his bosom and not be burned. Plundering a defenceless woman for his own amusement is fire. In the end he will come to despise himself."
Unaffected, Edward only stared back at him.
His censure rebuffed, Richard sighed. "That is all."
Edward was hard-hearted. Richard resolved that any more misbehaviour would be met with severe punishment. Right now he needed to turn his attention towards the upcoming Harvest Festival. There were rooms to ready and preparations to make as the Bingley and Darcy parties, along with their entourage, would soon be arriving for a two-night stay. Thankfully, Darcy was sending several servants early to help, as Richard had no housekeeper.
In the wee hours of the morning two days later, the captain and the colonel rose from the library chairs to the cries of a newborn. The captain took the stairs two at a time and met Aunt Genia standing just inside the bedchamber.
"You have a son, Dearie. He looks just like you." Her eyes twinkled as she spoke over the rhythmic wailing.
He gaped at the tiny wriggling bundle and touched the swaddling blanket before moving to sit beside his wife. His loving gaze upon her, he lifted her hand and kissed it. "Thank you."
The Bingleys and Darcys arrived as planned, and the two families joined in the celebration of the Harvest Festival, giving thanks for the year's bounty and the restoration of the estate. The gracious enthusiasm of Ledston's new owner invigorated the tenants, while Mrs. Bingley delighted in all she saw.
The next morning, Charlotte sat chatting with Mrs. Clemson in her confinement chamber when Aunt Genia arrived. Mrs. Clemson made the introduction.
"I am pleased to meet you, Aunt Genia. Colonel Fitzwilliam speaks highly of you."
"Oh, he is such a dear. He comes to chop wood for me twice a week, and he has more stories than a library full of books. He has mentioned you as well. You were childhood companions, I believe?"
The twinkle in her eye and the way she cocked her head led Charlotte to suspect that the woman had surmised the truth of their attachment. Lowering her gaze, she felt heat rising in her cheeks. "Yes. We spent many pleasant summers together in Derbyshire."
"He tells me you are quite knowledgeable about herbal remedies."
"The effect of a tea made from a simple weed is often remarkable." Charlotte saw the two ladies exchange glances.
"Oh, Mrs. Collins, if you could help me, I would be ever so grateful." The new mother hesitated with a sheepish expression before untying her gown and drawing out a cabbage leaf.
Charlotte nodded her head with a smile. "I see. You have been having some trouble feeding your son."
The young woman relaxed in relief. "Oh, yes. And it is ever so painful."
"Mrs. Clemson has had quite a time of it," Aunt Genia piped up. "I have always used cabbage leaves with an excellent result, but this time..." She shook her head.
"Yes, cabbage leaves are excellent for the infection. An echinacea tea and a potato poultice should help as well."
Aunt Genia's brows furrowed. "Well, Dearie, potatoes I am familiar with, but what of the other?"
"Echinacea. Not many here are familiar with it. I learned of it from a book and have found it especially effective for infection."
The other two stared at her with blank expressions. "Would my staying on for a few days be helpful? My treatment basket accompanies me whenever I travel."
Mrs. Clemson relaxed and sat back. "I would be ever so grateful. Thank you."
As the Bingleys and Darcys departed, Lizzy promised to send a carriage for Charlotte in three days. After brewing tea and applying the potato poultice, Charlotte spent the afternoon with the mother.
The next evening found Mrs Clemson relaxing against her pillows, nursing her child. The pinch of pain between her brows had eased, and she wore only the normal tiredness associated with a newborn babe.
After dinner, Richard sat reading in companionable silence with the captain and Charlotte in the library. Having no idea what the previous chapter was about, he peered over his book and observed the scene before him. Leah, who had been playing with Sadie on the floor, had fallen asleep beside the dog. The captain was engrossed in a novel, and Charlotte sat on the settee, gazing at the sleeping infant in her arms. In a split-second Richard read her expression like words on a page. Though happy for the Clemsons, she wished the babe were hers--theirs. So did he. It was so easy to picture them as his family--Charlotte, his wife, the two children theirs. He felt a hitch in his chest, and his vision blurred. Blinking back the tears, he retreated behind the book, ashamed of the powerful feeling. Would he ever have a family or know the joy of his child frolicking with a dog? Or the cooing of his infant in the arms of his wife? Oh, God, please do not deny me this desire. He rose and excused himself. It was enough emotion for one day.
An hour later Richard gazed over the moonlit garden through his open window. The now-sculpted hedges stood like elegant guards surrounding the babbling fountain. He breathed in the cool October air before lowering the sash to a generous crack. Moving to his desk, he heard muffled voices and the faint cries of the newborn down the hall. Sadie settled before the grate with a contented sigh as he dipped the quill in ink to make his nightly notes. Next week they would complete the renovations of the grooms' quarters over the stable and refit the tack room. The nine boarding men, having spent the last several nights on pallets in the drawing room, could then return to the more comfortable accommodations over the stable.
He made a note to speak to the rector regarding the redecoration of the parsonage. Richard looked up with a snigger, recalling Mr. Collins pontificating Lady Catherine's virtues for her clever closets and choice coverings but then ached for all that Charlotte had lost at the Hunsford parsonage.
With a sigh, he laid aside his quill and moved to the dressing room as the clock struck ten. After unbuttoning his waistcoat, he was about to ring for Godfrey when he heard the man's voice in the hallway. Stepping outside of his room, he saw his valet bow before Charlotte's door then stride towards him.
"What is it, Godfrey?"
"An express for Mrs. Collins, sir." With a nod from Richard, the valet disappeared down the stairs.
As she stood in her doorway robed in a flowing dressing gown with a long braid over one shoulder, Richard studied her profile as she read the letter. With a gasp, her expression turned anxious. He longed to go to her, but her unguarded appearance was not intended for his viewing. With her brow furrowed, she looked up and met his gaze before moving towards him.
"Troubling news?" He looked everywhere but at her, trying to ignore her vulnerability afforded by the intimate apparel.
Her face was etched with concern. "It is from Mama. Papa has had an apoplectic seizure. With Maria married, and John and Edward employed, she begs that I come right away to help care for him. Lizzy's note says she will send the carriage to retrieve me in the morning."
Her words reverberated in the hush. A new chasm was now to separate them. Richard passed his fingers through his hair. "Yes. I suppose you must go."
Staring at each other for an awkward moment, each wished the other to speak.
Richard composed himself. "Well, goodnight, then. I have great admiration for your father. I wish him a rapid return to health." He pressed a faint smile, bowed and turned to go.
"Richard--" He turned back to face her as her next words floated on a whisper. "I shall miss you."
The sentiment penetrated him like a knife. He stepped inches from her, pressed his palm to her cheek, and spoke into her eyes. "And I you."
"You will see me off in the morning?"
"Of course." He ached to draw her into his arms, profess his love, and hold her. Instead, he forced a smile before pulling himself away and retreating to his room.
Lying in bed, he stared at the ceiling, wishing for sleep to dull the new pain in his chest. He had taken the position at Ledston to be near her while he waited out the final six months of her mourning, assuming they would marry in the spring. But that had all been undone just before Anne's wedding, before they had even arrived in Derbyshire.
Acceptance with joy. He could choose to persevere and adorn amidst pain as Anne had done, or he could succumb to it. All things work together for good to those who love God.... Did he believe that? He was full circle back to trust. Could he trust? Yes. But would he?
Sleep at last suppressed the ache.
Sometime later hearing a faint whine and feeling the bed quiver, Richard turned over. With a snuffle and louder whine, Sadie pawed the side of the bed. "Wait until morning," he mumbled, shifting. Her pawing became more frantic, accompanied with a bark.
With an aggravated groan, he jerked back the bed linens. He should have let her out before he retired. Barking and darting around, her movements became more agitated. "Give me just a moment!"
As he shuffled past the window, smoke arrested his nostrils. That was more than chimney smoke. Now fully alert, he threw up the sash and leaned out, searching for signs of fire. A plume of smoke drifted from the east. He darted to the room's eastern window and drew back the curtain. Smoke billowed from the stable. Sadie's frantic barking continued.
His nightshirt was cast off by the time he reached his discarded shirt and breeches. He pulled on his boots and stormed down the stairs shouting, "Fire in the stables!"
He stuck his head in the makeshift bunkhouse, repeating his appeal. He was nearly to the stables when he heard the men behind him. Smoke poured from the tack room window and through the partially open door at the building's end. Who would be out there in the middle of the night? Horse thieves? Prometheus would bring a pretty penny...
With his sleeve over his nose, he ducked into the stone structure. The wall separating the tack room from the first stall was ablaze. The horses nickered and stamped in their stalls. He yanked open the tack room door, seeing nothing but smoke. Choking, he slammed it and moved to peer into the stall. Edward was passed out holding an empty bottle. Two crates and an upturned bucket sat around the remains of a card game and another empty bottle. Trails of charred hay led from the blazing wall to an overturned candle.
The men clamoured in behind Richard with an assortment of buckets and wet sacks. "Ford, Fuller, release the horses!" He dragged Edward a safe distance outside and plunged back inside, coughing on the thick, black smoke and dodging the spooked, wide-eyed horses frantic to escape.
At last the sweaty, smudged men had drowned and beaten the life out of the fire. As they reclined on the ground outside, each trying to catch his breath, the sun peeked over the horizon in the cool of the morning. One of the workers dashed the remains of a bucket of water over Edward and muttered, "Fool," as the inebriated man sputtered to life.
Edward slid to prop himself up on an elbow, blinked, and appraised his audience, seeking to comprehend their stares. His expression revealed the moment he perceived his folly.
Fuller spoke into the stillness. "Any fool knows better than to take an open flame into the stable."
Edward only sat massaging his aching head.
The men looked on in silence.
Richard skimmed his chin's stubble with his knuckles. "Rules are in place for a reason, Mr. Lucas. You could have burned down the stable, killed the horses, and yourself along with it." He tossed a pebble into the distance. "I see your companions chose not to remain, and I dare say left you nary a farthing." He propped his forearms on his bent knees and leaned towards the young man. "What have you to say for yourself?"
"It was an accident." Edward glared back with no hint of remorse.
"Of course it was. Predicated by your foolish choices, the punishment for which is two dozen lashes." He rose and addressed the gathering. "Clean yourselves up and fill your bellies, men. Flogging after the eight o'clock meeting." He started towards the house but jerked his head back, locking his focus on Edward. "Only cowards flee."
Richard paused at the base of the stairs and instead, headed to the library. Stopping before a shelf, he
respectfully lifted the cat o' nine tails that had belonged to the home's former owner. He turned it over in his hands and fingered the worn handle. He fanned the nine leather thongs across his palm, feeling the small balled knots along each strand still stained with blood. Bits of hardened skin appeared embedded in the coils. He closed his eyes, recalling the floggings he had witnessed under the ruthless General Picton. The sound of the knots biting into flesh and the moans the bearers attempted to stifle echoed in his ears. He wondered how liberal the former sea captain had been in his application of it. He tucked it under his arm, took the stairs two at a time, and rang for Godfrey.
Once presentable, he sat before the fire a long while and read of another man--flogged beyond recognition, although innocent of any crime. He anguished in thought and prayer, preparing to administer the lashes. With a heavy heart, he rose. Though hungry, he could not eat. It was nearly eight o'clock.Continued In Next Section