Authors: A Suitable Wife
Beatrice noticed his gaze briefly touched on her new gown, and a look of approval flitted across his face. Then he frowned and gave his head a little shake, as if to snuff out any admiration. But how foolish she was. Why should she hope for his good opinion when he seemed determined not to give it? Humph. That was a favor she could easily return.
“Yes, we have finished,” Mrs. Parton said. “And now we are off to St. Ann’s. Miss Gregory has a great interest in my work there.”
“Indeed?” The viscount’s gruff expression softened. “Very admirable, Lady Beatrice.”
Beatrice’s face warmed, something she was growing tired of. At home at Melton Gardens, she had never felt so discomfited so often. Had never, ever blushed. “I thank you, sir.” She gazed upward and beyond him toward one of the Abbey’s two square spires, lest he see how his small approval pleased her. How quickly she had abandoned her resolve not to wish for his good opinion—and all against her will.
“Most young ladies I know never give a thought to orphans or any other needy soul.”
“Indeed?” Even her eyes betrayed her, turning back as if of their own accord to view the handsome viscount so grandly mounted on his fine horse. “Why, how do they occupy their days if not in service to some worthy cause?”
He shrugged. “My lady, I cannot guess. Perhaps shopping, visiting, gossiping, planning parties and balls. You have my utmost respect for your generosity.” No smile confirmed his compliment.
Once again an infuriating blush heated her face, and she waved her fan to cool it. “You are too kind, sir.”
“Not at all.” He stared at her, and for several seconds she could not move. Or breathe.
“Well, go on then, Greystone,” Mrs. Parton said. “We shall not keep you.” She waved him away. “You are excused to go solve all of Prinny’s problems.”
“Madam, if I could do that, the world would stop spinning upon its axis.” At last he smiled, then tipped his hat again. “I bid you both good day.” He reined his horse around and rode toward the Parliament building in the next block.
Beatrice still could not turn her eyes away from his departing figure. What a handsome gentleman, so refined, so considerate of his mother’s friend. But admiring him or any gentleman would bring her only heartbreak and disappointment. She must concentrate on the work ahead rather than dream of having the friendship of a gentleman who clearly did not wish to befriend her.
How annoying to realize that no matter what she told herself, her heart raced at the sight of Lord Greystone.
ere we are.” Mrs. Parton drove the phaeton through the gates of a large property into a wide front courtyard. “St. Ann’s Orphan Asylum. But it has become much more than a refuge for foundling girls.”
Eyeing the seven-foot wrought-iron fence as they passed through, Beatrice felt a shiver of dread that diminished her former anticipation. The gray brick of the three-story building added to the asylum’s foreboding appearance. This seemed more like a fortress, even a prison, than a home for children, though she approved of the tidy grounds. Unlike the street beyond the fence, not a scrap of trash littered the grassy yard, and not a single pebble lay on the front walkway.
“I delight in these visits,” Mrs. Parton said. “The children are so dear, and the matrons do such fine work in schooling them and teaching them useful skills. Most of my maids were reared and educated in this school.”
“Mama was going to bring me here.” Beatrice swallowed the lump that rose in her throat. Her mother had become ill before she could keep any of her promises.
“Lady Bennington founded the institution, and your mother and I joined her some twenty years ago.” Mrs. Parton waved to the two men on the jump seat.
The tiger took charge of the horse while the footman helped the ladies down.
“We will be here awhile,” Mrs. Parton told them, “so you may go around to the kitchen for a bite to eat. Miss Gregory, shall we go in?”
Beatrice followed her employer up the concrete steps to the large front door. A black-clad woman of perhaps thirty years opened it. “Welcome, Mrs. Parton. Please come in.” The matron’s eyes exuded warmth and welcome.
In the front hall they were met by the smells of lye soap and a hint of lavender. The floor was well scrubbed, and not a speck of lint or dust lay upon the polished oak hall tree or the framed pictures that adorned the long, wide entryway.
The matron spoke quietly to the young girl beside her, and the child hastened up the staircase. Soon the soft rumble of running feet disturbed the silence as over a hundred girls of all sizes and descriptions descended the steps and formed lines. Each girl wore a gray serge uniform and a plain white pinafore bearing a number.
Once again Beatrice swallowed a wave of sentiment. Like these girls she had no parents, but how vastly different their circumstances were. How sad to be an orphan, a seemingly nameless child with only a number on one’s clothing for identification. Beatrice steeled herself against further emotion, for tears would not help the children and might inspire them to self-pity, an exercise she knew to be fruitless.
A slender middle-aged matron in a matching uniform offered a deep curtsey to their guests, and the girls followed suit.
“Welcome, Mrs. Parton.” Another matron, silver-haired and in a black dress, stepped forward. Authority emanated from her pale, lined face.
“Mrs. Martin.” Mrs. Parton’s face glowed as she grasped the woman’s hands. “How good to see you.” Her gaze swept over the assembly. “Good afternoon, my dear, dear girls.”
Mrs. Martin lifted one hand to direct the children in a chorus of “Good afternoon, Mrs. Parton.”
“Children, this is my companion, Miss Gregory.” Mrs. Parton brought Beatrice forward.
Again the girls curtseyed and called out a greeting.
“Now,” Mrs. Parton said, “what have you to show us?” She and Beatrice sat in upholstered chairs the matron had ordered for them.
The girls’ sweet faces beamed with affection for their patroness while they recited their lessons or showed her examples of penmanship, sewing and artwork. Mrs. Parton offered praise and dispensed many hugs as though each was her own dear daughter.
Beatrice followed her example in commending the children. Over the next hour she found herself drawn to one in particular. Sally was perhaps fourteen years old, and Beatrice observed how well she managed the younger children. How she wished she could offer the girl employment, perhaps even train her as a lady’s maid if she was so minded. But alas Beatrice had no funds for such an undertaking.
As they left the building, Mrs. Parton told Beatrice that the true beneficence happened later when her steward ascertained the institution’s needs and budgeted the funds to cover as many of them as possible.
“I take such pleasure in helping them,” Mrs. Parton said on their way back to her Hanover Square town house. “Not unlike Lord Greystone.”
“How so, madam?” Pleasantly exhausted from the afternoon’s charitable exercise, Beatrice still felt a jolt in her heart at the mention of the viscount’s name.
“Why, he is the patron of a boys’ asylum in Shrewsbury, not far from his family seat.”
Beatrice experienced no surprise at this revelation, for Mrs. Parton had already mentioned the viscount’s generosity. Of course she could not expect that generosity to extend to the sister of a wastrel, lest his name be tainted. She knew very little of Society, but that one lesson had stood at the forefront of her thoughts ever since she had met him the night before. Perhaps she could glean from that experience a true indication of his character. He might perform charitable acts to be seen by others, yet neglect his duty to family, as Papa had. Thus, she must do her best to ignore her childish admiration for his physical appearance and social graces.
But somehow she could not resist a few moments of daydreaming about what it would be like to have the good opinion of such a fine gentleman.
* * *
Greystone longed to dig his heels into Gallant’s sides and race madly down Pall Mall. Unfortunately traffic prevented such an exercise, so he would have to find another method of releasing his anger. In his six years in Parliament, this was the first time he had stormed out in protest over the way a vote had gone, but he had no doubt it would not be his last.
Never had he been more ashamed of his peers. Or, better said, the majority of them—those who today had rejected a measure providing a reasonable pension for wounded soldiers returning from the Continent. How did the lords expect these men to survive, much less provide for families who had often gone hungry while their husbands and fathers were fighting for England? Greystone’s own brother Edmond had been seriously wounded in America, but had the good fortune to be an aristocrat, as well as their childless uncle’s chosen heir. He now had an occupation and a home, not to mention a lovely bride. The rank-and-file soldiers had no such security or pleasures. What did Parliament expect these men to do? Become poachers? Pickpockets? Highwaymen?
Somehow Greystone and his like-minded peers must break through the thick skulls and hardened hearts of those who regarded the lower classes with such arrogance. Almost to a man they claimed to be Christians, yet they exhibited not a whit of Christ’s charity. Then, of course, there were dullards like Melton, who sat in the House like lumps of unmolded clay, showing no interest in anything of importance, no doubt waiting until the session was over so he could return to his gambling. No matter how young he might be, how could the earl be so uncaring? And how different he was from his sister.
Greystone had not failed to notice that Lady Beatrice appeared eager to accompany Mrs. Parton to the orphan asylum. With a wastrel brother who should be seeing to her needs, the lady no doubt had limited funds, which made her charitable actions all the more remarkable. Still, she wore a new blue day dress, which complimented her fair complexion far more than the brown gown she had worn last night. Perhaps she was better situated than it seemed. But then, why would she be Mrs. Parton’s companion, generally a paid position? Why was she introduced as
That last question was the easiest to answer. Were he related to Melton, he would not wish for Society to know it, either. Yet dissembling could do her no good and much harm if she hoped to make a match worthy of her station. But then, it would be difficult to find a gentleman whose charitable nature matched her own who would accept such an intimate connection to Melton.
His useless musings were interrupted when a coach rumbled past, drawn by six lathered horses and churning up dust to fill the air...and Greystone’s lungs. He fell into a bout of coughing almost as bad as those he had suffered in his nearly fatal illness last winter. For a moment he struggled to breathe as he had then, but at last his lungs cleared. Being deprived of air was a frightening matter. He coughed and inhaled several more times to recover. If he arrived home in this condition, Mother would fuss over him and send for a physician.
His early arrival meant that the lad who watched for his homecoming would not be at the front window to collect his horse and take it around to the mews. Thus when Greystone dismounted, he secured the reins to the post near the front door. Then he took the three front steps in one leap to prove to himself that his illness had not permanently threatened his health.
Inside, a commotion lured him to the drawing room. The furniture was covered with white linens, and Crawford the butler knelt over something on the floor. Near the hearth stood a scowling, soot-covered man in black holding a broom with circled bristles.
“Greystone.” Mother rushed toward him waving her fan, first in front of her own face and then his. “You must leave this instant.”
He tried to block her wild gesturing, to no avail. “What in the world?” Foolish question. Obviously the chimney sweep had come to ply his trade. But that did not answer for the two servants hovering over the object on the floor.
“That horrid man and his filthy helper have utterly destroyed my drawing room.” She continued to flutter the fan. “There is soot everywhere. You must not breathe it.”
Indeed, he did have to cough away a few particles, but the air was tolerable. “I am well, madam. But what is that?”
As soon as he asked the question, Crawford moved back to reveal a small boy lying on the floor. “’Tis the climbing-boy, my lord. He had a nasty fall inside the chimney.” The old butler’s face was lined with worry. “If I may say so, sir, you should do as Lady Greystone says. This soot flying about cannot be good for your health.”
As if cued, the boy began to cough as violently as Greystone had just minutes ago on his trip home. A black cloud issued forth from the lad’s mouth, or perhaps his clothing, and then he noisily dragged in a breath.
“Shh.” The young serving girl kneeling beside him eyed Greystone with concern as she patted the boy’s face with a damp cloth. “His lordship’s in the house. Don’t be so much trouble.”
In answer the boy wheezed and gasped again, and his head rolled back and forth.
“Good heavens, he cannot breathe.” Greystone rushed to move the girl aside as memories of his illness made his own chest ache. The poor child might be suffocating. Recalling how it had helped him to breathe when he sat up, he knelt and gently pulled the lad into a sitting position, amid loud protests from Mother and Crawford. “There you go, lad. This should help.”
“Aw, gov’ner, leave him be.” The master sweep peered down at the boy. “’E’s a faker, that’n. Just trying to get out o’ work.”
Rage flooded Greystone’s chest. “Silence, you oaf.” The child’s eyes opened, revealing yellow, bloodshot orbs...and fear. Greystone gulped back his anger, for it would not help anyone. “Give me the cloth.” He grabbed it from the girl and swiped it down the boy’s cheeks and under his nose.
Orders and reprimands flew around him, but the only words he could discern were those of a voice speaking within his soul:
help this boy.
All he could answer was,
Lord, I am Your servant.
Doubtless this was the mission God promised to assign to him one dark night last November when Greystone had cried out to him, certain he would soon take his last breath.
I still have work for you
had been His answer. The irony was not lost on him. How well he knew the terror of not being able to inhale life-giving air. Now this poor climbing-boy, this thin, frail bit of bones barely tied together in human form, struggled to breathe. Yes, this was Greystone’s work, his cause. A strange excitement swept through him even as fear for the moppet welled up beside it.
The boy gave out another violent cough. “Sorry, gov. I’ll get back to work.” He tried to wiggle out of Greystone’s hold, but cried out. “Ow, me arm, me arm.”
“Shh, easy, lad.” Greystone touched the boy’s appendage, bringing forth more cries. No doubt it was broken, if its slight crookedness was any indication.
“Hush, boy.” The master sweep bent over him. “Hush, or I’ll gi’ ya sumpin’ to holler about.” He punctuated his threat with a curse.
Mother gasped. “How dare you?”
“Watch your tongue, sirrah.” Crawford stepped toward the taller, younger man as if he would seize and eject him.
Greystone lifted the boy in his arms and stood, noticing that the brave child clenched his jaw to keep from crying out again. “Crawford, prepare a room for my little friend and fetch a physician. His climbing days are over.”
“Now, see ’ere, yer lordship.” The master sweep had the gall to step in front of Greystone to block his exit. “I bought that boy and ’is brother for a pretty penny. ’E owes me work.”
Barely able to control his rage, Greystone gave the man an icy glare. “You will be paid. That is, after I have investigated your illegal use of this child. He cannot possibly be old enough to work as a climbing-boy.”
“I say you pay me now.” The wild-eyed man must be mad to challenge a peer this way.
Greystone longed to smash the man in his brazen face. But that would not help the boy. “You are fortunate my hands are occupied. Get out of my house.”
“If ya please, sir.” The child’s eyes watered profusely, and his tears formed ragged streaks down his tiny blackened face. “I gotta go with ’im. I gotta take care o’ me little brother.”
Greystone’s eyes burned, the oddest sensation, for he never wept. Perhaps it was all this soot. But he too had younger brothers and would never leave either of them defenseless. He glared at the master sweep. “Bring me the boy’s brother within the hour. If you do not, I shall personally hunt you down, and you will regret it for the rest of your wretched life.”