Authors: A Suitable Wife
Beatrice watched the viscount while admiration for his Christian beneficence replaced her personal longings. She could not imagine Papa in this setting. He had barely noticed his footmen, let alone bantered with them as Lord Greystone now did. Nor had Papa ever extended any kindnesses to the children in the village near Melton Gardens. He had left all charitable work to Mama, and she had relished those activities. Yet in this family it was the viscount who enjoyed helping the helpless. Perhaps she would have to revise her former opinion that all peers thought only of their own interests.
“Come along, Bea.” Mrs. Parton once again pulled her from the room. “At last we can have our tea with Lady Greystone.”
Cringing again at the nickname, Beatrice nevertheless followed. But if she had her choice between taking tea with the haughty Lady Greystone and tending orphans with the lady’s suddenly amiable son, she had no trouble deciding which she would rather do.
reystone had never felt such satisfaction over a simple act of charity. Or perhaps this was not quite so simple. He still had to contend with Mother. But somehow the approval of Mrs. Parton—and, he must admit, Lady Beatrice, as well—reassured him that he was doing God’s will. And to think that the young lady cared nothing about soiling her new gloves and gown. That was a wonder in itself.
For his part he found the soot on his own breeches and shirt something akin to a badge of honor. But a few marks on his clothing were nothing like the many bruises on the two little boys. Obviously they had been caned, for large welts covered their backs and legs. Greystone was sickened to think of anyone treating a child so cruelly. He had felt the whip when he was near Kit’s age, and the sight of those injuries caused his own back to sting with the memories.
Gilly, Greystone’s body servant since he had turned four years old, had washed away tears and tended wounds, but never spoken a word against Greystone’s father, though he had inflicted countless physical and emotional wounds.
“My lord, the physician is here.” Crawford motioned to the young, black-clad gentleman who had just entered the chamber.
“My lord, I came as quickly as I could.” Dr. Horton gave Greystone a quick bow before turning his attention to the boys. At the sight of them he blinked, his brown eyebrows arched and his jaw dropped. “My lord—?”
“Yes, my good man.” Greystone put on a serious face, although he wanted to laugh at the confusion on the man’s countenance. “These are my new charges.” As he made the declaration, the weight of his new responsibility bore down upon him. Did he have the right to assume the care of these lads? He must find out who they were and whether their parents had truly sold them to the master sweep, lest he be considered a kidnapper. Just the work for his brother Edmond, who was studying law. Or, in the event criminals were at work in this, perhaps a Bow Street Runner.
While the footmen cleaned up the mess caused by the thrashing boys in the bath, Greystone apprised Dr. Horton of the events of the past two hours. He ended with orders that he should not mind the embedded grime, for it would grow out eventually. At least he hoped so, for if not, it would mark the lads forever and limit their possibilities. And while he could have left the chamber and been done with the affair, he found himself unable to abandon the two round-eyed boys, one wincing in pain, the other quaking in fear.
“Easy now, Kit. What is your brother’s name?” Greystone asked.
Kit had been cradling his injured arm in the other, but he let go and put the good one around the smaller lad. “This ’ere’s Ben, sir.” He whispered something in his brother’s ear that seemed to comfort him, for his shaking grew less intense.
“I am pleased to meet you, Ben.” Greystone gave him a slight bow, earning a gasp from Dr. Horton.
“Why, my lord, these are nothing but—”
“My charges, as I said.” Greystone schooled the man with a sharp look. “You must treat them with all courtesy.” He softened his expression. “Do tend to his arm straightaway. I shall not rest until we know its condition.”
After an examination of said appendage, the doctor confirmed Lady Beatrice’s astute diagnosis. “Not broken, but severely sprained. It seems a previous break healed incorrectly. The only remedy is to re-break it and set it properly.”
Kit exploded with a howl of protest. “I like me arm as it is, gov’ner.” At Crawford’s scolding harrumph, he winced and added, “milord.”
The distress on his face, mirrored on Ben’s, cut into Greystone’s heart. Poor terrified children. “There now, do not be frightened. We have no intention of causing you further pain.”
“Most of the bruises will heal soon enough.” Dr. Horton completed his examination of both boys and prescribed treatment for several ailments, both internal and external. “And of course they are dreadfully thin, as climbing-boys must be to do their work.”
His comment brought Greystone up short. Of course sweeps must be small enough to crawl inside chimneys, and many were children. It was a nasty but necessary business, for London would burn to the ground without well-cleaned chimneys. But he could not countenance such young boys being pressed into that service. He must examine the laws to discover exactly how young a climbing-boy could be, and perhaps find some way to ease their lives. “Yes, well, Kit and Ben will soon be too fat for cleaning chimneys.”
That earned a few sniffles until he knelt before them with a reassuring smile. “What do you say, lads? Would you like to learn a different trade?”
Each one gave him a solemn nod, although he doubted they knew what he meant.
“Well then, we’ll get you some clothes and food while we decide exactly how to proceed.” He beckoned to the housemaid, and she stepped forward, her face as blank as her grandfather’s always was. “Lads, you must obey Lucy at all times, understand?”
More solemn nods. Kit leaned toward him and whispered, “Th’other lady promised sweeties.”
Greystone chuckled. “Lucy, did you hear that? If they eat all their dinner, you must see that they have sweeties afterward. If you have any questions, I am certain Crawford can advise you.” He ordered one footman to dash out and purchase clothing for the boys. Another was sent to the kitchen for food. The rest continued to clean the nursery and make it fit for habitation.
With all set in motion, Greystone at last quitted the room and descended to his second-floor chambers, content that his new venture would be a grand and enjoyable success.
Gilly emerged from his small bedchamber attached to the larger room, his eyes widening in horror as he took in Greystone’s appearance. He cleared his throat, as if correcting himself, and schooled his expression into his usual placid smile. “Well, milord, what have we been up to today?” He removed the soiled jacket and cravat, staring at them as if wondering how to repair the damage.
Greystone laughed. “Quite a mess, am I not?” He quickly explained the situation, receiving Gilly’s usual acceptance of anything he said. The least he could do was offer a way out of the work his valet would have to do to restore the garments. “Why not just toss them, old man? They’re just clothes. Easily replaced. Unlike a human life, no matter how humble.” He was surprised by the emotion on Gilly’s face, a reddening of his eyes and a slight sniff, if Greystone was not mistaken.
“A fine thing you’re doing, milord.” Gilly kept his eyes on his work as he cleaned Greystone’s face and hair. But then, as a servant, he rarely looked Greystone in the eye. In fact he had not done so for many years, not since Greystone had taken his seat in Parliament, as if that had signaled a parting of the ways for them. He missed that deeper connection with the man. Maybe now was the time to recapture it.
“I am pleased to have your approval.”
Now Gilly directed his gaze to Greystone’s eyes, and he blinked, then smiled. “Thank you, milord.”
Greystone returned a grin, and warmth spread through his chest. With Gilly’s endorsement he was once again struck with the certainty that he was doing the work of God. As his heart lightened in exultation, Lady Beatrice’s approval came to mind. With Mrs. Parton he could count three people in his corner regarding the little boys. He wished the younger lady’s approval did not please him quite so much. Wished he did not think of her quite so much.
Interesting how she had correctly diagnosed Kit’s injury. No doubt she had ministered to her brother’s tenants, just as Greystone’s mother often visited the people of their Shropshire village, taking them food, clothing and medicine. Yet Mother always seemed to begrudge her duties, or at best tolerate them, while Lady Beatrice had clearly delighted in helping with the boys. He had no doubt that the young lady had been trained in managing a home and an estate. And no one could deny she was a singular beauty. Why must he search further? What more could a peer wish for in a wife?
Simple. He could wish and pray for a lady whose name was untarnished by a reprobate brother.
* * *
“Mrs. Parton, it is exquisite.” Standing before the wardrobe mirror in her bedchamber, Beatrice turned this way and that to see every detail of her new pink evening dress. As dictated by this year’s fashions, the waistline hung halfway down the midriff, which she found more comfortable than the higher, tighter bands. The sheer full-length sleeves hugged her arms, but did not bind. And the lace-lined neckline was high enough to protect her modesty. Would Lord Greystone view her with approval in this creation as he had the blue day dress? She dismissed the wayward turn of her thoughts and directed her attention to the lady beside her. “Giselle’s seamstresses must have worked without rest to complete it in three days. How can I ever thank you?”
Her benefactress chuckled, then sobered. “’Tis no more than your dear mama would have done for you, my child.” A tiny sniff escaped her. “I am pleased to provide a wardrobe appropriate for my companion.”
Beatrice sighed. “Yes, madam.” She was deeply grateful to Mrs. Parton, but must she always be reminded of her reduced status, even as she found a moment of enjoyment?
“But I have decided it would be wise to accept Lady Greystone’s advice.” Mrs. Parton reached up to adjust the silk scarf and strand of pearls her lady’s maid had entwined in Beatrice’s hair. “Hmm. I do believe this requires another pin or two.” She set about searching the dressing table drawer.
In a mere five days of being in London, Beatrice had learned her employer often became distracted. “Lady Greystone’s advice?” The viscountess had given counsel on many topics as the three of them had sipped their tea the other day. But the majority of her warnings had to do with avoiding chimney sweeps and other such members of the working classes.
“Yes, dear. Do try to keep up.” Mrs. Parton clicked her tongue. “We must not present you as Miss Gregory, as I first planned. Such a scheme will be all too easily exposed, and you will suffer for it. Some members of the
may even think you have tried to deceive me.”
An odd tendril of hope threaded through Beatrice. Would she now be elevated to the position of ward rather than employee?
“No, we will introduce you by your rightful name, and no one need know you are in my employ.”
So much for Beatrice’s fondest wish. Why did she not leave London right now and return to Melton Gardens? At least there she would receive the highest respect of the tenants, who never blamed her for their master’s failings.
Mrs. Parton’s thoughtful frown was reflected in the wardrobe mirror. “And of course we must make it clear that you have nothing to do with your brother. I have given orders to the entire staff that he absolutely must not be permitted to enter this house.”
Her proclamation cut like a knife into Beatrice. As much as she did not want to be seen with Melly in public, she refused to believe he was utterly lost to her. But she would comply with Mrs. Parton’s orders in hopes that their refusal to receive him would shame him into reformation. And of course she would continue to pray day and night for her wayward brother.
This evening, however, she had the responsibility of being a good companion to her employer, which would bring her both joy and sorrow. Attending the Royal Olympic Theatre in Drury Lane with Mrs. Parton had been among Mama’s favorite activities when she had accompanied Papa to London every spring. She had often promised to take Beatrice to plays and balls during her debut Season. Left at home in the schoolroom with her governess, Beatrice dreamed of the coming adventures, but Mama died of a fever before she could keep her promises. At one and twenty Beatrice was long past the proper age for a debut, and she doubted Mrs. Parton planned to introduce her at one of Her Majesty’s Drawing Rooms. But for now she would try to enjoy this evening as though Mama were with them, scheming to find the perfect husband for her only daughter.
Alas, for the past several days Beatrice’s thoughts of marriage were followed straightaway by thoughts of the viscount who lived next door. But despite Lord Greystone’s playful winks and banter about their shared interest in the little chimney sweeps,
Greystone made it clear Beatrice was not completely welcome in her home and was received only because she was Mrs. Parton’s companion. Even Lord Greystone had advanced his friendliness no further. Beatrice chafed at these unfair judgments against her because of Melly’s reputation, but there was no remedy for it.
To carry them to the theatre, Mrs. Parton had ordered her new blue-and-white landau, drawn by her favorite team of four white horses. The two ladies sat side by side facing the front of the elegant carriage so they could best enjoy the scenery as they traveled. Emerging from Hanover Square, they observed many other stylish carriages conveying members of the
to parties and routs and festivities to celebrate Napoleon’s defeat.
At the thought of such gaiety Beatrice dismissed the pain of her own disappointments. After years of war perhaps England and all of Europe could breathe more easily. Beatrice decided the future looked brighter than it had since Mama died, at least for the moment.
The carriage clattered over the cobblestones, but the thick cushions covering the benches and the springs on the wheels protected the passengers from severe jarring, making conversation pleasant. The air was filled with various scents, spring roses and honeysuckle vying with the evidence of passing horses on the roadways. As the landau turned this way and that on the streets leading to Covent Gardens, the always jovial Mrs. Parton extolled the talents of the renowned actor who would soon entertain them.
“Mr. Robert Elliston is quite handsome, to be sure. He will no doubt thrill us as Richard III, although I cannot think he could surpass his performance as Hamlet. Have you seen any of Shakespeare’s plays performed, my dear?”
Beatrice felt her own excitement growing. “No, madam, but I have read them all.”
“Oh, gracious.” Mrs. Parton eyed her with alarm. “Even
Beatrice gave her a sober nod. “And did not sleep for many a night afterward.”