I’ve been thinking about my story line for a number of years now. I shall once more breath life into my heroine. Some things get put aside until the time is right.
Just as soon as the baggage carriages and staff pulled up to the new house on Grosvenor Square, Alfred and Bentley assisted Mrs. Willoughby, Sarah and Mary to alight from the carriage step onto the wide sidewalk. Chef Armand was busy looking at the large rose- colored brick house, letting his gaze slide up, up, up to the tops of the chimneys. He nodded in approval, and with a satisfied grunt he climbed up the stairs to stand behind Bentley, who was at this very moment pushing a heavy key into the lock. The front door appeared very strong and heavy. Bentley gave a turn of the key and pushed the ornately carved wooden door inward.
One by one they entered the great vestibule and Bentley turned to order Alfred to carry in the baggage and to check with him as to which rooms they would need to be taken to. Turning to Mrs. Willoughby, he suggested she show Mary and Sarah to their rooms above-stairs, while he would escort Chef Armand to his kitchen. Chef Armand graciously bent his head in acquiescence and followed the elderly servant, all the while taking in the richness of his surroundings. The hallway was wide and the gleaming wooden floors were covered with thick, beautiful, hand carved rugs, which muffled their footsteps and his shoes almost sank into the surface. This was looking better and better he thought to himself. When the man in front of him stopped before a swinging door, he stepped aside, allowing chef to pass before him. Hearing the chef’s quick intake of breath, he smiled, allowing a brief look of smug delight to shine momentarily upon his face. Bentley quickly schooled his expression before walking into the room.
Chef Armand was standing, mouth open, almost awestruck by the completely renovated and sparkling kitchen. In his experience, he had at the best of times a small, cramped place in which to work his magic and order about his staff of servants. Such quarters made for an uncomfortable place to work for hours at a time. Not so here.
Bentley explained that Lady Winter had purchased the house next door. Over the past five months, workman had combined their efforts into expanding the kitchen, pantry, sinks, workspaces and dining areas. And at the back of the house, she had instructed them to create chef a private bedroom chamber and sitting room. He sat down in the chair provided and Bentley suggested he himself would prepare some tea straight away. Chef Armand showed his gratitude by taking Bentley’s hand in his giant ones and thanking him.
Bentley went into the kitchen and prepared enough tea for everyone. He, Chef and Mrs. Willoughby would be having a meeting within the hour, to be in readiness for Lady Winter’s arrival.
In the meantime, Mrs. Willoughby and the maids who were following her to the topmost floor, were also taking in the newly refurbished walls, doors, floors, ceilings and furnishings. Everything looked new and clean, bright and shining. They hurried to their floor and let out several ahs in appreciation. The fourth floor was larger, more open and there was even a private sitting room! Plus, each of their bedroom doors was off the main room. Never in their wildest dreams had they supposed they would be housed so lavishly.
Each of the women was counting her lucky stars as Mrs. Willoughby excused herself to freshen up. She told the women to unpack and rest for half an hour, before joining her downstairs in the kitchen. She left them to walk silently down the grand staircase. Everything was in perfect order, and her job was going to be so much easier that she felt as if she were dreaming. The hushed swish of her skirts was the only sound to be heard. There was no noise from the outside Square at all.
Within a few minutes, she had joined Chef Armand and Bentley at the kitchen table. She poured tea for them. They discussed the menus and looked into the pantry, larder, ovens (for there were two), and the other nooks and crannies. They were very excited and agreed on their newly found accord. A friendship of sorts, had been established betwixt them and as the rest of their staff arrived, they joined in, drank some tea and were given a list of all of their duties and the rules by which they must abide. Lady Winter’s household would be perfectly run.
The next morning was hailed by a very colorful rooster, singing the arrival of the sunrise. The sky was clear and there was not a cloud on the horizon. Everyone sat round the table sharing a full breakfast and talking gaily. Uncle Simon seemed very well and was telling everyone that he was well rested and his behavior indicated he spoke the truth.
They took their leave, and once in the carriage, Alice sat on her beloved mistress’s lap. Lady Winter leaned forward and rubbed Alice’s little head. “You have been a very good kitty and a wonderful traveler. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t see it for myself.” She smiled that gorgeous and radiant smile that captured many a heart. Lady Laura began wondering if her godfather had anything to do with her Aunt’s good mood. She had caught them stealing glances when they believed they unobserved. Inwardly Laura hugged herself. Glad to be so close to London, her come-out imminent and the two people she loved the most beside her, she wanted to pinch herself that her dreams were finally coming true.
Just then Sir Harry rode up to her window. Smiling broadly he asked, “Lady Laura, would you care to ride with me in Hyde Park tomorrow afternoon? The fashionable hour is five o’clock and I will be able to introduce you to some of my friends.” She turned to look at her Aunt to see if she approved. Nodding her head, Lady Winter patted her niece’s hand. “Yes, Sir Harry, that would be very nice indeed,” she replied politely. “Good. I shall call for you at half past four tomorrow.” The outing was set and then Sir Sebastian rode up to the window as Sir Harry’s horse trotted ahead, “Lady Winter,” his deep voice caressed her name. “Would you do me the honor of riding with me tomorrow so we may join in the fun?” he asked. She replied, “But of course. I shall be happy to accompany you my lord.” He smiled and a glint lit his eyes. He urged his horse forward and rode ahead of their traveling carriage. Both ladies gazed out the window smiling, as their carriage rolled onward toward London.
Lady Laura was happy about her discovery. Her Aunt and her godfather did like each other. This was going to be very exciting. The season would afford her many happy hours of entertainment and so many new delights. She saw the tops of houses and buildings, in the distance and exclaimed, “Oh, do look Aunt, we have arrived in London!”
Since Sir Harry was the closest to the door, he opened it to reveal, of all people, Doctor Edwards. Entering the room, the doctor said, “My dear Lady Winter, I saw your traveling chaise in the courtyard, and I couldn’t believe it. I do hope you do not mind my joining you for a few minutes. I wanted to check up on your Uncle Simon.” Rushing to explain further, he went on, “I am called to London and will continue my journey tomorrow morning.” Espying his patient, the doctor began to approach him.
Lady Winter rose and extended her hand. She shook the doctor’s replying, “But of course you should join us. Your arrival could not be more timely. Uncle had an unsettling journey, and we have decided to stay the night here. I would that you see to him and reassure me that we did not leave Brighton too soon.” Her worried expression cast a shadow over her countenance.
Doctor Edwards saw to his patient immediately and the men ushered the doctor and Uncle Simon upstairs to his chamber. This left Lord Stanton, Lord Henry and the ladies to spend a little time in conversation. They decided to play whist before they retired. Mrs. Willowby, the landlord’s wife, had already escorted Lady Winter’s household staff upstairs, so it was just the four of them in the room.
“I am so pleased the Doctor was passing through and saw our carriage,” she exclaimed. I have worried that I rushed our departure instead of letting Uncle rest more. He seemed strong enough, but I must have misread his cheerful disposition for his being more recovered.” Lord Stanton patted her hand gently saying, “Lady Winter, you are always putting others before you. All will be well.” He smiled and suddenly the evening promised to be more enjoyable than she had hoped.
Sir Harry dealt their cards and for the next hour or so, they laughed, joked and played partners. The men won finally and then it was off to their beds for a good night’s rest. They would prepare to leave by nine o’clock, right after breakfast. The gentlemen escorted the ladies upstairs and bade them a good night.
Lady Laura preceded her Aunt into their bedchamber. As their window was open, Alice was lying down inside her little crate. Laura walked to the window and closed it. The late August evening had turned much cooler and this would allow Alice to sleep on her mistress’s bed. Sarah knocked on the door and came into the room. Curtseying, she then helped them to ready themselves for sleep. They thanked her and she went off to her own bed. The ladies settled down into their comfortable feather mattress and soon they were asleep. Alice yawned, stretched and closed her eyes. She purred and soon she was softly snoring into the night air.
Looking up at the bedroom windows of The Wooden Ship, the watcher had decided to climb up to the older man’s bedchamber, after the whole household was quiet. Those jewels must be recovered and tonight was perhaps the only chance to check and see if he had the pouch hidden in his belongings. Since they hadn’t been found in the front parlor, the old man was the most likely to have picked them up. Tonight was it.
Getting a ladder from the stable had been tricky, as the stable lad was making his nightly rounds and the ladder had to be quietly carried toward the inn. Once it had been lifted and leaned against the brick wall, the nocturnal intruder climbed the rungs as fast as possible. Thankfully the window was open. This was a good sign that fortune was smiling down. Once inside, a quick but silent search produced nothing. The old man was lying on his side and was snoring very loudly. Good enough to muffle the visitor’s footsteps.
A continued search through all of his personal belongings proved that the elderly gentleman did not harbor the priceless gems. Climbing out the window and back down the ladder took only a few seconds. The ladder was returned to the stable, so that none would be the wiser. Time to consider who might be in possession of the jewels, for without their recovery, financial doom was imminent.
Lady Laura leaned back against her godfather’s large chest, inhaling deeply. His scent, mixed with the fragrance of the warm day, the leather of the saddle and the smell of horseflesh, combined to give her a heady sense of adventure. Sighing a bit, she turned toward him asking, “Do you think poor Uncle Simon is going to recover? He is getting on in years and his hands were visibly trembling when they laid him on the coach seat.” She turned to look forward again, admiring the beauty of her surroundings.
Sebastian’s deep voice assured her, “Laura, your Uncle Simon is just having a difficult time of it, but I feel certain he is strong enough to pull through this. Hopefully, he will be back on his feet in a few days. Higgins and Alfred will take good care to see that that happens.” His strong hands held the reins a little tighter as the wind suddenly blew hard enough to cause the trees to bend forward and startle his horse.
Meanwhile, Laura’s aunt was having a hard time keeping little Alice calmed. She had to hold tightly to her leash while holding her soft, squirming body, to keep her from leaping out the window. Apparently, she wanted to ride on Laura’s lap atop the horse. Now that would be a sight, her aunt thought. “Please relax Alice,” she admonished gently. “Laura will hold you as soon as we reach the posting house. Looking out the window, she could see the top of the roof coming into view. “See there Alice, we shall arrive in just a few minutes and you will be reunited with Laura again.” Alice let out a tiny mew and settled down on the skirt of Aunt Minerva’s dress. She looked wistfully at the tops of the trees passing in view of the opened window.
Having reached the posting house, the entourage was made heartily welcome by the owner, and their horses were taken to the stables. Everyone entered the establishment, which was called, The Wooden Ship, and was quietly taken to a private dining room. Once there Uncle Simon was placed on the sofa and a cool cloth was laid on his forehead. “You know, I am feeling much better already,” he said. In fact, his coloring was a testament to his words. There was a creamy hue with a little pink in his cheeks. Much better than the deathly white and pasty pallor he had worn a short time before. Seeing him thus, sighs were heard audibly all around the room.
Alice rubbed herself against Lady Laura’s skirts, whereupon Laura scooped her up and twirled her three times in a circle. Noisily she dropped tiny kisses on the little cat’s head, and Alice went along with their game by acting as though she wanted to escape. To everyone’s pleasure, Alice leaned against her mistress’s neck and licked her cheek. A laughing Laura was so radiant that those present could only stare at the young lady’s happiness.
Walking over to Uncle Simon, Lady Laura kissed his thinning hair and told him, “There. Now you will be well, and we shall go on to London and prepare for all of our outings.” She smiled a brilliant smile and the old man basked in the warm glow. “Aye, Laura, I will take you about in grand style,” he promised.
Sebastian was looking at Lady Winter unabashedly, as her attention was on the owner’s wife and deciding upon their refreshments. When asked if there were enough rooms for them to stay the night, the woman assured her they could easily be accommodated. She then turned to Uncle Simon, asking him if he wanted to rest here and they would continue tomorrow. He agreed and Lady Winter asked the woman to prepare bedchambers for them, as they had decided to stay over.
They all dined in the private parlor, with the servants eating at a separate table. This was a bit of a holiday for them and a surprise to boot. One could hear the relaxed laughs and easy conversation enjoyed by all. Lady Winter was thankful her Uncle was looking well enough to partake of the roasted chicken and fresh vegetables. They were getting ready to retire when there came a knock upon the parlor room door. Everyone turned to see who was knocking.
Uncle Simon awoke with a start, his hands flying up to hold his aching head. “Ouch!” he exclaimed. The carriage had abruptly stopped and Higgins immediately awoke from the little nap he had been having. He saw that his master looked drawn and turning toward Lady Winter suggested, “Lady Winter, your Uncle does not appear strong enough to continue much further.” Turning back to the older man, who was now emitting small sounds of someone who did not feel very well, opened the carriage door and assisted him to step outside. Almost at once, the older man bent over and relieved himself of what he had eaten earlier. Pale and shaken, he allowed Higgins to assist him to sit down on a large tree trunk.
Observing this, Lord Stanton rode his horse close to the carriage. Upon seeing the distress upon the faces of the ladies said, “Lady Winter, there is a posting inn a little further in the town of Crawley. We can put up there for the night and send the servants ahead with the baggage carriages.”
“Yes. That would be the wise thing to do,” she agreed. “I leave it all in your capable hands Lord Stanton.” She sat back and held Laura’s hand in hers. “We will stop ahead and give Uncle Simon time to rest and recover himself. Sometimes when there has been a head injury, it upsets the stomach,” she explained. Although she wondered to herself if she sounded as convincing as she tried to. It would not do to get her niece upset, too.
Lady Laura turned her head to look out the window, just in time to see her Uncle become ill once again. “Oh Aunt Minerva, he is retching once more. Poor, poor Uncle Simon. I hope he will feel better soon,” she said.
By this time, Horton, Sir Harry and Lord Stanton were standing close by the elderly gentleman. He seemed to be getting some color back into his cheeks and he was not shaking very much anymore. “It might be better if your Uncle could stretch out across the seat and Higgins can keep a bucket close by, just in case he becomes ill again,” he confided in the ladies. “Laura, would you be willing to ride up before me on my horse?”
“But of course Godfather,” she readily agreed. Sir Harry assisted her to alight and as soon as Uncle Simon was settled back in the carriage, Lord Stanton mounted his horse. Sir Harry lifted Laura up to be positioned in front of Lord Stanton, across the saddle. She arranged her skirts while Sir Harry mounted his horse. Once more the entourage was en route.
The lone rider, who had been following in their wake, kept a discreet distance. “This is most fortunate indeed. There is a good possibility that tonight I can recover what is mine.” The words were softly spoken and a pleased expression flickered over the rider’s face.
The household was up before the rooster’s crow, and sunrise saw Laura and her Aunt dressed and seated at the breakfast table. Soon after they finished eating, Laura went to find Alice. She took her cat into her room and placed her into a large crate, to keep her from escaping through the window. Everyone, including Alice, would travel to London.
Uncle Simon was settled on the sofa, reading the morning paper, whilst Higgins sat on a chair nearby, in case his master needed anything. He had been with the elderly gentleman for almost fifteen years. Higgins was quiet, efficient, and loyal, plus he held a sincere affection for his master. His duties completed, their trunks packed, he only needed to help the older man climb into the carriage at departure time.
Lady Winter spoke with the entire staff in the dining room. Mrs. Willoughby and Chef Armand assured her ladyship that all personal belongings had been organized and packed into trunks and boxes. Even as they spoke, Alfred already had some of the stable lads loading the baggage carriages. All would be ready to travel within two hours. Everything was going according to plan. Feeling relieved, Lady Winter thanked them and then retired to her room. Once there she double-checked her own personal belongings, especially the ones she would keep close by her, in her carriage. The night before, she had sewn the leather pouch inside her deep pocket, so the gems were quite secure.
By ten o’clock Lord Stanton’s luxurious traveling carriage had arrived. Following close behind were Sir Harry and Lord Stanton. They both helped Higgins in getting Uncle Simon settled into the chaise, and then Higgins took the seat beside him. Next Lady Laura and Lady Winter were assisted into the carriage and took their seats opposite their Uncle and his man.
Alice was sitting on Laura’s lap wearing her traveling harness. It surrounded her small frame comfortably. There was a thin leash attached to it. Alice was used to wearing this apparatus for traveling with her mistress. Her ears were perked up and she was very interested in everything about her. Laura gave the little cat a treat to encourage good behavior and Alice licked her lips appreciatively.
The servants were loaded into the household’s carriage, directly in front of the two baggage carriages, which were very full. Everyone watched as Bentley closed the front door, turned the key and then handed it to Lady Winter. The butler climbed aboard the second carriage and Lord Stanton signaled to the drivers. Their journey was about to begin.
They were finally on their way and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Some were feeling they could finally relax, while others were quite excited at the prospect of leaving the seaside town and traveling to the great city of London.
Laura was thrilled to be a young woman on the threshold of her entry into society. There were plans to be made. Next week she was to be outfitted with an entirely new wardrobe, by the finest French dressmaker in the city. She dreamed about the people she would meet and the prospect of her very first ball. How exciting it all was, she thought. So intense were these feelings, that she almost hugged herself. The long years of boarding school were almost forgotten.
“Do you agree Laura?” her Uncle asked pointedly. His stare was fixed upon her dreamy features.
“Oh! I am sorry, I was woolgathering.” She admitted. “Please forgive me, what were you speaking of?” she asked.
“Are you excited about your come out Laura?” he asked gruffly. Meeting his inquisitive expression, she admitted that she was. They discussed places to sightsee and he even promised to accompany her for a drive through Hyde Park. “Would next Thursday be a good day?” he asked.
“That would be wonderful, Uncle Simon,” she accepted happily. Her rosy cheeks were a perfect compliment to the light yellow traveling dress she wore. She always looked entrancing, so much so, that the old man thought the young girl looked just like her mother did at the same age. Pity, he thought, that she had died so tragically. He was going to make sure he did his part in showing his grand niece a wonderful time in London.
The entourage made good time, with only a few stops, in order to refresh and change their horses before reaching the mid-way point. Lord Stanton and Sir Harry rode their own horses alongside the conveyance holding the ladies and Uncle Simon.
Sir Harry lived in London with his parents. His father was the Earl of Chester. He had an elder sister who had married last year, while his youngest sister was still at school. His parents believed he would settle down soon enough, so they were glad to have him about. There was no rush for a new heir. His parents were only in their mid-thirties and enjoyed perfect health. It was nice not to feel the kind of pressure to marry which so many of his friends did.
He glanced at Lady Laura’s profile, and although he could not help being attracted to her, he was getting the impression lately that she did not return his affection. Oh, she liked him well enough, as she might a brother, and for this reason he was determined to try just being her friend. He was ready to offer her friendship and an escort while she was in London. He resolved not to wear his heart on his sleeve, and having made this decision, he smiled to himself as he rode in companionable silence, alongside her chaise.
Meanwhile, Lord Stanton was taking in the beautiful scenery of his beloved England. My, but it was good to be home again. The waning summer day was pleasant and mild for late August. The trees were lush and green. It was still too early for the leaves to change color, he especially loved seeing their flaming glory.
Keeping his horse slightly behind the chaise afforded him an unrestricted view of Lady Winter. For all of her twenty-seven years, she didn’t look a day over twenty. He took his time admiring her flawless and elegant beauty. When he had found out that she had never married, he felt a deep satisfaction in that news. Since his return, he caught himself thinking about her all of the time, a pastime he had given up years before. No one could compare to her and he was beginning to wonder what he was going to do about this constant barrage of emotions he was experiencing. Continuing this train of thought, he rode deep in thought, alongside her chaise.
Uncle Simon was thinking about the young man’s visit the other day. That silver box and the story he shared, and then his own fall. The trouble was he was not sure if he fell of his own accord. Right now, he was confused about that afternoon. When they reached London, he would have another word with Lord Stanton. The old man snuggled down in his comfortable seat, and the sway of the carriage soon lulled him to sleep, comforted by the presence of those about him.
Lady Winter was not unaware of the long stares she was receiving through the carriage window. How could she not feel the intensity of Lord Stanton’s presence? Every inch of her being was aware of him. She needed to collect herself, to keep her reserve and pretend that she was unconcerned. Closing her eyes she soon relaxed enough to take a little nap. Smiling to herself, she dozed off, only to dream of the very man she was trying to ignore.