(Previously: Intro / Chapter 1)
The day after the Thorpes’ card party dawned clear and bright. A haze of muted excitement still hung over the air as the Thornwick household prepared for its expected visitor.
As soon as calling hours commenced, Rachel arranged her soldiers for battle in their modest sitting room.
“Eleanor, for the last time, stop slouching,” she snapped in martial tones.
In the kitchen, Lucy was put to work crafting exquisite delicacies for their tea. Rachel would not be called parsimonious for anything, bread and butter would not do for the likes of Henry Beechworth.
Alas, time crawled on without any sign of Henry. This was becoming a habit of his. Eleanor picked up her sewing and Emma dived back into her latest book. Rachel glowered. It was just like a man to keep them all waiting.
Muttering unhappily to herself, Rachel paced before the window. Henry did not arrive. The clock chimed 5 o’clock and they were forced to give up for the day.
The next day was much the same. Rachel was seething, but Eleanor felt a weight had lifted from her shoulders. She was determined to enjoy this reprieve as long as it lasted. Emma too was surprisingly cheerful. Together, the sisters remained impervious to their mother’s temper and had a very pleasant day.
The third day after the fateful tea party was a quiet affair. Emma and Eleanor read contentedly together. Their bits and bobs were scattered here and there but Rachel had given up managing them.
It was almost 5 o’clock anyway and Rachel had resigned herself to snoozing peacefully in the wingback chair.
Suddenly a knock echoed throughout the house.
Rachel’s head shot up. She had been in the middle of a delightful dream about dancing corgis, but the sound permeated her groggy mind and set her ricocheting out of her chair.
In a moment she was at the window.
“It’s the Beechworth carriage!” she breathed.
The Thornwick sisters did not doubt their mother’s keen carriage identification skills.
“Hurry, make yourselves presentable!” Rachel cried.
Emma and Eleanor stood dumb for a moment as Rachel took a swipe at the couch. They could hear Lucy going down the passage to answer the door.
“Stop standing around like fools,” Rachel hissed. “Good grief, why do you have so many books? Just stuff them away!”
Emma, Eleanor, and Rachel executed a hurried dance to put away everything objectionable in the sitting room. They finished just in time to smooth their skirts and look respectable as the door opened.
Lucy ushered Henry into the sitting room.
“Henry Beechworth, madam,” she announced smugly.
“Mr. Beechworth, welcome!” Rachel said magnanimously.
The girls curtsied, eyes focused demurely on the floor.
Lucy made a quick exit to make tea. She wished she hadn’t let Emma and Eleanor eat the feast she had prepared for the gentleman three days ago, but it would have been stale anyway. A shame.
“Good afternoon, ladies,” Henry said, bowing.
“You honor us with your visit, Mr. Beechworth,” Rachel said with what Eleanor thought was an extra dollop of condescension. “Please, take a seat."
As Henry Beechworth sat down near the fireplace, Eleanor thought she felt the room contract. He made the sitting room seem cramped and even shabbier than usual. She wondered what he thought of them - waiting and waiting for him to grace their little rented cottage with his magnanimous presence.
Henry showed no sign of discomfort. His polite smile never wavered as he politely asked after their health.
“Forgive me for not visiting sooner. My father has been unwell. You have a very elegant establishment, ma’am.” There was not a hint of guile in his tone. “You must find Ashcombe much changed since you last settled here.”
Although his question had been mostly directed towards the sofa where Eleanor and Emma sat, their mother was quick to interject her opinion.
“Yes, I hardly recognized Ashcombe when we returned. The streets are so filthy and crowded. The old neighborhoods are being taken over by nobodies! Our location now is not fashionable, I admit, but we could barely find a breath of fresh air now that the riffraff have moved in!”
“There has been some troubles in Ashcombe, but there has also been great growth and prosperity. Whole estates are springing up as we speak. There are many fine new shops in the city center, have you visited any yet? They truly are a sight to behold.”
Again, Rachel Thornwick felt it prudent to answer.
“I’m afraid my daughters and I have been too retired to see the sights of Ascombe just yet.”
As Rachel hoped, Henry was quick to see an opening.
“I would be happy to escort you ladies whenever you wish. We have many fine sights here in Ashcombe that it would be a pleasure to visit in such agreeable company.”
Lucy came in with the tea at that successful moment and there was much fuss to be made about pouring and passing out cups.
The warmth and smell of the tea made the sitting room’s atmosphere feel a tad more welcoming. Henry’s smile remained unchanged over his cup.
Rachel quickly resumed the conversation.
“You’re offer is most generous, Mr. Beechworth. I’m afraid my daughters have experienced little of society since our… unfortunate retirement on the Continent.”
"We did spend some time in SimParis this past year. The sights are quite incomparable.” Emma interjected to her mother’s displeasure.
“SimParis is a magical place, is it not? I visited there with my mother when I was a boy. Walking along the Seine with her is one of my happiest memories.”
“Oh, the Siene! Eleanor, do you remember that night when we walked along there at twilight and saw the floating lanterns?”
“It was like a painting,” Eleanor smiled at the memory.
“Did you ever attend an opera at the Palais Garnier? It is truly one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen. When my building efforts are complete, I hope my ballroom lives up to a particle of its splendor.”
“How spectacular! The buildings of SimParis have a certain sparkle that Ashcombe could do well to imitate. The Académie des Sciences…” Eleanor began emphatically.
Rachel was quick to put an end to that line of conversation.
“My dear Emma,” she interrupted. “You must not disparage your mother country so freely. However delightful certain aspects of SimParis are, they cannot compare to the land of your birth and the place where we made so many… happy memories.”
Considering her mother’s earlier comments, Eleanor thought this statement to be farcical, but she could see what her mother was not so subtly getting at.
“Ashcombe is no SimParis, but I hope to do all I can to make it a welcoming and pleasant place for your family. When my ballroom is completed, I would be honored if you would be among the first to see it. In the meantime, may I invite you to take tea at Beechworth Manor this Thursday?”
“My daughters and I would be delighted to visit your famed manor, Mr. Beechworth.” Rachel said as Emma and Eleanor looked at her expectantly.
On cue, Mr. Beechworth rose and set aside his teacup. The ladies followed and the room seemed to contract once more.
“My father and I look forward to your visit. Beechworth Manor will be brightened by your presence.”
“Do send my regards to your father, Mr. Beechworth.” Rachel said, managing to sound honest.
“Good day, Mrs. Thornwick, Miss Thornwick, Miss Eleanor.”
The ladies returned his bow politely as Henry Beechworth took his leave.
It was a wonder that Henry didn’t feel the heat of Rachel’s pensive stare as he left the cottage and returned to his carriage.
Eleanor turned anxiously to her sister, trying to read her thoughts. “Well?”
“Finally we will see the famous Beechworth Manor! It shan’t live up to SimParis in any case, even the parts of SimParis we were able to see.” Emma answered cheerfully.
Enough chatter, girls!” Rachel snapped. “We have much to do! Gowns, bonnets, we must do an inventory… Well, what are you waiting for? Immediately! We have much work to do before Thursday!”
Henry sent the carriage off to the carriage house and let himself into Beechworth Manor without waiting for the butler. He still felt a thrill of pride as his latchkey turned in the lock.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Beechworth,” his butler greeted him politely.
“Hello, “ Henry said cheerfully. “How is my father?”
“Your father has been much the same, sir. Dr. Weston is with him now.”
“Ah,” Henry said. “I’ll go up then. Thank you, “
Henry strode up the stairs with more courage then he felt. Dr. Weston emerged into the hallway at the same time and called out to his friend.
“Hello, Beechworth,” Dr. Weston smiled in his quiet way.
“Hello, Weston. It’s so good of you to come. How.. how is my father?”
“He’s been restless but his temperature has gone down. I’ve been sitting with him the past half hour just talking. He simply wants company.”
“So he’s improving?” Henry asked tentatively.
“I’m afraid that any improvement will only be temporary. We can keep him comfortable, limit his pain, but there is nothing else medicine can do for your father at this point.”
Dr. Weston put a comforting hand on Henry’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, my friend. Your father is a determined man with a strong will. He may fight for a year or even two, but you must prepare yourself for the end.”
Henry felt small. He had to find his voice to say: “Ah, well, thank you, Weston. You’ve often told me not to be optimistic but I, well, it is hard to accept. You’re so good to sit so long with him. I know he enjoys your company.”
“It’s my pleasure. Your father is an amusing man. It is always invigorating to match wits with him. I know his gruffness is all show. Now, I’m sorry to leave you but I must attend to my other patients.”
“Of course. Thank you for keeping him company. I know you have many other, more pressing matters. Goodbye, Weston, and thank you again.”
“Take care, Beechworth.” Dr. Weston said bracingly.
Henry Beechworth watched Dr. Weston retreat down the stairs. The doctor’s words had left him in a brown study.
He knew he should attend to his father but he lingered in front of the bedroom door. Many dark thoughts swirled around in his head and he felt his head sinking. He had to resist the urge to hide in his room and wait for someone, anyone, else to take control of the situation.
There was no one else. So he painted on a cheerful smile and knocked with all the fierceness he could muster.
“Come in,” his father called from inside.
Lawrence Beechworth looked up from his armchair and could not repress a brief smile at the sight of his only son in the doorway.
Henry stepped into the room and felt a wave of heat hit him. He had given his father first choice of rooms in the remodeled mansion but Lawrence had chosen the smallest bedroom for its lack of drafts. The fire was stoked in all seasons and the room felt like a sauna.
Lawrence’s smile soon vanished behind his usually stony expression, but Henry knew his father was pleased to see him.
“Good afternoon, Father,” he said cheerfully.
“Humph,” Lawrence snorted and looked away. “Good evening is more appropriate. You’ve been gone half the day.”
Henry was not dampened by his father’s gruffness.
“Now, Father, I have been putting off my call for days. Besides, I was not gone above two hours and I see Weston has been to visit you. I met him on the stairs and he told me how loathe he was to leave. He does enjoy your company so.”
Lawrence sniffed but he looked pleased.
“Weston is a capital fellow. If only he would give up his experiments and settle into a proper town practice, I know he could make something more of himself.”
Henry pulled out a chair and settled comfortably by the fire.
“That is not Weston’s way. He would sooner give up medical practice than his charitable work and research.”
“More fool he…” Lawrence grumbled ungrammatically.
“Would you truly wish Weston to be a stuffy town doctor with one eye always on his bills? No, you would not care a penny for him if he were not the eccentric, thoughtful, and decidedly country man he is now. We must appreciate the man the way he is and not try to change him.”
Lawrence sniffed at that but had no retort. He sat in silence for a moment and then spoke.
“Well, are you not bursting to tell me? How was your call on the Thornwicks?”
“My visit went very well. The Thornwicks are pleasant company and I enjoyed myself. Mrs. Thornwick sends her regards to you.”
Lawrence snorted at that.
“I’m sure she did.” His tone was acidic.
Father, the Thornwicks were nothing but polite and respectful to me. We have started anew. Please remember your promise.”
“I’ve invited the Thornwicks to tea on Thursday. I hope you will be well enough to join us and the conversation will remain civil. Mrs. Thornwick shows no sign of holding a grudge, let us match her with hospitality,” Henry pleaded.
Lawrence sniffed and snapped, “Very well, boy, you need not remind me.”
Lawrence sniffed again, thoughtfully this time, and ran his hand along the arm of his chair. He seemed perturbed.
Mastering his voice he said coldly, “Do you still mean to marry that Thornwick girl then?”
Henry was exasperated. “Father, I have not spent more than half an hour in conversation with Miss Thornwick or her family. I still do not know her in the slightest. I simply wish to further my acquaintance with the Thornwicks.”
“I’m not going to marry her tonight, or tomorrow, or even this month for that matter. It is simply tea on Thursday, nothing more. Surely we can handle that?”
Lawrence watched his son’s face carefully and then sniffed again. Henry took that to be an agreement.
“Now, we still have some time before dinner. Do you feel strong enough to come with me upstairs to see the progress on the ballroom? I especially wish you to approve the placement of the paneling.”
“Very well, my boy,” Lawrence replied, seemingly content to leave the conversation about the Thornwicks at that.
Henry helped his father out of his chair, careful not to irritate Lawrence by treating him too much like the invalid he truly was.
“Where are my slippers?” Lawrence grumbled.
The slippers were found and Lawrence put a hand on his son’s shoulder as they walked to the door. Henry was pleased to feel its comforting pressure and chattered cheerfully about the ballroom and his future plans for renovation.
All was well, thought Lawrence.
END OF CHAPTER TWO
Current Mood: accomplished