|A Conspiracy of Concern
Author: Katie Duggan's Niece PM
Cranford fanfiction inspired by the 2007 BBC series and more specifically the chemistry between Mr. Carter and Miss Galindo. A multi-chapter Victorian tale blending AU, the series, and Mrs. Gaskell, and advancing several romantic pairings. In progress...Rated: Fiction T - English - Romance/Hurt/Comfort - Edmund C. & Laurentia G. - Chapters: 40 - Words: 183,175 - Reviews: 223 - Favs: 35 - Follows: 31 - Updated: 09-12-10 - Published: 11-15-08 - id: 4656585
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
The following was inspired by the 2007 BBC miniseries Cranford, based on Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford, Mr. Harrison's Confessions, and My Lady Ludlow. It is only one of three multi-chapter Mr. Carter/Miss Galindo stories on this site, the other two being Siggy's "An Honourable Estate" and LadyKatherine's "What Might Have Been."
When last I updated C of C, there were several feet of snow on the ground, and it's taken a blistering summer and a gorgeous Labor Day weekend of writing and rewriting to get to this next part. But I love these characters and mean to follow them through the resolution of several key plot threads, which is why this chapter presented such a challenge.
Many thanks to my readers, particularly the Magnificent Six - Solo Lady, theHuntgoeson, Siggy, the doctor's next dance, smc0235, and one unnamed but much appreciated reviewer - who encouraged me during a miserable winter. Thanks as well to AmyLouise2, Deweynumbers, and Tchitchina, and to Cindy for her kind comments. And it's only fitting that I welcome to MissGalindo, who has been following this story for a while. It means a great deal to hear from all of you.
Chapter 40: A Mystery and a Surprise
As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.
- The Song of Solomon 2:3
"I do not believe, Mr. Carter," said Lady Ludlow, "that I have ever seen a day in September to equal this one."
"Indeed it is very fine, my lady," said her estate manager, offering his agreement but no smile.
"So fine," she continued, "that I am truly sorry I did not arrange for Laurentia to accompany us. The fresh air ought to have done her good, and the orchards perhaps summon up happy memories of her childhood."
"Mrs. Carter will be sorry to have missed the opportunity, my lady, though I believe she has a great deal to engage her at home and in the village this day."
"In the village?" Lady Ludlow regarded him from beneath her parasol. "I sometimes think, Mr. Carter, that you expect your wife to march about from place to place like a soldier." She ignored the telltale furrowing of her steward's brow and went on, "Perhaps I ought to send the carriage for her now and then, that she suffer no undue burdens."
"I thank you, my lady. You will understand, however, that Mrs. Carter is fond of her independence."
It was rather a shocking admission, and though Lady Ludlow also detected a touch of choler in Mr. Carter's words, still she must smile. Laurentia was blessed with an independent spirit, and surely her husband had seen as much before their marriage, and perhaps taken it for an advantage. It was strangely gratifying, then, to think that he had been made to learn patience since his wedding day.
"And my wife takes pleasure in her walks," added Mr. Carter tersely. "Especially when the weather is so fine."
"I do not doubt that she does, Mr. Carter," said Lady Ludlow, nodding. "But what says Dr. Harrison? Are young physicians nowadays inclined to look with favor on such exercise or not?"
"He regards it as beneficial to a woman's health and spirits, madam."
"And what do you think, Mr. Carter?"
"I share his opinion."
All was well, then, or ought to have been. Yet something in Mr. Carter's tone suggested otherwise. He would not speak of it, of course, nor would Laurentia.
However, there was no need for worry; if there were storm clouds, they would swiftly pass. Laurentia's patience and good sense should see to that. In the meantime, it should do Mr. Carter no harm to display greater solicitude towards his wife.
"I am glad Laurentia's health is so improved," observed her ladyship. "Do you not think, Mr. Carter, that she might soon be well enough to travel?"
"Yes. For a holiday later this autumn, perhaps the wedding trip that was denied the both of you."
"My lady, surely you have not forgotten that I am obliged to - "
He stopped himself, and she knew very well that he had been about to mention the school, but would not, for fear of giving offense. And she knew, were she to question him further, that he should protest that his duties occupied him so wholly that he might not think of leisure - this despite months of relative serenity on the estate.
Very well. She would let the subject rest until another time.
"I have forgotten nothing," she said simply, taking note of Mr. Carter's characteristic pout before turning her gaze back towards the orchard. To her delight, the boughs of every nearby tree were heavily laden with ripening apples.
"There will be a bountiful harvest this year, I think," she said, fairly sighing with pleasure.
"I pray it may be so," said Mr. Carter, with the expression of one plagued by doubts about the generosity of God Himself.
Sitting a horse had been out of the question. He could not bring himself to attempt it, not since the accident, and besides, as her ladyship insisted upon accompanying him to see the orchards, she had simply ordered the carriage for them both. It was no more than she had done on several other occasions, yet this time it unsettled him. It had not been long since she had conveyed him in similar fashion to the village, and for a very different purpose. That day too had been fully as fine as this one, deceptively so.
Her ladyship had forgotten none of that, surely, though she spoke not of word of it now, and confined herself to praising the beauty of the day, and the bounty of the harvest.
A fine day, a bountiful harvest. That ought to have pleased him, as it had her ladyship. Yet his spirits were such that there might as well have been plagues of locusts on a biblical scale, or hail the size of those ripening Hanbury apples, or indeed storms of any variety. God knew there were storms enough at home - at home, which had heretofore been his refuge, and was now a battleground.
Perhaps it was unfair to call it so, though his wife could wield words as adroitly as any good soldier might a weapon, indeed had done as much that very morning. Did he expect her, Laurie had asked, to divine his intentions without his uttering a word of them? Or that she should breach the sanctuary of his study without so much as a by-your-leave? Indeed, had he forgotten the conversation they had before their marriage?
He had, of course, forgotten nothing; it was her memory that was faulty. But that was entirely forgivable, he said, when her nerves and health were in such a delicate state.
At that Laurie had informed him that her nerves were not impaired in any fashion, and as for her health, she might offer no complaint.
With forbearance he had stood listening to her, remembering how provoking she had seemed earlier in their acquaintance - Miss Galindo, with her pert manner and modern ideas. Yet he could not but admit to himself that even then he had found her person and voice uncommonly pleasing - as he did now, quarrels or no.
In fact he regretted taking his leave so abruptly. He might have at least spoken a mild word, if not to beg her pardon, at least to give her the opportunity to respond in kind. A touch, a kiss seemed too much to hope for, yet either ought to have brought a truce, and an end to one of his worries, at least.
And there were a great many of those of late, not all of which he might share with Laurie - this fresh evidence of Lord Septimus's ingratitude, for instance. The news should not astonish her, Edward suspected, but it should also grieve her, and he would not allow that, even if she never knew he was shielding her - not that she seemed to need his protection, this willful, self-possessed wife of his; not that she appeared to be his at all these days, when she beguiled and vexed him in equal measure.
Not long after her husband had departed the house Laurentia had set out, to perform her appointed errands, as well as enjoy the fresh beauty of the day, and an exhilarating walk.
As she made her way across fields and through the woods, though, she hardly took note of her surroundings, or of the morning sky, a particularly glorious shade of blue. Her mind was instead engaged by her most recent quarrel with Edward. He might as well have been at her elbow, accompanying her every step of the way, as Laurentia conjured up what he had said to her that morning, the tone he had employed, the very expression on his face as he had taken his leave - brows lowered, lips set in a fashion she had seen a hundred times.
His anger was a mystery to her. Why had he reproved her, when he himself was in the wrong? If he had wished her to post his letters, why had he left them on the desk in his study, where she would never disturb them? He might as well have buried them in the garden!
Of course Edward had been angry when she made that last observation, and refused to acknowledge his part in the confusion. Then had he set out with only the most curt of farewells, and no kiss at all - not that she had been in any humor to receive his kiss, or give one in return.
Of course, owing to the restrictions of her convalescence, she had of late offered him hardly any sign at all of her affection and regard, and now that she was well again, she could not say whether she was meant to invite his attentions, or simply expect Edward to reclaim his rights. Neither of them would address such a sensitive matter, but then it was rather an ordeal to talk of any subject these days.
Perhaps their quarrel might have resolved itself more swiftly if she had been able to soothe and distract him as an affectionate wife might. She was already attuned to his wishes, though they had not been married long.
And she did pity him, for all that he had vexed her, for of late there had been no respite for Edward at all. He was restless throughout the night, and by day his considerable energies were occupied with the estate, and the preparations for the school. Obstinate as he was, he undertook too much himself, though he had at least accepted Laurentia's assistance, in fact entrusted her with almost every particular of his plans.
For all that, though, he was still keeping something from her; she was certain of it. Perhaps it concerned Hanbury Court, perhaps the arrangements for Harry. She simply did not know, and Edward had not confided in her. Possibly he never would.
His reserve ought not to have worried her; she knew he would keep nothing secret without good reason. He disliked subterfuge, and Laurentia even now blushed to think of the moment when, in response to his inquiry, she had confessed to removing certain papers from his desk, and placing them in the hands of her ladyship, thus enabling the mortgaging of Hanbury itself.
Such an act ought to have put an end to her acquaintance with Mr. Carter altogether, yet he had been the one to seek a reconciliation. His anger was justified, her blunder appalling, and still he had come to her. However stern, even brusque, he might appear to the estate staff or the villagers - or even to his wife and friends, if he was out of temper - he was nothing if not fair-minded.
Now Laurentia knew as well that away from prying eyes, he was gentle and considerate, even tender, and would be again, surely, once their quarrels were past.
He had sought her pardon when she had been in the wrong. Now, perhaps, it was left to her to sue for peace. Laurentia should have time enough to think how to proceed, before Edward returned home that evening.
"Mrs. Carter! Mrs. Carter!"
Miss Pole seized the brim of her bonnet with one hand and the skirts of her gown with the other and, without pausing first to look for oncoming carts and carriages, hurried across the street towards her quarry. Before the lady herself she made the appropriate reverence, which was most cordially reciprocated.
"Good morning, Miss Pole," said Mrs. Carter, who looked uncommonly well - no sign of her recent illness, none at all.
"Good morning indeed, Mrs. Carter! I am glad that we have met each other, for I have this day urgent business to discuss with you."
"Urgent business?" Mrs. Carter's brow furrowed slightly. "Is there some trouble, Miss Pole?"
"One can might not refer to it as trouble, though it is a matter of some delicacy - "
"Oh, Mrs. Carter! Mrs. Carter!"
Both ladies started and turned round to see the Honorable Mrs. Jamieson advancing towards them - or, rather, being borne in their direction by two of the unluckier members of her staff, who came to a standstill before Miss Pole and Mrs. Carter, and carefully lowered the chair - which contained not only their mistress but also Giuseppe, both of whom had been dining rather too well of late.
"Good morning to you, Miss Pole," said Mrs. Jamieson, summoning up a smile. "Mrs. Carter," she said again, gravely nodding her head, while Giuseppe barked his greetings. "How fortunate that you are abroad in the village today, for I have a matter of import to address with you."
"Indeed, Mrs. Jamieson?"
"In fact it is a miracle that I am here at all, for I was met with a great many obstacles along the way. I am speaking, of course, of that to-do at the school - or prospective school, I should say."
"I am afraid I do not understand."
"Why, you know - this nonsense with the masonry."
"Do you mean that Mr. Dolan has brought the stones for the construction of the wall?"
"Indeed I do, Mrs. Carter. Such an inconvenience. And that your husband would engage" - Mrs. Jamieson dropped her voice to a whisper - "an Irishman to do the work! I never heard of such a thing."
"Then allow me to set your mind at rest, Mrs. Jamieson. Jem Hearne gave a good account of Mr. Dolan's industry and character, as did Captain Brown."
"Captain Brown?" Mrs. Jamieson's eyebrows rose so precipitately they ought to have set her cap askew. "So this is his doing. But perhaps I ought not to be astonished."
"Pray do not mistake my meaning, Mrs. Jamieson." Mrs. Carter spoke her words softly and carefully, though the color in her cheeks betrayed stronger emotion. "Captain Brown merely provided valuable counsel.
"Indeed this plan for the alteration to the school was only formed after much discussion, and my own entreaties. My husband is a practical man, Mrs. Jamieson, and should not like to create more work for the teachers by subjecting them to the prospect of their little pupils wandering off whenever they are at play, and so he consented to the construction of a walled enclosure."
"Hm. Is your husband always so easily persuaded, Mrs. Carter?"
Mrs. Carter's smile was unforced. "No, Mrs. Jamieson, I can assure you he is not."
"Well! I had never thought to see such an uproar in Cranford," said Mrs. Jamieson. "I do hope Mr. Carter will answer for it if there is any further disruption."
"My husband, Mrs. Jamieson, far from shunning responsibility, will likely as not seek it out."
"Indeed. But perhaps he ought to think first of his duty to Lady Ludlow, and not go about meddling in things that do not concern him."
"I hardly think the welfare of the village children - "
"And again no garden party this year, no doubt owing to the economies your husband has imposed on her ladyship." Mrs. Jamieson sighed deeply. "How altered our little community seems!"
To that observation Mrs. Carter could produce no immediate reply, and Miss Pole seized the opportunity to perform her Christian duty.
"Upon my word, Mrs. Jamieson, surely we are not so in want of diversion that we need look to her ladyship to provide it. Why, there was that performance by the conjurer in the assembly rooms only last month!
"And then we have the harvest festival to think of, and in due course the literary society will commence its gatherings. And in that regard, I have one or two matters I must see to see to directly."
"Oh! Then I will not detain you," said Mrs. Jamieson. "Good morning, Miss Pole," she said, nodding as graciously as she might with a restless dog in her arms. "Mrs. Carter."
"Good morning, Mrs. Jamieson," said both ladies, giving their farewells and curtsies nearly in unison. They watched as the two men took up the chair again and proceeded onwards. Miss Pole was convinced she heard one betray his emotions in an audible sigh.
"You might have told her, Mrs. Carter, that it was Miss Tomkinson, with her superior knowledge of child-tending, who thought to propose the walled garden," said Miss Pole, turning towards her companion.
"I have by no means forgotten Miss Tomkinson's part in this, Miss Pole," said Mrs. Carter. "But I should not like to see her forced to provide a justification of her position. No, it is enough that Mrs. Jamieson thinks of ill of me, and perhaps even of my husband, though he does not deserve that."
"No indeed! Nor does Captain Brown, who will no doubt be forced to provide an account of himself when next he meets with Mrs. Jamieson.
"Well, shall we go?"
"I beg your pardon, Miss Pole, but I do not - "
"Oh! I had quite forgotten my errand, Mrs. Carter, as I dare say you have yours. But there is a matter of importance I wish to discuss with you. Let us walk, and I shall reveal all."
Mrs. Carter had made short work of her appointed tasks, and presented herself in Princess Street at the agreed-upon time, to find Miss Pole waiting for her. Calling hours had only just begun as they made their way to Miss Matty's doorstep, to be received with the expected civility and warmth.
After a few pleasantries, Miss Pole took up her theme. "It is owing to Providence itself that I met with Mrs. Carter this morning as she went about her errands - some business or other for the school, I dare say - for I needed to seek her opinion of the selection of books for the literary society. She was greatly astonished to hear that your participation had been called into doubt, for that very reason."
"You must forgive me, Mrs. Carter," said their hostess, blushing a little. "I always looked to my sister for guidance in such matters. Deborah's knowledge was superior to mine, and her opinions so decided." Miss Matty lowered her voice to a whisper, as though Miss Jenkyns might overhear them from heaven itself. "I fear she was greatly shocked when Captain Brown made us a present of The Pickwick Papers. She always considered Mr. Dickens most objectionable."
"Yet now you have heard something of Mr. Dickens," said Miss Pole crisply. "So have we all, and I dare say none of us has been corrupted by vulgar sentiment.
"Besides, we are to begin with the works of Miss Austen. Miss Tomkinson has read them all, as has Mrs. Carter, and suffered no ill effect."
"Of course not," said Miss Matty. "It is only that Deborah never included Miss Austen's novels in her reading." She turned to Mrs. Carter. "I know nothing of them myself. Are they very…sensational?"
"By no means," said Mrs. Carter, smiling. "They are quite as edifying as they are amusing. And Miss Austen was a clergyman's daughter herself," she added shrewdly, watching her hostess's expression alter from anxiety to relief.
"Was she indeed?" asked Miss Matty. "Then I should be very interested in taking part in your reading circle."
"The Cranford Literary Society, Miss Matty," said Miss Pole, firmly and with no small degree of satisfaction.
"Yes, the Cranford Literary Society. Will many of our neighbors be joining?"
"I should think so - Miss Tomkinson and Mrs. Forrester, of course, and perhaps the Goddards - though not the Harrisons; I cannot tell you why - and Captain Brown - "
"Captain Brown?" Miss Matty could not conceal her astonishment. "Captain Brown has consented to be one of our number?"
"I own I have not addressed the subject with him as yet, Miss Matty," said Miss Pole, coloring a little. "But he can hardly refuse. What else has he to do, now the Gordons are gone to Scotland?"
It was a fine September evening, very fine. The day had proceeded just as it ought, with no idleness or discord among the men, and at dusk he had been free to return to his little house to take a simple supper, then leave the window open as he read Jessie's letter, and afterwards something from Mr. Dickens. Yet doing so had brought him no pleasure.
And the house was so intolerably quiet. He could not understand why he should suddenly find it so unsettling. When Jessie had been there, he had on some evenings actually preferred that she take up her sewing or a book, and sit with him in companionable silence, rather than at the spinet. He dearly loved his girl, of course, but had to admit she possessed no particular gift for music, and there were times when his spirits could ill afford another evening of melancholy tunes.
Then Jessie had married, and given him a granddaughter, and if there was little peace in the house then, Captain Brown did not mind, as long as the child was flourishing, and her mother well contented, despite the new demands and responsibilities.
But now his little family had departed for Scotland, and there was nothing left to him but this house, with its confining rooms and creaking floorboards. It was absurd that any of that should bother him when he had known the privations of encampments, the bleakness of garrison towns. Why, in Cranford he was surrounded by every comfort, and by good neighbors as well.
Yet he found no refuge in his house, though it at least afforded him a shield against the pitying looks and forced smiles of the ladies, who asked after Jessie and Flora whenever they met him, and had little else to say once those subjects were exhausted.
No, there was nothing for him now but the railway, and the solitary walk to church every Sunday, and his books and, when Jessie found time to write, a letter from Scotland. But then that ought to suffice for a man in his time of life. Truly that ought to suffice.
Largs, Tuesday morning
I pray this finds you well and happy.
We are so ourselves, and I can report more remarkable news: Flora has learnt to sleep throughout most of the night, and is consequently in a much better temper. So are we all, I confess. I had not imagined a child should not take her rest at night, but instead always be waking. Now Flora sleeps sweetly, and we have the leisure of reading, or of course retiring early, though we do not do so while the weather remains fair, and the days are not yet grown very short.
And now I shall be able to write to you oftener, and give you report of everything that happens here. I am kept very busy, but not an hour of the day passes when I do not think of you, at home in Cheshire.
Until my life's end I shall remember the kindness shown to me in Cranford, and it comforts me greatly to know you are among such people - the wise Reverend Hutton, and merry Mrs. Forrester, and the watchful Miss Pole - who has a good heart, I know, though some may not see it at once - and, above all, dear Miss Matty.
Father, I was very grieved when Miss Jenkyns died, and not only because she had been the best and truest of friends. No, above all else it pierced my heart to think of Miss Matty, and her sorrow at the loss of a most beloved sister. Thank the merciful Lord that her brother is now returned, to comfort and cheer her.
I thank God as well that you have such good neighbors as these, and I expect you will often write to me of them, and any news from Cranford. I do not doubt that Miss Pole will provide you report of all matters of consequence, particularly the health of Mrs. Forrester's cow. Remember how the children laughed to see Bessie in her absurd flannel costume? But it was fashioned on your advice, for there was no other remedy, once the poor thing had lost all her hair.
A cow wearing grey flannel! We do not see such things in here Scotland, and I suspect no one would believe me if I related the curious history of Mrs. Forrester's Bessie. When Flora is a little older I shall tell her the story, and make her laugh, and no doubt with time she herself grow to love the dear little village where such odd things happen.
I promise we shall come to visit you in Cranford, Father, as often as we may. Pray give my kindest regards to Bessie's mistress, when you see her, and of course to Miss Pole, and Miss Matty, and Mr. Jenkyns.
Your loving daughter,
Tuesday evening, and still no letter from Mary. Jack ought not to have minded - he'd kept everything she'd sent him, and fairly learnt it all by heart - but the evenings were a good deal less lonely when he had something to read besides his medical texts and notebooks.
And though it was only September, it seemed a great while since Mary and he had spent their last evening together, and of course that had been in the company of all her London relations.
One of the cousins had sat down at the pianoforte, and then someone had asked Jack to sing, which he did, if only to please Mary. His voice had not failed, though he very much wished it had, for they'd made him sing all manner of sad, sentimental songs - the worst sort of punishment for a fellow about to send his girl back to Manchester. A good thrashing ought to have been less painful.
But he did his duty, and might have laughed over it all with Mary if they'd had more than a moment together before parting. Instead they'd said goodbye awkwardly, both of them in a melancholy humor, and trying to conceal it. The next morning Mary had gone home to Manchester, and Jack had taken up his work, with the prospect of nothing else but that for months to come.
He did not mind it so much by day, when he was kept busy, but every night he took to his bed hoping to dream of Mary.
This time, though, he closed his eyes and found himself at the seaside. It looked nothing like home: not a blade of grass, a stone, or a cottage in sight, only the pale sand stretching out in either direction, and the water and sky both a dull grey. In fact there seemed to be no color at all.
And no company, but for a stranger standing there on the sand, a man dressed all in brown. His hands were clasped behind his back, and his eyes were on the sea.
He turned round as Jack came near. The fellow had a fine head of hair, now white with age, and the face of an Irishman, but when he opened his mouth to speak, his voice was unlike any Jack had ever heard.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?" said the stranger, nodding towards the sea.
Beautiful? When the waves are rough and the sky grey? Jack was about to say as much when he saw that the man had spoken the truth: it was as fine a September day as ever he'd seen: the sky gleaming blue, the waves tumbling steadily towards the shore - a welcome sound, even a comforting one.
"Yes, it is," said Jack in reply. "It is beautiful."
The stranger smiled, then turned his gaze back to the sea. "Then what's a young fellow like you got to be sad about?"
"I see it in your eyes, my friend."
So Jack told him all about his work, and his home in Ireland, and his mother and sisters waiting for him there, and Mary in Manchester, waiting for him there. In fact the stranger listened to him confess all his worries, but when Jack woke up he could not recall what the man had said in reply, but for one thing, just the one.
You do what God has called you to do.
And somehow it was enough to remember that, and the kindness in the stranger's eyes as he'd spoken the words. It was a queer dream, but Jack felt the better for it. He could take up his work again, and do what he was what he was meant to do. Perhaps it was what he'd always been meant to do.
Mind you, he'd hope for a letter from Mary every day. That wouldn't change.
Mr. Carter almost jumped when Harry came into the office, and hurried to put away his papers. Perhaps he had forgotten Harry was coming to supper that night, or maybe he had just been thinking about all the things Lady Ludlow wanted him to do. But he smiled at Harry, as if he was glad to be going home, and he was quick to put on his hat and lock the door behind them.
Harry had a lot to tell him as they walked. It had been a fine day, and the Reverend Hutton had sent him out to fetch a great many things, and so had Mr. Hatch, who was very cross and told him not to dawdle. Helen said Mr. Hatch was always cross about something, and Harry should only worry if he wasn't. That made Harry laugh. Helen was clever, and so was Lizzie, only they couldn't read Greek and Latin like their papa. Did Mr. Carter know that Harry could say something in Latin now? Just a few words Reverend Hutton had taught him. Mr. Carter smiled and said that was remarkable, and Harry told him he hadn't said the words to Dada yet; he might think Harry was swearing. That made Mr. Carter laugh.
Mrs. Carter met them at the door, and her face turned pink as soon as she saw them. She looked very pretty. Harry was glad she was well again, and wanted to hear all about the books and Reverend Hutton and how Harry had spent his day. After supper she took out her sewing and sat with him and Mr. Carter while they read aloud. Could she read Latin and Greek? No, just German and French; Harry knew that. But she was as clever as the rector was, and as kind. In fact she was the kindest lady Harry knew.
After Harry left, Edward swiftly repaired to his study, perhaps to examine their accounts, or write a letter, or avoid her company; Laurentia could not say which. He had barely spoken to her during supper and afterwards, and, for all his smiles for Harry, and even for herself, had seemed distracted. Possibly he was taxing his energies beyond what they might bear. Possibly he was worried about the estate, or about Harry. She should not know until she spoke to Edward in private.
With a little hesitation Laurentia approached the door of her husband's study. Edward, pen in hand, was at his desk, with some paper or other before him. Even by candlelight she could see his face clearly - and note how careworn he seemed.
But he had not noticed her approach, and so she tapped on the door, already ajar.
"Mm?" he grunted.
"Edward, I wish to speak to you."
At that his expression changed again - to resignation or resolve; she knew not which. In fact he looked very much as he had done when first she had seen him at the desk in his office at Hanbury. She was startled to acknowledge to herself that even in that period of their acquaintance she had been drawn to him. The occasional smiles he gave her, the expression in his eyes when he looked at her, the timbre of his voice when he addressed her had caused her heart to beat faster.
She had not been able to put a name to her feelings then, but at present she might, and by that power she dared address Edward.
"Harry was excessively talkative tonight, I fear."
"The boy is in good spirits. Not a bad thing, I think," said Edward dryly, keeping his eyes on his correspondence, or whatever that was on the desk.
"No, of course not. Only - Edward, I fear it may seem Harry's head has been turned by all that has happened. He is full of talk of books, and of Latin and Greek, and the rectory garden, and the rector himself, and perhaps seems a little distant."
"Laurentia," said Edward evenly, at last raising his eyes to look at her, "Harry must make his way in the world. He is only just now beginning, yet I have great hopes for him."
"I know that. And I am certain he will always remember what you have done on his behalf."
At that Edward laid down the pen once more.
"Even if he says nothing of it now," continued Laurentia, "I do not doubt his gratitude towards you, or his affection."
Edward sat motionless in his chair, his eyes cast downward. Laurie came to him and laid a hand upon his shoulder. "Pray do not trouble yourself, about that, or about anything else." Perhaps it was folly to speak those last four words. Of course he would worry. He always did.
"All will be well." With one hand she brushed the hair from his brow, then leaned over and and kissed the spot, very near where the scar still showed. As she drew back she saw Edward's expression had changed again, to something even she could not read. But he spoke not a word, nor did he look up at her.
She had not effected a reconciliation, then; that would have to wait for the morrow, or perhaps beyond. There was nothing else to be done.
"All will be well," she repeated.
"Good night, Edward. Pray do not remain too long at your work."
"Of course I will not."
She turned and made her way to the study door.
She looked back at him. "Yes?"
"I - "
But no other words came. He smiled at her then, smiled as the Mr. Carter of old might have done from behind another desk.
"You'd best get to bed."
"Yes. Good night, Edward."
As she was leaving the room she heard him say, "Do not worry. I shall not sit up too late."
It had been a small gesture, barely perceptible. For but a moment she'd left her hand resting on his shoulder, her thumb stroking it. Perhaps even she had not known what she'd done. But the touch of her hand after all this time...
For a moment he sat in the near-darkness, his face in his hands. She knew, didn't she? She knew. Surely she must. His Laurie.
He had offered her all he had, made many a sacrifice on her behalf, looked after her with the labor of his mind and his body, and revealed the depth of his feeling both in words and silence. Yet he had never given her anything as profound as her simple expression of trust and concern. She would offer the olive branch when they quarreled. She could even think of his pride, believing that Harry had wounded him by this talk of his new responsibilities and pursuits.
What had he been thinking, treating her very nearly as his clerk, and not as his wife? And she was so much more than his wife; she was his friend, perhaps even his advocate.
Of course over the past few days she had been out of temper, had even spoken sharply to him. But then he had provoked her. He had an uncommon talent for provoking her, as she did him.
Still it was she who had come to him, with gentle words, with trust, even with respect, when she might have kept her distance.
He would do justice to her trust in him. He would do it all. Till his last breath he would do what God had called him to do.
His step was very soft, or as soft as he could make it, when he at last mounted the stairs, expecting to find her asleep, and he was therefore startled when a sharp voice emerged from the near darkness.
"Edward, you need not creep about like a thief. I am not asleep." Laurie sat up, rubbing her eyes. "That sounded peevish," she added, with evident contrition. "I did not mean it so. It is only that I am wakeful."
"You must think on pleasant things," said Edward, as kindly as he could manage. "Then sleep will come."
"Pleasant things." Laurie sat with her arms round her knees, and considered his words. "Books of verse. Ice cream. Ice cream does sound very appealing just now, even if it is no longer summer. Yes, I shall think of Hanbury in summer, with all the roses in bloom, and of the two of us beneath the shade of a tree."
"Another garden party? Then I should have a great deal to do."
"I expect so. Yet the eyes of the ladies would follow you as you went about your work. The immaculately turned out Mr. Carter, walking stick in hand - "
Edward snorted. Laurie sometimes did take her teasing a bit far, though part of him was relieved to hear it again. And he loved the sound of her voice as she spoke to him thus -
"I am in earnest, Edward. Have you never seen the expressions on the faces of the women as you pass?"
He could think of no reply to that! And it was well that it was dark and cool in the bedroom, for Edward felt his face burning, as though under a hot sun. He made ready for bed and, as he did so, decided to speak of what he had been pondering all day.
"Laurentia - Laurie, I was thinking - "
"Mm?" She sounded a bit drowsy now.
" - it seems the orchards are faring very well this season." No, that was a stupid way to begin. "I mean that things are going very well at Hanbury, and with the school - but that is not what I wished to tell you, not truly. What I wanted to ask was, should you like to take a holiday?"
"Together. This autumn."
"I should like that. But the school - "
"We can arrange something." A rash promise, but he so wanted to make things right.
"A holiday," she said again, her voice soft. "Where shall we go?"
The question took him by surprise. "Perhaps the seaside," he said finally.
"The seaside. That sounds very pleasant."
Later he could not recall what they had spoken of after that, or which of them had fallen asleep first, or even whether they bade each other good night. But he, at least, fell into a deep sleep, with only the pleasantest of dreams. It was Christmastime again, and they were at Hanbury Court - the guests of her ladyship, this time, with nothing to do but enjoy themselves.
"I am in your good graces again, then," said Edward the next morning as Laurie was helping him on with his coat, which she had brought without being asked.
"You know you are." With a little smile she stood there before him, watching as he fastened all the buttons, and then reached up to arrange his neckcloth.
All was right between them, then, but he couldn't resist teasing her a bit more. "Then you are resolved to be kind to me," he said gruffly.
"I am always kind to you, Edward," she replied, in mock indignation. "But yes, I shall be kind. Very kind," she added, with provoking emphasis, looking up into his face. Suddenly she frowned.
"Is something wrong?"
"Something is not quite right. Did you want for adequate light while shaving, Edward?" she said, putting a hand under his chin, and gently turning his face from side to side.
"I was as careful as ever I am. But it wouldn't do to appear before her ladyship, and today of all days, looking so -"
"Then perhaps I am mistaken," murmured Laurie. All at once she rose on tiptoe to kiss him on the chin.
"Now you're just teasing."
"Yes. I do love teasing you, Edward, but I do so out of affection, not malice."
"I know that!" he said, deliberately pouting, distracting her just long enough so that he could gain the advantage, and prevent her from saying another word for several minutes. He did love the sound of her voice, even when she was teasing him, perhaps especially then, but he loved the touch of her hands, too, and her mouth.
They stood there for some time, Laurie stroking his hair with her hands, and he was very sorry he could not linger this morning, and would have to content himself with those few kisses.
But his mind was working. He wanted very much to make good on the suggestion that they go off for a few days by themselves. With her ladyship's wholehearted approval, he might begin making arrangements directly - this very day, if possible.
He had only just unlocked the door of his office and made a start on the day's tasks when word came that her ladyship required his presence at once.
Lady Ludlow was not alone when he entered the bright parlor where he so often met with her. Edward recognized her ladyship's solicitor, and a banker from Manchester. Both of them nodded in acknowledgment, though neither seemed eager to meet his eye.
"Pray leave us, gentlemen, that Mr. Carter and I may conduct a private interview. Afterwards you may rejoin us."
Once the doors were closed behind them, Lady Ludlow turned to him.
"Mr. Carter," she said sternly, "I have found you out."
To be continued...