BRIGHT HORIZONS

~ CHAPTER 14 ~

The door to John's study flew open with a bang, causing the men situated at the desk inside to jump with surprise.

"Oh, John, we must buy the farm so you can have an assistant, and then the orphanage can have all the food!" Sylvia flew across the room in the direction of her husband's arms.

He stood quickly, but still the desk stopped her before she got to him. Rounding the ungainly piece of furniture, he laughed outright, her exuberance catching, as he enveloped her in his embrace. "Sylvia, my sweet, your plan sounds delightful, but I confess I have no idea what it means. Are you perhaps speaking in code?"

"No, oh, no, John!" she protested, her eyes sparkling with her excitement. "It's a most fabulous idea. Cook got hurt so we went to market, then little Rachel got lost so we met her father and ate some strawberries. The most delicious strawberries! And he likes agriculture but to study not to farm, only the land has been in his wife's family for generations, so he feels he cannot leave it, but he needs to because he is ever so intelligent. He will make you the perfect assistant!" She banged on his chest for emphasis.

John gently guided her across the room to the sofa during her elaborately incoherent explanation. He glanced at his steward who was doing his absolute best to refrain from laughing at his employer's wife, but was instead drowning in fits of spastic coughing as a result. "It is quite all right, Reynolds," he assured the man. "You may as well join us. Despite the confused nature of my wife's jumbled sentences, I have no doubt that behind them there is a perfectly sound account, and it does sound as though your services may eventually be required if a plot of land is to be purchased."

Reynolds willingly joined them with a hearty grin, enjoying the couple's good spirits.

John looked around. "Anne! Why do you tarry near the door? Come," he gestured her in. "I feel we may need you translate Sylvia's high spirits into a coherent explanation." His smile lit his face and the twinkle in his eyes left no doubt that he was quite satisfied to be diverted from his work with their company and the promise of a recounting of their morning.

Anne returned his smile, graciously accepting his invitation, but first stepped backwards out the door to request tea from a passing maid, then hurried back into the study, taking a seat in an armchair opposite the sofa which her friends occupied.

"Reynolds, I do apologize," Sylvia remarked. "I know I must be interrupting something dreadfully important, but I was so overcome with excitement, I just had to share it with John immediately."

The steward chuckled. "Do not trouble yourself, ma'am. We were doing our utmost to avoid the humdrum matters our business sometimes entails. Your interruption is most appreciated, I assure you."

"Quite right, my dear," John added. "Ah, here is Sally with refreshments."

They watched as the maid brought the tea service in and placed it on the low table in front of Sylvia.

"Will there be anything else, your Ladyship?" Sally asked pleasantly.

"No, thank you," Sylvia responded with a kind smile.

Sally left with a quick curtsy.

"Now, Sylvia, Anne," John began as his wife poured the tea and passed around the plate of pastries and biscuits, "why don't we hear the details of your morning from the beginning so that we can make some sense of that which has you so immensely excited."

"Oh, John, it is so marvelous, I cannot think where to begin," Sylvia gushed.

He patted her arm. "No worries, my dear, perhaps our Anne can get the story started."

Anne smiled and took a sip of her tea. "I will delighted to share our adventures."

"Adventures," Sylvia echoed, "a good word. Yes."

They shared a smile.

"I will not bore you with the details of our tasks at the orphanage as they have no particular bearing on the story save that had we not been there, none of what follows would have occurred," Anne began. "The focus of our experience begins as we were preparing to take our leave. We were pulling on our coats and gloves when we heard a most terrible crash from the back of the main building. We rushed to the kitchen to find that cook had fallen from a ladder that had a weak leg and had broken as she climbed it. The surgeon was quickly sent for as Miss Harriet—she is the cook—looked to be in some pain. He examined her and informed us that she had sprained her back, bruised her shoulder quite severely, and her arm had been fractured. He set and bound her arm, then recommended that she rest her back for at least a week.

"Miss Harriet was quite distressed, not only at the severity of her injuries, but also because today is market day for her, and she would not be able to oversee the purchasing of supplies for the coming week."

"Could she not send her assistants?" Reynolds inquired.

Anne smiled. "They are quite understaffed, which is why they truly appreciate any volunteer help that is offered to them. With Miss Harriet indisposed, there is only her assistant, Miss Alice, left to do the cooking and the shopping, both of which require the bulk of the afternoon. Miss Harriet does usually provide just a light breakfast and luncheon on market day as she is using the remains of the previous week's purchases, but also because she is able to prepare it to be served with little or no supervision while she is at the market. With only her assistant available, there was no way to prepare the meals and do the required shopping."

Sylvia broke in. "Generally, there are enough other staff and volunteers to provide assistance, as preparing a light meal does not take great skill or much time, but an illness has been making the rounds of both children and staff. Those adults who were not indisposed due to poor health are working with the sick children. There are, quite literally, no hands that could be spared to assist with the kitchen duties."

"My word!" John exclaimed. "You will not become ill will you?"

Sylvia brushed his inquiry away with a wave of her hand. "It is not likely. And in any event, those who have contracted it seem to only be indisposed for a day or two, after which they are recovered quite rapidly. I am not worried."

"No," Anne agreed. "I feel it is a common childhood illness that is simply exaggerated due to so many people being in such close quarters to each other. No one seems the worse for wear because of it, but they are most uncomfortable for only that short period of time."

John looked askance between the two women, but offered no further comment.

"Anne and I quickly conferred and decided that as we do not know how to so much as boil water between us," everyone chuckled, "and because we had no definite engagements or plans for the afternoon, we would be delighted to offer our services and perform the market day shopping for Miss Harriet so that Miss Alice could prepare the necessary meals."

"Not very surprisingly," Anne continued, "no one objected, and Miss Alice accepted our offer with great relief and appreciation."

"She does not like the market," Sylvia informed the men.

"No, she was insistent that conducting the shopping on her behalf would be not only a great service for Miss Harriet, but also a most wonderful favor for herself," Anne confirmed. "And so, we left the orphanage only a little later than is customary, we merely headed in a different direction."

"We were driven to market by Mr. Crispin, the orphanage's butler, so to speak," Sylvia explained, "a jack-of-all-trades. He oversees the stables and their garden, drives them anywhere they need to go, and can fix anything on, under, or around the roof, from wagons to door frames to children's toys. Whatever needs doing, if Headmistress Mary or Miss Harriet cannot fix it, they call Mr. Crispin."

"Good man," commented Reynolds.

"Yes, he is," Anne agreed. "He knew not only where the market was but the vendors from which to purchase the needed items. We were armed with Miss Harriet's list, but Mr. Crispin knew in which parts of the market they could be found. We asked why he did not conduct the shopping."

"Yes, why could he not have done so, if he knew the place and the routine?" John asked.

"Sadly, he cannot read, and has only the most basic knowledge of his numbers and so cannot conduct a sale. He would not know how to read the price or count the money to pay for the items or ensure he was given the correct amount of change."

John and Reynolds shook their heads in disbelief, not able to understand being unable to perform such tasks they took for granted.

"Oh, he is not ashamed," Anne hastened to assure them. "He claims he is most content to be the one to haul the heavy loads to the cart and drive the wagon. He stated most firmly that everyone in this world has his own talents and abilities, it just happened that his do not include reading and figuring. But there is plenty more he can do, and do very well, so he does not give much thought to those things that have eluded him."

"Quite philosophical," John pondered. "I cannot say as I would ever have thought about it in quite that manner."

"Mr. Crispin is quite comfortable with himself and what he can do," Sylvia told him. "He proved his point quite nicely by pointing out that while we may have the ability to read and figure, if the wagon dropped a wheel, we would be calling upon him to make the repairs." She laughed.

Anne joined her. "We certainly could not argue with such logic." She set her cup and saucer down. "We soon arrived at the market, and he willingly escorted us to the proper vendors."

Sylvia shuddered. "I cannot tell you how it alarmed me to be purchasing that food!"

John turned a quizzical face to his wife. "Why?"

"It was rotten!"

"No!"

"No," Anne cut in firmly. "It was not rotten, it was just second-day or late-day selections."

"What do you mean?" Reynolds asked.

Anne explained "The best produce and food are available earliest in the morning. Naturally, such items will be more costly. That which does not sell in the early morning gets marked down as the day goes on, and so after luncheon, in the early afternoon, the pickings are much slimmer, but are also proportionately less expensive. There are some items, generally produce, that can be offered over the course of several days. As you can imagine, those that are second-day or older are not as fresh as the first day selections, and are accordingly lower in price.

"In order to economize and allow every pound and shilling they receive to stretch as far as they possibly can, Miss Harriet uses her food budget to purchase early afternoon and second-day offerings. They are not rotten, I assure you, but they are not of the freshness and quality, or price, that shopping earlier in the day would guarantee her."

"I had no idea," Reynolds intoned in disbelief.

Anne smiled. "There is a completely different world out there," she told him. "I was just as surprised as you to discover it has been there all along, while I was unconscious of it my entire life. It is a fascinating place, and one I will be forever grateful to my friend, Mrs. Tompkins, for sharing with me. I have a much greater appreciation for what I have, and for what others do not, thanks to the experiences to which she has introduced me, and I cannot think that I am worse off for having had them."

"Indeed, you are not," John declared. "You are, in my humble opinion, a better person than I am certain you already were, for you have opened not only your mind, but your heart, to the plight of those less fortunate than yourself and have compassion for them. There are many more in your situation who would not deign to experience any world but that into which they were born, but also use the slight knowledge that they do have of that so-called 'lower' world to elevate their own status." He smiled warmly at her. "You, Anne, are not of that caliber."

Anne blushed. "I thank you, John, for your kind words."

"They are heartfelt and sincerely meant, I assure you."

"And seconded by me," Sylvia added fondly.

"Thank you," Anne whispered.

Reynolds cleared his throat.

Anne took a deep breath.

"Yes. Back to the story," Sylvia grinned. "It was terribly difficult to purchase such sub-standard goods. But Anne pointed out that our manner of dress would not have anyone believing that we could afford more than the funds-in-hand we had from Miss Harriet, so with great assistance from Mr. Crispin, we achieved the bulk of the shopping according to the list we had been provided. But, my dear," she looked at her husband, "we must do something to allow them to have better food. We must!"

"And so we shall, I am sure."

"While Sylvia and Mr. Crispin were haggling over some greens—" Anne continued.

"Haggling … great fun!" Sylvia whispered as an aside to her husband. "It seems I have discovered a new talent."

John chuckled.

"—I happened to hear a distressing noise. I searched about for it and found a young girl, perhaps four or five years in age, tucked in a corner, crying piteously. She was quite dirty and distressed and very much ignored by those around her."

The men gasped in disbelief.

"That is not surprising," Sylvia broke in. "Unfortunately, orphans and waifs are all too common a sight in that part of town, so one dirty, crying little girl would not generate anyone's attention or alarm."

Anne reluctantly agreed. "Sadly, that is true. The lucky ones get taken in by the orphanage, but they have only limited space. But something about this little girl captured my attention, and I went to her. She told me her name was Rachel, and I asked her if she knew where her parents were. She leapt at me and wrapped her arms and legs about me rather tightly. She was quite lost, she sobbed, and asked me to please help her find her papa. He was surely lonely without her.

"I hugged her to me and agreed that her papa must indeed be missing her and we would take every possible measure to reunite them. Sylvia had just then finished her transaction and Mr. Crispin was taking her selections to the wagon. I introduced her to my new little friend and we chatted with her for a few moments trying to ascertain where her father could be, and if she actually had such a parent or if she was imagining him to be real.

"Mr. Crispin once again proved invaluable. When he returned, he listened to Rachel describe what she could remember of where her father's produce stand was located. As it turns out, she had wandered a little too far chasing after a stray cat—she was hoping to find kittens—and was in the wrong building altogether. Mr. Crispin led us to where we needed to be, and shortly thereafter, Rachel jumped from my arms with a squeal and ran to a man she claimed to be her papa.

"He looked much relieved to see her and embraced her tightly. When he had assured himself that she was still in perfect health and all in one piece, he turned to us with excessive gratitude. His name was Matthew Highsmith, and this was his first time at the market. We looked over his wares, most of which were still available for sale. He explained that one had to work one's way up to the larger buildings where the bulk of the traffic occurs. As a first time merchant, he was assigned to one of the outer buildings, and thusly did not sell much."

"The quantity of what he had available to sell was not very great, but I could not help but marvel at the quality of his selections," remarked Sylvia. "They did not appear to be typical of late-day offerings at all. Mr. Highsmith admitted that he had gotten lost on his way to town, and once here, had not immediately known where to go, and so this was, in fact, his first day at market, while others had already been set up and selling for two days or more. He had also been distracted when he realized that his daughter had wandered away, so he had not put as much effort into selling his wares as he might otherwise have done.

"He allowed me to sample the strawberries. I was in amazement that he had them at all, as it is quite early in the season for such. John," she turned to him, "they were so delicious that words cannot begin to adequately describe their flavor. I had to know how he had come across such fruit so soon.

"He confessed that he was not very much of a farmer at all. He had been working as a clerk at a factory which burned to cinders and all jobs were lost when the owners decided that they would not rebuild. His wife had inherited a small piece of land which her grandfather had left her, so they moved there to try and make a living as farmers. Mr. Highsmith declares he is very ill-suited for such an occupation. He is unafraid of hard work, mind you, but his tendencies are more inclined to explore how a plant produces its flowers and fruits than working to make such occurrences happen. He found himself looking forward to each day's end so that he could cease the thankless toiling in the fields and work with the seedlings he had in his home.

"To that end, and to appease his wife who despaired of the plants overtaking the house, he constructed a small greenhouse, and it was in that building that he was able to produce those strawberries so much earlier than usual! I did purchase some for you to sample, but I confess that I was unable to resist their flavor and ate every last one as we ventured home," Sylvia confessed sheepishly.

John laughed and hugged her to his side.

"She would not rest without knowing more about him," Anne took over. "To his astonishment, she purchased everything he had available and sent it all, less a few strawberries, along with Mr. Crispin to the orphanage. With little persuasion, once Rachel heard of it, an invitation for a light luncheon at a nearby shop was readily accepted. Over tea and cakes, we learned that Mr. Highsmith holds a degree from the university in Gloucester, where he studied the sciences, and discovered a particular affinity for things botanical." Anne smiled knowingly at John. "He is trying to become a successful farmer, but cannot yet tell how well things will turn out as this is his first season attempting this particular vocation."

"You see," Sylvia jumped in, urging her husband to understand. "You see, do you not, how perfect it will all be? You can offer to purchase his farm, he can become your assistant—you have been groaning for ages about how you need someone to help you with your research—and we can allow the orphanage to farm the land, producing their own food, which will, in turn, allow them to use some of their funds elsewhere as well as provide additional work and experiences for the children!"

"It is an ideal plan, my dear," John agreed warily. "Did you broach it with Mr. Highsmith?"

"No, no, of course not," Sylvia assured him. "I only thought of it as Anne and I were talking in the cab on our way home. But our time here in Bath is drawing to a close, and I dread leaving the orphanage without our support in some manner or another."

"I know you do," John agreed thoughtfully. "Well, Mr. Reynolds, this is certainly something a little more enjoyable to put our minds to this afternoon, is it not?"

Reynolds nodded his assent. "Indeed it is, sir. And ma'am, if I may be so bold, it is a marvelous idea. We will need to interview Mr. Highsmith first, to ascertain his willingness to proceed, of course."

"Yes, I know," Sylvia smiled her understanding. "It may not be a feasible idea after all. I have only just thought of it, as you well know, and I am quite aware that the best of plans when they are first thought of can sometimes be the worst of plans when the details are brought to the forefront."

"Indeed," Reynolds agreed.

"But, Mr. Reynolds," Sylvia continued.

"Yes, ma'am?"

"One thing which does not need many details to be worked out is providing further financial assistance for that particular institution. Would you please make the necessary arrangements for the highest quality meats, dry goods, and produce to be delivered each week to the orphanage? I still have the list provided to us by Miss Harriet," she handed it to him, "so that you can have an idea of what they need and approximately what quantities are required. I would dearly love to oversee that project myself, but we are due to leave Bath in a couple of weeks, and I fear that I will not have time to set this project in motion prior to our departure."

"I will be honored to make these arrangements, ma'am," he browsed the list, "and if I might suggest, perhaps the quantities noted here should be increased by ten or fifteen percent?"

"Make it twenty," John told the steward. "Goodness knows children need to eat. And I am certain you understood that the bill is to be paid for from the estate, not by the orphanage."

"Oh, most assuredly, sir."

"Good. Well, then," John stood, pulling his wife up into his arms. "My dear, two marvelous ideas in one morning." He tapped the end of her nose. "You should be quite proud of yourself."

"I am," she beamed at him. "And now that I have had the fun of relaying my ideas to you, I shall leave you alone to work out the particulars." She placed a quick kiss on his lips, and moved toward the door. "I am going to change, then escort Anne home. I will see you in time for tea."

"I look forward to it, my dear," he told her warmly. He watched her depart, then turned.

"Anne," he reached for her hand to assist her to her feet. "I have not seen my Sylvia so excited in quite some time. Her nature is not an unhappy one, but you do lift her spirits a great deal. Mine, too, I must admit." He pulled her forward and pecked her cheek. "I am mighty glad to count you as our friend."

Anne blushed and ducked her head. "Thank you, John. The two of you are very dear to me, as well."

He tucked her arm around his and walked her to the door. "I know. And thank you." He stopped at the open door. "I want you to know that my wife is not the only one who can dream up wonderful ideas." He looked fondly at her. "It would be an honor if you would consider traveling with us to London."

Anne gasped. She had not been expecting such a generous invitation. The imminent departure of her new-found friends had been weighing heavily on her heart, but she had been determined to bear it. To be presented now with the enticement of not having to be separated from their company, but even more, to be with them each day, morning through night, and not have to dread returning to her own home each afternoon, was enough to steal the very breath from her lungs.

"Think about it, please? We both love you dearly, and nothing would make us happier than to have you with us in London for the Season."

Her mouth opened and closed a time or two before she found her voice. "John," she squeaked. "I am speechless, I know not what to say or how to respond."

"Then I shall help you. Your response is, 'Yes, John, I would love to join you and Sylvia in London'."

She smiled. "Of course, nothing would make me happier. I must confess that I was not looking forward to the loss of your company. I would be delighted and overjoyed to travel with you, but," she bit her lower lip in uncertainty.

"Your father?" John guessed.

Anne nodded.

"Leave him to me," he whispered conspiratorially. "Naturally, I will obtain his permission before whisking you away with us, but I do not have any doubt that he will deny you the privilege. He will probably try to finagle a way to send your elder sister with you. But fear not, fair lady, he shall not succeed!" John's voice morphed into theatrical drama, his hand waving an invisible sword in the air. Anne giggled. "What say you we sweeten the pot?" John asked.

Anne tipped her head, perplexed.

"The morning before we leave, we will stuff him with breakfast!"

Anne clapped her hands over her mouth, her eyes dancing with merriment as she remembered the first time John had visited her home.

"We will host a breakfast fit for an Earl and a Countess!"

Anne could hold back her laughter no longer.

John, encouraged by her response, continued. "It shall be indisputably formal. We will invite fifty or so of our closest, titled friends. The menu shall have meats, and gravies, and eggs, and toast, and six kinds of beverages, and, of course, champagne! All served on the finest of china laid with the richest of silver!" He once again brandished his nonexistent sword.

"John, what is going on?" Sylvia's voice rang out from the balcony above.

John and Anne moved to the entrance hall and peered up at her. "Only planning breakfast, my love," he told her.

"Breakfast?"

He grabbed Anne's hand and held it up towards his wife. "Anne has agreed to accompany us to London."

Sylvia shrieked in excitement. "Oh, my dear, what a lovely, lovely idea! I wish I had thought of it. Anne? You really will journey with us? Enjoy the Season?"

Anne nodded. "Yes. Of course. I am extremely honored at the invitation."

John hugged her to his side. "Nonsense, my dear. You are family, now, and such an invitation should not be needed. We found ourselves including you when we were making our plans, so it is fitting and natural that you should go with us. Sylvia," he looked back up at his wife, "as much as we consider Anne to be our family, the fact remains that she is not, so we should observe protocol and make the request of her father."

Sylvia huffed and waved the idea of that away. "He will no doubt agree to the plan as it will strengthen the connection he imagines he has to us."

John laughed. "Of course. But I thought to make the idea of our taking Anne and not his older daughter more palatable by hosting a breakfast in their honor. Making it the extremely formal and stuffy affair they seem to imagine we experience each morning."

Sylvia was roaring with laughter. "That is a capital idea, John! Absolutely brilliant! It will feed his ego as well as his belly and provide fodder for the gossipmongers and hangers-on for months! Anne, come up, please, so that we might begin to make our plans." She reached for Anne, though they were on separate floors.

"Go," John released Anne and gently pushed her in the direction of the stairs. "Make your plans. I cannot wait to hear of them."

Anne leaned up and kissed John on the cheek. "I cannot begin to thank you enough for thinking of me," she whispered.

He kissed her forehead. "I know," he whispered back. "But we do think of you, quite often, and it will be most pleasurable not to have to say good-bye to you each afternoon." He smiled warmly down at her. "I am looking forward to your company these next few months, Anne. Now, go. My wife impatiently awaits."

She smiled at him, then trotted up the stairs to join Sylvia.