Edith Hornbrook dipped the dry biscuit in her tea and nibbled on the moistened end. A lovely assortment of smoked ham, eggs, scones with marmalade, fresh fruit, and local cheeses were spread across the linen tablecloth in front of her, but she wasn’t hungry. In fact, the sight of it made her stomach turn. On the other hand, Wesley’s appetite was heartier than ever. Taking a swallow of his milky tea, he consumed the last of his scone with marmalade and ham, then heaped another serving of everything onto his plate. Although not as gregarious an eater, Proberta, nonetheless, appeared ravenous. Edith couldn't avoid noticing how the two of them chatted breezily, stealing glances that seemed to show more than just a brother and sisterly affection. This perturbed her greatly. Meanwhile, Henley II had yet to make an appearance.
“Are you quite certain that Henley arrived home, Wesley? I didn’t hear a thing last night.”
Wesley finished chewing his meat, and patted his mouth with his white cloth napkin.
“Aunt Edith, I know he came home. In fact, I spoke with him in the hallway, just as it was beginning to get light out. He’s home.” He took a last sip of tea before pouring another cupful from the Royal Albert primrose teapot.
“Tea?” He said, offering to refill his aunt’s cup. Begrudgingly, she accepted.
“Well, where is he then?” Edith was getting more and more agitated.
“Aunt, I’m sure he’s very tired. Goodness knows what he’s up to these days.”
He avoided looking at Proberta, who had turned a shade of crimson. Edith was less discreet to show her annoyance.
“He’ll likely sleep past noon, so we shall miss him, won’t we Proberta?” Wesley said, then turned to Edith. “We’re going for a ride.”
Now Edith was fuming. The nerve. First, her son’s irrational, disrespectful behavior, and now her nephew, her brother’s only son, casually tossing about small talk like it was everybody’s business. And Wesley, of all people. He knew Henley and Proberta were to be betrothed. There was no ill-will between the two men. In fact, they were like brothers. So why was Wesley flirting so openly with Henley’s soon to be wife, then flaunting it in her face? It was not to be tolerated.
“Actually, my dear Proberta,” Edith announced. “I was hoping the two of us might enjoy a leisurely carriage ride into town. I understand there is a sale at Heather’s Finery that would suit me quite nicely. The last time I was there I saw the most attractive bonnet. We might just find something special to entice that son of mine into taking you out for a romantic evening.”
She did not look up while speaking, but continued to butter her dry biscuit and dip it into her tea. By this time, her tea had become a milky slew of soggy dough. Proberta looked at Wesley in desperation. He caught her eye but dared not to linger.
“How delightful, Mum, however, I did promise Wesley a ride. Besides, I think it might be best to ask Henley first,” her voice broke slightly at the mention of his name, “whether he has a particular fancy toward one fashion or another for me to wear.” She looked at Edith coyly and gave her a saccharine smile. “I do so wish to please him,” she said acerbically.
With this, Edith looked up, very displeased.
“Proberta, you will accompany me into town today. We shall leave at half past eleven, so be properly attired and waiting in the foyer no later than quarter past. We will lunch at the Vicar Arms Hotel. They know me there, and will attend to our every need. Then we will pass the afternoon browsing the quaint shops of Morley.” Her tone softened. “Perhaps you can show me your favorite shops, dear.” Edith offered a very satisfied grin to a stone faced Proberta. “Now, run along. Tilly will dress you, won’t you Tilly?” Tilly nodded agreeably, and followed a dour Proberta upstairs.
Meanwhile, Henley had made his way downstairs.
“Top of the morning to you, Mother.” He bent down and kissed her warm, flushed cheek. “Where have you been, Henley?” She burst out, unable to control her temper. “Gone again, were you? I must say, you have quite a lot of explaining to do.”
Henley was undaunted. He greeted his cousin with a friendly slap on the back, then settled into his seat and proceeded to fill his plate with ham and all the trimmings.
“Emma, will you be a dear and fill the teapot with fresh tea?” Henley asked the cook politely. “Thanks ever so much.”
Emma collected the pot and walked into the kitchen. Edith sat in her seat, fuming.
“So, what’s the fuss about, Mother?” Henley said, chewing his scone. His mother fanned herself with the silk embroidered handkerchief that had once belonged to her own mother.
“The fuss, my dear boy, is that you have been ignoring your duties as a suitor, as the man of the household, and as a son.” A wave of relief came over her as she unloaded days worth of anxiety. Henley just smiled pleasantly.
“Well now, I see that something has gotten you into quite a flap, Mother. Certainly there has been no harm done that cannot be undone.” He took another bite and seemed to ponder the situation. “Hmm, let’s see now. I believe I have been home enough to provide our guests with the required amount of social etiquette. I was on time and attended the hunt. Unfortunately I missed the after party, however, good old Wesley did a fine job of hosting on my behalf, there’s a good chap, Wes,” he said, looking at his cousin with admiration. He slurped his tea. “As far as Proberta is concerned, we just need a little time - time to know whether we are meant to be together or not - time to...”
“Time!” Edith yelled. “You don’t need time. You have been chosen for each other, and that’s that. You’ve known each other since you were children. How much more time do you need to get to know of each other? Honestly! Besides, my dear, dear, boy,” she said more calmly. “You can hardly say you have been spending time getting to know her, can you? You’ve been gone most of the time when she’s been here.” Henley kept his head down, suddenly not as cocky as he was when he first walked into the room. Edith was quick to pick up on it.
“So, do you mind telling me just where you have been going, and what you have been doing?” Satisfied that she had finally gained control once again, she sat back and waited for his reply.
“Actually, Mother, it’s none of your business” Henley looked up at her, and popped the last morsel of scone and marmalade into his mouth.
“How dare you speak to me like that! Insolent young man. I didn’t raise you to be rude to your elders. Now answer me at once.”
Henley looked directly at his mother, not a moving a muscle, and spoke.
“I’m sorry, Mother, but I am over twenty-one. I am your son, but you may not be privy to everything I do. That, my dear, you must get used to.”
Wesley squirmed in his chair, not really enjoying being part of this mother, son discussion. He rose and politely excused himself, but not soon enough. Edith snapped at him for attempting to leave the discussion, as if he were the one who had been causing her all the trouble, not Henley. And, feeling somewhat guilty, he immediately sat back down again.
“Henley, I am your mother,” Edith continued with a more maternal calmness. “I understand, as an adult you feel you deserve your share of respect and privacy, but I am in charge of sending you off into the world. It is my responsibility to see that you are happily married. I need your cooperation.” She turned to Wesley for backup, but got none. “Henley, I must insist that you give Proberta more attention. She deserves at least that much. You may not think you have much in common now, but you will surely grow to love one another, over time. You must believe, you must trust.” She reached her hand out and gently patted his. Henley squeezed hers in return and smiled. He loved his mother, even though she was annoyingly overbearing. But it was all he knew, and in some ways it was comforting for him. Now that Edith had her son back in her court, she pressed him further.
“So, Henley, dear, what is it you’ve been up to lately? Mother would like to know,” she said in the sweetest voice she could muster. “It’s important, for your future, and for your future bride. You understand, don’t you, that your decisions shape the future for all of us?”
Henley thought about that for a moment. “How’s that, Mother?”
“Well, I don’t have to remind you that Proberta comes from good stock. Marrying her will secure the position of you and your children in society.” She held her head up, as if to get the point across. “It’s up to us, Henley, to carry on the family name into the future. Your marriage to Proberta does just that.”
Uncomfortable again, with the direction the conversation had taken, Wesley stood.
“Please excuse me, Aunt, but I do have some matters to attend to before taking a fine young quarter horse on a turn around the countryside.” He looked at his cousin. “Perhaps you’ll join me, Henley.”
“Oh, no, Wesley,” Edith interrupted. “Henley won’t have time for riding today.” She looked at her son as if to say, you know what you have to do, but before she could say any more she was cut short.
“That’d be grand, Wes. I’ll go upstairs and change right away.”
“But Henley! What about Proberta?” Edith asked.
“What about Proberta? I thought you two were going to go shopping in town.”
“But I thought...well, I thought it could be the perfect opportunity for you to take her to town, Henley. Don’t you see. The two of you will have some time alone together for you to pop the question.”
“And what question is that, Mother, to ask for her hand?”
Edith shifted in her seat and vigorously fanned herself, relieved that her mother was not there to see her son acting like such a fool. Wesley began to walk toward the door.
“Yes, Henley, that’s exactly what I mean,” Edith said curtly. She’d had enough of the shenanigans.
“Well, Mother, I hate to break it to you, but I’m not in love with Proberta. I’m in love with another woman.”
Wesley looked at his cousin, awestruck, Henley sat confidently in his seat, unfazed, and Edith Hornbrook fainted right there on the spot, her face slumped down into her tea and biscuit sludge.
...stay tuned...Chapter Eight will be post next Tuesday, February 28th...