While preparations for the masquerade ball were underway downstairs in the long gallery, Matilda was upstairs in her lady’s chamber, applying another cold compress to the forehead of one Edith Hornbrook. Edith did not take the news of her son’s new love interest well, suffering fainting spells and episodes of great emotional duress. Tilly, knowing her ladyship well enough to understand that a good dose of TLC would help her recover more quickly, showered her with attention.
“There, there, My Lady. Just lie back against this fresh linen and let me sooth your burning forehead, brush away your worries.” Tilly dipped the cotton cloth into a bowl of water, where rose petals and freshly picked herbs floated.
“Tilly, you can’t brush away my worries. No one can.” She moaned and turned her head away, then reconsidered. “Oh, Tilly, what would I do without you?” Edith did not look at her handmaid, but the expression on her face, around her eyelids pressed together in what looked like agony, let Tilly know she was needed, even loved, by this seemingly callous, cynical woman. In return, Tilly willingly gave her usual loyal support and care. She had been with the family since Henley was three years old, having taken over from a woman whose mother and grandmother had been chambermaid and nanny on the Hornbrook estate, going back for generations. No one seemed to know the real story of why they left after so many years of loyal servitude, but after Tilly had asked once, she knew better than to bring up the subject again. Instead, she took over the duties to Mistress of the house with an eagerness that won over even Edith’s stone cold heart, which made Tilly more than content in her position.
“Tell me, Tilly, how ever are we ever going to host this ball tonight with all the scandal my son has caused?” She fanned herself with the end of her bed shawl trying in vain to cool herself down from the hot flush that had taken over her body. It started in the pit of her stomach, and had quickly rushed to her cheeks, which were now flaming red.
“Well, Mum,” Tilly said cheerfully. “You know what they say, the show must go on.”
“Oh, mercy me.” Edith let her hot head fall back into the plumped up feather pillow Tilly had set down for her.
Just then there was a knock at the door. Tilly opened it to find Henley II standing in front of her. She was startled at the sight of him. Rather than sheepish and feeble looking, like he usually was, he appeared to be bright, confident, even handsome. His usually slight build seemed fuller, stronger looking, his cheeks had taken on a rosy tint, and his eyes were bright and knowing. She could hardly stop staring at him, and was so taken aback that she didn’t hear that he was talking to her.
“Tilly. Tilly, are you listening? You are needed downstairs immediately. They are dressing the hall and say it cannot be done properly without your decorating expertise. Is that right, Tilly? Do you have a knack for decorating?” Tilly blushed.
“Well, I, er, I mean, Sir, I suppose I do, Sir, thank you.” She paused and looked over her shoulder at the sad sight of poor Edith lying in her bed. “I can’t very well leave her, Sir,” she whispered to Henley. “She needs me.”
Henley stepped inside, patted Tilly on the shoulder, and nudged her out the door.
“It’s alright, Tilly, I’ll take over. You need a break and I need to speak with my mother. Run along now, there’s a good girl.”
Even though Tilly had only been fifteen when she was hired on at the estate, she had almost raised young Henley until he was old enough to join the ranks of the men folk at thirteen. But he had always been fond of her, and knew she liked it when he patronized her. Somehow it made her feel like the proud nursemaid again.
“Is that my atrocious excuse for a son I hear?” Henley closed the door softly and walked over to his mother’s bed.
“Hello, Mother. How are you feeling?” He sat down. Edith opened her eyes and stared at him.
“You have some nerve coming in here like this,” Edith snarled. Henley only smiled.
“Oh, now Mother, you know you want me here, just as much as I want to be here with you.” He patted her hand tenderly, and she didn’t resist.
“Oh, Henley, how could you? You are such a disappointment to me and your father. How could you do this to me?”
“Do what to you, Mother, fall in love? Isn’t that what you’ve wanted, for me to fall in love and marry?” He looked at her inquisitively. “I’m sorry it’s not who you wanted, Mother, but let’s face it, you know as well as I do, that Proberta and I are no match for one another. Everybody can see that. Sure, it may have been a marriage of convenience to you, but it would have been a disaster. She may behave as if she’s ‘in love’ with me, but she has her sights set on much bigger things, and always will. I could never make her happy, and her wandering eye would be forever be on high alert for something better.”
By this time, Edith had turned toward the burning fire, mesmerized by the diminishing flames.
“Damn you, Henley. She’s no good for you, that trollop. Don’t you see? Oh, it’s all my fault. I set the whole thing up between you and that gypsy.”
“So I hear,” he said. Edith became even more aggravated.
“She’s dangerous, Henley. I worry she’s put you under her spell.”
“You can’t be serious, Mother. I thought you cleverer than that.”
“She’s the clever one, and now she’s got you in her grip. Who knows what’s next, what she’s capable of. I am responsible for this mess. It’s all my fault. I just wanted to help you, that’s all. I really just wanted to expose you to life, not set you up for love.”
“Well, maybe I’m the clever one then,” he said.
“Since when have you outwitted your mother?” Henley laughed out loud.
“Since never, Mother. I could never outwit you, nor would I want to. I leave the outwitting to you, and you alone. But let this be a lesson to you about meddling in other peoples affairs. Stop it. Things never turn out well.” Henley stood. “Meanwhile, Mother, I have quite a lot to attend to. The ball begins at eight sharp, the house is turned upside down, and father is in need of a whiskey already. I think I’ll take him for a walk around the grounds instead, hold him off for a while. A bit of fresh air and exercise will do us both good.”
“Don’t worry, Mother, I will perform my duties as host and suitor this evening, and stay by Proberta’s side,” he paused. “Unless, of course, Wes cuts in.” He smiled wryly.
“Oh Henley, now you stop. We mustn’t allow your cousin to disrupt the apple cart.”
“Why not? It’s rather perfect, don’t you think? Still in the family and all.” Henley winked. “He has my blessing, and I dare say their union would get the blessing of any intelligent nobleman in the vicinity.”
Henley bent down and kissed his mother’s forehead, then turned.
“But Henley, what about that woman? Aren’t you going to tell me about you and that gypsy woman?”
Edith sat up in bed, anxious for her son to return to her bedside and fill her in on the happenings of the past week. She longed for details, not wanting to actually hear about her son’s sexual exploits, but to hear of Rosetta’s cunning, her drive. Surely it was Rosetta’s doing, luring her son into the forest and into her bed. Oh, Edith thought, when I’m fully armed with ammunition from Henley, that gypsy woman better watch her back.
“So my dear boy,” she coaxed. “Come sit by your mother like you used to do, and tell me everything.”
Henley was at the door now, but he didn’t hesitate for a minute.
“No, Mother, I won’t.” He walked out, quietly closing the door behind him.
...stay tuned...Chapter Ten will be posted next Tuesday, March 13th...