A CLOUD OF HAWTHORNE
“So, do you have it?” She asked.
Henley Hornbrook III dug into the deep pockets of his brown wool trousers and pulled out a small, square velvet box. A glimmer of light caught the thin gold band that bordered the lid, as the sun streamed in through the open window. The small gift sparkled. Lace curtains stirred from a soft, spring breeze. He cleared his throat, then gently lifted the lid of the box, and thrust it toward his mother proudly. She smiled.
“Ahh, that will do. Yes, that will do perfectly, just perfectly.” She faced the open window, allowing the air to cool her. It was a warm day, and the linen collar of her dress, tightly buttoned around her neck, was not only itchy but it was making her terribly warm. Unless, she thought, it was another one of those blasted hot flushes.
Edith Hornbrook turned toward her son briskly and brushed his hand out of the way, nearly toppling the five carat diamond engagement ring from it’s nest of purple satin.
“Enough,” she said sharply. “We mustn’t fuss over matters such as these. Put the thing away.”
“It’s fine, Henley,” his mother cut him off. “She’ll be delighted by it, you’ll marry, and all will be well. Now, go and dress for supper. You don’t want to keep your father waiting now, do you?”
Henley, who stood head and shoulders above his petite mother at six foot one inch, skulked off to his room. Her eyes followed him with a look of bored satisfaction. He’s just like his father, she thought. So predictable, so pliable. All I have to do now is get that silly girl to cooperate.
Just then Matilda entered, carrying freshly folded bedding and a bar of camomile soap wrapped in crisp, white tissue paper.
“Hello Mum,” Matilda said with a small curtsy as she passed Mrs. Hornbrook and walked toward the dressing table. “Your bed will be ready for you as soon as supper’s over, Mum.”
“Yes, thank you Tilly. Is Mr. Hornbrook downstairs having his drink?”
“Yes, Mum. He said to tell you he’s in no hurry for supper,” Matilda began to strip and make the four poster rosewood bed.
“He was reading the Tribune when I left him. Is he still?”
“Yes, Mum. He seems to be quite engaged.”
“Hmm. Well then, I think I might take a wander down to the pond before supper, to take in some air.”
“Isn’t the Lady interested in her usual Champagne cocktail with the Master this evening, Mum?”
“Not tonight, Tilly. I’m going out. I’ll be back before dusk, by the time the dinner bell rings.”
Edith Hornbrook snatched her pink silk shawl from the vanity chair, draped it loosely around her shoulders, and swept out of the room, leaving Tilly to her chores. She hardly glanced into the drawing room as she passed, so did not see her husband fast asleep in the mahogany armchair, whiskey precariously tilted toward the floor in his drooping hand. It was just as well. She had no tolerance for her husband, Henley II’s, idleness. It wasn’t that he actually was idle, he ran a large shipping company, Hornbrook Enterprises, with the precision and accuracy that gives wealth it’s middle name. He had built it from an earnest investment when he was twenty one, having a mind for seeking out, and pouncing on lucrative prospects. Those were Henley’s glory days. Young, handsome, and exceedingly bright, he was every young girl’s hope for marriage. But Henley II was naive. Raised by strict Christian parents, he knew nothing of the ways of women, not to mention sex. Being so wrapped up with his education, then his business, there wasn’t a moment to dwell on matters of the heart or otherwise. So when the glamorous socialite, Edith Merriweather, was presented at the spring ball wearing a lavender gown that revealed elegantly thin ankles (unheard of!) and feet so delicate it took his breath away, Henley II had his first real sexual awakening, hence, shortly thereafter, asked for Edith’s hand in marriage. Unbeknownst to him, Henley’s new wife was not only after his fortune, but after every man who became acquainted with the successful young couple.
Whether he turned a blind eye to the ways of his wandering wife, or whether he was too engrossed in his profitable business to notice, one can only guess. However, Henley II gave Edith a wide berth, therefore allowing for a successful (of sorts) marriage of forty odd years, two lovely children, Margaret, twenty four and unmarried, and Henley III, twenty one. The arrangement provided a kind of happy acceptance on both parts.
Edith strolled down the cobbled path to the water’s edge. Three of the four white swans they kept on the estate were visible, searching for food among the reeds. A few small fish could be seen jumping out in the middle of the pond, and mosquitos and crane flies swarmed around the marsh grass that grew at record speed along the shady shoreline near the trees. It takes too much of Jeffrey’s time, Edith pondered as she walked. There must be a way to control the growth of these weeds so he can attend the rose bushes and keep up with the lawns...
From the wooded area near the far end of the pond, Edith heard a rustling. Her heart jumped, and for a moment she felt ready to race back to the house for fear of her life, but then a familiar face appeared behind a weeping willow branch. Edith relaxed, looked around to see that there was no one nearby to see her, and casually sauntered toward the shrouded figure. When she got close enough, she ducked behind the tree and came face to face with an exotic, albeit rustic looking woman.
“Hello, Rosetta,” Edith said with keen interest. “Do you have my tinctures?”
The dark haired beauty reached into the pockets of her crimson skirt and pulled out three brown glass vials. Rosetta twirled them around between her fingers before handing them over to an anxious dame of the Hornbrook manor.
“Thank you, Rosetta. I am much obliged, as always.” With that, Edith handed over an embroidered satchel. The coins inside clinked upon the exchange. Taking no notice of the contents, Rosetta placed the small purse into the pocket that had held the vials, and without saying a word, turned to go.
“Uh, excuse me, Rosetta,” Edith said, stopping the young woman in her tracks. “I have one more favor to ask of you before you leave.”
“Yes, what is it?” Her voice, though seldom heard at great length by Mrs. Hornbrook, reminded her of wind chimes, so clear and songlike. It seemed to echo through the forest beyond the grounds, even though her words were spoken in almost a whisper.
“Well, this is somewhat awkward for me.” Edith shuffled back and forth on her feet, crunching leaves as she did. It was unlike her to get uncomfortable or distressed. Rosetta took note.
“Well, you know my son, Henley - Henley III?” Rosetta simply nodded.
“He is recently engaged to be married, or will be.” Again, Rosetta nodded, as if it were no surprise. Edith had wanted a little more encouragement from the gypsy woman, nonetheless, she continued. “He is to be engaged to that wretched Miss Gerber,” Edith went on. “However, she comes from good stock and is a good match for my Henley, even though she is far too outgoing. Which brings me to my point.”
Rosetta didn’t waiver, nor did she comment on anything said so far. She stood patiently and waited.
“You are a woman with much knowledge, Rosetta. You have ‘the gift‘ as they say. My own nanny had ‘the gift‘ too, which is how I came to recognize it in you.” Rosetta did not move, but continued to look Edith attentively. “Well...” Edith stammered. “Here it is then. I’d like you to find a way to lure my Henley to your hut in the forest...or wherever you want, for that matter.” She stopped short, searching for the right words. Suddenly, Edith stood tall and straight. “I want you to teach my Henley the ways of women,” she said with a sudden burst of confidence.
Again, Rosetta kept herself in check, but her eyes, Edith noticed, shone the slightest hint of interest.
“What did you have in mind?” she asked, almost teasingly. Edith was taken aback, then regained her composure.
“You know perfectly well what I have in mind,” Edith said with conviction. “Teach him. Show him all there is to know about sex and women. Equip him with the tricks of the trade, as it were.” She paused to consider her next move. “I will pay you handsomely I assure you.”
Edith did not take her eyes off of Rosetta, carefully assessing her reaction through facial expression and body language. As if reading her hand, Rosetta did not flinch.
“He will need you if he’s to marry Proberta, you know.” Then Edith sighed loudly, and stared out into the distance. “Oh, my poor, naive Henley. He needs all the help he can get.”
Just then the dinner bell rang. It could be heard loud and clear where the two women from entirely different backgrounds, and entirely different lives, stood huddled conspiratorially at the edge of the forest, hidden from view. Edith could see Emma, the cook, looking across the vast stretch of lawn for her.
“I must be going,” she said, turning to Rosetta, then back to the porch, and Emma, who had turned and was returning to the house. “But you will do this, won’t you?”
Edith Hornbrook looked pleadingly at Rosetta, and for a moment - a very brief moment - Rosetta almost believed Edith sincerely cared about her son and his future well being. Then that recognizable smirk reappeared on her face, that I’m not to be trifled with look.
“When do I begin?” Rosetta asked, a twinkle in her eye.
Henley towel dried his hair, slapped on some cologne, and walked into the bedroom where Beckworth had laid out his evening wear. He had called his manservant off his duties so he might have some privacy to consider the events ahead of him. With Proberta and her parents due to arrive at seven, he had little, if any time to get out of his present situation. The proposal was expected. Although his father seemed less than interested in the whole affair, his mother was hell-bent on his marrying society’s most eligible debutant. Proberta’s parents, Sir Miles Gerber, and his charming wife, Alexandra, couldn't be happier. As for the young woman in question, Henley felt that, like him, she was just doing her duty. After observing her at cocktail parties and balls, Proberta seemed more inclined to be a reckless flirt than to want to settle for one man, particularly someone like Henley. She was witty, clever, and gorgeous, and knew it. Henley had a reputation for being only moderately good looking, uninterested in hunting, fishing, or athletics, all of which were practically mandatory for those of the male persuasion, and to top things off, he was a bore at social events. Once married, Henley knew all this and more, would only increase her outside interests. However, arrangements were being made and nothing was to be done, or was there?
He dusted the shoulders of his black jacket, ran a comb through his straight, blond hair, and bared his teeth into the vanity mirror.
“Oh, you are a homely son-of-a-bitch,” he said with a laugh. “What is poor Proberta to do?”
He rubbed his two front teeth with his forefinger, smacked his lips, and pulled out the velvet box from his pants pocket for one final look at it in its lovely satin nest. He tried to envision it on her finger, glimmering in the firelight as they sat side by side reading; hers Keats, his Dickens. The thought of her slender fingers (twinkling diamond included) holding up her book made his mind wander, following her arms up to her shoulders, then to her powder white neckline, and then down over curves and softness. Henley’s body quivered. Was it from fright of what may develop from these erotic images of his, or was if fear of handling himself around her sexual prowess? He didn’t know, so he shoved the thoughts - all thoughts of love and sex and a woman’s body - into the far reaches of his mind. This is what he was used to doing - what felt safe.
Just then there was a knock at the door.
“Sir, you are expected downstairs in ten minutes. Your mother said...”
“Tell Mother not to worry, Beckworth, my good man,” Henley interrupted. “I’ll be down in a jiffy.” He could hear Beckworth smile through the door. He is a good man, Henley thought, smiling too, and for a brief moment, he felt calm.
It wasn’t long before Henley was down in front of the glowing fireplace, whiskey in hand, chatting politely with Sir Miles Gerber. He avoided looking into the flames, not wanting to appear flustered since Proberta was staring at him from across the room. He fingered the box in his pocket, and his heart rate quickened. What am I doing? he thought, suddenly panic stricken.
“Henley, Henley my dear. Be a love and make your mother another Gin Fizz, will you?” Henley looked at Miles.
“Please excuse me, Sir,” Henley said, and truly meant it. He quite enjoyed talking with Miles, but relief from the stuffiness of the room was welcome.
Henley walked over to the bar and began placing cubes from the ice bucket into his mother’s glass.
“Hello, Henley,” said a demure voice from behind. Henley jumped.
“Oh, Proberta, yes, hello. I, er, didn’t see you coming.”
“Well, here I am.” Proberta posed enticingly for Henley, who smiled, then returned to the task at hand.
“I was hoping we’d have some time alone this evening, Henley. Perhaps we could take a turn around the garden before dinner. It’s a lovely evening, wouldn’t you agree?” Henley shot a glance outside, then turned.
“Yes, quite. Well then, let me take Mother her cocktail, and I’ll come back to escort you outdoors. We should have time for a short jaunt.” Regardless of what hesitation he felt regarding Proberta and the proposal, Henley had to oblige.
“Oh, that’s perfect, Henley. I’ll wait here.”
Outside, it was lovely. The setting sun cast an orange and yellow reflection on the pond, and although a chill was setting in, it was pleasant enough for a pre-dinner stroll around the grounds. Proberta held fast to Henley’s offered arm, rubbing it ever so softly with her thumb. She leaned in close when the wind picked up, and gentleman that he was, Henley removed his suit jacket and placed it around her shoulders. She smiled up at him with over indulged gratitude.
“So, Henley,” she began eagerly, nudging him playfully with her shoulder. “Your mother intimated to me that you had something you wanted to discuss. Is that right?”
Henley started walking again, this time more briskly.
“I’m not entirely sure what you - or my mother - are referring to, actually.” He turned toward the oak tree above the house, hoping to hide his blushing face from her. He could feel her body stiffen.
“Nor do I, Henley,” she replied defensively. “I was just sharing what I heard from your dear mother.”
“Well,” he coughed. “She could have meant that I should tell you about the new investment I made for the company. It’s an account in America that I know will serve us well. I discovered it...”
“No, Henley,” Proberta cut in sharply. “I don’t think it was a business matter your mother was referring to.” Her tone softened slightly. “You know Edith, no time or interest in Hornbrook Enterprises.”
The dinner bell could be heard from the front porch. Saved by the bell, Henley thought, trying to hide his relief.
“We should go, Proberta. I don’t know about you, but I’m starving. Let’s finish this conversation another time, shall we?” He patted her hand. Proberta sighed, loud enough for Henley to hear, but he ignored her. He gave the arm wrapped around his own a squeeze, to placate her. He knew it wouldn’t do the trick, but it was all he could think of to do at the moment. Truth be known, he was beginning to realize he simply had no feelings for the girl, and he feared that would not change with marriage. He understood his mother’s wishes, she had made them very clear, but that didn’t mean she was going to get her way. It was his life, after all. She had run, or tried to run it for long enough. As much as he wanted to please her, he knew now that he couldn't marry without love, and he did not love Proberta, nor did he feel that she loved him. He had thought that perhaps over time they might learn to love. He’d heard about that prospect often in conversations between both men and women. It seemed a common fact of life and of love. However, Henley couldn't imagine that was the best it could be. There had to be some magic, something to cause a stir within. Proberta did nothing of the kind to him, and although he knew he wasn’t the best judge of such matters, somehow he knew, deep down, there was more.
They walked in silence back to the house. It was lit up like a Christmas tree with lights and candles, and plenty of merriment. Cheerful conversation could be heard well before they entered through the big oak door.
“There you two are. We were wondering if you’d both taken off and eloped.” His sister Margaret’s sarcasm met them at the door, followed by looks of anxious anticipation from the others who had gathered on their way to the dining room. Henley withdrew Proberta’s arm from his with a brusk awkwardness, although he looked as if he’d just shed a heavy load. Taking his jacket from around her slumped shoulders, he nodded in greeting to the group gathered in the foyer, then handed it to Beckworth.
“Shall we?” He gestured toward the dining room with his arm. Proberta stood still, looking sullen.
“Excuse me,” she said finally. “I must freshen up.” Without hesitation, she dramatically rushed off to the loo. Concerned for her daughter’s well being, her mother followed. Edith, after shooing the guests in to the room to be seated for dinner, glared at her son from across the table, fire in her eyes.
After a disastrous dinner at which Proberta barely touched a morsel of food, while his mother threw barbs at him from across the table, Henley sat in his father’s overstuffed armchair smoking a cigar and sipping a fine Hennessey. Women. He just didn’t understand them. What was Proberta thinking, behaving like a spoiled child in front of everyone? She was spoiled. Most girls of her station in life were, of no fault of their own he supposed. But he knew as well as she did, that she was not terribly interested in him as a husband. If she had been, he would have been the one she flirted with at social events, or swooned over during crocket matches. So why this display? There was some mischief afoot, he could smell it.
It didn’t bother him that she, as well as his mother, thought him to be a foolish boy, unaware of what went on around him. That, however, was about to change. His mother he knew to be difficult, and meddled far too much in his affairs. It was his own fault that he had let her for all these years. He knew that. Things had started innocently enough, then it just became easier to let the old girl have her way. But now, Henley realized as he tossed back a good shot of the cognac, he needed to end the charade, he needed to take control of his life.
Placing the empty snifter on the sideboard, Henley stood, deciding to take in the midnight air. The house was quiet, the guests long gone, and his parents fast asleep. How fresh and invigorating it was outdoors, the moon a half crescent, the wind stilled. He walked down to the water’s edge, catching an image of the night sky in the ponds mirror. He breathed deeply, feeling satisfied with the way the evening unfolded. It had to happen - something had to happen. Crickets and frogs seemed to compete with the stillness, the acre suddenly filling with sound. He shut his eyes against night’s chorus, feeling refreshed and rejuvenated for the first time in ages. Yes, he thought. Change is afoot, and ‘bout time. He laughed aloud, surprising even himself.
In the distance, something else could be heard. Faint music cutting sharply through the natural cacophony, an exquisite trill that reached the treetops, settled there, then fell like a million twinkling diamonds, into the pond. An echo. Henley looked around, but saw nothing. Then, once again the song resonated, through the forest, the lawn, and to the water’s edge where Henley stood breathless. He listened, and followed with his ear into the depth of dark forest. In the distance, between the thicket of branches, a flicker of light could be seen, which helped guide his way. Paying no attention to time or the distance traveled, Henley moved like a sleuth in the night, until he arrived at a large hawthorne tree in the middle of a clearing. The light seemed to be coming from the trunk of the tree. Curiosity getting the better of him, Henley approached the light and quickly discovered, to his surprise, that a small hut was built around, and in, the massive trunk of the tree itself. The circumference was at least six men, arms linked together - an ancient tree. It appeared undisturbed, the craftsmanship of the hut designed cleverly around the broad trunk, using it not only as camouflage but as anchorage, or foundation.
From the side, a small doorway led to a quaint but substantial looking living quarter, one level, that eased back into the woods, blending seamlessly with the flora and fauna. If approached from the main path, one would hardly notice it existed, but coming around from the outer side, there it was, a well-built edifice. A home.
By this time, it was clear that the lovely singing was coming from inside. Whoever it was, Henley was certain they were unaware of his presence, as the voice was full of uninhibited passion, so sensual it sent shivers up his spine. Nothing had moved him more in his life than this. He had to find out who it was who sang so beautifully, so lustfully, to lull him to this magical place. He approached, and knocked on the rustic wooden door. The singing stopped and all was quiet. He knocked again, this time with more determination. He heard a shuffle, as if someone was putting things away, or hiding. But then, before he had a chance to turn around with a change of heart, the door opened. There before him stood the most magnificent woman he had ever seen. Her skin the color of mahogany, her eyes the deep brown of the forest itself. She was wearing a white embroidered peasant blouse that seemed to fall naturally off her shoulders, revealing a silky smooth neck, collarbone, arms, and breasts that spilled out as if they were overripe. She appeared undaunted, by her appearance or by his presence.
“Come in,” she said casually, the same musicality in her voice as in the songs she sang. He entered. As if she expected him, she took his jacket off, placing it on the chair by the door, took his hand in hers, and led him through a small doorway into the main room of the hut where a roaring fire lit and heated the room. She seated him in an armchair by the warmth, and settled at his feet on top of a wooly carpet.
“It’s rather late for a visit, don’t you think?” She said. Henley looked at her, confused.
“Well, madam,” he stammered. “I never would have dared impose if I hadn’t been out getting a breath of air and heard your lovely singing. It reached me clear down to the pond on my family’s property. You might know of it, the Hornbrook estate.” The woman turned her head toward the window to hide her reaction.
“Yes,” she said finally. “I have heard of it. You’re the only son, aren’t you? Don’t you have an elder sister too? Margaret I believe her name is. Is that right?”
“How do you know all this?” Asked Henley, taken aback. Then he remembered a woman he overheard his mother speak of, who lived in the forest and sold some of the locals herbs and medicinal tinctures for their ailments. He had never bothered much with details, but it suddenly occurred to him this could be the woman. Her eyes met his, all knowingly.
“You’re her, aren’t you?”
“Who are you then, a witch doctor, a shaman, a gypsy?”
She laughed, and as she did, deep brown curls from the hair piled atop her head, fell into her face. He was tempted to reach out and tuck them behind her perfect ears, one lock at a time, stroke the smooth skin of her cheek.
“I am whoever you want me to be,” she said. “I help people, or at least I try. What ever they want to call me is their business. I am just who I am, the daughter of Romney and Lavinia, who lived in this forest long before you or I existed. They lived on this land alongside your forefathers, so I inherited my destiny just as you have yours.”
“So, you were born here?”
“I was. I was raised right here in these woods, and taught all that I know. I carry the gift from my mother, that was passed on from her mother. We are a family who has toiled and flourished on this land for generations.” She paused. “I buried my parents here in these woods, not far from your family plot. Now I carry on our traditions...but alone.”
Henley was completely enthralled by this woman’s story. He had no idea. He thought he knew everything there was to know about the land he lived on, the estate, the business, everything. To now find out about this forest secret, this beautiful woman who lived just beyond the home where he had grown up, was beyond imagination. Words escaped him. With her usual sixth sense, she came to his rescue.
“Don’t worry. There’s really no way you would have known about me before this. I live a quiet life, and stay well out of the limelight, so to speak.” She reached into the woodbox beside the hearth, and placed another log on the red hot coals. A yellow and blue flame quickly ignited. “I must admit that I didn’t expect you this soon.”
“Expect me? What are you talking about?”
Rosetta shifted, uncomfortably rearranging the carpet under her feet. She jabbed at the fire with the iron poker. Had she missed something? She was rarely, if ever, wrong with her instincts. Hadn’t Edith suggested she was going to send Henley to her? Hadn’t she been told that, for a decent wage, she was to teach Henley everything there was to know about women and sex and love? Well, here he was. She didn’t know what to make of this naitivity, this denial on his part.
“Who sent you?” Rosetta ventured, slightly disturbed.
“Sent me? Why would anyone send me?”
Rosetta blushed, and turned toward the flames as sparks leapt up the chimney of the stone hearth. She stood up, brushed the dust from her skirt, and walked around till she stood tall and straight behind Henley. Reaching over his shoulders, she started with the top button of his starched white cotton shirt, and worked her way down until it peeled off him easily. Her soft palms rubbed along his chest to broad shoulders, where she began kneading his taut muscles. To her surprise, he was strong and muscular. Opening a jar on the small table beside the chair, Rosetta dabbed a generous amount of warm salve on Henley’s neck.
“What’s that?” Henley asked, melting against each press of her fingers.
“It’s hawthorne salve, made from this very tree.”
A fragrant essence wafted into the room. Henley began to relax. Before he knew it, the crackle of wood in the fire, the scent of hawthorne berries, and the faint sound of a gentle breeze blowing through the trees outside, he began to drift into a the most unusual dream state he’d ever felt. It was as if his spirit was floating above the room, then above the forest, looking down on all there was to see. But he was also looking down at himself, because he was there.
In the dream, the forest was shimmering, as if it were filled with fireflies. Each step he took upon the mossy ground ignited into a blaze of neon. Fairies and wood elves darted from log to log, branch to branch, in merry chase. Music played, women sang and danced, half naked in blissful abandon. There was one woman who stood out from the rest. Her auburn curls fell in layers, covering her body until they nearly touched the ground. But Henley could see her bronze, perfectly round breasts peek out from behind the curtain of hair, see a hint of knee, of delicious inner thigh, and two slender ankles. She smiled at him, then without warning, swept away the thick luxurious strands, revealing a body so provocative, so full and smooth and intoxicating, that it did more than take Henley’s breath away. It made him moan aloud in ecstasy. Rosetta dug her deft fingers deeper into his muscular shoulders and smiled.
Henley awoke with a start. A dim, early morning light bled in through the white linen drapes. He looked around, expecting to see a crackling fire, dried herbs hanging from the rafters, and a beautiful gypsy woman sitting by his side. Instead, he saw the same blue and gold wallpaper. The large Henry IV dresser still stood tall and stoic against the back wall, and the writing desk and armchair, positioned directly alongside the settee, were as they should be. The painting of great uncle James III, his riding crop not only visible, but at the ready, was hung miserably at the opposite end of the room. He stared at it for a long while. Would Henry have known Rosetta's ancestors? He wondered which of his relatives, or family for that matter, knew of the gypsy family that lived so close to the Hornbrook estate. Then he wondered if there even was a gypsy family, or whether the exotic beauty he visited in his dream wasn't just that, a figment of his imagination.
He sat up, and noticed that Beckworth had laid out his riding clothes for the days hunt. Good old reliable Beckworth. Always on the mark. He also noticed his black trousers, worn the previous night, draped over the chair where he had left them, the hems caked with mud. His suit jacket looked tired and worn, and the white shirt, once crisp and clean, was lying in a rumpled heap on top of the chair. But how had he gotten home? The last thing he remembered was sitting in an extremely comfortable armchair, being lulled to sleep by a temptress massaging his shoulders, the smell of musk and hawthorne berries, and the smoke of a fire. He shook his head and rubbed his eyes, wondering where that confounded dream came from, moreover, why Beckworth had left his dirty clothes lying about.
Henley rose, slipped his bare feet into the lambs wool slippers left at the side of his bed, and shuffled to the bathroom. He felt remarkably rested and alert. Outside, the grounds were quiet, Jeffrey not yet out trimming the hedges. He dawdled in the bathroom, showering, doing his teeth, then dressed and headed downstairs for breakfast.
"Henley, darling, you got in awfully late last night, didn't you? Or should I say, early?"
Henley sat down, ignoring his mother. She was annoying at the best of times, but now she was downright bothersome. What did she know? What was she talking about? He accepted a serving of Emma's special scrambled eggs, and buttered an English muffin, adding a generous dollop of marmalade on top of the thickly spread butter.
"So, darling, what were you up to last night? Mother is dying to know."
Henley took a mouthful of eggs. He was not interested in getting pulled into the drama that he sensed was about to take place.
"Emma? The paper please, when you have a minute," Henley asked politely.
"Right away, sir." Emma shuffled out of the room, immediately returning with the morning's paper.
"Oh, my dear Henley," Edith continued. "You don't have to play coy with me. I'm your mother. I'm privy to your exploits." Edith sipped her tea, viewing her son just above the rim of her Royal Dalton tea cup. “Believe me, I just want to know how everything worked out with you and Miss Rosetta."
Henley froze, not quite believing his ears. What did his mother know about his escapade into the forest? What did she know about Rosetta? Even he didn't understand what happened last night, she seemed a dream, a vision. Yet, just the mere mention of her name made something inside him stir. Edith, wondering how Henley knew to seek out Rosetta before she had suggested it, proceeded, careful not to upset him before getting the information she desired.
"Well, you did go visit her last night, didn't you?" She asked, prodding.
"What are you talking about, mother? I walked the grounds with Proberta before supper. That's it."
"Oh really, Henley. Don't be ridiculous." She looked smug, sipping her tea, munching on her dry, lightly buttered toast. Again, Henley ignored her.
"What I don't understand is, did you find her, or did she find you?"
"I haven't the slightest idea what you are talking about, Mother," he lied. "Now, will you please let me eat and read the paper in peace?"
Edith was infuriated. She had seen Henley, late at night, down at the water's edge, then saw him slip silently into the dark forest. Where else was there to go but Rosetta's hut? Even if he wasn't going there on purpose, he was bound to stumble upon it. Well fine, she thought. I'll just have to do my snooping around with someone more cooperative - Rosetta.
Just then the doorbell chimed. Henley looked up from his paper.
"Are we expecting anyone, Mother?"
"Not that I know of, unless it's one of your father's new friends disguised as a business associate." She returned, unfazed, to her tea and toast.
The door to the dining room opened, and in walked Randolph, the butler.
"Madam, a sir Wesley Arbuckle, here to see you." Edith nearly leapt out of her chair.
"Oh my, your cousin Wesley here to see us, Henley. Oh, do bring him in, Randolph. Thank you."
Henley stood as his cousin entered the room.
"Henley, my good man, how are you?"
"Cousin, good to see you," Henley said with a smile, extending his hand in greeting.
"And Aunt Edith. You're looking lovelier than ever. What ever have you done to your hair? It's quite simply a fabulous look for you."
Wesley bent down and gave his aunt a meaningful kiss on each of her rouged cheeks. One thing about Wesley, whatever he said was meant seriously. He had his faults, one of which was being a shrewd businessman, bordering on dishonest, but he was a doting nephew, cousin, and friend. In that arena, he was honest to a fault.
Randolph took Wesley's tweed riding jacket and bowler hat and left the room. Emma brought a third place setting to where Wesley was to sit, but not before he gave blushing Emma a fond peck on the cheek.
"I see you've dressed for the hunt? Excellent. Father must have mentioned it to you at the last board meeting. Heavens, it completely slipped my mind. My apologies, Wes."
"No, actually Henley, your father didn't mention it at all. In fact, a little bird told me there may be a wedding in our future, eh Henley?" Wesley gave his cousin a friendly nudge. Henley glared over his newspaper at his mother.
"Well, Henley, what did you expect? Wesley thinks the world of you, don't you Wesley?"
"I do indeed."
"And he thinks Proberta the perfect match for his cousin, don't you Wesley?"
"Well, Proberta is a perfect lady, if that's what you mean, and a good choice for a wife for any man." Wesley looked over at his cousin. "However, I detect uncertainty with your son, Aunt Edith." His eyebrows raised quizzically in the direction of Henley.
"Oh, nonsense. He's a big boy, and it's time he marry." She softened. "Besides, she'll grow on him. That's the way it's done, and always has been." Edith poured more tea. "Do you think your father and I entered into matrimony joyfully, because we fell madly and passionately in love?" Henley looked away. Wesley turned a snicker into a polite cough.
"No Henley, your father and I grew to love each other."
"Is that right?" Henley said, sarcastically. "Is that what you call it then...love?"
"Henley!" Edith snapped.
"Now, now, let's not quarrel," Wesley calmly said.
The doorbell chimed again, and this time Randolph entered with a tired looking Proberta at his heels.
"Madam, Master, Miss Proberta Gerber."
"Proberta," Edith rose from her chair. "Darling, how are you? Oh, I can see you must have had a terrible sleep. Are you unwell?"
"No, what's the matter? Is my hair not right? Is my..."
"No, no my dear, not at all," Edith cut in, as Proberta fussed with the pins in her hair, the buttons on her blazer, and glanced nervously over at Henley.
"Proberta, may I say, you look the very picture of health." It was Wesley who came to the rescue. He stood up, took her hand in his, and held it before bending to kiss it much longer than necessary.
"Why Wesley, how good of you to say so," she replied, gazing into his deep blue eyes with a sort of lost longing. Wesley and Proberta stood admiring each other until finally Edith cut the silence.
"Oh, do sit down now, will you both? You're making us all terribly uncomfortable." As usual, Henley seemed nonplussed, going about his business by finishing his toast and reading the paper. Edith, on the other hand, was getting more and more anxious.
"Emma! Emma, please fetch a place setting for Miss Gerber." Proberta began seating herself beside Wesley, but Edith stopped her short.
"Please, dear, won't you come sit over here beside me?"
Proberta walked silently over to the other side of the large mahogany table, and sat down sullenly beside her future mother in law. However, when she realized the vantage point from this arrangement, she grinned from ear to ear, not hiding her pleasure. Wesley grinned back.
Edith waited on the front porch of the mansion for the group of young people to make their way to the stables in preparation for the two o'clock hunt. Neighbors had gathered around the large red barn as Rodney and Sykes, the two stablehands, brushed and tacked the horses before guiding them out to their prospective riders.
Dressed in proper fox hunting attire; beige breeches, tweed jacket, tightly buttoned pastel shirt, brown leather gloves, and bowler helmet, Henley stood proudly beside Gaspar, his ten year old gelding. His brown field boots, already crusted in mud from trying to calm the horse, spoke volumes. Henley and Gaspar loved the hunt, and had since the time they were fourteen and three respectively, when they were both taken out for the first time. Young Henley had basically helped Sykes raise and train the colt, which was foal to one of his father's best brood mares. Henley remembered the difficulty he had convincing his father that he should have the horse. The horse, his father argued, was too small to race, his stance and coloring not good enough for breeding, but Henley was determined, and his father finally relented.
Next, Rodney brought out White Socks, a deep brown quarter horse with white hooves, who stood seventeen hands high. White Socks was determined as much as frisky, and was a favorite for Wesley when he came to visit. Becky, a gentle but eager filly, was presented for Proberta to ride.
A handsome young woman, Proberta was most admired for her sophisticated, ladylike manners as well as her gumption. She was usually game for anything, and was most often the only woman to go along with the men on a hunt. Wesley seemed taken not only by her smart appearance but with her attendance. Sadly, Henley didn't seem to notice this as significant, and greeted her more like a sister than his soon to be betrothed. Keenly aware of this distance developing between them, Wesley's attentiveness toward Proberta increased, if not only to ensure her feelings were not too wounded. He made a mental note to himself to have a word with his cousin, as he felt that he was not the only one who was aware of Henley's behavior. Certainly Proberta was beginning to feel put out. Wesley knew of her reputation for flirtation. He worried that if Henley didn't sort out his feelings soon, he might lose his opportunity altogether.
Henley III stood on the front porch, his wife, Edith, at his side. She held her ears with her gloved hands in anticipation of the commencement blast that was about to be shot in the air. Then they were off, full gallop, across the back field and into the woods beyond.
"Well done, my dear," Edith congratulated her husband. "I'd say three hours tops and we'll see the first sign of riders begin to straggle back in again."
"Well then," Henley III said as he kissed his wife respectfully on the cheek on his way back indoors. "I will have time to read my paper, have my nap, and will be drinking my tea on the front porch on their arrival. Excellent." He returned to the drawing room where his port and paper awaited. Edith watched him go, thinking how easy it was now, weaving in and out of each others lives like a well honed loom, unlike their early years. She returned to the dining room to get her shawl, then she too, walked down the front stairs, through the garden, and into the woods, although she made sure she went in the opposite direction of the horses.
After a short while she came upon Rosetta's hut. Soft, distant singing had led her there, although she knew the way by rote from picking up her tinctures for so many years.
"Hello Rosetta," Edith said, somewhat cooly. Rosetta turned away from her rack of drying herbs and faced Edith, as if expecting her.
"Hello, Madam Hornbrook. What brings you to the forest today? You have all the tinctures you'll need for the next two months, unless you are looking for something completely different. I happen to be drying some gingko at the moment. It's from a tree imported from Japan, and very good for clarity of the mind. Then there's nettle, which is an aphrodisiac, as you may be aware."
"No, Rosetta, I'm not interested in clarity of mind, I think I have that under control at this point in time." Edith spoke curtly, but Rosetta paid her no mind. "I am not in need of an aphrodisiac either. God only knows I'd like to give one to my husband, but that's for another time. No, I think you know why I've come, Rosetta."
Rosetta turned her back to Edith and returned to the task of separating bunches of herbs, obviously freshly picked, tying them together, then hanging them upside down on the rack.
"Actually, Edith, I have no idea what you're talking about."
"Oh, I think you do. I believe my son, Henley paid you a visit last night. What I'm wondering is why, because I didn't mention a thing to him. I never got a chance. So why, Rosetta, did he come into these woods late last night to visit you?"
Edith stood her ground, defiantly, not hiding her annoyance in the least. Rosetta began to hum the song she was singing when Edith had arrived, which cranked Edith up to a near frenzy.
"Don't you dare ignore me, Missy. I'm speaking to you. Why was my son here last night?"
Rosetta continued her bundling and tying, but stopped humming. She took her time, but finally put down a bunch of wild ginger and turned to face Edith.
"With all due respect, Madam Hornbrook, I have no idea why your son came to me in the wee hours. I was not expecting him, nor did I invite him. But you should know more than anyone, that I never turn visitors away."
With this, Edith turned beet red with fury. How could her son just wander aimlessly into the woods with no direction and happen upon this gypsy woman in this wild, hidden hut. After all these years, why now? Somehow she couldn't believe it was so random, however, Edith could make no sense of it.
"My son would never just wander into these woods for no reason, especially at that god awful early hour."
"Apparently he did, didn't he? But my question to you, Ma'am, again, with due respect, is how would you know?" Rosetta was now staring directly at Edith. Her gaze was not threatening, nor unkind. She was simply calling a spade a spade. Edith, suddenly feeling like a cornered animal, stumbled over her words.
"Uh, I, er, I...well, I was...I couldn't sleep," she stuttered. "So I, er, I went to the window, just to look. I just happened to see him wandering around outside. I was, well..."
Rosetta finally bailed her out, not wanting to punish her for too long, but still wanting her to recognize her misguided behavior.
"He said he heard me singing, that he was just following my voice through the trees, and the darkness of the forest led him to my hut. That is not so unusual."
Edith had to think before she responded. "Well, I suppose not, but what was he doing out there in the first place?"
"That is for neither you nor I to question. It just happened."
"Well, you can at least tell me what you talked about, what you did."
Edith waited for her reply, but Rosetta only smiled.
"That is between your son and myself. He did not come to me by your hand, nor did he confide in me only to be betrayed. It is not my place to reveal things passed between myself and others, your son included. There is an unsaid code of respect and privacy that I adhere to. You, of all people should know that." Rosetta put extra emphasis on the final sentence, which silenced Edith immediately.
"Go home, Madam Hornbrook. All will be well, I assure you," said Rosetta comfortingly.
Edith, unsure what to do, but feeling defeated, turned toward the path from which she came, back out of the forest toward the Hornbrook estate.
"Be good to my son, Rosetta," she called out with caution. "Or I will see to it that your life will be even more miserable than it already is."
Rosetta tossed back her head lightheartedly, a gesture toward Edith's rude remark. Her long, dark hair fell loftily down her back, revealing a sleek, smooth neck and open suppleness. Sexy, smart and wise, she was not the kind to let an insolent woman make idle threats toward her or those she cared about, even if she was madam of the Hornbrook estate.
"You have nothing to worry about, Madam. Your son and his secrets are safe with me," she called back. Then in a whisper, "And there is nothing you can do to make my life more miserable because I know nothing of the meaning of that word."
With that, Rosetta turned back to her drying rack, leaving Edith to make her own way down the dark, forested path. It wasn't until later in the afternoon, when the twelve or so riders returned from the hunt, that Edith began to worry. Somewhere along the way Henley had gone astray. They had searched high and low for him, had even sent the hounds out with his scent, but they had come back with nothing. After a long while the group had decided to return without him, thinking perhaps he had gotten lost and gone back to the estate on his own, yet when they rode back to the big red barn, Gaspar was not stabled, and there was no sign of Henley. Needless to say, Proberta was annoyed more than worried, unable to figure out why he had left the group in the first place, after all the effort she had gone to for his attentions. Wesley was miffed, but did his best to calm the ruffled Proberta. He knew his cousin, and figured, rather than getting lost or hurt, he must have gone into town for a pint. Again, he made a mental note to speak with Henley about his thoughtlessness. They were not young, carefree men anymore, prone to playing silly pranks. He needed to conduct himself like a respectable gentleman, to take his responsibilities more seriously, starting with marriage.
After much deliberation, and at the final insistence of Edith Hornbrook, a search party was called off. No need to cause unnecessary scandal just because her son was behaving like an ass. She would have words with him when he did decide to show up again, but until then, she warded off any outside concern, explaining to the others, and to her husband, that Henley had shown deep interest toward a family in need that lived just past the Mill outside of the town limits. She was certain he had gone to offer his help, so no one should be worried. Her son had done this sort of thing in the past.
Meanwhile, outside a softly lit hut in the middle of the forest near the Hornbrook estate, a gentle brown gelding was tethered to a post munching fresh barley and field grass, while his owner, a young man of twenty five, sat by a low burning fire sipping elderberry wine, spellbound, unable to put out the fire burning out of control in his heart, and in his groin.
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