Ten Years Later…
Tiffany, Percival, Constable Brooks, and Lord Nevard stood at the edge of the open graveside. Mrs. Bentley reposed in the simple casket that was being slowly lowered into the grave.
“Well,” Constable Brooks said. “She is at last at peace. I have done my duty by her, as has Elizabet, and by Mr. Bentley, who would have been sorely troubled to see her in the straits to which she brought herself. He would have been pleased to see the care given her in these last few years.”
Tiffany looked down at her black-gloved hands, still uncertain how she should feel about the woman who should have been a foster mother to her, but instead was a continual torment.
“It was very kind of both of you and Elizabet to help care for her,” she said.
“She was a fragile creature,” Lord Nevard rumbled in his orator’s voice. “It was my pleasure to offer my estate’s dower house for her residence. Had I not, Lord Northbury would have been immeasurably distracted, and we needed his able stewardship for the orphanage project.” His words were callous, but he blew his nose mightily on a large, monogrammed white handkerchief. Brusquely, he tucked the handkerchief in his pocket. “It is my hope that it afforded the poor lady a bit of happiness for a time.”
“The orphanage is complete,” Percival observed. “What will you do now?”
“I might come by the School and give some lessons in oration, or maybe just take some of the youngsters fishing,” Lord Nevard remarked. “The Constable says the fish are biting very well. Providing it meets the Matron’s approval, o’ course.”
“Of course,” Tiffany gave him a small smile. “If their lessons are done and their spaces are clean, I see no reason why they should not go fishing. Perhaps we could make it a reward for good behavior.”
“Perhaps. But I think I would rather just pick a boy or two, and take the ones that I think need a good fishing trip. Sometimes lads just need to get away. The ones who need it most might not be the ones who are able to earn it.”
Tiffany laughed. Heads turned, surprised to hear merriment at a funeral. “I suppose you are right about that. Goodness knows, I would probably have never earned a fishing trip, especially if the late Mrs. Bentley had been judging my character.”
“Exactly so,” Constable Brooks replied. “His Lordship and I talked it over. We’ll make it a way for the lads to let off a little steam, and perhaps come back a little wiser than they went.”
“Will you come to dinner with us?” Percival invited.
“I think not,” Lord Nevard replied. “Duty calls elsewhere. Our success here has prompted others to assay similar projects, and I am to dine with a fellow who just might be interested in funding a school for the older lads.”
“An’ Elizabet is expectin’ me to come home an’ see to some jackdaws that are nesting in the west chimneys. She’ll be right upset if I don’t,” the Constable added.
“Very well,” Percival said. “But we will expect you both for Sunday dinner at the very least.”
“Sunday it is,” the constable said.
“I would not miss it,” Lord Nevard agreed.
They watched as the casket was lowered, and the first earth shoveled in over the top. Then they went their separate ways, Lord Nevard to his meeting, the constable to see to the jackdaws, Tiffany and Percival to preside over the evening meal at the orphanage.
Not all of the children at that long table were orphans. Three little boys with Percival’s pensive air, and one lively little girl with emerald green eyes, sat near their parents as they broke bread with some of the poorest of the poor in their small world.
“Adelaide says it isn’t right to ask us to eat with orphans,” the young lady announced to anyone within earshot.
“Who is Adelaide?” Tiffany asked, while Percival asked, “Why is that?”
“Adelaide is one of the girls at my school,” the green-eyed little minx announced. “She says that you can catch things from poor people.”
“Repeating things that other people say is gossip, Susan,” her mother reproved.
“You can catch things from poor people,” Percival added. “But you can just as easily catch things from rich people. Illness does not care how much money you have.”
“Adelaide says . . .” Susan began again.
“Adelaide is just dumb,” one of her brothers put in. “Anyway, did not Mother just say that repeating things that other people say is gossip?”
“But if you don’t repeat it, how will anyone else know about it or be able to answer your questions?” Susan persisted.
“Percy, you didn’t explain that very well,” said the next youngest brother. “Susan, what Mother means is that repeating those words is not kind. I’m fairly certain that this Adelaide did not mean to be kind when she said them.”
“Oh.” Susan subsided. “But why do we eat with orphans? We aren’t orphans.”
“Because I was an orphan, or thought I was,” Tiffany said. “I was amazingly lucky that your father did not mind associating with poor people or orphans. Orphans are people who do not have a mother or father. Would you begrudge all the people you see here a chance to be part of a family?”
“I guess not,” Susan said. “I would not like to be without a mother and father.”
“There, you see?” Percival said. “We cannot bring back their mothers and fathers.” He gestured magnanimously at the long table, “But we can offer them a dinner as if we are one big family. We can make it possible for them to learn a trade. In other words, we can make their world better. And in that process, we can make our own world better, too.”
“I’m not sure I understand that,” Susan said.
“Never mind,” Tiffany said. “Just keep in mind that repeating anything Adelaide says in the future probably isn’t a good idea.”
The talk at table turned to other things. “I’ve a meeting with Lord Nevard and the members of the board tomorrow,” Percival remarked.
“Will you see Mr. Quentin and Mr. Kenault?” Tiffany asked.
“Most assuredly. It would be difficult to make a quorum without them.”
“Then I will send some of my sweet biscuits and special rolls with you. Mr. Quentin is extremely partial to them, but I think everyone else will enjoy them as well.”
“Will we get some?” asked a rosy-faced moppet, seated just down the table from Susan.
“To be sure, you will,” Tiffany replied. “In fact, if you will eat up your vegetables, I do believe that there will be some for dessert.”
“Hooray!” shouted the boy seated across from the little girl.
“Hooray!” echoed the rest of the table.
“What are we cheering about?” a boy a little farther down asked.
“Biscuits for dessert,” someone answered.
After dinner, Tiffany, Percival, and their children walked up the street to Northbury Manor, while the various house supervisors took the orphans off to their beds.
McClellan, looking a little grizzled, but still maintaining his dignity and eminently respectable appearance, met them at the door. “Did you have a good dinner?” he asked, taking their outdoor things, and quickly hanging them up in the cupboard by the door.
“An excellent dinner,” Percival said. “It was almost as good as a meal prepared by my favorite cook.”
“That is not possible,” McClellan said solemnly.
“Why not?” asked the youngest boy.
“Because your father’s favorite cook is your mother. And, I might add, she is the very best this house has ever known.”
“And still is,” Percival said staunchly. “Are not our meals particularly delicious on the days when your mother can be persuaded to cook?”
Four small heads nodded in vigorous agreement. They did not even ask how it was that their father, a Marquess, married a lowly cook, since they were familiar with the story of how it was discovered that their mother was not merely a homeless orphan, but the long, lost granddaughter of Sir James Barrette.
But the family reminiscences were interrupted by Grace, longtime family friend and the children’s nanny. “They are all yours,” Tiffany said, handing over her exuberant offspring. “Do not let them disturb your baby. If they are reluctant to go to bed, you can send them back to me and I will see to it.”
This quelled the riot that was about to erupt, for where Papa could be persuaded to tell stories and sometimes even sing songs, Mama was made of sterner stuff and was less likely to indulge their errant behavior.
When the children had gone to their rooms, Tiffany and Percival settled down in the library, Percival going over his ledgers, and Tiffany reviewing a tall stack of school papers. At length, she raised her head and asked, “Is it too bad of us to send the children up for Grace to put them to bed?”
Percival tore himself way from an account of which fields were producing the best crops. “I don’t believe so,” he said. “They had dinner with us, they went to school during the day with the children of peers, and they romped after dinner with the children at the orphanage. I think we are giving them a very well-rounded education that will let them function at any level of society.”
“But are we giving them enough love?” Tiffany asked. “I remember the years after Father Bentley died when I would have given anything for a word, even the smallest scrap of affection, from Mrs. Bentley.”
“If it troubles you, we can go up and see them in their beds,” Percival said.
“I think I would like that,” Tiffany replied.
They set aside their work and went hand-in-hand like school children into the nursery wing. As Tiffany had guessed, even though the children were in bed, they were still awake. One by one she went to each, said a quiet word, and kissed the rosy cheek of each. After this, the little ones cuddled down in their beds, drifting into slumberland.
Grace saw them out the door. “You never forget,” she said. “And they always look for you before they sleep.”
“Is Lucas on duty tonight?” Tiffany queried.
“He is. Don’t worry, we will have our time later in the week, and then you can put all of them to bed, including mine.”
Tiffany laughed a little at that sally, and she and Percival went back to the library. They did not return to their work, however. Instead, they sat together on the sofa in front of the library fireplace.
“I’m so glad I caught you that night,” Percival said. “Just think what I might have missed.”
“I’m glad it was you who caught me,” Tiffany said. “Not someone else. I truly do not think I was cut out for a life of crime.”
Percival hugged her and kissed her gently. “No. Instead, you are making it your life work to make sure that other children will not have to make the hard choices that were pushed on you. More than that, you have rescued me from an eternity of boredom, and possibly even saved my life.”
“We saved each other,” Tiffany said, cuddling into his embrace.
“So we did,” Percival agreed. “So we truly did.” He held her close, breathing in the scent of her hair, and marveling at his good fortune.
Ah, before you go...
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