One Year Later
Aaron and Gerome wandered through the half-familiar territory of the small town of Saint-Anne-de-la-Mer, outside Benodét in Northern France. Aaron had been here before, in his much younger days, but the ghosts of his past had brought him back. It was something that he had to do, not only for himself but for Gerome.
They wandered down the main street, though, with it being a Sunday, most of the shops and houses were shuttered up. It was quaint, and Aaron could smell the sweet scent of something baking. It made his mouth water, but they could not stop for a bite to eat just yet. There was something else they needed to do first.
“Do you know where she is?” Aaron asked solemnly.
Gerome nodded. “She is here, in the cemetery of the church.” He pointed up the main street to where a small, stone spire reached skyward.
“Lead the way, and I will follow.”
Gerome moved at a brisker pace, reaching the low iron gate of the cemetery a few minutes later. A few blackbirds fluttered from the gnarled trees, chirping towards the hazy sunlight. One landed on the curve of a headstone, shaking its wings as it settled down to bathe in the warm glow.
“Were you here when she was buried?” Aaron asked. Gerome had been a baby at the time, but he wondered if his son had been brought here when his mother had been put to rest.
He shook his head. “I was taken to the orphanage first, and they did not bring me here. I only know that she is buried here because the nuns at the orphanage deigned to tell me the location, upon my departure from that hellish place. I have visited her here only twice before. Sometimes, I think I might attempt a yearly pilgrimage, but it becomes too difficult. There is a great deal of pain here, even now.”
Aaron nodded. “And I am sorry for that.”
“I know you are,” Gerome said softly. “I am only glad that you found it in your heart to forgive my heinous acts, so that we might find a mutual redemption between us. I had not expected it, as you know, but I feel exceedingly fortunate for the way that things have turned out.”
“As do I, my son,” Aaron replied.
“I am most surprised that Henrietta decided to forgive me,” he went on. “I truly thought she would despise me forever, after the suffering I put her through. It was wrong of me, I see that now, but I did not anticipate her forgiveness. At least, not so soon. I thought it would have taken a decade or two.”
Aaron smiled. “My daughter is remarkable in many ways. Indeed, she continues to surprise me, even now.”
“She is faring well in London?”
“She is. I believe she is happy, which is all any father can hope for.” He looked at Gerome. “I hope you may find such happiness, too. I really do.”
“One day… perhaps,” he said shyly, leading Aaron towards a headstone at the very back of the cemetery. Indeed, it was placed in its own fenced-off section, the headstones there shrouded in the shadow of a weeping willow.
“Here?” Aaron asked.
“Yes… this is where the lost souls are buried,” he said quietly, tears springing to his eyes.
Aaron understood. His mother had taken her life and had been forbidden a place in the hallowed ground of the cemetery proper. He vowed to pray for her salvation so that she might be welcomed into God’s waiting arms, despite her former transgressions. He felt certain that such a woman could not be denied access to the kingdom of heaven, not when the circumstances of her death were taken into account. She had been left on the brink of destitution, afraid and alone. Evidently, she had not been able to see another way out. Such tragedy, and such reasoning, could surely not prevent her from taking her place in the heavens.
“Let us pray for her,” Aaron murmured reverently. “There is much I have to say, for I must make amends with her, too.”
Gerome nodded. “I think she would forgive you.”
“You came back,” he said, his voice thick with emotion. “It was too late, but you came back. That, in itself, would soften her ire towards you. As I have forgiven you, I know she would, too.”
“I pray that you are right,” Aaron replied. Sinking to his knees, he closed his eyes and began to pray, sending all of his wishes and good will towards the heavens, in the hope that they might reach the woman he had left behind.
Go in peace, my first love. Find serenity at last.
Henrietta pored over the books in Dr. Fischer’s private library, feeling more than fortunate about her situation in life. There were books in that room that, only a year ago, she would never have expected to read. Anatomy, physiology, biology, case studies—it was all here.
True to his word, her father had ensured that she was placed under the tutelage of the good doctor, so she might learn more of becoming a physician. She had been fearful at first, but that had swiftly dissipated, replaced with the utmost joy at being permitted to study such a subject.
“You are a better student than I anticipated, Lady Peterborough. Truly, you have an exceptional mind,” Dr. Fischer announced, as they came to the end of another day. It had been almost ten months since she had begun her studies in London, and she visited with him three times a week. He had other duties to attend to, naturally, but he was surprisingly encouraging about her future career. Within a matter of weeks, they had established an excellent rapport, and it had only increased with the passing of months.
“I told you it would not be a waste of your expertise, Doctor,” Henrietta replied with a smile. “I am very grateful that you agreed to do this, for I know there are not many who would.”
“You have your father to thank for that. Had he not come to me himself, and told me of your hopes, I would never have believed such a thing was possible,” Dr. Fischer said. “Truly, I am glad of it though. It has broadened my mind, somewhat. Perhaps there may be a future for young ladies in the world of medicine, though I am still uncertain about surgery. The theater, both with the arts and with operations, is no place for a lady of good standing.”
Henrietta chuckled. “We shall see, Doctor. I have every intention of at least attempting surgery, if I may be allowed one of these days.”
“You may be waiting a fair while,” he remarked, though his voice did not hold a complete certainty. Indeed, Henrietta sensed a little leverage, as she had already managed to persuade him of her aptitude as a general physician. “Now, off you go, before your husband thinks I have stolen you away.”
Henrietta closed the book on anatomy that she had been reading and pushed it to one side, ready to pick up again the day after tomorrow. Gathering her coat and her gloves, she put them on to keep out the evening chill and headed from Dr. Fischer’s private offices after a cursory farewell.
The staff in Dr. Fischer’s building had grown used to her presence, believing her to be a distant niece of some kind, who had come to help her dear uncle with some administrative duties. It was an excellent ruse and had worked splendidly so far.
A carriage pulled up outside, ready to take her back to the townhouse in Belgravia. She and Ewan had moved from Nightingale a couple of months after the events at Scampston Hall, so that Henrietta might begin her studies. It had been something of a shock to the system, and Henrietta could often see a longing in Ewan’s eyes—a desire to be back at Nightingale, with its sprawling grounds and fresh air. However, he had to endure for her sake. It would only be a year or two more.
As she clambered into the carriage and sat down upon the velvet squab, a small smile tugged at her lips. She held a secret in her heart that she had yet to disclose to Ewan. That night was the night where she would tell him, and a mixture of nerves and excitement jangled in her veins.
She glanced out of the window as the carriage trundled all the way back to Belgravia, passing the now-familiar sights of her daily route. The cries of passing workers, done for the day, provided the backdrop to her journey. Meanwhile, mischievous children ran alongside, eager to get a glimpse inside the carriage window.
Henrietta did not mind them jumping and banging on the door, for the children were sweet-faced and ruddy-cheeked. The smog and filth of London had yet to harden them to the world. Indeed, she hoped that it never would, but she knew better. She had seen how many of the children here ended up, and it saddened her to the core.
In truth, it reminded her of Gerome, and the suffering he had endured at the orphanages of France and Guernsey He had been hardened by the world, and it had happened at such a young age that he barely had a chance at happiness. It had made him bitter and violent, and vengeful beyond all sense.
Aaron Oliver had also made good on his promise to make amends with the son he had abandoned, albeit unintentionally. Gerome had been living at the Oliver residence for the entirety of the last year and remained there still. It seemed to have had a calming effect on him, with no further mention of vengeance rising to the fore. Instead, he had embraced the warmth of belonging, and found himself a place in this world, with the father he’d always longed to have.
The carriage pulled up outside the townhouse half-an-hour later, with the driver jumping down from the box to open the door. With his help, Henrietta stepped out and hurried up the steps to her home. Personally, she enjoyed the vibrancy and vitality of London, with its endless racket and seasonal soirées. Indeed, she had become quite the social butterfly since arriving here, and Ewan had been content to be her moth.
“My love?” she called, as she entered the house.
Ewan appeared at the top of the stairs a moment later. “My goodness, I was about to send the infantry to discover your whereabouts. Is anatomy still more interesting than your tedious husband?” he teased, striding down towards her.
“I am afraid so, my love,” she replied with a giggle.
“Perhaps I ought to set myself on a surgical table. Then you might show as much excitement in coming home as you do in leaving it to go to your studies.” He put his arms around her and pulled her into a tender embrace. She sank against his chest, listening to his steady heartbeat.
“You know this is the place I love above all else,” she said shyly, looking up in to his eyes. “This spot right here, where your heart beats and everything is right with the world. It is not a location, but it is wherever you are.”
He glanced down at her with smiling eyes. “How did I become so fortunate, my beloved wife? Can you answer me that? How is that I have found you?”
“Perhaps providence thought you had suffered enough, and deserved some joy in your life,” she suggested, hugging him tighter. “Perhaps a divine force brought us together, so that both of us could fix our broken pieces and put them back together again.”
He kissed her forehead. “Now I am certain you have been reading too much anatomy. Even your sweet words are peppered with the physical dynamics of the human form.”
“I cannot help myself,” she murmured.
“How were your studies today?”
She smiled. “They were rather excellent. However, there was another matter that I wished to discuss with Dr. Fischer, whilst I had his attention.”
“Oh? What was that?”
“I have been feeling somewhat unwell of late, as you know.”
He nodded. “Yes. A terrible business.”
“Well, I thought to ask Dr. Fischer what he thought it might be,” she explained shyly. “He had his suspicions, and decided to listen to my stomach, to see if he was correct.”
“Does he think you may have eaten something that did not agree with you?”
She shook her head. “No… it is far better news than that.”
Ewan’s eyes widened.
“He is almost certain that I am with child,” she whispered, hardly daring to look at his face in case he was disappointed. She knew how painful the loss of his son had been, and she did not want him to worry. Indeed, in that moment, she wondered if she ought to have said anything at all.
For what felt like a lifetime, he said nothing.
“My love?” Henrietta urged. “Please, speak to me. Are you angry?”
With a startling whoop, he scooped her up into his arms and danced her about the entrance hall. His face broke out into the biggest smile she had ever seen, his eyes sparkling with happiness. She had never seen him so pleased in all her days.
“Why should I be angry?” he said, laughing delightedly.
“I thought you might worry,” she replied.
“Oh, I will most certainly worry. You will be waited on hand and foot, and scarcely allowed to leave your bed, but I am ecstatic. My love, I am the happiest man on this earth!” He kissed her firmly on the lips, chuckling to himself as he did so.
“I am, my love. Oh, I am,” he assured her, gazing lovingly into her eyes. “You have brought untold joy into my darkest hours and brought me back from the brink of despair. Thanks to you, I remembered that life is worth living, and is not for casting aside. And this… well, this is simply the cherry on top of it all. This is perfection, my love. Utter perfection.”
“Do you mean it?” she gasped, positively euphoric at his reaction.
“With all my heart, my love.”
Now, despite their shaky beginnings and the dark clouds that had threatened their potential joy, Henrietta truly felt as if she had gained everything she had ever hoped for. A flourishing career in medicine, the first quickening of a child, and a love that nothing and nobody could destroy.
Yes, my love, she thought with a grin. This is utter perfection.
Ah, before you go...
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