Conversation swirled around Clara after Stephen and his sister left the dining room. The Duke of Gordon had explained the Indian beauty who threw herself into Stephen’s arms was only his sister. Still, for a few terrible moments, Clara felt all the horror of Stephen holding another woman. She had accepted long before that he would marry another one day. She had never thought she would see him again, so imagining what it would feel like to meet his wife was futile. Even if she would unexpectedly meet him again, proper decorum would never have couples so openly display their affection. Having never even imagined the recent scene, witnessing it was all the more distressing.
“It is no surprise that his father had an Indian family,” Miss P said loudly. “Nearly all of them do. Some of them really do marry Indian women and even bring them back here!”
Clara grit her teeth as the woman continued speaking.
“Of course, Lord Clifford probably had one too. I do not mind such a thing as long as it stays there. What could this girl be thinking of? Coming all the way to England!”
“He seemed to be very fond of her,” Miss ___ said. “He did not push her away.”
“No, he is too gentlemanly for that,” Miss P said.
A hush fell over the room as Lady Randolph re-entered. “Shall we resume our meal?” she asked with a smile.
She did not need to correct anyone. There was an unspoken command that she would not tolerate further discussion or gossip about Stephen. Clara breathed a sigh of relief. Lady Eleanor tried to draw her into conversation many times. However, she could not focus on anything the other lady said. Miss P’s words rang in Clara’s ears.
Did Stephen have an Indian mistress? It was beyond impossible for Clara to ever hope Stephen would ask for her hand again. But, if such a miracle occurred, would it bother her that he had found comfort in the arms of another woman? She had heard of such things before but always thought Stephen too honorable.
Another thing troubled her, too. Stephen had a sister, maybe even more siblings in India. Perhaps he did not know about her during their engagement, but since learning about the relation, how did he never reconsider his treatment of Clara? There was no mistaking his anger and animosity toward her. He had never forgiven her for leaving to take care of her sisters. He had been so willing to drop everything for his father’s sake, but he had argued it was not the same. What about now that he had a sister of his own? She did not think he could ever love her again, but perhaps he could forgive her.
By the dessert course, she had made up her mind. She had this one opportunity to settle the past. This was her greatest regret. She could not go back and change things; she would not choose differently if she could. However, years of mourning the relationship had only made her miserable. She needed his forgiveness to move forward in her life. It would likely solve nothing regarding the school as Stephen seemed to have financial problems. It would not change the precarious state of Clara’s life. However, regardless of what circumstance next served her, she would have the freedom of Stephen’s forgiveness.
Lady Randolph led the ladies to the drawing room while the gentleman stayed in the dining room, per the custom. Clara waited for her opportunity to speak with her hostess in privacy. However, before she could find a way to ask for that without breaking propriety or garnering the curiosity of strangers, the woman approached her.
“Miss Lumley,” Lady Randolph said, “I wonder if I could speak with you for a moment. I had a question regarding my grand-nieces education and believe you are qualified to answer it. However, I am sure your companions would prefer to continue their own conversation, so might you join me on the settee over here.”
“Certainly.” Clara followed the woman. After sitting down, she expected to be asked about obtaining a governess or the like. Instead of hoping to put herself forward as a choice, Clara focused on how she could discreetly ask for a meeting with Stephen.
“Now, what is that you wanted to ask me, my dear?” Lady Randolph said and gave Clara’s hand a squeeze.
“You asked to speak with me, my lady.” Clara wondered if she had to worry about the lady’s mind in the evening as she heard was the case with some aging people.
“Yes, but that was just so we could have solitude. I felt prompted to break you away from the others and that you had a question for me.”
Clara blinked at the words. Was this telepathy? “How did you know that? What do you mean by feeling prompted?”
“It is like when you know something is right or wrong. That gut feeling you have which others call a conscience. Well, it can extend beyond judging our actions and thoughts. It can direct our paths in life. God sees even the smallest sparrow and knows our prayers before we say them. So why should he not lead us? He did not merely put us on earth to falter and find our own way and then judge us when we fail.”
Clara’s mouth fell open. She had grown up hearing things, even in church, which made her believe that was precisely the case. In the wake of trials of life, she grew angry at the all-seeing God who seemed determined to torment her but never aid her.
“Now, now,” Lady Randolph said and gave Clara’s hand another squeeze. “You can chew on that later. What did you need to ask me? You can be honest with me; for whatever it is, God wants me to help you.”
When phrased that way, Clara almost jumped up and ran away from the lady. Had she not decided years ago that she could rely on the help of no one? That it was better to do everything on her own? And for Lady Randolph to bring the Lord into it?
Just before Clara bolted from the settee, Lady Randolph said, “Come, you have sown enough tears. Are you ready to reap in joy?” She smiled encouragingly at Clara.
She cocked her head and looked the woman in the eye. “Mr. Windsor quoted that to me earlier today.”
“That does not surprise me. The Lord uses many people. However, I did not speak with him about it, if that is what you were thinking.”
“Very well.” Clara took a deep, steadying breath. It was now or never. “I do not wish to have to explain myself, but I wondered if you could arrange a meeting with Lord Clifford for myself. I assure you it is not for a tryst or anything scandalous.”
Lady Randolph’s eyes lit up, and her broad smile revealed her many wrinkles. “I would never think it of either one of you. I know he planned to meet with Gordon after seeing his sister settled. So I shall simply send you to him instead of the Duke.” She glanced at the clock. “In fact, if you go to the library now, I suspect he will be returning there shortly.”
Hope and dread mixed in Clara’s stomach, rendering her frozen.
“Go, my dear.” Lady Randolph shook Clara’s shoulder. “Go, now.”
Clara stood on shaky legs and slowly left the room without anyone noticing or stopping her. Entering the library, she perused the shelves to distract herself.
As a young teacher, she often rehearsed her lectures. However, someone would always say something unexpected, so all her plans fell apart. She learned over the years to adapt and create a more conversational style with her students. She knew it was not the usual teaching mode, but her students seemed to excel under it. They appeared at ease and enjoyed that style more than the other lessons. Perhaps that was why they also seemed to resent her strictness so much. At the same time, she had to be hard on them lest she look too new-fangled and lenient.
In any case, she wished now that she had a more remarkable ability to recite what she planned to say to Stephen. For years, she had held onto her own pain and anger that she never considered that he might be wounded. Then, she had come up with this plan to force him into an apology. The thought made her cease her movements. That was hardly noble. It did not fill her with a sliver of joy the way the idea of his forgiveness did.
Suddenly, she realized that what she had envisioned was not his forgiveness at all. It was him admitting that he had wronged her and she had been in the right. It was to be a triumph for her and allow her to cease her recriminations. However, that was not forgiveness. She had misused the term. What would she tell her students if they were in her place?
The door opened and closed. Clara watched, hidden in the shadows, as Stephen sat in a chair with a deep sigh. He rubbed his forehead and squeezed between his eyes. He did always get headaches there with any sort of stress or tension. Finally, with his elbows on his knees, he leaned forward and cradled his head, slightly shaking it to and fro.
What tortured him so? She had been thinking only of herself when she determined to confront him about his sister. What sort of peril had she gone through to reach him? Now the responsibility of two families weighed on him. There, in the darkness of a stranger’s library, Clara realized that she did not need any words shared between them at all to forgive him of the years that separated them. She still loved him and always would. Seeing him thus made her ache in ways she did not know she could still feel. Then, after years of nurturing her hurt and regret, it all evaporated in one moment.
Now, a terrible thought occurred to her. He had expected a friend to meet him here. Clara had little understanding of male friendships, but surely the Duke would offer support in some fashion. Now, Stephen would be alone. No, not alone, for she was there intruding on his solitude. Shame filled her. She had no right to be here and could not offer him the friendship he needed.
Clinging to the shadows, she inched closer to the door. As long as Stephen kept his head down, she would be able to pass by unnoticed. She held her breath but had made it past him. Then, just before reaching the handle, he called out.
She whirled around and noted that he still held his head in his hands. Either he had returned his head to it after speaking, or he had never lifted it. Had he known she was there all along? Lady Randolph must have told him. She never indicated that it would be a surprise.
“I believe you desire solitude, my lord.”
He unfurled, this time dropping his head on the back of the chair. “Do you know that I am so sick of this, my lord this and my lord that? It is one of the things I enjoyed the most about India.”
“I am unsurprised.” She hesitated for a moment and then turned the doorknob. “Well, goodnight.”
“You won’t stay and sit with me?”
“You did not seem like you wanted me to.”
Now, he finally lifted his eyes and met hers. “I want you to stay. I need you to stay.” He sighed. “I need someone I can tell the whole lamentable ordeal to, and you were there at the beginning.”
“Would you not prefer the Duke? Lady Randolph said you were to speak with him.”
“He offered support, but the truth is there is nothing he can do. I will not accept money from him, and even he can’t make travel to India any faster. So the only other sort of help I can receive from him can wait.”
Silently, Clara sat and allowed her old suitor to tell his tale. It began at the end of their engagement. His father had just returned from India, where he had served as the Governor-General. He had guessed that accusations would be made against him but never thought it would go so far as an impeachment. He was even imprisoned! Fortunately, he had been released on bail but found guilty of perjury and fined heavily. A long repeal followed, draining his finances. Stephen had gone to India to help research for the defense. Despite finding proof of his father’s innocence regarding embezzling funds and criminal financial practices overturning his father’s case, he found more and more evidence that the entire circumstance of the Company and Britain’s involvement in the area was destructive to the inhabitants of the land. He had only to point to his half-siblings as an example.
Now, he had returned to England to take on the yoke of his father’s role, manage the impoverished estate as the court fees cost upwards of one hundred thousand fees. Additionally, he had to worry about his family in India.
Clara could hear the anguish in his voice and saw as he fought to keep control over his emotions regarding the plight of his Indian family.
“He left them with nothing,” Stephen said with a harsh whisper. “I devoted my life to restoring my family’s honor, and he worked to destroy it until his last breath.” A shudder wracked him. “After his victory in court six years ago, he returned to the country of his heart, as he called it. There he returned to his ‘wife’ and fathered a final child. She was expecting little Nandita when the illness struck him. He had time to get his affairs in order and settle money on them but did not. They were completely disposable to him.”
Tears streamed down Stephen’s face. Clara longed to comfort him with an embrace and tender caress. Unfortunately, that was impossible, so she settled for words.
“You are not your father. You are seeing to them and would never shirk your responsibilities. Perhaps your father recognized how difficult it would be to properly support both families in the style he wished after his death. He saw the problem and chose to ignore it rather than deal with it. Do not fear failure, for merely accepting that there is a concern, indeed a very great one, you have already succeeded.”
Stephen remained mute, and she could not discern if her efforts had helped him at all.
“Throughout your time in India, you always did the right thing, despite how much easier it would have been to turn a blind eye. You are not a different man now merely because you are the earl and are on English soil. You were just as kind and loving when I knew you all the years before.”
Stephen’s eyes took on the cold, steely quality once more. “If you thought so, then why would you end our engagement?”
Clara sighed. Somewhere in Stephen’s story, she pieced together the sad truth of their last meeting. “Do you remember the day you heard word of your father’s imprisonment? Do you remember where you were or how you felt?”
“I remember everything about that day,” he assured her. “I received the express just before my final meeting with you. I thought my heart could not be more crushed, but you proved me wrong.” He let out a hollow laugh. “I even feared losing you, but foolish hope told me to have faith in you. Well, now we know why I have neither hope nor faith.”
“Stephen, we were both too distraught to think straight at the time! We talked at cross purposes. You feared me leaving you — and I had just got word about my sisters’ illness. I did tell you that I had to leave — but only the area. I was not forsaking you or our engagement. Your fear controlled you.”
He shook his head. “No, that is impossible. I would have remembered if you said your sisters were sick.”
“What is your sister’s name? The one that is here?”
“Priya. What does that matter?”
“I saw you this evening when Priya needed you. You raced to her side, heedless of anything else. You offered no logical explanations to anyone and barely managed to speak at all. What would you do if you were told she was sick and near to death? What about if Nandita or one of the others were sick now in India and you were told of it.”
“I would be on the first ship there,” he said.
“And what of your responsibilities to the estate, to Parliament, your mother?”
“I would leave and make arrangements during my travel. Then, I could explain it all by letter.”
“Precisely,” Clara said.
“I do not understand.”
“My sisters were ill, and I was in a frenzy to return home. I had written a letter, but then you arrived unannounced. I was too distraught to think straight — or even more important to listen. You were angry when I said I had to leave for my family’s sake, and I thought you were rejecting me because I cared for them. I thought you were giving me an ultimatum.”
“Never!” Stephen cried. He ran his hands through his hair. “Could you really think so badly of me?”
“It broke my heart to think so,” she confessed.
“I justly deserve your hatred. Look at what I have made you endure because I let fear and pride rule me. You were right about me, after all. A better man would have been able willing to set things right once he had a clear head.”
Clara sighed. “And when did that happen for you? It seems as though you have had one crisis after another. We both left the area the same day, and you shortly journeyed to India. Resolving our breach was impossible.” Then, feeling sudden inspiration, she urged him, “Forget our past. It is your present and your future that needs attention. Indeed, the future of many relies upon you. I am afraid I have no suggestions or solutions. However, I hope this allows you to put at least one concern to rest.”
Then, she got up and left the room. Returning to her chamber, rather than joining the others in the drawing room, she got on her knees for the first time in a long time. She prayed for Stephen to find a way to solve all his problems and for his family. Realizing how good it felt to pray for another person after so long made her ask for forgiveness for her own resentment and bitterness. When she had finished, she was surprised to feel a flame of hope in her heart. Maybe the Lord really did see her and cared for her after all. Nothing about her life had really changed, but perhaps faith was not based on circumstance.