The Teacher at Orchard Hall– Chapter Ten


Previous chapters: Chapter One / Chapter Two / Chapter Three / Chapter Four / Chapter Five / Chapter Six / Chapter Seven / Chapter Eight / Chapter Nine

Stephen continued to stare at the chair Clara had vacated long after she left. Her words seemed to shake everything he had felt certain about in life. His father had never seemed particularly loving toward him, yet Stephen desperately wanted his approval. That is why he had, at first, tried so hard to prove his father’s innocence. His father drew all of his identity and worth from his position in life. Losing that had devastated him. Somehow, that came out in Stephen’s life as well. He had been terrified that the person who mattered the most to him, Clara, would leave him over his father’s scandal. At what seemed like confirmation, he reacted with anger and stormed off. He left the area and, within a week, was destined for India, severing all possibility of contacting Clara again. It had seemed so challenging to have faith in only one thing, his father’s innocence, that he did not have the strength to have faith in anything else. To him, there was no possibility that he had misunderstood Clara. All the evidence pointed away from it. 

Perhaps he would have thought differently if he had a moment of calm, but he never had it. On the journey to India, his dearest friend died. Once Simultaneously, he uncovered his second family. Eventually, he found concrete proof that the Company was making a mess of things. They would be the ruin of the Empire if they were allowed to continue overseeing British interests in Asia. He had to be careful about how he gathered his intelligence, as many powerful and influential men had a stake in matters. It would be all too easy and convenient to explain away a sudden disappearance or death. Meanwhile, the more time he spent in India, the more he learned the real human cost of Empire-building. It was not just the concern of tarnishing British reputation and honor. 

Could he really forget the past? Not just his relationship with Clara, but all the pain? How could he keep the lessons and complete what he felt compelled to do if he let go of what had motivated him in the first place? Clara had said that she hoped their conversation allowed him to find some rest. How could it? From where he now sat, it seemed he had been selfish and foolish for most of his life. He had condemned Clara and himself to a life without love, but she had paid a much steeper price. Additionally, did he think he could single-handedly end Company rule in India? 

Stephen began to hear the others leave the drawing room and ascend the stairs to their chambers. He ought to be one of them. However, he was as unlikely to find sleep in his room as in the library. In the morning, he would have to see about settling Priya somewhere. She could not stay with him in London. The thought of sending her to the estate, especially without speaking with his mother about it, was impossible. He doubted she would ever be able to meet with Priya—not that he expected his sister to stay in England for long. She had been adamant about remaining in India when he departed. However, that was before her mother had died. 

The door quietly opened and closed, followed by masculine boot steps across the floor. The sound of a chair groaning and fabric sliding across fabric finally made Stephen’s eyes refocus. Where Clara had been hours before, now Gordon sat. He said nothing, merely silently offered companionship. It was a quality that he had shared with their mutual friend Thomas and something Stephen most liked about him. The temptation to say nothing and wallow in his troubles was great. Still, if anyone might have an idea of how overwhelmed and unprepared Stephen felt, Gordon would be the man. He had inherited the dukedom as a child and been bullied at school because his mother came from trade. He also had a younger sister in his care.

“How would I go about finding housing and a companion for Priya?” Stephen asked after a few moments of silence. 

“Alice’s companion could draw up some good recommendations. That is always how it is done. The best ones are not found in the papers. Surely Lady Randolph will allow her to stay until things can be settled.”

“Yes, she has already said so. However, I know Priya will not be at ease here for long.”

“Does she wish to stay in England? You clearly did not expect her.”

“No, not at all,” Stephen answered before explaining his sister’s decision to leave her home. “I do not know if she will wish to go back or if she will want my other siblings to come here. She was exhausted and is still grieving her mother and adjusting to a foreign land. I figured questions like that could wait until tomorrow or for a few days.”

“Certainly,” Gordon agreed. “This hardly helps your financial straits. Are you certain you will not consider a loan?”

Stephen shook his head. “Even if I had any idea of when I could pay you back, I would not.” He would sell the estate without hesitation, although his father would roll over in his grave, but it was entailed. “Even if I attempted to return to court, it would take years to amass a reputation and earn a living. We already sold everything that will fetch a price.” 

“Well,” Gordon said, drawing out the word, “there is one way to quickly raise funds. It is something our class has resorted to for generations.”

Belatedly, realization dawned on him. This was the reason his mother had been so insistent on his finding a wife. She was not as naïve and unaware as he had assumed. “It seems to be the only way.”

“I had thought you more opposed to the institution of marriage in general than the idea of marrying for money. Now, I sense there is more to it.”

“I am not prepared to discuss it,” Stephen said, “but the feelings are rather linked. I find it repulsive to marry where my heart does not reside and am distrustful of the female sex entirely because of it.”

“I suppose it is heartless of me, but I care more for your finances. The woman that broke your heart must not be a suitable alternative to your problems. Therefore, I cannot in good conscience recommend that you marry where your heart does reside, but your pocketbook cannot.”

“Touche.” 

Stephen knew his friend spoke wisely. Gordon knew more than most the difficulties that arose from a couple straddling two social spheres. While Clara was born the daughter of a gentleman, she was raised on the lower fringes of gentility and certainly a stranger to the peerage. 

“You must think differently now that you are the earl,” Gordon urged. “What about the other matter? I am prepared to support you in the Lords, and Anson can push for it in the Commons.”

“Will that be enough?”

Gordon picked at a piece of lint on his breeches before meeting Stephen’s eyes. “You know it will not. These things come slowly. However, it will get people talking. Do you know how long it took before the Slave Trade was outlawed? How long have there been motions for Catholic voting rights or abolishing slavery?” He stood and clapped Stephen on his right shoulder. “You do not have the necessary clout or name to accomplish this — if it can even be done in our lifetime. You should aim to present the information and keep the topic alive. All the more reason to marry a wealthy woman so you can afford to be a lively member of Parliament.”

Wordlessly, Gordon exited the room, leaving Stephen alone once more, feeling as though he had failed at everything. Had he really been so naïve as to think that he could force the Company out of India and press for greater government oversight? He had left England, hopeful that he could be his father’s victor. After uncovering the truth, he imagined himself as a prince off to slay a dragon. How horrible to finally learn that he was not the hero of his own story or of anyone else’s. Was this all there was to life? A mundane existence full of regrets and wishing he had accomplished more?

Finally, Stephen left the library and trudged up the stairs to his chamber. He collapsed on the bed, still fully clothed and willed for sleep to claim him. It did not come until the early hours of the morning. When he awoke, all of his problems greeted him once more. 

*****

Stephen was surprised to find Priya not in her room. Instead, she was in the breakfast room, chatting with the guests, including Clara. He avoided her eyes. How bold and like her old self she had been last night!

After being assured that Priya had slept well, Stephen conversed with the lady on his right. She was the only daughter of an earl and presumed to have a dowry that would meet his needs. Most importantly, she did not appear friendly with Clara. Unfortunately, she was as dull as paper. 

Clara seemed in fine spirits. She listened attentively to Priya’s stories of her travels, things that made Stephen grip his silverware with a tightened fist. She should not have been alone through all of that! He had failed his sister once again. However, he and Clara were not the only fascinated listeners. Mr. Windsor was nearby and asked candid questions about the church in India.

“Do you ever think about missionary work?” Lady Eleanor asked him.

“Before my wife’s illness, it was our fondest wish.” Windsor looked wistful, whether at his wife’s memory or the thought of missionary life, Stephen could not discern.

“Why do you not go now?”

“The children are too young for school, and I cannot bring them to India without someone to care for them.”

Lady Dullard giggled. “So, you are here to find a wife after all?”

Windsor flushed. “My aunt invited me to her house party, and I came with no ulterior motives other than to enjoy the holiday season. If you will excuse me,” he said before standing and leaving. However, Stephen detected the man send a fleeting glance to Clara. Now, Stephen’s grip on his silverware tightened for other reasons. 

Priya appeared finished with her breakfast and whispered to Clara, who nodded and smiled. Next, she laid her napkin on her plate, scooted her chair back, and stood up. Priya followed suit and the gentlemen stood for propriety’s sake. Clara said farewell to the table, echoed by Priya, and they exited the room arm in arm. Stephen considered chasing after them and detaching his sister from the female that still owned his heart. However, truth be told, he would handle it all the better with a full belly and after having some coffee. 

After consuming his breakfast, he was pulled into the library by Gordon and an old school chum*, Jonathan Anson, who was now the Viscount Blithfield. 

“I took the liberty of relaying your troubles to Anson,” Gordon said. “We decided that you need a plan.”

“I will happily listen to suggestions,” Stephen replied.

“While Lady Alice’s companion finds the proper suggestion for Priya,” Anson said, “you should find a bride.”

“If only it were so easy,” Stephen said. “Not all of us have arranged situations.” Anson’s father had long ago arranged for him to marry the daughter of a wealthy merchant in Wolverhampton. 

“Be thankful for that,” Anson said with a roll of his eyes. The young viscount was in no hurry to fulfill his family’s expectations. “You need a lady with money, who has political connections where you do not, whose family is above reproach to counter your family’s reputation, who can get along well with your mother and will tolerate your Indian relations.”

“And she must be present at this party,” Gordon added.

“Is that all?” Stephen guffawed and rolled his eyes. “Who have you found?”

“Princess Charlotte,” Gordon answered in a deadpan* voice, earning the chuckles of the other gentlemen. 

“You could take my intended off my hands,” Anson joked and wiped at his brow.

“No, thank you.” Stephen repressed a shudder. “All kidding aside, I assume you have at least one attainable name to suggest?”

“There are two possibilities,” Anson said. “The Earl of Stanhope’s daughter, Marina or Lavinia Childe—niece of the wealthy jeweler.”

Stephen snorted. “Oh, I only have to woo the relation of one of the richest men in England!”

Gordon shook his head. “No wooing.”

Anson nodded. “A simple business transaction. Your title for their money.”

“What does Stanhope’s daughter gain by marrying me?” 

“She’s a spinster, and you’re her last chance,” Gordon answered matter-of-factly.

“I don’t remember all of the peerage. Does she have a brother that will inherit the title?”

“No, a distant cousin who is already married. She will, however, get her father’s money.” Anson shrugged his shoulders. “They say she loved someone years ago and held out hope for him. Rumor has it that she is finally willing to marry someone else.”

Stephen took a deep breath and blew it out. It all felt so cold and heartless. “Let me at least meet them first.”

Anson gave a sympathetic smile, but Gordon was all business. “I know it seems cruel, but think about your sisters and what they need. Think about your tenants. What you want is not even an option anymore.” He spoke the truth. At last, Stephen relented. However, as they exited the library, he thought he could still smell a bit of Clara’s fragrance from the night before.

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