Gordon and Anson disagreed with Stephen’s decision. However, to his thinking, it was the only way. If he threw over Clara for a lady with a hefty purse, he would not be any better than his father, who used people to his own ends? They argued that it was not merely for his good but for all the others that relied on him. The fact was, fortunes were made and lost all the time. Did not others survive on less? Clara would be a frugal housekeeper, and there were ways to retrench.
Over the next week, Stephen spent much of his time with Clara. They attempted to keep things circumspect, but judging by the pointed glares of Miss Ponsonby, they had not succeeded. Priya always accompanied them, sometimes with Lady Eleanor, as they kept a respectable distance. The weather had remained fine, so they could continue their daily rides, spending the days in conversation.
Stephen asked about Clara’s experiences since their parting on their next ride.
“How did you come to be a teacher at my family’s school?” He had asked her.
“I saw a posting and was brave enough to apply, although it was far from home. Mrs. Alderly has told me that your mother reviewed my application and preferred me. I had no idea and never even inquired who the school’s patron was. Did you ever write to Lady Clifford about me?”
“I did write to her when we began courting. She was surprised when I returned from Matlock and so willing to leave for India.” He frowned at her. “Fred’s wife did not open the school until after I had been gone for two years. What did you do immediately after I left?”
Clara averted her eyes, but Stephen pressed to know more.
“I was a governess. The master was my step-father’s patron…and not a kind man.” Her eyes took on a faraway, steely quality. “He became more insistent as Father’s health worsened. So after he died, I applied at the first school I saw advertising.”
Stephen fought the urge to know the man’s name so he might teach him a lesson. But, it was in the past. The last thing Clara needed was for him to dredge it up and cause a scandal. “What about your sisters? I assume they recovered well if you were willing to leave them.”
“Grandfather and I raced home to Mow Cop, but there was little to be done. Esther was not so bad off, but a high fever ravaged Dottie for days.” Clara’s eyes misted. “Her mind never returned to her. I hated leaving them.”
“Who takes care of them now?”
“I was able to keep the housekeeper and a maid with my earnings. Grandfather had a small annuity for us, and then Father had a tiny pension. Mr. Jones claimed it was more than most vicars get.”
Stephen’s heart shuddered at what Clara had endured. “An annuity from your grandfather means he must have passed. I am so sorry, Clara. He was a wonderful man, and I know how much you loved him.” Stephen squeezed her hand. “Your step-father has passed also?”
“Nearly ten years ago,” she whispered.
“You have been all alone,” he said and pulled her into an embrace, uncaring if Priya and Lady Eleanor saw. “But no more. When we marry, your sisters will live with us.”
She looked up at him with surprise and gratitude, pulling on his heart all the more.
“Are you certain? How will we afford it?”
“We will rent out Clifford Hall, and I will go back to the law.”
“What about your Parliamentary hopes?”
Stephen looked at the horizon and took a deep breath as he pressed Clara’s head over his heart. “I had hopes, yes—although not for my own sake or fame. However, the chances of the other lords and MPs ever seeing that the Company needs more oversight are slim and may take my lifetime or more. I would rather focus on the legacy I can leave with my family and wherever we make our home.”
“Thank you,” Clara whispered. Suddenly, she sat up, meeting Stephen’s eyes. “You are sacrificing for my sake, and I vow that you will never regret it. I will be a good wife to you, keeping home as frugal as possible.”
“I never had any doubt of that,” he answered. “You do not need to earn your place by my side. If you have managed with your sisters all this time without me on such a small income, then I have no worries about what you can do once we marry.”
Priya called for them, and any further private conversation was impossible. However, for the remainder of the week, they continued learning about one another and making plans for their future. Stephen had never known such happiness and contentment.
He brought Clara a bouquet of her favorite flower, Lily of the Valley, from the conservatory one day. He found her writing in the library. She had not joined the others after breakfast. Mrs. Alderly had written to Clara and given permission for her to stay another week. First, however, plans were needed for the substitute. Ever organized and dutiful, Clara determined to address each student individually.
Miss Cecilia Ward had told Stephen about an unusual essay topic. It seemed that Clara had no shortage of subjects. One of the students had a keen mind in mathematics and botany but found history and current events dull. Clara had assigned her the topic of determining how the government might increase funds to assist the war without raising taxes. An heiress to a ceramic works factory had to consider the effects of the new textile inventions on the cottage workers of the Midlands and draft a comparison to the reign of the ancient Welsh King Lludd Llaw Eraint.
“What is the purpose of these essays?” Stephen asked Clara.
“It is not merely to torture them as they suppose,” Clara laughed. “I hope to make them think beyond what they have been exposed to and what is expected. So very often, life turns out differently than we thought. If they can learn to apply themselves to such subjects now in their youth, they will have confidence when their real trials begin.”
“You reference the termination of our engagement,” he hung his head.
“Not entirely, no.” Clara touched his arm and drew his attention to her face. “My students are privileged in many ways, and broken engagements are rare. However, we share many other similarities. First, I lost my birth father when very young, and it cast a shadow on my childhood. Later, my mother died. Next, my sisters became ill.”
“These are things your students share with you?”
“Most of them, yes.” Clara nodded. “Although Sylvia Linwood’s father had a comfortable and unentailed estate, she is an orphan with only a twin brother. Hence, she is still a parlor-boarder at nineteen. Cecilia Ward’s family is famous on the stage, but her mother hovers on the edges of respectability. Cece has had several fathers who come and go in her life. Penelope Jenners’ elder brother died a few years ago. He was the heir to the family business, and her father has not gotten over the disappointment. I could go on and on.”
“Miss Ward did not think that you were kindly predisposed to your students, especially those from trade.”
Clara blushed. “They indeed reminded me of you, and I was perhaps envious of their youth and freedom. However, in the last week, I have learned to think more about my blessings, which has allowed me to see the hardships that others face. My motives in desiring to prepare them for the challenges in life have not changed, but my methods are gentler now. Or, at least, I hope they are. Although, I suppose I will not be teaching after we marry.”
“If you desire to continue, I see no reason you should cease.”
“Really? A countess as a school teacher? Society would be scandalized.”
Stephen laughed. “They would be scandalized if they knew half of what I did, and I hope to properly scandalize them even more thoroughly before I die. I care not what they think an earl and countess should behave like. I never wanted to be the earl, and if it were something I could give up, I would.”
The look of pride in Clara’s eyes was not something Stephen thought he would ever forget. At that moment, any vestiges of old hurt and wounds were washed away.
“You are such a noble gentleman,” she murmured as she squeezed his arm.
“It means more to me than you can imagine hearing you say that.” He covered her hand with his. “However, whatever lessons I’ve learned to make me so have come at a high price — too high when I think of what you have suffered.”
“You were always so good,” Clara insisted. “Let us not regret the past. There is nothing that we have lost that has not been restored. Would you rather never have known your sisters?”
Stephen was silent for a few minutes as he considered Clara’s words. “You would agree with Lady Randolph, then. God has designed our paths for our good, even when it seems as though the trials are more than we can bear, and that we must forgive ourselves and others.”
“Mr. Windsor reminded me of the scripture that says those that sow in sorrow will reap in joy. Perhaps it was done in sadness and discontent, but we did sow. We did our duties and what we must when others choose to wallow in misery or self-indulgence. Now, it is harvest time, and we shall enjoy the fruits of our labor.”
What could Stephen say to such wisdom? He cautiously surveyed the room before he pulled Clara from her seat. Kissing her knuckles, he then turned her hands over and pressed his lips to each palm before gathering them over his heart. Finally, he touched their foreheads together and breathed in her light lavender scent. “The day you take my name as yours, and we are bound together on earth and eternity will be when my joy comes to fulfillment. I will not count that fruit one moment earlier.”
“Mine has been to know you again and have my greatest desire returned to me. I had never thought it possible that you would still love me — I doubted if you ever truly did. I am sure there is no sweeter joy than that found in love. You have mine every day of your life, even before that blessed moment.”
They stood transfixed in that pose for several moments, Stephen yearning for the day he could claim her lips once more as his own. Then, finally, Priya found them.
“There you two are! It is time for our ride. Come, Clara! Let us dress.”
Clara separated from Stephen and gave him an indulgent smile before replying to Priya. “Allow me to finish this letter, and then may I read the missive I have from my sister? You two go on without me, and I will meet you at our usual spot.”
Stephen watched as Priya slowly nodded her head, having learned to mimic the English women around her, especially Clara. “Very well. I suppose that leaves me to race Stephen by myself.”
She gave a curtsy that had vastly improved in the last week and left with a happy skip in her step. Stephen shook his head and followed after her. Priya might be bending to English ways, but there was as much of the Indian exuberance in her as ever. However, she was far from besting him in a horse race.
When he and Priya returned downstairs, they did not find Clara in the library. Supposing that she was upstairs dressing, Priya was too eager for their exercise to wait, and so they continued to their destination. However, an hour later, Clara had not arrived. Upon returning to the house, he was directed to the library, where Clara awaited him. His heart froze in terror when he took in her tear-streaked face and traveling attire.