Brambles and Thorns(4)

By: Jocelyn Kirk

“Willa, c-can you please sit down for a moment…I want to inquire….”

“Yes, miss.” The young maid settled on the edge of a straight chair.

Elena dabbed at her face with a handkerchief and sipped her sherry, holding the glass with two shaking hands.

“Willa, can you tell me exactly what happened?”

“Yes, miss. Mrs. Bellwood was giving me instructions as to the laying of the table, and…I was on the far opposite side of the table…otherwise—” Willa gave a little gasping sob and tried to continue. “Mrs. Bellwood…swayed a bit…then she made a sound like a little scream…then she fainted…she fainted and dropped straight down. I tried to run to her and catch her, but I was on t’other side of the table, miss…and before I could get to her, she fell! And her head…”

“Her head struck the hearth. I heard you tell the doctor.”

“Yes, miss.”

“Did it seem that she cried out from pain before she fainted?”

“I don’t know, miss. It happened so fast.”

“What did you do next?”

“I dropped on the floor next to Mrs. Bellwood and called to her, but she didn’t answer…or move. So I ran for you, miss.”

Elena barely heard Willa’s last words. Her mother, alive and all aflutter an hour ago, now dead and silent…gone…gone forever. It appeared she had fainted—probably from overexcitement acting on her weak heart—but her head had hit the hearth in such a way that it had ended her life. It was incredible.

Elena suddenly remembered the reason for her mother’s overexcitement. The duke! He must be put off!

“Willa, tell the butler to go immediately to the Duke of Simsbury bearing the news of my mother’s sudden death and asking that he defer the honor of his visit to another day.”

“Yes, Miss Bellwood.”

Willa rose, but Elena retained her. Gently taking the maid’s hand, she forced a wavering smile. “Willa, you acted very quickly and intelligently in this emergency, and I thank you.”

“Thank you, miss.” Willa curtsied and left the room.

Shortly after Willa had departed, the sound of a visitor at the front door interrupted Elena’s compulsive pacing of the room. She gasped, expecting it to be the duke. He must not see her tear-streaked face! She began to hurry away, but she was too late. The parlor door opened, and the butler ushered in not the duke, but her mother’s solicitor, Phineas Coakley.

“My dear Miss Bellwood!” he cried, hurrying toward her. He was a very heavy man, and the jiggle of his tummy as he rapidly crossed the room caused his waistcoat to ride up and expose the wrinkled cotton shirt beneath it. But his expression was one of sincere sympathy, and Elena greeted him with outstretched hands.

“My dear Miss Bellwood, this is such a shock!”

“Indeed it is, Mr. Coakley, and how kind of you to come right away. But how did you—who informed you?”

“Good Dr. Dryden sent a messenger. He feared for your nerves and thought I might be of some comfort and support.”

“Mr. Coakley, I am extremely glad to see you at this moment! It occurs to me I am now the mistress of a household, and I have never in my life been called upon to make decisions or supervise a household staff!”

“My dear, give yourself a bit of time to grieve before you worry over such things.”

“But I must…think…I have so much to do! Oh, I’m so very glad you came, Mr. Coakley! Very glad indeed!” A sudden onset of vertigo made her stumble, and she fell into Mr. Coakley’s arms, sobbing.

“There, there, my dear. Do not ruin your pretty face.”

Elena covered her face with a handkerchief and stepped away to recover herself. “Pray forgive me, sir. Please excuse me for a few minutes to freshen myself.”

But Mr. Coakley replaced his tall hat and prepared to leave. “I must return to the offices of Coakley and Smythe, Miss Bellwood. But I will call again in a few days, with your permission, and bring your mother’s will. We shall look it over together. We have much to discuss, and you are not in a fit state for such matters this morning.”

Elena curtsied, one quivering arm holding the back of an armchair. Mr. Coakley turned to go but paused.