Sunday, June 18, 2017


a just for fun fiction
by c.j.

The children found the baby's nurse bouncing their brother upon her knee while the little one chortled happily. 

"Good afternoon Charlie," said James, a lad who was at the wise old age of eight.

"You look happy today, little brother, as always," said his sister Clara who had recently arrived at a most mature age of six.

Little Charlie gurgled and answered with a crowing of jewel-tone expressions of glee strung together like gems on a ribbon.

"What did he say," his older brother asked looking up at the nurse.

"Oh, he answered you back, o'course, and was asking how you are faring this fine day," the pretty young woman answered. Her dark curls bound back by a blue ribbon glistened in the bright sunshine as she bit into her pink lips.  But it was her twinkling eyes that gave away her amusement.  However, serious children did not as yet know this.

"We are well, thank you, Charlie.  We both have finished our lessons early today, and the governess said we might visit you out here in the flower garden," his older brother informed him as if it were necessary information for a baby joyful to see his beloved siblings to have.

"Did you know, Charlie, that I learned to recite a bit of poetry today?  Would you like to hear it?"
She took his glee to mean assent so she proceeded to quote...

"Lo! at the couch where infant beauty sleeps,
Her silent watch the mournful mother keeps;
She, while the lovely babe unconscious lies,
Smiles on her slumbering child with pensive eyes..."

"Our mother never behaved so, Clara!  Why did you choose such a silly poem?" James frowned.

"Just because I don't remember doesn't mean it is not so!" Clara declared with her hands on her hips.

Just then the baby arched his back and screamed in a baby sort of way when he could not make his fingers grab the ribbons upon his sister's bonnet satisfactorily to put in his slobbery mouth."

"Did you not like it, baby brother?"  The girl looked nearly devastated glancing between a howling baby and his nurse.

"Donna fache yerself none, Miss Abigail.  He is only cutting his wee baby teeth, and when he cudna have yer ribbons to chew became sore hearted.  He'll come around right quick." 

Sure enough, Charlie was soon cooing and babbling. Those sounds were nearly as pristine as those of a clear stream splashing over rocks in its pleasant trip to the river.  Once that rushing stream flowed into the river, however, those same sounds would drown only occasionally to surface into brightness once again. It was called maturing. The thought was enough to make the nurse sigh.

"What is he saying now, Miss?" his curious brother asked.  Of late it had become the children's fascination to spend much of their free time in happy company with the babe and his nurse.  Whether it was merely the lighthearted little one's charm, or the congenial acceptance of the young woman, would be hard to discern at the moment.  Both were draws to children's hearts who were not fed regularly with familial kindness and were frankly starved for attention, no matter if it came from an infant or a gentle servant.  And most certainly this woman from Scotland was a warmth to their cold existence.

"Donae ye know, lad, that it's the faerie language that a baby first learns.  They visit the child in its sleep dancing across the quilt in the cradle to whisper into its wee ear things of delight too precious to form words.  Whilst some faeries love nothing better than to rock the cradle, others choose to wing their way over the  half closed eyelids drooping to sleep jest so that they can drop pretty dreams down and tuck them under the wee lashes before they fall the rest of the way down upon pink cheeks in slumber."

"Truly?  Faeries?" The wise sister asked in hushed wonder as if trying to step backwards into the childhood she had nearly missed.

"Oh, but yer be askin' a Scotswoman if she believe in faeries?  It's like askin' an Englishwoman if there be a king or queen upon the throne!"

While her brother staidly replied, "There's neither, only a Prince Regent, now," the little girl's eyes grew wide open enough for a glimmer of imagination to slip in.  Her cheeks pinked and her lips pulled up at the corners just managing to give a glimpse of a dimple.  There were no wages for this that could match the young woman's satisfaction to see playfulness find its way back into the heart of a child.

"Would you like to hear part of a poem about faeries?" the nursemaid asked?  It's quite ancient.

"Yes, please, miss," Clara folded her hands under her chin as if to beg.

"Come follow, follow me,
You faerie elves that be:
Which circle on the greene,
Come follow Mab your queene,
Hand in hand let's dance around,
For this place is fairyre ground.

When mortals are at rest,
And snoring in their nest;
Unheard, and unespy'd,
Through key-holes we do glide;
Over tables, stools, and shelves,
We trip it with our faery elves.

And, if the house be foul
With platter, dish, or bowl,
Up stairs we nimbly creep,
And find the sluts asleep:
There we pinch their armes and thighs;
None escapes, nor none espies.

But if the house be swept,
And from uncleanness kept,
We praise the household maid,
And duely she is paid:
For we use before we goe
To drop a tester in her shoe.

Upon a mushroome's head
Our table-cloth was spread;
A grain of rye, or wheat,
Is manchet, which we eat;
Pearly drops of dew we drink
In acorn cups fill'd to the brink.

The grasshopper, gnat, and fly,
Serve for our ministrelsie;
Grace said, we dance a while,
And so the time beguile"
And if the moon doth hide her head,
The gloe-worm lights us home to bed.

On tops of dewie grasse
So nimbly do we passe;
The young and tender stalk
Ne'er bends when we do walk:
Yet in the morning may be seen
Where we the night before have been."

Clara clapped and James was obviously impressed.  Little Charlie managed to pull the maid's blue ribbon out of her hair to chew.

Their father, just back from months abroad serving king and country stood unnoticed at the open door listening and observing the interaction.  A rare smile broke upon his visage.  The sights of war which seemed to forever weigh his heart down lifted like a sunrise.  It was a choice moment indeed, that is, until his wife sniffed in derision. 

"How dare she put such nonsense into their heads.  I won't have it!" she huffed.  "I should have known better than to have hired a Scotswoman.  I'll soon have her dismissed.

But her husband stayed her to remain with a stern look of warning.  "No.  Let her and the children be.  The world is a terrible enough place already without tearing away what little enjoyments they can have before the future rears its ugly head.  Mankind is not kind to man, or dare I say, often not even to children.  Let them be, I say!"

But his wife was used to ruling the home in his absence and had a most difficult time stamping down her displeasure.  She would see to it later behind his back.  No man cared about a nursemaid anyway.

"Surely, you can see what a bad influence she is..."  But she was stopped by a dark glare from his steely eyes until she was almost afraid.  Almost.

Indeed, Sir James had been leading troops and was used to being obeyed.  He saw no need to have his orders questioned.  Surely, he could oversee his children's needs better than she.  Besides, he missed them terribly and needed to get to meet the baby who was born while he was away.  Understanding his wife as he did, he was sure that they had received little enough of their mother's attention while he was away.  Once he could convince her that he was adamant about not returning to London in the near future, she would be off once again to feed herself with the husks of society.  The sooner she left his country home, the better.

He looked Lady Isabel over from head to toe.  She had cut her hair short in what was considered  a French fashion, he supposed, though he had seen few if any who had done so while he was in France.  Her dress was so revealing that even he as her husband blushed.  She was wearing new jewels around her neck and dangling from her ear lobes that were ostentatious.  Would have to put her on a stricter allowance?

Indeed, that is what he was meeting with his factor about this very morning.  He would allow her the full use of his house in London with a suitable allowance, but would have it put in writing that if she scorned propriety or turned his home into a house of ill-repute with her affairs, he would have her packed up and sent to one of his other properties in a remote fishing village far from society.  Her allowance would also suffer loss.  The gentleman's loyal staff would keep him informed and would follow his orders, even if it created an unpleasant scene.

Since he had been the first one who had chosen to leave--for him, by way of war though it was not expected of one of his position--now it was her turn to separate herself away from him. The sooner she left his home in the country the better.  She hated it anyway, always preferring town.  He watched as her self-absorption convinced her that he was looking desirably at her while she preened considering herself to be a great beauty.  Rather, in fact, he was repulsed.  The doors of his heart would remain locked.  Only his prayers against the root of bitterness must slip out and be offered up. 

He chose not to interrupt the happy scene in the garden, instead turning to meet his factor in his office to go over the affairs of his estate.  Things seem to have been well managed in his absence, and for that, he was grateful to God.  He would spend time with his children tomorrow after he put their mother in a carriage bound for London.

The next morning after a stormy scene with his wife, he looked forward to a pleasant visit with his children only to find chaos.

"What is the meaning of this?"  He had to speak loudly over the baby's howling.  He took his little son to his chest, while his other two came running calling, "Daddy, Daddy!"  This at least caused the baby to pause looking into the face of his father for the first time with curiosity.  Since his brother and sister seemed enamored by this tall creature with a white cravat which soon found its way into his mouth, he studied him with a perception often gifted to children.  

Lord Ian Hill placed a soft kiss upon the tot's forehead before asking the governess where the nursemaid was.

"She's gone, sir.  Dismissed, she was.  Left last night," the older woman stuttered.  She was newly hired and had never before met the master of the house.  His wife went through servants as quickly as she devoured a box of chocolates.

"What!  I did not dismiss her!"   He heard the soft crying of his older children and began patting his daughter's back and ruffling his son's hair while bouncing the baby before he started crying again.

"It's her ladyship that did it, sir.  Heard it myself.  She refused to pay her this month's wages too, she did."  Evidently the governess was feeling braver knowing that his wife had left earlier, though she had left without saying goodbye to the children.  He knew news traveled fast among servants.

"Where did she go?" He was becoming angrier at his wife by the minute for contradicting his order.

"I can't say for sure, Sir, but she has no family here, only what's up in Scotland.  When I asked her what she was going to do, she said she was going to ask to spend the night with one of the crofters hoping she could help with the harvest or the shearing until she found another position.  I do know that she had little money since she always sent most  of her wages away to support her widowed mother." 

He tried to keep the anger out of his voice since his babe in arms was shuttering as if thinking of bawling again.  He kissed him on the cheek and loosened his cravat which was being pulled tight enough to choke him. 

"Can you find her, daddy?  We will miss her fiercely!" his daughter implored him passionately.

"I'll try.  Let's go downstairs to see what cook has as a treat for rapscallions, shall we?  I'll send Mr. John out to begin to look for her whereabouts, and we'll try to bring her back around again."

"What's a rapscallion?" his son wanted to know. 

"What!  Didn't your governess teach you that word?"

"At the poor woman's look of alarm," he broke out laughing. "Of course, she didn't.  It's another word for a scamp, or a rascal.  Are you saying that you are such a good little boy and girl that you never get into any scrapes?"

"We're very good, daddy!" his daughter said too seriously.  "Mother did not allow us to have our dinner if we misbehaved."

That made him grind his teeth.  But he took a deep breath and smiled while saying, "Well, we'll have to get into a scrape or two so I can show you some time what I mean," he said while his youngest stared at him as if he were a huge mystery. 

But soon the babe had tired of his necktie and now was going for the buttons on his waistcoat.  In a matter of seconds, Charlie had managed to pull one off and pop it into his mouth.  After successfully digging it out of the his mouth, he handed him back to a maid who stepped in to put him down for his nap.

"After you have your treats, go back with your governess and finish your lessons.  I'll go look for that nurse myself since I haven't enough cravat's and button to spare to feed the lad with.  I think her services are very much needed."  He knelt down and hugged his children and sent them off after kissing them on the tops of their heads.  Oh how he had missed them!

Ian told his factor to please wait for him, but the good man offered to join him in the search for a lost nurse.  As for the nursemaid, it wasn't often to find a servant who was kinder to children than their own mother, he thought as he began to ride towards his tenants' houses.  Actually, in his case, he sadly realized, it might be easy to find such a one since his wife obviously lacked a maternal instinct and lead a life of self-indulgence. 

At the second thatched roof house, the nursemaid herself answered the door with a babe on one hip who was happily twisting dirty fingers into her hair.  She had let it unfurl down her back in wave after glorious wave.  For a moment his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth.  His brain's first rattled thought was that she was a raving beauty, but the second was that he was a married man in need of a nursemaid.

"Miss, I'm sorry, I do not know your name..." he looked perplexed.

She freely offered her smile saying, "And I donae know yers neither, sir.  I'm supposing you to be the Lord of the manor.  But my name is Elsa McNeil."  She curtsied as best she could while holding a baby.

"I'm glad to make your acquaintance.   I am Lord Ian Hill.  My wife went against my instructions to dismiss you.  However, she has left for London and won't be allowed to bother you anymore.  It would indeed make my household happy again if you would consent to come back as the nursemaid for Charlie.  The poor fella has hardly stopped crying for you, and the older children are moping around as if their puppy died."

"Oh!  Did you bring them a puppy, My Lord?  That would be fine indeed! Every child needs a dog to grow up with."

"No, it was just an expression," he confessed as if he had sinned.

"I see.  Yes, I will come back as I have become verra fond of your children, My Lord.  They are verra good natured and are sweetlings, all three.  But may I be so bold as to request a puppy for them, sir.  Your children need to be outdoors more and have a lark ever so often, maybe even get dirty now and then in a romp."

Ian choked back a barking laugh at her audacity, but found himself agreeing to her request as he thought back to fond memories of his own childhood growing up on this estate and of the dog he once had.  He turned to his factor, "Can that be arranged in a timely fashion , my good man?"

The factor try as he might could not keep a grin from growing across his face."  Yes, My Lord, I'll see what I can do."

"Will you be wanting a boy or a girl dog?" Ian asked with a bit of devilishment.

"Oh, a girl dog, if you please, sir.  We would want for her to have puppies.  It's ever so good for a child to see the wonder of a gift of life as soon as it happens.  Newborn puppies are wee gifts from God." 

This time he could not hold back his laughter.  The factor joined in though at first the maid hung down her head furiously  blushing.  But then her Scottish ire rose up and caused her to look her employer straight in the eye and ask, "Are you laughing at me, My Lord?"

"I am not in any way mocking you, miss.  It's just that I came looking for a lost maid and found that now I am to have a puppy too with more puppies to come on the horizon.  I say, it has been an unexpected morning indeed!"  Then he kicked his boot out of his stirrup and said, "Put your foot in there, and I'll heft you up.  We'll be back to making the children happy again in a wink."

"I must get my things," she disappeared and came out with one small bag which she handed to the factor.  "It wouldn't be proper for me to ride with you, My Lord.  You can go on and assure them of my swift return.  I can walk well enough.  It's not far."

He raised his eyebrows at her rebuke, but knew she was right.  "Have it your way then.  And let my factor know if you have back wages due so he can catch them up."  He spurred his horse away and left his factor to return in a more sedate manner.

After thanking her hosts for their hospitality, she trekked her way back to the big house on the hill.  His name, Lord Hill, was well suited to this property where the sun reflected warmth on the stately manor house.  Surely he knew though that tongues would have wagged if she had ridden up with him on his horse.  Yet, it made her wonder how such a man was married to such a witch as was his wife.  It had to be a difficult union, but hardest on the poor children.  It was an ungenerous thought, to be sure, so she chose to turn her mind upon those three precious children.  Soon she was smiling at the thought of the surprise and joy a puppy would bring them.

When they saw her, the older ones cheered and ran down the hill with rosy cheeks for hugs.  Little Charlie called for his NanNan, his special name for her, leaning out of the maid's hold with chubby arms held out for her.  She enveloped him in a hug as he clung to her while jabbering, obviously scolding words for deserting him.  The father watched the happy reunion before finally going into his study and shutting his doors to meet with his factor.
"She's a keeper, I'd say, sir!"  His factor made bold to say.

"Indeed," but he needed to stop thinking of her now that his children were happy again.  He would avoid her, in fact, so as not to be distracted.  It would not do that such a rustic vision as she would invade his thoughts.  It must not be.  He redirected his thoughts getting down to business.

Before a puppy could be found at an age for weaning, two ponies were bought and saddled.  James and Clara were overjoyed!  It was a warm day, so Elsa brought little Charlie out to watch them ride.  He pulled his slobbery fists out of his mouth and clapped calling "da," "da!"

His father looked up, beaming and waved but went back to adjusting Clara's stirrups.  "You can't bounce up and down like that  in the saddle, darling, although you might not be able to help it once you learn to trot your pony.  But for now try to stay calm as your pony gets used to you."

James started to ride off, but the groom ran and caught up his pony's halter.

"Whoa, son. There's lessons to be learned before we ride away.  Today, we will be staying in the corral." His father corrected him.

"Yes, sir," he hung his head ashamed.

"No, sad faces are allowed today, young man!  Look happy and be thinking up a name for your valiant steed."

Ian looked over when Elsa tried to cover her laugh with coughing.  He cocked his eyebrow at her, but then joined her grin.

"I want to name my horse Vicar, Daddy!" Clara shouted.  "He's dressed in a glossy black robe, and see there, he has a bit of a white mark on his neck like a collar!"

"Vicar?  Are you sure?  That's a strange name for a pony, if I may say so."

But his little daughter answered defensively, "But whenever the vicar preached ever so long, I would spend the time dreaming and praying for a pony.  So I thank you, daddy and the Vicar and God, that I have him now."  She made a glowing picture of sheer happiness, her golden hair shining like a halo.

"I want to name my pony Revelation.  One of my favorite verses is in Revelation when Christ will come back riding on a white horse.  This one is white, though not a horse as grand as the one our Lord will come riding upon."

"What!  Have my children found their only joy by listening to sermons?" their father laughed in amazement. 

"You see, Father, I would call him Rev, for short, and he would match my sister's Vicar!"

"It seems that I have clever children," he smiled up at them both.

Elsa went back to the garden smiling and sat on a stone bench and played horsey bouncing a laughing Charlie on her leg chanting, "This is the way the farmer rides: Hobbledy-hoy, Hobbledy-hoy.  This is the way the ladies ride: Tri-tre-tree, Tri-tre- tree.  This is the way the gentlemen ride, Gallop-a-trop, Gallop-a-trot."  Charlie chortled until he completely wore her out.

The next day, the grooms had the ponies saddled quickly.  After their father was mounted, Charlie called, "Da!" "Da!"  The man rode over, leaned down and plucked his son out of her arms.

"Oh, My Lord!  He will always demand a ride from now on," she chuckled.

"After today, we'll be going beyond the stable grounds so I'm afraid, Charlie, this will be a rare ride.  Perhaps your nurse is correct that I'll live to regret this,"  his father reasoned.  But the awe on his little one's face was worth it.  

Elsa watched entranced.  As expected, a little later Charlie began howling as his father handed him back to the nursemaid. 

He said, "Sorry, miss." 

Elsa said with her eyes sparkling, "It was worth it to see his pure joy.  He will make a fine horseman one day, My Lord.  He won't be running aboot in waties forever."  She had to practically shout over the baby's healthy lungs, but her laughter was sunshine.

Then to Charlie she said, "Come with Nurse, little man, and we'll play horsey again."  He quit his loud cries and settled down laying his head on her shoulder sucking on his fingers shuddering gulps as she rubbed his back.  Now, it was the older children's dreams come true, riding with their father over their estate.  Two grooms followed in case they were needed.

The children were becoming so very bonded to their father now, they could hardly bear to do their lessons and leave him alone to go about his business.  As for their father, he wore a happy look more than a frown these days, so much so that in fact his face was quite sore from all his smiling.  Further more, he only got red in the face when Charlie strangled him in his neck-cloth on occasion.  So he had bestowed upon his youngest his most slobber stained one for the tot to sleep with like a blankie. 

These days had become so pleasant that it was a rude awakening when his factor knocked upon the door of his study.  "Sorry to bother you, My Lord, but I have received a letter from London," the man stopped to clear his throat before croaking, "from her Ladyship, sir."

"My wife?  What could she want?" He groaned.

"Beg pardon, My Lord, but she wants money.  More money, that is."

"What on earth for?"  Ian realized he had raised his voice, so he tried to reign in his temper.

"It seems she's acquired a gambling debt."

"Tell her no.  I will not fund her ill habits.  She will have to wait until she gets her next month's allowance."  Ian noticed his factor stood shuffling his feet, failing to raise his head to look him in the eye.

"Yes, what is it?  Speak up."

"I'm sorry, My Lord, but the servants have reported that several items have gone missing from the townhouse as of late.  They are afraid she has been selling things in order to fund her, um, gaming habit.  They are worried that more things will soon disappear."

Ian growled, "Send for John to have my carriage brought round, please.  It seems I must go to London.  He can tell my man to pack.  But I must see my children first."

James and Clara were busy writing a story together about a vicar and a rev. galloping off into a scrape.  "May we read it to you, Father?" they asked expectantly.

"I'm sorry, children, but I must be off to town for just a few days.  Keep writing while I'm gone.  It will give me something very special to look forward to upon my return.  Come give me a kiss, my dear ones."  The children squeezed his neck and wet it with a few tears though trying to be brave.

"Good-bye, Father," James said.

"We will be good, daddy," Clara said in a wavering voice.

"Oh, we never did get a chance to get into a scrape now, did we?  But I promised, and so we shall after I get back.  Right now your mother is in a bit of one and being a scallywag, a regular scamp in fact."

"Will she be punished, Father?" James asked.

"Most assuredly, even adults must pay for their misdeeds.  It was not a good kind of scrape at all, I'm afraid children.  You might not see her for quite some time."

"That's alright, Daddy.  She doesn't much want to see us anyway.  We don't mind much," Clara sniffed.  "We still have our dear Miss Elsa."

"Yes, our dear Miss Elsa, speaking of whom, I must go take my leave of Charlie.  I love you James.  I love you, Clara."

"We love you too, Daddy," they rejoined in unison.

Ian knocked on the nursery door, but she wasn't there.  He looked outside at the pleasant day and knew he would find her in the garden.

As he walked out the glass doors, he heard her softly crooning a lullaby to his little one.  She made quite the lovely picture.  But no matter, he just needed to kiss his son and be gone.  Once he stepped on the gravel  she heard him coming. 

"I'm afraid I'm off to London for a few days and have come to take my leave of Charlie," he stated looking anywhere but at her.

"But his boy stirred and looked up from his nurse's arms and called, "dah!" 

Ian bent and gave a kiss to his forehead and whispered, "Go back to sleep, son.  I'll see you, soon."

He turned to go but stopped to say with his back to her.  "I want you to know how much I appreciate the way you have cared for my children.  It means the world to me, Miss McNeil."

"Thank you, My Lord," she replied in a voice that should not have that effect upon him, so he stalked off putting his mind on the unpleasant task before him.

Once there, he interrupted a soiree his wife was giving in their town home.  He handed his hat and cloak to his butler and beckoned him into his study to question him before going in to his guests.

"And what has been discovered missing so far?" he asked after a description of all his wife's dealings.

"I'm sorry to say, My Lord, but your grandmother's pearls have disappeared according to her maid as well as the ruby ear bobbles.  The maid wisely put your mother's diamonds in my possession for safe keeping until you could come.  We all know how much they meant to her good ladyship as your father's last gift to her before he died.  The prized small oil from the sitting room is also gone, I'm afraid, the one your mother loved so well.  A Chinese vase from the dining room along with some of the silver candlesticks have disappeared as well."

"Well, done, John.  I am glad you wrote so promptly.  I will offer to take her for a carriage ride in the morning, but will instead have the unfortunate task of taking her to her new residence on the cold coast instead.  Please have her maid pack her trunk while we are having breakfast so that your men can slip it down the back stairs and into the carriage without her knowing.  She won't need her ball gowns, just her warmer things, furs, woolen spencers, shawls and such.  Her allowance should last her a little longer in the village where she is going so that she can purchase the few things she might still need.  I will leave you enough, I hope, to pay her debts if any are called in.  I do not wish my good name to be sullied any further than it already is."

The next morning as they rode out of London, his wife was perplexed at first then enraged when she realized he was taking her away.  She screamed, raged, then wept hoping for his sympathy.

"I told you this is how it would be if you dragged my reputation through the mud along with yours," he said through clenched teeth.

"I will not stay, but will return to London.  I have plenty of friends there who will be more than willing to take me in," she said gnashing teeth.

"Even if you no longer have an allowance?" 

"You wouldn't dare!"

"Are you willing to try me?" he quietly challenged her without raising his voice while staring out across the fields covered with grazing sheep.  When she did not answer, he quoted the 23rd Psalm under his breath in order to bring a pinch of peace back into his soul.   Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw her cover her ears in order to block out hearing even the whisper of words of Scripture. 

Then she finally kept quiet with only a silent drip of tears upon her painted cheeks as she stared unseeing out the other window.  That night they stayed in an inn.  Her maid remained in a room with her while he stayed in another.  They had one more long day ahead before reaching their destination, a seaside cottage in a fishing village that he had inherited from a great aunt on his mother's side.  He and his brother loved visiting here when they were young, when his brother was still alive.  He well realized that his wife would have a far different view of things here.  He only hoped she would eventually come to her senses with so much solitude ahead of her.  He would ask the curate, a good man, if he and his wife would look in on her from time to time.

His wife never spoke another word to him, just radiated hate.  "Well, good-bye then, Lady Hill.  You may write if you wish to ask about our children.  That is all up to you, of course."  It hit him full force then that the woman had not once asked about those darlings.  He vowed to be the best father he could be with God's help as well as the help of a Scottish nursemaid.  No, he refused to let his mind go there.  Nevertheless, he was more anxious than ever to go home to his children.

His days were near blissful as could be even though the month grew colder.  The children had become quite hardy and did not mind a bit of weather as long as hot chocolate and a warm fire were waiting.  Little Charlie had begun wobbling a few steps and loved to toddle into his arms.  He was shedding his faerie language, as his nurse would say, and had learned an amazing number of words in a short time. 

It wasn't many weeks later that the curate wrote him on behalf of his wife's maid.  "I am sorry to have to inform you that your wife has disappeared.  Her maid says LadyHill left in the company of an unnamed gentleman.  She overheard them speaking about sailing to Italy..." He let his eyes skim over the rest.  In the end the maid had sent a request to let her know what she should do now.  He would send her money for a public coach, whether she wished to go to back to London or wherever she wanted to go with a generous bonus and a letter of reference for what must have been a painful employment.  He no longer needed a ladies' maid.  That was a strange thought indeed.

He and the children got into a scrape in a quite unexpected way.  A pup had become available several miles away.  The children begged to be allowed to ride there with their father, and he relented against his better judgment.  His best groom was down with a bad toothache so he only took young Jack along.

They were about halfway there when his son's pony came to a sudden stop causing him to fly over the pony's head.  Ian jumped off his horse to check on James when his horse spooked as well running off with his rifle still in his scabbard.  His young groom had all he could do to hang onto the bridle of poor Clara's mount which nervously tried to pull away. 

"James, are you alright?" he dared to ask.

"I think so father.  I don't know what happened." 

Ian felt him over.  Other than a goose-egg on the back of his head, the boy was able to stand just as a terrible noise crashing through the underbrush grew louder.  It caused even his heart to drop into his stomach.  A pack of wild boars was almost upon them.  Quickly he grabbed his children and swung them up into a nearby tree climbing up after them while his groom was not far behind.  With a little more effort, they were out of reach of their tusks.

"Well, children," he managed a shaky laugh, "this qualifies as that scrape I promised you, I'd say, wouldn't you?"

"Yes, father," quivered James.  "But if you don't mind, sir, I'd rather you not promise us any more, if you please."

That got them all in a humor that eased some of the children's fear.

"What will we do about our ponies, daddy?" Clara asked.

"Someone will eventually find them wandering about and realize there might be trouble afoot, or even up a tree somewhere, and come to our rescue.  In fact, I believe we might be on Sir Gildersleeve's estate.  He's a good man.  Surely his crofters will think it strange for a vicar and a rev to be wandering about, not to mention our other two horses," he answered trying to keep their chins up. 

"I can try to whistle, My Lord," the nervous groom said after the boars had wandered away into another field.  "I don't think the wild pigs will answer to my whistle, at least I hope not."

"Sure, go ahead and see if any of our horses come back around.  Then at least you could ride for help," Ian answered  though he was already praying the gentleman would send help right away.  The children would soon be chilled.  But he did not trust the herd of boars to not return enough to allow them down from the tree just yet."

After the groom wore himself out with his shrill whistles, a farmer was seen in a distance heading their way leading his horse.  His children began shouting, "We're over here!  Up in this tree!" 

The farmer helped them down and winked at them saying, "And here I was jest thinking to myself that it's a bit early in the season to be plucking lords and ladies out of a tree."

"Thank you, my good man. We are still missing another horse and two ponies, but they did not take kindly to the herd of wild boars.  We were left here to fend for ourselves."

"Aye, that herd is pesky alright.  There will be several of us going on a hunt early in the morning to be rid of them.  They can be dangerous beasties indeed," but catching the frightened look in Clara's eyes, he wisely did not continue down that path.  They exchanged introductions while the man put the children on the back of his horse while he took out his gun to be on the safe side.  He noticed then that the farmer also carried a weapon and felt better able to keep them safe together.

"I'm sure my master would want me to take you to the big house so that you may all warm up from your adventure."

"We got into a scrape," Clara insisted, "though it was the boars who were the scallywags, not us!"

"Quite so, miss.

"Yes, thank you.  Your master and I are acquainted, and I hope it will not be too much trouble for I do not wish for my children to take a chill."

"We are going to get our puppy from Sir Graham's place," James volunteered.

"Yes, and those are fine dogs indeed.  I wouldn't mind having one myself, but they are much in demand since they are such great hunters," the man added.  "But here we are.  Let me take your horse to be fed in the stable while you go on inside."

Ian shook the good man's hand before his groom followed the farmer to the stable.

The butler looked them over disapprovingly, but straightened up when Ian spoke.  "Please tell Sir Gilldersleeve that Lord Ian Hill of Elmsburrow is here to see him."

"Certainly, My Lord.  Please come in by the fire."  He saw Clara shivering and hurried to guide them into the parlor calling for a maid to see to tea.

Sir Gilldersleeve came right in, a rather boisterous fellow.  "Lord Hill, what a surprise!  I just was informed of your little scrape," and he winked at Clara.  "We will have tea soon and get a little warmth into you, that should help."

"Thank you, Sir.  We are sorry to so unexpectedly intrude upon your home, but it is not everyday that we come across a herd of boars on our way to get a puppy," Ian said smiling in order to help put his children at ease.  He was proud of how brave his children had been.

"Father, I'm not feeling so well," James whispered.  "My head hurts," he said with tears in his eyes and added, "I'm quite sleepy."

Ian clasped his son's chin and looked into his eyes.  The pupils were unevenly dilated.  "May we presume upon your hospitality a bit more, my friend.  My son got a fair-sized bump on his head when his pony suddenly refused to ride into that pesky herd and knocked him off."

"Say no more.  Of course.  I insist, for your son's sake, spend the night.  The little lady looks a little peaked herself.  Perhaps a bowl of broth with some bread might be just the early supper to warm them up.  Besides, I have a matter to discuss with you when your children are situated."  The man's countenance suddenly became very serious.

"Thank you."  Ian had a premonition that his acquaintance did not bring good news, but wondered what it could be.  It probably had to do with the latest gossip from the ton in London concerning his wife's escapades causing him more shame.

The children were exhausted and soon were asleep together in the same room.  They had not been away from home before, not even to London, and insisted on staying together.  As it had been a trying day, he had agreed.

He went down to meet his host in his study where a fire was most welcoming.  He stood gazing into it bracing himself for what was to come.

"I hate to bring up an indelicate topic, and would not if it did not have some grave importance.  You see, my wife has just come back from London and has shown me a paper with the latest news.  It seems that a Lady H. and a Sir R. were on a ship sailing for southern shores when they were caught in a storm off the coast of Spain.  Were you aware of this, my friend?"

"No, go on," he grimaced leaning his arm on the mantle.

"The ship is said to have gone down.  All on board were lost."

Ian took a deep breath, then breathed out slowly before saying, "So you are saying that my wife is gone."

"Yes.  I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but mayhap the strangeness of your day that brought you to be under my roof served a purpose.  Of course, I wouldn't say anything in front of your children.  I have heard you are quite fond of them, and now I can see why.  It is good that they have you, if I may say so, My Lord."

"Thank you for being a friend to me in more than one kind of distress today.  I imagine I will have a message waiting for me by the time we return home.  I'm sure it is all the talk of London by now," he said with a tinge of bitterness.

"All gossip dies away eventually since there is always fresh meat thrown to the talebearers.  I know this has been a cross you've had to bear, and for that I am sorry.  It is well known by all that you are a good man caught in a difficult situation, but I will say no more.  I will leave you to your thoughts for now.  We will call you to supper in about an hour."  The man was most gracious and for that Ian was thankful.

Supper was a quiet affair, both the man and his wife kept talk at a minimum and were all politeness as well as kind.  It was evident that they did not relish his misfortune like some would as opportunists. 

"I've been thinking, My Lord, what would you say if I brought your puppy to you without delay, so that you and your children may return home in the morning.  The hunters will be out and surely will be done quite early with the wild boar trouble, so you shouldn't have any fear of meeting any on your return.  I would wish to ease your children's fears.  How is the lad, by the way?"

"He seems to be sleeping quite soundly.  I'm sure he will be much refreshed in the morning."

Upon arriving at home, it was affirmed by an official notice of his wife's demise.  It was hard not to feel more anger for her wasted life, a loss greater than true sorrow.  He decided to call his entire staff into the library to tell them before going to break it to his children.

"I'm sorry to inform you that our Lady Hill has come to a tragic end in a ship that was sunk off the coast of Spain.  Evidently it's been some time ago, but we have just received word of it. I will go to my children now, but I needed to tell all of you first so you could begin to prepare to receive visitors.  Some rooms will need to be made up for overnight guests.  I will plan a service with the vicar in a timely fashion.  I wish to thank you for your service to our family in this and other difficult times."  He clamped his lips, but then said, "Miss McNeil, I wish to speak with you, please."

She stood back with eyes glassy with sympathetic tears.  "I would like you to go with me when I speak with my children," he continued.  "Their governess is with them, but they have become quite attached to you.  Your presence will be a comfort to them."

"Certainly, My Lord."  She followed him upstairs. 

"Hello, father, is it time to go riding?" James asked.

"There are no wild boars here, are there, daddy?"

"No, my darlings, I must speak to you of some sad news we have received."

"Has something happened to our puppy?" Clara exclaimed.

"No, sweet, it is about your mother.  We have received word that she passed away unexpectedly."

"How?" James asked.

"She was on a ship that went down," he said watching his children closely.

"But you're sure the puppy will be here soon?" Clara wanted to know.  It was obvious that the distance the woman had chosen to put between herself and her children had been successful.  They would have to work that rejection out over their lifetimes, but for now their grief would not be great.

James wiped a few tears, but Clara seemed more puzzled than anything.  Going to climb on her father's lap and hugging his neck, she asked, "Are you sad, Daddy?"

Ian was taken aback.  What was he to say, I am glad that I won't need to try to make your mother happy anymore; or, since your mother did not want to be a mother, you won't have to try to make her love you anymore; or, since she did not want to live here in the country with us, we will be happier without her?  All he said was, "We still have each other, and that makes me very happy, children."  He reached over to his oldest and pulled him into an embrace and added, "Your father will always love you and be proud of you.  You have brought me my greatest joy.  And for that I am thankful to your mother for giving me this great gift, my children."

Clara climbed down and went to Elsa's lap.  "Will you be our mother now, Miss Elsa?"

Elsa looked frightened, but hurriedly said, "No sweetling, it does not work that way.  I will be here as Charlie's nursemaid as long as you all need me though." 

James clung to his father as the man gently brushed his son's hair with his long fingers.  "We will be all right, son."

"I know, daddy.  It's just that I've never known anyone who has died before."

"There will be a service for her even though we don't have her body to lay to rest.  We will have a gravestone made for your mother as well.  I do not expect for you to cry or not to cry.  You are free to express yourself as you wish .  You do not have to please our guests other than with politeness.  There may be many who will gather in her remembrance, a few of whom will try to hug you, I imagine.  Just tuck yourselves behind me if you need, or run and find Miss Elsa or come up to sit in the quiet of your school room with your governess."

"Alright Father.  And Father?" James paused.

"Yes, son?"

"Do you think we will get our puppy soon? You don't think Sir Gildersleeve has forgotten, do you?"

"No, indeed.  He promised to bring it along shortly.  If you like, I give you permission to go outside and wait for him to come.  But don't be upset if it isn't until tomorrow or the next day.  Sometimes men have important business to conduct before they can take on such a happy task as bringing a puppy to such well-mannered scamps!"  And he began tickling them until they were laughing.

"We're not scamps, Daddy, nor wild boars!" Clara giggled.

Content that his children were not too unsettled by the loss of their mother, he left them to the care of these two servants, the nursemaid and the governess.

But his daughter's mistaken idea that he could  just up and marry Charlie's nursemaid had him rattled.  Thinking it was his grief, his butler ordered him his tea immediately.  "I'd like coffee at the present instead of tea, thank you John."

"Yes, My Lord."

Good to his word, Sir Gildersleeve and his wife arrived. The children ran delightedly to meet their carriage. There was quite the stir as the children took charge of their little girl dog.  Elsa brought Charlie out to introduce him.  She hoped he would be gentle.  If not, she would soon teach him, she determined as she pulled the puppies ear from his mouth.

John showed their guests into Lord Hill's sitting room and arranged for more tea.  Sir Gildersleeve chuckled.  "It is nice to be the occasion of a little joy in what is a somber week."

"Yes," his wife continued, "the good Lord knows what we need before we ask.  He has not forgotten your little sparrows, Lord Hill."

"I believe you are right, M'lady.  And it is due to your kindness to my children as well, so I sincerely thank you from the bottom of my heart.  Indeed, since they know not what to think of their loss, this has proven to be a wonderful distraction allowing them to ponder it all in their own time and way," Ian answered. 

"Your littlest is quite the charmer as well.  He seems well cared for," the lady smiled.

Ian nodded back glancing at her trying to assess if she meant anything by that comment.  He knew servants gossiped, but he hoped he had never given them anything to build a case against his little son's nursemaid.  He determined to keep his distance yet once again.  It was probably an innocent remark.

He drank a second cup of coffee.  "We have rooms readied and  would be glad to offer you lodging since it is getting late."

"How very kind of you, sir, but my sister is expecting us.  She lives just the other side of the village," the good woman answered.

"Again, I thank you for your kind consideration for my family at this time, Sir Gildersleeve and M'lady," Ian said as her husband helped her up off the couch.  The tenderness with which the couple treated each other caused an unexpected slice to his heart.  He might never know such congeniality.  At least he had his children.

People started arriving from London.  He had a full house, especially since his company brought with them their own maids and valets.  Fortunately he had a wonderful cook and staff who served him well.  The vicar had arranged a service for the next day.  Ian did not wish to drag this out.  Company and fish grew old after three days, or so he'd heard, and he believed it to be true.

The children withstood the observers of their grief, or lack of it, very well.  As for him, his stern countenance stopped any discussion concerning himself, as least in his hearing.  It was all held in the stone church in the village without a graveside gathering.  His family would visit the gravestone later when it was delivered. 

His wife had a brother who was just as wild as she.  It seemed to have struck him the hardest.  Maybe God could use this to speak to his soul, Ian prayed.  He'd brought his mother who was as cold as a corpse and just as stiff.  She also, just like her daughter, ignored the children completely.  Ian did not bother to introduce his children to the woman.  He would protect the innocence of their tender years as best he could.

As the small crowd returned to his home for a dinner the cook had prepared, their uncle approached James and Clara.  He had the smell of alcohol on him, but seemed sincere in greeting his niece and nephew. 

"Hello, I'm your Uncle Eric, your poor, dear mother's brother.  She has told me so much about you."

"Really?" Clara asked skeptically.

"She told me what a beauty you were, and she was right.  And she told me how smart you were, James.  She was proud of you both, you know."

"No, we didn't know, sir," James replied forthwith without guile.
"Eric's laughter drew some frowns from some in the gathering.  "By chance do you think you could take me up to see the other young fellow named Charlie?"

"May we, Father?"

Ian wanted to say know no, for some reason, but felt he could not deny his wife's brother to become acquainted with his children.  At least one of her family had showed an interest.  So he said, "Yes, you may.  And if you'd rather stay upstairs since you've eaten with the adults, you may do that as well."

Their uncle followed them straight up to the nursery where he beheld what he sought, a very pretty dark haired maid.  He'd caught a glimpse of her slipping into the house from the garden with the baby when they returned from the kirk.  Eric determined to seek her out and perhaps allow her to lift his sorrow.  He grinned.

Charlie did not like his uncle and clung to Elsa neck.  She couldn't blame him as she didn't like the man herself.  Clara and James busied themselves with the new puppy.  But when it noticed the visitor in its new domain, it ran tumbling over and stood growling between Elsa and the strange man with its wee hackles raised.  When James came to carry her away, Elsa shook her head slightly.  She knew it was too small to offer real protection, but hoped its protectiveness would be understood.   Now Clara came and hung onto Elsa as if feeling her unease.  James as well stood by her shoulder .  Charlie began crying. 

"I see, this isn't the best time to get to know you, lass.  Maybe I'll come up later this evening and  seek you out."  And he winked.

It was enough to make Elsa shudder. "I don't believe that will be possible, sir.  I will be otherwise occupied."

"I don't know much about babies," the man had to speak over Charlie's wails, "but I do know that they usually go to sleep fairly early, and that your duties would allow you to be free then."

"No, sir.  I will occupied, like I said before," Elsa said with her head down.

He twirled one of her curls that had broken free from her ribbon.  "Look for me. I will give you something else to be occupied with."

Clara pushed him away.  "You need to leave our Elsa alone!"

James crossed his arms and stood closer to the nursemaid. 

"Thank you, children.  This man was just leaving."

However, the man grinned lecherously at her before he left.

Elsa took a deep breath when he went. 

"I'll tell father," James said. 

"You should not bother him today, James.  He has a house full of company to attend.  I will lock my door tonight.  You don't need to worry about me, dear ones.  Are you doing alright after your mother's service?"

They shrugged and went back to their play.  Charlie was getting sleepy so she rocked him singing a lullaby.

"I'm going down to see if cook has put out more of her custard pies.  Come on, James," Clara declared.

Their governess was still downstairs eating in the kitchen.  For the first time since being in the employ of this house, Elsa felt nervous.  It was a different kind of unsettled feeling as when their mother would fly off the handle and shriek at her for some slight reason, once even slapping her.  However, she would not go to her room until she was sure that James and Clara were under the care of their governess again.

Downstairs, Ian smiled seeing his daughter with a plateful of sweets weaving in and out of their guests trying to curtsey anyone who stopped to talk to her.  But when she came up to her Uncle Eric, she gave him a cut as bad as any he'd seen in the ton in London.  He lost his smile and went over to her.

He carried her plate and escorted her over to a window seat.  She still had a scowl on her face.  He whispered, "What is wrong, sweetheart?" 

"I don't like him, daddy.  I want him to stay away from our Elsa!" she responded clenching her hands into fists.

This raised his alarm.  "What do you mean?  Did he do something?" He naturally knew of whom she was speaking.

"He bothered her.  He said he would come see her tonight.  She told him she was going to be busy," but he did not seem to listen.  She told us not to bother you, that she would lock her door," but I'm still worried."

"Don't worry, darling.  I don't want him to bother our Elsa either.  I'll take care of him.  As soon as you and James have finished your desserts, go upstairs and stay with your governess.  Promise me you won't wander, alright?"

"Yes, daddy.  I'm starting to get a stomach ache anyway."  She kissed him on the cheek and found her brother.  He watched his children go upstairs. 

He determined to establish himself at the bottom of the stairs and sent his trusted valet to guard the back servants' stair.  He watched his brother-in-law drink several glasses of brandy this evening.  As the crowd thinned, he used his position at the stairs to thank his guests as they left while keeping his eye on Eric.  When night fell, and only a few guests milled about, just the ones who were staying overnight, the man tried to pass him to go upstairs.  Ian waited a few minutes then followed him.

Indeed, the man did not stop on where he could have turned to go to his room, but went on to the third floor.  Ian watched  as he tried the nursery, but found the door locked and cursed.  He stopped a maid and asked where Elsa slept.  She shrugged and pointed to the nursery.  That's when Ian confronted him.  "What business do you have with Miss McNeil?

The man had the audacity to jeer at him.  "So that's how it is.  My sister told me how her nursemaid flirted and flaunted herself with her own husband.  It was so bad that she had to leave.  She said she couldn't stand to watch her husband carry on with a maid."

Ian shoved him against the wall growling, "You are well aware of your sister's lies.  None of  her accusations are true, and you know it.  You won't  insult any of my servants."

"It seems a convenient arrangement.  I just thought I'd show her a little family love."

"I won't have you assault any of my servants."

"You can't tell me you could resist that pretty face..." but Ian punched him in the nose before he knew what the was doing, breaking it.  Blood was pouring. His valet came running. 

"My Lord, what do you need?"

"I need him out of my house.  Tell John to take him to the inn, along with his mother.  He might find more willing company there."

As soon as his two servants took his brother-in-law downstairs and out the front door, Elsa peeked out the door.

"Are you alright, My Lord?" 

He stepped into the nursery and saw her shaking.  "It's alright now.  He is leaving.  I'm sorry he bothered you."

When she started crying, he pulled her into what he meant to be a quick embrace.  It felt too good, but eventually had to pull himself away.

"The children told me what had happened.  Did he do anything else to trouble you?"

She shook her head, but would not look at him.  "Thank you for being an honorable man, My Lord. "

"I probably shouldn't have hit him.  He is my brother-in-law and of such low character that he'll make up salacious tales about us, I mean about, I have to be honest, it will be about us.  I'm sorry."

Seems like I read once, "Mightn't it be a righteous thing to throttle the scum and be hanged for it?"  But I'm afraid he'll try to paint his shadow on you.  I'm just sorry, Me Lord, that it happened on the night after you've buried, I mean, held your wife's service.  As for her Leddyship, who knows if she turned her face to the licht a fore she dee'd."  When she became nervous, her tongue slipped back to the old ways.

"We can hope, I guess.  But I'm sorry for the appearance of sending my wife's family away with bloody evidence of an altercation.  I bid you good night, Elsa."  He looked at her with her hair down in the soft moonlight, her white nightgown wrapped tightly with a shawl.  He tore himself away with a silent groan inside and put his hand on the door knob.  Then he spun around, closing the distance between them and kissed her softly.  This time, he left.

When she was deeply perplexed, she talked aloud to herself.  Tonight she was deeply disturbed.  "Hoot, Elsa!  An noo luik at yersel' lass!  There's a richt an a wrang time for things. A heap o' fowk weel be tawkin' now.  Eh, what ye think I oucht to do?  Jist rin ye hame? Aye, its the richt o'the thing, it be aboot time for me to be gawin hame.  Scriptur itsel' say the hert is deceitfu' an' despratly wick't.  But my hert's like to brak!  It's all a blither of nonsense!  How could I think the likes of him, would become affianced to the likes o' me?"  Then she groaned at the thought of leaving, "Hoo can I tak the verra sunsheen oot o'my life?  I love the bairns like my ain flesh and blude!"  The rest was groanings too deep for words.

They managed to avoid each other the next few weeks.  It was a big house.  She never went outside unless she saw him ride away.  She only used the servants' back stairs.  It wasn't until Charlie got a fever that he came back inside the nursery.  Charlie was elated.  It had been hard on him to not see his dah as often.  Sometimes Clara took him downstairs even though it was too big a responsibity that worried her in case she tripped.  Sometimes the governess took charge of all three as well, though she looked at her strangely whenever Elsa asked her to do so. 

"I think it's just from cutting teeth.  I don't believe it's too serious, but I thought you should know.  It's your decision if you think you should call the doctor."  She looked down at her clasped hands.  "I've been wiping down his little hot body with cool clothes."

"Were you up all night with him?"

"Yes, My Lord."

"Thank you for your good care.  Go rest.  I will take charge of him for now and might send for the doctor as you said."

She curtsied and left the room.  Elsa felt guilty for abandoning little Charlie, but he was happy in his father's arms, and she would be no used to him as tired as she was.  She would just catch a few moments rest.

The next thing she knew, Clara was shaking her awake.  "His fever broke!  Charlie's going to be alright!  Daddy stayed up with him all night and wouldn't let anyone else take care of him after the doctor left!"

She charged into the nursery and cried, "Oh, My Lord, I am so verra sorry that I slept so long.  You should have woken me up long ago!  But Guid be thank it!  Is it true that our Charlie is better?"

He smiled at her so broadly, that she was at once struck shy and looked down.  He echoed, "Yes, our Charlie is better."

She must look a sight.  Her hair was unbound and unbrushed, she had slept in her clothes, and probably looked like she'd been pulled through a briar patch, she was sure.  But their Charlie was better!  She clapped her hand over her mouth.  What brazenness to call Charlie "ours."

"Is something wrong, Elsa?" He looked at her with concern but she shook her head no. 

"I can take over for you now, My Lord," she offered while tying on her apron.

"Might you want to make yourself more presentable first," he had teasing laughter in his eyes, but she was shamefully embarrassed  anyway. 

She fled.  A quarter of an hour later, she had washed her face with cold water, wore a clean frock and had her hair tamed in a plait.  She came back into the room where a maid sat rocking watching Charlie as he slept.

"Thank you Nancy.  I can take over now."

"I've never heard of a master of the house sitting up with his sick child while the nursemaid slept."  She looked down her nose at Elsa as if she had committed a great sin.

"No one woke me."

Later that morning when the children were out riding with their father, and Charlie was having another nap in his cradle, she asked the children's governess,  "What are they saying aboot me now?"

The woman would not look her in the eye.  "Who says they are talking about you?"

"The maid this morning insinuated that I had done something wrong.  I wish someone would have woken me up.  I meant to get up to care for Charlie again myself, but must have been verra tired."

"I don't think it's about last night as much as the night after the master buried his wife."

He did not actually bury her, but Elsa wasn't going to argue the point. "So tell me."

"They say that he fought his brother-in-law over you, so that there must be something between you and the master."

"Oh, but there's not!" Elsa contended.

The woman cocked her eyebrow.  "The nursery door was not shut all the way after the altercation.  I myself saw you in his arms."  The woman sniffed and a cold chill went down Elsa back. 

"I was upset because a man had made untoward advances at me.  I dinna mean for the master to fight him to keep him away.  I was shaking and crying, and he came in to calm me down."

"Didn't look like any calming down I've ever seen."  The woman turn her back and walked out.  She obviously was the one who was spreading rumors.  Unfortunately, there was some truth stuck to it that stained like spilled ink on a new apron.  She no longer had a choice.  It was time to tell the children goodbye.  If she did it when they were already in their beds, they wouldn't be up in time the next  morning before she was long gone. 

She did not sleep.  Her bag was packed.  Elsa determined to leave in the wee hours of the morning in the gloaming.  After double checking to make sure her money was in her pocket she'd sewn into her skirt, she got up and crept quietly down the servants' stair and went out through the dark kitchen.  She breathed more freely thankful that she'd made it before cook began her early morning routine. 

Elsa never looked back, but her heart hurt sore at kissing the children goodbye the night before.  They all cried together almost inconsolably.  She said that she needed to go see her mither.  But what she really needed was to find another position so that she could continue to support her widowed mither back hame.  Hopefully, Lord Ian Hill would give her a good recommendation if someone wrote him. 

It had been the day of the funeral when she'd heard other maids talking.  One was saying that she would be leaving her position at Sir Gildersleeve's estate soon.  She'd thought nothing of it at the time.  Whether it was as a chamber maid or a scullery maid, Elsa could not be picky.  She would take whatever position she could get.  Besides, her heart hurt too badly to take on new charges right now.  It was broken over leaving the children she loved.  She had asked the young groom Jack last evening where the Gildersleeves resided.   After walking all day, she hoped as the noon day slipped into the cold early dusk, that she was almost there. 

Suddenly cold chills ran up her arms as leaves rustled in the underbrush.  It was too dark to see far ahead, but knew it was not a small animal.  Elsa looked for someplace to hide and spied a tree.  She threw her bag ahead of her and half-jumped, half-pulled herself up.  Then she kept climbing when a small herd of wild boars broke through and surrounded her tree.  Whether they were curious or hungry, she did not know and did not wish to find out.  They contented themselves snorting and snuffling around on the ground feasting on chestnuts fallen from the very tree she was in.  It did not appear that they would be leaving any time soon. 

She was freezing.  Elsa had put on nearly everything she had in her bag, but was still cold and shivering.  The boars were bedded down all around below her.  She just hoped she wouldn't drop off to sleep and fall into a mass of wild boars and be tusked to death.  The Lord must be punishing her for her sins she thought in her misery.

She heard a horse clomp by and a man say, "By all that's holy, is that a lass in the tree?  Surely it's not more lords and ladies!"

"Hello," she called.  "Be careful, I'm surrounded by wild boars."

"Hold tight, miss.  I'll get a shot off, and soon they'll scatter."

The sound was deafening.  The smell of black powder lingered in the air.

"Now then, let's get ye down, shall we?"

Elsa's rescuer took her to his wife in one of the crofters' cottages.  They told her that she had almost made it to the Gildersleeve's manor house.  She was kindly taken care of, given warm soup, hearty brown bread, and a fire to warm herself by.  She was beginning to cease her shivering and was verra sleepy since she had not slept a wink the night before. She had a wool blanket to wrap up with as she lay down on a rug by the fire.  Only when she closed her eyes, her heart felt more broken than ever. A few tears slipped down.

Clara and James had run into his room early in the morning, bouncing up on the bed, something they'd never done before.  He was awakened with cries of "Daddy!"  He thought he heard Charlie howling all the way from the nursery.  Ian propped up on his elbow to get a better look at his children' distress.

"Did something happen to your puppy?" he asked running his hand through his hair and yawning broadly.

"No, daddy, she's gone!" Clara declared.

"Your puppy?" he tried again.

"No, no, no, our Elsa's gone!" she cried.  James just nodded blinking back tears.

He swung his legs off the bed and stood up.  "What are you talking about?  Did she go to the village?"

"No, Father, our governess said she left for good."  Both children burst into sobs.  He gathered them in his arms, but his mind and heart were in a race.  What had happened? Ian couldn't fathom it.

"Why would she do that?" he asked himself as well as his children.

"We don't know.  She kissed us goodbye last night, but we didn't think she meant that she was leaving forever.  Charlie's ripe upset.  Can you hear him?"

"Let's go get him and I'll have a talk with your governess.  Out with you so I can get dressed."   He didn't wait to call his valet just quickly put on his riding clothes and boots.

The children raced up ahead of him.  Charlie was screaming in a high pitched voice.  The poor boy had just broken his fever.  Was it back?  He took his son from the maid and felt his sweaty head.  It was cool, thank God.  Charlie clung to him while his cries quieted but did not stop.  Children, go tell your governess that I wish to see her, then you may go to ask cook for your breakfast.

"But what about our Elsa?" Clara was stricken.

"That's what I'm going to try to find out.  If anyone below stairs knows anything, run up here and tell me.  Off you go."

He kissed his youngest and rocked him, but he was not to be consoled.  His little chest heaved then would settle in a shudder, only to heave into another sob again.  Elsa was the only mother he knew, Ian suddenly realized as if someone had slapped him in the face.  He had to find Elsa.  He would not have his children motherless again, especially not bereft of one who loved them so.

The governess came in with a little too snide smile on her face.  Something was up.  "Do you know where she is?"

"No, my Lord."  Her lips were pressing down with a triumphant look, he observed.

"What did you say to make her leave?" he asked the woman.

"Me?  What makes you think it was me?" she gasped turning a little pale.

"I know it was you.  Again, I ask you, what did you say to make her leave?"

"It wasn't me, My Lord, I assure you."

He knew she was lying. "Alright then, I am calling a meeting with all the staff to get to the bottom of this, and I know you are at the bottom.  They will not all hide your guilt, you know." 

The woman looked practically white now with terror.  A person of her age would have a difficult time finding other employment without a reference, which he would not give her under any circumstances.  The governess burst into tears and covered her face. 

"Enough!  It's enough that all three of my children have woken up sobbing.  I have no sympathy with your tears, woman.  Again, I ask you, what did you say to her?"

Brokenly she sputtered, "She asked me what the servants were saying about her downstairs, so I told her."

"What did you tell her?" he ground out losing patience.

"That people are saying she'd thrown herself at you.  That she even had the indecency to do it the day you'd buried your wife."

"I did not bury my wife, but that's not here or there.  What made them say such things?"  Suddenly, he realized how the pieces fit together and his own guilt. convicted him.

"I saw her, My Lord, in your arms." 

He almost roared, "So you saw fit to spread rumors to injure a good woman's reputation when she was only guilty of being upset after a man threatened to seek her out in her chamber to ruin her?  If I chose to comfort her, it was of no business of yours.  Pack your bag, woman.  I want you gone within the hour.  I'll have John arrange the dog cart to take you to the village so you can arrange a ride to wherever you will be off to.  Did she say, by the way where she was going?"

"No, My Lord, I'm sorry, My Lord, please don't make me leave.  I've nowhere else to go."

"If you would have at least had sympathy to find out where Miss McNeil was going, I was considering giving you money for the stage.   However, since you showed her no concern, neither will I concern myself with you.  Do not bother telling the children goodbye."

Just then James burst in the door.  "Jack says she asked directions to the Gildersleeves. Maybe she's there!"

He was out the door without a thought of eating and headed to the stables.  Jack already had his horse saddled.

"Good work, Jack,"  he greeted him and  was off.  Not needing to ride slowly with his children along, Ian made good time getting to his friend's place.  They seemed to remember him from his last visit as a groom ran up to take his horse and the butler opened the door before he even had a chance to knock. 

"Come in, My Lord..." but the butler was interrupted by the boisterous head of the manor himself.

"Is everything alright or is this just a neighborly visit?" Sir Gildersleeve wondered.

"I can tell by your countenance that something is wrong, My Lord."  His wife hurried in beside him calling for tea at once.

"Coffee, if you don't mind."

"Not at all."  She sent the message to the kitchen.  "Have a seat, My Lord.  Are the children alright?"

"Yes.  No.  They are in good health, but broken hearted that their dear Miss Elsa is missing."  He ran his hand through his hair.  He'd left without so much as a hat on his head.

"Missing?  Do you suspect foul play?  Do you need to call the magistrate?"

Ian's hopes died.  He was sure he'd find her here.  "My groom said that she'd asked directions to your place, and one of the maids had, well never mind.  I had hoped..."

"Go on, my good man."

"One of the maids said that she'd heard you might be hiring.  I can't imagine it, but it seems she set off on foot to come your way."

"Oh, dear," the lady of the manor said.

"I'll round up my men, and we'll form a search party.  She might have become too fatigued to walk all this way in one day and sought shelter somewhere elsewhere."

It killed him to think of her out wandering like that.  Anything could happen to a beautiful young woman all alone on the road.

Just then their butler admitted one of the farmers into the sitting room, a rare circumstance indeed judging by the man's nervous handling of his hat.

"Speak up.  What is so urgent Robert?"

"I came to tell ye that the wild boars have come back, Sir.  But then I overheard you talking about a young lady missing.  I came across her last night up in the same tree I found you, My Lord..."

"Is she alright?  Did the boars injure her?"  Ian stood to his feet.

"No, but it's a good thing I came along like I did.  It was getting so dark that I was letting my horse find his way home when I heard someone calling.  It appears she hefted herself up out of danger in time, but the wild things weren't about to leave their chestnut feast below her perch and would have kept her treed all night.   It was a cold one at that.  But I got a shot off to scare them away, then helped her down and took her home to my wife. 

Ian was pacing now.  "Where is she?"

"I'll be happy to take you to her, My Lord,"

"Please do," he replied.  But just then the butler came in and announced that a young woman was here seeking a position.  Should I let her in?" and he winked at Ian.  Any other time, that would have been insufferable, but today he just grinned.

"Miss, they will see you now," the grinning butler said. 

Ian watched her walk in gracefully with no hint of having spent part of the night in a chestnut tree.  She did not see him at first and curtsied to the Gildersleeves.  He knew the moment she saw him.  The air became taunt.  Elsa flushed brighter than a new day dawning. 

He also saw the impish dimple in Lady Gildersleeve's cheek.  "Come, my dear.  I do believe these two have some things to discuss."  She caught her husband's arm and guided him out, but not before he too winked at him.

It was unnaturally quiet  until finally Ian broke the silence between them.  But first he took her cold hands in his warm ones.  "Why did you leave us?" 

"I dinna want to injure yer good name, My Lord." she kept her eyes downcast.

"And how could you do that, may I ask?" he continued.

She tried to pull away, but he kept her hands in his rubbing his thumbs over her wrists. Finally in a soft voice he could barely hear, she said "I think you know, My Lord."

"I want you to tell me though."

She still would not look at him.  "I don't wish to embarrass myself or ye any further."

"Let me approach this another way then," he continued. "I propose to offer you another position. Please consider it carefully for my children's future is at stake here.  I found it necessary to let go the governess this morning."

She finally looked up at him for a brief moment in surprise, then looked down again. 

"I find I need a good nursemaid who is also willing to take on some of the duties of a governess as well.  I have decided to hire a tutor to come in a few days a week.  I believe James is ready for that, and Clara will be just as eager a student."

Elsa nodded her head but still refused to look at him. 

"But the nursemaid and governess position will be without pay.  It will include other duties which I will not spell out at this time, but will be pleased to do so later.  In short, dear Elsa, I am looking for a wife."  He saw a shudder go through her but still her eyes refused to meet his own.

"Elsa, you are the only mother our Charlie has ever known.  You are the only mother who has loved Clara and James.  You are indeed the only woman I have ever loved.  I wish to make you my wife." It was at that moment she finally looked up and  searched his eyes.

"But the talk, My Lord. I canna bear it if people say bad things about ye.  I donae mind fer myself, but yer a fine man.  I wouldn't want to tarnish you."

"If you can't do it for my sake, if you do not think you can love me, would you do it for our children's sake, dear Elsa?"

"Oh, My Lord, no!  I canna take one without the other.  I canna take the blud that pulses through one arm without it rinning through my hert to the other!"

Ian grinned and placed first one then the other of her arms around his neck.  "Are you saying you love me, dear Elsa?"

She blushed prettily but did not look away this time. "Yes," she whispered.

Then will you marry me and not just be the mother to our children but be the wife of my heart?"

"Yes," and then she gave him a cocky grin.  "We'll set them on their ear, won't we now."

When he kissed her to her heart's content, she sighed.  "As improper that it was--more like I, never dreamed that anything would ever come of it, I think I might have loved ye the first time I kissed our little Charlie and heard his faerie language.  He opened my heart and somehow you slipped in."

"I fought it as a married man, but once there was no longer an impediment, I realized, *'At my age, a man ought to be able to be able to satisfy himself with the idea of a thing in his soul.' And that thing is you, my dear Elsa."

"A wise son makes a father glad."

*A quote from George MacDonald as well as some of the Scottish expressions.


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