Chapter 26

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"Ah, there are our girls," Arthur Fleming announced as he looked towards the drawing room entrance, his arms unraveling from a grip at his back as he spread them into the air, at the approaching figures of his nieces. He seemed to forget, at the sight of them, that he wasn't indeed in Southampton. They just reminded him so, his nieces, along with his sisters and other nieces and nephews, he felt like they belonged in that county; they all belonged where there was spring even amidst winter, and summer even between autumns.

"Uncle Arthur," Lady Diana Beaumont and Lady Alicia Kirkpatrick gushed, as both the ladies approached their uncle, with genuine smiles and laughter of excitement.

"I hope you both are well? You cannot fathom the shock I had to overcome upon this news on my arrival," Arthur Fleming started as he parted after placing a kiss on their foreheads. A shudder danced off his back as he thought of the paranoia that had befallen him. That feeling of self doubt would have eaten him up, the fact that his nieces were here because of him and had been victim to such an accident, how would've he faced his sisters and brother-in-laws?

"We get stronger by the day," Diana assured him, a confident smile on her face. Ever since they had awoken yesterday, Diana and Alicia had indeed felt better, brighter and more themselves, each passing hour. There were many things that had kept them going, their aunt, their little cousins, their Uncle Arthur and, their curiosity.

"I-I am so glad you and Alicia a-are alright," a tiny voice suddenly came and before Diana could do anything, her skirts were embraced in an equally tiny hug. "Theodore," she smiled as she bent down to properly hug the little child as he buried his face in her neck, not wanting to part.

"I am glad too," Michael's mature voice came as he joined his father's side, standing tall, "Mother said we weren't allowed to visit your chamber because she was afraid Theodore would cry, and she said you both needed smiling and happy faces at the moment. So I had to watch Theo while Mama tended to you."

"That was a mighty fine job you did," Alicia chimed in, and Michael smiled proudly.

"Although, we could've used a good cry," Diana added with a laugh as Arthur Fleming shot her a concerned expression. "I'm just joking," she added teasingly and watched her uncle's expression dissolve into a relaxed one. Inside however, Diana felt sure she did need to have a good cry, perhaps, a wail; to rant about everything that was weighing on her mind. Her deep feelings towards someone who despised her, her unfeeling heart towards a cousin who felt everything for her, her worry of leaving her uncle and aunt to the cruel life they were accustomed to again, they were all too much; knowing the fact that were she to return to Southampton, nothing will be as it was before. All of her energy was being used, her heart and mind constantly at work against each other. Crying would not solve anything, it would not get rid of her problems and vanish all her doubts, but it was a way to cope.

All her life she'd been told that tears don't solve anything, when she was twelve and she missed the last step of the staircase at Bellevue Hall, 'crying won't make the pain go away,' she'd been told. When she was fourteen and she accidentally broke her favorite floral vase, 'tears won't piece it together dear,' she was reminded. And when she was nineteen and she refused Frank Templemore's marriage proposal, 'crying won't give rise to feelings in you that aren't there,' Alicia had insisted, and she'd been right. Everyone who had ever told her not to cry over a circumstance, had been right, but they had all been secretive of the solace it offered; shedding those hot tears and hoping each drop would lighten the pain and fury just the tiniest bit. There was comfort in that hope, comfort in letting it all out in just drops of water.

By lunchtime that Saturday, The Countess insisted on having another picnic on the grounds, claiming that everyone was in dire need of a breath of fresh air after the events of the days gone by. Only this time, she persisted on hosting herself, claiming her son's abilities were more or less mediocre.

"I must admit defeat, mother," Frank Templemore taunted, a playful grin playing on his lips, "You did excel in the menu for our picnic, although however you need lessons in selecting the perfect location."

The party all sat around a big circular round table arranged by the gazebo. The large trees on that particular part of the grounds, sheltered all below from the rays of the sun, casting a cool yet warm golden hue on the party. Autumn was peculiarly warm in these parts, Lady Alicia Kirkpatrick had noticed. It was easy to forget the comings and goings of the seasons since there were hardly any changes in the surroundings. The grass remained that cool hue of green and the winds seemed conflicted, as though they still hadn't made up their minds. The only season that was recognizable here was perhaps winter; the snow would be hard to mistake for anything else. It must be late autumn, Alicia told herself, but now she wasn't so sure entirely.

"Nonsense," The Countess dismissed in a scoff, "This is the perfect location, I am sure you would acknowledge that if you were made to constantly carry a parasol. But since you don't, I'm not sure I am required to ask of your preferences my dear."

Diana let out a stifled laugh and everyone else around the table smiled as they all helped themselves to the delicious delicacies adorning the surface of the white picnic table. Frank laughed as well, shaking his head in defiance at his mother's swift responses that left him speechless at times.

Alicia kept glancing at the two empty chairs at the table. Since having come down for the picnic, she had realized that two of the guests were missing and upon slight inquiry she had gotten to understand that Lord Algernon and Lord Buxton had excused themselves for an hour to meet a settle an urgent matter of work in the city, and that they'd return soon. Alicia had, surprisingly, felt more disappointed than she could ever care to admit. She hadn't seen Lord Algernon since she had opened her eyes after a day of illness. There was a part of her that wanted to thank him, a bigger part than she'd admit, for jumping into the deep end after her and saving her life in due course. It felt strange, to owe someone your life. She hadn't owed anyone anything in all of her years, except for perhaps a short round of dances at balls and private conversations; but owning one your life was an entirely different feeling. It felt deeply heavy in a way, someone risking themselves to save you. The whole ordeal made her flustered, it made her feel as though no matter what Alicia did, she could never be able to repay this debt and it was an infuriating realization. Now he had the upper hand on her, not only on her heart but now on also her very being.

As she glanced towards Diana, Alicia observed her to find out if her cousin felt the same way that she did. To see if her cousin understood fully the entirety of the debt they had suddenly found themselves in. And sure enough, she found the nervousness in the way Diana tucked a stray raven strand behind her ear and how her smile softened and her gaze dropped to her palms in her lap whenever someone spoke something that was meant to be humorous. Diana hadn't the appetite for humor, and neither did Alicia.

Frank Templemore engaged himself in a debated conversation with Mr William Percy, who responded with as much respect as he could muster, clearly annoyed with Frank's constant inquiries regarding his wine business. Indeed it must hurt a man's ego were he to be forced into giving up most of his secrets to his success, especially when he was in need of an investment. Lady Diana Beaumont observed them. She could tell Frank was far from pleased, and she hoped he was far from satisfied with William Percy as well. It was wrong of her, when she was completely unaware of the man's circumstances and why he'd require an investment, but in her heart she favored someone else more. It was like one of those cricket matches her cousins and family used to play back home in Southampton, Diana would never know which team to support when both of them consisted of her family and parish people she respected; but at the end of the day she'd known which one to support all along.

Arthur Fleming's voice broke through her thoughts as Diana turned to look at her uncle. The Countess had inquired about his harsh work conditions and had passed a comment about Lord Buxton and Lord Algernon's business worth.

"He's a considerate man, Lord Buxton," Uncle Arthur replied, with a genuine, "Lord Algernon was too, before he let Lord Buxton take over our mill and he took to the eastern one. They are both men of substance and skill."

Diana's heart ached slightly. The fact that her uncle was so humble, so understanding, despite everything he had been through because of his employers, was so touching. Arthur Fleming had no reason to be understanding, neither of the employees had any reason to be devoting, after all, it wasn't their fault the tragedy struck. The employees who lost their lives in the fire, it wasn't their fault or their grieving family's fault.

"They aren't compassionate, I'm told," The Countess countered, "Compassion is the most valuable virtue, Mr Fleming. I would hardly approve of Frank investing in such a business where compassion is scarce."

Diana observed the look of slight defeat on her uncle's face until he opened his mouth with determination again, "Compassion is found in the most unlikely of places, Lady Templemore, so it isn't good to assume it isn't there. It isn't a shiny thing to be found in the dark easily, for some people it is more of a bird song amidst huge gusts of winds; you'd have to strain to hear it until it becomes as clear as the day."

The Countess nodded in agreement and resumed to engage herself in another conversation with Mrs Fleming, a light hearted one where either participant laughed with equal intervals at a comment the other had made.

Hours after the picnic, Diana looked out into the open hills under the clear skies and her heart ached to out riding, to feel the cool winds against her cheek and the rush of adrenaline as her heart pounded in sync with that of a horse. Acquiring permission from The Countess, who strongly advised against it but was convinced in the end, Diana headed upstairs to her chamber to change into her riding habit. It would be just her, since Alicia felt slightly disoriented for a ride. In Southampton, the ladies rarely ever rode horses, because the county was not in possession of clear grasslands for miles on end. Many farmlands were spread across the Southampton countryside, deeming horse riding a rather careful and risky activity for a lady to engage in until and unless she was an expert. Another reason was the fact that Diana would always want to stop every few minutes to examine some kinds of flowers she happened to chance by, and it would always take her a great deal of effort to be helped on back to the horse again. In the Brockenhurst grounds however, the plain swift green grassland didn't offer many distractions.

As a ladies maid helped Diana dress in a navy habit, pinning a hat on top of her elaborate do, she adjusted the thin net veil attached to the front of the hat over her face. Looking at herself in the looking glass, the dark thin net over her face made her look alluring and altogether mysterious, and for once, Diana wasn't sure if she was even the half of those things. Looking at her eyes, it felt as though she did not recognize the person in the mirror. This person was different, she wasn't sure, she wasn't certain, and for the first time she was nervous of what fate had in store for her.

"The Countess asks of you to take Glory, my lady," A servant in the stables approached Diana, holding the reins of a mustard horse, it's golden mane reflecting the sun even though they were inside the stables in the shade.

"Glory," Diana repeated softly, more to herself, as walked towards the horse and stroked its mane with her gloved hands, "Does Glory have a history?" she asked the servant, her eyes still on the horse's mane.

"She was a gift, my lady," The servant started, "The Countess was gifted Glory by a Baron in London."

The lady looked at the servant with an intrigued eye, her hands still going back and forth on the soft mane of the creature, "And I suppose you can't recall the Baron's name."

The servant fidgeted in his spot nervously, "N-No my lady, I can make inquiries if you'd like."

"There is no need for that," Diana sighed with a smile as she realized she had made the poor man nervous for doing just his job. After all, he wasn't required to remember names of Barons and Lords when his work was in the stables, "Please side saddle Glory, I will take her for my ride."

"Right away, my lady," The man spoke and quickly tied the mustard horse to a wood handle and went to fetch a side saddle and other things that came along with fixing one onto a horse.

Diana walked out the stables and fixing her gloves as she took in a breath of fresh air and closed her eyes, every fiber in her body ready to face the wind and make her adrenaline rush wildly.

"Riding, Lady Beaumont?" A voice infiltrated her senses as a storm in spring and she cringed before opening her eyes slowly to turn and face the person, "Mr Percy," she acknowledged, with as much politeness she could muster. It was hard to be polite to unwelcome interruptions, "Well, I am in my riding habit and standing outside the stables with my horse being saddled just about five steps behind me, so yes Mr Percy, indeed I am riding."

He let out a laugh as he kicked something invisible with his feet before looking up to meet her eyes again,
"May I join you?"

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