LouisaThe Scarred Governess
Dinner was a stiff, formal affair. It was a horrible contrast to what Louisa had grown used to, and quite frankly, it was giving her indigestion.
At home, mealtimes had been cheery and comfortable, with plenty of laughter and chit-chat.
Not in Uncle Edmund’s house.
He insisted on the three of them sitting at the long, highly-polished dining room table, along with all the trappings of a formal dinner. Proper manners were every bit as essential as the food on the table, and it was not designed to be a light-hearted occasion. Uncle Edmund believed that the business of eating was extremely serious. Talking about the events of one’s day, one’s goals, opinions, or worries was something that could be saved for the after-supper talks in the parlour, or better yet not talked about at all.
The dining room did not lend itself to a comfortable atmosphere. By rights, it should have been a beautiful room. After all, Uncle Edmund had spared no expense in fitting out his house in the latest fashions. The wood was expensive, polished to a high shine. The lace tablecloth was fine and beautiful, and Louisa lived in terror of spilling something. Priceless ornaments lined the sideboards, defiantly ugly. A heavy crystal chandelier creaked above their heads, not quite shedding enough light onto the table below.
Louisa found it cold and stiff, all fashion and no warmth. Besides, the dining room had been the scene of far too many humiliations at her uncle’s hands.
Then, of course, there were the rows of footmen who silently waited on them, presided over by the stately, terrifying butler. He had been hand-picked by Uncle Edmund, and the two men thought alike on just about every subject.
Louisa often caught the butler’s beady eye upon her, as if he was waiting for some kind of faux pas that he could report to his master. Not that Uncle Edmund would miss a slip-up of any kind, especially not in front of his guest. He wouldn’t say anything at once, of course. Later, however, there would be a reckoning. Louisa had learnt to shiver at the idea of her uncle’s displeasure.
The guest in question was Mr. Fleming. He must have been in his forties, and he had not aged well. He was portly, with a reddened face from years of heavy drinking and rich food. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been so obvious if Mr Fleming hadn’t chosen to wear clothes that were far too tight for his large frame, and the wrong colour altogether for his red face. He had a curling moustache, which he’d clearly spent most of his morning waxing and brushing. He had a piece of mutton caught in the bristly black hairs on his upper lip, and Louisa was trying hard not to look at it. It was difficult, since Mr. Fleming was sitting directly opposite her.
Louisa and Mrs. Fenwick were expected to dress before dinner every day, and it was a tedious business.
“We aren’t nearly well-off enough to change clothes three or four times a day,” Louisa used to whisper to her mother as they laced themselves into yet another fine dress. “It’s just the three of us. Why can’t I just keep my everyday dress on?”
“Your uncle likes to keep up appearances,” Martha would answer mildly. “It’s his house, after all. Besides, many young girls your age like changing their dresses.”
“Only when they have lots of different gowns.”
Louisa soon gave up complaining to her mother. Martha Fenwick was a quiet, mild woman, and would only remind her that Uncle Edmund had been very kind to them, and that they ought to be grateful.
“Very kind, indeed,” she’d whisper, as if trying to convince herself as well as her daughter.
Uncle Edmund did not usually stipulate how they should dress for dinner, only requesting that they should dress. Earlier that evening, however, he’d come into the library to find Louisa.
Louisa had leapt to her feet, guiltily setting down her book. Uncle Edmund didn’t approve of novels, or idleness.
Neither did he approve of his dependant niece and sister-in-law touching his books. He never reproached them directly, but there was always a slight inflection placed on the word. His books. Mine.
This time, however, he barely glanced at the novel Louisa had attempted to hide.
“I have a guest coming this evening, Louisa,” Uncle Edmund announced.
Louisa blinked in surprise. Uncle Edmund did not often have guests. On the few occasions when he invited a guest to dinner, they were usually dry, tedious business acquaintances, who made comments and complimented his pretty young niece. Then, they would smile at their own wit and expect Louisa to smile too. Uncle Edmund never invited women. If his friends had wives, sisters, or daughters, they didn’t bring them to Uncle Edmund’s home.
“I would like you to dress well,” Uncle Edmund continued, sounding bored. “Wear the blue silk, if you please. It becomes you, and heaven knows you’re too pale for anything else. You need a little colour. Curl your hair, too.”
Louisa hated her blue silk dress. It was too tight, revealing an expanse of her white neck and dipping low over her collarbones. It wasn’t exactly scandalous, but it did make her feel uncomfortable. She preferred more practical gowns, which were inevitably less fashionable.
Her wispy curls, of an unimpressive shade of brown in her opinion, certainly did look well once they were properly curled and dressed, but it took hours. Louisa preferred to spend her time reading and sketching instead of primping over her appearance.
Of course, it was hardly a discussion. Once he’d given his instructions, Uncle Edmund turned and left the library, without bothering to wait for a reply.
Mr. Fleming’s watery blue eyes were fixed on her from across the table. Did the man never blink? Couldn’t he look at someone or something else? Louisa delicately sipped her soup and tried not to notice.
“Have you met Mr. Fleming, Louisa?” Uncle Edmund asked abruptly.
Louisa jumped, almost spilling a spoonful of soup into her lap. They were well into the first course, and not a word had been said so far. Uncle Edmund hadn’t even bothered to introduce his sister-in-law and niece to his guest, which would generally be considered a serious breach of manners. It was just one of many slights to be endured in Uncle Edmund’s house, however. Mr. Fleming seemed very happy to ogle Louisa but was apparently equally happy that introductions–or indeed conversation–was deemed unnecessary by his host.
Perhaps he thinks it will ruin the effect, Louisa thought sardonically. Well, I do have a habit of speaking my mind, so yes, I daresay it is a good idea for us not to converse.
Mr. Fleming didn’t seem to care that his dinner partner was contemplating her dislike of him and wondering how soon she could make her escape. Perhaps it hadn’t occurred to him at all. He appeared quite happy to tuck into his food, waving away the consommé in favour of a heartier plate of meat.
“No, I have not met Mr. Fleming.” Louisa forced a smile. “It’s good to meet you, sir.”
“And you, Miss Fenwick.” Mr Fleming smiled broadly, revealing that he had mutton stuck in his teeth, too.
“Call her Miss Louisa, please,” Uncle Edmund said genially. “We’re all friends here, after all. Mr. Fleming is my business partner, Louisa. He will be travelling with me to France. When we return, I daresay he will be staying with us for some time. I do hope you’ll make him feel welcome.”
“Of course,” Louisa managed.
The four of them were spread out along the table, so that all Louisa could see without craning her neck was Mr. Fleming, who sat opposite her. She couldn’t see her mother for the vast centerpiece and piled dishes in the middle of the table. Martha was always quiet during the seemingly endless mealtimes, and she seemed even more subdued tonight. Louisa felt strangely cut off and isolated. She swallowed hard, feeling panic lodge in her throat, as if she’d swallowed an India-rubber ball.
Mr. Fleming flashed a lecherous smile–which was probably supposed to be charming–and Louisa was forced to smile graciously back at him. She longed to get up and walk out of the room, or even take the coward’s route and feign some kind of illness.
Of course, that was out of the question. Instead, Louisa took another calm sip of her soup.
It was going to be a long evening.
* * *
At long last, Uncle Edmund nodded peremptorily at Mrs. Fenwick. This was the signal for the ladies to get up and leave, while the gentlemen remained behind and drank port. Louisa had to hold herself back from running out of the room, so great was her relief to get out from under Mr. Fleming’s oppressive stare. The two women heaved a sigh of relief once they escaped from the cavernous dining room.
The hallway outside was hardly any better. It was surprisingly claustrophobic for such a large space, and there were footmen everywhere. Louisa knew full well that each servant was watching them closely and would regale the butler with tales of any wrongdoing, who in turn would tell Uncle Edmund.
However, the oppressive hallway had one substantial advantage in that it did not contain Uncle Edmund and Mr. Fleming. Louisa was tempted to skip along to the drawing room.
As they walked along together, Louisa watched her mother out of the corner of her eye. Martha Fenwick had often been praised for her beauty, even with a fast-growing daughter beside her. But their recent family disasters had stripped her of any lingering beauty. Perhaps it was the dim light, but Louisa thought her mother looked tired and far older than her forty years.
“I didn’t know Uncle Edmund was going to France,” Louisa whispered, partly to distract herself from contemplating her mother’s mortality. “He never tells us anything.”
Martha lips were pressed together in a thin, bloodless line. “He’s leaving tomorrow morning. We’re to take breakfast with him and Mr. Fleming before they leave.”
“Ugh. He’s an awful man.”
Martha glanced at her daughter. “You didn’t like him?”
“Of course not. Did you see how he looked at me? I’ve never felt so uncomfortable. It was as if he was trying to stare straight through my bodice.”
“It’s true. He barely spoke to me, he just stared. He had food stuck in his moustache. Perhaps he’s saving it to eat later.”
Martha sucked in a breath, trying not to laugh. “Louisa!”
“Well, I had to stare at it all through dinner. It was disgusting. I hope he isn’t going to be staying with us for a long time. I don’t know how I’ll bear it.”
Martha’s hand tightened on Louisa’s arm. “Louisa, I have something to tell you, but we’ll wait until after your uncle has gone to France.”
Louisa felt a cold sensation trickling down her spine. She was dully surprised to notice it was fear.
“What? What is it? Tell me now, please.”
“No,” Martha said firmly. “I can’t risk you saying something to your uncle. Go up to bed. I shall tell them you have a headache.”
“Uncle Edmund will be angry at you.”
“Yes, but he can hardly barge into your bedroom and drag you downstairs again, can he? No, once you’ve retired, you’ll be safe. I will deal with your uncle. Go.”
It felt like a cowardly thing to do, but Louisa obeyed. She changed into her nightclothes, under the supervision of the sour-faced maid who Uncle Edmund had appointed to wait on both Louisa and Martha.
Louisa was careful to act as if she really did have a terrible headache, knowing full well that the maid would be watching her closely.
Settled under the covers, alone at last, Louisa couldn’t fall asleep. As she often did, Louisa found herself thinking about the way things had been before. It was a fruitless line of thought, which had led to many sleepless nights and pillows wet with tears. It was hard to reconcile their miserable, dull existence with the way things had been before. Sometimes Louisa thought she would never see her mother smile again.
The older Mr. Fenwick, Louisa’s father, had been a jovial, friendly man. One would never have guessed he was related to the tall, thin, unpleasant Edmund Fenwick. Her father had always had a joke to share, and his laugh rang around a room. It was a running joke that he needed his calm, sensible, mild wife to temper him, to prevent him from making terrible decisions.
But not even Martha Fenwick had been able to work miracles. Louisa squeezed her eyes closed, remembering the years of poverty and humiliation, as her father changed from a cheerful spendthrift of a man to a bankrupt, broken one. Then, of course, the drinking had begun.
It’s no good, Louisa thought in resignation, I won’t sleep.
The maid had reluctantly left one candle burning, when Louisa requested it several times. By its faint, flickering light, Louisa took out her sketchpad and pencil, and began to draw.
* * *
Her early night did not leave Louisa feeling refreshed. The maid woke her up very early to breakfast with Uncle Edmund and Mr. Fleming. Louisa knew quite well that she hadn’t asked the maid to wake her, hoping she would somehow sleep through the men’s departure. She didn’t particularly want to have to watch Mr. Fleming eating his morning eggs.
No such luck. Someone else must have told the maid that Miss Fenwick was expected to be up in time for breakfast.
“The master said you’re to wear the white muslin with the red embroidered roses today,” the maid said monotonously, draping the garment in question over a chair.
Louisa bit back a curse. The white muslin was even tighter and lower cut than the blue silk.
Breakfast seemed to drag, but it couldn’t last forever. Soon enough, Mr. Fleming and Uncle Edmund were packed into the carriage, and the two women had peace at least.
“Good riddance.” Louisa said, rather too loudly. “I’ve never met anyone who slurps their eggs like that, and I hope never to meet such a person again.”
“Hush,” Martha whispered. “The footmen will hear. Come, walk with me.”
The grounds were just about the only place in Uncle Edmund’s stately mansion where one could be reasonably sure there were no eavesdroppers. Martha hooked her arm through Louisa’s, practically dragging her along.
“Your Uncle Edmund plans for you to marry Mr. Fleming.” Martha said in a rush, as though she had to get the words out as soon as possible. “He spoke to me about it early this morning. I’d already suspected as much.”
Louisa bit her lip. “I knew it. Well, I won’t marry him.”
“Do you think you have a choice? My dear, you’re nineteen years old. Your uncle believes that women should be married off at sixteen, to whomever their father chooses.”
“Perhaps so, but we are dependent on your uncle’s goodwill. If you absolutely refuse to marry the man he’s chosen for you, I dread to think what he’ll do. I told your uncle that you don’t like Mr. Fleming, and he simply said that girls never know what is good for them. He advised me to ‘set you on the right course.’ His words, not mine, my dear. I hinted that you weren’t easily swayed, but he said he had made his decision, and that our conversation was over.”
Louisa’s blood ran cold. “He can’t force me.”
“Are you sure about that? Louisa, we are penniless, friendless, and, as women, completely powerless. Your uncle isn’t like … well … he and his brother were very different men, you know. Edmund had always had his own way, all his life. He’s not accustomed to being argued with. I was always so thankful he never married or had children. I dread to think what kind of life his wife and daughters would have led. At the very least, he’ll turn you out. You’ll be destitute, he’ll see to that.”
Louisa tugged absently at a dusky curl, pulling hard enough to feel pinpricks of pain on her scalp. “What am I to do?”
Martha glanced around, double-checking they weren’t being overheard. “I have a plan,” she whispered. “But we must be very careful. It might take a day or two to put into motion, and your uncle could be back from France at a moment’s notice. We won’t know he’s coming home until his carriage rolls up the drive.”
Louisa felt a prickling on the back of her neck, as if she was being watched. “Do you think one of the servants would tell him?”
“I’m sure of it. You mustn’t speak of any plan, or of Mr. Fleming at all, do you understand?”
Louisa nodded breathlessly. “What is your plan?”
Martha shook her head. “I’ll tell you soon enough. In the meantime, I want you to know that I will not allow you to marry this awful man. Your uncle is not the master of your fate, and nor am I. You are the director of your own destiny, my lovely girl, and you will decide for yourself what to do. But you will need a helping hand, and we haven’t any money. Are you willing to work?”
“Good. Now.” Martha looped her arm through Louisa’s, beginning to stroll away just as a gardener rounded the hedge ahead of them. He bowed and murmured as they passed, eyes fixed on the gravel walkway.
Louisa tried to keep her breathing even. Had he heard their conversation? Perhaps even now, a note was being scribbled to intercept Uncle Edmund and Mr. Fleming, wherever they were.
Just stay calm, Louisa advised herself. Only a little longer.
Alastair Barnes, Duke of Barnshire, felt irrationally guilty about not enjoying his own scenery.
He had been born and raised in a part of the country which poets and artists swooned over. Anyone who boasted even moderate skill with a pencil or paintbrush marched out with their easels and canvasses under their arms on fine days, determined to bring back sketches and paintings of the lush landscape to display.
But Alastair seldom seemed to notice it anymore. Even the dingy streets of London interested him more than his country seat home. That was a pity, since they were leaving for his country house in a few days. It seemed the countryside bored him, yet the town was a thing to be avoided at all costs, full of odious social engagements and constant work. He was doomed to a life of dissatisfaction.
Ah well, he was almost home now. The journey had been long and extremely uncomfortable. Alastair was a tall man, and broad in the shoulders. The carriage had been made with delicate ladies and dandies in mind, designed to be driven to balls on fine evenings and out to pay morning calls. It was hardly suitable for a trip to and from Bath.
Despite his uncomfortable trip, Alastair took a moment to be thankful that he was not, in fact, driving his carriage to balls, great dinners, and morning calls. He shuddered at the very thought.
His mother had tried her best to force him back into Society. In London, there’d been dinner parties, dances, and endless friends of his mother’s, who simply must be visited. To his chagrin, Alastair noticed that all the people they visited–and those who returned his calls–had young, eligible daughters.
Some of the daughters were uninterested, clearly present under duress from their mothers, just as Alastair was.
Some of the girls tried their best to captivate him. He was a duke, after all. Quite the catch, as Alastair often heard staid old matrons and dowagers whispering to each other at dances. Being called a “catch” made him think of a particularly nice trout or salmon, caught in a net and held up to be admired.
His mother was not happy at the way Alastair kept the girls at arm’s length. She was impotently furious when he left London early, missing the last month of the Season. He was returning now, of course, but it was too late. The Season was over.
Some of the beauties who had dangled after Alastair were engaged themselves, or even married already. Some girls had no proposals and no suitors and would have to wait until the next Season to catch a husband.
Alastair had escaped for a little while longer.
However, none of that mattered now, Alastair reminded himself. He was home, at last.
The carriage came to a smooth halt outside a vast, sprawling mansion. Alastair climbed stiffly out into the fresh air, relieved to stretch his legs. The two footmen, waiting at the door, scrambled down the stone steps to collect his luggage.
The butler waited at the door to greet Alastair. He was a tall, stately man, and if one squinted a little, he might appear to be smiling at Alastair’s return.
“Your Grace,” he said, inclining his head. “The staff and I are very glad to have you at home again, sir.”
“I’m glad to be back. Good to see you too, Kenneth,” Alastair said, slapping him on the shoulder. “And many thanks for not dragging out the whole household to greet me again.”
Kenneth pursed his lips, a minute gesture that should have gone unnoticed. Alastair, however, had known the butler since childhood, when Kenneth was the first footman. He was well aware of the little expressions and gestures that indicated Kenneth’s displeasure.
“Her Grace the Dowager Duchess was most displeased,” Kenneth stated. “She felt that not arranging the whole staff to welcome Your Grace home was a serious breach of decorum. She mentioned bringing up the subject to you, sir.”
Alastair winced. “I shall deal with that, Kenneth. Don’t worry.”
Kenneth gave a nod. “Thank you, Your Grace.”
They were interrupted by a childish squeal of glee. A small boy, missing a shoe, came running into the hallway, arms outstretched.
“Papa, Papa!” he shrieked.
Kenneth melted discreetly away, but not before noticing how the young duke’s face, previously pale, tired, and miserable, lit up when he saw the eight-year-old boy. Kenneth and many other members of staff secretly admired the way His Grace doted on his son.
Oh, there were always members of society who disapproved of men dangling over cradles and paying too much attention to their children. Kenneth was glad Lord Alastair paid no attention to those persons.
Alastair whisked the little boy into the air, spinning him around. The boy squealed, wriggling to get down.
“Where’s my present, Papa?” he inquired, blinking up at Alastair with large, hopeful blue eyes.
For a moment, Alastair was disconcerted. With his fair curls, heart-shaped face, and large eyes, the boy looked exactly like his mother.
“No present today, I’m afraid, Carter.” Alastair managed. “Where is your shoe? And what…” he gingerly touched the mysterious sticky substance in Carter’s hair, “…what is that?”
Before Carter could answer, there was the sound of running footsteps. A young woman burst into the hallway, out of breath and dishevelled. Her hair was escaping from its austere bun, and there were smears of what appeared to be jam on her apron.
Her gaze fell on Carter, and she advanced towards him.
“There you are! Come here, you little … oh, Your Grace. I’m sorry, I didn’t know … I didn’t mean to let him run off, sir.” She stammered. She had flushed red at the sight of Alastair and dropped into an awkward, wobbly curtsey.
“Not at all, Anna. Where is Miss Evans?”
Anna took a firm grip on Carter’s small, sticky hand. “She’s gone, Your Grace.”
“Gone? What do you mean?”
“She gave notice, Your Grace.”
Alastair sighed. “Another one? This is ridiculous. Why did nobody tell me?”
“Her Grace the Dowager, she said she would deal with it, and you weren’t to be disturbed.”
“I see.” Alastair ran his hand through his hair, feeling tired, stiff, and grimy from his long trip. “Why did Miss Evans leave?”
Anna’s gaze slid away. “I couldn’t say, sir.”
By that, she meant she wouldn’t say, Alastair concluded.
“Very well. Take Carter away and give him a bath, please. I don’t know what’s in his hair, but…”
“It’s jam, Your Grace.”
* * *
Alastair approached the drawing room with a familiar twinge of nerves. This was his own house, and he shouldn’t feel awkward anywhere within it. The décor was his design; modern, fashionable, yet tasteful. He’d chosen comfortable furniture, filled the library with his own books, and organized the running of his home to his own requirements. This was his house.
And yet, the drawing room was his mother’s domain. The Dowager Duchess of Barnshire, the elegant and formidable Lady Edwina Barnes, had run her household and estate with an iron fist for many years, and wasn’t quite ready to relax her tight grip just yet. Some of the older servants still regarded her as the “real” owner of the house, more so than the duke himself.
The dowager had strict ideas on how a person should behave, dress, and speak on just about any occasion. Her son, Alastair, often fell short of her lofty ideals.
Alastair took a moment to compose himself before entering the drawing room. He weighed the thought of washing and changing first. He decided against it. The dowager had requested his presence, so she would expect him to be punctual.
He combed his fingers through his hair, checking his chestnut curls were smooth and tidy. He tugged nervously at his beard. The dowager did not approve of beards, even neatly trimmed ones like Alastair’s. He wiped a sticky spot off his waistcoat, which was likely Carter’s fault.
At last, he took a breath.
I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.
“Mother?” Alastair stepped into the drawing room. “Kenneth said you were looking for me.”
Edwina was sitting on an overstuffed chaise longue, looking very stiff and formal, hands folded neatly in her lap. She wore a magnificent dress of black taffeta, cunningly embroidered and studded with pearls. It was an old-fashioned dress, since Edwina fervently despised the modern fashions. It suited her. She looked regal and intimidating. The room was cold, but Edwina did not bother with a shawl or blanket.
“Alastair, I am glad to see you at home again. I trust you had a safe trip?” Edwina asked, her crisp tones carrying in the large room.
“Yes, Mother.” Alastair walked over to the chaise longue, thick carpeting muffling his steps. He bent down to press a kiss to his mother’s soft, powdery cheek, and waited to be allowed to sit.
Edwina gestured at a nearby armchair, and Alastair sank into it.
“You allow Kenneth too many liberties,” Edwina said, after a short pause. “He was insistent on not bringing out the household to greet you upon your return.”
“I asked him not to, Mother. I don’t care for the idea of the whole staff being pulled away from their work just to watch me walk into my own house. Besides, I hate the formality.”
That was the wrong thing to say. Edwina fixed him with an icy blue glare. “Formality? I believe the word you’re looking for is tradition, Alastair. Traditions are not to be lightly set aside.” She sighed heavily. “If only your father hadn’t died so long ago, he might have instilled proper values into you and your sister. Of course, it didn’t seem quite so important then, since we had your brother. Samuel always understood the importance of proper tradition and preserving the old ways. He understood.”
Alastair said nothing. His father, the late Duke of Barnshire, had died quite suddenly seventeen years ago. It had been a shock to the family, with the heir–Samuel–barely seventeen years old. They’d scrambled to take care of death duties, organize the funeral, and get Samuel ready to become the new duke.
His younger sister, Christina, had been only one year old, and Alastair had been thirteen. He and his father had already begun to clash over their ideas as to what Alastair’s future should be. As to Alastair’s brother, Samuel, well. He preferred not to think too long on that tragedy.
“I hear Miss Evans has left,” Alastair said, mostly to change the subject.
Edwina pursed her lips. “Yes, more’s the pity. You have your son to thank for that.”
“Carter? What did he do?”
“I am told that he put a … a toad in her bed.”
“Oh, no,” Alastair said, trying hard to suppress a smile. “Does Miss Evans not like toads?”
Edwina levelled an icy stare at him. “No, Alastair. She does not. She gave notice immediately. I understand he waited underneath her bed for Miss Evans to retire. Once she was preparing for sleep, he put the toad between her sheets. She was naturally horrified and woke the whole household with her screams.”
“That’s terrible,” Alastair said, without feeling. He hadn’t liked Miss Evans. She was a thin, pinched-faced woman, with a mouth set like a trap. She didn’t appear to particularly like children and talked a lot about Proper Discipline and Boundaries. Edwina had liked that, of course, and spoke highly in favour of Miss Evans.
However, every time Alastair had visited the schoolroom, Carter was always being punished, or about to be punished, for something. Miss Evans seemed devoutly convinced in the inherent evil of children–Carter, specifically.
Alastair was privately glad she was gone.
“So, what shall we do now?” he asked.
“The employment agency will send us another governess. One can only hope the next woman will last a little longer than the others.”
“I see. When will she arrive? Anna seemed a little run off her feet.”
Edwina tutted. “The nursemaid? Well, she’ll have to manage. The new governess won’t be here for another three days. Ring for tea, Alastair.”
Martha woke Louisa earlier than usual the next morning. There was no sign of dawn just yet. Uncle Edmund liked to breakfast early, and that meant his household ran to those specifications. The scullery maids would start cleaning out and preparing the fireplaces before dawn, and the housemaids would dust and clean, getting the bulk of the housework done while they had the house to themselves.
Outside, it was dark and cold, with early morning mists rolling across the fields. Martha gently shook Louisa awake.
“Get up, and dress,” she instructed. “We’re going into town; I have someone to see.”
Louisa mumbled something, wrapping herself in the bedclothes. Martha grabbed the sheets, tugging them away altogether. Louisa groaned, shivering in the sudden chill. She buried her head under the pillow.
“I’m afraid so. Hurry. I have no idea when your uncle plans to return. We need to act now. Any wasted time could mean a lost opportunity.”
Louisa peeped out from under the pillow. “Is this about your plan to…”
Martha hushed her. “Yes. Do be quiet, my dear. You don’t know who’s listening. Now, get dressed while I convince the butler to let me take the carriage into town. He seems to believe that I haven’t any right to do or use anything if your uncle is away.”
Louisa lay in bed for a moment or two, listening to her mother’s footsteps bustle away. In many ways, she and her mother were treated even worse when Uncle Edmund was gone.
While they were away from Uncle Edmund, and his cold, merciless gaze, they were at the mercy of Uncle Edmund’s servants.
The household had little respect for them. They saw Martha and Louisa as impoverished dependents, completely reliant on their rich relative. Which, of course, they were.
Most of the servants firmly believed there was no need to show deference to either Mrs. or Miss Fenwick. Attending to their polite requests was regarded as optional, and they were usually ignored. Even the lowliest scullery maid would gossip and giggle about the ridiculous aunt and niece upstairs, who had to obey Uncle Edmund, just like any servant.
In her master’s absence, the food the cook served the ladies was sloppily made, and carelessly deposited on the table. The maids and footmen wouldn’t bother to answer when the bell was rung, and Louisa’s maid stopped attending to her.
Often, the footmen would leave Louisa and Martha to serve themselves–which suited them perfectly well, of course.
Every slight made Louisa’s blood boil, even when Martha remained calm and civil.
What did Martha have in mind?
Well, there’s only one way to find out, Louisa told herself, climbing out of bed. I’d better hurry.
* * *
In the end, one of the groomsmen was commissioned to drive one of the older, smaller, less comfortable carriages into town, with Mrs. and Miss Fenwick inside. The butler accompanied them to the door, wearing a vaguely outraged expression. He’d agreed to Martha’s request that a carriage be brought around, but Louisa was sure it was only because he was too shocked to argue.
Martha and Louisa never went out when Edmund was away. After all, where was there to go? All their friends had mysteriously disappeared after their … misfortunes, and Uncle Edmund lived just far enough away from the nearest town to prevent his sister-in-law and niece from paying calls on anybody.
“He acts as if he has caught us rummaging through the pantry,” Louisa remarked as they rumbled away. “As if we’re unwanted guests who won’t take the hint to leave. This is our home too. Even if it doesn’t feel like it,” she added, under her breath.
“Don’t be disrespectful to your uncle,” Martha said automatically. “He’s kept us fed and housed, at least.”
“Yes, but at what price?”
Martha did not answer. After all, what was there to say?
Martha asked the groomsman to drop them at the village square, outside a milliner’s shop.
“We will walk back, thank you,” she said, with a smile. “It’s not far.”
He gave a nod and drove away.
“This is where you wanted to go?” Louisa asked, staring at the plumed, expensive-looking hats in the window. “We’re buying hats?”
“Of course not. What do you take me for?” Martha linked her arm through her daughter’s. “Besides, neither of us have any money, you silly goose. I just didn’t want that man telling tales about where we’d been. You can be sure the butler informed him to make a note of where we went. This is where we’re going.”
Louisa’s heart quickened when Martha gestured to a discreet little employment agency, tucked around a corner. Suddenly, her mother’s intentions became clear.
Martha pushed open the door. A bell tinkled, heralding their arrival.
A short, tubby, middle-aged man appeared. His round face lit up when he saw Martha.
“Mrs. Fenwick! Why, what a surprise! Do come in, sit down. Can I offer you ladies any refreshments?”
“No, thank you, Mr. Stanton,” Martha smiled back. “I’m afraid my daughter and I are here on business. You remember Louisa?”
“Indeed, I do. A pleasure to re-make your acquaintance, Miss Fenwick, although you were only a little slip of girl when I saw you last. I declare, you’re a young woman, now! Come, sit.”
Mr. Stanton hustled them into a small but cosy sitting room. He sat opposite, beaming.
“It’s wonderful to see you, Mrs. Fenwick. It’s been years. I…” Mr Stanton’s smile faded. “I must offer my condolences for your recent loss. Did you receive my card?”
Louisa thought of her uncle, carefully going through all their mail. He hadn’t bothered to wear black, even with Martha and Louisa in deep mourning at the breakfast table. She remembered his cold smile as he informed Martha that there was no post for her that day.
“No,” Martha answered. “I did not.”
Mr. Stanton winced. “Please accept my apologies. I would have called on you, but Mr Edmund Fenwick…” He trailed off.
Martha nodded understandingly. “My brother-in-law doesn’t permit us to receive visitors. You would have been turned away. Please, think no more of it.”
“You are most kind.”
Martha took a deep breath, gathering herself. “Mr Stanton, I won’t beat about the bush. I have an urgent favour to ask, and it’s of the utmost urgency.”
“Go on.” Mr. Stanton tugged at the tips of his impressive mustachios. “After what you have done for my sister, Mrs. Fenwick, I’ll do whatever is in my power to help you.”
Martha glanced briefly at Louisa. “Have you any governess posts available for my daughter?”
Mr. Stanton tapped at his chin with one tubby finger. “You’re in luck, my dear ladies. A new position has just become available today, requested by the Dowager Duchess of Barnshire herself.”
Martha sucked in a breath. “My, that sounds grand.”
“May I ask what education Miss Louisa has had?”
“Certainly. She’s fluent in French and speaks a little Latin. She can teach mathematics, history, reading, and writing. My Louisa is very intelligent, Mr. Stanton.” Martha cast an adoring look at her daughter, visibly swelling with pride. “She’s exceptionally good at painting and sketching too.”
“Watercolours or oils?”
“Both. Oh, and she can teach music and dancing.”
Louisa glanced from one to another, feeling very young and small. Martha reeled off her accomplishments, and Louisa felt as if she were talking about some other girl. A girl fit to be a governess.
“That will do for young boys, or for girls,” Mr Stanton said. “She does seem to be an accomplished young lady, and I can tell she is well bred. The job hers if you wish it. She will need to take up the post soon, however. Within the next day or two.”
Martha glanced at Louisa. Louisa gave a tiny nod.
“She’ll take it,” Martha answered. “Thank you, Mr. Stanton.”
The portly little man beamed all round. “Excellent. I’ll make the arrangements. You’ll be on your way in a day or two, Miss Fenwick.”
“Thank you,” Louisa answered. Her voice suddenly seemed hoarse. None of it felt real. Was Mr. Stanton really talking about writing to the Dowager Duchess of Barnshire and telling her about Louisa? Was Martha really talking about making the preparations for her journey? Was Louisa really about to become a governess, in a fine house?
“Uncle Edmund will be furious when he finds out I’ve gone,” Louisa said.
They were walking home in uncharacteristic silence. If they hurried, they ought to get home before dark. It was too far to walk both there and back into town. The road was muddy and isolated, and there’d been talk of robbers along this road. Louisa was sure she would be nervous about their walk back to Uncle Edmund’s house, if her mind wasn’t full of other things.
Both mother and daughter had much to think about, and Louisa’s mind was buzzing with possibilities.
On one hand, she was excited at the prospect of a new adventure. Louisa had begun to think that her future was a blank, full of grey, miserable days under Uncle Edmund’s rule. She had lain awake at night, crippled with fear that she would watch her youth and beauty fade away and her mind grow blunt. She was afraid she would bury her mother, and then it would just be her and Uncle Edmund, hating each other in that large, cold house.
But now, there was hope. At last!
Of course, a grand house would present plenty of challenges. Governesses never fared well in that kind of environment. But that did nothing to dampen her relief at the idea of getting away from the odious Mr. Fleming and his encroaching moustache, or Uncle Edmund’s burning dislike.
But what about her mother? Could she really leave Martha alone to face Uncle Edmund’s rage?
“I think,” Martha said slowly, “that you should focus on getting away, my darling. Your uncle can and will force you into marriage, whether you want it or not. I want you to be safe, and it’s no longer safe for you here.”
“But what about you, Mother?”
Martha stopped walking, turning to face Louisa. “I will be fine, Louisa. I can take care of myself. Besides, I can always write to you.”
“I’ll write,” Louisa said vehemently. “I’ll write lots and lots, I promise.”
“I will look forward to your letters,” Martha said briskly. “You’ll hardly have time to miss me. You’ll see. Now, let’s hurry home. It’s getting dark, and you need to pack.”
“I suppose it would be too risky to ask a maid to help?”
Martha laughed mirthlessly. “Your uncle would receive a note telling him we plan to leave before your suitcases were closed, my dear.”
They packed in silence. There seemed very little to say. Martha closed and locked the doors and busied herself with making a list of everything Louisa might need.
“You shouldn’t take too much,” Martha observed. “A governess who arrives with endless boxes and bags might seem a little inexperienced.”
“Well, I am inexperienced.”
“Yes, but your employers don’t need to know that,” Martha said, fixing Louisa with a glare over the tops of her spectacles.
“I’m only nineteen. I’m sure they’ll know it’s my first position.”
“Not necessarily. Besides, you need to cultivate an air of competence and experience. You’re a clever girl, and you have a good backbone. There’s no reason they should trust you, but you need to work hard to earn their trust. Do whatever it takes, Louisa.”
Louisa fidgeted with a fringed green silk shawl. It had been a present from her father years ago, but it seemed far too frivolous for a governess. Most of Louisa’s clothes were comfortable and sensible, and the green shawl stood out. It was colourful and luxurious, and seemed out of place among her other clothes.
“Mother, do you think I’m qualified to be a governess? To teach children?”
“Of course, you are. You’re a clever girl, and you can easily teach reading and writing, along with arithmetic and history. I suppose if the family plan to send their boys to school, you won’t need to provide them with much more than a basic education. For the girls, you can teach dancing, sewing, French, music, that sort of thing. And drawing, of course. I know how you love to draw, dear.” Martha took off her spectacles, folding them and setting them aside. “You needn’t be nervous. You’re good at all those subjects. I know you are. You’re good with children, too. Remember the Robinsons’ children? They adored you.”
Louisa sighed. “I suppose it’s just nerves. It’s just … well, if this goes badly, I daresay I can’t come back, can I? If the Duke of Barnshire decides he doesn’t like me, he might make sure I can’t get any other governess positions.”
“No,” Martha admitted. “You can’t come back here, not after you’ve left. But you mustn’t take that attitude. It’s self-defeating, and it’s not like you.”
“No,” Louisa said, squaring her shoulders. “It’s not.”
Suddenly decided, Louisa added the fringed shawl to her suitcase. It was only small, and she managed to tuck it away in a corner. Maybe she wouldn’t wear it, but it would be nice to know she had something that was hers, something beautiful and luxurious and unnecessary. Perhaps, during the hard, miserable life of a governess, Louisa could think of that lovely shawl and imagine its warm weight sitting around her shoulders.
Louisa looked up to see her mother’s eyes on her. Martha carefully set down the gown she was folding and came over to take Louisa’s hands.
“You’ll be safe, you know,” Martha said carefully. “I know … I know you never thought you’d have to earn your own money. Your father and I brought up you very differently. I imagined something very different in your future.” She smiled sadly. “I thought you’d meet a gentleman, someone you could fall in love with. I thought you would live somewhere beautiful, where you could make as many sketches as you like. I’m sorry, my darling girl.”
“It’s not your fault.” Louisa said. “It’s…” She bit her lip, stopping just short of saying it’s Father’s fault. That would be unforgiveable. After all, Martha had suffered just as much. Louisa had lost her father, her dowry, and her future prospects, but Martha had lost her husband, her status, and all her wealth. Not only had her future melted away, but her past had become a bitter, sour memory. They had no family beyond Uncle Edmund, and all their friends were long gone.
They had nothing.
“A governess is a respectable position,” Martha said, almost as if she were trying to convince herself. “You’ll be safe and cared for in a good household. You’ll be just fine, you’ll see.”
Louisa forced a smile. “I know, Mother. I’m not afraid, I … I’m just worried about you. What will happen when I’m not here?”
“Nothing for you to concern yourself with. I’ve put up with plenty of your uncle’s poor treatment, and I can handle a little more. Knowing that you are safe and happy will keep me strong. Now,” Martha briskly changed her tone, turning back to the business of packing, “we should hurry. The housemaids were in a frenzy of dusting and polishing today, and that means your Uncle Edmund will be home soon. With Mr. Fleming, no doubt, possibly brandishing a priest and a wedding ring.”
I hope you enjoyed the preview of my new novel with the title “Louisa” . You can easily claim your copy on Amazon!