Scandalous EngagementWith a Governess
Many Years Ago
It was a fine day for a picnic. Perfect, in fact.
Plenty of families had the same idea, setting up picnic blankets wherever they could, politely but firmly eyeing other families who dared to edge too close. Everyone wanted a nice view of the lake, of course, but not too close so as to tempt the ducks from the water or find themselves on boggy ground. The prime spots were under the trees, which provided plenty of cool shade in the hot summer sun, and an unparalleled view of the scenery before them.
If the details of the outing had been left to Mrs Barlow, they likely wouldn’t have found themselves a spot at all, let alone such a prime position.
Mrs Darnell, thankfully, had come out here early in the morning, before anyone else could tell that the day would be a fine one, and left her unfortunate maid in charge of guarding the spot. The sun was now high in the sky, and a steady heat filtered down to the people below.
“What a perfect day.” Mrs Barlow remarked, leaning back on her elbows. Mrs Darnell sat bolt upright, neck craned to watch their respective children.
“I do hope that Ewan and Hope don’t go near to the water.” Mrs Darnell said anxiously. “I made Ewan promise that he wouldn’t before we left. He can swim, but that’s really not the point.”
“If that boy of yours promised to steer clear of the water, he’ll do so.” Mrs Barlow said lazily. “You ought to give him more credit. Show a little more trust, Margaret, my dear. You worry entirely too much. The children will be fine.”
Mrs Darnell snorted, watching the two distant specks take a turn towards the clump of trees nearby. One of them – Ewan, she thought – stayed where he was, burying his hands in his face, while the other darted off towards the trees. She could almost hear the counting.
“They’re playing hide and seek.” She murmured. “I hope they don’t play too well. I don’t fancy one of them getting lost.”
Mrs Barlow squinted against the sun, watching the children. “Hope and Ewan are six and eight years old respectively, and Ewan is a very sensible little boy. We’ve been here before, and they’ve always behaved well. Ewan won’t let Hope get into trouble, and she rarely lets him out of her sight. They’ll be quite alright so long as they stay together. I’ve said it before, Margaret, and I’ll say it again. You worry entirely too much.”
Mrs Darnell seemed to relax a little, but not nearly enough.
“If I worry too much, Emmeline, you don’t worry enough. I hate to say it, but sometimes it’s better to anticipate disasters. Then you’ll never be disappointed.”
Mrs Barlow chuckled. “Good things come to those who wait, Margaret.”
Mrs Darnell was not listening anymore. She watched Hope disappear into the woods entirely, and nibbled on her lip nervously.
“Not always, I’m afraid. In fact, I’d say that patient people are seldom, if ever rewarded. I wish you wouldn’t be so trusting, Emmeline. Hope follows your example.”
“And that’s a bad thing? To be too trusting?”
There was a brief pause.
“Yes.” Mrs Darnell said eventually. “Yes, I’m afraid it is.”
Ewan could almost feel his mother’s anxious, watchful eyes on him. He kept his hands over his eyes and continued diligently counting. They’d agreed he would count to fifty, and now he wished he’d chosen a nearer number. The clatter of Hope’s stiff-soled shoes had long since faded away, but he’d heard the tell-tale rustle of dry leaves and foliage, so he knew she’d gone into the woods.
Not too far, he hoped.
“Forty-eight, forty-nine, fifty!” Ewan chanted. “Ready or not, here I come!”
He heard a vague call from his mother, something about being careful, and paused to smile and wave up the hill. He sometimes wished that his mamma would be a little bit more like Hope’s mamma, who was always relaxed and calm, and always let Hope do more or less what she liked. Ewan’s mamma was a little more nervous, always clinging onto Ewan’s hand in public and lifting him up into carriages when he could easily climb in himself.
He was eight years old, for heaven’s sake.
Ewan ran into the forest, ducking under low-hanging branches and stepping over gnarled roots. It was much cooler here, under the trees, and it smelt fresh too – of wet grass and deliciously damp earth. He hoped that Hope wouldn’t have chosen anywhere muddy for her hiding place. Her dress today was pastel-pink and would stain easily.
Hope’s mamma would probably just laugh and give the dress to the laundress, but Ewan’s mamma would squawk and lecture.
A few steps into the forest, and Ewan stopped to look around.
There was an art to hide and seek, and he knew it well. You had to think of your opponent, of where they would hide. It was no use trudging doggedly along and searching every hiding place.
For example, when he played hide and seek with Thomas Potts, he knew that Thomas always panicked and chose the first hiding place he came across. Lucas Mackenzie wouldn’t choose anywhere small and tight – like a closet or under a bed – and so on. Elizabeth Martin, who would be a real Lady one day, would never hide anywhere muddy, dirty, or dusty, because it would crumple her clothes.
Hope was a little more difficult to gauge. She could fit into all of the small spaces and wouldn’t worry about getting her hair-ribbons caught on branches or her hem stained with mud.
Meaning, unfortunately, that she could be anywhere.
Ewan slowed his pace, head whipping from side to side. Hope was not patient and tended not to take wild risks. Now that meant that she was likely to have picked a hiding spot relatively soon into the woods, instead of barreling on through and risking being caught out without a hiding spot.
A muffled giggle came from somewhere to his left. Ewan swung around that way, eyes narrowing.
There was a large bush with vivid red berries dotted around it. The bright colours would likely have attracted Hope.
He tiptoed towards the bush, holding his breath. The bush shivered a little, and another muffled giggle wafted out from behind.
“Aha!” Ewan crowed, leaping around the bush in one smooth movement. “Got you!”
Hope was curled into a ball at the base of the bush, one hand clapped over her mouth to muffle her giggles. She gave a shriek of shock and delight, falling over onto her backside.
“You’re so good at finding, Ewan!” she complained, getting to her feet and shaking out her skirts. “It isn’t fair.”
“Well, you could be a bit better at hiding if you didn’t keep giggling aloud.” Ewan pointed out. “I won, by the way.”
Hope rolled her eyes. At their respective ages of six and eight, the two children already could not be more different. Ewan had dark hair and chocolate-coloured eyes that were habitually narrowed in suspicion. He was clever, and knew that he was clever, and preferred to think things through carefully before he did anything.
Hope, on the other hand, was a waifish little elf of a child who would one day grow up to be a beautiful woman. She had flaxen coloured curls that were always matted and disarranged, large blue eyes, and pale skin that reddened quickly in the summer sun. Mrs Darnell fretted constantly at that, fearing sunburn or worse – freckles. She’d brought a little parasol today, especially for Hope’s use.
The parasol was not, of course, being used.
By a mutual, unspoken decision, the two of them sat down behind the bush, making no move to return to the picnic blanket and their respective mothers.
“Mamma is going to be so upset when she sees how grubby we are.” Ewan commented. “We should stay here for a while.”
Hope sighed. “My Mamma won’t be upset. She’s never upset. I sometimes think that she doesn’t care very much what I do.” She plucked at the hem of her dress, where the pretty lace had been torn a little. “I think I would like Mamma to care a little more, like your mamma does. Your mamma cares about you very much indeed.”
Too much, Ewan might have said, but decided against it. He did love his mamma, after all.
“Mammas and papas are strange things, I think.” He said absently, and Hope nodded in agreement.
“Very strange. I shouldn’t like to be without them, though.”
Ewan glanced down at the girl sitting at his side and felt a rush of affection. His papa might say that a man ought to make friends with other men, not girls, but he liked Hope the very best out of everyone else he knew.
“I am glad that we are friends.” He said, after a pause.
Hope nodded wisely. “So am I. Exceptionally glad. I hope we’ll always be friends.”
Ewan considered this. “We should make a promise. A pact that we’ll always be friends.”
“Yes, I think that’s a good idea. How would we go about it?”
Ewan shifted so that he was facing Hope, cross-legged and serious. She coped him.
“You have to repeat after me. I, Ewan Darnell…”
“I, Ewan Darnell…”
“No, use your name in place of mine.”
“Oh, of course. Start again.”
“I, Ewan Darnell…”
“I, Hope Tabitha Barlow…”
“Do solemnly swear to always be the close friend of you…”
“Do solemnly swear to always be the close friend of you…”
“…Hope Tabitha Barlow.”
“Good, now we shake hands. Now it’s a bargain, and you and I will always be best friends.”
“Always.” Hope repeated earnestly.
Hope shifted uncomfortably on the hard wooden chairs set out in the waiting room. She’d already been here for a full hour, and might well be here for longer, too.
The employment agency was a familiar place to her now, and she had a feeling that their faces dropped a little further every time they saw her. After all, employment agencies had reputations to uphold, and being connected with a young woman who was so resolutely impossible to place would be a blot on their fine reputation, would it not?
It wasn’t Hope’s fault, though. Not one bit, although it was getting harder and harder to hold onto that fact as each successive rejection letter came through the post, if a reply came at all. She’d lost track of the jobs she’d applied to.
At the age of twenty-four, with a half-decent Society education behind her, Hope should have found it remarkably easy to find a position as a governess. After all, it wasn’t as if she’d be required to teach the children complex mathematics and Latin. No, they only required a light, passing education – dancing, music, art, needlework, English, history, light mathematics, and so on. Hope could do all of those things and prided herself on having a good knack with children and a nice temperament.
And yet, the rejection letters flooded in.
A clerk appeared in the doorway to the waiting room, making Hope flinch. She was now the only one left, the other ladies and gentlemen having gradually gone in and come out, clutching pieces of paper and wearing hopeful expressions on their faces.
“Mr Swill will see you now.” The clerk said flatly. He turned on his heel, not bothering to see whether Hope followed him. She scrambled to her feet, collecting her things, and hurried after the disappearing clerk.
“Miss Hope Barlow, is it now?” Mr Swill said, peering at her over his pince-nez. He had a strangely elongated face, like a bloodhound, and a mess of grubby blond hair that was resolutely pulling back from his hairline. Hope hadn’t encountered him before on her visits to the employment agency.
“Yes, I am.” Hope replied, sitting as straight as she could in the chair opposite the man’s desk. They would never recommend a governess who seemed somewhat slovenly or lacking in a certain way, even if it was just something as silly as improper posture.
“And you wish to be a governess?”
“Yes, sir, I do.”
Mr Swill pursed his lips, eyeing the paltry, single sheet of paper that encompassed Hope’s entire life.
“And you are capable of instructing in Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, History, and the use of the globes, I assume?”
“Yes, very well, and I can also instruct children in dancing, art, creative writing, embroidery, music…”
“Yes, yes.” Mr Swill interrupted, waving his hand impatiently. “Your letter here says that you are quite well instructed in accomplishments.”
His tone of voice indicated exactly what he thought of accomplishments.
Hope bit her lip, feeling a little silly. “I was under the impression that employers cared about accomplishments.”
“Most sensible employers care only about the proper subjects,” Mr Swill said severely. “If the household you are engaged to work for only has boys, for instance, such frivolities as music, art, and dancing will not be required. It’s customary to engage a dancing-master for young gentlemen.”
Hope couldn’t quite understand why little boys should be forbidden to engage in music and art, but she wasn’t about to argue the fact. Mr Swill seemed to have taken a dislike to her.
So far, Hope seemed to have done business with every other employee of the agency. Apparently, they’d all washed their hands of her, without ever saying what was making her so eminently unemployable.
“As far as I can tell, Miss Barlow, the reason you are finding it so hard to secure a position is due to the lack of references.” He glanced up at her, disapproval emanating from his voice. “Can you explain this lack?”
Hope blushed hotly. He was making it sound like it was all somehow her fault, like she was doing something silly which made people not want to hire her.
“I haven’t worked as a governess before.” Hope said, tilting up her chin. Mr Swill was grating on her nerves, and she was suddenly keen to finish the meeting and get away from him, with whatever crumbs of hope he could throw her way. “What’s more, I had never expected that I would have to do so.”
Mr Swill tossed her piece of paper onto the desk and leaned back in his chair. He narrowed his eyes, lacing his fingers across his rounded stomach.
“Explain.” He said brusquely.
So Hope did.
“I am an only child, and my father was a viscount. He was a good man, and a good father. I am twenty-four now, and when I was twenty-two, I became engaged to a good man. I never assumed I would have to work for my living. After all, I had my father to care for me, and a fine fiancé, and my own dowry. I was quite comfortable.”
“Go on.” Mr Swill said, with the tiniest hint of interest in his voice.
Hope drew in a breath. The next part was never easy to explain, no matter how quickly she trotted out the plain, painful facts.
“It transpired that my father had been making bad investments. Playing cards, gambling, I’m sure you can imagine. His debts caught up with him abruptly, and he was taken to debtor’s prison. He remains there today. I visit him occasionally, but I have no way of freeing him. None of us can. And then, when my fiancé found out the truth, he immediately broke off the engagement.”
“What a cad.” Mr Swill murmured, and Hope felt a flare of affection towards him. She could still remember the expression of shock and disgust in Auric’s face, when she’d laid out the whole, sordid story before him. It seemed strange to think that she’d hoped he would be able to help out her father. It had never really crossed her mind that he would not want to help. She’d been calculating what Auric could do to make the Viscount more comfortable, when all along Auric was thinking of how quickly he could disentangle himself from the engagement.
Very quickly and efficiently, as it turned out. Hope was too shocked to kick up a fuss about being jilted or do anything petty like try and tear Auric’s reputation to shreds.
She wasn’t sure she would have wanted to do that, anyway. Besides, they immediately began to move in very different circles. Auric’s position in Society was unchanged – he was still Lord Pembroke, a great catch that had just become available again – whereas Hope’s would never be the same.
She hadn’t run into him since their last, awkward meeting, and that was probably for the best.
Hope shifted her position on the hard chair, clearing her throat and hoping the conversation would move along.
“So, you see, I have no fiancé, no father to care for me, and no money of my own. I was to have had a dowry, of course, but naturally that was eaten up in payment of Papa’s debts. There’s nothing left now, and the debts still remain.”
“What about your mother?”
Something clenched inside Hope. The porridge her aunt had insisted she eat that morning for breakfast bubbled warningly inside her.
“My mother died when I was eighteen years old.” Hope said softly. “Her death was what sent my Papa spiraling into debt, gambling, and bad living, I’m afraid.”
Mr Swill looked away. “Well, I’m sorry for that. I hate to be blunt, Miss Barlow, but tales of your tragic life will not help you secure a position.”
“I know that!” Hope said, stung.
“I only mean to say that you have a good reason for not having references, but this is not a reason that will resonate with your prospective employers. Nobody likes to think of how quickly bad luck and tragedy may catch up with a person. A good governess must be like a good piece of furniture. A chair, perhaps. Functional, reliable, and always there when you need it, but not in a way that catches the eye or distracts the attention. Do you understand?”
“I do, sir.”
Mr Swill gave a short nod, drumming his fingers on the desk. He eyed her for a moment or two, chewing his lip.
“It would be better if you were plainer.” He murmured.
“I am not, of course, implying that you would allow yourself to sully your reputation in any way. However, you are a very pretty young woman, and I daresay some ladies might feel uncomfortable with having you in their home, alongside their husbands and sons. I do not mean to be offensive, Miss Barlow, but these uncomfortable facts must be addressed.”
Hope was sure she had gone beet red. She knew this already, unfortunately. One of her applications had been accepted, and she had gone to meet the lady of the house. The woman’s face had dropped when she saw Hope, and her husband’s face had lit up.
He had spent the rest of the interview being odiously courteous, and staring at her face for far too long, while the lady of the house made sour compliments on Hope’s beauty, remarks which sounded like insults more than anything else. She’d known then that she wouldn’t get the job and had a nasty suspicion that the woman had written into the agency to complain about her for some reason.
Hope knew, in a disinterested sort of way, that she was beautiful. She had smooth flaxen curls, pulled back in a neat, demure knot. Her face was oval and well-featured, with a pair of large blue eyes and a bow-shaped mouth. In short, she’d grown up to look almost exactly like her mother, whose picture still hung in her aunt’s hallway.
But looks meant very little. Mrs Barlow had made that clear when Hope was growing up. Prettiness faded, and handsomeness could conceal all sorts of character flaws. Hope had always concentrated on improving her mind, and becoming the sort of person her mother would have approved of.
And yet here she was, being reduced to her face and her ability with the use of globes. Were ladies really judging her on whether or not she was likely to tempt their husbands to distraction, and not listening at all to anything else?
“That is not fair.” Hope said. “I would rather my employers think about my accomplishments and abilities.”
“Yes, that would be sensible, wouldn’t it? But the plain fact is that they won’t. Combined with your lack of references, that puts us in an uncomfortable position.”
Hope sank back into the seat, giving up on her ramrod-straight posture. There wasn’t much point anymore, was there?
“Go on, then.” She said tiredly. “Tell me that you don’t have any positions for me. I’m quite used to rejection by now, and I can accept it with grace.”
Mr Swill eyed her for a long moment.
“Actually,” he said, his voice slow and hesitant. “I think perhaps I might have something.”
Mrs Ruth Havisham, widowed, lived in a house in Salisbury Crescent. It had once been a very fine and fashionable area but had certainly seen better days.
It was easy to tell that Ruth was related to the late Viscountess Helen Barlow. They had the same blonde hair, the same large eyes, the same good-natured good looks that made almost everyone sit up and take a second look. There was barely a full year’s age difference between the two. The real difference, however, was that Helen was immortalized forever, cut down at a young age. Her portrait – which Ruth had determinedly saved when the rest of the Barlows’ things were sold off, along with their house – hung in the hall, with Helen Barlow frozen in her heyday of beauty and grace.
Ruth, on the other hand, was aging, and not well. Her slim figure was becoming more round as the years went by, her clothes were cheap and practical, and years of constant worrying, scrimping, and scraping had greyed her hair and wrinkled her good-natured face.
Her worry lines were out in force today, as she paced up and down the hall of her once-grand home.
“There you are!” she exclaimed, as Hope let herself in the front door. “You’ve been gone an age.”
“I’m sorry, Aunt Ruth. They kept me waiting for a full hour. You know what the employment agency is like.”
Ruth grimaced. “Unfortunately, I do. Come on, you’re just in time for luncheon. Agnes is already sitting down. I believe she’s pressed some more flowers for you, to put in your scrapbook. You must be exhausted, you poor thing. Was it as awful as last time?”
Hope shook her head. “No, I met with a different man this time, and he was surprisingly helpful. I think I may have a position.”
Ruth paused, eyes bulging. “A governess position? Truly?”
“Yes, truly. I don’t mean to set myself up for disappointment, but…” Hope hesitated, taking out the little square of paper from her pocket. “I have a good feeling about this placement.”
“Well, come on into the dining room, and tell us all about it.”
Like the rest of the house, the dining room had seen better days. The once-fine paper was peeling on the walls, with blots of damp and mould covered up by velvet curtains and carefully hung pictures. When Hope had first moved in, after the Viscount was first committed to debtor’s prison, there had still been a butler and a single footman to wait on them while they ate. Now, Ruth and Agnes kept no servants beyond a cook and a single, put-upon maid that lived downstairs. There was a light luncheon of cold meat, bread, and butter spread upon the table.
Agnes was waiting. At the age of seventeen, the poor girl ought to be preparing for her coming-out. She was dark-haired and dark-eyed, and pretty enough to catch a fairly decent man, if she could enter the marriage mart during the Season. Of course, that was unlikely to ever happen. The Viscount was supposed to be financing her first Season. Coming Out was expensive, horribly so, and the simple fact was that Ruth and Agnes could not afford it. Hope had nurtured some fantasies of saving up every penny she earned and somehow having a half-decent stash of savings to put towards Agnes’ coming out.
That was a silly dream, she could see that now. Nobody could afford even the cheapest of London Seasons on a governess’ wage.
And, of course, there was the small issue of Hope having no employment at all.
“I have a position.” Hope announced, setting down the paper on the table. “A gentleman has applied to the agency to provide him with a governess and has left it up to their discretion who is chosen. Mr Swill informed me that they’re willing to take a chance on me, and my lack of references is unlikely to come up. So, I have a position. I’m to start in four days’ time, once the gentleman is informed.”
Agnes gave a gasp. “Oh, that’s wonderful news, Hope! You’ve been waiting for so long.”
“It’s so sudden.” Ruth murmured. “Darling, are you sure about taking up this position? If a gentleman applies, that could mean that there’s no lady of the house on the scene. That can be a good thing or a bad thing, you know. You can stay with us.”
A lump rose to Hope’s throat. She knew, and had known since the day she arrived, that her aunt could barely afford to keep her. Without Hope here, they could save up a little money, plus whatever Hope could afford to pay back. They’d never resented her, not even for a moment.
Hope reached across the table to take her aunt’s hand, then Agnes’.
“I’m going.” She said firmly. “If all goes well, I’ll leave this position with a good reference. Then, getting another position will be very easy.”
“I suppose so.” Ruth said doubtfully.
“Who is the gentleman?” Agnes asked. “Is it anyone we would know?”
“Well, the name is familiar, but I can’t think from where. I shall be working for the Duke of Darenwood.”
“Goodness.” Ruth murmured. “Now there’s a name to think on.”
Four Days Later
The dream was more or less the same as it always was. Some people reported being able to control their dreams, and do whatever they pleased in them, but Ewan had never had that skill.
In the dream, he was racing along a corridor. A familiar corridor, a long, thin one that had no windows, and some truly ugly wallpaper that Caroline had always inexplicably liked. He was running as fast as he could, his lungs screaming for air, vision swimming, a painful stitch stabbing at his sides. He wasn’t making any forward progress, though. Not a single inch.
He could see Caroline’s bedroom ahead, the door closed, and he somehow Ewan knew that if he didn’t reach it in time, it would be too late and she would be dead, with Lucas lying beside her, cold as ice.
The corridor seemed to shrink and elongate, the door drawing further and further away, and yet the handle was only inches from his fingertips.
Inches, but it might as well have been miles, as Ewan could not touch it.
Ewan woke with a start, sitting bolt upright. He struggled to catch his breath, squeezing his eyes closed and centering himself. He was in his own room, of course, the bed sheets tangled around him, the air still and cool.
He squinted through the crack in the curtains, estimating that the hour was around half past six in the morning. So, he would usually be getting up in about half an hour, anyway.
No point going back to sleep now.
Ewan flopped back into the pillows, letting his pounding heart calm down. The weather was unseasonably cold for the time of year, yet sweat beaded on his forehead, pooling uncomfortably under his nightshirt.
He hadn’t slept well since he lost Caroline. Worries and regrets plagued him nightly – what if he’d called the doctor that first evening, when she first felt unwell? There’d been no reason to suspect that she was suffering from anything more than a little tiredness. They’d taken Lucas on a day trip to the lake, and Caroline was tired when they returned. None of them had even thought twice about it.
Would it have made any difference? Ewan would never know now. The fever had set in by the morning and progressed quickly. Very quickly, and he could console himself with that knowledge. She hadn’t suffered.
She’d left her husband and son behind to suffer without her, instead. It was hard not to feel resentful. That was foolish, Ewan knew, but he conversely blamed Caroline for leaving him to bring up Lucas alone, and plough through life without her. Of course it wasn’t her fault, but it wasn’t as if Ewan was capable of thinking rationally at the moment.
Sometimes he could hardly believe that she’d been gone for two years. Some days it felt as though he’d only just lost her.
The door opened, and Ewan’s valet appeared.
“Good morning, your Grace.” He said politely, moving directly over to the window to throw open the curtains.
Sixsmith was a short, slim young man with a mane of red hair. Some of his previous employers had insisted that he wear hair-powder to cover the outrageous shade of red, but Ewan thought that was ridiculous. Perhaps his easy-going attitude was why Sixsmith, one of the most valued valets around, had stayed with him for so long.
“Good morning, Sixsmith.” Ewan mumbled, squinting against the sharp grey light streaming in through the window. “What time is it, by the way?”
“Quarter to seven, your Grace. I heard movement in your room, so I thought I would slip in a little early.”
“That’s very convenient, thank you. Is anyone else awake yet?”
“Her Grace, the Dowager Duchess, has come down, and I believe young Master Lucas will be up soon.”
“I see. Well, I have work to do on the estate, and only two days to complete it in. I can’t say I’m looking forward to returning to London.”
Sixsmith made a vague noise of sympathy. “Your Grace, you have received a reply from the employment agency. It arrived this morning.”
He handed over a neat white fold of paper, sealed with a somewhat ostentatious blob of red wax. Ewan didn’t particularly like the employment agency he’d chosen, but they were highly rated, and known to produce very competent and reliable governesses.
That was what Ewan needed. Efficient, reliable, and calm. Somebody who could manage Lucas and put up with his grandmother’s constant interfering. He’d already had to get rid of his last two governesses at her request.
Request was rather a light and inoffensive word. Demand was probably more accurate.
Ewan tore open the letter and read quickly, propped up against the pillows while Sixsmith bustled around the room, getting things ready.
“They haven’t said much about her.” Ewan commented. “Normally they’re waxing poetical about the woman’s accomplishments and achievements. Did they send references along with her? They usually do. As if listing all the lords and ladies the poor woman has worked for will make me impressed.”
“I daresay that works on many people.” Sixsmith said tactfully. “No, your Grace. There were no additional documents.”
“Hm. Strange. Still, never mind. The others had a pile of references at least an inch thick, and they all left. She’s to meet us in London, it says. I do hope she lasts.”
Sixsmith said nothing. Ewan glanced over at his valet, the very picture of discretion and reliability, and suppressed a smile. Sixsmith didn’t approve of the constant chopping and changing of governesses, and he also didn’t approve of the Dowager’s interference. Not that he’d be so bold as to say it, of course.
Ewan didn’t blame him. Much as he appreciated his mother’s help, he knew that she could be a little… well, a little overbearing. She’d suggested more than once that he dismiss Sixsmith and bring in somebody more ‘suitable’. He had no idea what sort of ‘suitability’ she meant and couldn’t imagine anyone better suited to his work than Sixsmith in any case.
No doubt the valet had heard what she said and felt for her accordingly. It didn’t bother Ewan too much. While he might listen to his mother’s suggestions as to the governesses he hired, he had no intention of losing his valet to her interfering.
He climbed out of bed, tossing the letter aside. It really didn’t make much difference to him which governess was sent. They were all more or less the same – clever, patient women, who liked children and were keen to earn a living. He prided himself on offering a less distasteful placement than some other houses – what with their spoilt children and leering fathers and brothers – and hadn’t had any real cause to dislike any of the governesses so far.
His mother, of course, had a very different opinion on the situation. Very different.
“Good morning, Mother.” Ewan said, stepping into the drawing room. “You’re up early.”
The Dowager Duchess of Darenwood, Lady Margaret Spencer, was sitting in state in her favourite armchair, angled towards the fire. She was strong and healthy despite her age and was one of those rare women who looked very fine in black silks and satin, decorated with pearls and black lace. She’d taken very well to being a widow.
“I thought I would make the most of our time in the country.” Margaret said with a sigh. “Before we go back to London and fill our lungs with that awful, thick air. Miasmas are terrible for the health, you know. Can’t we stay another few weeks?”
“I’m afraid not, Mother.” Ewan bent to kiss Margaret’s papery cheek. “I have to get back. Besides, the new governess is meeting us in London. I just received news this morning.”
Margaret pressed her lips together. “Please tell me that you haven’t got another of those silly girls from the agency.”
Ewan winced, settling himself in the opposite armchair. Lucas was curled up on the rug in front of the fire, absorbed in a picture book. He hadn’t yet noticed his father’s presence, much to Ewan’s amusement.
“I have, but I’m sure this one will do quite well.”
Margaret made a little moue of displeasure. “Really, Ewan, I wish you wouldn’t bother. They never have any substance. Do you know, the last woman you hired had no understanding of Algebra at all? Or trigonometry. How is she meant to properly educate our son if even the simplest forms of Mathematics elude her?”
“I think that calling Algebra and trigonometry the simplest forms of Mathematics are somewhat unfair.” Ewan pointed out gently.
“Yes, but we want Lucas to have a proper, well-rounded education, do we not?”
“Of course, but he’s only six years old.”
They turned to inspect Lucas. He was the very image of his father, with coffee-brown curls and matching chocolate-coloured eyes. He was a sweet little boy, and very good-natured. He got that from his mother, although Ewan sometimes wished that his son looked a little more like Caroline. It would be good to see some traces of her face there.
Lucas turned around, smiling sweetly.
“Good morning, Papa.”
“Good morning, Lucas. Did you sleep well?”
Lucas considered this. He was a softly spoken boy, with a tendency to think long and hard before he spoke. Now that was a trait he had learned from Ewan, although he didn’t seem to have inherited his father’s temper, at least.
“Yes, Papa, I did.”
“Excellent. Did you hear what I said to Grandmother just now? You’ll be getting a new governess when we return to London.”
This news didn’t seem to please Lucas very much.
“I liked Miss Mullins.”
Margaret snorted. “Miss Mullins was an impertinent chit of a girl. Always talking back, always questioning, always contradicting me. She had the silliest ways of teaching the poor boy. Thank heavens she had the sense to leave when she did. I was starting to believe that you would never have dismissed her.”
Ewan carefully said nothing. The subject of Miss Mullins, the latest in a long line of governesses, was a sore one. Miss Mullins had been a cheerful, round-faced woman of about thirty, with a decided knack for children. Lucas had taken to her immediately and seemed to thrive on her unusual and unique teaching style.
Ewan personally did not mind what style of teaching the governesses used, so long as it worked with Lucas. His mother took an immediate dislike to the woman and set about making her life a misery. It wasn’t a surprise when Miss Mullins handed in her notice only three months later.
Frankly, Ewan was surprised that she’d lasted that long. He’d written her a glowing reference, much to Margaret’s annoyance. He did his best to stop his mother putting such pressure on the governesses, but really, he couldn’t be in two places at once. If he could just find a governess that his mother liked too, everything would be fine.
After all, she had Lucas’ best interests at heart.
“I hope you’ll be a little nicer to this next governess, Mother.” He said firmly. “No interfering, no making her feel uncomfortable.”
“I won’t hold back if I find her lacking in any way. You know me, Ewan. I speak as I find, and I despise dishonesty. So, who has this governess worked for before? Anyone we know?”
“I don’t know.” Ewan replied, leaning forward to ruffle Lucas’ hair. The little boy had gone back to reading his book and seemed entirely content. “The agency didn’t say.”
There was a tense silence.
“They didn’t say? Well, that’s unusual.” Margaret commented, her voice tight. “What about her references?”
“They didn’t send any.”
Margaret straightened up a little more, obviously outraged. “Well, that’s disgraceful, Ewan. Did you write back to them immediately, and request that the references be forwarded to you?”
“No, Mother, I didn’t.”
“Well, you ought to hurry, otherwise they’ll say that it’s too late and she’s already on her way. Really, Ewan, must I do everything for you?”
Ewan felt a stab of irritation. He drew in a few deep breaths and reminded himself to be calm and patient with his mother. After all, she’d been there when he lost Caroline. She’d supported him when he was left with a three-year-old child and a sense of being unmoored in rough seas. Perhaps Margaret was a little too involved in his household dealings, but she could be forgiven that, couldn’t she?
“I asked the agency to pick out someone suitable.” Ewan said, once his temper had quelled. “They know my situation, and they recommended this particular woman very highly.”
Margaret made a brief, dismissive gesture, waving away all of the agency’s experience and expertise with a flick of her wrist.
“That doesn’t matter. What if… what if this woman doesn’t have any references?”
Ewan cleared his throat. “Lucas, is Emily in the nursery?”
Lucas glanced over his shoulder. “Yes, Papa.”
“Well, why don’t you go up and see her for a moment? Your grandmother and I want to talk about something.”
Lucas nodded, marking his place in his book and tucking it under his arm. He scrambled to his feet, pausing to kiss Margaret and then Ewan on the cheek, and slipped out into the hallway.
“That’s another thing.” Margaret said, once the door had closed behind him. “Lucas has Emily. If he already has a nursemaid, why does he need a governess?”
“Emily is a nursemaid. That means that it’s her responsibility to feed him, dress him, and so on. She’s like a valet for children. A governess will teach him and help him learn the difference between right and wrong, and so forth. It’s not fair to expect Emily to do both.”
Margaret tutted. “Well, how about this. We’ll find a suitable governess – I shall pick out someone – and dismiss Emily. That way, the governess can do all of those things at once. We’ll save money.”
Another flare of irritation rushed through Ewan. He distracted himself by picking at his cuffs, turning his cufflinks round and round. They were a present from Caroline years ago, if he remembered correctly.
“I’m not dismissing Emily. That isn’t fair.”
“You are too sentimental, Ewan.”
“Lucas would be upset. She’s been with us since he was a baby.”
Ewan pressed his lips together and glanced away. He was aware of his mother’s eyes on him, watching and waiting for him to give in. He usually did give in, just to stop Margaret talking and talking and talking about the subject. She knew just how to wear a person down. Caroline had a similar skill. Perhaps that was why she and Margaret had gotten on so well. Ewan studiously avoided her gaze.
Finally, when it was clear that Ewan was not going to reply, Margaret sighed, shaking her head.
“You’ve made up your mind. I see. Well, I shan’t push my advice onto you, Ewan. I just hope that we don’t live to regret it. It sounds to me like this young woman has no references, in which case she’ll no doubt be a disaster.”
“Perhaps it’s her first position.”
“Oh, goodness, don’t say such things!” Margaret drew her shawl tighter around herself and shuddered. “Her first position. We certainly don’t want the scrapings from the top of the stew, do we?”
Ewan wasn’t entirely sure what that meant and didn’t care to ask.
“Well, how else is she meant to collect references?”
Margaret gave a small, vague shrug, indicating that she did not know, and furthermore, she did not care.
“I really shouldn’t know, dearest. With other families, I suppose. Less noble families, who don’t much care about hiring proper governesses. It’s clear that your mind is made up, and the girl is coming.”
“I’m afraid that my mind is made up, Mother. You shouldn’t have to worry about this sort of thing. Just concentrate on being Lucas’ grandmother, rather than being his nursemaid, governess, and mother all rolled into one. You do enough for us. I wish you wouldn’t worry so much about us all.”
Margaret was quiet for a long moment.
“I like to think that Caroline would be pleased to know that I’m here, taking charge of things.” She said carefully, twisting the hem of her shawl into tight little rolls. “When it comes to household problems – governesses, for one thing – gentlemen like yourself really can’t know how to go about it. It isn’t your fault, dearest.” She reached over, patting Ewan’s knee. “But fear not. I shall be here, and I shall watch this new governess with the eyes of a hawk. Nothing she does will slip past me, I can assure you. And she’ll find me very unforgiving.”
“Of course, Mother.” Ewan said, because it seemed like the quickest way to end the conversation.
I hope you enjoyed the preview of my new novel – “Scandalous Engagement with a Governess”. It will be live soon!