The first buds of spring ought to have been a joyous occasion for all in the London environs. They brought with them a thaw from the unrelenting winter, the aroma of romance, and the whispered promise of the summer Season. Yet, for Stephen Theyer, the Duke of Richmond’s disconsolate son who looked down at the blooming gardens from the second-floor window of his father’s grand estate, the bright green shoots coming up from the cool earth could only mean one thing.
“Mother will be on again about my marriage,” he said curtly, turning to address his valet. The servant, a pale little man in proper livery, looked up with a sparkle in his eyes.
“I am impressed by Lady Richmond’s endurance of the topic,” he said. Mr. Carl Smith, commonly referred to as “Smith” in the house, had been Stephen’s valet for years and knew his master’s complaints well.
“It is easy for her to endure when she has my father’s full support.” Stephen walked to the free form where Smith was dusting off the shoulders of his morning coat. “And now I am expected to appear at breakfast with the robins echoing their tune of love.”
Smith pulled the coat off the form and helped his master into it, adjusting the collar carefully and stepping back to survey his work. Stephen was of medium height, although strongly built so as to appear taller than he was upon first introduction. He had long, red hair, nearly to his shoulders, dark brown eyes, and a well-trimmed beard that his mother absolutely detested. “You look like a farmer,” she’d always said. “Or worse, a poet.”
Smith frowned as he examined the coat. “This is a bit out of fashion now, my Lord,” he said thoughtfully. “The lapels are double-notched now. You ought to let me call up your tailor and make some changes.”
“As I have no intention of appearing in France at present,” Stephen said with a brief smile, “I suppose my crimes of fashion will be overlooked for the time being.”
“Do not suppose too quickly,” Smith said, his face sober but his tone filled with gentle humor. “One would not have to travel to France to see double-notched lapels. I’m sure your own father has a proper morning coat now, and he is one who clings to the old ways,” he continued.
Stephen raised his eyebrows at his valet. He was well-used to the servant speaking his mind, as long as respect and proper diligence were maintained, but the reminder of his father’s adherence to tradition only brought back to mind the problem at hand.
His parents, Lord and Lady Richmond, had only him as a son and heir and, seeing him approach the sophisticated age of six and twenty, were quite concerned that he had not yet entertained any marriage prospects. They were already lining up the ladies of the ton, attempting to discreetly insert names and attributes of the fair damsels into common conversation.
Stephen was not fooled. He had been to a dinner party only two nights past, where he found himself face to face with yet another dimpled beauty at every turn. Each fought to capture him with their smiles and coy remonstrations, but the more affectionate they appeared, the more he wanted to escape.
“If my father would only give me time,” he said, more to himself than to Smith. It was a comment unconnected from Smith’s discussion of fashion, but the valet seemed to understand perfectly and merely nodded silently.
There came at the door a quick double rap and then the butler, Oliver, let himself in.
“Are you quite at the ready, my Lord?” he asked. “Lord and Lady Richmond are in the breakfast room, requesting your presence.”
“I am aware,” Stephen said, drawing himself up and bowing his head briefly to the butler. “I was finishing up my bathroom routine.”
The butler hovered a moment and then, looking uncomfortable, added, “Lord Richmond asked that I escort you downstairs personally.”
Ah. Stephen thought. He doesn’t want me to have a chance to escape the conversation through tardiness or other means.
“Of course,” he said aloud, hoping his frustration didn’t show in his words. It was unprofessional and unkind to allow servants into one’s family troubles. His frankness with Smith was not preferable, but over the years a polite friendship had formed between the two. Even so, he tried to keep his own business separate from that of the staff as much as possible. It was for their good, as well as his. It was a thoroughly unpleasant thing for a servant to become entangled in the political and relational affairs of their master — quite confusing for all involved, as his father had always told him.
He followed Oliver down, leaving his valet behind to tidy the room and set things out for the evening. The breakfast room was a fine, open space with wide windows and plenty of natural light. In fact, previous to the ad nauseum way his parents brought up the marriage scene, Stephen would have thoroughly enjoyed the prospect of a peaceful morning meal in such a place. Lord and Lady Richmond, dressed in fine silks as always, looked up in unison when he entered the room.
“Stephen,” his father spoke first. “We were worried you wouldn’t be joining us.”
“I had hoped you were out late last night at Lady Raymond’s card party,” Lady Richmond interjected, tapping her spoon against her boiled egg as though to appear disinterested. “If you needed your rest after a particularly pleasant evening, we would have understood.”
Stephen could see she was fishing for information, but pretended not to have guessed, taking his seat at the other side of the table and helping himself to some toast. “It was a fine evening,” he said, “although I did not stay late. I had no desire to lose my money, and the stakes went high rather too quickly for my tastes.”
“Stakes?” his mother asked, her disappointment evident. If he was speaking of stakes, he would have been off in some dingy study with the gentlemen, gambling far away from the simpering ladies she was hoping he would fall in love with.
“Yes, just a bit of loo on the side, but I could see a few captain sharks planning to steal the night, and I have no desire to be fleeced.” He buttered his toast and poured himself a cup of tea. “How was your evening?”
Ignoring the question, his mother pressed, “Were there any young ladies there of note?” She hurried to cover the question. “I ask for societal reasons of course. I wish to know if it was an affair I ought to have attended.”
Stephen looked up at her, keeping a smile at bay. “There was cigar smoking in the gentleman’s gaming room,” he said briefly. “I hardly think you, or any lady, would be expected in such a place.”
Lord Richmond cleared his throat. “You are teasing your mother,” he said, “but she has a right to ask such questions. Will you continue in your bachelor ways for eternity? We are simply looking out for your best interest, and it is high time you show a little responsibility.”
“Father,” Stephen answered calmly. “I have shown the utmost responsibility. For years now I have followed in your footsteps, caring for the business of the estate in greater and greater magnitude, until your daily duties are all but gone. How would a wife make me any more responsible.”
“You have a duty to uphold our lineage,” Lord Richmond said firmly. “I know it is not a subject upon which you like to reflect, but the truth is there regardless. Personally, I fail to see why you are so resistant to the idea. A fine young lady would improve your life, not detract from it.”
This seemed to be just the opening Lady Richmond was hoping for, because she brightened considerably and set down her teacup with a little clatter. “Truly, you speak the aright,” she said to her husband. “For I was only just talking with Lady Elliot about her daughter — a Miss Caroline Elliot who is newly arrived on the social scene.”
She cast a significant glance in Stephen’s direction. “This will be her very first season, and I assure you she is promised to be quite the catch. I have heard she is beautiful beyond comparison, and well liked in the social circles she has inhabited prior to her official introduction.” She took a deep breath, and Stephen wondered if she was finished. But, of course, she was not. “She has a lovely voice, it is rumored, and has put effort into her needlework as well.”
Stephen nodded. “I know Miss Elliot,” he said. “I met her by happenstance at an ice cream parlor two weeks past.” But I do not think you will like the story, he added mentally.
“You did not say!” his mother exclaimed. “You ought to invite her to tea.
Lord Richmond, however, seemed to know his son better. “You didn’t approve of her,” he said, studying Stephen’s face. “What fault could you have had with such a creature?”
“It’s her first season, as you said,” Stephen explained, remembering the tedious conversation they’d shared in the ice cream parlor. “She’s very young, and knows little of the world.”
“You would hardly want a worldly woman,” Lady Richmond said with astonishment. “And you wouldn’t want a lady in her third or fourth season, the dregs of what society has to offer.”
Stephen sighed, feeling suddenly tired. “We spoke of things with no import — the weather, the newest fashions; a passing carriage horse in need of a shoe. It was hardly the sort of conversation to encourage interest.”
If Lady Richmond’s exasperation had not been so disappointing, Stephen would have been tempted to laugh. She raised her hands weakly. “I don’t understand what you want, Stephen,” she said. “Would you have her speak of war and politics like a man of work?”
Lord Richmond cleared his throat. “If you are not interested in Miss Elliot,” he said, “then perhaps you could allow your mother to invite Miss Pembleton or Miss Martin over. You know that they are both in line for fine things, and have excellent prospects. They are a bit older than Miss Elliot, but only by a year or so. They will hardly be considered old maids yet.”
“I should hope not, at the ripe old age of nineteen,” Stephen said. He took a sip of tea to calm his thoughts, and set his cup down on the saucer with precision, pausing a moment to make certain his tone was kind before he spoke.
“I know what you wish of me, Mother; Father. I know what is expected of me, but this endless parade of eligible ladies is driving me further from the goal of marriage.” He shook his head. “I have met no one I would wish to spend the rest of my life with.”
“You aren’t looking for a friend,” his father said gently. “You needn’t be certain that the woman in question has good conversation and is pleasant for passing the time. Marriage can be a matter of convenience, and as long as the woman you choose is not a villain, comfort and happiness is attainable.”
Stephen could not think of a response, so completely did his wishes differ from that of his parents. They are happily married, he thought miserably. And yet they speak to me as though I can make do with less than they themselves enjoy.
He was saved from having to voice these thoughts, however, by the appearance of Oliver in the doorway. The butler cleared his throat.
“I am sorry to interrupt, my Lord,” he said, directing his words at Stephen’s father. “But, a most urgent letter has just arrived from March Manor. I would not have disturbed you, but the attached missive said to deliver it to you with the utmost haste.”
Stephen sat up with interest. He knew hardly anything about March Manor, other than the simple fact that his mother’s sister lived there. He knew her name — Lady Cecelia Cudle, the Dowager Duchess of March — and that his parents were not especially close with her. In fact, his father now picked up the letter from the proffered silver tray with a look of marked disapproval. He looked at it a moment, and then laid it on the table in front of him. Stephen was surprised.
“Did Oliver not tell us the missive was most urgent?” he asked pointedly. “Surely we ought to read it at once.”
“I know what it says,” Lord Richmond said. He looked up briefly at Stephen’s mother, the two sharing a knowing glance. “It can wait.”
“How do you know what it says?” Stephen pressed. This was a level of intrigue and mystery that was quite unexpected in his parents. He didn’t know quite what to make of it.
“We’ve already received three letters of its kind,” Lady Richmond interjected, looking uncomfortably down at her plate. “I assure you, the matter is not as urgent as Oliver made it seem.”
Stephen waited a moment more, expecting to have more light shed on the matter, but as his parents resumed eating in conspicuous silence, he realized the matter would have to fall to him. He reached quickly across the table and, before his father had even noticed the letter was gone, slit the seal neatly with his butter knife and opened the letter.
“Stephen,” his mother said, looking up with alarm. “I assure you, these theatrics are entirely unnecessary…”
He was not listening, his mind otherwise absorbed in the contents of the letter.
To Lord and Lady Richmond, regarding the circumstances of your sister, the Dowager Duchess of March.
I have written previously to tell you of your sister’s deteriorating state of health, and my concerns for her well-being. I have unfortunately received no reply, and therefore feel compelled to introduce myself again lest the previous letters have been lost in the post.
I am Mr. Tylor, Lady Cecelia’s butler and the current manager of her grounds. Her agent, at present, is not aware of her condition. I have taken great pains to keep it thusly. She is getting older, and has been failing in health for some time. She seems frail and distracted, and I am no longer able to keep her safe and free of scandal. Her behavior is at times quite erratic.
Please, send word on how I should proceed. It is my belief that she is in need of serious help, and my additional belief that she would wish her family to know and give aid. She has said before that she has no one else in the world but you.
Please write back with instructions.
Your humble servant, Mr. Tylor of March Manor
Stephen set down the letter, looking up in disbelief at his parents, who had stopped eating and were watching him read the missive with obvious trepidation.
“You knew about this?” he asked, incredulous. “It says she has no one in the world but us, and she needs help. How could you have avoided these letters for so many weeks? It seems her situation is deteriorating, and we, her family, are doing nothing to stop it.”
“You do not fully understand the circumstances of our relationship with Aunt Cecelia,” Lady Richmond said quickly, dusting her hands together as though to push the conversation away. “It is not us who chose to avoid her — she chose to avoid us. The Dowager Duchess chose to live alone all these years. No one was forcing solitude upon her. Her butler is writing us — most untoward I must say — and so I can assure you, if we showed up on the steps of March Manor he would immediately get the sack and we would be sent away. Cecelia will brook no guest to stay in her house, even if she is sick.”
“You can’t know that,” Stephen said. How can they be so heartless? He wondered. It was unlike his parents to be cold or distant, and here they had written proof that there was a family member in need that they were ignoring. There must be more to this story, he thought. “Perhaps her situation has changed, and she would indeed appreciate companionship.” He shrugged. “Perhaps she is too proud to ask for it.”
Suddenly a thought came to him: a solution to both the problem in the letter, and his own worries about the upcoming Season.
“I shall go to stay with her,” he said suddenly, pushing back from his seat at the table and standing. “I will care for her until she is well again.”
Lord Richmond laughed briefly. “Don’t be ridiculous, Stephen,” he said. “You have only just learned of her plight, and you have absolutely no history with the woman. She wouldn’t let you stay more than two minutes.”
“I’m not sure she’ll have a choice,” he said, reading from the letter: “It says here that she is frail, and her behavior is erratic. Perhaps she will be forced to accept the support of family, now that she is no longer able to support herself.”
“I would not place your hopes on it,” Lady Richmond said. “And besides, you have enough to worry about here. This letter has taken us away from our previous conversation about your future, and I fear you will run off in some rash endeavor, leaving all marriage prospects behind.”
My hope exactly, Stephen thought with amusement.
“My mind is quite made up,” he said to his parents. “I know this will seem abrupt — it seems thusly even to myself — but I think when such an urgent request is delivered, it is not for us to put in in a back drawer. We must help Aunt Cecelia. If you will not go, I will.”
His parents exchanged a brief, exasperated glance. They were not happy with it, but Stephen saw them giving in. He knew there would be more protests and exclamations as he went about packing for the trip, but in that one shared glance he saw that they were giving in for the time being.
He smiled. “Right, then,” he said. “I will set out at first light tomorrow.”
March Manor was not at all as Stephen had imagined it. When he at last pulled into the drive after a rattling, exhausting carriage ride, he was pleasantly impressed by the size and scope of the lands. He had heard of the manor in only distant terms, as people spoke of their country homes, and considering his reclusive aunt’s reputation, had imagined a dilapidated cottage of the sort used for winter hunting trips.
In truth, the grounds were well kept up. There were sheep grazing the lawns, beautiful trees bending in welcome over the gravel drive, and a few well-kept ponds glistening in the light. The house itself was monstrous, a fine stone place with three stories of elegance and a great marble staircase leading up to the door.
Stephen stepped out of the carriage and motioned to Smith to carry his bags inside.
“Do you know what room you will be in, my Lord?” Smith asked. He was taking the abrupt change in stride, but Stephen knew his valet disapproved of spontaneous journeys.
“We are not expected,” Stephen admitted, a little sheepishly. “But I will speak with the butler and see that your duties are made as simple as possible.”
Smith waited at the carriage to unload the luggage while Stephen climbed the stairs to the door. He didn’t have knock: it was already standing open, and in the doorway a slim old man in fine-tailored livery was waiting.
“Mr. Tylor, I presume?” Stephen asked upon stopping in front of the door. “I am Lord Richmond’s son, the Earl of Darnley. He sent me to see to the welfare of the Dowager Duchess. I’m sorry I could not send word, but, unfortunately, I felt the need to set out at once.”
The butler looked him over carefully; almost suspiciously. “I sent many letters,” he said after a pause. “I had expected someone much sooner.”
Stephen winced. It was a fair rebuke. He had set out shortly after hearing the news for the first time, but from the butler’s perspective he had hardly arrived “at once.” It had been three weeks since the first plea for assistance.
“I am sorry for any delay,” he said, rather lamely. “My man is there, Mr. Smith. Could one of your servants show him to my chambers, and then lay a room up for him in the servants’ hall?”
The butler nodded, his lips still pursed disapprovingly together, then stepped aside into the house so Stephen could enter. The interior was even more fine that the stone exterior. The floor of the entryway was marble, a continuation of the steps outside, and the high ceilings were painted in an intricate fashion with scenes from various Greek tragedies.
The marble entryway gave way to the fine wooden floor of the drawing room, planed beautifully and covered in lush rugs. This room had better light, but still sported the heavy murals of Greek inspiration and furniture gilt with gold. It all felt rather heavy and decadent.
The butler paused here, turning to face Stephen. He seemed to have a gentler countenance. “It is kind of you to come,” he said. “I am quite at my wits end as to how to help her. She clearly needs a doctor, but will brook none to step through the front door. She needs supervision, too, but I have other duties about the house and cannot be always on hand.”
“I am not certain how helpful I will be,” Stephen said, feeling the first stab of uncertainty. “I have never met her, after all. I fear we have no shared history upon which to draw.”
“You are family, and that means something to her,” Mr. Tylor said quietly. “And it is not as though you will do worse than anyone else in the house. She won’t listen to a soul. She goes about dressing as she wishes and doing what she wishes, and she has fits of confusion that quite undo the household staff. Before you meet your aunt, I think it best if you speak with some of our servants first, so as to have a fuller picture of the matter. Does that meet with your approval?”
“It does,” Stephen said slowly, growing more intrigued by the minute.
The butler then led him through the servants’ door in the great wooden wall of the drawing room, taking him down a narrow flight of stairs to the kitchen below. The upstairs had been quiet and almost morose, but down here Stephen felt his spirits lift at the bustle of light and activity. Here was evidence of the force that had kept March Manor from falling into disrepair. Here were the smells of a garlic and roasting meat; the sound of servants calling instructions to one another, and the sight of a chamber maid scurrying down the hall with a basket of firewood.
Stephen took a deep breath, following Mr. Tylor into the main dining room for the servants. There was a long plank table upon which had been laid a simple tea, and various servants gathered around in conversation. A few of them were mending, some were pressing, and one man at the front was packing a pipe. They all dropped what they were doing upon seeing Stephen, and stood with a great scraping of chairs, all conversation ceasing.
“I would like to introduce to you Lord Darnley,” the butler intoned. “He will be staying with us for some time, helping in the care of Lady Cecelia at this difficult time in her life. I appreciate the discretion you have all shown in this matter — keeping her situation to yourself — but before Lord Darnley meets her, I think it would be good for him to have some idea of who she is and what he might…” he paused a moment and finished rather quietly, “…expect.”
Nobody moved. It seemed the servants were uncertain what precisely was expected of them. Mr. Tylor cleared his throat and turned to a plump little maid standing beside him.
“Miss Stewart, perhaps you could begin. Tell Lord Darnley what happened last week.”
The girl looked positively frightened, and when she began to speak her words came out slow and shaky. “My Lord, I don’t wish any disrespect.”
Stephen nodded kindly. “Please speak,” he said. “You will not be held accountable for your honesty.”
She took a shuddering breath. “I lay the fires for Lady Cecelia and tend to the tidiness of her chambers. I came in three days past and found her scribbling on the walls with a quill. There wasn’t any ink in it, my Lord, but she kept scribbling and scribbling, saying she was writing a beautiful letter to her…” the girl paused, blushing deeply, “…to her lover, my Lord.”
“Ah.” Stephen frowned. “So, you are concerned about madness.”
“Concerned about madness?” chimed in a lad in footman livery in the corner. “My Lord, she doesn’t dress properly; and she scares off her few remaining guests with little tricks and illusions. She pretends she is a ghost.”
“I’m not sure she’s pretending,” another man chimed in. “I think she believes she is a ghost.”
Stephen felt a sudden urge to smile. He restrained this, wanting to appear professional. “What sort of tricks?” he asked.
The nervous maid spoke again, her voice stronger now. “The constable came to investigate a theft of sheep that had occurred with one of the manor flocks. She let him wait in the hall for an hour; wouldn’t see him or allow us to show him into the drawing room. When the clock struck ten, she came down the great staircase, dressed in only a plain shift as she often wears these days, and shrieked at him in a chilling cry.”
“What did she say?” Stephen asked.
“She said, ‘I know it ‘twas you that did it!’” The girl looked quite frightened herself, and then added, “The poor man didn’t know what to make of it. He told her he wanted to ask her some questions about the missing sheep. She shrieked again that she knew it was him who had ‘done it,’ and then added, ‘you stole those sheep, and tonight you shall find their wool in your bed.’”
Stephen raised his eyebrows. “Eerie.”
Mr. Tylor took a long, strained breath. “That wasn’t all. The constable left, and as he walked down the great stone steps she ran back upstairs in her bare feet and, taking a basket of wool she’d torn out of her comforter, dumped it down upon his head like thick snow.” He shook his head. “We are fortunate that he is a discreet man, but even so it was badly done. He kept the matter to himself, but other tricks have been less secret. There are busybodies in the village that are only too happy to spread whatever tales they can about our lady.”
“You believe she is not right in the mind.” Stephen ran his fingers along his bearded chin. “It certainly seems strange.” What have I gotten myself into? He was embarrassed to remember how he’d spent time imagining his aunt’s sickness on the carriage ride to the manor. I thought she was going to be some poor woman, confined to her bed and wasting away, that I could read to and help with the management of the home, he thought wryly. This is another business entirely.
“I think you have a picture,” Mr. Tylor said, interrupting his reverie. “Are you quite prepared to go upstairs and meet her in person?”
“I am not sure any person could be prepared after what you have shared,” Stephen said slowly, “but I greatly appreciate your honesty. Perhaps I can help after all.”
They walked up, through the drawing room, and down a narrow hall to a room the butler called “her personal sitting room.” This place was quite small, and decorated very differently from the rest of the house. There were a few books and a great many windows; a small fireplace, and a single painting of a peaceful landscape against a pale blue wall. Sitting in a chair by the window, her legs curled underneath her, sat his aunt.
Stephen would have been able to recognize her, even if he didn’t know all the stories about her nor have the butler at his side to mace introductions. She looked very like his mother, only older. She had the same freckles that dotted his own face, and though her hair was now snowy white and loose to her shoulders, he could see it feel just as his mother did about her face. She was wearing a gown that looked as though it had been a dressing gown years ago. It was an elegant brocade, but there was no waist anywhere in the garment. Instead, it was loose and baggy, slipping off her frail shoulders. Her feet were bare; he could see them poking out from beneath the folds of her dress. She held a book in her hand, but she was not reading it. Her face was instead studying her free hand, as though she was seeing it for the first time.
She looked up suddenly when Mr. Tylor cleared his throat, and seemed startled.
“Who are you?” she asked, drawing away into the chair. “What are you doing in my home?”
Before Stephen could answer, the butler stepped forward with an impressive show of ritual and tradition. “Lady Cecelia,” he said in a deep voice, “allow me to introduce Lord Darnley. He has come to stay with you for a time. I am putting him up in the east wing of the manor. He has his own man, and will not have any demands on your time—”
“I know you,” she said, her eyes on Stephen. She stood from the chair, stepping toward him in an eerie, wraith-like manner. She seemed not quite steady on her feet. “I have seen your face before.”
“We have never met,” Stephen said quietly. “But you might remember my mother.”
“Yes,” she said. “That’s it. You have Matilda’s eyes.” She began to circle him, walking around him very slowly as they talked. It was most disorienting, and Stephen felt off balance. What precisely is required of a gentleman in a position such as this? It was all very unconventional.
“I hope my visit is not unwelcome, Aunt,” he said gently.
“All visits are unwelcome,” she snapped. Still, he thought he saw a look of interest in her eyes. “But before I send you packing, perhaps you can tell me why you’ve come.”
Stephen drew himself up slightly. “My parents received your letter,” he said. He fibbed slightly, wanting to protect her feelings. “They sent me in their stead,” he said. “I have come to help in your convalescence, and to find a doctor who can adequately care for you. I want—”
His words, however, seemed to be having a truly dreadful affect on his aunt. Her face, already quite pale, grew even more drawn. In the apple of her thin cheeks a bright red appeared, and her eyes flashed.
“Who told you I was in need of care?” she snapped. Then, as if answering her own question, her eyes flew to Mr. Tylor. “You.” She turned towards him menacingly. “You!”
Before Stephen knew what was happening, the frail little woman in front of him drew back her arm and let loose her book in the direction of the butler. It was a good throw — surprisingly direct for someone who looked as though they might be knocked over by the slightest breeze — but the butler had more experience than Stephen and had apparently seen such an action coming. He ducked, mumbled something about his sincerest apologies, and disappeared through the door.
Aunt Cecelia ran to where the book had fallen and, picking it up again, shrieked at the door. “You’ll not hide from me, old man! Who are you to go around sharing my business with those heartless people? Did you get a good laugh from it?” She whirled to Stephen, her eyes wild. “Did you laugh, young man?”
“No,” he said quickly, his heart beating quickly. I don’t know what to do. That one, useless thought, was running on repeat in his mind. “I didn’t laugh,” he said lamely.
She paused, breathing heavily, and then sank down into a little puddle of brocade on the floor, sitting on the rug and fiddling wearily with the book.
“I’m so tired,” she said weakly. “You shouldn’t have come. I didn’t need anyone to come.”
Stephen came over to sit beside her, lowering himself carefully onto the floor. He saw his mistake now — it was the worst possible way to begin the conversation, referencing her illness. He tried again. “I needed to get away from home,” he said, surprising himself with his own honesty. “I got the letter, and I thought it would be a chance to escape for a time. Will you let me stay?”
She looked down at her hands. “You came because of Tylor, the old rat,” she mumbled.
He ignored that. “You have fine gardens here,” he said, looking out of her window. “Perhaps when your energy is back you can walk with me there.”
“I’m too tired for the gardens,” she said simply.
“That is why we ought to get a doctor here,” Stephen urged her. “He could see what is bothering you. He could help you feel better.”
“No doctor,” she shook her head violently and began struggling to rise. Stephen helped her to her feet. “No doctor,” she repeated again. “Never a doctor.” She seemed to be growing agitated again.
“Alright,” Stephen said quickly, knowing it would be futile to fight the battle at present. “I won’t force you to go to a doctor.”
She leaned in close as though she was planning on telling him a secret. He froze, listening. After what felt like an eternally long pause, his aunt said quietly. “You can’t force me, even if you wanted to.” Then she sat back, her face bizarrely peaceful, not a shred of the insanity he’d seen previously. “I remember your name,” she said. “You’re Stephen, aren’t you?”
He nodded, dumbstruck.
“Tell me if your rooms are to satisfaction, Stephen,” she said, walking toward the door with all the dignity and composure of a woman in a full ball gown. “I am afraid I must retire at present.”
Then she whirled around and was gone, the door still open behind her. Stephen stood quite still for a moment, and then sat down heavily in a nearby armchair. What just happened? She was like some sort of natural disaster, flying unpredictably around and causing havoc wherever she went. This will not be as easy as I thought, he thought drily. He was suddenly, guiltily glad that his parents weren’t here to see this first introduction. They would laugh at me, or at the very least tell me that they were right all along.
Mr. Tylor appeared at the door again, peering around the frame as though making certain Lady Cecelia was not lingering inside.
“She’s gone,” Stephen said wearily. “You were right about the state of things. I’m surprised you waited as long as you did to ask for help.”
“I knew she would not want help,” the butler said quietly. “I felt loyal to her. I had to wait until it was more disloyal to leave her alone.”
“You did right to ask for our aid,” Stephen stood up, blowing out his breath and trying to think. “I think we need more help than myself alone, however. She needs something more steady — a lady’s companion, perhaps — who can watch her changing whims and help predict her responses to things. Do you think you could put an advert in the newspaper to that effect?”
The butler nodded, mild surprise on his face. “I should have thought of it myself.” He paused a moment, looking uncomfortable. “Perhaps I should have thought of it before contacting her family.”
“No, you were right to contact me,” Stephen reassured him. “Lady’s companion or not, I think it correct that I am here to see her condition and try to help her.”
The two men spoke briefly about what the next day would hold, and then the butler left to place the advertisement, and Stephen wearily retired to his own bedchambers.
Ruth Selwyn sat on the edge of her bed in the servant quarters of Thruscross Manor, her heart beating dully in her chest. She’d known this day was coming for some time now, and yet she found herself wondering ridiculous things in these final moments: if I stay here and don’t appear above stairs, maybe nothing will change; maybe life will just march on happily and simply. It was a preposterous thought, and while Ruth had a natural mind towards dreaming, she had learned the hard way that fanciful thought had no place in the real world. Here, practical actions were what mattered.
She’d been employed as a governess at Thruscross Manor for three years now, caring for the youngest daughter at the manor, a plump little lass named Lisa who had grown up under Ruth’s tutelage to be passably prepared for finishing school. That was the difficulty, in fact. Ruth had finished the last round of studies with Lisa a full week ago now, and knew it would only be a matter of time before her employers called her up to dismiss her. No one needed a governess in finishing school.
She looked across the room at her reflection in the toilet. The distorted image she could see showed a small, slim girl with wide blue eyes and thick gold hair that she kept pinned back as sternly as she could manage to maintain an older, wiser appearance. She was dressed in a white muslin day dress, over which she wore a stiff brown shift buttoned at the bodice. It was a plain and dull thing to wear, but Ruth had learned early that governesses were expected to be plain and dull. She had almost been denied the position at Thruscross Manor when the master and mistress had seen her pretty features, but in the end, they’d surmised that her wit and learning were sufficient and had installed her on the premises.
She’d enjoyed the work — more than she’d expected, actually. Initially, she’d only entered the profession to avoid poverty and to escape the sad tragedy that had left her virtually penniless, but days with Lisa had been pleasant and rewarding. Ruth had enjoyed watching the little girl blossom into a tentative young woman.
I have been treated well here, she thought honestly. And I’m fearful if I find another place, I will not be so fortunate.
She had heard tales, even before she initially agreed to work at Thurcross, that governesses were treated badly. She’d heard that they didn’t fit in below stairs with the servants, and they had no real roll with the family upstairs. In truth, it was a lonely life, but not so dreadful as Ruth had expected. Lisa’s parents, Lord and Lady Engleton, were good people, and though they kept her out of sight more often than not, they were fair and kind and paid her wages on time.
Ruth stood, let out a little sigh, and walked upstairs, passing the kitchen and servants’ drawing room before taking the narrow steps upstairs to the Thurscross breakfasting room. The servants were already clearing the morning meal away, and Ruth passed quietly on through to the reading room beyond. Lisa was sitting quite properly, her embroidery on her lap. There had been many tears over that embroidery, Ruth remembered fondly. Lisa had hated the dull task at first, and it was only with Ruth’s continued efforts that she had been made at last to find some pleasure in the tedious task.
“Hello, Miss Selwyn,” Lisa chirped, looking up only briefly. Then she added, “Oh, Mama asked you to go into her sitting room when you’re able.”
So there it is. Ruth turned, walking towards the sitting room with all the gravity of a martyr approaching the stake. She couldn’t help smiling a little at herself, trying to cheer her heart by teasing. Come now, Ruth. It can’t be as bad as all that. I imagine Joan of Arc would have been most grateful to switch places with you and watch her career go up in flames rather than her person.
Lady Engleton was standing when Ruth entered, and turned with a warm smile.
“There you are, Miss Selwyn. I was looking for you earlier. Do you have a moment to talk?” She waved to a chair near at hand and, after Ruth had taken it, sat on the settee. “I have been meaning to speak with you all week, but had some business to attend to first. You know that our dear Lisa is quite prepared for finishing school after your dedicated efforts,” she paused and cast a benevolent smile in Ruth’s direction. Ruth’s mouth felt dry. Lady Engleton went on. “And I am convinced that only a year or two of finishing schools will be sufficient to prepare her for her very first Season. Unfortunately, this now leaves us with no need for a governess.”
“Yes, my Lady,” Ruth said quietly.
“We will have to let you go, though we will of course pay your wages through the end of the month as formerly agreed,” Lady Engleton beamed cheerfully.
Ruth tried to keep an accepting smile on her face, but in her heart she felt a stab of resentment. It is no great thing to her to send me away, she thought. She will continue in luxury, and it is I who will have to scramble to find food and board and a proper position in society.
She had no sooner had this thought, however, when Lady Engleton leaned forward and said kindly, “My dear, I can see there is deep concern in your face over this matter. You cannot think I would send you out into the world without a reference or prospects of a future position, can you?”
Ruth blinked, astonished. “I imagined a reference,” she began weakly, “but what do you mean about prospects?”
“I believe I’ve found another position for you,” Lady Engleton went on cheerfully, “although I would of course never think of committing you without making certain you were agreeable to it. I sent in a reference and have already heard back with an inquiry that expresses some interest in your employment. It seems the case is rather time sensitive.”
“Oh?” Ruth felt her heart warm instantly. I should not have thought the worst of her, she chided herself. She has thought so carefully of my welfare. “What is the situation?”
“I know it is a divergence from your proper role as governess,” Lady Engleton said carefully, “but I believe it will be a promotion of sorts. You see, there is a woman at March Manor who is looking for a lady’s companion.”
A lady’s companion was a very prestigious position for a governess to suddenly leap into, and this gave Ruth pause. “I am not trained as a lady’s companion,” she said slowly. “I have only ever had this position, and I have no connections aside from you.”
“Ordinarily that would be a mark against you, I cannot deny it,” Lady Engleton agreed. “But this inquiry makes it clear that the position must be filled at once, and your qualifications seem to have satisfied everyone involved. I know that nothing is for certain, but I am assured of the legitimacy of the position through their venerable butler, Mr. Tylor. He is well acquainted with my own butler, and I hear only the best of the staff under his employment. I think you might be happy there.”
“Who is the lady in question?” Ruth asked.
“Lady Cecelia. She is an older woman, and I know very little about her, but you have a gentle temperament and I suspect could befriend anyone you set your mind to know,” Lady Engleton reached forward and gently, uncharacteristically, tapped Ruth’s hand. “I know you are frightened of your future, dear,” she said. “But here a most providential opportunity has all but fallen in your lap. I will send a recommendation with you, and allow you to take our carriage for the journey — arriving in style will surely elevate you in the house’s estimation.”
Ruth smiled, a feeling of relief coming over her. She knew that nothing was certain, but everything seemed to indicate that this position would be an elevation from even her current pleasant situation. She could go in with a good reference and a willingness to learn, and she believed wholeheartedly that some good might come from the situation. To be a lady’s companion, without ever having trained as one, at such a young age… It was a good stroke of fortune, to be sure.
She turned to her employer with heartfelt thanks. “You are kind to me,” she said simply. “I know it is not usual for employers to be so thoughtful regarding the future of their staff once employment has been severed, and I want to thank you for thinking of me.”
“You proved yourself worthy with our dear Lisa,” Lady Engleton said kindly. “You brought her up quite nicely, when we had all but consigned her to the roll of wallflower. I fully expect your friendship and direction is what will ensure a fine Season for her in a year or so of time. It is the least we can do to ensure that your future is full of happiness as I’m sure hers will be.”
Ruth stood, giving a little curtsy. “With your permission,” she said, “I ought to go pack.”
Lady Engleton smiled. “I’ll have the carriage pulled ‘round before midday.”
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