Lady Sheldon nodded thoughtfully, her delicately pale brow puckered with unaccustomed concentration.
“You say that you paint in watercolours, can use the globes, instruct in arithmetic, the harpsichord, and fine needlework. Yes, that all seems most satisfactory, Miss Fanshawe. And you speak French fluently–”
“Also Spanish and Portuguese, Lady Sheldon,” interrupted Miss Fanshawe eagerly, desperately anxious that every one of her claims to excellence should be catalogued.
“Indeed, yes, I was forgetting. Most unusual accomplishments, I must say. Well, Miss Fanshawe, what salary would you expect?”
Miss Fanshawe opened her deliciously soft red lips, and then slowly closed them again. She had not the faintest notion of what salary a governess, inexperienced, and applying for her first position, could expect to command, and mentally chastised herself for having failed to acquire this necessary information. She made a swift recovery.
“I do not know what you would be prepared to pay, Lady Sheldon,” she said slowly, turning enormous blue, innocent eyes towards that lady.
“Heavens! I cannot for the life of me remember! How foolish of me, but then I never did have the slightest head for figures. Ah, Lucian,” she added, turning with a sigh of relief to the man who had just entered the room. “You will know, to be sure, for you always do. How much did I pay Miss Bennet?”
The man addressed cast a swift glance from her to Miss Fanshawe, who was seated on a small brocade-covered chair near the long narrow window. He saw a small, heart-shaped face dominated by enormous blue eyes which opened wide as their owner turned somewhat anxiously towards him. The face was framed by a mop of unruly fair curls cut short in the latest style, and confined inadequately by a wisp of a straw bonnet trimmed with cherry-coloured ribbons that matched the ones adorning the simple white muslin gown Miss Fanshawe wore.
He turned back to Lady Sheldon and Miss Fanshawe considered him closely, wondering if he was Lady Sheldon’s husband. Then she recalled Lady Sheldon had told her Sir David was in the Diplomatic Service and was in Paris with the recently restored Louis XVIII. This man was slightly above middle height, slim yet muscular, needing no padding in the calves of his pale biscuit coloured pantaloons, or the shoulders of his closely fitting green superfine coat. Above his strong and excessively handsome features his dark brown hair was worn negligently à la Titus, and his snowy cravat was arranged in an elaborately casual style. He wore a diamond pin and a heavy gold signet ring, but otherwise sported no jewellery apart from a small quizzing glass with a mother of pearl handle.
“I really cannot be expected to know such details of your household expenditure, my dear Rosalie,” he said, and Miss Fanshawe thought she detected a slight laugh in his rather deep, attractive voice. “Why do you not ask Johnson?”
“The very thing! Of course he would know. Why did I not think of that? Please will you ring the bell?”
He moved across to pull the red tasselled rope beside the wide marble fireplace, and then turned back to regard Lady Sheldon with amused curiosity.
“May I ask why the information is so urgently required?”
“It is so aggravating! Of course, you have only arrived this morning, and cannot know that Miss Bennet was called home because her father became ill, and had to leave me suddenly last week. I have been utterly distracted since, for the children will not mind me, and Agnes spoils them when they are left with her, yet there is no one else I can trust while we are here in Bath! Fortunately I placed an advertisement locally and Miss Fanshawe – this is Miss Fanshawe – replied to it, and most conveniently can come at once.”
As she broke off to give instructions to the footman who appeared that Mr Johnson was to be summoned immediately, the man called Lucian raised his eyebrows, then turned to look closely at Miss Fanshawe, regarding her appraisingly through his quizzing glass. She felt the colour rising in her cheeks, and lifted her chin defiantly. When she was beginning to think that she could maintain her dignity and her temper no longer, he suddenly swung round to Lady Sheldon.
“She is by far too young,” he said curtly.
“I am eighteen – and a half!” Miss Fanshawe declared, her annoyance emerging in speech.
“Really? I would have put you down as no more than fourteen – and maybe a half,” he drawled, aggravatingly, sparing her an amused glance.
“Miss Fanshawe has many excellent qualifications,” Lady Sheldon put in anxiously, smiling tentatively at him.
She was a rather pretty young woman some years older than Miss Fanshawe, but the latter thought resentfully that even though she was the mother of two young children, she did not look above twenty herself.
“Do they include caring for young children?” the aggravating man was asking.
“Well, no, I do not think she has had a great deal of experience,” Lady Sheldon began, but Miss Fanshawe, aware that her prospects of obtaining the post were fast declining, spoke hastily.
“I was used to play with many of the younger children in the Peninsula,” she said quickly, “children of the officers in the regiment. Besides, we were often billeted on families, and I frequently cared for their children.”
“Amusing soldiers’ brats or Spanish urchins is not entirely the same as instructing delicately bred English children in a variety of desirable accomplishments,” he commented, favouring her with what she angrily considered a supercilious look.
“Miss Fanshawe can paint, and play the harpsichord, and speaks French,” Lady Sheldon offered.
“And Spanish and Portuguese,” Miss Fanshawe informed him determinedly.
“Most estimable, indeed, but I would not have thought my nephew would have required instruction in those languages at his tender age, and as for Melissa, she can barely speak her own language as yet!”
Miss Fanshawe glared at him, nonplussed, and he gave her a slight smile, but she detected a gleam of derision in his eyes and pursed her lips angrily, certain he was laughing at her.
“But Lucian, what shall I do?” Lady Sheldon asked despairingly. “I must have someone soon!”
“Leave it to me, I will engage a more suitable person. Ah, Johnson, I am sorry, it was a mistake and we do not require you after all. Thank you.”
He dismissed the man who had quietly knocked and entered the room, and turned back to Lady Sheldon. “You cannot have considered Richard,” he said softly.
“Richard? What can you mean? Why in the world should he enter into the matter?”
“Is he not proposing to visit you here? He was far from plump in the pocket when I last saw him, and dropped a couple of thousand at Watier’s. He will not be unduly anxious to return to town and you know how chronically susceptible he is to blondes.”
Lady Sheldon appeared greatly struck by this observation and nodded her head thoughtfully.
“I had not considered that, I had forgotten he had said he might come. Oh, how abominably infuriating! Confound Richard and his pranks!”
She turned apologetically to Miss Fanshawe, who had been listening with mounting anger. It was not only the realisation she would be unlikely now to be offered the position that infuriated her, but the way in which they calmly discussed her, apparently not caring what her feelings were. A momentary recollection of her aunt doing precisely the same thing a few days earlier, when she had been discussing her own butler with her son, did not serve to mollify Miss Fanshawe, for she did not consider her aunt’s manners in any way admirable. She stood up abruptly.
“I had best leave then, Lady Sheldon, and take up no more of your time,” she said curtly, turning towards the door.
“My dear, I am truly sorry. I did so hope we could come to some arrangement,” Lady Sheldon cried, fluttering after her. “But my brother is right, it would not do, for Richard, my husband’s young brother, is not – well, that is, it would be exceedingly foolish to engage you when he is here! I will ask about and try to find another position with one of my friends, for I am sure it must be a great disappointment to you.”
Knowing that the offer was well meant, but certain it would be forgotten the moment she was out of the room, Miss Fanshawe allowed her injured feelings to get the better of her. She turned limp blue eyes, suddenly glistening with carefully unshed tears, on the man who had brought about this ruin of her hopes.
“Pray do not be concerned, Lady Sheldon. I have no doubt I will soon be able to obtain a position, even if only as a barmaid in some low tavern. My invalid mother and her ten other children shall not be permitted to starve while I have breath left in my body!”
With some satisfaction, aware that she could scarcely better this for an exit line, she bravely shook away the tears, swept them a deep curtsy, opened the door and turned to walk in as tragic a manner as she could contrive down the stairs and through the front door which a footman, startled at her somewhat precipitate appearance, sprang to open for her.
* * * *
Left behind in the drawing room, Lady Sheldon looked at her brother in dismay.
“Oh, Lucian, the poor child! I had not realised her mother was ill! And so many to support! Run and fetch her back, I will employ her despite Richard! He shall not be permitted to disorganise my household. Why are you laughing?” she demanded, perceiving that he could no longer keep his countenance.
“I think she should go on the boards,” he replied. “It was a hum, Rosalie, do not be taken in by her!”
“What do you mean? And how can you know?” she asked suspiciously.
“Did you think to enquire where she was living?” was all he answered.
“Of course, I am not so henwitted as to forget that,” she retorted.
“What did she say?”
“A – a village between Bradford and Frome,” Lady Sheldon said slowly, uncertainty creeping into her voice.
“Then she speaks truth in that, but did she say which village?”
“Just that it was so small I would not have heard of it.”
“Resourceful,” he murmured. “What did you know about this large and destitute family she lays claim to?”
“Lucian, we must help her, for they are all dependent on her. I did not realise there were so many, but apparently her father died at the Battle of the Pyrenees last year, and they have no money apart from what she can earn, though she did mention that her oldest brother had earned a few pence during the haymaking. What is there in that which is so funny?” she demanded irritably.
“And I suppose her name was Petronella?”
“Yes, but how in the world can you know that?”
For answer he pulled a small miniature portrait out of his pocket and handed it to her. Lady Sheldon found herself looking into the fair, delightful features of her recent visitor. She raised accusing eyes towards her brother.
“You know her! Oh, this is too much, that she should try and take me in so, to contrive to get into my house! Yet,” she added, striving to be fair, “she did not look that sort of female.”
“She is not, so far as I am aware, that sort of female, and I have never set eyes on her until I walked into this room. This,” retrieving the miniature, “was sent to me by Uncle James. It does not really do full justice to the sitter, do you think? The girl was living with him after her father died, at the Pyrenees, as she said. She is some distant relative of Albinia Deeping.”
“His wife’s sister? The one who kept house for him after Aunt Caroline died?”
“The same. Miss Fanshawe is an orphan, and when Uncle James wrote to tell me he had left me his property in his new will, he enclosed this miniature, with a glowing report of the original. I might say he compared her to distinct advantage with Albinia’s two daughters.”
Lady Sheldon was eyeing him speculatively. “That was rather obvious, was it not? Did he do more than hint?”
“Oh no, he thought he was being very subtle. But I confess he intrigued me, and meeting Miss Petronella Fanshawe has not lessened my interest I could not permit her to become governess to your brats!”
“You cannot be serious!”
“Why not? You have been telling me for the past ten years that I ought to settle down and marry, and now the war is over and Napoleon safely on Elba, I feel inclined to take your advice.”
“But you don’t know her!” His sister was aghast “Lucian, if you are indeed serious about becoming settled, I can present dozens of eligible girls to you! Last time you were in London on leave, you broke at least six hearts! With your title and income you cannot possibly marry a nobody who has to work for her living!”
“That is something which puzzles me. Uncle James said he would leave sufficient to provide for all three girls, Miss Fanshawe and the two Miss Deepings. Why was Petronella so anxious to become a governess? I must drive out to Gervale House without delay and meet them all.”
* * * *
Miss Fanshawe, having swept impetuously out of the front door, was at a slight loss as to what to do next. She had sent Susan, her maid, away for a couple of hours with George, the groom who had driven them into Bath, and it still wanted half an hour before they were to meet her by the Abbey. She looked about her. Lady Sheldon’s house was in Great Pulteney Street, and it was only a few minutes away from the bridge, and then the Abbey. Conscious that she had been standing still for several minutes in full view of the drawing room windows, she hurriedly turned towards the bridge, resolving to walk in the gardens beside the river until it was time to meet Susan and George.
All the way she was mentally arguing with the abominable man who had interrupted her interview with Lady Sheldon, finding answers that she was certain would have convinced him of her dire need for the situation. His elegant image, the strongly marked features, the curling brown hair, and the disturbing dark eyes that had seemed to penetrate her thoughts, were so vividly in her mind that she was totally unaware of the dandified young man who approached and bowed low. Walking past, her eyes unseeing, she was equally unaware of his chagrin at being thus ignored, and the fact that he turned and began to follow her at a discreet distance.
She reached the edge of the river and stood, peering into the gleaming water, seeing only the face of her tormentor and his expression, alternating as the wavelets rippled across the image, between contempt and amusement at her predicament. So angrily was she arguing in her imaginary conversation with him, she almost convinced herself that ten brothers and sisters were awaiting her return with eagerness, and would be as downcast as she was herself to hear that an odious villain had snatched the position from her grasp, when she had been so certain Lady Sheldon had been on the very point of offering it to her.
After a while she became aware of the young dandy, who had ventured to draw near and had tossed a remark in her direction. Haughtily she stared at him, but this merely encouraged him to make further advances, and he stepped closer to her. Impervious to her frowns he began to remark that it was an exceptionally fine day, and with a toss of her fair curls, Miss Petronella Fanshawe turned and walked swiftly away. He fell in beside her.
“May I escort you?” he asked, attempting to take her arm.
“Let go of me, you impertinent puppy!” she flared at him, and turned all her pent up fury towards him. He blanched as she raked him down for a rogue and a villain, throwing in some of the more derogatory Spanish expressions she had picked up from the soldiers. He attempted to smile, blustered, and eventually turned away, and as she stood watching his discomforted retreat, savouring her victory, she heard a low chuckle from behind and her hand was taken and firmly tucked beneath a strong, unyielding arm.
Startled, she turned her huge blue eyes to look up into Lady Sheldon’s brother’s face.
“You obviously need an escort,” he said softly before she had recovered her wits sufficiently to speak. “It was very unwise of you to come to Bath unattended, Miss Fanshawe.”
“I did not!” she responded, stung by this injustice. “I brought my–” she paused. It would not do to admit to having a maid, since he believed her to be in extreme poverty.
“One of your sisters, mayhap?” he queried smoothly, and she smiled with relief and nodded, not seeing the glint of amusement in his eyes. “You must have many to choose from,” he added gently, and she shot him a suspicious look.
“They will be so disconsolate to hear I have not obtained the position with Lady Sheldon,” she ventured with a sigh, peeping up at him through her long lashes and wondering, with her never failing optimism, whether she might not yet retrieve the situation. “We were all depending on it so. I think it very unkind of you to have put Lady Sheldon against me for no reason whatsoever.”
“You have no experience.”
“No, but if I am never given a post, I never will have,” she pointed out. “I have to practise on someone!”
“And my sister’s children are as good as anyone, I collect?”
“Yes, why not?”
He suppressed a grin. “They do not need to learn Spanish, certainly not the variety I heard you using just now.”
She blushed. “Well, he was being objectionable. Surely, now Boney is locked up, we will all be travelling to France and the rest of Europe again? It would be advantageous for the children to begin learning other languages early. I had difficulties at first because I did not start to learn until I was past twelve.”
“You are persuasive, but there remains the fact that Richard Sheldon is an unprincipled rake, and you would not be safe with him in the same house.”
“Pooh! You must consider me feeble hearted if you think I cannot discourage him! Why, I have mixed with young men since I was twelve, and do not fear him! Please, will you not go back to your sister and tell her you think you might have made a mistake, and ask her to reconsider employing me?”
“No,” was all the reply he vouchsafed to this request, smiling blandly down into her appealing face.
He noted the gleam of anger in her eyes, swiftly veiled.
“The few miserable pounds a year paid to a governess do not matter in the least to you,” she said slowly. “I have no doubt you would lose ten times as much at play, and not bat an eyelid.”
“A hundred times,” he agreed calmly, and she flashed him a furious look before controlling her temper and resuming her appeal.
“It could mean the difference between life and death to my poor brothers and sisters,” she said soulfully, an artistic sob causing her voice to break on the last word.
“All ten of them,” he prompted heartlessly.
“Yes, and my invalid mother,” she reminded him swiftly. “A few paltry pounds, nothing to you, but life itself to them!”
“I should not despair,” he recommended bracingly. “I have no doubt that some other more suitable prospect will present itself soon.”
“What?” she demanded with asperity. “There are not so many positions for governesses available here in Bath, even though I do have exceptional qualifications,” she added hurriedly.
“Do you have to be a governess? Are there no other positions which you could apply for?”
“Companion to some elderly dowager?” she asked scornfully. “No, thank you. I cannot abide sitting still all day, or gently strolling in the gardens, taking pampered pugs for a walk!”
“I had thought of a different type of companionship,” he suggested softly, and she halted abruptly, looking up at him in sudden alarm which increased when she found him gazing at her warmly, his head bent towards hers.
“Oh, you are despicable!” she cried, wrenching her hand free from his grasp and then, after standing for a moment longer as if uncertain what to do, turning to run hastily across the gardens.
He remained where he was, staring after her with a smile on his face for a few moments. He nodded slowly as if something had been satisfactorily determined, and turned to retrace his steps back to his sister’s house.
Petronella found that Susan and George were already beside the Abbey, their heads close together as they sat in the gig. They sprang apart guiltily as she hailed them, and Susan looked at her, blushing, an enquiring lift to her eyebrow.
“No, I did not succeed,” Petronella said briefly, and sat back, maintaining her silence for the whole journey home along the valley of the Avon, until they reached the rambling old house where Petronella’s aunt, Mrs Deeping, had offered her a home on the death of her father almost a year earlier. She did not break her silence until, having slipped into the house by a side door and up to her bedroom, Susan was helping her change into a fresh gown for dinner.
“What is it like, Susan, being in love?”
“Why, Miss Petra, what a thing to ask!” the girl replied in some confusion.
“You are in love with George, surely?”
“I – I s’pose so.”
“Well, how do you know? Why him and not Dan? Dan is far more handsome in my opinion, and he’s always watching you. Besides, he works in the house, being a footman, and not in the stables.” She wrinkled up her nose fastidiously. “I have nothing against George, to be sure, for he’s an excellent groom and knows the horses well. It’s just – I wondered that you should prefer him.”
“Truly I don’t know, Miss Petra,” Susan answered, beginning to brush the tangles out of her mistress’s hair. “He has a way with him, does George. It’s hard to explain. It’s not what he says, nor the way he says it, nor yet what he does. It’s more the way he looks at me, if you know what I mean.”
Petra thought she did. “But any man might look at you like that. Several might,” she added, for Susan was dark, plump, pretty and vivacious. “What then? You cannot love them all, just because of a certain way they look at you. You do not have to return their love.”
“No,” Susan agreed doubtfully. “It’s hard to explain, Miss, but somehow there don’t seem to be any choice – I have to love George, whether I want to or not!”
“Is it a nice feeling, being in love?”
“Not always,” Susan admitted slowly. “It’s uncomfortable, like, for I do get jealous when he’s talking with the other girls, and somehow I want to hurt him because he hurts me, and yet all the time I don’t!”
“I wonder if Corinna is in love with Captain Stockwood?” Petra mused. “She gets very agitated whenever he rides over, and yet often, when he has gone, I have found her crying.”
“That’s because your aunt won’t allow any match there, Miss Petra,” Susan commented.
“I know, for he has only a very small fortune besides his pay, and now that the war is over there is little chance of further promotion. But they could contrive if they wished to. What of you? Do you intend to marry George?”
“Oh, Miss Petra, we haven’t got to deciding anything like that yet!” Susan said in dismay.
“Why not? I’d have thought it simple enough, once you both know you love each other. Is he shy?”
Susan giggled. “Why, no, Miss, not George! But it’s hard to explain.”
Before Petra could put any more embarrassing questions there was an interruption.
“Petra! Where is the dratted girl? Petra! Dinner is about to be served, are you dressing?”
Petra seized a ribbon and hastily tied it in her hair.
“Remember, I went to match some silks, you must not tell anyone the real reason, and George must not either,” she whispered hurriedly, rising from the dressing stool and crossing to the door to reply to her aunt’s peremptory question.