Miss Eleanor Radcliffe
Eleanor took a deep breath and wiped the tears from her cheek. Her book rested gently on her lap, her thumb wedged between the pages to keep her place. A slice of sun shone through the french doors, causing dust motes to float lazily in the air. Eleanor gazed out at the garden and sighed. The book reminded her of her mother, and she simply couldn’t bear it.
The story was one of love and death, of happiness and heartbreak, and Eleanor could picture her mother as she read. She had also been a young woman in love, and one who had died too soon. Even the words the character used were ones her mother would have chosen and as she read, Eleanor could hear her voice as though she stood right there in the library with her.
I miss you so much, Mother.
Eleanor remembered the day clearly, the day her mother was carried out. She had been told to stay in her room, but she couldn’t. Hidden behind a chair in the hallway, Eleanor’s little body was stiff with emotion as she watched, a mixture of dread and awe swirling inside her. No matter what they said, she had to see her mother, one last time. Now, nine long years later, she couldn’t stop seeing her.
Her mother had been covered in a thin, white cloth when they took her. It draped delicately over the shape of her body, the shape of her face. It was gentle, almost as though her mother could feel it, and she looked peaceful for the first time in weeks. She was finally able to rest.
Eleanor’s father had stood to the side of the door, watching his wife’s final journey through the house. He bowed his head, weeping silently, his body racked with sadness, while the servants looked on with pity. As soon as she was gone, Eleanor quietly rose from her crouch and tiptoed back into her bedroom. To this day, her father still did not know she had witnessed it.
Eleanor let out a sob, and covered her face with both hands, causing the book to fall to the floor. Her mother was everything to her. She had died when Eleanor was just a girl, but even after all these years, nothing—and no one—could ever replace her.
Bent double in the chair, Eleanor let her tears dry up and she calmed her heaving breaths. With a resigned sigh, she picked the book up, found the page she was on, and marked her place. At 19 years old, Eleanor was a sensitive soul who felt deeply and passionately. Thoughts of her dear mother always had a marked effect and that meant she often buried her emotions. It felt good to let it out.
It had been pneumonia that had taken her mother from her, and Eleanor could remember the days running up to her death with frightening clarity–the coughing, the weeping, the gasping for breath. She remembered the physician running in and out, the maid fetching clean cloths as she discarded the blood-soaked coughing rags.
She remembered the pain and the fear that ran through her father’s eyes, and the calming look in her mother’s. She had known it was her time, of that Eleanor was sure. Eleanor stood and, book tucked under her arm, wandered out of the library and into the simple garden, leaving the door open to warm the room with the summer sun.
Eleanor Radcliffe was a striking young lady. Although neither tall nor short, her long golden locks were radiant, woven up around the back of her head with wispy tendrils framing her face. Her pale green eyes shone with an eagerness to live and to learn, and her milky white skin flushed often and easily. Her body, though slight, had a sensuousness that she knew drew the eyes of many a suitor, and she had a smile that could light up a room.
She sat on the white bench just outside and listened to the birds chirruping, their welcoming song a distraction from her mournful thoughts. She closed her eyes and breathed in the scent of summer and of freshly clipped grass. She could see one of the gardeners up ahead, trimming the edges of the lawn with the sheep shearing clippers, and she smiled at the simple beauty of the labor.
Not for much longer, though. Eleanor sighed. She was sure the household was in disarray, and they were soon to lose their jobs. The Winstons would need to run on a skeleton staff for the foreseeable future if they were to survive their difficult times, and Eleanor could sense her job was in danger. It caused a knot to tighten in her chest. She loved working with the Winston children, and being a governess was all she had ever wanted.
After her mother’s death, Eleanor had grown close to her father and she dearly loved him, but as she grew into a young lady, she found they did not agree on many things. Marriage was a particularly sore point. He had wanted to see her wed as soon as she came of age, but Eleanor had no desire to marry. The idea of love itself seemed something of a foreign concept to her.
Instead, she wanted to learn, to read, to teach. She wanted to explore what the world had to offer, and then she wanted to offer that world to the young boys and girls in her charge. She had said as much to her father, her eyes lighting up with delight, but he had been firm in what he wanted for her. Only a husband would do.
He had called her willful, and indeed she could be stubborn at times, but her love of life was more than it could ever be for a man. Of that, she was certain. Perhaps there would be a time in the future when marriage became her only goal, but for now it was not a goal at all.
Joshua Berkeley, The Marquess of Cumberland
“Ah, William Blake,” Joshua muttered to himself. He picked the book up from his desk as he settled into his reading chair. “You never fail to cheer me.” He sighed, ever hopeful that he may yet pull himself from the dark cloud he found himself in.
Joshua was a handsome man, and he knew it. He knew his chiseled features had, on occasion, caused ladies to giggle together in the corners of ballrooms. Not that he ever humored them, of course. He had no interest in their girlish chatter. He wanted only to work and to wish away the darkness that had settled inside him.
His dark curly hair, although unruly, was endearing as it poked out from under his hat. His deep grey eyes spoke of the pain he felt every single day but underneath, there lay a bright intelligence and a sparkle of life. All he needed now was to figure out how to bring that back to the forefront.
He opened the book and began reading to himself, letting the poetry wash over him. He fervently admired Blake, both as a poet and a painter. Joshua had read everything Blake had written, and he promised himself that one day, he would meet the man in person. He shifted in his seat, leaning heavily against the back, and he let his mind drift with the words on the page.
He groaned at the merry rat-a-tat-tat on the door. He was in no mood for his stepsister’s jolly demeanor. He stopped reading, but kept the book near his nose, refusing to pull himself away completely.
“Come in,” he called.
“Joshua.” Anna beamed as she swept into his study. Her green eyes shone with a brightness that matched her tone, and the curls of her dark brown hair bounced gently as she moved. “Are you going to join us for dinner today? We see so little of you these days. You’re always hidden away, feeling sorry for yourself. You know, you’re not the only man to have lost a love too soon and it will do you good to start living a little again.”
“Yes, Anna,” he hissed through gritted teeth. He still did not raise his eyes from the book, but his breath was heavy and he seethed inside. “I will be there.”
“Oh,” Anna said, “that’s… good.” Although she was not surprised, she was disappointed by his tone. After her husband died, Anna had relied so heavily on her stepbrother and now, she would do whatever it took to keep him happily by her side. All they had was each other after all—and Mallory, of course. She sighed and left the room, the door closing with a quiet click.
Joshua put the book on the table with a resigned huff. It was no good. Now that he had been disturbed, he knew he had no chance of escaping into the world of Blake. He rubbed the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger.
He shouldn’t snap at Anna, he knew that, but more and more he found he couldn’t help it. It wasn’t that he didn’t love and appreciate Anna. Of course he did, but the heaviness that had settled into his soul refused to let him embrace life any more. And Anna, well, she seemed to always be there, in his way or trying to force him into a happiness he simply didn’t feel.
At least he found solace in his books. They were the only things that could help him now, he was sure enough of that. His books allowed him to travel to another world, one in which his pain didn’t exist. A world where his beautiful Alexandra wasn’t lost to him, a world in which they were happy.
It was her laughter he had noticed first. Strolling around Covent Garden that day, he heard a peal of laughter. He turned, and he was instantly struck by her beauty. Her head tilted back with joy, her face radiant with happiness.
She held colorful flowers, he remembered, upright and close to her chest, reminiscent of a bridal bouquet. He had smiled then, and he knew at that moment he would befriend her. With auburn hair that fell around her face, she lit up with laughter.
“Alexandra.” He sighed. She was with Annette the day he met her, Alexandra’s closest friend and confidante. Annette, the wife of Joshua’s childhood friend, James, and poor Mallory’s mother.
She was another soul taken too soon, too cruelly.
He missed them both terribly and his soul wept when he thought of them. Why had they been taken from him so soon? Life was a brutal mistress, no mistake.
The night the love of his life had been taken away from him, they had been at a dinner party at James’s house. It had been a beautiful evening, as always. The gentle summer sun set slowly behind them, and they had spent the evening laughing and singing and quoting lines of beautiful poetry.
Had he known then that it would be the last time he would enjoy their company, he would have grasped at the moment for longer, encouraged Alexandra to stay. But no, it got late and, being young and free and full of life, they knew there would be other nights, other evenings. At least, they thought they knew.
It was late. Alexandra needed to get home. Annette accompanied her, a chaperone to ensure Alexandra wasn’t alone. Annette was to stay the night with her friend, perhaps partake in a little late-night talk of love and marriage, while Joshua discussed business with James.
Mallory, whose life was soon to change forever, was with the nursemaid, and little did she know her father would die just six months after her mother. They said it was a fit of apoplexy, although Joshua always suspected he had died of a broken heart. It was then that Anna had agreed to adopt Mallory.
If only I’d gone with her, Joshua chided himself, maybe I could have stopped it all.
He busied himself rearranging the books on his desk hoping to occupy his mind, but still the memories flooded in.
Their carriage had been stopped by highwaymen. Petty thieves. Alexandra and Annette had tried to run, to escape, but they couldn’t. They were shot dead, both of them, and for nothing but a handful of jewels. Oh Alexandra. He mewed softly to himself, his grief bubbling to the surface.
Joshua’s sadness morphed into a now-familiar anger. He stood and slammed his fist onto the desk, making the books jump and shudder. He was angry at himself for not protecting her, at God for letting it happen. He was angry that life went on without her. He was angry that they were never found, those highwaymen who had valued a couple of rubies over the lives of his fiancée and his dearest friend’s wife.
With a growl of frustration, Joshua swept the books from the table. They thumped to the floor as he fell back into his chair and wept.
Alexandra. He knew that, since her death, he’d been insufferable. How Anna coped with his moods, he did not know. He snapped at everything she said, irritable and unfriendly. He had turned into someone he did not like, but he did not know how to drag himself from the pit of despair he had fallen into since her death.
“Hah,” he laughed humorlessly, self-pitying, and let his arms fall into his lap. He lifted his tear-stained face to the ceiling in wonder. He couldn’t even keep her as his betrothed, he couldn’t keep her safe. What chance did he ever have of making her his wife? And making her a happy wife at that?
With a deep sigh, he pulled a cotton handkerchief from his pocket. It had been delicately embroidered with his initials, a gift from his dear stepsister, Anna. He smiled at the sight of it, then used it to wipe away his tears.
* * *
“Joshua!” Anna cried in delight as he slumped into the dining room. It was a large room, reserved only for dining. The dark, mahogany table sat ten people in all: four per side and then one at each end. The large double windows were draped with heavy, brocade curtains. The light that flooded into the room highlighted the portraits lined up on the wall opposite.
Joshua took his place at the head of the table, furthest away from the door. His chair scraped noisily on the floor as he pulled it out, and he sat without looking up. He was sullen and unhappy. It seemed he always was these days.
Anna sat at the other end of the table, pulling her chair out quietly and tucking in the cloth so that it didn’t catch on her dress. She watched her brother carefully, treading gently into conversation for fear he would snap at her again. He was such a fragile thing. Mallory sat to the side with her back to the windows, slumped in childlike insolence, and she pulled at her lips in the most unseemly manner.
“I… er… it’s so nice to see you,” Anna said, looking anxiously at Joshua. “Isn’t it, Mallory?”
Anna had urged the girl to be cheerful around Joshua. If we’re happy, she had often said, he’ll catch it and be happy too. Not that Mallory had needed urging. She loved Joshua as though he were her own father. Mallory nodded urgently, her ginger curls bobbing wildly around her rosy cheeks. Joshua merely grunted in reply.
Beaumont, the butler, popped the cork on a vintage wine, and the trickle of liquid as it splashed first into Joshua’s glass and then into Anna’s was noisy. Anna pursed her lips.
“Have you had a good day, Joshua?”
“It’s been acceptable.”
Beaumont stood back, a white cloth over his arm, as he watched the kitchen staff serve dinner. The lack of conversation was made all the more apparent by the clatter of plates and cutlery. They were having roasted fowl and vegetables, the gravy poured over the meat by a servant as Joshua leant to one side. He had little interest in the food or the wine, but he stared at his plate nonetheless. His grey eyes were dull and listless, and he sagged with the weight of his sadness.
“Sit up straight, Mallory,” Anna commanded, shooting a glance at the girl. “And take your hands away from your face. You need to start behaving like the young lady you are soon to become. Let’s show Joshua just how well behaved you can be, shall we? There’s a good girl.”
Once served and the candles lit, all but the butler returned to the kitchen, leaving the family in peace.
Anna picked up her silver cutlery and cut into her meat. She raised her fork slowly to her mouth, holding it there for a moment before chewing. She watched Joshua intently as he mindlessly pushed the food around his plate, the occasional sigh or grunt sounding from his unmoving mouth.
“Joshua,” she began, placing her fork on the table, the tines resting at the edge of her plate.
“Hmm,” he murmured in reply. He stabbed at a piece of meat causing the fork to screech against the porcelain, and he ripped it from his fork with his teeth. His leaden eyes watched the table in front of him, and he chewed with a weary anger he could not shake.
He knew the correct thing would be to engage with his sister, but he couldn’t muster the energy. His reluctance to be a part of this social occasion was clear although in truth, he barely felt a thing. Anna’s presence was shrouded by his own pain, his own misery, and her words flittered in the background of his awareness. She cleared her throat and tried again.
“Joshua, I really think we need to find a new governess for Mallory,” Anna said. She looked at Mallory, who’s eyes shone with hope at the thought of someone new. “Our current one, Miss Eliot, well, she… let’s just say, she isn’t very good. I mean, Mallory can be really quite mischievous when she wants to be, and Miss Eliot simply does not know how to get through to her, how to keep her under control.”
Anna narrowed her eyes at Mallory, and Mallory quickly looked away, a picture of innocence. Anna couldn’t stop herself from smiling.
Despite the governess’ assurances that Mallory behaved when Anna wasn’t there, Anna had watched from afar. She could see what was really happening. The stubborn, curious young girl had complete control of her governess. Anna looked back up at the unresponsive Joshua.
“So, as I was saying, I really do feel that the best thing to do would be to—”
“Do what you must, dearest sister,” Joshua said with a sigh. “Do what you must.”
Miss Eleanor Radcliffe
Eleanor gazed at her reflection as she put the last few pins into her hair. If left alone, her long blonde hair would flow straight down her back, yet it was rarely seen as such. Every day, she wound it around itself and pinned it in place, leaving a few wispy strands to frame her face. Sometimes, if she looked in the mirror in just the right away, she saw her mother in her own face and it would make her smile, as though her mother was always with her, always watching over her.
She smoothed down the high-waisted cotton dress that fell around her slim frame. The pale green color matched that of her eyes, and she watched herself carefully. Eleanor’s father had often told her she was beautiful. Perhaps she was, although it was not something that concerned her. In truth, she really didn’t see why it mattered. Of course, he wanted her to marry but at 19 years old, she simply didn’t feel ready. She couldn’t imagine ever looking at a man in such a way.
“Eleanor, dear.” Eleanor looked to the closed door and listened. “Eleanor,” came the voice again. Lady Maribel. Eleanor could picture her standing at the bottom of the stairs, calling up uncouthly because her clumsy, chubby frame made it hard for her to climb the stairs.
Eleanor rushed out of her room and onto the landing, where she could see her employer in just the position she had imagined.
“Yes, Lady Maribel?” Lady Maribel Winston’s hand rested on the bannister rail, her neck heavy with jewels. She smiled sweetly at the young governess, and Eleanor smiled back. Lady Maribel was a good employer but more than that, she had been a good friend to Eleanor for many years. She had known the Winstons since she was a child and after her mother’s death, Maribel helped guide Eleanor into womanhood.
“Ah, there you are, Eleanor. I was wondering if you could join me for breakfast. I have something important to discuss with you.”
“Of course, Lady Maribel. I’ll be down in just a moment,” Eleanor replied. She felt the knot in her stomach tighten as she walked back into her room to finish getting ready. A good employer Lady Maribel may be, but Eleanor feared she would not be such for much longer.
Although they would never talk of such things, Eleanor had long suspected the Winstons were in financial crisis. The house itself was in dire need of updating, and Lady Maribel hadn’t had a new gown in ever so long, even though that was one of her favorite things in the world.
That meant Eleanor’s position in the household was at risk, along with perhaps some of Lady Maribel’s larger and more valuable jewels. She needed this job; she needed the income. She dearly loved her father, but she knew if she was forced to go back to him, he would have her married off in an instant.
“Eleanor dear, do sit,” Lady Maribel said as Eleanor entered the breakfast room. She sat quietly to Maribel’s right and watched as the lady of the house spread jam liberally across a triangle of toast.
Lady Maribel took great pride in her appearance. She wore a beautiful peach-colored dress, finely embroidered with spring flowers. Glittering jewels were strung around her neck, and her fingers were laden with rings. Her chubby cheeks were, as always, over-rouged, and the loose skin that hung just below her chin wobbled gently as she talked. She made for an endearing figure, if a little comical to some of society’s more unfavorable members.
“Do help yourself, Eleanor. There’s tea in the pot.” Lady Maribel nodded to her own empty cup, then glanced back up at Eleanor. The teapot was white with a band of turquoise around it, then detailed with a delicate gold. It matched the dainty teacups and the little sugar bowl.
The table was laid out for just the two of them, the rest of the family deciding not to witness what was about to happen. Still, Lady Maribel had not scrimped for what Eleanor was beginning to consider her last meal there. There was toast and jam, of course, plus pound cake and bread and cheese. A slab of butter, too. Quite the feast for the lady of the house and the governess.
Eleanor picked up the pot and, with her finger holding the lid closed, she poured first a cup for Lady Maribel and then a cup for herself.
“You wanted to talk to me, Lady Maribel?”
“Yes.” Lady Maribel topped up her tea with a splash of cold milk and stirred it noisily, the teaspoon clinking on the side of the cup. “Perhaps you should take a little sugar with your tea today, dear. I have some rather bad news.”
“Yes,” Eleanor replied. “I rather suppose I should.” She reached for the silver sugar tongs and allowed two sugar cubes to plop into her tea.
“Now, my dear, I’m sure you’ve noticed that lately, things have been rather… how shall I put it? Strained, around here.” Eleanor remained quiet. It wouldn’t be polite of her to agree, and yet she couldn’t lie.
Things had been awkward, it was true. Lord Winston’s business dealings were not as successful as they had once been. She had found herself doing things to avoid embarrassing her employers. She had repaired little Jacob’s boots on more than one occasion, even though he really needed new ones, and Mary’s ribbons were dreadfully frayed at the ends. Eleanor decided that it was best to feign ignorance.
“Strained, Lady Winston?”
“Yes. Lord Winston and I,” Lady Maribel continued, “well, we’ve agreed that, unfortunately, we need to make some changes to our… to the household. Do you understand, Eleanor?”
“Yes,” Eleanor stammered. Her heart thumped heavily in her chest as she felt the panic rise. She hoped it would not show in her face, but she feared her eyes were beginning to fill with tears. She blinked them away and slowed her breathing.
“Now, it’s not that we don’t appreciate your work, because we do,” Lady Maribel said. She paused to dab at her mouth with the bright white napkin, errant toast crumbs falling to her lap. “In fact, you’re an excellent governess; you’ve done wonders with the children.”
“Thank you,” Eleanor said, placing her cup back on its saucer so that Maribel couldn’t see the slight shake in her hands.
“And that’s why I’ve arranged for one Lady Anna Wellington to meet you later on this morning. While we can no longer support your services, we do wish you well. That’s why I do hope to see you settled in another position sooner rather than later.”
“Oh, thank you, Lady Maribel!” Eleanor’s face flushed with gratitude, and she beamed up at her employer. This, she had not been expecting. “I can’t tell you how much I—”
“Yes, Eleanor, I quite understand. Now, I shall meet Anna in the parlor for tea at 11am, and you can join us there. You must be on your very best behavior, for you will be extremely lucky to be in Lady Wellington’s employ. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Lady Maribel,” Eleanor nodded, getting up from her seat. “Thank you, again.”
“Good, now run along and see to the children, then get yourself ready for Lady Wellington. I will call for you when we’re ready for you.”
* * *
It was almost eleven thirty before they called for Eleanor. She had been anxiously pacing her room, rubbing her fingers together.
“How do you do, Lady Wellington,” she said to herself. “No. How do you do, Lady Wellington?” She sighed. Eleanor was naturally sensitive and a little shy. This sort of thing caused her nerves to pulsate.
She needn’t have been worried. She was an excellent governess, just as Lady Maribel had said. And, of course, she had Lady Maribel on side—her current employer was sure to extol Eleanor’s virtue and skill to her potential new one. Still, this new position was important. She wasn’t sure how she would survive without it.
When they called for her, Eleanor tip-toed down the stairs and knocked on the door. She entered quietly without waiting for a reply, just as she had been instructed on her first day with the Winstons.
“Hello, Eleanor. Do come in. Lady Wellington? Let me introduce you to Miss Eleanor Radcliffe, a most excellent governess. Eleanor, this is Lady Anna Wellington.”
Eleanor caught her breath as she looked at Lady Wellington. She was beautiful, but in such a stark way. Her green eyes shone just a little brighter than her own. Her tall, slim frame was elegant in a vivid and daring red dress. Anna, for her part, barely glanced at Eleanor, her lips pursed in distaste.
“Hello, Lady Wellington,” Eleanor said, nervously bowing her head. “It’s nice to make your acquaintance.”
“The pleasure is all mine, I’m sure,” Anna replied, ignoring Eleanor’s polite nod and turning away from her. Lady Maribel smiled awkwardly and returned to her seat, leaving Eleanor standing in the stream of light from the window.
I feel like a mischievous schoolgirl.
“And she is quite trained in childcare?” Anna asked, pointedly ignoring Eleanor. “She can maintain a routine and keep a child… on the right track, can she?”
“Yes, Lady Wellington,” Eleanor said, interrupting Maribel. She knew she should not show insolence, but she had already taken a disliking to the cold and distant Anna. “I am quite capable of working with even the most unruly of children.”
Anna scoffed and looked down her nose at Eleanor. Eleanor blushed deeply, looking down to her feet and wriggling her toes in discomfort.
“And what makes you think Mallory is unruly?”
“I’m sure she meant nothing of the sort,” Lady Maribel said. “Now, Lady Wellington, why don’t you tell Eleanor a little about Mallory?”
“I suppose.” Anna sighed. “Mallory is my 11-year-old adopted daughter. Her education is of the utmost importance to me, as I’m sure you can imagine.”
“Of course, Lady Wellington,” Eleanor replied. “And I believe—”
“Lady Maribel speaks very highly of you,” Anna continued, not letting Eleanor speak. “I’m not sure I have quite seen what she has seen, yet, but I trust her judgement implicitly. She tells me you’re an excellent governess, and I must believe that.”
“Thank you, Lady Wellington.”
“I will expect you at the house at midday tomorrow to begin with young Mallory. That should give you enough time to put your affairs in order here and gather together your belongings. Now, you may leave Lady Maribel and me to take tea.”
“Yes, Lady Wellington, thank you. I am greatly looking forward to meeting your little angel,” Eleanor said and curtsied, but she was pointedly ignored.
Joshua Berkeley, The Marquess of Cumberland
“Joshua,” Anna said as she passed him in the hall, “don’t forget—the new governess is arriving today and—”
“Yes, dear sister,” Joshua said. “You told me over breakfast. And then you reminded me as I left.” He found he couldn’t even meet her gaze so tired he was of her nagging. Tired of life. She looked him up and down. He was wearing loose white trousers and a jacket that buttoned up on the left-hand side. His right hand clutched his foil tightly, and his face guard dangled from his fingertips.
“You’re going fencing?” she asked. “But you need to meet with the governess when she arrives at noon and—”
“I will be here,” Joshua snapped. “As much as I’d rather not, I do understand the importance of Mallory’s education. I realize you think I don’t care, but finding the right governess for Mallory—a governess who will correct Mallory’s rebellious streak—is just as important to me as it to you.”
“Yes, I understand, but—”
“But,” Joshua interrupted again, “for now, I am going for a few friendly bouts with the Marquess of Elkworth. I think you and I can both agree that I could do with working off some of this…” Joshua trailed off.
He could hear the harshness in his own voice, but he didn’t know how to soften it. He just wanted Anna to leave him alone, to let him wallow as much as he liked. Why didn’t she realize her attitude did nothing but irritate him, no matter how much she wanted it to cheer him?
“I understand,” Anna said with a curt nod. She held her lips firmly together, irritation coursing through her. Joshua sighed.
“I will be back in time to greet the new governess, all right?”
“Thank you, Joshua,” Anna snapped, then she spun on her heels and marched away from him.
* * *
“William Orbison, you old rogue.” Joshua laughed as his friend strode onto the green, suited ready for their bout. Joshua patted him affectionately on the arm. “It’s been too long!”
“Cumberland,” William said, laughing. “Looking just as bracket-faced as ever, I see.”
“Ha, not so ugly as you, my old friend,” Joshua replied.
“Well,” William said, brushing back the ginger hair that had flopped foppishly over his forehead. “That’s true, at least. Shall we?” He grinned at Joshua. At six foot two, William stood just an inch shorter than his friend, and his pale skin was peppered with freckles.
Joshua pulled down his face guard as he strode over the grass to his starting position. He turned and crouched, his sword already raised in battle. William laughed.
“You’re eager today!”
“Oh, I needed to get out of that house,” Joshua said, straightening up again as he watched William join him, his foil tapping gently on his leg as he walked. “It’s good to see you, Orbison. I needed something to pull me out of these doldrums, and you never fail to keep me on my toes.”
“Doldrums? Ha! We’ll fight that out of you now, Cumberland. Prêt?” The French slipped easily off his tongue; they had both learned the language from a young age, in preparation for many trips to Paris. Joshua nodded. “En garde!”
As he spoke those starting words, William advanced and lunged, hoping to take Joshua by surprise. Joshua easily knocked back the blow, the ring of metal on metal shrill in the quiet summer afternoon. The sun glinted brightly off their swords, and they both stepped back into position.
“Ha, nice try old boy!” Joshua laughed. With his knees bent and his sword up, he circled William, ready to defend. “I would have thought you might have learnt by now,” he said. “You always do the same thing. You attack too soon.”
“And what would you rather I do?” William lunged again, his foil hitting the base of Joshua’s with more of a thud than a ring. “Cower like you?” Joshua chuckled and side-stepped the blow. This conversation was like a worn script, the same every time they fenced, but it was as comfortable and welcoming as their friendship itself.
“I’m not cowering, old boy. I’m letting you wear yourself out first. I’m telling you, Orbison, you’re getting too easy to beat.”
“Is that so?” William replied, tone sly and unbelieving. He slowly circled Joshua, picking his moment carefully, eyeing every movement Joshua made.
“Yes, an—” Joshua lowered his sword, quickly defending William’s sudden lunge. The screech as his sword ran down the length of William’s made him shudder, but still he kept hold of it. “Oh, very good! That was a close one.”
“Yes, I’ve been practicing,” he said, then lunged forward again. At the last moment, he spun around and attacked from the other side, feinting his move. Joshua wasn’t quick enough and as William’s sword hit his, it went flying through the air. Joshua looked down at his sword, unbelieving.
“Oh, bravo,” he said, pulling off his face guard. “You really have been practicing, haven’t you?”
“Best of three?” William suggested, laughing. “Come on, get the guard back on. You know you can’t go home without beating me at least once; you’d never live down the shame.”
“Is that so?” Joshua asked, then slammed the face guard back down and leapt into position. “En garde!”
“You know,” William said, advancing almost immediately, “fencing is a lot like business.”
“How so?” Joshua asked, easily defending the blow.
“You’ve got to get in there early,” he said, his sword hitting Joshua’s again. He grunted with the effort of maintaining the pressure, but his sword soon slid, and Joshua backed away. “If you sit back and do nothing, you’ll get nowhere.”
“Oh really?” Joshua asked, looking up at his friend as his sword landed heavily on William’s. They parried, and Joshua pushed at William’s sword until it slipped, and he stumbled forward. “How is business these days, anyhow?” Joshua asked. “The tailoring trade going well, is it?” Joshua straightened as William righted himself.
“Oh good, good. You know how it is. Work, parties, women. Really Cumberland, life doesn’t get much better than this.”
Joshua smirked. “You really are an old rogue, aren’t you? What about love, marriage, family?”
“What about it?” William snorted in derision. “Not my cup of tea, I’m afraid.”
“Oh, but William,” Joshua declared, passion in his voice that surprised his friend. “You’re missing out. Love is… love is what makes us human. We need love.” His sword slammed into William’s, but William quickly stepped back, and Joshua only just managed to stop his sword falling from his hand.
“Hmm, close, I almost got you there,” William said. “Anyway, what’s all this nonsense about love? You’ve been at those poetry books again, haven’t you, Cumberland?”
Joshua laughed. “And so what if I have? Really Orbison, you should try it sometime. It might make you appreciate the finer things in life.” They circled one another, daring each other to make the next move.
“I have plenty of fine things to appreciate, thank you very much. Fine fabrics, fine wine, fine women… Anyhow, what about your odd little family? That stepsister of yours and the girl—Mallory, is it?” William twisted his wrist and hit Joshua’s sword from underneath, hoping to catch him off-guard. Joshua pushed the sword downward, making William’s careen to the floor.
“Huh,” William said, nodding appreciatively. “Nice move.” He lifted his face guard, letting it rest on the top of his head, and he wiped the sweat from his face with a handkerchief, the scent of cinnamon drifting through the air.
“It was rather, wasn’t it?” Joshua said, smirking. “And you know very well her name is Mallory.” William nodded in conceit as Joshua raised his own face guard.
“So how is young Mallory doing?” William asked. He stuffed the handkerchief back into his pocket and pulled down his face guard. “Ready to go again?”
“My, who’s the eager one now? No time to even catch my breath!” Joshua replaced his guard and crouched into position.
“She’s a rebellious little thing,” Joshua said, vaulting back away from William’s immediate strike.
“Rebellious, you say? Taking after her old Uncle Willy already.” His head fell back as he laughed, giving William an opportunity to strike. He performed an attaque au fer, causing his blade to fall heavily on the middle of William’s. William held firm and parried in return, pushing hard and forcing Joshua’s sword upward. “Nice try,” he said.
“Yes, we’ve had to let go of the governess,” Joshua said, bouncing on his toes just a few feet away. “But we have a new one arriving this afternoon. One Miss Eleanor Radcliffe.”
“Miss Eleanor Radcliffe! Well, if she’s as pretty as her name suggests…”
“No, William.” Joshua lunged forward and slammed his foil into William’s, knocking it out of his hand and sending it flying across the grass.
“Well done, old chap! Distracting me with the thoughts of beautiful young women. How clever.” William laughed and took off his face guard, then bent to pick up his sword. “Anyway, I was merely saying, if she’s beautiful, perhaps you’d care to introduce us?”
“No!” Joshua repeated, more firmly this time. He pulled off his guard and raised his eyebrows at his friend. “She’s a respectable young lady, not some adventuress for you to play with. I will not be exposed to ridicule. You forget how well I know you, William Orbison.”
“Would I?” William held his hand to his chest in mock horror. “No, I promise you, Cumberland, as one of my dearest friends and reigning fencing champion, I will be on my absolute best behavior.” Joshua’s laugh was loud and true.
“You know, William, I’m really not sure you’re capable.”
Miss Eleanor Radcliffe
Eleanor could feel the pounding of her heart, could hear the blood rushing through her. She had always found new environments daunting, and this was no exception. To make matters even worse, she had to deal with the ever-distant Lady Wellington and Mallory, a child she had yet to meet.
Lady Wellington had shown her around the house, including her own sleeping quarters, in a rather rapid and off-hand manner. Eleanor had trotted behind, struggling to keep up, while Anna maintained her cold and uninterested attitude toward the new governess. Eleanor had felt overwhelmed, and it did little to calm her nerves.
Now, Eleanor sat in the parlor waiting for Anna to return with Mallory. They would take tea together in order to properly make each other’s acquaintance. She jumped, startled out of her reverie by the sound of the door opening. Anna led Mallory in by the hand, and Eleanor stood to greet her.
“Miss Radcliffe, this is Mallory,” Anna began.
“Hello, Mallory. It’s so great to finally meet you,” she said, looking down at her young charge. She was a petite little thing with adorable tight, ginger curls that wound their way down to her shoulders. Her pale skin was brightened by the permanent blush to her cheeks, and the light gray of her eyes told a tale of a curious mischievousness. She smiled weakly at Eleanor, still clutching Anna’s hand.
“Mallory,” Anna said, pushing the girl forward a little. “This is Miss Radcliffe, your new governess.”
“Oh, please call me Eleanor. Come and join me for tea?” Eleanor sat and indicated the place opposite, encouraging the girl to join her. She saw a flash of something pass through Anna’s eyes. Annoyance, perhaps? Shock? It was true that it was unorthodox to encourage one’s charges to call you by your given name. Eleanor, though, preferred to use friendliness to get the children on her side.
Mallory smiled and slumped into the proffered chair, laying back and swinging her feet. The dainty lace that lined her pastel pink dress flared out each time she kicked, revealing her pink slippers. She had a wide white sash tied just above her waist, and the silk trailed down behind her. Anna tutted loudly.
“Mallory!” she chided, storming over to the girl and pushing her back up. “Sit up straight!”
Eleanor watched the scene carefully, then said, “Thank you, Lady Wellington. I can take it from here.” She smiled sweetly up at her employer who, in turn, looked rather taken aback. First, Eleanor had become over-friendly with Mallory, and now she dared to dismiss Anna from her own parlor!
“I beg your pardon?” Anna said. Eleanor’s breath caught. This was not how she had meant to begin her new employment but if she were to educate Mallory properly, she needed to do it in her own way.
“I apologize if I spoke out of turn, Lady Wellington. However, I ask you to trust me—and trust in the recommendation you received from Lady Maribel. My methods may be a little… unusual, but I can assure you they work. And I really think this time is important for Mallory and me to get to know each other.”
Anna blinked rapidly, unsure how to respond.
“Very well then,” she finally said. She hesitated for a moment before turning on her heels and leaving. Mallory giggled.
“Now, Mallory,” Eleanor said, turning to the young girl. “It’s not nice to giggle at people. Would you like some tea?”
Mallory looked up at Eleanor, awed by her beauty. It was the first time she’d ever met someone like Eleanor—beautiful and friendly and seemingly confident, even if Eleanor didn’t really feel it. All her previous governesses had been old, conservative, and strict. Mallory nodded eagerly.
“Very well. Sit up straight, and you can have a little sugar in your tea as a treat. It is a special day today, after all.” Mallory grinned widely and sat up, watching Eleanor pour the tea, then add a splash of milk and a cube of sugar.
Mallory picked up her spoon and stirred, fascinated by the liquid spinning around in her cup.
“Remind me, Mallory,” Eleanor said, making Mallory drop her spoon and look up at her. “How old are you?”
“I’m eleven years old, Miss Rad—”
“Eleanor,” Eleanor reminded with a nod.
“Eleanor. I’m eleven.”
“What a wonderful age to be!” Eleanor declared. She picked up her teacup and sipped at it, her little finger a rigid flag at the side. “What did you think of your previous governess—Miss Eliot, was it?”
“Y-yes,” Mallory said, hesitating. “She…”
“It’s all right, Mallory. You can tell me.” Eleanor placed her cup on her saucer and leant forward conspiratorially. “It will be our little secret.”
“I didn’t really get along with her,” Mallory said, a shy smile on her face. She looked around the room to avoid eye contact. The sun that streamed through the lightly curtained window was warming on her back.
“Well,” Eleanor said, nodding gently, “I can understand that. Sometimes, you just don’t get along with a person. As long as you’re always kind and always polite, it’s okay. Are you always kind and polite, Mallory?” Mallory squirmed in her seat, an awkward twist of her nose giving her away. “Well, never mind,” Eleanor continued. “We shall just start that from now, shall we?”
“Yes, please,” Mallory said, nodding happily. Already, she was eager to please her new confidante and Eleanor could see they would work well together.
“Very well. Why don’t you tell me what it was that you didn’t like about Miss Eliot? I really do hope we become the best of friends, and I wouldn’t like to make the same mistakes as her.” Eleanor winked, causing Mallory to giggle.
“I’d like that too,” Mallory said, sitting up a little straighter. “Miss Eliot, she yelled at me a lot, and I didn’t like that. I think there are better ways of explaining what you mean without shouting at someone.”
“How very astute for one so young, Mallory, and I completely agree. Yelling is no good. All it does is hurt your throat and your ears! More tea?” Mallory had barely touched her first tea, but Eleanor poured herself some more, then stirred a little milk into it. Mallory held her cup up by the handle and daintily slurped tea from the top, making Eleanor chuckle.
“And she made me feel stupid,” Mallory said, putting the cup back down. She spoke rapidly, as though she had been holding these words in for far too long and now, they were falling out.
“Stupid?” Eleanor asked, head tilted with curiosity. “Stupid how?”
“When I didn’t know something or got something wrong. She would be mean, or sometimes she’d laugh, and I would feel stupid. But I’m not stupid, Eleanor. I’m really not!”
“I don’t doubt it for a second, Mallory!” Eleanor exclaimed. “A bright young thing like you? I’d bet you’re very clever when you put your mind to it, aren’t you?”
“I think so, Miss, yes. I like to learn new things all the time, but it’s hard sometimes, and I don’t always get it right.”
“Quite right. How are you expected to know everything? Well I wouldn’t dare do that to you, I promise. But you must promise me in return that you’ll try your very best every single day, even when you feel that you don’t w—”
Eleanor jumped to her feet when she heard the man clear his throat, and the tea set clattered perilously as she knocked the table. With a gasp, she put her hand out to steady the cup in front of her, while Mallory clutched her own. The man was wide-eyed in amusement, and Eleanor turned to face him.
“I’m Lord Cumberland,” he said. He held his silk-lined top hat to his chest and bowed his head, his curls falling pleasantly around his face. “And you, I presume, are Miss Radcliffe?”
“Um… yes,” she said, brushing the wispy strands of blonde hair from her face and offering a curtsy. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Sir.” He looked at her curiously.
“Indeed.” He turned to Mallory, noting how well-behaved she was being. “And you have Mallory sitting up straight already, I see.”
“Oh,” Eleanor said, brushing away his compliment. “She’s such a good girl, she hardly needed any prompting at all.” Mallory beamed.
Eleanor studied Joshua carefully, taking in every detail of his face, his clean-shaven jaw, the dark brown curls that rested at his cheeks. He was tightly clad in a tail jacket that could barely contain his muscled arms, and a deep red cravat billowed at his throat.
“Is everything alright, Miss Radcliffe?” he asked.
“Oh, yes, quite alright, thank you, Lord Cumberland.” She cleared her throat and twisted a finger around her hair.
She really had been hoping he wouldn’t be attractive. Her job would be so much easier if he looked like her previous employer, Lord Winston: short, chubby, and with a scowl that would put anyone off. But no, instead he had eyes she wanted to dive into and a manner that, whilst still distant, was distinctly better than that of Lord Winston.
“Very well, then,” Joshua replied, a curious look upon his face. “Welcome to Cumberland House. Should you have any questions, please feel free to come to me. Other than that, however, I shall leave you to your charge.” He bowed his head once more and turned to leave.
“Er… thank you, Lord Cumberland,” Eleanor called to his retreating back. She turned and sat back down. “Now Mallory,” she said, a little breathlessly. “Where were we?”
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