(Rye Bay #1)
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[cw: misogynist slur, antisemitism, EXTREME SPOOKINESS AND GOTHIC VIBES]
Goldengrove’s towers and twisted chimneys rose at the very edge of the peaceful Weald, a stone’s throw from the poisonous marshes and merciless waters of Rye Bay. Young Tabby Palethorp had been running wild there, ever since her mother grew too ill to leave her room.
I was the perfect choice to give Tabby a good English education: thoroughly respectable and far too plain to tempt her lonely father, Sir Kit, to indiscretion.
I knew better than to trust my new employer with the truth about my past. But knowing better couldn’t stop me from yearning for impossible things: to be Tabby’s mother, Sir Kit’s companion, Goldengrove’s mistress.
All that belonged to poor Lady Palethorp. Most of all, I burned to finally catch a glimpse of her.
Surely she could tell me who cut the strings on my guitar, why all the doors in the house were locked after dark, and whose footsteps I heard in the night…
Did you know that I’ve written a series of historical romance novels about Lively St. Lemeston, Miss Oliver’s home at the beginning of the story?
Or buy the boxed set! Always the best deal.
April 16, 1813 (Good Friday)
Lively St. Lemeston, West Sussex
Already I couldn’t get any air. I knew it would be better to breathe in the smoke and suffocate before the fire reached my toes, but I couldn’t. I lacked the strength even to turn my head away as heat kissed my face and the flames licked closer, closer…
I bolted upright, drenched in sweat, my heart pounding and the sheets tangled around my legs. I checked the bedside table and the hearth, but no candle burned, no coal smoldered. Only a few rays of pale moonlight lit my drab little room; no shade of red or yellow intruded.
It was barely three o’clock, with no chance of breakfast until half past eight, but I knew from long experience I wouldn’t sleep again. I would be bone-tired all day, and it served me right for putting the extra blanket on the bed. I knew better, but I’d been so sick of shivering through the night, feeling the cold seep through my skin to the core of me.
It was too early to practice my guitar without waking Mrs. Humphrey’s other boarders, and any other employment would require light. I couldn’t bring myself to use my tinderbox. A candle would be all right once it was lit, a small friendly flame safely housed in Papa’s old mica sea lantern, but striking the uncontrolled sparks…
In an hour, I promised myself. In an hour I would forget the nightmare, light the damn candle, and read The Miseries of an Heiress.
It would be a relief to immerse myself in miseries so entirely removed from mine. My own father, though his pension had supported us while he lived, had left me barely enough to pay for his funeral and a few new words on my mother’s old stone. That out of the way, my inheritance came to: the lantern; Papa’s second-best wooden leg, currently serving as a hatstand; mãe’s guitar, a plain but sturdy instrument I kept for my students to learn upon; and a handful of odds and ends.
I never lit the candle. I had bought foul-smelling lard candles that week, anyway, not having the extra penny for the tallow we had always used at home. I lay in my bed watching dawn creep across the warped boards in the ceiling, and at a quarter past eight dressed in a hurry and went down to the dining room. I could immediately smell that the porridge was burnt.
Breakfast at Mrs. Humphrey’s had never been plentiful or well-seasoned, but these last few months were a new nadir. We’d lost our maid-of-all-work, Sukey, just before Christmas, and I missed her heartily. Since then we’d been through six servants, and I felt certain the newest one would burn the house to the ground one fine day.
Of course Mrs. Humphrey didn’t mind. When the porridge was scorched, we ate less of it.
Iphigenia Lemmon pushed her spice-box towards me. I took as much of her salt as conscience would allow, and together we choked the oatmeal down. Some days, this ritual amused me. Today, I saw a thousand such mornings stretched out ahead of me, thin and gray and unappetizing.
The maid-of-all-work in question brought in a folded note. Beside me, Miss Starling’s fingers tightened on her spoon as though she might leap up from the table and stab the girl with it.
The note was held out to me. “What answer shall I give Lady Tassell’s footman, ma’am? He’s waiting.”
I was so surprised I did not at once take it. Miss Starling set down her spoon to snatch and open the paper, for it was unsealed.
Iphigenia, reaching across my place at the table, read it next. “Ooh, lucky!”
She passed it to me. In a hastily elegant scrawl, it read:
I shall be at the Lost Bell all morning. If you will be so good as to attend me there, I hope to be the means of doing you a service—
Yrs. v. sincerely, &c.,
“What do you think the service is?” Miss Starling asked, eyes bright.
“Maybe she has a husband for you,” Iffy suggested. “Why not? She tried it with Phoebe Dymond.”
“She must know of a child in town who wants to learn the guitar,” I said tiredly, too out of sorts this morning to enjoy the game.
Smiles fading, my friends shrugged and turned back to their burnt breakfasts. A hollowness in my chest joined the hollowness in my stomach.
The Earl and Countess of Tassell were the Whig patrons of Lively St. Lemeston, here during Parliament’s brief Easter recess to glad-hand, scatter largesse, and celebrate Holy Week. Even in their absence (which encompassed much of the year), their agent in the borough was kept very busy paying for funerals and finding apprenticeships for supporters of the local Whig party.
“Maybe her ladyship will have a collation laid out,” Iphigenia said dreamily.
My spoon hovered over my bowl. Bad porridge was sure, a collation a faint hope. “Do you think she’ll be in a generous mood? Last autumn’s election was expensive and a failure.”
Her eyes crinkled. “She’s probably throwing good money after bad. People do.”
I laughed. Iphigenia had always been an optimist, after her own cynical fashion. I was not, but if I was offered breakfast at the Lost Bell and was too full of oats to eat it, I would kick myself all week.
I pushed back my bowl—and poor Iphigenia pulled it towards herself. “It wouldn’t do to keep her ladyship waiting,” I said. “Please tell her footman I’ll come straightaway.”
Despite the early hour, the sidewalks and streets were thronged. Lent was the Sussex marbles season, and today’s noon church bells would stop it short. Holding my skirts out of the mud—I wore every petticoat I owned against the cold, and washing-day was days away—I skirted chalked circles ringed with men and boys, competing with raucous good cheer and the occasional heated dispute.
Meanwhile, the local women skipped rope, a whole group on one long line swung by two people. They chanted and sang and laughed, cheeks rosy and eyes bright in the damp morning.
I passed Lord Tassell and some of the other borough patrons joining in the marbles, heedless of muddy knees. But no ladies of equal rank joined the skipping, as they had when I was a girl. Lydia Cahill merely watched her husband’s game, arms swallowed by her enormous muff; she would not even blow on his taw for luck until she had demurred for long moments, blushing. It seemed that spring grew chillier and the town’s ladies more decorous with each year that went by.
I glanced down to be sure I was not lifting my petticoats too far out of the mud, and showing too much ankle.
At last I reached the Lost Bell. With so many people out-of-doors I had expected to find the coaching inn empty, but petitioners of every age and sex loitered in the corridor outside the countess’s private parlor—some bored, some eager, and some desperate.
I hoped I was not one of the latter.
Yes, I was undeniably shabby-genteel in my faded pelisse and yellowing gloves. Yes, the soles of my boots were cracking. Yes, guitar pupils were in short supply. But I had paid my rent on Lady Day.
Barely, a scrupulous voice inside me amended. If I lost two pupils more, I might not manage it at Midsummer. And Mrs. Humphrey accepted nothing but cash in hand.
I pushed the thought away and stood straighter, hoping no one heard my stomach rumble at the smell of food wafting from the taproom.
At last a woman with ink-stained fingers asked me my business with Lady Tassell. I could not help evaluating her as she checked my note against her memorandum book and ushered me into the august presence: unruly hair, but blonde; not English, but her accent was refined—Scottish at the worst; not beautiful, but her features pale and delicate; not young, but likely no older than my own thirty-four. I would have thought her a nobody if I passed her on the street. What had recommended her for her good position, and guaranteed her hearty meals and new clothes?
Quickly averting my gaze from the groaning sideboard, I sank into the deep curtsy due a countess.
Clinging to gentility by your fingernails! the voice said, scornful now.At boarding school, we had been led to imagine adorning ballrooms with our accomplishments, not trading upon them in rented offices. Alas, it developed that balancing a book on one’s head was a profitable talent for a trained bear, not a woman.
Lady Tassell smiled, gesturing at the food. “Please, help yourself.”
Magic words! Probably she had seen my eyes fly greedily to the spread, but shame could not overshadow my pleasure. I filled my plate with hot buttered toast, smoked herring, marmalade—
“The ham is particularly fine,” she said.
I pretended I hadn’t heard, cutting myself two generous slices of hard local cheese and hurrying to take the hard chair placed opposite Lady Tassell’s writing table. Balancing my plate awkwardly on my knees, I bit into my toast with exquisite joy. When had I last eaten white bread?
Lady Tassell poured a cup of chocolate from a pot at her elbow. I did not dare hope. I did not dare look at the cup.
She slid it towards me.
My fingers shook with eagerness as I picked it up. I hoped she thought it nerves.
Ohhh… Bittersweet chocolate and rich cream caressed my tongue, whispering of lemon, cinnamon, and cloves. It lingered in my throat like Romeo in Juliet’s bed. I inhaled the steam, despising Mrs. Humphrey’s weak tea with all my heart.
“You have a lovely smile,” Lady Tassell said.
I wiped it from my face at once. Did the countess know that was the secret hope of every plain woman—that some Midas touch in her smile would transform her narrow face, long nose, and limp mousy hair? But no change of expression could render me lovely. When I was solemn my lips were too full for English fashion, and my smile bared horsey Oliver teeth.
I was grateful enough for a new pupil without flattery, but it would be unladylike to say so. “Thank you, my lady, you are very kind.”
“You grew up in Portsmouth, didn’t you? Are you fond of the sea?”
“Yes, my lady,” I said, wondering at the question. “We came here when I was thirteen, after my mother died.”
I rarely thought of the sea these days, but as a girl I had loved to walk along the harbor in good and ill weather, watching the men at work in the boats. My mother and I had shared a passion for combing the beach for shards of glass and pottery, worn smooth by the terrible endless friction of the waves. There was nothing so vast in Lively St. Lemeston. Low green hills bounded the horizon close on every side, and the River Arun barely deserved the title.
Yet I knew Lively St. Lemeston would wear me smooth and small enough in its time.
“Tassell Hall is only six or seven miles from the coast, but it’s too far to smell the sea,” Lady Tassell remarked. “At our lodge in Rye Bay, you can see the cliffs from the front windows.”
I made a polite noise and took another sip of chocolate.
“One of my Rye Bay neighbors wants a governess for his little girl. I could think of no one else qualified for the role, who might be brave enough to travel so far from home. You have always struck me as a self-reliant young woman.”
This was flattery, too—more dangerous than the first. If Lady Tassell truly thought me pretty, she would never recommend me for a governess. Iphigenia, more scholarly and accomplished, had been refused half a dozen such posts over the years, precisely for her incandescent beauty. But self-reliant? I could almost believe that of myself. I crunched my toast smugly between my big Oliver teeth.
I should have been wary. I should have known better than to think a little independence of spirit could arm me against all the danger of the wide world. But I was seduced by salt and sugar, chocolate and white flour.
“The pay is twenty-five guineas per annum, with room and board. I am told the child is obedient enough, though she’s struck me as a little peculiar.” The countess chuckled. “But what child isn’t peculiar?”
I smiled back, mentally turning over that room and board. A governess wasn’t family, but she was not a servant, either. Surely the food would be good, and the bed soft. A salary to be received on quarter days, instead of rent to pay. “Is her mother dead?”
A shadow passed over Lady Tassell’s face. “No, but very ill. She does not much leave her room.”
My heart went out to that obedient, peculiar little girl. An image formed in my mind: a solemn, dark-eyed child, perhaps a little resentful of her lot, inclined to throw stones at birds and make up secret languages. “How old is she?”
“Young for a governess, surely.”
Her eyes searched my face. She tapped her pen against the desk, then set it down decisively. “Allow me to be blunt. Lady Palethorp is foreign. Sir Kit wishes his daughter to have a good genteel English education.” She screwed up her mouth. “If you will forgive me for offering you a very awkward piece of advice, it might be better not to speak of your mother to him.”
My cheeks heated. No one in Lively St. Lemeston had ever met my mother. Few of them troubled to remember anything about her. But of course Lady Tassell was the exception.
“These John-Bull country squires can be small-minded,” she said ruefully. “The Olivers’ unimpeachable respectability and your good schooling should satisfy him.”
In all honesty, I was unlikely to have discussed my mother in any case. I wasn’t ashamed of her. On the contrary, I hated to expose her to slights. She had borne enough of those, alive—from the unimpeachable Olivers, no less. I knew better than Lady Tassell ever could about the small-mindedness of John-Bull squires.
I could almost smell the sea. I could smell a generous breakfast.
And that little half-English girl needed someone to take care of her.
“I’m glad to hear it.” But to my surprise, Lady Tassell did not look entirely glad. She fussed with her pen again, then leaned in. “I hope you will write me and tell me of your progress. Please believe I mean to stand a friend to you, Miss Oliver.”
I drew back—not physically, but in my mind. I felt my grandmother’s fingers dig into my shoulder, felt her hot breath in my ear: They’ll say they’re your friends. Don’t believe them! They lie, they lie…
I could never hear the word friend without remembering. Perhaps that was why I had so few. “Thank you, my lady. I am sensible of the honor you do me.”
“Then you’ll write?”
I nodded reluctantly, already itching to leave—to tell Iphigenia about the position, and be reassured by her admiring exclamations.
I felt a pang. Iffy and I weren’t as close as we had been in school, but I would miss her.
The countess produced a little tin box and held it out with a smile. I made myself take it, reading the neat motto on its lid: “A Gift FROM A Friend.” It had been painted, no doubt, by some other not-yet-desperate lady trying to wring a living from her accomplishments.
I twisted open the lid to find a hot cross bun inside. The sweet Easter rolls were lucky, people said; keeping one by the hearth protected a house from fire. Every Good Friday I considered saving one—and every year some faint scruple prevented me.
I turned the tin until the cross was only an enigmatic letter X. “What a kind thought, my lady. Happy Easter.”
“Happy Easter, dear. Please don’t forget to write.”
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