Raxdell House was positively humming with excited anticipation.
Hannah Clorinda Roberts looked beyond the flowers she was arranging in a vase on the windowsill, out of the window. It was a lovely late spring day. Her father and her brother Julius were about the gardens – as if anything needed doing to improve upon their perfection.
She stepped back, looked at the flowers, and stepped forward again to make a slight adjustment to one of the lilies.
There were footsteps coming down the stairs.
Why, Hannah, do you have fresh flowers at every landing? Excellent fine they are too.
Gervase Reveley, Viscount Raxdell, her parent’s employer, smiled down at her. You must be glad at Flora’s return, he said.
Hannah bobbed and smiled and nodded, although she was not sure – was she glad? Flora had been away so very many months, must have had so many experiences during her Grand Tour: could it be the same between them? Flora had wanted Hannah to accompany her, but there had been – difficulties.
Lord Raxdell proceeded down the next flight, still an athletic figure although his dark hair was now lightly frosted, as Hannah watched him go.
She knew how very – out of the common – her situation was. The child of servants, even were they not merely upper servants, but the renowned cook Seraphine and the greatly esteemed horticulturalist Elisha Roberts. A sufficient degree of African ancestry to be counted, she reckoned, as quadroon and the same proportion of less-marked French ancestry. Yet her place in this household – more like some dependent relative held in great affection. Educated alongside the Ferraby children, the dear companion of their beloved cherished youngest, Flora.
Hannah made a final scrutiny of the flowers, shrugged, and went to the place that would always calm and soothe her spirits, the library. She did not need to take out a book and read: just being there made her feel – in the right place. Which was, she thought, somewhat incongruous. And yet, it was her place. It was the place where she undertook the useful task of making sure the books were where they were supposed to be, of keeping the volumes of the catalogue up to date: and where she had learnt the skills of finding things out, where to look things up, and writing things down.
Mr MacDonald was already there: he looked up, his habitually severe expression softening at the sight of her. Hannah – you look quite the calmest creature in this house today.
She sighed. 'Tis a delusion, she said. I am as agitated as any, that is why I come here to address myself to work.
I am in much the same state, he confessed, and also find it answers to be out from underfoot, while there is a deal of domestic activity in train.
Indeed there is, as if all was not already in order. But I daresay 'tis even worse at Lady Bexbury’s own house.
Oh, indubitably. Anyone would suppose she was one of those sticklers that will most immediate note the one speck of dust or the single spot that is not properly polished.
Hannah frowned. Is it not – not for her, or rather, 'tis done not because she would in the least complain but to provide the appropriate setting? (She had spent quite a lot of time in the past months considering over the phenomenon that was Lady Bexbury and her effect upon her intimates and her wider circles.)
Mr MacDonald broke into one of his rare and delightful grins and said, Sure you hit it off! We all undertake things to express our welcome, in our own particular fashion – for my part, I have a deal of books and journals that I have kept by for her, Gervase – His Lordship – has made sure that that Melusine has been given exercize as well as being well-groomed, Mrs Ferraby makes sure all is swept and garnished, your mother prepares her favourite dishes, your father and Julius ensure the gardens look their best – how else may all show how very pleased they are to have her back?
But, he said, I daresay your own particular feeling is for Flora’s return?
She sat down, and clasped her hands before her upon the library table, and swallowed against the lump in her throat. I daresay, she said at length, she will have changed.
There was a moment’s silence. And have you yourself stayed entire the same? asked Mr MacDonald.
Oh, said Hannah. Of course she had changed. Just because she had stayed in the same place did not mean she had remained frozen as Flora had left her. There had been these hours in the library, the conversations and arguments – she had been acquiring an education that, did she consider upon the matter, and think of what she had been told of Oxford and Cambridge, was very likely superior to that acquired by many that could write BA after their names.
He cleared his throat, removed and polished his spectacles, replaced them, and said, I shall greatly miss our convocations – sure you have an excellent mind and the finest apprehension.
Hannah felt tears come to her eyes. Why, she said, must they cease? There is still so much I have to learn.
'Tis the like case with all: happy are those that know it. Sure I do not think you will give up study – but you and Flora were ever the inseparables. It must make some difference.
Hannah wrinkled her nose. O, Flora will be going about in Society, and being presented, and there will be suitors, I doubt not, both for her own merits and as a daughter of a wealthy and influential family. 'Tis a world where I may not follow her. I am sure I shall still have many hours to give to the library. But mayhap I should be thinking about finding a place - though indeed I am educated beyond my station. Oh, I daresay I might go out as a governess, though there must be few families would want one of my dark complexion –
Are there not, said Mr MacDonald, families of a like heritage that have gone prosper in the world and would desire educate their daughters to their own new station –
Oh, belike! Yet I do not feel in myself any desire to be a governess – sure one hears it may be a hard and miserable life, I confide that few are in that happy condition Mrs Lowndes enjoyed, but also I do not have that paedogogic inclination that she manifests.
Have you never thought that you might earn a living by your pen?
Have you not already published articles and criticism in The Intelligencer? I assure you, Mr Lowndes does not make space in his pages out of charity.
Oh, but –
He smiled and said, For if our virtues did not go forth of us, 'twere all alike, as if we had them not.
I mind, said Hannah, that the gentleman to whom that exhortation was expressed showed one of very corrupted virtue.
Does not mean that the sentiment itself is wrong.
Well, said Hannah at length, I will think on’t. For sure I would rather teach through words in print than before a classroom.
Entire my own sentiment!
But indeed, she went on, there is a deal of different 'twixt placing an occasional piece in The Intelligencer, and earning a living by one’s pen.
Mr MacDonald looked thoughtful. I daresay you will have heard of that very enlightened course of action that Mr – I mean, Sir Josiah, as we must now style him – undertook, concerning settling an allowance on his daughters as well as his sons, rather than laying the money by to swell some husband’s purse –
Even, said Hannah with a little quirk of her lips, did Bess and Meg go marry almost precipitate!
Even so, they were not obliged to do so, and in their matrimonial ventures, were able to follow their hearts. But what I come at, and mayhap 'tis entire interfering of me, is that besides the very fine places your parents have here, they have that interest in the factory that makes pickles and preserves from Seraphine and Euphemia’s receipts, were able send Julius about that Grand Tour with his friends, pay the premium to apprentice Joseph to an apothecary, I apprehend that there is some likelihood that Daniel will be educated for the ministry –
Hannah wrinkled her nose. May be just some boyish notion, she said.
- why should they not provide you with a competence that might support you while you went build up a connexion for your writing? I am sure they would do the like were you a boy.
But I am not a boy.
(She doubted that her brothers received anything like the exhortations and warnings about beguilement that her mother had addressed to her, ever since she came to womanhood. She was suddenly not to go help Josh Ferraby in his menagerie, must not do this or that. It was exceeding tiresome, and she had supposed that some fear of foreign seducers lay behind Seraphine’s determined refusal of Flora’s pleas to Hannah to accompany her upon her Grand Tour.)
She could see that Mr MacDonald was about to begin perorate upon the topic of the inequitable treatment of women, but at that moment one of the footmen entered to say, Lady Bexbury and Miss Ferraby’s carriage just comes in to the stableyard.
Oh! cried Hannah, I daresay all are drawn up ready to greet 'em; let us go at once.
Indeed let us go most expeditious.
All were already greeting the arrivals as they emerged from the carriage: Flora embracing her parents, followed by Lady Bexbury embracing Lady Ferraby and shaking hands with Sir Josiah, taking both of His Lordship’s hands and smiling up into his face.
As Flora moved to make her curtesy to His Lordship, and then to embrace Mrs Lowndes, she was looking around her with a little frown.
O, she cried, picking her skirts and quite running across the yard, Hannah, Hannah, o, I have missed you so, I thought mayhap you were away.
Merely lingering in the library, said Hannah, feeling her spectacles misting. Oh, Flora, you are looking exceeding well.
Sure I am glad to hear it, for we had quite the horridest Channel crossing.
And so fine dressed!
Why, am I in company with Lady Bexbury, do not wish to look like a poor relation or hired companion. But, o, Hannah, I have such a deal to tell you.
What, more than was in those fat letters you sent me?
Indeed there were matters I did not wish to put into letters, but to tell you to your face.
Hannah looked at Flora. She minded that Julius had remarked that when he and his friends had run into Lady Bexbury and Flora upon their travels, Lord Sallington had seemed considerable taken with Flora. Was a fine match in prospect, with the likelihood of some day being a Duchess?
Flora looked around. Lady Ferraby was already beginning to urge them indoors where a collation had been laid. Why, must go do the dutiful first, but might we not foregather in the old secret place upon the roof, later?
Hannah nodded. So, whatever it was, was not yet something that Flora wished to announce publicly.