After returning to the school, Clara attempted to avoid Mrs. Alderly’s questioning on how her meeting with Stephen went. She returned to her chamber after dinner, but the following day was summoned to the headmistress’ office.
Mrs. Alderly waved a piece of paper at her. “Do you know what this is?”
“No,” Clara said uncertainly as she sat.
“It is from Lord Clifford’s solicitor. The lease will not be renewed and instead he is looking for another house for us to use. He does mention the family has a lodge in Gloucester which could be converted.”
Clara chewed her bottom lip but said nothing.
“I cannot uproot the school to another county. I would lose half my students.”
“Surely there is a suitable place nearby—”
“Do you not think I considered that before sending you? The only local places are much smaller than this residence. I would have to let at least two teachers and half the staff go.”
“Is there not another way? Increased tuition?” Clara removed her handkerchief to wipe her damp hands.
“Not when every enterprising governess opens a school these days. War always means less marriages, so there are more and more unmarried ladies who are willing to work.”
“What shall we do, ma’am? Lord Clifford would not listen to my pleas yesterday and has left for London.” Of course, it did not surprise Clara that Stephen could be so cold-hearted. He had treated her terribly.
Mrs. Alderly folded up the note and locked it in a drawer. “You are not to breathe a word of this to anyone else. We will hold our heads high. God will see to our needs.”
Clara fought to keep the doubt off of her face. Sinking ever lower into poverty had put up an icy wall between her and her heavenly Father.
The day did not grow better and, regrettably, Clara was unable to keep her poor attitude from affecting her mood in the classroom. After she caught a few passing notes, she assigned even more essays. The students already hated her; they could hardly have a lower opinion of her. However, they would learn discipline, history, and botany even if it killed both Clara and the children. Still, the glares she received as her students left the room stung.
After classes, Clara sat in her small chamber to read correspondence from her sister Esther. Dottie had barely managed to relearn the alphabet in the years since her illness, much less write. When Clara first began teaching at the school, the letters from home made her heart ache. Over the years, the sensation changed to relief. She would be fit for Bedlam if she had stayed living in the house and had to handle the various personalities and insurmountable anxieties daily. With a sigh, she opened the post.
We are all well, as I hope you are since your last letter. Dottie is enjoying the Spring weather and we take frequent walks. Sometimes I can persuade her to sit outside while I read to her.
Nell Gibson got a new dress made and I am green with envy. I know you work so hard, but I wish I had nicer things. Mr. Jones says I would look ten times prettier than her in anything, even a flour sack!
He called on the house for the first time in nearly a year a fortnight ago. He stayed for dinner and asked to hear me play and sing. I pretended I was a fancy lady who had “come out” and was performing for her friends.
I was nervous to have an audience, though. Mrs. Lamb said I did well, but she would have to say that because if I did poorly it would be a reflection on her! Afterward, I was so embarrassed with how I did that I practiced two hours every day for a week. When Mr. Jones came last week, he praised how much I improved and brought me new music!
He invited me, Dottie, and Mrs. Lamb to the big house for dinner next week. His children will be home. I haven’t seen Master Andrew in years. I wonder what he would look like now.
Will you visit during Easter? We long to see you.
All my love,
Clara looked through the rest of her mail, desperately hoping against hope that Mrs. Lamb, the aged housekeeper and caretaker of Dottie, had written as well. Esther was young and self-absorbed. Through the years, they minimized the truth of Dottie’s poor health to the middle sister. Esther could never remember Dottie differently, and the housekeeper did not notice the decline that was evident to Clara upon each visit.
Most alarming in Esther’s letter, however, was Mr. Jones’ recent visits to their small cottage. As their landlord, he could turn them out at any moment. Worse still, Clara feared he might impose or outright abuse Esther and Dottie. Few understood Dottie’s challenges. They mistook her typical silence for maidenly reserve. Along with her beauty, she seemed the ideal lady. When Clara went to work as Mr. Jones’ governess, she had to use all of her wits to escape his “forced attentions.” Dottie would not be able to protect herself. While Esther would not willingly succumb to Mr. Jones, but she might be persuaded to offer favors in exchange for her family’s welfare.
Instead of a letter from the adult meant to watch over her sisters, Clara found only bills. Her family lived on a very regimented existence, but the cost of goods seemed to be ever increasing. If Mrs. Alderly’s school closed and Clara did not have other employment guaranteed, her family would be in terrible straights. As she poured over the ledgers and bill receipts that night, she cursed the politicians that allowed the war to continue.
She awoke the next morning to a rapping on her door.
“Miss Lumley,” Mrs. Alderly chided as she extinguished the sputtering of her candle. “You will make yourself sick if you do not sleep more.”
“Nevermind that,” Clara replied as she rubbed her eyes. Taking a minute to allow them to focus on the clock she shoved her half-finished correspondence in a desk drawer. “I must hurry.”
“Wait,” the headmistress said. “After I spoke with you yesterday, I looked through the rest of the post. An old friend, Lady Randolph, is hosting a house party next week in Twickenham. Lord Clifford will be there, and I want you to go.”
Clara scoffed. “That would be a fool’s errand.” She began rushing through her toilette.
“Do I really need to tell you how desperate things can be for an unwed lady? If I do have to move the school, I doubt I can keep your position, as you are the least tenured of my teachers.”
Feeling her heart race, Clara finally ceased moving.
“If you cannot persuade Lord Clifford to renew the lease, perhaps you might gain a suitor.”
“Lord Clifford would never consider me—”
“I do not mean his lordship,” Mrs. Alderly interrupted.
It was just as well for Clara nearly ended that sentence with “again.”
“Lady Randolph has a widowed nephew with three children who is a clergyman. He could use a sensible wife. Or perhaps she can throw you in the way of other men.”
“I am no youthful debutante, ma’am. My days of dreaming of courtship and marriage are long over.”
“Nonsense. You can’t let your pride rule you. Now, it will be over our Easter holiday. Should Lady Randolph ask to keep you on, we can substitute your courses without a problem.”
Clara hesitated. She had hoped to visit her family during that holiday. “Is there no one else that has a greater influence over his lordship? His mother? Or maybe Miss Ward’s mother?”
“Miss Ward’s mother? No, no, no. Lord Clifford has never even met Lady Vernon. It was the previous lord who was Miss Ward’s original guardian.”
Clara breathed a silent sigh of relief. She had hated thinking that Stephen had an affair with Cecilia’s mother or was interested in the girl herself. “I had hoped to visit my family,” she confessed and looked to the ground.
Mrs. Alderly touched Clara’s hand. “Clara, I do not mean to be hard on you. You are the cleverest teacher I have ever had. If anyone can find a solution for us, it is you. You also are in the most precarious position out of us. If teaching is not a possibility for you, then I want you to consider marriage.”
As the older woman held Clara’s eye, she perceived her headmistress might know more than the usual share of youthful regrets. “I will go,” Clara said, at last.
“I will write Lady Randolph directly. You will leave on Friday.” Mrs. Alderly smiled then went to the door. “Now, hurry, dear,” she said before exiting.
As Clara hastily did up her hair in a simple bun, she peered in the mirror. The bloom of youth had faded years ago. A marriage of convenience was the best she could hope for, and yet what could be convenient about relying upon a man to provide for her and her family when so many had failed her through the years?
“It is time to put Stephen totally behind me. Any infatuation between us is long dead,” she said to herself. “What use is my love and fidelity when he hates the very sight of me, and I have a greater duty to my family?”
Reluctantly, Clara determined she would rely on her own plan at the house party. This nephew of Lady Randolph needed a governess, not a wife and that she was willing to provide if she could not save the school.
Clara traveled by stage to London and from there Mrs. Alderly had arranged with Lady Randolph to have a carriage and manservant bring her to the house in Twickenham. Clara hated to be indebted to a woman unknown to her and at the mercy of strangers, but after the long journey — nearly forty hours —from Scarborough to London and in a crowded coach she enjoyed the solitude and open air of Lady Randolph’s carriage.
On the onset of the journey, she had learned that two women, a widow and her mother, were traveling to London as well. The ladies’ conversation was lacking but they were kind and friendly. It provided Clara with companions when they were obliged to wait at a coaching inn several hours lest they arrive in London in the middle of the night. She enjoyed sharing a table and a simple meal with them, but as the other ladies continued to chat during the interlude, Clara’s mind increasingly turned toward the house party.
She had every reason to be nervous. She had not circulated in society like Lady Randolph’s in over a decade, never mind that it was her birthright. Even now, she was surely the only guest arriving by stage and unaccompanied — even without a servant! Governesses held a precarious position in the world; higher than servants but not truly equals to employers and their friends. As a school teacher, Clara understood many saw her even lower. There had been no need for fine clothing. The school maintained the rules of civility for changing clothes before dinner, but she understood that anything she wore would brand her position in the world.
Thoughts like that always brought her mind to Stephen. The Clifford family, she had heard, had deep pockets. The family had been investors in the East India Company for many generations. Some esteemed forefather had been knighted about a hundred years ago and then Stephen’s grandfather was made a earl. Clara cared nothing for the family money, prestige, or title. She had thought, at the time, Stephen did not either. She never hid her relative poverty. She never put on airs and aspired for more than her step-father’s position as a country clergyman with a small living could bestow.
Clara shook her head, attempting to dispel the thoughts swirling in her mind. She had only known Stephen a month before he proposed. They both were on a holiday. She was visiting her step-father’s parents, who she loved as though they were her blood. She had no other relatives left on her mother or father’s side. Thomas Howell’s father was a doctor and Clara immediately bonded with the older gentleman. Being talented and educated, he enjoyed the patronage of the local nobility. While dining with Lord and Lady Hastings, Clara met their eldest son’s visiting friend, Stephen Clifford.
Although a younger son, Clara understood she was always beneath Stephen’s notice. That didn’t seem to matter to him. However, in the subsequent years, Clara had determined it was nothing more than attraction that drew them together. A month was not long enough to determine someone’s true character and she was sorely mistaken in Stephen’s. Try as Mrs. Alderly might, Clara knew there would be no gaining Stephen’s sympathy or changing his opinion about the school.
Every hoof beat and turn of the carriage wheel brought her closer and closer to meeting Stephen again. Clara squared her shoulders and raised her chin. She would meet this difficulty like she had all the others life had thrown at her. If one possibility closed, she always formed a plan and found another answer.
She knew she did not have the energy to play on both ends and being near Stephen again was dangerous to her sensibilities. His attraction for her barely lasted a month of acquaintance before he broke their engagement. However, her love for him had stood the test of years and was now stronger than ever.
Stephen had been a youth of barely one and twenty when they met. Now he was a mature man with a strong, solid body. Her brain turned to mush when she was near him. Had she actually accused him of being friendly to Cecilia Ward to gain her inheritance? Surely if he were a fortune hunter, he would not have a problem charming an heiress of a more appropriate age. At a house party such as this, ladies would likely be throwing themselves at him. Clara hated the jealousy that still twisted in her heart.
It wasn’t vanity to admit to herself that in her youth she had been more than commonly pretty. However, it had been more of a hindrance than a source of prize. Few expected rational discussion from her. Her step-father certainly never took her opinion seriously, or he would have variolated Dottie and Esther as even his father recommended. There were worse parts of being attractive to the opposite sex as well. As a governess, it put her in a very dangerous position with her employer, especially as he housed her family. Seeing an advertisement for teachers at a girl’s school, even in far away Scarborough, and knowing she could not evade Mr. Jones for much longer, Clara boldly applied although she was hardly qualified. To her surprise and elation, she was hired.
Returning to governess work filled Clara with dread, but she mused she was hardly so young and pretty anymore. She would still be dependent on the goodwill of a man and most others would say to follow Mrs. Alderly’s advice and marry instead to have more permanent security. However, Clara had only two things other than her soul to give willingly: her affection and her body. Many years ago, she had promised both to Stephen Lumley. Perhaps it was selfish of her to keep the vows she made her youthful suitor while her family needed security a good match could bring them, but she could not deny her heart.
Finally, the carriage entered a short drive and arrived at Randolph House. The greying coachman assisted her down and as she walked up the stairs with trepidation, two aging servants appeared.
“Good morning, ma’am. Welcome to Randolph House. I am the butler, Mathers and this is my wife, the housekeeper. Miss Lumley, I believe?”
At Clara’s shy nod, Mrs. Mathers spoke. “Lady Randolph awaits you in the blue saloon, but welcomes you to rest after your travels.”
Believing it rude to not greet her hostess first, Clara declined the offer. “Thank you, but I would prefer to visit with Lady Randolph after refreshing myself.”
The housekeeper showed Clara to her clean and well-proportioned bed chamber. It was certainly larger and more fashionable than anything Clara had ever stayed in before. The feeling of inferiority grew. A maid was sent to help her unpack and assist in changing out of her traveling clothes. Within half an hour, Clara felt she could no longer delay meeting Lady Randolph and the other guests. Surely the gentlemen would be busy with outdoor pursuits. Clara prayed constant occupation, either with embroidery or reading, would help the time pass quickly and soothe any discomfort of meeting Stephen again.
Upon entering the blue saloon, her eyes were immediately drawn to him standing by the pianoforte and turning pages for some lady who was quite accomplished. The rest of the room sat with their backs turned to Clara as they listened to the mysterious performer. She took the moment to allow her eyes to rest on Stephen. He wore a light blue waistcoat and a dark blue jacket. She knew his eyes would shine like ocean waters reflecting a cloudless sky; deep enough to fall into and drown. Upon that thought, he glanced up and their gazes met. Something snapped in Stephen’s eyes. The azure blue flashed to a dark grey, reminding Clara of the shade shared by an angry sea. Her air escaped on a breath as though the force of Stephen’s ire knocked her in the stomach. Cold perspiration broke out on her forehead, and suddenly Clara felt herself falling.