Clara pulled the knitted shawl closer around her shoulders as she sat on the window seat in the library. She supposed the fire had gone low, and she ought to ring for a servant, but she had not had so much time to herself in a decade. The weather had turned from crisp but sunny to cloudy and frigid, drawing the others indoors. They gathered in other public rooms of the house, leaving Clara to enjoy the company of books. It was almost enough for her to forget the awkwardness of being in the same house as Stephen and the reason for her presence at all.
Last night had been too much for her. Stephen’s evident anger at seeing her once more mixed with the fatigue from her journey and emotional state. She had already decided that she was not attending this house party in hopes of finding a suitor, and it was just as well for collapsing before a proper introduction would send most men running in the opposite direction.
Clara blushed, however, as she recalled being carried to her chamber by Stephen. In their short courtship and engagement, they only shared one kiss. He had taken her hands in his and gently kissed her lips when she accepted his proposal. Her grandparents had made sure they were well-chaperoned. They only had privacy when he had requested a private audience to propose and then for the conversation, which ultimately led to the dissolution of their engagement. In her loneliest moments of regret, Clara could still feel the way Stephen’s kiss made her lips tingle. Being in his arms last night was almost like a fulfillment of her dearest dreams.
“Foolish dreams,” she muttered and dashed a tear from her eye.
She blinked until her eyes could focus once more on the page before her. Everything about the beginning of their relationship had been so sudden that perhaps the closing of it needed to be drawn out. Meeting again did not inspire new hope or longing in Clara. Instead, she hoped it would provide a definitive end. Whatever the future held for her, it did not include Stephen Clifford. She knew that now more than she had ever known it before. He had returned from India furious with her and put their acquaintance long behind him. Before seeing him again, thoughts would intrude of possibilities about their reunion. Now, she knew his love for her was well and truly dead.
At last, the wondering was over. She could hardly say it hurt worse than the years of uncertainty. That seemed to be more proof of her cold heart. Mrs. Alderly was wrong; Clara was not fit to be anyone’s wife.
The door creaked open, and she held her breath. Fortunately, Mr. Windsor entered and not Stephen.
“Ah, here you are, Miss Lumley,” he said with a genuine smile as he approached her. “We wondered how you fared.”
“We?” Clara set her book aside.
“My aunt and I, mostly. A few of the other guests agreed, but as no one knows you well, I hope you will not feel slighted.”
“Of course not. It has been many years since I have been to a gathering like this. I am afraid that I have come across as rude or taking advantage of your aunt’s kindness.”
“Think nothing of it,” Mr. Windsor waved a hand in the air before drawing a chair closer to her seat. “My aunt says that you are a teacher.”
Clara nodded. Her heartbeat sounded loud in her chest. Perhaps this was her opportunity to engage her services with Mr. Windsor. “For the last ten years, I have taught at Mrs. Alderly’s School for Girls. I believe you must know her as she is a great friend of Lady Randolph’s.”
“Indeed, Mrs. Alderly is quite charming. I do not know her well, but my aunt speaks highly of her.” He paused and gave her a slight perusal, his brows knitting together. “You must have joined her staff just out of the schoolroom, for you hardly look the correct age.”
Blushing slightly, Clara shook her head. “No, I was a governess for a few years before joining the school. I am her youngest teacher, but not as young as you suppose.”
“And did marriage never appeal to you? No matter what you say, you must have been dreadfully young to give up on the idea and look for employment. My aunt says you were a gentleman’s daughter, so surely you had other choices.”
Unsure of what to say, Clara glanced at her hands.
“Pray, forgive me,” Mr. Windsor said, “I did not mean to pry. I am used to speaking directly given my occupation as a minister. I must sometimes counsel parishioners in addition to giving sermons, you see.”
“That, I understand,” Clara said with a smile. “My father was a gentleman with a small estate. But, unfortunately, it was entailed. After his early death, my mother soon married a vicar. So, I quite know about the life of a clergyman, and you are, of course, forgiven.”
“Ah, I see.” He looked around the room for a moment before bringing his eyes back to Clara. “I am afraid my aunt’s other guests find me dreadfully dull. I have always been a bit of a bore, but I am even more so after my wife died. However, I do not mean to descend upon you with my company, especially when you are attempting to recover.”
“Your presence is not a displeasure. I confess that I am perfectly able to join the others and chose to not contradict Lady Randolph when she insisted I spend the day in quiet leisure. It is a rare delight for me.”
“Have you no holiday respite, then?”
“The school does close for holidays, and teachers are given leave to travel, then. Most of them return to their childhood homes or to that of siblings. I am afraid that I cannot afford to rest when I do so. My youngest sister is ill, and I cannot afford others to care for her. So when I am present, it is the only time that the housekeeper can rest herself.”
“And so you sacrifice yourself for them.”
“I try to be a dutiful sister, and I must honour my parents’ last wishes, after all.”
“Well, I am glad you are here then. You must worry for your sisters, but surely you are allowed a fortnight to yourself once every ten years. Even the Hebrews had a time of jubilee.”
Clara chuckled a little. “Alas, that was once every fifty years. Nor would I consider myself under bondage simply because I work to provide for my family.”
“This might be true, but do you ever find rest?” Mr. Windsor asked.
“Does not the Bible say, ‘Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’?”
“And do you find your rest in Him?”
Not immediately replying, Clara settled for something near the truth. “I try.” She shrugged her shoulders.
“When we have no rest from our cares, it is difficult to find the joy in life. Will you permit to speak to you as I would one of my parishioners?” At Clara’s slight nod, he continued. “They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. I will pray that the Lord restores the joy of your salvation.”
“Thank you,” Clara replied softly. It had been a long time since she had anyone care about her need for rest or the state of her soul.
Mr. Windsor withdrew a watch. “Ah, they are to have refreshments in the music room. Can I persuade you to join me?”
“I would enjoy that,” Clara said, taking his offered arm.
She could not see how it would be possible to restore her joy any more than she could see how the school would be saved. However, she would have to ask the minister about miracles and things believed to be impossible later. Now, she steeled herself to meet the other guests, and likely Stephen too.
“Miss Lumley,” the lady who sat with Stephen the night before greeted Clara. “Are you well now?”
“I am recovered,” she answered, doing her best to ignore the jealous jab to her heart. “Thank you for your concern. I am afraid that I was not introduced properly yesterday.”
“Do not worry overmuch about that,” Mr. Windsor said. “We do not stand upon ceremony here. However, allow me to do the honour.”
As he did so, Clara took in the smiling faces. They seemed sincere in their civility about being pleased to meet her, but she could not shake off the feeling that she did not belong with such people and at such a place. Clara had first spoken to an earl’s daughter, Lady Eleanor. There was a duke present! What on earth was Clara doing here?
One of the gentlemen hailed Mr. Windsor, leaving Clara alone with a cluster of well-dressed and elegant ladies.
“Do you perform?” Lady Eleanor asked.
“I am afraid not,” Clara confessed. “I never had the head for learning music. However, I enjoy listening.”
“We are planning a musicale this evening,” Lady Isabella, another daughter of a lord, said.
“How splendid!” Inwardly, Clara felt the conversation growing tedious and insipid. She could have little in common with these ladies. They were closer in age and position to her students than to herself.
“And there will be festivities around the fire afterward. Snapdragon and so forth,” Lady Isabella continued.
“Goodness,” Lady Eleanor exclaimed with a hand to her heart. “I have always been too terrified to play. I suppose all the gentlemen will think I am nothing more than a ninny if I refuse to play.”
“Nonsense,” Clara said sweetly. “Do not play merely to impress a gentleman. Why should you pretend to be something you are not?”
“What interesting advice,” Miss Ponsonby inserted, speaking for the first time since Clara arrived in the room. Previously, she had actually turned her nose up at Clara. “Is that part of the curriculum at Apple Tree…or wherever it is you teach?”
I am a teacher at Orchard Hall,” Clara said, fighting to keep her voice even and free of the anger coursing in her veins at the intended slight. “I will not speak for the other teachers. However, yes, it is something I teach in my classes.”
“I wonder if your former students feel it is useful.”
“I cannot say,” Clara said. “If you mean to insinuate that it may hinder their finding husbands, that may be. Yet, I remain convinced it is the best method to keep a husband or at least keep a happy one. Matrimony should be honored for much more than a means of income. Each makes vows to love and cherish before the Almighty, and they should not be taken lightly.”
“I suppose such moralistic values helped you in your career,” Miss Ponsonby returned without care. “Do not schools like yours hammer theology and morality into the students to keep them obedient?”
“I doubt the school would have much success if it attempted such contradictory philosophies that would keep students dimwitted and docile on the one hand but independent and determined on the other,” Lady Eleanor said with a wink at Clara.
Miss Ponsonby rolled her eyes and huffed. Then, with a toss of her head, she walked off toward a cluster of gentlemen and approached with all the confidence a woman worth fifty thousand pounds must have. Or maybe it was her lithe figure, perfectly symmetrical features, sapphire blue eyes, and blonde coiffure that gave the woman confidence.
After she had flounced off, Lady Eleanor whispered to Clara, “You must not mind her. She can be quite merciless and cruel, but it has not brought her any suitors. If she were as intelligent as she pretended to be, she would change her ways.”
“Thank you,” Clara said. “I spend my days with many miserable young ladies whose sole mission in life, aside from landing a wealthy husband, is to make others of their sex at least as equally miserable. I suppose I had always imagined life would differ out of the schoolroom.” “I am afraid that real life does not teach them to unlearn what they learned at an early age. The marriage mart and husband-hunting have turned too many women against each other. We ought to be allies, not enemies.”