It was not that I disliked being at Miss Angstead’s Seminary for Young Ladies, despite the other girls’ snobbishness, though that was what some might have thought. I even enjoyed my room, for I was a parlour boarder and had it all to myself, with my name, “Georgia Canning,” painted on the outside of my door. It was austere; its one concession to decoration was a half-length mirror on the inside of the door. I did not look at it much, for I knew what I would see: chestnut-brown hair, pale skin, and a light (very light, thank goodness!) sprinkle of freckles over my nose. My face was not classically oval like my mother’s, for I had a small pointed chin, and my eyes were as green as a cat’s. Mama often said my face was heart-shaped, but I think she was only being kind.
As for my clothes ... well, they were nothing to look at, either, for all of us wore the schoolgirl’s uniform of white, cream, or grey round gowns that covered us from neck to toe. Mine fit me only for the few months I grew into them. Then I would be given another larger one that would bag around my figure until I grew into it. I never paid much attention to fashion anyway, so I ignored my appearance unless it was untidy.
It was just that, as I grew older, I became more and more aware of Mama’s single state and how unusual it was. Other girls’ mothers were not as pretty as mine, but they were married. I watched Mama when I was home and kept note of her letters. The faces in Mama’s salons changed, but I noticed a persistent one—a man she called Sir Jeremy. Mama’s letters usually mentioned him once or twice. Finally, when I had just turned seventeen, a letter came that mentioned his name ten times. Nothing remarkable in the letter about him—merely that they had gone to the opera and then to someone’s ball, and some of his thoughts on Reform.
From my window at school, I saw the older girls depart Miss Angstead’s Seminary for Young Ladies to have their Season in London or giggle to each other when passing a handsome Hussar in the street. My thoughts turned—not unnaturally—to marriage, and the heretofore unthinkable idea came to me: Could it be possible that even at the advanced age of six-and-thirty, my mother might marry again?
This shocked me a little, for six-and-thirty was a great age: surely past the time of falling in love. It was difficult to think of my mother giggling behind her hand and flirting with her eyes in the way some of my schoolmates did when they had a tendre for some young man. Yet I heard of some of those same schoolmates’ widowed mothers remarrying, too, and they not much older than my own mother. I was determined to quiz Mama on this the next I saw her.
As Mama was preparing to leave my room at Miss Angstead’s after a visit, and after she mentioned four or five appointments with Sir Jeremy for the next month, I said bluntly: “Mama, are you going to marry Sir Jeremy Swift?”
She looked at me, startled, and blushed. “Good Lord, Georgia, how you take one up!” She fussed with her reticule and rose from the chair next to my bed.
I put my hand on her arm, and she sat down again. “Mama, I am seventeen now, no longer a little girl. You have increasingly mentioned Sir Jeremy in your letters, and now you have five appointments with him this month. If he might become my father, perhaps I should know.”
“I—I haven’t accepted him,” she said in a low tone. She turned her face away. “He comes from an old and well-known family. What could I bring to him, do for him? I merely have enough to support you and me, and my family was neither illustrious, old, nor rich. He should marry a respectable young woman who would do him credit—as I cannot.”
“How can you say that, Mama! I should think that anyone would be proud to have you to wife!”
She smiled at me with affection, but the wistfulness did not leave her eyes. “Thank you, my love. But you see, my father was a merchant—and not a rich one at that. I could not bear to have Sir Jeremy estranged from his family; your father and I loved each other dearly, but I know how much it hurt him to be cut off from his family. I do not want to have that happen again. You can understand that, can you not?”
I did and said so. I also thought Mama had too many scruples. If Sir Jeremy had no qualms about proposing to her—and I supposed he was old enough to know his own mind—I did not see why she should have any about accepting. But I did not think Mama would see it this way, so I said nothing.
“Besides,” she continued with a bitter laugh, “how am I to know he isn’t merely trifling with me?” She pressed a hand to her temple. “It is so complicated. I have been disappointed before. It is hard for me to trust anymore, I think. What if he was merely dangling the idea of marriage in front of me so that I would be less inclined to look elsewhere?” She closed her lips firmly, glancing at me, then let out a sigh. “Ah, my dear, I love him, but I couldn’t bear to think he would turn out like so many others.”
“Exactly.” I put my arms around her shoulders. “I feel it is my duty—since your father has died and Grandfather Canning has cast us off—as nearest kin, to see if this man is really fit to become your husband and my stepfather. After all,” I said, affecting a haughty pose, “we deserve nothing but the best.”
The trick worked: Mama laughed. “You are a funny one!” But her eyes were still sad. “You have been lonely, have you not? I have not done well by you, I think. I am a foolish woman, my dear.”
All my maternal instincts were born in that instant. Poor Mama—so wise and at the same time so foolish! “I don’t really care to make friends with the silly girls here at school—they can be tedious at times. I enjoy reading much more. And if I come home more often, both of us will be less lonely.” A scheme was growing in my mind in which I would be doing more than coming home, but I’d think of that later. “Tell me more of Sir Jeremy.”
“Oh, my love!” Mama hugged me in a rush of silk and perfume. “Well, if you insist—I believe you have met him once or twice.”
I nodded. To my surprise, I remembered him as one whom I liked more than the others. He took notice of me where the others did not, and he had been very polite. I hardened my heart against him, however; I would see what his intentions were regarding my mother first before being fooled by any charm he cared to exude.
I smiled. “Yes, I remember him. I hope I may see him again sometime.”
“Ah, you will. I shall make sure I invite him to dinner the next time you are home.” The clock on the wall chimed, and Mama jumped and looked at it. “Oh, dear, I must go or I shall not get back to London before Monday....” Tears came to her eyes again, and she searched for her handkerchief. She had left it on the chair, and I brought it to her. “You are too good to me, my dear. I do not know what I have done to deserve such an understanding daughter. Well. I must go.” I was hugged again, and after I gave her a kiss, she left in a rustle of skirts.
And so I set myself to planning how I would leave Miss Angstead’s Seminary for Young Ladies.
* * * *
In the end I had to simulate as many symptoms of an interesting decline as possible so I could go home immediately. Goodness knows I wouldn’t have been allowed to go home if I asked—it simply wasn’t done.
I would be cautious, I told myself. Too many girls had been caught play-acting an illness immediately after vacations and holidays. I did not want to risk anyone thinking I was play-acting, too.
Whenever the weather looked threatening, I took the opportunity to stroll the gardens around the school, saying—if anyone warned me that a storm was building—that the gardener told me his bones said otherwise. A lie, of course. Old Jake was always accurate about changing weather, but I quelled any feelings of guilt by reminding myself that this deception was for Mama and my future. A wetting did not work, however; I became soaked to the skin, received a scold from whatever schoolmistress caught me, and was forced to take a hot bath. I emerged from this with a heightened color—of health, not fever.
I progressed from lying to theft. I stole apples from a nearby orchard to eat first thing in the morning. Eating fruit for breakfast, guaranteed Miss Angstead’s cook, would cause the flux and promote influenza. I faithfully ate apples for a month and a half, but all I did was lose some baby fat and feel healthier than I had before. Looking in the mirror at my thick and glowing hair, shining green eyes, and daisy-fresh skin was almost enough to cast me into despair.
This would have been discouraging to a girl of lesser mould, but I was persistent and had the strength of conviction that in the end this would be for the good of all concerned. It came about— indirectly, however—that I owed my eventual appearance of decline to Emily Possett.
Emily was a likable girl who was not so high in the instep as to avoid my company. She was also an inveterate gossip: since she kept company with the “select” group of girls, I would hear of those in the highest circles of the ton. Emily, not having anyone else with whom to discuss these things, often came to me.
I was sitting cross-legged on the bed, reading Plutarch’s Lives, and was getting heartily bored of it. I had discovered a separate store of books at Miss Angstead’s when I first became a parlour boarder. It was a large, closet-like room, just down the hall from mine. It was never locked, and curious, I took it upon myself to peek within: primers on Latin, Cicero, Plato, Rousseau, and Wollstonecraft. I convinced myself that no one would notice one or two books missing, if I shuffled some others loosely together to cover the empty spaces.
Emily knocked at my door and came in. Sometimes I found the goings-on of the upper 500 somewhat tiresome, but this time it was a welcome change from the Lives.
“Oh, Georgia, the most appalling thing!” exclaimed Emily, flinging herself at the bedpost and clutching it with all the fervor of a saint clinging to the cross. She rolled her eyes toward heaven, and I was reminded of a picture I once saw of the ecstasy of St. Agnes. I often thought that if the stage had been a respectable occupation for a lady, Emily would have been a female Kean. Her dramatic good looks and talent for histrionics were going to be wasted on a future society matron.
“Only think!” she breathed. “Lord Hawksley has poisoned his wife!”
I patted the bed beside me, and she somehow managed to fall upon it in a remarkably decorous manner. She supported her chin in her hand and gazed at me expectantly.
I lifted a skeptical eyebrow. “No doubt she ate something that disagreed with her,” I said.
Emily seemed somewhat daunted by this but persisted. “Oh, no! It was a definite case of poisoning. Lady Caroline told me so. She said that he only married Lady Hawksley for her money, and had fallen in love with another—some say it is Sophia Penningsley—and thus she was an Impediment to his Desires! Lady Hawksley, I mean.”
“And so poor Lady Hawksley exits this life unmourned,” I said flippantly.
Emily gave me a reproachful look. “Well, I don’t know. Caroline says she also was in love with someone else, so I suppose he must mourn her. Not that anyone should mourn her, because she isn’t dead.” She considered this for a moment. “Not yet, anyway.”
“I thought you said she was poisoned.”
“She was! Only, she suspected it and called the servants. She is only in a decline now. I suppose they must have given her ipecac to get the poison out,” she said knowledgeably.
“It’s horrid stuff. My youngest brother had to take it once when we found he had the bloody flux. It made him vilely ill and he simply retched all over the place.”
“Really, Emily!” I said, nauseated. I had an odd feeling that something was important here, but I was too distracted to hunt down this idea.
“But it got all the poison of the flux out of him. That is why it works. It makes one give up one’s dinner, and the poison, too. Most households have it to take care of the disease, but one can use it for plant poisons, too.”
I shuddered. “No doubt.” I turned the subject, hoping Emily would take the hint. Having got a satisfactory reaction from me, she complied.
She chatted amiably on, and I floated off to other thoughts. She mentioned Sir Jeremy Swift once, and my mind came to attention, but it was merely in reference to his wealth. Apparently he, along with Lord Hawksley, moved in the highest circles. My mind kept insisting there was something important about Lady Hawksley, and groping toward that thought, I came to it—ipecac!
I turned the subject again, enquiring about Emily’s family. She talked cheerfully of her brother’s toothache and her mother’s Interesting Condition. I reflected aloud that it was fortunate her father was a physician and knowledgeable about these things. She agreed.
“I suppose that is how you came to know about the ipecac,” I said casually.
“Yes! Father is always telling me about remedies he uses. He thinks ipecac should always be available in case of need.”
I wondered privately how often people were poisoned by their spouses to warrant such a recommendation but concluded it must be more for the flux than ridding one’s self of a husband or wife.
“Indeed, when last Father visited me, he brought a bottle of it for the infirmary here,” said Emily.
“I imagine since it is used in urgent circumstances, it must be in the unlocked cupboard there.”
“Well, of course!” she exclaimed. “Miss Lauderdale would hardly want to fumble with a lock when someone is at Death’s Door!” Miss Lauderdale was the natural science mistress, which meant she pointed out flowers and plants and had us sketch them. She was also in charge of the infirmary.
It was half an hour before dinner then, and we parted to ready ourselves for it. Not that I felt ready when I sat down to dinner. I pushed the jellied eel about on my plate and glanced at Emily. She ate with her usual hearty appetite. I grimaced. There must be something about physicians’ daughters that accustoms them to vivid descriptions of the effects of ipecac.
* * * *
Because my next operation was more perilous than any of my other attempts at becoming ill, list making was imperative. First, because I did not want to take the whole bottle, I needed a container for the ipecac. I thought my tooth cup would suffice for now. Second (and I congratulated myself for my detailed planning), I would oil the hinges on the infirmary cupboard in case it squeaked. After mentally searching my belongings, I remembered I had a bottle of camellia oil for the hair. It smelled pleasant, so I did not think anyone would detect it.
Third, caution. Miss Lauderdale had a connecting door to the infirmary. I did not know if she was a heavy sleeper, so I had to assume she was a light one. The infirmary, I knew, was usually unlocked. I would have to take my chances on that. Most important, I had to have a reason for being out of my room at night. I thought of several (a burglar, nightmares, and the like) and discarded them all. The simplest was the easiest: that I felt ill.
When Miss Standish checked to see if I was asleep, I must have seemed dead to the world. I waited two hours. Then, as quiet as a cat, I crept out of my room.
I met with no hindrance. The infirmary door was conveniently unlocked, but so was the connecting door. I hesitated. Perhaps my candlelight might wake Miss Lauderdale! I would have to risk it: this was for Mama.
When I stood by the cupboard, I heard Miss Lauderdale moan in her sleep on the other side of the door. I froze. But silence for the next long moment reassured me, and putting my candle on the floor, I began oiling the hinges.
The cupboard door opened without a squeak. By the light of the candle on the floor, I could make out the simple block letters naming the object of my search. Casting another look toward the connecting door, I quickly opened the bottle of ipecac and shook a fifth of its contents into my tooth cup. Carefully, I replaced the bottle and closed the cupboard.
Clutching the cup, I crept out of the infirmary and ran as quietly and quickly as I could without spilling the ipecac. When I had gained my room, I shut the door and leaned against it, feeling as if I had held my breath during the entire operation. My heart was beating rapidly; I took a deep breath to calm it. I let it out with a whoosh and allowed my shaking legs to take me to my bed.
I stared at my booty for a while. My campaign would begin tomorrow, but I was curious. I sniffed the powder. No real scent to it; was it tasteless as well? I wet my finger with a bit of it and put it to my tongue. Gahh! Immediately I went to the pitcher by my bed and drank some water to wash out the bitterness. It was going to be difficult to down the stuff, but I felt equal to it. There is nothing more determined than a Canning bent on action, Mama always said of Father, and I knew this was true for me, too.
I set my tooth cup under my bed. The maid never swept under there anyway, so it would be safe. As I got into bed, I reflected that I had an old perfume vial into which I could pour the stuff. But then I yawned hugely and consigned this task to the morning.
I awoke with a feeling that all was not right. I had not much time to ponder over this, for suddenly all sleepiness left: my stomach turned over. My mind immediately went to the ipecac. Is this all it took to make one ill? I did not want to be sick now! I waited anxiously for more violent signs, but nothing else appeared; I remained nauseated until exhaustion overtook me, and I slept.
I staged the first display of my illness for Sunday. In most girls this would have been suspicious, but I was fond of going to church, and this fact was well known. I did not have a reputation for piety, however; it was also well known that I went because I loved the music springing from the pipe organ like winds from the sea. The schoolmistresses knew only the most extreme circumstance could tear me from this treat. So it was with concern that the Headmistress, Miss Angstead, listened to me when I complained of feeling a little faint.
She pushed back her unruly grey-white hair and looked at me with her sharp but kindly brown eyes. My lack of sleep supported me: shadows darkened my eyes, and I looked pale. I blushed a little at the lie, and she laid a bony hand on my forehead, apparently thinking I had the flush of fever.
She gazed at me thoughtfully. “You do not feel warm,” she said. “Perhaps the walk to the church will revive you.” She patted my cheek. “You have a good constitution; I am sure you will feel better shortly.”
I felt ashamed at deceiving her, but neither this nor her insistence that I attend church kept me from my plan. I had secreted a stoppered vial, which contained the ipecac and water, in a pocket of my dress. My experience the night before warned me of its potency, and I did not want to be as violently ill as Emily’s brother. I hoped I had diluted it enough to make me an interesting color, but not enough to send me to bed.
The sermon as usual was dull, but I kept awake for the music. I decided to sip the vial during the last hymn; that way, some people would be busy singing and the rest would be busy watching our new curate-from-London’s way of conducting the choir. Last week he crouched down when the choir was to sing piano measures and suddenly leaped like a tiger upon its prey (the choir) at forte, arms outstretched. Today he looked as if he were pantomiming a windmill. I waited.
The curate’s thin arm sprung in an electrified manner into the air and suspended there. This was my cue. As his twitching fingers took riveting command of every eye, I coughed, and under my handkerchief I quickly sipped the vial. I glanced around surreptitiously and caught Schoolmistress Lauderdale’s glare. My hand shook as I stoppered the vial under my handkerchief, wondering if she had seen me drink from it. She only looked at me for a moment, however, before turning, a besotted mist settling over her face as she gazed at the curate. I felt relieved; the rumor must be true that Miss Lauderdale had a tendre for him. No doubt my cough had distracted her from her reverie. I sneaked a glance at the younger Miss Standish and noted that she, too, looked dreamy. So that was true, too! I saved the information for later: I would have something to tell Emily for a change.
The potion took longer to work than I thought; I had planned to look ill while all of us from Miss Angstead’s walked down the church steps. We had already made our curtsies to the vicar when I felt my stomach turn. I prepared myself to look interestingly pale.
I was not prepared to become violently sick. I only had time to moan to Miss Standish in front of me before I retched all over the hem of her dress. I heard a revulsed shriek as I doubled over and gave up jellied eel again. A thought flashed through my mind that if I had to heave, I was glad it was on Miss Standish instead of Miss Lauderdale. I liked Miss Lauderdale. Miss Standish was snobbish.
The next hour flashed by quickly. I saw the worried faces of Miss Angstead, Miss Lauderdale, and the curate hover over me. I felt myself being carried and deposited in someone’s carriage, but any gratitude I fostered at being able to lie down was quickly quashed as we bumped down the road to Miss Angstead’s.
I could do nothing but moan, cough, and choke as I was undressed and put to bed. I tossed and turned therein, acting for all the world as if I were in a high fever. I felt sure Death was going to catch up with me, and I wished he would hurry up about it. It was not until my stomach was done mauling the rest of me that I lay still, sipped something that someone put to my lips, and fell asleep, aching.
I still felt ill in the morning, but better the next day under Miss Lauderdale’s ministrations. I protested weakly that I did not need so much fussing, and Miss Angstead retorted that I should be grateful that Miss Lauderdale was helping. Miss Lauderdale actually smiled broadly at this, which surprised me, for she was a solemn young woman and her shy smiles were sweet but rare. I admired her when I first came to Miss Angstead’s and used to imagine tragic and romantic stories about her to justify her single state. So I felt embarrassed that she should use her valuable time taking care of me in my induced illness.
I mumbled my thanks to her, feeling ashamed, but she smiled and shook her head. “You may not know it, but I owe you something as well. It was the least I could do to repay you.” I wondered at this, but not for long, as I yawned and fell into sleep again.
As the days passed, I grew stronger but was still interestingly pale and wan. I tried to sustain this as long as I could (without ipecac), but my pink cheeks soon betrayed me. When Miss Lauderdale reported to the Headmistress that I was well enough, I was called to her room.
I twisted my hands in front of me nervously, not knowing what this interview was about. Miss Lauderdale had been evasive when I asked her. Miss Angstead was writing something as I sat and did not look up at me until she finished with a flourish.
She sat back in her chair, steepled her fingers, and looked at me for a long moment. Her dark, sharp eyes assessed me, and she seemed to come to a decision. She pulled open a drawer and tossed something onto her desk. It was the vial I had carried with me to church. I flushed hotly.
“You know what this is,” Miss Angstead said softly. It was a statement.
I looked down at my hands. “A vial?” I murmured vaguely, trying to sound as though I were only guessing.
Miss Angstead emitted what sounded very close to a snort. “Come, come, my dear. You are intelligent enough to translate Plutarch, you do not need to guess what this object is. I imagine this has something to do with your late illness?”
I suffered a severe shock. Not only had she discovered the vial, but it seemed she knew all along of my depredations in the small closet-library. I took myself well in hand, however. I opened my eyes wide with innocence and looked at her appealingly. She considered me with her intelligent eyes, gave back an amused smile, tapped her steepled fingers together, and waited for my answer. She had an efficient air that gave the impression of having all the time in the world. I knew then I was up against a seasoned campaigner. I wanted to cry in despair at the mess of my plans but resolutely took hold of my bottom lip with my teeth and managed not to. I would think of other plans.
“It held ipecac, ma’am,” I said, looking at her defiantly.
“Ipecac. I do not see how that substance could have been useful in church.”
“Well, it wasn’t, not in church. I only meant to take enough to be thought in a decline.”
“A decline. And why was it necessary to go into a decline? Not to avoid your studies, I hope?”
“Oh, no, Miss Angstead! Ask anyone! I really do like my studies. It was for my mother.”
“Your mother.” Her habit of echoing me made me nervous. I shifted from one foot to another. She indicated that I should choose a chair. I sat gingerly on the edge of one. “Would not a decline make your mother anxious more than anything else?”
“Well, yes, it would for a while until I became better. You see, I need to go home. She needs me to take care of her.”
“Mrs. Canning, I suspect, is quite old enough to take care of herself, do you not think?
“No! I mean, no, ma’am. She’s quite alone, without proper company, and it’s horribly easy for unscrupulous people to take advantage of her. It has happened before, you see,” I said fiercely. “She doesn’t have anyone except me, really.”
“From what I hear, your mother doesn’t lack for company.” It was said kindly, without malice, but I felt despondent.
“But not proper company!” I blurted. I blushed again.
“And you think by leaving school, you will be repaying her,” she said conversationally.
“No, that is not it at all.” I decided the only way out of this was to explain how I had come to decide on my plan. I related to her Sir Jeremy’s proposal to my mother and her refusal.
Miss Angstead listened and made no comment.
I felt comforted by this, somehow. I finished my tale, and she sat there nodding, seeming to think. “And how did you—procure—the ipecac?” she asked. Hanging my head, I told her my preparations and actions. She raised her eyebrows, but she seemed amused rather than angry. She said dryly: “Miss Lauderdale told me not to underestimate you.”
“Yes. She was the one who found your vial. No, she did not intentionally betray you,” she assured me as I shot her an indignant look. “She thought you had taken the potion inadvertently, or worse, and she was in fear for your life.”
“No, I know that now, but I also know how mean-spirited some of the other girls can be, and why your mother wanted you to be a parlour boarder. It is often reason enough for girls to be despondent. And, after all, taking the potion was a rather desperate act, don’t you think?”
I twisted my fingers, and muttered agreement. I looked up again at her pleadingly. “But, don’t you see, desperate situations require desperate acts to solve them! I know I can do something to make Mama’s situation better! I have to go home!” My voice cracked.
Miss Angstead sighed. “And what do you suppose you will do, once you are home?”
I looked at her steadily. “Make Sir Jeremy Swift marry Mama.”
She opened her mouth, then closed it and seemed to ponder. I still stared at her, my lips firm with determination. She gazed at me assessingly, and a faint smile trembled at the corners of her mouth; it seemed as if she were about to laugh. “My dear, that would be something to see if it could be done! Sir Jeremy has resisted all his relatives’ attempts to make him marry. But do you know . . .” Her smile grew wider. “I believe you could, if you set your mind to it. I really believe you could.” Miss Angstead put her hands flat on her desk. “And I shall help you,” she said.
I could have been knocked down with a feather— as Grimley, Mama’s abigail, would say—when Miss Angstead announced that she would instruct me in the art of being in a decline. I am afraid I did not do credit to my scholarly reputation. I stared at her, my jaws agape, hands clutching and wrinkling my skirts.
“For goodness’ sake, girl, close your mouth and sit up straight!” Miss Angstead said testily.
“B-but I, what is—I mean, I do not understand.”
“I believe I said I would help you go into a decline.” Miss Angstead smiled.
I wondered if the Headmistress had gone mad. I surveyed her carefully. She looked as she always did: somewhat untidy hair graying to white, large, intelligent brown eyes, a firm and competent mouth in a slim, lined face. She did not seem deranged in any way. However, I remembered that it is wholly possible for deranged persons to look quite normal.
“I do not want to be pert, ma’am,” I said cautiously, “but I wish you would explain to me what you mean.”
“I will let you go home,” she replied, and held up her hand as I blushed and opened my mouth. “Not in disgrace, though your actions certainly do warrant it! But your motives are laudable, and I have a desire to see Sir Jeremy Swift... reformed.” She clasped her hands together and looked at me in a satisfied manner.
“I still don’t understand, Miss Angstead. Do you know Sir Jeremy? And,” I reflected in some consternation, “if he needs to be reformed, I don’t know if I want him for Mama.”
Miss Angstead clicked her tongue. “My dear, all of us need to be reformed in some manner, some more or less than others. Yes, I am acquainted with him. We are somewhat related. It is the opinion of most of his family that he should end his bachelor ways—he is thirty-nine now, nearly forty.”
I nodded. “That is old, isn’t it?”
She raised her eyebrows at me but continued. “I think there would be little objection if he married a lady such as your mother.”
I bristled. “Excuse me, Miss Angstead, but I would like to know what you mean by that!”
“My dear, I did not mean offense, but I must be blunt if we are going to enter into a plan of action. I am aware it is rumored your mother has had . . . ah, associations. If she has, she has also been discreet, and there is nothing at which anyone can point a finger. But she has two disadvantages. First, she is a widow with no male protection. Second, and worse, she is remarkably pretty and popular with men. That she has no male relative to protect her would not even be a disadvantage if she were not pretty—people do believe worse about handsome widows than plain. A mark in her favor is that she is Mrs. Canning, the widow of the third son of the Viscount Canning.”
“She is a tradesman’s daughter,” I said, baring all. “That cannot be in her favor.”
“True, but if I recall, your grandmother was of genteel birth. Also, your mother had the good taste to marry and follow your father, who distinguished himself under Wellington before he sacrificed his life for his country.”
I had to admit that this last item was certainly a fine thing. But if Miss Angstead could be blunt, so could I. “But why my mother? There are probably more ... acceptable ... ladies, younger, too, who are available. Is there something wrong with him that other ladies do not like?”
The Headmistress smiled wryly. “Hardly. He has had caps set at him since he first came out on the town. As for more ‘acceptable’ ladies, as you put it, he has shown no lasting interest in any of them. His family has tried innumerable ways to draw certain eligible females to his attention—to no avail. But there is one tack no one has taken, and that is to encourage him to marry a lady in whom he is already interested.”
“But he must have been interested in many ladies already!”
“To be sure he has,” Miss Angstead said dryly, “but none so respectable as your mother.” I was not sure how to take this but let it pass. She rubbed her hands together. “So! I shall help you look as if you are going into a decline, you will go home, recover your health, and work to make Sir Jeremy marry your mother.”
All of a sudden I felt less confident of my plans. After all, what could I, at seventeen, do in the wide world? I looked down at my clasped hands. “How ... why do you think I can do this when you and his relatives cannot? I am not even sure I am equal to it.”
Miss Angstead looked at me with a serious expression. “For all your years, you are intelligent, can face facts—however unpleasant—and are remarkably ingenious at inventing ways to accomplish your aims. Further, you have already been successful at bringing mere inclinations to a head; in fact, I must congratulate you on your first matchmaking.” She smiled widely.
“Matchmaking? I haven’t done any matchmaking. ...” I thought of Miss Lauderdale’s words when she took care of me. I hadn’t bothered to puzzle over them then and had forgotten them since.
Miss Angstead seemed to read my thoughts. “Yes, Miss Lauderdale and the curate, Mr. Ainsley-Jones. It seems last Sunday brought him to a decision—”
“But I did not mean to bring them together!” I protested. “It was all an accident—I am very happy for them, to be sure—but I never had a thought to making Mr. Ainsley-Jones declare himself by giving up my dinner on Miss Standish!”
Miss Angstead tapped her foot impatiently.
I winced and murmured apologetically.
She continued. “You have a talent for bringing matters to a head, whether intentionally or not.” Miss Angstead sat back and looked out the window into the misty afternoon scene. “I have often thought that there are some people who are catalysts for Providence; a sort of Philosopher’s Stone of Fate. People whose very presence makes things happen. A situation may have all the elements for fortune or disaster, but nothing may occur until one such person enters the stage.”
“And you think I am one of these ... people?” I thought of the Wollstonecraft essays in the closet-library—which I understood by this time most people saw as radical—and reflected that perhaps Miss Angstead was more than a little eccentric. A perfect lady, of course, but not in the common way.
Miss Angstead returned her gaze to me and smiled. “You may not know this, but you are very good at making people reveal themselves. I realize this was not your intention last Sunday, but you showed clearly to me—and to Mr. Ainsley-Jones— the characters of Miss Lauderdale and Miss Standish.
“You were quite democratic in your illness, by the by. You became, er, ill on Miss Lauderdale as well. But Miss Lauderdale was in the line of fire, not inadvertently, but because she rushed to your aid. Meanwhile, Miss Standish shrieked her way into a fit of hysterics.” Miss Angstead waved a hand in a dismissing gesture. “She had to be taken away and put to bed. Miss Lauderdale, with great fortitude, continued to care for you—much to the admiration of Mr. Ainsley-Jones. Who better for a future vicar’s wife than a woman who could continue to care for others despite indignities to herself?” Miss Angstead gave a wry smile. “I am sure her calmness and self-possession in such a distasteful situation brought visions of Miss Lauderdale ministering to his future ailing parishioners.”
“But I did not intend for any of that to happen,” I protested again.
Miss Angstead stopped me with an upraised hand. “My dear, your actions were catalytic. Think of the things you have done so far and what has happened. You insist on being rain-drenched and constantly creep from the school grounds to steal apples. You do not think these are happy instances because you were punished for them. But for me, they were. They made me think that this school was becoming very unpleasant for you. I investigated the matter and became aware that gossip was rife in these halls—a condition I deplore. So you see, when you became ill I was not surprised. It simply fit the pattern. When I questioned you and you revealed your reasons, I found your mother was involved with Sir Jeremy.
“The result of your actions revealed to me the reliability of some of my schoolmistresses. You have also given me the opportunity to restore some measure of respectability to Sir Jeremy’s life. It does not matter that your actions were inadvertent. Your nature is such that you cannot help but bring situations to a head. I expect that whatever happens when you return home, whatever has been obscure will become clear. If Sir Jeremy has serious intentions toward your mother, you will see that. If he does not, you will see that, too, and I hope you will endeavor to show him your mother is worthy of marriage.”
I swallowed. I still did not see how she could have such confidence in me. But the important matter was that my mother be considered respectable again and that she not be gossiped about. I knew I would do all I could to bring that about.
Miss Angstead put her hands flat on the desk before her. “You will do it, if I help you, will you not?” she said with a sense of finality.
I looked straight into her wise eyes. “Yes, ma’am!” I said firmly, and then almost laughed, for I mentally snapped my fingers and thought: That for Mama’s scruples!
“Good! Now, I will give you a white powder to put on your face in the morning—I will put a touch of green powder in it to make you look especially anemic....”
A few days later I was carried gently to my carriage by a strong and handsome young footman. My schoolmates gathered at the gates of the Seminary to watch me leave. The younger girls gazed upon my interestingly pale visage and fainting form with awe, and the older ones eyed my conveyance to the coach with envy. I waved a handkerchief to all of them, gazing at them with what I hoped were sad eyes, and committed the sight of them to my mind. I savored the memory of their admiring and envious faces for the whole of the trip home.