Authors: April Kihlstrom
AN IMPROPER COMPANION
A DEVIL’S CHOICE
Heather Wade faced a thoroughly devilish dilemma when she heard the astounding proposal of the wealthy and notorious Sir Leslie Kinwell. This man who had brutishly dishonored her virtue now calmly announced she was to become his wife.
If she refused, she would be sent from Kinwell’s castle—to be cast alone, penniless, and shamed on the streets of London. If she accepted, she would be bound in marriage to a man she could only despise as an unqualified monster of depravity.
Heather was an innocent no longer, but she still had ever so much to learn about the ways of men and the world—and her own proud and perplexed young heart...
In retrospect, I know that I was an incredibly green girl. But at the time, I believed no fate could be worse than to remain at the school. I suppose I saw myself as another Evelina. Had I been less trusting, all might yet have been well. But I was only eighteen. Precisely eighteen. For it was on my eighteenth birthday that Mrs. Gilwen summoned me to have tea with her—an unusual privilege. I felt strange sitting in the elegant drawing room in my best dress. Mrs. Gilwen must have guessed this for she tried to put me at ease.
“Well, Heather, I am told you are an excellent student,” she said.
“I enjoy books,” I answered cautiously, for Mrs. Gilwen was rarely lavish with praise.
“You enjoy the school?”
“Yes,” I lied.
“Good. Then would you like to become a teacher here?”
“Don’t repeat what I say,” she said sharply. Then she smiled, “Of course you are overwhelmed, dear. But come, I, should like an answer.”
“No,” I managed finally. “Thank you, but no I would not like to be a teacher here.”
It was true. I hated the school. I could not remember a time when I had not been in school and I wanted to get away. Then I realised Mrs. Gilwen was speaking again. “I am afraid you have little choice.”
“Why?” I demanded. “Did my parents leave me nothing?”
“Well, then,” I said resolutely, “I shall find a position. As a governess. Or companion. Or something.”
Mrs. Gilwen was angry now. “I’m afraid not,” she said. “I hoped I should never have to tell you this, but it is the only way you will believe me. You have been told your parents are dead. This is not quite true. Your mother was no one. She took your father’s fancy for a while. He tired of her before you were born, but he was a fair man. When your mother died in childbirth, he took responsibility for you. He placed you in the proper schools and agreed to pay your expenses until you were eighteen. He did this on two conditions. One was that you never be told his name and the other was that he never have to see you.”
“And my name?” I demanded.
“Your mother’s,” Mrs. Gilwen replied grimly. “You are, in short, a love-child. So you see, we really could not write you references. And without references...” She shrugged. Then her voice became kindly, “Your father has been a generous man. But today you are eighteen and the funds have stopped. I could have you turned out, you know. But your understanding is excellent and I do not despair of turning you into quite a creditable teacher. Of course, for the first year or two you would not be paid. But I am sure when you have thought it over, you will agree to my proposition. You may have the rest of the day and tomorrow as well to decide.”
It was clearly a dismissal. Somehow I curtsied and found my way to my bed in the dormitory. “Generous!” she had called my father! Well, I didn’t think so. He’d sent enough for two dresses a year and four of each of those articles most girls had twelve of! I couldn’t remember a time when my dresses had fit properly or I wasn’t having to patch under-things. And when other girls bought ribbons or pastries I had to admit I had no money. If there was anything I needed it was necessary to go to Mrs. Brenner and ask if there were house funds for it. It was also house money that paid for any treats during the vacations when I was the only girl who had nowhere to go. And when, occasionally, another girl invited me to visit her over the holidays, invariably her mother would take note of my clothes, and thus rarely was I asked twice to the same home. Some of the teachers pitied me, but they earned little enough themselves. And this school! As with the others before it, the school catered to girls of the
We were taught genteel accomplishments and given a little knowledge. I knew from things the teachers said that it was a school for girls whose families were not very plump in the pocket. Yet compared to me, my classmates were well-to-do and most could expect a Season. Of necessity, my poverty and lack of parents had set me apart, and I had learned long ago to surround myself with books and pretend not to care. But books could not fill the void of loneliness that now seemed vaster than ever. Before today, I could dream that, like Evelina or Mrs. Radcliffe’s Adeline, someone might somehow appear and take me home. In my more realistic moments, I would dream of a responsible position in a good home. I would be a beloved governess or trusted companion. And yes, I had read
and confess that I dreamed of a handsome young gentleman who would fall in love with me. But never had I envisioned myself a drudge in a school such as this, with the girls roasting me for a shabbiness I could not help. Now I had no dreams. Better had my father sent me to learn a trade than educate me as a young lady and wash his hands of me when I turned eighteen! I had loved the parents I never knew. Now I hated the father who refused to accept me. And I was bitter for the sake of my mother. Somehow I blamed him for her death.
I was crying when Mrs. Brenner entered the room. She walked calmly toward me and sat on the edge of the bed. It was a measure of her kindness and wisdom that she did not ask what the trouble was, but waited patiently for me to speak. At last I wiped my eyes and forced myself to be calm. “Mrs. Gilwen has offered me the position of unpaid teacher,” I said, proud that my voice did not tremble.
“I know,” she answered quietly.
“I intend to decline the honour,” I continued.
“What will you do, my child?” she asked. “You have no relatives and she has said she will not write you a reference.”
There was no need to ask who “she” was. Hopefully, I said, “Perhaps
could write the reference?”
She shook her head sadly. “It would mean nothing. Hers is the only reference that would be heeded and its absence would outweigh the good of mine. I know you have no wish to stay, but it would be best for a time. Perhaps later she would alter her opinion.”
I turned away. Mrs. Brenner meant well, I knew, but she could not understand how I felt. She believed my silence meant acquiescence for she added, “It will not be so terrible, my child.”
I did not answer, and after a little while she left.
Dinner was the usual dismal affair of potatoes, bread, and little meat. I was not altogether a solitary creature and my silence did not go unremarked. “What’s afoot?” my neighbour asked. “You were not in history today.”
I forced myself to smile. Not for the world would I have anyone know of my humiliation. “No, Melinda,” I replied, carefully, “I’ve just had a bit of a surprise.”
“Oh, please tell me,” she said at once.
I shook my head solemnly and bent toward her. In a whisper I said, “It’s a secret. But you shall know within the week.”
Delighted by my confidence, Melinda smiled. “I’ll not speak a word of it. But promise that I shall be the first you tell?”
Solemnly I assured her. I was not resolved what I would do, but instinctively, I felt the need not to draw attention to myself. Somehow I survived the evening, though I remember none of it. I felt years older than the other girls, and the artless prattle I had delighted in only the day before now seemed shallow and pointiest. But I must have answered appropriately for no one else challenged me at dinner.
I lay awake long after the dark had closed in upon our dormitory, resolved I would not stay at the school. By morning, I must be prepared to leave. But it must be done carefully, or someone would thrust a spoke in my plans. There were no tears now; I had no time for pointless sorrow. Finally, I slept soundly.
Perhaps too soundly, for Melinda had to shake me awake. “Hurry,” she said, “or you shall be late!”
Instantly, I was alert. This would be useful. “Melinda, dear,” I said, feigning weakness, “I don’t feel well.”
As I expected, she was distressed. “Poor dear! I shall tell Mrs. Brenner at once.”
With these words, she turned and fled. The other girls were dressed and leaving already. A few called over their shoulders, “Hurry, Heather!” or “sleepyhead.” When the last was gone, I vouchsafed myself a smile. Quickly I rose and dressed. I was brushing my hair when Mrs. Brenner entered.
“Heather, what is this I hear? You are ill?” she said suspiciously.
I set down my brush and turned to her. “I’m sorry, I did not mean to say I was ill, exactly.” I forced some tears to my eyes. “Mrs. Brenner, I just can’t bear to act as always today.”
“There, there, child,” she said gently. “I understand. You need time by yourself. You need not attend lessons today, nor meals if you choose not to.”
“Thank you,” I said, truly grateful.
“But tomorrow you must be yourself again,” she warned, trying to speak sternly.
I nodded and she touched my cheek. Then, abruptly, she turned and swept out of the room. I would miss the rustle of her petticoats. As I waited to be certain that everyone would be at table, I surveyed my few possessions: a brush and comb given me by a kind teacher, a locket left by my mother, a light pelisse, hat, gloves, one dress, a few undergarments, and a small bag to carry them all. It was not much for a woman eighteen years of age. I might also have had a stack of letters from schoolgirl friends save that a permanent lack
of privacy caused me to bum letters after I had read them. And in any case, they would not have been so many.
It was a warm spring day. This was fortunate for I had no heavy cloak. In winter, I simply never went out. Or if I had to, I borrowed one. My hat and gloves, moreover, were worn and shabby. I hesitated. Melinda had often loaned me gloves or hats and urged me to keep them. In my pride I had heretofore refused. But now I could not afford such pride so I hesitated no longer but put on her gloves and bonnet. Then I was ready and it was time to leave. I would surely not be missed before dinner for the girls would assume I was in the sickroom and Mrs. Brenner would assume I was here.
Carrying my bag, I walked quickly down the hall and out the door. It seems strange that I felt no fear, no premonition of what was to be. Outside the door, I chose a direction at random, anxious only to get away from the building. My plans were vague. I knew I must seek a domestic agency but had no notion where to begin. I determined to keep walking until I found such an agency or someone to guide me to one.
I had lived in London all my life, but knew it no better than a country cousin might. It seemed now a dreary place: gray and dirty, full of screaming urchins and rattling carriages.
I was beginning to feel tired and discouraged when I bumped into a young woman returning from market. I apologised, and because she seemed disposed to be friendly, I added, “Do you know where I might find a domestic agency?”
She eyed me a moment. “Aye, there be one nearby. Turn right at the corner and walk four corners more. But I’m not sure ... That is, they are not very particular ... P’rhaps you’d best be going to Mrs. Baker’s office, much more respectable. But you can’t be thinking of walking the way. You’ll be needing a chair.”
“Thank you,” I said coolly, “the nearby one will do.”
She eyed me again and shrugged. “Good luck, dearie.”
I was not at all sure I wanted a more respectable bureau. Surely they would demand references. And in any case, I had no funds and felt I could not walk much farther. I had always been sensitive to heat and I regretted the lack of breakfast already. I found the place easily, though it was some two streets farther than she had said. Once there, I halted outside, for the first time truly afraid. A long bench lined one wall and several women were seated there. At the far end of the room, a young woman sat at a desk with a ledger before her. “Name?” she asked crisply as she saw me advance.
“Heather Wade. Age twenty-two. I would like a position as a governess or companion,” I replied.
She regarded me for a moment, then said, “Please be seated. Mr. Thornsby will speak to you directly.”
I nodded meekly, but she seemed to have forgotten my existence. At the time, it did not seem odd to me that the domestic bureau should be under the direction of a man. Men seemed to control everything else, why not this? As I waited, a portrait of Mr. Thornsby began to form in my head. He would be slender with spectacles and somewhat timid. And, I hoped, kind. It was well past midday when my turn came. The assistant’s smile seemed mocking, and the room of an interminable length. But finally it was traversed and I entered the inner sanctum escorted by the assistant who repeated the information I had given her. “Thank you, Mrs. Kay,” Mr. Thornsby said in a gentle voice. “Please be seated, Miss Wade.”
I sat gingerly. “References?” he was asking.
“I do not ... that is ... this would be my first position,” I stammered.
“I see. Family?” he asked.
“I ... have no family,” I said and, to my shame, felt tears spilling down my cheek. I rose. “I am sorry, sir. I realise I am wasting your time.”
His voice stopped me. “Sit down. I am quite accustomed to women’s tears. When you are ready, then you shall tell me your story.”
It was several minutes before I could speak. I studied the room to calm myself. It was small, filled by Mr. Thornsby’s desk and the three chairs. His desk was frightfully cluttered as I had expected it to be. But Mr. Thornsby was a surprise. He was young and wore no spectacles. I could spy no signs of timidity, rather he seemed accustomed to making decisions and would expect others to accept them. He spoke first. “My dear, I must inform you that we have no openings for a governess. Here, we have very few at any time.” He grimaced. “Most women distrust a man to recommend someone to care for their children. And as you have no references ... However, perhaps a companion ... Please, tell me how you come to be here.”
I began slowly. “My parents are dead. I have never known them. Instead I have spent my life in schools. The last such one was Mrs. Gilwen’s School for Young Ladies. I have just left it. Mrs. Gilwen informed me that there are no longer funds to provide for me.”