Authors: Sonia Gensler
“We shall put you to work, of course,” he continued. “Mrs. Thompson does not hold to the notion that ladies should be
leisurely.” He looked past her, his eyes brightening. “I may have an idea. Stay there, if you would. I must broach this to my wife before I say anything further.”
There it is
, she thought as he shuffled from the room.
I shall be carrying chamber pots and scrubbing floors
. But what else could she do? She had no place to go.
Besides that, she knew the man was keeping secrets from her. There was more to the story of her father’s death—Thompson’s inability to meet her gaze had told her that much. Secrets, once discovered, could prove quite useful. Kate longed to know what Thompson was hiding, and the only way to do that was to stay at Summerfield College.
She would become a little detective herself.
Asher’s room was on the top floor of the arched building, known in the college as the Gatehouse. According to Mrs. Thompson, the ground floor was given to the porter’s lodge and tutoring rooms. A suite of private rooms for the Thompsons took up the second floor. Above that were lodging rooms for students, and this was where Miss Atherton stayed. It was also where Mrs. Thompson had placed Kate for the time being, though Asher couldn’t imagine why they would offer to house that strange, uncivilized creature. His room was on the west side of the very top floor, with a handsome window looking out over the college garden. As most of the Summerfield students had departed for the long holiday, he had the floor to himself. It was cramped and stuffy, but he waved off Mrs. Thompson’s apologies and expressed great satisfaction, particularly with the pleasant breeze that ruffled the curtains when he opened the window.
Asher dressed carefully for supper, brushing his jacket and
recombing his hair several times before he felt prepared to face Miss Atherton at the table.
But when he made his way to the sitting room, she was nowhere to be seen. Mrs. Thompson greeted him from the settee; next to her Mr. Thompson smiled. Asher raised an eyebrow at the sight of Kate Poole sitting stiffly in a nearby chair, wearing the same undersized dress as before. She stared back at him until he lowered his gaze.
“It’s just us four this evening, I’m afraid,” said Mrs. Thompson. “Our niece is still sleeping—apparently this often happens when she takes her medication. She was already quite fatigued from her journey here, poor child.” She shrugged. “Ordinarily the college is full of students, and they take turns joining us for supper. It’s always merry during term. Things are quieter in the summer.”
“Of course,” Asher said. “I wonder … has Miss Atherton suffered from this condition all her life?”
Mrs. Thompson’s gaze dropped to the hands in her lap. “Since she was a child of twelve, I’m afraid. It’s been a severe trial for the family. Her parents are abroad for the next several months, and my sister thought it best that Elsie not attempt such a journey.” When she glanced again at Asher, her expression was curiously blank. “That’s why she’s at Summerfield, and we are very pleased to have her.”
She stood then and led them to the dining room, where an apple-cheeked girl named Millie stood ready to serve them. The offerings were merely decent. Asher had been less than impressed by English cuisine since he’d arrived at his uncle’s house, and this food continued the tradition, tasting downright institutional in its seasoning and preparation. It didn’t seem to bother Kate Poole, however, for she attacked each dish with relish.
“I can’t tell you how nice it is to have you here, Asher,” said Mrs. Thompson. “We count your father among our dearest friends. How is he?”
“He’s fine, thank you,” Asher replied automatically.
“I do believe you had just begun to toddle last time Harold was in England. He certainly hated to leave you behind.” She leaned forward as though to scrutinize him. “Now you must be nearly eighteen?”
“I am seventeen, ma’am.”
“Wonderful! So is Elsie. I know the two of you will grow very fond of each other.”
Asher fought to keep his expression neutral.
“And how long do you plan to stay in Cambridge, my boy?” Mr. Thompson asked. “We hope it’s a good long visit.”
The man’s eyes twinkled with this remark. Did he know?
“I’m not certain, sir. I’d planned to tour Cambridge and Oxford—and perhaps the Continent, if my uncle’s generosity continues. I’ve come here from his home in Rye, you know.”
“But you must be going back to the States in the fall,” said Mrs. Thompson. “Your father once wrote to us of your intention to study at Harvard.”
“I won’t be studying at Harvard this fall. My father and I had a falling-out, and he’s packed me off to England for as long as my uncle will have me.”
“Oh dear,” murmured Mrs. Thompson.
“In fact,” Asher continued, “I’d thought I might enroll at one of your universities. Perhaps even Cambridge.”
“One does not enroll at Cambridge—or Oxford, for that matter.” Mr. Thompson’s tone was gentle. “One applies to an individual college, and each college has its own entrance examination.”
Asher straightened in his seat. “I’m hardly daunted by entrance exams.”
“Nor should you be, my boy, but I’m afraid you’ve missed your opening for the Michaelmas term—the examinations for next year will be held in December.”
Asher winced. “Oh … I see.”
“You might consider this good news, actually. Most young men going up to Cambridge are a bit older than you, and this delay would allow you some seasoning, not to mention plenty of time to be coached in the exam subjects.” Mr. Thompson nodded encouragingly. “Please don’t take offense at the suggestion—even our top boys at Eton and Harrow need coaching beforehand.”
“Of course,” Asher said dully. He might have learned all this if he’d explained his plans more fully to his uncle. Now he would have to return to the man’s house and trespass on his hospitality for much longer than he’d intended. His uncle was a very private man, and the house in Rye was too isolated. His father had known exactly what he was doing when he sent Asher to England.
“Harold never mentioned your interest in an English education,” Thompson continued. “What subject would you read?”
“He means to ask what subject you wish to
,” said Mrs. Thompson quickly. “Americans don’t use
the same way we do, Oliver.”
Asher swallowed a groan. Lately, every distinguished greybeard he encountered seemed preoccupied with his plans for the future. What would he study, what would he
of himself? His friends were following in their fathers’ footsteps, but Asher attributed that to lack of imagination. When he thought of his father and uncle—men who scribbled at their desks for a
living—he knew he could not do the same. “I may very well go into law,” he finally blurted, having never considered the notion prior to this evening. “I don’t wish to be an academic, if you’ll pardon my saying so.”
Mr. Thompson smiled. “So no interest in experimental psychology?”
“My father’s field? Absolutely not.” Asher shuddered. “I can’t think of anything I’m
likely to do.”
Mr. Thompson glanced at his wife before continuing. “Nevertheless, the prospect of your studying at Cambridge pleases me greatly. Your legal training must be done in America, of course, but a thorough study of history or classics would provide a solid foundation. I do hope you’ll give serious consideration to Trinity College.”
The conversation turned to matters concerning Summerfield, and soon it became apparent that it was Mrs. Thompson, not her husband, who was the true principal of the college. At first this amused Asher. What a fearsome number of females living and working without male supervision! But as he listened to her report on the day-to-day running of the institution, he grasped the daunting nature of the task, and how capable she must be to undertake it. Her husband was a lecturer, and it seemed that he enjoyed this role and was favored by his students, but Mrs. Thompson was the authority figure of the pair. It didn’t take long for Asher to realize that
made the difficult decisions, managed the budget, and enforced the rules.
“Our latest project, and one we must finish before the new term begins, is our move into the new library.” Mrs. Thompson’s eyes gleamed with pride. “The old library was a single room, filled to the rafters with books. Now we shall have an entire building—and a beautiful one at that—to house our old
books and new bequests, with room to spare for growth in the collection.”
Asher noticed Mrs. Thompson raising a thoughtful eyebrow at the Poole girl, but Kate was too fixed upon emptying her plate to be aware of it. He had a sinking feeling that in glancing at the girl Mrs. Thompson was considering yet
project. If this proved true, Miss Poole might be vexing him awhile longer.
Asher was free to leave, of course. He’d fulfilled his obligation by calling on the Thompsons, and it wouldn’t be difficult to excuse himself from a longer visit and depart in the morning.
And yet … it would be nice to see Miss Atherton once more, to speak with her when she was feeling better. Surely this was only polite. How could he take his leave without wishing her well?
lsie woke the next morning to a familiar prickling sensation. Something flickered at the corner of her eye, but when she turned toward the movement nothing was there. She took her full dose, allowing the Chlorodyne’s thick, peppery sweetness to coat her tongue, and waited for the prickling to subside. When it did, she brushed and pinned her hair, then dressed as quickly as she could with arms that grew heavier by the minute. Finally she made her way down the stairs.
As soon as she saw the strangers sitting at the breakfast table, she remembered.
They know now. They’ve seen it
The boy smiled at her from across the table and then looked away. The girl blushed. Of course they were embarrassed to face her after yesterday’s horrible display. How silly she’d been! So happy to see new people,
people who knew nothing of her condition. She should have taken more care. But she’d felt better since arriving at Summerfield—lighter, more clearheaded. Their arrival seemed to herald a new start, an opportunity for society rather than grim isolation.
Now she knew nothing had changed.
She greeted her aunt and uncle, adopting a polite smile before taking her seat.
Her aunt broke the silence. “You look very well this morning, Elsie. How do you feel?”
I feel as though four pairs of eyes are boring into me
Elsie reached for the teapot and poured. She concentrated upon the pot, and her hand did not shake overmuch. “I am feeling a little better this morning, thank you.”
“You remember our guests, of course. Asher Beale has agreed to stay with us for a time, and Miss Poole will be helping with our move to the new library.”
Aunt Helena was only trying to be pleasant and helpful, so Elsie nodded despite her horror that the two young people would be staying on. “How lovely.” As she inclined her head at each of the newcomers, she wondered how long before she caught them staring or heard their cruel whispers. When she took a sip of tea, her hand was not quite so steady as before.
She ate her toast, feeling it scratch her throat as she swallowed but not really tasting it. Her uncle was inquiring about young Mr. Beale’s plan for the day. She remembered that the boy had carried her up the stairs and placed her in bed. Had she shamed herself by clinging to him? Her brain was foggy with the dose, but somehow she thought she might have. She looked away from him as he spoke, turning instead to the other stranger. The girl kept her eyes on her plate, not eating the food so much as inhaling it. She was a skinny thing and yet bursting out of the shabby dress she wore.
Elsie took a long swallow of tea and stared through the window at the garden. She was not meant to be at Summerfield, sequestered within its walls among strangers. This was not the place to start over, for the old malady would always be with her.
Nor was she meant to return home to Peverel Place.
A bold thought brought a flutter to her heart. She must find
in London. He had promised he would take care of her. She would find him and together they would lose themselves to London. In such a large city, no one would find them.
Kate hadn’t felt full since … well, since before she could remember. Her belly strained against her lacings—not an entirely comfortable feeling, yet at the same time it was strange and wonderful to have food pressed upon her rather than doled out in minute portions. She’d assumed the thin bodies of Mr. and Mrs. Thompson were an indication of severe economy in the kitchen, but this was not so. What they could not eat they insisted be taken by the others at the table.
Both Asher Beale and the golden Miss Atherton had frowned and sighed over the food on the sideboard. Perhaps that was the fashionable response to such abundance. If so, Kate would not dream of striving for fashionable status. She would gladly eat until her dress ripped at the seams—a humiliation not far off, given the size of the garment.