Mrs. Brody's Highly Select Seminary for the Daughters of Gentlemen was located on a back street, unfashionable without being quiet, six blocks north of Chadwick Square. The undistinguished school building had been constructed some fifty years earlier by a city banker of vast ambition, little natural taste, and short-lived fortune and thus had all the inconvenience of a private mansion converted into a school with no compensating elegance or grace. The back of this three-story cream-yellow confection overlooked the mews. There Mrs. Brody, proprietor of the school, appointed the bedrooms of the girls, the servants' quarters, and the bedrooms of the seven browbeaten teachers. In the attic, up under the eaves, was the bedroom shared by the two most junior of the faculty: Miss Cecilia Luffington, who taught drawing, and Miss Rivenwood, the French mistress.
Miss Melissa Rivenwood, no longer the French mistress at the seminary but now most definitely the former French mistress, was staring out the gable window reflectively and biting a thumbnail. The late-afternoon light slanted across the rooftops and threw shadows below her rather prominent cheekbones. Her silky black hair curved in graceful waves over her ears and was drawn back in a modest bun at the nape of her neck. Her lashes were long and dark; her eyes were steady and a really startling blue. Mrs. Brody thought Melissa's strong-featured face was rather plain. She was wrong.
"I still think you're a fool," Melissa's roommate and friend, Cissy Luffington, remarked enviously. She was wringing her hands in what appeared to be an attempt to rearrange her long, artistic fingers. "An admirable fool, I suppose. But without references, if you lose this job, how will you live?"
Melissa turned her face from the view of London. "I'll starve in the streets obviously," she said flippantly, "or take to a life of sin to support myself. The Brody has consigned me to one already. Why, I can't imagine." She fingered the drab brown merino that covered her slim figure and said ruefully, "It's not as if I were dressed for it."
Melissa's dress, like every dress that passed muster at Mrs. Brody's, was serviceable, without adornment, and totally unfashionable. It was meant to make her look like an upper servant, and it almost succeeded. In Bond Street and Mayfair, waistlines inched upward year by year until it was physically impossible for them to climb any higher. At Mrs. Brody's, waists resided no more than an inch above the point nature intended. At Vauxhall Gardens, puffed sleeves, lace flounces, ribbons, and honeycombed satin came and went; at Almack's, necklines sank as low as modesty permitted (and a little lower). Not at Mrs. Brody's.
Melissa was saved from outright dowdiness, however. Her slender elegance would have been poorly disguised even by sackcloth, and she and Cissy spent hours of clever cutting and skillful smocking on the cheap material allotted to them. In the range of muddy colors allowed, Cissy's artist's eye could always spot one a shade less dreadful than its fellows.
"You think you're joking," Cissy scolded. "But for a woman without a respectable position ... It might come to that."
"Not likely. Unlike you, I actually do have a family of sorts to turn to. My dearly beloved uncle, the Right Reverend Gregory Rivenwood, may not lift a finger to get me out of this hellish place, but he also has no wish to see a beggar on the streets named Rivenwood, however adoptively. Why, people might think he was lacking in charity! I would need only to abase myself totally to him, beg on bended knees for forgiveness for the dreadful sin of not being able to name my parents, promise never to corrupt my sisters with my degenerate presence, crawl on my belly from apse to nave during Sunday service--"
"I get the picture," Cissy said hastily.
Melissa caught herself up, and a wry smile twisted her lips. "Anyway, there'll always be a school somewhere that needs an impeccable French accent attached to a willing slave. Or maybe I could learn to pick pockets. It's a trade with a future, they say. Be transported, see the world."
"Do be serious, Melissa," Cissy begged. With an ink-stained hand she rumpled her untidy fair hair. "It may be bad here-- All right, it is bad here. But at least it's safe."
Melissa got up from the bare pine trunk the young women used as a window seat and began to tuck her long hair dexterously into a tighter knot, pushing the little hairpins into place methodically. As she gazed into the dismal little flyspecked mirror, she wondered, for perhaps the ten thousandth time, whether she saw the daughter of a wellborn Frenchwoman or some unwed Sussex farm girl. An abandoned baby, speaking a few dozen words in French, her little cambric baby clothes edged in lace. It wasn't much on which to build a lifetime's worth of pride.
She lifted her chin in the mirror until it was at an angle that pleased her. Her adoptive father, the country rector who had found her abandoned on his doorstep, had taught her to face the world proudly. She was herself, Melissa Rivenwood, the Reverend Mr. Rivenwood's beloved daughter. That was enough. But it had been easier when he was alive. After he had died ... The thought was too painful, and Melissa resolutely turned her mind to the present again. Outwardly she remained as calm as Cissy was agitated.
"I'm not going to the antipodes after all. As for my position here being secure ..." Melissa shrugged. "I doubt I would have lasted the summer. For some reason La Brody disapproves of me." She grinned cheerfully at Cissy. "This way I'm even going with money in my pocket. Biddle, the little lawyer fellow, gave me the fare straight through to Cornwall, and money for food and lodging, too. It makes a very comforting clinking sound. I feel vastly wealthy."
"Why must it be Cornwall, of all places? They haven't even paved the roads yet. They don't even speak English there."
"They run naked on the heaths and paint themselves blue with woad?" Melissa mocked. "What a Londoner you are, Cissy. If it were a pleasant country house in Kent, do you suppose they'd have hired me for the post? No. I'll take what I can get and be grateful. Besides, it suits me well enough. It's as far as I can get from Chad-wick Square; that's compensation in itself. And the isolation won't bother me. I grew up in a fishing village in Sussex, remember. Sixty-six people in church of a Sunday, but only when my father took up the Seventh Commandment as his text. Best of all, there won't be any more tiresome, spoiled children," she concluded joyfully. "Just one spoiled, tiresome old lady. Think how I shall enjoy that. 'Companion.' It has a nice ring. Like a faithful hound or something."
Below, in the main body of the house, the girls had been dismissed from classes and could be heard returning to their rooms to change for dinner. On the street in front of the school a knife grinder passed, crying mournfully, "All yer kniffs fer ha'penny. Kniff sharp." Cissy sat on the rickety old bed, tears gathering in her eyes.
Melissa impulsively swooped down and gave her a quick hug and a shake. "Stop crying this instant, you big baby," she ordered, "I'm perfectly capable of taking care of myself. And move over, I need the space."
Melissa bent and with a grunt deposited a half-packed valise next to Cissy. After pulling it open, she tossed in the last of her belongings: a hairbrush with a silver back, a packet of pins, a stray bootlace separated from its attendant boot. Ducking her head automatically to avoid the low roof beams that ran the length of the slanted ceiling, she turned out the drawers of the dresser one last time. As she packed, she argued persuasively, "I'm going to seek my fortune since it hasn't yet come seeking me. It's a great adventure. Think of it that way. I shall end by marrying the earl, you'll see, and become ... What is it one becomes by marrying an earl? I forget,"
"A countess, I think. What earl?"
"My employer. All the books are clear on the subject. No sooner does a poor but honest girl enter the household of any nobleman but he immediately marries her. One glance at my fatal beauty, and stricken to the core, he'll throw over rank and family--"
"Don't joke," Cissy said miserably.
"I must joke or cry, darling." Melissa was determinedly bright. "And the first thing I'll do when I'm wealthy, for the earl will be vastly rich--"
"Naturally," Cissy agreed.
"--is give you a dowry, so you can marry your drawing master."
Cissy flushed and looked down.
"That much, at least," Melissa said grimly, "is no joke. If ever two people deserved a chance..."
"Oh, shut up," Cissy said weakly.
"Right," Melissa said amiably.
"For Lord's sake, stop blubbering or I'll start myself, and I'll be damn-- I'll be deuced if I'll give La Brody the satisfaction of seeing me in tears." Melissa closed the valise with a decided snap and began to buckle it up fiercely. "Go down to dinner, or you'll be late and have the old brute snarling at you all evening. It won't do me a particle of good, and it'll only make you sick." There was the sound of a wagon bumping over cobblestones in the mews below. Melissa straightened. "There. That's Tom come to fetch me. Villainess exits stage left to general sound of hisses and boos."
A gong clanged two floors below. Cissy jumped from the bed and stood dithering.
"Criminy! Look at the time. Better run for it, Cissy. The little monsters are already slithering into the dining room."
Melissa propelled Cissy rapidly out the door.
"You will take care of yourself, won't you?" Cissy fretted.
"It will be my primary endeavor," Melissa promised, managing to smile almost cheerfully when they hugged good-bye.
With Cissy gone, however, Melissa's lighthearted mood evaporated. The packed valise joined its mate, side by side on the bare floorboards. Melissa stared at her folded hands. The student bedrooms and sitting rooms on the floor below were noisy, full of whispering and confusion. All the senior girls would be late for dinner, by the sound of it. Cissy's delay might go unremarked.
All my fault, Melissa thought with rueful amusement. Total disruption of routine. The flight of the French mistress did not compare with the news of victory at Waterloo, but it was on par with the shenanigans of royalty or the declaration of a minor war. The noise below was nearly equal to the flurry that had erupted last November, when the girls heard of the tragic death of the princess Charlotte, heir, after the regent, to the throne. And it was far more excitement than had been generated by the engagement of two royal dukes to their unattractive German princesses.
The girls had had an entertaining time at luncheon. Melissa had made her announcement quite casually over the lamb stew. She dwelt lovingly on the memory.
How many times in the last years had she been able to afford antagonizing Mrs. Brody? How satisfying it was to get away with it at last!
I lack a noble character, Melissa decided.
For her last public appearance she had worn her best day dress, one of those left from the years when she was still a beloved adopted daughter, not a slavey in a middle-class boarding school. Mrs. Brody would disapprove of her, flaunting herself in pale blue watered poplin, but Mrs. Brody's opinion no longer mattered.
She'd chosen to give her notice in public. The Brody could be beastly in private but liked to wear a benign public mask.
"I'm leaving the school tonight," Melissa had said quietly to Mrs. Brody, who was, as usual, gorging herself genteelly at the table's head, "so this will be my last meal."
"What's that, Rivenwood?" Mrs. Brody's heavy jowls shook in annoyance. She didn't appreciate interruptions at her feed, "You've been granted no vacation."
"Not vacation. I've accepted a position with a private family outside the city. Tom will be picking up my baggage in a few hours," Melissa had stated simply.
The other teachers, seeing their own particular nightmare enacted before their eyes, stared in horror. Cissy Luffington was afraid to lift her eyes from her plate, waiting for the inevitable explosion of wrath.
"You're leaving!" Mrs. Brody was incredulous.
"Taking a position!"
"I've already packed," Melissa replied with composure.
Mrs. Brody changed color very nicely, from red to a sort of puce. "If you go, you go without recommendation, my girl. Not one line. Then we'll see if you've got some fancy position with a private family."
Melissa had wondered idly if the headmistress was going to burst at the seams or merely go off into an apoplexy. Down both sides of the long table the girls watched avidly. "I expect no recommendation from you, Mrs. Brody. You'll recall our discussion a year ago, when you refused me references on the grounds of inexperience." Melissa gathered a bit of errant dumpling onto her fork with great unconcern. "My employer knows there will be no references. He was willing to overlook the matter when I explained."
Mrs. Brody, (there is no other word for it,) snarled. Melissa smiled gently, and thought: Let the old witch worry about that, and wonder what tales I've been carrying about town.
"You will unpack your bag, Rivenwood, and complete your quarter here. I need your services, and there can be no question of leaving without notice. No reputable school will accept you if you leave here without notice."
"No school would take me without a recommendation, Mrs. Brody," Melissa said reasonably. "Madame Dubois will be happy to take my place with the children for the rest of the term." That was the elderly emigre Mrs. Brody had already lined up to displace Melissa as soon as the headmistress had weaned a few influential pupils away from an undue affection for their present French teacher.
Mrs. Brody tried another approach. "If you leave here tonight, you'll never see a penny of your pay for last quarter."
Melissa said nothing. There was a delighted giggle from the girls which answered Mrs. Brody effectively. All the school knew that the junior mistresses worked for lower wages than the kitchen girls.
"What is the name of this person upon whom you have so grossly imposed yourself? I demand to know."
"He has your address. If he wishes to get in touch with you, he will."
Mrs. Brody turned magenta. "If indeed it is an honest position at all. I should have known you were up to something, sneaking in and out of here at all hours. Is it a purely male establishment you go to? I wonder. Is that why you're so secret? Wise of you to be so discreet."
Melissa stared back, gravely silent. Even the headmistress realized she'd gone too far. The girl was, after all, niece of a wealthy and respectable clergyman. She began to bluster. "You've always been lacking in the humility suited to one in your position, young woman. The Reverend Mr. Rivenwood made a great mistake in his handling of you, encouraging you to behave like one of his real daughters."
Melissa's face became cold and set. Mrs. Brody hurried on, her harsh voice resounding in the otherwise utterly silent room. Even the kitchen servants, sensing drama, were openly listening at the door. "I only hope that your pride and willfulness have not set you on a course you will most heartily come to regret." That pious wish disposed of, she continued scathingly. "From the beginning I doubted the wisdom of accepting a foundling of God only knows what parentage into my school. If your uncle had not overborne my scruples... It was an act of misplaced charity on my part."
Melissa interjected smoothly, "You wrong yourself, Mrs. Brody. You were never guilty of an act of misplaced charity in your life." It was said in a faintly congratulatory tone.
Mrs. Brody knew an insult when she heard one. "Blood will tell," she sneered. "That's all I have to say. Leave the table at once, Rivenwood. Young ladies, return to your meal. No talking."
With a good imitation of calm covering her white-hot anger Melissa had folded her napkin, steadied her shaking hands on the table edge, and stood up. "I am, of course, desolated to leave your... lavish hospitality," she had drawled. There had been a hastily smothered titter among the girls, and Melissa had thought fleetingly that the teachers would have a hard time maintaining discipline that afternoon. "But I shall take my pride and willfulness--and my blood, too, about which neither you nor my uncle know anything whatever--elsewhere. I do not believe I will regret it."
Then she had turned and strolled from the room.
So I burn my boats behind me, Melissa thought, watching the sun glint and sink behind the rooftops of London. What a magnificent bonfire it was. Almost worth the price. If I can't keep the new position... If I do have to go begging to Uncle Gregory... It's unthinkable.