I call my stepmother Doris. I cannot well call her Mrs. Fenwick, and refuse to use the term Mama. Doris has not changed over the year I have been away, confirming me in the opinion that I was wise to leave home. When a father on the windy side of sixty takes up with a vulgar widow at least twenty years his junior, it bodes ill for the peace of the family.
Doris disliked me from the start, and the feeling was entirely mutual. Her dislike could not take, to a lady in her twenty-third year, the form of outright abuse. My character is strong enough that I am not likely ever to become an abused anything. No, she was stiffly polite, always deferring to me as though I were a guest in my own house. The resulting discomfort was enough to convince me I must leave, and leave I did, twelve months and one week ago.
There were no fireworks attendant on my departure. There was no reason why the daughter of the Dean of Bath should leave under a cloud. I made a grand and public affair of my departure.
While the Dowager Marchioness of Monterne was holidaying at Bath to relieve her gout, she naturally called on me. I used the word "naturally" to introduce a little hidden cachet into my background. My late Mama, you see, was kin to the Monternes.
My name is Olivia Fenwick, but my blood is half Monterne blue blood. I own life might have been more pleasant had my parents' blood been reversed--Papa the one with the noble pedigree--but it was not the case, and the Fenwicks, as you perhaps know, are not a contemptible line either.
To return to our sheep--the Dowager wanted a companion for her daughter, who remained, at eighteen, almost completely innocent of education and polish. She was one of those Tally ho! girls, who reeked always of the stable, in both her personal perfume and her conversation.
Nominally a "companion," I was in fact a model and mentor for the girl. Doris had a going away party for me before I left in my cousin's crested carriage for the trip to Dawlish, her home in Devon. The present Marquess, her son, was only thirteen years old, and away at school, which made it eligible for her to continue as mistress of Dawlish, which is a beautiful old stone castle on the east bank of the Exe River.
I introduced Lady Deborah to the niceties of entering a room at a pace less than a gallop, of curtseying in lieu of wrenching a gentleman's hand from his wrist when he made her acquaintance, of reading something other than the Gentlemen's magazines, of dancing, of conversing in sentences instead of her more customary bellow of "Righto" or "I say."
The visit had a greater success than either I or the Marchioness foresaw. At the end of nine months, Lady Deborah had attracted the attentions of no less a personage than an earl, fast on his way to becoming a duke, for his father, the Duke of Tavistock, was in his seventies. The head reels to think of Deborah being a duchess, but then what I have seen of duchesses at Dawlish has disillusioned me somewhat from considering them better than the rest of womankind.
The Duke of Tavistock's lady, for example, regularly served watered wine, and had great gaping holes in the heels of her stockings, but that is neither here nor there. And besides, she had only married into the nobility. She was plain Miss Armitage before the wedding.
When the nuptials of Lady Deborah to Lord Strathacona took place last month, I was one of the bridesmaids at the elaborate do. My cousin, Lady Monterne, requested me to remain with her afterwards for the purpose of adding a touch of polish to her next daughter, but as Sylvia is only fifteen, there is little to be done in that corner yet. "I hate to lose you, my dear," she told me, "for it is certainly due to your work that our Deb fared so well. Must you go home to Bath then? So very unpleasant for you."
Lady Monterne had met Doris while in Bath, and knew whereof she spoke. She stated categorically that Papa ought to have been committed to Newgate for bringing the woman into the family. I am not sure in my own mind whether Bedlam would not be a more appropriate reward.
"No I cannot return to Bath," I told her. "You would not happen to know of anyone requiring a superior lady governess for her children?"
The question was a joke. A young lady like myself with some dowry (from Mama's portion) and a somewhat illustrious pedigree does not hire herself out. The word "governess" was sometimes used between us in a facetious way, however, to indicate the favor I did them. What I actually had in mind was another pleasant home as a companion to some of the nubility, as the Duchess of Tavistock calls the unwed daughters of herself and her noble friends.
It had not escaped my notice that very interesting gentlemen were encountered in this sort of society, much more interesting than those that inhabited Bath. There could hardly be a less interesting assortment of gentlemen anywhere than hang out at Bath. They are of two main types: they either look and speak like women, or Irish chairmen.
Lady Monterne, not a terribly bright woman, took me at my word and reamed off a list of acquaintances looking out for a governess, causing me to correct her as to my meaning. "Oh," she said, surprised. "I am sure you are a dozen times better than the best governess I ever hired, my dear, and I should not have minded in the least paying you."
"I should mind the degradation of being a paid employee, however," I pointed out. "My own governess was hardly considered a part of the family. She was a servant, and treated as such."
"Certainly you would not want that, but it has never been the way we treat our governesses. They were always a part of the family, eating with us, traveling with us, going to the concerts and a few parties as well if they wished. But of course we were always very select in our choice of governesses for the girls. Only from the best families, but from an impoverished branch. One could not treat a Wilmot or a Fotheringham lady as hired help after all," she added, to clinch the matter. "Miss Wilmot had her own mount, in fact, and when she married later on, Debbie was a flower girl."
This was a form of condescension never encountered in any governess I had ever heard of, but there was no reason to doubt her word. The aristocracy may be as eccentric as they please; it is only the genteel middle class who cater to convention.
"I should certainly demand a wage in the next house I went to if I were you. And I shall pay you, too, Olivia," she declared. That she never did it is beside the point. It was her intention.
I remembered her words as I returned to Bath. Actually I had performed a considerable service for the Monternes in training Deborah, and my reward was a free trip home in the family carriage. Why should I give my services away? No one ever gave me anything. Indeed, what is given freely is less appreciated than what we pay for. Yes, certainly I would ask a wage next time I went as a companion.
It chanced the second day I was home I was shopping on Milsom Street to refurbish the lace and ribbons on a few gowns. We did not often get shopping from Dawlish, as the closest town was some miles distant. I stepped into Fabers Drapery Shop to peruse the wares, and overheard a conversation between two matrons. It was muslin they were discussing. Muslin, like people, comes in all styles and qualities.
"I like the rose sprigged," one woman said, "but it is only five shillings the yard. It cannot be a good quality."
"This at nine looks like it, but it must be better. It is Indian muslin," her friend said.
The shopkeeper came up to them to point out a more expensive batch of ells. He had muslin ranging up to fifteen shillings a yard, which, he assured them, was purchased by only his most discerning customers.
The women happily laid out their fifteen shillings for muslin which, upon my examination, looked very little different from the nine shilling, though I must own it was finer than the five shilling bolts, and more tightly woven. I let the man think I too was interested in purchasing muslin, but I was busy making an analogy to those skills I had decided to put out to hire.
"Do you really think it is worth the difference in price?" I asked him, listening with some amusement for his answer.
"Certainly it is," he assured me. "Everyone knows the price of my muslins. If you want to be seen in the cheap stuff, it is your own affair, but you will be better thought of if you buy the fifteen shilling quality. The pattern is different, you see. It is easily distinguishable from the cheap."
The pattern was the only distinction I could see. For having the flowers a different shape (no prettier either), gullible women were paying out more than half again what the cloth was worth. "I rather like this one," I said, making a game of it, and pointing to the nine shilling bolt.
He gave me such a knowing look! You can afford no better, the look said. It was little short of contempt. "Will it be the cheap one then?" he asked, condescension written all over his face.
"Do you really think the other is worth the price?" I persisted, curious to hear what reason he would proffer, for I knew his answer would be in the affirmative.
"We all want to be well thought of. Folks judge by what they see on your back. The ladies seem to think it's worth it," he told me.
I said I would consider the matter further, and left, pondering his words. It gave a new light to my going out for hire. The more I puffed myself off, the likelier it was I would be appreciated. Yes, I would not humbly apply for any position through the good offices of Lady Monterne or her friends. I would let it be known to society at large in a discreet advertisement that a lady of superior attainments was considering to take charge of one or two young ladies providing the young ladies came up to her expectations. Only the most elite need reply, in other words.
I trust I do not overstate my credentials to say I am a lady of superior attainments. As the daughter of Dean Fenwick and a cousin of Lady Monterne, I fancy I am a cut above the average governess. I have spoken French from four years of age, for my mother was an advocate of early education for children. Indeed for quite seven years we housed a French orphan of good family to act as my playmate, for the very purpose of making me fluent in French.
I have read widely in the classics and poetry, can (with considerable effort and a liberal use of the dictionary) manage to get an Italian piece into tolerable English. I have studied painting and music, and dote on Shakespeare. It was said that my rendition of Juliet at Miss Leigh's Seminary in Bath was better than the professional performance of the same role given in the Bath theater that year. As her fellow actor was the ridiculous Romeo Coates, however, it must be allowed she was working under a considerable handicap.
My mother introduced me to the progressive educational ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft, contained in her Vindication of the Rights of Women. Mama made the acquaintance of the female novelist, Jane Austen, when she was residing at Bath, and introduced me to her. She was kind enough to praise a poem I had written, but I was little more than a child at the time, and make no claim to being a poet. Neither ought half the people who have managed to get their scribblings into print, in my humble opinion. Wordsworth is sensitive and intelligible, to judge from his verse; Coleridge inventive, and for the rest of them--pshaw! If "The Corsair" had been written by Mr. Byron instead of Lord Byron, it would moulder unpublished, where it belongs. Lord Byron has created a deal of mischief with his demonic heroes.
Well, I trust the above gives a fair idea of what I mean to offer to the public, at my own price and on my own terms. My muslin will be sprigged with blossoms unseen on the five shilling bolt. If anyone is inclined to pay four hundred guineas a year for my services, she may have me.
I mean to offer as well a rigorous physical regime to my charge (or charges, but two is the maximum number of girls). It is unhealthy in the extreme for young ladies to be bent over a tambour frame for hours a day.
I do not excel as a horsewoman. Bath is a difficult city in which to negotiate on horseback, all hills and ups and downs. One is fagged to death before she hits the clean countryside. I am an expert walker, and mean to put the legs of my charges to work, filling their lungs with fresh air, and their cheeks with roses. I also have a book given me by the Duchess of Tavistock outlining calisthenics designed to develop the arms, torso and legs. Her girls are certainly well developed. A very good lithe figure Dulcinea has, and it is a pity she has a face like a horse to go with it.
I envisage my course as being similar to a French finishing school, where a young lady might profitably spend a year between the schoolroom and the drawing rooms of society. I recall from my own presentation five years ago the gaucherie of many of the girls making their come out. It was thought I would make a good match at the time, but Papa fell ill before I was there three weeks, and so my visit was cut short.
Doris remonstrated with me in a purely mechanical way for my decision to leave home again. "I hope it is not on my account you go, Miss Fenwick," she said. Miss Fenwick, and she my stepmother for over a year.
"Certainly not, Doris," I assured her.
"You are more than welcome to stay on here."
"I want to go. Life is dull, tiresome for me in Bath with nothing to do. I shall be much happier in London, with plays and parties, you know."
"But to go as a governess--I am afraid your papa is not pleased. Will a governess be invited to parties?" she asked.
"This governess will be. I mean to make certain stipulations in the contract before I accept it. I must have a full day a week off to pursue my own interests. I shall eat with the family, attend their larger social functions have unlimited access to the library, wear what I wish, and be allowed to keep my own tilbury, which I mean to put at the disposal of my charges. I shall take them out with me in it, thus freeing the family carriage for the lady of the house. I cannot think many governesses offer so much."
"My, setting up your own tilbury!" Doris exclaimed. "When did you take this decision?"
The decision had evolved from Miss Wilmot's having her own mount. I do not ride well, but I am a fair fiddler, as no less a driver than Deborah's groom was kind enough to tell me. My last year's allowance had hardly been touched at Dawlish. The Monternes did not pay me, but they paid everything else, all those incidental expenses incurred in the normal course of life. It had occurred to me that a lady would have little access to the delights of the city if she had no carriage. Then too, to come with my own tilbury would definitely set me apart from an ordinary governess. Really using the term governess for the total charge of the family's young females I intended taking was not accurate, but the word would be used in spite by some, and by acknowledging it myself, I could defang the vipers.
"I just decided yesterday," I told Doris.
"Have you had any offers of a job?" she asked.
"The advertisement appears in the London papers for the first time tomorrow. I shall go to London and conduct interviews at the Pulteney Hotel." Taking a room at the fabulous Pulteney was a wicked extravagance, but set the tone I wished for my new enterprise.
"The Pulteney--oh my!" Doris exclaimed, her fingers flying to her mouth in a common way, that set my nerves on edge. How different she was from Mama, who would laugh and make light of this spree I was embarking upon. But Doris was firmly rooted in the genteel middle class. "It seems so odd, buying a carriage and going to the Pulteney, only to get a job."
"A position, Doris. Not a job. There is a difference."
"Very likely," she admitted, smiling apologetically, and batting her eyes. She has pretty eyes, that are unfortunately devoid of expression. "So you are definitely leaving us again then?"
"Yes, but I shall write, and it would be nice if you would write me once in a while too, Doris, to let me know how Papa goes on, for he is a terrible noodle, you know, and waits an age before answering my letters."
"Yes," she said diffidently. She had written me exactly one note during my year at Dawlish. The less said about its execution the better. She soon left the room, relief evident on every line of her face.
There was no going away party on this occasion. I was not home long enough to look up my old friends, with the exception of Mrs. Crewe, my late mother's best friend. She was to accompany me to the Pulteney, for I could not like to appear unchaperoned, a single lady not quite old enough to jaunter about the countryside alone. She had relatives in the city who were to help me with the purchase of my tilbury, and return with her to Bath later for a visit.
Of the greatest importance, she was extremely elegant. When my mama passed away, she inherited the title of the best-dressed lady in Bath (where the competition, of course, is not strenuous). We were to take up residence at the Pulteney for a week, where I would sit like a spider in a web, awaiting my prey.