Edith's New Governess

By HandPrince

Chapter 15. Lily Attends the Auction


    "Charming.  Simply cha-arming!" came the voice rousing Edith from her inattentive reverie.

    Hopping to her feet at once upon recognizing the speaker, Edith curtsied deeply, her eyes downcast.  "Good morning Lady Reddend."  The countess smiled at Edith, nodded, and resumed her perusal of one of the Dresden figurines Mama had set out for sale upon the white linen of the table where Mistress Edith Fogarty held sway as estimable proprietress. Accompanying the statuettes lay a collection of delicately illustrated silver snuff boxes intricately inlaid with mother-of-pearl and ivory, none of which Edith had ever laid eyes on before.

    "Ten pounds apiece, My Lady," replied Edith, in response to the countess's inquiry.

    "Their like could be had in London for half that," sniffed a man behind Lady Reddend and off to her side, whom Edith hadn't noticed ere then.

    With a stab of alarm, Edith hurriedly dropped a second deep curtsy.  "Good morning Lord Reddend."  Edith hoped he hadn't been there all along, and that she mightn't catch trouble for her tardiness in making her courtesy to the earl.  In the corner opposite Edith's table the string quartet began to tune up.

    "That's scarcely the point, dear," chided Lady Reddend to her husband with a hint of exasperation, "it's for the benefit of the village clinic."

    The earl made no reply, but stepped around the countess to the edge of the table directly opposite Edith and to her surprise, said, "Good morning to you, my dear," and bowed so low that he brought his face within a foot of Edith's.  Edith gasped and started to step back but Lord Reddend's hand under her chin checked her progress.  "You are very pretty today," he said with a wide smile.  His breath smelt strongly of alcohol, and Edith noticed that his nose was uncommonly red.  "Charming.  Simply cha-arming," he said in a mocking imitation of his wife, while turning Edith's face first this way then that to provide himself with views of both her half-profiles.

    Edith stifled her urge to dash his hand from her chin and shout, "I'm not a figurine! I'm a girl!" and instead woodenly responded, "YesMyLordThankYouMyLord."

    "Please place me down for this one, there's a dear," said the countess, handing over the figurine for Edith to label as 'bought,' and remove from view.

    "Yes My Lady!" chirped Edith, seizing the opportunity to curtsy herself out of Lord Reddend's clutches.  Taking the item from the woman's hand, Edith asked, "Please Lady Reddend, may I ask you a question."  With an indulgent smile, the countess nodded her assent.  "Your governess... from when you were my age... is she... still a governess?"

    "Why what an odd question," the countess remarked with amusement.  "As a matter of fact we just received a Christmas card from her.  She is currently employed, but the youngest boy in her family of employment will be going abroad with his parents come the New Year, and he'll be off to college upon their return.  So she currently seeks a new position.  Why do you ask this question?"

    Edith realized she hadn't prepared an answer to Lady Reddend's entirely predictable rejoinder.  And the truth certainly wouldn't do.  "Well I... I just thought," the hideous crone from Edith's dream flashed into her mind as the string quartet began to play, "that if she were your governess when you were my age, she must be terribly old by now!" 

    The countess's smile vanished and with dismay Edith recognized her error.  "I mean, My Lady," stammered Edith hurriedly, "she was surely quite old when she was your governess so she must be quite quite old now!" .

    Lady Reddend's smile returned.  "Actually she is just fourteen years my senior."

    "Oh! Not very old at all My Lady!  Quite quite!" 

    With a frown of concentration, the countess studied Edith keenly for several moments while Edith anxiously awaited the woman's next words.  Lady Reddend's countenance relaxed and her wry smile returned.  "My description of her at dinner during our previous visit must have given you a fright, did it not?"  Edith nodded Yes, seeing no harm in being truthful about that fact at least.  "You may rest assured, my dear, that so long as the estimable Miss Field remains in your Mama's employ," her smile broadened into one of amusement, "you may consider yourself quite removed from any peril of following in my footsteps as one of her young charges." 

    Edith gasped silently.  Lady Reddend had read her mind!  The countess continued with a litany of praises for Miss Field's intelligence, erudition, and accomplishments, and for Mama's perspicacity in selecting this gem amidst the rough.  She concluded with an amiable expression of envy for Edith's good fortune in the matter of governesses.  Throughout this soliloquy, attentive Edith, relieved that Lady Reddend's age had ceased to be the topic at hand, uttered her "yes My Ladies" at appropriate intervals.

    "Lord and Lady Reddend, good morning," came Mama's voice.  Mrs. Fogarty curtsied to both, something Edith rarely saw her mother do;  the countess and earl turned from the table, and hence from Edith, to acknowledge Mama.  "How kind of you both to brave the cold and snow to honor us with your presences," added Mama.

    Edith secured a blank label, penciled in Lady Reddend's name and the amount, tied the label by its built-in string onto the figurine, then placed both onto a rough-hewn bench beneath the table, as Mama had instructed her.  Accounts would settle and items would change hands later, thus avoiding a spectacle of vulgar exchanges of cash at the tables.  Meanwhile, the adults discussed the weather and the state of the roads.  Edith would have preferred to sit while writing, but she dared not take her seat in the Reddends' presences while both stood.  Mama would later surely scold Edith severely should Edith dare sit now.  Mama might even summon Miss Field!

    From the weather and roads, their conversation progressed to the ball scheduled for Saturday next at Tawsingtale Abbey, home of the Reddends.  Standing respectfully, eyes on the backs of the Reddends, neither of whom now paid Edith the least notice, Edith's gnawing worries regarding Papa's return resumed.  She wanted Miss Field gone ever so much.  But... if only she could somehow discover in advance the nature of Miss Field's replacement!  If only it weren't all a perilous matter of blind chance!  Lady Reddend's revelation, that the ogress of the countess's girlhood now sought a governess position, heightened Edith's anxiety even further than had her dream.  Her mind recoiled from this terrible possibility, only to come to rest upon its sole alternative: an uninterrupted tyranny of Miss Field extending years into Edith's future... perhaps until Edith married?? Unendurable!  She recoiled in turn from that terrible prospect to reconsider, yet again, her first option.  And thus her thoughts had circled and circled ever since Nanny admonished her that morning not to be a slug-abed.  

    Mama, perhaps not wishing for her party of three to block visibility of Edith's table from prospective buyers' views, gracefully guided the Reddends several paces away.  Edith, judging the earl and countess safely at a distance, took her seat once again.

    For the several-dozenth time Edith's thoughts seesawed between two momentous choices: to ask Papa or not to ask Papa - to risk the investiture of a greater ogress she didn't know, versus the certainty of a lesser yet still formidable ogress she did know.   And still she felt herself no nearer to a decision.  Yet decide she must, and soon; Christmas and Papa's arrival loomed closer with each passing day!

    And then there was the matter of "thinkin' yerself away" as Lily had put it.  Edith so wanted to ask this young adept to share all she knew of this magical skill, and hopefully teach Edith to master it - especially after her failure while across Miss Field's lap yesterday evening.  But Edith, despite her efforts, failed to deceive herself that this alone motivated her to wish to meet again with the forbidden Lily.  "I know it is very wrong," she reflected, "to fraternize with servants.  Mama would be ever so cross with me if she knew that I..."  Edith's internal monologue quieted leaving only an ache in her bosom.  She missed Lily. There it was. She had said it... or at least, thought it.  And no amount of inner self-scolding, no amount of 'she's only a servant' self-admonishments, soothed that ache in the least degree.   Only one remedy could ease that pain in her breast, no one else but-

    Lily!  Edith's jaw dropped in amazement.  There, standing across the great hall watching the string quartet, stood Miss Field.  And holding her hand was Lily: face scrubbed so clean it glowed, shod in her new boots, clad in her extravagant lace pinafore and her beloved blue gingham frock, with her hair washed and brushed until it shone, and carefully secured with a white hair ribbon.


   
    After a minute by the quartet, during which Flora gathered her courage as best she could, she gently tugged Lily's hand to bid her walk further into the great hall.  But Lily remained unmoving, and Flora for the first time noticed that the child stood transfixed by Johannes Brahms.  Lily beckoned for Flora to stoop and whispered in her ear, "I never 'eard such sounds Miss Field! Never in all me life!"  It occurred to Flora that Lily must be hearing classical string instruments played indoors by competent musicians for her first time.  So Flora suffered the two of them to tarry awhile longer.

    "I must be mad to be doing this," thought Flora - her most recent of many such repetitions of this thought - followed as always by, "but it's for dear Lily!"

    She had told Cook, falsely, that Mrs. Fogarty had given permission for Flora to take Lily to the charity auction for half an hour.  And she would probably soon need to falsely tell her mistress that Cook had unilaterally extended such permission.  Should her plan go awry, her artifice exposed to view, serious consequences for Flora would ensue.  A very real possibility of dismissal lay down this road.  Cook, whom Mrs. Fogarty could replace only with far greater difficulty than a mere governess, would doubtless lobby the Missus most emphatically for Flora's dismissal.  And Flora interfering in an important staff member's work routine, through a deceitful pretense of conveying an order Mrs. Fogarty had not in fact given, would surely offend Mrs. Fogarty in the extreme.

    Once Lily permitted herself to be led away, Flora smiled with satisfaction at the wonder on the child's face as Lily regarded in passing the gilded bass reliefs and tapestries which lined the wall.  Flora led the little girl to the far end of the hall and across it to the first of the bring-and-buy tables.  Flora had noted that Edith's table lay next to last, just one table removed from the heavy green curtain at the head of the hall, behind which lay items of particular uniqueness or high value intended for auction.  She chose to approach from the other direction, lest one or both of the girls acknowledge one another by word or gesture. 

    As they made their slow progress along the display tables, Flora nodded and smiled at Lily's exuberant chatter as she marveled at the various items on offer - looking, but at Flora's stern decree, never touching.  Flora barely noted Lily's words.  Nearly her full attention, out of the corner of her left eye, lay on Mrs. Fogarty, engaged in conversation with a woman at her side and with a man whose back was turned to Flora.  She let Lily gradually lead the two of them along the row of bring-and-buy tables until-

    "Miss Field!" came Mrs. Fogarty's voice, beckoning her over.  Flora and Lily both approached.  Flora dropped a routine curtsy to her employer but when awestruck Lily recognized Mrs. Fogarty she hastily curtsied so deeply she would have collapsed to the floor had Flora not steadied her with a tight hold on her hand.

    "Dear me, child," Mrs. Fogarty declared with rare joviality, "I am merely the mistress of this house - not the queen!"

    "What is your name, child?" asked Lady Reddend, Lily promptly told her.

    "Reid," murmured Mrs. Fogarty half aloud and half to herself, clearly trying without success to ascertain Lily's family of origin.  The bring-and-buy and auction was by invitation only.  Mrs. Fogarty gave Flora a quizzical glance, then returned her attention to Lily.  "Well Mistress Reid, you have by every indication captivated my governess," she declared, stooping closer to Lily's face, "But where is your Mama?"

    "She's down in the kitchen 'elping Cook," Lily chirped.  To her it must have seemed the silliest of questions. 

    Mrs. Fogarty straightened, breathed in deeply and appeared to hold it, while frowning down at Lily.  Flora, for her part nearly fainted from suspense.  She thought, "This is the moment towards which I've built these many weeks!" and silently offered up a prayer to the Almighty to soften Mrs. Fogarty's heart. 

    Mrs. Fogarty exhaled and her face relaxed, although she no longer smiled.  Stooping again for another look at Lily, although not as deeply as before, she straightened and declared, "I daresay I quite failed to notice how pretty you were upon our first meeting."  Then to the Reddends, "Gracious me where are my manners!  Lord and Lady Reddend, may I present Miss Flora Field, my daughter's governess." 

    Flora and Lily made their courtesies to the countess and then turned to the earl, who, having stood to Flora's left, had been out of Lily's view.  "Enchant√©," said the earl distractedly, taking Flora's free hand and kissing it.  Oddly his eyes never met her own and his attention remained entirely upon Lily.

    Flora dropped a respectful curtsy, but to her alarm Lily merely stood stock still as if frozen in place.  Squeezing the child's hand hard and giving it a sharp downward tug, Flora, while still curtsying herself managed to coerce an acceptable semblance of one from Lily.  "Of all the times she should choose obstinacy, why now?!" fumed Flora inwardly, as she rose.  She would give Lily a good talking to later.  As she rose she noticed Lord Reddend continuing to regard Lily with an curiously disquieting degree of interest, while Lily, for her part hung her head and seemed intent upon showing him as little of her face as she could manage.  Lily pressed close to Flora's side, and then slowly shifted herself to Flora's rear, thus placing Flora entirely betwixt Lily and the earl.

    Flora's alarm grew.  She didn't notice Lily's hand slipping from her own.  Some drama was afoot the nature of which Flora could not yet grasp.  Her intuition told her that the earl and the scullery maid's daughter recognized one another.  But how on Earth could that be?  And why had Lily, normally so conscientious in her curtsies, frozen upon sight of him?  And most unsettling of all, why did the earl now smile to himself so very broadly, like a man upon receiving news he'd just won the lottery?



    From behind her table, Edith closely watched Miss Field and Lily speaking to Mama and the Reddends, although she couldn't make out their words over the general hubbub and the strains of the quartet.  It would be nice to exchange a glance and a smile with Lily.   Surely Miss Field wouldn't forbid them that much, provided that Mama didn't see. Edith hoped for nothing more. 

    But when Lily slipped behind Miss Field and let go of the woman's hand, a sudden impulse to act gripped Edith.  Miss Field's back was turned while Mama conversed animatedly with Lady Reddend.  Edith rose from her seat and pretended to yawn while stretching her arms wide in two great half circles as she did so.  As hoped, this movement caught Lily's eye, and her face at once brightened with recognition.  Before Lily might carelessly call out or wave and thus convey herself, and perhaps Edith as well, into spanking trouble, Edith placed a finger to her lips to indicate silence. Then with her selfsame finger, pointed under her table.

    Edith immediately stooped under the table and made her way to the floor-length fabric skirt formed at its front by the linen cloth.  Moments later she spied the toes of Lily's boots beneath its edge and her shadow through the fabric.  In a loud whisper, Edith commanded Lily to kneel and pretend to tie her bootlace.  This brought the girls' faces inches from one another through the fabric.

    "Go behind the big green curtain, and I shall follow," commanded Edith in a whisper.  In response to Lily's whispered concern that Miss Field had ordered her to stay close, Edith assured her that it would be quick.  As Edith reemerged from beneath her table, Lily hurried off past the last display table and slipped behind the curtain.  With a wary glance at Mama and Miss Field, still in animated conversation with one another and with Lady Reddend, Edith began to make her way from her own table behind the last table towards the far end of the hall, the green curtain, and Lily. 

    Edith wanted to arrange a meeting for the two of them, and she frantically strove to form a plan.  Where should Edith tell her to go?  The room with the dumbwaiter was almost certainly safe, but Lily wouldn't believe that after Edith had been so terribly mistaken previously regarding its safety.  Meet again in their shed?  Snow on the ground could betray their bootprints and arouse notice. Where then?? Oh how she wished she'd thought of a meeting plan while at her leisure rather than trying to invent one hurriedly and under such pressing urgency.

    She crept behind the two denizens of the last display table, their backs to her, and prepared to unobtrusively step over to the curtain and slip behind it.  But to her utter horror, Lord Reddend strolled unsteadily past and slipped behind the curtain himself.  Edith thought "Shall Lily now be punished thrice for doing as I bade her??  First my boots, then the dumbwaiter, and now this??"  Edith glanced over her shoulder to reassure herself that Mama, Miss Field and the countess remained absorbed with their grownup repartee.  Then she returned her attention to the edge of the curtain, expecting Lord Reddend and Lily to emerge momentarily, perhaps with him dragging Lily by her ear back to Miss Field for chastisement.  But neither emerged.  A minute passed.  Still neither emerged.

    Unable to contain herself, Edith stepped quickly across the space between the last table and the edge of the curtain and disappeared behind it.  In the dimness, she faintly heard Lord Reddend's low voice but could make out no words.  Just behind the curtain lay a somewhat haphazard stack of crates, leaving only a narrow passage between the stack and the wall. Peering around the edge of the stack and down the passage she discerned in the dimness the figure of Lord Reddend.  Strangely, he was seated on the floor with his back resting against the wall. Should Edith proceed down that short passage he would surely see her.  So as quietly as she could manage, Edith began to climb the stack of crates, hoping to peer over their top while avoiding discovery.

    Abruptly, a crate, onto which Edith had just settled her full weight, tipped sideways towards the curtain taking Edith with it.  With an unintended squeal of alarm Edith seized hold of the curtain to try to prevent herself from falling, only to pull down the curtain atop herself in a heap as she, along with the crate, fell to the floor.

    A crescendo of dismayed adult voices filled Edith's ears as she strove to free herself from beneath the voluminous folds of the fallen curtain.  Miserably she thought, "Now I shall be whipped!"





<--- Chapter 14             Chapter 16 --->



(c) Copyright 2024 by HandPrince
 
This is fiction. Please don't discipline
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