Kent, August 1879
Absolutely not. What an utterly harebrained idea, Annabelle.”
Gilbert’s eyes had the rolling look of a hare that knew the hounds were upon him.
Annabelle lowered her lashes. She knew it would look demure, and demure placated her cousin best when he was all in a fluster. Of all the types of men she had learned to manage, the “ignorant yet self-important” type was not exactly the most challenging. Then again, when her very fate lay in the hands of such a man, it added insult to injury. Gilbert would snatch the chance of a lifetime from her here in his cramped little study and go straight back to admiring his freshly pinned butterflies in the display case on the desk between them.
“What would be next,” he said, “joining the circus? Standing for Parliament?”
“I understand that it’s unusual,” she said, “but—”
“You are not going to Oxford,” he bellowed, and slapped his hand down on the desk.
Her father’s old desk. Left to Gilbert in her father’s will rather than to her. The dignified piece of furniture did nothing for her cousin: age-worn on four carved lion paws, it would have bolstered the authority of any man throning behind it, but Gilbert was still fluffed up like a startled chicken. Well. It was understandable that he felt ambushed. She had surprised herself. After five long years as Gilbert’s maid for everything, she hadn’t expected to feel a yearning urge ever again. She’d kept her head down, her feet on the ground, and had accepted that the parish borders of Chorleywood were the boundaries to her dreams. And then the news that Oxford University had opened a women’s college had slammed into her chest with the force of an arrow.
She had wanted to ignore it, but, after barely a week, her self-control, so laboriously acquired, had crumbled.
But surely, this was not just a case of her wanting too much. Who knew for how long Gilbert’s ramshackle household would stand between her and destitution? Between her and a position where she was easy prey for a lecherous master? During the day, she went through her routines like an automaton. At night, the awareness crept in that she was forever balancing on the precipice of an abyss and there, at the bottom, lurked old age in the workhouse. In her nightmares, she fell and fell.
Her fingers felt for the slim envelope in her apron pocket. Her Oxford admission letter. A proper education could break her fall.
“This conversation is over,” Gilbert said.
Her hands knotted into fists. Calm. Stay calm. “I didn’t mean to quarrel with you,” she said softly. “I thought you would be delighted.” A blatant lie, that.
Gilbert’s brow furrowed. “Delighted, me?” His expression slid into something like concern. “Are you quite all right?”
“Given the advantages for your family, I assumed you’d welcome the opportunity.”
“I apologize, cousin. I shouldn’t have wasted your precious time.” She made to rise.
“Now, don’t be hasty,” Gilbert said, waving his hand. “Sit, sit.”
She gazed at him limpidly. “I know that you have great plans for the boys,” she said, “and an Oxford-certified governess would help with that.”
“Indeed I have plans, sound plans,” Gilbert clucked, “but you already know more Greek and Latin than is necessary, certainly more than is appropriate. And ’tis well known that too much education derails the female brain, and where’s the advantage for us in that, eh?”
“I could have applied for a position as governess or companion at the manor.”
This was her final shot—if mentioning Baron Ashby, lord of the manor up the hill and owner of their parish, did not move Gilbert, nothing would. Gilbert fair worshipped the ground the nobleman walked on.
Indeed, he stilled. She could almost hear his mind beginning to work, churning like the old kitchen grindstone, old because Gilbert never had enough coin to maintain the cottage. A logical consequence when his small salary for ringing the church bells remained the same while his family steadily grew.
“Well,” Gilbert said, “that could earn a pretty penny. The master pays well.”
“Indeed. But I understand. Even a fortune wouldn’t justify impropriety.”
“’Tis true, ’tis true, but it wouldn’t be exactly improper, would it, given that it would serve a higher purpose.”
“Oh,” she cried, “I couldn’t go, now that you’ve shown me all the flaws in my plan—what if my brain derailed . . .”
“Now, don’t exaggerate,” Gilbert said. “Your head is probably quite inured to books. However, we can’t do without your hands for even a week. I’d have to hire help in your stead.” He leveled an alarmingly cunning gaze at her. “The budget won’t allow for that, as you know.”
How unfortunate that he had to discover financial planning now. No doubt he wanted her to compensate any expenses her departure would cause, since she cost him exactly . . . nothing. Unfortunately, her small scholarship would barely keep her fed and clothed.
She leaned forward in her chair. “How much would you pay a maid, cousin?”
Gilbert’s eyes widened with surprise, but he recovered quickly enough.
He crossed his arms. “Two pounds.”
She arched a brow. “Two pounds?”
His expression turned mulish. “Yes. Beth is, eh, in a certain way again. I’ll hire additional help.”
He wouldn’t, but she managed to take the bite out of her voice. “Then I shall send you two pounds every month.”
Gilbert frowned. “Now, how will you manage that?”
“Quite easily.” I have absolutely no idea. “There’ll be plenty of pupils in need of tutoring.”
He was not convinced, and neither was she, for even the maids at the manor wouldn’t earn two pounds a month, and if she scraped together an extra two shillings, it would be a miracle.
She rose and stuck out her hand across the desk. “You have my word.”
Gilbert eyed her hand as if it were an alien creature. “Tell me,” he then said, “how can I be sure that those Oxford airs and graces won’t rub off on you, and that you will come back here in the end?”
Her mind blanked. Odd. The entire purpose of wheedling permission out of Gilbert had been to keep her place in his household— a woman needed a place, any place. But something bristled inside her at the thought of giving her word on the matter.
“But where else would I go?” she asked.
Gilbert pursed his lips. He absently patted his belly. He took his time before he spoke again. “If you fell behind on your payments,” he finally said, “I’d have to ask you to return.”
Her mind turned the words over slowly. Calling her back meant he had to let her go first. He was letting her go.
“Understood,” she managed.
The press of his soft fingers barely registered against her callused palm. She steadied herself against the desk, the only solid thing in a suddenly fuzzy room.
“You’ll need a chaperone, of course,” she heard him say.
She couldn’t stifle a laugh, a throaty sound that almost startled her. “But I’m twenty-and-five years old.”
“Hmph,” Gilbert said. “I suppose with such an education, you’ll make yourself wholly unmarriageable anyway.”
“How fortunate then that I have no desire to marry.”
“Yes, yes,” Gilbert said. She knew he didn’t approve of voluntary spinsterhood, ’twas unnatural. But any concerns expressed over her virtue were at best a nod to protocol, and he probably suspected as much. Or, like everyone in Chorleywood, he suspected something.
As if on cue, he scowled. “There is one more thing we have to be clear about, Annabelle, quite clear indeed.”
The words were already hovering between them, like buzzards readying to strike.
Have them pick at her; at this point, her sensibilities were as callused as her hands.
“Oxford, as is well known, is a place of vice,” Gilbert began, “a viper pit, full of drunkards and debauchery. Should you become entangled in anything improper, if there’s but a shadow of a doubt about your moral conduct, much as it pains me, you will forfeit your place in this house. A man in my position, in service of the Church of England, must stay clear of scandal.”
He was, no doubt, referring to the sort of scandal involving a man. He had no reason to worry on that account. There was, however, the matter of her scholarship. Gilbert seemed to assume that it had been granted by the university, but in truth her benefactor was the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, which she now had to support in their quest for a woman’s right to vote. In her defense, the society had first come to her attention through a certain Lady Lucie Tedbury and her adverts for women’s stipends, not because she had an interest in political activism, but it was a safe guess that on the list of moral outrages, votes for women would rank only marginally below scandals of passion in Gilbert’s book.
“Fortunately, an old spinster from the country should be quite safe from any scandals,” she said brightly, “even at Oxford.”
Gilbert’s squint returned. She tensed as he perused her. Had she overdone it? She might be past the first blush of youth, and digging up potatoes in wind, sun, and rain had penciled a few delicate lines around her eyes. But the mirror in the morning still showed the face of her early twenties, the same slanted cheekbones, the fine nose, and, a nod to her French ancestry, a mouth that always seemed on the verge of a pout. A mouth that compelled a man to go quite mad for her, or so she had been told.