According to Plan
Robert Newman, steward to the Duke of Muncester, pulled the door of the small house shut behind him. He tucked his chin deeper into his collar to have some protection against the cold and to hide his face, should anyone be interested enough to observe him. The wet nurse had not had good news for him. She had been taking care of little Thomas so far, but his stay there was coming to an end. His father had been expecting it, but he had hoped that it could have lasted a little longer.
Everything came to an end. He knew that well, but what could he do now? He did not have a nanny yet. There was nobody in the village he could hire. Well, he could, but none of the women were suitable and he wanted to give his son a good upbringing. His aspirations were to blame for the desperate situation he was now in. People might say that pride came before a fall and that he had best settle for an ordinary nanny, because why should he want more for his son than he could have? Life had dealt him this hand and he would have to play with it.
In spite of all of that, he refused to think he was too proud for having rejected every possibility so far. He would simply have to look elsewhere, but where? The women who advertised were invariably old and the women in the village invariably made Thomas cry, and he was not going to share his household with some old witch. If Thomas came to live with him he would at least have to like the person who took care of the baby, not to mention that he had some requirements as to her education.
If only Sarah had not died. He still missed his wife, although the sharper edges of the pain had worn off. She had been much too young to die and now Thomas had no mother. No mother. The nanny should not be his mother, but Thomas' mother. No, he really did not want an old one.
Sarah had told him not to grieve for too long. He had to take care of their child, she had said. She had been wise. Whom would she have chosen? Someone young, he was sure. She would think that best for the boy.
On his way home -- the empty home -- he stopped by Sarah's grave. Yesterday's flowers were still in place. "What do I do?" he asked, but the stone and the flowers did not respond -- at least not audibly. They had to tell him something, though, because he desperately needed a solution. He stood there until he knew what it was. The flowers had not yet wilted. They would last another while. That was what he needed, someone who would last another while, although he knew all too well that even young people could die and he was only seeking to justify a choice he had already made. "Thank you," he said regardless.
As he walked on, strengthened in his determination to find a youngish nanny, he perceived a black-cloaked figure aimlessly strolling past the graves of the Dukes of Muncester.
The Duchess of Muncester had hired him about two years ago against the will of her husband, who believed himself more than capable of running the family estate. Robert could not deny that the duke had had a fairly good nose for business, but his money did not come from the estate -- it had come from other transactions and investments made with the dowry of his wife. The duchess had come with a large fortune and the duke's fortunate gambles had taken away the need to look closely at the estate as a source of income.
While the estate had not been poorly run, its management could have been improved significantly. It had been plain to see, even for someone who had not yet run any large estate on his own. Robert had been young, but well-educated and with some experience in helping out older stewards. The duchess had wanted a young man, one who could work for the family for decades.
He glanced at her now. Surely that wish of hers was another sign that he should find a younger nanny rather than an older one? All these signs were too obvious to ignore. If he asked her opinion she would very likely agree with him. She had agreed with him before.
The duke had conducted his business mostly in town, while the duchess remained at the estate for the greater part of the year. As Robert had discovered, she had a better eye for improvements that were needed and more patience for long-term solutions than her husband. The duke favoured reckless gambles with quick profits and farming was too slow for him. How the tenants fared was of no interest to him either. He did not think they should aspire to too much prosperity anyway.
For a year the steward had had to deal with the duke's unwillingness and lack of interest, asking himself how he was ever going to manage this sort of work for decades. His wages were sometimes all that had kept him going, for a new wife and a baby on its way required some sacrifices and responsibility. As long as he was paid well, why should he be too upset about not managing to make the best of the estate, or even feel concern about families who could barely feed themselves? But perhaps that was in which he most differed from the duke. His Grace would probably also not have considered it necessary to educate Thomas.
Then the duke had died and his son had turned out to be a little more open to suggestions, although he preferred to stay in town as well. Daniel, the young duke, had no head for business despite having been to the best schools. He always looked back blankly and agreed to everything, but he at least agreed that the tenants should not die of starvation.
Seeing the black-cloaked widow now, Robert remembered something else with regard to her son. It was a matter of considerable importance -- to him and perhaps to her as well -- or he would not dare to disturb her, for she was a little odd. She was always riding or rambling about on her own, such as now in the graveyard, when he did not think she had ever grieved much. "Your Grace!"
She turned. "Mr. Newman?"
He hurried towards her so he would not have to shout. She was the perfect image of unapproachable melancholy, completely in black. It would have rendered her appearance a little more friendly or cheerful had she had fair or red hair, but he could not allow himself to be afraid of addressing his employer because of her appearance. "It is about your son, Your Grace."
The duchess looked wary. Apparently she did not expect to hear much good. "Yes?"
"He told me you can imitate his signature and that --" Robert stopped. He was not even certain that the duke had been speaking the truth when he had said his mother could and would sign in his stead. It was not a practice of which he approved, but he was merely the steward and his opinion counted for nothing. He should take care not to betray what he felt. She would not like to see him judge her family.
"Am I to sign for him again?" she asked in resignation.
He looked relieved that she had some knowledge of such a scheme and that she was not angry with him for mentioning it. "He said that if it was necessary..."
"Of course if it is absolutely necessary you can count on me to sign, Mr. Newman, but I wish -- well, it is quite obvious what I might be wishing." And it was quite obvious that she had only a slim hope of that wish ever coming true.
"It would be more efficient if you could do the signing at all times, Your Grace," he said to give her something positive to dwell on at least. Although there was no real need to explain anything to her son because he did not want to take any responsibility for choices, Robert often felt compelled to do so anyway and he considered it a time-consuming effort. Most of the time the duke was not at the estate and everything had to be postponed until he returned, upon which it always turned out that he had no contribution to make whatsoever and the wait had been useless.
"Yes..." she said slowly with a faraway look in her eyes. "But is it an improvement to have him or would you say it is worse?"
Robert considered his answer carefully, although the fact that she was asking implied that she had her doubts about both dukes herself. He would let her make up her own mind as to which type of employer he preferred, if he could prefer one to the other at all. "Your husband rejected all my suggestions. Your son accepts them all without questioning. He often does not know to what he agrees."
That was no surprise to the duchess. "Is that not ideal for a steward?" she asked with a hint of bitter mockery.
It would be, if he was intent on having his own way. He was not like that yet. Perhaps he would become like that as the years passed. "My experience is still limited, yet I am in fact making all the decisions on my own. I do not doubt my abilities, but I should like to have another mind to consider a far-reaching project before it is undertaken. There are things I may not see. I might later be reproached for misspending money that was not mine."
"You know your business, Mr. Newman," she said confidently.
He wondered how she knew he knew his business. Of course he had always known she could see that things had not been going well, since she had hired him and pressed her husband to accept it, but that was not the same as seeing how things could be improved. Perhaps she could see that too and she had known her husband might listen to a steward when he would not listen to her. And her son simply listened to everybody. "Thank you, but ... I shall consult you, Your Grace." That would give him some more confidence.
"I do not know everything," she said with a sudden fluttering of her eyelids.
This display of nerves reassured him. Perhaps she had her weaknesses this morning and she would be more inclined to be sympathetic towards his. He cleared his throat. "Another matter I wished to ask you about concerns Thomas. I shall have to bring him home next week, but I do not yet have a nanny. I received a few applications in response to my advertisement, but all those women are very old. Would you not say I had better look for a younger person?" He gave her a hopeful look.
"How old is very old?"
He knew well enough that he should not mention anything close to her age, whatever that was. Logically, he would say forty-five to fifty, since his own mother was fifty as well. The young duke was only a few years younger than he was. Their mothers ought to be close in age, although his own mother looked older, not being a lady of leisure. "If they list more than thirty years of experience, Your Grace..."
It was apparently not too close; she did not flinch. "You should find someone suitable."
"But I think someone young is more suitable," he persisted stubbornly.
"Then you should look for someone young."
He could not give her a grateful smile yet. "But I must take Thomas home next week and I do not have anybody to take care of him. I do not know how to clothe and clean him. It is entirely my fault. I knew he would come home, but I thought it would be easier to find a nanny to suit my requirements. I did not know he would cry at every old face!" It would be amusing if the situation had not become so desperate. He hoped she would understand how desperate the situation was. "I am afraid he will take up much of my time."
"I am sure someone in my household can look after him during the day until you find your nanny," she said evenly.
That would be a perfect solution to his problem. He held his breath for a second. "Really?"
She gave him a nod and turned, walking away down the path that led directly onto the Muncester estate. It was not a path one expected a duchess to use and in fact he had always wondered who used it. He stood still, staring after her. It would be perfect. There would be enough people at the large house to look after Thomas and if it happened with the duchess' permission they would not even have to do so secretly. He would have had to arrange it in secret if he found no other option.
It was with more vigour that he resumed his walk home. He would write a new advertisement. Widower seeks educated young woman to take care of his son. That would prevent any old ones from writing!
Robert had done as planned. He had had to learn how to dress Thomas for the day and to take care of him during the night, and although he was not as quick as an experienced nurse, he managed to deliver the baby at the large house in a better condition every day. The first morning the housekeeper had shaken her head and clicked her tongue at his efforts, but she had complimented him by the end of the week.
This arrangement, although perfect, could not last forever and he had sent out the advertisement to a few newspapers. He already received some applications after a week and he reviewed them eagerly. There were three letters from people who had no interest in the position at all, but who wished to tell him in no uncertain terms that he was evil and vicious for corrupting young and pure women.
That gave him pause, for he had never considered corrupting young women at all and he did not think it had been clear from his advertisement that he was the only other person in the household. He might have a relative living with him. How could they know? How could they judge the situation based on that single line of the advertisement?
After such nonsense he had to read the last letter even more times until he allowed himself to believe it was the most promising. The young woman who had written it clearly did not mind that he was a widower, for she wrote only about taking care of his son. Robert was quite pleased with such a response. An educated young woman who liked children might be exactly what was needed.
Would Sarah have approved of Miss Cartwright? He read the letter again. Sarah would feel sorry for her. Miss Cartwright had lost her parents and she was clearly in desperate need of a position, but she had no experience to recommend her. She would of course not have been brought up to take care of somebody else's children. Presumably she would have been brought up with the assumption she could later hire someone to take care of her own.
Robert considered the matter of experience more closely. Sarah would not have had any either, yet the entire world would have deemed her fit to raise her son. Why then could young Miss Cartwright not acquire that skill? He considered himself no more talented because he was Thomas' father. He loved his son, but taking care of him was something that had to be learnt, as the business of folding those deuced napkins had shown him all too well.
He wrote back to Miss Cartwright, inviting her for an interview and offering to pay for her trip back should they not come to an agreement. He was a reasonable man and he gauged clearly that Miss Cartwright might not want to waste the little money she had on an uncertain venture. She was his only hope.
"I hope you do not mind," he said to Mrs. Lewis, the Muncester housekeeper who had been keeping Thomas in her room all this while. "But I instructed my prospective nanny to present herself here because I have no idea if she is coming at all and I cannot sit at home for a week to wait for her. At least you are always here and Thomas is here now. I shall make sure to check frequently so it will not take up too much of your time."
"Mr. Newman, you need not worry." She had been able to do her work with Thomas here. Having a girl here for a few hours would not make a difference either.
"Because you are going to interview her first," he said with a laugh. "I know you." She would interview the young lady with a cup of tea, judging her suitability. She had been too interested, asking for details and warning him that the young woman might not have been truthful. He knew that, but it was the only application he had received.
She smiled. "You may solicit my opinion, but the decision is yours in the end, naturally."
Although his job required him to be out often, Robert made frequent calls at the great house when he thought sufficient time had passed after sending his letter. Either the mail had been slow or Miss Cartwright had been slow to react, because it was only on the third day that Mrs. Lewis took him aside with an excited look the moment he stepped into the kitchens. He did not even wonder why she was in the kitchens, but his mind moved directly to more important matters. "She has come."
"Yes, Miss Cartwright came indeed," Mrs. Lewis whispered. "But Mr. Newman!"
Something was not in order, he assumed. "She is unsuitable?" How could that be apparent already?
"Oh, I do not know! You must see for yourself. See, for you will not hear a word."
"She is a mute?" He imagined Miss Cartwright presenting a letter to Mrs. Lewis, stating her business in writing. Would he care? She would not be able to teach Thomas how to speak, but she ought to be capable of doing everything else normally. He was tired of searching. If Miss Cartwright had everything but speech, he was tempted to hire her anyway.
"No, no! But she might as well be!"
"She introduced herself and stopped speaking?" It was singular, but he could imagine that the great house was daunting to someone who had never been inside such a building. He was used to it now, but the first time he had set foot in it he had also been impressed. Young Miss Cartwright being a little subdued would be perfectly understandable, although if she had lost her tongue entirely she was a little more than subdued.
"Yes, Mr. Newman. I cannot get her to speak. I did my best."
Perhaps Mrs. Lewis had wanted to ask too many questions. It was possible that the housekeeper's curiosity had silenced Miss Cartwright even more. "I shall give it a try, Mrs. Lewis. Surely she knows she will have to speak to me? She can write very decent letters, so I have no doubt that she can speak as well. She did not write that she could not."
"Yes, sir. I shall take you to her. I left her with Thomas."
"Excellent," he responded, willing himself not to see any problem before he had ascertained that there was one. Evidently she had been trustworthy enough to be left alone with his son.
Robert found Miss Cartwright smiling at Thomas. At first sight she looked like a very sweet girl, even when her smile faded into fear upon perceiving him. He had managed to leave Mrs. Lewis behind and he closed the door. "Miss Cartwright?" he asked, trying to sound as friendly as possible. Real mutes did not look afraid. They were used to not being able to speak. It followed that she was not a mute. Perhaps she was also daunted by having to find a position, since she was clearly a well-bred young lady.
Miss Cartwright managed a nod.
"Da da!" crowed Thomas, arching his back to indicate he wanted to be taken to his father.
Robert could not help but wonder if Thomas could speak better than his nanny -- and then he realised that he had not hired her yet, so he should not think of her as such. Just when he was busy realising that, Miss Cartwright stood up and carried Thomas towards him. He accepted his son with some surprise. Evidently the girl had understood the baby very well.
Miss Cartwright sat down again, but she said nothing. She still looked frightened.
Robert had not said very much either, so he made a start. He could not expect her to tell him anything before he had asked questions. It would be odd if she started introducing herself. He spoke. "Shall we do the interview at my house? You would want to see in which surroundings you are to live."
She managed another fearful nod, clutching a shapeless item of battered leather that presumably contained her possessions.
He frowned at it, for it was not large. It could not be all she had, yet it was perhaps too large to contain only the necessities for a day or two on the road. In any case, he would not let a young lady haul that thing all the way to his house. "I shall carry that, Miss Cartwright, if you will carry Thomas."
He perceived that Thomas did not mind being carried by her. The boy seemed to like her, because he even smiled back -- and why not, for she was a sweet-looking and pretty girl.
The walk to his house was silent. He wondered what to do with her if she did not want to work for him. Would he have to offer her a room for the night, or would he have to get her a room at the inn? Now and then he stole glances at Miss Cartwright's face, but he had no idea what she was thinking. She looked sweet and afraid, yet she was trusting enough to accompany him to his house. Robert chided himself a second later. She would not have any choice if she was destitute and he hardly looked evil.
He sat Miss Cartwright down in his sitting room. "Perhaps I should tell you about me first?" he suggested and then he wondered what he could say. "Thomas needs someone to look after him. My wife died. Thomas was with the wet nurse, but he will not nurse anymore and so he could not stay there any longer. I need someone to look after him during the day and I decided I needed to look for someone young." He paused when he saw the girl make a sudden movement. "What is it, Miss Cartwright?"
Her lips moved, but what she said was not audible.
"Would you be more comfortable writing it down?" he asked. He had not yet heard the sound of her voice. Perhaps she was a mute after all.
She made another effort and proved she did have a voice. "I had written before I read you were a widower." Obviously she was unsure whether it was proper to work for one.
Robert looked at her seriously. He could not allow her to consider that a reason to refuse the position. He was the most respectable widower who had ever lived. "I assure you that I had written and sent the advertisement before I realised that widowers are gentlemen of obscure character. A few people took the trouble of writing to me to point out that I was evil and vicious for wanting to hire a young woman. My only intention could be to corrupt her."
Miss Cartwright blinked.
"But," he resumed. "The reason I wanted a young nanny is that she should not be old enough to be my mother."
She gave a tentative nod.
"I ought to thank these people for outlining exactly how I might corrupt a pure young woman," he said, waving some letters at her. "For you and I will be able to define precisely what would constitute a transgression -- should you accept the position, but given that these letters were the only ones I received besides yours, I beg you to give it some serious consideration at least. Do you think you could love and care for my son?"
Miss Cartwright looked at Thomas. "Yes."
"Do you agree that he would need a friendly face and not a scarecrow?" Thomas had cried instantly when some older women in the village had peered into the cradle. Robert had shared his opinion of their ugliness, but it was not convenient that Thomas should be such a stickler for beauty at his age already.
He could not yet be certain that she meant that. It was always easier to agree with someone than to disagree, especially if that person was in charge of one's future. "I am as desperate as you are, Miss Cartwright. You need a position; I need a nanny. If we drew up a contract beforehand, would you consider working for a widower regardless?"
He glanced at the letters he was still holding. "There might be people like this in the village. They might be nasty, moralising, disapproving. You will not have to deal with them. I shall do it. Would it be acceptable to you if I drew up a contract in which I state clearly that you are entitled to a certain amount of money if you feel corrupted or unjustly treated?"
"It would be my word against yours in any case," she said softly.
Robert's eyes widened. She made sense when she chose to speak. "It will not come to that, but you are correct. I daresay in most cases the employer wins, regardless of anything. What if I state that I shall marry you if you express that desire? It is a larger commitment than money. You would not lie to me or you would only get yourself in trouble."
Miss Cartwright considered it, although quite clearly she thought it a little odd.
He continued, encouraged by the quiet way she considered his ideas. "Of course I may have the wish first, but it would not make me happy to have a reluctant wife. I do think you ought to reckon with the possibility before you accept the position. I might begin to like you and you might begin to like me."
Of course he had not considered that option before, but he had not seen her before. Miss Cartwright had a sweet face, but her expression was not vacuous. She was no fool. Robert studied her as she thought about his words. "Would it be acceptable to you to work for me if we solved all problems beforehand?" he asked. "To ensure your position?"
She doubted. "But ... a reluctant husband ... I could not..."
"You might choose him over a damaged reputation regardless, Miss Cartwright. The village will talk. They will not believe my innocence and decency. I might as well say I plan to corrupt and marry you, of course I do."
Miss Cartwright's face expressed astonishment now. "But if it is not your plan?"
"Of course it is not my plan, but they will suspect every man of having such intentions. They would have nothing to talk about otherwise. Poor Mr. Newman's nanny!" His eyes began to sparkle when he imagined how utterly baffled they would be if he announced his intentions straight away. They would not know what to say in response.
Surprisingly, Miss Cartwright began to smile. "You would enjoy it."
"I would, but you might not. I must not trifle with your reputation verbally," he said, the sparkle fading from his eyes. "The contract -- do you know what corruption entails?"
"No, sir." She was sufficiently at ease now not to stick to monosyllabic replies anymore.
"Wait, before we proceed with the embarrassing details, will you work for me?" If she said no, he would not have to think about anything.
"Yes, sir. If you do not mind my lack of experience."
"I know even less." Robert smiled warmly. He had completely forgotten to consider that aspect. Somehow he had confidence in her ability to learn. "Welcome. Er, the contract. It is necessary. I could for instance get you with child and then dismiss you and you would be ruined."
"Dismiss your own child?" she asked softly.
He considered that. "Wicked men might keep the child and send you off. Or wicked men might send both of you off. I do not know what they would do. I know myself, but you do not, so I must go through with the contract and nothing less than absolute honesty is the best policy. I could well begin to like you and my intentions might then be sincere, yet not appreciated by you. You must be able to tell me and leave my service without any damage, or have me marry you if you prefer that."
Miss Cartwright listened attentively.
"Shall I list the actions for which you might demand to be recompensed?" Robert asked. "Well, touching --"
"Deliberate touching, not accidental. Not ... like when you handed me the baby earlier. It comes before ... the rest. Then there is unnecessary staring or managing to surprise you when you are not properly dressed." He felt very vicious now, being capable of listing these things. He blushed a little.
"Could all of that happen?"
"Yes and worse. It very much depends on the character of the man, naturally. I wonder if I should explain the worst to you, since I know it will not happen." He would rather not scare her unnecessarily. He knew he would not abuse his position. If anything happened by accident, he would very likely not mind marrying her at all.
"Oh, do not."
Robert was glad to see that Miss Cartwright could smile and make sensible comments if she felt more at ease. He had managed to make her talk a little and he was proud of the result. She did not distrust him, he knew. "I shall have to ask the duchess if I am to lose my position if I hire you," he told her.
"My employer. The mother of my employer, really. She implied it was entirely my choice, but it is always difficult to know what she thinks. She might change her mind on a whim. Her life does not depend on it. Let me run there and you can try looking after Thomas. I shall also leave these letters with you in case you wish to read them and acquaint yourself with what I will not do."
He ran to the great house and asked to see the duchess. Perhaps she had already heard that Miss Cartwright had arrived and he would not have to say why he had come. She did not say anything when he entered, however, but she waited for him to state his purpose.
"Your Grace, could I hire a young woman?" he burst out, without having his breathing completely under control yet.
"Have you been running?" she asked with some surprise.
"Yes, I have, but what do you say? Would you dismiss me if I did?" He had been wondering what he would do in that case. If he had no wages, he could not hire a nanny either. The duke would not care, yet if his mother ordered him to dismiss his steward, he would, as uncritically as he always took people's advice. The duke's power was only nominal. The decision rested with this woman, who was clad entirely in the blackest of black again, except for a necklace with a bright pink stone. He kept this eyes firmly fixed on this incongruous detail. It gave him hope.
"You know what will happen," she stated. "Talk."
He was confused and raised his eyes. "To whom must I talk? I have already talked to her."
"People will talk," she clarified.
"I know they will. I shall draw up a contract to ensure her respectability. She will only need to speak up when she feels my behaviour does not suit her." He thought the duchess could not help but see the excellence of his plan and the respectability of his character.
"And what will happen then?" she demanded.
"Oh, she could ask for money or marriage."
His confident assurance bemused her. "Clever, but what if Miss Cartwright is too afraid to speak? An ignorant and innocent girl is easy to manipulate. She may not know she can speak. How does she know you will stay true to your word if she speaks?"
"Well, she does not, but I will."
The duchess gave him an odd look. "She may not want to risk ending up with nothing at all if she speaks up against your liking. She might choose not to speak up at all."
"You are very wise and I take your words very seriously. However, I gave her some examples of wrong behaviour. Do you not also think I may know when I transgress?" He would know how to avoid it. He knew what was wrong and he would know when she was justified in speaking.
The duchess did not think so. "Different people have different boundaries, Mr. Newman. Men and women have different boundaries. You might think a kiss harmless, whereas she might feel violated and soiled -- and let us not even consider going beyond a kiss."
He looked intrigued. "Are you serious?" He did not even have to ask -- she looked very serious.
"But Sarah --" He did not think Sarah would have felt that way. In fact, it would be very insulting if the duchess now claimed that she must have. "You imply she was dishonest with me and I was cruel." He coloured as he spoke.
Her brow creased. "I assume it is different where there is love."
"I never knew an opinion could be so strong." It surprised him. She had looked expressionless, but her choice of words was not as neutral. Violated and soiled. He could never do that to Miss Cartwright, or to any other woman for that matter.
"I recommend asking if you may take the liberty -- but of course you would never think of taking any." It came out like a warning.
"I told her I might," he said cautiously.
"Mr. Newman!" she cried, absolutely shocked.
"I told her I might come to like her and I might then do things by accident, but of course that would not mean she liked these things as well." He looked uncertain. "I felt I should be honest. Would you not say it was honest of me to say so in advance?"
The duchess pressed her hands to her face. "Oh, absolutely. What did she say?"
"She says very little."
"And you think such a shy girl, who has problems speaking under normal circumstances, is likely to speak up if you transgress, which is really a more distressing moment than your only speaking of it?" she wondered incredulously. "If speaking distresses her, she will certainly not speak if she is distressed by something else!"
"But I stressed that if I transgressed, it would not be a true transgression, but because I liked her and as such she could ask me for anything. I hope she understood that, at any rate." Robert looked doubtful now. She had a good point about speaking up in a distressing situation. It might be more difficult and not easier, as he had been assuming.
The duchess said nothing to that. She got up to pace, giving him the occasional scrutinising glance.
"Would I be dismissed if I hired her?" he asked, almost feeling as if he were back in school. He was glad she was no longer sitting, though.
Her features relaxed a little. "If you were a bad steward as a result, you would. Otherwise not."
Robert could not smile yet, even if he did not plan to be a bad steward. "But if I plan to tell the village that of course I plan to corrupt my nanny?"
The duchess stopped pacing and turned large eyes towards him. "Mr. Newman!"
"Only to put them off the scent! I told her so."
She sat down. Her eyes were still large as she studied him closely. "That is the most absurd thing I have ever heard. I thought your telling the girl that you might transgress was absurd, but this surpasses it."
"Her Grace had no objections," Robert announced when he returned. He found Miss Cartwright playing with Thomas on the floor. "She thinks I am utterly absurd, but she had already seen you." The revelation had been a little odd, coming at the end, after all of her cautionary words as if those had all been a useless decoy. But then, Her Grace was always incomprehensible and he had not dwelt too long on trying to understand it.
"I do not think I saw her," Miss Cartwright said cautiously.
The duchess was incomprehensible, but not a liar, he had always thought. "An older lady in all black. She said she spoke to you."
She looked confused. "I saw a younger lady in black who smiled at me. Nobody spoke."
"The duchess does not smile and she is about fifty. I do not know what young ladies in black they have there," Robert said with a bemused look. "But never mind. Perhaps she has guests. Did you fare well with Thomas while I was away?"
He smiled. It was a good thing that he had not found either of them crying. "Well...er...are you staying today? These things you brought, is that really everything you have?"
"Yes, sir. It is all I have."
"That is not much, but it means you can stay directly," he remarked. She was even worse off than he had thought, but he was glad she could stay directly. It was in his best interest. And she could talk, whatever Mrs. Lewis believed. It paid to be kind and patient. Sarah had been lively and so he had little experience in dealing with a creature so frightened, but his intuitive approach seemed more than adequate.
"Shall I need to wear a uniform?"
"Oh, no." Perhaps she had assumed she would be given something to wear and that was why she had not brought much. He had clothes for her indeed if she needed any, but it was no uniform. "Let me show you your rooms."
"Rooms?" Miss Cartwright mumbled in alarm as she got to her feet. She did not put Thomas down, but she carried him on her arm.
"Two, yes." He took some steps towards the hall, approving of the fact that she knew not to leave the little boy behind on his own. She would be excellent.
She followed him. "Two!"
The frustrating business of hiring a nanny was turning into something enjoyable. Her modest incredulity was endearing. "Do you think you might need three?" Robert teased, gesturing at the stairs to show her the way.
"No! Three!" Apparently it was inconceivable to her to have such a large number of rooms.
Two was the absolute minimum he would offer, however -- one for sleeping and one for sitting. "Had you already looked upstairs while I was away?" He was fairly sure the answer was negative. She would not have dared.
"No, sir!" Miss Cartwright looked shocked that he could ask.
He let her climb the stairs and then showed her two rooms to the right, a sitting room and a bedroom. "These will be yours. The nursery is just across and I am that way." He pointed to the left.
She looked around herself, visibly impressed.
"This is more than what you had at your aunt's house, is it not?" Robert asked. She had written that she had lived with her aunt, but he did not think aunt and niece had lived on an equal standing. She had wanted to leave there, after all. Perhaps she had even been pressed to go. It must have been a terrible expense to support someone as modest and undemanding as Miss Cartwright.
"You may avail yourself of what is in the closets as well. I have no use for it myself." For months he had wondered what to do with those clothes. He had not had the heart to sell them or give them away, except two of the plainest ones to Mrs. Farrell and her daughters who came every day to keep his house, but one could hardly give them the entire collection at once.
Miss Cartwright stared at the closets in fear, as if they contained all manner of evil.
He opened a closet and showed her the neatly hung clothes. "I cannot wear these."
"But I could not either!" she protested, backing away as if he was forcing her to wear them that instant.
"I place them in your care, Miss Cartwright. You may do with them as you see fit. Wear them, cut them up, give them away. It is quite obvious that I do not know what to do with them, or I would not still have them. You have not brought many clothes and it would save you time and money." He gave her appearance a serious glance. "Those gowns are not made for elderly nannies or maids of all work, but for young ladies."
"But if people were to see..."
Robert gave her a laugh. "Really! It would fit exactly with what I am going to tell them about my purpose for having you here." He doubted that anyone would recognise those gowns as having belonged to someone else.
"But I am to be your nanny and I could not wear..."
"Thomas' nanny," he corrected with a smile. "And you need not be too concerned. I have only a steward's income. The gowns are pretty, but they are only barely good enough for having tea with the duchess. They are perfectly wearable, as you will see."
"You are still being too generous, sir."
He realised he was extremely generous and none of it had been planned. He had never meant to donate all of Sarah's clothes to Miss Cartwright, but he told himself he could not have known she would arrive with nothing. It felt good, being so generous. "Shall I take Thomas for an hour while you settle in?"
Anne Cartwright wondered what was happening to her. Mr. Newman's generosity was beyond belief and she felt as though she ought to refuse most of his offers because she had done nothing to deserve them. It was very difficult. She had not deserved to live in a tiny room in her aunt's house either, not to mention the domestic work she had had to do to earn her keep. It was very, very tempting not to question this far too generous arrangement of Mr. Newman's.
She knew he needed a nanny, but it was odd that he would give his nanny so much. It cost him nothing, though, and that was a relief. He was a fair man. He would not give her a tiny room if it was well within his means to give her a larger one. She could even understand how he wanted to be rid of the clothes, but she would not instantly be able to wear them, perhaps never. They had belonged to his wife.
Thomas was a sweet little boy. She would like taking care of him. He seemed to like her too. There would undoubtedly be difficult moments, but it was very good that her first impression was positive. She felt as if she knew so very little, but Mr. Newman had been correct: he would have known just as little himself. But there was always logic to fall back upon, for everybody else also managed to bring up their children. She ought to keep that in mind.
Mr. Newman had promised to deal with the village. She hoped he would. The villagers would have been unsettling enough without his mischievous plans. He could carry out any plan and she could do nothing about it, so she ought to be glad his plans were mischievous and not vicious. They would react as he had predicted, whatever he did.
She had picked up the letters in his absence and she had been shocked by what some people thought might happen. For all their professed morality they had the most scandalous ideas and knowledge. She was not familiar with carnal lust and temptations of the flesh, but these people seemed to know exactly what it was like. Some detailed passages had made her blush even more and she had wondered why Mr. Newman allowed her to read these things, until she remembered that he had said this was what he would not do. He had not been able to tell her what he would not do, yet he did want her to know. They unsettled him too, these accusations, which meant he could never do any of this.
Anne thought about it for a while and she shuddered. Some lines kept coming back to her now that she was alone and they distressed her. She would have to ask him, or she would not be able to sleep. After sitting for another while she went downstairs very quietly, as if not being heard would allow her to change her mind at any point. It was difficult to ask him anything, let alone asking if he had really meant he would do none of this.
Mr. Newman was rolling balls around for Thomas to crawl after, but since the boy was no dog, he rarely brought the balls back. "Ah, Miss Cartwright," Mr. Newman said at her entrance. "I hope you have not reconsidered. You do look a little bothered by something."
Anne did not know if she was allowed to sit, so she kept standing, looking at him nervously. "Yes. Yes, sir."
"Do sit down," he indicated.
She did as he said, on the edge of a chair. Then she waited for him to ask a question or to invite her to speak.
He did so after a while. "What is it?"
Anne took a deep breath. He did not look disturbed or impatient, merely curious. "The letters."
"They were nasty," he agreed quietly. "What bothers you about them?"
Mr. Newman stretched out his hand and grabbed Thomas by his clothes. He set the boy on his knee and gave her a thoughtful look. "Is everybody greedy, Miss Cartwright?"
"Much the same," he said. "I suppose."
Anne felt irrationally cheered by that comparison. She even felt reassured enough to smile.
"Why, you are easy to cheer up!" Mr. Newman said with some surprise. "I thought it was pretty lame and unconvincing, if true, because I have been thinking about it. Not this instant, but directly upon receiving those letters."
"Simplicity convinces more than..." She gave a shrug. He could have given her a long and eloquent explanation, full of excuses and slowly and unnoticeably veering away from the point.
He looked appreciative. "That is also true. Are you all settled in?"
"Yes, sir." She rose again.
"Where are you going?" He gave her a surprised look.
"But you were all settled in!"
She turned red and whispered. "I assumed I was to stay upstairs when I was not needed." He had given her that extra room for that purpose.
"Not at all. There are five minutes left of that hour, Miss Cartwright. You need not wait upstairs unless you absolutely insist. I am going to prepare our meal in five minutes."
"You, sir?" It was a stupid question, perhaps, since she had not seen any servants, but it nevertheless surprised her that he would do it himself.
"The finishing touches."
Anne wondered if she was to eat with him, considering he had called it their meal, but she dared not ask. She kept sitting stiffly on the edge of the chair, staring at the rug on the floor. Perhaps it would be more pleasant to eat with Mr. Newman than alone. And what about Thomas? She could not imagine him sitting at the table. She might have to feed him. He had all of four teeth. What would he be eating?
"See?" said Mr. Newman. "I can put Thomas in his high chair and cook. Or was it the fact that I can cook that confused you most, Miss Cartwright?"
"Yes, that," Anne answered.
"Nobody would hire me as a cook, but I can feed myself. Single men would starve otherwise."
"Will you expect me to do it tomorrow?"
"I thought," he said, setting the plates on the table. "Not yet. I found it difficult to do while keeping an eye on Thomas, for he does not always like to be ignored and before I got the chair it was impossible to do anything at all. You will find it even more difficult because you do not yet know the way around the house. I thought you could assist me for a while until you are sick of my meals."
"But I work for you. You cannot cook for me."
"You are to look after my son, not after me. Of course when he needs less looking after you could perhaps take on some extra tasks, but believe me, I have tried cooking with him and I found it impossible, even if half of the work has already been done in the great kitchens of the manor. Cook has a few girls who practise their cooking skills on me. On meals for me, I mean. They do not cook me."
Anne stared at the unrecognisable heap that was spooned onto her plate and she swallowed. Either the girls or Mr. Newman might have to take a critical look at their skills.
"It does not arrive here in that state," he smirked when he saw her face. "This is what I make of it."
It was incomprehensible that he seemed proud of it. She took her spoon, but she was afraid to use it. He seemed to like it and so did Thomas, who was fed with his father's spoon.
"I would not serve this to guests," he said reassuringly. "I would keep it all whole then. Mashing all of it seemed easier when I could not get the quantities right. I cut too much, then too little, then too much."
Anne did not yet feel like the nanny. Mr. Newman was still doing everything, although he had told her to watch. He was a good teacher, but he stressed that he did not know everything either and that for a great part he was following instructions he had on paper. Since these notes dealt mainly with numbers, such as times for meals and naps, he confessed he was usually not certain why the baby cried.
"I am sorry," he said when Thomas had finally been put to bed. "He wore me out this week, so I have been keeping the same hours. After closing up downstairs I am going to bed as well. You do not have to go yet. That is why you have your own sitting room. Is there anything I can get you before I retire?"
"But -- but --" She relented when he gave her an insistent look. "Some water, please -- but could you not show me where to get it, so that I need not bother you next time?"
He did as she had asked and they parted. Anne thought she had best go to sleep as well. It was very likely that she would be worn out tomorrow evening. There was so much to think about that she could not sleep instantly, despite the comfortable bed.
"Mr. Potter, I hired a nanny," Robert announced. It did not matter that the shop was not full at this early moment of the day. This was the place where he had always heard most of the village gossip. It would spread and spread faster than he could imagine. Everybody always stepped in for a minute to share news. If he was the first it would undoubtedly be passed on to everyone who came in later.
"I heard she is young," Mr. Potter said cautiously. "Young." He made it sound like a worse qualification than ugly or vicious.
Obviously one of the Muncester servants had been to the village already. Robert was not surprised at the speed. "Young is good. I am not very attracted to old ones." It was good that he had practised this wickedness beforehand, or he would not have been able to speak with such composure. Mischief was one thing, but vice another.
Mrs. Crabtree in the corner dropped a box of crayons, although nobody had been speaking to her and she had no reason to be startled.
Mr. Potter was too delighted to abandon the subject, but he waved his shop boy into the back room first. This was no subject for young ears. "Attracted?"
Robert lowered his voice somewhat, as if he hoped it would remain their secret. "Why else hire a young nanny? Evidently I have plans."
"Corruption, I believe is the term." He clasped his hands behind his back. "We all know widowers are wicked. I might as well own up to it immediately."
Nobody wanted to disagree with that. Everyone except Mr. Potter could feign business anyway. "Wise," said Mr. Potter, but then he cleared his throat. "I mean -- you cannot be serious!"
"I am. She is a very nice-looking young lady. Eminently corruptible." It was of course the opposite. She was visibly sweet and amiable and only the blackest heart could think of subjecting her to evil.
"But the vicar --"
"I am not letting the vicar near her." He did not suppose that was what Mr. Potter had wanted to say, but the opportunity had been too good to pass up. He apologised silently to the poor vicar, who was a harmless older man.
Mr. Potter leant his elbows on his counter and lowered his voice to a whisper. "What sort of game is this, Mr. Newman? We do not know you like this."
"That never stops anybody from speculating either and as such it is not a valid yardstick by which to measure my conduct," Robert said with a shrug. He should not overdo it or they would certainly not believe him. Thankfully he did have some legitimate business here. "Has my book come in, Mr. Potter?"
"Yes, it has." Mr. Potter reached under the counter and extracted a book from a pile. "Are you saying your nanny will live in your house?"
He had not said that at all, but it was true nonetheless. "Yes, Mr. Potter. She will. Hence the inevitable corruption." He inspected the book. It was indeed the one he had ordered and there was no need to stay.
"I spread the word in the village, Miss Cartwright," Mr. Newman said to her when he arrived home. "And now it will spread itself."
"Oh dear, already," she managed to say. She was both amused at his boyish mischief and afraid of the repercussions. Had he really thought it out well? People might never speak to him again.
"They already knew you were young. I am sure the inevitable connection had already been made. We do not know you like this, said the man who owns the gossip shop. Ha! I told him it made little difference, for nobody will use that argument to say it cannot be true! but only to say how awful, have you the latest news?"
"Which shop is the gossip shop?" Anne asked, wanting know which one she should avoid at all costs.
"The paper, stationery and bookshop. It is owned by Mr. Potter who always knows everything. His version is usually the most reliable because he combines all those contradicting versions into one."
"I had best not go there then," she said, although she might like something to read and Mr. Newman did not own any novels. He had three volumes of poetry, two of which she already knew, and about a hundred books on agriculture, economics, law and everything else a young lady would not care for. She could tell from the title that he had just bought another riveting text.
"It does sell the most useful objects in the village -- other than food. Still, I think it would be perfectly safe, since nobody would dream of asking you about it. They might assume you to be unaware of my plans." His eyes gleamed.
"Then they would drop hints?" Anne asked. That was what she would do, logically speaking. In practice she would probably remain silent. "To see whether I am aware yet?"
"I half expect a visit from our local clergyman to see what I am up to. He is perhaps the only one who could be direct and who has a right to be concerned about my soul."
"What will you say to him if he comes?" She wondered if he was going lie to someone who ought not gossip anyway.
"It is none of his business, but I may not tell him that unless he asks me outright."
Her eyes fell on the book again. "Have you not got any books, Mr. Newman?" she asked timidly, but then she thought she might not be allowed to read them and she regretted her question. It was too forward.
"A great many," he replied. "Would you like to read some today?"
"I would read only real books, not those on agriculture."
He laughed. "I can borrow some from the duke's library if you wish and if you give me titles or authors, but of course you may also read the ones I have here. I recommend that you start with the top shelf. They deal with the basics."
She had noticed that, but she still considered them too difficult to read while she was looking after a child. They required too much of her attention. She would prefer some simple story that she could easily abandon at intervals, although she was still too occupied to be able to do that and any thought of reading would have to be postponed. The few times she had placed Thomas in his bed to be able to do something for herself he had protested extremely loudly. He was definitely aware of the fact that he now had his personal servant.
It was not the vicar who called first, but an older woman. Anne was just playing with Thomas with two balls -- all the toys he had -- when the woman tapped on the window. Anne jumped up, feeling guilty for sitting in Mr. Newman's room and not upstairs. But, should anyone ask, the balls had been here.
The woman had a basket, Anne noted as she went to the door. She supposed she had to speak, but her voice sounded strange when she did so. "Have you come for Mrs. Farrell?" It could not be otherwise. She did not know anybody here.
Mrs. Farrell and her daughters were upstairs. Anne thought they were friendly and they had not seemed to mind the gossip. There was more laundry work for them now, what with Thomas' nappies and her clothes, but there was of course less to tidy and clean. Mrs. Farrell had seen quickly enough what Anne did if Thomas was asleep. She could not leave the house if he slept, but being idle was not to her liking and Mr. Newman was not very tidy, she had noticed.
"No, I have come for you," said the woman. "My name is Lavinia Black."
"Anne Cartwright," she mumbled, still curious about the woman's purpose. Perhaps all new villagers were greeted in this manner.
"And Thomas. I know Thomas." Mrs. Black smiled at him.
Thomas said nothing and he did not cry, but he looked on very attentively.
"Er. Oh. Come in. Please." Anne remembered her manners just in time.
"Thank you, dear, but do not worry. I have not come to bite you," Mrs. Black said as she followed her into the room. "I was wondering about Thomas' clothes."
His clothes, Anne echoed without sound. What was the matter with his clothes? She gave them a concerned look, but there was nothing amiss. Mr. Newman and she had dressed Thomas exactly like he had been dressed in the past week and Mr. Newman had said that the Muncester housekeeper had said it looked well now. She had not removed Thomas' clothing since his father had left the house.
"He will soon walk and go outside more often. He will need to wear different things and you will not have them. I have brought you some things you could use. Patterns, drawings..."
"Why?" Mrs. Black did not know her. There was no reason for her to help someone she did not know. "I am sorry," she added when she feared her blunt query was uncivil.
"You will not know your way around these things, Miss Cartwright, or so we assumed." Mrs. Black did not specify with whom she had discussed this matter.
Anne watched as some of the basket was unloaded. The woman had spoken the truth. She really had come for Thomas and not for any gossip. Nobody would go through this trouble simply to find out more about Mr. Newman's inventions.
"I daresay his grandmother may send him things in the post, but she does not live here. Would you know why she has not come?"
"Grandmother? I did not know there was one." She began to wonder why the grandmother had not stepped in to assist, if there was one.
"Mr. Newman has a mother. He must not have -- oh, men!" Mrs. Black said with a shake of her head. "He is a good young man and his intentions are good, but -- young! They overlook so many obvious things."
"He should have had his mother here instead of me?" Anne asked softly.
"No, but I always go to my children, so it is only natural that I thought of her. She could have helped him for a short while, or even you! Now he is leaving you to fend for yourself."
"No, no, he is helping me a lot. Too much," she protested. He did not leave her to fend for herself. People should not think so. He had shown her how to dress Thomas that morning, while he could easily have left the house without caring how she managed.
"But he cannot help you with the baby because he does not know anything himself," said Mrs. Black. "And if you call spreading scandalous gossip helping..."
"But it is all untrue," Anne blushed.
"I know that. I heard that from my cousin. Do not worry about my opinion, because I know you are perfectly safe from unpleasantness in this house. Let us look at these things that I brought."
It followed that if she wanted to make things for Thomas she would need fabrics, but Anne was not keen on going out to buy any. There was the question of money, she told herself, but Mr. Newman would give it if she asked and the main problem was really going into a shop and stating her business, not the fact that he had not yet paid her.
She had checked her closets. The gowns in there were too pretty to cut up, not to mention that their feminine patterns would look odd on a little boy. She had examined them gingerly, hardly daring to touch them. There were but one or two plain enough to wear for someone in her position. A few years ago she could have worn all of them without anybody thinking anything of it, but she could not allow that thought to depress her. At the moment her situation was vastly better than it had been a week ago and for that she should be thankful.
Mrs. Black wrote down how much she would need of which sort of fabric, declaring it was one of her favourite occupations to help young ladies with infants, whether they were daughters of hers or not. She had a little pocketbook in which she had written everything down and she copied some bits of it. "There. Take this note to the shop and they will advise you further."
Anne had been afraid of receiving that order. "Thank you," she said without conviction. She could not help but look ahead. "I shall give it to Mr. Newman."
Her new acquaintance did not understand that comment. "To Mr. Newman?"
"He has the money."
"You do not need money. They will write it down and send him a bill."
Anne looked frightened when there was no escape. She wondered what to do. It would be uncivil and ungrateful if she said she would not go, but she knew she did not have the courage. This lady had been very kind to her, but she would stop if she thought such kindness was not appreciated. Perhaps honesty would work. "I do not dare to go," she said in a very soft voice.
Apparently Mrs. Black did not think that strange at all. "Ah. Because of the gossip?"
"People I do not know." Anne cast down her eyes in embarrassment. Her aunt had disliked her for it. Other people might also not look kindly on her fears.
But Mrs. Black did not berate her. "Come with me now. Pack up the little one."
"Would Mr. Newman not mind our spending his money in this manner?" Anne whispered nervously when her companion had placed yet another order. They would be buying more than Thomas could ever wear.
"I think not," Mrs. Black responded. "If you did not do it, he would need to do it himself. Can you see him remember fashion advice and washing instructions?" She evidently could not.
"But is he rich enough to afford this expense?" Anne tried to determine whether Mrs. Black was rich herself. She was certainly a well-dressed and well-spoken lady, but she tended towards buying bargains. It might be her habit, but she might do it for Mr. Newman's sake.
"He can certainly afford to dress his son."
"And why are you helping me?" The lady had also handled most communication with the shop assistants. Anne had not had to say very much. Mrs. Black was so friendly that she could easily ask her a question, however.
"I like helping," Mrs. Black smiled. "And I live with a cousin who does not require my company during the day. It leaves me enough time for other matters and other people."
"Oh. It is very kind of you. I do not know anybody here and perhaps I never will."
"But you know Mr. Newman. How do you like him so far?"
"I do not want to answer in the shop," Anne whispered anxiously, for the woman who had been helping them might be back any second. "They would all think --"
Mrs. Black kindly saved her question for when they were outside again. "How do you like Mr. Newman so far?"
"He is good," she said cautiously.
"Be sure to say he is a good man or a good father or a good employer, not simply that he is good, or people will be tempted to add whatever specification they like," Mrs. Black advised. "You will have to speak more to avoid such misconstructions, but you will be better understood."
Anne wondered what people might add, but she could not think of anything connected to goodness, given what they had been told. "Good at badness?"
"I suppose being good at it could give one the same impression as not having it." One could deliberately attempt to appear good and deceiving people in such a manner would be a sign of wickedness, she supposed.
"Er..." Mrs. Black had to think about that. "Yes. But you need not worry about that in Mr. Newman's case, since he is trying to appear bad and not good -- and I should not call him very good at his badness, either."
"How do you know about talking and badness?" Anne asked shyly.
"I am an old lady and so I know a great variety of people, more people than there are types. You are a more difficult type than Mr. Newman, actually."
"Because you know him better," she guessed.
"Yes, that too. But, on the other hand, you are also not the first person I met who does not talk very much."
Mrs. Black accompanied Anne home to help with the parcels and then she left. Anne was glad for the assistance, since she had Thomas to carry as well and she was not yet completely certain of the way home. Mr. Newman's house was one of the last of the village, on the edge of the Muncester estate, and now that she had walked the route twice it seemed easy enough.
Beyond the garden was a river, which now looked dangerous to Anne with a view to Thomas. She walked to the end of the garden for an inspection. There was no gate or fence at the back, only a path between a vegetable garden and a small orchard leading straight onto a wooden pier. She glanced around in dismay. The little boy would not find anything in his way if he decided to crawl here. He might not try crawling that far, but he would certainly try walking.
She would have to tell Mr. Newman to put up a fence in time. Would he mind? He could not want his son to fall into the river, so presumably he would not mind. He would not have thought of it yet; she had not thought of it yesterday either, although she had seen the river then too. She must dare to bring it up before Thomas walked. It would be difficult, but it would be her duty and not a personal opinion and that ought to make it a little easier.
© 2006 Copyright held by the author.