An Impossible Case

Part One

The journey from London to Richmond was not a long one, and this was one of the reasons why Andrew Hartwell had chosen to install his daughters and their governess there. His family home was in Worcestershire, but though the place was very comfortable and beautifully situated, Mr. Hartwell had preferred to have his daughters somewhere near London when he returned there, two years after his wife's death.

There were two reasons for this -- firstly, Maynard Hill had never been the same after Harriet had died; what had been a delightful country retreat while she had been alive had turned into a gloomy place full of memories that made his life a misery. Secondly, ever since their mother had passed away his three daughters had become unruly to the highest degree whenever he left the house, and it would have been too much of a bother to travel all the way to Worcestershire whenever they had managed to rid themselves of another governess. The house in Richmond was perfectly situated -- Mr. Hartwell could reach it at short notice whenever his presence there was required, and still it was not in Town. The late Mrs. Hartwell had often stated that she preferred her children to grow up in the country, and her husband felt obliged to adhere to her wishes, especially such reasonable ones as that.

Mr. Hartwell knew that it was his duty to remarry -- his daughters, he felt, needed a firm hand to guide them, and his was not the hand in question. He attributed his weakness to being a single parent. It was not easy to be both father and mother to a child, and he always felt that since the girls had suffered a terrible loss so early in their lives, they should be handled with a delicate touch. Perhaps it was wrong, but he could not get himself to treat them with the firmness they needed, and felt immensely guilty for every reprimand he had to utter. He had employed numerous governesses, hoping that they would be able to manage his unruly children, but without success. So far, each of them had resigned their position within a couple of weeks, telling him that there was no amount of money he could pay them to make them reconsider their decision to leave. There was only one thing left for him to do.

While the girls were well able to rid themselves of a governess, they would not be able to get rid of a new mother -- it would be perfectly clear to them that she would stay, no matter what they did. Apart from that, Mr. Hartwell realised that he had been very lonely in those past two years since Harriet's death, and hoped that a new marriage would remedy that. He did not expect to fall in love again -- in fact, he felt this was impossible. No woman, he believed, could ever take Harriet's place in his heart. But he could marry a woman he liked, one who was not fresh out of the schoolroom, one with a steady character and a brilliant mind, one whose company he could enjoy and who would be an example to his daughters.

Miss Ampleforth would have been an ideal candidate, Mr. Hartwell reflected. She was in her fifth Season, was well known for her learning, and her character had the kind of steadfastness that he believed was necessary for the task of raising his daughters. He even liked her -- well enough to contemplate marriage with her. Unfortunately, Miss Ampleforth was the woman his brother-in-law had fallen in love with, and Mr. Hartwell was not going to stand in the way of true love. He had experienced it once, after all, and would never have forgiven himself, had he ruined Harriet's brother's happiness. Therefore he left London to spend a week or two with his daughters, leaving the path open for his brother-in-law to win Miss Ampleforth's hand in marriage.

As he got out of his carriage in front of his house in Richmond, the door flew open and his three daughters darted outside to greet him. He was surrounded by girls, each of them crying "Papa, Papa!" at the top of her voice and hugging him so fiercely he could barely move.

"There now, girls," he said. "Calm down, will you? Yes, Lavinia, I have come to stay with you for a while. No, Uncle Eric is not coming, Daphne. Why not? He has business in London he must attend to, that's why. Have you been a good girl, Emily?"

"She tried, sir," a serene voice from the entrance of the house informed him. It was Miss Ryder, the girls' current governess. "Welcome home, Mr. Hartwell."

As usual, she was looking remarkably elegant for a young lady in reduced circumstances. Her gown was neither the latest fashion nor had it been expensive, but it had the kind of simplicity that never went quite out of style. Besides she had the kind of figure that made any gown look spectacular, Mr. Hartwell thought, only to banish the idea firmly from his mind. It would not do to be attracted to one's daughters' governess. Especially not to this governess, who was the first one to be able to control his girls.

Miss Ryder turned to the girls. "I do not think your papa wishes to entertain the entire neighbourhood with your raptures, girls, so you had better come inside again."

"But Papa ...," four-year-old Emily, Mr. Hartwell's youngest daughter, began.

"I do think your papa wishes to come inside too, Emily," Miss Ryder said. "I am not going to take you away from him, do not worry."

Reluctantly, the girls went back into the house, followed by Miss Ryder and their father.

"How are you, Miss Ryder?" Mr. Hartwell asked. "The girls have not been too much trouble, have they?"

He noticed the anxious look his eldest, Lavinia, threw over her shoulder in Miss Ryder's direction, as well as Daphne's sigh of relief when Miss Ryder assured him that everything was well. There had been some battles, he concluded. Matters could not have been too bad, though -- Miss Ryder had not handed in her notice yet and so he assumed that, whatever arguments there had been, she had won them. She had been in the household for almost three months now -- that was a record. No governess had ever stayed so long before her. Mr. Hartwell hardly dared hope so, but it looked as if, in Miss Ryder, he had finally found the one governess who would be impossible to dispose of.

It had been Mr. Hartwell's mother-in-law who had recommended Miss Ryder. When she had heard that he was -- again -- looking for a governess for his daughters, she had told him she knew of a young lady who might be willing to accept the post.

"You mean our reputation has not reached her ears yet?" he had asked bitterly. "I must be on the agencies' black lists already, so I suppose there is no use asking any of them."

"I am almost certain Miss Ryder will be able to manage the girls," Lady Clairmont had said. "She has been looking after her brothers and sisters ever since her mother died -- she was sixteen then -- and they have all turned out well. A good family, the Ryders, though they have met with ill-fortune of late. Her father is Alfred Ryder -- do you remember him?"

Hartwell had not remembered him, but his mother-in-law had lost no time in acquainting him with the gentleman's misfortunes. He had invested his fortune unwisely, and had lost most of it in consequence. From then on, the family had been obliged to make their living as well as they could.

"Miss Ryder is a very fine young lady," Lady Clairmont had finished her story. "Very accomplished, well-bred, gentle yet determined if need be, and she has a great deal of experience."

This description had sounded too good to be true, Mr. Hartwell had thought, yet he had not been inclined to argue with his mother-in-law, and besides he had felt he was in no position to be choosy. Any governess with a decent character who was willing to work for him was welcome to do so, and so Miss Eleanor Ryder had taken up residence in his house in Richmond only two weeks later.

"Would you like some refreshment, sir?" Miss Ryder asked.

"Thank you, Miss Ryder, I would," Hartwell said with a grateful smile. The journey had not been a long one but since it was a hot day he was feeling parched.

"I have just ordered tea to be brought into the school-room," Miss Ryder said. "Would you care to keep us company, sir, or would you prefer to have something to eat and drink in the library?" It was amusing how she had taken on the duties of a hostess in spite of being a mere employee, Hartwell thought. But she seemed to be doing this very well, and Hartwell was content to fall in with her course of action. It was not as if she had usurped a position that rightfully belonged to someone else, after all, and she was probably acting out of habit. When he was not in Richmond, she was the one in charge of the girls, so she did have some kind of elevated position in the household.

"I think I'd rather join you in the schoolroom," Hartwell said. "I'll just get rid of my travel-stained clothes beforehand."

"Certainly, sir," Miss Ryder said, and took the girls to the school-room with her, leaving Mr. Hartwell to go to his room and sort himself out.

When he arrived in the schoolroom a quarter of an hour later, he found Miss Ryder and his daughters seated in the bow-window, with a steaming teapot and several plates of sandwiches waiting to be eaten. They were presenting a charming picture, Hartwell thought. Still, he would have given everything he possessed, had it enabled him to replace Miss Ryder with Harriet. This way of thinking would not get him anywhere, though. Harriet was gone, and instead of thinking wistfully of the past he would have to face the future.

Miss Ryder had apparently instructed the girls to act as "hostesses" in this impromptu schoolroom tea-party. Though Miss Ryder poured the tea -- the teapot, she said, was too heavy for his daughters' hands -- Lavinia handed him his tea-cup with an air of elegance, and Emily put some sandwiches on a plate which Daphne presented to him. Mr. Hartwell was impressed -- he had not seen his girls act so civilised in a while, especially not with a governess at hand.

"Papa, Miss Ryder has taught me a new pattern," Daphne said. She was seven years old, and had developed a taste for embroidery, as Miss Ryder had informed him during one of his previous visits.

"Has she, indeed?" he asked, trying to show as much interest as he could muster. Embroidery was none of his concerns, but since his daughter was fond of it he was willing to act as if it interested him too. "Are you still working on your sampler then?"

"I have started another one," Daphne said proudly. "Do you want to see it?" She looked perfectly ready to dash off to her workbasket to show off her piece of work.

"After we have had our tea," Mr. Hartwell said. "You know how clumsy I am -- you would not want me to spill my tea on your sampler, do you?"

Daphne shook her head. She certainly did not want her Papa to spoil her sampler.

"Daphne has dexterous hands, Mr. Hartwell," Miss Ryder said. "Her embroidery would do credit to a much older girl."

"This is excellent news," Mr. Hartwell said. Daphne blushed -- one could see that her father's praise made her happy.

"Emily has made some progress with her reading," Miss Ryder continued. Emily's face, which had betrayed some indignation at the fact that her sister had been preferred, lightened up.

"That's good," Mr. Hartwell said, smiling at his youngest. "Will you read me a bedtime story tonight, then?"

Emily burst into laughter. "But I always sleep when you go to bed," she pointed out a flaw in his plan.

"That is a problem," Mr. Hartwell admitted, pretending to be deep in thought. "But," he said as if he had just had the idea, "you could read it to me at your bedtime. I'll come to your room, and you will read me the story. How is that?"

Emily's face fell. She had obviously had another, more appealing idea. "Miss Ryder says we must not read in bed," she pointed out.

Mr. Hartwell turned to the governess. "Do you think tonight might be an exception, Miss Ryder?" he asked gravely. "I have not had a bedtime story read to me for the past thirty years at least, and have quite set my heart on hearing one tonight."

Miss Ryder smiled. "Very well, sir -- I will allow it for once."

"You are most generous, ma'am," Mr. Hartwell said. "What do you say to Miss Ryder, Emily?"

"Thank you, Miss Ryder," Emily said, beaming. She might not be allowed to stay up until her Papa went to sleep, but she would be allowed to do something her sisters were not supposed to do. This was almost as good. Especially since she was the youngest, and was often the one who was excluded from her sisters' games because she was "too little".

Lavinia, not one to be outdone by her youngest sister, said, "Papa, I have learned a new piano piece."

"I am looking forward to hearing it," Mr. Hartwell said.

"Lavinia is a talented musician," Miss Ryder said. "Unfortunately she thinks this entitles her to neglecting her French studies."

Lavinia shot Miss Ryder a dark glance. Mr. Hartwell had a hard time not to laugh. He suspected that this was what their quarrels had been about. Knowing Lavinia, he supposed the last word on the subject was not spoken yet. Lavinia was stubborn, and not willing to spend any time doing things she did not enjoy. He had witnessed some of her tantrums, and knew that she was the one of his daughters who gave their governess the most trouble. Most of the pranks the girls had committed to rid themselves of their governesses had been her idea -- she was not without sense, and where she led her sisters would follow.

Lavinia put her sandwich back on her plate and, with a challenging look at Miss Ryder, said, "I do not like cucumbers."

"In that case you should not have taken a cucumber sandwich, Lavinia," Miss Ryder said. "We have plenty of other sandwiches to choose from."

"I did not see it was a cucumber sandwich when I took it," Lavinia said.

"Did you not think the green colour might have given you a hint?" Miss Ryder asked dryly. "We have an agreement, Lavinia."

"I don't care about the agreement," Lavinia burst out. "I don't want to eat this!"

"But you will," Miss Ryder said. Her tone indicated that she was willing to discuss the matter at length, but that her point of view was not going to change.

"Papa," Lavinia said, turning to her father and fully expecting him to take her side. "Tell Miss Ryder I do not want to eat this sandwich!"

"You have already told her so; there is no need for me to repeat it," Mr. Hartwell said. "I suggest you stick to your agreement with Miss Ryder, whatever it is."
He was not one to undermine the governess' authority with his daughters, not now that he had found a teacher who had stayed for longer than two weeks and seemed inclined to stay even longer, in spite of his daughters' unlimited capacity for mischief.

"Explain the agreement to your father, Lavinia," Miss Ryder said amiably. "I am sure he is interested to know."

"We need not eat what we do not like," Lavinia said.

"I see," Mr. Hartwell said, his eyes twinkling with amusement. "I suspect there is more to it though."

"There is," Miss Ryder said. "What is the other half of our agreement, Lavinia?"

"We must finish what we put on our plates," Lavinia said irritably.

"This sounds like a very sensible deal to me," Mr. Hartwell said. Lavinia pouted. She had wanted to be pitied -- and to measure her power against Miss Ryder's, to demonstrate in the presence of her father that Miss Ryder had no authority over her. The plan had gone wrong, and Mr. Hartwell was certain there would be trouble before long. It almost made him wish he had stayed in London, but no one would be able to call him a coward -- he'd stay here and watch.

"Miss Ryder had a letter from her brother today," Daphne announced. "Are you going to read it to us when we have finished our tea, Miss Ryder?"

"Certainly," Miss Ryder said. "As soon as all of you have finished their tea."

With a darkling look at Miss Ryder, Lavinia picked up her sandwich again and started to eat -- slowly and with a great show of disgust.

"I take it your brother's letter is a treat the girls are looking forward to?" Mr. Hartwell asked the governess.

Miss Ryder laughed. "All my brothers' letters," she said. "I have three younger brothers, all of them in the Navy -- and they send me letters from all over the world, which naturally fascinates your daughters. -- You do like to hear about their adventures, don't you, Emily?"

Her mouth being full, Emily could only reply with a vigorous nod.

"It seems rather extraordinary that three brothers would take up the same profession," Mr. Hartwell said. "Are their tastes so similar?"

"No, but their prospects were," Miss Ryder said. "It is very difficult for a gentleman to find an occupation which does not require some sort of financial investment from his family. A friend of my father's was willing to use his interest in their behalf, and so it seemed the best thing for them to do, even though they were still very young when they left us."

Miss Ryder's family must be in extremely reduced circumstances then, Mr. Hartwell thought. There was enough money to send at least one son to university in most genteel families -- Mr. Ryder's financial losses must have been greater than Hartwell had imagined.

"It is a worthy profession," Hartwell said, for want of anything suitable to say. "And they have some hope of advancement and fortune, I suppose."

"Oh yes. They do tell me so regularly," Miss Ryder said. She turned to Lavinia, who had, in the meantime, finished her sandwich. "There now," she said. "That wasn't so horrible after all, was it?"

Lavinia mumbled something which hardly sounded like agreement, and was allowed to ring the bell for the maid to clear the table. Hartwell rose.

"I will leave you to your brother's letter then, Miss Ryder," he said. "Shall I have the honour of dining in your and the young ladies' company tonight?"

Miss Ryder smiled. "We shall be delighted, sir," she said. "If you do not mind keeping country hours, that is. The young ladies are supposed to be in bed by eight o'clock."

This was another bone of contention between Lavinia and Miss Ryder, as Mr. Hartwell was able to judge from the look Lavinia gave the governess.

Mr. Hartwell nodded assent, and left the school room to write letters in his study, while Miss Ryder took a letter from her workbasket and settled down on a sofa, with one little girl cuddling up to her on either side and a larger one taking a seat at the edge of the sofa, as far away from Miss Ryder as she could.

 

 

Part Two

At the dinner table, Mr. Hartwell had some further opportunity to watch Miss Ryder's way of handling the girls. She was firm, but never unfriendly, and for the first time he had a feeling as if his daughters really liked and respected their governess. Two of them did, anyway. He was not quite certain about Lavinia.

The girl behaved well enough, he had to admit. There was no talk about disliking any of the dishes that had been set on the table -- though she ignored some of them. But she ate what was on her plate without complaining, and considering what a fussy eater his eldest usually was this was an achievement -- an achievement that Mr. Hartwell knew he had to lay at Miss Ryder's door.

The girls entertained him with an account of what they had been doing all afternoon, and Daphne reminded him that he had yet to see her sampler.

"May I show it to Papa after dinner?" she asked Miss Ryder, and Miss Ryder told her she could do so, provided her father still wanted to see her masterpiece.

"I am looking forward to it," Mr. Hartwell said enthusiastically and Daphne gave a satisfied sigh. "I also remember your promise to play to me, Lavinia," he added. "Do not think I will let you get away without having played your new piece to me."

Lavinia smiled, satisfied that her father had not forgotten about her musical achievement. She was a very touchy child, prone to taking offence where none was meant whenever she felt herself neglected, and she often felt slighted. Mr. Hartwell was fully aware of this trait in his daughter's character, and tried to humour her as often as he could, hoping to avoid trouble. Perhaps it was not the best way of dealing with the child, but it was certainly the easiest.

"I have already chosen a bedtime story for you, Papa," Emily announced.

"Have you? Nothing too frightening, I hope -- I do wish to get a good night's sleep," Mr. Hartwell said, sounding worried but with an amused glint in his eyes.

Emily chuckled. "It is not really scary," she said. "It is a funny story -- I want to make you laugh."

"That is an excellent idea. I can do with a laugh now and then," Mr. Hartwell declared.

"Have you ever read The Three Big Sillies?" Emily asked.

"No, I do not remember that one. It sounds promising though," Mr. Hartwell said.

Lavinia, who felt that her father had paid her sisters enough attention by now, said, "Miss Ryder's brother is coming for a visit, Papa." Her tone of voice indicated that she was relating a big secret, one she knew he would disapprove. She was bound to be disappointed, however.

"Is he?" Mr. Hartwell merely asked, giving Miss Ryder an expectant look.

"Subject to your permission, Mr. Hartwell," Miss Ryder said. "Naturally I would not dream of receiving him here if I knew it was against your wishes."

"Why should I have any objection to a man's visiting his own sister?" Mr. Hartwell asked.

"Well, this is your house, Mr. Hartwell," Miss Ryder pointed out.

"And even if the sister in question lives in my house, she can depend on my hospitality for her brothers," Mr. Hartwell said. "Unless there is a good reason for me to forbid a visit, but I have always supposed your brothers to be respectable fellows, so there cannot be a proper reason for me to withhold my permission."

"Thank you, sir," Miss Ryder said, blushing. His praise of her family had obviously pleased her.

"So when is your brother going to come, Miss Ryder?"

"I do not know. He merely mentioned it in his latest letter," she replied. "He said he would pay me a visit because he was to have two weeks' leave of absence when returning to England. I do not know when this will be, however."

"Whenever he does come, feel free to let him stay here for as long as he likes," Mr. Hartwell said.

"Thank you sir. You are very generous," Miss Ryder said. She looked very happy with the prospect of having her brother stay here, but did not dwell on the topic. Neither did she heap excessive praise on him in an effort to show gratitude where there was none. She was grateful, that was evident, but she saw no reason to worship the ground he trod on for complying with one of her wishes. Miss Ryder might be a lady in reduced circumstances, but she was still a lady, not the kind of toadying female that governesses, in his experience, often were.

"You're welcome, Miss Ryder," Hartwell said and turned his attention back to his dinner.

When they had finished their repast, Miss Ryder and the girls very correctly left the dining room to allow Mr. Hartwell to enjoy a glass of port or two. Lavinia was to practise her piano piece once more, Daphne wanted to fetch her sampler from her room, and Emily was happy to sit with Miss Ryder, who entertained her with a fairy-tale while occupying herself with some piece of needlework or other.

As he joined the company in the drawing room, Mr. Hartwell again delighted in the quiet domesticity of the scene, and again wished Harriet could be there with them to take part in it. He had to admit that Miss Ryder, too, was a sight to behold, however.

She was not half as beautiful as Harriet had been, but then who could compare to his wife? Harriet D'Aubrey had been a beauty, a Vision. Hartwell had fallen in love with her the instant he had first set eyes on her, which had not been surprising. She had attracted many admirers, with her black hair, her angelic face, her large blue eyes, and her willowy figure. Her brother Lord Clairmont had, jokingly, referred to her as Snow White, and though Mr. Hartwell had taken exception to the description he had had to admit that it had been apt in spite of being inappropriate. Sometimes she had looked like an illustration from a fairy-tale book.

Miss Ryder was a different type. She was pretty, but had none of Harriet's ethereal beauty. Her golden curls were her one striking feature. Mr. Hartwell was certain she would look stunning with her hair down instead of wearing it in a no-nonsense bun. Her figure was pleasing, but she was shorter than Harriet had been. Her face, though attractive, was nothing out of the ordinary. It was rendered interesting by a pair of intelligent hazel eyes, though, eyes that sparkled with amusement on occasion. On the whole it was surprising that Miss Ryder had never married -- Hartwell had seen less attractive girls than her make suitable matches, even if they had not possessed any fortunes to speak of. But maybe she had never thought of marriage, and had therefore not looked for a husband. It was a pity, Hartwell thought. She'd make some lucky fellow an excellent wife, surely.

Miss Ryder looked up at him when he entered the room, and welcomed him with a smile. It was fascinating to see the radiant effect that smile had on her face -- she should smile more often, Hartwell thought.

"You are always busy, Miss Ryder," he said, looking at her hands. There was another appealing feature about her -- her hands were beautiful.

"I try to be," Miss Ryder replied. "Most of the time it does not require a great deal of effort to find an occupation for myself, I admit."

"Do you never rest, then?"

"I do rest -- whenever I am asleep," Miss Ryder said with a laugh. "That should be enough."

Mr. Hartwell smiled. She sounded very cheerful and active -- just the kind of person he needed around here. He did hope the girls would not do anything stupid to make her go away. He did not think that Daphne and Emily would, but Lavinia was a power to be reckoned with. Mr. Hartwell decided to keep a close watch on his eldest while he was staying with them.

"Are you ready for Lavinia's concert, Mr. Hartwell?" Miss Ryder asked. "She has been very busy practising this half hour, and appears very eager to display her skill on the pianoforte."

"Then she must have her chance to show off," Mr. Hartwell said and sat down in a chair next to Miss Ryder's, facing the pianoforte.

"Will you entertain us with some music, my dear?" he asked his eldest daughter, and Lavinia immediately started to play. Hartwell was not an expert in music, but Lavinia seemed to brush through her piece of music tolerably well and at the end he was perfectly ready to give his daughter the round of applause that he thought was her due.

Once Daphne had brought him her sampler for inspection and he had given her some heartfelt words of praise, Miss Ryder reminded the girls that it was time for bed.

"Papa!" Emily cried, giving Hartwell a pleading look.

"I am ready for my bedtime story, Emily," Mr. Hartwell said with a laugh. "If you will excuse us, Miss Ryder?"

Miss Ryder gave him a polite nod, wished the girls a good night, and off they went to the nursery where their nurse would tend to them.

The Three Big Sillies were a great success, if not with Mr. Hartwell then at least with his daughter. Emily was obviously partial to the story of the man who set out to find three people sillier than his bride. She chuckled so much at the foolish things the people in the story did that she sometimes had to stop reading altogether until she had recovered her self-control.

Having reached the end of her narrative, Emily leant back into her pillow and received a good-night kiss on the cheek from her Papa.

"Did you like the story, Papa?" she asked sleepily.

"Oh yes, I did," Mr. Hartwell said. "It was very funny."

"It was, wasn't it? Miss Ryder read it to us the other day, and then she told me that if I were able to read I would not have to wait until she was at leisure to read to me."

"That sounds reasonable," Mr. Hartwell said.

"Papa, do you like Miss Ryder? I like her very much." Emily said.

"I like her too. She is a very clever lady," Hartwell said.

"Mmmmhm," Emily said, drifting off. Hartwell waited until she was asleep, then he put out the candle on her bedside table and left the room. Miss Ryder was still sitting in the drawing room, working.

"Are the girls asleep?" she asked, looking up at him. The candlelight did a great deal to enhance her complexion, Mr. Hartwell thought.

"I think they are," he said, sitting down next to the governess. "I must compliment you on the excellent work you have done with them," he continued. "I sincerely hope you will stay for a while."

"I have no intention of leaving," Miss Ryder said with a smile. "I am growing very fond of your daughters."

"I am glad to hear it," Mr. Hartwell said. "I have a suggestion -- how about taking the girls to Hampton Court tomorrow? I am astonished at their achievements -- they have been working hard, and so have you. Don't you think all of you deserve a treat?"

Miss Ryder laughed. "If you want to take your daughters to Hampton Court, sir, you are naturally welcome to do so," she said.

"I wanted to give you the chance to say no," he said earnestly. "Without being in danger of losing the girls' friendship, which I know was difficult to gain."

"This is very considerate of you," Miss Ryder said. "I think the girls will enjoy going to Hampton Court very much. So will I, I confess, so I am all in favour of the outing."

"Then it is settled," Mr. Hartwell said. "We will go there tomorrow, if the weather permits it."

"It is going to be a pleasant surprise for your daughters," Miss Ryder said, picking up her work again.

Mr. Hartwell took a closer look at it. "What is this you are making, Miss Ryder?" he asked.

"I am netting a purse for my sister Augusta," she said calmly. "It is going to be my birthday present for her -- she will turn twenty in two weeks."

"Is Miss Augusta Ryder your youngest sister?"

"No, Caroline is the baby in our family; she is sixteen." Miss Ryder smiled. Her affection for her sisters was evident.

"You have three sisters, don't you?"

"That's right, three sisters and three brothers," Miss Ryder said. "I am the eldest."

"Do any of your siblings have families of their own?"

"My sister Elizabeth got married last summer," Miss Ryder said. "Her husband is Mr. Brompton, the vicar in Clairmont Magna."

Hartwell remembered Mr. Brampton. They had met when Hartwell had last visited his brother-in-law's country estate.

"So this is how my mother-in-law became acquainted with your family," Mr. Hartwell said.

"I suppose so," Miss Ryder said. "Elizabeth invited us to spend the Christmas holidays in her new home, and we met Lady Clairmont several times while we were there. She was very kind to all of us."

She said this in a matter-of-fact tone, without any of the undue obsequiousness that Mr. Hartwell had often observed with people who were intent on gaining his favour. It made her even more likeable in his eyes. When it became evident that he did not, for the moment, mean to say anything in reply to her remark, Miss Ryder took her workbasket and began to put her netting away.

"I had better retire for the night as well," she said when she noticed his enquiring gaze upon her.

"Why?" Hartwell asked. "I hope my presence does not bother you? I can go to the study, if you prefer to be on your own."

"Mr. Hartwell, I am not in a position to tell you where to spend your evenings," Miss Ryder said with an amused laugh. "What a piece of impertinence this would be!"

"Then why are you leaving?"

"I am not in the habit of staying up late, sir," Miss Ryder said. "That is all."

"And you are afraid I might object to the quantity of work candles you require," Hartwell said dryly. "You need not worry, Miss Ryder. I am not a miser."

Miss Ryder blushed, and for a moment lost her poise. "I certainly did not suggest any such thing," she protested. "I have no reason to."

"Still that was what bothered you, wasn't it?" Hartwell asked. "Let me use plain words, Miss Ryder -- I do not want you to lack a single thing necessary to your comfort while you are staying under my roof. If you wish to sit up netting purses all night, this is what you will do, no matter how many candles you will need to accomplish your task. Do not think I would ever decline a reasonable request such as this."

"I have become accustomed to strict economy," Miss Ryder said quietly. "I was acting according to habit and did not want to offend you, Mr. Hartwell."

"You did not offend me," Hartwell said. "But do you wish to retire for the night already? It is not nine o'clock yet, and I for one am not tired. Will you do me the favour and join me for a game of chess or cards or backgammon?"

For some reason or other, Mr. Hartwell did not want her to leave him yet. He did not wish to sit up alone, and he found her company agreeable.

After a moment's hesitation, Miss Ryder accepted his challenge and agreed to play a game of chess with him. She did not like card games, she said, being a poor hand at them, and backgammon was none of her favourites either, but she was fond of chess and would not mind playing a game or two. So Mr. Hartwell got up and fetched the chessboard and pieces from his study, and they sat playing for nearly two hours before Miss Ryder finally rose and bade him goodnight.

Hartwell stayed up for a little longer, drinking a glass of wine before going to bed as well. He was beginning to get used to Miss Ryder, and the girls seemed to be fond of her too. Hopefully Lavinia would not mess things up.

 

 

Part Three

The moment Mr. Hartwell rose from his bed the next morning, his valet informed him that the sun was out and that it was going to be a fine day. Mr. Hartwell therefore sent word to the nursery that they would set out to Hampton Court immediately after breakfast, and hurried to get ready.

Mr. Hartwell always had his breakfast on his own -- since his wife's death, that was. Before, they had usually had breakfast together, while the children had had theirs in the nursery and had joined their parents after their morning meal to receive their good-morning kisses. It had been some kind of ritual -- it gave them the opportunity of being husband and wife instead of parents, they had been able to talk about things that concerned no one but them, and they had simply enjoyed the privacy of their early mornings together.

After Harriet had died, Mr. Hartwell could have changed the habit, of course, but to be honest he had not wanted to. He had felt that the girls' lives should go on with as little change as possible, and so they had continued to have their breakfast in the nursery, with their governess and nurse, while he ate his in solitude.

He had hardly swallowed his last bite, when Emily burst into the breakfast room, the other girls hard on her heels.

"Papa!" she exclaimed, and threw her arms around him. "You are the best papa in the world!"

"I know," Mr. Hartwell replied jokily. "Though I do wonder what made you detect it, Emily."

"Miss Ryder said you are going to take us to Ham ... that palace, and there's a ... a ... maze, and we can go in. We can, can't we?"

"In this weather? I think not," Mr. Hartwell said teasingly. "Just look outside -- I am sure it is going to rain."

"No, Papa, it is going to be fine," Daphne assured him earnestly.

"Nonsense. It is going to pour down in a minute," Mr. Hartwell said. When he saw his daughters' worried faces, he broke into a grin. "You should not let your papa tease you so," he said. "Of course we will go -- and yes, Emily, if you want we can go into the maze too."

"You do not have many plans for today, then, sir?" Miss Ryder asked, entering the room. She was becomingly dressed, Mr. Hartwell noted, but then she always was, even if her clothes were not according to the latest fashion. Today, she was wearing a dotted muslin gown and a blue pelisse and bonnet that suited her very well. She really was a very pretty young lady, he thought, and wondered again how such a first-rate specimen had managed to escape the married state so far. She must have been surrounded by men who were both blind and stupid, he thought.

"What makes you think so?" he asked, smiling.

"If people are planning to go into the maze at Hampton Court, they had better not have any other plans for the same morning," she said with a laugh. "It will take them a while to find their way out."

"Since I do not have any plans for today but taking these young ladies -- and you, Miss Ryder -- to Hampton Court, this does not matter. I am sure there are gardeners enough who will rescue us from certain starvation at one point, and will show us the way out."

"We could take some food with us when we go in," Daphne pointed out. "Then we will not starve."

"So we could," Mr. Hartwell agreed. "Clever girl."

The weather being exceptionally fine, they travelled in the late Mrs. Hartwell's barouche. It was large enough to accommodate the entire party, with Miss Ryder and the two younger girls sitting on one side and Mr. Hartwell and Lavinia on the other. While Daphne and Emily chatted away happily, and Miss Ryder good-naturedly joined in with them, Lavinia remained silent and only answered questions directed at her. Mr. Hartwell was not sure what to make of this behaviour -- he did hope though that Lavinia, if she planned some mischief, would wait until their outing was over. Spoiling the day for her sisters would be unforgivable, he thought, and hoped Lavinia was clever enough not to do that. Her sullenness worried him. He did not know exactly when this kind of behaviour had started, but it was a new development, and one he did not like at all. However, he did not know what to do about it, and Miss Ryder, to all appearances, ignored it. Perhaps this was the best way of dealing with her moroseness, Mr. Hartwell thought. He was no expert in the upbringing of children, and was glad to have a capable governess to take charge of them in his stead.

Once at Hampton Court, Lavinia seemed to unbend a little. She found the palace interesting, and asked many questions while they were conducted through the rooms and galleries. The girls shuddered when their guide related the ghost stories attached to the building, and Miss Ryder did not seem too pleased to hear them either. As she later explained to Mr. Hartwell, it was difficult enough to make them go to sleep in the evenings as it was, without them being afraid of spectres lurking somewhere in the darkness.

Outside in the sunlit gardens, the girls soon seemed to forget about the chilling tales they had heard, and were chasing each other happily across the lawn. Mr. Hartwell, after a short remonstration directed at the girls to behave themselves, turned to Miss Ryder.

"I hope you are enjoying yourself, too," he said.

"I certainly do," Miss Ryder replied. "This place is beautiful, and I love seeing the girls so happy. They hardly ever have the chance to behave like children -- which is a pity in my opinion."

"So it is," Mr. Hartwell agreed. "I admit that their living conditions in Richmond are somewhat confined; I suppose that this is the reason."

"The house and garden are spacious enough, Mr. Hartwell, but I think they simply miss their home. Daphne and Emily speak very fondly of Maynard Hill."

"It is an excellent place for children to grow up in -- I should know, having grown up there myself. How about Lavinia? Does she speak about Maynard Hill a great deal?"

"Lavinia hardly ever speaks," Miss Ryder sighed. "She has built a wall around her and does not let anyone in."

Hartwell nodded. "She was not always like this," he said. "When her mother was still alive, she was a very amiable and affectionate child."

"She still is, occasionally," Miss Ryder said. "Right now, for example."

Hartwell looked in the direction of the girls. Lavinia was running after her two younger sisters, trying to catch one of them. For once, she was behaving like a nine-year-old and not like a spiteful eighty-year-old in a nine-year-old body.

"Do you think I should send them back home?" he asked Miss Ryder. "Perhaps they would be happier there?"

"It is not my place to make such a decision," Miss Ryder replied.

"Yes, it is. You are the governess -- I depend on you to find out what is best for my children," Mr. Hartwell said. "I am afraid I am not very good at raising them."

"You have provided your daughters with everything they need," Miss Ryder said. "There is not much more you can do, sir. They love you, and they miss you very much when you are gone, but they realise you cannot be around all the time. It is my belief that they only get into trouble when you have not been around for a while -- because they know that this will bring you back home."

"You think their conduct is my fault?" Mr. Hartwell asked.

"I did not talk about fault, sir," Miss Ryder said, smiling. "I merely said it was their way of bringing their father to heel."

"In other words, if I had not come back every time they had frightened a governess away this kind of behaviour would have stopped?" Mr. Hartwell asked.

"I said it was not your fault," Miss Ryder said. "What else could you have done but what you did? What I am trying to do -- and I feel that at least with Daphne and Emily I am succeeding -- is to make them feel safe, even if their father is not with them. But I am afraid Lavinia does not trust me. I am not sure whether she trusts anyone, however. I suspect to her I am the evil woman who takes her sisters' affection away from her, and she will fight me whenever she can."

"Has she been misbehaving?" Mr. Hartwell asked with a frown.

"No, I think she is still in the planning stage," Miss Ryder said with a laugh.

"You do not sound worried at all," Hartwell said, smiling at her.

"I do not think there is much she can do that has not been done to me before," Miss Ryder said. "My sisters were good at coming up with tricks they could play on me, and I've forestalled them all."

"Then let us hope my daughter is not more ingenious than your sisters used to be," Mr. Hartwell said with a laugh.

"I believe there is a limit to the harm a nine-year-old can do," Miss Ryder said confidently. "She will not want to put her sisters in danger, certainly, so she will stop short of setting fire to the house."

When she saw Mr. Hartwell's shocked expression, she laughed. "I was only joking, sir," she said, and added, with a twinkle in her eyes, "You should not let me tease you so, sir."

She used the same words he had said to the girls when he had pulled their legs earlier that morning, and he suspected that had been her way of repaying the laugh he had had at her and the girls' expense.

Mr. Hartwell suppressed a sigh of relief, and said, laughingly, "You are an impertinent creature, Miss Ryder! I had no idea!"

"You would not have hired me if you had known, I suppose, so I did my best to hide it," Miss Ryder said.

"To be honest, I think my girls need a governess with a sense of humour," Mr. Hartwell said.

"Does this mean my impertinence is a virtue in your opinion?" Miss Ryder asked.

"Certainly. Only a very impertinent person can repay the girls in their own coin. You are just what they need, I think."

The compliment pleased her, Mr. Hartwell noted. She thanked him with a smile, and there was a slight blush as she did so. They were getting along really well, Hartwell thought, and hoped things would continue in this way.

A shriek from Lavinia interrupted their tête-à-tête. She had stumbled and taken a fall, and was now sitting in the middle of the lawn, crying her eyes out.

"What is the matter?" Hartwell asked as he hurried towards her.

"I've broken my leg," she sobbed.

"Have you?" Miss Ryder asked, and knelt down next to Lavinia. "Let me have a look. Which leg is it?"

"Don't touch me! It hurts!" Lavinia cried. "Papa, tell her she is not to touch me!"

"How did it happen?" Mr. Hartwell asked calmly, ignoring Lavinia's demand and watching Miss Ryder examine both Lavinia's legs. Lavinia struggled, and Miss Ryder rose.

"No broken bones, as far as I can tell," she said calmly. "Now come, Lavinia, stop this scene. Up you get."

"I can't!" Lavinia wailed. "I'm in pain!"

"Enough, Lavinia," Mr. Hartwell snapped. "Miss Ryder told you to get up, and get up you will."

"But my leg..." Lavinia protested.

"It will soon be better," Mr. Hartwell said, took his daughter's hands and pulled her up. Lavinia stood, still crying, but it was obvious that none of her legs was seriously hurt.

The crowd of spectators dispersed, some of them muttering something about heartless parents and irresponsible governesses, and Mr. Hartwell handed his daughter a handkerchief.

"Dry your face and come with us," he demanded.

"Is Lavinia's leg not broken?" Emily asked, casting a worried glance at her sister.

"No, it is not," Miss Ryder reassured her. "She hurt it when she fell, but she will soon feel better."

"Good!" Daphne said. "Can we go to the maze now, Papa?"

"We are going to have something to eat first," Mr. Hartwell said. "In case we do not find our way out again."

"A very sensible idea, sir," Miss Ryder said, and offered Lavinia her arm. Lavinia refused.

She ostentatiously limped ahead of them, but Mr. Hartwell was quick to realise that she had not yet made up her mind which leg hurt her most -- she did not care with which of her legs she was limping, as long as she could make a show of having hurt her leg.

They went back to their carriage, where a footman had prepared a picnic for them. Everyone ate and was in the best of spirits, except Lavinia. No doubt she was annoyed that no one paid her any particular attention, Hartwell thought and decided to teach her a lesson. It was about time he asserted himself. Things could not go on in this way.

So when he announced they would go to the maze now, he turned to Lavinia and said, "You can wait in the carriage until we come back, dear."

"B ... but..." Lavinia stuttered.

"Walking around for an hour or even more will not do your leg any good," Hartwell said mercilessly.

"I am already feeling better," Lavinia said hurriedly.

"I had rather not take any risks, however," Hartwell said. "One never knows."

"But ... I don't want to stay here all by myself," Lavinia muttered.

"You will not -- the coachman and George here will keep you company," Mr. Hartwell said, indicating the footman. He lifted Lavinia into the carriage. "Now sit down and nurse your leg until we come back. There's a good girl."

He turned to Miss Ryder and gave her a wink. "Shall we go, Miss Ryder?"

"Had I not better stay with Lavinia?" Miss Ryder asked.

"And leave me all by myself with Emily and Daphne? You cannot do that, Miss Ryder; we will need your help in the maze, I am sure. How are we to find our way out without your assistance?"

"Very well, sir," Miss Ryder said and, taking the younger girls' hands, wished Lavinia a pleasant afternoon. Lavinia was seething with anger, no doubt planning to get her own back at them at the earliest opportunity, but she did not say anything and remained in the carriage.

After a pleasant half-hour in the maze, they returned to the carriage and went back home. Lavinia did not talk to any of them for the entire drive to Richmond, but sullenly stared at the scenery they passed. Mr. Hartwell decided to ignore her.

Even Miss Ryder, after two futile attempts at talking to her, gave up and chatted with the other girls instead. Daphne and Emily were thrilled. They had enjoyed themselves very much, and thanked their father over and over again for a lovely day out. At least Lavinia's antics had not spoilt the day for her sisters, Mr. Hartwell thought.

What had made her act in such a way, he wondered. Why had she feigned an injury? Had it been because they had not paid her enough attention? Or because he had paid too much attention to Miss Ryder? He remembered some remarks he had overheard when he and Miss Ryder had attended to Lavinia -- some people had thought he and Miss Ryder had been too absorbed with their conversation to supervise the children properly, and had not hesitated to share their opinion on the subject. Hartwell admitted that he had enjoyed talking to the governess, and that he liked her cheerful, fun-loving nature.

But they had not flirted - he had certainly not meant to flirt with Miss Ryder. She was pretty, and intelligent, and had a delightful sense of humour -- but she was his daughters' governess. He would have to watch his step around her, he supposed. It would not do for him to make her think he had any interest in her beyond her way of dealing with his children. Where would he find another governess when she was gone? And he was sure she would leave, if she were to believe that he was making improper advances to her.

 

©2007 Copyright held by the author.

 

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