It’s funny. I never thought I’d look back fondly on a funeral, especially not my beloved Papa’s. But yet I do.
Oh, I don’t look back on the funeral itself with fondness. No. I was utterly devastated when my nurse came into my room one afternoon telling me that my Papa, my dear Papa, had taken ill and left me alone with Nurse and my somewhat less loveable Mother.
My Mother, Lady Luvenia Warin-Morend, alternated between wailing over our ruin and coldly surveying our circumstances. I remember her taking my thin shoulders in her hard hands, looking me right in the eye and saying: “It is all up to you now, Tabitha. You will have to marry well.” I was six.
But while the funeral itself was solemn and stately, the reception afterward was dour. I wanted so badly to cry. But Mother sniffed at my tears and told me to get a better handle on myself and instructed my nurse to scold me for acting like an infant.
And my nurse did as she was told. She scolded me and sent me to sit in the corner of the library to compose myself.
Richard had found me there. He’d been eight at that time, with the bright, innocent eyes that came with that age. I hadn’t known him well then. He was just a boy that I knew, then. His family came to visit during the summers to enjoy my Papa’s country estate. But then he asked if I wanted to go outside and, because being inside among all the grieving and consoling adults was slowly crushing me until I felt like a crumpled piece of paper on the floor, I did.
So we went outside and played. I got severely scolded by both Nurse and Mother afterward—a rare treat—but it was worth it. There had been a litter of puppies in Papa’s kennel that we played with. One little brindled one tore my dress in his excitement to lick my face. Then we went and played among the cherry trees in the orchard. They’d been in season, So Richard and I ruined our dinner on lovely ripe cherries. I got scolded for that too.
My Mother was most unhappy with me later, lamenting my childish behaviour. But it still ended up being a lovely day. And I had few of those, really. Papa had been my sunshine, but he’d also been away a lot at Court. Mother had little real time for me and I was almost too old to have Nurse around anymore. I didn’t really have any friends, either. Any children my age on or around my Papa’s Estate were ‘beneath me,’ as my Mother put it. My time had been spent in the schoolroom, the nursery or the sitting room, learning how to be a proper lady, the future wife of a great lord.
I thought that all very silly then. But Mother was firm.
Now I am fourteen; practically an adult.
And I am to be married.
Mother was not exaggerating when she said she would ensure I made a good marriage to assure my security. So I am to be married to Josef Amherst, the son of a Lord, Viscount Amherst. She says she supposes I am ready, sceptical when my governess says I am a most accomplished young woman, ready to become the lady of my own household. But I only hesitantly think I am as ready as she says. I do agree that I have been well educated; I am well read; I have a steady hand at sewing, embroidery, a little weaving and penmanship, though I am not so steady at maths and accounts (I will have the help of a steward when I have to run a household, I am assured); I know how to dance, sing, make pleasant conversation and play seven different card games. I am well-mannered, refined and noble in my behaviour and have learned the proper way to address guests of any given rank, how to seat them at a formal dinner, how to organize a household in the proper fashion and how to ensure that servants are properly trained and attired to give the best possible impression. I know now how to entertain and put up any guest, how to manage disobedient servants and how to plan a banquet, or any formal occasion, really.
It is only for Richard that a little part of me is anxious to be a bride. Mother laughed when I asked her if I would be permitted to be Richard’s friend when I am married. “Of course not,” she had scoffed, “proper young ladies do not have male friends,” and that it is a lesson I will have to keep reminding myself of until I forget that Richard is more than an acquaintance.
For the first time after being told of my impending marriage my heart sunk.
Apparently Richard had been my father’s choice to be my future husband. Like my husband-to-be, he is a Lord’s son, though a lesser one; more like the son of a landed knight. A Noble in name only, my mother ridiculed when I asked her why I wasn’t to marry Richard anymore.
That’s part of why he’d been at Papa’s funeral. His father, Baron Tresler, had been my Papa’s good friend, and they had been since childhood. Though Mother had been uncertain about it, I had been fostered in the Meyer household from the age of eight on until just before my fourteenth birthday, when Mother decided it was time for me to come home and marry. Viscount Meyer was my Papa’s cousin, and Papa and Baron Tresler had both been fostered with the Viscount’s father, my Great-uncle. Mother debated not allowing me to go to the Meyer Estate as my Papa had planned, save that her new husband, Captain Steffen, thought it was a good idea. The Meyers are a good family, and the Viscount has a good reputation in the King’s court. But then, I also think my Stepfather wanted me out of the way. I don’t believe he likes me very much. Especially since my father’s modest fortune and title, minor as it is, was left to me as his only heir, and Mother was granted only a stipend—which is, truthfully, quite ample enough given that she also has her own inheritance from her family to draw from.
But those years at the Meyer Estate were good years. Lady Meyer was a steady, firm woman, if somewhat hard at times, but she was fair in a way my Mother never has been. I learned nearly everything I know about how to be a real noblewoman from her. She believed in giving praise when it was due as compared to Mother, who believes praise is soft, and is to be avoided; ‘there was always room for improvement no matter how perfectly it is done’ might as well be Mother’s motto. Viscount Meyer, like my own Papa, was often away but he was a pleasant enough man. I really had little to do with him.
What made those years good years was Richard. Baron Tresler had decided, like my Papa, to send his children to the Meyer household to further their educations as well. There, Richard became my friend. We went riding together, took some of our lessons together when we could, and played cards and checkers in the evenings. It was pleasant. Richard was one of the few who didn’t judge me, who actually seemed to like me. My governess, Miss Bonner, was almost ambivalent toward me, ensuring only that I was attending my studies and behaving properly, reporting to my Mother about my progress. She did judge me. All the time. I could not focus on my lessons or I was making my stitches too large or my steps weren’t precise and lady-like. My table etiquette was sloppy. My skirts were crumpled. I wasn’t paying enough attention to the menus I was supposed to be checking. I wasn’t properly checking the linens when it was my turn to manage the Maids. I wasn’t sitting straight. I’d allowed my hair to be mussed. I was riding like a spitfire, not a noblewoman. There was always something for her to criticize. Some days it was like she was a mere mouthpiece for my Mother; she had the same criticisms.
Richard didn’t care. He thought Bonner’s criticisms were silly. I can ride, I’m witty and I can make him laugh. That’s what was important to him. I can beat him at a game of checkers better than half the time. He offers to help me with my maths and I coach him on his penmanship, which was atrocious, let me say, before I started helping him. I was certainly better company than his sisters, he insisted. Gabriella and Yolande Tresler were three and five years older than Richard, respectively. They had little interest in playing with him anymore, as they said he was getting too old for such things, and virtually ignored me, though Yolande did teach me a few tricks to help with my needlepoint and Gabriella did try to help me with my arithmetic—she was not quite so successful.
But now, even as my Mother has recalled me home, I can’t help but think that our pleasant time in each other’s company was coming to an end regardless. He was about to be sent home himself before being sent on to another Great Lord’s house to continue his education. More than that, our worlds were separating anyway. I was entering womanhood, him manhood. Perhaps it was a good thing, I can’t help but think. He was beginning to act differently around me anyway. He would hesitate to take my hand when we spent evenings in the drawing room or would avoid looking at me when we went riding. He was beginning to grow distant with me. It hurt a little at first. Perhaps it was a sign that we would have grown apart as he became more interested in sporting and other more gentlemanly pursuits than being friends with a girl. Perhaps I just wasn’t as interesting to him. Gabriella had snickered when I asked her if Richard didn’t like me as much as he had, if that was the reason behind the change I saw in him. She had slyly answered back that he was starting to see me as a girl rather than just his friend. I don’t think that’s the case. I’ve seen him around girls that he sees as girls. He blushes and can’t help but sneak glimpses at them. I’ve noticed this especially around Lord Meyer’s daughter, Fiona. At Christmas, when Fiona and her new husband Sir Bennard visited the Meyer Manor, Richard hadn’t been able to keep his eyes off the blonde beauty. Same with the baker’s daughter, and the cooper’s daughter down in the village... Truly, when I think about it, it was beginning to feel like he was looking at every girl or young woman but me.
It took sometime to realize that the little flicker of something in my chest when he did that was jealousy.
I was rather a plain, unremarkable little girl, something my statuesque mother lamented of bluntly and often. But that was before I went away. I have grown in my years away from home. I am not so self-effacing that I cannot recognize that I am growing more beautiful as I get older. My dark hair has grown thicker and more luxurious. My skin, though plagued with blemishes from time to time that I am assured is merely a phase, is pale and my cheeks often flush prettily when I am happy. My eyes, dark like my Papa’s were, are pleasing and sharp like my Mother’s. I am also getting taller and my figure has begun to fill out, so I am hoping that I will inherit my mother’s height and curves. My running around and playing and climbing with Richard has lent me better coordination and has helped me become graceful in my movement. When I stepped out of the carriage when I arrived home, her appraising look was less critical than I had anticipated. Her nose still wrinkled at the way my dress was a little crumpled and that my hair was no longer perfectly styled and at my lack of restraint as I escaped the stuffy carriage, but she did not comment disparagingly on my features.
Yet Richard still only looks at me as a girl, not a girl. And I find a little part of me wishes he would notice that I’m nearly a woman.
Nevertheless, the memory of Richard doing his utmost to cheer me up on one of the most distressing days of my life is a good memory, and it keeps my dismay at spending the next two years solely in my mother’s company at bay. It is far easier to tune her out as I sit here, in her sitting room without even my embroidery to distract me, as she complains, yet again, at how my Papa had deliberately neglected her, instead granting me his title and the majority of his estate. Not that it was much.
“I warn you, Tabitha. Put your trust in men and you will only ever be trod upon, used and taken for granted. I gave your Father a fortune when I married him, helping to save his failing Estate, and what did he do, he squandered it, lending it out to help no-account lazes who would be better off drowning in their self-made problems. It is only too fortunate that most of my own Father’s Estate is held in trust for my own heir. Who knows what your foolish Papa would have done with it, had he been allowed to do with it as he willed.” I withhold a weary sigh, this is not the first time I have heard this tirade against my Papa. She first railed on about him not days after his funeral, after his will was read. After that, it was often every few weeks that she would pull out her list of laments, dust them off, and regale me with how my Papa had ruined her—and me, she sometimes belatedly remembered. I haven’t even been home two months, and this is the third time I have heard it.
“It is only a good thing that Captain Steffan was kind enough to take us in when your father left us broke and starving for want of a good living,” she says bitterly, the gratitude I always imagine she should feel toward her second husband, given how she describes his service to us, is always lost in her resentment of her circumstances. My Papa’s Estate was not in good health upon his death, and within a year had fallen to the point where the only thing my Mother could do to pay off the Estate’s debts was to sell it. All that is left of my inheritance is my Papa’s title of Baron, which has fallen to me as his only child, and a humble treasury filled with what was left over from the sale of the Manor and the lands. Further, not even a whole year after my Papa’s death Mother remarried. For our security, she insisted.
“If only your Papa hadn’t been such a fool as to lend so much money to Baron Tresler, much good as it did him.” she disparages, her voice dropping as her energy trails off with the end of her speech. It is a new bit of information, though. My eyes dart up, and I momentarily forget Mother’s insistence that I need to keep my silly thoughts to myself.
“Baron Tresler?” I blurt, surprised, “Papa lent him money?” Mother’s narrowed eyes meet mine. I immediately drop my gaze, knowing she will lecture me for my disrespect if I do not. She looks momentarily perplexed that this surprises me, as though the whole world knows that my Papa lending his dear friend money brought on our own family’s ruin.
“Of course, silly girl,” she hisses, “had your dear Papa not allowed himself to be persuaded by Baron Tresler to squander our fortune to fix his own problems, we would not be destitute as we are. You would be a Baroness with money and land and I would have the running of the Estate as I deserve. You would certainly be marrying much higher than a Viscount’s son.” This confuses me. I know Papa was a Baron of slightly higher standing than Baron Tresler, but he still was not terribly prominent either. Even if I had Papa’s lands and money, attracting a Viscount’s son would still be an achievement. It seems unlikely to me than anyone of greater rank than Viscount Amherst would bother to notice me even if I did have lands to go with my title.
Even through my confusion, I notice my Mother’s indignation is not only directed at my Papa this time, but also—judging by the way she snaps out the title that my future father-in-law holds—with Viscount Amherst. Unlike her mention of Baron Tresler or my decent (but still disappointing in her eyes) impending marriage, I wholly understand her umbrage with Viscount Amherst.
It would seem that, despite Mother bringing me home to presumably be imminently married, that it is not the case. Viscount Amherst has apparently agreed to the wedding on the condition that I must be sixteen before I can marry his son. So I will have to wait. It is another stone in my belly. The idea of being married makes me nervous; what girl isn’t at the prospect of marrying a complete stranger? At least he is only seven years older than I am; still young and handsome. That, at least, I am pleased about. I remember meeting Josef Amherst at one of the Meyer’s dinner parties. He is indeed quite handsome—tall with russet hair and smiling blue eyes, well built thanks to his love of sporting—and I distinctly remember wondering at the time what it would be like to marry a young man like him, dashing and handsome as he is. One of the girls Yolande is friends with is promised to marry a man twice her age and, Yolande told me with almost a scandalized air, has a daughter himself nearly the same age as his new betrothed. I couldn’t imagine that.
But it is not exactly the idea of marriage, or of my marriage being delayed, that puts these knots in my stomach. It is the prospect of spending the next two years in my Mother’s company...
I wisely keep that thought to myself, barely daring to think it. Mother would only lecture me more on my own ignorance and certainly my ingratitude. She has already forgotten me, though, and apparently couldn’t read my mutinous thoughts on my face. This cheers me a little; I have been practicing at schooling my face to show precisely what I choose. Meek indifference is my best one, just now, as that is the one my Mother takes least issue with; it took me a good many hours in front of my mirror to get that one just right.
“Baron Tresler has no pride, and little honour,” she says firmly, “he should never have asked for help—not that your father should have given in, mind you—but accepted that he was responsible for ruining his family and accepted the consequences of his incompetence. Instead, he swindles your father out of his good money, fixing his own Estate at the cost of our own. Then, after causing our ruin in conspiracy with your father, he doesn’t deign to help us, even though it is largely his fault that brought about our hardship. If it were not for my husband’s generosity, we would be living in far more desperate straits than the destitution we suffer now.
Destitution, she says? My eyes flick over her sitting room. It is not so nice, in my admittedly biased opinion, as her sitting room in our old Manor, but it is in no way squalid as I swear she would have me believe. It is handsomely appointed, with rosy pink trimmings accented by subtle traces of gold, and warm gray and mahogany furniture that is just as dignified as anything Lord Meyer had in his Manor house. There are even brand new oil lamps that light the room, throwing back the darkness that is growing outside as the evening wears on. Again, I keep my observations to myself. It would only do to irritate her further were I to even hint at disagreeing with her.
A sudden change comes over her as the patter of young feet come down the hall to her siting room. With a pleased sigh, she opens her arms to greet little Herbert as he comes in with his nurse for his goodnight from Mother.
Mother has no qualms about hiding that she much prefers my five year-old half-brother, praising him every opportunity she gets. She was always a hard, demanding mother as I grew, constantly requiring more with little offer of reward beyond easing her criticisms for a short time; I don’t ever remember her throwing her arms open for me, or kissing me as she does with her precious little Herbert. Only Papa did that with me.
I remember him settling me on his lap once, and telling me about a ball of the old King’s that he had attended while he was away at Court. He’d given me a music box that day, and it had played softly in my lap as he spoke, its sweet tinkling music a waltz that Papa said was a favourite among the Court, one that he had composed himself; he had made his name at court for his musical compositions; that waltz is easily my favourite, and he often said it was mine and his. I had been utterly captivated by his words, his descriptions of the rich paintings and huge columns, of the walls of glass that the windows appeared to be and of the swirling riot of colour that the dancers created as they whirled and spun across the gleaming marble floors. I could imagine it all, every last detail, set to the music that drifted from my newest treasure. He promised he would take me to my first Royal Ball when I was old enough.
I hold in a sigh as that particular thought crosses my mind. He died before he could take me to any sort of ball. He had insisted that he would lead me down the great staircase, dressed in a lovely gown of red silk, and everyone would envy me, his pretty daughter, and he’d be the proudest father in the Kingdom. I had loved that idea, that dream, so much that I had made him swear it would be so. And he promised me without a scrap of hesitation or insincerity.
But then he broke that promise; he died.
A sad sigh manages to escape my lips, noticeable enough that my Mother shoots me scolding glance over my little brother’s curly-haired head. I bite the inside of my cheek, holding in any further reaction thinking on my Papa’s broken promise brings. She is right, though, putting my trust in Papa’s promise had been a childish mistake. It only led to the crushed feeling in my heart that I still fight to forget even eight years later.
Standing, I discretely straighten my blue skirts before dropping in a small curtsy before my Mother.
“Forgive me, Mother, but I am tired. If you will permit me, I will ready myself for bed as well,” I say quietly, knowing she will only let me leave her presence with her permission. No matter how I would dearly love to simply walk out without a word to her; that’s all she would do to me. She looks me up and down for a moment with her critical eyes. I stand perfectly still, willing myself not to quail under her hard gaze. I should be used to this by now, but I am ashamed to say I am not. After a long moment, she apparently finds nothing out of place enough for her to criticize and she gives me a disinterested nod of consent, waving me off with a lazy flick of her wrist, as though she were shooing a fly.
Turning, I walk sedately out of the sitting room, knowing better than to betray how relieved I am to be leaving her presence. Once I am out of sight and hearing, I allow my ramrod straight back to relax. I was not entirely overstating myself when I made my excuse of being tired. Spending all day under my Mother’s eye and her thumb is exhausting.
As I eagerly make my way toward my bedchamber, I fight back the thought that this is one more day trapped with my Mother that is over, and one day closer to my wedding. It is a cheering prospect. When I finally enter my room, I pause by my vanity, hesitating for a moment before opening and winding my Papa’s music box. Just as prettily as ever, the strains of our waltz seem to float around me. I even allow myself to dance a little as I change out of my dress and into my nightclothes. As music trails off while I am braiding my long hair for sleep, I allow myself to smile a little at the thought of being free.