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I first saw him in Vienna.
Sometimes now I think it was in Vienna that I first saw anything at all, but that's not strictly true. Actually, I first saw clearly in London, at the mature age of twenty-seven, by the simple expedient of purchasing a pair of spectacles —and all at once I was enchanted, amazed by the beauty of everything, the sharpness, the detail that suddenly became so clear to me!
I suppose this euphoria might account for the very odd thing I did in London, but at the time I could only wonder why I had never bought them before, how I could have let so much of my life pass in a dull, myopic haze.
Well, it was easy really. As a child I was ashamed of my constantly worsening disability and hid it lest I be thought stupid. Needless to say I kept my secret and was still thought stupid, which just shows the pointlessness of vanity. After that, as a young girl, no one would let me have spectacles on the grounds that gentlemen didn't want to marry ladies so disfigured —apparently it gives us a daunting air of intelligence. Myself, I can't help thinking that neither do gentlemen wish to marry ladies who cut them dead in the street and ignore them at parties simply from not being able to see who the devil they are.
I speak from experience, incidentally. By the ripe old age of twenty-seven, I had only ever received one offer of marriage, an engagement from which I was freed with embarrassing speed. Just as well, for had I married, I would not have been in the position of looking for a genteel situation in London, never have bought my spectacles, never have answered that fatal advertisement, and so never have found myself inan opulent private hotel room, being interviewed by Count and Countess István Szelényi for the post of governess to their two children.
It was at this interview that my spectacles really came into their own. I was still fascinated by the newly discovered details of people's features and expressions, but when I first encountered Count István and his wife, I was completely bowled over by the sheer sharp beauty before me. As I said, it's the only excuse I have for my odd —my bad —behaviour.
The Count stood up as I entered the room and approached with a faint, formal smile. Of course, he wasn't really seeing me: nobles of Count Szelényi's rank do not see governesses, even if they deign to interview them.
Tall, dark, splendidly built and impeccably dressed, he was younger than I had expected and handsome enough to have turned to jelly the knees of any impressionable young lady, even one used to the joys of perfect vision.
"Miss Kettles?" he said, and naturally his voice was charming too: low, cultivated and exotically accented.
"Count Szelényi?" I countered, inclining my head with a little too much pride —I found it very hard to behave like a governess.
"Yes, I am István Szelényi. This is my wife. Please sit down."
I sat, casting a glance at the lady while I did so. As befitted the wife of so magnificent a nobleman, she was both elegant and beautiful. She was sitting by the window, relaxing against her chair back in a way that would have appalled my Aunt Edith, but somehow she still exuded aristocratic splendour, her fashionable morning gown of pink silk billowing in luxuriant flounces around her chair. Aloof and superior, she managed to acknowledge me by the slightest nod, but she never said a word throughout the entire interview, contenting herself with occasional glances at me from under her long, blond eyelashes. They were secretive glances, almost suspicious, and it struck me that she looked so at all women who came in contact with her husband. Obviously I set her mind at rest —well, I have never been much of a threat to Beauty —for she raised no objection to my engagement.
"You are a little younger than I expected," Count István began, civilly but with no trace of hesitation.
I said, "I am twenty-seven," and looked straight into his fine, grey eyes. I saw no recognition there. I felt none myself.
"May I ask what your experience is?"
"To be honest, none," I told him flatly. I think I smiled.
He sighed. "Then perhaps you will tell me what qualifies you to take charge of my children?"
"I have been well educated," I returned calmly. "I know my arithmetic, history and geography. I can play the piano-forte and sew. I have Latin, French and Hungarian..."
"Hungarian?" he pounced. I knew he would.
He leaned back in his chair, regarding me thoughtfully. "That is unusual in an English lady, is it not?"
Copyright © 2006, Mary Lancaster