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Dawn at Emberwilde
A Treasures of Surrey Novel
By Sarah E. Ladd
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2016 Sarah Ladd
All rights reserved.
Surrey, England, 1817
Mrs. Brathay's shrill voice shattered the late-morning silence like a warbler's call unsettling dawn's still mist.
"Miss Creston! Are you in here?"
Isabel Creston froze just inside the door to the kitchen garden.
She'd been caught.
Determined to hide her early excursion from Mrs. Brathay's observant eye, Isabel shoved her flower basket onto the cupboard's top shelf, ignoring the pink primrose petals that showered to the planked floor. With a sharp tug she freed the bow at the small of her back to release the gardening smock from her waist, then she shrugged it from her shoulders.
"Yes, I am here!"
Isabel managed to loop her sullied apron over one of the iron hooks and whirl around just as Mrs. Brathay appeared in the corridor.
"There you are," exclaimed Mrs. Brathay, her lips pinched. "I have been looking for you for at least this past hour."
"I am sorry." Isabel offered a sheepish smile. "I was not aware."
"Obviously." Mrs. Brathay ducked to avoid the entry's low wooden beam as she nodded toward the bloom tucked in the neckline of Isabel's gown. "And what in heaven's name is that?"
Isabel drew a deep breath, attempting to buy herself time for an explanation. "It is a rose. From the south garden."
"I know it is a rose, Miss Creston." Impatience increased the volume and pitch of the older woman's terse voice. "What I do not know is why you are wearing it in such a fashion. You know such adornments are not permitted."
Isabel bit her lower lip at the scolding. She was well acquainted with Fellsworth School's stringent regulations regarding uniforms, and she accepted the requirement that she wear a stark black gown day after day without complaint. But being forbidden to adorn it with at least a spring flower seemed excessive.
"I only wanted to see how it would look."
"Well, you can take it off now." The headmistress's pointed gaze traveled up from the bloom and landed on Isabel's hair. "And did you go out with your hair loose like that again? I thought we already had this discussion."
Isabel plucked the rose from her gown's neckline, tossed it onto the shelf above the hooks, and smoothed a flyaway hair into place, immediately regretting her decision to dress her hair so hastily. Hair was to be worn in a tight chignon at the base of her neck, not held up loosely with pins as she now wore it. Furthermore, her hair was to be covered anytime she was out of doors.
She had disregarded both mandates.
Mrs. Brathay clicked her tongue. "La, child. What I am to do with you I'm sure I don't know. But now's not the time to be fretting on such things. Mr. Langsby has asked to see you in his study."
Dread, foreboding and heavy, sliced through Isabel. It was not every day that one was summoned to speak with the school's superintendent, and rarely for a positive reason. "If it is about my hair, I —"
"Don't be silly," hissed Mrs. Brathay, her gray eyes alert. "Mr. Langsby is far too busy to be concerned with such things. It seems I must remind you that regulations, and the adherence to them, develops discipline. I fear you have been allowed far too many passes in that regard. If you hope to obtain a permanent teaching position here at Fellsworth, then it would behoove you to show respect for the rules."
Isabel nodded. "Yes, Mrs. Brathay."
"Now, tidy your hair and then go to Mr. Langsby's study. There is a messenger for you there."
Isabel jerked her head up. "A messenger?"
"Yes, a messenger." Annoyance sharpened Mrs. Brathay's tone. "Mr. Langsby is a very busy man, as is, I am certain, the gentleman who is with him. Your little morning escapade into the garden has kept them both waiting."
In an unmasked display of displeasure, Mrs. Brathay gripped her skirt in one hand, turned, and quit the corridor.
Isabel held her breath at the reprimand, and once the older woman was clear of the threshold, she expelled her air. The meaning of Mrs. Brathay's words settled on her.
In her experience, messengers rarely harbored pleasant news, and she doubted this one would be different.
She ran her hand down the front of her gown, pausing only momentarily to notice a slight tremble in her fingers. Without giving herself time to contemplate the reason behind it, she brushed away tiny bits of leaves and grass from her morning outing that still clung to the rough fabric.
Delaying whatever or whoever awaited her would not alter the situation.
The most likely reason for the summons was that she had been offered a position as a governess. It had been her objective for many years — and the endeavor of many young ladies who studied at Fellsworth — to secure such a position. But normally, news of that nature would come from Mrs. Brathay, the girls' headmistress, not from the superintendent, whose duty it was to oversee both the boys' and girls' schools.
Determined to receive the news with calmness, she lifted her chin and swept her hair away from her face. After a steadying breath, she turned on her heel and made her way down the narrow corridor leading from the back entrance to the school's main hall.
The school seemed unusually quiet for the late-morning hour. Had the building echoed with the normal sounds of hushed voices and hurried footsteps, however, she might not have noticed the distant sound of a horse's whinny. She stopped and turned to discover the source. There, through the tall, leaded windows, was a carriage as black as coal, and in front of it stood four jet horses. The sunlight shone on their glossy manes and polished harnesses. One of the horses, a giant, majestic creature, tossed his head, and the high-pitched whinny echoed yet again. The carriage's door boasted an unfamiliar yet vivid crest of red and gold. She stood transfixed by the elegant sight, for such a carriage rarely came to rest before Fellsworth School's humble entrance. The image both incited new questions and returned her to the task at hand.
Tearing her gaze away from the sight, Isabel turned and hastened from the foyer down the hall leading to the superintendent's study. At its end, the thick door stood slightly ajar. As Isabel drew closer to the slim crack, she angled her head just so to glimpse the back of a gentleman sitting in a padded chair. This man could not be Mr. Langsby, for his shoulders were far too broad and his hair too full and light. Even by what little of his clothing she could see, there could be no denying the fabric's richness and the crispness in his coat's high collar.
Growing more curious, she removed the few pins clinging to her locks, shook out her unruly hair, coiled it tightly per protocol, and secured it in place. She had little idea what message awaited her once she passed the threshold, but she would not meet it unprepared.
Once satisfied her hair would not come tumbling about her shoulders, Isabel lifted her hand and tapped on the door.
A voice, deep and solemn, sounded from within. "Enter."
Before pushing the door open with her fingertips, Isabel drew a deep breath in an attempt to calm the possible scenarios swirling through her mind. She stepped into the spacious chamber, her footsteps barely audible on the thin, worn rug.
Bright white sunlight spilled through the freshly cleaned leaded windows and splashed on the contents of Mr. Langsby's modest study. An expansive walnut desk stood anchored in the center of the oblong room, and atop its polished surface sat piles of papers and books so plentiful that Isabel wondered how Mr. Langsby even knew the task at hand.
But it was not the pile of letters or the height of the windows that captured her attention. For as she entered, the messenger stood and turned to face her.
Isabel had not formed a clear idea of what sort of man might bring her a message, but she was certain that even in her wildest imagination, he never would have been like the man before her. She had expected a footman or possibly a tradesman of some sort, but before her stood a gentleman. His status was evident in the cut of his clothes, the arrangement of his hair, and the glossy sheen of his boots. With light brown hair and a strong, square jaw, he was extraordinarily handsome. She summoned courage to look at his eyes. They were warm and deep but large and bright. And they were fixed firmly on her.
It felt as if minutes passed before Mr. Langsby spoke, though common sense whispered it had been but a few seconds. "Miss Creston, good, you are here at last."
She turned to Mr. Langsby as if jolted by his words. He was seated behind the desk. As usual, a crisp black coat adorned his wiry frame, and his thinning gray hair was gathered into a sparse queue at the base of his neck. Compared to the other man in the room, he appeared almost frail.
Isabel found her voice. "My apologies, Mr. Langsby. I am sorry to have kept you waiting."
"Well, you are here now. And not a moment too late, for there is a guest here for you." Mr. Langsby stood and turned to face the tall man standing before her. "I'd like for you to meet Mr. Bradford. Mr. Bradford is the superintendent of the foundling home in Northrop, just south of here."
Isabel returned her attention to their guest, and he smiled and gave a crisp, formal bow.
She curtsied as elegantly as her nervous legs would allow.
Mr. Langsby continued. "Mr. Bradford is an old friend of mine. I have known him for a number of years now. Imagine my surprise when he arrived this morning with this missive concerning you."
Mr. Bradford finally spoke, his voice deep and rich. "I am always pleased to visit at Fellsworth. And I am even more pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Creston."
Mr. Bradford's words suggested that he'd visited Fellsworth prior to this occasion, but she was certain she would remember seeing such a gentleman.
Mr. Langsby adjusted the spectacles on his long nose, lifted an opened letter from his desk, and turned his full attention to Isabel. "Is the name Mrs. Margaret Ellison familiar to you?"
Isabel frowned as she searched her memory. "No, sir, it is not."
"Perhaps you think it an odd inquiry, but I assure you, my reason for asking is sound. The missive Mr. Bradford conveyed is from a Mrs. Margaret Ellison of Emberwilde Hall. I have not had the pleasure of correspondence from Mrs. Ellison prior to this interaction, but in this letter she inquires after you by name."
"After me?" Isabel repeated, unable to conceal the surprise in her voice. She had resided at this school for years and had precious few acquaintances outside of Fellsworth's halls.
"Yes." Mr. Langsby nodded. "It appears that Mrs. Ellison is a relation of yours and wishes to open her home to you."
Isabel stared at Mr. Langsby as if he had grown a second head. "I'm afraid you must be mistaken, sir. I have no other relations apart from my sister."
As if sensing her confusion, Mr. Bradford stepped closer. "Perhaps I can explain. Mrs. Ellison has reason to believe that she is your aunt and has sent me to investigate the matter. Mrs. Ellison's sister was Mrs. Anna Creston, formerly Miss Anna Hayworth of Northrop."
At the mention of the treasured name, the room's temperature seemed to rise with each tick of the mantel clock. How long had it been since that name had met Isabel's ears?
"Anna Creston was my mother." Isabel said the words aloud, slowly, as if to remind herself of the statement's truth.
There could be no denying a connection. For how else would such a woman know her mother's name, especially after all of these years?
After a lengthy pause, Mr. Bradford spoke again. "Mrs. Ellison only recently learned of your father's death, and she believes herself and her family to be your only living relatives. Knowing that I have long enjoyed a friendship with Mr. Langsby, she asked if I would deliver this message personally and vouch for her good nature."
Hardly able to believe what she had heard, Isabel extended her hand toward Mr. Langsby. Somehow she managed to squeak out words from her lips, which had suddenly grown very dry. "May I see the letter?"
"Of course." Mr. Langsby pinched it between two long, bony fingers and extended it toward her. She slid her finger under the wax seal, which had already been broken, and flipped open the letter.
Dear Mr. Langsby,
This letter may come as quite a surprise, but such circumstances call for such missives.
My name is Mrs. Margaret Ellison of Emberwilde Hall.
I have just this week learned of the death of my brother-in-law, Mr. Thomas Creston, and I have also learned that my niece, Miss Isabel Creston, has been a resident at your establishment for a number of years. Miss Creston is the only daughter of my deceased sister, Mrs. Anna Hayworth Creston.
In light of her father's death, I should like to offer Miss Creston a home with us at Emberwilde Hall. You must know, Mr. Langsby, what a pleasant surprise it was for us to learn that my own niece was already living in Surrey.
I do not need to tell you how difficult it is for a young woman to make her way in the world, and we should like to welcome her into our family, whatever her situation may be.
In order to show our support for the good work you are doing, please accept this enclosed donation to the betterment of your cause. Have you any questions as to my personal nature or that of my family, please direct them to Mr. Bradford, who is delivering this letter by hand. He is a great family friend and should be able to answer any questions you have.
As you can imagine, we are eager for our niece to come to us. We have sent a carriage for her in the hopes it will allow her to join us immediately.
I am yours, respectfully, Mrs. Margaret Ellison
The impressive carriage in the drive. The jet-black horses. They were here for her.
Isabel wanted to demand answers, to summon every detail Mr. Bradford could muster, but even as she wanted more information, her mind craved space to understand what she had just learned.
Isabel stared at the elegant penmanship and even strokes for several seconds before lowering the letter. She noticed how her blood rushed through her at an uncomfortable pace, forced by the sudden pounding of her heart.
"Were you aware of any aunt?" Mr. Langsby asked.
Isabel shook her head slowly, her face growing hot. "No, I was not. My mother died when I was but five, and my father never spoke of her or her family."
Mr. Bradford cleared his throat, and she turned toward him. His expression appeared very kind, his eyes soft and his manner gentle. "I am sure this is unexpected news. You probably need time to consider your decision. Langsby, with your permission, I'll take my leave to care for my horse and will return shortly."
Mr. Bradford bowed toward her, smiled warmly, then took his leave, pulling the door closed behind him as he did.
The room seemed impossibly quiet in his absence. In fact, some part of her wished he had stayed, as if he held the answers to the rest of the questions swirling in her mind.
Mr. Langsby stepped back behind his desk and prepared to return to his seat.
As he did so, Isabel lifted her eyes to the wall in front of her, taking note of everything she could, from the wrinkled maps and faded paintings hanging haphazardly on the papered walls to the heavy emerald-colored curtains flanking the windows, as if looking upon something familiar could ease her into the truth.
Once Mr. Langsby was seated, he nodded to the empty chair. "Be seated, Miss Creston. I should like to talk with you further."
Once she was settled, he spoke again. "You have been at our school a long time, Miss Creston, have you not?"
Isabel nodded. "I came here when I was seven years of age."
"And now what is your age?"
Mr. Langsby reached for the letter, which was still in her hand, and, once securing it in his grasp, tucked it in a drawer. "It is always our hope, as you well know, to prepare our youths to make their own way once they leave our humble halls. You are no different. I do not need to tell you that it is a difficult world, one full of temptation and sorrow, difficulty and sadness.
Excerpted from Dawn at Emberwilde by Sarah E. Ladd. Copyright © 2016 Sarah Ladd. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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