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It was not easy to persuade the parents of prospective students to take seriously this tall, slim, elegant redhead with no more than twenty-six years in her dish. Though she wore the plainest gowns in dreary browns and greys, long-sleeved and high to the neck, a poor fit was more than she could bring herself to sink to. And though she braided her hair, tied it in a topknot, and covered it with a spinsterish cap, copper curls were forever escaping to betray her.
Nonetheless, she had succeeded in instilling confidence in a large enough number of anxious Mamas that after six years the Castle Hedingham Academy for Young Ladies was flourishing.
Daisy, the parlourmaid, peeped round the door of her study. "I've brung the post, miss, and a great heap there do be." She deposited the pile on the desk.
"People will wait until a week or two before the start of the school year to decide where to send their daughters. Oh dear, I simply cannot manage more than another two or three." Miss Hartwell sorted through the papers. "At least most of these are franked."
"There were sixpence to pay, miss, but there's a letter from America, too, with three shilling due. I didn't have enough by me, not and get the lamb for Cook and Mrs. Vaux's needles."
"That's all right, Daisy. I shall walk down to the village myself and fetch it. Though if it is another spoiled brat used to slavesobeying her every whim, I shall most definitely not have room for her."
"I mind that young lady from Carolina, miss, her as couldn't pick up her own pocket handkerchee."
"Perhaps she has written to us. Fetch me my parasol, if you please, and tell Mrs. Vaux I am going out but shall return for luncheon. I have an appointment this afternoon."
The August morning was sultry. As she strolled up King Street, Miss Hartwell was glad of the parasol, a pale grey affair with modest white ruffles, matching her grey muslin round dress. In Queen Street a cart loaded with aromatic hops rumbled past her, raising a cloud of dust that made her cough. She had forgotten that it was Monday, market day. The Bell Inn was bound to be crowded. She usually avoided the village centre on market days.
The vicar came through the gate of the churchyard as she passed.
"Good morning, Mr. Raeburn," she said with a smile.
He was a middle-aged, round-faced, cheerful gentleman, bespectacled, somewhat portly, and an inch or two below her in height. A faint scent of peppermint always hung about him, though he had never been seen to eat peppermint lozenges. She sometimes suspected that his adherence to Church doctrine was less than total, but he shepherded his flock with great goodwill, always ready to help those in need.
"Good morning, Miss Hartwell." He raised his hat in salute, then took a large square of blue-spotted cotton from his pocket and dabbed his forehead. A black umbrella dangled from his arm. "We are in for a storm, an I mistake not. It is hot even inside the church. I hope you have not far to walk?"
"No, just to the Bell. Do you go my way?"
He shook his head regretfully. "No, I am bound for Sheepcote Road. I shall call in at the school on my return, if I may."
"By all means. Miss Tisdale will be delighted to see you--as will my aunt, of course." Her quizzing eye noted a slight intensification of the ruddiness of his cheeks. "Perhaps you will join us for luncheon?"
"Thank you, ma'am. I shall be happy to."
"Then I shall see you presently. Good day, Mr. Raeburn."
"Good day, Miss Hartwell." He tipped his hat again and set off the way she had just come.
As she turned the corner into St. James's Street, she paused to contemplate the busy scene. From a little beyond the Bell Inn where the street widened, as far as the green by the forge, hop growers argued price and quality with brewers' agents, harvesters haggled with farmers' wives over baskets of ripe, juicy plums and pears, a peddler hawked his trinkets, and the children of the villagers dashed about underfoot adding to the noise and confusion.
This prospect had probably not changed very much since mediaeval times, thought Miss Hartwell. If it was fated that she should be a schoolmistress, she could not ask a better place to teach history. The castle keep, brooding on its hilltop, no longer belonged to the Earls of Oxford, but the market charter granted seven hundred years ago by King John was still in force.
One day she must try to find out whether he had granted it before or after besieging the castle. It seemed odd to give such a valuable prize to one's enemy.
"Watch out, miss!" shouted a carter rounding the bend behind her at all of two miles an hour. She stepped aside, abandoned her musing, and went on into the Bell.
Posted June 26, 2011
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