The crocodile of schoolgirls neatly uniformed in dark blue that was making its way along Great Pulteney Street in Bath at the spanking pace set by Miss Susanna Osbourne, one of its teachers, was proceeding from Miss Martin's School for Girls on the corner of nearby Daniel and Sutton streets in the direction of the Pulteney Bridge and the city itself on the other side of the river.
The two lines consisted of only twelve girls, the others having gone home just the day before with parents or guardians or servants for the summer holiday. The twelve were Miss Martin's prized charity girls, supported at the school partly by the fees of the others and partly by generous donations from an anonymous benefactor. This benefactor had kept the school afloat when it would have been forced to close its doors several years ago for lack of funds and had enabled Miss Martin to achieve her dream of being able to offer an education to the indigent as well as the more well heeled. Over the years the school had acquired a reputation for providing a good and broad academic education to young ladies of all social classes.
The charity girls had nowhere else to go during the holidays, and so two or more of the resident teachers were forced to remain in order to care for them and entertain them until school resumed.
This summer all three resident teachers had remained–Miss Martin herself, Susanna Osbourne, and Anne Jewell.
Miss Martin and Miss Jewell strode along at the back of the line of girls. Not that it normally took three teachers to accompany one group of twelve on an outing, since the pupils at the school were very well disciplined–at least, they were once they had been there for a week or two. But it was the first day of the summer holiday, and they were on their way to Sally Lunn's tearoom for the famous buns served there and for tea, a much anticipated annual treat that the paying pupils never enjoyed.
Miss Martin and Miss Osbourne were going to Sally Lunn's with the girls. Miss Jewell was not, but since her destination lay along their route, she walked with them. Her son, David, was sandwiched between two of the girls, and chattered away merrily to them though they were both several years older than he.
"Why you would give up a chance to take tea in the cramped confines of Sally Lunn's with twelve noisy, giggly schoolgirls in order to take it in the refined atmosphere of an elegant, spacious drawing room with the rich and titled, I do not know, Anne," Miss Martin said dryly.
"I was specifically invited for today," she said, "but you would not put off the visit to Sally Lunn's until tomorrow. It was very unsporting of you, Claudia."
"Very practical of me," Miss Martin retorted. "I would have been strung up from the nearest tree by my thumbs if I had suggested any such postponement. So would you and Susanna. But really, Anne, taking tea with Lady Potford is one thing. She has been kind enough to you in the past. But to take tea with that woman!"
By that woman she meant the Marchioness of Hallmere, the former Lady Freyja Bedwyn, sister of the Duke of Bewcastle. Miss Martin had once been governess to Lady Freyja, who had frightened away a whole string of governesses before her. Miss Martin had left too, but more in outrage than in fright. She had left in the middle of the day, on foot, carrying all her worldly possessions with her, having refused either severance pay or a letter of recommendation or transportation from the Duke of Bewcastle. She had figuratively thumbed her nose at the lot of them.
Anne had been invited to take tea with Lady Potford on Great Pulteney Street because Lady Potford's grandson, Joshua Moore, the Marquess of Hallmere, was in town staying with her–as were his wife and children.
"I have been invited because of Joshua," Anne said. "You know how good he has always been to me and David, Claudia."
He had been her friend at a time when the whole world had turned against her–or so it had seemed. He had even provided her with some financial support for several years when she was close to being destitute, giving rise to the very distressing and quite erroneous rumor that he must be David's father. To say that he had been good to her was markedly to understate the case.
Susanna had started the girls singing a song in rounds, and they sang out lustily, heedless of any attention they might draw from passersby. Miss Martin, severe looking and ramrod straight in posture, did not blink an eye.
"And if I had suspected for one moment," she said, "when you applied for the position of mathematics and geography teacher here four years ago, Anne, that that woman had suggested this school to you, I would not have hired you in a million years. She came to the school a few months before that, snooping around with her offensive, supercilious air, noting every worn spot on the carpet in the visitors' parlor, I do not doubt, and asking if I needed anything. The nerve of it! I sent her packing in a hurry, I do not mind telling you."
Anne half smiled. She had heard the story a dozen times before, and all of Miss Martin's resident teachers knew of her undying antipathy toward the aristocracy, particularly toward those unfortunate enough to bear the title of duke, and most particularly to the one who bore the title Duke of Bewcastle. But Lady Hallmere came in a very close second on her blacklist.
"She has her good points," Anne said.
Claudia Martin made a sound that resembled a snort.
"The least said on that point the better," she said. "But lest you misunderstand, Anne, I am not one whit sorry that I did hire you, and so I suppose it was just as well that at the time I did not understand the connection between Lydmere in Cornwall, where you came from, the Marquess of Hallmere, who lived at nearby Penhallow, and Lady Freyja Bedwyn. Miss Osbourne."
Her voice rose above all other sounds as the girls paused in their rounds, and Susanna turned a bright, laughing face and halted the line.
"Lady Potford's, I believe," Miss Martin said, indicating the house next to which they had stopped. "I would rather you than me, Anne, but have fun."
David detached himself from his position in the line to join Anne, Susanna grinned at her, and the crocodile continued on its way toward Sally Lunn's beyond the abbey on the other side of the river.
"Good-bye, David," a few of the girls called, bolder than they would normally have been when out in public–the holiday spirit prevailed. "Good-bye, Miss Jewell. Wish you were coming too."
Claudia Martin rolled her eyes and struck off after her cherished girls.
As Miss Martin had just indicated, it was not the first time Anne had called upon Lady Potford at her home on Great Pulteney Street. She had called here–with some trepidation–with a letter of introduction four years ago when she first came to teach at Miss Martin's school and she had been invited to return several times since.
But today was a special occasion, and looking down at nine-year-old David after she had rapped the knocker against the door, Anne could see the light of excited anticipation in his eyes. The Marquess of Hallmere was his favorite person in the world even though they did not often see each other. Joshua had been invariably kind to him, though, when they had met–twice when Anne and David had been invited to spend a week of a school holiday at Penhallow, the marquess's country seat in Cornwall, and twice when the marquess had been in Bath and had called at the school to take David out in his curricle. And he never forgot to send gifts for birthdays and Christmas.
Anne smiled down at her son as they waited for the butler to open the door. He was growing up fast, she thought ruefully. He was no longer an infant.
He behaved rather like one, though, when they stepped inside and could see that the marquess was coming down the stairs to meet them, grinning cheerfully. David dashed toward him, all childish eagerness and voluble chatter, and was swept off his feet and spun about in a circle while he laughed joyfully.
Anne, looking on, felt an almost painful constriction about the heart. She had poured out a mother's love on her son for nine years, but of course she had never been able to provide him with a father's love too.
"Lad," the marquess said, setting David back down on his feet, "you must have a few bricks in the sole of each shoe. You weigh a ton. Or maybe it is just that you are growing up. Let me see now. You must be . . . twelve?"
"No!" David chuckled gleefully.
"Never tell me you are thirteen?"
"No! I am nine!"
"Nine? Only nine? I am speechless with amazement." The marquess ruffled David's hair with one hand and turned his smile on Anne.
"Joshua," she said, "how good it is to see you."
He was a tall, well-formed man, with blond hair, a handsome, good-natured face, and blue eyes that almost constantly smiled. Anne had always loved him with feelings that had occasionally bordered on the romantic, though she had never allowed them to spill over into passion. As plain Joshua Moore he had also been her friend when she was a governess at his aunt and uncle's house and after she had been dismissed. His friendship had been of infinitely more worth to her than any unrequited passion might have been.
Besides, she had loved another man when she first became acquainted with Joshua Moore. She had even had an understanding with that man and considered herself betrothed to him.
"Anne." He took both her hands in his and squeezed them tightly. "You are in remarkably good looks. The Bath air must suit you."
"It does," she assured him. "How is Lady Hallmere? And how are the children?"
"Freyja is in the drawing room," he said. "You will see her in a moment. Daniel and Emily are with their nurse upstairs. You must see them before you leave. Daniel has declared at least two dozen times in the last hour that he simply cannot wait another moment for David to come." He looked at David with an apologetic grin. "A three-year-old will not be much of a playmate for you, lad, but if you can find it in your heart to entertain him for a short while, or to allow him to entertain you, you will make him the happiest child alive."
"I would love to play with him, sir," David said.
"Good lad." Joshua ruffled his hair again. "But come and pay your respects in the drawing room first. It is only very young children who are whisked off straight to the nursery and you certainly do not fall into that category, do you?"
"No, sir," David said as Joshua offered Anne his arm and winked at her.
Lady Potford received them graciously in the drawing room, and Lady Hallmere got to her feet to nod in acknowledgment of David's bow and to look assessingly at Anne.
"You look well, Miss Jewell," she said.
"Thank you, Lady Hallmere," Anne said, curtsying to her.
She had always found the marchioness rather intimidating, with her small stature and strange, rather harsh, rather handsome features. She had disliked her on first acquaintance and considered her quite unsuited to the kindhearted, easygoing Joshua. But then she had discovered that her former pupil, Lady Prudence Moore, Joshua's mentally handicapped cousin, adored Lady Freyja, who had been unexpectedly kind to her. Prue had always been a good judge of character. And then Lady Freyja, recognizing that Anne was living only a half-existence as an unwed mother and would-be teacher in the small fishing village of Lydmere, had appeared on her doorstep one morning and offered her a position at Miss Martin's school, of which she was the anonymous benefactor.
If Claudia Martin ever discovered that truth, there would be trouble! Anne had, of course, been sworn to secrecy.
She had grown to respect, like, and even admire Lady Hallmere–and her marriage to Joshua appeared to be a love match.
For several minutes David was the focus of attention as he answered questions, seated beside Joshua and gazing almost worshipfully up at his hero. Then, just before the tea tray was brought in, he was sent up to the nursery, where he was promised fairy cakes and lemonade.
"We have just come from Lindsey Hall," Joshua explained to Anne as the tea was being poured, "and a grand family celebration for the christening of Bewcastle's son and heir."
"I trust he is a healthy child," Anne said politely, "and that the duchess has recovered her health."
"Both." Joshua grinned. "I do believe the new Marquess of Lindsey is going to be worthy of the Bedwyn name. He has a powerful set of lungs and has no hesitation at all in using them to get whatever he wishes."
"And now," Lady Hallmere added, "we are all on our way to Wales for a month. Bewcastle has an estate there and was planning a brief visit. But the duchess insisted upon accompanying him, and then we all decided to go too since it was far too soon to disperse and go our separate ways."
"A holiday by the sea is a pleasant prospect," Joshua said with a grin, "despite the fact that we live within a stone's throw of it in Cornwall. But the Bedwyns are not often all together, and all our children were in such transports of delight at having one another with whom to play and quarrel at Lindsey Hall that it seemed almost cruel to deprive them of one another's company for a month or so longer."
How lovely it must be, Anne thought wistfully, to belong to a large, close-knit, boisterous family. How lovely for the children.
"School has finished for the year, Miss Jewell?" Lady Potford asked.
"Most of the girls went home yesterday, ma'am," Anne told her.
"And will you be going home too?" Lady Potford asked.
"No, ma'am," Anne said. "I will remain at the school. Miss Martin takes in charity pupils as well as paying ones, and they must be cared for through the holidays."
Of course, there was no need for Claudia, Susanna, and Anne all to remain. But none of them had anywhere else to go unless their close friend Frances Marshall, Countess of Edgecombe, a former teacher at the school, arrived home from the Continent, where she had gone with the earl on a singing tour, and invited one of them to Barclay Court in Somersetshire, as she often did whenever she was at home during a school holiday.