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Jennifer Whitcomb shifted a little awkwardly on the seat of the carriage. She had not expected to be met at Dover by such gilded equipment. The richly liveried grooms and coachmen looked great enough for an earl or a duke, but she knew for a fact that the Parthemers had no title whatsoever. What they did have, apparently, was a good deal of money.
For the hundredth time Jennifer wondered what her young charges would be like. This was not her first position as a governess, and so she did not expect to find clean, well-behaved children at her journey's end. And certainly their names did not portend well--Cassandra, Mortimer, and Camilla!
Jennifer repressed a shudder. There should be laws prohibiting parents from visiting such awful names upon innocent children. No, she quite expected the children to be little pranksters, full of tricks to foil and upset an unwary newcomer.
But, thought Jennifer with a grim smile, brushing back a wisp of pale blond hair that had escaped her modest bonnet, she could outlast the best of them. Hadn't she finally tamed Henry and Henrietta, the eight-year-old twins of the Earl of Linden? And done a good job, too.
The trouble was that the Earl could not be tamed. Jennifer still remembered her disbelief at the question he had put to her. Of course, she had answered in the negative and so she had lost her position, presumably to some young woman who would say yes, someone willing to be more to the Earl than the governess of his children.
Jennifer stifled a sigh. Well, that was out of her hands. She had made her choice and here she was, ready to start a new position. Please God, that Mr. Parthemer not have an eye for the petticoatline. She very much wished for a little peace and quiet. And the chance to do her job.
She settled back on her seat with a small sigh. After all, she had not done too poorly in taking care of herself since Papa had given his life on the Peninsula, fighting for England. Jennifer wondered briefly if the men who studied wars had ever included in their statistics the deaths of those who, losing loved ones, lost all will to live.
Mama had been one of those. After the news of Papa's death she had just gradually withered away. And nothing anyone could say or do was of help. She had no more reason for living. And so quite simply and quietly, she died.
Jennifer swallowed hastily over the lump in her throat. She was a practical, levelheaded young woman, not a vaporish chit given to sentimental memories. Tearful eyes and quivering lips were not for governesses intent on earning their way in the world.
Thank goodness, thought Jennifer, that Mama had raised her to take a practical approach to life. If she had been given to tears and spasms, she would long ago have starved to death or--perish the thought--have succumbed to the blandishments of some "gentleman" like the Earl, gentlemen who "protected" young women from everyone but themselves.
Jennifer's backbone stiffened automatically and her chin lifted. She needed the protection of no such "gentleman." No indeed! She was quite capable of taking care of herself.
And, having given due thanks to the Almighty for the blessing of such a mother, Jennifer turned her attention to the Dover countryside. Spring had only been with them for a few weeks, but already the hedgerows were turning green. The meadows, too, were blankets of verdure, freckled with dainty wild flowers. Bright daffodils nodded in clumps under the trees, their golden faces turned toward the sun.
Jennifer took a deep breath. The sea must not be too far away, either. She could smell the fresh salty tang of it. Perhaps the Parthemer estate bordered on the sea. Perhaps she would have the opportunity to take the children there.
She loved the sea--in all its moods. From peaceful enchanting calm to violent wave-torn fury, the sea was beautiful.
With just the smallest of sighs Jennifer recalled the dream of her childhood, the dream of the handsome man who would come from the sea to love her. Such dreams were for well-protected little girls who expected to grow up and have a dowry with which to attract a husband. They were futile and stupid illusions for a young woman of three and twenty whose only resource was herself.
The carriage turned onto a long avenue lined with trees. Obviously, thought Jennifer, the Seven Elms for which the estate was named were not situated on this avenue which must boast at least fifty trees, all crowded together and producing a rather dark and dismal effect.
Finally the carriage reached the end of the avenue and Jennifer got her first glimpse of the house. With difficulty she kept back an exclamation of surprise. At first glance the house appeared to be in ruin!
Ivy climbed the great stone walls, almost completely covering several of the very small windows. Corners of the roof appear-ed to be broken off. A row of gargoyles, some missing ears, noses, or other extremities, leered down at her from above. The front door, a massive, time-worn, iron-studded thing, appeared to hang crookedly on its hinges and the two huge pillars that flanked it were chipped and stained. Even the shrubbery seemed to be going wild, about to overgrow the first floor complete-ly.
Finally Jennifer recognized the truth. The Parthemers' new home--for she knew it was new--had been constructed after the manner of a Gothic ruin. And very ruinous it looked, indeed, thought she, suppressing a smile. Imagine wanting to live in such a hulk!
Though she did not pride herself on having a great deal of architectural knowledge, it not being considered a fit discipline in the education of young ladies, Jennifer could not help feeling that whoever had constructed Seven Elms had not been endowed with particularly good taste. The effect of the whole, even aside from its artificially ruinous condition, was one of ill-proportioned ostentation. This, however, was obviously an opinion she would do well to keep to herself.
The coachman pulled up to the front door, which on closer examination bore the marks of recent batterings and looked for all the world like one might imagine the door to an ancient prison. Keeping a calm face, Jennifer descended from the carriage and soon found herself standing in an immense hall, the valise containing all her worldly possessions sitting at her feet. A butler who looked as though he had not smiled these twenty years said, "Wait here. I'll inform Madame of your arrival."
And so Jennifer waited. What would Mrs. Parthemer be like? she wondered. But then she reminded herself that it really didn't matter. No matter what Mrs. Parthemer was--prickly, sweet, or sour--Jennifer would get along with her. That was an absolute necessity.
And so she removed her serviceable bonnet and drab cloak (like the bonnet, it had been Mama's) and stood waiting. Finally, when she had examined every feature of the great dreary hall innum-erable times and was wondering if she would lose her position should Mrs. Parthemer discover her new governess in a crumpled heap on the floor, the butler returned to announce pompously, "Madame will see you now."
Jennifer followed him up the great winding staircase and into a bedroom that was obviously the latest in opulence. The entire room seemed swathed in red velvet. Walls, carpet, drapes, bed curtains, upholstery--all were red velvet. And propped up in the mammoth, intricately carved and canopied bed was a pale little woman with washed-out blue eyes, clad in red velvet.
"Miss Whitcomb," she breathed in the faintest of tones.
Jennifer approached the bed. "Good day, Mrs. Parthemer. I am sorry to find you indisposed."
A frail hand waved a handkerchief heavily edged in lace. "It's just my old complaint. I am doomed to suffer. But I do not complain. As you shall see. But at any rate, I am glad you have come. The children are ungovernable." A tear glistened in each pale blue eye. "Because of my illness I have been unable to raise them properly. Not that they are not wonderful children."
"But I cannot seem to keep a governess. The foolish creatures are always running off. And it is a terrible nuisance, I assure you."
"I'm quite sure it is, Mrs. Parthemer, but let me assure you that I shall not run off. I have been handling children these five years. I understand them."
Mrs. Parthemer's pale eyes blinked at this information. "Goodness, I don't know how one can understand the creatures. At times they hardly seem human."
Jennifer allowed herself to smile. "They are, after all, only children and so cannot be expected to be as well-mannered as grown people. But please, Mrs. Parthemer, put your mind at ease. I know I shall get along with the children."
Mrs. Parthemer heaved a tremulous sigh and raised one hand to let it fall weakly on the coverlet. "I hope you are speaking the truth; for the fatigue of continually looking for a new governess is quite debilitating to a woman of my delicate constitution."
Jennifer's private opinion was that there was nothing wrong with Mrs. Parthemer that a little exercise in the fresh air and sunshine could not cure, but of course she dared not say so. "I shall do my very best for the children," she repeated. "May I see them soon?"
"Of course. I have sent Phillips for the maid, Betty. Nurse left some time ago. She said it was her health, but I cannot but believe that it was those monstrous children."
Jennifer judged it wisest not to offer any more excuses for the children. She would soon have them in hand anyway.
There was a bustle at the door and a bright-eyed maid entered. "Show Miss Whitcomb the nursery and her room, Betty, and help her get settled."
As Jennifer turned to follow the maid, Mrs. Parthemer spoke again. "Mr. Parthe-mer wants you at table with us. We need all the conversation we can get, buried here in the country." She heaved the sigh of a martyred wife. "Dinner is at five. I know that's terribly early by London standards, but Mr. Parthemer insists he can not wait any longer."
Another heavy sigh. "Perhaps it is true. Mr. Parthemer is a large man and I suppose he must eat heartily." She raised appealing eyes to heaven, as witness, Jennifer supposed. "Of course, I can't eat like that. I subsist on next to nothing, as Gibbons can tell you."
Jennifer had no idea as to the identity of Gibbons, but she decided against asking. She would learn soon enough. "Thank you, Mrs. Parthemer. I shall be nicely settled in by dinner."
And so, leaving the invalid to contem-plate the delicate state of her health, she followed the maid Betty up another pair of grandly carved and gloomy stairs.
"Watch your step here, Miss," cautioned Betty cheerfully. "These stairs is dreadful dark. And we ain't to use no candles in the daytime. It makes the master turn purple, it do, to see candles lit in the daytime."
Jennifer, picking her way through the gloom, reflected somewhat ironically on the mentality that could pay for the construc-tion of such a gloomy tomb and then refuse a few candles. But perhaps, she told herself, Mr. Parthemer was the sort of man who enjoyed gloom, a dark melancholic man given to fits of intense brooding.
Having reached the door to her room, Jennifer abandoned such useless specu-lation and concentrated on her surround-ings. The room was more than good-sized, but relatively bare. A small bed, a chest, a wardrobe, a chair--that was all. And in the large room they seemed dwarfed.
Jennifer found her valise sitting on the bed. She would unpack later, she decided. "Where are the children?" she asked the maid. "I should like to see them."
The maid bobbed her head and seemed reluctant to answer. "They're out, Miss. The nursery be this way, Miss.''
And Jennifer followed as Betty opened a door in the far wall. This, Jennifer saw, observing the opulent and lacy furnish-ings, must be the bedchamber of Cassandra and Camilla. And two very spoiled little girls they looked to be--at least from the condition of the room.
Through another door Betty led the way into what was obviously the schoolroom. Even here the windows were exceedingly small. Jennifer much doubted that the children could see adequately to do their sums. Lessons might well have to be held elsewhere.
Betty opened still another door and disclosed Mortimer's room. Here opulence contended with sheer chaos. There appeared to be scarcely an inch of floor that was not covered with something.
Betty, getting a glimpse of Jennifer's expression of distaste, volunteered, "Ain't nobody what'll clean this room. Not after what happened to Nurse."
"And what was that?" asked Jennifer evenly.
Betty hesitated, obviously torn between her liking for the newcomer and her fear of being caught in gossip.
"Come now, Betty," said Jennifer quietly. "I am not the cowardly sort. And if I know what happened to Nurse then I shall be better prepared to deal with the children. I assure you, I intend to stay on no matter how badly they may behave."
Betty thought this over for a moment and then decided to trust the newcomer's word. "It were like this, Miss. Nurse kept telling Master Mortimer that he had to learn better ways. But he wouldn't do nothing she told him. So she says she'll clean up the room and throw out what she thinks fit. Master Mortimer says go ahead, he don't care none."
Betty lowered her voice and glanced around. "I weren't here when it happened, but I heard Nurse tell it right after. She was looking through the drawers of his chest, cleaning them out and she put her hand under a pile of clothes--and there they was!"
Betty's brown eyes grew so round and wide that Jennifer had difficulty smother-ing her laughter. "What were they, Betty?" she prodded gently.
"Worms, Miss! A great pile of worms. All slimy and crawly." Betty shuddered. "Nurse like to have had hysterics. She went screaming out and to her room where she fellinto a swoon."
Jennifer could not help mentally applauding Nurse's practical side. To fall into a swoon in this room would be to invite almost certain injury.
"And the next day," continued Betty, obviously enjoying the story to the hilt now that she had embarked on it, "Nurse vowed she was leaving. Her health, she said, just couldn't stand the strain. What with that terrible monkey and all."
"Monkey?" inquired Jennifer, realizing that her job was taking on new dimensions.
"Aye, that heathenish creature." Betty shuddered again. "He looks like some poor little old man, he do, all withered and shriveled up. And them children--they treats the poor thing most terrible."
"Where are the children?" asked Jennifer. She might as well see these little monsters right away. No use putting off the inevi-table.
"Mr. Parthemer, he left orders they was to be taken on a walk so as to give you time to settle in."
"That was very considerate of him," said Jennifer.
"Aye, Miss. Master, he be a good man. If only he didn't have such a thing about candles. Well, Miss, I've showed all here. Mayhap you'll want to go back to your room and unpack afore dinner."
"Yes, I shall," said Jennifer. "And thank you, Betty, for being so helpful."
Betty cast modest eyes downward. "We all likes the master, Miss. And we wishes him good. If so be you can help his children, we'd all be that pleased."
With a smile Betty let herself out of the room. Jennifer turned to the valise on the bed. Thoughtfully she opened it and shook out her clothes. The Parthemers dressed for dinner, no doubt, and so, perforce, must she. It was a matter of moments to choose between her two "good" gowns, both of which had been made over from Mama's. She chose the brown in prefer-ence to the blue. For, though Betty's affection for her master seemed clear of any taint, Jennifer could not forget the Earl of Linden, and so decided on the drabber gown.
She would just hang it in the wardrobe, she decided, to allow some of the wrinkles to fall out before dinner. She turned the knob and was immediately attacked by a gibbering creature that scrabbled wildly at her. Fortunately Jennifer was not given to hysterics. After a moment of initial fright, she realized that the terrified creature in her arms was "the terrible monkey." He was obviously in great fear and Jennifer set herself to calm him, speaking in gentle, soothing tones and patting his trembling back. After some moments the creature ceased trembling and, removing its little arms from around her neck, leaned back to peer at her from bright black eyes.
"There, there," said Jennifer. "It was very unkind of whoever shut you up in there. No wonder you were terrified."
The little creature surveyed her once more and then buried his face in her shoulder. Jennifer left him there as she went about putting away the rest of her belongings. He was very light, actually, and clung to her quite easily.
She had finished unpacking and was sitting in the chair near the window, stroking the monkey when the door opened suddenly and the children burst into the room. "Watch out," called the littlest girl, a hardy, sturdy child of about four. "He bites."
"I think not," replied Jennifer calmly. "He knows that he has found a friend."
She looked at the other two. The older girl was well built and sturdy, too, around eight or so. Both girls had brown hair and dark eyes. The boy, however, somewhere between them in age, had his mother's pale hair. But his eyes, though blue like hers, were bright as the summer sky--and somehow hard.
"I told you it wouldn't work," said Cass-andra to her brother. "Peterkins can't scare anyone."
"He can too," declared Mortimer, obvious-ly annoyed at this sisterly gibe. "He can bite and scratch something fierce."
"I am not going to ask you who was so unkind as to shut poor Peterkins up in a dark closet." Jennifer raised a warning hand. "I do not want to know. But I think I should tell you that I find such treatment of poor animals very unladylike and ungentlemanly."
"We ain't ladies nor gentlemen," declared the boy.
"Indeed, that is quite true," observed Jennifer serenely. "But my job is to teach you to behave as though you were." She looked at the girls. "It is quite possible that either or both of you may marry into the aristocracy. And I should like you to be prepared so that you might be comfortable in such a life." She was very much aware of two pair of dark eyes regarding her curiously.
"Humph," snorted Mortimer. "You're wasting your breath on them two."
"Those two," corrected Jennifer complacently.
Mortimer bristled. "I'll talk how I want," he declared. "You ain't my Papa."
"Indeed, I am not," agreed Jennifer. "But I am confident that he wishes you to be raised so that you may take a proper place in society should such an opportunity be offered."
Mortimer had no reply for this, but turned away to scowl at the wall.
Cassandra approached uneasily and Jennifer saw that the girl was unsure of herself. "A real lady?" she asked painfully. "Do you think I might be a real lady?"
"Of course," replied Jennifer, judging that matter-of-factness was the key here. "People may be born with titles or marry them. In either case ladies must learn to be ladies. No one is born with the proper knowledge."
Cassandra's eyes gleamed.' "If you teach me that, if that's why you've come, then I won't play no more tricks."
"I'm glad to hear that," said Jennifer warmly, touching the child's hand. "But you must realize that I will need to correct you. The way you speak, and walk, and act."
Cassandra nodded. "I see that. I'll listen. I want to be a lady, you see."
Jennifer nodded. "I see. Then first remember, ladies say, 'I won't play any more tricks.'"
"I'll remember. And please, Miss, would it be unladylike to call me Cassie?"
The dark eyes pleaded for understanding and Jennifer saw that the child was intensely lonely. "No, Cassie, that won't be unladylike at all. Friends often have nicknames for each other."
The child's face actually glowed, thought Jennifer, and then she was startled by a tug at her sleeve. "I want to be a lady, too," the child pleaded. "Can I?"
"Of course, Camilla. Cassie and I will help you. Won't we?"
Jennifer knew from Cassie's fervent nod that she had already reached one heart.
"I want a--a nick--I wants one, too," demanded the little one.
"You got to say, 'I want," said Cassie in a patient tone so like her own that Jennifer felt a lump forming in her throat.
"Cassie is right. Only, Cassie, you mean, 'You must say--I want."
Cassie nodded and repeated the words.
The little one's eyes grew round, whether at her sister's patience or at the lesson in grammar, Jennifer could not say. "I want one--of them," she insisted.
"Well," said Jennifer. "That is only fair. Cassie has already decided on hers. Have you a nickname in mind?"
The dark curls flew as Camilla shook her head.
Jennifer's brows drew together. "Well, Cassie, Mortimer, can we come up with a nickname for Camilla?"
Mortimer ignored her completely, but Cassie appeared to be considering. "We could call you Milly."
The dark head shook violently.
The child's dark eyes turned to Jennifer. "I likes--like that. Is it all right? For a lady?"
"Indeed it is." Again Jennifer felt that lump in her throat. These children were not horrid monsters at all, just two lonely little girls shunted off on the servants, unloved and unwanted by their mother.
She turned her attention to the boy. He might be a harder case. "Mortimer, would you like to have a nickname?"
The blond head swung around, two blue eyes, suspiciously bright, glared at her. "I ain't no girl. I don't need no silly nick-name."
Jennifer's voice kept its even tone. "Very well, Mortimer. We will respect your wishes. But I would like to remind you that a gentleman speaks proper English and, as I'm quite sure you know, says, 'I am not a girl. I don't need any silly nickname."
Mortimer received this information with a defiant shrug which Jennifer chose to ignore. She turned to the girls. "I should very much like to have you show me around the grounds. Can we take Peter-kins with us?"
"Yes, Miss. And Miss, I won't shut him up again. He must have been awful scared in there in the dark."
"I'm sure he was, Cassie, but he will be all right if we treat him kindly. Animals should always be treated kindly as they have no voices with which to protest when they are hurt."
Cammie's dark head nodded in agree-ment. As Jennifer rose, the monkey still clinging to her, Cammie said, "I won't hurt Peterkins ever."
"I'm very glad to hear that," said Jenni-fer. As they reached the doorway she felt a small hand creep into each of hers. She gave them each a squeeze and smiled reassuringly at the girls. Then she turned to the boy. His mouth was still set in a rebellious frown, but he was obviously not going to let them go off without him.
"I should appreciate it greatly, Mortimer, if you would pull the door shut behind us."
There was no answer, but as she contin-ued serenely down the hall, a small girl on either side, there came the satisfying sound--a little loud perhaps, but still satisfying--of a closing door and the patter of small feet hurrying to catch up. "I'll show her the stables," announced Mortimer defiantly.
And so Jennifer met her charges and began her new life. Perhaps not too inauspiciously, she thought.