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When Aggie alighted after a journey of a full day and a half, she felt very tired and dispirited. The Hampshire house she found herself facing was a pleasant one, of mellow red brick, surrounded by lovely gardens. And the butler who admitted her was kind. But she already missed her sisters very much, and she felt apprehensive and alone.
The butler took her to the housekeeper's room, on the ground floor at the back, and there she was introduced to Mrs. Dunkin, a large smiling woman in black bombazine.
"Come in, come in, my dear. Sit down," said this lady. "You must be tired out after your long ride. I'll order you some tea." As she talked and bustled about readying tea, the housekeeper eyed Aggie curiously, and the girl was immediately conscious of her sober gown, schoolgirl bonnet, and uncropped hair. But Mrs. Dunkin seemed rather to approve than to criticize her unfashionable appearance, and gradually Aggie relaxed. "Here we are," said the older woman, offering a cup. "Nice and hot and just what you need. Drink it all, now." She sat down opposite and took her own cup. "The mistress was that sorry she couldn't be here to welcome you herself," she went on comfortably. "She promised to spend the day with her mother before we knew just when you would arrive. But Miss Anne, or Mrs. Wellfleet I should say, will be home to dinner. I was with her mother's household, you know, and I can't seem to get in the way of calling her by her married name. She seems a child to me still." Mrs. Dunkin smiled at Aggie, who responded rather shakily. "Your mother was a great friend of the Castels', I believe? Miss Anne's parents, that is."
"Yes," responded Aggie. "Yes, she was. She and Mrs. Castel were at school together. My family used to live nearby, you know."
Mrs. Dunkin nodded. "I do believe I recall your mother. It was years ago, of course, but I think she visited the Castels' house. A lovely woman, she was. You have the look of her."
"I have been told so. I hardly remember her. She died when I was very young."
"So she did, poor thing. And your father not many years after. Grief will do that to a man. Tch, tch."
Aggie, remembering her gay laughing father and his death on the hunting field, said only, "The memory of their friendship led me to write to Mrs. Castel when I was looking for a position."
"Indeed. So you and your sisters are thrown on yourselves?" Mrs. Dunkin's curiosity was clear, but not at all malicious. She was obviously a woman who enjoyed a good story.
"Yes. The... the recent death of our aunt has left us... that is, has made it necessary for us to earn our own way."
"Tch, tch. And your father's great estate lying empty while the new baron gambles it away in London, or so we hear. Disgraceful, I call it."
"The estate was entailed to the male line." Aggie shrugged. She had never expected to inherit her father's property, and so she did not feel the loss of it. Her aunt's will had been a far greater blow.
Mrs. Dunkin nodded. "I never understood such things, and I never shall. A man's children should get what's his, not some distant relation no one's ever seen." Noticing that Aggie had finished her tea, she added, "You'll be wanting to see your room and all. I'll take you up."
She escorted Aggie to a large airy bedchamber on the third floor. Though clearly not one of the most elegant apartments in the house, it was comfortably furnished and had a lovely view out over the gardens from three dormer windows.
"Here we are. The children's nursery is down the hall there. They're out with their mother just now. Sarah, the nursery maid, will get you anything you need. You can ring for her there. She can help with your unpacking if you like. Mrs. Wellfleet will be home in an hour or two, I suppose, and she'll want to see you then. If there's anything you want, just tell me."
"Thank you. Thank you very much, Mrs. Dunkin. I can't imagine that I shall. This is a lovely room." Aggie realized that she was getting special treatment because her family had been friends with Mrs. Wellfleet's, and she wanted to show that she was properly grateful.
The housekeeper smiled. "Well, I am glad you like it. And I hope you'll be happy here with us, Miss Hartington. You'll want to rest now, and I'll leave you alone. Don't forget to ring if you want anything."
"Thank you," said Aggie again, and Mrs. Dunkin went out.
When she was gone, the girl walked over to one of the windows and sat down in the window seat. She looked out over the garden, where the first spring flowers were just visible, and the countryside beyond. It brought back vivid memories of her childhood, lived not far from this spot. Even the scents which rose from the grounds below seemed vaguely familiar. Aggie smiled slightly. This hint of familiarity somewhat eased her longing for her sisters. Perhaps it would not be so bad, living in this house alone.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a sudden vigorous scratching sound, followed by several sharp mews. Aggie started up and hurried over to her luggage, which had been piled in one corner of the room. On top sat a wicker basket, and it was from this that the protesting sounds emerged.
"Yes, yes, Brutus, I'm coming," said Aggie. She quickly opened the clasp on the basket, and a sandy kitten jumped out and rolled onto the floor. "I forgot you. How could I?" continued the girl. "Are you all right?"
Brutus, who had received his name from Aggie's aunt at his birth, got up, shook himself, and proceeded to ignore his mistress as he explored the boundaries of his new home. Satisfied that he had thus shown his disapproval of his treatment so far, he then returned to the girl and began to bite at her ankles playfully.
Aggie laughed. At that moment, she was very glad that she and her sisters had decided to take their aunt's bequest of kittens, in spite of their resentment over the rest of the will. "Stop that, sir," she said. "You will ruin my only pair of silk stockings. Go and sit down, and after I unpack my things, I will take you to the kitchen and see about some milk."
Brutus stared up at her briefly, then went back to his pursuit of her ankles. And it was only when she began to walk about the room, putting away her things, that Aggie was able to discourage this pastime. Then, disgusted, Brutus went to lie in the window, watching the movements of a family of sparrows with considerable interest.
At six o'clock Aggie was summoned to the drawing room to meet her employer and her charges. In the interval, she had arranged her small possessions to her satisfaction, successfully introduced Brutus in the kitchens, and taken a turn around the garden. She was very glad to be called downstairs; she was eager to see what sort of people the Wellfleets were.
But when she entered the drawing room, it at first appeared to be empty. Aggie looked from one side of the well-proportioned chamber to the other, but saw no one. Then, a charming giggle from the direction of the long front windows caused her to look more carefully and notice a pair of very small boots protruding from under the blue velvet hangings. "Hello," she said then. "Is anyone here?"
This produced a gasp from farther down the room, and suddenly a slender blond woman burst from another window embrasure, looking embarrassed. "Oh, how silly you will think me," she said in a soft breathless voice. "We were playing hide-and-seek, you see, and I quite forgot the time."
Aggie surveyed her with interest. Mrs. Wellfleet, for this must be she, was a small and very pretty woman with pale golden hair and large blue eyes. Her clothes were in the first style of fashion, of a wispy green material that became her extremely.
Mrs. Wellfleet pushed at her profusion of curls and called, "George, Alice, come out. The game is over. Come and meet Miss Hartington."
There was a pause; then a tiny girl emerged from behind the sofa before the fireplace. She was dressed exquisitely in pink and was the image of her mother.
"George," repeated Mrs. Wellfleet.
There was no reaction.
Aggie smiled and cocked her head in the direction of the small boots visible under the curtain. Mrs. Wellfleet did not seem to understand at first; then she followed Aggie's gaze, dimpled, and nodded. Aggie walked quietly across the carpet and pulled back the hanging. "Found!" she called out.
A small boy of about five started, then gazed up at her indignantly. "You weren't even playing," he said. "Mummy and Alice would never have found me." George was also fair, like his mother and sister. But his eyes were a sparkling blue, and his chin had a much more decided set to it.
"It doesn't matter now, George," said Mrs. Wellfleet. "Come out. The game is over."
George put his hands on his hips. "It's not fair! She wasn't playing, and you didn't find me."
He looked so outraged that Aggie had to smile. "Perhaps we must count it that you won, then," she said. "Indeed, I did not mean to spoil your game."
The boy focused his bright blue eyes on her, considered a moment, then smiled angelically. "It doesn't matter. I always beat Mummy and Alice anyway." He came out of the window and stood eyeing her. "I am George Wellfleet," he said. "And you are our new governess. I know that. Pleased to make your acquaintance." He bowed carefully.
Aggie choked back a laugh. "Thank you."
Mrs. Wellfleet did laugh. "Oh, how well you did that, George. What a fine little gentleman you are. This is Alice, Miss Hartington. She is a bit shy at first, but I am sure you will all be great friends."
Alice, who looked about three years old and had been keeping close to her mother's skirts, looked up wide-eyed, dropped an inexpert curtsy, and retreated.
Mrs. Wellfleet laughed trillingly again. "Aren't they darlings? You children run along now and find Mrs. Dunkin. I want to talk to Miss Hartington.
George started out of the room, turned to look at Alice, then came back and took her hand. As they passed through the doorway, the boy turned his head and smiled at the two women.
"George is such a little man," laughed his mother. She turned to face Aggie, still smiling, and looked her up and down. "Oh, you are lovely," she exclaimed. "Mother said you would be, because your mother was. But she thinks it doesn't matter a fig, because Alex positively dotes on me." She laughed again.
Aggie, taken aback, did not know what to reply to this.
"Come and sit down. We must get acquainted as soon as may be, for I am convinced we shall be great friends." Mrs. Wellfleet sat on the sofa and patted the cushion beside her. Still uncertain, Aggie sat down.
"There, now tell me everything about yourself at once. Or, no, I shall begin. That is more polite, is it not? Well, you know who I am, of course. Our mothers were very close friends, and Mama recommended you to me. I have been married to Alex for seven years, and we are blissfully happy. I cannot tell you how nice it is. And there are Georgie and Alice; I spoil them dreadfully." She laughed. "How could I not? But Mama thinks that they need more discipline, even though they are babies yet, so she thought I should get a nursery governess. And when she got your letter, it seemed perfect! I am a heedless creature, I suppose. You will be just the thing to keep me from cosseting them to death. Alex says so, too. But you won't be one of those dreary stiff governesses who make the whole household miserable; you are far too young, and too pretty. Oh, I am sure we shall deal together admirably. And you must call me Anne. There. Now, you tell."
This had all come out in such a rush that Aggie hardly took it in. And now, facing her expectant employer, she felt breathlessly speechless.
Anne Wellfleet went off in peals of laughter. "You look so frightened, you silly goose."
Aggie smiled. "Not frightened. But a little overwhelmed, perhaps."
"Oh, I chatter like a magpie, I know. Everyone says so. But I can't help it, and you will become accustomed to it very soon, I daresay. Tell me whatever you like. Or nothing. It doesn't matter. Would you rather not?" Her large eyes showed disappointment at this prospect, but no inclination to press Aggie.
"Indeed no. I would like to tell you about myself." She took a breath. "You know my family, of course. My sisters and I have been living with our Aunt Hartington since my father's death eleven years ago. But Aunt died recently, and we needed to find positions, to earn our own way." She stopped, momentarily at a loss.
Anne bit her lower lip and leaned forward. "Is it really true," she whispered, "that your aunt left all her great fortune to her cats?"
She looked so eager that Aggie could not help but smile a little. She nodded.
"Truly? But how outrageous. Was she mad?"
"No. Merely eccentric. And I do not think she meant to leave all her money so. She did not change her will in time, however."
"And you, poor thing, left without a penny. Oh, it is wrong!"
Aggie shrugged. She was not ready to discuss this matter with anyone as yet, particularly not a woman she had just met.
"Well, we shall make it up to you. You must count yourself as one of the family here." She laughed suddenly and clapped her hands. "I know. We'll pretend that you are my sister, come to live with us. I never had a sister, and I so wanted one. You will be my little sister." She smiled radiantly at the other girl.
Smiling back, Aggie thought to herself that she felt much more like an older sister, if anything, to this charmingly heedless lady.
"We'll have wonderful times," continued Anne. She eyed Aggie's clothes and braids. "First, we'll find you some new dresses, and then we'll have my woman cut your hair. How beautiful you will be!"
"Oh, no," said Aggie. "I couldn't let you do that. It... it wouldn't be right."
Mrs. Wellfleet's face crumpled. "But I want to. Why can't I?"
"Well, because I, I am your employee. And it isn't right that you should..."
The other brightened again. "Oh, fustian. I can do whatever I want, if you are my employee. What a stupid word! And I want to give you some dresses. I have hundreds I never wear." She dimpled. "You must take them. If you wear such stuff as you have on, you will depress my spirits until I fall into a decline. You don't want that."
Reluctantly Aggie smiled. "Well, no, of course not, but..."
"Good. Then it's all settled. Come upstairs, we'll look through my closet before dinner. I'm thinking of a dress that should just suit you; you can wear it tonight."
"But I thought I would take a tray in my room-"
"A tray! Nonsense. You will dine with Alex and me, of course." And taking Aggie's arm, she led her resolutely out of the room.