Miss Goodhue Lives for a Night
The little town of Helmsley was known for three things. First, its market days, which attracted merchants and visitors from all across the county of Lincolnshire. Second, its windmill, which stood tall and proud at the entrance to the town, grinding grain into the very best flour to be sold on said market days.
And finally, it was known for the miller, Mr. Turner, who just last year had stolen the bride of their most esteemed citizen, Sir Bartholomew Babcock. Mr. Turner had married the Countess of Churzy with a minimum of scandal and outrage, since everyone—most especially Sir Barty—declared the miller and the countess absolutely perfect for each other.
But this is not that story.
“Something terrible has happened!”
Alarmed, Miss Cecilia Goodhue looked up from collecting slates. The schoolroom had been still since Friday, when the children had their last day before the spring planting season, but only now did Cecilia have the wherewithal to begin her ritualistic cleaning. She always got a little wobbly when her students went away—even if it was only for six weeks to help their families with the farms. Granted, most of her students would do little with their education, but to Cecilia’s mind, they deserved the chance of it. However, she had barely rolled up her sleeves when her sister burst into the little schoolhouse and made her dramatic declaration.
And Imogene was not the sister given to excessive dramatics.
“What is it?” Cecilia asked, dropping the slates as her heart began to flutter in a terribly irresponsible pattern. The slates cracking as they hit the floor did little to help the fluttering.
“It is the most dreadful thing to have happened to this family since . . . well, you know.”
Cecilia went pale with alarm. “It cannot be as bad as that.”
“Yes, it can, for it is exactly that—oh Cecilia . . . our cousin Eleanor has run off!”
Cecilia nearly toppled over. “Oh heavens. Oh heavens,” she said, pressing her hands to her chest. “Are you quite sure? Could she have been abducted?”
“Oh, if only we were so lucky!” Imogene reached forward and shoved the letter into her sister’s hands.
Cecilia glanced at it, but only saw the messiness of the handwriting. Then, with more resolve than she felt, she folded it and took Imogene’s cold hand.
“Imogene, I cannot read this without my glasses, so let me fetch them and then we will discuss. And how can it possibly be discussed without tea?”
THE KITCHEN IN the vicarage was cozy, warm from the stove on this early spring day. Imogene, ever the economist, avoided lighting fires if she could help it, so during the winter months, she usually spent her waking hours in the kitchen corner, a small table and a comfortable chair set up just for her. Of course, Cook said this in no way inconvenienced her, but the number of times Cecilia had heard cleared throats and seen dark looks that her sister clearly missed made her a little worried about precisely what was in their meals throughout the winter.
Imogene’s husband, Vicar Spilsby, was not an economist, and so he spent the time in his study not annoying his servants. And while Cecilia lived with her sister and brother-in-law, as the schoolteacher she spent most of her time in the schoolhouse that adjoined the church, and so was usually exempt from Cook’s glares. But today she was willing to chance it, as she met Imogene in the kitchen once her glasses had been retrieved, and her sister asked Cook for a tea tray and then for privacy.
“Surely,” Cook said. “Privacy is a nice thing, ain’t it? To be able to be alone with your thoughts as you work, not constantly worried about someone hovering behind you.”
“Yes, precisely,” Imogene said, her eyes shining gratefully. “I knew you would understand. Now, go please.”
“Right,” Cook said, taking her apron off and heading for the back door. “I’ll just go shiver outside for as long as you require.”
“Yes,” Imogene said, taking a deep draw of her tea as the back door slammed. “This is much better. Much more civilized to discuss the end of the . . . the world!” She burst into tears as she finished her sentence, completely marring her usual calm, collected demeanor.
“Sister, please take ahold of yourself!” Cecilia cried, feeling her nose sting with unfallen tears. “If you cry I am going to, because you have always been the steadier of us!”
“Yes,” sniffed Imogene. “Yes, you are right. I was simply remembering what happened to you all those years ago, and how difficult it was.”
Cecilia felt the hook of guilt that tugged at her belly every time she thought of the past, and how she had brought shame to her family and nearly ruined herself. But that would not be the case today. Not if she could help it.
“Let us look at this letter again with clear eyes—and spectacles.”
Cecilia fished the wire frames out of her pocket, perching them on the end of her nose. She scanned the letter in silence, and then read it again, making sure she missed nothing.
“It is from Uncle Robert,” Imogene said, narrating as Cecilia tried to concentrate on what she was reading. “He says that a regiment had lately come to Manchester, and that Eleanor fancied herself in love with one of the gentlemen—although she refused to tell her mother which one. Once the regiment moved on, her mother thought the fancy would pass. But then Eleanor disappeared, and she found letters from the young man—whom I would not consider a gentleman, as he never presented himself to the family.”
“Yes, your opinion of the young man’s perfidy is noted,” Cecilia murmured as she read on.
The letters said the young man had transferred to a position in London. And that he would have enough money for Eleanor to join him. Eleanor took off in the middle of the night. She had been traced as far as a posting inn on the outskirts of London, but there the trail ran cold, because a young man in a uniform had collected the girl, and they disappeared into the city.
“She is with him, somewhere in London, and lost to her parents. Lost to us all!” Imogene ended on a wail. “Uncle had to go back to Manchester.”
“It’s a wonder he could look for her at all with his condition,” Cecilia said. Their uncle had been confined to a wheeled chair since a riding accident had destroyed the use of his legs five years back. But he had kept his good cheer, according to their aunt’s letters to Imogene. Kept it, until Eleanor.
“It’s a wonder he managed to trace her as far as he did,” Imogene agreed. “He can only hope that Eleanor’s scandal does not touch any of her younger siblings, or impact his law practice, but you know it must. They shall bear the weight of the shame forever.”
“What?” Cecilia cried. “They have given up? But they cannot!”
“They cannot afford to pay off the young man—assuming they can find him. And they have no family in London to apply to for help. Indeed, Uncle is the only male relation left in our family. Eleanor is well and truly ruined.”
“No, I will not accept that,” Cecilia said, defiant. “Why, imagine what would have happened if Father had not come after me?”
It was not something that she and her sister often discussed. But it was always there, the very reason Cecilia found herself a spinster and living off her sister’s husband’s grace. And that reason was Mr. Theodore Hudson.
When Cecilia had been sixteen, she had been fanciful. She was still rather fanciful now, but then she had been a dreamer. And she easily imagined herself in love with the dashing boy of twenty. He was down from school for the summer, visiting their neighbors the Lockwoods. He was nephew to Sir Lockwood, and the handsomest thing Cecilia had ever seen in real life—she had once seen a traveling company of actors playing Romeo and Juliet and thought Mercutio the most beautiful person she had ever seen. Until Theo.
He’d reminded her of Mercutio, actually—sullen and defiant and funny and brilliant and making her feel things she had never even imagined. He was tragic, and she was romantic, and together they dimmed the stars.
They’d made plans to run off to Gretna Green—knowing Sir Lockwood would never allow his nephew to tie himself to such a young girl, one with a decent dowry but no name to speak of, whose family ran a law firm in Manchester.
They made it as far as a posting inn that first night before both her father and Sir Lockwood caught up to them. They’d posed as husband and wife as they signed the inn’s ledger, so they were naturally given one room. One bed.
And that was how her father found her. Moments from making the biggest mistake of her life.
They’d been separated. Her father had taken her into an empty room, Sir Lockwood presumably stealing Theo into another one.
“He doesn’t want you, my girl,” her father had said as she clutched the sheet around herself, shaking. “He wants your money.”
“My . . . my money?” she had asked, her face falling. “But I don’t have a large dowry.”
“It’s large enough to tempt a man with not a penny in his pocket. A second son. And he was under the impression it was larger. Sir Lockwood was all for letting you go on to Gretna until I told him you had naught but enough for a meager subsistence. Then he was on his horse and riding straight for this inn.” Her father narrowed his eyes. “Almost as if he knew his nephew’s plans.”
“No . . . no, that’s not true,” Cecilia had said shaking her head. “I’ll ask Theo and . . . and then you’ll know the truth!”
But her father had only to glance out the window. “By all means,” he said. “Ask him. If you think he’ll stop for you.”
She ran to the window heedless of the sheet dropping to the floor, of her wearing only her underclothes in front of her father. There, she saw the top of Theo’s head, his golden hair shining in the moonlight, as he ducked into Sir Lockwood’s carriage.
“Theo!” she called out. “Theo!” But from three stories above he surely could not hear her.
“Theo!” She gave herself over to a full voice, her body reverberating with the cry. And then . . . she saw it. He paused. Foot on the carriage step, he froze. Then . . . he climbed inside.
She stood there, white as the sheet that puddled on the floor, watching as he pulled out of the inn yard with all possible haste.
Later she would be thankful. Later, after the tears and the pain, and having moved to Helmsley to live with her sister and away from her own ignominy, she would realize that if her father had never come to save her, everything would be very different.
On more fanciful days, she thought that had her life not taken this quiet turn into the town of Helmsley, she would now be married, with multiple children, and desperately poor.
On other days, she was more realistic and knew she would not be married at all.
“No,” Cecilia said again, “I refuse to believe that no one in the family is willing to go after Eleanor.”
“I thought about applying to my dear Spilsby,” Imogene admitted, “but . . .”
“Yes,” Cecilia agreed. “But.”
Vicar Spilsby was a good man. He preached forgiveness from behind his pulpit and his bright orange mustache every week without fail. He was comfortably kind to his wife, and in extension, opened his home up to her sister when she fell into disgrace. And he never mentioned it. No, not once. Certainly not when he told Cecilia she should be grateful for the food she had on her plate and to maybe not ask for seconds. And not when he said his wife should be endlessly in obedience because she was able to walk through Helmsley with her head held high and no one knowing of her sister’s scandalous past. Nor when he said that Cecilia should thank God and more important himself for the purpose she had found in her otherwise thrown-away life, by teaching in the vicarage school.
If he were called upon to act as savior to his wife’s family again, there was no end to what the man would refrain from mentioning.
“I will go.”
“What?” Imogene’s head whipped up. “You?”
“Yes, me.” Cecilia could hardly believe she had said it, but now that she had, it made all the sense in the world. “School is out for the spring planting season. I can go to London without interrupting anyone’s studies.”
“Yes, but . . . how?”
“I have some money,” she replied. As she had never married, Cecilia inherited what would have been her dowry when she came of age, five years ago. In fact, it was enough for her to live on if she wished to live independently. But she had never touched it. It felt tainted, like blood money—a prize when all she deserved was penance. However, if any cause justified its use, it was finding Eleanor. “Although I will have to draw on the bank to use it, and I’d have to go to London to do that anyway . . .”
“Then that is the excuse we will give Spilsby!” Imogene cried. “You have to go to London to speak with the bank about your funds. Perhaps you are thinking of setting up your own establishment now that our little family is finally increasing.” Imogene’s hand went automatically to her slightly swollen stomach, which had appeared in recent weeks. “No one will question or object to that. Oh! And Mrs. Emory’s old rooms on the square are for sale . . .”
“Yes, yes, that will do for an excuse,” Cecilia said before Imogene’s tangent took on a life of its own.
“But oh—you will need a chaperon.”
“Please.” She snorted. “I am six and twenty. I have already learned the hardest lesson that a young lady can learn. I do not require a chaperon.”
“You don’t know a soul in London. Spilsby may very well insist on accompanying you.”
“I’ll leave that to you.” Cecilia rose to her feet and moved to grab her shawl off the hook by the kitchen door. She felt her boldness growing. “And as to not knowing a soul in London . . . well, I may not know a soul, but we know someone who does.”
“Where are you going?” Imogene said.
“To meet with a countess,” Cecilia replied, and swept out the door.