The agent, Mr. Crowe, sat behind his shining Chippendale desk, reading Veronica’s reference letter through a pair of pince-nez. The stack of papers neatly squared on his blotter was much higher than the mere covering letter and two references she had sent him. Much higher. What could the agency have possibly found out about her to produce so much paperwork?
Sitting on the edge of her chair, Veronica straightened her back and squared her shoulders. She was glad for the support of her stays, glad she’d been able to borrow a presentable woolen dress for the interview in a rich dove grey that complimented her creamy skin, chestnut hair and large, dark eyes. She tightened her grip around the handle of her closed umbrella, hoping the sharp-eyed agent hadn’t noticed the worn fingers of her gloves.
As the agent read on, Veronica’s gaze flitted over the classical busts, the enormous paintings, the imposing floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, the filing cabinets, the stag’s head on the wall with its crown of horns, the monotonous tick-tock of a long case clock orchestrating the movement of her eyes. Mr. Crowe certainly must have some very wealthy clients to afford an office like this. What could he possibly do for the likes of her?
He’d summoned Veronica to the office by letter, hinting that he may have found the perfect position for her as governess to a pair of motherless twins living in a remote stately home in the wilds of Yorkshire. Their father was often away on business. She would have full reign as to their schooling, and a great deal of privacy.
Privacy…. He’d scrawled the word over the page, as if isolation were a wonderful thing out there on the moors, with the ruins and the storms and the wild phantom hounds… But she was meant to be used to solitude, wasn’t she, having been raised in a convent?
Heart lurching, Veronica glanced up. Mr. Crowe did not look at her. He was only clearing his throat.
Was the man going to read everything in that pile of paper before he spoke to her? Veronica tucked the toes of her shoes under her voluminous hem, smiling in case Mr. Crowe’s beady little eyes fell upon the scuffmarks, and glanced around the office at the grapevine motifs on the wallpaper, the oak leaves carved on the wainscoting. The office was a veritable den of pagan symbols. A large raven was displayed, wings outstretched, on the wall behind Mr. Crowe’s head, appearing to hover there like his guardian angel, or his own dark soul. Veronica began to dread that some dire oath would come croaking out of the agent’s mouth, and she would be out in the streets of London again with nothing to move on to, no prospects, no future. Nothing.
Mr. Crowe lifted a letter from the mysterious stack of papers so that the light from the window shone through it. Lowering his pince-nez, he glanced over it, and somewhere in the middle of the page, breathed out a small “Oh!”
What did that mean?
Veronica knew it was unlikely a poor, ignorant girl such as she would be offered an important position at a stately home anyway, but she offered a silent prayer to Saint Jude, patron saint of desperate causes, for a small miracle. If the opportunity fell through, she would have to return to the orphanage at Saint Mary’s, deeply secluded in the green, rolling hills of Gloucestershire, and in order to be allowed to stay there after the close of her eighteenth year, she would have to take the veil. The life of a nun was unthinkable, a kind of death in life. She must be accepted to this post! She set her jaw as if sheer inner determination could move Mr. Crowe to decide in her favor.
Mr. Crowe stood up, rustled his papers, cleared his throat, and waving the mysterious letter around as if it were evidence at a trial, walked around to the front of his desk.
Looking over the pince-nez perched now on the end of his long, beaky nose, the agent leveled an assessing gaze at Veronica. She smiled brightly, holding her breath as she watched him set the letter back down on top of the stack of papers, slowly square them, then tap them with the tip of his long, bony finger. When he finally looked about to speak, he picked the letter up again, paced away from his desk, and perused the missive one more time, sighing as if he were under a great burden.
“You must understand, Miss Everly, the twins are a bit difficult. Am I correct in seeing in this letter from Saint Mary’s that you have had experience with a mad child?”
Startled by the inference, Veronica frowned, took a deep breath, and mustered up her most self-assured voice.
“Yes. By God’s grace I was able to help her to live an almost normal life. Sequestered, but normal.”
He sniffed, nodded.
“Don’t worry, Miss Everly. The twins are not mad, merely unusual. They are identical. White enough to be albinos, but their eyes are pale green. They are also…well… androgynous. Have you ever met a person about whom it was impossible to tell whether they were male or female? That is the case with the twins. So the family decided to name them one for a girl and one for a boy. The boy is called Jacques, and the girl is called Jacqueline.”
“Are they French?”
“On their mother’s side. She was heiress to a great fortune, including a chateau in the Auvergne. Since her tragic loss, Mr. de Grimston spends almost all of his time there, trying to sell it. I’m afraid to say that the family fortune is in a terrible shambles. She had all the money, you see.”
“So, I shall not see much of him.”
“Indeed. Mr. de Grimston is rarely at home. This position requires a great deal of responsibility and endurance, Miss Everly. You will have to make many decisions on your own.”
Mr. Crowe looked Veronica up and down, squinting as if he were scrutinizing her for cracks. Veronica clenched her hand around the handle of her umbrella, pushing the ferrule into the costly Oriental carpet. It was on the tip of her tongue to ask if she would be paid. Instead she smiled in that swoony way she’d learned when she needed something from those who had the power to crush her.
Mr. Crowe raised his spidery eyebrows and went on.
“Lady Sovay de Grimston was a very beautiful woman. Her children adored her and have refused to accept a governess in her place. But you, Miss Everly, pretty as you are… Forgive me, but why would such an attractive girl as you are choose to work when you could have your pick of gentlemen?”
Veronica felt a blush starting. Saint Mary’s was not the kind of convent that invited gentlemen. “Well, sir, my parents are dead so I must support myself. I do thoroughly enjoy teaching. I got used to all types of children growing up at Saint Mary’s.”
“Are you a religious girl, Miss Everly?’
“But of course. Saint Mary’s is a religious institution. We attended Mass every day, though I’m afraid I am not quite as conscientious about it as I should be.”
Frowning and biting his lip, Mr. Crowe looked straight at her.
“Very well then.” He sighed. “Though you are young…. What is your age? Eighteen?”
“Only for another month.” A slight stab of panic went through Veronica. She had so little time to make a life in the world.
“I see…. Your references are impeccable. Especially the report of your success with the mad child. It is a live-in position, of course, with one day off per fortnight, preferably Sunday. The salary for one year is £45 payable in monthly increments on the last days of the month.”
“Forty-five pounds!” It sounded like a fortune. Veronica almost fell off her perch at the amount. She had three shillings to her name. At the thought of a salary, tears threatened to betray her desperation for this position.
“That… that would be most acceptable, Mr. Crowe.”
“Good. I will give you the position. Just be aware that the journey from London to Belden House takes a full day and night by train. You will be far from all you know, and those who know you.”
“I’m sure I shall make new friends.” Veronica was almost giddy with relief. “I am so looking forward to this.”
Smiling wanly, Mr. Crowe walked back behind his desk, and with a tentative flick of his fingertips, pushed the contract toward Veronica. He gazed at her from under his brows, his black eyes hard as marbles as she stepped up and took the quill from his hand.
What was she getting into? Should she back out? No, she couldn’t. With her lack of experience, it had taken ages to be offered a position at all. There was no place else to go.
The contract signed, Veronica’s curiosity got the better of her.
“May I ask, sir, what happened to Mrs. de Grimston?”
Mr. Crowe cleared his throat. “That is a mystery Miss Everly. No one knows for sure.”