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Authors: Elizabeth Bailey

Prudence

BOOK: Prudence
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“It is not you, sir, but I who am to blame.”

“What is it that you have done? Tell me, for I am at a loss to understand.”

“You see, I have forgotten my position, sir.”

Julius felt an instant stab of conscience. If she had forgotten her position, then so had he. “Prudence, don’t be so hard on yourself. You are condemned to a life of drudgery—here or elsewhere. Are you not permitted a modicum of enjoyment?”

Prue answered him with difficulty. “If I allow myself such license, perhaps I will feel more deprived at the lack of it when I move on.”

“Life is short. You should snatch its rare moments of pleasure when you can.” He held out his hand to her. “Cry friends, Prudence. You are quite safe from me, I promise you.”

As the warmth of his fingers closed over hers, she was sure she would succumb to the heavy weight upon her heart….

Elizabeth Bailey
Prudence

ELIZABETH BAILEY

grew up in Malawi, returning to England to plunge into the theater. After many happy years, she finally turned from “dabbling” to serious writing. She finds it more satisfying, for she is in control of everything: scripts, design, direction and the portrayal of every character. She lives in Surrey.

Chapter One

T
he journey, begun at eight o’clock that morning, was becoming interminable. The stage, its progression necessarily slow, bumped unevenly as the coachman swerved this way and that in an effort to avoid the worst of the ruts left by the late snow. Even this early in March, pockets of unfrozen white could be seen about the fields beyond the misty window.

Wedged in one corner, Miss Prudence Hursley wriggled her toes, encased against the numbing cold in a despised pair of eminently sensible black boots. Lifting her mittened hands, she cupped them at her mouth and blew warmth into them.

Like the rest of her ensemble, the worsted mittens were at once warm and sadly unfashionable. The woollen petticoat was of dull grey, as was the short jacket in the pierrot style, closely fitting, with a small frill at the back and long tight sleeves. A plain round bonnet of black completed the picture—one that was to the young lady as familiar as it was unappealing—together with a black cloak that was slipping away from her shoulders and creasing against the aged squabs.

Rubbing her hands briskly together, Miss Hursley
thanked Providence for her sheltered position within the vehicle. Or rather, it was less Providence perhaps than the Duck’s sense of propriety, reflected Prue. Was not Mrs Duxford rigidly strict upon all points of etiquette? In particular those rules befitting the conduct of the orphaned young ladies in her care. It had nevertheless astonished Prue to have the enormous sum of five guineas placed at her disposal.

‘You will take a seat
inside
, Prudence. I will not have one of my girls laid open to that sort of impertinence which may be invited by the circumstance of a female being obliged to travel upon the roof.’

At once alarmed and elated by the sight of the golden coins, Prue had been only half aware of the Duck’s further instructions concerning tips to the guard, and the anticipated costs for meals upon the way and her night’s accommodation in London. But she came horridly alert when the Duck all but terrified her with a direful warning.

‘Do not waste your substance, Prudence, for you will get nothing more until your first wages, and that will not be until the quarter. Any little item you might require in the meanwhile must be purchased from what you have left.’

Prue had made haste to reassure her preceptress. After all, how could she spend so enormous a sum? In the eight years she had lived at the Paddington Charitable Seminary for Indigent Young Ladies, she had never been in possession of half as much money. Small wonder that her fingers had trembled as she had displayed this treasure to her two dearest friends.

She remembered Kitty’s round-eyed look. ‘Five whole guineas! Has the Duck taken leave of her senses?’

‘No, for she says I will use quite half of it for my journey.’

‘Pooh! I am sure you could not. Why, you might go shopping in London.’

Dear Nell had laughed at that. ‘
You
might.’

‘Yes, but only think, Nell. Silk stockings at least!’

Prue smiled at the memory. Ever since one of the girls had smuggled in that dog-eared copy of
The Ladies Magazine
in which a gown of spangled gauze had caught Kitty’s fancy, to own one like it, and silk stockings to wear beneath it, had formed the main thrust of Kitty’s ambition. Poor Kitty. She had as well have reached for the moon!

‘What I think,’ had said Nell in her prosaic way, ‘is that Prue will not dare spend one penny more than the Duck has decreed.’

Which perfectly correct observation had made Prue shudder. ‘No, indeed. But, Nell, I am quite terrified. Suppose I should lose it?’

‘Lord, yes!’ Kitty’s horrified gaze had veered back upon Prue, startling her with a dreadful notion. ‘Or if some unscrupulous person were to steal it from you.’

She had felt sick at the thought. ‘Don’t suggest such a thing, Kitty!’

She had been grateful to feel Nell’s arm about her shoulders. ‘Tuck it securely away, Prue. You must put each guinea in a different place. Then, if you were so unfortunate as to lose one, you would still have the others by you.’

Which had been typical of Nell’s good sense. And so it had been that in the flurry of choosing whereabouts in her costume she should secrete the coins, the whole sorry business of taking leave—which all three had dreaded!—had come and gone like a whirlwind.

Before she knew it, she had been well upon the first leg of the journey to London. She had travelled in the stagecoach owned by Mr Miles, the only one to take paying passengers between Paddington and Holborn Bars. It was drawn by one pair of horses and thus, with two stops to rest them, took three long hours to reach the capital.

The fare had been three shillings. How fearful she had felt upon disgorging one of her precious guineas to pay it. And what a relief it had been to receive the change from Miles’s boy. Though that had been short-lived. Oh, the embarrassment of his words to the other passengers!

‘It’s one of they young ladies from Duxford’s,’ he had informed the two people occupying the forward seat, ‘wishful to be going as a governess, like they all do.’

Prue had squirmed. Must she be exposed to the world for her sorry condition? Not that anyone who lived in the area round about Paddington could mistake the distinctive grey costume. The girls were all obliged to wear it when they ventured forth in the winter months.

She ought to be thankful. Well, she was. More so perhaps for the insistence that she learned to ply her needle, unhandy though she was. She had been able to make herself at least a couple of gowns that had not the stamp of Paddington charity. Though had there been no Nell to help her, she dared say the items that made up her meagre wardrobe would have been distressingly ill-fashioned. They were plain and serviceable, made of cheap materials. Linsey-wolsey for winter; linen, dimity or calico for summer. No spangled gauze for a prospective governess!

Kitty had schemed to purchase that desirable commodity secretly, but she could not have afforded to buy it—even had such a frivolous material been available in the village shop that served for the local draper, as well as everything else. Nor were there silk stockings to be had, though plentiful enough were those horrid white cotton hose that adorned all the Seminary legs.

Well, if she looked the part, so much the better, Prue thought stoutly. It had stood her in good stead, for her one night in London had been uneventful. She had met with unexpected kindness from the landlady who had found her a room within her means, with the result that Prue had the best part of two guineas remaining after paying her fare for this last leg of the journey. Indeed, she had been met everywhere with civility and friendliness.

Prue had been surprised, for it was far from the sort of reception she had been led to expect.

‘You must look out for yourselves,’ had been a favourite saying of the Duck’s. ‘Independence will be your strength, girls. Remember that a governess is nobody. Do not expect to receive anything but the rudest of treatment, and you will not be disappointed.’

Prue, setting out upon her first engagement, had braced herself to face that lonely independence. Despite the civilities she had received, she felt far less equipped for it today, as the stagecoach brought her ever closer to Rookham Hall. If only Nell were here to bolster her confidence.

The thought threw her into a sudden and unwelcome sense of loss. What was she to do without Nell’s sensible guidance? And who would transport her on the wings of wild fancies without Kitty and that vivid imagination? If she had been bereft of family, had she
not gained recompense in her two dearest friends? Were they not her spiritual family? They had been as sisters, sharing every waking thought, every secret dream.

Through all these years, they had squabbled and laughed together, and cried upon each other’s shoulders. They had known all along that the day of parting must come, but the painful reality was hard to bear.

‘We must be strong.’

She remembered Nell saying it, that day when Mrs Duxford had told her that she had been accepted for a post.

Kitty had added her mite. ‘Yes, Prue. Remember what the Duck says.’

‘Independence!’

They had all three cried it out, and fallen into laughter.

But Prue was far from laughter now. She sank back into her corner of the coach, gazing unseeingly through the window. Could she keep that promise they had all made, not to grieve? She would certainly write as Nell had suggested.

‘You must set down all your daily happenings, like a journal. And then send it to us each week.’

Kitty had been sceptical. ‘She is going to be a governess, Nell. What do you expect her to write about?’ She had put on one of those mimicking voices of hers, as if in the throes of delight. “‘You cannot imagine the excitement of my life, my dears. Today I gave a lesson in French. And would you believe it? The samplers are going on very well indeed.’”

Prue had shrieked with laughter, but Nell had frowned. ‘It’s well to make fun of it, Kitty, but the
melancholy truth is that there won’t be much excitement. We must make the best of what there is.’

‘Well, I shan’t!’ Thus Kitty, mutinous as ever.

‘No, for you are always so foolish as to dream of an impossibly wealthy lord, whose eldest son is destined to fall madly in love with you.’

An unlikely contingency, Prue thought dismally. She did not mind for herself, for she had no ambition beyond the hope that she might find her work congenial. That, and the more pressing concern that she would serve her employment well enough to be asked to remain in the post beyond the first three months. For her employer, a Mr Rookham, had stipulated that the position might well prove to be temporary.

‘Doubtless the gentleman wishes you to serve for a probationary period. I imagine your future must depend, Prudence, upon how you acquit yourself.’

Nell had been much of the Duck’s opinion. ‘I know you will do well, my sweet Prue. Unless these girls are perfect horrors, I cannot suppose they can fail to adore you.’

The remembrance of Nell’s fond embrace was comforting, if it did not convince her. Prue sighed in her corner. Perhaps it was better that she thought no more about Kitty and Nell. Let her instead turn her attention to her approaching future.

She must continue to believe herself fortunate. The Duck had said that Mr Rookham’s letter had been penned in such a way that she could not suppose him to be other than pleasant and gentleman-like. The girls in his wardship had not their mother with them, he wrote, and he required a female with a sympathetic understanding to begin upon their education. After such
an introduction, how could Prue believe otherwise than that her charges must be angelic little things?

Tired as she was of the journey, however, the nearer she came to its end, the more her conviction lessened and her trepidation rose. She was not, therefore, averse to a slight delay occasioned by a halt in Leatherhead.

 

Prue had taken a light luncheon at the previous stage in Epsom. The afternoon was not so far advanced that she needed any further refreshment. And surely she must be at her destination within the hour? One of the chambermaids at the Green Man, who had shown her where to find the facilities of the house, had said it was a matter of three miles only to Little Bookham, where it had been arranged that the coachman would make a brief stop to set her down.

Finding the inn stuffy, and not wishing to appear in the coffee-room where she might feel obliged, like other passengers, to accept a cup of that brew, Prue wandered out of doors. It was chilly, but there was no wind to bite at her through the wool of her grey jacket. Though perhaps she would have done better not to have left her cloak in the coach.

It was too tiresome to go back into the yard to fetch it, and more amusing besides to watch the comings and goings in the thoroughfare hard by. It was a desultory scene for the most part, but busier by far than Paddington.

The fellow on the cob must be a farmer, and the old man in the gig was likely a doctor upon his rounds. And perhaps that woman with the basket and a child at her side was going to market? Yes, for here was a fellow with a flock of geese, driving them through. A
delivery boy with a barrow got in his way, and Prue watched with amusement the resulting argument.

Something brushed past her petticoats, drawing her attention. Looking down, Prue beheld a kitten at her feet, intent upon an acorn. A small paw batted the thing, and the nut scurried below her petticoats. The kitten burrowed, and Prue stepped away, stooping down to make friends.

The creature reared back instantly, but Prue chirruped, extending a tentative finger. The kitten, its coat a mongrel mix of brown, white and orange, approached with caution to investigate. Emboldened, Prue stroked it gently.

‘You are a handsome fellow! There, now, you need not be afraid.’

The kitten began to purr, and in a few moments was nestling comfortably in Prue’s arms, quite at home.

Intent upon her prize, she failed to notice the significance of a growing rumble over the cobbled street. But the kitten began suddenly to squirm. Prue tightened her hold instinctively, and looked up. A carriage was approaching at speed, driven by a man in the drab driving-coat commonly worn by gentlemen. Drawn by four fast horses, it swept down the street in a fashion that caused all in its path to leap circumspectly out of the way.

Indignation rose up in Prue. How inconsiderate! What was he about to be racing through a town in such a way? Unless, perhaps, the horses were bolting?

But the driver was apparently fully in control. For the kitten, no doubt alarmed by the overwhelming noise of the wheels upon stone, all of a sudden leaped out of Prue’s unwary hold. Landing, it took off in a panic, straight into the path of the oncoming vehicle.

Uttering a shriek of dismay, Prue leapt unthinkingly to the rescue. She flew into the road, aware only of the blurry form of the suicidal kitten as it raced away. Seconds later, the sound of plunging hooves impinged upon her consciousness, and a violent expletive rent the air.

Prue froze in her tracks and, turning, saw the rearing cattle but a few feet from her. Time stood still as, in terror, she waited for their hooves to come down upon her.

BOOK: Prudence
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