Straightening my crinoline belled skirt was no easy matter in an open carriage; which allowed the wind full access to my person. The day was overcast and quite damp with a definite coolness in the air. On the train ride, I was pleasantly warm sitting in the cabin. The ride gave me time to reflect while looking at the countryside change. Autumn brings such vibrant color, as if to have one last hoorah before the bleakness of winter grabs hold. I felt my life was changing along with the foliage as the train lumbered between stops on its way to my destiny.
Once outside and situated in the carriage, I could feel the breeze blowing underneath my dress, causing a chill to reach my waistline. Thank goodness, I at least thought to wear one petticoat and a set of the new fashion pantalettes beneath. Mother thought them scandalous, but secretly I think she envied me. This is one time that the fashion of layered petticoats would have been more practical. The taste of autumn was in the air, crisp enough to chap my skin. I will need to add more lotions this evening to ward off the possibility. Tugging on the lace ruffles attached to add extra length to the currently fashionable calf-length sleeves of my traveling dress, I wondered how I would fit into the family of Sir Walter Reynolds and his wife Sarah. I settled the cape about my shoulders more securely and then fidgeted with readjusting my bonnet and ties. I worried that they might find me lacking somehow as their new governess for their three children. My brother, Charles, mentioned that Mistress Sarah was very ill from expecting their fourth and would be laid up upon my arrival.
Charles had written to tell me of the position after recommending me to the family. He currently works for Sir Reynolds in his textile factory just outside of Manchester, England. My dearest brother left home seeking to find a better life for him and his family, moving off the family farm to find work in the city. His knowledge of wools and dyes soon landed him a good position in one of the more affluent companies in England.
Charles informed me that the Reynolds family was down to earth Christians who felt strongly that the governess of their children not be one of the many reformed fallen women from London. He assured them that I was a well-educated Christian woman from a good country family with no city ties. It would fall upon me to teach and mold their young minds in accordance with Sir Walter’s wishes.
What Charles failed to do was to warn them that I was no easy pushover. I am a strong-minded woman with my own views and ideals. This is why I am probably not yet married at the ripe old age of nineteen. My two sisters, who I fondly refer to as Meek and Mild, are properly married with families of their own with no wish to be difficult or do more than be dutiful wives. That is where we differ. I crave reading and writing, preferring to spend long afternoon’s bird watching, as well as, documenting my findings in my journal. I have a thirst for knowledge which although comes in handy as a governess, leaves much to be desired as a spouse. Thankfully, my father who had been a scholar took no issue to my interest. Most women are only required to learn the basic reading, writing and arithmetic. After that household management and etiquette were all that was valued. Father, however, allowed me to sit in on all the classes with the boys whenever I wanted. When my sisters were busy learning the fine art of needlepoint, I preferred to be learning the sciences. While my sisters were content painting vases of flowers, I preferred to document the species and their habitats that I was studying. Mother likes to refer to me as her odd pence. I only hope that I don’t succeed in shaming my brother.
My carriage rolled by the infamous Manchester Town Hall with its massive clock tower and the many windows with blackened Collyhurst sandstone walls. How I would love to stop and see the various murals, hanging within its hollow walls or to listen to the echo of the organ in the main entry. I’ve only read letters from Charles describing the beauty of the interior of the building. As we travel passed, I observe the bustling government officials busily going in and out of the structure. I cough into my hankie brought about by the city smog, wistfully dreaming of the crisp clean air back home. The stench of coal and billowing industrial chimneys hangs heavily over the interior of the city. It pleases me greatly that the Reynolds home sits outside of town, well into the country. As the carriage progresses across the cobbled streets, I hear the din of peddlers hawking their wares, machinery churning and clamorous noise emptying from the tenement buildings. Tired and aged children in ragged threadbare clothing hustle about to and from jobs that required full days of labor. I feel quite guilty for wearing a dress that would probably feed one of these families for a month.
The ruckus of the city soon makes way for the serenity of the parks. The autumn colors overflowed before me in hues ranging from golden to deep crimson. In the distance, I hear a brass band tuning up from the band stand for tonight’s performance. I do hope that I will be able to attend a concert or maybe even a play if my brother and his wife will be kind enough to take me. Oh, to be a man and walk freely into any establishment I want! I have heard many are currently fighting for the rights of children and women, including our queen, but I fear I won’t see any changes in my lifetime. So I must be content to make small victories in my own life as I can.
The clip-clop of the team leading my carriage mingles with the twills of the birds in the trees. Great oaks line the lanes and Rowan covered in orange and red berries rest interspersed between reddish barked Yew and silver Birch. I eagerly scan the branches, hoping to spot a blackcap or a blue tit; but alas, the carriage goes by too fast for a proper look. I rest back into the seat as I contemplate my new adventure. This is the farthest I have ever been away from home, especially on my own. Father placed me on the train and my brother Charles met me at the station, having secured me this carriage. He gave instructions to the driver and promised to see me soon.
The sight of a man on horseback racing out of the woods and practically crossing the road in front of our team abruptly broke my solitude. Even though he rode passed at an acceptable distance, our horses shied a bit before the driver could gain control. My heart raced both from the shock and from the man. He sat his horse magnificently; tall and masterful in the saddle, appearing one with his charge. The raw manliness was stimulating to say the least. I may be pure of form but my mind wanders when I encounter such a rare specimen. I touch my cheeks and feel the heat from my unacceptable thoughts.
We conclude the trip by drawing to a stop before a beautiful stone and brick three-story manor, with gardens and greenhouse located to the right and stables to the back left. The manor house looks to be a work in progress with so many additions to its surface over the years. Charles informed me in one of his many letters that the house had been in the family for several generations and employs hundreds of workers. Only house servants actually live and eat within the mansion though. Those without homes of their own live in housing beyond the stables. I alight from the carriage and progress up the steps to the front door flanked by sturdy columns. The driver places my luggage beside me. I am met at the door by the butler, an ancient gentleman, who introduces himself as Chancy.
“Follow me mum to the Parlor. Sir Reynolds will be actually interviewing you instead of Lady Sarah. While you wait, may we bring you some tea?”
“Thank you ever so much. I would greatly appreciate a cup of tea or even just a cup of water. My throat is quite parched.” I respond while removing my gloves and setting down my parasol.
Chancy bowed quite formally, showing a pate of steel gray hair, quietly exiting the parlor leaving me to look about. The room is grand with muted floral patterns on hunter green walls with a most ornate leaf patterned frieze connecting the walls to the cream-colored ceiling. Paintings of hunts hang about the room with a large family portrait above the fireplace. A man gazes out over a family seated before him with one hand placed gently upon his wife’s shoulder. Two dark haired boys sit on either end of the woman like identical bookends wearing short pants with impish grins and a pink clad bundle sits upon the woman’s lap. What a handsome group they make. On the mantle of the fireplace sits an ornate wooden clock, a pipe and various knickknacks along with matching brass candelabrum and beeswax candles. Matching armchairs are set on each side of the room with a divan facing the fireplace and a piano resting along one wall. Large windows open out to the stately view of fields where a horse is being exercised in a round pen. A large gray and black sheepdog rests beneath an ancient willow swaying in the breeze. I am distracted by the beauty of the rolling green hills meeting the expanse of a cloudy horizon. I turn as I hear the doors open, expecting Chancy or maybe a housemaid bringing in the tea. Instead I am greeted by an arresting gentleman of stature, wearing buckskin breeches, tall black boots and carrying a crop. His hair hangs rakishly over one eye giving his appearance a devilish look. If I hadn’t recognized him from the painting I would have thought he was one of the help. I am tongue-tied realizing that he is also the man on the horse who nearly made me swoon. I feel my cheeks warm at the remembrance.
“Miss Elizabeth Devon I presume, sister of Charles? He speaks very highly of you. Please have a seat.” He inclined his head, nodding in the direction of the settee. “I am Sir Walter Reynolds. Please pardon me for a few moments and make yourself comfortable. I need to collect myself and tidy up. Mistress Sarah sends her apologies for not being the one to meet with you. She is not feeling well and is unable to come down. Perhaps later, after dinner, you can meet with her in her room. She is most anxious to speak with you.” With that, the doors again close and I am left alone.
Moments later, the doors open once again, giving entrance to a rotund diminutive woman, pushing a tray with scones and a pot of seeping tea.
“Mum, would you care for a spot of honey in your tea?” the server asks as she pours the tea into my cup. “You must be the new governess hey? Well we sure are glad to have you here, we are. Why those two scamps are a handful they are. Looking forward to you taking charge of the nursery and none too soon I say.” She said all this without so much as taking a breath then turned and pushed the cart back out the door.
My, whatever have I stumbled into? I thought. The two scamps must be the boys in the picture. I’ll do believe that I will need to be on the lookout with them two.
After beginning my tea, Sir Reynolds returned. He has changed into smart blue vest with a black cravat and pants. He brushed his hair and shaved, looking more the country gentleman. A lovely gold pocket watch with inscribed numerals rests in his hand while a dangling chain rocks back a forth before he quickly replaces in back in his breast pocket. It is obvious that he did not buy that watch at the local habdashery. His arresting blue eyes search room, as if wondering what he is doing there. Progressively, remembering himself and the task at hand, he walks in and stands by the fireplace to face me. I offer him tea but he quickly declines.
“Miss Devon, I am afraid this is a bit awkward for me. My wife usually handles the household tasks but she has taken to her bed and is unable to do so. I am afraid it falls to me. I have two sons, Mark and Michael, who are both five and Tully my daughter is two. We have recently lost our governess and our nanny so I will have to impose on you to tend to both duties until a suitable nanny may be found. You will have your own room in the east wing near the children’s nursery. You will be paid on the agreed sum written to you earlier. I am told you have an extensive education, for a woman, and are capable of teaching the remedial classes as well as Latin, music and some science.” With this statement, his eyebrow raises a bit which slightly irritates me but I keep my tongue. “I am to understand this is because your father was a scholar before he became a land owner.”
“Yes sir that is correct. My father was fond of teaching and found I was an eager pupil,” I said with just a bit of pomp. Not enough to be disrespectful but enough to make a point.
“I see,” he noted. I now had his full attention but I fear I may have gone too far until I note the slight tug of a grin before he continued. “The classroom is found next to the nursery. If there are no other questions, I will have Mary take you to your room to rest and change before dinner. My wife would like to speak to you this evening if that is acceptable?”
“Entirely so, sir. I appreciate the opportunity to work for you. I hate to be presumptuous, but may I ask why you lost both your nanny and your governess sir?” I didn’t like the idea of doing double duties but felt I needed to know why I was.
“My son’s are a bit headstrong and mischievous, I’m afraid. The last nanny left after an incident of a couple of field mice being left in her sheets. There was also the occasion where they had poured porridge in the governess’s good high top shoes. I must insist that you be mindful of their mischief for I do not want my wife alarmed at this time.” He told me all this while pacing the floor of the room looking to bolt at the soonest possibility.
“I will do my best. I have a couple of siblings and am aware of the mischief young ones can find themselves getting into. I do want to warn you however, that I too am headstrong but I don’t believe in using cane nor birch rod and only raise my voice when the child has put themselves in danger. I do, however, like to be a bit unconventional with my teaching. You will at times see us outdoors doing our studies. I believe firmly in fresh air and exercise as well as lessons. I find a brisk walk opens up the mind and relaxes the soul, especially for wayward tikes.” I explained to him, hoping that he wouldn’t disagree.
“Miss Elizabeth, I don’t care how you teach them, but make sure that you stay far away from the stables. That is no place for women or children. As for punishment, you may leave that to me.” He stated, dismissing me with a curt nod and then quickly exited the room.
Dinner was a quiet meal taken in my room since Sir Reynolds was detained. I helped feed the children and put them to bed. It was shortly afterwards that I was summoned to briefly meet with Lady Sarah. I had been told she was sickly but was shocked at her condition. The poor woman was very far along and extremely weak and pasty. The servants kept the drapes drawn around the windows and about her bed. The heat in the room was stifling and I found my own self light headed. A fire burnt in the hearth to ward off the dampness. I sat at her bedside and felt her cold clammy hands as she reached to make contact with mine. I could barely make out a word of what she was attempting to convey to me, other than she needed my assurance that her children would be well taken care of. I talked for a bit going over my plans for their education and she seemed pleased. That night I sat at my open window gazing into the charcoal sky, taking measure of my day while listening to the flamboyant cry of the nightingale.
Autumn winds grew cooler as the children and I fell into a routine. Up at dawn, with breakfast taken in the kitchen, for the dining room was saved for dinners and guest functions. The twins were a handful but it was only fueled by their inquisitive natures. We would start the day with prayer, followed by study of our letters and numbers inside on our slates. Later we would bundle up to take nature walks in the woods while the sun was warmest, identifying plants and animals. I included sweet Tully although she was a bit too young to understand. The children learned their Latin and conversational French during these walks, making a game of knowing the proper names of what we saw in all three languages. Manners and etiquette came with the afternoon breaks and dance or music was taught in the parlor until dinner. It was in here one evening that Sir Walter found us. I was teaching young master Michael the waltz and we were both giggling over how he kept stepping on my feet.
“May I take a turn with Miss Devon son?” his father asked and Michael bowed to him, allowing him the dance.
Sir Walter took me into his arms and led me around the dining room table, gazing into my eyes. I should have looked away but I felt mesmerized. Laying my hand gently on his arm, he then surrounded my waist. We twirled as he counted, one two three, one two three as the boys joined in counting from the sidelines. Tully danced to her own tune, laughing as she twirled. The music stopped but we continued to stand in the center of the room, gazing at one another as if we had been lightening struck. We only broke apart when Mary entered to announce that dinner would soon be served. I stepped back, wringing my hands together at the social blunder I had made.
“Thank you for the dance. Residing so much in the country, I haven’t had the occasion to do so in a long while. I apologize if I have embarrassed you.” He stated. “Now I believe I will retire to my room and change for dinner. I will see you then.”
It took me a moment to move but then I hustled the children to their room as if the devil himself were nipping at my heels which he most likely was.
The days went by with little to no incident until the fateful day when Lady Sarah began her labor. The doctor was immediate fetched; quickly assessing that Lady Sarah was in no shape to withstand the enormous strain of birth. He decided to use a new anesthetic called chloroform to help ease Sarah’s pain.
Hours ticked by with no results. Servant came and went from her room shaking their heads or praying. I stationed myself in the children’s nursery, reading stories and entertaining them with tales of the adventures from my childhood. I regaled them with account of living on a farm where we raised pigs, chickens and goats. The boys laughed when I mentioned the time that our nanny goat ate my mother’s favorite hat. They especially enjoyed the stories about when my brother and I were growing up. I told them about the time that Charles and I rigged a box with seed inside to try and capture a nightingale. We sat outside all night making sounds trying to attract it to our trap. Come close to morning we both fell sound asleep. When we awoke, the seeds were gone, the trap had been tripped but it contained no bird. We heard the nightingale finish the last remnants of the night with his boisterous whistling crescendo as if to mock us.
It was early the next morning when I was jarred awake by the sound of Sir Reynolds knocking on the nursery door.
“Elizabeth, you are needed in my wife’s room. Lady Sarah did not make it through the childbirth. The infant has however survived. Please tend to the babe and my children while we tend to my wife.” The poor man looked beaten. Stubble covered his gray tear streaked face and circles ringed below his bloodshot eyes. The proud aristocrat I met in that parlor that first morning was replaced by a shadow of that man.
The funeral took place three days later. The mirrors were all covered in black linen as was the family painting. The clocks were all stopped at the time of her death. All staff and family wore mourning clothes. Friends, family, patrons and people from the textile mill arrived to attend her funeral. Since burial would be in the family plot on the property, the prayers were given in the parlor, and a six horse team carried the coffin covered in flowers up the path to the hill at the back of the property. Lady Sarah was placed on the hilltop where the family markers lined the hill enclosed behind a rock and iron fence. Large marble angels guarded the gates and a cross bearing her name marked Lady Sarah’s grave until a proper stone could replace it.
People from the neighboring homes brought foods of all sorts for the burial. Roasted pig, pies, cakes and breads lined the sideboard overflowing onto additional tables. The men drank brandy and smoked cigars while the women gathered in their crepe black finery discussing the tragic turn of events. I stayed inside the nursery with the children who were too young to truly understand. Tully cried for her mother but the boys seemed to mature into little men overnight. The newborn infant was a sweet little girl with hair the color of fawn and cheeks a rosy pink. We used a pap boat to feed her since the wet nurse wouldn’t be available for a couple of days. Sir Reynolds held up remarkably throughout the days following his wife’s death, considering all that he was going through. After the last guest departed, he gathered his hunting gear and horse, disappearing for several days, then returning weary but not quite as pale.
I was in the nursery rocking and singing to the babe, when Sir Reynolds came looking for me a few weeks later. He had not been in to see his new daughter since her birth. He had left the naming of the child to me for he was too distraught to do so at the time. I had the family bible brought to me and chose his mothers name of Grace for the child.
“I wanted to thank you Elizabeth for all you have done for us during this trying time. Thank you also for naming her after my mother. Sarah would have approved. You have been so wonderful with the boys I have hardly noticed them underfoot at all. My darling Tully is turning into quite a little lady and she just adores you. I couldn’t have survived this without your help. What I have come to say is that I am leaving for awhile. I would like to leave you in charge of the summer house since my wife is not here to do so. You have proven yourself to be a kind, attentive, educated woman and I trust you with my family. I would like to trust you now with my home. Will you be willing to do so until my return? I am taking your brother with me to Hyde Park to visit the Great Exhibition to look at some new equipment I am thinking to purchase for my textile mill. Then I plan to leave for the colonies for a spell to look at setting up trade there between the continents. Charles and I will be gone for quite some time. I have left provisions for the household with my solicitor until my return. May I count on you Elizabeth?” It was the first time that he had ever called me by my Christian name.
“Yes, of course Sir Reynolds.” I spoke as I laid Grace in her crib and turned to look at him. He had somehow walked up behind me without my knowing and as I turned about he was right there looking deeply in my eyes.
“Please call me Walter.” As we stared into each others eyes I felt my heart beating erratically in my breast. He touched my cheek gently.
“You will be someone special for me to look forward to coming home to. Maybe by then I can lay my wife to rest and we can get to know one another better.”
As I lay in my room that night with my windows opened wide, I could hear the lone cry of the nightingale looking for his mate. I prayed mine would find his way back home to me.