A Victorian Romance
Sylvia Stafford smoothed out the skirts of her plain, dark gray gown as she followed her employer, Mrs. Dinwiddy, down the stairs. She was not strictly forbidden to receive callers; however, in her entire two years as governess to the Dinwiddy children, no friends or family had ever attempted to call upon her. Not that there were a great deal of either in her life at the moment. After her father’s suicide, the only family remaining had been a parcel of disapproving aunts and uncles. And any society friends she might have had in her role as Miss Stafford of Newell Park in Kent had all since long disappeared.
“I do not know a Lady Harker,” she said. “At least, I do not think I do. It is very possible we may have met once, long ago.”
“She was very insistent,” Mrs. Dinwiddy replied.
“You spoke with her, ma’am?”
“Oh yes. We had a nice little chat.” Mrs. Dinwiddy gave a chortle of laughter. “Imagine me! Chatting with a viscountess of all things! But she’s only a young lady and pleasant enough for all her finery. She put me quite at my ease.”
The Dinwiddy’s modest parlor, like the rest of their house in Cheapside, was both tasteful and comfortable. Sylvia entered it to find a smallish woman perched on the edge of an armless, button-back chair, her fashionably flounced skirts draped over a wire crinoline of truly magnificent proportions. She was young. Younger at least than Sylvia’s own five and twenty years. And she had a vaguely harried expression, complimented rather comically by a frothy lace and ribbon cap, pinned slightly askew, atop a profusion of blond curls.
She sprang from her seat, her large brown eyes immediately fixing on Sylvia. And then she smiled. “You are Miss Stafford?” She strode forward. “I recognized your hair! How lovely it is. And how lovely you are, too! I do thank you for bringing her so quickly, Mrs. Dinwiddy. Is it possible I might speak with her alone?”
Mrs. Dinwiddy was a kind employer and readily acceded to Lady Harker’s request, even volunteering to have tea sent in.
“I feel I should remember you, Lady Harker,” Sylvia said after her employer had withdrawn from the room, “but I fear I do not.”
Lady Harker’s smile faded. “No, indeed. We have never met, Miss Stafford. Oh, but I am so happy to have found you. You cannot know…”
Sylvia was alarmed to see tears starting in Lady Harker’s eyes. “My dear ma’am,” she said gently, “please have a seat. And pray take my handkerchief. Here. Do you see the little knots of blue and brown thread? It is one of the first efforts of Miss Dinwiddy at embroidery. They are meant to be flowers. She gave this handkerchief to me last Christmas. It was wrapped around a cake of my favorite violet scented soap.”
Once upon a time, Sylvia had been admired for her velvety voice. It was low and soft. Seductive, one ardent suitor had said. Indeed, there was seldom a London party during which, at some point, she had not been begged to sing. Now, however, her voice was an exceedingly practical attribute, used daily to soothe her young charges and nightly to read or sing them to sleep. It was also invaluable for calming the perpetually flustered cook, the worried housemaid, and anyone else whose nerves were out of balance.
It worked just as well on highly-strung aristocrats.
Distracted, Lady Harker sank into a chair, her attention focused on the collection of misshapen knots of thread that bordered the handkerchief. “Miss Dinwiddy is the child you teach here?”
Sylvia seated herself in the chair across from Lady Harker, her own full skirts settling about her in a moderate spill of serviceable gray wool. “Yes, ma’am. Miss Clara Dinwiddy is the eldest daughter of the house. She is eight now. I also teach her younger sister, Cora. Cora is six.”
“I had not thought to find you a governess,” Lady Harker said as she blotted her eyes.
Sylvia was not offended. If truth be told, she had not thought to find herself a governess either. She had expected to marry. There had even been a special gentleman once. A gentleman who had come far closer to winning her hand than any other suitor. But Papa’s suicide had changed everything. The family she had been staying with for the London season could not bustle her back to the country soon enough. And after that, she had never heard from any of her suitors again.
Not that any of that mattered now. Her tears had long since dried up and the part of her which had once dreamed impossible romantic dreams had withered and died. She was not unhappy now. Far from it. She laughed easily and often. She never thought of her old life anymore. Well, almost never.
“The Dinwiddys have been very good to me,” she said truthfully. “I count myself lucky to have found a position with them.”
Lady Harker flushed. “Oh, I did not mean to insult you! It is only that I expected you would be married with children of your own. Lady Medcalf told me that you had so many admirers before…” Her flush deepened. “But I must say, I am glad to find you unattached. More glad than I can say.”
Sylvia smiled. “Perhaps you had better tell me why you have come.”
“Yes. Yes, of course.” Lady Harker grew instantly solemn. “Well…you see, Miss Stafford…my elder brother is a very difficult man.”
Sylvia nodded with understanding, unperturbed by this non sequitur.
“He has always been difficult. So stern and grave. We were never very close. He is so much older than I am. But while he was away in India, my father and eldest brother died of fever. And now he is the only family I have left. Indeed, he is the head of the family, for he has the title now. Not that I must put up with his moods. My husband will not permit me to stay with my brother above a fortnight. He fears he may be violent. But he has never been violent with me, Miss Stafford. Well…” She twisted the handkerchief in her hands. “Perhaps he has thrown a book and once he did throw a porcelain figure, but he was not trying to hit me with them. He was only trying to scare me.”
Sylvia listened with calm attention. She had become used to hearing long nonsensical tales from her charges. She prided herself on her patience.
“He would not hurt a woman,” Lady Harker continued. “It is just these moods of his. He becomes so overwrought, you see. One night, last month, I thought I heard him calling out. I went to his room. Just to peep in at him. And he was sitting in his chair with his head in his hands and he was crying. I did not know what to do! I tried to comfort him, but he said I must get out or he would ring my neck.” She reddened. “That is when I first saw it. He had it clasped in one of his hands. He was holding it whilst he was weeping.”
Lady Harker took a breath. “Well, I thought I must have imagined it. The next day, I checked all round his room, but I could not find it. I was near giving up when it occurred to me that I should question his valet.” She beamed with obvious pride at this decision. “His valet, Milsom, was his batman during the uprising. He is ridiculously loyal to my brother. Naturally he refused to tell me anything. But I scolded him like a very fury. At last, he said that it was indeed a lock of hair. That my brother had carried it with him to India. As a talisman.”
The demeanor of gentle encouragement with which Sylvia had listened to Lady Harker’s story thus far noticeably slipped. “I am sorry, ma’am. Did you say a lock of hair?”
“Yes. A thick lock of dark brown hair. Milsom confessed that it belonged to a lady named Miss Sylvia Stafford and that—”
Sylvia felt all the color drain out of her face. A long suppressed memory threatened to overwhelm her. “You don’t mean that your brother…That your brother is…”
“The Earl of Radcliffe. Though you would have known him as Colonel Sebastian Conrad—Oh dear! Miss Stafford!” Lady Harker leapt up and rushed to Sylvia’s side. “Have you swooned? Shall I fetch my sal volatile? Do say something Miss Stafford!”
Sylvia stared up at the chattering figure of Lady Harker. “I have not swooned,” she said. “I am perfectly well. Only a little surprised.”
Lady Harker clasped Sylvia’s hand. “My dear Sylvia…May I call you Sylvia? And you must call me Julia, for I feel as if you are a sister to me already. And I mean to make you my sister. It is why I have come. To force you back to Hertfordshire with me so that you may marry my brother and make him well again. But I mustn’t get ahead of myself. We must first get to know each other and then—Ah! Here is our tea.”
She released Sylvia’s hand to usher in the maid with the tea service. Having done so, she sent her back out again, sat down, and proceeded to pour. “Sugar? Lots of it?” She dropped several lumps into Sylvia’s teacup and stirred briskly. “Here you are, Miss Stafford. A few sips of this and you shall feel better directly.”
Sylvia took the teacup with visibly trembling hands. She forced herself to take a swallow. The hot, sweet liquid calmed her quivering insides, but she did not think there was a beverage on earth that could calm her quaking heart. “Your brother…” she began, amazed that her voice was as steady as it sounded. “You say that he was injured in India?”
Lady Harker heaved a sigh. “Horribly injured, I’m afraid.” She helped herself to a chocolate biscuit. “A saber cut cleaved the side of his face and he is now terribly scarred and blind in one eye. He did not lose the eye, thank goodness. It is only cloudy. I say this to prepare you, Miss Stafford. For when I first beheld him, I am afraid I acquitted myself rather badly. It is a bit frightening, you see.”
Sylvia slowly lowered her teacup back to its saucer and returned them both to the tea tray. She was trembling all over now and hard pressed to conceal it. “Is your brother in very much pain?” she asked faintly.
“I fear so. Though, I do think he could bear it all better if he would only allow people to come and see him.” She heaved another sigh. “But he does not want anyone to see him. I think he is ashamed to have lost his looks. Not that he was ever very handsome to begin with. But I daresay you thought he was, else why would you have given him such a large lock of your hair?”
Sylvia thought of that night in Lord and Lady Mainwaring’s garden so long ago. The air had been redolent with the perfume of roses. The stars shining like diamonds. She had let him kiss her there. And she had kissed him in return, cradling his stern jaw in her hands. “How many young ladies have you kissed in moonlit gardens, I wonder,” she had murmured to him.
“None but you, Miss Stafford,” he had replied huskily. “None but you.”
Sylvia looked across at Lady Harker. She could see no resemblance between her and Colonel Conrad. Sebastian had been tall, dark, and broad-shouldered, his features harsh, as if carved from granite. He had been intimidating to most. Especially to young, silly women. Sylvia’s friends had gasped behind their fans when first he approached her and asked her to dance.
“You’ve frightened them,” she had told him. Indeed, except for a brief introduction at a party the previous evening, those may have been the very first words she had ever spoken to Sebastian Conrad.
“They are all about to swoon.”
He had stared down at her, an expression in his eyes hard to read. “But not you, I take it.”
“Oh, I never swoon. And it takes a great deal to frighten me. Far more than a scowl.” She had smiled up at him then, adding, “You shall have to try harder, sir.”
Sylvia hated to think of it now. “Yes, I did give him a lock of my hair,” she said. “It was very wrong of me to do so. We were not engaged. And we had no understanding between us. But I was young then, poorly chaperoned, and I confess, far too romantic minded for my own good.”
“Never say so, Miss Stafford! Your lock of hair has given him ever so much comfort. And I am sure he meant to propose. You must know that words have never come easily to my brother. And I have never known him to even speak with a young woman—unless you count that gruff sort of grumbling he was always used to do. Why, you could have knocked me over with a feather when I discovered that he had a lock of hair from his sweetheart. If I had only known—”
“Lady Harker—” Sylvia objected.
“Naturally, I wrote to all my friends to find out who you were and where you were. I told my husband that if I had not found you by Christmas, I would hire a private enquiry agent to do so. But as luck would have it, my dear friend Lucinda Cavendish was staying with Lord and Lady Ponsonby in London and was able to discover from Lady Ponsonby’s maid, Miss Button, that you—”
“Button? My former lady’s maid?” Sylvia was stunned. She had not thought of Button in ages, but the mere mention of her name was enough to bring it all back.
Papa had hired Miss Button to be her lady’s maid just after her fifteenth birthday. She had been one of the only constants in Sylvia’s young life. How well she could remember Button arranging her hair as she sat in front of her ornately gilded dressing table. Or Button waiting up until all hours to help her undress and to listen, avidly, as she related everything that had happened at whichever ball or concert she had been attending that evening. Button had even been the one to comfort her on those rare occasions when something—or someone—had driven her to tears.
And yet, for all that, she and Button had never been more than mistress and servant. It was a fact which had been painfully driven home to her in the days following Papa’s suicide.
“What shall we do, Button?” she had wept during the initial, overwhelming wave of grief. “What is to become of us?”
But there was no us. The ink had hardly been dry on Sir Roderick’s death certificate before Button was informing her that she had secured a new place and would be taking her leave.
Sylvia had known herself then to be truly alone.
“That’s right.” Lady Harker nodded. “Miss Button said that you had gone into service with a family named Dinwiddy as governess to their children. It was not long after that I found you here in Cheapside.”
“I see.” Sylvia looked down at her hands as they lay folded in her lap. They were chalk white. Rigid. “Does your brother know that you have come here?” she asked, raising her gaze back to Lady Harker’s face.
“Lord no! I mean to surprise him. And once we have you settled in the house, he cannot very well turn you away—”
“I beg your pardon?”
“That is, if you will be so good as to come with me to Hertfordshire for two weeks. I am to stay at Pershing Hall. My brother is there all alone now, but I do try to visit as frequently as I can and it is quite unexceptionable for me to bring a guest.”
Sylvia’s heart was thundering madly. It was a physical pain in her chest, the likes of which she had not felt in years. “Lady Harker—”
“Oh please, call me Julia!”
“Julia. You must see that I cannot accept your invitation.”
“Why ever not? Your employer tells me that you have never taken a holiday and she has already agreed I might take you away with me for as long as a month. And it is not as if you will be alone with my brother. I will be present in the house and, in a fortnight, my husband will join me there. It will be quite respectable, I assure you.”
Sylvia could only imagine the reception she would receive from Sebastian after all of these years. To arrive uninvited at his home, poor as a church mouse and tainted by the scandal of her father’s suicide? As if she were a beggar seeking favor from him? “I cannot,” she said again. “I simply cannot. It would be too painful for me. Pray do not ask me again, ma’am.”
Lady Harker’s face crumpled. “But you cannot refuse me, Miss Stafford! You are the only hope for my brother to get well!”
“No, ma’am.” Sylvia rose from her chair on unsteady legs. “You are mistaken. Your brother does not care for me.”
Lady Harker leapt up. “But the lock of hair—”
“A token, nothing more. Many soldiers keep such, I understand.”
“No. No. I will not believe it. I have come all this way. I beg you, Miss Stafford. If the lock of hair brings him comfort, only think what you might do if you were to come in person.” She clasped Sylvia’s hand. “You do not have to marry him. I should never have said that. It is only my foolish fancy. But do come. Please. Just to see him. If he shouts at you or threatens you, I shall have my coach convey you straight back to London.” Tears were rising in her eyes. “Do come,” she begged. “If things do not change for my brother soon, I fear he will do something stupid.”
The words went through Sylvia like an electric current. “Something stupid? What do you mean?”
“Oh, but you must know what I mean, Miss Stafford. You must know.”
Sylvia shook her head in disbelief. Her own father’s suicide was a wound that would never fully heal. The very idea that Sebastian would be considering a similar course was too horrible to contemplate. She had cared for him so deeply once. Only the passage of time had numbed the pain and hurt left after he had gone away and forgotten her. “Has he threatened to do himself harm?” she asked.
“No,” Lady Harker admitted slowly. “Though he does keep his pistol out in his room. I have seen it lying near his bedside. He has kept it there this whole year. It is awfully upsetting. And my husband says I should not be upset at the moment. I am in an interesting condition, you see, and if something were to happen to my brother…”
The last of Sylvia’s defenses crumbled. No matter how cruelly Sebastian had treated her in the past, he did not deserve to be suffering in such a dreadful manner. No one did. If her presence could alleviate even a fraction of his pain, she must go to him. It would be hardhearted to continue refusing. Far worse, it would be cowardly. “Very well,” she said.
Lady Harker’s mouth curved into a wobbly smile. “Do you mean you will come?”
“Yes. I will come away with you. If…If you truly believe it will help him.”
Lady Harker flung her arms around Sylvia in an impulsive embrace. “Oh, thank you. Thank you. You will not be sorry. I promise you.”
Sylvia heard Lady Harker’s tearful exclamations as if she were standing somewhere far outside of her body. She heard herself agreeing to go with Lady Harker that very day. Agreeing to pack her things so they might leave immediately. Lady Harker summoned Mrs. Dinwiddy and the two of them briefly conversed as well.
“A little holiday with some of your old friends,” Mrs. Dinwiddy said to Sylvia, smiling. “You must take the month, Miss Stafford. I insist upon it.”
Before she knew it, Sylvia was in her small upstairs bedroom, carefully packing her things into a well-worn carpetbag.
Only then did she come to her senses, a swell of panic building in her chest, threatening to suffocate her.
She was not a coward. She had handled everything these last two years with grace and dignity. All the slights, the cruel remarks, and even the cut direct from Penelope Mainwaring, a girl whom she had once considered to be her best friend in the whole world. But now, the very idea of seeing Sebastian Conrad again frightened her to the marrow of her bones.
She had loved him. She could admit that to herself without rancor. She had loved him and she had thought, for a very little while, that he had loved her. He had never said so, of course. Neither had he made her any promises. But he had sought her out at every ball, managed to cross her path whenever she was out walking or riding, and even, on two occasions, miraculously appeared at Hatchard’s book shop when she needed to reach a book from a shelf that was too high.
Then, after that last night in the garden, he had gone. Suddenly. Ordered back to India to assist in suppressing the rebellion of 1857. He had never responded to her letters. And he had never written to her in return. Not even a brief note of condolence a year later when her father died. She had simply never heard from him again. For a time, she had even feared that he was dead, but his name was not listed in any of the newspaper reports that she read so obsessively.
Eventually, she had come to grips with the fact that he had forgotten her. It had taken a long while, but she was content again. Happy in her position. Happy in her life. She had remade herself into someone stronger. Someone who could not be hurt again. Or so she hoped. She had never had to put it to the test—until now.
Was he truly so badly scarred? And in so much pain? She hated to imagine it. And she hated herself for wanting so badly to go to him, to comfort him and lend him aid.
So he had kept that ridiculous lock of her hair. What did that signify? It did not mean that he wanted her. That he missed her. They had hardly known each other, after all. It had been a few months during the season. A few whispered conversations. A few lingering looks. A few kisses.
She changed into a modest travelling costume, assessing herself in the small mirror above her washstand as she buttoned her mantle at her neck. Did she look the same as she had then? It was little more than three years. Not much about her could have changed, surely. She still had the same thick, glossy chestnut hair. The same wide blue eyes and dimpled cheeks. And her figure was much the same, too. Still shapely in a subdued sort of way, with long legs and a slender waist.
Yet somehow she did not look the same at all. Had being a governess turned her into a drab? She would not go that far. But there was definitely a somberness to her now. A lack of that subtle sparkle which had once made her stand out from the other young ladies.
Well, she may have lost her sparkle, but it sounded as if Sebastian Conrad had very nearly lost his mind. He would be in no position to judge her for her looks. And if he said a single word in criticism of her for being a governess or made a single unkind remark about her father, she would tell him exactly what she thought of faithless gentlemen who compromised young ladies in gardens and then abandoned them.