I hung my head, and in that moment I knew I’d lost them. Well-bred ladies never shouted, whatever the provocation. What was wrong with me? I knew better than to show a display of temper in a London drawing-room. But I’d had too many difficulties in my life recently, and there is nothing more frustrating than trying to declare your innocence before a hostile audience.
What was I going to do? Who could be spreading these rumors? I looked around the room. Kind-hearted Louisa Bretton wouldn’t stoop to that kind of thing, and apparently neither would the respectable widow Charlotte Helsby. That left Letitia Capenhurst, Laura Mollington and Lucy Alvaney. Any one of those ladies might derive entertainment from smearing my reputation. What was I going to do about it?
* * * * *
I returned home, took off my hat, muffler and coat, for the days were growing chill, and entered the parlor. The fire was burning low in its grate, and so I rang the bell, for Lizzy to stoke it up.
“Where is everyone?” I asked as she appeared.
“Miss Jessica has taken Miss Beryl and Miss Sylvia out to Kensington Gardens with Mr. Bevil.”
“Where is Stephanie?”
“I don’t know, Madam.”
“Didn’t you see her go out?”
Lizzy knelt on the floor, using poker and tongs to get the fire going. I sighed. Of course she wouldn’t have seen Stephanie go out, because she was either in the kitchen cooking, in the basement doing laundry, or else around the house cleaning. Although my husband was a scion of an old landowning family from Cornwall, he had gone through his inheritance of 20,000 pounds while still a young man, and now was obliged to work in a bank. For our daughters’ sakes we rented accommodation that faced a private square in Kensington, to give them a smart address. As a result we could only afford this one servant, and my lively family of seven kept poor Lizzy busy from dawn to dusk.
“Is there anything else you need, Madam?” Lizzy rose and dusted the soot from her apron.
“No, thank you.” I dismissed her with a wave of my hand as I sank deep down into an armchair. For the thousandth time I wondered if I should call upon my four daughters to do more. But this was London, not New Hampshire, and it was apparently unthinkable that they should learn to cook or do the household chores. Believe me, I was sorely tempted to ask them to help. It was only shame at our circumstances and the opprobrium of others that prevented me from doing so. My daughters were Treffrys, descendants of one of the oldest families of England, who could trace their lineage all the way back to the Battle of Crécy in 1346, when Sir John de Treffry had been knighted on the field of battle by King Edward himself. Ever since then, the head of the family was always known as “de Cressy Treffry.” Therefore, despite the fact that we were not wealthy, it was my duty to bring my daughters up as ladies so that they could marry well. Enlisting their help to do the household chores was frowned upon as no gentleman would want a girl with work-roughened hands.
So I compromised, teaching them everything I knew about dressmaking, fine embroidery and the sewing of straight seams so that they could run up sheets, curtains, pillow-cases and cushions. Fourteen-year-old Jessica was already proficient with her needle, and had persuaded me to buy one of those new-fangled Singer sewing machines to make our sewing go more quickly. How fortunate I was with this daughter! Dear Jessie quietly took upon herself the lion’s share of the sewing, and also the business of minding the younger children, eleven-year-old Beryl, nine-year-old Sylvia and our youngest, seven-year-old Bevil, my son and the apple of my eye. Why wasn’t she my eldest daughter, for she certainly acted the part? [To be continued.]