She was part of a London scandal through no fault of her own. Now she's been banished to the countryside to live as a schoolteacher under a false name. How can she go on, so alone, living in a rustic cottage, bereft of family and friends? The interest and kindness of her school's handsome patron gives her life its only bright spot and even that is threatened as a new scandal breaks.
Dear Mother, you’ll be happy to learn that I have arrived at my destination. The arranged hideaway exceeds expectations. The village is remote and on the outside edge of civilization and therefore perfect for stashing away a shamed maiden.
Charlotte chewed on the end of her steel-tipped pen. What more did she want to share with Mother dear? A mother who allowed her to be shunted out of sight, shipped to the hinterlands without a hearing. The court of public opinion took precedence over maternal loyalty and above the truth.
She set down the pen with finality. Writing to her mother gave an outlet, but only so much could be written at once. The letter to Mother could be set aside and completed over time. No hurry, it wasn’t as if Charlotte’s incoming mail included any personal, family letters that had to be answered—indeed, no letters at all arrived at the dismal thatched abode that served as her dwelling. To call it a cottage would be dishonest.
Bordering on hovel, the damp structure boasted one room serving as parlor and kitchen. A sleeping alcove, marked off by a saggy tattered curtain of ancient provenance, made it habitable—barely. A fireplace with a pot crane, toasting rack, and Dutch oven sufficed for meal preparation. The chipped pitcher and bowl provided for daily hygiene and sat on a rickety chest next to the sleeping area.
Praise God a small tub and bucket came with the property. They were stored under the table—itself a scarred, wobbly affair complete with two mismatched chairs and surmounted by a motley assortment of dishes, cups, and cutlery gracing the center board.
Charlotte sank into a chair and lowered her face into her hands. Oh my, how did it come to this? One misstep caused a severe chastening descent—a fall from grace, if you will. Eyes closed, she marshalled her thoughts and attempted to center them in prayer. Oh, God…was all she mustered, but the entreaty caused an answering glimmer of peace to flutter in her breast.
The rumble of wheels pierced her reverie, and she raised her head. The cry of a coachman rang out, “Whoa,” and the window provided the glimpse of a shiny black carriage halting out front.
Odd to interact without a maid or chaperone near, but she took a deep breath and emerged onto the stoop. Back to the door, hands behind her back, she clutched the handle in case retreat proved necessary. The coachman used the tip of his crop to lift the brim of his hat, and then resumed staring straight ahead.
The side window panel slid open. A young man’s face showed itself ever so briefly and then disappeared into the gloom of the lavish conveyance. A deep, pleasant voice sounded forth, “I’d been informed the new teacher arrived. Is all to your satisfaction?”
The hovel could certainly be improved upon, but this was not the time to deliver a litany of ills. Besides, this could be a representative of the connection that allowed her placement here. It wouldn’t do to ruffle those feathers. “Thank you, sir. Quite adequate.”
“You’re welcome. First day tomorrow. You have all necessary instructions and supplies, correct?”
Whatever he looked like; he surely owned a pleasing voice. “Oh, yes, sir.” She exuded deference—whoever the man was, he was in command, and she had no ground to quibble. “I’ve been to the schoolhouse over the hill, swept it out, and all’s in readiness.”
A rap sounded from inside the carriage, the coachman tipped his hat again and smacked the horses with his reins. The vehicle rumbled away, leaving her bemused by having a conversation with a disembodied voice—something she’d never experienced. Why didn’t the man introduce himself—or show his face, except for the brief glimpse? Perhaps he didn’t take to communicating with lowly teachers.
A sinking sensation overtook her. He might know, and therefore not want to meet her. The story of her disgrace could have reached this hinterland. Somehow. Maybe he heard the rumors.
But she’d been hired. They wouldn’t have hired her if they had qualms, connection or not. She must rein in her fears and doubts. The hastily patched-together plan for her removal from scandal’s vicinity included a false name. Her short time in society gave little enough opportunity for many of the ton to learn of her existence, let alone her true name, or appearance. Thus, her fears were mostly groundless.
The juiciness of the gossip about her, however, flew like the wind and blew her away before she’d even met more than a handful of the haute ton.
Enough of rueful ruminations. Miss Charlotte Broughton would do her duty to this opportunity. Brought-on…a humorous choice of alias, considering she “brought on” her own troubles.
This morning, in the village church, she sat in a back pew, bonnet and veil anchored in place. She slipped away during the benediction and scuttled down the lane, arriving home out of breath. After hanging her hat and cloak on a hook, she fluffed her hair and glanced into the mirror inside the lid of her bandbox. Yes, she was pretty, but that wasn’t her fault, was it? She had not enticed the man who rained folly into her life. She stretched out her arms and wiggled her fingers, visualizing her sorrows flying out of the tips.
She needed to be grateful for her unmarried status. Many a scandal was quelled by forcing an offer from the offending male. Her particular disgrace did not allow that unsavory action to be taken. And she had a roof over her head, be it ever so humble. The privacy of a new name, a new place where people—she hoped—knew nothing of her shame.
The last teacher succumbed to consumption, she learned from the carter, on the wagon ride from the coaching station to her new situation. He’d also indicated the presence of a Lord Hipwith in the vicinity. Hipwith being the name of the village, she surmised this lord to be the benefactor of the school, and the owner of most of the village and surrounding farms.
Done reviewing the sad state of affairs, she set out her clothing for the next day—selecting the most school teacher-ish dress in her possession. It was green—never her color, and though made of expensive fabric, the cut and style plain. The children wouldn’t notice the fineness of the gown’s construction. She had a fichu to fill in the stylishly low neckline and a knitted shawl formerly belonging to her nanny to cover her bare arms. Sufficient garb for tomorrow—the first day of her new life.