Harriet's words played over and over in my head and left me feeling uneasy. I found refuge in my third-floor bedroom and immediately sought out the one thing that always brought me comfort: my red-lacquered jewellery box, a twin of Hari's black one. I picked it up and wound the crank on the bottom before lifting the lid. Tinkling musical notes filled the small room, and I sat down and closed my eyes, allowing myself to be soothed by the lilting notes of "Greensleeves."
Harriet's played a Brahms lullaby. The small chests were a gift from our father from before, when he still had most of his fortune, and they were the one thing Hari and I had saved from our childhoods. We had come a long way from those days, but when I checked myself in the mirror, I saw that same uncertain girl staring back at me. I leaned forward and dabbed my face with powder in a vain attempt to cover the freckles.
The veterinary-assistant idea had been a foolish thought. Hari was right—ladies of my station would never be accepted into the program. Marriage was my only real option. But I didn't want to marry and leave my sister, not yet and not for George. I barely knew the man, let alone felt anything resembling affection. Would I even make him happy? Would he make me?
One of my clearest memories of my mother was her lamenting her own fate as a country squire's wife. She could have done much better, she declared—a gentleman with a comfortable income, a city house in London and another for the season in Bath. At the very least, she might have had a senior military officer from a prominent family. But a full year since her coming-out party, she'd had not a single proposal. (There had been an offer from a charming but poor clergyman, but she didn't consider it serious.) Filled with doubts about whether other, better suitors might come along, she had panicked and jumped at my father's proposal. He was a man of good social standing, due to inherit his father's profitable estate near London.
I heard the familiar refrain in my head: "I was the daughter of a decorated cavalry officer. I had a decent dowry and pretty-enough looks. I could have married a man with a larger inheritance and a lot more common sense, but instead I settled for your father, who loses every cent he ever has."
Even as she lay dying from consumption, she belaboured my father's faults. He dismissed her complaints. She would eat her words, he insisted, when his next investment made us rich and famous. Perhaps if he hadn't had the accident and later died, he would have proved himself.
It made me sad to see them that way. Neither of them were saints, but I loved them both, in different ways. All they wanted was the best for Harriet and me. Still, my parents were miserable together. Theirs was a life I had no interest in emulating, but did I have a choice?
A knock on the door brought me out of my reverie. "Come in," I said.
Jane entered and handed me a letter on a silver tray. I ripped open the seal and had to stifle an unladylike cry of joy. It was from our beloved governess, Miss Wiggins. As a very young child with a lisp, I had struggled to say Miss Wiggins's name correctly, and it often came out sounding more like 'Wiggles'. Hari, of course, burst into fits of laughter every time I said it, but our teacher smiled tolerantly and suggested I address her simply as Ma'am. But for Hari and me, she would always be Wiggles.
My dear Charlotte,
It's been ages since we had a nice cup of tea together, and I'd love to spend an afternoon with you if you can prevail upon the Baldwins to let you borrow a coach. I hope you can visit soon as I have something very interesting to tell you about. Best to talk in person.
I had no inkling about what was on Wiggles's mind, but I was happy to have a good excuse to call on her. In the three years since I moved into Harriet's home, I'd seen her less and less, and I missed her dearly. She was always the calm voice of reason, something I could definitely use right now. I scribbled a note of acceptance to Wiggles and passed it back to the abigail for delivery.
"Your sister is ready for you downstairs," Jane said.
"Thank you, Jane. Tell her I'll be right down."
After she left, I looked at my face one more time in the mirror. I thought of Harriet and Charles. I owed them a great debt. Harriet and I did not inherit our father's estate, and I had nowhere to go after Papa's funeral. Hari and Charles had immediately taken me in. As much as I complained about Charles, he had shown me great kindness when I needed it most. And now I must return the favour. I just wished I had more time. I closed the jewellery box and steeled myself for the night to come.