Clara Etton was barely five years old when her parents perished in a rather unfortunate accident. It was nobody’s fault. One could be tempted to blame the tempestuous bad weather and the tired horses but to be honest, the ill-located cliffs had had the final word.
Even the recovery of the bodies belonging to the gentleman and his wife had been a feat and the whole ordeal gave the neighbourhood plenty to talk about for months. Of the poor coachman that died with them, nobody spoke a word, too inconsequential even for gossip.
Clara was far too young to understand that her chances in life had changed rather dramatically. The state she was born in would be managed by a distant cousin now with more ambition than knowledge or wisdom, and the small fortune she was to inherit in a few years, quickly vanished. By the time she was nine, her family’s state was sold, the money obtained for it, disappeared mysteriously at the hands of cousins, family friends, and lawyers.
What a calamity, what a stroke of bad luck, people commented, but Clara had little mind for money at that age, the future seemed too distant to be afraid of it, and to be candid, she was to be a pirate so she had no use for her neighbour’s commiseration.
“A pirate! What a mind! You let her run too wild. Entirely too wild!”
As soon as her parents died she went to live with her great-aunt in her little state. The elderly woman lived comfortably, her grown sons already handsomely settled, and she spoiled the little girl with as much freedom as she could give her.
“Society will tame her in time, I intend to let her be as happy as she can for as long as I can warrant it.”
Clara loved her great-aunt dearly. She barely remembered her parents, but she had memorized every deep wrinkle of the elderly woman’s face, the softness of her white hair, and the indulgent smile every time she entered the house covered in mud from head to toe. She never let the parish priest reprimand Clara too severely, and always put to rest any objections anyone had about Clara’s upbringing.
She was homeschooled as a girl of her station, she just played and dreamed as something completely different.
“Poor Clara Etton,” she would hear in the voices of grown women when going to church, but she played near the lake with a wooden sword and a hastily made eye-patch, with the sons of the servants. She would always think, “Let them feel sorry for me until they learn to feel fear of me.”
Five years passed and Clara’s dreams to be a pirate slowly transformed into more realistic ones. “I’m going to be an explorer.”
“Do you mean an explorer’s wife?”
Clara frowned at her cousin but said nothing to correct him. Her disdainful look would say enough without having to utter another word.
The younger son of her tutor was still over ten years her senior and seemed to think it fell under his duty to correct all the faults he appreciated in her behaviour or way of thinking every time he visited. To say Clara hated him would be to put too much importance on this rather ridiculous person, but she could say without fear to err in her words that she didn’t care for his opinion in the least.
“At fourteen you are no longer a child, Clara, and you must understand there are limited options to secure your future.”
“The priest insists very much that the future of all men and women alike are at the hands of God.”
“Well, yes. To an extent. We should seek you a good husband.”
“I would not seek anything that God doesn’t put on my way.”
“I am not wiser than God. Are you, dear cousin?”
“Fine!” His face red as if his cravat was so tightened that he could no longer breathe normally. “Then you will go to school and become a governess!”
Clara smiled, sweetly. A governess could travel the country without needing the consent of any man, and in any case, she was pretty sure all explorers of consequence had received education at an established institution. Instead of this, Clara said “I will. If that is what God decides.”
That was the last time she ever saw her cousin before she was sent to a dame school and she let bygones be bygones. She had no use for distant family members that pretended to want a particular kind of “better” life for her and she had learned early on that clinging onto resentments and what might have beens consumed far too much of her precious time and energy.
She already knew sewing, needlework, drawing, and music thanks to her previous education, which made her a favourite among the teachers. From the sons of servants, she had learned to hold herself in a fight, which made her someone not to pick on by her mates, and the distinction of her family’s name and status made her a favourite among the direction of the institution.
She thrived at school. She read everything that was at her disposal in the modest library about geography, navigation, and modern languages, and when the occasion presented itself to be one of the first alumni of the newly founded Bedford College for girls, she didn’t hesitate for one second.
She never let go of a chance to acquire knowledge, never the matter if it was supposed to be appropriate for a young lady or not, or if it came from a book or a peer, or in the form of hushed whispers gossiped in dark corners between blushes.
If she was to be an explorer, she would have to learn the ways of the world as any young man might, and given that she had no interest in married life, she saw little value for her maiden virtue and innocence. She read the same “hygiene books” and “manuals for maiden wives” as her engaged friends and was left with more questions than answers, but to ask them out loud would be highly frowned upon, so she was just determined to learn in another way.
“I just don’t quite understand if we are supposed to improve our skills by extensive practice, how we are supposed to excel at wifely duties by merely reading cryptic instructions from a book once.”
“Oh, hush Clara,” her friends would say among heavy blushes. “Somebody could hear you. Imagine the scandal.”
“It is a scandal indeed, that you should face your wedding night with so much ignorance while your fiance’s carnal knowledge is just expected for his sake as well as yours.”
“You are right. Maybe you should ask those boys you run around with at the Geography club,” said cheekily another girl.
“Or we could just wait for Tilly’s wedding and ask her profusely as our only source of valid, first-hand knowledge, for surely the woman’s and man’s experience may differ quite a bit in this context.”
They all laughed naughtily at the expense of Tilly’s embarrassment, but the vaguest shape of an idea set in Clara’s mind, and once it would form completely it would be impossible for her to dismiss it.
She was already considered a singular lady, and being in fact that, and much poorer than others, she would need funding for travel, so keeping the appearances of propriety among well-situated men with ties to the Royal Geographical Society, remained of the essence. No, she could definitely not investigate the matter with the assistance of the male members of the club, but she could definitely find out about the women they visited discretely and ask these women, maybe even from some kind of tutelage for the most daring of her unmarried friends.
Clara was twenty when she finally knocked on Miss Tendall’s door. Her house was on Shoreditch and far nicer than she expected. To be a good explorer she should surely be, at least, a competent investigator, and she was particularly proud of having being able to track Miss Tendall, who wasn’t an actress or a famous cyprian, but rather a discreet, young lady in her late twenties who has been established handsomely by a wealthy businessman whose family lived in Margate. A common enough occurrence, as Clara had found out in the course of her investigation.
“So you want, what? For me to recommend you to some young man of means, perhaps?” Miss Tendall has asked her over tea with a calm, cheeky smile.
Clara was momentarily tempted, maybe that could be a rather quick way to raise money for an exploring trip, to become the lover of the right man, but that would require, of course, being at the service of said man and she didn’t fancy the whims of men. She smiled back sweetly, as she has learned to do in polite society regardless of her thoughts.
“I have less pecuniary intentions for the time being and of a rather more academic purpose.”
“Academic? And what is it exactly that you want to learn from me, child?.”
“Everything that you know and a maiden ignores.”
The lady laughed, full of mirth and extremely diverted by her intentions but also, it seemed, intrigued enough.
“Very well, then. On the condition that this arrangement remains private between you and me and that you keep yourself from being obviously shocked or scandalized in my presence. I don’t particularly appreciate being judged.”
“Very reasonable conditions.”
Clara shook the lady’s hand, excited to be on the verge of uncovering something veiled from her, like a true explorer.
Tilly married, of course. And then a couple of months Sarah did after a rather rushed engagement with the younger son of a Lord with too much of a reputation of being a rascal. They barely even referred to their marital bed and remained all in all very tightlipped about the private affairs of being a wife. Not that it mattered anymore, in a few months Clara has learned quite a bit about carnal relationships; the anatomy and the mechanics, of course, what was considered right and moral and that there were vast amounts of practices that fell outside that categorization.
She has mainly started to grasp how truly ignorant she was about the ways of the flesh, and that appearances were far more important than reality; a scandal was only a scandal if the fact reached inconvenient ears.
“Desire and seduction are works of the mind, not of the body. If you manage to learn what a person truly wants and you fulfil their fantasy, that would set them at your feet,” had said Miss Tendall more than once or twice.
“Knowledge is power,” agreed Clara, taking careful mental notes of every little piece of information that was offered to her.
“You shall be confident, never embarrassed by our acts, never make others embarrassed by other’s desires for as weird they might seem to you.”
Clara, who has never lacked confidence or relied too much on the expectations of society had just smiled and nodded her understanding.
“But darling, if you want to be left alone to your own devices is important that you play society’s game. The reputation of a lady is her bargaining chip and protection. You should learn to be meek and coy in public while being fearless and daring in private.”
They rarely left Miss Tendall’s home but to attend particular private soirees that her tutor thought were pivotal for the completion of her education, this time thought, they walked arm in arm through the streets of Soho near the theatres where they could be seen by any member of her geography club.
“Don’t fret, dear Clara, we are almost there.”
Miss Tendall laughed, rich and free in all her glory and Clara could understand the allure that would make a man lose his head and fortune to be close to her.
“It is a rather... unconventional establishment, but I think you are finally ready to visit it.”
They made their way into a narrow path between buildings that seemed to lead to the servant’s entrance of a great hoy and stopped in front of an unnoticeable black door.
“Is there anything I should know? I’d hate to be unprepared or let you down.”
“Oh, sweet child. Don’t worry. I've taught you almost everything I know, and nobody would expect anything from you but the good manners of not being easily scandalized.”
“I think I can manage that.”
Miss Tendall smiled and knocked in a very particular way on the door. “I have every confidence you will.”
The place was richly furnished with settees, chaise lounges and sofas that looked quite expensive. The floor was almost completely covered with carpets, pillows and cushions of the finest fabrics. There were silks draping from the ceiling that seemed to function as a sort of doors and embroidered screens located to offer some kind of discretion. Some scarce servants seemed to provide with drink and food when prompted and there were all kinds of accessories at the disposal of the attendant on little trays here and there.
Clara had never been shy, by any stretch of the imagination, but she felt suddenly quite out of her depth, not sure at all what exactly was expected of her. All her supposed knowledge acquired over the past months seemed to vanish on thin air as soon as presented with the reality of what she had been taught.
Miss Tendall grasped her hand and gave it a little squeeze. “Talk, watch, listen. No one here will expect from you anything you are not eager to give.”
“I’m not even sure what that is.”
“Nothing then, until you know for sure. Oh, and darling? Use a made-up name while in here. I’m Eugenia,” said Miss Tendall with a theatrical movement of her hand and a flimsy courtesy.
“Cordelia,” Clara said without a second thought. It sounded important. It sounded transcendent, like the name of a woman who modelled the world around herself to make room for her female shape. “I will be Cordelia.”
“Cordelia it is, my dear.”
She stayed for a couple of hours that evening, a little more every time she went to the place after that. She gained confidence from the experience, even if said experience was limited to watching and listening, mainly. She learned about the particular shine of someone’s eyes that expressed desire, pupils blown and black when lust possessed them. She had been told about restrain, pain and blindness while on the throes of passion and had witnessed a multitude of games that she would had never guessed could result in pleasure.
She knew that the image of her puritanical inexperience was far more important than the truth, and yet, aside from some mildly exciting kisses and daring caresses, she hadn’t felt like trespassing the borders of morality any further, which annoyed her to some degree.
The letter arrived just in time for her twenty-first birthday. Once again, her elder cousin had taken onto himself the matter of her future and prospects, and as she remained unmarried and unspoken for, he wasted almost two pieces of paper to demand, in the most tiresome way, that she should make arrangements for her immediate future or be homeless. After all, she was old enough and surely had reached as higher an education as it could possibly be desired for a lady, not another penny would be dropped her way.
She was tempted to contact Miss Tendall and ask her to assist her in finding a suitable arrangement with a gentleman of means. Not an ideal situation, but certainly a better one than being homeless, and perhaps, one that could allow her to save money and meet the right people.
She would have done it if not for Tilli’s sharing the exciting news that her husband had begun to work for Simon Lucas of the African Association. Tilli had already met Sir Banks and his wife, and oh, and the famous explorer John Ledyard.
Between tea biscuits and the proper congratulatory praises to Tilli’s new social life, she let it slide that Sir Joseph Banks, founder of the African Association, was in dire need of a governess whose geography knowledge was not completely appalling.
And this is how Clara Etton became the governess of two children in the grand estate of Doddington Hall, waiting for her chance at adventure.
Clara didn’t actually know what to expect the first time she set foot on Doddington Hall. The grandeur of the state was a given, of course, but the many trophies and tokens from an exotic origin that presided every room were a welcome surprise. There were masks and heads of animals she had only seen painted on books hanging from the walls. Wooden shields and decorated spears leaning on corners and decorative objects of mysterious intended purpose on the side tables.
Clara was fascinated and thrilled at the chance to maybe study the objects up close. She could learn things yet to be learned in a place like this, she could thrive in a place like this. Maybe. She was a fairly confident person with a range of skills and capacities that were not nought, what she was not up to that very moment, was a governess.
She had applied for the job without thinking about it twice and had made her bag and arranged for the travel without dwelling too much on the details of her new situation.
Beggars couldn’t be choosers, after all.
Mrs Banks was waiting for her in the parlour reserved for her personal use, a sunny and warm room full of flowers and cushions. She offered her a cup of hot tea and a bite to eat, to ease the hardship of the trip.
Dorothea Banks smiled warmly at her, making the lines around her eyes run deeper. The skin of her face spoke of past days spent tanning under the sun and the well-concealed white hairs of her updo told her that she was probably uncommonly old for a mother of two such young children.
“Mrs Fitzpatrick, the housekeeper, will show you to your room and then will introduce you to the children and will give you a tour of the house.”
Clara nodded with a polite smile. She took the cup of tea with the exquisite care she was taught as a girl of means, back in the day. Her posture was rigid and impeccable, trying, if not to impress the lady of the house, at least not to cause a bad first impression that would be a hardship to overcome.
“As I’ve come to understand you don’t have much experience with children.”
Her experience with children was rather limited to the one she had while being a child herself. She hadn’t even been trained as a proper governess on the course of her formal education, but she had been hired nevertheless without having to procure references of previous works, which gave her confidence. “Not much, no, madam.”
“That is all right. Mr Banks is very committed to the idea of the children having an advantageous, modern education. Modern languages, history and geography are of the utmost importance to him and your credentials on such areas were highly superior to those of the other candidates.”
Clara breathed out with a little more ease. Knowing what was expected of her always gave her calm, she could overcome anything if she just knew the particulars of the feat.
“Those are Mr Banks requirements. Which are yours, madam?”
Mrs Backs smiled, clearly pleased at her consideration and seemed to relax as if she too, had been undergoing an interview up until that very moment.
“Make sure they are clean and presentable for the meals and church. You will be at any social commitments that require the presence of the children, taking care that they behave as they should, and sometimes, you should be required to attend informal social gatherings in the house without the children as well.
“As you wish, madam.”
Doddington Hall turned out to be quite a lively estate, and being a governess suited her far better than she had thought or expected.
Charlotte and Philip were quite well-mannered children for a seven and a five years old and any reticence they had towards her, soon disappeared into thin air the first time she agreed to play with wooden swords in the mud.
The library of the state was at her disposal, she imagined that the lessons to the children helped her prepare for what might be trying to make herself understood by foreign people and the servants were nice enough to her. Not quite one of them but certainly not one of the masters either.
Mrs Banks was a patroness easy to please. She had once accompanied her husband to exotic travels abroad, up until she became a mother and her obligations as such prevailed even over the ones of being a wife. She spoke at length of those times and seemed to miss them as much as Clara longed to live the experience her own self. Clara listened eagerly to the tales of her former adventures and Mrs Backs regarded her highly in exchange, inviting her when one of the many friends of the lady called upon the house for a visit.
“She is lonely,” Mrs Fitzpatrick would murmur under her breath sometimes, as if what she was telling Clara was a big secret and not something for anybody with eyes on the face to see. “The master spends too much time away, too much if you ask me. She used to be such a lively lady before settling here permanently. She is like a caged bird, if you ask me, exactly like a caged bird.”
One month passed and then two, and before she had time to think much about it, the season changed and half a year had gone by without many sightings of the master of the estate.
“He is a very busy man, too busy, if you ask me,” was what Mrs Fitzpatrick says when she enquired discreetly.
It was hard to be in the good graces of a man who was hardly there for one to be complacent, but being on the good graces of the master she must. Mr Banks was completely instrumental in her goal to acquire fundings for a future expedition, so she tried to learn what she could about him to be prepared when the occasion would present itself.
“He loves almond pudding and cider cake,” told her the cook. “And absolutely hates anything with too much pepper in it.”
“It’s a pity. Such magnificent horses but the master rarely rides them. Even when he is at Doddington he doesn’t spend much time in the stables ain’t that right, boy? Not a rider, our master, but he likes to keep good animals and keep them well,” said the stable lad.
All very good information but much to Clara’s dismissal, not terribly useful.
The children’s tales about her father were hardly reliable and the reluctance of Mrs Back to talk about anything related to her husband’s business led her on the pathway of the scullery girls. Good girls, hardworking, but with a loose tongue easy to prod.
“Oh, the Master is always polite.”
“Yes, always polite.”
“And he is a good Master, not too hard, you know?”
“Not too hard at all.”
“But he doesn’t talk much with the like of us.”
“Never crossed more than two words with him.”
“And well like too.”
“Not by everybody.”
“No, not by everybody. Certainly not by Mr Hugesson.”
They both looked at each other and giggled, as they used to do whenever Mr Huggesson was involved.
“Whenever Mr Banks is at residence we don’t see much of Mr Hugesson.”
“Such a tragedy!”
They both giggled again and looked at Clara in a way that clearly indicated that she was to giggle as well, so she smiled and tried for a little laugh that didn’t sound entirely too fake.
This was most inconvenient news.
Charles Hugesson was Mrs Banks much-adored younger brother and a very frequent visitor at Doddington Hall. He was young, handsome and rich. A favourite of the children and a favourite among Mrs Bank’s friends.
He was friendly and far too charismatic for his own good. If Clara had learned anything under Miss Tendall’s tutelage was that charisma would win objective beauty any day of the week, and Mr Hugesson wouldn’t be found lacking on any of those accounts.
He conversed easily with men, masters or servants and flirted shamelessly with the ladies of any class without much care for propriety or fear of consequence. As the young, single master of Aubourn Hall, an estate only six miles apart, Doddington’s occupants were prone to forgive him and forget a lot.
Clara would have to be careful from now on. Pursuing any kind of friendship with a man that her future, hypothetical patron would disapprove of, seemed quite foolish and unpractical.
If only Mr Hugesson was a little less likeable, she wouldn’t have thought about severing all ties with him at once.
There was something about him that made Clara’s heartbeat rise up as easily as a run around the park after the children. The way his steel-blue eyes would shamelessly fix on hers while she was speaking, making the world around lose its sharpness, or the way he talked to her unnecessary close, his voice dropping and his hand always at the verge of grasping her waist.
She has seen and heard enough to know that this kind of behaviour was far from an exception. His infamous reputation as a rascal who enjoyed frequently the company of unmarried serving girls and married ladies of society was well known. Calling this parade of women lovers would even be a stretch since the ardour of their encounters seldom covered more than one night if rumours were to be believed.
It didn’t really matter to her. She had been taught the difference between lust and love and had little use for delusions of the romantic kind.
She understood the moon eyes of the scullery girls when the master of Aubourn Hall graced them with a daring, passing caress, or the flushed laugh of Mrs Fitzpatrick after receiving a cheeky compliment from him. Clara had thought at first that she could had found some fun with him, enjoyed kisses and caresses that she had learned back in London, and that very thought had made her feel warm and tense. But she wouldn’t risk her dreams for any of that, she wasn’t that kind of girl, she was the kind of girl without money in her pockets.
Her inner resolution for keeping a safe distance from Mr Hugesson was not a long-lasting one, though.
“Dear Clara, I have a favour to ask you,” Mrs Banks said one day as she invited her to tea.
This might have been her first work but Clara was surely versed enough in the ways of the world to know that a favour an employer asked of an employee was not a favour at all, at least not one that could be denied without risk of dire consequence.
“Of course, Mrs Banks.” She sipped her tea and waited for the request.
“My dear brother Charles wishes to properly learn german, and being one of the languages you fluently speak I told him I’d ask you if it was not too much of an inconvenience that you would give him some private lessons.”
She forced a smile and let the cup and saucer on the table, the hot liquid suddenly too bitter for her taste.
“Oh. It would be no trouble at all, madam, but surely a male tutor would be more appropriate for the job.”
“Probably, if there was one to be found in less than a twenty miles distance. Surely nobody of consequence could find any fault in innocent, german lessons.”
“Not even your husband, madam?”
“Not even him, if he was to find out.”
“Then how could I object, madam?”
“Excellent! I’m sure you will find him to be a very diligent pupil.”
And this was how Clara Etton became the german professor of the most eligible bachelor of Lincolnshire, hoping it wouldn’t ruin everything she had worked for.
The library could hardly be considered a suitable classroom. It was full of books and not at use by anybody else which made it convenient enough but it lacked tables aside from the little ones that were located near the couch and armchairs to rest the books on.
It was also a big room, with big windows that cast big shadows, and a little door that was to remain open during the lesson for the sake of propriety, quite stupidly, since the library was located in a rather unpopulated part of the house and the size of the door and the narrowness of the hallway provided more blind spots than open views.
The lessons themselves required little effort from her, not only because she dominated the subject enough to be comfortable in her knowledge but they rarely lasted more than half an hour before the attention of Mr Hugesson started to quickly drift away.
“Tell me, Miss Etton, where were you born?”
“Did you say you were raised by your aunt, Miss Etton?”
“I am quite curious to know, Miss Etton, where did you learn German so proficiently?”
He would sit at the far end of the same couch she was seated on and ask her inane questions about her life with languid poses and low tones, which she would answer with unmistaken annoyance.
“Your sister led me to understand you were interested in learning German.”
“I am interested in many things but there is little entertainment to be found in Lincolnshire.”
His hand played circles on the lavish tapestry with an almost nonexistent smile and a general demeanour of false innocence.
“That is not what the tales tell.”
“Shocking,” he said, completely feigning indignation,” that you are a woman that believes everything she is told.”
Much to her dismay, he was as charming as he thought himself to be.
“Oh, I am not, Sir. But I believe everything I see.”
He prodded her to talk about her taste in books, in music, her opinions on current affairs that plastered the newspapers these days, and on some rare occasions even let her finish the whole lesson before becoming manifestly bored.
“Have you read the last book by Thomas Love Peacock? If you are interested I have a copy in Aubourn Hall that I could lend you.”
“I wouldn’t mind at all to discuss books with you if that is your inclination, Sir. We could do it in the parlour, in the company of your sister.”
He smiled halfways, his index finger over his mouth in a studied gesture of contemplation. “I wouldn’t have pegged you for such an observer of modesty, Miss Etton.”
“It is not a lack of modesty that bothers me, Mr Hugesson, is the disparity in the consequences we would suffer if caught in a perceived scandal; my reputation would be ruined forever, while yours would even barely be scratched.”
“Reputation is quite an intangible thing, it is hard to convey that it can have very tangible consequences.”
Clara shook her head.
“No of course, to you, Sir, it won’t.”
To his credit, he seems to contemplate her words.
Their advance on the German language was slow and tedious but much as she would like for it to be different, there was something akin to a friendship forging in between books and discussion and annoying questions.
Or at least, the appearance of one.
She had been taught about men like him. Compulsive flirters. Serial seducers. Men far more invested in the game of catching their prey than in enjoying the spoils of the battle, so to speak. They liked to walk the line of transgresión, they elated at the feeling of being the ones not being caught and tamed by society.
Discouraging men like these, like him, could be tricky. Any frontal opposition would only make the final conquest a more desirable one, and giving in to their demands without much resistance could also be counterproductive if they thought they could be being played, a ruse and not a wing.
All the more, Clara didn’t particularly enjoy gratuitously feeding the ego of a man with a very healthy consideration of himself.
She was decided to play this game back at him if the occasion ever came to it, to play it and win it, for that matter, so she was prepared when the day came.
It was raining heavily outside and the light of the library was dimmer and glummer than usual. They made it to a total amount of three-quarters of an hour before his attention drifted away from the proper way to conjugate the past in regular verbs and got up from the armchair he had previously claimed for the lesson.
He sat on the couch she was seating on, as so many times before, but this time, he sat beside her, so close that his leg almost touched her knee. She turned to look back at him, unbothered, a german book on her hands and a silent cautious warning on her green eyes.
His ever, almost arrogant smile didn’t falter as his gaze dropped to her lips. She looked back to the front.
“Did you always want to be a governess in Lincolnshire? To teach German to hopeless pupils?”
“No, I actually wanted to be a pirate, and navigate around the world.”
His eyebrows shot up, his eyes brightened with the perspective of new paths to entertainment.
“A pirate? An interesting choice for a girl.”
He extended his arm along the back of the sofa, rotating his torso towards her and Clara smiled inwardly but didn’t react otherwise. Her spine, as perfectly straight as it had been for the past forty-five minutes, the line of her shoulders exactly as relaxed.
“Do I make you nervous?” he asked in a quiet voice.
“No. But if you were one of my younger students I would have already chastised you appropriately for your transgressions in my classes.”
“Would you have punished me?” he asked, far too much amused. “How do you imagine that would have gone?”
She left the book on the couch beside her and with the swiftness of someone who had mentally carefully prepared for the move, turned toward him, leaned on and shamelessly put her hand on his crotch without any preamble.
She had been expecting his shock, so when he almost jumped out of his skin, she pressed further the heel of her hand in a way that wasn't intended to be pleasurable by design. His breathing, loud and laboured echoing on the walls full of books of the room.
“I’m quite sure I would manage to find a way.”
His eyes wide, his whole demeanour suddenly aflutter as he dared a quick gaze towards the open door. Their faces were close enough that she almost had to choose to look at his right eye or his left eye, unable to do so at both at the same time, and she kept the pressure of her hand for some more seconds before leaning back.
She took the book back and continued with her lesson, apparently oblivious to the flustered state of Mr Hugesson.
The bad weather continued for several weeks, and although she enjoyed greatly playing with the children since it gave her the perfect excuse to behave wildly outdoors, it was a feat to keep them distracted and well behaved while confined indefinitely indoors.
“I have an idea,” their favourite uncle proposed, “If you can convince your mother and Mrs Fitspatrick to come along, we can all play Sardines.”
The children gasped, reinvigorated by the prospect of a game like only small children could be and sprinted out of the room to convince her mother and the housekeeper.
“Sardines?” she asked
“A most fitting game for a rainy afternoon, don’t you think, Miss Etton?”
“That, remains to be seen, Mr Hugesson.”
They all played three games in quick succession. Predictably, Mrs Fitzpatrick hid in an easy spot, eager to be over with the game as soon as possible given that they had all agreed to play one round of hiding each. Philip being second was hardly more difficult to find, and due to the unfortunate appearance of an alleged mouse in the pantry, neither was Charlotte.
“Your turn, Miss Etton. Let’s see if you can make this game more interesting.”
She smiled, primly and politely, and as soon as the door of the room was closed behind her, she ran as fast and as fast as her legs allowed her. There was a broom closet under the service stairs that led to the attic. The place could barely hold the five people that the game would require but it was a forgotten secluded place that would surely make the search a more interesting one than the ones before.
She prepared herself for being in quiet solitude for some time and was only somehow disappointed when fifteen minutes later, Mr Hugesson found her.
He opened the closet door, looked at her for only a second and smiled brightly before joining her in her hiding place.
“Not a bad choice, Miss Etton.”
“And yet you have already found me.”
The luminosity that passed through the cracks of the door was the only light that reached the interior of the closed and it was barely enough to distinguish massive objects when one’s eyes had already got used to the darkness.
“That is because I’m well versed on the hiding spots of the house.”
“I bet you are, Sir.”
She felt rather than saw that he took a couple of steps towards her. Her back was against the cool stone wall and he seemed to lean his shoulder against the same wall inches away from her.
“I was a child in the nearest house to this estate. I used to play with the children of this house.”
“An unnecessary explanation.”
“The implication you made, made the explanation necessary.”
She smiled. It was easy to do so when he could not see the expression of her face and derive conclusions from it.
“The implication that I would need in any way that necessary explanation is what makes me consider it unnecessary.”
He moved. She felt the warmth of a nearby body in front of her, not quite touching her but the skirt of her dress pressed against his legs.
“Aren’t you afraid of me?” he asked
She could feel the air coming out of his lungs on her face.
“Not even a little bit?”
She pushed herself off the wall and against him. Her chest pressed against his chest, her cheek against the side of his jaw.
“Not even that much.”
He didn’t try to grab her waist or press her back against the wall. His right hand lifted and caressed a lock of hair from her temple all the way back to the bun that kept it in place.
“And what would you do if we were to be found like this? With your ruined reputation and my barely scratched one?”
She shrugged. “I would simply pack my things and leave for another place. Change my name.”
He smiled defiantly, she heard it in his voice when he spoke. “And what would your new name be?”
She thought for half a minute. “Cordelia.”
“Cordelia,” he repeated, as if trying the word on his lips.
His right hand travelled downwards slowly, from her hair to her nape, to the point where the back of her dress clothed her spine. His fingers started to play softly on her skin at the edge of the back of her dress, from shoulder to shoulder.
Clara managed to maintain her breathing but a treacherous shiver made her skin raise goosebumps.
“Would you run away to be a pirate?”
The not so distant noise of a door closing and quick, noisy infant steps made her take a step to the side. There was a giggle and a stomp, and when Charlotte opened the closet door and light bathed the little room, Mr Hugesson was exactly as far from her as humanly possible.
The rules of the game changed soon after that. It became less subtle, less guarded, like a battle plan without a retreat strategy.
A challenge of wills, which was something that Clara never knew she liked so much.
Mr Hugesson made a point of being extremely attentive with every lady but her when in company. The laundry girl received such an elongated list of compliments one day in the garden while Clara played with the children nearby, that the poor thing was scarlet red for the better part of an hour.
It was an open dare. He looked straight at her when she flirted with other women in her presence, leant as close to them as he could without causing a scandal.
In the relative privacy of their German lessons though, he became bolder and unapologetically arrogant in a way it should be forbidden to be found attractive.
“Cordelia,” he would say, like a whisper to her ear as he sat beside her on the infamous couch. “Why Cordelia?”
She read from the book on her hands out loud, short sentences made of long complicated words as he seemed to fixate on the way her lips moved as she enunciated.
The door was only halfway open this time, nobody would be able to see them without previously entering the library and as he bent to touch her ankle under her skirt. He seemed to hesitate only for a moment before he grabbed her thigh firmly and the air caught in her lungs.
“What would someone named Cordelia be like? What would she be doing in Doddington Hall?”
“Trying to impart some German lessons, without much success I might add.”
He dodged her complaint, smiling wide and bright as if it had been a compliment to his ears, and as she resumed the lesson, his hand started to move upwards. Her calf, the back of her knee, when the tip of his fingers started to reach the inside of her thigh she spread her legs apart as she read on. It was as much a dare as it was an invitation.
“A modern, educated girl. What would she do in the middle of Lincolnshire?”
“Work, Sir. As one might do when one is not a young, rich man,”
His fingers grabbed her thigh firmly and the air caught in her lungs.
“And handsome. Young, rich and handsome.”
Up, up. Inch by inch his hand conquered the smooth skin of her thigh until there was no more leg.
“Oh yes,” she breathed out. “It would be an unforgivable sin not to mention how handsome everybody says you are.”
He let her chin rest on her shoulder and she closed her eyes for a couple of moments, trying to maintain her breathing, to not get lost in the feeling of his fingertips barely caressing the private apex between her legs.
“Don’t you think me handsome?”
His words were almost palpable against the side of her neck.
“I think all sorts of things that my mouth won’t dare to speak of.”
“I would love to hear all about those things,” he said.
He stroked her, once, twice, with just enough pressure to elate a whimper out of her mouth. She licked her lips and swallowed before stopping his ministrations with a hand on his arm.
“I don’t think even your reputation could survive being found with a hand under a woman’s skirts.”
He stroked her again a couple of times. “Maybe I would like to find out.”
She got up from the couch in a quick movement that left his chin sore and his hand uncovered and glistering to the light. “Maybe I don’t”
She left the book on the side table located near the couch and exited the room without as much as a place to go in mind. She needed fresh air and to erase the recent memory of the feeling of his fingers on her in order to be able to think clearly.
“Miss Etton,” he called after her but her steps were quick. “Miss Etton!”
She reached the kitchen garden before he could call her name a third time. The cool air was like a much-needed slap against her face. He appeared in the garden just a moment later.
“Miss Etton, I’m sorry.”
She looked at the distant trees moved by the wind and he grabbed her hand to demand her attention back. When she looked back at him there wasn’t a trace of her usual careless arrogance on his face. His blue eyes seemed troubled, his blonde curls messier, as if he had run his hand through them.
“Miss Etton, you must allow me to apologize.”
He looked worried. He should. He had committed a transgression although probably not the one he was thinking of. He had pushed her when she hadn’t been ready to give in.
“You should find first what you should be apologizing for.
She devised the rough sketch of a plan, although the logistics of carrying it to practice presented a conundrum. Respect to other people’s limits was a valuable lesson to teach and an imperative one to learn but she would need more privacy than the library could ever provide.
Much to her dismay, she would need help. She enrolled Mrs Banks maid without much of her permission or her knowledge.
“Could you go fetch Mr Hugesson? Mrs Backs said she wanted to have a private conversation with him in the music room immediately.”
The poor girl nodded eagerly and seemed worried to be caught in what she surely thought was unmistaken trouble, the music room being one of the few public rooms of the house with an active lock from the inside.
Clara went to the devised room and waited behind the door. The shutters of the windows had been half-closed which left the room darkened, the green colour of the walls looked almost grey in this light.
When the door opened and he entered the room, she closed and locked the door with one hand and pushed him towards the wall beside the door with the other. She evidently lacked the strength to move him against his will but the element of surprise in her offensive was enough to make him walk.
He looked over his shoulder to find her there. Her whole body pushing him against the wall.
“You are not my sister, Madam.”
“I am most certainly not.”
She grabbed his arms and guided them until the palms of his hands found painted paper, her nose, nestled against his nape and her knee forced her presence between his legs until they opened wide enough for her.
“Do you enjoy it?” she asked in a whisper. Her mouth running open mouth kisses to her neck as she loosened his cravat with the fingers of her right hand. “Do you enjoy being cornered as you corner widows and servant girls?”
“I do not-”
She pushed her hips against his backside as she bit the lobe of his ear as he whimpered loudly and leaned the side of his face against the wall, his mouth half open and his eyes closed.
“You do. You corner women against walls like this with your endless string of compliments.”
She sucked experimentally his earlobe and he bucked his hips.
He smelled like sandalwood and juniper up this close. The deafening sound of her blood rushing in her ears almost impenetrable by anything but noises that escaped from his lips.
“I do not corner women against walls,” he said between pants.
Her hands run up his shoulder blades under his jacket, round to his sides and down his abdomen, searching for the buttons of his trousers and undoing the first and second one with a skill that spoke of an experience she mostly lacked.
“You take liberties with them.”
“No,” he whispered. The short word was full of desire and it gave her the confidence to venture furthermore.
She blindly searched for skin under his clothes, and when she found it, her fingers continued until she could feel the curly hair she was seeking, and then the rigidness she was hoping to find.
“I only take such liberties with you. Only you.” His voice was straining.
She took him in her hands and gave him a trying stroke. She knew more of the theory of the act than of the practice of the act itself but he moaned long and loudly and felt bold and alight with her own desire.
“You play with them as a well-fed cat plays with a mouse.”
She retrieved one of her hands to lick it profusely as she has been told to do in situations like this stroked him again with her wet hand.
“Yes.” If he was answering to what she was saying or what she was doing didn’t matter all that much.
She bit him on the point where her neck met her shoulder, over his clothes, and started to synchronize the movements of her hands along his shaft with the rhythm of her hips hitting against his backside.
“Poor, helpless women at the mercy of your desires. You have to learn to listen when they are reluctant.”
He created a little more space between the front of his body and the wall. His hands made fists and his forehead pressed hard against the green painted paper as she started to rock his own hips as she pumped him.
She was trying to make a perfect memory of it all, the smoothness and hardness of his cock, the shallowness of his breathing, the salty taste of the light perspiration on his neck. She was trying to identify and categorize every reaction to her every action. Clara has never missed a chance to learn and she was an excellent student.
Soon enough his breathing became laboured and louder, the rhythm of his hips erratic, so she used her freer hand to scratch her fingernails lightly against the skin of his lower abdomen.
He buckled what felt his whole body once, twice.
“Cordelia,” he growled.
And then she buckled a third time and spent himself on her hand inside his trousers.
The silence was suddenly too thick and dense as they both breathed loudly.
“When you push a woman you might find a woman who pushes back, Sir,” and then she took a step back,
Her hand was warm and sticky but she had come prepared and pulled out a handkerchief from the cleavage of her dress, she cleaned her hand with it and unlocked the door,
Clara didn’t look back to make sure the lesson had settled in.
German lessons gradually stopped being about German lessons completely.
Mr Banks came for a few days, a week and a half, and exactly as the scullery girls explained, Mr Hugesson's presence in the house became scarce while the short stay of the Master lasted.
Much to Clara’s disappointment, Mr Banks had little interest in her aside from a brief report about the children’s progress in their education and an iron will to maintain all business matters strictly private. Not even a casual comment about his work could be heard by the service and his office at home was always locked, even when he was working inside.
Such a zealous work ethic was an impediment for her plans as well as a source for suspicion. In Clara’s limited experience of the world, every gentleman had something to hide, all the more when they tried to conceal their secrets behind the veil of a pretended want for privacy.
“What are you really doing here, Miss Etton?” The book of German on her lap was the only reminiscence of their lessons. “Wasting away as a governess when you could be so much more elsewhere?”
Along with the pretence of teaching a language, had gone the pretence in the way he addressed her. He looked at her with genuine interest and big, bright, concerned blue eyes. He sat next to her, but not so close as to be perceived as unpardonably improper and his hands only dared to touch her after her assert with a curt nod.
“I thought Mr Banks could be of assistance in my future,” she confessed, a little embarrassed at her naivety in believing it could be as easy as that.
His stretched arm along the back of the sofa allowed his fingers to caress the back of her neck, more intimate and comforting than with lust induced intent.
“He is not that kind of man?”
“What kind of man?”
“A kind man,” he said with melancholy and sadness painting his words.
She turned towards him, put her hand on his leg just over his knee in a soft touch.
“What are you doing here, Mr Hugesson?” she mirrored his question. “Wasting away here?”
He looked discreetly at the open door of the library and then took a deep intake of air before grabbing her hand with both of his. He had the soft hands of a gentleman. She explored his fingers, long and strong, and the proportioned palms of his hands with their deep pronounced lines.
“My sister needed me,” he said on a rush. “She was exiled here when she became pregnant, cut away from everything that she loved and gave her life, and she became...sad and reserved. So full of melancholy that the doctors started to fear for her wellbeing and the baby’s.”
“So you came to her rescue?”
He shrugged. “I left London and came to reside permanently in the family estate. What else could I do?”
Clara knew very well what else he could had done; nothing. Like all those distant relatives that gave her the cold shoulder when she was a child once the money from her estate ran off.
“What about Mr Banks?”
“What about him?”
“You seem to care very little for him.”
He frowned, shook his head a little. “He barely cares for my sister and my nephews, why should I care for him?”
Clara left the book that was on her lap on the couch and turned more fully toward him. Her free hand reached for the side of his face and he closed his eyes as soon as their skins made contact.
“He is a very important man with a very solid reputation.”
“Oh yes, a very solid reputation indeed, unlike myself.” He opened his eyes and brought up one of his own hands to secure hers against his cheek. “It is quite curious they way reputations work, that would allow a man to maintain his irreproachable while throwing to the street a young maid pregnant with her master’s baby, and would label other as a rascal when he would give shelter an employment in his estate to said girl.”
She gasped but said nothing else. She had miscalculated the situation so much that the adjustment would be too brutal to contemplate on a whim.
“His assistance won’t come at a cheap price.”
She nodded once, then remembered the open door and reclaimed both her hands before moving a little and creating a little more space between them. There had been a time not so distant in which she didn’t care what could happen to him if they were caught in a compromising situation but she did now.
“Miss Etton. Cordelia,” he pleaded.
“I won't seek his assistance no more.”
He sighed plainly relieved but Clara couldn’t be gracious enough to feel the same. Without money or connections, her hopes and dreams seemed farther away than ever before.
“Maybe I could be of help in his stead.”
She didn’t really know what he was offering but it was a sweet suggestion nevertheless. She smiled and looked over her shoulder to him, teasingly.
“Does your aid come as a bargain, Sir?”
“Indeed it does.” He smiled brightly right back at her. “Agree to be my wife and you’d have access to all that I own.”
She laughed in a most unladylike guffaw. “Marriage? That is your solution?”
“More like my desire, but it could work both ways.”
She inspected his face, his demeanour. He looked relaxed but not quite as calm as he had been a moment before, his smile was tender and his eyes spoke of eagerness and frankness.
“You are serious,” she said in a hushed, scandalized tone.
“Contrary to popular belief, I usually am.”
Clara shook her head. Marriage had been part of her plans, never had contemplated it as a welcome outcome for her. Could she marry this man and be happy united to him? yes. Could she forshake her dreams of travelling to faraway places? of that, she wasn’t at all sure.
“You would marry me just to bed me,” she said with a cheeky smile, raising her chin to make the mood lighter, to allow her brain to catch up with the conversation.
“Oh, absolutely,” he said nodding vehemently. “I would marry you just to have such a privilege. I would gladly put myself at your mercy for whatever it is that you would desire to do with me,” he added matter of factly, artlessly. “That is not why I would like for you to become my wife.”
“Is it not? Pray, tell me then, because for sure you are not thinking of the money and connections I can offer.”
He grinned, a big, wolfish smile. “You are a fellow pirate.” He took her hand and carried it to his mouth to give her knuckles a kiss.
Whatever she imagined he was gonna say, never, in a thousand years could had he foreseen that motive. She kept looking at him at a loss for words or an easy way to postpone this conversation until she was more sure of herself.
“That is why you wanted my brother in law’s assistance, was it not? To travel. For an expedition.”
There, bared for him to look and dissect was the core of who she was. She was a poor, unconnected woman who longed for a life made for men. A joke, a pantomime, an impossibility.
But he wasn’t laughing at her.
“Yes,” she confirmed under her breath.
He slid off the sofa still looking at her in the eye, still with her hand in his.
“Marry me, Miss Etton, and we will travel the world together. We will be explorers or pirates, Cordelia and Blondebeard. And when we'll be old and weary, we can come back to Lincolnshire and scandalize the servants and the neighbours.”
It was, to her ears, the best proposal she has ever heard and never thought of.
“Would you leave your sister behind?”
“She can come with us. The children too if that is what she wants, and if not, we will come back after every trip to fill her with tales of adventure. I never wanted anything as much as I want this life, with you.”
She slid off the couch as well, her free hand went to the side of his face again and she leaned on and closed her eyes. She pressed her lips to his soft, full lips, and after a moment he answered in earnest. His mouth on her was warm and undemanding, following her lead, moving slowly to apprehend her lips when she played at retreat. She opened her mouth and his tongue slipped in, changing the angle and the intensity of the kiss until she could feel his hand on the side of her neck, and a steady and growing desire pulse growing on her lower belly.
She stopped and retreated for a second and waited for him to open his eyes. She smiled, biting her lower lip.
“Let’s be pirates,” she agreed, and kissed Mr Hugesson Blondbeard again.