Simply Perfect

Joseph Fawcitt, Marquess of Attingsborough, has been summoned to Bath by his ailing father, the Duke of Anburey. Although the duke seems to be recovering, nevertheless he is trying to set his affairs in order--and at the top of his list is his unmarried son. It is time Joseph married and set up his nursery, and the duke has picked out just the right bride for him. Joseph is on his way back to London to propose marriage to the lady. He is not going alone, however. As a favor to a family connection, Susanna, Viscountess Whitleaf, a former teacher at Miss Martin's School for Girls in Bath, he has agreed to escort Miss Claudia Martin herself and two of her charity pupils to London in his own carriage. He is on his way to pick them up at the school.

Joseph had found his father apparently restored to health. He was certainly quite well enough to grumble about the insipidity of the card games and other entertainments with which he was expected to amuse himself and at the enraptured enthusiasm with which he was greeted wherever he went, especially at the Pump Room. The duchess, on the contrary, was placidly enjoying just the things about which her husband complained. Joseph suspected that she was enjoying herself more than she normally did in London at this time of year.

His father insisted that he was not quite as robust as he would like to be, though. In a private conversation, he had told his son that he suspected his heart had been weakened by the prolonged chill, and his physician in Bath would not contradict him, though he had not actually confirmed his fears either. However it was, the duke had begun to set his affairs in order.

And at the very top of his list was his son and heir.

Joseph was thirty-five years old and unmarried. Worse--and a direct result of the former fact--he had no sons in his nursery. The succession had not been secured.

The Duke of Anburey had taken steps to supply the lack. Even before summoning his son he had invited Lord Balderston to come down from London, and the two of them had discussed the desirability of encouraging a match between their offspring--the Marquess of Attingsborough and Miss Portia Hunt. They had agreed to share their wishes--really an euphemism for commands--with their children and expect a happy outcome before the Season was over.

Hence Joseph's summons from London.

"I will certainly keep it in mind, sir," he said now as he emerged from his mother's embrace. "I cannot think of any lady better suited to be my wife than Miss Hunt."

Which was certainly true when he considered only the fact that his wife was also to be his marchioness and the future Duchess of Anburey--and the mother of a future duke. Her lineage was impeccable. So were her looks and manners. He had no great objection to her character either. He had even spent a good deal of time with her a few years ago, just after she had ended her association with Edgecombe and had obviously been trying to prove to the ton that she was not broken-hearted. He had admired her spirit and her dignity then. And in the few years since he had often danced with her at balls or conversed with her at soirees. Just two or three weeks ago he had taken her driving in Hyde Park at the fashionable hour. Never once, though--before now--had he seriously considered courting her.

Now, of course, he must. He really could not think of anyone he would rather marry. Which was not a powerful argument in favor of marrying Miss Hunt, it was true, but then most men of his rank married more for position than for marked affection.

He hugged his father at the door of the house and hugged and kissed his mother again and promised her that he would not forget a single one of the myriad messages he had memorized for delivery to Wilma, Countess of Sutton, his sister. He looked at his traveling carriage to ascertain that all his baggage had been loaded and that his valet was up on the box beside John. Then he swung up into the saddle of the horse he had hired for the first stage of the journey back to London.

He raised a hand in farewell to his parents, blew another kiss to his mother, and was on his way.

It was always hard to say goodbye to loved ones. It was even harder knowing that his father might well be growing frailer. And yet at the same time his thoughts moved ahead with undeniable eagerness.

At last he was on his way home.

He had not seen Lizzie for over a week and could hardly wait to be with her again. She lived--as she had for more than eleven years--in the house he had purchased thirteen years ago as a swaggering young man about town for the mistresses he would employ down the years. He had only ever employed the one, though. His wild oats had all been sown very soon.

He had gifts for Lizzie in his baggage--a feathered fan and a bottle of perfume, both of which he knew she would adore. He could never resist giving her gifts and watching her face light up with pleasure.

If he had not offered to escort Miss Martin and the two schoolgirls to London, he knew he would have made a push to complete the journey in one long day. But he did not regret his offer. It was the sort of gallantry that would cost him very little except perhaps one extra day on the road. However, he had decided that it was in his own best interests to hire a horse. Being inside the carriage with a schoolteacher and two young schoolgirls for the whole journey might be a strain even on his normally even-tempered nerves--not to mention theirs.

He had been given the distinct impression two days ago that Miss Martin did not approve of him, though exactly what her objection to him was he had not fathomed. Women usually liked him, perhaps because he usually liked them. But Miss Martin had been looking rather sourly upon him even before he had asked to see the school, which had genuinely interested him.

Carriage and horse descended the hill to the river and then proceeded along beside it before crossing the Pulteney Bridge and bowling onward in the direction of the school.

Joseph's lips twitched at the memory of his meeting with Miss Martin. She was the quintessential spinster schoolteacher--clad plainly and serviceably in a blue-gray dress that covered her from neck to wrists to ankles even though it was June, her brown hair dressed with ruthless severity in a knot at the back of her neck, though it had been looking somewhat disheveled, it was true, as if she had just put in a hard day's work--which no doubt she had. She was neither particularly tall nor particularly thin, but her ramrod-straight posture had given the illusion of both. Her lips had been compressed when she was not speaking, her gray eyes keen with intelligence.

It amused him to realize that this was the woman of whom Susanna had spoken so warmly as one of her dearest friends. The viscountess was small, vivacious, and exquisitely lovely. And yet it was not impossible to imagine her teaching at that school. However dry and severe the headmistress had appeared when she was with him, she must be doing something right. The girls and teachers he had seen had all appeared happy enough, and there was a general atmosphere about the place that he had liked. It had not felt oppressive, as that of many schools did.

His first impression had been that Miss Martin was surely old enough to be Susanna's mother. But he had revised that thought. She was quite possibly no older than he.

Thirty-five was a rottenly nasty age for a single man who was heir to a dukedom. The necessity of doing his duty and marrying and producing the next heir had been causing him some uneasiness even before his recent interview with his father. Now it was something he could no longer ignore or procrastinate over. For years he had actively resisted all pressures of the matrimonial kind. For all his faults--which were doubtless legion--he did believe in monogamous relationships. And how could he marry when he was so irrevocably bound to a mistress? But it seemed he could resist no longer.

At the far end of Great Pulteney Street carriage and horse executed a series of sharp turns to arrive at the door of the school on Daniel Street. Someone must have been spying at a window, he saw immediately. No sooner had the carriage stopped rocking on its springs than the school door opened to spill girls onto the pavement--a large number of them, all in a state of agitated sensibilities.

Some of them were squealing--perhaps over the sight of the carriage, which was admittedly rather splendid, or perhaps over the sight of his horse, which was not but was the best he could do under the circumstances and was at least not lame in any one of its four legs. Or perhaps they squealed over him--arresting thought!--though doubtless he was a few generations too ancient to send them into any grand transports of romantic delight. A few others wept into their handkerchiefs alternately with throwing themselves upon the two who wore cloaks and bonnets and were apparently the travelers. Another girl--or perhaps young lady would be a more accurate description since she must be three or four years older than any of the others--ineffectively exhorted the girls to stand in two orderly lines. Joseph guessed that she must be a teacher.

The elderly, sour-faced porter, whose boots creaked just as they had done two days ago, set two valises out on the step and looked at John as if to say that it was his responsibility to see that they found the rest of their way to the carriage.

One of the travelers was chattering volubly to anyone who cared to listen--and to everyone who did not, for that matter. The other wept.

Joseph looked down upon the chaotic scene with avuncular good humor.

And then Miss Martin stepped out onto the pavement and there was a noticeable hush among the ranks, though the second traveler continued to sob. Another lady came out behind her and addressed them with far more authority than the young teacher had demonstrated.

"Girls," she said, "did you overpower Miss Walton and drag her out here with you? You said your goodbyes to Flora and Edna at breakfast, did you not? And should therefore now be in class?"

"We came to say good-bye to Miss Martin, miss," one bold and quick-thinking girl said to the murmured agreement of a few others.

"That was extremely thoughtful of you all," the teacher said, her eyes twinkling. "But Miss Martin would appreciate the gesture far more if you were to stand in two neat lines and conduct yourselves with the proper decorum."

The girls promptly and cheerfully obeyed.

Miss Martin meanwhile was eyeing first the carriage, then Joseph's horse, and then him.

"Good morning, Lord Attingsborough," she said, her voice brisk.

She was dressed neatly and quite unappealingly in a gray cloak and bonnet--probably a sensible choice on a day that was cloudy and dreary despite the fact that it was almost summer. Behind her, the porter was lugging a sizable piece of baggage--hers, apparently, and therefore worthy of the man's personal attention--across the pavement and would have attempted to hoist it to the roof if John had not firmly intervened.

"Good morning, Miss Martin," Joseph said, doffing his tall hat and inclining his head to her. "I see I have not arrived too early for you."

"We are a school," she reminded him, "and do not sleep until noon. Are you going to ride all the way to London?"

"Perhaps not all the way, ma'am," he said. "But for much of the journey you and your pupils may enjoy having the carriage to yourselves."

It was impossible to know for sure from the severity of her countenance if she was relieved, but he would wager a fortune she was. She turned her head.

"Edna?" she said. "Flora? We must not keep his lordship waiting. Climb into the carriage, please. The coachman is waiting to hand you in."

She looked on without comment as the wailing started up again from the orderly lines of girls and the two travelers moved along them to hug each girl individually. She gazed with pursed lips as, before each scrambled up the steps into the carriage, the teacher who had brought order out of chaos hugged them too and even kissed each girl on the cheek.

"Eleanor," Miss Martin said then as she approached the carriage herself with firm strides, "you will not forget..."

But the other teacher cut her off. "I will not forget a single thing," she said, her eyes still twinkling. "How could I when you had me write out a whole list last evening? There is not a thing for you to worry about, Claudia. Go and enjoy yourself."

Claudia. An eminently suitable name--strong, uncompromising, suggestive of a woman who could look after herself.

Miss Claudia Martin turned to the lines of girls.

"I will expect to hear good things of my senior girls when Miss Thompson writes to me," she said. "At the very least I will expect to hear that you have prevented any of the younger girls from burning the school to the ground or rioting through the streets of Bath."

The girls laughed, though some were teary-eyed.

"We will, miss," one of them said.

"And thank you," Miss Martin said, "for coming out here for the sole purpose of saying goodbye to me. I am deeply touched. You will go inside with Miss Walton and work extra hard to make up for the minutes you have missed of this class--after you have waved me on my way. Perhaps at the same time you would care to wave to Edna and Flora too."

She was capable of humor, then, even if only of a dry sort, Joseph thought as she set her hand in John's, lifted one side of her cloak and dress, and followed the two girls inside the carriage.

John climbed up onto the box and Joseph gave him the nod to proceed.

And so the small cavalcade began its progress to London, sent on its way by the waving handkerchiefs of a dozen schoolgirls, some of whom were sniveling again while others called farewells to their fellow pupils who would never return but would proceed into the harsh world of employment--or so Susanna had informed Joseph. They were charity girls, among a sizable group that Miss Martin insisted upon taking in every year.

He was half amused, half affected by what he had seen. It was like a glimpse into an alien world, one from which his birth and fortune had firmly insulated him all his life.

Children without the security of a family and fortune behind them.

© Mary Balogh