Matthew Somersby kept himself from tapping his foot as he checked his watch again. King’s Gentlemen’s Club did not hold reservations for more than ten minutes past their scheduled start, and he wanted to make a good impression on the acquaintance he planned to take to the establishment.
Lord Felton had business interests to discuss, and the quiet privacy of King’s Cigar Room would be ideal… if he ever arrived at their meeting place. They had agreed to meet on the corner of one of the large squares and go on foot, as it was built slightly outside the main hub, and the streets were narrow enough that the coach line stretched for a quarter mile.
“Somersby, I presume?” a decorous voice said, and Matthew snapped the lid of his watch shut as he looked up.
Lord Felton was older than himself by a handful of years. His dark suit was immaculate, and a single sparkling jewel glittered against the rich silk of his cravat. Everything from the set of his shoulders to the angle of his chin declared him a member of the ton.
“Yes, Lord Felton.” Matthew tipped his hat. “Please, if you’ll follow me, I’ve reserved the private cigar room for us so that we may discuss the finer points of our arrangement.”
“Lead the way.” Lord Felton gestured vaguely with a single, long-fingered hand, and Matthew turned to walk a half-step ahead of him.
“I understand you are a busy man; therefore, I’ve decided to save us some time where we would otherwise be idle waiting for our coach to approach the front doors.”
“That is much appreciated, I do have another meeting to attend following this.”
Matthew looked for the bookstore he used to mark the next left turn, but its distinctive sign with curling script was conspicuously absent, as was the tailor’s shop that should have been on the corner.
Had he walked past the first cross street? He couldn’t double back without looking like a fool; he was the one who knew the area, after all. He pressed on, taking the next right, hoping that would lead him to the right road.
Immediately, he realized that he was off the path he needed to take. The street was smaller and meaner than any he had yet seen. He glanced back at Lord Felton, who had a hint of a sneer playing around his lips but said nothing. He trusted that Matthew knew where he was going, distasteful though the streets were.
He had never been anywhere that looked this way, but he had heard the descriptions. Men and women huddled in corners, begging for scraps, sleeping rough in the cold. They were in the slums.
Matthew didn’t even come to London when he could avoid it. It was a city you could smell before you saw it, great clouds of stinking smoke belching from the factories, and when the Season was over, he would be happy to retreat to Ramsbury with its clean air and fox hunts to pleasantly pass the time.
The denizens of the streets looked like half-people, bent almost double against the cold, their eyes dull in deep, hollow sockets. Their roving gaze took in the fine fabrics and clean skin that marked Matthew and Lord Felton as members of the gentry, and their expressions of hunger sharpened, having little to do with food.
They needed to retreat, with haste, and Matthew realized there was nothing he could do but admit to his fault.
“I’m sorry, Lord Felton, I’ve led us in the wrong direction. Please, come back this way.”
The hint of a sneer Lord Felton had sported deepened into a look of contempt. He rolled his eyes, but remained quiet, following Matthew out of the alley without so much as a word.
Matthew retraced his steps and was almost back to the corner where he had originally met Lord Felton when he heard the rhythmic patter of footsteps. They were growing louder. He stopped and turned toward the sound, forcing Lord Felton to draw himself up short, lest he collide with Matthew.
The source of the footsteps did not have the alacrity to halt in time, and bare feet slid on the cobblestones made slick by the recent rain. The gray stone swirled with oily rainbows from a nearby candle works, and the young boy careened right into Lord Felton who threw both hands up in disgust, walking stick dangling from one arm.
Matthew realized the child had been giggling when the high, burbling sound cut off as abruptly as a lock of hair falls when severed by shears. The boy danced back a few steps and looked down at his naked, grimy feet. Lord Felton stood frozen in shock, arms half-raised, as he looked down at the front of his suit.
“S-sorry m’lord.” The boy murmured without looking up at Lord Felton.
“You need to watch where you’re going, boy,” Lord Felton said. When the boy did nothing, Lord Felton took a step toward him with his walking stick raised.
“Do you hear me, boy?” Lord Felton advanced on him. “Look at this, you’ve stained my suit, you ignorant wretch!”
“Is that how you talk to a child?”
The voice was fierce and feminine, and most of all, it lacked any honorific to address Lord Felton. Matthew turned to see a dark-haired woman storming up the alley. She wrapped her fingers around the boy’s arm in a gesture that might have looked cruel or possessive had she not then put herself between him and Lord Felton.
“Who is really the ignorant wretch, hmm?” she demanded of the Lord. “I guess money doesn’t buy you any morals or manners.”
“Excuse me?” Lord Felton asked, clearly scandalized, putting a haughty note into his tone. He was not a small man, but he did not have to look down nearly as far as Matthew expected he might in order to focus on the woman. She tilted her chin only enough that she could look him in the eyes, the hazel of her own blazing.
“Money also doesn’t guarantee you respect.”
Lord Felton drew in a great breath and puffed up his chest as he advanced on the woman. Matthew darted past him and put his body between the two of them.
“Now, now,” Matthew said, raising the flats of his hands toward Lord Felton’s chest, “the boy already said he was sorry. Let us move along with our day.”
“Someone ought to show this wench where her place is.” Lord Felton brandished a finger toward her over Matthew’s shoulder.
“There’s no need to be hostile, please. Let’s just go our separate ways.”
With all the affronted dignity he could manage, Lord Felton pulled on his lapels to tug his suit back into a semblance of order. He cast another look in the woman’s direction, then said,
“I’ll be waiting just around the corner for you.”
As Lord Felton disappeared, Matthew reached out a hand as if to steady the woman, but she jerked her shoulder away. He settled for words.
“Are you alright, madam?”
“Madam,” she scoffed, “as if I need compassion from the likes of you.”
She turned away without another word, pulling the boy along by the arm. He turned his head back to look at Matthew, but soon enough they rounded a corner and were lost from his sight.
No one had ever spoken to him that way. From Lord Felton’s reaction, no one had ever spoken to him that way, either. He was used to people bowing and scraping or grasping and scheming. Everyone wanted something from him.
To have someone who wanted nothing to do with him… was strangely exciting. It was almost refreshing.
It was almost enough to make him forget he had someone waiting for him.
As Matthew rounded the corner, he saw Lord Felton looking down at his suit, and the grubby stains from the urchin’s hands where he had slid to a stop.
“I’m terribly sorry about that. I confess I have not approached King’s from this particular direction and found myself a little turned around.”
“A little turned around?” Lord Felton repeated with equal measures of disbelief and disdain. “You led us first into a filthy slum, and then when I was assaulted by the peasantry, you felt the need to stop and offer assistance to that mouthy woman.”
“I was raised to treat every woman as if she were a lady.” The fact that all the women he regularly encountered were, in fact, ladies, did not seem to cross Matthew’s mind.
“Well, the majority of them are not. Especially ones who walk alone in London. Especially those who loiter in this part of London,” Lord Felton shook his head. “I believe our business is concluded.”
“My Lord, if you would only…” Matthew trailed off as he saw the look Felton cast in his direction. In the eyes of Lord Felton, Matthew was one of the graspers, one of those people who wanted something from him: his money, his time, his influence.
Matthew did not need anything from Felton in any distinct sense. Having Felton enter into a business venture would be extremely profitable, but Matthew was set to inherit a duchy with his brother. He could easily tell Felton to go on his way; there would be others who would be happy to offer their investment to try and curry favor with his house.
“Very well then,” Matthew said, “a good day to you, Lord Felton.”
Lord Felton seemed to expect another entreaty, and the ease with which Matthew gave up the chase surprised him.
“And good day to you, Somersby.” Lord Felton said, straightening his waistcoat besmirched with alley slime, and made his way toward the end of the street where his coach waited.
As Matthew walked back to his own coach and rode along the slightly bumpy road until he reached his family home, he thought of the boy’s bare feet, covered in years of scrapes and calluses, with not a scrap of shoes in sight.
If he didn’t have the luxury of his name and his title, what might he have done in order to get Lord Felton to listen to him, to offer his support? What if he had to rely on the generosity of others in order to eat?
“Money also doesn’t guarantee you respect.”
True enough, but rather, it should be said that money does not entitle one to respect. There is always someone richer, but plenty of people paid deference to those with more money, power, and influence and the people to whom those three amounted to the same thing.
The fearlessness with which she spoke to Lord Felton stuck in his mind. Matthew wished he had the freedom to say what he willed, but he felt caged by the very money and privilege that were supposed to allow him social mobility.
As he ate dinner, he remembered the denizens of the slums with their hollow cheeks and sharp eyes. Lord Felton did not even see them as human, and without being able to see it from the inside, as Matthew had that day, he might not have treated them as anything more than chattel, either.
Matthew had always known, vaguely, that if he and his family were members of the upper crust in social standing, there had to be others at the bottom. Somehow, though, the “bottom” he imagined only extended to traders and merchants. He was rarely reminded that there were those who had no means to support themselves.
He was asked during dinner if he was alright and brushed off the question with the polite words expected when that question was asked. No one really wanted to know when you were not alright.
And given everything he had seen that day, Matthew was decidedly not alright. There were people who suffered, daily, and those who could make the most difference were the ones whose position at the top relied on the fact there were people at the bottom.
Perhaps it was time someone with the means did something.
“You take care, now!” The cook waved to Anna as she left the back door of the townhouse.
Anna smiled by way of reply and offered a wave of her own, though she thought it was probably a thin and weary thing. Wednesday mornings meant the grocery rounds, where she delivered milk and bread to the large houses across the river for a profit of a few coins, and where she would have felt shabby even if she had dressed in her Sunday best.
A chill hung in the air, and she pulled her shawl a little tighter around her as she made her way on foot down one of the less-used roads that was, if not seedy, certainly far from the broad avenues frequented by the self-important rich.
Wednesday afternoons meant lessons. Anna had been carrying so much around in her head that she had forgotten she was out of paper to show the children their letters and numbers. She changed directions in a moment, taking a side avenue toward where she knew she could find a stationery shop. The prices would be outrageous in a stationery shop, but mills had been shutting everywhere, and the places she used to get scrap paper from were closed and dark.
She arrived at the shop, which was really little more than an abbreviated alcove with an awning stretching into the street and looked at the selection. She only had two students today, so she could tide them over with a little of the expensive paper until she could find a place to get more scraps.
“Anna?” She heard a surprised voice behind her and turned to find the smiling face of an old friend from her school days. She wore a white apron and cap over her long blue dress that was plain but made of good cloth.
“Macy, it’s good to see you.” Anna smiled and pressed her hand. She gave Macy another looking-over, then asked, “How have you been?”
“Oh, it comes and goes, but I’m doing well for now. The lady of the ‘ouse asked me to fetch some more of her favorite paper for her calling cards.”
Anna forced another smile onto her face. They were both millers’ daughters, but Macy had traded the freedom of working for her father’s business for the security of a position in a high-society household. She could figure sums better than some of the accountants Anna had seen come through the business, and she spent her days lacing stays and emptying chamber pots.
“Hmm, it certainly wouldn’t do to have the wrong paper for one’s calling cards.” Anna affected the accent of the ton and elicited a bright laugh from Macy. The owner of the stationery cast a furtive glance between the two of them, offering up the stack of paper to Macy, tied in a colorful ribbon.
There was a clink of coins as Macy handed over the money given to her by the mistress of the house. Anna selected the thinnest, grayest paper she could find and handed over her money too. Macy tucked the sheaf of stationery into her basket and walked beside Anna as they moved away.
“And how about you? I know times have been… unstable.” Macy chose her words carefully.
“Father’s mill has been closed for two months now. The closures were only supposed to last a few weeks, and we had to release all our help. Without work for them to do, they would be a constant drain on our reserves.”
As it was, there was precious little of those reserves remaining, but Anna still had her pride, and she was not about to share what a dire state her family was truly in.
“Is that for those kids you give the lessons to?” Macy pointed at the pages Anna found herself twisting in her fingers.
“Yes. Tommy is doing so much better. I really think that being able to connect the words he knew with the letters he sees on the storefronts has given him more confidence. I expect that he could be a paperboy here soon, able to read the road signs and numbers and make deliveries.”
“Listen,” Macy stepped in close and lowered her voice. “I know it’s none of my business, and if you’re happy with running groceries, then I understand. But I know you enjoy teaching children and seeing that look in their eye when they finally grasp something. My employer is looking for a governess to teach his two young ones. Would you like me to put your name forward?”
In ordinary times, Anna wouldn’t take tuppence from a member of the ton, but time makes fools of everyone, and there was no other income flowing into her family’s coffers.
“Yes. I confess I’d rather have the joy of teaching children than dropping off goods for the larder.”
“Excellent!” Macy said and lightly grasped her arm. “I’ll send a note around with what they have to say. It would be lovely for us to see more of each other. Have a beautiful day, Anna,” Macy said and bustled off down the street, continuing on her errands.
As Anna approached the place where she taught the local urchins, she heard the sound of them kicking a ratty, leather wrapped ball back and forth amongst the members of the group. Jack, at ten, was one of the bigger boys, and he ran over to give her a hug.
“Anna!” he shouted, “we’ve been running down the alleys to see who can get to the end first, watch how fast I can go!”
“Jack, I don’t think that’s—” but before she could finish, he took off, bare feet pelting against the cobblestones. His laugh was high and free, until two men stepped into the intersection and Jack tried to stop but slid headlong into one of them.
They were men who didn’t belong here, that much was obvious from the rich color and cut of their clothes.
“Oh no,” Anna murmured under her breath, aware that the rest of the children looked to her like a compass for how they should react. The man that Jack ran into raised his arms, clearly affronted.
“Stay here, and stay quiet,” Anna said,
The cluster of children nodded silently, and Anna approached the two men. Jack was standing apart from them, staring down at his feet. He was a shy boy, and the enthusiasm he showed Anna had been carefully cultivated over almost a year of lessons along with others from the neighborhood.
She didn’t even know what she planned to say, but she knew she had to defend him. As she approached, she heard the Lord admonishing Jack.
“Do you hear me, boy?” The Lord advanced on him. “Look at this, you’ve stained my suit, you ignorant wretch!”
“Is that how you talk to a child?” She had to call out before she reached him, because the man raised his walking stick as if he were about to strike Jack.
He stopped and both men looked at her. One of them bore an expression of horrified bewilderment, while the other was still painted with anger. She stepped between the child and the Lord, and put a hand on Jack’s arm
“Who is really the ignorant wretch, hmm?” she demanded of the Lord. “I guess money doesn’t buy you any morals or manners.”
“Excuse me?” He had an air of affronted dignity that only the truly wealthy could exude. As if everyone existed to serve at his pleasure and the fact that she confronted him was the worst thing he could possibly imagine. She was tall, for a woman, but it still galled her that she had to look up to take in his face. He wanted someone to bully, and he had focused on the child. If nothing else, she could redirect that anger.
“Money also doesn’t guarantee you respect.” She had, quite deliberately, refrained from using any sort of formal address with him, knowing it would irritate a member of the upper crust like a burr under a saddle.
He took a great, gasping breath and stepped forward as if he were about to lay hands on her. The other man, who had been standing in the background and slowly recovering his composure, intervened, and stepped between the two of them.
“Now, now.” He made a placating gesture toward the angry Lord. “The boy has already said he was sorry. Let us move along with our day.”
Jack was pretending the whole thing wasn’t happening. He would be quiet for weeks now. And just when she was starting to pull him out of his shell, too, something terrible had to happen.
“Someone ought to show this wench where her place is.” His voice held the demand for justice against his perceived slight. Oh, if only Anna had a pound for every time a man had said she ought to be put in her place, she could buy enough supplies to really help the rabble of children she taught.
“There’s no need to be hostile, please. Let’s just go our separate ways,” the intercessor said.
A war of emotions raged across the man’s face before he schooled his features into submission. He tugged at the lapels of his suit, which did have a set of handprints near the hem. He transferred his stick to his other hand and told the younger man, “I’ll be waiting just around the corner for you.”
The Lord turned away and made for the junction. Anna watched him go and noticed that the other man was extending his hand toward her, as if she were some delicate thing that needed to be checked for damage. When she recoiled from him, pulling her arm and shoulder back, he let his hand fall by his side and asked, “Are you alright, madam?”
“Madam,” she scoffed. “As if I need compassion from the likes of you.” Anything he did for the two of them he would see as charity, as going above and beyond what he needed to do as a member of the aristocracy, offering his blessing on the lower classes. The thought made her sick.
Before he could say anything else, she walked the other way down the alley, marching Jack back to the collection of children who peered out from behind the edges of buildings to watch the confrontation unfold.
“Come along,” she said as she arrived at their group, “it’s time for your lessons.”
Tommy did very well that day, and what she had told Macy was the truth. If he were properly encouraged, he would be able to take on the job of being a runner, or a courier, or a paperboy with only a little more effort. He took to reading well, and she could tell he enjoyed being able to understand the signage from the enthusiasm with which he read them aloud to her as they walked.
The lessons accomplished, Anna made her way across the river again and took care of paying their monthly portion to own and operate the mill, then to the mill itself to tidy and keep the dust at bay. It was a terrible expense with no more money flowing in, but it was better to maintain the premises so that when they could return to work, everything would still be in good order.
By the time Anna reached the street with their small home, the smallest toe on her left foot had been pinched for hours, and she suspected that a blister was developing along the outer edge. The shoes she wore were not new but were well-made. Did one’s feet continue to grow in adulthood?
At twenty-two, I certainly hope I am finished with my growing, otherwise I’ll be taller than whatever husband I can find.
Because of the ill-fitting shoe, she was looking forward to little more than a nice cup of tea and being able to put her feet up for a few minutes before she had to clean the house.
When she opened the door, the whole of the small house smelled of cabbage and chicken.
“Welcome home!” her father said with a clatter of pans from their corner kitchen. She smiled and shook her head. Somehow her father was able to dirty a dish just by looking at it. It probably took him half the contents of the kitchen to prepare the cabbage soup.
She walked over and, sure enough, there was a pile of dishes stacked to the side. She kissed her father on the cheek as he lifted a chicken out of the roasting pan and onto a serving plate. He pulled a saucepan from the cupboard, poured the chicken juices into it, then the roasting pan joined the ranks of soiled cookware.
“A note arrived for you,” he said as he whisked some of their dwindling supply of flour into cool water, trying to get the lumps out before thickening the gravy.
She picked up the folded stationery and saw that it was from Lord Edmund Somersby, who Macy had mentioned earlier at the market.
“Dear Miss Smith,” it read, “our ladies’ maid mentioned your name as a candidate to be a governess for my two young children. It would please me greatly if you could attend our home at ten o’clock in the morning tomorrow, the eighteenth of April to conduct a conversation regarding this position.”
It was signed by the Marquess himself, and Anna felt a smile break over her face.
“How was your day?” her father asked as he poured the finished gravy into the serving bowl.
“The children are doing much better in their lessons. Now they have all the letters and a few basic words. They are discovering new things every day.”
She decided not to mention the confrontation in the middle of the street with a self-important nobleman.
“That’s good to hear. Help me carry this to the table, will you my dear?”
Anna carried the pot of cabbage soup and set it down beside the plated chicken. It was an odd combination. The chicken was probably the last they would see for a while, and the cabbage soup was an indication of what was to come if they could not reopen the mill. Her brother Samuel was working to that end, and he should have returned already.
Her father let out a long exhale as he sat down. Together, they blessed the meal and just as Anna began to serve the food, the door opened and slammed shut.
Samuel did not acknowledge either of them at first, walking from one end of the main room to the other, his face red, breath puffing as if he had just run a long way.
“Sam, what is it? What’s wrong?” Anna said, the ladle slowly dripping broth back into the soup pot.
“It’s these foul men who have put their love of coin above all else. They are willing to sacrifice lives, hundreds, perhaps thousands of them, and all for their precious land!”
It was his eternal complaint these days, as if Anna and her father were unaware of the effects of the Corn Laws.
“It is the nature of man to defend what he finds important, and the rich will always consider their wealth to be the most important thing to preserve. Now, please, sit down and have some food. I don’t know how you managed it, but you are flushed and pale at the same time. A meal will do you good.”
Anna gave her brother’s shoulder a light touch and helped him off with his coat. She hung it on the leftmost peg by the door and returned to the table where Samuel was partway through a long sigh.
“Long day then, brother?” she asked as she settled herself again.
“Not the longest I’ve had recently,” he hedged, “but exhausting all the same. It’s hard to make people open their eyes to uncomfortable truths. So many would rather stay comfortably asleep.”
“I hope you can rouse the necessary support before it is too late,” their father said. “I heard today that the threshold price of domestic grain has gone up again. Imports will be on hold until it’s reached. We may not be able to hold out, and the mill may close down… permanently.”
The pause and the softness with which he said the last word spoke volumes to Anna about the state of her father’s thoughts. Richard Smith was a proud man, who had built his business from nothing and neglected himself to care for his two children alone after his wife gave her life to bring Anna into the world. To see everything he had worked for ground to dust in the mechanism of government left him a withered flower.
Is he getting thinner?
Anna hadn’t wanted to mention it when Samuel was around, because he believed that taking money from the rich was wrong even more staunchly than she did. But she didn’t see any other way around it.
“It will all be alright,” Anna said. “I have a prospect for another revenue stream. I encountered an old friend today, Macy, who said that her employers are looking for a governess to teach their two children. I have a meeting with them at ten o’clock tomorrow, and I should be able to help keep us fed for a little while longer.” She turned her eyes to Samuel. “As long as the people are as close to waking up as you say they are. I know in the city it’s easy for people to lose sight of the suffering their fellows experience out in the countryside.”
Samuel chewed thoughtfully, then nodded. Anna could tell he was not comfortable with her going to work for a member of the ton, but also that he knew their family needed an influx of funds.
After dinner, Anna looked around their kitchen and surveyed the damage. A pool of congealed chicken grease held the end of a spoon crusted with the dried flour and water mixture. The tower of dirty dishes wobbled unsteadily when she took the first one off the top.
She didn’t mind taking the duty of cleaning, because she loathed cooking. No matter what she tried, her dishes came out either raw or burnt, and it took her hours to prepare each one. Their house divided tasks as equally as they could manage, each playing their role.
She removed her shoes before she was finished with the dishes and found that as suspected, there was a blister along the outside of her little toe. Setting aside the last spoon, she sighed with the contentment that came from finishing a task and prepared herself the cup of tea she had looked forward to all day.
Anna breathed in the steam as she settled into her favorite chair, stretching her legs out in front of her on the small footstool. The tea was lightly scented with bergamot and ever so slightly sweet without the addition of any sugar.
Samuel emerged from his room and set water to boil for his own cup of tea, then made his way over and sat in the chair across from her, nearest the fire.
“You are still coming to the meeting, yes?”
“Of course,” she replied. “Why wouldn’t I?”
“I hope that your becoming a governess won’t cloud your motivations. Attaching yourself to these wealthy people has made some people lose sight of what we’re trying to accomplish.”
“You needn’t worry about that. How could I forget that these laws have ruined everything father built?”
“At any rate, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, but I will anyway. If this Lord likes you and takes you into his employ, you cannot say anything about our activities, or our meetings.”
“I’m a little insulted you felt it necessary to say anything at all.”
“I’ve seen it happen,” he said bitterly as he fixed his cup of tea, “and I could not abide such a betrayal, not from my own sister, and not against the trade our father has worked so hard for. Good night, Anna.”
The coils of steam rising from her teacup reduced to a light mist, and she took the first tentative sip. It was still too hot and burned her mouth, but it was almost right.
She found her hands shaking as she held the cup to blow on it, and she felt her stomach curl in anticipation and anxiety at the thought of the interview the next day. She hoped the Marquess was a good man, unlike the one earlier who had frightened Jack, like the majority of the Lords she had encountered and heard about.
When she retired and lay down in her bed, it was a long time before sleep came to claim her.
Matthew loved that his rooms were on the eastern side of the manor. It was a blessing to rise every morning with the sun streaming bright and cheery through the curtains, and a relief in the afternoon that they did not have the stifling air of those on the south or western exposure. The sight of the bright light allowed him to approach the day with vigor and strength, particularly after a night of good sleep such as the one he just had. Unfortunately, what otherwise might have been a lovely spring day was marred by an unseasonable chill.
Almost the middle of April, and still the threat of snow hung in the air. He didn’t want to remain cooped up inside all day, despite the less-than-favorable weather. He donned one of his heavier coats and decided to go walking around London.
What he had seen yesterday made him rethink the situation of the poor. He heard about them the way one might hear about a war in a distant country. It was nothing that touched his life directly, so while it was a shame, it was one he felt he had no ability to influence, and so ignored.
The sight of that woman walking up and getting right in Lord Felton’s face about his treatment of a street urchin still stuck in his mind. The righteous anger she brought to bear was almost artistic in its execution. He had never seen anyone talk that forthrightly about their opinions, nor had he been treated with such disdain due to his position as a peer.
As he walked the streets of the city, he saw more of the kind of folk as the day before, huddled in corners in threadbare coats, eyes sunken with hunger. They glared at him warily, but none made any move to approach or speak with him. Only a few streets away, the kind of people he associated with carried on with their lives in complete oblivion to the pains of their fellow man, and he wondered at how he might bring it to the attention of the rest of the wealthy.
First and foremost, he supposed, he must convince those who did not already think so that there were more important things in the world than teas, luncheons, formal balls, and spending the afternoons in one another’s drawing rooms, which was the way he had grown up.
When he was younger, he hadn’t paid attention to the intricate workings of who was visited and when. As he grew, he resented the obligations of his time with all the stubbornness of a youth who would rather be outdoors than observing etiquette. There was no doubt that his parents had loved both him and his brother greatly, but also that they had created, for lack of better words, a soft man.
He had never been hungry, or cold, or without a dry change of clothes and a roof to keep off the rain. The greatest hardship he had endured was when he wanted a particular kind of horse and was forced to wait while the animal was bred and broken.
Uncertain of his own actions and reactions, there was only one other person he could talk to, who might understand the nature of his distress. Only one man had the same parents, and Matthew wondered if his brother had ever faced a similar crisis.
Having walked around for several hours without paying heed to whether he turned left or right, he took a moment to observe the street signs and orientated himself accordingly. He determined that his brother’s townhouse would only be a walk of ten or so minutes, and although it was still early in the morning, it was not so early that calling on them would be unseemly.
Matthew arrived and waited in their foyer while he was presented by the butler. A few minutes later, Edmund emerged from the back of the house with a smile on his face that lit his brown eyes.
“Matthew, it’s good to see you.” Older than Matthew by two years and broader in shoulder as well, when Edmund clapped him on the back with his free hand, it stung a little. “You’re right on time.”
“On time for what?” Matthew asked, worried that he had somehow forgotten about a social engagement his brother was putting on.
“Interviewing for a new governess! Our ladies’ maid suggested someone she knows personally who will be able to tutor the children. I would love to have your opinion of her.”
“Absolutely,” Matthew agreed. “I intruded on your morning, it’s the least I can do.”
“Excellent! We set the meeting for ten, so she should be arriving shortly. Christine and I are just finishing a light breakfast in the parlor, care to join us?”
“It would be my pleasure, thank you.” Matthew agreed, and followed his brother to the back of the house. A small table was set up by the window overlooking a small, tidy garden. A selection of pastries, fruit, and cheeses were laid out on dishes with a matching pattern of lemon and blue lattice.
“Morning, Matthew,” the lady of the house said by way of greeting and took a sip of her tea.
“Good morning, Christine,” Matthew said in reply and took a seat in the third chair which had just been placed by an attentive servant.
“Thank you,” Matthew said to the man, suddenly very aware of the fact that he had always taken for granted the thousand ways in which the servants of a great house made life easier. He not only had no worries of going hungry, he didn’t even have to cook his own food. It appeared on platters in the dining room at prearranged times and all he had to do was make his way there.
“Wait until they’ve finished eating!” Matthew heard from the hall a moment before Edmund and Christine’s two children, Mary and Robert, burst in and ran around the edge of the table toward their uncle.
“Matty!” Mary cried as she flung her little arms around his neck. “We didn’t know you were coming!”
“It’s a pleasant surprise to see the two of you as well. It’s almost been a month since I saw you last and look how much you’ve grown.”
“Oh, mama, can you measure us against the height markings again?” Robert asked.
“Maybe later,” Christine said. “There is a young woman arriving soon and we’d like you to meet her. She may become your governess.”
“I want to meet her now!”
“She isn’t even here yet, dear, and there are some things we want to ask her first before you meet her, so you don’t get attached if we don’t want to hire her. How about you go along and play with nurse, and we’ll call you in when we’re ready?” Christine said to the excitable Mary.
“Alright,” the girl said and gave a half-hearted kick to the ground with the toe of her shoe and glanced at her brother, who still seemed caught up in the excitement over the news.
The nurse still stood at the entrance to the room and reached out for the children’s hands as she turned away from the parlor.
“How have you been lately, Matthew?” Edmund asked as he relaxed back in his chair with his teacup.
“Oh, I’ve been doing alright for myself, I suppose.” He couldn’t bring up the reason for his visit, not with Christine there.
“And how did your meeting with Lord Felton go yesterday?”
“Ah… it didn’t.”
“Really? Did he miss the engagement?”
“No, we were waylaid when we were going to the club, and he elected not to have the meeting after all,” Matthew replied. He was hoping that Edmund wouldn’t ask any further, prying questions when the butler rapped on the open door to get the attention of the Lord and Lady.
“Miss Smith has arrived, and she is waiting in the foyer.”
“Excellent, Rupert, thank you. Please show her in.”
The valet inclined his head and gave a half bow, the heels of his shoes clicking on the marble as he retreated.
“There is nothing I enjoy more than a good cup of tea,” Edmund said and peered into the depths of his cup. It was a trivial thing to say, and at any other time, Matthew might have dismissed it. There were people freezing to death on the streets of London who would kill for a hot cup of tea, but he said nothing.
“Gentlemen and lady, this is Miss Anna Smith,” Rupert said, and the three of them looked in the direction of the valet’s voice.
Matthew’s heart staggered in his chest. The woman framed by the doorway was the very same who had defended the child in front of Lord Felton the day before. She clearly recognized him, too, or else she was prone to being startled and blushing. She had been standing quietly beside the butler with the erect deportment of a young lady, but when her eyes fell on Matthew, she went still as a deer at a sudden sound.
“Miss Smith,” Edmund said, breaking the moment, “please, have a seat.” He gestured to a rail back chair that sat a few feet from the table by the window.
Her eyes roved over the scene for a moment, then she gave a weak smile as she gathered her skirts and sat with her hands on her knees.
“Thank you, my Lord,” her voice seemed to tighten when she said Edmund’s title. Matthew was aware of the fact that he was still staring at her, but she was the only person in the room who was moving a measurable amount. She was the center of the action, it was only natural that the eye was drawn to her, wasn’t it?
“Miss Smith, as you already know from my note, I am Edmund Somersby. This is my wife Christine,” he gestured, “and my brother Matthew.”
“It’s lovely to meet you,” Christine said with genuine warmth in her tone. She was one of those women who finds reasons to be jealous despite their husbands’ utter adherence to propriety. And yet, despite the fact that Anna was a beautiful young woman, Christine was not watching her husband for how he reacted to her.
Perhaps it’s because of how I’m reacting to her.
He tried to put the thought aside as he realized it was his turn to say something.
“Yes, it is nice to make your acquaintance,” Matthew said.
“My brother happened to stop by this morning, and I asked for his opinion on our choice of governess. I hope you don’t mind.”
Anna looked over to Matthew, her eyes a mix of defiance and trepidation.
“No, I don’t mind at all.”
“Excellent. Well, I think we should dive right in, then,” Edmund said, and looked expectantly at his wife.
“How much experience do you have with children, both tending and tutoring?”
“Almost ten years, my lady. I began by watching over young children while their parents attended church, and then for the last few years I have been teaching letters and numbers to some of London’s less-fortunate youth.”
“And what degree of success have you had with teaching the city’s impoverished young?”
Matthew caught the faintest twitch at the corner of Anna’s eye as she responded.
“Several of them have gone on to acquire apprenticeships as a result of the education I provided them with.”
The questions went on from there, inquiring as to her own education, but Matthew barely heard the answers she gave about which subjects were her favorites and what she found most challenging when teaching young children. He was still entranced by her beauty, and the measured responses she gave to the interview still hinted at the fire she had underneath.
When he was able to pull his gaze away, he noticed that Edmund and Christine both had faint smiles on their faces. They liked her. Matthew found himself hoping they decided to hire her, so he could see her again. Perhaps even often and learn more about her.
“We would have you meet the children before making your final decision, but I think I speak for both of us when I say you seem to be right for the position,” Edmund said, and Christine nodded her agreement.
“I would like that very much, thank you,” Anna said and folded her hands in her lap. Edmund rang a small silver bell sitting beside his plate with a half-eaten cold sandwich, and Matthew saw the slight hitch in Anna’s complexion once more. She hated the rich, absolutely, and Matthew had the impression she was taking the position because her desire to help children was stronger than her hatred.
Mary and Robert contained themselves and, instead of running screaming into the room as they had before, approached the group of adults with polite decorum. Mary curtsied and Robert bowed from the waist. They were a little unpolished, but that would be fixed with time.
They talked briefly, and he saw true delight in Anna’s eyes as she complimented Mary on her dress and asked what her favorite thing to learn was.
“Reading is my favorite, too. There are hundreds of books I would love to show you. And what about you, Robert?”
“I don’t really like anything. I’d rather be outside.”
“Perhaps the natural sciences for you, then. You can learn all sorts of things by going outside, and then you can reference the books that help you understand them if you want to know more.”
Robert seemed to consider that for a moment before nodding his head.
Edmund and Christine smiled at each other.
“Well, Miss Smith, would you like to take on the position of governess?”
“I would like that very much,” she said, her pink lips parting in a smile.
“Then it is settled. Are you able to start tomorrow?”
“Yes, my Lord,” she replied with an earnest nod. Matthew smiled along with her, and he hoped that everyone at the table took it as merely happiness that his niece and nephew would have a good governess.
Anna rose and took Edmund’s extended hand to shake. She glanced briefly in Matthew’s direction before looking once more to her new employer. Just before she turned to leave, Matthew said, “It was lovely to meet you, Miss Smith.”
The smile curving her lips turned a little rueful, and she said
“It was lovely to meet all of you, too.” She swept her gaze around the room once, taking in furnishings and occupants both, then made her exit.
“It will be good to have a governess in the house,” Edmund said, and Christine’s eyes snapped sharply in his direction for the first time that morning, then she looked back at Matthew and seemed to relax.
“Matthew,” she said, “would you care to stay and join us for lunch today?”
“Hmm, yes,” he said distractedly. He was still pondering on Anna Smith. She was a perfectly behaved young lady throughout the whole interview. Well dressed, proper, and with an accent and pattern of speech that marked her to be at least of decent standing in London. There was nothing of the fire from the day before.
Part of him wanted to tell Edmund that if she were ever out with the children, she would protect them fiercely. But in order to do that, he would have to reveal having met her, which would lead to him having to reveal that he had been in the slums the day before.
“I’ll drop by again tomorrow, if that is alright with you,” Matthew said as he left after their luncheon.
“I would like that,” Edmund said. “We live in this same stinking city, and yet I don’t see you nearly as often as I should. Don’t make yourself a stranger.”
“I won’t. See you soon.”
Edmund, at least, was none the wiser about his reasons for the visit.
Anna’s heart beat out a staccato pattern against her ribcage as she walked away from the townhouse. They were going to pay her enough to keep her family from ruin. It wasn’t nearly enough to replace what they had been earning from the mill, but by the end of the month, it would cover one more installment with what they still had already set aside and be able to purchase food.
She had to keep herself from skipping down the street like a schoolgirl at the prospect. She got to teach children and help her family. It was the best situation she could have hoped for.
Except for his brother.
The hummingbird feeling in her heart stopped almost immediately and was replaced by cold dread, stopping her in her tracks.
What if he tells his brother about our encounter yesterday? What if Matthew—seeing as I know his name now—decides to be as cruel and petty as I’ve seen people like that acquaintance of his are?
She had been rude to him as well as to his abrasive companion. Would a word from him be enough to have Lord Somersby rescind his offer of employment?
Those thoughts occupied no small part of her mind as she moved through the rest of her day. She took the afternoon to give Tommy some extra attention on his figures, as he was much better with reading and writing.
“You did very well today, Tommy,” she said and ruffled his hair. “I’ll see you again soon.”
“Thank you, Miss Anna,” he said, and scampered off into the gathering twilight.
She made her way to the warehouse where their meeting was being held, her shawl wrapped tightly around her. Truly, April had no business being so chilly.
She took a longer route than was strictly necessary, and although she had no real reason to believe that someone would be marking her, it was always wiser to take precautions and then find out later that they were not required. The last few meetings had seen thin crowds, with only a few dozen people. The out of work millworkers had gathered what allies they could, but others were slow to join, and they didn’t have the presence that the rural communities did. They wouldn’t change anything if their numbers stayed so small. That was the trick; to be invisible until you were large enough that you could not be ignored.
Anna checked the road behind her one last time and, finding it empty, she slipped inside the door of the warehouse, the air almost stiflingly warm from the number of men and women gathered within. A quick glance around the room told her that their regular supporters were all in one place, when they were usually scattered across the city. Furthermore, they accounted for only half the occupants. There had to be at least two hundred new people.
Beaming, she moved closer to the center of the room, where Samuel was busily in conversation with a small knot of people, and there was only a low hum of chatter despite the number of supporters gathered around. They were all waiting in anticipation for what Samuel had to say. He clapped one of the men on the shoulder, then climbed up onto a crude stage assembled from a patchwork of crates.
The low murmur turned to silence as Samuel cleared his throat and raised both hands. He never planned what he was going to say beyond a few points and used no aids for his speech other than the power of his personality, and a strong baritone voice.
“Welcome, friends and neighbors, brothers and sisters. Thank you for attending this meeting. For those of you who do not know who I am, my name is Samuel Smith, and my story is much the same as many of yours. I was born of common birth and raised to complete an honest day’s work. My father built a thriving business as a miller and spent most of the last twenty years endeavoring to make it succeed. Now, our mill stands shuttered and we are half a step from paupers.”
It was an exaggeration, but Samuel wasn’t only speaking as himself, as a miller’s son. He had to make himself a symbol. He enhanced their situation to capture the attention of the people who were truly suffering in the face of the Corn Laws.
“I am Samuel Smith, a common man without need of gold or luxuries. I require only the necessities which make for a good man: a good meal, a decent wage, fair opportunities, and the abolishment of these abhorrent laws which have changed all of our lives for the worst.”
The gathered crowd broke into scattered applause, and Anna was happy at the response he was already receiving from them. It gave her hope. He was brave enough to be the face of their movement, something she knew she could never bring herself to do.
“Thank you, thank you,” Samuel said as the clapping died away. He paused a moment for effect before continuing,
“I know that most of you are tired, weak, frail. The uncertainty of these times makes it hard to sleep when you don’t know where your next meal is coming from. Those missing meals have withered the body and made it so that if an opportunity presented itself, you would not have the strength to take it. I am here to reassure you that, if you stand with me, with us, as one, we will make a difference. We will stop the power-hungry tyrants ruling us. We must all stand united and defend our right to live with dignity.”
Shouts joined the clapping and Anna wanted to lift her voice and join in with them. She admired her brother’s conviction and motivation to do what was necessary to right the wrongs the common people had suffered since the introduction of the legislation. It was supposed to support domestic grain production, but with the weather so unseasonably cold, they were unlikely to have much of a harvest. The grain would be even more expensive, and more people would starve.
“How do we make them listen?” a voice shouted from the crowd, and Samuel turned his head in the direction of the sound.
“You cannot make anyone listen. You cannot make anyone see. What we have to do is let our actions stand for themselves. We need to demonstrate that we will not stand for their behavior. We cannot change the world by writing a few sternly worded letters.”
Samuel’s calls to action before had been just that. They were appeals to reason addressed to their parliamentary representatives. Those having fallen on deaf ears, apparently he believed they needed to be more active, but at the same time she worried about the nature of his encouragement, and whether more people would be harmed in the name of drawing public attention to the problem.
Anna looked around at the audience. Many of them stared raptly at her brother, and she knew that they would follow him through fire. They would leave behind everything they knew for the chance to make something better. Some looked as concerned as Anna felt, and she wondered if it was because they doubted whether their actions would make any sort of difference, or because they shared her same fears.
In the guttering light of the lamps hanging high on the walls, she recognized a profile that was becoming a far too common sight. Matthew Somersby, the brother of her new employer, was listening to a speech that was rising the general populace against his echelon of society.
But he didn’t look enraged. He didn’t look afraid. He was…
Before Anna could consider the issue further, there was a disturbance at the edges of the crowd and official-sounding voices shouting.
“Constables!” The cry went up from the other side of the room.
The effect was immediate and shocking. People scattered, running for every possible exit, the press of bodies thick against the doorways as everyone tried to avoid being the last person out.
No one wanted to starve, but no one wanted to get arrested either.
When Anna looked up again, Samuel was no longer on his stage of crates, and she couldn’t see what had happened to him. Hopefully, the young men he kept stationed nearby had helped shuffle him to safety when the raid started.
Looking back to where she had seen the face of Matthew Somersby, she found him also missing.
The shiny caps of the constables marked them easily in the crowd, and Anna saw them making their way through the people who remained. She joined the flow of people moving toward one of the doorways farthest from the constables’ current path but found it to be the most crowded. There was no way to slip along the wall from the side either, as the press of bodies was already four deep and growing.
She was caught in the middle of the throng and the air was crushed from her lungs by the weight of the mob trying desperately to escape. Her vision grew dark around the edges, and just as she thought the blackness would take her, her feet left the ground and she was buoyed up a foot or so, lofted on the mass below.
Then, the tide spilled out into the cold night, the air like a knife in her lungs, unprepared for the drastic change. The net of people who had been supporting her dissipated instantly, and she fell awkwardly to the pavement, landing on her left foot first. Her ankle rolled beneath her and she crumpled, her elbow hitting the cobbles.
A hand pulled her up and set her on her feet. She didn’t even get a chance to see who it belonged to as people fled into the night. She gathered up her skirts and joined them. She had just gotten an offer of employment and if any of the houses had spies in attendance and word got back…
She wondered for a moment if Matthew could be a spy for his brother but put the notion out of her mind almost as quickly. He was far too absorbed in Samuel’s words to be merely remembering them for another. He showed genuine interest in their cause.
But a member of the ton taking an interest in such a low complaint?
When she was no longer part of a fleeing horde, Anna slowed her pace to a walk and took a series of deep, calming breaths to ease her racing heart, and putting a hand to the stitch in her side. She hadn’t run with that kind of free abandon since she was a child, about the age of Mary who could be no more than ten.
When she turned, a familiar silhouette stood beside her in the night.
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