“Now say it.”
“I feel ridiculous.”
“Forget that. Just say it.”
“Sara, just do it,” Louisa insisted.
Sara pursed her lips and looked at Louisa, trying not to laugh. Her friend had done a credible job of re-creating Mrs. Glendoe from a dress manikin, using one of the sports balls for her head and an old-fashioned wig found in a costume trunk. The ball had a sour expression drawn on it, the mouth curled into a scowl.
Sara again looked at Louisa, who gestured impatiently at the makeshift Mrs. Glendoe. Claire just sat on the sofa and sipped her tea, a sparkle in her eye. All three were in their private sitting room, enjoying the quiet Sunday afternoon before the rush of the week began.
She took a deep breath and began to speak. “Mrs. Glendoe—”
“Louder,” Louisa interrupted.
“Mrs. Glendoe,” Sara repeated more loudly, “I do not recall asking for your opinion.” She looked impatiently at Louisa. “This is pointless. I know it’s not her, so it’s not the same.”
“But the more you practice now, the easier it will be when you actually do confront her.” Claire pointed out.
“But I don’t actually want to confront her.” Even just the thought of doing so caused her throat to tighten. Sara swallowed to dislodge it, disguising the action by taking a sip of her tea. The teacup shook in her hand and rattled as she placed it back on the saucer.
Claire smiled. “It will get easier,” she repeated.
Louisa sat with a huff and reached for a scone. “I don’t understand it. Do you enjoy the way she makes you feel?”
“Of course not,” Sara answered.
“Then why do you let her treat you like that? Why do you freeze instead of standing up to her?” Louisa asked, impatience painting her voice. “I’m trying to understand you, but it’s difficult when you won’t tell us why.”
Sara stared down into her tea. How could she explain it to them when she barely understood herself why she reacted the way she did? Even this conversation, despite knowing that Louisa had the best of intentions, made her throat prickle; the sensation was not unlike feeling ants crawling over her skin, but internalized.
She had always been this way, much to the exasperation of her mother.
Claire took her hand and pulled her up. “Come here,” she said, leading Sara to the manikin. “Allow me to introduce you. Sara, this is Mrs. Glendoe.”
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Glendoe,” Sara said to the manikin, curtseying properly.
Louisa joined them and curtseyed as well. “Good afternoon, you miserable old bat.” She said it with a smile pasted on her face.
“Louisa!” Sara gasped.
Claire curtseyed this time. “Mrs. Glendoe, how horrid you look with that scowl on your face. I certainly regret we weren’t better at avoiding you.”
Sara stared at her friends. Had they gone mad? Didn’t they know they weren’t supposed to speak of someone in such a manner? What if Mrs. Glendoe were to find out what they had done?
Louisa smirked and continued. “I must say, that scowl does give us an appalling view of your rotting teeth. Tell me, do you sharpen those fangs yourself, or is there someone who does it for you?”
Claire laughed. “And your eyes. Did it take much practice for them to glare daggers at someone?”
Sara couldn’t hold back a giggle. Horrified, she clamped a hand over her mouth, her eyes wide as she looked at her friends. Both ladies looked at her with knowing smiles and Louisa pulled the hand away.
Claire winked at Sara. “Mrs. Glendoe, tell me, what is it like to eat your young?”
Louisa chimed in again. “What if they don’t taste good? Is there a jam or sauce you can put on them?”
“You both are awful,” Sara whispered, but she couldn’t stop the smile from tugging at her lips.
“And how do you moisturize your scales?” Louisa asked, batting her lashes innocently at the manikin.
Claire nudged Sara and nodded toward the manikin. “Your turn. Do you have something to say to Mrs. Glendoe?”
Sara shook her head. “I can’t.” If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. Her mother’s command echoed in her head.
“Go on,” Claire encouraged.
Louisa went again. “I am surprised you have yet to set fire to your home, you old dragon.” She nudged Sara.
She shook her head again. The ants were back in her throat. Treat others the way you want to be treated.
“Just say something,” Louisa said.
“Say what?” The deep voice saved Sara from answering Louisa. Claire smiled as Jacob entered the sitting room. “Oh, I see we have a guest,” he said, approaching the group around the manikin. He sketched a courtly bow. “To whom do I have the honor?”
“Mrs. Glendoe,” Claire informed him with a smile. “We were just asking the harpy some questions.”
“Ah, I wish I could say it is lovely to see you, but I value honesty.” He took the cue from Claire, grinning.
Sara pursed her lips. She didn’t understand how her friends could even think such things. Even if it was difficult to not laugh, they shouldn’t be so insulting. You are the daughter of the vicar. You must set an example.
Jacob continued, circling the manikin. “Yes, I do believe you are the most vicious form of the black widow species mankind has ever encountered. Tell me, did Mr. Glendoe go down more easily with a glass of port?”
Laughing, Louisa nudged Sara again. “Give it a go.”
Sara shook her head again. “I can’t.” If I hear of you being disrespectful, you will regret ever opening your mouth.
“Yes you can. Look.”
Jacob had taken Mrs. Glendoe’s head and placed it on his shoulder. “Be honest. Does this head make me look fat?”
Claire laughed. “Not only that, but it’s improved her looks and disposition in return.”
Louisa pushed Sara toward the manikin. “Your turn and no getting out of it this time.”
Sara just stared at the headless manikin, unable to form any words of insult. The ants were becoming more active in her throat and she knew it was just a matter of time before the noose appeared.
“There’s no harm in it,” Claire said.
“Just do it,” Louisa insisted.
Jacob replaced the head, facing it backward. “I always knew she was misguided. Now we know why.”
“Sara,” Louisa continued through her laughter, “she deserves it. She is a horrid person.”
“I can’t.” Her voice came out as a squeak. I told you you would regret it! Now come here!
“Louisa,” Claire warned in a soft voice, concerned eyes on Sara, but it was lost in the loud laughter.
“Just do it,” Louisa insisted more loudly. “Do it.”
“Please, I can’t.” It was becoming increasingly difficult to breathe and speak.
“Why not? It’s easy.” Louisa pushed her more. “Just tell her how you feel.”
“I’m not you!” Sara burst out just as her throat closed completely. The noose had wrapped around her throat and had tightened, stopping the air from getting into her lungs. She looked at Claire with panicked eyes.
“It’s all right, sweetheart,” Claire said in a soothing voice, leading Sara quickly to the sofa. “Just breathe. There’s nothing here to threaten you. In two three four, out two three four.”
Sara struggled to get air past the noose, her head making short jerks as she inhaled noisily.
“Look at me,” Claire instructed, still using her calm, soothing tone. “Focus on me and on breathing. In two three four, out two three four.”
Louisa had sat on the other side of Sara and rubbed her back, counting with Claire. Jacob put the manikin behind a decorative screen in the corner and discreetly left the room, knowing Sara disliked him seeing her thus.
The more air that passed the noose, the more relaxed Sara became. Slowly the noose lifted and the anxiety drained away. As her labored breathing eased, her embarrassment increased. She stared at her lap. “I am sorry,” she whispered. “I know you were just having a spot of fun and I ruined it.”
“No.” Louisa was firm. “I ruined it. I shouldn’t have pushed you when you said you couldn’t. It is my fault.”
Claire shook her head. “There is no need to place blame in this. What happened, happened. There is no need to dwell on it.”
Louisa rubbed her back again. “We were just trying to help.”
Sara gave a weak smile. “I know. But I’m not you. It doesn’t come easily for me.”
Louisa returned her smile. “It doesn’t have to. We will always be here to defend you against that dragon.”
Sara gave a small giggle. “The modern Knights of the Round Table, saving the damsel in distress.”
Claire chuckled. “What is the world coming to when the knights are female?”
Louisa looked at her indignantly and sniffed. “I still say that if Guinevere had been in charge, the legends would have ended much differently. And for the better. We would still have Camelot, for instance.”
Sara smiled at the familiar argument and took that as her cue to leave. “Excuse me. I think I should like to rest for a while.”
Claire looked at her, understanding. “Is there anything you would like? I can have Anna to come with a tea tray or a lavender compress.”
Sara shook her head. “Just some quiet would do me good.” Claire nodded.
Sara smiled as Louisa squeezed her hand in farewell. She left the sitting room and made her way to her room down the corridor. When they had moved in, Claire had insisted they all take rooms on what used to the family level. All rooms on this floor were closed to the public, giving each member of the Governess Club a separate space to call her own.
Sara shut the door to her room, pausing briefly to close her eyes and take a deep breath. Swallowing, she moved to the curtains and shut them, blocking out the bright afternoon light before rolling back part of the carpet, revealing the hardwood floor underneath. She retrieved her Bible from her nightstand and knelt down on the exposed floor, ensuring there was no protection for her knees. Keeping her back ramrod straight, she opened the Bible to the bookmark and began to read aloud, keeping her voice quiet.
Her mother’s voice interrupted only once.
This will teach you to disrespect others, girl!