“Goodbye, Miss Collins!” The row of young children curtseyed and bowed appropriately before turning and running out the front door of Ridgestone, ruining the effect of their proper farewells.
“William Bishop, be sure to wait for your older brother,” Sara called out after the disappearing children. The boy in question waved as he continued to run down the driveway, racing the others to the gate. She smiled and shook her head ruefully.
She made her way back into the manor, stepping out the way of more exiting students, all rushing home for lunch. “Robert, your brother is already racing to the gate.” The fleet-footed boy was gone in a flash, dust kicking up from his heels. She saw a young lady slip on the marble stair. “Maisie, mind your step.” Sara rushed to ensure the girl was fine.
“Miss Collins, me mam sez I kin have a cake for me birf-day Saturday next!”
“Is that so, Dudley? Aren’t you lucky!” Sara turned when she felt a sharp tap, almost a push, on her back, to see two of the older boys running down the hall, laughing over their shoulders. She called out for them to slow down, but they ignored her. Furrowing her brow, she turned back to see Maisie looking at her.
“It was Henry, miss,” Maisie said, her voice almost a whisper and her eyes wide.
“What was?” Sara asked.
“He put ink all over his hand when Mrs. Knightly was teaching us sketching. He pushed you so his handprint is on your back.”
She twisted to see if she could locate the handprint, but to no avail. “Thank you, Maisie. Enjoy your lunch.” She escorted the girl out, waving the last pupils off.
Turning to make her way to the morning room, Sara pursed her lips and sighed. Henry was a bane of her existence and the primary reason she had not been able to teach the older students. Constant disruption and general disrespect were his common behaviors, and once he’d discovered he could best her in controlling the other students, he became even worse. Sara ended many days in tears before Claire and Louisa stepped in. Claire appeared to be doing a better job with him, but he was still their most difficult student.
She entered the morning room, which also served as their combined offices and general meeting area. Anna was already laying an informal light buffet luncheon of cold meats, cheese, bread and fruit for the teachers to share. Smiling at the maid, Sara sat at her desk to make brief notes of how the morning had progressed.
It was several minutes before she was joined by Claire. “Why is it that children are always the most energetic when you are tired?” her friend asked as she entered the room. She sat on the sofa and leaned her head back, closing her eyes.
“Are you unwell?” Sara asked, looking at her in concern. Claire didn’t normally look so pale.
“Yes, I—good heavens, what happened to your dress?”
Sara grimaced at her friend’s surprised tone and twisted to give her a better view. “Henry Copeland happened,” she said. “He decided to take your art lesson outside of the schoolroom.”
Claire pursed her lips and shook her head. “We are going to have to speak with his parents. This sort of behavior cannot continue.”
“Whose behavior cannot continue?” Louisa asked, entering. She made her way directly to the buffet and began filling a plate.
“Look what Henry Copeland did to Sara’s dress.” Sara twisted again to allow Louisa to see.
Louisa’s face darkened. “The little ba—”
“Louisa,” Claire said in a warning tone. The blond lady pressed her lips into a thin line and continued to fill her plate, her movements angry. Claire turned back to Sara. “We will have to discuss this later, after classes have been dismissed. He is obviously not responding to our discipline methods.”
“What’s this?” Jacob joined the conversation as he entered the room. He squeezed his wife’s shoulder in greeting and joined Louisa at the buffet. He gestured a plate at Claire, who nodded and moved to the small dining table. “What happened?”
“Henry Copeland ruined Sara’s dress,” Louisa said in a dark tone.
“Really?” He looked at her.
Claire interrupted to address Jacob. “We need to come up with a better strategy to curtail Henry’s disruptive behavior.”
Jacob shrugged. “I will beat him for you.”
Claire frowned at him. “That will not be effective if he is unaware of the expectations.”
Louisa sat down. “I say he knows them. He wouldn’t be so determined to break the rules if he didn’t know them. He is deliberately misbehaving.”
“Why is that?” Jacob asked, setting Claire’s plate in front of her and returning to the buffet.
“Because he’s an as—”
“Louisa,” Claire said sharply. “How can we be expected to teach proper behavior and etiquette if we do not demonstrate it ourselves, even in private?”
“I know the rules; therefore I know when they should be broken,” Louisa replied hotly.
“That is no excuse,” Claire said.
“The boy is a hellion. If he does not change, I say we refuse him our services.”
Sara sat down, looking at Louisa. “Is that not drastic?”
Louisa returned her gaze with a hard one of her own. “Why should we expose any member of our group to such continued assault?”
“Assault? Isn’t that exaggerating the situation?” Jacob asked, taking his own seat.
“What would you call it?” Louisa challenged.
He shrugged and took a bite of bread with meat. “A boy being a boy.”
“So you condone this sort of treatment toward a lady?”
“I didn’t say that,” he defended himself. “I just think you are blowing this out of proportion.”
“Jacob,” Claire said quietly. “Please don’t push her.”
But Louisa spoke over her. “What if Henry was doing this to Claire? What if it were she who was being pushed and insulted and ridiculed on a regular basis? Would he still just be a boy being a boy?”
“That is unfair,” he said in a flat voice.
Sara stared at her plate, the conversation continuing around her as she picked at her food. Perhaps she should have changed her dress before the others had the opportunity to see it. The ants gathered in her throat the longer she listened to the argument. Why do you always cause trouble, girl? What sort of example are you setting? Do you enjoy embarrassing your father?
“Enough,” Claire finally broke in firmly, giving Jacob and Louisa hard looks. “We will discuss this after classes have been finished for the day.”
A tentative knock on the door caught all of their attention. Sara looked up to see Mr. Pomeroy standing uncertainly, his hat in his hands, his eyes glancing from person to person.
“Mr. Pomeroy,” Claire greeted as they all curtseyed, Jacob moving over to shake his hand. “We weren’t expecting you today. What brings you to Ridgestone?”
“I apologize for arriving uninvited, Mrs. Knightly,” the vicar said.
“Goodness, think nothing of it,” she assured him. “Please sit. Have you eaten lunch?”
“Ah, no, thank you, no,” he said, taking a spot at the table. “I’m afraid this isn’t quite a social call.”
Sara swallowed the rest of the ants. “Is something amiss?” she asked, concerned.
Mr. Pomeroy turned his warm chocolate brown eyes to her and Sara’s heart did a little stutter. Not as noticeable as it had been in the past, but it was still there. “Not to worry,” he said. “Nothing has happened to me or to anyone in the parish. However,” he continued, turning back to Claire and Jacob, “I have received word that the elderly vicar in Ramsey Gate has fallen ill. The bishop has requested I travel there to tend his parish while he recovers.”
Sara’s heart slowed down, dismay filling her chest. “Ramsey Gate?” she echoed quietly. “But it is so far away.” He could be gone for over a sennight, considering the distance to be covered; it was at least a full day’s ride at full gallop. Not to mention the time it might take for the elderly vicar to recuperate.
Louisa shot her a disapproving look but refrained from commenting. Mr. Pomeroy addressed her statement. “Yes, and is a sizeable parish compared to Taft. This is why the bishop feels the village can spare me; he perceives there is a greater need for stability and guidance in the larger community.”
Jacob’s brows rose and he offered a smile. “That is quite a vote of confidence. This could mean great things for your career.”
“Yes,” Mr. Pomeroy acknowledged with a grimace. “It is unfortunate that it may be at the expense of another, but that cannot be helped. I have asked Mr. Dodsworth to take over the services until I return.”
Mr. Dodsworth? The ancient curate? Sara hoped dismay didn’t show on her face. The old man rambled and stared at the young ladies’ bosoms during his sermons. Her appetite was quickly disappearing.
“Well, I am sure he can manage in your absence,” Louisa joined in the conversation.
“Yes,” Mr. Pomeroy replied with slight hesitation. “But I do have my concerns. He is quite elderly.”
“If we can assist in any way, we will,” Claire assured him.
“I have no doubt.” Mr. Pomeroy’s gaze shifted back to Sara. “And that is why I am here. Miss Collins, I was hoping you would continue to do the flower arrangements.”
She offered a weak smile, hoping it hid her disappointment at his news. “Of course.”
“And if you don’t mind, could you continue making the parish visits?”
Louisa inhaled sharply through her nose and spoke again. “That is asking a bit much, don’t you think?” Her brow lowered and looked at him with what could only be interpreted as a glare.
Sara inwardly sighed. She did not understand why Louisa was so belligerent in regard to the vicar. Why was she so insistent in providing her unsolicited protection from the man? Sara loved Louisa dearly, but her stubbornness could be wearying.
Mr. Pomeroy blinked. “I do realize that I am placing a burden on Miss Collins. However, she has been accompanying me since my arrival some months ago and is familiar with the needs of the different families. In addition, Mr. Dodsworth is too advanced in his age to be expected to fulfill such a duty.”
“Would that not be an indication that the man should retire from the position?” Louisa argued. “Or at the very least have a young apprentice who can?”
“Louisa,” Jacob interrupted, “I do not believe Mr. Pomeroy came here to discuss Mr. Dodsworth’s suitability.”
“I don’t think Mr. Pomeroy understands what he is asking of Sara,” Louisa replied.
“I am happy to do it,” Sara said, but her soft voice was lost among the louder ones.
Louisa continued. “He is asking her to enter the homes of sick and desperate people, unescorted. That is not safe, nor is it appropriate for him to expect such a thing from her.”
“I did not expect her to do so unescorted,” Mr. Pomeroy protested, although it was a weak one. Sara blinked at him, surprised. Had it truly not crossed his mind?
He continued to speak. “I am certain Mr. Dodsworth would—”
Mr. Dodsworth! There was no opportunity for Sara to protest as Louisa jumped in with the same sentiment.
“I will escort her,” Jacob said firmly, halting any disparaging comment Louisa might have offered. Claire looked at him surprised. “I can spare one afternoon a week to take Sara on the visits. Besides, this can help in improving the reputation of the school.”
Claire smiled and looked at the others. “This is all well and good, but hasn’t anyone noticed that Sara has yet to consent?”
All eyes turned to her and Sara felt her face warm. “Of course I am happy to do it,” she said, repeating the words that everyone had overlooked earlier.
“Then it’s all arranged,” Jacob declared, meeting Louisa’s glare with a displeased one of his own. “Is there anything else we can do, Mr. Pomeroy?”
“Ah, no, I believe that is all,” the young man said, his certainty clearly shaken. He rose and his eyes lingered on Sara for a moment longer than necessary. “If you will excuse me, I do still have preparations to make before leaving in the morning.”
All rose and Jacob gestured to the door. “I will walk you out.” The men left the room.
Sara lowered herself back to her seat. Mr. Pomeroy was leaving. For how long, she did not know. It could even shift into a permanent position and he would be gone from her life forever. An ugly feeling filled her stomach.
“Don’t do this, Sara.” Louisa’s voice broke into her thoughts. “Don’t be morose. You owe him nothing.”
“Louisa,” Claire said, exasperated. “Why must you be like this? Now come, the pupils will be returning shortly. We must return to work.”
Sara listened to the movement of their skirts as her friends left the room. Louisa would never understand.