What would happen to Lydia if someone takes the trouble to check her?
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The Trouble to Check Her
Lydia Bennet faces the music…
Running off with Mr. Wickham was a great joke—until everything turned arsey-varsey. That spoilsport Mr. Darcy caught them and packed Lydia off to a hideous boarding school for girls who had lost their virtue.
It would improve her character, he said.
Ridiculous, she said.
Mrs. Drummond, the school’s headmistress, has shocking expectations for the girls. They must share rooms, do chores, attend lessons, and engage in charitable work, no matter how well born they might be. She even forces them to wear mobcaps! Refusal could lead to finding themselves at the receiving end of Mrs. Drummond’s cane—if they were lucky. The unlucky ones could be dismissed and found a position … as a menial servant.
Everything and everyone at the school is uniformly horrid. Lydia hates them all, except possibly the music master, Mr. Amberson, who seems to have the oddest ideas about her. He might just understand her better than she understands herself.
Can she find a way to live up to his strange expectations, or will she spend the rest of her life as a scullery maid?
“Dinner is ready. You girls may introduce yourselves at the table.” Mrs. Drummond led the teachers out.
So they would be permitted conversation at dinner. Happy thought indeed.
Miss Fitzgilbert preceded the students, three other girls immediately behind. Lydia hung back. Though it was fitting for a newcomer to lead the procession to the dining room, it did not seem to be a good idea to insist upon it now.
The last two girls in the room looked at her.
“I am Joan Colbrane,” the blonde girl with a beauty mark on her cheek said.
“And I am Amelia Easton.” The dark-haired girl with a foreign look and vaguely French accent curtsied.
“You can sit with us.” Joan took her arm.
“The dining room is this way.” Amelia gestured down the hall.
Joan lifted her head, nose in the air. “We are the lowest—”
“I thought there was no talk of rank here.”
“Not rank in society you silly thing, rank in the school,” Joan said.
“When you are a good little girl and do everything as Missus says you should, you rise in rank.” Amelia touched her own mobcap.
“Hurry, they are waiting!” Joan dragged Lydia into the dining room and propelled her toward a chair at the center of the long table, the most ignoble spot in the room.
Lydia nearly stumbled, but caught herself on the back of the chair. She moved to sit. Amelia hissed at her.
Oh botheration, no one else sat. She pulled herself back beside the table.
Mrs. Drummond nodded. She and Miss Thornton at the head of the table, and Miss Honeywell and Miss Fitzgilbert at the foot sat down. The students followed suit.
How odd, two seats, one at Mrs. Drummond’s left and one near the foot of the table, remained vacant.
Amelia handed her a bowl of roasted potatoes. “Serve yourself, dearie; we have no footmen or gentlemen. Do it quickly and pass the plate. None of us like to wait.”
She dumped a spoonful on her plate and handed it to Joan.
“The food here is decent enough,” Joan whispered.
“Mercy that it is, you know.” Amelia handed her a dish of peas and lettuce.
“We work hard enough most days. I dare say we would starve to death quite easily if it were not for the cooking here.”
“Do not be late for meals. Missus does not tolerate that. You come late, you do not get food at all,” Amelia said.
“How cruel! Is that why those seats are empty?”
“The one by Missus is odd indeed. I do not know why Miss Long has moved down. She is not wearing a cap, though, so she cannot have fallen too far from favor. The other is Juliana Morley’s seat. She has special permission to be late on Saturdays. She is the only one.” Amelia cast a knowing look at Joan.
“You will see.” Amelia smirked.
Lydia chewed the inside of her cheek. “You do not like her? I am to share a room with her.”
“You poor dear.” Joan patted her arm.
“You may come visit in our room whenever you like.”
“Is she so very terrible?”
“Oh, not at all. Dear little Juliana is very, very good. She is the sweetest, nicest, kindest girl among us.” Joan batted her eyes.
“I do not understand.”
“You will.” Amelia handed her a bowl of oat pudding.
Just her foul luck to have a horrid roommate who was some favorite to Mrs. Drummond. She would probably be some sort of moralizing tell-all who bent the headmistress’ ear with reports on all her fellows.
Why could she not share with gay companions like Joan and Amelia?
Mrs. Drummond rang a dainty crystal bell, and the room stilled. “You will have noticed an extra place at our table tonight. Tonight, we welcome a new member of our staff. Pray, come in.” She looked over her shoulder and beckoned to someone just beyond the doorway.
A lean, almost awkward young man, all elbows and knees, with pale skin and a shock of black hair ambled in. His face was very plain, not worthy of note at all, except for his eyes which were a rich, deep, vibrant blue.
He stopped beside Mrs. Drummond.
“Mr. Amberson has taken the position as our music master.”
“Old Mr. Clearly died last month,” Joan whispered.
“He will teach you, as well as taking other students from the village. He is my nephew and shall have the quarters across the hall from mine. The staff shall manage the maintenance of his rooms without your assistance. Any of you found in his quarters will be dismissed from school immediately. Am I understood?”
“Yes, Mrs. Drummond.”
“He’s probably a gentleman of good reputation, but meager fortune. His dearest aunt does not want us tainting him.” Amelia snickered behind her hand.
Mr. Amberson bowed. “A pleasure to make your acquaintances. After dinner, I should like all of you to play for me that I might take a measure of your proficiency.” He sat down beside Mrs. Drummond.
Ill-ease descended upon the room like a summer thunderstorm. A few girls basked in the news: Miss Fitzgilbert and Miss Long and two girls wearing caps. Obviously, they were proficient and happy to show off.
The rest turned aside or squirmed in their seats. The awkward ginger-pate across from Lydia sniffled and blotted her eyes with the back of her hand.
“That is Emma Greenville.” Amelia rolled her eyes.
“She is quite the dunce at music. Made Old Clearly ever so cross. He would always cane her hands when she fumbled, but it made no difference. She plays no better now than before. We are quite certain it was her playing what gave him the apoplexy that killed him.” Joan tittered. “I bet she will fall into a grand swoon or have a hysterical fit to get out of playing.”
“Not likely—remember what Missus did to Constance over her last fit?” Amelia turned to Lydia. “Let us just say we do not recommend it.”
Papa had little tolerance for hysterical fits in his own daughters, though he was happy to treat them in other families.
“Will he be so terribly strict?”
Joan shrugged. “There is no way of knowing. But he is young, and that is to our material advantage.”
“I have heard that they grow stricter with age and bad pupils. Perhaps we might be very lucky and he might fall in love with one of us.” Amelia threw him a sidelong glance.
“Do not let Old Lady Drummond hear that. I wager she would cane us for the very thought!”
“Does she do that often?”
Joan shrugged. “Not so much—”
“Not so much! Do not fabricate tales to make her feel better. It happens most every day I should say. There is a reason why the chairs in the dining room are padded.”
Joan leaned in close. “Do not listen. She is a dreadful tease.”
Perhaps, but Mrs. Drummond did look ever so mean—just the type who would find great pleasure in punishing a girl for almost no reason at all.
How would she ever survive?
Amelia elbowed her. “You will get used to it. It is not so bad after the first eight or ten times.”
“Stop being so mean!” Joan hissed.
“Oh, look!” Amelia sat up very straight and twitched her head toward the door.
A young woman in a dull grey dress, cap, and apron waddled in. Her face was pudgy-round, and she was very fat. She took the remaining open chair.
“That is Juliana Morley.”
What joy was hers. She would share a room with the ugliest girl in the school.
Juliana kept to herself and ate only a few bites during dinner. Mrs. Drummond must have her on some sort of restrictions. There was no way she could have become so fat eating the way she did, not even partaking in the sweet course when it arrived.
Mrs. Drummond signaled the end of dinner. She and the teachers led the girls to the parlor. Miss Greenville tried to hang back, behind even Lydia, but Mrs. Drummond noticed and insisted she resume her proper place near the head of the line. Did their headmistress miss nothing under her command?
Mama had never been a particularly watchful woman. A gay story or delightful bit of gossip distracted her easily enough. Lydia had used her mother’s peculiarity to her advantage and rarely had to give account for anything. Somehow it did not appear that tactic would be nearly so effective with Mrs. Drummond.
In the parlor, the girls gathered around the pianoforte. Those Lydia presumed proficient beamed with looks of smug satisfaction, obviously expecting praises and petting from Mr. Amberson.
Haughty little chits.
He might be the only man in their midst, but he was too plain to be worth the effort of impressing.
Most of the rest appeared mildly disinterested while Miss Greenville sniffled and averted her gaze.
“Miss Fitzgilbert, as head girl, you shall begin.” Mrs. Drummond pointed at the piano bench.
The girls shuffled to make way for Miss High-and-Mighty. Someone really should remove the vile, smug look from her face. Perhaps her fingers would tangle over the chords. That would serve her right.
“Do you need music?” Mr. Amberson asked.
“May I play a piece that I know?” She sat down, head bowed.
What a good play she made at looking humble.
Lydia caught herself just before she rolled her eyes and wrinkled her nose. Joan elbowed her a moment later. Confound it! If she were that obvious, Mrs. Drummond might have seen her as well. She would have to be far more careful lest she incur the headmistress’s ire.
“Certainly.” Mr. Amberson positioned himself slightly behind Miss Fitzgilbert. He clasped his hands before him and closed his eyes.
She began to play, so softly at first it was difficult to tell she had begun. The music surged in undulating swells, filling the room with liquid sound that ebbed and flowed from gentle ripples to pounding thunderous waves and back again.
For all her disagreeable qualities, Miss Fitzgilbert was indeed a proficient. Even Miss Bingley would have conceded that.
Miss Greenville was called upon to play next. Poor girl, to have to follow such a performance! Her pale complexion was blotchy, and her eyes full of tears. A true shame indeed—for when one was a ginger, tears hardly improved one’s looks.
“I cannot sir,” she mumbled, standing beside the piano bench. “You may as well just cane my hands now as Mr. Clearly did.” She extended trembling hands and squeezed her eyes shut.
“I do not think that necessary. No, not at all.” Mr. Amberson blanched and turned wide-eyed to Mrs. Drummond. He reached for a portfolio beside the piano and pulled out a sheet of music. “Now, sit down.”
She perched on the seat like a bird ready to take flight. He pulled an armless chair in beside her.
“Can you tell me what this is?” He pointed to the music.
“A note, sir.” Her voice trembled.
Lydia held her breath. Somehow, it did not seem humor would be welcome right now and possibly not ever. Amelia and Joan appeared to do the same.
How ridiculous could Miss Greenville be?
“What kind of note?” he asked.
“A whole note?”
“Good. Do you know which whole note this might be? What would a musician name it?”
“No, sir. I have no idea.”
He studied her. “Were you not taught?”
She squeezed her eyes shut and gasped something like a sob. “No … no sir. Mr. Clearly said a girl of … of my advantages should already know, and he would not … not indulge my demands for special treatment …” She dragged her sleeve across her face.
“I see.” His countenance grew dark. “And had you any musical instruction prior to coming here?”
“The guitar, sir.”
“Very well.” He rose.
Miss Greenville cowered.
Heavens, what did she expect?
Mr. Amberson disappeared though the door, and the room erupted into whispers. Miss Fitzgilbert handed Miss Greenville a handkerchief and laid her hand on the nearly sobbing girl’s shoulder.
Mr. Amberson burst into the room carrying a large leather case. He placed it on top of the piano and withdrew a beautifully polished guitar.
Miss Greenville’s eyes grew so wide they might have fallen out of their sockets.
He plucked the strings and fiddled with the tuning keys. “There, that is right now. Play for me.”
Miss Greenville took the instrument and stroked it almost reverently. “It is beautiful. I have never seen one so fine.” She whispered, arranging the guitar on her lap.
She strummed one chord tentatively, the next with greater purpose, and a third with an air of confidence and decision. With two nods, Miss Greenville transformed from pathetic to proficient. A melody, as complex and compelling as Miss Fitzgilbert had played, filled the room.
Miss Greenville finished and handed the guitar back to Mr. Amberson, ignoring the astonished expressions trained on her.
“I imagine Mr. Clearly thought the pianoforte the only instrument worth learning.” He said.
“Yes, sir. I … I mentioned once … and he said he would … would …”
“I understand.” He glared at Mrs. Drummond.
He dared glower at her? Someone actually challenged the harpy in her lair!
Lydia snuck a peak at Joan who hid a smirk behind her hand.
“I bear no such preconceptions. I brought a practice instrument with me and shall place it in the music room. We shall continue your lessons on the guitar as we begin your training on the pianoforte.”
Miss Greenville rose and dipped in a fragile curtsey. “Thank you so very much, sir.”
He nodded and gestured for the next girl to take her place.
He was not effusive with his compliments, but neither was he hasty with criticism. No disappointment crossed his face when girls fumbled over their music, only the same patient nod and injunction to perform their best.
Was it possible—a patient music master? Had ever such a creature been born?
Lydia’s belly fluttered as her turn came. How humiliating to be the very last one.
“Have you had any instruction, Miss Bennet?” he asked.
“We saw a music master for a year, I think.”
“Play this for me.” He placed a sheet of music in front of her.
Lydia bit her lip. That piece—her old music master had tried to make her learn it. How she had hated it—somber and dull and difficult with all the sharps and flats.
“Play, Miss Bennet.”
How stern he sounded. Where was the kindness he had shown Miss Greenville?
She forced her fingers across the keys, pausing to stare at the music and start over each measure she fudged. By the time she finished the meager five lines, sweat beaded her upper lip, and her shoulders were so knotted she could barely move.
“And in that time, were you apt to practice?” He asked, lips pressed into formidable lines.
She dropped her chin to her chest. “Not very much, sir.”
“It shows, Miss. It shows. You have the potential to play very well indeed, if you only discipline yourself to practice.” He glanced over the girls. “We will get on very well in our lessons. There is one thing, though, that I have very little tolerance for, and that is laziness. Not all of you are musical. I cannot change the gifts of Providence. Not all of you will be masters of the art, but there is not one among you who cannot improve herself by diligent application. I expect improvement from all of you.” His gaze fell upon Lydia.
She turned her face aside and struggled not to fidget. Why did he single her out so? He was every bit as disagreeable as his horrid aunt.
Mrs. Drummond dismissed her and insisted Mr. Amberson play for them. He was, of course, very good, both on the piano and the guitar. And he sang.
Oh, what a voice, low and molten, like a rich cup of chocolate. It would have been far more wonderful had he not been so much like his aunt.
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