Jenny was fourteen when she was first sent to school.
She hadn’t wanted to go, and in fact there had been a dreadful month when her father had been talking about sending her as far away as Bath, but some small snub had eventually set him right.
“Interfering old tabbies,” Mr Jonathan Chawleigh had scowled, and with a stroke of his pen and some finagling by a clever young man from the counting house, she had been sent only as far as Kensington instead.
“This way I’ll be able to visit you on the weekends, Papa,” she had said.
“Bosh, when you’ll have all your new girlfriends in the nobs who go there, you won’t want to be seeing your old Cit of a father.”
There was something in her father’s expression, both eager and self-hating, that Jenny had never really known how to deal with. The ‘nobs’ were to be looked up to, and copied for their genteel habits —at least some of the time—but Papa despised them as well for their mincing ways and the wealth gifted on them by grace and fortune when he, a commoner, had had to claw his way into his fine house and fine clothes by cunning and rock hard obstinacy. But the nobs were the nobs, and Fate, or more particularly the dying wish of a mother whom Jenny could barely remember, had decreed that Jenny was to ape a class of people who despised her for existing. And that, as they say, was that.
School was about as she had expected, which is to say awful. She missed her own house and own room and her beloved garish Papa desperately, and was appalled to realise that some of the girls she was domiciled with barely knew their fathers at all, and thought it a great joke when their names were confused by a distracted parent come back from a busy Season or trip to a hunting lodge.
The lessons she could manage. Jenny had been running her father’s house for years, quietly having words with the housekeeper and taking over the books, and mending his clothes because she misliked the stitching of the sewing woman he paid too much for. The homely skills taught by Miss Satterleigh's Academy she took in her stride, and she buckled down to the book learning and study as a remedy for homesickness.
Because she had realised after one long night listening to girls snore in her dormitory that she was not, in fact, there to learn the accomplishments advertised by the school. What Papa wanted was not in any of the extras he paid for so extravagantly. She was supposed to learn It.
It was not hemming Papa’s cravats with exquisitely fine stitches or trying out new techniques on her sampler in the latest fashions in colours, for all that needlework was advertised high on Miss Satterleigh’s curriculum. It was not learning French or Italian beyond a few prettily said phrases, or learning history beyond a few dates; learning enough cookery to keep the cookmaids in order was not even mentioned. It was not memorising the complicated steps of a minuet or a cotillion, although some of the girls transcended the pedestrian task of memorisation and looked like they were floating in clouds and that somehow approached It. It was definitely not wearing dresses bought by her Papa in the latest colours of Pomona green and puce, because that was showing away.
“You should not be buying me dress lengths in these colours, Papa,” she said one morning on a home visit. “It is not the thing for girls my age to wear clothes so bright.”
Her father bristled. “Mlle Delagardie from the dressmaker says they are all the rage. Nine shillings the yard for that coquelicot dress you never wear,” he said accusingly.
“It’s a lovely colour, Papa, it is, but it’s not done for me to wear it. Not at my age at least. When I’m older and keeping house for you, then it will be alright.”
“Now don’t you worry about that, my pet,” he patted her hand. “You won’t be stuck mouldering away looking after an old saw like me.”
Jenny cast her eyes down and concentrated on buttering her toast. “I like keeping house for you, Papa. Mrs Finchley never makes the tea right.”
Time passed, and Jenny slowly made friendships, with girls like herself who struggled to find words to say when the fashionable, the marriageable, young women chattered away as if embroidering the air with their chain of thought. She learned to put a stitch through her tongue and say less of the blunt offerings that set off ripples of laughter through the room, while she, dumb as an ox, struggled to think through what might have been comedic. She met girls who had some common ground with her—not merchant’s daughters exactly, but they had trade in their bloodline, in their grandfathers and great-grandfathers who had managed to marry up and erase the smell of the warehouse and the banking house, at least in part. They were the children of men and women who were a few steps further on the journey she herself was on, and Jenny told herself that pretending to be something you were not was just another kind of normal. Everyone did it if they could.
In her last year everything changed. The newest entrant was a fairy child, wild and intemperate and beautiful, and the girl Julia, eldest daughter of Baron Oversley, whipped through the staid classrooms of the seminary like a whirlwind. Everyone admired her, from the housemaids and the younger girls who devoured her sylph-like prettiness with huge round eyes, the older girls who sniffed into their handkerchiefs but aped her fashions regardless, and the teachers who tried in vain to keep the seminary in some kind of discipline against the blandishments of Miss Julia’s huge appealing eyes, heart-shaped face and prettily worded appeals.
Jenny had been one of the last to fall, and so of course she fell hardest.
“Come walk with me.”
Jenny looked up from the little bit of crochet she had been occupying her hands with. “I’m waiting for Lizzie Tiverton,” she said simply.
“Come with me to Kensington Gardens,” Miss Oversley said deliciously. “The palace has opened the grounds to the public for the year.”
“We are not supposed to go,” Jenny said sternly, “without a chaperone. You’re new so you don’t know—the teachers will escort us for an outing in a little while. And I am waiting for Miss Tiverton.”
“Oh, pooh. Come with me—if we go with the school crocodile we will be observed as a pack of dowdy school girls. On Saturday, we might observe all the fine ladies. There is a dear little house belonging to Queen Anne there. And a palace, and a cradle walk where the trees arch over you. We might lose ourselves in it,” she shivered, “how ghastly and exciting.”
“Miss Oversley,” Jenny said bluntly, “girls like you don’t associate with girls like me. It is not done. And I am waiting for the girl I made an appointment with.” She blushed and hung her head, feeling obscenely rude in the face of the blandishments of the younger girl who had settled on the bench beside her and was gazing at her with gloriously huge eyes.
“It’s no good.” Julia wrapped her arms around Jenny’s neck and tucked her head against the older girl’s chin. “I won’t stop until you love me.”
So they went on Sunday after church, and walked beneath the oaks. Jenny stored it up as a fine memory to tuck away with all her most precious things, and was surprised to find a week later that Julia wanted her company again, and on the next also; until finally she, Julia, and the rest of the school had accepted their friendship as the accepted way of the world. So that was that.
One day, after she had finally escaped the tutelage of Miss Satterleigh, Jenny received an invitation to call at Mount Street.
“Father was supposed to take us back to Beckenhurst in July, but then he said he had to stay in town on business. And my brother, of course, refused to escort us. So we have to stay in town through August and all its heat. And everyone has gone away now the Season is over.” Julia flopped on the couch, hot, flustered, and ill used by the London summer.
“I expect he has to stay for the parliamentary debates. Father means to take us to Brighton, but he won’t do it until he finds out if the new Charter Act passes. Does Lord Oversley invest with the East India Company?”
“I haven’t the faintest idea,” Julia said blankly.
“In fact I do, Miss Chawleigh,” an older man with grey streaked through his hair had entered the sitting room and made his bow. “How refreshing to meet a young girl who pays attention to business affairs.”
Jenny flushed hotly. “I’m sorry, sir. My lord, that is. I did not mean to pry.”
“No, no,” Lord Oversley sat at the table and helped himself to tea. “It is absolutely refreshing. I expect your father talks about business with you from time to time. I’ve heard his name in the City.”
She sat tongue tied, too nervous to speak, and more nervous to sip her tea and have spilt droplets bedeck her new dress, a gown of brilliant primrose, which she had been told was all the crack. As Lord Oversley kept up a friendly conversation between herself and Julia she realised that here, in front of her was a part of It, the art of being easy with people you did not know. This visit was something that her father had paid for, through all those exorbitant school fees, and at last she was seeing a little of the point of it. It was polish. When Lord Oversley asked her if she thought her father would mind a call being paid so that he might ask some advice, she nodded, and forced her face into enough of a polite smile to pass.
As things came to pass, she saw much more of Julia, especially when the autumn weather made London tolerable to live in again. The thing that struck her most pertinently was… well, there was a transaction going on. She had overheard enough in her house to know that Papa had done some important favour for Lord Oversley, and that this had greased the wheels of the more frequent invitations that Jenny received to call at Mount Street, but no one in the Oversley household was ever so louche as to mention it. A merchant’s daughter, she could calculate the value of people’s time, and of Lady Oversley’s chaperonage to the kinds of outings that girls not quite out might attend, and that this was a thing of value to Jenny’s father. But she also knew that Julia appreciated, even if she would not say so, having a friend about who would never overshadow her own beauty and who could remain calm in the face of her histrionics, for which Julia’s own mother and sisters lacked the patience. And Jenny, merchant’s daughter that she was, felt she got her own recompense. Julia was a sprightly and friendly mannered girl when she wasn’t crossed, and often easy to cheer up when she was, and in Lady Oversley she got the opposite of a fairy tale mother (virtuous but dead) or step-mother (wicked but alive): she got an older woman who could give her advice. She liked sitting with Lady Oversley, snugged up in the corner of the settee and working at some bit of sewing while her friend’s mother chattered away. Lady Oversley would talk about her concerns over the servants, and the delicacies that went into holding a dinner or selecting a new gown, and the nuances of raising children, and then she would discuss what she would do about such and such, and sometimes Jenny would venture a small opinion and have it considered on its own merits, or ask a question of her own. “You’re a sensible girl,” Lady Oversley would say, and Jenny would blush but be comforted.
It was a good day, when Jenny first met Adam. She had visited Julia on a thunderously wet day, and when she wasn’t gazing at the rain pouring down the windows she was sorting out Julia’s netting box. A polite cough prompted her to look up and there was a young captain, his face drawn, leaning heavily on a cane, standing with the light behind him in a momentary gap of the weather.
“Please forgive the informality,” the captain said with an easy smile, “I collect that you must be one of Miss Oversley’s sisters, but it’s been so long since I was in Lincolnshire, I can’t remember if you are Miss Susan or Miss Margaret.”
“I’m neither at all,” she said, standing with a smile and a quick bow, “but Miss Chawleigh. Jenny, they call me. I’m a school friend of Julia’s. She’s upstairs right now trying on a new walking dress. But please, if you’ll forgive the informality, do take a seat, and I’ll ring for tea until Julia comes down.”
“Miss Chawleigh,” the captain nodded, and eased himself into a chair, spare and graceful despite his obvious pain. “Well, since there are none to make introductions I hope you’ll accept the breach of courtesy: I am Captain Adam Deveril, an old family friend of the Oversleys, here on furlough.”
And he sat with her and talked of little things: her and Julia’s school days, and the latest on-dits of the Peninsular, and a little more about the fens where he and Julia had grown up. It felt like a magical place to Jenny, and she was sad when she heard the joyful cry of “Adam!” and saw the outstretched arms of her school friend as she descended the stairs in an extremely becoming new dress. Jenny receded into the background, but that was alright, she could observe the fairy tale as much as be in it. It was alright.
“I know all the pieces of your uniform mean something,” Jenny said to Captain Deveril one day, because I see the companies are all different when we go to watch parades, “but I do not know exactly what the differences are meant to be. Do they all signify?”
Captain Deveril who had been settled on a chaise longue waiting for Julia to come down with a slightly bemused frown let his face lighten and set himself to amusing his hostess’ guest. “They do, Miss…, Miss Chawleigh.” He fingered his short scarlet coat, made of fine broadcloth. “We are the 52nd; light infantry, skirmishers. We still wear the King’s scarlet—not all of the light regiments do, anymore—and we show our lapels and collars in buff to signify our regiment. We are skirmishers, I said, here—” and he held his heavy black shako to Jenny to show her the badge: “Our men march in open formation, and engage the enemy in small groups, we hold the front—or sometimes the rear—” he smiled wryly, “sometimes we cover the rear for the heavy troops of the army to move in retreat. So our badge is the bugle, so that our men can hear their orders from a distance.”
Jenny nodded solemnly. “And the VS on your arm?” she added, storing the details away for later. Is that a badge of your company too? Is it a Latin motto?” she guessed.
The captain shook his head. “It means Valiant Stormer. Only men in the 52nd wear them, but not all of us.”
Jenny did not have time to decode the look on the captain’s face just then, weary yet intent; Julia had entered, and, as was fitting, had brightened the room and Captain Deveril’s face at her first smile. Miss Oversley drew the conversation around to the latest dance that was scandalising the old dragons who gate kept Almacks and insisted on showing it to Captain Deveril.
“But I don’t dance,” he told her, his calloused slender fingers held out in gentle protest.
“No, no, no,” Julia insisted. “Miss Chawleigh will play and I will show you exactly how it goes,” and she took one of the new dresses in a dancer’s hold, giddy with delight, until her two friends perforce must surrender to her wish.
Here was a little bit of It, too, Jenny thought, in consenting for a time to be the stem to Julia’s rose. The younger girl held the gown to herself and turned in the quick steps of the waltz as Jenny played. Jenny Chawleigh allowed herself a small smile; there were compensations to this life. Across the room, she could see Captain Deveril, sitting straitly on the fainting couch, both hands on his cane, watching Julia with an alert expression, distracted from pain in his hip by the sight of the young girl. Jenny allowed herself a small moment of daydreaming—that she could be the dancer whose grace could divert a veteran soldier from his wounds, before she shook it away wryly. She knew herself to be a pragmatic soul far more likely to arrive at an injured soldier’s side with cups of tea, fresh bandages and laudanum. But still, it was nice to imagine. The captain noticed her watching him and nodded at her with a slight polite smile, and she flushed and looked back to her music.
Later, she learned the Valiant Stormers were the men who survived being first through the breach, when it was time to storm a city’s walls. She wondered if that was when the captain had taken the ball in his hip that made him drag his leg so. She would never have the courage to ask.
It was just as well they called it the Forlorn Hope.
It was a long winter after Captain Deveril limped back to the war. Jenny became a devotee of the Gazette, scanning through the accounts of battles that Lord Wellington sent back, and celebrating the vicissitudes of battle by proxy. The eternal war against Buonaparte had never seemed so real to her before she knew someone fighting it. When Captain Deveril was mentioned in the dispatches, she spent the whole day smiling, knowing she was ridiculous; on a bitter day in the dag end of February when she read of the Orthes engagement she bustled herself into her thickest shawl and hurried over to Julia’s house.
Mount Street was in an uproar. Upstairs she could hear desperate sobbing, and the sisters and maids in the household were rushing about with hot water and feathers. Charlie—Mr Oversley she should say, but he had always reminded her of a large friendly dog—nodded amiably at her and pointed upstairs, and she trotted away into the darkened room. Julia was howling, heavy ugly tears streaming down her face: “Dead, dead, my beautiful Adam is dead. Oh, I shall never love another!”
“Nonsense,” Jenny said, and opened the curtains to hide her face for long enough. “You read the account. It says that Ad—Captain Deveril’s company took heavy casualties advancing up the ridge, not that he was one of them. The casualty list will be printed in the next Gazette.” She swallowed hard, aware that grief was a privilege that did not apply to hangers on, and bustled about the room. “Now first we will wash your face with some lavender water, for your eyes are so very red and swollen, and you will feel better with your hair combed, and then your own dear mother will bring up a posset and you will feel better.”
“Oh, how can you know how miserable I feel,” Julia wailed. “You can’t, for you have not yet known love.” Her voice throbbed with anguish.
“I know enough,” Jenny said gruffly. “And I will look after you until we hear either way.” She combed Julia’s hair gently. “There, there, my pet, you know I love you.”
It had been a long winter.
“Make sure you order a good dinner tomorrow,” Jonathan Chawleigh said comfortably one morning as the spring advanced into March. It had been a week and a half since the Gazette had informed her that Captain Deveril had engaged heroically with the enemy in the Battle of Orthes, but also had been uninjured, and Jenny still felt fragile and selfishly melodramatic about it all.
“Oh?” she said, glancing up from her breakfast. She hadn’t realised that Papa’s business affairs were at a juncture where buttering up associates was advisable. “Have you invited friends to dine?”
“I’ve got the captain for you,” he said, rubbing his hands with avaricious glee. Just the expression on his face he had when he was about to present her with his grandest and most unsuitable gifts.
Jenny froze. “Papa, what have you done?”
“I’ve got the captain. Your captain. Adam Deveril. Lord Lynton, now I should say.”
“I’d heard Adam—I mean Captain Deveril’s father has died,” she said slowly, “but what’s that to the purpose? I don’t think Ad—Captain Deveril would recognise me on the street if I wasn’t walking out with Julia. Whyever invite him to dine?”
Mrs Quarley-Bix, odious woman, was quicker to understand Mr Chawleigh’s words. “Oh, Mr Chawleigh,” she throbbed, “the handsome Lord Lynton to offer for our dear Miss Jenny? How exceptionally suitable. It is a triumph, sir, a triumph.
Jenny’s face blanched, then suffused with angry red, as pugnacious as ever her father could be. “Is this true, Papa?” Captain Deveril is in love with my friend Julia. What have you done?” Her voice cracked. “What have you done, Father?”
Chawleigh, balked by chagrin and thwarted generosity, doubled down. “I’ve got him for you, my love, my pet. The Deveril family are all to pieces, and to be had for the right dowry, and that,” he rubbed his hands again, “is what your Papa has been saving for, all these years. I’ve talked it all out with the man’s agent, no pig in a poke nor gambler nor wife beater for you, my girl. No, no, I deal honestly and with consideration. You’ll marry a lord, my Jenny, you mark my words, just like your own dear mother wanted.”
“No, Papa,” she said with revulsion. “You can’t buy people, not for that.” She wanted Adam, oh yes, she knew for herself which young man filled her heart with such delight, but never like this.
“My pet,” her father said, all bewilderment. “I did this for you.”
“No you didn’t” she shrieked. “You’re doing this for some made up idea of me that you can dress up like a doll, who would buy a husband for money. How can there be love in that. I hate you.” She gulped down a sob. “I hate you,” she said.
Jonathan Chawleigh backed away, his jaw jutting out with dismay. “But…my pet.”
“You will never understand. How can you know?” she howled, and stormed away to her room.
Jenny cried for hours, a little squab form on the enormous bed decked out in purple hangings that her father had presented to her the day she returned from school. Mrs Quarley-Bix, the bought companion provided on the same day, had the good sense to stay away, but comfortable old Martha, Jenny’s friend and ally, came in and bathed her temples with lavender water. Martha clucked and hushed and brought her possets as if she were ill.
Eventually, Jenny was all cried out. She lay on her side, staring blankly at the embroidered wallpaper. Finally, one small detail of her father’s offering came to her, and she lifted herself up on to an elbow. “Martha? What did Papa say about the Deverils being all to pieces?”
“Oh, there’s a dreadful fuss about it in the city, my Miss Jenny. Now you sit up at your dressing table and I’ll comb out your hair.”
Jenny let herself be wrapped in a shawl and listened to Martha’s comfortable chatter. “I heard from Miss Julia’s maid—you know, Sarah Dixon from up in the fens—that that big estate Fontley will be up on the block soon.”
“Fontley?” she said remembering days when Julia and Adam had reminisced about their childhoods in their great houses in the fen country. It had seemed like a magical fairyland to her. “Adam is going to lose Fontley?”
“Well, I can’t say for sure,” said Martha, drawing a comb through Jenny’s hair, “being a humble nursery maid,” the phrase ‘with pretensions above her station’ from a spat with Mrs Quarley-Bix hung in the air without needing to be explicated. “But there’s a lot of gossip down in the servant’s hall, on account of everyone knows how fond you are of the young captain, Miss Jenny. The old Viscount, a charming old rake, as Miss Julia’s maid makes him out to be, was a spendthrift and a gambler and his estate is all spent up. Those younger Deverils will be out on their ears and facing the bailiff soon enough, just as badly as a commoner like myself would be if I let myself get in arrears.” She sniffed.
Jenny looked at her reflection. Her face was suffused and ugly; some traces of the country woman who had been her mother might exist, but much more the bullish merchant who had raised her. Jonathan Chawleigh sometimes showed his love ineptly—often, he did—but she was in no doubt about its sincerity. The lush room reflected behind her was full of rich trinkets she had never asked for, but it was her father’s means of showing his love and so she had accepted, as he had accepted the half loaf of a daughter he would never truly understand. Her face was tight with eagerness and self-loathing, the expression she some days saw on her own father but in truth, she thought, her parent would never put aside her own mite of returned love, awkward and tongue-tied as it might be. Chawleigh had made his choice that the half loaf was not so bad, and maybe Lord Lynton, no longer the dashing, weary captain she had fallen for so heavily, would choose to accept the comfort that she could provide, and return to her a small mite in its place. That gentle smile every day would not be such a bad thing, she thought.
Jonathan Chawleigh found his errant daughter later that day earnestly discussing the availability of turbot with Mrs Finchley.
“Well now, my girl, my kid,” he said tentatively.
Jenny looked at her father, her hands folded tidily, her face composed. Papa would never really force her into something she did not want, and in that freedom came the room to give him back some of what he wanted for himself. “You may invite Lord Lynton to dine tomorrow,” she said simply.
And with that her father’s face cleared into the happy smile she loved him for.
The half loaf would not be so bad.