March 1st, 1809
I had hardly arrived at Woodshire, the finest mansion in all of Kent, before I was told that I was “pretty enough to be a fine lord’s plaything, but too pretty to be his wife.”
The elderly head of the family said this to me as he drooled into the pieces of chicken still left on his plate. His eyes were focused on my bosom, and I wished that I’d picked a dull dress instead of wearing my only formal gown. Apparently the gap between my two breasts was such a great chasm that this lech was at risk of falling in.
He continued. “A man will have anything when he is young, any ugly woman. And it will all be over quick. But after a man has married, he wants a nice little tart. Someone to tuck into when the wife is cold, eh, Eugene?”
There was nobody named Eugene at the table. Just four wincing women, one dignified young man named Luke, and the old coot himself. The very man who had just told me that my fate as a rich man’s little doll was all but assured.
The old man’s daughter-in-law, Mrs. Barlow, trembled as she spoke to one of the footmen. “Bring the pudding. He won’t talk so much if he’s eating his pudding. Quickly!”
The dining room was vast, but even with the curtains open and a fortune worth of candles burning, it seemed dark to me. I was used to eating a hasty servants’ repast, not a long and awkward meal with the family. Indeed, it appeared that nobody was enjoying the fine food before us. Mrs. Barlow sat on one side of the old man, her face sour as a lemon, and her son Mr. Luke Barlow sat to the other side, looking carefully at the napkin in his lap.
I was seated next Mrs. Barlow’s daughter Lillian, a young girl of fourteen who was supposed to need my services as a governess. We had seen each other for only half an hour before the meal, but it had been long enough for me to ascertain that Miss Barlow was a delicate and shy sort of girl. The sort of girl who would not be able to stand up to a wretched old man like her grandfather.
On my right was a Miss Courtenay, a sour-faced young woman engaged to the young Mr. Barlow. She did not seem too put out by the old man, only sorry that she no longer drew the notice of everyone in the room. Best that they admire her for her looks, perhaps, but she would have been content with any sort of notice. After all, she’d spent half the meal going on about her skills in floral arrangements, which were apparently quite superior.
Now, the whole table was silent. It was young Mr. Barlow who finally had the courage to speak.
“Granddad,” he said, “We are nearly ready for our wedding. I hope that you will attend, and that we will have your blessing. It would mean a great deal to us.”
“Granddad” peered at the younger Mr. Barlow. I wondered if the reason for the candles wasn’t only to show off the family’s wealth, but also to cater to the old man’s failing eyesight.
And, apparently, his failing mind.
“You’re going to be married, then, Eugene?” he said to Mr. Barlow.
“Eugene was my father’s name,” Lillian Barlow muttered, so low that only I could hear her clearly. “Granddad doesn’t recall any of our names, but he says Eugene for my brother and calls mum Winifred. None of us are quite sure why.”
“Indeed, I shall be married,” said Mr. Barlow, smiling at his grandfather. “We hope to marry before the week is out.”
The old man coughed. “I won’t let you marry yet, crafty boy. Who would you have as a bride?” he asked, his eyes lingering rather too long both on Lillian and on me.
When I first sat down at the table, I had wondered why Lillian insisted on draping herself in an unsightly old shawl and wearing her hair in a frumpy style that would have done very well for an old dowager. It seemed odd that a young girl, almost ready to be out in society, would not wear the fine clothes and fashions that her wealthy family could undoubtedly afford. Now I began to understand. The ugly clothes, the rough hair, it was all part of what little armor the poor girl had against the old lech.
“Miss Courtenay is my bride, granddad,” said Mr. Barlow, taking Miss Courtenay’s hand and giving his grandfather a grand smile. “I told you that we were to marry soon.”
This did not seem to satisfy the old man.
“You ought to pick the pretty one,” he drawled to his grandson, who was beginning to blush.
And as if the table required more of a scene, the old man jabbed in my direction with one of his shriveled old fingers. “If you don’t get a pretty one, like that wench there, all of the babies will be ugly as sin. Eugene, you are a weak boy, but not ugly. Ha!”
This was, perhaps, his only accurate observation. Even through my discomfort I had noted immediately that Mr. Luke Barlow was one of the handsomest men I had ever seen. He was not uncommonly tall, but he carried himself beautifully. His features were dark, but unlike his family, he did not have the pallor one might expect of a Woodshire resident. Perhaps Mrs. Barlow had once been beautiful, but with her face pale and wrought with tension, it was hard to imagine her as a young woman. If Eugene, Luke Barlow’s father, had been blessed with good looks, perhaps that explained how he came to have such a devilishly handsome son.
I noted Mr. Barlow’s good looks with some resentment, of course, after my initial admiration had worn off. He was smart, he was rich, and he was about to be married. It did not follow that he also deserved to look just statuesque. I reasoned that it must be a result of prized wives, acquired by the men of the family like so many pieces of fine china. It went to reason that every single woman who married into the family must be beautiful, and many of them were sure to be rich.
The old Mr. Barlow, having run out of outrageous remarks, got up and began walking about the room. The pudding had arrived, and those still present at the table tucked in.
“Well,” said Mrs. Barlow, setting down her spoon. “I do think that the having this pudding tonight is just the thing. It is rather drafty.”
“The rooms here are always drafty,” said Miss Courtenay, looking with disdain at the tall windows. A little too late, she smiled. “Because it is a castle, that is. That’s how things go with large, handsome houses.”
Before I could make any answer, I could sense Grandfather Barlow behind me. And when he lunged at the chair, I was not fast enough to keep his hand from latching onto my bosom.