Miss Vermilion Massingberd watched as her sister’s husband opened the morning’s post. He followed the same routine every day, peering at each letter, sometimes wondering aloud who the sender might be, or, if that were quite obvious, then speculating upon what they might be writing about. Then he sliced the seals with the little knife which hung from his watch-chain, opened out the letter, scanned it, and, if it chanced to be for his wife or sister-in-law, handing it over with a gracious little smile. Vermilion had often found this ritual annoying, today it was almost unbearable.
At last even Erconwald could delay no longer in picking up the letter clearly addressed to Vermilion and sealed with the unmistakeable arms of the Zamorna family. He weighed it thoughtfully, peering at the direction as if he were still not quite certain it had come to the correct house. Viridian, Vermilion’s sister, could contain her curiosity no longer.
“Erconwald,” she exclaimed, “pray do not be so provoking. Open Vermilion’s letter at once and tell us if she has obtained the post.”
“My love,” said Erconwald heavily. “You will embarrass your sister. You must not make her feel we are anxious to lose her again so soon.”
Viridian subsided. Vermilion bit her lip. Erconwald broke the seal, and shook out the heavy paper. Vermilion, trying to read the words upside down, without giving Erconwald the satisfaction of knowing she was doing so, could make nothing of them.
“It is a letter from Lady Sophronia herself,” said Erconwald. “She thanks you for coming to see her, and is very happy to offer you the position of governess to the daughter of her nephew, the Duke of Zamorna”
He handed the letter rather reluctantly to Vermilion, who skimmed it quickly to make sure Lady Sophronia had not had second thoughts about her salary. She had not, and Vermilion permitted herself a small smile.
“But this is wonderful!” Viridian trilled. “What a splendid post! Erconwald, do not you think Vermilion is to be congratulated?”
Erconwald was looking like a man who had just bitten into a lemon when he had been expecting a honeycomb. “I am not altogether certain of that. The very splendour of the post makes it one I cannot like for one so young and inexperienced as your sister.”
“But the Lady Sophronia seems confident of her suitability. She was most rigorous in her examination, was she not, my love? And she did not seem to think Vermilion was lacking in experience.”
“I am not speaking of experience in the schoolroom, my dear, but the experience of Life. Can we be sure Vermilion will not allow her head to be turned by the empty glitter of the world of Fashionable Vice – yes, I will say it – of Vice!”
“Whatever can you mean by vice, Erconwald?” Vermilion asked in a tone of lively interest. “Lady Sophronia struck me as being on the shady side of fifty, and really, she is not a good looking woman. I grant you she did glitter a little because she was wearing some rather fine diamonds – though I did think they would have been nothing the worse for a thorough cleaning – but she looked the last person in the world I should have suspected of leading a vicious life. If you know something about her that I do not, I really think you should tell me.”
“I did not, of course, refer to the Lady Sophronia,” said Erconwald, majestically, “but to her nephew. He is Politically Unsound, and there is Bad Blood in his family.”
“You would advise me against accepting the position then,” said Vermilion, with delicate malice.
She watched the struggle between avarice and inclination which shook Erconwald’s solid frame, without a moment’s doubt about the outcome. No power on earth would have made Erconwald keep a sister-in-law for a day in which she might have been kept by someone else.
“I do not say that,” he managed at last. “I know how unwilling you are to Eat the Bread of Idleness and to be a Burden upon your family. We must all,” he finished grandly, “make sacrifices.” And then spoilt the grandeur of his conclusion by adding querulously, “but I wish I had been consulted before you applied for such a post. I should have been consulted about any post.”
He dabbed his mouth with his napkin and rising to his feet, indicated that breakfast was over. Viridian, who might have liked to discuss her sister’s amazing piece of good fortune over a second cup of coffee, fluttered to her feet to escort her lord to the front door and to make sure he was suitably hatted and coated for his morning stroll. But when she returned to the breakfast room she found her sister still at the table.
“I took the liberty of ordering some more coffee,” Vermilion said, filling a cup for Viridian. “I shan’t be here for much longer, so Erconwald will have hardly any time to scold me for idleness and extravagance.”
“Erconwald is very fond of you,” said Viridian dutifully.
“Well, if he is, he has a very odd way of showing it. But never mind him. I must tell you my plans. Lady Sophronia will not be travelling to the family estates for a few weeks, so she wants me to go ahead of her, and begin my duties as soon as I arrive.”
“How ever will you travel? Not by public coach, surely?”
“No. Apart from the fact that the roads are so poor that public coaches are unable to travel as far as Zamorna, it seems that her ladyship has a regular consignment of goods, plus a young lady’s maid, to go North, and she intends to send the whole cargo – myself included - in one of the family carriages. The maid, I understand, is a little nervous, never having been to the savage North, and is inclined to travel sickness, so it should prove an interesting trip for both of us.”
“Oh, Vermilion! How can you know this? I daresay she is only sending this girl to be your chaperone.”
“Rather the contrary, I should think. Her ladyship told me all about the arrangements when I met her. Perhaps she told the other candidates too and they all cried off as soon as they heard about them, of course. The only really valuable item to be transported is a dinner service of porcelain painted with the Zamorna arms, which she has commissioned for her nephew. It must travel in straw baskets, inside the carriage, so there will be very little room for us, and the carriage will have to proceed very slowly, to prevent breakages, as she graciously informed me. That’s when I heard about the maid’s travel sickness, because it seems it gets worse in a slow-moving vehicle. Perhaps, of course, it will be best if we both travel on the box with the coachman...”
“I am sure you are inventing all this to tease me!”
“Not at all. I believe Lady Sophronia really decided to offer me the place because I was so complacent about the maid’s travel sickness. And the crockery, of course.”
“Now, that cannot be true. You must not say such things. The Duke could not have made a better choice, Vermilion. You are so clever and ladylike and you will teach his little angel just what she should know.”
“My dear Viridian, the Duke has never set eyes on me! He has left all such tedious matters to his poor old aunt since his wife’s death. And I am very sure it is months since he saw his little angel, as you call her, at all. I fear Lady Lilias may prove to be a little – something quite opposite, for I think she has been both spoiled and neglected if you can imagine such a thing.”
Viridian stared wide-eyed at her sister. “Do you mean Erconwald was in the right, and you should refuse the position?”
Vermilion hesitated for a moment. There were several reasons for uneasiness about the post, none of which she intended to tell Viridian. One of which she would not even think about in Viridian’s presence. But among the less disquieting was the fact that she was a finishing-governess, who was generally brought in to teach the older children of the family, to give some polish to a young lady about to Come Out, and to a brother bound shortly for University. She had never had charge of a girl as young as Lady Lilias, and she had told Lady Sophronia so. That lady had protested the child was quite a prodigy, beyond any ordinary governess, and she would tax all Vermilion’s powers as a teacher, considerable as she acknowledged them to be. What they had not discussed was her reason for seeing Vermilion at all. Noble families usually had any number of poor relations who would make suitable governesses for their daughters. It was almost unheard of to bring in a stranger like Vermilion – but there was no sense in troubling her sister with such doubts.
Instead she said brightly, “Now, when have I ever thought Erconwald to be in the right? If you had only met the younger Montmorency children you would understand why I am prepared for anything. Do you know, Viridian, only three years ago I would have laughed at the notion that children can be truly evil, but now...” she shuddered a little, then smiled quickly to show her sister she was not serious. “No, I certainly shall take up the post. Lady Sophronia says here, in writing, that I will be paid forty angels a year and they are all the angels I need to reconcile me to my fate.”
“What did Erconwald mean when he said the Duke was unsound,” said Viridian uneasily, “and what was that about bad blood?”
Vermilion hesitated. A governess hears a good deal of gossip in the course of her career. No one, after all, worries about what they say in front of her. So she knew all about the scandals of the Zamorna family. She was not all sure that her sister should hear about them. She compromised with a casual, “The duke took the wrong side – or the opposite side to the Emperor – in the matter of Westernesse and the Emperor has not forgiven him for it. But it need not make him an ineligible employer.”
“Westernesse! Oh, those horrid rebels! Surely a gentleman could not take their part against the Emperor!”
Vermilion said, reluctantly, “That is where the bad blood comes in. The Duke’s mother was from Westernesse. And her father was a notorious rebel who was hanged for treason.”
“It was a long time ago, when she was a child. The Emperor had her brought to the Court to be bred up as a loyal subject, and she grew up to be so beautiful that the Duke’s father fell in love with her and begged the Emperor to let him marry her. He was a widower, with daughters and two grown up sons, so the Emperor probably thought there would be no risk of any son of hers inheriting the title. But both boys were killed in the Eastern wars…”
“Oh. But that was so long ago…” Viridian murmured. Her attention drifted away to the breakfast table and she began to peel herself an apple, paring the skin away in one thin spiral.
They had done that when they were young girls together, Vermilion thought, and then they would throw the peel over their shoulders so it would form the first letter of the name of the man they were to marry. Viridian’s apple peels, as far as she could remember, had never made an E shape, but of course this is not an easy one for a piece of apple peel to fall into.
She sighed, thinking of Erconwald’s warning about Bad Blood. It was the young Duchess who had brought that into the Zamorna family. The Emperor had begun his imprudent campaign against magic workers, which had provoked such violent resistance in Westernesse and the Duchess had left her husband and her young son to throw in her lot with the rebels. She had, it was whispered, actually become the mistress of one of the worst of them. The Duke had withdrawn to his estates and forbidden anyone to mention his wife’s name in his hearing. He removed her portrait from the gallery where it had hung amongst the chaste wives and decorous daughters of the Zamornas with his own hands, and it was supposed that he had burned it. Only after his death did they discover it in a little prayer-closet in his bedroom, decked with candles and fresh flowers. Really it was not a story for Viridian! Nor need she know the Duke was rumoured to have a half-brother and sisters in Westernesse who were the “very pattern”, according to gossip, of his Grace, his mother having passed her unusual beauty in full measure to all her children.
Her own mother had been less lucky. Vermilion could only remember her vaguely, a pretty, silly girl, who had bequeathed all her prettiness and silliness to Viridian but left her younger daughter with nothing but an unsuitable name, now some twenty years out of date. She had caught at a passing fashion for naming little girls like pairs of lap-dogs, and compounded her folly by dressing them always in shades of pink and green to suit those names. She had so looked forward to their Coming Out. Because they were close in age they would have had their first ball together, and danced out in silk dresses of white with the faintest flush of pink running through it for Vermilion and green for Viridian. Vermilion smiled wryly at the thought. Poor Mama was never to know fashion would leave her far behind. Names and dresses were to become much less fanciful. Poor Mama who had entrusted all her treasures to Papa’s friend, Erconwald, who had taken the family house and such money as there was, along with the pretty sister, and sent the plain one to school as a pupil teacher to earn her education and fit her to be a governess.
Vermilion stood up quickly, as if, by moving, she could shake off her thoughts. “If you have finished with your apple, Viridian, I should be grateful if you would help me to look through my wardrobe. Lady Sophronia wishes me to be ready to travel very soon and I must set my clothes in order.”
“Oh, of course, sister, we must start at once. I was just remembering our old game with the apple peel. I suppose young girls do not do such things now.”
“No, indeed. Or certainly not when their elders might see them. Remember how cross Erconwald was when he caught the maids at telling fortunes in the kitchen. What did he tell them? ‘Such things are not, indeed, Witchcraft, but they may lead to Witchcraft…’”
“Well I am sure it seems innocent enough to me, still. But with the Emperor being so set against anything that smacks of magic - although it is not as if the apple peel works. I could never see any letters in mine at all, and I quite thought it meant I never should be married.”
Vermilion laughed. “But the whole point of the game is that apple peel is a very poor medium for letters. You could make it read anything you liked.”
She took Viridian’s discarded peel and flicked it over her shoulder. It landed on the carpet in a perfect Z.
“Oh, sister...” Viridian breathed, round-eyed, hastily gathering it up in case Erconwald should see it and guess what they had been doing.
“Zanko!” Vermilion said firmly. “Undoubtedly Zanko. He was Mrs Montmorency’s groom, you know, an old horse-master from the Eastern plains, with bow-legs and a great drooping moustache. He always said he would marry me when his first wife died – provided his second and third ladies could be got to agree to the match of course,” she added, giggling at her sister’s shocked face.
The two young ladies hurried away towards Vermilion’s bedroom. But on the way Viridian was waylaid by Cook, who demanded she come instantly to the kitchen and that testify the meat just delivered was unfit to give a dog, far less to set before a lady and gentleman, and to have a word with the butcher’s boy who was giving her nothing but impudence, so Vermilion went upstairs alone.
And now it was safe to think of the other thing which had troubled her about her interview with Lady Sophronia. After running briskly through Vermilion’s qualifications, and asking a few unimportant questions about her family, she had looked at her suddenly with sharp dark eyes and said, “And now, Miss Massingberd, two last questions. And you must answer honestly, please!”
Vermilion had muttered something about hoping she always did so and the old lady had laughed so harshly it might have been called a cackle in a less exalted person. “Well – perhaps. Perhaps you do. But do so now if you please, and tell me, Miss, are you easily shocked?”
Vermilion thought quickly. Governesses were supposed to be easily shocked after all. But she rather thought her Ladyship was hoping she would say no.
“No, ma’am, I am not,” she said at last, with perfect truth. She had dealt with any number of shocking situations, from cleaning and bandaging the wounds of one of her pupil’s brothers who had succumbed to the foolish fashion for duelling to the unexpectedly early labour of the mama of another...Lady Sophronia peered at her and appeared satisfied.
“Good,” she said, “but Miss, are you easily frightened?”
Vermilion, in spite of being more than a little frightened by such a question, replied that she did not think so. And there the interview ended, leaving Vermilion to wonder why Lady Sophronia had found it necessary to ask her such very strange questions.