September 16, 1862
The solitude of the upper deck was perfect for me. I suspected that many people on board the ship were having trouble sleeping this night, but unlike me, they sought comfort from their fellow travellers. I didn’t want to trouble the others with my fears; they had their own to come to terms with.
From the time the captain had sounded the horn to signal our entry into British-held territory, excitement and anxiety had run high. Some chose to toast the news with glasses of champagne, while others huddled in small groups, their heads bent close together in murmured conversation. Tomorrow we would dock in Victoria on the northwest coast of North America, about as far away from my home as I could imagine.
Like pebbles tossed upon the beach, we would scatter, trying to make our way as best we could. Most of us would marry; some would not. All of us hoped for a better life than we could ever have found in England. As Charles Dickens once described us, we were the deserving unmarried—unemployed factory workers, Lancashire cotton mill labourers, orphans, the destitute. And a few, like me, were impoverished gentlewomen, unable to prevail upon our male relatives to support us for the rest of our days. To the best of my knowledge though, I was the only one who had been forced to flee England as a social outcast.
At the age of twenty-one I was about to start my life over. It is said that we are born alone and we die alone. And that certainly described me now. When I set foot on the foreign shore, I would have no loved ones to support me and no money to help me find my way. But I also would not have the same strict rules dictated by Victorian society, the rules that had been my downfall.
I had been told that the colonies offer women more opportunity. Despite the staggering uncertainty now before me, I couldn’t wait to taste freedom.
Chapter One Chapter One
“One look at you tonight and George won’t stand a chance. Not that he ever did, once it was decided that he was the one for you. But this evening, you’ll dazzle him, seduce him, make him beg for your hand.”
It was an order, not a compliment. My sister, Harriet, leaned closer to me as we sat side by side at her dressing table. I could smell her sweet breath and a hint of lilac water coming from her long, elegant neck.
“And what a relief you’ve put on a proper corset for a change,” she half whispered in my ear.
I tugged absentmindedly at the wretched garment, looking forward to the end of the evening when I would gleefully fling it into my bureau, where I expected it would remain for some time. It had been agreed that I needed to wear a full whalebone corset only when I was in proper society, which was thankfully not a daily event for me.
“Tonight you’ll get George alone, allow him to steal a kiss or two, light a bit of fire in him. Give him a taste of what he can expect in married life.”
“I think I would stir more passion if I talked about duck hunting,” I said. “Maybe I should rub rendered duck fat behind my ears. That might stoke the flame a little.”
Harriet flushed. “This is serious, Charlotte! George Chalmers is a brilliant match for you. He’s your third suitor, and there’s not exactly a line forming behind him.”
“Not fair,” I said, holding up an index finger to make my point. “Alfred doesn’t count. He must be fifty if he’s a day and he’s more interested in a nurse than a wife. Surely I have the right to pick a man who offers me a little romance, some excitement even. And we both agreed Reginald isn’t a real contender—he rarely leaves his mother’s side. Thirty years old and he still makes faces at children during church service.”
“You can’t afford to be choosy,” she said. “If it weren’t for Papa’s troubles, you would have had a decent dowry and plenty of prospects. But now we have to be realistic.”
Hari’s abigail drifted silently into the room carrying the black-lacquered jewellery box that housed Hari’s newly polished earrings and brooches. Setting it on the dressing table, she bobbed a curtsey before busying herself with the white cambric day dress that had been tossed on the four-poster bed. I flipped open the box lid and began rummaging through, looking for the perfect jewelled pin for the bodice of my gown. Picking up the box, I wandered over to the window for better light.
In a low voice Harriet muttered, “Time is running out.”
I looked up to see Hari twisting her string of pearls into a ball around her neck.
“Time?” I echoed.
Hari turned from the mirror and peered at me, the bright light from the window making her eyes water. “It’s just that, after I pushed him to find someone, Charles went to great lengths. If this doesn’t work out, I can’t keep asking him to help you. George is the best of the lot.”
But that’s not saying much, I thought. It was a pretty narrow field, and Charles didn’t dig very deeply. I wasn’t really surprised. Harriet’s husband, the Honourable Charles Baldwin, MP, was much more interested in politics than finding a good marriage match for me.
“That will do, Jane.” Hari waved dismissively at her abigail, then waited until she left the room to speak again. “There are more complications.”
“It’s his uncle Lord Ainsley. He told Charles that he’s ready to declare him his heir and to pass on his seat in the House of Lords to him. So Charles wants to be very careful not to attract gossip of any kind. Nothing that could affect Lord Ainsley’s decision.”
“What does that have to do with me?” I wanted to ask why everything had to revolve around Charles and his ambition, but I didn’t.
Hari let out a sigh. “Women of a certain age need to be properly married with children or settled in a suitable position for a spinster—a governess, for example.”
I shivered at the thought of being a governess and the exhausting boredom it entailed. I wanted something more exciting. Someday I would marry, of course, but I was just twenty-one. Surely I had time to make a match. Harriet was twenty-five and had only wedded three years ago. She and Charles hadn’t even started their own family yet. I knew that unmarried women attracted gossip—that while seldom true was always malicious—but I doubted people had much of anything to say about me, certainly nothing that would influence Charles’s aspirations negatively.
“But George?” I wondered aloud.
“You should be pleased,” Hari said. “Many women would consider George a prime catch. He’s just been appointed chief whip, an enormously powerful position. Everyone in Charles’s circle fawns over him. He can make or destroy a parliamentarian’s career with just a word to the prime minister.”
I flopped back on the bed. “I grant you that George seems an attractive-enough fellow in a balding, middle-aged sort of way. Just the sort of very respectable husband women yearn for. But I don’t know if we would be happy together. I’m not even sure I’m ready to marry.”
“I’ve just said you have no other option!” Harriet cried.
The sudden sharpness in her voice startled me, and I sat up. “What do you mean? What’s wrong, Harriet?”
“I’m sorry.” She came towards me and took one of my hands in her own. “But I do worry about you sometimes, Charlotte. One hears such dreadful tales. You remember Mildred Winthrope? Really quite a lovely little thing, wellborn but certainly poor. By her third season she still hadn’t found a husband and was forced to beg from relatives. She died last winter. Caught a cold, and in her weakened state she was gone in a fortnight.” Hari dropped my hand. “They had to bury her in a pauper’s grave!”
I couldn’t help but laugh. “Do I look like I’m about to fade away from lack of nutrition? If George doesn’t make me an offer, I have another thought.” It was hardly formed, if I was being honest, but Harriet seemed to think that this marriage was my last chance for a good life, and I wanted to reassure her. The intense setting sun emerged from behind a tall tree, sending an unforgiving light through the three west-facing windows. Was it a sign?
Harriet leaned towards me, brows raised. “Don’t tell me someone else is dangling after you. Someone wealthy? Connected? You are full of surprises. Do tell.”
“No, nothing like that. It’s something else entirely.” I’d seen an advertisement posted in the broadsheets for a new veterinary program just yesterday and it had piqued my interest. I had always loved animals, whether it was barn cats, hunting dogs, or the majestic racehorses my father bred. As a girl, I spent my daylight hours tramping around our estate. Mama was always so preoccupied with making social connections, going to parties, and working to find the right match for Harriet, I don’t think she noticed, or if she did, she let it go. When our estate was in arrears and we’d had to let most of the help go, I tried to keep the animals and livestock in good condition until they were sold, but we’d had to get in Dr. Boyd, a veterinary surgeon, to tend to the racehorses, one of whom was pregnant. Harriet had seen the work as beneath me, but in truth, I’d enjoyed it.
I gave Harriet’s hand a gentle squeeze. “I had a thought about applying to the inaugural veterinary apprenticeship course.”
Harriet dropped my hand as the vein in her temple began to throb. People often assumed that a beautiful woman would have a sweet temperament to match her angelic looks, but that was rarely true.
“Do not for one moment think that you are a candidate for this ridiculous scheme. Because if that is where this conversation is headed, you can stop right now. Besides, I’m certain they would never accept a woman.”
“Not as a veterinary surgeon, no, but perhaps as an assistant. It would be something to fill my days. Something besides social calls and parties.”
“I can’t imagine what sort of woman would apply for this, certainly no lady of quality.” Harriet didn’t seem to realize how loudly she was speaking until I shushed her. Maids always seemed to be lurking about this vast house. She lowered her voice. “There are things happening that you are not aware of. Wheels are in motion. We have no input and no control over them. And time is running out for us, for you. You must marry, and soon, or Charles will create your future for you, one I doubt you would choose for yourself.”
Her humourless eyes worried me. We often liked to gently tease each other, but not today. She was like this when she was trying to shield me from trouble. She did it when Papa was struggling with the estate, and she was doing it now. I took her hand in mine again. “It was just a thought. Nothing to get upset about.”
“Of course.” She got up and walked towards the window. “But honestly, Char, I think you have a lot of our father’s romantic recklessness in you.”
Her last comment was like a blow to the stomach, but before I could respond we were interrupted by a sharp knock at the door and Charles entered. It was his routine to visit Harriet’s room before any social event. The inspection, I called it, which Harriet hated. He was obsessed with what others thought of Hari and revelled in the admiration that she attracted from other men.
As usual, Charles was dressed immaculately in perfect evening attire created for him by one of the most expensive tailors in London. When it came to himself, he spared no expense. His gentleman’s gentleman had done wonders covering his new bald spot, combing the sides of his straight blond hair into position and using some sort of oil to hold it in place. His neat, short beard had not a whisker out of place, and I couldn’t be sure, but it appeared that powder had been applied to his cheeks and the end of his thin nose.
“Charlotte,” he said. “That shade of green is most becoming, a perfect match for your reddish-blond colouring.”
“Thank you,” I replied, a little stunned at the rare compliment. Perhaps I was in the habit of judging him a bit too harshly.
“I was delighted when George told me he was looking forward to seeing you tonight. Don’t disappoint me.”
He turned his attention to Hari. “The hair is all wrong, Harriet. Send for your abigail. Curls, not straight. And what were you thinking with the pearls? Something an old maid would wear.” His glance strayed in my direction for a moment. “Don’t forget Lord Ainsley and Lady Margaret are coming. It’s important that you make a great fuss over them. I want them reminded of how much I value their endorsement. And hurry, the guests will be arriving soon.” With that he turned on his heel and was gone, no small kiss on Hari’s cheek, no goodbye, nothing.
The discordant, confused sounds of the string quartet warming up on the outdoor stage below the open window wafted into the room.
“Is he always that sharp with you?” I asked Hari quietly.
“Charles is under a lot of pressure these days,” she said, but I could hear a trace of irritation in her voice. “He’s not completely himself. You know how short-tempered he can get when something’s weighing on him.”
Charles was usually short with me, and I was happy to avoid lengthy conversations with him. I’m sure he felt that it was one thing to generously take me in after Papa’s death but quite another to acknowledge my presence.
“We are closer than most sisters, wouldn’t you agree?” Harriet said, turning to face me. By the fading light, I noticed the beginnings of the tiniest of crow’s-feet in the corners of her eyes. “In some ways I think we are more like mother and daughter. I was always there for you when you were growing up. I had to be; Mama wasn’t. I’ve looked out for you and steered you in the right direction, haven’t I?”
I nodded, feeling a lump in my throat.
“Then hear me now.” Her grip on my hand tightened. “Do whatever it takes to get George to propose to you tonight or we will both suffer the consequences.”