Mystified by the summons, but cheered by their support, Dorothea hurried after the fast disappearing Guard. They traversed the length of the train, until they came into the First Class carriages, where he turned and belatedly explained, ‘A gentleman has paid for you to sit in the First Class with him, miss, but he asked me to assure you that there is a respectable couple in his carriage who are willing to keep an eye on you,’ at this point his face broke into a smile, ‘and on him, I’m sure.’
‘Oh, how nice, but how did you know. . .’
‘He described you very particularly, miss. I had no doubt of recognising you.’ He then became serious again. ‘You will take care, won’t you. I’m sure he means no harm but. . .’
‘Oh, yes, sir. I’m no simpleton to be taken in by a rogue. But thank you for your concern. Perhaps when we reach London you could assist me to find my way to Richmond?’
‘Indeed, I can do that, and find a porter to guide you to the omnibus. Now here we are,’ and he slid open a door and ushered her into a compartment so luxurious that she found it difficult not to look overawed by her surroundings. But Henry, smiling with relief, was on his feet to welcome her, and while the Guard put her bag in the rack he invited her to sit opposite him. ‘I couldn’t think what to do when we were parted so abruptly, but after some reflection I appealed to Mr and Mrs Smithson here for their help,’ they nodded and smiled at her, and she responded with a quiet, ‘Thank you.’
‘So then I asked the guard to find you – and here you are!’ He looked and sounded like an overgrown child delighted by his own cleverness, and she had to laugh at his pleasure. ‘Now we can carry on where we left off.’
In a minute they were deep in talk of books, and though he was as astonished as the cross matron to hear about her fascination with the great explorers and scientists, his response was very different. He promised to accompany her to the British Library in search of Joseph Banks, and told her how she might see and hear the great men of the age for herself at the Royal Institution Lectures. ‘My father is a member,’ he said, and seeing how the look on her face changed from astonished delight to deep concern, he hastened to brush aside her anxiety about the cost. ‘The lectures themselves are free,’ he explained, ‘The members subscriptions cover the costs. It will cost my father nothing to provide you with the opportunity to go to one.’ Then, recalling her situation he added quietly, ‘We shall have to hope your new employer will be willing to give you your time off on the right evenings.’
Though her hopes were not high on this count, she didn’t want to disappoint him, so she smiled cheerfully, and agreed, ‘Yes, we must hope so. It would be the fulfilment of a dream for me. But are you sure it will not be an imposition?’
‘Not a bit, my older sister, Bettina, doesn’t love books much, but if I ask her I’m sure she will be happy to accompany you,’ he laughed, ‘and that will make everything perfectly proper.’
Mr and Mrs Smithson, amused at his innocent optimism, smiled at each other, and she commented, ‘That would be quite acceptable, my dear, so don’t you worry about it, but take the chance if it comes your way.’
The rest of the journey passed in pleasant conversation, and by the time they arrived in Marylebone she knew all about Mr Lofthouse’s secondhand book business and the difficulties that had to be overcome in the search for the rarities demanded by their customers. As they descended from the train Mr and Mrs Smithson went beyond all her expectations and offered to take her to Richmond in their carriage.
‘We live not far from there, so it is no trouble to deliver you safely to your door,’ he assured her.
However, when she allowed him to take her bag from her and knock at the front door, she realised she had made a serious mistake. The butler was perfectly polite to Mr Smithson, but once he had gone and the door was closed he hurried her into the back of the house, where he made it clear that he was offended by her presumption. A new under-housemaid was not expected to arrive at the front door!
‘I hope you have not forgotten what your place here is to be,’ he said, frowning down at her. He was almost as tall as Henry, but stouter, balding, and with a disagreeable set to his face. ‘I thought it was a mistake to hire someone from the Midlands, but Mrs Foster assured me she knew your aunt and you would be suitable.’ He made a huffing noise, ‘I’m not convinced. I shall be keeping an eye on you, Small.’
Still muttering under his breath he took her to the housekeeper’s room, obviously annoyed that the task had fallen to him rather than to the footman or one of the other maids, but equally determined to put Dorothea’s blunder before Mrs Foster in the plainest terms.
She followed meekly behind him, all the pleasure of the day wiped out by his reprimand, and her heart beating hard. She was under no illusion, if he and Mrs Foster took against her before she’d even found her feet then her life in this house could be made extremely hard. She decided then and there she would not mention her aunt; she must make her own way, and prove herself without relying on anyone else’s recommendation.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ to be continued