Second Chances – Mary Balogh

The sun was still shining down from a cloudless blue sky when one of the outriders rode up beside the carriage in which Eleanor Thompson was traveling and bent to rap on the window. Eleanor looked up from her book, startled, and removed her spectacles as the maid who traveled with her lowered the window. “Storm’s coming up fast behind us, ma’am,” the man said, removing his hat. “Tom Coachman was hoping to outpace it, but he says it can’t be done even if he springs the horses, which His Grace don’t like his doing on account of it can lame them easy. We are betwixt and between posting houses and it makes more sense to press on than to turn back. Tom says we will stop at the first inn we come to. You will be quite safe, ma’am, till then. She looks like a nasty one, but Tom is the best. No one less than the best would do for the dook.” With which words of alarm and reassurance he pulled back to resume his place behind the carriage. Both he and the other outrider had been sent to Bath with the carriage and the coachman and footman and maid to convey Eleanor from the girls’ school she owned and at which she taught to Lindsey Hall in Hampshire, country seat of the Duke of Bewcastle. Wulfric, the duke, was married to Eleanor’s sister Christine. Traveling thus was undeniably luxurious though it always amused Eleanor to be treated like a grand lady. She pressed her face to the window and looked back. Oh, dear, yes.

Thick, dark clouds were boiling up from the west, and even as she watched a jagged streak of lightning sliced through them. A thunderstorm was frightening, even dangerous, when one was traveling. The rain alone could quickly turn the road to a muddy quagmire. Even as she sat back in her seat Eleanor noticed that the wind was getting up. It was bending the long grass in the meadow beside the road and slightly rocking the carriage. The thunder that succeeded the lightning was felt more than heard above the clopping of the horses’ hooves and the rumble of the carriage wheels. She had left Bath early this morning for what was usually an easy day’s journey. She had looked forward to being at Lindsey Hall in time to take tea with Christine and Wulfric and her mother, who lived with them. It was possible too that Hazel, her other sister, would have arrived before her with Charles and their children. It was a rare treat for their whole family to be together, but this summer Lindsey Hall was going to be filled to the rafters with family and other guests for a two-week house party in celebration of Wulfric’s fortieth birthday.

It now seemed altogether possible that Eleanor would not get there today at all. She might be forced to spend a night on the road. She could only hope that at least it would be at an inn. “Don’t worry, Miss,” the maid said. “Tom Coachman is the very best, like Andy just said.” Eleanor smiled at her. “We must hope, Alma,” she said, “for the sake of the men out there with only the brims of their hats to hide beneath, that the next inn is not far off.” By the time they reached it, however, a squat, unremarkable building on the edge of an equally unremarkable village, the storm had caught up to them and was raging about them in the form of torrential rain and a wind like a hurricane and unrelenting lightning and thunder. Alma was reciting the Lord’s Prayer with her lips though some of the words were audible—“…Thy will be done on earth…And forgive us our trespasses…But deliver us from evil, oh please, please, Lord.” Eleanor was gripping the leather strap above her head and the edge of the seat cushion on her other side and had her feet firmly braced on the floor as though by so doing she could stop the carriage from rocking dangerously in the wind and weaving and slipping over the muddy surface of the road.

The carriage somehow made the turn into the half flooded inn yard and came to a stop without being blown over. “Amen,” Alma said aloud and Eleanor repeated silently. A few minutes later they were standing inside a low-ceilinged taproom that smelled of stale ale and was probably dark and dingy even when the sun was shining outside. At the counter the innkeeper was dealing with a tall gentleman in a caped coat, who was bespeaking two rooms and a private parlor. Eleanor doubted the inn boasted such a luxury as a parlor, but apparently it did. There were also two bedchambers available. She hoped fervently there was a third. She did not imagine this place was often besieged by large numbers of travelers looking for lodging. Its main function was almost undoubtedly to provide ale to slake the villagers’ thirst. Eleanor thought the gentleman was portly until he half turned and she saw that he had a child snuggled inside his coat—a child with a mop of unruly blond hair.

A girl of about nine or ten stood beside the gentleman. An older woman, dressed plainly in a black cloak with a white mob cap beneath her hood, probably the children’s nurse, stood a little apart from them. “You don’t have to be afraid any longer, Robbie,” the girl said. “We are safe in here, are we not, Papa? I was not afraid at all, was I?” “You were very brave,” the gentleman said as he signed the register and the child inside his coat peeped with one eye at the girl until he spotted Eleanor and covered the eye with his hand before ducking against his father again. “There was nothing to be afraid of, was there, Papa?” the little girl asked. “Just a lot of flashes and cracks and mud. Is that not right, Papa?” “It is always wise,” the man thus addressed said, “to have a healthy respect for thunderstorms, Georgette. They can certainly do harm to man and beast, though not when one is safely indoors.” “And woman too, Papa?” the child asked. “Assuredly,” he said with admirable patience.

“To woman too and girls and boys and puppies and pigs and slugs. Thank you,” he added as the innkeeper handed him two large keys. “We will move out of the way now so that this lady can be served. I do beg your pardon for delaying you, ma’am.” He had turned to Eleanor and smiled, revealing himself to be a handsome as well as a patient gentleman. He had his hands full with the child, who had been scared witless by the storm, poor little mite, and the girl, who seemed the sort to ask a million questions even when all she was really asking for was reassurance. For who would not be frightened when caught out in such weather? “That is quite all right,” Eleanor assured him. “At least it is safe and dry in here.” Though she had got more than half soaked just in the dash from the carriage to the door. Tom Coachman, drenched and dripping onto the floor, dealt with all the business of engaging a room for her and quarters for the servants after the gentleman and his family had moved away.

Tom was not wearing the ducal livery—that happened only when he was conveying the duke or the duchess—but there was an air of authority about him that commanded respect. Before many more minutes had passed, Eleanor was in possession of another of the large keys and was on her way upstairs with Alma while an elderly lady and gentleman took her place at the counter. There was, alas, no other private parlor for her use. She would have to eat her dinner in the small public dining room with other stranded travelers. There would doubtless be more. She was quite resigned to spending the night here. Even if the rain stopped at this very minute—and it showed no sign of abating—it was doubtful the road would be safe for travel before nightfall. Her room was small and stuffy. It looked clean, though, and there were two beds, one for her and one for Alma. But, oh, the tedium of being delayed.

The storm might have been kind enough to hold off for a few more hours. “At least, Alma,” she said, standing by the window and looking down through the rain at a waterlogged stable yard, “the floor is steady beneath our feet.” The terror of the past hour had exhausted poor Alma. Eleanor persuaded her to lie down for a few minutes and then, when the girl was fast asleep and snoring, she went downstairs to see if there was a cup of tea to be had in the taproom or, preferably, in the dining room. She was ushered into the latter by the innkeeper and was pleasantly surprised when he quickly brought to her table a good-sized teapot with milk, sugar, a cup and saucer, and a plate. He returned moments later, while she was still wondering about the plate, with a platter of cakes and pastries, all of which looked freshly baked and smelled altogether too appetizing. “The wife is in her element, ma’am,” he explained, jerking a thumb back in the direction of the kitchen. “As soon as we heard the first rumble of thunder a couple of hours or so ago, she says, ‘Joe,’ she says, ‘we are going to get company before the afternoon is out, you mark my words,’ she says, ‘and that company will be Quality,’ she says. And she fired up the range and the oven and set to work. I haven’t seen her this happy since it snowed sudden last December and we squeezed eleven persons and two nippers in here for two days.

You will have a dinner tonight that you will remember till next summer and beyond, ma’am, and no mistake. She used to be head cook up at the big house, did the wife, and mighty put out they was when she married me and up and left to come here.” “But how fortunate for travelers who find themselves stranded here,” Eleanor said. “I expect you have a full house by now, do you?” “Ten and two nippers,” he told her. “Even the couple I thought I would be obliged to turn away on account of there being no rooms left ended up staying. They were willing to sleep on the benches in the taproom if there was nothing else available, but when I mentioned the old attic room that is half full of boxes and gets wet in one corner when it rains hard, they took it sight unseen. I did not charge them more than the cost of their dinner and breakfast, though. It would not have been Christian, would it?” “You are very kind,” Eleanor assured him. No one else had come down for tea. She had the dining room to herself.

It had been dark to start with but had grown perceptibly darker in the few minutes she had been here even though it was still only the middle of a July afternoon. Any hope that the storm had moved off for good dimmed with the light. It was about to return for an encore. The tea was piping hot and on the strong side, as she liked it. She eyed the platter of cakes and pastries. She must eat at least one or the innkeeper’s wife would be hurt. What a wonderful excuse to indulge her sweet tooth. She considered a piece of currant cake before taking a puff pastry oozing with thick cream instead. Only her waistline would know. It was a good thing high-waisted dresses were still in fashion.

She jumped slightly at a sudden rumble of thunder followed almost immediately by the sound of a child’s voice just behind her shoulder. “I am delighted,” the little girl she had encountered earlier said, “that we are not the only ones who have been forced off the road to be stranded here in what Papa declares to be the middle of nowhere. It would be dreary, I think, to have the inn all to ourselves, though even that would be better than being stuck in the mud somewhere out there. You are the lady who came in right behind us. May I sit on that empty chair across from you for a little while? It might be considered forward of me, I know, when we have not been introduced and I am only ten years old besides. But there is no one here to introduce us, is there, and no one who knows us both anyway. I am Georgette Benning.” She was a thin child with a narrow face, large brown eyes, and dark hair clipped back from her face and flowing in loose waves down her back. She was gazing solemnly at Eleanor, who really was not craving company, especially that of a talkative child. She spent her days with young persons, talkative and otherwise, at her school on Daniel Street in Bath.

She had enjoyed her life there for several years after making the decision to teach rather than go with her mother to live at Lindsey Hall when Christine married Wulfric. She had enjoyed it so much, in fact, that when her friend, Claudia Martin, the former owner, married the Marquess of Attingsborough, Eleanor had taken over from her, purchasing the school with the aid of a loan from Wulfric, a loan he always tried to insist was a gift. Holidays were meant to be different from one’s everyday life, however, and this was the summer holiday. There would be children at Lindsey Hall, it was true, but they would be someone else’s responsibility. Eleanor had pictured herself spending several weeks of blissful peace and leisure, consorting with none but adults. The child was starting to look anxious at her silence. A flash of lightning lit up the room, flickered for a moment, and then flashed even more brightly. Eleanor smiled. “I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Georgette Benning,” she said, “and would be delighted to have you join me. I am Eleanor Thompson.

But will not your papa and your nurse be worried about your whereabouts?” “Oh, no,” the child said, seating herself opposite Eleanor as the thunder rumbled, crashed, and then rumbled again. “Papa is shut up in his own room, nursing his bad temper—or so he warned us when he closed his door, though there was a twinkle in his eye as there always is when he says such horrid things. What he really meant was that he wanted to escape Robbie’s clinging and my questions. I do tend to ask a lot of them. It is my Affliction, according to Nurse, and she always makes it sound as though the word would be spelled with a capital A if it was written down. Robbie was terrified of the storm, which he thought was going to strike our coachman dead and us too inside the carriage, though he is always frightened of thunder and lightning anyway. He is tucked up in bed for an afternoon nap with Nurse to keep an eye on him, which she will need to do with the storm come back. She would not let me sit on the side of his bed because I was fidgeting. Ooh! That was a bright one, was it not?” Her eyes widened and she got half to her feet before sitting again. “Ooh! And a loud one.

” “Indeed it was,” Eleanor said as rain suddenly sheeted down outside and pelted the windows, the force of a driving wind behind it. “Perhaps you would like to take this chair next to mine.” “I am not at all frightened,” Georgette assured her, getting to her feet once more and scurrying about the table anyway, “but I will. I shall not stay long. But I could not sit still upstairs, for the one book I pulled out of my trunk last night for reading today—I had finished the other one—is really very boring indeed though I have no one to blame but myself as I am the one who chose to bring it. It is Robinson Crusoe. Have you read it? There are almost no characters in it except Robinson, who is stuffy, and I always like lots of characters. Do you? And lots of adventure. Being marooned alone on an island is an adventure, I suppose, but it is a dull one, is it not? Nurse was looking reproachfully at me when I kept fidgeting on my own bed and turning pages to see if the story gets any more exciting though I could not see that it does, so I said I would go and sit with Papa for a while until Robbie fell asleep, but when I got outside the room I thought it would be mean to disturb his peace so soon and decided to come down here instead to explore and see if there was anyone down here who is not nursing a bad temper. It really is quite safe to come down, is it not? There are no highwaymen or desperate villains down here, only you.

I don’t think either Nurse or Papa will be very annoyed with me for coming, though I daresay they will both be cross with me for disturbing you. Do you find this delay very trying? Oooh!” A very bright flash of lighting was accompanied by an almost simultaneous crash of thunder, and the child’s hand closed tightly about Eleanor’s arm. “You must stay here for a little while,” Eleanor said. “But as soon as the storm abates it will perhaps be better to return to your room before your father and your nurse realize you are missing and become alarmed. Will you have a cake or pastry? When the innkeeper appears, I shall have a glass of lemonade brought for you.” “Oh, I shall not bother,” the child said. “Ooh!” She scraped her chair a little closer to Eleanor’s. “They will be even crosser if they think I have invited myself to tea. Ooh! Here comes another one.” Eleanor set one arm about the child’s thin shoulders as the thunder shook the inn.

“It is tedious to find oneself held up in the middle of a journey,” she said, “but at least we are safe here and not marooned alone and for an endless time as poor Robinson Crusoe was. There is something rather magnificent actually about a thunderstorm, provided one is safe indoors.” “Nurse says it is God being angry,” the child said, “but I think that is silly, don’t you? If God is just a crotchety old man, I do not see why we should have to sit very still on hard pews every Sunday at church worshiping him and being bored silly. Papa is thinking of sending me away to school. He says I am restless and inquisitive and school will do me good. He may be right. There would be teachers and lots of books, would there not, and other girls and plenty to do all the time, and I would find out about all sorts of things, perhaps everything, though I do not believe girls’ schools teach Latin and Greek, do they? But I would not enjoy having to sit still and silent all day long and having to do as I am told without any chance to discuss any rules that seem silly to me. Mostly, though, I do not want to leave Robbie. He is five though he looks younger, and he is shy and timid and I don’t think everyone should be trying to make him come out of his shell, as Nurse describes it, and behave like a proper boy and stop sucking his thumb, which he does not always do anyway, only when he feels the need for some extra comfort. Mama died when he was a baby and he misses her even though he never knew her.

I did know her for five years though I cannot remember her as well as I wish. I look after Robbie, but I don’t smother him, even though some people say I do. I let him be who he is, which Nurse says is wrong because he has to learn to be a man. Oooh! I thought that one was coming right through the roof.” She reached out for the creamiest pastry on the plate, twin to the one Eleanor had just eaten, and bit into it. Eleanor slid a napkin toward her. “Your brother is fortunate to have you,” she said. Poor little boy. What a tragedy to have lost his mother soon after his birth. And what a tragedy for this little girl, who was trying to take her mother’s place and appeared to be too intelligent for her own good.

She would need some very patient and understanding teachers if all that was good and bright in her was not to be stifled at school in the name of discipline and making a lady of her, indistinguishable from all her peers. Not all voluble children were intelligent, of course, but Eleanor would wager a great deal that this one was. The child’s next question confirmed her in this belief. “Do you think children ought to be allowed to be who they are?” she asked after sucking cream from her fingers. “Or ought they to be brought up and educated to fit in, to be what their parents expect of them and what other grown-ups expect of them? Is that what life is all about, Mrs. Thompson? Learning to fit in?” Oh, dear. What a very profound question, and how difficult it was to answer. But Eleanor never brushed aside girls’ questions, profound or silly. She tried always to give them due consideration. “Allowing people to be who they are sounds like a very wonderful idea,” she said.

“But carried to an extreme, would it perhaps lead to anarchy? If wild children were permitted to become wild young persons and then wild adults, would society work? For we have to live in society whether we wish to or not. We have to share our world with other people. If we all did whatever we wished to do, we would almost inevitably clash with other people intent upon doing what they wished to do, and quarrels and fights and even wars would result as they all too often do anyway. On the other hand, mindless conformity is not a desirable thing either. The answer to your question ought to be a simple one, but it is not. I have lived a great deal longer than you, and I am still not at all sure how much freedom and how much conformity create the perfect balance in our lives. The answer lies, I suspect, somewhere between the two extremes. I have not answered you very satisfactorily, have I? And it is Miss Thompson.” She wondered if the child had understood a word of what she had said. But Georgette’s eyes, fixed upon Eleanor, were alight with approval as she reached absently for a piece of fruit cake, broke off a corner, and put it into her mouth.

“No one else—no one—has ever even tried to answer me when I ask that question,” she said after swallowing. “Everyone tells me not to be silly, that children are not real persons until they have been shaped into the people their birth and station in life have determined for them. Admittedly, I have not asked Papa, though. I shall think about your answer. I may decide that I do not agree, but I love that you have spoken to me as though I were twenty instead of ten going on eleven. Or as though I were thirty or forty. It is sometimes very tiresome to be a child, Miss Thompson. Can you remember that far back? Did you find it tiresome?” “Having to go to bed when the evening was only half over?” Eleanor said, pulling a face. “Having to eat the cabbage someone else has put on your plate when you hate and despise cabbage?” the child said. “Having an adult remind you every single morning to wash behind your ears when there is nothing wrong with your memory?” Eleanor said.

“Having to be silent in company until you are spoken to,” Georgette said, “even when you are bursting to say something?” “Having to count aloud the number of brush strokes you give your hair each night?” Eleanor said. “Being told which books you can read and which are beyond your understanding?” Georgette said. They both dissolved into laughter. “I do believe the worst of the storm has passed over,” Eleanor said, turning her glance to the window as Georgette ate a jam tart, “though the rain is still coming down hard.” “Perhaps Robbie has fallen asleep by now,” the child said. “I had better go up before you have to suggest it to me again. That would be lowering. Oh, dear, have I really been eating your cakes? I did not mean to. I was not thinking.” “I wanted only one myself,” Eleanor assured her.

“It would have been a pity for all the rest to go back to the kitchen. Apparently the innkeeper’s wife baked them especially for all the travelers she guessed would be stranded here by the storm. I am very glad you joined me, Georgette. You have been interesting company.” “So have you,” the child said. “But now I really must—” “Georgette!” a pained and reproachful male voice said from behind Eleanor’s shoulder, making her jump again. “Here you are, you wretched child, bothering a fellow guest, as I might have expected.”

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