Nothing ruins a dinner party like expertise. A lady who has attended fourteen lectures about Chinese porcelain will Ming this and Tsing that all evening; a baron who has published an essay about vultures in a zoological magazine will undoubtedly hold forth on the unpleasant habits of carrioneaters. Eugenia Snowe’s area of expertise, on the other hand, would have made dinner guests howl with laughter, if only it were appropriate to share. For example, she knew precisely how the Countess of Ardmore’s second-best wig had made its way onto the head of a terrified piglet, which dashed across the terrace when the vicar was taking tea. She knew which of the Duke of Fletcher’s offspring had stolen a golden toothpick and an enameled chamber pot and, even better, what he had done with them. Not only did she have to keep those delicious details to herself, she couldn’t even burst into laughter until she was in private. As the owner of the most elite agency for governesses in the whole of the British Isles, she had to maintain decorum at all times. No laughing! Not even when her housemaid ushered in a boy wearing a brocade curtain pinned like a Roman toga—although the gleaming blue that coated his arms and face clashed with the senatorial drape of the curtain. The boy’s mother, Lady Pibble, trailed in after him. Eugenia didn’t see many blue boys in the course of a day, but she often saw mothers with the hysterical air of a woman ill-prepared to domesticate the species of wild animal known as an eight-year-old boy. “Lady Pibble and Marmaduke, Lord Pibble,” her housemaid announced. “Good afternoon, Winnie,” Eugenia said, rising from her desk and coming around to greet her ladyship with genuine pleasure. Her old school friend Winifred was lovely, as sweet and soft as a soufflé. Alas, those were not helpful characteristics when it came to raising children. Fate or Nature had perversely matched Winnie with her opposite: Marmaduke was a devilishly troublesome boy by any measure, and Eugenia considered herself an expert on the subject.
“I can’t do it!” Winifred wailed by way of greeting, staggering across the room and collapsing on the sofa. “I’m at my wit’s end, Eugenia. My wit’s end! If you don’t give me a governess, I shall leave him here with you. I mean it!” The way her voice rose to a shriek made her threat very persuasive. Marmaduke didn’t seem in the least dismayed at the idea of being abandoned in a registry office. “Good afternoon, Mrs. Snowe,” he said cheerfully, making a reasonable bow considering that he was holding a fistful of arrows and an extremely fat frog. “I’m an ancient Pict and a smuggler,” he announced. “Good afternoon, Marmaduke. I was not aware that smugglers came in different hues,” Eugenia said.
“Smugglers may not be blue, but Picts always are,” he explained. “They were Celtic warriors who painted themselves for battle. My father told me about them.” He held up his frog. “I started to paint Fred too, but he didn’t like it.” “Fred is looking considerably plumper than last time I met him,” Eugenia observed. “You were right about cabbage worms,” he said, grinning. “He loves them.” “I can smell beeswax—which I gather turned you blue—but is that odor of river mud thanks to Fred?” Marmaduke sniffed loudly, and nodded. “Fred stinks.
” “Don’t say ‘stinks,’ darling,” his mother said from the depths of the sofa, where she had draped a handkerchief over her eyes. “You may describe something as smelly, but only if you absolutely must.” “He smells like a rotten egg,” Marmaduke elaborated. “Though not nearly as rank as Lady Hubert when she came out of the river.” Winnie gave a stifled moan, the kind one might hear from a woman in the grips of labor. “I almost forgot about the river. Eugenia, I am not going home until you give me a governess.” “I cannot,” Eugenia said patiently. “I’ve explained to you, Winnie, that—” Winnie sat up, handkerchief clutched in her hand, and pointed to her son. “Tell her!” she said in throbbing accents.
“Tell her what you said to Lady Hubert! I wouldn’t drag him here if it was simply a matter of turning blue. I am inured to dirt.” For the first time, Marmaduke looked a bit fidgety, shifting his weight to one leg and tucking the other up so that he looked like a blue heron. “Lady Hubert said that I should always tell the truth, so I did.” “That sounds ominous,” Eugenia said, biting back yet another smile. “Where were you when Lady Hubert gave you this advice?” “We were having a picnic by the Thames, at the bottom of our lawn,” Winnie said, answering for her son. “Did I mention that Lady Hubert is Marmaduke’s godmother and has no children of her own? We had hoped . but no. After today, no.” “She gave me a sermon just like those in church except that she’s a lady,” Marmaduke said, apparently deciding to get it over with.
“She said as how deceit and hippocrasty are barriers to a holy life.” “Hypocrisy,” Eugenia said. “Do go on.” “So I did that.” “What?” “Well, first I entertained her by doing the dance of the Picts. They were wild savages. They howled. Would you like to see?” He gave Eugenia a hopeful look. She shook her head. “I shall use my imagination.
Did Lady Hubert enjoy your performance?” “She didn’t like it much,” Marmaduke conceded, “but she wasn’t too crusty. She asked me what I thought about the book of church history she had brought me for my birthday last month, and had I read the whole thing.” “Oh dear,” Eugenia said. “I was being honest, like she said to. I told her that I didn’t like it because it was boring and three hundred pages long. Mother was ruffled by that, but she settled down and after a while, Lady Hubert asked me what I thought of her new gown. I said that it would look better if she hadn’t eaten an entire side of beef. Father always said that about her.” “It was not kind to repeat your father’s comment,” Eugenia said. She had discovered over the years that children learned best from simple statements of fact.
He scowled. “I was being honest and besides, after I did the warrior dance she said that my father likely passed on because he needed a rest cure.” “That was deeply unkind,” Eugenia said with her own scowl, “and very untrue, Marmaduke. Your father was a war hero who would have done anything to stay with you and your mother.” She glanced over at Winnie, who was flat on her back with an arm thrown over her eyes. Her husband had been a naval captain who lost his life at the Siege of Malta while serving under Rear Admiral Lord Nelson. Marmaduke hunched up one shoulder by way of reply. “Did you throw, push, or otherwise inveigle Lady Hubert into the Thames?” Eugenia said, feeling a wave of dislike for the lady in question. “No! She fell in all by herself.” “After a horned beetle that my son had about his person found its way onto her arm and ran inside her sleeve,” Winnie clarified.
“I wouldn’t have thought she could leap like that,” Marmaduke said, with an air of scientific discovery. “Being as she was large and all, but she did, and into the water she went.” “Head first,” Winnie added hollowly. “I wish I’d seen it,” Eugenia said, pulling the cord to summon her housemaid. “It was funny,” Marmaduke confided, “because her clothes were all frilly pink underneath. I had to run for the footmen and two grooms as well, because the bank was slippery with mud. The butler said that it was like hauling a Hereford steer out of a mudhole.” “That’s an extremely vulgar description,” his mother said in the weary voice of a vicar sermonizing in Latin to an audience of squabbling children. The door opened. “Ruby,” Eugenia said, “I should like you to take Lord Pibble into the garden and throw a few buckets of water over him.
” “Mrs. Snowe!” Marmaduke said, dropping back a step, his eyes widening. “It’s not only Fred who smells. What did you mix in the beeswax to get that color?” “Indigo powder from my paint box.” “It seems to be pungent, which means smelly. A good washing should get off the indigo,” Eugenia said, turning to Ruby. “I’m not sure about the beeswax.” “I don’t want to,” Marmaduke wailed. “Mummy said that I could keep it on until bedtime.” “Fred is looking very dry,” Eugenia said firmly.
“He needs a rinsing as well.” After four years in her position, Ruby was adept at handling unruly children. She took Marmaduke’s arm, and marched him straight out of the room. Winnie sat up to watch him go. “He wouldn’t have gone with me, nor with Nanny either. May I borrow your housemaid?” Eugenia sat down beside her friend. “Marmaduke needs to go to school, dear.” “He’s my baby,” Winnie said, her eyes filling with tears again. “He merely needs a governess, Eugenia. Why won’t you give me a governess?” “Because Marmaduke needs to be around other boys.
Didn’t his father put his name down for Eton?” “I can’t let him go.” “You must.” “You don’t understand,” Winnie wailed. “Darling Marmaduke is all I have left of John. You just don’t know how hard it is to be widowed and all alone!” There was a moment’s silence. “I didn’t mean that,” Winnie said hastily. “Of course, you know; you’re a widow too.” “But it’s different for you,” Eugenia said. “For me, it’s been seven years.” “That’s what I meant,” Winnie said, blowing her nose.
“I just want my son home with me, where he belongs.” “He belongs with other boys. This is the third time you’ve been to see me in as many weeks, isn’t it?” Winnie nodded. “That thing that happened to the cat—its fur is growing back in, thank goodness— and after that, the title pages of the hymnals. Yesterday the vicar greeted me in a wretchedly stiff manner. And my Uncle Theodore still believes that we have a monkey as a pet; I daren’t tell him what really happened to his corset.” Eugenia wrapped her arm around Winnie. “Eton,” she said firmly. “Write a letter to them saying that Marmaduke will attend Michaelmas term. I’ll send you a tutor, a young man who can take your son fishing when they’re done with studies.
” “His father meant to teach him to fish, just as soon as he returned from Malta,” Winnie said, hiccupping and dissolving back into tears. “I’m so sorry,” Eugenia whispered, easing Winnie’s head onto her shoulder. When she had opened the registry office six years before, she’d had no idea that she’d find herself at the center of many domestic crises. She could write a book about the hidden dramas of polite society. Though when it came to widowhood, one’s birth or place in society was irrelevant. Her desk was piled with letters, and there were undoubtedly mothers waiting to see her. Eugenia rocked Winnie back and forth as she watched Marmaduke scampering around the back garden. “I suppose I’ll take him home now,” Winnie said damply, straightening up. “Nanny will not be pleased by what’s happened to the nursery curtain.” “I think tea and cakes are in order,” Eugenia said.
“Eight-year-old boys are always hungry.” “I couldn’t! You don’t want him to sit on your lovely chairs.” That was true. “Take him to a tea garden,” Eugenia suggested. “You can sit outside, which means Fred won’t cause a commotion either.” “Only if you come with us.” “I’m afraid I can’t. I have appointments this afternoon.” Winnie’s eyes widened. “Oh no, I’m sorry!” She scrambled to her feet and snatched up her reticule.
“My dear, you are such a comfort to me! Send me a tutor!” she called as she trotted out the door. Eugenia ought to have returned to her desk, but instead she stood at the window and watched as Winnie chased her son, still faintly blue, around and around the fountain where Fred was enjoying a bath. Even through the beveled glass, she could hear Marmaduke’s screams and Winnie’s laughter. It seemed to her that widowhood would be bearable if your husband had left behind a child, a part of himself. The door opened behind her. “Ma’am, may I send in Mrs. Seaton-Rollsby?” “Yes,” Eugenia said, turning about. “Certainly.”