A Governess of Prodigious Skill by Emily E K Murdoch

Chapter One

March 1, 1813

Helena blinked. Perhaps if she waited, the words would mean something different. They echoed in her mind, unchanging.

“We’re going to have to let you go.”

She stared at Mr. Tobias, the stage manager of the Theatre Royal. “You can’t do this.”

Her words were lost in the noise. The castle background for As You Like It was being moved with much shouting and groaning from the stagehands, and she had to shout the second time to ensure she was heard.

“I said, you can’t do this! It’s not fair!”

It was more than unfair, it was unjust—and totally uncalled for. Helena Patrick was beloved across London, across England, an actress beyond compare. She had been for years. No complaints had been made as far as she was aware. Let go?

Mr. Tobias shook his head, his yellowing teeth bared in what he clearly thought was a sympathetic smile. “Hate to do it to you, girl, but that’s the long and short of it.”

Helena could just about make his words over the pounding noise in her ears. Let go? From the Theatre Royal? It wasn’t possible. This was some sort of terrible joke.

“April Fools is the first of April, not March,” she shouted over the din coming from the stage as they stood in the wings. “This isn’t funny Mr. Tobias.”

Mr. Tobias spat on the ground. “I tol’ ’em you’d take it like this, Helena, my old girl, but you’ve got to see it from our perspective. That’s how it is in the theater. Sometimes you’re up, sometimes you’re down.”

The pounding in her eyes was continuing, but it was now accompanied by Helena’s stomach dropping through the floor. Down? She had never been down. Helena Patrick had never given a bad performance in her life!

“The theater is all I’ve ever known!”

Blast it to hell! Of course the shouting and noise had to stop right then. Everyone in the vicinity turned to stare, and Helena felt her cheeks pink. Well, it was hardly a secret. She had been here for years, performed almost every night, brought the house down every time.

And that wasn’t enough?

“All I have ever known,” she repeated, this time at a more suitable volume as Mr. Tobias smirked. “The only family I have ever known—the only way I can earn money.”

For any other woman, perhaps, it would have been a struggle to keep tears at bay. Helena was not that woman. Years of acting, of being able to turn on tears within a moment’s notice, had given her the control others lacked.

She was not going to cry. Not here, at any rate, before everyone. Before Mr. Tobias.

He was laughing. “You know, you’re not that good, Helena.”

Helena bristled. She knew precisely that she was that good. Had they not all read the gossip sheets, the newspapers—had they not noticed she was the person mentioned again and again, and for all the right reasons?

No, this theater needed her. She needed it, but the dependency went both ways.

“You—you cannot just fire me,” she said haughtily.

Her manner did not impress the stage manager. “Of course I can. What, did you think anyone can just move in here and decide never to leave?”

Helena swallowed. She was not going to make a fool out of herself—even more than she already had done—but…well, yes.

Of all the places she had lived in her life, it had been here, the Theatre Royal, where she had been the longest. She knew every inch, knew every person like they were family. They were family.

She had to stay calm. There was a…a perfectly reasonable compromise they could reach, she was sure. Convincing Mr. Tobias could not be difficult. Everyone wanted something.

Examining him closely, Helena realized there was probably only one way to secure herself here, and the very thought curdled her stomach.

Never before had she used her body to get what she wanted. Others had, of course. It was generally expected that a few of the lower grade actresses took gentleman lovers to supplement their income, but Helena had never been tempted.

She had never needed to be.

Was Mr. Tobias lonely? There was no Mrs. Tobias, as far as she knew. Was seduction really her only option?

It would never have occurred to her before. Did desperate times call for desperate measures?

“Don’t be daft, girl,” said Mr. Tobias, evidently seeing where her thoughts were leading. “You think I’d be where I am now, managing this whole place, if I could be that easily taken in by a bit of skirt?”

Helena flushed.

“Besides, it’s not as though you’re fresh meat,” said the stage manager, looking at her appraisingly. “What are you, four and twenty?”

“Six and twenty,” said Helena as haughtily as she could manage.

Blast it all to hell and back. This was not how it was supposed to go. She had never had a plan exactly—what good was planning when God and men ruled the world?

No, it was more of a vague understanding. Older actresses stayed on as long as they could, then they became—well, sort of mothers of the theater. Mending costumes, helping with painting scenery, running lines with the actresses who had succeeded their place.

Helena swallowed, conscious she was saying absolutely nothing.

This was not how she had imagined it at all.

“Look,” she said, keeping desperation from her voice as only a professional actress could. A little wheedling, a dash of understanding, a knowing smile… “So, this play isn’t doing as well as we thought. Perhaps we shouldn’t have chosen As You Like It—that’s all! The audience is tired. We’ll do a different one—my Lady Macbeth is—”

“No,” said the stage manager in a voice of finality. “It’s not the play the people are bored with. It’s you.”

Helena stared. He was lying. Why was he saying these hurtful things?

“I’ve…” Helena swallowed. For the first time in the conversation, her voice had wavered. Diction, breathing, pronunciation… “I have been here for ten years!”

A few stagehands passed by. Surely they would speak for her—but not a single one paused, and they kept their heads down to avoid both her eyes and that of Mr. Tobias.

Traitors.

Guilt washed over Helena. Of course she would have preferred them to speak up, but what were they supposed to do? Stagehands were at the bottom of the pecking order here at the Theatre Royal, at any theater.

They had their own jobs to consider. They had to protect themselves.

Helena had seen for herself how quickly fads and fashions could change. Popularity came as a spark lit a fire, but it could burn out just as quickly.

“That’s your problem. You’ve been here too long,” said Mr. Tobias. “Everyone knows you, Helena. They know Helena Patrick. They know all your tricks, your best performances, your dud ones.”

Helena opened her mouth to argue—dud ones?—but couldn’t get a word in.

“Good, you are—fresh and exciting, you are not.”

“Hello, I’m looking for a Mr. Tobias?”

Helena turned. A girl—you could hardly call her a woman, she looked as though she had just been cut from her mother’s apron strings—in a scandalously low-cut gown was standing at the doorway between the wing and backstage, looking around in doe-eyed wonder.

Helena turned back to the stage manager with a glare. “I thought you said you couldn’t be tempted by a bit of skirt?”

Mr. Tobias leered. “I did, didn’t I? I was lying. Just go through there, darlin’, I’ll be with you in a moment.”

The girl simpered and wandered in the direction of the stage manager’s finger.

Now Helena was really struggling to keep her temper. This was outrageous. How dare he? But, as that irritating voice in her head reminded her, who could do anything about it?

When she focused on the stage manager again, he was licking his lips.

“So predictable.”

“Well, you didn’t see it coming!” he observed. “There ain’t no law against it, so don’t you come at me with your moralizing and scandalizing. Who’s to say you didn’t do much the same thing with old Matthews, him that came a’fore me?”

Panic was filling her lungs, overwhelming her thoughts, so Helena couldn’t even refute the outrageous accusation.

She would not be cast aside. Oh, you heard rumors of actresses being abandoned like this, but she had assumed they were bitter mutterings from women who had passed their peak.

Not her. She was better than ever. She was not going to leave.

“Get out,” said Mr. Tobias with a sigh. “I’ve got better things to do today than stand here and argue with you.”

He stepped forward, but Helena blocked his path. “But where do you think I’m going to go? I live here, Mr. Tobias, as you well know. I have nowhere else to go.”

“And that is none of my concern,” he said. “You think I care? All I care about is this theater, and you’re holding us back, Helena. Just be out in the next hour.”

Helena stared. “Next hour?”

This could not be happening. Perhaps she was having a nightmare; that would make sense. A terrifying, terribly realistic nightmare.

“Well, where do you think young Mary is going to live?”

Helena looked over her shoulder and saw the young, pretty girl was back, loitering in the doorway. She simpered as she heard her name.

Dear Lord, save her from men and their irritatingly predictable nature. They only thought with one organ, and it was not their brain.

“Out, in an hour,” said Mr. Tobias. “And I wish you luck finding work at any other theater round here. They’ll be looking for new and fresh, just like we are. You might try it out in the countryside—if they have theaters there.”

Without another word, the stage manager strode across the wing and said something in a low voice. The girl smiled, a pretty blush covering her cheeks.

Helena stared at the pair of them. What else could she do? There did not appear to be any budging the man, not now he had found someone to replace her with.

As if she could carry off Lady Macbeth, Helena thought savagely. Like she had any comprehension of the depths that Juliet required.

Helena looked around her. The ropes and pulleys above her, the costumes carefully numbered and folded neatly, ready for their next wear. The box of props that became more and more untidy with each passing day until Mr. Tobias shouted, and an unfortunate stagehand was forced to spend his day off sorting through it.

She could just make out the stage from here. The floorboards were polished expertly, as she imagined the dancing space at Almack’s might be. It wasn’t just the stage, it was her stage. She had trodden those boards countless times, knew her marks, could hold the audience in the palm hand if she chose to.

And it was all over. In just a few minutes, she would walk up the three flights of stairs to where the actresses lived. Her small room, magnificent when she had first arrived having shared a bedchamber with her parents and brother, would be emptied, her small possessions placed in the trunk she had inherited from her grandmother, her one item of value.

And then…

Helena could not imagine what came next. The theater had been everything to her–home, livelihood, friends, and family. Now it was over.

Fool, she told herself, unable to take a step toward her bedchamber, as that would mean accepting her fate. Why did you believe you would have a home here forever? Why didn’t you put a little money by every week for just such a predicament?

A stagehand wandered past, hesitated, then stopped. “No…no hard feelings, Helena.”

She glared. “And what makes you think this won’t happen to you one day?”

The man seemed utterly unfazed by her snappish retort. “Well, I’m not the pretty face, am I? I don’t need to stay young and beautiful to bring the punters in. I just need to be strong. Look after yourself, Helena.”

He sloped away before Helena could respond. He was wrong. One day his arms would weaken, and he would find himself just as abandoned as she was now.

Besides, she was young!Six and twenty was not the youngest, but she was hardly frail and tired, was she?

Helena took a deep breath. She had already lost her composure in her argument with Mr. Tobias. It would benefit her nothing to have a tantrum about it all.

Less than an hour was all it took to collect her belongings. Helena looked into her trunk wistfully. She had never felt the need to treat herself to gowns or fripperies, not with the decadent embroidered masterpieces characters. One night, Cleopatra. The next night, Queen Elizabeth.

What gown within her budget could compare?

The fresh spring air of London hit her face as Helena stepped out of the Theatre Royal for the last time. She took a deep breath and immediately wished she hadn’t.

For the uninitiated, London was a place of wonder. The streets were paved with gold, they said; a fortune to be made by any man—or woman—willing to work, so went the tale.

It was rather a shock for those country bumpkins when they arrived. Helena had seen them, wide-eyed and eagerly looking for these fabled streets of gold. They soon learned.

London stank. Spring was warming up, and the parts of London that looked pretty under a sheen of snow were starting to smell again.

Helena wrinkled her nose and tried to force down rising panic in her chest. The street was busy, packed with people rushing from one end to the other. Somewhere to go, something to do.

Neither of which she had.

She had always liked London, despite its rather unsavory nature and smell. There were the boxing rings, the pubs where women like her could drink a small pale ale and chat about nothing and everything, the parks open to all regardless of rank.

Now it appeared rather a frightening place. The streets had always been a means to an end, a route on her journey, not a final destination. And here she was, standing on the pavement, with nowhere to go and nothing to do. No one to protect her. No place to sleep tonight.

She gripped her trunk. No place to sleep tonight. That was her primary concern. The streets of London were genteel and polite—well, most of them—during the day, but she had lived here long enough to know it wasn’t safe for a woman once the sun set.

With no savings, no friends to protect her, and no idea what to do next, she swallowed and tried to stay calm.

How was she going to live?She had few skills, could do nothing but act. That was hardly going to put a roof over her head and bread on the table.

Everyone seemed to have a purpose, something wrenched from her just moments ago. Mr. Tobias seemed to consider it simple enough to force her to leave the theatre, but he clearly had no idea what terrible position this placed her in.

In the theater, she was somebody. She was Helena Patrick, a famed celebrated actress.

Here, in the middle of London? She was a nobody. No one knew who she was or would be willing to help her. She was alone.

“Miss Patrick? Miss Helena Patrick?”

Startled, Helena turned to see a beautiful woman with dark hair and kind eyes. She had evidently stopped dead, for the gentleman whose arm she held looked suddenly startled.

They were both dressed elegantly, and Helena became conscious of her own looks. Wearing one of her two day gowns, a short Spencer jacket over it. No bonnet, no gloves…

“You are Miss Helena Patrick, are you not?” said the lady.

Helena looked wary. “Who wants to know?”

Perhaps she should have been politer. There was no cause to believe the lady had any ill-intent toward her, but the bruising conversation with Mr. Tobias had made her mistrustful.

Besides, this woman was clearly a lady. What did she want with the likes of her?

The lady smiled. “I would recognize that face anywhere—yes, Miss Patrick, the famous actress. What an honor to meet you.”

Shame flooded Helena’s body, heating her face and making her fingers sticky on the handle of her trunk. Not today. Any other day and this would have been flattering, but today?

“Oh, please don’t be embarrassed to be recognized,” said the lady. “You must have this all the time, being such a great actress. I honestly think you are the best in London.”

Helena swallowed. The news would get out eventually, it always did. Perhaps she would be featured not in the gossip pages but the scandal sheets for the first time.

Old actress forced out of theater.

“This is the actress I was telling you about,” the lady was saying to the gentleman Helena presumed was her husband. “The one I was telling the children they should come and watch when they come to London for the wedding.”

The gentleman nodded. “Pleasure to make your acquaintance, Miss Patrick.”

Helena smiled weakly. Would this nightmarish day ever end? How was she to extricate herself from this mortifying conversation?

“Oh, when I saw you as Hermia, I wept, absolute tears,” the lady was saying. “I took the children, of course, and so wasn’t able to return for another two weeks after saving my wages, but as soon as I could, I purchased another ticket. Oh, the way you performed Cleopatra—it was as though you had stepped off the sands of ancient Egypt and onto that stage. I never thought…”

Helena stared in horror as the lady continued. How was she able to stem this flow of praise—praise she would have gloried in hearing any other day but today?

Besides, it didn’t make sense. Wages? Since when did a lady like her need wages?

“—haven’t made it to your current play, of course, with all the wedding preparations—but you are the talk of London, no one will ever best your—”

“My lady,” interrupted Helena, finally pushed beyond all endurance. “I-I thank you for your kind words. I know they are well meant and…I thank you.”

The lady blinked.

“But I must tell you, I am no longer an actress.”

The lady’s mouth fell open. “Goodness. My word—since when?”

Helena could not help her sad laugh. “Oh, I would say…about twenty minutes ago?”

The lady’s gaze moved from Helena’s face to the trunk in her hands. There was a moment of silence—or at least, silence between them. The rest of London roared in the background as hundreds of busy people went from one end of the street to the other.

“Galcrest,” said the lady finally. “Go away.”

Helena did not understand what she meant until her husband-to-be nodded.

“Right, ho,” he said cheerfully before he strode off twenty yards or so and stood leaning against the theater.

Helena stared. She could not help it. What a strange couple they were.

“Miss Patrick,” said the lady in a low voice, taking a step toward her. “My name is Miss Fletcher. I know I may appear to be a lady, and I will be once I am married—Lady Galcrest, actually—but I was not always so. I worked for a living, and that means I know how difficult, how precarious that life is.”

Helena nodded. For the first time since she had joined the Theatre Royal, she was holding back tears. After the rudeness of Mr. Tobias, the apathy of the stagehands, it was rather startling to be given sympathy, and by a total stranger, too.

“What will you do?”

Helena shrugged awkwardly. “I…to tell the truth, I have no idea. I do not even have a place to sleep this evening, which I suppose should be my first concern. Please, my lady, you need not trouble yourself.”

She glanced at the gentleman, who was whistling quite happily as he waited for them to finish their conversation. A most strange couple.

Miss Fletcher was silent, examining Helena closely. Helena wished she had a bonnet. It need not be expensive, but no bonnet in society…she would be noticed, and not for the right reasons.

It appeared Miss Fletcher was considering something carefully. After another few moments, she opened her reticule and pulled out something small and rectangular.

She pressed it into Helena’s hand. “This is for you. Go here, and speak with Miss Clarke. Tell her Miss Fletcher sent you.”

Helena looked at the card. The Governess Bureau.

“You never know,” said Miss Fletcher with a wry smile. “You might just find yourself a new career.”

The Governess Bureau.It did not sound very promising.

“Governess Bureau,” said Helena slowly. “Looking after children all day long?”

It hardly sounded like a pleasant way to spend one’s time. Helena had nothing against children. They were rather like dogs, in that way. One was always pleased to see one, but you didn’t want to have to take it home and bathe it.

Miss Fletcher was laughing. “They’re not all bad. Some of them are quite passable. But as a governess…it’s bed and board, small but dependable wages, and protection.”

Their eyes met. Helena swallowed. It was not as though she was inundated with offers of employment, and right now, she wasn’t entirely sure what she was competent enough to do.

Being a governess. What did one do? Prevent children from injuring themselves? Teach them things like geography and history and all of that nonsense?

“I…I don’t have much to offer.”

What a fall from grace today was—but her pride would get her precisely nowhere, and if she weren’t careful, she would reach the evening standing in just this position, no further forward with her life.

“No experience with children at all,” she added in a low voice.

Miss Fletcher shrugged. “Well, I’m not guaranteeing you work, of course. Perhaps you should consider adding this to your list of choices.”

Her words were not sharp, exactly. There was no cruelty in them, but there was a pointed remark in there somewhere. What other choices?

Helena met her gaze, shame washing over her. “Thank you,” she said warmly, injecting her tone with gratitude. “I…well, thank you, Miss Fletcher. You are kind.”

Miss Fletcher smiled. “Now the rest is up to you. Galcrest!”

Her future husband grinned. “Are we off?”

“We are indeed,” said the lady. “Good luck, Miss Patrick.”

Helena looked at the card still in her hand. The Governess Bureau. She had heard of it, of course. You couldn’t live in London without hearing about it. Miss Clarke had a fearsome reputation, and it was certainly not her first choice of occupation but, as Miss Fletcher had so elegantly hinted, what choice did she have?

“But what if—” she began. Miss Fletcher and her betrothed had gone.

The address on the card was just a few streets away. Taking a deep breath and clutching her trunk tightly, Helena started walking.

When she was ushered into Miss Clarke’s office, it was difficult not to be impressed by the grandeur of the place. Helena had dined in castles, danced at stately homes, conversed with lords and kings and dukes—but all on the stage.

This was real. There was no mistaking the luxury here, with the beautiful paintings on the walls, the soft resplendent carpet, the—

“Stop gawking,” said a stern voice, “and explain yourself.”

Helena focused on the woman seated behind the impressive desk. She was examining the intruder with curious eyes.

“I seek employment,” said Helena, moving to stand by the desk.

Miss Clarke raised an eyebrow. “You and half of London. Sit.”

Helena obeyed, wondering whether this was not a mistake. She was accustomed to…not exactly being fawned over but certainly to be spoken to with more respect than this.

“Who sent you?”

Helena opened her mouth but realized she had entirely forgotten the woman’s name!

Blast everything. “I—she gave me your card.”

It was still in her hand, and Helena passed it to the owner of the Governess Bureau in silence. Miss Clarke examined it, turning it over as though there was secret writing on the back.

Finally, she spoke in a quiet voice. “I have three rules, Miss Patrick. You must have an impeccable record. You must bring a special skill to the table. You must never fall in love. Those are the rules of the Governess Bureau, and I insist that every governess abides by them. Can you do that?”

Helena almost laughed. Fall in love? She had never been tempted before, and it was unlikely one of these sniveling masters and their sniveling children would ever tempt her.

“I believe so,” she said quietly.

Miss Clarke watched as though waiting for something. Eventually, she said, “Well?”

Helena was utterly at sea. “I beg your pardon?”

“The second rule is quite specific,” said Miss Clarke sharply. “A special skill. What do you bring?”

Helena’s heart twisted. What did she bring? As she had said to the lady just outside the Theatre Royal, she was not skilled at anything. All her life, she had been in the theater, though she could not imagine a duke or an earl who would be happy that an actress would be teaching his children.

Think, Helena. Think!

“I-I can memorize things quickly,” she said in a rush. “I absorb information very fast, and—”

“Memorization is not a skill,” interrupted Miss Clarke with a glare. “Everyone can do that, given enough hard work.”

Helena smiled. Now, this, at least, she could do. “Miss Clarke, stop gawking and explain yourself. Miss Patrick, I seek employment. Miss Clarke, you and half of London, sit. Miss Clarke, who sent you? Miss Patrick, I she gave me your card. Miss Clarke, I have three rules, Miss Patrick. You must have an impeccable record. You must bring a special skill to the table. You must never fall in—”

“Ah,” interrupted Miss Clarke softly.

It was not really an interruption, more an impressed sigh, but Helena allowed herself to stop. She knew praise when she heard it, even if unspoken.

“You have some talent, then,” said the proprietress quietly. “Interestingly enough, I have someone on the books now—the Baron Fernsby—who has three children. They don’t need much, just a governess with a few simple talents.”

Her cold eyes examined Helena closely. She held her breath. Was this it? The beginning of a new life? It was not one she would have chosen, perhaps, but right now, she had very few options.

“I’ll take it,” she said promptly.

Miss Clarke’s eyes glittered. “Not without Governess Bureau training.”