Manon followed her uncle downstairs to the large library, where a cluster of comfortable chairs was gathered around a low table. He gestured towards one of the chairs and turned to Pritchard, who had opened the door for them.
“Bring us some coffee, Pritchard.”
“Very well, sir.” The butler bowed and went off.
“Why is he addressing you thus? Are you not a nobleman? Should he not call you ‘my lord’, instead?” Manon asked, drawing her brows together over a question that had been on her mind for several days.
Richard smiled and shook his head.
“I am not a peer of the realm, Manon, so I cannot be a lord. I am a mere baronet, which is landed gentry but not peerage. Landed gentry cannot inherit their titles – except for baronets, whose estates can usually be traced back several centuries. My estate goes back to 1328, the year King Edward III bestowed it upon my forefather, Sir Eustace de Briers. He, in turn, can be traced back to William the Conqueror, and there is a small estate in Normandy, France that bears the name of de Briers.”
Manon nodded, and tried to take it all in.
“If you are interested in British nobility,” Richard said, “I have a book that describes it all rather thoroughly. I think you should read it. It might be useful to you in the future.”
The quizzical look on her face drove Richard to explain further.
“Imagine if your future husband is a duke’s son or the heir to an earl. You would want to know how to address your future in-laws, would you not? And their assorted family? It can become quite confusing, niece.”
Richard could not place the look Manon gave him. It was not a friendly one, that was certain. He wisely refrained from asking about it. Instead, he continued in a casual manner.
“How is your brother settling in?”
“Well enough. He seems to have found himself a friend in little Queenie, the youngest scullery maid. She is teaching him English, no less.” She chuckled at the funny implications of this until she saw her uncle’s facial expression. “What? Why are you frowning, Uncle?”
Richard cleared his throat. “Well, I could never for the life of me agree to a friendship between my nephew and a lower member of the staff. After all, Jéhan has a role to uphold, Manon. As matters stand now, he is my heir.”
“What? How?” Manon was truly baffled as she had not expected this explanation.
“My baronetcy is a hereditary title that can only be passed on to a male relative. As my sisters’ son, Jéhan is exactly that. Unless I marry and beget a son, Jéhan will be the fifteenth baronet of Bearsham.”
“Oh!” Manon exhaled. “In that case, I doubt it will ever come to that. You are still young, uncle.” And here, Richard noted, she threw him a genuine female look of sly teasing. “You will marry sooner or later, and beget a son, will you not?”
He could not prevent the burning rush of heat that rose into his cheeks, but he passionately hated himself for it. The little vixen! How well he understood her meaning! With a grim effort, Richard kept his temper, determined as he was not to let himself be drawn into an argument with his niece.
“I will, niece, but not until you are settled in a suitable marriage.”
Manon grimaced and, Holy Virgin, stuck out her tongue at him.
“Manon, for Heaven’s sake, would you behave? You must let go of these childish habits and grow up. You appear to be adopting your brother’s habits, and he yours, with his intelligence. ” Yet he had to fight the urge to smile.
She should take pity on him, Manon thought. He was right; the time for foolishness was over. She needed to grow up. “Forgive me, Uncle. That was ungracious of me.”
Acknowledging her apology, Richard continued, “I have decided to take on Jake Davies as Jéhan’s tutor. Jake has always served me well in his capacity as my Paris businessman, but obviously, he is currently without employment. He is well-educated, speaks fluent French, and has considerable knowledge of mathematics. Jake will do perfectly for the first years of Jéhan’s education. The boy trusts and likes him, and they get on well together.”
“Oh, I agree!” Manon exclaimed, relieved over her uncle’s choice. For some reason, she had expected him to hire a dull, dried-up person as her brother’s teacher.
“Concerning you, niece, here is what I have decided,” Richard went on. “You have acquired a lady’s maid in Bessy Crampton. All you need now is a suitable companion to guide you through the intricacies of society, one who can also be a chaperone when you go on outings. Remember never to go anywhere without your companion, Manon. Reputation is paramount when it comes to young society ladies.”
“Am I to have a say as to whom you will hire, Uncle?”
“I would love to have your full consent, niece, but how are you to judge who is apt to the job? You do not know anyone here yet. I promise you that if the person I choose does not meet with your approval, I will search for someone else. Yet the person that I have in mind will meet with your wishes, I am sure. I have yet to speak with her father, so we will come back to that subject when I have done so.”
Manon bowed her head in silent acquiescence. She was certain her uncle would be wise and kind enough to know what kind of companion she would need.
“Then there is the matter of finding you the right husband, niece,” Richard said, looking at her in a serious manner. “I have several candidates in mind but first and foremost, I want you to have the final word. I want you to be comfortable in your marriage, Manon, and if possible, to find happiness with the man you choose.”
For several moments, Manon did not speak but instead scanned Richard’s face intently. What was it that went on behind that smooth, austere brow, she wondered? What were his piercing blue eyes hiding from her? How could he talk in so detached a manner about her husband-to-be? Did he not know she could marry yet never find love or happiness with the man she would eventually choose? Her path, she knew, was already laid out. It would be a marriage of convenience, one that would serve to give her husband a son, and that was all. They might reach a certain understanding, a comfortable companionship, a friendship even, but never would they love each other the way Manon wanted to be loved.
She sighed inwardly, knowing her uncle requested a proper answer from her. “Very well, Uncle. I put my trust in you, as I know you have my best interests at heart. Do as you intend.”
He should have felt relief at her words, Richard thought, yet he did not. Instead, he felt only grief and bitterness. He wondered if he would be able to find peace of mind ever again.
Two weeks passed in a flurry of activities, weeks in which Manon did not notice the passing of time, because she was too busy with new, exciting things.
First and foremost, Manon made the acquaintance of Miss Prudence Butterworth, second daughter to the Reverend Horace Butterworth and his wife Adelaide. Mr Butterworth had the parishes of Bearsham Village and of the three adjacent ones – Banting, Featherstone and Markville. With seven daughters yet unmarried, Adelaide Butterworth was all too keen to put one of them to Manon’s service. The girls were all suitably schooled and well educated.
Prudence Butterworth – or Pru, as she preferred to be called – was a tall, slender young woman of twenty-eight years. No one could call her beautiful or pretty, although some might consider her straw-blond hair and her violet eyes to be attractive, if they would look past her large beak of a nose and her wide, thin-lipped mouth.
The moment they met, Manon was immediately struck by Miss Butterworth’s joie de vivre, and the good-natured acceptance she displayed toward her own situation in life.
“Miss Favier, I am well on the shelf, and that is how I prefer it,” she joked, eyes dancing. “I could never apply myself to being a wife to any man, be he handsome or hideous, rich or poor! Should one of them manage to capture my heart by some strange twist of fate, I would make my poor husband’s life a misery, because he would always be in my way. I want to have the freedom to do exactly what I like to do, but alas, a woman without money has no real options in our society. I would like to travel the world and see all those exciting places that I read about. I want to meet new people other than just Englishmen and learn about other civilisations first hand, not just from books. So I am extremely grateful to Sir Richard for offering me this situation. He pays me a substantial salary just for teaching you all that I know about society. I think we will get along nicely, you and I.”
“I am sure we will, but you must call me Manon, at least when we are alone. I hate being called ‘miss’. It makes me feel old. I will call you Prudence, in return.”
“Oh, please! Pru is what my sisters call me.”
“It suits you. Pru it is!”
With Pru’s help and her uncle’s unlimited financial support, Manon applied herself to acquiring an entirely new wardrobe. There were gowns to be made, shoes and bonnets to be bought, underclothes to be purchased, and jewellery to be chosen. That kept the two young ladies busy from morning ‘til evening, and in addition, every free moment was filled with mastering the appropriate conduct for a young, unmarried lady.
Manon’s uncle acquired a pretty bay mare by the name of Buttercup for her, and enlisted her in a riding school for young ladies of noble breeding. Learning to ride proved to be the hardest thing Manon had ever had to conquer. It was weird because, when they were fleeing France, she had managed well enough on Mélissande, the mare she had had to leave behind – to her infinite regret. Now, on Buttercup, her body seemed unwilling to find the proper seat and her limbs were unable to make the correct movements, even though the gentle mare was nothing but easy and obliging.
The first week, Manon was sore and stiff, and her body ached with muscle pains and bruises. Yet she gritted her teeth and finally managed well enough to be able to take on short outings with her uncle’s head groom, Griffiths, an elderly, fatherly-looking Welshman. With his help and patience, she made considerable progress, and her uncle was content.
Slowly but inexorably, Richard watched his niece grow into a refined, extremely beautiful young lady who was already being eyed by many young bucks wherever she turned up. It was as it should be, Richard accepted. It was what his father would have wanted. Richard’s promise to his dying father was unbreakable. He would keep to it if it killed him.