Ruth Henwood had taken tea with the Duchess of Haverford several times, and each time had felt out of place; a pit pony in a herd of thoroughbreds; no, a metal kitchen mug somehow displaced in among the exquisite oriental tea cups.
Today was a thousand times worse. On every previous occasion, she had trailed along as companion to Lady Chirbury or one of her sisters, to be included in the conversation not because she belonged, but because the ladies she worked for loved her and because the duchess was kind. Today, she was alone, and here by personal invitation.
She had reread the perfumed note several times; checked that the inscribed name was indeed her own; traced the signature with one mystified finger. Eleanor Haverford. What did Her Grace want?
Had she somehow discovered Ruth’s less than stellar origins? She had been born into the lower reaches of gentry as her improvident father and foolish mother made the final fall into poverty, orphaned before she was twelve, and educated only through the mercy of a charity school and a sponsor with a kindness for her mother. At her very first job as a governess, she had failed to protect herself or her charges. Somehow, years later, she found herself treated as an extra sister by the ladies of an earl. Surely they would stand up for her if the duchess was inclined to expose her to Society as the fraud she was?
She shifted uncomfortably then stilled her limbs. A lady did not fidget. A lady sat with her hands folded neatly in her lap and her face composed and calm, not matter how much turmoil disturbed her mind and her heart.
“Miss Henwood? Her Grace will see you now.” Ruth rose and followed the maid from the little room where she had been deposited to await the duchess’s pleasure. No. That was a sour thought. She had arrived early, and had waited not above ten minutes, for all it felt like hours.
The duchess was waiting an elegant room Ruth had seen before, but it seemed somehow larger and richer with only the two of them present, for the maid simply opened the door for Ruth and withdrew.
At the duchess’s invitation to take a seat, Ruth realised she had been frozen just inside the room. Only years of practice at hiding her thoughts allowed her to cross to the indicated chair; to keep up her side of a harmless conversation about the weather and Ruth’s beverage preferences.
What was the duchess up to? Even if Ruth dared put that question to the exalted lady, she would not receive an answer until Her Grace was good and ready. The duchess was known both for her near omnipotent knowledge about those who were broadly called Society, and her ability to keep her own council. She would speak if and when she was ready, and not before.
Ruth finished her tea and accepted a second cup, ate one of the dainty savoury tarts, discussed the dangers and benefits of the new gas lighting, and agreed that the fashion for square necklines would be very flattering to Kitty, Lady Chirbury’s sister.
Indeed, several of the gowns ordered for Kitty’s coming Season had that neckline. Ruth managed not to frown; the duchess herself was sponsoring Kitty at the Queen’s first Drawing Room in the new year, with her debutante ball to follow right here at Haverford House. The social whirl Kitty had so eagerly anticipated for several years was almost upon them, but last summer’s experiences had sucked the joy from her.
“Yes; I am very pleased with our purchases so far,” the duchess commented. “I am not so pleased, however, with what I observe of our dear Kitty.” She held up a hand as if to stop Ruth from commenting. “She jumps at shadows, and I see shadows in her eyes, Miss Henwood. Something has happened. She manages to hide it very well, especially when her sister is watching, but she has consented to this Season to please Lady Chirbury and not because she wishes for it.”
That was true. Kitty had even cited Anne’s desire to give her a Season when Ruth had suggested they could postpone if Kitty felt unready.
“You must see that I need to know, so that I can protect and support her, Miss Henwood. I cannot ask Kitty herself; not when all I have is guesses and rumours. Nor will I ask Lady Chirbury, given her condition. So I depend on you. What happened to my protegée? And what did Lord Selby have to do with it?”
Ruth is a secondary character in Farewell to Kindness, and a witness to at least one of the experiences that changed Kitty from a carefree and confident young woman to one who is papering over the cracks in her composure by sheer force of will. Kitty will have her turn as heroine later in The Golden Redepenning series, in The Flavour of Our Deeds.