Tea with Sally

Sally Grenford roamed the room, bewildered by the way it mixed familiar and unfamiliar. The note had invited her to take tea with her grandmother this Christmas afternoon, and she recognised many of the room’s appointments as treasures her grandmother kept in her private sitting room. But many were also missing; gifts she and others had given Grandmama, the experimental dagguerreotype of her and Jonny that Papa had commissioned as part of an investment in the new process, keepsakes from the merchant wanderings of the Winshires.

The proportions of the room were familiar, too, but not from the palatial townhouse where Grandmama lived with her second husband. No, Sally could swear that this was her own mother’s private suite, though from the window all she could see was fog with an occasional swirl of snow.

The portrait of Grandmama over the mantel belonged in the portrait gallery, where it had hung for as long as Sally could remember. Longer. Since Mama became Duchess of Haverford and Grandmama married her second duke, and became Duchess of Winshire.

A stir at the door had her turning, and there stood the woman in the portrait. The self-same woman. Her grandmother, but as she had been nearly thirty years before. This duchess stood to one side of the door, allowing a small troop of maids and a butler to hurry in and out setting up a side table with tea makings.

Both the duchess and Sally waited until they completed their tasks and left the room, then Sally took a tentative step forward. Familiar, but not familiar.

“Grandmama?” she asked.

The duchess hurried forward, reaching with both hands for Sally’s and in moments Sally was enveloped in Her Grace’s familiar scent, hearing the voice she had loved since before she could speak.

“Lady Sarah Grenford. You are my granddaughter, are you not? My dear, when I saw the name I hoped so much — Aldridge’s or Jonathan’s? But let me look at you. Yes, there are the Haverford eyes, and I see something of my boys about your chin. I’ll warrant you are stubborn.”

“What is happening?” Sally asked. “Where am I?”

The duchess led Sally to the sofa next to the tea table, and they sat, the duchess still holding Sally’s hand. “It is odd, is it not? I have quite recovered from being unsettled by the different people who visit me on a Monday afternoon, from many different places and times, Sarah, and I have no idea how or why. I see the names on the invitation and then they appear here in my room at Haverford House. But you have not told me whose daughter you are, dear.”

“Haverford’s,” Sally explained. “Aldridge in your time, of course.” She nodded at the portrait. “But Haverford long before I was born.”

“He finally married then. I am so glad. And so tempted to ask for more detail, but one must not, of course. Just tell me, dear, has he found love? Is he content with your mother? Oh dear. Do not answer that. What a question to ask a child!”

Sally laughed confident of the answer and delighted to reassure her grandmother, whose rattle of conversation made her more familiar by the moment. “Papa and Mama deeply love one another, and are never happier than when they are together.”

Papa had been a rake and a scoundrel when he was young, by all accounts, but Sally could not imagine him loving anyone but Mama.

The duchess gave a pleased sigh. “Then I shall be patient. It will be easier knowing that he will marry, and happily. And a beautiful daughter, too!”

“And a son.” Sally was five years older, but Jonny, the Marquis of Aldridge, was the pride of the house. Sally mostly didn’t mind.

Another pleased sigh. “Excellent. Your papa must be very proud. Now, dear, tell me what you have in your hand. Something you have brought to show me?”

On receiving the summons, Sally had picked up her favourite Christmas present; perhaps the best Christmas present she had ever received. It was not just because that the box of precisely engineered mathematical tools was exactly what she wanted, though she had not felt the lack until she unwrapped them. It was also — even mostly — that the boy who held her heart had known, acknowledged, and respected her passion for understanding the infinitely wonderful universe of numbers.

“Look, Grandmama,” she said, opening the box on her lap, eager to share. “Look what David Abersham gave me.”

Sally’s Grandmama is in 2011. Sally is fifteen, and is visiting from  1838, on the afternoon of the Christmas morning featured in God Help Ye, Merry Gentleman, the story that starts the collection of the same name, which Mariana Gabrielle and I released just before Christmas. For blurb and buy links, click on the title.

Excerpt from God Help Ye, Merry Gentleman

As she began unwrapping the first box, he murmured a bit closer to her ear, “Have you found all eight, then?”

Blushing, and with a quick glance at her parents, completely immersed in discussion with the Wellbridges, she whispered, “No, not yet. But I will.”

“I will give you the key if you promise to never ask me another question about any of it.”

“I do not need to give up my questions, for I shall find the latches without your help.”

Toad rubbed his right hand over his face and groaned. “Of course you will.” He brightened, though, as he added, “But I am afraid your questions must wait, for Etcetera and I ride out this afternoon to my cousin Smythe’s place.” Another of their set at Eton. “We will return next week for your mother’s ball, but I’d like to see my aunt and uncle and cousins before I go off to school.”

Sally sighed. “Of course, you must go, and I hope you will remember me to Lord and Lady Ostelbrooke. But we only have such a short time left before you go away to school.” She stopped herself a second too late. She mustn’t whine. She mustn’t impose herself on his time, or annoy him.

“I’ll not neglect you, Monkey. I promise. On my return, you shall have first pick of every moment of every day before I leave. And you’ll hardly know I am gone, with all the activities your mother has planned.” She hardly wished to consider what sorts of activities he, Smythe, and Etcetera had planned, once outside their parents’ purview.

“You are right, but I will miss you, Toad.”

“I will be back in no time.”

She opened the top box, a finely wrought wooden case with brass latches, that opened on three hinged tiers of mathematical instruments, a full set of more than two dozen items also wrought of brass, each piece engraved with her initials and set snugly in its own velvet-covered place.

“I found them in Germany.”  Running his finger along the side of the box in a way that made Sally shiver, Toad offered, “They are Swiss, so of course, they are as precise as can be.”

Sally couldn’t explain why she had to suddenly blink away tears. It was such a functional gift. Not something frilly or girlish or decadent, like practically every other gift she’d ever been given in fifteen years. But something that acknowledged her intellect; acknowledged and applauded the love of numbers that others, even Papa, found inexplicable and unfeminine. That Toad should give her such a gift moved her, soul-deep.

“Toad, I… thank you. I think I shall surpass Mr Galbraith’s knowledge of mathematics with these at hand.”

“Then the other box will see you the first woman admitted to Oxford.”

Something in her chest was shifting with every word he said, and she couldn’t explain it. It was seismic—and perfectly right in every respect. And completely foreign.

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