The day that was to mark the beginning of the change in Delsie Sommer’s life began like any other. The sun did not shine more brightly; she awoke with no tingling feeling of excitement, no presentiment at all that her life was to be turned topsy-turvy, that danger and excitement and romance were awaiting her around the corner.
No, she awoke with a slight nagging headache at seven o’clock, dragged herself out of bed to light the fire and put on water for tea, dressed hurriedly in her well-worn navy bombazine gown, and twisted her dark hair into its required knot, like a spinster. She gulped her tea, bread, and cheese in the austere but tidy apartment on the third floor of Miss Frisk’s genteel rooming house. On went the winter pelisse and dark bonnet even if it wasn’t quite winter yet, because the sky was gray and there was sure to be rain before she got home. Silently down the stairs to the second storey-back up to get the notebooks she invariably forgot. It was some unconscious rejection of the role of schoolmistress, she supposed, that accounted for this habitual forgetting of the students’ books. She wished she could set fire to them all and throw Mr. Umpton, the principal, on top of the blaze.
She smiled as she imagined the toes of his boots smoldering, smoking, finally bursting into flames. Would that, at last, make it warm enough for him? His habitual complaint, “My, but it’s cold in here,” as he rubbed his hands together every morning, went through her head like a song as she hurried along the shaded lane to St. Mary’s Parish School. My, but it was getting cold, though! A real winter nip in the air, and here it was just beginning November.
Whose stupid idea had it been to place the village school half a mile beyond the edge of the village? She supposed they got the lot two pounds cheaper, and never mind that all the students and two teachers had to walk in wind and snow and rain. Or was it Mr. Umpton’s idea, that the parents not see what an inordinate fraction of the day his pupils “took a breath of air” outside when they should be doing their work?
“What odds?” he said one day to Delsie, and had regretted a dozen times since. “A little reading, a little writing, a few sums, and the kings and queens of England, and there you have more knowledge than most of their heads can hold, or will ever use.” The fact of the matter was, it was about as much knowledge as he had to impart, yet he insisted on taking the older class himself-for the prestige of it, she supposed. The students knew those bare facts and a few more before Mr. Umpton got hold of them. “Consolidation, there’s the thing,” he told her, when she pointed out to him that his class had already been through the Second Reader. “Let ‘em consolidate what little they’ve learned. Better to know a little bit well than to have a glimmering of a lot that’s above their heads.”
The handful of bright ones who grew tired of consolidating either left in despair or came to Delsie after classes to push on to the Third Reader and start fractions. But there weren’t really many who cared for learning. Most of them were there because the school was free and their parents made them go, and of course it was easier than picking stones from the fields for the roads, or helping their fathers on the farms. Subtle hints dropped to Mr. Umpton that she would be happy to exchange classes with him-”privately, just between the two of us. There is no need to tell the Board” -were met with a jealous eye and a harsh tongue.
“If you’re not happy at St. Mary’s, Miss Sommers, it can be arranged for you to be replaced,” he said. And Mr. Umpton was the very one to arrange it, the brother-in-law of the director.
“Oh, no, I am quite happy,” she said, and had not raised the question again. She needed the job.
Life had been hard for Delsie. Born aboard a ship returning from the West Indies, she felt she had been adrift ever since. Her mother was from a branch of a noble tree, but on a rather lower tip of it, amounting almost to a twig. When she married Papa, a younger son of a genteel family, they had gone off to the West Indies with barely enough money between them to get there and set up house. Papa had magnificent ideas. Had he started with ten thousand pounds, he might possibly have made a million. But, starting with one thousand, he had overreached himself and lost what he had to his creditors. Ambergris was the villain that had done him in, something that came from whales, Mama said, and was used in making perfume. Her mother’s family had bailed them out and brought them back to England. It was on that journey that Delsie had been born. Papa had next tried his hand at being a solicitor, and failed less gloriously than with ambergris. Again money was wangled from Mama’s family, for horse breeding in Ireland this time, and again it was a failure. Papa had died in Ireland, and it was back home to England again, but the family’s patience was wearing thin. One hundred and fifty pounds a year for the widow was all they could see their way clear to give. It was barely enough to live on.
The family possessions were sold off bit by bit-first silver, then portraits, finally the pearls and a pair of rings, to give Delsie the lady’s education her mama insisted on-four years at a seminary in Bath as a day student, while living in rented rooms with Mama. All this sacrifice was to make Delsie eligible to contract a good match, but how was anything of the sort possible without a penny of dowry?
“We have better blood than any of them, if it comes to that!” Mama used to say, clutching a worn shawl about her shoulders-but a cashmere shawl, once good-to keep out the drafts. “My great uncle Foster is a marquess-the Marquess of Strothingham. If I applied to him we should not be living as we are.”
“Perhaps you should do so, Mama,” Delsie suggested, more than once.
“Yes, and perhaps I shall one of these days,” was the invariable answer. But she never did, being as proud as a peacock. It was Papa who had groveled to the relatives. Later Delsie read that the Marquess of Strothingham had died at seventy-eight of a heart attack, leaving a vastly encumbered estate to some nephew. Delsie hadn’t the heart to tell her mother. Uncle Foster was a symbol; she had come to realize that over the years. The name of the heir was mentioned casually in another conversation, and Mama had never heard of him.
When she was eighteen, her mother too had died. It was a peaceful passing-a year’s gradual subsiding into listlessness, a month in bed, eating next to nothing. The local doctor said she had fluid in the liver. It was the most common complaint in town, the one accused in all deaths whose cause the man did not know.
Miss Sommers found herself alone in the world, with Mama’s allowance cut off, no known family (for they never visited the relations, nor was any acknowledgment of the death notice returned), and nowhere to go. She had her lady’s education, so painfully acquired, with no pianoforte to play, no dining room in which to serve dinners, no friend to whom she might speak her French, not even a set of water colors to paint the wild flowers she loved.
A job, then, she said to herself, and discovered a streak of practicality she hadn’t known she possessed. After perusing the newspapers, she answered three advertisements for a governess, had an offer from two, and accepted the first. For two happyish years she had been governess, half nursemaid really, to two rosy-cheeked young daughters of a successful leather merchant in Bath.
The Johnsons were kind to her, and, though she was not treated as a daughter, she was treated well. Then Mrs. Johnson’s sister came to them for Mrs. Johnson’s third lying-in. The mother and child survived, but the peace of the household did not. The sister took Delsie in jealous dislike and made her life so miserable that she left before she was turned off.
With her new practicality, she had a new position lined up before leaving. Back home at Questnow, St. Mary’s Parish School was looking for a teacher. They advertised for a male, but Delsie answered it and, with a little help from the vicar, got the job. Her modest salary of a hundred pounds a year may have been instrumental. A male would have got half as much again.
So it was back to Questnow, the sleepy little village by the sea that she and her mother had ended up in after returning from Ireland so long ago, and where they had lived till the remove to Bath for schooling. It was originally the name that had attracted them.
“We are on a quest now, Delsie, a quest for peace and happiness. I hope we may find it here. I love the sea. You, who were born at sea, must like it too.” They had found relative peace, but little true happiness.
How happy could a young girl be, constantly reminded of her gentility, constantly urged not to associate with the other children on the street, daughters of fishermen and chandlers and even smugglers? No, it had not been happy, looking through a window at youngsters having a good time playing with a ball or a rope, while one must herself be content with an infinitesimally small back yard, or a parlor. As she grew older, she came to realize happiness for her mother and herself lay further up the coast, on a promontory that was called simply deVigne’s hill. There was the Olympian world of gentility, even nobility, for the owner of the hill and all that lay within its ken was Baron deVigne, sixth baron and holder of the domain. When he rode into Questnow in his crested carriage, or astride his high-bred mount, or in one of his fancy sporting curricles, every eye turned. The common folk, most of whom were beholden to him in one way or another-either as a tenant, or with a son or daughter in his employ, or the recipient of outright charity-bobbed their heads in respect as he passed. Delsie Sommers never curtsied. Neither she nor her mother owed anything to him.