Miss Claudia Martin, Joseph noticed, wore the same gray cloak and bonnet she had worn all day. Once they were outside the inn, they walk ed along the street beyond the stable yard until they turned onto a narrower lane that would take them out into the country. She strode along at his side, making it unnecessary for him to reduce his stride. He did not offer his arm. He sensed that it would be the wrong thing to do. It was already dusk, but it would not be a dark night, he judged. Now that it was too late for the sun to shine, the clouds had moved off and the moon was already up. “Perhaps,” he said, “tomorrow will be a brighter day.” “It is to be hoped so,” she agreed. “Sunshine is always preferable to clouds.” He did not know quite why he had invited her to walk with him—except that her school interested him. She had never shown one sign of liking him. “I trust your rooms meet with your approval,” he said. “They do,” she said. “But so would the other rooms have done, the ones I reserved, the ones overlooking the stable yard.” “They might have been noisy,” he said. “They are noisy,” she told him. “I have stayed in one or other of them before.” “You like noise?” He turned his head to look at her. She was gazing straight ahead, her chin up, her nose in the air. Good Lord, she was annoyed. With him? For insisting that she be treated with courtesy and respect at that inn? “I do not,” she said. “Neither do I like the light of a dozen lanterns shining into my room or the smell of the stables. But they are only rooms and only for one night. And they are what I reserved.” “Are you quarreling with me, Miss Martin?” he asked her. That brought her head around. She looked at him with steady eyes and raised eyebrows, and her pace slowed somewhat. “Your carriage is very much more comfortable than the hired one would have been,” she said. “The rooms in which the girls and I have been placed are vastly superior to the ones that had been assigned to us. The private dining room was a great improvement upon the public room. But these are all details of life that are not strictly necessary. They are what you and your class take for granted, no doubt. I am not of your class, Lord Attingsborough, and have no wish to be. Moreover, I am a woman who has made her own way in life. I do not need a man to protect me or an aristocrat to procure special favors for me.” Well! He had not been so roundly scolded since he was a boy. He looked at her with renewed interest. “I must apologize, then,” he said, “for wishing to see you comfortable?” “You must do no such thing,” she said. “If you do, I shall be forced to admit how very ungracious my own behavior has been. I ought to be grateful to you. And I am.” “No, you are not,” he said, grinning. “No, I am not.” She almost smiled. Something caught at the corners of her mouth. But clearly she did not wish to show any such sign of weakness. She pressed her lips into a thin line instead, faced front once more, and lengthened her stride. He had better change the subject, he decided. And he must be very careful to do Miss Martin no favors in the future. “All the girls in the class I saw this morning seemed sad to see Miss Bains and Miss Wood leave,” he said. “Is there never conflict between the paying pupils and the charity girls?” “Oh, frequently,” she said, her voice brisk, “especially when the charity girls first arrive, often with poor diction and unpolished manners and very frequently with a grudge against the world. And of course there will almost always be an unbridgeable social gap between the two groups once they have left the school and taken their divergent paths into the future. But it is an interesting lesson in life, and one I and my teachers are at great pains to teach, that we are all human and not so very unlike one another when the accidents of birth and circumstance are stripped away. We hope to instill in our girls a respect for all classes of humanity that they will retain for the rest of their lives.” He liked her answer. It was sensible yet realistic. “What gave you the idea of taking in charity pupils?” he asked. “My lack of fortune,” she told him. “My father’s property was entailed and went to a cousin on his death when I was twenty. My portion was modest, to say the least. I could not distribute largesse as I might have done if I had had limitless funds. And so I had to find a way of giving to others that involved service rather than money.” Or she could have chosen not to give at all. “And yet,” he said, “it must cost you dearly to educate these girls. You have to house and clothe and feed them. And their presence at the school presumably precludes that of other girls whose parents might pay.” “The school fees are high,” she told him. “I make no apology for that fact. We give good value, I firmly believe, and any parents who think otherwise are perfectly at liberty to send their daughters elsewhere. And the school does have a very generous benefactor, who is unfortunately anonymous. It has always weighed heavily upon me that I have never been able to thank him in person.” They had left the town behind them and were on a dirt path that wound its way between low hedgerows with fields and meadows beyond. A slight breeze blew in their faces and lifted the brim of her bonnet. “And so,” he said, “you have paying pupils and charity pupils. Have you ever aimed at further diversification? Have you ever had any pupils with handicaps, for example?” “Lameness, do you mean?” she said. “Or deafness? Or mental slowness? I confess I have not considered it. There would be all sorts of challenges to face, would there not?” “And you are not up to them?” he asked. She considered her answer as they walked onward. “I do not know,” she said. “I have never been confronted with such a possibility. I suppose most parents with handicapped children—especially if they are girls—consider them incapable of learning in any normal way and so do not even try to enroll them in a school. If any did try and came to me, I…well, I do not know how I would respond. I suppose it would depend upon the handicap. A lame child might be easily educable though she might not be able to dance or participate in any vigorous games. A deaf or a mentally slow child might not. It is an interesting question, though.” She turned her head to look at him with grave but perhaps approving eyes. “It is one I must ponder more deeply,” she said. “I must be sure to ask you again if I see you after we arrive in London, then,” he said, smiling at her. “Did you always want to be a teacher?” She considered her answer again. She was not, he concluded, a woman given to frivolous conversation. “No,” she said eventually, “not always. I had other dreams as a girl. But when it became obvious that they were not to be realized, I had a choice. As a lady and the daughter of a gentleman of property, I could have remained at home to be supported by my father. And I suppose after his early death my cousin would have felt obliged to continue to support me. Or I could make a life for myself. I chose the latter course. And then there was a further choice—to be a companion or a teacher. For me it was really no choice at all. I could not bear to be at the beck and call of a silly, crotchety old lady for twenty-four hours of every day. I took a position as a governess.” A dog barked in the distance. The dusk deepened around them. She had dreamed, then. She had not always been as prosaic as she seemed now. She had dreamed presumably of marriage, perhaps of love too. Why had she abandoned that dream even before the age of twenty? She would not be bad-looking even now if she would just allow herself to relax and smile now and then. She might have been pretty as a girl. And she had admitted to a modest portion. There must have been men who would have responded to a little encouragement. Or perhaps there had been a specific dream, a specific man… It really was none of his business, was it? “A governess?” he said when it seemed that she would not continue unless prompted. “To a family of three energetic young children at first,” she said. “I adored them. Unfortunately their father was posted to India only four months after I had joined them, and they went with him. Then I worked with an atrociously badly behaved girl who believed that her elevated rank gave her license to treat the rest of humanity exactly as she pleased.” “Which was not very well at all?” He grinned down at her. “That would be an understatement,” she said. “And when I reported honestly to her brother on the difficulties she presented to the effective accomplishment of my duties—I was not complaining, merely giving the weekly report he had demanded—but when I did, he informed me that he paid me very well indeed to educate his sister and that if I did not enjoy being treated like a worm then I must simply do something about it.” “And did you?” He continued to grin. She was fairly bristling with indignation at the remembered scene. Her stride had lengthened. He doubted she even saw any of the darkening scenery around them. “I walked out in the middle of one afternoon,” she said. “I refused to accept a carriage ride or a letter of recommendation or even the week’s salary to which I was entitled. And a month later I opened my school in Bath.” “I daresay,” he said, “that showed them you were no worm, Miss Martin. Well done.” She laughed suddenly and unexpectedly and her steps slowed. “I suppose,” she said, “they spared me not a moment’s thought once I had disappeared down the driveway—or even before I had disappeared, for that matter.” “It sounds to me, though,” he said, “as if they did you a favor without ever intending it.” “That is what I have always believed,” she said. “I believe that life is very generous with us once we have shown the will to take a positive course. It is very ready to keep on opening doors for us. It is just that sometimes we lose our willpower and courage and prefer to stay on the familiar, safe side of each door. I might have cowered in that employment for a l ong time and been miserable every moment and then perhaps have moved on to another similar one, all confidence in myself and all joy in my chosen career lost forever.” “And does it give you joy, then?” he asked her. “Teaching, I mean, and running your school?” They had reached a sharp bend in the lane. Ahead of them a wooden stile separated the path from a darkened meadow beyond. They stopped walking by unspoken consent, and he set one elbow on the top bar of the stile and one booted foot on the bottom rung. “Yes, it does,” she said briskly after giving the question some consideration. “I am happy. One of my reasons for going to London is to inform my man of business that I no longer need the assistance of my benefactor. The school is paying for itself and providing me a little profit besides to put by for my old age. I am contented.” “I envy you,” he surprised himself by saying. “I think that hardly likely, Lord Attingsborough,” she said rather sharply as if she believed he mocked her. In the growing darkness it was impossible to see her face clearly. He laughed and pointed to the west. “We have not seen the sun all day,” he said, “but at least we have been granted the remnants of a sunset to admire.” She turned her head away to look at the thin, fiery line of red and purple stretched across the horizon and then up at the dark sky, which was filled with stars and a moon almost at the full. “How absolutely beautiful,” she said, her voice somehow different, warm and feminine and filled with a nameless longing. “And I have been talking all the time and missing it. How much beauty we allow to pass us by unheeded.” “Indeed,” he said, looking down at her. There was something unexpectedly appealing about a woman who had stridden out to meet life head on and believed passionately in the tasks she had set herself. Not physically appealing, perhaps, though she was not exactly an antidote, but… Well, he was not sorry after all that he had invited her out for this walk. Apart from the scolding, he liked what he had heard from her. Which gave him some faint hope… She sighed, her face still lifted to the sky. “I did not even realize,” she said, “how much I needed this walk. It is far more restoring to the spirit than an early retirement to bed.” Was she really happy? he wondered. Did she ever feel nostalgia for any of her girlhood dreams? But life was made up of a succession of dreams, some few to be realized, most to be set aside as time went on, one or two to persist for a lifetime. It was knowing when to abandon a dream, perhaps, that mattered and distinguished the successful people in life from the sad, embittered persons who never moved on from the first of life’s great disappointments. Or from the airy dreamers who never really lived life at all. “I do envy you,” he said again. “You did not stroll passively along the highway life appeared to have set before you but have stridden purposefully along a path of your own making instead. That is admirable.” She set a gloved hand on the top bar of the stile, not far from his elbow, and turned her head to look into his face, though he doubted she could see much of it in the darkness. “And you have not done so?” she asked him. She sounded like a stern schoolteacher calling a pupil to account. He chuckled softly. “When one is endowed with the courtesy title of marquess at birth and knows that one day one will be a duke with all the wealth and privilege and responsibility that come with the title,” he said, “one does not think often about escaping onto a new path. One could not. There is such a thing as duty.” Though he had dreamed of escape… “But there is always choice,” she said. “Life need never be bland. Duties can be shirked, or they can be performed with a minimum of effort and enthusiasm, or they can be embraced with firmness of purpose and a determination to excel.” “I hope there is no question pending,” he said, laughing. “You are not about to ask me into which of the three categories I fit, Miss Martin, are you?” “No,” she said. “I beg your pardon. I have grown too accustomed to haranguing my girls. Enthusiasm and a sense of purpose atone for any number of sins, I believe, and surmount any number of hurdles. Passivity is what I find hard to tolerate. It is such a wasteful attitude to life.” He doubted she would fully approve of him, then. He had done well at school, it was true, and had always striven for excellence. He had been a voracious reader ever since. He had spent a great deal of time with his father’s steward as a boy and very young man, learning the business and duties of being a large landowner, and he had always kept himself informed of what went on in both the upper and lower Houses of Parliament since one day—if he survived his father—he would be a member of the latter. But his father appeared to have resented his efforts—as if you are waiting with bated breath for my demise, he had said irritably once when Joseph returned, wet and muddy and happy from an inspection of a new drainage ditch at Anburey with the steward. And so Joseph’s adult life had been an essentially idle one—as was that of most of his peers, it was true. He kept an eye on proceedings at Willowgreen, the home and modest estate his father had granted him on his twenty-first birthday, though his desire to remain close to Lizzie in London stopped him from going there as often as he would like. His life had not been characterized by any particular vice or excessive extravagance—unlike that of most of those same peers. He paid his servants and all his bills promptly and gave generously to various charities. He did not gamble to excess. He was not a womanizer. There had been the usual succession of brief sexual encounters when he was a very young man, it was true, but then there had been Sonia, and then Lizzie—and just before Lizzie there had been Barbara. All well before he was even twenty-five. He clenched his hand on the bar of the stile and unclenched it again, gazing off at the fading line of the sunset as he did so. For a number of years now his life had felt essentially empty, as if much of the color had been drawn from it, leaving behind far too many shades of gray. An essentially passive life. But now at last he was being nudged into taking a giant step that he had determinedly avoided for years. He would marry Portia Hunt before the year was out. Would marriage improve the quality of his life, restore the color to it? After the nuptials he would proceed with the immediate duty of putting a child in his nursery. That might help—though the very thought of fathering a child caused a tightening in his chest that felt like grief. For still and always there would be Lizzie. He became aware suddenly that they had not talked for a while and that he was still opening and closing his hand, only inches from Miss Martin’s. “I suppose,” he said, lowering his foot to the ground, “we ought to make our way back. The breeze is starting to feel chilly.” She fell into step beside him again but made no attempt to revive the conversation. He found her company curiously restful. If he had been walking with Miss Hunt or almost any other lady of his acquaintance, he would have felt obliged to keep some light chatter going, even if it were about nothing at all of any significance to either of them. Miss Claudia Martin, he thought, was a woman to be respected. She had character in abundance. He even thought that he would probably like her if he ever got to know her better. It no longer puzzled him that she was Susanna’s friend. “Shall we make a start at the same time tomorrow morning?” he suggested when they had arrived back at the inn and he had escorted her to the top of the stairs. “The girls and I will be ready,” she said briskly as she removed her gloves. “Thank you for the walk, Lord Attingsborough. I needed it, but I would not have dared venture out alone. There are severe disadvantages to being a woman, alas.” He smiled at her as she extended a hand to him, and he took it in his. But instead of shaking it and releasing it as she had surely intended, he raised it to his lips. She withdrew it firmly, turned without another word, and had soon disappeared inside her room. The door closed with an audible click. That was a mistake, he thought, frowning at the closed door. She was certainly not the kind of woman whose hand one kissed. Her fingers had clasped his firmly, not lain limp there waiting for him to play the gallant. Dash it, that had been gauche of him. He descended the stairs and went in search of company. From the sounds that proceeded from behind the taproom door, he guessed that not many of the other guests had yet retired for the night. He was glad about it. He felt suddenly and unaccustomedly lonely.