“I have good news for you, Annabelle,” said Miss Chalfont, the well-educated head mistress and owner of The Beeches, an exclusive school for young ladies.
Seated on a straight-backed chair opposite Miss Chalfont’s walnut desk, Annabelle clasped her hands tightly on her lap. “Has my guardian told you who my parents are?” she asked in a voice quivering with excitement.
Regret flickered across Miss Chalfont’s face before she shook her head. “No, I am very sorry, he has not. For your sake I wish he had. In fact, I do not know who he is. I receive instructions from a lawyer in Dover. To be honest, for no particular reason, I have always assumed your guardian’s identity is that of a man, but it could be that of a woman.”
Dover! Annabelle thought. The town where she had lived with her nurse before a nameless elegant lady, with a French accent, brought her to The Beeches. Time and time again she had wondered if the lady was her guardian or whether she was a stranger ordered to bring her here. She had no way of knowing, for the lady had not answered any of her questions. Annabelle looked into Miss Chalfont’s eyes. “Who is the lawyer, ma’am?”
“I do not know for he does not identify himself. He merely arranges for your…er…upkeep, and sends me your guardian’s instructions.” No clue to the mystery of my own identity, Annabelle thought and gazed down to conceal
her disappointment. “Has the lawyer given you permission to tell me who my guardian is?” she asked, despite her suspicion that he had not. Miss Chalfont looked down at a letter. “No, your guardian, whom I have no doubt has your welfare at heart, still wishes to remain anonymous. But, my dear child, you are fortunate. Your guardian has arranged for you to marry Monsieur le Baron de Beauchamp.”
Annabelle looked up with a mixture of astonishment, disbelief, and intense indignation at the arrangement that took no heed of her wishes. “I am to marry a man I have never met?”
With restless fingers, Miss Chalfont adjusted her frilled mobcap. “Yes, your guardian has arranged for you to marry Monsieur le Baron tomorrow.”
Annabelle stared at her kind teacher as though she had turned into a monster. “Mon dieu!” she raged, reverting to the French she spoke when she was a small child. “My God! Tomorrow? My guardian expects me to marry a Frenchman tomorrow? Miss Chalfont, surely you do not approve of such haste.”
“Do not take the Lord’s name in vain.” Miss Chalfont tapped her fingers on her desk. “My approval or disapproval is of no consequence. Your guardian wishes you to marry immediately so there is little more to be said. A special licence has been procured and the vicar has been informed.” Miss Chalfont smiled at her. “You have nothing to fear. This letter informs me that Monsieur speaks English and lives in this country.”
Annabelle scowled. Her hands trembled. For the first time, she defied her head mistress. “Nothing to fear? My life is to be put in the hands of a husband with the right to…beat me…or… starve me, and you say I have nothing to fear, Miss Chalfont? Please believe me when I say that nothing will persuade me to marry in such haste.”
Not the least display of emotion crossed the head teacher’s face. “You should not allow your imagination to agitate your sensibilities. For all you know, the monsieur is charming and will be a good, kind husband.”
“On the other hand, he might be a monster,” Annabelle said.
Miss Chalfont ignored the interruption and continued. “At eighteen, you are the oldest girl in the school. It is time for you to leave the nest and establish one of your own.”
“Twaddle,” Annabelle muttered. “My education is almost complete and I suspect you wish to be rid of me.”
Miss Chalfont smoothed the skirt of her steel-grey woollen gown and looked at Annabelle with a cold expression in her eyes. “I beg your pardon? Did I hear you say twaddle? As for wishing to be rid of you child, that is not true. However, I will admit that in recent months I have worried about your guardian’s future plans for you. But I need not have worried. As a happy bride, I daresay you will go to London where those pretty blue eyes and long lashes of yours will be so much admired that Monsieur le Baron will be proud of you.”
At any other time Miss Chalfont’s rare compliment would have pleased her. On this occasion it only served to increase the fury she tried to conceal. Losing her temper would be pointless. Before Annabelle spoke, she took a deep breath to calm herself. “It is unreasonable to order me to marry the man without allowing me time to become acquainted with him.”
“Do not refer to your bridegroom as the man. I have told you his name is de Beauchamp.”
Rebellion flamed in Annabelle’s stomach. “What do you know of my…er...bridegroom-tobe, ma’am?”
Miss Chalfont looked down at the letter. “He is described as a handsome gentleman of mature years.”
“One would think the description is of a piece of mature cheese or a bottle of vintage wine.”
Miss Chalfont frowned. “Do not be impertinent, Annabelle, you are not too old to be punished.”
“I beg your pardon, ma’am, but please tell me how mature he is,” Annabelle said, her eyes wide open and her entire body taut with apprehension.
“Monsieur le Baron is some forty-years-old.”
“How mature?” Annabelle persisted with her usual bluntness.
“He is forty-two-years-old.”
Annabelle stood, bent forward, and drummed her fingers on the edge of the desk. “Please be kind enough to inform my guardian that I will not play Guinevere to an aging Arthur. I would prefer to build my nest with a young Lancelot.”
Miss Chalfont’s shoulders heaved as though she was trying not to laugh. “Regardless of your preference, you must marry according to your guardian’s wish.”
“Dear ma’am, you and your mother have always been kind to me. I cannot believe you approve of—”
“As I have already said, my approval or disapproval is of no importance. Your duty is to obey.” Annabelle’s anger boiled and she felt somewhat sick in the stomach. Now that she was old enough to leave the seminary, it seemed that unless she refused to co-operate, she really would be disposed of without the slightest consideration for her personal wishes. Simultaneously afraid to obey her guardian and furious because not even Miss Chalfont seemed to care about her dilemma, Annabelle straightened up. She looked around the cosy parlour, with its thick oriental rugs, pretty figurines on the mantelpiece, and a number of gilt-framed pictures on the wall, one of which she had painted. “I will consider the marriage.” Annabelle looked down again, in case rebellion revealed itself on her face. But she had not lied. She would consider the marriage proposal, but not in the manner Miss Chalfont expected, for she would find a way to reject the elderly baron.
Miss Chalfont stood, walked round her desk, and patted Annabelle’s shoulder before resting her hand on it. “My dear child, there is little for you to consider. I dread to think of the consequences if you disobey your guardian. You could be cast penniless from here with only the clothes on your back. After all, your guardian does have complete power over you.”
Annabelle wanted to jerk away from her uncaring teacher’s hand but forced herself to remain passive. She did not want the woman to suspect the nature of her rebellious thoughts and have her closely watched. Inwardly, she seethed and decided that whatever the cost, she would escape the fate in store for her. An image of her former nurse, with whom she corresponded, flashed through her mind. With it came a sense of security and purpose.