My aunt obviously didn’t feel like that. She eyed the fish on her plate with ambivalence. I could clearly see two of her strongest instincts warring with one another: her stinginess, which told her that this was the cheapest food you could get without poisoning yourself, and her social aspirations, which told her that a lady would under no circumstances eat something that also formed the regular diet of Irish peasants. In the end, stinginess, aided by a rumbling stomach, seemed to win out. She poked one of the potatoes with her fork as if she expected it to come alive and attack her. When it didn’t, she impaled it and picked up her knife.
I had already started shovelling porridge into my mouth while my aunt was occupied, taking the opportunity to actually get some serious eating done before my lack of table manners was noticed. Beside me, Ella ate with considerably better manners but equal enjoyment. Gertrude, my eldest sister and the old maid in the family, didn’t seem to mind the plain food either. The others, however, - Lisbeth and especially the twins, Anne and Maria - looked rather contemptuously at their plates and took a long time to start eating.
Even when they finally stuck their forks into the herring, they did not eat very much, and this was not just the case because they didn’t like their food: unlike me, they considered themselves to be very fine ladies. Very fine ladies could under no circumstances talk with their mouths full, which meant they hardly ever could put a bite in their mouths.
‘Have you heard?’ Anne burst out as soon as we were all seated. ‘Lord Tilsworth is engaged! And to a frightful girl, too. She is supposed to be one of the most low-minded creatures in London - and with horrible freckles all over her face. What in God’s name induced him to marry her I cannot imagine! She’s not even of the gentry, from what my friend Grace told me the other day.’
‘No!’ gasped Maria. ‘Can it be true that he is throwing himself away on somebody like that? I can hardly believe it!’
‘It is true, I swear it. As I said, I had it from Grace, who had it from Beatrice, who had it from Sarah, who had it from her second cousin, who heard it all from the cousin of Lord Tilsworth’s second chambermaid.’
‘Which of course means that it must be true,’ I mumbled, rolling my eyes and chewing my potatoes.
‘Lillian!’ snapped my beloved aunt. ‘Don’t talk with your mouth full.’
‘Such a pity,’ Maria sighed. ‘Tilsworth would have been such a catch. And he was quite taken with me at the last ball.’
I rolled my eyes again and hoped my aunt wouldn’t see. She would probably consider that unladylike behaviour, too. Oh yes, the last ball. Anne and Maria had been talking about it for days and days now. They were the only ones of us who actually ever got invited to any balls, because they were the only ones pretty enough in the eyes of the gentlemen. No, that wasn’t quite true. Ella could have given them a run for their money - if she hadn’t been so painfully shy. But as it was, Anne and Maria, pale, tall and sickly-looking, with dark circles under their eyes and that demure look that gentlemen favoured so much, were the only ones of us ever getting into society.
Which was pretty much how I liked it. They were welcome to all the balls and all the men they could get. They could have thousands and thousands of men, and have illicit affairs with them or marry one or all of them, or cook them for dinner if they really wanted to. I would wish them the best of luck. But why oh why did they have to bore the rest of us to death by talking about it?
‘…and the Earl of Farthingham is supposed to be engaged to Lady Melrose.’
‘Really, Anne? I hadn’t heard that.’
‘Yes, Maria. You see, it’s a frightful secret because…’
I ignored them to the best of my ability and concentrated on my salted herrings, while they kept gossiping about the famous Admiral this and the rich Mister that. My thoughts were neither on my food nor on society, however. They were on a certain tall, dark-eyed individual and on one question that kept coming back to the forefront of my mind ever since he had given me his card: Should I go there?
I didn’t even know why I was still thinking about it. A normal lady wouldn’t even consider trying to get a job.
Ah yes, that snarky little voice in the back of my mind said, but then, a normal lady wouldn’t try to go voting dressed up as a man, would she? Ladies simply weren’t supposed to be independent. They were expected to marry, sit at home and look pretty. And that’s not exactly what you have in mind for your life, is it?
I threw a glance at Anne and Maria. They obviously were content with this lot in life. And why not? They were pretty, they could sit still very well, and to judge from the effort which they put into their social exploits, they would marry well, too. The young men of London were, from what I could gather, full of praise for their beauty and accomplishments, and were only quarrelling about which of the two to praise more. Quite a hard decision, since they were twins and identical to the last lock of their golden hair.
Indeed, Anne and Maria would make very fine ladies. I, on the other hand, had always had a rather stormy temperament that didn’t lend itself well to the idea of marriage. Not as long as the vows included an oath of obedience to a man, anyway.
I definitely wanted to do more with my life than exist as an appendix to some chauvinist blockhead. So why did I hesitate, now that this golden opportunity had presented itself?
Maybe because I remembered with crystal-like clarity the darkness in Mr Ambrose’s eyes. I remembered how that muscled mountain, Karim, had dragged off the fat man at his master’s command. Mr Ambrose was no friendly or gentle man. There was a good chance that going there would cost me dearly. Still, his offer was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Now the question was: for this opportunity, was I prepared to enter the lion’s den without knowing if an open maw awaited me?
In my mind, I again saw an image of his dark eyes - dark eyes so deep you could drown in them. They seemed to draw me towards them. Suddenly, I didn’t feel as hesitant about going as I had a moment ago.
His offer, I reminded myself. That is the only reason you’re thinking about him, the only reason for going to see him again. This man is your ticket to freedom. Remember that, and while you’re at it, forget about his hard, chiselled face and those deep, dark eyes…
But somehow I couldn’t seem to manage. His eyes seemed to stare at me constantly out of my memory, burning holes into my mind. In those eyes I saw ruthlessness, arrogance, anger and more icy cold than in an arctic blizzard.