As she looked over her Sisters, her heart was near bursting, for she loved each and every one of them. Yes, it had been far too long since they were all together.
Mrs. Rutley lay propped up by numerous pillows. Age and sickness had taken their toll on her headmistress, so much so that Louisa wanted to weep. Yet there was something in the older woman’s eye, a twinkle Louisa would always recognize, for every time she saw it during her time at the school, it always brought her a sense of hope.
Louisa took Mrs. Rutley’s hand in her own. “I came,” she said simply.
“I knew you would, my dear,” Mrs. Rutley replied. Her voice was barely above a whisper. “My heart told me you would.”
Her friends drew close, and Louisa was at a loss for words. She was never sure what to say to someone lying on a sickbed. “And the others?” she asked. “When are they expected?”
Julia placed a comforting hand on Louisa’s arm. “Unity and Theodosia are in America, so I doubt we’ll be seeing them.”
“And Ruth?” Louisa asked. When all her friends cast their eyes to the floor, she knew the answer, for that was the same look that came when she had been informed of her uncle’s passing. “No,” she said, her voice choking. “It cannot be.”
Julia nodded, and Emma wiped at her eyes. “No one has heard from her in many years. Not even Mrs. Rutley. The prevalent rumor is that she’s dead.”
It took Louisa all her might to hold back tears. She and Ruth Lockhart had grown close during that final year at the school together and more so in the final months. To learn that the vivacious and precocious girl was gone, only made the pain and hurt she had felt upon learning of Mrs. Rutley’s illness intensify.
“I received word two years ago that she died and nothing more,” Mrs. Rutley said, drawing the attention of everyone. “But we can discuss Ruth later. For now, I must make a request.”
“Of course, Mrs. Rutley. Ask anything of me, and I’ll do what I can.”
The headmistress’s smile put Louisa’s worries at ease. Just as it always had. “Tell me the story of how you found love. It’s a wonderful story that I witnessed firsthand, but I wish to hear it nonetheless.”
Louisa wet her lips. Where should she begin? Her thoughts drifted to the many days she had been at the school. Any one of them could have been a starting point for her story. Should she begin with the first time she learned that a handsome knight had moved to Chatsworth? Or when she sought him out only to be hurt by his demeaning words?
Then she smiled as another memory came to mind. The Chatsworth Theater. That was where it all began.
“It was not long after Jenny left the school. Perhaps no more than two weeks. As she did every year, Mrs. Rutley took us to the theater as a treat for the new students. It was there where I saw the man who would forever change my destiny.”
Every spring, the students attending Mrs. Rutley’s School for Young Women were treated to a tour of the local theater. Although it could not compare in size or elegance to those in London, Miss Louisa Dunston did not care. Like most of the village of Chatsworth, the theater had a quaintness—an almost innocence—about it that appealed to Louisa’s senses.
Yet that was not the only reason she was intrigued by the place. There, a woman could enter equal to a man. Well, at least to a certain, yet marked, degree when compared to the reality of life. In some of the plays, the lead role was a woman. Granted, not often, but it did happen.
Both men and women performed in various productions at the tiny establishment, and the roles they played were often equal in importance. Therefore, in Louisa’s eyes, that placed them in an unusual predicament—it balanced the scales.
Not only were the students given a guided tour of the theater by the proprietor, Mr. Neil Barker, but they also stayed to watch whatever dramatization was offered at the time.
The outing was meant to provide the pupils with the opportunity to experience the finer things life had to offer. Louisa, however, believed it also gave the students an escape from the humdrum of lessons. Not to mention too many days forced to remain indoors during the winter weather.
Forgoing a muffler, Louisa slipped on her pink spencer jacket and gave herself one final inspection in the mirror.
“We’re only going to the Chatsworth Theater, not having tea with the Royal family,” Ruth said as she fixed the last button on her shoes. “Your vainness knows no bounds.”
With Jenny now off to begin a new life and new students in need of beds, Ruth had been given an ultimatum—either move in with Louisa or make room for one of the new girls in her room. As much as Louisa adored her, which was as much as her other Sisters who had made the vow around the great oak tree, Ruth tended not to care much for rules. After four years, she still had not learned how to conduct herself as a lady.
No, that was untrue. With flaming red hair and a pretty smile, Ruth could act as the politest young lady in society when she chose to do so. She could speak with a honeyed tongue to get anyone to do her bidding. Yet as quick as a spark in a meadow of dried grass, she would transform into a shrew who spoke her mind without thought of the consequences. Today, it seemed she had chosen to act the latter rather than the former.
“I’m not vain,” Louisa said with a great deal of indignation. “And the theater is exciting to many of the new girls. We’re meant to be an example to the younger students.”
Turning this way and that, she pinned up a stray strand of blonde hair and smiled at her reflection. She was beautiful; a fact she had learned over the last few years. If it were not true, men would not spend so much time looking at her. In a world where men ruled, was it a crime for a young lady to use her smile to get what she wanted? In her opinion, no. They used money and their power to get what they wanted, so why could she not do the same with the one commodity she possessed?
“I don’t understand why it nettles you so,” she continued. “If you don’t enjoy it, why go?” She turned to face her friend and sighed. Ruth cared nothing about her looks. She had donned a nondescript black coat that made her look… well, dowdy.
“I do it for Mrs. Rutley,” Ruth said. “And no one else.”