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My sister Jane is set to arrive at Achewood this term. She will be in Birch House as I was, so you shall be her House Master. We all have high hopes for Jane. She is not looking forward to attending the academy, but I hope that she comes to enjoy her time at Achewood as much as I did. Please watch over her, she is the youngest of the family and she can be difficult. She has a good heart however, and a rare mind. I am sure that with some firm guidance she will blossom into the woman we all know she can be.
Genevieve Whittaker (nee Munsford)
“I shan't ever marry!”
All around the charming room eyes widened and jaws dropped. The speaker grinned at the consternation her little statement had caused amongst her peers, a group made up of the young women sitting about on the carved wooden beds in the bare dormitory, their suitcases at the end of their beds waiting to be unpacked.
Prior to the blasphemous statement, the ladies had been doing one another's hair and discussing their hopes for matches amongst the aristocracy, but they fell dumb when one young woman interrupted their conversation rather brashly with an opinion that was not just unexpected, but quite disturbing to most of the room's occupants.
They stared at her, trying to work out what kind of woman would not be interested in marrying, but her appearance did not give much away in the form of clues. She was well dressed, in fact, her dress was one of the nicer ones being worn in that room. It had been made of a blue sateen edged with white lace. The bodice was well fitted and there were pearl accents cresting the shoulders, following the neckline after the new fashions. It was a dress that could have taken its wearer anywhere.
As for the woman wearing the dress, she was perhaps not beautiful, but she was certainly interesting to look at. Her skin was clear, though there wasa dashing of freckles across her nose, and her blue eyes were rimmed with dark lashes that made them quite intriguing. Her hair was not sleek and perfectly coiffed like that of the other women, it had been scraped back into a simple pony tail and it would have taken the very keenest of eyes to spot the smallest traces of mascara that she'd applied to satisfy the requirement that all Achewood ladies 'did their faces' each day.
It was the first evening on the first day of the new intake at Achewood Academy. It was not the first day of term, because term had started a month earlier when returning students began classes. New entrants began a month later, the idea being that it was best to introduce the new ladies to their peers when school was in full swing. That way the new ladies were integrated seamlessly into the day to day goings on instead of bumbling about the place getting underfoot whilst things were being put in motion.
Just that morning the new entrants had assembled outside the great iron gates of Achewood and tentatively stepped onto the hallowed grounds. It was a sunny day and they had been treated to the fine sight of other Achewood ladies walking about the extensive manicured lawns with genteel sweeping gaits that made them seem to hover over the ground rather than walk upon it. Graduates of Achewood had earned themselves the moniker 'Angels on Earth' over the years, and as the most prestigious finishing college in the land, Achewood sought to keep its reputation.
Achewood Academy had just twenty 'new girls' that term, though they were hardly girls anymore. Their ages ranged from nineteen to twenty three. The oldest of the new students at Achewood, and the woman who had boldly sworn off marriage, went by the name Jane Munsford. She did not appear well pleased to find herself at Achewood and aside from the occasional inflammatory remark, abstained from the excited chatter the other ladies in her five bed dormitory were engaging in. She had wasted no time in establishing herself as a rebel, but in some matters she had complied with expectations. Her dress met Achewood requirements with long skirts that swept the floor and a bodice that held her figure firmly. Unlike some of the other new entrants, she had not corseted herself into her dresses. Jane regarded corsets the sole terrain of the feeble minded.
Jane was not feeble minded, though she had some very strange ideas. She was twenty three, the perfect age for marrying, but she had not been fibbing when she declared to the shocked women in the dormitory that she didn’t want to get married at all. No, Jane had other plans, other exciting plans.
“Not get married!” young Hettie White gasped, clutching at her chest dramatically. “That’s blasphemy. To the gallows with you!” Hettie was just nineteen, a petite ice blonde beauty who could have found a match wearing a burlap sack. Achewood would almost certainly be benefiting more from having her amongst the ranks than she would benefit from being there.
“It’s not blasphemy,” Ivy Gaines interjected. “It’s just weird.” Ivy was not as fortunate as Hettie. That wasn't to say she was in any way ugly. She had a perfectly serviceable face and a figure that responded well to a corset. Unfortunately she had such a prickly temperament that her face was folded up into a sneer almost constantly. At twenty two she was fast aging out of eligible marrying age. Achewood would have its work cut out with her.
Jane smiled at Hettie. She didn't mind if other women wanted to get married as long as they didn't force their opinions on her. She opened her mouth, hoping to skewer Ivy with a witty riposte, but she was denied the opportunity. There was a knock at the door and one of the older students, a woman named Madeline who all the new entrants aside from Jane had held in awe since they first laid eyes on her at orientation that morning, informed them that it was almost one o'clock, and being so it was time to report to their new houses as house meetings were about to begin.
Madeline would be graduating in a few short months and she was a picture of Achewood perfection. Her dark hair was pinned up in a series of swirls that were almost a work of art in themselves, and her lips were colored the perfect shade of red, not so dark as to draw too much attention away from the rest of her face, not so light as to make her look crass. She was of average height, but she appeared much taller in the three inch heels that she walked in with incredible grace. Jane privately thought she looked rather like a giraffe, but she did not share the opinion with Madeline who had a certain hard edge to her beauty that told the observer she would not be crossed lightly.
Jane had been assigned to Birch House, so had Hettie as it turned out. The other girls had been split up amongst the two other houses, Oak and Rowan. Ivy was to be a Rowan girl and the remaining two women, Rebecca and Christine would be in Oak. Each of the houses had its own color, its own code and its own common room, Madeline explained as they went downstairs, taking the large spiral staircase at the heart of the Academy. Achewood Academy was a sprawling sandstone building built on three levels. The lowest level contained the administration and schooling areas. The middle level contained boarding facilities and the dining hall. The top level was the domain of the masters, and the new entrants had already been very sternly warned off going up there without express permission.
Jane and Hettie stood rather close together, taking comfort in one another as Madeline ushered them into the Birch House common room. It was already full with twenty or so other women sitting on chairs placed conference style across the room. Every single one of them turned to stare at Jane and Hettie as if they were circus curiosities. Jane did not enjoy being examined in such a fashion, but for once she was glad that she'd allowed mother to pick out her clothes. In her nice blue dress she rather looked the part of a generic new entrant.
At the front of the room there was one master and one mistress. The mistress was a severe looking older woman whose make up was put on a little too thickly and had started to crack, giving her the appearance of an old porcelain doll beginning to disintegrate under the stresses of age. The master, well, the master was an entirely different proposition being a good deal younger than his female colleague and a great deal more handsome. He had dirty blonde curls that, coupled with his pale complexion, gave him a rather angelic appearance, and a wide smile that threatened to split his face in two. His nose was perhaps a little too long, but it was straight and his jaw was a strong one, full of character.
Madeline was kind enough to introduce the pair to the house and save them the trouble of stammering their own names. “Master Crispin, Mistress Eldritch, these are the new girls, Jane Munsford and Hettie White.”
“Welcome ladies,” Master Crispin made an expansive gesture with his hands and beamed at both Jane and Hettie as they hurriedly took seats. As the new entrants were soon to learn, Master Crispin was not the best looking of the masters, that honor went to Master Godwin, with his piercing aqua gaze and flowing dark hair. Crispin was not the youngest of the Masters either, that title belonged to Master Jakes, who was already making quite a name for himself in his mid-twenties.
Master Crispin was not the most senior, or the harshest, or the smartest of the Masters, but he possessed two qualities that made him a popular talking point amongst the Achewood ladies. First there was his broad smile which was said to be bright enough to light a room. Secondly, there were the stories that he was sometimes seen carrying a thin switch. There were many rumors about Crispin and his switch. Some said that if he used it on you, you had to pull your panties down and show him your bare bottom. Others said that it hurt so much you would cry real tears after three strokes.
Unbeknownst to those treading the squeaking boards of the rumor mill, the stories about Master Crispin’s switch were mostly just that, stories. Achewood ladies were, for the most part, well behaved young women who respected the masters and mistresses and usually obeyed them without question. It was unthinkable to disobey a master or quarrel with him. So Master Crispin’s switch was more of a prop than anything else, at least until Jane Munsford turned up.
Jane found the meeting very boring. She didn't know what was being discussed and she didn't much care. She sat at the back of the room with Hettie and let the droning wash over her, wishing she hadn't been forced to go to Achewood at all. Great Aunt Mary's will had been quite specific though, Jane didn't get her inheritance money until such time as she graduated from Achewood Academy. So there she was, entirely overdressed for a Tuesday and about to spend three years of her life playing tea party with a bunch of people who took the whole thing very seriously indeed.
It took an hour or so for the meeting to conclude and with every passing minute Jane became more impatient. She wanted to go back to the dormitory, dig out a book and find somewhere quiet to read until dinner time. That was her plan for surviving the years, she'd just read her life away and hope that they left her alone.
When day dreaming failed to engage her she spent some of the time glancing at Master Crispin. When he spoke she was much less bored, he had a pleasant deep voice that soothed the most savage of beasts, an impatient female. She enjoyed his voice all the more when she discovered he was announcing the end of the meeting. Jane was about to head for the dormitory when one of the upper students pulled her aside. “Master Crispin will see you at three o'clock.”
Jane's heart skipped a beat. Had she been that obviously not paying attention? Was she in trouble already? “Did I do something wrong?”
“No,” the older woman shook her head. “You'll know if you do something wrong. This is just a meeting that Master Crispin likes to have with the new entrants.”
That rather put a spanner in the works when it came to creeping off. She barely had an hour to get ready for her interview. Hettie was already rushing off upstairs, clearly she'd been summoned first. She was lucky. Jane had an hour to worry about what was going to happen next. She didn't want to be at Achewood and she didn't want to participate in its culture. She planned to do the bare minimum to get by. She would attend classes, pass exams and get the heck out of there, all the while spending as much time away from the place as possible, that was what she would do.
In spite of not caring about what happened at Achewood, Jane none the less spent the hour before her meeting with Master Crispin pacing back and forth in the dormitory. She was not experienced with men, she had not been overly closely supervised as a younger woman, but her choice of companions had always been female. What would Master Crispin be like in person? Now she thought back on it, he did seem to be a rather broad and vigorous man, and she would be alone with him in his office!
It was with a slow feeling of growing dread that Jane dragged herself up the stairs to the third floor and knocked tentatively on the door marked CRISPIN.
“Come in, come in!” Master Crispin called cheerfully.
Jane opened the door and tip toed into the office. Master Crispin was standing by the far window, his tall frame silhouetted against the glass. He turned as she came in and welcomed her with a smile. Master Crispin had curly flaxen hair and hazel green eyes that sparkled when he smiled. He was not an overly large man but he was at least six feet tall. He wore the black robes that all masters wore very well, his shoulders were broad enough that the robes draped rather than slouched off him in a manner that made them look depressed.
“And who do I have the pleasure of meeting?” Master Crispin said charmingly, asking the question as if he had not been introduced to her a couple of hours earlier. Clearly she had not made much of an impression on him.
“It’s me, Jane, you wanted to see me,” Jane stammered nervously. Jane was not normally a woman given to stammering, indeed her usual demeanor was more akin to that of the proverbial bull in the china shop, but the master had her off balance already.
“Ah yes, Jane, the newest member of the house, do come in and take a seat.” He gestured to a rather plush and comfortable looking arm chair. Jane took the risk of stepping into the room all the way and closing the door behind her. She sat down in the chair as primly and properly as she knew how. It was a grand attempt, but she'd never paid too much attention to what was proper and what was not and as a result her legs splayed out under her blue dress in a way that would hardly be called proper.
“You look familiar,” Master Crispin said, looking at her with his head tilted as if she was a particularly interesting shrub. “Have you had an older sister come through Achewood?”
“My sister Genevieve went here ages ago.”
Master Crispin's eyes lit up with memory. “Ah yes, you are Genevieve's little sister. I trust she remains well?”
“She's saddled with a husband and kids, if that's what you mean,” Jane replied rather sullenly. It would seem that Crispin couldn't keep her name straight in his head for two hours but he remembered Genevieve from years ago and apparently did so fondly. Even at Achewood Jane would be unable to escape her perfect older sister's shadow.
Master Crispin seated himself in an adjacent chair and beamed at her with a smile so radiant it almost melted her sullen resistance. “And you, Jane. Are you enjoying your time at the Academy so far?” It was one of those soft ball questions that people ask to be polite, but Jane was either not familiar with polite social protocol or she didn't care.
“Not really,” Jane confessed.
“No? Why not?”
Jane shrugged. She knew very well what she wanted to say. She wanted to say that she found Achewood Academy stifling and boring. She wanted to say that she had no intention whatsoever of becoming an ‘Achewood Success Story’ - one of the women who married well and gained a reputation in society for being bright, witty and charming. But none of that was acceptable to say to a master, so she said nothing at all.
“I glanced at your previous grades before you got here,” Master Crispin said. “They’re very good indeed.”
“Thank you,” Jane smiled, becoming almost luminescent from the praise. Being appreciated for her mind put her at ease and stroked her ego.
“You’re obviously a hard worker,” Master Crispin noted. “You should do well here.”
It wasn’t the case of course, Jane was one of those lucky people who can remember almost anything as long as it is explained to them in a way that makes sense. “Most classes aren’t very hard,” she said, wishing almost immediately that she hadn’t said it.
“Is that so?” Crispin chuckled. “If the classes are too easy, we can work on an extension program. We wouldn't want you getting into trouble as a result of boredom.” He flickered her a wink that bordered on the rakish and Jane heard herself emit a high pitched giggling sound.
She was feeling more comfortable, and feeling more comfortable meant behaving more comfortably, which for Jane, meant shifting around in her seat and tucking her legs under her body so that her feet were no longer on the floor, but pressed against the upholstery.
“Is the floor made of lava?” Master Crispin asked the question mildly.
“You seem to be eager to keep your feet off it,” he noted, raising his brow at her.
“Oh,” Jane untucked her legs unwillingly. It wouldn't do to forget what Master Crispin was, a man charged with teaching the ladies in his care proper decorum and behavior. He was an educator of the mind, but he was also a trainer of the body and within the walls of Achewood Academy at least, an absolute authority. Jane's enthusiasm for the conversation dimmed considerably as she remembered those things.
“How are you fitting in otherwise?” Crispin moved the conversation on seamlessly.
“I don't know,” Jane mumbled. A master was hardly a confidante. Even if she'd been inclined to share with him, it would have been ill advised to do so.
“Do try to speak clearly,” Master Crispin said. He was chiding her, gently, but chiding her none the less and Jane took umbrage. First the lava floor comment, now her manner of speech. She supposed he'd be putting books on her head and making her walk about the room gracefully next. “Now, what was it you wanted to say, Jane?”
Prior to attending Achewood Academy, Jane had been a perfectly happy, perfectly free young woman with plans to travel the world. If it weren't for her Great Aunt's outdated idea that all young women to undergo 'finishing' she would have been as far away from her native country as possible.
She'd tried to convince herself that it wouldn't be so bad at Achewood. It had one of the best reputations in the country after all. The First Lady herself was an Achewood girl. But now she was finding that no matter how revered the institution, it was still an institution. She had hoped to skim along under the radar until graduation, but it already seemed that was not going to happen. Very well. If she was to be badgered about her behavior, she would give them something to badger her about. Jane looked at Master Crispin, met his multiflecked eyes and spoke very crisply and clearly. “I do not like it here. I have no intention of marrying and it is a waste of my time � not to mention yours.”
The words left her mouth and the silence stretched out. She steeled herself for an outraged explosion from Master Crispin and a lecture about traditional values and a woman's role in the home, but none came. He simply looked at her thoughtfully and steepled his fingers in front of him, nodding to himself. “Pray tell, Ms Munsford, why do you wish to abstain from marriage?”
“I have better things to do with my life.”
He smiled, the skin around his eyes crinkling warmly.“Such as?”
“I wish to travel,” Jane explained. “I have always wanted to visit the African continent.”
“A lofty goal,” Master Crispin murmured, then nodded along as Jane explained her plan to travel from Egypt, down the Nile to deepest, darkest Africa, where she hoped to meet tribes people who had never been met before. Most of the people Jane had shared her travel plans with laughed at her or became quite angry, but Master Crispin listened quietly as she babbled on, talking about crocodiles larger than a man and pygmies who barely came up to your waist. Jane talked on and on until she quite ran out of things to say and then she stumbled verbally to a halt, suddenly realizing that she'd been rabbiting on quite animatedly for quite some time. “... so that is why I don't feel the need to be married,” she finished.
“Well, that is quite well thought out,” Master Crispin said. He had gotten comfortable during the long story and he sat there with his hands laced over his stomach, one leg crossed over the other at the ankle.
“So you see I feel that I have very little to gain here,” Jane explained.
“One wonders why you have come then?”
“Because my family believes they know what is best for me,” Jane spat scornfully.
“It is clear that you are a spirited young woman, some might even say willful,” Master Crispin observed mildly. “It is more difficult to fit in if one is strongly opinionated.”
“I don't care about fitting in. The others only talk about getting husbands.”
“It is a fine thing to be a wife, Jane.”
She gave him a dour look as she spoke dryly. “You would know, I suppose, do you have much experience as a wife?”
Her cheek elicited a frown from Master Crispin. The easy going expression faded from his eyes and was replaced with a hard look. “That kind of attitude is unacceptable. You will please refrain from such flippant remarks or I will be forced to discipline you on our very first meeting, which would be a pity.”
“Fine,” Jane folded her arms over her chest and stared out the window. Master Crispin was not the fine fellow he had seemed to be at first. He might be a relatively young man compared to some of the other Masters, but he was clearly as stuffy as anyone else in the place.
Crispin interrupted her inner tirade. “Tell me, Ms Munsford, were you subject to much discipline growing up?”
Jane shrugged. She was the youngest of five, with three brothers and an older sister. Genevieve had been married for several years and already had two children, with a third on the way. Her oldest brother Tom was likewise attached and his wife was due to produce another child any day now. The middle brother James was due to marry in the spring and the youngest brother Nigel was courting a fine young woman the family approved of. It hadn't occurred to anyone that Jane might not dutifully follow along in the tradition, so Jane had not been subjected to any rigorous discipline. She had been left to her own devices to a large extent, by the time she was of an age to start getting into any serious trouble, Genevieve was already being courted, a process that had consumed their mother entirely. “I don't know.”
“Were you ever physically chastised?”
That was an odd question, Jane thought. “No,” she said carefully.
“Hm,” Master Crispin said. “That might very well account for it.”
“Account for what?”
Master Crispin's eyes twinkled. “For your rebellion, Ms Munsford.”
“I am not in rebellion,” Jane said, taking a large slice of umbrage. “I have a plan, that is all. A plan I shared with you in confidence,” she said, folding her hands in her lap and pursing her lips together in a way that might have made Master Crispin feel very small indeed, if he were the sort of man who ever felt small at all.
“It is a plan that rather sets you at odds with the world as it is,” Master Crispin said. “That will make life difficult for you.”
“I don't mind difficulties,” Jane declared. “It's boredom I cannot stand. The others, they cannot wait to cook and clean and bear babes,” she screwed up her face as she spoke. “A life time of laundry and they cannot wait.”
“Perhaps they feel that, being Achewood girls, their station in life will not include the laundry.”
“Even better,” Jane said, her lips thinning. “A life of vapid parties and drinking at ten o'clock in the morning...”
A sound interrupted her tirade before it could begin. A low, rumbling sound that seemed to be forcing itself out of a man who was very much trying to repress it.
“Are you laughing at me, Master Crispin?
“No, no, not at you,” he held his hand up, calling for pause as he recovered his composure. “Dear Jane, you are an idealist. We do not see many idealists here.”
Jane was not sure if he was on her side or not. On the one hand, he seemed sympathetic to her views, if more than a little amused by them. On the other, he worked for the system that oppressed her. It would be foolish to trust him entirely.
“Well I shall not be here forever. I would suggest that I am left to serve my time in peace and when I get out I will be free to pursue my plan.”
“And how do you intend to finance these travels?”
“That is my affair.”
“Indeed,” Master Crispin said, glancing at his watch. “Well Jane, it was very nice to make your acquaintance.” He stood up and offered her his hand, concluding the interview in no uncertain terms. The abrupt end to their conversation caught Jane off guard somewhat. She stood and shook his hand, wondering what the point of the meeting had been. Had he simply been taking her measure?
“I have no doubt we will meet again,” he said, squeezing her hand warmly. He was correct, although he could hardly have predicted the circumstances of their next meeting.