The marchioness’s gasp was drowned out by a shriek of laughter from her daughter.
“Oh, Mama! What an extraordinary creature. I will have her. Please, Mama!”
“Florence, she is hardly suitable.”
“But I must have her!” Lady Florence leaped from the window seat, her delicate white hands clenched in determination.
“Florence, sit down. You behave no better than the girl herself.”
Once again Emily felt her colour rising, but then the marchioness spoke again.
“I understand that you have a fine hand with a needle?”
“Yes, my lady.” Emily reached into her threadbare satchel and took out a long swathe of fine netting, edged with lace.
“Good heavens, where did you get that?”
“From Mrs Whitbread, my lady. Somehow it had got into the charity bag.” She handed it to the marchioness. “There was a big hole here, see?”
“That’s really very good. And where did you learn to sew like this?”
“It was my ma who taught me.”
Emily’s face softened as she remembered her mother’s grey eyes and patient, gentle ways, and the marchioness was silenced for a moment.
The girl was hardly a beauty, she thought, with that mousy brown hair and blue-green eyes that looked rather too sharply out of her freckled face. But plainness was a blessing, really. She certainly would never find herself in the sort of trouble that Florence’s last lady’s maid had got herself into.
Still, she did have character in her face and the kind of spirit that could either become a problem or be turned to advantage. And something else that Julia, Marquess of Farrington, couldn’t quite put her finger on.
Could the housemaids really be expected to defer to this person? She would have to speak to the butler in private. Poor Runciman, it would be up to him to explain it all downstairs.
She sighed. Her difficult, choosy daughter had already rejected three perfectly decent lady’s maids, and she had certainly taken to this child.
Florence had snatched the length of lace and had draped it round her shoulders, while Emily looked on, longing to arrange it differently. How was it that she felt so sure of how it should be swirled and pinned, in order to accent the cut of the dress? She didn’t know what guided her, but her mind whirled with ideas.
She closed her eyes as she thought of Dad and her brothers and sisters – of the cramped tied cottage with its low ceiling stained yellow by smoke and damp. Mrs Whitbread had said she might earn as much as 20 pounds a year to send home.
She squeezed her eyes tighter now, remembering Ma’s voice, which had been barely more than a whisper as she lay on the straw matting, her face chalk white.
“Promise me, dear Emily, you will look after them the best you can. You must never forget that you have something special, my darling girl – something that glows inside you. I hope one day you are given a chance.”
Could this be the chance Ma had meant?
The marchioness sighed heavily.
“Well, Emily, I will take you on, but it will be a temporary arrangement, do you understand? We will see how you get on. Strictly no visitors, of course, and you will have one afternoon off every two weeks.”