In which Victoria fulfills her duty as a "daughter" of an English country house by hosting their village's little kids and Ursula tries to figure out her place as a new countess-in-waiting:
You can listen to "The Schuyler Sisters" as you read this, by the by.
They walked out to the front hall to await the arrival of some twenty or thirty-odd children, all of them from the village and estate. When Broome opened the door to let them in, the little ones walked into the front hall in two parallel lines, their steps orderly, their little eyes roving around, taking in the intimidating air of the front hall.
The children were dressed in their Sunday best—starched shirt collars and shined shoes for the boys and made-over dresses and stockings for the girls. Several of them looked like their faces had been scrubbed clean in scalding water; their cheeks were pink and raw.
Victoria stepped forward and in a carrying voice—though not a particularly loud one—she said, "Welcome to Malden Court, everyone. I do hope you'll enjoy the tea. Come along into the ballroom."
Ursula turned to walk through to the rest of the house, but Victoria hadn't moved. She stepped to the side and let Broome lead the childen into the house first. Several of them smiled shyly in Victoria's direction. Only when the last of the group toddled in did Victoria follow them and Ursula had no choice but to follow her.
The children sat at the tables with a minimum of noise and when they were all seated, Victoria signaled the footmen to begin pouring tea and circulating the sandwiches and biscuits.
"Bea, love," Victoria said. "Let us take a turn about the room." She took a step, then looked over her shoulder at Ursula. "You, too."
They fanned out across the ballroom, walking in between tables and observing the children as they ate. Ursula smiled when she could catch the eye of one of the little ones. She hadn't met many of the villagers yet, but it would be important to do so, wouldn't it? Not as important as befriending the other fine families of the county, perhaps, but these were Malden's folks, Conrad's future tenants.
Tenants. A village. Lord, but England was different. In America, the only people her family were responsible for were their servants. But here, as Father said, they were a "throwback to feudalism."
Ursula said hello to a little girl at a particular table. Beatrice was talking to a little boy on the other side, just some friendly chat about the boy's sister, recently born. Beatrice smiled sweetly at the lad, turned her head, then quickly looked the other way. One of the footmen, a blond lad—Ursula couldn't remember his name—passed behind Beatrice.
They kept circulating about the room for a time, until the food all but seemed to disappear.
Then Victoria stopped at the front of the room like a schoolteacher and spoke to the entire ballroom. "I hope you enjoyed your tea." There were murmuring answers of "Yes, Miss Victoria."
"I pray you all had a happy Easter as well and that those of you in school are keeping up with your studies. I know as spring becomes warmer and the trees and flowers start blooming once again, you'll all be happy to be outside and in the sun. I know I certainly miss the sun," Victoria went on. Some of the children chuckled. "Lady Beatrice and I thought we'd play some music as well." Beatrice joined her cousin at the front of the room, though she only nodded to the assembled group and did not speak. In fact, her right hand seemed to be clutching a pleat in her skirt.
Beatrice sat at the pianoforte, turned a page of a score, then began the introduction to an easy melody: "London Bridge is Falling Down." All of the children, even the littlest ones, knew the words. Ursula sang along in sotto voice.
She'd heard Victoria sing before—she had a lovely voice, even now, when she wasn't putting much effort into it. She'd been nothing but cheerful and pleasant with their guests and her voice, which was clear and carried through the expansive space of the petit ballroom, never seemed shrill or to be shouty. Impressive. She was sulky and aloof, but she obviously knew her role here and was rising to the occasion.
She ought not let Victoria concern her so; yes, they lived under the same roof and she was a foster sister of sorts to Beatrice and Conrad, but that was not to say that they had to get on with each other. Except, well, when had Ursula not been able to befriend someone, especially a girl her own very age?