Bath, England 1815
John growled in frustration. The grey-haired man sitting opposite him winced at the guttural sound.
“Please, can you go over that again?” he said in the calmest voice he could muster. “I’m sure it ought to make sense, but I haven’t had your years of experience, and I’m afraid I still don’t understand.”
“Income on the right. Expenses on the left,” Mr Bromley said with a childlike grin. “I learned that when I was just a lad.”
“Yes, I’ve got that now,” John said, biting back his irritation. The elderly man cited that rule every time they met. “But how do I tell from these figures”—he waved his hand across the open page—“how the estate is faring?”
“Um…what…what is it you want to know, Mr Derringer?” the steward said, giving him a wary look.
John wasn’t sure. He was useless with numbers and after six months, he still couldn’t make head nor tail of the accounts. Not that he had tried that hard. He clung to the hope his father would recover and take back the reins of the estate. Then he could return to his life in London and leave all this behind.
He peered at the ledger again, moving his finger down the page, reading the list of expenses. The amounts looked reasonable, but he wasn’t sure. He had to confess he had no idea what he was doing.
It didn’t help that some entries were difficult to decipher, as the old man’s handwriting was growing shakier. Mr Bromley had been steward of Duriel Hall for as long as John could remember, but he would have to be retired at some point. In the meantime, it was safest to rely on his experience. He assumed the elderly man still knew how to run the estate.
John was about to close the ledger when he noticed something. He paused his finger as he read the details of the farrier’s bill. Hmm. That was strange. Hadn’t he just seen this? Yes. A few lines up, there was an identical entry.
“Why is this amount here twice?”
Mr Bromley went red in the face as he stared at the page. “I…I…don’t know.”
Darn it. If the man was making mistakes, John would have to replace him without delay. How on earth did he find a new steward?
He squeezed his eyes shut and pinched the top of his nose as if that would somehow make his problems go away. Before he could decide what to say to Mr Bromley, his thoughts were interrupted by the sound of feet running along the corridor outside his study.
John replaced his spectacles and braced himself. The door burst open, and his ten-year-old nephew catapulted into the room. Close behind the dirty schoolboy was a tall, thin woman. She must be the latest in a long line of governesses. What was her name? He couldn’t remember.
“What is the meaning of this intrusion?” he said, peering at her through the thick lenses of his glasses.
“Beg your pardon, Mr Derringer,” she said, grabbing the boy’s arm and pinching him so hard that Philip yelped, “but the rascal slipped through my fingers. He’s been fighting with the stable boy again.”
John stiffened, his eyes fixed on the woman’s pincer-like grip. “Please let go of my nephew, Miss…?”
The woman coloured as she relinquished her hold. “Miss Crewe, sir.”
“Ah, yes. Miss Crewe,” he said in a measured tone. “Philip ran off again? And got into another fight? Can’t you manage the boy?”
She cast a look of loathing at Philip, who had edged away from his governess. “I could if I were permitted to punish him as I see fit.”
John’s frown intensified. “I won’t allow my nephew to be beaten, Miss Crewe. Philip has just lost his parents. Show some Christian compassion.”
Out of the corner of his eye, John saw that though Philip’s head hung low, his chin resting against his chest, there was a small smile of victory on his face. For a moment, he wondered if he was being too soft on the boy, but then Philip raised his gaze to meet his. The desolation in the depths of his nephew’s eyes reaffirmed his stance. He would not let the governess strike her pupil. It must be possible to control a ten-year-old child without beating him into submission.
“Orphan or not, the boy is a slippery dev—”
“Miss Crewe,” John barked.
“Call it what you like,” she continued, unabashed by John’s interruption, “but if you spare the rod, the boy will grow up with nought in his head but sawdust. He won’t attend to his lessons, sir, and escapes the moment my back is turned. What is more, he locked me in the schoolroom again this morning, and I would be there still if a housemaid hadn’t come in to see to the fire.”
John let out a deep breath and his shoulders drooped as he gave his full attention to his nephew. “What have you got to say for yourself?”
Philip hung his head and said nothing.
“You deserve to be punished for treating your governess so poorly.”
At his words, Philip’s chin jerked up, and he met John’s eyes. He held his gaze as if challenging him to carry out his threat.
With a brief shake of his head, John looked away. “Off with you, boy, before I change my mind.”
Philip did not need to be told twice. With the flash of a smile at his uncle, he turned and fled the room.
John pushed his glasses back up his nose and studied the woman standing in front of him, a belligerent expression on her face.
“I regret to say, Mr Derringer, that if you persist in this foolish notion that the boy should not be punished for his misdemeanours, I can do nothing with him. I cannot control him, and I certainly cannot teach him anything.”
The muscles in John’s stomach tightened. He could predict what was coming. Miss Crewe was going to resign. Not this again. Not yet. He must try to prevent it.
“I’m not forbidding you to discipline the boy,” he said, in what he hoped was a diplomatic tone, “but I don’t want you to beat him. Perhaps you could try a different approach.”
Miss Crewe pursed her lips. “I think it’s time for you to try a different approach, Mr Derringer. Or a different governess. I’m tired of running around after a child who behaves more like a wild animal than a gentleman’s son. If your position remains unchanged, I’m afraid I must give my notice.”
“I can increase your wages,” John offered. But even as he said it, he knew it would not work.
“You do not appear to be hearing anything I am saying. I cannot be responsible for the child for another day. I wish you well in your search for someone who can control the little wretch without beating him—”
“You have said quite enough, Miss Crewe. You are dismissed.”
At last the governess saw she had overstepped the mark and colour flooded her cheeks. She turned on her heel and left the room without a backward glance.
John grimaced. He foresaw a tough week ahead. Last time this happened, the boy had upset John’s housekeeper, Mrs Partridge, several times a day. The woman did not care for children—a sentiment he had full sympathy with—and she had hinted more than once that it might be better to send the child to school. John could not deny the idea tempted him.
But Robert would not have wanted Philip to be sent away from home so young. In this, he would honour his dead brother’s wishes. He would have to risk his housekeeper’s displeasure by leaving the boy in her care again and pray he found a new governess before Mrs Partridge also handed in her notice.
At least tomorrow was Wednesday. On Wednesdays, they visited his parents in Bath, and it always did them good. His father encouraged him to keep trusting in God and his mother cheered Philip up. She always coaxed him—or, if he was honest, both of them—into a better frame of mind by the time they went home.
John would ask her for help as he had done before. He had full confidence in her ability to rustle up another governess at short notice. Though he was puzzled why he needed another new governess. Why couldn’t anyone manage his nephew? Philip behaved well enough for him. Rather sullen, but nothing worse.
“Such a lively lad. Just like his father,” Mr Bromley said.
John jumped. He had forgotten the man was still in the room.
Was Philip like his father? John failed to see much similarity between his morose nephew and his fun-loving younger sibling. How he wished he were still alive. Then he wouldn’t be in this mess.
What had possessed Robert to appoint him as the boy’s guardian? He had known John would squirm at the thought of having a child thrust on him, throwing his ordered existence into chaos. It would have made him laugh—but John doubted his brother would have appointed him guardian if he had foreseen the need for him to step into the role. It had been a foolish whim. Their married brother would have been the more logical choice.
Robert had been such a good father. John didn’t have a clue what to do with a child. How could he ever take his brother’s place in Philip’s life?