I'll never forget the day my life started to change. I was ten and four, and my uncle had come into the parlour to tell me that my parents had died in a carriage accident. I'm not certain who was more uncomfortable with that meeting, myself, for losing the people who gave me life and feeling nothing, or my uncle who obviously expected some show of grief, or perhaps he simply expected me to be younger, still a child. I think it shocked him to find me of an age to expect death, and to be waiting for marriage. I had been well-trained in what was expected of me, no longer the five year old hoyden he remembered from his last visit. Instead I took his news with quiet dignity, and called for tea. His discomfort was obvious, and he bolted from my home after assuring me that all would be well, and that I be well cared for.
I felt very little about my parent's death. A mild sadness perhaps, at the passing of a stranger in a sudden manner, for that is what it was. I knew my parent's names, had seen them around the house, knew that I had taken my looks from them, but nothing more. They ceased to acknowledge my existence shortly after I was born and it was discovered that I was not the heir they were hoping for, but a girl-child they did not want. Even my name was an afterthought. I am named for my father's favourite hunting hawk, the kestrel.
At my birth, a wet-nurse and nannies took the place of my mother, and governesses when I became of an age for schooling. I longed to be sent to a real school, but it was unthinkable to my parents to waste the money on my education since they had the whole of my life planned out for me. I remember railing at the fates for not giving me friends and other children to talk to, when in truth I would not have known how to deal with a friend anyway. My life was surrounded by adults, and I was expected to be a mature miniature countess, not a child who was allowed to play. When childishness took over, and I forgot my place, I would be tied with my back straight as a board to a hard chair and made to recite poetry. A willow branch prodded me into remembering all the correct lines.
At eight years of age, my parents showed the uncommon and unknowing kindness of engaging a governess who had a quick and intelligent mind. Who, in turn, recognized my own, and proceeded to teach me in all subjects, not just ladylike skills and dancing. Reading, writing, painting and sketching, even history lessons crowded my afternoons. I was careful, as was Miss Parish, not to let on that my education had become fuller, lest my parents dismiss her from service. Under her tutelage I learned that the world did not always ignore women, that some women were bold enough to take on their own lives, blithely ignoring scandal and disapproval.
Now that I am older I can look back at Miss Parish and wonder if she had a past that my parents and I were unaware of. The time she spent as my governess, however, was exemplary behaviour-wise. She was above reproach, and I'm sure she took great pains to stay well under my parents' notice. Miss Parish stayed with me for a full four years, and was dismissed when my parents deemed her another unnecessary expense. At twelve years of age, they decided I had learned all I was going to in ladylike arts, and it was time to groom me for the best possible marriage they could manage.
I was given to the housekeeper, yes, given is the correct term in this instance I think. Once given, my parents again forgot I existed and returned to their life elsewhere. I can only assume they returned to London and the gay life to be found there. The housekeeper was far from a kind soul, and took to her new duties, preparing me for a household of my own, with great relish. While my rank assured me of a housekeeper myself, she disdained my rank altogether and took delight in instructing me in the duties of a housemaid instead. Rather than learning to manage a home, I learned to clean one. And serve, and empty chamberpots, and cook. Every mistake, every burnt pasty, every missed spot of dust earned me a sharp cuff on the ear. For those two years I yearned for the return of Miss Parish and to the way it was before, but it was not to be.