SPOILER ALERT: The following is a bonus epilogue for Her Perfect Earl, my July ’05 Signet Regency. It deals with what happens to the children, so if you can’t stand the thought of seeing that far into the future, don’t read it!
Lady Kimberwick, the renowned adventuress, sat on the dais in the primly proper fashion of the age, though the heels of her slippers drummed the legs of her chair. If left to the chaplain of Athena Hall, the dedication ceremony would take the better part of the morning, she was sure. The students appeared to advantage in their white dresses, though how they could bear the horsehair bustles strapped to their backsides was beyond her. She longed for the days of her childhood when women had dressed sensibly in long, draped gowns. Today, the dreaded corset was her one concession to fashion. The moment she returned to her room she would divest herself of it. After seventy years of flouting society’s conventions, she saw no cause to stop at this juncture.
Her older brother James, the fourth Earl of Ashforth, stood at the podium. His regal bearing, tall and straight despite his advanced years, reminded her so much of her father. For a moment tears threatened.
“Today, it is our privilege to witness a changing of the guard. Athena Hall is no more.” James paused, and then taking pen in hand, he signed his name on a paper that rested on the podium. “This was my stepmother’s greatest dream, that her simple school might someday become an institution of higher learning. It is with profound satisfaction I declare Athena College is hereby founded on this eleventh day of July, the year of our Lord eighteen hundred eighty.”
A cheer went up from the fifty young ladies seated in rows before him.
“At the urging of my sister, Lady Kimberwick, we will apply forthwith to Oxford University for recognition as a college so that our students may have all the privileges thereof.”
A second cheer went up, and Caroline smiled. She knew the university would not admit the new female college in her lifetime, but she would never say so to the young ladies seated before her. With persistence, their daughters or granddaughters would one day be granted privileges as students within the university. She wondered if Esmie had known it might take over a hundred years to see her dream come true.
James finished his remarks and returned to his seat, nodding to Caroline. She rose and moved to the podium, her cane steadying her step. Fifty eager, smiling faces stared back at her and she wished Esmie might have been here today to mark this moment.
“To honor this great occasion, it is my pleasure to make a bequest to the college. For many years, I have been asked what I plan to do with the treasures I have collected from the four corners of the earth.” She paused, thinking of the boxes and trunks that had been paraded out of storage that morning onto ox carts. She had personally supervised the transporting of her life’s work to their new home. “In honor of my stepmother, Esmerelda, Countess of Ashforth, I bring what I have acquired of the world, and today I lay it at your feet as a gift to the permanent collection of Athena College.”
Statuary from Rome and Greece. Papyri from Egypt and the Levant. Gold-leafed icons from Constantinople. She had spent her life bringing the classical world Esmie loved to her stepmother’s doorstep, and now those treasures would be studied by a new generation of young women who might be inspired to go out into the world, just as she had been inspired by her stepmother.
The students were buzzing, and the faculty, seated to her right, looked pleased as well.
Her remarks completed, Caroline returned to her chair feeling a bit dizzy. She could sense the end of her days approaching, but it did not distress her. She had been given the greatest possession of all when Esmie had opened the world to her. If she, in turn, could do the same for other girls, hers would have been a life well spent.
A new era for women dawned. She regretted she would not live to see more of it, and she wondered if young ladies, a hundred years from today, would know of the women like her stepmother, women whose efforts on their behalf would never be found in any history books. Perhaps she, Caroline, should write it all down. Hmm. There might be time enough left for that.
The chaplain of the college concluded the ceremony with a prayer, and the girls rose from their seats to find the tea table. James crossed the dais and sat beside her.
“Twas generous of you, Caroline.” He eyed her with concern, his dark eyes still youthful despite the thick grey of his hair. “You are tired. Shall we retire?”
“Of course I am tired, James. I have just given away all my worldly possessions. ‘Tis a wearying task.” She tried to keep her expression sober, but she was sure there was a twinkle in her eye.
“Indeed.” James looked at her suspiciously.
“At my age, I should like one small comfort.”
“Yes?” His eyes narrowed. “And what might that be?”
“A cat. I should very much like a cat.”
James laughed. “In the stables, Caroline, not in the house.”
She smiled at him, glad that even at the advanced age of seventy she would always be his younger sister. “Of course, James. You do not think I would smuggle the creature into the house, do you?”
Her brother only laughed louder, until several of the young ladies turned toward them, bemused at what the elderly pair might find so amusing. Caroline took James arm, and their promises to Esmie fulfilled, they descended the stairs of the dais.