I awoke that morning in the sleepy hours before sunrise. This was really happening, I was really going on a ship and sailing to Fraitessa and attending school for six months. This was happening. It still seem unreal. Our carriage ride to the coast was three hours. Mother slept on and off. Me? I was far too excited. The port was like a whirl, people going about their business, people not knowing what their business was and people sticking their noses into how other people were doing their business lead to a lot of shouting, but I noticed that when they saw us they at least shouted only using words I was supposed to know. Father made the time to see Mother and I settled into our cabin and then he was off, attending to whatever it was he attended to while mother and I straightened out what was to be our home for the next fortnight. Yes, my great sea voyage was only to be two weeks, but I was still excited.
At 8am we set sail. I stood and watched the Highlands slip away.
“Goodbye.” I said. “I’ll see you again in half a year!”
The voyage was calm but mother still found a way to feel seasick and so I enjoyed having the run of the ship. Within the first week I’d been everywhere from the crows nest (that only took me half a day of wheedling one of the lookout boys) to the galley. I mixed with the sort of people I’d never really talked to before in my life— if you don’t count servants— and they pandered on my every whim. The most eventful happening during the voyage was my ninth birthday. Father held a proper party for me with mother and the officers and I stayed up celebrating after mother had retired. I was on my way back to our cabin when I heard:
“Psssst! Bobbie!” I turned my head and saw Jim, the ship’s boy, beckoning me over to the starboard side of the ship.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Come with me, I’ve got a surprise!” I followed him. Despite the vast differences between us, Jim and I were of an age and had instantly got along very well.
“Where are we going?” I asked as he led me into a dark room.
Suddenly the lanterns were unshielded and I was facing my second birthday cake of the day!
“We couldn’t let those fancy officers be the only ones to throw you a party!
“Happy birthday to our favorite captain’s daughter!” Stanley, the one who’d taken me up to the crow’s nest, yelled. We had a fine time.
The cake wasn’t anything as grand as the cake I’d just enjoyed in the officer’s dining room but I enjoyed it all the more knowing the men had given up some of their rations for it. It was a real treat.
Two weeks after we left we arrived in Fraitessa and the first thing that greeted me was a busy, noisy port. I made my way with my mother and father past the sailors and the fish mongers and into the city itself.
Here it was no less busy, though much more refined. Ladies in beautiful clothes walked the paths, splendid carriages pulled by even more splendid horses rattled along the streets. The smells of warm bread wafted out of a bakery and my nose could smell the sweet scent that accompanies a street sweet vendor. The colours. The sounds. The smells. All were an assault on my senses. Before I could begin to take them in we standing in front of a beautiful house.
I paused at the gate. I had a strange impulse to run, like I was walking into a prison. I shook my self. I took a deep breath and with some good old Highland courage I took my first steps onto the grounds of my new school.
Up the path and past the garden. Could it be called a garden? There were no flowers yet— rather strange for spring when in the highlands flowers were bursting free wherever they could. I almost made it up the stairs when I paused on the very top step. I looked back the way we had come, even though I knew there was no hope of return now. Not for another six months
“Alright darling?” Mother asked.
“Yeah… I was thinking… it’s just I look like I’ve just stepped of a ship.”
“Well you HAVE just stepped of a ship.” Father said in the way only a clueless male could say.
“Oh sush!” Mother said to him.
“Do you think I ought to have changed?” I asked her.
“Sweetheart, I’m still in my suit, how do I look?”
“You look beautiful!” I told her.
“Well, there you go then, you look beautiful too. Don’t you fret, the girls here wouldn’t worry about that anyway. They might even think it is exciting to have their new classmate come from so far away!”
I smiled. Mother was the most wonderful woman in the whole world. Just then my ears heard a clattering of footsteps then the front door opened.
“Goodness, you’re here, it is you, isn’t it?” The speaker was a Highlands girl who looked to be a housemaid.
“The Hiltons, here with young Roberta.” Father said with a slight smile.
“Yes, that’s who I though you were Sir! Lady D’Winter is with Mrs Roberts, that’s the cook, right now, but if you follow me she shan’t be too long.” The girl ushered us inside and began making her way down the hallway. “Leave your bags by the door please, our lad Tomas will fetch them up.
“What’s your name?” I asked her, taking a skip to keep up. “And are you the parlourmaid?” I asked, not quite sure of her position now that she was to be showing us into a room.
“Gladys Miss.” Said she, “and well, sort-of. In the mornings I’m housemaid and do for you girls upstairs too, in the afternoons I’m Parlourmaid, well, that’s what’s on paper, mostly I just do what’s needed. We had a Parlourmaid but she found another position, and Lady D’Winter didn’t think it warranted having another one so we are getting another housemaid instead and I’ll do a bit of both.”
“Are there any other Highland girls here?” I asked, pleased that Gladys was the chatty sort. I liked the chatty sort. “Amongst the students, I mean.”
“No Miss, ah, but don’t fret, we are quite multi-cultural here! We have one girl all the way from Fredonia!”
“Through here please.” Gladys ushered us into a rich parlour and indicated that we should take a seat. “Her Ladyship won’t be too much longer.” She said then was off.
Gladys was true to her word because it wasn’t long before an elegant figure swept into the room. I leapt to my feet and took in a tall lady in partial mourning.
“Ah, Captain and Mrs Hilton!” She said. “And this must be young Miss Hilton. How do you do?” She asked me.
“How do you do Lady D’Winter.” I replied, bobbing a small curtsey.
“Please sit down.” She said. We all did so. “Would you care for some refreshments?” she asked.
“That would be lovely, thank you.” Mother said. Lady D’Winter rang a bell.
“So I understand that you are one of our Alumni, Mrs Hilton.”
“Yes, I attended in the days of Lady Saffron, and if I do say so myself my years here were amongst the happiest of my life.”
“How kind of you! I am sure that at the end of her time here Miss Hilton will be able to look back and say the same.”
I wasn’t sure if an answer from me was expected here, but fortunately I was saved by the door opening a little too swiftly and a harried young girl entering the room.
“If you please, Madam, Gladys couldn’t come, one of the young misses—”
“I only sent for some tea, Dorcus.”
“Oh, yes your Ladyship.”
Here the girl paused. “Um, excuse me madam, if you please your ladyship…”
“Does tea mean just the drink tea, or morning tea proper or…”
“Just a pot of tea if you please, and something simple and sweet to go with it would be lovely”
“Just pass that on to Mrs Roberts, she can give you what’s required.”
“Oh, yes, of course, thank you Madam, I mean your ladyship, I mean… thank you!”
With that the girl rushed out of the room and I suppressed a giggle.
“You must forgive young Dorcus.” Lady D’Winter said apologetically to my parents. “She is new and I fear the task of answering a call for tea may be above her for a little while yet. Still she is from a farming family and I find those girls prove honest and hard workers. I do like to take the chance to give these girls a good start in life, if I have to put up with a few blunders it is well worth it if I can advance their skills, I always say. Don’t you agree?”
“Oh, absolutely!” Mother said. “A kind and understanding employer is so important.”
She and mother exchanged chit-chat for a little bit while I sat there feeling a little uncomfortable and overlooked. Tea was soon brought in by Gladys and I was pleased for I would have hated to see Dorcus drop the tea tray or something dreadful.
“The shortbread was made just yesterday.” She said to me as she placed the tray on the table. “Mrs Roberts thought it might be nice for you to have a little taste of home.”
“Oh, do say thank you to her from me!”
“I will.” Gladys said with a smile.
“Thank you Gladys.” Lady D’Winter said
“Yes your ladyship.” Gladys gave a curtsy then left quietly.
Lady D’Winter waited until we had begun on our tea before speaking again.
“I trust that you had no problems with the instructions I sent to you?” She asked.
“No.” My mother answered. “It was all clear, darling Bobbie has everything required.”
I thought of the suitcase of Navy, black and white clothing that sat out in the hallway. A certain amount of liberty was allowed to be taken with the uniform, but we all had to use the same dress patterns and we had to stay within the limited colour pallet of the school colours. I hoped that at the end of six months I wasn’t sick of navy but I feared I might be!
“Excellent. As discussed in our correspondence, the fees cover the full year–”
“A year! I thought I was only here for six months!” I looked from Mother to Father then back to Lady D’Winter. Lady D’Winter must have just gotten it wrong, my parents wouldn’t pull a switch on me now… would they? Or could it be that was the “surprise” father had for me on my return, another six months here? I tried desperately to quell the churning in my stomach.