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A School for Unusual Girls: A Stranje House Novel


London, April 17, 1814

“What if Sir Isaac Newton’s parents had packed him off to a school to reform his manners?” I smoothed my traveling skirts and risked a glance at my parents. They sat across from me, stone-faced and icy as the millpond in winter. Father did not so much as blink in my direction. But then, he seldom did. I tried again. “And if the rumors are true, not just any school—a prison.”

“Do be quiet, Georgiana.” With fingers gloved in mourning black, my mother massaged her forehead.

Our coach slowed and rolled to a complete standstill, waylaid by crowds spilling into Bishopsgate Street. All of London celebrated Napoleon’s abdication of the French throne and his imprisonment on the isle of Elba. Rich and poor danced in the streets, raising tankards of ale, belting out military songs, roasting bread and cheese over makeshift fires. Each loud toast, every bellowed stanza, even the smell of feasting sickened me and reopened wounds of grief for the brother I’d lost two years ago in this wretched war. Their jubilation made my journey into exile all the more dismal.

Father cursed our snail-like progress through town and drummed impatient fingers against his thigh. We’d been traveling from our estate in Middlesex, north of London, since early morning. Mother closed her eyes as if in slumber, a ploy to evade my petitions. She couldn’t possibly be sleeping, not while holding her spine in such an erect fashion. She refused herself the luxury of leaning back against the seat for fear of crumpling the feathers on her bonnet.

Somehow, some way, I had to convince them to turn back. “You do realize this journey is a needless expense. I have no more use for a schoolroom. I’m sixteen, and since I have already been out in society—”

Mother snapped to attention. “Oh, yes, Georgiana, I’m well aware of the fact that you have already been out in society. Indeed, I shall never forget Lady Frampton’s card party.”

I sighed, knowing exactly what she would say next.

“You cheated.”

“I didn’t. It was a simple matter of mathematics,” I explained for the fortieth time. “I merely kept track of the number of cards played in each suit. How else did you expect me to win?”

“I did not expect you to win,” she said in clipped tones. The feathers on her bonnet quivered as she clenched her jaw before continuing. “I expected you to behave like a proper young lady, not a seasoned gambler.”

“Counting cards isn’t considered cheating,” I said quietly.

“It is when you win at every hand.” She glared at me and even in the dim light of the carriage I noted a rise in her color. “And now, given your latest debacle—” She stopped. Her gaze flicked sideways to my father, gauging his expression. I would’ve thought it impossible for him to turn any stonier, but he did. Her voice knotted so tight she practically hissed,“I doubt I shall ever be allowed to show my face in Lady Frampton’s company again, or for that matter in polite society anywhere.”

Trumped. She’d slapped down the Queen of Ruination card, Georgiana Fitzwilliam, the destroyer. I drew back the curtain and stared out the window. A man with a drunken grin tipped his hat and waved a gin bottle, as if inviting us to join the celebration. He tugged a charwoman into a riotous jig and twirled away.

Lucky fellow.

“Bothersome peasants.” My mother huffed and adjusted the cuff of her traveling coat. Peasant was her favorite condemnation. She followed it with a haughty sniff, as if breathing peasant air made her nose itch. A roar of laughter rocked the crowd outside entertained by a man on stilts dressed as General Wellington kicking a straw dummy of Napoleon.

“Confound it.” Father grumbled and consulted his pocket watch. “At this pace we won’t get there ’til dark. All this ruckus over that pompous little Corsican. Fools. Anyone with any sense knows Bonaparte was done for a month ago.”

Without weighing the consequences, I spoke my fears aloud. “One can never be certain with Napoleon, can they? He may have abdicated the throne, but he kept his title.”

Emperor. Bah! Devil take him. Emperor of what? The sticks and stones on Elba.” Father bristled and puffed up as if he might explode. “General Wellington should’ve shot the blighter when he had the chance. Bonaparte is too arrogant by half. The man doesn’t know when to give up. Let that be a lesson to you, Georgie.” He shook a finger at me as if I were in league with the infamous Emperor. “Know when to give up, young lady. If you did, we wouldn’t be stuck here in the middle of all this rabble waiting to get across London Bridge.”

Never mind that during the last ten years Napoleon Bonaparte had embroiled all of Europe in a terrible war—today I was the villain.

But I forgave my father’s burst of temper and heartily wished I’d kept my mouth shut. His anger was understandable. My brother Robert died in a skirmish with Napoleon’s troops shortly before the Battle of Salamanca. Reminders of the war surrounded us. Perhaps if we had been the ones burning Napoleon in effigy it would have been liberating. Although it had been more than two years, each redcoat soldier who sauntered past, each raucous guffaw jarred our coach as if we’d been blasted by the same cannonball that killed Robbie. 

 My father would never admit to a weakness such as grief. I didn’t have that luxury. Gravity could not explain the weight that crushed my chest whenever I thought of Robbie’s death. He had been the best and kindest of my brothers. We were closest in age. I hardly knew my two oldest brothers; they’d been away at Cambridge and had no interest in making my acquaintance. Robbie, alone, had genuinely liked me. He never looked at me as if I was an ugly mouse that had crawled out from under the rug. I missed how he would scruff my unruly red hair and challenge me to a chess game, or tell me about books he’d read, or places he’d visited.

Napoleon stole him from us.

If we’d been home, Father would’ve stomped out of the house and gone hunting with his beloved hounds. Some hapless hare would’ve paid the price of his wrath. Instead, this laborious journey to haul me off to Stranje House kept him pinned up with painful reminders. Unfortunately, Napoleon wasn’t present to shoulder his share of the blame. Father furrowed his great hairy eyebrows at me, the troublesome runt in his litter.

If only I’d had the good grace to be born a boy. What use is a daughter? How many times had I heard him ask this? And answer. Useless baggage. Three sons had been sufficient. Even after Robbie’s death, Father still had his heir and a spare. I was simply a nuisance, a miscalculation.

The leather seats creaked as I shifted under his condemning frown. He’d never bestowed upon me more than a passing interest. Until now. Now, I’d finally done something to merit his attention. Not as I’d hoped, not as I’d wished, but I had finally won his notice. He squinted at me as if I was the cause of all this uproar.

I swallowed hard. “We could turn back and make the journey another day.”

My father growled in response and thumped the ceiling with his walking stick alerting our coachman. “Blast it all, man! Get this rig rolling.”

“Make way,” the coachman shouted at the throng and cracked his whip. Our coach lumbered slowly forward. With each turn of the wheel, my hope of a reprieve sank lower and lower. Before we crossed the bridge, I took one last look at the crowds milling on boardwalks and cobblestones, reveling and jostling one another. One last glimpse of freedom as I sat confined in gloomy silence on my way to be imprisoned at Stranje House and beaten into submission.

 With a weary huff my mother exhaled. “For heaven’s sake, Georgiana, stop gawking at the rabble and sit up like a proper young lady.”

I straightened, prepared to sit this way forever if she would reconsider. She sniffed and pretended to sleep again.

We passed the outskirts of London with the sun high above us, a dull brass coin unable to burn through the thick haze of coal soot and smoke that hung over the city. We traveled the south for hours, stopping only once at a posting inn in Tunbridge Wells to change the horses and eat. As evening approached, the sky turned a mournful gray and the faded pink horizon reminded me of dead roses. Except for Father’s occasional snoring, we traveled in stiff, suffocating silence. Two hours past nightfall, we turned off the macadam road onto a bumpy gravel drive and stopped.

Sliding down the window glass, I leaned out to have a closer look and inhaled the sharp salty tang of sea air. The coachman clambered down and opened a creaking iron gate. A rusty placard proclaimed the old manor as stranje house, but I knew better. This wasn’t a house. Or a school.

This was to be my cage.

“It must be well after eight. Surely, it’s too late to impose upon them tonight. We could stop at an inn and come back tomorrow.”

Father hoisted his jaw to an implacable angle. “No. Best to get it over and done with tonight.”

“The headmistress is expecting us.” Mother straightened her bonnet and sat with even greater dignity.

Our coachman coaxed the team through the entrance and clanged the gate shut behind us. The horses shied at the sound of barking in the distance, not normal barking—howls and yips. Seconds later, dogs raced from the shadows. It might have been two, two dozen, or two hundred. Impossible to tell. They seemed to be everywhere at once, silent except for their ferocious breathing. One of them pounced at the coachman’s boot as he scrambled to his perch.

I jerked back from my window as one of the creatures leaped up against the coach door. Black as night, except for yellow eyes and moon-white teeth, the monstrous animal peered in at me as if curious. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move, could do naught but stare back. Our coachman swore, cracked his whip, and the horses sprang forward. The beast’s massive paws slipped from my window. With a sharp yip, he fell away from the coach. These were no ordinary dogs.

“Wolves.” I slammed the window glass up and secured the latch.

“Nonsense,” my mother said, but scooted farther from the door. “Everyone knows there are no more wolves in England. They were all killed off during King Henry’s reign.”

“Might’ve missed one or two,” my father muttered, peering out his window at our shadowy entourage.

Whatever they were, these black demons would devour us the minute we stepped out of the coach. “Turn back. Please. I don’t need this school.” I hated the fear creeping into my voice.

Mother laced her fingers primly in her lap and glanced away. I cast my pride to the wind and bleated like a lamb before slaughter. “I’ll do exactly as you ask. I promise. Best manners. Everything. I’ll even intentionally lose at cards. I give you my word.”

They paid me no heed.

Stranje House loomed larger by the second. Our coach bumped along faster than it had all day, the coachman ran the team full out in an effort to outpace the wolves. My heart galloped along with the horses. Faster and faster we rumbled up the drive, until the speed of it made me sick to my stomach.

The sprawling Elizabethan manor crouched on scraggily unkempt grounds. Dead trees stood among the living, stripped of bark by the salt air they stretched white skeletal hands toward the dark sky. The roof formed a black silhouette against the waning moonlight. Sharp peaks jutted up like jagged scales on a dragon’s back. Fog and mist blew up from the sea and swirled around the boney beast.

Gripping the seat, I turned to my parents. “You can’t mean to leave me in this decrepit old mausoleum? You can’t.” They refused to meet my frantic gaze. “Father?”

“Hound’s tooth, Georgie! Leave off.”

My heart banged against my ribs like a trapped bat. No reprieve. No pardon. No mercy.

Where could I turn for help? If Robbie were alive, he wouldn’t let them do this. My stuffy older brothers would applaud locking me away. Geoffrey, the oldest, had written to say, “She’s an embarrassment to the family. About time she was taught some manners.” I doubt Edward remembers I even exist. Thus, I would be banished to this bleak heap of stones, this monstrous cage surrounded by hellhounds.

All too soon, the coach rolled to a stop in front of the dragon’s dark gaping mouth. I couldn’t breathe. I wanted to scream, to shriek like a cat being thrown into a river to drown.

Only I didn’t. I sank back against the seat and gasped for air.

From my window, I watched as an elderly butler with all the warmth of a grave digger emerged from the house and issued a sharp staccato whistle. The wolves immediately took off and ran to the trees at the edge of the old house. But I saw them pacing, watching us hungrily from the shadows.

To my dismay, our coach door opened and a footman lowered the steps. I hung back as long as possible. My parents were almost to the house when, on wobbly legs, I climbed out and followed them inside, past the grizzled butler, and up a wooden staircase. Every step carried me further from my home, further from freedom. Each riser seemed taller than the last, harder to climb, and my feet heavier, until at last the silent butler ushered us into the headmistress’s cramped, dimly lit study.

We sat before her enormous desk on small uncomfortable chairs, my parents in the forefront, me in the back. Towering bookshelves lined the walls. More books sat in haphazard piles on the floor, stacked like druid burial stones.

Concentrating on anything, except my fate, I focused on the titles of books piled nearest my chair. A translation of Beowulf lay atop a collection of John Donne’s sermons, a human anatomy book, and Lord Byron’s scandalous vampire tale, The Giaour. A most unsettling assortment. I stopped reading and could scarcely keep from biting my lip to the point of drawing blood.

The headmistress, Miss Emma Stranje, sat behind her desk, mute, assessing me with unsettling hawk eyes. In the flickering light of the oil lamp, I couldn’t tell her age. She looked youthful one minute, and ancient the next. She might’ve been pretty once, if it weren’t for her shrewd measuring expression. She’d pulled her wavy brown hair back into a severe chignon knot, but stray wisps escaped their moorings giving her a feral catlike appearance.

I tried not to cower under her predatory gaze. If this woman intended to be my jailer, I needed to stand my ground now or I would never fight my way out from under her thumb.

A School for Unusual Girls: A Stranje House Novel
(Stranje House #1)
by by Kathleen Baldwin

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Tor Teen
  • ISBN-10: 0765376016
  • ISBN-13: 9780765376015