This is my second Charles in two weeks and I wasn't predisposed to like the first. I am happy report that this Charles is a fish of a different flavor.
Cordelia Gibson, 26, might be thinking to herself that reforming the savages in her charge is beyond her abilities. Her 15-year-old step-sister is a lost cause, as well as her 12-year-old step-brother. The 6-year-old twins, however, she has had the unpaid privilege of upbringing since their birth so her influence ought to have wrought some changes. Sadly, she's had a front row seat as she's watched Nature take Nurture out to the woodpile and kick its can.
It is time to leave.
She gets a job as a temporary governess to Eileen, a girl described as 'spoilt', while Eileen's grandmother takes a break. She's had the spoilt darling while her parents were (get this) in South America for two years. (Don't they know that South America means death and gigolos?) Two years. These people left their daughter with grandma for two years and took off. Cordelia is to travel with her to Vienna where Uncle Charles (a middle-aged bachelor) will take over for the remaining 6 weeks of Mum and Dad's South American vacation........two years.
Uncle Charles has the good taste to be nothing like Cordelia's expectations. She notices that he's neither presbyopic nor balding nor rumpled. He's an anesthetist and in the land of Neels that probably means that he's loaded and gorgeous and developed really, really hot hand-eye coordination while fiddling with all those valves.
Dr. Charles Trescombe does not return the favor by noticing her Ninja-like stealth, her disarming smile or the way she handles Eileen like a pair of smooth oak nun chucks. 'By all means let her stay,' he sounded bored, '...I can't say I have felt much interest--a rather dull girl, I should have thought, with no looks to speak of.' That's going to leave a mark. Cordelia, walking toward the room with Eileen, overhears all and probably wishes she hadn't packed her bow staff so deeply in her luggage. Charles would do well with a sharp thump on the head.
In one word the Great Neels gives us the whole picture of the painful episode. '...her gentle mouth was half open.'
But if Cordelia's hurt she is also philosophical. Uncle Charles doesn't like her very well but she doesn't much like him either. He is at least better than her step-mother. Over the next few weeks she sees him as a crusty, taciturn hermit, wedded to his work and '"...such a waste, if you see what I mean." And Eileen, a precocious child, saw.'
Editorial note: Though this part of the book isn't filled with much action (aside from copious trips to points of Viennese historical import) it is littered generously with clever and delightful lines like, 'Heaven is a cucumber sandwich.', 'He was as dull as his books and there was absolutely no need for it.', and 'He's got a girlfriend,' hissed Eileen, 'I thought he only read books.'
Someone once said, '...the gate of history turns on small hinges, and so do people's lives.' Eileen's rupturing appendix is a small hinge indeed.
Cordelia rushes her to the hospital and is told to wait. She does what she's told (so refreshing in the world of the romance novel when young ladies eschew sensible advice to their mortal peril with monotonous regularity.) and is forgotten for her pains. The following day, when Charles gives her a small commendation for being 'sensible' in her treatment of Eileen she finally blows her top and gives him the sharp edge of her tongue.
'Well, well, not dull at all and quite an eyeful when she's in a temper. I am surprised, Cordelia.' 'Let go of me, you--bookworm...'
Well of course he's got to kiss her for that.
This is the moment of his own dawning realization. She's been an undemanding and uncomplaining occupant of his household for weeks and now he's got to wage a land war against her unwilling heart.
Only it's not unwilling. Her own dawning realization sneaked up and tapped her on the shoulder while she wasn't looking.
Clear sailing, right? Wrong. The little black raincloud on the horizon is a matchmaking Eileen (who really is a dear) and the oily Dr. Julius...Salfinger. (But pretty please call him Dr. Julius as there is so much more fun there.)
Eileen (still in hospital) notices that her beloved Cordelia has nobody to talk to and no one to take her out. She arranges a meeting and Dr. J takes it from there.
Upon her return from a lunch date she didn't want in the first place, Charles is stung (by a big fat bumblebee of jealousy) into warning her away from him. 'You're not at all his cup of tea.'
Dear me. I need to flip through my Tormented Doctor/Penniless Governess Dictionary:
He meant: You're my cup of tea. Mine, mine, mine!
She heard: I hope when you are a very old woman you will unfold the memory of this one shining day when you got to lunch with a real live doctor as this singular event will never occur again in your lifetime.
When she rebukes him for rudeness I picture him in a pair of 70s era NBA shorts (the creepily short ones) holding out his hands, waiting for a ball as the play continues around him. Courtship is going to be more difficult than he supposed.
He does make up some ground by inviting her to a fun fair (yes, an actual fun fair!) but offers the charming caveat, 'Somehow I don't think it's quite your taste, Cordelia. A visit to look round, perhaps--you should have a country garden for a background...Liberty prints and your hair hanging down your back.' (Don't stare at the unresolved sexual tension. It's rude.)
That doesn't prevent him from winning her a stuffed toy and making what amounts to a move in a too-crowded bumper car.
But his is a Sisyphean task--inching ever closer to the summit and losing ground abruptly. Eileen returns home from the hospital and crossover characters Eugenia and Gerard (from Heidelberg Wedding) visit from England. Eugenia and Eileen go shopping with a cost-conscious Cordelia in pursuit of a dress--neither of whom 'considered privately that there was [any]thing they would wish to be seen dead in for that amount'. But they secure a new dress in shrimp pink which I'm going to call fine.
Charles is quick to pick up any opportunity that comes his way and asks her to dinner. She has a gorgeous time but won't call him Charles. 'It wouldn't do at all.' He sighed. 'Life is never going to be the same again,' he observed...and kissed her swiftly.
Uncle Charles is not letting the grass grow but the plot is wrinkling like a linen suit on a Summer day. His sister Sal (Yes, you heard right. Sal.) is returning from South America (where she has been living it up for two years while other people spoil/raise her child). It is Cordelia's unhappy luck that Charles, driving through the city on the way from the airport with his sister, sees what he thinks is an assignation between Cordelia and Doctor Julius. It is nothing of the sort. It is what the odious doctor describes later as her delivering 'the snub of his young life'.
There isn't enough time to clear matters up and too many people around to do it properly anyway. At the end of two days she is walking through the gates at the airport accompanying Eileen and her family on her way to England.
Sal (I readily admit that she would be a delightful dinner companion but makes a horrible relative and a worse employer.) has failed to mention to Cordelia that her job is coming to a rapid end. (I'm so glad you're going back to the bosom of your happy home so I don't have to feel icky about not giving you notice. Disappointed people always make me feel icky.) And so, within hours of coming to London, she finds herself like some unnoticed parcel left behind on a train platform alone to fend for herself.
Squashed up against a stout matron and a 'weedy young man' on a bus, Cordelia contemplates her future and becomes a statistic in the local crime rate. (I am betting it was the matron.) She is not exactly penniless but close to it and manages to make her way into a seedy part of town where the rent on a dreary bedsitter will make catastrophic inroads on her savings. Getting her name on the books of Mrs. Sharp's employment agency will further deplete her pounds and pence.
Charles, meanwhile, is combing the city for her.
He only made it one day without her before informing his servants (Thompson and Mrs. Thompson) that they have to get back to London sooner. In the course of his superlative search for her (seriously awesome) he tells Thompson, Mrs. Thompson, his mother, Cordelia's old Cook, and Mrs. Sharp about his marital plans.
When he finally tracks her to that drab bedsit (enjoying the lies he has to tell Mrs. Sharp to get Cordelia's address enormously) they have a reunion to cap all reunions and she becomes satisfyingly proprietorial: 'I love you more than I can say.' She put her arms around his neck and kissed him gently. 'Later on you shall tell me how you found me--'
Rating: I remember loving this one and that's always a difficult hurdle to clear but this one did it. It started great (What's better than an evil step-mother? Soulless twins, that's what.) and then there's a lot of travelogue (which is more interesting than a lot of them but still, we're inspecting a lot of imperial silver, if you know what I mean.). Vienna comes in two parts (The avoid-Charles-at-all-costs part wherein the principles meet at breakfast--and the battle of the dueling dawning realizations part) and I like the second way better.
Eileen is such a fun part of the book--she's precocious, that one.
And the finish is a magnificent tour de force for Betty who sometimes gave us only a page and a half of wrap-up. Charles gets to fret about losing Cordelia, lose sleep, find out more about her past (and thus about her)...they spend a lot of time talking and not talking. Great, great end.
Boeuf en Croute but a really, really well made one.
Food: Cordelia enjoys sandwiches in a lay-by, lobster soup, filleted trout, boeuf en croute, Gentleman's Relish, buttered toast, ham sandwiches, madiera cake, the kind of picnic food found in glossy magazines (where immaculate children are frolicking happily around the assorted picnickers, no doubt), cold watercress soup, chicken vol-au-vents (I owe my knowledge of this word entirely to Betty.), smoked duck stuffed with cherries, lobster patties, aubergines in butter, sorbet, ices, fairy cakes, roast duck with black cherries (wait. Didn't I just say that?), and smoked salmon.
Fashion: Cordelia wore knitted sweaters, 'wearing clothes [the cook] wouldn't give to the jumble', a silk jersey dress 'for social occasions', a 'finely pleated crepe skirt in a pleasing' shade of plum (Is there a pleasing shade of plum?), and a shrimp pink crepe number. Eileen gets to not wear a rainbow hued cat suit and does get to wear denim trousers and a cotton top.