Elizabeth weaved quickly through the room, searching for a board member not already engaged in conversation. She finally spotted Mr. Wilhem standing beside a window and surveying the crowd. Perfect.
“Elizabeth. Don’t you look becoming this evening.” Mr. Wilhem swirled the wine in his glass as she approached.
“Thank you, sir. You’re looking rather fine yourself.”
The middle-aged man chuckled, his bushy black-and-gray-specked eyebrows rising. “Come now, child. There’s no need to flatter an old man’s vanity.”
Child. The word struck her in the stomach. He didn’t think her that young, did he? But then, he’d known her since she was a little girl. “I wanted to let you know how much the students at the academy are enjoying their studies this year.”
Mr. Wilhem patted her on the shoulder, much like a grandfather would. “Are they now? Always a pleasure to hear students are excited about learning. Though I must admit, I’m a little concerned about those newspaper articles, both the editorial you wrote and the one the reporter penned in response. Did Miss Bowen tell you—”
“Samuel, there you are.”
Elizabeth turned as Mr. Taviston, the head of the school board, approached.
“Good evening, Charles.” Mr. Wilhem extended his hand to Mr. Taviston. “Miss Wells and I were just discussing Hayes Academy. It seems the students are enjoying their studies.”
A thick, wooly sensation wrapped itself around her tongue. She hadn’t anticipated any trouble discussing the benefits of keeping the academy open with an old family friend. But the head of the board of directors?
Mr. Taviston watched her like a fox would a rabbit.
“Thank you for allowing the school to stay open,” she managed. “The students are doing quite well, and I’ve spent time working on the books this weekend, looking for ways to allow the school to function on a reduced budget.”
Mr. Wilhem smiled, but Mr. Taviston ran his gaze slowly down her body, his eyes observing every subtlety of her blue silk gown. A flame she couldn’t stop started at the base of her neck and licked onto her face.
“I don’t understand how students being happy will help the school to stay open, Miss Wells. But I’m very interested to see your brother’s report in another week. I doubt we’ve enough money to keep the school running for the remainder of the year.”
“Of course we’ll be able to keep things running.” Her voice sounded overly bright, even to her. “We’ll find a way.”
“Are you aware how many letters board members have received from the public since those articles appeared? I’ve gotten over a dozen myself from people imploring us to find better use for our funds. It seems the people of the Albany area are very much of the opinion that young women should marry and have children, not fill their heads with calculus formulas and astronomical charts, which any good mother would find rather useless, wouldn’t you agree?”
If he thought education useless, why was the man on the board of directors? But she knew the answer. He thought educating women useless, but not men. And he was a businessman who would invest in a girls’ school if he saw the potential for immediate profit. If the profit disappeared, so did any vision for the school.
“No, I wouldn’t agree,” she mumbled.
“Well, it certainly seems to be in the best interest of both our banking accounts and society as a whole to close Hayes Academy.”
“Of course we should close it. Was there any doubt after the meeting a couple nights ago?”
Elizabeth nearly cringed at the familiar blustery voice. Father wedged himself between her and Mr. Taviston, his wide shoulders and thick middle forcing her to take a step back. “Good evening, Father.”
“Daughter, you’re not discussing business with these gentlemen, are you?”
If a school banquet wasn’t an appropriate time for her to discuss school business, when was? “Just Hayes Academy, where I happen to teach.”
“I’m sorry to say we must close it, dear. The public is simply outraged after the appearance of that reporter’s article, which you encouraged by that ridiculous editorial you wrote. Have you any notion how furious your mother was when she saw what you’d penned? It isn’t appropriate for a lady like yourself to express your opinions in such a public way.” He spoke the words without so much as a glance her direction.
“Well said,” Taviston interjected.
“You’re aware you should have gotten consent from the school board before you published such a thing, aren’t you?” Mr. Wilhem patted her shoulder again.