The woman made a shushing sound and cut her gaze toward him, her cheeks pale.
Luke looked away and surveyed the other workers in his grandpa’s employ. No, not Grandpa’s employ, his employ. “I know you all worked hard for my grandfather, Jonah Hayes, and I appreciate that. As most of you are aware, some changes need to be made. The estate is being put up for sale, and I will not be staying long in Valley Falls. I’m sure whoever buys this home will want to hire his own staff, so I...”
The words crusted in his mouth. Confound it. He couldn’t do this. He’d planned to only keep on six of them and give the rest two months’ salary plus a month of room and meals while they looked for other jobs. Now it hardly seemed enough.
What do you plan to do with your vast estate? Miss Wells’s words from last night ran through his mind. What happens when you get home? Do you sit around on the pile of money that got handed to you and congratulate yourself on a job well done?
Luke rubbed the back of his neck. He might not want this estate, Grandpa’s money, responsibility for the servants, or the rest of the mess that had been handed him, but hang it all, it was his mess, his duty. And he wasn’t going to put nearly two dozen good workers out of a job because he found cutting back convenient. Let the next owner fire them, but he wouldn’t have that on his conscience.
“Sir?” Stevens sidled up beside him. “Are you unwell? Do you need something? A glass of water, perhaps?”
“No.” He didn’t need anything another person could offer. He was the one who needed to do something, to provide for those Grandpa had left in his care. “As I was saying, whoever buys this house will most likely hire new staff, but your job here is secure for as long as I remain owner. I also have a monetary gift of two months’ salary for each of you, as a thank-you for the years you spent serving my grandfather. Stevens and Miss Hampstead will distribute the envelopes accordingly.”
The servants hushed completely, creating an awkward silence as gazes riveted on him. He turned on his heel and left before he could think too hard on what he’d just done.
* * *
The sun was just rising in the eastern sky as Elizabeth stopped before the four brick walls of Hayes Academy. She stared up at the towering three-story school and flicked her gaze over the windows. Her classroom and Miss Torneau’s, Miss Bowen’s office and the dining hall.
She didn’t need to step inside to know how the classrooms looked, painted the standard white with blackboards at the front, the desks filled with bright-faced students. She could almost smell the chalk and wood polish, hear the giggles of young ladies and the clip of boots against flooring.
An empty dream.
The school would close at Christmas. The board may not have made their official announcement yet, but they’d already decided. Without the report on finances from Jackson. Without thought for where she or Miss Bowen or any of the other teachers would work next. And without concern for students themselves.
Mr. Taviston would likely have the blackboards, desks, beds and other supplies sold within weeks of closing the school, and then he’d sell the building itself.
Who would buy it? Another school? Not likely, with the way private institutions were struggling in the midst of the recession.
The Hayes Academy would probably go to some company who needed a warehouse. The inner rooms would be torn down, the walls stripped of any remembrance of the school, and the structure would become a simple building, not a place that held girls’ futures and cultivated their dreams.
A breath of cold air teased her face, and she shivered in her coat. The morning was cool, with frost crusting the grass and birds slow to start their songs. She wasn’t dressed to be outside long, hadn’t planned to come here at all. But when she’d opened the door to retrieve the morning paper, she simply kept walking, the academy calling to her from the end of the street. She’d needed to say goodbye, here in the quiet light of dawn, without anyone to interrupt her.
But now she’d best get home before someone saw her and asked questions. Saying goodbye to a building? She could only imagine the look she’d get if she attempted to explain.
She turned, headed down the sidewalk, wrapping her coat tighter about her and not looking back at the brick structure that would soon stand empty. Instead, she looked ahead toward her house, the yellow paint and protruding turret barely visible between the stately trees lining the road. What would she do with it after the school closed? Sell?
No. She could never do such a thing. She was blessed to own her own home. Indeed, most teachers spent their lives renting rooms in houses that belonged to someone else. And those teachers who did manage to buy their own property, well, they weren’t nearly as young as she was.