"No one can think more highly of the understanding of women then I do ... Nature has given them so much, That they never find it necessary to use more than half."
Six young women with arms full of baskets, blankets, cushions, and bonnets, traipsed away down a meadow at the edge of a small pond on the boarder of a garden. The summer had been kind to them. The sun shone benevolently sometimes hiding behind fluffy clouds. The grass, trees and other vegetation were green and lush. Insects and small birds flitted about at leisure and nobody seemed to mind, except for one girl who believed that a swarm of bees was after her. In short, the group was feeling very cheerful.
The girls found the perfect spot under a willow by the pond and set their things down. After all their cargo was put to order and in its proper place, the girls fell to discussing pressing concerns and news. It was the first time they had met in their home village of Middleton in -shire since the beginning of the season when the families had gone to London. Though they had met often in the city, they had had very little time to assemble in a more confidential setting.
"Aren't you excited? The season is almost over and our fathers must find suitable spouses for us soon. Otherwise, we shall become old maids and will have to live off of them for the rest of our lives." Exclaimed the tallest. Two declared their hearty consent but the others did not. They either had beaus of their own already or were painfully shy of the opposite sex and disliked change prodigiously.
"But, Sophia, Agnes and I have already made our catches." Said Harriet to Greta Parker.
Harriet Lawton was a small woman with a fair complexion and light brown hair and eyes. She delighted in all things and her smile was her most valuable possession.
"That's right," Sophia agreed; then as an after thought, she said, "Perhaps I could get John to find the rest of you some fine young naval officers like himself. They are the best type of men in England!"
Sophia Elton was a small slip of a woman who also had brown hair. She was more reserved than Harriet, and had a more tranquil mien. Though, she did have a habit of climbing trees in her nickers when she was young. Otherwise, Sophia rarely did anything out of line. She lived with her large family at Sanford Park.
"The Navy! Though I must confess a man in uniform is prodigiously handsome, I am determined to marry a man with a title. I am bound to be a baronet's wife or die an old maid!" Cosette declared while the other girls laughed at her.
Cosette Frazer was a little taller than Harriet was and thinner. Her hair was fair, her skin fairer still. She delighted in climbing rocks when she should have been working on a sampler. She was good-natured though she laughed when she ought to be silent. Spontaneity was Cosette's tribute to the group. Along with marrying a baronet, she also entertained a dream of eloping to Scotland.
Greta turned to Clara, the shy one, and said, "Perhaps Dr. Dixon will be so kind as to find you a very rich, sickly, old gentleman who has had five wives already. That way you will not have to see or speak to him above once or twice a week." She winked pointedly at Harriet who happened to be engaged to the Doctor.
Greta Parker was by far the tallest. Her complexion was fair but her hair and eyes were dark. She preferred to appear gothic and generally wore any color she liked as long as it was black. She had a well-informed mind and generally stood firm in her convictions.
"No thank you," Clara pointedly answered. "I do not particularly like your way of getting husbands." She said to her own amusement, as the others had to think about what she said for a moment before it made sense.
Clara Granger was mediocre. She was neither tall nor short, heavy nor light. She had a very active imagination and had a great love of novels, as well as a sharp tongue when she chose to employ it. She also had a habit of saying things that did not always make sense to anyone but herself.
"And what way is that, Clara?"
"Flinging yourselves at any gentlemen of good fortune between the ages of 18 and 40 merely because he asks."
Agnes piped up with more indignation than she really felt, "I do not fling myself at anyone! Charles and I have been good friends for a very long time! It isn't my fault he adores me!"
Agnes Hayter was a beauty. Her hair and figure were all to taste. She, too, suffered from a sharp tongue but she was, by nature, accustomed to pleasing everybody she met with.
"Of course not, I wasn't talking about you." Clara smirked sardonically.
"Clara, I didn't fling myself, either! Nor was it because John Croft was the only man to ask me. I am very found of him and I am not sorry that my father arranged our forthcoming marriage." Sophia interjected.
Cosette, who had been thinking very earnestly, said, "How soon do you think you could get a few officers down to Middleton?" They laughed at her mystified face.
"We'll do our best, Lotte." Sophia assured her friend.
The girls began to munch on some of the contents of the picnic they had brought with them. Though they could not all talk, they could all eat. However, they had not spoken with each other in quite some times and London had afforded something different for each girl. Before long, the conversation started up again.
"Girls, I have something to tell you." Said Agnes meaningfully.
"What? Tell us!" They begged.
"Well, as you know, Charles Bennett and I have been engaged since we were sixteen years old. And, as you know, we have been waiting till he gets a parish of his own. Well, he has just found out that he is to become the curate of Middleton parish!" Each of the girls cheered and congratulated Agnes in turn.
"Hold on, I'm not done. Charles and I have set the date. We leave for the Continent in a fortnight!"
"The Continent! In only two weeks?" Greta exclaimed enviously.
"I cannot believe it!" Exclaimed Harriet.
"I envy you the trip." Said Clara.
"I envy you the wedding!" Cosette cried.
"I cannot believe that the rest of you had not come home with a proposal at your ages, it's perfectly scandalous! What did you do the whole time, hide behind curtains?" Said Agnes condescendingly.
The others started to chortle rather obnoxiously. Clara, who was paying particularly close attention to a blade of grass, blushed.
"Clara-you didn't!" Gasped Agnes, spotting her friend. She knew that Clara was shy but certainly not shy enough to make herself ridiculous.
"I do not like to dance, especially with strangers." Clara tried to excuse herself.
"Well, that is very understandable. But, why didn't you simply tell the young men that you would rather not dance? Hiding behind curtains is so-so-puerile."
Cosette interrupted them very hastily, "Greta was proposed to but she refused to give him an answer." The others had not known this piece of information and Greta gave Cosette a withering look.
"Why didn't you tell us?" Asked Clara, her eyes wide with astonishment.
"I did not want to say anything until I knew for certain if I was going to refuse him or not. There's no sense in getting anyone's hopes up."
"What is his name?" Asked Sophia quite curiously.
"Daniel de Bourgh."
"Ugh! Greta, you can't marry him! He's so-so-"
"Masculine!" Said Cosette caustically. "Clara, you really cannot hold that against him!"
"That is not what I was going to say! He just seems so pretentious. I can't really describe it, he's so dark and secretive." She furrowed her brow to emphasize her point.
"I have not answered him, yet. But if I do not get another proposal soon that is better, then I will accept him. We do not have long; a flower cannot remain in bloom forever. I am not going to be a spinster if I can help it."
"Well, if that didn't sound mercenary, I don't know what does! Greta, I am surprised at you. Surely, you know that it is silly to marry for money."
"Yes, I know, but it is also foolish to marry without. Anyway, I did not mean that I would wait for a man to propose with more money. I simply meant better." Said Greta hotly.
"Just be careful were you choose to marry, my dear. Marriage without mutual affection is the worst think imaginable." Said Harriet sincerely.
"A lady's imagination is very rapid;
It jumps from admiration to love,
From love to matrimony,
In a moment."
The wars were, for a time, ended. Fleets of ships and their crews were abandoned on the shores throughout Britain. Naturally, a seaman with little to occupy his time would be in want of some activity. Travelling would be of no use; he had already seen the world. Bills from pubs, inns, and women piled up quickly; it was best to stay away from them. London and Bath were soon found wanting for activity. No, a naval office with no commission was in want of a wife to pass the time. This very incident brought our own Sophia Elton and Captain John Croft together. While in Bath, during the Christmas season, Mr. Henry Elton had been introduced to Admiral Thorpe. He was a lively man of good breeding and taste. He was concerned for the general welfare of everybody and was deeply troubled when he learned that Miss Elton would be turning two and twenty very shortly without so much as one decent beau. His natural inclination was to find her a suitable spouse from his own fleet. This act did appear rather presumptuous and crass. However, anybody who had the pleasure of knowing Admiral Thorpe understood that there was not a crass bone in his body. Not to mention that Mr. Elton was pleased to hand over the duty of hunting down suitable young men to some else.
Carey, Harper, and Rowe were all tried, but to no avail. Peabody, Phelps, and Dean were not worth considering. There was one officer, Frederick Davies, who appeared to be a close match. He was lately employed under the Admiral and he was young, handsome, and beguiling. Indeed, the young man was quite taken with the lady-too taken, in fact. His determination to win her hand turned into an obsession and Sophia found it very difficult to shake him. If she went so far as to mention that things might not work out between them, he fell to pieces and spoke in such strong language as to assure the lady that he was more of a threat than a lover. She applied to her father, who was very particular when it came to marrying off his daughter, and he quickly ended the alliance. However, the answer to her dilemma was soon found in John Croft. Oddly enough, Admiral Thorpe had thought him unsuitable, as well. Mr. Elton applied to the young officer and the engagement was arranged to both of their liking. Fortunately, she placed all confidence in her father's judgment of her character and that of the gentleman. Needless to say, she accepted her fate quietly and gratefully. Only a few months had passed but the match did not prove ill.
Captain Croft and Miss Elton's affection for one another sprouted instantly upon meeting and was augmented by much time spent in each other's company. His good breeding, cleverness, and integrity recommended him to the lady tremendously. Her gentle, amiable, and sensible disposition endeared her to him. They had met in Bath but were separated when the lady and her family returned to their estate in Middleton and he to his ship in Southampton. After a few short months, they were preparing to marry. Croft planned to journey from Southampton to Middleton where the nuptials would take place.
The door to John Croft's cabin opened with a creak.
"Ah, here's the old man. What have you been doing in here all day? Come, John, this marriage business does make you look old, indeed!" Laughed Captain Myles Ingram. "Give me a war and then I wouldn't have to look at all of you pudding faced officers-in-love piddling about. Men need action before a woman comes along to make them civilized."
Myles was a tall man with brown curly hair that fell almost to his shoulders when he wasn't wearing it in a queue. His body was well muscled and his complexion roughened by exposure to the sea. His fellow captain looked up from the table where he sat. The room was plain and the furniture consisted of a bunk, table and chairs, a footlocker, and a desk where John sat. He stared at the other from across the room and then said,
"Myles, you know I am not a soppy, star-crossed lover; nor would I change my situation with Sophia for all the war and glory in the world!"
He glared at him, pretending to be angry and said, "You wouldn't know, I don't suppose. You-ever the eligible bachelor and sea captain." The other captain grunted at the description. "Very romantic, indeed, all the ladies love you. You needn't attach yourself to just one girl when so many are to be had." Finished Captain John Croft glumly.
John was not as tall as his friend was; he was lean and compact. His hair was short and-like his eyes-black.
"Or my money, rather. I know enough about women to know that most of them really do not care for men at all. What they really want is a handsome barouche and pocket money!" Ingram walked across the room and flopped onto the bunk. He took out a hip flask and took a small swig before replacing it.
"Myles! I will not allow you to be so severe. If that is all a woman wants (from you), then it must be all you're willing to offer her." John retorted. He was standing now to carry his point. This was not the first time they had had a conversation like this one. Myles sat up at this bold attack on his character and said,
"Are you suggesting it is my fault, then? That I am shallow and insipid, and all that comes near me is infected as well?" He placed his hand over his heart as if he was in pain and settled back onto the bed. "I am all astonishment! You have pierced my heart!" With that, the Captain laughed his hearts content, throwing the pillow at his friend's head.
John watched his friend and ducked as the pillow sailed past him. He seemed to be thinking and after a while his mouth started to turn up into a crooked smile, or to anyone who really looked a smirk.
"You think it's funny, do you? Listen here, I have a proposal. Let's you and I try a little experiment. I propose you come to Middleton with me in a fortnight when I go to see Sophia and I'll make you out to be a very poor, sad friend of mine. I'll write and tell Sophia you have been in terrible straits and need some cheering up. She has plenty of charming friends who would be happy to oblige. If you prove me wrong you have nothing to lose-just sail away (he added dreamily). If I am right then you shall be fortunate enough to have found a worthy companion. Therefore, you have nothing to lose! Come, shake hands! Unless, you'd rather not, that is." He challenged.
"I don't understand. You want me to pretend that I am poor and go home with you. Then, some young lady is going to pity me and we'll fall in love?" Said Myles with mocking uncertainty. "Or some such rot?"
"Something like that. You see we always get into debates about female character. You are determined to think ill of them and I am determined to see them for what they really are." John said jovially with a wave of his rough hand. "This way, I shall never have to have this argument with you every again."
"Nothing to lose, eh? Well, I've never been called a coward, and I won't be called one now. I don't mind getting attention from ladies, either. Deal. Write your dear Sophia and let her know Myles the Miserable is coming."
"Done." With that, John poured a pint of beer for his friend and himself and drank a toast to the pact.
The rain clouds were rolling in over the countryside and wind was blowing between houses and trees. Most of the men and women that had dared to venture out were now trying to get indoors. Clara Granger and Cosette Frazer were just across the street from the post office and were seen by Sophia Elton who had just been inside. "Clara! Cosette! Come quickly!" Sophia shouted. "You've got to hear this piece of news. I am determined to make one of you girls useful."
The girls crossed over to where Sophia stood and they retreated to a nearby bench, which was sheltered by a large awning.
"OOH! What news? What can we do? Hurry-quickly-tell us, Sophia!" Cosette twittered excitedly. News was always a source of enjoyment to her.
"Yes, Sophia, tell us." Begged Clara with great curiosity.
With an air of importance, Sophia began, "I have just received an answer from John saying that he intends to visit us at Sanford! However, more importantly, he has asked permission to bring a friend named Myles Ingram, a very sad and destitute man. It seems he has had a terrible disappointment and needs a change of scenery and a little cheering up." She paused so that the girls would catch the meaning of her words. When they began to look puzzled she said, "Girls, of course! What could cheer up a man more than pleasant looking, unattached females? (Clara blushed) Maybe we can even persuade him to marry one of you."
Cosette responded first, "You said he was destitute, has he always been poor or was he reckless with money? I certainly will not seriously attach myself to a pauper." She paused when Sophia gave her a hard look, then replied meekly. "Perhaps I can lift his spirits, anyway?"
"He's a friend of John's, is he? Then will he also be in the Royal Navy? Perchance, if you will not have him, Lotte, maybe Greta will be interested." Clara suggested casually. The thought seemed to prick something in Cosette's mind.
"Yes, but for now let's assume he prefers me. Greta already has a proposal." Cosette answered pertly.
"The rest of you may dispute this on your own, I must return home to tell my mother." Sophia dashed off, leaving Clara and Cosette to discuss the eligible bachelor alone.
"Are you sure you want to get into this? You don't know what he's like. He might be an ax murderer!" Said Clara seriously if not irrationally.
"Oh, Clara, you are so melodramatic! If we didn't take the risk of getting to know someone that we didn't know in the first place then none of us would have any friends."
"I know that, Lotte. I only thought that you wanted to marry someone with a title and a large house. A sailor, especially a destitute one, may have neither. Besides, if he had a ‘disappointment' then maybe he won't want to be bothered by a bunch of silly girls."
"Whenever I am upset I always imagine eloping to Scotland with a very handsome man. It always makes me feel better-why wouldn't men do the same thing?"
"For all we know this man won't have any thoughts of romance at all. Why are we to assume that John's purpose in bringing a friend is to marry the poor thing off? No, I think the poor Captain only needs a rest with as few flirtations as possible. Can't a person enter a village without half of its original occupants deciding his future?"
"Clara, stop trying to sound like a nun." Cosette chided. "Besides, we are not half the inhabitance of Middleton."
"Husbands and wives generally understand when opposition will be vain."
Charles Bennett and Agnes Hayter had indeed been engaged since they were sixteen years of age. Their friends could not decide if it was violent attachment or the inability to be patient enough to find and fall in love with somebody else that kept them together. However, four years of tests and trials had not weakened their resolution, even if the overflow of passion had cooled. The Bennett and Hayter families had given their consent to the match. Inheritance was of no consequence as long as young Bennett could find a suitable and genteel profession to support his lady. They would lack nothing in regard to friends and finances and gaiety. To prepare for their honeymoon, Bennett and Miss Hayter were spending the day in town readying themselves for the fashionable western front of Europe.
"Charles, will you help me with these bonnets?" Agnes asked. "I am terribly fond of the one with violets, but I think I look adorable in the one with cherries and feathers." She held both bonnets up, surveying them. "Which do you like?"
"The cheapest one." Charles answered, preoccupied with reading a rifle advertisement.
"Charles, be serious! Here, I'll hold them up to my face. Which do you like better?"
"Violets." Charles said to an article on the horse races.
"Violets! Do you really think so?" Agnes looked into the glass again. "Hmm. Now that you mention it, I must disagree-no-the cherries clearly agree with my complexion."
"Smashing, my thoughts exactly." He muttered without taking his eyes off the paper.
She took the cherry and feather covered bonnet off and placed it in its box along side the violet and ribbon trimmed bonnet. She picked up the other parcels they had collected from other stores along the way and thrust them at Charles.
"Here, take these packages." She ordered. The boxes crushed the newspaper before he had a chance to respond. His companion did not seem to notice and walked to the counter to place both bonnets before the clerk.
"Good afternoon, Miss Hayter, Mr. Bennett." Said the clerk cheerfully; he was having a remarkable fine day. Mr. Green could tell from Charles' disgruntled face that a profit was in order.
"I thought you were only getting one bonnet!" Charles exclaimed with surprise.
"I like them each. Besides, you told me to get both-good afternoon to you, Mr. Green." She replied without looking at her fiancé.
Charles' mouth drooped and a vein popped out on his forehead. "Now see here, I have never told you to do something so irrational in all my life!" He exclaimed.
Agnes pretended to not notice his stinging tone of voice, "But you did, dearest. You said ‘get the cheapest one' which happen to be the cherries; then you said to get the violets." Charles opened his mouth to argue but then wisely bit his tongue.
"Thank you, Miss Hayter. I can't tell you how pleased the missus and I were when we heard of the wedding. You will be the most fashionable woman on the Continent with these bonnets! Good day, Mr. Bennett, you must be the luckiest man in -shire!" Charles answered him with a scowl. Mr. Green obviously had not had the pleasure of buying two bonnets recently.
"People do not die of trifling little colds."
The wind played with the rose bushes and the willow trees that grew in the garden surrounding Clifton Cottage, home to Dr. Phineas Dixon. His friends call him Finny. He is a man of nine and twenty years, born and raised in Middleton. He had gone to London to study medicine and returned home to practice it. Upon his return, two years earlier, he had begun to court Miss Harriet Lawton. She was a very distant cousin and they had been betrothed when they were young. The event would have taken place anyway-I believe-without their parent's previous intentions. Phineas and Harriet each possessed cheerful, rather naïve temperaments and had hardly a cross word to say to anybody. His height was suitable for a man, though not very tall, and his body was lean. His hair was red, which is why he did not allow it to grow on his face. He had a long face, a crooked smile, and deep blue eyes. He loved gardening as much as he loved medicine. At present, he was on his knees pulling weeds and talking to a neighbor who had stopped by.
"Good afternoon, Doctor. I just came to tell you that my sister is seriously considering sending her son to me. She wants me to make sure that a physician is readily available for the young man in case he should have an attack." Said his neighbor.
Phineas looked up for a moment at the lady from where he was kneeling and seemed to consider what she had said. "As before, Mrs. Smith, I whole-heartedly agree with your sister's physician. A removal from the London air would do the lad some good. His health would benefit from our fresher country air, especially since it is so near the sea. If it is in your power to have the young man, then I will see to him and I believe country society shall afford him some relaxation." He said, unknowingly pruning the gardenias.
"Thank you, Doctor. This will be very helpful to the poor boy. He has always fared poorly. He is extremely fidgety, though, so I don't believe anything could make him relax. Ha ha." Mrs. Smith laughed, and then turned to leave, "Oh! I nearly forgot-it quite slipped my mind! I have invited the Lawtons to dine with us on Tuesday and of course my family would be much obliged if you would join our small party. Not a bit formal, mind you! Just leave your card with McDuff if it suits you. See you on the morrow! Ta ta!" Without waiting for a reply, Mrs. Smith was swept away in her carriage, leaving Dr. Phineas Dixon kneeling alone in his garden once more.
"Tuesday-Mrs. Smith? People are in a hurry nowadays." Finny said to himself as he plucked another weed. "Oh well, no canned beans on Tuesday."
The wind died down and the sun peeked out from behind a passing cloud, the gardener began to hum to himself.
Mrs. Smith, who spoke with Dr. Dixon the other day, was related to a woman by the name of Lady Newton. The lady was a widow who possessed an unhappy, nervous condition. Her mind was uninformed and idle, and she, whenever troubled by anything, believed her son to be ill. It was believed that the untimely death of her husband had left her mind slightly addled. Lady Newton's son, Eric Newton, who would not receive his title till her death, was born weak but not to a serious degree. His spirits were naturally high and energetic. However, her nerves had kept him from seeing and doing much. He had made some friends his age through sneaking out of his room when his nurse had been given the day off. They were young dandies and enjoyed anything giddy and frivolous for entertainment. A wise nurse that was hired for him, however, molded his mind, and he was given much scope to improve himself. His mother, though uneducated herself, made sure that her son received the best education a tutor could give.
Amongst many of the treatments Lady Newton and her physicians tried to invent for the young man, was a scheme to send him to the country. The lady had read from various watering place guides that sea air was a great restorative of complexion and energy and that sea-bathing could heal just about anyone. She was determined to test it for herself, or for her son, rather. Fortunately, her sister lived near the sea and could house Eric without the expense of a hotel. This agreed to Lady Newton so much that she had almost certainly decided upon it. She waited now for word of a decent physician.
"Master Eric! Master Eric! Sit down this instant! You are not well enough to be running all over this house! What would your mother say?" Cried the flabbergasted nurse.
"Sir Eric to you, and what do I care what my mother says; running around does me more good than sitting idle." Retorted the young man.
"For one thing, you are not a sir, yet, and you will care very much when your mother refuses to let another one of those fine young coxcombs, whom you call friends, come to see you because you are sick in bed."
Eric gave in and trudged to the chair she pulled out for him. He raked his hands through his curly brown hair and flopped his long body onto the seat.
"What is the use of a title and loads of money if one can't even go out to use it. I may as well die if I am only a burden and of no use to anyone. I hate it, Hill, I hate it! You're the only one who understands." The young man signed and took a swig from a small bottle the doctor had given him. He grimaced and picked up an already worn edition of the morning post.
"Now you know your mother is looking to have you visit your aunt's family in the country. That will do you so much good, and there are plenty of amusements gentle enough for your constitution." She paused and looked fondly at him (with some sadness). "I hate to see you cooped up here as much as anybody." She turned and began to pull up the window sash. She had been his nurse since he was born and was closer to him than his mother was. She did not like to see him caged indoors, but orders were orders.
"You're a brick, Hill." He said. "A real brick!"
"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."
The Grange was an old estate located northwest of the town of Middleton. The original master, Clifford Granger, was a simple man with great affluence. The latest master, Elliot Granger, was an affluent man with simple means. His wife had had the pleasure of spending much of his money without much thought of future want. Unfortunately, both his wife and his money were completely spent after some time and he was left with only enough to support himself and his two daughters. One, Jemima, had eloped to Massachusetts with a bold and brassy American. Mr. Granger heard from Jemima seldom and he chose to believe that no news was good news. The other daughter, Clara, was still at home and had just reached the age of eighteen. She was as reserved as her sister was turbulent, and unused to mixed society. She was open and comfortable with her friends; however, strangers (especially gentlemen) made her apprehensive. A romance novel, oddly enough, however, gave her more pleasure than a social event any day.
It is true that she hid behind a pair of curtains at a ball in London that summer. The drapes were a becoming shade of green and matched her dress. Unfortunately, a gentleman by the name of Oliver Wood discovered her. She had foolishly chosen the drapes that covered a pair of French doors that led out onto a portico where young men went to smoke cigarettes. Since everyone was inclined to dance rather than smoke, as it was the beginning of the season, no one but Mr. Wood was on the portico. He was a lonely man and often found that the ladies he attracted did not seem interested in settling down or they simply wanted a prominent Scottish address. In his disenchantment, he begged Providence to simply make the woman he was supposed to marry fall right into his way. Wood was confident that this very ball would be it. Not noticing Clara, he opened the door and found her tumbling into his arms. After much confusion and profuse apologies, the matter seemed to dissolve; Clara put it out of her head. The gentleman, however, would not be put off so easily; he believed that she had stumbled into him for a reason. Wood tried to persuade Clara to dance with him, but she would not. He was able to get her name and decided to use different means to seize this God-given opportunity. That is, he went to her father who was more than happy to get his daughter married off to a rich man.
Mr. Granger found his daughter in the library reading a novel as usual. He was a little bit nervous, as he had to announce a trip he was taking to London. Under normal circumstances this would be no problem. However, he knew he could not honestly tell her that he was going to London to arrange a marriage for her. He did not want to lie, but if she asked for specifics then he would have to.
"Well, Clara, I am going to London tomorrow. Are there any errands you would like to send me on?"
Clara looked up from her book to her father, "Again? We just returned for the close of the season. Why are you going back?" Clara asked curiously.
Her father shifted nervously and a faint blush spread over his cheeks. He would have to think of something as near the truth as possible without actually telling her the whole story.
"You see, my dear-um-I have been made on offer from a man I met in town and I am leaving to close up the whole business." The explanation seemed to satisfy her and Mr. Granger was soon comfortable again.
"Oh, Papa," Mr. Granger was all alertness. "If you could, go the bookstore on Milsom Street, the one with the bright green door. Yes, that's it. Try to find a pocket-sized book of Burn's poetry. I discovered it there and hoped that our own little bookstore would have a copy; but then, in the country we are so behind." A few more instructions and Mr. Granger quickly quit the library.
Clara, however, began to notice her father's agitation through dinner and afterward in the drawing room; she tried to think of what could be the matter. Perhaps the man her father was to work with was very unpleasant. At last she muttered, "Curious" and returned to her book in the library.
Oliver Wood's town house was located on Bond Street in Grosvenor Square. His favorite room was his study, which is where he is presently located. The room was not large and its walls where lined with shelves full of books, busts, and various nick-knacks. There was a solid oak desk where Mr. Wood sat and two red-leather winged armchairs in front of it. The room was orderly and clean, much like the owner himself. Wood was a man of about thirty years of age with dark features and a handsome face. His eyes had a tendency to portray whatever it was that he was feeling; especially when upset, they would glint like cold, sharp steel.
His thoughts were preoccupied with the visit of a certain gentleman from the country. To be honest, his nerves were on edge. He had gotten himself into a predicament he was not totally sure of. It seemed that he had taken a dive off the deep end when he asked a stranger for his daughter's hand in marriage. Now, Mr. Granger was coming to hopefully confirm that all was well. Wood had even postponed a letter to his brother and sister-in-law just so he could inform them if a marriage was in order. His thoughts were broken when he heard voices outside of the house.
A light rapping was heard on the door and an elderly butler appeared. "Mr. Granger to see you, sir."
Wood looked up at his servant and bade the visitor into his study.
"Let him in, Busby." The butler bowed and exited the room.
Mr. Granger appeared and the Wood rose to great him. They shook hands and
Mr. Granger said,
"Good evening, Mr. Wood, I hope you are well."
Mr. Wood said that he was tolerable and politely offered the visitor a chair. After the pleasantries had ceased, the men got down to business.
"I must confess that this business strikes me a bit odd. I will not deny that I have tried to gather information on you since we last conversed." Said Granger. He took out a handkerchief and dabbed his forehead.
"As you should have, I would think less of a man who would give his daughter's hand away blindly. Pray tell me, did you find your inquiry satisfactory?" Was Mr. Wood's response. He tried to sound cheerful, he could see where the daughter had gotten her nervous disposition.
"Yes, yes. All is in hand-quite satisfactory. That is, I had to go through great lengths to learn more about you than what sort of hounds you keep and how you much you have per annum. I finally found someone who could give me some insight into your character. I was fortunate to make an acquaintance with Lady Wright of Derbyshire who seemed to be intimately connected with your family. She could not praise you enough." Mr. Granger chuckled with the memory of her warm praise.
The gentleman's sharp eyes softened with his smile. He leaned back in his chair and said, "Ah, the Lady Wright, you could not have found a better woman. Her family and mine have been great friends these many years. I do believe that your daughter was once introduced to Lady Wright's ward, Miss Darrow."
Mr. Granger began to dab his forehead again and sniffed delicately.
"Indeed. Now, I have another confession, I have not told Clara about our agreement. She is totally unaware. I am afraid she is a bit shy. However," he said piping up, "once one draws her out she gets on splendidly." Said Granger. He did not meet Mr. Wood's eyes.
That was probably fortunate because Mr. Wood's eyes had sharpened again, "You did not mention my letter or our meeting? So she has had no say in the matter? This was not my intention! Surely you do not suggest that I would condone a forced marriage?"
"Of course not! Please hear me out!" Cried the elder man. "I did not want to cause my daughter any unease (an outburst from Wood interrupted him) if she knew why I was coming."
"I came to find out if you were still interested, and if so, then I would like to invite you to my estate were you and she can become acquainted. If the match is incompatible then you shall be released from our agreement. I want Clara to have an unbiased opinion of you. I fear that if she met you as her future husband she may be terrified of you till she dies." Mr. Granger pulled out another silk handkerchief and mopped his brow.
The younger man scrutinized the older man for some time. His face showed no emotion save the ticking of a muscle on his cheek and the glinting of his ebony eyes. Finally he spoke, "Your plan does not satisfy my liking, but I will go along with it as I am in a hurry and can think of nothing else. I had hoped that you would have come all this way with a favorable answer from your daughter."
The two men stood and shook hands again. To Mr. Granger, it would be a long journey home.
"My idea of good company...
Is the company of clever,
Who have a great deal of conversation."
Tuesday had arrived and Phineas Dixon was leaving Clifton for the Smith house. The family lived just outside of town and though not rich, was very well off.
The doctor had just come from the house of a new mother and father after the arrival of twin babies. He had been there all day and night until he was sure of the safety of mother and children. Though he was tired, a dinner party at someone else's house meant that he would not have to make his own supper, as he was accustomed for he did not hire a housekeeper. And, it brought him into the company of dear friends and in this case, the company of his future family.
Upon reaching the house, Phineas was let in by the mistress of the establishment, herself.
"Good afternoon, Mrs. Smith, Miss Smith." Phineas bowed to the hostess and her eldest daughter. "I hope I am not offending in my inability to appear punctual. Accept my apologies." He said gallantly.
"Not at all, Doctor, not at all!" Mrs. Smith clucked. "We cannot expect a doctor to keep the same hours as common people. No apologies!" Said Mrs. Smith gaily. She was the sort of woman who thrived on hustle and bustle and must have many people about her. This would explain her large family of five little boys and three girls of various ages. Miss Smith led him through the hall into the large drawing room where the rest of the party was contained. The Lawtons, Harriet's family, were there as well as the Reverend Meade, the Gilberts, and the Cattons.
"Finny!" Called the younger Lawtons. They dashed at him and clung fiercely to his limbs and chattered gaily. Harriet came over to save him, and shooed the children away. Together, Phineas and Harriet made their rounds with the other guests, talking here and listening there. Finally, they were able to converse alone.
"You are looking well, my dear, I wish I could look on you oftener." He whispered.
Harriet smiled benignly at him and said, "In time you may look at me all you like. Until then you will just have to make the best of it."
An exclamation and several humored objections commenced. "Really, Finny, what keeps you away so long? A small country shire like this could not afford so much of your time. I think you work too much."
"Nonsense, Hatty, there are things besides house calls that take up my time. At this moment I am writing an essay on the inefficiency of laudable pus to properly clean and heal wounds. Not only that, I am attempting to make the shack that I live in resemble a home so that you will not have to sleep on my encyclopedias and medical journal, nor cook out of my medical bag with my scalpel. Now you see why I stay away?" He winked.
She patted his hand affectionately. "Yes, and I am satisfied with your excuse, but I still think you do too much. Perhaps I can come by sometime and collect some girls to help fix up the cottage with me."
"I don't know, would it be proper in a bachelor's-"
"Phineas!" She chided.
"Agreed," he twittered. The doctor was very scrupulous to follow the rules and regulations of appropriate behavior between young men and women.
At this point Reverend Meade called upon them. He was a silly, religious man; religious in the sense that he spent more time fishing than he did preparing sermons. Had his character not turned out in his favor, the parish would have removed him long ago. At it was, Charles Bennett was the new curate of the parish and would soon afterward take Reverend Meade's place. Of course, this changing of persons did not sit well with the poor cleric.
"You will be happy to hear that everything is in order for the upcoming nuptials." He said with a bow. "I am glad to hear that you did not settle for a long engagement. No, I have always thought that they were very tedious and made a foothold for all kinds of mischief. For example, Charles Bennett and Miss Agnes Hayter, or I should say Mrs. Charles Bennett were engaged since they were sixteen years old. They knew each other so well, they almost thought of calling the wedding off. It was a very awkward situation, I assure you. And to think, a future rector practically dragging his bride down the aisle. Grails and goose-bumps, such an example for the citizenry of Middleton!"
Mrs. Smith had neglected her own conversation when her ears detected a hint of gossip. She turned to the Reverend Meade and said, "What's that? Oh yes, Reverend! I quite agree with you! My sister, Lady Newton, once knew a young lady who was engaged for five years straight! Can you image? It turned out that the man up and married another girl without a word! Most abominable! Yes, Miss Harriet, don't you ever let the doctor talk you into a long engagement. Young people should know as little about one another as possible in order to have a really happy marriage." Cried Mrs. Smith in one breath.
"No fear!" Cried Harriet with a laugh, though she barely knew what to make of such a speech. "I would never let Dr. Dixon persuade me into a long engagement. Though, I must say, not knowing much about one's future partner sounds a little too dangerous for my liking." And with that, the couple was left to their own affairs.
"One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other."
The church bells rang announcing the end of the service and the parishioners began to exit the church. Children played, men discussed politics, and women gossiped in the courtyard. Young men stood in a group making eyes at the young ladies who blushed and pretended not to notice.
In another part of the courtyard another group of women conversed. Charles and Agnes Bennett had arrived the day before from their honeymoon in the Continent. Naturally, her friends were dying to see her and hear all the particulars. Each secretly hoping or grateful that their turn was coming.
"Greta! What a lovely gown! Black goes so well with your eyes! Sophia, when is Captain Croft coming? I am growing so anxious that they will not come!" Cosette complained.
"Oh! Look, there's Agnes! She will not talk to us, I dare say, now that she is married. She'll wait till we are, as well. Agnes!" Clara said before calling to her friend.
Agnes was standing with her new husband who was speaking with different parishioners. She turned and waved at the girls. They motioned for her to come and she smiled up at Mr. Bennett before joining them.
"Girls, I have been dying to see you all! I cannot wait till some of you are married, too. Until then I shall be happy to be a chaperone for any of you." Said she generously.
"Oh, yes, I can see it now," said Cosette. "The young and beautiful Mrs. Charles Bennett, chaperone for Miss Cosette Frazer-spinster. How completely absurd!" The others giggled while Agnes scowled.
"Agnes, tell us everything!" Cried Greta eagerly.
Agnes' eyes bulged slightly and her cheeks turned pink. "E-everything?" she asked confusedly.
"Yes! Tell us about the wedding!" Cried Cosette.
"Did you go to Rome?" Asked Greta
"How long were you in Paris?" Asked Sophia.
"Phineas and I hope to tour the whole continent." Said Harriet.
"Is he a good kisser?"
"CLARA!" The girls exclaimed (but secretly wondered the same).
Charles walked up to the circle and let Agnes take his arm. He turned to Clara and for a moment she was afraid he had heard her.
Instead he asked, "Miss Granger, Agnes and I were in London the day before last and I saw your father."
"Yes, he is in town on business." She replied cautiously.
"We saw him there with a very handsome young man, his name slips my mind, but I recall being introduced." Said Agnes with a hint in her voice. It seemed to escape Clara, whom it was meant for.
"I am sure I don't know. He did not say whom he was working with."
"Pity, I wonder if he likes shooting?" said Charles meaningfully.
This hint seemed to escape his wife, "Really, Charles, what difference does that make. You are always saying something absurd. What would shooting have to do with anything? I wish you would think in your head." Said Agnes indignantly. Apparently they had had this conversation before.
"I can't, my love, I actually have something in my head." Charles retorted. He had practiced.
An awkward silence fell. Charles suddenly remembered that he wanted to speech to a certain gentleman and Agnes decided that it was time for dinner. They hurried off together and left the others.
Sophia seemed to remember something and was digging around in her handbag for it. The other waited for her. She finally found a small letter and withdrew it.
"Ladies, I have received another letter from John. It says that he will be arriving on Thursday with his friend. I was hoping that you would all come and wait with me." Said she.
"Certainly!" Said Harriet. "May I bring Finny? He is always working, it would do him good to have a diversion."
Sophia gave her consent readily.
The others also said that they would be glad to come and visit.
A coach rambled through the country lanes heading away from Southampton to Middleton. Groves of oaks and patches of fields dotted with sheep covered the hillside on the left and cliffs over the shoreline were on the right.
The inhabitance of the stagecoach was none other than the captains Croft and Ingram. Myles was snoring soundly on one end and John was staring at him through bloodshot eyes. He had learnt to sleep through storm and calm but not through another man's snores. The poor man had tried to occupy his thoughts with Sophia Elton, ships, and even attempted to count sheep. Alas, nothing was able to drown out the obtrusive rumblings of his friend.
"Myles," John called, the snore answered him.
"Myles!" John tried again.
The Captain jumped and shouted orders to the crew in his dreams. Then he recognized the interior of the stage and glared accusingly at Croft who smirked brightly at him.
"Scalawag." He muttered
"Given." Croft replied.
They glared at each other in silence.
"Well, what the bloody hell do you want?" Myles inquired. John's hand fluttered to his breast, as he tried to look offended.
"Myles, such language! Especially in front of a country gentleman!" John chided his friend.
"You are not a gentleman, nor are you from the country!" Myles argued as he tried to find another comfortable sleeping position.
"Myles, when you're in Middleton you are either a country gentleman or nothing at all." John said with mock sincerity.
"Codswallop." Spat his friend.
"Please tell me that you do not talk like this to young ladies. It may suit a scullery maid, but none of the young lasses in Middleton will let you get away with it. Your mother should have worked harder to instill good manners into your thick head."
"Middleton this and Middleton that! Do you ever speak of anything else?" Captain Ingram complained.
"Not in Middleton." John retorted.
"You make me sick." Myles replied
"Myles, my lad, I am on my way home to the gal I love. Nothing you say will bring me down. In fact, I shall ignore you completely until we get there."
"Pfui." Said one.
"Humbug." Replied the other.
The carriage rumbled on and on, drawing closer to the Promised Land. The sun had begun to sink in the west and the cry of sea birds echoed against the lime.
"Matrimony, as the origin of change, was always disagreeable."
Tuesday passed into Wednesday which slowly passed into Thursday, the day of John Croft's long anticipated arrival. As promised, Clara, Greta, Cosette, and Harriet (along with Dr. Dixon) were gathering at Sanford to greet the travelers.
"Are they here yet?" Asked Clara, her head peeped over the hedge that surrounded the great lawn of Sanford House.
"No," said Sophia. "John wrote that he was leaving on Tuesday and would arrive here on Thursday. I had assumed he would come by noon, I hope they haven't been delayed."
"I am sure they are merely taking their own sweet time. Probably aren't even worried about keeping others waiting." Said Cosette peevishly, she had been seated on a blanket spread over the ground, but was now pacing around the small group of benches.
"O Queen of Punctuality, you are just anxious about seeing whether or not the Captain is handsome." Said Clara, who sat down beside where Cosette was standing. Cosette threw the daisy she was playing with at her friend.
"It is not my fault that I am never on time. The carriage is always being used in my household. Anyhow, how do you know I am anxious?" Asked Cosette.
"You're pacing." Clara told her
"Haven't I a right to pace?"
"Nobody's questioning your right to pace; Clara was only making a point." Said Greta mildly.
"I'd say by your temper that you are anxious." Said Harriet.
A little while later a stable boy came running down the lane toward the lawn. When he reached them he stopped and tried to catch his breath. "Miss-Granger-is wanted-at home-by her (gasp) father. Immediately." Said the boy.
Clara, who looked slightly confused as she told the boy that she would be home soon and sent him off again. The others turned to her for an explanation but received none.
"I was not aware that my father was coming home today. Just like him to show up without a proper warning. What could be so important that I should hurry home? Sorry, girls, but I've got to go." Said Clara.
"Will you be back later?" Asked Sophia.
"I shall try, Sophia. Good-bye for now." Clara began to walk down the lane to her own home. What she should expect, she did not know. Her palms began to clam up and she found that she twisted up her handkerchief to a pulp while she walked.
Clara did not bother to ring the bell and simply opened the door to the hall and walked in. She heard her father's voice from the study as she took off her things and placed them on the hooks. After that, she went to the study door and knocked. Her father bade her come in and she opened the door. Clara saw her father at his desk and remembered the list of things she asked him to procure in London. She was about to ask for her books, "Father?" but was interrupted.
"Clara!" He exclaimed, standing up. He sounded suspiciously cheerful. "I would like you to meet a friend of mine."
Clara, who had been looking straight at her father all the while, turned to where his arm was extended. There stood a tall gentleman with dark hair and startlingly dark eyes. She felt the color rise in her cheeks as she gaped at him.
"Clara, this is Mr. Oliver Wood of Griswald Park (Scotland, you know). Mr. Wood, this is my daughter Clara. Naturally, you remember each other from London." Clara extended her hand tremulously and he took it.
"Pleased to meet you, Miss Granger." He said calmly.
"P-pleasure." She stammered. Where had they met before? Was her father mistaken? What was he doing in her house? Clara turned her head back toward her father.
Whether or not he sensed her unease, is uncertain, but he said, "I had White take your things upstairs. You may go."
"Thank you, father." She said, and practically ran out of the room. She climbed the staircase and ran through the hallway to the end of the house. A closing door behind her caused her to turn around. It was Mrs. White, the housekeeper.
"Mrs. White, is someone coming to visit? You are airing out the guest room." Clara said in a panic.
"Why, yes, Miss Clara. The gentleman is with your father this very moment in the study. Didn't you meet him yet?"
"Yes, I did. I didn't know he was staying. Oh bother." Clara went to her room and tried to compose herself. There would never be a moment's peace with that man in the house! She would never be comfortable.
On her bureau was a stack of books her father had picked up for her and other small items. She picked up the first book and read the cover, she did not recognize the title, which was written in German. She turned the cover and a note fell out. She did not recognize the hand but it was addressed to her. It said,
Undoubtedly my presence in your home is somewhat disconcerting, especially if you in any way match the description your father gave me. Your father has informed me that you have absolutely no knowledge of my true intentions for being here. At the beginning of the season you and I were introduced at a certain ball in London. I doubt that you will remember such a trivial thing but I was quite taken by my first impression of you. I decided to see what I could learn of you through word of mouth and through observation. Soon after our meeting I introduced myself to your father and set up a conference with him. I told him quite frankly that I came to town for one objective: to find a wife. As you know, your father had gone back to London only a fortnight ago. He came to meet with me again. I was of the understanding that he had spoken to you about my proposals and was I quite shocked when he said he had kept it all from you. His excuse was that he wanted to keep you out of a state of agitation. I was angered, one because I believed that it was your right to know, and two because I desired to know your opinion. I was of the understanding that if Mr. Granger would pay such expenses to travel to London, then it must be on account of your complete acceptance of the plan. I abhor arranged marriages and I believe that the situation is barely short of it. Your father had made a plan to convey me to Middleton with him on pretense of business, hoping that your affections should be encouraged somehow. This proposal is deceitful and dishonorable; I agreed to go along with it but in my mind was determined to tell you the whole truth. Here it is, in writing. My intentions toward you are the same as they have been from the beginning, please allow me this chance.
Clara collapsed onto her four-poster bed and tried to make some sense of all her confusion. She felt her stomach turn and her blood rush to her head. Not only was there a devastatingly handsome man staying in her house for who knows how long but he was there for the specific purpose of making her fall in love with him. What's more, he was a terribly sentimental writer, the kind that you would only expect to find in a novel. No, she had the unfortunate luck to be thrown into the path of a sap. Now would be the perfect time for the roof to cave in on her. If she were not so afraid of riding she would have ridden as far as a girl could get.
After a few moments she was able to regain some sense. The first plan was to get out of the house now. Avoidance was key and she really needed some fresh air. She could go to Sanford, maybe John had not arrived yet. She could let the other girls see the letter. Naturally, they would see the misfortune and comfort her in any way possible. They would understand.
Very agitated and exhausted, Clara slowly walked up the lane she had had to tread only a short time ago toward Sanford. She decided to take a short cut and walked through an opening in the hedge. As girls, they had made secret entrances in it. Now she was glad that she could get in without being noticed. It gave her time to rest before throwing herself into the task at hand. She could see the small awning that was set up as a shade in the lawn and that four girls were still sitting under it. From the looks of it, Cosette had set up her drawing board and was sketching Harriet who was trying to hold a conversation with Finny who had arrived after Clara had left. Greta and Sophia were walking in a close circle around the awning and talking very intimately. Clara did not like the thought of Phineas being present when she shared her letter but he was practically as close as the girls were and she might as well get used to his being present all the time when he and Harriet married.
She coaxed herself up and tried to look somewhat cheerful before telling the horrifying news to her friends. Harriet had spotted her by now and was calling to her. They others turned to face her and were greeting her as well.
"Well, Clara, you haven't missed a thing. We have not seen nor heard of my dear boy and his companion. I fear we may have to abandon our party till tomorrow or the next day-You look terrible."
"Thanks a lot." Clara replied sardonically.
"Is everything alright?" Asked Cosette considerately.
"Miss Clara, is there anything I can do for you?" Asked Phineas in his best professional voice as he offered her his chair.
"No, I am alright. My father has just brought something very unpleasant home with him. That's all." Clara said sullenly. She sat in silence and looked at the others one by one.
Phineas seemed to take this as his cue to leave. "If you don't mind, I think I'll fetch Miss Clara some water from the house." And he quickly walked off toward the house.
"What is it, Clara?" Asked Greta mildly.
Clara produced the letter from her reticule and handed it to Cosette to read first. She watched her friend's face as she read it and expected undulations of horror to issue from her friend's lips but to her complete surprise Cosette positively beamed with pleasure!
"Clara! This is one of the most romantic love notes I have ever read (and I've read a good many)! How perfectly mysterious and solemn." She said with a shudder of pleasure. "I wonder if he has ever murdered anyone."
"What are you talking about, Lotte? Let me read it, Clara! Here, we'll read it together!" Greta and Sophia both read the letter and exchanged giggle and gasps while giving Clara several meaningful glances.
"Oh, stop it, everyone! First of all, if you think that this is a romantic letter, my dear Lotte, then you have another thing coming. Don't you all see how terrible this is? This man wants me to marry him. It isn't just a signature on a card at a ball! This is permanent! I don't even know the man! I can't even remember where we met. This fellow is really alarming!" Cried Clara indignantly. Harriet was reading the letter and squealed delightedly.
"Clara, he clearly wants to get to know you better. See? He came and told you the truth so that everything would work out without pretense." Said Harriet with much satisfaction.
"How am I to face him after reading something like that? Argh! I can't even think about it without turning magenta."
"It can't be that bad, look at the bright side, you are in your own home. He is completely on his own and for all he knows could be making a complete fool out of himself." Said Sophia.
"Serves him right!" Shouted Clara. "He ought to go home!"
"I think you should go home and accept him right now!" Greta exclaimed.
"What? No! Not on your life!"
"Is he handsome?" Asked Cosette. Clara blushed brightly, she had found him exceedingly handsome.
"I'll bet he has a fairly good income. One, because he talked your father into consenting and two, because he has his own estate. Oliver Wood, I can't say I've heard of the name, though. He must not be a socialite, or at least we would have heard his name mentioned once."
"Well, you have now. Would anyone mind if I moved in?" Clara asked desperately.
"Move in! No! This is a perfect opportunity to get yourself a fine catch. No, you are going to stay right where you are and make yourself like that man! He can't be odious, but he may have bodies buried in his garden." Said Greta.
"Ohhh! I want to meet him!" Cosette squealed. "How mysterious! I always like men who were mysterious!"
"Cosette-I think your hands will be full with our visitor." Said Greta with
a bit of awe in her voice. She was staring at the vestibule at the front of the
house. The girls turned their heads to see what had so completely absorbed
their friend's attention.
The Captains had arrived.
"John!" Cried Sophia looking rather befuddled. She had been so absorbed with the letter that she had honestly forgotten about him.
"Good afternoon, my dear, forgive us for sneaking up on you." He said drolly. "As promised, I have brought my good friend, Captain Myles Ingram."
Together, the men bowed at the welcoming committee, all of whom looked slightly nonplused.
"Welcome, Captain. I hope you will enjoy your stay in Middleton. I apologize, we are a bit distracted at the moment." Sophia tried to amend.
"Thank you, Miss Elton. I have no doubt that I shall." His voice was deep and solemn. Sophia pitied him, believing that he was as distressed as John had written.
Captain Croft was now shaking hands with Dr. Dixon, who had returned with the water, and talked about ships and weather on the seas. They had met when Croft had accompanied the Elton family home from Bath the previous winter. However, Sophia had to interrupt their conversation with a small tap on Croft's arm reminding his of his manners.
"Oh, sorry, Myles. This is Dr. Phineas Dixon. Finny, this is my good friend Captain Myles Ingram." Said the Captain. Sophia now began to point out her friends to Myles and introduce them.
"This is Miss Clara Granger, Miss Greta Parker, Miss Harriet Lawton (she's engaged to Finny), and this is Miss Cosette Frazer." Myles bowed to the ladies and they curtsied back.
So this was what he had to pick from, the plot was thickening. The first lady was tolerable but looked a little too much like a frightened sheep to tempt him. The second and the tallest one looked almost exotic. Her dark hair and bright eyes appealed to him very much. The third girl had a lively countenance but he did not feel like fighting the doctor in a duel. Then there was the last girl, Cosette. She was strikingly beautiful. She had golden blond hair, a generous mouth, and dressed very fashionably. But which would he choose? Oh well, he had plenty of time to start his experiment, he thought cheerfully. This might prove to be quite entertaining. "Cheers." He muttered under his breath.
Ingram's thoughts were interrupted by a gasp from one of the ladies. It was Miss Granger. She had gone considerably paler (though it was hard to imagine) and grabbed the arm of Miss Parker, the tall one.
"There he is! Quick, no one look!" Clara hissed furiously as she ducked behind Greta. "Shhhh! He'll see me!"
"Clara, stop acting like you're sixteen! Stand up straight and act like a lady!" Said Greta firmly.
"Easy for you to say, you don't have a stalker living under your roof!" Clara moaned.
"He isn't stalking you." Greta argued.
"A rich, mysterious stalker!" Said Cosette dreamily before she could catch herself.
It was true, Wood was at that moment walking down the lane with Charles and Agnes Bennett who had met him in London after their honeymoon. The small group of walkers turned into the drive leading to the vestibule and crossed over to their part of the garden.
"Hello, Captain, I had heard that you were arriving today!" said Charles merrily. He, too, had met the Captain last winter.
"Greetings, Charles. May I kiss the bride?" asked John blithely.
"Not if you enjoy it, lad." Charles laughed. "I don't suppose you've met our friend here, Oliver Wood of Griswald. Agnes and I met him on the way home from Paris, the week we stayed in London. He is staying at the Grange."
"How do you do?" Said Sophia kindly. "We have had news of your coming from Clara." Oliver looked at Clara and bowed. She wanted to die.
"Captain John Croft, at your service, sir. And this is Captain Myles Ingram, my friend." The general introductions had started up again.
While Sophia, Captain Croft, Mr. Bennett, Captain Ingram, and Agnes were making acquaintances; Clara was eyeing Mr. Wood. He did not seem to pay her any particular attention. Did he wait for her to speak to him? She knew she must, out of politeness, as he was a guest under her father's roof. But then, he seemed to be doing all right on his own. What's more, it was not her fault the man had waltzed into her life. If she could not avoid him, she could ignore him. "I will behave like a mature young woman." She said to herself.
"It must be very improper that a young lady should dream of a gentleman before a gentleman if first known to have dreamt of her."
Today was like none other. If you recall from yesterday, I informed you that a certain gentleman was coming from Southampton. Supposedly, he is in the depth of despair. Well, as for as I can se he is not at all. Something in his appearance almost makes him look like he's laughing at us. I asked Sophia about it and she acted like I was off my head. "Lotte," said she. "This poor fellow deserves our sympathy and friendship! Why do you have to be so cynical?" The girls always think I am being silly, well I know what I saw. Oh well, I will befriend the rascal, but mark my words! He'll surprise Sophia and then it will be my turn to scold!
Poor Clara, she is so blind. She has every woman's dream come true and she acts like Moses has come to plague her. Who wouldn't want a rich, handsome, older man in her house trying to court her? Some girls have all the luck.
Before I was at Sophia's, I called on Mrs. Smith with Mamma. Mrs. S. is always so jolly; I enjoy her company prodigiously. She is so fashionable, too. In fact, she bought Angela the most brilliant sprigged muslin for half-price! Such a bargain. I wish I was in London again, being nineteen years old in a small country town with little or no eligible bachelors makes one feel so shabby. Still, that reminds me. Mrs. Smith's sister, Lady Newton, (I always want to say Lawton) has a son who gets chilled easily, (as if a cold ever killed anybody) he also can't breath in agitated, stuffy town air (as if air ever killed anybody). Anyway, he is coming here to warm up and breath clean air. Poor boy, he's probably so used to being in high society. Middleton will certainly be a blow (that could kill anyone, I feel certain it has done me some harm). Mrs. Smith wants me to help him adjust to his move and introduce him to some friends. I certainly hope he isn't tiresome. I don't suppose he'll be at all exciting, sick boys never have anything good to talk about and all they ever want to do is read. Ah! The clock has truck one, I must go to bed or I'll be sick tomorrow when I have to meet the boy.
A carriage rumbled down the dirt road throwing up dust in its wake. The sun was unusually bright and the air unusually hot for the end of August. The vehicle and its occupants were headed toward a house that happened to belong to the Smith family. Outside the house stood Cosette Frazer, Mrs. Smith, Angela Smith, and several of the younger Smith children. Mr. Smith was in town attempting to avoid his in-laws as best as possible.
"Drat this weather! It keeps one in a constant state of inelegance!" Cosette complained to her young hostess.
"Miss Cosette, you shouldn't use slang." Said Angela Smith caustically. "My mother has been correcting me all day. She always fusses when my aunt comes. She things it will impress Aunt Newton. Though, everybody knows that the only thing that impresses that lady is money or a rare strain of the flu."
"The carriage is going prodigiously slow. It's enough to drive one mad with anticipation!" Cosette stamped her foot in impatience.
"Yes, my aunt thinks that fast paces will give poor cousin Eric a chill, too much wind or some such rot. It is ridiculous, really. Once, years ago, he was riding one of our pigs all over the garden faster than the horses are moving now, he said he never felt better." Angela informed Cosette.
"Do you think, perhaps, Lady Newton is a confused hypochondriac?" Asked Cosette.
Angela looked genuinely shocked and said, "You shouldn't call people such names! Besides, she only imagines his is illnesses." Cosette rolled her eyes without the girl noticing.
The tête-à-tête was interrupted by the arrival of the carriage. The footman jumped down from his perch and opened the door. He assisted a woman in her mid-forties down. She, in turn, spoke in a stern whisper to her servant, he bowed and she moved on. Next, stepped out a young man, presumably her son. He looked slightly green and shaky. Eric moved away from the vehicle and met his aunt. Last, a portly woman, not much older than Lady Newton, stepped out. She was not dressed as lavishly as the first two passengers, and must, apparently, be a servant.
The Lady greeted her sister warmly and pretended to admire the herd of children that shyly lined up to kiss her on the cheek. Angela and Cosette were sitting on the portico and had now got up and greeted the travelers. Shortly, Mrs. Smith was herding them all toward the house and ordered a servant to call for the doctor.
In the hustle and bustle of guests, children, doctors, and luggage, an introduction had been forgotten. However, at one point Cosette had found herself walking into what she thought was a deserted loft only to discover that, Sir Eric Newton, in fact, occupied it.
"Oh! Sorry, I didn't know you were in here." She said as she turned to leave.
"Don't leave-I am currently trying to figure out which of my cousins you are. You cannot be Eliza, and you look too old for Mary." He said jovially. Cosette noticed how his grin seemed to reach his eyes and his teeth were remarkably white. Eric's hair also curled pleasantly around his ears and almost reached his high collar.
Cosette laughed at his joke that thought that maybe he was not so dull as she supposed.
"I believe I can satisfy your curiosity by informing you that we are not cousins at all. You and I have never met, yet I have been given the post of guide and companion. My job is to entertain you and introduce you to all the young people in Middleton." She said kindly.
"Then I thank you. I do not know what people do to keep busy around here. Fish, I suppose." He said like he was doing his best to appear like a gentleman.
"Were you very upset to leave London for the country? I must confess that it is dull here. I would have been devastated." Cosette commented rather presumptuously.
"A little." He admitted. "It is always grievous to leave friends behind and change one's situation."
"How was your journey-are you ill?" Eric was looking a bit green in the face again.
"I must confess that I am a shocking traveler. My stomach cannot handle such slow plodding in a carriage. I tell my mother constantly but she is afraid that I will catch pneumonia." He said weakly.
"Mrs. Smith called for Finny. I dare say he will set your mother right. He is prodigiously smart." Said Cosette firmly.
"Finny? Who is he?" Eric asked with much interest.
"The doctor, of course. Dr. Phineas Dixon. He's engaged to one of my friends." She said matter-of-factly. It did not occur to her that he might not be interested in such matters.
"Isn't a girl your age a little young to marry a doctor?" Asked Eric condescendingly. "I've yet to meet a physician under fifty years of age."
"The doctor is not yet thirty." She replied coolly.
The young man looked shocked. "Not yet thirty? Then he cannot be a very skilled physician. Not enough experience for my taste, and I wonder where a person around here could get such an education." Eric said with a sniff.
Cosette lost control of her temper. "We shall see! Dr. Dixon received his education in London, for one. He also got top marks! I don't expect that your other doctors in London could know very much of anything, anyway! Anybody could see that you look perfectly healthy, save that you clearly do not exercise!" She turned around and marched out of the room with a huff. She practically ran down the hall and was tempted to slide down the banister but Mrs. Smith, Lady Newton, and the Doctor met her at the top of the stair.
"Ah, Miss Lotte, I was wondering were you had gone. I completely forgot to introduce you to my sister and nephew. Sister," she said to Lady Newton. "This is Miss Cosette Frazer. She has promised to help entertain Eric."
"How do you do, Lady Newton. I have already met your son-by accident-in the loft. You should still be able to find him there. He was looking a little green when I left him. Good afternoon, Doctor Dixon." Said Cosette coolly. "I am sorry, madam, but I cannot stay longer. Good day." And she left.
The rest of the party went to the loft and found an equally grumpy Eric.
Cosette marched across the shortcut in the meadow that led to Finny's cottage. The girls were gathered there to help Sophia renovate and decorate for when she would eventually move in. It would be a difficult task as Phineas Dixon had not bothered to do either since he became master of the cottage only a few years prior.
"Ah! There is Cosette now!" Said Sophia as her friend entered the garden.
"You look very cross today, dear." Said Clara. "Wasn't your visit very captivating? I thought you were pleased to be of service to Mrs. Smith's nephew. Are you going to tell us about it?"
"You are back early, Phineas only left a short while ago to see the boy." Said Harriet.
"He isn't a boy!" Cosette exclaimed. "He is a grown man and has no sense of decorum. I detest him passionately. He is a rude, stuck up, coxcomb. I bet he fancies us grateful that he should pay Middleton any attention at all. He even said that Finny wouldn't be a good doctor because he isn't older than fifty!"
"And what did you say to him?" Asked Greta.
"I told him that his doctors in London must be intolerably stupid if they think he is ill. I told him he looked very healthy except that his belly is a bit round!"
Clara looked horrified, "Did you say it quite like that?"
"Of course not, I never lose my head. I worded it very politely." Cosette sniffed indignantly.
"You shouldn't have said anything, dearest. It isn't kind. You don't know all the particulars, which makes it unfair of you to judge his family. Not to mention that it is not lady like."
"Sophia, you are always scolding me! Why can't I ever do as I wish with out being judged?" Cosette grumbled.
"He did slight Phineas, Sophia." Remarked Clara.
"Phineas is capable of taking care of himself." Harriet said kindly. "Now, who will help me with those books? I don't know where I shall keep them." The girls moved indoors and into the study.
"You are so lucky, I want a large library when I marry." Said Clara as she handled a heavy, leather-bound encyclopedia.
"Do you? I shouldn't mind having one either, but the books in my library are all full of brains and sketches of skeletons; not to mention that I have no place to keep them!" Said Harriet jocularly with a wave of her arms.
"Maybe we should ask if Mr. Wood has an extensive library." Greta suggested mischievously.
"Yes, that would be enough to win Clara's heart over." Said Cosette.
"Nonsense! You must think of me as very acquisitive." Clara chided. "I happen to like more things than books, though I realize that this information might come as a shock to all of you."
The books were soon piled, boxed, and shelved and the wooden floor beneath was exposed.
"It is amazing how big this room looks when cleaned up a bit. It's just how I would want it!" Cried Sophia.
"Is this how you imagined it? I mean, between you and John." Asked Harriet. "I am curious, some women have very romantic ideas about marriage and suffer some disappointment and others are a little more level headed. Either way, I suppose some of them get exactly what they want."
"As you may recall, girls, I was never very romantic or talkative about love and romance. I honestly wanted to get married but I did not look for it like other girls did (she winked at Cosette). All I wanted was a good man who was intelligent and good. Fortune and looks were not very important to me, not to say that I wouldn't mind either. All I ask for is food, shelter, and clothing. When John and I met in Bath, it all just fell into place. I do love and respect him. I am truly happy and content with my situation which is more than many women can say, I suppose. Though, I do have an underlying fear that he is going to be called to duty and I may never see him again."
There was a momentary pause, as the others did not quite know how to respond to her last thought. Finally, Harriet began to tell her own story.
"I am, too. Happy, that is." Said Harriet with feeling. "Though I must confess I have always been a bit of a romantic. Remember when I met Earnest Berry? I was sixteen and I thought we were in love. Yes, he did love me enough to marry, but not long enough to wait till I came of age. I was severely disappointed but he was content to court my older sister. Well, they both went their own way and I went mine. Personally, I think that I am the better off of the lot.
"I don't really have to leave anyone when I marry and I have found a very wonderful, expressive, intelligent man who desires to do good for the people around him. What more could I ask for? My parents approve of him and I adore his sisters. There is nothing to keep us apart, and here I am preparing my home with my best friends in the whole world." Said Harriet as she killed a spider with a bit of old paper.
"Clara, why are you making faces?" Greta demanded.
"I'm sorry, you girls have so much experience. I'm still not mature enough to handle romance. I am really happy for you, Hatty, but I would rather have a bloody faced poltergeist move in and Mr. Grisle-head move out." Clara glared at the girls who dared to chuckle. "Though, I must say, girls, I am so glad that you have found men that we can all be friends with. My greatest fear has been to lose you to the world of matrimony-to be left behind, that you would start a new life that I could not share in. I am certain you shall not forget me too soon." She said with utmost sincerity.
"Clara, what a speech! We shall not forget you!" Cried Sophia. "Just as you will not forget us when you marry that man and are swept of to Scotland!"
"Sophia, I am not going to Scotland!" Clara shouted in exasperation.
"Of course not, Clara. You'll probably stay in London, in your fancy town house." Said Cosette, rolling her eyes. "And don't pretend that you don't like being teased about Wood. I see right through you."
"Why don't any of you believe me when I tell you that I refuse to marry him? And no, I do not like to be teased. I am blushing because I am embarrassed, that's all." Clara complained.
"Come on, you two." Said Greta. "Grab a rag and hup to. That's the ticket!" She pushed her friends about and they started dusting.
Today was spent with the Smiths again. I tried to avoid the boy as much as possible, but he followed me everywhere. I do believe that he takes delight in vexing me. He is very conceited and pompous. Nothing is to his taste because it is ten times better in London. Wouldn't it be nice if he would just go away? Angela says he is terribly fidgety; I witnessed it myself. He walks up and down staircases over and over again. He runs all over the garden and flirts with the maids. Then, he has to lie in bed for the rest of the day with a headache. When he feels better, he simply starts all over again. I had to explain to him while we were in town that Middleton did not need numerous amounts of shops to purchase fabric and accessories. He does not understand that there is no need to be really fashionable in a small village as there is no one to impress. City boys are so ignorant. Even more shocking, he declared that he was violently in love with me. Fortunately, the Misses Prisms' had previously warned me that he had already proposed to all the Leigh girls. I might have taken him seriously and would have had to hit him with my reticule. I merely told him that I would not marry him as I was planning on eloping to Scotland.
I met with Sophia and the Captains this evening. I am not having a good day at all. He, Captain Ingram, is very cross indeed. I have never met with a more disagreeable man in my life, except for the boy (but he is only a boy compared to the Captain). I asked him a few questions about life in the navy and he was very curt. Sometimes he would even interrupt me and ask questions about Greta. I did not know what to think about that at all. What business does he have to nose into her business? It is all very strange. I did feel neglected, as I most certainly was. After all, it was my job to cheer him up and all that had happened so far is that I feel very depressed. He told me that I had very foolish notions of what life on a ship is like. He told me I was too young to understand such things and that my education must not have done very much to improve my mind. Of course, it wasn't worded like that, but he was so patronizing that I know that it was implied. How was I to know that there isn't any room for a butler to stay in on a ship? I was very angry and I made a comment to Sophia later that I think he may have heard. I told her that he was too poor to make him agreeable, and he was not handsome enough to be worth the acquaintance. It was a terrible thing to say, but he had insulted my intelligence and hurt my pride. Well, I do believe I shall be avoiding that party for some time. Alas, it is his loss! He has a weak chin.
© 2003 Copyright held by the author.