Saints and Servants
The chaise was travelling too fast, much too fast considering it was late November, and the whole day had been beset with heavy snowfall. The roads were icy and dangerous but Mrs. Hilland had been anxious to return home. She had insisted and could not bring herself to hear her husband's arguments that they defer their journey till the morning. Her daughter was ill, had been ill for the past three days, and Mrs. Hilland had been away from home. She had been enjoying herself whilst her daughter lay in the grip of a fever, crying and wanting and everything without the best nurse nature could ever afford - the comfort of a mother.
The Hillands, minus one sick child, had been visiting Mr. Hilland's sister and, even though her older child had been recovering from a slight cold a few days previously, it was decided that it would be safer to leave the six year old to recoup fully rather than endure the long journey to her aunts. Moreover, the same caring aunt had displayed such alarm at having a sick child in the house who would thus endanger her own darlings, that there really was nothing to be done but leave poor Catherine at home.
Even with a doctor's reassurance that she was unlikely to suffer a relapse, Mrs. Hilland had been reluctant to leave the child with her nurse; and now it seemed, she recalled bitterly, all her fears had been justified. Jolted around in the carriage, wrapped in furs, she clutched her other child, young Caroline, closer to her bosom and prayed. It was only natural that she felt guilty, as any mother does when a child falls ill, however unjustified the self-reproach may be, but Mrs. Hilland's guilt would manifest itself in lamentable images of herself in her mind, as she had been only a few hours previously, laughing and dancing with her husband.
But really how could she have helped it? It was so much like times past; happy, carefree times as had been in the early years of her marriage, before the lines of worry appeared on her husband's face, breaking it into chasms of anxiety and apprehension and ageing him, to her it appeared, by multitudes.
This night the hardness in his features had eased, and though Mr. Hilland would never burden his young wife with concerns for their future, tonight he had smiled and laughed, and for that this trip had been worth all the anxiety Mrs. Hilland had felt on leaving Catherine. All those feelings of reassurance had vanished in an instant the moment the servant had slipped her that note as she had stood by the door for a breath in between dances. It seemed as though a moment of rest would never come. A tearful Mrs. Hilland sought out her husband among the crowd, the room was congested, heaving with bodies and stifling with heat. With every moment that passed and proved her search unsuccessful, she became more desperate.
She did find him in what was relatively a short amount of time, but to a mother and a woman as naturally feeling as Mrs. Hilland every minute lasted an hour, and every hour was another pain, another blow to her aching heart. He read the note and turned a shade paler than his wife; and accordingly they found his sister, the wise and matriarchal looking Mrs. Wright and carried her off to a quiet room at the side of the house.
‘No, no it is impossible, you cannot leave right away. No, it would be best if you start in the morning.' Mr. Hilland had explained it to her along the way, consulted her for an opinion, which she gave now resolutely and firmly as an older sister who felt she always knew best.
He looked towards his wife who was sitting still with her head resting on her shoulder; her dress all puffed up around her, its light material made her look like a butterfly delicately settled and about to fly away the moment the wind changed. She stared up at these words of her sister-in-law and, brushing away tears, urgently applied to her husband.
‘It must be now Edward, we must leave now...'
‘Nonsense, I dare say that foolish nurse of yours has exaggerated matters...' Mrs. Wright interrupted, forever the elder sister who knew best.
Mrs. Hilland ignored her sister's voice and walked up to her husband, placing a hand on his arm and looking directly up into his eyes. ‘Edward, please, I know it must sound foolish of me, but I feel ... I fear if we don not leave now, we may never see Catherine alive again...' Her bottom lip quivered as she uttered their child's name and she bit it to steady herself. That did it; he smiled, kissed her cheek and nodded, within a few minutes of his acquiescence she was away and rousing Caroline.
His sister did not approve of this turn of events, not even sympathy for their situation stopped her from vocalising her disapproval at the foolishness of the scheme, going so far as to hound them to the door. Mrs. Wright was of course a little jealous of her brother's immediate acceptance of his wife's judgement which had so readily replaced hers, but she did at last relent and complied with their wishes of explaining their sudden absence to their friends without too much complaint.
Had Mrs. Wright been at all able to fathom the outcome of this rash, midnight journey of her brother's she would have clung to his coat tails and gladly been dragged all round the house if it would have prevented him climbing into that carriage after his young family. Would have gladly put aside all her petty jealousies, endured any undignified pose if it would have spared them.
As it was the carriage was travelling much too fast, certainly too fast to take the sharp turn in the road safely, and so it proved. No sooner had the carriage the turned than the back wheel lifted clean off the road. It buckled, springs broke and the horses were sent in one direction whilst the coach and its contents spilled out in another. The road was of course deserted at such an ungodly hour and in such unholy weather, the snow having begun to fall again, no help was at hand. No one came until morning fell brightly and blindingly on the brilliant white landscape.
If a frame could have been placed on the whole scene it would have made the perfect setting for a Christmas card, all blue skies and brilliant sun. Of course it would have been a blotted card, made ugly by the mounds of snow heaped on the upturned carriage like small hills, changing the landscape and covering the whole with its own cold, bitter blanket.
For the party that first happened on the scene, as cruel irony would have it a family of exactly four, they quite understandably assumed the unfortunate occupants had travelled on foot to the nearest inn for help, they did not consider anyone could be out in that bleakness. It was not until, they had shuddered their way back to their own carriage, that one of the footmen cocked his head to one side and vainly tried to hear above his masters mutterings of ‘those poor souls...' and blessings for his own family's safety. He waited to see ... yes! There it was again, it was faint, but he did not dare doubt its existence; the mewing of a child hoarse and wretched, a babe tired of crying and fading fast. He rushed blindly in the direction he thought he heard the sound and promptly tripped over a half buried trunk, but he would not be deterred, calling to the others he sent them out in various directions.
They found the gentleman of the family first; his head twisted at an awkward angle, a broken neck; he was staring vacant eyed only a few yards from the carriage- poor fellow he had almost certainly died instantly. The same could not be said of his pretty wife, she was found rolled down the hill lying against a boulder, she would have been missed entirely had it not been for her green cloak acting as a marker. They hurriedly cleared away the snow around her face, it was an unnatural blue, and her head was matted with blood, she had clearly struck the rock with some force.
It was here the sound of the crying child was the most distinct, and sure enough behind a larger boulder seated further down the hill, they found the coachman. It was in his arms the child, a girl of only three, sat with her sweet face all red and angry from want of attention. She was wrapped in the man's all enveloping coat. The coachman was unconscious and it was only through a hand against the neck that allowed the determination of a faint pulse and life.
He had a broken leg, and a faint trail in the snow from the dead lady to this boulder, indicated he had clearly dragged himself up there, taken the child and cradled her in his arms, throughout the night using the boulder as a rudimentary shelter against the wind and snow. It was testament to the man's loyalty, the pain must have been excruciating, that he had dragged himself up the hill and back down again in an effort to save the child at least. The pains from his exertions had most probably rendered him unconscious.
So it was that in that dreadful year of 1812, at the tender ages of three and six respectively, Caroline and Catherine Hilland were left alone in the world. As orphans their life for the next few months, now others were deciding exactly what was to be done with them, was as confused and hurried as their short time with their parents had been peaceful and quiet.
The late Mr. and Mrs. Hilland, now quite at peace, had left the small matter of their daughters and their estate. With regards to the latter it proved, much to the astonishment of the family left behind, to be a small matter indeed. Had Mrs. Hilland survived she would have discovered the reasons behind her husband's premature ageing, the worry lines permanently etched on his brow, and it would have been little comfort to know the whole was entirely his own fault.
Mrs. Wright, who had set the family lawyer Mr. Jenkins to putting her late brother's finances in order, was shocked at what he had to report. Though the papers were all in disarray, one thing soon became abundantly clear; there was precious little finance to order. Mrs. Wright could not believe that her brother was so frivolous or wasteful with money, but when presented before her in all its ink and parchment, the facts could not be denied; Mr. Hilland had invested heavily and speculated wildly. His debts were imminent, bills were long overdue and Mrs. Wright was forced to concede the only reason her brother had been allowed to delay payment this long was because of the hitherto good family name; it was what had prevented any exposure and embarrassment, and what had denied her any previous knowledge of matters.
Mr. Hilland had effectively left his family destitute, and his sister, poor ignorant Mrs. Wright with the bitterest disappointment in her brother's sense, judgement and feeling. It must have been many months, Mr. Jenkins reliably informed her, that Mr. Hilland would have been aware of the difficult financial strait he was travelling down, yet even that had not curbed his spending or frightened him into being more careful. Even to the last he had loaned a substantial amount to a young man who had asked for it to finance a journey abroad; and instead of drawing up a comprehensive legal document in which he would be guaranteed a return of his money, he had entrusted the whole to scribbling a short note on a piece of paper. It stated simply the young man's intention to travel in search of his fortune, a short line on his method of repaying the loan and, almost as an after thought, there were the hastily added signatures of both men attached to the end as a postscript. The flimsy document, instead of being safely locked away, had been left on the desk of Mr. Hilland's private study along with a host of other important papers.
There was nothing else to be done; every item in the Hilland household was auctioned to pay off Mr. Hilland's debt. Any trace of the family was erased from the home; and it stood like an empty shell once everything was done. Thoughts inevitably turned to the two girls; Catherine, even at her infant age, was tender enough towards her younger sister, so much so that she clung tightly to her and any attempts to separate them even for a few minutes resulted in fits of tears from one or both of them. At the tender age of six, she had assumed the role of both parents for her sister, aware even then, that their loss meant an absence of parental protection, and a reliance on the kindness of relatives.
It was a reliance they had of late reason to doubt. They had immediately after the funeral been spirited away to their Aunt Wright's house, a huge, ugly and grey stone building, of which they were to reside in a room at the furthest end of the East wing, where henceforth they were largely ignored. Their aunt declared her fraught nerves insufficient to suffer the attack on them by the noise and fret of two additional children.
In this state she confined them to the room furthest away from herself, to ensure she saw and heard as little of them as possible. Had the noise of children been insufficient reason for Mrs. Wright's cold detachment, the fact that the two girls reminded her too much of their parents, the younger especially, would have done just as well. Caroline was the very image of her late mother and thus, with added bitterness, Mrs. Wright turned them over entirely to the care of a nurse.
They stayed in this abject limbo of cold detachment from human sentiment for almost a year. It was a small wonder then that the arrival of their other Aunt, from the maternal side, in the summer of that year, seemed like a miracle to all. Mrs. Penren came from Hampshire with the initial intention of only seeing the two girls. She too was reminded by them of their parents, and as she knew little of the financial grievances that had surrounded their late father the memories were a great deal pleasanter than Mrs. Wright's. For Mrs. Penren, looking upon the faces of her late sister's children was a joy.
She was therefore understandably distressed to see them so coldly treated; though Mrs. Wright made every effort to display the supposed happiness of the girls to this relative stranger who they had not seen since the funeral. But even as she seated the girls on either side of her, Catherine on the left, with head bowed and hands folded neatly in her lap, and Caroline on the right clutching in her chubby fingers a doll, it was plain to see that none of them were happy.
It was unusual to see, Mrs. Penren had two daughters of her own; she could never have seated them so quietly, and though they looked well fed and clothed, she honestly believed she had never seen children looking so depressed. True, they had suffered the most grievous of losses, but it had been nearly twelve months, the natural, the innocent gaiety of a child ought to have taken over by now. If nothing else, the girls ought to have been smiling mischievously at her.
But there they sat, quiet and grave and not at all like the children of seven and four; a mere babe in arms who ought to have all the attention from both her aunts', but little Caroline did not speak, she did not cry, demand or even smile, she had looked towards her sister and seemed to have taken her cue from her.
Even as this was disturbing to Mrs. Penren's sensibilities, the look and manner of their Aunt Wright threatened to send her hysterical. She was convinced the woman did not even look at the girls. Once seated next to her, for all Mrs. Wright's attention to them they could have been an extension of the furniture; she kept her gaze fixedly on Mrs. Penren, the tea things, the paintings on the wall and all the time with that rigid, polite smile etched permanently on her face.
It was as if they were not there, and from what she had observed the past half hour Mrs. Penren suspected their aunt secretly wished they were not. She had come with the full intention of seeing the girls, spending time with them and having her poor heart soothed by the aching loss of a dear sister by seeing her children content and at play. But now she could not rest easily when one look in Catherine's eyes had convinced her of their wretched unhappiness; and though Mrs. Penren could never say as much to the strangely cold, older woman sat opposite her, she in all the delicacy she could master instead communicated her wish of taking the girls away to live with her.
It was these words that finally broke the unfamiliar and disturbing trance that held them all. Mrs. Wright's whole countenance suddenly came alive in the most animated fashion, and even Catherine's eyes which were now full of joyous thanks and hope, rose to meet her Aunt Penren's. Only young Caroline remained uninterested, choosing to amuse herself with her doll. Mrs. Wright agreed to the whole immediately and before the next hour was through all the arrangements to remove the girls from their Aunt Wright's house to their Aunt Penren's in Hampshire had been made.
It was only then, when it was decided for definite that the girls were to go that it dawned on Mrs. Wright she ought to feel something of guilt and regret. None of the feeling was genuine of course, but Mrs. Penren accepted with good grace her grievous mutterings of not having the right constitution and being too ill to give the ‘dear darlings' all the attention they needed.
So anxious was Mrs. Wright that all should appear proper that she ventured to use the same excuse to anyone who chose to inquire of the reasons behind the girls' removal; always carefully neglecting to mention the fact that their Aunt Penren, who resided in the inconsequential village of Aldern in Hampshire, was a great deal poorer, and her house smaller than that of Mrs. Wright.
She had descended amongst them, the kindest and purest of angels who heaven had sent it seemed, just in time to save them all from each other. However the happy rescue transpired, both Mrs. Penren's nieces would be forever grateful; even now, 18 years later with both girls grown into fine young women, their aunt remained uppermost in their affections for her kindness in taking them away from that house, where even a short stay, never mind a torturous twelve months in residence, had been enough to set them against ever returning. Nor did their Aunt Wright give them much in the way of invitations, though perhaps predictably of her, distance and absence did increase her tenderness a little, but only a very little.
But to Mrs. Penren belonged all the praise as because of her kind, affectionate nature she had taken on two, effectively penniless, orphans and sheltered them, cared for them and loved them as she loved her own daughters. Caroline and Catherine Hilland were adopted easily into the family and together the four girls had played, laughed, cried and grown up together as a loving, devoted family unit. Mrs. Penren was glad there had been no malice from her daughters Beatrice and Eleanor towards the two girls who she had one day suddenly brought home with her. Their house was so small that the two youngest girls, Caroline and Eleanor, were to share a room; they took to each other immediately, their young hearts capable of loving unconditionally and wholly without restraint, suspicion or awkwardness. The two elder girls, Catherine and Beatrice, were at first a little shy of each other, but all it took was for Beatrice to recommend and lend a book to the equally scholarly Catherine and the two were destined to become firm friends.
To Mrs. Penren's husband however, the two additions were not as welcome as the rest of the family found them. He could not forgive his wife for bringing into his home two more children to care for. It was not the trouble or the expense, he could well afford to keep the girls, and though he could not boast the grandness of their Aunt Wright's living, the family income would ensure their comfort. No, the feeding and clothing of two additional girls, or the sure knowledge of his being outnumbered by the fairer sex around his dinner table, was not the greater tax on his mind; his resentment towards the two girls stemmed from a baser source.
It was jealousy, earnest and intense. It was an envy of his wife's regard for Catherine and Caroline especially that drove this uncontrollable feeling. The sentiment perhaps would have been more rational had it developed in the heart of one of his daughters, but in the end it was he that could not help but treat them with a certain coldness and indifference. He could not help it, and even as he struggled against it almost everyday, he knew he failed the battle with his conscience over the sheer irrationality and foolishness of the sentiment; fancy, a petty jealousy over two children!
He knew all this yet he was still unable to overcome his anger. His resentment only grew every time he saw his wife carry Caroline as a child, or kiss her affectionately; his only prevailing thoughts at such a moment were how they had sapped away the affection of his wife, how neglected he was in lieu of the care and attention that his nieces received. He had once touched upon the subject with his wife, that is, his feelings of neglect and bitterness at missing the consideration of a wife while she played the part of a devoted mother to children who were not even her own. He thought she had not heard him, or had not cared to, for she did not move a muscle. But Captain Penren did not see her turn pale and tremble with anger on the very verge of tears; she had kept resolutely to her work, every stitch being sewn in a steady rhythm.
A gradual change, however, began to come over Mrs. Penren and the few months following her husband's words saw her slowly detaching herself from the girls. She was as kind and as loving as ever but the attachment was wanting, she withdrew from them and would sit quietly for hours, and, instead of joining them in their play or work as she had been used to in the first months of their arrival, contented herself with watching them and smiling now and then.
The effort offered no satisfaction to Captain Penren; his words had hurt her deeply and she could not forgive his heartlessness and selfish malice, or the tone with which he had spoken of the girls. She did become more attentive and considerate to him, but Captain Penren always had to be aware that it came at the expense of an exposure in his character, the betrayal of a flaw that would have been better kept from his wife. In hating what he saw as their intrusion into his previously content household, he had shown his wife his meanness and pettiness, and now he hated the girls even more for it. However knowing the initial fault had been entirely his own did nothing to abate his anger. He grew in bitterness, just as the indifference grew between himself and his wife.
The girls, all four of them, knew nothing of the growing aloofness taking over the household, though Catherine, circumstances having rendered her a little more sensitive than most girls her age, suspected that something was the matter and immediately attributed it to the presence of herself and her sister. Convinced that that was the case she endeavoured to do the best she could, in keeping out of her Uncle's way and taking greater care of Caroline herself so that her Aunt Penren would be as unburdened as possible. Catherine was determined to do whatever was needed, whatever pleased them; so afraid was she of being sent back to her Aunt Wright's. She did it all quietly and resolutely but her Aunt saw it all and that night, and many nights after, cried herself hoarse over the plights of her poor, suffering nieces.
Catherine Hilland, having the steadiest and most generous of natures, was soon in the way of being happily married. She married from her Aunt's house and, though Captain Penren could not offer her much in the way of wedding clothes and presents, he was unusually generous, such was his happiness at the prospect of finally being rid of one of them. That was two years past, and eighteen years since they had come to live with their Aunt Penren, and by now Catherine had a child of her own and had lately come to find herself again in that delicate condition incumbent on so many happy wives.
It was with the greatest sorrow that she had parted with her sister, so used to was she of taking care of little Caroline, but she had tried in vain to persuade Caroline to come and live with her when she moved to her marital home. But Caroline saw what her sister would not; the Caroline of eighteen years ago, aged three, did not, aged twenty-one, need the same protection Catherine afforded her then. She was, as she regularly declared herself, now old enough and she hoped wise enough, to be trusted to make decisions of her own. And one of the first had been sensibly deducting that, however kind and obliging Mr. Glaser, Catherine's intended, was, no man on earth could tolerate for long his wife having her sister live with them at such an early stage in their marriage. And a sister who his wife still insisted on treating like a child.
Caroline was now all grown up; she had emerged as a flower in the spring. She was now in the height of her bloom and had an unearthly beauty to add to her other accomplishments. She was tall and had a fine, full figure; slender and graceful, she moved as gently as a quiet summer breeze. Her complexion was smiling and brilliant, filled with the innocence and blush of youth, full red lips, high cheekbones and long, long eyelashes falling on the largest brown eyes. Caroline's hair, when allowed to fall at its full length, was long and had the lightest brown hue, so that when the sunlight hit it perfectly one would swear it was golden and shining. She was also intelligent, charming and witty; her manners capable of pleasing and amusing.
But even with all these powers of beauty and mind, it was still two more years before it was supposed she was likely to follow her sister in the marital vein. The object of her heart was chosen as soon as Caroline first understood the full importance of so vital an organ. She, rather obligingly, fell in love with the boy next door. The boy in question, being the sole son and heir of the richest family in the county was but an irrelevant point to Caroline, though the rest of Aldern made a constant habit of blessing her good fortune.
The Lansons were the neighbours of Caroline and the two children of the family, Henry and Margaret, had often come to play with the four girls of the Penren family, and through the children the families became close friends. Captain Penren appreciated the male company he found in Mr. Lanson, and Aunt Penren was sensible of the great advantage it could be to them to have the friendship of one of the principal families of Aldern.
For Caroline and Henry Lanson that friendship grew into a deep and unequalled love; they were always together - whether chasing each other in the garden and being scolded for it by Captain Penren - or at dinner parties where it had become generally accepted that Henry Lanson's place belonged next to Caroline. They had never made an attempt to hide their affection for each other, nor did they speak of it to each other; it was accepted by both that they were in love, and that at some point he would make a formal offer to her and she would accept. It did not much signify when that offer came, it was only understood that it would, and Caroline could be patient.
The course of true love had run remarkably smooth for them; there wasn't even a family objection to lament. The Penrens could have no objection as the advantage of a marriage would be entirely theirs. Henry's family were as fond of Caroline as he and, even though she was impoverished, they were romantic and wished both of their children to marry for love, and so did everything to approve and encourage the affection between them.
With all this happiness and affection awaiting them, the Penren family awoke that summer morning in April with the sun shining brighter and the birds it seemed chirping an altogether happier tune. The fanciful sentiments were no more alive in anyone's breast than in Caroline's. Henry had been in London these past three months, and though the time apart had been difficult, she had been led to believe the wait would be proved its worth.
There had been talk amongst the ladies of Aldern; something had been said to one of their husbands, that Henry had gone to London to shop for jewellery, for something to propose to his intended bride with. He was expected to return today and Caroline could not contain her excitement, she had waited patiently for years. All the while, knowing she loved him, but waiting and expecting everything to be formalized had still been agonising. She supposed that, although she had long been sure of her heart, a gentleman like Henry, who had the advantage of moving in the best of circles and meeting all manner of wealthy and agreeable women, had likewise to be certain before he committed himself to a woman he had known all his life, a woman who could offer him nothing more than fifty pounds a year, as well as all the love and devotion a heart could ever offer.
As they sat around to breakfast that morning the whole family, aware of just what this day meant to Caroline, was excited and eager. Beatrice was full of hints, and Aunt Penren who had much the same disposition as Caroline was quiet and happy. Only Captain Penren, tired of seeing the inane grins of the females of the family, excused himself soon after sitting down as the impending happiness was turning his stomach.
Eleanor was the only other person around the table for whom the approaching nuptials of Caroline were met with, though for different reasons, less than enthusiastically. For Eleanor the thought of losing her childhood companion, the girl barely a year her senior who had nevertheless been looked up to as a guide, was unbearable. She was far closer to Caroline than she had ever been to Beatrice; it was Caroline that was thought more of as a sister. But because of her love and affection she could be pleased and happy for her, even when the fear of losing her was crippling, she could smile and laugh at Caroline's embarrassment, whenever that beautiful, flushed face looked upon her.
Caroline could not sit quietly, could not eat, the anticipation and excitement of what was sure to happen shortly rendered her restless and quite useless. She resolved, therefore, to set off on her morning walk. Her avowed intention was to calm herself but secretly she set out along the walk that was a favourite with both Henry and her. She had romantic notions of coming across him this way, quite unintentionally of course, but the thought of being the first to see him and talk to him was not far from her mind. The path was secluded and cut through a cloche of trees; it led directly from the Penren house to the back of Lanson Hall where she could at least have the pleasure of watching the servants unload the trunks if chance did not afford a meeting with him en route.
She had not yet entered the woods when the sudden appearance of a figure moving silently along the path, startled her. It was not Henry; she established that immediately, as the figure too graceful and slender to be anyone but a lady. The seclusion of the path allowed Caroline to see her before she herself was seen. All her alarm was quieted when she ascertained exactly who the mysterious figure was - Mrs. Lanson was stood before her.
She knew something was wrong immediately she saw the disquieted, pale expression the older woman wore. Caroline had always thought that Mrs. Lanson looked remarkably well for a woman of her age, she had married late and had children even later, but even with her greying hair Mrs. Lanson defied anyone to guess her age exactly. She always held herself so dignified and aloof and always looked younger than her many years. But, for the first time, Caroline noticed the wrinkles around Mrs. Lanson's eyes, eyes that were dark and rimmed. She was sure Mrs. Lanson had been crying.
The surety of this set Caroline's heart racing; had something happened to Henry, some sort of accident? The thought alarmed her for a little while till she remembered that Mrs. Lanson, with all her dignity and poise, was also perhaps one of the most easily fretted women she had ever met; never mind an accident, the idea that a trunk had gone missing would be enough to set her off in this fit of tears. But even as she consoled herself with this being the event to so upset Mrs. Lanson, it was clear she was wrong. She had stepped close to Caroline as soon as she had seen her and, taking her hand now by way of greeting, patted it distractedly, and spoke in broken sentences.
‘Well ... how are you dear ... ? I was hoping to meet you ... you're looking well. Come up to the house, I wish to speak to you about something...' Caroline was now more afraid than ever.
‘Mrs. Lanson, are you well? I am sorry to say that you are looking quite ill...' But despite all her endeavours Caroline could coax no more out of her. Mrs. Lanson did not say another word and practically dragged Caroline behind her up to the house. She just had time to note there were no carriages by the door of Lanson Hall, no trunks being unloaded; however, it could only be a passing observation as Mrs. Lanson almost took her arm off by pulling her inside and deposited her on the sofa in the drawing room. Whatever it was that had distressed her so much, Caroline would hear it now. Mrs. Lanson seated herself next to her rather tentatively and tried to begin.
‘Oh dear ... I do not know what to say to you, what should I say, how do I begin?'
Caroline did her best to calm her, ‘Mrs. Lanson please tell what is the matter, has something happened, what can have affected you so dreadfully? Is it Henry, God forbid ... an accident? Please Mrs. Lanson, the suspense is awful...'
‘Of course dear...' she tried to compose herself and began distractedly patting Caroline's hand again. Caroline took one of Mrs. Lanson's hands and held it tightly; she looked her in the face and smiled reassuringly. Mrs. Lanson taking a letter from her pocket dress handed it to Caroline, she recognised the handwriting, it was from Henry, addressed to his mother, Caroline confused looked to Mrs. Lanson for an answer.
‘Perhaps this will go a long way to explaining things...' was all she would say, ‘please read it Caroline.'
Caroline's hands shook as she took the pages out of their envelope, her mouth was dry all of a sudden, and as she became aware of her reflection in the mirror above the mantelpiece, she saw the colour had drained form her face. She looked ghostly and ill. The letter was dated from three days ago, written in the afternoon from his address in London.
It had quite clearly been written in two parts, the first began amiably enough with all the shortcomings customary of a gentleman's letter to a woman, all incidents but no details. He wrote of the places he had visited and friends he had met, he inquired after his friends back home, and wrote of his desire to return soon.
The second half was written in an altogether different vein, it had probably been written later on the same day, but there was a want of spirit there Caroline could not miss.
The first words ‘it is done' were curious enough, but Caroline could never have guessed the contents of the lines that were to come. They would tear her hitherto perfect, innocent little world apart.
mother you should prepare, you all must prepare to receive a guest soon. I must delay my return home by a fortnight, after which I will be returning to Lanson Hall with Miss Pilken and her mother Lady Pilken. I have asked Miss Pilken to be my wife, mother, and she has accepted. I believe as the expression goes, I must be the happiest of men...
Caroline almost dropped the letter on these words. She could not believe what she was reading, it seemed unreal. Every word was breaking her heart, but she could not help reading on, her eyes would devour every line, every sentence. He wrote of their meeting, of Miss Pilken's character, her wit and her beauty, but Caroline could still not believe it; surely she must have been reading the words of another, not the man who had only a few months previously believed to be in love with her! Her eye moved over the page mechanically but she did not take in another word; she handed the letter back to Mrs. Lanson and refused to meet her gaze.
Mrs. Lanson was understandably perplexed and distressed, ‘I know what they will say ... Oh, how could he do this to you, to us? Dear Caroline the talk in the village, the condemnation, I do not care for any of them, but you Caroline...' he she took Caroline's hands and held them firmly, ‘...to know, I only wish that you will not think so very ill of him...'
All the time that Mrs. Lanson had been talking, Caroline had silently sat with her head bowed. She was aware of a growing coldness, she felt it even in the hand Mrs. Lanson was holding, it crept over her silently and wrapped itself around her heart; and there it held fast in an icy grip. All she had ever known was falling around her, her world, her love, everything she had ever seemed to understand about it was proving false. She tried vainly against the pain to gather her thoughts, to offer this kind woman some reassuring words, she felt strongly for her, what a task had befallen her!
She did not know even than how she managed it, but looking up suddenly she offered Mrs. Lanson a smile, it was slight and painfully false, but necessary. ‘Mrs. Lanson, what a scare you have given me, I was sure something was wrong, a terrible calamity, but here is nothing but the best of news. I congratulate you on Henry's engagement ... you are to gain a daughter, and by all accounts the sweetest, kindest creature in the world!'
Mrs. Lanson desperately wished to believe Caroline's exclamations of joyous felicitation but she could not be so easily convinced, further assurance was required and Caroline obligingly supplied. She was forced to laugh when she could have cried so bitterly, forced to note the excitement a new face in the village would occur, when she was dreading the gossip the whole affair would equally excite.
Oh God! Her Aunt, Beatrice and Eleanor, the sorrow they would feel on her behalf, the pain and disappointment when they learnt of his ... rejection. There was no other word for it, he had rejected her, had chosen another, loved another. Here Caroline's painfully gathered composure deserted her, she made a hasty excuse to Mrs. Lanson and secured her release.
But her ordeal was not over yet, even as she quickly crossed the hall, her feet skipping over the tiled floor rapidly, a door opened and Mr. Lanson stepped in front of her; she had to smile once more, ‘Mr. Lanson, I congratulate you sir, on your son's very happy prospects...' Next she did something that surprised them both, standing on tip toe she reached up and kissed him softly on the cheek; he was much too astonished to say anything in reply, she had always been too much in awe of him to do anything but reply quietly whenever he had spoken to her.
She rushed past him without another word and almost ran out of the house, the cooling summer air hit her like a welcome tonic; she ran past the servants in the garden and down and out of the huge iron gates. She did not stop running until she reached the copse where Mrs. Lanson had first surprised her, leaning against a gnarled, ancient beech she took in gasps of air in fitful, halting breaths.
The last half hour had been a bizarre nightmare, she refused to believe it. He had loved her, surely if he had had no intention of ... but no, she would not believe he could have deceived her so dreadfully, but that letter ... he had almost acknowledged it!
The tears that had been suppressed for so long came in an overwhelming torrent. She clamped a hand to her mouth to muffle the painful cries that would escape her, the other she clasped to her chest to hold back the crushing feeling pushing against her. She slowly sank down, and in that half-sitting, half-kneeling manner allowed her grief to overtake her. She remained in that broken vulnerable way for what seemed to her to be an age.
The fear of being discovered, and knowing her aunt would be concerned about her lengthy absence, eventually served to raise her slowly to her feet; her head ached and she was a little unsteady as she stood, but in that time of quiet desperation and personal grief, she had resolved to be stronger. That strange coldness returned and now she did not fight it, she instead allowed it to envelop her, to be a comfort to her. It made her more composed, firmer of purpose than the pathetic creature she was determined to leave a broken heap underneath the gnarled beech tree.
Her family should not, would not, be distressed on her behalf; and Aldern would never know how much she suffered. The pain was hers alone, she would not allow it to become the next topic of conversation over tea for the ladies nor was she, more importantly, going to allow her family to be burdened with it.
Besides who was to say the whole thing was not a mistake, that a second letter would not follow the first retracting the whole?
When Caroline did eventually manage to drag her weary feet home her head ached acutely from her fit of tears earlier, and her heart overflowed with sorrow. She did not realise how late it was until she saw the servants making preparations for lunch; the normality of the whole situation struck her. What a stark difference her situation now held, with what different feelings she had left the house only that morning!
As she walked past the drawing room where, she could tell from their voices, the family were assembled, she hastened her step and hoped to be away and up the stairs to her room before they were any the wiser. She was not so fortunate. Her aunt had been listening out for her and, in anticipation of the happy news she felt sure her niece was to bring, called out to her, ‘Caroline where have you been? We were quite despairing of seeing you at lunch today...as it is you are just in time.'
Caroline closed her eyes and tried to speak in as even a voice as possible, ‘Forgive me Aunt, I was walking and lost track of time. I met Mrs. Lanson on the way, she wanted to speak to me...she had news.'
‘Well what news? Come in and tell us...' Caroline could well imagine her aunt's smile as she spoke these words, thinking she knew very well what news the Lansons could have. The supposition and the firm disproving that was to be made of it pained Caroline all the more. She could not, would not, go in and instead replied from where she stood outside the door.
‘No ... I-I must go wash aunt, it was nothing important, just that Henry will not be returning home until another fortnight at least ... and, oh yes, he is to bring his intended bride with him to see the place.'
Caroline heard the collective gasp from the room and with it went all her resolve, her fast fading strength now deserted her and she gave in to all her unhappiness. She could not bear to answer all the questions that were sure to come and so she ran up the stairs seeking the safety of the stillness of her room.
The family heard her hurried steps and the firm closing of her door, and for a full minute they sat silent and agape; it shocked them all; had they heard correctly? Henry Lanson and...bride? The only context in which they had long expected to hear those words was in relation to Caroline, but there was another?
It was Aunt Wright who managed, at last, to put into words exactly what they were all thinking. She hastily brushed away a tear, rose from her chair and broke the silence that was hanging over the room, ‘Poor girl ... if it is true, what disappointment. I must go to her.'
The rustling of her mother's skirts brought Beatrice out of her silent reverie. ‘No mother you mustn't, you cannot.' Her sharp remonstrance startled the whole room, they looked at her astonished, Beatrice, who rarely spoke at all beyond a barely audible sound, had now practically shouted.
‘Of course I must, what do you mean I cannot? She will need somebody to talk to, some comfort...' Mrs. Penren drew up her features in disdain and mocked what she saw as her daughter's stupidity.
Beatrice was not perturbed by her mother's tone, nor was she at all shaken in her conviction, ‘Caroline will need to be alone ... please mama, please believe me - company will be the last thing she will want,' seeing her mother wavering still, she spoke more sternly, ‘this is no time to press her for particulars.'
Mrs. Penren at last resigned herself to Beatrice's judgement and sat back down reluctantly. Thinking she had done Caroline an immense service, Beatrice smiled her assurances at her mother. However, the words that had worked wonders on her mother had apparently fallen on deaf ears where her sister Eleanor was concerned. She volunteered herself to be the bringer of comfort and solace to her poor cousin, and declared her resolution of going to her right away. ‘I will go; she will not mind my being with her I'm sure...'
Beatrice was ready with her objections once more, ‘And I am sure she will hate, as anyone would, to swap pity for rejection? There is nothing more repulsive, abhorrent to human nature...please Eleanor, mother, believe me, trust in me, when I say that the best and the kindest service you could ever perform for her now is to leave her to herself. When she is ready and able she will talk to us about it, until then we must contrive to be patient and accept whatever details, whenever Caroline wishes to impart to us.'
Eleanor however still protested and in a finally desperate measure Beatrice appealed to her father. Captain Penren stood in front of the fireplace; he had resumed reading his newspaper form where he had though it unnecessarily interrupted. He had by remaining silent and indifferent hoped to distance himself from the whole affair, but his eldest daughter would protest for his opinion and he would have to choose a side and be drawn into the whole sorry business, however much he wished against it. He sighed deeply before replying curtly, ‘Beatrice is right, I have relied on her judgement before and have not been disappointed,' Eleanor began to speak again, ‘She is right Eleanor, let us hear no more about it...' He determined to hear no more about it, packed up his paper and hurried out of the room.
Beatrice, though a little saddened by her father's indifference, was satisfied with the outcome of his words. Eleanor did at least keep to her seat. Beatrice Penren was not what one would call conventionally pretty, she was too tall and awkward to make a lasting impression when she entered a room, her complexion was pale and blotchy, though the worst of it had passed in her youth and now she could be settled for simply being plain. But her beauty was of the type that was inner and shone brightly and clearly for those with enough generosity and sense to look beyond the mere outward appearance, she had selflessness of spirit and wisdom beyond her years.
Caroline's earlier resolution that she would spare her family any anxiety on her behalf seemed abandoned for most of that day; she locked herself in her room, refused to come down for lunch, and would not touch the tray of food that was left outside her door. She stayed this way, alone and quiet, though Jenny, the servant girl, informed a worried Aunt Penren that if one walked past Miss Hilland's room very softly, one could hear her crying bitterly.
It was not until dinner that evening that Caroline finally made her much sought after appearance; she came down the steps slowly and quietly, and sat down without a word. Her eyes were painfully red and puffy, it was clear she had been crying. The atmosphere around the table was tense and uncomfortable; none of the family dared approach the subject that must have occupied their minds so completely. Caroline silently thanked them for it for she was sure any questions from them would set her crying again. She must broach the subject, she looked around the table, only her uncle seemed to have much of an appetite, he could put away his food admirably while the rest of them probed it pitifully not daring to look above their plate.
‘Her name is Miss Pilken...' Caroline spoke suddenly and without introduction. The words surprised them and their silence encouraged her as she took a deep breath and began again, ‘Henry wrote about her in his letter to his mother; she will be visiting Lanson Hall with her mother Lady Pilken when he returns in a fortnight...'
Still no one spoke, she looked at each of them in turn for some confirmation, for a sign that they had heard and understood what she had said. Her uncle carried on eating, his reaction did not surprise her; it was to her aunt she turned. Mrs. Penren was full of sympathy and her kind smile spoke more to Caroline's heart than any words ever could. Beatrice likewise kept her silence, only Eleanor with all the innocence of youth and none of its reserve and embarrassment spoke. ‘But Caroline ... is it sure? Quite sure I mean, could there be any mistake?'
Caroline smiled at the manner of her question, ‘Yes Eleanor. When a man invites a young lady to his house as well as her mother, believe me it is quite for sure. There is no mistake, she is his intended bride and they are to be married.' Her strained smile faded and she lapsed back into quiet listlessness.
Her cousin's clear distress and sorrow inflamed the feeling Eleanor. She banged her cutlery on the table, startling them all and cried out in an impassioned voice ‘Well I hate him and her too!'
‘Eleanor...!' Beatrice, who had been desperately forming some saying, some wise words to offer her condolences, was rather ashamed to be outdone by her younger sister who, in all her simplistic eloquence, had spoken what they all felt.
But Eleanor was adamant and spoke as she felt, and did not care who heard it. ‘Well I do! Fancy writing it in a letter and asking his mother to break the news to us! The very cowardice! I never thought much of him, he is certainly not good enough for you Caroline, but I would have at least thought him gentlemanly enough to tell you himself. Instead he consigns the whole to his poor mother, while he stays safe in London!'
Her gloriously harsh words plunged the room, if it were at all possible, deeper into that silence and oppression that had so dominated the atmosphere when Caroline had sat down. Even Captain Penren stopped eating and wiped his mouth.
Caroline eventually spoke in a quiet voice, ‘He didn't ask his mother to tell me, I'm sure that wasn't his intention...' and with that she excused herself.
Beatrice looked at Eleanor reproachfully, feeling her rash speech had forced Caroline's retreat. Now no-one was in the humour for food so the servants were called and the table cleared. Captain Penren made his way to his study with instructions that he was not to be disturbed. Mother and daughters were left to themselves. The girls took up their own amusements, Beatrice a book and Eleanor to trimming a bonnet; they could not however keep their minds disengaged of Caroline's situation for long, and, tired of the days events, declared their intention for bed.
Only their mother stayed up, sat quiet and still in her chair, and the candle burnt long and short before she resigned herself to bed. Caroline's words as she had left the table worried Mrs. Penren; there was a vain hope in them that she distrusted. It troubled her that Caroline insisted on holding to this hope and defending his conduct still. It was foolish to think, as she half-suspected Caroline did, that the whole was a mistake. Henry Lanson would not have written to his mother about the engagement had the matter not been all but settled. He must have known Mrs. Lanson would have had to speak to Caroline about the engagement before she could read it as an announcement in the paper. Eleanor had been right in attributing the letter and his conduct in relying on his mother to carry out what ought to have been his duty to cowardice.
Caroline's situation kept her awake. The poor girl was deceiving herself by thinking that he would see sense and break it off, that he would come back to her. Of all the confusion of the day, this was the thing Mrs. Penren was certain would not happen.
Henry Lanson would not break off his engagement to a girl he had known for barely a few months, and return to the girl he had loved as a child and who loved him so much so that her heart was shattered over his betrayal.
When at length Mrs. Penren did close her eyes, she believed she could hear Caroline crying softly, and the sound rippled through the quiet house.
© 2006 Copyright held by the author.