All Too Handsome
Julia Graham was a fortunate young lady with a perfect life. She had grown up in a wealthy family, untitled but nevertheless respectable and genteel. Her family were well-liked in their neighbourhood. They did all that was right; their gifts to the poor were more frequent than the balls they gave, though the latter were in sufficient quantity as well. The same applied to dinner parties. No one in their neighbourhood had any cause to feel slighted, nor to slight them. No family member had ever got into a scandal, nor had their behaviour ever given rise to gossip of the bad kind. The Grahams could not even boast of rakes in the remotest branches of their family tree.
There had not been any great sorrow or unexpected responsibilities in Julia's life to trouble her. Her parents had not considered dying and all six children they had brought into the world were still healthy and thriving. The only ones Julia had saved from the brink of death were villagers.
She had attended one of the best schools in the country, one with kind teachers and a decent curriculum, and she had returned as happy and accomplished as a girl could be. Save for her two younger sisters there was not another young woman in the neighbourhood who promised to be as accomplished as Miss Graham. Certainly few were as beautiful, or so people said. In spite of these recommendations Julia's character was excellent and she was not deficient in understanding.
It came as no great surprise to anybody that Julia was an instant success when she came out. Although her wise parents had delayed that until she was eighteen, reluctant to give her up to a husband too soon, everybody expected her to be married before she was nineteen. And indeed, there had been no shortage of suitors. There had even been a proposal that first year -- and the second, the third, the fourth. People who knew had lost count, for in addition to her other accomplishments, Julia had also become very good at refusing gentlemen and for years she scarcely understood why. She was three-and-twenty when it became clear to her that they had all been too handsome.
Not that there was anything wrong with handsome men per se, Julia reflected as she closed her poetry book after this epiphany. She liked to take a book along if she went for a walk, to combine the physical with the mental, and poetry was less consuming than prose. She would not forget the time with poems. They were short and put her in the right mind for deep thoughts. She liked those occasionally, but not so often as to become boring.
Handsome men were pleasant to look at and she appreciated beauty as much as the next girl. There was nothing wrong with faces with which there was nothing wrong, where eyebrows, noses and mouths were exactly in proportion. She could admire their portraits forever. So much the better if they were accompanied by a tall and erect figure. She enjoyed dancing with such gentlemen and there was nothing strange in that. She thought not, at least.
The first gentleman who had proposed to her had been very handsome, yet she had refused him. Something had not felt right. Her being such an excellent match herself ensured that only the best dared to approach her. Nothing could have been better for her than a young, handsome, wealthy gentleman in possession of an estate and agreeable conversation. Such young men even thought so themselves, for the ones in the following years had been much like the first. Nobody had understood why she refused them and even Julia herself had found it difficult to explain.
But now, after reading here on this hilltop, comprehension and insight were coming to her. She did not want a handsome man. Why did she not? She appreciated beauty. What made handsome men so undesirable? Julia thoughtfully descended the hill. She could think so well up there, but she would be late for dinner if she stayed and Julia Graham had never been late for anything. She was punctual and dutiful.
There had been something lacking in her suitors, Julia realised as she reached the path to the Grahams' house. It was odd. How could she feel they lacked something if they had rather too much? It was odd that it should take a young lady a few years to know her exact tastes! It was odd that a young lady with an appropriate appreciation for beauty should not like handsome young men enough to marry them. Julia was quite puzzled at herself.
Julia arrived home to find that her mother had dispatched the invitations to their yearly ball. This was always a grand occasion; even selecting the paper for the invitations was done very fastidiously. It was a task her mother reserved for herself, although her daughters were allowed to address them.
With her new-found insight, prompted by the prospect of a ball, the future was interesting to Julia. She had not yet lost her inclination for balls and her family, good as they were, never bothered her about the proposals she had refused. They did not despair of her prospects, nor of those of her younger sisters. At least, they had never done so before.
"It is a pity you refused Mr. Neville," her sister Catherine said at dinner. "He is still unmarried, but he would never look at the same family twice."
"I am sure I could think of examples of men who did," Julia answered. She wondered how her sister could think Mr. Neville would still be available if he had married. If she had not refused Mr. Neville, he could not have married her sister either. This was a sort of logic that needed no explanation.
"But not Mr. Neville. He told me so himself."
"In that case either he or you were not behaving appropriately," Julia said calmly. She was glad she had refused him, considering how he spoke to her sister.
"He always behaves appropriately."
"Even if you prompted him to make such a statement, I cannot think of it as --"
"Julia is right, Catherine," Mrs. Graham interrupted. "He had no business telling you such a thing. It can only have been to tease you."
"And all of you dislike anything that approaches teasing exceedingly." Catherine looked dissatisfied with her own family. "You must be very glad he is not thinking of offering for me."
"I hope his attentions to you ceased when he informed you of that," her father said dryly. "But I somehow doubt it."
"Was he invited?" Julia suddenly wondered. She had seen Mr. Neville since his proposal, but she had never thought he had suffered from her refusal. He had always been civil, although his manner might well have been hiding great disappointment. Strange remarks to her sister might point at that. Or had it been flirting? She was not very good at flirting herself.
"Of course he was invited," her mother replied. It would not do to slight Mr. Neville. Other people would wonder.
Catherine was morose. "For other girls. He is so handsome." She sighed dramatically as her mind conjured up the image of Mr. Neville.
Julia decided to be shocking. "That is why I did not want him."
"Julia only wants ugly men!" a younger brother cried immediately.
Julia was a little piqued. "There is a difference between very handsome and ugly." She would have thought it was quite obvious she would settle for something normal rather than for absolute perfection. There was no need to suspect her of wanting the other extreme.
"I shall send all my ugly friends your way," said another brother.
"Fine. I have shown I know what to do with men I do not want -- and you can be certain I do not want friends of yours."
"That is very wise of you, Julia," said her father. "One should not accept men one does not want and the reasons for not wanting them are entirely up to you. You will have to spend the rest of your life with the fellow, after all."
"Thank you, Papa." She shot her brothers a smug look.
"Why, a ball at the Grahams'!" Gregory Neville drawled languidly when he received the invitation. "As if I did not already know. The delectable Miss Catherine already told me."
"Did she tell you if I am invited?" his friend David Richmond wondered, a little less languidly. He was nevertheless not very interested, for he was taking apart a gun. They had just been out to shoot with a few other friends and they were justifiably tired. They did not usually exert themselves so, not having all that much to do.
"You have much to learn if you think girls speak of other men in my presence," Neville said with a rather smug look.
"Do they not? Why not?"
He could not give an honest reply to that question. "At any rate, I have no desire to speak of you if I am speaking to one of them."
"Now that makes more sense," said Richmond. "The delectable Miss Catherine and all. Do not tell me you have been snared."
"Snared? Oh, no. I have no plans with Miss Catherine."
"If she is anything like her sister..." Richmond picked up a cloth and began to clean the gun.
"What do you know of her sister?" Neville was suddenly sharp.
"Fickle and cold. I doubt that I am on the guest list. Two years ago she refused me." He did not recall having been on any guest lists since then, but if truth be told he had also hardly been in the area. The Grahams were not so foolish as to invite people who were not there.
"That insipid creature, Julia Graham?"
"She was not insipid until the proposal," Richmond said with a sigh. While Neville had an estate of his own and Richmond was merely the heir to his, the property the latter stood to inherit was larger. Neither of them deserved insipidity from girls, yet Julia Graham had been most unkind. He had believed she returned his feelings, only to find that apparently she did not.
Henry Thompson, no longer Harry since he had left for university, examined the elegant invitation that Neville had dropped onto the table. A ball at the Grahams'. He had never attended, although his family had and he had dined at the Grahams' occasionally. If their balls were as good as their dinners it would be very agreeable. "I wonder if we are getting one," he wondered.
The Grahams were an unaffected family, or they would not invite the Thompsons, although money bought a way in anywhere, Thompson reflected wryly. The Thompsons were easily the richest in the neighbourhood by now. His grandfather had done well in trade and his father even better. If it were not for greed his father could have stopped working long ago, but Thompson could certainly live comfortably without doing a day's work. He did not know if that was what he wanted, however. There was an interesting contradiction in being raised with all the values of hard-working people, yet always being told he would be a gentleman when he grew up.
He had grown up now, but he did not know if he was a gentleman, in spite of his education. It took more than simply going to the right schools, he found, but he was not sure he cared if his father's attempts had failed. They were fine as they were, receiving invitations from everyone except from those he did not care about in the first place. There seemed so little to gain. He lacked his father's ambitions, he knew, but he could not help it.
"I wonder why Richmond is speaking of a proposal here," Neville said even more sharply. He had shed his languid pose for certain now and he sat up straight. "Did you propose to Miss Graham?"
"That is what I said. She refused me." Richmond did not like admitting it, but he was among friends. They would have found out sooner or later if he planned to stay in the neighbourhood, but having returned from university and a tour of the continent, he did not know where else he was supposed to live. His secrets were bound to come out.
"What do you mean?"
"She refused me too."
"Lord!" said Thompson, who thought both others would have been perfect suitors. They were rich, from genteel families, with estates and connections. They had so much more to appeal to young ladies than he did. He only had money. "What could have been wrong with you?"
"I should like to know that myself," Neville replied. He shared Thompson's opinion of himself. "But she never gave me a good answer. Insipid creature." He tried to recall what she had told him, but it had been too insipid for him to remember. Meaningless words, no doubt.
"Indeed. She went cold when I proposed, as if she had never seen it coming," Richmond nodded. "So fickle. I do not propose to girls out of the blue. I first make sure they like me."
"Er...just how many girls have you proposed to?" Thompson wrinkled his nose. He was evidently not a gentleman; his count of girls to whom he had proposed still stood at none. It was much too early even to think of such tactics as making sure they liked him.
"By now, two or three. I am not perfectly aware of what I did on the Continent at all times. Some proposals there may have been uttered in jest. They were certainly received as such." There, more secrets came out, he thought philosophically, but if they had been to the Continent themselves, they too would have become inebriated and enamoured.
This made Neville laugh. "You are an idiot, Richmond. But back to Miss Graham. So I was not the first, eh? Were you? After all, she has been out for a few years by now and everyone speaks highly of her. Thompson?"
"When were you refused by Julia Graham?"
Richmond and Neville narrowed their eyes. "Does that mean you are engaged?"
"It means that I never proposed. You are both idiots. I am sure she would refuse me too if I tried, but I have never felt the inclination -- and from what you are telling me, I doubt I shall." It sounded as if Julia Graham had grown up to be proud and demanding. He could only recall a civil young lady and he had vague recollections of having played with her before they had been sent off to school, but in neither case would he have come to know her true character.
"I doubt she would have you."
"I will not do you the pleasure of trying," Thompson said amiably.
"Her sister is less cold; heated up quite well when I said I never looked at the same family twice," Neville chuckled. "I may stick to that or I may not. Perhaps I shall try for Miss Graham again. Females refuse one for the silliest reasons. Some simply want you to ask another time."
Julia prepared for her ball as she usually did. She never expected a suitor and there was no telling when handsome men struck. She was simply busy because finding a gown and accessories took quite a lot of time in addition to her usual pastimes. She could of course make herself look the same as one of the previous times, but for a ball at home everyone would make a little more effort. Having two sisters ensured that there was always someone with the same concerns, which might make the preparations take longer.
Mrs. Graham had some interesting news for her daughters. "Lady Brent has asked me if her sister-in-law's nephew may come with her. He will be visiting unexpectedly at the time."
"Her sister-in-law's nephew," Alexandra repeated slowly. "What does that make him?"
"It does not have to make him interesting," said Julia. He might be so far removed from Lady Brent as to be quite ordinary.
"If he is ugly, he will be," Catherine chuckled.
Her sister shot her a fatigued look. Ever since she had made her comment about handsome men, she had had to suffer vexing remarks from her sisters and brothers. She wished she had never said a word.
"Lady Brent did not tell me about his appearance. She merely said he was an agreeable young man and fond of dancing, as all agreeable young men are," said Mrs. Graham. "Consequently I have no idea which one of you he would suit in looks. I also have no idea about his income or profession or whatever he may have."
"You did not ask, Mama?" Catherine was appalled that such an important question could have gone unasked.
"My dear, with three unmarried girls that would have sounded quite mercenary and single-minded, do you not think? It might have given Lady Brent the impression that we should only welcome half-relatives of hers who were good matches for our daughters. I have to trust Lady Brent on this young man's being agreeable and fond of dancing. What could be more important at a ball?"
"Handsome men," Catherine sulked. "And not of the farmer variety."
"Would you admit to the possibility of handsome farmers?" Julia owned herself a little surprised. Of the three of them she would say that Catherine had the greatest appreciation for finery. It was rarely to be found in farmers or their homes.
"Well, they may be good-looking in an unsuitably rugged sort of way. Not that I look at them," she added with an angelic sideways glance at her mother. "I merely admit to the possibility. And you?"
"I am growing tired of discussion about men's looks." Julia rose. "I need a walk."
Mrs. Graham gave her eldest's retreating figure a concerned look. Something was bothering Julia and she did not know what it was precisely. "You must not tease your sister so, Catherine. Not until she is married, anyhow."
Julia did not bring a book this time. She was so eager to be out that she did not want to go past the library -- and she had enough to think about without needing a book to prompt her. The only thing she carried with her was an apple from the orchard that she had carefully checked for worms. She did not particularly like worms. Simply seeing them made one queasy.
"Is it not a good one?" asked the gardener as if he had personally made the apples appear on the trees.
"Very good. There are so many this year. We shall be able to give many away." This pleased her. They would sell most, naturally, but it was always pleasant to be able to give some to the poor. Last year the harvest had not been very good. It was one of their duties to have a good harvest, she felt.
"Indeed. If you wish, miss, I can already make a few baskets for you."
"Yes, please. But no worms, please. I do not wish worms on anybody."
He promised to try and she continued on her way. She walked her favourite route, using the stepping stones to cross the small river rather than the bridge. The wood had sagged dangerously the last time she had used it and she would rather get only her feet wet. It was the prettiest way to the village she could think of, green and shadowy, yet with enough flowers to add brighter patches of colour.
Julia checked her pocket for money and found she still had a little. She entered the village to buy some purple ribbon, since she had decided that purple was one of her colours for the ball. Satisfied with her purchase she returned home, realising she had not thought of handsome men in the least while she was out. This proved only that handsome men were not as important as they always thought, she told herself with a grin. But becoming more serious, she did not think she could give up her pretty route for anything. She would certainly not like to live in a town. There was nothing to paint in a town. She wanted to stay here or go somewhere prettier.
But not with a handsome man. That was odd. Or perhaps not. Julia's watercolours contained many pretty scenes, but never any pretty men. She wondered if that was significant or if she was losing her mind a little. It was probably the latter, for she was not at all good at drawing people and portraits.
Thankfully Catherine was back to her sisterly self when Julia returned. There was much appreciation for her ideas concerning the ribbon and a timid request to be asked to do the same with a ribbon of her own. Julia thought she might give permission for it, although it must not turn them into triplets -- of course Alexandra would follow suit if she heard of it. But looking like triplets would not do. They could not have people mistake one for the other, could they? She snickered a little at the idea of ugly men chasing Catherine, although ugly men would not be chasing anybody in reality, only in her sister's mind.
Catherine and Alexandra had discovered that Lady Brent's sister-in-law's nephew was called Mr. Ainsley and that he would be dancing the first dance with Fanny Brent. This unsettled three young Grahams, for Francis Graham rather liked Fanny Brent, in spite of his sisters always telling him that a Francis could not possibly do well with a Frances. In his opinion, however, there were no impediments to a Frank and a Fanny, and Mr. Ainsley, whose first name they did not know, might well be less suited. Frank could not be too open about his fears, because they did not know the extent of his admiration.
Catherine and Alexandra could be less guarded. "He really ought to dance with one of us as well. We are giving the ball, after all."
"Are we inviting enough young men to dance at least once with one of us?" Julia wondered. "Too few? Or too many? I think Mr. Ainsley will not be able to escape dancing with a Graham, unless he commits himself to Fanny Brent for the entire evening, in which case he is unavailable anyhow."
"And you have first rights to him." They were dutiful sisters and knew what was due to the eldest.
"Really, I should not want to leave you only cast-offs," Julia laughed. "Just as we have our preferences, so do they. We are not the same, in spite of perhaps dressing alike at the ball if you copy me."
The day of the ball was approaching rapidly now and the girls' excitement increased equally rapidly. A ball at home was very special. Most other activities were suspended in favour of the preparations, although Julia did find the time to go into the village with baskets of apples on a few occasions. Her sisters had never displayed an interest and her mother was too busy.
It had rained steadily during the last few days and Julia had been going into the village by carriage, but the morning of the ball it was dry and she ventured out again on foot. The path was muddy, so she had to take care where she walked, but she was happy to be out again. The stepping stones were nearly completely submerged and she would have to take the bridge. Julia did not like the bridge; it was centuries old and it was rotting.
This was no affectation; in the middle of the bridge the wood suddenly gave way under her feet. Julia hardly knew what happened, but she shrieked and found herself suspended by her skirts, hanging almost upside down above the water. She was concerned about her apples, but the basket had fallen on a less rotten plank and it was safe.
After a few moments she wondered why she was worried about apples when there were so much more important things to be worried about. She tried to catch a glimpse of her legs, but thankfully one of her underskirts was still in place and it was something else that had got stuck. She was not too exposed. It was mortifying nevertheless.
It was also inconvenient, for she appeared to be quite stuck. She could not move too much for fear of exposing herself. There was even a danger that she would fall head-first into the river. After considering her options, Julia decided to hang still until someone came by. Once a day some did, probably, but if she was that one person no one else might. She did not want to think of that, but instead she looked into the water flowing beneath her. It was pretty. Now and then the watery sun made it a mirror and she could laugh at herself -- or lament her fate.
Julia was a patient girl and it was not so very uncomfortable to be swinging here gently, but after a while she remembered the ball. If she was still hanging here, she could not attend. Before then she would have to wriggle herself loose and risk losing her skirts. Her preference would be for someone to lift her up and do as little damage to her clothes as possible, but then her preference had also been for going across the stepping stones. One did not always get what one preferred.
It was after an hour, or perhaps two, that she caught some movement on the riverbank. Someone had appeared and he stood staring. Julia waved at him, but he unbuttoned his coat in response. "I should like to be rescued," she called at him. Upon closer inspection she thought he might be Harry Thompson. He lived nearby, although she had not seen him for ages.
"I know," he called back.
"Then why --" But she had to avert her eyes. What was he doing? Why could he not simply get on the bridge and pull her up? But as she was wondering that, she knew why. He would fall through as well. Whatever he was planning to do instead she did not know and she had better not look. She could only hope it had something to do with rescuing her.
It did, for splashing announced Harry Thompson's approach. "How did you end up like that?" he asked.
"I crossed the bridge, only I meant to cross it horizontally and not vertically. Why did you undress?" Julia kept her eyes averted.
"Why should I get my clothes wet?" He stood in the waist-deep water and examined how she was suspended. "I have a ball to go to. So do you."
"This is not my ball gown."
"It would have mattered little if it was," he remarked. "You were in no position to go anywhere. Are you hurt?"
"Hurt?" Julia would almost look at him and for a split second she might have. "I think not. I forgot to wonder."
"Are you very attached to this gown?"
"So attached that I hang here, yes."
He placed his hands on her waist and gave her a good pull. There was some tearing of fabric as the gown came loose. With it came Julia and she and Harry Thompson ended up under water. He kept a good hold on her, however, and pulled her back up. "There."
"How is my gown?" she wondered nervously. "Am I exposed?"
"Could be. I did not look," Harry Thompson said indifferently. He shook some water from his hair and ears. Then he shivered. "Perhaps we had best get out of the water. There is nothing we can do here."
"Oh, no. You look rather exposed yourself." He was a rather good-looking and therefore unsuitable man. Perhaps she could look, but it would be very improper. She was resolved not to look and to remain proper. Only think of what people would say if they heard!
"Expensive education does no wonders for a girl's attitude, I see."
Julia was flustered when it sounded like a reproach. She did not know what she had done to deserve one. "I do not know what you mean."
"I rescue you when you hang here like an insipid bat and all you can think about is how exposed I must be."
"I did mean to thank you as well," she said in a small voice.
"That is very kind of you. However, I am getting out to dress myself, whatever you might think of it." He started wading towards the bank.
"Wait, wait!" cried Julia. She did not want to walk behind him. "Let me go first. I am not fond of improprieties and I do not want to feel so unsettled." He was creating difficult situations. Only for her, of course, as she was sure he cared very little about either his appearance or propriety.
Harry Thompson gave her an odd look, one that was close to being contemptuous. "You never minded when you were eight, Miss Graham. It must be your expensive education."
"What happened when I was eight?" She was oddly worried. It was nothing awful, as far as she recalled. She would have remembered something awful, but all she could think of was ordinary playing.
"School wipes people's memories too, I see. Did we not all play here together? I am sure you were part of the group. Almost everyone from the village was."
"Er..." She remembered it now. Vaguely. They had jumped across the stones and had occasionally fallen in. It had not been more than that, had it? "Perhaps. But it is not comparable." She caught up with him and passed him quickly. "Thank you."
On the bank she examined her skirts, but although her gown was torn, one could hardly see more than a stocking. Without giving him another glance she ran down the path that led to her house.
There was one public lane she still had to cross and she had not counted on meeting anybody there, but a curricle was approaching in the distance. She crossed and hoped the driver had not seen her, even though it was going very fast and it would be here in a few seconds.
"Miss Graham!" a man's voice called after her.
She was not in luck. When she turned around she saw that a man had descended from the curricle. He had followed her onto the path, looking concerned. There was another man waiting in the curricle, but this one was Mr. Richmond. She had no option but to wait for him.
"You are wet! We thought you might be from the way your gown looked," said Mr. Richmond. "Oh dear! What happened? May we be of use?"
"I fell off the bridge," she said reluctantly. "I am on my way home to dress."
"We can take you there faster. We shall gladly make room for you. Come." He held out his hand.
She did not take it. "Really, Mr. Richmond, I am perfectly capable of walking this short distance alone and to be arriving home wet in the company of two gentlemen -- I do not think it is proper."
"Your parents are sensible people, are they not?" Mr. Richmond coaxed.
Julia had let herself be persuaded by Mr. Richmond and she had been escorted home by him and another young man, who turned out to be the mysterious Mr. Ainsley. He was a very ordinary-looking young man, not in the least handsome. Julia was rather intrigued and she was resolved to be friendly in spite of what she was still sure was a dreadful impropriety. Her parents were sensible, that was true, but she was nevertheless wet.
How Mr. Ainsley came to know Mr. Richmond was easily explained. Not only did the Richmonds live near the Brents, but the two men had also been to the same school, which they had discovered after his arrival in the area. It had very naturally thrown them in each other's company -- Julia was happy for her brother's sake, as it could only mean Mr. Ainsley spent less time bewitching Fanny Brent.
The gentlemen were very solicitous; one sacrificed a coat to hang over her shoulders and the other a blanket for over her knees. They asked for details of her accident and reacted with indignation at the state of the bridge. Someone ought to have fixed it long ago, they said, and someone had better fix it soon.
They insisted on speaking to her father when they delivered her to her home. Julia allowed it, curious what they could have to say. They had done so little.
"Mr. Graham," Mr. Richmond said in a respectful tone. "We found Miss Graham walking around all wet and in a slightly torn gown and --"
"Slightly?" cut in Mr. Graham. He had seen the state his daughter's clothing was in and if she had not been so calm he would not have received these two young men so calmly either. They had wet spots on their clothes themselves and it had not been raining today.
"We have not looked well," Richmond lied. "Mr. Ainsley and I offered to drive her home. We believed it saved her time."
"That is very kind of you. What happened, Julia?" he asked of his still calm daughter. He would believe her and not a couple of young men who had every reason to make themselves look better than they were.
"The bridge broke."
"If I am not mistaken you left the house hours ago. Your mother has been looking for you for at least two hours. Where were you detained?" Even if she was stuck at the other side of the river, there were other ways to cross it. There were several bridges and stones. It needed not have taken her two hours.
"I shall tell you about that later." She had no desire to elaborate in front of Mr. Richmond and Mr. Ainsley. "May I be excused to change my clothes? I do not have much time left before the ball."
At the mention of the ball, the two gentlemen sprang to attention. "Neither do we!" They took their leave with all kinds of wishes for Miss Graham's well-being and left to groom themselves in a hurry.
"Well...?" said Mr. Graham when the two had left. "A rather nondescript sort of fellow, that Mr. Ainsley. Not at all handsome."
"I paid no notice." She wished she had never made a comment about handsome men, never. Her family would not let the matter rest. Even her father, who had no idea of what constituted handsomeness, could apparently not refrain from teasing her. It was rather frustrating.
"To your gallant rescuers? Did I raise you to be so ungrateful? I did not hear you thank them."
Julia blushed. She had thanked them, but she had been too preoccupied to do so again at their departure. "I thanked them before we went in. Before they wanted to come in. But you must not think they rescued me, Papa. They did not. I had already crossed Berkley Lane when they persuaded me. I first thought it too improper to join them."
"It is rather," Mr. Graham agreed. "But young fellows rarely pass up the chance to get involved in something improper. And young ladies, if one of the fellows is not at all handsome, apparently do not either."
Julia was mortified. "Papa!"
He did not know what to think yet and decided to leave that matter alone for the time being. "How come you stayed away so long?"
"I hung off the bridge for a while by my gown."
"Almost. No, I hung horizontally."
"And they did not see you like that?" Her father raised his eyebrows. He could well imagine the sight of a woman upside down. The young men, if they had seen such a thing, would not have dared to come here in that case.
"They did not." Julia wished she were not so honest as to lay an emphasis on that word, but if she had hung there for two hours her father would certainly ask how she had got down and then she would have to reveal it anyhow.
He did not miss it, of course. "Who did?"
"Oh, Harry Thompson," she said dismissively. It could not signify; he had said they had done similar things in their youth.
"Henry these days, I think. I suppose that if he was the one who saw you, he was also the one who got you down? Why did he not bring you home?"
Julia looked puzzled. Should he have? "Because I ran away from him, I suppose. He took off some clothes before he got into the water. I wanted nothing to do with that, so I got out before I could see anything," she said hurriedly, eager to re-establish her good character. She had not wanted to get involved in something improper -- on the contrary.
Mr. Graham turned puce.
Julia was anxious. "I am sorry, Papa. I could not help what he did. I told him I did not appreciate it."
"Did you now? Did you thank him?"
"I did, even though he called me a bat."
"A bat! Well, that is not very kind. But it was kind of him to release you. He had to get into the water for it, you say?"
"Yes. I was between the bridge and the water."
He studied her face, a mixture of innocence and indignation. It amused him. "Which might be why he removed his clothes?"
"I do not care. I was shocked!" Julia cried.
"I suppose he is too good-looking for you to care that he might have found you ungrateful."
"Papa!" She was vexed. "I wish people would leave my words alone. And me as well. I wish he had left me hanging there like a bat! I should have dropped down eventually without his assistance."
He shook his head in incomprehension. "I am sure he is wishing the same. Now, get dressed."
Nobody saw Henry Thompson's clothes had wet spots and nobody got to hear of his adventure, but David Richmond told his parents all about Miss Graham's accident. They felt sorry for her and commended their son for his assistance. He needed that, of course, having come home late. Mr. Ainsley was equally late, but because he was a guest nobody dared to reprimand him and he had no reason to explain himself very much.
Julia looked rather fine when she was dressed. Her hair was not yet dry, which might invite some questions, but she had Peggy bind it up tightly so it was less conspicuous. This last-minute alteration to her hairstyle ensured that she looked different from her sisters and she could not really be sorry. Catherine, always the most passionate, hissed vehemently that it was a mean trick, but Julia cared very little. She owed her sister no apology or explanation. The truth might be dangerous in Catherine's hands.
The guests streamed in and Julia was a little afraid of the reactions of the ones who had seen her in her pitiful state. She needed not have worried, for either everyone was completely consumed by the ball, or they were so well-mannered as to refrain from mentioning the incident.
She opened the ball with her father, as gracefully as always, then she joined the crowd of talking people. Catherine had danced with Mr. Neville and she had to tell her friends all about it. Julia avoided that group with a smile. She knew how Mr. Neville danced and of what he talked. There was no need to hear it all again.
She saw Miss Thompson sitting all by herself in a corner of the ballroom. The girl's leg -- the unfortunate consequence of a childhood illness -- made it impossible for her to dance, so boredom was inevitable if she was already being left alone at so early an hour. Julia was resolved to speak to her.
"You are very kind, Miss Graham," said the blushing girl when she was addressed. "But I am perfectly happy watching."
"All alone?" The girl was about eighteen and everyone her age would be dancing. It must be difficult to be abandoned. Julia did not know who Cassy Thompson's friends were. Catherine or Alexandra might know, but they were always occupied and they were not yet aware of the less fortunate creatures of the world. Not during a ball, at any rate.
"I am used to it," Cassy Thompson said bravely. "This is still vastly better than staying home, do you not think? My brother needs to be saved more than I do."
Julia's eyes travelled around the room to locate Harry Thompson. He was standing amidst a group of girls. The lower set, as Catherine tended to call them. "But he is not alone."
"No, that is what I meant. Some of those are my friends. That is, as close to friends as I can have. I am beginning to wonder if Henry was not the reason for their befriending me in the first place."
Suddenly Cassy looked so forlorn that Julia felt very sorry for her. She was shocked to realise that Cassy might be right. Harry Thompson had grown into a rich and handsome man. The lower set would not care at all about his origins or that his father was not a gentleman. He was rich; what else could matter? Some would indeed befriend his sister to gain access to him.
"Those of us with physical defects need especially captivating personalities to compensate, but I am afraid I am quite ordinary." Cassy had recovered from her disappointment. It was probably not her first and she spoke humorously. "I am glad I have an interesting brother at least to get me some friends occasionally."
"I hope your brother treats you well when he is not besieged by girls." It was a little unfeeling of him to leave his sister all alone, Julia thought. He would know hardly anyone would speak to her and he would know most of her acquaintances were in fact speaking to him.
"Tolerably," Cassy smiled. "He knows I do not mind sitting alone."
"But you cannot have come only with your brother. Is there no one else?"
"My cousin Hannah." She bit her lip. It was difficult to see what sort of expression she was stifling. "But there will be no help from her."
Mr. Neville and Mr. Richmond had both asked Julia to dance. Mr. Ainsley had followed suit and then there were not many dances left. While Julia was surprised that Neville and Richmond had asked her, she had not refused them and she had excused herself to Miss Thompson, who had let her go with a smile. Considering that none of them had asked Cassy, she wondered if they knew she did not dance, or that it had simply not occurred to them to be so polite. After all, if they were wasting dances on girls who had already refused them, they might as well waste one on a girl who did not walk well.
But these dances took her out of Cassy's way and more dances followed. It was so difficult to excuse oneself to see what someone else was doing and she was ashamed to admit that she had forgotten about it after a while, until the end of the evening when all dancing had ceased and people were starting to go home. She saw Cassy leave the room with her father and her cousin Hannah, though the latter kept looking over her shoulder.
Of course. Harry was not yet with them and Julia suddenly understood why Cassy had not expected any interest from her cousin: Hannah was too busy being interested in Harry. Unfortunately Harry was being detained by her father. Julia was alarmed at this, for they could only be speaking of her and her ungrateful behaviour. What else could have given them a reason to talk? They never did so on other occasions, or at least she had never noticed. She nodded and smiled some farewells to people and made her way to her father unobtrusively.
"I heard you have been bat hunting, Mr. Thompson," Mr. Graham had remarked very casually.
Henry Thompson had nodded. "But as far as hunting goes, I prefer rat hunting."
"Bats are tricky."
"Do you hunt a lot?"
This drew a frown from Thompson. "Hunt -- or hunt? I occasionally help clear out some of my father's warehouses, but I do not go for unnecessary hunting."
"Warehouses. Right. Will you inherit the business?" Mr. Graham wondered. If so, young Thompson had shown remarkably little interest. Even Frank had shown more interest in the estate he was going to inherit, although it was so little that his father had looked around to see how other eldest sons were faring. None of these fellows in their early twenties had seemed very diligent, which had been a relief. It had made him less worried about Frank.
"No, sir. My father will not have it. I suppose I must find something else to do."
"Goodness, a young man who is actively looking for something to do!" he exclaimed, although he was surprised that Mr. Thompson would not have it. He had always assumed Henry would continue the family business, as his father had done before him, but now that he thought of it, perhaps Henry's education was wholly irrelevant and Mr. Thompson might have had other ideas indeed. "May I send my sons your way for some pointers?"
Henry Thompson coloured. "Not very actively; my father would not have it. I am supposed to -- I really do not know what I am supposed to do instead." But then Julia approached, less stealthily than she had been assuming, and they fell silent.
Julia could not ask of what they had been speaking. That was impossible. She had to settle for making it look as if she had come over by accident and not by design. She said nothing and stood beside her father, hoping they would continue their conversation.
Henry Thompson felt it was impolite to walk away suddenly, but he had no more to say on the subjects of bats or hunting, not that he would have volunteered anything in the first place.
Mr. Graham, on the other hand, was prepared to speak of anything, but he could not instantly think of anything that would not amuse him too much. Mentioning bats, which he was sorely tempted to do, would only vex the two others. It took him a while to think of something. "I dislike balls. I may have to ask your father for advice on how to sell successfully, Mr. Thompson."
"What do you wish to sell?" Henry Thompson inquired politely. He was clearly confused.
"Six children. No children, no balls, you see. The longer you wait until you have children, the older you will be at the time of all the balls and the harder it will be on your constitution to stay up so late." He saw his daughter look surprised and was amused again.
There was a smile now. "Perhaps you should ask someone whose children have already married, sir. My father's ideas have not been successful so far. Although that was more a question of buying than of selling."
"I am not surprised that was not successful," Mr. Graham commented. So young Thompson had not wanted to be instrumental in acquiring another business in that manner. That was interesting. "What say you, Julia?"
"I have no idea of what you are speaking," she said tiredly.
Cassy Thompson approached them with her cane. She spoke to her brother. "Our carriage is nearing the front of the line." Henry must hurry, or else all the other carriages would have to wait for him. After a long night this would not be appreciated.
He looked relieved and the pair expressed their thanks to the hosts. Julia would previously have thought Harry Thompson handsome and polite, but with her new insights she considered him highly unsuitable and uninteresting. Handsomeness embodied so many negative qualities that it was best not to note any positive ones.
Of course Mr. Graham intended to do just that. "A very civil young man."
Julia was honest -- she would not deny that Mr. Thompson had been very civil in his thanks and goodbyes, but she could point out something else to distract her father. "A very civil young lady too."
"Poor girl, to be hobbling about with a cane at her age. I do not suppose she danced."
"No, she sat out."
"I wonder that she is not completely exhausted by now then. And she will have to listen to her brother rave about all the pretty girls he danced with!"
"I do not think boys do that," Julia said seriously. "Frank never does -- and he has two sisters who would care." Cassy, she believed, would not care very much. Or rather, she would not care for those girls.
"Two? I thought he had three."
"I am not interested in hearing he has danced with half a dozen girls. If he likes one in particular he may of course tell me, but I do not care for boasting." That was something that was often wrong with handsome men, she realised. They boasted too much of all the girls with whom they could dance.
Julia was always struck by slight feelings of emptiness and regret after a ball. Usually they were outweighed by the enjoyment she had felt, but now that she stayed behind in an ever emptying ballroom instead of driving away, she could not escape them. It was over and she could not boast of anything, not even privately. Her partners had been old acquaintances or unremarkable. Mr. Ainsley, the promised novelty, had infuriatingly been as nondescript as he father had said. Her tastes were clearly quirky. Mr. Ainsley had not appealed, in spite of not being handsome. He had the same interests as the others, did he not? It might matter.
"Harry..." said Hannah.
There were only a few people who were allowed to call him Harry without being corrected and Hannah was not one of them, although he had stopped correcting her because it was useless. She never listened. To signal his displeasure he scowled and did not answer.
"He is tired," Cassy said in his stead. She sat beside him, ostensibly because she was tired, but really to protect him. Whether he needed that she did not know.
"Someone I danced with said he had been to Italy," Hannah continued, oblivious. "Have you?"
"I have not." His father kept promising to take him abroad when business was slow, but it never was and consequently they had never gone. He had an interest in going and so had his sister. Henry had promised Cassy they would go together instead -- a secret between them, however -- before he married, whenever that was, but he sensed he could not mention marriage to Hannah. She had once or twice quizzed him about marriage plans, as if he had any. He had danced the first dance with her this evening because it had been easiest, but not because of anything else.
"Whom did you dance with?" she asked as if she could read his mind.
"Some amazingly pretty girls," he said in an attempt to sound like Neville, who never seemed to meet any other kind. This amused him, for after the ball he would again say there were hardly any amazingly pretty girls. Even Neville, as far as he had been able to see, had not found many.
Hannah did not know what to make of that. "And what did you do?" she asked Cassy.
"I watched." What else could she do? She would have thought the answer was obvious. She could not master the steps, even if nobody would have wanted to dance with her if she had tried.
"Oh, right." Hannah was a little embarrassed, but made no apology. "I forgot."
"I know," Cassy could not help saying. "But do not feel alarmed. I was well entertained. I even refused a man. That Mr. Ainsley, who did not know about me. I think he has his eye on Miss Graham, so he asked everybody he had seen with her. Not a bad tactic, you know, except that I cannot dance and I could hardly call myself a friend of Miss Graham's -- certainly not enough to influence her favourably with regard to Mr. Ainsley."
"Do you think it was a tactic?" asked her brother. It put him in mind of Richmond's tactic, or Neville's, whoever and whatever it had been. He wondered why he was the only one to whom tactics had never occurred.
"Of course. One sees such things, sitting out."
"And why did he think you were a friend of Miss Graham's?"
"He saw us speak, I suppose. She thought I was bored. I might have grown bored had she not come. Oh, she seemed rather surprised to be asked by Neville. Why was that?"
"He proposed to her once," Henry revealed. "But he means to try again."
"Then he will fail again," Cassy predicted. She shook her head at stupid men. "She would have stayed with me if I had not pressed her to go, thus depriving her of any polite reason to refuse."
"Yes, fob her off on Nev. She is too full of herself."
"Really? I thought -- I never noticed." Even more than in her observations Cassy trusted in her brother's infallible opinions. He was her only brother and several years her senior -- he was everything. "Deservedly so? She is by all accounts exemplary."
"If that is to the same people who think Neville exemplary..." Those were not people like them, he wanted to say. The gentry had other notions at times. Most of the times there was rarely any difference, but he had truly encountered people who thought Neville exemplary, an opinion that did not coincide with his own at all. Neville had as many flaws as the rest of them. His primary interest was pretty girls, for example.
"If people speak about exemplary girls they are hardly going to bring Neville into it," Cassy said reasonably. "But I see your point."
"What should an exemplary girl be like?" Hannah inquired curiously.
"Quiet," Henry quipped.
"You can have Mr. Ainsley," Catherine said to Julia.
Because her sisters were nineteen and eighteen, and she was twenty-three, they very understandably always sided together. Julia was glad they were tiresome rather than malicious and that usually it was nothing of great importance. "Thank you, but I do not want him."
"But he is not very good-looking and I thought that was what you wanted. We are trying to help you here, you know!"
The good-natured indignation, fake or not, with which this was uttered made Julia laugh. "I appreciate the attempt. However, I think I want a local man."
"A local man?" Her sisters turned up their noses. Although local men were all they were getting to see for most of the year, they nevertheless hoped to dazzle a man from elsewhere the one time a year they were allowed to go to London. Local men were so familiar; there was nothing to be enraptured about anymore. Only a handful were suitable and if one looked really closely, far less than a handful.
"Well, I want to stay here and I am not inheriting the house." She was supposed to move out if she married, unless her parents were exceptionally generous and her future husband exceptionally accommodating.
"Stay here?" Catherine and Alexandra cried in unison. "Are you out of your mind?"
Julia wondered if she was. She had not counted on such a vehement reaction. "I must be."
She went to her room and thought it over. She had spoken in haste without thinking very much -- it had certainly surprised herself a little as well that she wanted a local man because she wanted to stay here. One ought to examine such feelings a little better before one blurted them out to two younger sisters, but the deed was done. Certainly, she wanted to stay here. That feeling had not changed when she examined herself. She had earlier thought she wanted to stay here or go somewhere even prettier, but now she leant towards remaining.
The difficulty was in procuring a local man -- more importantly in procuring a local man she could love. Already this evening she had danced with no one new, except for Mr. Ainsley who was not local, and it would only become worse as she grew older. She did not believe in love at first sight, but neither did she think love could strike after ten years of indifference. There would be new additions to the neighbourhood, however. They were not so isolated as to despair of that.
Knowing she wanted to stay made things much easier. Handsome men always wanted to go. That was one of their problems. A local man, not too good-looking, who was happy with how he looked and what he could have, not seeking to find more in London or other fashionable places -- he had to exist.
But people would think Julia Graham could do better. She knew they did. They always said she would be able to get any man she wished -- in which case a local, mediocre-looking man should not pose too much of a problem, she thought ironically. Still, people would be surprised if she did end up with such a man. Were all pretty young ladies not wild for London and Bath? And for noblemen with fast carriages?
She would not discriminate against noblemen at all and there was always the possibility that their neighbourhood was more beautiful than hers, but she abhorred fast carriages. It was not the carriage itself, although she cared very little about it, but usually the style of driving and the ideas of the driver. Yes, she was slowly coming closer to determining precisely why handsome men were unsuitable.
The day after the ball was wet again, but nobody minded. It gave them some more time to rest and talk. Frank had some new friends that he had to mention repeatedly. He was a few years younger than Neville and Richmond, but this gap finally did not matter anymore. He was proud to have at least one friend who lived alone. This made him very grown up by association.
"What is the matter?" Mr. Graham asked when they were all so enthusiastic about the same people. "Everybody is so wild about Julia's cast-offs."
"Julia has no taste," Catherine commented. "Mr. Neville is an excellent young man."
"Indeed," Frank chimed in. "You said nothing when he was courting Julia. I think it speaks in his favour that he bears us no grudge."
Julia wondered why anyone could bear a family a grudge because one of the daughters had not wanted to marry him. Had she no right to her own opinion in that matter? If he did not propose to everyone -- and she did not suppose he did -- why should she accept everyone who asked her?
"I am going riding with him and some others when the weather clears up," Frank continued. "May I take the girls?"
"Oh!" Catherine and Alexandra were excited.
Mr. Graham scratched his head bemusedly. Since when had Frank changed from someone who was taken along by his elder sister to someone who took his younger sisters along? "Exactly who else are going?"
Frank eagerly supplied some names. "Neville, Richmond, Parker, Thompson, Ainsley, Brent..."
He was probably the only one who thought this sounded rather suspicious. "No other girls?"
"The ones with sisters will bring those. It will be a merry party. It will look as if you do not trust my friends if I cannot bring my sisters." Clearly, his new friends should not be offended. He was still anxious about them.
"Really, Frank," said his mother. "It would only look as if your sisters had other plans. Are they not expected to have a will of their own? Do these young men expect every girl to be eager to come with them?"
"Well, are they wrong?" Frank asked with a pointed look at his younger sisters. There were two very eager girls there.
"To keep an eye on things, Julia?"
"To act as Mama's spy," said Alexandra.
"Since there is no definitive date set, I cannot say if I am able to go," Julia replied. Her female friends had all married in the past years and there was nothing left but family and male friends. This should be kept in mind before she spurned them. The party sounded tolerable, the excursion pleasant -- unless they intended to race, but any such intention would be denied beforehand -- but she would rather appear reluctant than eager.
"May we go?" asked the eldest of the two youngest boys. He was sixteen and although he thought the older crowd rather tedious, he had adopted the principle of always trying.
"Certainly not," Mr. Graham answered. "I am not even sure I shall allow Catherine and Alexandra to go with a bunch of young men who are all in their twenties. I am sorry. I cannot see Frank as an adequate chaperone." He loved teasing them a little. Riding seemed harmless enough and some of the names mentioned were sensible young men. Even the charming Neville was not entirely devoid of good sense.
The three youngsters in question looked very disappointed.
"I am not adequate either. You know they do not listen to me and I shall be riding at the back, where mischief never occurs," Julia remarked. They were old enough, she thought. She did not want to stay with them until the end if she found halfway that she would rather turn back.
"There is mischief on such outings?" Mr. Graham inquired interestedly. "Do tell."
Mr. and Mrs. Graham had eventually given their consent and when Mr. Richmond presented himself with his sister to invite as many Grahams to the outing as would be allowed, four received permission to go. The inclusion of Miss Richmond was a calculated move on the young gentlemen's part, for if she was allowed to go, surely any family would allow its daughters to go as well.
Everybody knew of the intended excursion and consequently all were ready to dress and to go to the appointed assembly point just outside the village an hour later. Tomorrow the weather might be worse again. Even Julia went. She wanted to be outside and it was best to let the horse get muddy instead of her shoes. She did not pay half so much attention to her dress as her sisters, however. Her usual riding clothes would have to suffice.
An hour after the invitation saw her escort three nervous and excited family members to their horses and on to the crossroads east of the village. Five riders were waiting there already and when they came closer Julia could identify them as William and Fanny Brent, Harry and Cassy Thompson, and their cousin Hannah.
Frank, who together with his eldest sister had been leading the way manfully on his horse, suddenly lagged behind and Julia was the first to reach them. She observed that the company had been split in two so far, with Cassy and Fanny to one side and the rest to the other. This was not good for Frank, of course, and she joined the two girls. Frank would never join them on his own, but he predictably followed his sister like a sheep, though not quite so far as to be able to speak to them. He hovered somewhere between the group of the girls and that of the young men, as if he could not make up his mind.
Cassy had no problems riding and her eyes glowed with the excitement of being able to take part like everyone else. "I did not know you and your sisters would come," she said to Julia. "They spoke of your parents as being stricter than anyone else's."
"That is surprising, because Richmond --" But then she broke off, because Cassy could not know that she had been taken home all wet. "Well, he implied that my parents were sensible when he tried to get me to consent to...something."
"What?" Cassy's eyes were huge and Fanny Brent was equally intrigued. "Did he try to kiss you?"
"No!" Julia cried. If he had ever tried that when he was proposing, she had absolutely missed the attempt. She blushed at the thought and rejoiced in the fact that her sisters had formed a group of their own, though very close to the young men's. "You have read too many novels. Such things do not happen in real life."
"In mine they certainly do not," Cassy said readily. "But in yours I thought they might."
"Why? Do I look like such a girl?" She would be appalled to hear that she came across as a girl who encouraged such liberties.
"No, but the young men who would like you would be such young men."
Julia smiled, even if it was not really a compliment to be liked by such young men. She did not even know if she was. "Perhaps." She watched as a few more approached their group. "Why did Mr. Ainsley not come with the Brents?"
"He did, but he had forgotten something."
Soon their group was complete, almost a dozen people, and they set off. Neville rode by Catherine and Richmond by Alexandra, and Julia thought her sisters must be thrilled. Sarah Richmond rode with Parker and Frank with Fanny Brent. They were followed by Hannah, who had got stuck with Ainsley because Thompson had suddenly disappeared in the shuffle of horses. Julia had held her horse back as well, but not to avoid anybody in particular. She merely wanted to ride at the back and ended up riding next to Cassy.
"This is very good," Cassy said appreciatively. "If there had been another man among the party I should have been forced to ride alone."
"No gentleman would let you ride alone, certainly not your brother. And you must not undervalue yourself in that manner -- nor overvalue me. If you had simply ridden forth you would have ended up with one of the gentlemen." Parker or Ainsley would have done Cassy that service. She was sure of it. Cassy might not be able to dance, but she had no problems riding and she was far from being mentally deficient.
"I know why I did not. Why did you?"
"Because I have my reservations about the excursion and I want to have the option of disappearing quietly."
"And have everyone else think you ended up in a ditch when they no longer see you?"
Julia laughed. That was true. She could not disappear without informing anybody; they might be concerned. "Well, I should tell one person, I suppose. But we were eleven and I had planned to ride all by myself."
"It looks as if my brother's reservations already got the better of him and we are ten." Cassy turned to look. "Ah, there he is. Where were you?"
"Seeing to something important," he replied.
Cassy gestured until he came to ride on her other side. "Miss Graham said I have read too many novels."
He laughed. "More than I have, certainly."
Neville came riding back at the same moment that they perceived all other men advancing a row. "I thought we could mingle."
Whether anyone except himself thought this plan a good idea remained to be seen. Thompson, at any rate, clearly did not. "We switch again next mile," he warned in a low voice. He was not looking forward to riding all the way next to Hannah.
Contrary to Thompson, Neville rode by Julia's side and not by Cassy's. "Am I not doing him a favour?"
"Not at all," Cassy giggled. "Has he not said?"
"He never says much at all, so I have no clue what would be doing him a favour." He glanced at Thompson ahead, who sat stiff-backed and sullen. "Well, it is only a mile. It was a wonderful ball, Julia."
"I am glad you thought so," she replied, surprised he would call her Julia in front of Cassy.
He seemed to sense some of her surprise and he gave her a most charming smile. "Should I have called you Miss Graham? I am sorry. I thought we were all close friends here."
"Er...it does not matter." She wondered if she should call him Gregory. He had been Gregory to her at the time of his proposal, but strictly in private. He had since then reverted to addressing her as Miss Graham, so she was puzzled now. She could not imagine what had prompted this new familiarity.
"You must call me Gregory again," he said invitingly.
"We must not exclude Miss Thompson," said Julia, feeling weak. She fared better if she knew the intentions of the gentleman with whom she was conversing, but now she was completely in the dark.
"Believe me, I should not wish to be included in anything sweet," Cassy told them in a mockingly sweet tone.
"Not included in something? You?" Neville was incredulous. "You never go away and your brother never sends you away either. It is amazing that he never brings you over to my house."
"In my home I can sit where I please," Cassy reminded him. She was secretly pleased that apparently she was not invisible after all. "I do not need to hear more manly conversation than I am already hearing when you come over. I find it quite stupid."
"I am changing the rules," Julia announced. She rode towards the couple in front of them. "All girls move forward. Go."
Hannah looked stupid.
"Go, Hannah," Thompson urged. He used an opportunity when he was given one, even if he did not understand what had prompted it.
Julia was satisfied to see Hannah react, though only because her order would have gone unheeded otherwise. She had no particular desire to ride next to Harry Thompson.
"This constant changing of positions is rather strange," he commented. "If it occurs one more time I am heading back." He did not like the inclusion of so many girls in their excursion. Most were silly. If he was being made to talk to them he would soon lose all enthusiasm. Hannah's talk had not put him in a good mood.
"I am sorry to have interrupted your undoubtedly interesting conversation with your cousin," Julia answered insincerely. She had always felt mockery and insincerity did not suit her, but it was now very satisfying. "But I felt quite superfluous back there. Your sister is bickering very nicely with Neville. I was in their way."
He chuckled. "And here I thought the entire purpose of the switch was to gain a place by your side."
Julia frowned. "Why? Why would he want that? What would be the point?"
"What is usually the point of seeking out a girl?"
She could think of something, but she did not think it applied. "I thought he was being considerate by limiting our time with a person who might bore us."
"Seriously?" He stared at her. Was she stupid? "It was Neville who thought of this switch, was it not? Do you think he is more likely to have altruistic motives than selfish ones?"
Julia felt uncomfortable. Neville was not particularly altruistic, but he was not particularly selfish either. However, the way Thompson put it she was also tempted to think he had had a selfish motive. "I do not know. But what would be the point?"
Thompson said nothing, but he gave her another incredulous stare.
She rode a little closer to him. "But my refusals are serious!" she hissed.
"Oh, so you do understand it. I suppose he thinks they may not be, but that is simply my uninformed opinion." He had never proposed and consequently he had never been refused either. If this should ever happen to him, however, he did not think he would try again. The young lady in question would have her reasons. He would not propose to someone who toyed with him about such important matters.
"But it makes no sense!"
"No," he agreed. "May I be so impertinent as to ask why you refused him? Is it something he could fix? Something that he has possibly already fixed, hence his renewed attempt?"
"He is too handsome, but I should rather have another, less handsome man than have one fix himself into ugliness." This earned her another incredulous look and she sighed. Harry Thompson and she would never understand each other, it seemed.
Julia said nothing for a while and studied the landscape. It was pretty and she was pleased to have a companion who did not chatter. It was so much easier to look around if she was not distracted. "I wonder why the river is so very straight here," she said pensively when something jarred her.
"I did not expect you to notice," said Thompson. He sounded a little surprised.
He did not say why. "It was straightened."
"How do you know?" He was probably right; it looked different from elsewhere, less natural. That was why it had struck her. She had been here before, though, but then she had probably not wanted to escape conversation.
"Because it is not straight on old maps. It made farming easier, I suppose, but I do not really know why."
"I must look at our old maps then," she mused. "I never thought of comparing them."
"Old maps of this neighbourhood?" Suddenly he was very interested indeed.
Julia gave him an odd look. "Yes, my family have lived her for ages. We have a fairly large library and the books have been accumulating. So have the maps. Do you like me for my maps now? That would be very strange."
"Do not worry."
"Well, you are welcome to have a look at our maps if they genuinely interest you so much. It might make up for the ungratefulness my father said I exhibited."
© 2008 Copyright held by the author.