It was a hot summer afternoon. The sun was burning mercilessly and there were neither clouds nor a fresh breeze to make the heat bearable. The ladies of Rampton, a small village in Warwickshire, or at least those with some pretensions to gentility, were assembled in the parlour of the rectory, doing preparation work for a charity bazaar that was to take place in two weeks.
As usual when a couple of ladies with nothing much to do but keeping an eye on their neighbours got together, a great deal of gossip was exchanged. Mrs. Jacobs, whose husband was the local attorney, was the centre of attention. Mr. Francis Deane, one of the most prominent members of local society, had suffered a stroke some weeks before and, since his condition was critical, his relatives had been informed. But apparently none of them took much interest in Mr. Deane's illness, as Mrs. Jacobs said disapprovingly.
"One might expect that nephew of his, that Mr. Irving, should know his duty. After all he is to inherit Mr. Deane's fortune, so what is keeping him away?" she asked indignantly. "I do not see why my poor husband has to go all the way to London to inform him of his great-uncle's illness. Surely a letter would do."
"Perhaps Mr. Irving does not wish to see Mr. Deane?" Mrs. Bates, the local physician's wife, speculated. "Everybody knows Mr. Deane was not on the best of terms with Mr. Irving's father. Mr. Irving might well resent that."
"I do not believe it," Mrs. Jacobs said. "Mr. Irving cannot deny that his late father was not quite the thing. A ramshackle fellow, I have been told, a wastrel and a libertine. The stories I could tell you about him -- Forgive me, Mrs. Acton," she turned to the hostess. "By no means do I want to sully your daughters' ears with such gossip."
Rosalind, the eldest Miss Acton, turned away so Mrs. Jacobs could not see her amused smile. Mrs. Jacobs was the worst scandalmonger in the village, and she never thought for a moment who was listening to her, as long as someone did. In that light, Mrs. Jacobs' apology had little to no value, and Rosalind was certain Mrs. Jacobs only waited for her mother's permission to embark on those stories she had to tell about Mr. Irving senior.
"What a terrible thing to happen to Mr. Deane," Mrs. Acton merely said; graciously ignoring Mrs. Jacobs' reference to the elder Mr. Irving the libertine, but far from encouraging her to share her knowledge of his misdeeds with the present company. "It grieves me to hear about families so at outs with each other. When I hear of such cases I always wish there was something I could do for them."
"I am afraid there isn't, Mama," Miss Acton said. "Mr. Irving is not likely to listen to you, and Mr. Deane, I am afraid, is unable to take the first step towards reconciliation. To me this looks like a hopeless case."
"Terrible," Mrs. Acton repeated and then asked her daughter to go to the kitchen and tell the cook to send up some refreshments. Rosalind was glad to escape. Her mother had asked her and her sisters to be present at the meeting and help with the charity work, as well as to watch the ladies and "study a well-bred female's conduct". Rosalind doubted that her mother believed well-bred females were supposed to spend their afternoons doing needlework and libelling their neighbours. At least no one had thought to ask Rosalind whether she had made young Mr. Irving's acquaintance during her brief stay in London. One had to be grateful for the small mercies in life.
While walking downstairs, Rosalind remembered the only occasion upon which she had met Mr. Frederick Irving -- she had been in London, visiting her aunt, and had attended a ball there. Mr. Irving had been introduced to her, had danced with her and had singled her out all evening. Flattered that such an elegant young gentleman should pay her so much attention, and naively believing that he was in earnest with his gallantries, she had ended up on a terrace outside the house and had let him kiss her -- which had turned out to be the only thing he had wanted. Rosalind would have been able to forgive him this transgression, had she not found out afterwards that he had only kissed her to win a wager. One of his friends had challenged him to steal a kiss from that prim and proper parson's daughter from Warwickshire, and this had been the most humiliating experience in Rosalind's entire life. Whatever everyone else said, she was not looking forward to having that Mr. Irving in her neighbourhood. As far as she was concerned, he could stay in London and cavort with the entire female population of the city, but she hoped she would not be obliged to see him ever again, let alone speak to him or treat him as a friend. She wished him no ill, but she wanted him to be as far away from her as possible. It would be unreasonable to expect that Mr. Irving would start a new life in China, but from Rosalind's point of view London did just as well. She was as likely to set foot in that city again as she was likely to travel to China.
Having accomplished her mission in the downstairs regions, Rosalind was on her way back to the parlour when her father entered the house. The Reverend Edward Acton was a man in his fifties, though most of his parishioners -- the ladies especially -- said that he looked a great deal younger than that. His hair was still jet-black without the smallest trace of grey, and only some wrinkles around his eyes betrayed his real age.
"Are the ladies still here?" he asked his daughter and, when she answered in the affirmative, added with a deep sigh, "I had better go in and greet them, then."
"Quite so, Papa, you had better," Rosalind said. "They would never forgive you if you didn't."
"Whose character are they pulling to shreds at the moment?" he asked, giving his daughter a sympathetic grin.
"When I left them, they were talking about Mr. Deane's nephew."
Mr. Acton turned his eyes heavenwards as if to pray for divine assistance, and went into the parlour where the pillars of his parish welcomed him happily.
"Have you been out, Mr. Acton?" Mrs. Jacobs asked, greedy for some more news.
"I have been to see old Mother Smith," Mr. Acton replied warily. Mother Smith was the oldest resident of the parish. She was in her late nineties, and although her health had been failing lately she intended to live to a hundred. Mrs. Smith lived in her grandson's cottage, along with his numerous family, terrifying them all into obedience.
"How is the dear old lady?" Mrs. Jacobs asked. Rosalind suppressed a smile. Mrs. Jacobs lived in constant dread of Mother Smith's razor-sharp tongue just as everyone else in the village did -- "the dear old lady", indeed.
"Very much the worse, I fear," Mr. Acton said gravely.
"Oh, how horrible," Mrs. Jacobs exclaimed. "And with young Mrs. Smith expecting, too!"
"What, again?" Mr. Acton asked, horrified. "They have nine children already, and the youngest is barely six months old!"
"Did not the Lord wish the world to be peopled?" Mrs. Jacobs asked shrewdly.
"No, that was Shakespeare," Mr. Acton said dryly. "But I doubt he expected Tom Smith to undertake the task single-handedly. I will have to have a word with him on the subject -- Tom Smith, not Shakespeare. His wife has enough to do as it is, without having to give birth to a new baby every year."
Beatrice, Rosalind's younger sister, gave a snort of laughter when she heard her father's comment about Tom Smith peopling the world single-handedly, but was silenced by her mother's remonstrating look. Embarrassed, she went to help Rosalind with pouring tea and handing around the biscuit plate.
"My dear Mr. Acton," Mrs. Acton said reproachfully, "Remember that there are young ladies present! Your own daughters, too!"
"I did not know I was not supposed to discuss Shakespeare with my daughters," Mr. Acton said, with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes.
Miranda, Mr. and Mrs. Acton's youngest daughter, giggled. It was not a coincidence that they were all named after Shakespeare's heroines -- Mr. Acton, a native of Stratford-upon-Avon like the Bard himself, had developed a great liking for both Shakespeare's plays and his poetry, and had consequently chosen his children's names in his honour. It was just like him to tease his wife about something that had been customary in their household for as long as any of the Acton children could remember -- there had always been discussions of Shakespeare's work in their house, and Rosalind and her brothers and sisters were almost as well acquainted with it as their father was.
Once Mr. Acton had left the room, wishing the ladies a pleasant afternoon, Mrs. Jacobs took up the topic of Mr. Frederick Irving again.
"I do hope he will come to see his uncle before he passes away," she said. "My husband says it would be a shame if he did not -- he is Mr. Deane's heir after all, and one should think he owes Mr. Deane some gratitude."
"Why?" Rosalind asked. She had never thought Mr. Irving felt obliged to Mr. Deane for anything. He had never even visited his great-uncle.
"Oh, I have it on the best authority that it was Mr. Deane who financed Mr. Irving' education," Mrs. Jacobs said. Rosalind did not need to ask who had told Mrs. Jacobs such a thing -- her husband, being Mr. Deane's man of business, had probably arranged for those payments. It did not give her a very good opinion of Mr. Jacobs that he passed such confidential information on to his wife -- but on the other hand, this was probably what years of marriage to Mrs. Jacobs did to a man. Rosalind did not assume that there was anything Mr. Jacobs could keep from his wife if she wished to know it.
"I am sure he will come," Mrs. Acton said confidently. "As a gentleman, he cannot fail his uncle now."
Rosalind, who had no good opinion of Mr. Irving' gentlemanly virtues, said nothing but turned back to the purse she was netting. She doubted it would fetch a good price at the bazaar, since her netting skills were rather inferior, but she did her best to make it look tolerable. No one would be able to say she had not tried.
"Perhaps he has gone into the country to visit some friends, and the news of his uncle's illness has not reached him yet," Mrs. Bates suggested.
"Quite so," Mrs. Acton said firmly. "That must be it."
Everyone present felt that this was a final comment of some sort, and so the ladies turned their conversation to something else -- they discussed Lady Wilcox, the most important lady in Rampton, and the part she was going to take in the charity bazaar. No one knew Mr. Frederick Irving anyway, while Lady Wilcox and her family were well-known and well liked in Rampton -- therefore, everyone thought, they were a much more gratifying subject for discussion. For one, everyone knew something to say about them.
At dinner, Mr. Acton mentioned that he had also paid a short visit to Mr. Deane, whose house was only a short walk from the vicarage.
"How is he?" Rosalind asked. Mr. Deane had always been a good friend -- he had had no children, but had allowed the parson's offspring to run around in his garden and orchard whenever they chose, and had encouraged them to take whatever fruit took their fancy. When they had grown older he had allowed the Acton children to use his library, and had seen to it that there was some cake waiting for them whenever they had come to visit him. Rosalind did not want to imagine what he would be like now -- helpless, and with no one to look after him. The sheer image of Mr. Deane lying helpless in his bed, at the mercy of his servants, almost broke her heart.
"He is improving. It seems he is going to be around for a while still," Mr. Acton said with a smile.
"This is excellent news indeed," Mrs. Acton said placidly.
"Is it?" Mr. Acton frowned. "To be sure, from our point of view it is, but I do not believe Mr. Deane will agree with you. He is very weak, and cannot move. For someone who used to be such an active person as Mr. Deane this must be insupportable."
Rosalind silently agreed with her father but did not say so. "Can he speak?" she asked her father instead. Among other things, the stroke had rendered Mr. Deane unable to speak.
"No, but he can write if he makes an effort," Mr. Acton said. "One of his servants had the brilliant idea to give him a slate and a piece of chalk. He cannot write more than a couple of letters, like y for yes and n for no, but it is an improvement."
"Then his mind is unimpaired," Rosalind said.
"So it seems," Mr. Acton replied and turned to William, his eldest son. "What have you been doing with yourself all day?" he demanded.
"We went fishing with Martin Wilcox," Richard Acton, the second of three Acton brothers, replied while William's mouth was still full.
"Did you catch anything?" Beatrice asked eagerly. Rosalind smiled. Mr. Martin Wilcox's name never failed to raise Beatrice's interest.
They patiently listened to William's account of what appeared to have been an adventurous afternoon. The Martin Wilcox her brothers described was unknown to Rosalind. Among his male friends, he was a friendly, witty and energetic person, an excellent horseman and "frightfully good at billiards". The Martin Wilcox Rosalind and her sisters were acquainted with, however, was tongue-tied and painfully shy. He had warmed towards Rosalind lately -- he seemed to be at ease with her as long as their conversation did not stray from commonplace topics. He could converse with her on subjects like the weather, the harvest or her father's latest sermon. If, however, Rosalind should stray towards a less commonplace matter, Mr. Wilcox blushed and remained silent. Still, they were friends, and Rosalind had grown to appreciate him.
"We were quite successful," William said and grinned. "As you will see tomorrow."
"And the day after tomorrow too, unless you invite some guests to share our feast, Mama," Henry, the youngest brother added.
Rosalind, who was not very fond of fish, did not like the prospect too much but still congratulated her brothers on a day of excellent sport. She did not want to spoil their fun.
"By the way, Mama, Lady Wilcox sends her compliments," William said and turned to his mother. "She said if there was anything she could do for that charity bazaar you only had to let her know. Martin said she is hunting all over the house for things she can donate, and said she is trying to coax Sir Leonard into letting the bazaar take place in his house instead of the school."
"So generous of her," Mrs. Acton sighed. "I will call on Lady Wilcox first thing tomorrow to discuss the particulars."
Everyone knew that Mrs. Acton called on Lady Wilcox whenever she could find an excuse for doing so, and therefore this statement did not surprise anyone. Rosalind hoped her mother would take her along. It had been her idea to raise money for the necessary repairs on the church roof by donating things that could be sold at a bazaar. Her mother had approved the idea, and had immediately started planning the event. Still, Rosalind had always been involved in the planning and wished to know what progress the preparations were making. Lady Wilcox's house, she thought, would be a perfect setting for the bazaar, but she also knew that more people would attend the bazaar if it took place in the village school. The humbler villagers would shrink from visiting Sir Leonard Wilcox's house, while the village school was a perfectly acceptable place for anyone to go. She would have to point this out to her mother and Lady Wilcox before they, in their enthusiasm, started decorating the Long Gallery of Effingham Court.
As usual on weekdays, Rosalind and her sisters retired to their rooms early. Rosalind being the eldest, she had a room of her own while Miranda and Beatrice shared a larger, adjoining room. Rosalind's room had probably been a dressing-room once -- it was very small and a door led from it directly into her sisters' room. Ever since they had been little girls, that door had been left open to enable the girls to chatter and giggle until sleep got the better of them. Yet it felt good, Rosalind thought, that she could shut the door and have some privacy if she chose to.
While brushing and braiding her hair, Rosalind listened to her sisters and their theories about their new, not-yet-arrived neighbour. Rosalind had never told them -- or anyone else -- about what had happened in London. Much as she blamed Mr. Irving, she could not help but admit that she had also been responsible for what had happened -- she had flirted with him, and she had allowed him to kiss her. Partly, it had been her fault as well, and Rosalind shuddered to think what her parents would say if they ever found out about it.
Rosalind went to the window and looked out. The old Manor House that belonged to Mr. Deane was quiet. None of the windows one could see from the vicarage was illuminated, and the house looked almost deserted. Deserted like poor old Mr. Deane must feel, Rosalind thought guiltily, and decided to go over and inquire after him the next day. Her gaze wandered to the volumes stashed on the window-seat -- they were Mr. Deane's property; Rosalind had borrowed them from his library. It was about time to bring them back, she thought, before Mr. Irving arrived. If he arrived. There was still a chance that he would not come, and although Rosalind felt sorry for poor old lonely Mr. Deane, she preferred that possibility. She could not go to the Manor House any more once Mr. Irving had moved in there. Please, she prayed silently. Please, whatever you do, do not let Mr. Irving become my neighbour.
Whoever was in charge of Rosalind's prayers had apparently not heard her. Not only did Mr. Irving arrive in Rampton the very next day but also was it Rosalind who first encountered him.
The day started pleasantly enough. Rosalind and her sisters accompanied their mother when she called on Lady Wilcox, and while Beatrice and Miranda studied fashion-plates with Miss Judith Wilcox, Rosalind and her mother discussed the arrangements for the charity bazaar with their hostess. Lady Wilcox listened to Rosalind's reasoning about the venue, and admitted that she had not given the matter enough thought before.
"You are perfectly right, of course," she said and congratulated Mrs. Acton on having such a sensible daughter. "It would be awkward for some of the villagers to come here, and I am afraid Sir Leonard will not take to the idea of every Tom, Dick and Harry being entertained in my drawing-room. The school it is then, though I must say last time I saw it the schoolroom looked anything but welcoming."
"That can be remedied," Rosalind said. "Some flower arrangements in the right places and a couple of watercolours will make a huge difference. Mrs. Fletcher said she would donate some of hers, and I am sure they will fetch an excellent price."
Mrs. Fletcher was a widow in her fifties whose meagre jointure had not been enough to live on. She had therefore accepted the post of schoolmistress in the village of Rampton, and in her leisure time she painted charming water-colours which she sold to whoever showed an interest in them. She had by now earned herself a reputation that would bring many people to the bazaar, Rosalind thought. Mrs. Fletcher's paintings were all the rage among the local gentry.
"You must allow me to see to the flower-arrangements," Lady Wilcox said.
Rosalind laughed. "Lady Wilcox, I am not in charge of the bazaar," she said. "I am not in the position to allow or forbid anything."
"Mrs. Acton, then. Shall I do the flower arrangements?"
"I should be most obliged," Mrs. Acton said. "I know you have a wonderful talent for arranging flowers, and I quite envy your beautiful garden and the greenhouses."
Once it was settled that the bazaar was to take place in the village school after all and that Lady Wilcox would provide the flowers and do the decorations, the Acton ladies walked back to the rectory. Rosalind was just about to set out with Mr. Deane's books to return them to the Manor House when her father stopped her and asked where she was going.
"To the Manor House, to bring Mr. Deane's books back to him."
"Would you mind running an errand for me, Rosie?" Mr. Acton asked.
"Not at all. What do you want me to do, Papa?"
"I have been told that young Mrs. Smith is unwell," Mr. Acton said. "What with old Mother Smith being ill, and himself unable to look after the children, Tom Smith is at his wits' end. I have asked Cook to prepare a basket for them. Can you take it to their cottage?"
"Certainly, Papa," Rosalind said. "Though in that case I had better put on an old gown -- I daresay the house will be a mess, and the children will be in desperate need of a bath."
"You're a good girl, Rosie," Mr. Acton said with a fond smile. "I knew I could depend on you. Tomorrow I'll send Polly, but your mother said it was laundry-day today and she could not possibly spare one of the maids."
Rosalind was on her way home from the Smiths' cottage when she encountered Mr. Irving on the road. The cottage was outside the village, about half an hour's walk away from the rectory. Rosalind had spent almost three hours there, washing the children, tidying the place and preparing the meal for the family. Tom Smith was a tenant of Mr. Deane's, and was working in the fields, taking advantage of the warm weather and making hay. The eldest child, a boy eleven years of age, had helped Rosalind but was not able to do much apart from bullying his siblings into doing what Rosalind told them to.
Tired, dirty, wearing her oldest gown and carrying an empty basket Rosalind walked along the road towards the village when suddenly a smart curricle stopped next to her.
"You, girl -- is this the road to Rampton?" the driver demanded, and as Rosalind looked up she recognised Mr. Frederick Irving. He had not changed at all in those three years, she thought.
"I haven't got all day," he said impatiently, apparently mistaking Rosalind for some farm girl and therefore not bothering to be civil.
"It is," she said coldly.
"It is what?"
"The road to Rampton. Once you have passed through the forest you'll be able to see the village," Rosalind said.
"How far is it to Mr. Deane's house?"
"It's right in the village, sir," Rosalind said, suddenly realising the humour of the situation and smiling to herself. She hoped to be there when Mr. Irving realised his error. She was not a high-born lady by any means but a gentleman's daughter nevertheless - Mr. Irving' surprise would be great if he met the "farm-girl" again in quite different circumstances. Perhaps Rosalind would be privileged to see Mr. Irving put to the blush for once.
"Where in the village?"
"Turn left after the church and you cannot miss it," Rosalind said. "The gates of Mr. Deane's property are almost on the village green."
With a nod, Mr. Irving tossed a coin towards her and drove away. Rosalind seethed with indignation at first, but then decided to pick up the coin and give it back to him at the earliest opportunity. If this did not shame him, nothing would. The thought of Mr. Irving's mortification on finding out he had treated the rector's daughter like a servant almost made Rosalind look forward to meeting him again. Almost, but not quite.
By the time Rosalind came back to the rectory, the news of Mr. Irving's arrival had already got around. He had apparently travelled all the way up from London in his curricle -- which had earned him Rosalind's brothers' admiration though it did not give Rosalind a very favourable impression of his commonsense. His horses, according to Mr. Deane's head groom, were first-rate animals, and the man himself had made himself agreeable to everyone he had met, or so Rosalind was told. She wondered whether he had reserved his rudeness for her in particular, and her opinion of him did not improve when she thought of it. Even though it had been a case of mistaken identity -- true gentlemen, she believed, ought to treat every female with respect, even those they considered beneath them.
Rosalind's mother and sisters kept speculating what kind of gentleman Mr. Irving would be, and though Rosalind could have enlightened them, she did not choose to do so. Her encounters with Mr. Irving had not been pleasant enough to make her want to talk about them, and the less anyone knew the better it was, she thought.
Mrs. Acton's enthusiasm regarding their new neighbour was soon dampened. Thinking that Mr. Irving would be quite lonely in the Manor House, with his uncle unable to keep him company, she had asked her husband to invite Mr. Irving to dine at the rectory. But Mr. Irving had declined the invitation -- perfectly civilly, one had to admit, but still, he had declined.
"I must say I am quite disappointed," Mrs. Acton said when her husband informed her that Mr. Irving preferred to dine at the Manor House, since he felt it was his duty to spend his first evening there with his great-uncle.
"But you must admit, my dear, that it does him credit," Mr. Acton replied.
"It would do him credit if it had not taken him weeks to come here in the first place," Mrs. Acton said sharply.
"My dear, we are not to judge him," Mr. Acton remonstrated. "You do not know why it took him so long, and as far as I am concerned it is not important either. He is here now, which shows us that he does have some sense of duty. He told me that he means to have a word with Mr. Deane's steward tomorrow, and to take up the work where Mr. Deane left it off."
"Which is in his interest as well as Mr. Deane's," Rosalind said dryly. "Who is to inherit the place after all?"
"You too, Rosie?" Mr. Acton merely asked. "The poor man has only arrived today, and has already made enemies it seems. Be reasonable, this is all I ask of both of you. Give him a chance."
For the first time, Rosalind wished she had confided in her parents when she had returned from London. She did not doubt her father would sing a different tune if he knew how Mr. Irving had behaved towards her. But she could not bring herself to do it now. Their disappointment at their daughter's misconduct and her concealment would be too great, and would certainly outweigh their indignation at Mr. Irving's misbehaviour. No, Rosalind would have to keep silent on the subject, and somehow find a possibility to explain her dislike of Mr. Deane's great-nephew. With a grim smile, Rosalind thought that their encounter on the road outside the village could serve as a perfectly valid excuse.
For a couple of days, Mr. Irving remained at the Manor House and the only residents of Rampton to make his acquaintance were Mr. Acton, Mr. Bates the physician, Mr. Jacobs and Mr. Deane's steward.
Mrs. Jacobs called on Mrs. Acton on the day after Mr. Irving's arrival to complain about Mr. Irving's apparent remissness in visiting his neighbours. Although Mrs. Acton had been seriously put out when Mr. Irving had declined her invitation, she did not say so to Mrs. Jacobs. Instead, she advised Mrs. Jacobs not to be offended.
"He has only just arrived here, and I daresay he has a great deal to do," she said placidly.
"Well, yes, so my husband has told me," Mrs. Jacobs said hesitantly. "He also says that Mr. Irving shows a great deal of interest in the estate, which is most gratifying. I had my doubts whether Mr. Irving meant to stay here, and I felt it would be a great pity if he let the Manor House go to ruin -- it is such an old place, it would not do it any good to be left uninhabited for a while."
Mrs. Acton agreed with Mrs. Jacobs, and the topic of Mr. Irving's unsociability was left aside.
It was on Sunday that the general public of Rampton finally made the acquaintance of Mr. Irving. Rosalind was surprised to see him enter the church -- she had not supposed him to be a pious man and had not expected him to attend the Sunday service. But there he was -- dressed in the first style of elegance and looking remarkably handsome. The mothers of marriageable daughters (and, to some extent, their daughters too) ogled him, trying to calculate his fortune and the possibility of Mr. Irving's marrying into their family. The men watched him as well -- some with a certain amount of jealous hostility, while others were merely curious.
Rosalind felt a nudge from her sister Beatrice who was sitting next to her. "He is handsome," Beatrice whispered, and Rosalind nodded. Too handsome for her peace of mind, she thought.
After the service, Rosalind and her sisters were standing outside the church waiting for their father, when their mother beckoned them to come to her.
"Your father wants us to meet Mr. Irving," she said, unconsciously straightening the ribbon of Miranda's bonnet and brushing an invisible piece of dust from the sleeve of Beatrice's spencer. "I hope I do not need to remind you of your manners."
"Oh, you need not, Mama," Rosalind said cheerfully and added, "You know it would not be any use."
"Rosalind!" Mrs. Acton exclaimed and drew a deep breath to deliver what would be almost as fine a sermon as any of her husband's, but did not continue when her husband and Mr. Irving came towards them.
"My dear, I would like to present Mr. Irving to you," Mr. Acton said.
Mr. Irving bowed respectfully, and said what was proper. Rosalind, who watched her mother closely, could tell that Mr. Irving's impeccable manners had made quite an impression on her. Her bad opinion of him would be short-lived if he continued in this way. Too bad, she thought. Life would have been much easier for Rosalind if her mother had agreed with her opinion of Mr. Irving.
"I am afraid I have offended you, Mrs. Acton, by refusing to dine with you on my first evening in Rampton," he said, looking every bit the repentant schoolboy. Rosalind hated him for it.
"Not at all," Mrs. Acton replied, slightly mollified. "It was unreasonable of me to invite you -- I should have known that after such a long journey you would be tired, and would wish to settle in with your uncle."
"Thank you for your kindness, Mrs. Acton." Rosalind wished she could stop that smile of his -- it had a most undesirable effect on her mother. He was well on the way of making himself agreeable to her, and Rosalind did not even want to imagine him as a frequent visitor at the rectory.
"So how do you like Rampton, sir?" Mrs. Acton asked.
"I find it charming," Mr. Irving said with a smile. "The village is a truly beautiful place, and the people here appear to be very friendly."
"Oh, they are very friendly; let me assure you, sir. Are you planning to stay long?"
"For as long as is necessary," Mr. Irving said. "As long as Great-Uncle Francis is feeling so poorly, I will certainly stay. Once he feels better, I may return into town."
"Mr. Deane's health is improving?"
"The doctor told me it was, but he said it was yet uncertain to what extent he would recover."
At that point, Mrs. Acton remembered that her three daughters were with her, and made the necessary introductions. Rosalind had the satisfaction of seeing Mr. Irving blush slightly when he recognised her.
"I believe I owe you an apology, Miss Acton," he said.
"For what?" Mr. Acton wanted to know. Why could her father not be hard of hearing like other gentlemen of his age, Rosalind asked herself. Instead, he had a knack of hearing things he was not supposed to notice.
"Miss Acton and I met on the road to the village when I arrived here," Mr. Irving explained. "I mistook her for some farmer's daughter or servant -- and stopped to ask her whether I was on the right road, and I was not very civil, I am afraid."
"Why did you not tell us, Rosie?" Mr. Acton asked, giving his daughter a look of surprise. Rosalind knew how strange her reticence must seem to him -- she was not at all the secretive sort.
"I did not think it was important," she merely said, unable to explain the true reason for her silence to her father. "Mr. Irving did not know me, and it was an easy mistake to make."
"But it is important," Mr. Irving insisted. "You must believe that I would never have talked to you the way I did..."
"...if you had known I was a gentleman's daughter," Rosalind finished his sentence for him. "If it comforts you, Mr. Irving, I'll tell you this is just what I thought." Her tone indicated that her thoughts on the subject were anything but flattering, and Mr. Irving seemed to realise it.
She took the coin he had tossed at her out of her reticule and held it out to him. "I believe you lost this last time we met, sir."
Rosalind kept searching his face for signs of embarrassment, but she could not detect any. That man had himself well in hand.
"You may keep it, Miss Acton," he said calmly, but watching her closely as if trying to take her measure. Rosalind met his stare defiantly.
"I am not going to keep it, Mr. Irving," she said, challenging him to contradict her.
Mr. Irving laughed. "As you wish," he said. "But I am not going to take it back, Miss Acton. Do whatever you want with it."
"With your permission I will give it to my father then," Rosalind said stiffly. "It is going to be a contribution to our new church roof."
"It does not look to me as if you needed my permission," Mr. Irving said with a grin, "but if it means so much to you, Miss Acton, I shall be glad to donate the money."
Rosalind knew her behaviour had been petty, but she could not back out now. With a nod, she turned away from Mr. Irving and handed the coin to her father.
"Here, Papa," she said. "Mr. Irving wishes to donate for the church roof."
Mr. Acton took the coin and gave Mr. Irving a questioning look. Mr. Irving laughed.
"Do not ask, Mr. Acton," he said. "It seems that despite her protestations to the contrary Miss Acton does resent the way I behaved at our first encounter. I cannot blame her, and can only hope that her opinion of me will improve once we get better acquainted."
Their first encounter? Rosalind's heart missed a beat, but then she realised Mr. Irving had in all likelihood forgotten when their first meeting had been and what had happened then. She did not know whether to be furious or relieved. The kiss they had shared that evening in London had meant nothing to him -- or he would remember it.
On the other hand she should be glad he did not mention that they had met before their encounter on the road. Her parents would surely wonder why she had never told them about it, especially if their meeting had made such a lasting impression on Mr. Irving that he was still able to recall it three years later. Rosalind decided she was being unreasonable to expect him to remember her still. He had probably kissed dozens, if not hundreds of young women in the course of his life, so why should he remember a prim and proper parson's daughter from the country?
The Actons parted from Mr. Irving on the best of good terms -- Mrs. Acton had repeated her invitation, and this time Mr. Irving had accepted. His prowess in all kinds of sport had secured him the admiration of all three Acton brothers, and Rosalind's sisters were taken with both his easy manners and his handsome countenance. Only Rosalind did not comment on Mr. Irving at all -- she kept her opinion to herself, knowing that she could not share it unless she gave her reasons for disliking him, which was out of the question. So she remained uncharacteristically silent, hoping that no one -- especially not her father -- would notice.
Mrs. Acton spent the following day preparing for the dinner party. She made a list of people who did not mind being invited at such short notice and people who would take offence if they were excluded from a dinner party with such an interesting guest as Mr. Irving.
The Actons had a reputation in the village for being a very hospitable family. Mr. Acton had always wanted to be in touch with as many of his parishioners as possible -- he felt that a clergyman could only gain his flock's confidence if he let them take part in his life as well as he took part in theirs. Therefore there was hardly any villager aspiring to gentility who had not dined at the rectory on a regular basis. It was only normal that Mr. Irving was now going to be included in that circle -- in fact, Rosalind thought, it would have been rather suspicious if he had not been invited to a dinner party at the earliest possible moment. But for her the evening would be an ordeal nevertheless.
She took comfort in the fact that her mother had also invited Mrs. Fletcher, the schoolmistress, and the Wilcoxes. Mrs. Fletcher and Lady Wilcox would talk about the bazaar, which would give Rosalind some inconspicuous topic to talk about, and Martin Wilcox would, in all likelihood, be seated next to her at the dinner table -- Mrs. Acton knew that Rosalind was the only one of her daughters that Mr. Wilcox felt comfortable with.
Sitting at her dressing-table, Rosalind gave her reflection in the mirror a critical look. She looked dowdy in her gown, the same one she had worn for every dinner party in those past two years. Her face was nothing extraordinary, she thought, and neither was her figure. In fact, she had only felt beautiful once -- when her aunt had taken her to that ball in London. She had been wearing a new ball-gown and her hair had been done in a fashionable style. Mr. Irving and his detestable friends had soon put an end to that feeling. Rosalind was not beautiful and would never be so. She had reconciled herself to that fact. So why did she worry about her appearance now, Rosalind asked herself. Why was it suddenly so important to her how she looked? Was it because Mr. Irving was to dine at her home? Surely not, she told herself. Mr. Irving's opinion of her did not matter. Whether he thought her pretty or not made no difference to her -- actually, she felt she would be better off if he did not find her attractive. Rosalind wondered why her thoughts were suddenly taking such a direction. Certainly it was just a spell of melancholy, something that would be gone before long. She hoped that was it, and that she was not prone to having such spells of melancholy very often.
Rosalind was in the parlour with the rest of her family when the guests came. Mrs. Fletcher was the first one to arrive in the rectory. It did not surprise Rosalind -- if she were to live in that stuffy set of rooms above the village schoolroom, she thought, she too would grab at every opportunity to escape from it. After having profoundly thanked Mrs. Acton for the invitation, Mrs. Fletcher sat down next to Rosalind and asked for her advice regarding the paintings she was going to sell. She was not certain which of her latest oeuvres she should donate.
While Rosalind was discussing the matter with Mrs. Fletcher, the Wilcoxes were shown into the parlour. Judith Wilcox immediately sat down between Miranda and Beatrice, with Rosalind's brothers in attendance. Rosalind did not like Judith very much, although Judith had never done anything to deserve such dislike. It was simply that Rosalind thought her a shallow, silly girl and not the kind she could be friends with. She preferred people with some commonsense. But, Rosalind thought grimly, Judith Wilcox would probably be just the sort of girl to attract Mr. Irving's attention.
From the corner of her eye, Rosalind watched Martin Wilcox who stood in the doorway, obviously trying to decide where he should go. For a moment he gazed longingly in Beatrice's direction, but then his shyness overcame his inclination and he went to Rosalind instead. Rosalind gave an inward sigh. She was certain that Beatrice was as fond of Martin Wilcox as he was of her, but if he did not make a push to win her soon, the outlook for them was bleak indeed. Unfortunately, this was one topic she could not discuss with him -- quite understandably; he did not want Rosalind to meddle with his affairs. Beatrice, on the other hand, would not go halfway to meet him. She had a decided opinion of girls who "set their caps at a man", and had voiced it very often.
Mr. Irving was the last guest to arrive at the rectory. Rosalind wondered whether he had deliberately chosen a moment when everyone else was already present, so that his entrance would have the most effect. However, he immediately apologised for his tardiness and explained its cause to his hostess, and Rosalind had to admit that perhaps she had wronged him -- provided his explanation was true. Apparently, his uncle had wanted to see him just as he was about to leave the house, and it had taken some time until Mr. Deane had been able to clarify what he had wanted to say -- Mr. Deane's inability to express himself had not helped matters at all.
"He heard I was to dine here and wanted to make sure I was on my best behaviour," Mr. Irving said smilingly. "He thinks very highly of you and your family, Mrs. Acton."
"Oh, he has been the kindest of neighbours in all these years," Mrs. Acton said. "We think very highly of him too."
At the dinner table, Rosalind was pleased to note that she was seated between Martin Wilcox and his father, and that Mr. Irving was trying his utmost to make himself agreeable to Judith Wilcox, just as she had predicted. She knew he would take a fancy to her -- Judith was just the type of girl to appeal to men like him. Empty-headed prettiness was an effective way to capture a man, and surely Mr. Irving was no different to the rest of that set.
Dinners at the Actons' house were never a formal affair, and therefore no one was expected to restrict their conversation to their neighbours. Whatever was said was said for the benefit of everyone, and everyone was entitled to join in the conversation whenever they felt like doing so.
This was why Rosalind was not quite able to avoid talking to Mr. Irving -- though Beatrice was mainly to blame. It was she who talked about London with Mr. Irving, and who mentioned that her eldest sister had visited the capital three years previously.
Mr. Irving instantly turned to Rosalind. "Did you indeed, Miss Acton?"
"I did," Rosalind said coldly. "I stayed with my aunt, Mrs. Holbrooke, for six weeks." Rosalind hoped Mr. Irving would not recall her aunt's name. She knew they were not really acquainted with each other, but one never knew for certain.
"Mrs. Holbrooke," Mr. Irving said obligingly. "I am sorry to say that the name does not sound very familiar. Is it possible that we met in London while you were there, Miss Acton?"
Rosalind went pale. "No ... no, I do not think we did," she lied. "I am sure I moved in different circles than you did, sir."
"A pity," Mr. Irving said. "And there I thought I had finally found out where we had met before."
"Do I look familiar, Mr. Irving?" Rosalind asked, trembling inwardly but trying to show a calm front. She could only hope Mr. Irving would not expose her in front of everyone if he did remember her. A gentleman would not do such a thing, would he? On the other hand, her past encounters with him should have taught her that Mr. Irving was not much of a gentleman.
"You do, and I am trying to determine where I might have seen you," Mr. Irving said. "For a moment I thought it might have been in London."
"We did not meet in London," Rosalind insisted frostily.
With a mischievous grin, Mr. Irving said, "Then it must be that look of disapproval you keep giving me. I am fairly used to these -- it is the kind of expression I often see in my mother's face."
Nettled, Rosalind said, "This indicates that your mother often has reason to disapprove of you, sir."
"Having a son like me is not at all beneficial for my mother's nerves," Mr. Irving admitted with a boyish grin.
Rosalind refused to be charmed by it. She did not wish to be compared to Mr. Irving's parent. It was not at all flattering if someone her age reminded a young man of his mother. Her father said something to that effect, which made Mr. Irving turn to Rosalind once more, saying, "It seems I owe you another apology, Miss Acton. If I am not careful, this might become a habit."
"Insulting me, or begging pardon?" Rosalind asked, more sharply than she had intended.
Mr. Irving laughed. "Touché. You may not believe it, but I am really not in the habit of insulting ladies."
Rosalind was glad when Lady Wilcox asked Mr. Irving whether his mother would join him in Rampton and distracted his attention from her. Mr. Irving answered Lady Wilcox's question politely, but it was perfectly clear to everyone present that this topic was not one that made him feel comfortable. He said that his mother was, at the moment, unable to come to Rampton but hoped to take up residence there once her son had come into his inheritance. In other words, Rosalind thought, Mrs. Irving refused to come to Rampton Manor as long as her uncle was alive. She wondered how such an amiable gentleman as Mr. Deane could have become so unpopular among his relatives, but then decided that the fault was certainly not his.
Once they were in the parlour, the evening became quite predictable. As Rosalind had expected, her sisters and Miss Wilcox sat down in one corner to have a look at some new fashion plates Miss Wilcox had brought along with her and a lively debate of fabrics and finery ensued. Lady Wilcox and Mrs. Fletcher sat down by the fire with their hostess and began to discuss the preparations for the charity bazaar. Rosalind preferred sitting with them to listening to Miss Wilcox's meaningless chatter.
In order to give herself an occupation -- and an excuse for not talking much once the gentlemen followed them -- she took her workbasket and resumed her embroidery. Rosalind was not exactly proficient in needlework. Her mother had taught her, naturally, but Rosalind had had neither the inclination nor the talent to excel in that kind of activity. The sad truth was that Rosalind did not have any of the usual ladylike accomplishments. Her singing, in her father's to-the-point though rather unkind words, was capable of breaking up a party at any time, and her musical skills on the whole were pitiable. Mrs. Acton had soon given up trying to teach her eldest daughter to play the pianoforte once she had realised Rosalind's lack of talent.
Rosalind's drawing skills were sadly lacking as well. Though she knew enough about art to follow a conversation on the subject, she was not able to draw a recognisable picture. Rosalind had often cried bitter tears at her apparent ineptitude, until her father had, one day, taken her aside and had told her not to dwell on the things she could not do but to concentrate on the ones she was good at. He made it clear to her that her talents, though they must seem paltry to her, were very important ones, and that a good heart and a practical mind were just as delightful as the ability to play a musical instrument or draw charming water-colours. Besides, he pointed out, Rosalind's commonsense and her organising ability were more useful than an ability to sing or paint. Rosalind could not help but agree with her father, and instead of feeling bitter because she was not as artistic as her sisters, she had grown proud of her own talents.
Still, when the gentlemen came into the parlour, Rosalind kept her eyes to her embroidery and made an effort to concentrate on it. One did not speak to a young lady absorbed in her needlework, and by that ruse Rosalind hoped to avoid further conversation with Mr. Irving. She was afraid that if they were to talk to each other some more, someone would find out about the secret she was so desperate to keep. It would not be easy to be in Mr. Irving's company without betraying herself, Rosalind had realised as much already.
Her wish was granted for the time being, for although Mr. Irving sat down to have a few words with his hostess, he did not say anything to Rosalind. She could not help but listen to her mother's conversation with Mr. Irving, however -- they were discussing Mr. Deane's illness and the progress he was making, a topic that interested her as well.
After a while, Rosalind could not longer be silent but burst out, "Will Mr. Deane be able to leave his bed soon?"
"I have no idea," Mr. Irving said, giving Rosalind a surprised but not unfriendly look. He seemed inclined to let her take part in the conversation. "Mr. Bates told me that my uncle was paralysed and that he would stay that way. I suppose this means he will be bed-ridden for as long as he lives."
"He will certainly remain paralysed for the rest of his life," Rosalind said quietly, "but still he can improve. Mr. Deane need not spend his remaining days in bed, for one. He should be made to sit up from time to time. If he is kept in bed for much longer, his muscles will lose their strength and his state of health will grow worse. You must try to avoid that."
"You sound as if you knew a great deal about such matters," Mr. Irving said.
"Our Rosalind is an excellent nurse," Mrs. Acton said. "Villagers often come to ask for her advice, especially if they cannot afford Mr. Bates' assistance."
"This is a rather uncommon accomplishment for a young lady," Mr. Irving said, smiling at Rosalind. "How did you come by it?" He sounded genuinely interested, and it would have been impolite not to answer his question.
"I have seen my fair share of sickrooms," Rosalind therefore replied. "One is bound to, as a clergyman's daughter, and naturally I wanted to be able to help."
"Naturally," Mr. Irving said. "And your wish was all that was needed?"
"Not really. I had much to learn," Rosalind admitted. "My great-grandmother's recipe book helped me a great deal. She was an accomplished herbalist -- my father said that had she lived fifty years earlier she might have been hanged for witchcraft. It was not always safe for a lady to know too much about the healing powers of nature."
"So when I encountered you on the road you were on your way home from tending to the sick?"
"Quite so. So now you know why I ran around the countryside all by myself, wearing old clothes and looking a fright."
"I did not think you looked frightful, Miss Acton."
"Do not try to spare me, Mr. Irving, I know what I looked like."
Mr. Irving smiled. "Though I do not share your opinion, I won't contradict you. I do not want to offend you again. I seem to have done so often enough -- too often, in fact. - Could you help my uncle, too, if you got the chance?"
"To a certain degree I could, I suppose, but I cannot work wonders, sir." Rosalind said warily.
"Will you come and see him then?"
"Will I be allowed to see him?" Rosalind asked. "Every time I wanted to visit him I was sent away. I strongly suspect he wants to spare me the sight of a helpless, paralysed old man."
"I can arrange it for you, if you want to come," Mr. Irving said. "I think it would do my uncle good."
Rosalind hesitated. She would have liked to visit Mr. Deane, but she knew Mr. Irving would be there too, and she had no wish to meet him often. The less they saw of each other, the better it was for everyone concerned.
Mr. Irving not only noticed her reluctance but also realised the reason for it. "If you send word to the Manor early enough, I can make sure to be out when you arrive," he said quietly, careful not to let Mrs. Acton hear his words.
Rosalind opened her mouth to protest, but thought the better of it. He was right, after all. It was his presence at Rampton Manor that had kept her from trying to visit Mr. Deane these days.
"I will come and see your uncle tomorrow, then," she said.
"Good. I know your visit will do him good," Mr. Irving said, and then excused himself to join the party around Miss Wilcox.
For the rest of the evening, Rosalind was not obliged to speak to him any more, for which she was grateful. The dinner party had not been quite as bad as she had expected -- and Mr. Irving had proved to be more gentlemanlike than she had remembered him. Perhaps he could be depended on to behave decorously, she thought, as long as there was no wager involved and as long as there was company.
Mr. Acton took Rosalind aside once the guests had left.
"I am pleased to see that you seem to have warmed towards Mr. Irving," he said.
"What gives you that idea, Papa?" Rosalind asked, taken aback. Surely her conduct had not warranted such a conclusion. She had been polite but far from friendly. Her father had interpreted her behaviour according to his own wishes, nothing more, and she had to make it clear to him that his assumption was wrong.
"I may be mistaken, Rosie, but I saw you talk with each other after dinner, and you did not look as if his conversation disgusted you."
"That does not mean I am fond of him," Rosalind said. "We were talking about Mr. Deane, and naturally that interested me. I would not talk to Mr. Irving for his sake, I assure you."
"Are you still angry with him because of your first meeting?"
"Quite so," Rosalind said, happy that for once she did not have to lie. She was not obliged to mention when that first meeting had taken place.
"I never thought it was in your nature to be so unforgiving," Mr. Acton said, frowning. "I must say that realisation does not please me. On the contrary -- it is a severe disappointment."
"I am not unforgiving as a rule, Papa." Rosalind said. She had to clarify that, for the very last thing she wanted to do was to disappoint her father. "It depends on the offence, really."
"Do you think you will be able to meet Mr. Irving without animosity at one point?" Mr. Acton asked, giving Rosalind an interested look.
"As you may have noticed tonight, Papa, I am well capable of treating Mr. Irving with due civility," Rosalind said. "No matter what my opinion of him may be, I promise you will never have a reason to be ashamed of me."
"I am glad to hear it, but that was not an answer to my question," her father said with a smile.
"To be honest, no, I do not think I will ever grow to like Mr. Irving," Rosalind said.
"Harsh words, my dear girl," Mr. Acton said. "Somehow I do not think it was his incivility at your first meeting that made you dislike him so much. What happened?"
"Mr. Irving told you," Rosalind merely said, and wished her father a good night. She hoped he would not make any further inquiry into the matter, but she knew him well enough to fear that he would not leave it alone. Perhaps she could hit on some excuse sooner or later -- or maybe she could put his mind at rest in some way or other. She had to -- there was no possible way for her to confess what had happened in London. Her conduct there would disgust her father more than her apparent aversion to Mr. Irving would. She'd rather be unforgiving than wanton in his opinion.
The next day, shortly before
noon, Rosalind set out towards the Manor House. She supposed that by that time
Mr. Irving would have left his room, and would be able to go out before she
She took the shortcut across the churchyard, and on her way looked into the church to see what needed to be done there. Though the sexton swept the church floor from time to time, he hardly ever remembered to dust the place, and Rosalind noted that he had forgotten to do so again -- probably for weeks. The church was ripe for another cleaning, and Rosalind knew who was going to do it. It was just the kind of work that everyone was glad to leave to her, and strangely enough, it was the kind of work she liked. Cleaning was a task that allowed her thoughts to wander -- she often found solutions to her problems while doing menial work. With a grim smile, Rosalind thought that she had a great deal of problems to solve -- the church would be gleaming before she had hit on a way to deal with Mr. Irving without raising anyone's suspicion or, even worse, giving him the impression that she would welcome his advances. Not that he had made any yet, Rosalind thought ironically, but it was better to be prepared.
At the far end of the graveyard, there was a gate in the wall that separated Mr. Deane's property from the churchyard. Rosalind walked through that gate and entered Mrs. Deane's rose garden -- it had been the late Mrs. Deane's favourite place, and she had often sat there, for she had loved the scent of roses. After her death, the place had seemed deserted, but Mr. Deane had seen to it that it was well taken care of, in memory of his wife. Rosalind lingered for a few minutes -- she loved the rose garden as well, and greeted it like an old friend she had not seen for a while. Leaving the rose garden, Rosalind stepped onto the South Lawn and approached the house. It was a Tudor mansion, and still looked very much as it must have looked when it had been built. Rosalind had always loved the place. Although it was very old, it had a cosy feel to it, and since she had spent so much time there in her childhood it was almost like another home to her. It would be a pity, she felt, that she would not be able to visit Rampton Manor any more once Mr. Deane was gone.
Mr. Deane's housekeeper received her. Mr. Irving had kept his word; he had instructed the housekeeper to welcome Miss Acton and take her to his uncle's room, and had then left the house "to visit some friends".
"I do not think he will be back before dinner," Mrs. Piggott said. Rosalind was pleased to hear that there was no chance of her running into Mr. Irving while she was at the Manor House. Somehow she had not really expected him to honour his promise, but had gone to see Mr. Deane anyway because she had wanted to see him. In some way, she had felt, she would have to be able to deal with Mr. Deane's nephew, but she was glad that she was not required to try. Rosalind wondered how Mr. Deane's servants liked Mr. Irving, but did not ask. Mrs. Piggott would hardly voice her opinion if it was uncomplimentary -- she knew as well as everyone else that Mr. Irving was Mr. Deane's heir, and certainly hoped to stay in Mr. Irving's service once Mr. Deane was gone. Therefore she'd keep a negative opinion to herself, just like every other servant in the house. Besides it would not do to encourage the servants to gossip -- it would most likely come to either Mr. Irving's, or, even worse, her father's ears.
Mrs. Piggott took Rosalind upstairs, and knocked at the door of the master bedroom. Philips, Mr. Deane's valet, opened the door.
"Miss Acton to see Mr. Deane," Mrs. Piggott announced and then left, not without inviting Rosalind to come to the housekeeper's room and have a cup of tea with her before leaving.
Quietly, Rosalind entered Mr. Deane's bedchamber. Though she had often visited the Manor House, she had never been in that particular room. There was oak panelling, as in most rooms of the house, and Mr. Deane's bed was opposite the door, between two windows facing the South Lawn. Mr. Deane was there, in a half reclining position, propped up with a couple of pillows. He did not say anything upon seeing her, but he made an effort to smile. Due to his stroke, the smile looked like a lopsided grin, but it was a smile nevertheless. So at least he was not angry with her for coming to see him against his wishes, Rosalind thought. But she was startled by the way the old gentleman looked. He was only a shadow of what he had been before his illness.
"Good morning, Mr. Deane," she said, walking towards him and taking his hand, hoping that he would not notice how shocked she was. "How are you feeling today?" She was pleased with how cheerful she sounded -- Mr. Deane would not be able to tell how she really felt.
The smile vanished, and with some effort Mr. Deane scratched something onto a slate that was lying on the bedcovers.
"M..." Rosalind looked at him, questioningly. "What does M mean, Mr. Deane?"
"Miserable?" Rosalind asked, watching the slow progress Mr. Deane was making.
"Poor Mr. Deane!" Rosalind exclaimed. "Are you in pain?"
If she visited him more often, Rosalind thought, she might actually become good at this, but she did wish Mr. Deane would regain his ability to speak. While he had that slate, he would not try however. Yet, Rosalind did not have the heart to suggest its removal and to deprive Mr. Deane of his only means of communication.
Rosalind did not know whether people who had suffered from a stroke were often in pain, or what was most likely to hurt, but she knew that being confined to their bed for a long time did not do people good. Seeing that the effort of answering her questions had taxed Mr. Deane's strength, she decided to leave him alone for a moment and turned to Philips instead.
He was at the far end of the room, arranging some medicine bottles and keeping an eye on his master.
"I have brought you something," Rosalind said, and gave the valet a bottle containing a blood-red liquid. "How often do you move Mr. Deane?"
"I beg your pardon, Miss Acton?"
"You know that a patient confined to his bed must be moved every two hours, don't you? I cannot believe Mr. Bates did not tell you so," Rosalind said, lowering her voice so Mr. Deane could not overhear her.
"So, how often do you move Mr. Deane?"
"Every two hours, as Mr. Bates said," Philips said hesitantly.
"Also at night?" Rosalind asked. She knew the answer when Philips did not reply. "Did Mr. Bates tell you what will happen if you do not follow his instructions?" she asked.
"No, Miss Acton."
"Then I will," she said, and explained to Philips that an invalid who could not move without help would develop sores if he stayed in the same position for too long.
"This liquid will help you to avoid this," she said. "Just rub it into Mr. Deane's back a couple of times a day. It will soothe the pain if there are sores already, and the massage will avoid them altogether."
"Yes, Miss Acton."
"And do not think I will let you forget about it," Rosalind said firmly. "I'll let Mr. Irving know." She hoped Mr. Irving would see to it that Philips followed her instructions. He had come here after all -- therefore she hoped he had come to make sure his uncle was treated properly. Though, she thought bitterly, that hope was not founded on any good opinion of his character.
"I am going to see Mrs. Piggott now," Rosalind said. "You will apply the oil to Mr. Deane's back, and move him."
She turned back to Mr. Deane. "I'll be back in a couple of minutes, Mr. Deane," she said, softening her voice. "Do you want me to read to you?"
"I'll get The Vicar of Wakefield from the library then," Rosalind said, knowing that this was Mr. Deane's favourite book.
The prospect seemed to cheer the old gentleman up. The lopsided grin was back.
Rosalind gave Philips half an hour to follow her orders, half an hour that she spent with Mrs. Piggott. They drank tea together in the housekeeper's room and talked about how Mr. Deane's illness had changed everyone's life in the Manor House. They did not touch the topic of Mr. Irving however. Rosalind did not care to mention him, and Mrs. Piggott did not say anything about him either.
Once Rosalind was sure that Philips had had enough time to follow her instructions, she went to the library and fetched the book she had promised to read to Mr. Deane. He welcomed her back in his room with the same grin he had given her when she had left. He wore a fresh nightshirt, she noticed, and Philips had indeed shifted his position. Rosalind sat down next to Mr. Deane's bed, opened the book and started reading. But soon she noticed that Mr. Deane's healthy eyelid began to droop, and put the book aside.
"I think I had better let you sleep now, Mr. Deane," she said quietly. "Do you want me to come back tomorrow?"
Mr. Deane pressed her hand slightly, which she thought meant that he wanted her to return.
"Do you want me to bring one of my brothers or sisters with me?" Rosalind asked. "William perhaps?"
She knew Mr. Deane had always been fond of her brother William. He had admired the boy's intelligence, and had taken pains to improve his mind. William, too, liked Mr. Deane very much and Rosalind was sure he'd come to the Manor with her if she asked him to.
A corner of Mr. Deane's mouth lifted slightly. Rosalind smiled back. "Until tomorrow then," she said, gave his hand a final squeeze and left.
She was on her way across the South Lawn when she almost bumped into Mr. Irving.
"Good afternoon, Miss Acton," he said, smiling at her. "I see you kept your word."
"You did not doubt it, I hope," Rosalind said.
"No, I did not," he replied. "You did not strike me as the sort of person who would make empty promises. But I see I will have to stay away longer next time."
Rosalind blushed. "Mr. Irving, you need not go away every time I come to see your uncle," she said quietly.
"I suppose I will have to," Mr. Irving said. "A young lady visiting an infirm old neighbour is one thing, but if there's a young nephew living in the same house, people might talk."
"They will certainly not talk about me," Rosalind said.
"I would not be so sure about that if I were you," Mr. Irving said with an impertinent grin. "The presence of a pretty young female and a single gentleman in the same house is food for gossip."
"I am not pretty," Rosalind said. Mr. Irving gave her a bewildered look.
"Whatever makes you believe such a thing, Miss Acton?" he asked.
"Experience," Rosalind said coldly. "Good day to you, Mr. Irving."
Without looking back, Rosalind walked towards the rose garden and entered the churchyard. The very last thing she wanted to discuss with Mr. Irving was whether she was beautiful or not. Then she realised that she had missed the perfect chance to tell Mr. Irving about Philips, and turned back, hoping to catch up with him before he entered the house. Mr. Irving was still where she had left him, looking at her with a puzzled frown.
"Mr. Irving, I have to tell you that you will need someone to relieve Philips," she said.
"My uncle's valet?"
"Yes, your uncle's valet. You see, he cannot look after Mr. Deane single-handedly. He needs help. I asked him today whether he moved Mr. Deane regularly, even at night, and he was not able to answer the question. That is, he chose not to answer it, which indicates that he has a good reason for not answering it. I do not doubt he is as devoted to Mr. Deane as he ever was, but he is not twenty any more. The task is getting too much for him."
"So what do you suggest?" Mr. Irving asked.
"Promote one of the footmen, or one of the grooms perhaps. A young, healthy man who can assist Philips, and who can take turns with him at night. I am quite certain Philips will do his best during the day, but tending to an elderly invalid is hard work. He needs his sleep. He is doing his very best right now, but that is not enough. I do not think any damage has been done so far, but I am afraid there will be if you do not act soon."
Mr. Irving nodded thoughtfully. "I'll see to it immediately," he said. "Thank you, Miss Acton."
With a nod, Rosalind turned around and walked away, leaving Mr. Irving where he was. Back at the rectory, she went to look for her brother William to ask him to join her on her visit at the Manor House the next day. Mr. Deane needed all the entertainment he could get to recover.
At the dinner table, Mr. Acton announced that he was going to go to Warwick the day after the next -- Mr. Irving had expressed a wish to see the castle, and Mr. Acton had been quite willing to take him there.
"An excellent plan, my dear," Mrs. Acton said. "I was thinking of going to Warwick as well, and of taking the girls with me."
"To see Warwick Castle?" Mr. Acton asked, smiling teasingly.
"Not quite," Mrs. Acton said, refusing to be teased. "But you must have noticed that they have not had any new gowns for almost two years. I think it is about time to remedy that."
"Oh. Certainly, my dear," Mr. Acton said. "Is there any particular reason why the girls need new gowns now?"
Mrs. Acton did not believe his question was worthy of an answer, but she gave her husband an indignant glare. Realising that his wife did not find the topic remotely funny, Mr. Acton told her that he would ask Mr. Irving whether he could borrow Mr. Deane's carriage, and that they would make a party of it.
Rosalind was anything but pleased to hear the news. She did not object to getting a new gown or even two -- like most females she knew, she liked to dress neatly and fashionably. But like her father she suspected that it was not the purchase of new gowns that made her mother want to take her daughters to Warwick. More likely she wanted to throw her daughters into Mr. Irving's company as often as possible -- in plain words, she thought he would make one of them a good husband. Rosalind did not know how to thwart her mother's plan, but she would have to. She did not want Mr. Irving in her family -- not as a brother-in-law, and certainly not as her husband.
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