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The little sitting room was sparsely furnished. The two girls, one knotting a fringe and the other pensively watching her, wore dresses decidedly not of the latest mode, but a small fire burned brightly and cheerfully on the hearth. The younger of the girls, a golden beauty whose hair the colour of ripe corn silk kept escaping her cap, seemed intent on the fringe before her. Her pretty, full lips pouted in concentration and occasionally the tip of a little pink tongue could be seen protruding between them. Her clear grey eyes surveyed the fringe with childish intensity and the high colour of her cheeks was clearly put there by nature, not by any skillful hand.
The other girl, somewhat smaller, had a soft, heart-shaped face, rich brown curls, and an equally fresh complexion. Her forehead was creased by a pensive frown.
Linnet was worried. There was no evading it. There sat Fanny, beautiful golden Fanny. And still without a husband. Linnet heaved a big sigh.
Fanny looked up from the fringe with a beatific smile. "Dear Linnet, whatever are you teasing yourself about now?" she asked. "Come, don't be in the miseries. Don't you think this fringe is coming along famously?"
Linnet smiled at her sister. "Yes, Fanny. It looks very good. You always do your work well." And that was certainly the truth, Linnet thought as Fanny bent her head again to her fringe and her sister lapsed back into her brown study.
Fanny was such a beauty. And of such a gentle and complacent nature. It was true perhaps that she hadn't the best understanding possible. Books and figures held little interest for Fanny. But she was such a good girl, Linnet told herself, this time swallowing theaccompanying sigh to keep it from Fanny's ears.
If only Papa and Mama had not both departed from this world at the same time, she thought. One of them would know how to get Fanny properly married. But she herself, why she was only a year older than Fanny. Though, of course, she told herself, she did not expect to find a husband, not a plain girl like herself--and one without much of a marriage portion. But it she could just get Fanny properly settled with a comfortable husband, then she herself would not so much mind growing into one of those creatures that were poked fun at by all and sundry--an old maid.
After all, she had her horses--or one at least. For a moment she allowed her mind to dwell on the young chestnut, Sunburst, that she had just broken. How proud Papa would have been of her, she thought with a faint smile. And Mama, how horrified! Mama had always found horses to be nefarious creatures whose only aim in life was to give her a nip whenever possible.
Quickly Linnet wiped away a tear. There was no use mourning what couldn't be helped. Mama and Papa were gone. And Fanny needed a husband.
Why, Linnet asked herself for perhaps the hundredth time in the last months, had Papa seen fit to entrust their guardianship to that pompous old Lord Farrington? He looked rather like a porker, Linnet thought, hastily swallowing a giggle, a porker all fattened up for market. Yes, that was it. Like one of his own porkers come to call, with a great starched cravat that came up under his three chins in a dreadfully dangerous manner and with a waistcoat that looked like it might at any moment let fire its buttons.
And he'd been such a bore, too, Linnet thought, shifting her gaze from Fanny's fair head to the view of the newly blossoming orchard through the window behind her. Right into this sitting room he had come just a year ago, huffing mightily over their wasting wood in a fire on such a warm spring day.
Linnet remembered it all so well.
"It's just, sir. Fanny takes the chill easy, sir. And we've plenty of wood in the woodpile."
Lord Farrington seemed to unbow a little at this soft-spoken reply. Nevertheless he hastened to give her another of his gems of wisdom. "Waste not, want not," he proclaimed in such a portentous fashion that poor Linnet was hard put not to laugh. That, of course, was hardly a helpful thing to do to one's guardian, especially when he was a vain old man who thought that abstemious living (apparently for all others but himself) would be the saving of this world.
"You must be more saving, my dear Linnet," he proclaimed.
"I am trying, sir."
Lord Farrington beamed expansively. "You must call me Uncle Throckmorton, my child. After all, your father's dearest friend--"
"Yes, si--Uncle Throckmorton. But if you please, sir, what shall we do about Fanny? She should be coming out, you know. It's time we found her a husband."
Uncle Throckmorton's eyes, also somewhat porcine, glittered. "Not yet, my child. But believe me, I shall give it my thought, my deepest thought. But for now I must be on my way. Be saving, girl, remember that. That's the way to get ahead in this world."
Perhaps his advice might have been better heeded by Linnet if she hadn't been aware that Uncle Throckmorton was one of the biggest wasters in the world. How often she had heard her papa say so. "There't no one who can outdo Throckmorton, let me tell you," Papa had often said. "Why, it's said that Lord Alvanley insists on a fresh apricot tart every night in the year. Shouldn't surprise me a bit it old Throckmorton ordered up two a night."
Why Papa had chosen a man of this character as the guardian of his two daughters was a mystery Linnet could not penetrate. Perhaps he had meant it for an empty honour. For certainly to have looked at the two of them then--in the old days--any sane-minded person would have suspected Uncle Throckmorton to succumb to apoplexy or some disease to his abused digestive system.
But such had not been the case. And she and Fanny were stuck with a guardian whose thinking on the subject of Fanny's coming out had apparently been so deep that no decision had yet reached the surface. And in the meantime, Linnet told herself with a grimace, Fanny was a year older and no nearer to being married.
Suddenly she found herself unable to sit still. "I'm going out to check on Sunburst," she told the patiently toiling Fanny. "Perhaps I'll go for a ride."
"You'll ruin your complexion." Fanny looked up from her work rather anxiously. "Mama always told me never to go about in the sun without having my arms covered and wearing my bonnet."
"Nonsense, Fanny dear." Linnet's tone was calm but firm. "I shall only get a few freckles at worst. And a bonnet is such a nuisance. I'll be back soon."
Fanny, having spoken her piece and knowing full well that Linnet would do as she pleased, turned again to the fringe. "Would you please, if you're going by the orchard, bring me a spray of blossoms? I remember how Mama used to fill the rooms this time of year."
"Yes, Fanny. I shall bring you several sprays."
Fanny looked up to smile again, her clear grey eyes widening. "You are very good to me, dear Linnet. If only I could capture a proper husband. Then I should be able to care for you for the rest of your life."
Linnet burst into a peal of laughter. "That's kind of you, love, but suppose your dear husband did not want your poor relations around?"
"Why," said Fanny in shocked surprise. "I should never marry such a monstrous man. Never, never."
"Dear Fanny. I appreciate your thoughtfulness. Truly I do. But since at the moment there is no husband, I must first think what I can do to find you one."
"Yes," agreed Fanny solemnly. "I am sure you'll come up with something famous."
Linnet, laughing again, made her way toward the stables. Fanny was a dear creature, but she would certainly never intrude on Fanny's married life. Should she ever have one, she told herself, losing her laughter and no longer holding back her sighs, as she made her way beneath the budding oaks.
Sunburst, in the nearby paddock, burst into an excited whinny at the sight of her beloved mistress and stuck her brown nose through the bars for the petting she knew was coming. "Ah, Sunburst," sighed Linnet, absently rubbing the patch of white on the mare's forehead, the marking that had caused her father, not at all a sentimental man, to remark as the spindly little creature fought to gain her feet, "That's an unusual marking that--like the sun bursting through dark clouds."
Papa had been as fond of the little chestnut foal as she was, Linnet knew. And he had been able to voice his affection for his horses. It was only when he was faced with two girl children that he had found showing affection difficult. But Papa had loved them, in his own gruff hearty fashion. And when he had discovered that Linnet's passion for horses matched his own, he had helped her evade Mama and the starched governess and taught her everything--and that was considerable--that he knew about horseflesh.
"So now," she said, addressing herself to the chestnut mare, "Papa is gone. And Mama is gone. And there is no one but you and I--and Fanny."
For just a moment she gave way to the anguish that she was feeling and bowed her head against the mare's silky neck. "Oh, Sunburst, how I wish there were someone else to be strong and brave and take care of us." For a moment a sob threatened to make itself heard. But then Linnet straightened and raised her head. "What a ninny-hammer I am," she told the gentle mare. "I'm a big girl now. And I shall have to take care of us. I shall have to," she repeated firmly, "for there is simply no one else to do it."
She shook her head. "But for now," she cried in an attempt to recover her spirits, "we shall go for a ride."
A few minutes later the chestnut mare could be seen streaking across the meadow, taking hedgerow and ditch with practiced stride. And on her back was mounted what appeared to be a stable boy in fustian shirt and breeches. None of the neighbours would have been at all surprised to see the stable boy remove his cap and become Linnet, the horse-crazed daughter of the late Baron Hungerford.
In the course of that ride the hair that had been tucked up beneath the cap came tumbling down around her ears, a smudge of black appeared on one cheek, several new freckles made their appearance, and--what would have caused her poor dear mama to raise her hands in horror--actual beads of perspiration went running down her pink cheeks.
But Linnet, in those precious moments, had no thought for any of the niceties that mamas were perpetually harping about. She had no care for things like that. Every nerve in Linnet's small body was alive and tingling, every muscle in tune with those of the superb animal under her.
When she returned to the stable some time later, she was tired but happy. Riding always did that for her--cleared her mind of all its dark and gloomy thoughts, made all her troubles seem to fade. She would simply sit down, she told herself, and write a letter to Uncle Throckmorton, a firm adult letter reminding him that Fanny must be brought out.
"Surely he will listen to me this time," she told the mare as she rubbed her down carefully. "And if he doesn't, I will just keep on writing."
When Sunburst was comfortably cleaned and stabled, Linnet slipped into the little tack room and slid out of the shirt and breeches and into her dark muslin gown. What a fortunate thing that Papa had taught her so much about horses, she thought, as pushing at her hair with one hand she inadvertently added another smudge to her face. For now that their allowance was so dreadfully small, there was no money to pay a stable boy. She did not mind doing the work herself. And it was lucky too that there was so much good pasture land, so that she could make the arrangement that she had with Mr. Jareb. She doubted that Uncle Throckmorton would approve of her even speaking to Mr. Jareb. But there had been Sunburst to feed through the winter and Mr. Jareb had long had his eye on the south pasture. Linnet had often heard Papa say so--many times. And so, after Papa's death, when winter was coming on and there was no big barrel of oats to see the chestnut mare through the cold days, she had taken her courage in her trembling hands and gone to Mr. Jareb.
The rest had been easy. Mr. Jareb had been pleased to trade her enough oats to keep Sunburst's coat shiny and healthy, to get the little mare safely through the winter, for the summer use of the south pasture. And he had done so courteously and kindly, not at all, Linnet thought thankfully, like the crotchety old farmer that Papa had made him out to be.
With a sigh, she wondered again at Papa's estimation of character. Certainly Mr. Jareb, whose portly wife often sent fresh produce from their farm to Hungerford House's kitchen, would have made a more kindly and appropriate guardian than their uncle, Lord Farrington. There were so many times that Mr. Jareb's servants arrived with "extras" from his garden that Linnet suspected that the kindly old farmer knew the perilous condition of their finances. But no word of that was ever mentioned, and his servants were extremely respectful. But then, she told herself, Mr. Jareb was a farmer, and as such, she supposed, not the proper person to bring out Fanny.
With another sigh, she closed the tack room door behind her and set out for the orchard. Fanny would have several sprays of apple blossoms for the little sitting room where they spent most of their time these days.
The orchard was heavy with blossoms and Linnet smiled at the sweet scent and sight that assailed her senses. How Mama had loved apple blossoms! At least, she thought more practically, there should be apples aplenty for next winter. And the produce of the garden that Carling had started should help them through the next winter.
Poor Carling, Linnet thought as she snapped off several sweet-smelling boughs. The old butler should have been pensioned off long ago, to live his old age in comfort in a warm home somewhere. And indeed, Papa had left him a good sum of money to that very end. But the stiff old man, whose eyes held affection that he couldn't quite hide, had drawn himself up sternly to his full height and said, "Surely you're not going to be depriving me of my home. Miss Linnet. Not me as has lived here since I was but a lad."
And what could she do then but tell him he was welcome to stay? "Though I can't give you wages anymore, Carling, because the allowance is so small."
"I've no need of wages, Miss Linnet," the old butler had replied with dignity. "This is my home."
And so, too, had it been with Hester the cook, who had also been left a nice sum by Papa's will. Hester had declared stoutly that nothing on this wide earth would cause her to desert two orphaned girls. And as long as there was food to cook in this house, she would be cooking it.
Linnet, wondering at such devotion, could only be grateful for it. When the housekeeper, a new servant, cut, as Hester growled, "from indifferent cloth," found that there were to be no more wages and took herself speedily off, Linnet and Hester shut up most of the rooms in the big house, swathing the furniture with holland covers, and Linnet took over as much of the housekeeping duties as she could.
But when she discovered the dignified Carling digging a vegetable garden, she was forced to assign some of the household duties to Fanny, don her stable boy clothes, and help the old man.
"There is no use in looking so aghast at me, Carling," Linnet declared the first day as the old man gave her grave looks. "It's not fair for you to have to do this alone. After all, we are all going to eat. Unless of course you prefer to have Fanny's help."
The idea of the golden Fanny on her knees grubbing in the dirt was more than Carling's sense of dignity could sustain, and so he surrendered with what grace he could muster. "No, miss. I guess if one of you has to do it, it'd best be you. Miss Fanny"--he shook his head--"she'd just not fit here."
Linnet, her fingers deep in the dark soil, could only agree. Fanny's golden beauty was meant for fancy drawing-rooms and court balls, not for the country.
Linnet, her arms full of apple boughs, paused for a moment to survey the garden where she and Carling had already spent many hours. Yes, the little green shoots were looking well against the dark earth. She smiled. Next winter should find their larder full--of vegetables, at least.
Then she made her way back to the house where Fanny sat, still patiently knotting her fringe. She put it aside with a sweet smile as her sister entered the room. "Ah, Linnet, you've been gone such a dreadfully long time. But you have my apple blossoms!"
"Yes, Fanny, I do. I had a lovely ride on Sunburst. And I have made up my mind."
"You have?" Fanny's grey eyes grew wide. "You mean about my husband?"
Linnet could not help smiling at her sister's simplicity. "Yes, dear. I have decided to write this very night to Uncle Throckmorton. I shall tell him very firmly that we have waited long enough--that you simply must come out this year."
Fanny, gathering the apple blossoms into her arms where they made a beautiful picture against her golden loveliness, smiled happily. "Then all shall be settled soon. I shall be glad," she confided with a little sigh. "For I'm afraid I've been quite a burden to you."
"Fanny!" Linnet swallowed hastily over the lump in her throat. "Fanny, you must never think such a terrible thing. My dear, you are my life."
Two tears stood in Fanny's grey eyes. "But Linnet, you should have a husband, too. What else is there for us?"
Linnet, summoning a wobbly smile, gave her sister a quick hug. "Don't be a goose," she said. "I have my horses and my books. What do I want with a husband?"
Linnet's laugh had banished Fanny's tears, but she was obviously bewildered. "Oh, Linnet, I wish that I had such understanding as yours. Then I shouldn't always be wishing after a husband and the gay life in London."
Linnet kept the smile on her face as she turned away. She did not think that it would help Fanny at all to know that her plain older sister--so well named for a nondescript little brown bird--had moments of intense longing for a man she could love. Such knowledge would bring Fanny no comfort; it certainly brought Linnet none.
For above all Linnet prided herself on her practical nature. And that nature, whenever she surveyed herself in a mirror, prompted her to sigh and find little hope for herself. In their household Mama and Fanny had been the beauties--both tall with golden hair, wide grey eyes, and the smile of an angel. With this ideal of beauty Linnet could see little hope for a slight, brown-haired, brown-eyed girl, a mere chit, as anyone could see.
Certainly Papa had had no great hopes for her in the husband line. Not when he had gone against Mama's wishes in the matter and taught her all there was to know of horses. A sound knowledge of horseflesh was surely not a prerequisite to a proper marriage, most ladies not caring to know how to groom and stable a horse. But Papa had said, "Little brown bird, cattle of this sort will never play you false. You can be sure of that."
"Little brown bird," that had been Papa's nickname for her. It was not Papa's fault, she thought with a small sigh, that his sobriquet, like her real name, fit her so well. And surely she was not sorry that she knew about horses. Sunburst was the only joy left in her life now. And it would be her horses that would enliven her life after Fanny found her husband and she, Linnet, was left alone.
She gave her sister another smile. "Right now, before we have dinner, I shall write to Uncle Throckmorton. And you, Fanny, can arrange your flowers. They have such a lovely scent."
"Yes, Linnet." Fanny's brief smile was beautiful to see. And as Linnet settled at the little desk with pen and paper, she comforted herself with the thought that once in London any man must be blind who failed to be captivated by Fanny's golden beauty.