A little before eight o'clock, at the close of a damp autumn day, a post-chaise entered Bath, on the London Road, and presently drew up outside a house in Sydney Place. It was a hired vehicle, but it was drawn by four horses, and there was nothing in the appearance of the lady who occupied it to suggest that a private chaise, with her own postilions, would have been rather beyond her touch. She was accompanied by a middle-aged maid; and she was attired in an olive-green redingote of twilled silk which so exactly fitted her admirable figure that any female, beholding it, would have recognised at a glance that it had been made for her by a modiste of the first stare. It combined the simplicity of a garment designed for travel with an elegance only rivalled by the hat which becomingly framed Miss Abigail Wendover's face. No curled plumes or bunches of flowers adorned this confection: it was made of gros de Naples, bound with a satin ribbon; its poke was moderate, and its crown shallow; but it was as fashionable as the redingote.
The face beneath it was neither that of a girl in her first bloom, nor that of an accredited beauty, but it held an elusive charm which was centred in the lady's eyes, and the shy laughter which lurked in them. They were gray, and they held a great deal of intelligence; but her other features were not remarkable, her mouth being too large for beauty, her nose too far removed from the classical, and her chin rather too resolute. Her hair was neither fashionably dark nor angelically fair, but of a soft brown. It was not cropped, after the prevailing mode; she wore it braided round her head, or in a knot from which curls fell about her ears. Occasionally, and in defiance of her niece's vehemently expressed disapproval, she tied a lace cap over it. Fanny said that it made her look like an old maid, and cried out indignantly when she answered, in her pretty, musical voice: ‘Well, I am an old maid!'
It seemed as if her arrival had been eagerly awaited, for hardly had the chaise drawn up than the door of the house which was her home was flung open, and a footman came hurrying out to let down the steps of the chaise. He was followed by an elderly butler, who handed his mistress down, beaming a welcome, and saying: ‘Good-evening, Miss Abby! Well, and it is a good evening which brings you home again! I am very happy to see you, ma'am!'
‘Oh, and so happy as I am, Mitton!' she responded. ‘I don't think I was ever away for so many weeks before! Is my sister well?'
‘Pretty stout, ma'am barring a touch of rheumatism. She was a trifle down pin when you first went away, and took the notion into her head that she was of a consumptive habit '
‘Oh, no!' exclaimed Abby, in comical dismay.
‘No, ma'am,' agreed Mitton. ‘It was no more than an epidemic cold, which left her with a little cough as the new doctor was able to convince her.' His tone was one of bland respect, but there was a twinkle in his eye, which drew an involuntary chuckle from her. The twinkle deepened, but all he said was: ‘Very glad she will be to see you, Miss Abby. Quite on the fidgets she has been for hours past, fearing that there might be another put-off.'
‘Then I must go up to her immediately,' Abby said, and went with a light step into the house, leaving Mitton to extend a gracious welcome to her attendant.
Since the struggle for position between the butler grown old in the service of the family, and the one-time nurse to its three younger daughters, was unremitting, Mrs Grimston took this in bad part, detecting a note of patronage, and merely adjured him never to mind how she did, but to take care of Miss Abby's jewel-box.
Meanwhile, Abby, running up the stairs, found her sister awaiting her at the top of the first flight. Miss Wendover, enfolding her in a fond embrace, shed tears of joy, and begged her, in one tumbled speech, to retire instantly to bed after the fatigue of her journey; to come into the drawing-room; not to put herself to the trouble of uttering a word until she should be perfectly rested; and to tell her at once all about dear Jane, and dear Mary, and dear Jane's sweet new baby.
Sixteen years separated the sisters, for they were the eldest and the youngest members of a numerous family, three of whom had died in infancy, and one, the first-born son, when his only child was hardly out of leading-strings. Between Selina, on the shady side of forty, and Abigail, with a mere eight-and-twenty years in her dish, there now intervened only James, Mary, and Jane. It was with Jane, married to a man of considerable property in Huntingdonshire, that Abigail had been sojourning for the better part of the past six weeks, having been summoned to support her sister through the disasters which had befallen her. Measles had attacked her youthful family, and at the very moment when Nurse, falling down the backstairs, had broken her leg, and while she herself was in hourly expectation of presenting Sir Francis with a fourth petit paquet. In a letter heavy with underscorings, Lady Chesham had implored her dearest Abby to come to her at once, and to bring Grimston with her, since nothing could prevail upon her to abandon her beloved children to a strange nurse's care.
So Abigail had posted away to Huntingdonshire, where she had remained for five weeks, under trying conditions, all three children having succumbed to the measles before her arrival, her sister being brought to bed within two days of it, and her brother-in-law, at no time remarkable for amiability, apparently labouring under the conviction that this unfortunate concatenation of circumstances had been designed for the express purpose of causing him to suffer the maximum amount of undeserved hardship.
‘You must be worn to a thread!' Selina said, leading her into the drawing-room. ‘And then to be obliged to go to London, in all that racket and bustle! I don't think Mary should have asked it of you!'
‘She didn't: I invited myself, as a reward for not having got into a quarrel with Sir Francis. Never have I known a more glumpish, disagreeable man! I sincerely pity Jane, and forgive her all her peevishness. You can't conceive how glad I was to see George's good-humoured countenance when I reached Brook Street, and to be made so welcome by him and Mary! I enjoyed myself very much, and did a vast deal of shopping. Only wait until you see the bonnet I've brought for you: you will look charmingly in it! Then I bought ells of the prettiest muslins for Fanny, besides a quantity of fripperies for myself, and But where is Fanny?'
‘She will be so vexed not to have been here to welcome you!'
‘Fiddle! why should she be? It's Thursday, isn't it? Then I collect she is at the cotillion-ball?'
‘I thought there could be no objection,' Selina said, a little defensively. ‘Lady Weaverham invited her to dine, and to go to the Upper Rooms afterwards, in her party, and I consented to it, having then no apprehension that you would be with us again today.'
‘Why, of course!' said Abby. ‘Very uncivil of Fanny it would have been to have cried off!'
‘Exactly so!' said Selina eagerly. ‘With Lady Weaverham, too such an amiable woman, as I know you must agree! Besides having two daughters, which makes it so particularly kind in her to have invited Fanny! Because it can't be denied that our dearest is the prettiest girl in Bath!'
‘Oh, out of cry! As for Lady Weaverham, no one could be more amiable or more shatterbrained! I wish No, never mind! I'm glad she has taken Fanny to the ball on this occasion, for I must talk to you about Fanny.'
‘Yes, my love, of course! But you are tired, and must be longing to go to bed! A bowl of broth '
‘No, no, just a little thin gruel!' said Abby, laughing at her. ‘You goose, I stopped to dine in Chippenham, and I'm not in the least tired. We'll drink tea together, as soon as I've put off my hat, and enjoy a comfortable prose.' She added mischievously: ‘You look the picture of guilt as though you were in dread of a scold! But how should I dare to scold my eldest sister? I'm not so brassy!'
She went away, leaving Selina to ring for the tea-tray, and mounted the stairs to her bedroom, where she found Mrs Grimston unpacking her trunk. A look of disapproval had settled on this formidable dame's countenance, and she greeted Miss Wendover with the information that she had known at the outset how it would be if Miss Fanny were left with only Miss Selina, and Betty Conner (who had more hair than wit, and was flighty into the bargain) to take care of her. ‘Jauntering about all over!' she said darkly. ‘Concerts, and balls, and theatres, and picnics, and I don't know what more besides!'
Abby had her own reasons for suspecting that her niece had been enjoying far more licence than had previously been granted to her; but as she had no intention of discussing the matter with Mrs Grimston she merely replied: ‘Well, how should you?' which effectually reduced her old nurse to offended silence.
The Misses Wendover had virtually had charge of their orphaned niece since she was two years old, when her mama had died in giving birth to a still-born son, and her papa had confided her to the care of her grandmama. His own death, three years later, in no way affected this arrangement; and when, in Fanny's twelfth year, her grandpapa had met with a fatal accident on the hunting-field, and his widow had chosen to retire to Bath, instead of continuing to endure, in her Dower House, a climate which had never agreed with her frail constitution, his surviving son, James, who was Fanny's guardian, had been only too glad to leave Fanny in her care. He was himself the father of a hopeful family, but his wife, a lady of forceful character, had no wish to assume the charge of his niece. When Mrs Wendover died, three years later, Fanny was bidding fair to become an uncommonly beautiful girl, and Mrs James Wendover had even less desire to include her in her household, where she would not only outshine her cousins, but might even teach them to be as light at hand as she was herself. So James, steward and tenant of the estate of which Fanny was the owner, graciously informed his sisters that they might, for the present, continue to act as the dear child's guardians. It would be a pity (as his Cornelia pointed out to him) to interrupt her education at one of Bath's exclusive seminaries. James, adhering to the custom of his family, was determined to arrange an advantageous marriage for Fanny; but he thought there was time enough before it would become Cornelia's duty to launch her into society, not foreseeing that when Fanny was ripe for presentation Cornelia would be more than ever determined to leave her with her aunts. Cornelia confessed that she could not like Fanny, in whom she detected a sad resemblance to her poor mama. It was to be hoped that she would not grow into one of these modern hurly-burly females; but for her part Cornelia considered that her vivacity led her to be far too coming. But what could one expect of a girl reared by a couple of doting old maids?
The younger of the doting old maids went downstairs again to the drawing-room, where her sister was already seated behind the tea-table. Miss Wendover, after one glance at her carriage-dress, with its rucked sleeves and its little winged ruff of starched muslin, greeted her with instant approval, exclaiming: ‘I never saw you look so becoming! London, of course?'
‘Yes: Mary was so obliging as to take me to her very own Thérèse, which I thought excessively goodnatured of her.'
‘Thérèse! I daresay it was shockingly dear, then, because Cornelia once said to me so spiteful of her! that it was to be hoped George might not be ruined by Mary's extravagance, and that she couldn't afford to have her dresses made by Thérèse.'
‘Could, but won't,' said Abby, sipping her tea. ‘How happy James must be to have a wife who is as big a nip-farthing as he is himself!'
‘Oh, Abby, how can you? Remember, he is your brother!'
‘I do, and never cease to regret it!' retorted Abby. ‘Now, don't, I beg of you, recite me a catalogue of his virtues, for they don't render him any more lovable less, in fact! Besides, he's an incorrigible busyhead, and I'm quite out of charity with him.'
Selina had been uttering soft clucking sounds of protest, but they ceased at this, and she demanded quite sharply: ‘Has James written to you too?'
‘Written to me! He actually came up to London to read me one of his pompous lectures! My dear, what have you been doing here? Who is this ramshackle youth who has been making up to Fanny?'
‘No such thing!' declared Selina, her colour much heightened. ‘It was a case of love at first sight and a very pretty-behaved young man! Only think of his running out of the Pump Room, with no umbrella, to procure a chair for me, and becoming drenched, because you know what it is in Bath when it suddenly comes on to rain, there is never a chair or a hackney to be had, and I was persuaded he would take a chill, which would settle on his lungs, but he made nothing of it so very obliging! And he had not then exchanged one word with Fanny, because she wasn't with me, and although I remembered that I had seen him in the Upper Rooms two no, three days before, he did not, and Fanny was with me on that occasion, so if you are thinking that he got the chair for me because he wished to become acquainted with her you are quite mistaken, Abby! If that had been his object he would have desired Mr King to have introduced him to us, at the Upper Rooms. And,' she concluded, with the air of one delivering a clincher: ‘he is not a youth! I daresay he is as old as you are, and very likely older!'
Abby could not help laughing at this tangled speech, but she shook her head as well, and sighed: ‘Oh, Selina, you goosecap!'
‘I collect you mean to reproach me,' said Selina, sitting very straight in her chair, ‘but why you should do so I haven't the least guess, for Fanny had a great many admirers before you went away, and when I said she was too young to be going to balls, you said I was Gothic, and also that she would enjoy her London come-out much more if she had previously been into society a little, which is perfectly true, because there is nothing so so agonising as to be fired off from the schoolroom, no matter how many dancing and deportment lessons one has had! Particularly if one is a trifle shy not that I mean to say that Fanny is shy indeed, I sometimes wonder if she is not a little too though never unbecomingly! And if James has been tattling to you, depend upon it that odious woman who is Cornelia's bosom-piece which is just what one would expect of Cornelia, to make a crony of a backbiting creature like Mrs Ruscombe! well, you may depend upon it that it was she who set him on, because Mr Calverleigh never greets that tallow-faced daughter of hers with more than common civility, in spite of having been regularly introduced, and receiving every encouragement to dangle after the girl!'
‘Yes, very likely,' agreed Abby.
‘There, then!' said Selina triumphantly.
There was no immediate response to this, but, after a few moments, Abigail said: ‘If that were all but it isn't, Selina! George isn't a backbiter, and he spoke of Calverleigh with the greatest contempt, because he thought it right to warn me that the young man is not at all the thing. Besides being a gamester, it seems that he is what they call a gazetted fortune-hunter. In fact, the on-dit is that Fanny is not the first heiress he has made up to: there was some silly girl who was ready to elope with him, if you please, only last year! Fortunately, the plot was discovered, and the whole affair hushed up.'
‘I don't believe it!' declared Selina, trembling with indignation. ‘No, and I wonder that George should repeat such such steward's room gossip! Not the thing, indeed! I consider him most truly the gentleman, and of the first respectability, and so does everyone else in Bath!'
‘Oh, Selina, what a bouncer! You know very well that Lady Trevisian didn't hold him in high esteem. Indeed, she told Mary that she had warned you, just before she left Bath, that you would be wise to hint Calverleigh away. That was how George came to know about the business.'
Much flushed, Selina said: ‘I wonder that she could think of nothing better to do than to go tattlemongering all over London! Making a mountain out of a molehill, too, as I very soon discovered not that I mean to say that it was not very wrong of Fanny, and I assure you I told her so and all because she saw Fanny walking with him in the Sydney Gardens, quite by accident meeting him, I mean, and Betty with her, of course at least, she was then so I gave Fanny a severe scold, and told her how shocking it would be if people thought she was fast. Yes, and I said that I was surprised at Mr Calverleigh, which I collect she must have told him, because he paid me a morning visit the very next day, to beg pardon, and to explain to me that this was the first time he had ever been to Bath, which accounted for his not knowing that it was quite improper for a young female of breeding to wander round the gardens to say nothing of the labyrinth! without the vestige of a chaperon, not even her maid, because Fanny had sent Betty home, which was very naughty of her most thoughtless, only she is such a child still that I'm persuaded she had no notion and he, I promise you, felt it just as he ought!'
‘Did he?' said the younger Miss Wendover rather dryly. ‘Well, you can't suppose that I mean to make a mountain out of a molehill! But the thing is, Selina, that however engaging Calverleigh may be he will not do for Fanny. If George, who is far too good-natured to abuse people merely because he doesn't like them, calls him a loose fish, which I fancy means a libertine '
‘Abby! Oh, no!' exclaimed Selina, outraged.
‘Well, there must be something very undesirable about him to bring James posting up to London in the greatest fuss imaginable!'
‘Yes, because he wants poor Fanny to make a brilliant match! I hope I know how to value my brother as I ought, but I must say that I think he has a maggot in his head on that subject!'
‘It was more than that,' Abby said slowly, a frown creasing her brow. ‘He seemed to me to be almost overpowered! Indeed, he couldn't utter the name without shuddering! I could have laughed, if he hadn't put me so much out of temper. For what must he do, when I asked him why he held Calverleigh in such violent dislike, but prim up his mouth, and say that it was not a matter fit for my ears! I must be content to abide by his judgment, and if I did not nip the affair in the bud there would be nothing for it but to remove Fanny from our care.'
‘What?' Selina gasped.
‘Don't fall into despair, my love!' said Abby, smiling at her. ‘He may talk of removing Fanny to his or, rather, her own home, but I fancy he would meet with some sturdy opposition from Cornelia! If he overbore it I'm sure it would be for the first time in his life!'
‘It would be the cruellest thing! She would be miserable!' uttered Selina, in palpitating accents.
‘Oh, she would run away!' replied Abby cheerfully. ‘I told him so, which gave him the chance to deplore her upbringing. However, before we got to actual dagger-drawing '
‘You should not! Oh, dear, oh, dear, how often has dear Mama begged you not to be so so impetuous?'
‘No, of course I should not, but there was no harm done, because Mary was there, and I defy anyone to brangle in the teeth of her placid good sense! She said, in her sweetly comfortable way, you know, Selina! what a to-do was being made over a flirtation, which would never grow to serious proportions if James would but refrain from turning it into a grand tragedy, and so putting it into Fanny's head that she was a modern Juliet. James was a good deal struck by this, and so was I, too!' She broke off, perceiving that her sister did not share her sentiments. ‘You don't agree?'
Her mild eyes filling with sentimental tears, Selina said, in a trembling voice: ‘How can you be so unfeeling? When you have said I don't know how many times that our darling should never be sacrificed as you were! When I recall your sufferings when I think of your of your blighted life '
‘Selina, have you run mad?' interrupted Abby, regarding her in astonishment. ‘What sufferings?'
‘You may try to hoax me, but you won't make me believe that you have forgotten your anguish when Papa forbade poor Mr Thornaby ever to approach you again! I shall never do so!' declared Selina.
‘Good gracious!' The anxious look in Abby's eyes was put to rout by one of irrepressible merriment. ‘My dearest goose, do try to forget it! I have, I promise you! Indeed, I haven't any very clear recollection of what he even looked like, though I do remember that I believed myself to be brokenhearted at the time. At seventeen, one does, only to discover that one has quite mistaken the matter.'
This sad want of sensibility daunted Selina for a moment, but she made a recover, saying, with an air of boundless understanding: ‘You were always so brave, my dear one! But if you had forgotten Mr Thornaby why did you refuse Lord Broxbourne's offer? So very flattering, and such an excellent man, with a most superior mind, and every quality to render him acceptable!'
‘Except one! He was a dead bore!' Abby's eyes began to dance again. ‘Have you been picturing me nursing a broken heart all these years? My dear, I do beg your pardon, but it is quite useless to make me the heroine of a tragic romance: I must always disappoint you.'
‘Next you will tell me that you too are determined to arrange a splendid match for poor little Fanny! I hope I know you rather too well to believe that!'
‘I hope you do. I may own that Papa chanced to be right when he sent Thornaby packing, but I still hold to it that this resolve he had and my grandfather before him, and James after him! to arrange only the most advantageous marriages for every one of his children was nothing short of an obsession! And you may be sure I won't allow Fanny to be sacrificed as you and Jane were! Mary was so compliant as to fall in love with George, but only think of Jane, positively forced into marriage with that odious creature who had nothing but his wealth and his title to recommend him!'
Selina, who had derived consolation all her life from the inculcated belief that Papa must know best, said feebly: ‘No, no! How can you say such things, Abby? One would think not but what perhaps sometimes he may have been a trifle But I am sure he did only what he believed to be right!'
‘But for Papa,' said Abby inexorably, ‘you would have married that curate I forget his name, but I daresay you would have been very happy, with a quiverful of children, and Oh, dearest, forgive me! I didn't mean to make you cry!'
Selina had indeed dissolved into tears, but she wiped them away, saying: ‘No, no! It was only remembering, and even dear Mama, who entered into all my feelings, couldn't conceal from me her apprehension that he would become bald before he was forty! It is you who should be pitied!'
‘Not a bit of it! I don't regret Thornaby, and I was not sacrificed, as Jane was! No, and I won't let James make a burnt offering of Fanny either: that you may depend on! But, on the other hand, my dear, I won't if I can prevent it let her throw herself away on the first fortune-hunter who makes up to her!'
‘But I am persuaded he is no such thing!' expostulated Selina. ‘He is possessed of considerable estates in Berkshire, and he comes of a most distinguished family. I believe he can trace his lineage back for hundreds of years!'
‘Well, I know nothing about his ancestors, but from all I have been able to discover the present family is distinguished for profligacy, and nothing else! This man's reputation is bad; and, according to James, his father was far from respectable; while as for his uncle, he, after having been expelled from Eton, seems to have gone his length in every extravagant folly until he was packed off to India, under orders never to show his face to his family again! As for the estates, George says they are grossly encumbered. And if you think all these circumstances make Stacy Calverleigh an eligible suitor '
‘Oh, no, no, no!' Selina cried distressfully. ‘Only I can't believe that poor Mr Calverleigh and it always seems to me most unjust to visit the sins of the fathers upon the children, and when it comes to an uncle positively wicked! Such engaging manners, and feels just as he ought, besides showing delicacy of mind, and oh, I don't believe it!'
‘Well, it was what George said, and you must allow that he is not at all prudish, as James is.' She paused, her brow wrinkled in thought. ‘And I should suppose, wouldn't you, that a libertine must be engaging?'
‘Abby!' gasped Selina. ‘I must beg of you to guard your tongue! If anyone were to hear you !'
‘Well, no one but you can hear me,' Abby pointed out. ‘And all I said was '
‘I know nothing about that class of person!' interrupted Selina hastily.
‘No, nor do I,' said Abby, on a note of regret. ‘Except what I've read, of course, and that diverting man who came to a ball the Ashendens gave oh, years ago! Papa said he would not permit a daughter of his to stand up for as much as one dance with such a fellow as that, only I had already done so, and very agreeable it was! I don't know that he was a libertine, but I do know that he was a shocking flirt and not because Rowland told me so! In that consequential way of his, which made him look just like Papa you know!'
It was evident that whatever Miss Wendover might have known she was determined to forget. Summoning to her aid all the authority of her years, she said, in a voice of the gravest reproof: ‘Must I remind you, Abigail, that dear Rowland is dead?'
‘No, and you need not remind me that he was our eldest brother either. Or call me by that detestable name! Whatever else I might forgive Papa, that I never could! Abigail! Mashams and maidservants!'
‘Some people think it a charming name!' said Selina, casting an arch look at her. ‘One of them is Canon Pinfold, who thinks you are charming too! He says that it is from the Hebrew, and means father rejoiced.'
After a stunned moment, her unregenerate sister went into a peal of laughter. It was several minutes before she could do more than wail: ‘Papa c-can't have kn-known that! He w-wanted another son!' and when she did manage to stop laughing Selina's look of pained reproach very nearly set her off again. She bit her lip, and said, a little shakily: ‘Don't mind me! You know what I am! And what in the world has all this to do with Fanny? Selina, I realise that you have a decided tendre for Calverleigh, but if he were the biggest prize on the matrimonial mart I still should not like it! Good God, do you wish her to plunge into marriage with the first man she has met who is neither middle-aged nor a youth she has known since he was a schoolboy? At seventeen!'
‘I told her she was too young to be talking of having formed a lasting attachment,' answered Selina, thrown upon the defensive again. ‘Yes, and I said that her uncle would never countenance it, and that she must put it out of her mind!'
This effectively banished any lingering desire in Abby to giggle. She exclaimed: ‘You didn't! Oh, Selina, I wish you had not!'
‘You wish I had not?' echoed Selina, her voice as much as her countenance betraying her bewilderment. ‘But you have just said '
‘Yes, yes, but don't you see ' Abby interrupted, only to break off her sentence abruptly, as she realised the folly of expecting Selina to perceive what was so obvious to her own intelligence. She continued, in a gentler voice: ‘I am afraid that it may have put up her back roused the independence of spirit which you have so often deplored. Yes, I know that you think she ought to submit meekly to the decrees of her guardian, but recollect that she hasn't been reared as we were, to regard the lightest pronouncement of a parent or an aunt! as something it would be sacrilege to question, and unthinkable to disobey!'
Roused to indignation, Selina retorted: ‘Well, I must say, Abby! For you to talk in such a way, when you never showed the least respect for Papa's judgment ! And when I recall how often you came to cuffs with him, casting dear Mama and me into agonies of apprehension Well! Not, dearest,' she added hastily, ‘that I mean to say that you ever actually disobeyed Papa, for that I know you didn't!'
‘No,' agreed Abby, in a flattened tone. ‘A very poor honey, wasn't I?'
The mournful note startled Miss Wendover, but in a very few seconds she realised that it had its origin in fatigue, aggravated by anxiety. It was incumbent upon her to divert poor Abby's mind, and with this amiable intention she first told her, with an indulgent laugh, that she was a naughty puss; and then launched into a recital of the various events which had lately occurred in Bath. Her rambling discourse embraced such topics as what her new doctor said about Russian Vapour Baths; how eagerly dear Mrs Grayshott was awaiting the return of her son from India if the poor young man survived the voyage, so ill as he had been in that horrid country; how much she was obliged to poor Laura Butterbank, who had spared no pains to cheer and support her during Abby's absence, coming every day to sit with her, and always so chatty and companionable, besides being charmed to execute any little commission in the town. But at this point she broke off, to accuse her sister of not listening to a word she said.
Abby had indeed been allowing the gentle stream of inanities to flow past her, but at this reproach she recalled her thoughts, and said: ‘Yes, I am! Mrs Grayshott Miss Butterbank! I'm glad she bore you company while I was away since Fanny seems not to have done so!'
‘Good gracious, Abby, how you do take one up! No one could have been more attentive, the sweet child that she is! But with so much of her time occupied by her music-lessons, and the Italian class, besides having so many of her friends living here, who are for ever inviting her to join them for a country walk, or some picnic-party perfectly unexceptionable! I'm sure it is not to be wondered at I mean, when Laura gave me the pleasure of her company every day there was no reason why Fanny should have stayed at home, and very selfish it would have been in me to have asked it of her! Yes, and most unnatural it would be if she didn't wish to be with girls of her own age!'
‘True! Or even with the fascinating Calverleigh!'
‘Now, Abby !'
‘Well, it would be,' said Abby candidly. ‘Any girl would prefer the company of a taking young man to that of her aunt! But it won't do, Selina.'
‘I am persuaded that when you have made his acquaintance not that I would for a moment encourage her oh, dear how very affecting it is! You will have to tell her, for I know I could never bring myself to do so!'
‘Dearest, it isn't so dreadful that you need fall into affliction! It's certainly unfortunate, and I wish with all my heart that she might have been spared such a painful disappointment, but she'll recover from it. As for forbidding her to see Calverleigh, or telling her the things that are said of him, I'm not such a widgeon! She would fly to his defence! But if he were to draw off? Not compelled to do so, but because he discovered her to be not such a rich plum as he had supposed? She might suffer a little unhappiness, but not for long. She's not the girl to wear the willow for a mere flirt!' She added thoughtfully: ‘And she couldn't, under those circumstances, fancy herself to be a star-crossed lover, could she? I do feel that that should be avoided at all costs, for although I've never been star-crossed myself I can readily perceive how romantic it would be. Selina, I never knew Fanny's mother at all well, but you must have done so. Was she high-spirited, like Fanny? Rather too dashing, perhaps, to suit the Wendover notions of propriety?'
‘Celia? Good gracious, no!' replied Selina. ‘She was very pretty quite lovely, when she was a girl, but she went off sadly, which I do hope and pray Fanny won't, because she is very like her in countenance, and Mama always was used to say that fair beauties seldom wear well. But Fanny isn't in the least like her in disposition! She has so much liveliness, and poor Celia was a very quiet, shy girl, and most persuadable! What makes you ask me about her?'
‘Something James said. I wasn't paying much heed, but it was something about Fanny's too close resemblance to her mother. And then he stopped short, and when I asked him what he meant he fobbed me off, saying that Fanny was as foolish as her mother. But I didn't think he did mean that, and nor did Mary. She remembers more than I do, of course, and she tells me that you elder ones always thought that something had happened some indiscretion, perhaps '
‘I never thought any such thing!' intervened Selina firmly. ‘And if I had I should have considered it most improper to have pried into it! If Mama had wished me to know anything about it, she would have told me!'
‘So there was something!' said Abby. ‘A skeleton in our respectable cupboard! I wish I could know what it was! But I daresay it would prove to be no more than the skeleton of a mouse.'