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Lady Winwood being denied, the morning caller inquired with some anxiety for Miss Winwood, or, in fact, for any of the young ladies. In face of the rumour which had come to her ears it would be too provoking if all the Winwood ladies were to withhold themselves. But the porter held the door fully open and said that Miss Winwood was at home.
Directing the coachman of her extremely smart town carriage to wait for her, Mrs Maulfrey stepped into the dim hall, and said briskly: ‘Where is Miss Winwood? You need not be at the trouble of announcing me.'
All the young ladies, it seemed, were in the small saloon. Mrs Maulfrey nodded, and walked across the hall with a click of her high heels. As she ascended the stairs her armazine skirts, spread over very large paniers à coudes, brushed the banisters on either side of her. She reflected, not for the first time, that the stairway was too narrow, and the carpet positively shabby. She would be ashamed for her part of such old-fashioned furnishings; but although she claimed cousinship, she was not, she admitted to herself, a Winwood of Winwood.
The small saloon, by which name the porter designated a back sitting-room given over to the use of the young ladies, lay up one pair of stairs, and was well known to Mrs Maulfrey. She tapped with her gloved hand on one of the panels of the door, and entered on the echo of her knock.
The three Misses Winwood were grouped by the window, presenting an artless and agreeable picture. Upon a faded yellow satin sopha sat Miss Winwood and Miss Charlotte, their arms entwined about each other's waists. They were much alike, but Miss Winwood was held to be the greater beauty. Her classic profile was turned to the door, but upon Mrs Maulfrey's rustling entrance she looked round and displayed to the visitor a pair of melting blue eyes and a sweet, arched mouth that formed at the moment an O of mild surprise. A quantity of fair curls dressed without powder and threaded by a blue riband framed her face and tumbled on to her shoulders in several ordered locks.
Miss Charlotte was not seen to advantage beside the Beauty of the Family, but she was a true Winwood, with the famous straight nose and the same blue eyes. Her curls, not quite so fair as her sister's, owed their existence to hot irons, her eyes were of a shallower blue, and her colouring inclined towards the sallow; but she was allowed to be a very well-looking young lady.
Miss Horatia, the youngest of the three, had nothing that declared her lineage except her nose. Her hair was dark, her eyes a profound grey, and her brows, nearly black and rather thick, were quite straight, and gave her a serious, almost frowning, expression. No amount of careful training would induce an arch in them. She was quite half a head shorter than her sisters, and, at the age of seventeen, was obliged regretfully to admit that she was not likely to grow any taller.
When Mrs Maulfrey came into the room Horatia was seated on a low stool by the sopha, propping her chin in her hands, and scowling dreadfully. Or perhaps, thought Mrs Maulfrey, that was just a trick of those preposterous eyebrows.
All three sisters wore morning toilets of worked muslin over slight hoops, with tiffany sashes round their waists. Countrified, thought Mrs Maulfrey, giving her fringed silk mantle a satisfied twitch.
‘My dears!' she exclaimed. ‘I came the instant I heard! Tell me at once, is it true? Has Rule offered?'
Miss Winwood, who had risen gracefully to receive her cousin, seemed to droop and to grow pale. ‘Yes,' she said faintly. ‘Alas, it is quite true, Theresa.'
Mrs Maulfrey's eyes grew round with respect. ‘Oh, Lizzie!' she breathed. ‘Rule! A Countess! Twenty thousand a year, I have heard, and I daresay it may be found to be more!'
Miss Charlotte set a chair for her, observing with a reproving note in her voice: ‘We believe Lord Rule to be a most eligible gentleman. Though no one,' she added, clasping Miss Winwood's hand tenderly, ‘however genteel, could be worthy of our dearest Lizzie!'
‘Lord, Charlotte!' said Mrs Maulfrey tartly, ‘Rule's the biggest prize in the market, and you know it. It is the most amazing piece of good fortune ever I heard. Though I will say, Lizzie, you deserve it. Yes, you do, and I am quite enchanted for you. Only to think of the Settlements!'
‘I find the thought of Settlements particularly indelicate, Theresa,' said Miss Charlotte. ‘Mama will no doubt arrange with Lord Rule, but Lizzie cannot be supposed to concern herself with such sordid questions as the size of Lord Rule's fortune.'
The youngest Miss Winwood, who all the time had continued to sit with her chin in her hands, suddenly raised her head and delivered herself of one shattering word. ‘S-stuff!' she said, in a deep little voice that just quivered on a stammer.
Miss Charlotte looked pained; Miss Winwood gave a rather wan smile. ‘Indeed, I fear Horry is in the right,' she said sadly. ‘It is just the Fortune.' She sank on to the sopha again, and gazed fixedly out of the window.
Mrs Maulfrey became aware that the steady blue eyes were swimming in tears. ‘Why, Lizzie!' she said. ‘One would think you had had dark tidings instead of a splendid Offer!'
‘Theresa!' intoned Miss Charlotte, putting both arms about her sister. ‘Is this worthy of you? Can it be that you have forgotten Mr Heron?'
Mrs Maulfrey had forgotten Mr Heron. Her jaw dropped slightly, but she recovered in a moment. ‘To be sure: Mr Heron,' she said. ‘It is very afflicting, but Rule, you know! I don't say poor Mr Heron is not a very estimable creature, but a mere lieutenant, dearest Lizzie, and I daresay will soon have to go back to that horrid war in America it's not to be thought of, my love!'
‘No,' said Elizabeth in a suffocated voice. ‘Not to be thought of.'
Horatia's dark gaze dwelled broodingly on her second sister. ‘I think it would be a very good thing if Charlotte were to have R-Rule,' she pronounced.
‘Horry!' gasped Charlotte.
‘Lord, my dear, what things you say!' remarked Mrs Maulfrey indulgently. ‘It's Elizabeth Rule wants.'
Horatia shook her head vehemently. ‘No. Only a Winwood,' she said in the tense way she had. ‘All arranged years ago. I d-don't believe he's set eyes on L-Lizzie upwards of half a d-dozen times. It can't signify.'
Miss Charlotte released her sister's hand, and said palpitatingly: ‘Nothing nothing would induce me to marry Lord Rule, even if he had offered for me! The very notion of Matrimony is repugnant to me. I have long made up my mind to be a Prop to Mama.' She drew a breath. ‘If ever any gentleman could induce me to contemplate the Married State, I assure you, my dear Horry, it would be one far other than Lord Rule.'
Mrs Maulfrey had no difficulty in interpreting this announcement. ‘For my part, I like a rake,' she observed. ‘And Rule is so extremely handsome!'
‘I think,' said Horatia obstinately, ‘that M-Mama might have suggested Charlotte.'
Elizabeth turned her head: ‘You don't understand, Horry dear. Mama could not do such an odd thing.'
‘Does my Aunt force you to it, Lizzie?' inquired Mrs Maulfrey, pleasantly intrigued.
‘Oh no, no!' Elizabeth replied earnestly. ‘You know Mama's tenderness. She is all consideration, all sensibility! It is only my own consciousness of my Duty to the Family that leads me to take a step so so disastrous to my happiness.'
‘M-mortgages,' said Horatia cryptically.
‘Pelham, I suppose?' said Mrs Maulfrey.
‘Of course it is Pelham,' replied Charlotte with a touch of bitterness. ‘Everything is his fault. Ruin stares us in the face.'
‘Poor Pelham!' Elizabeth said, with a sigh for her absent brother. ‘I am afraid he is very extravagant.'
‘It's his gambling debts, I take it,' opined Mrs Maulfrey. ‘My Aunt seemed to think that even your Portions...' She left the sentence delicately unfinished.
Elizabeth flushed, but Horatia said: ‘You can't blame P-Pel. It's in the blood. One of us must m-marry Rule. Lizzie's the eldest and the p-prettiest, but Charlotte would do very well. Lizzie's promised to Edward Heron.'
‘Not "promised", dearest,' Elizabeth said in a low voice. ‘We only hoped, if he could but get his Captaincy, perhaps Mama would consent.'
‘Even supposing it, my love,' said Mrs Maulfrey with great good sense, ‘what what, I ask of you, is a Captain of a Line Regiment when compared with the Earl of Rule? And from all I hear the young man has the most meagre of fortunes, and who, pray, is to buy his promotion?'
Horatia said, quite undaunted: ‘Edward t-told me that if he had the good fortune to be in another engagement there might be a ch-chance.'
Miss Winwood gave a slight shudder, and lifted one hand to her cheek. ‘Don't, Horry!' she begged.
‘It doesn't signify,' Mrs Maulfrey declared. ‘I know you will say I am unfeeling, my dear Lizzie, but it would not do at all. Why, how would you contrive on the young man's pay? It is all horribly sad, but only think of the position you will fill, the jewels you will have!'
The prospect appeared to affect Miss Winwood with revulsion, but she said nothing. It was left to Horatia to express the sentiments of all three sisters. ‘Vulgar!' she said. ‘You are, you know, Theresa.'
Mrs Maulfrey blushed, and made a business of arranging her stiff skirts. ‘Of course I know that would not weigh with Lizzie, but you can't deny it is a brilliant match. What does my Aunt feel?'
‘Deeply thankful,' said Charlotte. ‘As indeed we must all be, when we consider the straits Pelham has placed us in.'
‘Where is Pelham?' demanded Mrs Maulfrey.
‘We are not quite certain,' answered Elizabeth. ‘We think perhaps in Rome now. Poor Pel is but an indifferent correspondent. But I feel sure we shall hear from him quite soon.'
‘Well, he will have to come home for your wedding, I suppose,' said Mrs Maulfrey. ‘But, Lizzie, you must tell me! Has Rule paid his addresses? I had not the least idea of anything of the kind, though, naturally, I had heard that it was in a way arranged. But he has been so very ' She apparently thought better of what she had been about to say, and broke off. ‘But that's neither here nor there, and I daresay he will be a charming husband. Have you given him your answer, Lizzie?'
‘Not yet,' said Elizabeth almost inaudibly. ‘I I too had no notion of it, Theresa. I have met him, of course. He stood up with me for the first two dances at the subscription-ball at Almack's, when Pelham was at home. He was he has always been all that is amiable, but that he intended offering for my hand I never dreamed. He waited on Mama yesterday only to to solicit her permission to pay his addresses to me. There is nothing announced yet, you must understand.'
‘Everything of the most correct!' approved Mrs Maulfrey. ‘Oh, my love, I cannot help it if you say I have no sensibility, but only conceive of having Rule paying his addresses to one! I declare I would give my eyes or, I would have,' she corrected herself, ‘had I not married Mr Maulfrey. And so,' she added, ‘would every other young lady in town! Why, my dears, you would not believe the caps that have been set at him!'
‘Theresa, I must, I must request you not to talk in that odious way!' said Charlotte.
Horatia was looking at her cousin with interest. ‘Why do you say "only c-conceive of Rule paying his addresses to one"? I thought he was quite old.'
‘Old?' said Mrs Maulfrey. ‘Rule? Nothing of the sort, my dear! Not a day above thirty-five, I'll stake my reputation. And what a leg! What an air! The most engaging smile!'
‘I c-call that old,' said Horatia calmly. ‘Edward is only t-twenty-two.'
There did not seem to be much to say after that. Mrs Maulfrey, perceiving that she had culled all the news that her cousins could at this present impart, began to think of taking her leave of them. Though sorry for Elizabeth's evident distress at the magnificent prospect ahead of her she could not in the least understand it, and considered that the sooner Lieutenant Heron was posted back to his regiment the better it would be. Therefore, when the door opened to admit a spare female of uncertain age, who informed Elizabeth with a flutter in her voice that Mr Heron was below and begged the favour of a word with her, she pursed her lips, and looked as disapproving as she could.
Elizabeth's colour fluctuated, but she rose up from the sopha, and said quietly: ‘Thank you, Laney.'
Miss Lane seemed to share a little of Mrs Maulfrey's disapproval. She regarded Elizabeth in a deprecating way, and suggested: ‘My dear Miss Winwood, do you think you should? Do you think your Mama would like it?'
Elizabeth replied with her gentle air of dignity: ‘I have Mama's permission, dear Laney, to to tell Mr Heron of the approaching change in my estate. Theresa, you won't I know, speak of Lord Rule's obliging offer until until it is formally announced.'
‘Too noble creature!' Charlotte sighed, as the door closed softly behind Miss Winwood. ‘How very lowering it is to reflect upon the trials that afflict the Female Sex!'
‘Edward is afflicted too,' said Horatia practically. Her penetrating eyes rested on her cousin. ‘Theresa, if you ch-chatter about this you will be sorry. Something must be d-done.'
‘What can be done, when our sweetest Lizzie goes a Willing Sacrifice to the Altar?' said Charlotte in a hollow voice.
‘Trials! Sacrifice!' exclaimed Mrs Maulfrey. ‘Lord, one would think Rule an ogre to listen to you! You put me out of all patience, Charlotte. A house in Grosvenor Square, and Meering, which I am told is quite superb, the park seven miles about, and three lodge-gates!'
‘It will be a great position,' said the little governess in her breathless way. ‘But who should fill it better than dear Miss Winwood? One has always felt that she was destined for a high place.'
‘Pho!' said Horatia scornfully, and snapped her fingers. ‘That for Rule's great p-position!'
‘Miss Horatia, I beg of you, not that ungenteel gesture!'
Charlotte came to the support of her sister. ‘You should not snap your fingers, Horry, but you are quite in the right. Lord Rule does very very well for himself in getting a Winwood for his bride.'
Meanwhile Miss Winwood, pausing only for a moment on the staircase to calm the agitation which the news of Mr Heron's arrival had induced, went down to the library on the ground floor of the house.
Here there awaited her a young man in a state of greater agitation than her own.
Mr Edward Heron, of the 10th Foot, at present in America, was stationed in England on Recruiting Service. He had been wounded at the Battle of Bunker's Hill, and sent home shortly afterwards, his wound being of a serious enough nature to preclude his taking further part for a time at least in the hostilities abroad. Upon his recovery gazetted, greatly to his chagrin, for Home Service.
The acquaintance between himself and Miss Winwood was of long standing. The younger son of a country gentleman whose estates marched with Viscount Winwood's, he had known the Misses Winwood almost from the hour of his birth. He was of excellent if impoverished family, and had he been the possessor of a rather large fortune might have been deemed an eligible though not brilliant match for Elizabeth.
When Miss Winwood entered the library he arose from a seat by the window, and came towards her with an anxious look of inquiry upon his countenance. He was a personable young man, and looked very well in his scarlet regimentals. He had height, and good shoulders, and a frank, open countenance, rather pale still from prolonged suffering. He carried his left arm a little stiffly, but declared himself to be in perfect health, and very ready to rejoin his regiment.
A glance at Miss Winwood's face informed him that the anxiety occasioned by her brief note had not been misplaced. Taking her hands in a strong clasp he said urgently: ‘What has occurred? Elizabeth! Something terrible?'
Her lips quivered. She drew her hands away, and put one of them out to grasp a chair-back. ‘Oh, Edward, the worst!' she whispered.
He grew paler. ‘Your note alarmed me. Good God, what is it?'
Miss Winwood pressed her handkerchief to her mouth. ‘Lord Rule was with Mama yesterday in this very room.' She raised her eyes imploringly to his face. ‘Edward, it is all at an end. Lord Rule has offered for my hand.'
A dreadful stillness fell in the shadowed room. Miss Winwood stood with bowed head before Mr Heron, leaning a little on the chair-back.
Mr Heron did not move, but presently he said rather hoarsely: ‘And you said ?' But it was hardly a question; he spoke it mechanically, knowing what she must have said.
She made a hopeless gesture. ‘What can I say? You know so well how it is with us.'
He took a step away from her, and began to pace up and down the room. ‘Rule!' he said. ‘Is he very rich?'
‘Very rich,' Elizabeth said desolately.
Words crowded in Mr Heron's throat, hurt, angry, passionate words, yet not one of them could he utter. Life had dealt him her cruellest blow, and all that he could find to say, and that in a numb voice which did not seem to belong to him, was: ‘I see.' He perceived that Elizabeth was silently weeping, and at once came to her, and took her hands, and drew her to a couch. ‘Oh, my love, don't cry!' he said, a catch in his own voice. ‘Perhaps it is not too late: we can contrive something we must contrive something!' But he spoke without conviction, for he knew that he would never have anything to set against Rule's fortune. He put his arms round Elizabeth, and laid his cheek against her curls while her tears fell on his gay scarlet coat.
After a little while she drew herself away. ‘I am making you unhappy too,' she said.
At that he went down on his knee beside her, and hid his face in her hands. She did not make any effort to pull them away, but said only: ‘Mama has been so kind. I am permitted to tell you myself. It is it must be goodbye, Edward. I have not strength to continue seeing you. Oh, is it wrong of me to say that I shall have you in my heart always always?'
‘I cannot let you go!' he said with suppressed violence. ‘All our hopes our plans Elizabeth, Elizabeth!'
She did not speak, and presently he raised his face, flushed now and haggard. ‘What can I do? Is there nothing?'
She touched the couch beside her. ‘Do you think I have not tried to think of something?' she said sadly. ‘Alas, did we not feel always that ours was nothing but a dream, impossible to realise?'
He sat down again, leaning his arm on his knee, and looking down at his own neat boot. ‘It's your brother,' he said. ‘Debts.'
She nodded. ‘Mama told me so much that I did not know. It is worse than I imagined. Everything is mortgaged, and there are Charlotte and Horatia to think for. Pelham has lost five thousand guineas at a sitting in Paris.'
‘Does Pelham never win?' demanded Mr Heron despairingly.
‘I don't know,' she replied. ‘He says he is very unlucky.'
He looked up. ‘Elizabeth, if it hurts you I am sorry, but that you should be sacrificed to Pelham's selfish, thoughtless '
‘Oh, hush!' she begged. ‘You know the Fatal Tendency in us Winwoods. Pelham cannot help it. My father even! When Pelham came into his inheritance he found it already wasted. Mama explained it all to me. She is so very sorry, Edward. We have mingled our tears. But she thinks, and how can I not feel the truth of it, that it is my Duty to the Family to accept of Lord Rule's offer.'
‘Rule!' he said bitterly. ‘A man fifteen years your senior! a man of his reputation. He has only to throw his glove at your feet, and you Oh God, I cannot bear to think of it!' His writhing fingers created havoc amongst his pomaded curls. ‘Why must his choice light upon you?' he groaned. ‘Are there not others enough?'
‘I think,' she said diffidently, ‘that he wishes to ally himself with our Family. They say he is very proud, and our name is is also a proud one.' She hesitated, and said, colouring: ‘It is to be a marriage of convenience, such as are the fashion in France. Lord Rule does not cannot pretend to love me, nor I him.' She glanced up, as the gilt time-piece on the mantelshelf chimed the hour. ‘I must say goodbye to you,' she said, with desperate calm. ‘I promised Mama only half an hour. Edward ' She shrank suddenly into his embrace ‘Oh, my love, remember me!' she sobbed.
Three minutes later the library door slammed, and Mr Heron strode across the hall towards the front door, his hair in disorder, his gloves and cocked hat clenched in his hand.
‘Edward!' The thrilling whisper came from the stairhead. He glanced up, heedless of his ravaged face and wild appearance.
The youngest Miss Winwood leaned over the balustrade, and laid a finger on her lips. ‘Edward, c-come up! I must speak to you!'
He hesitated, but an imperious gesture from Horatia brought him to the foot of the stairs. ‘What is it?' he asked curtly.
‘Come up!' repeated Horatia impatiently.
He slowly mounted the stairs. His hand was seized, and he was whisked into the big withdrawing-room that overlooked the street.
Horatia shut the door. ‘D-don't speak too loud! Mama's bedroom is next door. What did she say?'
‘I have not seen Lady Winwood,' Mr Heron answered heavily.
He said tightly: ‘Only goodbye.'
‘It shan't be!' said Horatia, with determination. ‘L-listen, Edward! I have a p-plan!'
He looked down at her, a gleam of hope in his eyes. ‘I'll do anything!' he said. ‘Only tell me!'
‘It isn't anything for you to do,' said Horatia. ‘I am g-going to do it!'
‘You?' he said doubtfully. ‘But what can you do?'
‘I d-don't know, but I'm g-going to try. M-mind, I can't be sure that it will succeed, but I think perhaps it m-might.'
‘But what is it?' he persisted.
‘I shan't say. I only told you because you looked so very m-miserable. You had better trust me, Edward.'
‘I do,' he assured her. ‘But '
Horatia pulled him to stand in front of the mirror over the fireplace. ‘Then straighten your hair,' she said severely. ‘J-just look at it. You've crushed your hat too. There! Now, g-go away, Edward, before Mama hears you.'
Mr Heron found himself pushed to the door. He turned, and grasped Horatia's hand. ‘Horry, I don't see what you can do, but if you can save Elizabeth from this match '
Two dimples leapt into being; the grey eyes twinkled. ‘I know. You w-will be my m-most obliged servant. Well, I will!'
‘More than that!' he said earnestly.
‘Hush, Mama will hear!' whispered Horatia, and thrust him out of the room.