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The Dauntless Miss Wingrave
By Amanda Scott
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1989 Lynne Scott-Drennan
All rights reserved.
"We ought soon to see some sign of life, I expect," Miss Wingrave said to her abigail when their post chaise, which had been laboring steadily uphill ever since leaving the cheerful, bustling little town of Thirsk, leveled out and immediately began to move more rapidly on a slight downhill slope. "Sabrina wrote in that very odd letter of hers that Rivindale, which is where the Priory is located, you know, is but eight miles from the crest of this escarpment."
Her plump companion, hands folded serenely in her lap, was looking out her window and only nodded in response. Moments later she said without turning her head, "Startling it is, Miss Emily, the way all them green fields and fertile farms below have given way to this barren land. Naught to see now but bracken, scrub, and dry brown moor grass."
"But look behind us, Martha." Pushing her light mesh traveling veil back in order to suit action to words, Miss Wingrave revealed a charming, pink-cheeked countenance dominated by a pair of expressive light-blue eyes fringed by thick sable lashes. "Why, from here atop these hills, so close do the Pennines appear to be that it looks as though one might reach right across the plain of York to touch them."
"Humph," retorted her companion. "'Tain't like you to talk so fanciful, Miss Emily. Why, for all them fields below look more like a gentleman's draughts board than a landscape, it must be all of thirty miles to them mountains from here." She sighed. "I don't mind telling you, miss, I will be right glad to have this journey over and done. Two hundred fifty miles in four days is not what I am accustomed to, and that's the nut with no bark on it. Nor do I hold with young ladies staying at common inns with no more than an abigail to bear them company."
Miss Wingrave lifted her pointed little chin. "Nearly five days it's been, Martha, and the inns we have patronized have been perfectly respectable. Moreover, having attained the age of one-and-twenty, I am quite old enough to look after myself, as even Papa has agreed, and," she added as a clincher, "you know perfectly well that we have insufficient time in which to arrange to stay with friends along the way."
Martha vouchsafed no reply, and a silence fell that lasted until the chaise passed through the little town of Helmsley, beneath the ruins of the ancient castle there. Just beyond the town, they turned northward onto a track, whereupon the abigail expressed her hope that the postboys knew their direction.
"For I don't mind telling you, I'd as lief not be lost on these moors, and that's a fact," she said. "Try as I might, I cannot imagine Miss Sabrina living in such a wasteland."
Miss Wingrave had been experiencing the same difficulty, but a quarter-hour later when the chaise turned onto a neat white-pebbled roadway, then topped a small rise and began to descend into Rivindale, both women gasped in surprise at the lush view spread before them. Where there had been only barren moorland but moments before, there was now dense greenery covering both the eastern and western slopes of the narrow river valley. Cedar, oak, and birch trees abounded, and the pebbled roadway was soon flanked by high, thick green hedges.
Some moments later they passed between tall iron gates set in a gray stone wall and saw before them the large brick manor house of Staithes Priory, surrounded by its lavish and colorful gardens. The pebbled drive swept up to the imposing white-columned front entrance and curved away again downhill, past a verdant, well-scythed lawn, to follow the serpentine shoreline of the deep-blue lake at the bottom of the hill before disappearing into the thick woodland beyond.
When they had drawn to a halt, Miss Wingrave allowed a tall young liveried footman to assist her from the post chaise. Then, her neatly shod feet planted firmly upon the pebbled drive, she shook out the light-gray skirts of her traveling dress, pushed her veil back again, and looked about her with approval. The rose-brick house was clearly not the original structure but an elegant manor house no more than one hundred years of age. Its dimensions were symmetrical, laid out with an attention to detail that pleased Miss Wingrave's passion for orderliness. After the eerie bleakness of the high Yorkshire moor across which she had journeyed, the lush green gardens, well-tended lawns, and the dense, curving woodland framing the picturesque lake below were particularly refreshing sights.
The footman cleared his throat.
"Yes, what is it?" Miss Wingrave inquired, looking up from under the rim of her gray bonnet into his face. She had to look up nearly a foot, for the young man was tall and she was not.
"Tha'll be wantin' to go inside, miss," he said deferentially. "There be a brisk wind off the moors today."
"Thank you," Miss Wingrave said graciously, picking up her train and noting for the first time that a number of other servants had emerged from the house to assist Martha with their baggage. Miss Wingrave looked again at the footman to see that he was regarding her with anxiety. She had seen the expression many times before, generally on masculine faces, faces of men who did not know her well. She smiled. "I am not nearly so fragile as I look, I promise you."
"Indeed, miss, tha' looks as though the smallest breeze would whisk ye right off them little feet."
Miss Wingrave frowned, her light-blue eyes narrowing beneath their heavy lashes. "What is your name?"
"Willum, miss, and sithee, I didna mean to speak familiar, but tha' bein' so small—"
"I think you had better take me inside, William," Miss Wingrave said firmly, "before we have a falling-out. And do not, pray, attempt to fob me off on the housekeeper or a chambermaid, but take me directly to her ladyship."
"But her ladyship made sure ye would be wanting to rest a bit first, miss, and get tha'self settled in like."
"Nonsense. I shall take off my bonnet and spencer, but then all I shall require is a cup of good hot tea and some bread and butter. I have taken no refreshment since breaking my fast this morning. Martha will attend to all the settling in, I assure you." She did not add her belief, for it did not suit her notions of propriety to do so, that her sister, having sent for her, now wished in her usual fashion to put off, for as long as possible, the actual moment of confrontation.
William, clearly abashed by her air of calm resolution, bowed and allowed her to precede him up the wide granite steps and into the stately hall, which was presided over by an elderly butler, who greeted her politely and introduced himself as Merritt before returning his attention to the men who carried her baggage into the house. While William assisted her in doffing her bonnet and spencer, she looked about her curiously.
The hall, the walls of which were hung with a collection of excellent landscapes, was paneled in golden oak with a floor composed of alternating blocks of light and dark oak in a checkerboard pattern. The central, dominant feature was the stairway, which branched at a wide landing into two wings that swooped upward to an oak-railed gallery curving around three sides of the two-story hall. The domed and painted ceiling above was patterned with carved oak beams which met at the center like spokes at the hub of a wheel, and from the point of their joining depended a massive, highly polished gilt-and-crystal chandelier.
Having satisfied herself that one might command the elegancies of life even in the wilds of North Yorkshire, Miss Wingrave glanced at herself in the gilt-framed looking glass mounted over a side table. It was necessary only to tuck one errant wisp of her pale blond hair back into place before she turned back expectantly to the footman.
"This way, miss." Having passed her things to an underling, William now led Miss Wingrave past an open doorway leading into a large, elegant book-lined room that she realized could only be the late Baron Staithes's library, up the right wing of the stairs, then along the railed gallery to a pair of tall white-painted doors. William pushed these open, revealing a spacious, well-appointed drawing room, its walls hung with emerald-and-sea-green-striped silk above white linenfold wainscoting. The furnishings included a set of giltwood chairs and sofas covered with matching needlework that Emily recognized at once as the work of Thomas Chippendale. As they entered the room, the footman announced quietly, "Miss Wingrave, my lady."
"Emily! We did not look to see you before dusk." The plumpest of the three ladies in the room made a movement as though to rise from her sofa, but Miss Wingrave waved her back to her seat as she stepped briskly forward to greet her.
"Do not get up, Sabrina. I declare, you get stouter every year. You would do well to slim yourself a bit, I think. Not that the round look don't become you, for I do not scruple to tell you that it does, particularly whilst you continue to wear your blacks. How do you do, ma'am," she added, turning to the slender gray-haired lady seated erectly upon a giltwood chair near one of the tall, arched, green-draped windows. "I am Emily Wingrave, you know—Sabrina's youngest sister. You must be Miss Lavinia Arncliffe. She has often spoken of you and frequently mentions your name in her letters. And you," she went on, smiling at the youngest of the three ladies, "must be Dolly. Or have you grown so old and grand in your seventeenth year that I must now call you Dorothy? Indeed, you have turned out to be a beauty, as I daresay you know perfectly well. Only wait until London sees you. I promise, you will be a blazing success."
"Oh, pray, Emily, do not mention London," begged the dowager Baroness Staithes as her pretty blond daughter arose and made a wide-eyed curtsy.
No one else had attempted to say a word, and Emily, taking a chair near her sister, turned her attention back to that lady, demanding to know why she should not mention London. "For you must see for yourself that Dolly is a diamond of the first water, Sabrina. Those golden curls, those china-blue eyes, and such long, curling dark lashes. She will have men crawling on their hands and knees in return for the mere favor of her smile."
"Proper place for them," said Miss Lavinia tartly, pushing wire-rimmed spectacles higher on her narrow nose.
Emily looked at her, noting flyaway gray curls beneath her lace-trimmed cap, her neat, prim little figure, and the book lying open on her lap. "On their knees, do you mean, ma'am?"
"Best place for 'em, to my mind. Can't get into mischief that way, at all events. I fancy that if young Oliver had spent more time on his knees, he'd not have got himself into such a fix at Cambridge, and that's a fact. Not that I am at all popish, mind you," she added thoughtfully.
"Then Oliver is the reason for the very affecting letter you sent me," Emily said, looking at her sister. "Really, Sabrina, I cannot think why you will not simply write a proper letter, with proper sentences full of meaningful nouns and verbs. You had the very same governess I had, and considering that Mattie was twenty years younger when she taught you, you ought to have benefited even more from her teaching than I did. Your letter rambled from one emotional outpouring to another, without ever coming to a point. And you crossed your lines like a pinchpenny, though you clearly had someone to frank it for you. I am forced to say 'someone' for the simple reason that the frank was the veriest scrawl. At all events, the tone of your letter was such that I did not know but what your children were dying like flies, all four of them, which is why I made such haste that I still feel as though I were rocking in a chaise. If the problem concerns only Oliver, I should think you would have done better to have asked for Papa's help rather than to have begged me to fly to your side like you did. What has the boy done?"
Lady Staithes, who had winced visibly, first at the mention of her weight and then at the even more tactless mention of the disparity in their ages, now spread her hands and regarded her younger sister beseechingly. "Poor Oliver has been sent down from Cambridge, I fear, but it is not only Oliver, Emily. Everything is at sixes and sevens here, and I don't know what to do. I had hoped that you would help, but if all you will say is that I must starve myself or appeal to Papa, who is never in the least conciliating to me, or write a proper letter or send Dolly to London, which you must know I cannot do until we have observed a full year of mourning for my dearest Laurence ..." She paused, then added woefully, "Well, if that is your notion of being helpful, I don't think you will be any help to me at all."
Dolly sniffed and said sullenly, "I hope Aunt Emily will at least persuade you that a year is altogether too long for everyone to be forced to give up all pleasure merely because Papa was so unfortunate as to die."
"Dorothy Rivington," said her mother sharply, "pray remember where you are and who you are, and do not speak in such an unbecoming manner again."
"I shall not speak at all then," said Miss Rivington, getting to her feet and putting her straight little nose in the air. "I can see that you mean to pour all your woes into poor Aunt Emily's ears, and since I have heard them all until I am sick to death of them, I shall leave you to a comfortable coze." Whereupon, with a decided flounce of her white muslin skirts, she turned and left the room.
When the door had shut with a snap behind her niece, Emily raised her slim, arched brows and said quietly, "Do you customarily allow your children to address you so rudely, Sabrina? Really, I—"
"Oh, Emily, please. I cannot bear it if you lecture me," cried Sabrina. She opened her mouth to say something else, but the tall white doors opened again just then to admit the footman and a maid with Emily's refreshment. There were four cups and saucers and a tray of assorted sandwiches, and everything was set out in front of her ladyship. Sabrina had herself well in hand again and poured out without a quiver. But when the servants had gone, she looked directly at Emily. "It is not only Oliver, as you can see. Dolly has been much affected by her papa's death."
"Spoilt her," pronounced Miss Lavinia. "Spoilt Oliver too, come to that. Always giving them things because he couldn't be bothered to give of himself. Just a man like any other, putting his own pleasures ahead of all else."
"I was most sincerely attached to Laurence," Sabrina said stiffly, "and I am certain that he loved all his children."
"But you always left the children here at Staithes," Emily pointed out, piling several sandwiches on a china plate for herself and accepting a cup of tea from her sister. "Though we often saw you and Laurence in town, I haven't ever even met Giles or Melanie, you know, and I am persuaded that Dolly cannot have been above seven the last time you brought her into Wiltshire to visit Papa and Mama. Oliver was at school then, but of course he has stayed with us several times during his school holidays. Giles has never done so."
"Well, I am certain that Laurence and I did nothing that everyone else does not do," Sabrina said defensively. "One doesn't take one's children to London for the Season when one has excellent persons at home with whom to leave them. Only think of the upset entailed by such a move! And one certainly does not take children from one house party to the next during the winter or to Leicestershire for the hunting or to Brighton in the summer. We did take them all to the seashore at Robin Hood's Bay—on the east coast near Scarborough, you know—after Christmas, and only look what came of that! Poor Laurence took a chill and died of it, that's what."
"Good gracious, Sabrina, surely you are not blaming your husband's death on the fact that he finally paid some little heed to his children!"
"No, no, don't be absurd. You have diverted me from what I was telling you. Emily, Giles has written from Eton to say he will not come home for the long vacation because he does not wish to do so, and poor dear Melanie scarcely speaks a word to anyone anymore. I promise you, she was used to be the most delightful, cheerful little girl. She is very like you, you know."
"I pray you will cease to think of me as a child, Sabrina. I promise you that I am as fully grown as I am ever like to be."
Excerpted from The Dauntless Miss Wingrave by Amanda Scott. Copyright © 1989 Lynne Scott-Drennan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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