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Lady of Lincoln
By Ann Barker
Robert Hale LimitedCopyright © 2007 Ann Barker
All rights reserved.
'Miss Whittaker, I am fortunate indeed to find you alone, for I have something of a very particular and private nature to say to you.'
Emily Whittaker looked at the gentleman who was standing in front of her and barely repressed a sigh. Arthur Boyle's failure to find her alone previously had had nothing whatsoever to do with chance, she reflected guiltily, for short of deliberate rudeness, she had done everything that she possibly could in order to avoid him. She had carefully refrained from walking past his house, even though that was her quickest route to and from the market. She had deliberately absented herself when she knew that he was due to pay a professional visit to her grandfather. She had even missed the whole of a series of lectures upon the wild flowers of Lincolnshire, which had been given in the assembly rooms, just round the corner in Bailgate. This was a topic that interested her, and she would normally have gone out of her way to attend, but because she knew that the good doctor would also go simply in order to see her, she had kept away on purpose.
Naturally, she could not miss services in Lincoln Cathedral. Not only did she live literally a stone's throw away in Priorygate, but also her grandfather and her father, with whom she resided, were both canons (although Grandpapa's state of health no longer permitted him to be present). After worship was over, however, she was always careful not to encourage any private conversation with the doctor.
Now, despite all her careful tactics, the moment that she had been putting off had arrived. Dr Boyle had visited her grandfather on a different day from usual, and since he had managed to catch her just as she had finished conferring with Mrs Ashby, the housekeeper, she had no obvious reason to escape. Judging by the earnestly determined expression on his face, he had decided to propose and had no intention of leaving until his errand was accomplished.
There would be plenty of people among her acquaintance who would be ready to tell her that she would be well advised to accept him. She knew it herself. At the advanced age of thirty, she would be very unlikely to get another offer. She had little private fortune, and her mirror told her that her looks were not exceptional. She was not tall, and her hair was of an unremarkable shade of brown. Her hazel eyes, her best feature, were expressive, and her face was a neat oval. In short, there was nothing objectionable in her appearance, but there was nothing about it that would cause gentlemen to beat a path to her door. The house in Lincoln Cathedral precinct in which she had been born and where she now lived with her father and grandfather did not belong to her family, but to the cathedral. She needed to provide for her future. The most obvious way of securing this provision would be to accept Dr Boyle as a suitor for her hand.
Unfortunately, the doctor could not in any way be considered to be a figure of romance. His nose was rather long and pointed, and his eyes were on the small side, so that when he narrowed them in concentration, he bore more than a passing resemblance to a weasel. He was well respected, Emily had to concede. She had never heard anyone speak ill of him. She would almost have preferred it if someone had. He was thin in build, with a slight stoop to his shoulders, and his hair, although still covering his scalp well enough, looked as if it might soon give up the struggle. Worst of all, his hands were cold and damp, and Emily could not imagine his even doing such a decorous thing as taking hold of both of hers, without feeling a shudder run right through her.
None of these thoughts showed on her face, however, as the discretion cultivated all her life from being a clergyman's daughter came to her aid. 'By all means, Dr Boyle,' she replied in her low, cultured voice. 'Will you not be seated?'
She sat down herself, and gestured towards another chair which was set at a decorous distance. The doctor sat down, but after only perching there for a maximum of three seconds, sprang up and began to pace about the room. Emily looked beyond him and through the window towards the cathedral which for the whole of her life had seemed to gaze benevolently down upon her.
'I ... er, that is to say ... hrmph!'
'You are agitated, Dr Boyle,' said Emily. 'Would not a breath of fresh air be beneficial?'
The doctor stared at her uncomprehendingly and, for a moment or two, Emily wondered whether perhaps she had spoken in a foreign language. 'No indeed,' he began; then halting abruptly he went on, 'And yet, of course, perhaps it might ... um ...' He took a deep breath. 'Miss Whittaker, would you care to stroll about the close a little? The day is fine and warm.'
Sensing the possibility of at least escaping the confinement of the room in which they sat with its heavy dark furniture and drab hangings, Emily replied 'Very well, Doctor. Pray excuse me while I fetch my bonnet.'
No sooner had she made the suggestion than immediately she began to regret it. It had seemed like a good one at the time, she reflected as she went up the stairs. The drawing-room had begun to feel stifling in the doctor's presence. Now, however, she recalled all the different pairs of eyes that would be drawn to the interesting spectacle of Dr Boyle escorting Canon Whittaker's daughter around the Minster Yard. The drawing-room might have been stifling, but it was at least private. She was now faced with the prospect of receiving the doctor's proposal in front of an unseen but fascinated audience, and bearing in mind his agitated state, she could even imagine him throwing himself down upon his knees on the cobbles in front of the great west door! She was very tempted to tell Arthur Boyle that she would rather stay indoors, but the last thing that she wanted was for him to think her indecisive. He might then suppose that when she refused him, she did not know her own mind!
Once in her room, she found the dove-grey bonnet that toned with her lavender gown and shawl. It was a sensible, modest item of headgear, at least three years behind the times, and admirably suited to a clergyman's daughter of mature years. Her fingers paused briefly in tying the ribbons. Just a few days before, she had seen a frivolous confection on display in the window of Mrs Phillips's milliner's shop. It had been in an impractical shade of white, trimmed with artificial rosebuds, and Emily had coveted it intensely. It had come into her mind as the ten commandments had been read on Sunday, and she had listened to the last commandment, 'Thou shalt not covet', with a stab of guilt. But, she had heard a little voice saying inside her head, I do not want anyone else's ox or ass, I want that bonnet. After all, it is for sale and it is so very pretty.
She pulled herself together and tied the grey ribbons of her bonnet firmly under her chin. However subject she herself might be to temptation, she could never be accused of leading anyone else into thinking wrong thoughts. No right-minded person whom she encountered that day would covet her bonnet, or indeed, any other part of her apparel, she decided ironically.
Sternly repressing these thoughts, she left her room and, conscious that she had kept the doctor waiting, she hurried down the stairs, pulling on her gloves, only to find that her father was standing at the bottom, looking up at her with a gentle expression of reproach in his eyes.
'Emily, Emily, my dear,' he murmured, his tone sorrowful. 'Such indecorous haste!'
'I beg your pardon, Papa,' she replied automatically. She had long since learned that the more she protested, the longer the incident would be remembered.
'I am sure your gallant swain will wait a little while longer for you,' her father went on, with rather ponderous playfulness.
'Dr Boyle and I are simply going to take the air,' she replied, hoping that the doctor had not heard her father's words.
'Well, you may invite the doctor in for tea when you return,' smiled her father.
'Thank you, Papa, but the doctor has patients to see, I think,' Emily answered. She had no idea whether this was true or not, but she had no wish to entertain to tea a man whose proposal she had just refused. She also slightly resented the fact that her father seemed to think it necessary to give her, a woman of thirty, permission to invite someone to tea.
Mercifully, the drawing-room door was closed, and Boyle had not heard any of the conversation between Emily and her father. Just before they left, however, Canon Whittaker said, 'I cannot tell you how much comfort it gives me, Dr Boyle, to know that my dear Emily is in such safe hands.'
The doctor straightened his shoulders. 'I shall do my best to ensure that your trust is not misplaced,' he said nobly.
Emily could not allow this piece of nonsense to pass without comment. 'Really, we are taking a turn about the cathedral, not venturing into a den of marauding pirates,' she exclaimed.
'Emily, my dear, such forcefulness,' her father replied reproachfully.
'There can be dangers anywhere, even in the safest seeming place,' the doctor replied.
Emily stepped out of the door, looking about her as the two men parted on the step. Dangers indeed! She muttered to herself. Falling masonry, a cloud of dust, a swarm of wasps, perhaps? Or what of something more dramatic? A runaway carriage? A rabid dog? A licentious libertine on the prowl? Chance would be a fine thing!
The doctor joined her on the path, and politely opened the gate for her, then together they turned left to walk around the close. Boyle held out his arm politely for her to take it, but pretending not to notice, Emily turned away, pointed out a rather attractive tree in blossom in one of the gardens, then walked at a decorous distance with her hands clasped loosely behind her back. She had no wish to demonstrate to her neighbours any particular closeness between herself and the doctor.
Dr Boyle had been living in Lincoln for some six months now. His father had been the resident physician before him, but following the older man's death the previous year, the son, who had been practising in a nearby country area, had come to take over his father's business.
Emily could not imagine why his fancy should have lighted upon her. A realist, at least as far as her own appearance was concerned, she knew that she was no more a figure of romance than was he. She could only conclude that he saw her as being a useful helpmeet for a busy doctor. Unfortunately, she could not think of herself in the same way.
They had not walked very far, when the doctor cleared his throat again. 'Miss Whittaker, I wonder whether I might be so bold as to address you on a very private and ... hrmph ... intimate matter?'
It could not be avoided. With a flash of insight, Emily understood that the reason that she had wanted to put off his proposal was because she did not yet want to close the door completely on that particular avenue. It would, at least, represent an escape from a dull life, in which sometimes the only thing that lifted her spirits was the cathedral itself. If married life with the doctor proved to be as dull as spinster life with two ageing clergymen, she told herself that at least she would still have that place of refuge.
Then suddenly, the whole matter of the doctor's proposal and her reply became irrelevant, when the door of one of the houses that gave on to the close flew open, and an enchantingly pretty, heavily pregnant young lady with tears filling her eyes came running out, a handkerchief fluttering in one hand.CHAPTER 2
'Mrs Fanshawe, whatever can be amiss?' Emily exclaimed, recognizing the young woman immediately. 'Is the baby coming? Surely it cannot be right for you to agitate yourself in such a way!'
'No indeed,' agreed the doctor, immediately becoming practical and decisive when confronted with a professional matter. 'You must come and sit down at once, Mrs Fanshawe.'
The young lady's eyes darted from one to the other, her expression one of great anxiety. She looked as if even now, she might still take flight. 'Oh, but I was just going —' Abruptly she halted, and her shoulders drooped. 'But it is not as if I can go,' she finished, then burst into tears.
'Miss Whittaker, we must take her inside at once,' the doctor said. 'Mrs Fanshawe, can you walk?' The lady did not speak, but nodded into her handkerchief. 'Then pray, lean upon my arm, ma'am,' he went on. 'Miss Whittaker will go on ahead to make sure that your bed is prepared for you.'
'I don't want to go to bed,' was the muffled response.
'Perhaps not, but I would like to examine you, if I may, to make sure that all is well with the baby.'
Once Mrs Fanshawe was lying down on her bed, Emily began to make her farewells, but the younger woman protested. 'Pray do not leave, Miss Whittaker. I would like to speak with you when the doctor has gone.'
Emily was shown into an adjoining pretty sitting-room, but she did not have long to wait. The doctor soon came in to see her, and he was smiling. 'There's nothing amiss,' he told her. 'Ladies in her delicate condition are sometimes subject to strange fancies and humours, and I fear that Mrs Fanshawe has allowed her spirits to become overset by some of them.'
'Did she tell you what was concerning her in particular, Doctor?' Emily asked. She could not dismiss from her mind that picture of the hunted expression on the younger woman's face.
'She did not confide in me,' the doctor replied. 'I am hoping that she might say something to you. Naturally if that matter is confidential then you must keep it to yourself. But I must urge you that whatever you do, you must attempt to give her thoughts a more cheerful direction. A lifting of the spirits will do her more good than anything.'
When Emily entered Mrs Fanshawe's room, she was sitting up on the bed with a cup of tea in her hand.
'That's better,' Emily said, smiling encouragingly. 'You will soon feel more the thing.' Seeing that there was a tray on a little table by the window on which someone had placed a teapot, milk, sugar and another cup, Emily poured herself some tea and sat down next to the bed. They were in a charming room, very pretty and feminine with wallpaper with a design of pink flowers and leaves, curtains at the window and at the corners of the bed that matched the exact shade of the flowers, and a thick carpet with a toning design. Everything in the room seemed light and delicate, and appeared to have been designed with its occupant in mind.
As if to echo Emily's thoughts, Mrs Fanshawe said, 'Ernest had this room decorated especially for me.'
'That was kind of him,' Emily observed, thinking briefly of her own room, clean, tidy, sensible and, in all honesty, rather dull.
'Oh he is very kind,' Mrs Fanshawe agreed eagerly. 'I do believe that no husband on earth could be more kind and generous and truly Christian! Which is why it is so ungrateful of me to feel unhappy at this time.'
'But happiness has nothing to do with gratitude,' Emily observed. 'One can be conscious of all kind of benefits that fall to one's lot and yet still not be happy.'
Mrs Fanshawe leaned forward, to the imminent danger of her cup of tea, and grasped hold of Emily's hand. 'You do understand,' she exclaimed. 'I thought that you might. You have always looked to me to be truly sympathetic.'
'That is good of you to say so,' Emily replied, taking hold of Mrs Fanshawe's cup and setting it to rights. 'Dr Boyle tells me that ladies in your condition often have strange and unaccountable humours. Might your present unhappiness be something to do with that?'
'Yes, I dare say that it might,' the other lady agreed. 'But just because the reasons for my unhappiness can be explained away does not mean that I can just stop feeling unhappy. Anyway, there is something else.'
Emily simply nodded sympathetically. She had for some time been interested in the very pretty wife of the Reverend Ernest Fanshawe. Mr Fanshawe had not been in Lincoln for long, and he was one of the most junior clergymen attached to the cathedral. He had arrived with his young wife just a few months ago, and since Mrs Fanshawe was expecting their first child, and seemed to be inclined to be delicate, no one had seen a great deal of her. Mr Fanshawe, tall, blond and far more handsome than any clergyman had a right to be, might well have caused a flutter or two in the cathedral close had he not been so clearly devoted to his lovely wife. Indeed, this very devotion had given rise to some criticism. Emily had overheard the end of a conversation between Mr Fanshawe and the dean, in which the latter had been heard to say rather severely, 'The cathedral comes first, my dear sir; always first. Your wife must wait her turn.'
Emily's interest, however, did not mean that she had any intention of prying. Over ten years of sympathetic listening as a clergyman's daughter had taught her that when people were in a confiding mood, then sooner or later they spilt everything out.
Sure enough, moments later, Mrs Fanshawe said, 'You do not ask me what it is.'
'It is not my place to ask any questions about your private affairs, Mrs Fanshawe,' Emily replied.
Excerpted from Lady of Lincoln by Ann Barker. Copyright © 2007 Ann Barker. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
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