The Village Spinster
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Clarissa Driscoll was not expecting a visit from the Earl of Kinsford. It was, perhaps, the furthest thing from her mind that fine spring day. As she sipped the cup of tea Meg had brought, she was allowing her thoughts to drift to other Aprils, when she had been younger, when the view from the sitting-room window had not been a village street but the lush green of rolling lawns, with hedgerows in the distance and the home wood off to the right. There had been a much wider expanse of window to let in the sparkling sunlight then, not the cramped little box that Clarissa made do with these days. The only greenery in sight now was the vines and the leaves of the geranium plants in the window box.
Meg had remained in the doorway after her announcement and now repeated, rather impatiently "Ma'am, it's the Earl of Kinsford. He's here in the hall." Her voice dropped to a hiss as she stretched her neck inside the door while trying to keep the visitor from hearing her. "What am I to do with him?"
"Well, I suppose you must show him in," Clarissa said, frowning. She knew Alexander Barrington, Fifth Earl of Kinsford, from the old days, of course, when she had been more of a social equal, and knew, from his half-brother and half-sister, that he was temporarily at Kinsford Hall.
"Yes, ma'am." Meg made a gesture toward her that Clarissa did not understand and when she stared blandly at the girl, Meg hissed "Your cap, ma'am!"
"What's the matter with it?"
"--You don't want to wear it when the earl is here,--" Meg informed her sternly.
"Why ever not? It's a perfectly acceptable cap. I haven't had it more than a fortnight."
With a snort of disgust, Meg slipped back outthrough the door, returning almost immediately to announce, in her most impressive imitation of Clarissa's own genteel accent "The Earl of Kinsford, Miss Driscoll."
When Clarissa graciously rose to greet her visitor, she remembered that she had kicked off her slippers to curl her feet under her as she sat and stared out the window. It was with a certain chagrin that she noticed Kinsford's gaze travel almost immediately to her stocking feet. Clarissa did not apologize for things like forgetting to wear her shoes to welcome visitors. According to her deceased father, it was a waste of time to apologize for such minor infractions of social rules.
"Lord Kinsford. It must be several years since I've seen you. At the time of your father's death, perhaps."
"Probably. I haven't been home much recently." Though Lord Kinsford had raised his eyes from her feet to her face, his expression retained an element of astonishment.
In his top boots and breeches, he looked younger than his thirty years. He had always been a handsome man, of course. A great credit to the Barrington looks, the villagers were wont to say. Clarissa's first recollection of him was as a boy of eight, a solid little fellow, given to neck-or-nothing riding and pursuits of rabbits with a gun he was much too young to carry. Not that he had frightened her then any more than he did now.
"Won't you sit down? Perhaps you'd like a cup of tea. I was just having mine."
"Thank you, no." He chose the only truly comfortable chair in the room. It was the one Clarissa invariably sat in, though today she'd been on the sofa. She resumed her seat there, considered tucking her feet up under her again, and decided against it. But she wasn't going to go fiddling around on the floor with her feet, either, trying to find her shoes and slip into them. He hadn't, after all, given any warning of his visit.
Lord Kinsford was observing her closely. She could tell this despite his hooded eyes and the deceptive casualness of his posture in the chair. He had draped one buckskin-clad leg over the other, both stretched out in front of him so informally that she wondered if he were attempting to duplicate her own lack of propriety. Since he said nothing, after a minute of silence she raised her brows inquiringly. She had been told once, by a nervous singing pupil, that this expression made her look positively forbidding. Clarissa doubted that. Certainly the earl was unlikely to be intimidated.
"I've come about Aria and Will, as you must realize," he said at length.
His half-brother and half-sister were very well known to her, since Lady Aria came for singing, drawing, and watercolor lessons, as well as instruction on the pianoforte. Both Lady Aria and Master William learned the latest dances from her, there being no dancing master in the neighborhood. The younger Barringtons bore a certain resemblance to the earl, their guardian. They had the same blue eyes and high foreheads, though lighter hair than his. And not the determined chin. Clarissa remembered the chin even from the boy of eight. He should grow a beard, she thought, to disguise that chin. One look at it and you knew without a doubt that he was stubborn and spoiled, that he always intended to have his way. And that he tolerated no nonsense.
"I'd be happy to give you a report on their progress. Lady Aria is a delightful child, but not particularly talented upon the pianoforte. I wouldn't discontinue her lessons, however. It's an accomplishment that she'll need to possess, even if she never plays more than moderately well, nor sings with any particular charm. On the other hand, she has rather a special endowment so far as watercolors are concerned. Have you seen any of her drawings?"
"I don't believe so." He was frowning slightly, the assessing eyes less hooded now, but the corners of his mouth tight. "It was not about her artwork that I came."
"No? Ah, their dancing lessons. The two of them are delightful, you know. Master William has a certain grace that few his age manage to achieve. It's true that he tends to be more energetic than absolutely necessary, but that will come under control in time. Lady Aria could execute any dance in her sleep, she's so in tune with the music and so gifted in movement. Never makes a misstep. There aren't very many young people who can see a dance once and remember every step and gesture that way. I believe it must be a talent much as I've heard some people can read the page of a book and retain an image of the whole page in their minds."
"It isn't about their dancing that I've come, either."
Clarissa hadn't actually thought it was. She had not been on this earth for seven-and-twenty years without picking up a little facility at judging the moods of her contemporaries. Lord Kinsford was irritated. Once, when they were more or less equals in the neighborhood, that would not have mattered. Now, when she depended on the income from her lessons, his irritation could threaten her way of life. There was not an unlimited supply of gentlefolk needing her services, and Lady Aria and Master William were the mainstay of her precarious independence.
Lord Kinsford lifted one hand partially off the leg where it had rested. It was a very small gesture, and Clarissa knew that it was meant to indicate that he had finished listening to her and was ready to speak. As gestures go, this one was particularly offensive to her, like a command to be still and listen to The Word from on High. His father had been much the same sort of autocratic man.
His voice was a remarkably smooth baritone. He kept his eyes squarely on her face to impress her with the seriousness of his subject. "It has come to my attention that Will and Aria, in the process of racing one another across Barnet Park, managed to stray onto John Olsen's land, where they destroyed a newly plowed field, as well as frightening the plow horses and plowboy."
He paused, as though expecting Clarissa to say something. When she merely regarded him with moderate attention, he continued. "Mr. Olsen was very distressed about the matter, as I believe you are aware."
Again he paused and again she said nothing.
"Come now. I believe you happened to be walking near the park and witnessed the whole altercation."
"Mr. Olsen informed me that you sided with the children and their wild spirits, convincing him that they meant no harm."
"Well, they didn't."
"It was thoughtless and careless of them. Olsen is a tenant of mine and cannot afford to have his plantings destroyed."
"The agreement we reached was that the children would reimburse Mr. Olsen for the seed and the plowboy's time from their allowances. I trust they upheld their end of the bargain."
"Yes." His lips tightened. "Mr. Olsen also," Lord Kinsford said, his eyes sharp "indicated that you had reminded him of my own escapades at their age and convinced him that there was no need to pass along the tale to me. The inference being that I wouldn't regard their conduct with displeasure."
Clarissa nodded. "Yes, I believe that's why I mentioned it."
"But I do find something wrong with their conduct, Miss Driscoll."
"You tried to prevent me from giving them a well deserved dressing-down."
"Yes." Clarissa continued to regard him with mild interest, mostly because she knew it would irritate him further.
"I consider that undermining my authority."
"But, Lord Kinsford, you weren't here when the event took place a month ago. It was the sort of occasion that needed to be handled promptly to assure fairness all around. Mr. Olsen could have written to you in London and explained the matter, but it hardly seemed necessary."
Kinsford gripped his knees as he leaned forward to stress his words. "They're my brother and sister. I'm responsible for their conduct, whether I'm at Kinsford Hall or not. Even their mother would not have condoned such ramshackle behavior. And yet you managed to keep the whole matter silent, to let them think they could behave in such a fashion if they chose."
"Come, come, Lord Kinsford. I did no such thing. You should be here to thank me, not to scold me for my handling of the matter." Clarissa tapped a finger on the arm of the sofa, a sure sign to those who knew her well--which was not the case with Lord Kinsford'that her patience was near an end. "I not only made them repay Mr. Olsen for his losses, I convinced Master William to give the plowboy a shilling for the trouble caused him. A rather healthy chunk, in all, of his weekly allotment. And, much as it pained me, I also lectured Lady Aria on the view the quality would take of her hoydenish behavior. All in all, a very good day's work, if I do say so myself."
Kinsford rose from the overstuffed chair and walked restlessly around the small room. "It's not that I don't appreciate your attempt to assist the children, Miss Driscoll. It's the effort at secrecy that distresses me. Their mother should have been advised of the incident. She is not without influence with her children. And she would, certainly, have notified me so that I could handle things myself."
"You would have done something different?" Clarissa asked sweetly.
He stood with his back to her, staring out into the street. The rumble of a passing cart made it impossible for him to speak immediately. When the noise had died away, he turned to her, grimaced, and said "I won't quibble with the arrangements you made. They were adequate. Why didn't you tell Lady Kinsford?"
"Me?" Clarissa regarded him with astonishment. "You expected me to tattle on your brother and sister? How absurd! Your stepmama would have considered it impertinent in me to do any such thing. And I am not at all sure she would have grasped the problem. Perhaps Master William and Lady Aria should have told her themselves. I'm sure I can't answer for that."
She could see the frustration in his eyes. He remained in front of the window, framed against the sunlight, considering her. His brows were drawn down and his mouth slightly pursed. Clarissa realized that he was probably deciding whether she had so overstepped her position that she should be dismissed as the youngsters' teacher. This was the time to conciliate him, but he had set her back up and she found she couldn't even manage an amiable smile. She returned his gaze coolly.
"You make it difficult for me, Miss Driscoll. I sense that were the same thing to happen again, you would handle it precisely the same way."
"Certainly. Though I must say that it's unlikely I shall be in a position to do so on another occasion."
"True." The force of this argument apparently weighed with him. He shrugged his solid shoulders and moved a step toward her. "Very well. For the time being, they will continue their lessons. They both seem to enjoy them."
Relieved, Clarissa rose, only to remember once again that she wasn't wearing her slippers. This time she managed to work her feet into them as she talked. "Perhaps you would care to see some of Lady Aria's watercolors before you leave. She has quite a keen eye and a delightful sense of fun. No baskets of fruit or landscape scenes for her. The subject matter she chooses is charmingly unusual. This one, for instance."
Clarissa moved easily across the room to an artist's stand on which several sheets of paper rested. She picked up the one titled "Returning from a Dinner Party at Night" in which there were several people on horseback, some in an open carriage, and even two walking. The colors were vivid and pleasing to the eye. The scene flowed cheerfully past as though one were watching a parade of one's neighbors.
With casual grace, Lord Kinsford stepped across to take the watercolor from her hands. He regarded it for several minutes without speaking, then set it down and picked up another from the stand. Pausing the longest over one of a riding party, he eventually returned them all to their place. "Delightful," he pronounced in a voice at once surprised and pleased. "I had no idea Aria had the patience to sit as long as it would take to produce such artwork."
"She's quite absorbed when she's working. I've known her to pass up a whole plate of cream cakes."
"Goodness." The earl smiled slightly. "Not a common occurrence, in my experience. I take it this enthusiasm does not extend to the pianoforte."
"Ah, well, one can only expect so much of a fifteen-year-old girl." He bowed slightly to her. "I'll take my leave, then, Miss Driscoll."
Clarissa walked behind him to the sitting-room door and watched as he picked up his riding gauntlets from the hall table. As she had expected, Meg hovered near the front door, ready with Lord Kinsford's curly-brimmed beaver hat and his riding crop. The girl was a bit in awe of his lordship, but curious. Her eyes took in every detail of his dress and expression, presumably for relating it subsequently to her family on the farm.
When the door was closed cautiously behind him, Meg happened to glance over and see Clarissa still wriggling her foot to get it comfortably into the soft gray slipper. "Oh, ma'am, you weren't without your shoes, surely!" she exclaimed. "What will his lordship think of us?"
"Nothing flattering, I assure you," she said dryly. "But we don't care, do we?"
Meg refused to reply to this teasing rejoinder. She was truly shocked by her employer's lack of concern. For Meg had ambitions. Perhaps she hoped, in time, to find a place at Kinsford Hall along with her sister; or eventually, to be a lady's maid to some London matron. Putting on such an exhibition as today's before the earl himself, she could not but believe, was a sadly ramshackle way of going on, and she felt a certain responsibility for her mistress.
Clarissa had finally wedged her second foot back into its slipper. With a gesture of dismissal she disposed of the earl's visit, saying to Meg "Never mind. He's a little high in the instep these days." Then she mused more to herself than the maid "Though I can't imagine what possesses him to be. Any high spirits in Lady Aria and Master William pale by comparison with his own at that age." When Meg continued to regard her with a dubious expression, Clarissa sighed. "You may take away the tea things, Meg."
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