"Something must be done," Megan Hardy said to her sister. A lively girl, she was considered to be beautiful, but perhaps a little impetuous. She had been attempting to win the older girl to her opinion for some minutes. "You know I am right, Selina. We cannot go on as we are for much longer...at least one of us has to marry. It must be you or me, the others are too young, of course."
"That is easy to say," Selina said, "but I do not see how it is to be achieved, Meg. We do not know any suitable gentlemen. I did consider taking Papa's curate when he offered, but I cannot pretend that I would be happy as his wife."
"Nor would you," Meg said. "He is so pompous and boring. You should look higher. If Mama had lived, she would have taken us to meet people and you might have been married by now. No, I have made up my mind that we must make a push. We cannot just sit here and wait for husbands to come looking for us, like some handsome prince out of a fairytale; we must go out and find them for ourselves."
"I know we shall never find husbands sitting here..." Selina shook her head over the sheet she was mending. "But what can we do? Poor Papa is at his wit's end as it is..." She broke off as the door was thrown open, drawing in a blast of cold air. "Beth dearest, please close the door. You are letting out all the heat from the fire."
"I had to tell you at once! They say there were smugglers in the cove last night." Beth, the youngest of the Reverend Jonathan Hardy's four daughters, came bouncing into the small back parlor her sisters were using, a glow of excitement on her pretty face. "Isn't that just too exciting?"
"Mind what you're doing!" cried Josephine. Older than Beth by just eighteen months, she whisked an occasional table, which held her sewing box, out of harm's way. "You are always so careless, Beth! And I do not find the idea of smugglers in our cove exciting. They are wicked, rough creatures who would shoot you if you spied on them - so do not even think of it."
"Oh, pooh, you never think anything is exciting," replied Beth. She sat on a stool at the feet of her eldest sister, who had laid down the torn sheet she had been laboring over. "You do, Selina. Please agree with me and not Jo."
Selina glanced down at her, a serious expression in her deep blue eyes. At one and twenty, Selina Hardy was a thoughtful, gentle girl, who had helped to raise her sisters after the tragedy of their mother's death some five years earlier. Being the eldest, she had assumed the duties heaped on her shoulders without complaint or resentment.
"Well, dearest," she said, gazing down at Beth with a smile. "I think you would not like to meet a smuggler, not at night when it was dark and the wind was howling. It would be frightening, you know - and he might shoot you if he thought you were planning to tell the Excisemen about him."
"Oh, but I shouldn't," Beth replied promptly. "I should ask him to bring Papa a barrel of his brandy."
"Yes, so should I," agreed Megan. She was laughing, her lovely face alight with mischief. All the Hardy girls were fair with varying shades of blue eyes, but Meg had honey blonde hair and her eyes were more green than blue. Her figure was slender but she was a strong girl, and full of energy - so much so that she could not always sit still and loved to go for long walks on the cliffs. "Poor Papa cannot afford to buy brandy now that the taxes are so high, and he used to like a small glass in the evenings. He always said it helped his digestion before he went to sleep."
"Poor Papa." Selina sighed, looking sad. "He has so few comforts these days. It takes every penny he earns to keep the family going."
"It is all the fault of Grandfather Ross," said Meg. "It was unkind of him to stop Mama's allowance after she died...he must have known that Papa's stipend would not be sufficient to cope with caring for all of us."
"Mama told me once that he never forgave her for marrying a vicar when she could have looked so much higher," Selina repeated, a tale that each of the four sisters knew by heart. "Grandmother Ross persuaded him to give Mama an allowance so that she could live decently, but of course she died just a year before our dear mother."
Meg nodded her agreement. She believed that her maternal grandfather was a mean old curmudgeon. He had visited the vicarage only three times while his daughter lived in it, and never since her death.