They say I am an egotist. I am flattered, though I do not delude myself for a moment that it is intended as a compliment. It is intended as a slur on my particular bent for self-assertion, but it is surely everyone's privilege, if not duty, to tend first to his own garden. In any case, they will find some euphemistic phrase for me now that I am… But I get ahead of myself and will begin with my ending if I don't beware. I have never written a story before and am already becoming confused. I shall recommence. My friend tells me it will be a perfect catharsis to purge my soul of all the spleen left behind by recent events. It is more likely to drive me insane, and you, too, if I don't get on with it.
There, he has counted up nine I's in the first paragraph and confirmed me as an egotist. So be it. I (again I) am Priscilla Denver. No one has dared to call me Prissie since I was ten, fifteen years ago. If you are any sort of mathematician at all, it is not necessary for me to mention that I am twenty-five years old. I am also unmarried and do not blush to acknowledge the fact. It is no disgrace to have inhabited the planet for a quarter of a century. It is God's will, one assumes. The particular corner of the planet I inhabited for twenty-four of those years was Wiltshire, and it is surely one of the more pleasant corners anywhere, with a pleasing variety of downs, fertile valleys, scattered forests, and streams.
I was born in the year of our Lord 1788, but do not fear I mean to bore you with a tedious recital of my childhood. Nothing of the least interest occurred throughout its duration. I was a healthy, normal child, less beautiful than some, and more intelligent than many others. At twenty-one I received an offer of marriage from an eligible gentleman whose name I shall suppress since he is now married to another. He was good enough, but with a tendency to moon about and discuss love as though it were a tangible thing. Also he smoked cigars and did not have his jackets aired afterward, so that the unpleasant odour hung about him. The name __ suggests to this day the lingering, sour smell of stale cigar smoke to me. But I digress, friend, and to a subject you dislike, my first lover. Back to the story. I'll never finish it I know. But I shall try to get on with the beginning at least.
My father was a scholar, a purveyor of Greek at Oxford. Mama and I did not accompany him, for females are not welcomed and hardly tolerated in that hallowed atmosphere. We remained at home at Runnymede, named, of course, after that spot where King John was forced to renounce some of his more flagrant abuses by signing the Magna Charta. Our Runnymede was no more than a cosy cottage. Papa always joined us for the summer and added unknowingly to my paltry store of knowledge by leaving his texts lying about. I found some considerable amusement in Electra, Andromeda and other Grecian ladies of antiquity, not the least of which was that grown men, supposedly intelligent ones, wasted their time reading such trash.
But I said I would not bore you with my childhood. There I remained till I was twenty-four. Papa died when I was nineteen, and it made very little difference in our lives except for the summer, when he didn't come home. At twenty-one, my twenty-one, that is, Mama remarried. She chose a well-to-do retired judge from the city, a bachelor. Mama was only forty herself and still handsome. Mr. Higgins was considerably older. I did not actively dislike him. Mama died in the second year of that marriage in childbirth. One can only wonder at the ineligibility of a woman her age having a child, but it happened. Mr. Higgins was broken-hearted. The child did not survive; it would have been a boy. Nor did the father live much longer. He drank himself to death, quite literally. He was not sober from the day Mama died. I was twenty-four when he died, and I found myself an heiress. Mr. Higgins had invested heavily upon 'Change, and I was his sole heir, the possessor of one hundred thousand pounds. I was quite simply delighted. I never thought to be rich but knew there were great advantages pertaining to such a condition.
I have said Papa was a professor of Greek. What I did not mention is that he married above him. Mama was a Devonmoore, claiming kinship to the Devonmoores of East Sussex. She was not dramatically cut off by her family, but she dwindled off from them upon her marriage to Papa. She could not continue in her exalted style of living and was too proud to visit her relations in a gig or hired carriage and team, so she did not visit at all. Papa had been hired as a tutor to her cousin, which is how she met him. Though she ceased visiting, she wrote endlessly to her relations for years.
After several years, her correspondents had thinned to her older sister Ethelberta.
With a fortune now at my back, I decided to institute a personal relationship with Mama's and my relations. I chose, of course, her most faithful and lasting correspondent, Ethelberta. I wrote first of Mama's death, and again of my step-father's. My aunt replied to both, in the second letter enquiring whether I was "adequately provided for." When she heard by return post just how adequately provided for I was, she immediately asked me to visit her. She had a son in his thirtieth year, unmarried and unhandsome, but I do not say that is why she asked me. Neither do I say it is not.
My Aunt Ethelberta proved to be a snob. I enjoyed her company excessively. I have a suspicion I am a snob myself. She was a snob about genealogy, which she calls quite plainly, and somewhat gruesomely, blood. If the blue blood has a metallic tinge of gold, it is, of course, all to the good. I am a snob in the matter of intellect; I like my friends to have some accomplishments beyond gossiping and plying their needles. My aunt's accomplishment was riding. She is an excellent horsewoman. She had married "up" as surely as Mama had married "down." My aunt is a lady with a capital L. Lady Inglewood, widow of Lord Inglewood, first Baron of Inglewood. She would like it immeasurably better if her husband had been sixth or seventh baron, but the fact of the matter is he won a title from that dissipated old dandy, the Prince of Wales, in a game of faro. That is to say, he actually won ten thousand pounds, but with the Prince's chronic state of financial embarrassment, he was willing to settle for paying for a title. I learned all this from her son George, named, of course, after his godfather, that same Prince Regent. My aunt contends the title was given for some vague extraordinary service to the Prince, but the extraordinary service was ten thousand pounds, and I think with a little haggling Lord Inglewood might have been the Earl of Inglewood, but he was not himself socially ambitious, I believe. He should have let his wife do the bargaining for him.
I believe I mentioned my aunt is a widow. What a sad state the medical profession is in that persons in their forties and fifties fall like flies. But then any drinking companion of the Prince Regent is fortunate to reach fifty, which Inglewood did, with a decade to spare. He left his widow a lady, but he also left her with a home mortgaged to the hilt. He was not always so lucky as the night he won his title from Prinny. There was only George to bring the family fortunes about, and it was clearly incumbent upon him to make an advantageous match. Equally clearly, his mama took the ill-conceived idea that I was the well-dowered virgin to be so honoured. I was polite for six days, for I did not wish a rupture with the most elevated member of my family, but when she put the thing into words on the seventh day of my visit, my politeness was at an end.
She said, "You are not young, not pretty, and not well-connected, except for myself, Priscilla. I think it would be greatly to your advantage to marry Lord Inglewood." So fond was she of the title that all references to both her late husband and her living son were couched in terms of Lord Inglewood. It was sometimes confusing, but, of course, on this occasion her meaning was perfectly clear.
"I see no advantage in marrying a penniless cousin I have hardly known a week," I replied quite frankly.
"Penniless! You forget he is Lord Inglewood, Priscilla. Inglewood belongs to him."
"I do not forget it." With great tact I forbore mentioning the impossibility of doing so, with the title constantly ringing in my ears. "But if I am not mistaken, the estate belongs largely to the mortgage lenders."
"You have money, and little enough else, I might tell you. Your father a teacher! Really, how Andrea could be so foolish. It is an excellent match in every way, advantages to be gained on both sides. The ages just right, and George is very fond of you."
George, like his papa, is fonder of a wine bottle than the handsomest woman ever born (which I am not); but he did not actively dislike me so far as I could tell. I expect he would do exactly as his mother told him in any case.
There was a little more of the same pointless sort of discussion on the subject, which neither of us allowed to grow into an irreconcilable difference. I, because I wished to keep her friendship, and she, because she wished to have access to my mind to press her point. After a few more bouts, however, the atmosphere about the place became unpleasantly tense. I ceased being Priscilla and became Miss Denver. In the same manner, Aunt Ethelberta became Lady Inglewood, and before any other change of address should occur, I expressed my intention of leaving. Of leaving her roof, that is, but not the neighbourhood.
I had become fascinated by the ocean. It has this effect on some people. I went every afternoon to walk along the shore, and generally saw the same few people there, just gazing at the endless expanse of grey-green water. There was not so much to see: a few fishing boats, more or less whitecaps depending on the weather, and always that smell comprised of salt and water and marine life that is not even very pleasant. I don't know why I was drawn to it. It was the ever-moving, ever-changing pattern of the waves perhaps, or the knowledge that across the Channel lay France, to the west the vast expanse of water with somewhere out there in infinity wild America and cold Canada. It inspired me to think and dream. I hadn't had my fill of it yet, and I would stay in Sussex.
My aunt required money; I required an elegant but not extremely large roof over my head. Being both practical women, a scheme was agreed upon between us. I would rent the Dower House, now standing empty and profitless, for five hundred pounds per annum. It is a very fine home built of grey stone in the Gothic style, with four lancet windows on either side of the handsome oak double doors. It has ornamental flying buttresses, finials, gargoyles, and all the customary trappings of a Gothic building. I confess I liked very well the notion of living in an old mansion. In my youth I had been addicted to Gothic novels--I mean my extreme youth, fourteen or fifteen. By sixteen I had outgrown such mawkish stuff; but every stage we go through leaves its mark on us, and the mark that Mrs. Radcliffe left on me was a quite irrational desire to live in an old Gothic mansion. Now that I had independence, I would do so. ~ ~ ~
The next half of this chapter may give you the idea I am a fool. I am not, but I behaved foolishly, I admit, with regard to the Dower House. I fell in love with it. My emotions, unmoved throughout the years by mere human flesh, succumbed to a passion for wood and stones and mortar. It was not in the best repair. I wished to get at it with my imagination and money and return it to its former glory, but I retained enough sanity not to do this to someone else's house. I wanted it for my own, and offered to buy it. It belonged to my aunt outright. It was not part of the estate of Inglewood, which surprised and delighted me. She accepted my offer, which also surprised and delighted me. Of course she did not accept it quickly; she screwed me up to a very good price. My Aunt Ethelberta, who had become my aunt again and not Lady Inglewood once I left her home, behaved criminally, in my opinion, but was crafty enough to do it legally. If that is a contradiction--well, of course, it is technically, so I shall say instead she behaved reprehensibly. She defrauded her own niece. She purposely misrepresented the Dower House to me as an ancient home. I subsequently learned it was less than one hundred years old. Very likely I could have sued her for fraudulent misrepresentation or some such thing, but she was my aunt, and I did not wish a scandal in the neighbourhood. She also misrepresented other things, grossly misrepresented them. I would have hired a solicitor had I suspected treachery and double-dealing from my own kin. I do not disdain to seek professional help in the least, despite the opinion of certain people who will read this with a hateful smirk and think "it served you right."
I have already said the house was practically new, and no doubt you are raising your brows and thinking I was easily cozzened after calling myself intelligent. I think in the same case you would have been, too. It was newly built, but of old stones, and in the style of an older period, built as a sort of miniature Belview, in fact, an old and famous home nearby of which I shall speak again soon (and often). I only discovered the house's true age when I pulled back a rambling vine from the keystone over the door and saw to my horror the numbers 1733. The other deception in the case was the truly serious one, however, but I didn't discover it for another two weeks. With an effort, I shall keep it for its rightful place in this tale, though my pen itches to jot it down now.
She sold me the place furnished and fully equipped. Naturally I was familiar with the state and quality of the furnishings by this time. I was not fooled into thinking that extremely ugly old tables of plain deal were the work of Kent or anything of the sort. The stuff was old and serviceable, not beautiful. Draperies and carpets would all have to go, in degrees, but I looked forward to these changes. I could afford them and meant to do the place up in fine style. I did not go to the cellars, and accepted her word that there were good wine cellars, but in fact there were exactly twelve bottles of wine there when I finally got around to examining it. She had not actually said there was anything in the cellars, though the term "a good wine cellar" does not generally refer to architecture. My grounds kept shrinking by the day, till in the end I barely had an acre of garden fore and aft to call my own. As you may imagine, battles on all these points were waged, but between battles Lady Inglewood (and sometimes Aunt Ethelberta) helped us in various ways, so that a sort of superficial peace reigned between us. We visited back and forth, and in her mind the wish was still alive that George might marry my fortune. He continued to call regularly. Even when his mother and I were completely at odds, George came.
Slack, my companion, has just read my account thus far, and though she did not say so, I see she is miffed that she has not entered the pages. It is an unaccountable oversight on my part. Naturally I did not set up house without a suitable companion to lend me countenance. Indeed, she is more than a companion. She has been my faithful friend forever; all through my childhood in Wiltshire she was my nanny, governess, abigail. She was some connection of Papa's and came to his home when I was born to lend a hand. She never left it, and I trust she will never leave me. Now, in case her head expands unduly at this description, let me go on to give her a character sketch. She is honest, bossy, overbearing, short-tempered and clever. Slack is twice my own age. She has black hair and one black eyebrow that runs across her forehead like a narrow velvet ribbon. Her eyes are grey and as sharp as a lynx's, her nose is sharp, as is her tongue.
There--she has been back and read it, and is more miffed than ever. She suggests I draw a pen sketch of myself, and points out that what I said of her goes well beyond a character study. I thought I had explained my appearance, but she says not, I only stated I was not a pretty child. I am also not a pretty woman. I am five feet, six inches tall, have an athletic build, brown hair and brown eyes. My teeth are in good repair. I am fastidious about my teeth, not primarily for purposes of vanity, but because I had an abscessed tooth drawn when I was eight, and it is not a procedure I wish to have repeated on my adult teeth.
We went on together with our little domestic ups and downs at the Dower House, Slack and I. I began fixing the place up, beginning with the main saloon, where I installed rose velvet draperies. While in the drapery shop in Pevensey, I also purchased material for two new gowns, to suit my new status as a home-owner and occasional hostess. Having been in mourning and half-mourning for over five years all told, with the deaths of Papa, Mama, and Mr. Higgins, I was naturally eager to get out of it. It was six months since the demise of Mr. Higgins. I bore him considerable gratitude for leaving me his fortune but had small traces of love or even respect for a man foolish enough to drink himself into his grave over the death of a wife of only two years' duration. At six months I was in half-mourning, with the intention lurking at the back of my mind to put off all remnants of crape entirely.
"Rag-mannered," Slack told me bluntly when I got home with my gold-striped lutestring and my green Italian silk.
"You might have mentioned it in the shop," I replied in the same tone.
"And announced to the town your step-father is still warm in his grave? I wished to save at least a semblance of decency, since it seems we are to live here." Slack was not yet completely resigned to our permanent remove to Sussex.
"Very clever. I doubt anyone here knows a thing about me but that I am an heiress. Lady Inglewood would not have told anyone I am in mourning for it was, and is, her intention to see me a bride within a month. I am mighty tired of decking myself out like a carrion crow, Slack, and mean to get into some colours before I am too old."
Any reference to age is greeted with a sniff by Slack. She had passed the half century on her last birthday. Streaks of grey begin to lighten her black hair, but I hold the unspoken suspicion that as with many spinsters, a ray of hope shines yet that she will meet and marry some dashing Prince Charming. It is foolish in the extreme, of course. At twenty-two I put aside all such thoughts and would have set on my caps except that they are a nuisance. Women are already so encumbered with camisoles and petticoats that any additional item of clothing is to be eschewed.
I paid no heed to Slack's repeated remonstrances regarding the yellow lutestring and green silk but purchased the latest copy of La Belle Assemblée in town and selected two suitable patterns. Suitable to me, that is; Slack did not approve. She suggested that as it was obviously my intention to set up as the village flirt, I ought to hire a fashionable modiste to cut my gowns for me, and added sundry ill-natured hints regarding decolletage and making sure the skirt hugged the hips tightly, and suggested vulgar coquelicot ribbons for the green silk. So suitable for Christmas, she said.
"I hope you pass swiftly through the delicate age you are at, Slack," I told her, "for I find your conversation recently disagreeable in the extreme."
The yellow lutestring was cut high at the neck, as became one of my years, with a long sleeve and a full skirt that allowed a good walking pace. The green silk would have been similarly styled had Slack not enraged me with her ceaseless jibes. In retaliation, I had it cut low enough to expose more of my chest than had been formerly shown to the world, and did take in the waist and hips sufficiently to give an indication of my figure. In fact, when I stood before my mirror, I doubted I would have the nerve to appear in public in the outfit, and cursed Slack's humour and my temper that had caused me to ruin a guinea's worth of good material. It was quite dashing, but it was not me.
Lady Inglewood raised her brows when I first called in the yellow striped, but as it caused George to evince more interest than formerly in me, she did not object verbally.
I enjoyed those first few weeks at the Dower House. There was sufficient novelty in coming to a new place and making new friends, trimming up my home to a more stylish appearance and generally getting the lay of the land to keep me entertained. I had my walks along the beach that still amused me, and I had my carriage to drive me to town. I felt life could offer little more. But as August drew to a close and September came upon us, I began to perceive that the keening winds of winter would make my walks along the sea uncomfortable. It was then I took the decision to buy myself a mount. I had procured before coming to Sussex the team to pull my carriage, and had a small stable set up, so why not add a hack to it? I had always wanted to ride. My first attempt along this line led to a new acquaintance and several other items of interest, so I shall make it a new chapter.
Slack is sitting across the room rattling the newspaper impatiently, which means she wants her tea and my company. Truth to tell, I find this writing business tedious enough that I could do with a cup of tea myself. I shall resume the chronicle tomorrow.