Miss Munch looked around the crowded little bedchamber and shook her snuff-brown head. She was small in stature, rather grim of face, rudely outspoken, and as faithful as a star to her young mistress. "This is almost worse than being back at the Hall with your uncle, Miss Halsey. How a human bean's supposed to keep the place tidy when the room's not big enough to hold your wardrobe, let alone yourself and Missie, I'm sure I don't know."
"The room is certainly snug," Miss Halsey admitted. Its snugness at times caused a sensation of suffocation. The desk was rammed tight against the dresser, and it was impossible to open the door to the hall when the wardrobe door was ajar. But one became accustomed to a little crowding. Aunt Hermione had made some efforts at beautifying the room. The walls were covered in new flower-spangled paper, and the window hangings of green raw silk were unexceptionable. In any case, it was better than remaining at Halsey Hall with Uncle Horace. Anything was better than that!
"Belle and I don't mind sharing the bed," Miss Halsey continued, "and as to our trunks, you might as well put our party gowns and riding habits back in them and have them taken to the attics. We shan't be needing them, and they are cluttering up the hall abominably."
"We'll see about that," Miss Munch declared, fire in her eyes. "You're out of mourning now. You've been presented at Court, and Missie, too, as far as making her curtsy to the Queen goes. A pity she couldn't have enjoyed her Season."
"I do feel sorry for Belle," Miss Halsey admitted. "I had my crack at the beaux, but poor Belle was killed in covert. So pretty, she might have made a grand match if her Season hadn't been cut short by Papa's illness. And now that Papa is dead and Uncle Horace lording it over the Hall, a match would be so welcome. But not the match Uncle had in mind, of course."
Miss Munch snorted. "If you can call a sixty-year-old relic a match for our Missie. May and December is nothing to it. Swaddling clothes and a shroud is more like it. She barely eighteen, and that old bleater of a Rankin as bald as a billiard ball. Shocking, I call it."
"I daresay Uncle Horace thought it for the best," Miss Halsey said doubtfully. "Mr. Rankin has a good character, and an excellent bank account. My uncle is such a hermit, he could not become accustomed to having two ladies around the place. It was kind of Aunt Hermione to rescue us. She has no excess of funds herself, you must know, Munch. We are inconveniencing her terribly. This room used to be her son's study."
Miss Munch leveled a patronizing stare on the desk. "We could move that piece of lumber out. Mr. Pettigrew won't need it now that he's through learning. That'd give us room to swing a kitten. I shan't say cat, for it wouldn't be true," she added, mentally measuring the oaken desk.
Miss Halsey considered this suggestion. "It's nice to have the desk, though. We have plenty of letters to write to friends back home. Let us leave it for now. I dislike to be forever bothering Aunt Hermione about shifting things from here to there."
Miss Munch continued staring at the large desk. "Why people who live in a shoebox must want furnishings to fit a palace is above and beyond me. Has your aunt seen better days, Miss Halsey?"
"Oh, yes. Like us, she is down on her luck at present. Her husband's early death left them high and dry. But Basil, her son, is looking for a position now that he has finished university. That will ease matters. And meanwhile the interest on my dot is more than enough to pay for Belle's and my own support, so we are no financial burden at least."
"I can live on less than you pay me," Miss Munch said at once. "I don't have to pretend to you that I'm a real lady's maid. Hot out of the kitchen I came to you, for I'd not stay on with that old scholar of a Horace Halsey, not if he paid me in gold bunions. Expecting us to eat cods' heads and pigs' tails and calves' feet, and never a slice of good-grained meat, fish, or fowl on the table. A human bean's got her needs, same as anyone else."
Miss Munch enjoyed the distinction of being a human bean. She spoke of it often; her criterion for proper conduct toward herself was whether that conduct upheld the dignity of the human bean. She demanded no less for her charges, the Misses Halsey, of Halsey Hall in West Sussex. No matter if they were all reduced to battening themselves on the late Mrs. Halsey's sister--they were human beans, and would be treated accordingly.
"We are not quite so purse-pinched as that, Munch," Miss Halsey assured her. "We can afford your wages."
Miss Munch nodded in satisfaction. She knew to a penny how her mistress was situated financially. Ten thousand pounds was the dowry she inherited from her mother. Safely invested in the funds, it gave Jane five hundred a year. Miss Belle had not a sou to her name, and old Horace Halsey had inherited everything else in sight--Hall, furnishings, cattle and carriages, income ... the lot. The old nip-cheese hadn't even the grace to give the girls their own mounts to take with them to London. In revenge, Miss Munch had given their saddles to the church jumble sale.
"Well, if you're tight, just put my wages on tick," she offered, and meant it.
"Goose! How would you pay for your own personal necessities if I did?"
"What necessities would the likes of me have?" Miss Munch demanded, in a purely rhetorical spirit. "If I ever need money, well--we'll burn that bridge when we come to it."
Miss Halsey smiled ruefully. "We're good at that, are we not?"
"What choice was left to you? I'd not trust Horace Halsey, not with a ten-foot pole. Now don't be blaming yourself for this quagmire you've sunk us into by ripping up at your uncle. We couldn't have little Missie shackled to an ancient. She'll nab the handsomest parti in town, once the lads get a look at her. She's pretty as a pitcher."
They both looked at the miniature of Miss Belle, resting on the oak desk. Blond curls framed an exceedingly pretty face. The large blue eyes were heavily fringed in black lashes, and the smile was sweet.
"Not a clever girl like yourself, of course," Miss Munch admitted, "but a little lack of brains never stopped a man from falling in love."
Miss Halsey bit her lip and continued gazing at the picture. "No, and it doesn't stop the girl from falling in love with all the wrong gentlemen either. I fear there's some tendre growing between Belle and Basil."
"There's not a penny betwixt the pair of them," Miss Munch said. "Can't you just see our Belle living on a bone? She who has such a fondness for luxuries? What you've got to do is get her out where she'll be seen, and meet some richer partis, Miss Halsey. It's your bounden duty."
Miss Halsey sat on the edge of the bed, for there was no space in the room for a chair. "But how are we going to accomplish it, Munch? Aunt Hermione is not at all sociable. Here it is the end of May, the Season nearly over, and we haven't been to a single real party. Just a few poky little dos, you know, where Belle doesn't meet anyone."
"Don't you worry your head about that, Miss Halsey. There's many a twist in life. Just when everything seems impossible, that's when a new twist comes along and unravels all the rest."
Miss Halsey considered this ambiguous encouragement. It seemed to her that her life was pretty well unraveled already. Within the space of eighteen months she and Belle had lost their father and their home. Belle's Season had been nipped in the bud, she had very nearly been pressured into marrying an elderly neighbor, and was now encouraging the advances of a totally ineligible cousin. What was left to unravel?
With all Belle's beauty, surely she could attract the attention of some more suitable parti than Basil Pettigrew. The trouble was, Belle was one of those women made for marriage. Nothing else in life was of much interest to her. She would accept the first reputable offer that came along. And if Belle accepted Basil, what was to become of herself?
Miss Munch, satisfied that she had lifted her charge's spirits, went into the hall to seek assistance in moving the trunks, and Jane went to the mirror to tidy her hair. The image staring at her with somber eyes looked frustrated enough to strike someone. Jane admitted she did not take adversity well.
She disliked having to crowd herself and Belle in on Aunt Hermione. She hated being poor, and she was bored to flinders with the confined society of Catherine Street. If Belle married Basil, nothing would change. They would all four go on living here as they did at present. The answer must lie with herself. She must make a push to attach someone. At four and twenty, she was no longer quite a deb. It was time to give up girlish daydreams and face reality. She must seek an older gentleman, then, perhaps a widower, or some bachelor nabob hot from India, in a hurry to settle down and start his family.
She was still plenty young enough for that. Jane lifted the brush and drew it through her short curls, tousled from juggling the furnishings of her bedroom. Tints of peacock, gold, and purple reflected where the sunlight streamed on her raven hair. Her face was an oval of ivory, untouched as yet by time's passage so far as wrinkles or crow's-feet were concerned. Her eyes were two stormy pools of gray, deep and unfathomable as the ocean.
Though her body was long and lean, it wasn't her figure that had kept her single. She might make a match yet if she could manage to control her tongue, and simper when a gentleman treated her as if she were a witless ninnyhammer, instead of a lady with a mind.
Before long Belle Halsey came pelting up the stairs, her face aglow with excitement. Jane heard her and went to the door.
"What is it, Belle?" she asked.
"Cousin Basil has found a position!" Belle chirped. "Oh, isn't it exciting! You must come down at once and congratulate him, Jane."
Jane followed her sister down to the saloon, where Basil was outlining his good fortune to his mother. Jane was constantly surprised at how little he had changed over the years. She had first known him as a boy, visiting at Halsey Hall. A wispy, gangling, awkward child two years her junior, he had been firmly under her thumb. Now he stood six feet tall, still wispy and gangling and awkward, still not completely free of her thumb. The greatest change was a pair of spectacles added to conceal his rather nice brown eyes. Despite his unprepossessing appearance, Basil was likable.
Basil had some inclination toward the poetic style in his dress. His hair was worn a little longer than most, and allowed to fall wantonly over his forehead. His well-cut jacket of blue Bath cloth and fawn pantaloons were well enough, but on most occasions he was more likely to wear a neckerchief than a proper cravat. These tokens of the Muse were a strong attraction to Belle. Jane was happy to see them all set aside on this occasion, probably because he had been on an interview. He turned when the ladies entered the saloon. His glimmering spectacles immediately sought out Belle, who smiled softly at him. Only after they had exchanged one of their secret, speaking smiles did he turn to Jane.
"Congratulate me, cousin," he smiled. "You are looking at a wage earner."
Jane went forward and took his hand. "I couldn't be happier, Basil. Do tell us all about it."
He showed the ladies to the sofa and sat on a chair midway between it and his mother's seat. Mrs. Pettigrew was smiling in proud, maternal satisfaction. She had given up any pretense to beauty or fashion, and wore the raiments of a dowager. Her graying hair was concealed beneath a lace cap, and her dark gown was unadorned by anything except a mourning pin that held a lock of her late husband's hair. Yet the lineaments of her face pleased Jane, mirroring as they did some memory of her mother's mild expression and gray eyes.
"I've been hired by the British Museum," Basil announced. "I have old Beakey, a friend from Oxford, to thank for this. His uncle, Sir Lawrence Beaker, is in charge of a whole department."
His mother said, "How ideal for you, Basil. Your father always said it was not what you know, but whom you know. A foot in the door is the main thing. You must oil up to this Sir Lawrence Beaker, and you'll advance in your career. You will love working in a museum. All those artifacts and books and things."
"Yes, certainly I look forward to that, eventually."
The ladies exchanged a wary glance. "Does your job not begin at once, Basil?" his mother asked.
"I already have an office and a key, but not to the museum. For the nonce I will be looking after the Elgin Marbles at Burlington House. The government bought them from Lord Elgin, you must know, and they are to be packed up and sent off to the museum, but meanwhile I am their custodian."
"What are the Elgin Marbles, Basil?" Belle asked.
"Why, you must have read about them, Belle! The papers have been full of them. They are adornments, mostly from the Parthenon in Athens, which Lord Elgin retrieved and brought home safe to England. The whole place was blown to bits, for it was used as a powder magazine during some war, and that old Turk, Morosini, went at the statues and what not to carry them away. That was some time ago, however," he said vaguely.
Belle had heard of the Parthenon, but was a little unsteady as to exactly where, and what, it might be. Till she had time to study the matter, she spoke of other things. "And you will be guarding them at Burlington House. How lovely. May we see them?"
"Yes, certainly. You really ought to go and study them."
"May we see your office, too?" she asked. Where Basil spent his days was of more interest to her than marble statues.
His gentle smile revealed a complete understanding of her thoughts. "I have the carriage waiting. I hoped I might induce you to go this afternoon." He remembered Jane, and turned to her. "And you, too, Jane, if you like. And you, Mama..."
Mrs. Pettigrew declined the invitation, but was not loath to have the youngsters out of the house for a few hours, and encouraged the outing. In particular, she urged Jane to chaperon them. Not that she had anything against Belle Halsey, but there was no denying Basil could do better for himself than an undowered orphan with no expectations of future money.
Jane accepted eagerly. She had no intention of letting the two off together, but quite aside from that, she was keen to see the popular Elgin Marbles. She and Belle went for their bonnets and pelisses, and soon the trio was climbing into the carriage for the trip to Burlington House. Jane enjoyed the trot along the Strand and up Haymarket to Piccadilly. The roads were alive with fashionable carriages. Basil even nodded out the window to a few gentlemen, but did not pull the check-string to stop and chat. She noticed with chagrin that masculine heads on the street strained for a glimpse of the pretty blonde by Basil's side. Surely Belle could nab one of them, if only she could get about a little.
Thus far, Belle was only mildly infatuated with Basil. She had been prey to many infatuations already. A more eligible parti could easily divert her attention, if only he showed up soon.
Burlington House was a huge, classical building with many portals. Basil led them to one of the lesser ones and through a tiled archway to his office. It was indeed an impressive sight after the cramped quarters of Catherine Street. Oak wainscoting climbed waist-high, and above it the plastered wall was hung with large old paintings, mainly landscapes by unrecognized artists.
"This is my desk," he said proudly. Belle smiled with interest at the battered piece of lumber, which was large but serviceable.
"And you have a window," she pointed out. He also had a view of ten feet of grass, before another wall rose up to impede the vista.
"And bookcases. I can get my books out of the attic and bring them here," Basil said.
The simple speech reminded Jane most forcefully of how they had taken over his office at home. Basil's new office was complete with a threadbare carpet, drapes, and a few pieces of bric-a-brac. What it did not have, however, was more than two chairs.
"This is very handsome, Basil," Jane said. "Now shall we go and inspect the famous Marbles?"
"Yes, by Jove."
He led them along corridors to the exhibition room, where a goodly crowd was inspecting the artworks. Jane joined the throng, peering over shoulders and around heads to catch a glimpse of the shattered carvings. Her first glimpse was disappointing. She knew the carvings were ancient, but had not thought they would be in such poor repair. Hardly a single figure was intact. If the head was in place, the arms or legs were sure to be missing. She had to use her imagination to fill in the gaps, but certainly the works were beautiful. The frieze, in particular, a procession of the Athenian gods, was in fairly good repair.
While Jane studied it, an elegant young gentleman studied her, marveling that he had nearly refused his brother's request to come here. It was fate, of course, that had arranged the timing of their visit. The Fates loved him, and conspired to bring his wishes to fruition. He wore a smile of simple, pure refinement not unlike one of the Grecian statues. An Attic smile, he would have called it himself, for Lord Romeo was an ardent lover of things Grecian. He had already named Miss Halsey Athene, till he could call her Lady Romeo, for of course he must marry her.