Lady Sally burst into the drawing room and found her daughter, the Honourable Miss Claire Oliver, comfortably ensconced in a deep chair reading. "My dear, I have the most interesting news!" she exclaimed. "I have just come from a chance meeting with Lady Sitch who informs me that we are to have a new rector, a Mr. Bennett. That will mean an addition to our dinner parties!"
"Ah! We shall be gay to dissipation, now, shall we not?" teased Claire, whose experience of the clergy had not led her to expect much from their conversation.
Her irony was not lost on Lady Sally, who laughed and replied, "I did not promise an addition of entertainment to our dinners, but merely of numbers, for it appears that he is a bachelor. So much nicer for us than if he were married, for then we should be obliged to invite his wife, and the two of them would be no addition at all--if you understand me. It was so tedious when our Mr. Twickenham married and we had to support not only his presence but that of his wife. It was too much for your father, an unfair burden, but one couldn't slight them."
"Do you think that Papa will be all that pleased to find a new Mr. Twickenham at his table, married or not?"
"Of course not, my dear, but your father knows his duty, after all. He has promised to call on Mr. Bennett as soon as he is expected to perform that courtesy. And he is well aware of the difficulty in completing a dinner table in our small society. Any newcomer is welcome in some way, especially a single gentleman. He will make a new topic of conversation for those of us who don't get about much. Why, I dare say that Squire Bayless and his good lady have not been more than ten miles from home in the past seven years. Not that your father and I have, either, since he stopped attending the Lords.
"But it will be nice to have someone new, no matter how odious he may turn out to be. If this man is relatively young, and since the living at Garby is a good one, perhaps he will do for your cousin Lydia."
"Oh? And I suppose that Lydia will have nothing to say about it," said Claire in a tone of mock reproach.
"Don't be ridiculous, my dear. You know that the only doubt will be whether Lydia will do for him." And on that practical note, Lady Sally left the room.
Claire was forced to laugh at that uncharitable remark, for her cousin Lydia, though judged a beauty by the standards of the day, had very little to recommend her to the livelier minds in the Oliver family. Lady Sally was quick and gay, with an intelligence that made her slightest utterance a delight to her family. Her high spirits and practical sense made her a good friend, as well as a good parent. Claire's father--Justin Oliver, fifteenth Baron Oliver--was considerably older than his wife. He was well-read and studious, but possessed of a gentle sense of humour which showed how awake he was to every suit. A somewhat retiring gentleman, he took much pleasure in the company of his small family, encouraging the discussion of favourite topics among them. In the absence of a son, he had come to value the companionship of his daughter Claire, in a way unusual for the times--as an intellectual equal--and it had been a source of pride for him to instruct her personally.
She was bright, witty, and alive with interest, and Lord Oliver's efforts had been rewarded with an equal desire on her part to continue her education as much as the available supply of books would allow. Besides her wit, her tendency towards independence and her robust look of good health made her better fit for an earlier time, but in the present year of 1819 she was generally thought to be too tall and slim and healthy-looking--not to mention bookish--to be fashionable. No one could fault her gleaming black hair or her cornflower-blue eyes, but the bloom in her cheeks suggested a strength of constitution that drew condescending remarks from her Aunt Sophia, Lydia's mother.
Sophia Willoughby was the wife of the Honourable Robert >Willoughby, Lady Sally's younger brother. Bobby, as he was called by his sister, if not by his wife, had all of his sister's gaiety and none of her good sense. He had frittered away his modest inheritance on sport, entertainment, and foolish projects, and had been obliged to rent out his estate for a term, until he could come about. His brother, the Earl of Dillingham, had tired of Robert's many vicissitudes and was not disposed to help him again. So it had been arranged for the Willoughbys to let a cottage on Lord Oliver's estate until their fortune should be restored, but as Robert's sense had not noticeably improved since his coming, no one expected a speedy return to the prior status.
The proximity of the Willoughbys had naturally led them to an assumption of intimacy, which the Oliver family would have preferred to live without, particularly because of the difference in temperaments between the female members of the families. Still, the Olivers were determined to carry out their family responsibilities as best they could.
And indeed, Lady Sally and Claire truly pitied Lydia, for it was not expected that that young lady would have much of a dowry when Robert had been so wasteful. Consequently, making a successful match for her daughter had become the urgent occupation of Mrs. Willoughby to the exclusion of all else. In this she was fully justified, for the only alternatives open to Lydia, failing matrimony, were to become a governess or a companion to a relative or some elderly person of fortune--all dismal prospects. The best that could be hoped for her was marriage to a younger son, someone who, having inherited no property, had had to find a living in the Church or the military.
Claire, on the other hand, had a fortune settled upon her of thirty thousand pounds, which had attracted many a prospective husband during her one season in London. However, this competence had allowed her to be more critical of the gentlemen who presented themselves, and her London season had been a disappointment. Accustomed as she was to the easy camaraderie of her parents and their full trust in her judgement, she found that the men she had met in town expected much less of her intellectually and emotionally. The amusements that her mother had described from memories of her own London season, which had stirred much excitement in Claire, were all there, but dismayingly different for many reasons.
The gayness and frivolity had a forced quality, which had not existed even so recently as before Waterloo . The soldiers who had taken part in the recent hostilities had come home to find hard times and a Regent who continued, despite all, to spend sums beyond their wildest imagination on pure pleasure. The year before had seen riots all over London, and in the January of Claire's London season, the Regent had been pelted with stones on his way to open Parliament. Some said he had even been fired upon. Yet that same month he hosted at the Brighton Pavilion a dinner party at which his French chef, Careme, served thirty-six entrees. Though the aristocracy continued to amuse themselves, it was with the French Revolution fresh in their minds, and many lived in expectation of seeing the mob at their doors.
The London of Claire's season, too, had sadly missed the intriguing personalities of recent years. Beau Brummell had left England to escape arrest for debts, taking with him his attractive impudence. And Lord Byron, the Romantic hero, had been forced to choose exile over social ostracism as rumours of his outrageous love life spread. Shock and revulsion had swept society, resulting in a moralizing temper.
Claire's upbringing had not prepared her for the shifting moods of the current society. Women had begun a retreat into ignorance, coyness and oblivion, encouraged by the men into all sorts of affectation. Frequently Claire wished she could have given her chance at a London season to Lydia, who had been schooled in all the requisite manners and who would have valued the opportunity more than she. And she would have offered it to her, but she knew that Lydia's dowry was so small that even a London season would not have brought her a proper offer.
To spare her own parents disappointment, Claire had never let them know that her season had not been ideal. It led her, however, to muse upon the steps she should take regarding her own future now that, at twenty-two, marriage no longer appeared to be likely.
She was interrupted in her reverie by the sound of voices in the hall and the subsequent entry of her Aunt Sophia and Lydia into the drawing room. Their cottage being but a mile away, they came on foot for their frequent calls, though their apparent exertion suggested a much longer trip. They both sat down gingerly on the edges of their chairs.
"Claire, dear," began her aunt, "I must beg some refreshment of you, though more for Lydia than for myself, for she is much too delicate for that walk. I declare, if only Mr. Willoughby could afford to keep a carriage, we should never venture to visit you in this manner."
"Indeed," said Claire, "you should not put yourself to the trouble so frequently if it discomforts you." But she hurried to ask the footman to bring cool drinks because Lydia did look uncomfortably flushed, due, Claire suspected, more to her tight stays than to the delicacy of her constitution or the length of the walk. On returning to the drawing room, she tactlessly remarked upon the colour in her cousin's cheeks, which drew a worried look from her aunt.
"You must be mistaken, child, for I see no evidence of colour. Perhaps just a shade, but you know how hot these afternoons are. I am certain it will pass as soon as we have regained our composure, for you know that few young ladies can boast so fair a complexion as my Lydia."
Lydia, who was only slightly less ruffled than her mother by the offence, said, "Thank you for your concern, cousin, but my mother's attentions to my complexion are such that you need have no fear for it. Indeed she is very particular in her treatments and insists that I drink a certain amount of strong vinegar, and take chalk occasionally--though not at the same time as the vinegar, for that is most uncomfortable."
Mrs. Willoughby looked proudly at her daughter, then turned to Claire. "I recommend these methods to you, niece, since they come from the highest authority on female beauty. They were described in The Ladies' Magazine by Dr. Barnes, a well-respected physician, and he assures that there is no harm in them."
"I am always grateful for your suggestions, my dear aunt, but I meant no disparagement of Lydia 's complexion. Indeed, she has a fairness of which I am certain you must be proud. I meant only to comment that perhaps the heat had been too much for her. But I see that she is quite recovered and the flush is gone."
This speech much gratified her aunt who resumed her normal look of complacency, but it was really intended to turn the conversation away from one of her most favoured topics, which was to discuss why Claire had returned from London two years before without an engagement, in spite of her fortune. As far as Sophia was concerned, the only reason could be Claire's inattention to the cultivation of ladylike qualities, such as a languid pallor, an air of helplessness and a waist nipped in by corseting until all voluntary movement was curtailed, to name but a few. Claire believed in mild exercise for ladies and used no hard stays in her corset, though the gradual return of the waistline to its proper position--now almost complete--had brought them back into style. She considered herself fortunate that a natural slimness permitted her to enjoy greater freedom of movement than her cousin did with her tight corseting.
Her aunt deplored Claire's habits, as well as her refusal to wear even the smallest padding of the bosom, which could be skil3fully used to hide her imperfections from the male eye. Lydia, short--her mother would have said "diminutive"--and plump, needed only tight lacing to be the picture of fashion. Sophia envied Claire her money and position, for had Lydia been blessed with the same fortuitous situation, she would have been dressed to perfection and introduced properly into society.
Lady Sally returned from outdoors, where she had been cutting roses for the drawing room. "Good afternoon, Sophia ...Lydia. I suppose you have heard the news."
"What news is that, Sally?" Sophia asked with interest, as there was not often anything new in the neighbourhood to report.
"Why, that there is to be a new rector for Garby parish! Lady Sitch informed me of his expected arrival just this morning, though I have not heard much more. His name is Bennett and I know that he was at Oxford. She did not have time to say more."
"Is there a Mrs. Bennett?" asked Sophia, going straight to the essentials.
"No, isn't it fortunate? Not that I want the poor gentleman to be lonely, but it is always so pleasant to speculate upon the appearance and the qualities of a single man before one meets him," said Lady Sally mischievously.
Claire decided not to add that one was almost inevitably disappointed, considering the plans her mother had in mind for the new Mr. Bennett.
Mrs. Willoughby frowned slightly and stiffened, but merely because she considered this to be a frivolous treatment of the clergy, whom she held in the greatest respect and thought above all open speculation. "I will encourage Mr. Willoughby to call upon him as soon as possible, for I am certain that he will want to cultivate the association. I always say that there is nothing so inspiring to proper behaviour as frequent association with men of the cloth. They must be and are a continual source of enlightenment to those of us who are not in that state of grace which they command."
Lady Sally, who did not in the least believe that her brother would welcome the association, hastened to agree and to change the subject, knowing that her sister-in-law's only enjoyment in her marriage--perhaps her reason for marrying--had been the romantic notion of improving her husband. She intended to be his conscience and his inspiration, and indeed was the only evidence of either in Bobby.
The conversation took a more general turn until Mrs. Willoughby noticed the book her niece had put down.
"What is that you were reading, Claire?"
"It is merely a treatise on the principles of morals in legislation," she replied, readying herself for battle. "It was written by Mr. Jeremy Bentham."
Her aunt was shocked. "Sally, I wonder that you should consider that an appropriate study for a young lady," attacked her aunt, pleading to what she thought a mother's finer feelings.
"My husband has found Mr. Bentham's writing very comfortable reading, Sophia, so I do not think you need fear for Claire. It is not likely to lead to brain fever. Besides, Claire is a woman now and must be trusted to use her own judgement about what to read."
"At times I think you are far too liberal a parent, Sally, though I am sure you mean well. I am still not convinced that such reading is not harmful!" An alarming thought occurred to her and she turned to Claire. "You are not reading that after consuming a large meal?" she exclaimed.
Claire assured her that she had only lightly partaken of luncheon, immediately seeing the association in her aunt's mind. Serious mental exercise was thought to be dangerous after a heavy meal.
Somewhat mollified, Sophia continued, "I might suggest to you, Sally, some other occupations for Claire, which are thought to be more suitable for a young lady. Conchology, for example, is unexceptionable. Lydia enjoys it so. Some of the things she is adorning with shells are quite attractive--covered boxes, reticules, even lamps!"
Claire, who thought no occupation more uninspiring than gluing little shells to boxes, felt a cloud of depression settle upon her. She knew perfectly well that her mother would ridicule the idea as much as she, but it was still lowering to feel that the rest of the world, as exemplified by her aunt, expected her to spend her time in such a manner.
Sophia, seeing the rejection in Claire's face, tried to interest her in improving her needlework. But Lady Sally deftly managed to turn the conversation again to Lydia, who had been sitting, as usual, in dutiful silence while her mother pontificated on her favourite theme, and Claire was once more spared the need to reply. She had noticed during the past year that her aunt was taking more of an interest in her welfare--indeed seemed quite concerned on her account. She must think her a hopeless case, destined to be an old maid.
Lydia, as a topic of conversation, soon being exhausted, the ladies fell back on the most consuming news the county had enjoyed for many years--the extensive rebuilding of Lord Sitch's estate. The Earl of Sitch, having come into large amounts of new money when coal was discovered under his property in Wales, had undertaken a modernization of his once charming manor. The result was unrecognizable. Not only was the present house three times the size of the former, but it also had taken on the appearance of a medieval castle, complete with battlements adorning the front. The work had been going on for two years and was nearing completion.
"I suppose we will soon be receiving cards for a great unveiling, a ball or some such," said Lady Sally. "Really, it will be quite exciting to see the changes."
"Yes, the moat will be completed soon. Lady Sitch informed me that it is the last major improvement before the garden is laid out," contributed her sister-inlaw.
"The moat?" questioned Lady Sally and Claire in unison, disbelief in their tones.
"Yes, of course the moat," asserted Sophia defensively. "At least, a partial moat. The architect added it after the original plans were made, I understand. A charming notion, in my opinion."
Lady Sally could not let this pass. "I fail to see the necessity for a moat in this day and age, Sophia. Surely Lord Sitch does not expect a baron, such as my husband, to rise up and lay siege to his household."
At this, Lydia and her mother laughed affectionately. "Nonsense, my dear sister! The moat is purely decorative. It does not even completely encircle the castle. The whole spirit of the improvement is one of the Gothic period. The addition of the great hall will show this, I believe. The effect will be reminiscent of one's noblest ancestors."
Lady Sally looked at her and exclaimed in shocked tones, "The Goths! Surely not, Sophia! "
Claire had to turn away to smother a smile. Lydia looked confused. And Sophia, momentarily disconcerted, recovered with an air of briskness.
"Don't be silly, Sally. Of course, I do not mean the Goths. I was speaking of our ancestors to whom we owe the building of our great cathedrals."
Claire's expression told her mother that what Sophia Willoughby knew about any of those people could be stated in one sentence. Of the nobility of the earl's ancestors, too, she had doubts, since the title had originated only in the past century. That small problem, however, had been addressed. Lord Sitch, who was on the fringe of the Carlton House set, was to be honoured by his "dear friend" the Prince Regent with a new family name--Sitchville--which, it was hoped, would give the impression that his ancestors came over with the Conqueror.
"The moat," Sophia continued, "will be seen from all the public rooms along the front of the house. To cross it, one must use an adorable little drawbridge, which does not rise, however. I am merely repeating what dear Lady Sitch--or I should say--Sitchville?--was kind enough to describe to me," Sophia concluded, reading disbelief on her listeners' faces.
"I am certain you are right, Sophia," Lady Sally assured her, taking pity. "It is just that I am sadly out of fashion, it seems. I fail to see the need for such changes. I confess I was rather attached to the old manor house. It held many pleasant memories for me. I can recall attending balls there since I was a girl. Indeed, it was there I met your father, Claire."
"We must not stand in the way of progress, Sally," said her sister-in-law with a condescending smile, for she did consider her in-laws to be dismally old-fashioned in their views.
"No, indeed, that would never do," added Lady Sally in her most pleasant, if insincere, voice. "My chief interests in the entire project, I confess, will be the kitchens, the servants' quarters, and the conveniences, which I expect will be truly magnificent and up-to-date, and, therefore, most instructive. In that respect, I think Lord Sitch will have done something to benefit all of us who live retired in the country. We have no other opportunity to learn about the improvements modern science has achieved, but Lord Sitch's frequent trips to London will have educated him in these matters."
In this, Mrs. Willoughby could not acquiesce quickly enough, as she always did when the Sitchvilles were praised. And her respect for them was genuine, since in addition to their position in society, which she naturally respected, they appeared to believe in and uphold all the most recent social values. Lady Sitchville and she were true soul-mates, she was certain, and only the disparity in their fortunes kept them from being the closest of friends.
Presently the Willoughby ladies rose to go, and, with the air of speeding the parting guests, Lady Sally preceded them to the door. To Claire's consternation, her aunt held back to have a private word with her. She took a piece of paper out of her reticule, and with modestly lowered eyes and a real blush on her cheeks, held it out to Claire.
"Niece, I know you will forgive me for touching on this most personal subject," she said hesitantly, obviously in acute embarrassment, "for you know that my concern for you is constant and of the most affectionate kind. This is a little secret that I think might be of benefit to you. It was confided to me many years ago by someone in whom I have the utmost confidence. I have been most assiduous in encouraging Lydia with her applications, with you see what result, though this must be between us." She raised her eyes briefly to Claire's bemused face, touched the hand that now held the paper, and said, "Do not thank me, my dear. There will be no need to mention it again." With this, she nearly fled from the room.
With a sense of dread, Claire opened the paper and read. Her worst suspicions were confirmed when she saw what was enclosed.
"The following preparation, very softly rubbed upon the bosom for five or ten minutes, two or three times a day, will promote its growth.
Tincture of Myrrh 1/2 oz.
Pimpernel Water 4 oz.
Elder-Flower Water 4 oz.
Musk 1 gr.
Rectified Spirit of Wine 6 oz."
Intense colour infused Claire's face, but not from embarrassment. When Lady Sally returned to the parlour, she was surprised to find her daughter, pacing the floor at an alarmingly unladylike pace. Her hands were pressed to her cheeks, and she was making a noise rather like a steam whistle.
"My love, what is the matter?" Lady Sally cried.
Claire thrust the paper at her and continued her pacing. "Really, Mother," she replied at last, "she has gone too far this time. I have had quite enough of her ... concern." Claire spoke this last word with scorn.
Lady Sally quickly scanned the sheet of paper, then collapsed into an armchair in giggles. When she was able to control herself to a reasonable degree, she confronted her daughter's dagger-like glare.
"My poor, precious dear," she said lovingly. "You must not allow her to get to you this way. The truly ridiculous thing about it is that she does mean to be of help to you. She honestly thinks these matters are of as much concern to you as they are to herself, and by all reckoning they must be thought to consume her!"
"But it is all so insulting! Chalk for my face. Lemon juice and vinegar for my hands. Deer fat on my limbs. Now this! Why doesn't she just tell me I look like a cow and have done with it?"
"Because you don't look like a cow, you silly girl. She doesn't realize that you find this insulting, because she knows you to be a very attractive young woman. She just enjoys talking about these things to the exclusion of anything else. Also, as we both are unfortunately aware, every ladies' magazine for the past many years has been full of just such nonsense, and short, plump figures such as Lydia 's are just the thing. The Willoughby women don't have much to boast about, so let them have this one small matter for pride. If you ask me, though, I would have to say that I don't think men care tuppence for half the things the magazines say they do. And imagine some young man's surprise on his wedding night to find that half of what he thought was his fianc�e is only so much padding!"
Claire had to laugh. "Excellent! I must point that out to Aunt Sophia."
"You wicked girl! You will do nothing of the kind," shrieked Lady Sally. "She would be horrified to think I spoke to you of such a thing. You must never give me away or we shall have no peace around here." Then, seeing that she had restored her daughter to her customary good humour, she went off to confer with the cook about menus, leaving Claire to her thoughts.