A Confined and Unvarying Society
"But people themselves alter so much, that there is something new to be observed in them for ever."
Pride and Prejudice, Volume One, chapter IX
Happy for Mrs. Goulding was the day that the two Miss Bennets of Longbourn House wed their respective gentlemen. This was not due to any feelings of loyalty to Mrs. Bennet; nor was it because Mrs. Goulding had ever felt maternally competitive on her daughter's behalf. It was simply because she could not have borne another conversation with Mrs. Bennet, upon the illustrious topic of her daughters and their lovers.
This singular theme had been much ruminated upon by the mistress of Longbourn in the preceding months; Miss Bennet and Bingley, Miss Lydia and Wickham, and (eventually) Miss Elizabeth and Darcy - Mrs. Goulding had listened to a continual commentary on each relationship all autumn and winter. It was thus with more than a sigh of relief that she and her husband attended the wedding breakfast at Longbourn that December.
"How well Mrs. Bennet looked," observed Mrs. Goulding to her husband as they journeyed home. The nature of the event had improved her mood, and she was feeling especially benevolent. "But then she has had rather a trying time of late."
Mr. Goulding made no vocal reply, but nodded sleepily and rested his head against the carriage window. No reply was necessary however, for Mrs. Goulding needed no assurance regarding her opinions of others' appearance. It was well known to her family and friends that the first notice she would take of a person would be (chronologically) their complexion, hair style, and finally their clothing. Such observations, Mrs. Goulding often declared, were necessary in unraveling vital clues about a person, and she made it a pleasure to guess, like some intrepid detector, any number of details concerning an individual. A tanned countenance ("most unattractive!") suggested that a person had traveled recently; a tightly laced corset revealed that the wearer was either corpulent or with child; and a profusion of face powder frequently hid a floridity stemming from the evil effects of alcohol. All of these details were a delight to conjecture, and could then be confirmed by a thorough interrogation of the subject. The veneer of fashion and apparel was therefore of constant amusement to Mrs. Goulding, whose own face was made up accordingly (with malodorous and expensive cosmetics), to likewise present her ideal self as she saw it - youthful, charismatic, and ultimately intriguing.
It took the whole journey back to Haye Park (a full five miles) for Mrs. Goulding to conclude her findings of the day - not least that Mr.. Bingley's Yorkshire roots could be confirmed through his apparent fondness for tweed. Mr.. Goulding awoke at the mention of Yorkshire, and asserted that the gentleman did indeed have connexions in the North.
"Of course he has, Charles," preened his wife. "I knew as soon as I saw those jackets of his when he was visiting Meryton. Now - do you think William will be here yet?"
William - the only son and heir to Haye Park - was not at home yet. His journey from London had been delayed by an "errand," as a footman termed it when questioned. Miss Claire Goulding however, appeared in the front hall as soon as her parents arrived. Her attendance at Longbourn had been prevented by a head cold, and Mrs. Goulding (who had a holy horror of the sick and infectious) had insisted that she remain confined to the house to convalesce. Claire had been watching for her parents' return from her chamber and had run down, book in hand, to greet them:
"Was the wedding beautiful, Mama? Did Miss Bennet look very handsome in her gown?"
"It was all perfectly adequate, Claire, although Mrs. Bennet's soup is not nearly as good as she claims. Were you reading again? What nonsense is it this time?"
"Poetry. 'A Beautiful Young Nymph going to Bed.' It is about a woman who . . ."
"That sounds exquisite, dear. Now where could your brother be - how cruel to make us wait like this!"
Mrs. Goulding flounced into the sitting room and flung herself on the sopha, leaving her daughter still standing in the hall, more questions hovering on her tongue. A sudden pull at her arm made Claire look down to see her father's hand clasping her sleeve.
"Come, Claire, play at whist with me until William arrives. Surely you would not leave your father with nothing to do?"
With a serene smile, but exasperation directed at her family burning in her heart, Claire allowed herself to be seated at the card table by the window, as the deck was cut and the cards dealt out.
The Goulding family was a fairly new one in Hertfordshire; the present master of Haye Park had come from Liverpool, where Mr.. Goulding senior (Claire's grandfather) had amassed a considerable fortune in trade. This august man had built Haye Park as a tribute - to his success, undeniably, but also as a token of love for his beloved wife, also named Claire. This earlier Mrs. Goulding held a noteworthy place in the family tree. She had produced two robust sons, and then had proceeded to involve herself in every accomplishment that was unusual and marvelous. She had learned to shoot pistols, but refused to ride. She swam once in the sea at Brighton, but without the aid of a bathing machine. She employed a formidable chef at Haye Park, but (most unusually of all), she herself was a copious producer of delicate sweets and confectionery, as well as herbal medicines. Whenever the mood took her, she would don an apron and go into her work room for several hours. In this specially built room were saucepans and a small range for her to prepare fondants when there was a special occasion. Far from being regarded as vulgar by the general populace, Mrs. Claire Goulding's name was mentioned not infrequently as a great and talented lady; renowned for her charm and wit, and cherished for her benevolence and charity.
She had lived only several months, though, after the birth of her granddaughter and namesake. The young Miss Claire could recall nothing of her grandmother's person - she existed now at Haye Park as a faint scent of lavender on her wedding dress (stored in a trunk somewhere) or as an elegant, sloping hand on an aged letter or two. The old work room had been converted into the present Mrs. Goulding's sewing room, in which were strewn tattered and incomplete tapestries and knitting.
Claire could not recall her grandmother, but she had two items in her possession that afforded her much amusement and solace when there was nothing else to occupy her. The first was a portrait of her grandmother, only small, which hung in Claire's chamber. The grandmother had indeed been lovely; her hair was dark blonde, and she green eyes and pink cheeks with a hint of freckles about her nose and shoulders - this was not unlike her granddaughter herself, although the young Claire was too humble to have admitted any such thing. Whenever her mother was indisposed (which in truth was often), the picture served as a visual alternative, and although it never spoke or moved, the portrait of Claire's grandmother was a fixed and comforting presence.
The second item in Claire's possession was a collection of journals belonging to the late Mrs. Goulding. They contained nothing personal or anything relating to her everyday life. Instead, they listed every recipe ever made or contemplated in the work room, including various tonics and remedies Mrs. Goulding had found effective. The present Mrs. Goulding had bequeathed them to Claire when she was sixteen - not because they had been set aside as a sentimental heirloom, but because they had been found in a drawer in the work room, and (without looking inside) she had felt that "the girl might have some use of them."
Claire had indeed found use of them; taught only rudimentary spelling and letters, she had gleaned from her grandmother's work some Latin, the art of accounting better than she would ever need, and enough recipes to never want for any food again. She was not allowed to make any confectionery - her mother regarded cooking as a servants' task - but by taking walks in the vicinity, Claire could, after three months' study, identify most flowers and herbs needed for medicinal relief. She had, moreover, acquired secretly a small still-room near the servant's quarters, where she kept her gleaned ingredients and tools. By the time this story commences, Claire was in possession of a small pestle and mortar, a double boiler and a large crate containing syrups and juices concocted from her grandmother's journals. Her skills were never put to good use but on lazy afternoons, they distracted Claire's mind from the inimitable monotony of Haye Park.
Claire played whist with her father until three o'clock in the afternoon, when she excused herself and went into the library to read. Her brother's arrival disturbed her study, however, heralded by the cries of joy from Mrs. Goulding at the door. When Claire emerged from the connecting door, William was standing in the hall, clasping his mother's hand tight, and beaming.
"And I told Jones he would simply have to wait, as my Mama required my urgent attention in Hertfordshire!"
Mrs. Goulding crowed with delight, and kissed her son lovingly on the cheek.
"Dear William! Is he not a good son, Mr. Goulding? Claire! Greet your brother properly."
Wondering how he could have the temerity to be over an hour late, Claire nonetheless kissed her brother, who said he was very pleased to see his young sister again, and then turned his attention back to the apparent health of his mother. Not feeling disappointed in the slightest, Claire stood to one side and observed the change in William since he had last come to Haye Park.
He was undoubtedly fuller around the waist; had he been tall, he might have seemed stocky or strongly built. Unfortunately, his measurements had not increased vertically, and he looked extremely plump. His hair was longer and a little more unkempt than usual and Claire wondered with a smile whether there were any barbers in London. His manner of speaking to his mother had not changed - flattering and complimenting her whenever possible, but did he seem louder and more animated than usual? At the age of thirty, William had always appeared the very picture of torpor and slovenliness to his sister. London had certainly altered him - but Claire was unsure whether this was to the good or the bad.
Dinner that evening was a vociferous affair. William insisted on regaling his relations with every ball, every card game and every illegal cock fight he had attended. His parents listened in raptures whilst their son overloaded his stories with superlatives concerning his own deeds, stopping only to eye the table for any dish that he had not yet helped himself to. Claire raised her eyebrows when a lady's name was mentioned in a toast but said nothing.
"I am sure you were the apple of every lady's eye in town, William," said his mother admiringly.
"I suppose so, Mother," agreed the son, chewing on a chicken bone. "But then I always did enjoy myself most with a pretty girl on my arm." Mr. Goulding, who had been slurping at some broth, raised his glass at this.
"Do you remember Miss Lydia Bennet?" continued William with a smirk. "I saw her not days after her marriage to that foppish soldier, and I must say it was an awkward experience, by God! I stopped (I was in that old curricle) and she let down the glass to talk to me. She smiled and tried so hard to look joyous, poor lady. She even placed her hand deliberately so that I could see her wedding ring - she was clearly regretting marrying such a cad."
"Indeed, my love," murmured Mrs. Goulding. "I hear they are in Newcastle at present, and to think! She could have wed you, and be living in London by now!"
One might assume that, with two unmarried children at the table, the conversation might turn to the second after discussing the first. Claire was realistic though, and expected no such attentions regarding herself or any potential lovers. Gentlemen were a rare breed in this county, and the arrival of an eligible bachelor was an utter phenomenon. Claire thought of Jane and Elizabeth Bennet, whom she knew as passing acquaintances, and envied them deeply their escape.
"Did I tell you that I called upon Aunt Trent?" William was saying, now with a mouthful of fish. "Well, it was really she who called on me at the inn."
"Ah, yes. I read your letter," came Mr. Goulding's voice at the allusion to his sister-in-law. "And is she in good health?"
"Well enough, I am sure. She sends her regards to you both. And to you Claire, of course." William reached for his glass and drank the contents down. "Oh, I invited Cousin Elspeth to Haye this Monday."
"Monday!" screeched Mrs. Goulding. "But William dear, that is tomorrow!"
"Is it?" William replied absently, as his attention was now focused on the second course, marked by the entrance at that point of a whole side of pork.
"Of course it is! Oh dear, why did you not say earlier? Nothing is ready for a guest. Claire - go and speak to Mrs. Parry at once. Charles, fill me a glass, I feel quite faint."
Leaving her plate gratefully, Claire stood up and left the dining room. In less than two minutes, she had found Mrs. Parry, the housekeeper, in the pantry and had arranged for the guest chamber to be prepared immediately. She also asked that a side of beef be made ready for tomorrow's meal. With perfect calm, she pulled her shawl around her and ascended the stairs to her own bedroom, her mother's lamentations following her until she shut the door with a resounding bang.
Mr. Goulding's brother - Claire's uncle - had been a sailor in His Majesty's navy, and regrettably, Claire had seen very little of him as a child. When he was not actively employed, he and his wife had lived on the coast, making sporadic visits to Haye Park. His death - in the Trafalgar action, no less - had been a bitter blow to his widow, of whom he had been extremely fond. He left ample money (won predominantly at sea) to provide for her and their daughter Elspeth. In fact, this daughter had been left a considerable sum for her marriage, being the favourite object of the late Captain.
Elspeth Trent was two years older than her cousin Claire, and in her eighteen years, had visited most of the great cities of England, and the capitals of both Ireland and Wales. Born in Portsmouth, she had lived in Lyme Regis and Dover with her mother, before finally settling near Rochester in Kent after her father's death. Such an interesting and varied life naturally has its effects, and Claire was fascinated by her cousin's tales of the coastal towns and compared them always with her bucolic life at Haye with chagrin. Moreover, Elspeth was immensely beautiful, and the sort of young woman whom one always thinks of in terms of poetry:
'And all that's best of dark and bright,
Meets in her aspect and her eyes.'
This beautiful and well-travelled relation arrived at Haye Park at two o'clock the following day, in a post-chaise filled with band boxes and trunks. She emerged from the carriage like an exotic bird. She wore a blue and white striped gown that billowed around her ankles; on her feet were tiny slippers, which were tied with ribbons; these in turn matched her blue pelisse. On her head was a dark blue bonnet with satin trimmings, the like of which Claire had never seen in the drapers' at Meryton. When Elspeth spied Claire standing on the drive shivering, she smiled and opened her arms wide.
"Dearest Claire! What ever are you doing out here in the cold? I do not need shepherding inside, even if I have brought four trunks with me. Kiss me and let's go inside!"
Claire complied, and they walked in together, arm in arm, Elspeth standing a good six inches taller than her cousin. They removed Elspeth's travelling garments and then went up to the guest room, which had been prepared under Claire's sole guidance. Elspeth immediately moved towards the wash stand to refresh herself.
"Where are my aunt and uncle?" she asked splashing water on her face.
"Papa is on the back lawn playing solitaire, and Mama and William are writing a letter to your mother in the library," Claire replied, sitting on the bed and sighing.
"Oh, Lord! He threatened to come here when we visited him in town; I had hoped that he would change his mind," exclaimed Elspeth, rubbing her face with a towel, and unpinning her hair.
"He arrived last night. Did he not tell you for certain?"
"Dear, if I knew he would be here, I would have delayed my visit. No offence intended to you, dearest. But still . . ." Elspeth took a brush from the dressing table and began to vigorously brush her black hair. "You know Claire, I was quite shocked when we went to see William in London; Mama was too. He seemed so uncouth. He was entertaining the most ill-mannered gentleman as well. I really was disgusted to call him cousin."
"Well, he is to go back to town soon, I believe, and then we shall have all sorts of fun by ourselves," Claire answered, standing up and putting her arms around her cousin's neck.
"Is he going back to London?" asked Elspeth, starting and looking up at Claire. "Do not your parents mind?"
"Why should they mind? Elspeth?" Claire's heart leaped, for Elspeth had bit her lip and suddenly looked embarrassed.
"Nothing, dearest. Now hand me my pins, and we shall try and make me look presentable."
Breakfast was traditionally served at ten o'clock at Haye Park, after Mrs. Goulding had written her letters. Following this meal, the kitchen was usually kept busy with various requests for food throughout the morning. William invariably required some cold meat or pork pie, especially if he was going out, and Mr. Goulding usually joined him in the dining room. The women, however, kept to the tradition of a luncheon, served between one and three o'clock, and sandwiches and other delicacies were made available in a small breakfast room at the back of the house. Claire was usually satisfied with these refreshments, but sometimes was left feeling hungrier still, not least when William was present to finish off any stray victuals.
And so, after refreshing themselves at their toilette, Claire and Elspeth descended at the appropriate time to the breakfast room. Rather than seeing the room habited by their relations, however, the room was empty save for the table laid with crockery. Intrigued, Claire and her cousin made their way into the sitting room, where there was a sight worthy of any farcical play at the Haymarket.
Mr. Goulding sat in the armchair by the fire, still as a statue, his eyes locked on a letter, whose seal had been broken. William stood at the mantel, trying to appear casual, but his glance every so often at the letter read by his father suggested utter panic and shame. Mrs. Goulding completed the tableau. She was lying prostrate on the sopha, her head buried in a cushion, and she was sobbing violently. Claire and Elspeth rushed to her instantly and attempted to soothe her. Looking up and seeing her niece made Mrs. Goulding pause long enough to gulp a greeting, and this gave Claire the chance to question her father.
"Ask William," murmured Mr. Goulding bitterly, his eyes still on the letter. Claire's stare switched accusingly to her brother who shrugged:
"I received a letter from an acquaintance in London and it seems, although Father is glancing over it to be certain . . . that I left without settling a very small debt . . ."
"Three hundred pounds is the debt, sir!" roared Mr. Goulding suddenly, flying out of his chair and throwing the letter at his son's feet. "And now this man wants payment!"
Mrs. Goulding let out a fresh wail from the sopha and Elspeth applied a hand to her back to steady the woman.
"My son has fallen in with varlets!" shrieked Mrs. Goulding. "I knew this would happen, I told you, Charles, that he would be corrupted if he went to London, but you would not listen! And now he will be menaced and his looks will be ruined forever!"
At this, William moved timidly from the mantel towards his mother, and muttered, "Now Mama, no one will menace me, and my looks will be as good as ever."
Upon hearing this, Elspeth stood up, grabbed William by the arm and glared at him furiously.
"This is no trivial matter, William - I cannot impress that on you enough. How can you say such petty things when your mother and father are reduced to such a state?" She gestured at Mr. Goulding, who had sank back into his chair and was rubbing his head in exasperation. Elspeth shook William hard and he winced.
"I thought you foolish when I saw you in town, and Mama said you must be in some debt to live as you have been. But three hundred pounds, cousin! That is nearly ten years wages to some - not that that means the slightest to you, I am sure." She released William and smoothed her dress. "Now Claire - what exactly does this letter say?"
Claire had retrieved the letter from the floor, where William had trampled it when he had moved towards the sopha. She had been perusing its contents for several moments, and looked up when Elspeth spoke.
"The gentleman's name is Mr. Henry Carver. According to his letter, the debt is the result of several wagers and transactions between himself and my brother, which were entered into at the start of the month. He has been put off several times, and he believed William was still in town until the day before yesterday. After enquiring of his whereabouts, he wrote this letter to request immediate payment."
"I simply do not understand how he found out where I live," frowned William, shrugging again.
"He asked your landlord at the inn for the name and exact location of your residence in the country," read Claire, looking up at William with an unsympathetic look.
"Well," said Mr. Goulding suddenly, now sufficiently composed. "This Mr. Carver will have to be paid. I shall see to it immediately." And he set off in the direction of the library. Elspeth's protests suspended in her mouth, and she glowered at William.
"What a cowardly act," she hissed. "I suppose your father will require no reimbursement. But at what price have your debts been settled, William?"
William looked confused, and so Elspeth ordered him to escort his mother up to her room, where some food would be soon brought to her. Once this was done, Elspeth sat down and put her head in her hands.
"Ah, I am glad I have no brothers, dearest . . .Claire?"
Claire had been reading on from the aforesaid paragraph, and had turned a bright and panicked pink. She folded up the paper and, after placing it on the desk, folded her arms.
"Mr. Carver added a postscript, begging my mother's pardon and announcing that he would be calling upon us at Haye Park in due course to settle his debt in person."
Elspeth blanched and reached over to snatch the letter from the desk. As she read it with eyes wide, Claire pulled the bell for Mrs. Parry. Another guest would need to be accommodated.
The following days were cold and grey outside; the atmosphere at Haye Park was equally cool. Mrs. Goulding kept to her room, calling frequently for medicinal glasses of wine. Claire herself brought these to her mother, and administered them with a small amount of valerian in order to sedate her mother somewhat. Mr. Goulding barely spoke to his son, and only to inform him that he had prepared the capital ready for Mr. Carver, who was due to arrive the day after Boxing Day.
Elspeth and Claire therefore had ample time to spend together. The weather was cold and icy, so walking in the parkland was out of the question. Instead, they curled up in the sitting room together, each wearing a shawl or two, with the tea caddy to hand ready for their four o'clock cup of hot tea.
"And so you suspected William of being in financial difficulty?" asked Claire, on Christmas Day, after their melancholy breakfast.
"Mama and I were agreed as soon as we had seen him; there was definitely something not quite right. He had not been to see us, even though we had been in town for several weeks. And of course, one hears things in certain circles. But such a large sum of money; I cannot wonder that Mr. Carver is so indignant at William's desertion."
Claire silently agreed. She too had been mortified by the ignominy of her brother, and only slightly surprised that her father had so readily provided the means to pay off the debt. It was indeed, a misfortune to have such a imprudent and heedless relation; more particularly for her was it misfortunate, for it seemed that her mother was ignorant of the true cause of William's debts. She insisted that he had somehow been led astray, and had been forced into these wagers and dealings - such underhand transactions and vulgarities were not in the nature of her beloved son. Claire's smiles had faded after several repetitions of such views; she pitied her mother for believing such nonsense, and resented her brother for doing nothing to correct her.
With much trepidation was Claire also waiting for the arrival of Mr. Carver. She had had very little contact with young men, and none at all in such difficult circumstances. She had danced once with Mr. Bingley at a ball at Netherfield, but that was quite eleven months ago. Her father had forbade her to become acquainted with the young officers when the militia had been encamped at Meryton, and her brother had never introduced her to any of his own friends. Ironically, she learned from William that until the debt had lapsed, Mr. Carver had been a reasonably good friend and might at some point have been introduced to the family properly. Even Elspeth had conceded that although ill-mannered, Mr. Carver was "a handsome young gentleman." No word could be sent to him, as he was travelling at present. Elspeth interrogated William and discovered through her catechizing that Mr. Carver was the eldest son of a landowning family from Warwickshire; that he had no siblings, and only a mother living on his estate near Kenilworth.
And so Claire began to feel increasingly nervous and inconsequential as Boxing Day came and went. She tried to study her grandmother's journals, but to no avail. Her mind was fixed upon the arrival of this young man. Supposing he did threaten William, and he was harmed? In her present temper, she could well understand anyone wanting to strike her brother, even without good reason. Nonetheless, Claire should have been very sorry to witness such an atrocity. She instructed Mrs. Parry to have a room ready, just in case Mr. Carver needed to be appeased or accommodated in any way.
The morning he was due to arrive, Claire and Elspeth busied themselves in the work room sewing shirts. With each meticulous stitch they listened in vain for a sound that would confirm his arrival. It was some time before noon that they heard the crunch of gravel on the drive, and the masculine stomp of boots in the hall. He had arrived.
The girls remained where they were for fifteen minutes, until they were sent for. When they entered the sitting room, Claire was shocked. Her parents were seated together on the sopha, watching William shake hands with an incredibly tall young man. Claire guessed that he was around seven or eight and twenty, and silently agreed with Elspeth's earlier statement. He had a very handsome countenance, with a determined jaw and clear brown eyes half hidden under a crop of curly blonde hair. His expression would have improved, she added mentally, if he would cease frowning as though his head were about to split in two. When the door opened, he and William turned and bowed politely.
"Claire, Elspeth - all is settled. We have made our peace with Henry here, and you ladies are not to be frightened any more!" William's face was triumphant, but Elspeth clenched her fists and scowled.
"You have been . . . obliging, William, but I shall leave you now in peace. Mr. Goulding, Mrs. Goulding - I have trespassed too long in your home. With your leave . . ." His voice was strong and clear, with a deep note of confidence that mesmerised Claire. She saw her father stand up and offer his hand to shake.
"I reproach you with nothing, Mr. Carver, and I am only sorry that this whole business took place." A look was darted at William, who cowered. "And now, may I invite you to stay a few days with us, to rest yourself after the inconvenience you have suffered. It really is the least we could do."
Elspeth looked appalled, and so did her aunt. William however, brightened, and repeated his father's request. After some urging from both men, Mr. Carver agreed, but consented to stay only a week, so that he could return to London as soon as possible.
Twenty four hours ago, Claire would have been overcome at the prospect of Mr. Carver's presence in the house for more than a day, let alone a week. Now that she had met him however, she was no longer so concerned. He still petrified her - he was so tall, so cold and distant - but there was now something else there that intrigued her and made her eager to see him and hear him speak. As the family sat in the parlour, making idle conversation, he answered Mrs. Goulding's questions civilly, and Claire became enraptured. He spoke of life in London, and his travels in Italy as a youth; he implied that he was patriotic, and yet to Claire, he could not have been less foreign had he been born in the East Indies. This was a different kind of exotic creature, in contrast to Cousin Elspeth's tales of English coastal life. A young man (quite nine years older than she) who was knowledgeable, clever and sophisticated, he had literally travelled beyond Claire's scope of understanding, and she was, quite honestly, dazzled by him.
Unfortunately, the evening did not progress with all of the dignity that Claire had hoped would be displayed by her in her turn. Mrs. Goulding recalled soon after that the Wards of Purvis Lodge were hosting a musical evening, and that they had all promised to attend. Mr. Carver immediately announced that he could stay behind at Haye, but Mr. Goulding refuted this, eagerly proclaiming that he was in no mood for a gathering, and that William should escort the ladies. William, who disliked the idea of being solely responsible for his female relations all night, railed, and he immediately dispatched a message to the Wards, asking if Mr. Carver could be included in the invitation. The footman quickly returned with a message in the affirmative, and the group prepared to attend with zeal.
It was William ( now full of joy at the opportunity of showing off to his friend) who suggested that they go by foot; Purvis Lodge was less that half a mile away, outside the village of Hamswell, and since the weather was by now much improved, it might be beneficial for Mr. Carver to enjoy the surrounding area in this way. Elspeth observed that it would soon become dark and cold, to which William replied with levity that a lantern could accompany them. The ladies, moreover, could wear cloaks to keep warm.
The party set off from Haye Park whilst it was still dusk. Mr. Carver walked ahead, having been given directions and furnished with a large lantern. Following him was Mrs. Goulding, Elspeth and Claire - all clad in red serge cloaks which flapped in the wind. Several yards behind, and already pink in the face (as much with exertion as with the chilly air) came William, breathless, but still attempting to make conversation.
"I say Carver . . . this really is a d__ed pretty spot. You and I . . . must shoot here some time. Don't worry . . .Ward has plenty . . . of good wine at Purvis Lodge . . . I say, is that a stile ahead of us there?"
William's eyes, unlike the rest of his body, were in perfect order, and there was indeed a tremendous stile before them. The ladies all exclaimed loudly, until Mr. Carver turned and addressed William.
"Really, Goulding, we had better go back. Our companions cannot possibly climb over that stile."
"Do not be so pessimistic, Henry," puffed William, who had by now reached the others, and was clutching his chest. "I have walked this way many times over the years." He pointed and giggled. "You town folk are simply too unfit for words."
And with that, he ran suddenly at the stile, and, to everyone's surprise, heaved himself over the stile with a grunt and landed with a leaden thud on other side, looking extremely pleased with himself.
"See, now who is next?"
With a sigh, Elspeth stepped forwards and, with a sweeping, graceful movement, lifted her cloak and swung her body over. She dropped down next to William, who looked rather put out, and muttered under his breath that at least he had trained with Gentleman Jackson in London.
"Now Mama," he called back over the stile, "you are next. Come, come! I shall catch you."
Mrs. Goulding looked alarmed, but indulging her son's wishes as ever, she approached the stile and clambered over, grabbing William, who lost his balance a little but smiled weakly as his mother brushed herself down.
Claire's heart sank; witness to the clumsy motions and behaviour of her mother and brother, it had now come to her turn, and she was petrified that there was too much Goulding in her to jump over as Elspeth had done. She was horribly conscious of Mr. Carver at her side, and then William suddenly called to his friend to assist his sister. A strong hand was felt at Claire's elbow, and, encouraged thus, she put one foot upon the stile, and then another. Unfortunately, she had not gathered enough of her cloak in her hand, and, stepping on the hem of it, she slipped and fell sideways upon the very person she had rather not. His hat fell off and landed in the nearby ditch, and he scraped his palm on a stone as he landed, much to the lamentation of the party on the other side of the stile
Mr. Carver said nothing however, but helped Claire up and insisting that he was not hurt, suggested that she tried again. Shaking (as much with humiliation as with trepidation), Claire managed to vault over the fence with Mr. Carver's help, and was caught by Elspeth.
Needless to say, the evening was now somewhat marred by the incident, and the group journeyed on to Purvis Lodge in relative silence. Elspeth patted her cousin's hand encouragingly, but Claire was not paying attention, and was instead pondering whether or not Mr. Carver's hand had held her waist more firmly the second time she had climbed over the stile.
Humiliating for Claire were the next few days in the company of Mr. Carver. Keen as she was to be in his company, it seemed that something unfortunate always befell her in his presence. After the calamitous walk to Purvis Lodge on Monday evening, she was reprimanded loudly by her mother for reading in the window-seat with her ankles on display. On Tuesday, Elspeth suggested a horse ride together with the young gentlemen, and Claire prepared herself carefully, only to find that William had sent the fourth horse to work in the field - she trampled back to the house in very low spirits, feeling like the most insignificant being in the world (here Elspeth was kind enough to dismount and follow her cousin back to keep her company).
What was most humiliating was that there seemed to be no escape; Mr. Carver was always there on the horizon, or just around the corner, or descending the staircase. He made no comments within Claire's hearing, but she could no help but feel immature and trivial when he was there.
One of the worst instances in which Mr. Carver was present was when Claire tumbled down the stairs and landed in an ungainly heap on the hall floor. To her mortification, she had been carrying a basket full of wool and thread, and this was still tangled around her when her father came to assist her. She was not physically injured, but only embarrassed by both her clumsiness and her mother's loud declaration that Claire was truly the most inept girl she had ever come across. Mr. Carver was, of course, standing not far away, and seemed to be regarding her with a mixture of uncertainty and incredulity.
It did not occur to Claire that he might feel awkward himself - as a stranger in a house containing a girl who was obviously shy and inexperienced. Instead, she was convinced of his complete disregard for her. She reproached him silently for his reluctance to form any kind of acquaintance, and justified her belief in this tendency by referring to his habit of distancing himself from her when they met. The physical distance between their bodies seemed indeterminable, and Claire was convinced that this was done so purposefully. In truth, it was far from true that Mr. Carver abhorred Claire's society; strangers were, after all, a singularity in the neighbourhood, and the gentleman's novelty, together with the Gouldings' wish to make him amends, meant that entertainment was constantly forced upon him from all sides. Whether he wished to engage Claire's company or not was never apparent, but his occupation at the card table or beside the piano gave the impression (to Claire at least) that he was avoiding her.
The final straw came at dinner on Wednesday at dinner, when William was happily ruminating upon the subject of marriage, after a long and tedious recount of the time he had seen Beau Brummell ("in the street outside White's").
"You see, Henry, I am just waiting for the right woman to come along." He had drunk a fair amount of wine, and his face was a fine scarlet by now.
"And how many women have there been, William?" asked Mr. Carver, with a rare and exquisite grin. Mrs. Goulding smiled indulgently at her son.
"William has courted some very fine girls here in Hertfordshire, Mr. Carver, I assure you. Had not most of the Bennet girls been married off, I feel sure one of them would have done for him. They are poor as church mice, but so pretty for the most part."
"I should not have chosen one of the Bennet girls," scoffed William, scooping a slice of meat pie up and chewing it whole. "Country girls have no attractions for me. Now take my sister there." He waved his knife at Claire, who hunched her shoulders and blushed.
"She's a fine girl, but compare her to the type of girl about town this season. Recall the Miss Lyfords, eh? They danced like angels, and wore clothes that looked like divine robes!"
"I would hardly call the Miss Lyfords goddesses," replied Mr. Carver stiffly, for the atmosphere at the table had become suddenly quiet and ill at ease.
"But my point Henry, is that your average country girl has nothing about her compared to your town girl. If two identical girls of the same age and countenance were put side by side, I could easily pick out the one who dwells in London or Bath. The way she carries herself and her manner of behaving - that is what a man looks for. Take Claire and Elspeth over there - would you believe that there is but two years difference in age?"
"Aunt Goulding!" cried Elspeth, standing up and clutching the table. "Might we move into the sitting room and have some coffee? Claire and I have eaten more than enough tonight."
Mrs. Goulding stood up and tutted at her son, who was looking the other way and clicking his fingers together for more wine. Elspeth took her cousin's hand and strode confidently out of the room. The young women waited until Mrs. Goulding had drunk down a ratifia or two, and was dozing in the corner, and then Elspeth spoke first:
"Your brother is a fool, Claire, a fool and a drunkard. I should ignore everything he says, and label it as the ramblings of a madman."
"I never pay heed to William," replied Claire sadly. She was smarting, not only from the utter lack of propriety and tact in William's words, but equally from being led from the dining room like a child that has overheard something they oughtn't.
"Elspeth," ventured Claire after a moment or two, and after Elspeth had stopped seething. "How does a lady behave in a confident way?"
"Heavens, Claire! I thought you had not heeded that odious man!" But then Elspeth saw the look upon her cousin's face and softened her tone. "Well dearest, I cannot say truthfully. I did have a similar discussion with someone once about what one should do to be truly termed elegant - I imagine that would equate to being considered more confident. If a young girl can achieve elegance - a manner of holding herself upright and believing in her own beauty, she might outwardly seem more confident. "
"What did you say to this person?"
"Well, the lady I talked to was frightfully self-important, but she was able to list some rather useful elegant accomplishments. For example, can you sing, and play the pianoforte?"
"I sing a little, and play Mama's harp," answered Claire, warming to the notion of a tangible list of accomplishments that she could aim towards.
"Can you draw?"
"Not very well. My portraits are terrible, but I am fond of landscapes."
"Good - I think. Can you speak a foreign language?"
Claire was about to say "Yes, a little Latin," but she stopped herself. No one knew that she could, even Elspeth, and now did not seem appropriate to explain why.
"Oh, dear. Well, you can dance, I have seen you."
"Oh, yes! I danced with Mr. Bingley himself at Netherfield."
"But dear, I heard you trod on his toe," Elspeth winced. "Confident ladies do not do that, and then laugh it off as you did."
"He laughed too," said Claire, her feelings hurt as she recalled the incident. "You could teach me to dance, Elspeth. You are much better than I am."
"Very well, dear," replied Elspeth in glee. "I shall hum a tune and we can dance together for a while."
And so the young women invented a set and danced a smart figure of eight whilst Elspeth sang a sprightly country tune under her breath. They danced across the room until they were quite fatigued, and when they were done, they threw themselves in a corner to rest. When the gentlemen came in, they suspected nothing, and dismissed William's insistence that "a kind of pounding had come from this room" as being only the after effects of the wine.
In the morning, Claire and Elspeth hosted their own little breakfast ball in Claire's bedroom. In their shifts and dressing gowns, they practised country dances and the allemande, with the help of the still-room maid and the second floor chamber-maid. It was half past ten when Mrs. Goulding came into the room, screening her eyes from the sun and rubbing her temple.
"Girls, what are you doing?"
"We are having a breakfast ball," explained Elspeth, bowing to Claire as the song ended. "I promised Claire that I would help her with her dance steps."
"And why does Claire want to learn to dance?" Mrs. Goulding's eyes glimmered. "To impress young Mr. Carver, I suppose."
Claire went scarlet. "No, Mama! I promised Elspeth a breakfast ball months ago."
"All I shall say is that if Mr. Carver were interested, he would be wearing a blue coat today. That is always significant." Mrs. Goulding tapped the side of her nose and winked.
"What does a blue coat signify, aunt?" asked Elspeth over the rim of her teacup, bemused.
"Gentlemen who wish to marry always wear blue coats, it is well known. Why, your uncle proposed to me wearing a blue coat and a blue cravat. If that is not proof then I know not what is."
"But Mama," asked Claire, helping herself to a piece of bread. "I would have thought that red was the colour of love."
"Who said anything about the colour of love, child?" replied Mrs. Goulding. "Do not male peacocks have blue feathers? Now, come with me, Claire, I have something for you."
Claire looked worried. Her mother never sent for her or had anything to give her. What was to come?
"Do not look so alarmed!" her mother laughed. "Elspeth has a letter downstairs anyway - she shall go and read it, whilst you and I chat."
More alarmed than ever by the word "chat," Claire was grasped by the hand and dragged out of the room, leaving Elspeth with apologetic but laughing eyes.
Claire found herself in her mother's boudoir down the corridor. It was a large room with a bay window at the end. Underneath the bay window was a dressing table, draped with a muslin cloth. It supported the usual items - brush, combs, bottles with a 'G' embossed on them in brass. As well as these, there was an explosion of oddments and trinkets. Bottles of lotion, enamel jars of cold cream and a large bowl full of rose petals. Claire was seated heavily upon a chair in front of the dressing table, and her mother reached for a slim bottle with a cork in the neck.
"Here - I shall give you some Olympian Dew and then Mr. Carver will not fail to notice you. Never say that your mama does not do her best by you."
Claire shrank back as the bottle was waved in her face. "Oh, no Mama - thank you. Not Olympian Dew!"
"But child, you are covered in freckles - that clearly indicates that you spend too much time outdoors. Young ladies do not spend their days out of doors."
In her fright, Claire saw some logic in this and allowed the lotion to be applied to her face and shoulders. It warmed her skin, and Claire had visions of it peeling away like an onion. Opening her eyes, she saw that her mother had taken a large white pot from the table and was dabbing its contents on the back of her hand.
"Mama," whispered Claire faintly. "Is that . . . rouge?"
"Of course dear. Your cheeks just need a little touch. Really! All those freckles and not a hint of roses. There!" Plump fingers had rubbed the greasy mixture across her cheekbones, and then dabbed at it vigorously here and there.
"Oh, child, you look beautiful. Look at yourself in the glass, just look!" Claire obeyed, and beheld her reflection, pink and scrubbed by the Olympian Dew, topped off with bright red patches on her cheeks. She tried to think of something - anything - but her mouth hung open, speechless. Her mother obviously mistook the silence for awe and looked highly gratified. She was about to speak again, when Elspeth came into the room, holding a letter and some blue ribbons in another.
"I have read my letter, Aunt. Mama sends her love - here, you may read it." She passed the letter over, and Mrs. Goulding seated herself in an armchair and busied herself with the pages. Elspeth meanwhile put the ribbons on the table and swept Claire's hair away from her face.
"Dearest, what has she done to you? No matter, we shall wash your face when her back is turned. Now look, I have these ribbons to tie to your gown and in your hair. Let us go and dress now. Quickly!"
With hurried cries of "thank you" and "good day," the cousins hurried back to Claire's bedroom, and found a plain blue gown which was a shade or two lighter than the ribbons. Claire undressed herself and sent down for a bowl of hot water. Elspeth tied the ribbon around her waist and around her head. The overall effect was very pleasing - Elspeth arranged Claire's long and curly hair more tightly, so that the curls did not cascade and bounce everywhere as they usually did.
They were just determining how to lace Claire's stays a little tighter (whilst not attracting the attention of Mrs. Goulding), when a shout from the yard outside called them both to the window. It was a stable lad, panting as if he had been running for his life. He was pointing up towards the lower field - in the direction of Hamswell, and he was talking urgently to Mr. Goulding, who appeared from the conservatory, hobbling as if he had jumped up very quickly. Without stopping to see if her cousin was behind her, Claire ran from the room and down the stairs, through the conservatory and out to her father, who was giving the lad instructions in a hurried tone.
"Now run, Bill, as fast as you can!" The lad turned and ran across the yard and down a path that led more quickly to the village.
"Papa? Papa, what has happened?" Claire shouted, suddenly panicked, and she repeated herself as Elspeth ran up behind her.
"Your brother has fallen from his horse. He and Carver were riding over to Hamswell when the horse reared up in the Lower Field. Bill has gone to fetch the surgeon - Claire, go and tell your mother quickly!"
Claire and Elspeth ran back into the house. At the foot of the stairs, Claire grabbed her cousin's arm, and spoke in a hushed voice.
"Elspeth, go upstairs to Mama. I am going up to find my brother."
Elspeth laughed nervously. "Don't be foolish, Claire! What use could you possibly be?"
But Claire was already gone, the sound of her footsteps echoing on the cold, marble floor, as she ran downstairs to her work room to fetch what she needed.
The Lower Field lay at the edge of the Park, and it was a flat and open space where the cattle were sometimes led to graze. Today, it was overgrown and full of nettles and long grass as Claire jumped and ran across it. She sighted where William was immediately; two horses were visible on the far side of the field, and as Claire drew closer, she could see Mr. Carver's curly head bent over a shape on the ground.
The gentleman stood up as Claire ran to him, and she withdrew a small pair of scissors from her pocket as she came to a halt. Mr. Carver's face was a deathly white, and his customary frown had been replaced by a look of extreme anguish and fright. He appeared shorter and diminished in Claire's eyes, and for the first time, she spoke to him without a trace of hesitancy or timidity.
"What happened to him?"
If Mr. Carver noticed Claire's curt tone, he did not comment upon it. Instead he glanced behind her in the direction of the house, and then looked back at her.
"He fell from his horse. I think his ankle is broken, he has lost consciousness." He paused. "Miss Goulding, is there a surgeon on the way? I sent the stable-lad . . ."
Claire knelt down and examined her brother, who had fainted, no doubt from the pain. The bone was not broken; the ankle, however, lay on the ground at an awkward angle, and Claire guessed that it was sprained. Then she went as white as Mr. Carver, when she took hold of William's hand, and saw that it was covered in blood.
"He was carrying his hunting knife," explained Mr. Carver, "He had spotted a hare in the bushes, and unsheathed whilst he was still mounted. It sliced his arm as he fell. . . . is it a deep wound?"
Claire saw that it was; William's clothes and the ground underneath him were a dark red. She covered her mouth, not noticing that she had smeared her cheek with a little blood. She remembered with a flash of anguish that she had not washed the rouge from her cheeks. But there was nothing to be done out here now, and she pushed it to the back of her mind.
"Mr. Carver," Claire addressed the young man, who had knelt on William's other side. "I can aid William until the surgeon arrives, and make him more comfortable, but I need your assistance also. Now would you be so kind . . .?"
She made a gesture, and with a grim nod of understanding, Mr. Carver turned away as Claire felt under her gown and ripped away a section of her petticoat. It was made of cambric, but it would have to do. Taking her scissors, she pulled at William's sleeve and cut it away completely. In less than five minutes, she had formed a wad of material which she soaked in the syrup she had taken from her still room. She applied the pad to William's arm, and wound a length of cambric around to secure it.
"It is boiled sage," she said, replacing the paper covering over the bottle. "with some sugar and honey added to it. It will help stop the bleeding."
"Yes, I see," replied Mr. Carver cautiously, scratching his hand, as Claire wiped her brow, .
"What is wrong with your hand?"
"Nothing, nothing. I grazed it on some nettles helping your brother." Claire took his hand in hers and saw that it was red and raw - a large weal had appeared on the back.
"See if there are any dock leaves nearby."
As Mr. Carver's form disappeared behind the hedge, Claire soothed her brother, supporting his head and talking to him as he became more conscious. When Mr. Carver returned a few minutes later with a handful of leaves, she showed him how to apply the leaves to the sting, rubbing the dock across the skin to reduce the swelling.
"Thank you very much, Miss Goulding. I must apologise - you have surprised me." He smiled and gestured to William, who was looking out over the field. "Where did you learn such skills?"
"My grandmother was something of a white witch, Mr. Carver, and I know a little of her remedies. But alas, I think William will need the surgeon to attend to his ankle. I hope I have been a help rather than a hindrance." Mr. Carver nodded gravely and then gave a warm smile.
"Ah, and I can prepare fondants as well," Claire added, as Mr. Goulding, Bill and the surgeon appeared, running hastily over the field. Mr. Carver, watching their approach, looked bemused.
"A full explanation will be given, Mr. Carver," replied Claire, relishing the look on his face, "as soon as my brother has been taken up to the house."
William's leg was quite badly sprained, and he insisted that the surgeon remain at Haye and give a full prognosis to him in person. He took to his bed for several days, and was only deemed sufficiently well enough when he asked his mother whether or not the lamb joint was still good for tonight's meal. He was told what Claire had done for him in the Lower Field, and he thanked her profusely, declaring that he "should never have thought of putting old leaves on one's wounds", and that he "fervently hoped Claire would not be burned at the stake" for her efforts.
Mr. Carver remained in the house long enough to see his friend sufficiently recovered, before returning to London. Claire watched his carriage disappear beyond the driveway with more than a little regret. Her cousin Elspeth likewise remained for a short while - her mother requested that she return to Rochester after the New Year, and Claire was once again left alone at Haye Park with her parents and brother.
Mr. Carver's carriage did however, return to Hertfordshire several times in January, each time remaining for a week or more. One fine and sunny day in May, Mr. Carver swept down the driveway in a new landaulette, remained inside the house for some time, and then departed, taking his bride Claire with him. Elspeth was in Rochester when she received her first letter from Kenilworth; detailing every inch of her cousin's new and beautiful home. Elspeth was fortunate enough to accept an invitation to Warwickshire early in June, and arrived to find an interesting addition to the house that had been so well portrayed in Claire's letter. In between an extensive library and equally fine study, a room overlooking the parkland now housed a small stove, an array of pans and pots, and several shelves to store some old journals. When questioned by Elspeth, both the steward and Mr. Carver himself asserted that this room belonged to no other person than the great and most talented lady of the manor, and Claire wasted no time demonstrating her skills to her cousin, who was tolerably and most pleasantly surprised.
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