‘Look at this,’ said Arabella, she drew hold of Miranda’s arm and led her sister away from the two younger girls, ‘I want to show you it without mother seeing, I don’t know what to do about it.’
The four girls walked in the spring sunlight, under the trees that had survived the storm of the previous week. The two younger girls giggled and tried to overhear what their elder sisters were saying.
‘Run along,’ said Arabella, ‘go on, go and annoy Katy and Uncle Henry, I see them over there, go on. Off you go.’
They skipped off still giggling.
Arabella handed a letter to Miranda who read it, muttering the words aloud.
My Dear Arabella
I hope this letter finds you well. I am most intrigued by all your information regarding your uncle’s new wife. I am desirous of paying my respects to her at your earliest convenience, if it can be contrived before the end of next week I should entreat you to let it be so. Perhaps you can prevail upon the good lady to meet my brother also. He confesses to be much taken with your younger sister, Miranda and intends to pay her a good deal of attention. I hope this will be to her liking and to your family. Please write as soon as you can regarding the arrangements.
I eagerly await your response.
‘Me?’ said Miranda, ‘he wants to pay me a great deal of attention.’
‘You don’t like that idea? He seemed a very handsome man the last time we saw him.’
‘Maybe so,’ said Miranda, ‘his face was certainly pleasing to look at but he was very dour as I recall, he seemed quick to anger, I heard him talking quiet violently to Neil when they left, as though he thought his whole visit a waste of time. Why should he suddenly decide to have an interest in me? I don’t think he spoke two syllables to me before.’
‘I don’t know, maybe he was biding his time.’
‘Oh really nice,’ said Miranda, ‘you meaning hoping for someone better and now he’s obviously had no luck, I will do.’
‘I should certainly hope not. No it does seem odd. But there’s something else that’s bothering me. He goes on about meeting uncle’s wife. Mother won’t like that and I can’t very well ask Katy’s permission for the visit without consulting mother.’
‘Lord no, you mustn’t. Mother will have a fit. I suggest you only ask mother, don’t mention this to Katy. You don’t want to run the risk of her scaring Neil away or persuading Uncle Henry to stop your dowry.’
‘I don’t think she would, I don’t think she’s really as bad as all that. She always talks to us pleasantly, it’s only mother she tries to irritate.’
‘I don’t know,’ said Miranda, ‘you heard what the maid said, the way they… you know. She’s seen them completely undressed, mother says its quite sinful even though they’re married, she says Uncle Henry should keep to his own room and that Katy is nothing but a …’
Arabella held up her hand to stem the flow, ‘really, we shouldn’t be discussing such things. I don’t wish to think about it, their private business should be their own, we have no right to pry.’
Miranda shrugged, ‘well, I rather believe that she’s not virtuous, I think all her fancy clothes are just a cover up. I think she seduced Uncle Henry to get her hands on his money.’
‘You read too many lewd novels, I don’t think seduction is real, it only happens in stories.’
They walked on, immersed in their own thoughts. Unintentionally they caught up with their uncle.
Unable to check her own imagination, Arabella tried to imagine how Katy could’ve managed to seduce her uncle. It seemed to make the thing seem even more unbelievable. He looked upright and stern. The thought of breaking down those defences to find something warmer underneath must be impossible, he’d never been warm. Even when they were young, he hadn’t been the kind of uncle you could jump on or tease. He never took them on outings or spoiled them, no he was an unflappable man. She decided she’d been right, seduction was only for stories, not for men like her uncle.
‘You ladies can do without me,’ he said, ‘I have business to attend to in the house.’
He kissed Katy’s hand and she smiled at him. Arabella thought there was something wicked behind the smile. Maybe Miranda was right after all. She fought the visions that were trying to enter her mind, her uncle and Katy alone together, completely undressed. She wondered what it must be like, to remove ones clothes entirely in front of a man, would that duty be expected of her after her marriage. Neil was a man of integrity and good manners but this did little to appease the angst she felt about their intimate affairs once they were married. She wished that she was allowed to ask Katy these things, it would seem less frightening than talking to her mother about them. But it wasn’t allowed, she had her orders, she was not to befriend Katy in any way.
‘What were reading in secret over by the woods?’ asked Katy, ‘Frances and Susan told me your secret.’
Arabella scowled at her younger sisters.
‘What is it that you wish to hide from your mother? Be assured if you tell me, I won’t let on. I quite understand why you’d want to keep certain things from her, she does have some archaic opinions, quite unshared by women of fashion.’
‘It was nothing, simply a letter from my fiancé. I don’t wish to share its contents with anyone other than Miranda. I’m sure, as a lady, you’ll understand that.’
‘Of course I do,’ said Katy, ‘I think you’re very lucky to have a sister that you can confide in, I only hope its not bad news concerning your fiancé.’
‘No, not at all. He merely related some information to me, that’s all.’
‘Good,’ said Katy, ‘I look forward to meeting him, I should like to see him for myself, the man your uncle has been so generous towards. I shall judge him myself, I hope he makes a favourable impression.’
Arabella glanced at Miranda. What did that mean? Surely Katy wouldn’t change her uncle’s mind about the marital provisions he’d made for them.
Prudence seized the letter from Arabella and read it through.
‘Well, I don’t blame him for wanting to meet her,’ she said, ‘I expect half the city would like to see her, news of this infamous marriage will undoubtedly attract attention, mostly of the worst sort. I think this will be an interesting occasion. Let me arrange the whole thing dear. Unfortunately it cannot possibly be managed before the end of the week, write to him and inform him that he may prevail upon us Saturday next.’
As her daughter’s left the room, Prudence smiled. Any opportunity to bring down Mrs Cranston should be utilised to the full.