especially for Jane Austen fans
It was a pure act of Providence that her brother Ben had crossed the path of an old university friend, Lord Asher, who immediately offered him the position as steward of his estate since his man was retiring due to illness. Of course Benjamin accepted. It came with a modest house included in the provision. However, Faithful still needed to come as there were no extra funds for her education away from home. That was fine with her. She left on the very next stage. The further away from London, the better.
Faithful did an unladylike snort of amusement. "I'm sure she will."
Her brother went on, "She is limited in what she knows to make since we had Cook for all those years. She, by the way, went to her daughter's while Lizzie and Leo had no family who could take them in. Anyway, when I want something good to eat, I invite myself over to eat with Ash."
"I'll set your trunk inside, and see to the horses and leave you to greet your old nanny and butler," he said with a grin knowing full well how Lizzie liked to envelope someone in her hugs smothering them making it hard to breathe.
In fact, the door was flung open and the woman came out at a run, well as fast as she could, and soon had Faithful crushed to her ample bosom. "Welcome home, dear. Let me look at you. My, my, such a lovely you are, all grown up."
Faithful hoped she truly meant that and would treat her as such instead of a little one with toddling strings attached. "Hello, Nanny, Leo. It is good to see you both." She looked at the house with appraising eyes. No matter what she thought of it, it would be her home. However, there was a certain charm to it even though it so much snugger than she was used to. Their last manor house had been stately with many rooms. Her family had once employed a bevy of servants. But of course, they could no longer afford such. She turned to where Lizzie was trying to show her in practically dancing her old feet upon the threshold.
"Let me take you on a wee tour, dearie. Of course it is nothing like you're used to, but we are all grateful to have a roof over our heads. This is a coveted house in the village, much grander than any of the tenants' houses. So it's all about perspective. For what the Good Lord provided, we must be thankful."
"Amen," Faithful said from the bottom of her heart. She truly was grateful. Home may not be the house she grew up in, but it was a home with those she loved and who loved her. Since it was only she and her brother left after the cholera epidemic of 1832 which took her parents, she treasured just being with him and their dear old help, Lizzie and Leo.
"Go on and look up the stairs on yer own. These old knees don't care to creak up them. There's two rooms atop: one for you and one for yer brother, God bless him. I don't know what would have become of us if he had not taken us in," Lizzie said wiping her dripping eyes with her apron.
"Yes, miss, it was sure good of him to give us not only a home, but even a bedroom down here, saving us from having to climb those stairs ev'day," Leo added with a heartful smile.
The old gent was missing more teeth now as well as his livery. His black jacket and crisp white shirt had been replaced with homespun. Where once he had stood proudly erect, now he was bent. Oh, how different he looked! She used to be a little intimidated by him, but now found him to be more of a grandfatherly type.
"Well, this is the great room. Isn't it something to have the kitchen, dining and sitting room all in one space? It took some getting used to, but now we find it to be pleasant. Over there is a small study for your brother, but he does most of his work up at Lord Asher's place." Lizzie lowered her voice to a whisper. "Can you believe what the Prince Regent did handing over your family's lands to another, stripping it away in one fell swoop from us all?"
Since Faithful didn't believe that the royal could hear her old nanny disparage him, nor were there likely to be any of his spies lurking about, it struck her funny that the woman felt the need to whisper. "But look how good God is to provide and in such a timely manner!" she exclaimed.
"Yes! If we could still get down on our knees, we would, and thank Him every day."
"I'm sure He hears you wherever you be, dear Lizzie, and He knows your knees," she said with a smile teasing her lips.
"You mean He knows our needs. I can't say that He's had a peek of my knees though, since I'm certain to shut the door and close the curtains when I do bathe." the old woman said seriously dropping back down to a whisper when talking about her bathing.
Faithful made her way up a narrow, steep stairway barely able to keep from laughing out loud. She investigated what would be her room. It was easy to tell which was her brother's since his clothes were strewn every which way. It was evident that Lizzie was unable to come up the stairs to tend to them. That was something she could do, take care of the upstairs. Her room was small, but adequate. It was the small space between the rooms at the top of the stairs that she was drawn to. A comfortable chair was under a window with a small table, a candlestick set upon it. There was just room for a tiny bookshelf to be squeezed in beside. This would be her favorite part of the whole house. Enough heat rose up the stairs to make it cozy. She smiled satisfied.
Her brother bumped his way up the stairs with her trunk over his shoulder and thudded it down on the floor of her room. "What do you have in there, Faithful? Books or rocks?"
"Books, of course. You know me." But she slipped her hand around him to give him a sideways hug. "This house is perfect for us. We can be happy here." Yet a thought niggled in the back of her head, what would become of her if her brother decided to marry and children began arriving? She imagined how quickly it would become crowded, especially if his wife did not take kindly to her being there supported by her brother. Oh dear, a problem for down the road, not to be chewed over like a bone until it came to happen. Eventually, Faithful would need to find some work somewhere. Becoming a nanny like Lizzy was not her ideal, but she would do what she had to do all in good time.
"You look lost in thought, Faithful. I know it is a lot of change for you to get used to. We've had our time to adjust, but it must be difficult for you now," Ben said.
"I'm fine. Truly I am," she showed him a genuine smile.
He gave a huge sigh of relief. "Thank you, Faithful. It's not what we had, but it is what God has ordained for us in His sovereignty and for what we must be thankful," he added.
"How very true," she agreed wholeheartedly.
She and Lizzie fussed and struggled as they learned to cook over the open fireplace. Faithful longed for a stove or at least a cookbook. For now, they bought their bread from the bakery in town. They had no cow since their livestock had all been sold before the move to settle debts, but Lord Asher insisted that they take home butter and milk from his creamery. If all else failed, they ate eggs. Soon, however, Faithful perfected her signature dish, potato soup with leeks and cheese.
It was a day like this, while worrying over a chicken turning on a spit, that Lord Asher made his appearance unannounced. Her brother popped in behind him. Faithful dropped her bowl of herb butter she was basting the poultry with. Butter and broken crockery splattered everywhere when he stood before her. "You!" she exclaimed.
He looked just as perturbed. "I had no idea it was you, Miss Harper, or that you were Ben's sister."
"What? So you have met?" Ben asked confused.
"At the end of the year academy dance once," Faithful said crossing her arms nervously in front of her.
"Our Oxford club was invited to come be their dance partners," Ash gave as an explanation. Even in an apron and common dress, Ash would know her anywhere, only she was even more beautiful now. Three years before she was still in the cusp of her beauty as a young thing. Now her cheeks flushed from the heat of the fireplace, and probably from embarrassment as well. He kicked himself for surprising her this way. A lock of her chestnut hair stuck to her sweaty cheek tempting him to free it and tuck it behind her ear, but knew he had no right to be so familiar.
Ben looked back and forth between them, as the two of them took stock of each other. It was totally quiet. Lizzie was watching with her mouth dropped open.
"How long ago was that?" Ben finally asked.
"A long time ago, three years, I'd venture. It was the only time I went," Ash answered.
"I was fifteen." Faithful spoke so softly, she could hardly be heard.
Now it was time for Lord Asher to flush. He had no idea she had been so young then and felt shame creep around to squeeze his heart. He was a different young man now than then, but he doubted he could convince her of that any time soon. He would have to find her alone sometime to apologize.
He shook it off. "You don't look like your brother," he managed to say.
"I'm told I take after our father, while Ben looks like our mother."
"Of course," Ben blurted out turning to Lord Asher. "Remember, I told you she was adopted."
He heard his sister gasp before he slowly turned around mortified to see her shocked visage. How stupid he was!
"Why is this the first I have heard of that?" she stammered with tears pooling.
"Actually, Faithful, you are our father's true daughter, just by a dalliance." Ben knew he had foolishly opened his mouth and put his foot into it, but since he'd already put one shoe in, he might as well put in both. "Before immigrating to America, the woman he'd, well you know, had planned to leave you in a foundling home. But upon hearing that, our mother insisted that our father bring you home. One look at you, Faithful, she fell in love. Remember, she had just buried her third baby. Then and there, she forgave our father, and they repaired their marriage. I'm sorry. You were to never know. They named you Faithful as a reminder that God was faithful, even when man is not."
"Oh, so it's alright for Lord Asher to know of my illegitimacy but not me?" Lord Asher was rubbing his neck looking like he wished he were anywhere but there.
"Listen, it was nice to see you again, Miss Harper. It appears, this is a family matter, so I'll leave you to it," he said making his escape letting himself out the door.
"How could you!" she hissed. "How could you say that in front of Lord Asher? I am mortified! If I wasn't to be told, I don't know why you would see the need to inform him. It is enough of a shock to find that I was taken in as a foundling, but then you dared to speak freely telling him as well as me that I am nothing more than our father's by-blow." With that she stomped her foot and dashed up the stairs sobbing.
"I won't need to make stew tonight, sir. It looks like you've already made one all by yourself. Give her time, then go try to talk to her later," Lizzy said shaking her head and walking away to clean up the melted butter with shards of a bowl floating in it.
"Let me do it, Lizzy. I know it's hard for you to get down on your knees. I need to do some kind of penance for what I just did," he muttered stopping their old nanny before she could get down.
Even with her door shut and most certainly with her face pressed into a pillow, he could still hear his sister crying.
As he carefully picked up the pieces of the broken dish, Ben said, "It's odd, isn't it, that they had met before? Was that a strange reaction on both their parts, or am I reading too much into it, Lizzy?"
She most certainly dropped the butter pot so shocked she was," said Lizzy now pondering it as well.
I haven't seen her that flustered ever, I don't believe."
"Hmm. It was strange, I agree. I've never seen a look on Ash's face quite like that either. He was like a rabbit before the arrow leaves the bow, frozen in place with round eyes, like he would like to run, but couldn't."
"Umhuh. I know what you are saying. It was a funny thing all around. I doubt you'll be getting any answers from your sister any time soon. That blunder will be costly for a long time," their old nanny warned.
"I was so stupid! It's just that Ash and I have spent so much time together, that he knows me inside and out, and I, him."
"Well, some dirty family laundry just got aired. Your little sister will have a hard time believing that it can ever become clean, that's for sure. I'd suggest that you and your friend Ash stay scarce for awhile."
He stood up with the broken bowl and its pieces in his hand. "Maybe I'll go see Ash and come back and try to talk to Faithful later. Perchance she'll listen to you since you were there when it all happened and became her nanny. Make sure and tell her how much we all loved her. My earliest memory is holding her like a special treasure. For the longest time, I thought all babies came that way, mysteriously found and brought home"
Lizzy took the rag and pointed where he could toss the broken pottery. It fell with a loud clatter in the empty coal bin. Sometimes broken things did that, needed to make a lot of noise. He looked up the staircase and shook his head again and left.
Ash shut himself in his study and paced. And prayed. He was torn up. It was bad enough the shock of seeing Ben's sister tonight, but what ensued was almost unforgiveable. He knew that poor Miss Harper would feel the shame of it whenever they would meet. It would perhaps come between them always, though not because he wished it or even cared, but because she would feel that it was a blight on her good name.
He couldn't shake the memory of that time at the small ball her school put on every year. In the coach on the way to the dance, one of his friends pulled out a flask. They all partook. He only had one or two swigs, but the others drank it dry. On the way into the house, he saw that mint was planted along the walk, so he took one and chewed it to disguise the alcohol on his breath.
As soon as they walked in, he spied Miss Harper, sweet and pure looking. Her every movement was unaffected grace. The girl's hair was up with stubborn curls dangling loose. As was the style, her dress was high-waisted with a modest neckline. They all wore the light colors, as was deemed fitting for young ladies, her's pure white. When he caught her eye, she gave a tremulous smile. That was all it took. He boldly crossed the room and asked her to dance.
A gentleman was allowed no more than two dances with a young lady, but after the second one was over, he asked her to walk outside with him to cool off. He took off his jacket and there in the shadows he kissed her. She was as inexperienced as he thought, but figured he could teach her a little about kissing as arrogant as he was. Abruptly the door had opened and footsteps came so he released her. She was breathless with huge eyes.
"Miss Harper! You know the rules about propriety. This is not allowed, young lady. You are never to be outside without a chaperone."
"Oh, I beg your pardon," she said fleeing leaving him to face the stare down by the stern matron quivering with anger.
"And as for you young fellow, I do not want to see you here ever again. Don't think that I can't smell the alcohol on your breath or that of your friends. You are all to leave immediately. I won't countenance you besmirching one of my young lady's reputations, especially one so young and innocent as Miss Harper. For shame, sir, for shame!"
He went round the house to find the others piling in the coach laughing. They talked over each over all the back to the university dorms, but he kept quiet. Somehow he did feel shame. That shame had only grown over the years knowing he had taken advantage of her innocence.
After those rowdy schooldays, Ash had come clean with God, but that was one sin that leaped back whenever he threw it in the sea of God's forgiveness, like a fish that kept jumping out of the water to flop in his heart. The problem was, it was the sweetest kiss he'd ever known, a memory he either could not or did not want to forget. He knew today that she realized exactly who he was. He would apologize. She did not need any more shaming. He needed to take all the blame for kissing her: fifteen? He felt horrible. He had been twenty-one, old enough to know better and to treat a young girl with respect. So he paced and prayed.
He heard the knock and recognized it as Ben's. As his man opened the door to the entry, Ash opened his study door and invited him in. He looked at least as miserable as Ash felt himself.
"I can't believe I was so stupid! If I could snatch back those words, I would do it. Never have I hurt my sister like I did tonight. I have never felt of her as anything but my sister, not as adopted, not as a foundling, not as my father's by-blow. I can't imagine what she thinks of me now."
Ash could see that his friend was near crying. "She knows you love her, Ben. It might take time, but she'll come around," he said. "You'll just need to talk to her. Probably the sooner the better."
"I don't know. It was bad enough breaking it to her, but the way I did it in front of you, treating it in such a caviler manner is inexcusable."
"Soon one of the village young men will take an interest in her, and she will lose her heart and forget all about this." But just saying that may him feel sick in his stomach. Ash would not wish to see her married and running into her all the time in church and in the village. He could not form that picture in his mind of Miss Harper with any of the village young men. They were a rowdy bunch preferring to drink ale in the pub, than sit quietly at home. He knew their foul language and the terrible way they spoke about women. Miss Harper would not escape their notice or their vile talk. He went over all the young men he could think of, and none were good enough for her he was quite certain.
"Do you really think so?" Ben asked hopefully raising his head up from his hands from where he had slumped in a chair.
"I take that back. I don't think you should introduce her to any of the merchants or tenants here, Ben. They are too coarse by far and unfit for her to keep company with. Such society is the scrapping of the bottom of the barrel. I am thankful the Lord forgave me and turned my path from the pit. But, since too few men hereabouts go to church, they are a lost bunch, every last one of them. Can you think of any who are good enough?" he asked.
Ben looked at him quizzically. Then scratched his head and said, "Actually no, I can't. I had teased her about a few of them who had been asking me about her when they heard she was coming, but the more I thought about it, I knew I wouldn't introduce them."
"I'll tell you what," Ash was thinking aloud while pacing, "I will have my sister come from London and plan a ball for a select group of friends from the ton. Perhaps your sister will meet someone at that. She should raise her sights higher than the local bumpkins. But do you have any ideas about who I should invite out of all our old group of friends? I've been rather out of circulation lately."
The more Ben thought, the more he scratched this one and that one off his list. "I guess I think no one is good enough for her. Do you have any ideas?"
"What about Glen Robbins? Or even--what was his name--the one that went into the church? Is he still unattached?" Ash asked.
"Theodore? I don't know. I don't have any contact with any of them anymore. The only one I know about is John. I believe he teaches at some academy somewhere, but I think I heard he's engaged. All the others I can think about are already married or are pretty deep in their cups last I heard. But didn't you go into the season in London where the men and women mingle like it's a marriage mart?"
"It's been about two years ago, the most miserable months of my life as my sister dragged me to this ball and that opera or game of cards. It was most tiresome. By the time that was over, I would gladly have handed her over if anyone one of them would have taken her off my hands. Fortunately, she chose wisely and seems to be happily married. I could leave it up to her to make the guest list, I suppose."
"That would be grand, Ash. I don't know how to thank you," Ben heaved a sigh of relief.
"Still, let's not tell your sister about this until the plans are further along," he said, but his mind was wondering if she would accept a dance with him.
"I still can't believe the two of you had met before today. Was there more to it? You both looked discountenanced when you saw each other. Are you sure it was just one dance at her school?"
"Yes, we had only met that once, and it was very closely supervised, I might add. Like I said, I had no idea she was your sister." Ash had a twinge of conscience by not telling all, but he owed her an apology, not her brother. There had been only a few moments together before they were discovered anyway. So why was it so burned into his memory? It had not been his first kiss or his last.
That night he wrote his sister and posted it first thing in the morning certain that this was something his sister would relish doing. She wasn't fond of coming to the country, but if it was with a group of her friends, she would enjoy herself. He just hoped his guests would not linger. He liked his quite life. At least he felt a little better about Ben's sister's future, didn't he?
Ash's sister soon wrote back that it could be arranged for the next month. She gave him a list of things he would need to take care of on his end. But when he read over Abigail's suggestions for the guest list, he groaned. Such an event would make it appear as if he was looking for a wife, and a couple of the names she included were young women who had made no secret of their interest in him. But he would do this for Miss Harper.
After, a fortnight had passed, Ash agreed with Ben that he might drop by and give Faithful an invitation to his little party. Ben had done his best to appease his sister in the meanwhile. She received Lord Asher coolly, but offered him tea. As much as he detested tea, he did not refuse her.
"Miss Harper, this is an invitation to a small fest, a ball to be exact, to be held in Asher Hall on the fourteenth of next month. I hope you and your brother would be my guests. My sister is taking care of all the preparations and will be arriving the week before. There will be friends from London..."
"I'm sorry, but I regret that I will not be attending," Faithful said firmly.
"Excuse me?" he stammered.
"Faithful, of course you will attend. It is practically being held in your honor," her brother stammered as Ash glared at him.
"It just simply is not possible. I'm quite an admirer of Adam Clarke, and though he was schooled in music and dancing, he found it to be, and I quote, 'a seductive art; a perverting influence, an unmixed moral evil,' and to his death, he lifted up his voice against this branch of fashionable education."
"Upon my word, Faithful, I've never heard such poppycock!" Ben protested.
Ash could only stare dumbfounded. Finally finding his voice he said, "Perhaps you would consent to attend and not partake in the dancing. I was hoping to introduce you to my sister and several of our friends." The thought suddenly occurred to him that truly using a dance as the instrument for matchmaking--the "raisen d'etre" of the season in London--was sheer folly.
However, his gaze was begging and she boldly met it saying, "It may be possible to do without dancing entirely. Instances have been known of young people passing many, many months successively without being at any ball of any description, and no material injury accrue either to body or mind."
Something broke loose in his memory and he burst out saying, "You're quoting Jane Austen aren't you? Was it 'Pride and Prejudice'?"
"'Emma.' You surprise me, sir, knowing that." She looked away with a smile playing on her lips.
"Why should it? Even the Prince Regent is particularly fond of her books, so I have no qualms of letting it be known that I have read them," he said. "In fact, I have recently bought the new editions."
"I will ponder your invitation and give you an answer perhaps next week. I thank you kindly for thinking of us by way of this invitation." She practically dismissed him turning her back to him in order to roll out some biscuit dough.
Ben raised his eyebrows and shrugged his shoulders. Ash merely said, "I should be going now. Good day, Miss Harper, Ben."
Ben followed him out, "I apologize profusely for my sister's inconsiderate behavior. I am flummoxed indeed. And by the way, who is this Jane Austin?"
"Her novels have become quite popular, however it is only becoming now known that she was the authoress." But Ash was pacing, running his hand through his hair. "Adam Clarke, did she say? I believe I have a copy of his commentary in my library. In fact, I met him when I was a young lad when my uncle took me to visit his home. Perhaps I can warm up her interest by way of allowing her to come make use of my library to read his volumes. Do you mind if I go back in and invite her?"
"This is quite an odd way of going about Red Robin's barn, but it's worth a try," Ben agreed as he opened the door, and they both came back in.
Faithful turned around with her eyes wide full of question.
Ash was uneasy and found himself gripping the back of a chair, but said his piece. "Miss Harper, as I was leaving, I thought upon what you said, that you admired Adam Clarke. Surprisingly enough, I have a copy of his commentary in my library. If you would care to peruse it, you would be welcome to come at any time. In fact, as I told your brother, I had a chance as a young lad to go meet Dr. Clarke. My uncle was a supporter of his work and took me to meet him once at Hayden Hall. I was fascinated by his collection of curiosities." He heard her gasp.
"Truly? Oh how wonderful that must have been! Did you by chance see his narwhal with the long spiral tusk? Oh, what I wouldn't give to see such a thing!" she exclaimed.
"What on earth is a narwhal," Ben asked looking back and forth between them.
Ash was grinning and ignoring Ben, "Yes, I saw it. It's tusk was nearly eight feet long."
"I can't imagine!" she gushed.
Ben was perplexed and tried to enter the conversation again. "I say, what's this narwhal you two keep blabbering about. I've never heard of one."
"It's a unicorn of the sea, my friend," Ash finally responded turning to him. They are in the Arctic and often are found off the coast of Greenland."
"I would say they are a cross between a whale and a unicorn," Faithful giggled in delight just thinking about it. "How fortunate that you were able to see it. I heard that the one given Queen Elizabeth was worth its weight in gold. Just imagine, Dr. Clarke of all people obtaining one in his collection," she sighed. "He was a man of many interests. Not only did he write the 6,000 page commentary of the Bible, which took him forty years to do so, but he was always preaching on one of John Wesley's circuits going thousands of miles by foot or by horse. Never was he allowed the time to sequester himself alone just to write. He was given honorary degrees for his scholarship, was an honored member of the Royal Irish Academy and was recognized by scientific societies, such as the Geological Society. He had one of the most select and valuable libraries in the kingdom."
"Well, my uncle who left me my estate, was an admirer and that must be why he purchased a copy of his book as soon as it was published," Ash continued pleased that he had found a common ground with the young woman admiring how her whole face lit up speaking of the man. It would be a fortunate man indeed who would inspire such a look of admiration.
"Yes, Lord Asher, I would love to come with my brother sometime to read his commentary while you conduct your business. I would especially enjoy the one on the Psalms. I heard a visiting minister once quote from it, and it was a thing of beauty." Just the thought made Faithful's face glow.
"I'm sorry to say that I have not read it myself yet, but your words encourage me to do so. Its volumes take up quite a space in the library so I couldn't help but notice it. I would be pleased for you to come read it, however," Lord Ash replied. "I say, are you one of those Methodists, Miss Harper?"
"I can't say that I've had the opportunity, but admit to being curious. My brother is not so inclined, I believe." She looked over at his scowl.
"While I was at Oxford, I visited one of their holy clubs and was impressed. But I never joined myself," Lord Asher continued. "I must confess, it was one of the turning points in my life giving myself over to God to change the direction of my life." He looked her fully in the eyes and said with meaning, "I'm not the man I was before then, thank God."
"That is encouraging," Faithful smiled. "I find Scripture to be God's word to me that helps me make the right choices in this life. I especially like I John 1, "But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin."
As he walked home, Lord Asher resolved to brush up on his Jane Austen books and read a little of Adam Clarke's work himself. In spite of her reluctance to accept his invitation, he couldn't help smiling.
He found a note a few days later which said, "Dear Lord Asher, Please excuse my rudeness upon your generous invitation to your levee. 'Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can.' That one is from "Pride and Prejudice.' Thus, in that spirit, we accept your offer. Sincerely, Miss Harper."
A full grin broke out his face. It was enough to whip the head of his butler back around to stare.
"I'll need to send an answer along shortly to this note," he told him as he went into his library and searched for the quote he had underlined. There it was. So he wrote, "Dear Miss Harper, I am especially pleased that you have changed your mind concerning the ball. 'It is particularly incumbent on those who never change their opinion to be secure of judging properly at first.' Thus, I am happy to note that you have changed your opinion, not so much about dancing, I'm sure, but about attending. That is a pleasure to look forward to. The quote is from 'Pride and Prejudice,' by the way. Sincerely, Lord Asher."
She jotted a quick note, "Dear Lord Asher, 'There are some people who cannot bear a party of pleasure,' but I hope I'm not to be counted as one of them.' That one was from 'Northhanger Abbey.' In the meanwhile, I would like to accompany my brother this Thursday when he comes to go over your accounts so that I may take advantage of the offer you made to read Dr. Clarke's volume in your library. Sincerely, Miss Harper."
Upon receiving the note, he found himself whistling on and off all day looking forward to Thursday. Lord Ash even chuckled a time or two as he mulled over the note in his head. His butler looked at him oddly, but said nothing, of course. He told his cook to prepare a dinner for company as he would insist on them staying to eat.
Then he wrote back after searching the marked passages in the books in his library first. Oh she would never imagine how many hours he spent pouring over and underlining certain phrases in Jane Austen's books to use in such correspondence. "Dear Miss Harper, Thursday would be fine. 'I declare after all, there is no enjoyment like reading~ How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book!' That was 'Pride and Prejudice,' of course. I am more than happy to share my library with you. Sincerely yours, Lord Asher." He would look forward to Thursday.
When they arrived, he watched from above as she looked around the foyer craning her neck to see into the adjoining rooms before lifting her eyes up the stairway to discover where he was standing.
"Welcome," he said coming down the stairs. "I'll take you to the library, Miss Harper, after showing you to the office where we will be working in case you need to find us for some reason. The cook has prepared something for our dinner together, so I hope you will join me."
"Of course," Ben quickly accepted though his sister looked at him crossly. Then she put the placid expression back on her face, the one a young lady was taught to wear.
However, when she saw his library, she took a sharp intake of air. "Oh my!' Faithful exclaimed. "It is very large indeed."
"I have taken out the volume on Psalms that you desired, although you may use any of them you like." She was so enraptured by the books, that he enjoyed observing her pleasure. "I'll leave you to your reading then while I join Ben in the office."
"Thank you, Lord Asher. You are very generous." She finally met his gaze which was latched upon her already. She blushed and turned away decorously.
Ash met with Ben for the rest of the morning doing business with only half his mind upon his work.
Finally Ben asked, "Are you alright, Ash? You seem preoccupied."
"I'm fine, just have a lot on my mind," he answered.
"Like being invaded with the ton from London? I don't envy you there. I'll probably make myself scarce riding around your estate taking care of your beasties."
"Go on then," Ash laughed. "Just think of me with sympathy."
"While you finish up here, I think I will go check on your sister," he added.
Ben just watched him leave with a knowing look. "I see how it is Ash," he said to his parting back.
Faithful was sitting prettily bent over the huge volume open upon her lap. She was taking notes in a little book in her hand. He stood in the doorway and watched until she looked up and spied him. He felt his neck heat, but entered.
"I hope you have enjoyed reading Dr. Clarke's work," he said unnecessarily seeing the pleasure apparent on her face."
"Oh yes, thank you," she beamed.
"Is there any particular part you found especially enjoyable?" he asked, "and do you always take notes and write it in your little book?"
"Yes, I call it my Tome of Curiosities. It's full of favorite sayings I've copied down. As you've noted, I am fond of quotes from Jane Austen," she grinned smugly.
Faithful flipped through her small book to find where she had copied a passage and proceeded to read it to him, quoting first from Psalm 144, "'That our sons may be as plants grown up in their youth; that our daughters may be as corner stones, polished after the similitude of a palace: That our garners may be full, affording all manner of store; that our sheep may bring forth thousands and ten thousand in our streets: That our oxen may be strong to labour...' Adam Clarke says 'God has promised to His people, being faithful three descriptions of blessings. 1. The fruit of the body, sons and daughters. 2. The fruits of the ground--grass and corn in sufficient plenty. 3. Fruit of the cattle,--'the increase of kine, and flocks of sheep. ' These are the blessing to which the Psalmist refers here, as those in which he might at present exult and triumph." As I was reading, I thought of you and God's blessings upon your work here. Your blessings are not just upon you, but upon the whole village which in a way you support with all your tenants dependent upon you, much in the way we depend upon God."
"I see. I am blessed, there is no doubt, having received the estate from a favorite uncle. However, I have no sons or daughters as yet, so that remains to be seen," he winked. She blushed.
Ben poked his head in the door. For him, the library was as sobering as entering a schoolroom and just as intimidating. Are you two done in here? The doors have been opened to your dining room. I think they are ready for us to eat, and it smells wonderful!"
"I'm afraid that our old nanny and I do not have many skills to commend us in the kitchen. Poor Ben has to bear with our whole burnt offerings," Faithful said rising after Lord Asher took the heavy book off her lap and returned it to its place on his shelf.
"He does seem to show up here quite regularly at mealtimes," he chuckled. "However, I encourage it as I enjoy his company as much as I did back at the university. He's a good friend."
"Ben could only stand attending that one year before he convinced father to let him return home," she said.
"Yes, I remember him yearning for the fruit of the ground and the fruit of the kine and sheep," Ash grinned.
"He is a farmer at heart," she agreed.
"Who is a farmer? Are you talking about me?" Ben asked, but let Lord Asher lead his sister to the table on his arm while he followed as was proper.
They sat down to a delicious meal of roast beef and root vegetables with rolls just out of the oven. It was followed by warm apple tarts served with cream. Ben filled his plate three times while Faithful cleaned her plate once, but had a second roll. She could not resist.
"Oh my, I don't know when I've eaten like this. 'It's been many years since I had such an exemplary vegetable,'" she quoted with a sly smile. "They certainly did not serve food like this at Miss Staniforth's Young Ladies' Academy," Faithful said.
"Pride and Prejudice?" Lord Asher asked, and she nodded.
"What's that? Anyway, we certainly don't eat like this at home either," Ben said teasingly knowing his sister would have kicked him under the table if she could have reached him.
"Well, you'll have to come again. Perhaps, a standing invitation would do for every Thursday when your brother comes to go over the books?"
"That is more than kind. Thank you. I will look forward to reading more of Dr.Clarke's work."
On the way home walking down the lane, Faithful thought she was sure she had never spent a more enjoyable time. She would need to write him a note of thanks and began planning it in her head searching her memory for the perfect quote to use. She decided to finish the last quote he used.
"Dear Lord Asher, I wish to thank you for inviting me to use your library. 'When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.' That is from 'Pride and Prejudice,' but of course you know that. The meal was wonderful as well. I'm looking forward to your generous invitation to come again next week. Sincerely, Miss Harper."
She was pleasantly surprised to receive a note back from him. "My Dear Miss Harper, I hope you find time away from using your culinary skills to read your novels. After all, 'It is only a novel...or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humor are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.' This is from 'Northanger Abbey.' I suspect this is why you so enjoy Jane Austen's work. I enjoyed your company at dinner as well. This house seldom sees a beautiful young woman in attendance. Sincerely, Lord Asher."
Faithful sat down immediately and wrote a note back. "Dear Lord Asher, 'The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel must be intolerably stupid.' Just don't tell my brother I said that. It too is from 'Northhanger Abbey,' by the way. That is indeed why I do love to read her books. Also, 'I dearly love a laugh.' ('Pride and Prejudice') In this dreary world, it is so very needed, don't you think? Sincerely, Miss Harper."
Her brother looked askance at her when she placed it in his hand to deliver as she had the others. "Upon my word, isn't this a lot of notes being passed back and forth?"
She blushed but said, "Thank you for delivering it for me as you go to work. I am merely responding to what he wrote."
A few days passed without another note being sent by either. When Lizzie woke one market day feeling especially stiff and achy, Faithful decided it was time for her to become acquainted with the village and took a basket to go to market herself. She introduced herself to a couple of the shopkeepers who were at first wary, then warmed to be friendly. It was the English way, after all, to be slightly standoffish. Fortunately her brother had already made many friends among the locals.
"Hello, Miss. Can I help ye?" the baker asked.
"Do you have any of those honey rolls left this morning? We do like those first thing in the morning with our tea." She said smiling.
"We have a half a dozen. Is there anything else? By the way is your lady Lizzie feeling alright this morning. She has been a regular customer and the wife loves to have a cuppa and share gossip with her. We hear how notes are suddenly flying back and forth between your house and Asher Hall," the man sneered knowingly.
Faithful was thankful for her practice of putting on a placid face to hide her emotions. She was experiencing a heated upset while simmering inside. "I think that is all we need, thank you." She stepped out with her rolls and determined to learn to make bread before entering that man's bakery again. She felt betrayed by her nanny. Gossip indeed! Did she also blab about Faithful's unseemly heritage as well?" She hurriedly finished in the other markets and marched home.
"Lizzie! How dare you gossip with the baker's wife about me!" Faithful held it in no longer. "There will be no more sharing any of the goings on in this house. Is that understood?"
"Yes, miss. Sorry, miss. I didn't mean no harm," Lizzie sputtered.
"Oh, Lizzie, you know better than that, dearie," Leo sighed.
"I was humiliated in the village to my face!" Faithful slammed the basket on the table. How could you?" She ran up the stairs and shut herself in her room. She clenched her fists and said to no one, "Every man is surrounded by a neighborhood of voluntary spies."
Lizzie weeped into her apron while Leo patted her shoulder. "Lesson learned, my dearest."
The next note that arrived, Faithful was tempted to ignore it not wanting to feed the village gossip. She almost decided she would hand deliver an answering note when they went on Thursday. Besides, she wasn't sure what to say. However, she sent one anyway.
He had written, "My dear Miss Harper, 'My idea of good company...is the company of clever, well-informed people who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company.' ("Persuasion") Sincerely, Lord Asher."
Finally, she responded, "Dear Lord Asher, 'To come with a well-informed mind is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.' ("Northanger Abbey") Sincerely, Miss Harper."
My Dear Miss Harper, "As to your last correspondence, 'This was a letter to be run through eagerly, to be read deliberately, to supply matter for much reflection, and to leave everything in greater suspense than ever.' I would be gravely disappointed if you thought so little of me that you felt you had to conceal anything, especially the knowing of things, from our conversations or that I needed to have my vanity administered to. I find your conversation to be witty and stimulating and pleasant indeed. I'm sure our guests, when they come, will feel the same way. Personally, 'Sense will always have attractions for me,' ("Sense and Sensibilities") Yours truly, Lord Asher."
Faithful hesitated, but did not feel she could wait a full week before answering as he seemed to have taken almost an offense in what she had written. It was a good thing she had copied quotes from Jane Austin's books into her little blank book and now were at hand to use in their patter back and forth. Thus, she selected what she hoped was something to diffuse any strain in their repartee.
"Dear Lord Asher, 'I never wish to offend, but I am so foolishly shy, that I often seem negligent, when I am only kept back by my natural awkwardness.' 'Shyness is only the effect of a sense of inferiority in some way or other.' (both quotes are from "Sense and Sensibility") I too look forward to our conversations around your table. However, I feel less assured of feeling the same ease with your friends, to me strangers, from London. That is what I referred to for the most part in the earlier missive. Forgive me if I will have little to say while among them. 'I have often thought that I must have been intended by nature to be fond of low company, I am so little at my ease among strangers of gentility.' ("Sense and Sensibility") Yours truly, Miss Harper."
Thursday, however, brought a rude surprise when arriving to read in his library. They were greeted by one who must be Lord Asher's sister, she assumed since they both had the dark as night hair and eyes. Faithful had not worn one of her better gowns in order to spare her hems the mud they would be walking through. Indeed, her shoes were quite caked as she made use of the boot scrape by the front door. When the butler opened the door, her bonnet had fallen back, her hair was coming undone, and she was sure her cheeks were quite red not only from the brisk air, but in embarrassment to be seen in such a state of dishevel by the lady.
"Hello, and do come in," the woman said as she stood by the butler looking down at Faithful's soaked hem and muddy shoes. "Am I to presume you are Miss Harper, and Mr. Harper. I am Lord Asher's sister, Mrs. Howorth."
"Yes, and it is nice to meet you," Faithful made an attempt at a curtsey so slight the lady might have missed it while her brother bowed.
"Am I also to presume you are here on business, Mr. Harper..."
"Oh, welcome friends. Miss Harper, I'd like to introduce you to my sister." Lord Asher's long legs brought him bounding down the stairs two at a time to stand beside the woman while another elegant female came slinking out of the library unsmiling. The cat-like woman put her hand on Lord Asher's arm, so he introduced her. "I'd like to present Miss Hunter."
"Did you walk here, Miss Harper?" Miss Hunter asked from hooded eyes.
"Of course. We live just a little ways down the lane," she responded evenly already wishing she could disappear just as quickly back down the lane to her home. I just came with my brother today, to give my regrets to Lord Asher that I will be unable to use his library today as our Lizzie needs my assistance back at home." Her brother looked askance at her but did not say anything as she squeezed his arm to beg his silence.
Lord Asher who had been all smiles, lost his happy countenance. "Oh, I had hoped you would be able to visit with my guests today and perhaps assist them in the planning for the ball."
"Not today. I must beg your pardon and take my leave. It was nice to meet you ladies," she said hoping God would not strike her dead for lying.
"Let me follow you out," he said shutting the door behind him. "There is a quickness of perception in some, a nicety in the discernment of character , a natural penetration, in short, which no experience in others can equal."
"Persuasion"? she guessed.
"Yes, and I wish I could persuade you to stay. But indeed as you quickly ferreted out, my guest is one to avoid at all cost when her claws are sharp. I had hoped you could meet my sister before any of the other guests arrived, but she brought Miss Hunter along with her, much to my dread."
"Then you are to be pitied indeed, Lord Asher," she said trying to look sympathetic but could not keep from smiling.
"Pitied indeed for missing your company while being forced to endure her's," he said with a playful sigh. "Will you be alright walking home alone? I can have one of my men walk you there. I would be happy to do so myself, but there are urgent matters I must go over with your brother concerning the business of the estate."
"I assure you, I will be fine. It is not far," she added. Just then his very large dog ran up splashing more mud upon the skirt of her dress. The creature pushed her hand until she scratched his ears. "See, Mohican will be happy to escort me home. You do know he visits us quite often. I think he likes the burnt scraps of dinner failures Lizzie and I cook up between us, only to throw out to the chickens. He finds our yard to be a veritable banquet."
Lord Asher laughed. "He will be your friend for life. If you are sure you will be quite alright then. It is nice to see you, even if it is for a brief moment. After all the company leaves, you will be welcome to come back to enjoy having the library all to yourself once again," he assured her smiling.
"Thank you. Good day, then, Lord Asher." But just before she turned to leave, Faithful saw someone pull back the curtains a slight bit to observe them. She thought for sure she saw some claws."
Just to scandalize the window observer a little more, she took off her bonnet and swung it by the strings as she tramped home. She waved at Lord Asher who had remained at his doorstep watching her.
Just before she arrived back at home, a wagon pulled by stout oxen rolled up appearing out of a near field and stopped. A burly man pulled off his cap and said, "Be ye the sister of Ben, m'lady?"
"Well, yes. I am Miss Harper," she said uneasily. She looked but no one else was about and the fellow appeared to be a little rough around the edges. Faithful realized in that moment that she had indeed led a very protected life. Mohican emitted a low growl. So she took another step back from the wagon and grabbed the dog's collar.
He scowled at the dog, then grinned at her. "I'm David the butcher. The lot of us has been anxious to meet the new lady in town." His smile showed gapping teeth. His squinted eyes were not pleasant though as they roved over her from head to toe."
"Nice to meet you sir. I must be on my way now. Come, Mohican." The dog snarled in parting.
"Have your brother bring ye to the Chequers Ale House sometime and I'll buy you a pint," he grinned.
She hurried on without responding, glad to have Mohican as her companion. She would have been much more fearful without him. She did suppose then that there were worst strangers than the ones from London perhaps. Once home, she rewarded the dog with a chunk of meat in spite of Lizzie's protest. He deserved it today.
Faithful did not leave their house for the next several days. She now had even less desire to visit the village, and the dread of the ball grew until she was a nervous wreck. She supposed her dress she had ordered for her graduation, which now was never to be, would have to suffice. She checked her dancing slippers only to find they had a hole worn in the bottom of one. So she slit open a torn kid glove and did her best to patch it. The afternoon of the dance, she bathed, washed her hair and sat while Lizzie tried again and again to do something with it.
"Oh, my darling, my crooked hands are getting too old for such doings. I'm sorry dearie, but you'll have to fix it yourself."
Faithful kissed her on the cheek. "That's alright. I will keep it simple. I don't care if I don't impress those London ladies. I much prefer a simple country life. Besides, as Jane Austen says, "Nobody is healthy in London, nobody can be."
"Who's Jane Austen, dear? Is she one of your old schoolmates?"
Faithful chuckled. "No, she's an authoress I admire.
Later that night when she came down the stairs to where her brother was waiting, he whistled. Having his admiration, even though it was a brotherly sort, was enough to bolster her confidence to get out of the chair and go out the door.
"You know I hate this, Ben," she said as he helped her up into one of Lord Asher's rigs he insisted upon them borrowing.
"I know, but I appreciate it. He is my boss after all, besides being my best friend. We can't turn him down. A ball is the last thing he would ever want to do, but I confess he did this for you, so you could circulate in a finer society than our little village affords and perhaps meet a potential suitor."
She felt the color drain from her face, so she turned away from her brother before he noticed. "That may have been a noble thought, but if you had asked me, I would most emphatically denied desiring such an effort." No, she would not, could not cry. Faithful managed to blink the tears away in the wind of a cold night, but her hands would not stop shaking. "You do know I will refuse to dance, so I don't know how I will impress any gentleman from London. And by the way, I met David the butcher earlier in the week. He suggested that you bring me down to the Ale House, and he'd buy me a pint."
Ben snorted, "That's what I'm saying. There is no one here that I would want to come nigh you. That's why Ash cooked up this plot."
"This plot? What a thing to say, Ben. I've half a mind to make you take me back home!"
"Oh please, we didn't mean it like that. Ash would skin me alive if he knew I spoke of it in such a manner. You must admit, it is very generous of him to do this for you."
"I don't wish to impinge on any more of his generosity in the future," she said gritting her teeth. She might even forgo any more trips to his library. The more upset she became, the more sure she was that she would not wish to see his face ever again, for that matter. "I'll tell you what. I will stay for one hour, sitting on the sidelines. If you do not take me home after that hour, I will walk home with Mohican as my escort."
"That's pure ingratitude, Faithful. I thought better of you," he growled grinding his teeth. "It will look bad on me as well, to tell the truth."
"You are first and foremost his hireling. I don't know anyone else who would invite his steward to a ball. We will probably be sneered upon all evening anyway. I'd rather be put out of my misery as soon as possible. You may stay as long as you wish, however, or as long as you can stand it."
"You forget, I am the son of a gentleman. These are my peers from the university. Some of them are old friends. Just because I haven't kept up by writing letters, doesn't mean I have forgotten them."
"I am the illegitimate daughter of a gentleman, as you once pointed out. Who knows who Lizzie has spilled that tasty bit of gossip to in the village."
"Faithful Harper! You must stop this immediately! I won't have you acting this way." He yelled it so loudly, that she was afraid they could hear it up at the big house.
She bit her lip and looked away. "Sorry. If I get too nervous, I'll just go outside and throw up in the bushes."
He pulled the gig to a stop. "If you can't do this, Faithful, I will turn this around and take you home and tell, Ash that you aren't feeling well. Then when they all are gone, I will tell him the truth, that you refused his kindness."
"I will stay for an hour," she said flatly. By now, her temples were pounding with a headache and truly her stomach was nauseous, however she allowed her brother to help her out.
The bright candlelight hurt her eyes coming in from the night. Mrs. Howorth greeted them after the servants took their cloaks. She thought of one of Jane Austen's quotes, "She believed that she must submit to feel that another lesson, in the art of knowing our own nothingness beyond our own circle, was becoming necessary for her."
"Welcome." The woman's lips smiled in spite of the tension around her eyes. "Come let me introduce you around," she offered.
Ben squeezed her arm reminding her to behave.
She was a grouse among peacocks. Her plain dress was nothing like the plumes, and jewels, and finery of the other gowns. The men were nearly as the animal kingdom looking more colorful than the female species. Her eyes felt like crossing meeting so many and trying to remember their names. She took a deep breath reminding herself that there were more who had attended her small school's balls than were here in actuality. She thanked a gentleman who pressed a cup of punch into her hands. As she looked about, she saw Lord Asher with a lovely young woman on his arm, not Miss Hunter. When he saw her, he looked back down speaking to his partner and slowly guided her over to meet them.
"Miss Harper, I'd like you to meet Miss Hill. She is one of my sister's dearest friends."
As much as she wanted to dislike the woman, she was enchanted, from her pleasant laugh to her dimples, to her golden hair and unaffected manner. "Oh, I'd hoped to meet you before tonight as Ash has told me all about you."
She glanced up at him, but he looked away. "It's nice to meet you, Miss Hill." For the first time all evening she began to relax that is, until a young man sidled up waiting for an introduction.
"And this is Miss Hill's brother, Sir Edwin Hill. Edwin, may I present Miss Harper."
"Enchante," he said lifting her hand to kiss. "No wonder Ash loves the country life with such robust beauty. Would you care to dance?"
And to everyone's surprise, especially her own, she said yes.
As she followed the patterned steps of the dance that had been drilled into her from all her many dance lessons. Faithful was surprised to see her brother also dancing, with Miss Hill even. She did not see Lord Ash, however. Fortunately, the dance left little time to talk. Perhaps she would accept two or three more before going home. It was better than sitting along the side trying to make small talk with people she would never meet again.
Faithful felt Miss Hunter's eyes upon her from time to time, but as long as she did not come near Lord Asher, the woman would keep her claws in.
She had just whispered to her brother that she was leaving after the fourth dance, when Lord Asher came up to her to ask for a dance. She nodded but refused to look at him. Being with him now brought memories of when she had first danced with him in years before. Even through the intricate steps of the dance, she managed to thank him for the ball.
"I was surprised to see you dancing, Miss Harper, but pleasantly so. 'This is an evening of wonders indeed,'" he added with a wink before the dance steps moved him away. He admired her in her muslin among the silks and satins.
When they came back together she asked, "Sense and Sensibility?"
He laughed and said, "I finally stumped you. It's 'Pride and Prejudice.'"
He gazed at her and said, "You look lovely."
She laughed as if he was in jest, then said, "Now I must give one smirk, and then we may be rational again."
"I can't begin to guess that one," he said frowning.
"Northhanger Abbey," she told him.
"You do not know how your beauty shines, Miss Harper."
"She hardly knew how to suppose that she could be an object of admiration to so great a man," she quoted.
"That's easy. 'Pride and Prejudice,' once again.'" But he was still frowning.
"How's this? 'A single woman with a very narrow income must be a ridiculous disagreeable, old maid! the proper sport of boys and girls; but a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as anybody else.'"
He accidently came down on her toe, and they missed a step just as the dance ended.
His eyes bore into hers with his brows drawn. "Please, Faithful, don't disparage yourself."
"It was "Emma,"" she said as she hurried away with tears smarting her eyes. She sought out her brother and pulled him aside. "Please, Ben. I'd like to go home now. I behaved nicely, but this is my limit. You could come right back if you wish."
He scowled but agreed and escorted her to the door. She stopped and thanked Mrs. Howorth on the way out. Miss Hunter was standing beside her and seemed to gloat like a puffed up pigeon.
She put her hood over her head and hurried out beside her brother. "Really, Faithful. I don't understand you. You seemed to be having a fine time once you allowed yourself to. But I am coming back. Miss Hill promised me another dance. I just hope I don't miss it," he growled.
"Thank you." But she thought to herself a quote from "Mansfield Park, "What strange creatures brothers are!" She remembered him as the boy who hated dancing lessons even more than she did.
She wanted to sleep late the next day, but the rooster seemed to think otherwise. This morning she wanted coffee, not tea, to try and rid herself of her headache.
"So, tell yer old Lizzie all about it! I wanted to sit up and wait until ye got home, but fell asleep in me chair. Leo bade me come to bed." Her eagerness put Faithful to shame.
"You've never seen so many candles, Lizzie. They were everywhere. I would guess there were thirty guests or so. Almost all were their friends from London." She bit back her pang that Sir Asher had invited them so that she might find a suitor from among them. "The food was lovely. So many kinds of small sandwiches, petit fours, cream puffs. The punch must have been made with lemons and bowls full of sugar. Lord Asher certainly did not spare any expenses. The musicians must have come from Oxford. It was a violin, a flute and a recorder.
"And who did ye dance with, my darling?" her old nanny eagerly asked.
"With a Mr. Hill, a Sir somebody, and a Lord somebody, and finally with Lord Asher."
"Oh, dear, you can't remember their names, them being fancy men and all?"
She laughed. "No, but I won't be seeing them again anyway, you may be assured."
"I forgot to tell you yesterday, with all the agitation over the ball, but a letter came for ye, Faithful," Lizzie said. She pulled it from her apron pocket.
Faithful made sure that the seal had not been broken, then said thank you. She read the letter over once, then twice. "It is from a classmate from school. Her father has a small academy in their home over in Hillingdon, and they've asked me to come teach some of the classes for the young ladies. It seems their other female teacher ran off with one of the male instructors."
"Ye won't be leaving us, will ye?" Lizzie asked worrying her apron into a wad.
"I have to consider it, dear Lizzie and pray about it," she responded. But in Faithful's own mind, this was God's way of answering the prayers she already had prayed. She would go. It would give a purpose to her life and give her brother space in case he formed an attachment. Ben was of the age he should marry. So she went upstairs to pack quietly knowing her old nanny would not come upstairs and find her.
Her trunk was ready when her brother came home. He was grouchy having been up at Asher Hall half the night, and still had risen early with the workers. A gray drizzle did not help his mood when he came in sopping wet.
"Come warm yourself in front of the fire. I have something I must tell you." She knew he would be unhappy, and was already vexed with her.
"I have as well, Faithful. Sir Edwin Hill is hoping to extend his visit. He seems to have formed an attraction to a certain maiden of Lancashire," he grinned. "I'm to ask you to come and dine tonight. It will be only Miss Hill and her brother Edwin still there. It seems the entire company from London could not wait to return from whence they came not being fond of the country."
"I will if you'll agree to take me to the stage on the morrow. I am accepting an offer to teach in Hillingdon with a former classmate."
"What! I will agree to no such thing, Faithful! You belong here with me. This is our family's livelihood right here where we are. I am happy to support you. There is no need for you to go off and work like some...some..."
"Spinster? Old Maid? Face it, Ben. If you were to marry we would instantly be too crowded here. I must take the opportunity as it comes. I believe it is an answer to prayer, in fact. Perchance, I will meet some knight in shining armor there since, as you said yourself, there is no one suitable here for me."
"He grimaced. "You won't be an old maid, silly. Don't even countenance that notion. What about Sir Edwin?"
"He is of another class, Ben. Besides, Hillingdon is not far from London anyway. He may call on me there if he is truly interested beyond a country flirtation."
Ben sank into a chair and put his head in his hands. "This isn't what I want, Faithful. We are family, the only family we've got is each other."
"I will still come home now and again. It isn't far."
Dear old Lizzie was salting the soup with her tears. "And I had just got me girl back 'ome," she sighed.
"You will come to supper then?" he sighed.
"Not because I want to, but I will do it for you. However, I do not want this to be a topic of conversation. It is not something I want announced until after I am gone. Can you promise me that?"
"I don't know why, but I'll try," he growled.
Since she had already packed her clothes, she went up and shook out her second best dress. She would wear it tonight and then on the stage tomorrow. At least she had not stayed so long that she had formed many sentimental attachments here. She would miss of course her brother, her dear old nanny and her husband Leo, and Mohican. Evidently Lord Asher was fond of James Fenimore Cooper having named his dog after the main character. She would ask him tonight. It was a shame though, that this would be her last time at Asher Hall and with it the chance to read Adam Clarke's commentary. Faithful had to admit to herself, she would miss those witty exchanges with Lord Asher. He had astounded her by choosing to quote from her favorite author.
That evening was much nicer than the when the room was crowded with guests. Now it was only five of them seated at the table. The candlelight reached its fingers to stroke across each face. Lord Asher, however, was not in a good mood.
"Lord Asher, that was a lovely ball. Thank you for inviting us here," Miss Hill said smiling with her dimples drawing her brother Ben's rapt attention.
"What did you think of it, Miss Harper?" Lord Ash speared her with his glance. "I remember you quoting once that 'there are some people who cannot bear a party of pleasure.'"
"Every moment has its pleasures and its hope," she replied with another quote from Jane Austen.
"I don't recall where I've heard that before, but the line sounds familiar," he sat back with his eyebrow quirked.
"I believe it is from 'Mansfield Park,'" she said stirring the butter melting into her potatoes.
He leaned over and said to her quietly, "I believe neither of us perform to strangers." His other guests had been curious about their unusual exchange but now were conversing amongst themselves.
"Pride and Prejudice," she said as a smile quivered on her lips. "It is not time or opportunity that is to determine intimacy; it is disposition alone. Seven years would be insufficient to make some people acquainted with each other, and seven days are more than enough for others."
"How would you categorize our relationship, Miss Harper?" He looked sharply at her.
As she stared at him, she noticed the dark pupils in his eyes enlarged with interest like an eclipse of the deep brown ringed with black under his thick lashes and eyebrows. She was once again struck by his most excellent appearance and could hardly tear her eyes away from his.
"I believe we are well enough acquainted for you to know the answer to that," she quipped.
His smile relaxed. "I believe you are right."
Then the company drew them into the general table conversation. But once again, her brother let slip things intended for only family to know.
"Hillingdon, it is not too far from London, is it?" he asked Sir Edwin.
"I believe it is relatively close. Why do you ask?"
Faithful felt like using her spoon to shoot peas at her brother like buckshot. How dare he reveal her plans!
Now Ben looked cornered and swallowed glancing at his sister before saying, "You might as well all know that Faithful will be teaching there, leaving on the morrow."
Faithful sighed as these two she had just been acquainted with caused a tempest in a teapot over this announcement, exactly what she hoped to avoid. However, Lord Asher sat back with his arms crossed over his chest and said nothing only glaring at her. His dessert lay untouched.
She quoted with forced lightness, "If adventures will not befall a young lady in her own village, she must seek them abroad."
Once again, Lord Asher leaned in so closely this time that she could feel his warm breath on her ear as he said softly, "What adventures in your own village would you desire to keep you here?"
Faithful could only shake here head and blink back inexplicable tears. She swallowed hard and said, "As Jane Austen wisely once said, 'I wish, as well as everybody else, to be perfectly happy; but, like everybody else, it must be in my own way.'"
Lord Asher said nothing the rest of the evening looking ever so much like a black rain cloud with the candlelight flickering over his scowl.
"Then may I call upon you then in Hillingdon, Miss Harper? In fact, there is no need for you to take the public stage. You may ride in our carriage with us when we depart on the morrow. It is not too much out of the way to take you there to your new school as we return to London," Sir Edwin said with a pleasing smile.
"That would be perfect, just capitol!" her brother said. "Then I won't have to worry about her traveling by herself. Thank you indeed!" Ben beamed, but only looked at Miss Hill with cow eyes. Faithful could hardly stand to watch her brother so smitten. She had thought Miss Hill was interested in Lord Asher, but of all things, the young woman had been placing all her attentions on Ben. It seems that their family had come on hard times as well, and so she did not aspire higher, but seemed happy to oblige her brother's attraction.
Faithful looked again at Sir Edwin. He feigned no gooey eyes upon her but was an amiable, mildly pleasant, sort of man, one who had not yet had a fire set under him. He was striking in appearance, she supposed, the kind that drew eyes whether walking down the street or across a ballroom floor with his smart dressing. But there was no spark, no burning ember in his soul that she could detect. Nevertheless, she smiled effortlessly at him as if he were a mere mannequin of a man.
Lord Asher made some sound somewhere between a growl and a snort and got up and excused himself from their company, rather odd for a host.
As the evening wore on, they got up a game of whist. Lord Asher came back in with a book which he ignored in his hand and kept his eyes on her. Finally, when the ladies could no longer hide their yawning, she was able to tear her brother away from his alluring Miss Hill.
As she was donning her cloak, Lord Asher came up and spoke only to her ignoring Ben as he was effusing a long goodbye to Miss Hill. "I believe you are making a grave mistake in leaving."
The quote came to mind, "I will be calm. I will be mistress of myself," but she said to him, "Lord Asher, it is not in me to be a burden on anyone. Someday, probably not in the too distant future, my brother will fill his home with his own family, as you will yourself. Opportunity knocked, so I opened the door. That is all. In the words of our dear Jane, "We are sent into this world to be as extensively useful as possible."
"I bare my soul and ask you not to leave," he said in a very low voice with the deepest sincerity, so deep that it moved her. However she was resolved.
"I have no pretensions whatever to that kind of elegance which consists in tormenting a respectable man." Then she went on, "I am only resolved to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me."
He tipped her face to look at him. "Miss Harper, it is in a time such as this that I would that I could speak to you, and you alone and not to Jane Austen. As fond as I am of her, I'm much fonder of you. She does not touch the passion in your heart concealed by self restraint," he said looking almost longingly at her.
"Then I will freely speak for myself and say that I esteem you greatly, Lord Asher. You are the finest gentleman indeed I could ever wish to meet, and I am a better person for having been invited into your inner circle, I wager more than most of your acquaintances. And for that I am truly grateful, more than you can ever know. You who have remained kind even though you know the worst about me. So when the David-the-butchers in this world give me a nod, I know that true gentlemen exist and will walk on."
His eyes were burning right through her now and he lowered his voice even more and said in a gravel, "And when the insipid very nice, but paper thin Sir Edwins of this world give you a nod, you can see at a glance that there is nothing there to hold your interest?"
She could not answer him or look at him any longer without falling apart which she refused to do. So she left and waited for her brother out in the cold. To her surprise, Lord Asher followed her out, put his arms around her and kissed her before she knew what was happening. It was more than a mere farewell kiss. Once again he left her having stirred that part in her heart that she had walked about these past years holding tightly to. And once again, there was no time for more as her brother came out looking between them wondering what he missed.
"Goodbye, Miss Harper." With that, Lord Asher went back inside shutting the door behind him.
"Ready?" Ben asked.
They said little on the way home as she walked on frost encrusted ground. She pulled her cloak a little closer and wiped the occasional tear that fell. Ben, however, was floating on air.
Faithful waited to say her goodbyes in the morning after rising early, but just tried to stay busy. The Hill's carriage would come pick her and her trunk up a little later since they were not early risers. That gave her time to practice making biscuits one more time with Lizzie hoping that they would not turn out as hard as rocks as usual. The chicken yard was full of those kind of samples for the biddies to peck at. Lo and behold, for once they were tolerable. Even Ben remarked upon it as he slathered another with butter. Of course he had then left to hurry over to hover at Asher Hall waiting for the Miss Hill to come down the stairs one more time before bidding her farewell again. For him, "parting was such sweet sorrow."
Faithful was looking forward to getting to know the exemplary young lady better. However, she felt that she knew all there was to know about Sir Edwin already. Faithful determined to be polite when finally ensconced in the carriage, their laps covered by a heavy wool blanket. Still their breaths made little vapory white clouds as they said their last goodbyes.
Her brother clasped her saying, "You know, you will always have a home with me."
"Thank you and I love you dearly, Ben." She wiped the steady rain of tears as they poured down.
He was her world.
She was all astonishment when the whole trip proved Miss Hill was made of pure sugar. The young woman wasn't born with a contentious bone in her body. What a rare gem, the kind who should be cherished! But, is it possible to be too nice? In Faithful's experience, she decided she liked a little more spice, even a shake or two of pepper now and then, not discounting Miss Hill's merits mind you. As for Sir Edwin, the carriage seemed to rock him to sleep like a baby. He spent the entire trip with his mouth hanging wide open. Since his sister sat beside him while Faithful was across, the sweet thing probably never noticed.
Once they arrived at the manor house--turned--academy, her friend met them at the gate. Sir Edwin reiterated that he would probably come calling, kissing her hand, but Faithful seriously doubted it. Miss Hill kissed Faithful on both cheeks and parted like they had been dearest of friends for ever. As hard as it was to admit, she was probably perfect for her brother. However, if Ben succeeded in wooing the sugar sweet Miss Hill, it would be uncomfortable for Faithful to remain. It was divinely appointed, she reasoned, to have been offered this position.
The driver hefted her trunk up three flights of stairs to her room. The bedroom was even smaller than the one she had just left, but it made no difference. There was room for a bed, her trunk, a wash basin and a small table to place a candle upon. There was no wardrobe, but hooks for her clothing. The walls were brighter than a Turkish market stall with all the colorful fabric of her dresses hanging after she unpacked. It was too much. So she put all but her serviceable ones back in the trunk.
When the dinner bell rang, Faithful went down. The family ate in a separate dining room than the children, teachers, and other staff. Such horrible soup was served that she thought her and Lizzie's worst meal could have been regarded as fit for the king in comparison. If Faithful had not been so hungry, she would not have allowed it past her lips. It was necessary to pick mold off the rolls which were served without butter. The children were not allowed to speak. If they raised their hand for help or had a question and if it was deemed frivolous, they had their hand slapped. The children returned to their rooms without candles and were allowed a little free time before ordered to bed. Their bedrooms were unheated. Hers was hardly better in the attic room. Faithful was appalled. She sought out her friend.
How long has your family run this academy?" She whispered to her former classmate.
"For my whole life, she answered calmly. It is actually a school for the older children from the foundling home who would otherwise be living on the streets.
"Don't you worry that the children are cold and ill fed?"
"They obviously get enough sustenance, and the cold is good for their constitution, the doctor assures us. Why all these questions, Faithful?"
"I find this intolerable. Have you tasted what the children are given to eat? Have you been where the children are forced to sleep and felt the bitter cold? I dare you to walk in their rooms even now and see how it feels."
"Why Faithful, I thought you would be thankful for a position. Didn't you have to leave school because your brother could not provide for you?" she said.
"Not at all. He has a very good position as steward of Lord Asher's estate with a comfortable house for us with servants." She knew that was stretching it, but she was trying to make a point. "I came because I wanted to teach children and instruct them in the ways of God. I had no idea I would see such mistreatment."
"Humphff," her classmate said. Faithful refused to think of her as a friend any longer. "I will pass on your concerns to my father, but I imagine he will be more than happy to dismiss you without a letter of recommendation. Here I thought you would be grateful that I had done you a good turn."
The difficulty lay in the fact that Faithful was truly unprepared to face the real world. Why, she had not even thought to ask her brother for some money for an emergency, such as fare to return home if needed. Until she was paid, Faithful had no where else to go. She would write her brother, but did not even have a pittance for postage. She resolved to hug as many children as possible while she was there.
Yet it was the nights which were the hardest. Her mind kept reminding her of every note exchanged from Asher Hall to hers. She most of all remembered his kiss, that tortuous kiss. What was she to think? He was a lord. She was merely the sister of his steward. He was at the pinnacle and she was stuck in the mud at the bottom, and never the twain shall meet.
She sighed and thought of the quote from Mansfield Park, "It was a gloomy prospect, and all she could do was to throw a mist over it, and hope when the mist cleared away, she should see something new." But every morning when she woke up shivering, it was as dreary as ever. So far she had not been dismissed at least. Upon receiving her first wages, she would be gone. The children's plight would need to be made known, however. That was the best she could do for them.
"Her own thoughts and reflections were habitually her best companions." This was the newest quote she copied into her Tome of Curiosities. It was from "Mansfield Park," the book she was currently rereading before she had to snuff out her candle.
Then the notes began coming. Each one written on different paper, but in a familiar hand. The first one said, "Each neighborhood should have a great lady." That was it. Nothing else. She was confounded. It wasn't a quote she was familiar with. The paper was delicate and very thin.
Two days later, another one arrived. This one was written on a different letterhead, one from a London haberdashery. It said, "No one can think more highly of the understanding of women than I do. In my opinion, nature has given them so much, that they never find it necessary to use more than half." Faithful wasn't sure which book it was from since it was not one she had copied into her little book. She was stumped.
The next quote however sent her heart racing. It came just a few days later. "I cannot fix on the hour, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun." It was written on the letterhead of The Red Lion Lodge in London. That one was from "Pride and Prejudice," she was sure. But why was Lord Asher sending these missives as if to continue their correspondence, though they were not addressed as the prior notes that had been sent?
The fourth one arrived the next day. The school master was not happy for her to be receiving so many letters, but he handed it over glaring. It said, "There could have been no two hearts so open, no tastes so similar, no feelings so in unison." Faithful wasn't sure if it was from "Sense and Sensibilities" or "Persuasion," but she felt positively light headed. A lesser woman would have been in a swoon by now.
"The fifth note she recognized from "Persuasion." It said, "Your countenance perfectly informs me that you were in company last night with the person whom you think the most agreeable in the world, the person who interests you at this present time more than all the rest of the world put together." The breath she took in seemed to stick inside her chest around the area of her heart making her feel lightheaded. Finally she whooshed it out needing several smaller breaths to compensate. It was written on a piece of stationary with a picture of Queen Victoria, their new royalty who had just been crowned. Faithful wondered if Lord Asher might be in London to attend Parliament, especially at such a time as this. Did he actually get to see the coronation ceremony?
The sixth letter arrived after a particularly trying day when she watched a young boy be switched leaving welts all over him. If she did not have these letters to treasure, she did not know how she could have survived all this. When she broke the seal, she was in all astonishment! It said, "A man does not recover from such devotion of the heart to such a woman! He ought not; he does not." She wept. The note had been scribbled on the back of a paper that appeared to be notes and figures from Parliament. It had been wadded up, then smoothed out."
When the seventh letter arrived, she could not believe her eyes for it said, "A most fortunate man he is to attach himself to such a creature--to a woman who, firm as a rock in her own principles, has a gentleness of character so well adapted to recommend them. He has chosen his partner, indeed, with rare felicity." It was much, much later before she could get her erratic heart back in order.
The following letter was delivered early on the Sabbath by a special messenger and was brought up to her room. She opened it with a shaky hand. "You see, I am a very prosaic, unromantic, sensible sort of fellow myself; and I have always had my heart set on finding the most sensible, prudent, levelheaded wife in the world. But, on the other hand, it is very important to me that she possess one very particular flaw: she must have no sense whatsoever where I myself am concerned." Faithful laughed joyfully. Then she read the post script, "You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope...I have loved none but you." She sat stunned.
Her classmate came by and knocked on her door in passing saying, "Hurry, we mustn't be late for church."
Faithful had been allowed warm water to bathe and wash her hair last night and felt better now than she had since arriving. They would be walking with the children to a nearby church this morning. But she slipped the letter into her pocket. It had been written on a very plain piece of paper, but the sentiments written there were priceless.
Walking down the stairs, she had one hand on the banister, and one in her pocket holding the note. Her eyes were down, but lifted as someone spoke her name with a quiet reverence. It was Lord Asher. Here. All propriety aside, she flew into his arms. He kissed the top of her head, her eyes and found her lips.
"Miss Harper! This will not do!"
"Excuse me," her beloved said. "Allow me to introduce myself. I am Lord Asher." He still had his arm around her waist but the matron paled considerably.
Her husband came marching in, "Are the children lined up and ready? If we are late, everyone, staff included, will be on half..." he stopped in front of the tall, elegantly dressed gentleman and paused startled. "And you sir are?" he asked puffing up like a banty rooster.
"This is Lord Asher, dear." Then she whispered to her husband though they could still hear, "He isn't one of those big uppity ups on the Foundling's Board of Directors, is he?"
"I've come to take Miss Harper to church with me." He helped her on with her cloak and with his hand at her back, guided her out the door and down the steps, not waiting for a reply. When half a block down the street, she fell apart, giggling and crying all at once.
Finally, as soon as she could compose herself, she said, "That place is a house of horrors. Those poor children. I could not have survived this past week without your notes or have I just imagined them?" she laughed shakily, but pulled the most recent one out of her pocket. "No, they are real,"
she said gazing up into his tender eyes and put here hand on his cheek. "As are you. But I must confess, I have one particular flaw: I have no sense whatsoever where you yourself are concerned."
Lord Asher threw back his head and laughed. "That is the best news I can hear. It is better than seeing our new Queen take the throne. He kissed her unceremoniously for all to see, then "They walked on, without knowing in what direction. There was too much to be thought, and felt, and said, for attention to other objects." (That, dear reader, is a quote from "Pride and Prejudice")