Is it not strange, dear Friends, that a lady must conceal her ankle at any cost, but that all who wish may look upon her wrist, though they perform a similar task for the extremities of their respective limb? And as peculiar a notion that a gentleman must wreathe his throat about with collar upon collar, with jabot or necktie - and yet his sister will bare her throat and comely neck to the gaze of society, and incur no reprimand?
Likewise the embrace of a mother or a sister we consider to be natural and most agreeable to observe: but should a handshake linger a moment too long, or the accidental touch of an arm (or worse) be thought deliberate, we are shocked and offended on behalf of tender Morality, and many such an incidental caress has resulted in marriage - or an inability ever hence to procure one.
Such are the vagaries of Society, and while we abide most willingly by these laws of decorum, yet we cannot help but observe that that which is hidden from us may become all the more desirable to obtain: the touch which is denied us may engender a hunger beyond bearing for the comforting warmth of another’s hand.
Miss Wolfe, the eldest of an ever increasing number of sisters, had long been thought the most beautiful young lady in Holby society, and had been sought after by suitors from all over the county. As yet, she had never accepted so much as an invitation to a ball, let alone a proposal of marriage. She feared that acceptance of the former might encourage a proliferation of the latter, and so far was she from wishing to enter a state of matrimony that she endeavoured to make herself so entirely disagreeable to any gentleman worthy the name, that the only suitors bold or foolish enough to pursue her were considered far beneath the station deemed appropriate by her parents, Colonel Henry Wolfe and his wife, who had wished her own unfortunate name upon her eldest daughter, as though the name that her father had chosen were not burden enough, thus condemning the young woman to carry the cumbersome title of Berenice Griselda Wolfe though life.
Her means of discouraging unwelcome attention included (but were hardly confined to) walking for miles in the Wyvernshire countryside, regardless of the weather; of studying books from her father’s library which, being largely on topics of military strategy, the natural sciences and medicine were hardly considered suitable reading matter for a young lady, and cultivating a voice so strong and bold in tone that her detractors had declared her quite the goose.
And yet Berenice was so perfectly happy in her wild ways that her father had not the heart to insist upon her taming. Were it not for her mother, life at Keller Hall might have continued as it was without interruption or inconvenience. But Mrs Wolfe was as firm an enforcer of Propriety as she was its disciple, and she was adamant that her daughters should not wed until Berenice was established as the lady of her own house. As Berenice’s twenty-fifth birthday drew near, her attempts to persuade her strong willed daughter to accept an invitation to the Spring ball came more frequently and more forcefully than ever before, and it was the interfering remarks of a visiting aunt that finally brought matters to a head.
“To attain the age of five and twenty and not yet to have come out - my dear, it is too much to bear! I must insist - positively insist, I say, that you attend the ball this year. The very finest of Holby will be at the Darwin Pump Rooms on Friday eve, and if you are not among them, I shall die of shame!”
“I am delighted to reassure you, Madame,” replied her niece, “that there is no likelihood whatever of your expiring through such an insubstantial symptom as shame. Of undernourishment, perhaps,” she continued, looking disparagingly at the meagre portion her aunt had allowed to be perched on her plate, and which she was now prodding listlessly with a fork, “or perhaps of too much sugar in the blood - do not think that I do not know of the bonbons you conceal among your handkerchiefs in your chamber. Such sweetmeats give no goodness to the body, and may hasten your demise more rapidly than any discomfort you have regarding my independence. I prescribe a total avoidance of sweet confections and a diet of good red meat and potatoes. Digby, another chop for my aunt, if you please! And tell Shreve that there is a jar of bonbons in the guest chamber that she may give to her sisters and brother. Thank you, Digby, just so. Eat up, Aunt!”
And Berenice turned away from her aunt as though the matter was quite done with, and tucked heartily into her own supper. Her mother fixed her with a stern eye; her sisters gazed upon her with awe - though Chloë, who at nineteen wished most fervently to see her sister married soon, scowled furiously - but Colonel Wolfe looked at Berenice, and his war wound must have been troubling him, for one eye twitched as he smiled at her.
The next morning dawned fair, though the last chills of winter still insinuated their way between Berenice’s coat and scarf as she strode out towards Fanshawe Ridge. There was good walking to be had there, and she was unlikely to encounter anyone else, as few were foolhardy enough to brave the rocky slopes and the slippery banks at this time of year. A few hobnails in her boots were more than enough to equip her for the walk, though, and she set off confidently.
She was startled, therefore, when she heard a voice hail her an hour later.
“Good morning!” cried a voice, cheery and strong. She turned in astonishment to see a young woman of perhaps her own age approaching her from the northern end of the ridge. She wore a coat and bonnet not fully warm enough for the season, Berenice judged, over a dress which she could tell had seen better days, its hem spattered in the same mud that almost completely obscured her boots.
“Good day to you, Madame,” she returned. “Are you lost? I can direct you to the safest path back to Holby if you require it.”
The young woman laughed, and it was quite the most delightful thing that Berenice had ever heard. Sparkling brown eyes met her own, and she grinned to see the mischief in those eyes, grinning all the wider at the charming smile that accompanied the laughter.
“Not lost, thank you - that is, exactly as lost as I wish to be. I find it so freeing to allow oneself to be just a little lost sometimes, don’t you? You must be Miss Wolfe, I think? Serena McKinnie. How do you do?”
Berenice took the hand that was offered in amazement, pressing it for a moment, and it seemed to her that she could feel the warmth of the other woman’s hand even through their two pairs of gloves.
“The pleasure is all mine,” she replied, “but however did you know my name?”
Miss McKinnie smiled conspiratorially. “Wild as a hare and twice as mad - that’s how you have been described to me, and when I saw you marching along the path like an infantryman, I knew it must be you.”
“If you will believe it, I have had less flattering descriptions,” Berenice admitted ruefully, warming immediately to the frankness and merry demeanour of her companion.
Miss McKinnie winked. “They forgot to say, and three times as handsome,” she added. “Will you permit me to accompany you for a while, or should you like to walk alone?”
Berenice, who always shunned company whenever possible, and who though of this ridge as her own inviolable kingdom, found herself saying, “I should very much enjoy your company,” and even more strangely, entirely meaning it.
They walked together for a long while, Miss McKinnie keeping pace with Berenice’s impatient stride easily. Berenice learned that the other woman had lately come to Holby from Brighton following the death of her father, and the discovery that he had recently lost a great sum of money. Her mother had been forced to retrench, and unable to remain in their home, had taken a small house in Holby, where they were obliged to live far more modestly than had been their habit previously.
“I do not mind it so very much, but my mother feels it terribly,” Miss McKinnie confided. “It is hard not to conclude that my dear father’s death was hastened by whatever financial misfortune befell him - though of what nature that may have been, we are quite ignorant.”
“Was he the kind of man to place wagers?” Berenice enquired. “Or had he extravagant habits? Have a care, this part of the path is treacherous.” She offered her arm to Miss McKinnie, but she had no need of it. She was as nimble as Berenice herself.
“Extravagant? Not at all, I assure you. He was a very sober man, and I know that he had put aside a generous sum against the day I should marry, but that had disappeared along with his other investments. It is a mystery I simply cannot understand,“ she said with a frown.
Any reply Berenice might have made was forgotten in an instant as Miss McKinnie slipped on the moss beneath the smooth sole of her boots, and although she managed to take most of the weight of the fall on her hands, one foot had twisted painfully beneath her, and she gave a little gasp of pain as she tried to stand. Berenice knelt at her side at once.
“Are you hurt? Tell me where - show me,” she commanded, and she took the foot carefully, flexing Miss McKinnie’s ankle this way and that as gently as she could. “I do not think it is broken,” she said, “but I should like to examine it more closely once we are somewhere warm and dry.”
She stood and took her bearings. “We are not fifteen minutes’ walk from the nearest hostelry,” she said. “Do you think you can walk with support? If not, I shall go ahead and come back with a horse, if you do not mind waiting alone.”
She helped the injured woman to her feet, and after a few experimental steps, Miss McKinnie declared that she was fit to attempt the walk. Berenice slung an arm around her waist, and together they set off. With the injured ankle and the rough terrain, the walk was closer to an hour, and by the time the coaching inn came in sight, rain clouds had gathered. The first few drops fell as they entered, and with a sigh of relief and some assistance from her companion, Miss McKinnie gingerly lowered herself down onto a seat near the fire.
Berenice rapped smartly on the bar. “Mr Griffin! Hulloa there - step to it, Griffin! There’s a damsel in distress here - not myself,” she added hastily.
The landlord stepped out from the back room, wiping his hands on a rag.
“Ah! Miss Wolfe - I thought I heard your dulcet tones. What’s all this hullabaloo about?”
Before too long, a boy had been dispatched to reassure Mrs McKinnie that Serena was safe, and this message delivered, he would ride on to Keller Hall and ask Colonel Wolfe to send the carriage to fetch them.
Mr Griffin provided them with a glass of wine to revive themselves, and bade them sit in the parlour, where he would ensure that no-one would enter while Miss Wolfe examined Miss McKinnie’s injury. He offered his arm as support, and once they were alone, Berenice knelt and unlaced the boot, easing it off as gently as she could.
“Pardon me, Miss McKinnie - it must be very painful, but I should like to be sure that you have not broken anything, and I may be able to make you more comfortable. I am no doctor, of course, but my knowledge of human anatomy is quite as detailed as any surgeon’s, thanks to my father’s library.”
She glanced up expecting to see tears or a grimace, but she was pleased to see that Miss McKinnie was made of stronger stuff than most of the young women she knew. Her lips were set in a firm line, but she said, “Do whatever you need to do. It is not so terribly painful, and I do not think it is badly damaged, but it would be as well to be sure. You need not treat me as though I were made of glass.”
Berenice took the ankle between her hands, noting a slight swelling beneath stockings which were of fine quality, though much mended, and a little resistance to her efforts to rotate it freely.
“There - I have finished. Just a sprain,” she confirmed with a smile. “Let me lift your foot up onto this stool, and I shall ask Griffin to bring linen to bind it - with rest and support you should be good as new in a few days. Now, let us see if there is food to be had - they serve a tremendous game pie here!”
The pie was indeed tremendous, and they ate as heartily as might anyone who had walked the length of Fanshawe Ridge.
“I am sorry indeed that our walk ended with your discomfort,” Berenice said, “for I was enjoying it greatly. I do not often walk with company, for I do not know any woman who likes to walk as I do, and certainly not as far or as briskly. I hope that when you have recovered, we might walk together again?”
“I should like that very well,” Miss McKinnie replied with an open smile. “And so, I imagine, should my mother. She oft berates me for my eccentric habits, and worries about my walking without a chaperone, so our arrangement will set her mind at rest. I have enjoyed our adventure very much, despite my foolish fall. I so hope that we will be able to meet again before long. I dare say your carriage will be here soon - I confess I almost wish it were not coming to our aid, that we could talk all evening!”
But several hours elapsed, and all the aid that arrived was the boy, tired and bedraggled from his ride through the rain: Mrs Wolfe had taken the carriage and the older girls to Bath, in great excitement over the arrival of the Wyvernshire Militia, recently arrived from France. The Colonel had written a brief note to convey this information, along with an assurance that the carriage would be sent for them the following day, and that no expense should be spared in securing comfortable lodgings for his daughter and Miss McKinnie, and the services of a doctor should the injury be beyond the capabilities of his daughter, though he trusted that it was not.
Mr Griffin grimaced a little at the news.
“I’m afraid that we shall be very full tonight, Miss Wolfe. There is a chamber yet to be allocated, but it is the only room left. I do not like to suggest it, but it is certainly large enough for two.”
Before Berenice could reply, Miss McKinnie had clapped her hands. “One room will do admirably, Mr Griffin. Did I not say we should talk all evening? Now we shall be able to talk into the night as well! We shall muddle along splendidly.” She turned to her companion.
“If we are to share a room, I believe we may dispense with formality. You must call me Serena.”
“Then you had better call me Berenice, I suppose.”
But Serena frowned, a little crease appearing between her brows.
“Oh, no, that does not suit you at all. I think I shall call you Bernie.”