The boy who had so doggedly ridden through the rain to bring word from Colonel Wolfe had also brought a parcel wrapped in oilskin against the weather. Inside were two fresh nightshifts and caps, along with sundry other items which would make the night and the following morning more comfortable, and Serena laughed as Berenice unwrapped the package.
“It seems your father is used to your propensity for adventure - do you suppose he had these survival rations ready packed for just such an emergency?”
“It would not greatly surprise me,” her friend replied. “My father is a military man, and though retired these several years, his habits have not changed. He is quite used to considering the practicalities of expeditions far more exotic than ours, and as an army surgeon, his first thought will have been to ensure the comfort of the patient - that is you, of course.”
“He sounds quite splendid,” Serena said admiringly.
“I certainly think so, though I am afraid that my mother finds it hard to adjust to his ways now that he is home for good, and expecting a household run with the rigour of his battalion.”
Serena looked at her shrewdly. “I dare say it is an adjustment for him as well,” she said. “But it seems to me that he has an ally and colleague in you, my dear. And you have really read his tomes on strategy and medicine?”
Berenice waved a dismissive hand. “Oh, they are not so very grand and complicated,” she said without guile. “The workings of the body are a marvellous thing, but truly, there is so much common sense in the medical literature that I wonder how anybody could fail to pick up at least the rudiments of the art. My greatest regret is that I cannot follow him into the profession, whether with the army or no. I must say,” she said, warming to her subject, “that I am quite baffled by the notion that ladies should be denied knowledge of anatomy and physiology - for have not we bodies, just as our brothers do?”
Serena tilted her head to one side and surveyed her new friend in clinical fashion, taking in her long frame, the slim shoulders and the slender neck belying a strength of bearing as firm as any man’s. The gown she wore was a plain, practical affair, chosen as it had been for the day’s walking that she had planned, but it was perfectly appropriate for their modest lodgings. It was cut according to the fashion, gathered under the bust and falling away in clean folds to the ankle, and though it disguised her figure, there was no denying that Berenice - or Bernie, as she had determined to call her - cut a very handsome figure indeed.
“A body you do appear to have indeed, Bernie, and a very fine one at that! I think your gowns must be made to measure, for I declare I never met a taller woman. And yet you stand so straight and strong! I cannot abide to see a tall woman slouching her shoulders and making less of herself in the world - why ever should we not take up our space as boldly as a man?” She gestured at herself, her hand sweeping up and down from head to toe. “I have not your height, my dear, but I am quite determined that I should not go about meekly and unnoticed, like the timid creatures with whom I was obliged to associate in Brighton! My body is my self in the world, and I refuse to be ashamed of it!” she cried, delivering her speech in a tone as merry as it was passionate.
Applauding her warmly, Berenice could yet not quite look Serena in the eye, though she could not say why, and she fiddled with the buttons on her boots until she felt quite collected. Serena’s words and the attention she had drawn to her own full and healthy figure had confused her somewhat, and it was a moment before she looked up, her equilibrium quite restored.
“Very well said, my dear. Now, shall we go and take up our space together in the dining room? Here, take my arm - I think your ankle will not quite support you.”
The dining room at the Griffin Arms was simply appointed, but clean and pleasant. A number of other guests were already seated to dine when Berenice and Serena made their entrance, arm in arm. Mr Griffin had thoughtfully provided them with a table not too far from the door, so that Serena would not have to hobble through the room, and which was tucked away discreetly behind a tall potted palm. Among the residing guests this evening was a party of several young gentlemen, who, while perfectly well mannered, were all the same in very high spirits, and the ladies were glad of the green fronds which gave them a screen of privacy.
“They seem like jolly fellows,” Berenice remarked amiably. “Tell me, are your family as keen to marry you off as mine are me?”
A shadow passed fleetingly across Miss McKinnie’s face, so swiftly that a less assiduous observer than Berenice might have missed it.
“I rejoice to say that I am under reprieve from that particular manoeuvre at present,” she said. “An assay was made last season, but our side retreated in the face of a... dishonourable foe. I think it will be some while before the troops rally for another attempt.”
Her tone was light and playful, but Miss Wolfe detected a sharp, steely note beneath it, which she tucked into the pocketbook of her memory alongside that dark shade which had so briefly darkened Serena’s lovely face. There was a tale there, but now was not the time to demand it be told.
“Long may you enjoy your freedom,” she said, raising a very passable glass of claret in salute. “Your analogy is most apt: for it seems to me that courtship and marriage are as like to the stages of a military campaign - nay, an invasion, as to anything.”
Warming to her theme, Serena leaned across the table and nodded her head with vigour. “Oh, undoubtedly!” she asserted. “First the friendly advances of a foreign visitor or explorer, all sweetened with flattery and gifts; then most polite and civil negotiations, delineating the mutual benefits of an association, which, once secured and made certain by affidavit, becomes little short of the theft of power and independence, with the end that the coloniser becomes the overlord and master of the now defenceless native, who may think herself well served if she be not entirely enslaved. No,” Serena shook her head firmly, tapping the table sharply with the fingers of one hand, “Marriage is not the conjoining of two souls - rather, the invasion by a hostile power of a party deemed weaker than the - oh! But how I run on. You must reprimand me, Bernie, when I talk so. It is a particular thorn in my side, this notion that a woman must wed to achieve her destiny, and I am afraid that my mother’s energies in this sphere have only served to spur on my own determination to avoid it! Forgive me - I fear that I have shocked you.”
But Berenice, it appeared, was neither shocked nor alarmed, and the glow in her cheeks was matched by the fire in her eyes.
“You have spoken as though you had the key to my own mind and heart,” she said warmly. “Never have I felt so very perfectly understood!”
“Truly, I am glad,” replied Miss McKinnie. “I felt sure that I had met a like mind as soon as we spoke upon the ridge - though I cannot claim a belief in kismet or destiny, yet I do believe that sometimes one may meet with a soul so in tune with one’s own that it seems unthinkable thereafter that it was not preordained. I suppose you will think me fanciful, but there it is.”
“Indeed I do not,” said Berneice hotly. “I have sometimes thought the very same thing. I could not with honesty say that my friends were many, but those that I have are true, and I cannot now conceive of not having met and befriended them. And I trust that you will not think me forward if I say that I count you among them from this day.”
Like the dining room, the chamber that Mr Griffin had provided for them was plain but comfortable, a simple washstand with a ewer of freshly drawn water in one corner, a firmly upholstered chair in another, and a linen press at the foot of the bed. The bed was of a moderate size, and it seemed to Berenice that Miss McKinnie looked at it with eyes widened with apprehension. A moment later, her suspicions were proved founded.
“I shall be quite content to sleep on the chair,” Serena said, all of a sudden more subdued than she had been during dinner. “As your father has been kind enough to engage Mr Griffin’s services, the bed should be yours.” She opened the linen press and took out a blanket, shaking it briskly and draping it over the chair. But Berenice’s hand was on her wrist before she could take more than a step.
“Why, surely there is no need for either one of us to endure that horsehair monstrosity! The bed is quite large enough for both of us - even my long shanks!”
But if anything, her words caused more alarm than reassurance, and she said more gently, “Ah, forgive me. I think perhaps you are an only child? Sharing a bed with my sisters is as unremarkable to me as eating or breathing, though since before Papa received his Majority, we have not needed to do so. But perhaps with no sister to share with, you are not accustomed to sharing a bed thus. I guarantee that there is nothing so very terrible to fear, unless it be my cold toes finding your leg unbidden in the night!”
Even her kind words and playful manner did not restore Serena’s previous merry demeanour, but she was mollified, and not a little embarrassed at her swift and sudden change of mood.
“I shall not mind if they do. Oh, ignore my foolishness! I simply did not wish you to be uncomfortable at the notion of sharing - but I see that you are a veteran of barrack life!”
A little of her spark had returned, and though it was evident to Berenice that it was as much play acting as genuine merriment, she took it in good spirit.
“Indeed I am! And my sisters tell me that I do not snore, nor walk or talk in my sleep, so you may rest assured that you will be able to - why, rest assured.” She smiled kindly at Serena, who looked more at ease now. “Besides,” she continued, “I recall that you foresaw our talking long into the night, so let us be comfortable first, and then we may talk the night away.”
So saying, she reached behind her back to loosen the laces that held her gown in place, and began to change into her nightclothes without hesitation or false modesty. The colour rose on Miss McKinnie’s cheek, and she turned rapidly aside, keeping her back to her companion as she readied herself for bed.
Berenice was amused to see it, though she made sure to respect Serena’s privacy. So used was she to sharing accommodation with her sisters, and so frank in her acceptance of the human body as a mere vehicle for the mind and soul, that she was taken aback to find Serena so prudish. The more so, since they had seemed so perfectly in tune regarding the hateful institution of marriage and the many other matters they had debated at table, but she reminded herself that her friend had not the advantages that she had received, and kept silent on the matter, sensing that teasing would be poorly received.
“Are you ready to retire?” she asked as tactfully as she could. “Do you require any assistance? I should like to ensure that the compress I applied is still firm enough, but not so tight that it will pain you in the night.”
“I am sure that it is as comfortable as it can be,” Serena replied, “And yes, I am ready. Should you like the left side of the bed, or the right?”
“I think the side nearer the washstand will be more convenient for you,” Berenice said, and as she turned, she saw Serena wearing one of her own nightgowns which was rather too long in the sleeve for her, which she found unaccountable endearing. As Serena limped to the bed, she gathered and lifted the long skirt to make sure that she did not trip, revealing a swollen ankle to Berenice’s concerned gaze.
“Oh, now come, I must insist that I redress your ankle. The compress is certainly grown too tight, and you will suffer the more for it. Come, sit on the edge of the bed here and allow me to examine it.”
Her tone brooked no argument despite Serena’s reticence, and a moment later she was on her knees, cradling the poor swollen joint in her hand, her long fine fingers probing tenderly to assess it.
“I shall remove the bandage for a short while, then reapply it once you are quite settled. Up and into bed with you!” And without knowing quite how it had been managed, Serena found her legs gently lifted onto the bed, the injured leg propped up on the firm cushion from the chair, and the bedclothes tucked up to her chest.
“Thank you, Doctor Wolfe,” she said, not entirely in jest. “You are as stern as any physician I have met, but so much kinder and gentler. I dare say that you are the medical profession’s loss as much as it is yours. It does feel easier now. I should have listened to you without argument.”
“Well, I am not always right,” Berenice began, but Serena laughed.
“I rather think you might be, as a matter of fact. Come, make yourself as comfortable as you have made me, and let us talk some more.”
The bed was indeed comfortable, and the company engaging, and situated as they were almost in the very eaves of the building, they had no fear of disturbing other guests as they talked late into the night of their interests and opinions, so perfectly matched as they were. Miss Wolfe spoke enthusiastically of her study of medicine and science, and Miss McKinnie spoke with great animation of her visits to Chesil Beach in Dorset, where she had met a young lady so well versed in the new field of paleontology that she must surely be a professor by now, were she only a gentleman.
“Then we are both scientists!” exclaimed Berenice. “You must come and make free with Papa’s library, for I am certain that you will find much there to enhance your studies of these ancient forms. Oh, we will become such firm friends over our interests, I feel certain. Do tell me more about your fossil hunting friend - she sounds quite the marvel!”
But Serena interrupted her, asking for more details of the Colonel’s library, and of Miss Wolfe’s own studies and ambitions, and it was not until the candle guttered and sputtered and wavered that the two drew ready to sleep. “We shall have the luxury of rising late tomorrow, for Papa will require the carriage in the morning to visit his patients - he still practices medicine, even though he no longer serves in the army, you see. He says you can stop being a soldier, but you never cease to be a physician. Well - we have had fresh air, good food and fine conversation, so we shall sleep the sleep of the righteous! Goodnight, my dear.”
And so saying, she leaned across, kissed Serena’s cheek as she would her sister’s on retiring, and blew out the candle. She settled down into the clean white sheets and within minutes was sleeping as peacefully as she had predicted. But Miss McKinnie’s eyes were wide open as she stared into the darkness of the room with her limbs stiff, almost afraid to move, and scarce breathing at all.