“And you truly have the run of the place? There are no volumes forbidden you to read?”
Serena was in awe as much as she was envious of Berenice and the liberal attitude of her father, which allowed her the freedom of this magnificent library. Here were the collected works of Homer, Aeschylus and Apollonius; of Chaucer, Shakespeare and Marlowe, and even of modern upstarts such as Keats, Shelley and the wicked Lord Byron. On another wall sat the works of Harvey on circulation, Gray on anatomy, and countless others of their profession. Here Sir Isaac Newton sat in silent conversation with Nicolaus Copernicus; there conversed Julian of Norwich with Saint Augustin, and open on the desk lay the latest volume of Mr Aiton’s Hortus Kewensis, and sheets of ink stained paper next to it where some scholar or other had been making notes upon it.
Berenice smiled at her, brows quirked in questioning fashion. “Why should any knowledge be forbidden to anyone?” she asked, quite puzzled by the notion. “If there is any knowledge unsuitable for consumption by an intelligent mind, then my father would not have it in the house, by which token, any book that we may find herein must be worth its place on the shelf, and there can be no shame in learning its contents.”
“Oh, you are fortunate indeed, and barely seem to know it!” Serena cried. “My father had nothing in his library more scandalous than collections of sermons and a number of volumes on the art of bookkeeping, and still my mother thought it indelicate for me, a young lady, to browse his shelves. Papa was more indulgent to my passion for learning, and with his help I procured no small collection of my own upon the natural history of Europe, and I have barely managed to keep them for myself, as when we left Brighton it became necessary to sell many of our possessions. All I have to remember my father by now are the books he bought me, and his own desk, which I persuaded my mother to hold back from auction. It is no grand piece of furniture, else I am certain she would have been obliged to sell it. We are quite poor now, you see,” she said quite disarmingly.
Bernie pressed her hand sympathetically, though privately she thought of the homes of some of her father’s patients and doubted very much that Serena knew quite what poverty was. But all things are relative to that with which we are accustomed, and she knew that Serena’s candour was not to be mocked.
“There is no shame in humility,” she said with equal candour, rather than dismissing the statement, “and wealth is no substitute for wisdom. Here, at least, there shall be censure upon whatever you choose to read, for my father has quite the magpie mind, attracted by all things new and shiny, and this trait I have inherited from him. He has often said to me that it is worth being interested in everything, for one can never know when a tiny seed of knowledge may bloom into exactly the plant which is needed to treat a malady.”
For long minutes the room was silent but for the murmurs of the two as they shared their finds - “oh, have you read this?” - “Is this a first edition?” - “I recall the first time I opened the pages of this book!” - “Oh, how fine the illustrations are!”
Soon though, Serena had chosen a small selection of volumes, which she brought to the desk to better see them in daylight. Bernie glanced at them and saw works on the geography and natural history of the southern counties of England, on the botany of the same region, on the history of scientific discovery, and somewhat to her surprise, a memoir of the life and travels of Marco Polo. Seeing her companion’s raised eyebrow, Serena echoed back her father’s words to her: “It is worth being interested in everything, did you not say?”
Bernie laughed. “Indeed it is. Papa’s friend, Mr Levy, once wagered that he could name a topic unrepresented in this library. Papa allowed him three attempts, yet he still could not do it! I believe his guesses were national costume, hypnotism, and boat building. Each one of them is represented somewhere on these shelves!” She gestured with her arm flung wide to encompass the shelves on all sides of them, and Serena’s eye followed her motion, tracing the length of that slender arm, the fine wrist, and the long fingers indicating the wealth of knowledge arrayed about them. Her eye was drawn next to the books themselves, and she caught the title quite by chance.
"The Making of a Fenland Coracle - why, there it is, boat building, just as you say! And national costume I should imagine to be somewhere over here along with tailoring and the manufacture of military dress. But as for hypnotism, I should not know where to start looking. Does he have a collection of books on the arts of deception, or of the traits of the gullible?” She was scathing and dismissive, but Bernie gently reprimanded her.
“He has made a small study on the use of hypnotism and mesmerism in the treatment of soldiers who have seen the horrors of the battlefield, and of those who have been the witness of natural disaster. He has come to believe that treating the mind may be as efficacious and important as healing the body. Here, see - there is a shelf here of books dealing with the mental faculties and psychology, which he thinks may be a growing area of study.”
Serena stood to see the books better, and stepped up to the first rung of the ladder which was affixed to a rail running around the perimeter of the shelves. She pulled at the spine of one or two books to read their titles, and took one down to flip through the pages.
“My apologies to you and your Papa - this does indeed look most interesting, and is far more observant of the rigours of academic trial than I had supposed. Well, well, perhaps he is right - psychology may become a more important field than I ever supposed. Here are studies on behaviour, on character, on derangement, and on - oh!” She suddenly gasped, and her foot slipped from the ladder. Bernie was there at her side to steady her, and she set her gently down, a hand still at her wrist until she was certain that she was unharmed.
“You are not hurt? I suppose your ankle betrayed you, for it cannot yet be quite healed. I should have warned you against climbing, but I did not think - ” but Serena waved away her concern.
“Pshaw - nonsense! I am mistress of my own mind, am I not? And my ankle did not fail me, I merely lost my grasp on the ladder for the merest moment - though I thank you for your chivalry! That is twice now that you have come to my rescue,” she said warmly. Bernie let her hand slip from her waist as she led them back to the desk, and could not help but notice that Serena cast a thoughtful glance back at the high shelf she had been perusing.
“Is there a book I can fetch for you? It would be no trouble at all,” Bernie offered, but Serena shook her head hastily.
“Oh, no - I have plenty here to pique my interest, thank you! I shall barely manage to read a page of each by the time my mother thinks us ready to leave.”
“Aha, but you must take them with you,” Bernie insisted. “Papa will not mind a bit. And when you have finished them, bring them back and exchange them for more - and I shall always be glad to help you choose, or to sit and read with you.”
Sitting and reading was very much the order of the day, and thus they whiled away the afternoon together in companionable silence.
“You are so very kind, Colonel Wolfe. I should not like to draw my husband’s actions and decision to the attention of society, but I should be so glad to know that there was no grudge that I should be entitled to bear him. My daughter has such very fond memories of him that it seems disloyal of me not to indulge her in them, but I cannot think what his business dealings can mean and still remain loyal to his memory. But enough of my troubles. I have but one daughter, and her future is more than enough to worry me ragged: you have a positive quiverful of chicks - how do you manage your hopes and fears for their futures?”
Colonels Wolfe would have quite happily laughed the question to well mannered scorn, but his wife was more in tune with the anxieties of the age.
“It is no easy matter to consider, Mrs McKinnie, believe you me. I do believe that Chloe and her younger sisters would gladly wed a gentleman who was courteous, considerate and solvent, though Chloe is a tender soul, and I should like to see her marry where true affection is bestowed, but my only true worry lies with Berenice. Oh, not for her happiness, or for her ability to choose a suitor with whom she may be truly content, for she is by far the wisest of our children, but I fear that the person who can truly claim to be her equal must be a rare individual indeed. My experience is that young gentlemen find it disproportionately difficult to acknowledge a woman to be their equal: my observation is that Berenice is by far the superior of most gentlemen of our acquaintance. She could never be content playing the part of the smiling subservient wife, and whoever captures her heart must also capture her mind. She has a rare intellect in one so young, to say nothing of her sex.”
Griselda Wolfe sighed, for although she was proud of her daughter’s intellect and determination, she worried for her, and for her sisters who must wait for her to make a suitable match before accepting suitors for themselves. Her daughters were a pleasant, amiable brood on the whole, but she knew very well that Berenice was exceptional, and it was a great misfortune that she was the eldest, and not the youngest of the sisters.
“Well, well,” Mrs McKinnie consoled her, “She is a mannerly young lady as well as a beautiful one: surely some gentleman will find her peculiarities charming rather than disturbing, and then your other daughters will make their matches like cards in a well played hand of Faro.”
If Mrs Wolfe bristled at the suggestion that Berenice was peculiar, she hid it well. “I should far rather my younger girls made dull and impecunious but happy marriages than that Berenice be shackled against her will to a gentleman considered by Society to be suitable, but unloved by her. No, her happiness, marital or otherwise, lies entirely in her own hands.” She smiled lovingly at her husband, who beamed at her in return.
“Well said, ma’am, well said. Dash it all, if she were a son rather than a daughter, ’twould make no matter at all. She would make as fine an officer as any subaltern of my acquaintance, and a better physician, were it not for the inconvenient matter of her skirts.”
Mrs McKinnie harrumphed. “I would thank you not to speak so before my daughter, Colonel Wolfe - she has enough modern and fanciful notions in her head already! I cannot persuade her of the need for a young lady to be just that, and not go tramping about the country, or chipping at cliffs to find the puzzles hidden in them, or to speak to gentlemen as though she were their equal.” She caught Mrs Wolfe’s eye as though in collusion, but that redoubtable lady was having none of it.
“Oh, but there, I fear, we are not in perfect agreement,” she said mildly. “Fresh air and exercise is vital to the well being of any young person - and those among us of more advanced years,” she added ruefully, “and a curious mind, and the opportunity to indulge it, are as important for the health of the spirit. Why, I should pity the mother of a child like Berenice if she had not the freedom to stretch both her legs and her mind! She would be like trapped hare, miserable and ailing for want of her own natural environs.”
The widow flinched at the word legs, and her lips tightened at the implied reproach and the progressive attitude of her hostess, but she restricted her comments to a careful cough.
“I was glad of your daughter’s strength and resourcefulness this week, it is true,” she conceded, and the matter was tactfully dropped as she brought the conversation back to its earlier topic.
“And is there no gentleman that you - or she - have in mind? No prospect of marriage for her?”
“Alas, her equal has not yet introduced himself,” said Mrs Wolfe.
“I don’t believe the gentleman equal to my Bernie exists!” Her husband declared stoutly, as proud of the fact as she was exasperated.
“Why, I have not heard you call her Bernie these twenty years past!” Mrs Wolfe said, but she was amused rather than vexed to hear it. Predicting a critical reply from Mrs McKinnie, the Colonel spoke blithely on.
“It was young Miss McKinnie who reminded me of it,” he said, a twinkle in his eye. “It seems that the name suits her so well that an acquaintance of not five days knows it to be her true name. I fear it will stick this time, my dear, so I think we must reconcile ourselves to it.”
So amiable were the Colonel and his wife that their guest found herself quite unable to take issue with what seemed a very lax manner in her own daughter, but she made a note to upbraid her on their return to their new home.
“It occurs to me,” she said instead, “that a young gentleman we met in Lyme Regis has promised to call upon us here in Holby. Perhaps I might introduce him to you and to your eldest daughter? He is most respectable, and eager to meet a young lady of marriageable age, who might appreciate the opportunity to come to an agreement with an ambitious man.”
Mrs Wolfe smiled at her, knowing the offer to be genuine and well meant if ill bethought, and replied politely if not quite enthusiastically.
“By all means, Mrs McKinnie - we should be glad to welcome any visitor to Holby. Will he be in town soon?”
“Indeed, yes. He intends to be here for the Spring Ball. Perhaps he might call upon your daughter before that event, with a view to inviting her as his guest?”
This presumptuous offer of introducing Berenice to a young upstart who intended to accompany her to a ball to which he himself had not been invited was received with a non-committal response. This resulted in the usual outcome in such instances, of each party believing themselves perfectly understood, yet being taken at their word rather than their intention. When Serena and Bernie returned from the library and farewells were made, Colonel and Mrs Wolfe were satisfied that the notion had been properly quashed.
On the other hand, Mrs McKinnie sat back in the carriage with a contented smile. It would be her very great pleasure to introduce Berenice and her family to the Reverend Marcus Dunn.