“He looked like nothing so much as a naughty puppy slinking to its kennel with his tail between his legs!”
Serena wiped a tear of laughter from her eye as Bernie regaled her with a well dramatised account of Mr Dunn’s visit and his short lived courtship of her.
“I almost feel sorry for him - it sounds as though you and your dear Papa played with him like two kittens with a mouse,” she said when she could once again speak without laughing, “but then I remember how tedious he was in Lyme Regis, and how insufferable in Brighton.”
Bernie, well pleased with the effect her performance had evoked, propped her chin on her cupped hands, her elbows on the reading desk in the library. “Tell me,” she said “For I can scarcely credit his behaviour today - but you say it is not his first heavy-handed attempt at courtship?”
Serena spread her hands in a gesture that indicated there was a sorry tale to be told, and obliged quite happily.
“He had been at the church little more than a week, I should say, when we arrived in Lyme. He introduced himself to us as a curate, though in truth I think he was fitted to be little more than a churchwarden, for when we finally heard him give a sermon some weeks later, it was quite the dullest, most incomprehensible thing I ever heard. My mother was charmed by him, though, and he attached himself to our party for the rest of our visit.”
Bernie shuddered in sympathy and tutted at the impertinence of the man. Serena simply smiled and continued.
“Well, at first I was glad of his arrival, for he kept my mother distracted while I walked as I wished, but all too soon he decreed that it was not fitting for me to roam abroad alone, and he began to insist upon escorting me whenever I laced up my walking shoes.”
She shuddered. “I could think of nothing I desired less, and thanks to the quick thinking of a young lady who had overheard our conversations, I was finally spared the ordeal altogether.”
Bernie clapped her hands together and settled herself more comfortably. “This sounds like a tale worth the telling!”
”Miss McKinnie, I must insist on accompanying you. I should not feel I could look your mother in the eye if I were to permit you to go to the cliffs alone.”
Serena narrowly refrained from pointing out that her mother was one of the very few people he could look in the eye, even with his strangely heightened shoes. But she could not hold back from pointing out somewhat forcefully that it was not within his gift to permit or forbid her anything.
“By all means sit with my mother and read her sermons on the dangers of allowing women to think if you must, but I shall not be party to it! There is no danger to my person or to my soul at the cliffs, and if I say I shall go there alone, then that is how I shall go!”
The curate began to inflate like a toad in the face of a threat, but before he could expostulate as he fully intended, a bright but gentle voice broke into the exchange.
“But of course you will not be alone, Miss McKinnie, for I shall be with you!”
Serena looked round in surprise to see a young lady dressed in sensible walking clothes approaching their table with her hands held out in greeting.
“My dear Miss McKinnie,” she exclaimed, “how very good to see you here again! I had quite given up hope of seeing you - and yet here you are, and, it seems, in want of a companion for a walk to the cliffs! Does it not seem pre-ordained that we should run into one another again like this? It was meant to be, or my name is not Maria Anderson!”
The very moment that Serena was about to protest that she must be mistaken, the young lady twitched her eye into the briefest ghost of a wink, and smiled conspiratorially at her. In a heartbeat, she realised that her knight had come not on a white charger, but in russet taffeta, and she took to her role as readily as any veteran of Drury Lane.
“Maria, my dear!” she cried, “How delightful! You did not tell me you should be here this season - how long have you been here? You should have written to me, you naughty thing! But I am glad to see you - glad indeed,” she said, and this last was not play-acting at all. She turned towards Mr Dunn, who had risen from the table when she had done so, and who now stood slack-jawed and crest-fallen, as though a juicy bone had been stolen from him by a quicker, cleverer dog.
“Maria, my dear, this is Mr Dunn, my mother’s… curate, I suppose.”
“Oh, rather more than that, I would say, surely!” he protested, but realised at once to his horror that it sounded considerably less than proper. “A friend!” he hastened to clarify - “A friend of the family!”
Serena let silence reign a moment longer than was quite comfortable for him, and began again. “Reverend Dunn, my very good friend Miss Maria - Anderson,” she said, hesitating only a moment to recall the name. “So you see, there is no need to inconvenience yourself on my behalf. Miss Anderson and I shall take our constitutional walk, for we have much to catch up on, and you may return to the pension and sit with my mother while Father reads - I know she will be glad of your company,” she said winningly. She had established very quickly that Mr Dunn’s weak spot was his own self importance, and that playing upon it was the surest way to bend him to her will.
Sure enough, after a few forced pleasantries, he strode off importantly back towards the boarding house where they were residing, though not without regrets on leaving Miss McKinnie behind, nor without having gained her assurance that she would return in good time for dinner.
The two young women watched a little cautiously as he walked briskly out of the tea room and along the street, then turned to each other and laughed until they were gasping for breath. Serena realised they were still clutching at one another’s hands, and tugged her rescuer to sit down where Mr Dunn had vacated his seat.
“Oh, Miss Anderson, I do not know who you are, but I thank you with all my heart! He is the most insufferable bore, and has taken it upon himself to act as my chaperone quite uninvited! You have done me a very great favour - will you take tea with me so I may thank you?”
Miss Anderson accepted gladly, and within the half hour, they were every bit as firm friends as they had pretended to be. Not only was Miss Anderson quick of thought and kind of heart, but she also shared Serena’s interest in the forms in the cliffs, and their pretence of a shared walk became instead a reality. Miss Anderson, who rapidly became Maria, showed her where and how to find the best specimens, and by the end of the week, Serena had her own little hammer and a stout canvas bag to carry her findings.
“Mr Dunn paid me less heed after that, I am glad to say, and later another gentleman arrived who outshone him a very little, but it was Maria’s company which I truly enjoyed the most,” Serena said wistfully.
“Another suitor!” Bernie exclaimed. “Why, you have not spoken of this before! I had thought you quite in opposition to the breed - will you not tell me of him?”
Serena’s lovely face contorted in a grimace. “I had much rather not,” she said, “and besides, it all came to naught, I am glad to say. Though it was a confusing time, I admit. But it is all past now.” Bernie could not tell whether the expression denoted sadness or some other emotion, but Serena shook off her troubling thoughts.
“But we were speaking of Mr Dunn! When we left Lyme at the end of the summer and returned to Brighton, he and my mother corresponded, for his theological views echo her own so entirely - which is to say that they are older and less tractable than the bones of the great lizards I found in the cliffs!”
“And then poor Father died not a year later, having grown so ill and tired since we left Lyme. Oh, such a dark time it was for us, as you may suppose. I should have liked to walk alone, all day, every day, but of course that was not felt to be proper for a period of mourning - and my mother needed my company and comfort, too, so my days were spent in an agony of restraint. Then to our astonishment, none other than Mr Dunn appeared, intent upon playing the part of our protector and patron, though he must be poorer than a church mouse himself. It seems that he had become accustomed to the esteem in which my poor grief-addled mother held him, for it was certainly not afforded him by any other parishioner.”
Bernie murmured a heartfelt agreement, having had the pleasure of making her own judgement of how much esteem was due the peacock parson.
“My mother I am sure felt very vulnerable and alone and was glad of Mr Dunn’s sympathy, though he made my flesh creep with his oily manner and his certitude of his rightness at every turn. I regret to say that my mother became quite reliant upon him, and entrusted some of her affairs to him, thinking his mind sharper than mine, merely by reason of his sex - I shall let you judge whether or no her judgement was quite adroit. I cannot help but wonder whether he made matters worse with his bungling, but - ah, ’tis of no matter now. Here we are in Holby, and I am glad of it.”
Bernie’s eyes were dark and tender with sympathy, but Serena shook her head, glad to put that particular part of her tale and her history aside, and she shook herself into a happier mood, her tone a blend of wry amusement and weary exasperation.
“He is a buffoon, but largely harmless, I believe. He certainly means well - it is just that he is so very deceived in his own abilities. And it must be very wicked of me, but I cannot help but take delight in your account - I so wish I had been there to see it!”
Bernie pressed her hand and confessed, “I wish you had as well - I am afraid we had much sport at his expense! Though I do not think it wicked to puncture a person with so inflated a sense of their worth. If anything, it is as beneficial to the health of their soul as lancing a boil, or bursting a blister! Between us we have done him a great kindness,” she laughed.
They fell into companionable silence for a while, interrupted only by the occasional chuckle as one or the other recollected some small detail of the many humiliations of Mr Marcus Dunn. By and by, Bernie looked up and met her companion’s eye again.
“Such a year of happenings you have had, Serena! Two suitors, new friends, much travel, and all with the loss of your Papa to endure! I can see that you might be glad to be in quiet, dull little Holby for a spell now. Do you still correspond with Miss Anderson?”
This time the sadness was unmistakable.
“I do not,” Serena said quietly. “She did not like my association with Captain Campbell - he is the person of whom I spoke before - and he did not approve of my friendship with her. I would gladly have thrown over the Captain, but my mother was so glad to see a gentleman of some standing take an interest in me that my own opinion seemed to matter not a jot, and before I knew it, she had accepted a proposal of marriage on my behalf. Once her mind is made up, it is nigh impossible to change it, and my father’s reasoning was no more effective than my own pleas and entreaties - and, I am afraid, tantrums.”
Bernie bristled in anger. “Small wonder you have such strong feelings on the matter of matrimony! But how then did you escape the snare of marriage if your mother was so adamant?”
Serena shook her head. “In truth, I do not know. For weeks, Captain Campbell was all smiles and smooth words and flattery, but they had no effect upon me. He started to cool towards me, and came increasingly to visit my father instead of paying his attentions to me. I dare say that he had tired of me, and I did not regret this for a moment, for I was never able to convince myself of any great regard for him. And perhaps there were some details of dowry that he and Father needed to discuss - I do not know. All I recall of the time is that my mother was furious, and would not believe that I had not brought it upon myself, the breaking of this engagement which I had never desired.”
“But you had not!” Bernie cried. “Why, you had even sacrificed your friendship with Miss Anderson at his whim - it seems to me that you had been more than accommodating to the scheme, however little you desired it!”
That veil of sadness drifted across Serena’s face once more, and her eyes were bright with unshed tears as she raised her head to blink them away, looking up to the ceiling, to the upper shelves of the bookcase before shaking her head decisively.
“How foolish of me to weep now!” she exclaimed with a brave laugh. “No, I did not do anything to impede the marriage, as little as I wished it, for I knew my mother would not be moved from it, and I had no expectation of making any happier match.” A note of bitterness crept into her voice, and Bernie wondered to hear it.
Serena stood suddenly, brushing her hands down her skirts as though brushing away the crumbs of the conversation.
“How I have talked myself into this morbid frame of mind I do not know,” she said with a little laugh. “We were laughing at poor foolish Mr Dunn, and perhaps this is my penance for a little cruelty. I think I shall go home and walk myself into a better temper before I return - forgive me for spoiling the afternoon, Bernie dear.”
Bernie assured her that the afternoon was not spoiled, and indeed she was glad to know Serena’s troubles as well as the things that made her happy, and she was only sorry that she could not seem to alleviate this odd mood that had come upon her friend. She walked with her to the end of the lane and pressed a kiss to her cheek as she bade her farewell.
“Do not regret our conversation, Serena - I had much rather you talked to me than that you should feel you need hide your sadness or your worries. Are we not friends? Then let us share our burdens with one another, as well as our joys! Now go, and I shall see you tomorrow, and we shall be gay again, for we must join forces against the busybodies who will use the Ball as an excuse to make any other match for us!”
Once she had seen Serena on her way, Bernie returned to the library to put away the books they had been reading that afternoon. She reshelved them in their correct places, and reached up to put away the pamphlet upon mesmerism they had been perusing together. As she did so, she recalled that it was while reaching up to this shelf that Serena had slipped the other day - and it was to this shelf that she had looked when she blinked away her tears today.
With a sense of curiosity, she stepped upon the lowest rung of the ladder to read the titles of the rest of the books on the shelf. Here were accounts of hypnotism and spiritualism; the unconventional belief systems of other peoples of the world, along with investigations into the workings of the mind and the psyche. Stepping down from the ladder she shrugged lightly: perhaps her instinct had misled her.
But as she alighted, her eye caught the gilded lettering on the spine of the very last book on the shelf, and she craned her neck to read the unfamiliar name. What an odd title! She must ask her Papa about it on the morrow, when he returned from his regimental reunion.