The book Bernie held in her hand was a slim volume, bound in fine red morocco with gilded lettering on the spine. When she opened it to the title page, she wonderingly read aloud the title in full.
“A True and Faithful Account of the Lives of the Ladies of Llangollen. I think Llangollen must be a Welsh name - do I pronounce it correctly?”
Her father looked at her thoughtfully, glancing from the book in her hand to her open, honest face.
“Welsh it is, my dear, and though I am no expert, I believe you make a fair stab at the sound of it. Llangollen lies in the northern part of Wales, not so very far from Cheshire.”
Bernie absently tucked this information away in her mind, and with a finger running over the subtitle, she wondered aloud who Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby might be. She turned a page or two.
“It seems to be a memoir - or no, for it is written by neither of those ladies - a biography, then. But why, then, is it shelved with your books upon psychology and matters of the mind?”
“Ah, my dear. I had thought to speak with you on this topic before many more months had passed, but I see you have beaten your old father to it, as usual.”
“Why, whatever can you mean? Upon which topic?”
He rose to his feet and gently closed the book so that it lay between her hands, and he pressed his own hands close about them.
“Take it, my dear, and read it. Come to it with an open mind and an open heart, and see if you do not find something within its pages that speaks to you. I shall be here if you wish to discuss it - or anything it raises within your spirit.”
Perplexed by his tone, which was as kind as it was grave, she looked at the book in her hands, wondering what it contained that might raise an unknown something in her spirit, but she raised her eyes trustingly to his.
“Thank you, Papa. I shall know where to find you.”
She left the library in search of a quiet place to read, but she paused upon the threshold as he called her name.
“Berenice, my dear, I wonder - what made you think to read this particular book?”
She recalled the day that Serena had slipped from the ladder, and her little private glances at the shelf subsequently.
“I thought that Serena had noticed it, and it seemed to unsettle her. I suppose I was curious to know what she had noticed - and then the name caught my interest. Why do you ask?”
“No reason at all, my dear, just that it was so very out of the way for you to have noticed it. Now, off you go - read and learn, and make of it what you will.”
He listened as the sound of her footsteps grew fainter, and sighed. He wondered whether he ought to have hidden the book, but understanding could only be found through knowledge, and he held that it could only be to the good for his daughter to understand the import of that little book. He dearly hoped that he was right.
Her most favoured reading spot was her father’s library, but for what reason she could not say, he had sent her to read alone, and Bernie retreated to the next best thing, which was his dressing room. She knew that she would remain undisturbed here. The girls were still in the drawing room with their mother, and no-one but her Papa and Digby ever came into the dressing room.
She had loved to spend time in this hallowed space ever since she was a little girl, the scent of leather polish and her father’s shaving cream permeating the small space and lending it a sense of his having only stepped out for a moment, even when he had been away with his regiment. She sat in his old armchair and curled her feet up beneath her, and trimming the lamp so that the light was clear and steady, she opened the book to its first page.
The first few chapters were innocuous enough, though not without interest. The two ladies on whom the narrative centred seemed pleasant, intelligent and well-educated women, and though Bernie had never visited Ireland, she felt that she could imagine the scenes described perfectly. She read with pleasure of the burgeoning friendship between the two, and with a certain vicarious satisfaction at the refusal of each to enter into marriages which they believed would not be conducive to happiness. They seemed very much to be ladies with whom she had a great deal in common, she thought. Why, was not this just such a friendship as she shared with Serena?
But as the pages sped by beneath her inquisitive eye, strange ideas and new possibilities were introduced to her, and turned the pages more slowly even as her heart beat more rapidly. She could not quite make sense of what she was reading! But she set her confusion aside and read on, hopeful that light would be thrown upon the nature of this strange arrangement.
The two friends, she read, had left their native Ireland and gone to LLangollen, and had there made a pleasant home together. She smiled to see that among their first priorities had been the construction and population of a fine library, and she grew more drawn to the odd pair.
Oh, Serena, she thought, I must read you this passage, for I think I read in it a life that we might both envy!
But it was in the reactions of the townspeople of Llangollen, and in the descriptions of visits from all manner of people to the house they had made home, that Bernie began to understand what her mind had at first resisted. The testimony of the lady from Halifax in particular left no room for misinterpretation, and her father’s words rang in her ears. Come to it with an open mind and an open heart, the Colonel had said, and see if you do not find something within its pages that speaks to you. She had found straight away that it spoke to her sense of independence and comradeship, and it had put her strongly in mind of her own friendship with Serena. But as she came now to understand the completeness of the love between the two ladies, and the expression of that same love in their lives, she closed the book, troubled.
From so brief a reading, she had gained a fellow feeling with the two Irishwomen, and their story chimed so very tunefully when she thought of Serena. Did this mean, then, that she and Serena were like Eleanor and Sarah? Was that why Serena had baulked at seeing the book upon the shelf? Or was she horrified at seeing a record of such unconventional lives in what she had thought to be a respectable house?
But no - it could not be that, for she had remained as friendly as ever with Bernie, and had returned often since that first slip. She had even glanced back towards the book, as Bernie now recalled. So perhaps it had been not revulsion, but a kind of recognition, she thought. And then it struck her: the friendship that Serena had described with Maria Anderson; the softness in her voice and the smile on her face - and the way she had spoken of her intended fiance, Mr Campbell, whose remembrance had drawn only indifference at best, and whose removal from her sphere had caused nothing but relief.
There seemed little doubt of it in her mind: Serena was another such one as the Ladies of Llangollen, she thought. But what of herself? There was much here to ponder, and she examined her heart and her conscience as she read on late into the night.
Henry Wolfe sat at the desk in his library, a glass of brandy at his hand, and a book from that same high shelf spread open before him. He had evidently thrown himself into the study of some new subject, for there were pencilled notes in the margin, and here and there whole paragraphs had been scored through angrily with ink, where he had plainly disagreed volubly with the author. His keen ear caught light footsteps in the corridor, and he closed the book as Berenice slipped back into the room, the little red book held before her as though it were a prayer book or missal.
“Ah, my dear,” he said, rising to greet her. “I thought you had perhaps retired - but come, sit with me awhile.” He rang the bell for Digby and bade him fetch another glass, and once he had poured a finger or two from the decanter, Digby was dismissed for the night.
Henry raised his glass, and they sat quietly together for a while, father and daughter.
“You have never offered me brandy before,” Bernie observed at last, swirling it in her glass as she had seen him do a hundred times. “I rather like it. It is not a usual drink for a lady, I think?”
He smiled at her. “I do not think I have raised a usual lady, though. I am glad you enjoy it.”
The book lay on the desk beside them, and Bernie ran a finger along the spine, following the gilded lettering.
“How did you know?” She said at last, looking up at him with her honest brown eyes. There was no trace of shame or sorrow on her face, just curiosity and something akin to wistfulness.
“I did not know, quite,” he replied, “but I - wondered, I suppose. I have been about the world these many years and seen much as a soldier and as a doctor, and if one is minded to cultivate it, there is a sort of sense of recognition. I am not wrong, then?”
“I do not think so, Papa. I did not know it myself, but you thought I might find something which spoke to me, and I believe I did. Is it wrong to feel this way, do you suppose?”
“I do not,” he said firmly and without hesitation, “though I fear that many people do. It is not an easy way to live, and discretion is the thing, my dear. But I do not believe that it can be wrong to love the way that God made you, no.”
Bernie thought for a while. “Are they still living, the Ladies?” she asked at last.
“They are, though even Miss Ponsonby might be reckoned an old lady now, and Miss Butler is older still. But they are still as spry as ever, by all reports.”
“Have you met them, then? Do you know them?”
“I met them once, a long time ago - before I met your mother, though I could not claim to know them. They were gracious hosts to a callow youth, and as wise as they were kind. It was at their hearth that I learned to put aside judgement and consider love instead,” he said, a faraway look in his eye.
There was yet more to ponder here, thought Bernie, but she did not pursue the line of thought which had occurred to her. Perhaps there had already been enough revelations for one evening. But she could not say goodnight without asking for one last piece of advice.
“Papa, I think that Serena - that is, I wonder if Miss McKinnie - oh, I do not know whether to say it or not! But do you think I should confide in her? Do you think she would welcome my new understanding, or should I wait to see if she comes to the same conclusion? I have never had to think of such things before!” And at last, Berenice Wolfe blushed to think of embarking upon courtship.
“There, my dear, I cannot advise you, other than to say that I believe Miss McKinnie knows her own mind, and I believe that she knows her own heart as well. Bernie,” he leaned forward and grasped her hands in her own, “Tomorrow may bring more excitement than the ball alone provides. Miss McKinnie may be in need of a friend more than anything else: there is no-one she can rely on half so much as you, so be a true friend to her whatever the morrow brings, and the rest, I trust, will follow.”
Upon this gnomic proclamation he could not be drawn to expand, and it was with a mixture of wonder, relief, and infuriating curiosity that Bernie at last retired, kissing her Papa goodnight.