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Sense And Sensitivity

Chapter Text

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. This phrase she meant to indicate that Berenice must marry, but she was of such a nervous disposition that she considered it too great an indelicacy to say so in as many words. 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.

“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 daughter, “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 Mrs Wolfe 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 mother, if you please! And tell Shreve that there is a jar of bonbons in her lady’s chamber that she may give to her sisters and brother. Thank you, Digby, just so. Eat up, Mama!”

And Berenice turned away from her mother as though the matter was quite done with, and tucked heartily into her own supper. Her mother could not speak for bewilderment; 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.”

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

As Miss Wolfe had predicted, she and Miss McKinnie were able to take a leisurely breakfast the next morning. It was as well, for Berenice noted the dark circles beneath Serena’s clear brown eyes, and concluded that her ankle had pained her in the night and disturbed her sleep.

For Serena’s part, she was indeed tired, but in better spirits than she had truly felt the night before. Talk, however tangential, of her failed engagement and her visit to Dorset - so exhilarating yet so disturbing - had troubled her, and she longed to be able to speak openly of it to Bernie, yet she dared not. But the woes of the evening are oft shattered and dispersed by the sunshine of the morning, and even the little rest she had managed had refreshed her soul as well as her weary body, and she felt like a soul if not reborn, then at least restored.

The exertions and excitements of the day before had left both ladies with the appetites of soldiers, or so Mrs Griffin declared, though it was apparent that she was delighted to see her food so well appreciated and enjoyed.

“Do you think you might manage a short walk while we wait for the carriage?” Berenice asked, looking out to the bright sunshine.

“Let us attempt it at least,” replied Serena, “for you look like nothing so much as a healthy dog pining for a run through long grass! A spaniel, perhaps, or - no, of course - a Wolfe-hound!” She laughed at her own joke, obvious though it was, but her chuckle was nothing compared to the great guffaw that Bernie gave in return, as strong and hearty as any man’s, which only made Serena laugh the more.

Taking Berenice’s arm, Serena gamely tested her ankle, and found that with that staunch support she was quite able to walk, albeit somewhat slowly. The Griffin Arms stood on a lane which was broad though currently quiet: the inn sprang into life whenever a coach arrived, for it was a well known staging post between Bath and Exeter, but at this hour, the two ladies had no company but each other and the birds which sang in the hedgerows.

“I am sorry indeed that your ankle will curtail your walks, Serena,” Berenice murmured as they walked. “I enjoyed yesterday so very much, and look forward to your recovery so that we might walk thus together often.”

“I should like that very well.” Serena replied. “I do hope that my mother will not use my foolish stumble as a reason to forbid my walking. She has long thought it odd of me, and I think dislikes my walking alone - not for fear for my safety, but rather for what people will think. Indeed, perhaps our acquaintance will soften her heart in that regard, for while she considers walking alone to be quite the symptom of derangement, what could be more respectable and natural than two friends taking the air together? And it is clear to me that your family is held in high regard in the town: she will be pleased to think me well connected in our new neighbourhood.”

“Well connected!” Berenice laughed. “Well, we are respectable enough, I dare say, and may think ourselves quite at home in the grander houses in town as well as the more humble homes. A doctor may not always be a welcome guest, but if he be a good doctor, he will always be a trusted one, and trust may lead to fellowship. But if your mother imagines we may provide an introduction to a suitable gentleman, you must remind her that I am one of many sisters, and my own Mama will think her a rival in the procurement of suitors for her daughters!”

They laughed at this, knowing that neither of them had currently any leanings whatsoever towards matrimony.

“But it is hard on my sisters, I fear,” Berenice acknowledged. “Mama is so determined to see me wed before Chloë may even think of accepting a suitor, and as for Donatella and Jasmine, they shall be practicing their embroidery for many years yet, I fear. Though they will have quite the trousseau when their time comes! And as for the little ones...”

They came by and by to a bench at the side of the lane, overlooking a calm little pond, ringed with bulrushes and grasses, and home to a happy family of ducks, the ducklings no more than little puff balls of down. They sat to give some respite to Serena’s poor aching ankle, and feeling the chill of the early spring morning, Berenice sat close to Serena so that they might be warmer.

She was startled to notice Serena surreptitiously but unmistakably edging away from her, a well disguised look of discomfort on her face. Respecting the other lady’s feelings, she eased a little further apart from her, managing to mask her movement as a delicate stretch. How hot and cold Serena blew towards her! she thought. It was quite impossible to know what ailed her, for in conversation she was quite at ease and open in her manner, and she had welcomed the support of Berenice’s arm, but now, as last night on discovering the precise furnishings of their chamber, she seemed quite unnerved.

Reminding herself that an upbringing with only her parents for company would not have knocked off the corners, as the Colonel was wont to say, she satisfied herself with the thought that her own somewhat rough-and-tumble childhood had suited her to more comfortably express herself through physical touch, and that Serena was evidently more discerning about whom she permitted to touch her.

“I hope that your ankle will have healed well by Friday next,” Berenice said, as though she had not noticed her friend’s shuffle of embarrassment, “for you will know, I think, of the Spring Ball that is to be held at the Pump Rooms? It is the highlight of the social calendar, or so my mother would have me believe, though it does not entirely suit my temper. But if you were there, I think I should detest it a little less.” She smiled knowingly at Serena, taking the sting out of her words, by which Serena inferred that the ball was not so very terrible, but that her company would be welcome.

“Indeed, I am glad to hear you speak of it,” she replied, “for until yesterday I had been dreading it. My mother is most insistent that I should attend, even though we have been not more than a fortnight in Holby, and I knew no-one, nor had any hope of procuring any introductions, for we are quite strangers to the town. Mother wished most ardently that we should come to a new place where we knew nobody and were known by none, for what reason I have not been able to discover, yet she was desirous of my attending the Ball so that new acquaintances might be made. It all seems most contradictory to me, and I did not relish the prospect, but now that I know I shall have a friend there I need not fear it. Though alas, I shall not be able to dance very much or very well, thanks to my clumsiness.”

Berenice beamed at her. “Then we shall keep each other company as elegant wallflowers and present a united front against the forces of matrimony!” she said boldly. “Come, are you strong enough to walk a little further? We may expect the carriage within the hour, I think, and I do not like to keep Papa waiting.”

Slowly and carefully they made their way back to the inn, and had time to refresh themselves and take a tisane before the landau arrived, its hood folded back and with Colonel Wolfe himself at the reins.

“Good morning, Papa!” cried Berenice, waving gladly at him as the coach pulled up in front of the inn. “May I introduce Miss Serena McKinnie? - Serena, my father, Colonel Wolfe.”

“Slow down, my dear, we have no orders to march just yet! Allow me at least to alight before I make your charming friend’s acquaintance!” So saying, he hopped down from the driver’s seat as nimbly as a man twenty years his junior and strode to the portico where the ladies stood waiting. Embracing his daughter heartily, he at once gave a small bow which was courteous without being obsequious and greeted Serena.

“Miss McKinnie, I am delighted to meet you. I trust my daughter has cared for you well? Your foot does not pain you too greatly?”

“Oh, she has taken the very greatest care of me, sir. She bound my ankle in such a professional manner that I think you may wish to take her on as an apprentice - or else regard her as a rival for your practice!”

It was apparent to Miss McKinnie whence Berenice had her laugh, for the Colonel’s booming exclamation of good humour was the very echo of his daughter’s, but in a bass register.

“Oh, very good, ma’am, very good! I think she would take all my patients from me if she could! My, what a spirited thing you are, my dear - I declare, my Berenice may have met her match at last. You seem to me a very great improvement on the milksop maids of Holby, though I beseech you, do not repeat my words to Mrs Wolfe, for she despairs of my wild girl! But rather a wild hare than a lapdog, say I. Come, let us see you aboard - that’s it, midships for the ladies, if you please - and we shall see you restored to your poor Mama in no time.”

The Colonel was a genial, garrulous gentleman, though his words were never wasted. He kept the two young ladies engaged in conversation over his shoulder as he drove the handsome pair of bay geldings, and by the time they came to stop near Mrs McKinnie’s house, he and Serena were firm friends. On hearing that Berenice had lauded his library to her friend, he had declared that she must come and avail herself of its riches whenever the fancy took her, which offer she accepted with alacrity.

“And now, if I am not mistook, here we are, my dear. I called upon your mother last night to assure her of your wellbeing in my daughter’s capable hands: let me accompany you now to the door to deliver you into your mother’s care. I trust she willn’t coddle you? She seems a sensible sort, no histrionics or hullabaloo when I apprised her of your situation. Good, good. Ah, madam, good morning! Mrs McKinnie, Colonel Wolfe, you will recall - honour to deliver your daughter - quite charmed - splendid girl! A day’s rest, no more, then let the girl judge her own fitness to walk, no fuss required, none at all. There, now. No, no, won’t hear a word of thanks! Pleasure all mine, et cetera and so forth. Good day to you, ma’am.”

He hopped back up to the driver’s seat, hardly seeming to take breath, and gee’d the horses into a trot, calling back over his shoulder, “Come and use the library, my dear - entirely at your disposal!”

Berenice was used to her father’s bluff ways, and she saw from the twinkle in Serena’s eye that she was utterly charmed by them, though her mother’s pursed lips told a different story. Mrs McKinnie was a woman of perhaps her own mother’s age, but despite having but the one child, bore the years more heavily than Mrs Wolfe. Her hair was a distinguished shade of grey, and had not the life and sheen of her own mother’s, and she held herself stiffly as she stood at the gate next to Serena.

Berenice was astonished to see such a cool welcome for the prodigal daughter: she had flown into her Papa’s arms at the inn, and there would be a loving embrace awaiting her from her mother and her sisters. Small wonder, then, that Serena had seemed ill at ease at bedtime last night, and on the bench as they took their rest during this morning’s walk. She felt no small sadness at the thought that Serena was a stranger to loving affection, and determined to provide her with those little light comforting touches that friendship afforded whenever she was able. There was no doubt in her mind that miss McKinnie was an affectionate soul, only that she had never learned from her stilted mother to express it. Well, if she wasn’t able to draw her out of her touch-starved shell, then her name wasn’t Berenice Griselda Wolfe.

Chapter Text

The welcome Berenice received from her family was warm indeed, but for reasons not of affection alone. Her younger sisters were beside themselves with excitement, and even Mrs Wolfe barely suppressed a thrill of anticipation as Jasmine exclaimed, “Oh, Berenice, you should have come with us! We met the officers of the Wyvernshire militia and they are divine! We have been deciding which of them should marry us all - oh, pray, do not look so scathingly at us, for if you had only met them you should be arguing your case for the handsomest of them!” Donatella had been interjecting with little squeaks of agreement, and even the sometimes aloof Chloë added her voice to the choir of praise for the soldiers.

Berenice looked fondly at her younger sisters and shook her head. “Sweet Jasmine, you know very well that I should be doing no such thing - but do tell me all about it - I may as well feign an interest, as I know you will tell me anyway!” And she tweaked Jasmine’s nose with a smile. “But let me first refresh myself - I had not expected to be away from home last night and should like to change my dress.”

By the time she returned, the girls had calmed down a little, just as she had intended. They were still bubbling over with all the details they longed to share and pore over, but they were at least now able to speak one at a time, for the most part.

“Now then,” said Berenice. “Tell me about these heroes - let us hear the cast of characters in what you seem intent to make a romance!”

With much laughter, repetition, contradiction and the most florid of language, the younger Wolfe girls told their eldest sister all about the dashing Major di Lucca - “though you would not think him Italian to hear him, as he is of all things a Scotsman!” - ; the dandified Captain Copeland (who, according to Chloë, wore quite the tightest breeches she had ever seen); the sweet but hapless Lieutenant Thomson, and the stalwart Sergeant-Major Fletcher, a man risen through the ranks and seemingly the lynchpin of the entire regiment, who could procure anything, persuade anyone, and had friends everywhere.

“They sound a splendid band of brothers,” Berenice agreed. “And how have you allotted these warriors among us, pray?”

Chaos descended once more as the girls squabbled over which of the soldiers would suit each of them, and the greatest difficulty was had in deciding who should have the honour of paying court to Berenice herself.

“She is the eldest, so Papa must introduce her to Major di Lucca,” said one of the little ones, but Jasmine would not hear of it.

“Oh, no, it would be unfair, for I saw him first! And he smiled at me so sweetly, I am sure he meant to catch my eye! I think Captain Copeland would be a fine match for you, Berenice, for his tongue is quite as sharp as yours!”

Laughing heartily, for she knew no insult was intended, Berenice shook her head. “I should not like to think my tongue was sharp - my intellect, perhaps, but if Captain Copeland is unkind, then I do not think I should enjoy his company.”

“He is not unkind,” Chloë said quietly, “Or if he is, then it is only in jest, for he is a very witty man. I think you would like him, sister, though I cannot imagine that either you or I should harbour any more tender feelings toward him than that. Perhaps if we had a brother, he would be a little like Captain Copeland.”

“Well then, alas - it seems there is no hope of my marrying a soldier,” Berenice grieved, the twinkle in her eye belying her sorrowing tone.

“Oh, but there is another officer!” Donatella exclaimed. “Do you not recall, Jasmine - the tall fellow with the silver temples?”

“And the silver tongue to match,” murmured Chloë, sotto voce. “A very charming man, a little older than the Major, I think: quite tall, and with impeccable manners.” Even so, there was something in her tone and her expression that gave Berenice pause for thought.

“You did not like him?” She queried, drawing her aside and speaking softly that the younger girls should not hear and repeat their words out of season.

“Oh, I do not know,” Chloë sighed. “He was very pleasant in aspect and manner, but he was perhaps a little too charming, a little too eager to please - almost obsequious, one might say. And solicitous to the point of watchfulness.He seemed to take in every little detail of every conversation, whether it concerned him or no.”

“A keen observer of life, then? There is no great oddity or danger in that,” Bernice reassured her. “After all, were you not doing just the same in observing him?”

Her sister looked her straight in the eye, and shook her head helplessly. “I cannot explain it,” she said, “but he made my thumbs prickle.”

Berenice grasped her hands warmly, as though to soothe the prickles away. “There, now, you need say no more. If you do not care for him, I shall take your word for it - for you have ever been a perfect judge of character - why, it was you who saw through the cruel ways of Mr Crowhurst, with whom Mama was so keen for you to ally yourself. You were right then, and heaven knows what trials we avoided by severing our ties with him, and I trust that you are right now. What is this officer’s name, that I may be on my guard against his oleaginous ways?”

“The men addressed him as Captain MacDonald, and always so formally - he is no favourite within the regiment, I would wager. He made merry enough, and took cup after cup of wine with his colleagues, but I do not think that he is well liked by those who know him.”

“Then I shall take my cue from his comrades as well as from you, and greet Captain MacDonald as coolly as you ever saw. He shall think us a perfect pair of Ice Queens.”

So saying, Berenice returned to the melée of her younger sisters, who were still arguing over the merits of the gentlemen of the militia, and interrupted them.

“Well now, are you not curious about my adventures? While you have been gadding about with soldiers, I have been on an expedition, saved a life and made a friend, and bivouacked in the wild, just like Papa used to do on manoeuvres!”

Her credulous sisters gasped, but Mrs Wolfe, passing through the drawing room, reproved her. “Berenice, you have done no such things! How you do exaggerate! Pray pay her no heed, girls,” she said sternly, but with warmth and affection in her voice, but the girls knew that Berenice would spin them a good tale, and they crowded round her, eager to hear.

“Very well, Mama, I concede that my expedition was merely a walk on Fanshawe Ridge, and that a twisted ankle may not be a threat to life or even limb - and Mr Griffin’s hostelry is a littlemore refined than a swag of canvas under starlight - but I have made a friend, and I hope that you shall all meet her soon, too.”

By the time luncheon was served, the whole family was keener than mustard to meet Serena, as Colonel Wolfe added his voice to his daughter’s in singing the praise of the singular Miss McKinnie.

“Splendid girl! Looked me in the eye, shook my hand, talked like an actual person, none of your frills and flounces and simpering. Marvellous! Zelda, I’ve invited her to use the library whenever she pleases, so if she does visit, as I hope she will, do let the girl study, won’t you? Don’t subject her to all that awful sitting about smiling, hmm?”

“Sitting about… Good heavens, husband, if you think I shall have Shreve open the door to her and simply waft her along to the library without so much as a how-d’ye-do and a cup of tea, you may think again! She shall have civilised conversation - in moderation,” she conceded, and with that the Colonel - and Berenice - must be satisfied.

---

But when Serena came to visit not a day later, it was with her mother, who hovered over her more like a watchful governes than a fond mother, and it was no easy task for Berenice to rescue her a second time. At the least sign of restlessness from her daughter, Mrs McKinnie laid a firm hand upon her sleeve as though to shackle her to her seat. The Colonel’s grim prediction of sitting and smiling did not quite hit its mark, however, as try as she might, Mrs Wolfe, long known as one of the most pleasant and charming hostesses in the county, could scarce raise anything more amiable than a bitter scowl from her guest. Mrs McKinnie’s face was careworn and shuttered, guarded against displaying any emotion other than displeasure, and Berenice marvelled that such a woman could be parent to such a gay and beautiful daughter as Serena. She recalled, though, that Serena had indicated that there were some difficult circumstances surrounding their removal to Holby, and perhaps it was these troubles which had so embittered and aged her mother.

It was not until Colonel Wolfe strode into the room, beaming genially, that the younger ladies were able to make their retreat. Mrs Wolfe was sensitive to her guest’s temper, and anxious not to make any faux pas which might prove troublesome for the budding friendship between the two young ladies, and so had been treading very lightly, keeping conversation to matters of local interest, sharing snippets of - not gossips, for she was not the kind of person to speak unkindly of anyone - but rather, information which might assist the family settle into their new home town. Into this polite, frosty conversation burst Colonel Henry Wolfe, who sensed the difficult atmosphere as clearly as his wife, but whose experience in life both medical and military told him that a boil is better lanced than left to fester. Without waiting for an introduction, he sallied forth.

“Ah, Mrs McKinnie, how very jolly to see you again - thank you for thinking to visit us. My daughters have spoken of little else than Berenice’s new friend and their eagerness to make her acquaintance - well, if you discount their peculiar fascination with the young men of the Wyvernshire, that is. Now, I shall steal her away from you for a while - Miss McKinnie, my dear, I promised you the freedom of my library, and there is no better guide to its mysteries than my daughter. Come, come, both of you - let us to the library and leave your mothers to make as good friends as I know you have become already.”

If Mrs Wolfe’s mouth tightened ever so slightly, or her gaze grew momentarily sharper and hotter, the Colonel gave no indication that he had noticed, and he ushered Serena and Berenice before him until the door was safely closed behind them.

Once a short distance from the door of the drawing room, Serena looked at Berenice with eyes wide, half in anxiety, half in barely suppressed laughter.

“I do not think anyone has ever spoken thus to my mother,” she whispered. “Your poor Mama! I hope she will not have too difficult a time with her - she would not allow me to come alone until she had met you and your parents. Oh, I cannot tell what kind of umbrage she may have taken! This may be my first and last visit, all in one!”

Berenice had more faith in her mother’s ability to soothe any ruffled feathers than Serena had in hers to be soothed, but she staunchly replied, “Well, if this is to be your sole visit, let us make the most of it and mine the very depths of the library in what time we have.”

So saying, she allowed Serena to stand before her as Colonel Wolfe opened the door to the room in question, and watched with pleasure as Serena took in the splendid sight.

“Oh, Bernie!” Serena breathed, marvelling to see the entire room clad with polished oak bookshelves from floor to ceiling, each full of tomes bound in leather, board or cloth, save for gaps where a book had been taken down to study upon the broad desk which stood before one of the long windows.

The Colonel smiled, for he was rightly proud of this, his favourite room in the house, and to see another take such obvious joy in it was gratifying indeed. And his smile widened and blossomed into laughter at hearing Serena’s pet name for his daughter.

“Well I never did - Bernie, is it? Oho, what a great joke! My dear, I have never told you this, but when you were born, your mother and I argued fiercely over how you should be named. I had long been adamant that any daughter should be named either Athena, for Athene Nike, or Berenice, Greek goddesses of victory, as befits the daughter of a soldier. Your Mama, not having the benefit of a classical education, found the names as outlandish as each other, but thought Berenice to the prettier of the two - and would even then be mollified only by insisting upon Griselda after herself and your grandmama. And so you got your mouthful of a name - but so grand it seemed for so small a thing as you were that I took to calling you Bernie - but this was a step too far for your long suffering mother, who put her foot down upon it. Well, well, perhaps now we may dare try again, hey, Miss McKinnie?”

But Serena had only lent half an ear to the tale, for she was utterly enraptured by the bookshelves, and already she was running a gloved finger along the spines as she read the titles, fascinated by everything she saw. Berenice laughed.

“Very well then, Papa, I shall be Bernie again from this moment. I am glad of it, for Berenice is a much grander name than its owner!”

The Colonel clasped her shoulder as he might do a comrade’s, and left them to explore the riches alone, and girded his loins to rejoin the ladies in the drawing room.

***

He returned to a scene which had become familiar to him over the years, for his wife had quite charmed the frost from their guest, and was conversing in low, warm tones with her.

“And until that moment you had not suspected that anything was amiss with your husband or with his business concerns? Oh, my dear, how very painful to discover the truth of the matter at a time already made so sad by his demise! I cannot think how you have borne it - and yet, you have, and so bravely!”

“Oh, I beg your pardon, ladies, I fear I have interrupted a conversation of a delicate nature,” said the Colonel, who was by no means as insensitive as he pretended to be. But his wife glanced at the visitor for a small nod of permission, and having observed it, laid her husband’s mind at rest.

“Not at all, Henry - indeed, you may be able to render Mrs McKinnie no small service. She has explained to me that upon her husband’s most unexpected death in September last, she was as perplexed as distraught to discover that his affairs, having been in order for many years, had been so drawn upon over the preceding few months that his banker was obliged to inform her that not only had his account been emptied to the last farthing, but indeed, he had died in a state of some significant debt to the bank.”

Mrs McKinnie, upon whom her unburdening had had a most relieving effect, took up her own tale willingly.

Most significant, alas. William was a sensible man, and we had always lived abstemiously, intending to leave as comfortable an inheritance as possible for Serena. It was only a modest amount, but over the last months of his life he had systematically withdrawn it all, fifty pounds at a time until there was nothing left. I had thought him ill, for he had grown drawn and tired, and seemed to age twenty years in as many days, but he would not consult our family physician, nor tell me what ailed him. I must conclude that he had incurred some dreadful debt of which he was ashamed to tell me, and that worry over its repayment caused his premature ageing and his death.”

Colonel Wolfe had taken a seat next to his wife, and he leaned forward, an enquiring look on his pleasantly weather-worn face.

“And he had been granted an overdraft, you say?”

“Just so, though I cannot think on what terms, for we had no prospect of coming into money by inheritance or speculation, but he must have had hopes of making good, or he should not have been able to persuade the bank to advance funds. When I discovered our new condition, I made every attempt to retrench, but when his estate was fully valued, it became clear that my only option was to sell the family home and to move to a far more humble property.” Only now did her voice falter, but she was made of stern stuff, and continued. “Though I have wracked my brains again and again, I can find no honourable explanation for his behaviour, and in the eyes of Brighton society we were quite ruined by the circumstances of our downfall. We have removed from Sussex entirely, and so you find us in Holby.”

The good Colonel pressed his fingertips together and brought them to his lips in deep thought.

“And had there been any other changes in your family’s circumstances in the months leading up to his death?” he asked kindly.

“Nothing that I can think of,” Mrs McKinnie replied. “We had spent a most pleasant season in Dorsetshire, which I suppose was a change - we had often summered in Kent in previous years, but there was nothing so very unusual about our taking a sojourn out of town.”

“I see,” he mused. “Do you recall what had led to the change from Kent?”

She made a small gesture with her hands. “There was no great mystery - only that my daughter had suggested we explore a different part of the coast, where she had heard of exciting discoveries of ancient things among the cliffs - she is quite the natural philosopher in her own little way,” she said, with a mixture of pride and exasperation. “We passed a very pleasant summer there, and she made the acquaintance of a young woman of about her own years who acted as her guide to the cliffs and beaches, and they struck up quite the friendship. And I do not think it can have had any bearing on my husband’s health or fortunes, but it was there, as well, that we became acquainted with a gentleman who paid court most assiduously and sincerely to Serena: a Captain of the local regiment lately returned from the Continent.”

“And was any agreement made between them?”

She frowned. “I believed that they had reached an understanding, yes - at least, he had asked for William’s permission to ask for her hand, and all seemed to be progressing most satisfactorily, but all at once there was a tremendous cooling of affections between them. I do not know what had passed between them, if perhaps she had shunned him, but he announced himself unable to pay further suit, and we saw no more of him.”

“And your daughter will not be drawn upon the matter?”

Mrs McKinnie was too refined to shrug, but something of the kind was implied in the small motion of her hands in her lap.

“She says that there is nothing to tell, that there was never an understanding between them, just an interest on his part that she did not return. I do not think that it can have had any relevance to our later troubles, though it has often occurred to me that if only Serena had seen fit to accept his offer, I should not have to worry about her so greatly now that we are so reduced.”

Leaning back, the Colonel thought over what he had heard. “Indeed, I sympathise with you, madam. A daughter is precious, as I may attest several times over, and any precious thing brings with it also a responsibility to protect and care for it. I think from our small acquaintance that your daughter is quite able to protect herself - I mean to say, that she is no fragile flower who will wilt in less than favourable circumstances. Rather, she seems like a strong sapling which may bend in the wind, but never break. A fine young lady indeed, if you will permit me the observance.”

Though his words verged on the impertinent, his gaze was so kindly and his manner so solicitous, that Mrs McKinne took no offence.

“She is strong willed, I must admit. In that, she is very much my daughter, though she has her father’s openness of heart and easiness of manner. Truly, she is the best of both of us, though I must now wonder what other qualities William may have bequeathed her. It is clear that the money and the house are lost to us, and I am reconciled to that - but if I could only be certain that there was nothing to reproach him for, I should be much easier in my spirit. Mrs Wolfe tells me that you have connexions in Brighton, and she had thought that you might be able to ask some discreet questions, to try and ascertain how this state of affairs came to be?”

He scratched his chin absent mindedly. “Brighton, Brighton - ah, yes - My old aide de campe Fortescue, his people are there, and something in the way of business. I might call upon him to enquire if he heard anything of the matter, I think - yes! That is what I shall do - and as I have the pleasure of attending a regimental reunion on Tuesday eve, I shall have the perfect occasion to do so.”

Thus assured of help at last, Mrs McKinnie fell to talk of more pleasant matters with her hosts — but what, meanwhile, of her daughter and her new found friend?

Chapter Text

“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.

Chapter Text

The Reverend Marcus Dunn was a serious young man, short of stature and high in self regard. The younger son of a family of modest means, it had long been supposed that he should enter either the church or the navy - for the cost of his brother’s education in Law could not be matched for a second son. The church had the twin advantages of being less demanding of both strength and courage, for if there was one commodity which the younger Mr Dunn lacked more woefully than pounds, shillings and pence, it was resilience.

He had met the McKinnie family the previous summer, and Mrs McKinnie in particular took to the young fellow, charmed by his flattery. His tenancy there had been brief and transitory, as in common with many young curates, he had been sent by the diocese to fill in such gaps as arose through ill health among his fellow clergymen and was soon on his way to another appointment, but he had befriended Serena’s mother to such a degree that she had kept in correspondence with him.

Upon William’s death, he had proved a great solace to the widow, whose own powers of imagination were no greater than his own, and his stolid presence and well worn platitudes brought her a measure of comfort during that bewildering time. In recent weeks, he had at last been gifted a living of his own in one of the smaller parishes neighbouring Holby, and Mrs McKinnie saw a way to repay his kindness.

§§§

“Mr Dunn, I am so pleased that the Bishop has at last recognised your worth and seen fit to reward you with your own parish,” she exclaimed when she called upon him in the little cottage by the church. The sign upon the door boldly declared it to be the Parsonage, though a humbler parsonage it would be hard to find.

Nevertheless, Mr Dunn was exceedingly pleased with his new parish, his new parsonage, and most of all with himself. It was pleasing, too, that the Widow McKinnie, to whose assistance he had so gallantly and eloquently applied himself in her hour of need, should recall his services to her so glowingly. He had felt not a little put out by her daughter’s cool reception of his sympathetic attentions, and positively offended (on the church’s behalf, of course - not his own) at what he felt sure was her mockery of him - though it could not have been at his own person, for he knew himself to be a fine figure of a man. It was with that certainty that he stood a little taller than his five foot two and, with the air of a king bestowing a great favour upon an undeserving subject, accepted the widow’s offer to introduce him to a family of her acquaintance, who rejoiced in - she was not certain of the precise number - of daughters of a marriageable age.

§§§

The family were seated together in the drawing room taking their rest after a hearty luncheon (for since the Colonel’s retirement, there had been no other kind) when there came the most thunderous knocking at the door. Mrs Wolfe looked at her husband in alarm.

“My dear, fetch your bag and your cloak, for there is surely some emergency at which your presence is sorely required! Digby, pray make haste to answer the door!”

But when the door was opened, it was not to a supplicant in distress, nor yet a messenger come to beg the Colonel’s attendance at the scene of an accident, but a short, stocky young man in raised shoes with a startled expression upon his pale face. The latter might be explained by the sight of the Colonel hastily bearing down upon him in his billowing cloak, but to the doctor’s mind there could be no excuse for the former.

“What the devil is it, man? Where’s the victim? Carriage overturned, is it? Man been gored by a bull? Or is your lady wife in the throes of bringing forth an heir, eh? Come come, speak up, man - speed is everything when lives are at stake!”

Mopping his face with a large white kerchief, the young man huffed and blustered for a moment, but soon recollected himself.

“No lives at stake, sir, I assure you. Only, perhaps, the happiness of more than one life,” he said with what Colonel Wolfe supposed might be an approximation of a smile.

“No lives at… No accident? No illness? No injury? Then what the devil do you mean by that noise, sir? I’ve heard canons make less racket, what!”

Far from chastened by this gruff tirade, the young man stood a little - a very little - taller in his elevated shoes and remonstrated smoothly with his host.

“Let us have no more talk of the devil, sir, I pray. Are there not, after all, ladies in the house?”

Seeing that his employer was gearing up to respond to this affront with even greater energy than his previous demand, Arthur Digby cleared his throat softly but with great feeling, and the Colonel took his meaning at once (for Digby had been schooled by his mistress in the management of her husband’s temper - and so, too - to his chagrin - had the Colonel).

“Well, well, I dare say the same devil tempts the ladies as tempts the gents, sir, and better they know his name when he does, I should say, but no matter. Ah - but you are a man of the cloth, I see. Should have thought you could bear hearing it better than most, what? Tut tut!”

Sensing Digby readying for another paroxysm of coughing, Colonel Wolfe relented.

“Very well, very well. Will you come in, sir? If it is not my medical expertise you come for, then I imagine you have another reason, what? What’s that?” He took the proffered card and glanced at it.

Reverend Marcus Dunn, Parish of St Henrik the Wise at Lesser Chiltern, he read with mounting confusion.

“Reverend Dunn - good lord, they’re calling choir boys Reverend now, are they? Well, what’s to do, sir? What brings you to my door as though the hounds of hel-- the Wyvershire Hunt were at your heels, hmm? I declare, you gave my wife and my daughters quite the start.”

Undaunted - for Marcus Dunn was a man quite unattuned to criticism - the young reverend seized his moment.

“Indeed, sir, your wife and daughters - the very purpose of my call! I bear a letter of introduction from my former parishioner, Mrs William McKinnie, who tells me that you are endowed with a veritable embarrassment of daughters. I should be delighted to meet them and consider whether my affections and duty might be rightfully bestowed upon one or another of them.” He beamed, aware of the munificence of his offer.

Digby’s eyes had widened in alarm, and he was prepared to throw himself to the floor in facsimile of an apoplexy should the need arise, but the Colonel, to his credit, took no offence, but rather, saw an opportunity for some good sport - and he knew just the opponent for this puffed up parson.

§§§

Bernie and her sisters looked up with curiosity as their father ushered their guest into the drawing room, a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye, which only Bernie and her mother noticed.

“Zelda, my dear, girls - allow me to present Reverend Dunn. He is the new parson at Lesser Chiltern - a most prestigious appointment, as you will agree.”

Jasmine made a peculiar sound, as though she had been about to speak but had received a sharp kick in the ankle from her eldest sister. The parish of Lesser Chiltern, barely more than a few cottages and a flock of sheep, had long been known as the last resort for the Bishop to rid himself of the dullest of his clergy, but it seemed that Mr Dunn was blissfully ignorant of the fact. Mrs Wolfe gave a small sigh, for she recognised her husband’s playful mood at once, and she prepared herself to play referee and attempt to curb his worst excesses.

Bernie, however, had inherited her father’s capricious spirit, and rose at once to the game.

“Lesser Chiltern? My! Then you must be a scholar indeed, Mr Dunn! For St Henrik’s has always been a great seat of learning - it has traditionally been quite the home of the most philosophical priests. Might I ask whence you have your divinity degree? No - wait - do not tell me - it must be Oxford, I am sure, or perhaps Christ Church?”

She did not miss the look of discomfiture on his face, but neither did Mrs Wolfe, and she intervened swiftly to prevent his instant humiliation.

“My dear, let us complete our introductions before we speak further - do not forget that Mr Dunn is a guest and a newcomer to the district, and will not know us yet - or our reputation,” she added darkly, as a warning.

“Of course, Mama,” Bernie replied with apparent timidity, belied by the mischievous look in eyes she had inherited from her father.

The Colonel cleared his throat. “Mr Dunn, may I introduce my wife, Mrs Griselda Wolfe?” She inclined her head in acknowledgement and murmured a greeting.

“And my girls - ah, I see the younger ones are returned to the nursery for their afternoon sleep, but here are Jasmine, Donatella, Chloë -” each sister greeted Mr Dunn politely and with varying degrees of grace - “and my eldest, Bernie.”

Berenice,” interpolated Mrs Wolfe firmly.

“Ah, Berenice, the bringer of victory,” oiled Mr Dunn, delighted to have an opportunity to display the scholarship of which that young lady had spoken. “I quite agree, Mrs Wolfe - a barbarian name though it might be, far better to hear it in full than to abbreviate it so cruelly to a masculine denominator! Berenice it shall be,” he said unctuously, turning to her.

“Oh, Mr Dunn, really, there is no need,” Bernie said sweetly. “Miss Wolfe will do perfectly well, thank you.”

Mrs Wolfe did not chide her on this reply, being in perfect agreement. She could already see where Henry’s mood had sprung from.

But Mr Dunn was as tone deaf as he was confident.

“Oh, of course, of course - Miss Wolfe it shall be - for now.” His face contorted into what Bernie supposed was intended to be a smile, and suspected that he had practiced this expression in a mirror - though perhaps one which gave an imperfect reflection.

“Are you quite well, sir?” she enquired gravely. “Papa, do you think perhaps a touch of palsy?”

The Colonel peered at the young man’s face, now fallen into something more akin to a pout than a smile, and shook his head reassuringly.

“Trick of the light, my dear, trick of the light.”

Mrs Wolfe’s tone was conciliatory as she shot a dark glance at her husband and daughter.

“Mr Dunn, tell us, what brings you to our corner of the country? I believe Mrs McKinnie told us she met you first in Lyme Regis?”

The young clergyman had raised a hand to his face as though to feel for an indication of the malady Miss Wolfe had suggested, but at this prompting, he leaned forward eagerly.

“Ah, Lyme! Such a pleasant town, and such pleasant people. I spent the most pleasant time there,” he said warmly.

Bernie was all polite interest as she commented, “How very pleasant for you, Mr Dunn.”

“I spent the summer there at the request of the Rural Dean,” he said importantly, “as the vicar of Ware was indisposed for some weeks.”

“The vicar of where?” Bernie enquired innocently.

“Yes, the very same. Do you know him?”

“Know whom?” She affected puzzlement.

“Why, the vicar of Ware, of course.”

“The Reverend Wye? And of where is he the vicar?”

Mr Dunn was starting to feel a little dizzy.

“I beg your pardon, Miss Wolfe - who is the Reverend Wye?”

“Why, Wye, the vicar of Ware, what?” the Colonel added helpfully.

“What?” Mr Dunn was starting to perspire, and he looked uncertainly from father to daughter, both of whom were frowning in consternation at him.

“Oh, Watt, is it? I thought you said Wye. Goodness, Lyme sounds quite the hive of ecclesiastical enquiry, eh?”

Mrs Wolfe, deciding that the poor fellow had had more than enough, took pity upon him, and encouraged him to tell them more of his acquaintance with Serena and her mother. Bernie, having had her fun, listened intently and read between the lines as he let the odd detail slip - a sharp word here, a hurt feeling there - and deduced that Mr Dunn had attempted and failed to court her friend. She could profess no great surprise at this, as surely any gentleman would consider her Serena a lady worth courting. She resolved to quiz her at their next meeting.

She was brought from her musings with a shock when it became apparent that Mr Dunn was paying her very particular attention.

“... and so I said to myself, it is incumbent upon me to provide a strong arm upon which you might lean, for every wallflower needs a firm support in order to display their true beauty,” he said with an air of great condescension.

Bristling with outrage, Bernie opened her mouth to remonstrate, but her mother caught her eye, shook her head minutely, and laid a restraining hand upon her arm.

“You are very kind, Mr Dunn, but if my daughter will permit me to speak for her, your offer is quite unnecessary. She has, of course, an invitation of her own to the ball, as do all my older daughters, and I fear it would seem churlish to the lady of the manor to imply that she should have invited them as mere decoration for a gentleman’s arm. No, I thank you for your generosity, sir, but you will know, I am sure, that your invitation to the ball is for you alone: her ladyship is most particular regarding her guests.”

Although Mrs Wolfe’s words had been nothing but courteous, Mr Dunn seemed strangely diminished, even from his already diminutive status, and it was a far less pompous man who left Keller Hall shortly after than had arrived an hour before. The Colonel thanked him for his visit, and in rising, made it clear that his audience with the ladies was at an end. He showed him to the door, and as it closed firmly behind him, the ladies heard a gruffly muttered “Impudent whelp!” before their father returned to the drawing room with a look of irritation, which swiftly transformed to laughter when he caught Bernie’s eye.

“My dear, I do declare you worse than your old father! Well played, ma’am, well played, what!”

“Watt? Who is he?” Berenice teased, to the great mirth of even Mrs Wolfe.

Chapter Text

“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.

Chapter Text

By the time Colonel Wolfe returned from town, Bernie had already retired, and the next day she forgot all about the intriguing book, for the morning brought great excitement to the Wolfe household. An invitation was sent by messenger, arriving as the family broke their fast. Digby leaned toward Mrs Wolfe with a neatly addressed letter resting on the silver tray, and as she took it up, her brows lifted as she wracked her memory.

“I know this hand,” she murmured, “but I cannot place it. My dear, from whom do you suppose it can be?”

Her husband harrumphed. “I don’t know why you always ask me, Zelda, for you know what I will be obliged to say!”

She laughed a little in acknowledgement, and as though to spare her father the pain of repeating himself, Bernie spoke on his behalf.

“Open it, Mama - it is surely the most reliable test!”

“You are your father’s daughter,” Mrs Wolfe said fondly. “I like to try my mental faculties, though, and I am sure this is a familiar hand - ah! I have it - it is from Mrs Levy!”

The Colonel gave up his pretence of grumpiness, and said with genuine sunlight, “Estella! What has she to say, my dear? Let us have the news!”

Dr Levy and his wife were firm family favourites, and were much missed in the town since their removal to Dorchester several years since, and the girls leaned in as eagerly as their father for news of their friends. Mrs Wolfe broke the seal and cast her eye over the first few lines, and said joyfully, “Why, they are here in Holby!”

A great hubbub arose, and it was several moments before she could make herself heard over the happy exclamations of her family.

“Hush now, listen and let me read to what she says:

My dear Griselda,

It gives me joy to inform you that Sacha and I are arrived in Holby to spend a fortnight among our old friends, and we hope that you will do us the honour of calling upon us at the Griffin Arms, where we are currently lodging.

Sacha has been obliged by the Board to inspect a number of hospitals in the county and beyond, and may be called away at any moment, but if you are able to come this morning, you may be able to see him before he rides to Bristol. He will leave at ten, so if you are at all able to come at so short notice, we would dearly like to see you.

Pray waste no time in the composing and sending of a reply, but bring yourselves and your daughters - how many are there now! - at your very earliest convenience to Mr Griffin’s establishment, where we await you with open arms and glad hearts.

Your loving friend,
Estella Levy.

No sooner had she finished reading this missive than the girls leapt to their feet in an agitation of activity, clamouring to be heard one over the other, and begging that no time be wasted.

“Girls! Be seated at once! You are young ladies, and will behave as such - now let us finish our meal in peace, and then we will consider whether we have time to visit before Dr Levy sets off for Bristol.”

But the Colonel was twice as excited as the girls, and his voice carried three times the weight.

“Dash it all, Zelda, seize the day, what? Griffin can feed us just as well as Cook, can’t he? Digby, tell the driver to prepare the carriage at once - no, no, I shall drive, just have him get the pair ready!” He shooed the longsuffering Digby out of the room, and turned back to his wife (who had suffered his exuberant volatility for even longer).

“Chance like this doesn’t come along often, hey - don’t let’s be like those stuffy old souls that let life pass ’em by for want of an invitation, what!”

It would have been as worthwhile arguing with the East wind as with Henry Wolfe in this temper, and so his wife made a tactical retreat. Within minutes, she had forgotten propriety herself, and practically danced between the girls’ chambers, helping them to get ready for the brief journey - much to Shreve’s chagrin.

“Mrs Wolfe, if you do not stay still I cannot guarantee that I shall not stick you with this - there, now, what did I say?” But Mrs Wolfe merely laughed, sucking her finger where poor Shreve had punctured it with a hatpin.

“There, never mind - I think we shall all do - come along, girls, let us be off!”

§§§

As the carriage turned into the yard at the coaching inn, Bernie had a momentary sense of déjà vu, and thought how she and Serena had arrived here on the day they had met, she with her arm supporting Serena around her waist, and Serena clutching at her hand. It scarce seemed possible that it was only a matter of days ago, for they had formed such an immediate and strong friendship that they seemed to have known each other for years. But now was not the time to indulge such thoughts, for there were Dr and Mrs Levy, as large as life - larger, even - smiling and laughing and coming out to meet them.

“Henry, my dear old fellow! How splendid you look - retirement suits you - should have done it years ago! Griselda, my dear - Mrs Wolfe - how can it be that you look five years younger, not five years older? And - oh, I say, who’s that? Come come, you must let me see - I cannot guess who it might be with your hands over my eyes!”

Poor Dr Levy had been launched upon by any number of Wolfe girls, for they remembered his as quite the jolliest man they had ever known, and the years fell away as they forgot that they were young ladies, and a riotous few minutes were had as he carried Jasmine about the yard on his back at a rambunctious gallop, just as he had when she was smaller, and they were all younger.

“Enough - enough!” he cried at last, gasping for breath. “Woah there! It’s time this old hack was put out to pasture, I’m afraid! Well, well, there we are,” he beamed, as the rumpus subsided just enough for him to remember that he was not a thoroughbred, nor a dray horse, but rather, a portly gentleman of middle age and some considerable standing in the community.

Mrs Levy, meanwhile, was already deep in busy conversation with Mrs Wolfe, and the two ladies very sensibly ignored the spectacle their husbands and the girls were making. By and by, the happy little party made its way into the inn, allowing the stable hands to carry on their work about the yard.

An elegant sitting room had been made available for the Levys, as Mr Griffin knew and loved them of old, and knew that they would have many guests to entertain during their stay. Room was found for all of them to sit, and there was time for them to catch up with all the news of both families, and of the town, before Mr Levy was obliged to don his riding coat and boots. Just as he left, Mr Griffin informed them out of courtesy that the officers of the Wyvernshire militia, though stationed in barracks, had made it their habit to dine at the Griffin Arms, and might be expected at any moment. They would dine in the room opposite, but could on occasion be high spirited and not a little rowdy, but if the noise became too much, they were to tell Mr Griffin at once, and he would have them cool their heels.

This he had intended as a measure to soothe the waters before they became troubled, but it had the effect instead of rousing the spirits of Donatella, Jasmine and the younger girls to great excitement, and even the temperate Chloë smiled gladly to know that their recent acquaintance with the officers might be rekindled before the ball.

Mr Levy shook his head ruefully at the expression on Mr Griffin’s face.

“You still have no idea how ladies’ minds work, eh, Griffin? Tut tut, you have made a rod for your own back, I fear - and I must leave you to wield it yourself, for I must be off. Henry, Griselda - quite marvellous, hey? I shall see you at the Ball, if not before. Griselda my dear, you will keep Estella company, won’t you? Or you, Miss Wolfe - goodness, look at how you are all grown! Well, well, there it is. Goodbye, my dears!”

He finally managed to extricate himself from the adoring throng of girls who remembered their “Uncle” Sacha with such great affection, and rode off upon the stout mare towards the Bristol road.

§§§

Once Dr Levy was away, Colonel Wolfe listened patiently to the chatter of his brood and their friend, asking the occasional question, laughing at the jokes (which were invariably made by Bernie), but when the sounds of several horses arriving broke through their voices, he soon found an excuse to leave the sitting room to go and inspect the troops. In spite of Mrs Wolfe’s best efforts, the girls left the room one by one, until she was left alone with Estella, and they laughed together to think of the little girls Mrs Levy remembered, being now old enough to be entranced by red coats and gold braid - and laughed to remember the days when the same was true for themselves.

§§§

Bernie had been the last to follow her sisters through to the dining room, and then it was only at her mother’s behest - “to see that your Papa does not forget he is a father as well as a soldier,” she had said. When she finally made her appearance, it was to find the Colonel deep in conversation with a handsome young man who wore the insignia of Major, Chloë talking quietly one of the senior officers, and the younger girls in the middle of a throng of admiring soldiers - though which party was more thrilled by the presence of the other was a matter for debate.

Thinking it most prudent to act as sheepdog, she waded into the gaggle of bonnets and braid, seating herself next to Donatella and Jasmine.

“Oh - here she is!” said Jasmine brightly. “We were just telling Captain Copeland all about you. We said that you probably knew more of military strategy than he did, and he declares we are lying!”

“I said no such thing!” protested the Captain, looking beseechingly at Bernie. “Miss Wolfe, I am glad to make your acquaintance - and I pray you, pay no heed to your sisters, for I only said that it must be quite the extraordinary young lady who interested herself with military matters - not that you were not such a one.”

Bernie saw at once what Chloë had meant about him seeming more like a brother than anything, and she could easily imagine him sticking out his tongue at the girls as he delivered his little speech. But they were not dismayed in the least, and giggled at his feigned indignation.

Bernie laughed easily, taking to the young man straight away. “I am glad to know you, Captain Copeland. I trust that you and your comrades are at the very peak of fitness?”

He frowned quizzically. “Well, we are always prepared to be deployed at a moment’s notice - do you know of a campaign that is likely to need our regiment? After all, you are the one with the ear to the ground and the eye for strategy,” he added teasingly.

She laughed, an honest open laugh that made several officers turn their heads in surprise. “No, sir! I only meant to warn you that my sisters will not be satisfied until they have danced with every last one of you at the Pump Rooms on Friday, so if you are not in fighting form, you must order your Sergeant Major to drill the men constantly between now and then!”

Captain Copeland gave a delicate little shudder, but said stoutly, “We are here to serve, madam, no matter how onerous the duty.”

Jasmine and Donatella shrieked at the pretended insult, and turned their backs with a flounce. Bernie laughed again, and leaned forward conspiratorially.

“You will have to try harder than that, I fear, Captain - you must be prepared to repel all boarders once battle commences. I believe they have already drawn up a plan of attack, matching each of us to one of your men - and if that fails, they will ring the changes until one of them strikes a mortal blow.”

He inclined his head gravely. “Forewarned is fore-armed, madam - and I thank you for your intelligence. However, I fear your brigade of rebels have their work cut out for them, for to a man, our affections are already spoken for.”

“To a man?” Bernie asked. “Every one of you has a wife or sweetheart waiting for you somewhere in Wyvernshire? My sisters will be devastated. Though I am not sure that they will believe anything other than wedded bliss an unassailable obstacle. I advise you all to speak fondly, loudly and often of your wives.”

He looked away slyly. “Wives - well, perhaps not. But we are all made happy by someone dear to us. Well, perhaps not quite every one of us. Poor Thompson can barely look a lady in the eye, let alone speak to her - your sisters would leave him for dead, though!”

“Which is he?” Bernie asked, looking around the busy dining room.

Captain Copeland turned in his seat, craning his neck to find his fellow officer.

“Oh! - he has proved me wrong, for he is over there, talking to your sister Miss Chloë Wolfe, and even - yes, did you see, he met her eye for at least two seconds! Wonders will never cease!”

His words sounded mocking, but there was warmth in his voice, and a look of fondness upon his face, and looking at Lieutenant Thompson, Bernie saw a man so boyish-looking that she could scarce believe him a soldier. His cheeks were ruddy and his already thinning fair hair stood up in tufts, but it was a look which became him, and was somehow endearing rather than foolish, and she smiled to see how kindly and calmly her sister was conversing with him.

“He has already found the best among us,” she said, “for Chloë is as kind as Donatella is sharp, and as thoughtful as Jasmine is impetuous. She will look after him splendidly if he can summon the courage to ask for her dance card.”

§§§

Major di Lucca was a capital fellow, the Colonel decided. He was friendly and open, and it was clear that his men liked him, which was all to the good, and that they respected him, which meant a great deal more. With the Colonel he was respectful but friendly, taking his cue from his senior officer. Old habits die hard, and within the half hour, the Colonel had the measure of the man, his officers and his regiment. He learned of the confidence - not always deserved - of Captain Copeland, the diffidence of Lieutenant Thompson, and the comradeship the whole regiment felt for each other.

“And we are fortunate with our subalterns, too,” the Major continued. “Our Sergeant-Major is a stalwart chap, salt of the earth and every inch the man you’d want by your side in battle - or in peace time too, for that matter,” he said gladly.

“Aye, sir, a good Sergeant-Major’s worth his weight in gold, quite right, quite right. But tell me, who’s the chap skulking in the corner there? Not a popular man, is he, Captain….”

“Captain MacDonald,” Major di Lucca supplied. “To give the man his dues, he’s hardly had time to become popular yet - he has joined the regiment recently, having been in the Dorsetshires previously. It is true,” he said with a sigh and a thoughtful look at the sullen looking man, “he has not hit it off with his fellow officers as well as I would have liked, but I am sure that in time he will become one of our ragged little family.”

Colonel Wolfe looked at the new captain with an unreadable expression.

“Perhaps you are right, Major. Perhaps you are right.”

§§§

Captain Copeland and Miss Wolfe looked at the two young people in quiet, earnest conversation with mutual satisfaction, each of them careful as they were of their charge’s tender feelings. At length, Captain Copeland turned back towards her and fixed her with a friendly but scrutinising eye.

“So Miss Chloë is kind, Miss Donatella is sharp, and Miss Jasmine is impetuous. What is Miss Berenice Wolfe like?”

For once, Bernie was taken aback, and she looked at him in surprise for a moment.

“Why - I am simply like myself,” she said. “Honest, I think, and kind, I hope - curious, certainly, and bold - undeniably. But perhaps you should ask my sisters, or some other person, for I am sure my opinion of myself is quite biased.”

“I have heard that Miss Wolfe is bold, it is true - and that she is learned, and clever, and strong-willed, and humorous - all qualities that make her quite unlike any other young lady in Holby.”

She looked askance at him, uncertain whether she was being judged by this cocksure young man. But his eyes crinkled in a winning smile.

“And all qualities which make me wish she were my friend. Might I call you so, Miss Wolfe?”

“Well, if they are qualities you admire, then I am certain we shall be friends indeed. It seems we have much in common,” she said, smiling.

He looked at her thoughtfully. “I do believe you are right, Miss Wolfe - perhaps a great deal indeed.”

Chapter Text

To the delight of all concerned, Major di Lucca invited the entire party to stay and take luncheon with him and his officers. The Major insisted that Colonel Wolfe take the head of the table, while he himself found that he had been flanked by Jasmine and Donatella, who had engineered a pincer movement to surround their quarry. Lieutenant Thompson had gallantly held a chair for Chloë, and they continued their quiet conversation as luncheon was served.

Bernie smiled to see it, for Lieutenant Thompson seemed to her to be a very gentle young man, and his whole demeanour spoke of respect for her sister.

“He looks like an honourable man,” she commented to Captain Copeland. “Do you find him to be so?”

The handsome young officer smiled as he watched the two, their heads inclined to each other. “Indeed he is, Miss Wolfe. Dear Derwood is quite the most timid among us, I think, but he has the heart of a lion when it comes to matters of honour, and doing what is right and proper. Miss Chloë looks like a gentle soul cut from the same cloth - they would make a good match for one another, I think.”

“A timid lion?” Bernie repeated, amused at the notion. “How can that be?”

“Poor chap, he is painfully aware that he lacks the presence or charisma of some of his fellow officers,” the Captain explained. “But despite his shyness and his lack of confidence, he would always speak up against an injustice, or ungentlemanly behaviour. And I hold that he is the braver for doing so, in spite of his inclination to demur to another. He overcomes his own nature to see that justice prevails, and we love him for it!”

Bernie smiled at him, heartened to see such a stout defense of a friend. She had seldom met a gentleman more willing to profess affection for one of his own sex, and she found it touching.

“I cannot think that he has much cause to stand against injustice among this brave company,” she said, “for you seem to me quite the most gallant brigade of soldiers I ever met - and you may imagine that my father has introduced us to many such!”

He took the compliment graciously on behalf of his comrades, but inclined his head a little at her assumption. “By and large we are an honourable regiment, it is true, but a bad apple can find its way into the healthiest of harvests. There is one come lately among our company whose behaviour does not chime with our own way of thinking - though perhaps it is only a matter of time before our behaviour influences his for the better,” he added doubtfully. Bernie followed his glance, fleeting though it was, to where Captain MacDonald sprawled boorishly on his chair at the corner of the table.

“It can be hard, I imagine, to find oneself all at once in the company of those who have long been friends together,” she suggested. “I am sure that your influence and friendship will have a beneficial effect. Has the gallant Lieutenant Thompson had cause to take a stand against your new colleague?”

“He has,” Captain Copeland said with a sigh. “He quite rightly remonstrated with our newcomer when he was less than courteous to a lady, I am sorry to say, and had his ears boxed for his trouble. Of course, we returned the favour with interest, but it has not endeared him to any of us, and you may be sure that the reverse is true - especially poor old Derwood.”

Bernie frowned as she looked at the sullen fellow, and noted uneasily how his gaze lingered on Lieutenant Thompson and her sister.

§§§

At the other end of the table, Major di Lucca was undergoing a fearsome and terrible interrogation by his captors.

“And is it true what they say of soldiers, Major, that the bigger the scabbard, the bigger the -”

“Donatella!” Jasmine broke in, eyes wide.

“What, sister? I was going to say, the bigger the salary - for surely the man with the longest sword must be the most important? How long is your sword, Major di Lucca?” She looked up at him slyly from beneather her lashes, and he cleared his throat before he was able to answer.

“Ah, well, no, you see - that is not quite how it is managed,” he said, pink to the tips of his ears. Donatella squawked as Jasmine’s dainty shoe met her equally dainty ankle beneath the table, and the younger girl was silenced for a while.

“Tell me, Major,” said Jasmine, changing tack, “Will you and your men be attending the Ball on Friday? It is all we can think or speak about of late! Oh, do say you have been invited!”

The officers had indeed been invited, and the girls chattered away happily about their dresses, their ribbons, their dance cards - and their hopes.

“It is certain that Chloë will dance with Lieutenant Thompson all night, to see them talk so,” Donatella said dreamily, but the Major laughed, though not unkindly.

“You had better tell her to borrow your father’s boots, then - poor Derwood has two left feet, and neither of them knows the steps. I am sure he will make a good attempt to oblige her, though,” he said with a smile.

“The important thing is to be sure that Berenice is engaged all evening,” said Jasmine sotto voce, “For otherwise there is little benefit in our being there at all! Oh, we shall have a merry enough time of it, I am sure, but we have told her over and over that she must make a marriage as soon as ever she can, or condemn us all to become old maids.”

Major di Lucca held in a smile at hearing one so young already speak of becoming an old maid, and he looked appraisingly at Berenice, engaged as she was in lively conversation with Captain Copeland.

“I cannot think she will remain unattached for long - she appears to be the picture of health and beauty, and I am sure that the young men of Holby must be challenging each other over her affections.”

“Oh, they have long given up!” Jasmine exclaimed. “But I am sure that were you to attend upon her…”

This time it was Jasmine’s ankle which felt the toe of Donatella’s shoe, for that young lady had already set her cap on the gallant major herself.

“Oh, but sister, see how happy she is with Captain Copeland! I am sure they will dance together all night. I am sure the Major has... other plans for the Ball.” And she fluttered her eyelashes in so clumsy a manner that even the ever-courteous Major di Lucca could not suppress his smile.

“Indeed I do, Miss Donatella, for my affections lie elsewhere entirely,” he said, letting her down as gently as he could manage. “And as for my Captain, well, I do not think I am betraying any confidences when I urge you not to set your hopes upon your sister finding lasting happiness with him. He is an excellent fellow, but not, I think, the right one for her.”

§§§

From the head of the table, the Colonel had reached the same conclusion. He looked at his daughter and her dining companion thoughtfully, but with kindness, glad that she had made another friend who seemed worthy of the name, but he was under no illusions about the potential of the friendship.

The younger officers who had been hanging upon his every word for the last half hour had fallen to talking among themselves for a spell, and his eye roved around the table to his other daughters. Major di Lucca seemed to be fending off the twin advances of his younger girls admirably, stout fellow! And he liked the cut of young Thompson’s jib - not much more than a boy, and diffident as Copeland was bold, but a good lad for all that. He was glad to see him speaking with Chloë, who was a gentle soul herself, and who he knew would only ever flourish under more tender care than many a soldier would be able to give her.

But as he turned away to beam happily around the gathered company, he missed the uncouth sight of Captain MacDonald leaning across the young Lieutenant so heavily that he was obliged to relinquish his place at table to his superior officer. The young man’s face was flushed with irritation and impotence, for MacDonald was the taller, the elder, the senior ranked of the two, and Derwood Thompson might be a gallant defender of the rights of others, but he was not born to conflict and was rarely one to stand up in his own defence.

MacDonald laughed a short, sneering sort of laugh as he brushed Thompson away. “Now then, Miss Wolfe, let the dog see the rabbit, eh? This puppy can go and beg for scraps at someone else’s table - shoo, puppy!” And he turned his back on the Lieutenant, blocking him from Chloë’s view entirely. She raised her voice in remonstrance and regret at losing her far more pleasant companion, but Captain MacDonald spoke over her entreaties, having seen from his perch at the corner of the table how mild she was, how timid, and how easily she might be managed.

Bernie and Captain Copeland had witnessed this ungentlemanly usurping, but even as Bernie made to stand, her mouth open to call out in defiance, Captain Copeland put a gentle but firm hand on her wrist.

“I pray you, Miss Wolfe, do not oblige the brute, for he thrives upon any perceived weakness in the men. If Derwood has to be assisted by you in keeping his seat at table, he will never hear the end of it. No, he must learn to stand up for himself, though God knows I wish he would learn it quickly! By all means let us invite your sister to join us at the end of the table, but do not add to Derwood’s humiliation.”

Bernie saw at once the wisdom of his words, and taking a short moment to gather herself and to contain her anger, she took advantage of a momentary lull in the hubbub at the table to call upon her sister to join them - for “you must meet Captain Copeland, he tells the funniest stories!” Neither she nor Captain Copeland missed the thunderous look sent their way by Captain MacDonald: neither did the watchful eye of Major di Lucca as he observed the exchange, deciding discretion to be the better part of valour on this occasion as Chloë excused herself gratefully from her unwelcome neighbour.

§§§

After luncheon, the Colonel sent his wife and daughters back to Keller House in the charge of the obliging Captain Copeland, who proved quite capable of handling a fine pair. He himself lingered a while at the tavern in the hope of seeing Dr Levy upon his return from Bristol, and was rewarded some hours after by his old friend’s appearance, tired and somewhat ruffled from his journey, but in good spirits.

Once Dr Levy had greeted his wife and refreshed himself from his journey, he gladly took a cup of wine with Colonel, expressing his regret that he had missed what sounded like a most convivial occasion.

“And after I had to miss the regimental dinner, as well - shame, shame!” the doctor cried. “What news can you bring me of the old fellows, hmm?” The two old comrades had served together in the medical arm of their old regiment, and although Sacha had resigned his commission when he married, he still maintained a keen interest in his old outfit.

“Oh, this and that - tittle tattle for the most part. Radstock’s headed off to Jamaica, can’t say I like that much. Bad business. Cholmondley’s been knighted of all things, insists on Sir Matthew, if you please, as though his head wasn’t big enough already. Oh, this might interest you! Good old Barratt is top brass with the Dorsetshires now - found he couldn’t stomach retirement and has thrown himself back into the fray. Sounds as though he’s doing a splendid job there, cleaning up the mess that the previous fellow left. Told me he’d drummed out the most ghastly cad a month or so ago, name of Campbell. Found him preying on young women and threatening to tell the most scandalous lies about ’em. He should have been court martialed, but the blighter slunk away before it got to that. It sounds as though Barratt gave him a good horsewhipping, though - here’s hoping he has the sense never to darken the door of a barracks again.”

Doctor Levy raised his glass. “I’ll drink to that - sounds like a thoroughly bad sort. Di Lucca’s chaps seem like a gallant bunch, though, what? I wonder - you say that your Berenice struck it off rather well with young what’s-his-name, Copeland, was it?” his voice trailed away as coyly as that of an old gossip at a soiree as he gave his friend a questioning glance.

The Colonel laughed. For a man happily married these five and twenty years, he had an excellent nose for discerning those whose happiness was found by following a different path. He had been abroad in the world and seen love and friendship in all its many forms, and he had a shrewd idea of where Captain Copeland found it - and over the last few days, he had begun to consider where his own dear Bernie might expect to seek it.

Chapter Text

Upon Captain Copeland’s having delivered them safely home, the Wolfe girls found much to discuss regarding their adventure at the Griffin Arms. Restricted from discussing their new acquaintances openly in the presence of the Captain, once he had deposited them at Keller Hall and politely refused the offer of tea, they waited until the carriage and pair were out of sight, and then it was as though open season had been declared upon the gentlemen of the Wyvernshire.

Jasmine and Donatella were enthusiastic in their recital of the names and ranks of their favoured gentlemen, and bold in their assertions of which officer would suit which of the girls as a partner at the forthcoming ball - and beyond. Bernie withstood a barrage of questions and presumptions from her little sisters, who had not failed to notice her long conversation with the Captain.

“Has he asked you to dance with him at the Ball, Berenice? Has he left you any dances free for the gentlemen of the town? Do you suppose he will ask Papa for your hand? What did you talk about all that time?!”

Bernie put up a conciliatory hand and attempted to stop them in their flow - no easy task - and laughed at them.

“We talked about any number of things, but neither about dancing nor my hand, you silly goslings. He is a very charming young man, just as you said I should find him, and he is easy and pleasant to speak with - but that is all - and I am quite certain that he would say the same of me. I am glad to have met him and made a friend of him, but that is exactly what he shall remain.”

Jasmine and her sister mourned the loss deeply. “Oh, but he was so taken with you, surely you are mistaken? Can you not bring yourself to find him acceptable? Why, his hair was so perfectly combed, and his whiskers so carefully trimmed, and his breeches so very tight -”

“That will do, Donna! Yes, he was very well turned out, and a credit to his regiment, but no, there is no prospect of our finding wedded bliss in the imminent future - nor even the distant future. Really, I do wish you would stop trying to see romance and matrimony as the only desirable end to any conversation with a gentleman!”

Chastened for but the merest moment, the girls turned to Chloë instead.

“Oh, tell us which of your beaus you like the best, Chloë! Poor thing, they are neither of them as handsome as Captain Copeland or the Major -” and here, Donatella sighed dreamily - “but still, to have two officers vying for your attention - you must be delighted!”

Chloë, poor girl, was no such thing.

“Lieutenant Thompson is very kind, and as well mannered a man as I ever met,” she said shyly, trying not to let a blush stain her cheek, “but I should have liked to continue talking to him. I am sure that Captain MacDonald is an honourable gentleman, but I had much rather that he had not interrupted us, for he did not seem to have anything of import to say to me - instead, he was unkind about the poor Lieutenant, and I did not care for his conversation at all, I am afraid.”

“What did he wish to talk about?” Jasmine asked curiously, but Chloë dismissed her question with vague assertions that it was of little import or interest. It did not go unnoticed by Bernie, however, that Chloë was visibly distressed by the remembrance of the interlude, and was glad that she and Captain Copeland had intervened by inviting her to join them.

“They are neither of them as handsome as Berenice’s young man,” Jasmine carried on blithely, as though Chloë had not spoken at all, “but I suppose they are not actually displeasing to the eye - just a little bland and unremarkable.” She giggled. “I thought the Lieutenant looked as though he had come straight from being scrubbed like a boiled potato fresh from the pot, with his red cheeks and his hair all tufty!”

“If the Lieutenant is a scrubbed potato, then Captain MacDonald is a tough old potato baked in his jacket,” Donatella added, and the two fell about laughing until Bernie came to Chloë’s rescue.

“I thought Lieutenant Thompson a very amiable fellow,” she said kindly, “And I am sorry that the Captain interrupted your conversation, particularly when he had nothing more deserving of interest with which to replace it. We shall ensure that he does not play the same trick at the Ball, shall we? Chloë, would you help me with my stays, my dear? They seem to have become disarrayed during the journey.” And she rose to her feet, holding out her hand to her sister.

 

§§§

 

In the bedroom they shared, however, Bernie batted Chloë’s hand away gently when she made to help unlace her gown.

“Oh, pshaw - there is nothing wrong with my stays. Only the girls are in such high spirits that nothing will stop them, and I could see that you did not wish to discuss the matter. And for my part, I do not care to hear them pair us all off with men we have known for a whole two hours! I know they are anxious that I should make an engagement sooner rather than later, but I do tire of their gossip.”

Chloë gave her a smile of appreciation. “Thank you, Berenice, I am so glad to have left them to their foolishness! You are right, as you always are - I did not care to talk of it with them - though of course I do not mind telling you,” she added.

Bernie chose her next words carefully, and began folding her nightgown and straightening her bedclothes to keep her hands occupied and her eyes averted from Chloë’s face.

“The Captain - Captain MacDonald - was he quite - quite correct in the way that he spoke to you?” she asked. “Only, I wondered from the way that you were sitting, almost as though you would like to move away from him, and the way he leaned over you - well, I am afraid that Captain Copeland tells me that he is not always as gentle or as proper as he should be.”

Chloë was sitting on the edge of her bed, and she fiddled with the lace of her comforter as she said softly, “He was not improper, quite - at least, he did not say anything that I could say was very wrong, but there seemed to be all manner of suggestion beneath his words, and he made me feel uncomfortable, as though he was toying with me. I did not like him at all,” she said with sudden vehemence, unusual for her.

Bernie eyed her carefully. “What manner of suggestion do you mean, sister?” she asked, keeping her voice calm and quiet, though seething with an anxious unease.

“It is difficult to be certain,” Chloë said, “for he was careful to couch his words such that could he not be accused of impropriety, but he spoke of such things as ripe fruit, and the plucking of them, and - and things of that nature, that seemed not to be about fruit at all.” She was blushing and deeply uncomfortable, even speaking to her most trusted confidante, and Bernie was eager to put her at her ease, although within her, she felt anger and outrage simmer.

“We shall take care that your paths need not cross at all,” she said. “If he comes to the Ball at all - for he seemed not to enjoy the company of a crowd of people. But there are enough of us, your friends, to keep him at arm’s length. And I am sure that Lieutenant Thompson will be keen to continue your conversation. Now, I had better go and see that the girls have calmed down, for Miss McKinnie is due to call shortly, and I had rather they did not bore her with all this gossip!”

As she pulled the bedroom door to behind her, Chloë called out softly to her.

“Berenice? I do rather like boiled potatoes, you know,” and her smile was as sweet as it was shy.

 

§§§

 

Later that afternoon, Miss McKinnie arrived for her usual pilgrimage to the library, but the afternoon was so fine that Bernie suggested they attempt a walk, to see how Serena’s ankle would fare.

“It would be well to try a walk before the ball, I dare say,” Serena said agreeably as she assented, and they set out upon a stroll which would take in a fine view of Fanshawe Ridge, where they had met not a week before. Before long, they ascertained that her ankle was quite strong enough for the walk, and therefore for dancing, and they fell to animated conversation.

Walking side by side, they found that talking came to them more comfortably than ever before and something in the rhythm of their steps lent a sense of intimacy and ease. All manner of subjects were touched upon here, delved into there, and at length, Bernie broached a topic which Serena had shied from before.

“Will you not tell me a little of your father’s illness, if you can bear to? It must be so hard to bear, not knowing what caused it - and I wonder if between us, Papa and I might be able to throw some light upon the sad matter?”

Serena proved more than willing to recount the events of the previous summer in so far as she understood them, and unburdened herself gladly to Berenice, whom she had already come to think of as a close and trustworthy confidante. The tale she told was one which Bernie had already heard in summary, but now Serena shared more details of her father’s behaviour and demeanour over the last few months of his life, and it was a tale which echoed the account given by Mrs McKinnie to the Colonel and his wife a few days before.

“The longer I think upon it, the more certain I am that the change occurred upon our return from Lyme - or perhaps even to the last days of our visit there,” Serena mused. “He had planned to commission a new wing to the house, and indeed was in possession of plans already, but not two weeks after we returned to Brighton, the architect was released from his contract, and nothing came of the work. Father was forever scribbling letters in his study, or dashing off to town at a moment’s notice.”

“To London?” Bernie asked.

“So I have always presumed,” Serena said thoughtfully, “but I do not believe that he ever said so directly. Wherever it was that he was going, he always returned looking more and more anxious and tired and thin. But however worried he became, he was never anything but loving towards me - indeed, he said on more than one occasion that he would do anything to protect me, to ensure my happiness.”

They were walking arm in arm, and Bernie pressed her hand to the crook of her companion’s elbow sympathetically.

“I am certain that he would have done, at that. You say he engaged in a prolific correspondence, always writing letters: do you know to whom they were addressed?”

“No, for he was most particular always to post them himself, rather than leaving them for collection in the hallway as he had always done before. I had not thought of it before, but that, too, changed after we returned from Lyme. Oh, what do you suppose it can all mean?”

Berenice was thoughtful. “I cannot say,” she said, “though there are several things which make me wonder if - but no, I should not speculate. But would you be opposed to my telling Papa what you have told me? He may have a better idea than I of what such changes in behaviour might signify, for he has long taken an interest in the workings of the mind, as you know.”

Serena agreed gladly. She thought almost as highly of Colonel Wolfe as she did of his daughter, and she was grateful to think that he might put his mind to the vexing matter, little knowing that her mother had already made the same request of that kind hearted gentleman.

 

§§§

 

Doctor Levy and the Colonel spent a happy few hours in recollection of their shared past, and in sharing their hopes for the future. In the Colonel’s case, these sprang from his one great desire, that his beloved daughters grow up healthy, happy and assured of a comfortable life. There was much laughter as they remembered their own courting days, and shaking of heads over remembered escapades, and Doctor Levy expressed his hope that as the eldest, Berenice would soon find a suitable companion with whom to find the happiness that her parents enjoyed.

“Ah, and there you have it, Sacha old thing. A companion is exactly what she needs - someone who can match her in wit and wisdom, and not seek to suppress or confine her. I grow more and more sure that marriage is not for my Bernie, for what man do you know who matches such a description? And yet there is a person, lately come to Holby, who, I think, is her equal in every way,”

Doctor Levy leaned forward and gave him a playful punch on the arm.

“Well, speak up, man - who is it? Which lucky fellow do you count to be the match for our girl? One of the officers, surely, if you say they are newly arrived?”

Henry Wolfe smiled, but held his peace. “I - I shall not speak of it yet, for I may be wrong, and should be sorry to have spoken out of turn. But I think her life is set to change soon, and for the better, as far as I can see, if it can be managed.” He shook his head in amusement at his friend’s expression of frustration and curiosity, but would not be moved.

“Patience, man! All things in their own time. And there is work I must do if I am to smooth the way for her - have you a pen and paper about you? I must write a letter to be taken with the first post in the morning - it will be quicker if I write it here.”

Doctor Levy obliged with the requisite items, and once he had retired to his rooms, the Colonel sat at the desk in the parlour and addressed himself to the business in hand.

 

The Griffin Arms,
Holby
15th May 18–

My dear Barratt,

I trust that this letter finds you well, and that your journey home from Tuesday’s reunion was without incident. What a splendid night of it we had!

You may recall that you spoke that evening of an officer lately in the service of the Dorsetshires, and no longer under your aegis. I should be greatly obliged if you could tell me everything you are able to about your former captain, the rogue Campbell.

I ask on behalf of a neighbour and friend, whose daughter was engaged to be married to him. The engagement was broken in circumstances which are not yet clear to me, yet my old aide de camp Fortescue, now resident in Brighton from whence my neighbour has moved, has undertaken some investigations and informs me that the young woman’s late father was in communication for some months with a Captain E. Campbell stationed at your own barracks. Some months before their removal to Holby, her father was beset by financial troubles, the full extent of which were not revealed until after his death.

I trust to your discretion when I tell you that the family’s name is McKinnie, and entreat you to discover what you can about Campbell’s dealings with them; what reason there may have been for his breach of promise, and any indication you may find of his present whereabouts. I have good reason to ask this favour of you, and believe that the happiness of more than one soul depends upon the unravelling of an unhappy web of secrets.

I remain,
Your obedient servant and good friend,
Henry Wolfe

Chapter Text

Like his good friend Colonel Wolfe, Major General Michael Barratt of the Dorsetshire militia was a man of action, for a reply was delivered by a breathless messenger only two days later.

My dear Henry,

Forgive the brevity of this missive, but I write in haste to post with news of your mystery.

Of that d***l Campbell I can tell you little, alas, for he fled Dorset before any charges were laid, though certain of my officers believe him to have travelled to the West Country under an assumed name. He is ill fitted to any work other than soldiering, and I would most readily believe you if you told me he had taken up arms as a mercenary, though it is of course possible that he has taken up service in another regiment under a different name.

His temperament is one of sullenness, though he is capable of exerting great charm upon young ladies - though equally capable of gross indelicacy in his treatment of the fairer sex. I found him to be a shirker by nature, and ever one to seek unearned advantage, and this idleness coupled with his sense of entitlement lies behind his attitude towards any person who might be an instrument of his advancement.

Now to the matter of the breach of promise. I have it from the sister of one of my Lance Corporals, who is employed at the Hotel Resplendent, that she overheard a heated conversation between Campbell and Mr McKinnie late in the summer. She was unable to recall details at this long remove, but her impression was one of barely suppressed fury from Mr McKinnie, and of what she described as a “nasty slyness” from Campbell. All that she could recall of the conversation were the words “what your daughter gets up to with that beachcomber -” and more than this she is unable or unwilling to repeat.

However, I have been able to question the landlady of the boarding house rented by the McKinnie family, and find that Miss McKinnie had become friendly with a young woman of the town, a Miss Anderson, who is known locally as a great eccentric for her habit of walking along the shore and chipping at the cliffs with a little hammer in search of fossils. (Have you investigated this phenomenon, by the way? It is the most fascinating thing, and I dare say very much in your line - for I think there is nothing found in this world that would not pique your curiosity! Do come and visit and explore for yourself when you are able.)

Now, here is the crux of the thing. I learn that since the McKinnies departed Lyme, Miss Anderson has formed an attachment with another young lady, and they now reside together as close companions. You know what these provincial towns are like, Henry, and the local gossips are never so bold as to speak it out loud, but it is understood that neither young lady is likely to marry. You will, I think, take my meaning.

I have no proof of the matter, but it seems to me likely indeed that Campbell had heard rumours of Miss Anderson’s eccentricities and tastes, and either took exception, or suspected that Miss McKinnie was not innocent in relation to those same proclivities. As to this, I cannot comment or judge, and would not do so if I could. I am sure that you remember as fondly as I do our dear brothers in arms Swann and Fairbanks, and find pleasure in the knowledge of their mutually assured happiness. Church be d*shed, but I cannot think love to be a sin where it brings nothing but joy.

Well, there you have it - this is as much as I have been able to glean in this short while, but I shall keep my ear to the ground and send dispatches when there is more to relate.

My fondest regards to your family,
I remain, etc., etc.,
MB

 

The Colonel set the letter down, smoothing it out upon his desk absentmindedly. There was much therein to consider, but little to surprise him, for he had formed his own conclusions regarding both the fugitive Campbell and Miss McKinnie - and he knew which of them deserved opprobrium, and which sympathy. He was sure he saw the truth of the matter, but as for proof: well, that would be harder to procure, and indeed, he was not at all certain that it was desirable. Although in Michael Barratt he had found a kindred spirit who welcomed new knowledge and embraced the strangeness of the world with an open heart, he knew only too well that they were very much in the minority, and his dealings so far with Mrs McKinnie gave him little hope that she was another such one. While he thought he held the kernel of the matter in his palm, it would take careful thought and a delicate touch to bring about a harmonious solution which would satisfy Mrs McKinnie while leaving Miss Serena McKinnie’s name untarnished.

Putting aside this puzzle for the time being, he turned to the rest of his post, but it seemed that fate was determined that he should wrestle with it a while longer this morning, for once his usual correspondence was dealt with, there remained only a parcel in the blocky hand of his old adc Fortescue. As he untied the string and broke the seal, a neatly tied packet of papers tumbled out upon the desk, and he thoughtfully set them to one side as he read the enclosed note. It was as brief as Barratt’s had been loquacious.

Sir,

Enclosed found under floorboard in study of McKinnie house after sale by auction. My coz. George conveyancer for sale. Took letters with view to forward to widow, thought better on reading. Suggest burn after reading unless required for criminal case.

Yrs,
Wm. Fortescue

Colonel Wolfe smoothed out the letter and laid it atop Major General Barratt’s epistle, weighting them both down with a smooth stone he kept for the purpose. He untied the ribbon securing the packet of letters, and glancing through them, found that they were written in two distinct hands: one as fine and neat as any clerk’s, and the other a bold but untutored hand. They had been sorted chronologically, whether by George Fortescue or by one of the original correspondents, he could not say. Taking the earliest dated letter, smudged and blotted by its author, he settled back in his chair and set to studying it.

As he read, his face grew darker and darker, the set of his mouth grim beneath his whiskers. Here was the proof he had sought, but it gave him no joy to see it, and he sat poring over the damning letters until Digby brought him his morning coffee.

§§§

 

Bernie had not forgotten her unspoken vow to shower Serena with affectionate touch, and upon their walk that morning, while they commenced their sojourn arm in arm, by the time they were half way to Fanshawe Ridge, she had let her arm drop and had taken her friend by the hand. Serena had grown tense and resistant for but a heartbeat, and now, as they walked through the avenue of trees whose boughs arched above them gracefully like the ribs of a vaulted cathedral roof, the two walked happily together side by side, their joined hands swinging lightly between them. Here and there they were obliged to cross into a new enclosure by climbing a stile or squeezing through a narrow kissing gate, and at each obstacle, Bernie was there to help Serena with an arm, a hand, a reassuring touch to the small of her back.

How prettily Serena blushed! she thought, smiling to herself at the effect such simple affection had upon her unexpectedly bashful friend. She silently congratulated herself on these small advances she had made against Serena’s defences, and when they reached the crest of the ridge and saw all of Holby spread below them like a child’s toy village, she impetuously threw her arms about the other lady for joy.

“How splendid it all looks - and how glad I am that you have been able to walk so far again!” she cried gladly. Serena had been at first rigid within the circle of her arms, but when she made to release her, she found that her friend’s arms were held just as tightly about her waist, her cheek warm against her own.

Serena suddenly laughed, and drew back, laughing breathlessly and looking a little wildly about them.

“Not half so glad as I am, I’ll warrant,” she said, “for I thought I should never make a friend in Holby, and then that I might not be able to walk for weeks, and here we are, climbing, and even dancing tomorrow! What a tonic you are to me, Bernie.”

“And you to me,” Bernie smiled back at her. “I had quite resigned myself to a lifetime of being thought a square peg by every soul in this round Holby,” she quipped. “And here you came, striding boldly into my life like a long lost kindred spirit, albeit with a stumble on the way!”

They stood on the Ridge, each with an arm about the other’s waist now, and looked over the valley below. Bernie pointed out the houses, Pump Rooms, the Bristol road which Doctor Levy had taken earlier that week and which led on to the Welsh Marches in one direction, and to the Southern counties of England in the other.

“There lies the road to Bath,” she pointed, “and beyond that to Dorchester, to the New Forest and at last to London.”

“And there is one of your friendly officers upon it,” Serena said as she shaded her eyes against the spring sunshine to better see the red-coated figure upon horseback, cantering at a fair pace in the direction of Bath and London.

“Why, so there is!” Bernie cried. “I wonder where he is off to in such haste? Some secret mission, no doubt! Perhaps to bring reinforcements for the regiment’s defence against the fearful Wolfe sisters at tomorrow’s Ball,” she laughed.

Serena did not look at her. “I dare say you will be in great demand as a dance partner,” she observed mildly. “I shall be left quite alone to play the wallflower.”

But Bernie remonstrated with her at once. “I shall dance as little as may be thought polite,” she asserted, “and as for your being left a wallflower, I do not believe it for a moment!

 

§§§

 

Major General Barratt’s description of the scoundrel Campbell had rung a chime within Colonel Wolfe’s mind, and the echo of it clamoured long after he had set the letters aside. Sullen and idle, capable of charm, yet treacherous in his dealings with the fairer sex… All of a sudden, Henry shook himself like a dog, and called for his valet to bring his riding boots. Upon leaving the officers at luncheon the other day, Major di Lucca had warmly invited him to call upon them in their barracks for an inspection at his convenience, and as soon as his mare was saddled, he set out to make good upon the offer.

He found the officers and men of the Wyvershire at their leisure, and after a brief but impressive display upon the parade ground, he bade them stand at ease once more, and looked on approvingly as the Major dismissed them. As fine a band of brothers as he had ever seen, he declared warmly, and followed the officers to their Mess, a comfortably appointed building set apart from the men’s quarters. Colonel Wolfe was the most affable of men, and as at the Griffin Arms, he soon gathered a small audience who paid rapt attention to his tales of previous campaigns. The remaining officers sat or stood outside the circle, though within earshot, and the Colonel stealthily embarked upon a new campaign of his own.

“Tell me di Lucca, how do you come to serve with the Wyvernshire? An Italian name and a Scottish voice are hardly standard fare in these parts, what?”

The ever friendly Major related a little of his family history, giving account of his Italian father and English mother who had eloped to Gretna Green and settled in Stirlingshire, where young Rafaello and his brothers had grown up.

“We had no familial ties to any particular regiment, and having enlisted as a private in the Hussars, I have since served here and there over the years. Truly, though, I have found my true home with these fine fellows,” he said with a broad smile at his brother officers.

“As good a path as any for an ambitious young man,” the Colonel said. “And any man who makes his majority by such a route does so entirely on merit, rather than relying upon who his father was. Never could bear nepotism. Tell me,” he dropped in casually, “Did you ever serve with the Dorsetshires?”

From the corner of his eye, he saw one of the officers start, as though his name had been called, but he continued blithely, “Chap I know has the command now, came up through the ranks like yourself - Major General Barratt - ever serve with him?”

Major di Lucca had not had the honour, but it was evident from the sudden agitation the Colonel sensed that another man present had done so, and was not pleased to hear that name. One or two more matters hinted at, and the reaction to his seemingly bland remarks, contented him that his shots had been on target, and he glanced at his pocket watch as though recalling another appointment.

“Well, well, thank you for your hospitality, sir - I must away. I hope we shall see you at the Pump Rooms tomorrow eve?”

Major di Lucca smiled and told that he had personally ordered that his officers all attend, though there were few that had needed the order. “Let me walk you to the stables, Colonel,” he added, and the two men left the Mess. Once outside, Colonel Wolfe took the Major’s arm and spoke rapidly in a low tone.

“Can you spare me your best rider, Major? I must send a message to Barratt in Dorchester, and it is imperative that he be returned before the Ball.”

The Major’s eyes widened in surprise, but without hesitation he assented, and with a moment’s thought, he ordered a passing private to request the presence of Lieutenant Thompson.

“Young Derwood’s clumsy enough in company, but put him on a horse and you won’t meet a more confident soldier,” he said. By the time the young man came hurrying out of the Mess and saluted his senior officers, the Colonel had penned a brief note to his old friend, and he made sure that it was securely stowed away. Impressing upon him the urgency of his mission, he saluted the Lieutenant with dignity. Thompson set off at once at a canter along the London Road, unaware of the ladies watching him from atop Fanshawe Ridge.

§§§

 

That evening saw great excitement amongst Bernie’s sisters, and even Chloë found herself looking forward to the evening with a quiver of anticipation. The following evening would see them all process to the Pump Rooms for the long awaited Spring Ball, and there was much to consider in their plan of attack. All afternoon and into the evening there was talk of nothing but dresses, dance cards, and dandies, and speculation and teasing between the girls was rife.

Exasperated, Bernie fled after dinner to the sanctuary of the library, where she found her father leafing through a brief monograph upon the geology of Dorsetshire, and making notes as he read. Barratt had been right: it was fascinating indeed. Bernie tilted her neck to better see the title, and she exclaimed to see what he was reading.

“You are reading all about fossils! Oh, but you must talk to Serena, for she is the expert in this matter! She even has her own excavating hammer, though little cause to use it here, for the only fossils here are the members of the Parish Council!” she said with a smile which negated any cruelty in her remark.

“Ah, yes - your Miss McKinnie,” he said, laughing at her barb. “I shall do so at the first opportunity.” He cleared his throat, a little uneasy at the thought of what the morrow might bring for that young lady, but he shook off the worrisome thought like a gadfly. “And what is your own current reading matter, my dear?”

Bernie shook her head. “I have come to look for something new with which to occupy myself, for I have finished Monsieur Laennec's treatise upon his new listening device.”

“Ah, yes - the stethoscope. Sound principle, dare say it might catch on! So what have you in mind to follow on from Laennec, hmm? More medicine, or a change of subject?”

She gave a little aimless gesture with her hands, not quite a shrug. “I had nothing in mind - oh! But I have just remembered - there was a book that caught my eye the other day. Let me find it.”

She rose to her feet and drew the ladder along its rail so that she could reach the book she had in mind.

“Papa - I had meant to ask you: who are -” and she read the name carefully, unsure of its pronunciation - “the Ladies of Llangollen?

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

Berenice slept more soundly than she would have believed possible, following the understanding at which she had arrived the night before. Although she had lain awake for a while considering the implications of what she had read, and the conversation she had had with her father, once her thoughts had turned simply to Serena, a peaceful smile had stolen across her face, and she had slid smoothly into sleep and into dreams which she could not recall, but from which she had awoken with that same smile.

She arose before Chloë had woken, and walked in the grounds for an hour, alone with her thoughts. What a day was today! Any agitation she displayed might be passed off as excitement about the evening's entertainment, but she had a notion that the girls would be too busy with their own preparations to take notice of any change in her own demeanour.

It occurred to her that she had not yet introduced Serena to the fine grounds of the Keller estate. Her mother had made the gardens her life’s work, and the estate was now considered one of the most pleasant acreages in Wyvernshire with its winding paths, secluded arbours and the delightfully naturalistic woodland. It was to the woods that Bernie now found her feet turning, and she drank in the fresh clean air of the early morning as she followed the path down through the beech trees to the clearing, and to the little cottage where she had loved to play as a child.

It had lain undisturbed for some years, for her sisters had taken it into their heads that the little house was haunted, and although Bernie had attempted to disabuse them of their foolishness, it was a half hearted effort at best, for she had been glad to have it to herself. She would always consider the cottage her own special place: she had spent long hours there as a child and as a young woman, absorbed in some book or other, or simply finding a moment’s peace away from the clamour of her sisters. It was small but liveable, and she had heard her father say that an aunt of his mother’s had once lived there in lieu of a pension. She laid her hand against the mossy wall, the old wooden door, and felt again that sense of ease and homecoming that she had always felt here.

On a whim, she felt above the lintel for the key, which was where it had always been, in a little niche invisible from below. Fitting it to the lock, she found that it still turned easily, and she stepped into the little hallway which opened out into the living room. She spent a pleasant half hour in the cottage, reacquainting herself with old treasures, finding here a portrait that her younger self had sketched; there, a list of books that she had read one particular summer. And all the while, she thought of how she should like to show this place to Serena, to share with her the things that had mattered to her as she had grown up in this lovely place.

Her thoughts turning more nearly to Serena now, she closed the door and locked it behind her. The rest of the household would be awake now, and once she had taken her breakfast, she thought that she might call upon Serena and invite her to take their daily walk here in the gardens at Keller Hall. But when, after breakfast, she arrived at the McKinnie house, the maid who opened the door stated most firmly that she had been instructed to admit no-one that day, for Mrs McKinnie and Miss Serena were preparing for the Ball.

“So early?” Bernie quizzed her, but the stolid young woman would not be moved. She had received her instructions, and had neither the temperament nor the imagination to be swayed from them. In vain Bernie cast her eyes up to the windows, for it afforded no glimpse of either Serena or her mother, and she had to be content with leaving a message to say that she had called, and looked forward to seeing them at the Pump Rooms that evening.

In agonies of frustration, she strode homewards at a pace that had earned her the reputation of being as spritely and as touched as a hare. It was only the quick reactions of Captain Copeland that prevented her being struck by a passing carriage, though it was travelling at no great speed.

“Woah there, Miss Wolfe!” he cried, catching her gently but firmly by the arm. “Where are you off to in such a hurry that it is worth risking life and limb?”

“Oh! Thank you, Captain. Home, I suppose - I had not thought,” she replied.

“Ah, then you are not hurrying to, but rushing from,” he said knowingly. “Is there anyone in pursuit whom I could run through with a sword for you? Or at least wound with a cutting remark,” he said with a boyish grin.

“No - no, nothing like that!” she laughed. “I had hoped to call upon a friend, but she is otherwise engaged,” she explained ruefully.

“A young lady of the town? Most likely she is already engaged in her preparations for this evening, for I declare, almost every woman I ever met thinks she will make herself more beautiful by primping and pinching and painting herself, though you certainly have no need to indulge in such foolishness,” he said gallantly, if somewhat clumsily. But Bernie did not notice the compliment.

“Serena has no need of primping and pinching, for she could hardly be lovelier than she already is!” she said hotly. “But I dare say that her mother will be making every effort to show her at her best, as though she were a prize heifer being taken to market!”

Captain Copeland smiled inwardly. So that was how the land lay, as he had thought from the start. He was not surprised to know it, only to see how very ardently Miss Wolfe spoke, and like the Colonel, he knew only too well that discretion was the better part of valour.

“Indeed, I am certain she is lovelier than a picture. She must be a very dear friend, I think, for you to feel so strongly on her behalf,” he said carefully. “She is not yet spoken for, then, your friend, that her mother wishes to - to display her this evening?”

“She is not,” Bernie said a little glumly, “but it is only a matter of time, however she protests against it. You do not know how fortunate you gentlemen are, Captain, to be able to pick and choose among us as suits your whim, while we ladies must marry where we are bid. Not every parent is as accommodating as my own in such matters,” she acknowledged.

He accepted the truth of her statement - “though marriage is not for every one of us, whether lady or gentleman, and an undesired marriage is surely a burden to both parties. Tell me, Miss Wolfe - your friend, Miss…?”

“McKinnie,” she supplied.

“Miss McKinnie, is she of the same mind as you?” he asked delicately. Bernie caught the careful note in his voice, and knew that he was asking more than the innocent question he had put forth. She looked him in the eye, and seeing no guile in his pleasant boyish face, answered him honestly.

“I think she is,” she replied, “but I have yet to speak with her on the matter. I had hoped to walk with her this morning and to enquire if she does not feel as I do, but as you see, here I am walking alone.”

“Not quite alone,” he said kindly, and offered her his arm. “I am not Miss McKinnie, but I enjoy walking, and can listen, should you wish to talk?”

And so they walked together, and she unburdened herself to her new friend, who in turn told her of his loves and heartbreaks, and shared with her all the knowledge he could of how their kind might live a life both content and respectable.

“Well,” he said at last, “I shall endeavour to fill Miss McKinnie’s dance card this evening and take the prize heifer off the market for one night, at least.”

Bernie feigned tripping on the pavement, and dug her elbow sharply into his ribs.

“I am doing you a favour!” he scolded, laughing all the while. “They were your words, not mine! But I shall do what I can to ensure that she is not preyed upon at the Ball, and that you might have occasion to speak with her privately.”

“Thank you, Captain,” she said with feeling. “You have been so kind to me, truly. I would gladly walk and converse with you all day - but I had better return home now, if only to help my sisters prepare for this evening. They will not resort to paint, but I cannot guarantee that there will be no pinching or primping!”

He laughed with her, and bade her adieu, but pulled up short as a thought occurred to him.

“Miss Wolfe? Derwood - that is, Lieutenant Thompson, was greatly hoping to dance with Miss Chloë Wolfe tonight, but he has been commissioned to ride out upon an errand by the Major. I should not like to think of your sister being disappointed, so perhaps you would be as kind as to inform her that he may not be returned by this evening?”

“I fear that she will be disappointed nevertheless,” Bernie said, “for I know that she holds him in high regard already from their meeting at luncheon. But I shall let her know that he will be absent, then at least she may enjoy the evening without seeking his arrival at any moment. Until tonight, then!”

§§§

 

As she had predicted, her sisters spent the afternoon in a frenzy of activity, making last minute changes to their choice of gown; curling and styling their hair in innumerable different fashions until they were quite satisfied, and all at a pitch that Bernie thought must be at least an octave higher than usual.

Chloë was more sedate, as was her usual manner, but she was further subdued at the news that Lieutenant Thompson would not be in attendance. Jasmine and Donatella would not hear of her wearing a plain gown, however, and took it upon themselves to beautify her to their own standards, and their good natured sister allowed them to fuss over her as though they were setting up their own beauty parlour. A fine job they made of it too, and by the time the carriage was made ready to convey them all to the Pump Rooms, Chloë was quite the best presented of them all, her cheeks charmingly aglow from the vigorous pinching that Jasmine and Donatella had applied.

Upon their arrival, as custom declared they were presented en famille, and their hostess, ever known for her acerbity, did not let Chloë’s transformation go unremarked upon.

“Ah, Miss Chloë!” she exclaimed. “I see you have tired at last of waiting for Miss Berenice to set an example to the rest of you. You are out to snare an officer this evening, I dare say.”

Poor Chloë stuttered her disavowal, cheeks flushing an even deeper pink. “Oh, no, Lady Naylor, I would not - I mean - I do not -”

As the formidable Lady Naylor raised her lorgnette and examined the girl as though she were a specimen, Bernie came to her rescue.

“She might as well get on with it,” she said cheerfully, “for I am in no mind to marry to oblige a mere convention! Lady Naylor, it is good to see you again, and looking so very well - perhaps you will set the example in my stead?” She glanced mischievously from Lady Naylor to her ever-present companion, Miss March, who had the grace to drop her eyes with a little smile.

Lady Naylor’s lorgnette refocussed itself upon her, and Chloë stepped back gratefully. Bernie held Lady Naylor’s gaze - no mean feat, for that haughty stare had reduced many a man to a state of timorous confusion - and as her hostess looked her up and down, Bernie was as amused as relieved to see a small but unmistakable smile curl the corner of her mouth, and a glint of admiration spark in her grey eyes.

“Well, well, so the Wolfe cub has grown teeth,” she remarked. “But you are quite right - it is a foolish convention, and one I hope to see your girls break, Mrs Wolfe.” she had turned her stern glare to Bernie’s mother, who was quite capable of meeting it.

“As you wish, your ladyship - I am quite sure that we shall be able to oblige you!”

The family made their way into the rooms, and Bernie laughed to herself. Her Papa had spoken truly about a sense of recognition, she thought, for now that she was aware of her own particular nature, she was alert to it everywhere. As she surveyed the ballroom, she saw the townspeople and her new acquaintances in the militia in a new light, from Lady Naylor and her companion, to Major di Lucca who stood conversing with Sergeant-Major Fletcher, to Miss Beauchamp and her “cousin,” who, now she came to think of it, had been visiting for an awfully long time now. Were it not for the reassuring presence of Mr and Mrs Levy, she might have suspected herself of applying her new knowledge indiscriminately, but there was no mistaking the genuine love and affection in which the pair held each other.

She gave warm greetings to the couple along with the rest of her family, and by and by their party dispersed as each encountered their particular friends, both new and old. Bernie cast her eye about the room but saw no sign of Serena and her mother, but it was early, and guests were still arriving in a convivial stream. She caught sight of Captain Copeland, and he made his way through the happy throng of guests towards her.

“Miss Wolfe! As promised - and looking perfectly lovely. I am sure I will need to divide my attentions between Miss McKinnie and yourself, for we shall be fortunate to end the night without a challenge being issued over one or both of you!”

“You flatterer, Captain! It is as well I know you are in jest, or my head would scarcely fit upon my shoulders. Miss McKinnie is not yet here, I think.” She twisted her head this way and that to see if her friend had arrived, but the Captain was at ease.

“She will be here soon enough, I am sure. Will you take a glass of punch while we wait for the dancing to begin?”

As he poured a glass for her, Bernie looked round again, this time taking into account the many red coats upon display.

“Your comrades are here in full force,” she commented. “I think my sisters will have some rivals from the town in their campaign of attack, for word has gone about regarding what a handsome regiment is among us. I think all your brother officers but Lieutenant Thompson are here tonight, are they not?”

“Very nearly all,” he said. “Major di Lucca was most insistent that we should attend and give a good account of ourselves. Only that brute MacDonald is confined to barracks, for I am ashamed to say that he disgraced himself this afternoon by drinking so much ale and spirits that Fletch - our Sergeant-Major, you know - had no choice but to lock him in the bunkhouse until he sobers up. But I do not think we shall miss him tonight!” he carried on merrily. “And you least of all - for look - is that not your friend and her mother? I think I heard the name McKinnie called a moment ago.”

Sure enough, when Bernie turned all in a hurry to the door, there was Serena, looking lovelier than ever, practically tugging her mother by the arm as they made their entrance. Mrs McKinnie had stopped to talk to Lady Naylor who looked bored beyond measure at the conversation, and Bernie laughed as she saw Serena say something to the haughty woman which made her ladyship look her up and down, just as she had done Bernie not half an hour before.

“Will you excuse me, Captain? You will not mind if I go and greet Miss McKinnie and her mother, I am sure. Would you be so kind as to let my sister know that Captain MacDonald will not be here? It would set her mind greatly at rest.”

“Of course,” the young man said with a smile. “Go to her - I think she is looking for you already.”

 

§§§

 

Serena broke away from her mother impatiently as Lady Naylor dismissed them, and she all but ran to Bernie, clasping her hands tightly.

“I thought I should never escape, today - first from Mother and her beauty regimen, then from Lady Naylor - isn’t she droll!

Bernie laughed happily. “You must have tamed her, for every other lady I know is terrified of her - but I think you are right. I called for you this morning,” she continued, “but your abigail would not hear my pleas to let me in. She did at least tell you that I had called, I hope?”

“She did, but Mother would not hear of me leaving my chamber, let alone the house,” Serena scowled. “She has had me bathing and resting and applying all manner of lotions and unguents all day - but I made sure to scrub all the mess off my face as soon as she left me alone!”

It seemed to Bernie that her friend’s face was glowing, but not from a mere scrub with a cloth. Her eyes were sparkling with mischief and happiness at their reunion after even so brief a separation, and although she had told Captain Copeland that Serena could by no means be made any lovelier, yet here was that young lady proving her wrong. She smiled happily back at her, quite overcome with the vision before her, and the moment was only broken by Captain Copeland greeting them as he passed.

“Ladies, the dancing is shortly to commence. Miss Wolfe, will you not introduce your charming friend to me?”

Introductions were made accordingly, and the Captain was as good as his word, and whisked Serena away for the first dance, leaving Bernie to enjoy a turn about the room with his commanding officer. The two ladies were much in demand by officers and gentlemen of the town alike all evening, but they enjoyed nothing so much as each other’s company. At every opportunity they made their excuses to their gallants and sat together in an antechamber, or or took their refreshment upon the terrace, and as the night drew on, Bernie boldly retrieved their shawls from the cloakroom and pulled Serena by the hand, out to the terrace and beyond, into the moonlit gardens.

“Come, Serena, walk with me! The night is so lovely, it seems a shame to spend it in these stuffy rooms.”

Serena followed gladly, and it seemed to each of them that a tingle of peculiar warmth was transmitted between them, despite the fine white gloves they wore. Indeed, Bernie, feeling emboldened by the darkness and the intimacy between them, removed her own gloves with a shy smile at Serena, who held her gaze, and returning that same smile, did likewise. Hand in hand they strolled quietly through the garden, and when Bernie shivered - more in a thrill of anticipation than from the cold - Serena released her hand, putting her arm about her waist and drawing her closer as they walked.

Before them, bathed in moonlight, stood a statue in the Greek style, the legend upon the plinth standing out in sharp relief.

Aphrodite, goddess of love,” read Serena. “Isn’t she beautiful?”

“I know one more beautiful still,” said Bernie in a low voice, turning to Serena. Her heart felt as though it might beat clear out of her chest, and she reached a tentative hand towards Serena’s cheek. But before Serena could respond - whether with joy or with revulsion - a piercing cry broke the stillness of the night.

“Get off me - get off me, I say! Release me - please, I beg you!”

Bernie’s hand froze in the air and she looked at Serena in horror.

“That is my sister’s voice,” she said fearfully. “It is Chloë!”

Chapter Text

Some two hours before this desperate cry was heard in the garden, Lance Corporal Duval of the Wyvernshire Militia, left to guard the bunkhouse wherein the miscreant MacDonald had been confined, had turned to his comrade Private Valentine with a grin.

“This is poor sport, Ollie - MacDonald is surely out for the count. What say you we leave him to guard himself and join the game? There is still time for a hand or two, and I have three shillings burning a hole in my pocket!”

The pair listened at the door for a few more minutes, but all the sound they heard was the heavy snoring of a man deep in his cups, and they slipped quietly out of the bunkhouse and headed for the mess, where a riotous game of Speculation was well under way. Had they remained at their post a while longer, they might have heard an abrupt ending of the reprobate’s snores; a rattle at the door handle; a series of heavy thuds, and at the last, the tinkle of breaking glass and the scraping sound of a window being forced.

§§§

Chloë had been enjoying the Ball in spite of Lieutenant Thompson’s absence, and had danced as much as she had wished to before retiring from the floor in happy exhaustion. She sat with her younger sisters in between their own vigorous assays on enemy territory, but as their excitement rose, so her tolerance of its shrillness waned, and she sat for a while with her parents and Doctor and Mrs Levy, then, as their conversation strayed to old acquaintances whom she did not know, she made her excuses and moved to the open door which led to the terrace.

How cool and still the night was! She stepped out onto the terrace, enjoying the sweet air and the scents of the garden. The flagstones that made up the path were bathed in moonlight as though to invite her to step upon them, and she gladly accepted the invitation, wandering through the flower beds and admiring the fine statues and fountains that adorned the garden. All at once the peace was broken by a gruff voice near her ear.

“There’s the little doxy herself! Come here, girl, I’ve been looking for you!”

§§§

Another round of dancing had begun in the Pump Rooms, and Colonel Wolfe was partnering his wife in a promenade, but of a sudden he became aware of a commotion at the entrance, and he broke away from the dance, escorting Mrs Wolfe to the side of the room. At the door, Captain Copeland was in urgent conversation with a tall, powerful looking man who was scanning the room.

“Barratt, my dear old fellow! You are arrived - thank you, with all my heart. You have seen the man - is it he?”

But Major General Michael Barratt of the Dorsetshire Regiment shook his head wearily. He had ridden with all the speed his horse could muster and had arrived at the barracks, only to find the bird flown, and a very sorry looking Lance Corporal Duval hanging his head in shame.

“If I know him of old - if it is he - this is just the place to find him - so many opportunities to finagle a situation to embarrass and compromise a young lady. Has he shown an interest in any lady since the regiment has been stationed in Holby?”

The Colonel paled beneath his weathered complexion. “Chloë,” he said. “My daughter!”

“Where is she, sir?” Lieutenant Thompson had caught up with the Major-General whom he had escorted all the way from Dorchester, and though he was tired and stiff from the long ride, the name of the younger Miss Wolfe gave him renewed energy and purpose.

“She went into the gardens alone to take the air,” her father cried, turning to the terrace doors in alarm. But Lieutenant Thompson was away before him, Captain Copeland close at his heels.

§§§

Chloë gasped as a hand grasped her arm, and she felt herself pulled bodily into a secluded arbour. She recoiled from the stale breath and bleary face of none other than Captain MacDonald, and crying out in pain from the vice-like grip on her arm.

“Now now, girl, less of that, we don’t want anyone to find us here, do we? What would it look like, hey, a so-called innocent young lady all cuddled up with a soldier in a dark corner?”

She quieted her cry, but said in confusion, “They told me you were locked up! Oh, why will you not leave me be?!”

He laughed, swaying unsteadily. “Because you’re a little gold mine, that’s why. That sister of yours, not worth the effort - I doubt she’s the marryin’ kind anyway, but you? One word from me about this little tryst, and your reputation won’t be worth a fig. What’s it worth to you now, though, hey? I should say fifty pounds would stop my mouth for now.”

She tried again to shake his hand away, but to no avail. “But there is nothing to tell - this is no tryst! I shan’t pay you - and I have no money of my own to pay with even if I wanted to!”

He leaned in over her, his balance as badly affected by his insobriety as was his judgement.

“Society loves a scandal, my dear - if I fling a little crumb of mud, it will turn into a bally great landslide, and bring you down with it. A lady’s good name is her what-d’ye-call-it, y’know - rarer than rubies and all that. Fifty pounds, or I’ll ruin you in a heartbeat!”

“But I tell you, there is no money!”

“That’s your little problem to solve, then, ain’t it m’dear? Fifty pounds by Friday next, or my price goes up to a hundred guineas.”

Chloë was shaking now, in anger as much as in fear, but she was resolute.

“There will be no money, and no-one will believe your wicked lies anyway, so tell away!”

He staggered, but recovered himself. “How about if they ain’t lies, then? How about if I kiss that proud little mouth of yours - how about that?”

“You wouldn’t dare!” she cried. “Oh, if Lieutenant Thompson were here, he would -”

“But he ain’t here, is he! That little milksop wouldn’t raise a hand to me, even if you begged him to.” He laughed at the thought of the young puppy of a lieutenant daring to stand up to him, and doubling over with laughter, he caught Chloë’s other elbow to steady himself, gripping hard.

“Get off me - get off me, I say! Release me - please, I beg you!”

All at once, several things happened. Chloë heard Berenice cry out in alarm; there was a flurry of noise and colour and light; she heard her father call her name, and she felt MacDonald release his grip upon her. An instant later, she saw why, as she beheld, in descending seniority of rank, a tall man of her father’s age who bore the insignia of Major-General, the Colonel himself, Captain Copeland - and most marvelously of all, Lieutenant Thompson, who had launched himself into the shadow of the arbour and punched her assailant squarely on the nose.

“Unhand her, MacDonald, you dog!” he cried, but as the drunken Captain swayed like a tree about to fall, and then followed its inevitable trajectory to the ground, Major-General Barratt’s voice boomed out.

“A wretched cur he is, but his name’s not MacDonald, d*mn him! Edward Campbell, I arrest you on a charge of desertion from your post, and upon conduct unbecoming an officer. Seize him!”

Lieutenant Thompson left off rubbing his sore knuckles, and he and Captain Copeland picked Campbell up by his arms and held him pinioned between them. Chloë, who had rushed to her father’s protection, ignored her dastardly attacker and stared in wonder at the Lieutenant, who blushed under her gaze, but who stood proudly - and not a little amazed at his own actions. He returned her look, as taken with her beauty as she was with his courage, and with a smile, the Colonel thought to himself that Lady Nalyor’s injunction to forego the usual order of events had come not a moment too soon.

It had all happened so quickly that although they had been so close at hand, Bernie and Serena only now rushed into the arbour, astounded to see the party gathered there, and in such dramatic formation. Bernie went at once to her sister, to reassure herself that she was not hurt, but beside her, Serena took in the scene, gave a gasp, and with her hand to the necklace that adorned her throat, she turned upon her heel and ran.

§§§

“So MacDonald was an assumed name - he was Campbell all along?” Captain Copeland had handed the prisoner over to Sergeant-Major Fletcher, who had marched him off with an air of a cat who had finally caught a most troublesome mouse, and now the officers had gathered in a drawing room quite removed from the ballroom. Chloë and Bernie had joined them by default, and Chloë clung now to her sister’s arm, though her countenance was fixed firmly and adoringly upon that of her rescuer.

“Oh, of course!” exclaimed Major di Lucca. “How better to hide a Campbell than behind a MacDonald!” At the questioning look Chloë directed at him, he explained, “The two great warring Highland Clans. They were deadly enemies, and in the end, the Campbells slew the men of the Clan MacDonald in their beds. A greater act of treachery was never seen in Scotland, and it seems that Edward Campbell’s nature is true to his name,” he said fiercely.

Bernie, who had thus far been absorbed in tending to her sister, turned her head sharply. “Edward Campbell? But I know that name. Why, was not that the name of the man affianced to -”

But with a most uncharacteristic abandonment of manners, her Papa spoke over her.

“Berenice my dear, whatever has become of your friend Miss McKinnie? She was with you in the garden, was she not? Perhaps you should find her and reassure yourself that she is quite well.”

“O! I do not know where she is, Papa! She was with me one moment, and the next, she was gone - but I should stay with Chloë,” she said, torn between her twin loyalties.

“I am quite well, Berenice,” Chloë told her. “Papa is right, you should find her - seeing Lieutenant Thompson’s heroic defence of me may have shocked her, and you should tend to her.”

Colonel Wolfe held his hand out to his eldest daughter and led her from the room, and for a long moment, the officers within heard the low murmur of voices beyond the heavy oak door, punctuated by a cry of distress from Berenice.

Captain Copeland rose and moved to the door. Stepping outside, he cleared his throat and said gently, “Miss Wolfe, I think you might start by looking to the roof terrace, for I saw Miss McKinnie run from the garden and take the stairs there. Here,” he said, holding a soft throw that he had taken from a divan, “Take this with you, for it will be chilly up there.” Beneath the cover of the blanket, he squeezed her hand, and whispered, “Courage, dear heart! It seems there is another damsel in need of rescue tonight.”

She took the blanket and the sentiment gratefully, and casting a last look at her father, she quickly left the room and made for the roof.

§§§

Captain Copeland had judged well: it was indeed cold on the roof, and as Bernie reached the top of the stairs, she saw Serena standing at the balustrade with her arms about herself. She was looking out over the grounds with eyes that seemed to see nothing, and there was an anguished look upon her face. Wordlessly, Bernie draped the soft blanket about her shoulders and stood beside her, an arm drawing her close. They stood thus for some moments, and then Serena spoke, her voice dull and desperate.

“I am ruined,” she said. “He has followed me here, and he will ruin me.”

“Serena, no,” Bernie said soothingly. “It is he who is ruined. He will stand trial in a closed court with none to hear him but Major-General Barratt, who has brought the charge, and one other witness to see that justice is done - and that witness will be my Papa. That man can do you no more harm now.”

Serena turned to her, eyes wide. “You speak as though you know what I speak of, but you cannot!” she said.

“I think I do, Serena. Papa has been investigating the events surrounding your engagement and your father’s distress, and he has explained all to me. Come, let us sit - here, there is a bench.”

She drew Serena over to the little bench, and they sat together beneath the blanket. Bernie took Serena’s hand.

“Shall I tell you a story?” she asked. “It has happy and sad moments, and cruel ones too, but I think it may have a happy ending of sorts. Tell me if I have the particulars wrong in any detail.”

And she told the tale that her father had recounted to her outside the drawing room.

“And when the cruel soldier saw the woman he was engaged to marry holding hands with her friend, embracing her friend - even, perhaps, kissing her friend - he thought that he had found a better way than accepting her dowry to take her father’s money. He broke the engagement, and she did not protest, for she did not love him, but once the family had returned home, he preyed upon her father, saying that he would ruin her if he did not receive enough money to buy his silence. But his price grew ever greater, and her father grew ever poorer and more worried, until his poor heart could take it no more, and he died, never having spoken a word of it to her daughter or his wife. He kept her secret safe, even at so great a cost, for he loved her so dearly.”

“Oh, Papa!” Serena wept. “He knew, and did not disown me?”

“He knew, and did not judge you,” Bernie corrected her gently. “He knew, and protected you in the way he thought best, though I am so sorry to tell you that it cost him so very dearly,” she said sadly. “Well, since then, it seems that the scoundrel has made blackmail and extortion his fortune, though it is one that he drinks away as soon as he has it in his hand. For all I know, you may not have been the first family to suffer so at his hands, but my family shall certainly be the last. You are free of him now - we are free of him.”

So overcome was Serena that she did not understand the import of Bernie’s words, and for a while she wept as Bernie held her close. Shortly she recovered herself, and asked cautiously, “And you are not afraid to be seen with me? Not disgusted to know of the true nature of my friendship with Maria?”

Bernie laughed softly and held her more closely. “Of course not, dearest Serena. Did I not say that this story might have a happy ending?”

Serena looked at her, the confusion in her eyes falling away as Bernie brought her hand to Serena’s cheek, just as she had done earlier when they had been interrupted.

“Oh, Serena,” she murmured. “You have brought such joy to me, and such understanding of myself. I had thought you scared of touch, scared of intimacy, but now I see that your fear was only of discovery - yet through you, I have discovered myself!” Her hand caressed the softness of Serena’s cheek, slid into hair that had become loosened as Serena had run to the terrace. “Tell me I am wrong, and I will stop,” Bernie whispered.

Serena looked at her in wonder, the tears dry now upon her cheek, and the softest smile gracing her lips.

“You are not wrong,” she said, and then neither of them spoke but in the silent language of love.

§§§

“Mrs Wolfe, I do not like to take your kindness for granted, but I fear I must,” Mrs McKinnie said in a querulous voice. “I have been taken quite bilious with the heat and the noise, and must return home at once to recover in a darkened room. But I do not wish to spoil Serena’s evening, nor the chance of her meeting someone… appropriate,” she simpered. “Might you be kind enough to ask the Colonel to fetch her home at the end of the Ball?”

“I am sorry to hear that you are unwell,” Mrs Wolfe said sympathetically. “And certainly we can bring Serena home - but let us invite her to stay a day or two with us at Keller Hall instead, and then you may recover at leisure. Does not that sound a better plan?”

She prevailed upon the ever obliging Captain Copeland to hand Mrs McKinnie carefully into a carriage and convey her homewards, and as he drove away, he cast a glance up to the roof. Even the bold Captain had grace to blush a little as he turned his attention swiftly back to the road, but he smiled happily all the way to his destination, for his soul was that of a true romantic.

§§§

The treacherous Edward Campbell had been taken back to a cell more secure than the bunkhouse; Mrs McKinnie had been driven home to recover from her megrim, and Jasmine and Donatella had been brought back into the bosom of their family by their Mama, who had kept a stern eye upon them all evening.

“Come along now girls, it is time we retired - it is late, and Chloë will need to rest after her ordeal,” she said, though in truth, Chloë looked more lively than she had ever been as she danced in the arms of that most unlikely of heroes, Lieutenant Derwood Thompson. The girls made much fuss about having to leave the ball before it was quite finished, but though they were wilful, they were obedient girls, and with a pout, Jasmine asked if she had not better find Berenice as well?

“I have asked your sister to ensure that Miss McKinnie is quite well before they retire,” Colonel Wolfe said. “Captain Copeland will bring them home when they are quite ready. Now come, let us be away home,” he said in a tone that brooked no argument.

§§§

When Captain Copeland returned to the Pump Rooms from his errand of mercy, he had thought to make his way to the roof terrace, calling out a warning long before he reached his friends, but he found that they had rejoined the dancing, as bright eyed and merry as ever any young lady who danced on a spring evening. As the dance came to an end, they came to him laughing and blushing, and they greeted one another like old friends. He offered them each an arm, and walked them proudly across the ballroom, and out into the coach yard.

“Your father asked that I drive you home,” he said, “But I wonder whether you might like to take the reins yourself, Miss Wolfe? Only I think I have established something of an understanding with the young man in the blue silk,” he said with a wink, and Bernie laughed as he handed them up.

“And it will save you the trouble of returning the carriage in the morning,” she said helpfully. “A most efficient solution. Happy hunting, Captain!”

She clicked her tongue and shook the reins, and they set off towards home. By unspoken agreement, they took a scenic route back to Keller Hall, for the night was too perfect to end yet, and they talked long of their happiness and their hopes.

“How shall we live, do you suppose?” Serena asked, nestling into the crook of Bernie’s arm as she drew the blanket close around them.

“Why, we shall be companions, just as Miss March is Lady Naylor’s companion. Captain Copeland has spoken to me of how it may be managed with all respectability. I have not had the chance to show you yet, but there is a dower house at Keller Hall which has long been uninhabited - it is little more than a moss house or chaumière, really, but it will suffice, and we shall make it our home. What do you say to that?”

“Oh, Bernie, I say y- O!

For suddenly, the wheel of the carriage had dropped into a rut in the road, and the vehicle would have overturned had it not been for Bernie’s skilful handling. Bernie hopped down from the driver’s seat and inspected the damage, which was not severe, but the axle had snapped clean in two. She looked at it shaking her head, for it was clear that their journey had come to an end.

“There is nothing for it - we shall have to walk,” she said, and Serena laughed.

“You know that is no great hardship,” she said, “though I could wish for my stout boots rather than these dainty pumps.

But as fate would have it, the axle had broken not half a mile from the Griffin Arms, and the light shone cheerily from within, indicating that someone at least was still awake.

Bernie rapped upon the door, which in due course was opened by Mr Griffin himself, clad in his nightgown and cap.

“Ladies!” he exclaimed, “You are just in time, for I was about to extinguish the lamp and retire.” But then his face fell and he looked uncertainly at them. “We are very busy, I fear, due to the influx of visitors for the Ball. I do not like to prevail upon you again, but alas -”

Bernie and Serena clutched each other’s hands tightly in an effort not to betray themselves through their laughter as he continued:

“There is but one chamber.”

 

The End