Clarke was in a sour mood the next day when she realized that it was a Sunday. As much as she hated the constraints social norms attempted to impress upon her person, there were some she could simply not avoid adhering to. She may get away with wearing suits on occasion, largely owing to her family's status in society or she might not be looked down on for indulging in hobbies largely considered manly because of her proficiency in certain feminine accomplishments but it was an infallible certainty that even she must observe the norms of paying visits.
It was an unspoken rule among the well-mannered folk of England that Sunday morning calls were strictly for the closest of friends. To visit someone with whom you were not on such intimate terms on a Sunday was, quite simply, not done. What more, it would have been considered rather barbaric. And as taken as she was with Miss Woods she was not presumptuous enough to assume that she fit that category as of yet. Therefore visiting the very next day was wholly out of question.
After ascertaining that her cousin was not available as he was entertaining his own friends Clarke decided that a hearty ride would help set her mind at ease. Almost instantly she thought of the secret hideout place close to where they had their picnic the other day and it was as good as decided. She would rediscover that secret of her childhood and if it was still in good condition she might even venture to show it to her new friend on a summer day.
Lexa had fared not much better that day. She had woken with a dreadful headache which made her anxious about being good company if Miss Griffin were to visit only to realize that a visit the very next day was quite hopeless. Miss Griffin seemed like she was well-versed in the riddles of society and surely she would not commit such a faux-pas as to visit on a Sunday. ' Although after the various kindnesses she showed yesterday I dare say we shall be fast friends.'
Clarke had risen on Monday with decidedly lighter spirits than on the previous day. As soon as her eyes opened her mouth formed a smile. 'Today I get to see her again.' Lunch was a quiet affair at the Collins', consisting only of Clarke, her aunt and uncle and of course her cousin. Both her uncle and cousin showed marked interest in her years spent in France. Clarke had a right time attempting to avoid trickier questions, for her mother had strictly forbidden her from giving their relations an idea of what exactly she had been studying.
Mrs Griffin was, by temperament, a proud woman and she would not suffer society, nay even her own brother, knowing that her only daughter gallivanted around France, learning anatomy of all things. It was her husband, Mr. Griffin's overindulgence of their daughter's whims that lead to this situation and she was fair powerless to do much against it. Her only consolation was that at least her daughter had not neglected the accomplishments appropriate for her sex either and was remarkably talented at singing and drawing. When Clarke had finally returned from France with her dignity and purity intact Mrs Griffin felt as if she had finally let out the breath she had taken upon her daughter's departure several years ago.
When after lunch Clarke announced that she would be calling on Miss Woods who was gracious enough to not only have presented her with a visiting card but quite earnestly entreated her to visit quite soon she was met with different reactions from each of her relations. Mrs. Collins's eyes shone with excitement, congratulating her on her new acquaintance, while Mr. Collins remained politely unimpressed, not much concerned with the goings on of the fairer side of society. It was Finn's reaction that surprised Clarke somewhat, because her cousin had shown decidedly more interest than he ought to have. His desire to accompany Clarke was, fortuitously, thwarted by Mrs. Collins who chided her son for being overeager. “Finn, please have a care for your poor old mother and refrain from acting like a half-hour gentleman*. You ought to know that calls and half-ceremonious visits by ladies are always conducted alone or very rarely with their daughters. It would look foolish and entirely inappropriate for you to visit at the same time.”
“But mother! They are hardly mere acquaintances. And do I need remind you that I have been courting Miss Woods for nearly half a year? And they had such a wonderful time together last week. I was fairly surprised when I found that Clarke had NOT been visiting yesterday.” Finn countered, honestly astonished at his mother's opinions and old-fashioned habits.
“Well you are quite the oaf, dear cousin, if you are not jesting!” Clarke exclaimed incredulously despite knowing that she had wanted to do exactly as Finn exprected.
“Nonsense! Have you not noted that they are not even on a first name basis yet?” Mrs. Collins continued in the same admonishing tone seemingly unaffected by the abuse her niece subjected her son to “Clearly Miss Woods is very favourable towards Clarke, having invited her most encouragingly, but she is not so improper as to rush into a friendship upon having met someone the first time! What are you thinking...”
It went on like that between mother and son for some minutes until Mr. Collins shifted uncomfortably in his chair and levelled his son with a glance that clearly told him that he should drop the subject. Whether because the bickering had worn down his nerves or because he was silently teaching his son to defer to well-bred women on questions of etiquette Clarke had no idea but she was glad she was afforded the good luck to visit Miss Woods alone.
After lunch she busied herself with her attire and toiletries, keen on making a good second impression. Painfully conscious that she would have to make a good first impression on whatever relations Miss Woods may have if she were in any way hopeful of continuing their friendship she spent a considerably longer time staring at her dresses than she normally would have.
She realized much too late that she had failed to acquire information about Miss Woods' relations from Finn, something that would prove to be impossible now that he had been antagonized and thwarted at lunch. 'Well...Sir Gustus is a well-known fixture in the county so he's a given.' Clarke mused, not at all satisfied. Knowing facts were one thing but Finn could have given her an advantage.
At last she resolved not to despair and made a series of quick decisions. Detesting the idea of giving up her personal comfort and wearing a dress to merely impress her host she turned to trickery. She had a pair of well-tailored trousers fashioned in the Arabic style made of enough billowing material to pass as a dress upon superficial inspection. All she had to remember was not to run about in front of Sir Gustus, for then she would not be able to conceal that the material in fact hugged both of her legs individually. In a compromise, she did, however, decide to leave her cigarette case at home. She was not in the habit of smoking daily so she was sure she could forego another day. This was easy enough to concede for she had not yet smoked in front of Miss Woods either and was not entirely sure if she would approve. And to her constant surprise, she most certainly wanted, nay, almost needed Miss Woods' approval.
It was just after three in the afternoon when she left for Woodfield Manor in a cart. Not too late, for she hoped that she would be asked to stay beyond the politely expected half an hour but not to early either in order to avoid seeming overeager.
“Alexandra, my darling niece, what has your nerves in such disarray?” Sir Gustus asked with some concern after he noted that his niece had not been able to commit to any of her usual activities for any length of time. She seemed to start one thing only to drop it and start afresh at something else. It broke the tranquillity of the afternoon time they generally spent together.
“Disarray, Uncle Gustus?” Lexa asked back in a distracted manner as she glanced at the grandfather clock in the living room.
“Indeed, dear child. In the last half hour you have started up on the piano, only to abandon mid-sheet, claiming that the small lettering of the sheet was putting a strain on your eye.” Sir Gustus replied with an even tone. “Then you took to singing but after a single song you claimed your throat was in no condition to carry on. Finally you settled on embroidery but claimed that your fingers were too stiff today to carry on.” As he finished enumerating his observations he set his newspaper aside. “So, yes, I ask what has your nerves so rattled? Are we waiting for a guest that you keep glancing at the time?” He finally asked when he caught her glancing in the direction of the clock a third time. His eyes lit with mischief and settled on a knowing look when realization hit him.
'Oh lord, he thinks I'm anxious for Mr. Collins to arrive...' Lexa thought with despair. 'Why...why would he think that?' She finally sighed in defeat, knowing that nothing escaped her uncle's keen and observing eyes.
“Do you remember that I was introduced to Mr. Collins' cousin on Saturday?” She finally asked. Upon her uncle's nod of assent she said “Well, I have taken quite the shine to Miss Griffin, Uncle. I felt a connection with her unlike with most of my peers.” She admitted. “You know how lonely I get at times...” Lexa trailed off, not particularly keen to drag that topic into their current conversation.
Sir Gustus' eyes hardened and darkened as he focused his entire attention on what his niece was saying. The doctors had advised him to pay interest to and encourage her social interactions for she was prone to shut down emotionally which would put her at a decided disadvantage on the marriage market.
“I know, Lexa. I know. Ever since your poor mother...” He started but stopped himself abruptly. He was also advised to broach that particular topic as seldom as possible. “So this Miss Griffin is more agreeable to you? And you have invited her over for tea I presume?” He asked, assessing the bits of information his niece revealed to him.
Lexa noted her uncle's slip in mentioning her mother. She dearly wished to talk about her, learn more about her, learn her through her brother's eyes but as loving as her uncle was, he stalwartly refused to discuss her parents with her.
“Well, I didn't exactly invite her for tea per se. But I did entreat her to visit quite soon. Yesterday being a Sunday was not yet acceptable but I do hope she visits today. I should rather like to show her the lakes on the grounds if the weather permits.” She finally said the thoughts that had been on her mind all day.
Sir Gustus made a noise of approval upon hearing that his niece wanted to spend the day out in the open. That too had been advised by the plethora of medical men he consulted. He spared no cost when it came to the well-being of his only remaining relative.
“Well, my darling niece, I hope for your sake that she was as taken with you as you are with her and will come flying to visit.” Sir Gustus said kindly. “I dare say I fairly approve of her for the sole reason that she inspires you to take more fresh air than you normally do.” His tone turned somewhat admonishing at the end.
Having noted that his attention had a calming effect on Lexa's anxious mood Sir Gustus applied himself to the task and completely abandoned his reading habit. Although he was a bachelor by design and never desired to have a family of his own, he doted on his niece whom he took in without a second thought when his younger sister and her husband met their untimely demise nearly two decades ago. Little Alexandra had only been three at the time and presented quite the challenge to Sir Gustus' household but in his opinion she paid off the price of hardship with her gentle heart and quick wit a hundred times over.
It was close to four when they were jarred from their conversation by the sound of the doorbell. Lexa subtly adjusted herself in her seat, composing herself. Not soon afterwards footsteps could be heard approaching the drawing room and a moment later it opened, revealing Ryder, their footman, who announced that Miss Griffin had come to call on Miss Woods, politely showing the former lady into the room and exiting swiftly to inform the staff that refreshments were necessary.
“Good afternoon, Sir Gustus, Miss Woods.” Clarke said warmly with a brave smile that belied the tumult of anxious butterflies flying up a storm in her stomach.