The next day Clarke was obliged to accompany her aunt on her calls, although as to the reason why, she had not the faintest idea for her attention immediately faltered when she realized that she would not be able to go to Woodfield. Guessing that it must have something to do with her mother’s wish for her to be finally out and her unsaid expectation of there being a suitor in the near future did nothing to improve her mood. Being twenty years old made her quite unusual for not being out yet, when most of her peers were introduced to society at the age of seventeen but she was, in truth, rather grateful. Such things were of no interest at Girton and her like-minded friends all scoffed at the ridiculousness of the affair altogether. Clarke’s only misfortune was that from May to June she had to suffer her mother’s stifling expectations and incessant woes about her only child growing up to be a spinster. While each year since she became old enough to be out she had promised her mother that she would join her on her calls she had skilfully evaded it, one year going so far as to not even come home for the summer until the season was quite over.
It was yet another bid to evade her mother’s control that led her to flee across the country and shelter herself at her aunt and uncle’s house, hoping that her father would intervene on her behalf and not allow her mother to persuade her brother and his wife to aid her. Clarke suspected that words must have been exchanged for she remembered her uncle and aunt to be rather less indulgent than they were currently proving to be but it was not at all clear which of her parents had come out victorious. The considerable liberty with which she was allowed to move about the city suggested that her relations had leaned more towards her father’s opinion on the matter but the very fact that she was this very minute trapped inside a carriage, wearing a dress and making social calls with her aunt had reeked of her mother’s influence. Whenever she thought of these calls her mind conjured the smell of old settled dust and tufts of dried lavender placed in unaired closets the year before. Her nostrils twitched disagreeably as she gazed outside at the passing trees and hills. From a distance she could see Woodfield Manor and her heart longed to fly to her friend rather than trudge along in the opposite direction.
Envy coiled in her belly as she thought of her cousin who was, of course, at liberty to visit Lexa any day, having been courting her for some six months now. It was a curious feeling, this envy, and Clarke spent the rest of her journey examining it from various angles. She had always been jealous of Finn to some extent. Him being a man had so many liberties she coveted. He was sent to Eton as all well-bred young men are and he had always been expected to go on to Oxford and make something of himself. He was not obliged to call on anyone he did not desire to see, he did not need to obtain special allowances from his father to move about the city. The only constraint he did have to submit himself to, as far as Clarke could tell, was that his mother would simply not hear of him becoming a bachelor.
Upon inquiry her mother had reported that her cousin had grown up to be one of those fashionable dandies who strutted about London throughout the whole season leaving for their clubs the moment their eyes were open, arriving fashionably late to the dance halls from whence they found their way to bed at the early morning hours only to repeat the process the very next day. All this Clarke had envied with a passion, but not as much, she was surprised to find, as she envied him his current company. For she realized that she envied him his liberties on principle. The pleasures of the clubs she was denied altogether simply for being a woman and so were the other pleasures of society unless she were to declare herself available on the marriage market. In which case she would still be weighed down heavily by rules of decorum, never at liberty to dance with whomever she wished to dance with, say whatever she wished to say or ignore whomever she wished to ignore. And yet all of these injustices that sparked her ire appeared to dull in comparison to how much she wished at that very moment to be drawing Lexa’s profile as the brunette read a book in the glorious afternoon sun.
“Clarke, dear, are you quite alright?” Her aunt jolted her from her musings. She jumped slightly when she heard her name, being so engrossed in her thoughts that after a while she even forgot to politely hum or agree to keep up the semblance of a conversation.
“Yes, Aunt Helen, my apologies. I was distracted by the view from the carriage.” Clarke replied, her cheeks flushing red with guilt and embarrassment.
“Look here, child. I know you do not wish to go on these visits with me. But your mother is quite beside herself with worry over you. You mustn’t treat your mother so.” Mrs. Collins childed her niece, although she kept her tone affectionate to take away the sting of her words. “I know how you are. But we must at least keep up appearances. Once or twice a week you shall visit with me.” She said firmly, her previously gentle tone wearing off. “The rest of the week you are at liberty to haunt Woodfield. Assuming Finn will not revolt that is.” She added with a chuckle.
Clarke sat in the carriage across from her aunt effectively stunned into silence. Either her aunt had undergone a dramatic change in the many years she had not seen her or her memories of the woman were corrupted by time.
“Oh, dear. I seem to have stunned you into silence.” Mrs. Collins said faking alarm for a moment only to smirk at her niece in the very next. “Come now, Clarke. I may be considerably older than you but I am not yet hard of sight or hearing. I can see you are quite taken with our wonderful Miss Woods and she certainly with you. You will be the talk of the city when all the mothers find out that you have not been here more than a week and already befriended the elusive Miss Woods.”
“Elusive, you say?” Clarke asked, her mind grabbing onto the odd description.
“Oh quite. She rarely visits, and then only a select few. But the balls, oh Clarke, the balls she organizes in her uncle’s manor are spectacular enough that she is the talk of the city nonetheless.” Mrs. Collins said enthusiastically. “There have been many marriages that have come out of her balls in the last few years. Hers as you know, not one of them. Everyone is absolutely on pins and needles to see when she will finally settle on a young man. You may call me biased but my Finn does seem like he might secure her hand eventually.”
The burning coil of envy tightened Clarke’s stomach muscles once again and she sat a little straighter, keeping the evidence of her annoyance off her face with some effort. When Clarke failed to reply again Mrs. Collins regarded her shrewdly but did not attempt to engage her in conversation again until they had arrived at their destination.
Lexa had persuaded Mr. Collins to take her to the city on the pretext of needing new gloves. In fact there was nothing wrong with her old ones but in order to reconcile her desire to follow Clarke’s medical opinion with her desire to keep the memory of their walk in the park untainted she needed to take her prescribed walk somewhere else. The city would do even if showing herself alone in the company of Mr. Collins would have lasting implications as far as society was concerned. The man had been courting her for six months during which time she had gained a sound knowledge of his character. He was a gentle enough soul and seemed to be politely affectionate. He did seem earnest in his intentions yet there was such a strange lack in him that she sometimes wondered, or rather hoped, that he was a flapdoodle.* Regardless, he was a good enough man and Lexa decided that she should be seen about the city with him.
He hopped out of the carriage as soon as it stopped and gallantly reached for Lexa’s hand to help her down the steps. Much to her surprise Mr. Collins appeared to be significantly more animated than what she was used to. His eyes sparkled with excitement as he started down the main street, chattering with her about shops he would recommend they visit if she were interested in his opinion.
“So Miss Woods, how do you find my cousin?” Mr. Collins asked after exiting a shop he insisted sold the best neckties he had ever had the pleasure of wrapping around his neck. Lexa was quite amused at his expressions. His very speech seems to have come alive.
“Oh I am quite taken with her, I should think. What a lovely creature your cousin is.” Lexa replied, not shying away from expressing her affection for the girl with enthusiasm. “I am rather grateful that you have introduced us, Mr. Collins.”
“Oh I surmised as much. Seeing how Clarke cannot stop talking about your merits. Also you have seen a great deal more of her since last week than you have of me.” Finn replied with a wry smile. Seeing how it was nearly tea time he guided Lexa towards a pleasant restaurant he knew for a fact took women customers as well.**
“What is that?” Lexa responded with surprise. “Is that jealousy I hear, Mr. Collins?” For the time being Lexa chose to ignore his comment about Clarke talking about her so much. She felt flattered but her mind was otherwise engaged.
“I do not believe I have much to be jealous of” Mr. Collins deflected the accusation “I was merely making an observation. Has she asked you to sit for her yet?”
“She has not. Does she draw then?” Lexa asked, her curiosity piqued.
“Oh, does she! She is quite accomplished in that regard.” Mr. Collins launched into a rather enthusiastic description of his cousin’s talents. Apparently Clarke had brought a gift to her aunt and uncle in gratitude for them allowing her this holiday. Prior to departing she had painted her mother’s likeness in oil and the painting. “I dare say it is perfect. I fairly thought that my aunt would crawl right out of the frame by some dark magic she had put on the canvas.”
“Well in that case I must absolutely ask her if she will paint my portrait as well.” Lexa said with determination.
“I feel envious of any wall that your beauty would grace, Miss Woods. Surely if Clarke’s talented hands were to capture your beauty you would not deny me the pleasure of having the painting?” Mr. Collins said with a bow, almost as if he were asking her to dance. His lips twisted into a coy smile, his eyes shining with laughter.
“Well, now, Mr. Collins. Is it the city air that does such wonders to your mood? You are quite the entertainer today.” Lexa marvelled at this new side of Mr. Collins she had not seen before.
Clarke had endured the dreadful boredom of city gossip mostly about persons unknown to her for the better part of three hours in six households she was obliged to visit. The only times her attention truly perked were when some of her aunt’s acquaintances mentioned Lexa. Her aunt had been correct and nearly all of them looked upon her with wonder when they found out about what fast she and Lexa had become. She smiled politely and answered questions throughout the afternoon, dodging the topic of her education altogether. It was beyond exhausting and she was greatly relieved when her aunt declared that they were to head home for today.
“Clarke, my dear. Do you want to stop for a spot of tea?” Mrs. Collins offered as their carriage pull through the busy main street on their way home.
“Tea?” Clarke asked absent-mindedly as she turned her attention to her aunt.
“Yes, dear. Tea. Common beverage drunk across the kingdom.” Mrs. Collins said in a flat tone, attempting to humor her niece. When all she achieved as a dumbfounded look from her otherwise quick-witted niece Mrs. Collins started chuckling good-naturedly. “Goodness gracious. As talented as you are with your hands Clarke… you certainly do not have much talent in the way of acting. I can see you are quite fed up with today, child. But rest assured, your mother will be pleased when I can report to her that you have been introduced to so many families with eligible sons.” She deliberately emphasized the last words, seemingly taking a perverse pleasure in torturing her niece.
Clarke visibly cringed, her mind conjuring a vision of her mother’s elation of something that she herself detested. She was about to change the topic and declare that tea sounded very much to her liking when a chance glance out the window wiped every thought out of her mind. Right there, in front of her, sat Lexa and Finn in the out-door area of a restaurant, apparently deep in some amusing conversation which left them both in fits of laughter. It was only for a few brief seconds that she had seen them, for she could not allow herself the luxury of climbing on her knees to continue staring through the rear window. Yet those seconds were enough for her mind to trouble her with yet another vision. The familiar sound of Lexa’s laughter rang in her ears from the previous day and the painful coil of envy returned to her belly with a vengeance.
“I do not care much for tea today, aunt Helen. Would you find it dreadfully dull of me if I wanted to go home? I think I feel a headache coming onto me.” Clarke replied hastily and gingerly touched her fingertips to her temple for good measure.
Mrs. Collins merely arched an eyebrow in surprise. She would have thought that Clarke would enjoy eating out but decided that she must either be more exhausted that she expected or she had simply misjudged the girl.