Prudence Newton glanced up from her prayer-book as Mrs. Aurelia Gammersgill bustled down the aisle to her usual place in the third pew. Prudence stifled a grin. With those frills and trimmings on her bonnet, Mrs. Gammersgill looked more than usual like a placid sheep ready for shearing. In contrast, Mrs. Millicent Oldstead-Parker, who followed close upon her heels, cast a foxy and appraising look upon the congregation as she went, her sharp eyes missing nothing.
The two ladies were no sooner settled than Mr. Neville Newton stood at the pulpit and began to speak. Prudence bowed her head in a show of piety, though the assembled congregation would have been surprised if they could have read her thoughts. She sat beside her mother in the rearmost pew of All Saints church as her father’s voice droned on. She was careful not to let her chin droop to her chest, as many parishoners were liable to do.
At age seventeen, Prudence Newton was at present dissatisfied with her life and most especially dissatisfied with her parents expectations for her. As their only child, they expected a great deal of Prudence. Most annoyingly, they took for granted that she would marry a clergyman and post haste provide them with many grandchildren for the pair of them to dote upon.
As much as she loved her parents, Prudence knew that she was bound to disappoint them in this regard, for Prudence had ambitions for herself beyond the boundaries of Bloxley Bottom. She did not want to be a clergyman’s wife like her mother, subject to the constant scrutiny of the parishioners. Was her sponge cake as good as Mrs. Noseywood’s? Did she sing off-key in the chorale? Did her share of the altar cloth embroidery seem a little crooked? Surely there was more to life than that.
For the time being, Prudence carried out her household duties without complaint. She tended her hens and gathered their eggs carefully. Making her delivery rounds through the village was at present her only escape from her mother’s phantom illnesses and the vague symptoms that necessitated Prudence’s attention throughout each day.
Lady Louisa had played a large part in allowing Prudence to hope for more. For several years now, the dowager baroness insisted upon Prudence’s weekly visits to the dower house, where Lady Louisa and Miss Anne tutored Prudence in social niceties and graces. They groomed her for a life beyond the confines of a rectory and Prudence was an eager pupil.
Prudence glanced now at the Bloxley sisters, Lady Louisa’s own granddaughters, sitting up there in the very front pew, looking as pampered and petted as a pair of spoiled lap dogs. Daphne and Valeria hadn’t a care in the world. Their family would make certain that they married well.
How it rankled when Daphne offered to give Prudence that little-worn rose-tinted silk dress with the delicate lace trim. Prudence blushed to recall her eager acceptance of the gift and how she admired the gown. But she had never worn it, for she had never received an invitation to the sort of engagement that would merit its elegance.
How could life be so unfair?
Later that afternoon, the Bloxley sisters sat in Daphne’s bedchamber.
“What is one supposed to do while posing for a portrait? Must you sit very still?” The Honourable Daphne Bloxley wrinkled her nose and grimaced into the mirror above her dressing table. “I am not very pleased with Papa for arranging this caper.”
“Why ever not? I want to be painted. To be immortalized,” her younger sister Valeria declared dramatically. “Someday when I am old like Grandmama, I will be happy to remember how pretty I once was. Grandmama loves to stand in front of her portrait in the dining room.”
“Of course she is! She says even though Mama is also very pretty in her own way, we are fortunate to have inherited our looks from her side of the family.”
“She did. She told Mama directly. And Mama told me.” Daphne took up a brush and swept it through her long hair.
“Oh, what did she say?”
“Yes, you must. I have to know. Please, Daff.
“I am not sure I should.”
“Do tell. Please, Daff. You cannot tell me part and not all of it.”
“I think so, but her father thought she should catch herself a duke.”
“Well, there were probably some. Even today, there’s Devonshire. He never has married, you know.”
“So set your cap at him next year, Daff.”
“No. She told Mama that Papa could have married a wealthier heiress than Mama. But that she, Grandmama I mean, was happy that Papa had married for love, because that is what she had done. She loved Lord Bloxley and she married him despite her own father’s objections to the match.”
Valeria covered her open mouth with her hand. “Oh, Daphne, how long have you known about this? Why didn’t you tell me right away? It is so very romantic. “
“It was all well and good for Grandmama and Papa to each marry for love. It didn’t require their sacrificing anything in order to do so, after all.”
“I want to marry for love, Daff. Don’t you?”
Daphne turned back to the mirror and picked up her hair brush. “Well, I wouldn’t marry for love alone. Not if it meant that I had to change my present circumstances. Or reduce my dress allowance.”
“Daphne! You’re a fiend.”
“No. Simply practical, sister dear. Something you should learn to be, else you’ll find yourself married to the first handsome face you see and living on love and air alone.”
“I shan’t,” Valeria sighed as she lay across her sister’s bed. “I shall be deliriously happy with my handsome husband and our fifteen children. And you will be their spinster aunt living on crumbs in our attic, all because you scoffed at love and held out for a wealthy suitor who never materialized.”
“In your attic?” Daphne laid down her brush, rose from the stool and came across to the bed.
“Hhmmm. That’s where bitter people live. In attics. And your hair will have turned grey with unhappiness and you’ll be all bent over and you’ll spend your days counting your guineas like a miser.”
“If I have guineas to count then I shan’t be very poor, shall I?” Daphne sat beside her sister on the bed. “If I had guineas to count, I wouldn’t be living in your attic.”
“I’ll lock you in the attic. So that you can’t contaminate my children with your bitterness. My handsome husband will hide the key so that you can never escape.”
Daphne arched a brow at her sister. “Will he?”
Valeria nodded. “Oh, yes, he will. And he’ll . . . . . no, Daff, no!”
“Yes, Val, yes! Tickling is what we bitter old crones do best. Right in the armpits!”