Miss Abigail Simpson was by all accounts a prodigious beauty. She had a fine figure, bright eyes, and a voice frequently compared to all manner of musical instruments. In fact, she would have been the most desired lady in the neighborhood but for the fact that she was ever so poor. Daughter of a gentleman who had squandered the fortune on gifted fighting rings, she was only fortunate that her mother’s sister was not so stupid in her choice of husband and therefore had the funds to take in the poor orphan girl when her father met his rather unfortunate end. The aunt, Mrs. Rockworth, had been exceedingly fond of her sister, and quite desirous of having a daughter, especially after bearing four sons, so the arrangement was suitable on all sides. Miss Abigail was still poor, there being very little to bequeath her after the rightful heirs, but she had the benefit of a fine education, good breeding, and the influence of high society to recommend her. For most of the year, she lived with her aunt, uncle, and cousins in a modest manor less than a mile from the Forster estate. She was brought to the neighborhood shortly after the unfortunate death of Lady Forster and was of an age with Miss Elinor. The two naturally became intimate friends and confidants.
“My dearest Elinor, can you forgive me? I would have come as soon as I heard, but it was not in my power.” The two girls embraced in the breakfast room the very morning she returned from her annual holiday in Bath (for her health). Her affection was such that she had not even been home, having insisted that she be left at the Forsters, dirty petticoats be damned. Her vanity was not so high as to forestall immediate condolences just to change from riding clothes and tidy her hair. “I was still so ill when the word came and Auntie refused to depart until she was assured of my blooming health.”
“She was correct in detaining you, for you look quite the picture, even if you are dirty and unkempt.” Abigail feigned insult remarkably, and then confessed to a desperate hunger for something besides inn food and hard biscuits, to which her hostess quickly obliged her with breakfast tea.
“You cannot imagine my torment. Every day spent at the beaches, with only my toes to dip in the waves and then the evenings spent at balls and parties and dinners until I could not dance a wheel or even tell what card game I was playing.”
“Yes, sounds excruciating,” said Elinor with a small laugh.
“You laugh, but I do not in any way exaggerate. I was simply exhausted by the frivolity. How could these people dance and gossip and eat when my dearest friend in the world was suffering? It was intolerable for my nerves and I daresay it delayed my return a whole fortnight.” Despite her famished state, Abigail ate the tea biscuits and cakes with remarkable delicacy considering how quickly they disappeared from her plate. Elinor had to order another tray rather sooner than she had expected. “But be honest, my love,” she continued between bites, “how do you fair?”
To her credit, Elinor took her time in replying. The first month after Sir Christopher’s tragedy, she had automatically responded to solicitations that she was fine. It was sad, to be sure, but one cannot expect strong feelings from the seventeen-year-old near-widow of a man of five and forty. And strong feelings were so dreadfully embarrassing for everyone. She was still young, plenty of prospects, and should not fret that no more offers will come her way. Certainly no reason for emotional outbursts.
“I am better,” she ventured at last, allowing her artificial cheer to dissipate. It was a profound relief to drop the pretense. “I won’t deny that it pained me a great deal. I did not think I would ever recover from the disappointment.”
“Well, losing a fortune and a title is a decidedly large disappointment,” Abigail said archly over her tea.
“Do not deliberately misunderstand me, you wicked girl,” exclaimed Elinor, reviving somewhat from her melancholy, which had become a near constant companion to her in recent weeks. “I cared little for either except that it meant my future security. And if he had been a disagreeable man, I shan’t have cared what he was worth, as you well know.”
Leisurely sipping her tea, the guest nodded her acknowledgement of the truth and awaited further enlightenment. Elinor’s gaze dropped to her folded hands. “He, he was a very good, very kind man. He offered me what was most dear to my heart: a place in his family with no, no expectations. Do you know he was the only man of my acquaintance besides my father with whom I felt totally safe? He didn’t, I mean, I never felt his eyes on me. He never wanted,” she trailed off, words failing as she tried to express that which she barely understood. Abigail shifted to sit next to her and grasped her hands.
“I know precisely what you mean. There I was, sickly and weak, obliged to attend gathering after gathering. And you know, I could not say a word to a gentleman without ten ladies insinuating that we were courting. To be expected to flirt with every dance though I had barely the strength to concentrate on my steps! I swear, every time my hand brushed with my partner’s, even by accident, it was a proclamation that I was interested in his advances. And some were, quite frankly, abhorrently forward in their remarks, especially if they learned how destitute I was. Patronage is not so formidable a protection as genuine privilege.” They sat in silence a moment, listening to the racket of busy birds outside the sill and the clanging of pots just audible from the kitchen. “My cousin Edmund proposed just before I left,” Abigail confessed with a sigh.
“Edmund? But he is not yet twenty!”
“Yes. I refused, of course. He has no profession to support himself, nor any idea of getting one, though his inheritance will be a pittance. Has no mind for practicalities. And his mother would kill me. I was not brought into her home as a future wife, whatever her affection for my mother. Besides, he is abominably short,” she chuckled. “But were he the richest and finest looking of my cousins, his manners would speak so thoroughly against him in any case. He imagined that he did me a favor, that I was certainly pretty enough to be a good wife, and that my filial love would grow to a more substantial attachment over time. Also, he had hopes I might pass my affliction on to a son that we might gain preferment on the coast.”
“Thinking well ahead of himself, I see.”
“All this he dared say while odiously gripping my hand and staring deep into my eyes as though he were most seriously afflicted with love. It was most unsettling.” There is a loud noise from the second story and then the galloping steps of a young girl fleeing the schoolroom. Nanny would not be pleased.
“It isn’t just the loss of situation that hurts, Abigail,” Elinor said suddenly. “The idea of a safe home, a marriage without…obligations, these were the chief tempters at the beginning, of course. But I confess to a fondness for him stronger than I have felt for any man, young though I am. I cannot guess if that might one day have burgeoned into love.” Her voice breaks gently and she must pause to repair it. “When I heard the news, when it first became real to me, there was a hollow comprehension that I would never know if I could love him. It was nearly a week before that hollowness eased enough that I could cry, and all the while my well-wishers consoled me that I was too young to feel the hurt. How unfeeling they thought me, to stand on the banks of the river as he was sent downstream and assume that my heart couldn’t break for an old man who was so very, very kind to me!”
It was some moments before Elinor regained her composure, yet Abigail felt no urge to reprove her for losing it. She rocked her friend and patted her curls, humming a soft melody until her breathing came easier and her trembling subsided. Feelings relieved, Elinor felt more herself than she had since the tragedy and Abigail felt all the gratitude of being needed after months of feelings quite the contrary.The tea things were taken away at this point and Elinor, rather wetly, offered to walk her guest home, as she was clearly fatigued from her trip (requesting the carriage was out of the question unless they were to explain the guest’s travel-worn attire and the hostess’ blotchy complexion). They strolled along the path amiably, arms entwined to support each other.
After a time Abigail spoke, “So what think you of the new Lord Riverton?” This was said casually enough that her friend was immediately suspicious. In truth, she had heard a great many things from acquaintances in Bath and was eager for more reliable gossip.
“I think nothing of him,” was the high reply. “I saw him only at the service, where he performed his duty succinctly and left with nary a word to anyone and only a bow to the Riverton orphans whom he had supplanted.”
Abigail detected her eagerness to dislike this stranger. “I cannot believe that.”
“As if I would lie about something so serious? I tell you, it was the scandal in the village, where not days before he had been quite generously received. All the young ladies were in a swoon over him before ever he descended his coach.” Abigail smiled at this reference to ‘young ladies,’ many of whom were probably older than they. Elinor was such an old soul sometimes, making even her elders seem bratty children in comparison.
“We were staying with Lady Mary’s cousins in the village, so it was difficult not to hear all about it. At first, it was assumed that arrangements kept him secluded. I was in regular correspondence with Mrs. Hempstock, Sir Christopher’s sister, at this time. Along with her regular updates as to the health of the elder girls, who were still very ill, she told me how very disagreeable he was. Standoffish to everyone, but the girls. For them it was naught but kindest felicitations. And then performing his duty to the barest minimum and retreating as though under attack, it was quite a disappointment to many fathers of eligible daughters.”
“I cannot tell if you are serious, dearest. Your tone is so snide as to be unfeminine!” Both ladies laughed at this and Abigail was relieved to see a genuine smile on her friend’s face. “Do you mean to say he was agreeable in all but temperament?”
“Wealthy, titled, and single is all anyone heard before they started adding ribbons to bonnets and discussing courting strategy,” she replied contemptuously.
“What of his looks?”
“I did not notice them except that he was dark-haired and slender. As to his age, I believe him five and twenty, no more. Further inquiry will have to wait until the Solstice ball, for that is the next I expect to see him.”
“As you have decided so thoroughly against him, I suppose I shall make a try of him.” She straightened her bonnet in mock determination, eliciting another torrent of giggles. “Nay, I will not fix upon him the ignominy of a disagreeable temperament based on his behavior during such a difficult time. His care toward the daughters certainly speaks well of him, even if his ceremonial actions were perfunctory. I cannot imagine the stress of suddenly taking on the charge of a river when one hadn’t the slightest idea of inheriting a creek.”
Agreeing to the rightness of this supposition, the girls continued on the path, chatting aimlessly as they were wont to do before illness and grief had struck them. Presently, they arrived at the gate for the Rockworth garden and parted, both the better in mood and health for having seen the other. It is not to be underestimated how potent are the healing powers of having a friend with seemingly worse troubles than one’s own.