It is not to be wondered at that over the next twelvemonth, Lord Riverton and Miss Forster became exceedingly fond of each other. Elinor was often reckoned to be one of the prettiest girls in the county, was highly accomplished in music, art, and archery, and possessed a very fine talent for discourse. All this combined with a very sweet disposition and a generous heart made her quite the object for love, despite her lack of gifts . And while Lord Riverton was very senior to her, he had none of the graveness or solemnity of other gentlemen even ten years his junior. He was merry without being silly, witty without being cruel, and passionate without being a frivolous romantic. He was decidedly handsome in a way that no foppish youth could ever aspire to, all dignity and poise, but with laughing sea-green eyes. With only a few meetings the couple found themselves quite inclined to like each other. After six months, Elinor was resolved that if she couldn’t love him as a man (she did try, though her heart told her was impossible), she could certainly esteem his as a dear friend and so could look on their future with unreserved satisfaction.
“Dearest, Lily, why must you always run to your tree when you should be at your lessons? Miss Jane is worried sick she will be dismissed on your account,” Elinor called up into the branches, a laugh in her voice.
“I would not for all the world wish Miss Jane to be dismissed before she finishes my instruction in Greek. It would be like unto a tragedy by Aristophanes,” Lily replied in the affected the high oval tones of her poor governess.
“Aristophanes, as you well know, wrote comedies. You will never be equal to me in your wit if you do not attend to your studies. But I suppose if you are determined to commune with nature to attain your learning, then I shall take my letter and read it alone, for you shan’t comprehend any of it.” Elinor had taken barely three steps before the loud report of bare feet hitting the dirt announced Lily’s return to earth.
“Is it from Christopher, um, Lord Riverton?”
“Do I have your promise to finish your work and apologize to Miss Jane for your negligence?” There is a heavy sigh and sullen assent, but it is enough for the elder sister to excitedly open the letter and read the contents from atop one of the many great tree roots that seemed to grow just for the purpose of saving Elinor’s petticoats from sitting long in the dirt. Sir Christopher was especially eloquent in his letters, though he spent little time divulging any deeply felt romantic pains. He often shared humorous stories “from the village,” of which he had such an endless supply that Elinor strongly suspected his being the author of all tales. It was not what most girls of seventeen would expect from a lover, but it was a delightful diversion for Elinor and an excellent inducement for Lily to behave somewhat as she ought. The young miss was not allowed the enjoyment of Sir Christopher’s letters if she was lacking in shoes, for instance, and she frequently had to sacrifice time in the forest to time in the schoolroom. But the entertainment was sufficient to make such pains worth it.
Elinor was at quite a loss as to how Lily’s education could possibly progress once she left the estate and there ceased to be letters to draw her obedience. She was not aware of Nanny’s own exertions on that same subject or she needn’t have worried. Had Lily remained in her perch a half an hour more, it would have been the witch calling her to heel, a situation the girl was becoming more than ever eager to avoid. Yet as the leaves changed, the girl felt driven to the outdoors by some need for activity. She had no focus for history or language because her hands itched to be working at something more than copying down tables or dates. When pressed, Nanny suggested that the land was preparing for winter, storing up what it could save and devouring what couldn’t last. “You, gel, are naught but a chipmunk anxious to be collecting nuts. Won’t ease your spirits none, not till you’re of age to perform the rituals. Best use that energy as you can in your studies and your training.” Nanny would hear neither excuses nor entreaties, only assured Lily that neglecting her education would have the type of dire consequences that need not be voiced to be understood.
The letter left the girls breathless from laughter, featuring as it did the antics of a very ornery and almost entirely deaf grandmother and her equally difficult ass. Dusting off their dresses, they began the short walk from the Lady’s Clearing to the house just as the sky came all over in heavy clouds. Lily’s spirits were unexpectedly oppressed by the change in weather, so much so that she stopped more than once to stare at the purpling sky as though trying to divine its purpose in ruining a good mood so hard-fought for. It was only when fat drops of rain spattered the girl’s freckled face that Elinor managed to drag her into a run for the shelter of the house, where they were met by a post-horse and a messenger soaked through and shivering.
It was a matter of moments between the delivering of a letter to the butler for Lord Forster and his being taken down to the servant’s quarters for dry clothes and a remedy for the cold. Elinor only took notice long enough to ensure he was well-tended, then turned to Lily with prepared orders for dry clothes and hot tea dying quickly on her lips. The girl was almost entirely dry but for her face which was uncommonly pale and wet with tears. When interrogated she only claimed complete ignorance of their cause. “I did not notice them, Elinor. Perhaps it is just the rain, but I feel ever so sad.”
Miss Forster led her sister straight to her room, changed her into a night-dress, drew the curtains, and with all felicity urged her sister to rest herself. Miss Jane was sent for to watch over the girl and then Elinor went in search of her father. Lily did have strange moods at times, but this was no surprise since her mother was of the same disposition. Changes in seasons were the hardest because it seemed to make her much more sensitive to every alteration. Sir John was pacing in his study when Elinor found him. She related Lily’s sudden depression, blamed it handily on the rising storm, and promised to send for Nanny should it turn out to be more than a passing mood. As she turned to leave, her father called for her to sit by the fire.
“I assure you, father, we were not caught much in the rain. My bonnet is already dry and my slippers barely damp.”
“You saw I received a message?” She answered in the positive and further stated that she assumed some business matter could be the only purpose for such a rushed communication. “Yes, of a sort. I am afraid it concerns you and I would ask that you sit before I tell of it.” Warily she obeyed. “Lord Riverton sent me letter a few days ago indicating his intentions of a visit here with his son and two elder daughters. He had some idea of doing a ball for the children, a sort of Hallow’s Eve celebration. It was to be a surprise.”
“That sounds quite the diversion Sir Christopher would devise. I shall tease him for keeping secrets. Oh, but I hope this weather has not detained him.”
“It has. He sends word from an inn two days from here to say that the roads were badly washed away causing them to become lost, and his coach overturned at a fording. I’m afraid all parties were badly injured and young Nathan,” his voice caught and he took the seat opposite his daughter, unable any longer to look at her paling face. More brusquely, he said, “Young Nathan suffered a knock to his head and drown before the coachman could fetch him. The girls won’t wake and Christopher, he writes that he is as well as can be, but the apothecary’s note marks him very ill from cold.”
Unwilling to sit still, Miss Forster began an agitated stalk before the blazing fire. “We mustn’t delay,” said she at length. “A message will have to be sent for Nanny, as no apothecary can answer for this. She will be able to ride ahead if the rain slackens soon. We can take the carriage and retrieve them all here, since it is closest, just as soon as they may be fit for travel. If we leave now, and take all four horses, I’m sure we can be there in time, father.” All the urgency in her voice and stance did nothing to stir him from his seat. She was only answered by a throaty grumble of thunder.
“Do you ever recall a storm so severe as this?” She avowed she hadn’t, but that certainly there must have been one. It was far from her first acquaintance with thunder and lightning. “No, listen to it. The hail dashing to bits, Thor raging with his hammer, all the sky weeping, and that howl like wolves in dead of winter. This storm is not like any you have seen because you were not yet born when the old Lord Riverton died. It is the torrent of the river losing its master. And this is worse yet than that, because the river has no son to follow without Nathan.”
Without any order from her higher faculties, Elinor’s knees gave and sat her on the scorched hearthrug. “You cannot be certain,” she said, surprised at the high pitch of her voice. “Surely there is something,” but she cannot continue, finding her breath trapped in her swelling heart.
“Nanny will be sent, as I still have hope for the girls. But it was important that you understood. I would have you free of any undo delusions.” He stood to leave, yet made one last attempt to alleviate her disappointment. “You need not fear for his children. He had a sister who should be charged with them.” He did not add that the next Lord Riverton may well be younger and better suited as a match and that at least timing had saved her from being a widow.
Elinor sat for a very long time trying to cry. She certainly felt the weight of grief, an oppression on her chest and an ache behind her eyes. And there was a well of sadness and disappointment. She had at last come to terms with the arrangement, had become resigned to it, and even endeavored to call herself well-pleased by the sham it would have been. Still, stirring inside her was a most treacherous seed of relief. She was free from her obligation without neglecting her duty as a poor, gift-less daughter. Moreover, she was free from the guilt that had been digging away at her in equal proportion with her growing regard for her intended. Understanding struck and she knew the relief was not for her own freedom, but for his. He could not now be shackled to a child for the sake of a friendship, nor have the ignominy of being the sport of his neighbors for entering in what would be seen as a perverted relationship. He would never be assumed a lecher and a cuckold for marrying so young and unloving a partner.
Miss Forster stood and composed herself, then adjourned to her sister’s room, where, in the day made dark by the pounding hail and flashing lightning, she told all of the day’s tragedy. They lay under the covers while Lily wept for Nathan and the girls who might never wake and their siblings orphaned. She cried for Elinor who couldn’t and her father who wouldn’t, and when Henry snuck in, he was welcomed and held until the storm washed the grief away.