Roisin scampered off down the lane and sat in a niche on the packhorse bridge to read her letter. Water sparkled and chuckled over the pebbles way below, giving expression to her own abounding joy. She had recognised the handwriting at once as that of Anne Vernon, a young lady who had befriended the Harcup girls the previous year when her brother, Robert, acquired Piers Hall, a Jacobean Mansion on the sylvan outskirts of Lewes. Roisin, in particular, was attached to Anne. In fact, if she had any confidante at all, other than the stalwart Polly Pringle, it was Anne Vernon. This last winter had seemed an eternity without her. She had invited Roisin to spend Christmas in London under the chaperonage of Mrs Cornwallis, her aunt, but Mr Harcup had refused to sanction it. He was appalled at the idea of his daughter’s exposure to the false city life at so tender an age and instructed his wife to decline politely on the grounds that Roisin could not be spared during the season properly associated with hearth and home.
“But my dear Mr Harcup,” his lady protested, “is that wise? Mrs Cornwallis is a very good sort of person and the Vernons themselves most respectable. Why, Mr Vernon is an Honourable and keeps more than one carriage! If events were to er….develop,” said she, pouncing cosily upon the word. “I’ll not say how, but you know how vastly taken Mr Vernon was with our Roisin….” She clasped her hands together at her bosom. “Just think of it! Such a brilliant establishment!”
“You’re building castles in the air. A pastime of the foolish. The wise man, you may recall, builds his humble abode upon rock. It’s young Anthony March you’ll have for a son-in-law, mark my words, madam. He has a distinct predilection for Roisin and, what’s more, she likes him. I fancy she does not share your partiality for Mr Vernon.”
“Then she ought to be ashamed! Casting her chances to the winds. Our girls make few acquaintances. And I don’t see why you should deem it so improbable that Mr Vernon has serious intentions. Roisin may not be my own flesh and blood, but I’m sure she has more brains and beauty than many a frippery Miss of the ton.”
“Be that as it may, my dear, I personally would favour Mr March’s suit. He’s a steady, reliable fellow. He won’t go putting dangerous notions into her head.”
Thus Mrs Harcup yielded peevishly to her better half and Roisin was spared her first glimpse of the Beau Monde cavorting along the Broad Winding path to Destruction.
Roisin quickly absorbed Anne’s latest epistle. “And now, my dearest friend,” it ended, “I am so longing to see you and your sisters. Robert feared we might be delayed in Town over some tedious business matters, but, happily, it is not to be. Soon, soon, we shall meet again! Already some of our servants have been despatched to Piers Hall to prepare for our arrival next month. À bientôt! Your most affectionate, Anne.” Along the side of the page, in miniscule writing, a postscript apologised that Anne had neglected to commit the letter to the mail for several days.
Roisin jumped from her perch with a whoop of delight and ran home to tell them the news.
“Ruth! Sarah! Mama! Such news!” she cried, colliding with all three at the door of the breakfast parlour.
“Just look at you, child! Your gown is stained with green!” chided Mrs Harcup, who had a rare scale of values in Roisin’s book.
“Listen, I’ve had a letter….”
“Come to the table, Roisin,” ordered Mr Harcup in sober mood. He was standing at the head awaiting his womenfolk. “Where have you been?”
The joy flew from Roisin’s heart. “Out for a breath of air, Papa. I was not aware that time had gone on so.”
“When we have given thanks, you may proceed to tell us your news.”
The Grace piously offered, Roisin told them of the Vernons’ return.
“Goodness gracious!” exclaimed Mrs Harcup. All the girlish salt-and-pepper curls peeping from her mob-cap quaked. Life was prosaic: she rejoiced in a crisis. “That’s less than four weeks away!”
“And you will need all of that to repair the ravages of winter, my dear,” sympathised her spouse.
“You delight in taunting me, Mr Harcup,” said she, petulantly. “We cannot afford to make light of it. If Roisin were not such a silly Miss, she’d see the wisdom of giving Mr Vernon every assistance! Obstinate gel!”
“Perhaps he will transfer his affections to me, Mama,” suggested Sarah. There was no coquetry in either Ruth or Sarah, but both took delight in siding with their father to tease their more worldly parent. “I’m sure I should not be so heartless.”
“You were ever a considerate child,” observed her mother. “Roisin is not blessed with your sweet disposition, alas! It would be quite wonderful to see her mistress of Piers Hall and to know that she would be close to us, at least for part of the year.”
“Quite wonderful,” agreed Mr Harcup, “if you are not averse to large draughty rooms and a kitchen barely within posting distance of the dining-hall!”
“Pray, take no heed of your father, Roisin. With several thousand a year to line your pockets, you’ll not take a chill!”
“No, Mama.” It was useless to argue. Far better to let her mother’s mind run riot. It amused Mrs Harcup, this game of constructing her daughters’ destinies. For it must be a game.
“I wonder why the servants have been sent down so early,” mused Ruth. “A month in advance?”
Roisin decided that she had no appetite and was staring gloomily into a willow pattern world when she was jolted into a recollection of Anne Vernon’s postscript. “She forgot to post the letter. She did, Ruth. Anne forgot! It was written days ago, in April! They must mean to come down this month, not next. Suppose they have arrived!”
“Merciful heavens!” shrieked her Mama. “How shall we contrive? The larder is empty and cook’s ordered no birds this week. My wig needs crimping and the Van Dyck is in pawn! How could Mr Vernon do anything so ill-advised! Roisin, what are we going to do with you? To misinterpret such a thing! How you vex me! Your head is so full of fancies!”
Causes Rosy Cole Supports
World Vision, International Prison Outreach, Salvation Army, Emmaus Project, Poor Clares, DogsTrust, BUAV (against animal testing) WWT (Wildfowl &...