Authors: With Eyes of Love
WITH EYES OF LOVE
“There is to be a grand gala on Tuesday evening in Sydney Gardens; a Concert, with illuminations and fireworks; to the latter Eliz. & I shall look forward with pleasure, & even the Concert will have more than its usual charm with me, as the gardens are large enough for me to get pretty well beyond the reach of its sound.”
—Jane Austen’s letter to her sister Cassandra,
2nd June, 1799
“But, Mama, Aunt Bettina loathes us all. She has made that quite clear for years.”
“I know, I know, my dearest. But this is an opportunity for you that we dare not decline. Imagine! Bath in its high Season! And Bettina promises to bring you out as if you were her very own daughter.”
“She has her very own daughter, Mama, I might remind you,” Elspeth said, gently, not wanting her words to sting, “and my cousin Caroline makes her mother seem the very soul of human kindness. Caroline will have nothing to do with poor relations like us, I assure you. She as much as told me at Papa’s funeral that we were an embarrassment to the rest of the family, and that they had come only out of a sense of duty and condescension.”
Elspeth’s mother’s usually smiling mouth thinned into a slit, and Elspeth instantly regretted her words. “I’ll admit the chit has no manners,” Mrs. Quinn, replied, “but she comes by that fault honestly. I’ll never understand why your father’s brother married such an ill-tempered woman.”
“I imagine Aunt Bettina’s rather magnificent marriage settlement played something of a role in helping him to reach that decision, Mama,” Elspeth said dryly. She held the nightcap she was mending up to the thinning light from the window. It wasn’t much use. In a moment the twilight would have faded past her ability to do close work. She settled her spectacles firmly upon the bridge of her nose and sent the needle flying again.
“Well, it certainly wasn’t her appearance,” Mrs. Quinn said with a little giggle, then, turning beet-red, she added quickly, “Oh, dear, I should never have said anything so unkind. I’m sure Bettina was a lovely girl in her day.” The effect of the gracious remark was rather spoiled when Elspeth let out a snort, and Mrs. Quinn’s eyes began watering at her inadequate effort not to laugh.
“I hope that when you are presented to society in Bath, my dear, you will make a better show of your good manners than you have ever learned from me,” Mrs. Quinn said at last, dabbing her eyes with her lace handkerchief—too-oft mended, Elspeth noted with a pang. Everything in the cottage was too-oft mended, she thought, looking around the snug room. Had it always looked so bedraggled, or was she seeing her home, now, through eyes saddened and grown more mature over these last, difficult six months? Heaven only knew the size of a marriage portion had not been a factor in Papa’s decision to marry the girl he loved beyond all things. The third son of a marginally situated family and the third daughter of a downright impecunious one, Louis and Margaret Quinn had carefully and cheerfully raised four daughters and a son in the small dwelling that had once been the steward’s lodge on a larger estate.
Papa’s death in a hunting accident nearly a year ago had been a devastating blow to children and wife alike. Mrs. Quinn was still a loving mother, but some of the light had died in her eyes, and Elspeth had lately overheard some awkward conversations with local tradesmen, who couldn’t, after all, be expected to carry the family’s outstanding debts forever.
Perhaps that was why her mother was so eager for Elspeth to accept the unlooked-for offer that had just arrived by post from the haughty and disdainful Aunt Bettina, herself widowed long since, when Uncle Harry had gone to his early grave, some whispering that he was happy to go.
“I suppose it would be a help to have me gone for a few months at that,” Elspeth said, adjusting her spectacles farther up on her nose again. Dratted things never stayed up, but she was bat-blind without them, at least for close work.
“Oh, never think that, my darling!” exclaimed Mrs. Quinn, patting her daughter’s hand. “I shall miss you most dreadfully—you know that. Why, I shall have the other four to care for all by myself and you know your sisters aren’t much help yet. Too dreamy to keep their minds on any task.”
They were a family of dreamers, Elspeth thought, carefully folding the still-unfinished nightcap and stowing it back in her mending basket. A family poor by financial accounts but wildly rich in imagination and good will. Not commodities, unfortunately, with which to settle debts with tradesmen.
“I don’t know what I’ll do with Harry, though,” her mother said, thoughtfully. She frowned over her embroidery and shook it out into the light. Weakness of vision seemed the very plague of this family, as least as far as its females were concerned. Nine-year-old Harry, though, took after Papa. Near or far, tiny and tinier, Harry could see everything down to infinitesimal detail. No spectacles for Harry. “The boy is such a handful,” she sighed, folding her embroidery in her lap. “You’re the only one he’ll listen to now that Papa’s gone.”
“That’s because I take no nonsense from him, Mama. You should show him a little less indulgence and a little more discipline.” It was an old argument, and one Elspeth never expected to win.
“Oh, but he looks so like your father did at his age, Elspeth, when I very first met him. Such an angel! Golden curls, beautiful brown eyes. When I looked at him that very first moment I knew right then we would marry. He was already the perfect gentleman.”
“That’s because he caught you falling out of a tree, Mama, and then didn’t run and tell on you,” replied Elspeth, laughing. She had heard the story a thousand times, and Papa grew handsomer and handsomer in the telling.
“And Harry’s an angel, too,” Mrs. Quinn finished with a decided pronouncement.
“A fallen one, I’m afraid, Mama,” Elspeth said, laughing. “Lucifer, Son of the Morning, that’s my little brother.”
“Oh, hush! Don’t say such a thing,” cried Mrs. Quinn, hurriedly looking over her shoulder as if Elspeth’s very words could conjure up the devil himself.
“Still, Mama, the similarity you find between Papa and Harry seems a wish born more of hopes than truth. I wonder...” Elspeth paused as an interesting idea took hold.
“Mmmm?” her mother asked absently. She had picked up a piece of paper and, dipping her pen in the small inkwell that stood on the table next to her, started to jot what appeared to be some numbers on it. It seemed she was always jotting numbers these days, thought Elspeth sadly, and one column always outweighed the other.
Elspeth made up her mind in that moment. “I’ll go to Aunt Bettina, if….”
“If?” her mother asked, looking up, hope in her eyes.
“I wish to take Harry with me. He needs to learn a little about society. More than I do, indeed.”
“Oh, dear me, I don’t think...Bettina is not likely to agree to take on the burden of Harry, too. You understand she wishes you to be companion to your cousin Caroline.”
“Probably because Caroline can keep no friends of her own,” Elspeth remarked dryly.
“That’s unkind, dear,” Mrs. Quinn remonstrated, the chastisement falling short because of the twinkle in her eye.
“Roderick is close in age to Harry, isn’t he?” Elspeth asked.
“Well, older by a bit, some eighteen months, as I recall.” Mrs. Quinn frowned with the effort to remember. “Yes, that’s right, because I remember Bettina suggesting to me that it was unseemly to be increasing at my age, and she a good half year older than I. The very idea!”
“Well, then offer us as a duo, two companions instead of one. If Roderick is anything like his sister, he could use a friend, too, I’m sure.”
“To tell the truth, my dear, I’m a little concerned as to what bad habits Harry might be put in the way of acquiring from his cousin,” Mrs. Quinn said, doubtfully. “I recall the boy was something of a trial to his father.”
“More so than our Harry? My, that’s rather difficult to imagine,” replied Elspeth, laughing. “Besides, I recall Roderick’s behavior involved just the usual ‘bad boy’ things.”
“He put a dead mouse in Cook’s boots,” Mrs. Quinn said with a sniff. “I had to bribe her to stay on, and me trying to bury your father with some feint at family dignity.”
“Well, yes, the mouse was unfortunate, Mama. Cook peers carefully into her boots before donning them to this day, now that you mention it.”
“As do I,” Mrs. Quinn said shuddering.
“Well, if Harry comes with me, I can keep an eye on him. And, who knows, Roderick might learn a thing or two about deviling sisters from our Harry.”
“I don’t know how I’d manage him without you here, at that, my dear.”
Good. The point was won. The more Elspeth considered the matter, the better she liked the idea of bringing Harry along. She didn’t care a fig for her own Season, quite a lot of nonsense
would amount to at her advanced age of twenty-three, but Harry—now here was an opportunity to bring him to the notice of some of his better-set-up relatives. When she thought on it, late in these long nights since Papa’s death, Elspeth was troubled for them all. There was not much money, nor much opportunity to acquire any. She had conceived a scheme long ago whereby the family could purchase Harry his colors, although the wherewithal had yet to manifest itself, even in her dreams.
“Good, that’s settled then,” Elspeth announced. “I’ll go, and take Harry with me.”
“Not so fast, miss,” cried her mother, holding up her hand. “There is the matter of convincing your Aunt Bettina that she truly wants another mouth to feed. She’s a stubborn woman, as you know,” she finished with a shudder of distaste.
“You leave Aunt Bettina to me, Mama. I shall pen a reply that will have her all but begging for the pleasure of our little angel’s company.”
“Oh, dear. You won’t...ah...misrepresent him, will you, dear? I shouldn’t want any unpleasantness, after all. We would eventually be caught at it, you know,” she finished timidly.
“Why, Mama, you said yourself Harry is a perfect angel. How ever could I misrepresent him?”
Caught in a trap of her own making, Mrs. Quinn satisfied herself with a harrumph and betook herself to the kitchen to check on Cook’s progress with supper.
* * * *
“ ‘And I am sure Roderick would enjoy having his younger cousin to tutor in the finer arts of becoming a gentleman—a clean slate upon which your dear boy can make such a good and profound impression.’ Nicely put, at that, isn’t it, Caroline? You might do well to emulate your cousin Elspeth’s pretty style. And, indeed, we would be showing such condescension in having both these misbegotten poor relatives for an educational visit. I cannot think why Harry’s brother would have married such a negligible woman. Poor as church mice, her family was. No real refinement at all. A most unsatisfactory union in my humble opinion, as we can all now appreciate, although certainly no one would listen to me at the time.”
“Mama,” Caroline put in, exasperated. “You cannot be thinking of saddling me with another brat to contend with. Roderick is trial enough to me, as you well know. Why, yesterday, he switched my rouge pot with the kohl, and I was quite unpresentable for the better pan of an hour. Nellie half scrubbed my face off. I gave her quite a dressing down for being too rough.”
“You shouldn’t use so much paint, darling. It suggests you are trying to hide your age.”
“I am trying to hide my age, Mama.”
“Nevertheless, it’s no good being obvious about it. One of the biddies commented on it the other day. Sly old witch thought she could disguise her remark as a general witticism, but I know an insult when I hear it. Veiled or not.”
“What did she say?” Caroline asked, sulkily. She stood glancing out of a small gap where the heavy silk draperies did not quite close. Today was her ‘at home.’ Was no one going to call, her mother wondered?
“Oh, just some
about how one could compare a girl with the rings of a tree, telling the number of years she had been in the marriage mart by counting the layers of paint on her face.”
“Which one of the old harridans said that?” Caroline asked, turning, her face suffused with anger.
“That Mrs. Peterson. Too loud. A bit vulgar. Pay her no mind, dear.”
“That Mrs. Peterson has three daughters, one of whom has been out longer than I,” Caroline said, stalking toward the center of the room. “And a positive Antidote she is. The woman has her nerve criticizing me.”
“Well, perhaps she was speaking of her own daughter at that, Caroline. Now that I think of it, there was a young woman with her who blushed mightily at the comment. Nevertheless,” Bettina went on hurriedly, anxious to get back to the subject at hand, “give the matter of your cousins some thought. After all, with his little cousin here, Roderick will have someone upon whom to focus his energies besides you and me. To spare us his pranks for now.”
“It’s my fourth Season, remember,” Caroline warned darkly. “Any more after this and I’ll be branded a wallflower forever. Oh, how I wish Lord Rokeby had come up to scratch last Season. I was almost certain of having secured his affections, and then, for no reason that I could see, he simply left town. Made quite the laughingstock of me, I vow.”