Deirdre and Desire:The Six Sisters 03

By: Marion Chesney & M.C. Beaton


ONE



It had been a day of heavy rain, but towards sunset the clouds had broken, and an angry, yellow, glaring light bathed the village of Hopeworth and the surrounding sodden fields.

Little choppy golden ripples danced angrily across the village pond. The sun blazed through two huge purple-and-black ragged clouds, and the rising wind sent a shower of wet brown leaves dancing over the cottage roofs.

It was the sort of sunset which presaged a high wind; yellow sunsets always meant a wild night to come.

Squire Radford huddled his thin, old shoulders further into his greatcoat, feeling the heavy material beginning to flap against his spindly legs.

As he hurried in the direction of his cottage ornée, he cursed himself for having been stupid enough to accept Sir Edwin Armitage’s invitation to take tea at the Hall.

Sir Edwin’s haughty wife had been glacially aloof, as usual, and her plain daughters, Josephine and Emily, still unmarried, had giggled and pouted in turns in a most irritating manner.

The squire’s thoughts turned from Sir Edwin to Sir Edwin’s brother, the Reverend Charles Armitage, vicar of St Charles and St Jude in the parish of Hopeworth. For although the vicar was a close friend of the squire and usually came to call most evenings, Squire Radford found himself hoping for the first time that the ebullient fox-hunting vicar would decide to stay in the comfort of his own home.

It was a sad and lonely feeling to see a dear friend so monstrous changed in character. The vicar had become so puffed up, so swollen in pride, that he seemed another man altogether.

The rot had set in, mused the squire, wincing as the first blast of windy rain tugged at his old-fashioned three-cornered hat, with the marriage of the vicar’s second eldest daughter, Annabelle.

His eldest, Minerva, had done very well for herself by marrying Lord Sylvester Comfrey, but the vicar had accepted that piece of good fortune with a comfortable sort of gratitude. Then Annabelle had become wed to the Marquess of Brabington and the vicar had accepted that piece of good luck with a comfortable sort of gratitude as well. But after Annabelle’s marriage when she had gone off with her husband to the Peninsular Wars, the vicar had found his social standing much elevated by virtue of the aristocracy of his new in-laws. He began to spend as much time in Town as he could out of the fox-hunting Season, returning to the country only to plunge into more wild farming experiments, and more expensive purchases of hounds.

He was now the proud possessor of twenty couple of hounds, a ridiculous quantity for a country parson. Two years had passed since Annabelle’s wedding; Lord Sylvester’s steward, who had done much to put the Armitage farming land in good heart, was now back managing his master’s estates; and once more the vicar was faced with ruin.

He had been faced with ruin before, but never before had Charles Armitage ignored the fact so blatantly.

And he still had four daughters unwed, and two sons at Eton whose future was a weighty matter.

Two whole years had passed since Annabelle wed the Marquess of Brabington. How old were they all now?

The squire pushed open the tall iron gates leading to his cottage and murmured names and ages over to himself.

‘Let me see, the twins, Peregrine and James, will be twelve. Minerva will now be twenty-one! Dear me. How quickly the time flies. Annabelle will therefore be nineteen which will mean Deirdre is just eighteen, Daphne is sixteen, Diana, fifteen, and little Frederica, fourteen.’

The squire’s soft-footed Indian servant opened the door and relieved his master of his coat.

‘Thank you, Ram,’ said the squire. ‘I am chilled to the bone. Bring some brandy to the library and if anyone calls – anyone – I am not at home.’

Even when the squire felt mellowed by his slippered feet on the hearth, the curtains drawn tightly against the rising storm, and the flames from a blazing coal fire sending golden flames dancing in his brandy glass, he was relieved to be alone.

He had had his cottage ornée built some twelve years before to replace the old insanitary Tudor hall which had served his earlier years. He had wanted something simple, and considered his fifteen charming rooms hung with French wallpaper and filled with fine furniture, paintings and china sufficient for his needs. His wife and his daughter had both died a long time ago. The ceiling was low and raftered and the gold lettering of the calfbound books which lined the library walls winked cheerfully in the soft glow from the oil lamps.

As an angry burst of rain struck the windows the squire smiled contentedly and snuggled deeper in his armchair, sipped his brandy, and opened a book.

Then, as the wind slackened slightly, he heard the clip-clop of a horse’s hooves coming up his short drive.

The vicar.

He crouched a little further down in his chair, listening guiltily to the sounds of the vicar’s arrival, the hammering on the door, the soft murmur of his servant’s voice.

Then the closing of the door and no sound other than the howl of the rising wind.

The noise of the wind must have covered the sounds of the rejected vicar’s retreat.

Suddenly, Squire Radford got to his feet and walked to the library window nearest his chair and pulled aside the curtains.