While Lancashire has never been renowned for its lively or fashionable society, its southernmost parish might make the rest of the county seem quite cosmopolitan by comparison, having no landmarks of any interest or historical or scenic merit, and boasting only a single inhabitant of any consequence, and she a recluse who rarely ventured beyond her own walls. Unaware that congeniality is the true measure of superior character, Lady Forrester preferred to mix only with those whom she considered her equals, of which there were none in the environs. When she ventured from her large estate it was generally to visit some place of far greater import—most notably Bath, York, or London—and invariably by a route that did not take her through the village of Easterfield.
Her ladyship had kept up this style of living for many years and was thus of little interest to any but the most determined of gossips and newsmongers. She lived alone but for an elderly cousin, a slight woman of pinched and haughty features whose huge beribboned bonnets entirely masked her grey hair and much of her face besides. Miss Chester, as this relative was named, was rather more frequently to be seen in their small market square and was therefore the means by which the residents of Easterfield enquired after Lady Forrester’s health. In these more hurried times, however, it seemed that only a resolute few had little enough alternative diversion to trouble to ask whether her ladyship planned to go to town this season, or whether she might be making alterations to the Hall, or whether she had received any visitors of late.
Mrs. Waters was a fine woman of good birth, sound education, and even features, although her hair was as likely as not to be wayward and unruly, and her tongue had a similar propensity. She was also, it must be said, of great earnestness and compassion, and so it is entirely to be expected that she was one of these most concerned of neighbours. Living in close proximity to Easterfield Hall, for Westleigh House bordered its extensive lands, Mrs. Waters felt herself entirely justified in waylaying Miss Chester at each opportunity in order to acquaint herself with every part of Lady Forrester’s business. It can come as little surprise also to learn that it was she who first acquired the information regarding what was possibly the most interesting event in Easterfield’s history, one spring Thursday during the early afternoon outside the haberdasher’s.
As soon as was polite, Mrs. Waters took her leave of Miss Chester and, arms aloft, hurried into that same shop, where she found her daughters and niece examining fabrics and ribbons and discussing ideas for their new dresses.
“Well, now, Catherine, Lillian, Sophia, what do you think!” She paused to catch her breath, emphatically slapping a hand to her chest.
“I cannot think anything, Mama,” replied Catherine when the dramatic pause had extended longer than she considered necessary, “since you have not yet told us what excites you so.” She continued to finger the thin fabric, her thoughts still on summer styles, so used was she to her mother’s frequently misplaced exuberance.
Mrs. Waters continued in the same lively tone. “A visitor is come to Easterfield Hall!”
This was news indeed, Catherine conceded, since she had never known it happen before.
“What visitor?” Lillian asked, intrigued.
“Oh, that Miss Chester! She vexes me so, knowing how keen we all are here to learn who is visiting our little village, and yet telling me nothing more than—” here her voice dropped to a whisper lest the haberdasher overhear the intelligence she claimed as her own at present “—that it is a man, a relative of theirs, who will stay only one week.”
“Then it can be of little interest to us,” Catherine said. “We are never likely to meet him. The park is large enough that he may take all the exercise he wishes without ever leaving the grounds.”
“May we not call on them, Aunt Waters?” Sophia’s eyes sparkled at imagining such fun. “I should love to see Easterfield Hall! I should strut around and imagine myself mistress of it.”
“You know very well Lady Forrester will not receive us,” snorted Mrs. Waters in reply. “She is most impolite in such matters. She considers herself above us all. It is very rude of her, in my opinion.” She was careful, in saying this, to look out through the window as though ensuring that her ladyship was not within earshot. Catherine smiled. Were she really to see Lady Forrester standing in the market square, then this day would be remembered forever as the setting for two remarkable events: the arrival of a visitor at Easterfield Hall and the observance of its mistress in the village.
“Anyway, that is enough choosing. You must have your new gowns as soon as may be. It just would not do to meet Lady Forrester’s relation in old clothes.”
“But even were we to meet him, he would never know they were old, Mama.” Catherine protested, but Mrs. Waters had waved over the eavesdropping haberdasher, indicated that they would take this, this, and this, and asked that their choices be delivered to Westleigh as soon as might be possible, accompanied by his most able seamstress. She accepted his bow and departed immediately, calling her bemused daughters and niece after her.
Catherine Waters found herself vexed greatly by her mother on occasion, her apparent inquisitiveness, foolishness, and frequent impertinence seeming at odds with the high value she placed on her own family’s privacy and the care she took to protect her daughters from the more undesirable aspects of society. Mrs. Waters had been born into a good family, married into a better one, and earned much praise and respect wherever she went for her spirited conversation and elegant figure, and for the pains she took to instill good manners and an excellent education into her daughters, Catherine and Lillian. The change in her had come when her husband died suddenly of a fever four years ago. Mrs. Waters had taken to her bed in grief for almost two months and refused to be comforted. When she emerged, it was as though the better part of herself had been buried with her husband. She now lived only for her children and what fleeting pleasure might be obtained from other people’s scandal and gossip, as though their lives afforded her more pleasure than her own. In living for trivial things, it seemed, the harsher realities of the times might be chased from her thoughts.
It had been Catherine’s idea to invite Mr. Markham, her mother’s brother, to stay with them at Westleigh. Mrs. Markham had died shortly after the birth of her only child, Sophia, who was just a little younger than Catherine and older than Lillian, and Mr. Markham had never seen fit to remarry. The arrival of her brother had restored Mrs. Waters for a time, and it had comforted her to know that he was taking care of the household while she herself was too weak and despairing to do so.
Sophia’s presence had also encouraged her grieving cousins, for she was lively and exuberant and thought it nothing to be deprived of the love of one parent, having been without her own mother since her arrival in the world. Although not sixteen when she had arrived at Westleigh, her figure was elegant and her face as pretty as any ever seen in Easterfield, framed by hair that seemed naturally to fall in lively auburn ringlets about it. She was inquisitive and fearless, gregarious and gracious in her addresses, which had led to the considerable extension of their social circle and more than compensated for Catherine’s reserve and Lillian’s timidity, and the sisters considered their position much improved by Sophia’s company.
They had not walked far towards home before Mrs. Wiseman, an acquaintance of theirs and a woman at least as earnest in her pursuit of diverting gossip and scandal as Mrs. Waters, was discovered to be running after them, her face flushed as much with excitement as with the exertion. “Oh, Mrs. Waters! Miss Waters, Miss Lillian, Miss Markham, you must come at once! You cannot imagine what is to be seen!”
“Then you must tell us,” Catherine put in impatiently, wondering if the second miracle was indeed occurring and Lady Forrester herself was walking in Easterfield’s square.
“Oh, no, I shall not tell you. It is too strange! You must see for yourselves or you will never believe me, I am sure. Come, come, this way.”
Mrs. Waters’ countenance bore an expression that suggested that she found this new distraction exceedingly tiresome, for scandal and excitement loses much of its attraction when one is not the master of it. But Sophia insisted that however dull Mrs. Wiseman’s entertainment might prove to be, a return to the market square would not be in vain, for they had forgotten to visit the milliner’s to discover what bonnets might best set off their new dresses. At this information, Mrs. Waters bade them all follow Mrs. Wiseman to learn what strange sight might be seen in their sleepy little village.