Ellen flicked a black curl from her forehead, but the irksome spiral just bounced back. Her irritation mounted, and she wished her mother’s maid had not thought to give the matron and her daughter the same curls.
“Ellen, try this.” Teresa, the eldest sister in the Bringhurst family, pulled a hairpin from beneath her bonnet and held it across the tea things to Ellen. “And for heaven’s sake, please tell Mrs. Rowlings to try something else with your hair. It isn’t as thick as Mama’s for all those curls to be practical.”
What flattered her sixty-year-old mother did not do Ellen any favors.
Teresa resumed weaving tiny stitches into the little cap she held and turned back to the conversation with their mother. “What of Dorothea, Mama? Have you any news from her?”
“Not this past week.” Mrs. Bringhurst leaned forward, prompting her two present daughters to do the same. “Though she hinted she would send for me soon.”
Teresa tsked and shook her head. “The first confinement is dreadful. She will be glad of your company before the baby arrives.”
“I miss Margaret today,” Ellen said. “It is a shame she did not feel well.” Margaret, born after Teresa and before Ellen, had announced her own impending increase and remained home from the weekly meeting of mother and daughters.
As the only sister unmarried and uninitiated in the ways of motherhood, Ellen had little else to say on the matter, for all she loved her nieces and nephews.
Although I likely know more than any woman without children ought to know about child rearing. Ellen bit the insides of her cheek to keep from smiling.
“The house will soon be full of grandchildren,” Mama said, her eyes aglow.
Ellen nodded, thinking of her nieces and nephews playing in the gardens the previous summer. “And the miracle of children is that each one brings more love with them. We are a fortunate family.” Sometimes when she thought such things, Ellen’s stomach felt oddly hollow, as though she was missing something important.
“We shall keep you busy, traveling from one house to another to look after grandchildren. However will you manage, Mama?” Teresa asked, her manner teasing.
“Quite well, I should think. Ellen is here to look after the house and there is not much else to keep me occupied.”
“There will be no trips to Bath this year,” Ellen added, more cheer in her tone than necessary. If they had gone to Bath again, the distance from mother to expectant daughters would be the work of several days’ journey. It had been the right decision, to stay at home.
And I have no desire to go and pretend a woman of nearly twenty-six years can compete in the marriage mart. Ellen kept that thought private but wondered if any of her family considered the same thing.
“Though I admit I will miss the society of a few friends, it will be much better to be nearby when you girls need me,” her mother added.
“I do worry that Dorothea is farther away,” said Teresa, her brows knitting in concern.
“Pashaw. She is five hours from here when I take the carriage, with the roads in good condition. That is but a morning’s work of it.” Mama adjusted the sewing in her lap, the white lace of a Christening gown trailing down her skirt. “And I will be with her for at least a week prior to her time.”
“I think it’s lovely we all managed to settle nearby.” Teresa looked as unruffled as ever, her hair done up in an elegant twist beneath her bonnet and her gown the color of fresh peaches. Motherhood suited her. “We are ever as much in each other’s company as we were before.”
“Indeed. I have not had to give up any of you.” Their mama looked happily between the sisters and both offered smiles in return. Ellen’s felt strained, but she blamed her unease to fatigue from reading late the night before.
Ellen cut her thread and held up the handkerchief she’d been working on. “There. Finished.”
“Lovely, dear,” her mother said. “Your sister will like that gift very much.”
Ellen relaxed under the praise and the conversation continued while she put her things away in the sewing box.
Looking to the window, Ellen took in the beautiful landscape, which remained familiar and soothing, wrapped in its golden shawl of autumn leaves.
But a tiny thought intruded upon her contentment. Though she loved the sight of the rolling hills framed by the oak trees of her father’s property, sometimes she longed to view a different horizon, one that belonged just to her.
Ellen shook herself from those thoughts and set about tidying the tea tray.
The very first time she held her eldest nephew, Teresa’s firstborn, she declared to the family that nothing in life was as precious as that little bundle. The proceeding infants were passed into her arms as well, and each she declared to be perfect and of infinite worth.
But she had always thought that someday there would be an infant of her own to hold and keep in her arms.
While twenty-six was not too old to wed and be a mother, she had given up on that hope. No man had ever caught her interest in that way. At least, no man she might actually have a chance with. The one man she had dreamed of, had dared to place in her imaginary world of husband and home, had never spent a single season in Bath.
Ellen swiftly closed the door on that thought.
The butler entered with a silver tray. “The afternoon post, madam.”
“Lovely.” Mama held her hand out to accept a letter. “Oh—it is in Dorothea’s hand.”
Teresa gasped and laid her things aside, attentive eyes on their mother. Ellen sat back on the sofa and folded her hands in her lap.
Mama read hastily, but silently.
Before they could ask what news the letter held, she stood and began waving the sheet of paper like a sailor’s signal flag. “I’ve delightful news. Your sister has sent for me at last.” Her excitement made her cheeks bright and she rushed from the room at a pace that was as near to a run as Ellen had ever seen her come.
Teresa grinned at Ellen, her joy for their youngest sister readily apparent.
“She must’ve gone to Father,” Ellen said.
“Go with her, Ellen. There may be more to the letter.” Teresa made a shooing motion with her hands. “And heaven knows I cannot run down the hall after her.”
Ellen recovered from her surprise and followed their mother. Down the steps to the ground floor, she made it to the hall in time to see Mama burst into the study. Ellen tried to follow at a more sedate pace.
“Stephen,” Mama said excitedly, her voice filling the room. “Dorothea has sent word. She has need of me. I must leave first thing in the morning.” She handed Papa the letter, which he read with more deliberateness than his wife had. “We may only lack a few weeks until our new grandchild comes.”
Reginald, the youngest of the family and the lone son, was sitting in a chair across from his father at the desk, watching with amusement. “Congratulations must be sent. What can I do to help you, Mama?” he asked solicitously.
Their father answered. “Send word to the stables. Your mother will want to leave early. Tell cook to prepare a hamper.”
Reginald stood and bowed to his parents before leaving the room.
“Isn’t this wonderful? My youngest daughter, a mother.” Mama clapped her hands, beaming at Papa. “What a glorious thing.”
“So it is, darling.” Papa stood and came around his desk to embrace her. As they parted, sharing a familiar tender look, Ellen felt her heart constrict. She took a step back, recognizing their moment as one private between husband and wife.
Ellen quietly left the room but stopped at the staircase and sank down on the bottom step. The silence of the empty hall gave her room to collect herself.
Ellen had given up on a marriage and family of her own after five seasons. When she had her come out at last, she was already older than most debutantes. Her mother had wanted to wait until Margaret married, but at last gave in and allowed Ellen out in society as well. Then, partway into Ellen’s season, the family was in raptures over Teresa’s first babe and left Bath in a hurry to meet the newborn.
As the seasons came and went, her elder sisters married, had babies, and her younger sister was brought out. And Ellen remained the sole Miss Bringhurst.
She shook her head, trying to dispel the thought. It made her feel gray more often than not, and she knew she ought to put those feelings aside and be content. She did not need to be morose just because she was a spinster.
That dreaded word had never crossed her lips. But at twenty-six years old, without prospects, Ellen accepted the designation society would bestow on her for the rest of her life.
Plenty of families had a spinster or two lying about. Ellen knew this. Spinsters were useful sorts, called upon to help their family members as the need arose. She could assist in nursing the ill members of a household, serve as chaperone to her nieces one day in the future, or provide companionship for a sister, whatever they required, for the rest of her days.
Her mother emerged from the library and Ellen rose. “Can I do anything to help, Mama?”
“Not at present,” her mother said cheerfully. “Teresa will be taking her leave soon. I must let her read the letter.”
Ellen nodded, but did not follow her mother back up the stairs. Instead she retired to the library adjoining her father’s study. This room was dearer to her than any other in the house, as it always felt warm and inviting. She liked the dark oak paneling and rich red curtains, finding they made her feel safe and warm, and she needed that comfort.
She returned to the volume of Sir Richard Harris’s study of Roman Civic Improvements and settled in her favorite chair. The fire in the hearth kept away the chill November air.
Ellen had made her way through a single page of the volume when the door to her father’s study opened. Her brother Reginald came striding out.
Reginald paused upon seeing her. “Ellen, what book is your nose stuck in today?” He spoke in a playful manner. “That tome is far too dangerous. It looks large enough to swallow you.”
She raised her eyebrows and gave him a wide-eyed stare. “Perhaps it will, and then you shall have to search its pages to find me again.”
“Not I,” he insisted with a laugh, resuming his walk to the shelves. “Father sent me for a ledger. We are studying the effects of the weather on crop production.”
“I was reading in an almanac that temperatures have been disturbingly cool of late.” She rose from her seat to locate the book her brother needed, several shelves away from where he’d been looking. “It is disturbing, by all accounts.”
Reginald made a sound of agreement, taking the thick ledger from her. “It cannot last forever.”
“But I also read of a Russian explorer who found evidence of crops completely frozen and preserved in an ice field. I wonder if—”
He cut off her remark with a chuckle, shaking his head at her. “Ellen, I’ve no use for Russian ice fields.” He gave her a pitying smile and went back to the study.
“Of course not,” she murmured as the door shut behind him. Never mind that she found the topic interesting. At nineteen, even Reginald knew his interests took precedence over hers.
Ellen picked up her book and left the library, deciding she would rather read in her room where she might be undisturbed.
She’d gone a few steps into the hall when the study door opened and her father stepped out.
“Ah, Ellen,” he said, catching sight of her. “A letter for you. It was mixed in with my post. After the uproar your sister’s note caused, I quite forgot about it.”
Ellen blinked at him in momentary confusion, then a burst of delight filled her as she took the folded paper from him and kissed his cheek. “Thank you, Father.”
She hurried to her room to read in private. She hardly ever received post, and this letter came from her favorite cousin’s wife, a friend in her own right, Lady Marianne Falkham.
Collin and I have been thinking a great deal about you of late. We have heard through the family that your home is busy with comings and goings as your sisters prepare to enlarge their nurseries. I cannot help but think it would do you a great deal of good to come visiting before winter sets in. Collin and I enjoy your company immensely and missed having you visit this summer. Please come visit for a fortnight?
Ellen read the rest of the note rapidly, her heart rising at this unexpected invitation. She left her room, looking for her mother and found her chambers. She was directing her maid in packing a trunk.
“Mama,” Ellen said, loudly enough to gain her mother’s attention. “I’ve had a letter.”
“Yes, dear?” Mama looked over her shoulder, her manner distracted. “What is it?”
“It is a letter from Marianne.”
“Lovely, darling.” Her mother pulled a dress from the wardrobe and held it out to her maid. “Rowlings, I think this would be better than the blue. We aren’t going to be hosting any dinner parties, after all.”
Ellen stood in the doorway a few moments more, but her mother did not turn around again.
She’s preoccupied. Leaving tomorrow, of course she’s going to be busy, Ellen told herself and went back downstairs.
She tapped gently on the door of Papa’s study before letting herself in. Reginald was examining the ledgers on the desk, but her father looked up when she entered.
“Ah, Ellen.” He held his hand out to her, inviting her in. “Has your post added to the happiness of the day?” He nodded to the letter in her grasp.
Ellen took her father’s hand, allowing him to draw her near. Though estate business and training his heir took much of his time, Papa gave her attention and her opinion greater voice than anyone else in the family.
“I do have a little news.” She held up the missive and he took it, raising his gray eyebrows. “Marianne invites me to stay with her and Collin in Hampshire.”
“Indeed.” Her father unfolded the letter and began to peruse it with narrowed eyes.
Ellen couldn’t contain her question, her earlier desire to travel returning with force. “May I go? Mother will be with Dorothea. I don’t think anyone here will miss my company.”
Papa nodded, looking up from the letter at last. “Send your reply. You may be on your way after the coach returns from taking your mother to Dorothea.”
Ellen gave her father a grateful hug. “Thank you, Papa. I will write at once.” She fairly skipped out of the room. At last, something special, meant for her. Wasting no time, Ellen went to her room to decide what she would take with her.
Cousin Collin and Marianne were dear friends to her. Marianne and Ellen grew up playing at the Falkham home, though a gap of three years separated them in age. Marianne’s family sent her there a few weeks every summer. Marianne, when she grew old enough, debuted in London and had set her cap for one man, her former playmate Collin.
Ellen had been happy for her friend when they married.
Marcus had come to the wedding too, looking more handsome than ever before.
Forbidding herself to dwell on that thought, Ellen pulled her travelling trunk from beneath her bed, noting its worn handles with a smile. She’d had the same piece of luggage since childhood and never thought on replacing it. It held too many lovely memories.
Being a girl meant Ellen was not always a desirable playmate for Collin, but she would do when he had no other children about. Most often his freckled, red-headed friend from school, Marcus Calvert, fulfilled the role as his companion.
Ellen came to regard them both with reverent awe, following them about and trying to take part in their games. When they were feeling generous, they would put her up into a tree or attic room and she could be a distressed Maid Marian or young Queen Elizabeth, needing a robber or a knight to save her. Thankfully, they let her take a book with her to pass the time until her rescue could be arranged.
Ellen went to her wardrobe. She looked from one side of the closet to the other, noting her prettiest dresses were from her last season in Bath, when her hopes of meeting a handsome man to wed finally faded to nothing.
None of the men she met matched the picture in her heart, where she carried an image of a gentleman with coppery curls and a charming grin.
But Marcus, the second son of an earl, spent every season in London. They never crossed paths socially. Only at the home of her cousin, for a month each summer, until the year she came out.
It would be good to see her cousin and his wife. Being among friends who cared for her would go a long way to lift the melancholy that had begun to creep into her heart.