Ever since the announcement of Tilly’s visit, Miranda had noticed a change in her mother. Her inquisitive eyes gleamed brighter, she stood taller, and her manner grew even more affected than usual. As the day of arrival drew nearer, Penny’s attention was diverted to the state of Woolford itself. The opportunity to showcase her source of pride and joy had injected new purpose into her life, and the household became a flurry of activity under her direction. Yes, only the finest china must be used when Miss Ruteledge arrives. No, the ball must be held in the Assembly Rooms. Yes, please make sure the gilt candelabras are on display. While Miranda felt this was all very unnecessary, it was a welcome respite to have Penny preoccupied with other matters.
She relayed all this to her closest friend Stephanie Sutton during an afternoon stroll. The gardens of Woolford Park were a respectable size, and Miranda enjoyed the freedom of the expanse, away from prying eyes and sensitive ears.
Their meetings of late had diminished in light of Miss Sutton’s engagement to Mr Norman Jones, and she had been dearly missed. The match had been a surprise to almost everyone in the village, for Mr Jones was seen as a dim-witted eccentric with an excessive number of cats. On closer examination however, his faults were tempered by his devotion and sweet nature. Stevie had even grown fond of his cats, and she had become particularly attached to the runt of a litter, a tabby kitten named Heather.
While the engagement of a young lady inevitably displaces her from her social circle, Miranda’s resentment at the loss of Stevie was somewhat soothed by the happiness of her friend.
“Oh Stevie, I’ve missed you so. I’ve been unable to speak so freely for weeks,” she lamented.
“It won't always be like this,” consoled Stevie, “Besides, you’ll have Miss Ruteledge to keep you company soon.”
“Don't remind me! She’ll be here this time next week.” Miranda had not seen Tilly since they were children, and their subsequent communications had been limited to superficial letters, written only during the obligatory occasions.
“Aren't you pleased?”
“I cannot say. Mamma’s reverence for her suggests she will be unbearable, yet I do not wish to judge her too harshly, for heaven knows what she must think of us. Fancy choosing to spend the whole summer in this village! The poor girl will be bored senseless after a week.” She plucked a bluebell from the side of the path and began rolling the stem between her fingers. “But perhaps she’ll distract mother from trying to find me a husband.”
“Well she’ll need to be quite the handful, because nothing short of the Spanish Inquisition would distract your mother.”
They burst into laughter. This was not as aggrandising as it sounded, for the usual order of affairs at Woolford went something like this: Penny would hear of an aristocratic bachelor in town and arrange for Miranda to be introduced to him. These suitors were sought after only for their title, which Miranda concluded was inversely proportional to their agreeableness. As she abhorred the artificial nature of these affairs, her attitude was rendered so hostile that any resulting connexion ranged from indifference at best to abhorrence at worst. Mother and daughter would quarrel, Mr Hartford would play peacemaker, nothing would be learned, and the whole sorry business would be doomed to repeat itself again once this latest gent was forgotten.
“Let us speak no more on the subject,” Miranda declared. “How is Miss Heather?”
“On the mend. I consulted Mrs Beeton’s handbook, which advised regular feedings of milk fortified with egg yolks. I dare say she’s very lively now.”
They reached the end of the path, which faced the empty cottage next door. Miranda had just turned to head back when they were startled by a squat gentleman bursting out the front door. “What-ho ladies!” bellowed Charlie Cumberland. “Deepest apologies for giving you a fright. Long time no see Miss Sutton, or should I say, Mrs Jones. I expect you’ll be next Miranda, eh?” He said with a grin.
“Certainly not,” Miranda said coldly.
“So she says,” Stevie added with a smirk.
Charlie was an old associate of Mr Hartford and was as loyal as he was irritating. Over the years he’d become well acquainted with the family, so much so that he was entrusted to play chaperone to Miranda and Stevie on occasion. Unusually, he was a bachelor of good breeding that Penny did not pursue for her daughter. Apparently, their disparity in height was deemed an unacceptable spectacle. She did draw the line somewhere, it seemed.
“What on earth were you doing in there?” Miranda asked.
“Checking on the interiors for your father. A lady has expressed interest in the cottage.”
“Goodness, after all this time?” Miranda pondered. “No one has lived there for years.” Details of the previous owner were scarce. All she knew was that they had passed before she could remember - at the time, a temporary agreement had placed the property in the Hartfords’ care. That arrangement had lasted for most of her life.
“Indeed,” he said, pulling out a slip of paper from his breast pocket. “A Miss R. Parker,” he read.
“How curious,” Miranda murmured to herself.
“Well! Perhaps the village is not so tiresome after all,” Stevie remarked.