Miss Barbara Wright, a handsome, sensible lady of three and thirty, well-educated and well-disposed by gentle birth and natural good temper- if not by fortune- to be well liked by all who met her, had always counted herself happy in the life that she lived. For though a single woman at her time of life might be pitied as an old maid, Barbara had refused numerous offers of marriage, considering her position as governess in a kind, prosperous family of several daughters an agreeable enough occupation for her active mind, and much preferable to any match without love on her side, for she considered such a condition paramount in importance. When the last of her young charges married, however, she was obliged to seek a new position.
She found just such a satisfactory position in the household of a certain Dr. Foreman, of Totters Abbey, where she would undertake the education of his young granddaughter, Miss Susan Foreman.
She had been several months with the Foremans, & found her new position quite as congenial as her last. The young lady in question was an orphan, as far as Barbara could discover, and of an affectionate temper, and the two of them quickly came to regard each other with the affection of sisters, or even that of a mother and daughter. Such felicity as there was between them, however, had been slower in coming between the grandfather & herself.
He was reckoned a peculiar man by all in the county, and indeed Barbara found him so as well. He had arrived with his granddaughter seemingly out of the blue, and rented the great house of the impoverished Earl of Shoreditch on what were rumored to be very generous terms, and stayed there all the time, going out rarely, and receiving no one. No one could discover anything about their origins, no one knew what connections they had in the world, and the only thing Dr. Foreman or Miss Foreman would admit to anyone upon the subject was that they had been travelling, and very far abroad, for some years before settling at Totters Abbey.
Barbara had found him rather gruff and puzzling at first, but his gentle young granddaughter adored him unreservedly, as he did her, and the tenderness of their attachment convinced Barbara that she was perhaps only treated curtly by him on account of being unfamiliar to their family and disturbing to the routine of their accustomed solitary life. For young Miss Foreman shared none of her grandfather’s reclusive tendencies, and every day delighted in the opportunity to walk out with Miss Wright, and sometimes even to go into the village, and pay calls on her new neighbors.
Miss Foreman often entreated her grandfather to take part in wider society, or at least to let herself take part, but this always met with firm opposition, and when Barbara came out on the girl’s side, sharp recriminations to them both followed from the old gentleman (for a gentleman he surely was, though the hows and the whys be unknown.) Barbara eventually learned that the best way to remain in his good graces was to abstain from questioning and contradicting himself. Though she had questions still, most particularly those arising from the incongruous gaps in her pupil’s education- startlingly great knowledge in some subjects, total ignorance in others- she nonetheless observed the pain that her grandfather’s being put out of humor produced in young Susan. Therefore, Barbara let her questions rest unanswered, and Dr. Foreman’s peculiarities go unchallenged, in the name of the young lady’s comfort, and also in promotion of domestic felicity for all.
This scheme produced the desired effect, and soon she counted the three of them quite content with one another.
The old man’s recalcitrance, however, had made him an object of curiosity to all his neighbors, and the arrival of Miss Wright at Totters Abbey had caused quite a sensation in the neighboring village. Miss Wright and her strange employers were the subject of conversation so generally that even she herself heard of the gossip, and consequently, her naturally retiring nature found much relief in the arrival of a new, more exciting object of interest in the parish.
Mr. Ian Chesterton was the younger son of the local squire, and had been away for some years, residing now in London, after a brilliant career at Cambridge had led to his establishing himself as one of the brightest scientific minds in England. He had been rather the darling of all in his youth, being possessed of an attractive face, a pleasant, easy, unaffected manner, and the rare ability to put everyone at their ease with his generosity and high-spirits. Though his lack of fortune had made the mamas and papas of the local gentry guide their daughter’s affections toward his elder brother rather than himself, he was now, at the age of eight and thirty, a well-respected tutor and lecturer, and had a comfortable income from it. And, as he was still a bachelor, and still as handsome and pleasant as ever, his coming amongst them now was viewed in altogether a different light than it might have been in times past.
It was therefore but a pleasant surprise when Barbara & Susan called at the Vicarage, and found Mr. Chesterton already there, paying his respects. He smiled warmly at them both upon being introduced, and Barbara was quite conscious of his having the air of a true gentleman in his person & address. She, being of a naturally warm & generous temperament herself, answered with a smile in much in the same manner, and they all conversed most pleasantly for a quarter of an hour. Barbara observed to herself that he was quite as fair of face as had been hinted at, and even more pleasing as a conversationalist. He paid particular consideration to Susan’s speeches, which recommended him to Barbara as almost nothing else could have. Susan, through her lack of exposure to society, was often awkward in her manner, her thoughts tumbling out quickly and unexpectedly before she had time to consider how strange they might sound to others. Often people dismissed or were confused by her, but he listened attentively, even to her unusual notions, and gave them due consideration before replying honestly and simply.
“I believe you are a teacher by nature, Mr. Chesterton,” she observed to him approvingly. “Though I myself must by necessity have some employment, still I feel that to be a teacher is a calling, much like the church. I do not believe I should have found any success or happiness in it, had I not felt such a call myself.”
“Indeed Miss Wright, you and I think alike on this subject,” replied he, most delightedly. “I am certain the best teachers, who do the most good for their students, are they that have true compassion for others who wish to learn, and care for the subjects they impart. I am assured, by Miss Foreman’s regard for you, that you are just such a one.”
The Vicar & his wife sipped their tea demurely through this exchange, noting the lively, interested faces and glowing eyes of both parties with some interest. Susan noted it as well, but only insofar as she was much pleased with a charming, learned new acquaintance, and much gratified that he should pay a compliment to her beloved friend.
All too soon, however, Mr. Chesterton was obliged to take his leave. Before going, he most cordially extended an invitation from his brother to all of them, to dine with his family at Coalhill House. All were most pleased to accept. Mr. Chesterton declared himself delighted, and with one last smile at Miss Wright, went away as happy as any man had a right to be.
“What a pleasant fellow,” the Vicar observed after he had gone.
“Most pleasing, indeed,” Barbara concurred, watching his retreating figure through the window with a strange contentment settling upon her.
And so it was that Miss Wright & Miss Foreman became regular visitors to Coalhill House. Of course, the old Doctor himself had refused to attend any sort of functions there, but he did not forbid the ladies from going, and so they availed themselves of every invitation with great satisfaction. The elder Mr. Chesterton & his wife they had already been some little acquainted with, but they soon came to regard all the inhabitants of Coalhill House as most intimate friends. Mr. Ian Chesterton was always so kind & obliging, and never missed an opportunity to include the ladies of Totters Abbey in any party to be made there, knowing by now of Dr. Foreman’s peculiar & reclusive ways. This he endeavored to rectify for them with walking, riding, card parties, dinners, and even some lessons on scientific subjects, for which they often passed idyllic days in collecting specimens, or making experiments in the boat house on the lake in Coalhill Park. All these things amused Susan greatly, but after enough time, even young Susan could see that the object of his most devoted interest was in fact Barbara. Her comfort and safety was always his first concern, her opinion always the first he sought on any matter. To be near her was always the surest means of effecting his happiness, and Barbara was hardly insensible of this. Indeed, as they had spent more time together, & become more intimately acquainted, she found as much pleasure in his company as he did in hers. His mind was keen & active, and a fine match for hers. There was no subject upon which they could not converse stimulatingly, and his gallantry was not of the sort that did insult to a lady’s intelligence. Though she sometimes felt his solicitude was perhaps too great with regard to her, she did not find it distasteful, for she knew it was produced from true kindness and wish to be helpful to herself. He had always some cheerful word to make her smile, and his teasing was sure to produce laughter on even her most melancholy days. To be near him became her greatest pleasure, and soon she found that his presence had become indispensable to her happiness.
By the time of the great ball at Coalhill House, half the county knew of the attachment that was forming between them, and only the most blindly mercenary of ladies still supposed she had any chance of capturing Mr. Ian Chesterton. When he stood three dances with Miss Wright, the whole village was left in no doubt; their long looks and secret smiles foretold an impending engagement, if indeed one had not been secretly entered into already.
Only Susan knew that it had not; Mr. Chesterton’s brother & sister did not believe it when he had denied it, and no one else was intimately enough acquainted with either to be privy to such confidences. But the state of matrimony was so eminently desirable to both by now, that Mr. Chesterton could put it off no further. A fortnight after the ball, he made his offer to her, in the most proper manner, and with the most delicate of sentiments perfectly expressed. Her happiness at his proposal could scarcely have been greater, and the tenderness of her affection for him made her ready to accept with all her heart. And yet, though her heart was aglow with love, making her already great beauty an even more radiant thing, behind her shining eyes, her lover saw some hesitation, some question etching itself into the beautiful features that were so well known to him. Despite fearing what he might hear, he earnestly desired to know what troubled her, and questioned her as to the source of her recalcitrance.
“My love, you must forgive me,” she entreated, taking his arm, and holding it tightly in her grip. “I would not refuse you for the world; indeed, I have no more heartfelt wish in all the world than to be your wife.”
Though hearing such words from his beloved lady was a great relief and joy to him, still he could not mistake that they were not couched in terms of an unqualified acceptance.
“And yet?” he pressed on- “There is some other consideration that prevents your doing so?”
“Well, it does not prevent it, only, it makes me uneasy,” replied she. “Once we marry, I shall go away from here with you, which I should have no scruple in doing, but for leaving my young charge Susan so alone and friendless.”
“I had supposed it would be a grief to you to part, but surely she is not friendless, as her grandfather is her natural guardian, after all. Though reclusive himself, he has been willing to let her go abroad; I am sure he is not so unreasonable that he will not let her come to visit us, nor that we shall come back here rather sooner than later to see her.”
Barbara looked still troubled. “And I am very much afraid that he is. My love, you cannot know what he is like, what their life is, how peculiar their ways are! Did you not note the curious sort of education she must have had before we took her on?”
Mr. Chesterton’s brow furrowed as he thought on it. “Indeed, I had noted it, it is most pronounced. Never have I encountered anyone at fifteen years of age with her breadth of knowledge! Someone has clearly taught her physics, but also many odd notions along with it. She once went on about ‘four dimensions’- said that everybody knows ‘time’ to be the fourth dimension!”
“Just so!” Barbara agreed. “And she knows as much of history, geography & mathematics, as she does of physics, yet she did not know how to use money the first time I went to the draper’s with her! Imagine, at her age, not to know the difference between a shilling and a sixpence! Even supposing they are very rich, and she has not much dealt with tradesmen herself, for a young lady of fashion not to know the price of ribbons, or a new bonnet!”
“That is most peculiar,” he agreed gravely. “And yet, if she has lived abroad, it is not unreasonable that English currency might be unknown to her…”
“Yes, but neither she nor her grandfather will speak of their travels! Where have they been? Why must he hide himself away so? She is a sweet, loving child who will not disobey him, yet he has a temper, & I fear does not understand the harm he does to her by shutting themselves up so thoroughly at Totters Abbey. That they are the subject of gossip & speculation is as harmful to her future as any evil he can be trying to protect her from. It makes me uneasy to leave any young person in such a situation, not knowing what will become of her! I had refrained from questioning them further in order to maintain the peace in our situation, but I feel I cannot in good conscience leave her in such a situation, without discovering the truth behind it all, and satisfying myself that she will be safe & comfortable. And so, before I can accept your offer of marriage, my dearest one, I must go to her grandfather & speak plainly with him, to plead her case, so to speak.”
Though her eyes were entreating, her voice was firm and resolute. At this revelation however, Mr. Chesterton felt himself much relieved. If that be her only difficulty, he would be only too glad to do all in his power to clear it away for her. He smiled, bringing his face close to hers.
“Then we shall have to go and do so as soon as ever it is convenient, my dearest Barbara.”
A great sigh of relief escaped her lips at last. “I am glad of it! And I am most thankful that you say ‘we’; I shall feel infinitely easier about the whole business if you are by my side.”
“That is very well; for when it is done, I mean to stay by your side forever.”
At this, Barbara’s smile was as wide as his own, and she did not blush, nor protest, when he kissed her hand most fervently. After a moment or two of lingering looks and whispered endearments, her hand was released, and they set off on their journey to Totters Abbey, firm in their resolution to meet there with forbearance whatever circumstance they might encounter.
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