Badleigh Vicarage, Wednesday, 8th October 1806
My dear Eliza,
I promised yesterday that just as soon as I had leisure for writing I should send you a full and satisfactory account of Penelope Lambe's accident at Madderstone Abbey; and so I shall begin upon it. Though I fear I may have to leave off at any moment, for there is a great deal of needlework to be done for the little boys at school and Margaret has already opened her workbox and begun to look at me with displeasure.
In yesterday's note I was kind enough to hint at some very peculiar circumstances surrounding Penelope's fall and I do not doubt that since receiving it you have enjoyed all the apprehensions and heightened imaginings which such hints can supply. And I trust my account will not disappoint you, for it was a very strange business indeed - one which I cannot, yet, understand at all.
The first thing you must know is that it all came about because of the ghost - I mean, of course, the Grey Nun of Madderstone.
And, by the by, it occurs to me ...
'Well, Dido,' said Mrs Margaret Kent heavily, 'I daresay that when I was unmarried I had leisure for writing long letters.' She regarded her sister-in-law with the tragic aspectof a saint bound for the pagan arena in Rome. 'I declare it is more than a fortnight since I touched my writing desk.'
'Yes,' said the unrepentant Dido without ceasing to move her pen. 'It is quite one of the evils of matrimony, is it not?'
... it occurs to me, Eliza, that the Grey Nun is a remarkably important lady. The possession of a family ghost confers such dignity! I believe that every family which has any claim at all to grandeur should have a ghost. I consider it a kind of necessary which should be attended to as soon as the fortune is made and the country estate purchased.
Everyone's consequence is increased by the presence of a ghost.
For here are the two Crockford sisters, who are no more than some kind of third cousins to the Harman-Footes of Madderstone, but they must walk their visitor, Penelope, two miles across the fields to see the Grey Nun. Well, not perhaps quite her, for she cannot of course be relied upon to be always at home to morning callers - but at least the ruins in which she is reputed to appear.
I said to Penelope, when I was invited to accompany them, 'It is not enough, you know, that we should entertain you with parties and visits while you are here in Badleigh. We cannot send you back to your school in Bath without first chilling your blood and supplying you with nightmares to last a twelvemonth.'
And she, I discovered, was very grateful for the attention. For she had 'never set foot in a real abbey before' and she did 'most sincerely hope that it was very dreadful and just exactly like what one read about in books ...'
Well, she is a sweet-tempered, good-natured girl and sovery pretty that I always find great pleasure in looking at her - but I do not believe that she has more than common sense. However, since she is now lying abed with an injured head, I ought not to speak ill of her, and I confess that her eager naivety suits my taste a great deal better than Lucy Crockford's studied sensibility.
All the while that we were walking to Madderstone ...
'It is a great pity,' said Margaret loudly, 'that Eliza is not here. She is a very fine needlewoman.'
'It is extremely kind of you to say so, Margaret. I shall be sure to pass on the compliment.'
'And so very obliging. Why, last spring, she sewed three shirts for little Frank in as many days.'
'Did she indeed? How remarkable!' Dido resolutely continued with her letter, but a glance across the green baize of the parlour table had shown colour mounting in Margaret's broad cheeks, her narrow mouth tightening. If there was not to be a state of warfare in the house, she must soon lay her pen aside. As she bent her head further over her page she rather fancied that she felt, prickling through her cap, not only the heat of autumn sunshine magnified by the window, but also a disapproving gaze.
And yet she could not help but try for a few lines more:
All the while that we were walking to Madderstone, Lucy was talking in her slowest, most languishing tones of the 'extraordinary atmosphere of melancholy which haunts the ruins.' An atmosphere to which she is herself 'most extraordinarily sensitive.' For 'no one - no one in the world - feels these things more acutely' than she does. And there have been times when she has been 'almost overwhelmed bythe extraordinary atmosphere of the ruins ...'
So those two continued to talk of ghosts, with only an occasional digression in praise of Captain Laurence - who, I suppose, must be considered a secondary motive for our visit to Madderstone Abbey.
And, by the by, I cannot help but wonder that Lucy and Penelope should contrive to be both in love with the captain without any cooling of affection between themselves. Nor can I quite determine whether it argues most for the sweetness of their natures, the weakness of their understanding - or only the insignificance of their attachment to the gentleman.
The sunny silence of the room was broken by Margaret's searching noisily in the workbasket for a spool of thread. Dido began to write faster:
Harriet Crockford, I noticed, scowled darkly whenever her sister talked of the captain; I do not think she has a very high opinion of him. But I could not prevail upon her to discuss this interesting topic. And, while nuns and the navy were canvassed by the other two, Harriet and I were much less pleasantly engaged. It was roof leads and damp in the kitchen passage all the way with us.
Harriet informs me that there is a hole in the roof at Ashfield which is a yard and three-quarters long and twenty-seven inches broad. It would, I am further informed, 'break Dear Papa's heart' if he could see the hole in Ashfield's roof. And, if my memory were only a little better, I could relate to you the exact cost of the tiles and lead which will be required to repair it.
Poor Harriet: there are times when she goes beyond being sensible and is downright dull. And it is very disconcertingthat a woman who is more than two years my junior can seem so very old. I find myself wishing that she would not wear such a dowdy bonnet, nor such a large and unbecoming cap beneath it; and I begin to despair of her ever having an original thought - I believe she only lives to reflect the ideas of dear dead Papa ...
But now I am getting quite off the point. It is such a very great pleasure and relief to 'talk' to you, Eliza, that I cannot stop my pen from running away with me.
I must return to that woman of consequence: the Grey Nun. For it would seem that yesterday she was indeed at home to callers! Or so Lucy believes.
There was another, louder, sigh from the other side of the table.
'Well, well, I suppose you have nothing else to occupy your time,' said Margaret, 'but I confess that it makes me quite envious to see you writing away all day.' There followed some vigorous stabbing at a shirtsleeve. 'The truth is,' she continued, 'that when your cottage was given up and it was proposed that you should come to live with us, I told your brother: "Francis, my dear," I said, "I am sure I shall do all that I can for your poor sisters, but I do not know how I shall manage - with all the business I have to attend to - I do not know how I shall manage with having a visitor constantly in my house."'
It was too much. Reminded of her dependence, Dido bit her lip, set aside her pen - and reached for the workbasket.
A WOMAN OF CONSEQUENCE. Copyright © 2010 by Anna Dean. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.