Netley Cottage, Biddington, Dorsetshire, 1818
You're not going to marry me?" Miss Talbot repeated, disbelievingly.
"Afraid not," Mr. Charles Linfield replied, his expression set in a kind of bracingly apologetic grimace-the sort one might wear when confessing you could no longer attend a friend's birthday party, rather than ending a two-year engagement.
Kitty stared at him, uncomprehending. Katherine Talbot-Kitty to her family and closest acquaintances-was not much used to incomprehension. In fact, she was well known among her family and Biddington at large for her quick mind and talent for practical problem-solving. Yet in this moment, Kitty felt quite at a loss. She and Charles were to be married. She had known it for years-and it was now not to be? What should one say, what should one feel, in the face of such news? Everything was changed. And yet Charles still looked the same, dressed in clothes she had seen him in a thousand times before, with that disheveled style only the wealthy could get away with: an intricately embroidered waistcoat that was badly misbuttoned, a garishly bright cravat that had been mangled rather than tied. He ought at least, Kitty thought, staring at that awful cravat with a rising sense of indignation, to have dressed for the occasion.
Some of this ire must have seeped through to her expression, because all at once Charles swapped his maddening air of apologetic condescension for that of a sulky schoolboy.
"Oh, you needn't look at me like that," he snapped. "It isn't as if we were ever officially promised to one another."
"Officially promised to one another?" Kitty's spirit returned to her in full force, and she discovered, in fact, that she felt quite furious. The irredeemable cad. "We've been speaking of marriage for the past two years. We were only delayed this long because of my mother's death and my father's sickness! You promised me-you promised me so many things."
"Just the talk of children," he protested, before adding mulishly, "and besides, it isn't as if I could call things off when your father was on death's door. Wouldn't have been at all the thing."
"Oh, and I suppose now that he's dead-not a month in the ground-you could finally jilt me?" she said wrathfully. "Is that really so much more 'the thing'?"
He ran a hand through his hair, his eyes flicking to the door.
"Listen, there's no point us discussing it when you're like this," he affected the tone of a severely tried man holding onto his patience. "Perhaps I should go."
"Go? You can't possibly drop news such as this, and not explain yourself. I saw you just last week and we were discussing marrying in May-not three months away."
"Perhaps I should have just written a letter," he said to himself, still staring longingly at the door. "Mary said this was the best way to do it, but I think a letter would have been simpler. I can't think properly with you shrieking at me."
Kitty cast aside her many irritations and, with the instincts of a true hunter, fixed only on the salient information.
"Mary?" she said sharply. "Mary Spencer? What, exactly, does Miss Spencer have to do with this? I had not realized she had returned to Biddington."
"Ah, yes, yes, well, she is, that is," Mr. Linfield stammered, beads of sweat appearing on his brow. "My mother invited her to stay with us, for a time. It being so good for my sisters to make other female acquaintances."
"And you spoke to Miss Spencer about bringing our engagement to an end?"
"Ah, yes, well, she was so sympathetic to the situation-to both our situations-and I must say it was good to be able . . . to speak to someone about it."
Silence, for a moment. And then, almost casually, "Mr. Linfield, do you mean to propose to Miss Spencer?"
"No! Well, that is to say-we already . . . So, I thought best to-to come here . . ."
"I see," Kitty said-and she did. "Well, I suppose I must commend you upon your confidence, Mr. Linfield. It is quite the feat to propose to one woman whilst already being engaged to another. Bravo, indeed."
"This is exactly what you always do!" Mr. Linfield complained, mustering some courage at last. "You twist everything around until one doesn't know which way is up. Have you thought perhaps that I wanted to spare your feelings? That I didn't want to have to tell you the truth-that if I want to make a career for myself in politics, I can hardly do it married to someone like you."
His derisive tone shocked her. "And what exactly is that supposed to mean?" she demanded.
He spread his arms, as if inviting her to look around. Kitty did not. She knew what she would see, for she had stood in this room every day of her life: the worn chaises huddled by the fireplace for warmth, the once elegant rug on the hearth now moth-eaten and shabby, shelves where there had once been books now standing empty.
"We may live in the same town, but we're from different worlds." He waved his hands about again. "I'm the son of the squire! And Mama and Miss Spencer helped me to see that I cannot afford to make a mŽsalliance if I am to make a name for myself."
Kitty had never been so aware of the sound of her heartbeat, pounding a drum loudly in her ears. A mŽsalliance, was she?
"Mr. Linfield," she said, softly but with bite. "Let there be no lies between us. You had no issue with our engagement until you encountered the pretty Miss Spencer again. A squire's son, you say! This is not the sort of ungentlemanly conduct I would have expected your family to condone. Perhaps I ought to be pleased that you have proven yourself to be so utterly dishonorable before it was too late."
She landed each blow with the precision and force of Gentleman Jackson, and Charles-Mr. Linfield forever, now-staggered backward from her.
"How could you say such a thing?" he asked, aghast. "It is not ungentlemanly. You're becoming quite hysterical." Mr. Linfield was sweating thickly now, twisting uncomfortably. "I do want us to remain great friends, you have to understand, Kit-"
"Miss Talbot," she corrected with frigid politeness. A shriek of rage was howling through her body, but she contained it, gesturing sharply to the door with a wave of her hand. "You'll forgive me if I ask you to see yourself out, Mr. Linfield."
After a quick bob of a bow, he fled eagerly from her, without looking back.
Kitty stood motionless for a moment, holding her breath as if to prevent this disaster from unfolding any further. Then she walked to the window, where the morning sun was streaming in, leaned her forehead against the glass, and exhaled slowly. From this window, one had an uninterrupted view of the garden: the daffodils just beginning to flower, the vegetable patch, still thick with weeds, and the loose chickens picking their way through, looking for grubs. Life outside continued on, and yet on her side of the glass, everything was utterly ruined.
They were alone. Completely and utterly alone now, with no one to turn to. Mama and Papa were gone, and in this hour of most grievous need, where more than ever she wished to ask for their advice, she could not. There was simply no one left to whom she could turn. Panic was rising within her. What was she to do now?
She might have stayed in this position for several hours, were she not interrupted by her youngest sister, ten-year-old Jane, who barged in only a few minutes later with the self-importance of a royal messenger.
"Kitty, where is Cecily's book?" she demanded.
"It was in the kitchen yesterday," Kitty answered without looking away from the garden. They ought to weed the artichoke bed this afternoon, it would need planting before long. Distantly, she heard Jane call to Cecily to pass on her words.
"She's looked there," came the reply.
"Well, look again." Kitty dismissed her impatiently with a flap of a hand.
The door opened and closed with a bang. "She says it's not there and if you've sold it, she'll be very upset because it was a gift from the vicar."
"Oh, for goodness' sake," Kitty snapped, "you may tell Cecily that I can't look for her silly vicar book, because I have just been jilted and need a few moments' reprieve, if that is not too much to ask!"
No sooner had Jane relayed this unusual message to Cecily, than the full household-all of Kitty's four sisters and Bramble the dog-descended upon the parlor, instantly filling the space with noise.
"Kitty, what is this about Mr. Linfield jilting you? Has he really?"
"I never liked him, he used to pat me on the head as if I were a child."
"My book is not in the kitchen."
Kitty told them as briefly as she could what had happened, with her head still resting on the glass. There was silence after this, as Kitty's sisters stared uncertainly at each other. After a few moments, Jane-having grown bored-wandered over to the creaking pianoforte and broke the silence by bashing out a jolly tune. Jane had never received music lessons, but what she lacked in talent she made up for in both fervor and volume.
"How awful," Beatrice-at nineteen years, Kitty's closest sister in both age and temperament-said at last, appalled. "Oh, Kitty dear, I am sorry. You must be heartbroken."
Kitty turned her head sharply. "Heartbroken? Beatrice, that is quite beside the point. Without my marrying Mr. Linfield, we are all ruined. Papa and Mama may have left us the house, but they also left an astonishing amount of debt. I was depending on the Linfield wealth to save us."
"You were marrying Mr. Linfield for his fortune?" Cecily asked, a judgmental note in her voice. The intellectual of the family at eighteen years of age, Cecily was felt by her sisters to have a rather over-developed sense of morality.
"Well, it was certainly not for his integrity or gentlemanly honor," Kitty said bitterly. "I just wish I'd had the sense to wrap it up sooner. We should not have pushed back the wedding when Mama died, I knew that a long engagement was asking for trouble. To think that Papa thought it would look unseemly!"
"How bad is it, Kitty?" Beatrice asked. Kitty stared silently at her for a few moments. How could she tell them? How could she explain all that was about to happen?
"It is . . . serious," Kitty said carefully. "Papa re-mortgaged the house to some quite disreputable people. The sales I made-our books, the silverware, some of Mama's jewels-were enough to keep them at bay for a while, but on the first of June they will return. Not four months away. And if we do not have enough money, or proof that we can start paying them, then . . ."
". . . We will have to leave? But this is our home." Harriet's lip wobbled. As second youngest, she yet remained more sensitive than Jane, who had at least stopped playing to sit quietly on the stool, watching.
Kitty did not have the heart to tell them that it would be worse than just leaving. That the sale of Netley Cottage would barely cover their debts, with nothing left after to support them. With nowhere to go and no obvious means of income, the future would be a dark place. They would have no choice but to split up, of course. She and Beatrice might find some employment in Salisbury, or one of the larger towns nearby, perhaps as housemaids-or lady's maids if they were truly lucky. Cecily-well, Kitty could not imagine Cecily being willing or able to work for anyone-but with her education she might try a school. Harriet-oh, Harriet was so young-would have to do the same. Somewhere that would provide room and board. And Jane . . . Mrs. Palmer in the town, singularly mean-spirited though she was, had always had a sort of fondness for Jane. She might be persuaded to take her in until she was old enough to find employment, too.
Kitty imagined them all, her sisters, separated and cast to the wind. Would they ever be together again, as they were now? And what if it was far worse than this already-bleak scenario? Visions of each of them, alone, hungry and despairing, flashed before her eyes. Kitty had not yet wept a tear over Mr. Linfield-he was not worth her tears-but now her throat ached painfully. They had already lost so much. It had been Kitty who had had to explain to them that Mama was not going to get better. Kitty who had broken the news of Papa's passing. How was she now to explain that the worst was still to come? She could not find the words. Kitty was not their mother, who could pull reassurances from the air like magic, nor their father, who could always say things would be all right with a confidence that made you believe him. No, Kitty was the family's problem solver-but this was far too great an obstacle for her to overcome with will alone. She wished desperately that there was someone who might carry this burden with her, a heavy load for the tender age of twenty, but there was not. Her sisters' faces stared up at her, so sure even now that she would be able to fix everything. As she always had.
As she always would.
The time for despair had passed. She would not-could not-be defeated so easily. She swallowed down her tears and set her shoulders.
"We have more than four months until the first of June," Kitty said firmly, moving away from the window. "That is just enough time, I believe, for us to achieve something quite extraordinary. In a town such as Biddington, I was able to ensnare a rich fiancŽ. Though he turned out to be a weasel, there is no reason to believe the exercise cannot be repeated, simply enough."
"I do not think any other rich men live nearby," Beatrice pointed out.
"Just so!" her sister replied cheerfully, eyes unnaturally bright. "Which is why I must travel to more fruitful ground. Beatrice, consider yourself in charge-for I shall be leaving for London."
It is not uncommon to encounter persons who are in the habit of making outlandish claims. It is rarer to meet persons who are also in the habit of fulfilling them, and it was to this second group that Miss Kitty Talbot belonged.
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