It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young lady of no fortune must be in want of one. Sophia Grantchester was one such young lady. She sought to end the painful worries about how all the tradesmen would be paid not by finding a husband, rather by being a lady novelist - like Mrs Radcliffe or Miss Edgeworth.
A shameful secret, of course, known to no one but herself. This was why, standing on the dark oak floorboards of Mr Pointer’s general shop, her first instinct was to turn, and run.
Sophy chided herself and forced her feet to remain exactly where they were. Yet she could not stop the thoughts running through her mind - what if someone borrowed the volumes, and somehow found out that Miss Sophia Grantchester, daughter of the Reverend Grantchester, rector of Middleton parish in Wiltshire, was a novelist? Her breath came in very short.
She blinked. There they were, on the shelf in front of her. Both volumes. The gilded titles on their calf-leather spines glaring at her – Caprice and Conventionality Vol. I and Caprice and Conventionality Vol. II. There was no one else in the shop apart from herself and Mr Pointer. She reached out towards the first volume. She trembled as her fingers gripped the spine of the book.
She had had the good sense to be published under a nom-de-plume, but what if people reading the book could tell that she was the author? Had she used a name or a turn of phrase without realising it that would give her secret away? Never would she have imagined that her book would be among the pitiful selection of books delivered by the circulating library to Mr Pointer’s shop.
She must borrow them immediately and return them too late for anyone else to have a chance to do so. Or something. She picked up the second volume of Caprice and Conventionality and four other books selected without regard, and gave the pile to Mr Pointer who sat behind his desk rubbing his spectacles with a fawn coloured cloth.
Sophy turned back to the dusty two-foot long shelf of circulating library books while Mr Pointer tied her books up in string for her. She willed her heart to stop thudding so rapidly. The bookshelf was in front of the shop’s small paned bowed window and an unobstructed view of Stickleton post office across the street.
The vantage point was ideal. However, it didn’t mean her plan was foolproof. Sophy swallowed. She simply had to get to the post office today. She needed her money.
The green door of the post office swung open and Mr Hannay, the postmaster, stepped out onto the street, his hands in his pockets and his collar pulled up high around his neck. He proceeded up the road in the direction of The Red Lion. Thank heavens Mr Hannay was a man of regular habits and enjoyed, without fail, his midday tipple. He was also a man of peculiar habits, and his post office clerks never stayed beyond a few weeks in his employ.
His new clerk had been in Stickleton less than a week. She could now go into the post office without being recognised.
‘Here you are, Miss Grantchester.’ Mr Pointer patted the pile of tied-up books and looked at her through his spectacles without focusing.
‘Thank you.’ Sophy smiled, snatched up her books, and hastened out and across the street to the post office.
‘What a splendidly pretty bluestocking,’ Viscount Merryford drawled. ‘And you always say that Wiltshire is so lacking in gentlemanly diversions, Harty!’
Benedict St Michael, Lord Hart, let his attention flicker away from his pair of greys pulling his curricle at a slow trot, to his friend who sat beside him. Merryford adjusted his quizzing glass as he leaned forward and Ben followed his gaze. Was he looking at the girl hurrying down Stickleton High Street some way ahead of them? She wore a dull coloured cloak, an equally dull coloured dress underneath and a straw poke bonnet, trimmed with bright red felt. A pile of books tied with thick string dangled from one arm and she had a basket on her elbow. Ben coughed. ‘The girl with the books? That is only Miss Grantchester, my cousin.’
‘Your cousin?’ Merryford’s eyes opened wide. He scrambled to retrieve his quizzing glass from his lap. ‘Such fine ankles!’
Ben felt his brow creasing into a frown as an inexplicable surge of vexation directed against his old friend made his shoulders go stiff. ‘Miss Grantchester is my cousin, indeed. And barely out of the schoolroom.’
‘She looked womanly enough to me,’ Merryford said, leaning back and placing his hands behind his head. ‘Curves in all the right places. And hair the colour of spun gold!’
Ben stared as his cousin climbed the post office steps in great haste and disappeared inside. How the devil could Merryford tell? Her grey woollen cloak had been buttoned up to the neck, and her hair seemed wholly hidden under her poke bonnet.
‘Pothole!’ Merryford exclaimed.
Ben snapped his attention back and steered them round it.
‘And is she spoken for?’ Merryford asked, rubbing his chin.
‘What the devil do you mean by that?’
‘Carpe diem, old friend.’ Merryford nodded and winked. ‘Take the opportunity.’
‘I think you’ve got the wrong idea,’ Ben said. For some reason his voice sounded agitated. He swallowed and made an effort to sound urbane as usual. ‘Miss Grantchester is my cousin, but a very distant cousin, a poor relation if you like. She is not going to be expected to make an advantageous match.’ Ben stopped there. He was sounding like his dear Mama. And now he thought about it, why shouldn’t she do something for Miss Grantchester to improve her prospects? He’d ask her about that for she had never mentioned such a thing.
‘So she’s not spoken for?’ Merryford pressed.
‘No, but she’s as poor as a church mouse. Remember, you need to marry money if you are going to stop the rot of that crumbling pile of yours in Devon.’
‘Very true.’ Merryford’s mouth quirked into a lazy smile and Ben felt his neck prickle uncomfortably under his cravat. ‘Well, in that case I can take her off your hands in a different fashion. Set her up in a nice little house somewhere. Chelsea perhaps-’
‘Oh no, you don’t,’ Ben said and steered them through the doors and into the enclosed yard of The Rose and Crown public house.
(c) Kate Allan, 2006
Perfidy and Perfection by Kate Allan. Published by Robert Hale. April 2006.