The Youngest Miss WardJoan Aiken
THE YOUNGEST MISS WARD
Also by Joan Aiken
and available from Bello
The Embroidered Sunset
The Butterfly Picnic
Voices in an Empty House
The Five-Minute Marriage
Jane Austen Novels
Emma Watson: The Watsons Completed
The Youngest Miss Ward
Paget Family Series
The Smile of the Stranger
The Weeping Ash
The Girl from Paris
To Mr Henry Ward, a gentleman of very moderate means residing at Bythorn Lodge in the county of Huntingdon, it was a matter of some mortification that he had only seven thousand pounds to give his daughter Maria when she was so fortunate as to capture the affections of a baronet, Sir Thomas Bertram, possessor of a handsome estate not far off in the neighbouring county of Northamptonshire. Mr Ward’s other daughters were, subsequently, to fare even worse: due to a diminution of her father’s fortune, the eldest Miss Ward, Agnes, could take only two thousand with her when, six years after her sister’s wedding, she was able to contract a respectable, if undistinguished, alliance with Mr Norris, a middle-aged clerical protégé of her brother-in-law. More grievous still, at a time when the family was in some distraction, the third sister, Miss Frances, made a runaway match with a lieutenant of marines in Portsmouth. For the rest of her life this daughter would therefore be referred to as ‘poor Fanny’ with a mixture of distaste and condemnation by her elder sisters – particularly by Mrs Norris. And, to cap it all, the youngest Miss Ward, Harriet, allowed her life to take such an un-looked-for and outrageous turn that she, among the family, was never referred to at any time (except of course by Mrs Norris).
It is an account of her history and misfortunes, with a rebuttal of all false assertions and calumnies that the present narrative sets out to provide.
The youngest Miss Ward, Harriet, or Hatty as she was most frequently referred to did not, at the age of twelve when this journal commences, seem destined for a career of infamy.
From the first, she had been her mother’s favourite, and spent much time in Mrs Ward’s boudoir with that lady (who became bed-ridden three years after Hatty’s birth) reading her lessons, books, and poetry or singing in a soft but true little voice with a small compass.
Good looks had been very unevenly distributed by Providence among the Ward sisters. Two of them, Maria and Frances, resembled their handsome father: they were the fortunate possessors of dazzlingly fair complexions, large blue eyes, and fine, tall, well-formed figures; they were generally acknowledged to be among the finest young women in the county.
The other two sisters, Agnes and Hatty, took after their mother, who had brought breeding to the family, but neither money nor beauty; she had been a Miss Isabel Wisbech, a distant connection of the Duke of Dungeness, and although clever, kind-hearted and elegant, she was unimposing, short and slight in stature, dark-eyed and pale-skinned, with very little countenance; this, as well as her gentle manner and complete lack of animation, caused neighbourhood gossip to assert that she had not been happy in her marriage.
Agnes and Hatty had both inherited their mother’s small stature and dark colouring, but not her lack of animation; Hatty in particular had inherited her mother’s elegance, and a sweetness in her countenance that would always recommend her to the notice of discerning strangers. For Agnes, the eldest Miss Ward, had a sharp, bustling and overbearing nature, while Hatty, quick-witted, playful and original in her cast of mind, had always been obliged to provide her own amusements, since two of her elder sisters were too phlegmatic to comprehend her jokes and imaginings, while the third was too short-tempered.
Mr Ward, amid this household of women, had become a disappointed man. His chief and lifelong ambition was to be appointed Master of Foxhounds, for he was greatly addicted to the chase, and would have hunted every day of his life had such a pursuit been possible, and had dissipated the larger part of his fortune on high-bred hunters. At the time of his marriage he had hoped that a connection with Colonel Frederick Wisbech, his wife’s second cousin, who was the younger son of the Duke of Dungeness, and reputed, furthermore, to be a very shrewd investor in the City, would bring him both social and pecuniary advantage. But neither of these blessings had come about. Colonel Wisbech thought Mr Ward a dead bore, and kept his distance, while the foxhounds remained under the negligent care of the Duke’s brother-in-law.
But Mr Ward’s worst and grinding disappointment lay in regard to his estate, which was entailed in the male line and would, in default of an heir, pass to one of his brother Philip’s sons. Mr Philip Ward was an attorney in Portsmouth, of no social consequence whatsoever in his brother’s estimate; the two brothers rarely communicated and had met but once in the course of eighteen years. It was a continual vexation to Mr Ward that this unimportant family should have the right to inherit his property simply on account of some piece of legal barratry. And life for a man of small fortune, such as himself, who lived on the fringe, but never in the company of titled connections, could never be easy.
Four daughters had the unfortunate Mrs Ward brought into the world by the age of thirty-one, and after the fourth her medical attendant pronounced without the slightest hesitation that a fifth child would indubitably kill her. Mr Ward was outraged at this news. He had taken little notice of the first three daughters; the fourth one he utterly ignored. From the delivery of Hatty, after which she was stricken by a severe birth fever, Mrs Ward’s health steadily declined, and by the time of Miss Maria’s wedding she had been bed-ridden for eight or nine years.
Preparations for a sufficiently handsome nuptial celebration due to the future Lady Bertram were plainly going to be beyond her power to set in train.
‘Why should we not invite my cousin Ursula Fowldes to help us?’ she therefore hesitantly suggested to her husband. ‘Ursula might, I believe, be prepared to come and stay here, for a few days before the wedding, and take care of all the details; I fancy there is no one so knowledgeable, so capable as she, when it comes to matters of that kind. She has had ample experience, as you may recall, with the weddings of two of her sisters. And, for the marriage of our dear Maria to Sir Thomas Bertram, we would not wish anything to be done improperly or negligently.’
Mr Ward thought very well of this suggestion. Lady Ursula Fowldes, eldest daughter of the Duke’s brother-in-law, the fox-hunting Earl of Elstow, had seen two of her younger sisters, the Lady Mary and the Lady Anne, suitably married off; she must by now be thoroughly acquainted with all the correct minutiae of etiquette and procedure. (Why Lady Ursula had never married was a subject o
f conjecture and rumour in the neighbourhood; there had been talk of a broken romance some years before.) At this time she was twenty-seven years of age, and, by now, hopes of her contracting a matrimonial alliance had, for numerous reasons, long been relinquished.
‘I believe Cousin Ursula might be willing to come and advise us‚’ repeated Mrs Ward, ‘although it is a long time since I have seen her. She and I had a great kindness for one another, when we were younger. If you will supply me with pen and paper, Hatty dear, I will write to her directly.’
Hatty obeyed, but she did so with a sigh as she brought the writing materials. Among the Ward girls, Cousin Ursula was by no means a favourite, for she cherished very high notions as to her own position in society and (perhaps as a legacy of that legendary romantic attachment) bore herself in a stiff, acidic, superior manner and maintained a ramrod-straight deportment which tended to cast a gloom over any social gathering in which she took part. Her nose, her chin, her eyebrows were perpetually elevated in astonished condemnation; no one was ever so speedy to depress vulgar pretensions or to snub upstart impertinence as Lady Ursula.
‘Ay, ay, your cousin Lady Ursula will certainly be the properest person to oversea Maria’s affair,’ agreed Mr Ward, quite satisfied for once.
At this period of the family’s fortunes, since Maria had been able to contract such a gratifyingly eligible alliance with Sir Thomas Bertram, Mr Ward’s frame of mind concerning his future prospects still remained reasonably sanguine. It was to be supposed that Maria’s future connections might well achieve satisfactory matches for the younger girls as well. And he was entirely pleased with the notion of persuading Lady Ursula to visit his modest residence, Bythorn Lodge. For up to now, despite the family connection, there had been but few dealings between the Ward family and that of Lord Elstow at Underwood Priors. ‘Our cousins, the Fowldes’‚ ‘Our cousin, Lady Ursula’ echoed pleasantly through the mind of Mr Ward; during the forthcoming wedding festivities, this, he felt, would make a most satisfactory counterbalance to the titled connections of the bridegroom, Sir Thomas.
Abandoning his customary disparaging, not to say surly, manner towards the generality of the female sex, Mr Ward, for the duration of the nuptial celebrations, was prepared to treat Lady Ursula with distinction, cordiality and even with an approach to gallantry which would amaze his daughters.
There were, however, various domestic problems to be overcome before the arrival of the wedding guests. An elderly aunt of Mr Ward, Mrs Winchilsea from Somerset, had been invited for the occasion, and Bythorn Lodge possessed only a single guest chamber. One of the four girls must, therefore, move out of her bedroom to accommodate Lady Ursula. Plainly Maria, the bride, could not be thus displaced; the obvious choice would be one of the two younger girls, Hatty or Frances; but their quarters were inferior.
‘Agnes must give up her room‚’ decreed Mr Ward, when the matter came to his adjudication. ‘Agnes has the largest room of the three, with a view over the meadow; it is by far the most suitable, the only chamber proper for Lady Ursula who is, after all, devoting time and solicitude to our affairs; we should neglect no attention that can contribute to her comfort. Agnes must move in with Frances.’
Agnes was by no means pleased with this decision. Further to inflame her sense of injury, Maria had selected her younger, not her elder sister as an escort on the forthcoming bridal tour to Bath and Wells. Frances, not Agnes, had been preferred for a travelling companion. This choice was not particularly surprising to anyone in the family, for Frances and Maria, resembling one another in nature as in looks, had always been each other’s best friend, leaving Agnes, the eldest, and Hatty, the youngest – separated in age by thirteen years and in disposition by every possible incompatibility – to get along as best they could during the lack of any other companionship.
But Agnes now felt this exclusion most severely. It was in her nature to resent all such slights, whether real or fancied, and the present instance was in no way mitigated by Maria – soon to be Lady Bertram – remarking in her usual calm, languid tone, ‘After all, sister, it is your plain duty to remain in the house and look after Mama, when Frances and I are gone off on my wedding journey with Sir Thomas. I have heard you say, I do not know how many times, that you are the only person in the family who is fit to take proper care of our mother, that Fanny is by far too feather-pated to be entrusted with the housekeeping, and Hatty, of course, too young. So everybody will be suited; and I think you had best move yourself into Hatty’s bedroom, for there will be a great deal of confusion in Fanny’s chamber while she packs up her things to come away with me. Fanny is so scatter-brained. When we are gone off, you know, you may take your pick between my room and Fanny’s – if Lady Ursula remains – since I daresay Fanny may stop with me and Sir Thomas for a number of months, once we are settled at his house in Mansfield Park.’
All this was bitter as gall to the irritable spirit of Agnes, the more so since it was based on completely reasonable arguments and thoroughly incontrovertible facts. In the end Agnes did choose to move in with Hatty (much to the latter’s dismay) for two reasons: first, because the room was closer to her own; and second, because Hatty, being the youngest, was most subject to her elder’s jurisdiction and could be ordered to carry armfuls of garments and other articles from one chamber to the other.
From this minor household displacement followed a mishap which would have repercussions that continued for many years to come.
Maria’s wedding was to take place in the month of June. That year the early weeks of summer had been peculiarly close and oppressive, with heavy grey skies and a continual threat of thunder. The invalid Mrs Ward had found the warm and airless atmosphere especially trying, and had begged for as many doors and windows as possible to be kept open at all times. It so happened, therefore, that the front door of Bythorn Lodge was standing wide open when the chaise-and-four arrived that brought Lady Ursula from Underwood Priors. This was several hours earlier than expected. Lady Ursula had never been known to consult the convenience of others in her comings and goings, and since she considered that she was conferring a signal favour by this visit, she felt not the least scruple in advancing the suggested arrival time by half a day.
The household was already in some confusion, with preparations for the other visitor and the nuptial festivities, and no footman chanced to be stationed in the hall at the moment when Lady Ursula, tall, grim and disapproving, stepped through the open front doorway. She rapped smartly with her cane on the flagged floor, looked around her, and called out loudly in her high, commanding voice: ‘Hollo, there! Where is everybody? Let me be attended to, if you please!’
Fanny Ward, running down the steep stair with a bundle of household linen in her arms was almost petrified with alarm at the sight of this daunting apparition.
‘Oh, my gracious! Cousin Ursula! I – I h-had no notion that you was expected quite so soon! I – I am afraid Papa is down at the s-stables—’
Down at the stables was where Mr Ward invariably spent the hours of daylight when there was no hunting to occupy him.
‘That is not of the least consequence‚’ said Lady Ursula coldly. ‘You will escort me to your mother, if you please. Frances, is it not?’
‘Yes – yes, of course—’ Desperately, Fanny tugged at a bell rope, and when the flustered housekeeper appeared, gave equally flustered directions. ‘Direct Jenny and my sister Harriet to prepare Lady Ursula’s room immediately!’
‘Escort me, pray, to your mother‚’ repeated Lady Ursula, a lifting note in her voice suggesting that she was not in the habit of being obliged to repeat her requests.
‘Of course, certainly, Cousin Ursula – if you will step this way – I am just not sure that Mama is – but if you will follow me – and if you will just—’
Lady Ursula’s expression conveyed that she was not used to being left waiting in passage-ways. A small upstairs hall had an armchair bes
ide a french window leading on to a balcony, but Fanny’s hopeful gesture towards the armchair failed to have any effect on the visitor, who continued to follow close behind her nervous guide.
Mrs Ward’s bedroom door, like the front entrance, stood wide and thus revealed the scene within, which, to most observers, would have been a pleasing and touching one.
To afford her as much relief as possible from the sultry and oppressive closeness of the atmosphere, the invalid lady was half-lying, half-seated in bed, reclined against a mass of pillows and swathed in layers of the lightest possible gauze and cambric. Slight and thin even in the best of health, Mrs Ward now looked frail as a cobweb. Her dark hair was piled on top of her head, for ease in the heat, and covered with a wisp of lace. To the startled eyes of Lady Ursula her face, small and pointed, and at this moment somewhat smoothed from its habitual lines of pain, looked exactly as it had twelve years before. And the face of the child, holding a book, curled beside the bed in a slipper-chair, was its precise replica. But the expressions of each were at wide variance. That of the child held nothing but dismay; that of the sick woman brightened into joy and recognition.
‘Ursie! My dear, dear Ursie! This is such a pleasure! We had not expected you until dinner-time!’
‘So I had apprehended from the lack of preparation‚’ glacially replied the visitor, but mitigated her reproof by approaching and momentarily resting her cheek alongside that of the sick woman. The child, meanwhile, had nervously, like some small wild creature, started away from the bedside.
Lady Ursula hardly glanced at her, but Mrs Ward said softly, stretching out an attenuated hand, ‘Dearie, we will continue with our Shakespeare reading at a later time. Soon, I promise. For we had reached such an exciting point! Mind you do not cheat and read on by yourself – I put you on your honour! I trust you! Now, as you may guess, Cousin Ursula and I have many years of conversation to catch up – and you, I know, will help Fanny prepare Ursula and Aunt Winchilsea’s chambers – and pick each of them a sweet-scented posy from the garden. Hatty’s posies are always the best‚’ Mrs Ward told her visitor, indicating the lavender, Southernwood and geranium nosegay on her bed-table with a quick, hopeful smile as the child came closer and brushed her cheek against the outstretched hand.