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 all Female Writers, past and present,
this trifle is affectionately dedicated.
On a hot June evening, two young ladies sat talking, with some intensity, in the gatehouse room of the Abbey School, Reading. This room, located over the arched gateway that led to the main entrance and the school quadrangle, was seldom used for lessons, being considered too noisy and distracting, as it had windows on both sides, and any horseman or carriage arriving at the school must pass underneath; it was therefore generally relegated to minor uses: needlework, drawing, school preparation, and piano practice. A number of miscellaneous aids to these activities had found their way to the chamber: a pair of globes, a baize-covered dressmaker’s dummy, a box of white chalk, a set of embroidery hoops, a couple of easels, two or three desks, and a pianoforte. Around the walls hung pictures of urns and weeping-willows, embroidered in chenille by former pupils at the school.
It must be acknowledged, however, that the main predilection of the young ladies who repaired to the gate room was gossip. Remote from the main current of scholastic occupation, the room was admirably suited for this purpose.—Not that gossip was particularly discouraged in any area. The Abbey School was a comfortable, easy-going establishment, planned so as to place no undue burden on the most lethargic intelligence—though such pupils as did choose to apply themselves might pick up an excellent education from the masters who attended there every weekday morning. Mrs Latournelle, the original founder, a motherly talkative lady with a cork leg and a past somehow relating to the theatre, had retired in 1805, ten years previously, to drink port and rest her cork leg on a sopha; but her place had been taken by her niece, Mrs Camperdowne, of equally amiable and indulgent temperament. Under the aegis of the latter the students, provided they were well-mannered and did not quarrel, were allowed almost unlimited latitude to read novels, ramble in the garden, pick fruit, play games, chatter to one another, or pursue their studies in a leisurely manner, as the spirit moved them.
The two girls at present comfortably perched on the cushioned window-seat of the gatehouse room were not pursuing any study, but one of them at least was very much in earnest.
“This is of such importance to me. I must, I must go now; don’t you see? It may well be my only chance. If you do not help me to do it, you will be consigning me to a life of hopeless—narrow—provincial—”
“Oh, come, my dear Miss Winship! What grand language! Consigning you? Why, just tell me why, pray, should your future life be my responsibility?”
“You know why! You know perfectly well!”
“It is hardly to be blamed on me, is it, that your father refuses to let you go off and teach the heathen?” said the other reasonably.
“It will be your fault! It will be! Can’t you see that this is all meant? The great battle against the French having been won at Brussels—the war being over—Mr and Mrs Tothill setting off for India next month—”
“You are suggesting,” said the other girl rather drily, “that the Almighty settled the matter of the war against the French simply in order that Mr and Mrs Tothill could take you to India with them?”
“Oh, don’t be satirical, Alvey! And—and blasphemous! You know, perfectly well, what I mean.”
The two girls stared at one another with dislike. And there was reason for their antipathy. They were not close kin, not related in any way; one of them came from Northumberland, England, the other from New Bedford, Massachusetts—and yet they were so alike that they were continually being taken for sisters, not only sisters but identical twins.
Both had long oval faces, clear colouring, dark-brown hair with a slight natural wave, handsomely chiselled lips, and neat straight noses. Sarah Alvey Clement, from New Bedford, was perhaps the taller of the two by half an inch, but unless the pair stood back-to-back the difference was not discernible, especially as Louisa Winship took pains to dress her hair high on top of her head in a Quakerish coronet of plaits, disdaining the current mode for curls à la Grecque. And this was characteristic of Louisa, who frequently went out of her way to express her disdain for fine clothes or fashionable appearance, yet at bottom had an intensely competitive nature and could not bear to be outstripped in any particular, even the most unimportant.
It is a queer, and somewhat shocking experience to meet your own double, your mirror-image. How can you help resenting the fact that somebody else, a stranger, has taken the liberty of helping themselves to your personal appearance? To see another person wearing the same gown, the same pelisse, the same bonnet, can be bad enough—but to have them decked out in your own eyes and nose, your hair, teeth and lips, is hardly to be borne. You are immediately devalued, made to seem simply an oddity, a duplicate.
For this reason, during the three years they had been fellow-students at the Abbey School, the two girls had never been friends or intimates, but had remained sedulously aloof from one another. They had never been in the least amused by the ever-recurring ripple of jokes, astonishment, nonsense, and wonder which their identical likeness inevitably created, as other parlour boarders and day pupils came and went. Reluctantly, every now and then, they were forced into displeased partnership, obliged to play the roles of Viola and Sebastian, of Castor and Pollux, Antipholus or Dromio, in school theatricals; but at all other times they kept as far distant from one another as the confines of the establishment permitted, since they possessed different tastes, different friends, different temperaments.
Miss Winship was a devout young lady. Her religion bordered on evangelism. She attended church three times on Sunday, and as often during the week as she could contrive. Her maternal grandfather had been a bishop, and she inherited his propensities. She was almost wholly lacking in sense of humour, but was a hard and dedicated worker, applying herself to all the subjects in the school curriculum, as well as various extras, with intelligence and fervour. Alone among the young ladies at the Abbey School she never read a novel, not even Miss Edgeworth, for she regarded with extreme suspicion all such frivolous and useless products of the imagination as stories, poems, or plays. Shakespeare must be endured, for he was on the school syllabus, but even the instructive volumes of Mr Walter Scott were never opened by her, and as for Byron, whom the other girls read with passion, when they could get hold of his works, Mis
s Winship would have picked up a red-hot coal with her bare hand sooner than take the most fleeting glance at the pages of Childe Harold.
“My Father in Heaven is calling me. I am needed out there among the heathen,” she said now, clenching her fists and hammering them on the windowsill to give emphasis to her words. “I know that He wishes me to go.”
“Don’t you think that He is taking rather a roundabout way of getting you there? Making a great many people tell a great many lies?”
“Oh, don’t, don’t take such pleasure in being so—so unhelpful. So unsympathetic!”
“You mistake. I take no pleasure in thwarting you. Why should I? But are you absolutely certain that your father will never allow you to go?”
“It is wholly, wholly out of the question. Neither he nor my mother would countenance it for a single moment. Why, why do you think I was packed off to school, down here in the south, at the other end of England, as far from home as possible, but in hopes of forcing me to change my mind?—As if a change of scene, or anything of such a slight nature, would make the least difference to me,” said Miss Winship, setting her chiselled lips together with the obstinate expression which had caused her nurse Phemie, regarding her at the age of three, to remark, “Ee, yin’s a hunk o’ the auld granite, if iver there wor!”
“You have written to your parents and suggested the plan again?”
“Of course! Any number of times. And the answer is always a flat negative. That is why they have never permitted me to return home at holiday time—oh, they said it was because of the distance to Northumberland, because of the length and expense of the journey, but that is not their real reason. I know it was a punishment. From the age of six I have made no secret of my wishes—”
I’ll wager you have not, thought her companion, regarding her with dispassionate interest. Miss Winship’s eyes were flashing, her face was pale with the intensity of her feelings.
“You quite despair of talking them round, now you have reached years of discretion?”
“Oh, completely. Mamma is a very, very strong-willed character.”
“Indeed? What a singular circumstance.”
“Why should you say so? You have not met her,” remarked Miss Winship, surprised, but did not wait for an answer. “And Papa—he is indecisive, on the whole, but exceedingly obstinate. And he is in pain from a hunting accident—so my sister writes—must not be crossed or thwarted, for his temper is very unreliable. And his health is impaired; if he were angered it might cause a seizure, and his death.”
“Well, that is very difficult, certainly. It puts him in a strong position. Yet, everybody must die sooner or later,” Alvey said thoughtfully. “Are they very obnoxious to you, your parents—apart from forbidding you to go and preach to the heathen?”
“Oh, not in themselves, I suppose,” said Miss Winship discontentedly. “But I am not close to them. How could I be? I have not seen them for four years. Mamma and I have little in common—she has always been occupied with the little ones, or her flower-garden—”
“How many of you altogether?”
“Nine. That is a family, indeed,” observed her companion pensively. Alvey Clement, the other pupils knew, had no brothers or sisters; no relations of any kind to take an interest in her plans. Her school fees had been paid by an elderly cousin, now dead. “And all living at home?”
“James is with his regiment. I believe he was wounded in the recent engagement—we do not know how seriously. If God intends to take James, no doubt He will do so,” said Miss Winship with a calm that suggested there was no particular love lost between her and her brother. “James is the eldest, my father’s favourite, of course. Papa is only interested in the boys; his daughters are of no concern to him.”
“Except insofar as they may not leave home to convert the heathen. Well—go on?” Despite her fixed resolve, Alvey began to find in herself a curiosity concerning this large unexplored family of Winships.
“James and Papa were at one time very close; the 3rd Scots were Papa’s old regiment. When James left Birkland, Papa tried to transfer his attention to Tot—Thomas.”
“Who is, how old?”
“Oh, I really forget.” Louisa counted on her fingers. “Five, perhaps, when I came here—a puny, ailing little brat. He will now, I suppose, be about nine; the only other boy in the family. He has proved a disappointment, so Meg writes; will not share Papa’s interests, prefers to slip away with Nish—”
“All the rest are girls?”
“Yes: Meg is twenty-one, a year older than I. She is to be married in October—to John Chibburn, a neighbour—a red-faced, loud-voiced, thick-skulled oaf,” said Miss Winship bitterly, “who can only talk about otter-hunting and salmon, and the barley crop. Think of settling down for the rest of your days with somebody like that!”
“Does Meg not like this person?”
Miss Winship sniffed.
“She is by far too good for him. She attended school here, when she was sixteen—Mrs Camperdowne thought her very clever—but she grew homesick after six months and begged to go back to Birkland. And they allowed her. She has been helping teach the younger ones. When she marries you would take her place.”
Miss Clement raised her brows at this, but made no comment, remarking merely, “Well, there is Meg disposed of. Go on.”
“Then there is Isabel—Isa. She is not clever. She went to school in Hexham for a little, but she never liked it. Miss Waskerley taught her at home.”
“The governess. Oh, but she is about to leave—” in answer to another inquiring lift of her companion’s brows. “She is becoming elderly and it seems the younger ones have grown too much for her.”
“The younger ones being?”
“Tot, Parthie, and Nish.”
“Parthie and Nish—those are strange names?”
“Parthie is short for Parthenope. She, I suppose, will be fourteen, perhaps fifteen. Nish, short for Annis, will be eight. She and Tot had become disgracefully uncontrolled under the rule of Miss Waskerley.”
“Then I assume that it is just as well she is leaving.”
“And then there is little Betsey, and the baby, Kate. I have never seen them. It is just as well that Miss Waskerley is leaving, certainly,” said the single-minded Louisa, “for she might have been the one person who would penetrate the deception and think it her duty to inform my parents. She was never at all sympathetic to my ideals or ambitions—”
“Miss Winship. Louisa,” said Miss Clement firmly. “I wish you to understand, once and for all, that there is going to be no deception, there will be nothing about which to inform your parents. This whole notion of yours is so rash—wild—fantastic—it is so absurdly inconceivable, that I cannot imagine how such a sober person as yourself could ever have been brought to envisage it.”
“It is because God put it into my head. He is calling me,” said Miss Winship obstinately. “And I must go.”
“Oh—! But what about the maids, the cook, the coachman, the gardener? The neighbours? How could such a substitution be—be so much as thought about—let alone carried out—for even so much as a single day?”
“Very, very easily.” It was plain from Miss Winship’s demeanour that, not only had she been thinking about the details of the substitution, she had been giving the matter her entire attention, probably for many days, even weeks or months.
“I have been away from home now almost four years. Girls, young ladies of our age alter very considerably during such a period. I have done so. I am grown taller, my appearance has changed, my voice has changed. Who would guess, if you went to Birkland Hall in my place, that you were not Louisa Winship?”
“But there would be so many matters—both large and small—over which I should infallibly betray myself—details of family history—people,
“My sisters Meg and Isa would be vigilant to cover your mistakes. They would take care of you. Meg and Isa have always felt sincerely for me in my aspirations, although they do not share them. And the younger ones need not to be told—they would simply follow the lead of their elders. If they accept you, why should my parents doubt? Especially since Papa has never taken the least interest; Mamma would be engaged with the baby—”
“Little Kate. She is less than a year old. A disappointment to my father, who hoped for another boy; since Tot is of a sickly, unteachable disposition—or so Meg writes.”
“But it would be wrong! I should be receiving care, comforts, affections, food, shelter—to which I have no shadow of right. And your sisters would be obliged to tell untruths on my account—”
“I doubt if that would trouble them one whit,” said Miss Winship rather sourly. “They have light natures—they are not over-burdened by moral scruples. As for the care, comforts, food, and so forth—they are mine by entitlement and I do not in the least want or value them. If I choose to bestow them on you, I have every right to do so.”
This appeared such erratic and absurd unreason to Alvey that she saw no rational way in which to dispute it; besides, her companion was hurrying on vehemently, “Miss Clement, I have taken some pains to acquaint myself with your situation and prospects. I understand that you are an orphan, you were sent here by your guardian to obtain an English education so that you can return to America and teach there. But you wish—Harriet Utterley told me—to become an author, to write novels like Maria Edgeworth or Fanny Burney. It seems an odd, trifling kind of ambition to me I must confess—” Miss Winship’s voice indicated all too plainly her low opinion of it—“but if that is your wish, what better situation could you ask in which to do your writing than Birkland Hall? It is a large place, you will have ample solitude in which you may scribble to your heart’s desire—”
“I thought you said I would be expected to teach the younger ones? Not and Tish and—and Parthie?”