"I know well what I am fleeing from but not what I am in search of."
Michel de Montaigne
The sunlight fell upon the pale face; her perfect, slightly open rosebud mouth and her heavy-lidded eyes with their long dark lashes. As she lay semi-recumbent on the deep window-seat, the warm yellowing light of late afternoon enhanced the iridescent peacock blue of her exquisite dress. The width of the skirt and the fulsome flounces had been, when first created some two seasons ago, the subject of much exclamation and indulgent smiles, but time had proved the design precocious, as the latest fashion plates from Paris attested.
The unfocused eyes looked out over the russet rooftops and grey stone of the comfortable buildings; the slender trees at the end of the street and the hills beyond. Victoria had been a faithful companion for more years than her mistress could remember, a constant recipient of her inner most thoughts, emotions and aspirations. In her turn, Victoria never ventured an opinion, never criticised or chided; was never slighted when disregarded for days or uttered a word of complaint when for hours she would be subjected to her mistress' pinning of silk, muslin, gauze or such like around her flawlessly proportioned body. She showed no surprise when her mistress entered the bedroom, crossed to the window and lifted her to kiss her hair.
Helen sat in Victoria's place, the doll upon her lap; the vibrant dress bright against her own pale grey day attire. She smiled as she watched the citizens of Dallingbury hurrying home in the diminishing light. Looking out over the town's streets and their occupants never failed to evoke this feeling of contentment. 'Look Victoria, there's Mrs Maltby!' And she lifted Victoria's arm to wave as the Bancroft's cook turned through the small tradesmen's gate to walk around to the kitchen entrance; a childish gesture for one now well past her eighteenth birthday but such an inclusive one that Victoria could hardly disapprove. For, despite Victoria patently being unable to articulate her approval or otherwise, Helen was always conscious of her approbation or, more commonly, her censure; she could be a stern judge and, as much as Helen may dissemble, Victoria had the ability to lay her soul bare for uneasy inspection.
Both young lady and doll looked upon the perfection that was Dallingbury. The small market town provided all the family’s immediate needs; everyone was known, friends and foes alike, and the hills and dales of Lancashire visible beyond the buildings, gave a feeling of space and airiness. The family home was close enough to the main thoroughfare to be included in the activities of the populace yet set apart sufficiently to provide privacy and peace. Helen had known no other home, since, with the thriving of his business, her father had moved his wife and only son to the handsome Georgian property a few years before her birth. Whereas Walter, her elder by nine years, appeared oblivious of the elegantly proportioned rooms and pleasing symmetry of the layout; seemingly caring nothing for the ability of the tall, slim windows to flood the interior with light, or the perfume from knee-high lavender hedges bordering the path to overwhelm, Helen adored it all and would pause on her progress about a chore to feel it's reassuring warmth like a beatific smile.
Helen’s parents had initially reflected that the positioning of her room at the front of the property an injudicious choice, but the child did not appear disturbed by the late-night carriages or the young boys playing noisily on the homeward journey from school or work, even the lamplighter’s calls had no power to trouble her rest. Originally serving as both bedroom and playroom, it had now become a comfortable place to write and sew away from the general hubbub intrinsic to any home. Her mother, being a generous housekeeper, allowed her coals whenever needed but the southerly aspect ensured Helen did not trespass on her goodwill too frequently.
She had switched her gaze from Mrs Maltby, with her exaggerated waddle (mother said it was arthritis), to the doll on her lap. It had been just before her sixth birthday when her father, returning from one of his business journeys to the Far East and Europe, had unfolded the wrapping of silk and tissue, and the exquisite face had fixed Helen with its luscious violet eyes and in that instant a bond had been made between the sister-less child and her seemingly insentient companion and although Helen knew the doll's place of birth had been Paris, she elected to name her after the young queen, who she imagined must be the only person presenting equal perfection. She introduced Victoria to the household and, as the child's circle of acquaintances grew, explained all their characteristics and activities, so that Victoria would know them as intimately as herself. She began to communicate her desires and dislikes as though they were Victoria's, a habit that initially her parents indulged but swiftly found irritating and Helen learnt several things as a consequence of the ensuing confrontation: not all behaviour was acceptable, some friendships were best kept to oneself and, no matter how painful acquiescence may be, mother and father's word was to be obeyed or there would be terrible consequences. Therefore, to avoid Victoria's banishment, Helen had communed with her silently from that day onwards.
She smoothed the doll's flamboyant dress, savouring the crispness of the watered silk beneath her fingers, but tugged gently at the low neckline to cover the scar, declared by her mother after her painstaking repair to be almost invisible but which, to Helen, was a constant reminder of the vicious attack that had so nearly broken Helen's six year old heart.
Which brought her back to the present and the imminent arrival of the perpetrator. Her brother Walter returning from business in the city, would break his journey in Dallingbury before continuing to Eglestone Manor, the family seat inherited by his wife. Helen was unsure whether she was pleased or not that Harriet did not accompanying him. She detested her sister-in-law but at least her personality demanded that no other share the limelight thereby relieving Helen of her brother’s asperity.
Perhaps it had been her fault (Victoria was forever telling her so and after all she had been present and had a better memory than Helen of those earlier years). Maybe Helen had been a particularly irritating and badly behaved child and had deserved Walter’s complaints to their parents that she was running wild, had no discipline, was ignorant and stupid. She knew her mother had tried to explain that his sister was so much younger, with shorter legs and smaller muscles and, without the benefit of his tutor, could not be expected to understand his long words or know that the river Nile was in Africa. These explanations did not dispel her brother's contempt nor curtail his annoying habit, still prevalent to this day, of speaking of her as though she were not present. Whether he would have treated a brother with such disdain, could only be guessed. As the eldest he would always have had the status he considered his due and certainly the incipient hauteur he displayed could have been born from this knowledge, only to be further encouraged by the educational establishment he had embraced with an enthusiasm which, in retrospect and with her fondness for Dallingbury, Helen found quite inexplicable. In fact she could imagine the treatment a younger brother would have received had he been a fellow pupil and therefore surmised that she was fortunate not to have been born into such an invidious position; at least the periods of conflict were confined to school holidays when similar returnees provided the protection and companionship so lacking in her sibling.
She briefly considered feigning illness, but experience had taught that any such pretence in one normally enjoying rude health was either perceived as the ruse it was or treated with sufficient alarm as to precipitate a visit from Dr Tanner. And, anyway, Victoria would think her a coward! She had been sent upstairs to change for dinner but anticipation of the evening ahead made her linger at the window, admiring her beloved Dallingbury in the disappearing light. Here came Mr Arnold to light the lamp just to the right of their house. He looked up to her window and, as was their custom, she waved and he executed a courtly bow. She had lost count of the years this small, comforting ritual had been performed, only knowing that the climb onto the window seat had initially been accomplished with the aid of the toy-box as make-shift mounting block. This dallying would not do and she reluctantly replaced Victoria, patting her head in affectionate farewell and reminding herself to change her into the dark red brocade tomorrow.
Since the importation of tea required only a warehouse and an office, with no need for retail premises, Mr Bancoft’s business dealings were conducted from what would have been the salon. It was therefore within the elegant first floor withdrawing room that the family gathered. Helen's father was in his favourite chair to the left of the fire, his son leaning against the opposite end of the mantelpiece. Her mother was seated on a chaise in the far corner of the room, a familiar figure beside her. With the arrival of a second child, Miss Rose Spencer, a petite fair-haired woman now approaching middle years, had been employed to assist with the task of caring for Mrs Bancroft's daughter, leaving the lady of the house to assume some of those duties which, with the absence of Mr Bancroft on numerous business journeys, now fell upon her, as well as allowing her to concentrate on the education and instruction of the son. It had been a fortuitous decision. As the only child of a widowed lawyer's clerk, Rose had been gently reared and had a practical if unimaginative disposition and seemingly without immediate prospects, despite being of marriageable age, had been content to provide the physical and emotional affection Helen's mother was too preoccupied to bestow. Rose was also a close friend of Victoria's.
It was Walter's voice Helen heard as she closed the door quietly behind her. ‘Heavens, Father, you sound like a Chartist and we all know their day is done. This country has been built on the principle of laissez faire and I see no need for radicalism here or in Parliament.’
His father smiled indulgently, showing no offence at the patronising tone his son employed. ‘No doubt you are right, Walter my boy, there can be no denying that you are a lot more intimately involved with these things than I.’ As he saw his daughter, a fond smile lit his creased face and their eyes met in mutual affection and understanding. Helen crossed the room to join the ladies, dropping an ineffectual bob to her brother. Although it had been several weeks since they had last met, this gesture was sufficient; anything more intimate would be neither expected nor appreciated.
Walter Bancroft had taken over the local seat when Harriet’s father had died three years ago and, despite venturing to London not above half a dozen times and then, Helen suspected, more at the insistence of his wife and her desire to visit the capital's milliners, dressmakers and drapers than a desire to increase his parliamentary education, still considered himself an authority on all matters politic. It must be said that he was not unintelligent, as his marriage to minor aristocracy and thereby positioning himself on the first stepping-stone of his path to realising his vaulting ambitions, attested. However, it was unfortunate that his expensive education and an inflated self-worth engendered by his parent's indulgences were made manifest in pomposity and contemptuousness.
Her mother patted the sofa beside her to encourage her daughter. ‘Rose was just telling me that the new plaid cloth you were so anxious about has, this very afternoon, arrived at Mr Matthews and apparently there are five different designs. Now you can tell us what you are planning. Is it a new design, my dear? And will it be for Rose, myself or Victoria?’
Helen had barely opened her mouth to answer, when Walter raised his voice. 'Oh, please tell me that the dratted doll as been consigned to the attic. I cannot believe that you allow these childish habits to persist. It would be more profitable for Helen to use her time on the acquisition of a few of the accomplishments, rather than playing tea parties. I do wonder, father, at your indulgence of this costly dressing-up, especially when we know that ladies are likely to spend much of their lives in mourning.' He glared at his childish sister, always such a scatterbrain with no interest in her future and who had never given him the respect due to one older and wiser, and latterly, with the responsibilities of Government!
Not even Mrs Bancroft could let this go by. ‘Oh Walter, what a gloomy outlook and I may say not a very enervating comment to make when your aged parents are present. And you know that Helen has an extraordinary aptitude for devising our gowns.’ She turned to Miss Spencer. ‘Are we not the most fashionable ladies in Dallingbury?’ Rose was saved from venturing an opinion which she knew from experience would be ignored by Walter, by the entrance of Trot, the parlour maid, to announce dinner.
The excellence of Mrs Maltby’s dishes did go some way to mollifying Walter’s temper and, since the other diners were content to allow him free reign over the conversation, the subjects and his comments upon them were, to his mind, both sensible and erudite. However Helen’s forebodings were more than justified when, on Rose's departure and the family's return to the Withdrawing Room, Walter, in the portentous voice he affected when informing his family of any decision, especially those to which he anticipated opposition exclaimed, ‘Harriet and I have been considering Helen’s marriage.’
Since the only response to this statement was silence and amazed expressions, he continued. ‘Having previously not consulted me upon the matter, father, I can only conclude that you have no contenders in mind whereas my dear Harriet has suggested several gentlemen who may do very well.’
Helen looked wildly at her father, as the silence filled the room. Eventually he cleared his throat. ‘Well, Walter, this is not a matter to which Mrs Bancroft and I have given much consideration.’ He reached over and took Helen's hand in his, his slow warm smile crinkling the corners of his eyes. ‘It seems only a year or so since she left the schoolroom.’
'And with the coddling which I see is still practised, it's a wonder she has left at all. However, as unprepared as she is for adult company, I would have thought an advantageous marriage would not have been far from your mind.' His tenor became more purposeful as he arrived at the nub of his design. 'You are no doubt aware that our near neighbour, Lord Pendale, chose unfortunately with his first wife who did not live beyond the birth of their first child, who also perished. Now that he is a widower, he has the opportunity to set this right. Then there is Squire Acton's boy, who must surely inherit some time very soon. Although neither the family's prestige nor estate can be compared to that of Pendale's, the income is considerably more than I anticipated and I have cause to know that the Squire, fully aware of his infirmities, is anxious to settle the succession. I am sure you will agree that either of these options are most acceptable.'
Helen, whose grip upon her father's hand had been growing ever stronger during her brother's repellent catalogue, managed a small breathless interruption. 'Papa?'
But her papa did not favour her with the reassurance she expected; he did not turn a commiserative glance her way, but instead nodded slowly, as if considering the sagacity of Walter's words. 'There is some wisdom in what you say, Walter, although I feel you could have couched it a little more delicately. The years have crept upon us and you are right in that Helen is now of an age to consider marriage and we should indeed be helping her to make a considered choice.'
He finally gazed upon his daughter, regarding her as if from a distance. 'She is certainly comely enough for that choice to be extensive, is she not.' He reached over and patted Helen's cheek. 'Come my sweet one, don't look so concerned. This is the beginning of your life as a woman. As Walter says, it is time to leave all childish thoughts behind.' He looked to his wife, hopeful of some addition to this statement. Mrs Bancroft dutifully rose from her chair and, as she took the space next to Helen on the couch, tucked her arm through her daughter's. 'Your father is quite right, my dear. This is an exciting time for you. Just think, all those lovely dresses you have made will be shown off at balls and dinners. You will be quite the eligible young lady.'
Helen was bereft of any coherent thought and could only look from one to the other of her parents as if regarding total strangers, which did not create a hiatus as Walter, who would have ignored any utterance on her part in any case, was impatient to expound his plan.
'Harriet is to hold a dinner next Tuesday to which Helen will be invited.' He made an aside to Mr Bancroft. 'She understands your reluctance to dine away from home and therefore the invitation is for Helen alone.' Resuming what Helen called his 'parliamentary voice' he continued. 'The Acton lad and Pendale have accepted as well as the Darbys and the Misses Mellodew will be escorted by their brother who is at present visiting and whom I have not had the pleasure of meeting, but am informed, is a magistrate and financier. It is not a large party but then that may defeat the object.' He turned his dispassionate glaze upon Mrs Bancroft. 'Helen should come to us for tea that day in order to have time to prepare, and Harriet has most kindly offered her maid to dress Helen's hair and such things.'
As Mrs Bancroft murmured her appreciation of such munificence, he finally turned to Helen. 'My dear Harriet is quite determined to assist with whatever education and training is required and, as I am sure you will have observed, she is all that is gracious and proficient in these matters. You would do well to emulate her, Helen.'
As her family's attention obviously required a reply, Helen rose to her feet and struggling to keep her voice calm and quiet, she said. 'As I see there is little more to be said on the matter, I will take myself to bed. Goodnight Mama, Papa. Goodbye Walter.'
Once from the room, Helen gathered her skirts and ran across the hall and up the stairs. Her early retirement meant the bedroom lamp had not been lit nor the shutters closed but the cold light from the waning moon was sufficient and drew her to the window seat. She sat opposite Victoria, drawing her feet up onto the velvet cushioning and clasping her knees, staring back at the dispassionate gaze facing her. She wanted to cry but was determined not to give credence to her brother's assertion of her childishness by doing so; instead she could have found some relief in screaming; railing against the injustice of her future being dictated by others, but knew that to do so would be pointless and that such behaviour considered by Walter as hysterical; another manifestation of the need for the discipline so lacking from her parents.
'Oh why do things have to change, Victoria? Is it so necessary to grow up? Can I not stay as I am, my father's sweet one. I would be more than content to care for him and Mama and the house; and Trot and Mrs Maltby, even Saxon though he is always so rude about my boots being the dirtiest of all.' She lowered her head to her knees. 'I don't want to be married and have to do everything my husband bids. I just want to stay here with you.' Then the tears did come. Had Victoria had been able she would have shaken her head.