The Dover household was for days in a futher; Mrs Dover could have nothing less than the best for the arrival of a man she already thought fondly of as her son. To this end she harried the cook, berated the maids, bullied the gardener and above all, related each instance of their imagined failures in minute detail to Mr Dover, whose closed library door did not prove the barrier he might have hoped it to. The only respite from these activities were the Dover ladies’ necessary visit to the ladies of Newsbury Manor, and the visit paid in return, which in themselves were new fodder for breathless discussion and hope, for it was clear that the sisters Webber found Rosamund in particular and Elsabeth to a lesser degree to be entirely suitable companions. Further invitations were not as of yet issued to the two eldest Dover daughters, but, as Mrs Dover related to Mr Dover at great length and considerable repetition, it was all very promising.
Driven by feminine palpitations, before the week had gone by Mr Dover had taken to passing his time in the gardens, at as great a distance from the house as he could achieve without taking a horse and leaving for the nearby village that gave itself airs of being a town.
Nor was he the only member of his family so inclined to escape the walls of their loved and crumbling family home. Rosamund weathered her mother’s fits with equanimity, and Ruth enjoyed helping with the preparations because it allowed her to feel as if she did penance with each shrill exclamation that flowed from Mrs Dover’s lips. Tilly and Dina were of no especial use, but ran after Mrs Dover, echoing her admonitions and clinging to one another, full of giggles, whenever they thought of Master Webber’s visit. But Elsabeth, though not unwilling to help, could not long bear their mother’s prattling, and so Mr Dover often saw her in the gardens as well, examining apple trees for their burgeoning fruit or simply treading soft grass pathways in endless repetitions, as if a pacing lioness had been bound into the body of a young woman. When they saw each other they smiled and nodded, but otherwise left well enough alone, recognising that neither required company save the solidarity of knowing they were understood by at least one other in the household.
On the morning of the day upon which Master Webber was expected for dinner, Elsabeth’s solitary wanderings were interrupted by a glad visitor: her dear friend Susannah Enton, who had danced first with Master Webber at the ball and who had allowed herself an entire week to savour that before visiting the Dovers, whose oldest, prettiest daughter was clearly the more favoured by Master Webber. Susannah was not envious; she was too pragmatic for that, and knew herself to be stronger of feature than was the current fashion, but it did no harm to hold the illusion in place a little while longer than necessary.
Elsabeth, upon seeing her, seized Susannah’s hands and proclaimed with all sincerity―for though she was not as generous of spirit as Rosamund, she loved Susannah dearly and wanted nothing more than her happiness―”Oh, Susannah, I wish that you were coming to dinner tonight. I would trade my three younger sisters to your mother, that we could have pleasant and sensible conversation throughout the evening.”
“But not your eldest,” Susannah said with true amusement that became quiet laughter as sisterly loyalty came to odds with friendship’s fondness on Elsa’s expressive features. “It is no matter, Elsa; I know that he seemed very fond of Rosamund from the outset, and I have heard that he made some effort to be in attendance when you called upon Miss Webber and Mrs Gibbs; that, indeed, he remained most attentive for the entire duration of your visit.”
“It is true,” Elsabeth confessed with a happy sigh. “He seemed to quite dote upon her, and insisted upon driving Miss Webber and Mrs Gibbs to Longbourne himself when they paid us a return visit.”
Susannah, quite without evident humour, said, “Do you not mean when they paid you the honour of a return visit, Elsabeth?”
“Hah! Oh, I should not have let that sound escape,” Elsa said through fingers interlaced over her mouth. “I know I am dismissive of society’s proscribed manners, but for Rosa’s happiness I must curtail my tongue. That said, I do not believe their visits to be an honour, Susannah, but rather a burden; I do not care for the way they look down their noses at all of us, yes, all of us, even Rosamund, as if they are certain they are our superiors, even though their family money came from trade only a generation ago. Your own father’s success in trade has made him very rich and yet not an unbearable snob, so it cannot be merely that they are defensive.”
“I believe Mama would be happily snobbish if she were not burdened with an unmarriable daughter. No, stop, Elsa; it is true. I am nearly twenty-eight and have no prospects. I should remove myself from their worries by taking the gentle arts they have educated me in and becoming a governess, but you know that I do not like children. The prospect of spending a lifetime educating them is worse than growing old in Papa’s house and caring for Mama and Papa in their dotage.”
“We shall grow old together, then.” Elsa tucked her arm through Susannah’s with cheery confidence. “For I see little hope for myself either, unless I am to go to London for a Season, and we are all quite certain that will not happen. At least Rosamund will marry for love while we two spinsters smile and watch.”
“You are only twenty,” Susannah pointed out, but did not choose to argue the rest, save to say, “A Season might not be so very bad, Elsa, but I wonder about Master Archer’s…difficulty…at the Newsbury ball.”
Elsa, blithe as a sprite, sang, “Master Archer sat on a wall, Master Archer had a great fall,” and turned innocently sparkling eyes upon her friend. “Whatever can you mean, Susannah?”
Shocked and delighted, Susannah gasped, “Elsabeth! You did not!” as one who did not so much scold as hoped dearly to be told more.
“I did nothing that anyone could ever be certain of, my dearest Susannah.” Elsa glanced around the garden, making certain they were quite alone before releasing Susannah’s arm and reaching upward to touch her fingertips to a small green apple. It swelled beneath her touch, reddening until it fell, perfectly ripe, into her palm. She presented this morsel to Susannah, who clutched it against her bosom in both hands and watched in wordless joy as Elsa quickened a second apple for herself. “There,” said Miss Dover with a certain satisfaction. “This is worthy of scandal in London, and all the more delicious for being our secret.”
“If an unseasonable apple is all that is required to scandalise London, I believe you ought to have a Season there, for it is very dull indeed and you would liven it up. And when your Season is over and you are married to a dull but rich man, you may bring me into your home as your companion so that you do not go mad from boredom. I shall tend to your garden, and eat apples out of season all year long.” Susannah defied propriety and took a large, wet bite of her apple before sighing in contentment.
“If London is that easily scandalised I should far rather stay in here, where I can ripen apples without notice. Rosamund will marry Webber and we will be saved from both the pox of primogeniture and of dubious sorcer―”
Susannah put a hand over Elsa’s mouth, silencing the word. “Do not speak it aloud, Elsa. You are discreet enough, but even the whisper of the word could set everything awry for Rosamund. If she is to ensnare Webber, he must know nothing of your heritage, nothing at all.”
“There is no one in London who could not undo us, Susannah, and no one here who could not whisper those same rumours into his ear. It has been known forever that Papa is looked upon suspiciously; it is why he plays the doddering old fool, so that no one thinks to fear him.”
“You are mistaken. If the townfolk were was inclined to believe the tales, they would have sprung up again, loudly, after Archer’s fall at Newsbury Manor. I worried for you, and have been listening, Elsa. The rumours are so old and so unproven as to be dismissed: even my own mother, who sees Master Webber as her last chance to be rid of me, sniffed in disdain at the idea his fall might have been orchestrated through occultish means. Do nothing to lend credence to them, and all anyone will remember is that your mother is・”
“Silly,” Elsa finished, gently, when Susannah’s kindness would not allow her to, “and my younger sisters absurd. Surely that is not enough to distract from old stories taking root, if the Webbers cared to pursue them.”
“Your father removed you to the country nearly twenty years since, Elsa, and in that time no one save myself has ever seen any truly remarkable activities from your family, and even then, it has only ever been you, in secret. Your mother and sisters are enough to rise above,” Susannah finished. “Do not offer any other hint of difficulty.”
“Why are you so good, Susannah? Why protect us so fiercely?”
Susannah balanced her half-eaten apple on her fingertips and smiled. “Because I love apples, Elsa, and I love you.”
“You ought to have been my sister, too.” Elsa embraced Susannah, kissed her cheek, and together went away into the gardens.