“We shall do what?” asked the youngest Miss Dover in perfect horror. “Live with you and Papa forever? Mama, you cannot mean it. Oh, Mama, I should rather die. I shall die! I shall die instantly! Matilda! Tildy, would you not rather die?”
Tildy, the second youngest Miss Dover, flung down her embroidery with a sob. “I would! I would rather die too, Mama! However could Papa be so cruel? Should we become the laughingstock of all the county, unable to even show our faces at a ball?”
“A ball!” wailed the youngest Miss Dover. The youngest Miss Dover, who suffered the given name of Leopoldina, was of flighty nature, and embraced not only hysterics but also enjoyed the most unexpected lifting of skirts and hair by errant breezes, and looked with innocent eyes at her mother each time the scandalous wind exposed more of a calf or shoulder than it should. Thus far it seemed Mrs Dover had not thought to blame anything other than the breeze for her youngest daughter’s impetuousity. “Should we not even be allowed to attend the ball to be held in a fortnight? Mama, it cannot be tolerated!”
“It can and it must be tolerated,” opined the middle-most Miss Dover, a slight and serious girl called Ruth. Of all the Miss Dovers, Ruth was considered the most eligible by her mother, as she had either no natural knack for her father’s unfortunate gift or such personality as to thoroughly quench whatever magic had seeped through. Sadly for Miss Dover the Third, such a personality was in every other way unpleasant as well. Ruth Dover was generally agreed to be pedantic, humorless, dull and without talent.
One could almost feel sorry for her, were she not so painfully stiff and priggish. Due to those traits, though, even Rosamund, the most gentle and temperant of the sisters, had been known to roll her eyes at Ruth’s stiffness, though only when she was quite certain Ruth herself could not see. Indeed, she would not permit herself such an activity where anyone except perhaps Elsabeth, her closest confidante of the sisters, might notice; such was Rosamund’s kind heart, that she would not risk hurting even the most rigid of the sisters.
For the nonce, however, Rosamund had no exasperation to offer Ruth, only a fond smile and a nod of agreement. “If Papa is quite serious, then there is nothing to be done, I fear.”
“Papa,” that worthy said, entering the room only in time to hear Rosamund’s remark, “is always quite serious, and indeed, there is nothing to be done about it. Elsa, what is that thing you are bedecking?”
“A saddle, Papa,” Miss Elsabeth said with perfect equanimity. “I think it shall look very fine with white ribbon, do you not?”
“It is a hat, Elsa,” Ruth said in the most severe tone at her disposal. “You must not mock our father. It shows an ugliness of spirit.”
“I cannot believe our Elsa has any ugliness in her at all,” Mr Dover replied. He sat, collected a newspaper, and shook it into fullness before peering over its topmost edge. “I am, however, pleased to hear it is a hat and not a saddle, for I believe its structure would not stand up to being ridden upon, though it seems to me it would sit nicely upon a young woman’s head. I hope Mr Webber will like it.”
“We shall never know what Mr Webber likes,” Mrs Dover said resentfully, “for we shall never meet him.”
“You are too bothered, Mama,” said Miss Elsabeth. “I am sure we will meet Mr Webber at church, and Susannah’s Mama, Mrs Enton, has promised to introduce us.”
“Mrs Enton has Susannah’s future to attend to,” Mrs Dover said with a sniff, “and I do not believe she shall do any such thing. Susannah may be old and plain–”
“Mama!” Elsabeth put down both ribbon and hat in dismay. “That is an unkind thing to say.”
“Unkind,” Leopoldina sang out, “but true.”
“Even if it is,” and it was, although Miss Elsabeth would never venture to think, much less say, such a heartless thing about her dearest friend, “even Mrs Enton cannot refuse to make the introduction should we be together with this Mr Webber in public. Surely he is gentleman enough to ask after our names, and she would be obliged to offer them.”
“Except Mrs Enton is away.” Mrs Dover spoke with the formidable certainty of one who knows that her next words are inarguable. “She will not be back until a fortnight today, and the next ball to be held is a fortnight tomorrow. She will not be introduced to him herself by the ball, and so not one of you shall marry Mr Webber.”
“Certainly I cannot speak to the impending nuptials,” Mr Dover proclaimed from behind his newspapers, “but certainly if such a tremendous amount of time is to pass between now and the ball, at least one of my dear girls will be able to make this Mr Webber’s acquaintance and therefore introduce poor Susannah Enton to him.”
“Do not be absurd.” Mrs Dover drew herself up, looking like nothing so much as a kestrel whose hunting skills have been offended. “It is simply impossible, when we are not ourselves acquainted with the gentleman in question. Do not tease us so, Mr Dover.”
“I should never dismiss your convictions,” Mr Dover said to his papers, then folded them down in a flash to reveal a most serious gaze. “It is true that a fortnight is no time at all in which to know a man, and it is not beyond reason that his character should be shown to be quite dreadful. Even so, I fear that if you do not introduce the Entons to Mr Webber, someone else shall, and your friendships will be marred by it. I will take it upon myself to make the introductions, if you will not.”
“Nonsense,” declared his wife stoutly. “You are speaking utter nonsense, Mr Dover, and I will not have it.”
It would be a falsehood to say that Mr Dover did not enjoy the consternation of the six women returning his gaze. Chiefest among them in pleasing him was Elsabeth, whose fine dark eyes narrowed ever so slightly as she sought to break through the perfect solemnity of his expression. He could not let that happen, so averted his gaze from hers, and in so doing, saw delighted comprehension flash across her pretty features. Daring not to look at her, he addressed Mrs Dover. “Nonsense? What, then, is nonsense? The art of introduction? Perhaps, and yet we hold it in the highest esteem. What do you think, Ruth? You are, of all of us, well-studied and thoughtful.”
Ruth, never in the least anticipating to be called upon, none-the-less straightened and drew breath for a discourse on the practicalities and impracticalities of the necessity of public introduction. Mr Dover, seeing that he had nearly unleashed a lecture, spoke quickly. “While Ruth considers her topic, let us return to Mr Webber.”
“Mr Webber,” said Mrs Dover bitterly. “I am sick of Mr Webber!”
At long last the papers were folded in their entirety, coming to rest in Mr Dover’s lap. “How I wish I had known that, Mrs Dover! Had I known that, I should never have taken myself to Newsbury Manor this morning to call upon him! But I did not know it, and now I fear we are obliged to pursue the acquaintance. I am sure, though, that we will find him an unseemly young fellow with callow views and an unsightly leg, and that we shall soon be able to rid ourselves of his undesireable presence.”
A tremendous and wonderful silence met this declaration, only to be shattered by Leopoldina’s girlish shriek of joy. With Tildy in her wake, she fell upon Mr Dover to shower him with kisses and hugs, while Rosamund folded her hands in her lap and smiled shyly at them. Poor Ruth sat stiff with disapproval, though whether it was born from a dislike of teasing or disappointment at being unable to speak in a scholarly fashion about the practice of introductions could not be said.
Elsabeth, who had suspected Mr Dover in these last minutes, only clapped her hands together in delight, and pressed her fingertips to her lips. Of all the astonishment and raptures shown by wife and daughters, this by far pleased Mr Dover the most. He smiled and smiled again, and only when Mrs Dover proclaimed, “I knew that you only teased us all along,” did he allow his humor to drop a wink at his second eldest and most beloved girl. Elsa smiled from behind the steeple of her fingertips.
“You could not have done so ill by all of us,” Mrs Dover went on, as though she had never once trusted her husband’s chicanery. “I knew I would persuade you at the last, and I am sure you have always had your girls’ best interests in mind. And how clever you are to make a joke of it, and not tell us at all until you have been to see him already! Oh, what an excellent father you have, girls! What an excellent man he is!”
“It is true,” agreed Mr Dover, and upon those accolades, sailed from the room.