"Cheltenham," he repeated. "Do you mean to take the waters, then?"
"Perhaps." I shrugged, as tho' the thought had only just come to me. "Cassandra may wish to do so, to be sure, and I shall be happy to indulge her whims. Perhaps by the time we return from our journey into Gloucestershire, Charles's Board of Review will have declared him blameless!"
"You consulted Curtis today in Alton, did you not?" Edward persisted. "—The apothecary?"
"I did." Now it was my turn to stare at him. "I wished to procure a trifling sleeping draught."
"And what did Curtis advise—regarding your trifling draught?"
"He was warm in his praise of an infusion of chamomile before bed."
"You pecked like a bird at dinner," Edward observed. "Indeed, this past fortnight you have eaten too sparingly."
"Pooh." I turned away. "Go and join the others; I shall just fetch the herb for my tea. Cassandra is sure to have chamomile put by in her stillroom."
"The waters at Cheltenham are chalybeate," Edward said. "Rich in iron. Ideal for those who suffer, Jane, from disorders of the bowels. Is this why Curtis would send you there?"
I waggled my fingers dismissively at him. "Perhaps! But if we persist in gossiping here all night, your tea shall be cold. Do leave off your questions, Edward, and join the others in the sitting-room—before I am out of all patience with you!"
THE WAGES OF SIN
Thursday, 23rd May, 1816
Wednesday morning, wet and grey, saw us collected in the cottage doorway, bidding adieu to Edward and Fanny, whose progress towards Kent would be tediously encumbered by the mire and mud of country lanes. Fanny is an excellent traveller, however, and had her sketchbook, her needlework, and a small chess board at hand. My brother meant to ride his gelding alongside the travelling-coach, regardless of the driving rain. They would change horses in Basingstoke and rest this night at the Bear in Reading.
When the last bandbox had been strapped on behind and the last handkerchief waved, Cassandra and I hurried inside to attend to our own packing. We meant to quit Chawton for Cheltenham the next morning, and were prepared to break our journey twice—first at brother James's in Steventon, where we would set down Cassie for a visit with her cousin Caroline; and again Friday night in Swindon, where we had written ahead to bespeak a room at the Crown.
Saturday should see us arrived in Cheltenham—and though the miles we must travel that day are long, we should not be too late, I hope, for dinner.
"I AM SURE I should benefit immeasurably from a fortnight at Cheltenham," Mary observed, from her position on the rectory sopha. "It has been an age since I was last there—full three years!—and I am sure the waters set me up remarkably when I took them. Indeed, I should profit as much from the change of Society and relief of boredom as anything else. You might have considered me, Jane, when you contemplated your scheme. I might have borne you company as easily as Cassandra, and my health been improved beyond recognition, if only you had thought of someone other than yourselves. But it is always the way, I find; others may run madcap about the country, in search of dissipation and pleasure, while I am expected to remain confined and quiet at home."
I had anticipated a variation on this speech from Mary, who generally met the happiness of her friends with indignation. "We made our plans in haste, my dear, but perhaps on another occasion
"Have you been unwell?" Cassandra enquired with an expression of sympathy.
"These three months and more," Mary replied, and closed her eyes with a sigh. "My strength ebbing—my chest wracked with pains—my nerves worn to a thread...and James so unfeeling for all I suffer! He shall be sorry, I suppose, when I am cold in my grave."
Cassandra managed a soothing noise and untied the strings of her bonnet. It was quite wet. James keeping no carriage, we had travelled the seven miles from Basingstoke to Steventon in a hired open cart, and a shower of rain.
I studied my brother's wife an instant—Mary was swathed in a variety of shawls drawn close about her person, and I suspected her of wearing a quantity of flannel next to her skin, beneath the faded muslin dress that late May demanded. I cannot, in truth, blame her—Cassandra and I were chilled through, and I feared Cassie might have been so unfortunate as to have taken a cold in the head. There was no fire, however, in the rectory grate; and my boots were uncomfortably damp. How like James's wife to languish in misery in a cold parlour, like an heroine in a Gothic novel, in the hope her husband should discover her in a swoon, and exclaim all his remorse romantickly over her insensible head!
"Drusilla!" I called down the passage to the maid-of-all-work. "Some kindling and a supply of wood, if you please!"
Mary's head rose abruptly from her couch. "We never have fires in the rooms after April, Jane. The economies of a country parsonage do not run to extravagance."
Having been raised myself in this very parsonage, when my far more harassed father had stretched his living to rear eight children and numerous pupils lodged in the atticks, I had only one word for this.
"Nonsense," I said briskly. "We are perishing of cold. I shall press a few shillings upon James in recompense if that will make you easy, Mary."
"I suppose you have any amount of funds to waste," my brother's voice said drily from the doorway, "now that your shocking novels have gained the notice of the Prince Regent."
This excerpt ends on page 20 of the hardcover edition.
Monday we begin the book Cold Snap by Marc Cameron.