In the quiet of the library, Penelope Winthorpe heard the front door bell ring, and set her book carefully aside, pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose. She smoothed her sensible, bombazine skirt. Then she stood and strolled toward the front hall.
There was no reason to rush since hurrying would not change the results of the trip. Her brother accused her of being too prone to impulsive actions. Seeing her hare down the hall, every time the front door opened, only reinforced his view that too much education and too much solitude were affecting her nerves.
But the package she was expecting was already two days late, and it was difficult to contain her anticipation. She rose eagerly with every knock at the door, expecting each one to be the delivery she’d been waiting for.
In her mind, she was already holding the package, hearing the rustle of crisp, brown paper, running her fingers along the string that held it in place. She would cut the twine with the scissors on the hall table, and the book would be in her hands at last. She imagined she could smell the fresh ink and the paper, caress the leather of the binding, and feel the gold embossed title under her finger tips.
And then, the best part, she would take it back to the library and cut the pages open, spread them carefully, turning each one and catching glimpses of words without really reading, not wanting to spoil the surprise, even though she knew the story, almost by heart.
At last, she would ring for tea, settle into her favorite chair by the fire, and begin to read.
It would be heaven.
When she got to the hall, her brother was sorting through a stack of letters. The post had come, but there was no sign of a package from the book seller.
“Hector, did a delivery arrive for me? I had expected it by now, but I thought perhaps it might come with the post.”
“Another book?” He sighed.
“Yes. The latest printing of The Odyssey.”
Her brother waved a dismissive hand. “It came yesterday. I sent it back to the shop.”
“You did what?” She stared at him, incredulous.
“Sent it back. You already have it. I did not deem it necessary.”
“I have translations,” she corrected. “This was in the original Greek.”
“All the more reason to send it back. I dare say, the translations will be much easier for you to read.”
She took a deep breath and tried counting to ten before speaking, to control her rash tongue. She made it almost to five before blurting, “I do not expect to have trouble with the Greek. I read it fluently. As a matter of fact, I am planning a translation of my own. And, since I cannot translate words that are already in English, the new book will most certainly be necessary.”
Hector was looking at her as though she had sprouted a second head. “There are many adequate translations of Homer already available.”
“But none by a woman,” she responded. “I suspect that there are insights and subtleties I might bring to the material, that will be substantially different than those already available.”
“Inferior, perhaps,” countered her brother. “The world is not clamoring for your opinion, Penny, in case you haven’t noticed.”
For a moment, the truth of that statement weighed heavy on her, but she shook it off. “Perhaps it is because they have not yet seen what I can accomplish. I will not know, until I have tried. And for that, I will need the book I ordered. Which only cost a few pounds.”
“But think of the time you would spend, wasted in reading.” Hector always considered such time wasted. She remembered his discomfort in the schoolroom, and his desire to escape from it as soon as possible, when father was ready to leave the business in his hands. That a printer had such a low opinion of books, never ceased to amaze her.
“For some of us, Hector, reading is not a waste of time, but one of life’s great pleasures.”
“Life is not meant to be spent in pleasure, Penelope. I am sure, if you put your mind to it, that you can find a better way to use your time.” He looked her up and down. “While you needn’t be so frivolous as some young girls, who are hell bent on matrimony, you could devote your time to higher pursuits. Helping with the poor, or the sick, perhaps.”
Penelope gnashed her teeth, and set to counting. It was not that she had a distaste for charity work. It was certainly necessary. But it only showed how awkward she was around people, both rich and poor. And it served as a continual reminder to all that she was properly on the shelf, with no hope of a husband or children of her own to tend to. It felt like giving up.
Although, perhaps it was time.
And yet, she reminded herself, if she meant to give up, she could do it just as successfully at home, in front of the fire, alone except for her Homer.
This time, she made it to eight before speaking. “It is not as if I do not wish to contribute to society,” she argued. “But I think that what I can do for the scholarly community is just as valuable as what I might accomplish tending the ill. And I do make regular donations to the church to see to it that what help does not come by my hand, can come from my purse instead. There have been no complaints.”
Her brother glared in disapproval. “I believe there are complaints, Penelope. Although you may think that it is possible to ignore them, since they come from me. But Father has left me in charge of you and your inheritance, and so you must listen to them.”
“Until such time as I marry.” She added.
He sighed. “We both know the unlikelihood of that, Penny. I think it is time that we faced facts.”
We meant her, she supposed.
“It is one thing to be a bluestocking for a time. But I had hoped that you would have put such nonsense behind you, by now. I do not expect you to spend your whole day at the dressmakers, or in idle gossip. But to spend no time at all on your appearance and to fill your head with opinions? And now, Greek?” He shook his own head, sadly. “Someone must put a stop to this nonsense, if you will not. No more books, Penny. At least not until you can prove to me that you are ready to grow up and accept some responsibility.”
“No books?” She felt the air leaving the room. She supposed it was as some girls might feel if their strict older brothers had said, ‘No gowns. No parties. No friends.’ To be denied her books was to be left companionless and unprotected in a hostile world. “You cannot speak to me, thus.”
“I believe I can.”
“Father would never have allowed it.”
“Father expected you to have started a family, by now. That is why he tied your inheritance to the condition of your marriage. You have not yet found a husband. And so, control of you and your money, belongs to me. I will not see you fritter away the fortune that father left to you, in paper and ink.”
“A few books are hardly likely to fritter away a fortune, Hector.”
“Only a few?” He pointed to the stack on the table next to the door. “Here are ‘a few books,’ Penny. But there are more in the dining room, and the morning room, and the parlor. And your room as well, I dare say. The library is full to overflowing.”
“As it was when father was alive, Hector. He was a man of letters. What I have added to the collection hardly amounts…”
“What you have added to the collection is hardly necessary. There are books enough to last a life time, already in your possession.”
Perhaps if she read as slowly as her brother did… But she held her tongue and began to count again.
“And now, you are buying books that you already own. It must stop, Penny. It really must. If we are to share this house in peace, I will have no more of it.”
She lost count and her temper failed her. “Then I do not wish to live with you a moment longer.”
“I fail to see what choice you have.”
“I will marry. Someone more agreeable than you. He will be sensible and understanding, and will not begrudge me a few pounds a month for my studies.”
Hector was looking at her with pity, again, but his tone was sarcastic. “And where will you find such a paragon, dear sister? Have you forgotten the disaster of your come-out season? Even knowing of the substantial fortune attached to it, once you opened your mouth, no one would have you. None of them were good enough for you. You are too opinionated by half. Men want a woman who will follow where they lead, not one who questions her husband’s wisdom and ignores the house and the servants because she is too busy reading.”
It had been three years, and the sting of embarrassment still rose to the surface at the mention of the utter failure that had been her season. “But surely, there is a man who wishes an intelligent wife. Someone with whom he can converse.”
Hector sniffed in disapproval. “At such time as you find him, you are welcome to marry. But I do not see you in pursuit of such a man, nor is he in pursuit of you. Since you show no inclination to leave your desk, unless he comes stumbling into the house by mistake, it is unlikely he will find you. And thus, I am left to make your decisions for you.
I will not push you into society, for we both know that would be hopeless. But neither will I encourage you to further education, since what you have gathered so far has caused you nothing but trouble. Good day, sister. I suggest you find something to occupy your hands, and you will see no need to busy your mind.” And he went back to reading his mail.
She was dismissed. One, two, three… She retreated to the stairs before she could say something that would further solidify her brother’s opinions.
He was right in one thing, at least. He was entitled to make monetary decisions for her, until she could find another man to take the responsibility from him.
Not that she needed any man to do so. She was quite smart enough on her own. Smarter, she suspected, than her brother was. His hand with the family business showed none of the mastery that her father had had.
Her father loved the books he printed and bound, loved everything about the papers, the inks, and the bindings. He turned the printing of even the simplest invitation or calling card into a statement of art. And to her father, a finished volume was a masterwork.
Four, five, six… To her brother, it would never be more than profit and loss. And so, there was more loss than profit. Given a lifetime, Penny expected to see her own part in the inheritance disappear, pound by pound, to cover the shortages that would occur from his mismanagement.
Of course, it was her mention of the fact at dinner the evening before that had caused her brother’s sudden interest in bringing her to heel.
Seven, eight, nine… It was unbearable. She could not live out the rest of her life under Hector’s thumb, sneaking books into the house on the sly, and hoping that he did not notice. To live by his rules would be impossible.
Which left her one choice in the matter: she must marry. Even the thought of her brother’s edict and the lack of books, made her throat tighten in panic.
She must marry quickly.
She walked to the corner of the room and tugged the bell pull three sharp times. And then turned to her wardrobe for a valise, tossing in traveling clothes from the collection of half mourning that she had never quite managed to leave behind, although her father had been gone for two years.
In a few moments, there was a discrete knock upon the door.
“Come in, Jem.”
The senior footman looked uncomfortable, as he always did when summoned to her rooms. He had often expressed a wish that she would find a ladies’ maid, or some other confidant, and she had reminded him that she would do so, at such time as she needed her hair dressed or a ribbon ironed. But if she needed wise council, she would always call upon him.
“Miss?” He stood uneasily at the door, sensing a change in the air.
“I need you to hire a carriage, and prepare for travel.”
“You are going out, Miss?”
She gave him a fish eye. “I would not need a carriage, else.”
“Are we going to the book seller’s, Miss?” He had overheard the conversation in the hall, she suspected. And balked at doing something in direct opposition to her brother’s wishes.
“No, Jem. I am not permitted to do so.”
He sagged with relief.
“So I mean to limit myself to something my brother cannot possibly object to, since he has given me permission. He wishes me to be behave as other young ladies do.”
“Very good, Miss Penny.”
“And so, we are going to go find me a husband.”
From the book: Miss Winthorpe’s Elopement
By: Christine Merrill
Copyright © 2008
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The edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
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