lower lip, making it impossible for her to close her mouth without conscious effort. This unsightly face, with its mouse-brown hair skinned back into a hard little knot on the back of her head, was regrettably perched atop a long, scrawny neck as though for prominent display. Altogether, she was disastrously ill-favoured.
Daughter of the vicar, born and raised in the manse, she had dedicated herself to a relentless pursuit of “good works,” and to her credit, was always first on the scene of any disaster or bereavement with assistance and advice. The villagers, however, rarely heeded and never welcomed her interference, and sniggered at her behind her back, referring to her as “The Old Haddock.”
She was long past the age of any “expectations” and had declared, always with a delicate shudder, that indeed she had never had any intention of marrying in any case, since the only man she found in the least tolerable was her father.
The only break in her daily battle against the backsliding, sloth and outright indifference of her father’s hapless parishioners was her weekly visit with Lady Payton, whose friendship was precious to her. She considered herself so far above the local gentry on the social ladder that her condescension and arrogance had alienated all of them. They didn’t care if her mother was first cousin to the Earl of Everly, and they disliked being reminded of it at some point during every conversation with her.
So, not only was Lady Payton, in Miss Gilbert’s estimation, the only lady in the vicinity of equal social status with herself, she was the only woman who still received Miss Gilbert with anything approximating a welcome.
For Sebastian’s sake, Lady Payton had long ago given up receiving visitors at Larkwoods, but her attempts to discourage Miss Gilbert had failed. Miss Gilbert, impervious to snubs in her determination, had persisted and Lady Payton, aware of the pitiful state of Miss Gilbert’s social life, had been too good-natured to hold out against her. The weekly visit had become an established ritual, performed by Lady Payton as her own “good work,” for she felt very sorry for Angela Gilbert, knowing full well that Miss Gilberts regrettable personality was a direct result of her physical appearance, as much a disability as dear Sebastian’s.
But though her charity allowed the weekly visits, Lady Payton was not disposed to encourage Miss Gilbert’s attempts to establish their relationship on a more intimate footing. During the first few visits, many years ago now, Miss Gilbert had tried to draw Lady Payton into a discussion of Sebastian and his “condition,” as Miss Gilbert delicately referred to it. But Lady Payton would not be drawn on this subject and firmly turned the conversation into other channels, just as she rebuffed invitations to discuss her own lonely life which Miss Gilbert urged with many little, caressing pats on Lady Payton’s hands. Lady Payton had withdrawn herself from the contact with such a quelling look that Miss Gilbert had not been tempted to try it again.
Each Tuesday, however, she arrived at precisely eleven in the morning. She was shown into the drawing room where Lady Payton awaited her, and after greetings and being served with wine, they spoke of neighbourhood occurrences, or Lady Payton read aloud from the London newspapers.
The routine had not changed with the advent of Jane, but Miss Gilbert’s attention was not always so politely fixed upon her hostess. Jane could not imagine how her dear, good lady could bear Miss Gilbert, who never took her eyes from Jane and always managed to brush her hand when the wine and cakes were passed, as she did now. Jane flushed and turned away sharply. Lady Payton looked up and misreading her nervousness, smiled indulgently.
“There, dear, I can see you’re afraid to keep Sebastian waiting, so run along to your lessons now.”
Jane smiled gratefully and made her escape. Miss Gilbert watched until the
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