THREE BLIND MEN STUMBLED UPON A MAIDEN
Wilhemina sat in Sir Daniel Braeburn’s carriage, an object of study for the two men seated across from her.
She glanced out of the window in a vain attempt to ignore them. The landscape outside jounced past in a blur of green and gray. Soon, very soon, she would convince her brother to take her to London for new spectacles. What a grand adventure they would have. If she planned very carefully, she might even persuade him to take her to Madame Tussaud’s, or perhaps even the Royal Opera House. Willa sighed.
She mapped a strategy, plotted a persuasive argument, and mentally calculated the cost of such a trip, all the while paying no heed to her brother’s hushed conversation until his consternation reached a crescendo.
“You see what I mean?” Jerome’s voice bore tragic undertones.
Sir Daniel peered at Wilhemina suspiciously. The coach went over a bump, and her traitorous bosom bounced in response. His eyes widened in alarm. “Oh dear. I see what you mean.”
Jerome slapped his hand against the leather seat like a judge pronouncing sentence. “She’s a full-grown female, isn’t she?”
Wilhemina wanted to chide her brother for behaving like a dolt, but that wouldn’t do, because Sir Daniel wore the same absurd expression of anxiety. She squinted, trying to bring into clear focus his mouth rounded into an alarmed O between his lamb chop side whiskers.
“I’m afraid so.” Sir Daniel nodded. “What are you going to do with her now?”
Jerome shook his head mournfully.
Good grief, one would think she had the plague.
She smiled at them as genially as she could manage. “Perhaps you ought to consider auctioning me off to the nearest traveling carnival. Judging by your conversation, I must be the only female in in England to have reached maturity. Surely, that should fetch a sovereign or two?”
The two bachelors looked at each other, their mutual fear of the female alarming their dour features.
Jerome sighed and bowed his head. “I suppose there is nothing else for it, but what I must take her to London for a season. Though how I will stand the expense of a townhouse, I don’t know.”
Daniel clucked his tongue. “The townhouse is just the beginning, my good man.” He ticked off expenditures on his fingers. “You must pay the earth for gowns and a party. Then, there is a chaperone to hire. I dare say your pockets will be let before the first month is out.” He took a deep breath. “And then, after your tremendous outlay there is the unhappy possibility that Willa won’t take. She’s a well-enough-looking young woman, no doubt. However, I’m not at all certain spectacles and red hair are in vogue.”
Jerome moaned and leaned back in the seat. His wide-brimmed hat flipped up as it knocked against the back of the carriage. He whisked it off, slapped it on the seat, and glared at the offending female across from him.
Wilhemina’s head began to hurt. She loved her brother and Sir Daniel dearly, but this entire discussion was complete and utter twaddle. “Really, you two, it’s bad enough you discuss me as if I’m not here. Now, you must spout nonsense? After the education you’ve both given me, forcing Greek philosophers down my throat from the time I was old enough to read, history lessons, mathematics, and the classics—now you plan on puffing me off like any ordinary female? What an absurd notion.”
Sir Daniel sat up and nudged Jerome. “I have it! My dear fellow, she’s right. The solution is obvious. Why, nothing could be simpler.”
Her brother perked up. “Speak man. What is it?”
“Haven’t we brought her up to be nearly as engaging company as we are?”
“Don’t you see? That’s our answer. I shall marry her.” He handed up this conclusion like a cook presenting them with a perfectly baked trout. No amorous notions. No undercurrent of desire. He offered them a simple well-reasoned solution.
Willa sighed, earnestly wishing she’d chosen a different frock that morning.
Jerome closed his gaping jaw and blinked at his friend. “Marriage? You can’t be serious?”
“Why not? If Willa marries me, you are spared the expense of a season, and the three of us are free to go on just as we always have.”
“You would do such a thing?”
“Of course. Haven’t I known her since she was in leading strings? Nothing could be more natural. I daresay she’s the only female in all of Christendom with which I am entirely comfortable. She’ll make an admirable wife. Able to hold her own in any discussion. What possible objection can there be?”
Slowly, both men turned to Willa and grimaced. She glared at them as if they had completely lost their senses. In the ensuing silence, at the exact moment when she needed to feel at her most imperious, the coach hit a bump and her old-fashioned sausage curls began springing ridiculously.
Jerome cleared his throat. “Willa, my poppet, did you hear? Sir Daniel has just offered for you.”
Each creak and rattle of the carriage exaggerated the uncomfortable silence. Willa opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out. She snapped it shut, tilted her head, and reevaluated the situation. Folding her hands squarely in her lap, she refused to give rise to their preposterous suggestion. Instead, she took another tack.
“I am not your poppet. A poppet is a small child, or a little girl. You have concluded this very day that I am no longer either one; ergo, you cannot call me your poppet.”
“Wilhemina, be sensible. We are not debating terminology. We’re discussing your future. Sir Daniel has just made a most magnanimous offer. What is your answer?”
Daniel cleared his throat. He removed his hat and peeked sheepishly at Willa, but his words were for her brother. “I suppose, regardless of everything we’ve taught her, Willa is still a romantical sort of female. Perhaps we, er, I should’ve asked her on bended knee with some sort of posy in my hand.” He scratched at his curly side-whiskers. “A thousand pardons, my dear. Perhaps you will allow me to pay my addresses at a later date?”
The kindness in his voice never failed to soften Willa’s heart. His brown eyes wavered with uncertainty, and he looked, for all the world, like a forlorn puppy.
“Think carefully, Willa,” chimed Jerome. “Consider all sides of the matter before you make an answer.” It was his clerical voice, a voice she had obeyed since before she could remember.
The pressure on her temples tightened. It had been a long day. Jerome’s sermon had droned on for longer than usual. She’d envied those who had the luxury of nodding off to sleep in church. Willa would not dream of wounding her brother by failing to pay attention. So she had pinched herself and sat bolt upright on the hard pew to maintain her concentration.
Now she was bouncing toward Sir Daniel’s house for their customary Sunday dinner while they stared at her, waiting anxiously for an answer that would alter her future forever whilst maintaining theirs in perfect equilibrium.
She rubbed her throbbing forehead. “Very well. I will consider discussing this at another time.”
“Excellent. That’s settled.” Jerome clapped his hands together and smiled. “Now then, Daniel, what do you say to this morning’s sermon?”
Sir Daniel steepled his fingers into a perfect arch and launched into a debate over this morning’s precepts. It was their favorite game, verbal chess. Willa ignored them and watched the colors gallop past the window.
Their coach rolled to a stop in front of Sir Daniel’s manor. Willa stepped out of the carriage, missed the bottom step, and would have tumbled to the ground had not her brother caught her with one hand and set her to rights. He accomplished this without so much as a pause in his conversation.
The butler held open the front doors as the gentlemen entered the house, still deeply engaged in verbal combat.
“Ahem.” The man attempted to attract his master’s attention. “Sir Daniel, if I might have a word, a matter of some importance. We have an unexpected—”
Sir Daniel, too engrossed in his argument with Jerome, waved him off.
Wilhemina trailed behind them completely forgotten. She stopped at the stairs and spoke loudly to their backs. “I would like to have lie down. I’m afraid I have the megrims.”
Reminded of her presence, the gentlemen turned.
“Yes. Of course.” Sir Daniel tapped his forehead lightly as if trying to remember what was called for in this situation. Finally, he motioned to his butler. “See to Miss Linnet’s comfort.” Daniel smiled uneasily at Willa. “Perhaps, we might have our little discussion later, when you are feeling more the thing.”
She nodded and started up the stairs, running her hand along the banister. These stairs, which she had run up and down since childhood, now looked different to her. They might, one day, be her stairs. Willa had never realized what a narrow hallway the house possessed. It really was a gloomy old box. The ancient house had never bothered her before. Before, it was merely Sir Daniel’s house. Now, it might be hers forever, a dark, crumbling dungeon.
Jerome and Daniel resumed their debate and disappeared into the study, shutting the door in the butler’s face. The servant sighed and turned to follow Miss Linnet up the stairs.