The Nesmiths; or Husbands Wanted
Helen Nesmith was all too conscious that, three months hence, she would turn three-and-twenty, which in itself was nothing incredible; but, as she had reached that age without managing to get herself married, while time after time, she had heard the banns read for one after another of her acquaintance- some many years younger than she was- it was now of great concern to her. It plagued her constantly: when she looked in the mirror at her dressing table; when she wrote her brother's new wife; when she and her aunt made social calls on her aunt's gossipy friends, who heartlessly conjectured as to whether she would ever get herself a husband; and when she sat at home, enduring her aunt continually lamenting her fate, should she remain unmarried after her father died.
Helen did not doubt that she would marry, some time or other. She was handsome enough, with a pleasing face and lively manner that made her a favourite with those most intimate with her; and she was of a disposition to look only for the good in others, no matter what their character, and to like people in general. Her only flaw was a tendency towards over-modesty and self-consciousness in the presence of those superior, and those who would pretend to be superior, to her; and so she was often apt to think herself unworthy of an acquaintance, when she was more than equal to it.
She was clever, having read a great deal of her father's books when she was
young; and although she had lately become undisciplined in the improvement of
her mind, having taken to reading only novels, time spent in conversation with
her sister Louisa, who took pride in the vast number of books she had read,
helped to fill in the gaps in her learning. While she was not considered highly accomplished, as some ladies are, she could draw and paint; and, when in duet with her youngest sister, Susan, she could sing rather prettily.
There was no reason why she ought not to marry easily, even with her small
fortune of a little less than 3000 pounds; but she was of the sentiment that
she ought to marry for love, and so would not settle for just any man who was
wealthy and respectable. Her future husband had to be charming and clever,
witty, yet kind, and tolerably good-looking. However, she did have her reservations when it came to exceedingly handsome men. She had met with too many young men who were so ridiculously vain and conceited that they considered their paying attention to a young lady as an honour to her.
Still, Helen had not yet met with anyone, amongst her various connections
that resembled the sort of man she imagined herself marrying. Over the years,
there had been one or two gentlemen who she had hoped might fancy her, but
after her share of disappointments, she was beginning to think of the dismal
prospect of her remaining, for the rest of her life, at Brambley House with her father and aunt as a sure thing.
Her two older brothers, Henry and Anthony, were both married and comfortably settled, Henry not half a mile away, at Ashbrooke Manor, the stately old house which had, not long ago, belonged to her grandfather; and Anthony, in a set of rooms above his employer's shop, in London.
At sixteen, Henry had been adopted by his grandfather's heir, and his mother's cousin, Mr. Charles Ridley, as he and his wife had no children. Over the years, they had come to look upon Henry as their own, first offering to fund his education, and later, after his mother died, to make him heir to Ashbrooke. He had inherited the estate three years ago, shortly after his marriage, and he and his wife were now settled there. His wife, Catherine, had been the daughter of one of the major landowners in the neighbourhood, and a long time acquaintance of the Nesmiths. Henry's mother, in fact, had been quite intimate with Catherine's mother; so it was not unusual that the two should decide, after the appropriate number of balls and dinners that they were very much in love with each other and wish to be married. They had two children: a delightful little girl of two, affectionately called Kitty, and a six-month-old baby, Charlotte.
Anthony, who would never be Henry's equal, cared not for connections or fortunes as his brother did. Even though he was intended to inherit the larger portion of his father's fortune, which would provide him with a respectable income, he was convinced, as his father also was, that only through honest work would he enjoy any sense of fulfillment in life; and so he was employed as clerk to a London solicitor. He engaged himself to the daughter of a surgeon, with little fortune and no advantage.
Their aunt, Mrs. Bolton, was violently opposed to the connection. 'Why, Anthony is only just in possession of an income and has little fortune,' she protested to her brother, 'he can hardly afford to maintain himself, let alone a penniless wife, and expect to still live respectably. Who is this Miss Vickers, anyway? Certainly not a lady, coming from such a low family; she must be vulgar and rude.'
But Mr. Nesmith, not one to unjustly censure his favourite son, would not heed his sister. Instead, he invited the young lady to stay at Brambley House, and upon meeting her, found her pleasing where his daughter-in-law was merely civil, and natural where the other was affected. Giving Anthony and his future bride his ardent blessing, he wished them happiness, and did all he could for them. Accordingly they were married that spring in London.
Helen and her two sisters, Louisa and Susan, were now the only ones at home.
Louisa, at twenty-one, was of a quiet nature, both in manner and in looks; and having nothing outstanding about her, was in general, beyond the interest of most people, save those who were most intimately connected to her. She was found more often alone than in company, as she avoided society when she could help it, considering many of her family's acquaintance as self-important and pretentious. When she did go on social visits, unless it was to see a particular friend, she would sit silently and not speak, unless directly spoken to, and then always against her will. She preferred romantic poetry and Shakespeare's sonnets to most other works, and valued every thing that was beautiful and useful; she was often employed in her rose garden and often employed in the arts, as she was the most accomplished of her sisters.
Susan, the youngest, was just reaching the age, at eighteen, where making herself as agreeable as possible to all the young gentlemen in the neighbourhood became of the utmost importance. She was prepared to fall in love with the first handsome, clever, and rich young gentleman she met with. By far the handsomest of the three, she was very likely to attach such a gentleman, and so, according to Mrs. Bolton, she was expected to fair better than her sisters when she married. When she chose to be, she could be as equally well mannered as her sisters, but, as the particular pet of her aunt, who fancied she resembled herself in her youth, she was used to always being the center of attention, and would do whatever it took, by her speech and actions, to draw attention.
The three sisters, while being very different in their natures, were still very close, as girls who have lost their mother at a young age often are. They were keenly interested in each other's well-being, and so it was no little matter to them that Helen should be so anxious that she was not married.
'I only wish it was October,' said Susan, 'then there would be an assembly in Chattington. I am sure we would meet with some gentlemen there whom we do not know; and perhaps amongst their number there would one who is right for you, Helen.'
'Yes,' said Helen with a wry smile, 'but he would be much too old, dreadfully tedious, and a fool; and since he would immediately fall in love with me, I would have an excessively difficult time in detaching him from me, and an even more difficult time in convincing my Aunt Bolton that I do not wish to marry him.'
'Honestly, Helen, it was not my fault!' Susan protested, 'how was I to guess his intentions toward you? If I had but known, I never would have agreed to introduce you-'
'For a certainty!' replied Helen with earnest, 'However, do not think I blame you, dearest Susan; I have long since forgiven you. After all, I now have some consolation: Mr. Stills has since engaged himself to Miss Watson, and will soon be safely married. Then I will think of him no more. I only hope she does not realize how loathsome he really is, and break it all off before they are married; I live in trepidation at the mere thought of his coming round to call, a single man again.'
'Helen! Be kind,' said Louisa, 'While you may find Mr. Stills less than ideal; it is an entirely advantageous match for Miss Watson. She is neither pretty, nor rich, and will have no where to go when her mother dies.'
Helen was immediately repentant. 'You are right, Louisa.' she said, 'I speak only for my own happiness; who am I to censure another less fortunate than I am? I have grown too complacent knowing we shall not have marry men like Mr. Stills, if we do not wish to.'
But none of the girls conjectured as to what would happen if there never were any other gentlemen in the neighbourhood but those like Mr. Stills.
Of course, there must be some event to alter the course of the story, to prevent our heroines being forever forgotten at Brambley House. That event came in the way of their neighbour, old Mr. Moore, passing away at the venerable age of eighty-two. He and his only daughter, who had predeceased him by five years, had lived shut away from society for nearly twenty years, in his grand old house, Wycliffe.
The whole neighbourhood, or, more specifically, Mrs. Bolton and her gossipy friends, Mrs. Hardwicke and Mrs. Westmacott, were in an agitation over the upcoming visit of the new owner, Mr. Sheldon.
'Only think,' said Mrs. Bolton, 'what a good thing it is for us having a new neighbour at Wycliffe. Our little neighbourhood has been sorely contracted this summer since the Clarkes and the Baldwins have gone to London, and now Mr. Ellison going down to Brighton with his daughters.'
'Yes,' agreed Mrs. Westmacott, 'we have not had anyone to dinner in above three weeks, nor been out to dine this whole month. I am quite fatigued with Mr. Westmacott's conversation; he talks only of his health these days, and I am certain he fancies he is dying.'
'It was quite a shock to us all,' said Mrs. Hardwicke, 'his brother dying so young.'
'Yes,' agreed Mrs. Westmacott, 'but I do not believe my husband will die as soon as he imagines. I rather think this lull in visitors has more to do with his poor health, than his heart giving out.'
'Then you must convince Mr. Westmacott to invite this Mr. Sheldon to dinner,' said Mrs. Hardwicke, 'I myself am very curious to meet this gentleman. You see, my younger son, Lucas, attended school with a most agreeable young man named Sheldon, and I wonder if this is the same man.'
'In that case, he would indeed make a welcome addition to our dinner table,' replied Mrs. Westmacott, 'being both agreeable and an acquaintance of your son's.'
Mrs. Bolton, who had been impatiently waiting for an opportunity to share her own piece of news, now spoke up. 'I have heard he is very rich!' said she, 'I heard it directly from the milliner's wife- she heard it from her daughter, who is married to the gardener at Wycliffe- our Mr. Sheldon is in possession of a valuable property- some five or six thousand a year- and has a house in London- I do not know exactly where- but it is in one of the more fashionable squares!'
'Well!' said Mrs. Westmacott with feeling, 'That is something!'
'Indeed!' added Mrs. Hardwicke, immediately thinking of her daughter, 'is he married or single?'
'That, I do not know,' said Mrs. Bolton, 'it is most vexing; no one seems to have heard.'
'That is most vexing,' agreed Mrs. Westmacott, 'for my Anna would do very well with 5 or 6 thousand a year- or any of our girls- but, being the oldest, we must think of poor Anna.'
The other ladies agreed, but secretly each of them hoped their own girls would suit Mr. Sheldon better.
It turned out, however, when the gentleman in question came down for his visit that September, that he was indeed rich, already having a property in Essex of six thousand pounds a year, that he was indeed agreeable, and that he was indeed married, having brought his wife and his wife's sister, Miss Pearce, with him. Imagine poor Mrs. Bolton's chagrin upon her discovering that the gentleman whom she had been intending, for some weeks now, for Helen was already long married. Her irritation over the matter was such that she vowed she would not wait on the Sheldons, and would only speak of them in the most disapproving terms, and wish that they would quit the neighbourhood as soon as possible.
But the Sheldons, while they had at first intended to only stay a few weeks, to allow Mr. Sheldon to look over his new property and propose any needed improvements, and then continue on to Brighton for the benefit of Miss Pearce's health, as she was an invalid, were so charmed with the country and so pleased with their principal neighbours, as to forego Brighton, and instead spend the remainder of the year at Wycliffe. In January they would be on their way again, to Bath.
Henry and his wife were the first to wait on them, being both the Sheldons' closest neighbours and the neighbours most interested in making a good impression on them. Mr. and Mrs. Sheldon were a couple close in age to Henry and Catherine, but whereas Henry was idle, depending on his John Morrison to manage his estate, Mr. Sheldon was an industrious sort. He was personally involved in the most intimate details of his property, and it was not a strange thing for him to be seen in the fields with his labourers, overseeing the planting and harvesting. He was a student of the modern farming methods and had contrived nearly as many inventions as Mr. Tull himself.
Catherine and Mrs. Sheldon were more alike in character than their husbands. They were both haughty and self-satisfied, each believing she had surpassed the other in the superiority of her marriage. They could never be good friends, no matter how intimate they might become, as they were too selfish to care about anything or anyone other than themselves, their husbands, and their precious children; but, as social equals, neither could they afford to estrange each other, for fear of being accused of snobbery, and so they were regularly issuing invitations to each other for tea or dinner, or suchlike.
Soon Mrs. Sheldon and her sister were to be introduced to the Misses Nesmith, of whom they had heard much, and were now curious to meet. Catherine invited the girls up to the house on a morning when Mrs. Sheldon and Miss Pearce were expected to call. It was a fine day in mid-September, the sun warm and bright; it more closely resembled a summer's day, than a day in early autumn. Catherine thought it would be pleasant to take refreshment out of doors, and so the party moved to the garden.
The two ladies arrived in good time, and were soon comfortably settled with the others. Mrs. Sheldon was a tall, sharp looking woman, fashionably dressed, with an affected elegance of deportment. Miss Pearce, while as tall as her sister, and as fashionably dressed, was thin and frail looking. She spoke little and deferred every question to her sister.
The initial pleasantries done with, the whole party sat in silence for a time, while Mrs. Sheldon looked over the three young ladies with whom she had been so eager to be acquainted. At last she announced how positively charmed she was with the Misses Nesmith, and pronounced them sweet, amiable girls.
'However', continued she to Catherine, 'they lack a certain vitality in their complexions, owing, I have no doubt, to their want of prodigious exercise. Since the weather remains so mild, I wonder that they do not take advantage of it, and go out on every fine morning. Do they ride out on horseback?'
'I do not believe they do,' replied Catherine. 'They used to have a pony, but I seem to remember it having died some years ago. Since it was never replaced, I do not think it was missed. These days, it seems to me, they are mostly at home, as they seem to find their own company more agreeable to any other; and if they can ever be prevailed on to quit the house, they are found only to be walking to the vicarage to visit their friend, Miss Hardwicke, which is not above a quarter-mile.'
'Well,' said Mrs. Sheldon with satisfaction, 'then I am all the more assured that they would benefit of some exercise. I must make them know the importance of improving one's health.' Calling the Misses Nesmith over to her, she declared: 'Mrs. Ridley and I have been discussing the subject of your health, and we have concluded that the three of you would benefit from the use of a horse. Therefore, I am willing to make my quiet mare available to you, to be shared amongst you of course, on any fine morning when I am otherwise detained, and will not be able to use her.'
Helen and Susan exchanged pleased looks. They had not had access to a horse in nearly three years, and the prospect of a morning spent on horseback, and a spirited gallop through the fields, was more than equal to their dispositions.
Catherine was all astonishment. She had never been generous enough to offer her horse to her sisters-in-law, even though she rarely went out on it, and was frankly embarrassed that a stranger would be so quick to offer them her own.
'Surely you cannot think they would use it often enough to be worth the trouble?' she protested. 'You would not want to burden your man with having her ready every day there's good weather, only to have my sisters-in-law stay in?'
'Johnson has instructions to have her ready every day,' replied Mrs. Sheldon, 'as I often ride out two or three times a week, and more, in such weather as this. So, it is nothing to him whether he has her ready for me, or someone else. But I do so hate to see her idle; and as I have not been out above twice since she arrived, what with, every morning, some neighbour or other descending upon me for social calls, it would be a great service to me if the Misses Nesmiths could make use of her.'
Catherine could offer no other protestations. Helen and Susan were free to gratefully accept the invitation. But Louisa, who was often timorous by nature, declined the offer; the old pony had been challenge enough for her. The alternative of sitting with Miss Pearce, who was found to be as extensively read and as highly accomplished a pianist as herself, while her sisters enjoyed their exercise, was a more agreeable proposition to her.
Later that day, after Mrs. Sheldon had gone, and Helen and her sisters were preparing to return home, Catherine took Helen aside.
'I too have decided to let you have the use of my horse,' she said, 'as I would hate for you to further impose on Mrs. Sheldon's kindness by your detaining her from whatever important duties she may have to perform, while one of you rides and the other sits with her.'
While Helen saw through her sister-in-law's belated appearance of generosity, she did not object, and accepted her offer. She was more than agreeable to the opportunity of riding out with her sister; company makes every thing so much more enjoyable.
© 2001 Copyright held by the author.