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James Westfield was not an idle man and was never known to neglect his duty, unless it concerned his sister-in-law, in which case, like any man facing an unpleasant task at hand he was in no hurry to fulfill it.
It was no secret within the family circle that Mr. Westfield disliked Margaret Fairfax with a passion that defied his sense of duty and obligation. And the fact that he let his emotions, however intense, effect him so as to render his actions almost non-existent was rather shocking for a man who always prided himself on doing his duty and never avoided responsibility before.
Indeed, no one who had any knowledge of his steady character and reputation would ever believe upon hearing that it took James Westfield almost four years to make up his mind and act upon a promise given to his late wife under the most grievous of circumstances.
On this particular afternoon, Mr. Westfield was seated within the solitary comfort of his study with a cup of tea, a frown rapidly taking hold of his face and a newspaper reluctantly put aside for later perusal as he was once again pondering the matter of his sister-in-law and her impending arrival.
He was prompted into this unpleasant contemplation by a report of the most alarming kind that he received early in the morning and that concerned his sister-in-law and her latest display of impropriety. It made his tea taste bitter, the aforementioned lady’s arrival highly unwelcome and the longing to read the newspaper greater still.
It was unfortunate that while her elder sister, Isabella, held such a special place within his heart, Miss Margaret occupied a much more inferior position – that of Mr. Westfield’s least favourite person in the kingdom. It seemed that he had made up his mind to dislike her and nothing short of miracle would ever change that.
The origin of his dislike went back to their very first meeting when Margaret – no more than ten at the time – freely and with great feeling of outrage spoke on the subject of Mr. Westfield and his intention of marrying her sister. Mr. Westfield was duly shocked and offended for he was not accustomed to being subjected to preposterous displays of sisterly affection of such kind; the scene created inevitable rupture between him and Margaret and both parties eagerly maintained it in the years to come.
But unless he wanted to see Margaret Fairfax ruined forever, he had to put his personal sentiments of aggravation with the lady behind and complete the task entrusted to him by Isabella. Shaking his head with shame, anger and self-disgust, Mr. Westfield abandoned his chair and decided to take a turn about the room. Having a walk, even within such a confined area, was a fine idea and luckily for Mr. Westfield he was in possession of a finely-proportioned room that invited such an invigorating activity by providing ample space for stretching one’s legs. Whether it was enough to vent off one’s bad mood was yet to be seen.
Before long his feet carried him towards the most prominent feature of his study – Isabella’s portrait in all her unforgettable beauty. She was sitting by the window, resplendent in the gown of golden muslin against the blue streaked with wispy grey sky outside. He lovingly traced the contours of her face. She was timeless, forever preserved in the glorious strokes on canvas, gazing at him with soft glow of her eyes. Her understanding smile and sweet motionless grace moved him to tears and took him into the realm of joyful memories tinted with sorrow.
At the age of three and twenty James Westfield had the misfortune of losing his father, however, when life robbed him of his esteemed parent it swiftly supplied him with a heartening remedy in the charming person of one Isabella Fairfax. Their encounter took place at Lady Theodora Allingthorpe’s private ball, whence he was taken along by a well-meaning friend, and though James was not at all inclined to be entertained at the time, the mere sight of Miss Fairfax was enough to make him stay and pursue her acquaintance.
He was taken in at once by the softness of her smile, her earnest eye and not a trace of artificial affectation about her. She reminded him of a Greek goddess as she gracefully moved across the room in her white flowing dress, ringlets of fair hair neatly held in place as if by magic and her marsh-like green eyes shining with laughter and wisdom, striking in someone so young.
They were married soon afterwards and had a son. It was a perfect and beneficially equal match, but after a few years of its blissful felicity Isabella’s health gave way to illness that strongly resisted treatment of the time. As her life was being cut short, she entreated her husband to bring her younger sister to Northbrook Hall to make sure that she came to no harm, for she trusted no one but him and his good judgement to take care of Margaret and guard her interests now that she herself was rendered powerless in this endeavour.
After Isabella’s marriage, Margaret remained in London with Lady Theodora – an elderly relative of theirs – on whose account Isabella had some reservations, in particular, concerning her notions regarding the upbringing of young ladies. Having been their victim once, she could not trust Her Ladyship to be the kind of mother figure that Margaret needed at the tender age of fifteen, situated in the very heart of London.
However, in the face of the terrible loss, Mr. Westfield’s and Margaret’s long-standing feud was put to rest and an uneasy truce was reached when Mr. Westfield himself drove Margaret to her sister’s deathbed. Bad feelings on both sides were forgotten and promises of future cooperation were made. It was only natural that while their mutual dislike was strong, their love for Isabella was stronger and it looked like a matter of time before the power of their affection would conquer other – less cordial – sentiments.
But in her next letter, delivered with a rather shaky hand, Margaret revealed that her health was suffering greatly and according to physicians any movement at the time were considered highly inadvisable. She begged Mr. Westfield to put off her moving in until such a time when she was well enough to attempt it without further deterioration of both her body and mind. Mr. Westfield, who was in no better state to entertain guests, least of all questionable ones, agreed to her continuing stay under her Aunt’s roof and thus the matter was settled to everybody’s satisfaction.
Three years later Mr. Westfield became aware of the fact that his delay, while not entirely unjustified, brought about some undesirable consequences that had to be dealt with instantly. He would go after her, bring her to the country, and scold her and keep her out of trouble in the future, even if it meant not to allow her to step beyond the gates of Northbrook Hall.
Resolutely, Mr. Westfield took some ink and paper and rang the bell. His mother and sister had to be informed, the lodgings had to be prepared and a letter to London had to be composed and dispatched at once.
A fortnight later, Margaret Fairfax was sitting in her Aunt’s fashionable breakfast-parlour, wistfully looking around and wondering with a kind of sad fondness when she would be sitting here again. But the sigh that she produced soon afterwards was not one of regret but that of relief. After all, she had been stationed in one place long enough to become sensible of certain evils of her situation. Not to mention that the latest scheme in which she took part was too heavy on her mind and conscience to make her further stay in London a pleasant one.
Unfortunately for the comfortable state of her mind, Lady Theodora despised travelling of any kind and Margaret could not count on any other source that would provide her with a change of scenery but that of her brother-in-law’s benevolent invitation, the arrival of which took her completely by surprise. Astonished but relieved, Margaret resolved to exert herself most powerfully in order to establish herself in his favour and household to the best of advantage.
But as the time of Mr. Westfield’s arrival drew nearer, Margaret became agitated by the clutter of thoughts that robbed her of her customary composure and disrupted the pleasant solitude that an early morning always supplied her with. She even abandoned her usual pursuit of playing the pianoforte, instead plunging herself into gloomy reflections; reflections of painful nature upon her character, her imprudent behaviour and the wretched outcome of her latest ballroom adventure. Distressed by the recollections and overwhelmed by many instances of her irresponsible conduct, Margaret took to pacing the room, thinking furiously.
What an odious person she had become and how forgetful of Isabella’s lessons on all things virtuous and honourable! If only her sister could see her now she would not live down the shame! Was it possible that only the constant stream of Isabella’s advice kept her on the path of goodness and now deprived of her guidance, her faultless moral and the strength of her opinion she was straying far from its original course?
The affair she had helped to unfold was nothing short of scandal and while Margaret’s name was not out in the open yet, she feared that if it were to happen, the damage to her reputation would be irrevocable. Therefore, it was prudent to remove herself from London at present and relocate to a place where she would make new acquaintances and forge new friendships, find new things for contemplation and conversation, discover new interests and passions that would fill her life with meaning.
And to add to all that she also needed to acquire a project that would compel her to apply her mind, to exercise her accomplishments and to challenge her dedication. Naturally, such an aspiring scheme required a worthy object and Margaret could not have found a worthier one in any other person (for that was only to be a person) but that of Mr. Westfield – her disapproving brother-in-law.
Margaret was determined to show him that she was worthy of his regard and good opinion and that given the chance he would find her much improved and a valuable companion within his household. However there was still the danger of his discovery as to how she chose to spend her time while in town. And if Mr. Westfield decided to compare her youthful blunders with those of nowadays, her plan to gain his approbation would instantly fall through under the severity of his disapproval.
The clock struck ten. Margaret started with a gasp and, catching a glimpse of her reflection in the window, sent her maid to fetch the mirror. Meanwhile, she decided to enjoy a breath of fresh air and closing her eyes concentrated on the task. There was something particularly dear about the refreshing force of the spring air that bespoke of many a warm and sunny day to follow. Only now did Margaret begin to understand her sister’s constant need for more air and her predilection for living in the country where it came in unlimited quantity and much better quality.
When the maid returned, Margaret’s cheeks assumed less feverish glow, her spirits were comfortably restored and she happily examined her features in the mirror.
For the occasion of Mr. Westfield’s arrival, she made a few but capital changes in her dress and hair-style. Today she wore a plain gown of pale yellow muslin, trimmed with light-green lace and sporting moderately puffed sleeves. Though eye-catching in its simplicity and elegance, it had no place within her London life, but was bound to make a favourable impression on Mr. Westfield, who was a known admirer of simple female elegance and no excess whether in fashion or feelings. Margaret’s hair was arranged accordingly in a simple but very pretty way and admitted only an addition of a few ribbons.
As she studied herself and estimated the amount of time, thought and preparation she had undertaken, Margaret was struck by realization that she had never before wanted to impress anyone so much. She stared in amazement at her image as if seeing it for the very first time. Her wonder transformed into curiosity as her thoughts turned to her two close friends, trying to calculate their reaction to her decidedly new looks. Surely they would be vastly astonished by her appearance!
How great was her own astonishment when, as if on cue, Mr. Clifford Stockley and his sister Catherine were announced and promptly stepped into the room. For one stunned moment the three of them exhibited identical looks of incredulity on their faces. Margaret did not expect the Stockley siblings to visit her so early in the morning, considering how late they said their farewells the previous night, while her guests were indeed shocked to find her so much altered. Pale muslin, not a feather, a bandeau or a jewel and flustered face was not the look one would often spy on Margaret Fairfax in London.
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