"We are only missing Mrs Yorke," she wrote to her brother, "and we would have quite a misanthropic part!" Mrs Yorke was fond of Hortense in her own patronising way, and Miss Mann would to be that great sour lady's approval, being neither lively nor charming.
Wormwood Wells was not unlike other watering-places, being rather crowded in summer, with families, elderly couples, maiden sisters or friends - some were refined, others ess so. There was a time, recalled Margaret Hall, in her parents' day, when it would have been uncommon for these sort of persons to stay at watering-places, a time when these were the privilege of the wealthy and well-born. She was no friend of the Revolution, but how good it was, and how convenient, to live in this age of democracy. She kept this to herself, for her companions would not have appreciated the import of her thoughts.
Hortense and Miss Mann were gossiping about a family in the neighbourhood - the Sykeses, it seemed. It had come out of something perfectly harmless, as usual. Hortense had been mentioning the Sykes - it seemed that Mr Sykes was concerned over the state of his trade since the Luddites had come.
"What will become of dear Mr Sweeting and Miss Dora?" said Hortense. "He may not be able to afford a dowry."
Miss Mann sniffed. "Extravagance, Miss Moore, is the cause of it. I never saw the need for such a new carriage."
Seeing that Miss Mann would soon be deep in slander, Margaret interposed hurriedly. "I wonder how Caroline Helstone is. The last I heard from Mrs Pryor, she was not improving." This had the effect of softening Hortense, who was fond of her young kinswoman.
"You need not worry, Miss Hall," said Miss Mann. "I am sure Miss Helstone's condition is in no danger. Young ladies, I have often observed, are inclined to fall into a decline at many things. Miss Helstone is of a nervous temperament."
"She is not strong at all," said Hortense, who had as usual missed the import of the remark. "I often tell her to get more exercise but it does not seem to be doing her any good." Margaret Hall, more acute, was disappointed in Miss Mann.
"There has been influenza around the village," she said. "Perhaps she has caught it. William Farren's children are ill - who knows what has passed to Caroline?"
"It may be catching," said Miss Mann, "but it is often not dangerous. The real danger in such cases is to give in to sentiment."
"Might I ask what you mean by that, Miss Mann?" returned Miss Hall, quietly.
"Why, I am surprised you have not heard the news. They say that an understanding exists between Miss Helstone and Mr Louis Moore, and that she is pining away for him."
"Mon Dieu!" cried Hortense. "I am sure it is not so, or I would have noticed it." This remark was ignored, for Miss Moore was not of the class the world calls sharp-witted, as Mrs Yorke had put it.
"You are mistaken," said Margaret Hall, "it cannot be so, for my brother would have been aware of it. Besides, there is scarcely an intimacy between them."
"You may be right, Miss Hall, but it has not gone unnoticed that he has been lending her poetry. When gentlemen send poems to a lady, it can only mean one thing."
"Oh it surely cannot be," cried Hortense, who could not bear the idea of losing her younger brother to a chit of a girl (That was the way in which she regarded Caroline: she scarcely thought her capable of falling in love). "Mr Hall sends Caroline books of poems as well, does he not, Miss Hall?"
This was not perhaps the best way to counter Miss Mann's suspicions, but Margaret Hall only smiled sweetly. A wicked thought had just occurred to her. "Then in that case, Miss Mann, Mr Louis must be madly in love with you, since he has dedicated a poem to you."
This had the desired effect of silencing the old maid.
Letters came for Miss Hall. One was from her brother, describing the scenery of the Lake District. "And my companion is a most cultivated thinker," he wrote, "he is most ideal to walk with. Now if you were here with us, Margaret, we might make a pair worthy of Charles and Mary Lamb, or the Wordsworths. We will be seeing Southey, for Louis has business of a literary matter with him.
"It really is quite a delight to be away from Nunnely, though I shall not be sorry to return. There is a curious sensation of being solitary - though with one constant companion, I grant you - that does wonders to the imagination. Louis has written part of a poem, though he will not show it to me."
The other was from Mrs Pryor, who wrote to say that Caroline was getting better.
Miss Hall put down the letter, frowning. Something had occurred to her - Mrs Pryor seemed strangely familiar, though she could not say how. She was sure that she had seen her before, years ago, but where she did not know. She consulted Hortense.
"How long has Mrs Pryor been in Miss Keeldar's household?"
"Oh, a good many years. I am not exactly sure, but my brother Louis should know."
No, it was not the late Mrs Matthewson Helstone, nee Mary Cave that Mrs Pryor reminded her of. Though why should she be thinking of Mary Cave? She recalled, with a start, that Mr Helstone's no-gooder brother James had come to the neighbourhood about twenty years ago, bringing with him his young bride. She was auburn-haired - not unlike Mrs Pryor, though the stout lady was far removed from the slender girl she had seen. She did not recall Mrs James Helstone much - she had been too quiet to make an impression on her.