“Ian, here is your cousin Candice; and her cousin Monique. Take your head out of your book and welcome them.”
In this perfunctory way I was introduced to these two young ladies. I was just fourteen, two weeks previously in fact. I had received Mr Darwin’s new book as a present and was intent upon re-reading it to gain the maximum understanding of his ideas. He was building upon others’ theories of course, but he had drawn them together and presented a fascinating whole.
Candice was my cousin by my father’s brother’s marriage to a French noblewomen of some considerable renown and beauty. When she died when Candice was young, all of Paris mourned. That Sir Archibald had already taken on his wife’s niece as a ward simply meant he had two young girls to bring up, which he did with seeming success for five years. Now he was appointed ambassador to the court in China. He considered such a move unsuitable for impressionable girls and my father, his brother, was importuned to take on the role of guardian, something he did willingly and happily as he had always wanted some daughters. His wife had had a difficult time with my birth and was advised to avoid further pregnancy, so he was left with a single child. When I say that I was not spoilt in the slightest as the result of this, whereas Candice and Monique had been spoilt badly by their parent, you will understand that our upbringing was not similar.
They arrived with Mrs Danvers, a shapely, attractive, dark-haired, 25 year old governess. She was a strict disciplinarian of whom I was grateful to not be under her control. I attended the local school as a day, fee-paying pupil; the two girls received their education – mostly drawing, needlework, French and religious studies – from Mrs Danvers. She was, I understood from Mama, a young widow who had lost her only child when he was only two. I was given this information within a lecture on how I had to offer her great respect. I already treated ladies with honour and felt I had no more respect to offer unless the recipient earned it; but I said nothing and attempted to obey her desires.
I was serious, scientific and thoughtful. I liked nothing more than to study the actions of the foxes at play as they learnt to hunt, or dissect a rabbit to understand its workings. I liked to think on the greatness of creation in the stars that surrounded us. My two new ‘friends’ were interested in the latest fashions and which ribbon to tie their hair. But they were young and very pretty and my father’s head was turned by their fifteen year old (for they were both the same age) simpering good looks. My mother was made of sterner stuff, she could see there were some dangers in burgeoning breasts being displayed too visibly to one such as me. Even if I was interested in science, I was not uninterested in female beauty. She kept a close eye on us but deemed it unlikely that anything really ill could happen if the two girls chaperoned each other. She had not taken account of my devious and scientific nature, nor the willingness of seemingly demure young ladies to explore the seamier side of life.
Although delightful to look at, their natures had unfortunately not been directed down the narrow way of honesty and probity. Their spoilt years with their father/guardian had led them to feel privileged and above reproach. In short, their pretty faces were not reflected in pretty natures. Here perhaps I should describe them, to give the reader a better idea of how they could so easily dissemble to a man. Both had straw blond hair, Candice’s flowed in tresses to fully four inches below her shoulders, whilst Monique’s, though a similar length, was as straight as straight – something she regretted mightily and often attempted to induce it to wave with tongs. She was often told how she might damage her hair though she never listened. In the summer they both wore straw hats out of doors with holes in the top; their hair was pulled through to maintain that pale, bleached appearance, whilst their faces were protected from the sun and remained attractively pale. Their faces were alike, almost as sisters might have been, though not twins since Candice had grey eyes with an assessing look and Monique had dazzling blue eyes. These two features, hair and eyes, which so often are what a man sees alone when he views a woman, were therefore distributed such as to make them equally attractive to their opposite sex. Noses were small, almost button like and a mouth of youthful red lips encompassed perfect teeth. All complemented by high cheeks with a hint of rose and necks of graceful swans. They easily captivated attention. And their bodies were of similar delight. Though always entirely covered from neck to toe of course, yet they had busts that would not be hidden, even in such young forms, and waists of perfect slimness and hips which they effortlessly swayed in the alluring way a full-grown woman has. Candice was tall for a lady, only one inch shorter than myself I should say (though I am only a not impressive five foot and nine inches); Monique was perhaps two inches shorter than her. I confess that the less bookish part of my nature was smitten with lust, though not love; my love was reserved for the lady scientist who I was later honoured to call my wife. Her looks held not a candle to these shallow beings, but her mind was infinitely greater, indeed nearly as great an intellect as a man’s I fancy; though you may think that overstating the case.
The first intimation of their natures was when a vase was broken. Despite them being the only occupants of the room at the time, they both denied absolutely knowledge of how the vase was broken. Suspicion fell, and was allowed to remain upon, the scullery maid who had discovered the breakage on coming to clean the fireplace. Mother and Father were both happy to accept the word of their charges.
A second incident should have made my parent’s suspect these two, but it did not. When the window of the greenhouse was broken, the gardener was sure he heard girlish laughter; yet instead the blame fell upon the parlour maid, who was punished unfairly. I perceived that in these events the two girls had lost any goodwill from the servants, which was made worse by their high-handed ways of dealing with staff. They were careful to avoid being too rude in front of Mama, though I think she began to suspect they were not the angel-replicas of the stained glass in our church that they purported to be. Papa was away too much to notice.
Summer holidays arrived and it was clear that I was expected to entertain these two girls. I had received an invitation to Bertie B-’s estate in Scotland and felt miffed that I had to turn him down. He had promised to show me how to shoot a red deer. We occasionally went hunting in Sussex, but the quarry was usually rabbits and the weapon an 8-bore shotgun, the chance to use a real gun to bring down such an animal seemed too good to miss, but it was not to be. In the week before summer break began, Mama took a summer cold as we thought. In five days she rapidly declined and was bed-bound for weeks. Her recovery was slow, but thankfully always upwards; after the initial fright there was no fear for her demise, but she was unable to take any interest in domestic life. Father continued to be busy in the City, though I did notice he made more efforts to be with us at weekends. I believed this was due to Mama’s illness but found later it was not, or not entirely. Thus the housekeeper, whose role as second gaoler with my mother I had often resented, was overly busy with caring for Mama and ordering the house. A small silver lining was that my mornings were therefore entirely free – the girls having lessons until lunchtime.
It was noticeable that Mrs Danvers took considerably less interest in the girls’ studies in the afternoon and the reason slowly became apparent; her morals were not all they might be. Perhaps she had found the stress of widowhood and losing her child too much; or perhaps, Candice suggested, she had been drinking and that had resulted in a fatal flaw in her care of her child. This seemed a cruel sentiment to express, but, for whatever the reason, she would take her luncheon alone in her room and clearly come out the worse for drink. If Mama had been well I am sure Mrs Danvers would have been dismissed. As it was we three often contrived to go walking in the afternoon as Mrs Danvers slept the alcohol off.
.... There is more of this story ...