She stood in the doorway, blocking the light like a single black cloud that darkens the whole sky, portending an afternoon storm. Lady Constance, Florence’s mother, was a stout but tall woman, and no amount of lace could lend a sense of delicacy to her demeanor. Especially when she spoke her opinion, which was often and on all topics. “It is easy to have opinions such as these when one does not let facts or science determine them,” said Papa, dryly. Fernie had escaped a tedious tea with Mama and Lady Constance one afternoon—much thanks to Papa calling her to his study. It was her sanctuary as well as his. He had even moved her pianoforte into the room so that she might practice there. Practicing was one thing Mama encouraged, as “every young lady of society must play at least one instrument.” Even through the closed door, she could hear Lady Constance’s booming voice. She knew this was perhaps the reason Papa requested she play for him “to drown out the thunder.” She was old enough to understand that on such a sunny day, he was not speaking of the weather.
But here was another occasion in which her solace at Mrs. O’Brien’s was interrupted. Lady Constance stood there as if waiting to be announced. Indeed, she was attended by two of her servant girls, who were holding parcels and bags. Mrs. O’Brien rose from her seat with the slightest curtsy and said, “Lady Constance, to what do I owe the honour of your visit to my humble shoppe?” She already knew that Lady Constance did not trust her servants with her tea; she attended to it personally. She charged in. “I heard from Mrs. FROND-AH that you have a new sort of tea. I should be glad to try it.”
The mention of Mrs. Frande drew an involuntary snort and stifled laugh from Fernie. No matter how often she heard Edward’s surname, its meaning did not escape her, even though the rest of the village seemed unaware and disinterested. It was especially amusing as it was consistently mispronounced, no matter how Mrs. Frande tried to explain. Fernie sank down further in her chair, trying to escape notice.
As Mrs. O’Brien busied herself with the latest from India, Lady Constance stood surveying the room with a sniff. Her eyes rested on Fernie with a pointed stare.
“What are you doing here, Fanny?” Not waiting for an answer, for one seldom needed to respond before another question was fired like a musket, Lady Constance followed with, “Does your mother know you are wasting the day away in this manner?”
Mrs. O’Brien interrupted her with a forceful shove of a package of tea into her hands. “I requested that she help me with writing to my niece. You know, my eyesight isn’t what it used to be.”
Lady Constance answered with a harrumph. She liked to be included even in things of which she had no talent or interest. She responded, “Perhaps I shall send my Florence to you, for she has superior handwriting to anyone.”
“Oh, your ladyship is very kind to offer,” Mrs. O’Brien responded cordially. “However, my niece shares a particular interest of a botanical nature with Fanny and can translate for me all the correct terminology.” She turned to Fernie, “Of what were we writing a moment ago?”
“Adiantum capillus-veneris,” replied Fernie, for she knew Mrs. O’Brien wanted her to speak of something that sounded complicated and therefore tedious. Lady Constance responded with another “Harumph” as she turned on her heel to leave. One of her servant girls, a young nervous sort, rushed to open the door for her.
“I shall be certain to mention this at my next tea with your mother,” she called over her shoulder. And then she left as quickly as she had come; like a summer thunder storm.
“Oh, she has a way about her, does she not, Fernie-girl? This warrants another cuppa, don’t ye reckon?”
Fernie did indeed.
“There’s a kind of what do ye say, terminology, for her sort in this world,” said Mrs. O’Brien as she replenished Fernie’s cup and added a biscuit to her saucer. Fernie smiled as she said, “Pompous?”
“T’is a good one,” Mrs. O’Brien agreed. “But I was thinkin’ of another.”
“Well . . . .”
Fernie enjoyed these word games with Mrs. O’Brien because she knew she had a particular notion in mind, and it was designed to be a joke in the end. “I was thinkin’,” Mrs. O’Brien continued, “That she reminds one of a steam train; on a track and don’t be gettin’ in her way or she will knock you down and roll right over ye!”
Fernie laughed, which is all Mrs. O’Brien could want. She was glad she could offer some respite and light-heartedness to Fernie’s day. She was grateful that her visits were sanctioned by Fernie’s own father, so that they could be more often than Fernie’s mother would wish. But she answered, “Well, I don’t expect any more trains will be rollin’ through the shoppe today! We can have our tea in peace.”
“Indeed,” Fernie replied and her laughter melted into a smile of contentment, as she dip-dipped her biscuit into her cup.