‘It’s not fair! That’s my fairy story!’ was Hero’s first, irrational, thought.
It wasn’t, despite her unfortunate name, that she was a particularly romantic child, given to wild flights of fancy—but when one happens to be a penniless orphan residing with distant relations whose three girls were of such singular plainness as to be widely dubbed the Ugly Sisters, thoughts of the Handsome Prince riding by on his white charger to carry one off were simply bound to recur as one is fetching Cousin Jane’s parcel or mending Sophronia’s stockings or, as she happened to be that afternoon in late summer when Eudora burst into the drawing room, winding Cassandra’s wool.
Even before Eudora’s precipitous entrance caused her to drop the skein onto the carpet (where Agamemnon, Cousin Jane’s liver-and-white spaniel, immediately took to worrying it), it had been amongst the very worst weeks of all those years that Hero had sojourned in this world (almost seventeen, to be exact). Cousin Edwin’s kiss itself had been revolting enough, but his mother’s strictures on her supposed complicity in that event were hardly to be borne. Then when she’d tried to steal a few moments to herself, ensconced in her favourite place (a sunny spot on the estate wall that afforded an excellent view of any carriages that might chance to bowl past upon the lane), Sophy had found her out, and made her come back to the house to assist in Cassy’s labours at the tapestry frame.
The tumult in the drawing room a few moments after Eudora’s most unexpected announcement could scarcely be imagined, as each of the three sisters and their Mama spoke out at once.
‘But I’m the eldest, you can’t marry before me!’
‘I’ll be a Viscountess, just fancy that!’
‘A Viscountess! Oh my dearest, sweetest child! What pin money you’ll have! What servants! What carriages!’
‘Oh sister! You’ll be able to introduce me to all the handsome beaux you’ll meet at the London balls!’
‘But it isn’t fair, Mama! I am the eldest! He should’ve proposed to me!’
‘You’ll all have to curtsey to me! Even Mama!’
‘You’ll reside in Grosvenor Square, to be sure – or in Sheringham Place – the old Dowager will simply have to remove.’
‘I’m sure I’ll marry an earl, or even a duke – and then you’ll all have to curtsey to me!’
‘Papa should refuse his consent. Mama, do make Papa refuse his consent!’
‘And I’ll go to court to be presented to the Regent! Oh, Mama, I shall need ever so many new gowns! Mine are all so frightfully last season!’
‘But of course you shall have new gowns, my dearest child! We shall all repair to London and visit all the very best warehouses.’
‘But Mama, Eudie already has two more new gowns than I do!’
And in the cacophony prevailing, Hero’s gentler pleas of ‘Oh, do please drop that, Aggie’ (to the dog) and ‘I do so hope you will be happy’ (to her cousin) passed equally without remark.
It was inconceivable, of course, that Mr Bagshot should refuse consent to such a highly advantageous suitor for his second daughter, however much his eldest might entreat such a course of action. Not even the Dowager Lady Sheringham herself, who called at an unfashionably early hour of the morning following to express her sentiments about what she termed ‘a most disgraceful match’ for her only son, could succeed in swaying him – not even when the dowager deigned to inform them that the sole reason the Viscount had lowered himself as to offer for ‘that hussy’ was a fit of pique that Miss Isabella Milborne had chanced to refuse him. In no small part to evade any continuation of their noble neighbour’s candour, it was shortly resolved that the entire family should remove with all possible haste to lodgings in the metropolis to accomplish that most important of wedding preparations: the purchase of the bride-to-be’s trousseau.
All, this is, except poor Hero. Furnished with a wife whose taste for grandeur ran far in excess of the modest acres of his ancestral estate, three daughters, only one of whom was advantageously engaged, and an heir recently down from Oxford and prey to all the usual expensive indulgences of young men in this state, all to support upon the capital, even Mr Bagshot, a rational, kindly man who had often taken Hero’s part in the past, had to acquiesce to his wife’s repeated representations that it was high time his ward should make her own way in the world.
Mr Bagshot (perhaps not fully cognizant of his role as Villain in this Fairy Tale) did think to consult the girl’s own wishes, but Hero was entirely resigned to her fate. If Anthony, as with a shocking want of deference she was prone to designate the Viscount Sheringham, were to be united with another, then she might as well be boiled alive in the cauldron of any passing Wicked Witch. Indeed, her greatest torment during this dreadful time was that Sherry’s oft-repeated description of Miss Eudora Bagshot as ‘a sourpuss with a face like a horse’s rear’ hardly spoke to his likely happiness upon entering the marital state. Hero suffered all those pangs of disappointment and distress he must be experiencing from his rejection at the hands of that Peerless Beauty, Isabella the Incomparable, down to the very last ounce—even though the lady herself averred, at the morning visit which was to serve these two childhood friends as their parting meeting, that ‘he doesn’t care one jot for me, to be sure.’
Unbeknownst to our heroine, that morning call was to decide her fortune. ‘A governess?’ exclaimed Mrs Milborne, distracted from her repetition of the assiduous attentions paid to the female scion of the Milborne family by no less a personage than a Duke of the realm by said scion’s mention of her former playmate’s projected future teaching in the Misses Mundesley’s Seminary for Young Ladies of Queen’s-square. ‘Why, Hero’s scarcely out of the schoolroom herself!’ that matron continued. ‘She will never suit. Far better send her as a companion, my dear Jane, much less trouble I’ll warrant. My dear friend Augusta – of course you recall Lady Augusta, Jane – wrote that her whist partner – I misrecall the name – was in sore need of a companion. Of course Augusta knows everyone of consequence in Bath. Here, let me show you her letter.’
And so it was settled: Hero was to go to Bath.