Dressed in Black
By Suzie J. K.
Like every military man, Captain Frederick Crane had a large acquaintance, therefore it was no surprise to his daughter, Catherine, when they all of them made their appearance at his funeral. It was a grim business – such as she felt would lower her already sunken spirits – and even the presence of old friends would not cheer her, let alone distract her from the raw cruelty of reality.
Catherine Crane, seventeen, elegant, and endowed with an affectionate heart, had always been an avid book reader, and since first she could read her notions had been formed based on those of the heroes and heroines of her books, and though often pursued by reality and disappointed by fantasy, she persisted in loving her novels, and, upon the whole, not being able to part with them. Captain Crane had often fretted over her naivety – she had a sweet nature, though unfortunately hidden by etiquette: her heart was pure, and the innocence of her actions only rendered this truer. She was calm, seldom argumentative nor stubborn, and kind to all around her.
When in good looks, she could pass for a pretty girl, yet anybody who saw her the day of her father's funeral would agree on her looking very bad indeed. Poor Catherine had wearied herself lamenting her father's death. She had spent night following on night sobbing into her pillow with such violence – such desperate passion – that she often cried herself to sleep, rising the next morning feeling perfectly sore. It can easily be said that she had wept so much those four nights, that she had wholly drained her system of tears, and could no longer exert any to drip from her rich brown eyes. She herself had no friends to console her, for her manner was not engaging enough to encourage the process of friendship.
Seated in a settee by the hearth in the empty house with Mrs. Dixon, the housekeeper, sewing in an opposite chair, she contemplated the smooth folds of her black crape gown, her eyes veiled with a heavy mist. She had been thus each day since her father's death, and Mrs. Dixon wondered whether her mistress would ever revive. She was deeply concerned for her welfare, though not attached enough to breath a kinder word to her than, "Truly I am sorry, Miss Catherine – truly."
Catherine did not mind. She and Mrs. Dixon had never been close, and never would. The young lady saw her as a dull old widow who was always provokingly trite. It was a relief to them both when the tea-things were brought in, and with them a note addressed to Catherine. She looked it over placidly, indifferent to its contents or direction.
"Well, Miss Catherine," spoke old dame Dixon. "Will not you open it?"
"I suppose," she shrugged, frowning as she broke the seal and perused the few lines enclosed.
"Well, Miss Catherine – what does it say?" prompted Mrs. Dixon, curious to know what it was about.
"It is most astonishing," replied Catherine, in soft incredulity. Mrs. Dixon dropped her sewing, and gazed intently at her. "It is an invitation," explained the young lady, "a most particular one." Catherine seemed to revel in creating suspense.
"From who?" prompted the aggravated old woman. After keeping her longer from knowing the truth, and thus amusing herself with her agitated curiosity, she made an answer.
"From one General Fitzwilliam Slater," she handed her the letter, her appealing brown eyes conserving their placidity. "He explains himself very briefly, though in very clear and decided terms." After reading over the letter at least three times, as if it was difficult to understand, Mrs. Dixon looked on her with a bewildered look, unable to comprehend the sudden turn of events.
"He wishes you to join him in Cambridge?" she breathed, returning the letter to the hands of its recipient. "By heavens what an idea, Miss Catherine! What an idea! Well, what do you think?"
"I think it very fortunate, Mrs. Dixon." Her expression betrayed nothing of her internal alarm and wonder. The matter was but plain: one of her father's dearest friends had heard of her contemptible situation and, possessing a kind heart, offered her his help. Mrs. Dixon thought long and hard to recollect his person.
"I cannot seem to associate a face to his name," she murmured, taking up her sewing again without being quite conscious of it, judging by her glazed look. In the meantime, Catherine's imagination was running wild with the proposal. He had spoken of an abbey – a veritable abbey! Besides her father, castles and abbeys were what Catherine loved most to think of. She was overpowered with an urge to write a letter of acceptance to this General Slater, for she could not resist the temptation of living in an abbey. However, her conduct thoroughly shaped by decorum, she could only but come up with the proper answer: she must and would refuse him. As her past governess, Miss Prym, had once said: "Manners before morals." She voiced her decision.
"Certainly, Miss Catherine," said the old widow in a persuasive tone, "You might consider it."
"I have already," she returned evenly, weaving her fingers together in her lap. "I am sure I am thankful for his kindness, but it would not be proper to be a married man's charge. He did write of having a wife and children."
"If that is your conviction," continued Mrs. Dixon, raising her brows as she went on, "I should think it highly favourable of you to respond to General Slater's letter asking for more particulars. Write, Miss Catherine, that you cannot accept his offer without knowing everything you need to know to be at ease, for you are not in any frame of mind to put up with incredulity and suspense." Catherine endeavoured not to smile, for this simple and queer dame knew less about her than she had supposed. Catherine had a stout heart and unwavering nerves. She could be faced with any circumstance that required courage without a fidget or a blush, childishly naive as she often appeared and certainly was.
"Then it is settled," rejoined Catherine, her thoughts silenced by the quiet though bitter return to reality. "Come morning, I'll apply myself to writing a response to General Slater, begging him to be more explicit in his offer. How does that sound, Mrs. Dixon?"
"Oh, I couldn't have put it better myself, Miss Catherine," she replied airily, her mind wandering elsewhere. Catherine, tired of Mrs. Dixon's tedious company, for she was a very vapid sort of woman, retired to her chamber, her imagination expanding dangerously with this novel thought – she was quite gone by the time she was in bed.
She had devoured so many novels – absorbed so much of their nonsense – though I myself enjoy them, in moderation – that she now lived and breathed them. The reader will understand, therefore, that the thought of being in a romance was beyond anything she termed irresistible: she was filled with such a violent hunger that nothing but this trip could satisfy it. Indeed, her heart was still full and her mind tormented by her father's death, but this – this rare pleasure: she had to indulge it! "I die to be there," she thought the next morning, her hunger no less appeased by sleep. Indeed, there was nothing left to be lived here, and everything there.
Launching herself at the Japan cabinet in her room, she took out a blank sheet of paper, a quill pen and an inkwell, and began writing her response to General Slater. She showed the proper amount of modesty and gratitude. It went as follows: "My good sir. You are too kind – very obliged. I would be delighted for you to be my chaperone in my journey to your county. I daresay it might raise my low spirits, though I would not know: I have never before felt any air but my own county's. –Your humble servant, Catherine Crane."