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Authors: Three Graces

Jane Ashford

BOOK: Jane Ashford

Copyright © 1982 by Jane LeCompte

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Cover illustration by Alan Ayers

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The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

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Originally published in 1982 by Signet, a division of The New American Library, Inc., New York.


The three Misses Hartington sat before the schoolroom fire, sewing sheets. Though their surroundings were decidedly shabby, the dull brown carpet worn and the furniture discarded from more elegant apartments and earlier times, they presented a charming picture. Their close relationship was evident in their appearance; all had hair of the shade commonly called auburn, a deep russet red, and the pale clear ivory skin that sometimes goes with such a color. The eldest sister, who was but nineteen, had eyes of celestial blue, while those of the two younger girls, aged eighteen and seventeen, were dazzling green. An observer would have been hard put to pick the prettiest of them. All were slender, with neat ankles, elegant wrists, and an air of unconscious distinction that did much to outweigh their dowdy gowns and unfashionable braids. He might perhaps venture that Miss Hartington’s nose was a trifle straighter than her sisters’ and her mouth a more perfect bow. But the second girl’s eyebrows formed a finer arch, and the youngest one’s expression held the greater promise of liveliness. Altogether, there was little to choose among this delightful trio.

Silence had reigned for some time in the room as they plied their needles with varying degrees of diligence. Having lived together for all of their lives and served during that short period as each other’s only companions and confidantes, they knew one another’s moods too well to chatter. And nothing of note had occurred this day to cause discussion. Miss Hartington had had occasion to recall her youngest sister to her work once or twice, but otherwise the circle had been silent. The afternoon was passing; soon it would be teatime, and the girls would put up their sewing and join their aunt in the drawing room.

A sound at the door across the room attracted their attention. It was followed by the entrance of first a very large yellow tomcat, then a smaller gray tabby, and finally three kittens of varying hues, bounding forward awkwardly and falling over one another in their eagerness to keep up with their elders. Miss Hartington smiled. “Hannibal’s family has found us already,” she said, “I told you it would not be long.”

The youngest girl wrinkled her nose. “I cannot understand his behavior in the least. They are not even his kittens.”

Her middle sister smiled. “But he has adopted them, you see, so they are all the more precious to him.”

“I don’t see why you say that,” sniffed the other. “Our aunt adopted us, but we are certainly not dear to her.”

“Euphie!” Miss Hartington looked shocked. “Mind your tongue. How can you say such a thing?”

“Well, it is true. If she cared a button for us, she would let us go about more and visit and… and do all the things other young girls are allowed to do. Indeed, she would bring you out this season, Aggie, as she should have done last year.”

“Hush,” replied her sister repressively. “Aunt has done everything for us, and you must not speak so of her. If she had not given us a home when Father died, we should be in desperate straits, and you know it.”

The youngest girl sighed, shaking her head. “Yes, I know it. Not but what Father showed a decided lack of sympathy, too. Only think of our ridiculous names. He can’t have considered what it would be like to go through life being called Euphrosyne.”

Miss Hartington frowned at her, but the third sister laughed. “It was not he, Euphie. It was our mother. Aunt Elvira has told me that she was inspired by a passage the vicar read aloud to her just before Aggie was born. From Homer. How did it go? Something about the three Graces.” She concentrated a moment, then quoted in Greek, translating for the others: “Most beauteous goddesses and to mortals most kind.”

Euphrosyne Hartington wrinkled her nose once more. “Well, I never knew her, since she died when I was born, but though I do not wish to be disrespectful, I think she showed a shocking lack of sensibility. It is very well for you two to tease me. Your names are not nearly so queer.”

Her middle sister smiled again. “I suppose you would prefer Thalia? I must say it seems just as burdensome to me.”

Miss Hartington rallied at this. “Well, neither of you was persecuted by Johnny Dudley as I was. He could never pronounce ‘Aglaia’ properly, and he used to dance around me singing ‘Uglea, Uglea,’ until I thought I should scream. He thought it excessively witty.”

“Johnny Dudley,” echoed Thalia meditatively. “I have not thought of him in years. What became of him, I wonder?”

Aglaia shrugged. “I daresay he is still in Hampshire. We were both eight when Father died and we left the county.”

Exasperated, Euphrosyne jumped up and faced her sisters. “How can you sit there calmly chattering about nothing?” she exclaimed. “What are we to do?”

Thalia only looked amused, but Miss Hartington said, “Do about what, Euphie? Please try to control yourself; you mustn’t fly into a pelter every second minute, you know.”

Euphrosyne put her hands on her hips. “Someone must,” she retorted. “I am tired of hearing about propriety and what I must do and must not. Sitting meekly in our rooms sewing will do us no good at all. We must make a plan, Aggie. We must

Thalia smiled at her ironically. “What do you suggest?”

“Oh, if I only knew what to suggest,” Euphie cried. “You are the scholar. Surely you can tell how we are to escape this dreadful situation.”

Aglaia looked bewildered. “What situation? I declare, Euphie, you get no conduct as you grow older. What are you talking about?”

“Can you ask? We are trapped in this house. We never go out; we meet no young people, only Aunt’s crusty old friends and the cats!” She directed a venomous look at Hannibal where he reclined luxuriously in the window seat. Ignoring her, he yawned hugely and began to lick one of the kittens. “What is to become of us? How are we ever to marry, for example?”

Thalia laughed. “Take care that Aunt Elvira does not hear you, Euphie. She would give you a thundering scold for presuming to think of marriage.”

Euphrosyne whirled to face her. “Oh, sometimes I think I hate Aunt Elvira.” This drew a shocked gasp from her eldest sister, and she hastened to add, “I do not, of course. She has been wonderfully kind to us. But I get so angry. She never cared to marry. I understand that. But she cannot expect that we will feel as she did at every point in life. It is selfish of her to keep us hemmed up here.”

Thalia sputtered, “Never cared to marry? You are a master of understatement, Euphie.”

But Miss Hartington looked disapproving. “You are exaggerating all out of reason. And you should not encourage her, Thalia. We often go out; we are certainly not prisoners in our aunt’s house. And she does what she believes is best for us and gives us all we ask. Did she not engage special teachers for you, Euphie, when you wished to continue your music beyond what Miss Lewes could teach? And did she not allow Thalia to study Greek and Latin and anything else she wished, again with special, and very expensive, teachers? I think she has been a very generous guardian.”

Euphrosyne pushed out a rebellious lip, but before she could speak again they were all frozen by a bloodcurdling shriek coming from the direction of the drawing room. Hannibal leaped up, his fur prickling, and spat. The shriek came again. Thalia stood, and Euphrosyne started toward the door. There was a patter of footsteps in the hall outside; then the door was thrown open by an hysterical maid. “Oh, miss, miss,” she gasped, “it’s your aunt!”

As one, the sisters hurried down the stairs to the drawing room. In the doorway they paused, for there was clearly something very wrong. They could see the top of their aunt’s head, as usual, above her tall chair before the fireplace, but most unusually, they did not see any other creature.

“Where are the cats?” asked Euphie, voicing their puzzlement. They had never seen their aunt’s drawing room without at least five, and more commonly ten or twelve, cats. And now there were none at all.

Aggie hurried around the chair, stopped, and put a hand to her mouth. At this moment, the maid caught up with them, and seeing Miss Hartington’s expression, she screeched again. “That’s just how I found her, miss, when I come in to ask about the tea. Gave me the nastiest turn of my life, it did. She’s gone, ain’t she?”

Aggie, rather pale, nodded. “I think she is. But you had best send for the doctor.”

The maid ran from the room.

Aglaia’s sisters had joined her by this time, and the three girls looked down wide-eyed at the spare figure in the armchair. It would have been hard to imagine a greater contrast. Elvira Hartington was, or had been, a harsh-featured woman, with deep lines beside her mouth and a hawk nose. In death, her face had not relaxed, but held its customary expression of doubting disapproval. Her hand was clutched to her chest, and her pale gray eyes stared sightlessly at her nieces.

Aggie shuddered and turned away. “Poor Aunt Elvira,” she murmured.

Thalia took the old woman’s wrist. “Cold,” she said. “She is indeed dead, and has been for some time, I think.”

Aggie shuddered again, but Euphie merely stared at the corpse curiously. “She does not look peaceful,” said the youngest girl. “I thought dead people were supposed to be peaceful. Aunt looks just as she did before giving me a scold.”

“Euphie, please!” said Miss Hartington.

The other looked abashed. “I didn’t mean anything. I wonder what happened? She seemed fine this morning. Remember, she was going to write a letter to the
about Wellington?”

“We are at least spared that,” murmured Thalia.

“I don’t know,” replied Aggie. “She seems to have been taken suddenly. The doctor will tell us.”

“Well, I am only sorry for St. Peter,” added Euphie, looking sidelong at her middle sister. “She will probably tell him he is not at all what she expected and is used to.”

Thalia choked back a laugh and turned away as the maid came hurrying back into the room. “Dr. Perkins will be here directly,” she said. “Should I send for anyone else, Miss Hartington?” She spoke to Aggie with a new respect, as her new mistress.

Aggie put a hand to her forehead. “No, I don’t think quite yet… Oh, you might send word to Miss Hitchins. She will want to know immediately.”

“Yes, miss.” And the girl was gone again.

The next few hours passed in a kind of muddle. The realities of death soon depressed even Euphie’s spirits, and by the time the doctor had come and gone and all the details were settled, the three sisters were weary and silent. They went up to bed much subdued, for all of them had been attached to their aunt, whatever they might sometimes say.

The next morning, two early visitors arrived almost together—Miss Hitchins and their aunt’s solicitor. The former, a forbidding woman of fifty-odd, had been Elvira Hartington’s closest friend for many years, ever since they had met at a meeting of the Feline Protectionist Society and discovered like feelings on this important subject. Miss Hitchins often gave her friend’s nieces the impression that she disapproved of them, though she remained unfailingly polite, and they greeted her with some nervousness on this solemn occasion. She pressed each of their hands in turn. “So sudden,” she murmured. “Poor dear Elvira. None can count himself secure in this world.”

Miss Hitchins looked even more somber than usual this morning. She habitually wore black, but today, she had added a black bonnet and veil to her customary dark gown. Her gray hair was washed out by this attire, and her pale skin looked whiter than ever. All of the girls were relieved when the solicitor, Mr. Gaines, came in behind her.

But even the usually jovial Gaines seemed oppressed today. “Tch, tch,” he said as he returned the sisters’ greeting. “This is an uncomfortable situation. More than uncomfortable. Outrageous, I call it. But she never would listen.”

Euphie exchanged a puzzled glance with Thalia.

“Each of us must face death,” replied Miss Hitchins reprovingly. “And we must all endeavor to do so with Christian resignation, as I am certain Elvira did.”

“Oh, death,” said Mr. Gaines, dismissing the question with an impatient wave of his hand. “I daresay, I was speaking of the will, you know.”

Miss Hitchins’s eyes sharpened. “The will?”

The solicitor scanned four pairs of unblinking eyes. “None of you knows? No, of course you don’t. She left that to me. Just like her, too. I’ve been urging her for years to change the blasted thing, and she always said she meant to. But she didn’t. And so, here we are, aren’t we? Outrageous.”

“I don’t understand, Mr. Gaines,” said Aggie. “Is there some problem with my aunt’s will?”

“There is, and there isn’t. And I shan’t say another word until the reading this afternoon. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll go to the library now. I want to go over Miss Hartington’s papers as soon as may be.”

“Of course. I’ll…”

“That’s all right. I know my way.” Mr. Gaines started out of the drawing room, but in the doorway he paused. “You’ll want to come for the reading, Miss Hitchins,” he added gruffly. Then he was gone.

Miss Hitchins looked highly gratified.

“Whatever can be wrong with Mr. Gaines?” wondered Euphie. “He is not at all like himself. I have never seen him so abrupt.”

Aggie shook her head. Thalia stared at the doorway where he had gone out, a worried frown on her face.

“Oh, I daresay he ate something that disagreed with him at breakfast,” said Miss Hitchins brightly. “Men are sensitive to such things, I believe. Women are really much the stronger sex, in spite of what they say.”

One of the cats, who had returned to the drawing room when their former mistress left it, stood up on the mantelshelf, stretched mightily, and leaped to the floor, evidently intending to go out. Miss Hitchins bent as it passed her and held out an eager hand. “Cato,” she said, “there’s a good puss. Come here, Cato.”

The cat, a large gray, turned his head fractionally, eyed Miss Hitchins’s fingers with a distinct lack of enthusiasm, and passed by and out the door. A black cat draped over the back of the sofa yawned.

Euphie made a slight choking sound, and Aggie said quickly, “Would you care for a cup of tea, Miss Hitchins?”

The older woman straightened and indicated that tea would be welcome. Euphie made a face at Thalia, who shook her head slightly, though she too smiled.

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