CONSULTING THE APOTHECARY
Monday, 20th May, 1816
I closed the door of Mr. Curtis's apothecary shop behind me and glanced along the Alton High Street in search of my niece Cassie's slight figure. I found her instantly, gloved hand swinging from Fanny's elegant one, as the two picked their way through the fresh puddles that dotted the paving. Cassie, at seven years the eldest of my brother Charles's three motherless girls, gloried in the undivided attention of her fashionable and much-older cousin, and her cheeks were flushed with pleasure. The young woman by her side appeared unconscious of the child's admiration—having such a number of younger brothers and sisters, Fanny is well accustomed to adoration. At three-and-twenty, she retains her freshness of countenance, aligned with a genius for millinery, that must beguile every eye. A number of heads turned to follow the two bright countenances along the country-town street; but even in London, I suspect, Fanny would not pass unnoticed.
"She has been spoiling the child again," my sister Cassandra observed indulgently; and indeed, Cassie clutched in her free hand a twisted bit of brown paper fresh from the local confectioner's. A few boiled sweets, perhaps, purchased with the pennies Fanny had pressed into her palm while The Aunts, as both girls call us, conducted our business with Mr. Curtis. Harmless enough; the Lord knows that treats come only rarely in poor Cassie's way. With my brother Charles presently at sea, his daughters have been consigned to the care of his late wife's sister in London. I am sure that Miss Palmer is a very good sort of woman, who loves Charles's children as her own; but her serviceable charms cannot equal in Cassie's estimation the superior claims of Miss Fanny Austen Knight, of Godmersham Park in Kent—handsome, clever, and rich—who saunters with such ease down Alton's modest streets, a frivolous silk parasol dangling from her hand.
Fanny and her father, my brother Edward, have been visiting us at Chawton Cottage this past fortnight, and Cassie this past month; a happy coincidence that provided both my nieces with interest and amusement, despite the fifteen years' difference in their ages.
"You have been prompt in your consultation," Fanny observed, as she came up with us on the High. "I did not think to meet you for another quarter-hour at least."
"Mr. Curtis's opinions were succinct," I replied. "He looked at me—and into me, by way of a lanthorn beam directed down my throat—and pronounced me in want only of a period of rest and refreshment."
I spoke with determined cheerfulness, for in all truth I have not been very stout of late, and at my sister Cassandra's urging had at last sought the advice of the Alton apothecary. Lassitude, a want of spirits, and a persistent pain in my back dogged me throughout the winter months. The spring has been wretched and stillborn, with incessant rain, but we look forward to a June of warmth and sun—and with the summer months, an improvement in my animation and health. Mr. Curtis has a yet more active recommendation; but of this, I said nothing to my nieces. My intelligence would keep until we achieved our home in Chawton.
"Rest and refreshment!" Fanny exclaimed darkly. "And how are you likely to obtain either, pray, with all the world pulling up at your door? I shall inform Papa that we may certainly not delay our departure beyond Wednesday."
"Wednesday!" Cassie cried out in disappointment. "When we were to walk to the fair on Alton Green to meet Cousin Caroline! She was to have shown me her doll, and permitted me to change its clothes. It is too bad, Fanny!"
"Hush, child," Cassandra said in mild reproof. "You would not be wishing Fanny to think that the unhappiness of a treat denied, is heavier than the pain of parting with her!"
Cassie flushed, looked all her mortification, and hung her head.
Fanny squeezed the little girl's hand. "The fair begins tomorrow. I shall certainly find occasion to walk with you in the morning, instead of Wednesday." Then, glancing at me, she continued, "It is scandalous how all your brothers presume upon the good nature of Chawton Cottage, Aunt. One might suppose you were running a boardinghouse explicitly for the care of elderly gentlemen, tossed and wracked by sudden ill-fortune!"