‘Father, what does ‘perfidious’ mean?’
Dr John Wilkinson put down his newspaper to look at his daughter across the length of the breakfast table. He sighed slightly, and reached up to remove the pair of pince-nez he wore. Having polished them on his green jacket, he replaced them with the air of a man resigned to spending the next five minutes of his life explaining the meaning of a word to a young and inquisitive daughter.
‘‘Perfidious’…’ he mused. ‘Let’s see. Ah, yes. Adjective, frequently occurring in poems and literature. Meaning: deceitful or untrustworthy. Origin: late sixteenth century, from the Latin perfidiosus, meaning treacherous or faithless. Also from perfida, meaning treachery.’ He scrutinised his daughter through his spectacles. ‘Is that what you were after, my dear?’
With a smile, Christina Wilkinson returned to the book she was reading. ‘Yes, thank you, Father.’
Dr Wilkinson unfolded his newspaper and once again took up his pursuit of reading it, until he was interrupted five minutes later by the maid.
‘Letter for Dr Wilkinson, if you please, sir,’ she said with a curtsey, placing a neatly-folded envelope on the table beside Dr Wilkinson’s plate. He slowly replaced his newspaper in its now default position on the end of the table, and turned to the letter. At the other end of the table, Christina looked up with interest, but she was prudent enough not to speak to her father.
Dr Wilkinson was a very well preserved man of seven-and-fifty, with a thick head of wiry white hair to match that which resided upon his chin; a large nose, on which perched the aforementioned pince-nez; and the pale complexion of a scholar. He was an old-fashioned, traditional sort of person, set in his views and his ways, in all but his view on the education of women. He was slow and careful, thinking over with great care what he would say before he said it, and he had a general air of great wisdom.
At the other end of the table sat his only daughter, Christina. Besides being his only child, she was also his last living relative, and he loved her a great deal. She was tall and serious-looking, with long brown hair that curled slightly at the ends. Her face was round and well-proportioned, with a slightly pointed nose, large grey eyes and a small mouth. She reminded him very much of Muriel, her mother, who had died in November, 1890.
Christina was watching him intently now as he picked up the letter, her large grey eyes intelligently interested. He read it in silence, before replacing it on the table and turning to his daughter.
‘Well,’ he began. ‘It is from your Aunt Josephine.’
Aunt Josephine was in fact Christina’s great-aunt, having been the aunt of Muriel. She was a fierce old woman who spent as much time as possible socialising, and as little time as possible with the Wilkinsons. Christina had met her on only a few occasions, and what little she had been able to form of her aunt’s character had been enough to decide that she was not particularly inclined to renew their acquaintance.
‘She writes to inform us that she anticipates being able to invite us to visit next summer. She asks if you have had any formal education in the proper behaviour of a lady - what do you suppose I should reply?’
Christina hid a small smile. It was true that she could not be described as a lady, and would certainly not meet her aunt’s high standards or behaviour. She was, however, fiercely intelligent, a fact that had not gone unnoticed with her father. Thus, a line of tutors and governesses had been employed to teach her all she wished to learn, and she had always enjoyed free reign in her father’s extensive collection of books. She was highly educated and very well read - but that would count for nothing in her aunt’s view.
‘Say that I have been educated in the most base manner, that I have no manners and will certainly shock her with my unladylike behaviour. That ought to make her rethink her invitation.’
Dr Wilkinson leaned back in his chair, surveying his daughter. ‘Much as I dislike her company, it is time you were introduced into society, my dear. If your mother had been alive, she would have done so years ago. We must begin to think of your future. If you do not go to London, you may never find a suitable husband, and then where should you be? Why, you are nearly twenty years of age. Most girls will have been out in society for years.’
Christina didn’t like this conversation. They had it monthly, each time deciding that she could wait a while before entering society. This time, however, the conclusion was very different. She would travel to her Aunt Josephine’s London house in the spring 1905, giving her aunt time to assess her behaviour and make what corrections she deemed necessary before the summer, when Christina would be presented, like some expensive hat.
Her father would not be accompanying her. She would go alone.