The Three Graces Online - Jane Ashford

Prologue

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