Lydia! Lydia! Pray forgive this unannounced visit to Twelveswood, but I felt you must know straight away. I cut short my stay in London to deliver some unfortunate news. Our hostess Mrs. Heggarty was kind enough to lend me use of her coach and... Oh, no, no, Edgar is well, thank Heaven, as is little Ivor. It's about Sir Charles, the man to whom you are affianced. No, he lives still, although if there were ever a body upon which I wished every earthly evil to be visited, it is his.

No, Lydia, if only it were callow envy that motivated these harsh sentiments; would that it were mere pangs of jealousy that caused my brow to knit so! Alas, the source of my vexation is far more woeful, my dear girl, for Sir Charles Barlow is interested only in your dowry.

I do not begrudge you your flushed cheeks and heated words, Lydia. You may think that I, your more fortune-favored older sister, am betraying a desire to thwart your happiness, and I am the first to admit that, should you wish to form such a conclusion, you would have a lifetime of experience on which to found it. But I testify to what I have witnessed firsthand, and although the revulsion that resulted was deep enough to prompt my initial hesitation to disclose the truth, I swiftly concluded that I would not be a good sister and friend if I were to spare you from it. Dear Lydia, if I may be permitted, your Sir Charles—and I wield the possessive with Roman irony—is nothing more than a base cad and a scoundrel!

No, Lydia, Sir Charles is not wintering at Barlow Manor as he would have you believe; he has been in London, leading a life of rank dissipation. He too was a guest at Mrs. Heggarty's ball, and the scandalous conduct he exhibited there would appall all but the most hardened. He injudiciously exposed numerous young ladies to his depraved temperament—I say injudiciously because he remains unaware that I am your sister, knowing me only as Mrs. Edgar Walpole.

Sweet Lydia, I strongly advise that you sit down. Molly, some sherry, please, and ensure that the smelling-salts are within easy reach. Don't just stand there gaping, girl, make haste!

When Sir Charles arrived, Lydia, he was accompanied by a shocking entourage of assorted reprobates, including a fire-eater, a mulatto fortune-teller, a chimney-sweep, a village idiot, a cardinal, several snuff-addicts, and a mischievous Barbary ape who broke into the larder and tossed fistfuls of flour hither and thither. Worse still, Sir Charles had the temerity to wear a most immodest silken waistcoat of stripes of alternating chartreuse and scarlet. Lady Coldridge's poor eyes could not cope with the clash of hues, and she was forced to retire to her chambers with a sick headache, from which she is not expected to recover. In addition, Sir Charles tracked in a great deal of mud.

Yes, my poor girl, that Sir Charles, the timid, bookish beloved of whom you have written to me so fondly. The sherry has arrived, Lydia; take a good draught, now. Molly, a hot compress, please.

Leagues from the pastoral Eden that is Barlow Manor, Sir Charles passed the evening in a louche humor, his head wreathed in a pipe-smoke whose odor was most queer in its sickly-sweetness, and his carriage upon a settee in a most lascivious state—nearly supine. He did not seem to know or care that many of the ladies present had never before witnessed a gentleman with his feet lifted from the floor. Their chaperones did what they could to shield them from the outrage, but for most it was too late. I fear that their exposure to this singular display of ill manners may arrest their social ascendancy.

You are well-justified, Lydia, in asking what all this, defamatory though it may be, has to do with my original contention. Your defense of his actions as "harmless high spirits" is to be expected from a young lady blinded by love. Yet, I regret to say that my report of Sir Charles' contempt and infidelity comes directly from the rogue himself.

Before assembled company, Sir Charles freely and blithely admitted that his inheritance is near depletion, after several foolhardy wagers on bear-baitings, whist games, darts, and the like proved farcically disastrous. To enact further levies against his tenants would most assuredly result in mass riot, so to forestall total ruin, he decided to seek not his own fortune, but the fortunes of unbetrothed rural maidens. Noting that Sir Charles' remark left me aghast, Mrs. Heggarty, a quick wit, inquired of Sir Charles one of his marital prospects, a Miss Lydia Covington, who, of course, is yourself.

"Miss Lydia Covington? That provincial mouse—that unopened crocus?" Sir Charles chortled. "Her prospects for marriage are abundant, yes, the ardor of each of her suitors proportional to her worth in pounds sterling. For if she, and all five Covington sisters for that matter, were deprived of the generous bequeathal from their late uncle, Twelveswood would be forced to take in washing and serve as an asylum for a clan of pinch-faced, concave-bosomed spinsters receiving alms at the parish's pleasure!"

Well, upon hearing Sir Charles' intolerable words, Edgar arose to thrash the scoundrel, but I urged him not to betray our identity. I secured the coach from Mrs. Heggarty, bless her, and returned to Twelveswood as quickly as I could...

Lydia! She's swooning! Catch her, Molly, and help me get her to the four-poster. Change her into her nightgown, and have Timothy fetch Doctor Curtis. And where is that hot compress? Perhaps I have told my poor sister too much. Should she succumb, I shall blame myself, but better she perish from shock than disgrace!

Lydia, dear, please try to rally, for all is not lost. Sir Charles is a despicable fiend, but there are others far more deserving of your hand. There is Alfred, the shy divinity student lodging with Reverend and Mrs. Baxter, and our cousin Joseph, and of course, Mr. Pratt, the widowed pig farmer who is 30 years your senior but quite prosperous. I have it on good faith that none of these men ever smokes, wagers, wears gaudy waistcoats, muddies the carpet, or assumes a horizontal position. Yes, Lydia, it is a rueful way to spend one's life, fretting about marriage and money. One day, perhaps, we women will enjoy a more independent status and will no longer be so preoccupied with marrying well, or marrying at all. But that will not occur for another two centuries or so. Oh! What am I saying? It will take far more time than that.