Susan Smith had been spending a pleasant, quiet morning engrossed in an intricate set of proofs her tutor had set. Halfway through, she paused to ease her cramped shoulders. Looking over her work with satisfaction, she glanced at the clock and realized with horror that she was already ten minutes late for tea with her Aunt Phoebe.
She cursed, pushing away from her desk and glancing down at herself. Her fingers were smudged from writing, her nose was bright red with the effects of a cold she hadn't quite gotten over, her right cuff was frayed, she could feel her hair coming down, and she was wearing a rather shabby tweed skirt and a shapeless gray cardigan that had once belonged to her father. The most charitable thing that could be said about her clothes was that they had obviously been chosen with a view to their warmth rather than their fashion. Aunt Phoebe would be appalled.
Phoebe Trent was her father's older sister, a woman of great natural beauty and intelligence who, as the daughter of an impoverished country vicar, had decided early in life that the best use for both qualities was in helping her to make a brilliant marriage; she had duly secured the attentions of a local widower and made an early and advantageous match. Susan didn't remember her Uncle Trent much, as he had died when she was still a child, but family legend had it that Phoebe had managed him and his household with a brisk and kindly efficiency, and that he had adored her until his death left her a plump and well-off widow at thirty-five.
Having managed her own life to her satisfaction, Aunt Phoebe was of the strong and oft-expressed opinion that it was a shocking waste for a girl to spend her youth studying rather than doing her best to ensnare a suitable husband, and that one might as well burn one's money as use it to send a girl to university, because at least then one would have the benefit of the heat.
If Phoebe had a weak spot, though, it was Susan's father, a full fifteen years her junior, whom she had always indulged. Susan was his only child, and he was radiantly proud of her achievements; when she had won a small scholarship he had pledged to do whatever was necessary to provide her with enough money to pay her remaining expenses at school. When Phoebe had heard of the plan, she had scolded him roundly for his foolishness in wanting to waste his money, and then declared that as long as he was determined to put himself in the poorhouse stuffing the girl's head with maths, she might as well make sure he didn't starve himself in the process.
Aunt Phoebe paid the bills for Susan's lodging and board; she sent her a clothing allowance and bought her train tickets home every holiday; she saw to her needs with as much efficiency as she had used to run her household, and all she asked in return was for Susan to meet her in town at random intervals, to have a meal and submit to a lengthy discussion of her matrimonial prospects, the unsuitability of her course of study, and any other such topics as caught her fancy.
Susan made a face, grabbed her coat and hat, and hurried downstairs. She was, of course, horribly late for tea. Aunt Phoebe frowned at her over the rim of her cup when she finally arrived.
"I have started without you, Susan," she said, "as I had no way of knowing whether you planned to arrive before midnight." She looked impossibly smart, as always, and Susan was suddenly, painfully aware that a full inch of bony wrist was showing beneath her frayed cuff.
"I'm terribly sorry, Aunt Phoebe," she said. "I was working and completely lost track of the time."
Aunt Phoebe did not snort - she would never do anything so unladylike - but she did exhale rather forcefully through her classically straight nose.
"Your father has brought you up every bit as absent-minded as he is," she said. "I don't know what your poor mother was thinking to allow it. And for pity's sake, child, stop sniffling."
"My mother believes that children should be encouraged to pursue their talents," Susan said, and sniffled, having forgotten her handkerchief in her hurry to leave. "And I've had a cold."
"I always said it was a great pity you weren't born a boy," her aunt continued, ignoring her, but passing over a large and luxurious handkerchief, which Susan availed herself of with relief. "All this mucking about with formulas and such is very well for young men, but young ladies ought to be preparing themselves to run a household, not a library."
"We can't all have your domestic skills, Aunt Phoebe," Susan murmured, helping herself to sandwiches. Aunt Phoebe eyed her sharply.
"I should probably order some more of those," she said. "I daresay you worked through luncheon, your father always did."
"That would be lovely," said Susan, who had, and whom the smell of food had just reminded of the fact. There was a brief and blessed respite where the provisions were replenished and Aunt Phoebe allowed her a bit of time to eat.
"You're really quite a pretty girl, Susan," her aunt continued eventually. "I flatter myself that you look quite like I did as a girl. You inherited my mother's nose, thank goodness, though it's a pity you didn't get her figure as well. Of course, looking like a boy is quite fashionable these days, or so I hear, so it's just as well. But you never make any effort to make anything of your looks."
"It isn't as though my maths tutor cares about my looks," Susan said. "I don't think he'd notice if I had six eyes unless they somehow improved my essays."
"Who said anything about your tutor?" her aunt demanded. "You know quite well that it's potential suitors I'm concerned about. Even university boys must marry eventually, and I suppose they might prefer a brainy wife, anything's possible. You needn't go about looking like a rag bag just because you're a student. Just look around you! Half these girls in here are probably students of something, and you don't see them ignoring their looks." she nodded to a table in the corner, where a girl with dark hair was chatting animatedly to a woman Susan recognized as Miss Lydgate, the English tutor at her college. "Take that girl, for instance. Fashionable and ladylike, and taking an interest in people. No doubt the men flock to her. You should pay attention."
No amount of attention, Susan thought, could magically transform her from a shy, awkward scholarship girl into a vibrant social butterfly. Even if she did spend the money to match the girl's clothes - and her clothes were without doubt lovely- she would never be able to wear them like that, as though they didn't matter. And she would spend the whole time simultaneously afraid of damaging them and pining over the number of books she could have bought for the price.
"Yes, Aunt Phoebe," she responded meekly.
Her aunt looked at her sharply, but permitted Susan to change the subject onto other topics for the remainder of tea. Before Susan had quite finished, her aunt stood.
"I must be going," she announced. "I've a dinner engagement tonight. I do hope you'll remember what I've said, Susan. I only speak so because I want to see you happy." She pecked Susan's cheek and pressed into her hand a fat little envelope that Susan knew from experience would contain a wodge of banknotes.
"I know, Aunt Phoebe," Susan said, returning the salute and feeling suddenly homesick. "I do appreciate it."
"Finish the tea, there's a girl," her aunt said. "No need for it to be wasted."
Susan watched her aunt leave as she dutifully finished the pot, and sighed. She'd never wanted a husband and was quite sure she never would, but it wasn't as though she could convince Aunt Phoebe of that.
In the corner, Miss Lydgate's party was breaking up, and Susan watched idly as the dark-haired girl put on a smart cream-colored coat and wound an emerald-green scarf round her neck. The girl caught Susan's eye and smiled; she was very pretty indeed, with laughing green eyes and a generous, dimpled smile. Susan smiled back, a little weakly, and got up.
"Miss Jakes, isn't it?" she said.
"Yes," said the girl, her eyes dancing. "Miss Smith, I think? I believe we are neighbors. Are you on your way home?"
"Yes," said Susan. "My aunt had a dinner engagement."
"I'm going home, too, if you would care to walk with me," the girl said.
"Of course," said Susan, pulling on her own battered coat and following her neighbor out into the chilly afternoon. They spoke desultorily of college affairs, university gossip, and such things, until they reached the hallway where they both had rooms. As they approached Miss Jakes' door, Susan sneezed violently.
"Oh, dear," said her neighbor, looking at her with concern. "That sounds awful."
"I'm on the mend," Susan said.
"My grandfather taught me to make a lovely hot ginger drink," Miss Jakes said. "If you'd like to come in for a few minutes, I could make you one."
"That sounds lovely," Susan said. "Thank you." She followed Miss Jakes into her room and allowed her coat to be taken and hung up on a peg behind the door, and then she found herself engulfed in a warm, rose-scented embrace. She felt herself relax all over, and buried her face in Helena's dark curls.
"She looked like she was tearing strips off you," Helena said into her shoulder. "Was it very dreadful?"
Susan sighed. "It was the same as ever," she said. "She means well, she just doesn't understand." She lifted her head and kissed Helena's temple. "Thank you for being there, it was such a help to be able to look up and see you."
"I still wish you would have let me come with you," Helena said. "Your aunt wouldn't have dared lecture you like that while I was there."
"Without the money she pays I wouldn't be able to finish my degree," Susan said, "and if she even suspected about us I'd never see another penny. I just couldn't risk it, Helena."
Helena scoffed. "I'm every bit as clever as your aunt," she said. "And my grandfather says I inherited his acting talent. She'd never guess a thing from me."
"It isn't you I'm worried about," said Susan. "It's me. I'd get all nervous and give the game away. And truly, it helped me just to have you in the room."
Helena stood on her toes and kissed her, sweet and lingering. "It won't last forever, Susan," she whispered. "We'll have our degrees soon and we'll be able to earn our own livings and do whatever we like. Perhaps we let a little house together and do coaching and write our books. It will be wonderful, you'll see."
"I do hope you're right," Susan said wistfully. "It sounds heavenly."
"It will be." Helena squeezed her hands and then turned away reluctantly, pulling out a little kettle. "Now, sit down and let me put the kettle on. That ginger drink really does do wonders when you've got a cold. You'll feel better again directly."
Susan smiled, sitting on Helena's neat little bed. "I already do," she said, and meant it.