“You stupid girl!” Claire cried out. “How could you?”
“I didna mean to, Miss, I didna!”
The young maid—she couldn’t have been more than 14—shrank into the angle by the fireplace and began to wail.
That was how Miss Simms found them when she hastened into the room—mistress and maid both sobbing, the small girl cowering against the wall, the young woman crouched on the floor, salvaging bits of china from the Axminster carpet.
Ignoring the maid, Beatrice Simms placed her hand gently on Claire’s shoulder.
“Claire! What’s wrong?” she asked softly.
Claire lifted brimming blue eyes to the older woman’s face. A tear traced her cheek as she raised an outstretched palm.
“His paw, his poor little paw! She’s broken him, Simmie!”
She held bits of a small china dog that had stood at the back of her dressing room mantel for the better part of two years, a humble ornament lost among the fine porcelain objects that cluttered all the young ladies’ rooms at Thurn Hall.
Turning to the sniffling maid, Miss Simms said, “Go downstairs, Parsons, and tell Cook I said you were to have a cup of tea. I’ll come and speak to you later.”
She pulled a plain handkerchief from her pocket and handed it to Claire.
“Stand up, Claire. This is no time for nonsense. Accidents happen.” Then, when the door closed behind the maid, she said more gently, “Come, dear, let me see it. Perhaps it can be mended.”
Claire stood, handed the broken figurine to Miss Simms and went to the window behind them. Leaning her forehead against the glass, she sighed.
“What’s the use, Simmie? It’s just a trifle. Wrap it in some tissue and throw it away. I shouldn’t cling to what might have been. Mr. Carter is dead, so Papa’s won after all.” She turned. “Give me a hug, and after I’ve composed myself, I’ll find Parsons and ask her pardon.”
“I hate to see you unhappy, Claire. But you must at least own that your father only wanted what’s best for you. A self-made man, with no family or station to speak of…”
“Stop, Simmie. You know Mr. Carter was the best man in all the world to me and I don’t care that he earned his fortune with a pen. Why is it that men who claim to respect hard work, discipline and brains scorn the ones who profit by it?”
Simmie had nothing to say on this point. Instead, she stroked Claire’s shoulder. “Are you sure you don’t want to keep this, my dear?”
“Yes, Simmie. Throw it away—no, give it to me. I should do it.”
Claire rummaged through a drawer in the heavy mahogany dressing table beside the window and produced a bunch of tissue paper. Taking the china fragments from Miss Simms, she carefully wrapped them and placed the bundle in the wastebasket beside the dresser.
“Thank you, Simmie,” she said, her voice steady again. “You’ve always been the best friend I could have. Your advice is good, even though I don’t always like it. Not many girls are that lucky in their governesses—or their friends.”
“Then I’ll give you a bit more. Perhaps a visit to your Aunt Manwaring in town can be arranged. You could bid farewell to these ‘what ifs’ in peace, for no one would expect you to accept social engagements there, or not many, since she does not go out much.”
“Aunt Maud—am I that desperate? She’ll expect me to read her a sermon every night before bed, forgo sugar in my tea and dance attendance on her smelly pug—though, I admit, the last time I was banished to Aunt Maud’s care, at least Napoleon’s constitutionals in the garden took me out of the house twice a day. Still, even Perdition would be preferable to staying here.”
“Oh, Simmie,” Claire said irritably. Her short train twirled about her ankles as she began to pace. “I’ve been proper all my life and look where it’s gotten me. I did everything right, yet life is passing me by. I went to the right parties, I wore the right clothes, I acquired the right ‘accomplishments.’ I said the right things—which meant saying nothing most of the time. Then I fell in love with a wonderful man who loved me. But that’s when everything went wrong.”
Claire stopped abruptly to face her friend.
“I’ve been lectured and preached at all my life about duty, Simmie—oh, don’t look at me that way. You were just as bad as they were when it came to that. Tell me, what was my duty then, when Josiah proposed to me? I loved him, but I love my family, too.”
Miss Simms said nothing.
“Tell me, Simmie. What choice did I have?”
“We always have choices,” Miss Simms said, hoping she didn’t sound like she was lecturing. “Letting someone else decide for us is a choice.”
“Are you saying I should have defied Papa? What of the scandal, my sisters? And Mama would have been so hurt!”
“That was a choice, too, dear heart.” Simmie paused. “They say our choices show us who we are, but I think accepting the consequences of our choices is the real test of character.”
Claire reached out and took Simmie’s hand. “You are so right. What’s done is done, and regrets only make it worse. Send a footman down to the post office and wire my aunt that I am coming. At least I’ll be able to mourn in peace there.”
No sooner had the door latch clicked behind Miss Simms than Claire rescued the wad of tissue.
Revealing the small china spaniel, now missing a paw and part of an ear, she placed a kiss on its brown and white head.
It was the only present Josiah had ever given her. Claire knew the trinket was past repair, but a damaged remembrance was better than nothing at all.
To her dismay, Claire did not find Parsons in Thurn Hall’s vast basement kitchen.
“To be sure, Miss, that girl’s taken such a turn, I durst not trust her with the washin’ up,” Cook said brusquely. “I sent her to bed, she was that trembly. Jenkins will take her up a bit o’ something after we’ve lunched.”
Seeing Claire’s stricken face, she hastened to add, “Don’t be troublin’ yourself with that ‘un, Miss. She’s been actin’ like there’s a ghost round every corner since she came to the hall. If she doesn’t soon put her mind to bein’ in service, she’ll be back to the farm in no time. And won’t my sister be put out at that, no doubt blamin’ me. I told her—“
“I’m sorry, Cook,” Claire cut in. “This is all my fault and I want to put it right. Being away from home so young must be dreadful. Is that tray for her? Let me take it up. I’m sure I don’t want to create more bother for you.”
“Well, if you must, Miss, it’s not my place to stop you. But don’t go spoilin’ that girl. She needs to stop mopin’ and get on with it.”
Claire considered Cook’s matter-of-fact statement as she gingerly navigated the back stairs to the servants’ floor high under the eaves, balancing a tray laden with thick-cut bread, butter, a plain brown pot of tea and the jam tart she purloined from the platter destined for her family’s own luncheon two hours hence.
<i>“Get on with it.”</i>
Good advice for anyone, but how?
By her mother’s lights, she lost her best chance for a good marriage by wasting her only season. The Burtons were comfortable but not rich. Each of the three Burton sisters could expect one season each, and Claire had had hers with no acceptable result.
She had been an awkward debutante, tall and angular. The close-cut dresses in fashion now suited Claire’s considerably more womanly form better than the overly fussy puffed-out gowns and hoop skirts that had been in vogue when she was 18. The straight fall of the soft fabric on the front of her dress today accentuated her lithe body when she moved, and the elegant bustle added a subtle allure to her stride.
Coiffures had simplified with the change in couture, again to Claire’s advantage. Sausage curls and ribbon cascades gave her the look of a tall poodle, while the chignon she now favored accentuated a slim neck and classic profile. Assiduous rinsings with a concoction of chamomile tea and lemon kept the red in her golden hair at bay.
But her failings went beyond appearance. She ignored Mama’s advice on which men to flirt with and, truth be told, she refused to be tutored in flirting
Flirting wasn’t the only skill Claire lacked, of course. Earning her living was out of the question, for reasons practical and social. Mama still hoped that by chaperoning the younger girls, Claire might catch the attention of a suitable widower, but at 26, her chances were fading.
More likely was a future at home with Mama and Papa, cosseting them in their old age, acting the favorite aunt to a multitude of nieces and nephews and settling into a round of family visits and the family’s one annual trek to the seaside— too purposeful to be called a holiday —for one’s health.
Josiah Carter had awakened her to a vision of sunny Italian landscapes, sparkling London salons, gay Parisian adventures and long, intimate evenings devoted to discussions of art and philosophy—never to be, her father had made plain.
Josiah said he would come back for her. She knew from reading the Fortnightly Review that he had gone to the States within days of his confrontation with her father two years ago. But he had returned weeks ago without a word. This, too, she knew only from reading the papers: “Lately returned from America, that celebrated novelist Josiah Carter, on the White Star RMS Oceanic.” How like him, she thought in her giddy joy, to return to her on one of the fastest ships at sea.
But he sent no word to her. Perhaps he had forgotten her. Perhaps he had found someone else, while she waited patiently, unable to give or receive a word of reassurance under her family’s sharp eyes. As she well knew, women flocked to his celebrity and then lingered to bask in the warmth of his smile.
Claire never questioned what he saw in her, out of all those women. She had been too happy.
And then came the black-bordered announcements in those same papers—a fall from a horse on a deserted country lane near his home.
<i>“Get on with it.” </i>
Cook made it sound so easy. Claire suppressed an impulse to crash the tray against the wall and drown out her thoughts in the clatter of crockery against plaster and wood. But in this house ruled by the twin rods of propriety and duty, to show any strong feeling, whether grief or joy, was unacceptable. Tears were shed in private and quickly dried lest anyone should suspect. In fact, she had shed very few tears over Josiah, which pained her almost more than news of his death.
She carefully set the tray down in the dim, narrow hallway outside the cramped room Parsons shared with another maid, took as deep a breath as she could manage in her tight stays and rapped tentatively.
“Parsons? It’s Miss Burton. I’ve brought you something to eat—and I wanted to say I was sorry for shouting at you. It was very wrong of me.”
The door opened a crack, then swung wider.
“Oh, miss. You ought never to be apologizin’ to me. Whatever will my aunt—I mean, Cook—say? She’ll be that angry with me!”
“Never mind that, Parsons. If you must, the apology is as much for me as for you. A silly piece of china is nothing to get angry over. Accidents happen, and it’s a poor person who can’t accept that life is full of mishaps. May I come in?
Parsons stood back and made no attempt to hide her curiosity about what lay under the white linen cloth covering the tray.
The girl was so thin her dark brown eyes overwhelmed her pale face. She promised to be pretty someday, if she could get rid of the perpetual anxiety that marred her features.
“I hope you don’t mind,” Claire said as she set the tray on the deal dresser and removed the cloth. “I brought a second cup. Cook tells me you are from the country near Hereford and I would so like to hear about that. Someone very dear to me told me it is beautiful. He promised to take me there someday.”
“Yes, Miss.” Parsons bobbed quickly, then seeing Claire settle onto the one plain chair in the room, she perched on the edge of the narrow bed. “Yes! Oh, the hills is so beautiful—not like here. Surrey is kind o’ flat like, Miss. Oh, sorry, Miss. It’s not that it’s not nice here…”
“That’s all right, Parsons. Tell me the way you see it, not how you think I want to see it. I’m not likely to, after all, since Mama and Papa are not fond of traveling. Tell me all about it.”
The time passed quickly, as in a rapture Annie Parsons talked about the land her family had farmed for generations and her lively brood of brothers, sisters and cousins. It was a rough life, Claire understood, but it seemed to have such freedom.
Her descriptions were so vivid Claire could see the clouds of apple and pear blossom blanketing the valleys in springtime and almost smell the sweet scent on the air.
Annie began speaking lines of poetry and Claire stopped her.
“That is so fine, Annie—where did you learn that?”
“My grand’da used to say that to me as we walked the hills. He was a preacher to folks round about who could’na get out much. I went with him sometimes. Isn’t that the Bible, miss?”
“I think not, Annie. It was so lovely, if I brought you paper and pen, could you write it down for me?”
Annie did not blush or hesitate. “Readin’ and writin’ are not for the likes of me, miss,” she said matter of factly. “What for would I need them? Nor could my grand’da and he did much for folks without ’em.”
While Claire searched for a reply, Annie raised the subject that had weighed on her mind since the morning.
“Beggin’ your pardon, Miss, but that china dog what I broke…”
“Will I be taking it out of your wages? No, Annie. I said it was just a trinket. A gentleman gave it to me because I liked the dog he took for walks in the park when we were in London. It was a darling thing, with long silky ears and big brown eyes—a lot like yours, Annie, your eyes, I mean—bright and affectionate and trusting. The three of us had such lovely strolls before I had to come home to Thurn.”
“A pet, like?” Annie asked. “We had workin’ dogs on the farm, and cats in the barn, and sometimes Pap would bring the baby lambs into the kitchen by the fire when their mothers wouldn’a have ’em, but there were’na place for pets. Moochers, Pap called ’em.
Claire sighed. “My friend wanted to give me a pup from his kennel, but my Papa is a bit like yours, Annie. He can’t abide animals in the house. He says they’re dirty and that God meant them to serve us, not we they.”
The pot was empty and Parsons had consumed the last crumb of bread and flake of tart before Claire realized the time. She flew to her room, tidied her hair and stepped into the dining room just as Papa was taking his seat at the head of the long, highly polished table.
“You are late, Miss,” Papa growled as she slipped into her seat across from Mama and next to her younger sister, Frances. The youngest Burton daughter, Catherine, was seated to her mother’s right. Her married brother, Cameron, lived in town with his wife, the absurdly named Delilah, and their three toddler sons. There was about as much romance in the young Mrs. Burton as in the plate laden with well-cooked roast beef and boiled potatoes sitting on Claire’s place.
“Yes, Papa,” she murmured, withdrawing her napkin from the silver ring by her plate. “I am sorry, Papa.”
“As you should be. You know I detest waiting.”
He applied himself to his soup, and the hour passed none too soon for Claire, consumed as it was with chatter between her sisters about fittings, flowers and gossip.
Claire said little, thinking instead about Annie Parsons, who seemed to be as starved for food as she was for comfort, and her mind wandered to the picture the girl had sketched of a happy home filled with warmth, laughter and a poetry unexpected in such a setting.
It was outrageous that such a girl as Annie should be dragged away from all that made her life worthwhile merely to dust the shelves of spoiled rich girls such as herself. And that the child was illiterate in this day and age—Claire could change that. Josiah Carter had wanted to start a school for country girls like Annie. They had spent hours discussing what it would look like, how Claire would encourage the teacher. If she did it quietly, she could tutor Annie Parsons…
“Claire!” Her father’s voice cut into her reverie. “Must I repeat myself?”
“Papa?” She started and saw that her mother and sisters had risen from the table.
“I said, I will see you in the library a half-hour from hence,” Sir Henry said with deliberation. He levered his imposing bulk from the table and loomed over her. “I have a serious matter to discuss with you.”
“Serious!” Mama fluttered like a startled peahen. “Whatever can you mean?”
“Nothing you need trouble yourself with, MaryAnn. It involves only Claire.”
“Oh, Claire!” her sister Cat exclaimed in a low voice. “What have you done now!” Frances giggled nervously.
“It doesn’t concern you, miss,” Sir Henry said sternly. “Look to the log in your own eye before fussing over the speck in your sister’s.”
“Yes, Papa,” the two younger girls said in unison as they rustled from the room with their mother.
Claire’s stomach clenched. Could he have heard about the incident with Annie Parsons already? Or was it that he knew about her apology? Which would be worse in his eyes, she wondered. She resigned herself to another lecture on Woman’s Domestic Duties and how to conduct herself with inferiors.
But she said simply, “Yes, Papa. In an hour.”