Authors: Alicia Cameron
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Historical, #Romance, #Regency, #Romantic Comedy, #Historical Fiction, #Historical Romance
Clarissa and the Poor Relations
For Holly, Germaine and Anastasia and for those whom I imagined would have time to read it, my father Jack, my brothers Ray and Paul and especially my sister, Pat. I can hear you all laughing.
The Reverend Mr Peterkin rose at once and was about to deliver himself of a lecture as to the tones young ladies should adopt when speaking to members of the clergy, when he recollected that this would not forward his case.
‘Indeed, Miss Thorne, it is only my sincere intention to throw myself at your feet, to act as your solace your comforter in this harsh world that caused me to…’ But his companion had already pulled a decrepit bell chain and was holding out her hand to bid him farewell in an unmistakable fashion.
‘I am obliged to you for your charitable sentiments, sir, but you have now received your answer and must take your leave.’
As Mr Peterkin grasped her hand automatically, he felt he was losing control of the situation. He gulped and said, ‘But Miss Thorne, you cannot have considered your position, your parents both dead…you need a man to guide you…’
She withdrew her hand and looked past him at her superior servant.
‘Ah, Sullivan, here is Mr Peterkin taking his leave of us, please show him out.’ she said, with the utmost cheerfulness.
‘Certainly, miss.’ said the impassive Sullivan, holding the door as the curate left the room in some disorder. As they descended the stairs, Mr Peterkin stared with dislike at Sullivan’s back. How Mrs Thorne’s Academy for young Ladies had ever merited a servant who gave himself such superior airs as Sullivan was a mystery to most in the county, but not to the curate. When Viscount Ashcroft’s daughter had married mere Mr Thorne, a writer and free thinker and a younger son to boot, the First footman of the Ashcroft estate had accompanied her to her new home bringing with him such an elegance of manner as to terrify the local gentry but to reassure the parents of the young ladies who were educated there.
‘I beg your pardon, sir, for the circumstance of you finding yourself ushered into Miss’s presence alone. Might you tell me which of the servants should have done such a thing?’ Whenever Sullivan alluded to the other servants, he did so with the air of one still presiding over a multitude instead of the cook, parlour maid and groom that was all that the house boasted beyond term time.
Mr Peterkin was jamming on his hat hurriedly and had the grace to blush. ‘Well, as to that …I let myself in through the garden door… as I wished to offer… religious comfort at this time mourning for Miss Thorne.’
‘Indeed sir?’ Sullivan’s eyebrows raised a little at this and Mr Peterkin, knowing himself to be the butler’s social superior wondered why he should feel a wish to explain himself. ‘Perhaps you will allow me to announce you next time sir, and then you would find miss properly accompanied by one of the other ladies.’
‘Well, yes. But if you wish to infer…It is not your place, Sullivan to….A clergyman’s case is very….Good day.’
‘And Good day to you my slimy weasel done up in a clerical collar,’ said Sullivan after he closed the door behind him, ‘and a good riddance to you. And if it’s not my place to be guarding my young lady from the likes of you, I don’t know whose it is.’
Clarissa meanwhile had thrown herself into an adjoining room wherein lay three ladies variously occupied in packing up the contents of the room.
‘That’s it.’ She said imperiously, as she entered the room. Her eyes were flashing and her cheeks flushed and she looked quite arresting, despite her dull gown.
A lady of some forty-five years in an unbecoming round dress of mud coloured cambric looked up from her employment of sorting through piles of dusty books, and said, ‘My dear Clarissa, whatever can have upset you?’
‘I have just had to suffer the impertinence of an offer from Mr Peterkin, so now you will all
to listen to me.’ Clarissa declared. She moved a work box from a red velveteen chair and sat down whilst with exclamations of astonishment her companions abandoned their tasks and joined her, two sitting on the sofa and the other at her on the footstool by her chair chafing her hands to soothe her evident agitation.
The ladies on the sofa could not have provided a greater contrast. True both were dressed in sober grey gowns, made up at the neck and free of any softening touches such as lace or the sad knots of ribbon with which the third lady had sought to relieve the severity of her attire. But then Miss Appleby, seated at Clarissa’s feet, was of a romantical disposition and she still held a faint flame alight for the gentleman who might one day seek her hand. That this gentleman was very late in appearing, no one could doubt. The other two ladies would have scorned such hopes. Therein lay their only similarity.
Miss Oriana Petersham was without doubt a beauty of the first water and though she pulled back her golden hair severely and simply pinned in a loop at her neck she could not help the little ringlets that escaped to frame her heart-shaped face or the darker lashes that curled around her large green eyes, or the perfection of her pert nose and bow-shaped mouth. It did her no good either, to wear the sober unadorned gown, which served only to act as a foil to her magnificent figure and beautiful face. That face at the moment wore an expression of great concern, for too often had the beautiful Oriana Petersham been the object of unsolicited male attentions for her to be anything but unsympathetic to the Clarissa’s ordeal.
Alongside her sat a lady probably fifteen years her senior at thirty-five, her figure as stolid as her companion’s was lithe, her complexion as ruddy as Oriana’s was delicate, her hair as dark and straight as was the other’s pale and curled. Her brows were dangerously close to meeting over her determined brown eyes, but her face was so impassive that it was hard to know how she had taken Clarissa’s outburst. Miss Augusta Micklethwaite’s face did not betray her thoughts.
Miss Appleby, her grey and brown ringlets (owing a great deal to a hot iron) bouncing thinly about her face as she agitatedly chafed at Clarissa’s hand, ‘Oh, how can this be … Mr.Peterkin, so romantic. To have harboured a
for you all this time…I should never have guessed…Indeed, I always thought that he disliked you, Clarissa, for do you not remember how he scolded you over that button that you put in the poor box…But that was quite some time ago now…’ She broke off in agitation as Clarissa withdrew her hand.
You can scare be serious.’ uttered Clarissa. Her anger gave way to a giggle at the memory of Mr Peterkin’s obsequiousness
Miss Micklethwaite said in her plain northern voice, ‘He has heard about the inheritance, of course. You are a fool Louisa.’
Miss Appleby was too used to Miss Micklethwaite’s unfurbished mode of conversation to take offence at this statement. ‘Oh he would not…I’m sure…But how could he?’ she finished and her watery eyes were bright with agitation. What was once a frail beauty was now a scrawny, but wirier face and figure with a resilience borne of hardship in the service of various households as a drudge-governess until her last five years of bliss as a teacher at the Academy that her old school friend has established. Here she had been coddled, she thought, treated with real respect by dear Clarissa’s mama, now sadly dead.
‘I should imagine that it has something to do with Jane…’ Oriana saw that Miss Appleby was still looking confused and explained. ‘Our cook, Jane is second cousin to Lottie, the Parlour maid at the Vicarage.’
‘Servants know everything.’ exclaimed Miss Appleby.
‘Mr Peterkin said that he was wishful to marry me to give comfort to a motherless waif.’ said Clarissa, her voice tragic.
Oriana’s eyes danced, ‘He never did. And I always thought him a man of no address.’
‘Well it is not funny. And when I asked him if he was in a position to support a wife…’
‘Oh, Clarissa, you did not.’ interjected Miss Appleby, in shocked accents.
‘Well, I did. I said I did not scruple to ask him such a question since I had no parents to ask it for me,’ said Clarissa pertly, but with her eyes dancing quite as much as Oriana’s, ‘and he stammered and said that he did not at the moment have the means, but that if I should prove to have a little competence from my mamma, he believed that I would need a man of his experience to manage it for me. He gave himself away completely. Depend upon it, he has offered for me because he has heard of my cousin’s death and my inheriting Ashcroft manor.’
‘I'm sure you must be correct,’ said Oriana with sparkling eyes. ‘What a ridiculous little man. He seeks to profit from an alliance with one to whom he has shown naught but impatience any time these last three years.’
‘But surely he is correct, my dear Oriana. Clarissa
stand in need of guidance at this difficult time. A gentleman’s strong shoulder, his decisive nature…’
‘Bah.’ ejaculated Miss Micklethwaite, impatiently, ‘He cannot even decide between chicken or dressed crab for dinner. He can little pretend to have offered much in the way of support to Clarissa in these last months since her dear mamma has passed away. It is Mr Norbert who has behaved as a vicar should, even though we were all cast into the doldrums anytime his visit lasted above twenty minutes. If she needs guidance then no doubt her brother may offer it to her, even he’s as stiff-rumped a young longwind as you may meet in a twelvemonth.’
‘Augusta.’ said Miss Appleby, in a faint but pleading tone, ‘you must not say such things of Mr Thorne. To be sure he is a man of high principals and strong views….’
‘Dearest Appleby, it is no more than my mother used to say, for try as she might she could never warm to her stepson. Even my father felt that he had adopted his air of outraged virtue only as a reaction to his and my mother’s more liberal views. He could never bear to be thought of as different or
as they were. Father blamed Harrow.’ As Clarissa spoke her large eyes took on an affectionate twinkle as she thought of her parents, dead within a year of each other, united in Heaven as they had been in life. She sighed and looked at each of her friends in turn. ‘You are quite right, however. John does mean to visit me on Monday, as he informs me in his letter. He further informs me that he has taken the liberty to visit Ashcroft and finds it in a very sorry state. He also advises me that he has set his lawyers on to sell it, there being no objection now that the succession is broken and the entail is ended, he is sure that will be my wish. As for the rest, he invites me to go and stay with him, where he is sure, SURE, mind you, that I will be of help to Cornelia with the children.’ For most of this speech, Clarissa had been wringing a lace handkerchief to death whilst pacing passionately about the room. ‘I have been brought up to be of independent mind---can you
what my life would be in such a household? I should die.’
‘I have often thought that your mother did not know what she did when she allowed you so much free rein in your thinking and behaviour.
your education stood you in good stead, but out in the world people take a dim view of young ladies who set themselves up against men’s opinions, or seek to take part in political debate. I spoke to her many times on this matter, but she did not expect to leave you unprotected so soon.’ So said Miss Micklethwaite, whilst she wiped away what might have been a tear from her fierce eyes.
‘Yes, but I have a plan. I shall not be here to listen to John’s advice—for I shall be at Ashcroft. And all of you shall go with me.’
‘But you cannot’ squeaked Miss Appleby.
‘Clarissa, you cannot have considered.’ said Miss Petersham.
‘Dear Appleby, only listen. Of course I cannot go with no respectable female to accompany me, but with three of you we shall do splendidly. John can hardly object to the respectability of that.’
‘I should rather think he would object to us hanging onto your coattails.’ said Miss Micklethwaite roundly.
‘Yes, and he’d be right. Take Miss Appleby, by all means, but there is no need to take on all of us. I could not be your pensioner at any cost,’ declared the beautiful Miss Petersham, the flush on her face causing her to look even lovelier than normal.