Reading Sundays: THE WAYWARD DAUGHTER (Part 8), a short story by Cynthia Sally Haggard

I turned to her. “Jessie, dear, you did what you could. Now, I think you should go upstairs, change your clothes and try to get warm. We’ll be having supper presently.”

I stared at the fire after she left. I needed to speak to Spencer about this, but he was away, on some business to do with his bank. I didn’t expect him back for a week.

*     *     *     *     *

A few days passed, then it was time for the weekly meeting of the gardening committee. But I couldn’t concentrate. The thought of my wayward daughter, unchaperoned, in a dance-hall surrounded by leering workmen and their…women, dancing with an unknown young man made my cheeks burn with shame. I gazed at the middle-aged women around me, all of whom had daughters of Stephanie’s age. I thought of them, Alice Alvanley, Mabel Bretton, Caroline Capenhurst, Mollie Mollington and Catherine Helsby. Despite their youthful high spirits I couldn’t think of one of these girls who would defy her mother and put the family to shame, not a one. What had I done to deserve such a daughter?

I thought back over Stephanie’s life, remembering the day she was born. I called her my Thanksgiving Gift, because her birthday, November 23, sometimes fell on the fourth Thursday of the month. She’d been a darling baby, blue-eyed, golden-haired and such a beauty even then. She’d seemed perfectly content as a baby, but as she grew older she would sometimes pull away from my hugs. The warning sign always came when she turned down the corners of her mouth.

Then something happened that is so painful, I can hardly bear to think about it. About 15 months after Stephanie’s birth, I gave Spencer a son, whom we named Philip Spencer Treffry. That day, 24 February 1896, was the happiest day of my life. I could hardly bear to be parted from my son and as a consequence had very little time for Stephanie. I can see now how hard this must have been for Stephanie was only fifteen months older than her brother. She still needed me and she’d been knocked off her perch as our family’s little princess. Unfortunately, it never occurred to me to give her special attention. As Spring grew into Summer, little Philip thrived. Then one morning, in July, just after I got up, I found him dead in his crib. He was five months old.

Stephanie (left) and Jessica (right) posed as fishermen in front of a painted screen of the sea. The Treffrys were a well-known family from Fowey, Cornwall.

I don’t remember much after that. Days, weeks, months passed in a thick fog. I could barely get out of bed. I couldn’t sleep. I would spend all night pacing around downstairs having crying jags. Eventually, the one-year anniversary of Philip’s death came around and I came out of mourning, determined to give Spencer another son. The year after, in August 1898, I presented him with a second daughter, our Jessie. Her birth was followed by Beryl’s in 1901 and Sylvia’s in 1903. Finally on 25th July 1905, I was able to give Spencer his son, Bevil Courtenay Treffry.

During those years, I had scant time for Stephanie. We could only afford one servant, so we hired a nurse to look after the children when they were little. That meant I had to cook, clean and run the house. When Stephanie turned fourteen and became a woman, Spencer and I dismissed the nursemaid and hired a maid-of-all-work so that I could spend more time with my daughters. Little Bevil was three years old at that point, but his sisters were growing old enough to take care of him.

I was so busy, I didn’t notice the gradual deterioration in Stephanie’s behavior, or if I noticed, I followed Spencer’s lead in putting it down to natural high spirits. Now that I think about it, if Stephanie didn’t get attention, she misbehaved. Spencer tried, but his way of making it up to Stephanie was to spoil her dreadfully.

“Mary, dear.” Laura Mollington’s voice jolted me from my reverie. “I was wondering if you would mind helping us to settle a dispute. Lucy’s daughter is to marry an American and he says he’s from Boston. I think Boston is in New Hampshire, but Lucy says it’s in Massachusetts.”

“It is in Massachusetts,” I replied automatically. “I was born there.”

“Really? How interesting. Perhaps you could tell us about the city.”

I forced a smile, making my skirling thoughts focus on what she was saying. The truth is, I wasn’t born in Boston, even though I usually said so on official forms. Canaan New Hampshire was the place of my birth, but Boston was the nearest big city. I scarcely knew Boston, having only spent a few days there before boarding the ship that took us to Europe. [To be continued.]