Reading Sundays: THE END OF CHILDHOOD (Part 2), a short story by Cynthia Sally Haggard

Mr. Clayton nodded briefly, but his blue eyes hardened as he stared at his wife.Suddenly, he caught sight of me. There was something about his smile I did not care for. Nevertheless, I felt duty bound to put on my best smile for Mr. Clayton. As the only surviving child of John Lee, Master Shipwright of the King’s Navy,

HMS Caledonia 1808

I was expected to behave well towards the gentleman who had bestowed his charity by taking me, the best friend of his daughter Maria, into his home. Papa had taken me there, saying that it was a great honor to be brought up with the Landed Gentry, with a family such as the Claytons who could trace their lineage all the way back to William the Conqueror.

“It will great improve your marriage prospects, my girl,” Papa had remarked, squeezing my arm and smiling. It was the first time I’d seen him smile since Mama’s death. “My pretty charmer will surely find someone to love her amongst the fancy folk, she will be brought up as a lady.”

And that was how my life with the Claytons began.

Like me, Maria was the only surviving child of the family, which consisted of a mean-mouthed mother who was continually ill, and a reserved father who was often out of the house visiting his beloved dockyards. Not that Mr. Clayton actually worked. Unlike Papa, who was a Master Shipwright, John Clayton Esquire was a gentleman, and gentlemen didn’t work for a living, having land to support their families. Nevertheless, Mr. Clayton spent hours making drawings for the British Navy of new kinds of ships; for there was talk of war against the French Emperor Napoleon.

Generally, Maria and I didn’t pay much attention to grownup talk, yet as April 1808 turned into May and rumors began of a new war with Spain,

Battle of Talavera, 28 July 1809

Maria timidly asked her mother why her father was spending less and less time with us.

I sat in my corner embroidering a cushion for Mrs. Clayton’s bedchamber. As usual, she behaved as if I were invisible, not acknowledging my presence by even so much a glance.

Mrs Clayton’s face sagged into its now-familiar grooves of disappointment as she took in her daughter’s question.

“Your father is busy,” she replied after a clipped silence. “You may blame his absence on the Emperor Napoleon.” There was a short pause. “You know who he is, don’t you child?”

Maria nodded.   [To be continued.]