Reading Sundays: THE END OF CHILDHOOD (Part 3), a short story by Cynthia Sally Haggard

“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.

Mrs. Clayton leaned back in her chair, and picked up her work. “Your father is helping to ensure that we will have a victory that will keep us all safe.” She glanced at me, noticing me for the first time. “What are you staring at Susan? I need that pillow finished today.”

“Yes, Madam,” I murmured, bending my head to my work. True, we were fighting the French and had been doing so for many years. But was there more to this than Mrs. Clayton chose to say? Did Mr. Clayton find his wife as cold as I did? Despite the goings-on in the bedchamber which made Mrs. Clayton breed each year, they didn’t seem to be close. They didn’t hold hands, exchange gossip, or laugh together. When they saw each other, it was only at dinner, which occurred in the formal dining room with its elaborately set table. The porcelain,

By the beginning of the 19th century, sugar sculptures were replaced by porcelain figurines which could be arranged in intricate pastoral scenes and, unlike sugar sculptures, had the advantage of being non-perishable.

the silver candle-sticks, silver ware, silver cruet bowls gleamed coldly and proudly, a mirror for the Claytons, husband and wife, who sat facing each other, their heads held high, with a vast table in between keeping them apart.

*   *   *

Mr. Clayton departed for his estates in Staffordshire a week after his wife’s confinement. He spent the entire summer there, staying well into September to supervise the harvest. But Sam the footman told us in a whisper to expect the master home today. The clock hand

Grandfather Clock by Caleb Pitt of Frome Somerset, which dates circa 1780.

crawled to eleven o’clock, then carriage wheels groaned up the hill and rolled to a stop. Maria flew out of her seat, disappearing into the foyer while I followed at a more sedate pace.

“Papa!” she called, her voice echoing in the marble foyer.

“Who is this?” he said to his daughter as I appeared. “Do I know you young lady?”

Maria giggled, her pale face gathering color.

“Would this young lady like to know what I have in my pockets?”

[To be continued.]