Reading Sundays: THE END OF CHILDHOOD (Part 7), a short story by Cynthia Sally Haggard

“But now the doctor has told him she cannot have more children,” whispered Martha. “So he’s turning to you. Men have these physical needs, it’s a fact of life. If they can’t find a wife, they’ll turn to vulnerable girls. Or they’ll go to the brothel.”

“Really?” I gazed into her face. “But he seems like such a gentleman.”

“All men are like that,” Martha said. “You’re growing up now, it’s time you realized that men will do anything to get you into bed. Especially someone like you.”

“Why me?”

“You’re very pretty, Miss. You’re just the sort a gentleman would take a fancy to.”

I digested that comment. No-one commented on me at all. I’d always assumed it to be because vanity was a sin. But what was it Mr. Clayton had said when he’d returned from his visit to Staffordshire? Something about how blooming I was. And he did seem to spend a lot of time looking at me.

“But what can I do?”

“Never let your guard down. And most of all, don’t spend any time alone with him. Try to include Miss Maria as much as you can. Think of excuses to get her to go along with you. It shouldn’t be hard. She’s very fond of the master.”

I nodded and rose. “Thank you,” I said to Martha. “I don’t believe anyone else would have explained this to me.”

She rose too and enveloped me in a hug. “God bless you,” she said.

As October turned into November and November turned into December, his attentions never faltered. This was the longest visit he’d paid us in many a year. Every day I would sit alone by the window with dawn breaking outside, thinking up various stratagems for keeping away from him. I began giving Maria lessons in French, botany, history, geography, so that when he wanted me to go walking with him, I could invent an excuse for having her along with me. Every afternoon, I made myself take my embroidery to sit with Mrs. Clayton. I tried to make myself useful by offering to do household errands for her, running up and down the stairs, relaying messages to the kitchen and back. Mrs. Clayton gradually became less hostile. One afternoon as I sat beside her bed, giving her beef broth for she was too weak to take it herself, she patted my hand and smiled slightly. “You are a good girl, Susan. I mistook you for being flighty and silly. I am sorry I was not kinder.”

I stared at her in astonishment.

“I have my wits about me, even though I do not think I will survive this winter. I know what is going on.” She beckoned to me to come closer. “Never let him ruin you. Keep fighting back.” She sank back onto the pillows and closed his eyes.

While his wife suffered in silence upstairs, Mr. Clayton spent an enormous amount of time planning for a Christmas ball,  to which he was going to invite all the local gentry. I found myself being asked for my opinion on all manner of things.

“What do you think?” He fingered the blue velvet drapes that adorned the dining room windows.

“It is not my place—“ I began.

“Of course it’s your place if I say so.” He squeezed my arm.

“Maria thinks—.“

“Susan!” he exploded. “You’ve been avoiding me!”

My face flamed. What could I say? I certainly couldn’t repeat Martha’s advice. Somehow, all my devising had come to naught. I had to say something, so I lifted my chin and looked him in the eye.

“You are a married man.”

“And?” His tone had a dangerous edge to it.

I swallowed. “I think you should stop courting me.”

“Courting you? Is that what I’m doing?”

[To be continued.]