Writing

Reading Sundays: THE END OF CHILDHOOD (Part 8), a short story by Cynthia Sally Haggard

“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?”

“Yes. You ask me all sorts of things as if I were your wife. But I’m not your wife.”

“No, indeed.” He sighed heavily. “Ah! If only that were true. What a mistress you would make!”

I edged away. “I am not your mistress sir, nor indeed your wife.”

“But one day, I shall be a bachelor again. He came closer. “In the not-too-distant future. What say you then? Would you like to be my wife?”

My mind reeled at his words. All I was capable of noticing was that he had caught me in a corner of the room between a large bookcase and an overstuffed sofa. I stared at the floor and tried to calm myself with a deep breath. Was this actually a proposal of marriage? It didn’t sound like one. In any case, how could that be? Mr. Clayton was far too grand for me.”

“You haven’t answered,” he remarked. “Am I to understand then that you think me wanting as a bridegroom?”

“I—” I looked down at my hands. “I didn’t mean that, sir. Of course you would be a good bridegroom. One that any lady would want, but—.”

He brought his face closer. “But what?”

A Master Shipwright’s tools.

“I am—not suitable. My father is a Master Shipwright. People would laugh.”

“Oh, but I think you are very suitable. Indeed, that is why your father placed you here, to make a good marriage. Is that not so?” He moved inexorably towards me. His breath was warm, spiced with brandy, wine, tobacco. I looked up at him, wondering how I could fend him off, when suddenly I was in his arms and he was kissing me on the lips. I stiffened as he assaulted me, then strangely, I melted. I had never known kissing could be so pleasurable. I moaned.

He lifted his head and smiled. “You are perfect for me, Susan.”

“But—.”

“No more buts.” He kissed me on each cheek, on my eyelids and on the tip of my nose. “An exquisite young woman,” he murmured.

I pulled away. “Are we engaged?”

He looked at me for one moment, as if considering. Then he smiled. “Of course, you shall have your ring.” He drew out a velvet box from the inner pocket of his waistcoat. Inside was a ring with a purple stone surrounded by diamonds. He placed it on my finger. “This is an amethyst surrounded by diamonds. It is my pledge to marry you.” He kissed me again.

“But Mrs. Clayton—”

“—will soon be gone. You will take her place as the second Mrs. Clayton.”

I looked at the magnificent ring he’d placed on my finger. “I can’t do this, sir. Not while she’s alive. It’s wrong.”

“Are you suggesting that I’m doing something morally reprehensible?”

I looked up. His blue eyes had become chips of ice, his smile glittered dangerously.

“I am sorry, sir,” I stuttered. “I never meant to anger you.”

He relaxed. “Then we’ll say no more about it.”

I made a low curtsey and turned to go. “One more thing, my dear.” He put his hand on my arm. “Call me John.”

“John,” I breathed.

“Yes indeed,” and he kissed me again, thrusting his tongue inside my mouth.

I fled.

[To be continued.]