Reading Sundays: THE END OF CHILDHOOD (Part 10), a short story by Cynthia Sally Haggard

He clamped his mouth over mine. “You’re all right now, my love. It always hurts the first time—.” He couldn’t say more, because he was gasping for air, his face hardening into lines of pain. Gradually, the pain ceased and was replaced by waves of feeling I’d never had before. I was powerless to stem the tide.

Eventually, he left, but not before debauching me some more. Some time later, I raised myself up, noting the tangle of sheets spotted with blood. I wrinkled my nose with disgust, as the sticky wetness of his seed trickled down my leg. My cheeks throbbed with shame. I must never let Maria know what had happened.

There was a knock on the door. I opened it a crack.

Annie the maid was outside, waiting. “Master said you’d be wanting me,” she remarked. She helped me re-make the bed, her lips pursed, her eyes kind. She took the soiled sheets and clothes away.

Maria appeared soon afterwards, her eyes pink with tears, for Mrs. Clayton was taking a turn for the worse. And so I spent the next hour or so comforting her and getting her ready for the ball. At 8 o’clock precisely, we descended the stairs to the foyer, hand in hand, both clad in white.

One or two of the gentlemen smiled and bowed as we arrived, offering to get refreshments. I looked for Mr. Clayton, but he was surrounded by his guests. It looked as if the whole county had turned out for his ball.

I had my share of dancers that evening, but not Mr. Clayton. I told myself it was just as well, as my feelings were in such a tumult.

“I see you looking at Clayton,” one of my partners remarked. “Did you know that he has plans to marry soon?”

I stopped dancing for a moment to stare into his face. He gently moved me back into the dance. “Yes, indeed. It’s the talk of the whole county. They say he’s going to wed Miss Poppleton. She has a fortune of thirty thousand pounds.”

“How do you know that?”

“I’m one of his friends. He tells me everything. Why, what’s wrong? You’ve gone very pale.”

“I’m overtired. I need to sit down.”

He led me to a chair, and disappeared. As I sat there unobtrusively behind a pillar, the gossip swirled around me. Mr. Clayton was definitely going to marry as soon as his wife died, but the people around me couldn’t quite decide who the bride would be. It seemed to depend on money.

“He’d be a fool to marry for less than ten thousand pounds,” said a rotund gentleman, downing a glass of wine.

“He’s going to need more than that,” laughed another. “Haven’t you heard that his estates in Staffordshire are mortgaged to the hilt? He’s going to need at least thirty thousand to put it to rights.”

“He’s invited all the wealthy heiresses this evening,” said a third, belching. “Look, he’s surrounded by them.”

I turned to look. Indeed, Mr. Clayton was surrounded by five elegant women, who simpered at his remarks as they played with their fans. I thought of Mr. Clayton, his kisses and his promises, and I felt dirty. How could I have been such a fool? Mr. Clayton was no gentleman. He wasn’t going to keep his promises to me because I had no fortune to give him. I was just a good roll in the hay.

I bit my lip and looked down as anger welled deep within me, like molten sugar. I must come up with a plan. Just then Sam, the footman bent his mouth to my ear. “You’re wanted downstairs in the kitchen, Miss. I’ll take you.” [To be continued.]