Writing

Reading Sundays: THE END OF CHILDHOOD (Part 11), a short story by Cynthia Sally Haggard

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.”

Slowly, I stumbled to my feet and followed him downstairs. There was a murmuring of voices that hushed as I appeared. All the extra help from the village seemed to be on the point of leaving, yet the ball was still continuing on upstairs. Some of them smiled at me as they left, and one called out “Merry Christmas!” As they left, the doctor was ushered upstairs into Mrs. Clayton’s room. Then Reverend Whitacre appeared with Papa. Martha the cook, Annie the maid, Sam the footman and Thomas the coachman sat there idle, waiting.

Martha rose. “You’ll be wanting a private place to talk with your girl.” She opened the scullery door, and let us inside, shutting it quietly behind her.

I stood in the middle of that freezing room and looked at my hands. “Everyone seems to know what’s been going on.”

Papa grunted. “I’d like to hear it from you.”

I looked at my hands clasped tightly in my lap and began, not daring to look up. He listened in dead silence as I told him the whole story, thinking it best to leave nothing out so that at least he couldn’t accuse me of lying to him.

The silence uncoiled as I finished my whispered confession. I kept my head down, I couldn’t bear to look at him.

“Are you with child?”

I raised my head. He looked bone weary, suddenly much older. “I’m not sure,” I whispered.

He crashed his fist into the wall. “Damn him!” he swore. “Hell and Damnation, I trusted him!”

I jumped.

“He’s ruined you, you know,” he said in a different tone. “He’s ruined your marriage chances.” He raised his head and looked at me hard. “What gentleman is going to take another man’s leavings? Who will take on another’s brat?”

“But he promised to marry me.” I showed Papa my ring.

He shook his head. “He can always say it wasn’t his fault, that you were sleeping around.”

I stared at him. “But he wouldn’t say that.”

“Wouldn’t he? Not when he’s got a chance to marry Miss Fancy-piece with her thirty thousand pounds?”

I sagged in my seat. “But I’ll need to marry to regain my footing in society, and—” I remembered the conversation around me at the ball. “I’ll need money.”

He leaned back in his chair, rocking it backwards to stretch out his long legs. “Money. Yes you definitely need money. And the servants have all taken your side.” He rubbed his chin with his thumb. “I think I might be able to shame him into giving it to me. Yes.” He stroked his silver belt buckle. “Ten thousand pounds should do the job nicely.”

I recoiled. “You mean from Mr. Clayton?”

“That’s exactly what I mean. Hell, I could give you that money myself, I’ve got plenty of change, as you know.”

I nodded. Papa was highly skilled at his craft, and just now the Chatham dockyards were busy with all the new ships they were making to fight the Emperor Napoleon. So he was making money hand over fist, as he liked to say.

Papa leaned forward and covered my hand with his own, “No man in his right mind is going to take you for less than ten thousand. That is the price of your marriage, and by heaven I’ll see that that scoundrel pays.”

I shivered.

*   *   *

“Ten thousand pounds, Clayton. That’s my price.”

“I haven’t got the money.”

“Come now! I hear you’re to marry an heiress with thirty thousand.”

“Why should I pay? Your daughter is a slut.”

Papa bared his teeth.”I think you should be very careful what you say.” His voice was dangerously quiet. “I have witnesses.” He looked around the room.

Martha the cook, Annie the maid, Sam the footman, Thomas the coachman, the Reverend Whitacre and the doctor formed a protective wall around me, their faces hard.

Mr. Clayton glanced at them. There was a long pause. “Ten thousand, then,” he muttered.

*   *   *

When my son was born, Mr. Clayton allowed me to name him after him in partial recognition that he was the father. But I had to append my father’s name “Lee” and keep the identity of my son’s father secret on any documents. My son was baptized on 24th December 1809 as John Clayton Lee. As promised, I left his father’s name blank.

I was only fifteen years old.

THE END

John Clayton Lee was my grandmother Dorothy’s great-grandfather.

 

This story is unpublished. If you would care to publish it, please contact me at “cynthia [at] spunstories [dot] com.”