It has to be said, you guys: Maria Grace is kind of amazing. She's been a part of my Jane events from the beginning, and she always brings something amazing to the table. This year, as part of our focus on Emma, she's sharing with us a short story based on Harriet Smith's pre-Emma time, at Mrs. Goddard's school. Every Tuesday and Thursday throughout Austen in August, a new chapter will be revealed!
So click through and dig in with us, into Harriet Smith's backstory! And be sure to let us know your thoughts in the comments!
A Preference for Ginger
Harriet Smith has abandoned all hope of a home and family of her own. After all no one prefers gingers.The tidy, snug school room at Mrs. Goddard’s hummed with students busy at their labors. Harriet hunched over the work table, staring at numbers that steadfastly refused to cooperate.
Why must they be so stubborn? If only they would be obedient and behave like the little girls she minded for Mrs. Goddard! But no, they dare not be sweet like children. They insisted on playing wicked deceitful games with her.
She pushed her workbook away. It was so unfair. Miss Osgood would not permit her to look up answers in the tables of her favorite housekeeping manual.
When—if—she ever needed to sort out servants' wages, how much fabric to purchase to make clothes or how many jars were required for pickles, she would consult the wisdom of Hannah Glasse or Mrs. Rundell who were ever so much cleverer than she would ever be. Is that not why they published books with all that lovely information between their covers?
But then, that would never happen. A girl like her, one with neither family nor connections, and, to make matters, worse, a ginger, would never have an establishment of her own. She straightened her back. It was not all dread and despair. She had a place here, with Mrs. Goddard. This would be her establishment, and her family would be the delightful little girls who flocked to her and loved her. Surely she should rejoice in that.
Miss Osgood walked past and pulled her workbook back to its proper place. She tapped the taunting column of numbers with the end of her pencil. Harriet sighed and knotted her fingers in the soft fringe around her forehead. If she did not puzzle this out soon, she would be sporting a frightful headache the rest of the day.
Two sharp claps rang from the far side of the room. Harriet and the girls around her jumped.
“Your attention, girls.” Mrs. Goddard stood in the doorway, a fresh, spotless apron tied around her stout waist, and a crisply-starched cap framing her prim, matronly features.
She stepped inside, two young ladies, probably near Harriet’s age and both taller than Mrs. Goddard, followed behind her. Poor dears, they looked a bit timid and definitely uncomfortable being presented in front of so large a group. Had they never been to school before?
What an uncomfortable situation. There must be some way to make them more at ease.
“These are the Miss Martins,” Mrs. Goddard stepped back and urged the girls forward a step. “Miss Rachel Martin.”
The girl in the grey-blue dress cringed just a little and curtsied. Harriet bit her lip and gripped the edge of her seat. Miss Rachel’s cheeks were bright and her gaze toward the floor, clearly uneasy being the center of attention. Every other thing about her seemed bright and cheerful and pleasant.
“And Miss Margaret Martin.”
Miss Margaret crushed the skirt of her red calico dress in her fists and attempted a smile. She curtsied, but her face was pale and something like worry creased the corners of her bright eyes.
“They will be joining us as day students for this term.” Mrs. Goddard placed a hand on each girl’s shoulder as they looked at each other, a little wild-eyed.
New students! How wonderful! Harriet jumped up, clapping softly. “Pray, there is room here. May they sit at my desk with me?”
Mrs. Goddard’s eyes shone the way they did when she was pleased. “Indeed they may.” She ushered them toward Harriet.
Harriet gathered her books and pencils into a neat little stack, leaving plenty of room for the newcomers.
“I wish all of you to make them feel very welcome. Harriet, if you will make yourself available to introduce them to the other girls.”
“Yes, Mrs. Goddard.” She curtsied and turned to the new girls. “I am Harriet Smith and am very pleased to make your acquaintance.” She smiled as warmly as she knew how. It was the best way to put people at ease. “Pray, sit with me.” She sat in the middle of the bench and patted either side.
Miss Rachel sat to her left and Miss Margaret to her right.
“Carry on with your lessons.” Mrs. Goddard trundled away.
“You may put away your ciphering for today.” Miss Osgood strode to the far corner of the room.
“What a spot of good luck!” Harriet giggled. “I am quite hopeless with numbers.”
Margaret pressed her lips together and whispered. “I am as well. Rachel though is quite brilliant with them and always helps me.”
Harriet turned to Rachel, hands clasped before her. “Truly? Would you help me with them as well?”
“Well, I…” Rachel stammered. Her cheeks tinged with pink.
Margaret tittered and nudged Harriet. “In return, you must assist her with her sewing. She is dreadful!”
“Surely not!” Harriet. “With such a pretty gown, you must be a very good seamstress.”
“No, she is right,” Rachel peeked up through beautifully thick lashes and touched the tucks in her bodice. “This is all Margaret’s doing. I once sewed sleeves into my brother’s shirt without the gussets. He could barely move in it.”
“He wore the shirt like that for days before any of us could work out what was wrong.” Margaret clapped her hand over her mouth but a giggle still escaped. “I had to pick it all apart and rework it. He was ever so cross with us for making him suffer so with it.”
“But then again, he is usually cross about something.” Rachel rolled her eyes.
“That is not fair. He is rarely so without reason.”
Miss Osgood cleared her throat and cast a sharp look at Harriet. Her tight mouth was a bit of a reprimand to be sure, but her eyes remained soft. “We shall spend the next hour sewing. I have promised the vicar your projects for the parish poor will be done soon. Come up and get your work baskets.”
“What shall we do?” Rachel’s brow knit, and she cast about the room.
“Do not worry. You may share mine until you bring your own. I have ever so many projects begun, but have such a hard time finishing.” She giggled and hurried to collect her basket.
Harriet sat down and the Miss Martins crowded close. Harriet opened her basket and pulled out a jumble of linen. “Here is a baby dress that needs a hem yet. I hate those, they are so boring to sew. Here is a little shirt that needs sleeves, but they are already pinned in. Perhaps that will do for you, Miss Rachel?”
Miss Rachel sniggered and took the shirt. “Only if you will ensure I get it right this time.”
“Of course. Perhaps, I should work on these trousers that go with the shirt, that will complete a set. Miss Osgood will like that very much. Miss Margaret, would you work on the baby dress?”
“This looks ever so much like the one I just finished for our little sister. I know exactly what to do!”
They set to sewing, chatting about clothes, and gardens and books. What a very agreeable way to acquaint oneself with new friends.
After dinner and a pleasant hour spent playing games in the parlor, Harriet helped Mrs. Goddard tuck the younger girls into bed. Once they were all settled in, Mrs. Goddard left and she read them another chapter from their favorite book of fairy stories. Someday one of them would probably discover that she had changed the ending of ever so many stories.
They might be upset then, but heavens, those tales as they were written were so frightening and disagreeable! How could she not? To be sent to sleep with images of being eaten by wolves, having one’s feet cut off to stop dancing or being cooked by a witch? Certainly not her idea of the means to a peaceful rest!
Harriet shuddered. She would risk their displeasure later if it meant they would sleep peacefully and dream pleasantly now. Indeed, several tiny snores confirmed some of them had drifted off even before she had finished.
She tiptoed from the room. Mrs. Goddard stood in the doorway. She had been listening, too.
“You are quite the story teller, my dear. I know for some, this is their favorite time of day.” Mrs. Goddard patted her hand.
“They are all so sweet. It is a pleasure. My favorite time, too, I think.” Harriet shut the door with a soft click.
“Why do you not go to the parlor whilst I fetch a tea tray for us all.”
She withdrew to Mrs. Goddard’s parlor where Belinda and Wynne, the other parlor boarders, amused themselves. Belinda sat with a sketchbook and pencil in her lap. She liked to be seen drawing. It made her look quite accomplished, she said. But was it a great accomplishment if her drawings were very poor? They might be better if she did not argue so violently with Miss Crowe’s every drawing lesson?
Wynne worked on a piece of fine netting. Elegant, but not terribly useful, or at least it did not seem so. Still Wynne was most proud of it nonetheless.
Harriet sat in her favorite chair, one worn and soft, near the fire. She spread the teaching sampler her future students would learn from over her lap. How pleasing that her guardian had been willing to provide lovely colored silks for her embroidery. The sampler she had been taught from was so drab and boring. The same stitch over and over, all in the same color. Her students would have something far more interesting to copy. An elaborate floral pattern with each flower boasting different colors and stitches. Not one was alike. True, her students might not be able to afford many colors with which to do theirs, but they would not be bored by repetitive stitches. A very good thing indeed.
“It took you a long time to get the girls settled tonight.” Wynne did not look up from her netting. That was nothing unusual. She rarely graced Harriet with a direct look.
“They were still very excited by our new students today.” Harriet squinted and threaded her needle. The scarlet twist was so pretty in this light.
“So you coddled them with extra stories—told wrong I am sure—and petting to ensure they will misbehave again.” Belinda set her sketchbook aside and pulled herself up very straight in her chair. “You spoil them shockingly, you know.”
She liked to think of herself as the head girl at the school. As the eldest student, perhaps she had some right to do so. But it was still most vexing that she thought she knew more about everything than anyone else.
“They were excited, not disobedient. Those are not the same. Besides, it is a pleasing thing for them to be so welcoming to newcomers.”
Arguing with Belinda was pointless. She would not stop until everyone said they agreed with her, whether they actually agreed with her or not. Still it was maddening to sit there in silence and allow her to prattle on.
“I hardly find it so.” Belinda snorted. “Do you not agree Wynne?”
Harriet laid her sampler in her lap. “And how do you come to that conclusion?”
“Think about it. To welcome them before we really know their characters, their connections? It seems a very unwise thing to me.” Belinda turned her nose up in her favorite oh-so-superior gesture.
Why did she have to do that? She really was not so disagreeable when she was not trying to show off her grand manners and fancy opinions.
“How can you say such a thing? Do you believe Mrs. Goddard would bring unacceptable company into our midst?” Harriet said.
“Have you ever seen her turn away a paying student?” Belinda turned to her with that stare.
The distasteful one, the one designed to remind Harriet that a girl who did not know and might never know her parents, had little place supposing she might know better than one whose father was a successful solicitor and who had an uncle who was a knight or a baronet or something that meant he was called ‘Sir’.
Belinda was right after a fashion, though. Harriet really did know very little of the world. All she had was Mrs. Goddard and this school. She lacked the future prospects of so many of the other girls, so she had not bothered to apply herself to much that would not relate to her future, here as a teacher for Mrs. Goddard’s school.
She swallowed hard. It would not do to become glum about such things. Mourning what one could never have brought only misery. In truth, she was fortunate. Very fortunate. She was well provided for and had a plan for the future. What more could she want for?
“Has Mrs. Goddard ever taken in a student who proved an unworthy friend?” Harriet asked.
Belinda had no answer.
“Well, I think the Miss Martins were rather plain, drab little things.” Wynne turned back to her netting.
“I am sorry to hear you say that.” Mrs. Goddard walked in bearing a tray of tea things.
Wynne jumped. “I …I did not mean…”
The cups and saucers on the tray clinked as she set them down. “If you did not mean it, then why did you say it?”
Wynne stammered and muttered something that sounded like “I am sorry, Mrs. Goddard.”
“As my oldest girls, it is your duty to welcome visitors and newcomers and help them feel comfortable here. It is a woman’s duty to be a warm hostess.”
“But that is for her own home, is it not?” Belinda puffed up like a scolding hen.
“This is currently your home, and may be for quite some time yet. If you cannot make guests welcome here, how will you do so elsewhere?”
Belinda tossed her head. She obviously missed Mrs. Goddard’s sharp warning look.
Harriet cringed a little. “I thought them very sweet and agreeable girls.”
Wynne rolled her eyes like she always did when Harriet spoke.
That was something else of which Mrs. Goddard did not approve. Perhaps neither of them minded a scolding as much as Harriet did.
“And they and I were very pleased at the way you dedicated yourself to their comfort, my dear.” Mrs. Goddard handed Harriet a cup of tea.
“But their manners! You cannot say they were at all polished or even that proper.” Belinda reached for a cup.
“Perhaps they are in need of a bit of polish, but is not that what school is for?” Mrs. Goddard extended a plate of biscuits. “They are very eager to learn, to be sure. They desire to be a credit to their brother.”
“Who is their brother?” Belinda was always interested in young men, particularly if they might have property.
“Mr. Robert Martin of Abbey Mills Farm. He is a very respectable young man with a very pretty establishment.”
“I imagine Mrs. Martin is a very pretty and respectable wife?” Wynne snickered behind her hand.
“The only Mrs. Martin is their mother.” Mrs. Goddard added sugar to her tea.
“Oh.” Something in Belinda’s voice changed as it trailed off. She chewed her lip and little furrows appeared between her brows. “Has my father written to you yet—”
“About preparing you to come out? Yes he has.” Mrs. Goddard leaned back and sipped her tea. Everything in her posture declared she was most tired of the subject. “He said that you should be allowed to attend small gatherings in private homes that I deem acceptable to continue your preparations.”
Belinda clapped softly. “Capital! I am so glad he did as he promised.”
Botheration. Belinda had that look in her eyes, the one that meant she was planning how to make others pleased to give her what she wanted. The one that made Harriet avoid her wherever possible.
On the positive side though, perhaps Belinda would be nicer to the Miss Martins now.
The next morning, Harriet was helping the younger girls with their lessons when the Miss Martins arrived. They waved at Harriet.
Belinda and Wynne made space on their bench for them and beckoned them over.
Rachel and Margaret whispered to each other for a moment, then sat with Belinda and Wynne as Miss Osgood continued her geography drill.
What a horrid subject, geography. How boring to recall what strange names went with what little squiggly colored patch on the globe. What use was it to know such things when she would never see any of those places herself nor know anyone who would? Far more interesting was learning the plants in the garden and which would soothe the stomach aches and colds the change of seasons would inevitably bring.
As well, at least if she had to study geography, she had her fair share of more interesting subjects as well. Even better, she could skip the lesson altogether today whilst helping the little ones with their penmanship.
She bent over one of the youngest girls’ desk to help her hold her pen correctly.
“Be sure to copy that maxim correctly.” Harriet tapped the copy book. “Remember, where there are two ‘s’s together, the first is always a long one. Keep practicing and I am sure Miss Osgood will soon find you ready to do a writing blank to send to your father and mother.”
“I do hope so, Miss Smith. I already know the one I want to use, and I have picked out the verse to write as well.”
“Is Miss Smith a teacher here too?” Rachel whispered.
Harriet glanced at them from the corner of her eye.
“Not yet, but almost as good as one.” Belinda replied, eyes fixed on the map she drew. “She is set to work here after the next term. You can see she is practicing now and is very good with the younger students.”
“She has no…connections you know, and is the natural daughter of, well no one knows who.”
Harriet’s cheeks burned and she screwed her eyes shut. What place did Belinda have mentioning that when it need not be said? Just because her father was a very successful solicitor—
“Miss Smith?” A small face looked up at her.
Oh bother! Harriet still held the little girl’s hand in hers. “Like this dear. Try the long ‘s’ again.”
She murmured something and returned to writing an awkward row of long ‘s’s in running hand across her paper.
“I had no idea,” Miss Margaret whispered, with a sidelong look at Harriet.
Miss Rachel leaned a little closer to Belinda. “She is such a nice girl.”
“She is nice and proper. She knows her place among her betters and that is a very desirable thing in a young lady. Her manners do her much credit.” Belinda started to bat her eyes at Harriet, but Miss Osgood’s sharp look stopped her.
Even Harriet could tell Belinda spoke what she did not mean. “Continue your practice. I will return in a moment.” She tapped the desk and darted out.
Once in the hall, she increased her pace to nearly a run until she escaped into the gardens. She gulped the soft air like a drowning man, but relief for her true need was not to be found. She ran for a cluster of trees, pushing herself until her sides ached and throat burned.
But running only moved the pain temporarily from her heart to her body. She could not run fast or far enough to escape the truth of who she was—and was not.
This was not the first time Belinda had reminded the other girls of Harriet’s pitiable state. Belinda was so conscious of status and rank! She loved to remind others of it and, it seemed, drew them to her like moths to a glittering flame.
Sometimes it worked, and they treated Harriet coolly for a time, but sometimes it did not. It only made Belinda try harder. Could she not see that was not the way to attract real friends?
Harriet was far from friendless—in truth, she probably had more friends than Belinda. That made Belinda jealous, or so Mrs. Goddard said. She insisted Harriet should feel pity for Belinda’s antics, not anger.
Perhaps that was true. But it did not change the hurt plaguing her each time Belinda played her maneuvering games.
“Harriet? Harriet?” Mrs. Goddard called, her voice distant, probably at the edge of the trees.
“Here, madam.” Harriet dried her eyes with the edge of her chemisette’s high collar and hurried toward the voice.
“Are you well child? The maid saw you run out and told me straight away.” Mrs. Goddard met her at the edge of the copse.
“I am fine, truly.”
“No, my dear you are not.” She took Harriet’s hand. “I have seen you wear that expression far too many times.”
“It is nothing. Only one of my flights of fancy grabbing hold of me once again. You know how I can be, dashing here and there after a stray idea. I should be getting back to the school room.” Harriet tried to pull away, but Mrs. Goddard’s kind grasp remained firm.
“Do not lie to me child. I know you far too well for that. Do you not know by now?”
“Yes, Mrs. Goddard.” She tried to hide her sigh in an ineffectual little smile. It was so difficult not to look fretful when one felt so.
“Come now. Sit with me in the gazebo and tell me what happened.”
Mrs. Goddard led her along the garden path to the little white gazebo surrounded by heather and covered with ivy. It slanted to the left a bit and a few vines drooped inside, but that only added character, making it her favorite spot.
“I am being foolish and petty.” Harriet mumbled, eyes fixed on a particular clump of heather that needed trimming. The soft green smells and the cool shade soothed the ragged edges of her spirit. This place always made the ache inside subside.
It never really left, but it was made bearable here.
Harriet shook her head in something that meant neither yes nor no. It satisfied most people enough that they asked nothing more.
“She continues to remind you—”
“Of what is the way of the world." Harriet paced along the viney walls. “It is not cruelty. Only truth. I cannot, I should not hide from it. I am … am old enough to accept it for what it is and not sulk like a little girl. I have so much to be grateful for. I must never lose sight of it.”
“You are right, child, that is what you must always focus upon. There are enough troubles and hardships to convince us to be sad. But that is not to say we cannot make efforts to better ourselves and our situations.”
“I do not know what you mean.”
“I know you must be a little envious of Belinda’s planned come-out.”
“It is a very bad thing to be jealous. I do not wish to feel so.”
“True enough. But still, it does suggest I have been remiss and selfish.” Mrs. Goddard stood and dusted her skirts like she did when she was about to start to work.
“How can you say that?”
“I have been far too content in the idea of keeping you with me always. You are like a daughter to me. I have taken comfort in the thought of always having you close.”
A warm spot tingled in Harriet’s chest. “And I have always thought of you as a mother more than a school mistress.”
“Then it is time for me to act as a mother should. Your guardian has given me full leave to handle your education as I see fit. I believe it is time to introduce you into society.”
“Me? But…but I am not … not …”
“While it is true, there are those who might not accept you for reasons well beyond our control, I am quite certain there are those who are willing to look beyond such things to the very agreeable girl that you are. I will make it my purpose to discover them and see you are introduced.”
“But truly, I am content…”
“You think yourself content because you know you should be. I know you better than you yourself do. You want what every young woman desires. A home and a family of your own. I will see you have that. But you must trust me and do as I tell you.”
“Have I not always done so?”
“Yes, you are a very good girl. You deserve your measure of happiness. I will see you have a chance for it. For now though, come, let us return before the little ones become unruly without you.”
They walked back to the house.
What would it be like having a home of her own? It never seemed possible. What an odd…and very pleasing thought. But very, very unlikely.
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