It's time for part 3 of Maria Grace's Emma-based short story, A Preference for Ginger! I know it's been a long weekend of waiting for some of you, and you're eager to see how our Harriet is faring (and some of you are just eager to see if Belinda is going to get hers... ;P ), so: it is here! Enjoy!
And if you've missed any of the story and want to dive in, catch up with parts one and two!
Oh, and don't forget to enter to win Maria's latest, Mistaking Her Character!
A Preference for Ginger
Harriet Smith has abandoned all hope of a home and family of her own. After all no one prefers gingers.
Chapter 3Harriet climbed the stairs one step at a time, lingering, like a little girl still unsteady on her feet. What would it be like to teach a child of her own to scale the mountain of stairs? There had been one little girl, Abby, who had been so frightened of them! It took months of holding her hand before she was willing to do them on her own. Dear, silly little thing.
“Oh! Watch where you are going!” Belinda dodged around her.
“Oh I am sorry.” Harriet clung to the railing, pressing against the wall.
“Gathering wool again, I suppose.”
Harriet regained her footing and pulled herself up straight.
“I would not get my hopes up if I were you.” Belinda wrinkled her nose in her favorite little sneer.
“My hopes of what?”
“Truly you can be such a dullard. You know very well what I mean, Of Mr. Martin or of ever getting away from this drab little school.”
“What do you mean of Mr. Martin? Margaret and Rachel are my friends. I am going to visit them. What has he to do with it?”
“You truly are very simple. Did you not consider that he is unmarried?”
“No, I did not give it much thought. Why would I?”
“And that is exactly why you will never leave this place. How will you get a husband if you do not even try to look for one?”
“You do not need to be jealous. Mrs. Goddard said he is not in a position to marry now. You are missing nothing by not getting to meet him.” Harriet touched her arm, but she snatched it away.
“Why would you think I would want to meet him? A farmer who does not even own his farm is not the kind of husband I want.”
“Good, then you have nothing to repine.”
Why did she not look happier about it?
“I suppose he is just the sort of man who would not object to your kind as a wife, even if you are a ginger.”
Ah yes, her kind. Harriet tucked stray hairs behind her ear. A little seed of bitterness heated in her belly. No, she was not likely to ever forget all that made her undesirable. “Good that he is not looking for one, then.” She pushed past Belinda and hurried up stairs.
At the top, Harriet turned away from the school room and ducked into the maid’s closet. Back against the door she pressed her hands to her stomach and gulped cool air to staunch the growing heat within. Dwelling on what she could not change achieved nothing. It never had and it never would. She had friends, good friends, a home and a future here with Mrs. Goddard no matter what else happened. That was more than so many had.
It was just a dinner with friends, not presentation before the king. Her future did not depend upon her making a proper curtsey or conversing smartly with peers. She could have a merry time and ensure those around her happy she had been invited. Surely she could.
What was the worst that could happen? If she failed, she might never have another invitation and Mrs. Goddard might abandon the idea of introducing her into Highbury society. All would go back as she knew and expected. That would not be so bad.
But then, she might never have a little girl to teach to climb steps.
There would always be students at the school though, and that would be enough. It would have to be.
Miss Osgood set Harriet to helping the little girls with their samplers. It was unfortunate that the pattern was so dull, though. Miss Osgood had little imagination and a high tolerance for repetition, it seemed, given how many times the same motif appeared in her work. The girls seemed content enough to stitch it, though. The quiet familiarity of sitting and sewing with them calmed Harriet’s spirits and passed the afternoon quickly.
The rain stopped just before evening. The clouds parted just enough to permit a few feeble rays of sun to kiss the ground. Mrs. Goddard suggested they leave now, before the fickle weather shifted again. She bundled up Margaret’s now dry, but very wrinkled things and pressed them into Harriet’s hands on their way out the door.
“I wish she had allowed me to change back into my own clothes.” Margaret kilted up the skirt of Harriet’s dress. “I do not want to get mud on your favorite dress.”
“Do not be so concerned. It will wash you know.”
“It seems like a very ill way to use what you have lent me.”
“I offered you a dress on a rainy wet day. Even I might perceive the possibility of it getting muddy.”
They laughed and linked arms.
Margaret pressed her head to Harriet’s shoulder. “You are so funny. I think my mother shall like you very well indeed.”
“Oh,” Harriet paused, nearly causing Margaret to stumble. “I had not thought of that.”
“That she might not like me very well. You have often called your brother grumpy, so I thought it possible he would not. What if your mother does not?”
“Why would you think that?”
“Did you not just say—”
“That she would like you very much.”
“But what if—”
“Enough fretting. I know she will.” Margaret pulled her forward and peered at Harriet from the corner of her eye. “You have not met many people, have you?”
“Only students at the school.” Harriet pressed her toes into the squishy black mud.
“That is unfortunate. Meeting new people is great fun. But, I am pleased the rest of my family shall be the first of your acquaintances.”
“Rest of your family?” How many are there?”
“My mother and brother, you know of them. Rachel and me, then there are my four little sisters and a younger brother.”
“Eight of you? That is a fine, large family.” What must it be like to have such a family? So many connections, all together in one home.
“Large and loud and lively I am afraid. We have no governess and my younger brother and sisters are…” Margaret turned aside, a hint of crimson on her cheeks.
“All very dear I am sure. You are so very lucky to have so many people.”
“You many not feel that way after you have met them all. My mother considers my sisters more than she is up to on many days. That is why she was reluctant to send us to school. She wanted our help at home with them.”
“I feel much better knowing you have so many little ones at home. I am ever so fond of children.”
“I had hoped so. You seem so well pleased with them at school. Not everyone is fond of seeing and hearing children they consider belong in their nursery, away from polite company.”
Harriet giggled. “No one has ever considered me polite company. I do not think anyone has ever considered me for company at all.”
Margaret turned to her with a bemused expression and a little shake of her head. “Well, they do not know what they were missing then. And mark my words, Mother will like you very well indeed.”
“Forgive me if I should not ask. If your mother was reluctant to send you to school, then why are you attending? Pray do not think I am unhappy with you, I was just wondering—”
“No, no, it is fine for you to ask. I quite understand. It was my brother who thought we should go for a term or two. He said my father wished to send us to finishing school, to make us into fine young ladies. It is not possible now, but Robert was determined to do what he could to honor Papa’s wishes. He found Mrs. Goddard’s school very acceptable and believed it would help us to feel ready to go out into society. For all that he is a crosspatch, he is a very good brother.”
“That is very thoughtful of him. Does being introduced into society frighten you?”
“A little…no I cannot lie; it is more than a little. As much as I like meeting new people, somehow the idea of it leaves me all churny and knotted inside.” Margaret pressed a hand to her belly. “And you?”
“I never thought about it much. Mrs. Goddard said I should be introduced though, and I feel just the same way.”
“Oh, I am so glad it is not just me! It is another thing we must talk to Rachel about for she is just as anxious and I. Perhaps we might be able to do it together, at least some of it. I should feel so much better with you there with us. Perhaps Mama could suggest that you be included in invitations we receive. We would certainly include you in anything we would host, assuming Robert would permit us to host anything. He is not much for company in the evenings.”
Harriet hesitated. “Perhaps—”
“No, it will be fine. He agreed to Mama’s invitation so if he does not like it, that is his own fault. He will probably go hide in his office after dinner anyway, so we will see very little of him. Now enough of that. Tell me what you thought of the last chapter of Romance of the Forest.”
Harriet paused as the first glimpse of the Abbey Mills farm house came into view. It was a lovely, three story house with cheery windows and a front covered in friendly vines that waved a beckoned to her. Even with the backdrop of heavy clouds, it seemed warm and welcoming.
“So you like the house?”
“Does it always smile at you like that when you approach?”
“Smile? I never thought of it that way, but I suppose it does. You will like it even more when you come inside.” She pulled Harriet up the front path and in the door. “Mama! Mama! Look who I have brought.”
Margaret took Harriet’s bonnet and shawl and placed them on a small cabinet just beside the door.
The front door opened into a small hall with a room on either side. A stairway peeked out just beyond the left hand room, and a passage led to more rooms directly ahead. It was a little dark, but a warm, fuzzy kind of darkness, rather like a favorite wool blanket. Several chairs lined the hall bearing wraps and bonnets. A doll and toy horse lay on the floor nearby and a workbasket balanced on the edge of the bottom step.
Mrs. Goddard insisted the girls not leave their things outside their rooms and that their rooms be kept tidy and presentable at all times. This disarray was unfamiliar, but not in a displeasing way. It spoke of a liveliness and ease here, a place that was maintained for the comfort of those who lived there, not for the inspection of outsiders. Though Mrs. Goddard might censure the practice, it was really rather cozy and agreeable.
“Here dear. I am here.” A plump woman with grey-streaked hair peeking under her mobcap trundled into the hall. Her apron bore many smudges and she balanced a small girl of perhaps four years on her hip. The child cuddled close to her, laying her head on her mother’s ample bosom, clearly and blissfully at peace. Exactly the right and proper expression for a child that age.
“See, Mama, I have brought Harriet to visit!”
“Shh, you will disturb your sister.” Harriet pressed her fingers to her lips.
“She is right, Margaret.” Mrs. Martin whispered. “I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Smith.” She bobbed in an inch-deep curtsey, probably all her knees could manage with the extra burden in her arms.
Harriet curtsied deep enough for both of them. “Thank you for inviting me, madam.”
“Madam is it? Well there are some pretty manners, aren’t there? We are pleased to have you even if my daughter failed to introduce us properly.” She lifted an arched eyebrow at Margaret.
“Sorry, Mama.” Margaret hung her head. “Mama, this is my friend, Harriet Smith. Harriet, this is my mother, Mrs. Martin.”
“Much better. See you remember for the next time. Why do you think your brother is bearing the expense of sending you to school? Rachel is in the parlor. I am sure she will be pleased for your company. Go on now. I will call you for dinner after the little ones are fed.” She shooed them toward the passage.
“Come this way.” Margaret took her hand and guided her down the far passage to the parlor. “I had hoped she might allow us the drawing room on the occasion of your visit.”
“I cannot imagine why. The drawing room is only for ladies and gentleman, and I am neither.”
They stepped into a largish room filled with the evidence of life and family. Chairs and tables, books, playthings, workbaskets, and a lap desk with a drawing half-done.
“What a wonderful room!” Harriet took two steps in and turned around to see everything.
“You cannot be serious. It is not nearly so fine—”
“It does not have to be fine to be—comfortable. That is what it is, comfortable and warm and friendly. How can you ever bear to leave it?”
“Quite easily.” Rachel snorted from the smallish daybed near the fireplace. “When you have been asked to clean it often enough, one is very glad to take her leave.”
“Oh, I did not see you there!” Harriet stopped her turn abruptly. She nearly stumbled over a small footstool.
Margaret caught her arm.
“I am glad you have come to see me.” Rachel propped herself up on her elbows.
Harriet hurried to Rachel’s side. “How is your ankle? Does it still pain you?”
“It is better now, I think, but still very sore to walk upon.”
“I am very sorry to hear it. Mrs. Goddard permitted me to come on Margaret’s insistence that I could cheer you up. So I consider that now my solemn charge. You must tell me how best to accomplish just that.”
“Just seeing a friendly face is most cheering, I assure you. The little ones have been all a dither being kept inside all day. And Robert—oh, he has been an absolute ogre since he returned from town, grumping and stomping about that it should not rain on days he plans to be working on the fences.”
“I am sure it is quite vexing to have one’s plans foiled by ill weather. You must consider how much more difficult the weather can be when one must do their work outside.” Harriet shrugged.
“Indeed it is.”
She looked over her shoulder. Mr. Martin stood in the doorway, his muddy great coat dripping bits of dirt and clay on the floorboards. His round face resembled Mrs. Martin’s too much for him to be any but her son.
“Robert! Do stop being so cross. Come in and be introduced to our friend, Miss Smith.” Rachel said.
“I met her briefly this morning. Forgive me, I do not have time to socialize right now. I come bearing a message from mother. She asks if she may send Betsy, James and Susan to you. Molly and Ann are a bit fussy at eating.”
Margaret rolled her eyes and pouted. “Does she not remember we have a guest?”
“I am not at all bothered. I should very much enjoy their company.” Harriet took half a step toward the door.
“But I hoped we could discuss the Romance of the Forest.” Rachel folded her arms tightly across her chest.
“We will have plenty time to do that I am sure. I would like to meet your little brother and sisters.”
“I will tell mother.” He dipped his head and disappeared.
“Now you have met Mr. Disagreeable,” Rachel muttered.
“I am sure he is not so bad. He was not at all unpleasant this morning. ”
“I am not sure I would agree. He was all but in high dudgeon by the time we reached Mrs. Goddard’s this morning.” Margaret flopped down at the end of the daybed.
“He is a good brother to us all, do not mistake that. But he works too hard and does not take the time for a spot of fun now and then.”
“We should all be quite pleased—Mama included—if he would find some interest outside of the farm. If only he would read something other than farming magazines. Perhaps he could play cards or take up boxing.”
“Oh that would be a sight!” Rachel sniggered. “Him in the boxing ring. With his temper, he would surely be champion in no time!”
Three young children dashed in and gathered around Harriet. Harriet knelt and opened her arms to them. “Now which of you is Susan?”
A little girl with a gap tooth smile waved.
“So you are Betsy and James?”
They nodded and drew closer.
“And do you like stories?”
“I do very much.” Betsy nodded.
“Especially of knights and fairies,” Susan added.
“Awww,” James scuffed his foot and grumbled.
“What kind of stories do you like?” Harriet took his hand and met his gaze.
“Ones with dragons and ogres and swords.” He crossed his arms over his chest. His scowl imitated his brother, but the frilled collar of his skeleton suit shirt softened the expression into something rather dear.
“So then it must be a story…” she turned to Betsy.
“A long one!”
“A long story about,” she looked at Susan, “A knight and his fairy guardian.” Susan clapped.
Harriet turned to James, “Who must find a magic sword to defeat an ogre to get to the dragon’s lair and rescue—”
“A princess!” Becky cried.
“A princess from being eaten by the dragon.”
Susan clapped and bounced. “Oh, that sounds like a wonderful story. Do tell us please!”
“Well then, come and sit close and I shall tell you.” Harriet sat tailor style on the floor, her back against the daybed.
The children gathered around her, with Susan climbing into her lap.
“May we listen too?” Rachel asked, eyebrow raised.
“Not at all. I expect you to help me.” She peeked over her shoulder at Margaret. “You as well.”
“And how are we to do that when we do not know the tale you are telling?” Margaret peered down her nose.
“I am not a good storyteller.” Rachel leaned back against her pillows and stared at the ceiling.
“You will be wonderful at it, you shall see. But for now, listen. Once upon a time…”
What a joy it was to have such a rapt audience for her little tale. Better yet, they were all so imaginative. They yelped and giggled at the sounds and voices provided by their sisters as the knight met his fairy guardian and prepared for his quest.
“Eh-hem.” Mr. Martin cleared his throat in the doorway. “I fear I am intruding with most unwelcome news. Mother asked me to inform you that dinner is ready. The maid is to take the children to the nursery, and I am to help Rachel to the dining rom.”
“No! No! That’s not fair. We haven’t finished our story yet.” James stood and stomped his little booted foot.
“Do not take that attitude with me young man or you and I shall have a conversation in my study.”
James covered his backside with both hands.
Margaret and Rachel coughed.
“Just a few more minutes, Robert, please.” Betsy blinked up at him.
“No, no, you must do as your bother says. I will not have any unpleasantness on my account. After all, you would not want to make the good fairy sad, now, would you?” Harriet rose.
“No, but…” Susan pulled at her hand.
“I promise, I will tell you the rest of the story as soon as I am able. Perhaps if you are very good and quick to obey now, we might persuade your mother and good brother to allow you to come downstairs after dinner to hear the rest.”
“Oh, please, Robert, may we?” The children rushed to him and grabbed his hands.
His eyes widened in something like panic. He glanced at Harriet.
Sometimes the older girls at school wore exactly the same expression. Poor man was quite overwhelmed at their attentions.
“He cannot say yes unless you are very good and do exactly as you are told.” Harriet stepped toward them.
“Yes, Miss Smith.” The girls curtsied, James bowed and they dashed upstairs, a bemused young maid following after them.
“I am sorry for any difficulty I may have caused with them. They are quite delightful.” Harriet said.
Mr. Martin snorted. “I have heard them called may things, but delightful has rarely been among them. They seem quite well behaved for you.”
Harriet shrugged. What was one to say to such a peculiar gaze and remark?
“Little ones always are. You should see her at school with the younger girls. They follow her like ducklings after a mama duck, all in a neat obedient little row.” Rachel chuckled and reached toward her brother. “Help me up.”
“Need I carry you?”
“No, I only need an arm to lean upon, I think.” She took his hand and stood tentatively.
“Does it hurt very much?” Harriet asked.
“It is much better than this morning.” She took an awkward step.” But I definitely need Robert’s arm. Why do you two not go on? I will be slow, I fear. And do not rush me brother, with your grand big steps in those great boots of yours.”
He muttered something. Probably best she could not discern what it was. His tone was quite disgruntled. Margaret took her arm and led her to the dining room.
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