The time has come, my darlings, for the end of our Harriet's story. Or, the end of the beginning, I guess, because we all know that she goes on to a starring role in Emma. ;) (Or do we? Hmm...) Here I present to you: the final chapter of Maria Grace's A Preference for Ginger.
If you've missed any of the story so far, catch up with parts one, two and three; and don't forget to leave Maria some love in the comments for generously sharing this story with us! (And enter to win a copy of her latest release, Mistaking Her Character, while you're at it.)
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 4The room was just large enough to be comfortable and no larger. Exactly as she imagined a family dining room should be. Not stuffy and formal like those pictures in the Lady’s Magazine—no this was a place where conversations might be had and stories told.
The table was laden with dishes of many good things—a few unfamiliar, but what was an unfamiliar dish among friends?
“Here,” Margaret pointed to a chair.” You sit between Mama and I. Robert sits at the foot of the table where he might grump to his heart’s content.”
Why did she dwell so on her brother’s ill humor? Truly he did not seem too bad.
Mrs. Martin shuffled in, bearing the final dish to the table.
“Roast pork? How very happy we are to see that tonight. It must be on account of your visit, Harriet.” Rachel limped in on Robert’s arm.
“I am pleased for your approval dear.” Mrs. Martin clucked her tongue and sat down. “Now we have tench pie over there, stewed apples, broiled mushroom, stewed peas and lettuce, a bit of gravy, a lovely pudding and some pickles. Pass the platters and serve yourselves. We do not stand on ceremony or servants here.”
“That is because we have none,” Margaret whispered behind her hand.
“Are you complaining about servants again?” Robert grumbled under his breath as he carved the pork.
“We could use another girl in the house.” Rachel passed a dish laden with peas and lettuce to her mother.
“And I could use more help in the barns and fields.” He passed the platter of meat to Margaret. “But we neither can have what we want right now. It is better to be thankful for the help we can have than to spend too freely on what we do not strictly need.”
“That is what you always say, ‘we should not spend too freely’ and we are forever—”
“Complaining about what you do not have instead of making do with what you do. I do not imagine Miss Smith is accustomed to many servants waiting on her needs hand and foot.” His lip curled back in a peculiar way, not exactly a sneer, but probably not approving either.
“No, sir. Mrs. Goddard does not employ many servants at all. We are often needed to help with the work of the house.”
“Oh, do not tell him that, he will want to dismiss our maid!” Rachel huffed.
Harriet stared at her plate and twisted the napkin in her hap. Her cheeks prickled and she swallowed hard. It was as Belinda had foretold, she would say something stupid and prove herself an utter cake.
“I would not dare do such a thing. The work of the house barely gets done as it is . We have as many hands working to undo the good work as those working to accomplish it.”
Mrs. Martin sat up very straight and leaned forward on her elbows. “Robert, that is a fine thing to talk of over dinner when we are hosting a guest. Pray have some consideration for those whose feelings are perhaps a bit finer than your own.”
Now Mrs. Martin was upset. Could this get any worse?
Robert exhaled heavily and leaned back in his chair. “In time, Providence willing, these things that you ask for may very well happen, albeit with some good planning and hard work. Did I not promise you—”
“Yes, you did and the gig is very fine, even if it is not new,” Rachel said very softly, her color high.
“How splendid it must be to have your own transport and to be able to go from place to place whenever you wish.” Harriet peeked up. “When one has no alternative but to walk, there are a great many things that one cannot do.”
Mr. Martin’s expression softened. “Thank you, Miss Smith. You see, your friend understands your good fortune quite well.”
“You do not need to side with him you know.” Rachel batted her eyes at her brother. “He can fuss all he likes, but you are our guest and you are safe from him.”
“Perhaps you should consider what he is saying though. There is a great deal of good sense—”
Mr. Martin laughed heartily. “You see, it is as I have told you so often. Ask anyone of wit and practicality and they will find my judgments sound.”
“She may find your decisions sound, but she has never lived with you when you are cross. If she had, she might not be so quick to agree with you.” Margaret chuckled, eyes filled with warmth.
Harriet sighed a little and picked up her fork. Pray let there be no more disgruntled opinions.
Mrs. Martin turned toward Harriet. “So, Miss Smith, how did you keep the children so quiet after I sent them to you. I daresay, I only notice them so silent when they are into some new mischief. I do hope they did not trouble you.”
“They are very dear children and no trouble at all.”
All the Martins laughed.
“I daresay you are being overly generous for the sake of your hostess.” Mrs. Martin winked. “I know my children well enough. I insist you share your secret though.”
Harriet shrugged. “They like to hear stories, and I was happy to tell one.”
“She is such a good storyteller, Mama,” Rachel said.
“Indeed—she even bade us do voices for the characters. I was a fairy guardian.” Margaret’s pitch rose to match the fairy’s “Who followed a brave knight on a quest.”
“Your father used to tell you such tales when you were their age.” Mrs. Martin smiled broadly.
“And he did such scary voices!” Margaret half-stood and clutched the edge of the table. “Do you remember when he told of the pirate and the sea monster?”
Rachel’s eyes grew wide. “I do! Oh, his monster gave me shivers.”
“Who dares cross into my territory—I did not bid these puny vessels of wood and cloth here.” A deep gravel voice boomed.
“Robert!” Margaret and Rachel cried.
“You sound just like your father.” Mrs. Martin’s jaw dropped.
“That is a very good pirate.” Harriet squeaked. And a very scary one. His sisters would probably argue that came very naturally to him.
He looked at her so oddly—what ever could it mean?
“Oh, oh! You might be the ogre and the dragon for our story!” Rachel said. “What do you think?”
“What a splendid idea!” Margaret nodded. “Mama, might we bring the children downstairs after dinner and finish our story? With Robert’s help it will be so much better!”
He shook his head. “No, I do not think so. There is work in my office I should attend.”
Harriet bit her lip. No, he was upset again. And it was her fault!
He looked away.
Was he angry… or perhaps just shy?
“You see, he is an ogre, always working and never enjoying anything.” Margaret harrumphed.
The barest hint of a frown turned his lips down. Heavens! He was hurt by her accusation.
If he was shy, then her complaint was not fair at all. Even the shyest girls at Mrs. Goddard’s were able to enjoy the parlor and have fun in the evenings when they felt comfortable and welcome enough.
“You should not speak to your brother so. I am sure your work is very important, Mr. Martin. It must be very impertinent of me to ask, but could you, would you spare a few minutes with us? I think it would mean a great deal to the children who must be missing their father’s tales.” She pressed her lips tight. Perhaps she had said too much and been very rude indeed.
Mr. Martin’s face softened into something quite like little James’, quite agreeable and dear. He seemed to think for quite a long moment. “I suppose you are right, Miss Smith. I can. I expect then I should also fetch some apples to roast on the fire as well?”
“That is a fine idea. James is big enough for that duty if you would be willing to teach him. He should enjoy that very much indeed.” Mrs. Martin stared wide-eyed at him.
Rachel leaned toward Harriet and whispered. “What an influence you have on our dear brother. I hardly know him right now.”
Harriet pressed her hands to very hot cheeks. Oh, that they would not jest so. She would soon turn very red no doubt and they would all remark upon it. It was so hard to be a ginger sometimes.
“Do not tease your friend. Can you not see she does not like it?” Robert’s voice was firm, almost sharp, and his gaze fixed upon her.
“I…it…pray do not…”
Rachel looked truly repentant and not a little startled. “Do forgive me. I meant nothing by it. How very thoughtless of me, especially when you have come out of your way to keep company with me.”
“Pray do not worry, it is nothing, truly. Mrs. Goddard discourages her students from bantering with one another for fear of hard feelings. I am simply not accustomed to the teasing of brothers and sisters.”
“You have none, Miss Smith?” he asked.
“No, sir. I…I have no family of my own.” There, her secret was out, more gently that Belinda would have announced it, but still, there it was, open for all to see.
Mrs. Goddard had cautioned her to avoid talking about it for I it would lead to unfavorable talk. Instead she should mention the annuity that would ensure her comfortable maintenance. That proved well enough she was cared for by someone.
While it was true, somehow it felt a bit duplicitous. That was far more uncomfortable than the truth. Besides, if the elder Martins were to be her friends, they would know the truth eventually, why delay the inevitable?
She peeked up at him.
“Perhaps then, you should spend more time among mine.” His gaze returned to his plate.
Mrs. Martin’s lips crooked in a peculiar half-smile. “Some more tench pie dear?” She handed Harriet a dish.
Scene 10 Storytelling
Margaret did moderate her teasing after her brother’s reprimand and the remainder of the meal was most agreeable. Dinners at Mrs. Goddard’s were certainly pleasant, but there was something different here, amidst a real home and family, - a warmth, a belonging, a camaraderie unfamiliar, but compelling. Was this what Mrs. Goddard thought of when she said she wished for Harriet to have a home of her own?
Mrs. Martin excused herself to fetch the children whilst Harriet and the rest returned to the parlor.
Robert helped Rachel to the daybed and disappeared again, mumbling something about apples and toast.
“He truly is on his best behavior tonight, Harriet.” Rachel settled a light blanket over her lap, a wistful look on her face. “It has been a very long time since I have seen him like this.”
“So agreeable. He can be so stand-offish when we have guests—especially young ladies. He barely says a word at the table and then disappears into his study after dinner to read. He rarely sits with us and never has the inclination to join in any kind of amusements.”
Margaret glanced over her shoulder. “He really is a very good brother, but his manners of late have been most unpleasant. I cannot fathom why though. The farm is doing well, insofar as I am able to understand. He even said Mr. Knightly, who owns the land, is very impressed with his efforts. He is such a mystery to us all.”
The children tumbled in. The older girls dragged the youngest two girls, Molly and Ann, directly to Harriet.
“They did not get to hear the beginning of the story.” Susan folded her little arms over her chest and tried to muster a look as commanding as her brother’s. The attempt was good, though on a miniature scale.
“They are sad for missing it,” Betsy added a little shyly. Apparently she was like her eldest brother, too.
“I suppose there is only one thing for it—we must begin again. Come.” She beckoned them near the fireplace and sat on the floor.
The littlest two settled on her lap, the others tucked in very close.
“Are you sure you want them all piled upon you like a heap of puppies?” Mrs. Martin cocked her head, a funny puzzled glint in her eyes.
“I am quite comfortable, thank you.” Harriet looked down at the shining little faces in her arms. “Now then, shall we start at the beginning? Margaret and Rachel, you shall help me again?”
“And Robert, too!” Rachel pointed at the doorway where Robert stood, arms laden with a basket and a large pot.
“What do you have there?” Mrs. Martin took the basket.
“I thought some warm cider might be pleasant.” He trundled past Harriet and the children and set up the pot on the hob. “Now James, it shall be your job to make us toast and roast apples.”
The little boy jumped to his brother’s side. “Truly?”
“You are big enough now. Watch carefully.” Mr. Martin placed a plate for finished toast on a fire-cat near the fire and showed James how to set the bread up in a toasting fork. “Now, this is the part that requires the most skill.”
James edged in very close. Mr. Martin produced a roll of string and a folding knife from his pocket. He measured out a length of twine and cut it. Nimble fingers tied a neat knot around the apple stem. He reached into the top center of the fireplace.
“You must tie the other end of the string around the nail just here. Take care you get it close enough to the fire to roast it properly, but not so close that you allow it to burn.”
“I will be very careful!” James’ eyes shone. Perhaps this new responsibility was even better than a story with ogres and dragons.
Mr. Martin pulled a stool close to the fire and sat near James. “Now how did the tale start, Miss Smith?” His mouth turned up at the corners just a bit, not a full smile, but his eyes made her insides feel all warm and fuzzy.
“Once in a land, far across the sea, behind the mountains and fed by a crystal river, there dwelled…”
How dear the children’s faces appeared as they hung on every word of the tale. Even better though, were their delighted shrieks and giggles as even Mrs. Martin joined her eldest children in adding sounds and voices to the tale. None of them had ever heard their mother whistle like a bird before. She was remarkably good. Mr. Martin made for a credible ogre and an even more ferocious dragon. Perhaps a bit too much so. Little Ann might have nightmares from the fright it gave her.
Ogre and dragon vanquished and princess rescued, the story came to a close, but too many good feelings and high spirits abounded to end the evening. Margaret suggested a game of charades which was readily agreed upon as an excellent plan.
Harriet hung back a little. Mr. Martin offered her a roast apple, slightly overdone on one side.
“Thank you very kindly, sir.”
“James is still learning.” He peered at her. “Are you quite well?”
“I am fine, thank you.”
“No, something bothers you. Pray, tell me.”
Warm prickles crept up her neck. “It is only that I do not prefer charades, nothing more.”
“It cannot be because you do not like to perform in company. Your storytelling was quite memorable.”
“No, I just,” she swallowed, “I fear I am quite stupid at guessing riddles and the like. I am always puzzled and confused.” She dragged her foot along the carpet.
How was it this man managed to draw her two most uncomfortable secrets from her both in the same evening?
“I do not like it when I am made to feel stupid, either.”
She looked up into very kind eyes. “I can hardly imagine you being stupid at anything. You must be very clever indeed to earn the praise of your landlord. I have heard tell that he is a very shrewd man.”
“I am surprised you would have heard of him.”
“Mrs. Goddard mentions him sometimes, always in words of praise at his kindness and generosity in the community. I should think it very telling a man like that would think well of you.”
“You are too kind. My sisters are quick to remind me that my rather appalling lack of eloquence leaves me looking rather clownish. It seems I embarrass them by it.” He glanced across the room.
“In my hearing, they have never described you as anything but an excellent brother.” Perhaps that was a bit of a fudge, but close enough to a truth. They had certainly never called him clownish.
“Then I suppose those remarks are only for my hearing, perhaps in the hope of forcing some improvement in me. Sadly, it is quite a hopeless cause.”
“As hopeless as me guessing at riddles? I hardly think so.”
“Would you fancy a board game, perhaps?” He pointed with his chin to a small table with a game board set up on it. “It is rather silly, really, but my brother and sister find it quite amusing.”
“I would like that, unless you think Rachel or Margaret—or your mother might be—”
“I am sure they will be very glad to see me play at anything. May I get you some cider?”
He ladled out a cup and handed it to her as they walked to the game table.
Scene 11 Time with Mr. Martin
Mr. Martin was quite correct, the game was quite silly. But that only provoked him to poke fun at it, revealing a wry wit. Margaret, with Rachel on her arm came to inspect their pastime and the sisters added their own droll observations on the entire scene. Had she ever laughed so much in a single evening? Mrs. Goddard cautioned her often against too much laughter—it was unladylike. But among such gay company who would not be prone to mirth?
“Robert, come help me,” Mrs. Martin called in a hoarse whisper.
Molly and Anne curled against her sides, quite asleep. James sat on the floor against her knees, chin to his chest, snoring softly. “I don’t want to wake them to put them to bed.”
“I will carry James up. He is much too big for you.” He lifted the boy to his shoulder.
“Margaret, help Susan and Betsy up.”
“I can take Ann for you.” Harriet reached for the sleeping girl.
“That is very kind.” Mrs. Martin maneuvered Molly to her shoulder and followed Margaret and the other two youngsters upstairs.
The nursery was a snug cozy place with three little beds piled high with pillows and dolls and a stuffed dog. Other toys lined the walls and an off-kilter set of shelves. The rug was roughly braided of rags, probably clothes worn to ribbons through the years. What stories might it tell?
“Would you move Brownie aside so I can put James down?’ Mr. Martin whispered.
Harriet picked up the toy and tucked it under the sleeping boy’s arm.
Mr. Martin pointed to Ann’s bed and Harriet laid down her charge.
“Go back down to Rachel. I will help Margaret with the other two, and we will be down shortly.” Mrs. Martin tucked Molly under her blanket.
Harriet followed Mr. Martin out. He had broad shoulders and a trim figure. His coat was perhaps not as stylish as a true gentleman’s, but his manners were altogether pleasing and gentlemanly. Belinda might not find him polished enough for her preferences, but Mrs. Goddard would like him very much. How could his sisters find him disagreeable?
He led her down the stairs, but paused half way. “Have you a taste for ginger?” He pulled a small tin from his pocket.
“Are those from Mr. Rose’s shop?”
“Yes, I am quite convinced he makes the best ginger comfits.”
“They are Mrs. Goddard’s favorite as well. She has had them in the house for as long as I can remember. The other girls prefer the lavender ones, but I like the ginger best.” She tugged a little curl beside her ear.
“Then please, have one.” He took one and pressed the tin a little closer to her.
She giggled and popped one in her mouth.
“I confess I have a real fondness for ginger.” He looked at her quite strangely.
What did that look mean? It felt vaguely as though he expected her to understand something, but whatever could he mean?
“Miss Smith, I fear this may be a shocking question but I am not at all good at proper and polite speeches. Have you enjoyed your evening with us?”
“I can hardly think of a pleasanter evening I have spent anywhere. Have I in some way offended you that you would think that of me?”
“You are comfortable in the midst of our modest and well lived-in home, surrounded by a large, unruly family?”
“I…I…I think it quite delightful and comfortable. One can tell a family lives and plays and laughs here. That must be a very good thing, must it not?” She tapped the carpet with her toes. “I have never liked too much tidiness in a place, though Mrs. Goddard does not agree.”
He leaned a little closer, peering deep into her eyes, eyebrow lifted in a funny sort of question, but what was he asking?
My, his were such an alluring hazel-grey like heavy spring clouds over the fields. Not the thundery kind, but the ones that brought that drenching refreshing sort of rain that left everything feeling fresh and new.
“I am not accustomed to meeting new people. Your family, all of them. have made me feel ever so welcome and at ease. At Mrs. Goddard’s, I help with the little girls and find them ever so dear. I am never as happy as I am with them. Now, really, I must ask, have I displeased or offended you in some way sir?
“Not at all, why do you say that?”
“You have asked so many questions and are staring at me with a most peculiar expression. I can only guess that it is because I have done something wrong. I have been afraid all night that perhaps you or your mother or your brother and sisters would not like me very much and might even regret that you invited me.”
The corner of his lips came up and his cheek dimpled. “You were right, Miss Smith. You are quite hopeless at guessing things.”
His eyes crinkled up at the sides. That must mean he was content, not offended. Hopefully it did.
“You have not at all been disagreeable, Miss Smith, not at all.” He offered her his arm and they continued downstairs.
She had never taken a man’s arm before. How strong he was, his arm so hard beneath her hand. He smelled of the farm and the earth and a touch of soap. Not at all like the old solicitor who sometimes visited Mrs. Goddard. No, Mr. Martin’s scent was very…comfortable.
At the base of the stairs, he paused again. “Would you…that is to say…ah…did you find this evening pleasant?”
“I believe I just said so, but yes, I did.”
“Enough that you would care to repeat the experience?”
“I know I should say that there are other girls at the school who would surely enjoy an invitation from your sisters and that it is very selfish of me to say so, but yes, it was all so lovely. I can hardly think of anything I would rather do.”
He nodded sharply, an exhaled a short breath. “I shall speak to my mother then and recommend that she extend the invitation very soon.”
“That is most kind of you, Mr. Martin. I think Margaret and Rachel will be pleased. Margaret feared you might not be a great lover of company on such an evening as this.”
“In that, Miss Smith, she was very wrong.” He pressed her fingers against his arm with his large calloused hand.
"Is that you Robert?” Rachel called from the parlor. “Oh, do not gad about so. It is very dull indeed all alone here.
“Shall we join her?” He gestured toward the parlor and pulled his arm in a little tighter and with it Harriet a mite closer.
“I think it a lovely idea.”
So this was what a family home was like. Mrs. Goddard was right. This was exactly the sort of thing that would suit her very well indeed.
Would you be interested in reading more about Harriet and how she navigates her way through Emma's schemes to find her own 'happily ever after'? Tell me in the comments
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