Authors: Joan Smith
Tags: #Regency Romance
ENDURE MY HEART
I picture you,
Gentle Reader, as being somewhat like myself. My
self, that is. You are gentle born, or you would not be able to read well enough to tackle a book. (A fate worse than poverty!) Not so high in society that your taste has been perverted to saucy French novels, nor so frivolous that you favor the gothic nonsense of Mrs. Radcliffe, with her pseudo-haunted castles and Satanic characters.
Let me issue you a warning before you turn the first page—I am no swooning heroine, equipped with acute sensibilities and a turn for passivity. But still I am a romantic, as you are, I think, looking for a touch of vicarious gratification for those yearnings that bedevil one as she goes about her chores. I know the feeling well, am kin to you at heart. I have experienced that unsatisfying life of the perpetual onlooker. No more! We were not born for so little. What is to decide our role in life after all but our desires, and the degree of fortitude we are willing to exert to gain them?
There’s the rub—fortitude. Endurance, if you like, to give some point to my title. You must be ready to grasp your chance when it comes round. It might not come but once. What a sad thing it would be to miss out on all the excitement only because of lacking fortitude. If you learn one thing from my confessions, let it be that. Take your chance when it comes; recognize it,
it. The rewards you gain will well merit the little inconveniences you will meet along the way.
Well, to be fair, let us admit they are large inconveniences, huge, palpable, at times almost overwhelming, but never quite. He (I mean God) is up there, helping us. Absolutely the only embargo I would place on you is that you not break
laws. As to those other man-made ones—pooh! Break them if you must, and if you can—but only if you are sure you can get away with it, of course. “For a good cause, wrongdoing is virtuous” is a maxim from the old classic scholars, of whom my brother is a friend. I shall add a maxim from a friend of my own, Miss Sage. Thou shalt not get caught. Always bear it in mind. It would be a sad reflection on my philosophy if you should end up in Bridewell only because you wanted a fuller life, some romance, perhaps a husband. Certainly a husband, in fact. When all is said and done, I expect we would pass up the rest of the adventure fast enough if we could be assured of a good husband.
I nearly ended up in prison myself, for it was necessary for me to bend the man-made laws a little. It happened like this. When my father, who was a gambling magistrate, died, he left my brother Andrew and myself not only parentless, but virtually penniless as well. I say virtually because he had just been paid and had not yet gambled away his quarter salary. It was sufficient to see him decently buried with a nice headstone, a polished granite cross it was, with a pair of doves, to include Mama as well in the symbol. My mother is not even a memory to me, only a name. Andrew has some feeling she was like myself in appearance, but Papa never said so.
The fine home in which we had lived all our lives was so heavily encumbered with mortgages that nothing remained after we had paid up the local bills and a rather large debt Papa owed to Squire Porson, my father’s most favored gambling partner, but to sell Fern Bank. It was like parting with a piece of ourselves. I would as soon have cut off an arm or a leg, but the property was in Andrew’s name, of course, and the wishes of a female were little heeded. He sold it too cheaply too, in my opinion.
It was picked up at a great bargain by the Everetts, retired merchants from Kent, who had sold their shop and wished to get far enough from home that they might set up as gentle folks. The wife was the shrewdest haggler that ever set foot in a gentleman’s house. Her busy fingers were poking holes in the window frames, pointing out wood rot and termites, her calculating eyes didn’t miss a scratch or chip on a single piece of furniture, but missed the rather obvious fact that what was scratched was a Queen Anne bureau-bookcase, or a Kent commode. I had to hint we would be happy to remove this worthless lumber before she came down to any sort of acceptable terms at all.
All that remained to us after the deal was closed was a gig and a farm horse, Babe, to pull it. We took our clothing, and I a strand of pearls, Andrew my father’s gold watch, a very fine Gruebet, from France. We also took (it was not stealing, for the library was catalogued omitting them) several tomes in Latin and Greek.
“Now, where are we to put all our worldly goods?” I asked Andrew the night before we had to leave. Andrew is my older brother, twenty-one he was at the time. He is tall, dark-complexioned, shortsighted and bookish. I am short, blond, eagle-eyed and not at all bookish, though I dote on a novel. I am eighteen. It is said locally that I am pretty. My mirror tells me the same, which is a great blessing in a potential heroine.
“Have to take rooms,” he answered. Andrew would not much care if he lived in a rabbit warren, so long as he had a good light to read by. He had his nose in Virgil as he spoke. This at the turning point of our lives! But then he was very immature, despite his years at university.
“Rooms! Are Magistrate Anderson’s children to take up rented rooms like Miss Plum?” I haven’t a thing against Miss Plum but that she is uncommonly common, poor soul. She is called genteel, but a spinster living in a hired room on twenty-five pounds a year is only genteel in deference to her more favored relations, the Blythes, who could well afford to take her in if they would, but they won’t.
“Mmmm,” Andrew answered, not listening and not caring.
listen to me!
I refuse to live in furnished rooms next to Miss Plum in a boardinghouse. I shall go out and work first.” In fact, I was beginning to think I must go out and work in any case. Andrew was my natural provider, but it was becoming increasingly clear he was not ready even to provide me a partner in conversation.
“Oh, as to that, Mab, Squire Porson is coming to call,” he mumbled.
Let me tell you a little about this gentleman. Gentleman—bah! A misnomer if ever there was one. He possesses a gentlemanly income (five thousand a year, they say hereabouts), and the instincts of a weasel. He is what folks call a squarson, to indicate he is a squire so clutch-fisted and so little interested in religion that he acts as his own parson instead of giving the living to a real minister. His double role does not by any means indicate a regard for the church, though he took holy orders in his youth. It was an effort on his late father’s part to try to reclaim him. An unsuccessful effort. He is a libertine. When he gambled with my father, he was comparatively well employed. His more usual occupation was ruining the local wenches. Every second parish child you meet on the street has his nose (long and misshapen) and his hair (copper red if it were clean, usually mud red in the youthful version).
“I shan’t let him in,” I told Virgil, who was keeping me from telling Andrew.
“You know what he’ll have in mind. He’ll want me to be his housekeeper or accountant, which is French for mistress.” The squarson had been casting lecherous eyes on me since I put up my hair and let down my skirts. Even for a few months before the skirts came down he had been admiring my ankles.
“No such a thing,” Andrew muttered.
“Don’t be an ass, Andrew. We are not going to live at Holy Hell.” Porson’s place is called Holly Hill, but is more widely known in the village as Holy Hell, due to his churchly position and his vile nature.
“Must,” he said. “Mean to say, wants you to marry him.”
Now you may think that if I followed my own advice, I would snatch at this chance for a wealthy husband. Not so. Naturally we must use a
discrimination in our adventures. A red-nosed libertine of fifty years was not what I had in mind. “I would as lief marry the chimney sweep. Liefer.” Our chimney sweep in Salford is Toby Kiley, who is a knock-in-the-cradle. He was dropped on his head by his mother the day he was born, they say, but actually the whole family is a little retarded, including the mother, who has distressed the village with thirteen of these moonlings or near moonlings. Five of them have red hair, but never mind. They got their brains from their mama, who had not an iota to spare.
I chattered on to myself angrily for a quarter of an hour, at which time Squire Porson was admitted. Looking at Andrew, he jerked his head toward the door. Without so much as saying good evening to either of us, if you please! Andrew, like a demmed puppy, walked out the door, his nose in his book.
I was ready to spit fire before our caller opened his mouth.
“I’ve come to tell ye I mean to make ye my missus,” he said, in an uncouth, provincial accent, smiling genially.
I was expected to go down on my knees and thank him for this insolence. “I am not at all interested, thank you,” I said.
“Eh, the word was missus, not mistress, lass,” he returned, laughing.
“I heard you, sir. I am no more interested in the one role than the other.”
“With the gold ring and ceremony and all,” he went on, as though I were one of his simpleminded by-blows, who could not understand the King’s English.
“I am still not interested.”
“A diamond ring then, miss,” he said, regarding me through narrowed eyes to be sure I was worth the price, as he upped the ante.
“You may take your diamond ring and stick it through your nose, Squire. I wouldn’t marry you if I had to live on a bone.”
The bold beast laughed merrily and hauled me into his arms, after chasing me around the settee twice, and catching hold of me before I could get safely out the door. He kissed me, with his brandy-soaked lips, and his unshaven face prickling me. He was strong as a bull. I fought to get out of his arms, till I was thoroughly exhausted and no closer to being free than I was at the beginning. Finally I wrenched my head aside and screamed as if my life depended on it.
A few of our servants had been kept on by the Everetts and were still on the premises. It was the butler, Hackley, who came galloping to my rescue. Lord only knows where Andrew was in my hour of need. Frolicking in his mind over the ruins of Pompeii, I daresay.
Hackley is built like St. Paul’s Cathedral, with enormous shoulders and a rounded head not unlike Wren’s dome. He made short shrift of the squarson. He picked him up bodily—and Porson is a large man too—but Hackley got one hand on his collar and another on the seat of his trousers and tossed him bodily out the front door. I followed behind and threw his hat and cane out after him. Then Hackley dusted off his hands and said in a perfectly unperturbed voice, “Tea, Miss Mabel?”
“Thank you, Hackley. Tea in the saloon, if you please,” I replied, and kissed him on the cheek. He blushed like a Bath miss, but bowed very formally before going to fetch my tea.
Andrew never did remember to come and take his tea that evening. I had it alone, which provided as good company as if he had been there. There was a certain sense of satisfaction accompanying having delivered Porson to his just desserts, but it solved nothing. My brother and I were still twelve hours from being on the streets, with nowhere to put our books and necklace and watch.
I settled down, with my chin in my hands, to read the flames in the grate for some clue to our salvation. Andrew was educated and intelligent, not without some hope of gainful employment in the near future. A tutor’s job, for instance, he could fill well enough. But what was to become of me? No employer of a tutor expected said tutor to be accompanied by his sister.
There was a dame school in the village where I might make myself useful. Old Dame Aldridge ran it, and she was getting on in years. She had a largish house, lived alone but for a couple of servants. Something might be worked out there.
You will think it remiss of us to have waited so long to solve our housing problem. As things worked out, we had very little time. Our father’s death came on very suddenly. Between the funeral calls and arrangements and winding up the estate to find ourselves destitute, we were in no position to be thinking of the future. The very day after we learned we must sell Fern Bank, the real estate agent was at our door with a purchaser. Any persons of
feeling, which the Everetts unfortunately lacked, would have given us a month or two to get settled elsewhere. Nothing would do that witch of a woman but she must have occupancy immediately. I have wondered since whether they were not being run out of whatever town they came from for some crooked dealings. I certainly think they pulled the wool over
eyes, rushing us as they did, and both Andrew and myself young and untrained in business matters.
I had made some tentative inquiries around the village without turning up a thing. In the back of my mind there rested the thought that an appeal to Porson would give us a lease on the minister’s house at a nominal cost, as he had so much of my father’s money stashed away. He did not live in the house, of course. My somewhat abrupt treatment of him now made that course impossible. We had an aunt, Mama’s sister, living in Devonshire, but such a tediously long distance away that I disliked to go to her. We hardly knew her either, except for letters.