Henrietta paused to look at the photograph in the cheap, gilded frame one more time. It was a picture of Helen Schuyler and her husband, Neils, and their baby daughter, Daphne, taken what must have been years ago. Even as Henrietta sat staring at the people in the photograph, it was still hard for her to believe that they were all tragically gone now. Gingerly she ran her finger along the frame, an overwhelming sadness coming over her once again at the realization that nothing more remained of this little family except the few possessions among which she currently sat.
Helen had died in the hospital, never having recovered from Jack Fletcher’s brutal attack nearly three months ago, and the cottage had stood empty over the summer until Henrietta had recently volunteered to clean it out. Mrs. Howard had initially declared Henrietta’s odd proposal to be out of the question, that the servants would do it eventually, but Henrietta had practically begged, saying that she needed an occupation separate from the wedding plans and that, anyway, she wanted to. Henrietta had never said it out loud, and she knew that it wasn’t really true, but she could not help feeling at times that she was somehow responsible for what had happened to Helen.
Despite Henrietta’s pleading, Mrs. Howard had sniffed at her suggestion, saying that Henrietta had precious little free time for anything but to attend to the wedding plans, still slightly irritated by Henrietta and Clive’s decision to marry quickly. In the end, however, after a quiet word in private from Clive, she had acquiesced. Henrietta had eagerly set about her new task, then, earlier this week, but even now, on Friday, she was still not finished. The problem was not that there were so very many items to be sorted, but rather that she was perpetually getting distracted. It was unlike her, but then again, she had a lot on her mind.
Henrietta shook herself and, looking at the photograph once again, hesitated before having to put it into either the box set aside for rubbish to be burned by Mr. McCreanney, or into one of the other boxes of items slated to be given to Sacred Heart’s collection for the poor. Neither seemed an appropriate choice, so after a few more moments of deliberation, Henrietta resolutely slipped the small frame into the pocket of her apron. It was the least she could do for poor Helen to honor not only her memory but that of the daughter to whom she had been so delusionally devoted, despite the fact that Daphne herself had died over twenty years before. Henrietta wasn’t sure what she was going to do with the photograph, but she would think of something.
She sighed as she opened another drawer of the dresser in the tiny bedroom, trying to determine what could still be of use to the poor. She held up an old-fashioned petticoat and wondered if anyone would still want such a thing. Finally deciding that someone with even mediocre sewing skills could make it into something else more useful if she were desperate enough, she carefully placed it in the Sacred Heart box. She scooped up the remaining petticoats and other undergarments and put them into the same box as well and then gave in to the urge to sit down again on Helen’s lumpy bed. She stared out the open window to the lake beyond, the unassuming lace curtain permanently aloft on the gentle breeze that blew in, and reflected that not too long ago she herself had been nearly that desperate.
She anxiously hoped that Elsie and Ma were adjusting to their new place with all of the kids. She had helped them to get settled on moving day, of course, but the servants had done most of the real work. In truth, she actually was needed at Highbury for the myriad of things to be done for the wedding, so Ma and Elsie had had to do most of the unpacking themselves with the help of the permanent staff that now resided with them, which consisted, really, of only five persons, namely, a cook, a housekeeper, one maid, one nanny, and one man servant who doubled as the butler and the chauffeur. Ma, of course, had at first fought tooth and nail against such an arrangement, but, in the end, the fight had just gone out of her and she had given in.
Henrietta drew in a sharp breath as she remembered the day Ma had finally been reunited with her long-lost family, the Exleys. Not long after the engagement party at which Ma had failed to appear, the Exleys had lost little time in seeking out Martha on their own terms. As much as John and Agatha Exley were bosom friends with the Howards, old Mr. Exley Sr. decided that this was a family affair and was loath to use Antonia Howard as a go-between any longer. He had sent a direct letter to his daughter, but Ma had merely crumpled it, unread, and thrown it into the fire, or so Henrietta had learned via a whispered telephone call from Elsie made from the booth at the back of Kresge’s. Henrietta had then received her own letter from her grandfather, requesting her help in his reunion with his only daughter. Henrietta, knowing that nothing would induce Ma to come to Lake Forest where the Exleys resided, had, after much thought, dutifully written to her grandfather and suggested a time when he might condescend to visit them at their shabby apartment in Logan Square.
There was nothing else for it. Something had to be done, Henrietta had realized. It was bad enough that Ma had not come to the engagement party, but it would be inexcusable for her not to attend her oldest daughter’s wedding. Besides, now that they knew of Ma’s whereabouts, Henrietta was certain the Exleys would not rest until they were reunited with her, so it was best, she reasoned, to get it over with.
Henrietta had accordingly gone home a few days before Mr. Exley Sr.’s expected visit to surreptitiously prepare, having chosen to not inform Ma of his coming until the very morning of the momentous event. When Henrietta did finally reveal the secret of Mr. Exley’s imminent arrival, Ma was livid, of course, and screamed at both Henrietta and Elsie—as if she were also in on it—before she finally threw a plate against the wall, shattering it, and had then dissolved into tears. Elsie had abandoned her task of dusting and went to tend to her, while Henrietta had picked up the broken pieces of the smashed plate and continued to methodically scrub down the apartment and each of her siblings as well. She sent Eddie out to Schneider’s to buy some decent tea and biscuits, with actual money rather than having to put it on their long charge bill, as they had had to do in the past. Clive had given Henrietta money to pay off their debts and to sustain them until a more formal arrangement could be agreed upon. Ma had predictably refused to have anything to do with the extra cash, so Henrietta had entrusted it to Elsie for the days when she had to be away at Highbury, which, as it was turning out, was most of the time.
And so, with just about an hour left before Mr. Exley was due to arrive, Henrietta made Herbert and Jimmy scrub the landing outside their front door, to no real avail, really, but it made Henrietta feel better to have it done. Eugene, meanwhile, had spent the morning out somewhere and only returned just before Mr. Exley’s arrival; he was informed of his auspicious relative’s proposed visit as he lazily climbed the stairs, Jimmy shouting out the exciting news from his knees as he scrubbed. Not sharing Jimmy’s excitement at the prospect of meeting their rich old grandfather—having already met him, for one thing, at Henrietta’s engagement party—Eugene merely scowled and grumbled to Henrietta that she could have let a fellow know before now.
“Where’s Ma?” he had asked, irritated. Henrietta nodded toward the bedroom where Ma had locked herself away about an hour before. Eugene took a step toward the bedroom but then hesitated and instead stalked off to the other one, slamming the door behind him, causing Henrietta and Elsie to look wearily at each other from across the room.
“You might help, you know!” shouted Henrietta, but no response was forthcoming. She had merely sighed, then, and kept scrubbing, guiltily knowing that Eugene’s days were indeed numbered. She hoped the plan that her grandfather had concocted and that Clive had agreed to was not a mistake . . .
When Henrietta had received Elsie’s letter shortly after the engagement party, informing her that she had found two golden, jewel-encrusted eggs shoved under the mattress in the boys’ room, Henrietta went straight to Clive and told him, shamefully placing the letter in his hands to read. It was obvious that Eugene had stolen the two missing Fabergé eggs, which also called into question the truthfulness of his story regarding the planted candlesticks at the St. Sylvester rectory. Clive had finally pinned Fr. Finnegan down but had not gotten the hoped-for confession from him about framing Eugene, as Eugene had earlier claimed. Clive’s intuition, however, had told him that both of them were lying somehow, but it wasn’t officially his case and there wasn’t much he could do now. He had tried consulting with O’Conner, the detective assigned to the case, but O’Connor had not been interested in Clive’s help or his theories, as it turned out, himself upset that he had been ordered to step down on what seemed like an open-and-shut case. O’Connor was naturally of the opinion that a conviction would have looked good on his record, but the chief had called in a favor with a church dignitary for Clive and had disappointingly—for O’Connor, anyway—gotten the charges dropped.
“Clive, I’m so sorry,” Henrietta said after finding him in the study and handing him Elsie’s letter that fateful afternoon.
Clive quickly skimmed the letter and walked to the large windows running along one wall. From this vantage point he could see the vast expanse of Lake Michigan to which the grounds of Highbury abutted. “This puts me in a very awkward position, Henrietta,” he said in a tight voice, looking out at the lake.
“Yes, I know. I’m sorry,” Henrietta repeated, sensing that she should remain standing where she was rather than go to him. “What . . . what should we do?” She had forced herself to say “we” rather than “I,” tentatively suggesting that the problem was now both of theirs.
“Damn him!” Clive said in a sudden burst of emotion. “He’s determined to make a mess of it. How could he be so stupid?” He paused and exhaled deeply. “Leave it with me for now. But don’t say anything to Eugene. Don’t let on that you know anything. I’ll let Father know.”
“Must you?” Henrietta asked, her face burning with shame.
Clive raised his eyebrow. “I’m afraid so, Henrietta. Father’s threatening to call the police this time, and we don’t need the local nitwits crawling over the place, searching for something that isn’t here.”
“But what if Eugene sells them in the meantime . . . or loses them or something?”
“He won’t. He didn’t take them for that reason, if I’ve pegged him correctly. And anyway, he’s smart enough to eventually realize that if he does sell them, they will be traced back to him.”
“Why take them, then?” Henrietta asked, puzzled, as she looked up into his eyes.
Clive didn’t answer at first, but merely looked at her and sighed. “I’m afraid Eugene might be one of those who steals for the thrill of stealing. Something about him. Just a guess, though,” he muttered, stiffly handing her back the letter.
Before Clive could reason out the best course of action regarding Eugene, however, having only told his father the briefest of the facts regarding the Fabergé eggs, saying that he would handle their recovery, the problem was brought to a head by an unexpected visit to Highbury by Oldrich Exley himself.
Mr. Exley was shown into the library, where he had remained closeted with Clive and his father for the better part of an evening while they discussed what was to be done with the wayward Martha and her brood. Clive had explained that he had promised Henrietta that he would provide for her family and he still held to this promise, but Exley, it seemed, was having none of it. He requested, no, demanded, of both Clive and Alcott, that they agree that he, Oldrich Exley, be solely responsible for their welfare from here on out. He had already consulted with his lawyers, apparently, and had set the wheels in motion, so, really, he had said, his gout causing him to shift uncomfortably as he sat in one of the leather wingback chairs near the fireplace, there was no more need of discussion. He had it quite in hand, as it were. He explained that he was taking a house for them in Palmer Square, nothing too ostentatious, of course, but something reasonably respectable for his daughter and his grandchildren, an address suitable for him to occasionally call in for tea without risk of embarrassment. It was one of the smaller residences on the Square, he admitted with a slight wave of his hand, with apparently three floors and a small carriage house and a formal garden out back, or so his agent had led him to believe, not having set eyes upon it himself. Naturally, he would employ a small staff adequate to the keeping of the house and to whatever needs they might have, which he assumed would be minimal, having just come from a life of poverty and as most of the children, he pointed out, would be away at boarding school, anyway. He planned to send them to the establishment to which he had sent his own sons, Philips Exeter, in New Hampshire.
Upon hearing this, Clive silently groaned, but he let Mr. Exley continue laying out his plan, knowing full well that Mrs. Von Harmon would be irate, considering how she had already reacted to Clive’s attempt to give them even small petty cash with which to buy staples. She would never agree to this, and yet, what choice did she have now? Clive wondered. Having finally found her, Clive doubted that much would stand in old Exley’s way. He knew by reputation that Exley could be ruthless.
Clive watched as Mr. Exley drew out a piece of paper from his inner jacket pocket, unfolding it carefully and adjusting his spectacles. The three oldest boys—Eugene, Herbert, and Edward—he read from his notes, would be sent away to be properly educated, whilst James, Donald, and Doris, he added, again adjusting his wire-rim glasses slightly, would be enrolled at St. Sylvester’s until they were old enough to be sent away as well. At six, James was technically already old enough to attend Phillips, but Mr. Exley assumed he was academically behind and would need at least a year to catch up.
The girl, Elsie, was a different conundrum, he had gone on. At seventeen she should be just coming out, after her sister’s wedding, of course. It was too late now for her education, Mr. Exley feared, and she was too old to have a governess. Better to employ a lady’s companion to subtly educate her on the finer points of being a lady of society, he had decided.
Clive marveled at how much thought Exley had put into this plan without having even seen his daughter for over twenty years and how he casually assumed his dictations would be unquestioningly followed. As much as he was not overly fond of Mrs. Von Harmon at this point in his courtship with Henrietta, a glimmer of understanding occurred to Clive as to why the young Martha may have run away so many years ago. He quickly realized that there was not much he could do to alter the last twenty years of Exley family history, but, still, he felt he owed it to his future wife to at least try to suggest caution to Mr. Exley, knowing that Henrietta, not to mention Mrs. Von Harmon, would vehemently oppose this plan, at least in the beginning.
“Do you think it wise, Mr. Exley?” Clive finally put in carefully. “With respect, sir, all of these changes might be too much just at the beginning.”
“Do you think me a fool, Clive?” Mr. Exley snapped, as if talking to a schoolboy. “I’m well aware of the delicateness of the situation. The move to a decent dwelling must be done as soon as possible, of course, but the rest of the plan can evolve over time. I’m merely outlining the grand scheme so as you can be assured that every aspect of their livelihood will be provided for. I should have done this years ago. It is to my shame that I have so grossly neglected my duty,” he said bitterly. “But Martha was ever a stubborn one, as was Charity,” he said, referring obviously to his late wife, but with no apparent trace of emotion. “However, I will not be thwarted in it this time. I mean to atone for the past whichever way I can.” He paused to take a drink of the scotch Alcott had poured out for all of them when they had first sat down.
Clive, for his part, however, remained unconvinced.
“Damned generous, I’d say,” Alcott acknowledged from where he sat opposite Exley, seemingly disquieted by the odd silence that had now crept into the room along with a descending air of gloom. He held up his glass now to Exley. “Damned generous.”
“Yes, Mr. Exley, it is exceedingly generous,” Clive added, “but, perhaps, as I am marrying into the Von Harmons, they should be my financial responsibility, at least in part, anyway.” He cast a glance at his father, but Mr. Howard kept his face expressionless as he sat carefully eyeing Mr. Exley.
“Henrietta, yes, but the rest of them, no. Martha is my daughter, and the rest of them are my grandchildren. They are my responsibility from here on out.” He looked at Clive sideways, then. “Unless you’re suggesting you should be granted a dowry.”
“Certainly not!” Clive exclaimed. “I am offended at the suggestion, sir,” Clive added tightly.
“I sincerely beg your pardon,” Mr. Exley said with a faint smile. “However, I want all of the cards to be on the table, and I only wish to have this rather awkward conversation once.”
“I accept your apology, sir . . . and your arrangements,” Clive said stiffly, “though I cannot speak for the Von Harmons. I would caution you, again, with all due respect, sir, to move slowly in these matters. Mrs. Von Harmon is very . . .” he paused, trying to think of the right word.
“Difficult?” Mr. Exley supplied.
Clive inclined his head in agreement.
“Understood,” Mr. Exley said gruffly.
“There is just one thing, however,” Clive added, “which I feel I must relate at this juncture.” He paused, looking at his father. “I’m not sure Philips is the place for Eugene.”
“And why would that be?” Mr. Exley asked with narrowed eyes, as if already defensive of his new grandson.
Clive then proceeded to explain Eugene’s mishaps, leaving out, of course, what Eugene had told him at the police station about Fr. Finnegan’s advances and his suspicion of Eugene’s homosexuality, focusing instead on his more overt misdemeanors.
“I’m sorry, Howard,” Mr. Exley said gravely to Alcott when Clive was finished, looking at the ground briefly as he did so. “A bad egg, it would seem. Must take after the father. I thought there was something a bit shifty about him when I met him last week at the party. I’ll pay for any damages, of course.”
“Not to worry, old boy,” Alcott said gingerly. “Schoolboy pranks, let’s put it down to, shall we? Anyway, Clive assures me he can recover the eggs. No harm done.”
“But there was some harm done, Father,” Clive put in. “Or could have been, anyway. Something has to be done with this boy.”
“Agreed, Clive,” put in Mr. Exley before Alcott could answer. “He’ll have to go to Fishburne or maybe Valley Forge. They’ll straighten him out or break him in the process.”
“By Jove, that’s a bit drastic, wouldn’t you say?” Alcott sputtered. “What do you think, Clive?”
Clive quickly ran the suggestion through his mind and actually thought it a good idea, all things considered. A military academy would go far in keeping him in line more than Philips. Maybe all Eugene needed was discipline; he had, after all, lost his father at a young age. Perhaps it would be the making of him. The army had certainly cleansed himself of any of the spoiled selfishness he had once had as the only son of Highbury. Perhaps it would be good for Eugene as well. Henrietta, he knew, would be upset by this course of action, not to mention Mrs. Von Harmon, but the alternative would be jail. Clive had seen this type before. He had given him a chance after the candlestick affair because he was Henrietta’s brother, but he did not appreciate being taken advantage of a second time and had quietly decided to turn him over to the authorities. Otherwise, there might never be an end to Eugene’s grasping attempts to get more, especially now that his sister was to soon marry into the Howard wealth. Mr. Exley’s proposal was not a bad one, and, frankly, Clive was relieved to be rid of this responsibility.
“It’s not an unreasonable suggestion,” Clive countered, filling up his glass with more scotch, “given the circumstances.” He surreptitiously looked over at his father, who subtly responded with the quick rise of his right eyebrow.
“What do you think of Mr. Exley’s plans as a whole, Father? Do you object to any of it?” Clive asked, looking directly at Alcott now for any hint of hesitation. He assumed there wouldn’t be as Mr. Exley’s various arrangements relieved the Howards of not only the problem of Eugene, but also the looming financial burden of providing for the Von Harmons, which Clive and his father had not yet had a chance to discuss. As jarring as Mr. Exley’s designs might be to the Von Harmons, Clive was relatively certain that they would raise no objections from his father.
“Yes, Howard, any objections?” Mr. Exley reiterated.
“None at all, Exley, if you’re determined,” Alcott said agreeably.
“Fine. I’ll have the papers drawn up,” Mr. Exley said, clearly gratified with the way things were proceeding.
“When do you plan to tell them all?” Clive asked Mr. Exley, worriedly rubbing his forehead with his thumb and forefinger.
“I shall write to Martha directly to request a meeting with her, long overdue, I might add, during which I will inform them of their future,” Mr. Exley said, standing up now with the aid of his cane, apparently seeing no reason to extend the visit now that he had gotten what he came for. “I shan’t take up any more of your time. Thank you for seeing me,” he said stiffly. “I’ll keep you abreast of any developments,” he muttered, as Alcott walked with him to the main hall, leaving Clive alone to muse over the proposal.
Clive knew that Mr. Exley assumed that he would keep silent regarding his designs for the Von Harmons. He also knew that Mr. Exley’s expectation was that if Clive did choose to confide in someone at some point, that someone would most certainly not be his betrothed. Men of that generation, Clive knew, frowned upon discussing business matters, even ones of a personal nature—depending upon how compromising they were—with the opposite sex. Clive took seriously, however, his promise given to Henrietta, after the whole wretched Jack Fletcher affair, to be forthright in all things, and therefore, not long after Mr. Exley’s visit he accordingly sought her company on the terrace at Highbury. It had become something of a routine for them now when Clive was at home at Highbury to retreat there in the evenings after Alcott and Antonia had gone to bed. The terrace was now an oasis of sorts in which they often caught a cool breeze coming in off the lake after the blistering heat of the day and during which they delighted in discovering each other more. For his part, Clive was beginning to enjoy having someone to talk intimately with at the end of a long day, something he had not done in many years. And there was something a bit thrilling to talk in the cover of darkness lit only by the dazzling array of summer stars overhead and the ancient lanterns attached to the back of the house, prompting confidences more than any of the beautifully ornate rooms inside the house itself ever could have done and lending itself as well to lingering kisses and soft caresses.
The night Clive chose to tell Henrietta about her grandfather’s scheme, it was a particularly fine evening, with an exceptionally cool breeze playing about them and gently lifting Henrietta’s skirt hem just a bit, as she leaned against the wrought iron running along the top of the stone wall and tried to make sense of what Clive was saying.
“Oh, Clive!” she had said morosely. “Ma will never agree to any of this! I can’t imagine what she’s going to say,” she groaned. “How dare he think he has the right to dictate what will happen to all the kids and where Ma should live!” she said.
“It’s not as if he’s sending them to the workhouse, darling,” Clive said, trying to play it lightly. “Don’t you think it’s a good thing for them to have a decent place to live? To not have to work so hard? It’s what I would have liked to have provided as well,” he said, caressing her cheek. “Out of love for you.”
“But that’s not his motivation,” Henrietta said petulantly.
“That we don’t know, but, you are right, I suspect it does have rather more to do with pride.”
“And why send the kids away? It’s cruel. It will kill her, Clive!”
Clive deliberated. “It does seem hard,” he said, slowly. “I’m grateful my parents did not see the benefit of boarding school. But Philips is probably the best school in the country—and the most expensive. Surely you can see the advantage for them.”
Clive watched as Henrietta looked up at the massive house looming behind them, presumably pondering his words.
“I’ve been giving this some careful thought, Henrietta,” Clive continued, “and I think that perhaps your mother is suffering from a bad case of nerves. Depression, if you will. Perhaps a respite from the children is just what she needs. From what you’ve told me, she hasn’t exactly been . . . well, engaged, shall we say . . . with them for quite some time. Since you’re father, really. It’s been on you and Elsie for far too long . . .”
“But to send them away? It seems so harsh. Even if it would somehow benefit her, how are the children to feel? It’s not their fault, and yet they’re the ones who will pay the dearest price.”
“You can’t be certain of that,” Clive said quietly. “It can’t be very nice for them as it is. You know that, don’t you?”
A flicker of what might have been guilt crossed Henrietta’s face. “At least they have Elsie,” she countered.
“But for how long?”
Henrietta sighed and wrapped her arms around herself. “But they’ve never even been away from home before,” she persisted. “Why can’t they go to a good school here?”
Clive put his strong, warm arm around her and was surprised to find that she was shivering. “The Exleys are a very proud family, Henrietta. All Exley men go to Philips. I’m afraid it will be very difficult to sway your grandfather once his mind’s made up.”
“Well, it’s difficult to sway Ma, too. And, anyway, they’re Von Harmons, not Exleys,” she said with what sounded like a hint of bitterness.
“Listen, darling,” Clive said gently. “Perhaps it’s not so bleak. I advised Exley to proceed slowly with this. His plan is not to send them away until after Christmas so that they will begin with the spring term. Perhaps in that time we can persuade him otherwise.”
“Oh, Clive! Do you promise?” she asked, looking up at him now, hopeful.
“I promise to try,” he emphasized. “Except where Eugene is concerned, of course. That must be done immediately. Even if Father didn’t press charges, I would have advised him to. I want you to know that,” he said slowly, looking at her steadily so that she clearly understood. “I’m fairly certain Eugene would do it again somewhere else, and then he won’t get off so easily. He’s been lucky so far, but I see it ending rather badly for him if his current course is not drastically altered in some way. Military school may be the making of him. All may not yet be lost.”
Henrietta sighed again, knowing there was no rebuttal for this; he was right. In truth, she had become a bit frightened of Eugene’s apparent amorality. If he dared to steal from the Howards, even after Clive had given them money and promised Eugene a job, what would he do next? His sense of entitlement was abhorrent to her, and his unpredictability unnerved her. She felt she was walking a tenuous line as it was in this new world, and she didn’t need Eugene acting as an unknown variable. She knew Ma would fume and fret something terrible—she winced now at the thought of what Ma would say when she found out—but Henrietta had to admit the wisdom of Clive’s words. She felt guilty that a part of her would be glad to have Eugene out of the way. It was a fair solution, she reasoned, all things taken into account, and she hoped, truly, that Eugene might still make something of himself. “I suppose you’re right,” she said reluctantly.
“The first thing will be getting them moved. We’ll worry about the rest of it later.”
“Ah, yes, the house.” Henrietta smiled at this part of Mr. Exley’s preposterous plan. “On Palmer Square? Really, Clive! That’s a bit excessive, don’t you agree?” Palmer Square proper was a long oval-shaped park that was surrounded by the summer mansions of Chicago’s wealthy. Potter Palmer himself as well as the Fields, the Schwinns, and the Adlers, among others, owned houses there. “Couldn’t you have done something? Explained?”
“Oldrich Exley seems a man not to be trifled with, Henrietta. There are limits to what even I—or Father, for that matter—can do, you know. He seems as stubborn as her.” The exasperated look he gave her then somehow made her laugh despite the seriousness of the situation.
Clive smiled, then, too. “I’m led to believe it’s very modest, actually—for Palmer Square,” he said, gesturing with his pipe.
“Oh, Clive, I’m not sure,” Henrietta said, sobering suddenly.
“Come on, let’s go in. It’s late,” Clive said tenderly, kissing the top of her head. “It will look brighter in the morning. It always does, somehow.”
As disturbing as Clive’s revelation had been, Henrietta was grateful that he had shared it with her and had decided that the best course of action would be to not tell any of them at home about their proposed future until Mr. Exley himself appeared. She had briefly considered telling Elsie, but Elsie wore her heart on her sleeve, and Henrietta knew she would have a hard time hiding her feelings around Ma if she knew what was coming. Clive had generously offered to be in attendance when Mr. Exley descended upon them, and, as much as Henrietta would have welcomed his strong presence, she had declined, knowing it would make it worse with Ma.
Henrietta had eventually got Ma to unlock the bedroom door that morning, and had removed her Sunday dress, a plain black affair with a belted waist, out of the armoire for her. She had offered to do her hair, then, trying not to glance nervously at the clock, but Ma only glared at her in response. Her face looked blotchy, as if she may have been crying.
“Why have you done this, Henrietta?”
“I haven’t done anything, Ma,” Henrietta said tiredly, as if they had had this argument too many times before.
“Why couldn’t you have found someone from the neighborhood? Why’d you have to go sniffing for something better than you?” Ma said as she obediently put on the dress over her dingy slip. She turned then for Henrietta to fasten her buttons up the back, and it took all of Henrietta’s resolve not to retort, not blurt out that she was every bit as good as Clive, that they were indeed equals.
“You could have had any man around here,” Ma said, turning back around slowly with a scowl that resembled one of Eugene’s best. She sat heavily on the bed now, the springs creaking, and reached underneath for her scuffed black oxfords while Henrietta wearily folded her arms in front of her and sighed. “Why couldn’t you have gone for Ludmilla’s son, Jacek?” Ma continued. “He was always keen enough. Or even that Tommy Coghlin? I’ve seen him hangin’ about in the street more than he had reason to. Then of course there was Stan, a perfectly decent boy, but oh, no! You won’t have him, will you? Luckily he’s latched on to Elsie now. He hasn’t completely gotten away! You’ll regret that one, girl,” she said scornfully, shaking her finger at her now.
Henrietta resisted the urge to roll her eyes. As if Stan were a better catch than Clive! “I didn’t plan it this way, Ma. It just happened. Just like it did for you and Pa.”
Ma’s eyes blazed at her at the mention of her father. “Don’t speak of him!” she hissed.
“It’s not my fault that you haven’t spoken to your family in almost twenty years!” Henrietta said, unable to hold in her anger any longer. “That was all your own doing! If it wasn’t for your stupid pride, we wouldn’t have had to live like this all these years,” she said, gesturing widely.
“How dare you!” Ma shouted, standing up now and slapping Henrietta briskly across the face.
Stunned, Henrietta took a step back, cradling her cheek and staring at Ma in disbelief, her anger fanning. “Well, it’s true, isn’t it?” Henrietta burst out. This time she would not back down! “You even said so yourself. That you refused to go back, even after Grandfather tried to reconcile with you, but you . . .”
“Oh, yes! I could have gone back,” Ma shouted, “if I agreed to give up both you and Les. Remember that part?”
Henrietta was silent.
“Maybe I should have given you over to them, for all the good it’s done,” Ma went on bitterly. “Here you are running back to them with open arms as if none of it mattered. Well, good luck to you and good riddance! You’ll see what you’re getting yourself into, but then it will be too late. It’s not all fancy balls and china, you know!”
Henrietta could not believe her mother had stooped to this level. “You’re just being plain old mean now, Ma!” she said hotly. “You . . . you’re jealous, aren’t you? You don’t want me to be happy because you’re not. But nothing can ever make you happy!”
“Happy?” Ma said with almost an incredulous laugh. “What’s happiness got to do with it, you stupid girl? And even if it was somehow important, your chances of happiness with that lot are slim to none. And before you give me some malarkey about Clive being different, just you watch. All men are the same—they only want you on your back. Either getting a baby put in you or pushing one out.”
“Your father was no different, you know,” she said bitingly, as if she couldn’t stop the tirade that had now erupted from some deep place of hurt within her. “After me all the time, he was, even when I was already carryin’ a baby. Didn’t make no difference to him.”
Henrietta stopped short as she absorbed her mother’s latest blow, her heart beating fast. She didn’t want to hear this. Childishly, she was tempted to put her hands over her ears, but a morbid part of her was curious, too.
“He forced himself on me. More than once,” Ma said, looking away now. “Didn’t know that, did you?” she said, turning her piercing gaze back to her. “Now what do you think of your precious father? All these years making him out to be some sort of saint in your mind. Well, he was no saint . . . especially after he’d been drinking. This is as much his doing as mine. One baby we could have handled, maybe two or three, but not the lot of you! I didn’t want you all, but what could I do? No, this is all his fault, this is.”
Henrietta’s mind was in turmoil as she tried to steady herself from Ma’s volley of words, which stung her more than the physical slap had just a few moments before. Was this what Ma had meant all these years about everything being her father’s fault? But forcing her? That couldn’t be true, could it? She thought she might be sick.
“He’s here!” they heard Jimmy shout from the other room where he was perched in the bare front window. “Ooh! Eugene! Come see his car!”
“The sooner you know what you’re getting into, the better,” Ma went on, apparently unfazed by Jimmy’s announcement. “Mark my words. And the upper classes are no different; might be even worse. Spread your legs and be quiet; don’t struggle. That’s my wedding advice for you; take it or leave it,” she said as she opened the bedroom door just as a knock was heard on the front one.
Henrietta stood for a few minutes alone in the bedroom trying to collect herself and steady her nerves. She became aware that her legs were slightly shaking. And to think she had been feeling sorry for Ma up until this point, having to humiliatingly face her father after all of this time, to have nothing really to show for the headstrong choices she had made all those years ago except for this ragged bunch of children surrounding her. But these better feelings had left her now. Ma was about to get her comeuppance, and Henrietta couldn’t help but feel a little glad.
In the end, the reunion between estranged father and daughter was rather short. Excepting his driver, of course, who obediently waited in the car, Mr. Exley came alone and stepped authoritatively into the apartment once the door had been opened to him. He formally greeted Henrietta, Elsie, and Eugene (who had at the last moment slunk out of the bedroom), having previously met the three of them at the engagement party, and then condescended to be introduced to his five other grandchildren by a rather apprehensive Henrietta. Finally, his eyes rested on Ma, who had positioned herself near the fireplace with posture as straight as her rounded shoulders would now permit and with a face of stone. Henrietta thought she saw a wave of something cross Mr. Exley’s face—Anger? Pity? Compassion? On Ma’s face, however, she saw nothing.
“Martha,” he said, coming toward her, one arm awkwardly stretched out. When she did not make a move to return his proposed half-embrace, however, Mr. Exley quickly dropped his arm and instead deposited a formal, brief kiss on her cheek.
“Hello, Father,” she said, and it struck Henrietta how strange it sounded. “Come to see me brought low, is this what this is?”
“Now, now, Martha, this is not the way to begin, surely?” His voice was falsely sweet.
“Still correcting me?” she asked, her gaze steely.
He ignored her and instead looked around the room now from where he stood, making no attempt to disguise the fact that he was sizing up their pitiful situation, his repulsion evident. “May I sit down?” he finally asked coldly as he glanced at the worn sofa.
“As you wish,” Martha said, stiffly following suit as she lowered herself down into the armchair across from him.
Mr. Exley sat down gingerly, as if to prevent dirtying his pressed trousers, and expectantly held out his walking stick toward the row of kids standing along the wall in their Sunday best, hair wetted down, anxiously peering at their new grandfather. Eddie hurriedly stepped from among them and took the stick, Mr. Exley observing him only momentarily.
“Would you like some tea, grandfather?” Elsie asked hesitantly, standing near Ma’s armchair. “It’s British—proper stuff . . .”
“No, I think not. I shan’t be staying long.”
“Oh,” she replied disappointedly.
Only Henrietta sat down beside him on the sofa.
“I must congratulate you on Henrietta’s match to the Howard boy,” Mr. Exley said to Ma now. “You must be very proud.”
“We were just discussing it before you came in,” Ma said evenly, and Henrietta felt her face grow warm again, still feeling the sting of the slap, or imagining anyway that she did.
“We were so sorry to have missed you at the Howards’ gathering. Henrietta here informed us you weren’t well. I trust you are much better?”
“You know why I wasn’t there, Father. That is not my world any longer. Why don’t you say what you’ve come to say? There’s always a point. Time is money; isn’t that what you were ever fond of saying?” Ma’s speech seemed to have altered as she addressed him, as if she remembered how she had once spoke in a different lifetime, and Henrietta watched her, amazed.
Mr. Exley studied her for a moment. “You haven’t changed a bit, Martha. Still the same.”
“Thank you, Father. Coming from you that’s quite a compliment.”
“Look, Martha. Let’s start again. I’m here to try to smooth things over.”
“You took your time.”
“If you must know, there were many times I wished to resolve our differences. I even took to driving past your dwelling for a stretch of time until your mother discovered my actions, and that was the end of that. Soon after, you moved, I was informed, and I lost track of you.”
“I’m sure you could have found me if you wanted to. Sent one of your agents to ferret me out of the woodwork, as it were.”
“Yes, I considered that, but I thought maybe your anonymity might be for the best. You seemed to prefer it that way, anyway.”
“I did. Yes.”
“Your mother died.”
“Yes, I read it in the paper.”
“My God, Martha! You’re cold!” he said, shifting slightly.
“I had an excellent teacher.”
He paused for a moment before beginning again. “Your churlishness does you no credit, Martha. Fate, it seems, will have her way, however, and has seen fit to recross our paths, as it were, for better or worse,” he said, gesturing toward Henrietta, who had remained very still during their disagreeable tête-à-tête. “It’s no use keeping up this facade any longer, Martha. It simply won’t do.”
“So we’ll put up a different one, is that it?”
“This is an unsuitable living arrangement considering you have a daughter in society now.”
“I had nothing to do with that.”
“I’m surely not suggesting otherwise, believe me, except to say that you have raised a well-mannered, and, might I add, beautiful, young lady. My compliments to you, Martha, on that score, at least.”
When Ma did not respond, he continued, unflinching in his tone. “I have taken the liberty of discussing your livelihood with the Howards, who were perfectly willing to support all of you, I will say that here. As generous as that offer is, it is unacceptable to me. If anyone should be responsible for your welfare, it should be me.”
“Like you’ve done all along, you mean?”
“That was your choice—and your mother’s—not mine. As it is now, however, I cannot have my granddaughter marry into the Howards and have the lot of you become their responsibility, or, worse, to be seen living in poverty.”
“So it really has more to do, as usual, with saving face, doesn’t it, Father? You’ve not changed, either, it would seem.”
“Call it what you will, Martha; the result will be the same. This is becoming tedious, so I will get to the point. I have taken a house for you in Palmer Square, where you will take up residency immediately.”
There were excited, whispered gasps from along the wall, and Elsie looked nervously at Henrietta for confirmation, who gave her the slightest nod.
“There is a small staff already in place, which should be suitable to your needs. If you find yourself wanting, however, I shall of course supply more.”
“And if I refuse?”
Mr. Exley chuckled lightly. “Why, then, your other choice is to come and live with me at your brother Gerard’s.”
“You can’t force me to move!” Ma said, angrily.
“True enough. But I can take the children to live with me in Lake Forest. I’ve already discussed it with Gerard, and he’s more than obliging. Of course they’ll always be seen as the poor cousins, but that’s to be expected.”
“They will be, anyway, no matter how fine the house on the Square.”
“Not quite the same, though, is it?”
“You can’t take my children away from me!” Ma said, Henrietta noting a trace of worry in her voice for the first time.
Mr. Exley looked around him with disgust. “I wouldn’t be so sure, my dear. There seems quite a lot here that would qualify as neglect, don’t you think?” he added with a slight curl of his lip.
“You wouldn’t dare!”
“Don’t try me, my dear. You’ve seen how that works out. And I should mention that if they come to live with me, I could not in all fairness impose upon Gerard’s good nature indefinitely. It would of course then only be temporary until a place at Philips could be arranged,” Mr. Exley said with almost forced casualness, resting two pointed fingers under his chin.
Henrietta made a move to speak—this isn’t how Clive had presented the plan! Boarding school was already an understood part of the arrangement, but she saw that her grandfather was using it now as a way to convince Ma to move. She was shocked by his underhandedness, but at the same time she understood that something clever would have to be done to get Ma to budge. Moving, she had finally admitted to herself, would be a good thing for them . . . But, still, she felt uncomfortable that her grandfather was then, if not outright lying, certainly holding back part of the truth. And what would happen, Henrietta thought uneasily, when Ma found out that they were to be shipped off to boarding school anyway? She would be furious, of course, and would accuse Henrietta of knowing about it all along, which was true. Henrietta tentatively opened her mouth to protest, but she then remembered her promise to Clive to remain silent, so she bit her lip instead, watching Ma’s face for her reaction. It didn’t take long to see that Ma had been beaten, though she was trying to retain her previous stoicism.
“Very well,” Ma said matter-of-factly. “We will move, but do not think for one moment that we will be entering society to be paraded around according to your whims.”
“I shouldn’t worry about that, Martha. At least where you’re concerned, anyway. I rather think your society days have passed you by, don’t you? Except for the Howard wedding, that is. I trust you will be in attendance for that, suitably arrayed, of course?” he said, his eyes observing her old, black dress.
Ma glared at him with what seemed to Henrietta to be pure hatred.
“And as for the children, there may be some societal obligations, to be sure, but we will come to those all in good time. Once Henrietta, here, is married,” he smiled briefly at her, “we must find a suitable match for Elsie.”
“Oh, but grandfather, I . . .” Elsie tried to interrupt.
“We will discuss it some other time, my dear,” he said, looking at her briefly before turning back to face Ma.
Ma continued to stare at him before she spoke again. “Do not expect for one minute that I am grateful.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it, Martha. That would be entirely out of character.”
“Don’t be like that, Ma,” said Eugene, finally, a sly grin creeping across his face from where he had been standing behind Ma. “Seems our ship has come in with Grandfather,” he said, almost distastefully.
Mr. Exley glanced up at him now, coolly, as if observing him for the first time. “Ah, yes, Eugene. I was coming to that. Been rather a naughty boy, as I understand.”
Eugene’s previous smug look faded and was replaced by one of faint concern.
“I have a different plan for you altogether which you might as well know about at once,” Mr. Exley continued briskly. “I’ve enrolled you at Fishburne Military Academy in Virginia, where you will proceed to in one week’s time. Consider yourself lucky to have gotten a place. I had to pull considerable strings.”
A gasp went around the room, and Ma stood up slowly, leaning on the arm of the chair as she did. “You can’t do that!”
“Oh, yes, I can, my dear,” Mr. Exley said calmly, remaining in his seat.
“You can’t make me go there!” Eugene whined, an angry scowl on his face now.
“I can, and I will. The arrangements have already been made, so there is no point to this unseemly belligerence.”
“Ma! Don’t send me away!” Eugene begged, turning to face Ma.
Ma’s face flushed red as she took a step closer to her father, preparing to unleash her fury on him.
Before she could do so, however, Mr. Exley calmly held up his hand to stop her. “Before you even begin, Martha, I’ve quite made up my mind. He can go either go to Fishburne or to jail, and don’t think I won’t do it.”
“You can’t do this! He’s not a thief! Those charges were dropped!”
“Be that as it may, I understand it was not because his innocence was proven; it was merely the result of a connection of the Howards to whom I am now inconveniently indebted. And I have been embarrassingly informed of yet another incident of theft, which can, I am told, be proven very quickly.”
“You can’t mean Eugene!” Ma said incredulously. “He’s hardly left his room since . . . since he was released!” she went on, though this wasn’t actually true.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Eugene said testily.
“Silence!” Mr. Exley shouted, causing everyone in the room to jump. A timorous hush fell over the room except for the sound of Doris wriggling behind Donny. “Lying is a sin for which I have no mercy, much less patience,” he said steadily. “And you, sir,” he said, looking directly at Eugene, “have severely tried my patience. Henrietta,” he said, still not taking his eyes off Eugene, “would you be so kind as to oblige me?”
Eugene tore his eyes from Mr. Exley and gave Henrietta one last despairing look before she made her way stiffly to the bedroom and returned carrying a ragged, black sock. In front of the silent, watching group, she reached her hand inside and drew out two beautiful, golden Fabergé eggs covered with brilliant stones.
Ma gasped, and Elsie, her face burning, looked at the corner floorboards. It took only a moment before Ma regained her self-possession and stalked over to where Eugene stood, his own cheeks aflame now, and slapped him, hard, across the face. “How dare you!” she hissed. “Where did you get these?”
Eugene looked at her with searing anger before casting his gaze downward, not even giving her the pleasure of rubbing his cheek, which must have surely been in pain, judging from the bright red hue that had resulted from Ma’s hand.
“They were taken from Highbury, it would seem, at Henrietta and Clive’s engagement party, the Howard butler reports. Is this not correct, Henrietta?”
“Yes, Grandfather,” Henrietta said quietly, handing them to him now, privately concerned that Ma had resorted to two slaps in one day.
“The Howards, understandably, are quite upset, and it was Alcott’s intention to call the police before Clive intervened. He was kind enough to bring the matter to my attention before any legal action was taken. So,” he said, standing up slowly, “there is nothing more to be said.” He took a step toward Eugene, who was looking at him now with sullen fear. “I understand that there has been no one to take you in hand, but those days are very much over for you, I’m afraid. You will report to Fishburne in one week’s time.” He pointed a somewhat crooked forefinger at him and looked at him with disgust. “You will not disgrace me again, boy. Fishburne will make a man of you, make no mistake about that, but take care as to what sort of man you will become. I’ve been made a fool of one too many times,” he said, looking at Martha now. “I’ll not endure another. Either make something of yourself at Fishburne, or you’ll be swiftly hauled off to jail, or, if that’s not to your liking, I own several mines where you will be sent to labor. And as your mother can tell you, I generally get my way in most matters, so don’t try me. After all, look where it has gotten her.”
“Don’t speak about my mother that way,” Eugene said angrily, scowling up at him now like a cornered dog.
“I’ll do as I like, and don’t you forget it,” he said, tapping his finger, hard, on Eugene’s chest. He turned away then and walked toward the door.
“I’ll take my leave now,” he said. “Have you anything else to say to me, Martha? My agent, Bernstein, will be in touch with all the arrangements.”
“Even after all these years, I still haven’t really escaped, have I?” she said rancorously, barely above a whisper.
“No, I suppose not, my dear. I trust your adventure was worth it, however,” he said, looking around disparagingly. “Goodbye then, children,” he said, giving them a last glance and then finally descending the stairs.
Ma’s face crumpled then, and she silently retreated to the bedroom to lie down, giving in to a rare fit of tears, while Elsie made a move toward the kitchen to make her some of the expensive tea that Mr. Exley hadn’t even partaken of. Eugene crossed the room as well, giving both Henrietta and Elsie a vile look as he did so.
“Thanks very much,” he said viciously, stopping in front of Henrietta. “Your own brother? Why couldn’t you let it alone, Hen? You think you’re so much better than us now, don’t you? Now I’m to be in the fucking army while you’re the lady of the manor!”
“Eugene! Don’t swear!” Elsie chided him.
“You’re no better!” he said, turning his vengeance on Elsie now. “You were obviously in on it. How else would Henrietta have known they were there?”
“How dare you steal from the Howards, Gene!” Henrietta said angrily. “Clive was going to get you a good job! Why? Why do you have to be this way? He already helped you once, and this is how you repay him?”
“How dare you defend him over me!” he flung back. “Did you see how many gold trinkets they have lying around? They wouldn’t miss one or two. It’s not fair! We’re starving, and they have gold bits of shit lying around everywhere. You should be thanking me, actually, for trying to help out the family instead of working in some factory for Clive making him more money.”
“You ungrateful wretch!” Henrietta shouted. “Stealing is never the answer, Eugene! Especially from my fiancé’s parents! How could you be so stupid?”
“Oh, my! I’m so very sorry to have ruined your precious image, Hen! Isn’t this what this is really about? You must take after grandfather.”
“How dare you! You don’t even deserve to be in the army. You should be in jail. Pa would be ashamed of you.”
“Do you think I care? He was a fucking coward.”
“Eugene!” Elsie exclaimed.
Eugene stalked toward the door and paused before going out, looking at both Elsie and Henrietta and then the rest of them still huddled against the wall. “You can all just go to hell!” he said, and walked soundlessly out the door.
No one said anything for a moment until Jimmy made a little movement forward, having taken his scrap of blanket from his pocket and put it up to his nose for comfort, a babyish habit he still clung to. “Are we really going to move, Hen?” he had asked, looking up at her with his big brown eyes.
Henrietta heard a noise then and was startled out of her thoughts. Surprised, she looked around and realized that she was still sitting on Helen’s bed in the little cottage. She had been daydreaming again! What was wrong with her these days?
“Who is it?” she asked nervously, as she hurriedly stood up. She made her way across the little bedroom, assuming it was one of the servants and feeling ashamed that she had gotten so little accomplished. Her apprehension faded instantly, however, when she caught sight of none other than Clive leaning against the doorframe, his arms crossed casually in front of him.
“Clive!” she exclaimed. “You’re back early!” A happy wave of excitement passed over her as she went to him. She had missed him this week while he wrapped up his job on the force in the city. She was used to him spending his weeks there, still trying to finish, once and for all, his position as detective inspector while she spent her time mostly at Highbury with his parents, only occasionally going home to the new house on Palmer Square, where she felt decidedly like a visitor. The wedding, in just over two weeks’ time, would soon be upon them.
“Billings told me I’d find you here,” he said as he wrapped his arms around her waist and kissed her. “Still mucking about down here? I thought you’d have finished by now.”
Henrietta loosened his tie for him, a look she much preferred, but one they were only allowed when alone together, which wasn’t often. “How was it?” she asked solicitously, knowing that he hadn’t really wanted to give up his role as a detective inspector.
Clive arched his eyebrow. “The boys gave me a bit of a farewell party, just a little one, as most of them are still on duty. Very touching, however. The chief gave a very moving speech, for him anyway, given how sentimental he usually is,” he said sarcastically. “Still, I was touched, really. Said some damned nice things.”
“Well, let’s see. That I’m a first-rate detective,” he said, ticking off the chief’s comments on his fingers, “that I’ll be missed, that I’m dashingly handsome, those types of things. But also that a certain woman is very lucky to get me, and I’m under strict orders to make her happy. So here I am,” he said mischievously, kissing her again, longer this time as he drew her nearer to him, putting his hands on the small of her back. “How convenient that we’re alone.”
“Clive!” she said, pulling back.
Their willingness to be more intimate had ebbed and flowed between them over their short courtship. When she had first come to Highbury, Henrietta had been the more eager, it had seemed, sometimes teasing him, and even offering herself to Clive one night at his apartment in the city, but Clive, after his behavior in the park the night he had proposed, had kept an honorable distance and had resisted any of Henrietta’s overtures, charming though they might have been. Now, however, as the wedding drew close and the prospect of the wedding night in particular loomed large, they had once again shifted roles. Clive’s resolve was loosening while Henrietta was becoming more reticent and shy. Unfortunately she could not help dwelling on what her mother had confided to her about her father, and about men in general. Surely Clive would not be a brute, she reasoned, but she had indeed seen a violent side to him. Where she had once looked forward to her wedding night with Clive, having already felt on fire at times as he had kissed and sometimes touched her over the summer, she was now oddly nervous and even a bit afraid. Surely he would be gentle and patient, wouldn’t he?
She smiled at him now. “Why don’t I make us some tea?” she said, disengaging herself from his arms.
“Here?” he said, amused, folding his arms back across his chest and leaning again against the doorframe.
“Why not?” she said, making her way to the old-fashioned stove now. “I love this little place.”
“Don’t you have anything stronger?” Clive asked.
“I’m afraid not, you naughty thing,” she teased. “And anyway, I think you’re already a bit intoxicated.”
“You can tell?” he asked, grinning now as he sat down at the old table, opposite to where she hovered in front of the stove, so that he could watch her.
“Yes, so some tea will do you good before you have to face your mother at dinner,” she said, reaching for some mugs off the side hutch.
“You have a point,” he said wearily, looking around the cottage. “Are you almost finished with all of this rubbish? You didn’t really have to do this, you know. Or are you just trying to hide from Mother?” He grinned across at her.
She couldn’t help but smile. “Maybe a little.” She began pouring the boiling water into the teapot. “There’s not too much left to do, I suppose. But what will become of the cottage, Clive?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Father hasn’t said. Probably board it up until it’s needed. Either for when Mary retires, or perhaps Virgil and Edna might want it if they end up getting married.”
“I see,” she said, putting the cozy over the pot and coming around to where Clive sat. “Well, as a matter of fact, I had an idea . . .” she said hesitantly, looking down at him now. Clive reached for her hand, and when she slipped hers into his, he pulled her onto his lap.
“Clive!” she said, laughing a bit.
“Tell me your idea. I was having a hard time hearing you up there.”
Henrietta paused, looking into his eyes. “Let’s us live here,” she said quietly.
“Here?” Clive laughed. “Don’t be ridiculous!”
“I’m not being ridiculous, Clive! Please? Just for a little while,” she went on hurriedly before he could say no. “Just until you have to take over Highbury. Or maybe not even that long . . . maybe just the first year. Please,” she said earnestly.
The urgency in her voice caught his attention. “But why, darling?” he said softly now. “This is little more than a hovel. It isn’t really fitting to what we both agreed to be. I thought you’d accepted your role at Highbury. Don’t tell me we have to go through all this again.”
“No, Clive. I . . . I have. Honestly. We can still be fully part of Highbury, entertaining and all of the duties, but . . . this could be our place. Somewhere just for the two of us. I . . . I want to take care of you,” she said, putting her hand to his cheek, a gesture he had come to love, “not let it up to the servants. I . . . I want to learn to be your wife here. Just the two of us.”
Clive let out a deep breath. “But Mother’s had men altering the east wing for us for weeks now. She will not be amused that she’s had a whole apartment done up for us simply so that we could live in this antiquated cottage.”
“Well . . . we . . . sometimes we could stay there, too, I suppose.”
“Henrietta, this is madness,” he said, not unkindly, but suddenly seeming very tired.
“Please, Clive,” she said, staring into his eyes.
He sighed. “Let me think about it,” he said, somewhat unhappily and tried to smile—but it was unconvincing.
Timidly she leaned forward and kissed him. She retreated just a sliver then, and he paused to stare at her partially open lips and kissed her again, harder this time, breathing deeply.
Eventually she forced herself to pull back and rubbed the stubble on his cheek. “You won’t hurt me, will you, Clive?” she asked, her voice barely audible.
“Hurt you?” he said, baffled, sitting up a bit straighter now. “Of course not, darling,” he said, looking at her carefully. “But do you really need to ask me that?” he asked softly.
She longed to tell him her fears of the wedding night and what might be expected of her, sexually, as a wife, as her mother had alluded to. And what about the Howards? What did they expect of her? Unfortunately, she could not get Helen’s revelation about the Howards’ desperate need of an heir out of her mind. That she would be surely “kept busy” as a result, as Helen had put it. And what of Clive? she wondered. He had ever been gentle with her, but she had on more than one occasion felt his tense passion just under the surface, and likewise she had a hard time forgetting the image of him shattering Neptune’s nose with his fist and the blood that had subsequently gushed forth. It made her feel sick even still. In her heart she did not doubt Clive’s love for her, but she could not deny the nagging suggestion that her being very young with many childbearing years ahead of her was a definite bonus for the Howards. She had become more and more preoccupied with these thoughts as the wedding drew near, and then—miraculously almost—it had come to her one night that if she and Clive were to perhaps be somewhere outside of the confines of Highbury, somewhere like this isolated cottage, for example, they might thereby escape any expectations, any unpleasantness, as it were . . .
She struggled to find a way to explain all of these scattered thoughts to him, but it was difficult for her to figure them out herself. “I . . . nothing,” she said finally, meeting his eyes momentarily before looking down at his hand that now grasped hers.
Gently Clive lifted her chin with the knuckle of his forefinger. “Henrietta, if you are referring to our wedding night, or any night thereafter, for that matter, I will never hurt you,” he said quietly. She felt her face grow instantly red; he could always read her mind. “I promise. We’ll go slow, as slow as you want. I only want to please you,” he said tenderly, the longing in his voice clear.
Though she was extremely embarrassed by the turn of the conversation, she searched his eyes nonetheless and found them, as always, sincere.
“Something has changed, however, which I would wish to know. I’ve been sensing it lately, anyway, and these questions would confirm it. I rather thought you enjoyed my attentions, desired them, even,” he said tacitly.
Henrietta blushed again and looked away.
“What has changed, darling? Has someone said something to frighten you? Surely not Julia? Hers is a very different sort of marriage. An unfortunate one,” he put in grimly.
Henrietta stood up now and brushed down her apron. “No,” she said, “not Julia,” mentally noting, though, that Julia might be a good person to confide in regarding such matters. “It was my mother, actually.”
Clive sighed. “Of course it was,” he said, languidly crossing his legs now and propping his head with his fist, his elbow casually resting on the table. “Henrietta, no doubt . . .”
There was a knock and a cough, then, which made Henrietta jump. Clive, however, did not even turn around.
“Yes, Billings?” he asked tiredly, still looking across at Henrietta as he said it.
“Forgive me, sir. But Madame wishes me to remind you that you are all dining at the Exleys’ tonight and that Fritz will be bringing the car around in one hour’s time.”
Clive exhaled tiredly. “All right, Billings. We’ll be there directly.”
“Very good, sir,” he said with a bow and promptly disappeared.
With a tired smile, Clive stood up. “Duty calls,” he said wearily.
Henrietta came from around the table, unpinning her apron as she did so. Carefully she placed it on the thick, rustic planks of the table, but not before reaching inside the pocket to retrieve Helen’s photograph.
“What’s this?” Clive asked when he saw it.
Silently, Henrietta held it up for him to see.
He smiled sadly. “You were fond of her, weren’t you?”
“I was, yes.”
“You’re a sentimentalist, wanting to keep this.”
“Something should be kept, don’t you think? To mark that she lived a life, however sad.”
“How do you know it was sad?” Clive asked pointedly.
Henrietta shrugged and gave him a small smile. “True enough. Perhaps just a part of it was sad.”
He took her hand, then, and led her out of the cottage. “As for the other matter, let’s discuss it later,” Clive said as they slowly began walking up to the house. “Perhaps on the terrace,” he said, looking sideways at her. Henrietta returned his smile but, embarrassed now, secretly hoped that they would not.
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