How Papa would laugh if he could see his daughter now, Maria thought, wincing as her maid, Sally, tightened the strings of her stays, her swelling stomach protesting. He could never know how unhappy she was. Not that he ever wanted to see her again anyway.
‘Ma,am, did you want the blue or the pink today?’ Sally held two dresses in her arms.
‘Oh, the blue will do.’ Maria let Sally dress her quickly, ordering her to put her hair up in a quick and simple style.
What was the point of making an effort anyway? No one would be paying a call to this house today, nor any time in the near future. At least she had Celine to talk to, if the girl ever left her piano alone for one moment. She was down in the drawing room now, playing some endless dirge. It was as if the house was haunted, the music a constant sad presence in the house. All because Daniel was away in Liverpool for two weeks. Maria went downstairs to put a stop to it.
‘Celine, won’t you take tea with me?’ Maria rang the bell to summon the housekeeper.
Celine paused, turning to look over her shoulder. ‘Good morning, Maria. I am afraid that I may be bad company today. Daniel wrote to say that they shall be away until at least the middle of the month.’
‘My dear, let me cheer you up.’ Maria was in no mood to be refused. She walked up behind Celine, resting her hands on the girl’s shoulders until she capitulated. ‘Mrs Shanklaw, will you fetch us tea please. And some of that wonderful shortbread if there is some left.’
The women settled themselves down before the fire, the weather having grown decidedly autumnal now that October had its grip on London. The trees out on Eaton Square wore burnished copper, russet and gold, though it would not be long before they were stripped bare, each gust of wind threatening to steal away their fine clothing.
‘How are you, Maria?’ Celine asked politely. Even now that they had spent the better part of three months in close proximity, the girl seemed unable to allow herself to act informally around the older woman, though only a few years separated them. ‘Do you notice the baby at all? Is it uncomfortable?’
Maria nodded. ‘At least the unbearable sickness has passed. The doctor says that I should enter confinement shortly. Not that much will change since I seem to have been mainly shut away in this house since we returned from Scotland.’
‘I should apologise.’ Celine cast her eyes to the floor. ‘It is Daniel and I who have imposed upon you too long. No one visits because of our presence here.’
Maria leaned forward and took hold of Celine’s hand. ‘No. They would not have visited us regardless. Surely your Mrs Harper told you that I was considered an outcast before you met me? After I married Sam my father refused to have anything further to do with me. He is a man of influence. Not many would defy him or consider me worthy of incurring his wrath.’
‘He sounds just like my own father.’ Celine smiled sadly. ‘My sister has not replied to any of my letters. I even asked Jean Mouret to contact her on my behalf but he sent back a strange note. Asked me not to write to either of them again.’
‘Perhaps your father has been intercepting her letters,’ Maria suggested. ‘I know that my own has lowered himself to such a depth. My mother has to act increasingly deviously in order to see me.’
‘If only I still had a mother to care about me.’
‘Come now, let us not dwell on such things. Ah, here comes Mrs Shanklaw with the tea.’ The stern housekeeper placed the tray before her mistress and swiftly departed.
‘Sometimes I wonder if even Mrs Shanklaw looks down on me for marrying Daniel,’ Celine worried.
‘Mrs Shanklaw looks down upon all of us,’ Maria assured her. ‘We shall never live up to her expectations. She would think herself worthy of a grander house than this, one with less bohemian residents. She thinks us all mad, I am sure.’
Celine giggled. ‘Thank you Maria, you do always make me feel so encouraged. And it has all been worth it. I would rather have Daniel in my life than a father who clearly does not love me. And I never enjoyed all those dull dinner parties, having to make conversation with dullards and pretend to be enthused by the achievements of young men who cared only for my father’s money and not at all for me. Do you feel the same? You must. Sam is such a wonderful man; witty and charming, handsome. You must feel that the sacrifice has been worthwhile.’
‘Of course, my dear, of course.’ Maria hated to lie, but the thought of extinguishing the hope in Celine’s eyes was worse.
To begin Tales from the Olympia from the first story click below: