Clara has always known that she will wed Lawrence Cavendish, ever since her parents passed away thirteen years ago. But it seems that Lawrence has his sights set elsewhere and when an act of selflessness opens Clara’s eyes to a world she never knew existed, her love for Lawrence and her faith in God are questioned.
The year is 1823 and the privileged heiress to a thriving cotton business, Miss Clara Johnson, is convalescing with close friends after an unfortunate accident has left her bedridden.
But Clara soon begins to realize that her health has changed the course of not only her life but the paths of those around her as well. As her life starts to take her away from Lawrence, she can’t ignore the feelings in her heart each time his dashing cousin Alexander looks at her and it soon becomes clear that the good Lord really does work in mysterious ways.
“Sir! The roof, sir! The roof! Stand clear!
No sooner had the warning boomed out than the creaking timbers of the house gave way and the entire top floor of the grand building came crashing in on itself. The townsfolk fled in screams of terror and pain as splinters of molten lead and darts of wood rained down on the crowd. They had gathered on the edge of the peninsula in the small riverside town of Georgetown, South Carolina to watch the devastating fire.
A stout man dressed in the traditional red jacket of the volunteer fire department stood bellowing orders by the entrance of what was once the driveway of this fine summer residence. His brass buttons gleamed a burnt copper in the light of the fire. This was Clayton Stringer.
“Mr. Paxton, sir a lot more water is needed,” he said. “Blast it all man, are we still relying on buckets in eighteen-ten? Good Lord, it will never subside at this rate.”
A young man, dressed similarly but with the addition of a large black bowtie, sprinted past hauling two buckets weighing heavy with water and silt. He set one down at his feet and held the handle of the other between his two hands, then he spun around and flung his load into the flames. The fizzle and hiss of the cold water hitting the crackling wood was all but lost as the towering inferno blazed on. Discarding the empty bucket, he reached for the second, but again his actions barely even raised a wisp of steam. He collected the buckets and dashed back past Clayton who was still screaming for all he was worth.
“Where the blazes is that engine?” Clayton was shouting now.
A young boy started jumping up and down in excitement, pointing to something moving in the distance. “I see her! I see her! It’s Bessie!”
As Clayton squinted, a large shire horse came into view pounding down the street. A pump and engine were rattling and careering along behind her on an old wooden cart.
“Thank the good Lord,” he muttered to himself.
But she had arrived much too late.
A terrifying scream came from the crowd, but it was quickly stifled by an earth-shattering boom signaling that the fire had reached a gas supply pipe. The windows of the lower floor blew, spewing out a mixture of shattered glass and burning debris. Clayton threw himself to the ground and covered his head with his hands as bits of charred wood and metal clanged and clinked off his protective hat. With a yell, three men carrying a large hose pushed past the crowds of people who were now fleeing in the opposite direction, terrified by the blast and wanting to get to safety.
Clayton got back on his feet and began to give the order to two hefty men manning the pump. “On my mark gentlemen and heave…”
The great pump wheezed into action. The two red and black-clad firefighters heaved and pushed at the heavy engine using the swaying weight of their bodies to keep a steady rhythm. The water slowly began to be sucked up into the hose and fed down to the men waiting in front of the desecrated remains. Clayton heaved a hefty sigh as he watched the water spewing forth, calming, cleansing and finally controlling the blaze. A nasty smell of singed timbers and wet ashes wafted through the air, tickling each nose with its foul stench.
A figure made her way gingerly up towards Clayton holding her handkerchief to her nose in a vain attempt to keep any impurities in the air from reaching her sense of smell. Clayton immediately reached out to take her elbow, guiding her back the way she had come and away from the distressing wreckage.
“My dear, this really is no place for a lady,” Clayton told her. “Please stand clear until the flames have subsided. It is a blessing that none were hurt and we should not want a casualty now.”
The lady, clearly shaken and in terrible shock, tried to speak. Her words muffled by her handkerchief. “But… Mr. and Mrs. Johnson sir,” she finally said.
He stopped as she gripped his arm, her swoon took her legs out from underneath her and a little sob escaped her lips giving away her grief. Clayton turned to a young boy hanging around the engine horse. The young boy appeared to be desperately trying to get the horse to notice him.
“You there!” Clayton called to him. “Kindly fetch me two buckets and I shall thank you to leave my horse be.”
The boy jumped and ran into the street and grabbed two buckets, delighted to be involved in the big event. “Here’s your buckets mister, shall I fill ‘em with water for you?” he asked, a huge grin plastered across his dirty face.
Clayton, still clutching the arm of the grief-stricken woman, huffed his annoyance at the plucky youngster. “Certainly not,” he replied gruffly. “Set them here, upturned if you would,” he pointed to the floor just in front of them with the toe of his boot.
The boy did as he was told, a baffled look on his face. His expression seemed to say: Why on earth would he want them upside down?
"Out of the way child, this lady has been taken ill. Find a physician," Clayton ordered as he carefully maneuvered his charge onto one of the upturned buckets. He seated himself on the other and proceeded to tap her lightly on each cheek as he rummaged in his belt pouch for a bottle of smelling salts.
The child raced off full of self-importance, pleased that there might actually be an emergency after all and he would get to play a part. Clayton held the smelling salts bottle under the nose of the semi-conscious woman moving it back and forth in an attempt to rouse her.
“Now ma’am there’s no need to take on so; no one was hurt. The property is a summer residence I believe so the chances are good that it was empty.”
Her eyelids flickered as she started to come around. She opened her eyes wide and gripped Clayton’s arm again. “Sir, Mr. and Mrs. Johnson. Where are Mr. and Mrs. Johnson?”
Clayton took her hand and placed it carefully on top of the other and rested them in her lap. “Now, now, explain to me quietly and calmly. Let us start by telling me first whom you are and then we shall move on to Mr. and Mrs. Johnson.”
The lady choked back a sob and, shaking her head, she tried to compose herself. “Sir,” she started shakily her voice soft and faint. “I am Mrs. Cartwright and I am in the employ of Mr. and Mrs. Johnson. I am charged with keeping the house clean and livable in their absence,” she stopped and moved her watery, tear-soaked eyes up to look at Clayton.
“Sir,” she continued, “they arrived this very afternoon.”
A look of horror washed over Clayton’s face as the realization of Mrs. Cartwright’s words took hold. He left her still sobbing on her makeshift seat and dashed back to the house. The fire had now gone out and had left the house a burned-out shell which was still smoking and cracking as the wood shifted and eased itself, cooling down after the extreme heat of the fire. He grabbed one of his firefighters and pulled him to one side.
“Don your gloves and steel yourself, hardy Mr. Paxton. I’ve just been informed that two people were in residence.”
Mr. Henry Paxton hung his head. This was the part of the job he hated most. They optimistically called it searching for survivors but casting his eyes across at the desolate scene, eerily silent and still, he knew in his heart that all they were likely to find were bodies. A ripple of whispered voices ran around what was left of the crowd of horror-struck onlookers as Clayton and Henry carefully picked their way through the wreckage looking for anything that might still be counted among the living.
"Sit still child. Honestly, if the good Lord had wanted us all to be jack in the boxes he would have put springs on our bottoms and cushions on our heads."
Clara Johnson's young governess gently unrolled the wet rags and paper that held each lock of Clara's golden hair tightly in place. Clara flinched as another perfect ringlet was released from its pent-up state and fell down to bounce in front of her pretty pale blue eyes.
“But it’s hurting me, Nursie,” she complained as once again she shifted uncomfortably on her stool.
"Well, your mother requested ringlets Clara so ringlets you shall have. And they look so pretty on you."
Clara had been in the care of Miss Orm since her birth five years previously and no one was more adored nor more precious to Miss Amelia Orm as Clara was. Clara was a bright, young, and happy little girl. She was also the spitting image of her beautiful mother with thick golden curls, full pink lips, and sky-blue eyes, which Amelia affectionately called, ‘laughing eyes'.
The last curl was unfurled and Amelia picked up the twists of paper and rags and, after kissing the top of Clara’s head by way of an apology, sent her out into the nursery to play.
“There we are Clara Elizabeth all done. Am I forgiven?”
Clara turned and ran back to her beloved governess, her arms stretched wide embracing Amelia in a warm hug. "Oh, Nursie you know you are."
And with that, she ran off. Eager to see how Mr. Flopsy and Mrs. Mop were getting on with their tea things. Amelia smiled to herself as she watched the little girl serving tea to her dolls. Sadly, their cheery morning was cut short by an unexpected ringing of the front doorbell.
Miss Nancy Whigg, the Johnson’s housekeeper, pulled open the heavy wooden door of the grand Charleston house to find a very lavishly suited young gentleman accompanied by an officer of the law. She directed her attention to the policeman as suspicion and panic were already starting to form in her stomach.
"Can I help you, officer?" she enquired politely. "I'm afraid the master is currently holidaying with Mrs. Johnson, but we are expecting them back tomorrow."
The policeman raised a hand stopping her full flow. “I’m afraid this is a matter of some delicacy ma’am. It may be better if we step inside.”
Nancy moved back to let them in closing the door behind them and giving a quick warning glance to the peering faces of their neighbors across the street. Nosy Rosetta Bragstock, she thought bitterly, it’ll be all over town by dinnertime. She put Rosetta to the back of her mind, promising her a public snubbing the next time they met. She turned her attention back to the two men waiting in the lobby and motioned for them to go through to the parlor.
“If you’d like to take a seat through there Mr. erm…” she stopped, leaving her sentence hanging in mid-air as a reminder to the two gentlemen that she still didn’t know who they were.
“I’m dreadfully sorry ma’am, I’m Officer Walker.” He removed his helmet and gestured towards his companion. “And this is Mr. Samuel Farnsworth.”
On hearing his name Samuel too removed his light brown bowler hat and bowed slightly. “How do you do?” he stammered.
Samuel was a nervous man by nature but this visit was making him particularly uneasy and his stomach was beginning to feel unwell. Nancy gave them both a thin-lipped smile and again nodded towards the parlor door.
“Very good I shall inform Miss Orm of your arrival.”
Samuel looked up, startled. “Miss Orm? So sorry, w-w-who is this ‘Miss Orm’?”
"Miss Orm is the Johnson's governess sir, as I already informed you, Mr. and Mrs. Johnson are away and, in their absence, all dealings are with Miss Orm." With that, she turned on her heel and marched off up the stairs to find Amelia, a feeling of discomfort and dread looming over her. She rapped smartly on the nursery door.
Amelia came to the door holding a piece of chalk in one hand and a block of slate in the other. The letter ‘D’ clearly etched out in white chalk emblazoned across its face.
“Yes Nancy, we were just practicing letters,” she answered happily, but her cheery smile faded as she looked at Nancy’s frowning face.
“There’s a police officer and a Mr. Farnsworth waiting in the parlor,” she replied, dropping her voice so as not to alarm Clara.
Amelia nodded and turned to call back into the room. “Clara dear I’m just going with Nancy as I have a visitor. Make sure that Mr. Flopsy practices his letters neatly in my absence, won’t you?”
Nancy allowed herself a little smile as she thought about how much Amelia suited her job. She remembered thinking to herself when Clara was born that she really hoped that Mrs. Johnson wouldn't pick a stuffy old nurse for her. She cast her mind back to the day Miss Orm had arrived. She had expected a thin, scary, old crone with a hooked nose and thin lips who hardly ever smiled. But when the young, willowy creature with the warm smile and deep, soft brown eyes had stepped out of the coach, Nancy knew then that they had been truly blessed with sweet, kind-hearted Amelia.
Clara's reply filtered back from somewhere inside the room. “Of course, Nursie.”
Amelia quickly checked her glossy, black hair was still secured in its tight bun before closing the door and following Nancy downstairs, apprehensive as to what a police officer would want with them. Crossing the room, she introduced herself smiling warmly at the two waiting gentlemen.
"Sorry to have kept you, gentlemen. I'm Miss Amelia Orm. I deal with family matters in the absence of Mr. and Mrs. Johnson."
The two men rose from their seats waiting for Amelia to settle herself before lowering themselves back down. Officer Walker cleared his throat.
"I'm sorry to have to inform you, ma'am of a terrible accident that befell the summer residence of Mr. and Mrs. Johnson the night before last," he darted his eyes up to look at Amelia. All the color had drained from her face. He dropped his eyes back to his hands and pressed on with what he had been dreading all morning.
"And that Mr. and Mrs. Johnson perished, along with their property at approximately 11:35 P.M. last Friday evening." He paused for a breath before continuing, "The volunteer fire department of Georgetown do not suspect any foul play ma'am and have informed us that the fire was likely caused by a faulty gas lamp."
Now that his speech was out at last, he looked at Amelia expecting her to have broken down or at worst, fainted. But she sat, composed and elegant, contemplating what to say next. After what seemed to Officer Walker like an age she finally broke the silence.
"Thank you, officer," she said, her voice cool and tempered. “I realize how difficult imparting such terrible news must have been for you and I appreciate your coming in person.”
This was true as Amelia felt that to have read such a thing in a letter would’ve been too awful and cold for her to bear. She looked down at her hands clasped in her lap thinking how cruel and unfair life was that her beloved Clara was now orphaned. Samuel let out a nervous cough alerting Amelia to his presence.
“Forgive me dear lady but there, erm, are some i-important matters we must discuss with you. I realize of course that, erm, this is not the most, erm…” He stopped and glared earnestly at Officer Walker for help.
Amelia cut in. “Yes, yes I understand sir please continue. It is, as you say important.”
Her clean, emotionless tones were doing nothing to calm poor Samuel’s nerves and for a moment he wondered whether it would’ve been better had Amelia taken on in sobs and tears. He reached for his case.
“I believe there is a child, a, erm, d-daughter? One, C-Clara Eliza-beth Johnson?”
Amelia looked at him and for a moment a flash of emotion passed across her passive eyes and she swore to herself that whatever else, she would see to it that nothing but the greatest good was to happen to her Clara.
"Yes, that's quite correct. She is a five-year-old infant and is currently in my care."
Samuel nearly flinched at the look of defiance in her eyes. He looked away and busied himself with his papers. "She, erm, that is to say, Mr. Johnson left us a letter, erm, m-ma'am," he stuttered his way through his sentence as he fished out a well-fingered paper and handed it to Amelia. She took it from him as calmly as she could.
“Forgive me for appearing rude sir, but who are you?”
This completely threw poor Samuel who gripped his case and cast pleading glances at Officer Walker who, taking the cue, cut in.
"Pardon me ma'am this is Mr. Farnsworth. He is your late employer's lawyer."
Amelia smiled a cold smile at Samuel, any trace of warmth and cheer form her previous demeanor now gone. She looked down and read the letter.
July fifteenth, 1805
I, Willis Edward Johnson being of sound body and mind do hereby transfer legal guardianship of my only daughter Clara Elizabeth, if in the unfortunate instance that anything should happen to myself or my wife Mrs. Joslyn Cornelia Johnson, to the Right Honorable Reverend Anthony Charles Cavendish and his wife Mrs. Cora Isabelle Cavendish.
And it is my fond wish that our faithful family retainer Miss Amelia Constance Orm, if still in our employ, not be removed from her post as governess to Clara.
Amelia finished reading the letter and carefully handed it back to Samuel who immediately pulled out an envelope.
“All the p-p-possessions and, err, p-property belonging to Mr. Johnson, are now to be held in a, erm trust, until Clara should turn, erm, tw-twenty-one or sh-should take a husband. Whichever event should occur first.” He flicked through the pages of Mr. Johnson’s will nervously, wishing that this could be over. “Y-you of course, a-and the staff have been re-remembered in the will and all settlements owing w-will be paid in due course.”
He stood to leave, anxious to be as far away as possible. Preferably with a bottle of bourbon. Taking this as a cue Amelia rose from her seat.
"Thank you, gentlemen. As I'm sure you can appreciate there are matters that I must now attend to." She crossed the room and pressed the bell push to alert Nancy. "Miss Whigg will see you out."
She left Officer Walker and Samuel with Nancy and slowly walked up the stairs, unsure of what to say to Clara. She pulled herself up to her full height, pushed her shoulders back and entered the nursery.
“Goodness me things never change,” Amelia commented as she pulled Clara’s hair up into a neat roll and pinned it there while Clara flinched and fussed. “It doesn’t seem like five minutes since I was putting your hair in ringlets, let alone thirteen years.”
Clara smiled warmly at Amelia. She no longer thought of her as her governess, but more her closest friend. “Oh, but Nursie,” she teased, “it’s hurting me.”
The two friends giggled as Amelia helped Clara to prepare for her guests waiting downstairs on the back lawn. Mr. Cavendish had gathered together some of his closest friends and family to help Clara to celebrate the transition into adulthood: her eighteenth birthday.
The Reverend Cavendish had been very good to Clara. He had taken her in and loved her as if she was his own daughter. He had wanted this to be a double celebration, announcing her engagement to his son Lawrence, but as far as Clara knew Lawrence had been so busy with his historic endeavors that he had not found the time to formally propose to her.
For as long as Clara could remember there had been talk of her marriage to Lawrence with Mr. Cavendish discussing the subject at length with Amelia on numerous occasions. Clara smiled at her reflection in the mirror. A slender, sylph-like, young woman smiled back at her. It was odd for her to think of herself as anything other than Lawrence’s future bride for she had heard it so many times.
Amelia glanced at her suddenly thinking that no one had ever actually asked Clara if she wanted to be married to Lawrence. It had just been mentioned one day and Clara hadn’t questioned it, but now she had another job to do: play hostess.
“Right then, Miss Clara Elizabeth, stand and let me look at you.”
Clara stood as Amelia admired her handiwork occasionally hitching up her petticoat or smoothing down a hem. She stopped and clicked her tongue in annoyance at the stray hair that refused to stay in place. She groped for another hairpin from the china pot on Clara's dresser. Perhaps she was being a little too fussy this afternoon, but her work was on show to extended members of the Cavendish family and she wanted them both to make a good impression.
Clara tittered. “Dear, sweet Amelia, you always make such a fuss of me.”
Amelia stood back, finally satisfied. “There, I believe you are all ready.” She turned to pick up her purse and parasol just as a soft tap came at the door.
A male voice called out, “Clara? Are you ready?”
Amelia crossed the room to answer the door. “Good morning Mr. Cavendish she is all ready. If you wish to escort her down to the garden I shall follow along behind.”
“Of course, ma’am.”
Lawrence stood in the doorway looking stiff and awkward. His glasses were pushed up onto his head revealing his piercing silver-grey eyes, half-hidden beneath his dark wavy hair and his best suit draped over his tall, thin frame making it look ill-fitting and uncomfortable. But this was hardly surprising, Lawrence had always been far happier stripped down to his shirt and flannel pants, pouring over dusty old artifacts. Formal occasions bored him rigid and he had always thought parties rather dull and silly. However, had he not agreed, his father would've plagued him all evening and again the following day. Lawrence longed to get back to cataloging and recording his beloved antiquities.
At least this way he could spend an entire uninterrupted day with his work. And anyway, he had invited Professor Baxter and the delightful Sophie so at least he should have someone to talk to about far more important matters than bonnets and parasols. He offered his arm to Clara begrudgingly. If he had to do this damned silly thing he would rather get it over and done with as quickly as possible.
Clara stifled a giggle as Amelia raised an eyebrow, giving Lawrence a reproachful look. “Begging your pardon Mr. Cavendish but are you addressing Miss Johnson?”
Clara smiled as she mistook Lawrence’s look of enraged annoyance for nervous embarrassment. He cast his eyes up to the ceiling in a gesture of exasperation. "My apologies ma'am." He turned to Clara bowing stiffly in an over exaggerated gesture that hadn't gone unnoticed by Amelia. "Please allow me to escort you, Miss Johnson."
Beaming at Lawrence’s apparent good humor Clara graciously took his arm and the odd little party of three made their way downstairs to mingle with Clara’s guests.
As they reached the entrance hallway Lawrence leaned into Clara to whisper in her ear. “You don’t like all this stuff and nonsense, do you? Do you not find it all a tad…” He paused thinking of a suitable word. “Restrictive?”
Clara moved her eyes down to look at her gloved hand and then back up to Lawrence. “I would not wish to offend the generosity shown to me by Uncle Anthony,” she replied.
Lawrence winked at her. “What a sweet little thing you are Clara Johnson, but I fear that you will find this party awfully dull.”
They resumed their pace and crossed the airy entrance and out towards the double doors leading to the yard. Entering the garden, the Reverend Cavendish beamed proudly at his young son walking with Clara on his arm. But his pride soon turned to annoyance as he watched Lawrence seat Clara beside a distant aunt of his and immediately leave the garden.
“Goodness me how lovely you are Miss Johnson,” the Cavendish aunt said as she leaned over and squinted at Clara through old, milky white eyes. "I remember your dear mother, there's a lot of her in you." She sat back, observing the party.
For a while, neither of them spoke. But just as Clara was about to turn to matters pertaining to the health of her companion, the ancient lady spoke again.
“Anthony tells me you are to marry Lawrence?”
"Yes ma'am," Clara replied. She expected a hearty congratulations, or perhaps the wisdom of a long-married woman on the subject of men, something which Clara herself had very little knowledge of at all. But instead, the aging matriarchic figure asked her if Lawrence looks at her. Clara thought this very odd, of course, he had looked at her. He had seen her almost daily for the most part of her life.
Confused, Clara leaned closer to her strange interlocutor so as to hear her a little better. “I’m afraid you have me at a loss ma’am.”
The elderly aunt brought her face as close to Clara’s as she could. "You think about it, my girl."
Clara was about to ask her to explain what she had meant a little more when Anthony suddenly appeared. A stout man of good standing, the Reverend Anthony Cavendish had a happy, if somewhat tired face. The many lines a testament to the long hours he had spent raising both Lawrence and Clara since the death of his beloved wife, Cora. To speak nothing of the problems of his parishioners that he had both listened to and tried to solve.
"Ah! There you are, Clara. Do excuse us Aunt Lucy, won't you? But there are some friends who have expressed an interest in Miss Johnson." With this, Anthony pulled Clara up by the elbow and whisked her away to the other side of the garden to introduce her to a cousin and his wife who had traveled all the way from Wisconsin just to meet her. "Clara this is a cousin of Cora's, Mr. Heeley and his wife."
Mr. Heeley nodded his head slightly in Clara’s direction. "Delighted to meet you, Miss Johnson. You are set to marry Lawrence I believe?”
Mr. Heeley had a big booming voice and a beard to match. His wife Rebecca stood demurely at his side. Smiling when he smiled, laughing when he laughed but otherwise staying absolutely silent and Clara began to feel a little uncomfortable at what might be expected of her as Lawrence's wife. She smiled warmly at the Heeley's.
“Yes sir,” she replied.
“Capital. Capital. Where is young Lawrence? He should be here introducing you to his family and friends.”
Clara scanned the garden looking for Lawrence. But when she found him he was in active conversation with a pipe-smoking man in a tatty morning jacket on the other side of the garden. “I believe he is otherwise engaged sir,” Clara motioned to where Lawrence was now sitting, beside a small, plump, plain looking girl, probably around her own age. The three of them were deep in conversation.
She wondered if perhaps Mr. Heeley was right and that Lawrence should be spending the afternoon proudly showing off his fiancée. She suddenly had a queasy and uneasy feeling in her stomach.
"Ah, so he is. Excuse me, Miss Johnson." He turned to his wife. "Rebecca?"
And without a word to Clara, she trotted off behind her husband. Clara watched her go. Again, stopping when he stopped, laughing when he laughed but never saying a word to anyone.
"Yes, it is a little bizarre isn't it?" A voice behind Clara made her spin round coming face to face with Amelia.
She nodded in response.
"Are you enjoying yourself, dearest?" Amelia asked. Amelia knew Clara better than anyone and she could tell that something wasn’t right.
Clara, not wishing to offend Anthony, gave Amelia her best smile. “Of course. Almost everyone knows of my engagement to Lawrence and they all seem very friendly and welcoming,” she trailed off as she noticed Amelia looking over in Lawrence’s direction. She too had noticed how friendly the girl sitting beside him was.
Making a decision, she took Clara by the arm. "Come along Clara. I believe it is time we learned who Lawrence's companions actually are." She escorted Clara over towards Lawrence and his two guests. As they neared they could hear Lawrence chattering away about a large building full of artifacts and antiquities from bygone years.
“And people will flock to see things that no one has set eyes on for decades, centuries in some cases. What do you think professor?”
The man in the tatty jacket took his pipe from his mouth and scratched his head. “My dear boy it is of such things as dreams are made surely. And open for general public viewing you say?” He stopped to bash the loose leaves of tobacco from his pipe before sliding it into his jacket pocket. “It would be a major feat if it could actually be achieved.”
Amelia saw her opportunity and took it. "Pardon our rude intrusion, Mr. Cavendish, however, Reverend Cavendish has expressed a wish that all guests have a glass to partake in toasting the cake."
Lawrence grimaced. Another silly tradition that didn't mean anything. Clara and Amelia stood waiting for Lawrence to introduce them but instead, he excused himself from the conversation and stomped off in the direction of the drinks. Amelia turned to the girl who was awkwardly sitting on her chair, gazing after Lawrence.
“Excuse me my dear, but I must compliment you on your exquisite dress. I have been admiring it all afternoon.”
The girl’s cheeks filled with color as she smiled, lighting up her smooth, round face and causing Clara to smile too. "Thank you, ma'am, do you really like it?"
Amelia treated her to one of her warm smiles. The kind of smile she would reserve for little five-year-old Clara when she had done well with her spellings, or eaten all of her dinner. “I think it sets off your lovely green eyes beautifully,” she replied.
This seemed to please the girl prompting the pipe smoking gentleman to speak.
"Yes, Sophie has always taken after her mother," he said, a look of pride crossing his face. He bowed lightly to the ladies. "Forgive me dear ladies, how rude of me. I'm Professor Baxter, formerly of the University of South Carolina."
Clara smiled. “The same institution that Lawrence attended?” she asked, delighted to find some common ground at last.
"The very same." Professor Baxter gestured towards Lawrence who was coming back holding a tray of five glasses of orange juice. "I'm afraid we know very little about Lawrence's family, my dear, as he talks incessantly of tombs and treasures lost beneath the sea eons ago."
Clara laughed. “Yes, that does sound very much like Lawrence.”
Sophie grinned at Clara. “You and your brother are very alike. I shall look forward to getting to know you better,” she said.
Just as Clara was about to question Sophie’s statement, Lawrence thrust a glass into the hands of the professor and Sophie. “I meant to ask Professor, how are you finding your new post at the College of Charleston?” Lawrence asked, taking a large gulp of orange juice.
The old professor smiled. “Oh, fine dear boy, fine. I much prefer our residence in Charleston to the cramped lodgings of the horseshoe building in Columbia.” He glanced down at Sophie who nodded enthusiastically. “But it has come a little too late for your good self I fear,” he added.
Clara looked confused. “Pardon my ignorance Professor Baxter, but why do you feel that it has come too late for Lawrence?” she asked.
The professor threw back his head in a hearty laugh. “Because my dear,” he explained, “Lawrence would have easily been able to travel from home had the college offered studies in archeology, and would not have had to live in cheap lodgings and survive on traditionally terrible student fare.” He chuckled.
"I always quite enjoyed my on-campus meals. I feel I fared far better than William Turner who spent the entire duration of his studies eating nothing more than cheese," Lawrence winked at Sophie who blushed and giggled. He turned his attention to Clara. “I hardly came home pallid and ill, did I? Or perhaps you viewed me as a half-starved, mad-man with crazy hair.” He ran his fingers through his thick, wavy hair making it stick out in odd directions as he pulled a funny face making both Clara and Sophie giggle.
Amelia rolled her eyes. "Mr. Cavendish—" she started but was unable to finish.
Anthony announced the traditional toasting of the birthday cake. “Miss Johnson, if you would be so kind as to cut the first slice?”
Clara giggled, her earlier conversation with Sophie temporarily forgotten as she took the cake slice from the cook and slid it into the cake. Anthony raised his glass in the air prompting his guests to follow suit.
“Many happy returns to Clara,” he announced proudly, leading the party into a unified cheer.
Getting down from the raised dais that had been used as a stage for the occasion, Anthony Cavendish went in search of his son leaving his cook, Mrs. Dimbleby, to share out the cake. Mr. Heeley and his strange wife Rebecca moved to intercept him as he made a beeline for Lawrence and his Professor.
“Anthony,” the large man boomed. “We have a business proposition for young Lawrence. Haven’t we Rebecca?” He turned to his wife who nodded solemnly.
“Business proposition,” she repeated dutifully.
Anthony smiled, Robert Heeley could talk and talk. His word with Lawrence would have to wait. "Robert, of course, my dear fellow. My apologies that I did not have time to speak with you properly earlier. It is nice to see you here sir, and your good lady wife. How are you Rebecca, my dear?"
Rebecca looked anxiously at her husband, clearly unsure as to what to say.
"She's fine." Robert waved his hand in the direction of his wife, dismissing the question as trivial. "I have been speaking with young Lawrence with regards to possibly funding his new venture, assuming of course that a moderate percentage of the ticket price were to find its way into my possession. He informs me that you, in fact, are in charge of the financing of this project and that any investment should be discussed with your very good self."
Anthony mentally shook the last of the booming tones from his ears as he prepared his response. “Mr. Heeley, Robert sir, that is a generous offer indeed. If you should like to step into my study after supper we shall discuss the matter further. As I am certain you can appreciate, a birthday celebration is hardly the suitable atmosphere for talk of business.” Anthony extended his hand out to Robert who took it and heartily pumped it up and down.
“Capital dear fellow, capital. I shall look forward to it earnestly,” Robert exclaimed.
Rebecca, who had been standing silently beside her husband, suddenly let out a small gasp. Her hand flew to her mouth.
“Rebecca, what is the matter with you woman? Can you not see I am talking?” But before he could berate her further, a loud voice screeched across the garden.
“Do excuse me Robert, Rebecca.” He raced over to where Lawrence appeared to be being assaulted by an overtly irate elderly woman, beckoning to his cook as he did so.
“And another thing my lad, you do not speak ill of the dead! May you be struck down where you stand.”
Mrs. Dimbleby took the arm of the woman and led her inside. “Come with me Aunt Ermentrude and I shall find you a small tot of brandy,” she said, leaving Anthony to deal with Lawrence.
“I’ve never, not in all my days ever… Displaying unnecessaries like that? It’s disgraceful, it’s blasphemous, it’s abhorrent…” Aunt Ermentrude was gently taken to the Orangery where she could sit and calm down in the company of a very fine bottle of Anthony Cavendish’s best brandy.
Anthony practically pushed Lawrence into his study closing the door firmly behind him. He guided his son into an empty chair before seating himself behind his desk. He leaned forward placing his elbows on his desk for support.
“What did you say to your great aunt?” His voice was calm and deliberate which told Lawrence all he needed to know. He was in trouble and he needed to tread very carefully.
"Father, I honestly do not know what she is so upset about. She asked me about my plans and I simply furnished her with an answer." This, after all, was the truth, it wasn't his fault that Ermentrude was old and set in her ways. People needed to see what life was like before them. Studying the great artifacts of history could help people discover new and better ways of doing things. Or even discover new things altogether. This was the future, this was his vision and if he had to tread on the toes of a few old ‘fuddy-duddy’ women to achieve it, then so be it.
Anthony leaned further towards his son, his eyes narrowing behind his spectacles. “What exactly did you say to her?”
Lawrence shrugged. “All I said was that we had just had a very interesting artifact that had recently come to us for display in the museum that tells us a lot about how our ancestors might’ve coped with family planning.”
Anthony let out a loud sigh as he pinched the bridge of his nose. Desperately trying to ward off the headache he could feel coming on and indeed always did when having these types of conversations with Lawrence. "And what, pray tell, was the artifact in question?" he asked tentatively, not at all sure he wanted to learn the answer.
At this point, Lawrence had the decency to look a little embarrassed. He dropped his eyes as he felt the hot blush of color fill his cheeks. “A chastity belt,” he muttered almost inaudibly.
Anthony snapped his head up to glare at his son, praying that he hadn’t heard what he thought he had. “I beg your pardon?” he hissed. His face turning crimson
Lawrence, admitting defeat and looking his father squarely in the eye replied. "I said a chastity belt, Father."
Anthony rose from his chair his face turning purple with a mixture of embarrassment and rage. “How dare you bring an item of that nature into this house. Is this what that museum of yours is to be filled with is it? Is this what your vision entails is it? Debauchery?”
Aunt Ermentrude smiled faintly to herself as Anthony’s bellowed words echoed through the house.
"Father, Father, please! My museum is to be a place of learning, of paying homage to the great thinkers, innovators, and geniuses of a bygone era. The chastity…"
Anthony’s voice reached fever pitch as he roared across Lawrence’s explanation. "If you dare to utter the name of that disgusting piece of filth again I shall remove you from my house with my bare hands." He placed both his hands on his desk, breathing hard as he tried his best to calm down. "I have never been so embarrassed and ashamed in all my life Lawrence Cavendish. I have always held my head high in this town. A highly respected preacher with wholesome Christian values. But you are on the path to single-handedly ruining my reputation."
Lawrence looked dismayed. “Father, please, this was never my intention! I have always regarded you as a fine upstanding Christian. I would never wish to bring any such embarrassment upon you or to tarnish your good name.”
Anthony sank down into his chair. His temper subsided and his energy spent. He regarded his son taking in the earnest and genuine expression of despair etched across his young face.
“I can see by your expression that what you say is the truth and I thank you for it. I blame myself. Your dear mother, may she rest in peace, and I have always allowed you the freedom to choose your own path and I have not ever imposed upon you the restrictions I ought to have done.” He stopped and turned to look out of the study window before continuing, “I have, in a word, spoilt you.”
Lawrence rose from his seat and crossed to the window to join his father. “No Father, you have always done your best to raise both myself and my sister to have the same values as yourself and we are forever grateful. As a matter of fact, Clara was only saying this very morning that she was grateful for all that you have done.”
Anthony surveyed the party guests milling around his garden. "Look at all the happy faces, Lawrence. Everyone is here to wish Clara well and to offer their congratulations for your union to her."
Lawrence sighed and stomped back to his seat. "Father, please. Not this again. I have no intention of marrying Clara."
Anthony whipped round. “What’s that?”
Lawrence continued. “You have raised us as brother and sister. I love Clara dearly and I want to see her happy Father, but I’m not the man for her.”
Anthony could feel his temper rising again, he tried his best to keep it at bay. “But surely you can see that this is God’s will?”
Lawrence scoffed. “How is it God’s will Father? Because she was sent to us after her parents’ untimely passing? I do not see how raising Clara as my sister could possibly mean that we should be married?”
Anthony could see that he would need to explain a little further to his son. “My child. I speak with the good Lord every day. It is my job to interpret his wishes through the actions that he has us perform throughout our lives.” He lowered himself back down into his chair.
“When Clara’s mother and father were blessed, it was a full two years after their union in the house of God. Everyone was beginning to feel that perhaps God had other plans for them than to start a family. But when Mrs. Johnson fell pregnant, Willis came to me and I made a promise to him and in the eyes of God.” He paused to push his spectacles back up the bridge of his nose. “I gave my solemn oath that if anything should happen to either of them I would raise Clara as my own and take care of her future.”
Lawrence cut in. “But that does not necessarily mean that she should be married to me…” he trailed off, catching sight of Anthony’s expression.
“You were entering your fifth year when Clara was finally born. Willis came to me again and we discussed at length the possibility of joining the two families. I intend to honor his wishes and I expect you to do the same.”
Lawrence was at a loss for words. Eventually, he found his voice and again beseeched his father. “But surely you would prefer Clara to be with someone who truly loves her? Someone who will make her happy Father?”
Anthony nodded his head. “Indeed, I do sir and I expect you to do your utmost to see to it that Clara is well kept. The wedding is planned for two weeks following your twenty-fifth birthday. I shall expect you to have opened your museum and be turning a tidy profit by this date. Enough in fact to have a home ready for yourself and Clara.”
Lawrence rose from his seat, desperation lacing his voice. “But Father I cannot marry Clara.”
Anthony could feel his temper raising once more. He desperately tried to keep his emotions stable. He had a garden full of guests that he did not want overhearing this conversation. “And why not? What good reason could you have for not honoring the wishes of your father?”
Lawrence swallowed hard. “Because I have feelings for another and I would rather myself dead than hurt my beloved Sophie!” At this Lawrence tore across the study and opened the door to leave.
Anthony called after him. “If you defy me in this Lawrence, I will cut off all financial aid to the museum.”
Lawrence froze his hand still on the door handle before throwing the door open fully and storming out into the hall. Just as Clara emerged from the Orangery after having spoken briefly with Aunt Ermentrude, seemingly oblivious to the entire chastity belt debacle. But Clara, who would never condone the act of listening in at keyholes, had heard far more than Anthony Cavendish had intended. She made up her mind to seek Amelia’s advice that evening when the two ladies retired to their side of the house.
Lawrence was somewhat surprised to see Clara, and, wishing to avoid another unpleasant confrontation with his great-aunt, took her by the arm and sped her down the hallway towards the kitchen.
“Lawrence, this is most irregular. Why are we absconding to the kitchen? The cake is in the garden and cook has cut more than enough for everyone to have their fill.”
“I have little interest in the cake Clara, not nearly as much as in the avoidance of the beastly and deeply unpleasant Great Aunt Ermentrude.”
Clara, shocked and a little taken aback by Lawrence’s bluntness let out a nervous giggle. “You shouldn’t say such things about your great aunt, she seems perfectly charming to me.”
"You were not on the end of her sharp tongue," replied Lawrence as he swept Clara past the kitchen sink and out through the servant's door into the yard.
“Really Lawrence, all this to avoid making a simple apology? It does all seem rather excessive.”
Lawrence grinned at her.
"Fun though eh Clara? Just like when we were children and cook would turn us out into the yard for stealing cherries from the pantry?" He darted back inside and came out again a moment later. "Close your eyes," he ordered, his mouth full. Clara did as she was bid and Lawrence popped a small, juicy cherry into her mouth.
Clara giggled. “Oh, Lawrence, you can be so amusing at times.”
He smiled at her and, once again taking her by the arm, escorted her back through the yard and into the party.
Thank you for reading the first 2 Chapters of my Upcoming Novel "The Courageous Bride of Charleston"! Loved what you've read? Read my full novel on Amazon!
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