Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Let Me Entertain You: A Chapter of My Novel

Just a note: I will be going out of town for a few days, so I probably won't have the next Earth's Children critique up until Sunday at the earliest.  Until then, I thought perhaps there might be some out there *sound of crickets* who would be interested in reading a chapter of my own novel.  I recently learned that the publishing person I sent it to has not read it yet, which is frustrating but not surprising, since people in that industry are so busy.  Hopefully she will get to it soon, and in the meantime, I would love any feedback on what I've posted -- real feedback, not spam feedback, please.  You can either post below or click on the About Me: Wild Blogger link and hit Email.

As I mentioned before, the novel is set in 1860s Britain, and is very much in the "country house" genre.  However, I think there is more to it than massive skirts and horse-drawn carriages.

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Mount Edgecumbe House, taken by Philip Halling 

Isabella Warpole’s funeral was unlike any other in recent memory.

Thousands of mourners lined both sides of the procession route, as if waiting for royalty to pass.  The entire town of Upper Rising shut down.  All shop windows were dark as the black hearse made its way down the narrow high street, yards of crepe raining down from overhead.  There was hardly a person in attendance not wearing a black dress, or an arm band, or a band of crepe on his hat.  Together, they watched six black horses trot past, pulling the hearse.  Next came the Warpole carriage, followed closely by the St. John carriage.  Then came a long line of empty carriages as far as the eye could see, each representing a family that could not attend, but wanted to pay their respects.

The procession wound its way through the town, then made its way to the next town, then the next.  Everywhere, the reactions were the same, the pain just as fresh.  Hours must have passed before the hearse finally returned to the parish church for the ceremony.  By the time the dead woman’s coffin was ushered away to the family vault, there was not a dry eye in the church.  Elizabeth Brimley had no doubt that the entire funeral was a magnificent affair.

If only she could have seen it.         

Women did not attend funerals.  At least, not women of her class.  Not even when her husband was the one presiding over the ceremony and the dead woman was her sister.  Elizabeth had considered fighting this unspoken edict, but in the end gave in, fearing that the still-fresh grief from Bella’s death would cause her to break down.  So instead, she sat and prayed in a darkened room with her daughters, her nieces and young nephews, and her other sisters. 

Yet as she heard about the funeral in bits and pieces from lower class women who attended, Elizabeth regretted her decision.  Those women had loved Bella, too, but no one thought that they were too frail to attend a funeral.  Now Elizabeth felt as though they had shared something intimate with her sister, whilst she remained on the outside.  As she made her way from house to house as part of her parish rounds, Elizabeth heard story after story about Bella.  How she had nursed one family’s children back to health from influenza.  How she gave another family bread and clothing for every month that the father was in prison.  How she raised money to mend the roofs of an entire neighborhood.  Elizabeth knew that her husband, Reverend Henry Brimley, who was also out making rounds, was hearing similar stories. 

Women broke down, and sometimes men.  Their voices quavering, they spoke of “Mrs. Warpole’s” kindness and of the Warpole family in reverent terms.  They cried out that it wasn’t fair -- Mrs. Warpole had been so hale just two months ago.  They needed comforting and Elizabeth tried to provide it.  She held their hands and uttered as many kind words as she knew.  But inside, she felt dizzy and tired.  How could she comfort them when she wanted to cry herself?  When every corner she turned, she still expected to see Bella?

Elizabeth managed to maintain her composure, but she was never so happy when she returned to the parsonage.  As she crossed the threshold, she reflected that the house had seen better days a long time ago.  The roof over her bedroom leaked.  The grates remained black and gritty even after the maid’s best efforts to clean them.  The furniture was faded, and carefully placed pillows could not hide how threadbare it was. 

Of course, “carefully placed” were not words commonly associated with the Brimley household.  The girls often tossed pillows into a heap when they sat down to do their sewing.  Arthur left his school cap and jacket on a chair without remembering to pick them up again.  Henry was always losing things in his study, filled as it was with tall, disjointed stacks of books and papers.  Because the Brimleys employed just one maid, the Brimley women took it upon themselves to help with the tidying.  However, on the best of days, charity work, parish work, forgetfulness, and -- Elizabeth admitted -- laziness prevented them from doing a thorough job.  On the worst of days, the house looked as though it had been hit by a hurricane.  Such as now.

Elizabeth made her way up to the first floor.  She called out to her children and felt a pinprick of concern when no one answered.  She knew that her older daughter Meg was ill, but had hoped that it was not so serious that her youngest, Charlotte, needed to nurse her every minute.  Elizabeth was somewhat relieved when, moments later, she found both girls in the sitting room next to their bedroom.  If Meg were well enough to be in the sitting room, she could not be too ill.  Yet Elizabeth noted that Meg still did not look well.  Her feet were up on the sofa and her head was back against pillows.  Blonde with milky, freckled skin, like her father, she looked even paler than usual.  At seventeen, Meg had always been on the plumper side, but, since Bella’s death, she was losing weight at an alarming rate.  Sitting beside her in a chair, fifteen-year-old Charlotte tried to coax her to take a sip of gruel from a bowl.  Charlotte was still plump, with Elizabeth’s brown hair and eyes, but she looked tired and frail as well.  Arthur was with them, too, sitting in a chair beside Meg’s feet.  His normally laughing brown eyes were solemn, and he echoed Charlotte’s pleas that Meg “eat a little something.”  Arthur would be the first to know how much Meg’s poor appetite had harmed her health.  Elizabeth knew that he wanted to call a doctor, but she did not want to think about doctors right now, or maybe ever again.

“Meg, darling,” she said, keeping her tone soothing and calm.  “How good to see you up at last.  Do have a little gruel -- it will make you feel better.”  She moved further into the narrow room and leaned over to stroke Meg’s hair.  Meg’s lids were so swollen from crying that Elizabeth had trouble seeing her blue eyes.  She tried not to show any alarm.

“She ate about five spoonfuls, mamma,” Charlotte said helpfully, as though Meg had consumed an entire hindquarter of mutton.  Yet after days of Meg’s dishes returning untouched, she might as well have done.  Elizabeth was encouraged by her daughter’s small improvements.  If the family kept nudging her to eat more, bit by bit, she would return to full health.  “That is excellent news, my dear,” she said warmly.  “Papa will be so pleased to hear it.”  Meg was Henry’s particular favorite, and her break down left him very anxious, though few could tell from his quiet demeanor.  Meg managed a faint, shaky smile at Elizabeth’s words.

“And we know that our girl can eat a few more,” said Arthur affectionately, reaching for her hand and giving it a squeeze.  “Can’t you, Meg?”  Meg’s eyes turned to him, and her smile reappeared.  Then it slid away, and she struggled to speak. 

“Mamma… when you were out…”  Her voice was little more than a hoarse whisper. 

“Shhh, darling, if it’s too much --”

But Meg was insistent.  She sat up a little straighter, her eyes focused on Elizabeth’s face.  “Aunt Bella.  Did they talk… about…?”  Elizabeth stroked her hair and smoothed the blanket that was over her. 

“Yes, they spoke of your aunt Warpole.  They were all very kind.”

Meg’s eyes remained locked on hers.  “But did they… did they talk about…?”

Suddenly Elizabeth knew what she meant.  She had hoped her children didn’t know about that.  “They had nothing but kind words,” she said firmly. 

Meg visibly relaxed and sank back against the pillows.  Elizabeth wished that she could stay and tend to her, giving Charlotte a chance to rest.  But there was one more visit to make, one that she had been half-dreading all day.

“Are you still going to visit uncle Warpole, mamma?” Charlotte asked in a low voice.

“Yes, darling, I must.  Today is the last day William and Charles will be at home before they return to school.  I wanted to wish them off.  Arthur, perhaps you’d like to join me?”

“I should stay with Meg,” said Arthur, perhaps a little too quickly.  “Charlotte has been with her all day, and I just came home…”  His voice faded, as if he knew that his last words would displease Elizabeth. 

They did.  Elizabeth knew that Arthur had left shortly before she did that morning, not long after Henry.  She did not want to ask where he had been.  She already knew, but if she learnt it directly from Arthur, she feared losing control and ordering him out of the house.

“Do let him stay, mamma,” Charlotte urged her.  “Meg has been in such better spirits since he came in.  Don’t make him sit and force smiles and make conversation with Isabella.”

“Now Charlotte, show some sympathy for your cousin,” Elizabeth said severely.  “She did just lose her mother, after all.”

“I know.  I’m sorry,” Charlotte responded, her cheeks flushing.  “But she’s always been so unpleasant, and even now, she doesn’t act the way you’d think she would --”

“Charlotte,” Elizabeth said with an air of finality.  Her younger daughter fell silent.  Elizabeth turned to Arthur.  “Are you sure, Arthur?  I would think William and Charles would appreciate you coming to say goodbye.”

Arthur sat up straight in his chair, clutching the arms tightly.  His face turned a shade paler.  “They might appreciate you coming to see them… but I don’t think they want to see me.  I think… that I might be the last person they wish to see.”

Elizabeth doubted that, but knew that he was right to be wary.  Still, Arthur could not avoid the Warpoles forever.  Before Elizabeth could try to persuade him, she heard a loud knock on the front door, signaling that the Warpole carriage had arrived.


Read the next excerpt here.

Note that use of the photograph above does not mean Philip Halling endorses this work.  This work has been registered and may not be reproduced in any form without my express permission. 

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