According To Harriet
Port Queen Maria
My Dearest Mina
Well, here I am on my wedding tour! And I finally have a moment to sit my poor, wearied self down at the hotel’s ingeniical scribing machine and write a letter of thanks to you for the charming wedding-present. I had to displace an annoying little man who wished to send some business letters, but what of that? He could easily walk the mere five miles to the mesmeric telegraph office, and I felt that I must burst with ingratitude if I could not thank you at once for the charming toast-rack.
How Harold and I will think of you each morning, as he insists I must take the last piece of toast to keep my strength up, and I insist he must take it, since I have never been able to bear any more nourishment than a bird! (Do you remember how that disagreeable girl Julia Thackeray used to cap my words at the breakfast-table with ‘Yes, a large goose, or perhaps a brace of ducks’? I am glad to relate that she was expelled from Miss Foxley’s seminary very soon after you yourself took leave of the place). Our gratitude flies out to you on wings of… why, of gratitude, indeed! across all the miles to the Home Archipelago.
It seems so long since we have corresponded! Indeed there was no way you could know that I was forbidden to answer your letters by my dear sister Adelaide, who felt that after you left Miss Foxley’s so intemperately in the company of the music-master you had Turned your Back on Good Society. How fortunate it is to hear that that is not indeed the case, and that Signor di Sneachi’s wife turned out to have been deceased some months before your elopement! Fortune most certainly did smile upon you both in the shape of that volcano, though I confess to shedding a little tear for the opera house where Signora di Sneachi was performing at the time of the eruption, as we used to possess a set of stereoscopic views of it and it seemed indeed to be very pretty.
You must forgive me, dear Mina, for indeed I never hardened my heart to you! It was merely that I could not conceive what service we might be to one another, I at Miss Foxley’s and you travelling heaven knows where with an opera-singer for a husband, and my constitution was so enfeebled at the time, and I could not in conscience ignore the wishes of Adelaide, who stood to me at the time in the position of a mother.
How fortunate it was that I had Adelaide’s moral guidance always before me, when one considers the behaviour of the CREATURE whom my Sainted Father foisted upon us as a stepmama! Since I dare say news of her behaviour has not reached the Home Archipelago, I will acquaint you with it here, and if your blood is not thicked with cold by the end of the retelling I will think you a very unfeeling creature.
My tale begins with the death of my Sainted Father and the cruel conduct of the Ecclesiastical Commission, who – no doubt bribed by the Creature, who is, as you know, incapable of controlling herself in the presence of a man in gaiters, or indeed any man at all, though she is quite seven and thirty – declared that we must all quit the Bishop’s Palace so that the new Bishop might be installed there! We were quite overwhelmed at such hard-heartedness, particularly as poor Judith is a mere infant of sixteen and my health has always been so indifferent. I fainted on the spot at the thought of leaving my home and my sister Beebee was obliged to revive me with hartshorn and burnt feathers.
(By the by, while I am still of a delicate constitution, you will be glad to hear that my fainting fits have lessened considerably since I left the Bishop’s Palace. Curiously enough, as you remember, I was never as prone to them at Miss Foxley’s as I was at home. My dearest Harold, who is so clever, blames the green flock wallpaper in the Bishop’s Palace, which he thinks may have contained arsenical humours, whereas Adelaide is inclined to blame the unnecessary chores imposed upon me by the Creature – I was obliged, you know, to deal with all of her correspondence)
We were astonished to hear that the new Bishop would not exert himself to offer such a minimal courtesy as to remain in his present lodgings for a little while – a mere matter of five years, perhaps, until Judith reached her majority! One of the twins – I forget now whether it was dear Blanche or dear Beebee, and it does not in any case signify – had the very good scheme that perhaps one of us should marry the new Bishop in order to remain in our own precious home forever, but alas! this plan foundered when it transpired that he had a red face and wore his hair en brosse in a very old-fashioned manner, and besides, had a wife and four small children as well as a half-grown stepson with a squint.
Adelaide then proposed that one of us should remain as governess to the four children, but the new Bishop’s heartless wife refused to countenance the prospect of a governess with four dependent sisters, and moreover proposed that the Chosen Sacrifice should move out of her bedroom in favour of the nasty brats and instead take the small back bedroom whose chimney smokes! We instantly expressed our opinion of her rude ingratitude, and departed on the next train to New Trinovantium.
I think Blanche was a little disappointed to leave the stepson, but really, I cannot believe that even dear Blanche would so demean herself as to remain in the house of a man with such an uncharitable mother – and one, besides, with a squint. (In any case, he paid no attention whatever to Blanche and could not, I vow, distinguish her from Beebee, though he paid the most flattering attentions to me, poor fellow).
At Adelaide’s insistence we spoke with our Sainted Father’s lawyers, and here is where the story becomes one of joy mixed with the ever-present woe – for ah! Mina! how can I express the feelings which coursed through my girlish bosom on the first occasion I laid eyes upon my own, my very own dearest Harold! He was seated in the waiting-room of the law firm’s chambers, and I do not know which of his masculine beauties it was that first emboldened my eye to look further – perhaps his fine whiskers, or his strong and decided chin – but I think upon the whole it was his diamond tie-pin and the large collection of gemstone and genii-crystal fobs depending from his watch-chain.
He was all readiness to be of assistance to us – springing to his feet to offer me a chair out of the draught, fetching an illustrated paper for the twins to look at, even kneeling down on the hearthrug to play spillikins with Judith. Adelaide was inclined to be prim with him, but I could see at once that a good heart beat beneath his fashionable brocade waistcoat.
It seemed that he had come to consult the firm concerning a claim being brought against his brother – yes, indeed, I am sure it was his brother, though strangely enough no brother attended our wedding – by some flaunting hussy with ingeniical parts who believed herself to have been insulted. I do not know in what way she was insulted, and it would not have been proper for me to have enquired, but I am sure that she was no better than she should have been, and I am glad of the true manliness of Harold’s nature which has caused him to never mention the matter to me again or since.
Instead I poured out my heart to him concerning my father and the Creature and how we had indeed been left almost destitute – with only the pittance our Sainted Father had left to our share, and a trifling amount in the ten percents bequeathed by our Lamented Mother – why, it was barely enough for us to set up together in a townhouse on the edge of the fashionable part of the town, and besides, we should have to disburse some part of our scant resources to Aunt Lucy or some other indigent female to live with us, for Adelaide swears she is not old enough to live without a chaperone! With servants and a carriage to consider, not to mention a good education for dearest Judith and materials for the twins to continue their feather-work and I my sketching, I dare say we should have had no more between us than five thousand imperials a year!
I could see that Harold was moved to the truest sympathy by our story, for he did not point out that a curate’s stipend begins at two hundred and fifty imperials a year like some other Unfeeling Persons, nor that the twins’ feather-work is of no use to anybody and merely makes visitors sneeze. Instead, he twirled his whiskers between his fingers in the most killing manner, and asked me some questions about the Creature’s inheritance in airships. I said that I supposed it was all in a Trust, and at that he seemed to lose interest. O, Mina, I do not know how I could have doubted the heart of such a true gentleman! – but doubt him I did, for after that day we did not see him again for two months, though I told him our direction and suggested he might call.
From lodgings in New Trinovantium we went – much against my will – to live with Aunt Lucy in a horrid resort where the twins flirted revoltingly with officers and the sea air destroyed my poor nerves. From there we were summoned to the capital once more, to perform the charitable duty of attending the funeral of the Creature’s mother. Was she grateful for our support? No, she was not, nor did she consider our feelings in having been bereaved of what was almost a grandmother (not that I had ever met the lady, but I do not see that that signifies).
We were quite amazed to hear that the Creature was the beneficiary of a vast deal of money and a fine airship in her late parent’s Will – we had all assumed it would go to charity, as the Creature’s sister is married to a horrid grinning fat man and is in Trade besides, and can therefore hardly expect any mark of a deceased parent’s condescension.
With her usual petty incivility, the Creature refused to chaperone us, thus leaving us unprotected and unable even to hire an old servant to protect us from the horrors of the metropolis – though, as it turned out, the Lord spared us from any such ravagers and we spent an entirely peaceful night at the Wharfcliffe Hotel. I do not know what the Creature was doing that evening in preference to protecting five helpless females who shared with her my Sainted Father’s name, but I heard some tale later that she was seen in a card-room, so make of that what you will. But you know that I never listen to gossip.
How fortunate it was that after our terrifying adventure we had the strength to repair the next day to the officers of our dear, good lawyers. They informed us of our rightful share in the airship, and in the other bounty left by our dear step-grandmother – and oh! How my heart leapt when the very next week, while I was promenading in the precincts of the Cathedral of St. Brutus and St. Bedivere, who should come strolling round the corner with a gold-tipped cane in his hand and a silk ribbon in his hatband, but a certain young gentleman by the name of Mr Percival, or, as I soon came to refer to him, though a blush rose to my cheeks as the name fell trembling from my lips – my own, my very own dear Harold!
Soon the moments my True Love and I snatched together turned to hours, the hours to whole mornings and afternoons, and Adelaide and Judith grew quite weary of accompanying us on our walks! Yet he never lost his good humour even when listening to the twins play their horrid duets on the piano, and – ah, my dear Mina, a lady should be surprised when her swain offers his heart and hand, but I confess that when dear Harold begged me do him the honour of making him the happiest man in the Empire I was not surprised, no, not the least little bit.
The Creature, meanwhile, had departed in intemperate haste for the north. Some say that she was fleeing an indecent proposal from the Emperor, but I do not believe that for an instant. For all the horrid rumours that have circulated since the death of the poor Empress, I cannot believe that Zashera is anything but the Empire’s truest gentleman – and I hope with all my heart that he soon finds a bride who is worthy of him, and who will give the Empire the heirs it deserves. Have you heard anything more of the rumours concerning Princess Eleonore, or some other grand lady of the Home Archipelago?
More truthful, I believe, are the rumours that the Creature’s brother-in-law had been involved in some kind of sordid scandal. In any case, she travelled to Coranza, and I must confess that we all hoped cordially that she would fall foul of warplings and never be seen again.
Imagine our astonishment when we saw the announcement in all the papers that she was engaged to be married – and to the Duke of Coranza himself! He is, I believe, quite elderly – a grandfather, I think, or at least soon to be one – but then she is no spring blossom herself, indeed! though she makes a figure of fun of herself by dressing in the most ridiculous fashions as if she were not at least two and forty.
I was too busy with the preparations for my own wedding to dear Harold to pay much attention to the goings-on of two such elderly people, but my sisters were in a state of great astonishment about it. Blanche almost fell into convulsions when she heard the news. I slapped her sharply in the face and she recovered: the suffering which is caused to me by my own delicate constitution makes me willing to go to any lengths to save my beloved sisters from any decline in their health.
Yet despite all the weal that the Creature had poured upon us over the years, we were still willing to do our Christian and familial duty, and to make the journey to Eversham to wish her well. Dear Harold forbade me to risk my health on such a journey, so I remained in New Trinovantium with Beebee while Adelaide set out for Eversham with Judith and Blanche.
When Adelaide returned she was in such a state of prostrated shock that I could gain no coherent account of what had happened from her. Judith, thank Heaven, was too young to have understood anything that she saw, but I eventually gathered from Blanche that the Creature was living in a squalid back street in what was no less than a house of ill repute, with gentlemen queuing up in the parlour, burly female servants prepared to hand out chastisement to any debauched visitor who desired it, warplings and anarchists lolling all over the premises and – worst of all, my dear Mina, and I blush to write this, but you and I are both married women now after all – she had opened her house to a Nonconformist!
One would think that the relict of a bishop of the Established Church would shrink in shame from such hell-bound personages, but no, she was determined to draw the name of Warner into disrepute.
And that, incidentally, is yet another reason why the tittle-tattle that Zashera looked kindly upon her is nothing but the vulgar gossip of uninformed persons. One need only to look upon his handsome face when he takes Communion at the Cathedral – which admittedly he does irregularly, but only, I believe, because he does not wish the crowd of onlookers and vulgar persons who are drawn about in his wake about to disturb the devotions of others, so thoughtful of the dear Emperor, indeed – to realise that he would sooner offer his hand in friendship to a servant of the Great Genii than to a Fallen Female like the Creature. Who, by the by, will never see her forty-ninth birthday again. But I digress.
Evidently the Duke of Coranza is too far gone into his dotage to notice her unseemly ways – or, more likely, his sole interest in her was the hope of using her wealth to attract honest settlers to his grim little duchy, whose sole exports, I understand, are the production of beer and checkered handkerchieves. They are now married. I wish them joy of one another, I am sure, in the few years that they have left.
We, of course, were not invited to the wedding, even though I had done her the great condescension of sending her a card to admit her to the church where I made my vows to my dearest Harold and acknowledged him my lord and master from now until Eternity. She cannot possibly have expected an invitation to the wedding breakfast, even if she does now call herself a duchess.
Blanche and Beebee thought we should have invited her anyway, for the sake of being able to say there was a duke at my wedding – but I disdain such subterfuges, and in any case one of Harold’s cousins is the grandson of a Viscount from the Home Archipelago and to expect him to sit down to dinner with a duke whose grandfather was… well, who indeed knows what – would be the Sheerest Pretension. And you know, my dear Mina, how I abhor conceit. Everything at my wedding, from the arches of hothouse chrysanthemums to the gold-plated dinnerware, was of the very simplest, for that is my taste.
I was indeed delighted to see you at the wedding, my dearest Mina. How prosperous you look, and how wonderfully Signor di Sneachi’s hair has kept its colour! I hope very much that when we travel to the Home Archipelago to visit dear Harold’s relatives – not that any such visit is mooted at present, but indeed, why would they not be delighted to receive us – we may meet again and entrust our secrets to each others’ bosoms once more.
Harold strolled out some time ago to contract some business at the Bank: I do not understand it, such a scatterbrain as I am, but I feel sure he will return at any moment. The stupid man who wishes to use the mechanical scribing machine has returned and is tapping his pocket watch, so just to spite him I will sit here a while with my hands at the keys and watch the dearest little steamer puffing its way out into the bay. There is a gentleman on deck of something of the same height and build as Harold: he looks as if he is waving his hat to me. How droll!
Until we meet again, dear Mina,
I remain your most loving friend
P.S. By the by, as I am writing my letters of thanks for the wedding gifts we received – though none, to be sure, are as beloved as your dear toast-rack – I find there is a strange discrepancy in my records. I do not suppose you recall who it was that sent the mechanical birdcage?
Copyright © 2012 Ankaret Wells