Saturday, October 6, 2012

Saturday's Chapter featuring Chapter One from the Unexplored Heart by Marilyn Morris

Chapter One

London, 1866


Vanessa paced the floor, her long skirts sweeping in tune with her staccato breathing. She wished Aimsley Fischer would hurry up and get here. It must have something to do with her stepfather’s will, she thought in agitation. He had been dead some weeks now, the mourning period well under way, although Vanessa could scarcely muster the strength to mourn this man who had married her mother eight years ago, when Vanessa had been ten. He had been all right, she supposed, and her mother had seemed content enough, but then her mother had suddenly died, leaving Vanessa alone in the large house with this man who seemed a stranger, who professed to have her best interests at heart, but who scarcely spoke a half dozen words to her each day, until the day he, too, had died. Yes, Hamilton Firestone had been a father to her, at least on paper, and it was now that his will would be read.

She settled in a dark leather wingback chair that was much too large for her small frame. Her feet hung helplessly in mid-air while she tried to appear nonchalant should anybody happen to come across her in this dimly lighted room. Noticing a magazine on the table between two massive chairs, she picked it up and flipped through it idly. Clarice would scold me, she grinned. A young woman shouldn’t be spending her time gaping at a travel magazine when there were more serious things to be attended to, such as conferring with the solicitor about her stepfather’s estate. Her attention, however, was riveted by an article about exploring the vast land of Tibet and the photograph accompanying the article was superb. As she gazed at the image of a tiny village snuggled against high, snow-topped mountains, her heart leaped with desire to be there, to breathe the rarified air, to hear the exotic sounds of the people’s language…..

She was just about ready to settle into reading the main text when Clarice bustled into the room.

“So would you look at you, now? Reading a rag like that, when ye should be intent on findin’out about yer stepfather’s will,” she began.

Vanessa laughed aloud at the sound of her maid’s voice repeating the very words she had just imagined. Clarice ignored her laugh, hands on hips, shaking her capped head. “And what’s so funny, Miss Vanni?” She used her old nickname, which made Vanessa instantly nostalgic for the days when she would sit on her mother’s lap, listening to her musical voice calling her “Vanni.” Her heart wrenched at the old name. Nonetheless, she answered, “Oh, Clarice, you’re such a fussy-budget. I just this minute seated myself, as old Mr. Fisher is late and a girl has to have something to do whilst she’s waiting, now, doesn’t she?” She pursed her lips, making a small frown on her brow, but her blue eyes danced with merriment.

“Enough with yer nonsense, child,” Clarice continued. “Adventures? For a slight girl like ye? And a well-brought up young lady, too. Unseemly nonsense. Now get along with ye; I came to fetch you into the study. Mr. Fisher himself is here, now; that’s what I meant to tell you. Go along with you, now.” She made shooing motions with her large, rough hands.

Vanni rose from her chair, smoothed imaginary wrinkles from her dress and then her hands fiddled with her curls. “Thank you, Clarice,” she said in mock solemnity. Then she strode with all the dignity and courage she could muster out of the room and down the hall to the study.

Pausing before she opened the door, she once more smoothed her skirt and touched her long brown hair carefully arranged in ringlets around her small, pale face. Taking a deep breath, she slid open the massive door and entered the gloomy study.

She had always hated this room, now more than ever, since it was dimly lit. She hated it especially since Mr. Firestone had come to live in her mother’s house. Rooms that had been light and airy and cheerful, like her mother’s disposition, had then taken on somber tones, like Mr. Firestone himself. Vanni had always been reluctant to enter this room when her stepfather was alive, and now that the man was dead, it took on an even more forbidding tone.

Her eyes adjusted slowly to the interior and she perceived the shadowy form of her solicitor, Aimsley Fisher, who now rose from his chair behind the rosewood desk.

“Miss Vanessa,” he intoned solemnly. Aimsley Fisher stood and waved his thin, elegant hand at the wingback chair across from the desk. His mustache twitched slightly, whether from a nervous habit or an attempt to subdue a small smile, Vanni couldn’t imagine which.

“Mr. Fisher,” she replied, attempting to be just as solemn. “How good of you to come.”

“I will try to make this as brief as possible.” He indicated that she should be seated, and she chose a tapestry-covered armchair opposite the massive desk.

“I assume you know the reason I’m here.”

She nodded. “It’s about Mr. Firestone’s will, I should imagine.”

“Miss Vanessa, in all those years he was your father, you never called your stepfather anything but Mr. Firestone.”

“He hardly was anything more than that to me, Mr. Fisher. I could scarcely bear to think of him even as my mother’s husband. I thought he treated her badly,” she added.

“Uhhhhm, how unfortunate,” Mr. Fisher said absently.

“I’m sure you didn’t come here to discuss my late step-father’s shortcomings,” Vanni prodded. “And I’m just as certain you have no time to spare with your busy practice of the law.”

“Quite so, Miss Danforth.” He cleared his throat and shuffled a few papers on the desk, finally setting on one that he now held in his hand.

“I am informing you of the provisions contained in the late Mr. Firestone’s will, rather than conducting a full reading that would not pertain to you, if you find that agreeable.”

“Agreed, Mr. Fisher.”

“I’m afraid what he has said pertaining to your lot of his estate will not be to your liking.” His eyes peered at her over his spectacles.

Vanni noticed the dancing fire reflecting in the spectacles. Something evil is coming out of this. Her breathing came in pants as her heart rate accelerated.

“Go on,” she said almost in a whisper.

“Mr. Firestone has a child from his previous marriage, whose mother had died. I’m sure you knew that when your mother married him, is that not so?”

Vanni nodded, her mouth too dry to speak.

“The daughter, Katherine, is now 22 years of age. Accordingly, she inherits her father’s estate.”

He paused at hearing Vanni’s gasp. “I regret having to tell you this, but Miss Katherine Firestone is to move into this house within six months of her father’s death. This should give you ample time, Miss Vanni, to find a way to support yourself and secure other lodgings.”

Move from this house? My mother’s house? And I have no income? She twisted the handkerchief she pulled from her sleeve, while wishing her hands to remain still and calm, as she had been taught.

“There’s nothing, then?” Vanni’s voice quavered.

“Oh, not entirely nothing,” the solicitor continued. “He has provided funds for you to obtain a trade, at a school, before you must leave this house. What would you like to do?”

“Do? What would I like to do?” She rose from her chair, holding her head high, and began pacing the room. “I should like to become a fairy princess, or the bride of an Indian potentate. Or barring that, I should like to be a duchess and travel the world. I should like to be Empress of all the Russias. Are there schools for that? What an utterly dreadful thing that man has done. It’s as if I never existed.”

Mr. Fisher met her halfway across the room, steering her gently back to her chair. “Now, now, Miss Vanessa. I have a proposal you might like. You know about the new secretarial schools, where young gentlewomen can learn to take dictation and supervise accounting ledgers for businessmen. Mr. Firestone was gracious enough to deposit funds into your account to accomplish that, and you have enough time – six months -- for you to learn this trade.”

“I don’t have a choice, do I?” She replaced twisting the handkerchief by twisting the opal ring on her little finger.

“I’m sorry, but you are correct. I shall leave the name of the school with your servant and although I will contact them shortly, it will be your responsibility to approach the faculty and register for the classes.”

He rose, indicating his task had been accomplished. “Don’t bother showing me out, Miss Danforth. I’m certain your servant Clarice will show me the way, as I suspect she has had her ear glued to the door all along.”

As he opened the door, Clarice sprang from her crouching position at the keyhole, looking flustered. “And so what if I was eavesdropping?” she bristled. “Anything that concerns my Miss Vanni concerns me.”

As she handed Mr. Fisher his hat, he pressed a card containing the name and address of the business school into her hand. He said in low tones, “If you love your mistress the way you say you do, you will encourage her to attend this school. It will bring her some income once she leaves this house.”

Shaking her head, Clarice opened the front door for the solicitor. “It’s an evil thing that man has done, Mr. Fisher. Leaving my missy adrift in a big world.” With that said, she shut the door firmly behind him.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wonderful beginning, Marilyn. This is now on my TBR list. Thanks to both of you for this first chapter.