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A Mettlesome Pupil
bibliomaniac
Jane Austen meets Bernard Cornwell meets Wilkie Collins!
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‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’
     Fiona stuffed her tongue between her teeth, her freshly sharpened quill travelling over the virgin pages of a new exercise book she had pledged to keep spotless from beginning to end. Her coarse, crinkly hair, though braided and severely coiled, created a fiery nimbus about her head. Apart from a pair of gull’s wing brows, a denser version of her mother’s, her physical attributes owed everything to her Scottish strain and caused her to appear more robust than she was. She had lively brown eyes fixed in a pale face, freckled as a thrush’s egg. When overtired or in the throes of a relapse, a ruby patch stained either cheek and alarmed those around her. It was a good thing that her father was heftily built, for often she had to be carried up and down stairs and must conserve her energies for outings in the carriage or short sallies on foot or in her Bath chair to the Parks or to the shops in Bond Street.
     Roisin took her charge to heart at once and had the wisdom not to treat her as an invalid, but found it exacting when the girl’s appetite for life was so much stronger than her capabilities. Roisin liked her parents, too. Despite the master’s blustering, the household was a happy one.  She was pleased when, passing the half-open door of the drawing room, she chanced to hear Sir George declare: “Not lax, old Attwood, in the prosecution of his duties. Capital fellow for all he stings me every quarter! I think we’ve struck gold with Miss What’s-Her-Name? up there!”
     Roisin gathered that her predecessor, an elderly spinster by the name of Miss Peppercorn, had died after eating cockles and mussels at Bartholomew’s Fair. “Snuffed out like a candle!” Sir George would recount. “And her first taste of the world’s wicked delights! The game old bird was out hobnobbing with that literary hack, Charles Lamb, and his lunatic sister. She wouldn’t have gone but for them.”
     The boom and bark of his voice in the rooms below penetrated the unfurnished boards in the schoolroom. Fiona winced. She was of a stoical disposition and conveyed an air of being much wearied by the responsibility of rearing her elders.
     “I wish Papa would not rave so. He will do himself a mischief. No doubt he will calm down presently and we can all be comfortable again.” She let out a melodramatic sigh and stroked her snub nose with the  goose feather.
     “Now,” Roisin said, eager to concentrate on the matter in hand, “a précis of the plot, I think.”
     “He is forever taking pets over nothing.”
     “You do not believe his consternation justified?”
     “Oh, but Lord Penrose is the kindest, most adorable man in the world, and exceedingly handsome. I swear, Miss Harcup, my heart was quite broken in two for three days together when we learnt of the elopement. It was all a devious plot of Aunt Cassandra’s to snatch him from me. She is as plain as the devil and often out of humour.”
     “Fiona, I beg you will take up your pencil and apply yourself to your notebook. You are forbidden to speak of your aunt in those terms.”
     Lord, what a schoolma’am I am becoming already, Roisin thought. Prim and priggish and I don’t want to be. The swing from governess to companion and back again did pose its challenges, the gap between their ages, teacher and pupil, being considerably narrower than was usual.
     “Lord Penrose was our guest down in Brighton, you know, and we formed a strong attachment, he and I. Do you know Brighton, Miss Harcup?”
     Roisin’s heart lurched. She glanced outside. “I have been there, yes.”
     “It is a splendid place, is it not? Everyone is in holiday mood and I don’t have to practise my music because the pianoforte is always out of tune. The sea air damages the strings. Papa says he will have it attended to, but he never does. That’s really because he’s no taste for music himself and would rather pass his time playing cards or exchanging bawdy anecdotes with his cronies.”
     “Indeed. You should know nothing of such things, Miss.”
     “I once saw Harriette Wilson,” Fiona said in accents of intrigue. “She was riding along Marine Parade in a scarlet habit made to imitate the uniform of the 10th Hussars, the Prince of Wales’ Own Regiment.”
     “I don’t believe I ever heard of the lady.”
     “You never heard of the notorious Harriette! Why, Miss Harcup, where have you been? Papa deemed it a very apt colour for her to wear and said he’d heard tell how she belonged to the regiment!”
     “That will do,” Roisin scolded. “I am sure your parents would wish me to curb such immodesty. We will have no more. Is that understood?”
     “Yes, Miss Harcup,” replied the impenitent pupil dully and directly veered off on another tack. “I bet you never saw the ‘Green Man’ of Brighton either? His name is Henry Cope. He paints himself green and wears green clothes and eats only green foods, they say. His rooms are decorated entirely in green. Imagine it! I almost split my sides laughing when I saw him. Mama bade me not to stare, but he don’t give a button for that. He’s as mad as a march hare, but quite harmless.”
     “The reputation of eccentrics does lend itself to distortion.”
     “But I saw him! I give you my word!”
     “That may be so, but could we please return to William Shakespeare?”
     “Must we, Roisin? It’s such a glorious day. The sky is….that Mediterranean blue, like a Canaletto painting. Oh, how I yearn to travel! Papa says we might spend this winter in Italy. Won’t that be wonderful?”
     Roisin overlooked the liberty with her Christian name and let out an exasperated breath. The child’s butterfly mind flitted from one bright topic to another. Her illness seemed to divert her energy so that it poured into her imagination.
     Over the rooftops, the pinnacle of a white poplar glistered. “Very well. We’ll go to the Gardens. You shall take your sketch book and pastels and we’ll sit under the mulberry tree and watch the swallows skim.”
     “How kind you are, dear Miss Harcup! I knew you’d take pity on me.”
     “First you must rest, you must not overtax yourself. Tomorrow is the day of the Jubilee, don’t forget.”
     “Yes, a holiday for the whole city! I wonder whether that agreeable Mr Grey from The Ark will join us.”
     Roisin neatly sidestepped this piece of mischief and betrayed no surprise that her pupil was so disconcertingly well informed. “The Ark?”
     “That is what Papa calls old Atty’s establishment. A fitting epithet when you think of that crabby old stickler. Atty, I mean, not Papa! Only dear Mr Grey is not in the least antediluvian, is he?” Fiona affected a languishing sigh and peered slyly at Roisin from beneath auburn lashes. “Mrs Butterfield says he’s your beau and has been paying you his addresses.”
     “The good woman would do well to hold her tongue. Edward Grey is….is a faithful friend.”
     “Faithful friends prove faithless lovers,” lamented Fiona, dwelling enviously on how Lord Penrose was cavorting in Paris with her Aunt Cassandra. She supposed she would have to call him ‘Uncle’ now.

(First edition published by Robert Hale Limited, London, 1984)

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