December 25th, 1880:
He asked, he asked, he actually asked! And of course I said yes, so it really is happening now! I am going to marry Ethan! Can you believe it?
I am simply faint with happiness, and you know I am never faint with anything. It is one of the things Ethan says he loves so much about me. Loves! Heavens, it is too much! He is too much, and yet he is all mine now.
Sorry if I am being an annoyance, but you know how badly I wanted this. Now it is finally happening, so every part of me is humming with joy.
I am sure Auntie will say it is too soon. Maybe George will too, though at least he knows how much we mean to each other. I hope his father does not object, or we will not be able to get away with it. Ethan says we can always elope, which is desperately romantic, but I do not know if I am that brave. What is a girl without an inheritance, after all? Haha!
But however it goes over, I am determined to be with him, and he is so determined to be with me as well. With me! Ethan Cotton wants to marry ME!
I know, I know, I am rambling. Mrs. Ashcroft would be so cross with me. I am just so happy. I keep repeating everything in my head, over and over, to convince myself it is true.
I, Christina Jane Fairborough, am getting married. To the man I love. Who loves me back, and just as much.
Oh Diary, I am so happy I could die.
“She’s not serious, is she?”
Hattie shook her head. “Of course not, Cynthia, don’t be stupid,” she said, elbowing the wide-faced brunette next to her on the bench. Still, she twisted a blonde ringlet nervously around her finger as she watched Pippa striding towards the statue. “She is only showing off, you know her.”
At her feet, Vivian let out a snort.“I know she has not dropped a dare since second year,” she said in her languid, haughty voice. She had her head in Lorene Temple’s lap and was watching Pippa over her friend’s knees. It was the first time she’d ever looked impressed with anyone besides herself. “No, she is going to do it alright.”
“Oh, but she cannot!” Marjory squealed. Of the six girls lounging on the grounds of the Ashcroft Academy for Young Ladies, she was the youngest and most paranoid. She’d had ten flowers in her hatband when Pippa accepted the dare, and in the thirty seconds since she had shredded all but two of them. “They will throw her out this time for sure! They have warned her, she is done for, I just know it!”
Lorene rolled her eyes at her sister. “Hush. It is Pippa Cotton, for God’s sake. They would not expel her if she burned the chapel down.”
But Hattie’s eyes still widened in horror when Pippa reached the statue of Wellington in the center of the grounds. “Oh no. Oh, she isn’t kidding.”
Cynthia giggled as Pippa pulled herself up onto the platform and struggled into the duke’s spread bronze arms. “Nice touch. Do you think we will be able to hear her at this distance, though? Perhaps we should move closer.”
But no sooner had she said this than Pippa’s voice rang through the air like a church bell: “The impure monk uninterruptedly occupied with me in like fashion, then tells me to give the largest possible vent to whatever winds may be hovering in my bowels, and these I am to direct into his mouth.”
Everything around her stopped. Late students hovered midstep, legs hanging in the air like ship bows. Teachers’ fingers froze between papers. Even the birds stiffened on the branches, and Hattie swore a few dropped straight out of the sky.
“’Therese,’ he says, ‘you are going to suffer cruelly.’”
“Oh heavens,” Marjory said, clinging to Hattie’s arm so tightly her fingers tingled, “she’s still going!”
“This will not get back to us, will it?” Lorene asked over Cynthia and Vivian’s cackling. “Like if they catch her, and she rats on us for daring her, she is still the only one in the wrong, correct?”
Hattie couldn’t say. Literally couldn’t, as she was sure if she opened her mouth all that would come out was her breakfast. If they catch her, said a mocking voice in her head. “If”!
Back on the statue, Pippa threaded a strand of long brown hair across her top lip and put on the most dreadful French accent she could muster. She was getting into this. “You are going to be lashed everywhere, everywhere, without exception!”
Vivian rolled in Lorene’s lap. “Where did she even find that? It cannot be legal.”
Cynthia’s suppressed laughter shook the bench, and it took several tries for her to respond. “Knowing her family?”she said, three pitches higher than normal. “I would bet they had it in the nursery. Her whore aunt read it to her right before prayers.”
“Or instead,” Lorene sniffed. Cynthia threw her head back for another laugh, but Hattie pinched her under the arm until she yelped instead.
“Stuff it,” she said. “They are nice people, they don’t deserve that.”
But she had to admit Pippa wasn’t helping the Cotton family’s case. She was now standing on the statue’s shoulders for maximum visibility, and as she read she…demonstrated.
“He again laid hands upon my breasts and mauled them brutally, he bruised their extremities with his fingertips and occasioned me very sharp pain.”
There was a gasp from their peers, punctuated by nervous giggles and the rippling thud of dropped books. Hattie hid her face between her knees. Up on Wellington’s forearm, Pippa – admittedly in very different context – attempted to do the same.
“He turns me about,” she said, leaning her torso over the statue’s iron scalp and holding the book out at arm’s length in front of her, “makes me kneel on the edge of a chair upon whose back I must keep my hands without removing them for a single instant. He promises to inflict the gravest penalties upon me.”
The students groaned, caught between admiration and disgust. Pippa saw a few people shake themselves back to life and stumble off towards the headmistress’s office. Better get to the good part, she thought, licking her finger and turning the page.
“He returns to me,” she said, “kisses everything he has just left off molesting, and raising his sticks, says to me, ‘Steady, little slut, you are going to be used like the last of the damned!’”
The bravest girls, the ones clustered around the base of the statue like pigeons, tittered and clapped. She brought her arm down rapidly against the metal. “Whereupon I receive fifty strokes, all of them directed between the region bordered by the shoulders and…the small of my back,” she said after a dramatic pause, and grinned at the sea of disappointed faces staring up at her. Give the people what they want.
Skipping down the page (Christ Almighty, she thought, rolling her eyes, get on with it; you’re the Marquis de Sade, not Voltaire), she read, “Now wielding a cat-o-nine-tails he gives me twenty cuts from the middle of my belly to the bottom of my thighs. Then wrenching them apart, he slashed at the interior of the lair my position bares to his whip.”
At the far end of the grounds, a squat figure burst out the doors of the main building. Winking at her friends on the bench, Pippa raised her voice theatrically. “ ‘There it is,’ says he, ‘the bird I am going to pluck!’”
The figure started running, flanked by half a dozen other adults. Pippa picked up the pace.
“Several thongs having, through the precautions he had taken, penetrated very deep, I could not suppress my screams.” She highlighted this with a cry of her own. It was immediately lost in a hundred girlish shrieks of horror, so she couldn’t understand why Headmistress Ashcroft’s eyes popped so far out of her head when she did it.
The staff was nearly upon her. A few teachers peeled off in pursuit of the girls on the bench, all of whom scattered save Hattie, who sat with her head in her hands and her elbows propped against her knees, staring up at Pippa like the shackles were already on her wrists. Pippa felt a twinge of guilt, but gave her best friend a salute and resolved to dump the darkest ink she could over this section of Harriet Gallagher’s file.
“ ‘Well, well!’ said the villain, ‘I must’ve found the sensitive area at last,” Pippa said as her fellow students parted before their teachers. “’Steady there, calm yourself, we’ll visit it a little more thoroughly.’”
Headmistress Ashcroft, red-faced and glowering, rapped her knuckles against Wellington’s metal shin. “Miss Cotton! Miss Cotton, stop this at once! We do not tolerate these sort of ridiculous outbursts here, young lady!”
This was news to Pippa, who averaged at least two ridiculous outbursts a week, but she ignored her all the same. “However, his niece is put in the same posture and treated -”
Huffing, the old woman motioned towards the groundskeepers with one hand and braced the other against her ample tartan bosom. “Get her down, one of you, do not let her fall. For God’s sake, someone send word to Lord Hallsbury, tell him to come down as quickly as possible.” She pinched the bridge of her nose and shook her puffed, gray head. “Fourth time in as many months. The man might as well live on the train.”
She had a point. Uncle Oliver had better things to do than clean up her messes, and Pippa ought to cut the whole show off before it reached him. Still, the girls were owed a proper exit, so she drew herself up to full height, sucked in all the air she could hold, and roared, “On your knees! I am going to whip your titties!”
Her peers’ determined silence shattered, and the wind carried a few cheers from the girls wise enough to get out of sight.
Satisfied, she snapped the book shut, climbed down the statue, and curtsied. “No need for that.” She held out her arms in defeat and put on a rough Cockney accent. “It’s a fair cop, guv. Let my uncle get about his business.”
Unfortunately, as the headmistress reminded her many times during the three hour wait, Pippa was her uncle’s business. And a very weary business too, it seems, she thought when he finally walked into the room.
Lord Oliver Cotton was still a young man, barely into his thirties, but you wouldn’t know it to look at him. His face was drawn, his skin was the color of old bathwater, and his warm brown eyes seemed dimmer than usual behind his spectacles. His niece’s stomach squirmed. “Uncle, I…”
He raised a hand for silence, not cruelly, but with palpable exhaustion, as if he did not have the strength to be disappointed anymore.
“Madam,” he said, nodding at Ashcroft as he sank into the high-backed wooden chair on Pippa’s left. “Please accept my deepest apologies for my niece’s latest antics.”
All afternoon, Ashcroft had kept herself puffed up like a rooster, snapping Pippa’s demerit folder into order and practicing her steely glare. But confronted with the battered duke before her, she softened and set the file off to the side.
“Your Grace,” she sighed, “I do so hate to keep dragging you out here like this. But this has gotten entirely out of hand, do you not agree? Phillipa is certainly a very bright girl, from a fine, prestigious family -” she said this a little too pointedly for Pippa’s comfort, bordering on sarcasm – “but I simply cannot teach someone who will not be taught!”
She folded her hands on the desk and squared her shoulders. “Your niece is petulant, defiant, ill-mannered, prone to rages, and above all, unhappy. I think she will agree with me on that point at least,” she said, shooting Pippa a look that, to the latter’s surprise, was almost close to concern. “Am I correct, Miss Cotton?”
Instinctively, Pippa opened her mouth in protest. For once, though, she couldn’t find anything she could weasel around, so she sat back in silence with her arms folded across her chest.
“I thought not,” said the headmistress. “Our school is thrilled to have your patronage, Your Grace, but we must think of what is best for Phillipa. I think you will find that at another institution.”
“Or no institution,” Pippa said, but her uncle shot her a warning look.
“She is still grieving,” Oliver said. “Her grandfather only passed last year. She has known too much loss too soon. It distempers the mind, but it will pass. She will heal, and she will do so well then, I am sure of it.” He squeezed Pippa’s hand and she felt the sincerity in his grip.
Unfortunately, none of it rubbed off. Pippa hung her head and dragged her feet along the carpet like a child on a swing. After a while, Oliver sighed and turned back to Ashcroft, but did not let go. Pippa’s eyes fell on his hand and her conscience took another hit. Even that looked thinner, the fingerbones pronounced enough to count, the sallow skin hanging from them like paper, and all because of her.
Wait. Her brow furrowed. Thinner?
Her head snapped up and she scrutinized her guardian’s face. Even in the bright light of a sunny March afternoon, Oliver looked cast in shadow. There were deep bags under his eyes, and the flesh of his face was so withered away he looked Famine itself, with gaunt cheekbones and chapped white lips. If he tipped his head right, she could just make out the bone of his eye sockets.
Granted, her uncle had never been a hearty man, and she had definitely drained her share of color from his cheeks. But nobody lost 30 pounds on a single train ride. Something was wrong.
“Uncle, are you alright?” she asked.
Oliver ignored her. “Surely this can be resolved with some standard disciplinary actions. Detention, lines, restricted privileges. She is bound to respond to something.”
“There are disciplines we have not applied yet,” Ashcroft said, looking indecently eager. “If you would reconsider?”
“I will not have her hit,” Oliver snapped. “You understand? Not so much as a switch on the hands, or you shall hear from my attorneys.”
The headmistress’s face fell, but she did not press the issue. Normally this was Pippa’s cue to sit back and gloat, but this time she was too busy scanning her uncle’s clothing for hints of his condition. His expensive suit was so rumpled she would have thought it had been slept in, if it wasn’t so obvious that he hadn’t been sleeping at all. Money troubles? she thought, but dismissed it almost immediately. His shoes were brand new, without so much as a second polish. Folley had picked them, to be sure, or Walton – for all his fine qualities, Oliver was still a Cotton, and Cottons barely knew how to put on their own clothes, much less when and where to buy them – but neither wife nor butler would do so without double-checking the ledger.
Distantly, she heard Ashcroft continue. “In that case, I fear we are running out of options. Your niece has not responded to discipline thus far. At best, she bides her time until her restrictions are lifted, and often not even that long.”
“Don’t give her a set punishment period then. Schedule her day more tightly. She goes from her room to class and back again, nowhere else, and always supervised by a teacher. Keep to that routine until she learns to behave or until she graduates, whichever comes first.”
Ashcroft waited for Pippa’s outrage, but the girl was too distracted to really register the suggestion.
Every button on Oliver’s jacket had been replaced, and recently too, if the lack of fingermarks were any indication. Two were already missing from his shirtsleeve. The thread of one was stuck in the fabric, the end frayed and puffy, like a dandelion head. This puzzled her. He pulled them off? Why? Her uncle was not prone to anger, and yet she could see a faint tear running out from the base of his cuff, straight, small and incidental at the start and then sharply curving down as if pulled apart in frustration.
Yet Folley had sewn it back together without concern, if the even stitches were any indication. The fact that she did it herself meant the outburst had been surprising, as the staff had clearly been left to repair the more surreptitious button losses. But Pippa had seen her aunt try to sew when worried and had the mangled skirt to prove it. No, she was calm when she did this, which meant…
He’s hiding something from her. A Marjory-esque voice sounded in her head. Oh, this is bad. This is very, very bad.
“My lord Hallsbury,” Ashcroft said, “I simply do not think this is the right place for your niece!”
“Her mother specifically requested Phillipa attend her alma mater,” Oliver said. “She always said some of the happiest times in her life were on these grounds, and that the academy made her the woman she was. I would like to honor her request.”
Ashcroft squirmed uncomfortably. Christina Fairborough had been an excellent student, but all things considered that was not a recommendation you hung on the wall. “As would we, of course, but from what I understand, Phillipa’s father made requests about her education as well. I believe he spoke highly of the Pfveltz finishing school in Switzerland? Their program is excellent, and much more fitting for your niece. Why not try there?”
Oliver’s eyes flashed and his hand clenched around Pippa’s so hard she yelped. Immediately the anger in his face evaporated. “Sorry, darling,” he mumbled, letting go. He patted her on the wrist and gave her a smile so strained you could sift flour through it.
Pippa wrung her hand, more in thought than in pain. Her father and uncle were never fond of each other, so some caginess was normal. But that kind of rage, even just for a moment…she’d never seen him like this before.
“My brother was not a woman, though. He was a -” the flash returned, like lightning through a cloudless sky – “fine man, to be sure, but I think it best to take direction in this matter from the person who actually attended one of these schools. Don’t you?”
Headmistress Ashcroft clearly did not think it best, but she also didn’t think it best to tell off the Duke of Hallsbury, so she let out a resigned sigh and nodded.
“Excellent.” He stood up and tipped his hat at Ashcroft. “I hope this is all resolved shortly. Thank you for your time, madam. Pippa, come with me. We need to talk.”
“Yes we do,” she replied, jumping up after him. Her eagerness drew a surprised look from Ashcroft, but she paid this no mind. She had bigger concerns now, and she dropped them on her uncle as soon as they were out of earshot.
“Are you dying?” she demanded. She put her hands on her hips to hide their shaking, but she couldn’t keep the note of panic out of her voice.
Oliver stopped, his hand on the front door, and stared at her. “What?”
“You look bad. Don’t give me that ‘I always do’ nonsense either, because I mean it,” she said, holding up a warning finger. “This is new. You look like you just went five rounds with a bottle of absinthe and the bottle won, and as your dependent I have a right to know why!” She stamped her foot. At 17, she knew she was well past foot-stomping age, but this was an emergency.
Shaking his head and laughing for what looked like the first time in weeks, Oliver walked out into the courtyard with Pippa at his heels. “No, I am not sick. Never been healthier, I can assure you.”
“Can you?” she said, jogging to keep up as he walked back towards the carriage house “Can you really? No offense, but you’re a dreadful liar, Uncle Oliver, and I can tell whenever you do it.”
He laughed again, but softly, almost darkly this time. “Yeah,” Pippa said, raising an eyebrow, “that’s not really helping.”
“Pippa, I am fine,” Oliver said. “Honestly, if you want to worry, worry about yourself. I cannot keep bailing you out, you know. They shall be expelling you next if you are not careful!” There was that shadow again, that dull glaze in his eyes, like someone turning down a lamp. “A name only gets you so far.”
She wrung her hands behind her back and scuffed one shoe against the other. “Maybe I should go in with you and Folley,” she said. “You know, do plays? Or something? I don’t know, anything, really, anything else.”
Oliver clapped her on the shoulders. “If you decide that is what you want to do, we would be delighted to have you. You are an exceptional girl and I know you will do brilliantly at whatever you set your mind to. But you must get your education first!”
“Education,” Pippa scoffed. “Needlepoint and place settings, that’s an education?”
“And classics and history and maths, which you are also neglecting,” he said, “so do not try the useless frills card with me.”
Pippa threw her hands in the air. “Oh, classics! Who ever needed Homer for anything? What did Plato ever do the rest of us couldn’t figure out on our own?”
Her uncle rolled his eyes. “Yes, yes, you have sung this song before. It did not work then, and it will not work now. I know you have to put up with a lot of bull – erm, nonsense,” he said, catching himself, and Pippa smirked at her aunt’s influence, “but Ashcroft’s is hardly lacking in real learning, which you would know by now if you paid attention to any of it!”
He stroked the top of her head fondly, and his eyes grew sadder still. “Your mother wanted you to be here. Wanted it more than you can possibly imagine,” he said. “Please try to get something out of it. Get something out of your life, for her if not for yourself.”
Like cyanide? a morose voice in the back of her mind said. Like what she got out of her life? Twenty empty years, a baby, and an unmarked grave?
But this was too cruel to say to his face, so she settled for a lesser sting. “And my father?” she asked, watching his expression. “Should I do it for his sake too?”
Her uncle’s hands twitched on her shoulders. “If you like,” he said, voice clipped.
It was a small opening, but Pippa took it. “You kind of lost it about him back there,” she said. “What for?”
“I did nothing of the sort. You are imagining things.”
“I’m imagining the bruise on my hand?”
He looked at her unmarred hand in horror, then scowled when he realized the trick. “An unrelated spasm,” he said, letting go of her and continuing to the carriage house. “I suffered a mild arm injury on set and the muscles must have seized up.”
“Injury on set?” Pippa repeated. “You’re the writer.”
“Yes, well, carpal tunnel is an occupational hazard, isn’t it?” Oliver said. Eye movement wasn’t nearly as useful a tell as people thought, but his were flicking about like flies in a jar, and nobody in their right mind would confuse that for honesty.
“Is that how you tore your sleeve? Typing? Or how you lost all those buttons? Or,” she said, pinching the coat over his arm, “why you’ve been wearing your collar up all the time during the warmest spring in ten years?”
For a moment Oliver’s eyes widened in terror, but he shook it off in favor of an astonished laugh. “Well, you really are something, aren’t you?” he said with a cheer so pointed it could prick your finger. He pulled his jacket sleeve back and examined his cuff. “I did not even notice the buttons myself.”
Pippa didn’t buy that for one minute, but he cut her off before she could say so. “Phillipa Anne Cotton, you listen to me. Nothing is wrong. And even if something were, my business is my business, not yours!”
As his chauffeur cranked the car up, Oliver gave her the brave, warm smile of a man about to go down with his ship. “You are young and whole and free of troubles,” he said. “You have no reason to go looking for anyone else’s. Enjoy this time!”
With a tight hug, he took his leave of her and walked towards the car. As he opened the back door, he paused.
“I want you to be ready, you understand? Merrimore House is your birthright. I am only managing it until you can take care of things yourself.” He turned his head back, and there was real fear in his eyes. “You will take care of things, won’t you? When that happens?”
“Of course,” she said, “but that won’t be for years, so -”
“Good,” he said. A shaky smile played around the corner of his lips. “I appreciate that. I really do.”
Pippa frowned. “Why do you -?”
But he stepped into the car and slammed the door shut behind him without another word. In a cloud of dust, the car took off down the unpaved road, leaving Pippa and her worries behind.