Read Octavia Online

Authors: Beryl Kingston




‘We shall call her Octavia,’ the professor said, gazing down at the crumpled face of his newborn daughter.

It was stuffy in the bedroom and the air was spiked with unfamiliar scents and smells – an astringent trace of the lime tea the midwife would insist on having made, a heaviness of blood and sweat, a breath of warm linen, the brusque smell of carbolic soap – but Dr Smith was much too discreet to notice them. They were part of the great mystery of birth and that was something from which he had been rightly and gratefully debarred. Left on his own as the mystery proceeded, he’d spent the night fidgeting from study to parlour, aware that what he was suffering was nothing compared to the torments of his poor dear Amy. From time to time he’d found himself trembling with cold and anxiety and was relieved that there were no servants about to see the state he was in. But now the long hours were over and they were rewarded by this delicious child. He was breathless with pride and happiness, as he’d been from the moment the midwife first eased the baby into his arms, amazed that
something so small could rouse him to such heights of protective rapture. Being a man with a logical intelligence, it occurred to him that the reason for his reaction was probably because she was so small – small, soft, sweet-smelling,
, trusting. Ah, the trust of that tiny hand actually holding his finger! But for the moment logic was roared aside by the power of his feelings. ‘Octavia Smith,’ he said. ‘It is the only possible name. Octavia Smith, born on the eighth day of the eighth month of the year 1888. Think of it, my love. She is a numerical delight.’

The numerical delight caught her breath and gave a short sharp sneeze, like a cat. ‘Exquisite!’ her father said.

Watching them from the needed support of her mound of lace-edged pillows, Amy Smith was warm with emotion too, flooded with the most passionate love for this new daughter of hers but caught up in the old half-amused, half-delighted affection for her dear J-J, standing there with his hair on end, his whiskers bristling and his brown eyes dark with adoration. How magnificently absurd he was and how loving. ‘Perhaps, my dear,’ she said, her voice gentle with exhaustion and affection, ‘we should consider that Octavia is usually reserved for the eighth child. Might she not be teased for it?’

‘Not a bit of it,’ J-J said. ‘She will have the strength of character
to be teased. No, no, it is a capital name for a capital baby. Besides, old conventions exist to be broken, need to be broken, one might almost say, or they stand in danger of growing stale.’

The midwife looked at him sharply. That sounded just a little bit too much like the beginning of an argument and the one thing she was not going to allow was an argument with a newly delivered mother. It had been a strenuous birth and her
patient needed rest and recuperation. She padded across the room, quiet in her house shoes, and took command.

‘Time for our sleep, Professor Smith,’ she said, removing the baby from his arms. ‘It’s been a long night.’

‘It has, Nurse,’ the professor agreed. ‘A very long night, but it ends in triumph.’ He realised that he was still in his evening clothes and now it was half past five in the morning and the sky beyond the window was pearl white with the promise of a hot summer’s day. Not that he was allowed to catch more than a glimpse of it, for the midwife had tucked the baby into her crib and was already pulling down the blinds to darken the room.

He tiptoed to the bedside and sat down gently, taking Amy’s limp hand and kissing her fingers. ‘My clever darling,’ he said.

Amy’s limbs were heavy with the need to sleep and it was all she could do to keep her eyes open, but she asked her question nevertheless, even though she knew what his answer would be.

‘Are you happy?’

‘Beyond words.’

‘After all these years,’ she said. ‘Eleven years. I’m so sorry I took so long.’

He gentled a forefinger across her lips, forbidding any more apology. ‘It is behind us now,’ he told her. ‘Octavia is here and that is all that matters. Now I must go downstairs and leave you or Nurse will be after me for being a heartless husband.’

Amy smiled drowsily as she closed her eyes. ‘You are never that,’ she said. ‘You are always the most loving…’

Downstairs in the book-lined masculinity of his study, the professor brisked into the day, folding back the shutters and lifting the window to let in some fresh air and reveal his first
welcome sight of the square. There was something extremely satisfactory about the deliberate proportions of a Georgian square, even a small and rather humble one like this. He had felt it from that first afternoon, when he and Amy had moved in, newly wed and unsure of one another, she clinging to his arm for comfort, he soothed by the beautiful balance around him. Achieved according to mathematical principles, of course. When Octavia grew older, he would explain it to her. Meantime he would enjoy it for a few seconds while he got his breath back.

The church in the centre of the square was sharp-edged with sunlight, its doors open for matins, and the streets around it were already peopled and busy. A barefoot boy with a bucket and spade was hard at work on the south side, scooping up a pile of horse manure, and the housemaid at number 12 was on her hands and knees scrubbing the doorstep. He could hear the swish of her brush from where he stood. He noticed that the dairyman had arrived and was serving a group of aproned women, carefully measuring the milk from his churn into their jugs, as they stood in a semicircle round his cart, enjoying the sun and gossiping, and the baker was on his rounds too, bent sideways by the weight of his wicker basket, his pony waiting quietly between the shafts of his dusty bread van.

How patient labouring creatures are, the professor thought, and how easily taken for granted. There is much in our lives that needs change. And now change had come to his own life, sneezing like a cat, and all thought and action had been turned in a new direction.

His journal lay open on the desk waiting to receive the first and best of the day. He took up his pen and started to write
in his admirable copperplate, taking pains with every word as he always did.

‘Mirabile dictu,’
he began. Only the grace and elegance of Latin was good enough for such an occasion.
‘Octavia Smith born 4.45 this morning. Amy came through the ordeal well, but somewhat exhausted. Baby strong. Weight 6lbs 2ounces. Eyes large, blue. Hair fair as far as I can ascertain. Temperament equable. We shall expect great things of her.’

‘There’s that dratted child up to no good again,’ the housemaid said, glancing up at the kitchen ceiling. It was only four o’clock in the afternoon but her face was already pinched with fatigue. ‘She’s running about in the hall. That’s what she’s doing, naughty little thing. Hark at her, crashing all about. She’s worse than a wagonload of monkeys.’ She picked up the nursery tea tray with both hands, partly to show how cross she was and partly to hold it steady. ‘She needs taking in hand, that’s my opinion. They should give her a good hiding instead of letting her run wild all over the place. Well, she’d better not get under my feet, that’s all. I got enough to do without a spoilt brat under my feet all the time.’

Mrs Wilkins was lacing a leg of mutton with sprigs of rosemary. As cook-housekeeper to the family, she had more important things to attend to than the antics of a naughty six-year-old. That was Nurse’s business and let her get on with it. There was going to be a very special dinner party that evening and Professor Smith wanted everything just so. It made a lot of extra work, even though she’d managed to spread it over
two days, and even though she’d got two parlour maids in from the agency to help lay the table and serve and clear. Still, all things considered, she was doing pretty well. The chocolate Bavarois were set and ready, all lined up on the dresser in their pretty cups, the soup was in the stockpot and only needed heating up and a curl of cream, Molly was peeling the potatoes, Mary’d made the nursery tea, so that was taken care of, but there was still the fish course to prepare, to say nothing of all the other vegetables, and time was getting on. ‘She’s just a pickle,’ she said mildly. ‘Little girls are like that the world over. Make sure you put enough salt in them potatoes, Molly.’

Molly sprinkled salt obediently but Mary was disgruntled. ‘Never mind pickle,’ she complained. ‘You don’t see the half of it down here all the time. Not like we do, eh Molly? She’s a fiend. Charging about all over the place! An’ it’s ten times worse when them cousins come. They’re like a bunch a’ lunatics.’

‘Mind how you go then,’ Mrs Wilkins advised, as the maid headed for the door. ‘Oh, an’ tell Boots to light the gas when he’s done the fires or you won’t be able to see what you’re about.’ Afternoon light in late September was always difficult to judge and she’d been so preoccupied with the joint she hadn’t noticed how dark it was getting.

Mary toiled up the stairs through the sooty shadows, muttering to herself. ‘And where’s Boots when you want him? Tell me that. Stupid boy. Never mind tell him to light the gas. If I wants it done I shall have to do it meself.’

To her relief, the hall was clear. No sign of the child or the cousins, although she could hear them whispering somewhere nearby. Thank the Lord for small mercies, she thought, and she carried the tray to the hallstand, balancing it carefully. It’d be safe there while she lit the gas.

But she never got the chance to set it down. The door to the master’s study was flung open so suddenly and violently that it thudded against the jamb, and the three children erupted into the hall, squealing and shrieking. They were running so fast they’d banged into her legs before she could get out of the way. She jumped and screamed, as the tray tilted sideways, teacups rattling, then the biscuits slid off the doily, milk leapt from the jug in a curved slopping dollop and the teapot threw its lid into the air and sprayed hot tea all over the hallstand, across the runner and up the wall.

‘Oh, you nasty, horrible, beastly girl!’ Mary yelled, putting the wrecked tray on the stand. ‘Now look what you’ve gone and made me do. Why can’t you stay in the nursery where you belong?’

Octavia put her hand to her mouth in alarm. ‘I never meant…’ she began.

But the hall was too rushed with action for her voice to be heard, the cousins retreating backwards towards the stairs, owl-eyed, Boots and the agency maids pushing one another out of the dining room, delighted by the sound of disaster, Mrs Smith calling from the landing, ‘Is everything all right?’ And before anyone could call back to reassure her, there was the sound of a key in the lock and the professor stood before them, booming like a cannon and making them all jump, because they weren’t expecting him home so soon. ‘What’s this? What’s this?’

‘They come out the study, sir, ’fore I could stop ’em,’ Mary said, getting her explanation in before her character could be blackened. ‘They was like bats out a’ hell, sir, begging your pardon. It’s a wonder I never dropped the lot. I couldn’t help it. Miss Octavia run right into me legs.’

‘Is this true, Tavy?’ J-J boomed at his daughter.

Octavia had to swallow before she answered him. He looked so fierce and tall with the columns of those long black legs rising before her and that brown beard bristling like a lion’s mane and his brown eyes so stern, and she did so hate it when he was cross. Besides, it had all happened so quickly she couldn’t remember running into anybody’s legs. But
had or the tea wouldn’t be spilt. Somebody had and it could have been her. So she spoke up honestly and admitted her fault, because that was what you had to do. Tell the truth and shame the devil. ‘Yes, Papa.’

‘You ran into her legs?’

Oh dear, Octavia thought. He
cross. He won’t let me stay up and see the people now. And she
so want to see the people. They were the most important people in London. She knew because he’d told her. But she’d accepted the blame and now she had to stick to it. ‘Yes, Papa,’ she said, miserably. ‘I didn’t mean to.’

‘Your intentions are immaterial,’ her father told her sternly. ‘It is the consequence of our actions that we have to consider. You were the cause of this mess. Very well then. You must clear it up. Go down to the kitchen with Mary and get a bucket and a dust shovel and brush and whatever else you need.’

The listening servants drew in their assembled breath in surprise. That’s a skivvy’s work. He ain’t never going to make a child do it. Surely to goodness. That ain’t right.

His judgement had baffled Octavia too. She looked from his steady face to the dark patches spreading across the Turkey carpet and wondered what she would have to do to clean them. Until that moment cleaning was something that
was done by the servants, something that happened out of sight that she didn’t have to bother about. There was a swish of skirts on the stairs and she glanced up to see that her mother was halfway down, and looking protective. Perhaps she would be able to make him change his mind. She could sometimes. ‘Mama,’ she said. ‘I’m dreadfully sorry. I didn’t mean to.’

Her appeal was answered at once. ‘J-J, my dear,’ Amy said, in her soft way, descending the last three stairs, one elegantly lace-edged hand on the banister. ‘She is very young. Perhaps we should consider.’

‘I have considered,’ J-J said, handing his hat and gloves to Mary in the manner of a man to whom reconsideration is impossible. ‘She has been foolish and admitted it and now she must make amends. I don’t expect to come home to a hall swimming in tea.’ Then he frowned at Boots and the agency maids. ‘Have you no work to do that you stand here gawping? Why are the lights not lit?’

The maids slithered back into the dining room, avoiding his eye, while Boots took a matchbox from his apron pocket and rushed forwards to make his own amends. ‘I was just a-going to do it, sir.’

‘Then be about it,’ his master said. ‘Don’t just stand there. This is an important evening. I want everything just so. Set a fresh tray, Mary, and bring it up to us directly. Octavia, I depend upon you to do your best. Come and tell me when everything is clean and proper.’ And he took his wife’s hand and walked them both upstairs, with the cousins trailing behind him, looking sheepish.

‘She is very young,’ Amy tried again. Her voice was more determined now that they’d reached the landing and the
servants were out of earshot but her forehead was wrinkled with doubt and anxiety. ‘Only six. Could we not find some other way?’

‘She is being raised according to the best libertarian principles,’ J-J said, speaking firmly because he was beginning to have doubts himself, ‘to take responsibility for her actions. Actions have consequences, no matter what age you may be. It is never too young to learn that. She has given us test of our intentions rather earlier than I expected, that is true, but all the more reason to stand firm upon what we believe.’

Left behind in the hall, Octavia stood firm beside the jardinière, twisting the hem of her pinafore between her finger and thumb and looking at the mess. The hall grew larger by the second, the gaslight more revealing, the stains deeper. There was tea everywhere. How would she manage to clean it all up? She knew it would have to be done but where would she begin?

Mary watched her as she set the tray to rights. Now that the child was actually being punished she felt quite sorry for her. It was no joke to be asked to clean up a carpet runner and wash down a hallstand and get spots off a wallpaper, as she knew only too well. She looked at the thin wrists above those twisting fingers, the pale, troubled face beneath that fuzz of fair hair, those skinny black-stockinged legs, the awkward stance of those black boots, and the sight wrung her heart. ‘Never mind, eh?’ she said. ‘I’ll help yer.’

The words stiffened Octavia’s spine. She couldn’t bear to be pitied and especially by a servant. ‘No thank you,’ she said. She was instantly determined, chin up, mouth set, blue eyes hardening, ‘I’ll manage.’

She’s just like her father, Mary thought. Pig-headed, the pair
of ’em. ‘Wait there then,’ she said, ‘an’ I’ll get the things. Shan’t be a tick.’

She was as good as her word, returning in three minutes with a pail full of water, a dust shovel and brush, two mops, polish, clean cloths and a thick slice of stale bread. ‘That’s fer the wallpaper,’ she explained. ‘I’d better do that, ’cause it’s a tricky business, wallpaper, an’ I’m certain sure he never meant you to do everything. You can start on the carpet, can’t yer? That’s took the worst of it. Take one a’ them little cloths and press it right down on the stain, hard as you can. That’s right. That’s took up a lot of it. See? Now rinse it in the pail and wring it out tight as you can. Then you got it about right fer the next bit. Be quick though. Tea can stain sommink chronic.’

They worked in silence for a few minutes except for the splash of water, the occasional plop of the gaslight and the soft frotting of bread on wallpaper. Octavia found that it was easier to press the cloth into the carpet if she stood on it and, as there was no one around to tell her she shouldn’t, that was what she did. She was impressed by the way the maid was easing the tea stains from the wallpaper with her slice of bread, brushing down and down, always in the same direction. And Mary was touched by the child’s determination, wringing out the cloth with those skinny little hands and going at it like a good ’un. She might be a bit of a pickle, she thought, but she’s got spunk. There’s no denying
. An’ she could’ve ratted on her cousins. They was every bit as bad as her. But she never.

After a while, Molly appeared with the second tea tray and carried it carefully upstairs, cups rattling. They could hear the clatter from the kitchen, the clink of cutlery in the dining
room, the regular tick of the hall clock. And at last the carpet was clean again, the floorboards swept and polished, the hallstand buffed to a sheen, and there was only the tiniest spatter of brown teardrops among the vine leaves of the wallpaper.

Their labours had brought them together, like conspirators outwitting the rest of the house, smiling at one another. Mary had quite forgotten how cross she’d been; Octavia was relieved to see what a good job they’d done – except for the marks on the wallpaper.

‘He won’t be cross about the little stains, will he?’ she asked her ally.

‘No, course not,’ Mary said, as she gathered up her mops and brushes. ‘He won’t even see ’em. He’ll be proud of yer. See if he ain’t. Pop upstairs an’ tell him you’ve finished.’

So Octavia said, ‘Thank you for helping me,’ because you have to remember your manners, and ran up the stairs to collect her father. And he
seem pleased with her, for he stood in the hall, fairly beaming. So perhaps she was forgiven.

‘Good,’ he said. ‘Now you must come up to the nursery and have a bite to eat with your cousins. I’ve made them wait for you so I expect they’re hungry too.’

‘Am I still allowed to stay up and see the people?’ Octavia asked as she followed him back upstairs.

He was looking at her hands and noticing how red and sore they were. Poor little thing, he thought. I’ve been very hard on her and she’s no age. Amy was right. I should have found another way. ‘Why should you not be?’ he said gruffly.

‘Because I was naughty.’

‘You have made amends,’ he said, taking her roughened hand and patting it, ‘and now the matter is closed. Over and
done with. Of course you shall see our guests. They are great men and women. The best of our society. You can’t miss a chance like this. I’ve given Nurse instructions to tell you who they all are, one by one as they come in. You won’t miss any of it. You’re to sit just inside my study. You can see everything from there.’

Octavia smiled at him, her solemn face lifted and rounded, her blue eyes shining in the gaslight. Then she put up her arms to hug him, and he stooped towards her so that she could fling them round his neck and kiss him. ‘Oh, thank you, Papa. Thank you, thank you, thank you.’

He was warmed by her affection, as he always was. But this time he was shamed by it too. She might be naughty – that was only to be expected – but she was so loving and such a nice child. She never bore grudges, she hadn’t told tales on her cousins – and they were every bit as much to blame as she was – and she’d taken her punishment like a trooper. ‘I gave you my word,’ he said, ‘and I always keep my word.’

So that evening, when the cousins had gone home and she’d had her supper and changed into her nightgown ready for bed and said goodnight to Mama, who’d rubbed some of her special cream on her sore hands, he led her downstairs and installed her in his great leather armchair in the study. With a shawl over her shoulders and a rug round her legs to keep her warm, and Nurse sitting on the Windsor chair behind her with a list of all the guests so that she could be kept informed, he left her to watch the arrival of the great and the good.

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