Breakfast at Midnight, p.1
BREAKFAST AT MIDNIGHT
A novel by Fiona MacFarlane
Copyright 2011 Fiona MacFarlane
This Fragile Life
There was no warning of what was about to happen; no dark clouds gathered overhead to herald the coming storm. For those destined to live another day in Hobart, Tasmania, 3rd of December 1894, life carried on with humdrum normality. Mr Wood put an advertisement in the local paper offering a reward of two pounds for the return of his lost silver snuff box, the intemperate John Slater appeared in the City Police Court, charged with using obscene language in public, Mrs Marshall’s bunch of turnips won her third prize in the vegetable section of the Hobart Horticultural Society’s Spring Show, and the thermometer outside in the shade stood at 88 degrees.
Yet amidst this ordinariness of life, something profound took place, an event that reminded everyone involved just how fragile and capricious human existence could be. A young girl, on the eve of her tenth birthday, died unexpectedly, and while the child’s suffering had been brief, it was of no consolation to her family and friends. A beautiful life had inexplicably been taken away, and their lives would never be the same again.
These were the thoughts that occupied Frances Norwood’s mind as she stood in the foreground of an open balcony door, breathing in restorative breaths of air. It was Frances’s first night at her Aunt Wentworth’s house, on the outskirts of Bellerive, and as three shimmering candles on a mantelpiece suffused the bed-chamber with a gentle hue of yellow, she briefly contemplated her own mortality. In another moment, however, she discerned the sound of brisk, approaching footsteps, and the rustle of a gown behind her.
‘There you are!’ a voice suddenly declared.
A startled Frances stepped back hurriedly from the door, just as an older woman bustled forward and wrenched the balcony door shut. ‘I do beg your pardon, Aunt Wentworth,’ Frances ventured. ‘I was in need of some fresh air.’
‘Never mind about that, my dear,’ Louisa Wentworth replied, forcefully drawing together the curtains, ‘I am here to discuss another matter with you. Minnie Gibbs. You informed me of her death just after you arrived here.’ Frances nodded but said nothing. ‘How singular. I was led to believe that she had the constitution of an ox. Evidently not.’ She paused momentarily. ‘So, how did this seemingly robust child meet her end?’
Frances noted a gleam of excitement in her aunt’s bilious brown eyes. ‘I’m afraid that I can furnish you with none of the particulars,’ she replied.
‘No, no, that will not do in the slightest, Frances. You must do better than that.’
‘I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I really can’t satisfy your wishes in this matter. The household, not surprisingly, was in disarray when I arrived at the house. I spoke only with the parlour maid—’
‘And what did the servant say? Did she describe the event itself? Will there be a coronial inquest? Did she seem much affected by what had happened?’
Frances sighed and crossed her arms over her chest. ‘I confess I was too much out of countenance to pay heed to the finer details of our ‘conversation,’ if you could call it that. I’d just discovered that the girl I was to have taught had succumbed to a short illness, only hours before I arrived, the result being that I’m now without a situation.’
A brief silence ensued between the two women. ‘Dear, oh dear! How dreadful this all is!’ Louisa eventually exclaimed. ‘Of course it reminds me of your Uncle Harold. He was only forty when he left me. One minute he was berating the gardener for over fertilising the roses, and in the next instant, his spirit took flight and he passed through the gates of death. Just like that.’ She clicked her fingers to further emphasise the last word. She then drew out a handkerchief and dabbed it at her nose. ‘Such a death! Poor Harold, and poor Minnie Gibbs! Still,’ she said, tossing her proud head, ‘there is no point going on about it. It is all too late for her, most assuredly. The girl is dead, and now our lives are in chaos.’
‘Well I hardly—’ Frances began.
‘Now, my dear,’ Louisa interrupted, ‘enough of this idle chatter. We have a great deal to discuss.’ She moved away from the balcony window, and subsided with a satisfied sigh onto Frances’s bed. ‘So,’ she resumed, smoothing out imaginary creases in her gauzy black gown, ‘what are your plans?’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Your long term plans, Frances!’ an increasingly irritated Louisa cried. ‘The Gibbs girl is no more of this world. It seems as though you have come all this way for nothing.’
Frances reluctantly sat beside her aunt on the foot of the bed. The bed sagged under the weight of the two women. ‘I don’t think so,’ she replied casually.
‘How can you not think so? You can hardly work as a governess without a pupil. Surely there is no reason to stay here in Hobart.’
‘In spite of today’s unfortunate business, I intend to remain in Hobart for as long as I can. To be honest, I have no intention of ever returning to Melbourne.’
Louisa raised her eyebrows. ‘Not return home?’ she echoed. ‘Why ever not?’
‘Melbourne is not my home, Aunt Wentworth. It never has been. I was born here, and it’s here where I wish to remain. As for my situation, I’m confident that I can find another one. The Gibbs family has given me a sum of money to compensate me for my sudden loss of employment, and it’s enough to make me financially self-sufficient for the present time.’
‘And what does your mother say to all this?’ Louisa asked, eyeing her niece suspiciously. ‘Surely she does not condone this?’
‘Well,’ Frances began, ‘I haven’t exactly told her yet. I always meant to, of course, but somehow that conversation never took place. I’ll cable her in the morning.’
The bed-chamber was now filled with the un-nerving sound of a distant clock, breaking the silence with a solitary tick, tick, tick. Louisa, meanwhile, had risen from the bed and was pacing up and down the room. She was a tall, large-boned woman, with a ramrod straight back and a protuberant chest, which was thrust out in front of her, like a shield. At close range, she was an impressive and even formidable looking woman.
‘This is most vexing,’ Louisa was saying, ‘most vexing indeed. I am very put out.’
‘I’m sorry, Aunt Wentworth, but—’
‘Mercy, Frances! Please do not interrupt me!’ She resumed her pacing. ‘And where do you intend to stay while you look for another situation?’ Her lip curled perceptibly as she uttered these last words.
‘Well, naturally I would look for another place of accommodation. I would in no way want to trespass on your hospitality for more than a few days.’
‘Stuff and nonsense,’ Louisa returned. ‘I would not dream of allowing a young woman of twenty-five to live somewhere on her own. It is most unseemly.’
Frances smiled. ‘I travelled here by myself, and no harm came to me.’
Louisa ignored this remark and looked up at a portrait hanging above her on the floral wallpaper. It was a painting of her late husband, Harold Wentworth, in a gilded frame. For several moments she studied his noble face.
‘It alarms me the way you were brought up, Frances,’ Louisa declared sententiously. ‘If your dear father had lived, I know he would not have raised you the way your mother has. Knowing my brother as I did, I know he would never have consented to you travelling unchaperoned on a ship. My other two brothers were exactly the same. They were all very protective of their womenfolk, for which I was exceedingly grateful.’ Frances refrained from answering. ‘Still, what is past is past. I cannot undo what has been done.’ She straightened her already erect posture. ‘You are in my house now, and while you are in my care, you shall abide by my rules.’
‘Oh, hush now. You will do nothing of the kind. I want you to remain here with me at Wintersleigh, where I can keep an eye on you. It is about time you had some parental supervision.’
Frances stiffened. ‘Thank you for your offer,’ she began coolly, ‘but I couldn’t—’
‘And as for a room, do not worry yourself on that score. This room is yours for as long as you need it. I should also add that it is exceedingly comfortable, and will suit your needs tolerably.’
Frances was quickly losing patience. ‘But I—’
‘I will brook no opposition to this, Frances. Your cousins are away in England at present, and I am in need of some company. This arrangement, I dare say, will suit us both very well.’ She attempted a smile. ‘I will also need an additional pair of hands during the New Year. I am not sure whether your mother told you this, but your cousin Agnes has made a very fine match with a local man. She is to be married in February.’
Frances was taken aback by this news. In the past her mother had always kept her abreast of developments in the family, and she wondered why this important piece of information had not been shared with her. Given that her mother was infatuated with a ‘gentleman friend,’ however, Frances wasn’t in the least surprised at not being told. Her mother’s preoccupation with this wealthy divorcee was one of the main reasons why Frances had left Melbourne. After all, it was true what they said: ‘Two’s company, three’s a crowd.’
‘So, my dear,’ Louisa resumed with expectant eyes, ‘what is your answer? Will you stay?’
Frances sighed and looked up at her aunt. It was no use trying to argue with her, she decided. She would only lose. Besides, she thought, she needed somewhere to stay, and this option would cost her nothing, other than her patience, perhaps.
‘Thank you, Aunt Wentworth,’ Frances said in a voice that belied her despondency, ‘I’d very much like to stay.’ She regretted the words almost as soon as she had uttered them.
‘Oh, splendid!’ Louisa cried, clapping her hands together exultantly. ‘I knew you would come to your senses.’ She gave Frances an expressive look.
Frances instinctively glanced up at the small portrait of her late Uncle Harold, the one time school master, turned successful business man. From all accounts, he had made his vast fortune by presiding over no fewer than ten grocer’s stores (most of which were located in Sydney and Melbourne) and by underpaying his overworked employees. Frances thought it strange that his portrait should be hanging in a spare bedroom, but she said nothing to her aunt about it. Without really wanting to, she continued to study her uncle’s likeness. The mere sight of his stern face, immaculately trimmed beard, and censorious slate coloured eyes made her grimace, and she quickly looked away. She transferred her gaze to the majestic figure of her aunt, who was gliding towards the door like a black swan. As soon as Louisa was gone and the door was closed behind her, Frances removed the portrait of her uncle from the wall, and without one pang of guilt, shoved it behind the chest of drawers, where her aunt was least likely to find it. A victorious smile settled upon Frances’s lips, but unfortunately for Frances this triumph was short-lived. Looking up at the wall, to where she had removed the frame, she noticed a large unsightly tear in the wallpaper. For a brief moment, Frances felt a shiver of apprehension. She began to wonder whether she had made the right decision after all.