The Skylarks' War
MORE THAN ONE HUNDRED YEARS ago, in the time of gas lamps and candlelight, when shops had wooden counters and the streets were full of horses, a baby girl was born. Nobody was pleased about this except the baby’s mother. The baby’s father did not like children, not even his own. Peter, the baby’s brother, was only three years old and did not understand the need for any extra people in his world.
But the baby’s mother was pleased. She named the baby Clarissa, after her own lost mother. “?‘Clear and bright,’?” she whispered to the baby. “That’s what your name means. ‘Clear and bright.’ Clarry.”
Clarry was three days old when her mother died. Many things were said about this great calamity, and some of them were regretted later, when people had calmed down and there were fewer tears and more worried frowns in the narrow stone house where the baby had so inconsiderately arrived and her mother had so inconveniently departed. For it was, as the baby’s father remarked (in no one’s presence unless a week-old baby counted), a blasted nuisance. And if it had to happen, and she had to die, the father added bitterly, then it was a pity that the baby had not also . . .
Luckily at this point, Peter stamped into the room, and stopped the awful words that might have come next. Peter was kinder than his father. He merely gripped the bars of the cot and screamed.
“Go away, go away,” screamed Peter to the quiet baby. “Mumma, Mumma, Mumma, Mumma, Mumma!”
Poor Peter’s voice was hoarse with shrieking; he had been protesting in this way for what seemed to him a lifetime, but he did not give up. Long after his fingers had been unpeeled one by one from the bars, and he had been hauled downstairs and handed to his grandmother, he kept up his lament.
“It is all completely beyond me,” said Peter’s father truthfully. He was a man who believed in escaping inconveniences and in his opinion there was no inconvenience worse than a newborn baby. After Clarry’s arrival he took refuge in
his office in town. There, he did who-knew-what in blissful peace for as long as he could make the hours stretch. He never came home willingly.
The children’s Cornish grandmother was not there willingly either. She already had one unrequested child living with her, her grandson Rupert, whose parents were in India. Rupert had been left behind in Cornwall when she had hurried to take charge at Peter and Clarry’s home.
“I expect the best thing would be to take the boy and the . . . er . . . the other one . . . back with you when you leave,” said the children’s father hopefully as he sidled toward the door. “And then all three could be brought up together. Nicer,” he added, although he did not say for whom.
The children’s grandmother had been expecting this proposal and had prepared a reply. She said very decisively that she would not dream of depriving Clarry and Peter of their father’s company.
“Even if,” she added, “at my great age, I felt able to cope with bringing up three such very young children. ”
“Sixty-five is nothing these days,” protested her panic-stricken son.
“I have my heart and my knees,” his mother said firmly. “Your poor father has his chest. However,” she added (since a look of imminent orphanages was appearing in the
panicking one’s eyes), “for the present I will stay here and help as best I can.”
To make it possible for Clarry and Peter’s grandmother to stay with them, Rupert was packed off to boarding school. Then, for the next year or so, the children’s grandmother juggled the interviewing of servants, the demands of her abandoned husband, Peter’s rages, Clarry’s teething, and their father’s total lack of interest.
“He’s grieving,” suggested Miss Vane, who lived across the road.
“No, he isn’t,” said the children’s grandmother robustly.
“Then the poor man is still in shock.”
“Selfish,” said the children’s grandmother. “Also spoiled. I spoiled both my boys and now I suffer the consequences.”
“Mrs. Penrose!” exclaimed Miss Vane.
“Spoiled, selfish, immature, and irresponsible,” continued the children’s grandmother.
Miss Vane laughed nervously and said that dear Mrs. Penrose had a very droll sense of humor.
“If you insist,” said the children’s grandmother, as she wiped Clarry’s chin for the hundredth time that afternoon and removed Peter from the coal scuttle. She considered it a great relief when a few days later she heard that her abandoned husband had caught pneumonia.
“He has no one in Cornwall capable of nursing him,” she
told the children’s father. “Clarry is walking and almost talking. Peter is quite able to manage by himself. I have found you an excellent general servant who is fond of children, and I absolutely must go home!”
Then, despite Clarry’s startled eyes, Peter’s wails of “Come back! Come back! Gramma, Gramma, Gramma, Gramma!” and their father’s outraged disbelief, she hurried off to Cornwall, by way of horse-drawn cab, steam train, and pony trap.
Fortunately for Peter and Clarry and their despairing parent, in those days almost everybody either was a servant or employed servants themselves. They were a part of life. Over the next few years the children were cared for by one after another of a long stream of grumbling, hurrying, short tempered, tired, and underpaid women, who trundled, stomped, tiptoed, and bustled through the house. They swept carpets with brooms, boiled puddings in saucepans, washed their charges’ hands with hard yellow soap and their faces with the corners of aprons, carried coals, cleared ashes, fried chops, mopped tiles, polished shoes, chased away cats and pigeons, jerked hairbrushes through tangles, made stale bread and milk suppers, shook dust from rugs, sat down with sighs and rose with groans, irritated the children’s father with every breath they took, and left as soon as they possibly could to find work that wasn’t so hard.
Inside the narrow house, the wallpaper faded and the
furniture became shabby, but the children grew. Peter became such a nuisance that he was sent to a day school. There, he was discovered to be extremely clever, which probably accounted for his shocking temper. Clarry was not a nuisance; she was brown haired and round faced and more or less happy. Miss Vane popped over the road to invite her to join her Sunday school class.
“She doesn’t believe in God,” said nine-year-old Peter, who had answered the door. “I’ve told her it’s not true, haven’t I, Clarry?”
Clarry, who had pushed under his arm to smile at Miss Vane, nodded in agreement.
“I think I would prefer to talk about this with your father,” said Miss Vane.
“Father wouldn’t listen,” said Peter, and then Mrs. Morgan, by far the most long lasting servant, came hurrying over, extinguished Peter with a bat from a damp dishcloth, removed Clarry’s thumb from her mouth, ordered, “Upstairs, the pair of you, you’re forever where you’re not wanted!” and told Miss Vane that she was sure Mr. Penrose would be very pleased to have Clarry out of mischief for an hour or so on Sundays, and they’d send her across in something clean or as best as could be managed.
And this happened, and was the beginning of Miss Vane’s Good Deed and Christian Duty of Keeping an Eye on the
Family, which was sometimes helpful, and sometimes not, and often made Peter growl.
“I daresay she’s one of those people who need to make themselves feel useful,” said the children’s father to Mrs. Morgan. “She’s offered to help sort out whatever it is the . . . Clarry wears. Her grandmother can’t be relied on, since she still insists on living in Cornwall. Miss Vane is harmless enough. I can’t see why anyone should find the arrangement a problem.”
“She stands too close and she smells of cats,” said Peter, after a particularly dreary Miss Vane afternoon.
“Cat food,” said Clarry fairly. “Liver. She boils it. She was boiling it when I went there for her to pin up the hem on my dress.” Clarry sighed. Already she was suffering far more than Peter from their neighbor’s helpfulness. Miss Vane took her for long, chilly walks, murmuring instructions about pleasant behavior. She had knitted her an itchy striped scarf. When Clarry’s winter dress was scorched beyond repair by Mrs. Morgan drying it over the kitchen fire, Miss Vane had made a brand-new one in hideous green and mustard tartan. Clarry had had to stand on a chair while Miss Vane jerked and pulled and stuck in dozens of pins.
“The joins don’t match and those brown buttons look awful,” Peter had remarked the first time she wore it. “But I don’t suppose anyone will care.”
“She’s knitting you a scarf too,” Clarry told him.
“Let her,” said Peter. “I’ll drop it in the river.”
“You couldn’t drop a scarf that a poor old lady had knitted for you into the river,” said Clarry, very shocked.
“I could. She’s not poor either. She’s not even that old.”
But to six-year-old Clarry, Miss Vane was very ancient indeed, and so were all Miss Vane’s friends. Two of them ran a school for girls at the top of yet another tall bare house. They were called the Miss Pinkses.
“The what?” asked Clarry’s father.
“The Miss Pinkses,” repeated Miss Vane earnestly. “I do agree, it is quaint. As is the school. Old-fashioned values. I mention it because it is just around the corner. I believe the girls start at about Clarry’s age.”
“Her grandmother was saying that it was time I found her a school,” admitted Clarry’s father, and the next thing Clarry knew she was climbing the three flights of stairs to the Miss Pinkses’ schoolrooms.
The first of many climbs, year after year.
At the Miss Pinkses’, the light was dim, the street felt very far away, and there were always dead bluebottles lying upside down on the windowsills. By midafternoon the suffocating fumes from the oil stoves that warmed the rooms made heads ache and eyes blur, so that it was hard to stay awake.
But at least, as her father said, even if she didn’t learn anything, she was out of the house.