Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Downfall of Miss Ladislaw: a humorous tale

I wrote this short story as an entry for Miss Elizabeth Rose's Writing Contest. It was scribbled down in a very short frame of time and not edited, so I am not responsible for any nonsense that escaped. I fancy it has the flavor Dickens and Alcott all at once...a queer mash but it is quite me. Enjoy reading. :)


“The Downfall of Miss Ladislaw: a humorous tale”
By Rachel Heffington

“You are a very dense person—quite porridgy, really.” Lona shifted from one foot to the other and crossed her arms. How would Miss Ladislaw take that? “You are so porridgy I wish I had a glass of milk to tip over your head.” There was a vase of water hard by but that would not serve her purpose as well as milk—it would not look so grand trickling bridge of Miss Ladislaw’s fine nose. “You are so so dense, I think your brains are made of fluff.” Lona glared at Miss Ladislaw and drummed her fingers against her arms with dull impatience. But Miss Ladislaw said nothing, for she could not speak. Miss Ladislaw was, you see, a painted figure that sulked in a heavy gilt frame on Lona’s faded wall.
Lona gave up glaring at Miss Ladislaw and her lace ruffles and her long nose and her insinuating eyes. She wished Miss Ladislaw could speak, for her own mind felt full of cotton and awash with too many cups of tepid coffee. Should she, or shouldn’t she? That was the question, but Lona had always been a bad hand at answering her inquisitive self. Miss Ladislaw would, if she could, disprove the plan, Lona decided—there was something about the woman’s mouth that did not like her. But Lona herself thought it a fine idea. To spend the bonus she’d got from Mr. Gilbert on a quiet dinner party seemed just the thing to cheer up this quiet stretch of the year when winter is feeble and gouty and spring is not “out.”
It was decided then—Lona wondered by she had not thought of it before; this deciding what Miss Ladislaw thought and doing just the opposite. Feeling monstrously guilty and underhand, Lona took the long way out of the room and back into it through another door that she might not have to let Miss Ladislaw see her fetching her hat. She stuck the hat-pin fiercely through her moth-eaten beaver and pulled her coat on. They would have prawns, she decided, and oranges and cakes dusted with pink sugar and Mr. Shambles would—oh mercy—the invitations! One couldn’t have a dinner-party without guests.
Lona cast a despairing glance at her quiet writing desk littered about with advertisements and apple cores. Somewhere there was a packet of blank pink cards, left by a previous tenant—they smelled strongly of Evening in Paris, Lona recalled, and she had always thought the scent rather daring and adventurous; they would be perfect for her dinner-party. Only…and Lona wished she did not have to cross the room to get to the desk, then sit in the wrought iron chair and write her invitations—she was sure Miss Ladislaw would stare her out of countenance and then her pen would shiver and ink would fly across the pretty pink cards and they’d be ruined. Dash it all. Lona girded up her strength, made a dash for the cards and her pencil-case, then shut the door of the room quickly. She would write her invitations here in the hall, perched on the roots of the hat-tree. Accordingly, Lona huddled in the corner of the drafty hall and wrote her notes in her queer, cramped little hand:
“Miss Leonora Trellavine… [that’s me, Lona]” she added, in case they did not comprehend the grand thrust of the name that was not truly hers. “…wishes the company of Mrs. Dorking (and Messrs. Shambles, Featherpip, and Plutarch) at a dinner party this night at 39 Tubwash Lane.”
It was not very grand after all with that horrid “Tubwash Lane” at the end, but Lona signed her cards, sealed them up, and snuck out of the house without a backward glance. At the post-office she paid some of her precious bonus for stamps with the queen’s head on them—they cost more, but they were a proper antidote for “Tubwash Lane,” she thought. Miss Ladislaw, she remembered with a cold finger tickling her spine, would not condone the buying of pretty stamps.
Lona hurried down the cobbly streets until she came to the store at the corner. “Fairfax and Cloves,” it said in bold, green letters. Warm golden light spilled from the picture window onto the faded snow on the ground and Lona stretched out her hands to it, almost believing for a moment that it felt as warm as it looked. But winter was nowise over yet and Lona owned no gloves, so she shoved her hands in her pockets once more and hopped onto the stoop.
As she stepped through the door a little bell rang and announced her arrival to a very fat, very red, very kind-looking gentleman. He seemed to be struggling with a bit of string and a parcel of paper, and no sooner did his sausage-like fingers loop one end of the string, then the other end straggled out as lanky as ever.
“Here, let me help you, sir,” Lona said. She took the package from the man and tied it up with deft fingers—she was used to trying up the packages of laundry for mum before she got the job as a stenographer.
The man beamed at her and his heavy jowls and drooping eyebrows gave him the look of an old hound dog who would be more at home at a fireside than stuffed into a pair of leather britches with his shirtsleeves rolled up. “Thanky miss, you’re very kind,” he said in a fat voice.
Lona nodded and for the first time since entering the shop she looked about her. It seemed to her then—for she had never frequented this sort of shop—that she had stepped into a fairytale. A gleaming pyramid of oranges occupied one corner of the window and around that were arranged dozens of pink-sugar cakes. There were sausages and cheeses, cocoa and candies and even—as Lona saw when she looked up at the ceiling—great heaps of nuts bulging out of blue-velvet nets and hung up like pine garlands. The sight made her quite breathless—so breathless that she had to unbutton her coat and be faint for a moment or two. But being faint was no way to go about shopping for a dinner party. Her vision cleared and she found the fat man smiling at her in a quizzical way.
“I’ve come shopping, sir,” Lona said, seeing that he was Wondering. Then it struck her that it was a very stupid thing to say when you are standing inside a shop—people don’t come into places like Fairfax and Cloves just to get warm, or listen to a concert, or discuss politics. She felt herself blushing, and turned away from the man.
She heard a faint creaking and he suddenly stood beside her like a great, lumbering bear. “And what are you shopping for, little Birdy?”
Lona turned redder than ever—or at least, she thought she was turning red. She felt hot anyway, at the name. She didn’t like being little—she’d much rather be tall, like Miss Ladislaw, or buxom like Mrs. Dorking. “I’m…I’m having a dinner party, sir.” And it was said so like a dismal confession and not a merry occasion that the shopkeeper laughed. She drew herself up to her full four feet and tucked her brown hair behind her ears. “It’s a good party, sir. I am to have Company.”
The man laughed again. “Oho. So the little Bird is having Company. And what will she feed her little friends? Would you like some millet, or thistle-seed? Or we’ve got some first-rate suet if you’d rather.”
“I’d…I’d like prawns sir, if you please.” Lona wished she were taller. She should have worn a feather in her hat—it always made her feel more like her eighteen years.
He laughed a bear’s laugh. “What? Does the little Robin-bird socialize with pelicans?”
“Please sir, I don’t understand you.” Lona felt miserable. Hang her party. Hang her bonus. Miss Ladislaw was right. A dinner-party was not a good idea. She was so disappointed that she began to cry—it was a childish thing, but she felt like a child at present—a child because she had never been shopping and never given a party and she didn’t know how to go about it without blundering at every corner.
“Now now, little miss. I won’t tease you anymore. Here, have a peppermint.” He dropped a grimy pink one into her damp palm and patted her on the head. Lona didn’t want to eat it—she wasn’t hungry anymore—but she thought she’d better, out of Politeness. It was a little fuzzy and tasted of sealing wax, but she dared not spit it out.
“Now, Miss Birdy, what can I do for you, eh? You said you wanted prawns?”
“Yeth pleath,” Lona said around the peppermint. She chewed it up quickly and swallowed the chalky paste it made.
Mr. Fairfax-and-Cloves—or so she thought of him—stepped to the icebox behind the counter and fished out a dozen fat shrimps. Lona was dismayed to find they looked more like slugs, and were grey and had antennae and legs. “Do…do you have any pink ones?” she faltered.
Mr. Fairfax-and-Cloves burst into a loud guffaw. “They’ll turn pink, Miss Birdy, soon’s you put ‘em in boiling water.”
“Oh.” Lona felt very stupid after that. Miss Ladislaw would know all about prawns, of course.
“And what else would you like?”
“Oranges please—five of them—and pink sugar-cakes.”
The immense man shuffled to the window and dropped six sugar-cakes into a paper bag. It was a beautiful bag, striped red and pink, and Lona decided she would like a parlor papered just like it when she grew up. The cakes were followed by the five oranges—Lona wondered if they would crush her cakes, but she didn’t like to be a bother.
“What are you drinking at this party, Miss Birdy?”
“Coffee, I ‘spect…or tea?”
“No wine? No champagne?”
“No sir.” That was the one point on which she and Miss Ladislaw saw eye-to-eye.
“Will you be having any cheese?”
“Is it customary?”
“No dinner part complete without it.”
“Then…then I’d better have some. And a chicken too, and some hot-cross-buns, and a half-pound of tea.” Lona hoped that was right—she never drank tea herself and she didn’t know how much one used in a pot. Mr. Fairfax-and-Cloves ambled about the store gathering her purchases. They made quite a heap on the wooden counter now, and Lona began to fear that her half-pound note would not purchase it all, despite the enormous boon it seemed to her meager salary.
“Anything else, Miss Birdy?”
“Nothing sir. And how much will it cost?”
“One pound, thruppence.”
Lona was miserable all at once. She didn’t like to admit that she hadn’t the money when this fellow had been so obliging and bustled around. She bet he wouldn’t like to hear her admit it either—it meant he wouldn’t be making his money. “I’m sorry, sir, I only have a half-pound.”
The man eyed her up and down, and there was a queer look on her face. “You’re sure about that?”
“Yessir.”
“Then, Little Birdy, you’d better go home.” He looked grave now and he eyed the door suggestively. His jowls hung heavy and his eyebrows lowered like rumply thunderclouds on the plane of his forehead.
“Yessir.” Lona backed out of the shop door and the bell jangled a disconsolate farewell. It had grown colder, and Old Winter was sharpening his claws on the stones of the street. The dark cold seeped through her shoes and through her coat and through her heart. Miss Ladislaw was right. Miss Ladislaw was always right.  Why had she even thought herself capable of planning a dinner-party? People like her—tiny girls who were barely old enough to wear their hair up—never should trifle with such grandiose plans.
 Lona walked home, dreading the “I told you so” that Miss Ladislaw would doubtless stare her down with. She wished he hadn’t sent out the invitations—Mrs. Dorking would cry, and Mr. Shambles would clear his throat and smile at her Supportively, and Mr. Featherpip would stand about on one leg and nod at Mr. Plutarch who would swirl his hands and make speeches in his faded purple coat.  She wished that she had not used the daring pink invitations for nothing. There was to be no dinner-party, after all, and she had much rather have used them for a successful occasion.
The door to 39 Tubwash Street stood ajar, and a faint, weepy puddle of candlight poured through it and sobbed on the cobbles around the doorstep. So her guests were already there. Lona hugged herself tightly for extra courage, then stepped into the hall and hung her hat and coat on the tree. She had left her pencil-case next to the brass roots she had so happily crouched near an hour ago.
Mrs. Dorking’s plump, cordial voice flooded out through the door of her rooms and folded Lona in a warm embrace. Mrs. Dorking spoke of the weather and made a mention of Kate—Kate was her daughter, and whenever she spoke of Kate she was happy—it was a good sign, Lona knew. She pushed the door open quietly and slipped into the room. Everyone quietened at her arrival, and Mr. Plutarch bowed.
“It is with great felicity that we gather together, my dear Lona,” he said. Mr. Featherpip stood on one leg and nodded.
“And ain’t it the grandest and kindest and best thing in the world, Lona-luv, you givin’ us this party an’ all?” Mrs. Dorking beamed and nodded from the ruffles of her cotton-cap. Mr. Shambles looked up from his newspaper and nodded at her.
“Why, Lona,” Mrs. Dorking said, bustling over and folding her in her soft, fat arms. “What’s the matter, pet?”
“I…I’m poor and little and we can’t have a dinner party!” she sobbed.
“Can’t have a dinner party? Tell me about it, luv.”
So Lona told them about Fairfax and Cloves and the bonus she had worked so hard for, and of all her expectations for the evening, and Miss Ladislaw simpered down upon the distressed girl from her gilt frame.
“And I’m so sorry about it all!” she finished. Mr. Shambles cleared his throat and smiled Supportively, and handed her his soot-smirched handkerchief. She pressed it to her eyes and huddled on the footstool at his benevolent and muddy feet. The others stood around in the awkward silence that always follows a profound disappointment. Miss Ladislaw, Lona noticed, looked singularly pleased in her stiff, cold way.
Mr. Plutarch flicked his purple coattails backward and swirled his hands. “Is not the most important component to a dinner party the company one keeps? And is it not more than food? We can drink coffee and eat buttered toast here as well as in our own homes.”
Mr. Featherpip stood on one leg and nodded, but Lona felt her tears starting again. “But..but I haven’t any butter!”
There would have been another to-do, I’m positive, were the friends not interrupted in this most interesting trial by a sharp knock on the door. Mr. Featherpip found his second leg and tripped over the Lona’s overshoes while Mr. Plutarch dashed to the door. He backed into the room a moment later pursued by a young boy with a pug nose. “Ain’t this 39 Tubwash Lane?” he bellowed.
“Yes it is, young lad. And what’s it to you?” Mrs. Dorking asked, holding forth the fire-poker and brandishing it wildly.
“I’ve come wit’ a dee-livery.”
“A delivery?” they all said, then looked at Lona. She shrugged—what did it matter if Mr. Gilbert was sending round more mending for her? She had long been employed as both stenographer and seamstress for the good man.
“She needs t’sign fer it,” the boy said, tossing a tablet into the room. Lona looked at the tablet and looked at her friends, looked at Miss Ladislaw, then looked at the boy. There was nothing for it, she supposed. She took up the tablet and her eyes grew round.
“For the little Birdy…from the Ornathologist.” It didn’t matter to Lona what “ornithologist” meant—someone had sent her a real package. Someone cared for her! She signed her name in her cramped hand, then gasped as the errand-boy whistled to someone in the passage and a parade of good things to eat entered the room. There was everything she had chosen and more. And tied with a red, red bow at the very top of the basket holding the oranges was a pair of red velvet gloves. Lona picked them up, with a very reverent feeling in her heart, and suddenly it dawned on her what the Ornathologist was. Who he was rather; for it rushed on her, as happy truths will, that it was all from Mr. Fairfax-and-Cloves!
Mrs. Dorking cried, the errand-boy bellowed goodbye, Mr. Shambles smiled Supportively and even Jollily, Mr. Featherpip stood on one leg, and Mr. Plutarch swirled his hands. And over it all, over the whole mad, glorious, merry mess Miss Ladislaw peered down from her portrait and looked—as Lona happily thought—rather disappointed.

2 comments:

Gracie said...

Little Miss Lona is quite a darling character :) And Miss Ladislaw is excellently depicted.

Colleen Elizabeth said...

What a darling story! I'm greatly enjoying all the snippet stories on your blog, though I am only a recent follower, and have immensely enjoyed your 'High-Ho' party. You have such a wonderful blog that I look forward to reading everyday :)