"Celia?" The voice that called was timid, soft, and sweet-barely audible amidst the buzz of bees in the larkspur and the breeze upon the lake. "Celia?" the tone became louder, more insistent. A freckled figure with chocolate curls stirred beneath a bower of greenery.
The melodious voice belonged to Clara Emerson, a tiny, slender girl with fair hair and soft eyes. The sleeping figure was her sister, Celia.
"I knew I should find you here," she said, as Celia gradually awoke, "it always has been one of your favorite haunts."
"Yes," admitted the freckled figure, setting herself upright and rubbing the sleep from her eyes, "yes, indeed. But why did you wake me? It was such a lovely dream..."
"You have been gone a long time. Aunt Agnes was beginning to worry."
This caused Celia to laugh. "Aunt Agnes always worries."
"Now, dear, that is quite unfair," scolded Clara softly, "for when you did not come in for tea, she really began to become frightened. As we speak, John and some of the servants are out in the village searching for you."
Her sister's disapproval caused Celia some remorse. "I am sorry, Clara. The day was so beautiful and my book so engrossing, I became unaware of time." Her apology was sincere in itself, though more for her sister than the aforementioned aunt.
It appeased Clara, however, for a smile reappeared upon her face. "Take my shawl, Celia, dear, for it begins to grow cold and your cheeks are pinched." Without question, Celia did as she was instructed. "Now, regain your senses and we shall be off."
"Must we go home?" Celia asked with some reluctance. "It is not even dusk and I promised Betsy I should visit her for some tart."
"Another day, my dear; it would do better to go and console Aunt Agnes first."
Celia did not have the strength to argue, though she appeared quite disappointed at forgoing gooseberry tart. "How long was I gone for?" she inquired of Clara as they started towards home. "It was not a very long time, was it?"
"You have been gone since lunch. It was quite an inconvenience for Miss. Graham, you know; for you were due to recite Latin declensions this afternoon."
"I do not like Miss. Graham," replied Celia matter-of-factly, "and she does not like me. And I do not understand why I must still have a governess. I am sixteen now."
A reprimand was waiting on the tongue of Clara, but she restrained it when she saw her sister's earnest face. "Dear Celia, do you not appreciate the fine education Aunt Agnes has so benevolently bestowed upon you?"
"Yes," Celia admitted reluctantly, "I suppose that I am grateful, but Miss. Graham is infernally slow, and sometimes I feel as though I am teaching her."
"Do not give yourself too many airs," was Clara's warning, though she considered it quite unmerited. There was no mistaking Celia's brilliance; since childhood she had shown remarkable proficiency in every subject she had ever attempted. "Miss. Graham is quite a good influence upon your headstrong ways. You need her guidance."
"Guidance! I would hardly call it that! She feels it her due to inform me of every meticulous detail that I ever do wrong, and we are always reviewing the subjects I am most poor in." Celia's lips formed a pout. "I tell you, Clara, she dislikes me with a vengeance!"
At this outburst, Clara could hardly but restrain a laugh. "My dear little sister, what an imagination you have!"
"Imagination! Hardly. She is always showing Juliana the preference."
"That is most likely because Juliana works hardly to achieve excellence."
"Juliana works hard to achieve nothing," snapped Celia waspishly.
Clara looked rather taken aback at her sister's bitter words. "Why, Celia Emerson! That was quite unkind."
"Unkind, yes, but true." Celia gave a side glance at her sister and saw her pain, regretting her word choice. "If you did not have such a sunny and unjudgemental nature, Clara, you would see our cousin for what she was."
Clara did not answer; the afternoon had been fatiguing and she had not the strength to argue. However, Celia, taking her sister's silence as reproach and anxious to make up for her sharp sentiments, affectionately slipped her hand through Clara's. "Do not be so very angry with me," she begged remorsefully, "it was wrong of me to abuse Juliana so; I should have held my tongue." Only for the sake of her sister did she attempt sincerity.
"You should indeed," chastised Clara gently, "but you are young and brash and carefree, and so long as you mind future language, I shall forgive you this one instance." She gave Celia's hand a squeeze, and, both restored to cheerful temper, they traipsed happily through the wind avenue of spruces winding towards Newbury, the home of their Aunt Agnes Spence.
Celia adored her older sister with all of the love and respect her heart would entail. As she had never truly known her parents-distant memories prevailed, naturally, but she remembered nothing definitive of either, as they both had died when she was scarcely two-Clara had inordinately replaced the motherly figure in her life. It was only Clara who could still her sharp tongue, guide her willful ways, and persuade her stubborn opinions. It was only Clara that Celia admired with all of her heart, and the person she wished most to resemble.
But, however close their bond, no two sisters could have been more different.
Clara was barely nineteen, but she had the wisdom and sense of someone many years her senior. A dear, docile, compassionate girl; she possessed such a noble and warm heart that she often sacrificed her own comfort and happiness to satisfy the needs of others. Tiny in stature, with large, soft eyes and a sweet, heart-shaped face framed by wispy golden curls, Clara was not a beauty, but there was something so simple and touching in her air, that everyone who met her could only marvel at the intelligence and kindness that seemed to radiate from within her.
Impetuous, headstrong Celia was both brilliant and beautiful. Well-known for her independent ways and her short temper, Celia possessed all the vitality and carelessness that her sister lacked. Tall as Clara was petite; slender and lanky, with bold emerald eyes and dark chocolate curls, she had not an ill-feature in her face but the considerable multitude of freckles that spanned her nose and cheeks.
After the deaths of their parents from scarlet fever, they had gone to live with their Aunt Agnes Ashby at her home in Surrey. A comfortable, large establishment, Newbury had once been the very epitome of country estate; a sprawling building nestled haphazardly into the landscape. It had been well taken care of by Mr. Ashby, but, after his death, had fallen into great disrepair.
Agnes Ashby was left nearly penniless, it was true, but she led an extravagant lifestyle and was unwilling to forgo any luxuries. And so, as the estate fell into more and more debt, her expenses escalated. Therefore, comfortable Newbury fell into ruin.
"There is home!" exclaimed Celia, coming to the crest of a hill. They had neared a small, beaten drive, leading towards a somewhat dilapidated stone estate, crumbling about the foundation. Heavy ivy curtained much of the home; obscuring windows and twisting about doorways. It had seen its better days, no doubt.
"Good," said Clara, "now we may calm Aunt Agnes's fragile nerves."
Celia grimaced. "Must I go in to see her?"
"Yes," answered Clara, prompting Celia towards the door, "and you will give her a nice, sincere, honest," she placed particular emphasis upon this word, "apology. Understand?"
"Yes," Celia replied grimly, her face set like iron. "But I will not be smiling!"
It was well known throughout the house the animosity that persisted between Celia Emerson and her aunt. Scarcely a day went by that they did not bicker, and they could hardly bear the sight of one another.
Clara escorted Celia as far as the drawing room door. She refused to go any farther, despite her sister's pleas. "It is not my fault that you skipped lessons," she said gently. "You must take responsibility for your actions, Celia. Go in and be brave."
Celia grimaced. "Please come in and make it more bearable, Clara. I cannot do it alone!"
"No," replied Clara firmly, pushing Celia towards the door.
"But she never lets me get a word in edgewise!"
It was too late; Clara had turned the corner and Celia was forced to rap lightly upon the door and enter.
"Is that you, Celia?" Aunt Agnes was positioned on a low divan before the fire. An aged, weathered woman with a beaten face and haggard features, she had been dubbed the ""Toad" by Celia. She did not speak, but, rather, croaked; aptly fitting her nickname. She was half-blind but stubbornly insisted that she saw everything as clearly as crystal, though she could hardly identify objects, let alone people.
"Finally decided to come home, eh?"
"Yes, Aunt Agnes," replied Celia dully, wishing to end the interview quickly. It was barely sunset, and, if she had time, she could take the shortcut to Betsey's for that gooseberry tart. Her stomach rumbled.
"Determined to wreck havoc upon my household?"
"No, Aunt Agnes."
"Well, then. Come closer so that I might see your guilty face!"
Celia inched forward slightly. "Is that better, Aunt Agnes?"
"Hardly," remarked Agnes, "though when ever have you been one to obey an old woman's whim?"
Celia did not immediately answer.
"So, girl," the gnarled old crone reclined upon the divan, a position that was hardly flattering but did afford her a better view of her niece, who squirmed uncomfortably underneath her scrutiny, "Miss. Graham informed me that you were not at your studies this afternoon. She was extremely disappointed, as was dear Juliana, who had to postpone her own education so that you would not fall behind."
It would be useless to argue, Celia thought to herself.
"You are a foolish girl, Celia! Foolish indeed!"
Celia could recognize the signs; her aunt was about to launch into an extensive lecture on the evils of independent thought. "It was very wrong of me," she racked her brain for an eloquent-and short-apology. "But have you ever imagined..."
"Do not get into all of that nonsense with me, Celia Emerson!" croaked the Toad angrily, most likely annoyed at being side-tracked from her lecture. "I've had enough of your make-believe to last me a lifetime!"
"It is not make-believe, Aunt Agnes..."
"Then what exactly is it?" she sneered.
Celia's temper flared. "You haven't any..."
She was interrupted by the arrival of Juliana Ashby, cousin and rival, devoted to making poor Bella's life miserable and various other niceties. "Dear, dear," she remarked airily, situating herself beside her mother upon the divan, "look what the cat brought in."
The Toad thought that sentiment quite clever, and laughed heartily. Juliana, however, merely starred impetuously at Celia. "Where were you?" it was a demand, though she kept her tone honeyed and innocent.
"Why should you care?" scoffed Bella lightly, "after all, I am not important enough to miss."
"No, you are not," replied the other girl, with a delicate sniff, "but, still, I believe you owe Mama an explanation."
At this, Mrs. Ashby nodded vehemently. "Yes, yes!" she cried in agreement. "An explanation!"
Celia shifted uncomfortably. She would get a tongue-lashing if she admitted that she had skipped lessons. She would be in even more trouble if her aunt discovered that she had been down by the brook, eating stolen jam-cookies and reading Byron. Had she not enough imagination to concoct a plausible excuse? "I ... was walking down the avenue, picking wildflowers for you, dearest Aunt Agnes," she nearly gagged at the syrupy sweetness of her tone. "For your room; I know how much you adore flowers in general."
"Adore them?" screeched Mrs. Ashby angrily, "I am allergic to them!"
Celia inwardly grimaced at her stupidity, while ignoring the pointed smirk of Juliana. "These were a special variety of wildflowers..."
"I am tired of your lies, girl!" Mrs. Ashby erupted. "Better you keep your tongue than fill our heads with your mollycoddled theories! Special wildflowers, indeed!"
Juliana, obviously having long-awaited this moment, now prepared herself for the attack. "You know, Mama," she whispered, in a conspiratorial tone loud enough for Celia to overhear, "that not only has she disappeared the entire afternoon, no doubt purposely to skip lessons with Miss. Graham, she has gone and lied about it!"
Mrs. Ashby nodded. "Indeed, my dear! Lied baldly!"
"And should not all liars be punished?"
"Indeed, my dear! Punished!"
Again, a decided smirk from Juliana that Celia chose to ignore. Instead, she addressed herself to her aunt. "Are you so determined to punish me, Aunt, that you quite forget the reason for my punishment?"
"You skipped lessons," replied Juliana flatly, answering in response for her mother. "What more reason should we need to condemn you?"
Celia shrugged. "You need no reason to punish me, but have you any sense of justice?"
"I am always just!" exclaimed Mrs. Ashby with zeal. "How dare you question me in such an impertinent manner?"
"Especially," added Juliana, "after Mama so benevolently raised and provided for you ungrateful creature." Her eyes coldly swept over Celia, who was attempting to check her temper.
Mrs. Ashby nodded viciously. "Indeed, indeed! You shall be punished, Celia Emerson! And with good reason!"
Poor Celia, unable to further explain her situation, stood mutely and awaited her punishment. It did not come, however, for a gentle knock at the drawing room door signaled the arrival of Dr. Reed, who had come for his weekly examination of Agnes Ashby.
Therefore, the Toad rather ungracefully rose, accompanied by Juliana, towards the drawing room door, promising punishment for Celia's afternoon absence, before sweeping off dramatically to consult with her doctor.
And Celia, barely suppressing a grin, took this opportunity and exited herself; racing towards Betsy's house in hopes of some good, unbiased company and delicious gooseberry tart!
©2006 Copyright held by the author.