Bullies, blaggards and other nasties

Some books have real villains, with evil in their hearts and mayhem in their wake. In others, the trials our protagonists face come from circumstance, or perhaps from careless, overbearing, or self-centred relatives. I’m inviting you to put an excerpt in the comments when we see your hero or heroine having a bit of a hard time at someone else’s hands. An ex-mistress? An employee? A relative? Over to you.

This week, I’m sharing an excerpt from Forged in Fire, my 2017 Bluestocking Belles holiday box set novella. My Mrs Bletherow is not a villain, precisely. But she is certainly no sweetheart.

Mrs Bletherow was castigating her poor companion again, oblivious to her audience.

Every group was different, and most groups had someone who was troublesome. Tad Berry could cheerfully handle the drunkards, the would-be Casanovas, the know-it-alls. But he hated bullies. His muscles burned with the effort it took to keep from rescuing the Bletherow hag’s drab shadow. Not his place. She was a free adult woman, and if she chose to stay with an employer who treated her so poorly, it was nothing to do with him.

His partner nudged him. “She don’t run out of steam, that one, eh?”

“Miss Thompson should tell her to go soak her head, Atame. Old crow.”

Tad and Atame had met them in Auckland two days ago, eight tourists seeking to view what Rotorua billed as the eighth wonder of the world. Tomorrow, they’d make their way to Te Wairoa, and the day after the locals would convey them to the Pink and White Terraces, dimpled with hot pools and cascading down their respective hillsides to a peaceful lake.

All through the boat trip to Tauranga and the coach journey to this Rotorua guest house, Mrs Bletherow had found fault with everything Miss Thompson did or failed to do. She had brought her employer the wrong book, failed to block out the sun, been too slow in the queue for food, put too much milk in Mrs Bletherow’s tea. Tad wouldn’t have blamed Miss Thompson for adding arsenic.

The withered wiry maid was as sour as her mistress, and attracted none of the old harridan’s contempt. She stood now at Mrs Bletherow’s elbow, nodding along with the woman’s complaints. “You knew we would be dining properly this evening. You deliberately packed the green gown in the large trunk. You must go and find it this instant, do you hear me?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Miss Thompson said.

“See that you are quick. Parrish shall attend me in my room, and I want my gown by the time I am washed.” Mrs Bletherow sailed up the stairs, Parrish scurrying along in her wake.

Tad unfolded himself from the wall as Miss Thompson approached, her rather fine hazel eyes downcast. She began apologising while she was still several paces away. “I am very sorry for the inconvenience, Mr Berry, but I need to ask you to offload another of Mrs Bletherow’s trunks.”

“Of course, Miss Thompson. If you tell me which one, I shall bring it up to her room.”

She looked up at that, her brows drawing slightly together. “I am not sure, Mr Berry. I know which one it should be in, but Parrish finished the packing. May I come with you?”

He nodded, though the stables were no place for a lady. And Miss Thompson was a lady, and of better birth than the Bletherow, unless he missed his guess. Which, come to think of it, might be part of the reason for her ill-treatment. Not that a bully needed a reason, beyond opportunity and a suitable victim.

They needed to unload half the luggage before uncovering the trunk Miss Thompson wanted, and then it proved to be the wrong one.

Tad brushed off Miss Thompson’s apologies. “No matter. We shall just try the others.” But the gown was not in the smaller trunk, any of the leather bags, or even the hat boxes. They had offloaded all Mrs Bletherow’s baggage and even the single trunk holding her own spare wardrobe and a second belonging to Parish, and Miss Thompson had unlocked and hunted through them all.

“If this is everything, Miss Thompson,” Tad said at last, “I fear the garment has been left behind at a previous stop.”

“Do you, Mr Berry?” Tad’s hands on the straps he was rebuckling stilled at the bitter undertones in the lady’s voice, and he looked up. They were working by lamplight, but he could see well enough. Blazing eyes, thinned lips, skin drained of colour but for two hectic spots of colour high on her cheeks. Miss Thompson was quietly furious. “Perhaps you are right. I apologise for putting you to all this trouble.”

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9 thoughts on “Bullies, blaggards and other nasties

  1. Super late with this, but have been in Cornwall all week. Can I still play? This is from “Lord of Disorder”, the fresh-off-the-press sequel to TLS. Going very slowly as I now have THREE projects on the go, and this will have to cede priority for a while. In this scene, John is having, er, a spot of bother with the co-executor of his dead brother William’s estate. I think you’ve met Tomline before.

    +++

    ‘I have already explained to you. That debt was taken out jointly by my brother and myself, in my mother’s name. We raised it to cover some essential repairs to Burton Pynsent. I have repaid my share already.’

    Tomline looked unconvinced. ‘Without that ten thousand pounds, we may not be able to cover other debts that must be paid.’

    ‘I do not think you understand,’ John said. They had beaten over this ground so many times; he had no idea why he was engaging with it again. He could feel sweat starting to bead his forehead and upper lip, and the familiar twist of despair in his stomach because he knew it was futile. ‘I am still paying off my mother’s debts. Christ alive, I am still paying off some of my father’s debts.’ He did not even want to talk about his own debts, debts that had only grown since his resignation from office and Mary’s long, dangerous, expensive illness. As always, any attempt to think about his situation led to his thoughts splintering a thousand different ways, impossible to collect and make sense of. ‘I cannot afford to pay off my brother’s debts too.’

    ‘But this is not your brother’s debt. It is in your name. You cannot—’

    ‘It is in my name,’ John interrupted, desperately, ‘because I was the only one of us to whom Mr Coutts was still willing to extend credit – because I was then the only one of us with a regular income and an official salary.’ He became aware he was shouting; Tomline looked startled at his vehemence. He lowered his voice. ‘I have paid off my share, Bishop. I cannot afford more.’

    Silence established itself. A carriage passed in the street; someone further off was shouting, whether in greeting or in anger John could not tell. Tomline ran a hand down the length of his face. John could tell from the look in the older man’s small, shrewd brown eyes that he still did not believe him.

    At length Tomline broke his gaze away. The Bishop rose and paced across the room to the open window. He stood looking into the street for a moment, deep in thought, then reached up and closed the sash. The wooden window-frame descended with a smooth hiss.

    ‘In that case there is only one thing to be done,’ Tomline said. He turned to face John, his face hard. ‘You must persuade Mr Coutts to forego his debt.’

    ‘Forego it?’ Coutts had been so generous already to John, putting back payment dates for loans, extending credit again and again. John lived in terror that every request he made would stretch their relationship one step too far; he suspected Tomline’s suggestion would do just that. ‘I cannot ask that of him.’

    ‘You must,’ Tomline said simply. ‘Mr Pitt’s reputation requires us to settle his estate as quickly as possible.’

    Nausea stirred in John’s stomach, because this was starting to sound less like the usual brusque persuasion and more like blackmail. ‘Can we not repay Mr Coutts out of the parliamentary grant available to the estate?’

    ‘Repay your debt from a public fund granted to defray Mr Pitt’s obligations?’ Tomline said, arching a brow, and John felt the nausea intensify as he realised the full extent of his predicament. He rubbed his hands together. They felt so cold, yet they were slick with sweat.

    ‘If that is indeed where we stand,’ Tomline said, at last, ‘and you say this debt can only be paid from the parliamentary grant, then there is only one course left open to us. I must consult with the authorities to find out whether using the grant would be legal in this instance.’

    John had thought he was beyond any further shocks, but the Bishop’s words hit him squarely in the stomach, as powerfully as though Tomline had physically struck him. For a moment he could barely find the breath to form a response. He said on a gasp, ‘You cannot bring strangers into my financial affairs.’

    ‘I admit I had hoped to keep it a family matter,’ Tomline replied, with an edge, ‘but this debt must be paid, somehow. If you truly cannot deal privately with Mr Coutts in this, and you say your situation precludes you from settling the debt outright, then we may have no choice.’

    ‘This is private!’ John shouted, fearfully, but Tomline shook his head.

    ‘No, my lord, it is not private. Your brother was a public man, and you and I must be very careful what we do, for we are responsible for his public reputation.’

    • I can really feel how John is feeling in this situation. (Myself, I’d be in full-on brainlock.) I like how Tomline seems to be making only the most reasonable of requests. Well done!

  2. That’s great! What a tyrant Mrs. Bletherow is! I pity Miss Thompson.

    Here’s a bit of my WIP, Silence and Secrecy, set in 1797. Elizabeth Collington, the narrator, thinks she’s discovered a new plant specie, and is seeking confirmation from an Oxford botanist. Rebecca is there to assist in any way she can.

    “And when Miss Collington’s observations are confirmed, she will receive credit for the discovery?” Rebecca asked.

    Townsend removed his spectacles and looked at her. “My dear, the contributions of lay botanists are truly appreciated, but only a man of science can make such a discovery, for only he has the knowledge, skills, and tools to make a full and accurate scientific description of a new specie.”

    “Knowledge from which women are actively excluded,” Rebecca replied. “It seems very convenient for the men of science.”

    “Even then, the discovery is subject to challenge and rigorous review by his skeptical colleagues. No, in seeking to claim such a discovery, Miss Collington would open herself to ridicule and censure from the entire scientific community.” He turned to me. “I fail to see why you would seek such acclaim; it hardly seems—seemly—for a young lady to put herself forward so.”

    Rebecca was about to respond to this challenge, but I spoke before she could. “I have always thought that credit should go to those who earn it.”

    He looked at me for a long moment. “If you continue to cooperate, if you will show me the location of these specimens when they are blooming this summer, my article in the Society’s Philosophical Transactions will include you in a footnote.”

    “A footnote.” Rebecca’s tone was flat with disbelief. “We are expected to disclose the location of Miss Collington’s discovery in exchange for a footnote.”

    “Yes, for that is the usual acknowledgement lay botanists receive, and they are by and large content with it, being only too happy to contribute to science in any way they can. I had hoped young ladies such as yourselves would understand that.”

    I could see Rebecca struggling to restrain herself after this attack. As good as it was to see her transformed from the quiet creature of a few moments before, I knew her next utterance would likely create a permanent break with Professor Townsend and the Royal Society.

    “Mrs. Burgess!” I said. “I have just remembered our engagement at the village hall. Time has quite gotten away from us. My apologies, professor, but would you accompany us? Perhaps the fresh air would do us all good.”

    • Arrogant doesn’t even begin to cover it! I remember the dedication from a Victorian scientist to his wife, which thanked her for her help without which he could not have made the discovery he was publicising. Turned out, it was her discovery. Blaggard and blackguard both.

    • Alas, this still happens… A friend (female) wrote 90% of a science paper last year and at the last minute was demoted to second author to accommodate her (male and higher-ranking) co-author. She was devastated. It means a lot in academic scientific circles.

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