Summary: To Joan, who inspired this latest encounter with Cousin Clarissa.
Word Count: 4479
Marie looked around the living room and stifled a small sigh of dismay as she surveyed the chaos that surrounded her. With Hop Sing away visiting one of his many cousins in San Francisco, things were definitely starting to fall apart, slowly but surely. Her life seemed to be unravelling around her and Marie had to suppress a feeling of panic.
“Is it too much to expect your brothers to take their belongings upstairs?” she groused to her baby son, corralled on the safe haven of the sofa with a barrier of cushions. Joe gurgled happily and watched with interest as his mother started heaping abandoned toys, books and even an old sock into a large wicker basket. His attention was grabbed by the whirring of the grandfather clock, preparatory to striking the hour and Joe struggled to turn around and pull himself up, holding tight to the back of the sofa. He was fascinated by the clock and crowed in delight each time it chimed. He bounced up and down merrily, crowing with glee and chattering excited nonsense.
His mother did not share his joy. “Nearly time to start preparing lunch!” Marie sighed, picking up the baby before he bounced off the sofa. “And then there will be the dishes to wash and dry and put away, and there is a huge pile of mending and after that, I’ll have to get dinner ready…”
Her voice trailed off miserably at the prospect of this never-ending list of chores that stretched ahead and Marie dropped her head so that her cheek rested on the baby’s small head. Instead of comforting her, the feel of the downy, golden-brown curls just made her feel even worse. “I don’t have enough time for you either!” she sobbed and tears began to trickle miserably down her cheeks. Joe looked up in amazement and patted her face softly.
“What on earth is the matter?” a familiar voice enquired.
Marie looked up and began weeping in earnest. Ben strode over to his wife and held her tightly, patting her on the back and making understanding noises until she began to calm down. Then he led her upstairs, and persuaded her to lie down and rest.
“I’ll take care of everything! You just lie here quietly and cuddle Joseph.”
Marie nodded wearily and closed her eyes with gratitude. Ben watched her for a moment and his heart constricted as he saw how tired she looked – why had he not noticed this before? How could he be so insensitive? Internally berating himself, he closed the door softly and went back downstairs to prepare lunch.
“Hi Pa!” Hoss carolled, running in at full tilt. He stopped abruptly and looked askance at the unusual sight of his father with an apron around his waist.
“Keep it down!” Ben pleaded. “Your Mama is trying to rest.”
“And you’ve taken over kitchen duties?” Adam asked, just managing not to smirk at the spectacle.
“For the meantime,” Ben agreed evenly. “Just until I can make other arrangements.” He smiled at the youth. “Would you go upstairs – quietly – and bring Joseph down for lunch?”
Adam nodded and scurried away as silently as possible. What on earth was wrong with Marie? She wasn’t ill, was she? Was that why Pa looked so harried? Fighting down a panicky feeling, Adam tiptoed into the large bedroom and retrieved his baby brother, who greeted him with a sleepy smile and the unmistakeable aroma of a diaper that badly needed changing.
Hoss did not look particularly impressed at this change in arrangements. “What’s for lunch?” he enquired.
“Sandwiches,” Ben replied shortly. “Cheese sandwiches.” He braced himself for the outburst.
“But I don’t like cheese!” Hoss wailed.
Ben could turn his hand to many things, but he was not an inspired caterer and had done his best to provide a nutritious and filling meal at a moment’s notice. “I don’t care!” he replied shortly. “That’s what I’ve made for lunch. Or you can have plain bread and butter, if you prefer. Or an apple. It’s up to you.”
Hoss settled himself at the table and scowled as Adam came down with Joe in his arms.
“What’s he getting? I bet he don’t have to eat no cheese sandwiches!” Hoss grumped. He was still not entirely reconciled to the presence of Joe in his life and was still rather jealous of the baby.
“His usual mushy-stuff,” Adam replied with equanimity. “I don’t think you’d enjoy it, Hoss! Best stick with bread and butter, if you know what’s good for you!”
Hoss shot him an evil glare, incensed at the implication he would literally take food out of his baby brother’s mouth. Besides which, he tried some of Joe’s food and found it bland and unappealing.
Ben took the baby onto his lap, wrapped a napkin around his neck and began feeding him, only half-listening to the squabbling of his two eldest. He was just thankful that Joe was not yet old enough to join in. But that day was rapidly approaching and goodness knows what new battles would break out. Ben smiled down at the baby prayed he would be a quiet, obedient child. Joe gave a happy bounce and then contentedly spat his food back onto his plate, favouring his father with a cherubic smile. Stifling a sigh, Ben scraped it back onto the spoon and wondered when he would get peace to eat his own lunch.
For several days, Ben kept his sons busy around the house, making sure they helped Marie as much as possible, for just looking after Joe was a full-time and very demanding job, especially now that he crawling. His besotted mother was full of praise for her child’s achievements, but Ben was giving serious consideration to tethering the child to the leg of the sofa, for he was constantly underfoot. Knowing Hoss’ predilection for running into the house without looking where he was going, Ben was fearful for his baby’s safety, having no particular desire to see the youngest Cartwright squashed under his brother’s boots.
While Marie appreciated the efforts her stepsons were making, she often found herself redoing their chores, for Adam’s attempts at washing the dishes were decidedly sketchy and Hoss’ ideas of tidying up comprised stuffing all his toys underneath the sofa.
“I never quite realised just what a boon and a blessing Hop Sing was!” she sighed, handing Ben a large bundle of laundry to take into town, along with some correspondence for him to post. It had been over a week since she had left the ranch and while she longed for a change of scenery, there were too many things still requiring her attention for Marie to consider even the briefest of outings. She was briefly contemplating a cup of coffee before starting to peel a veritable mountain of potatoes, when a pitiful cry from Joe sent her rushing pell-mell back to the living room.
Ben could hear his youngest son’s cries as he rode out of the yard and vowed that something – anything – had to be done before Marie collapsed in a frazzled heap. While he, Adam and Hoss were all doing their best, it was not enough and he could see his beloved wife beginning to disappear under the morass of domestic chores.
“I have a surprise for you!” Ben whispered through the velvety night air, drawing Marie into a close embrace, cocooned in the privacy of their bedroom, the door shut firmly against any small boys who might venture forth.
A surprised gasp, expectant with pleasure rustled past his ear, so that all the hairs on the back of Ben’s neck stood up on end.
“I love surprises!” Marie breathed, and drew her fingertips gently down his bare chest. She melted into his strong grasp, tilting her head back and meeting his lips with a passionate kiss that was returned with equal urgency. In the dim moonlight, she smiled up into his beloved face, so close to her own with a beguiling charm that never failed to move him. “Can I guess what it is?”
A rumbling laugh reverberated through Ben’s body and echoed in her own being. “You can try!” A teasing finger eased its way along the curve of her neck and Marie shivered deliciously. There was a whisper of silken fabric as her delicate crepe de chine nightgown was eased slowly over her shoulders and she arose languorously to lean over him, just out of reach of his devouring mouth.
“Oh Ben!” Her hands flickered invitingly across his flesh, curving irresistibly downwards. “Whatever can I do to persuade you?”
In an instant, all else was forgotten, as moonbeams danced enticingly across the bedroom ceiling.
“My name’s Shaughnessy, ma’am – and I’m here to help you in your time of need!”
Marie could feel her jaw hanging slackly and gave herself a little shake. “My time of need?” she echoed, looking at the strange woman with bemusement, tinged with apprehension. She was so very large and forbidding that Marie felt quite overwhelmed.
“Seeing as how that Chinese fellow has up and left you,” the creature explained, striding forward, so that Marie had to take several steps backward or risk being bowled over on her own doorstep. She stood and watched as the plainly dressed woman walked into the house and surveyed her surroundings with interest.
“That’s very kind of you, but…” Marie’s feeble protest was forcibly swept aside.
“Nothing of the sort! Your husband is paying me handsomely for my troubles – and I can see you need my help! You’re in a sorry state, aren’t you?”
Shaughnessy strode forwards, placed her large, reddened hands on her hips and shook her head as if in disbelief. “Dearie me! I’ve certainly got my work cut out here, and no mistake about it!”
In vain Marie protested: Shaughnessy appeared to be the original immoveable object and simply would not take no for an answer. Within ten minutes she had filled a bucket with hot water and was setting to scrubbing the floors with a large and bristly brush, singing tunelessly as she worked up an impressive lather. After a while, Marie took Joe upstairs and started to change the beds, hoping for a little respite. It was short lived – Shaughnessy appeared in the doorway.
“Many hands make light work!” she announced, rapidly stripping off a pillowcase, while Joe sat on the counterpane and watched her with wide-eyed and open-mouthed wonder.
“Pretty little thing,” Shaughnessy remarked conversationally. “What’s her name?”
“His name is Joseph,” Marie protested, but one look from Shaughnessy stunned her into submission.
“I ain’t had much dealing with young ‘uns. But it seems a crying shame to waste all that lovely hair and those pretty green eyes on a boy.” Having said her piece, Shaughnessy started to strip off the rest of the bedclothes with great gusto and Marie felt it prudent to rescue her child before he was consigned along with them into the laundry basket.
“I’ll go and get lunch ready,” she ventured and then fled downstairs, where Ben was waiting, arms crossed and a smugly satisfied smile on his face.
“Benjamin Cartwright – how could you?” She thumped him twice on the chest, hard enough to make her husband wince. “Of all the interfering, inconsiderate – MEN! You are impossible!”
A wounded look greeted her outburst. “I was only trying to help!” Ben protested. “And Shaughnessy’s a hard worker and as honest as they come. She may be a bit rough and ready, but her heart’s in the right place.”
Marie glared at him. “I don’t care! You should have asked me first – after all, I’m the one who has to spend time with her, not you. The woman is a menace – and she thought Joe was a girl! And besides which…”
Ben could sense the hesitation. “Yes dear?” he enquired sweetly.
Marie licked her lips, for her mouth had suddenly gone very dry. “Cousin Clarissa’s coming tomorrow,” she whispered. “I wrote and asked for her help…”
Upstairs, Shaughnessy paused from turning the heavy feather mattress as the inimitable bellow of Ben Cartwright filled the house. Seconds later, the loud wails of his son were heard with equal clarity. “That boy may be as dainty as little girl, but he sure can bellow like a young bull!” she thought, flipping the mattress over. “Ain’t no doubt who his father is, no sirree!”
“You did the right thing, my dear,” Cousin Clarissa said, delicately pulling off her pale grey gloves before sipping her tea. She looked around the room and almost managed to restrain a shudder of distaste. “But between us, we can sort this mess out!”
Marie gave her a tentative smile, while keeping half an eye on Joe who was rolling happily around on the floor, playing with a fluffy ball she had fashioned out of scraps of wool.
“I bought one or two things for the boys.” Clarissa helped herself to a slice of Madeira cake. “Rather dry, isn’t it? Anyway, as I was saying…” Without missing a beat, she bent down and caught the hem of Joe’s dress as he disappeared under the sofa after his ball and pulled the indignant child back out, his face and hands covered in dirt. “… standards have certainly slipped around here – the place is just filthy!” She brushed the worst of the dust off his small dress and pressed a piece of the despised cake into Joe’s hands, receiving a radiant smile in return, two tiny white teeth appearing even brighter amidst his grubby face.
“Excuse me?” Shaughnessy stalked forward, bristling with indignation and wiping her soapy hands on an old flour sack she was utilising as a serviceable apron.
“I see you’ve got someone in to help with the heavier chores,” Clarissa remarked to Marie. “Very sensible. We ladies can hardly be expected to do such things, can we?” Sitting on his mother’s knee, cheeks bulging with cake, Joe bobbed his head vigorously.
Shaughnessy gave him a sour look. “Never seen such a child for getting into trouble. He’s a handful, that one.”
Ignoring her, Clarissa bent forward and patted Marie consolingly on the hand. “It really is not a good idea to let the hired help become too familiar,” she advised, a wicked gleam sparkling from her eyes.
Sighing softly, Marie picked up Joe and went off to wash his hands and face, feeling that the battle lines were well and truly drawn and that she was trapped helplessly in the middle.
“You boys wipe your feet before you set one foot in this house!” Shaughnessy commanded.
Hoss shot her a furious look, but wisely held his tongue, but knew that it was pointless to argue with the determined woman. Adam gave her a wide smile, while obediently doing as he was told. It had not taken him long to discover that Shaughnessy’s bark was considerably worse than her bite…
“You don’t want to do that,” Shaughnessy stated firmly. “You’re gambling on getting another King to make up two pairs, and the odds are against you.”
Adam put his cards down on the kitchen table and flashed her an admiring look. “How did you know that?”
Tapping the side of her nose, Shaughnessy gave him a ferocious grin. “I can read your face, boy. Clear as daylight. Plus, I know which cards have been dealt, so I can work out which are left in the pack.”
Adam considered this carefully and then looked at the small pile of matches that lay before him and the much larger pile that his teacher had amassed. “So it’s partly about mathematics?” he asked.
“Partly. And you understand human nature and how your opponent thinks. Plus, you got to have luck. You are either lucky in cards, or you aren’t,” she said firmly, gathering the pack together and shuffling them with dazzling speed. “Ready for another hand?”
Adam nodded eagerly, while keeping a wary eye out for his father or stepmother. He was almost certain that they would not approve of a thirteen year-old playing poker. Even if was based on sound mathematical principles. Adam was certain neither of them would think it was educational. But it was fun!
“Cousin Clarissa!” Hoss charged across the living room and Marie just managed to retrieve Joe from his heedless, thundering path. “I’ve missed you!” He wrapped both arms around the prim lady and hugged her firmly.
“How lovely to see you again,” Clarissa said, with an unaccustomed warmth and tenderness in her voice. “And I do believe you have grown again – what a fine, big boy you are!”
“I’ve lost a tooth too!” Hoss informed her, opening his mouth wide and pointing. “See?”
Clarissa delved into her reticule and produced a shiny coin, which she handed across the delighted little boy.
“Wow!” Hoss had never had a whole dime to himself before. “Thanks!” he reached up and gave her a sloppy kiss. “Look Adam – I’ve got a dime!”
“Lucky you. “ Adam could not quite suppress an envious tone creeping into his voice. “Good afternoon, Cousin Clarissa.”
Clarissa gave him a cold smile and a formal nod. There was something about the boy’s reticence that rather unnerved her.
Adam took Joe into his arms and gently bounced him up and down. “Hey trouble! What mischief have you been up to today?”
“He tried to eat some of Clarissa’s embroidery silks,” Marie confessed, watching with a fond expression on her face as Joe burbled a stream of happy nonsense to his brother, small arms waving wildly.
“I fear the dark-green silk will never quite be the same again.” Clarissa studied the chewed remnant with displeasure. “That child really must learn some respect for other people’s possessions.”
Hoss tugged at her elbow. “He threw one of my wooden horses into the fireplace and it got all burned up!” he confided.
“That proves my point – if you don’t do something about that child soon, he will grow up to be completely uncontrollable.”
Adam disentangled Joe’s grasping hands from his hair and shifted the baby onto his hip. “Why can’t you just accept that he’s a baby?” he demanded unhappily. “Everyone else thinks Joe is sweet, but all you ever do is criticize him. Don’t you know anything about children?” He stared angrily at the older woman, his face flushed a deep red.
Amazingly enough, Clarissa did not react to this furious outburst. “Loyalty and love,” she mused. “Two very important qualities – and you have them in abundance, Adam. I can see young Joseph has a stalwart defender.”
Turning to Marie, Clarissa gave her arm a little squeeze. “You and Ben have taught your boys well, my dear, and they do you great credit. I only wish my own parents had been as wise.” Then she hurried towards her bedroom, before anyone could see the tears that sparkled in her eyes.
Ben returned home, just as Shaughnessy was wrapping herself in the folds of a voluminous shawl.
“That’s me done for the day.” She looked around the room with a satisfied expression. “Reckon we’re starting to make inroads here.”
“There’s still plenty of work for you to do and lots of elbow grease required,” Clarissa called out. “Those rugs need to be taken outside and given a good beating, to start with.”
“I don’t need you telling me my job!” Shaughnessy retorted.
Clarissa arched a sceptical eyebrow and pursed her mouth tightly. “Really?” Her voice dripped with sarcasm. “The evidence rather suggests otherwise.”
“I don’t see you doing much to help,” Shaughnessy retorted. “Except poking your nose in where it isn’t required, causing trouble and upsetting everyone.”
Clarissa looked completely taken aback. However, she quickly recovered her composure. “Really! I have never been so insulted!”
“You ain’t never met me before, have you?” Shaughnessy squared off to her.
“I don’t generally associate with scrubber-women!” Clarissa responded, in condescending tones.
Hurriedly interposing himself between the two warring parties, Ben put his arm around Shaughnessy’s shoulders and ushered outside, where her mule was waiting patiently.
“We really are terribly grateful for all your help,” he soothed. “You are a god-send to us.”
“That cousin of yours is an infernal nuisance!” Shaughnessy sniffed. “And how your wife has the patience to put with her and her interfering ways is more than I can fathom.”
Ben smiled weakly, unable to think of a single thing to say in response. This seemed to please Shaughnessy, who poked the mule with her heels and trotted out into the dusk. He walked back into his house, wondering how much longer it would be before Hop Sing returned and restored peace and harmony to the household.
“I thought you were gonna punch her!” Hoss sounded slightly disappointed that bloodshed had been averted.
“A lady does not fight,” Clarissa explained. “Which is a pity. It does rather constrain one sometimes. But I would not resort to using my fists. I have always found that a strong, steel hatpin is a most effective weapon.”
Adam choked down a roar of laughter and looked carefully at his cousin. Was he mistaken or was there the merest hint of laughter in her voice? Could she actually have a sense of humour? Clarissa gazed back blandly at him and Adam began to suspect there was more to her than met the eye.
Feeling badly in need of a break from hostilities, Marie persuaded Ben to drive her into town with the younger boys. Adam begged to stay at home, as he was currently devouring The Lay of The Last Minstrel, a surprisingly thoughtful gift from Cousin Clarissa.
“Stay out of harms way,” Ben advised, cocking his head towards Shaughnessy and Clarissa, who were busily unhooking the prisms from his fireside lamp and bickering over the best way to clean them.
“You can’t beat a drop of vinegar in the water!” Shaughnessy maintained. “Brings them up lovely, it does.”
Clarissa sniffed. “And smells atrocious! Whereas lemon juice…”
“Don’t worry, Pa! I reckon I should be safe enough in my room!” Tucking the treasured volume under his arm, Adam took the stairs at a run and flung himself onto his bed and re-immersed himself in Sir Walter Scott’s masterpiece, his mind travelling far from the Ponderosa and the current travails.
“Are you sure it’s safe to leave Adam?” Marie asked anxiously, trying to restrain Joe who was fascinated by the horses and kept straining forward to try to grab their tails.
“He’s safe enough in his room,” Ben soothed. “And you need a break from those two, don’t you?”
His wife sighed and pulled her baby a little closer. “Oh, I do! It doesn’t seem like my house any more…”
Ben clicked the reins and the buggy lurched forward. “There’s remarkably little privacy, that’s for sure.”
He missed the intimacy of sitting alone with his bewitching wife in the evenings and felt constrained by the continual presence of his cousin. Even when they were alone in bed at night, it was hard to forget that Clarissa was also in the house. If only she hadn’t boasted about how sharp her hearing was – it really was most disconcerting and highly off-putting! Ben gazed mournfully ahead and hoped that there might be some news from Hop Sing awaiting them in town. He really did not think he could endure this state of affairs much longer…
A rumble from his stomach alerted Adam to the fact that it was well-past lunchtime. Closing his book with a sigh, he went off in search of sustenance. The living room was neat and clean – but there was no sign of either woman.
“At least there’s no sign of blood!” he thought, with a certain amount of relief, and ambled towards the kitchen.
“Two pairs – now beat that if you can!” Shaughnessy proclaimed triumphantly and puffed happily on her clay pipe.
A positive smirk eased its way onto Clarissa’s face. “I do believe I just might – with a full house!” She laid the cards down with great relish and gathered in the pot. “Mine, I think!”
“You’re gambling! With real money!” Adam cold not believe his eyes.
“So we are,” Clarissa said evenly.
“Who would’a thought it?” Shaughnessy added. She stood up and offered her hand to Clarissa. “You play well, for a little old lady from back east!”
Clarissa took the outstretched hand in a surprisingly firm grasp and shook it warmly. “And you are a worthy opponent.”
She refilled their glasses with Ben’s carefully hoarded sherry and the two women raised them in a silent toast to one another, before returning to their chores.
Adam shook his head – he would never understand women, not if he lived to be one hundred!
“Ssshhh! She’ll hear us!” Ben implored, as Marie’s peals of laughter filled the room.
She could not stop thinking about the story Adam had related on their return from town, for the idea of prim-and-proper Clarissa and raw-boned Shaughnessy reaching such an unlikely rapprochement tickled her fancy greatly.
“I don’t care!” Marie proclaimed happily. She flung herself onto Ben’s chest and darted little butterfly kisses all over, before entwining her fingers in his hair. “Anyway, she’s going home tomorrow and the house will belong to us again!”
Ben pulled her closer, then rolled so that he was leaning over her laughing face, inhaling her tantalising scent… “I can’t wait that long,” he said hoarsely. “I can’t wait another moment.”
Just as they were ready to return to the Ponderosa, the stage had arrived in Virginia City, bringing with it the welcome figure of Hop Sing. He had been a little taken aback at the warmth and fervour with which Mr Ben and Missy Marie had welcomed him back, but Hop Sing reasoned that absence really did make the heart fonder. He wondered if he should make more such trips, perhaps on a regular basis? And if they coincided with the visits of Cousin Clarissa, so much the better!
The cool evening air blew gently in through the open windows of the house, providing a welcome breeze over its weary occupants. An open book lay across Adam’s chest, as he dreamt of heroic deeds. Hoss lay on his back, snoring gently and in the nursery, Joe gazed at the moonbeams that danced across the ceiling and reached out a chubby hand to try to catch the tantalising lights. Next door, Ben and Marie lay closely entwined amidst tangled bedding, their breathing slow and regular. Peace was restored to the Ponderosa– at least until Hop Sing discovered that Clarissa had kindly rearranged his kitchen cupboards.
“Order and regularity is so important,” she advised Hoss, before taking a firm hold of his nose and thrusting a spoonful of calomel into his protesting mouth.