Under the Umbrella

By Laura Schiller

Based on: Bleak House (novel/2005 miniseries)

Copyright: Charles Dickens' estate/BBC

"May I walk you home, Miss Jellyby?"

Caddy jumped. The soft voice over her shoulder belonged to Prince Turveydrop, who had come to stand next to her. From the window, they could see a swarm of mothers and maidservants, armed with coats and umbrellas, following their young charges out into the muddy, rainy street. As usual, Caddy was the only pupil who had arrived alone; as for protection from the rain, all she had was a wide-brimmed bonnet, still wet from the previous walk.

Prince held up his own umbrella, shyly offering her proof of his usefulness as a escort.

"Oh no!" she blurted out. "No, thank you, sir," belatedly remembering her manners. "It's only a few steps to my house. I can look after myself."

"I know you can." His respectful nod made her feel guilty for being so defensive. "But my other school in Kensington lies in the same direction, you see. I … would appreciate the company."

Behind that pause, she heard an echo of something all too familiar. How many times he must have walked alone in rain, snow or sleet, alone and tired, while his father lived in all the luxury he could afford? I'll say this for Ma, she thought wryly, At least she treats herself no better than us.

"All right." She took his arm and, as they stepped out into the rain, let him unfold his umbrella over them both.

She could not remember ever walking so closely to anyone except sometimes the servants, who would drag her along by the hand when they went to market. Matching her steps to Prince's should have been awkward, but – whether due to their almost identical heights or the many hours of dancing practice – it was almost natural.

"What's that?" she asked, as he passed the umbrella to her in order to take something out of his pocket.

"My dinner. Would you like some?"

It was a meat pie wrapped in paper, squashed out of shape and looking small for one person, let alone two. Caddy's jaw dropped. If she hadn't been annoyed with Turveydrop Senior before, she certainly was now.

"That's all you're going to eat?"

He nodded with his mouth full, eating as neatly as possible, reminding her of Miss Flite's birds pecking at seeds. Crumbs dropped onto the pavement and the front of his coat.

"On the run?"

Another nod.

"While your father dines out at a French restaurant?"

By the time he finished, his face was flushed, and not only from eating. For the first time, his warm blue eyes were positively icy.

"Is there some point to your inquiries, Miss Jellyby?"

Part of her wanted to back down, apologize, make one more attempt to act like the lady she so desperately wished to be. However, when Mrs. Jellyby's daughter got an idea into her head, especially one related to helping someone, there was no stopping her.

"Actually, there is!" she shot back. "Why don't you tell that vain, spoiled, selfish walking statue to go hang? Or at least hand in your notice and teach dancing somewhere else?"

"That is none of your concern." Prince never shouted, but the suppressed anger and hurt in his quiet voice were powerful enough to make her drop his arm, return his umbrella and step back. "You couldn't possibly understand."

"Try me!" She snorted, unconsciously sounding exactly like her own mother when she could not write quickly enough. "My own Ma keeps me writing letters day and night, 'til my fingers cramp and I see inkstains when I close my eyes. She's raising money for a settlement in Africa, when her own household is as filthy and neglected as any African hut! Why do you think I can't afford a new umbrella? We could be starving, and she wouldn't care, because the great Brotherhood of Humanity matters more to her than her own husband and children. So you see, Mr. Turveydrop, I know perfectly well how it feels to be a slave to a selfish parent. If I had any useful skill to live by, as you have, I'd leave her in a heartbeat. I swear I would!"

She swiped away her tears, feeling her cheeks blaze up with fury – and embarrassment. She'd done it again, lost control of her temper, as she swore each time she never would again. Miss Summerson's eyes, round with astonishment and dismay, were as clear in her mind as if that gentle lady stood before her. As for Prince, how could he possibly respect her now?

"Miss Jellyby – "

Without meeting his eyes, she began to walk faster, splashing through puddles and dodging through the crowd. The last thing she wanted was to see his disapproval.

"Caroline!"

She stopped. He had never called her that before.

People were staring, even laughing, as they watched him running after her, coattails flying, reeling to a stop in front of her. Even breathless and agitated as he was, he did not forget to hold the umbrella over her head, which made his breach of etiquette involving her Christian name even more confusing to her.

"I don't do it for him," he said, as they continued their walk. "I am not so weak and deluded as you suppose."

"Mr. Turveydrop, forgive me – I didn't mean - "

"Please." He interrupted her with a gesture of his hand. "Let me explain. Before my mother died, she made me promise to look after Father. For her sake, as well as for his, I am supporting him to the best of my ability. I know what he is – how could I not?" He smiled at her with a sardonic edge that would have quite shocked Mr. Turveydrop Senior if he had seen it. "But I also know that without me, whether he admits it or not, he might have been ruined long ago, and would certainly not enjoy the lifestyle he does now. There is comfort in being needed, Miss Jellyby. Surely you can understand that?"

His words reminded her painfully of her ten-year-old self, finally able to write without her letters escaping their lines, ferociously proud of being more helpful to Ma than anyone else in the house.

"I understand," she said softly. "And I'm sorry."

Prince smiled, this time with no sign of bitterness. "We are birds of a feather, are we not?"

As usual, thinking of birds reminded her of Miss Flite and made her laugh. "Perhaps someone will unlock our cages one of these days. I only wish we had the keys."

"Perhaps we do," he said, looking at her with unfamiliar warmth in his blue eyes.

By this time, distracted as she was, Caddy had nearly forgotten that the destination of this walk was her own home. Catching sight of it in all its dilapidated glory, from muddy front steps to smeared windows to crumbling plaster and missing roof tiles, she blushed all over again. What would Prince think of it?

"Well, this is it," she said, backing out of range of his umbrella and regretting it for more than the loss of shelter. "Thank you for escorting me, Mr. Turveydrop."

"It has been my honor," he replied, with a bow.

She understood now what Turveydrop Senior meant by his son's having "no Deportment". Phrases and gestures like this were too awkward for Prince, too artificial; sincerity suited him so much better. Perhaps this was another thing they had in common.

She watched him hurry down the street, thinking of caged birds, wondering what their key to freedom might be. She thought of walking arm in arm, of a certain look in his bright eyes, a certain smile.

He had called her Caroline.

With one last giggle at her own foolish daydreams, she shut the door.