Roman De La Rose: The Blossoming of the Bud

What if Dickens got Rosa Bud quite wrong, and her feelings towards Mr Jasper were much more complex than at first they appeared? Here is how the story could have been. John Jasper/Rosa Bud, will veer into AU territory later on and SUITABLE FOR ADULTS ONLY!


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Chap­ter 1

T

HE sum­mer had been long and te­dious and I was pleased to think that soon Edwin would be going back to Cam­bridge to com­plete his en­gi­neer­ing stud­ies.

Our days were al­ways the same. I would read in the gar­den or sew in the par­lour, then, after lunch with Miss Twin­kle­ton, Edwin would call. We would take a turn about the Cathe­dral Close, per­haps sit by the great oak doors and hear the choir re­hearse, per­haps ac­cept Mrs Crisparkle's offer to stand us af­ter­noon tea.

He would try to tease me and I would tire of it. We would carp at each other until the time came for me to go back into the Nun's House and prac­tise at the piano.

This was what life held for me. Silly quar­rels with Edwin – ex­cept in the fu­ture they would take place in much hot­ter climes, and I would have to…have to…

I did not want to marry. But what choice did I have?

I wel­comed the pass­ing of Au­gust, its parched air mel­low­ing into gold­en Septem­ber. A time when the Nuns' House would re­vive from its long, over­heat­ed swoon, the cor­ners echo­ing again with laugh­ter and singing. A time when Edwin would be gone and I could play at being free, hav­ing no obli­ga­tions, no tes­ta­men­tary du­ties.

First, how­ev­er, there was the odi­ous ne­ces­si­ty of tak­ing sup­per with his uncle.

Edwin doted on his 'Uncle Jack' but I knew him only as the cathe­dral choir­mas­ter, a fig­ure whose back I saw at reg­u­lar in­ter­vals when at­tend­ing Sun­day ser­vices and Choral Even­song, but no more than that. Edwin had paint­ed him to me as the male equiv­a­lent of a moth­er hen, a fuss­ing, fret­ting crea­ture who made him eat sen­si­bly and drink mod­er­ate­ly and go to bed at a re­spectable hour when he was down in Clois­ter­ham.

My ex­pec­ta­tions of this sup­per, then, were low as Miss Twin­kle­ton and I made our way on a balmy late sum­mer evening to his gate­house lodge. There would be yet more dull talk of Egypt and en­gi­neers, with ad­di­tion­al ref­er­ences to cho­ris­ters. How dry it promised to be.

Edwin met us at the lit­tle door set into the arch­way. He was wear­ing his good blue suit and an air of bare­ly-con­cealed ex­cite­ment.

"What has put such colour in your cheeks, Eddy?" I asked when he took my hand to lead me up the stair.

"It is a great mo­ment in a man's life," he said, "when he can show off his promised bride to those peo­ple whose opin­ion he val­ues the most."

"That per­son," I said, cor­rect­ing him, for Edwin had no fam­i­ly to speak of now, both par­ents being dead with no sur­viv­ing broth­ers or sis­ters.

"Yes, that per­son," he al­lowed.

"I am not a wax­work, like one of Madam Tus­saud's cre­ations, to be poked and prod­ded and gaw­ped at."

"I did not say you were, Pussy! Ah, here we are."

For we had reached the top of the stair­case.

"Be sweet," he whis­pered to me, push­ing open the door.

Mr Jasper's back was to us as we stepped into the room. He was pour­ing wine into glass­es over by a large cre­den­za. As soon as the door was shut, he turned to greet us.

"Miss Bud," he said.

I put out my hand and he did some­thing no man had done to me be­fore – he put my fin­ger­tips to his lips and kissed them, quite as if I were a grown lady. It was at once flat­ter­ing and un­set­tling, and I hard­ly knew how to re­spond.

What did the grown ladies in the ro­mances do?

"Mr…Jasper," I said, try­ing to rec­ol­lect my­self. "How do you do?"

"Very well," he said, his eyes upon me all the while as if the room were empty of all oth­ers. "Your pres­ence here tonight hon­ours me."

I tried to think of some­thing mod­est and gra­cious to say, but I could not. In­stead I watched dumb­ly as he made po­lite re­marks to Mrs Twin­kle­ton, and Edwin hand­ed us the wine glass­es.

He was good enough to play for us while we sipped at our drinks – some­what stronger than I was ac­cus­tomed to. He filled the room with won­der­ful melody, first some Haydn then Chopin, who was my favourite.

"Oh, Chopin!" I could not help ex­claim­ing when he struck the first notes of a par­tic­u­lar­ly pre­cious noc­turne. He smiled over the piano, then, when the piece was fin­ished, asked me about my mu­si­cal tastes and in­ter­ests.

I had never been able to speak of this with any­one be­fore. Edwin is such a philis­tine, and the Nuns' House girls only like music to dance to, so I sup­pose I made quite an ass of my­self, rhap­so­dis­ing on while Miss Twin­kle­ton and Edwin ex­changed com­i­cal glances.

"Your tastes tend to the Ro­man­tic," re­marked Jasper as we were seat­ed for din­ner, which made Edwin snort.

"I wouldn't vouch for that," he said. "All my ef­forts to be ro­man­tic meet with the sternest re­buff from our Pussy."

"Don't be so em­bar­rass­ing, Eddy," I hissed. "Or I won't speak to you for the rest of din­ner."

"Now, now, Rosa," quacked Miss Twin­kle­ton. "Let us re­mem­ber our man­ners in our host's house."

"On the sub­ject of music," said Jasper, skat­ing over the awk­ward­ness with ef­fi­cient smooth­ness, "Edwin sug­gests that you might be ready for more ad­vanced lessons than those you have been tak­ing…with Miss Critchell? Is it?"

"Yes. Miss Critchell." She came to the Nuns' House three times a week to hear us play, but ev­ery­one knew she was as deaf as a post. Ev­ery­one ex­cept her, it seemed.

"Does she suit you? Or would you agree with Edwin that your abil­i­ties may ben­e­fit from a high­er level of tu­ition now?"

"Eddy knows noth­ing about music," I said, cast­ing him a dag­gers glance, not pleased that he had been dis­cussing me with his uncle. "He would play a drum out of tune."

"Pussy!" re­mon­strat­ed Eddy, yet Jasper re­fused to be di­vert­ed, lean­ing to­wards me as he await­ed my an­swer.

"I'm not of­fer­ing my ser­vices to Edwin," he per­sist­ed soft­ly. "I'm of­fer­ing them to you."

"You are? You offer your ser­vices?"

"As music mas­ter, I do."

"I'm not ter­ri­bly good," I said with a slight stam­mer, rather taken aback at the no­tion that I should be wor­thy of lessons from Clois­ter­ham's fore­most mu­si­cian. "You will prob­a­bly find me rather hope­less. I try to make my fin­gers do as they should, but they are so pro­vok­ing­ly dif­fi­cult to con­trol…"

"Well, that's eas­i­ly reme­died," he said with a smile that made some­thing with­in me con­strict. "I am par­tic­u­lar­ly skilled with er­rant fin­gers."

"I…I'm sure you are."

"Pussy prac­tis­es an awful lot," con­tribut­ed Edwin. "Re­li­gious­ly, I'd say."

I re­frained from say­ing that piano re­hearsal was sim­ply my ex­cuse to cut short our af­ter­noon ex­pe­di­tions.

"Then that's set­tled. What do you say, Miss Twin­kle­ton? Twice a week, voice and piano? Can I count on your putting your music room at my dis­pos­al?"

Miss Twin­kle­ton flut­tered and squawked and heaved her bosom until ar­range­ments were in place – Mon­days and Thurs­days, after lunch, for an hour.

This should have been cause for mild cel­e­bra­tion, but I felt op­pressed by the knowl­edge that I would be spend­ing two hours a week clos­et­ed with this man of som­bre mien.

Even when the con­ver­sa­tion turned to the peren­ni­al in­som­nia-fod­der of Egypt and Edwin's prospects, Jasper cast a shad­ow over the table some­how. He made me think of the silly ghost sto­ries the girls some­times told each other late at night in the dor­mi­to­ry – about blight­ed souls and that kind of thing.

I would catch him at odd mo­ments, look­ing at me.

Why are you look­ing at me like that? Look away.

There was some­thing provoca­tive and over­ly in­ti­mate in his scruti­ny that caused the soft hairs to prick­le on the nape of my neck. With de­ter­mi­na­tion, I avoid­ed his gaze for the rest of the din­ner, our eyes meet­ing only at the mo­ment of part­ing.

Edwin walked us back to the Nuns' House, eager to know my im­pres­sions of Uncle Jack.

"He is a man," I replied, and I would yield no fur­ther opin­ion, sim­ply re­it­er­at­ing this phrase until he was quite mad with frus­tra­tion.

"Yes, he is a man, Miss Pert, and you are a minx! I don't envy you, Miss Twin­kle­ton, the task of trans­form­ing our Pussy into a young lady fit for so­ci­ety, truly I don't."

"I don't need to be fit for so­ci­ety, just the 'gyp­tians," I re­tort­ed, blow­ing him an iron­i­cal kiss be­fore we re­tired into our domi­cile.

Edwin left the next day to spend some weeks with friends in Lon­don be­fore re­turn­ing to Cam­bridge. Our part­ing was on rea­son­ably am­i­ca­ble terms, with fewer skir­mish­es than usual. All the same, when he left, I was sud­den­ly aware of a lift in my heart and my spir­its – in my very ribcage – which eased my breath.

"Do you not miss him ter­ri­bly?" asked Edith, as we walked to­geth­er in the gar­den on the first day of lessons.

"Not re­al­ly."

"But…" She gaped at me, a gold­fish open­ing and shut­ting her mouth. "He is so aw­ful­ly dash­ing. All the girls are quite in love with him."

"All the girls are silly feath­er­brains, then. When you've grown up with a fel­low, you don't no­tice these things. Even if he is your af­fi­anced hus­band. I sup­pose the day will come when I re­gard him dif­fer­ent­ly."

I paused, pluck­ing a petal from a late-bloom­ing rhodo­den­dron.

"I sup­pose," I re­peat­ed, frown­ing.

It per­turbed me, when I dared to think about it, that my heart had fall­en prey to none of those de­li­cious stir­rings de­scribed in the ro­mance nov­els. Edwin was a broth­er to me, a per­son I cared for and would do most any­thing to pro­tect but…a lover?

I had never felt more than aes­thet­ic ap­pre­ci­a­tion for any man or boy. When the nuns' girls (as we were known) let their eyes rove around cathe­dral ser­vices in search of a fine fig­ure, I could not par­tic­i­pate in the gig­gles. How­ev­er fine a fig­ure a man had, he could not be more to me than an ac­quain­tance, a pass­er-by.

My life was meant for Edwin. I was bound to him, and such love as I was ca­pa­ble of giv­ing was in­tend­ed for him.

When he was away, I could al­most love him, I think. His mem­o­ry, the gold­en boy with the bright smile, was vivid and charm­ing, yet I was grow­ing more and more used to dis­ap­point­ment with each re­union.

No mat­ter, I thought. My final year at the Nuns' House would pass and all this would end and what­ev­er was meant to hap­pen would hap­pen.

My first music les­son with Mr Jasper took place on that same day I had con­fid­ed in Edith. After lunch, Miss Tish­er came to find me in the din­ing room, all breath­less and a-flut­ter at hav­ing ad­mit­ted a man into the house.

She went with me to the music room and re­tired, leav­ing the door open in lieu of a chap­er­one, which the scarci­ty of teach­ers didn't allow. I think there was some kind of ar­range­ment that sent one of the maids scut­tling past at ten minute in­ter­vals.

Mr Jasper was seat­ed al­ready at the piano, his head bent over the keys while he as­sessed the in­stru­ment's tun­ing.

He looked up when I en­tered the room and smiled that strange smile he had, that seemed to have so many se­crets be­hind it.

"Miss Bud," he said, ris­ing po­lite­ly and bow­ing his head be­fore tak­ing his place on the stool once more. "I would like to hear you sing. Come and stand be­side me."

A com­mon­place enough re­quest, so why did it sound like an in­vi­ta­tion of the most per­ilous na­ture? I daw­dled to the piano, on top of which an array of sheet music lay in a fan shape.

"Do you know any of these?" asked Jasper.

"This. Miss Critchell al­ways made me sing it." I picked up My Moth­er Bids Me Bind My Hair and prof­fered it with lit­tle en­thu­si­asm.

"But you don't like it?"

"I like it well enough."

He smirked, shak­ing his head a lit­tle at that. "'Well enough' will have to suf­fice. Now, let us see what we make of it."

He took to the key­board and played the fa­mil­iar in­tro­duc­tion. I sang the song through, with­out fal­ter­ing, though my breath, as ever, rarely last­ed long enough to get me to the end of each line. Jasper was a con­sid­er­ably bet­ter pi­anist than Miss Critchell, and his fail­ure to stop for a mo­ment be­fore the more dif­fi­cult chords con­fused me at first.

I ended the song and looked away, fear­ing that his ver­dict might be harsh.

"There is work to be done, it is clear," he said, and I blushed flame-red. That cer­tain­ly wasn't the court­ly com­pli­ment I was used to when I sang at the Crisparkles' Al­ter­nate Mu­si­cal Wednes­days. Al­though I had ex­pect­ed it, the crit­i­cism stung. "But that is what I am here for. I fear you have fall­en into bad habits with your Miss Critchell. Did she let you stand like that, all hunched over?"

I had for­got­ten my pos­ture, but this was more due to my anx­ious dread of Jasper than any­thing Miss Critchell had done.

"No, in­deed, I…I am a lit­tle ner­vous, that is all."

"Of me?"

I nei­ther replied nor looked at him, but shrugged.

"No, Miss Bud, look at me and an­swer. Are you ner­vous of me?"

I dragged my gaze un­will­ing­ly to his, shrink­ing be­neath his se­vere brow.

"A lit­tle," I ad­mit­ted, muti­nous­ly.

He smiled and the shad­ows lift­ed, just for that mo­ment.

"Well, that will never do," he said in a pla­ca­to­ry tone. "Shall we make a solemn covenant here and now, Miss Bud? That you will ac­cept that what­ev­er I say to you is in your best in­ter­ests and in­tend­ed sole­ly to as­sist your im­prove­ment?"

"Is it?" I was still in a minor sulk.

"Miss Bud, I won't be spo­ken to as you speak to Edwin, let us be clear on that from the out­set. Ban­ish all petu­lance from your man­ner and we will get along fa­mous­ly, I am sure. Now, stand straight, put your shoul­ders back and let's try some scales."

He worked me much hard­er than Miss Critchell ever had, and I rued the day Edwin had ever asked for this favour. I want­ed to sing some gay airs for the draw­ing room, but Jasper per­mit­ted noth­ing but scales and breath­ing ex­er­cis­es, right until the very last minute of the al­lot­ted time.

"Your breath­ing is a mat­ter of some con­cern," he said, his hands lift­ing from the piano at last. "I can't imag­ine how any of you young ladies breathe at all, laced up so tight­ly."

Laced up so tight­ly. He al­most whis­pered the words, his eyes fixed on my waist. The at­mo­sphere had be­come charged again, just the way it was at that sup­per party.

"Like the bodice blue. In the song," I said, scarce­ly know­ing what words fell from my lips. I felt the need for a di­ver­sion, and my men­tion of the song seemed to pro­vide it.

"Yes, yes, the bodice blue," he said, snatch­ing up the score again. "Let's sing this again and see what im­prove­ment has been made."

This time he ap­proved of my pos­ture and I tried my hard­est to con­trol my breath, though I'm sure my ef­forts weren't up to his high stan­dards.

"Bet­ter," he said. "Still not per­fect, but Rome wasn't built in a day. A lit­tle more ex­pres­sion next time. Per­haps if we changed 'Lubin' to 'Edwin'…"

His side­long glance was sly. He want­ed to gauge my re­ac­tion to that thought.

Alas, I scarce can go or creep now Edwin is away.

No. The names could not be changed. I could both go and creep with im­puni­ty, and I had the pierc­ing sen­sa­tion that Jasper un­der­stood this, that he saw be­hind my out­ward ap­pear­ance and read my heart.

The ar­rival of Miss Tish­er at the door cov­ered my con­fu­sion and it was a great re­lief to me to see the back of Mr Jasper, even if it was only for a few days be­fore the piano class.

My mind was much oc­cu­pied with the singing les­son for the rest of that day. I tried to un­rav­el the events, to un­der­stand what Mr Jasper's cu­ri­ous man­ner might mean. Of course, he was sim­ply doing Edwin a favour. Be­cause Edwin want­ed an ac­com­plished wife who could en­ter­tain his col­leagues at sup­per par­ties. There was no more to it than that – how could there be?

All the same, I wished some of the other girls might be his pupils, then we could com­pare notes on him. But they knew him only from a dis­tance, as the choir­mas­ter at cathe­dral ser­vices.

The piano les­son was even worse. He found fault with my tech­nique, with my fin­ger­ing, with my pedal ef­fects, with my ac­cu­ra­cy, with my ex­pres­sion, with ev­ery­thing! I spent the en­tire hour fight­ing off fit after fit of pique, re­play­ing the same hor­rid, te­dious ex­er­cis­es over and over while he sat be­side me shak­ing his head and hold­ing up his hand to stop me again, the metronome tick­ing like a tyrant.

And he was too close to me. Oc­ca­sion­al­ly, when my left hand strayed down to­wards the end of the key­board, I had to al­most lean against him, and feel the fab­ric of his tail­coat brush my sleeve. Our knees were no more than an inch apart. A cu­ri­ous heat prick­led at my skin and I was un­com­fort­ably con­scious of his…what could I call it? His mas­culin­i­ty. That was it. Yet noth­ing of this na­ture or mag­ni­tude had ever dis­turbed me with Eddy, even when we em­braced.

It was ut­ter­ly un­wel­come and not to be borne.

"I have re­solved to can­cel my music lessons," I de­clared to Edith, fling­ing my­self on to the bed be­side her.

"Rosy! You can­not! What would dear Edwin think?"

"Dear Edwin can go hang! No, I don't mean that," I said, feel­ing a pang of guilt at Edith's hor­ror. "But he can tell his Uncle Jack to do so. Awful, hor­rid man."

"Is he a very hard taskmas­ter?"

"He is like gran­ite. So crit­i­cal and snip­ing and mean and gloomy. I here­by ban­ish him from my days." I waved my hand so wide­ly that I upset her comb and brush, knock­ing them off the night­stand.

"Oh dear, but Kitty Mason thinks that Miss Twin­kle­ton ad­mires him very ar­dent­ly. She saw her stroking his inner hat­band when she thought no­body could see. She will never con­sent to end­ing his vis­its."

"Ugh, Edith, do you mean to ruin my ap­petite? Miss Twin­kle­ton and Jasper? Per­haps we should make a match."

Our con­ver­sa­tion de­scend­ed into gig­gles and my im­me­di­ate re­solve to end the lessons was for­got­ten for the mo­ment.

That night, we sat up late, telling ghost­ly tales again by the light of a sin­gle can­dle, the craze that had swept the school be­fore the sum­mer hav­ing not abat­ed a jot in the in­ter­ven­ing months.

Kitty Mason had a great tal­ent for chill­ing the bones, and it was she who ex­tem­po­rised be­fore a small but en­thralled au­di­ence.

"In the cathe­dral crypt," said she, "there is a vault, and this vault be­longs to the Droods."

Ev­ery­one turned to me, their faces rapt­ly aghast.

"It is true," I said care­less­ly. "Eddy once showed it to me."

"Each Christ­mas Eve," she con­tin­ued, "as the good folk of Clois­ter­ham hang up their stock­ings and pre­pare for the feast to come, down in the Drood vault, there is a ghost­ly shriek and a clank­ing of bones. As the hour comes close to mid­night, the great barred gates creak open and foot­steps make their way across the stone floor."

"Whose are the foot­steps?" begged Edith, suck­ing on her thumb the way she used to when she came here as a very lit­tle girl.

"No­body knows. But Mr Dur­dles the stone­ma­son thinks that they be­long to Cap­tain Drood, who would be your fa­ther-in-law, Rosy, if he were still alive. He climbs the stair to the choir, so slow­ly, and he takes his place for mid­night mass."

"Stuff and non­sense!" I hoot­ed. "A ghost in the choir."

"Yes, and his broth­er-in-law Mr Jasper knows all about it."

"Who has been speak­ing with you about Mr Jasper?" I gave Edith a fu­ri­ous look.

"Only the spir­its," said Kitty mys­te­ri­ous­ly, then she grinned. "The spir­its and ev­ery­one else. Ev­ery­one knows Miss Twin­kle­ton finds him sooo very fas­ci­nat­ing. Don't you think it's the most exquisite joke?"

"Not re­al­ly," I said, tight-lipped. "I think it's ex­treme­ly stupid. And I'm going to sleep. Good­night."

I slept un­easi­ly. In my dreams, I found my­self in the cathe­dral crypt, in a dark­ness that pressed against me at all sides. Mys­te­ri­ous echo­ing sounds filled my ears and I crept along, sob­bing and ter­ri­fied, un­able to find the foot of the stair­case that led out of this fear­ful place. I knew I would be en­tombed here, walled up and buried alive, if I couldn't reach that stair­case soon, but it had gone and only solid wall met my ex­plor­ing palms.

I tried to scream for help, but my voice was gone, and then arms en­fold­ed me, strong and pro­tec­tive, and I prayed that this might be a saviour.

But he spoke, "Miss Bud," and my fear grew into panic.

"No, no, leave me, no."

"You are a woman now."

"Never, never, never will I be, never, never."

I was still gasp­ing "never" when I woke up.

•  •  •  •  •  •

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