The Gift

Welcome to The Gift, my free Christmas story for 2021. After spending last year in London at the Frost Fair, with Captain James Harker, I’ve decided to follow another of my secondary characters home on furlough. The fairly long time spent in winter quarters in 1812-13 presented an opportunity for a number of officers to travel home to see family, recover from injuries or sickness or to deal with family business. Lord Wellington hated giving leave, although he was more generous with it when it was an officer he liked making the request. However, the need to deal with business matters following a bereavement would probably have been granted. Grudgingly, of course.

After the publication of the Frost Fair, one of my most engaged readers told me she would love to read a short story about Captain David Cartwright, as she felt he’d had a raw deal in the books so far. Davy’s career prospects improved with his promotion to major in An Unmerciful Incursion, but after the long, painful retreat from Burgos and Madrid towards the end of 1812, his personal life is still in the doldrums. This story is dedicated to Janet Watkinson – I hope this is what you wanted.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all my readers. I feel so guilty about the slow progress of the latest book, but family difficulties have made it impossible to meet my intended deadlines. I’m working frantically on the edits for book seven, An Indomitable Brigade, and if it’s not ready for Christmas, it will be ready very soon afterwards. I hope 2022 is better for all of us, and I’m hoping I’ll have a great writing year and be back on track.

Thanks once again to Heather Paisley, my amazing editor and very good friend, who dropped everything in her very busy life to edit this for me. She is, and always will be, a star.

As always, the story is free, so please share as much as you want. Enjoy.

The Gift

1st March, 1812

Wanted, for immediate employment. Respectable female to act as housekeeper and companion to elderly lady, living alone in the town of Rye.  References required. Apply in writing to Captain Cartwright, via this newspaper. 

14th March, 1812

Dear Captain Cartwright

I write to apply for the situation advertised. I am a single lady, aged thirty-four, with considerable experience in housekeeping. Until recently, I was employed in taking care of an elderly relative. I have provided a recommendation from a clerical gentleman and, should this prove satisfactory, I would be free to take up the position immediately.

Yours, respectfully

Miss H Carleton

Quinta de Santo Antonio, Freineda, Portugal, November 1812

Major David Cartwright of the 112th infantry did not generally consider himself burdened by family responsibilities, so it was a shock to find a package of letters awaiting him on his arrival in Ciudad Rodrigo in the November of 1812, giving him news of two bereavements.

The first of them, that of his elderly Aunt Susan, should not have been a surprise. Mrs Everton was in her eighties and had been unwell for so many years that David was amazed she had lasted this long. During her final months her recent memory had faded, and she had drifted into the distant past. She had done so happily enough, according to Miss Forbes, her long-time housekeeper and companion, who wrote to David occasionally with news. David was grateful, but missed his aunt’s regular letters, full of acerbic remarks about her neighbours, the current government, and the iniquities of the butcher.

Miss Forbes was elderly herself and had written to David as her own health began to decline, suggesting that it was time for a younger replacement. David, newly transferred into the 112th from a tedious post in the quartermaster’s department, had no time to take furlough to attend to distant family affairs. He had taken Miss Forbes’ advice and advertised the post, leaving it to the departing housekeeper to select the new incumbent.

Miss Forbes wrote to him just before she left for an honourable retirement with her widowed sister, expressing cautious approval of her successor. Miss Helen Carleton was, in her opinion, young for the post, but appeared very efficient and good with her elderly charge. David grinned at her assessment, since Miss Carleton was apparently in her thirties, but he supposed she seemed young to a woman approaching seventy. Having discharged his duty to Aunt Susan, he thought no more about it until he arrived back on the Portuguese border, exhausted and dispirited after a long and dangerous retreat, to find a letter from his aunt’s solicitor informing him that she had died, leaving a simple will making him her sole heir.

David read the letter again, thinking about his aunt. He had last seen her just before leaving for Portugal to join Wellesley’s army four years ago and there had already been signs of her deterioration. Their meeting had been hurried, made awkward by the presence of Arabella, David’s wife, whom Mrs Everton cordially disliked. David found himself wishing he had made time to see his aunt alone that week, given that it had been the last time he saw her, but he could not have known it.

Mrs Everton was not a wealthy woman, but she had left David her rambling house in the little seaside town of Rye, in Sussex, and a small income from government bonds. Along with a similar income from his deceased parents, it would enable him, should he decide to leave the army, to live comfortably. David wondered what his wife would have thought of that, then dismissed the thought. Arabella would never have been satisfied with mere comfort. She wanted wealth and social status and a number of other things David was unable to give her, and her disappointment had led to repeated infidelity and their eventual separation.

It had been eighteen months since he had last heard anything of Arabella and during the past year, busy with an unexpected revival of his career, he thought of her less and less. Their marriage had been unhappy, and their separation, although painful, had come as a relief to him. He thought of her briefly when he received the news of his recent promotion to major, but he did not think even that would have satisfied Arabella’s ambition.

David opened the next of his letters and began to read. After a moment, he put it down and sat very still, staring out of the window into a damp winter morning, not seeing the drizzling rain.

Arabella was dead.

The letter was from a Mrs Hetherington, who claimed to run a lodging house in Shrewsbury where Arabella had lived for five months before her untimely death. She had died on the charity ward of a local hospital and Mrs Hetherington, who needed to let the room, had taken it upon herself to pack up her possessions and had found several letters giving David’s name and regiment. She gave the impression of being surprised to discover that her lodger’s claim to a married woman’s status was true but stated that she considered it to be her Christian duty to inform him. There were several trunks and boxes of Mrs Cartwright’s possessions, and Mrs Hetherington would store them until the end of January, when if not collected, they would be sold. David wondered if the rent was unpaid. He was surprised that the woman had taken the trouble to write to him but supposed she had genuinely felt that it was her duty.

David read both letters several times, unable to decide what to do. Eventually, he took his troubles to his commanding officer.

“I’m wondering if it would be possible to take furlough, sir,” he concluded. “I’ll have missed my aunt’s funeral, but I should see the lawyers and work out what’s to be done about the house. It’s a decent property just on the edge of town, with a big garden. I’ll probably rent it out rather than leave it empty. It shouldn’t take much more than a month to arrange everything, but…”

“Take whatever time you need, Major,” Colonel Wheeler said. “I’m sorry to hear about your aunt, but in terms of convenience, this couldn’t be better. We’re in winter quarters and are likely to be for a few months yet. If it was the middle of a campaign, I couldn’t manage without you but we’re not going anywhere until spring.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Wheeler stood up and limped to a side table to pour wine for them both. David got up quickly and went to carry the glasses back to the table. Wheeler had been badly injured during the recent retreat and could only walk using a cane for support. Wheeler hobbled back to his chair and sat down with relief.

“I keep forgetting,” he said. “I’m not accustomed to being waited on. Thank you, Major.”

David sipped the wine. “Is it still painful, sir?”

“Bloody painful, but not as bad as when they first brought me in. I can put weight on it now, but Dr Daniels says I should rest it as much as possible. Davy, I’m conscious that I’ve said everything that’s proper about your aunt and nothing at all about your wife. I don’t know what to say. I know you were separated and there was no possibility of a reconciliation, but she was very young. I am sorry.”

David was grateful. His own emotions about Arabella’s death were still raw and too muddled to make sense of, but he appreciated Wheeler’s tact and also his bravery in raising the matter where another man would have let it pass. Wheeler had known Arabella during the time she had travelled with the army and knew the full circumstances of her various, very public infidelities. One of her first affairs had been with David’s current brigade commander. A recent one had left her carrying a child which could not possibly have been her husband’s and had led to their final separation.

“Thank you, sir. I don’t know what to say myself. It doesn’t feel real. I hadn’t heard from her since the day she left, but it’s difficult to believe that she’s dead. As you say, she was so young, only just thirty. And she was always so full of life.”

“Do you know what happened?”

“Some kind of fever, according to her landlady. There was an outbreak in the town. She was taken into the local hospital but died within a few days.”

“Had she other family?”

“Her father is still alive as far as I know, and there was an aunt. Her mother died a few years ago. I doubt Bella had any contact with her father. When the scandal broke, he wrote to her telling her he never wished to see her or hear from her again. I think I should write to him all the same. He should know she’s dead.”

“What of the child?”

“I don’t know,” David said. “I don’t even know if it’s a boy or a girl, or if it’s alive. Possibly not, so many children die in infancy and the landlady doesn’t mention it. But I should at least make a push to find out.”

“It’s not your responsibility, Davy,” Colonel Wheeler said gently.

David looked at him, troubled. “I know it isn’t. But sir, who else is going to bother?”

***

Arriving in Southampton on a bright, blustery day, David made enquiries about the best method of travelling to Rye, which was about a hundred miles along the south coast. There were no direct mail coaches, and David objected to the cost of hiring a post chaise, but he was able to find a place on a carrier’s wagon leaving early the following morning. The journey was not particularly fast, but was surprisingly entertaining, as Mr Samuel Rochester regaled his passenger with stories of his life on the road. David slept in small inns along the way and was finally deposited, along with his luggage, at the gates of Oak Lodge just after midday. He had written to inform Miss Carleton of his expected arrival.

The door was opened by a maid in a plain dark gown and white apron. She bobbed a curtsey and stood aside, murmuring that she would call the boy to bring in his box. The boy turned out to be a sturdy manservant who was probably approaching forty. As far as David was aware these were the only two servants apart from the housekeeper.

He stood in the hallway awaiting the appearance of Miss Carleton. A door opened and a young woman emerged from the kitchen area at the back of the house. She wore a respectable dark green woollen gown, with a lace-trimmed cap pinned to very fair hair, and she had a pair of bright blue eyes, a decided nose and an expression which hovered between apprehension and defiance. David, who was hopeless at such things, thought she was probably not much above twenty. The girl approached and gave a little curtsey. David bowed, utterly bewildered.

“Major Cartwright. Welcome home, sir. Harvey will put your luggage in the master bedroom. It’s been cleaned and aired, and I’ll ask Sarah to unpack for you. Unless you’ve brought a valet?”

“No, I haven’t,” David said. “Thank you. Only, I do not perfectly understand…who are you?”

The girl folded her hands at her waist. “I am Miss Carleton, sir, your aunt’s companion and housekeeper. You arranged for my employment.”

David stared at her for a very long time, then surprised out of his customary good manners, he said:

“I’m not sure who I employed, ma’am, but I’m very sure it wasn’t you. The lady who applied for that post gave her age as thirty-four, and I’ll be surprised if you’re older than twenty. Who the devil are you?”

The girl raised well-marked eyebrows and looked down her slightly long nose. “Well you must be surprised then, Major, because I am twenty-four. And I am indeed Miss Carleton. I have been working here since Miss Forbes left at the beginning of the year, and I nursed your aunt through her final illness. Obviously I am in the process of seeking a new post but Mr Bourne, her solicitor, suggested I remain to keep the house in order until your arrival. And to cook your meals for you, unless you intend to do that for yourself, because neither Harvey nor Sarah has the least aptitude for cooking.”

David stared at her open-mouthed. Miss Carleton stared back. There was definitely defiance in her expression now. Eventually David said:

“You lied to me in your application.”

“Yes, I did.”

“Why?”

“Because yours was the tenth post I had applied for, and all of the others rejected me on the grounds of my age.”

“I would have done the same.”

“Then it is unnecessary for you to ask why I told an untruth.”

“Was any of your application true?” David asked. He was genuinely curious. Miss Carleton lifted her chin with something like indignation.

“Of course it was. All of it, apart from that one small detail. I am a gentleman’s daughter, I have been used to acting as housekeeper to my parents, who live in Leicester, and I cared for my elderly grandmother before she died.”

David studied her for a long time. “So why were you seeking employment?” he asked finally. “If your parents…”

“My parents do not employ a housekeeper, Major Cartwright, and I was tired of working for nothing. My mother was not grateful for my efforts, I spent my time running the household or visiting my older sisters to help with their children. All my mother’s attention was focused on finding a husband for my youngest sister, in the hope that might repair the family fortunes. I was sick of being an unpaid drudge, so I chose to seek paid employment instead. My father called me undutiful, and my mother prophesied that I would ruin my reputation and come to a bad end, but so far, I think it has gone rather well. Until today, that is.”

David could think of nothing at all to say. He stood looking at her, struggling to think of a suitable response. Miss Carleton looked back, daring him to speak. The silence went on.

Abruptly, the girl straightened her back and bobbed another neat curtsey. “Would you like some tea, Major? I can serve it in the small parlour. Neither the drawing room or the dining room have been much used this past year, although I have cleaned the whole house and removed the holland covers. I baked a cake this morning.”

“Thank you,” David said faintly. “That would be very welcome. No, don’t trouble yourself to show me the way. I know the house very well.”

The small parlour was situated at the back of the house, overlooking the garden. At this time of year, it was a tangle of damp greenery, but David remembered it as a riot of colour in the spring and summer. His aunt had loved gardening during her younger days.

It was obvious that Miss Carleton had made the room her own. A cosy arrangement of furniture around the fireplace included her sewing box, and a partly darned stocking lay neatly folded on top. On another small table was an inlaid portable writing desk. Against the far wall was a small table and two chairs, which suggested that Miss Carleton dined in this room as well. It was common for upper servants to take meals in the kitchen or in their own room, but Miss Carleton was effectively mistress of this small household and David did not blame her for making herself comfortable.

She returned shortly, shepherding the maid who carried the tea tray. David ran his eyes over it and looked at the maid. “Bring another cup, please. Miss Carleton will be joining me for tea.”

The girl did so. David indicated that Miss Carleton should pour. The tea was welcome after his long journey and the cake was excellent. Both improved David’s mood considerably. He watched her sip her tea.

“How did you persuade Miss Forbes to collude with your falsehood, Miss Carleton?”

The girl gave him a look. “I did not,” she said. “She had no idea, of course, that I had lied about my age. She expressed surprise at how young I was, but once she saw what I could do, she did not mention it again. Why should she? I can cook, I can keep house and I was very good with your aunt. She liked me.”

David could not help smiling. “I don’t suppose you gave her much choice, ma’am, you’re a very decided young woman.”

The blue eyes were unexpectedly misty with unshed tears. “I was very fond of your aunt. Even though she was confused, she was so kind. And she could be very funny. I am sorry she’s gone, sir.”

“So am I,” David said. “I’ve not inspected the rest of the house yet, ma’am, but I don’t need to, I can see you know your work. The place is immaculate. Thank you for your efforts.”

“Thank you for acknowledging them.” Miss Carleton sniffed audibly. “I’m sorry I deceived you, sir. It was wrong of me, but I was becoming desperate.”

“What will you do now? You mentioned seeking another post, but have you not thought of going home?”

“Not unless I have to,” the girl said. “I have written several applications, and I shall continue to do so. I am not sure if you intend to sell the house, Major, but if so, I will naturally leave as soon as you wish me to do so. I am not wholly estranged from my family, they will have me back if needs be. I hope I don’t have to though, my mother will be unbearable.”

Unexpectedly, David laughed. “Is she really that bad?”

“Yes. She has never got over my father’s reversal of fortune. He made several bad investments, and my mother was extravagant. She also had five daughters. Marrying us off successfully has been the aim of her life, and she tried hard to maintain her position in society in the hope that a good marriage could save the family fortunes, but it was not to be.”

“But your elder sisters married, I think you said?”

“Yes, eventually. But not the kind of marriage my mother had in mind. They are respectably established, with a collection of children, but none of them could afford to give anything away to my parents. Recently they were obliged to sell Carleton Hall. It has been in the family for almost two hundred years, and it was a great blow.”

“I can imagine it was,” David said. Now that he was beginning to relax, he decided he rather liked this straightforward young woman. She was easy to talk to, with no affectations or pretensions to grandeur. David, who had married a woman full of affectations and pretensions, had developed a dislike of both.

“Not that they are in any way destitute, you understand,” Miss Carleton said. “They own the house in Leicester, and it is a perfectly good house. A little larger than this, and not as old. With the proceeds of the sale of Carleton House and the estate and the income from my father’s remaining investments, they could live perfectly comfortably. They could even afford a housekeeper. But my mother still has ambitions. My youngest sister, Katherine is just seventeen and is by far the prettiest of all of us. My mother is saving up to give her a London Season in the hope that she will attract a wealthy or titled gentleman and we shall all be saved. Well, at least, I shall not be saved because I have ruined my reputation by seeking paid employment as a housekeeper instead of doing the same job at home and being paid nothing.”

David laughed aloud. “I do hope it is not that bad,” he said. “Although now you have explained your situation, I do have some qualms about staying here myself. You are, when all is said and done, a young unmarried lady and…”

“If you continue in that vein, Major Cartwright, I shall not be answerable for what I may do,” Miss Carleton said in freezing tones. “I am your housekeeper. Your servant. Your paid employee. Nobody gives a fig about such things with the staff. And if I had not told you my background, neither would you.”

David took a second slice of cake. “Well either way, I’m not going to stay at an inn. The cooking here is far too good. Miss Carleton, I have no set plans, but I won’t be here for long. I have to see my aunt’s solicitor to find out how things stand, and then I have to make a journey to Shrewsbury on a separate family matter. I had not thought of selling the house. I may rent it out while I remain with the army. I’m fond of this place, I spent a lot of time here as a boy, fishing off the quay and listening to smuggler’s tales from the grooms.”

“I’m glad you said that sir. Your aunt would be happy to think that you intend to settle here one day.” Miss Carleton stood up. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ll be needed in the kitchen. Will you be dining at home today?”

“Yes, thank you. If it is not too much trouble.”

“It is my job, Major Cartwright. You pay me.”

“You seem keen to remind me of it. I am not sure what your usual arrangements are, but will you join me for dinner? It seems foolish for two people to eat in solitary splendour, and there is nobody to mind.”

Miss Carleton studied him for a moment, then smiled broadly. “Do you know, Major, when you arrived and looked at me so censoriously, I decided that you were a very strait-laced gentleman, but I think I was wrong.”

David found himself smiling back at her. “I think I was in my younger days,” he said. “Army life alters your priorities. Although it is unlikely to change my opinion that you should return to Leicester and make your peace with your parents. At least for the Christmas season.”

***

Helen found cooking a very soothing activity. The kitchen at Oak Lodge was old-fashioned, but well designed and after almost a year in post, she felt at home there. The thought that she might not be here for much longer saddened her. She had been telling the truth when she told Major Cartwright that she was happy in her position.

Helen understood she had potentially committed social suicide in taking the post as Mrs Everton’s companion-housekeeper. It was one thing for a young lady in straitened circumstances to seek employment as a governess or companion, or even as a schoolmistress in some respectable establishment. But cooking and cleaning placed one firmly among the ranks of the upper servants. Helen had accepted the post in a spirit of seething resentment at the constant, unreasonable demands of her family and the complete lack of appreciation for the work she did, but she had not really intended to stay for so long. When the expected letters began to arrive from her family, pleading, cajoling, and castigating her rash decision, Helen had expected she would probably give in and go home. To her surprise, she realised she was happy where she was and wanted to stay.

Taking care of Mrs Everton was not difficult and with two servants to assist her, and most of the rooms in the house unused, Helen’s housekeeping duties took considerably less time than when she was living at home. Her mother employed a cook, but Mrs Beech could manage only plain dishes, and when the Carletons entertained, it was Helen who planned elaborate menus and spent long hours in the kitchen preparing them. She enjoyed the challenge of complicated dishes but was tired of being used as an unpaid servant, while her elder sisters clamoured, from their various households, for her equally free services as nursemaid and governess. Her youngest sister Katherine spent hours studying her reflection, dreaming of a titled husband, demanding Helen’s help with refurbishing her gowns and pouting when Helen told her shortly that she did not have time.

“You are so grumpy, Nell. It isn’t as though you did not choose to remain as the daughter at home. Everybody knows that you had every opportunity to marry and have a home of your own, and you refused two perfectly good offers.”

“One offer was from Mr Grant the solicitor,” Helen said, trying not to grit her teeth. “He is forty-five and drinks so much port that his nose looks like an overripe plum. The other was from the curate, who informed my father that his interest had alighted upon me because he thought it his duty, as a man of God, to eschew all thoughts of beauty in favour of a plain woman with a light hand for the pastry. He further said that he thought in time he would be able to repress my tendency to levity and teach me to show greater modesty in public. Even Mother thought that was a bad idea.”

“Well it is your own fault, Nell. You are not at all plain, you have beautiful hair and lovely eyes. You simply refuse to try.”

“I have the Carleton nose, Kitty.”

“It is a perfectly nice nose, if a little more prominent than others. If you would look at your wardrobe and curl your hair and learn to flirt a little, you would do so much better. Look at Eliza. Nobody thought she would do so well.”

“I have the greatest respect for Mr Ingram, Kitty, but if I had to be married to a man that dull I should expire within a year.”

Her younger sister laughed. “Well I shall not care how dull my husband is, dearest Nell, as long as he is rich. Now come and look at my old blue and tell me if you think we can remove the train.”

Helen paused in rolling out her pie crust, surprised to realise that there were tears in her eyes. She blinked them back firmly. She missed Katherine’s laughter and occasional sisterly confidences, but she did not miss being expected to act as a ladies’ maid every time her sister was invited out. She supposed that Major Cartwright was correct, and she should go home to her family for the Christmas season, but she was surprised at how little she wanted to.

It felt strange to sit across the table from the Major at dinner. Helen had never eaten in the dining room. She instructed Harvey and Sarah to remove all the extra leaves from the big table and set out the various dishes on the polished sideboard so that they could serve themselves. Major Cartwright went to investigate the wine cellar and as Helen filled their plates, poured two glasses of cool white wine. Helen eyed it suspiciously and the Major laughed.

“I take it you haven’t been raiding my aunt’s cellar?”

“I don’t think I’ve ever been down there. She liked a glass of wine with her dinner though, right up to the end. I remember you sent her some, once or twice, and it pleased her very much to receive the gift, though I’m not sure she understood where it came from.”

He smiled. “I’m glad she got some enjoyment from it. She and I shared a liking for good wine and when I first joined the army and began to travel, I used to try to send her some local wine from wherever I was stationed. When I was in Naples…”

He broke off abruptly and Helen said nothing. She sipped the wine, enjoying the crisp, fruity taste of it. Her employer did the same. She could see him considering, wondering what he should tell her, and whether it was at all suitable for him to tell a housekeeper anything at all. He would not normally have shared details of his personal life with an unmarried young lady from a respectable family whom he had just met, but then he would not have been dining alone with such a person either.

“I was married,” Cartwright said abruptly. “I don’t suppose you knew, since my aunt was already very forgetful by the time you arrived. She cannot have told you anything about it. Naples was my first posting after we married. Less than a year and Arabella was already very bored with me and wishing she had waited for a better prospect.”

“I know about your wife,” Helen said. She saw his head snap up and the brown eyes darken in sudden anger and wished for a moment that she had not spoken.

“Who told you?”

“Miss Forbes. She had been with your aunt for so many years, I think they were more like family than employer and servant. I asked, very casually, if you were single or a widower. I thought it unusual that it should be a gentleman placing the advertisement for such a post. I’m sorry if I’ve offended you, Major, it wasn’t my intention. Miss Forbes was not gossiping, but she said that she thought I ought to know in case I did come across any idle gossip in the town.”

“Miss Forbes was probably right. What did she tell you?”

“That your marriage had not been a success and that you were separated from your wife. She told me that Mrs Everton used to say that she thought your wife a fool for not appreciating you.”

Cartwright gave a very faint smile and began to eat again. “My aunt was invariably biased in my favour, Miss Carleton. She and Arabella never got on well, they were too different. She tried to persuade me against the match. I had very little money, but when I was younger I was ambitious and thought I could make my own way in the world.”

“Have you not done so?”

“Yes, I think I have. But it did not come fast enough for Arabella.” Cartwright hesitated, seeming to recollect that he was talking to a stranger. “My apologies, Miss Carleton, this is a very unsuitable conversation. Did you make this pastry? It’s excellent, I feel very spoiled.”

Helen allowed him to turn the conversation neatly away from personal matters. She asked him about his service in the army and found it unexpectedly interesting. He had served in Italy, in Portugal and in Spain, with a spell in Ireland. He spoke little of the battles he had fought, but a great deal about the places he had seen and the people he had met. There was nothing boastful or vainglorious about Major David Cartwright, but Helen thought that he had seen more and done more than most people of her acquaintance. She did not usually find it easy to talk to people she did not know well, particularly gentlemen, but as they finished their meal and Helen rose to clear the table, she was aware of a sense of regret that it was coming to an end.

“I should get these to the kitchen, sir.”

“Let the maid do that. Please, sit down and join me in a glass of port. Or if you prefer, you can watch me drinking it. I feel as though I have bored you senseless with my army tales all through dinner and given you no chance to talk about yourself.”

Helen subsided, watching Sarah clear the plates. “I’ve already told you about my situation, sir. I left home in a temper with my ungrateful family. I remained because I liked it here. But I suppose that unless I find another situation as much to my taste as this I shall have to go home.”

“Do you think it will be a problem for you? Socially, I mean?”

“I don’t suppose for one moment my mother has told anybody that I have been employed as a housekeeper, let alone a cook. She will have said that I am acting as companion to an elderly lady, which is perfectly respectable, you know. Anyway, I had no social life.”

“None at all?”

“I used to go to parties when I was Kitty’s age. But I didn’t really enjoy them that much. Dancing and trying to flirt and speaking nothing but inanities never suited me.”

“I can imagine. That doesn’t mean you have nothing to say. I’ve really enjoyed this. May I…that is, I shall be here for a few days, seeing the lawyers and working out how things stand. After that, I am travelling to Shrewsbury on business. But I would like it if you would dine with me again while I’m here. As you are, even temporarily, my housekeeper.”

Helen laughed. “As you are, for a short time longer, my employer, sir, I am at your disposal.”

As she rose to leave finally, he escorted her into the hallway and bowed. “Thank you again, ma’am, for the meal and the company. Both were excellent.”

“I enjoyed it too, sir, although I’m aware that I’ve stepped above my station this evening.”

“Or back into the station you were born to, depending on your perspective. Look, about earlier. The conversation about my wife. I should tell you, that she recently died. A fever outbreak. It was very sudden.”

Helen felt a little shock. “Oh no. Oh Major, I’m so sorry.”

“Thank you. I’m going to Shrewsbury to see where she’s buried. I want to make sure she has a proper gravestone. There are some things I need to collect, and I’ll pay any debts that I can find out about.”

Helen studied him for a long moment. Major Cartwright was unexceptional, apart from a pair of very fine brown eyes and a rather nice smile. Helen wondered how old he was. She thought possibly in his thirties, although his self-contained manner may have made him seem older than he was.

“I think that is the right thing to do, Major. I hope you won’t find it too distressing. I wish, while you are here, that you would furnish me with a list of what you most like to eat. And if there is anything else I can do for you – laundry or mending or suchlike – please let me know. With your aunt gone, I have so little to do.”

Cartwright smiled, and she could see the warmth in his eyes. “Thank you. I’ll probably take you up on that. But there is one thing you should do. Write to your family, ma’am, and tell them you’ll be home for Christmas, even if it is just a visit.”

“What will you do for Christmas, sir?”

“I’ll stay here and make do with Sarah’s cooking.”

“It isn’t very good.”

“It will still be better than what I ate during the retreat from Madrid, ma’am. Goodnight.”

***

David decided to hire a post-chaise for his journey to Shrewsbury. He had quite enjoyed his adventure with the carrier’s cart, but Shrewsbury was a lot further and David had no wish to spend weeks on the road. He admitted to himself, with some amusement, that some of his desire to have this journey over and done with, was because he wanted to get back to Rye before his eccentric housekeeper left for Christmas with her family.

He had not formally given Helen her notice, though he knew he should have done. He was sure that once she was back home, she would decide to stay, and write to tell him so. So far he had made no arrangements with the lawyer about advertising the house for rent. He had asked Helen, during her remaining weeks, to go through his aunt’s personal possessions, dispose of the clothing however she thought best and pack up the rest. When he returned, he would go through the boxes for any small items he wanted to keep and make arrangements to put the rest into storage, along with the contents of the wine cellar and a few of the finer items of furniture. He could manage all of that without the help of the estimable Miss Carleton, but he did want to see her again to say goodbye. He had taken a liking to the girl, and she had made his week at his aunt’s house thoroughly enjoyable.

He left Helen indulging in an orgy of cooking and food preparation. Clearly the thought of him spending the Christmas feast at the mercy of Sarah’s cooking troubled her mind, and David suspected he would be left with a larder stuffed with enough puddings, cured hams and pies to feed half his company. He wondered if she would have to do the same work over again for her unappreciative family and hoped that her mother had the decency to employ a proper cook for the season, so that her prodigal daughter could take her rightful place as a family member. Then again, remembering the sight of Helen in the kitchen, singing Christmas carols, with flour on the end of her nose and her hair curling in little wisps around her face with the steam from the puddings, David wondered if in fact, Helen might be perfectly happy in the kitchen if her family would just show some appreciation.

David had been to Shrewsbury once before, in the early days of his courtship of Arabella, when she had taken him to spend a few days with her aunt who lived in a graceful eighteenth century house close to the Abbey. He had rather liked the ancient town and had hoped that Arabella might settle there with her child, finding some respectable occupation and using the opportunity to make a new start. Mrs Hetherington’s lodging house suggested that she had not managed to do so.

The lodging house was better than he had expected, and Mrs Hetherington was a dark-eyed handsome woman in her thirties, who kept a clean house, served plain food to those lodgers who required it and showed a rather touching reticence at sharing with her widower the details of Arabella’s life. David set aside his awkwardness in favour of plain speaking and over a good cup of tea at the big square kitchen table, managed to drag the information from his reluctant informant.

“I wouldn’t normally have let a room to a woman like her,” Mrs Hetherington said. “Not that I haven’t had lady boarders before. Mostly it’s gentlemen, though. Music masters and young officers and those fallen on hard times. I don’t take the labouring classes, my rooms are too good for that. I even had a poet once. I take the money up front for some of them, mind, being as they come from a class used to paying their bills when they feel like it. Still, I don’t have much trouble. The rooms are clean and well furnished, and I’ve got three gentlemen who have been with me a long time. The ladies come and go. Governesses and the like, between jobs. I feel sorry for them. Nowhere to go and no money for expensive lodgings. I keep the top two attic rooms for the ladies. They can be private up there, and I let them share my sitting room while they’re here.”

“And my wife?”

“Anybody could see she’d fallen on hard times. And anybody could see that she’d no intention of finding a respectable position as a governess or a companion, although that was the story she told me when she applied for the room. Still, she’d the money to pay and both rooms were empty, so I let her have one of them, providing she paid in advance for the month and didn’t bring anyone back to the room. She laughed when I told her that. ‘Mrs Hetherington,’ she said. ‘My gentlemen friends do not frequent common lodging houses. Although perhaps they should, this is the most comfortable room I have occupied for months.’”

David winced and tried not to show it. “She was here for five months?”

“She had the room for five months. She paid me, regular as clockwork and I never had to ask her for it. I wouldn’t say she stayed here for five months, mind, she was in and out. Sometimes she’d be here for a week or two. Slept half the day, ate her meals in her room and was out in the evening, dressed up like a duchess. Sometimes I’d see nothing of her for a month. I always imagined, begging your pardon, sir, that she’d found a gentleman friend who was taking care of her.”

“I’m sure you were right, ma’am.”

“I’d no idea she was truly wed. She called herself Mrs, but they often do.”

“We were separated.”

“It’s a tragedy. She wasn’t a respectable woman, sir. She had this way about her, like she was laughing at herself almost. But she was never anything but civil to me.”

David remembered the many times when Arabella had failed to be civil to anybody and was obscurely glad. Perhaps in her darker times, she had learned something that comfort, and prosperity had failed to teach her.

“Where is she buried?”

“At St Mary’s, sir. The Rector will know the details.”

The Rector was surprised but sympathetic. He led David to the plain unmarked grave and left him alone for a while. When David went to find him, he provided sherry and spiritual guidance in the Rectory and gave David the name of a reputable stonemason who could erect a gravestone.

David spent the night at the Lion Hotel, then returned to Mrs Hetherington’s lodging house the following day. She led him up two flights of stairs to a small room under the eaves, where a trunk, a wooden box and several bags contained all that was left of Arabella Cartwright’s short, tragic life. David sat on the narrow bed and cried, remembering their courtship, the first heady days of their marriage when all he could think about was making love to her, and the first painful realisation that their love was not after all based on solid ground, but on the shifting sands of her discontent and relentless pursuit of something better.

Eventually, David pulled himself together and repacked the bags and boxes carefully, piling them up for collection by the carter whom he had arranged to take them to the Lion Hotel. There was another call he should make, although he was not looking forward to it. It must have been ten years or more since he had last seen Mrs Gladstone, Arabella’s aunt, but he remembered the house well from his previous visit. The butler took his card with an expression of surprise and asked him to wait. He returned soon afterwards and ushered David into a panelled book room where a portly gentleman who looked to be around forty came forward to greet him.

“Major Cartwright. This is a surprise and no mistake, you’re the last person I expected to see here. On furlough, eh?”

David shook his hand. “Yes, sir, for a short time. I had family affairs to attend to, both here and on the south coast. I was hoping to speak to Mrs Gladstone.”

“Can’t be done, I’m afraid, Major. My mother died almost a year ago. Smallpox outbreak. Very sad. Jasper Gladstone, at your service. I don’t think we ever met.”

“No, I think you were in India when I visited last. It was a long time ago.”

“Aye, that’ll be right. I left the company service about two years ago and set up in business for myself in Bristol. When my mother died, I inherited the house, so my family moved here. I still keep rooms in Bristol, it’s where my offices are. I think I can guess what’s brought you to Shrewsbury, Major. A bad business.”

“You heard that she died, then?”

“Yes, though I didn’t wish to. The Rector took it upon himself to inform me. Damned piece of impudence, I called it. I told him I’d heard nothing of my cousin since she disgraced herself and didn’t consider her any business of mine. And frankly, Major, I’m surprised you don’t feel the same way.”

David did not speak immediately. He had no wish to be hypocritical and he thought that if Arabella’s death had not coincided with that of his aunt, he would probably not have asked for furlough to visit her grave. He had tried hard to set aside his feelings for Arabella a long time ago and he almost resented the stirring up of painful memories. At the same time, she had lived as his wife for six years and he did not think he could have dismissed all thought of her as Gladstone appeared to think he should.

“As I said, I had other family business to attend to,” he said finally. “Since I was in England, I thought it right to see where she was buried and arrange for a gravestone.”

“Women like her shouldn’t be given the luxury of a proper burial,” Gladstone said shortly. “Sherry, Major? Throw them in the ground and forget about them, that’s what I say. The grief she brought to her poor parents, and my mother. And you, of course.”

He held out the sherry glass. David took it and set it on the table, having no desire to drink it. “I understand Arabella came here to have her child.”

“So I believe. I wasn’t here then, of course, or I’d have put a stop to that. My mother was always sentimental about my cousin. I think she had some notion of finding somebody to take the brat and rehabilitating Bella, but I could have told her that wouldn’t wash. My cousin was a whore, Major. A bad ‘un, through and through. You can’t help a woman like that, and I wouldn’t have tried.”

David’s anger was beginning to settle into a cold disdain. “I am sure you would not,” he said. “Will you tell me what happened after the child was born?”

“She stayed for a month or two. I wrote to my mother to inform her that we would be unable to visit her, of course, while she had that woman and her bastard in the house. I’ve children of my own, I couldn’t have them exposed to that kind of thing. Once Bella was back on her feet after the birth it went pretty much as you’d expect. She took up with some man again – don’t know who he was, some sort of financier I believe, invested in canals and bridges and engineering works. She took off in the middle of the night with all her fine clothing, leaving my mother with the brat on her hands. I don’t know how long it lasted, but not long. She wrote to my mother begging to come back, but this time the old lady had the sense to say no, though she kept the brat. Bella had a small income of some kind.”

“It was very little, just the interest on her marriage settlement. Pin money only.”

“I think she took rooms in town and made up for any shortfall by selling herself to whoever would have her.”

David felt very sick. He had guessed the bare bones of the story, but hearing it related so brutally hurt all over again. He hoped his distress did not show on his face, because he did not wish to give this man a present of his feelings. He would not willingly have given him the time of day.

“What happened to the child?” he asked in neutral tones. “Did it contract the smallpox as well?”

“Lord, no. My mother had the nursemaid keep it isolated. No, it outlived her, that’s for sure. Probably dead by now, though. Not many of them survive beyond their first year in those public institutions, do they?”

“Public institution?”

“You know. Charity wards. Orphan asylums. Workhouses. Wherever they put the little bastards nobody wants. The Rector might know if you’re interested, though I can’t think why you should be. It wasn’t your brat and I doubt she even knew who sired it. And don’t look at me like that, Major. It was nothing to do with me. When we’d buried my mother, I left the whole thing in the hands of my man of business. He paid off the staff, got the house in order and took the little bastard to the Parish and dumped it there. What in God’s name was I expected to do about it? She made her bed, my cousin Arabella, and if she’d cared about that child, she’d never have run off again. She’s better off dead, where she can’t bring any more disgrace to this family, and her bastard with her. Let’s drink to it.”

David looked at Gladstone, a florid, prosperous-looking man with thinning hair and a substantial paunch, as he raised his sherry glass and tossed back the warm amber liquid. He reached for his own glass, waited politely for Gladstone to finish drinking, then threw the contents of it fully into the man’s face. Gladstone gave a squawk of surprise, scrubbing the liquid away with his sleeve as it stung his eyes.

“You…you…how dare you, sir? To come into my house, acting as though your bitch of a wife should matter to me, and then…we’ll see about that, sir.”

He surged forward. David waited for him to be completely off balance, then punched him once, very hard. Blood spurted from the bulbous nose and Gladstone fell back, clutching his face as he hit the floor with a crash which rattled the glasses on the polished sideboard. David had only taken up boxing a year earlier in winter quarters, under the tuition of a friend in his brigade. He had never punched a man in anger in his life before and he was astonished at how satisfying it was. He stood for a moment watching Gladstone bleed onto what looked like an expensive Persian rug.

“Thank you for your time, Mr Gladstone. Please don’t get up. I’ll see myself out.”

It had started to rain as David made his way back to St Mary’s Church. He found the Rector in his study and blurted out his story and his concerns with little regard for good manners. He was too angry to care what the man thought. The Rector heard him out patiently.

“I am sorry, Major Cartwright. I can see this has all been a shock to you. I respect your compassion and your charity in very difficult circumstances but I’m afraid I have no information about your wife’s child. Mrs Gladstone was not a member of my church, and I did not know much about her family, although we had met socially on occasion. Naturally…Shrewsbury is not a large town, and there is always gossip. Many people felt that Mrs Gladstone was wrong to have taken in her niece in such circumstances, and I know there was a general feeling that she would never be accepted back into polite society, but no such attempt was made. When I was asked by the Parish to arrange for your wife’s burial, there was no mention of any family. I had rather assumed that if there was a child, he or she must have died.”

“Is it possible to find out?” David asked. “What would happen to such a child? Is there an orphan asylum?”

“The parishes have combined in Shrewsbury, to fund a House of Industry where the indigent and the sick are tended. Older children have their own facilities and schooling within the House, but it is customary for the Parish to send babies out to nurse in local households.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Women are paid to take care of the child until it becomes old enough to enter the House of Industry. I presume this child would be very young?”

“Around eighteen months, I suppose. There must be records of where such children are sent.”

“You should apply to the workhouse clerk, Mr Jackson. Wait, I will write a brief note to him. He knows me and it will probably speed your enquiries along.” The Rector reached for his pen, then paused and looked at David. “Major – what do you intend to do if the child is alive?”

David was unable to reply. He realised he had no idea.

***

Mr Jackson scanned the Rector’s letter and gave a sigh which blew the papers about on his desk. He got up and went to collect a ledger from a shelf. David watched as he ran a bony finger down a column, muttering to himself. He turned a page, then another, and began a tuneless whistle, peering at the unintelligible scrawl which passed for writing. David wondered if it was Mr Jackson’s own writing and if so, why he did not learn to read it more quickly.

“Aha!” Jackson said triumphantly. “Aha! As I thought. Now we have him. Now we have him, indeed.”

“Him?” David said quickly.

“Him. A boy. The boy. Delivered to this establishment on the date in question by Gareth Southern, clerk to Mr Timothy Prestcote. It says here…well now. It says the boy is an orphan.”

“Does it not say the mother’s name?” David asked.

“It does,” Jackson said doubtfully, peering so closely that his nose almost touched the page. “Difficult to read it…Cartridge…no, Cartwright, I think. Looks like Billy. Billy Cartwright. Funny name for a female.”

“Bella,” David said, trying to sound patient.

“Is it? Oh. Oh yes, could be. Yes, I think it is.” Jackson sounded pleased. “Bella Cartwright, prostitute. Presumed deceased.”

Jackson froze. On his desk beside the Rector’s note was the calling card David had given him. David watched as he read the name again and made the connection, then saw his eyes widen. He looked up very slowly and suddenly there was a wealth of apprehension in his expression.

“Oh. Oh, my. Major Cartwright?”

“As I told you earlier.”

“Oh my. Oh dear. How awkward. How very embarrassing. I have no memory for names, sir, but in this case I ought to have. Oh my. But this child…he cannot be related to you, surely?”

“I think you’ll find he is,” David said pleasantly. “Was no effort made to trace his mother?”

“Well no, sir. Not given that she was reported to be dead. I cannot understand…was she not dead?”

“Not then,” David said. “She left the child in the care of her aunt, Mrs Gladstone, who sadly died soon afterwards.”

“Gladstone? Do you refer to the family of Mr Jasper Gladstone, Major? But this is extraordinary. He is a member of our board. I cannot think how such a terrible mistake came to be made.”

“I can,” David said briefly. “Am I to understand that the boy is still alive? Where can I find him?”

“Yes. Yes, indeed. At least, according to our records. He was sent out to nurse with Mrs Bonel, and we’ve heard nothing to the contrary.”

“But?”

“They don’t always tell us straight away, sir. If the child dies. Sometimes they bury them quietly and keep taking the money. Eventually the yearly inspection comes around and then they’ll come forward and claim the death was recent.”

David felt sick again. “Annual inspections for a baby that young?” he said. “Is that all?”

“We’ve not the time or the staff to do more, sir. I can give you Mrs Bonel’s address if you want to visit the boy.”

David found the cottage easily enough. There was a narrow frontage open to the River Dee, with chickens scrabbling in a fenced yard and a strong stench of excrement and urine. David paused by the door, taking a deep breath. His stomach was churning so badly, he was worried he might vomit and for the first time ever he felt the urge to flee in the face of the enemy. Before he had the opportunity to do so however, he heard the cry. It was a long wail of misery which drowned out the cackling of the hens and the steady rush of the river, swollen with winter rains.

Inside the smell was stronger, but there was no sign of life in the main living area of the cottage. David walked through to a small doorway at the back and out into a muddy yard, where two pigs snuffled around, splashed with mud, and snorting indignantly. There was still no sign of occupation, but at the back of the yard was a rough wooden lean-to and the wail was stronger, floating out into the freezing winter air. It sounded like a young child. David walked across the yard and went in through the door.

He found the child in a rough wooden cot, little more than a box, built high against the wall of the shed. He was dressed in a linen smock which was smeared with his own dirt. There were several reeking, threadbare blankets in the cot and the child was crying and shivering, his voice high and thin in the chill air. He was thin and pale and his hair was a coppery red.

“There, then, what’s that yelling about, it’s not nearly time for your dinner, and if you don’t shut up…”

David turned. The woman was thin herself, with sharp features and brown eyes, wearing a respectable brown dress and a warm woollen shawl. She looked irritated, but at the sight of David she froze, ran her eyes over him then managed a wholly false smile. She dropped a little curtsey.

“Good day to you, sir. May I help you?”

“Mrs Bonel?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’ve come about the child. I understand he was put out to nurse last year by the Parish?”

“That’s right, sir. A poor little orphan mite. I’ve looked after him as if he was my own, haven’t I, poppet?”

The child had stopped wailing and was staring at David, one grubby fist pushed into his mouth.

David walked forward. He had spent the walk down to the cottage calculating the boy’s age and decided he must be around seventeen months, though he was small, probably through poor nourishment. David studied the child and saw Bella’s beautiful hazel eyes looking back at him with wary interest.

“What’s his name?”

“Whatever you want it to be. He doesn’t…”

David spun around in sudden fury. “What name did they give you for him, you slovenly bitch? Any more of this and I’ll have the magistrate down here, and if you’ve nothing to hide from them I’ll be very surprised.”

The woman visibly flinched. “George. They called him George.”

George had been the name of both David’s and Arabella’s fathers. He looked back at the child. “George? Georgie?”

The boy stared at him for a long moment. Then, cautiously, he shifted onto his knees, reached for the wooden slats of the cot and pulled himself up to his feet. David looked at the streaks of filth on the smock and consciously reined in his anger. He studied the child. The child stared back. After a moment, David reached out and touched one of the tiny hands clutching the edge of the cot. George flinched away as if expecting a blow and David felt an overwhelming wave of protective tenderness.

“He’s cold. And he seems terrified.”

“It’s his own fault, sir, he throws off his blankets. And they’re like that at this age. Skittish, like.”

David kept his eyes on the child and reached past him into the cot to feel the blankets. As he had suspected, they were soaked.

“Does he have any other clothing?”

“Another gown, but it’s wet. I do my best, but I can’t keep up with the laundry.”

“Then get me a dry blanket to wrap him in. I’m taking him with me.”

“Sir, without proper authorisation…”

David turned to look at her. “You will receive authorisation before the end of the day,” he said in icy tones. “Get me a blanket for him. Now.”

Afterwards, seated in the post-chaise as it rattled its way towards London and then on towards Rye, David looked back over that long day and found it hard to recognise himself. He had been carried on a wave of indignant fury which swept aside all difficulties and opposition. His years as an army quartermaster had given him a talent for organisation and the ability to juggle too many tasks, all of them urgent. David was thankful for the experience since he did not think he would ever have made it into the coach early the following morning otherwise.

He was also thankful for the support of Mrs Hetherington, who greeted his arrival with the child with blank astonishment.

“I know I’m imposing on you, ma’am, but it’s only for today. I’ve nobody else to turn to in Shrewsbury, and I’ve a great deal to do to be ready to travel with him tomorrow.”

“I don’t understand,” the woman said, studying the crying child. “Who is he? Where does he come from? Dear God, look at the state of him. He’s filthy and he looks half-starved.”

“He is half-starved,” David said grimly. “It’s a disgrace, sending a child out to a place like that. She was keeping him in an outhouse, with the pigs and the chickens. I could kill her, and the Parish Board along with her, except that I don’t have time.”

“Is he your wife’s child, Major?”

“Yes. She can’t have known where he was, though. She left him with her family. She probably thought it best for him, but when her aunt died, that odorous piece of pig’s excrement Jasper Gladstone sent him to the parish. His own cousin’s child. When I’ve got time, I’m going to ensure that his reputation in this town ends up in the sewer. I don’t need to be here to do that, I can write letters, and I intend to ask for the assistance of my Brigadier’s wife in the matter. She will enjoy the challenge.”

Mrs Hetherington looked amused. “And I thought you such a quiet gentleman,” she said. “But Major…he may be your wife’s child, but surely he isn’t yours? A gentleman like you wouldn’t have let her take his son away like this. Are you sure you can just remove him from the Parish because you want to? There will be regulations.”

“If they try to stop me, I will take their regulations and shove them where they deserve to be. But they won’t. They can’t. He is my wife’s child, born within wedlock. We were legitimately married, that never changed. If I say he is my son, and can prove she was my wife, there isn’t a damned thing they can do about it.”

Mrs Hetherington gaped at him. “Sir…are you sure?”

George had stopped crying, probably because he was too exhausted to continue. He was watching David from enormous tear-drenched eyes, but David thought that he seemed more relaxed in his arms. He looked back at the child and finally admitted to himself what he had been unable to recognise two years earlier.

“Yes,” he said. “Oh God, yes. I should have done it then. I should have gone to her and offered to acknowledge the child. Because I wanted a child so badly that it hurt. Arabella didn’t really, and when I found out, I was furious. It seemed so unjust, because I realised that it might have been my fault that we couldn’t have children. Which meant I might never be able to have a child.” David stopped, realising that he was babbling. “I’m sorry, this is the most inappropriate conversation I have ever had.”

“Lord bless, you sir, I run a lodging house. You’d be amazed what people tell me. Leave him with me. I’ll get him bathed and fed, and I’ll send Sally to the market, if you’ll leave the money. There’s a booth that sells used clothing, they’ll have baby clothes there. I don’t know how you’ll manage him on the road, mind. He’s not clean yet, so you’ll need to change his clouts and wash him, and it’s not work for a gentleman.”

“I’ll learn, you can show me. It’s only for three days, and once I’m back in Rye I can hire a nursemaid. I’m going to have to write to extend my furlough, but they’ll understand. It’s winter quarters. Mrs Hetherington, thank you. I will never forget what you’ve done for me today.”

It took longer to reach Rye on the return journey. It was necessary to stop more frequently because of George, and overnight stops were more complicated. David had no experience of taking care of a child, but Mrs Hetherington gave him an emergency lesson in feeding, bathing, and changing clouts in half a day. The journey was a nightmare of a crying child, desperate inn staff and irritable post boys.

After two days of almost constant wailing, and fighting against every attempt to comfort him, George fell suddenly into an exhausted sleep in David’s arms. He barely awoke as David carried him into the Swan Inn. The landlord was more sympathetic than on the previous two nights, and sent a chamber maid to wash, change and sit with the boy so that David could eat in peace in the dining room. After two glasses of burgundy, David was almost falling asleep at the table. He went up to his room and found that the girl had just changed George and was settling him into the bed.

“Will you be all right with him, sir? You should have a nursemaid with you.”

“She fell ill, and I couldn’t delay my journey,” David said with a smile. It was the story he had told all along, not really caring who believed it. This girl apparently did and gave him a somewhat misty smile.

“Bless you, sir, I’ve never seen such a devoted father. Have you much further to go?”

“No, we’ll be home before tomorrow evening.”

“I’m glad to hear it, you’re in need of a rest. With your leave, sir, I’ll come back in the morning and get him fed and ready while you have your breakfast.”

“Thank you. You’ve been so kind.”

“You’re welcome, sir.”

David undressed, then checked that there was water in the jug on the washstand and that there were clean clouts available in case of disaster, then he got into bed. The boy lay beside him, long lashed eyes watching him curiously. Over the past days he had seemed to David to see every human contact as a potential threat, and David tried not to imagine the miserable existence that had taught such a young child that nobody was to be trusted. Now, though, he lay wakeful but calm. David looked back at him.

“Are you in the mood for conversation, Georgie? I’m not sure I’ll be much use at it, I’m so tired. Still, we can give it a try. I’m your Papa. You don’t know it yet, and nor did I until just recently, but we’ve a lot of time to get acquainted. At least we will have, when Bonaparte is gone, and I can come home to you. In the meantime, we’ll need to find you a good nursemaid and a new housekeeper…”

David froze suddenly. He realised that he had forgotten, in the stress of the past days, that his departing housekeeper might well still be in residence when he arrived with a child she knew nothing about. It had not occurred to him to write to Helen Carleton, he had been too busy. Now he realised he should have done so. He wondered if she had already left for her family home in Leicester for Christmas. Part of him hoped she had done so. The other part hoped he would have the chance to see her again, to thank her for her kindness.

He fell asleep quickly and woke in the half-light of dawn. To his surprise, George still slept, curled up against his body, warm in the chill air of the inn bedroom. David lay very still, savouring the moment. Very gently, he kissed the top of the child’s head. The colour of his hair reminded David sharply of Arabella and he wept a little, regretting all the things they might have shared.

They arrived at Oak Lodge late in the afternoon, several days before Christmas. George was asleep when David lifted him from the chaise and instructed the coachmen to go to the kitchen for refreshment while the baggage was unloaded. He walked into the house and stopped in the hallway in considerable surprise. The stairs were decorated with greenery and tied with red ribbons. It reminded him of the Christmases of his childhood, and he stood in the hall, the child in his arms, unexpectedly assailed by a rush of memories.

“Major Cartwright.”

The girl’s voice was astonished. David turned to see her emerging from the kitchen area, still wearing her white apron. She had discarded her lace cap and looked neat and efficient and surprisingly attractive. David quailed internally but took his courage in both hands, remembering that this was his house, and he was her employer.

“Miss Carleton, what on earth are you still doing here?” he asked sternly. “By now, you should be at home with your family, ready to celebrate…”

Helen came forward, ignoring him, and drew back the grubby blanket from George’s flushed face. “Is this your wife’s boy?” she asked softly.

“Yes,” David said. “His name is George. And he is my son.”

Helen lifted her eyes to his face. “I’m not going home for Christmas,” she said. “I’m sorry, Major, I know I was ordered to do so. But it occurred to me that I might be needed here. And it turns out that I was more right than I knew. Here, let me take him. How on earth did you manage on the journey with him?”

“Very well, ma’am,” David said haughtily. He decided not to mention how appalling it had been at times. “I’m an army man, we’re very adaptable.”

Helen looked up at him, a smile lurking in the blue eyes. “So am I, Major Cartwright. And since I do not think you intend to abandon your profession just yet, that is just as well. I’ve had a lot of practice taking care of my sisters’ children, you know, and we still have a few days before Christmas to get the nursery set up just as it ought to be. He’s a beautiful child.”

“He’s been badly treated. I will tell you everything, ma’am. But just now…”

“Just now, we should take him upstairs. I think he needs changing.”

David trod up the stairs in her wake, remembering his resolve of earlier. “I told you to go home.”

“I ignored you.”

“You cannot remain in my employ if I dismiss you.”

“That is very true. I think we should discuss it again after Christmas.”

“You are not going to listen to me, are you?”

Helen shot him a look. “Don’t you trust me with him, Major?”

David looked back at her steadily. “I cannot think of anybody I would trust more,” he said simply. “But Miss Carleton…”

“Major Cartwright, why don’t you let me decide for myself? There is nothing more irritating than a man trying to tell a woman how she should think or feel. Just now, let us take care of your son.”

***

It was frosty on Christmas morning. Helen reluctantly left George in Sarah’s devoted charge and went to church with her employer. Inside, she headed towards her usual seat among the tradespeople and upper servants at the back, but Major Cartwright took her arm and steered her firmly into the pew beside him.

Gossip travelled fast in a small town like Rye and there were sly looks and veiled hints which, over sherry in the rectory, turned into open questions about Major Cartwright’s new charge. Helen watched admiringly as the Major responded, his replies so bland that eventually even the most avid gossip became frustrated.

“He is my son. My wife and I were temporarily estranged. Tragically she died just as we were planning to reconcile. I am, as you can imagine, heartbroken. Miss Carleton has agreed to remain in my employment as his governess, and to oversee the nursery once I return to the army. I am very grateful to her.”

He told the story over and over, varying the words but sticking firmly to the message. Helen felt enormous respect for him. She could not imagine how badly he must have been hurt by his wife, but his thoughts were all of the child. After church, he sat at a table in the hastily furnished nursery, with George on his lap, showing him how to build a simple tower with wooden blocks. George picked up the idea quickly, and then abruptly reached out and pushed the tower over. The hazel eyes flew to the Major’s face apprehensively. David Cartwright was laughing.

“Good at siege warfare, I see. Shall we do it again?”

He did so, and this time George gave a crow of laughter as the tower fell. The Major bent and kissed the soft copper hair. Helen stood up, fighting back sentimental tears.

“I will be needed in the kitchen, Major, so I’ll leave you to it.”

He looked around quickly, smiling. “Come back as soon as you can. It’s important that he gets to know both of us, but you especially. If you’re really going to take on the job of raising him. Are you good at building towers, Miss Carleton?”

Helen smiled, her heart full. “I have three nephews, Major, I am an expert. I just don’t want to intrude.”

“This is your home too, ma’am, for as long as you choose to stay. You couldn’t intrude. And I hope you’ll be dining with me as usual. It’s Christmas, you cannot leave me to eat alone.”

“I should be delighted, sir.”

“Was your mother very angry?”

Helen laughed. “Yes,” she admitted. “But she is happier that I am now able to call myself a governess rather than a housekeeper, so it could have been worse.”

She had received the letter from her mother the previous day. Lady Carleton had expressed herself freely, but Helen felt that the anger was half-hearted. It seemed that Kitty had made the acquaintance of a titled gentleman at a hunt ball, who appeared very taken with her, and who openly expressed his hope of renewing their acquaintance in London next year. Helen had no idea if the attachment was real, but it was a useful distraction for her parents.

They dined on roast goose and traditional Christmas pudding and drank a rich red wine which Major Cartwright told her came from the vineyards around the River Douro and was a favourite of Lord Wellington. He made her laugh with stories of various Christmases spent on campaign and asked her about her family. Helen had wondered if she would miss the noisy family gatherings of her childhood, but she did not.

They went together to settle George into his cot. He was already half asleep, worn out by the unaccustomed excitement. Major Cartwright bent to kiss him, then stood back for Helen to do the same. She did so, suddenly very aware of how domestic the moment was. They might have been any young couple, putting their child to bed after a busy and very happy Christmas Day. It made Helen feel unexpectedly shy and she wondered if the Major was aware of it. If he was, David Cartwright gave no indication.

Afterwards, Helen sat beside the fire, in the drawing room, sipping sherry and trying to pretend that this was normal behaviour for a governess who was also a housekeeper and a cook. David Cartwright sat opposite her.

“Do you play chess, Miss Carleton?”

“Yes. I’m quite fond of the game.”

“Would you do me the honour?”

They sat with the board between them like a shield and Helen concentrated on her moves and tried not to think about anything else, until he said:

“Do you really want to stay?”

“Yes.”

“I’m going to increase your salary, and I’d like you to employ a kitchen maid and a nursery maid. You can’t leave it all to Sarah and you’ll be very busy with George.”

“Thank you, Major. I…”

“I feel as though I ought to send you home, but I don’t want to. You’ll be so good for him. I want to be here, but I can’t. Not yet. Still, it’s a huge responsibility, and if you change your mind, please tell me and I’ll find somebody else.”

“I won’t change my mind, Major. I really want this post. He’s a beautiful child, I’m already a little in love with him.”

“Will you write to me with news of him?”

“All the time,” Helen said warmly. “There will be nothing of him that you do not know.”

“Thank you. I’ve felt so resentful about Arabella but in the end, she gave me something priceless, something I’ve wanted for so long. A child. A family. I’m so grateful. It’s your move, Miss Carleton.”

Helen studied the board. After a long moment, she moved her rook. “I think you are going to lose, Major Cartwright.”

“I don’t.”

Helen looked up in surprise and found that he was looking at her, with a hint of a smile behind the steady brown eyes.

“I’m playing the long game,” he explained, and reached to move his piece.

Christmas 2019 #OscarWalks

Christmas 2019 #OscarWalks is a special edition to give Oscar the opportunity to with you all a Merry Christmas from everybody at Writing with Labradors. This is a special festive edition of #Oscar Walks. A combination of the weather and the Christmas season has meant that walks have been short and sweet for a few days, but that doesn’t mean Oscar hasn’t been having an adventurous life and I know he has a few things to say.

 

 

It’s been a very different Christmas for me in one way; the first one in thirteen years where I’ve not had Joey walking behind me. Toby was never very interested in Christmas until the turkey appeared, but Joey was a big fan. He loved having loads of people around to make a fuss of him and was always prepared to let us dress him up for the occasion. I missed him very much this year.

Luckily, Oscar seems to share Joey’s enthusiasm for the season and has been full of the Christmas spirit over the past week, so I’ll hand over to him to tell you what’s been going on.

What’s been going on? What’s been going on? I’ll tell you what’s been going on. Persecution, that’s what! Persecution, false accusations and fake news!

You sound like a combination of Sir Home Popham and Donald Trump, Oscar. What’s upset you?

You know very well what’s upset me, Mum. That man. That person. That individual who came into the house on Monday.

You mean the dog trainer, Oscar.

Yes.

I’m sorry you’re offended, but I did explain that I need a bit of help with teaching you to walk nicely on the lead. And to come back when I call you.

I am very good on the lead. I always respond when you say heel.

You do. It’s just that I have to say it four thousand times in a ten minute walk, it’s exhausting.

Exaggeration. And defamation of character. I could sue.

Anyway, you liked the dog trainer. He gave you loads of treats and played with you and you’re already getting better.

You told me I was already perfect.

You are, Oscar. I just need you to be a little more obedient. And to come when I call you.

I already do that.

Except when you see another dog.

Well, obviously, I have to be civil to them.

Or when you’ve found an interesting smell.

That can be very distracting. It might be food.

Or when you see anything new or interesting.

Except sheep. I always come back if there’s a sheep.

That’s true, you’re the opposite of most dogs. Still, a bit of extra training will benefit both of us.

Bah.

Anyway, this was supposed to be about Christmas. Your second Christmas, Oscar. How’s it been so far?

Fantastic. Excellent. Wonderful. Know what I like about Christmas? 

No.

Everybody’s here. None of this going off to work, or school, or University nonsense. Everyone’s here, mostly in the same room, we all get to eat really good food at weird hours of the day and night, watch TV, play some silly games and snuggle up by the fire.

Yes, that pretty much sums up Christmas.

And visitors. Loads of people in and out of the house all the time. They bring cards and presents and most of them give me cuddles and feed me treats. And some bring dogs. I met Roy. I liked Roy. He reminded me a bit of Toby only much smaller and different colours and different fur.

So not that much like Toby at all?

Well he was grumpy with me and growled at me a few times but didn’t really seem to mind when I teased him. Toby was like that to start with but then he got used to me and would let me play with him. Of course Joey let me climb all over him from day one.

He was soft with you. Like the rest of us.

That’s what the dog trainer said. And I got presents. Loads of treats and two new toys. Three, if you count the reindeer you gave me on Christmas Eve. No FOUR if you count the duck that Rachael brought home for me. I LOVE my new toys. And there are lots of pretty lights around, and indoor trees with things hanging off them that I’m not allowed to touch. But they look nice. And the fire’s always lit, which is my favourite.

I’m glad you approve of Christmas. 

Mind you, it’s a bit tiring. What’s happening next, Mum?

Well, next week is New Year and Jon and Anya are having a party, so there’ll be lots of your favourite people here that evening. And after that it’s back to work and Anya and Rachael will go back to University.

Boo. Don’t like that.

I know, Oscar, but they’ll be back. And I’ve got lots of exciting walks planned so you can practice what you’ve been learning from the dog trainer before we see him again.

Can I show him my new toys?

You’ve showed them to everyone else, Oscar, so I expect so. Right, say Happy Christmas to your fans, and we’ll brave the rain for a quick walk now.

Happy Christmas and a Merry New Year, everybody! Is that right, Mum?

Close enough, Oscar. Merry Christmas, baby boy.

Merry Christmas, Mum.

Christmas photo of Oscar on his hind legs getting cuddles, in direct contravention to Dog Trainer’s instructions #ahwellitsChristmas #willdobetter

 

Next week it’s back to work on book 6 of the Peninsular War Saga with Oscar’s expert help and advice from his sofa in my study. For more history, humour, fiction and Labradors why not follow me on Twitter, Facebook and Medium.

 

 

 

 

Welcome to 2018 at Writing with Labradors

Fireworks in London
Fireworks in London

Welcome to 2018 at Writing with Labradors.  It’s New Year’s Day on the Isle of Man, and it’s raining, windy and freezing cold.  In some ways this is a relief because if it had been a nice day I would have felt obliged to go out for a walk and I don’t feel like it.

It’s been a very different and very busy Christmas this year, with Richard’s family with us for the whole of the holidays, and then entertaining friends to dinner last night.  I’ve had no time to write, research or do anything else and in some ways that’s been quite hard.

I think it has probably done me good, however.  Time away from the current book has given me the chance to think through what I’d like to do with it and I feel a lot clearer about where it is going.  I’m very happy with the few chapters I’ve written and research is going well so I’m looking forward to getting on with it.  I think my head may have needed the break.

It’s made me think a bit more about how I schedule my writing time going forward.  I’m very privileged that I don’t have to hold down a full time job at the same time as writing, but I do have a very busy life with a family, my dogs, a big house to maintain and accounts and admin to be done for Richard’s business.  I’m aware that it’s very easy to let things slide when I’m in the middle of a book, but I realise that I need to be better organised both with the various tasks through the day and with time off to relax.

This year I’ve edited and published seven existing novels, with all the associated marketing and publicity, I’ve written an eighth book from scratch and published it and I’ve started a ninth.  I’ve handed my Irish dance school over to my two lovely teachers to run, I’ve supported son and daughter through GCSEs and AS levels, my old fella Toby through an operation at the age of 13 and I’ve had a major foot operation myself.  I’ve toured the battlefields of Spain and Portugal where some of my books are set and I went to Berlin, Killarney, London, Hertfordshire, Nottingham, Manchester and Liverpool.  I lost a very dear old family friend and went to his funeral.  And I’ve gained some amazing new friends, some of whom I’ve not even met yet, although I’m hoping to this year.  I’ve set up a website and an author page, joined Twitter and Instagram and I genuinely feel I can now call myself an author, something I had doubts about in one of my first posts on this website.

It has been an amazing year and I’m so grateful for all the help and support I’ve received.  I’ve not won any awards, although I’ve had one or two reviews which have felt like getting an Oscar.  Still, I’d like to do the thank you speech, because it’s the end of my first year as a published author and I owe so many people thanks for that.

Lynn and Richard
Love and Marriage

I’m starting with the man I married, who has been absolutely incredible throughout this.  He set up my website and taught me how to use it, and has always been there to answer any questions about technology.  He spent hours designing the new covers for the Peninsular War Saga and he also took the photographs which are gorgeous.  He drove me through Spain and Portugal, scrambled over battlefields and listened to me endlessly lecturing with more patience than I could have imagined.  He has celebrated my good reviews and sympathised over the bad ones.  He’s been completely amazing this year – thank you, Richard.  You are the best.

My son is studying for A levels at home and shares the study with me.  That’s not always easy, as during research I tend to spread out from my desk into the surrounding area, onto his table and onto the floor.  He has become expert at negotiating his way through piles of history books.  He is also a brilliant cook and will unfailingly provide dinner at the point when it becomes obvious I am too far gone in the nineteenth century to have remembered that we need to eat.  Thanks, Jon.

Castletown 2017
Castletown 2017

My daughter is my fellow historian and brings me joy every day.  She mocks my devotion to Lord Wellington ruthlessly, puts up with my stories, lets me whinge to her and makes me laugh all the time.  She drags me away from my desk to go for hot chocolate and to watch the sun go down, watches cheesy TV with me, helps me put up the Christmas decorations and corrects my fashion sense.  Thank you, bambino.

There are so many other people I should thank.  Heather, for always being there and for offering to proof-read; Sheri McGathy for my great book covers; Suzy and Sarah for their support and encouragement.

Then there are the many, many people online who have helped me with research queries, answered beginners questions about publishing and shared my sense of the ridiculous more than I could have believed possible.  There are a few of you out there but I’m singling out Jacqueline Reiter, Kristine Hughes Patrone and Catherine Curzon in particular.  I’m hoping to meet you all in person in 2018 and to share many more hours of Wellington and Chatham on Twitter, Archduke Charles dressed as a penguin and the mysterious purpose of Lady Greville’s dodgy hat.  A special mention also goes to M. J. Logue who writes the brilliant Uncivil War series, and who is my online partner-in-crime in considering new ways for the mavericks of the army to annoy those in charge and laughing out loud at how funny we find ourselves.

The new book is called An Unwilling Alliance and is the first book to be set partly on the Isle of Man, where I live.  The hero, a Royal Navy captain by the name of Hugh Kelly is a Manxman who joined the navy at sixteen and has returned to the island after Trafalgar with enough prize money to buy an estate, invest in local business and find himself a wife while his new ship is being refitted.  It’s a tight timescale, but Hugh is used to getting things his own way and is expecting no trouble with Roseen Crellin, the daughter of his new business partner.  Her father approves, she is from the right background and the fact that she’s very pretty is something of a bonus.  It hasn’t occurred to Hugh that the lady might not see things the same way…

The title obviously refers to the somewhat rocky start to Hugh and Roseen’s relationship, but it has other meanings as well.  The book moves on to the 1807 British campaign in Denmark and the bombardment of Copenhagen, in which Captain Kelly is involved.  The Danes were unwilling to accept British terms for the surrender of their fleet to avoid it falling into the hands of the French and as an alliance proved impossible, the British resorted to force.

In addition, there was something of an unwilling alliance between the two branches of the British armed forces taking part in the Copenhagen campaign.  There is a history of difficulties between the Army and the Navy during this period, and given that the Danish campaign required the two to work together, there is an interesting conflict over the best way to conduct the campaign.

An Unconventional Officer
Book 1 of the Peninsular War Saga

The naval commander during this campaign was Admiral James Gambier while the army was commanded by Lord Cathcart.  While Captain Hugh Kelly served under Gambier in the British fleet, a division of the army under Cathcart was commanded by Sir Arthur Wellesley and Brigadier General Stewart and consisted of battalions from the 43rd, 52nd, 95th and 92nd – the nucleus of the future Light Division, the elite troops of Wellington’s Peninsular army.  In An Unconventional Officer,  we learn that the expedition is to be joined by the first battalion of the 110th infantry under the command of the newly promoted Major Paul van Daan and An Unwilling Alliance looks at the campaign from both the army and naval perspective, filling in part of Paul’s story which is not covered in the series.

I am hoping that the book will be published at the beginning of April 2018 and it will be followed by book 5 of the Peninsular War Saga, An Untrustworthy Army, covering the Salamanca campaign and the retreat from Burgos some time in the summer.  After that I will either get on with the sequel to A Respectable Woman which follows the lives of the children of Kit and Philippa Clevedon or the third book in the Light Division series, set after Waterloo.

We’re hoping to go back to Portugal and Spain this year for further photography and battlefield mayhem.  I’ve got some new ideas for the website and will be publishing several more short stories through the year.  My first research trip is in a couple of weeks time when I’ll be visiting Portsmouth and the Victory, the National Maritime Museum and possibly the Imperial War Museum if I don’t run out of time.  And the Tower of London for no reason at all apart from the fact that Wellington used to enjoy bossing people around there.

Writing with Labradors
Toby and Joey – Writing with Labradors

My final thanks go to the real stars of Writing with Labradors.  Toby, my old fella, is thirteen now and survived a major operation this year far better than I did.  Joey is eleven and needs to lose some weight.  They are my friends, my babies and my constant companions and I can’t imagine life without either of them although I know that day is going to come.  Thank you to my dogs who are with me all the time I’m working and who make every day happier.

Happy New Year to all my family, friends, readers and supporters.  Looking forward to 2018.

 

 

The Jolbokaflod – an Icelandic Christmas Tradition

Andreas Tille, from Wikimedia

In Iceland there is a tradition of giving books to each other on Christmas Eve and then spending the evening reading which is known as  the Jolabokaflod, or “Christmas Book Flood,” as the majority of books in Iceland are sold between September and December in preparation for Christmas giving.

At this time of year, most households in Iceland receive an annual free book catalog of new publications called the Bokatidindi.  Icelanders pore over the new releases and choose which ones they want to buy.

The small Nordic island, with a population of only 329,000 people, is extraordinarily literary. They love to read and write. According to a BBC article, “The country has more writers, more books published and more books read, per head, than anywhere else in the world.  One in ten Icelanders will publish a book.

There is more value placed on hardback and paperback books than in other parts of the world where e-books have grown in popularity.  In Iceland most people read, and the book industry is based on many people buying several books each year rather than a few people buying a lot of books.  The vast majority of books are bought at Christmas time, and that is when most books are published.

The idea of families and friends gathering together to read before the fire on Christmas Eve is a winter tradition which appeals to me.  Like the Icelanders, I love physical books although I both read and publish e-books – sometimes they are just more convenient.  Still, the Jolabokaflod would work with any kind of book.

They are also easier to give away, and this year I want to celebrate my own version of the Jolabokaflod with my readers, by giving away the e-book versions of some of my books on kindle for two days, on Christmas Day and Boxing Day.  It is two years since I first made the decision to independently publish my historical novels, and it has gone better than I ever expected.  This is my way of saying thank you to all my readers and hello to any new readers out there.

Visit my Amazon page to download the following books free, tomorrow and the following day:

A Respectable Woman – The daughter of a nineteenth century missionary is torn between love and propriety

A Marcher Lord – Divided loyalties on the Anglo-Scottish borders in Tudor times

A Regrettable Reputation – A Regency romance set in Yorkshire in 1816

An Unconventional Officer - love and war in Wellington’s armyAn Unconventional Officer – The first of the Peninsular War Saga, a story of love and war in Wellington’s Army

An Unwilling Alliance – A Manx romance, the Royal Navy and Major Paul van Daan during the Copenhagen Campaign of 1807

 

 

 

 

MERRY CHRISTMAS AND A HAPPY NEW YEAR FROM WRITING WITH LABRADORS

 

 

Christmas in Viseu, Portugal, 1809 – An Excerpt from An Unconventional Officer

Viseu
Viseu

Christmas in Viseu, Portugal, in 1809 must have been greeted with a sigh of relief.  While Wellington’s engineers frantically worked on the Lines of Torres Vedras, Craufurd and his light division prowled the border and the rest of the army took a breath and recovered from the horror of Talavera.  And in an Unconventional Officer, the first book of the Peninsular War Saga, Anne Carlyon is the toast of headquarters and the object of admiration from a number of officers, some of them more senior than others…

An Unconventional Officer
Book 1 of the Peninsular War Saga

Paul watched as Anne Carlyon danced her way through the headquarters festivities over Christmas and the sight of her tried his resolve almost to breaking point. It was impossible to keep his distance. Her popularity with Lord Wellington made her a guaranteed guest at every party and he watched her laughing and flirting with an ache in his heart. Her husband trod behind her, his eyes following her around every room. Paul, who had come to loathe Carlyon, could almost pity him. He could remember the days when Robert had spent all his time and money at cards and had seemed indifferent to the whereabouts of his lovely young wife. Two years later, he seemed unable to take his eyes from her but was no more comfortable in her presence than he had ever been. His fellow officers spoke behind his back with open amusement about his obsession with her and her flirtatiousness with other men, and Paul was aware of a certain reserve in their comments around him which told him that gossip was linking his name to Anne’s.

Anne’s close friendship with Rowena made it impossible for him to avoid spending time around her even if he had wished to, but he did not. He tried hard not to make life difficult for her with her husband although he was aware of Carlyon’s simmering resentment. It threatened to spill over at the ball hosted by the Highlanders during Christmas. He had danced with Anne and they had remained beside each other when it ended, watching the Highlanders demonstrate a complicated reel. Paul was watching her laughing face, the long graceful line of neck and shoulders and the swell of her breasts above the silver gauze of her gown. At moments like this, despite all the complications of their relationship, he could not help feeling a surge of simple happiness that she was beside him, their arms touching. He had not noticed Carlyon’s presence until he spoke.
“Move away from my wife, Major.”
Paul turned, startled. He was not sure if Carlyon was drunk but he was looking belligerent. Anne had turned too. “I am just watching the dancing, Robert,” she said quietly and something in her voice told Paul that she spent a good deal of her time soothing her husband’s jealousy.
“You may have been, but that’s not where Major van Daan was looking.”
Paul felt an unexpected rush of anger. “Surprised you noticed from the card room, Mr Carlyon. Run through her monthly allowance yet, have you? Don’t worry, she can come and eat with us if she finds herself short again.”
Anne was horrified. “Paul, for God’s sake!”
“How he spends your money is not one of the best kept secrets of the army, Nan. But keep at it, Rob, we all know that’s what you married her for!”
“It’s none of your bloody business, Major!” Robert said harshly. “Get away from him, Nan – now!”
“Stay where you are, Nan,” Paul said softly, his eyes on Robert’s face. “I think he’s drunk, and I’d rather you weren’t around him in this state, not sure he’s in control of himself and I don’t want you hurt.” He placed his hand very deliberately on Anne’s shoulder. Carlyon’s face flushed scarlet.
“Get away from my bloody wife, Major…”
“That will do!”
Anne turned with relief at the sound of Lord Wellington’s voice. People had begun to stare and she had no idea how to stop either of them. Wellington looked at Carlyon and then at Paul and the expression on his face was not encouraging.
“I have no idea if either of you are drunk, but you will separate now and remain apart. Major van Daan, you have a wife. Kindly join her. Mr Carlyon, remove yourself and calm down. Ma’am, will you join me for a stroll?”
Anne took his arm. “Gladly, sir,” she said, and allowed him to lead her away. Neither of them spoke as he drew her through the crowd, and out onto the broad terrace at the end. It was deserted and Wellington took her to the stone balustrade, which looked out over the town.
“Take a moment, ma’am. I think you are upset.”
Anne glanced at him. “Thank you for intervening, my lord. I suspect by now they are both feeling rather stupid.”
“Certainly I imagine Major van Daan is. While his feelings are moderately obvious he usually manages to keep them under better control.” Wellington paused. “As for your husband, we are all aware that he finds it increasingly hard to control himself. I am sorry. It must be very difficult for you.”
Anne turned to look at him, startled. “Does everybody at headquarters know, sir?” she asked.
“Everybody speculates, ma’am. Your husband’s level of jealousy is unusual and attracts comment. As for Major van Daan, there is always gossip about him, much of it nonsense. But since you came to Portugal it has become very obvious that he has no interest in any other woman.”
Anne shook her head. “Lord Wellington…”
“Ma’am, I don’t judge you. You must be very lonely at times, I think,” he said quietly. “I am too. Neither of us is happy in our marriage. It cannot be a surprise to you when I tell you how very attractive I have always found you. And if circumstances were different, I think I would be suggesting rather more than a stroll on the terrace, so I can hardly pass judgement on Major van Daan.”
“Sir…”
“I am not going to embarrass you, my dear. Our situations are not the same. And while I do not think I would have any scruples about Mr Carlyon’s wife, I could not reconcile my conscience with trying to seduce Major van Daan’s mistress. I consider him a friend.”
“I’m not his mistress, sir.”
“No. But he would very much like you to be.”
Anne smiled. “He cares too much about Rowena. And so do I.”
“I know.” Wellington returned her smile. “I don’t always find it easy to make idle conversation, ma’am. But I find you very easy to talk to. I hope that nothing I have said this evening means that you…”
“No.” Anne turned quickly to him. “Oh no. I am honestly flattered. And you are right. Sometimes I am lonely.” She smiled suddenly. “I can understand why Paul likes you so much.”
Wellington laughed aloud. “I am honoured,” he said drily. “He often has little patience for his senior officers. We should go in, Mrs Carlyon; before somebody notices that either of us is missing. But before we do, would you be very offended…?”
Anne met his eyes steadily. His unexpected understanding had touched a chord in her. “No,” she said, shocking herself.
He came closer and placed one hand under her chin, tilting her head back. Gently his lips met hers. Anne closed her eyes and let him kiss her, and then she was conscious of his arm about her, drawing her closer. His body was hard and she reached up and placed her hand on the back of his neck. Very delicately he parted her lips and suddenly his kiss was no longer tentative and she was conscious of a surprising shiver of pleasure. He held her against him, and she was kissing him back without restraint.
It lasted a long time. Almost Anne wanted it to continue. She was slightly shocked to realise that if it were not for Paul she would possibly have been interested in the commander-in-chief’s tentative offer. She had never felt this way with any man other than Paul and she was in love with him. But there was something attractively straightforward about Wellington’s kiss and she rather imagined he would demonstrate the same direct enjoyment in bed.
Eventually she drew back, and looked up at him, smiling slightly. “I don’t think we had better do that again, my lord,” she said quietly.
The hooded eyes were amused. “Neither do I,” he said. “I don’t know which of them would be more likely to murder me. But I am glad that I did. It suddenly makes the exasperating behaviour of two of my officers much easier to understand. I just hope they don’t end by killing each other.”
“I’ll try to make sure that they don’t.”
“Thank you, my dear. I feel obscurely flattered. Although I think I must allow you to go back inside without me. I am going to need a few moments alone, where it is dark.”
Colour scorched her face, but she was laughing. “I am sorry, sir.”
“Don’t be. I spend a good deal of my time doing things I don’t enjoy. It is very pleasant now and again to do something I do.”
There was a movement at the door and Anne turned quickly. Paul van Daan came out onto the terrace and she felt herself blush again, thankful of the darkness. He came forward his eyes on her face, taking her hands in his. “Are you all right?”
“Major van Daan, you are beginning to try my patience,” Wellington said sharply and Paul looked at him.
“I just came to apologise, sir, to you and to Nan. I’m going to take Rowena home, she’s tired. I’ve apologised to Carlyon and he has accepted. Stupid of me. Perhaps I’ve drunk more than I realised.”
“I doubt it, Major, but that is certainly the excuse we will be accepting,” Wellington said. He came forward and Anne looked up at him and saw her own amusement mirrored in his hooded blue eyes. “Your apology is accepted. Please don’t let it happen again.”
Paul lifted her hand to his lips then released her. “I won’t, sir.” He turned to go. At the door he looked back. “Mind, I’m not sure he’ll be all that happy about you kissing her on the terrace either, sir,” he said, and met Anne’s eyes. She was momentarily appalled and then saw that he was laughing.
“Paul…”
“Christ, lass, I don’t blame you. Between the two of us I’m surprised you’re not driven mad. It would serve both of us right if you did find somebody else.” He glanced at his chief and smiled slightly. “But don’t make a habit of it, sir. I don’t know how he’d feel about it, but just at the moment I’d like to punch you. Good night.”

(From An Unconventional Officer by Lynn Bryant)

 

Christmas in the East End – a festive excerpt from A Respectable Woman

St George in the East, Stepney
A Respectable Woman - the history
A novel of Victorian London: book 1 in the Alverstone Saga

This excerpt from A Respectable Woman describes Philippa Maclay’s first Christmas in the East End as a teacher at Wentworth’s School for Girls, a charitable foundation. Daughter of a missionary who was murdered by slavers, she is obliged to support herself but is finding her post more congenial than she expected.

Wentworth’s School is directly based on Raines Foundation School, now in Bethnal Green but previously in Arbour Square in Stepney which is the school I went to back in the 1970s.

The Christmas holidays arrived, and more than half of the Wentworth’s pupils went home to their families for the celebration. The others, orphans or those whose families were unable to house them, like Joan Carter, remained at the school.
There were some ten girls left, including Carter, who was still very weak, but just beginning to get out of bed for part of each day, and Phillips, Miss Chadwick’s prize pupil, whose aristocratic relatives clearly had no place for her in their festive celebrations.
Christmas at Kola had always been primarily a religious festival, and Philippa had no experience of the more secular joys of the season. Both Miss Grafton and Miss Bentley had family with whom they would spend the holiday, and without their disapproving presence, Wentworth’s seemed to relax. The Board of Trustees had approved extra provisions for the celebrations, and Miss Chadwick, who seemed to have the ability to stretch money beyond belief, was planning a gala dinner on Christmas Day.
Philippa was looking forward to the holiday. Without her more censorious staff, Amelia relaxed, and included her junior in the holiday plans as if by right. Philippa had dreaded spending the season alone, but found that there was no question of that. Amelia was determined to give her remaining charges a proper holiday, and Philippa found her services called upon to plan and organise the day.
The school seemed quiet with most of its pupils gone, and although the girls still had their domestic duties, and scripture lessons continued, there was a holiday air. Every morning the girls set off for a walk after breakfast. Domestic tasks occupied the rest of the morning, and after luncheon, they were busy with needlework, learning their catechism or practicing their skills as parlour maid. But they were allowed more levity and more recreation time, and occasional lapses of behaviour were treated with leniency.
On Christmas Eve, they received a visit from a number of the Board of Trustees with their wives and families. The Board consisted of around twenty-five local men, mostly businessmen, with a sprinkling of solicitors, doctors and clergymen. Standing slightly to one side of the group, Philippa noticed Mr Duncan, the local vicar, with his wife, and Dr Marshall.
Prayers were held in the hall, and then the girls were called up one at a time to receive a small book from Mr Wentworth, who was Chairman of the Board. Prayer books, Philippa guessed, or some other religious tract. The Chairman then made a lengthy speech about the history and traditions of the school, and how fortunate were the girls who received their education there. Although Philippa deplored his pompous, condescending style of oratory, she reflected, looking at the scrubbed shiny faces looking up at him, that he was probably right. For the girls who made it through their time at the school and who took advantage of the opportunities it gave them, this was indeed fortunate.
At the end of Mr Wentworth’s speech, there was another prayer, and then the girls were dismissed in the charge of Mary Phillips, to wash and prepare for evening service.
Most of the Board left, to go to their own Christmas Eve services, but Mr Wentworth, along with Mr Simmonds, his deputy, and his wife, accompanied Miss Chadwick to the mistresses’ parlour. Philippa, following a sign from Miss Chadwick, joined them, as did the Duncans and Dr Marshall.
Sherry and glasses had been set out on the table, and Miss Chadwick smilingly poured, while Philippa handed out the glasses. A toast was solemnly drunk. Wentworth’s eyes were moving around the room, assessing its contents.
“Miss Chadwick, surely that bookshelf is new! And those books! I have not seen them before!”
“They were provided by Miss Maclay, sir,” Amelia said composedly. “They belonged to her late father and she has kindly placed them at the disposal of our teachers.”
Wentworth stalked across the room, his eye running over the titles. “They seem educational enough,” he said grudgingly.
“The sherry is excellent,” Mr Simmonds said, as if not wishing to be outdone in suspicion. “Not purchased with school funds, I hope?”
“The sherry was a gift from Dr Marshall, sir,” Miss Chadwick said, still pleasantly. Philippa shot a covert glance at that gentleman, and saw from the gleam in his eye that he was enjoying the scene just as much as she was.
“I did not see Carter at prayers, Miss Chadwick,” Mrs Simmonds said.
“She was not well enough to come down,” Miss Chadwick said. “But I hope she will be able to attend service tomorrow.”
“I should hope so too!” Mr Simmonds said, sententiously. “Sickness should not be used as an excuse for idleness!”
“I shall see that it does not,” Miss Chadwick agreed demurely.
“I read your report on the accident,” Mr Wentworth said. “It seemed brief.”
“I gave you all the information I had,” Miss Chadwick said. “Carter remembers very little of the event, and nothing at all of arriving back at school.”
“How can you be sure that she is not deceiving you?” Mrs Simmonds said. Philippa looked at her assessingly. She did not like Mr or Mrs Simmonds. Wentworth was pompous, self important, but basically well meaning, she decided. He might quibble about money and expenses, but he trusted Miss Chadwick to take care of the girls, and to make the right decision. Mrs Simmonds on the other hand, she was sure, would make trouble if she could. She did not know that there was anything suspicious about Carter’s illness. She just assumed the worst.
Dr Marshall spoke quietly:
“Carter was not deceiving anybody about the extent of her injuries. I was not sure that I would be able to save her. The injuries were consistent with being struck by a carriage of some kind. To be honest, I assume that the driver recognised her dress as a Wentworth’s girl and brought her home. I don’t think she could have got here by herself.”
“Then why did he not give an account of himself?” Wentworth said, peevishly. Philippa suspected he was thinking longingly of his hearth, his dinner and his cigar.
“Because he was afraid of the consequences,” Dr Marshall said casually. “Especially if he had been drinking, it would have been hard to explain how he came to run down a schoolgirl on her way back from visiting her sick father.”
“But she is on the mend now?” Mr Duncan said.
“She is much better,” Dr Marshall said.
“We must thank God that it ended so well,” the clergyman said, and Miss Chadwick, with demurely lowered eyes, murmured a devout ‘amen’.
It was not long before the visitors took their leave. Only Dr Marshall remained. When Philippa returned from escorting them to the door, she found him sprawled in one of the chairs while Amelia poured more sherry for all of them.
“Where did this come from, Amelia?” Dr Marshall asked. “It really is very good!”
“You didn’t buy it?” Philippa said, startled.
“Good Lord, no. Never heard of it until this afternoon.”
“It was a gift from Jenson’s father,” Amelia said. “He’s a stevedore at the docks and he’s always sending us gifts. I suspect the origin of most of them, which is why I kept quiet. Philippa drink up!”
Philippa smiled. “I am not accustomed to wine,” she said. “Any more and I’ll be drunk.”
“I should like to see that,” Dr Marshall said, laughing.
“Dr Marshall – you aren’t going to.”
“Call me Tony. All my friends do.”
“Tony. And will you call me Philippa?”
“Certainly. Although only when we are not on duty.” He raised his glass with a lazy smile.
“Will you come to church with us, Tony?” Amelia asked, getting to her feet.
“Why not? You should have an escort, in this neighbourhood.”
Amelia glanced at her assistant and grinned. “Oh, I’d say Philippa is a match for most local drunks in a fight. Did I tell you how she dealt with Joan Carter?”
It was dark when they set out, a neat crocodile of trimly dressed creatures, their thick winter cloaks wrapped around them, their blue bonnets bobbing along beside the two mistresses and the doctor as they made their way along the dark streets. It was a bitterly cold, clear night and the stars were miniature beacons in the sky. Looking up at them, Philippa was reminded suddenly of the African night, crisp and cold and beautiful, like the night she had met Kit Clevedon. To her horror she felt tears start behind her eyes. She was homesick. Ridiculous to feel it now, in the grey filth of the East End streets, filled with the stink of poverty and wretchedness. There was nothing here to make her think of Kola. But hurrying past the seaman’s taverns, the public houses, the brothels and the overcrowded, teeming tenements and lodging houses, she could smell the fresh clear air, could hear the gentle lowing of the oxen and the occasional whinny of the horses.
She missed it. She missed her father, with a different ache of pain, but she was becoming accustomed to that loss. She had expected it, prepared for it, and was living with it. What she had not been ready for, was this overpowering longing to see wide, open spaces instead of dirty streets, to hear the musical tones of the Mashona instead of the harsh cockney of most of her pupils. She missed her friends, the black children with whom she had grown up. She missed the girls, who had taught her to weave and the boys who had taught her to fight, and to climb trees and to use a hunting knife without hesitation or mercy, a skill which had very certainly saved her life. In the midst of this busy city she was suddenly bitterly lonely.
“Are you all right?”
Through her tears, Philippa looked up into the kind grey eyes of Tony Marshall. He had moved to walk beside her and had unobtrusively taken her arm.
“Yes, I’m sorry.” She fumbled for her handkerchief and mopped her eyes. “Don’t ask my why, but I was suddenly homesick.”
Tony glanced around him. Opposite, two sailors staggered out of a brilliantly lit doorway, their arms around two woman, raddled creatures of indeterminate age, dressed in shabby satin, shivering in the cold. Further along the road, a drunk was vomiting into the gutter. None of the girls even looked up. They had all seen such sights before.
“It’s probably the contrast,” he said wryly, and Philippa laughed.
“Probably. Do you think any of those noble gentlemen know what these girls walk past every time they go to church?”
“Oh, some of them. Does it upset you, Philippa? The sights you see here?”
“It upsets me because it’s what man has done to his own,” Philippa said. “I’ve seen the Mashona people dying of hunger when their cattle were hit by plague or when their crops failed. But those are acts of nature. These people live this way because their fellow man allows it. Expects it. I think I am very naïve in many ways.”
“I think you have lived a very different life to any other English girl I have met,” Tony said. “It makes you unusual.”
“That’s a nice way of putting it.”
He laughed. “I don’t know what else to say. Philippa, you dress the same as every other woman of your station in life. But when you walk along a London street, people turn to stare at you, because you don’t walk the same. You walk as if your skirts are a hindrance and the buildings are crowding you. And your eyes look as if they are used to a wider horizon than this.”
Philippa was silent for a moment. “I see. I didn’t realise I was so obvious.”
“It isn’t something you do, it’s who you are. There are probably dozens of missionaries’ daughters who are nothing like you. But for all your appearance and your speech and your education, you aren’t really English. Not like me, or Amelia, or any of these girls. Africa was not just somewhere you lived, it was your home. Of course you miss it.”
Philippa gave his arm a little squeeze. “That makes me feel a little less like a freak. Thank you, Tony. No more tears.”
The church, bathed in flickering candlelight, was crowded that Christmas Eve. As the girls filed into their pews, Philippa looked around at the congregation. Most of the people looked reasonably prosperous. Some were very obviously middle class, the businessmen and professional men with their wives and families. Others were probably small tradesmen, butchers and bakers, managers of factories, and some of the skilled dockworkers, like stevedores, coopers and rope makers. The poor were absent. There were no ragged clothes or bare feet in the church that Christmas Eve, and none seemed surprised at their absence. Philippa supposed they would celebrate their Christmas in the public houses, and she was not sure that she blamed them. Would prayer and thanks to God keep out the cold, and the hunger and the worry about unpaid rent and unreliable work nearly as well as three penny worth of gin or port?
Back at the school there was supper, a merry affair with at least twice as much food as usual, and no rules about talking at table, no solemn scripture reading. When it was over and prayers were said, the children were packed off to bed, and Amelia turned to her cousin.
“Where did you put them?”
“In your study. I take it you’ll want my help?”
“If you expect me to climb a stepladder you must be all about in your head!” Amelia said bluntly. “Come along Philippa, there’s work to be done.”
Curious, Philippa followed them to Amelia’s study. To her astonishment she found it piled high with boxes of greenery. There was holly and ivy and mistletoe, great boughs of fir tree, still decked with pinecones.
“What on earth is all this?” she asked, bewildered.
“To decorate the refectory and the schoolroom, of course. For Christmas.” Amelia’s voice was muffled behind the box she had picked up. “Didn’t you do that in Africa?”
“The Mashona didn’t really know that much about English Christmas customs,” Philippa said sardonically.
“Neither do you, it appears,” Tony said, holding out a box. “Prepare to be educated, then.”
“I wanted a Christmas tree,” Amelia said, as they set down their burdens in the schoolroom. “But they were too expensive, and as Tony paid for this, I couldn’t insist.”
“A Christmas tree?” Philippa was baffled.
“It’s a new idea. The Prince brought it from Germany. They set up a fir tree in the house and decorate it with baubles and candles. I saw one last year when I visited the Wentworths on Boxing Day, but I don’t suppose any of the girls have ever heard of one.”
“Then they won’t miss it,” Tony said firmly. “Stop talking and start working, Amelia. I do not plan on being here until midnight.”
But it was not far off midnight when Philippa finally fell into bed, after an evening of hanging Christmas greenery, and laughter, and conversation and wine. She had never known an evening like that. Perhaps, after all, there was something to be said for having friends of her own race and her own culture. She had never felt the lack before, having been content with her father and her African friends. But she found that although she had not enjoyed the stilted, formal social manners of many of the English visitors to the mission, or of the people she had met on her one visit to England, she did enjoy the laughter and banter of Amelia and her cousin.
Kit Clevedon had been like that, she thought, as she turned over in bed. She had often wondered about the nature of her liking for Clevedon. Having reached the age of sixteen without much interest or awareness of any of the young men she had met, she had thought that perhaps she was a little infatuated with the handsome young officer. But it had not been his looks or his charm that she had valued, she realised now. It had been his quick wit and his ready laughter, the companionship of a like-minded person for which, without realising it, she had hungered.
Christmas day passed in a whirl of activity at the school. Breakfast over, the girls walked to morning service at St George in the East again, then hurried back through the frosty streets to help prepare the Christmas dinner. Amelia had worked magic with her limited resources, although Philippa suspected that there had been additions from her cousin to swell the feast. There was roast goose with all the trimmings followed by plum pudding and mince pies. Tony was spending Christmas day with friends, although Amelia was expecting him that evening.
After luncheon, Amelia brought out a large basket of brightly wrapped gifts, and handed one to each girl. There were no religious tracts or prayer books, and the children were visibly delighted with the bright ribbons and lace handkerchief, which their mistress had provided for them.
In the afternoon there were games of hunt the slipper and Blind Man’s Buff and Charades. By the time the children went to bed after evening prayers, both they and their mistresses were exhausted. Amelia and Philippa retired to Amelia’s parlour, where Philippa was surprised to find Tony awaiting them and a cold supper set out on the table.
“Who did this?” Philippa asked, sinking gratefully into a chair.
“My housekeeper and cook,” Tony said. “I think the cab driver thought I was going to entertain my mistress until we pulled up here. Now he just thinks I’m donating my leftover Christmas dinner to the deserving poor.”
“You are,” his cousin informed him, rapidly filling a plate. “I certainly can’t afford lobster patties. Is that burgundy you’ve brought? Will you open it, please?”
Philippa smilingly accepted a glass from Tony and allowed him to fill a plate with food. She was not in a talkative mood, and was happy to sit back and listen to the cousins as they squabbled over the food and talked about the day.
“How were the Paisleys?” Amelia asked.
“All well. They asked about you. Wanted to know if you were married yet.”
Amelia laughed. “They would. I think I enjoyed myself here just as much as I would have at some dull dinner party. Sadly, tomorrow won’t be as enjoyable.”
“Where are you going tomorrow?” Philippa asked.
“My traditional boxing day dinner with the Wentworths.” Amelia sighed. “Never mind, it is only once a year. That reminds me, Philippa. Miss Grafton and Miss Bentley will be back here by eleven tomorrow, and after that you are on holiday, if you please, until Monday when school commences again. Do not, while I am out, allow them to bully you into helping them.”
“I may as well. I don’t have any plans.”
“Well make some,” Amelia told her severely. “They take advantage whenever they can, and it isn’t good for them.”
Philippa did not argue, although she was at a loss to know what plans she might be expected to make. However, the matter was taken out of her hands the following morning, at eleven o’clock sharp, when she found Tony Marshall awaiting her in the hallway.
“So you are off duty now.”
Philippa laughed. “Did Amelia send you to check up on me?”
“No, I have taken that office upon myself. If you have no plans, I thought you might like to come and see how I spend the rest of my time.”
Philippa regarded him thoughtfully, her head on one side. “I would,” she said finally. “But on Boxing Day, Dr Marshall, don’t you have any other engagements?”
“If I choose to spend my time with you, Miss Maclay, that is an engagement,” he said gravely.
Philippa went to put on her outdoor shoes, bonnet and cloak, and joined him in the hallway. It felt strange to be leaving the building on an expedition of her own. In the four months she had been at Wentworths, she had left the school only in company with the pupils, always on school business. She had little money for cabs or omnibuses, and besides which it was hard for a female to go about unaccompanied. In the environs of the school the danger was real and tangible, and Philippa was not foolish enough to risk it. Even in Africa she had travelled with a gun or a knife, and since she could hardly do that here, she was restricted in her movements.
There was another consideration, too. In all her years at Kola she had never given a thought to impropriety or to her reputation. Her father was not a worldly man, and it had never occurred to him that in allowing his daughter all the freedom of a boy, he might be damaging her in the eyes of the world. But with his death, Philippa had been made aware of the fact that her independence and freedom of speech and movement were frowned upon by the narrow confines of the society in which she was now expected to move.
She knew she was different. It had not needed Tony Marshall to tell her that. She walked, in the heavy skirts and cloaks that propriety demanded, with difficulty, always longing for the light cotton skirts or breeches in which she strode about the mission. She did not always understand the rules by which she must now live, but knew that she was expected to be modest and demure, to walk in the street, if she walked at all, with lowered gaze and little speech. She was lucky to have found two friends, in Amelia and Tony, who could value her for herself, and who could allow her to be herself, but she did not deceive herself into thinking that they were average. She could not take herself off on expeditions of pleasure because she had no acquaintance and no chaperone, and to do it alone would be to expose her to criticism and censure, which she could ill afford.
So she enjoyed her walk, through the silence of Boxing Day, with Tony Marshall’s easy steps at her side. They turned right onto the Commercial Road, and walked past shops and lodging houses, past tall business premises and small, shady public houses, now silent after the night’s revelry. There was a faint scent of spices on the breeze from the warehouses, almost overlaid by the smell of human beings crowded together into too little space.
Presently Tony led her across the wide street and down Sutton Street towards the Ratcliffe Highway. Philippa, who was beginning to know a little about the area, glanced at him.
“Are you by any chance luring me into a den of vice?” she asked.
He grinned. “Something like that. Down here.”
They turned into a narrow lane, lined on either side with gloomy, decaying two storied houses. Away from the wider streets the smell was worse, a combination of human waste, cooking, cheap gin and sweat. Philippa wrinkled her nose slightly, and then smiled. Attending one of the tribal ceremonies of the Mashona ought to have deadened any sensibilities she might have had about bad odours. There was a rotting pile of refuse in the middle of the street and two mangy dogs were rummaging about in it.
Tony stopped before one of the larger houses about half way down the lane. He knocked, and presently a middle-aged woman, respectably dressed in grey, opened the door.
“Dr Marshall. What a pleasant surprise. Do come in.”
Philippa followed them through into the main kitchen, which was a big, square room, furnished with an old fashioned range, and several tables with wooden benches beside them. About ten women, ranging in age from about fifteen to about thirty were scattered about the room. One was stirring something on the range and one or two others were chopping vegetables at one of the tables. Some had sewing on their laps, and at least two were nursing small babies. The room was bare, but surprisingly clean and orderly.
Tony turned to Philippa. “Miss Maclay, may I present Miss Ellis, who runs the Lyons Refuge. Miss Ellis, this is Miss Philippa Maclay, who now assists my cousin at Wentworth’s. While I am here, I would like to see Carrie again. How has she been?”
Miss Ellis shook her head. “Very quiet, sir, not like herself at all. I don’t know what to think. The bruises are coming out nicely, and she bears the pain well, but she doesn’t say a word. I expect she’s ashamed of herself, and so she might be, with the trouble she’s caused us, but still, I don’t like the look of her.”
“I’ll go up to her now.” Tony smiled at Philippa. “Perhaps you could show Miss Maclay around.”
Miss Ellis smiled at his retreating back. “I’ll gladly do that, miss, but there’s not much to see. We do our best, but it’s not like the school. We’ve no money, you see, save what the mission can send us, and that’s little enough.”
“How many women do you have living here?” Philippa asked.
“Oh, anything between ten and thirty,” Miss Ellis said readily. “They don’t stay for more than a few nights, miss, not generally. They come from their husbands or their keepers, who beat them, or they’ve run away from the workhouse, or they’re sick and can’t work for a while. Most of them lead very irregular lives, Miss, if you take my meaning.”
“You mean they’re prostitutes?” Philippa asked. The older woman nodded.
“Yes, miss. We don’t ask and we don’t judge. We take them in, feed them and patch them up, and then one day they’re gone, and we don’t know where. Some come back, others we never see again. We never turn any away. Some bad winters, we have two to a bed and some sleeping on the floor, even here in the kitchen.”
“Do any of them find other work?” Philippa asked.
“Some. The younger ones, mostly, who were forced into this by hunger or need. Or the respectable ones, who were seduced by them who should know better, servants and the like. Kathleen over there is one of those. She’s been with us for a whole month, after her master took to her, as you might say, and then threw her out. It’s lucky that she fell in with us. We should be able to find work for her. But most of the others don’t want it. They’re not educated, Miss – only fit for a maid of all work, or for manual labour, and even this life is often better than that. Not like your girls at the school.”
Philippa was silent as they toured the overcrowded little house. Nearly all the rooms were converted into dormitories; with iron bedsteads so close together that she wondered where there was space for the women who sometimes slept on the floor. Compared to this, Wentworth’s was the height of luxury. No wonder Joan Carter had risked her life to remain there rather than sink to this.
“Who runs the place?” she asked Tony when they were outside once more.
“One of the missions rents the house and gives a little money for food. A local Jewish business organisation contributes, as does the Parish church occasionally. Miss Ellis and the other workers are all volunteers. The women do their own cooking, washing, cleaning etc, and they sometimes take in sewing for money, like the school. Naturally we don’t tell the good ladies who give us work that prostitutes hem their linen. They think that respectable old ladies at the mission do the work.”
“Is there something I can do?” Philippa asked.
He glanced down at her. “Are you addicted to good works, Philippa?”
She laughed and shook her head. “Oh, no. Just to being busy – and useful. And it would give me something to do on my days off.”
“What do you do at present?” Tony asked curiously.
“Mostly, I stay home and read.”
“If you’re sure, I’ll speak to Miss Ellis. I should think she’d be delighted. Now, then – shall I shock you further with a tour of some of our local haunts? Would you like to see the docks?”
“Yes, I should,” Philippa said serenely. “This is very kind of you, Dr Marshall.”
“It is my pleasure, Miss Maclay,” he said seriously, and offered her his arm.

(From a Respectable Woman by Lynn Bryant)