“You will not be returning to school. You will stay and help me at home.”
Taken so completely by surprise, Faith could only stare at her mother, who seemed as little concerned as if she had said it looked as if it might rain. She was not even conscious, until Maud told her, that her mouth had dropped unbecomingly open.
But what, in the face of such news, was there to be said? That all she had looked forward to for the past eight weeks had been returning to school? That if she were not to see Amy and Magel and her other friends she might as well die? That she hated this house and Redruth and – or so she felt at this moment – everyone who lived here?
Hysteria, Mama would call it. Or, worse, a childish tantrum.
Somehow she managed not to burst into tears. Or scream or kick the furniture or do any of the things her body longed to do.
“Why can’t I go back to school?”
Her mother looked up from her embroidery. Her health had continued to improve and at this moment, Thursday being one of her ‘days’, she was sitting, nicely dressed, in the parlour, waiting for visitors.
“It is not for you to question our decision,” she said, her voice hard, with an edge of impatience. “Your education has been costly enough and there seems little point in continuing it.”
“But why not?” Impossible not to ask. “I love school. And I want to be a teacher. Like Miss…”
The front door bell rang. The sound echoed down the hallway, followed by Agnes‘s footsteps, the muted sounds of a greeting, an enquiry as to whether her mistress was at home, followed by the opening of the parlour door…
“Mrs Truscott, Ma-am.”
“Enid dearest! How lovely!”
Her mother laid aside her embroidery and stood up. Her visitor hurried across the room, arms outstretched, and Faith, ignored and forgotten, slipped from the room and up the stairs. Behind her the door bell rang again…
“I’m sorry my dear. This is all my fault.”
After her first outburst of tears, she had gone to find Elsie in her bedroom. How could she go on living, she demanded, if she was to be imprisoned here for ever? How could she bear never to see Amy or Magel or any of her other friends again? Why could she not stay on to work for her School Certificate?
“Miss Parkinson says I have a way with the smaller girls,” she wept. “She says I would make an excellent teacher.”
Which was when Elsie said it was all her fault.
“I don’t see why.”
Elsie was a kind, older sister – even if she was, in Faith’s view, too dull and too concerned not to upset her parents – and would never have suggested that she should leave school. And Elsie enjoyed overseeing Cook and Agnes and doing all those dull, tedious household chores so why should Faith be needed at home any more than she was now?
Elsie was sitting on the edge of her bed. Like Faith’s, her room was sparsely furnished – a dressing table with a mirror and a few pots of combs and brushes, a chest of drawers, her small bedside table with her bible and her copy of Christian Faith and Practice – and there was nowhere else to sit. She patted the counterpane next to her and put her arm around her sister’s shoulders.
“I wanted to tell you, dear, but I thought Mama or Papa…” she paused and Faith, glancing up, saw than her cheeks were more than usually pink. “You see there is a young man,” she continued in a determined sort of voice. “You have met him. When we stayed in Falmouth with Esther Thom. He was introduced when we went to Falmouth Meeting, you must remember.” Amy, remembering no young man of any interest, shook her head. “And that afternoon he came to tea; you surely remember that?”
“That was when I visited Amy’s family.”
“Of course. I was forgetting. Well…” Elsie looked down at the floor as if there were something of great interest on its bare boards. “I met him again at the prayer group the following day and last week he called to see Papa at the works…”
“My gracious!” Faith felt her own tragedy pushed, for the moment at least, from her mind. She could not remember Elsie ever showing an interest in any young man, although as they met so few this was not, she supposed, surprising. “Is he… nice?” she asked. “Is he very handsome?”
The pink cheeks darkened to a dull red colour and Elsie, whose face was pleasant but would never have been called beautiful or even pretty, looked for the first time that Faith could remember, becomingly excited.
“Oh yes,” she said. “He is very nice.” She paused for a moment. “And he has asked if I will be his wife.”
“I see.” And Faith, of course, did see. “And you’ve agreed?”
“Of course. He is a good man. And now Mama is so much recovered….”
She had made no comment, Faith noted, on whether or not he was handsome and she assumed he was not.
“Papa and Mama are pleased.” Elsie returned to practicalities. “William” – it was the first time she had mentioned his name – “has a small house in Falmouth and we will marry in early November.” (Quakers, by special dispensation, were able – unlike other non-conformist groups – to marry in their own Meeting Houses and according to their own simple ceremonies and there would be no need for extensive preparations.) “This will give me time to teach you all you need to know. You will find it easy enough.”
But horrible, Faith thought, back in her own room and trying her hardest not to cry again. It would be horrible and dreary – and more than ever like being in prison. And she would never see Amy or Magel or Miss Parkinson again.
Why, she thought savagely, kicking her foot against the side of her bed, did Elsie want to go off and marry this William? Who would be dull and boring and, almost certainly, ugly. Why could she not stay here and everything be as it had always been? Or why, at the very least, could not Mama see to the housekeeping herself, now that she was apparently so much better?
I will be hiring in extra staff, of course.” Mrs Trembath smiled complacently across the kitchen table where Ida was about to begin rolling pastry. “Mrs Henry speaks highly of the bureau in Church Street. I shall go down this afternoon and enquire after hiring a butler and a footman. We will dine a la russe and they will be needed for the carving and serving – as well as the wines.”
Ida was familiar with the concept of serving ‘a la russe’, one of the customs the wretched Henrys had brought with them from Salisbury and, according to them, the only acceptable way of dining in smart circles. It involved the guests being served from the sideboard, rather than helping themselves from the dishes laid out on the table. And it would make little difference, Ida decided, to her in the kitchen, apart from having to put up with the snobbish behaviour of a butler and footman who would be accustomed, no doubt, to working in far grander establishments than Mrs Trembath’s. She picked up the dredger and prepared to flour her pastry board.
“A clear soup and a thick one…” Her employer, unfortunately, had not finished. “Fillet of sole for the fish course and then, I think, a fricasee of lamb, veal cutlets, sweetbreads and a roast of beef with suitable vegetables. For dessert, I thought trifle, fruit jellies and a Charlotte Russe. Mr Forbes is particularly fond of Charlotte Russe…”
“My gor!” Ida did not approve of profanity but sometimes Mrs Trembath tried her too far.
“I can’t never manage all that on my own.”
“You have Clarice.” (Much good she would be, Ida thought, especially as Mrs Trembath would no doubt be needing more help than usual with her dressing and her hair.) “And Mrs Teague can come in for some extra time.”
“Edie Teague’s only good for the veg and the washing up.” And wasn’t to be trusted, even so, with the best tableware. “I can’t do all they other things.”
“You’ll manage marvellously Ida dear. You always do,” Which was more than she normally told her. “There will be ten of us dining. We will just fit around the table.”
Mrs Trembath’s visit to the staff bureau produced a butler and a footman, both of whom came in on the Friday afternoon, the day before the dinner party was to take place. The butler, a Mr Morris, who had worked at the Greenbank Hotel, although not, Ida suspected, for some years, seemed a pleasant man – in his sixties and with a dignified look about him, with his grey hair and slightly protuberant stomach. To the footman she took an immediate dislike. He was a tall, supercilious-looking young man and when Ida suggested he should go up with Clarice to the dining room to check the linen and cutlery they could be heard giggling on the staircase before she had closed the door behind them.
Ida was already exhausted. She had been in since just after six making stock for the soups, baking the sponge for the trifle and sponge fingers for the Charlotte Russe and preparing the fruits for the jellies as well as overseeing Clarice as she unpacked and washed the best dinner service and ironed the napkins, runners for the sideboard and the best tablecloth.
Mr Morris watched as she started to cut the shin of beef for the broth and then unfolded an apron from his bag.
“I’ll see to that midear. You make yourself a nice cup of tea and have a sit down,” he said, smiling, and Ida, unused to such consideration, did as she was told. Then, as the beef sizzled in the pan, he sat opposite her, took the cup and slice of cake she offered him and watched as she started to chop the carrots.
“I can see Mrs Trembath has a treasure in you,” he said.. “I don’t know when I last tasted cake this fine.”
Afterwards he too went up to inspect the dining room and came back with Ralph, the footman, and a list of deficiencies that he and Clarice had missed. The cutlery, which had been polished earlier in the day, had been left on the table and not wrapped in its baize cloth, the glasses had been imperfectly washed and the silver cruets appeared, he said, not to have been cleaned at all.
“First thing tomorrow, while this young lady polishes the hearth and the furniture, you can bring everything down here and set to work,” he told Ralph who smirked in Clarice’s direction, raising his eyebrows towards the heavens.
“If either of you expect to get work in an establishment like the Greenbank you’ll do well to learn proper ways,” Mr Morris told him. “Now fetch down the decanters so I can start to get them clean.”
While Clarice flounced about the scullery with flower vases and the supercilious Ralph rubbed listlessly at the silver plate, he set about cutting brown paper into tiny pieces, shaving soap into fine shreds and putting it all into the decanters with warm water, to be moved about with a sponge attached the end of a piece of cane, which he took from his bag. It was an old fashioned method, he told Ida, who was the only person taking an interest, but it cleaned a decanter like nothing else.
She went home that night, feeling that the dinner party she had been dreading so much, might not be such an ordeal after all.
“I shan’t go market this week. There’s only a few eggs an’ I’ve things to do upstairs.”
‘Upstairs’ meant in the room Mr Tuke called the ‘studio’. The room Orion had hardly entered for months but which he now – or so it seemed to Mary – hardly left. Every morning he was shut away in there, not coming out most days until supper time and even then he had this look in his eyes, as if his body might be sitting across the table but his mind was elsewhere and needed to be dragged back from a great distance.
Like when she asked, as she had just now, what he planned to take to market in the morning.
“There’s still plenty of parsley,” she’d said. “I c’n get up early and bunch it if you want. An’ there’s….”
Which was where she stopped because there wasn’t… The currants were long finished. As were the peas and the beans. The cabbages weren’t ready and the few potatoes and swedes they had left would be needed to see them through winter. She would have gone blackberrying again if Orion had asked her but Mrs Roscrow had wanted her for the wash and Orion had shown no interest. And now he wasn’t going to market, which meant no flour, no sugar, no tea…
“We’ve no flour or sugar left,” she reminded him. “An’ barely enough tea…”
There were plenty of other things as well – candles, for a start, now the evenings were drawing in – but Mary wasn’t one to make a fuss.
“I’ll go next week, p’raps.” He went on with his meal – a stew mainly of potato and carrots with bread made with the last of the cornmeal.
“Don’ you need to be planting winter greens?” Mary might not be one to fuss but she was approaching the end of her tether, “You said weeks back you needed to buy in seedlings. An’ what about the leeks?”
“I said, I got stuff to do upstairs.”
“So what are we to eat then? In the winter? An’ next year if you don’t get your crops in?” Mary’s spoon clattered against the table and then onto the flagstones. “Whatever you’ve got upstairs, we can’t eat it, can we now?”
Angry tears flooded her eyes and she could not have seen to eat her stew if she had wanted to.
It was their first quarrel. She had shouted at Orion. She had flung down her spoon and could easily have flung her stew after it. And Orion, instead of coming to put his arms around her and comforting her… instead of saying he was sorry for speaking in such a cold, hard, hurtful way, seemed hardly to have noticed.
“What is it Ori?” She is crying properly now, the tears hot and wet on her face. “What you doing up there that matters more than us ‘aving food to eat?”
“Just drawings. Tha’s all. I’m sorry Mary,” for, pushing away her bowl, she has given in and sits sobbing helplessly, head on her arms. “I… I din’ know ‘ow to tell you… I thought…”
But he has no idea what he thought and sits, a lump of bread still clenched in his hand, staring across the table at his weeping love. Outside, across the low wall which separates the back yard from Farmer Roscrow’s bottom field, cows low contently as they tear at the rich grass. Inside Mary goes on sobbing and Orion remains silent.
“I’ll show ‘ee,” he says eventually and his chair shrieks against the flagstones as he stands.
It will not, he is certain, comfort her but he can think of nothing that will.
The studio faces due west and, even this late in the evening, is full of light as he nudges Mary inside before him. The light is golden and filled with drifting specks of dust and reveals the white, salt residue on the window panes, which is, at first, all she sees. Then she turns to the tall easel, with several sheets of paper clamped onto it…
Paper, she cannot help but think. Costly drawing paper and unusual for Orion, who normally uses whatever comes to hand – cardboard or even wood from old boxes – which he can get for nothing.
Perhaps she speaks the word aloud or perhaps he just knows what she is thinking because,
“‘Enry give it me,” he says, behind her. “When ‘e come out with Ma that time.”
And now he draws her towards the easel, tightening his grip as she looks more closely….
“Oh my gor!” She gapes, hands to her mouth, at the first drawing.
It is unlike anything he has done before – his sketches of the yard, his vegetables, the cottage, of Mary herself… This is something quite different. Something wild; even frightening and now she remembers what she had barely noticed at the time; the look on Mr Tuke’s face when he came downstairs that day he brought Ida Goss to visit.
He looked, she remembers, the way she feels now. Stunned.
The picture is of darkness – dark swirls of cloud above dark rocks and a dark and violent sea and amongst it all, caught, as if drowning, amongst the surging waves, are the half-formed features of a baby’s face…
She stands, speechless, and Orion, letting go of her arm, crosses to the table where other sheets of paper are piled, lifts them, but clumsily so that some slip sideways and slide in the way of sheets of paper across the floor, and stands staring downwards. Mary picks up the nearest one and sees her own back doorstep, the shapes of a chair and part of the kitchen table visible inside, and, in a patch of light beside the door, the little cart she last saw when her father lifted it down from his trap three months before.
“‘E’s inside.” Orion’s voice, harsh with emotion, is hardly recognizable. “Tha’s ‘ow I drew ‘im first off. Just the bedding and ‘is shape – see there…” He points a finger towards the tucked-in blanket. “Then I did these.” He reaches down, pulls at a drawing, discards it, then finds another. “Of ‘is little grave,” he says. “I waited till you was up Roscrows’ cos I knew you woun’ like it.”
No, Mary thinks, staring at the picture of the little mound of earth, in front of its prickled hawthorn hedge. She does not like it. Nor does she know what she can possibly say.
She looks at the drawings on the floor around her. All are dark. Dark trees like sentinels, dark cliffs, dark walls and, somewhere within each one, the baby’s face, its eyes closed fast in death.
“Why?” she says at last. “I don’ understand.”
Orion follows her gaze and then, as she turns to him, looks away.
“I coun’ ‘elp it,” he says eventually and his voice is so quiet that she can hardly hear him. “Each time I started to draw, ‘is face just came.”
She was in before seven next morning wearing her Sunday dress in case – although she sincerely hoped not – she should be needed to appear before the guests. Mr Morris arrived soon after and the fishmonger’s boy and an assistant from Dunnings butchers were at the back door by eight.
First she prepared the dough for the splits to go with the soups and for the lunchtime loaves and while that was rising, she started the fricasee of lamb, which would benefit from long, slow cooking. Well before nine the heat from the range filled the kitchen whose windows opened onto the area below street level and she could feel the sweat on her forehead and under her arms as she moved into the cooler scullery to fillet and trim the sole. As she was checking that Edie Teague had set the prepared carrots and parsnips in salted water Mr Morris came down from the dining room with a scowling Clarice.
“I’m afraid this young woman has no idea how to clean a brass fender,” he told her – although there was no need since this was something she had been attempting, unsuccessfully, to teach Clarice ever since she had arrived. “However, I think its appearance will not shame Mrs Trembath now. You can start to lay the table, I think,” he told the maid. “Your mistress will have other duties for you later and it seems that young Ralph has not yet put in an appearance.”
While Clarice stamped back up the stairs he picked the kettle off the range.
“I think some of us at least deserve a brew,” he said.
The day Ida had anticipated with horror passed pleasantly enough and by tea time the soups were prepared, the fish, meats and vegetables were ready for cooking and the desserts, apart from the Charlotte Russe, set out on the marble slab in the larder. Mr Morris had pronounced the dining room ‘good enough’, Clarice was upstairs with Mrs Trembath and her toilette and Ralph, arriving at around midday, had been despatched to the dairy for more cream.
As Edie crashed about the scullery, washing pans, Ida sat at the kitchen table, arranging her sponge fingers around the inside of Mrs Trembath’s largest mould. Mr Morris, in baize apron and shirt sleeves, sat opposite with yet another cup of tea and read out items of interest from the Falmouth Packet. She felt comfortable with him, she thought; he was her sort of person. He cared about doing things properly in a way that Clarice and Ralph so obviously did not and treated her in an almost courtly manner, which was not something she was used to.
Having arranged the sponge fingers in their palisade around the bowl, she filled it carefully with the cooled mix of sugar, cream, whisked eggs and vanilla and set it aside.
“That’ll make a fine centrepiece,” Mr Morris said admiringly. “A shame the guests are bound to finish it. I’d dearly like to have a taste.”
Perhaps I could make you one sometime, Ida stopped herself from saying.
The evening was truly exhausting. Ida, the range fully stoked to cook the meats and fish, felt her face to be a deep and unbecoming scarlet as she handed the soup tureen to Ralph, who, in his dress shirt and tail coat and with his dark hair sleeked back with water, looked elegant if no less supercilious, before turning back to her great frying pan with its spitting cargo of sole. Then, once the fish was safely aloft, she turned her attention to the sweetbreads, which could be cooked only briefly and at the last minute, the other meats, resting in the ‘cool’ oven, with the vegetables on the top of the stove.
Not until they, with the clumsy assistance of Edie Teague, had been placed in their serving dishes and taken upstairs, was there any respite and even then there were the desserts to worry about – particularly the Charlotte Russe which she had not yet dared turn out of its mould.
She would leave it, she decided, until the last minute, at which point she heard footsteps on the stairs and Mr Morris appeared with an empty decanter. He too was quite red-faced, probably, she thought, from the stress of his responsibilities.
“We need more claret,” he told her. “Your delicious beef appears to be increasing their thirst,” and he went into the pantry where he had stored the extra bottles of wine. Before he decanted one of the bottles of red wine he took a glass and poured a generous measure.
“Important to make sure it isn’t corked,” he told Ida, seeing her watching. And then, after filling the decanter, he poured a half glassful for her. “You deserve it,” he smiled, and started back up the stairs.
Ida took a small sip, for politeness sake, even though he wasn’t there to see, before pouring the rest down the sink. She was, as a good Methodist, a teetotaller and the unfamiliar wine stung her tongue, in no way quenched her thirst and gave her no pleasure. She wished Mr Morris had not offered it to her.
“Ready with the desserts?” Ralph, also red-faced, no doubt from unaccustomed exercise, appeared in the doorway with an armful of plates. Half an hour had passed, during which she had dared upend the mould containing the precious Charlotte Russe onto Mrs Trembath’s most elegant, bone china platter and had decorated the surface with flowers of angelica and glace cherries. It would indeed make, as Mr Morris had said, a magnificent centrepiece and she sent it up after the tray of fruit jellies, the trifle and the bowl of damsons Mr Cyril had brought in this morning. She would have liked, she thought a little wistfully, to have seen what sort of reception it received, especially from Mr Forbes, whose favourite dessert it was supposed to be.
Removing her apron – Mr Morris and Ralph would deal with the tea and coffee and the sweetmeats in the lounge and Edie Teague was clattering loudly in the scullery – she stood for a moment in front of the small mirror next to the back door. Her face was crimson from heat and activity, her hair had come loose from its pins and she spent a few moments tidying it. Then she would have a drink of water and stand outside in the cool air…
Ralph had left open the door at the top of the stairs and she could hear, even from this distance, the discrete clatter of cutlery and the murmur of dinner table conversations, broken by a louder, masculine boom or the carrying soprano of one of the ladies. Then a pause in the general chatter as one male voice dominated, paused and gave way before a burst of laughter and a shrill but indistinct comment from Mrs Trembath as conversations resumed around the table.
And then, with appalling suddenness, came something else. A cry. A sound of shattering glass, of chair legs shrieking against the floor, of feminine screams and masculine exclamations and then – for a brief moment – an appalled silence…
It would be Ralph, she thought, gathering her skirt and hastening up the narrow stairs. Casual, arrogant Ralph, showing off his prowess and dropping a pile of plates. Or silly, inattentive Clarice, who should handing, at this stage, the sugar and cream. But, as she arrived panting at the dining room door, it was Mr Morris who stood, hands raised in horror, his trousers, shoes and the dress of the lady he must have been serving, covered in shards of china and the almost unrecognisable remains of Ida’s Charlotte Russe.
And it was Ralph who had taken control.
“Fetch cloths and a pan,” he was telling Clarice, “and a small brush to take up the china. Perhaps, Madam,” he turned to Mrs Trembath whose mouth, wide with shock, was about to open still wider and let out heaven knew what sort of exclamation, “you would take the lady to your room and Clarice will bring materials to clean her gown. Do you have some glycerine?” He noticed Ida in the doorway. “And a bowl of warm water. I’m sure we can prevent any stains from setting in,” he added in the direction of the poor woman who was twisting sideways in an effort to see the full extent of the damage inflicted on her dress.
Mr Morris, Ida noticed, had still not moved but as she turned away he gave out a sort of cry which seemed to be about to turn into an explanation and then became nothing.
“You come with me,” she said, reaching out her hand and leading him, as if he were a child in disgrace, from the room.
“It was the rug,” he was saying, as they went down the stairs. “It was the rug. I must have caught my foot. Oh my God! What a terrible thing!” But his breath smelled, she couldn’t help but notice, of alcohol. More strongly, she was sure, than if the small glass of wine she had observed him drinking in the pantry were all he had imbibed that night and she wondered that she had not noticed it before.
Down in the kitchen, while Ida filled a bowl with hot water and found the bottle of glycerine and clean cloths for Clarice to carry upstairs, he sat slumped at the table, head in his hands, trousers and shoes still smeared with cream, stuck with shards of broken china and crumbs of sponge. The rugs in the hall and dining room would need the spillages wiped from them before they did too much damage, one part of Ida’s brain was thinking. The other part was filled with a mix of shame and sympathy for the pathetic figure hunched in front of her – and fear for the reprisals that were bound to follow..
“I have never been so humiliated!” By Monday morning, Ida had hoped, Mrs Trembath’s temper would have calmed but it appeared not. “My dinner party – completely ruined by that dreadful old man.”
The meal on which she had spent so much time and energy completely ruined as well, Ida thought but did not say. By the man – she could not think of him as ‘dreadful’ or ‘old’ – that Mrs Trembath herself had chosen.
“I ‘ope the lady’s gown weren’t spoilt,” she said instead.
“Of course it was! Completely ruined. Like my party.”
Ida said nothing. There was nothing, it seemed, to be said.
“I expected better of you, Ida. I really did.”
The words hit her like a physical blow. What in the world could she mean? That the meal over which, according to Mr Morris, although he was not, perhaps, the reliable source she had assumed him to be, her guests had enthused, had not been good enough? Or had she fallen short in some other unimagined and unimaginable way?
“Beg pardon Ma’am.”
“I expected better of you. The man was obviously inebriated. How could you have allowed him into my dining room in that condition?”
“I di’n know ‘e was. I don’ know about drink. I’m Methodist, Ma’am, you d’know that.”
“Which does not, surely, prevent you from recognising a drunk when you see one?”
The look her employer gave her was not a pleasant one. Did she know, Ida wondered, about her late – and long estranged – husband, the drunkard Percy Goss?
“‘E…Mr Morris, seemed a nice man,” she said. Helplessly. “‘E knew ‘is job.”
And it was Mrs Trembath, she thought with a rush of indignation, who had employed him.
“Well you are a poor judge of character. That’s all I can say.”
“But I’m a good cook Ma’am. Which is what you pay me for.”
Never had she dared to say such a thing before but the anger inside her had built to such a pitch that it seemed suddenly that there was nothing she would not say. As if all the resentment she had stored inside her was forcing itself to the surface.
“Mrs Goss!” It was a long time since she had called her that. Mrs Trembath’s face had turned from pink to a livid red and the ridiculous ringlets she still allowed Clarice to roll into her hair, shook with emotion. “How dare you! Apologise at once.”
“I apologise, Ma’am.” Both women recognised the dignity and determination in Ida’s voice. “But I wish to give my notice. I think you’d be better suited to another cook.”
Back in her kitchen, still shaking, she could not believe what she had done.
But she had no idea of reversing her decision. No matter what was to happen to her she could not possibly go on working for that woman.
He had returned to his Genoa sketches and was working on one very different from his usual style – a background forest of masts before a rising vista of terraces of pastel-coloured waterside buildings – vaguer and less detailed than the Cornish rocks and boats of his other paintings. He wished to capture the shimmering heat of the Mediterranean and was, perhaps, also influenced by the work of Claude Monet, the one Impressionist painter he truly admired.
Or perhaps he was simply distancing himself from his own past.
Sometimes he wondered about this. There seemed, at the moment, to be many thoughts and feelings from which he was trying to escape…
Meanwhile he had almost finished his portrait of little Peggy Hatch and was on his way from what would almost certainly be her final sitting when he met Hetty Pearce and her sister.
The two women were on the path above the beach and Mrs Graves, arm outstretched, was indicating something in the bay to her sister who peered from below a large and most becoming hat, whose veil must be obscuring her view.
“Henry!” Hetty gave up her efforts and turned, smiling, towards him. “What a pleasure! Are you on your way to visit us?”
“I’m afraid not.” Henry raised his cap in their direction. “I have almost finished my portrait of Miss Peggy Hatch at Kevor and after two hours she is exhausted and I am cramped. I thought a walk into town would loosen my limbs.”
“You could come and eat luncheon with us instead.” Hetty glanced towards her sister, who continued to stare out to sea. “The children would be delighted and this is almost certainly your last chance to see Pamela’s boys. They leave us in two days’ time.”
It seemed churlish to refuse, although he was conscious that Mrs Graves had made no effort to second her sister’s invitation. It was not, on the other hand, her house or her luncheon and perhaps she did not think it appropriate. He couldn’t help but feel, however, that the atmosphere, as they walked towards the Pearces’ home, was a little strained.
This was dispelled, however, when they arrived, by young Amy.
“I do hope you’ll come again,” she said as her mother bade him help himself from the generous collation of meats and cheeses. “I shall be so bored when everyone goes away!”
“So bored,” he asked mockingly, “that you will want the company of an old man like me?”
“And in any case, my dear, you will soon be back at school,” her mother reminded her.
“Where I will be utterly miserable!” Amy tossed her pretty curls and assumed an equally becoming pout of the lips, directed, Henry suspected, not at him but at her cousin Archie who sat opposite. “I shall hate every minute of every day,”
“Don’t be ridiculous, darling.” Hetty turned towards Henry. “Amy’s friend Faith will not be returning to school. Amy had a letter from her yesterday.”
“She’s not just my friend. She is my best friend in the entire world. We tell each other all our secrets. I hate everyone else at school and I shall be so lonely it will be unbearable.”
“Until you make another best friend in the entire world.” Archie pushed back the blond forelock that overhung his forehead and reached for the ham. “Which will take several days at the very least.”
“You are hateful, Archibald Graves!” Amy flung down her fork and pushed back her chair which scraped loudly on the polished boards. “None of you understand! Faith and I are like sisters. I shall never make another friend like her!”
“Oh dear.” Hetty spoke into the silence that followed the slamming of the dining room door. “I’m so sorry Henry. Poor Amy is very attached to dear Faith. And you boys,” she turned to the sniggering younger children, “could be more thoughtful.”
“I’m sorry Aunt,” Archie, although not included in her reproof, looked embarrassed. “I should not have teased her. Shall I go after her?”
“No, Leave her for now. She’ll calm later. It is a shame.” She turned to Henry who was observing the scene with some amusement. “Faith is a sweet girl. We are all so fond of her.”
“Of course. The Quaker girl.” Henry remembered his sketch of pretty Amy and her solemn-eyed friend. “From Redruth? The girl whose Papa is an ogre.”
Archie looked amused. William, Amy’s young brother, gave a snort of amusement.
“I must admit,” Hetty helped herself to potato salad, “I feel very sad about the whole business. According to Faith’s letter she had no idea until this week that she would not be returning to school. And she is, by all accounts, a bright girl. She was hoping, Amy says,to become a teacher.”
“Poor little soul,” Mrs Graves had not spoken until now. “I am all for young women having a proper education. Certainly better than we had. It makes them less dependent on men. Less… vulnerable,” she continued, thoughtfully.
“Never mind Mama. I shall protect you.” Young Archie put a hand on his mother’s shoulder. “When I’m set up in the law like Uncle you can live comfortably with me.”
“Which is exactly what I do not want!” His mother’s eyes flashed dark blue and angry. “For myself or for younger women, like this Faith. We should be able to support ourselves and not have to go from depending on our fathers to depending on our husbands or sons. It’s simply humiliating!”
Archie, for the second time in half an hour, looked discomposed. Mrs Graves, on the other hand, Henry could not help but notice, looked very handsome. Her complexion, tanned in the summer sun, was tinged with an angry but becoming crimson and she held her head proudly, displaying her fine and slender neck.
Hetty held out her hand towards her sister and then, not knowing, apparently, what she should do with it, withdrew it.
“It’s also the reason so many women marry men they do not love,” Mrs Graves went on, ignoring her. “Men they cannot stand, even. Simply to get an establishment. I’ve often seen it happen and…”
“Pamela!” This time Hetty spoke more firmly. “You forget the children. William, eat your tomato or there will be no cake for tea,” she went on, turning her attention to her son. “Drink your milk and get ready for your rest.”
The two older boys had gone into the garden where, from the sounds of bat against ball, Henry concluded they were practising their strokes at cricket; something in which he would have been happy to join. Hetty had ushered her protesting sons towards their bedroom and he and Mrs Graves had moved into the conservatory.
“Hetty is rightly angry with me. Please accept my apologies. My outburst was inexcusable.”
“Not at all. You are right to be angry. And nothing will change, I fear, until more people are bold enough to say it must.”
“But not in front of the children.”
Mrs Graves, in act the of brushing a crease from the front of her skirt, looked up at him, her blue eyes amused rather than contrite.
“Not in front of the children,” Henry agreed and they both laughed.
“Would you mind if we went out for a walk?” she asked suddenly. “Hetty will be busy with the boys for some time and it would do me good to get some air before we meet again and I have to apologise.”
“Of course not. I’d be delighted to accompany you.”
Henry is always ready for exercise – never more so than after a meal – and the day is warm with a gentle breeze. Mrs Graves fetches her jacket and, with the help of several pins, fixes her hat onto her thickly piled-up hair before the hall mirror as Henry collects his cap from the stand.
For some reason – perhaps because they have told no-one they are going out – they have a conspiratorial feeling and as they pause for a trap to pass before crossing Cliff Road it seems natural for Henry to take her arm. They turn left along the broad pavement, recently completed following the council’s purchase of this coastal strip from Mr Horniman, the owner of the Gyllyndune estate and bordered by hydrangeas, whose great heads glow deep blue in the sunshine. Below the cliff the rocks are exposed, the sun glinting off the pools and lighting bright green or glistening brown the weed that surrounds them. A group of turnstones forage along the seaward edge and further out a cormorant slides below the water. Henry pauses, watching for it to re-surface.
“I would not like you to think…” For a moment he has forgotten his companion. “That my marriage was an unhappy one,” she says as he turns, “when I spoke of women marrying men they cannot stand. I was devoted to Robert and miss him greatly.”
Henry says nothing. Being unsure what there is to be said.
“My boys are a great comfort of course, and I have many friends. And I am fortunate that he left me well provided but I would so love to have some proper occupation. I see young girls doing useful jobs – teaching or nursing, or working in offices as shorthand typists… I even read of a lady reporter on one of our newspapers! How much more exciting than sitting at home, planning meals and paying visits and worrying about our clothes!”
“I imagine teaching and typewriting can be dull at times.”
“Of course. But not all the time!” She stops walking and lets go of his arm. She is almost his height, he notices and her eyes, alight with enthusiasm, are very fine. “And I would have liked to have the chance to find out. We lived in Hertfordshire when I was a girl – there was much talk of the new colleges for women in Cambridge and I hoped my father might allow me to take my Higher Locals and go on to one of them but he said it was not worth the expenditure – for a girl.”
They have reached the point where a path slopes down towards the beach. It seems the moment to turn and they walk back towards the house, both of them lost in thought.
“I should have tried harder, of course, to persuade him.” Mrs Graves speaks into the silence. “But I was a quiet girl, with a habit of obedience. I shall miss all this so much!” She changes the subject with an abruptness that takes Henry by surprise. “These glorious views and such clean, health-giving air. When I am back in the soot and grime of Bayswater it will be hard to realise that this is all still here.”
“But not always. There are days – weeks even – when it does nothing but rain, or at least drizzle, or the winds are so strong you can hardly keep upright. I am often glad to be back in London where there are other distractions.”
The weather seems a safer topic than the disappointments of his companion’s youth.
“And, now we are friends, you must come and distract me! You will do that, will you not?”
She turns towards him, cheeks glowing, tendrils of hair escaping from below her hat and Henry agrees that he will, of course, visit her in London.
The first day of term and the girls would be gathering in the hallway of the boarding house. There would be much chattering and the usual confusion. Lilian would, as always, have forgotten her handkerchief and have to rush back to the dorm. Girls would be telling their holiday adventures – those they hadn’t managed to relay in whispers last night, after lights out. There would be new girls to be looked over and, for the most part, looked after. There would be new clothes to compare. There would be new pens and pencils and satchels for the new term…
“Papa’s egg should take no more than three minutes and remember the napkin to cover the egg cup. Is the butter on the table? Is the toast made? Did you set the teapot to warm?”
It was her first morning preparing breakfast on her own – although with Elsie hovering at her elbow – and the routine was simple enough, compared to the breakfasts she had seen during her stay with the Pearces. Mr Pearce, she remembered, had lamb or veal cutlets every morning, as well as boiled or poached eggs, a great deal of toast and marmalade and almost an entire pot of coffee. Papa’s tastes were a great deal plainer.
They would have reached school by now – Amy and Lilian and Magel… They would be sitting on the wooden forms below the coat pegs in the cloakroom, replacing their outdoor boots with their indoor slippers. They would be meeting up with the day girls, exchanging their news, noticing who had changed their hairstyle, speculating about the new teacher who would replace Miss Debenham who had left to get married.
And they would be talking about her – Faith. Who was also not coming back.
They would go to their new classroom – up two flights of stairs in the tower at the front of the building, its windows looking out over Truro and its recently completed cathedral. They had been taken there on the last day of last term to store their hymn and prayer books, bibles and atlases and she remembered how she and Amy had raced up the twisting stairs to ‘bag’ the most coveted desks in the furthest corner. Where her hymn and prayer books, her bible and her atlas might still be waiting for her.
Hers was an old desk, she remembered. Its lid was comfortingly curved and there were ink stains that no scrubbing had been able to remove and, inside, in one of the least accessible corners, were carved the initials FCG.
Freda Carston Grant, whose name, in gold lettering, was high in the list of Old Girls who had gone on to university, which hung on one wall of the assembly hall. She had gone to Bedford College, University of London, to read History and when Faith had seen those initials inside the desk that would be hers for the next year it had seemed like an omen. Perhaps one day, she had thought, she too might go to Bedford College, University of London.
She had already planned to carve her initials next to Freda’s inside the desk.
“Hurry Faith. It’s laundry day, remember,” and she dragged her mind back from Bedford College to soiled linen, to prepare the list for the laundry book before the lad appeared at the back door for the box. Two double sheets and eight singles, she wrote, conscious that her handwriting was nothing like as neat as Elsie’s on the previous page. Twelve pillow cases, three tablecloths, six napkins, twelve towels, four glass cloths, two tray cloths (embroidered), four antimacassars…
They would be in the assembly hall by now – fifty girls, the youngest sitting cross-legged at the front, the rest standing in rows, rising in age and height until they reached the great girls of seventeen below the stained glass windows with the pictures of the three Graces at the very back. And when everyone was still the head girl – this year it was to be Tamsin Rich of the glorious, red hair – would knock on Miss Robartes‘s door and they would hear the sound of her firm tread along the short passageway from her study, down the side of the hall and up the six steps to the platform.
“Good morning girls,” she would say with one of her cool, appraising looks across the assembly before giving out the number of the first hymn. Which would be, as it was on the first day of every term, number Three Hundred and Thirty Three, Part One.
Lord behold us with thy blessing,
Once again assembled here;
Onward be our footsteps pressing,
In thy love and faith and fear.
Faith loved singing – they did none, of course, in Meetings for Worship – and this hymn was a favourite, partly for its rousing tune but mostly because it was at this moment that she really knew she was safely back for another term.
The red cotton marking on the tablecloth she was attempting to fold blurred and faded and Elsie was speaking; something about Papa’s shirts… but these didn’t go to the laundry and she tried to make sense of the words… They must be put to soak with Reckitt‘s Blue – to keep the whiteness, Elsie was saying and there were, she realised, several shirts amongst the towels and undergarments. Picking them out, she carried them through to the scullery, where, surreptitiously, she blew her nose on a dangling sleeve.
The entire morning, it seemed, was taken up with the washing. Agnes had lit the fire under the boiler and the flannels and tea cloths, together with the aprons and cotton petticoats were put in there. Papa’s shirts were set to soak, the lighter garments – Mama and Elsie’s blouses and stockings – were put aside for handwashing, and Faith was set to unpicking the collar from Mama’s best dress. The scullery was stifling with steam and the smell of soap shavings wafted through into the kitchen to wind its way around her nostrils along with the sharp reek of the ammonia Agnes used to remove stains from the tea towels.
At school the classrooms would smell of new paper, from the exercise books they would be given to label with their name and form – green for English, pink for Mathematics, blue for History, yellow for Geography… The walls would smell of distemper where they had been painted during the holidays and the floors of polish from their annual cleaning. When the monitors came round with the big bottles of ink and wads of blotting paper against the inevitable spills, the sour aroma of the ink would rise up and overwhelm the rest…
And Elsie was giving her more instructions…
“Stop day-dreaming Faith dear. I’ve had the milk ready for Mama’s collar for the past ten minutes.”
It would have been a joke once – a saucer of milk for Mama’s collar, as if it would lap at it like a cat – but today she was too miserable even to attempt a smile. Pulling, none too gently, at the last few stitches, Faith placed the collar in its saucer and waited to be told what to do next.
It would be like this, she thought, wielding, under Agnes‘ instructions, the wooden tongs with which she could pull out the hot cloths from the boiler and place them in the deep sink of cold water, next Monday and the Monday after and every Monday of every week from now until…
Until when? Until she got married? Like Elsie? The possibility seemed too unlikely to consider since she had never met anyone she would want to marry – and in any case what had Elsie said, only last night?
“William and I will have just the one maid.”
And she had appeared quite happy at the prospect.
After seeing his pictures Mary had turned and walked out of the room, along the passage and downstairs, banging the door behind her. When he followed her she was nowhere to be seen.
Perhaps, he thought, she had gone to the farm to talk to Mrs Roscrow, although that was not like Mary. But then it was not like Mary to sit weeping at the table – or to walk out of a room without speaking…
Confused, he fetched his fork and started to lift the last row of potatoes. Which they really needed to see them through the winter but Mary had said they were short of flour and sugar and tea and he must have something to sell. Not that they would fetch much; many of them had wormholes and there was scab on others. He should have lifted them before this, Mr Cyril would have told him, and once again he felt he was letting down his old employer by ignoring his instructions.
Setting aside his fork, he took the basket and started to hunt for eggs. The hens clustered around him, clucking in irritation at having to scratch for their own food and he went back to the kitchen for the scrap bucket under the sink. Which contained, he realised with another qualm of guilt, almost nothing – the thin half-crust of a stale loaf, a couple of cabbage stalks, too tough, he suspected, even for soup – and another well-holed potato. Well at least they could pick out the worms, he thought, tossing it with the rest about the yard. They would need more grain, he realised, if the hens were to lay properly… If they were to get enough eggs for market next week…
Gone six o’clock and Mary still wasn’t home. It had been a poor day and the evening clouds were drawing in, low-hung and stone-grey below a moody sky with an angry smear of orange towards the west. Mary never stayed this late at the farm and, worried, he went round to the front of the cottage towards the coast path, darkening between the overhanging hedgerows.
He must change his ways, he thinks as he makes haste, disturbing a mistle thrush foraging for hawthorn berries and setting the wild rose briars swinging, their dark outlines menacing against the drabness of the sky. He must get back to work on his patch, preparing the ground for next year’s crops, digging and manuring the soil with seaweed off the beach. Early tomorrow he must hunt for mushrooms in the upper field so he has something else to take to market. He must ask if any local farmers need an extra hand. He must tell Mary how very sorry he is…
But when he sees her pale dress, visible some way off in the increasing darkness, he can say nothing. His tongue seems to have grown too large for his mouth and he can only wait and, when she comes close enough, take the basket of blackberries in silence.
Even in this light he sees that the devil has got into them. Tiny white worms emerge from the fruits and wriggle their way across the dark globules. Soaked in water, the berries will be good enough for them to eat but not for selling and his resolutions disintegrate into anger that Mary should have wasted her time.
Which changes to anger that she does not understand how he feels. That she seems not to care enough to mourn for their dead child. That she seems, already, to have forgotten him and does not wish to be reminded. And so they walk back towards the cottage in silence.
The blackbird who nests in their hedgerow sends out, unseen, a string of glorious notes but neither of them can think of any words that will make things better between them.
Nor, it seems, does either of them wish to.