She dreaded seeing Arnold again. As, of course, she must, since he would still be calling at Mrs Jenkins’ with the twice weekly fish order – although perhaps, she thought hopefully, he might leave this to his lad, since it would be embarrassing, possibly painful, for him to be reminded of what had happened on Christmas night. As two days passed this idea somehow gained strength and it gave her quite a turn to find him at the kitchen door on Friday morning.
“‘Alf a dozen nice mackerel,” he told her, thumping his basket onto the back doorstep and beaming across it. “An’ a couple of extras,” he added, the familiar, secretive smile on his broad, red face.
“Six is plenty.” They were large fish, she saw, only a few hours off the line, stiff bodies still gleaming, their black markings showing up fresh and healthy-looking, against the silver. “They won’t eat no more’n one each.”
“Oh they two is for you midear. I know ‘ow you d’like a nice, fresh mackerel.”
Which left Ida flummoxed. It would be rude to refuse them and yet had she not, only three days before, refused their donor? Or had she? Had she not made her answer as clear as she thought? Or had he, perhaps, not actually asked the question?
“One’s quite enough.” She attempted to work out what to say for the best, “I’ll be ‘appy to pay for one but I don’ need both.”
It was hard not to sound rude and she didn’t want to give offence.
“I di’n say nothing about paying.” Arnold edged the basket further into the room. “Unless there’s tea going. An’ I’ll be ‘appy enough to ‘elp with the other one.”
“No.” She didn’t want to give offence but this was too much. “I’ll be late in tonight, so I won’t ‘ave none for myself, thankee. And I must be getting upstairs,” she added, suddenly inspired. “Mrs Opie wants to see me.”
Mrs Opie, going through ‘her boys’’ cuffs and collars in the morning room, was surprised but flattered to be asked about the mustard crust she had once mentioned as a favourite method of cooking mackerel and Ida listened with every impression of deference to her detailed description of a perfectly obvious recipe, thus keeping herself away from the kitchen for more than quarter of an hour, by which time all that remained of Arnold were the six gleaming fish laid out on the draining board.
He would not, she hoped, be at chapel on Sunday. He had not been a regular worshipper before they had begun what he must have considered to be ‘walking out’ together and perhaps would not now see the necessity to continue.
And in this, it seemed, she was correct. He was not waiting, as he had for the past couple of months, by the chapel doors when she arrived and her furtive glances around the congregation reassured her that he was not inside either. It was a relief to abandon herself to the hymns and prayers and the Reverend Truscott’s sermon, in which he exhorted them to examine their hearts and souls as the year’s end approached and consider what alterations they might make in their lives, seemed to fit her resolution completely.
But in her concern to avoid Arnold she had forgotten his sister, who emerged from among a group of stalwart chapel ladies as the congregation dispersed.
“Mrs Goss.” Edith Drage wore a long brown coat with no adornments and a helmet-like brown hat which she wore pulled down over her brow. Like an upended sausage, Ida thought, and would have smiled, had she not felt intimidated by the sharpness of her greeting.
“Good day, Miss Drage. And thankee kindly for your ‘ospitality Christmas day. It were a kind thought,” she said nervously.
“It was the least I could do.” She tightened her lips to the point where only the moustache of stiff black whiskers showed about her mouth. “Brother being so anxious you should come.”
Miss Peters, a small, round body in brown tweed, inserted herself between them to Ida’s immense relief and by querying the time of some bible study group saved her from having to speak but,
“You never said whether you’d be willing to take one of the children’s classes,” Edith went on before she could move away. “You promised to give it some thought.”
“Did I?” Ida remembered being asked – and her horror at being expected to do something so far outside her experience – but that was all. “I’m sorry.” She attempted to get herself carried along in the tide of chapel-goers moving towards the doors. “I can’t possibly do that sort of thing.” And then, fatally, “I’m no good at nothing but cooking,” so that by the time she had been allowed to emerge into the chilly dampness of the Moor, she had heard herself agree to help serve refreshments at the Eight o’clock Bright Hour on a Thursday evening.
This was a new venture, Edith told her, offering men and women a place where they might enjoy companionship, food and a warm beverage, instead of going to the public houses. There would also be bible readings, hymns and prayers but not enough to put off those who were not of the Methodist persuasion.
Ida, nodding weakly, felt that the sight of Edith Drage might do this more effectively than any hymns, prayers or bible readings but could think of no way of avoiding what seemed inevitable.
Alice Pasco might be no help in finding cooks but was able to recommend a trained nurse, the daughter of a widow, living, apparently, ‘in sadly reduced circumstances.’
Constance Freeman had been employed by the District Nursing Association, attending people’s homes to change dressings or care for lying-in mothers or the elderly, but had found the work too arduous. She had also, Faith soon realised from her conversation, disliked most of the homes she was expected to visit. Clinton Road obviously suited her much better.
A thin, middle-aged woman with a pale complexion and pale eyes, who wore her greying hair in two plaits drawn around her ears, she took her midday and evening meals in the dining room with them and pronounced herself content with their simple diet. And she did, Faith supposed, make the meals less solemn since she lived in Rose Row, off Green Lane, on the other side of town and was an interested observer of comings and goings in that busy road, which included The Elms, the fine new house of Mr Tom Trounson the grocer, where there was a deal of entertaining.
Her father, as always, said little but listened to these stories with an expression of polite interest, which surprised Faith, and her mother was, as far as she could tell, responding to Constance Freeman – she liked to be called Connie – more than she ever had to Faith.
“We must let in the fresh air, I told Mrs Vigo,” she reported at lunchtime on her first day. “It’s the best medicine, I told her. We’ll have those windows open at least an hour, morning and afternoon, unless it’s very damp or the fumes are blowing this way.”
The following morning Agnes came down with a basket of her mother’s soiled bed linen and reported that nurse had Missus sitting out in her chair while she changed her sheets. Faith, instructing her to light the boiler, even though it was Tuesday, since she felt too ashamed to send them to the laundry, also felt ashamed that she had failed so miserably in this too but was too worried about finding a replacement for Mrs Badcock to worry too much about it.
The only applicant the employment bureau had sent was a slatternly woman with black and greasy hair escaping from beneath a black and greasy hat, who stared with hostility at the range and said she would have expected ‘at the very least one o’ they gas stoves’. When Faith asked what dishes she might cook for the family’s meals she talked at length about roast meat, rabbit pie and steak puddings and when told that they rarely ate meat gave Faith a fiercer version of the look she had given the range and said she ‘couldn’t be doing with that sort of thing’.
“Well I’m afraid we won’t suit each other then,” Faith dared to say and the woman flounced off, leaving behind her an unpleasant atmosphere and a smell of stale sweat.
“I don’t know what we shall do when Mrs Badcock leaves at the end of the month,” she told her father that evening, to be told, predictably, that she must put her faith in the Lord.
But the Lord, she couldn’t help but feel, must have more important matters on His mind and she began to spend more and more time with her mother’s copy of Everything Within, poring over recipes for egg and macaroni pie, a savoury pie consisting of potatoes, onions, nuts and tapioca and ‘mock goose’ – an unappetizing-sounding recipe for parsnips in white sauce that she decided she was unlikely to attempt.
This, with all her other duties, left her little time for her mother but now she had Connie and had been given a sleeping draught to take immediately after supper, there was less need. Besides, Connie reported that Maud spent most of her waking hours extolling the charms and brilliance of her sons, with no mention, it seemed, of either Elsie or Faith.
“ When will the young men be returning?” Connie asked Faith privately one afternoon. “Your mama seems to place a great deal of hope on this happening soon.”
“That is most unlikely.” Faith was straining soaked oatmeal through muslin, in preparation for her mother’s supper. “They seem settled in Pittsburg and my brother John has recently married an American young lady.”
“I see.” Connie looked puzzled. “Mrs Vigo made no mention of a marriage.”
“He wrote before Christmas. Papa may have decided the news would upset Mama.”
Her father had not commented on the marriage other than saying that it had taken place and Faith had no idea if this was true but felt she must say something.
“I see,” Connie said again and went back upstairs.
That evening, coming into the dining room with the bean and carrot cutlets Mrs Badcock had prepared for their supper, Faith overheard her mention the word ‘melancholia’. It was not a word she recognised but Everything Within described the condition as a ‘disorder accompanied by a feeling of misery not justified by the person’s circumstances and accompanied by physical weakness and loss of energy’. The associated section on Treatment mentioned voluntary submission by the patient to treatment in a mental asylum.
The branch line train drew into Falmouth station and into a morning of overwhelming greyness, clouds of thick drizzle blowing in off the sea and the great bell of the St Antony lighthouse tolling out into the Carrick Roads and across the bay. Peering from the small, misted-up window of his cab, Henry saw the looming shadows of dark and dripping palms, the white stucco walls of houses dulled by dampness and disfigured by dark lines of water from the roofs and trees and shrubs blackened and bent over by the weight of water. In one place the pavement was littered with the spoiled, fallen flowers of a particularly beautiful camelia he had seen in bloom before Christmas and, as the cab descended, with caution, the hill towards Swanpool, water from the cemetery poured through the stones of the retaining wall, sending a brown stream of mud down the roadway to gather in a small and murky lake at the bottom.
If Mrs Fouracre, clearing her family’s breakfast dishes in the kitchen, was surprised to see her employer she was also accustomed to his unpredictability, so that Henry found himself tucking into a plate of eggs, bacon and hogs pudding, while she boiled water for fresh hot water jars to air his bed, enquiring politely after the health of his mother and sister but not the reason for his unexpected return.
“You go upstairs and rest now,” she told him, “after that great journey.” (Never having travelled further than Truro to the East or Helston to the West, she was convinced the journey from London must demand at least a week’s recovery time.) But Henry, still fretting about the offence his sudden departure would have caused and the unwary behaviour that had led him to this course of action, felt too restless for bed and, since the drizzle had thickened still further, making it foolish, if not impossible, to venture outside, went into his studio, which continued to feel damp and chilly long after poor Mrs Fouracre had lit the fire.
Huddled into his overcoat in his armchair, he spent some time staring gloomily at his outstretched legs – his trousers greatly crumpled by travel – and eventually fell asleep, to be woken some hours later by Mrs Fouracre with a plate of bread, cheese and cold cuts of beef. He would be out to dinner, he told her, downing the glass of ale she had brought with them, and would not trouble her further.
He would walk up to Marlborough House, he decided, to visit the Bulls, who would certainly invite him to stay the evening. Alternatively he could visit the Hemys, although this would be a longer walk.
Changing into evening dress, although, since thick clouds of drizzle still blew in off the sea, he wore his sailing cap, rather than a topper, he pulled his overcoat back on and set out to walk back towards town and, turning his back on a heaving sea whose huge waves deposited great heaps of curling weed like gleaming crocodiles onto the pebble shore, strode alongside the pool, where any swans were sensibly hiding themselves among the reeds, to the rough roadway that led towards Marlborough House.
Which was easy enough to see as he approached, since the lights from the windows and between the entrance pillars shone cheerfully out through the gloom and the drenched surrounding trees.
If this had not told him that the Bulls were entertaining, the number of gigs, closed against the weather, and the two foul-smelling motor cars that passed him would certainly have done so.
He could easily have joined them and, as he reached the entrance and saw the invitingly-lit interior as passengers alighted, he was tempted to do so. He had probably received an invitation, and, intending to be in London, would have sent his regrets but this would not have mattered since May would undoubtedly be delighted at his change of plan.
His change of plan… Reminded of the reason for this, he moved briskly on up the steep and stony hill towards the town. For it would be impossible to discuss his problem with May in the middle of what would obviously be a lively party – the sort of party he would normally enjoy and where his sociability and high spirits would have made him one of the central attractions.
Which was another reason for keeping out of the way – his sociability and high spirits being the cause of the very problem with which he was struggling.
It was hard not to feel downcast – perhaps even outcast – as he strode up the hill, dripped on by overhanging trees, forced to stand in against the hedgerow as carriages, lights wavering from the rough surface, lurched their way cautiously downwards, horses’ hooves grating and sliding against the stones, regarded, he was certain, with grim suspicion by more than one great-coated, bowler-hatted driver perched on his box. No respectable man without nefarious intent, they would be thinking, would be out on such a night.
The Hemys’ house, next to the Catholic church off Killigrew street, showed few lights in comparison with Marlborough House and as he rang the bell Henry worried briefly that his friend might not be at home but Mr Hemy, the parlour maid informed him, was in his studio and, handing her his drenched hat and overcoat, he said he would show himself in.
“Good heavens! Henry. This is a surprise.”
Charles Hemy, dressed for dinner but standing before his easel, brush in hand and apparently about to add more foam to an already turbulent sea, was obviously pleased to see him in spite of his surprise. His grave, slightly intimidating expression softened into a smile and he put down the brush and opened his arms towards his friend.
“I thought you were in London until the end of February. What brings you back early? Nothing wrong, I hope?”
His dark eyes, in spite of the open arms, looked suddenly serious and his thick, white eyebrows knitted together. Henry, he knew better than most, was an impulsive man and unexpected visits were not always good news. If his friend had cut short his visit to family and friends in London, Charles hoped there was no new problem with that wretched boy…
“No, no. Nothing has happened. Well, yes. There is something I would like to discuss with you. And perhaps with Amy.”
“Amy has gone with the girls to Marlborough House.” Charles spoke with some distaste. “There is a great party, apparently, with music and games… and a conjuror…”
“Of course!” And now Henry remembered the invitation he had received and reluctantly refused, before Christmas.
“ So you must stay and dine with me. I shall be glad of your company.”
Although Charles was not entirely sure that this was true. He was very fond of Henry, with whom, apart from painting, he shared an interest in sailing and everything connected with ships and the sea. On the other hand he had been quite happily contemplating an undisturbed meal with the latest copy of the Catholic Herald, which Henry was about to disturb by brooding over whatever problem had brought him from London in such haste. Putting such an unworthy thought to the back of his mind, he touched the bell pull to summon Mary-Anne and give revised instructions regarding dinner.
She had worried all day about the Eight O’Clock Bright Hour, to the extent that when she got home on Thursday evening she felt too unwell enough to go out again.
But the Lord would know that she was falling by the wayside as, and perhaps more to the point, would the minister, who had preached so eloquently on Sunday on the theme of new challenges in this new year, although it was, in the end, the thought of Miss Drage’s disapproval that dragged her away from her warm chair beside the range and out into the damp chill of the night.
The wind blew in off the harbour and across the bleak open space of the Moor – the civic heart of Falmouth, someone had once called it; overlooked as it was by the town hall, the building containing the Passmore Edwards library, the rates office and the Mayor’s parlour and, opposite them, the chapel, where lights glowed in the entrance lobby and brothers and sisters were gathered to welcome visitors who might be lured in away from one of the nearby hostelries.
Not, as far as Ida could see as she looked nervously around her, that many had been brought in so far. Next to the trestle table, set up just inside the chapel, a couple of decrepit old men clutched tin mugs of steaming tea, one working his toothless gums about a saffron bun, so that a sort of crumb puddle was forming itself around his boots. The bewildered youth, known as Daft Jacky, who normally hovered around the bottom of Jacob’s Ladder, the steep flight of steps leading up from the Moor, leaned against the wall, also chewing at a bun, but Ida recognised everyone else as members of the congregation.
There she was at last!
Ethel Drage, in her usual brown skirt and high-necked blouse, with a manly black tie around her neck, greeted her as if her absence was the cause of the failure of the evening so far.
“You brought the scones?” She stared accusingly at Ida’s handbag.
“No.” Startled, Ida almost shouted her reply. “I don’ know nothin’ about no scones.”
And then she wondered if this was true. For Arnold Drage had called once again at Mrs Jenkins’ with the regular fish order and, in her anxiety to get him out of her kitchen, she might not have paid close enough attention to everything he had said.
“I’ll call in to take you down chapel Thursday…”
She remembered that and, flustered though she was, her determination not to arrive with him at another chapel event. She didn’t know what time she’d be ready, she’d told him, and, when he said he’d be quite willing to wait, had insisted she wasn’t even sure she’d be free to come….
It may have been while this was going on – and while she was listening with half an ear for Mrs Opie, who was due to make her inspection of the larder – that he might have mentioned scones. But then Arnold so often mentioned her baking.
“I’m sorry,” she said now, staring down at the flagstone floor. “I must’ve not understood.”
And what time had she had, she thought, raising her eyes with some slight feeling of defiance, to be making scones for the likes of Daft Jacky?
Oh well, it couldn’t be helped, Ethel sniffed, turning away. Perhaps she would take over the teapot, she added over her shoulder. The brothers and sisters would need tea… standing out in that cold porch.
It was a long evening. The Bright Hour extended well past ten o’clock, by which time a straggling group of sailors off ships in dock and a couple of young women who might have had any number of reasons for being on the Moor on such a cold night had allowed themselves to be encouraged inside to sit huddled together in pews with their mugs of tea while chapel elders took turns in reading them accounts of those who had turned away from the Lord, only to realise, at the eleventh hour, the error of their ways. At one point one of the women, who had possibly imbibed more than tea before she arrived, burst into noisy sobs and needed to be comforted but the sailors, most of whom did not, it seemed to Ida, speak English, appeared unmoved.
Ida was kept busy refilling her teapot from the hissing gas urn to warm the chilled hands and stomachs of those who stood in wait in the lobby and was exhausted long before it was decided they should stop for the night.
“I’m certain there will be others next week, when word gets around.” Ethel Drage relaxed her compressed lips enough to give what counted for her as a smile. “Brother’s waiting out front,” she added as she started to gather hymn books.
It was no good protesting; not with so many members of the congregation within earshot. Also she would need to pass the Seven Stars on the far side of the Moor, outside which clusters of men who had certainly not been attracted into the chapel were still gathered, some shouting and guffawing and one younger group scuffling drunkenly with one another.
It was no place for a respectable woman on her own and she was forced to smile gratefully at Arnold and accept his arm.
At least, at this time of night, there was no question of him inviting himself in.
“Connie’s mother’s unwell. She won’t be in today but I’ll sit with you when I’ve finished downstairs.”
Although when would that be, she wondered, as she made out the grocery list, collected from the outdoor larder the ingredients for a cheese and licky pie for Mrs Badcock, who was not above removing eggs or portions of cheese or butter for her own family’s use, and gave a cursory dust to the dining room mantel?
Today was the day for changing her mother’s library books, she had intended to make a sponge cake in case of visitors, since Mrs Badcock’s cakes were close to inedible, the sewing pile had reached almost the height of the table and her mother’s bed linen must, Connie had said yesterday, be changed once again.
She removed her mother’s tray, its contents barely touched, and held out her robe.
“There’s blue sky over Carn Brea,” she told her, although this was somewhat obscured by the smoke and steam from the stacks over towards Pool. “If you sit out for a while, I’ll tidy your bed and make it comfy for you.”
Her mother continued to lie back, eyes half shut, against her pillows, picking with one hand at a loose thread on her coverlet.
“Please Mama. Then I can read to you – there’s a new copy of the Women’s Home Journal.” Of which Father did not approve but Connie said how much her mother enjoyed it. “Please Mama.” Faith put out a hand to tidy her mother’s hair, which lay loose about her pillows.
“Don’t touch me!” The violence of her mother’s anger startled her so that she stepped back, hitting the bedside table, spilling the water flask and knocking over the framed photograph of John and George. “Just go away and leave me alone!”
Out on the landing, Faith stared at the closed bedroom door. Which she must have closed, since there was no-one else. And Mama’s breakfast tray, with the congealing remains of Mama’s breakfast, was somewhere behind it…
She was weeping, although it took her a while, in her confusion, to realise that this was the meaning of the dampness of her cheeks, the tightness in her throat, the heaving of her breasts above the whalebone corset it was, Elsie had told her, only right she should wear now she was grown up…
Except that she was not grown up. She was fourteen. She wanted to be at school, in a desk next to Amy and Magel, listening to Miss Millest reading the poems of John Keats, who was dying of tuberculosis and in love with Miss Fanny Brawne, whom he would never marry. (Miss Millest had told them this story many times over, always with her eyes filled with tears.) Or learning about Christopher Columbus and his journeys of discovery. Or how to divide a circle into halves or quarters and how to measure the diameter or the radius or the circumference….
She was not grown up! She was a schoolgirl, who did not want to be trapped in this house, failing to manage it and failing to care for her mother, who so obviously found her detestable…
Worse than this; she was a filthy, wicked girl who had seen and touched with her lips that warm, sour-smelling thing, about which she was not even meant to know… Who must, in some uncomprehended way, have drawn that man to force her into this vile act… Who was no better than the women who gave themselves to men for money… Who was, in fact worse, since, as Alice Pasco had said in a women’s meeting one afternoon, they had the excuse of poverty and desperation…
She was wearing her pinafore – of course she was wearing her pinafore; every day when she got up she fastened it over her morning dress to save it from dust and stains – and now, without realising what she was doing, she tugged at the strings which fastened it behind her waist. Tugged so that they tightened into a knot and went on tugging until one string broke and the garment fell into a crumpled heap onto the landing as she ran, noisily and with no care for disturbing her mother, down the stairs and out into the back kitchen.
“I’m going out!” she shouted at Mrs Badcock, rolling pastry for one of her indigestible pies. “And I’m never coming back!”
But where, as she hurried up the back path, pulling the same old coat over her shoulders, did she intend to go?
She knew many people in this town but could think of no-one who would truly understand her situation. There was Alice Pasco and yet Alice’s very kindness and goodness prevented her from turning up towards Victoria Park and the road where she lived, for Alice, like Papa, would expect her to shoulder cheerfully the burdens the Lord had seen fit to lay on her, accepting the opportunity of service which she had been given… And would, in any case, almost certainly would be out, engaged in one of her many activities with the poor and needy.
The wind, blowing across from Carn Brea, caught at her as she came out of the back lane and crossed into Sea View Terrace. It was very strong today, bringing with it an acrid, sulfuric tang, and Faith leaned into it, clutching her coat collar and wishing she had put on something warmer.
But, she realised, she did have money. In the pocket of her dress was the half crown piece Father had given her this morning for her house-keeping needs.
And from here she could see, across the roofs of Treruffe Hill, the great viaduct which carried the railway to and from Penzance.
Not allowing herself to think twice about what she was about to do, she started to walk towards the station.
Charles had given his opinion in his usual, forthright manner. Henry had been wrong to raise expectations in this lady that he was unwilling to fulfill. He must surely have realised these as their friendship developed over the summer months and he should have recognised that Mrs Graves was, as a widowed mother, in a vulnerable…
He had realised. Henry put down his knife and interrupted his friend. And he had done his best to… He paused, unsure what he had done his best to do, and Charles, his eyebrows knitted into a fierce cluster, stared reprovingly across the table.
“But you visited her, at her home.” He spoke quietly but leaving no doubt as to his feelings. “You invited her to the theatre. You accompanied her to a private dinner and back to her house afterwards… Surely, Henry, you could see where this was likely to lead?”
And Henry, conscious for once of the seventeen-year age gap between them, acknowledged his fault.
“And as for running away in this ridiculous fashion…” Charles cut into a slice of pork with some venom. “That was both foolish and ungentlemanly. I thought better of you Henry. Really I did.”
Confession, according to Charles’s Catholic faith, was supposed to bring peace of mind but was not, Henry reflected, doing so in this case.
“So what should I do?” he asked miserably, giving up on his dinner. “How on earth can I make up for this?”
Some act of contrition, he supposed, and perhaps the same thought had occurred to Charles.
“ Perhaps you should go first of all to see the lady’s sister. Mrs Pearce, did you say her name was? Say to her what you have said to me and ask for her assistance. I assume,” he stared across the table, the very faintest of smiles visible below his thick white moustache, “there is no way you can see yourself marrying Mrs Graves?”
“Of course not! I mean, she is a delightful person. Charming, perceptive, sensible… but she is also a lady, Charles. She could never accept my way of living – Pennance cottage, without running water, electricity, all those…. amenities she is accustomed to. Think of it, Charles.”
Charles thought. Thought also of Henry’s energy – his sailing, cycling, cricket, his love of parties and games, his flying visits to London and other parts of the country and Europe. Not to mention his painting. Not to mention his boys…
Any woman would need to be quite extraordinary to put up with such a life. Or to possess a hold over Henry that this woman obviously did not.
Next morning, forcing himself to face what was bound to be an unpleasant encounter, Henry walked across the cliffs to Gyllyngvase. As he rang the Pearces’ doorbell, and although this would only postpone the inevitable, he couldn’t help hoping that Hettie might not be at home.
Not only was she at home, it was obvious from the chilliness of her greeting that she had heard from her sister.
“I have come to apologise…” It was early for a visit and Hettie was writing letters in her little morning room.
“I think it is not to me that you need to apologise.” Hetty did not pretend to need an explanation as she indicated a small, upholstered, bucket chair beside the window.
“To attempt to explain then.”
Henry sat in the chair, which was too small and too close to the ground, and almost immediately stood up again.
“I… I am afraid I may have, quite unintentionally…”
But how can he say – to the woman’s sister and without sounding unconscionably arrogant – that he fears he may have raised her hopes of marriage?
“What I am trying to say…” He stares through the window, as if what he is trying to say may be written against the sodden lawn and weeping palms. “Is that…”
At which point they are interrupted by the sound of the front door bell being pulled violently and repeatedly as if there is some dire emergency outside.
Hetty is already in the hallway as the maid hurries down the stairs, a feather duster clutched in her hand, to open the door – to reveal a hatless, dishevelled figure in a shabby brown coat, whom Henry, following in case his help is needed, recognises as the little Quaker girl he met here last summer.
“Good gracious! It’s little Faith,” Hetty cries.“Whatever’s happened? Help her inside Sophy.” And then, “Oh my goodness…” as the child, clinging for support to the bell pull, sways suddenly and disconcertingly sideways.
“I have her.”
Henry thrusts himself between the two women to lift the girl into his arms and carry her, guided by Hetty, into the front drawing room where he places her on a couch. The deep hem of her coat, he notices is drenched and muddy, as if she has walked hurriedly through puddles, and there is blood on the heels of her torn stockings above light, barred shoes which look too frail for walking.
“I didn’t know where else to go.”
Sophy has fetched blankets and has gone to the kitchen for warm milk. Henry, who has retreated discretely to the far end of the room while Hetty removes the girl’s shoes and stockings, is only too glad to be dispatched to fetch a bowl of warm water, boric lotion and clean lint, and, ten minutes later, some sort of calm has returned.
And the question of Henry’s treatment of Mrs Graves has been forgotten – although not, he is certain, for ever – as he and Hetty Pearce stand worriedly over the girl as she sips her milk.
“I’m so glad you came here, my dear, but do explain what has happened? Has there been some accident, or illness, at home?” Hetty asks.
Henry, feeling that his tall figure looming above her may intimidate the child, brings a chair for his hostess and sets another for himself. Settling into it, he tries to remember what he has been told. A Quaker family in Redruth. A father, described as an ogre, but probably merely strict and pious. The girl forced to leave school – the story starts to return – because of a sister’s marriage. Something he cannot quite recall about a sick mother…
“It’s not that.” The girl speaks quietly across the rim of her cup, a moustache of white fringing her lips. “Well, Mama is ill but…” Her dark eyes look unhappily downwards. “Mama is always ill…” Her voice lowers still further and Henry leans forward in his chair, “It’s just that I… cannot manage any more. I’ve tried. I really have tried but I cannot and now Mrs Badcock’s given her notice and there just are no other cooks wanting a place and Papa says we must pray and everything will be all right, but I don’t think it will. I really don’t!”
And now she breaks into tears. Mrs Pearce removes the dangerously sloping cup and kneels beside her and the child goes on piteously sobbing.
Quietly – but no-one is noticing him – Henry gets up and leaves the room. Their conversation will obviously have to be postponed and he looks around the hall for his hat and coat.
As he does so, a side door flies open and the two small boys – it is some months since he has seen them and he has forgotten their names – hurtle along the passage, until, seeing Henry, they skid to a halt on the tiled floor. A breathless, young woman, presumably their nanny, follows, calling them to be quiet.
“Good morning Sir.” She comes forward, breaking the spell so that the younger boy, shouting something about a dog, starts towards the drawing room.
“I think,” Henry puts out a restraining arm, “your mother should not be disturbed. She has a visitor,” he adds in the direction of the nanny, who hurries to capture her charges and bundle them, protesting, towards the stairs as the maid, Sophy, appears from the kitchen.
“I should leave,” he tells her. “If you would give Mrs Pearce my apologies and tell her…”
But before he can finish Hetty comes out of the drawing room, closing the door gently behind her.
“Henry!” She holds out her hand. “Please do not go. Edgar is away all week at the assizes and I need your help. Faith,” and now he remembers her name, “appears to have simply run out of her home. Which means that no-one can know where she is. What are we to do?”
‘We’ Henry notes – just as he has already noted that he is, once again, ‘Henry’.
“Of course, I’ll stay,” he says, putting aside his coat as there is another, minor, commotion at the side door and Miss Amy enters, complaining loudly about being left behind….