There was the suggestion of a faint smile as Charity took the sheet of paper and read once again the words inscribed on it. Yes! It did look as though some higher power was determined that she not be left stranded in the awful predicaments that the Fates had placed her in during the course of the last few weeks. Her great aunt in Dorchester was to be in London within the next few days and, being that she was a ‘Lady’ indeed, with very high connections, she was going to see if she could help her great niece procure a position as nanny or governess with some of the young married aristocrats who allowed her to form part of their circle. She had added that she would, if the news were encouraging, ride down in her chaise to inform Charity of such impending good news. She therefore urged Charity not to stray too far from home. Her great aunt was a woman of impetuous disposition, and Charity realised that in the eventuality of such an offer of employment which, after all, she did need, should arise and her aunt took the trouble to inform her personally, she would lose that luck were she not at home.
She was decidedly more cheerful for the rest of the day. Even the yawning gaps in the library and parlour, where the furniture and clocks had been removed, did not seem to be so distressing a sight as they had appeared to be on the previous days. She was even encouraged to smile a little and to remark to James that Spring must surely be heralding forth, for there was evidence in the spring flowers showing amidst the deserted grottoes of rocks and shells which formed the front garden to the house. She occupied her days by sorting out which of her own material effects she could not bear to part with and which amongst her deceased father’s possessions, such things as could be given away to some good cause. Or, if too far gone for repair, then to be thrown out.
For, like her name, Charity had a giving and loving heart. If the morning augured to be fine, she would seat herself in the enclosure of the rear garden, making seeming countless lists of this and that, getting slightly petulant and annoyed when the ink ran over the parchment or refused to dry quickly even with the sand she rubbed onto it. She was more relaxed now, both in body and mind, for she was pleased that both Mrs Murdoch and James had been able to find suitable employment, for she would have loathed them to have been deposited into the same sort of charnel house which she felt she was destined toward. Or at least, prior to her great aunt’s letter, had felt.
She had seen the family solicitor just once since the removal bailiff’s men had been to the house, and he had magnanimously decided that he should undertake - at no cost to herself - seeing to the removal of such furniture etcetera, so that when the house went onto the market for sale there would be no mote of evidence of its past occupants. Nor, indeed, the unhappy dilemma of their past situations. He also had it in mind to have parts of the house redecorated, although he did not impart this knowledge to Miss Cottrell. He wanted, after all, that she be able to have some nest egg from the eventual disposal of the house, although he was convinced it would not amount to much.
That Charity was recovering in spirits and health showed in the translucence of her pale skin, most charmingly accentuated with pink upon the cheeks. Her eyes had recovered much of their lost sparkle, and it occasionally made even dour old Mrs Murdoch’s heart beat faster to think what an unspoiled peach of a girl the young orphan was. She dared not ruminate too long on what might become of Charity Cottrell, for then she might be forced to behave more evidentially in the way that her Christian doctrines suggested.
Charity was anxious that her great aunt call and spent endless hours literally mindfully willing her to visit. She had even asked Mrs Murdoch to have some tasty morsels put by, in the eventuality of her visit. Mrs Murdoch had considered, in the light of all that had happened, that the household's budget should not be pushed to such luxuries. Then she had relented and purchased some fine preserves from a range which were stocked exclusive to a little grocer’s in the London Road, near Kingston Way. She did not agree with frivolous indulgences of the palate but she had conceded that, well, Miss Charity was in an awful predicament and if the Good Lord might ease her over this patch of troubled water with a jar of peach preserve or maybe a little herring pickled as only they know how to from her part of the world, the North: then, who was she to demur? Despite her austerity, she had a strong sense of duty, and affection tinted this, so that she wanted only the betterment of her unhappy mistress. However, essentially a sensible woman, she knew that she must fend foremost for herself and had therefore selected a few pieces of silver, nothing large, one must understand - to take with her when at length she journeyed to her new post. After all, she had given five years loyal service to father and daughter and her wages had never been known to weigh heavy in her apron pocket. James had also secreted a couple of items; but to his mind, they were more in the way of keepsakes than to be valued for their fetching price on the silversmiths’ market. Though he had a shrewd idea that the two watches, a half hunter and a Swiss made one, were probably worth a pretty penny or two. Miss Charity had, in that flush of gratitude which the suddenly bereaved and inexperienced feel sometimes, trusted the two servants to conduct themselves with honest decorum in the household. “Ah,” sighed James. “those unscrupulous bailiff's men, they had taken all there was of real value.” He considered that he would ask Miss Charity for something from the house, a small painting of no other value than sentimental perhaps, to remind him of the happy days he had spent in the Cottrells’ service.
Yes, he would do that.
“Miss Charity; Miss Charity!”
Charity heard James’s voice warbling highly from some point out of sight, as she was bending down coaxing on a small patch of crocuses to flower. She stood up and, unconscious of her actions, smoothed down her gown. In the process she left two faint, powdery trails of soil, which although the material and colour of her dress was dark, had the unfortunate effect of appearing as rust-brown stains.
The sunlight was brilliantly strident for such an early Spring day, so that she was forced to shade her brow and squeeze her eyes up, the better to locate where her manservant was. At length, she deduced that he was over the other side of the wicket and hedge which formed a barrier to the secluded garden, or to some length, a portion of it. She walked towards him, the fluidic melody of her movements forcing her breasts to meander beneath the lace of the scarf she wore over her bosom. A question was forming upon her lips, which lips this day, resembled little pursed rosebuds.
“Y. . . e...s. What is it James?”
“Ah, Miss Charity. ’Scuse I butting in on your meditations like that.”
“Pah!’ laughed Charity with an enchanting tinkle to her voice, “I was not... what was that word, meditating!? No, James, I was but merely talking to the crocuses to make them bloom the faster so that I might see their pretty skirts before...”, her voice trailed off and trembled slightly, “Before I have to depart.”
“Well, Miss, it looks as though your most anticipated visitor is en route: Jacobs, at the smithy, has said that there was a very grand chaise headed along the London Road and methinks, Miss Charity, that it can only be your great aunt, for there was also, ‘twas noticed, an elderly dame of most prepossessing countenance, seen to peer forth from the curtained window. Jacobs thinks they should be reaching the village very shortly and well, Miss, I thought perhaps I should warn you, because, doubtless, you should want to look your best.”
“Thank you, James. I shall attend to my appearance immediately.” “I do beg your pardon Miss Charity, for I know ‘tis not up to serving men to talk to their betters in such a way, but I thought you should have word.” “Thank you again, James.”
Charity inclined her head towards the man and turned swiftly on her slippered heel. Yes indeed: she must look at her most presentable. She could not help but reflect, though, how times had changed for her now, since her material status had shifted and become so precarious! Why, next thing, Murdoch would be asking her to lend a hand polishing the silver – what remained of it, that was. She suppressed a wry giggle and hurried into the house. She clattered daintily down the stairs searching for warm water. She would just have to pour it herself and carry it upstairs.
“Mrs Murdoch, Mrs,” she called lightly. She could see Mrs Murdoch’s ample posterior poking from beneath the edge of a curtain which fronted the window, falling to the ground, thereby covering some otherwise exposed shelves. Mrs Murdoch withdrew her head, rather like a tortoise might and stared up at her young mistress.
“Yes?” “Ah, it looks as though,” she intoned softly, “as though my great aunt is on her way to pay a call. Could you prepare some sweetmeats and tea and whatever else you might have, please?” “Very well, Miss Charity.” “I think she would prefer the Ceylon tea to the China.” “Very well, Miss.” Mrs Murdoch thought that was just as well, for they only had the one kind. “Is there any hot water?” “On the stove.”
Charity made her way to the range which was shining and pristine clean. Sure enough, there was a heavy hob kettle blowing languorous motes of steam into the air. Charity searched for a jug, banging a few iron pots in the process. “Here, Miss Charity” A large earthenware pitcher was pushed into her hands by a somewhat flustered Mrs Murdoch. “Now, careful child; don’t scold yourself. More haste, less speed.”
Mrs Murdoch would have, had this been another time, poured forth the water herself, but now she must prepare some trays and present the fanciest titbits she could lay her hands on. Charity counted to ten very slowly and poured water from the heavy container. She jumped back fractionally: some of the hot water thudded wetly onto the floor. At length, feeling she had sufficient, she moved gingerly through the kitchen and up the stair and forth to her own chamber. She had just finished rinsing the soapy water from her naked torso when she heard the door knocker go.
“I’ll fetch it, Miss Cottrell” She heard James's familiar warble coming up the stairs. “Oh dear,” thought Charity, somewhat nervously, “Why: I don’t have time to dry myself properly, let alone rinse myself and brush my hair, as I would wish.”
She towelled her breasts and slipped back into her dress. Hastily she knotted a few stray curls to the nape of her neck and selected a clean cap. She surveyed herself in the mirror and she seemed to look presentable. Alas, where she stood in the room, was not the position to allow the sunlight to catch light upon her gown. Had she seen the two soiled streaks she would at least have been able to throw a pinny over her dress. She went down the stairs, her heart beating with hopefulness and also with a sliver of nervousness, for her great aunt could be the most intimidating of great ladies even in a perfectly sweet humour – and she did not know what kind of humour she would find her dear deceased mother’s aunt in today. Also, what news might she carry? That she had travelled down herself indicated that it boded well, surely?
With a beating heart, for even then she could hear her great aunt's polished accents thanking James most graciously, she allowed herself a quick wink at James, as he stood outside the parlour door. This parlour, she had ensured, had sufficient furniture in it, removed from the other robbed rooms, so that it did not look half furnished and threadbare. Instinctively she crossed both her fingers on right and left hands. James had given a firm and reassuring bow as she had ushered herself into the august presence of Great Aunt Alys, Lady Fairfax.
“Ah, my poor, poor child.”
The old lady sat bolt upright, her hands resting over the ornamented lion’s head of a gentleman’s walking cane, which body was of polished ruby-coloured wood. “Thank you so much for coming, Great Aunt Alys” Charity threw a small curtsey to her relative. “Stand there, child. I want to look at you.”
Her great aunt inclined her hand to a spot beside the window, where even now the late afternoon sun flooded in, causing a pool of molten daffodil-golden light to encase the carpet. Charity, somewhat self-consciously, stood where it had been indicated. Her great aunt raised herself niftily despite her seventy-eight years and moved over in front of her niece. She studied her face, for they were both of the same height, which was no more than five feet and a couple of inches, then she took a few paces back.
Fixing her lorgnette, for her eyesight was poor, she soon assessed the damage caused by the soil to her great niece's gown. She hummed a little, pressing her thin lips into a pucker.
A suggestion of hair outlined the upper lip, even though the powder was thick and clogging.
“No one can fault your exceptional beauty, my dear, but I think perhaps, a little more care should be applied to your dress.”
With these words, she took a deeply mortified Charity’s small hands and examined them beneath the nails. Fortunately, Charity had been aware of earth there and had scrubbed them so hard that the whites of the moons shone clear from the pinks of the cuticles. There was no soil trapped underneath the nails either. Lady Fairfax turned her back and walked a few paces across the room.
“Yes, I think that I can recommend you for a position, niece, in my dearest friend’s son's house in Bloomsbury; but, my dear – you really cannot appear in such formal surrounds with faint marks upon your clothes.”
Charity pressed a fist into her mouth to stifle a gasp. She was sure that the gown, freshly donned that morning, could not have been stained in any way.
“My gown, Great Aunt?” Her great aunt turned slowly, “Yes, Charity. Your gown. Look down. There are two faint marks upon each breast!”
With shock Charity lifted the material away from her bosom. How right her aunt was! There, where she had rubbed her hands from tending the crocuses, were two faint but distinct marks about five inches in length. She had not noticed them upstairs as she had surveyed herself in the mirror!
She felt stricken. Bowing her head, she said in a low voice, “Yes, I do see what you mean, Great Aunt Alys.” The gown fluttered lazily back, “’Twas most assuredly because I was doing a little gardening earlier today.”
“That is as well may be, Charity, but should you be offered the post of governess to Lord and Lady Ames, I do hope that you will take more care of your appearance. Why, wear a pinny if you must. But, my dear, you must ALWAYS appear spotless in your apparel in such a household. Now: what about some refreshment?”
The elderly dame reseated herself, a small smile beginning to crack the fraught tightness of her own face and the atmosphere in the parlour.
“Yes, yes immediately,” chimed Charity.
She walked across the room and opened the door. Great Aunt Alys surveyed her swaying buttocks. The gal would cause some ripples, of that she was sure.