EARLY SPRING, ENGLAND, 1788.
Charity Cottrell sat sobbing in the back parlour of her home in Richmond Village, which, until recently, she had shared so happily with her dearest Papa. All that had changed now and she felt as miserable, worn out and grey as the day which sluiced the windows with curtains of rain. The white lawn handkerchief between her fingers was wringing wet and, in an absent-minded kind of way, she noticed that the workings of fine Honiton lace had grown discoloured, bloated, with the excess of tears she had been shedding. She moved away from the chaise longue against which she had been resting, the dark coloration of the fabric surely fitting her brown study. Out of morbid curiosity, she went to survey her appearance in the full-length mirror which adorned one part of the passage-way. What met her eyes, she did not consider an encouraging sight. The black mourning dress she wore already made her appear impoverished. She did not think personally that black had ever suited her. It did emphasise the magnolia tint to her skin, although she was not pleased with the bluish shadows underneath her eyes, which eyes were admittedly now also reddened with weeping. She saw that her normally whiter-than-white eyewhite was now an unbecoming shade of pink. She sighed and bit her lower lip, peering into the sapphire of the irises. Her wretchedness had also caused two spots of brilliant crimson to appear high on her cheekbones. This, coupled with the teeth digging she had exercised upon her lips, made her pert mouth even more petulantly seductive. Not that Miss Charity Cottrell knew anything about that word.
She breathed deeply; this movement caused the fabric of her gown to rise and tighten somewhat, so that her bust appeared more statuesque than it usually did. She placed her small hands upon the slimness of her hips and wished that Dame Nature had not been so generous with her chest measurements. Making a defiant face at herself in the mirror, she turned sideways on, poking her chin forward. Glancing out of the corner of her eye, she noted the upturned nose and the sweep of long lashes, darker than the straying locks of blonde hair. Perhaps her nose, she considered, might grow a little straighter as she got older.
Again she thrust out her small but shapely chin. In the last two months she had learnt many things with regard to the fickleness of human nature and just how capricious and wanton Lady Fate may be. She pushed back the straying lock of pale blonde hair and, with a slightly despairing gesture, crossed her palm against her forehead, letting it fall, to trace, unbidden, the outline of her heart-shaped face. In the background, the clocks ticked and chimed, chimed and ticked, much as they did when dearest Papa was alive. She considered how she would go about informing the two family servants that they were no longer required in the household, and that they should therefore be forced to seek out alternative employment. That she herself would also be homeless she knew full well. A small tear trickled from her eye as she thought of the happiness, love and security from which she had been so harshly divorced. James, the houseman and, in fact, man of all matters in the house, had gone shopping for victuals. Mrs Murdoch, the cook and housekeeper, she could hear clattering away down in the basement kitchen. She would have to inform them this afternoon, she decided, on the dot of four o'clock.
In all her eighteen and a half years, she had never felt the mantle of adult responsibility pressing so hard about her fragile shoulders as it did today. There was no use, absolutely no use, in trying to get any of her distant relations interested in her plight. Not now when Mr Wyburn, the family solicitor, had informed her of the debt of credit - not to mention, honour - which her dear father had incurred. No, perhaps had she possessed a small dowry or legacy, Aunt Maude Edlestone or Uncle Thomas Sparrow might have been persuaded harder to help their second cousin’s isolated and bereaved only child. As for the neighbours, why, she already felt the scandal scorching about her ears, for there had been a strong rumour that her dear, dear Papa had kept. No she couldn’t say it.
She forced herself to visualise it, a ..... mistress, a kept woman, in one of the costliest streets in London town. It was all too horrendous for words, but she herself had seen that rumour substantiated by a letter the solicitor had shown her. She wondered how much of the scandal had reached the attention of Mrs Murdoch, but, judging by her looks at breakfast-time this morning, there wasn't much she had not heard, via the street’s clucking grapevine.
Taciturn, dour, Wesleyan Mrs Murdoch. Charity half expected the woman to hand in her notice at any moment anyway, so she didn't know why she bothered herself so much about the outcome of death for the servants. How she wished it could not be true. She could not imagine her father, consorting, no, cavorting, with a woman like that whore he kept. But somewhere, deep inside herself, she could not dismiss the idea. And, she had seen the letter. Just thinking upon such things made her blush with embarrassment and shame. She had looked through the bureau, trying to find evidence of her father’s supposed ‘business interests in Knightsbridge, London’ but had found nothing – Nothing apart from a lock of copper-gold hair which certainly had not been poor dear, dead Mama’s. Mama had had dark brown hair. She had however, during the course of her search, chanced upon a small bag of coins. Enough, in spite of the temptation to keep them herself to assist fending off her own impecunity, to pay the servants some wages. That done, and the servants gone, so would the house be up for sale and she herself upon the pavements of the world.
Her eyes took in the black bunting which rode about the picture frames. She burst into unstifled sobs again. Her unhappiness was a drenching and wretched thing, and she chided herself that she must absolutely pull herself together. When she considered it honestly, she was, after all, crying more for her own lamentable circumstances than for the decease of dear Papa. Suddenly a roll of thunder made her start, and this was followed by fistfuls of hailstones battering against the windows, Fearing the absent lightning, she thought of covering the mirrors in the house but pulled the curtains across instead. Around she scurried, covering all the windows in the house. Finally she reached her own room and, all but exhausted by her exertions, she decided to seek the sanctuary of her own boudoir and there rest awhile. Flinging herself upon the bed, her breasts pressed hard against the coverings, she choked once more on the foulness of the Fate which had overtaken her erstwhile comfortable and secure existence, in the small grey and pink house.
She was awoken; for, much to her own astonishment, she had gone to sleep in late afternoon, by the sounds of a heavy vehicle and horses stamping around outside the house. There followed a loud banging on the door, something she had difficulty in understanding the need for, as there was a perfectly adequate knocker. Footsteps, heavy and purposeful, as only Murdoch knew how to make footfalls sound, thudded up the stairs. There came repeated urgent thumps upon the front door.
“Miss Cottrell! Miss Cottrell! Can you hear me? I do think you should rouse yourself and come downstairs a minute. There’s two fellows here have barged past me and are taking some of your late dear father's effects away.”
Shaking away the fustiness of exhaustion, sleepiness and grief, Charity pushed herself over the side of the bed. She rapidly smoothed down her gown and dipped her handkerchief into a pitcher of rather stale water, which had been left on her oaken chest of drawers since the night before. She wiped the handkerchief rapidly over her face.
“Coming immediately Mrs Murdoch: immediately.”
She managed to shout through the dripping folds of lawn which covered her mouth. This time, the handkerchief which she used had belonged to her father, as she had decided that her own were a trifle too dainty to cope with her many problems at this time. Also, it was comforting to think that, with this piece of fabric in her hands, she could somehow still reach out for her dear Papa’s reassurance. Flushed and apprehensive, she opened her bedroom door; Mrs Murdoch was already disappearing from her position half way up on the stairs. Charity followed after her. If only James were around, but he had not returned, she realised, shaking with trepidation. She attempted to summon authority into both her body and her voice. She saw the two dark and burly outlines of the baliff’s men, as they removed items from the house.
The men paused in mid-carrying of a rosewood table and turned to stare at her.
“What exactly are you doing in my house?”
The men simultaneously lowered the items of furniture onto the floor.
“Well Miss, an’ what does it look like we're doin’? We’re only removing,” here the speaker hunted inside his jacket pocket, “Such personal effects and property as can be redeemable against the rates and other charges which have been incurred in the course of the last three years by one Mister William Silas Cottrell, deceased, late of Tusker House, Surrey Street, in the county of Surrey, Borough of Richmond-upon-Thames.”
Mrs Murdoch had meantime slipped below stairs. She knew that the Law was, after all, the Law and one flash of the official-looking scrolled paper had assured her that the men were within their rights.
With a courage she did not think she possessed, Charity squeezed past the man nearest to her and held her hand shakily out for the document. Her eyes took in the official seal and the words inscribed in black ink upon the parchment. Her eyes followed the flow of writing. She was literate, after all – which, judging from the look of amazement on the man’s face, was an achievement he couldn’t lay claim to – it being a trick of his trade to memorise word for word whatever was spoken by the clerk who dispatched the various warrants and bills to him. With a downcast expression Charity, trembling, returned the paper to him.
“There's nothing I can say or do then, is there?”
She made to move back to the end of the passage-way and in so doing, felt the rear carrier's hands upon her buttocks. She all but jumped out of her skin, for fright and indignation. The man, made cheeky by her defenselessness, then cupped one of her breasts in his hands. She jumped back, outraged.
“Do what you must do, then GET OUT OF THIS HOUSE IMMEDIATELY!” She screamed in a high-pitched, unnatural voice.
“No need to get panicky, Miss,” the first bailiff’s man spoke, “no need to be like that.” “Don’t worry, Miss,” the molester added softly, “We can always come back to get you an’ that’ll be for free. See, we’ve got yer address now. No: I shouldn't doubt, my pretty, but that we’ll be back to see you agin soon.”
The man picked up the table, emulating his companion, and they all but backed into the returning bulk of James. He, for his part, stepped back speechless, onto the garden path.
“James, when you've a moment please.”
Charity’s voice was grating and loud but she wondered that with this appearance of a male minion that she would be secured from threats and actualities of physical plunderings as had been drafted towards her. Quickly and quietly, and with some measure of embarrassment, she drew James into the back parlour and explained what was going on and what had happened to her.
“Don’t you worry, Miss Charity; I’ll make sure those....” he searched for words, “gentlemen complete their odious business in the house as soon as possible and there’ll be no returning for the likes of them.”
Glowering with a dark ominousness, he left Charity to oversee the bailiff’s men. Charity all but swooned into a winged armchair, her heart racing, her pulses quivering. Was this, she pondered, a taste of what was to come? She pushed a bunched fist into her mouth and chewed hard upon the knuckled hand, so pronounced was her anxiety. She put off telling the servants that they must soon, like herself, quit the household, for there would be house, no home, until the morrow. There came a soft knocking on the door. James poked his head around. “They've gone now, Miss Charity, and won’t be coming back. Shall I see if Missus M. will make up a tray of tea things for you?” “What? Oh, yes please, that would be most welcome James.”
Charity managed a watery smile. With a look of grave consternation at the now raped lower best rooms, James clattered down into the basement kitchen, intent on bustling up some tea for Miss Charity. He knew what was on the cards for Murdoch and himself. Indeed, it was on that account that he had been gone so long this day. He was seeking new employment and he was convinced he had all but finalised an engagement. He sighed; what about the young mistress though? What indeed! Her fate wouldn’t be nearly as simple to resolve as either his own or Mrs Murdoch’s. As for cook, he knew that she had secured a position down in Hastings, by the sea, with some religious gentleman or other. Poor little Charity, he’d best see if he couldn’t persuade Mrs M to make the tastiest tea-tray she could muster, now that the reserves of foodstuffs were so low.