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Authors: Dilly Court

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A Mother's Courage

BOOK: A Mother's Courage
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A mother's

Dilly Court grew up in North East London and
began her career in television, writing scripts for
commercials. She is married with two grown-up
children and three grandchildren, and now lives
in Dorset on the beautiful Jurassic Coast with her
husband and a large, yellow Labrador called
Archie. She is also the author of
Singing, The Dollmaker's Daughters, Tilly True, The
Best of Sisters
The Cockney Sparrow.

Also by Dilly Court

Mermaids Singing
The Dollmaker's Daughters
Tilly True
The Best of Sisters
The Cockney Sparrow

Dilly Court

A Mother's

This eBook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author's and publisher's rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

ISBN 9781407004563

Version 1.0

Published by Arrow Books 2008

6 8 10 9 7

Copyright © Dilly Court 2007

Dilly Court has asserted her right under the Copyright, Designs and
Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work

This novel is a work of fiction. Names and characters are the product
of the author's imagination and any resemblance to actual persons,
living or dead, is entirely coincidental

This electronic book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher's prior consent in any form other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser

First published in Great Britain in 2007 by

Random House, 20 Vauxhall Bridge Road,
London, SW1V 2SA

Addresses for companies within The Random House Group Limited
can be found at:

The Random House Group Limited Reg. No. 954009

A CIP catalogue record for this book
is available from the British Library

ISBN: 9781407004563

Version 1.0

For Simon, Marian, Sarah, Julia and Jean in
New Zealand


Although the characters and the events in the
Foundling Hospital are entirely fictional, the
Foundling Hospital did exist. It was founded in
1739 by Captain Thomas Coram as a home and
educational establishment for children abandoned
on the streets of London. Although the
building was demolished in the early 20th
century, the charity, now known as the Coram
Family, still continues its good work in improving
the emotional health and life prospects of

Chapter One
East London, January 1879

A crowd of women had gathered outside the
shipping office in Eastcheap, their pale faces
masked with dread as they huddled together
against the biting east wind. A sleety rain
tumbled from a pewter sky pitter-pattering
softly on the cobblestones, but not a sound could
be heard from those patiently waiting for news
of their loved ones, except for the chattering of
teeth and the occasional muffled sob.

Eloise Cribb stood a little apart from them, but
it was not that as an officer's wife she considered
herself to be a cut above the rest. She was no
snob, and her strict moral upbringing as the
daughter of a clergyman had taught her that all
men were equal, but she was uncomfortably
aware that her elegant mantle trimmed with fur,
and the pert little matching hat, were in sharp
contrast to the shabby clothes worn by wives of
the crew. She had scanned the gathering for the
familiar face of the captain's wife, but she was
not there. Eloise knew that the poor lady was in
an advanced state of pregnancy, and her heart
went out to her. How awful not to know the fate
of your beloved husband when you were about
to give birth to his child. The wives of the second
and third mate were clinging together for
comfort, and, as she hardly knew them, Eloise
had acknowledged them with an attempt at a
smile and then moved away.

She wiped a strand of long dark hair from her
forehead, blinking away the raindrops that
trickled down her face like tears. In her heart she
knew the answer even before the heavy oak door
opened and a whey-faced official representing
the shipping company appeared at the top of the
stone steps. One look at his pinched features
confirmed her worst fears. There was an audible
intake of breath as the wives, sweethearts,
mothers and sisters waited for the inevitable
announcement that the
which had now
been overdue for several weeks, was lost at sea.
A long drawn out groan of despair was torn from
the women's lips as the official read out the
company's statement in a voice choked with
emotion. Eloise listened but the only words that
registered were those she had dreaded the most.
'The management regrets to inform you that the
tea clipper
went down during a
typhoon in the China Sea with the loss of all

A loud animal-like howl of pain was ripped
from a pregnant woman's throat and several
others fainted or collapsed in the arms of their
friends and relatives. Eloise stood quite still,
totally silent, unable even to cry. Her brief
marriage to First Officer Ronald Cribb had not
been perfect, but she had loved him dearly. The
long months of enforced separation had been
hard to bear, but it had made their reunion all the
sweeter when at last he came home on leave. She
shivered convulsively as the harsh fact dawned
on her that her two children, Joseph who would
be three in June and Elizabeth, a babe in arms not
quite four months old, were now fatherless. She
was a widow, and she was virtually penniless.
Stunned and too shocked to feel either grief or
pain, she waited in line while the counting house
clerk handed out the allotments to the distraught
widows. Eloise could tell by his tight-lipped
expression that he was close to tears himself, and
she felt vaguely sorry for him in his onerous task,
but her mind seemed to be detached from her
body as she held out her hand to receive the
small brown envelope. The clerk murmured condolences,
but he could not look her in the eyes
and she saw that his hands shook as he fumbled
for the next pay packet. Eloise moved away from
the head of the queue like an automaton, putting
one foot in front of the other and yet barely
conscious of what she was doing or which way
she was going. All she knew was that she must
get home to her babies: poor fatherless little
mites, who now depended on her for everything.

Blinded by the rain and tasting the salt tears
that were flooding down her cheeks, she
stumbled over the wet cobblestones as she
headed off in the direction of Shoreditch. It was a
long walk to Myrtle Street but she did not want
to waste money on the bus fare, and she needed
time in which to compose herself. Her heart
might be broken into shards, but she must not let
the little ones sense her despair. At least they
were warm and dry at home, safe in the care of
her neighbour's eldest daughter, Mary, who was
a stolid reliable sort of child, and could be trusted
not to leave Joss and Beth unattended.

Eloise headed north towards Bishopsgate,
barely noticing the crowds of workers who were
hurrying homewards. She was soaked to the skin
and her feet were blistered and sore, but she was
oblivious to physical pain or discomfort and she
quickened her pace. She wanted to be at home
with her children. She longed to hold them in her
arms and to inhale their sweet, baby fragrance.
Joss and Beth were her last link with Ronald. Her
breath caught on a sob as the harsh truth dawned
upon her. She would never see him again. She
would never have the chance to kiss him
goodbye, or even have the small comfort of
seeing him laid to rest in a leafy cemetery where
she might lay flowers on his grave. She stumbled
on through the rain-soaked streets ignoring the
curious looks of passers-by, but after a while a
painful stitch in her side forced her to stop and
lean against a shop window gasping for breath.
As the pain ebbed away, Eloise made a concerted
effort to be calm. She must try to think clearly.
She must not panic. As her breathing slowed
down and the fog of misery began to clear from
her brain, she knew what she must do. She
would collect the children and take them home
to the vicarage and to Mother. Mama would
make things right again. She always knew what
to do for the best.

Gaining strength from the thought of her
mother's comforting presence and the familiar
surroundings of her old home, Eloise started off
again, edging her way through the slowly
moving forest of black umbrellas. She tried to
focus her thoughts on happier times, recalling
her first meeting with Ronnie and the heady
days of their whirlwind romance. They had met
at a church social during one of his infrequent
shore leaves. Ronnie was not a religious man but,
having nothing better to do, he had accompanied
one of his shipmates to the social evening, and he
had always teased her about the way they met,
declaring that it was the 'best worst evening of
his life'. Eloise was not fooled by his levity; she
had known the first moment she had set eyes on
him in the church hall that he was the one for her,
and she knew that Ronnie had felt the same. He
had charmed her with his dazzling smile and
craggy good looks. She had noticed particularly
how his bright blue eyes were crinkled at the
corners, caused no doubt by years of gazing
across vast oceans into the far horizon, and his
lively sense of humour had quickly overcome
her initial shyness. They had danced every dance
to the rather out of tune notes of Miss Brompton
on the pianoforte. They had sipped the fruit cup,
which was so well diluted that there was barely
a trace of alcohol in the over-sweet drink, and
they had eaten fairy cakes baked by the Misses
Bragg, two maiden ladies who owned a
millinery in Pear Tree Lane.

'Oy, look where you're going, ducks.' The
strident voice of a costermonger whose barrow
she had bumped against brought Eloise back to
reality with a jerk. She bent down to retrieve the
oranges that had bounced into the gutter, which
was oozing with muddy rainwater mixed with
straw and detritus from the streets. She gave
them back to him with a murmured apology.

He squinted short-sightedly into her face. 'I
should get home and out of them wet duds if I
was you, miss. You'll end up with lung fever if
you're not careful.'

Eloise managed a wobbly smile and went on
her way. Battling against the wind and rain, it
took her over half an hour to reach Myrtle Street.
It was not the most spiritually uplifting of places
in which to live, but the rent was reasonably
cheap, which was essential as they always
seemed to be short of money. Although Ronnie
earned a good wage he was a spendthrift by
nature, and no matter how many times she had
tried to make him live within their means he had
never complied, laughing at her attempts to
balance the housekeeping, and telling her that
'there was plenty more where that came from'.

Cold, wet and tired, Eloise quickened her pace
as she walked down the narrow street lined with
red-brick terraced houses which had been built
half a century ago to house the navigators,
mostly Irish immigrants, who were needed to
construct the vast network of railways. They had
long since moved on, following the progress of
the railways and canals. Now these two up and
two down dwellings were crowded with people
of all nationalities, sometimes two or three
different families sharing one house and a single
privy in the back yard. Eloise knew she ought to
be thankful to have the house to herself, but
living in this deprived area had been a shock
after the relative comfort of the large vicarage in
Dorset where she had grown up. Papa had not
been happy when he was given a parish in
Clerkenwell, but he had seen it to be his duty and
had moved his family from the country to
London. Eloise had been just sixteen then, fresh
from Miss Mason's Academy for Young Ladies,
and hoping that she might go on to become a
teacher, but Papa had insisted that she should
stay at home and assist her mother with her
parish duties. It had not occurred to her to flout
his wishes, and it was no hardship as Eloise
adored her gentle mother; they were the best of
friends, more like sisters, so other people had
often remarked, than mother and daughter.

As Eloise opened the front door, she had one
thought uppermost in her mind. She would put
the children in the perambulator that Ronnie had
bought when Joss was born, and she would take
them home to Mother. She stepped into the front
room and shivered as the warmth enveloped her.
A coal fire was burning brightly in the grate and
beside it sat Mary, with Joss dandled on her knee.
She stopped in the middle of the nursery rhyme
she had been reciting to him and stared at Eloise
with large brown eyes that were too knowing for
her tender years. 'Is it bad news then, missis?'

Eloise took off her sodden, and probably
ruined, fur hat. Rainwater was dripping from her
clothes staining the floorboards on which she
had expended much time and energy, polishing
them until they gleamed like satin. She nodded,
momentarily unable to speak. Joss was holding
his arms out to her, smiling with delight. 'Mama,

She bent down to kiss his curly blond head. 'In
a moment, darling. Mama needs to change out of
her wet clothes.'

'He's not coming home then?' Mary said in a
matter-of-fact voice.

The harsh reality of Mary's words struck Eloise
like a blow, but she bit back a sharp retort. The
child was merely stating the truth. There were
many seafarers' families who lived in the area,
and there were few who had not been touched by
some sort of disaster be it death by drowning or
crippling accidents. She shook her head. 'No,
Mary. I fear not.'

'You go upstairs and change out of them wet
things then, or you'll be next. I don't mind
staying on for a bit with young Joss, and the baby
is still asleep.'

Eloise made her way slowly up the narrow
staircase; the boards creaked beneath her feet
and her high button boots squelched, leaving
little pools of water on the bare treads. In the
bedroom at the front of the house, Beth lay
sleeping in her cradle, her thick golden eyelashes
forming crescents on her rosy cheeks. Her
breathing was so soft that Eloise had to resist the
temptation to touch her, just to make sure she
was still alive, but then the baby stirred slightly
in her sleep and Eloise began to breathe again,
but her relief was tinged with bitterness. It was
so unfair that Ronnie would never see his
beautiful daughter and that Beth would grow up
without knowing her father. Eloise bit back a
sob, and she was trembling as she stripped off
her wet clothes and towelled her skin until it
glowed pink. Her breasts were engorged with
milk and tingling. Soon it would be time to feed
Beth, and she must do this before she could even
think of leaving the house. She must focus on
practical things; it was the only way to keep

She put on a clean shift and her only other pair
of stays, lacing them as best she could with
fingers that burned painfully now that the
feeling was returning to her extremities. She took
a clean white cotton blouse from the cupboard
and a plain navy-blue serge skirt. She took off
her wet stockings and dried the inside of her
boots as best she could with the end of the towel.
She would have to put them on again as her old
boots had worn out months ago, and although
her mama would gladly have bought her a new
pair it was more than just pride that prevented
Eloise from asking for help. Papa was not exactly
mean, but he kept a tight hold on the purse
strings, and Eloise knew that when Mama gave
her money or bought her clothes it came out of
her own allowance, which was not overgenerous.

She sighed as she pulled on a dry pair of much-darned
stockings. Money had been tight since
Ronnie's last leave. He had come home hell bent
on enjoying himself and had taken her to the
music halls, theatres, Cremorne Gardens and the
Zoological Gardens. They had eaten out almost
every night, either taking Joss with them or
leaving him with Mary's mother, Fanny, who
was pleased to oblige for a mere penny or
twopence. No matter how much Eloise had
protested that they could not afford such a
lifestyle, Ronnie had merely laughed. If she
closed her eyes she could still see the merry
gleam in his blue eyes and hear the infectious
sound of his laughter. 'If I can't take my lovely
wife out and show her off when I come home on
leave, then it ain't worth the pain and trouble of
separation.' She could hear him now. 'Don't
worry, my love. I'll send more funds when I get
to my next port of call. I promise you that.' But
like the rest of his promises, that one was never

BOOK: A Mother's Courage
13.06Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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