Authors: Dilly Court
Tags: #Sagas, #Fiction
‘You will if you peach on me,’ Clara said grimly. ‘Now pipe down and go to bed. I ain’t paid to be a nursery maid, and get this into your head, nipper. If you tells on us I’ll have your guts for garters and you’ll not live to see your next birthday.’
The next few days were a steep learning curve for Cassy. Everything she said or did was under close scrutiny not only from Mrs Middleton but the whole of the staff in Duke Street, from the hall boy to Cook. Every time she opened her mouth she seemed to say the wrong thing or else her grammar was incorrect. Her table manners came in for criticism from Poulton, the butler, who seemed to be in charge of everything and everyone below stairs and was treated like a demigod. She had to learn who was who and who did what in a very short space of time. The servants, she discovered, were very touchy about their place in the hierarchy and it was easy to offend someone albeit unintentionally. She tried hard to remember their names and what position they held, and which of them was more senior than the other, but she often got it wrong and was subjected to stern reprimands. But these were as nothing compared to the beatings she had received at Biddy’s hands and she began, very gradually, to settle into the daily routine.
Her first proper assignment after merely observing the workings of the big house was to help Clara in the scullery, but being small in stature Cassy found it necessary to stand on an upturned bucket in order to wash the vast mountain of dishes, pots and pans. She managed for a while but when Clara poured a kettle of extremely hot water into the sink Cassy lost her balance, falling backwards onto the quarry tiles, cracking her head and even worse breaking a valuable cut-glass bowl in the process. Cook marched into the room, but her angry tirade ceased when she realised that Cassy had been scalded and that blood was flowing freely from a cut on her hand. When she had been cleaned up and had salve put on her burns and a bandage applied to the afflicted hand, Cassy was set to work with the tweeny. She was dusting ornaments in the dining room, but her injured hand made her clumsy and she dropped a Dresden shepherdess on the hearth, watching in horror as the smiling porcelain head rolled across the tiles. This time she was marched off to stand before her new employer with Mrs Middleton protesting volubly as to the seemingly impossible task of supervising a clumsy ten-year-old.
Flora was dressed for going out in an emerald-green velvet mantle over a pale grey silk gown. The skirts were draped at the front and gathered up at the back to form a low-placed bustle, and a small hat trimmed with iridescent blue-green feathers was perched at a jaunty angle on her head. Cassy had never seen anyone looking so fine and she could barely take her eyes off her benefactor.
‘Find her something less taxing,’ Flora said, slipping her bony hands into grey kid gloves. ‘There must be work that the child can do which will not wreck the house.’
Cassy hung her head. ‘I’m sorry, missis.’
‘Ma’am,’ Mrs Middleton hissed. ‘Can’t you remember the simplest things, Cassy?’
‘Ma’am,’ Cassy repeated.
‘I’m late for my luncheon appointment,’ Flora said irritably. ‘You’ll have to deal with this, Middleton.’ She swept along the hallway, and the footman leapt to attention, bowing from the waist as he opened the street door.
Mrs Middleton turned to Cassy with a frown. ‘What am I to do with you?
Cassy stared at the black and white marble floor tiles, hardly daring to breathe. Surely Ma had not meant her to suffer like this? Why had she brought her to such a place?
‘Perhaps you could run an errand for me,’ Mrs Middleton said thoughtfully. ‘You can’t do much indoors until your hand heals, and I haven’t the time to supervise you.’ She beckoned to the footman. ‘Harris, find a cab to take Cassy to Bull and Mouth Street. I want her to fetch one of Madam’s gowns from the dressmaker. She needs it for the charity ball tonight, and I can’t spare any of the other servants. Tell the cabby to wait for her and bring her back here when he will be paid in full.’ She turned to Cassy. ‘You are to go to number six Bull and Mouth Street off St Martin’s Le Grand, and collect the gown from Mrs Hawthorn.’ She handed Cassy a purse. ‘You must give this to the seamstress. ‘I hope you won’t let me down.’
‘I won’t,’ Cassy promised. ‘I’ll do it right this time.’
The hansom cab tooled through the West End streets giving Cassy a good view of the part of London she had never thought to see. She felt like a real lady as she sat back against the leather squabs. The shops and buildings flashed past her and she leaned forward to get a better view of the toffs as they strolled along Piccadilly and the Strand. Progress slowed down as they reached the busy thoroughfare of Fleet Street and then they were in the crowded heart of the City. Her head was filled with the sights and sounds she had seen but the journey was over all too quickly. She could have ridden round London all day and never tired of staring out at the polyglot crowds and the bustling life of the metropolis.
‘We’re here,’ the cabby said, drawing the horse to a halt. ‘Be quick, missy. Don’t want to hang around all day. I got a living to earn.’
Cassy carried out her instructions to the letter. She found the right house and collected the gown wrapped in butter muslin from a small, wrinkled woman with gnarled fingers and weak, watery eyes. Cassy handed over the purse which was suspiciously light, confirming her suspicion that the seamstress earned very little for her labours, and then it was time to get back in the cab. It was impossible to turn the equipage in such a narrow street and Cassy realised with a sudden jolt that she was vaguely familiar with the area. Although she could not read the name emblazoned on the sign, she recognised Bart’s hospital. She had accompanied Biddy there on the rare occasions when sick infants needed urgent medical attention, and regular payments from their parents made it worth Biddy’s while keeping the poor mites alive.
‘Please stop, cabby.’ She reached up to bang on the ceiling. ‘I want to get out here.’
The cab drew to a halt outside the hospital. ‘What’s up?’ the cabby demanded. ‘Are you sick?’
‘Please wait for me; I won’t be long. They’ll settle up at the big house.’ Cassy had no way of knowing whether this was true, but she was not going to pass up the opportunity of finding out what had happened to Freddie. She leapt from the cab, leaving the ball gown on the seat, and she raced into the hospital receiving room, arriving at the nurse’s station breathless and desperate for news. After searching through the pages of a leather-bound register, the nurse on duty sent Cassy to the children’s ward. She hurried there with renewed hope. If Freddie was still on the ward then he must have survived the dreadful disease that might easily have claimed his young life. She was stopped at the door by a young nurse probationer, who directed her to the sister’s desk.
‘Are you related to Freddie?’ The sister’s face was lined and there were dark shadows beneath her eyes as if she had been on duty for many hours and was bone tired, but her expression was kindly and her voice gentle.
‘I’m his sister, miss,’ Cassy lied. ‘Can I see him?’
‘Well, you’re just in time, my dear. He has made a remarkable recovery but as no one has claimed him, we were just about to discharge him to the care of the orphan asylum. Why didn’t you come before?’
Cassy thought quickly. ‘We was all took sick, miss. Ma, me and me other brothers and sisters, all went down with the fever. Ma said it would kill poor Freddie if we brought him home then.’
‘Have you any proof of your identity, my dear? How do I know that you are who you say you are?’
Cassy gave the sister her best smile. ‘Freddie will know me, miss. Leave it to me little brother.’
Freddie was sitting in a high-sided cot. He looked cleaner and healthier than he had ever been in the past. His fair hair was washed and brushed to the side, making him look oddly grown-up, but his baby features were the same and his mouth stretched into a wide grin when he spotted Cassy. He held out his arms, shrieking with delight and she scooped him up, cuddling him and dropping kisses on his chubby cheeks. ‘My my, you look just the thing, Freddie. I’ve missed you so much.’
Freddie reached up to grab Cassy’s hair, tugging a strand loose from beneath the bonnet that Mrs Middleton had found at the back of a cupboard. The straw was battered and the ribbons faded, but Cassy loved it and hoped that she might be allowed to keep it for her own. She loosened Freddie’s starfish fingers from the ribbon as he tried to put it in his mouth. ‘Bad boy,’ she crooned. ‘You ain’t changed a bit, you little monkey.’
‘I see that he knows you,’ the sister said, smiling. ‘If you will just sign the discharge book I see no reason why you cannot take Freddie home. We are in desperate need of his bed.’
Cassy hitched Freddie onto her hip and followed the nurse back to her desk. ‘I can’t read nor write, miss.’
‘Just put your mark here then, and I’ll print your name above it. What shall I write, dear?’
‘Cassy.’ She hesitated. Biddy had never seen the need to give her a surname and Cassy said the first thing that came into her head. ‘Cassy Moon.’
‘And your address, just for the record.’
‘I’m working for a toff in Duke Street,’ Cassy said, hoping this would be enough information. She was eager to get away and she prayed that the cabby would still be waiting.
‘In Duke Street, Mayfair?’ The sister’s eyebrows shot up to her hairline.
‘I’ve just been taken on as scullery maid,’ Cassy improvised. ‘Me ma’s going to pick Freddie up later when she finishes work.’
‘What number Duke Street?’
‘I forget, but the mistress is called Mrs Fulford-Browne. Maybe you’ve heard of her?’
The sister recoiled slightly and her eyes widened in surprise. ‘As a matter of fact I have. I believe she does quite a lot for charity. You are a very lucky girl, Cassy Moon.’
‘You don’t know the half of it,’ Cassy said with feeling. She hoisted Freddie onto her back. ‘Ta-ta then, miss. Ta for looking after Freddie and making him well. One day maybe I’ll be on one of them charity committees and do good things for the hospital.’
The sister’s chuckles followed her down the corridor.
If the cabby was surprised to see Cassy climb into his cab holding a year-old baby boy, he said nothing but simply flicked the whip and urged his horse to a trot. Dandling Freddie on her knee Cassy was happier than she had been since parting with Bailey. She was delighted to see Freddie looking so well and when he smiled she realised with a feeling of pride that he had two new teeth. She cuddled him and told him all about the house in Duke Street, even though she knew he could not understand a word of what she said. It was only as they drew closer to home that Cassy began to realise the enormity of what she had done, and to wonder how she was going to explain Freddie’s presence in the grand house. She had not thought it through, and as the cab pulled up outside the mansion, she was terrified that they would take Freddie away from her. Luckily he had fallen asleep in her arms, and as Harris strode down the steps to pay the cabby she hitched Freddie over her shoulder and concealed him beneath the bundle of butter muslin containing Mrs Fulford-Browne’s gown. She managed to get into the house without anyone being the wiser, but her heart sank when she spotted Mrs Middleton standing in the middle of the entrance hall with the woman who came to fill the many urns and vases with hothouse flowers. Cassy was about to sidle past them, praying silently that Freddie would not wake up and give the game away, but Mrs Middleton stopped talking and turned her head to glare at her. For a moment Cassy thought that all was lost, but she found herself dismissed with a wave of a hand. ‘Take the gown up to Madam’s room,’ Mrs Middleton said imperiously. ‘Lay it carefully on the bed. If you crease it there’ll be trouble.’
Cassy escaped with a sigh of relief, but although she had smuggled Freddie into the house, she knew that this was only the beginning. She ascended the stairs carefully, praying that he would stay asleep until she had deposited Mrs Fulford-Browne’s ball gown in her bedchamber. As luck would have it the tweeny had finished her work and Cassy did not encounter anyone on her way upstairs, but as she entered the bedroom she came face to face with Miss Perkins, the lady’s maid. Cassy stopped short, not knowing what to say or do as the straight-faced woman advanced on her with a purposeful step. ‘You’ve brought Madam’s gown. Thank goodness for that, but if you’ve creased it I’ll be very angry.’
Cassy backed away from her. ‘I’ll see to it, miss. There’s no need to trouble yourself.’
‘What are you talking about, you stupid child? Give it to me this instant.’ Miss Perkins made a grab for the bundle but Cassy managed to dodge her.
‘No, really. I can look after it, miss.’
‘Are you mad? That gown cost a fortune and I need to check the needlewoman’s work.’ Moving swift as a tiger pouncing on a lamb, Miss Perkins snatched the bundle of butter muslin and expensive silk from Cassy. She recoiled with an exclamation of horror at the sight of Freddie, who had been rudely awakened and had begun to whimper. ‘What on earth is that?’
‘It’s me baby brother,’ Cassy murmured. ‘Please don’t tell on me, miss. He’s just come out of hospital and . . .’
‘Hospital?’ Miss Perkins took a step backwards, staring at Freddie as if he were a plague victim. ‘What’s the matter with him? How dare you bring a diseased child into this house?’
‘He’s not sick now,’ Cassy protested. ‘He’s better and I got nowhere else to take him. Please let me keep him, miss. I’ll look after him like I always done and he won’t be no bother.’
Miss Perkins threw the ball gown onto the bed, twirling round to catch Cassy by the ear. ‘You’re coming with me, you little monster. We’ll see what Mrs Middleton has to say about this.’